Sneider’s on tour with her new Fine, Fine Music collection of stories, of which “Mole,” first published in 2008 at our old site. is part. Sneider will appear at an event hosted by THE2NDHAND editor Todd Dills Wed., July 6, at Portland Brew East in Nashville. She’s joined by Nashville’s own Katrina Gray and Clarksville writers Quincy Rhoads and Amy Wright. Find full event information here.
The headlights of the cars drove on an invisible track across the ceiling and I was lying in my mother’s bed. A t-shirt that didn’t smell like my dad anymore slept peacefully between us, not knowing it was only enjoying the comfort of a bed because it was being used for its smell. The t-shirt didn’t know he was gone yet, and I wondered if the half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray next to my side of the bed knew its last drag would never be tasted. I was five years old and wide awake, wondering if the cars were projecting themselves onto the ceiling so I could think about them, instead of how I was laying in the empty space of someone I knew was never coming back.
My uncle had died before I was born, overdosing on heroin, and leaving his twin and my father to sort through everything he’d left behind, which included a pregnant girlfriend, a wreck of an apartment, and a closet full of personal effects. My father sorted through papers and overdue bills while my other uncle sat on the bed trying on a pair of boots.
“What the hell are you doing?” my father asked.
“These are perfectly good boots,” he said, knotting the laces.
“They’re a dead man’s boots!” my father said.
“They’re perfectly good boots,” my uncle corrected, and he took them home.
I was with my dad when they broke the news. We drove from doctor to doctor that day, white knuckles on the steering wheel of the pickup truck. When we got home he told my mother, and everything after that was a blur, mental pictures ripped up and thrown out; faces scratched and negatives burnt. The day he left for the hospital, we sat on the bed and he pulled up his socks over gray feet, the feet of someone with a heart older than his 32 years.
“Buddy, I want you to tell Uncle Jeff to stay the hell away from my shoes.”
“That’s a curse.” I was well-trained.
“You can say it just this once.”
“OK.” I don’t remember seeing my dad in the hospital. I don’t remember seeing him on morphine, or my mother walking in on him sitting up in the crisp, white bed, pretending to sew.
“Keith, what are you doing?”
“I’m sewing wings,” he said with his eyes closed, thumb and forefinger making sweeping circles in the air.
I do remember wondering what intensive care was. I remember wishing my dad had a dictionary in his dresser instead of a 1978 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records so I could learn what the words meant. I remember spending a lot of time at my aunt’s house, in the sprinkler, in the sun. I remember listening to my dad.
“Uncle Jeff,” I said, nervous about using the H word. “Daddy said to stay the hell away from his shoes.” My mother and uncle went pale. Exeunt. Fin. Fade to black.
I hated the dark, but the bedrooms of our house were permanently bathed in streetlight. A fuzzy dark orange fell on my mother’s face. She hadn’t been sleeping and I had a sore throat again. I had climbed into my dad’s spot next to the shirt to count the cars. With the looming prospect of having my tonsils taken out and no one to tell me what they were, I needed something more real than sheep.
“Do you know how to pray?” my mother asked after she’d turned off the lights.
The only thing I knew about God was the tattoo of Jesus on my dad’s arm, and that he said he was an atheist. It was not until many years later that I would learn atheist was a synonym for “man contradicting himself.” My reply came in the form of a vigorous headshake.
“You put your hands together like this. Then you say ourfatherwhoartin heavenhallowedbethyname… Then you could talk to Daddy if you want.” She turned over and I was left to try to remember all those words, empty and hollowed in thy name. They didn’t mean anything to me, but did they open a porthole, a skipped stitch in the space-time continuum, that allowed the living to speak to the dead and the dead to hear them in their graves with voiceless ears?
Was that what it was?
“Um, today in school Miss Welch yelled at me because I went to the school store to get a pencil and when I got back she was already teaching.”
From within the pine of his coffin, my father makes a fist. If radiation should leak into the ground and all the dead fathers of five-year-olds rise as a collective body, the first thing they will do is shuffle to the local elementary school and eat the brains of every Kindergarten teacher. Then they will go to the Home Depot and look at tools. My father will test-drive a riding lawn mower. Then they will look at their watches and return to their graves in a punctual and orderly fashion.
When I was six, I was forced into the World of Girl Scouting, which in hindsight is as corrupt as the World of Mail-Order Brides or the World of Swallowing Balloons of Cocaine and Smuggling Them Across the Border. Girl Scouting is a form of trickle-down capitalism, the troop leaders shrewd and cunning businesswomen, and the Scouts proletarian worker bees, our tiny hands being frostbitten in subzero weather to push our product. For every box of Tagalongs, three Girl Scouts are sold on the black market. For each package of Samoas, one Girl Scout is put to death. The statistics are as chilling as a bite of a Thin Mint.
The lessons we learned as Scouts were nothing short of useless.
“Today we’re going to learn about nutrition!” said Miss Leeann, our troop leader. Everyone cheered, and I silently picked a scab.
Miss Leeann produced a piece of loose-leaf paper, a carrot, and a jar of mayonnaise. “When something has fat in it, and you rub it on paper, the paper will magically turn clear.” She spooned a glob of mayonnaise onto the paper. The troop watched with bated breath. Miss Leeann wiped the mayonnaise off of the loose-leaf and held it up for all to see. “The mayonnaise left a clear spot. That means it’s bad for you.”
The troop booed the mayonnaise. I, on the other hand, was mayonnaise’s biggest proponent. Everyday for lunch, I asked for mayonnaise on white bread, and everyday I was told by my mother that everyone would think I was on welfare. The way she pronounced “welfare” made me think that being on it was like accidentally stepping in dog shit. I imagined myself eating a mayonnaise sandwich and scraping the dog shit onto the third-rate playground equipment relegated to the Kindergarteners. Welfare was nothing that couldn’t be scraped off onto a lawn or doormat, and I proudly ate my mayonnaise.
Miss Leeann brandished the carrot and crumbled the loose-leaf tainted by the fatty mayonnaise. She rubbed the carrot and held up the paper. “Carrots are good for you, because they don’t leave a mark.”
The troop cheered the carrot.
The last I checked, there hadn’t been any developments in the way carrots tasted in at least 500 years. Also, I had never been to a restaurant where fat people and diabetics brought loose-leaf to test their food on. This meant two things: A) Miss Leeann was a fucking moron and B) the merit badge for nutrition was bullshit. I went to work on my scab, and left the oohing-aahing sheep to their loose-leaf paper.
The only thing I looked forward to in Girl Scouts was the Wish Circle. At the end of the meeting, I stood in a circle with my comrades, holding their hands while I thought of who I had seen with their fingers buried deep within their noses. Miss Leeann started us off by making a wish and squeezing the hand next to her, and we all did the same until our wishes came full circle.
I took the business of wishing very seriously. While everyone else in my troop was probably wishing for a new Popple, I was carefully considering if my wish would be twisted into a horrible monkey’s paw situation that I would have to spend the rest of my life trying to rectify. The only thing I wanted was to have my father back. If I wished for him to be alive again, would I come home to him sitting in a lawn chair, partially decomposed, trying to light a cigarette? What if he needed to feast on the flesh of the living to stay alive? There were only so many scouts I could lure home without someone noticing.
For this reason I made sure to word my wish with the utmost caution: “I wish for everything to be exactly the way it used to be.”
One day, this wish would make my life play like a country song on rewind. I would emerge from the fluorescent basement meeting place into the warm sun and return home and me and my dad would sit on the couch watching a nature special and eating all the mayonnaise in the world.
This wish was foolproof. Even if it set time itself back to zero, I could still do it all over again. My first words would be “Watch your cholesterol!” and “Chest x-ray!”
“Did she just say chest x-ray?” my dad would say.
“I think so,” my mother would say, “and she’s pointing at you.”
Every week, I would leave the fluorescent basement meeting place, and every week my unsinkable faith in wishes would tell me maybe next week. My mother picked me up from Girl Scouts one of those weeks. “When you do the wish circle at the end, what do you wish for?” she asked, fumbling for a cigarette with her keys in her hand.
“Popples!” said the part of my brain that was deeply embarrassed by wishing for the impossible. “Say Popples!”
I stuttered and tried to form the word Popple.
She stopped and looked through me. I watched the unlit cigarette moving up and down with her words: “If you’re wishing for your father to come back, you can stop wishing because it’s never going to happen.”
The t-shirts were starting to smell more like an empty bed than my dad. My mother fell into a restless sleep each night with a prayer taking the place of a cigarette on her lips. I slept in my own bed, the soft orange glow falling onto my toys. God sat outside atop a wishless star, shining headlights onto my ceiling.
This installment of THE2NDHAND’s Chicago “So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel?” performance series brings host Harold Ray back from the home front in West Virginia to Chicago for an evening program combining two fiction writers, a poet, comic duo and more than one band for more of the now prototypical mixture sure to rattle your sensibility, if you had one. The show gets started after 8 p.m. at the Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont, Chicago on Tuesday, July 5. This installment features:
THE2NDHAND hosts a past contributor in New York-based Cassie J. Sneider in Nashville on a stop on her tour supporting her “Fine, Fine Music” book, just released by Raw Art Press, a collection of shorts in part about coming of age in Ronkonkoma on Long Island. Sneider joined us in Birmingham for a reading or two a couple years back — she’s absolutely great live. Don’t miss it.
Check out the New York Press interview with Sneider.
Joining her will be two Clarksville-based writers in:
Poet and fiction writer Amy Wright, author of two chapbooks in “There Are No New Ways to Kill a Man” (Apostrophe) and “Farm.” Other work has appeared in, among others, American Letters & Commentary and Quarterly West. She teaches at Austin Peay State.
Quincy Rhoads, whose work has been feature in the Red Mud Review and Unicorn Knife Fight, among others. His most recent contribution to THE2NDHAND you can find here in our online mag.
& Nashville’s own Katrina Gray. Her work has appeared in Women Writers: A Zine, JMWW, fourpaperletters and the Belmont Literary Journal, among others, including THE2NDHAND.
THE2NDHAND editor Todd Dills hosts.
I) A ripped tarpaulin, the spokes of a long dead umbrella, and a giant glove. These straddle the horizon, waiting for the sun to emerge.
I am waiting too. I open my left eye and see colour, a pale orange that is spilling out across the sea. I feel the sand between my toes, I feel each grain and want it to tell me a story.
I was once deep red, and thousands of others like me. It was a noisy day in June. Smoke, yells, German shouts, American bodies. I was trampled on but stayed still. My neighbours were carried far to Caen, Paris and to the borders of the Reich.
But today we all remain still. I long for the tide to bathe me, perhaps take me further away, back to the Britain in which I laid for millions of years.
It was a horrific day, 6 June 1944. But I (not the sand) still feel excited. The gray masses, emerging from their landing craft, wading through the sea, attacking, attacking, attacking. So heroic I wish I could have lived then, died then, ended up as a tiny grain of sand.
II) ‘Do you want to go to the fair this evening?’
‘It sounds pretty boring.’
‘Do you think I was giving you an option?’
‘I want to stay and finish my jigsaw of the Spitfire. Look I’ve done two of the corners now.’
‘You can finish it off this evening.’
‘No way! You and mum are going out and we’ll have to play stupid games with that woman.’
‘Look, you could win some prizes at the fair. And we can visit the fortune teller.’
Paul looked at his father and wondered when he’d be able to grow such a bushy beard. It looked a bit dirty but his mother never said anything so it must be OK. His mother was usually a good judge of character — she spotted that Mr Richards his English teacher was a bit odd months before the police came and arrested him.
‘OK. But please don’t be embarrassing if we meet any of my friends.’
They arrived at the fair in high spirits. Paul expected it to be like the start of Lord of the Rings with massive fireworks and strange people selling strange things. This was Basingstoke however, a fact that had yet to fully descend into his ten-year-old brain. He didn’t quite realise that his parents were chronically bored of the place, their neighbors, their lifestyle. He just enjoyed doing jigsaws and talking about the war to his father.
III) Malcolm turned to his screen and wrote in 32 point Arial “THE SECOND WORLD WAR NEVER HAPPENED”, then clicked ‘PRINT’, selected the A3 paper size and clicked ‘OK’. He stood up from his desk, walked ten meters down the gray carpeted path (not gray because it was dull but because it was the fire escape route and so had to look different than the usual dark blue — and it was the cheapest option). He approached the printer (a multi-document center probably costing around £3,000 as well as an expensive maintenance contract) and pressed the screen, selected the one that said ‘mkennedy’ and waited.
‘Hello Malcolm. How are you?’
Alison. Oh Alison. I don’t want to talk to you. You were 30 last week. I refused to go to your party. I’ve seen the pictures on Facebook. You looked pretty drunk, not very attractive. All those ’30′ balloons were a bit sad too. If you were as cool as me, you would have held an 18th birthday party just to be ironic.
‘Fine. Good weekend?’
‘Yes, Dave and I went to his parents. We watched the Grand Prix.’
I stopped listening and just made eye contact. Funny thing, eyes — you never quite remember what colour unless you stare or make notes and that seems a bit odd. Fuck, my printing has just come out, I’ll fold it in half and hope she doesn’t notice.
‘Yes great see you later.’
‘Yeah. Are you going to Geoff’s firework party?’
Geoff. What a dick. I’ll have to think of some kind of excuse.
‘Umm, I’ll think about it.’
IV) …this shivers…I want to feel different….the wolves… the wolves…eating dripping pieces of meat…I worry….and then I jump upright.
In between my illusions, I wander off to a small cave behind the shore. Inside I see nothing, perhaps the best place to sleep but there’s a funny smell and I prefer just to light a match and look at the walls.
A waste, you say. I only have six boxes of matches left but why not look at the pictures. Hunting scenes, spears, massive rhinoceros-like mammals. But lime green hits me, orange eyes and a huge body with eight arms. A piece of meteorite that shines, I take it and feel better.
A scarlet dawn. I wake. I walk to the spring and drink. My throat still feels sore. I lie down and talk to the snake. I ask him how he got here. He stares at me and I notice his eyes. Prettier than mine and I think they are deep prussian blue. I remember. Three days here. I must do something as I see a rectangle, of course gray, how dare it approach.
I run back to the beach. Open my bag, take out a flare, light it, it does nothing. I shake it, then relight it, it hisses at me — should I throw it or wave it? It is getting hot so I hurl it up and watch the colors, so pretty, pink, then a dark purple with just a hint of blue at the edges and then red everywhere. The sky, pale blue is embarrassed.
But the ship moves. A landing craft bristling with soldiers. They are closer and I wish I had something to fight with but then it is a fiction.
A fiction? The trampling on the sand, the liberation of Paris, the Nuremberg trials. I look and see them coming. I wish I had a gun. A bang, a pain in my chest. I slump and fall, my blood staining the sand. It all goes red once more and I think of my apartment, Geoff’s party, my own peaceful life in the future, in 2009, in the world I created. My son — what did I tell him?
For more by Illinois-based Ostdick, see his last T2H short, “Storms.”
Begin with a ghost. Dim the bulbs in your small rented cabin until the moonlight beams bluish shadows down over everything. Sit on the arm of the foldout sofa where your five-year-old son sleeps — weekend visitations only, as your ex-wife stipulated, and once in a while on Wednesdays when she has date-night with her new beau, a lounge singer named Tony. Then, lean close and whisper that his mother’s house, the one he lives in now, is haunted, terribly so. Let the echo of a coyote from high on the piney ridge ring and slowly die off in the thin air. Let it stir and mix together, the howling and the story: about an escaped mental patient who broke into a suburban family’s home to hide out and in the middle of the night eat each member of the family one by one, father then mother, saving their little boy for last, drinking their blood like Kool-Aid and picking his teeth with their bones. Tell your boy, who holds his Operation Desert Storm G.I. Joe tight at his chest, that the creaking in the attic right above his bedroom is the ghost of that mental patient, hungry and yearning.
Pull the covers up to his chin, hold them there. Pat his head. Ruffle his sandy-colored hair. Act like you have all the answers, so he feels safe–with you. Switch on the TV, the zombie movie from earlier. Leave it on mute, just a black and white glow, as if a star has lowered into the room, bright and dusty. On the screen a zombie is chasing a woman down the street, arms raised over its head and mouth wide with snaggled teeth. Watch your boy squirm beneath the blankets. Watch him squeeze Joe. Watch the fear fatten in his blue eyes.
Do not feel happy about this. Do not picture the two of you ice-fishing in the morning, teaching him how to cast, how to dangle a line down an icy hole. Do not dream of summers spent at the racetrack, the two of you watching muscle cars take loud, violent laps. Do not imagine how the freshly unpacked boxes that carried his belongings might look scattered about the cabin — snug, cozy. Do not get carried away thinking about the future. Do not think about your love for him, how you miss him so hard your heart is one big Charley Horse, or how it’s nearly impossible to compete with a loving mother and a man who can sing like a bird. Do not dwell.
Instead, light a cigarette and crack a window. Switch on the space heater, flurries of wind making the room seem as vast as the frozen hills outside. In the kitchen, blend up some chocolate malts, thick ones, and when you return to find your boy standing up on the sofa-bed, legs trembling in green Hulk PJs that you’ve never seen before, retuck him, and when he looks at you with swelling eyes and asks, Is that story true, Daddy? Is it real?, hand him a glass of frosty chocolate and tell him this can be his new home if he wants: that if he feels unsafe with his mother, with Tony, all he has to do is say so. When he doesn’t respond, the zombie now chasing a little boy through a redbrick bungalow and cornering him near a bedroom closet, point at the screen and say, That looks like your bedroom, doesn’t it? and when your boy squints and shrugs, say, That could be you, you know, if you stay over there, and lean in and kiss him goodnight.
Tomorrow, try monsters, ones that feed on the family pet, like his dog Bosco.
The next night, maybe aliens, the kind that suck his brains out through his eye sockets in the middle of the night.
Then zombies, like in the movie.
And when those fail, do not give up. You’re his father, after all. So regroup. Say whatever it takes. Do whatever is needed. Whatever is necessary to keep him frightened. Whatever is necessary to keep him here.