fiction for mojo 18

Carnage at the Fat-Man Ballet — Chris Cascio

We were on our way—three generations of Killino men stuffed into a subcompact Ford, en route to do what Killino men do best: eat and drink and watch other men beat each other’s brains in. Dad and I hadn’t been to a live wrestling show in years. Pop had neither been nor wanted. He derided the whole thing as rubbish. Grown men in little underwear, pretending to hit each other. We did our best to sell him on it; we wanted him to have fun. Even though it’s scripted, we told him, you can’t fake falling onto concrete or steel. It still hurts like hell.

“Scripted?” Pop said. “So it’s what, like a dance?”

“Not a dance, Dad.” My father smiled, but his voice carried a touch of that for-the-love-of-God tenor. “They just know how it’s gonna end.”

Pop shot me a side eye. “Sounds like a dance to me.”

Fake fighting wasn’t something that he tolerated. The man had fought in two wars and then during every surrounding moment of stateside peace. He’d been a champion boxer throughout his youth and flat-fucking mean in his adult life. He claimed to have once killed a gangster back in the Palisades by stepping on his neck for five minutes. But he’d also aged into a silly old bastard, a trait that had always been there and one Dad was relieved to see flourish as the aggression had waned.

Pop sat suspiciously still in the front seat, greasy pompadour glistening above thick, smarmy eyebrows. Then he extended his hands out to his sides like little tyrannosaur arms and wiggled his fingers. A tyrannosaur Hazel Scott playing two pianos at once. “Oh, look at me,” he cooed. “I’m going to the fat man ballet.”  

“Well, you’ll be right at home then, Dad.”

“You callin’ me fat?” Pop squawked.

“I didn’t say that.”

“Well it’s either that or you think I’m some sort of ballerini.”

Dad snorted.

“Call me fat,” he said. “The nerve.” He wagged his thumb at Dad and then twisted himself around toward me. “Look.” He rapped his knuckles against his wrecking ball of an abdomen. “Here. Look at here. Hard as a rock. Look.”

I looked. I nodded. “Solid as oak,” I said.

“Damn right.”

“And just as wide,” Dad proclaimed.

Pop gave him dagger eyes, maybe poison dagger eyes, that set Dad off on a roar. I was on the brink.

“You hear this?” He turned to me again, and again with the thumb. “He’s some kind of wisenheimer.” Then back to Dad. “Thanks, Jackie. Nice to know you think I’m fat.”

“Oh, don’t pout,” Dad admonished. “And I didn’t say you were fat.”

“But you implored it.”

We both lost it.

“I didn’t implore anything.”

“So then which is it, huh? Come on. Out with it.”

“Shit, I don’t know, Dad. Take your pick. I implore you.”

The venue was a Catholic high school the diocese had shut down a decade earlier. It had two green copper steeples that you could see from almost anywhere in town, and the event promoter had hung a gigantic white banner from two arched windows above the oversized doorway. It showed a sexy female ambulance driver with a terrified expression and white-knuckled grip on a steering wheel. The title, Blood for Days, was splattered across in giant red lettering. As we pulled in, Pop crossed his heart and warbled Ave Maria.

Kids chased each other across the lot, and beer-drinking fans crowded around barbecue grills and coolers and lounged in beach chairs. Drunken corn holers staggered across lanes. You could smell the bratwurst through the car windows.

The gymnasium itself was half a basketball court and wooden bleachers along one short wall. The ring was set in the middle of the floor, surrounded first by steel guardrails, then five or six rows of metal folding chairs labeled with marker on masking tape. We were at the end of Row D. We put Pop right on the runway aisle, the one the wrestlers would use to get to the ring. This lady and her young kid were right in front of Dad and me. The kid wore an old Mil Máscaras mask that sagged around his head. The mother wore a blue cape and mask and a cut-off Def Leppard t-shirt. The guy in front of Pop wasn’t masked, but it couldn’t have hurt. He sagged over both sides of his chair when he sat down. We’d passed this man on our way in. He’d been ladling pulled pork out of a slow cooker and then eating it right out of the ladle. Pop puffed out his cheeks and did his Hazel fingers again.

Then the lights went out.

A man’s voice sounded over the loudspeaker and asked us if we were ready for Blood for Days. Everyone cheered. Then a spotlight kicked on and shone a circle onto a black curtain they’d set up at the end of the runway aisle.

Samba music began playing, and the crowd went nuts. The first thing that emerged from behind the curtain was a foot. Just a foot. One pink tootsie dangling in the spotlight. Then, an entire leg, pink and tassled, postured like a cartoon hitchhiker. Like, hubba hubba. Then bam, this guy in a frilly pink onesie popped through, chest and arms spread like he was God’s friggin’ gift. The guy pranced down the aisle, the spotlight following him the entire way. Some other lights came on and illuminated the ring—a total “land of milk and honey” feel to it. He scaled the ring post and, from there, he showered us all with his grace. People ate it up. The kid, the blue lady, the manatee in front of Pop. Everyone. Then the guy did this thing with his hips, this gyration, all while still balancing up there on the post. I looked over at Pop, thinking we were never going to hear the end of this one. But no. He was focused intently on Gostoso—that was the guy’s name. He just watched Gostoso do his thing.  

While Gostoso was still up there gesticulating, the music cut out. The house lights came back up to full, and then it was bagpipes. Like, a dozen sets of bagpipes. With bagpipers. They were lined up in front of the curtain and blowing hard. Fans gasped. At the crescendo, a behemoth barreled through. Had to be close to seven feet tall. Kilted. Shirtless. Furry from the neck down but nary a hair on his head. Thick blue stripe painted down the middle of his face. Eyes perfectly round, you know, like something was going on in there, something a little different. The blue wackjob told Mini Máscaras that the guy was Mense Mauler. She was sure he’d been banned from the sport for life after an incident overseas involving a railroad spike.

Mauler lived up to his name. He stretched and battered and bent Gostoso until he lay motionless in the ring. It took roughly one minute. Then the bagpipers went for it again. Most everybody booed with the exception of a few sadists sprinkled throughout the gymnasium. The boos turned to cheers when poor Gostoso tried to get up, but it didn’t last. Something was wrong with his hips. His legs were splayed like frog’s legs. He couldn’t seem to pull them underneath him.

“That’s just terrible,” Pop said. “He didn’t deserve that. Hey, Jackie. That’s not fair.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Dad.”

“Life’s not fair, Pop.”

“Yeah, but you said it was all cardiographed.”

“Choreographed, Pop.”

“Whatever. Why’d they do that?”

“I don’t know, Dad.”

“That’s not right, boy. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Hey, things happen.”

We were perplexed. After all that talk earlier, three hip swivels and a few tough bumps and he’d become a Gostoso fan.

While event staff helped Gostoso out of the ring, Pop adjusted himself in his seat and accidentally kicked the chair in front of him. The bovine turned and scowled at him. “Quit it,” he said.

“He didn’t mean it,” Dad said.

“I was getting settled,” Pop added.

“Getting settled,” the guy said. “After the end of the match.”

Pop gave him a what-the-hell look. The gourmand wasn’t moved. He turned back around when the music hit for the next match.

The main event was our reason for being there. It pitted two of Dad’s long-time favorites against one another: Marvelous Manny Handlebars, the Infamous Barber of Scarsdale, against Iron Mike Nichols. Both men had been studs in their day. Nichols still wore traditional black tights and a black, serrated forearm guard that he could use as a cheese grater on his opponents. Back in the day, he’d looked kind of like a beefy David Hasselhoff. Now, he looked like a beefier Hasselhoff who had gone bald and let himself go because he’d become depressed about going bald. He still wore the forearm guard, though, which could do some real damage. Marvelous Manny had always been lean and still was, but his physique had atrophied. Even his mustache was sparse. Barely qualified as a handlebar. But once the bell rang and the two locked up, none of it mattered. They were transcendent. Anomalous. Shiny and shapeless. They were ridiculous and glorious and loved. And all with abandon.

At one point, Manny got Nichols in a sleeper hold, his finisher. The crowd roared as Nichols appeared to be going out. They stomped passionately in the bleachers. The referee prodded, lifted Nichols’s hand and then let go to see if he could hold it up on his own. The hand dropped once. Then again. The din rose to howls. That’s when the fat man in front of Pop turned and started shouting.

“Do it again!” he boomed in Pop’s face. “I’m serious, god damnit! You’ve been doing it all night. Kick my chair one more fucking time.”

I figured that was it. At eighty years old, Pop was going to clobber the poor oaf and get us thrown out of the wrestling show. At least he’d have another story to tell. But then Dad went to step between them, and the guy shoved his chair into Dad’s shins.

That’s when I stepped in.

He started to talk, and I told him to shut up. I said he wasn’t going to shove a chair at my father or start a fight with my grandfather. And I said, “Don’t give me any of that ‘he’s been kicking my chair all night’ shit. He did it once, at the beginning, and it was an accident. He’s an old man for Christ’s sake.” Now I was pointing my finger at his face. “So just sit your fat ass down and watch the show and don’t bother him again.”

Manny and Nichols both leaned on the ropes, watching. The referee stood beside them, looking unsure.

The guy said, “What are you gonna do if I don’t?”

Everybody was watching us. The wrestlers, the blue wacko and the kid, the howlers in the bleachers. I could see the kid’s eyes through the mask, wide and white. It was like he needed me to do this. Like the spirit of Mil Máscaras compelled me. I was the babyface here. I had to. So I loaded up and cuffed him in the side of the head.

He reeled. He grabbed. We fell. I hit him. He hit back. We rolled. Arms grabbed at us and ultimately pulled us apart. Someone took my arm and said I was bleeding. My hand was red. “Not mine,” I said. I was fine. He’d glanced me once across the top of my head but that was it. I wiped my hand on my pants. Not a scratch.

“No,” the guy said. And he pointed.

Just below my left armpit, buried to the bolster, was the handle of a tiny pocket knife.

A group of people, I think they were event staff, started talking to me, guiding me by the shoulders away from our seats. Someone mentioned the other guy. “Don’t worry about him,” he said. “The police will deal with him. We need to get you to the hospital.”   

I turned to find Dad. He was crouched beside Pop, who was on one knee and clutching his chest. 

We rode in the same ambulance. Pop lay conscious on a gurney while they talked to him and ran initial tests. They said it would save time and that he looked okay. Dad held his hand and kept telling him that he was right there. Not to worry. I sat next to Dad with my one elbow resting on his shoulder, giving the little knife handle room to breathe. The EMTs were scared to pull it out and didn’t want to move me too much on account of the blade shifting and damaging me internally. Posture, one of the guys kept saying. Shallow breaths. They figured something had been punctured even though I said I didn’t feel any pain. They thought it might just be shock, but I didn’t buy it. I was calm and I felt nothing. Like nothing at all. 

They kept me in the Emergency Room while they took Pop to directly to coronary care. I assured Dad I’d be fine, and so he went with him. He said he’d be down to check on me as soon as Pop was stable. They brought me to a little curtained-off room and had me sit on the bed. A police officer came a minute later and asked me questions. I told him everything that had happened with the fat guy, all the way back to the pulled pork. He said he didn’t think they would charge me for hitting him because we were both hitting each other. He wanted to know if I wanted to press charges for the stab wound. He suggested I did. If I didn’t, they probably would anyway. I said hell yes and he said he’d be back with something for me to sign.

When he turned to leave, my nurse appeared from behind him. She was this short, light-skinned Dominican lady named Alba with bright pink lips who chewed her gum loudly. She told me to call her Gigi. She asked me a bunch of questions. She was fascinated by the knife in my side. “You really don’t feel it?” she said.


“Like, not even a little? Like nothing?”

“Like nothing.”

She brought her face to within inches of it. Examined it from all angles. I could feel her breath in my armpit. It felt like she was getting really excited. “Wow,” she said. “I just want to touch it, you know? Like, flick it with my finger, see if it wobbles back and forth. It’s kinda cute.”

“So are you going to take it out?”

“Oh, no. Can’t do that.” She stood upright and smacked her gum with authority. Looked at her clipboard. “We need to do a FAST. See if you’re bleeding internally. We don’t play around with things like that. Then she cut off my t-shirt. She said she’d get me a gown if I wanted, but she’d have to cut a big hole in it to make sure the knife wouldn’t get disturbed. She gave me a look that said she’d rather not go through with all of that. I told her I was fine without it. I wasn’t cold or shy. She stroked my forearm lovingly. She said, “I’ll come get you as soon as we’re ready. Okay, baby?”  

She left, and the curtain that separated me from the other bed in the room started to move. It was a kid’s hand pulling it, and when it started to struggle, I helped. I drew the curtain all the way back and this boy, probably nine or ten years old, was lying there. He was a twig, but he had those large, wide-set eyes that child actors have. And that messy hair that looks best when it’s messy. Like, the girls are just gonna eat this kid up later on. He didn’t look great. He looked sick, like he had the flu or something. He’d been sweating, but he looked okay. He didn’t have knives sticking out of him. A couple IV lines. I asked him how he was doing, and he just made this face, like a yuck face.

“What’s the matter with you?” he asked. He looked at the blood on my jeans. “Did you cut yourself on the edge of a coffee table, too?”

“Nope.” I turned so he could see my new little appendage.

He made a different kind of face. “Does it hurt?”

“Nah,” I said. “It probably should, and it’s probably a good thing. Maybe it cut some nerves or something. It should probably hurt like hell.”

He tried to sit up a little, but he was struggling, so I told him to relax and edged closer so he could see better. “How long is, how far is it in there?”

“Don’t know. I never saw it coming. Judging by the handle, can’t be more than two inches, though.”

He shook his little Hollywood head. “I don’t get how that doesn’t hurt. It could be cutting your insides. Like your organs.”

“Could. But I feel fine. I think it missed everything important. Won’t know until they do some tests.”

Those big eyes became pensive. “I don’t understand how that could happen.”

I shrugged. “It’s kind of in my genes. My grandfather, he’s a tank. He’s got this outlook like nothing can take him down. Always been that way. And he’s been right. It’s how he’s survived. He likes to say that if you cut him in half, right down the middle, and threw one half on one side of the room and the other half on the other side, then they’d just crawl back together again.”

This kid was full of looks.

“He’s in here, too,” I said. He’s upstairs right now.”

“Does he have a. . . .?” He nodded toward the knife handle.

“No,” I said with a sort of smirk. “Heart attack. But he’ll be fine. He always is.”

Now he looked at me like I was a complete loon.

“So what are you in for?” I asked. “You said you cut yourself.”

He lifted his arm and revealed a small gash near his elbow. Nothing crazy, no stitches. It was a little purple. From the cut, a bright red streak ran up along the inside of his biceps to his shoulder.

“The table’s glass, and I fell and cut myself on the corner,” he said. “That was a few days ago. They say it’s infected. They’ve been giving me antibiotics, but I don’t think it’s working. My mom’s with the doctors now to see what else they can do.” He looked again at the knife handle. Then at my face. “You must have superpowers or something.”

“Nah,” I said. “Not a chance. At least not really.” I looked down at the stupid little knife handle. “It’s the attitude. Like, even when I saw this thing sticking out of me, I never worried. Not for an instant. I just knew I’d be good. I always do. I don’t know if it’s luck, but it’s just the way it works out. You’ve got to trust it.”

Gigi pulled back my curtain and said they were ready to scan me. How did I feel? Any pain? Nausea? How was my head? Still nothing?

Still nothing.

“It just doesn’t seem fair,” the kid said.

Gigi helped me up. They didn’t want me to lie down and take a chance with the blade, so I walked with her.

“Don’t worry, baby,” she said to the kid. “I’ll have your new friend back in just a little while.”

As we started out of the Emergency Room, I asked her if we’d be able to stop and see Pop. Coronary Care was only up a few floors, but the doctor was waiting for us, so we couldn’t go at least until after the ultrasound. We met the tech on the way. He was this mid-forties white guy with a longish, seventies haircut. Middle part and a bushy moustache. Kind of like Chuck Negron from Three Dog Night. Gigi called him baby and he called her honey. We got to the room and he helped me onto the bed. In a thick Pennsyltuckian accent, he asked if I’d ever had an ultrasound, and I told him I had. I’d had a scare down below during my teens that turned out to be a calcification. I knew how it all worked. The gel would be cold. I was ready.  

Gigi watched in awe while this guy worked the transducer. He was in awe, too.

“I just can’t believe what I’m seeing,” he said. “You’ve heard of the magic bullet theory, right? Well this is like the magic mini pocket knife. It just slipped right in between everything important. I’m not even seeing any blood accumulating.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” I said as though I had somehow orchestrated this small miracle. “I guess I’m just lucky with these kinds of things.”

He looked me in the face. “This is more like a superpower.”

Gigi went for the doctor so she could see for herself. The lady stood there, this petite Asian lady doctor with thick glasses and a loose bun, while Chuck gave her the grand tour of the Killino. Then she said, “Okay. Let’s get that thing out of you.”

The doctor told me to hold my arms out to my sides at shoulder height. She adjusted her glasses. Then she took a delicate hold of the knife handle. She told me to exhale. When my body steadied, she pulled the thing straight out.

I felt a tickle, only at the surface, only for an instant. Gigi immediately applied gauze.

The doctor asked me how I felt, and I said fine. When Gigi removed the gauze it barely bled. The doctor applied new gauze and placed my hand over it. “You’re something,” she said.

A tetanus shot and two stitches later, Gigi gave me papers and a gown and directed me toward the elevator. Coronary care was on the fifth floor. I showed my papers to the man at the desk. Gigi said to make sure I do that first so they didn’t see the gown and think I was a runaway. That happened from time to time. Sometimes, when homeless people were treated, they didn’t want to leave, and so they’d sneak around looking for empty beds to sleep in.

Pop was in Room 23B. He was the only patient in the room. He lay with tubes in his nose, mouth, and hands. His eyes were taped shut. His breaths were even, mechanical.

Dad sat beside him. “I was just about to come down,” he said when he saw me. “Are you okay?” He had a hole in his voice, an unpresence, the absence of a voice.

I nodded a small nod. “I’m fine. Just a couple stitches.” I pulled up the gown.

“Good,” he said. “I figured as much. Don’t know why I did, but I did.”

I sat down next to my father. He was hunched forward in a way that was foreign to me. Broken looking. Soft in the shoulder. He’d never been what I might call proper, never mentioned posture once that I could remember, but right then he looked as though he’d forgotten what it was. Like he’d forgotten his own body. He watched Pop and I watched him.

“Dad,” I said.

He turned his head toward me.

“How is he?”

He drew a breath. “Well, he had a mild heart attack. That’s what they said once we got up here and they checked him out. He was talking. He had a mask on, but he was talking. Chatting up the nurse, you know how he is. He was telling her how this was nothing compared to everything else in his life. He said he’d overcome a lot of diversity.”

That had to be top five. Easy.

“And then he went into cardiac arrest.”

I was confused. I knew what the words meant, but it was as though they had passed me straight, and I hadn’t been able to latch on.

Dad motioned to the machinery beside the bed. The tubes. The tape on his eyes. “They’ve got him heavily sedated so that his body only has to worry about healing. The ventilator is breathing for him. They put a cooling blanket on him to help protect his organs.” He wrung his hands. “They’re trying to stabilize him.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “If it was mild. How does that happen? How does that happen to him?”

He watched Pop’s chest rise and fall. “I don’t know. Sometimes, it just happens.”  

I studied his face. He was still out of body. I’d never seen my father like that. Not when he and Mom split. Not even when his own mother had passed. It wasn’t just fear or shock or impending grief that held him, but all of it. The anticipation, a thousand thoughts and experiences that had buried themselves within him over the years. Things I could never really know. Things that added up to not adding up, to just not being fair and that’s just all there was to it. That’s the order of it. Sometimes things just aren’t how they’re supposed to be.

But those were his things. I would have mine. I was. We all would in our own time. Hell, all of these people here….

Then something inside of me softened—not from the knife, and not in a pleasant way. It was like something inside of me had spoiled, something that I hadn’t even been aware of until that moment. And it couldn’t be un-spoiled.

A nurse came and checked Pop’s readings. She told us it wasn’t likely that anything would change overnight. We should go home and get some rest. I told Dad we should pass back through the ER so I could sign the police report. We found Gigi standing near the little room I’d been in. She was writing something. She looked distracted. Both beds were empty. She said the police officer had come back, but that he had to leave again. I would need to stop at the station to sign the report. She asked if I was okay.

I looked around and then said I was fine.

“Of course you are,” she said. “You’re a superhero.”

I grimaced something, something about it not being fair, and made some face in that moment I hoped resembled a smile. It probably didn’t, and it shouldn’t have.

“You’ll be okay,” she said and lay a hand upon me, her eyes heavy. “And I need that tonight. It’s been a night.”

fiction for mojo 18

The Endless Orange Skies — Devon Ross

Only sometimes did he dream about the war, about Camp Enari and the vast mountains of Pleiku where a woman named Mai pushed a peddler’s cart, canopied with oblong bananas and steaming pots of Cao Lau noodles. Mai gifted her food to Sidney and the other American GIs who crowded her streets with rifles and boots, who tainted her air with cigarettes and body odor.

Sidney dreamt of Mai and the black sandals she wore, strapped elaborately around her feet, looping up her ankles. Mai’s feet were milky and slender, never blistered or blemished, with long toes and tapered nails. Sidney thought of Mai’s feet each night as he lay inside the wooden barracks that housed the 4th Infantry, and his fellow platoon members did the same. They cherished Mai’s feet, fantasized the elongated arch that connected heel to ball, lusted over the smooth skin on her achilles. Those who did not think of her feet thought of her breasts, the way in which the thin fabric of her shirt hugged them, held them, high and full, enough to grab with the palm of an American hand. Sidney thought about her thighs, too, mysteriously hidden under a floral skirt, percolating in the breeze, occasionally outlining a lean set of legs.

The women in Pleiku were not fat like the women Sidney knew back in his home state of Georgia; they were not glutted from pan-fried chicken or lardy collard greens. The women in Pleiku nourished their bodies into seductive molds, abiding by holistic remedies and fostering natural diets of food they’d harvested themselves: rice they’d steamed, chickens they’d slaughtered. Processed American food paled in comparison: high fructose corn syrup and drive-thrus, frozen lasagnas from the Piggly Wiggly freezer aisle. Sidney grew up with a mother who stored ham and cheese sandwiches in the ice box and thawed them on the kitchen counter hours before the school bus arrived. She packed those sandwiches into his brown sack lunch alongside bruised, imported apples and Jell-O cups, a stick of Bazooka bubble gum for after baseball practice––as American as it could come, and there was pride in that, a gratification in the honorable title of American Man. American Man who fights in wars. American Man who carries a striped flag. American Man who carves a Thanksgiving turkey and eats apple pie, baked by an apron-wearing American Woman. Sidney liked quiet women with shiny hair and makeup––but not too much makeup. Women with subtle smiles whose lips were red and closed. Mai was not any of those things; her face was naked and her cheeks a bit too wide, but, like most soldiers in a foreign land, Sidney could look past that, focus on the lower half of her body and the secrecy enclosed beneath her skirt. Mai did not speak English, solely communicating with his platoon through willing eyes and hearty smiles. She was adorably complacent, and perhaps that is what he liked most, more than her feet or strappy black sandals.

Lieutenant Davies was the name of the man who commanded Sidney’s platoon. He kept a didgeridoo atop the antique bookshelf in his private quarters, placed beside a Kentucky coin bear whose stuffing had rotted from endless exposure to the Vietnamese humidity. Lieutenant Davies never played the didgeridoo––for he had not learned how––but he often told the tale of how he’d acquired it during the Battle of Brisbane, snatched it from the home of a white man who’d slaughtered three Aboriginals with a machete. Lieutenant Davies killed the white man during a riot, stole the didgeridoo, and kept it as a souvenir.

“This is a war-time didgeridoo,” he told their platoon. “Whoever kills me will earn it like a medal of honor, and whoever kills him will do the same damn thing ‘til this didgeridoo belongs to the last man on Earth.”

But Sidney never learned the fate of that didgeridoo, just like he never learned the fate of Lieutenant Davies, who was shipped off to Dak To in ‘68. He never heard the droning ribbit of that pacific instrument, carved from eucalyptus and hollowed by termites, though it often appeared in his dreams––the didgeridoo, five feet tall, perched in the skirted lap of Mai, her cheeks inflating as she blew into its mouthpiece, creating a melodic hum, anxious with musical fluctuations, a taunting showtune for falling bombs and trench foot, the gleaming helmets of the Viet Cong and their flamethrowers, hidden like snipers in the jungle’s foliage. The didgeridoo, a foreign sound, was misplaced in Camp Enari, and yet it was provoking all the same, because wasn’t all war the same? An enemy. A frontline. Expendable soldiers with bullet holes and missing limbs. Casualty counts and drafts––birth dates plucked from spinning bingo wheels on national television. November 30th was Sidney’s birthday, born three minutes after midnight.

In Camp Enari, Sidney’s platoon looked forward to their hero’s return, a parade through the streets of their hometowns, kissing girls who were not like Mai but were instead simpler and better dressed, girls who were thick around the waist and slept with their hair in rollers. Sidney was not keen on these triumphal processions; they were declarations, not celebrations, proof of possible survival for neighbors to see, a glint of reassurance that their sons, husbands, fathers, brothers would return unscathed, brimming in accolades of bravery and proud anecdotes of the commies they’d killed or the refugees they’d carried through a swamp. No one spoke of Johnny, whose left leg exploded when Kip accidently detonated that hand grenade at the wrong time, or Lieutenant Smith, who’d died wailing as staph infection ravaged his blood. Sidney himself had lost half his hearing while crossing enemy landmines. A constant ring replaced white noise. When Sidney was not dreaming about Mai or didgeridoos, he was hearing that ring, day after night, a shrill escalation deep within his ears pushing the rest of the world into a distant background.

Sidney did, in fact, receive a parade upon his return, a motorcade around the city of Savannah, which was not where he lived. He rode in a sleek Impala with a convertible roof. Like Kennedy moments before assassination. A quick bullet to the throat. A fatal bullet to the head. Dead. There was death in parades just like there was death in Vietnam, but the children waved American flags on toothpicks and skipped alongside the procession as if destruction was only tangible in places far away. A young boy tailed the Impala for three blocks, a plastic army helmet on his head; its straps bounced against his chin. The boy held a tiny fist in the air, smiling, toothlessly, at Sidney and the convertible. His idolization was not for Sidney but for Sidney’s uniform, for the lionhearted persona that a green jacket could represent but almost never did. The parades stopped the following year after Nixon replaced Johnson and the war in Vietnam became increasingly unpopular. He wondered if the boy’s fist had become a middle finger.

Photographs of these parades hung on the tile-backsplashed walls of Chipper’s, a dive bar nestled deep within the quagmires of the Wassaw Sound. These black and white images, framed and displayed for all to see, showed American soldiers waving from their cars, decorated with ribbons and memorabilia. Photographs collected throughout centuries. Korea and Vietnam. Both the world wars. Two confederate soldiers posed on a muddied field in 1863. In the center of it all was a picture of a woman. A Chinese actress, recognizable from some old Hollywood film. Her jet hair, slick and curled, pressed neatly against her face. Her eyes did not reach the camera but instead looked up and to the right, gazing into something unseen.

Every Thursday at four o’clock, Chipper’s held a veteran’s discount happy hour, so every Thursday at four o’clock, Sidney sped his bowrider up the Wilmington River, roped it to the old dock then limped along the brick ‘n board steps until he’d seated himself in front of that Chinese actress. He’d stare at the picture all night long. Sometimes, if he stared hard enough, he’d swear he saw her eyes move, drifting downward in a diagonal line until they collided with his own: a woman amongst wars.

Sidney was not the only veteran who’d retreated to the swamps of the Wassaw Sound after the end of his service. A Sound like the Wassaw Sound was brutal in condition––a lot like Nam if he thought about it––but so plentiful in resources that there was never a need to venture into town: crabs to trap, deer to shoot, mudcats to batter and fry on a pan. Total solitude girdled the landscape, as devoid as the vacuum of outer space and just as beautiful. Stars reflected across the still-watered lagoons. Bull frogs and crickets conducted daily symphonies, loud enough for Sidney to hear over the pulsing ring in his ears. Chipper’s dive bar catered to men of Sidney’s type, with a dock long enough to fit dinghies and pontoons, skiffs and bass boats. They played old country music through crackly speakers, twanging with banjoes and fiddles; the music drowned the crass conversations of other Nam vets who no longer talked about Nam but about Iraq and Kuwait and terrorists and George W. Bush. They bickered amongst themselves until their chests swelled and their faces shaded red. Their fingers tapped the air above the open carry pistols they holstered in their belts. Sidney had a gun, too––a Glock with 1100 RPM, a powerful little thing that he used to obliterate the gulls and racoons who pestered the yard of his lean-to. He’d paid for the Glock with his monthly disability check, ventured up to the sporting goods store in Savannah and waited in line. There was always a line at the gun counter, men in need of bump stocks and bullets.

Sidney’s Glock was locked and loaded, shoved down the back of his jeans so that only its grip poked over his shirt. He wanted the other vets to see it, to know that it belonged to him, the disgruntled old man who could not hear but could kill, because that was the purpose of open carry: to have a gun on your body for the inevitable excuse to use it.

Sidney imagined shooting off that gun right there inside Chipper’s. He could see himself going through those deadly motions: aiming and firing, hearing the shriek of the darling little waitress who cleared booths in the back, a blood splatter across the glass-framed face of the Chinese actress. He could do it without blinking, he was sure, like the man behind the bullets that had killed Kennedy, or Lieutenant Davies and that didgeridoo, but what would be the reason? Chipper’s was only a dive bar, not a warzone or a politically distempered country. The bartender’s name was Matt, and he mixed two-dollar drinks and wore a forty-year-old Atlanta Crackers hat from long before the Braves moved down from Milwaukee.

“Beethoven lost his hearing,” Matt the Bartender once said to Sidney. “That’s why he went mad, hearing this God awful alarm in his brain, but it was his madness that made him such a genius, that guy. His madness made the music great.”

Matt the Bartender tipped his hat low on his forehead, poured sugars and bitters over rocks, pulled bourbon off the shelf, mixed it into an Old Fashion for a regular barfly, Willie Neller. A Nam vet just like Sidney, Willie Neller ordered a flight of Old Fashions every afternoon. He slurped drunkenly from his glass, dark liquor trickling into the wiry curls of his beard. Willie was like the rest of them, stuck in the decades of his youth, his pants tucked into his socks.

Willie Neller’s mind had transcended time, stuck in Saigon or the 77-day siege in the Quang Tri province where the enemy bombed the American garrison into the ground. Willie’s eyes were constantly flicking up to the ceiling, and he’d shout, “Here they comin’!” sporadically, watching invisible helicopters descend through the clouds like they did on that day in ‘68––Operation Pegasus––swooping down to fly those US troops to their concession. Willie still saw mirages of those choppers, just like he still heard the songs of his childhood, reprising in his head and fumbling past his lips, songs from the south, from bogs and estuaries.

ya getta line and I’ll getta pole, honey
ya getta line and I’ll getta pole, babe
ya getta line and I’ll getta pole
we’ll go down to the crawdad hole, honey, baby mine

Sidney liked his Old Fashions the traditional way, made with rye whiskey instead of bourbon, how his father used to drink it. Bourbon was corn-based and saccharine. Rye was hard and cloying, could knock a man off his feet. Sidney asked Matt the Bartender for an Old Fashion with rye whiskey, and Matt the Bartender said, “We don’ make those in here no more.”

Sidney said, “All right. Just gimme whiskey.”

A group of bumbling fisherman clambered through the open door, sweat-slicked from the muggy air, their coveralls stained with sea spray and grease. They rallied around the red-felt pool table, wrestling the numbered balls into the rack, dusting their cue sticks with squares of chalk. Matt the Bartender filled pints with frothy beer, and the men plucked them from the counter one at a time. Willie kept singing.

whatcha gunna do when the lake runs dry, honey
whatcha gunna do when the lake runs dry, babe
whatcha gunna do when the lake runs dry
sit on the bank catch an ole horsefly, honey, baby mine

Sidney knew there was an unspoken competition between himself and Willie Neller, as there was amongst all the vets who crowded into Chipper’s. Neither Sidney nor Willie stood astute to the measurement of post-war success, neither rich nor working, both leeching off the very system that had called them into battle in the first place. 

Willie’s face ticked as the racked balls were broken. They scattered across the table, eight-ball in a pocket. The fishermen cheered and hoisted their pints, sloshing beer onto the floor. Their amplified volume interrupted the ring in Sidney’s ears, broke its shrill continuum and suspended his flow of constant noise. It always happened that way: a rush of over-bearing sound sullying his brain into a callous neutrality, the ensuing silence producing a magnification of miniscule background noise. Sidney could hear Willie Neller pivot in his barstool, could hear the ice rattle in his glass. Sometimes Sidney thought he could hear a blink: Old Willie Neller’s eyes shuttering, stickily, over his reddened eyeballs, goop pushing onto his waterline, like a toad’s eye stamping open then closed in an oozy, mechanical manner. Red eyes were a telling weakness, an inability to function as a drunk. Functional drunkenness was a skill Sidney had learned in Camp Enari, along with assembling M1 carbine rifles and M3 grease guns. He’d marched for miles in whiskey stupors, fired weapons and tipsily scanned jungle terrain for landmines and trip wires. Sidney could down his whiskey in a single gulp, and he’d sit, saturated in the dulling numbness of intoxication for hours, content and alert. In drunkenness, he knew, he bested Willie Neller.

“Here they comin’,” Willie said, his voice low and gruff. Sidney followed Willie’s gaze to the end of the bar, where that darling little waitress was rolling a mop bucket across the room. Its wheels squealed over the divots and sags of the floor, caught against the uneven wooden planks. She fumbled with the bucket, keeping a hand on the mop inside. He knew her name was Ellen––had overheard it once or twice from Matt the Bartender––and Ellen wore gray tennis shoes, laces stained from mud. He was certain she had nice feet, a little lady like her, for her body was closer in resemblance to that of the Vietnamese women he’d seen in Pleiku. Her legs were long, knees knobby, and buttons were missing from her dress. Her hair did not fit into luscious roller-styled curls but more in a frizz, held in place by an unflattering low ponytail. A woman like her, he thought, should wear her hair high. Ellen had nice cheekbones and dark eyes, the kind of eyes he would want in a woman, large and gleamy and pointed at the floor. He assumed she was poor, because all poor girls in the Wassaw Sound were thin and badly dressed, working among men, cleaning up their messes. 

Ellen leaned over the mop, scrubbing spilled beer in copious circles while the men floundered around her. If Sidney stared at her dirty tennis shoes hard enough, he could visualize her feet, stuffed inside, pressing against the interior material. Small feet, but they were narrow and curved, like Mai’s. It sent a tickling through his belly; he hadn’t found a decent-footed woman since the end of his service, thirty years before.

Willie was watching her, too, his lips rested on the rim of his Old Fashion, eyes bugged beneath his aviators. Ellen gave him a smile, tenuous and sweet, as she dragged the mop around Willie’s stool.

“How ya doin’ t’day, ole Willie?” she said, her hair falling sloppily over her shoulder. Willie wasn’t looking at her hair but at the front of her dress. He didn’t give her an answer, just a nod, and then Ellen turned toward Sidney, but she didn’t smile at him, didn’t utter a word.

Sidney’s mother had been a hard working missus, raising five sons and cooking the nightly suppers that his father demanded. On the first Saturday of each month, Sidney’s mother sat her boys down in front of the bathroom mirror for a haircut. She wet a comb, parted their hairs clean down the center, then trimmed the edges with shear scissors.

“Smile,” she’d say, “so e’rybody can see your whole self. Let ‘em know who ya really are.”

“I don’ wanna smile,” Sidney said, and his mother frowned.

“A smile don’ mean ya’re happy, Sid. Just lets all the respectable mans and womans know ya ain’t gon’ be trouble.” She looked straight into the mirror and smiled, and Sidney did the same. Now he was a veteran well into his fifties who’d fought in a war, and that was the most respectable kind of man there could be. Yet, here he was, unable to earn a smile from a table-bussing waitress. 

Sidney took his whiskey to-go in a styrofoam cup and placed it in his boat alongside stubbed-out cigarettes. He removed the Glock from his pants, placed it in the empty bait bucket. A six-pack of beer sat at the boat’s stern, warmed by the sun that snuck through the tupelo trees. The Sound could be just as foggy in the evening as it was in the morning, with clouds real low in the sky and mist that rose from the water, damp in all directions. Sidney’s boat was a hand-me-down, passed on from his father. His father had a love for the Sound and the winding rivers that meandered out to sea. There was a gentleness in which the salt marsh faded into sandy beach, rocky where the waves broke and calloused with the shells of petrified crustaceans, dredged from the middle of the Earth. Sidney’s father was a crabber, laying traps along the coast. When he died, those traps were Sidney’s inheritance, clunky rectangles of wire and rope, strung to a buoy, bobbing with the tides. The traps were stagnant and unchanging, surmounting their life span, catching crabs all year round. His father used to sell those catches to a restaurant on Wassaw Island, a seafood experience built on an ocean-viewing wharf for wealthy tourists who vacationed on its shores, but Sidney could no longer recall the restaurant’s name, for it closed its doors in ’81 after Red Lobster expanded out of Florida. Instead, his father sold his crabs to a local bait ‘n tackle shack, which had much less demand and offered much lower pay. He died two weeks later. Had a heart attack right there in his boat, floating up the Wilmington River. Sidney knew it was because he couldn’t deal with the change.

The Wassaw inlet carved its way through an archipelago of marsh hammocks and bald cypress trees, bloated around the roots, drinking up the water. The inlet bled into the expansive Atlantic, where the crab traps were. Sidney drained his styrofoam cup as he motored away from Chipper’s and toward the open horizon.

Fiddler crabs and blue crabs, calico and lady. Atlantic horseshoes washed up on beaches and ghost crabs scuttled along sand. Mole crabs lived way down underneath and could only be dug up with shovels or hands. Fiddler crabs were red crabs with one giant claw for pinching. They snapped at Sidney as he hoisted his traps out from the sea. There was a technique in holding them––a thumb on one side of the shell, a finger on the other, grabbing from the “armpits,” so as not to be pinched. Sidney held a young fiddler crab even with his eyeline and examined its four walking legs, frantically bicycling. Only males had the giant claw. It was small in size and girth, immature, but he tossed it in the fishing cooler and moved on to the next.

Sidney’s father had an aphorism, adopted from the sailors who’d colonized Georgia centuries ago. Pink skies at night, sailor’s delight. Red skies in morning, sailors take warning. An aphorism because, whimsical as it was, it was rooted in truth. Red skies brought thunderous clouds and heavy rains, an ancient form of weather prediction. Sidney had brought this mantra to Camp Enari, stared at the sky each dawn and dusk, attempting to discern the forthcoming forecast, but in Nam the trick never worked. Rain fell incessantly even as the sun shone bright and song birds sang from the trees. Even while indoors, asleep in his bunk, Sidney felt as though he was marinating in the rain, waking hot and dampened, cursed by recurrent night sweats––a physical torment and terror. It was not long after his return that he discovered the solace in the cool Atlantic breeze jostling through him as he pressed on the throttle, hastening the bowrider to 40 knots then 50. The crab traps quacked beside the beer cans. His Glock slid around in the bait bucket. Sidney tipped his head back toward the fiery sky, not pink but bloody orange. The fleeting sun projected across the water, erasing the fog and setting it alight, an ocean enraged, and as the wind whipped past his ears, paramount to the ring he heard within, he swore the crabs chirruped from under the lid of the fishing cooler, and the perilous tripletails bellowed to the king mackerel’s beneath the choppy waves of the golden sea.

Sidney could not hear the rumbling engine of the incoming skiff boat that emerged from the estuary ahead; it was a dinky three-rowed vessel with a sputtering outboard motor and, what looked to be, an emergency oar laid out across the bench seats. Sidney knew who drove that boat, had seen her cruising through these waters a time or two before, wearing the same button-down dress she wore to work at Chipper’s. Sidney sped his boat parallel to hers, keeping quite a bit of water between them. She was heading north, same way as him, toward Wassaw Island and the bait ‘n tackle shack, hair unruled in the restraints of her ponytail. Ellen kept her eyes focused onward, but a young lady like her, Sidney was sure, she had good ears. He knew she could hear him, chugging alongside her.

She was pretty in the flaxen light, waning against her skin, which was not pale but darkened by the sun, an attribute of hard work and long days. What he could not see was the tiredness within her, the exhaustion not from the heat of the sun or the stifling Georgia humidity, but an emotional strain brought forth by mopping around the ankles of men who called, “Hot stuff. Pretty thing. Darlin’. Baby doll,” then offered nothing more than a dime in gratuity. She had recognized Sidney’s bowrider from half a mile out. Sidney was the old man who kept a gun in his pants while he drained a whole whiskey bottle. She often docked her skiff boat beside him at Chipper’s. His smell was rancid of booze and brine.

As fast as Ellen steered her boat, Sidney matched her speed, staring across the mix of their wakes, watching the furrow of focus between her brows. All women were ugly with furrowed brows, resistant and determinedly rude. Complacence was not a word he used to describe young women like Ellen, women from this new generation, who had only experienced a man’s war through a television screen. Women like Ellen, Sidney thought, were weakened and unstructured, spoiled from their simple lives. Ellen had not lived through the sixties, yet she ignorantly reaped its benefits, lived without the decency to send him even a smile.

It happened on a Monday, a few months into his first tour of Vietnam. The trickle of communications had stalled in Camp Enari, so Sidney’s platoon roamed the streets of Pleiku with their rifles across their chests, missionless and pandering, filling contemptible time. Sidney found himself walking up the row of peddler’s carts, a joint burning between his lips and a flask sagging in his pocket. He was searching for Mai and her bananas and noodles, avoiding the leery pedestrians. “The American War,” they called it, as if Sidney had been the one to bring the violence. The war still would have a been a war without them, a war with a much quicker end and, possibly, far less casualties, but the presence of Americans, Sidney knew, was for the best. No longer isolationists, they fought against the plight of communism that had enraptured the eastern portion of the world. They were the good guys, or at least that’s what they were told, and Sidney deemed only Mai grateful. Mai with her smiles and nods, welcoming Americans into her peddler’s cart, spooning noodles into bowls.

He spotted her at the end of the street, her cart crookedly planted on a dusty corner. A straw hat shaded her head. As he walked closer, she did not look up, her gaze aimed down at a steaming pot. She churned its contents with a flat wooden spoon, elbow in the air. Her feet, he noticed, were bare on the ground, her strappy sandals in a heap beside her. She raised herself onto her toes while she stirred, rhythmically, swaying from one side to the next. Her feet, like a dancer’s, pressed into the ground, encompassing it wholly, silt clinging to her skin. Sidney spit the joint from his mouth, beguiled by those feet, exposed and alluring, just as he’d seen them in his dreams. Her stance was inviting, and he floated toward her as she stirred and stirred. Bending at the waist, Sidney reached. He extended a hand toward her heel, caressed its tender curves. Mai stood still as his fingers coasted along her flesh. She gibbered at him in a language they both knew he would not understand. Sidney heard her, loud and clear, for the ringing in his ears had yet to arrive. He lifted her foot in both of his hands, yearning for its closeness, craving its taste, but Mai resisted, pulling away, giving him a gentle swat.

“Food,” she said, the only English she knew. “Food.” She extended a bowl toward Sidney, who was down on his knees, but he could not muster an appetite. He stared at the feet, only the feet, uncovered and free from the prudence of sandals, a sudden sublime abyss, inches from his possession, like the didgeridoo––killed for and stolen, time and time again. But as Mai leaned away, she kicked dirt in Sidney’s eyes, and the feet disappeared from his sight.

Sidney cursed and jumped around, flung his arms until he struck––struck bananas, struck the cart, struck Mai, then Mai again, then again. He did not stop until the bleary haze had mitigated into a subtle blur. Mai’s face was black and blue in front of him, her straw hat on the ground, her cart collapsed. Nobody came to help her. Spectators ran the opposite way. Grabbing her sandals, Mai ran too. Sidney aimed his rifle.

An altercation resulting in the use of lethal force, the report would have said, if anyone had bothered to make a report at all. Mai, he told his platoon, had attacked him, kicked him in the face as he approached her cart. A communist, he called her, and the others in his platoon nodded their heads in agreement.

“Gotta get ‘em when we can,” Lieutenant Davies said.

There had been a threat within Mai’s resistance. The flick of her leg was a denial of Sidney’s dreams, and those dreams didn’t cease once Mai did; they lingered in his thoughts, endless images, cemented into his history like the photographs framed on the backsplashed walls of Chipper’s or the crab traps that shook as his boat jetted up the Wassaw Sound. 

He pushed in on Ellen’s boat, closing the gap between them and accelerating so that his bow passed hers. Finally, she looked to him, lips in a line. Sidney could not see her feet.

“Am I in yo’ way or sumthin’?” Ellen said, but Sidney could not hear her. The crabs clicked and clacked inside the bucket.

Ellen slowed her skiff boat, and Sidney slowed his bowrider.

“Hey,” Ellen shouted. “Ya’re gittin’ in ma’ way, sir.”

Sidney reached for his Styrofoam whiskey cup, but he found it empty. It crumpled in his fist, and he tossed it to the bait bucket, where his Glock lay flat inside.

Ellen’s outboard motor made a fretful gargle, then a clank, then a clunk, then her engine coughed and died. Her skiff boat sank low into the water, waves lapping over its sides. Sidney cut his own engine, all the sounds rushing back.

“God dammit,” Ellen said. She leapt upright and waded through the spillage. She pounded her fist, once, twice, against the motor before she retrieved her emergency oar. Her tennis shoes dripped as she stood and paddled, plump and waterlogged. She looked at Sidney with the oar in the water. She said, “Where ya’ headed, sir? Maybe ya’ could tow me there. I gots rope ‘n stuff.”

Sidney pointed north, where the orange sky was fading into a velvet black. “Bait ‘n tackle shack,” he said.

Ellen set the oar aside, held the rope up in her hands. “Tha’s great,” she said, a smile on her face, but Sidney did not see it. He was firing his engine and pressing on the throttle, speeding toward the inlet. His Glock remained in the bucket.

As ocean regressed into river and river regressed into streams, the ring in Sidney’s ears prevailed, and the crabs in the fishing cooler turned lethargic––items in transport to their slaughter. His bait bucket would fill with squid heads, and the squid heads would fill the crab traps, luring in tomorrow’s catch. The sun dipped below the horizon, the night sky setting in like an ashy suffocation of flames––orange flames not red or pink, inconclusive in accordance to his father’s weather-predicting aphorism. While Sidney slept, late in the evening, on the rickety porch of his lean-to, swigging through warm beers, bottle after bottle, he dreamt of his bunk in Camp Enari, the way in which the foamy mattress sagged around his hips, burdened by the weight of his body. In this dream he stared at the bottom of the overhead bunk, concealing him like the lid of a fishing cooler, human packed inside.

Through the dizzy darkness, Sidney watched that bunk bottom swirl, deciphering figmentations of conjured memories, some simply imaginary, others blatantly real. He saw the vibrations of a didgeridoo, dancing out of the mouth of the white man who’d murdered for it––the original killer. Then there were feet, limp in a pile on a dusty road, alone and dismembered, nothing attached. Sidney knew these feet were Mai’s feet, which in turn became his feet––his token to carry with him, a constant in the ringing, ringing confines of his head, conquered by American-Man-conquistador and running, running through him like the endless rivers and streams.

fiction for mojo 18

Three Romances — C. D. Lewis

One night, as we lie in bed, sleep close on the horizon, Simon whispers, “Truth or dare?”
“Truth,” I say.
“Truth. Do you ever prefer fantasizing to sex?”
“Sometimes,” I say, yawning, nosing into him.
“Follow up.”
“I don’t think you get ‘follow-ups’ in Truth or Dare,” I tell his shoulder.
“When you prefer it, why do you prefer it?”
“With sex, you don’t know what the other person will do next,” I say. “In a fantasy, anything you want to happen can happen.”
“What do you want to happen next?” he says, confusing things only a little. 


The summer after my freshman year in college, I interned at an old-school New York weekly, one creakily adjusting to the web. Pizza and soda arrived at each Friday “closing period” for stress-eating and fuel. The outlet’s print edition appeared on offbeat-colored paper. 
Between fact-checking and copy-editing, I maintained a flirtation with one of the reporters on staff, Bill. This was years ago—a grey, cool Sunday, the first weekend after the internship had ended.

how about I come over at about 3, he texted. we could watch a movie
I was living at home, and no one was around that afternoon. 
I’d like that, I texted back.

I cleaned my room, took a shower, shaved my pubic hair, and lay on top of my bed, listening to the rain and wind against the window. Now and then, tree branches tapped the glass, the brittle fingers of a friendly skeleton. 
Bill texted he was at the door, and I went to answer it.

There he was, tall as I remembered, dimpled, collapsing his umbrella, in a waterproofed jacket and heavy boots he bent to untie. We hugged, then spoke quickly, on top of one another. He called the weather “cinematic.”

We both smiled and laughed too much. He stubbed his toe on an end table, but didn’t say anything at first, then went on and on about how much it hurt, once we’d positioned ourselves on the couch.
“My toe is going to fall off. It’s blue and twice its normal size. It’s numb now, don’t worry. I can’t feel it. It hurts so much,” he said, making me laugh.
“I really had to control myself back there, when things were just getting started.”

We watched a movie on my computer, set on the coffee table, before and below us. Every so often, the screen would darken slightly (I must have had it in some power-save mode), and one of us would use our bare feet to move the touchscreen-mouse. Bill had taken off his socks, saying they were damp, and I hadn’t put any on.

Whenever something embarrassing happened on-screen, or whenever there was kissing, or nudity, Bill hid his face in my hair.
I asked him his age again. Twenty-five. He asked mine. Nineteen. When I said I was born in ’91, he moaned as if in pain, as “a child of the 80’s.”

In the movie, at one point, two characters sleep together––a girl in high school who says she’s nineteen, and a twenty-six-year-old. 
“They’re us,” Bill whispered into the curl of my ear, and my body went alert, alight.
I pointed out the character was actually fifteen or sixteen and was lying about her age. I let the side of my hand touch his, and our fingers locked as adult women playing adolescent girls bared their breasts from the laptop.

The movie’s entire plot revolved around relationships, inexperience, the desire for and difficulty of obtaining sex, and characters losing or gaining jobs at fast food restaurants at the mall. I remembered I’d picked it. 

In one of the more dramatic scenes, a boy has forgotten his wallet and isn’t sure he’ll be able to pay for the meal. The camera pans menacingly over the empty plates as the waitress approaches. His friend saves him, smoothly, then steals his girl and gets her pregnant, but it’s almost present-day America, and so she gets an abortion.

The movie seemed like a long, medium-quality sitcom, if that wasn’t a contradiction in terms. It had a star, when he was young, in a small role playing a stoner. The reporter told me he’d met the star once, covering an event at the 21 Club. 
After our hands touched, he began stroking my arm, lightly at the wrist and working his way up. He grazed my palms and pressed his legs against my legs, as we slowly stretched out lengthwise atop the couch.

Bill and I admired the dated clothes and haircuts, identified songs on the soundtrack. We sympathized with or dismissed the characters’ woes, obstacles, successes, and choices aloud. 
When the cad teenage boy wouldn’t help pay for the abortion, the reporter said the right thing. He said, “Wrong question,” when the brother who drove the girl to the clinic asked, “Who did it?” before “How are you?” and said, “Mr. Sensitive,” at some other appropriate time.

Our faces were very close together, and it kept thundering outside. “Cinematic,” Bill said again. I pointed out that any weather could be cinematic, depending on the genre of the movie. We were kissing. We were horizontal. 

Bill ran his hands over my face and lips. He held my arms down, which surprised me, how much I liked it—the tension of pretending or inventing resistance. He kissed my neck. 
His T-shirt was soft, grey cotton, and it kept raining and gusting outside, so fresh air would reach us from the open window every so often, like the world and room were breathing.

We went to my room. Bill told me he had wanted me at the party I had thrown earlier that summer, when I had brought him to this same room to find a book we had talked about. I took his shirt off then, and he took off mine. He said, “I don’t mean to be superficial, but your body is so pretty and perfect.”
“Would you help me take my pants off,” he asked. I unbuttoned them, as he stayed standing. I walked him to the bed and sat him down, then pulled off one leg, then the other. I was on my knees, looking up at him, performing this small service. 

Bill said he had thought about me a lot. I asked what he’d thought. 
“About talking to you, spending time with you, kissing you, making love to you,” he said, palming my little breasts, rubbing them gently. 
It was only after a short while, after he’d taken off my shorts, and I’d said, “I want you inside me,” and after he’d said, “I want you to get a condom from my pants pocket and come back very quickly, will you do that?” that he’d said, “Put your sweet little body on my dick,” “Can I fuck you like this,” “I want to come inside you.”

I felt calm, in control. I had wanted it, and still wanted it, as it was happening, and after. We lay in my twin-sized bed, listening to the soft static of the rain. 

Bill told me gossip about the paper’s different reporters and editors, showed me photos from a recent hiking trip on his phone, a bicycle he was bidding for on eBay. 
He asked about my classes and told me I looked like a Modigliani. He said he liked it “that I was happy” and asked if I had a thing for the other intern, the guy I had always sat with. I did not. He said the guy, the intern, would “give him up” sometimes to the editors during the internship, and be sarcastic with him.
“I was sarcastic with you,” I said.
“Yes, but when you were, it was adorable.”

We had sex again, and he did yoga poses on my rug and recited a poem. I remembered, when he had caught me reading poetry in the office one day, how he’d said, “Poetry is like junk food, candy for the mind. It rots the brain.”

 He said that his sister was nearly my age, in an alarmed tone. I pointed out that his sister could be any age in relation to me, and that it didn’t have anything to do with anything. 

At the beginning, I’d said, at one point, “Kissing you is so much fun,” and he’d said, “We’re going to do it for a while.” 

He was the biggest of anyone I’d slept with—I hadn’t slept with many people—and I was surprised by the size of it, his dick, how it felt different, how good, having to go slowly at first. 
He asked, about his erection, if I “liked the way it looked,” which I found funny. He clearly did, holding it upright with his fist at the base, lying on his back, propped up by pillows, admiring it. 

He called me “sweetheart,” which wasn’t something anyone had called me before or during sex.
He said he’d come visit me at college, as I walked him to the subway under his umbrella, his arm around me.

We had passed my brother coming back from someplace, on our way out the door, and I had joked he came home early because I’d texted him when I’d grown bored.
“I’m glad I came over,” Bill said at the subway entrance, tucking my rain-damp hair behind my ear, his eyes playful. “I’m between glad and indifferent.”
I laughed, which was what he wanted.
He closed the umbrella and said, “The sky is the color of a dirty sock.”
I said, “You must be some kind of writer.”
He kissed me and was gone for good.


I met Jake the year I graduated, at a party with seltzer and wine stashed in the bathtub, and coats on every bed, a heap of shoes outside the door. I was freelancing, and he knew who was hiring (or claimed to), and I wrote my email address on his hand before I got too blotto, unless it was in the Notes app of his phone.

He emailed the next morning, suggesting a drink at a nearby place and time, his number at the bottom of the message, and I replied with mine.
Minutes later, he texted:
it’s Jake. see you at Montero’s, then
yes, then and there
right on
connect 4

Over well whiskeys on a sticky tabletop one evening that week, he asked what stories I’d most enjoyed reporting out, told me about falling asleep at a diner one late night when he’d been covering Hurricane Sandy. His glasses and facial hair conspired to make him seem older than he was, plus his comparative experience.
I remembered a profile he’d written from around that time. I complimented the quotes he’d used.
His eyes glittered then as he said, “I made them all up.”

With Jake’s help, I secured a contributor job at a daily, and he took me out to celebrate. After I’d settled in, he appeared once more in my inbox. 
seen Balthus at the Met yet? 
I had not. 

on the steps, I texted, the day of the date. It was late November, snowing. I wore a newly thrifted coat Anne said made me look “put-together.” 
aces, he replied.
battleship sunk, I received, as he approached.

Balthus had illustrated a picture book ode to his childhood cat, who had died in an untimely way. His painted girls were all sexy and too-young.
We made fun of the wall text together.
“Is it, in fact, a compelling dreamscape? Are we compelled?”
“And compelled to what exactly?”
“To further dreaming, given the ‘scape?” 
“To a continued state of being compelled.”
When we left the museum, it was dark. Flakes stuck to his beard, my eyelashes. It was the anniversary of John Lennon’s death, and camera-carriers thronged the Dakota. 

The next week, he asked me if I’d like to join him at a friend’s holiday dinner. When I got there, there was a fire in the fireplace, a Brooklyn luxury. He fixed me a drink and made sure I was comfortable before ducking out to get more ice.  
“Did you miss me?” he asked the nape of my neck when he returned.
“Yes,” I said, and I had.
“It’s such an oven in here,” the hostess was saying. “I always end up cooking topless in the summers.” 
Her wall of windows looked out on a parallel wall of windows across the air shaft.
“The neighbors must send thank-you notes,” Jake said, tearing open the plastic to reach the cubes.

The next day he wrote: 
there’s a yule-like gathering Friday if you’re free
yes, if there’s no impromptu city hall showdown
take it easy, councilmen
may their day jobs keep them from civic duty

At the cheer-filled event, Jake’s friend was surprised at the year I’d graduated. 
“Ask her what year she was born, that’s even funnier,” Jake said.

bullseye, I’d written, when he’d asked again if I could make it. 
yahtzee, he’d replied. 

Now I felt myself a doll with glass eyes, yarn hair. 
“I don’t like talking about future plans because it might jinx them,” I overheard him saying by the eggnog. 
It was a line I’d once used and found freshly transparent. 

As Jake had suspected it would, the glossy monthly where he worked laid him off after Christmas. He got a job for the financial wires not long after. 

life is very weird, no matter how it ends, very filled with dreams, he texted his first day. 
It was a line I knew, and it revived me. 

wish you were here, he wrote, some night when he’d worked late and just gotten home.
I wish *you* were *here*
if there are any smart-ass genies out there reading, don’t fulfill our wishes at the same time !! 
you know what we mean
literal-ass genies 
we will ~not~ be Monkey’s Paw-ed

Sometime, not long after New Year’s, I drank too much at a newsroom happy hour. I’d broken a story each day that week, and so took the third glass edged with lemon rind—then was violently ill and missed our date.
He was angry, and with reason. But I was passing into some other age and sense of self. 

tend to wake up wishing you were there ;-/ , he wrote around that time.
saw your latest on CNBC !, I deflected.
Crepuscular Nocturne for Bountiful Country?
Cablecast Nexus of Boondoggle Cowboys
Cathodic Node of Bankable Cozenage
Can’t Nobody Beat Capitalism

Things went on like that a while, until I realized I’d avoided him a full three weeks. He was clear-eyed, though his hands shook, in the park in the cold when we ended things. 

After, at a restaurant with my brother, I tried to account for the split.
“He wasn’t there, when we were together, sometimes,” I said. 
“Mm,” he said, abstractly.
“In person, he wasn’t present or engaged.” 
“Sorry? Were you saying something?”
And his eyes flashed with amusement, and I grinned and got the check.

On my birthday, when I’d still been seeing Jake, I’d dug out my mother’s vinyl records and borrowed a player, and we’d danced to 70’s hits and B-sides into the night, in album-determined order, the way the artists had intended.
In the morning, as Jake helped me clean, we listened to what had been left under the needle. At this interlude, he had told me this was the best part of the song—
Prior to this lifetime, I surely was a tailor
Good morning, Mr. Leitch
Have you had a busy day?
I own the tailor’s face and hands
I am the tailor’s face and hands
—when the sounds change and the scene shifts, to the singer’s former self, children and townspeople around him.

Once, lying in Jake’s bed some afternoon while he was finishing a piece, I’d read a book from his shelves on how to recall one’s past lives. As with astrology or prayer, it seemed obviously irrelevant whether one believed in reincarnation in a literal sense. 
The book told me to close my eyes and picture walking through a door into a room filled with artifacts from all places and times and civilizations. There, I was to look into an ornate mirror, and I would see myself reflected as I was in a prior life. 
I did as instructed. Staring back from the unreal glass, I saw myself in a light suit of armor, a character from a Young Adult series I’d read as a girl. I had violet eyes—a key detail from the fantasy books—and lived as a young knight or page in some alternate medieval time. It was a favorite part of that song.


The time I thought I loved Zack was when we went to New Hampshire.
We’d been seeing each other a few months, enough for a weekend away, and he AirBnB’d a cabin outside of which he took a posed photo of us, like a man from the fifties would with a sweetheart. He was a little corny, Zack, in a way that appealed to me at the time.

At the edge of the pond, too, where we went skinny dipping, I asked him to take a nude of me, and he obliged, and it remains my favorite photograph of myself, wherever that digital file is, in whatever cloud.
That instant, I’m standing at the foot of a tree, steadying myself with it––a spindly thing, a bit like my body. I’m looking into the lens, uninhibited. There’s something pre-Raphaelite about it, woodland nymph-like. 
For whatever reason, I appear to myself during those years to be most myself in that image, undressed and self-staged.

On the trip, when we first got to the cabin, I inspected the bookshelves and found a semi-trashy romance novel, then read to him from it on the couch as he made us dinner. It was called The Senator’s Wife. Zack made a living ghost-writing speeches and praised the book’s asides about political hackery. 
At some point, everything in the oven, he sat down and put my legs up on top of his while I read. When I looked over at him, looking at me, he looked as happy as I’d ever seen him.

After I showered the second night, after a day of hiking, I got dressed in a long plaid skirt made of thin wool. I was ready for dinner, with a necklace and little gold earrings on, flushed from the shower, exhilarated from the climb.
Jim got out of the shower and came back into the room in a towel and put on his glasses. 
“You got dressed,” he said, with mild surprise.
“Aren’t we going to dinner in town?” I said.
“Not for an hour,” he said.
He hung the towel over a chair to dry and got under the covers. “C’mere,” he said, and I got under with him, still dressed, still clean, shampoo-smelling.

He kissed me softly. My hair, my eyebrows. I kissed him back, and his body was so accessible to me, the way he would be in the mornings on days when I had to get to the office early and he didn’t––when I would leave, fully dressed, as he lay there naked.

“Could I make a request?” he asked, looking up at me from where he’d nuzzled against my chest in my sweater. I could feel him, a little hard, a little eager.
“Yes,” I said, a smile and question in my voice.
“Could I watch you?” he asked.
“Watch me?”
“Could I watch you touch yourself.”
I laughed then, that he’d assumed I’d immediately have known what he meant. It wasn’t jarring. We’d been talking about what we did, and when and how, for weeks.
“Okay, yes,” I said, meeting his big eyes with equivalently wide ones.
“You can pretend I’m not here,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “It can take longer––if someone’s here… I mean, I assume.”
“I can leave the room, and then count a while, and then come back in,” he said. “So you can pretend more easily.”
“Okay,” I said. Good idea.” 
Though why did I feel, in that moment, like a camp counselor?

Zack got up and dimmed the lights, and I pulled the covers away. I was still in the long tartan skirt. I peeled the tights off and dropped them on the ground, then folded the cloth back, so my underwear was visible. I laid my head back on the pillows, brushed hair still dark and slightly wet from the shower. 
I closed my eyes, took a steadying breath, and started touching myself, lightly, over the cloth. I didn’t hear him come back in, but at some point I heard him breathing.
“It can take a little while,” I said, too aware of him now, like I was fulfilling an assignment. I squeezed my shut eyes, made a face.
“Take as long as you like,” he said, quietly. “I’m not here.”

I took a breath and tried to focus. It turned me on, a different part of my brain, knowing he was there, knowing he was being turned on. I pressed myself a little harder. I touched my lower abdomen, lightly, with a few fingers. I touched my breasts, teasing myself.

I thought of a scene from a 90’s movie I’d watched when I was too young for it. At the end, a teenage girl is half-asleep, or entirely asleep, among heaps of people sleeping off a party, and a boy she knows, also too young, fucks her that way, somehow, however unlikely it is, finding her in the piles of beautiful young people he’s climbed around to reach her, starting so slowly she stays asleep. 
Before he does, he softly touches her body, in this way, below her navel, as if to soothe her, as if she’s a horse that might shy.

What was it about that scene that stayed with me? It was my imagining the actors––both so new-seeming and lithe––being friends with one another on set, in my mind, and knowing they would have to simulate this scene, and taking care of one another, maybe even getting into it. There was a gentleness to it, in all its violation, in my memory. The actor might have just been priming the actress’s body, wanting her body at least to enjoy it in her character’s dream within the movie.

I licked my fingers and moved them under the elastic of my underwear and tried to keep up the feeling there was something new to this. It was new, in its way, this game, his being there. I tried to treat myself like someone being touched by someone who was being careful with me and who cared for me, and I began to feel myself relax, and to get wet and warm.

“Oh, Jane,” he said then, in the voice he’d get when he’d been taken over by something. I exhaled, smiling slightly, taken out of things.
“Sorry, I’m sorry. This is… I’ll be quiet.”

I took another breath and stretched out my back, relaxing into it, staying comfortable. I felt like a cat. I made a little sound, a murmur, not exactly involuntary. But it’s true that it’s something I do, alone, sometimes. The sound, a habit. Is it learned or put on? Somewhere between. It could keep me turned on, to make sounds, alone. Almost animal sounds, of pleasure, approval, submission to something – an urging on. A moan, purr, cry, whine. Never, really, alone, a scream or shout.

I put a finger inside myself, then two––tightening muscles against myself––and I was warm. That early, soft wet of first knowing you want to fuck someone or be fucked. I started moving them, with pressure, slowly, then quickly, out along the lips, to the nib of my clit. Slowly and quickly.

I thought of a scene from another movie I’d watched as a teenager, where an ingenue is auditioning for a part in a movie. She’s meant to be playing an innocent, but she surprises the room by reading the script as a vamp––a Lolita. The actor she’s performing with is spent for her immediately. She breathes like she wants him, during the lines, and it’s as though you can feel her mouth filling with saliva as she speaks, and she puts his hands on her, almost trembling with how badly she wants him before the audition ends and she breaks character, back to neutral, back to acting the role of an actor. 
I always imagined he was fingering her while she said the lines since you can’t see his hands in the shot, though I knew that didn’t fit the plot, in which he’s dumbfounded. She just seems to be experiencing all this desire, almost coming when she kisses him, their mouths open. When I would watch that clip alone, on my laptop, that’s when I would orgasm.

I pulled my fingers out and touched myself over the fabric, then pulled it to the side with one hand and put two fingers inside myself again, then lifted my hips and pulled the underwear off, though I was still wearing the skirt. I could feel the blanket-like fabric on my bare ass, then, a pleasant sensation––and one that felt dirty––to be half-naked, half-dressed in this semi-conservative, schoolgirl way.

I thought of a last scene that did it for me, from a movie I’d never seen in full but which I’d watched clips from online. In it, there are two women and one man, and it starts with the man taking a pair of white cotton underwear off the younger-looking girl. He puts them in his pocket, then has the women kiss, touching the backs of their heads slightly, watching them with a hunger that seems muscular. He pulls the girlish one onto his lap on a bed, and she straddles him, throwing back her dyed-caramel hair while the brunette kisses him from behind, pouring champagne on the younger one’s tits. He’s meant to be a guidance counselor, the girl his student, I had gathered. Something about his body, the thrusting, and the way he looked at them satisfied me when I would watch the clip. Something made me want to be there––whatever it was they were celebrating with the sticky fizz of champagne, the softness of the women, there for his and their own pleasure, reluctantly sharing him.

I touched my clit again, lightly, then harder, picturing myself with my legs around the man. I lifted my hips a little and set them down, and moaned an “Mmm,” like I was tasting something good.
“Shh,” he said, and I smiled again, and wet my lips.
“You’re not here,” I said.
“I’m not here.”

But then he was there, quickly, quietly, on the bed, touching me lightly, inside my thighs, unexpectedly, stroking them, and his cool hands felt extraordinarily good, and his body was naked already, I now remembered, feeling his skin against mine, as he climbed up towards and onto me, like a swimmer, pulling himself up for air as I opened my eyes, and he was inside me, and moaning himself. 
He lifted off my sweater and unhooked my bra, still inside me, and worked away at the buckles holding the skirt together, and then I was naked too, just the little necklace against me, between us, and the earrings. And my body was so ready, so wet, wanting him so much, that it was, well, as good as it can be––the motions of it such heady versions of themselves––that alchemical combination of wanting, being wanted, and being had.

Someone had made a request, and you had fulfilled it, and there was gratitude, and there was pleasure in the fulfillment, that satisfaction. You were full of fantasy and desire, and laid bare with another human being who wanted nothing more than to be there with you, doing what it was you were doing, giving you what it was you wanted, in that place, where you had vanished from the world together, for however long, however irretrievably. Rapturous, might be the word, if it hasn’t been ruined by drugstore romances. Ravishing.

That was the weekend I thought I could happily spend the rest of my life with Zack. There was the freshest apple cider of my life, and his warmth, his up-for-anything nature. We cut through the winds together at the top ridge of a peak, so high a tiny plane passed, toylike, beneath us. We were demigods, Olympians.
In the weeks and months that followed, there were ways we each condescended to the other, we realized, in time, we couldn’t seem to quit. I told him, the last time I saw him, I’d vote for his candidate when he next ghosts for a high-office contender, and he “thanked me for my support.” I think we were both perfectly serious.

But it was that hour or two in the cabin, if we’re telling truths, that gave me the thought or dream, and made it linger.

fiction for mojo 18

We Are the Bobcats — Jackie Mohan

It was all over Facebook. Peter’s profile had become a memorial of posts he would never read, more posts than he had ever gotten on any birthday. The messages were personal, emotional. We felt indecent reading some of them, as if a neighbor had forgotten to pull down curtains at night and we could see inside. We read every single one.

Before the accident, most of us didn’t know Peter Bishop beyond a name. He was quiet, overweight and pear-shaped with brown hair, brown eyes, just one more face filling the school hallways. But now he was dead. In the hallways outside classroom doors, we recalled our interactions with him in heartrending detail, from that conversation at Katie’s sweet sixteen to last year’s group project on photosynthesis. He became the kindest kid in school and a beacon of light in every class.

When his death was acknowledged in the morning announcements, the Monday after the accident, we held a long moment of silence. Most of us had already known from Facebook. We learned the details from the Sunday edition of The Spring Hill Journal, our town’s weekly newspaper. A car had struck him early Saturday morning as Peter headed to Boykin Pond with a fishing pole strapped to his bicycle. The accident was front page news.

A few days after Peter’s death, Hailey Matthews declared that she’d been in love with him since third grade. Hailey made constant bids for attention and had bleached her hair the year before, though her black roots always showed. In second grade, Hailey’s father died, and the town had showered her mother, tall and blonde, with casseroles and condolences. Too young for these Southern social graces, we gave Hailey space. Since dyeing her hair, Hailey liked to think of herself as popular. She followed Katie, who did not fancy herself popular and was always nice to everyone.

After Peter died, some of the art kids were asked to paint a mural in his memory on the side hallway to the gym, the one with the water fountains. Each of us began taking special routes to our next classes so that we could go down the hallway and see Georgia and Tucker, who had been excused from class, working on the mural. They were painting a fishing pole that pulled a deep blue fish out of a pond and into a radiating yellow sun. The thick smell of paint filled the hallway. Down the hall, we heard the drama kids rehearsing Romeo and Juliet.

On Wednesday, Hailey stood babbling to Katie, who watched Georgia and Tucker in quiet reverie with the rest of us. One girl started crying and her friend took her into the bathroom. Hailey pulled out her phone and shook her wrist, jangling the set of rhinestone bangles adorning her skinny, spray-tanned arm.

“I don’t know why she was crying,” Hailey said. “Not to be mean or whatever, but I’m the one who’s had a crush on him forever.”

This was unlikely since we all knew that Peter had asked Hailey to the Frosty Formal, the winter dance, the year before, and she’d gone with the soccer captain instead, but we didn’t say anything. We let Hailey love Peter, and when she began sniffling in the hallway, no fewer than four of us offered her a Kleenex. She accepted all of them with the watery, gracious thanks of one of the wronged women in our mothers’ soap operas.

Peter’s funeral was a Thursday morning. Students who wanted to attend were allowed to leave class early. That morning, we dressed in our Sunday best, climbed into our hand-me-down pick-up trucks or Toyota Camrys, and headed to school. As we walked to class, we avoided the freshmen, even the juniors and seniors. They were whole, intact. They had not known our grief.  We sat patiently through first period and half of second, waiting for our cue. When the principal dismissed us, we rose with the quiet dignity of the widowed, hiked our backpacks on our shoulders, and made sure to walk by Peter’s mural as we headed back to the parking lot under a rainy sky.

Some of us went to Spring Hill Baptist Church alongside Peter, and those who went elsewhere still knew how to behave at a funeral. We filed into the pews, lone islands with careful space between us, and examined our surroundings. The vague light of a rainy day deadened the tall stained-glass windows. Up front, Peter’s parents talked with the pastor, a man with thinning brown hair who was not as old as we thought he should be, and the church had an off-putting, musky smell. Peter’s mother wore a plain black dress, so well-worn that it was almost navy, and Peter’s father had his arm tight around her shoulders. It stayed there throughout the service, and when he released her afterward to shake hands with funeral attendees, the mark of his clenched fingers remained in the thin fabric of her dress.

When the pastor asked if anyone would like to come up and say a few words about Peter, most of us stayed seated. Peter’s father spoke a little and quickly sat down. His mother could not stand. One boy, Malachi, stood, but it took him a few moments to collect himself. Peter and Malachi had been friends as long as we could remember, and we had heard that he was supposed to go fishing with Peter that Saturday morning but had slept through his alarm.

“Peter was my best friend,” Malachi said, a crumpled piece of paper clutched in his hand. He tried to unfold it but gave up and ran a hand through his uncombed hair. Peter’s father stood and helped Malachi back to his seat. The pastor waited off to the side and when no one else came to the podium, we prepared to leave. Then Hailey stood.

Her black heels, too tall to be decent, squeaked as she walked to the front. She tugged at the hem of her short black dress, flipped her hair over her shoulder, and cleared her throat.

“Many of you know how important Peter was to me,” she said. “I met him in third grade.  Peter was the nicest, smartest, most special person I’ve ever known.” We shuffled our feet, cramped and pinched inside our tight church shoes. “I can feel him looking down on me today from Heaven, telling me that I can get through this. I don’t know if I can.” We did not care that her eyes were red and puffy. We cared that she dared to stand in front of us, in front of Peter’s parents, with plastic tortoiseshell sunglasses perched on her blond head.   

“I will miss him forever,” she continued.  “You have all been so supportive in my time of grief, and I can’t thank you enough.” Here, she turned her blue eyes upward and pointed a glittered nail to the high ceiling. We cringed. “We love you, Peter.” She looked forward, over our heads. “Thank you.”

She brought a wrinkled tissue to her eyes, rimmed with eyeliner, and walked back to her seat, her shoes squeaking.

Friday, we were all back in school. Hailey came in late, wearing black. She couldn’t wear her funeral dress again because it would violate the dress code, so instead she wore black lipstick.  “For Peter,” she said, not when asked, but when we all looked at her as she walked into Mr. Davenport’s English class, late.

Mr. Davenport asked us to write poems. We could use them to talk about Peter, to explore our grief if we wanted. The poems would not be graded. He gave us twenty minutes, during which time he walked around the room, giving sympathetic smiles. Most of us stuffed our poems down into the depths of our backpacks or folded and tucked them in the back pocket of our binders. Hailey raised her hand.

“Mr. Davenport, I’d like to share mine,” she said, lifting a piece of notebook paper filled with a rainbow of multi-colored gel pens. She stood without waiting permission and opened her mouth to speak.

Katie’s voice cut through the room. “Nobody wants to hear it!”

Hailey looked at Katie, who had buried her face in her hands. Hailey then looked around at the rest of us, and we looked down at our desks, studying them with the intensity of monks in prayer. Nobody did want to hear it, but we weren’t going to say so. It was better she heard it from her best friend, although we agreed that the timing may have been off.

“Thank you, Hailey, but I think these are best kept private,” Mr. Davenport said. “I think we’re all as overwhelmed by Peter’s death as you are.” He gave her one of his sympathetic smiles, the one he used when he wanted to make us feel like he understood us.

Hailey fell back into her seat as if she’d been struck. No one looked at her.

At lunch, she sniffled, and not one of us offered her a tissue from the plastic packs our mothers made us carry, worried about our dealing with tragedy so young. When Hailey sat by Katie in Biology, Katie got up to go to the bathroom, and when she returned, she sat at a different table. Before last period, as we made our quick trip to Peter’s mural, we crowded together and left Hailey to stand alone by herself. We each mourned and felt the weight of Peter in our chests. Hailey didn’t get to have a monopoly on grief.

Over the weekend, Malachi organized a vigil at Boykin Pond. Some of us came early and fished a little before the sun went down. Malachi was the only person who caught anything, one tiny fish thrashing its silver body against death. He threw it back. The rest of us arrived after sundown. Even with our small class, we filled the parking lot and lined the road beyond the trees.  The air rang with cicadas, the sound of a dying summer, and the humidity wrapped around us.  We stood along the edge of the pond holding a hodgepodge of whatever candles we could find: our older sisters’ Bath and Body Works candles in Pumpkin Spice, our mothers’ Fresh Linen from Yankee Candle, our grandma’s tall red and white tapers from dining rooms. Malachi passed out tea lights in Styrofoam cups to everyone else.

Hailey was not there, and when we asked Katie about it, she said, “I couldn’t give her a ride.” Her fingers worked to shred the edge of her cup, and the white particles floated down and stuck to her sweatshirt. We imagined Hailey at home, reapplying black lipstick, sore over missing an opportunity to claim Peter for herself.

Malachi had a photograph of himself and Peter, arms around each other and fishing poles high in the air, in a thin black picture frame. He also brought a small boat, the kind he might have built in woodshop or with his father as a boy, and he placed the picture on this. Kneeling by the pond, he pushed the boat out into the water. About twenty feet from shore, the picture slipped off the boat. We wanted to jump in, to pull Peter up, and a few of us even took a step forward as if to try. We wanted to save him, but instead we stayed rooted to the ground.

We stood side by side until the moon rose above the blackened trees and felt the loneliness of our grief fall away, like shedding a skin. It was a clear, perfect night, and we flinched at the sound of a lone car speeding down the nearby road, the site of the accident. We wanted to go on standing there forever, an unbreakable wall, but we were only teenagers, and reality called us home.

Hailey wasn’t in school Monday or Tuesday. We didn’t notice until Wednesday, when Mr. Davenport asked if anyone had talked to her. We hadn’t. Thursday, we sat in first period, and the morning announcements began, reminding us about the pep rally on Friday. There was no mention of the opening night of Romeo and Juliet despite the flyers that now wallpapered our lockers. We began pulling homework out of our bags, reading questions on The Scarlet Letter, calculus worksheets, biology notes on our dying fruit flies. Hushed conversations rose up as our teachers busied themselves writing the day’s agenda on their whiteboards.

The intercoms crackled to life again. “Bobcats, I’m sorry for the interruption. I’ve just received some tragic news.” Our hearts stopped. We could not breathe. “This week, we have lost another member of our family. I am sorry to tell you that Hailey Matthews passed away yesterday morning.” We looked at each other, bewildered. “For those wanting to talk, your guidance counselors are still available. Thank you.” There was no moment of silence.

Yesterday morning? We had seen nothing online. We pulled out our phones and began scouring social media for any mention of Hailey, but we found none.

“Phones away, everyone,” our teachers said. 

We could not remember one thing our teachers said in class. When we tried to listen, their words passed through our heads like shadows. Hailey was dead?  But we hated Hailey.  She couldn’t die. Most of our teachers tried to carry on as normally as possible. Mr. Davenport held his own moment of silence in his classroom before giving the class the rest of the period to study for a test.

Throughout the rest of the day and Friday, we monitored our phones for clues, but none came.  In third period, we asked Georgia and Tucker what Hailey’s mural would be. They said the administration hadn’t approached them about it.

Early Sunday morning, we surprised our parents by fetching the paper from the sidewalk before they were even awake. But The Spring Hill Journal held no answers, no article or obituary. No mention of a funeral.

We asked this semester’s student intern at the paper about it. “The editor told me that we don’t cover suicides,” she said. Suicide? We could not believe it. Hailey was not the type. She wore pink and glitter and had a laugh that grated in our ears. She was annoying. She was young, young like us. She couldn’t die. We couldn’t die. And yet, here we were, becoming a dying breed.

Katie was not in school Monday or Tuesday, and we worried. Wednesday, she returned, wearing no makeup and moving at a turtle’s pace through the hallways. We kept our distance when we got stuck behind her.

“Can you imagine?” we remarked as we stood outside our second period classes. We watched Katie, who dragged the weight of a failed best friendship behind her wherever she went.

At lunch, Georgia sat with Katie at a quiet corner table, their trays of pizza sticks untouched.  After third period, we gravitated toward Georgia’s locker.

 “Well?” we asked. “Well?”

Georgia had circles under her eyes. “She killed herself,” she said. We had already known this.

“How?” one of the younger girls asked. In bad taste, we thought.

Georgia fiddled with her lock, looping it around her finger like a shackle. “She hung herself,” Georgia said. “With her father’s red silk tie.”

We remembered the tall ceilings of the Matthews’ house from last year’s Halloween party, draped in orange streamers and cottony shreds of spider web. Hailey’s mother rolled her eyes and told us that Hailey had spent all day decorating. We recalled the way the skeletons were hung high on the walls, dancing, their toothy smiles grinning down at us. Most of us had skipped out of Hailey’s party early to meet at the Confederate cemetery, by far the oldest in town, where the real fun was found in the brown paper bags we’d smuggled under our costumes.

The first bell rang and we scattered to our classes.

After school, we found Tucker touching up some of the fish scales on Peter’s mural.

“What about Hailey’s?” we asked. He told us that he had gone to the front office during lunch to ask where the school would like Hailey’s mural painted. The principal told him that the nature of Hailey’s death would not permit a mural or memorial to be condoned.

“Suicide, you know,” he had told Tucker.

We knew. We knew from the missing moment of silence, from the lack of information in The Spring Hill Journal, from the mural Georgia and Tucker would never paint. We knew from the way we felt uneasy talking about Hailey, from the way our mothers began asking probing questions about our emotional states and the way our fathers refused any mention of “that Matthews girl.”

When we looked up Hailey on Facebook, the most recent post on her profile was her message to Peter. No one had posted on her profile since then. Her long message ended with a picture that Hailey’s mom must have snapped in elementary school. Hailey was sprawled on a purple rug, a pink dress splayed around her tiny body like a fan, coloring construction paper valentines for our class. The one between her hands was a red heart, slightly misshapen, with Peter’s name written on it in large purple letters.

At the end of the day, not yet ready to go home, we stood in front of Peter’s mural as the hallways fell quiet. The frigid air of the vents bore into our skin, and somewhere near the school, a tractor rumbled by. The mural was well done. The wood grain in the fishing pole was rendered in painstaking detail, and tiny, careful lines formed the ripples of the water, billowing outward.  Still, it somehow fell flat.  We looked at the mural and missed Peter, but there was nowhere to look for Hailey. We had nothing except the sound of Hailey’s heels squeaking in our heads.

Mr. Davenport came to stand beside us. Our backs stiffened. His white shirt was wrinkled, and his belt did not match his shoes.

“Where’s the mural for Hailey?” he asked, his hands in his pockets, jangling spare change.

“She doesn’t get one,” Tucker said.

He stopped jangling the coins in his pocket. “Do none of you feel badly?” Deep lines seemed to form on his fallen face.

We wished he would leave.

“We tried, but the principal said no,” Georgia said.

Mr. Davenport turned and looked at each of us, one by one. “Not about the mural,” he said.

We studied the painted fish scales, the peaks and valleys left by the brushstrokes. The space between us closed in as we contracted like a fist. He had no right. We were young and grieving, scarred, and he had no right after everything we had gone through.

“About what?” we said.

It was Friday and time for the pep rally. We turned our heads at the spontaneous Bobcats cheers in the hallways, didn’t enter the raffle for a Bobcats swag bag at lunch. When the bell rang for fourth period, we followed the rest of the school to the gym for the mandatory pep rally. We filed up into our seats in a silent procession as the other grades laughed and whooped. The cheerleaders streamed out from a side door, shaking their pompoms. One of them pulled at the hem of her skirt, and we thought of Hailey’s dress at Peter’s funeral.

The principal spoke of “our loss” and how this game was an opportunity to come together. He announced the basketball team as they came dribbling in. Only one sophomore was on the team and he moved with an appropriate amount of slowness. The players shot some baskets, tried some flashy slam dunks, and the rest of the classes cheered. The cheerleaders started a routine and the principal took charge.

“We are the Bobcats, the mighty, mighty Bobcats!” His voice boomed from the black megaphone. He pointed from section to section, freshmen to senior, conducting them in a chorus of C-A-T-S. We were A. Each time it was our turn, we managed a cheer so weak that it was as if we weren’t there at all.

Saturday night was the theater department’s opening night of Romeo and Juliet. The inside of the school felt eerie and out-of-bounds. We paid our five-dollar student tickets, and unenthused ushers handed us programs, which we folded and tucked into our pockets.

We entered the cold auditorium with its cheap red curtains draped along the walls. The drama kids’ parents and grandparents sat in the front and centermost seats. Their hushed murmurs rose as they looked around and saw the crowd. “It must really be great this semester!” they said to each other.  Then one mother, closer to us, whispered to an elderly woman beside her, “It’s because of Peter.” The grandmother didn’t hear her, but the woman continued. “Times like these make them come together and feel closer to their school.”

“What about that Matthews girl?” someone asked.

“Who?” the mother said. The lights went down.

At intermission, we stayed seated. The cheerleaders sold cupcakes in the lobby to fundraise for their upcoming competition. We let the mothers buy them and return with lipstick smudged by frosting. Finally, act five arrived. When Juliet killed herself, we clutched the ends of our armrests, our arms pressed together like magnets. Our faces stayed hidden by the darkness and by the closeness of so many bodies in one place, at one time, that we could not tell where one ended and the next began.

nonfiction for mojo 18

The Wisdom of the Den — Ioanna Opidee

And if there were a contest, and [this prisoner] had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady . . . would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending . . .

— Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”

Five years old, I woke, fumbling in the thick fog between dreamland and my Yiayia’s bedroom as my two sisters and I, in our pink cotton nightgowns, lay like matchsticks in her queen-sized bed.

It was a chorus of laughter, drifting in from the adjacent kitchen, that awoke us.

“What’s going on?” Tina murmured, rubbing her eyes. Eleni and I shrugged, so Tina, the oldest at ten, hopped off and scampered to the doorway to peek around the corner. A moment later, her head snapped back, her eyebrows raised, her jaw dropped in disbelief. She dove back onto the bed, sat up on her knees, and reported her dispatch in a whispered shriek: “They’re dancing! All of them! And I think Mommy is drunk! Pappou and Thia Kaiti are, too!”

Eleni leapt from the bed and raced into the kitchen as the waves of laughter rose higher. Tina followed, and I crept to the doorway to glimpse what appeared to me as pure magic: Thia Kaiti and Yiayia, my father’s sister and mother, clapped their hands and circle-danced around the wooden chairs on which my mother and Pappou stood, grasping each other’s shoulders to balance one another as they kicked their legs clumsily to the sound of nisiotka, the Greek island music crackling through a rusty brown radio—their laughter, loud and strong, like gravity trying to pull them off the chairs; heads back, eyes up, as if gazing at animal patterns in the clouds.

My mother emerged as a cartoon version of herself—crimson cheeks, eyes gleaming like stars, or pegs on a Lite-Brite toy. When she spotted my sisters, giggling and kicking their little legs to join in the dance, she called, between bits of laughter, “Girls, go back to bed!” But Thia Kaiti grabbed the girls’ hands and weaved them into and around the room.

Yiayia lined up four tiny glasses and filled them with Ouzo. Pappou took Thia Kaiti’s hand to pull her onto the chair as he climbed down, then reached for Yiayia’s hand and twirled her while Tina and Eleni clapped. Thia Kaiti and my mother held hands in the air and sang.

Was I dreaming? I’d never seen my mother laugh like this, so loud and free. Something meaningful was happening here, though what that meaning was, I wasn’t sure.

My grandparents’ house on the island seemed like a cave to me, carved into the mountainside with no beginning or end, as much a part of the landscape as the almond trees surrounding it.  The floors throughout were painted-grey concrete until the kitchen was tiled sometime in the early 1990s. One room led into the other, with no hallways connecting, an effect that enhanced the sense of it as a cavern as one moved deeper and deeper within.

Until I was about 10 years old, the house had no indoor plumbing. To bathe, we traipsed along a dusty path of broken rocks—no road ran through the village—until we reach the better-paved section near the church and the natural spring. There, we filled jugs of water and carried them back, the smallest in my hands, the largest in Pappou’s, or on his poor donkey’s, Marika’s, back.

Our toilet was in an outhouse; to flush, we poured buckets of rainwater. I’d wake my mother in the night, and she’d say, “Are you sure you have to go?”

I’d hop around and say, “Yes, I’m sure,” but was I sure? Or was it just some primal urge to be out in the darkness of night, far from the glow of streetlights, the racket of cars, and anything beyond the crickets loudly chirping in the stillness as all of humanity slept?

We’d go out to dinner, on occasion, and Pappou would choose a taverna in the mountains, where we’d remain for hours as he befriended the owners who treated us more as house guests—topping off wine for the adults and bending to smile sweetly at us kids, offering us the final dusty can of Pepsi. Together, they danced, and yes, even smashed plates; they sang and reminisced about the olden days they didn’t share but all knew.

On our way back to the car in the darkness and quiet, the laughter, music, and the bright lights of the restaurant were a memory, the mountain’s shadows blackening the otherwise silvered-by-moonlight sea hundreds of feet below, the air thick with stillness—and we, our family, were the last humans on earth, and that was all right by me.

Years later, at age 29, I return to Greece after seven years away—this time with my husband, a non-Greek, a true blood Bostonian in a Red Sox cap and Nikes.

We tour Athens and the mainland for a few days before sailing off to Andros. From there, we visit Santorini where we hike from the village of Fira to Ios in the 100-degree heat, in the searing sunlight, hundreds of feet up from the metallic blue sea on the dark black mountain, on the stark white concrete path. We pass some old men peddling donkey rides. Eric asks me, “Are those costumes they wear to look like old-time grandfathers?”

I peer at the men in fishermen caps, dirty pants cuffed at the ankles, with gray, horsehair mustaches and gruff complexions. “No,” I say, stoic. “That is exactly what my Pappou looked like.” His generation is nearly gone. “But he would never. Ever. Sell donkey rides.”

We are alone as we continue our trek until a man in a colorfully-threaded poncho, perched on a stoop making jewelry by hand, appears from nowhere.

“Pick something,” Eric says.

We’re told that they’re made from real lava stones from the island’s volcano, and I want to believe this. When I lift a pair of earrings and ask, “How much?” I am relieved when the man says, “Six Euro”—not just because we can afford them on our lean travel budget, but because he hasn’t shattered the idyllic nature of this moment by reminding us, with an overpriced tag, that we are tourists, and he is there to make a buck.

Later that evening, we scour the bars and restaurants to find the perfect place to view the famed sunset but make the right choice to climb over a stone wall and perch on the mountainside. It is the type of sunset that makes you fear the world might end as that impossibly perfect circle of fire dissolves at once into the darkness, the type of sunset that makes you feel you wouldn’t care if it did. I am overwhelmed by the beauty and thankful to be staying across the island at the less dramatically beautiful Kamara beach where I can reflect on and remember—recover and not feel—it.

In our hotel room that night, I untangle my new earrings to try them on, but one slips from my hand, into the sink, and circles down the drain. My hand grabs at the cold porcelain, but it’s too late. The drain is an infinite black hole. We use our fingers, a fork. We sacrifice a toothbrush.

Eric, straining to look serious and grim because I am crying now, quells a smile as he says, “I’m sorry, Ioanna, it’s gone.” Later—as far as months later—he’ll need to say, “Stop telling people about those six-dollar earrings. Really.”

But I am a child whose balloon has floated away.

The night before departure, we sit on Thia Kaiti’s back porch in Athens, surrounded by plants and trees, sipping strong black coffee. Our trip is almost over and my aunt—who retrieved us from the airport ten days prior in a blue floral dress, her hair styled neatly half-up—is in a bathrobe and slippers, hair tossed sloppily into a bun.

“Tell me, Eric,” she says with a half-smile. “What are your impressions of Greece?”

I translate, and he laughs nervously. He’s prepped for this moment—when he’d have to represent his take, not only as a newly-minted family member, but as a full-blown American in a country that has been portrayed in the news as coming apart. It is summer 2010: Greece is in the throes of a massive economic crisis, and images of protest marches, police in riot gear, streets aflame, have become a daily mainstay in the American media.

The question isn’t new to him. I’d asked him the same two nights prior as we lounged on beach chairs, listening to a Greek reggae band play. His reply: “Greek people seem so happy all the time.” He shook his head. “That just can’t be real.”

“I think it is,” I’d said with a laugh. “It must be the Ouzo.”

But it’s not the Ouzo, and I know that. It’s this film of mirth that coats the life here. Or is it a core that bubbles up?

I repeat this observation to Thia Kaiti, who sighs a deep sigh. “We used to be that happy,” she says. “Remember, Ioanna? When you kids were little? How much fun we had? No water in the house, no television, and we were happy.”

I do remember. But what I didn’t understand at the time is that the light from that life—the light that lit the darkness from within—was already fading. In the year 1900, the island’s population totaled 18,000. By the turn of the following century, it had fallen to near 10,000 as habitants migrated from an agrarian lifestyle toward the urban call of Athens.

“This country isn’t what it used to be,” she continues. “Look.” She nods toward the open doorway to where her kids, in their early 20s, sit facing laptops at the dining room table. “They want Apple, Macbook, iPhone. They sit there, in front of those computers, on the Facebook, the Skype, and they think they’re doing something. Ach.” She waves a hand and sighs, closing her eyes—to see what? “They’re not doing anything.”

On the way to the airport the next day, Thia Kaiti asks Eric again what he thinks of her homeland but doesn’t wait for me to translate before she answers her own question. The answer, it seems, is for me.

“Ah, what are you going to think of this little country? What are we, a doulapa.” A closet. “What do we have? The ocean. That’s all.”

In Sailing the Wine Dark Sea, Thomas Cahill writes, “There’s sadness beneath the merriment [of the Greeks]. It is as if, no matter how much these revelers sing, dance, howl, recite their jokes…a constant, authoritative note of pessimistic pain sounds beyond all of their frantic attempts not to hear it.” I read this and think about my family dancing in my grandmother’s kitchen in the wee hours of the morning, and my childhood self, watching in the shadows, from behind the doorway.

Eight years later, Eric and I return to Greece with our two young children, ages one and four. The heat in Athens is beyond all reason, the city a tinderbox. The night before we leave, we plan to visit Thia Kaiti and her family, but Eric and the girls have fevers from the hot sun beating down in hours of city traffic. Our departure—despite the moments of joy and beauty—feels like an escape. Days after we return home, a wildfire breaks out, killing more than one hundred people in a seaside village we’d stayed in ten days prior.

I add these moments up and think of loss. Not just of the old world, because the old world, as Dylan essentially sang, is always rapidly fading, but of what we didn’t keep from it. Between my two main points of reference, Greece and the U.S., the former was slower to change, but the change was coming, and for—in many ways—all the wrong reasons. It wasn’t long before my Yiayia’s death when Greece converted its currency from the drachma to the euro.

“This isn’t going to be good,” she said at the time.

She knew because she could no longer comfortably afford fruit at the farmer’s market down the road. A couple of years later, that market was gone. She was left to buy her fruit at the sprawling superstore some miles away, when she had energy enough to take the bus, or when someone with a car could bring her. It’s hard to envision her there, pushing a cart down endless aisles brimming with shiny merchandise under the abrasive neon store lights. It must have been overwhelming to her, abounding with more than she could ever have imagined needing. And it’s this misplaced sense of need that has marched us along on the relentless journey toward “progress” in the form of Macbooks and platinum credit cards and all the things that dull our senses to a level of intensity that we, in our fear of losing emotional control, can handle. We’re driven to distraction by a desire for more, for what’s physically attainable, or better yet just beyond our reach, to keep us striving, consumed by anything but the infinite uncertainty of now. The distraction itself becomes a toxic pleasure that anesthetizes us from the knowledge that we can’t live every moment in the light; that, in its purest form, it blinds, while its total absence, the dark, leaves us frightened.

So we settle for the dim. We hide behind the doorway, glimpsing joy, privileging shadows, deferring to the wisdom of the den, and neglecting our souls at our peril.

In 2010, Eric and I were visiting a land in crisis––steep economic turmoil that seemed insurmountable. On our trip, we visited the ruins of Mycenae, the legendary home of The Iliad’s King Agamemnon. The roughly 4,000-year-old site has been visible to modern society for less than 150 years. A complete excavation, conducted by German amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann, began in 1876, a few decades after Greece achieved its independence after 400 years under Ottoman occupation, during which such excavations, we learned, were forbidden. Until then, the true existence of this place, written about by Homer around the eighth century BC, was lost and doubted as a myth. Now, anyone can tour the remains of the palace grounds, the king’s tomb, the ancient grave circle.

We, in our modern century, have been under a different occupation, but crisis can allow us to dig deep, to see what lost and forgotten treasures can be salvaged.

The wisdom of Plato’s den would say we’re fools for treading up into the light. What can that bring but the sadness beneath the merriment of Cahill’s Greeks? A sadness, knowing we can’t live every moment in the light, and the beauty it reveals. That we’ll forget its truth back down in the dark, and resume our naming of the shadows. Maybe that’s the note of pessimistic pain Cahill describes—a sound that drives us back down into the den, where the shadows come today in the form of more and maybe someday, over there . . .

The joy in a simple kitchen full of revelers dancing together on chairs made of straw in a tiny dark island village is not an attempt to ignore the sound of pain; it’s an attempt to sing with it, and yes, maybe above it.

A wisdom all its own.