Published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature (February 2016).


Nakia was working the afternoon shift on register 17 in the Wal-Mart Supercenter one bright-hot day when they came up, all three together. The older man and the lady he walked beside—half his age but not his daughter—were both speaking in a language other than English, gesturing as she translated labels for him while Nakia tried hard to listen, to block out the groaning floor buffer and the child screaming in Electronics. The younger man—late twenties, dark hair, dressed casually and cleanly—passed the other two with a grocery basket in his hand, carefully placed the milk, bacon, bread, butter, and block of cheese on the conveyor belt and stood smiling at Nakia from behind the do-it-yourself credit card console. Nakia nodded at him and pushed the braids falling onto her forehead behind her ear. The woman was now pointing out different candies to the older man, laughing as she read the flavors of the Wild Berry Skittles.

Nakia reached out for the loaf of bread, still concentrating on their voices as the younger man looked at his two companions and asked a question, eliciting nods and an affirmative-sounding response from the woman. There was something familiar about the words that they spoke, the specific sounds that Nakia could discern. The man in front of her turned back to Nakia, and her pulse sounded in her ears as she looked into his dark blue eyes. He smiled again, politely, with only the slightest hint of confusion.

Clearing her throat, Nakia smiled back and said, “What language is that?” Her voice sounded distant and drowned out through the sound of her heart.

“Excuse me?” The man leaned in, turning his head slightly to the left. His accent was familiar, something she heard imitated on sitcoms, something her co-workers would mock as she told them the story later. Nakia paused, the package of bacon in her hand hovering above the bar code scanner.

She said it a little louder. “What language is it y’all’re,” she searched for a word, nodded toward the other two, “conversing?” Nakia tried to look loose and confident as she asked so he’d know she already knew and simply wanted to confirm an assumption.

“We are speaking French.” The other two looked over for a moment, grinned blankly, and then looked back to the models on that month’s magazines.

She nodded to herself. “I thought so.” Nakia slid the bacon to her left, over the scanner, and placed it delicately in a plastic bag. “You know,” she said, glancing back up at the younger man, “I used to know a little French.”

He smiled again. “Yes?”

“In elementary school they taught us some—you know, the colors, words for food, stuff like that. I think it was the fourth grade.” It had been the fourth grade—Nakia was sure—because she’d been in Miss Johnson’s class that year, and Miss Johnson was the one who went on about the importance of learning other languages, of traveling, of walking in someone else’s world. Nakia would sit in class and read along silently from the flimsy French textbook as Miss Johnson’s voice filled the room with graceful dips and rises, sounds that Nakia would have thought impossible for any human to produce. When, a week after first hearing French spoken, it came time for each student to read vocabulary words out loud, Nakia’s stomach had turned to lead as she tugged on one of the three large, tapered braids that her mother had put in her hair that day. She had waited quietly as the other kids read the words Miss Johnson pointed out in the book, mouthing each one carefully as they were said aloud, trying her best to fold her mouth around the new sounds connected to familiar letters. When Nakia’s turn had come, she sat up straight and imitated Miss Johnson as best she could.


“That was nice, Nakia. What about this one?”


“Okay, but make sure you push the ‘uh’ sound. This one?”

The word Miss Johnson had pointed to looked mysteriously familiar, and when Nakia said it, she pronounced it like the word she already knew: “Mercy.”

“No, Nakia, it sounds like this: merci.”

Nakia had tried again, rolling the sounds in her mouth like candies, but it came out the same: “Mercy.”

“Concentrate on the r. It’s tricky in French, but you’ll get it.” Miss Johnson had patted Nakia’s shoulder and moved to the next student as Nakia hunched over her book, wrapping her arms around its open pages like a loose hug, as if intimacy might bring its secrets to the surface. She had held her thumbs in the middle of her fists as she whispered the word again and again, her lips slipping on the graceful syllables, “Mercy, mercy, mercy.”

Nakia felt the stick of butter’s soft weight in her paused hand. The younger man was looking at her expectantly, his eyes the color of the ocean during a Carolina storm.

Nakia blinked and glanced down as heat escaped up her throat and along her cheeks, then reached out for the block of cheese still on the conveyor belt. “I forgot it all now.” She slid the cheese in front of her as a weight began building in her stomach. “I wish I still knew some, though. It’s a real pretty language.” The plastic the cheese was wrapped in had the thinnest layer of water on it, and Nakia could feel it wet her palm as she lowered it into a bag with the butter and bacon.

The man swiped his credit card and signed across the little screen. He glanced over at the other two and said, “Corrine.” The rs sounded just like they were supposed to in French, folded back over themselves, like little halves of rs rather than the full letter.

Nakia’s lips seemed to move on their own as she turned to the man collecting his bags, his receipt in her outstretched hand, her mouth a wide smile. “I’m real glad I got to talk to you guys. I hope you have a good day, and come back by if there’s anything else you need. There’s everything here, really.” Nakia heard the sound of her own rs, like she was dragging them across asphalt when compared to “Corrine.”

The younger man took the receipt as the other two walked past him toward the exit, still pointing and talking. “Thank you.” He smiled again, warmly, as he lifted the bags and turned away. For a second Nakia pictured herself tossing off her store apron and rounding the end of the counter, grasping his hand and running right past the others with him in tow, taking him through the cool whoosh of the automatic glass doors and into the blazing heat and light of the vast world outside.

Nakia’s chest felt fluttery and full and her legs nearly started to tremble as she watched him catch up to the other two. She reached up, tugging on one of her thin braids, and whispered as he disappeared into the sunlight haloed around the doors, “Mercy, mercy, mercy.”

“On Measuring Time”

Published by Every Day Fiction (November 2014).

On Measuring Time

The morning my grandpa died, during the summer I turned eleven, I stumbled from my grandparents’ small cabin to Grandma’s car for a confused six a.m. ride to the hospital, my overweight grandfather already pale blue and slumped against his seat belt. In the backseat, holding the bulky car phone to my ear as Grandma drove, I spoke to the ambulance paramedics: “We just passed the fire station, can you meet us somewhere? Now we’re by a grocery store―Grandma, where are we?”

Just before bedtime about a month later, in that same cabin, my grandma stood quietly before the cuckoo clock that had hung silent since that trip to the hospital. The pink enamel of her clipped nails shuddered against the hanging chains of the clock as she reached for the black iron weights, pulled her arms back, reached out again and paused. “Dale?”

“Yeah, Grandma?” I sat on my bed in the room behind her, watching her instead of reading. My room was the same first-story bedroom my mom had grown up in, the same room from which I had retrieved the unopened Father’s Day card to slide into Grandpa’s coffin.

Grandma turned and stepped through the bedroom doorway, her hazel eyes dull. “I need to ask you something.”

She sat down on the twin bed across from me. Her fine hands fell to her lap but never stopped moving―like small birds, just as they would settle, one atop the other, they would lift up and re-settle the same way, again and again.

I pulled one of my knees up onto the bed and looked at the woman who volunteered five days a week at a soup kitchen because she just didn’t know what to do with retirement; who cussed under her breath at church before smiling and shaking hands with people who talked to her like she was stupid; who had whispered “Close your eyes” as she pulled a steak knife out of my forearm after I fell with it in my hand, lodging it there, two summers before. “What is it, Grandma?”

“I need you to set the cuckoo clock. For eight in the morning.”

I glanced over at the clock I had seen a thousand times, the one Grandpa had brought back from Switzerland after World War 2: the meticulously carved oak shaped into a house, the delicate plank where a wooden cuckoo flitted out on the hour, the dangling chains and the iron weights shaped like pine cones hanging from them. “But I don’t really know how.”

“I can tell you. I’ll tell you how.” The corners of her mouth trembled.

I sat forward. “Can’t you do it?”

Her eyes shined glossy as she swallowed hard, turning to the clock, her head tilted up like one of the figures in the church’s stained glass windows. “Your grandpa used to pull the chains just before bed, last thing. And I know how, but when I go to, it reminds me that his hands aren’t here to do it.” She sniffled as I thought of Grandpa being pulled from the car by the paramedics, his blue face, limp arms. Grandma pushed her lips into a weak smile. “It’s fine. It’s just been strange to go through days without it chiming.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her lips barely parted. “Let’s get to bed now.”

We each stood and I kissed her cheek. She flipped the light switch off on her way out and went to lock the back door.

“Goodnight,” I said, my gaze on her from the soft darkness just beyond the open bedroom door. “See you in the morning.”

“Goodnight,” she said. She paused at the staircase―her face in light but heart falling under shadow―and her wet eyes flickered back to the cuckoo clock, the brittle wooden borders of the roof. Then she put a hand on the wobbly banister and walked slowly up the dark stairs.

A few minutes after Grandma creaked into the shadows of her bedroom, I rose from the bed and moved out into the hallway. In the heavy darkness before the cuckoo clock, I reached for the fine chains with shaking fingers―picturing all the times I had seen Grandpa raise and lower each wrought iron weight―and tugged gently, letting go of those that felt taut, pulling further those that gave way.

“Photos of My Mother Found in Her Attic”

Published in The Literati Quarterly (October 2015).

Photos of My Mother Found in Her Attic

Her and Dad laughing at their wedding—the one where her head is tipped back and her eyes are closed as they dance, her veil like a pale cloud around her; one taken after my first JV lacrosse game—which we lost—her face painted and eyes glittering despite my mope; her at the old kitchen table, fuming with her head in her hands, followed by a series of ten photos of her coming around—a surefire tactic of my dad’s when she was really, truly angry: “She never frowns in front of a photographer”—finally stifling laughter as she reaches to take the camera from Dad’s hands; one of her in high school, radiant in sepia tones, her skin brighter and tighter than I ever saw, her face prettier and younger than I ever thought she could have been; Halloween the year I turned 7 and my brother 10, a pumpkin and a ninja respectively, our cheeks pressed hard into hers as she holds me on one side and Jeremy on the other, already the worry of her sons growing up showing in her face; a stray Polaroid with burned edges showing what must be her at a costume party before Jeremy was born—dark eyeliner and a sneer on her lips, laughter and a gleam of alcohol in her blue-blue eyes, an arm around a woman I’ve never seen; in the hospital beside Grandpa’s prone figure, amid the machines and dull lighting, her elbows on her knees and hands clasped tight together before her mouth, her sister trying to fake a smile behind her; standing in the garden at our old house, Jeremy clutching her thigh and hiding behind her as she blocks sun from her eyes with one hand and rests the other on her swollen belly; onstage in her college years—before she married Dad and dropped out—dressed as some Shakespearean heroine: arms wide and feet firmly planted, face uplifted toward the light and caught in wild, confident expression of her lines; struggling to handle a tipping armful of wrapped gifts with a sincerely horrified expression as Jeremy and I—probably 4 and 7—look to be screaming with laughter in the foreground; asleep, curled around my toddler body as I fiercely clasp my teddy bear and shudder in feverish sleep; a black-and-white the size of a credit card, one corner creased and folded: she’s a child, five maybe, her hand outstretched in a joyful wave as Pepaw holds her on his hip and they smile and squint under a bright sun—suddenly I can feel the decades between that picture and my dad, my brother and I, can see the other side of countless decisions and opportunities and accidents, and it’s like the bottom drops out of my stomach as I picture some other guy proposing before Dad saw her in that play, or her slipping through the ice at that pond where she’d skate at night as a girl, or a single driver running a red light before she could realize what was happening—but in the young, smiling eyes before me glints some secret knowledge, some intuition, that I only now see to be true.

“On Knowing the Score”

Published in Steer Queer Vol. 1, Issue 3 (October 2014).

On Knowing the Score

I lean out my apartment window into the mild night air exhaling cigarette smoke, stretching to see past the magnolia in my front yard and up toward the glow of the baseball fields in the park, the direction Zach should be coming from, so I know if I still have a few minutes. He texted me about hanging out as I stepped out of the shower after work and flat out told me he wanted to try it with another guy—me, tonight. I obviously told him to rush right over.

Zach’s a friend of a friend, one of those men with auburn hair the same color as his eyes and a white-white smile, just charismatic enough to pull off being both a professional poker player and couch surfer, and after last time we saw each other I left sure he was interested—he’d squeezed my thigh and winked when our mutual friends left the table to get another round, then told me about how his ex just left him, a girl I actually met once who bragged to me about the size of his dick. I’d blushed and laughed along with him, then greeted my fresh drink from our friends like everything was normal. I know the game.

My phone chimes and I look at the screen: Text from Zach. I unlock my phone to “Hey sorry dude! Ran into peeps playin dodgeball in tha park and girl asked for my number – couldnt resist. Ill catch u soon”

I crush out my cigarette on the glass top of my desk and toss the phone on my bed, exhaling a plume of smoke as I march to the kitchen. That’s the problem with this—chasing after straight boys whose eyes linger too long—the ones impulsive enough to do it are also impulsive enough to suddenly not do it. I pull a beer from the fridge and twist the cap off with my teeth—a little extra click-and-wiggle from that one molar, but fuck it—and reach for the half-empty pack of Camels on the counter, imagine Zach tossing his hair under bright lights and flickering stars as he looks over at her—whoever she is—impulse leading to action, action to impulse.

“On the Effects of Recurrent Stimuli”

Published in The Literati Quarterly (October 2015).

On the Effects of Recurrent Stimuli

Every time Amy catches a fleeting whiff of Melissa’s scent in the now-silent apartment over the days then weeks then months after their last blistering fight—as she finally changes the pillowcases, or discovers a battered Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt she’s pretty sure she told Melissa must have been lost, pushes aside beaten biology texts and notebooks to collect the towels crumpled at the bottom of her bedroom closet—Amy imagines a cloud of molecules rising, vibrating, turning, coming together to make Melissa’s round face, her crooked smile, her thick arms reaching out to Amy, beckoning her closer.

“Measuring Entropy”

Published in The Literati Quarterly (October 2015). 

Measuring Entropy

Nathan will sometimes, without warning or reason, perfectly recall a specific someone from his boyhood—a pear-shaped man with thick glasses and a deep voice, a scientist-cum-librarian who led Nathan’s middle school field trip around the NASA Headquarters Library—explaining that a telescope essentially makes your eyes bigger while bringing things closer, magnifying the pupil and the amount of light it can absorb and thus revealing things one could never see before. When Nathan returned home from that field trip—scuffing his feet up the sidewalk to his grey brick apartment building—his mother was staring silently out a kitchen window, coats were missing from the hallway closet, and in his bedroom Nathan found a note in an unsealed envelope assuring him that his father would “be back to visit soon.” When Nathan remembers it all now—walking those marbled corridors of scientific data, the pitch of excitement in the librarian’s voice, finding his mother holding the same cup of cold coffee and staring out the same window the next morning—Nathan imagines himself aiming his old Amateur Astronaut telescope at his father in the days before, the lenses warping his pupils larger and larger—diameters increasing exponentially, opening up big enough to fit a man inside and simultaneously pushing his vision closer, past fine lines around his father’s eyes, a hint of stubble about to emerge, inside and through the minute weave of his sport coat—Nathan’s vision getting him so near so fast that he makes contact, goes right down into and through the skin, deeper and deeper—finding beneath his father’s calloused outermost layers the sacred warmth of an atrium, ventricle, aorta—until, finally, tiny implosions fuse atomic connections so strong that his father would have had no choice but to take Nathan along when he left.

“The Story I Will Never Tell My Son”

Published in The Tishman Review Issue 1.4 (October 2015).

The Story I Will Never Tell My Son

“I thought you said you could take care of this, Sean.” I hold the smooth, tri-folded piece of paper in my hands, the typewriter marks crisp and apathetic next to my pink fingernails, the paper’s sharp corners vibrating with the rumble of my little Dart’s engine. I told him this would happen. A bubble of stomach acid creeps up my throat and I swallow it back down.

“I did, baby, I am,” he says, his words running into one another. “Olivia, there’s nothing to worry about, don’t worry about it. I’m not going to Vietnam, baby, no matter what that letter says—I’m not getting shot by some goddamn communist.” He grips the steering wheel until his knuckles glow white on his chapped, red hands. Sean hunches forward, a bulging blue lump of ski jacket with a brown cap on top, glaring through the lazy falling snow as if he hasn’t been driving through weather like this since he was fifteen, even if he is six years younger than me. I watch him reach up to wipe the fog from the windshield with his puffy sleeve. “Goddamn hippies in Ohio. I wrote essays for them, hundreds of essays, and now those goddamn draft dodgers don’t remember my name. They said we all believed in the same shit, that non-violence could overcome a war, and then they apparently all forgot who the fuck I am.” He hits the steering wheel with his fist, wipes the windshield again, and fumbles to light a cigarette as another acidic swell gurgles in my stomach. “Not even goddamn Tommy Hill, the one whose dad is a general and could cross anybody’s name off the goddamn list.” He exhales a roiling ball of smoke and cranks down the driver’s side window. “Not even that fucker, who promised I’d be fine.”

Frigid air stings my face as I lean over to rest my forehead on the window and look up into the falling snow and at the tops of the tall pines on the edge of another town. I could really use another beer—the last six-pack died an hour and a half ago and a salty, dry taste is creeping through my mouth. I glance over at Sean, his eyes wide and agitated. I’ll be thirty in two months. Why am I doing this? We’ve been driving for three hours at least; he wouldn’t tell me why at first—“Just want to drive”—and didn’t even give me time to change clothes after work. But I knew what was wrong once I saw the military emblem on the torn envelope on the floorboard.

The last road sign told us we had just entered Troy, a hundred and sixty miles from Providence and our little apartment with the peeling floor tile in the kitchen and the tiny bathroom he painted blue last August; from Scooper and Tramp, who are probably yowling with hunger by now. I set the clean-white letter on the floor, swallowing hard as a cold sweat coats the skin of my neck and face. I lean back in the seat, grit my molars together and tap the fingernails of my right hand on the cool glass window. Click, click, click. Click, click, click.

“Will you fucking stop that? Please.” Sean tosses his spent cigarette out the driver’s window, the air frosting his breath.

I sniffle, wipe the cold bulb of my nose along my wrist, and pull my green coat tighter, fastening the zipper right up to my chin.

“Not that cold.” He shakes his head, streaks the fogged windshield with his bare hand and reaches for his cigarettes. “But maybe this is best, Oli. I mean, goddamn, it’s how we survive, by being scared, by feeling like we don’t really know what’s going on, you know? Maybe it’s the only thing that keeps us moving.” He lights a new cigarette, the first acrid, hazy breath filling the car, before slapping his palm against the curve of the steering wheel. “That’s it, Oli,” he says, not looking at me, “there has to be fear inside your heart for you to keep going—there has to be.”

The bitter smell of smoke reaches my nose and my throat spasms as I turn from Sean, his face flushed and smooth, to rest my chin in the hollow of my palm. I force myself to smile as I look past the dark gray dashboard and busted radio, back to him. “I love you, kiddo.” My left thigh sits just beside the front seat crevice and I picture him reaching over to clasp my knee while he smiles at me like he always does and tells me he loves me too.

His eyes flicker toward me in the shallow reflections from the headlights, and he breathes smoke out hard through his nose. He grips his cigarette in his front teeth, both hands on the wheel, his clumsy lips slurring his words: “No room for love unless there’s fear, baby.”

I hold my eyes closed for a second, lifting my head from the cold zipper pinching against my neck as I shift to face my reflection. A quiet, burning belch rises in my throat. I watch the snow fall in clumps that collect in the corners of all the windows, framing my face and dark curly hair, Sean’s silhouette behind me. He could’ve at least said it back.

When we first moved in—back when he convinced me we could save money living together and would surprise me with dinner or shelves he built for the bathroom, back when he crawled into bed when I did to hold me—we used to lie out in the snow when it fell, those first few years. We haven’t had the chance this year to wander out to the picnic table in the little fenced-in back yard and hold each other, all bundled up in our coats and scarves and gloves, as the snow slowly erases everything around us. My stomach knots up, this time tighter and higher up, as I think about the heat of his arms and breath on those snowy days; I remember waiting until the numb prickles rose to my knees to go inside and warm up. Feeling small beside him used to be so natural.

I drop my face into my hands, dragging my fingertips through the thin sweat on my forehead to my jaw, resting my fingers along the smooth boned line. The low grumble of the engine and the sound of wind through Sean’s open window fill the small, cold space between us. The last time we had a good conversation was weeks ago. He writes to so many papers and articles about the war that there’s hardly any of him left for me. He hasn’t even noticed my skin, how clear and soft it is, or my good mood, how cheery I’ve been for at least a few weeks, almost a month, or how I take longer to get ready in the bathroom each morning, coughing quietly. He might never notice; might not get the chance now. I let out what sounds like a small laugh and rub my knuckles against my eyes, wiping away water. I guess I have to tell him, but he won’t want to hear it anyway. He’ll tell me I must be wrong.

“Hand me another pack of cigs, eh, Oli?” His right hand sits out, upturned, waiting.

I lean forward to the glove box and tug the handle, opening the smooth, cold little door. “Where are they?”

“No more in there?”


“Look in the back, there should be some in a bag back there.” His hand jerks toward the backseat, thumb extended. “Behind my seat.”

His seat. Sometimes I think he forgets whose car this actually is. I turn around to look and, as my vision turns from the road, my stomach goes cold and coils up again, grinding tighter this time. I push my feet against the floorboard to wiggle into the shallow space between us and reach the plastic bag I can see peeking out from beneath the driver’s seat. I pull back and set my jaw as I push my knees onto my seat, stretching over the back support and down to the floorboard in the back, the top of the seat round and firm against my queasy stomach.

“What the hell are you doing? Can’t you just squeeze your small ass between the seats?” He snorts and flinches away as my hip grazes his shoulder.

I get a hold of the thin, crumpled bag, pull it from under the seat and toss a pack of Camels over my shoulder into his lap. “There,” I say, dropping the crinkling bag back onto the floor. I bend and maneuver back down to a sitting position, huffing as I put a hand on my seizing gut and pull my hair back from my face.

“Open it for me,” he says, not even asking.

I stare at him for a second and then snatch the box from his lap, peel off the cellophane wrapping and place it in his outstretched hand. I look out the window again, at the glow of a city just on the other side of the dark pines, at the slowly falling snow. Maybe if I just don’t say anything, we can go back to how we were—before this letter to him and this change in me. Sean’s lighter flicks in front of another cigarette and the flash illuminates my small car for a second, defining the door beside me, the stippled dashboard and, in the edge of my vision, the small space between our seats. We could just drive, maybe head south where it’s warm, and make our way to Mexico, hopping from resort to resort and beach to beach, drinking piña coladas and changing our names in each little city. A gas station sign shines ahead, the snow around it turning red and orange, the 76 white and clear. My stomach squeezes taut, hollowing itself out, and I swallow back another sour burp. I can drive when he gets tired and he can drive when I do; we’ll always keep moving, and just forget about the world and the war, stay on the road as far as it goes. “Sean, pull in here. I want to get a beer.”

He pulls right up to the building, headlights searing the red brick wall, and turns off the car. He begins steadily tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and the sound fills the quiet space like a drumbeat in an open plain. “Hurry, Oli.”

I take a breath, my stomach still and settled for a second, and push open the car door, squinting as the bitter breeze pushes my hair into my face. I get out with my purse and walk around the car to the door of the store. I turn back to my Dart, the heavy glass door to the shop halfway open. There’s Sean: this kid driving my car, his hazel eyes showing yellow in the fluorescent light as he stares ahead, zoned and scared. He looks addicted, or at least manic, off somehow. I turn into the shop as the letter on the floorboard pops into my mind and my guts do another cold, acidic flip. I told myself this would happen. I clear my throat as the door shuts behind me with a chilly breath.

I walk slowly down the aisles, pausing in front of the glowing beer freezer along the back wall, the white lights shining off of colored glass and curved labels like streetlights across the bottles clinking in the floorboards. I bite my lip and push my hair behind my ear before moving further down, past the alcohol, and tugging a green pop bottle from a little cooler brimming with crunchy ice. I wander through an aisle of candy and cheap toys up to the cashier and show him the drink. As I hand him a ragged five, I glance around for the metal racks they always have just by the door. When the grinning man hands me my change, I smile back widely and thank him, moving toward the exit. I glance out at Sean—his glossy eyes not even seeing me. I swipe a free copy of Northeast Real Estate, Inc.—the pictures of empty houses on the front fuzzy but bright—and stuff it in my purse with the money in my hand.

“Sean,” I say, knocking on the driver’s side window.

He quickly rolls it down and looks up at me, his eyes open too wide—showing too much white—his mouth slightly open, silent.

I swallow hard again, the burn easing quicker now, push my hair behind my ears, and motion with my head toward the store as I speak. “Hop out. My turn to drive.”