Belonging

“Please, God, let him telephone me now.” With dramatic flare, Alex breathed on the Nokia and polished it against his sleeve. He held the phone aloft, precious as a relic, beneath the old Monte Carlo’s interior dome light. “Please, in all your divine wisdom!”

Seated shotgun and a little drunk, Elaine giggled. She never tired of Alex’s joyful theatrics. But one uneventful moment later—when Alex tossed the phone across the dashboard—she realized that he was genuinely upset. As the Nokia bounced down to the floorboard at her feet, Elaine slumped in her seat, toying with the paintbrush ends of her own long braids.

Alex sucked in a calming breath, then turned up the volume on the stereo to a deafening level. It was already past nine, and Dave was clearly a no-show-no-call; meanwhile, Alex was ritually compelled by nervous habit to make noise in the wake of the unexpected. In fact, whenever deviations threatened any plan, Alex’s good judgment suffered. Elaine would have to be vigilant tonight.

The radio was tuned to the college station out of Lawrence (Elaine’s broken Bauhaus cassette was still jammed in the tape slot), but reception there in Topeka was spotty. Static fizzled in alternation with the latest electro-clash beats, an asynchronous ruckus to which Alex vogued lithely behind the steering wheel. Once his mood had improved satisfactorily, Elaine turned down the noise and accepted the consequence of his withering glare. “If your ‘telephone’ rings,” she air-quoted, “we’re not going to hear it.” But mainly, Elaine didn’t want to gain undue attention. They were parked outside the apartment complex of Mandy the Connection—in the tenant-only lot, no less. “Why don’t we cruise the Boulevard instead,” she said, and offered him their shared Wild Turkey fifth.

“Oh no, dear. We can’t miss it.” Alex finished off the whisky and rolled the bottle under his seat. He drew in a deep, sorrowful breath. “Shit. And Dave had the address…”

“That sucks, but we can find it. It’s a warehouse party. How many could there be in one night?” Elaine leaned over, chin to her knees, and rummaged in the vinyl purse at her feet. She hoped to hide her helpless near-smile, her relief that Dave had flaked. Alex deserved so much better! And as a matter of fact, she’d told Dave as much just yesterday—unbeknownst to Alex.

From her purse, Elaine extracted the envelope of their combined remaining tips from the café’s lunch rush. She squared dollar bills against the dashboard, and dealt the cash into a pile on her lap. Five, ten, fifteen—

“I guess you were right about him,” Alex said. “You’re always right.”

“Am I?” she said. She fanned herself with a handful of dollars.

Alex finally smiled again, showing those sugar-cube teeth. He turned the radio up once more and bounced in his seat to the static-laced percussion.

This time, Elaine allowed the loudness. She knew when to pick her battles. Twenty-five… Thirty… She scooped a mound of loose change from the open ashtray, stacked quarters on the dashboard. “And, thirty-five!” she said over the noise, with a ta-daaa gesture. She popped open the glove box and retrieved a Ziploc bag.

“And, nothing,” Alex sighed. “Dave also had the rest of the money.”

“What’re you talking about? Thirty-five’s plenty. Absolut, Smirnoff—”

“Actually, I ordered something else.” Alex shot her a hangdog look. “But don’t worry, it’s something fun.”

“Oh?” The single syllable followed a querulous tonal arc, as Elaine tucked cash into the baggie. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It was Dave’s idea,” he said lightly. His next words followed their own meaningful tonality, as if to sweet-talk a pet with a treat: “Li-quid code-ine!” Alex rapped at the steering wheel with drumstick fingers, matching a syncopated roll on the radio. When he glanced at Elaine for approval of his percussive feat, he noticed her expression. “Sorry, Elaine. Dave said he mentioned it to you, but that you seemed unsure.

“Why would I be unsure? It sounds lovely.” Elaine handed him the money, but her gaze stayed on the Monte Carlo’s dashboard. Zoomed in on its woven-texture surface. Contemplated the unobtrusive pattern there—so subtle as to be nearly imperceptible.

Alex pulled mischievously at one of her long braids. Elaine leaned toward him, going along with the braid-tug. He smooched her temple. She lived for this, the temple-smooch from Alex: her own unique token of belonging. Oh, the evasive sense of belonging! How easily one takes it for granted until it’s gone. Being with him was the first time she’d had it since she’d run away from home a year ago, her arms beset with bruises and burns. Being with him was the last sense of belonging she’d ever need.

“Anyway, it’s all fine,” Alex said near her ear. “Mandy offered me an arrangement for these situations.” He leaned back in his seat, sugar cubes disappearing behind perfect lips. He peered in the rearview mirror, checked his profile from different angles. With dramatic fervor renewed, he said: “Please God, help me through it!”

And suddenly, Alex pulled the keys from the ignition, killing the stereo. As he got out, an unnerving open-door chime replaced the radio’s remote static/music. Humid evening air drifted in, bringing scents of cut grass and pre-storm ozone. The night was warm, but Elaine crossed her arms against a chill. “What kind of ‘arrangement?’”

“Mutual benefit,” Alex said. “Mutual understanding of life’s underlying principle.” In one hand, he gripped the money bag by its zipped-up strip. In the other, keys jangled, swinging by their central ring: clink-dink, clink-dink. “Life’s unifying principle!” he declared. “One does what one must, to get what one needs.”

Is that what he’d said? The outdoor ambience mitigated his voice—distant traffic, whirring cicadas in the ball field across the street, the hum of an air conditioner in a nearby window. And of course that clink-dink of keys. Elaine stared at Alex, turned his indefinite words over in her mind, checked them from different angles. “But what exactly—”

“Just play along.” Clink-dink. “C’mon, let’s get this over with.”

“Okay,” Elaine said quietly. Then, brightly: “Yes, dear.”


Among Topeka’s underage underground—the punks, the club kids and ravers, the black-metal cultic—Mandy the Connection was scenester royalty. But as Elaine followed Alex along a knobby carpet runner down the main hall—as she breathed in sundry scents of Lysol, warm dryer sheets, and burnt popcorn—she wondered: what does it mean to be royalty? To be relevant, to be adored? To be somebody important in the eyes of another?

Elaine’s own eyes grew wide as they reached apartment five, where the door angled open to reveal a petite woman in goth-y eyeliner, Mary Janes, and an oversized black
T-shirt. Mandy the Connection. How old was she? Twenty-five? Thirty? Despite her old age, she was pretty. There was a drawn hardness to her features, as if she were enacting icy willpower to refrain from smiling no matter the circumstance. But this merely added an alluring sense of danger about her.

“Sorry we’re late,” Alex said, proffering the bag of cash.

“Where’s Dave?” Mandy asked. She unzipped the baggie and thumbed through the bills. Elaine watched her, entranced, memorizing every movement.

Alex smirked. “Dave who?”

Mild amusement displayed on Mandy’s hard features. She looked up and glared at Elaine, who’d been staring. Elaine glanced away coolly, but her face warmed.

“Who’s she?” said Mandy.

“My friend Elaine,” Alex said. “Remember, I told you? She just moved here from Kansas City.” He emphasized those last two words, implied Elaine’s metropolitan savvy. As Mandy raised one manicured eyebrow, Elaine felt special. Relevant. Important.

There was a near-imperceptible hesitation before Alex added: “Her stepdad owns the Underground Sound club.”

Elaine froze cold next to Alex. An electric flash of panic zipped through her nervous system. What did he just say? Power drained from her as fast as it had risen up. She drew in breath to speak, but her throat was tight with rage. After everything I told him about—

“Wow, that’s cool,” said Mandy, her icy demeanor melting slightly. “Big city girl.”

Alex nudged Elaine with his elbow excitedly.

Still frozen, Elaine heard herself make a polite sound.

Mandy let them in. Alex moved fast, keys jingling. Elaine followed numbly. In just five steps, they stood in the main room of Mandy the Connection’s small apartment HQ. It was a schizophrenic hybrid of kitchen, laundry room, and living room—and all pertinent sundries were stacked and scattered from wall to wall. Dishes occupied an ironing board next to a bookshelf. Clean clothes were sorted on the dining table. Cracker boxes and a bread loaf sat atop an entertainment center, inside of which a Law & Order rerun played dutifully on TV.

Mandy reached under the dining table and dragged a large crate across the floor. She pulled from it a Smirnoff bottle and set it next to some folded towels. “Good enough?”

Alex glanced at Elaine for her blessing.

Elaine glared at him. Anger stirred sickly at the pit of her stomach.

Alex returned his attention to Mandy. “Perfect.” As he spoke, a peculiar sound rose simultaneously from the far side of the couch. A small dog’s bark? Elaine glanced around, eyes darting across the room’s cluttered landscape.

Meanwhile, Mandy scooted the crate back under the table and regarded Alex with what nearly passed as a half-smile. “You still want… the other?”

Elaine fought the urge to shout, No! But just then, the dog’s-bark transformed eerily into a cat-like mewl—then a dove-like coo—which then became distinctly human. Goosebumps speckled Elaine’s bare arms. What the hell is that? The incipient rage in her gut was quelled by curiosity: not the adoration-of-life’s-mysteries kind, but rather the ill-sense-of-dread variety. Elaine drifted from Alex’s side, moved slowly along the edge of the couch. Her line of sight focused on a metal frame that rose vertically above cushion-level, just beyond the couch’s arm. That metal frame moved, rocking gently—then was still.

“Yes.” Alex’s voice, from behind her. Miles away.

Elaine peered over the furniture, gaze following the metal frame’s downward slide. She gasped at the sight as it emerged before her: a baby was sitting in a stroller next to the couch, watching TV.

“Are you sure she’s okay with this?” It was Mandy’s voice this time, broadcast from some remote station. Elaine stared at the baby in blue terrycloth—as it wagged its arms and gurgled and kicked out onesie-footied feet. It barked a rough cough, then mewled and cooed at the screen as if in appreciation of Law & Order’s dark and unexpected reversal.

A beat of silence followed. Elaine suddenly remembered the others in the room, and realized she’d become their center of attention. She whirled around. Alex’s expression was unintelligibly aloof.

Elaine looked at Mandy, who had moved from the table to kitchen. Elaine said brightly, “Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Good,” said Mandy. She turned around and opened a pantry cabinet. With her back to Elaine and Alex, she removed cans of food from an interior shelf and stacked them on the counter.

Elaine thought she saw sugar cubes flash in the corner of her eye. She would not look at Alex, could not stomach the sight of his smile. The vague-sick-dread feeling swelled, welled up inside her, threatened to manifest in tears. She stared doggedly at Mandy stacking cans.

And in spite of it all, Elaine was surprised to see what was now exposed inside the cabinet: a small combination safe, deep inside, ostensibly attached to the back wall. Mandy twisted the dial. In Elaine’s mind, numbers echoed. Twenty-five…

Alex sidled up next to Elaine.

 Thirty...

He kissed her temple.

Thirty-five…

The safe popped open. Alex slid away again.

Ta-daa!

Mandy shoved the money inside the safe. From within it, she extracted a medicine bottle of syrupy red liquid. “Heads-up, Big City.” Mandy tossed the bottle to Elaine, who caught it by instinct. She considered it numbly. On the prescription label was the name of a codeine-based generic drug she did recognize, and the name of a person she didn’t—Isaac Smith.

In the meantime, Alex joined Mandy in the kitchen as she replaced the cans in front of the safe. Then the two beautiful creatures moved together toward the bedroom hall. Already a numinous physical force connected them, as if their individual spheres of personal space had merged. Alex leaned his head toward Mandy’s neck, and he kissed along its length—and Elaine simultaneously felt that very sensation from afar, those soft lips tickling her skin. It was an unwitting, unwelcome act of remote empathy that left her breathless, electrified, and nauseous.

“Keep Izzy company,” said Mandy as they passed Elaine and left her behind.


Five…

Five minutes later, the inevitable event: Elaine’s tears came in a rush, like rain gushing down from midsummer firmament after a long stretch of hot and humid promise.

But tears hadn’t yet come when the bedroom door shut assertively in the hall. At that point, Elaine numbly sat down at the end of the couch near the baby. Izzy glanced at her, then resumed a private endeavor to pull his foot to his mouth.

And tears still hadn’t come when Law & Order’s familiar credits rolled on TV, following yet another satisfying but noir-nuanced conclusion. The theme song ended, the screen went black. Sudden, unexpected stillness in the room allowed for unbidden realization. Abrupt silence showcased the purity of Elaine’s unsureness. Oh, the evasive sense of certainty! How easily one takes it for granted until it’s gone. In that instant of broadcast discontinuity, Elaine finally understood Alex’s loud stereo, jangling keys, and thrumming fingers on every surface. She finally got the need for noise in the face of deviation from the plan.

But even then, Elaine’s tears didn’t come quite yet.

“Ahh,” Izzy said, his voice huge in the quiet room. Elaine looked at him, intending only a perfunctory glance. Instead, when she found the baby gazing directly at her, she was immediately lost in those sweet brown eyes.

Izzy stared, taking in every detail, as if in awe. As if she were important.

As local news anchors lit up the screen to an exciting musical crescendo, Elaine wept.

 

Ten, fifteen…

According to the bank building’s clock a block down from Mandy’s complex, it was 10:15 when Elaine crossed Sixth Street with the stroller. Her heart beat heavily. Her mind swam with images of the actions she’d taken after the tearful breakdown. Pouring cough syrup down the drain in the kitchen sink. Stacking cans helter-skelter on the counter. Whirling the safe’s combination dial to its salient stops, drawing on the singular well of certainty to which she was privy. Shoving the Ziploc bag of cash into the stroller pouch behind Izzy’s seat. Grabbing a bottle of formula from the fridge.

Had it been her that had taken these actions? She felt strangely disconnected from the immediate past. But all signs said yes as she popped the stroller wheels over the curb. Here she was with Izzy, the bottle clutched in his chubby fingers. Here they were, moving under competing angles of street lamps and security lights, a gestalt form of
girl-with-baby-in-stroller casting multiple shadows in varying gradients. As they approached the empty ball field in increasing darkness, their silhouettes crisscrossed and merged, and finally dissipated in shadow.

Sprinkles of rain pinpricked Elaine’s bare arms. Loose change rattled merrily in the stroller pouch as they crossed the uneven terrain. Izzy’s terrycloth-clad bulk jostled with each bump, the bottle bopping in his mouth. “Sorry,” she whispered, though Izzy was unperturbed.

When they reached the field’s center, Elaine realized at last: she didn’t know where they were going. But in a far corner of the lot stood a little park—merely a climbing structure and swing set, and one lone bench. It barely qualified as a playground, but seemed a perfect destination for this sojourn. Elaine headed toward it, bumping along.

 

Twenty…

At the twenty-yard line, Elaine cut away from the field and approached the playground. By the time they reached it, light rain was falling. Elaine expanded the stroller’s umbrella over Izzy to keep him dry. She sat on the bench, turned the baby to face her. “Sorry,” she repeated, exhausted.

Izzy stared at her with deep interest.

A man’s voice echoed across the field, breaking hoarsely with the effort to project. Elaine heard her name and looked up to see two figures running across the cropped turf. She’d never seen Alex move so fast—a startling sight. As petite as she was, Mandy kept pace with him nonetheless. She had changed into jeans and a blouse, and now wore sneakers.

Elaine’s blood ran cold, her insides turned watery. She jumped up from the bench as imminent thunder rumbled. Rain gained gravity.

Alex skidded to a stop next to her. He spoke between heaving gasps. “What… the… hell… are you… doing out here?”

“We went for a walk,” Elaine said.

Mandy arrived, face ruddy with exertion and rage. Her eyes were wild as she pulled the stroller away from Elaine. She patted at Izzy to see if he was okay. She then rounded on Elaine furiously, fists clenched. “Explain your motherfucking self!”

Elaine cringed. “We went for a walk,” she whispered.

“She’s drunk, Mandy,” Alex pleaded. “She’s using bad judgment.” Gently, he placed his hands on Elaine’s shoulders. Warmth emanated from his touch, mitigating her
cold-blooded flow of guilt. He guided Elaine to a swing, onto which she ungracefully descended. She looked up at Alex with remorseful gratitude.

“Isn’t that right, Elaine?” he scolded. But his eyes sparkled: a playful glimmer so subtle as to nearly be imperceptible.

Elaine nodded.

Doubtful, Mandy considered Alex’s words. She hissed at Elaine, “What you don’t know would fill a fucking book.” But her fury had diminished slightly.

Finally Mandy turned away. She sat on the bench, peered down at Izzy, and stroked his hair. Izzy smiled and cooed at his mother. At this sight, Elaine herself smiled—although her joy was truncated abruptly when Mandy snapped at her, “And where’s my goddamn money?”

Elaine pointed at the stroller pouch.

Mandy hefted out the Ziploc, coins jangling. She mumbled, “How the fuck did you know the combination,” but it wasn’t really a question. Elaine didn’t have an answer. As Mandy unzipped the bag and pulled out the cash, Alex grabbed Elaine’s nearest braid and tugged. He leaned toward her and whispered, “Down the drain? Really?” He rolled his eyes and mouthed silently, “All that for nothing!” Out loud, he added theatrically, “Please God, help us both!”

In spite of herself—in spite of everything—Elaine giggled.

Meanwhile, as the rain gained intensity, Mandy began counting the money carefully, confirming all that was hers was still there. Making sure that Elaine had taken nothing away that did not belong to her.

Elaine swung her legs back and forth on the swing. She gained altitude, her kicks gained force. Silently she counted along with Mandy, in a mindful act of empathy. But Elaine already knew—all it ever was, was all still there.

“Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five.”


Belonging was originally written for the Regulus Press 2018 Literary Taxidermy competition, in which it received an Honorable Mention. The first and last lines are from Dorothy Parker’s short story A Telephone Call.

montecarlo1976
1976 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, circa 1989-ish. Topeka, Kansas.
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Cat Box Blues (Story Excerpt No. 8)

After last night’s storm, my campus shortcut is mud. From the edge of the community garden, I toe a muck mound next to a carrot patch, another one by the lettuce. Nope, no can do—not in holey canvas Chucks. And now I’m officially running  late despite best efforts.

I backtrack swiftly, jog along alleys, jump puddles with cartoonish animation so remote from my mood as to be criminal. Here’s another should-be crime: although summer classes are done, I was out of bed by eight AM to make Mr. Crosthwaite’s ridiculous office hours. Excuse me: office hour. All I want is blankets and darkness and silence; all I get is unwitting exertion beneath the Kansas summer sun.

On that topic, I’ll add air conditioning to my list of wants. It’s only nine-thirty and already oppressive heat bathes me in sweat. The morning sky is ablaze, brilliant blue. I shrink from the firmament, my gaze cast groundward as I slog up Fourteenth Street. I wipe my damp forehead with a likewise-damp forearm and sigh. Then, chagrin: I recognize this gesture as a copy of my mother’s hot-flash tell. Well, that’s just perfect.

(I’d say, “Mom, are you okay?” and Mom would bark that bitter post-divorce laugh-like sound and say, “My superpower is to completely ignore the egregious shit that life throws my way.” And then I’d say, “Oh.” And then I’d say, “Um, are you sure you’re okay?” And she would fan herself and say simply, “Yes, dear.”)

Ignore it! I tell myself. It’s a little warm, what’s the big deal? But the sun throbs deifically overhead. I slow my climb, sweating. A rivulet runs down my spine beneath the cotton Clash T-shirt. The big deal is, I realize, there’s no escape. Rivulets run down my cheeks.

As I crest the hill onto campus, Dyche Hall rises into view, and I head southbound along Jayhawk Boulevard. The school grounds are quiet. Humidity rises from untrodden green lawns. Moisture from the pavement evaporates unevenly, and Rorschach blots on pale concrete provoke interpretation. There’s a bird, there’s a car, there’s beautiful Sean’s bedhead-hair. There’s Janet flipping me off good-naturedly. And look, there’s my geek ex Eddie in his Mariners cap and Werner Heisenberg hoodie with a bag of Cheetohs and a sardonic grin.

No escape.

Winded, I park my Chucks on Janet’s imagined face. My fingers scrabble around in my backpack, bounce off the phone in there, and I squeeze my eyes shut: nope, nope, restraint. I extract the Pall Mall box instead, tap its end. Out slides the remaining cigarette, bent but thankfully unbroken. I touch the lighter in my jeans pocket—then think twice, withdraw. Man, it’s getting bad. The past three cigarettes were each, in succession, supposed to be my last. Such a liar-to-myself. Well, then again—each of those cigarettes was my last, at least for a while. Up until the point I smoked another one.

The truth changes.

 I slide this one behind my ear and shove the empty box into the backpack’s depths. I peer inside the bag, shake things up, rattle past the class journal and water bottle: there it is. I grab my phone and punch at its smooth face with my fingers, stare at the notification.

Yep. Still there. And yet I still can’t quite believe it.

Voicemail. From Eddie.

A message from Eddie, as yet unplayed, after months of the stonewall-silent-treatment-cold-shoulder. It’s Schrödinger’s cat in my inbox, neither heard nor unheard, dead nor alive. Now, of all times. Now, after all this. Why? What does he want? Did Eddie psychically tap into my weekend’s despair—subconsciously prompted, he calls to ask forgiveness? To say he wants me back? Unplayed, unheard—that cat is still in the box, and still in the bag.

Zip up the backpack. Keep walking. Wipe sweat from brow. What’s crazy is, I don’t even care what Eddie has to say. It took me six weeks in Kansas to finally get over him, to finally want something—someone—else. And as of Saturday night, the future I had finally come to want is forfeit.

My superpower is the provocation of brutal irony.

Mr. Crosthwaite told us in class that the mere observation of a quantum-level phenomenon changes that phenomenon. Might that be true too of me and my-level phenomena? If I had just stayed in bed, would none of it have happened? If I hadn’t lingered in the kitchen Saturday night—if I hadn’t been standing there in the dark, illuminated by an open fridge—if I hadn’t loaded up on post-party-drunkard orange-juice-in-a-coffee-cup and coming-down-potato-chips and too-hyped-up-to-sleep-Cinnamon-Toast-Crunch-no-milk—if I hadn’t been just standing there, observing….

Maybe Janet and Sean would not have sneaked out of her room giggling like children, messy-haired and ruddy-cheeked. Janet wearing Sean’s T-shirt, its edges down to her upper thighs. Sean wearing only wrinkled shorts and a beautiful goldfish tattoo. Maybe they wouldn’t have entered the dark kitchen, whispering about sandwich fixings and switching on the light, and maybe I wouldn’t have been standing there holding a single potato chip aloft, ready for a bite, frozen in surprise and then in shock and then in dread.

We three stared at each other for a long minute. Janet crossed her arms over her chest. “Hey. I didn’t know you were up.”

“Sean?” I said, setting the potato chip down on the counter. I didn’t predict it at the time, but that chip would sit lonely, uneaten, for the rest of the weekend. So close had it come to fulfilling its destiny—yet its sole purpose d’etre remained wanting. Eventually Viv would get home and clean the kitchen and throw it in the compost with an angry mutter.

“Hi there,” Sean said. Seriously. Just as friendly and nonchalant as he’d been at the coffee shop, at the July Fourth fireworks, at the party. Just a nice, friendly guy. “It’s Wil, right? You live here too?”

Did he just say It’s Wil, right? like he only vaguely remembers?

Janet said, “Did you have fun at the party?” and smiled. Like she knew. Like she’d planned this. Egregious.

Or maybe it was just a nice, friendly smile.

I turned in, but I couldn’t sleep. Later I heard Janet and Sean talking and laughing through the wall. Then their voices fell quiet—and what remained was the occasional, subtle sound of movement and soft sighs. I rolled over to silently weep, and that’s when I saw the message on my phone from Eddie. Brutal irony! I was so surprised, I laughed right through the tears.

Not a laugh: a bitter laugh-like sound.

I stayed in bed until Sunday afternoon, numb and nauseous. I could neither sleep nor face the day. A cat in its cozy Schrödinger box—hanging out perpetually at the quantum level—strategically unobserved and thereby foregoing reality’s vicious collapse.

Dammit, I want to smoke the thing behind my ear so desperately. I should have thrown it away, like I planned. So will I throw it away—like I planned? Will I purposefully savor the predictable but inevitable growing sense of yearning, push through the anguish of withdrawal bravely, prove to myself my own inner strength and power of restraint—like I planned?

The lower east entrance of Wescoe Hall, all concrete and angles, is a sheltering little nook under the broad overhang of the main entrance stairs. Beyond the glass door is an empty hallway, ostensibly leading to Mr. C’s office. But before I pull the door open, my gaze recalibrates to catch my reflection in its surface. Hair in a frizz-haloed ponytail, eyes puffy and red. Better take a moment and gather as much dignity together as possible before facing Crosthwaite again.

“You’re my first student to simply not finish the final writing assignment,” Mr. C told me. “May I ask, why?” It was Thursday, the last day of class, after everyone else had dropped their journal off at his desk. Meanwhile, I had approached empty-handed and said with a shrug, “Sorry, but thanks anyway.”

I’d figured he would just ignore me. Since he didn’t, I was taken off guard. “I got distracted,” I explained, nonchalant. Oh man, I was so happy that day. Was it really less than a week ago? Way back when, Sean seemed imminently part of my most promising future. “You can fail me. It’s fine.”

Mr. Crosthwaite adjusted his glasses, as if he didn’t trust their clarification of the very sight of me. “Interesting transitive use of the verb ‘fail,'” he said. Then after a moment, he added, “Drop off your class journal during my Monday office hours, between nine and ten.”

“I didn’t do the assignment,” I insisted.

“Bring in what you have.”

“I probably won’t have time.”

“And if I don’t see you Monday—”

“I get it. I know. I’ll fail!”

“—I was simply going to say, I hope you’ll keep writing. You have a gift.”

I was on a giddy Sean-high that day. And in that moment, Mr. Crosthwaite’s words seemed like mere superficial icing on a crazy-delicious Sean-crush-cake. I probably smirked and rolled my eyes. I can imagine myself doing those things. Maybe I just smiled and walked away. I hope so.

Because today, Croshtwaite’s words echo in my heart’s empty chambers. Today they’re etched in my bones.

In the shade of Wescoe Hall’s upper level overhang, I rest against the wall, cool down. I smooth my hair back into the elastic band, and accidentally knock the cigarette from my ear. I pounce after it as it rolls to the base of a cement-enclosed trashcan.

As I pick up the cigarette, I notice a curious pool of rainwater in the can’s dented metal cap. Such a spacious dent—as if a boulder had fallen on it, or someone smashed it with a bat. I peer down into that shallow pool, glimpse a subtle shift along its surface. The movement below is a reflection of movement above: a V of birds crosses overhead, dark silhouettes against the rippling blue brilliance. I look up from the trash toward the real birds in the real sky, just as they dip and disperse, swoop and glide—from perfect order to seeming chaos, yet just as beautiful.

The geese have no mind to leave their reflection in water. Water has no mind to reflect their image.

Gently I lay my bent cigarette down in the dent pool. I watch it absorb the rainwater. I observe it transform—from cruel temptation to benign soggy refuse.

Ready?, I ask the girl in the door glass, self-fanning. Are you sure you’re okay?

I’m just in time. I push past my reflection and move on down the hall.

img_0469
Cats in oil on canvas.

Story Excerpt No. 7

A new sign graces Massachusetts Street’s eastern storefront row, between the pet store and the bagel shop—a simple plaque above the door of Rose Red Vintage. Until this morning, taped-up butcher paper had obscured an inside view through the front windows. The paper is now gone, the shop interior exposed. Inside, fixtures jut from the floor in varying states of assembly, nude mannequins recline in stiff repose, and boxes overflow with incipient retail stock.

With focused intent, Vivian flits from place to place in the room—roots through a toolbox on the counter, attaches hooks to a rack, kneels near a paint pan in the corner, dabs a brush over an imperfection in the wall. It’s as if she’s moving in one smooth workflow, choreographed and precise. And despite the event of her manual labor, she’s dressed in casual 1950s vintage style, wearing tan Capris and a sleeveless burberry blouse.

Vivian is a phenomenon.

Outside the heavy wooden door, I drag from the last of my cigarette. The notion dawns on me: At this very instant, I’m witnessing the execution of a long-pursued dream. It’s of sociological interest. A rarity. I toss the butt down and grind it out with my toe, then shove at the door. It’s locked, so I knock and wave.

Viv throws the bolt and welcomes me with a smile. “Hi, Wil. Come on in.”

“The place looks great.” I plop my backpack down on the front counter. “So your booth at the antique mall—?”

“Closed for business, as of yesteday.” Vivian wipes her hands on her vintage pants, entertaining no precious second thoughts. She gestures at the scattered boxes and racks around us. “Everything’s here now. I really appreciate your help—let me buy you breakfast. I’m thinking bagels from next door.”

“Sure. Thanks.”

“While I’m gone…” Viv grabs a hammer from a toolbox on the counter and hands it to me. “Can you tighten up that shelving unit? Pound on the upper corners?”

She leaves me to it. I heft the hammer, guage its weight, wonder at its long and robust history in service to mankind. If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning… I could imagine my mother singing the rest, implementing a hippy moment at the offered opportunity. I perform the requested work awkwardly—to be expected of someone who just never hammers, you know? Yet nonetheless finds themselves hammering away one morning indeed—and in open view of the busiest street in town. After I’m finished, I entertain a mixed sense of relief, uncertainty, and overblown self-satisfaction.

Unsure of what to do next, I wander along the periphery of the shop interior, exploring the nascent layout. I hum the “I’d hammer out a warning” part, quietly. A basket of shoes sits in one corner. A clothes rack runs along the north wall, already burdened with hanging bundles of coats under plastic wrap; an exquisite green-velvet cloak hangs unwrapped at the end. Near the changing room, an antique trunk overflows with gloves and scarves. Next to that stands a full-length mirror with a claw-foot base.

I take a walk, take it all in, and take a seat on a stool near the counter. I spin on the stool, slowly. Then faster. Rose Red Vintage becomes a blur of colors and shapes. A dream fulfilled… Dizzy, I stop spinning and crook my feet in the brace of the stool legs. I stretch out my arms and gaze down their familiar length where they stick out from the sleeves of the battered Black Flag T-shirt. I kick out my feet, observe the plain blue jeans, the second-hand Vans. Imagine what it must feel like! I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror: stool-splayed ridiculousness. “I look crazy,” I whisper, and tuck my legs back in, fold my arms over my chest. The reflection’s new narrative: a dignified figure seated coolly above the floor-scattered disarray of someone else’s dream.

Ah, yes. That’s better.

If I had a hammer, I fear it’d be wasted on me. I mean, look at this place: Vivian is on the brink. She forged the path. Fulfillment. Validation. A wish come true. If I had a hammer, I don’t even know what I’d do with it. Since school let out, what more have I aspired toward than a free beer at Janet’s bar? A word of encouragement in Mr. Crosthwaite’s writing class? A simple, friendly glance from beautiful Sean—the ultimate redemption?

Allured by the green velvet cloak at the end of the rack, I slide down from the stool, sidle toward it. My bare arms glide along the cloak’s silk lining as I fasten a large onyx bead into the loop at my throat. Beautiful green fabric embraces me. I step in front of the mirror, Vans and claw feet parallel to one another. Vintage-cloaked-me looks like a kid playing superhero with a blanket cape. I shake my head, amused by the sight—and then I nearly jump out of my skin when a white rat skitters past in the mirror’s reflection, crossing the floor behind me.

“Oh-my-gosh!” I cry, whirling around, the cloak’s fabric billowing dramatically. The rat stops at the center of the room and pops its head up. It sniffs the air, its pink eyes on me. I take a deep breath. “Oh, boy,” I sigh. Viv is going to freak out.

Think fast, I think slowly. I could throw the cloak at it, like a net… I unhook the bead from the loop and remove the cloak with no sudden movements. The rat huddles down, whiskers twitching, but it stays put. Yet even as I take a tentative step toward it, I realize—I have no idea how old this cloak is, how valuable. Vivian might freak out about a rat in her new shop, but she’ll definitely kill me if I catch a rat in prize vintage velvet, regardless of any good intentions.

Carefully, I hang the cloak on the rack. The rat watches me with a sidelong gaze. I scan the room. My own gaze lingers on the hammer in the toolbox. A pertinent thought barely dawns before I shudder, dismiss, move on. Next, the shoe basket catches my eye. Perfect… But can I turn overturn it, empty it out, without scaring the rat away? I take a ginger step toward the basket. The rat hops forward uncertainly. I stop. It stops.

I step, it hops.

“All right. Look,” I say, forced to resort to pleading reason. “You can’t stay here, you need to go back to the pet store. There’s no food here, no water.”

The rat moves in a circle, sniffing the floor.

I step, it hops.

“Okay. Listen.” I try again. “Some kid’s gonna adopt you, any day now.” The rat casts its gaze at me skeptically. “Maybe a freshman,” I add. “Maybe you’ll live in the dorms? Party every weekend!”

Apparently it’s not a selling point. The rat lopes off quickly, headed straight toward the changing room. “Wait!” I hiss, and pace after it. With a scrabble of claws on the concrete floor, the rat squeezes its plump white body under the door, a seeming-impossible feat.

“Dammit.” I whirl around and run back to the corner to grab the shoe basket. In an unceremonious wake of dainty antique lady-shoes, I return to the changing room with the empty basket in my grip.

I pause, one hand on the doorknob. I quell a prophetic vision of a hundred rats waiting inside the little room, a nightmarish furry mass of beady eyes and claws and teeth. Bracing myself with faith in reality —though that, shaky at best—I twist the knob and pull the door open.

The rat is gone.

I’m amazed. I kneel down to inspect the back wall. Along the edge where the wall meets the floor is a crack in the concrete, no more than an inch wide. I try to peek inside the crack, but it’s not really a hole. There’s just more crumbled concrete and dirt.

I sit down on the floor. “I know you’re in there,” I say. I lean against the back wall, gazing out at the main floor through the doorway: a new remote perspective from this stark box of a changing room. “And I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, the choices you’ve had to make,” I continue. “To escape. To be out on your own like this. I’m sure it was scary. Is scary.”

The bolt on the main door makes a chunking sound.

“But wonderful, too,” I add. “You’re free.”

The heavy door swings open. Vivian enters, keys jingling and bagel bags rustling in hand.

I lean down toward the crack in the floor . “But rats are bad for business,” I whisper confidentially. Like a mob boss. Drug lord. Bad cop on the take. “And you and me? We’re not done here.”

“Wil?” calls Viv from the front counter. “What’s with all the shoes…”

I jump up, dust off my rump, and mentally craft the cover-up tale via rapid fire of desperate neurons. “It’s about time,” I call back, and I head out to meet her. “I’m starving over here.”

ratobouros
Wall sticker found in Seattle’s “ghost alley”: rat ouroboros woodcut by artist Zardulu

House Show (Story Excerpt No. 6)

 

houseshow_version4

In a room full of strangers, I’m alone. The surface of a red plastic cup flexes under pressure from my fingers, and beer inside sloshes subtly. I gauge my surroundings: student-ghetto kitchen, my back to the sink, sundry Goodwill pots and pans in the dry rack. I look around at the people in my vicinity, briefly tune in on peripheral coversations. I consider interrupting someone, introducing myself, maybe asking for directions to the restroom—something. But upon my chest presses the invisible, awkwardly-splayed hand of social anxiety. Nah, says the hand’s master, you’d better just stay put.

A pod of savvy conversationalists migrates toward the living room, and as they pass, I hear murmurs of “They’re about to start.” Excitement subsumes anxiety. Curiosity pushes the invisible hand aside. I move through the kitchen as if through a rite of passage, my sneakers sticking to the floor in spots. I grasp my beer cup like a talisman, red for luck.

Under the threshold’s arch, I stand at the edge of a crowd smooshed into a room-shaped mass. Generally everyone faces the fireplace wall, where a band has finished setting up within the tiny space allotted. Among layers of human shapes between me and the cold fireplace, I discern musicians strapped with guitars.

I weave through the crowd, navigating among erratically-gesticulating bodies, protecting my beer cup. I take root in front of the bass cabinet. Okay, it’s not ideal in terms of bleeding ears. But just behind the cabinet stands a set of sliding patio doors: my emergency escape route, beloved by the panic-prone in a room at max capacity.

The band tunes and warms. Strings strum discordantly, drums snare-snap and thump. More people crowd in, streaming from the front porch and other areas of the house, and soon the living room is packed with bodies. The kitchen holds the overflow, and people have closed me in on all sides. My chest tightens. But I work to I keep calm, keep my gaze trained on the patio doors, beyond which the darkness of the summer night spreads quiet, open, and empty. Meanwhile, within these walls, the humid air is alive with mingled scents—sweat, smoke, incense, marijuana, beer. My head spins as I breathe it all in.

Well, it could be worse.… I sip beer and concentrate on the band. The two burly dudes and petite girl in the band are drenched in sweat and cramped among their own equipment. They glance around at each other, then out at the room. The guitarist nods with finality, stares down at his hands, rocks on his feet in rhythm. The girl lowers her head, and long hair covers her eyes as she positions her bass guitar expectantly. The drummer lifts his sticks and clicks in time—one, two, three, four—

The room transforms. A wall of sound from the speakers electrifies the hot, damp human flesh and hair around me. Pummeling percussion draws us all in, mainlining us with a common pulse, a cyclical life-force-electrical lift and shudder. People begin to move: heads thrown forward and back, arms crowd-risen and topped by thrusting fists and devil’s-horns. Torsos rock rhythmically in place—though unable to gain additional space in the crowd, they’re unwilling to be still. Cannot be still. Guitar chords emphasize the overwhelming beat with spine-thrilling harmonics. The bass guitar’s colossal sound shudders through my body, vibrations entering through my feet and shoulders. Each note grabs and shakes my insides: overpowering, inexorable, utterly possessing.

It’s all so loud, I can’t hear myself breathe. Can’t hear myself think. I sink into the music, seep into it, close my eyes, clasp the red cup to my heart. Mathy hardcore mixed with dissonant metal riffs—this is not a style I listen to, or even normally like. But the unfamiliarity of the music only facilitates its total conquest. The dual song-screams of the guitarists resonate with primordial urgency. All thoughts of past and future fade, clobbered back into the subconscious’ dark corners, defeated by the animal present—destroyed by the percussive and clamorous here-and-now, as insisted upon by every fiber in my being, and by all joy of matter in the room….

Songs melt into one another, vaguely punctuated by passages of wailing feedback and cries from the crowd. Or is it all one eternal song? Time passes. Time morphs. Time ceases to mean anything more than the rhythm surrounding me. That rhythm transforms—speeds up, slows down, counts odd syncopations, ceases for brief passages of silence that carry their own crucial beat. Feedback screams and sustains. Chords change, melodies manipulate, sounds invoke emotions like demons from the heart. Sweat pours from the faces and arms of the musicians in front of me, but their concentration is uninhibited. The energy with which they have charged the room cycles back upon them, an electric loop. Empowered, they continue to play with violence and emotion despite the heat and the crowd. Invigorated, the crowd continues to thrive and pulse and writhe in time.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the noise screeches to a halt. Mid-song, a guitar string springs from its formerly taut and tortured position on the instrument. It wavers in the air desperately at the tuning end of the fretboard, as if struggling to free itself. The guitarist looks to his bandmates questioningly—should he change the string, or abort the mission? The drummer shakes his head and holds one stick up, sweat flying from his brow and running into his eyes. At this weary gesture, the other band members raise their hands in farewell, then yank the instrument cords from their amplifiers.

People around me shove and shout and scream for more. Vitalized, I yell too, hands raised. But it’s no use: the band is finished. The crowd continues to fester and swoon with the last vestiges of shared energy.

Anxiety dispelled, I gaze at the teeming horde around me now with newfound affection. I finish the rest of my beer, warm and flat. The red cup is empty and my thirst is slaked.

Story Excerpt No. 5

If you know my kind, you’ll recognize the art of the creep. Front-facing chair at an innocuous angle. Trappings of homework on the little table in front of me, arranged slightly askew: pen, pencil, journal, assignment sheet, coffee cup. Me, seated in a relaxed-looking slouch position. It appears to the naïve onlooker that, whenever I gaze  in Sean’s approximate direction, I’m merely concentrating on my assignment. No, I’m not watching for his shy but warming smile. No, I’m not waiting for his dark forelock to swish in front of his eyes for a second before he pushes it behind his ear. No, I’m not yearning for a glance at that awesome goldfish tattoo, by which Eddie would be so cynically amused.

I’m contemplating. Oh, now I’m writing something down, see? Mulling it over. Jotting another note.

I’m none too proud of myself at the moment. I walked into Café Amor Fati with an armful of Mr. Crosthwaite’s homework, real work that needs to be done. But it’s impossible for me to concentrate with Sean working the counter. Mine is the self-defeatism of a true professional. I can make wrong choices in my sleep.

Amor fati: what an irony.

I sip coffee, Sean pleasantly positioned within my peripheral vision’s scope, as the entry bell jingles over the door.  A beautiful woman steps into the coffee shop, and I feel a twist in my gut, a flash of warmth across my face. I mean, beautiful. The epitome of self-confident feminine femaleness, my polar opposite, all pleasance and charm and sensuous simplicity with an air of tacit complexity and oh God I can hear his friendly, “What can I get started for you?” and my heart wrenches with ire and I feel like I might cry or be sick or scream and she orders a latte.

I flip my hood up to block my view, stretch it along the sides of my face like a curtain. “How’s your day going?” Sean asks her, and she says something witty and bewitching. “So far, so good,” as I grip my pencil, and then, “How about yours?” as I break the fresh, pointy lead on the paper. I glare at the rough-edged stump, a mere remnant of good intent. “Pretty good, sun’s still out,” he says. “Stormy weather’s rolling in soon.” I set the sorry pencil down, take up the proud pen. Stare down at my assignment sheet through the fabric tunnel of my own ridiculousness:

You have achieved Step One toward the dissolution of writer’s block. You have begun to psychoanalyze your muse.

I smirk, tapping the pen, recalling Crosthwaite’s class lecture. “’The geese do not wish to leave their reflection behind; the water has no mind to retain their image,’” he’d recited, strolling along the rows between desks. “You and your muse are not dependent upon one another for existence or significance. Nonetheless, the connection between you manifests in the art you create—which, once loosed upon the world, holds its own manner of self-sovereignty.” He’d stopped at my desk-side, freaking me out a little. Looked down at my backpack on the floor, considering the Filth band patch sewn on the side.

“‘Live the chaos,'” he read aloud. Classmates around me shuffled, someone laughed quietly. My face heated up. “Live the chaos, yes,” he said. “Let’s take that advice.” Smartass. Was he making fun of me?

“It’s just the name of an album,” I sullenly tried to tell him. But by then, Mr. C was already wandering through the desk rows again.

Per your prior assignment, you’ve now documented your primary sources of inspiration and personal influences. This five-item list itself becomes a resource for further discussion.

I suck down more coffee through my hood-tunnel. Turn to the first page of my journal, take a look, cringe a little. In class, Mr. Crosthwaite had demanded to know: “What makes an impression upon you? What compels you to action? What, by your very nature, must you love? What must you hate?” At home later, self-soothed by two cheap beers and one bad joint, I’d composed my list:

  • Babysitting (hate)
  • Airplanes/flying (hate)
  • Punk rock records (love)
  • Looking around in people’s houses when they don’t know (love)
  • Tales of heart-rending misfortune (love)

On Monday, we’ll relate your list of inspiration sources to the discourse of complexity. Be prepared for class by considering the following questions.

Monday. Tomorrow. Mr. Crosthwaite’s going to pick on me, I just know it. Stupid Filth patch.

Question 1: What do you consider to be the simplest item on your list? What potential complexity could arise from this simplicity?

Not rocket science. Concentrate. I lay my journal down flat in front of me, open to the page where I’ve jotted my list. Question 1, Question 1. Question 1 was actually two questions in one, dammit…

Relax. Think. I write the word Simple at the top of the next blank journal page. The simplest item on my list had to be punk rock records. Unlike the other items, which were saturated with context-sensitivity and emotional baggage, a Blatz or Op Ivy record simply was what it was—a specific and proper noun with no grey areas. It was pure. It had weight, mass, location. Its identity was not dependent upon opinion or circumstance. Satisfied, I scribble on the next page of my journal for a moment, then close my eyes to think.

What complexity could arise from something so simple? What could contaminate such purity? Scratches? Warping? The fact that you gave away all your duplicate LPs to your ungrateful ex?

The beautiful woman with the latte has passed my table and sits at a booth behind me. I push my hood back, eager for a tranquilizing glimpse of Sean. He’s still at the counter. Now he’s taking money from some high school kids and smiling that same warm expression that turns my center to liquid. What a genuinely kind smile he has. It is in itself a simple thing, unburdened by ulterior motives or self interest. Eddie’s smile was always more like a sneer. Eddie’s smile shone brightest when he was one-upping someone with a sarcastic jab.

I could enjoy many years to come basking in the warm, simple smile of Sean St. John.

Once more, I contemplate potential complexity of punk vinyl. I guess there could arise issues of authenticity—you might accidentally pick up a bootleg. Or rarity—finding a first pressing or limited edition is cause for celebration. I jot these down. What about the fact that I won’t even walk into a record store if I have no money to spend? Collecting records can be something of an addiction. Complexity arises from issues of temptation, of self-discipline. I write, Coping with desires. I stare at it, uncomfortable with the wording, and scratch at it for a second. Coping with material desires, it says now. I scribble it out and write, Coping with obsession.

Question 2: What do you consider to be the most complex entry on your list? What potential simplicity could arise from something so complex?

Suddenly I’m attacked at the lower buttock by an insistent buzzing vibration. I jump up with a “Whoa!” and rattle the little table, splashing coffee over Mr. C’s assignment sheet, the tabletop, the floor. I manage to brace the little table before anything falls, but I don’t dare check to see if I’ve gained Sean’s attention. I turn away, toward the back corner of the room. I grapple in my back pocket for the stupid cell phone, which has been on vibrate since I’d missed Mom’s last call.

“Honey, how’s everything going?” Mom asks. “I heard you had dinner with Aunt Mir last night—that’s great.”

“Yup,” I say. News sure gets around fast.

“She said you’re looking happy and healthy. Sounds like this Kansas visit is doing some good. Helping you get past this whole Eddie thing.”

It bugs me, hearing my mother say that name just now. I chew on a response, then swallow it. Turn my head slightly, stealthily: Sean’s profile is visible at the espresso machine. I look back down at my homework, eager to change the topic. “So did you go on that date with Frank yet?”

“Francis. As a matter of fact, we went out last night for the first time.”

“How’d it go?” I write the word Complex on the next page of my journal.

“It went well. We had tapas on Capitol Hill, caught a jazz band downtown. A couple of drinks….”

“Wow, that’s quite a first date.” I flip back a couple of pages to my inspiration list.

“I was pleasantly surprised. He’s funny and friendly. And handsome too.” I metabolize this last comment with a shudder, turn to my assignment page to write, Other people’s houses. “How about you, honey?”

How about me? Tread carefully. It’s a mom-ism, emotion-laden and context-sensitive. “Oh, I’m just fine.” I look across the room again at Sean. Feeling bold, I actually watch as he wipes down the countertops. The goldfish tattoo moves subtly along the muscles of his arms as they adjust and stretch; the forelock of dark hair hides his eyes for an instant, and he brushes it back with his palm. A perverse train of thought pops into my head right then—Just go for it, for once! Be one of those liberated one-night-stander women! Break the Eddie hex! You’ll leave for Seattle in three weeks, and you’ll never see him again. Be crazy, go wild… Live the chaos! I shake it off.

“I should go. I’m in a café now and I’m probably bugging people.” I cross out the line I’ve just written in my journal, and replace it with a new scrawl: Tales of heart-rending misfortune.

“I love you.” She says it, I say it back. It’s our thing.

I stare at the page again, the words there. Consider the infinite complexity of the lovelorn, the unlucky, the wayward, the lost: timing is everything, for better or worse. The root of so much we take for granted can be traced to sheer coincidence, woven into a mad tapestry of complexity as robust as the universe and all of time itself. And love? Love above all! At essence, it emerges from complete chaos, no matter the medium: a blind date—high school sweethearts—work partners—tandem seats on a bus—it’s all random, chance. Amor fati, indeed.

Love is just an accident, an outlier, a by-product.

Its dissolution, therefore, must be as natural, all-pervasive, and law-bound as entropy itself. The simplicity that arises from the tales of heart-rending misfortune? I write it down: Predictable but inevitable.

“I’ll take that, if you’re done with it,” a voice says at my shoulder.

I whirl around. And I mean, whirl. Like a ballerina on her toes. Or maybe a tornado ripping through a quiet Kansas wheat field.

“You’re about empty.” Sean St. John is standing right. Next. To me. Pointing at my coffee cup. He glances at the splatter of coffee on the floor. “Oh, did it spill? I can get you a refill.”

He turns to walk away, and I say “No!”

No is such a heavy word. It can be so emotional. Contextual.

“Well, I don’t want to take it if you’re not ready.” He smiles. Is he making fun of me?

Tense beat. He’s not. He seriously is not….

“You can take it,” I breathe. “I’m ready.”

Story Excerpt No. 4

I park on the street and shut down the Mitsubishi rental. With the unlit cigarette at my fingertips, I wait. Procrastinate.

The neighborhood is quiet. 4:30, hot and humid but breezy. Damp spots on the concrete from a recent rain. Cicadas’ song is a buzz-saw crescendo all around, a gradual progression into a wild insect wheeze, followed by abrupt cessation. And then—reply in kind, passing from yard to yard and increasingly farther away.

This sequential buzz from one grassy lot to the next seems placid, but vaguely unwelcoming. No. Foreboding. Wait, no…. Conspiratorial.

No. This is the very sound of indifference to humanity’s plight. Cicadas in the brush have nothing to do with us. Their buzzing repartee among discrete lawns represents an entire society in a two-block radius proceeding happily without heed to humanity.

Somehow this thought is both eerie and comforting at once. I savor it, turn it over in my mind. I tap the unburnt cigarette on the Mitsubishi’s console next to me, as if to disengage the last length of imaginary ash, then slide the cigarette behind my ear.

For want of further excuse, it’s time to gather my bags and head up to the house. Vivian won’t be home until later, but her housemate Janet is supposedly here to let me in. Sheesh. I feel shy—what am I, five years old?

“Knock really loud,” Vivian told me over the phone earlier, “just in case she fell asleep in front of the TV. If she doesn’t get up, knock on the bay window with a key. If that doesn’t work, go around to the north side and bang on her bedroom window.”

Great. I breathe a sheepish prayer that this elaborate troubleshooting won’t be necessary, and commence knocking on the door. I wait. Knock again, louder. Nothing. I’m about to begrudgingly key-tap the window when I hear footsteps drum the floor from within. Locks clunk, the door swings open, and suddenly I’m facing a tall, athletic-looking girl in an oversized KU T-shirt. Tousled blond hair, couch-cushion pattern impressed upon her cheek.

“You’re Wil?” she says, blinking groggily. “Hope you weren’t waiting long.” She pushes on the screen door and grabs the handle of my rolling suitcase.

“No worries,” I say. I step into the house after her.

We enter the main room, which is set up for general college-kid entertainment. Stereo system in one corner. Cinderblock-and-plank bookshelves against a wall, full of textbooks, paperbacks, and magazines. Sofa and patchy La-Z-Boy co-dominate the middle of the room, facing an antenna-topped TV set; onscreen is an ancient Mork and Mindy. The bay window overlooks the street, letting in a meager amount of light.

Overall, the place would be pretty depressing—dingy eggshell walls, knobby taupe carpet, flesh-and-grey-blotch laminate on the kitchen floor—if it weren’t for certain distinct signs of life. Colorful throw rugs distract from the otherwise sullen palette. Band and art posters are Blu Tacked here and there. A bright green TV tray upholds half a sandwich on a red plate.

The Mork and Mindy laugh track glamorizes our passage across the room. I follow Janet’s barefoot shuffle down the main hall, passing doors on either side. She gestures to each and names them: “That’s my bedroom, that’s Sakura’s, that’s the bathroom, that’s Viv’s.” She pushes open the last door on the left. “This is yours.”

I step inside, let my backpack slide sleepily down my arm to the floor. Take a few more steps, and pivot in a full circle to take it all in. Twin bed in one corner, nightstand next to it. Closet with a sliding door, half open: some clothes are hanging inside, but they’re shoved back to make room for mine. An Elliot Smith poster graces one wall, Billie Holiday the other. Antique knickknacks are perched everywhere, ironic vintage décor balanced precariously between cutesy and kitschy.

“Actually,” Janet says, “this is Kate’s room. But yours for the summer.”

I love it. I absolutely love it. Nothing in here reminds me of home, nothing in here reminds me of the recent past. Nothing reminds me of myself.

“It’s cool,” I say. Coolly.

Janet gives me a sidelong glance, implying a skeptical, “You think so, huh?” But she says, “Glad you like it.” I think I’m picking up on deadpan. A good sign.

Janet lugs my suitcase up onto the bed. Next to the headboard, she twirls the wand at the window blinds. Sunlight brightens the room. “Viv and Sakura-san get home around five or so. Don’t mean to be rude, but I’m leaving. Gotta work tonight.”

“Oh. What do you do?” In the fleeting beat prior to her response, I try and guess, mind racing. She tutors athletes up on campus. Nah. She’s a manager at an outdoor-sports-stuff store. Hmm, no. She leads city bicycle tours. Yes, maybe that.

“I’m a bartender. At a complete shithole, I might add.”

I assimilate this new information, surprised. “Sounds like more fun than retail.” I smile.  I know a bartender! Hell, yeah. Cheap drinks and the initiation of an instant social life, all in my near future. Already a plan formulates in my mind: I’ll just hang out at Janet’s bar every night, all summer long. Perfect.

Janet gives me the sidelong glance again, and adds a raised eyebrow. “Picture, if you will, your worst retail customer. Obnoxious, entitled, self-righteous as hell.” She pauses, her gaze trained on me. “You picturing it?”

“Yeah…”

“Now picture that same customer, drunk off their ass. That’s bartending.”

I nod, properly schooled. “Got it.”

“Great. And one more thing, there, Wil. No smoking.” Her gaze flicks to my ear, to the perched cigarette.

“Oh, that.” I scrabble for the cig, slip it into my backpack unceremoniously. “I quit. Recently. I don’t smoke. Actually.” The words come out with the measured precision of a well-recited poem.

“‘Course you don’t.” Janet shrugs, smiles. Mild sarcasm. Okay, she’s messing with me—not bad, but a little bit. What now? Consequences loom large, imminent. I can react further, get serious, insist on my veracity. I can laugh, play it off, be cool. Or maybe I’ll just switch the topic. “Well, I’ll leave you to it,” she says. Heads back down the hall, slips into the bathroom.

On my own in Kate’s room now, nearly without exception. It’s just Elliot and Billie and me—me, identifying at the moment as a personification of my own social awkwardness.  It’s all fine, I think, mollifying myself distractedly, unzipping the suitcase on the bed. I unpack my clothes. Shorts, jeans, band T-shirts. Subhumans, Crass, Black Flag. Nothing precious, but I hang them anyway, since Kate went through the trouble of making room in the closet. I have a little more work to do, but soon Bartender Janet and I will be great friends. I decide this. Commit to it.

On the other hand, my acquaintanceship with Absentee Kate will never develop past the shared-closet stage. It’s strange to settle in amidst someone else’s personal stuff, and yet to have no idea what the person even looks like. Certainly, Kate’s vintage taste shows in much of her décor, just as Vivian had foretold over the phone. Beaded shawls and colorful scarves hang over the window in lieu of curtains. A beautiful swatch of patterned silk covers the surface of the nightstand. Alongside more modern trappings—CD player, digital clock—her myriad knickknacks grace every surface. Vases, perfume bottles, tinted glassware in animal shapes. I kneel down to look at the spines of her books. Crime novels, organic gardening books, Sylvia Plath, a couple of 50’s-era cookbooks.

So, my mystery hostess, I think, leafing through Plath with savvy. You’re girly, you’re fashionable, you like Elliot Smith, you read. We would bond over books, I guess. That’s about it….

Or is it?

I get nosy. Go through the drawers, poke deeper in to the closet behind the dresses. More clothes, more books. Storage boxes, big and small. I don’t dig through the boxes, though—better save some for later.

When I hear the front door open and then slam closed, I realize I’m alone in the house. I plop down onto the bed with my empty suitcase, and stretch the last of the travel-weary confinement from my limbs. Staring up at the popcorn ceiling, I’m amused by the thought that wherever I may roam, there will always be a popcorn ceiling in any place that I call home. It’s like looking up at the same moon as one’s lost love far away: I merely look to the popcorn cottage cheese above me, and I connect with my own geographic history.

I roll onto my elbow, face the window, and lift the blinds a few inches. Outside, the backyard is shaggy but green. Dandelions dot the lawn all the way to the alley beyond. Dumpsters, carports, sheds. The alley is busier than the street: kid walks a dog, dude with band equipment loads up a Jeep, a mom jogs with one of those athletic baby stroller things.

I roll onto my back, meet Elliot Smith’s melancholy poster-gaze from across the room. He’s taking inventory, sizing me up, yet he seems to withhold judgment at this point. “I’m not so bad,” I promise him. “You’ll get used to me.”

I’ll get used to this. The house, the yard, the alley, Kate’s room: all will be familiar soon. But for now, and for a limited time, everything around me is new. Sometimes, in places that have become deeply familiar to me, I try to see with the same perspective as that very first time. I attempt to relive that initial sense of new. My dorm room, Mom’s house, even my childhood home before the divorce—even back then, I would occasionally sink into a carte blanche reverie. Focus on the furniture and wallpaper, which was otherwise just an everyday backdrop. Really notice the books on the shelves, pictures on walls, decorations along the mantle and windowsills. I would ask myself, what does one’s sanctuary reflect about one’s identity? What aspects of one’s private space might make an impression upon a total stranger? And what sort of stranger might that person be, so impressed?

Furthermore. Is there grand significance behind such a semiotically-charged exchange? Perhaps something metaphysical, even? Or is any sense of numinous connection merely an illusion, just another representation of the great universal high indifference?

I squirm around, next looking up at Billie Holiday, who sings into an old-school Shure microphone on the wall over the bed. Billie barely notices me at all: she is in the zone, replete with euphoria in the expression of her art…. I’m envious. I know that feeling. I want to feel that. I jump from the bed, grab my backpack. Grapple for pens, pencil, my notebook. Words begin to rush through my head already, eager for escape onto paper.

As I pull my notebook free from the pack, the spare and unburnt cigarette catches the ride, trapped between pages. It falls to the floor at my feet.

I pick it up. Turn it over between my fingers. A strange compulsion overwhelms, to smoke it here. In the house. Alone. In secret.

In a dark spirit of villainy.

At the window, I raise the blinds. They collapse at the top with a zzzzzip. I lift the window sill as high as it will go, warm and humid air pushing through the screen like something alive and breathing.

I place the unlit cigarette to my lips. I think about Eddie, for the first time since I got here.

Consequences loom, I think. I remind myself. There are consequences to everything.

In the little overgrown yard beyond, cicadas make a glorious racket.

Story Excerpt No. 3

How do pilots and flight attendants cope with the daily horror? Watch the stewardess pour coffee at the front of the cabin. See that? Ever since we lurched into the air, she’s had this thin vertical line in the middle of her forehead. She knows something’s wrong. She heard a noise, smelled smoke, caught the pilot shooting up in the service nook,  something.

Panic leans heavily at the door of my consciousness, held at bay by the trembling benzodiazepine chair crooked below the knob. Dammit, gotta keep it together. Hours to go still. I hold my bottle of pills up to the tiny overhead light, assess with a critical eye. Off with the top. Delicately, I bite away half a lorazepam tab more. Drop the remainder down into the vial. Sit back into my semi-reclined seat, awaiting synthetic Zen.

Beyond the anxiety at the forefront of my mind, I’m feeling a little bad about ditching Overly Talkative Werther’s Candy Eating Lady, from whom I’d stealthily disengaged mid-aisle when I saw the empty seat next to Ken Follett Novel Reading Man. And speaking of KFNRM. He’s proving to be my kind of airplane buddy: he barely looked up when I sat down, and now he’s already asleep, tome on his lap. I glance past him, noting the view through the window—something I wouldn’t dare without drugs. But there’s nothing to see. Clouds obscure all, we’re completely engulfed.

I’m thankful. I hate catching sight of that tiny airplane shadow cast upon the earth. It makes me feel so helpless and insignificant. You know, more so than usual.

I peek to my right, stealthy. Not too sure about businessman-looking guy there. Carefully coiffed. Reading Forbes magazine in coach class, pfft. This is the breed of human who makes me feel like a perpetual child, even though we’re the same age. He’s got that swallowed-the-corporate-Kool-Aid aura, mixed with an insistent self-important vibe, know what I mean? Rhetorically fidgety. Like he’s gonna try to talk to me, just so he can namedrop the brand of car he drives or the suit he’s wearing or the company he works for, and I’m not even gonna know what the hell he’s talking about anyway, that’s how far removed I am from his whole thing, but I’m supposed to act all nice about it, and it’s just easier on my nerves to be polite anyway, and… yeah. I don’t like him.

He looks at me and smiles. “I think it’s intended for you,” he says.

Face hot, I think, Dammit! and I look down at my hands. “Pardon?” I manage to say, with no other clear course of action.

“Your little friend there.” Forbesy nods forward and I look up: from atop the seat in front of him, a plush pink pony stares down at me. I can see a little kid’s face through the crack between the seats, staring. As soon as we make eye contact, the kid squeezes her face into the crack and stage-whispers, “Do you like horses?”

“No, I don’t,” I say. In my peripheral vision, Forbes peers at me with a curious expression.

The fuzzy pony ducks back down, to my relief. Kids are so… what’s the word. Clinically psychotic. They blissfully exist on their own mental plane, divorced from reality, unaware of the trials and tragedies of humanity surrounding them. I mean, come on: I could be a traumatized crime victim back here. A plague sufferer. A conscienceless semi-mercenary on the lam—but never mind my problems. All she cares about is whether I’ll play horses with her. How I wish I could go about life in such an oblivious state, a Werther’s candy firmly placed within each cheek.

Forbesy goes back to his magazine, KFNRM snores softly to my left. Excellent: I’d hoped for an opportunity to write a few things down ahead of time, maybe prep some ideas for that class my cousin talked me into taking with her. I reach into the backpack at my feet and wrestle a worn, weary notebook from the front pocket. I bought it a couple weeks after the breakup, and it’s already nearly full. But I have a feeling none of the dark-hearted crap in here will be deemed appropriate for our class. “Three Steps Toward the Dissolution of Writer’s Block,” please. I know what to expect: a no-grade pud course geared toward soccer moms and retirees. We’re talking estrogen-oozy memoirs and sparkly-angel poems and journal entries and touchy-feely shit like that, just shy of full-on scrapbooking. Whatever. At least I’ll have a forum to refine my ex-Eddie source material, in whatever Dr. Phil-approved shape it must take. I put pencil lead to thin college rule. Proverbial nose to the grindstone.

“Are you drawing?” comes a familiar chipmunk voice.

I capably squelch a flare of anger with the help of big pharma. “No,” I say.

Pony fan’s face is squished against the seat crack once more. “Then what are you doing?”

“I’m writing. Aren’t you supposed to be taking care of your horse?”

“My horse is sleeping, silly!”

“Got it.” I focus on my notebook, moving my pencil with stage-drama-level I’m working now body language.

“I writed a letter to my grandma before.”

“Ah. That’s. That’s great.”

“Are you writing a letter?”

Here’s a social problem paving the path to cultural meltdown: lack of child supervision. Where are the parents? I assume this kid’s mom owns the hairdo above the seat in front of me, but that hair hasn’t budged a whit in reaction to this discourse. If she were my kid, you bet I’d be taking up the lecture opportunity, working hard to instill a sense of respect for people’s privacy and solitude. “I’m actually kind of writing a story,” I say. “But you wouldn’t like it. No horses involved. No pictures.”

“I can draw pictures. I’m pretty good.” The kid sticks her tongue through the crack—purely as a spontaneous tactile experiment, no semiotics attached as far as I could tell.

“Hey,” I say. “If I tell you something to draw, will you work on a picture for me?”

The kid bounces in her seat. “Okay!”

Jackpot. “Great. I want you to draw a picture of your house, like, really big on some paper. And then draw small pictures of your favorite toys inside the house. And your whole family. And your pets. And trees and stuff in the yard. Got it?”

“Okay!” The kid turns to the hairdo and asks for crayons.

If this kid will draw anything I ask her to, she’s gonna be nice and busy for the rest of the flight.

I can come up with some doozies.