20
Jan
2013

THREE WAYS OF SAYING GOODBYE, by Elaheh Zohrevandi

Zohrevandi studies genetics and teaches English in Tehran. She is an editor at Delta Women, and her work has appeared in Hopewell Publications’ 2009 and 2010 “Best New Writing” anthologies. 

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One of these days he would close his eyes and there would be darkness: pitch black. Finally, he could say goodbye to everything.

He must have been a braver man in a past life — his own savior — but wasn’t it a girl’s mission in this world? 

“Well, you should never leave a responsibility to a girl. They never know how to handle responsibilities and they always end up doing something else.”

He smiled at himself. The good old days when he could have girls around were over. Before the revolution, he was somebody, a young man at college, someone with reputation and dignity. Now, he was an old existence, not even a man. He’d forgotten Russian and German. After years in bed doing nothing, he knew nothing was a real issue in his life. Life: a series of moments followed by quietness, night-sleeps and nothing more.

The painted walls still looked modern in an old-fashioned way. If only he could move. His cold feet were wrapped around by warm bed sheets.

He noticed how easily old feelings could vanish and give place to new habits. A year ago he was still in prison without a single warm sheet in his cell. Life was still a series of moments; the only difference was that there were no noises outside.

Oh, the noises! The kids back from school. Happy little kids!

The sudden motivation to get out of bed, the rush of energy was all too much. His arms twitched, his feet got stuck in the sheets and he fell on his head.

A single moment passed.

His eyes closed. The darkness of his life shadowed the daylight.

He finally said goodbye to everything.

Kids were still playing outside.

***
She could hear the kids outside. Holding the hot pan, she stared at the window. Three school boys were kicking a plastic ball and pushing one another. Living in an old dusty house downtown in a crowded city like Tehran, getting to eat only mashed potatoes three times a day and carrying a child inside can drive any girl crazy.

She was no exception.

She touched her lips. They were dry. She ignored the sound of him — scratching his beard in sleep — and grabbed the only cosmetics she could afford, a vitamin A ointment. She looked at her reflection in the broken mirror on the wall and saw him staring at her: sleepy and hungover. He was still terrifying. She turned and faced him, the only reason she was pregnant and sick at the age of 12. She heard a soft scream from outside. The schoolboys had found a girl to show their power to. She imagined herself walking home from school happy, fearless, ready to change the world with the feminine powers that only a teenager can be proud of and now she was married to a man: a man three times her age, an addict, an alcoholic and an abuser.

He blinked patiently and walked to the bathroom.

A second passed and that was it. She was done with this life. She grabbed the only thing that was hers — a bag that her classmate had made for her — and stepped out of the house.

She felt the fresh autumn air in her lungs. She touched her lips — they were dry and the vitamin A was left in the damn place she had called home for the past seven months.

It was time to say goodbye to that obsession. It was time to say goodbye to that life.

She looked at the schoolboys. They were playing with a purple plastic ball and a schoolgirl was watching them.

***
He broke his promise and pushed the dial button. The numbers on the phone screen had been staring at him for long enough. He heard the beep and then there she was. Her voice was calm, but in that peaceful voice he could hear sarcasm and anger.

“Sorry love.”

“Don’t be.”

“I just couldn’t think of anything else.”

“I know.”

“It’s just that… You never told me about it.”

Silence from the other end of the phone.

“Are you still there?”

“Yes.”

“Do you always cheat on your boyfriends?”

“You’re not my boyfriend.”

“I know, but I used to be.”

Another killing silence from her end of the phone.

“Did you ever love me?”

“You always pretended that you were reading a text message or having a phone call. I liked that.”

“How did you know?”

“How did I now what?”

“That I was faking a phone conversation.”

“I just knew.”

“I see.”

“How did you decide to sleep with him?”

“I told you, I never decided. I didn’t have a choice.”

“You just did it then.”

“I guess.”

“Why then?”

“I wanted to buy you that new cellphone.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The one you were always talking about. That new Nokia in that advert on TV. The one that says ‘you are never going to be alone.’ That one.”

“You cheated on me to buy me a stupid Nokia?”

“I didn’t cheat.”

“Oh! So you slept with him to buy me a fucking brand-new cellphone. What a good excuse.”

“I knew you would not believe me. I told you the truth because you are not my boyfriend anymore.”

“I can’t marry you. I hate sluts.”

“I know. That is why I fell for you.”

“Looks like you are not even sorry for what you did.”

“Never. I did it for the boy I used to love.”

Silence from his end of the phone.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

She was a slut, how could he fall for a girl like her. He had won the conversation and he was happy. Maybe saying goodbye wasn’t that difficult after all.

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11
Jan
2013

NASTY HABITS, by Adam Moorad

Adam Moorad is a writer, sales­man, and moun­taineer. His work has appeared­ widely in print and online. He lives in Brook­lyn. Visit him here.

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Julie #2 ran off with the Sheppard. She took my Durango. Left me with her teenage daughter. She calls me by my first name. Her mother got her a drum set for her birthday. She spends all her time smashing the cymbals. My duplex vibrates. The bulbs break. The ceilings cave. I take a clown job at a corral.

“You look scared shitless,” one of the cowboys says to me on my first night. “But your makeup looks good.”

“Thanks,” I say. “This is all sorta new to me.”

He throws his arms around me and says, “I’ve been at this since ’93.” He stretches his quad and his braced knee clicks like it shouldn’t. ”Haven’t looked back since.”

He mounts a bull rattling in the stall beside us. It’s been spray-painted with the stars and stripes. Its nutsack looks like a punching bag. The cowboy scrubs his fingers on the bull’s neck and talks a little shit. There are families in boots and hats walking to their cars. A few Hispanics stick around. The stall flies open and the bull charges out bucking in spirals. The cowboy bounces off his coccyx and lands in the mud. The bull hops the fence into the bleachers. It’s total chaos. There’s nothing I can do.

***
Julie #2 is back at the duplex in the middle of the night. The Sheppard is sleeping in bed in between us and lets one rip. Julie #2 doesn’t wake up. The Sheppard spoons me and drool runs down my neck. I can’t take it. I get up. I drive the Durango down to Geronimo’s and crack a Kronenburg.

“You shoulda seen this one,” I tell him. “Nuts like a punching bag.”

Geronimo had a car accident in high school and has trouble paying attention.

“Seriously,” he says. “What’s with the makeup?”

***
I take the Durango for a cruise to clear my head. The horizon is a twist of neon. I sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” through the sunroof. Just Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! over and over. A truss bridge runs across a dry riverbed into hills stretched out in an alien way. I see the yellow neck of a Waffle House in the distance. The little bit of moon is a rednecked god. The land below is an albino waitress, rippled and minted. A soda can rolls across the road, picking up dust in the fading taillight.

***
The morning is an empty magnum. I make my way to the Lay-Z-Boy, but the Sheppard has beaten me to it, reclined and tongue bathing. I can hear Julie #2’s daughter lashing at her snare but Julie #2 is nowhere to be found. It all sets my head awhirl. I run outside and puke off the stoop. I sit on the steps wiping the gruel from my mouth. Then I feel a paw on my shoulder. It’s the old cougar from the next duplex down. She purrs and licks the makeup from my cheek. I watch her eyes dilate and fangs flare. I disappear inside her whiskers. She murmurs something sexy as if to say, “I like the smell of you, big boy. I bet you taste good.”

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03
Jan
2013

IN MARTY TIME, by Jim Meirose

Jim Meirose’ short work has appeared in numerous venues. Two collections have been published, and two novels, Claire and Monkey, are likewise available.

Download .doc file for your eReader here.

 

Just one customer sat in the shadowy bar, late afternoon.

So what’s new, said the bartender. You still working?

Tina gripped her beer. Nope, she said. I’m retired. You know what that means?

He smiled as he wiped dry a glass. No I don’t — what does it mean.

It means death — no, I’m only kidding –

He smiled as he picked up the next glass.

Good. You had me worried there.

Yeah — this is good beer.

We try, he said.

How come you never ask me what kind of beer I want?

Because I know what you want, he said.

But I’ve forgotten.

I haven’t.

Tell me what brand of beer this is.

You should know. You ordered it years ago.

I’ve forgotten, I told you.

You don’t need to know.

She smiled and took a drink. Oh — hey listen, she said, resting her chin on her hand. What are your plans for today?

I’ll be here.

No. I mean after that?

After that I’ll be going home. Marty is taking over from me at five.

Marty? I don’t think I’ve ever met Marty.

Oh! He’s quite a guy. You’d like him.

Think so?

Yes.

In what way?

I don’t know. That would be up to you –

She waved a hand. Please!

But really — you ought to stay long enough to meet Marty. You ought to stay until five. It’s four already.

She looked at her watch. It’s five after four, actually.

So it is – anyway — Marty’s got a speedboat. You ought to go out with him on it.

He must have money –

Yeah and he drives a Mercedes convertible — a flashy sporty one.

What color is it?

It’s red.

That sounds cute –

It is — Marty’s got a plane too — he keeps it out at Kupper airport.

God — a speedboat, a Mercedes, a plane — how’s he do it on this salary?

Oh this is just a side job for Marty. He’s got several businesses.

What kind of businesses?

I’m not sure. He never really explained — but he rakes in the dough. He just works as a bartender to decompress.

Is he married?

Nope. Single.

What’s he look like?

Oh, handsome — very very handsome. Tall, built well, nice hair. He wears expensive clothes too. You should meet him. He used to work for an escort service — lord god he’s got the looks for it.

An escort service?

Yeah. And — he’s a skydiver — he jumps out of planes. Has been doing that for years.

And you say he’s single?

Oh yeah — and I’ve seen him with women — he pours on the charm — he really knows how to treat a woman — money is no object. I’ve seen him buy thousands of dollars worth of jewelry and other gifts — he bought one woman a Mercedes like his. For cash.

Get out!

Nope — it’s true.

Were these just — women that he met here?

Yeah. Pretty much. I could see him going for you though.

Think so?

Yes — hang around until five. I’ll introduce you.

What’s Marty’s last name?

I’m not quite sure.

What do you mean you’re not quite sure — you know everything else about him.

You get to know all about people who come in here — but you don’t always know their last names.

But he works here. He’s not just a customer. He works here, and you don’t know his last name? Isn’t this your place? Didn’t you hire him?

He shook his head and pushed out an arm.

No, no, no, look — I’ll be honest with you. I know his last name. He just wouldn’t want it shared.

Wouldn’t want it shared?

Right. He values his privacy. After all, when you’ve got that kind of money — you’ve got to be careful.

Why?

Because people will try and take advantage of you. I’ll tell you what — when you meet him, ask him his last name. If he wants you to know it, he’ll tell you. Like I said, hang around. It’s four thirty now.

OK — say what are your plans for tonight? Anything special?

Nope. Home to the wife, and kid — and a big dinner.

What’re you having for dinner?

Oh it’s a surprise — my wife always surprises me.

Is she a good cook?

Oh yeah — and as a matter of fact, so is Marty — he’s a real gourmet.

Really?

Yes. Cooks all kind of exotic dishes — squab, and like that.

Squab.

Yeah. That’s a little bird.

Are you sure?

Oh yeah. Perfectly sure. Maybe Marty will cook a dinner for you. He’s done that for other ladies he’s met here. He’s had them over, had some wine, a good dinner –

And what else?

Oh nothing else. Marty is a perfect gentleman. He would never impose himself on a lady. And believe me — there are plenty of ladies who wish he would. I mean, with his looks, his clothes, his body, his way of speaking — oh when you meet him you’ll be impressed.

Sounds like you’re pretty impressed with him yourself.

I am. He’s someone a man can look up to. A good example. You should see how they’ll flock in here after he takes over — everybody will try and be near Marty — he’s got that — that charisma. And as a bartender, he’s superb — he knows every drink there is. Nobody’s stumped him yet. Wait until you meet him you’ll see — try and stump him.

I don’t usually go for exotic drinks –

Oh, but here’s something else — he’ll talk to you a little bit, size up your personality, then make you a special drink mixed just for you. He does that for all the ladies. Those are usually on the house.

On the house? How do you feel about that?

Oh, it’s fine — he draws such a crowd that in the end it’s all worth it. And here’s something else many people don’t know — he’s a war hero.

War hero? What war –

Gulf war. Silver Star. I tell you, he’s an interesting guy, worth meeting — oh look, it’s quarter to five. He could show up any minute. I tell you, when he comes in the whole place will light up.

I — I can’t wait to meet him.

I figured — and wait until you hear the way he talks — he knows how to talk to a lady — trust me, you’ll never have felt so much like a lady as Marty will make you feel.

How do you know all this? How the ladies feel –

They tell me how he makes them feel. They can’t help but want to talk about Marty. There’s never been another guy like him.

I’m a little bit nervous.

Here’s a fresh beer.

Thanks.

It’s eight to five — he will be here any time now. Oh — and you know what else?

No. What?

He’s a great dancer. He’s won several dancing competitions. You ought to get to know him and get him to take you out dancing — why, I’ve heard that out at the Willows, when he goes there dancing, the people just gather around in a big circle and watch him and his partner dance, that’s how good he is. Are you a good dancer?

Well — I think so.

Dancing with him will make you twice the dancer you already are — take it from me — I’ve seen him. He’s like a Fred Astaire — hey look — it’s four to five. He will be here any time now. Be ready, though. Sometimes he comes in a little bit early. Likes to freshen up in the men’s room before he starts his shift — he always looks fresh pressed and sharp, hair perfect — and you ought to see his posture — it’s better than a Marine’s. He carries himself like a king.

Wow — you really think a lot of him, don’t you –

Why do you say?

You go on and on like this –

I can’t help it but go on and on about Marty — hey — it’s two minutes to five. That door might open any second –

What kind of cologne does he wear? That’s about the only thing you haven’t told me –

It’s a minute to five. Watch the door.

My God. You –

It’s thirty seconds to five. Look — Marty’s always on time, on the dot.

Really –

It’s 15 seconds to five.

I –

It’s eight seconds to five –

She drank from her beer.

It’s four seconds –

Two –

One –

It’s half a second to five.

It’s a quarter of a second to five –

An eighth –

A sixteenth –

She sat open-mouthed.

A thirty-second.

A sixty-fourth –

A one hundred twenty-eighth –

A two hundred sixty-fifth –

And they sat frozen waiting forever in the dim-lit late afternoon bar for Marty, because the time turned out to be always half of a half of a half of a half of the time until five. They waited and they waited and five o’clock never came — and the closer it got to five o’clock the less time there was to speak, to think, to act, about Marty. The less time there was for their hearts to pump and their blood to flow. So they ceased to exist. They froze. They shrank to nothing — trapped in Marty time.

 

 

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13
Nov
2012

FOUR OWNERS OF A 1982 TOYOTA COROLLA, by Ryan Mattern

Mattern lives and writes on the California coast — find more from him here. 

1) Russell sat in the driver’s seat after saying goodbye to his father for the last time. The idling engine sputtered out curls of exhaust fumes that wafted like ghosts through the tunnels of the hospital parking structure. He punched the steering wheel four times and feared a fifth might cause the airbag to deploy, which would probably break his nose, definitely his glasses. He waited until all the other cars were gone before he cried.

2) Demolition of The Berlin Wall started this morning and best friends Ben and Kristi decide to celebrate. Tonight, Ben parks his car on Lakeshore Drive, overlooking Lake Michigan, just north of Navy Pier. The beige car is nearly hidden in the hairy spine of sand dunes and fireweed. They listen to coverage of the destruction on the radio. Ben pulls a flask from his coat pocket, raises it as high the car’s roof will allow and toasts, “To the death of communism.” He takes a quick drink, winces tightly, then passes the flask to Kristi. She drinks without making a toast. The radio continues: crowds shouting We want out! and the thunderous boom of brick turning to dust. Kristi looks out at the ships rising and falling on the water. Like shooting stars, the lights bloom then disappear into the darkness. She thinks about all the families and estranged lovers of East and West Germany reuniting in one another’s arms. She looks at Ben and smiles. She thinks there is hope.

3) You’re alone in your car, speeding out of your neighborhood. Your mother is having him over again, and walking downstairs to that used piece of bubblegum wrapping his doughy arms around her is about the last thing you need right now. You wonder if you should drive to your dad’s house, but immediately you decide not to. It’s already dark and the drive from Waukegan to Cicero is almost two hours. Nearly crying, you pull up to a stoplight and rummage through your backpack for your cigarettes. You think you get your hands around the pack and pull them out, only to find it’s not your  cigarettes. It’s a cassette-tape case. Jules, play me. ♥ James. You open the case and put the tape into the car’s player, still mildly concerned that you are unaware of the contents of your own backpack. “Julia” by The Beatles begins to whisper through the speakers. You push the seat back and close your eyes, pretending John Lennon is stroking your hair and singing you to sleep. The light turns green and cars start honking behind you. But you won’t move, not until the mixed tape winds to an end.

4) “Christ, Evelyn, the whole world is changing without us,” Carl grumbled as he threw this morning’s copy of the Tribune down on the coffee table. Evelyn saw the headline and mouthed words Chicago’s – Oldest – Drive-In – Closed – Permanently. “It’s like I told you. First they change the Sears Tower to the ‘Willis Tower.’ Then they close our drive-in. Next they’ll be wanting to change the name Chicago to ‘Idiotsville.’

“I’d like to go there, Carl.”

“Where, Idiotsville?”

“The River-Walk,” Evelyn said, looking at her husband with sad eyes. Carl nodded silently, as if out of respect, and they left.

Their Corolla rolled to a stop in front of the large white wall of the River-Walk Drive-In. Only days after its final showing and already the cracked grey asphalt had given way to invading knotweed and peppergrass. There were still buckets of half-eaten popcorn strewn about the parking lot with a few lucky pigeons getting their fill.

“It’s a damn shame.” Carl tugged on the hair below his bottom lip, making a suction sound like sticky feet from a hardwood floor.

“Do you remember our first date?” Evelyn asked with a smile.

“You bet little lady. It’ll be 40 years this summer, God smiled down on this lucky sailor and gave him a trip to the drive-in with a gal prettier than Sophia Loren.” They both laughed.

With the sun going down and the world slowly becoming a sad mystery, Evelyn laid her head on her husband’s shoulder and they both stared at the wall in front of them, as if it were show time.

 

THE PROBLEM WITH THE BIRDS

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07
Nov
2012

TWO, by Marcel Francis

Francis lives and writes in Nashville, Tenn., but may be destined for Hamburg, as it were.


Except for when you are here.
No longer will I resemble a dead
asterisk viewed from outer space
or that vagrant sprawled out naked
in the middle of the town commons
resting my head on Justice’s scale.
There may be differences between
your side, my view –
but we are alive and beating, and
these figments of our imagination
are far from dead. Tonight the sunlight may be
deafening, tomorrow it’s stuck in your throat.
I order another watered down whiskey,
toss down my last 10 bucks and throw it back,
some piss on the rocks.
We head down to the water.
Polluted beach, swimming
prohibited, so we take a walk,
the fanfares of dusk, sirens –
it all floats away into something. Whatever.
Back to Mission Hill,
back down Guerrero to 24th.
Now that I’ve seen you bookended
between Alcatraz and Golden Gate
I don’t feel so sick anymore.
But I’m still a bit queasy. Even now, the next day.
It’s just a little different. I search my coat pocket
for my boarding pass as I head toward the gate.

Cannoli
The writing’s on the wall:
A fool, who writes more than
he reads. A fool, who thinks
more than he loves.
Many people throughout history
have fallen victim to the concept
of perfection. I start counting and
soon I get bored and want to do
something else. Eat a cannoli
for example. I am tired of my
small empire and want to expand.
I decide to set up a drum kit
to drive out the neighbors, but
quickly realize this probably
won’t lead to the desired
effect. Instead I lie in bed,
roll up in my blanket and smile,
say Cannoli. For a second, even,
I am laughing.

 

THE BOCOCURRO DUCK

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30
Oct
2012

ANSWERS, by Ben Tanzer

Chicago resident Tanzer’s latest book, My Father’s House, is available here. The Chicago resident lives and writes in Chicago, where he’s working on a book called “Orphans.” Find his past work in THE2NDHAND starting with this story, “Jesus Walks,” from 2008.

 

He knows.

It doesn’t matter that he’s little, and doesn’t seem to know anything.

He knows she’s different, that her family is different, different than us certainly, and just different, period.

She is the queen of the playground, with her long hair blowing in the wind and her flip-flops scattered among the detritus as she walks barefoot along the top of the monkey bars.

He is mesmerized, you are mesmerized. She is a vision, and she is nothing like him. She is fearless and free to be whatever it is she wants to be.

You wonder if her awesomeness has something to do with the fact that she has two dads, but you do not know. You don’t even know what you don’t know.

What you do know is that the dad who doesn’t stay at home tends to be in the playground at night like you when the workday is over. And that he smiles a lot.

What you also know is that your kid thinks he knows something about some part of this, and he wants, even needs, answers about all of it.

So he asks.

Excuse me, he says to the dad, where’s her mom?

There is no mom, smiling dad says to him, nicely, if maybe a little bluntly.

Your kid is being friendly, though how he knows she has two dads isn’t so clear to you. Apparently they know things even when you can’t imagine that they do.

There’s a mom, your kid says, there’s always a mom.

And of course there is.

No, the dad says, no mom here, maybe you’re thinking of the nanny?

He’s still friendly, still smiling, but he’s not budging either. You’ve never seen a mom yourself, but you have wondered about this as well.

There are younger siblings, and they all look alike enough that there must be some kind of arrangement. Not that you would ever ask.

But your kid will.

I know what a nanny is, your kid says, I have one, and I’ve seen yours, but the mom, what’s up with the mom.

I have to go, smiling dad says, walking away.

He could have been more helpful. Aren’t there a million things he could have said while still protecting his privacy?

He may not want to be gay-dad spokesman, and he may be worried that your kid might say something to his daughter that he doesn’t want her to know yet, and all that’s fine, you suppose, but now you must to decide what you will say, because your kid is going to have questions, and questions require answers.

She does have two dads right, your kid says to you?

She does, you say, hoping you can leave it at that, because two dads is great, but how much detail do you go into with someone so little? What’s too much? And how do you ever know?

Are they married, he says, staring at you intently with those endlessly brown eyes of his. Can boys get married?

You wonder now if it’s not the mom that he’s interested in learning more about. Maybe it was always about two men having a family together and trying to make sense of how that works.

It might also be, however, that you’re just doing what parents do, trying to make sense of how your kid works based on what you speculate might be the reasons behind the questions they are asking.

But sometimes a question is just a question, right?

You decide to be as straightforward as the smiling dad was not.

Boys can only get legally married in Massachusetts, you say, but they can be in love anywhere — that’s the important thing, sometimes boys love boys and girls love girls and that’s cool.

No reaction, no nothing.

Do you have any questions about that, you ask?

No.

And that’s that, until it isn’t.

A year later there’s a baby now, a little brother, and he, the older one, says to you that he plans to marry his mother.

The advice in the parenting books is that the correct response to this assertion is no, your mommy is already married to someone and you will need to marry someone else.

Which is what you do, to which he replies, fine I will marry him then, the baby, and of course while it seems impossible that this tiny, near feral creature will ever marry anyone, you still feel the need to respond to this, to somehow control the situation more than may be required.

You can’t marry your brother, you say.

To which he replies, but you said boys can get married in Massachusetts.

And he has you there.

 

JESUS WALKS

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18
Oct
2012

YOU DREAM OF BIRDS, by Sonya Maizell

Maizell lives and writes in New Jersey.

1. In which you dream of birds
Four nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. There are a thousand of them perched in a great tree, their white wings drooped elegantly down their sides and their feathers trailing behind them like wedding veils. They sing a thousand beautiful songs each night, and you know this because they are singing them to you now. But one of them has no beak, and you know that if you catch it, it will grant you a wish.

When you wake up the sky is like frosted pearls, and you know that you must have a bird.

2. In which there are ants in the walls
You have no idea why you didn’t think of purchasing a bird before. It is easily the best idea you have ever had. You can hang out with the bird on your shoulder and feed it crackers and teach it foul language and you simply must have a bird.

But there is one small hurdle to leap before you can get one, and that hurdle is your roommate.

Your roommate’s name is Narandal and she is from Mongolia. You didn’t know that was even still a place that had people in it, but apparently it is because every time you come home she’s right there in your apartment being Mongolian. Narandal is a sweet girl with a round face and dark hair, but she has obsessive compulsive disorder. You think it’s a little weird, but you guess you’re OK with it. You try not to make a fuss out of anything she does. Besides, her OCD means the apartment is always clean, and as far as you’re concerned that is swell.

But it’s also why a bird may be a problem. You will need to go about this proposal very delicately.

When you get home, your roommate is sitting on the living room floor, peering earnestly at the couch. It is white and spotless, as is the carpet she is sitting on. There is a length of yellow measuring tape in her hand.

“Oh! Hello,” she says.

“Hey Nina,” you say. You call her Nina because you do not know how to pronounce her real name. “What’re you doing down there?”

“Oh, the couch, it needs to be two inches away from the wall.”

“Why?”

“Well! You know, there could be ants in the walls,” she says, looking at her hands.

“Neat,” you say. Narandal smiles at you and continues her meticulous calculations. You pause for a few moments before continuing. “So I was wondering, do you mind if I get a bird?”

“A bird?” she asks. Her expression does not look promising. You grapple for a way to get her to agree. You must have a bird.

“Yeah it’s uh, it’s not my bird. It’s for … my friend. She’s going to … Canada. She needs me to watch it.”

“Oh,” she says, “How long will your friend be in Canada?”

“A while,” you say.

Your roommate looks uncertain.

“I’ll keep it out of the way in my room! And she says it’s like really quiet.”

“Well, all right,” Narandal says. Your heart explodes into multicolored confetti.

“OK, cool. You need any help with the couch?”

“No, no. I’m fine,” she says, eyes fixed on the cushions. But you barely hear her. You are already in your room looking up pet stores.

3. In which you have waking dreams
That afternoon you head out to purchase your bird. The pet store you decide on is called Basically Birds, which you think is a bit silly because how could anything be Complicatedly Birds, but you are just an accounting undergrad so what the hell do you know about bird stores anyway.

You park your car in a drab shopping plaza filled with sidewalk cracks and angry mothers. Basically Birds is nestled between a thrift store and an Armenian bakery. The smell of burnt sugar wafts over you as you head inside the shop.

Basically Birds turns out to be a very self-explanatory name. It is basically filled with birds. There are cages of birds on the walls and hanging from the ceiling and standing on the floor and just about anywhere a cage could possibly go. The birds that fill them are multicolored and numerous. Tufts of their feathers wander through the air like flecks of prismatic ash. Some of these birds you immediately recognize: a fat, ruby-red macaw, a slim ivory cockatiel, a shy brown finch. Yet others seem strange to you, the patterns on their feathers complicated and alien. They regard you with wide black eyes when you draw close. You can see your face, awkward and flat, reflected in their eyes’ glassy surfaces, so you stare at the floor instead. The carpet is some kind of brown, and dust puffs out from it in tiny A-bomb clouds whenever you shift your feet.

Eventually the owner of the store shuffles sleepily through the corridor of cages to greet you. With your nose still saturated with the scent of sucrose from the bakery outside, you immediately compare her to a cake. She moves toward you, large and lumbering, as though she may tilt too far and topple over at any moment. Her face is framed by lazy curls of russet hair that spill out from her scalp, her clothes candy-colored and puffy. Her eyes, deep and tired, examine you skeptically before she welcomes you to the store.

“Hi! I’m, uh, I’m here to buy a bird,” you tell her. You find yourself raising your voice to compete with the squawks and chirps around you.

“Obviously,” she says, moseying over to the counter near the door. You note disappointedly that her voice is bored and gray and not very cake-like. “What kind?”

This question, though simple, catches you a little off guard. You didn’t really think about what kind of bird. You just want a bird. You are going to feed it crackers and teach it foul language and train it to bring you tiny objects that you are too lazy to fetch across the room. Who cares what kind it is?“Well, maybe one that can talk?” you venture, “And … that’s friendly?”

“Parakeet,” the store owner responds before leading you over to a tall gray cage filled with small, flashy birds the color of almost-ripe bananas. They flutter excitedly from perch to perch at your approach, chirping pleasantly and preening their feathers. A few of them hop closer and turn their heads to the side to view you with one eye before scampering away again. You decide that parakeets are adorable.

“Which one?” the owner asks.

You lean forward to give the flock a closer examination. They all seem pretty wonderful, but pretty identical too. How does she expect you to choose? You spend a few moments watching them quietly, trying to see if there are any personalities that stand out, but none do. They nibble at their yellow-green feathers and climb up the walls and squabble with each other for rights to the food bowl.

And then you see it.

Hidden away at the very top of the cage, above your head, is a bird the color of a pale summer sky. It is the sort of blue Aztecs wore in beaded flecks in their hair. It’s the indigo-gray that swallows up the sky after a deep storm. It’s the kind of sapphire that splashes up from the sea when it meets an ancient cliff. It is the innocent cobalt of a fresh-picked berry. It is the brilliant cerulean of a cloudless dawn. It is all of these, and yet none of them at the same time. It is beautiful. It is perfect.

“That one!” you say, pointing up at it.

“Huh,” the owner says, “You sure?” You nod enthusiastically.

She shrugs and reaches over your head to open a small latched door at the top of the cage. Several birds scatter out of the way of her hand, but the blue bird does not seem to mind the invasion of its space. She gathers it up in her palms and, holding it gently, removes it from the cage and places it into a small box. You hand her several crumpled bills from your pocket, take the box, and head for home.

4. In which there are two thousand eyes
Three nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. They circle their great tree as a flock. Their fluttering sheds the small, fluffy feathers beneath their wings and these fall around you like snow. You call up to them, asking them to come down and sing for you, but you cannot hear your voice above the discordant ruffling of their wings. They do not land. One thousand white feathered heads turn to look at you from above.

They watch you until you wake up.

5. In which you speak to the wings beneath the sun
Your roommate is not interested in seeing the bird. She is incredibly busy. When you wander out into the kitchen to give your new bird some quiet time, you find that she has removed everything from the cabinets and has set to lining them with very precisely cut lengths of cardboard. She’s good at it, and you wonder where she learned to cut cardboard for lining cabinetry. You speculate over what she did when she lived in Mongolia. Sometimes you hear her speaking in Mongolian over the phone, and you wonder if she is talking about you.

Narandal never speaks to you about her old home, which is probably because you never ask. The one time you did, she told you that her mother had abandoned her when she was very young, and you weren’t sure what to say about that, so then she told you her real name.

“My mother chose it,” she explained, smiling and patient.

“How do you say it? Narndle?”

“Narandal. Roll the R,” she said gently.

“Narrrr-andle,” you said, butchering it as much as is possible.

“Nina is fine.”

“What does it mean?”

Narandal paused a few moments before responding, looking thoughtful. “Sort of like … a pair of great wings spread out beneath the sun.”

“That’s beautiful.”

“Yes. I think choosing it is the one thing she did right,” Narandal said with a frown, and it was then you decided not to ask again. At the time you meant you’d never ask her about Mongolia, but somehow not talking about Mongolia became not talking about anything at all. You don’t ask her why she thinks there are ants in the walls, or why covering the cabinets in cardboard will keep them safe, or why she scrubs the counters even when they’re already glittering.

You leave her in her life and you stay occupied in your own.

6. In which you wait for silence
After sitting silently for an entire day, your new bird has begun to move. It slides slowly across its perch to examine the toy on one end, and then back to the other side, over and over. It does not seem to be doing anything similar to the excitable fluttering you observed at the pet store, but you are sure that it will take up more entertaining behavior in time. It is cute with fluffy feathers and you are going to teach it foul language and feed it crackers and take it for walks in the bird park, if that is even a real thing. You just need to be patient, as the woman you bought it from suggested.

So you leave the bird to get comfortable. While it settles you work on knitting a hat for your friend’s new baby. You can’t remember if it’s a boy or a girl, so you make it green. You work on a paper for your Auditing and Corporate Governance class. You pick up your room a little while Narandal washes the living room walls. You check your work schedule for the coming weekend. You quietly, and patiently, wait for your bird to notice you.

And that patience is rewarded with a shriek.

There is no other way for you to describe it. Suddenly, without provocation, your bird has begun to scowl and scream. The noise is high-pitched and unpleasant in every possible way. It flaps its long, beautiful wings and clicks its tiny orange beak and shouts and shouts and shouts.

This is not what you expected at all.

You phone the owner of Basically Birds, and she answers in a manner that suggests a recent nap. You picture red velvet cupcakes in the place of her hair as you speak to her.

“Hi, I bought a parakeet from you the other day and it’s making this really loud, squawking kind of noise,” you tell her.

“Yup,” she says. “They do that.”

“What do you mean, they do that?” you ask.

“They do that. They make all sorts of noises. That’s one of them.” She sounds bored with you.

“Well, you didn’t say that before,” you say, confused and worried.

“Yup, well, they do that,” she says again.

“Is there a way to make them stop?”

“Just give it attention and don’t stress it out. Should shout less. But they still do that. It’s one of their sounds.”

“OK. Thanks, I guess.”

It takes another 10 minutes for your new bird to calm down. Its vocal chords exercised, it takes to sitting silently once more. You are left feeling nervous and unsure, and you do not even think about feeding it crackers.

7. In which something is wrong
Two nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. They funnel into the sky like a glorious waterspout, but something is wrong. They are not beautiful and elegant. Instead, they are ragged and afraid. They flee their great tree as though it will bite. “What’s wrong?” you ask them. “Where are you going?” One of the birds lands on your shoulder.

“We have seen one thousand silver suns in the sky,” it says, “and they light the way to freedom.”

“But where?” you ask, watching the cloud of wings above you. “Where are you going?”

You turn to look at the bird and it is gone. The bird with no beak has taken its place, and it cannot speak to you. It turns its head to face you with one eye. It is wide and black and deep, like a chasm that falls down to the center of the earth. You shiver, and find that you can wish for nothing but for it to leave.

8. In which you take the bad luck
Your roommate is too nervous to drive anywhere, so the next morning when she tells you that she needs groceries you are the one to take her. You’re happy to go this time. Your new bird is still having shrieking fits about once an hour and you would be lying if you said it wasn’t a little annoying. You wait quietly as she examines the expiration dates on every item she selects, sometimes rifling through a shelf for several minutes to find a specific one. She blinks nervously at the shelves as though they are plotting to kill her.

When you get back to the apartment, Narandal refuses to go inside. There is a white cat lounging near the door. “We have to wait,” she tells you, grasping your upper arm. “We have to wait for someone else to go near to take the bad luck, or it will be ours.”

“That’s black cats,” you tell her.

“No,” she says, her dark eyes fixed on the animal’s fur. “No, it is white.”

You walk up to the door and shoo the cat away. You don’t think OCD makes people superstitious, so it’s probably just one of those Mongolian things. She probably has all kinds of crazy foreign ideas about bad omens and spirits and junk. Your roommate smiles cautiously at you as you walk inside together.

While Narandal spends the next hour putting her purchases away in carefully measured rows, you go to check on your new bird. It screeches at your approach.

“Hey, shh, shh, relax. It’s OK, little bird. It’s all right,” you say in a voice that could be soothing. The bird only shrieks some more. “Shhh, shhh,” you say. You promised your roommate that it wouldn’t be noisy, and you know she can hear it screaming from your room. You have to get it to quiet down, but it won’t. The more you try to assure it, the more it yells and flutters and squawks.

“Just shut up!” you eventually hiss, but it does not.

9. In which you dream of nothing at all
The night before your birthday you dream of nothing at all, and this is because you do not sleep. The bird will not stop screaming. You are sure that at any moment Narandal will come in to confront you about it, but she does not. Why won’t it stop screaming? It seems to you that it barely even pauses to breathe. It just shouts and shrieks and screeches. You resolve the next morning to take it back to the pet shop. Thoughts of teaching it foul language and feeding it crackers are far behind you. You barely think anything at all. It’s too loud to think.

Your fingers clutch at the quilt of your bed and the sweat of your palms rubs off on the blue-gray pattern of the fabric. Why won’t it stop screaming? You turn your head and yell back at your bird, but it is too loud to hear yourself above its shrieks. It’s too much. You leap out of bed and hurry to Narandal’s room. You need to apologize. She spends her life worrying about ants and cats and dirt and now she has to listen to your new bird and you just can’t stand it. You shove her door open and you are startled to find that she had been asleep. She sits up and asks you something. You know this because you see her mouth move, but it is too loud to hear what she is saying. She gets out of bed and clasps your hands, asking again. But you cannot hear her, and she cannot hear you when you respond. The bird isn’t just screaming now, it’s wailing and howling and squealing and roaring and you just can’t think at all.

You tear back into your room with the sun rising on your back and to your new bird’s cage. Its wings are the blue of old midnights and cold stars. You scream back at it to stop, to shut up, to keep quiet, but still you can hear nothing.

You rip open the door of the cage and seize the bird, its small beak open wide in an unholy outcry. You shake its tiny feathered form, begging it, pleading with it to be quiet, and it is only when small splotches of red begin to dye its indigo feathers that you realize it is dead.

But its screams do not go with it. They cling to your ears and rattle at your ribcage and leap down your throat and you begin to realize that the shrieks are coming from you and it is just too loud to think, so you think of nothing at all. Every sound begins to amplify itself in your mind’s emptiness. Your heart beats staccato rolls of thunder against your chest. Your blood pulses in ocean waves, crashing and roaring on the surf of your veins. Each ear-splitting exhalation that rushes through your teeth comes as a monsoon melody, dripping down into the cavernous bellow that is boiling in your stomach. It reverberates in a harrowing cacophony of sound, jumbled together and leaping from wall to wall, breath to breath, and ear to ear. Your eyes are filling up with the red of disharmony and your hands are filled with blue feathers and hollow bones.

You sink to the floor, surrounded by the remains of your new bird.

It all stops when you run out of air. The sound dwindles into the emptiness of your lungs, shirking away like a scarlet shadow.

There is no noise, now.

And that silence, quietly deafening, is the loudest of all.

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12
Oct
2012

ON THE POROUSNESS OF CERTAIN SKULLS

A brief debate about debates, complete with all that you would expect. The brevity of the entire affair the most interesting part. Our firm A1 narrative consciousness — or its owner, as it were — is the last to realize that behind the exchange lies a grim bit of reality, that a lack of self-knowledge is no excuse for prevarication, that the quality is one not unlike its own progenitors’ overreliance on jokes.

How did the dog skin the cat?

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03
Oct
2012

SPIT VALVE, a choose-yr-own-adventure by Quincy Rhoads

You sit on a concrete slab awaiting your mother and the drive home following a day of middle school — broken reeds, mathematics, nameless anguish. A truck that is not your mom’s pulls up along the edge of deadened grass. Do You:

A. Keep sitting against the fire door?

B. Go see who it is?

A. You sit. The August sun beats hard upon your saxophone case. A bead of sweat rols down your brow and you wait for fall. B. You stand. The truck seems to stretch toward you to come closer. A woman, haggard, leans her head out the window and gazes off. Your mother pulls up behind the rusted-out pickup. Do you:

C. Press on?

D. Get into your mom’s car?

C. You continue toward the truck, its red-rust dust flaking off in the light August breeze — more like asthmatic breathing than wind. The truck stinks like stale oil and your grandfather’s tool shed; in the bed lies what could be a pickaxe. You smell old cigarette smoke, like the home your Great Aunt lives in — stagnant. The woman spits brown. Do you:

D. Turn around?

E. Advance?

 D.  You walk towards your mom’s van. “How was your day?” she asks, but you don’t hear her; you’re too distracted by the woman with the crushed-hay hair, waiting — perhaps for you. In some ways she’s the most striking woman you have ever seen. You won’t forget her leather-brown skin even after 12 long years. On the ride home you will ask yourself what draws us to these grostesqueries? Why the fascination with the hideous? You shall do this for the rest of your adult years. You will yearn for the wild and far-fetched. All the while wondering: did you make the right choices today?
E. As you approach the driver’s side window, the lady looks up at you and smiles a smile lack 12 of 32 teeth. Right where her eyebrows knit together is a hole. It could be a deep pore. Perhaps. But “hole” seems a more apt way of describing it. You cannot help but stare into this concrete example of infinity. Like sand on a beach, this is the closest you will come to witnessing perpetuity. She says, “I’m waiting for Ryan.”And:

F. You tell her you are Ryan. 

G. You tell her you know him.

F.  “I’m right here,” you say to her. You climb into the bucket on the passenger side, all the while transfixed by the hole in your new mother’s eyebrows. Did a needle pierce her face as a child or is her skin swelling to burst with dimness? It does not matter for you as long as you may revel within her misshapenness — enthralled by true loveliness.

 

 

 

G. “I know him,” you say. “He sits behind me in band. He plays trombone,” all while transfixed by the hole. You turn away as envy burns within. Ryan know true beauty for it is entangled in his double helix, inherited brilliance.

 

Quincy Rhoads lives and writes in Clarksville, Tenn. Find more from him here. 

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10
Sep
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Finale

Herein the final installment of Peck’s long-running serial noir. In the previous installment, private eye Harry Jome was running off the rails in pursuit of an elusive truth. At the orchard itself, he was about to meet the proprietor and father of the woman whom he can blame, maybe, for the pursuit — or at least this iteration of it. Things were getting Shakespearean, and they continue thusly…

Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (available for a limited time).

 

Chapter 37

I pulled up to the mud outside the cottage. Trees had collapsed all around the square pasteboard building, badly-fitted planks covering holes where windows should have been, and there were hints of light in the cracks. The grass was four feet high except in those spots where some heavy-farming implement had been abandoned. I wasn’t sure why I was waiting for darkness to come. I was drained and tried closing my eyes, but I was too tired for rest. I was too tired for anything, especially this.

Night fell in sharp checkerboard dividends around the branches and squat hills. A playful moon and a timorous solitude made the orchard look quaint and innocent. I waited until the horizon was dark, the motor humming me back to childhood. I noticed streams of chimney exhaust blankly descending into the gravelly sky above.

The orchard brought a feeling I had experienced at my worst moments. Maybe it was a metaphor, but I didn’t think much of metaphors. Besides, the presence of death everywhere doesn’t beg poetry to have much of an imagination. The orchard was a symbol in a drawing, and I was entering that place where a symbol and a reality were difficult to tell apart.

I shut off the motor and got out, immediately breathing in the dread that seemed to have constructed the place. From somewhere near the main road I heard the acceleration of a vehicle, and perhaps the creak of a door opening and not closing. And I heard nothing else but my own footfalls crunching on dead leaves.

I let myself in to the cottage without bothering to knock. The stench of dead fruit had me incapacitated for an instant. I felt at the grip of the pistol tucked into my waistband.

The space was nothing but a wasted accumulation of old tools and sacks full of spilling apples, a compact fusion of kitchen, living room and bedroom. Daddy Longtree blinked at me from behind a table that was really just a long door propped up by concrete blocks. He was eating an apple pie with a butter knife, and there was a lantern in the middle of the makeshift table, providing only enough light to find the lantern itself.

“I heard you out there in your car for about an hour or so. Hope you aren’t scared of me.” Longtree groaned. He had a strand of gray hair combed toward his eyebrows, slight gray stubble that rose high on his prominent cheekbones and close-set dark eyes that were like bubbles on the surface of a swamp.

“I was thinking of being afraid,” I said. “But I decided against it. There’s enough fear in you for the both of us.”

“I’m not afraid of you. I just met you.”

“Right now I’m a little afraid of me. And not to get on a tangent, but what’s that kid’s problem out there?”

“He’s just mean. He’s an orphan. Orphans can be mean.”

I grabbed a chair by the sink and brought it over to face him. He munched contentedly on the spoiled, mold-green pie. Moving things rummaged in the crust.

“They’re going to build a lunatic asylum on my land,” Longtree said. “What should I think of that?”

“They won’t have to look far for inhabitants.”

Longtree smiled, then grew serious and smiled wider.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said.

“That doesn’t sound hopeful.”

“It isn’t.” He scooped a large helping, bending his head and using his free hand to scrape a rogue apple slice into his mouth. Something pried its way from between Longtree’s lips and skittered away.

“We all of us,” he said, “have one day to go back into the dirt. I’m getting a head start.” He scraped what remained of his brown teeth with the butter knife. “It’s around that time when I should ask who you are,” he said.

“Whoever I am doesn’t matter.”

“Are you selling something?” he asked.

“I’m not selling anything.”

“Everybody is selling something.”

“What are you selling, Longtree?”

He lifted his eyes to the ceiling and contemplated the tears in the plaster. “I honestly don’t think I’m selling anything.”

“Who were you with that night at the bar?” I asked.

“What night?”

“That night you were there. Was it Florence?” The overpowering stench of vinegar was becoming familiar and less noxious.

“Who?” Longtree asked coyly. “Who is that? Florence?”

I was beginning to doubt someone and it wasn’t me. “What about Ben Bergen, your son.”

“I don’t have any son,” he said wistfully.

I stared at him as he plunged back into the pie.

“You think that’s a good angle?” I asked.

He peeked at me above a scoop of pie. “I’m not being cagey. I did have a son. Now I don’t have a son. He died off a few years ago.”

“How?” I blurted.

Longtree only shook his head. Frustration was getting a clawing at me. I pulled the pistol out of my pants and put it on my lap.

“And what about your daughter?”

“I do have one of those. Sue. She’s a belligerent girl. Sue has problems. It is a Longtree trait.”

“Sue’s dead too. Drowned herself in a tub.”

Longtree had nothing in his face. “I sort of supposed that,” he said.

“William Florence?” I said. “And I’m not really kidding. Who is he?”

“Yes, Will is an insurance man. He was digging in the Longtree family — something about a policy taken out on Sue by her sleazy husband. It’s possible that he discovered more about the Longtrees than anyone ever had and was planning something. He was coming here to grease his hands. Which is probably what you’re here to do as well.”

“Ever read the papers?”

“No.”

“I think Florence was the guy in the motel with the bullet in the back of his head.”

“Does that concern me?”

“That depends on whether it concerns you. So Florence got something on you and you paid him.”

“I didn’t pay him.”

“What did you do?”

Longtree breathed and his breath was stale and wretched. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Somebody did something.”

Connections were piling into my head faster than I could sort them out. If Sue was lying about Ben she’d done a nifty job of covering it up by changing the last name and making sure I couldn’t trace it here. Which I did anyway.

Longtree reached under the table and I tensed. The object in his hand was a book and he set it down between us. One apple-encrusted thumbprint was visible on the cover. He sighed. I looked at the flap: A History of Death. By Dominic Early. Of all people.

He said, “It’s loosely based on the history of my horrific family, which you might know something about. All the names are changed, obviously, but it’s a thrilling work. My father was a murderer, as was his father, and his father, etc., etc.” Longtree belched. “There’s no reason in it. Just inheritance of very bad genes, I guess. Every Longtree is a monster. You should be careful, Mr. Jome. They say that whoever struggles with monsters is likely to become one.”

“Who says that?”

“My dead wife, actually. That’s why I’m alone up here. I like being alone up here.”

I crushed a beetle that was climbing up my pants leg and said nothing because there was nothing to say.

“I am the commonest man,” Longtree said. “Aren’t I? Wouldn’t you say that I am the commonest man?”

I put the gun on the table and pointed it at him.

“Sure,” I breathed. I couldn’t stand his frazzled smirk any longer. Longtree only cut another dollop of bug-infected pie and pretended that the gun and I weren’t there. Finished, he bent over and took something off the floor and handed it to me. It was the drawing of the orchard, although in this one the charcoal had been scratched off in places.

“That’s the original,” Longtree said. “I’d like it if you had it. I used to give copies of it to people I respected.”

He paused and licked crumbs out of his facial hair with a wide tongue, laying the drawing on the table.

“I’m glad you’re here though,” he said. “Just to remind me why I’m here.” He gazed longingly at the pie. “I am awfully glad you’re here. I made the discovery long ago,” as though reciting from a fairy tale, without pausing, “that I was a murderer. What made me kill Ben? I had no option. He told me how hard it was for him to function without the urge to kill someone. I don’t think he ever did. But before I stopped telling him it was going to be OK my hands were around his neck and I had no control at all and he just let me do it.” Longtree stared off calmly. “When he was dead I hung him in his garage. First time I’d been away from here. Everybody was sad for me. I was sad for me. Even now I don’t have any guilt or anything. I wonder why that is?”

I slumped back in my chair. He continued to sputter on as he ate.

“I couldn’t have anyone suffer. Ben was going to be a murderer like the whole course of his ancestry and I had to prevent that.  And then I did prevent that. I was thinking of his little girl. I was also thinking of everybody else too.”

Now he didn’t use his utensil, but just dug into the pie with his hands and stuffed a mound of apple and insects into his unperturbed grin.

“So now you are aware. You probably would have figured it out sooner or later,” he said. “So how much do you want?”

I stared hard at Longtree.

“You know about farming?” he asked me, pricking up his eyes to meet mine. “First you have to care for each tree like it was a part of your own body. That’s why my orchard is so successful,” he said. “I got 50 pickers at least. I make such a nice apple pie. Mm hmm,” he mumbled. He tapped his ring finger twice on the pie tin. On the third tap his hands and his head dropped at the pistol’s retort. I was mildly surprised that I had shot him. A billow of acrid smoke erupted to the rafters and stayed there. Longtree’s legs twitched, kicking out an absurdly fast dance. He had one last breath to say something pithy, but it came out in a whisper that I couldn’t hear and smelled rankly of bitter almonds. I hadn’t thought death would smell of bitter almonds. There were a lot of things I didn’t know.

On my way out I had to laugh. Because of the Longtrees and my role in wiping the rest of them out, directly or indirectly. Except for the daughter, Dot, who was the last of them. But she couldn’t be a part of this grisly tale. My laughter fell flat in the cramped and anguished room, dying the split-second it pushed off my lips. Head turned to the ceiling, still seated at the table, Daddy Longtree was just a shadow,  and not an imposing one either.

For a minute I stared at the drawing of the orchard up close to the lantern, a hint of something important tugging at me, just off the border of the picture. What was it in the dark shapes and swirls that was I missing? My mind was all puckered, waiting. It seemed that it was all right there; the problem was that I couldn’t be sure what “it” was supposed to be, “all” signified, or “there” was. The upturned furniture and the apples were starting to bother me, and so I folded the drawing and brought it with me. I imagined a voice coming from somewhere nearby, looked at Longtree, as inert as an ice sculpture.

The night was warm with the musty smell of imminent rain. Just outside in the grass I unfolded the drawing and peered at it some more. There was still something I was not getting but that was spelled out plainly in the charcoal smudges. Again I heard the muttering voice, the way someone might talk on the telephone from the other side of a thick wall, coming from a batch of tall trees to the east.

I waited with the drawing in my hands, not certain how to handle my delusions, or if they were delusions. For the third time I wound the drawing into a tube and simply stood there listening.

 

Chapter 38

There was no moon, and I was forced to go by what scant noise there was. Owls fluttered and sang, the trees soughed, animals moved about. It took a lot of effort not to think about anything. Underfoot the dirt crackled, and when I had my hand on the car door I heard something I shouldn’t have heard, namely a man’s voice starting to sing a lovely song and then instantly halting the lyrics.

“Jome?” the man said from the trees. “I was just thinking about you.”

I swiveled, fearing for a second that the voice was my own and then fearing more that it wasn’t. I was so sleep deprived I could no longer tell whether or not I was talking.

“Jome,” the person said again from a copse of trees surrounded by a clearing of fallen saplings.

“Who’s asking?” I shouted.

“I am.” The man’s tone was high-pitched, recognizable, though I couldn’t place the cadence, and possibly drunk. “I heard what you did. What’d you do anyway? In there with Longtree? You gone lunatic or something?”

I squinted through the twisted foliage, raising the pistol towards the sound. I couldn’t make the man out.

“Longtree killed his son,” I said. “So I killed him back. The story has a happy ending for everybody.”

“Not for Longtree it doesn’t.”

Neither of us said anything for a minute.

“Which one are you?” I asked.

“I’m Walt Wald.”

“I figured.”

“Do you have it figured, Jome? What do you think you’re going to do now that you have it figured?”

“I haven’t really gotten to that part yet. I was planning on getting in my car and driving back to the city.”

“Tonight? That’s a long drive. Maybe you should stay somewhere and start fresh in the morning.”

“Are we talking about something, Wald? This has lost some track.”

“Look, Jome. I’m a private investigator and Sue hired me to watch Lewishom and I just came upon him after you killed him in his car. Not very nice of you, Jome. I know what it probably looks like in Longtree’s and I won’t argue. But I thought you’d let me take you in because you’re going to be in regardless and it would be nice if I could be the one to do it. That’s two dead people. Knowing you I’m sure there’s more somewhere else.”

“Lewishom killed himself.”

“That could be claimed about everybody in a way.”

“That doesn’t sound convincing.”

“That Sue is a crazy bitch,” he said. “Can you believe it?”

“She was,” I said. I crouched low, aiming into the darkness. The moon was sneaking coyly out from a cluster of clouds now and when it did the clearing would be illuminated.

“Why the past tense, Jome?”

“She drowned herself,” I said.

“When did she do that?”

“Earlier.”

Ahead, the spot where the man was concealed was being slowly lighted.

“I just talked to her little while ago,” the voice said. “That’s too bad. How am I going to get the money she owes me for this?”

“I’m not sure, Wald.”

“I’m not either.”

“She told me she was going to Florida after all this.”

And the moon flared, revealing the clearing and the tall, upright figure that was just a glancing silhouette and nothing more.

“What do you mean Florida?” I asked. “And what do you mean, all of this? What is this?”

“I mean,” he started to say, and just then my gun interrupted him and the silhouette dropped hard with a scattering of twigs. I stood and got into the car. On the way back my headlights swept over the stoned kid from the office. He was wide-eyed and he was running for the cottage. I rolled the window down.

“Kid,” I yelled at him. “It’s a real mess up there.”

His mouth said something and he kept running.

The strong breeze was invigorating and I was suddenly awake.

I returned through the wreckage of trees, all mold and utter sorrow. Nestled into a turnaround off the path a green sedan was parked, belonging, I guessed, to Wald.

I drove too fast, skimming into culverts and narrowly missing a few trees. Maybe I’d killed Longtree to offer some kind of resolution; then again, I could have simply not known what to do. I blamed it on fatigue and confusion. But killing Wald couldn’t be rationalized. Maybe it could.

Additionally there seemed to be a gathering of private dicks out for me. Why had Sue hired all these people and had them follow me and each other? Nothing made sense.

Sue Longtree, I thought, probably deserved everything that she did to herself.

Why anything anymore.

And so Ben Bergen was what he’d always been: a name, and a face I’d never seen.

I was coming down with a rotten head cold, and endured a bout of sneezing while I drove.

I really wished the suit was done already.

Coming into view of Sutter Falls and back on paved roads I was overlooking the lake and the moonlight dinging off the surface. I braked and for five minutes I admired the water and the air, and then I felt stupid and kept driving. It was just past nine.

I passed fields and lonely farmers on tractors inching through the fields.

I was sure that I was being followed, and a moment later I was sure I wasn’t. Then I wasn’t sure. Cars appeared and reappeared in my rear-view with inconstant regularity. I was convinced that both Wald and Lewishom were behind me somewhere in the night, still tenaciously on the case. I couldn’t shake them. Every few miles I pulled off to the side. Twice I thought their respective cars had bypassed me when I was stopped. I learned to stop looking behind me.

The drawing was on the seat beside me and I repeatedly held it to the dome light, looking into the amateur lines for some kind of meaning. Finally I stuck it out the window and let the rush of wind have it.

The wipers were on the whole drive. Twenty minutes away from the city and it was pouring again. At each off-ramp into town I kept driving, until there weren’t any more exits and there was just the highway and the static lights of the highway.

Eventually I turned back. I was obsessing over my tailor and getting mad that the suit wasn’t finished yet.

The city, suddenly — the things and places that were familiar — felt somehow foreign.

 

Chapter 39

At the office a legion of dust stalked the air and settled over the ruins of furniture. The reddish shadow from Parker’s head had dulled to a milky relief, like the pigment you’d see in a Rothko.

An hour and 20 minutes to midnight. Sleeping would have been the right thing to do, but I was too exhausted and too haunted for the idea not to seem like a nightmare. Instead I stretched out under the window like a cat. Ants bustled on the wood near my face, and I felt like drowning some of them in my saliva. The gash in my throat was still bandaged and the sting had gone away but I could feel my heartbeat throbbing in the wound. I pried myself off the floor without any ants being harmed and gobbled a handful of aspirin. From a desk drawer I pulled a tissue, the cold now filling my head and eyes.

I was finished.

In a lunge of exotic dread I was suddenly emptying the contents of the filing cabinets one by one, yanking bygone cases and files and items from the drawers and just piling it all on the floor in a mania I couldn’t explain but for an odd reason enjoyed.

I blamed it on the Longtrees, along with everything else that was wrong.

After 20 minutes I’d tired myself out and sat and watched the neon city bounce around inside the room. The office was now a tangled mess of clutter, a broken mug scattered in the midst.

Maybe I was looking for something and by not finding it I was coming closer to realizing that there was nothing to find. The Longtree fiasco was itching me and I couldn’t do anything about it. What had it been about?

I stood and tried to shake off my brain.

Rain smeared the windows and the lights outside. Then lightning flattered the night in an afternoon glow.

I smiled at the man in the window. He didn’t smile back.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked.

“I got a cold or something.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Is it?”

And then I punched the window, but it didn’t shatter and I tried again. Then I tried again and it still wouldn’t shatter.

I looked at my knuckles. At the wall. At the dust. At the broken mug. Everything didn’t feel right.

I was drifting off into a black-and-white dream when the call came in. I thought I recognized the soft-spoken, uneasy voice. “Harry Jome?” the man asked.

“I think so. Let me check.”

“Could you meet me right away? I’m at the diner near your building?” He said it like a question.

“I’m a little busy here just now.”

“It’s not unimportant. It’s about Sue Longtree and some other things.”

“I don’t care about Sue.”

“You might care about these other things,” the man said and wasn’t there. I pried myself into the elevator and got to the diner a minute later.

At a far booth inside the diner a skinny teenaged couple were necking with every part of their bodies except for their necks. Both of them pimpled and as carefree as quantum physics. The place was drenched in artificial warmth. Behind the counter the waitress who’d caused the commotion a few days ago had returned to her job, obviously pregnant and obviously angry about it. The teenaged boy glared at me as though I was his girl’s uncle come to take her home.

The man at the counter was in a gray tweed suit and brown spats. He had a stoic profile. He was too poised and pale to belong there. His salt-and-pepper hair was long and parted and hadn’t been touched by a barber in months. A mustache fit perfectly on his upper lip. His umbrella had fallen underneath his stool, and near his elbows there was a stack of stapled papers.

I wedged into the stool beside him and shook my head when the waitress asked me what I’d have.

“Jome, isn’t it?” the man asked. When he turned his eyeballs were crystals, very blue and very careful.

“You Florence?” I asked back.

“No, but it’s still nice to know you. Sorry about the circumstances.”

“I don’t know what the circumstances are.”

He shrugged. A cup of coffee was pushed off to the side.

“Are you Florence?” I asked. “Or Bergen or some other asshole?”

“I should be somebody,” he said, using his fingers to taper his mustache.

“Whoever you are you’ve caused a lot of stupid dying and I’m the one going to be chained up for it.”

“People sometimes die,” he said casually. “Isn’t it better that it’s for a reason?”

“What’s better for a reason?”

“What I’m telling you.”

“So far you haven’t told me anything.”

“I haven’t?”

“No.”

“I thought I had. Well, I’m saying that those deaths were kind of not my fault. By the way, how many people have you killed in the past couple of days?” His mustache twitched like it was trying to leap away from his mouth.

“OK. So I don’t know what you have or if you have anything,” I said. “Ben Bergen is dead but used another name and I can’t track down Florence, which is the name he used. And Sue is dead and a couple of nerds called Parker and Porter,” I realized that I was counting the dead on my fingers. “Lewishom. Wald, I think. Maybe even somebody I’ve never heard of.”

The man nodded and bit both his lips at the same time.

“Maybe I’m the guy you’ve never heard of,” he said. “Dean Bruckner. We’re in the same line of work.

“How did that happen?”

“The Longtree lady needed somebody good to follow you and the guys following you and to keep eyes on how it was going.”

“I never noticed you.”

“Because she needed somebody good. I just told you. And I’m a little proud of that.”

“You shouldn’t be.”

“I am though.”

“So what?” I said. “What about Bergen and Florence.”

“I don’t know anything about them but I do know that neither of them has anything to do with this.”

Bruckner’s troubling eyes were mellow with the intensity of brooding over intense things. The light in the room was all crooked, like an origami construction of shadows.

“Ever hear the name Dominic Early?” Bruckner asked.

“I know all about Domoinic Early. He and Sue are the same person. A hack writer of juvenile stuff.”

“I’m glad you know Early is Sue because that’s the big explanation.”

He slid the stack of pages over to me. I flipped the manuscript over. The title was big and blatant and contained five words: The Last Orchard in America. And below that, A Novel by Dominic Early.

“Jome, you were just research for Sue’s latest dumb potboiler and I was the researcher,” Bruckner said. “She hired me to track you around town. She was all blocked up, she said. The case was only for a plot of hers. All she wanted to do was stir things up by hiring a bunch of investigators and see what popped out of the disorder.”

“Is it any good?” I asked without knowing why I asked.

“She’s not a good writer and it has no ending. It does include her suicide though. Maybe you can conclude it if you want to.”

Somewhere within me everything halted. The answer I had was to the question I hadn’t asked. I was so enraged I felt almost weightless.

“So what do you want?” I asked. “You and Sue got away with something. I was a character in her book. I’m not sure what she got away with, but something happened and you must have been causing something to happen. Or else you wouldn’t be here with my phone number in your pocket. So what about Bergen? What about anybody? What the hell went on?”

“The answers are all there Jome. Your problem is that there are no questions.”

“So what do you want, Bruckner?”

Looking at me, he puzzled over how he was going to phrase it. “I thought you should know about her manuscript,” he finally said. “And I also wanted to tell you how bad of a private investigator you are.”

He curled his mouth into a smile that didn’t spread to the rest of his face.

Halfway out the door, yanking up his umbrella, he turned and asked too pleasantly: “Is it ever going to stop raining?”

The horny couple was staring at me and they were frightened at what they saw. I followed Bruckner out to the drenched street. Lightning burned the sky a crimson blush.

It was never going to stop raining.

I had Sue’s manuscript in my hands, and I raised it above me to shield off some of the downpour. I wasn’t going anywhere, if I ever had been.

Another flash of lightning exposed Bruckner conferring with someone under an archway. I couldn’t see who it was. I took a handkerchief out of my pocket and daubed my cheeks and forehead. I looked at the handkerchief and saw that it was moistened with wet gray ink. The manuscript’s print was dripping all over me and I choked a little on the ink as it swept into my mouth.

No, it wasn’t ever going to stop raining.

Standing there soaking on the stoop of the diner I imagined the oceans and the rivers and reservoirs outside of town that nourished the city all breaking loose and ripping apart and absorbing the brick facades and the embellished cornices and the stairwells and small sports cars and vending carts and street signs and deck chairs and expensive dresses. I realized that I hated everything that had ever been. Because it was not going to stop raining.

I conjured an image of my suit and the image wouldn’t leave me. It was a flawless suit, and in my pondering it fit me better than my skin. I wanted that suit.

I walked and walked and there were low voices all around me in the night. Soon I was in front of my tailor’s and my rage was ballooning. His basement shop was brightly lit. I let myself in through the front door and descended the stairs. The room was inhabited by five or six faceless mannequins in various postures. Cramm had his back to me in a monogrammed bathrobe, his black hair disheveled.

“Where’s my suit, Cramm?” I asked, startled by the ferocity in my voice.

He spun around and backed up into one of the mannequins, dropping a piece of chalk. One of the figures was wearing what I imagined my gray suit to look like, white lines running up and down the sleeves and pants.

“It looks pretty done to me,” I said.

“Almost, sure,” Cramm said, fear set in his dark eyes. After a second he said, “The cuffs aren’t sewn on yet.”

I advanced toward him. “I don’t give a damn about the cuffs. I never figured you to be this kind of person, Cramm. I’m disappointed.”

“Sorry,” he said. “But the suit is not done.”

Cramm was shaking when I went by him and tilted my head at the suit. The fabric was satiny. I hadn’t seen a better suit, even considering the white tracings. This suit was the clothier’s version of a ballad.

The tailor was crying and going for the staircase slowly. I pulled the pistol and fired, and the shot caught him in the hip and he fell behind some cardboard boxes.

I lifted the three-piece job off the mannequin and stripped, putting the rain-blanked manuscript on a stool. Removed my pants and jacket and slipped into the smooth seersucker I’d been waiting for. The fit was grand. I took the manuscript and passed Cramm clawing at the bottom stair.

“What’s all this for?” he said.

“For not having my suit done faster.”

“The cuffs still need to be measured,” he said weakly, and then I think he died.

“I like it how it is,” I said.

Soon I was under a streetlight and some men were scurrying around the dark buildings. I turned down an alleyway, glancing back to see some fellow entering Cramm’s shop and gesturing for others.

I felt better with the suit on.

A sirocco wind had sprung up and the bridge swayed over the river, and the river smelled of beached fish and that peculiar lachrymose pungency that water gives off before dawn. It was 4:20. I hadn’t been to my apartment. Hadn’t slept in how many days I couldn’t remember.

There was a barge somewhere off in the night. Foghorns throttled out every few seconds like a slow, dense clock. The bridge was empty of pedestrians and vehicles, the parapet below shaded by trees, the starless-ness of the sky jumpy with accumulating storms. I put two hands on the metal supports and whistled. I hadn’t whistled in a while. The resonance across the harbor was like some lost lullaby repeated from someone I’d never met. I whistled and whistled, a whistling maniac standing on a bridge. Wearing a fresh suit.

I held out my palms. It wasn’t raining anymore. I was glad. I was so glad I upped the volume of my dirge.
And then I wasn’t whistling anymore.

 

Chapter 40

The same is true for the end of a story as it is for the beginning: where do you say it’s done? At the moment all of the various stupid actions make fate inevitable? That moment, however, could have been all along.

Endings are always the same because they’re usually not the same.

Below me, the river clashed with the pale banks, flooded onto the grass of a park. The night was a everywhere.

The ending could have been a batch of spotlights from the north side of the bridge, and the anomalous quietude of daylight shining through the darkness.

Could have been the silence of the men holding the spotlights steady and the displaced whispers of their supervisors.

Or Cowper materializing out of the spotlight, the way you can tell by his posture that he’s serious. Bent cigarette held in between his lips that looked as though he’d forgotten about it since last he’d visited me.

Any ending could be what he said to me on the bridge.

“Why’d you do it, Jome? All those people? Any reason whatsoever?”

Could have been my response, that maybe I was just frustrated with the whole goddamn idea. “I haven’t slept too well lately,” I said. “If only you understand how much of this I don’t understand.”

The end could have been the rain slaloming off Cowper’s hat or the men behind Cowper who were giving themselves shapes in the spotlight.

Suddenly I felt the great thrill of feeling nothing and the feeling was good. And that would have been a partly decent ending.

Cowper approached casually, as though we’d planned to meet here. Some of the men were close behind him. Now that I had my suit on I was ready, and it didn’t matter that the suit wasn’t finished. I pulled myself onto the bridge’s railing, head lowered to the clamorous river.

The end could have been that I didn’t care, or it could have been something as simple as a nod, because these kinds of things usually end on a bridge.

 

END

 

PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. “Last Orchard…” is his first book-length work of prose.

 

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