“Where to Go When You Miss Him”

Published in First Stop Fiction (August 2013).

Where to Go When You Miss Him

The Applebee’s on Main for lunch, despite the fact that he never bartends on Tuesday afternoons; a quiet café on Landon Street—isn’t it just called Café?—that he frequents after work for a chai latte with extra milk, which is better than it sounds; the loud, smoky pool hall by the Civic Center where the two of you would play poker—in the back on Thursdays—and skeeball; the Food Lion by Waterfront Road that’s only three blocks from his apartment and has beer for a dollar cheaper than any other grocery in town; the Lowe’s you went to—the one on Corrine Boulevard—to get him a new drill and wrench set for Christmas last year; the voodoo shop on the boardwalk, owned by a woman who really is Creole and will build a doll out of a sock and three stray hairs for thirty dollars; before home, to bed, where the sheets smell faintly of beer and sand, and there’s nothing to remind you of how recently he was there.

“She Waits, Lovely, Robins’ Nests in Her Hair (Notes)”

Published by Cease, Cows (June 2013). 

She Waits, Lovely, Robins’ Nests in Her Hair (Notes)

1. In Jeremy’s recurring dream, she is sitting at an antique vanity made of cherry wood like the one his mother has, wearing a simple flower-print dress and twisting sections of her glinting auburn hair up onto the top of her head, making silky nests for the small, speckled birds’ eggs scattered carefully on the gleaming hardwood before her. Jeremy always notes—in a distant, non-questioning sort of way—that though the overhead lights are not on in the bedroom, she is bathed in a soft light that seems to emanate from the vanity before her—the sort of glow made by fireflies and deep sea jellyfish—despite the thick shadows on the edges of the room threatening to overtake the low ceiling and embedded bookshelves. The colors in the room are also bizarre, especially what appears to be a blazing chartreuse on the walls: everything is hyper-vivid but muted, like black-and-white pictures of events Jeremy can recall from memory.

Every time, as he walks forward slowly, trying to figure out exactly what she’s doing and how she’s doing it, she turns when she sees him in the mirror, her slender arms above her head. “There you are,” she says, like she was about to come looking for him, like she really was wondering, like she’s relieved he’s arrived. Then he sits on the corner of the bed he somehow knows is theirs and watches her: she goes right back to her hair, naming each colorful egg’s species for him, each more exotic than the last, more delicate, more fanciful. She takes each one softly between two long fingers, names it with a smile while holding it in the air, and then tells him about how that particular bird nests in woven pendulums that hang over the rushing Amazon river, or has feathers used for generations in the crowns of kings and clothes of shaman, or that they eat only insects from the island of Madagascar.

2. She is riveting, engaging, as intelligent and articulate as he could hope for his children to be, more beautiful than he deserves—he has no qualms admitting that, his sweaty palms clasped as he scoots further back on the mattress—even in his dreams.

The woman—though she does not feel quite as young as his waking self, Jeremy knows that here they are peers—speaks expressively, moving subtly, in such a way that her luminous hair does not topple down her shoulders, but so that it seems like twisting and weaving nests in her hair is the most natural and incidental thing she could be doing—like she could stand up and walk away from it at any moment without any regret at all. But Jeremy knows this is not so as he watches her smooth jawline, dark brown eyes—and he realizes again every night that this way of acting is something he likes about her, has always liked about her—because on some level he knows that her task is nearly sacred. He finds himself awed and honored to watch her.

Whenever he mentions any of this to her—the impossibility of what she’s doing, or her mystifying success at her task, or her intelligence or slight whimsy or easy attitude—her mouth curls into a smile as she looks straight into his eyes and tells him he’s being ridiculous, her eyelids relaxing coyly.

3. Jeremy has tried to describe her to his friends, but it never quite makes sense—weaving eggs into her hair, glowing as she waits for him in a shadowed bedroom painted ridiculous colors—so he also tried to recreate her for his friends—painting and drawing her—but the patterns on the eggs were always too predictable, too common, the colors were never right, and Jeremy was never a good artist anyway. And since he lacked her intimate knowledge of each species, her task always came out sounding absurd—why would someone dedicate their time to something so fragile, so curious, something so few people could care about?

He never had answers, only the looming fever of obsession in his eyes, so his friends—who were beginning to pair off and get married anyway, have kids and take more time to themselves—stopped asking if he kept having the dream and he stopped offering up details of the time he spent with her. Now he calls them less, forgets details of their lives he has known for years, is surprised when they ring on his birthday—his roommate remarks that he only sees Jeremy shuffling through the apartment in his robe, always on the way to his bedroom.

4. Jeremy has started napping, determined to catch more glimpses of her—perhaps if only half-awoken as his roommate comes home for lunch—a chance to speak with her the way he wants, to break out of their repetitive interactions. He is usually too excited to fall asleep—cannot stop concentrating on her long enough to let go of the idea and have it drift back to him – but he develops a routine that he makes into habit, showing up at the side of his own empty bed each day at noon-thirty, having requested off every afternoon every day from CVS after telling them he has developed a sleep condition.

The napping has worked only once, allowing him to glimpse her outside their usual situation—it was fleeting, nothing like he’d expected. In that dream—in the visceral, concretely vivid way of dreams experienced during brief periods of sleep—Jeremy realized that he was walking up the hallway stairs of what he knew was the same small, rather plain house, intent on finding her throaty laugh and mocha-brown eyes. Seeing their wedding photo hanging at the top of the stairs, he glimpsed memories as they washed through his mind: her smile as they had danced at the reception, the hilarious and sincere speech his half-drunk father had given, the way she had looked into Jeremy’s eyes when she said “I do.” When Jeremy peeked into the master bathroom, she was wrapping herself in a towel, still dewed with water from the full bath—that long brown hair made dark by the moisture, snaking in loose coils around her face. She looked up immediately, straight into his eyes, and smiled crookedly.

“Jeremy.” She shook her finger at him, laughing. “You’re not supposed to be here.” Then she stepped forward, playfully tossing the door shut.

When he opened it again, she was gone—the towel rehung, the bathtub dry.

5. He has not returned his mother’s last three phone calls, and when his sister brings her twin boys over to make sure he’s okay, he tells them he’s sick, that it’s contagious and could be dangerous for the kids to catch.

“What is it?” his sister, whose name is Ashley and who never fully believes what Jeremy tells her, asks through the crack he has opened his front door. “Shingles? Strep? Why didn’t you call me and tell me not to come, then?” She tries to push the door open more but his foot is wedged behind it. “Come on, what’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Jeremy says. “It’s just the kids—I’d hate to get them sick.”

Ashley finally shrugs, tells him to call their mother, and says she wants to see him soon. “You didn’t even come over for your birthday like you said you would,” she says. “We were expecting you.”

Ashley places a hand on the back of each boy and all three of them turn and walk away from his apartment’s front door. Jeremy pushes it shut and flips the deadbolt.

6. Tonight, in the middle of the dream, Jeremy realizes for the first time where he is on a very conscious level. ‘Shit,’ he immediately thinks, ‘it’s real this time.’ He focuses on the familiar surroundings, noticing things he’s not before—his mother’s initials on the top vanity drawer, a portrait of a man he understands to be her father on a bookshelf, the silver and amethyst ring he gave her for their tenth anniversary on her index finger, a picture of them smiling widely at a picnic with three children he knows are theirs. Jeremy sorts questions for her in his head, silently as he observes so as not to end the mesmerizing activity in front of him: the parade of delicate colors moving through her hands, the soft light on her hair that makes it show brown to red to gold as she speaks or turns to him with a patterned eggshell between her fingers, the glint and sparkle in her voice when she finally places the last spotted egg in its pillowed nest.

He asks why she’s appeared to him, where they found each other, why she chose him, and she laughs as she turns slowly to him, leans forward, says, “You’ll see, you’ll see.”

“What’s Left Behind”

Published in Walking is Still Honest (W.I.S.H.) (June 2013).

What’s Left Behind

We carry so many things with us—
like petals they drop,
littering the floor by our feet
even as we scoop them into our pollen-dusted palms,
return them to the dry cavity in the chest, the head,
the places where we think they belong.

Like so many things, we are carried,
pieces of us transported away
from where the substance of us remains,
like a star we watch appear each evening—
as Jupiter shines by the rising moon,
the clouds giving way to Orion and Cassiopeia—
a star we watch even knowing
it’s been dead for thousands of years.

These pieces of us are still us—
they are the petals others find by their feet,
the impressions that are carried so far away
that we do not even recognize them
when we encounter them again.
This is all that’s left when we’re gone—
starlight and flower petals, remnants and memories:
portraits, abstractions, what other people saw.

“Comfort Food”

Published by FlashFlood National Flash-Fiction Day Journal (UK) (April 2013).

Comfort Food

Grilled colby cheese sandwiches on homemade sourdough like Dad would make whenever I was sick as a kid; Mom’s baked chicken, lightly browned and flecked with herbs, crisp sheen of fine oil on the skin; cobbler made from the wildberries my sister Naomi and I used to pick in the shallow woods behind our childhood house; either a venison steak with mashed red potatoes on the side, venison sausage with stout biscuits sopping in gravy, or venison stew every single night through the middle of the frosty deer season, Dad smiling about his trophy at each gamey bite; the soft, fudgy pot brownies my bunkmate smuggled into summer camp when we were 15; green peppers, carrots and snap peas crunching sweetly as Mom and I stood over the kitchen sink, wiping dark soil from our hands and looking out the window at her backyard garden; a dab of cream cheese icing on my lips like the one from my first real boyfriend’s thick fingers, crumbs of devil’s food cake clinging to the sugary surface; Grandma’s green beans, cooked with ham hock and then steeped in the juices like a jar of sun tea; the soft spice of shrimp stirred into red beans and rice like I took to Mom on her first night in the hospital; an olive’s salty bite after bathing in a Bloody Mary with extra Tabasco; ham biscuits, cornbread and chicken-fried steak made just like at Mom’s funeral; char of a dry jerk rub, dimples from the sea salt pressed into the chicken’s blackened skin; the tart burn of wine that soured just the night before; the blackberries Naomi and I used to crush into fresh syrupy jam on Sunday mornings, Mom’s robe cinched at the waist as she stirred moist scrambled eggs and diced red potatoes in cast iron, telling Naomi and I jokes we’d already heard while beside her Dad dipped heavy slices of sourdough in yolks, flipped them in a pan, his laughter bright and magic as he acted out the funny papers spread before Naomi and I, or snuck up behind Mom to kiss her neck, then pull her away from the stove’s aura of warmth, Mom’s eyes smiling into his as she turned, her fine hands reaching, running along his shoulders, clasping together behind his broad neck.

“How They Clasp Their Lips”

Published in Gone Lawn 10 (Summer 2013).

How They Clasp Their Lips

I.S.O. Dave Eggers, “When They Learned to Yelp”

At the Americans’ first footsteps off the rickety bus onto the village soil, the lips of the African staff, guides and residents tighten and release in the breath between words—it is quietly learned and does not appear all places the way it does here, but the steady stare is always present—they offer their hands to the Americans, whose pale fingers accept stiffly.

“How can you not see, not remember?” their dark eyes whisper. “Don’t they teach you these things in America?”

The only answers the Americans can muster are dull smiles, unfocused gazes.

***

It begins in the shoulders: straightening, flexing, sometimes only slightly, and the tightness goes to the waist; the feet shift, squaring themselves, as if in military inspection.

The face works in four steps: the nostrils flare and shrink, then gape for a second time; this is the moment of horrible realization: the sniff is hard, anxious, like a last breath.

Then: the eyes brighten as the idea of what is happening—who this is and what they, their people, have done—becomes crystalline, focused; it is going into the basement from the sunlight, and bathing, for a second, in what could happen there, in the dark.

After which: the eyes narrow and do not widen again—the settling that happens just after an injury, the dizzy exhaustion that tears everything else away, the quiet moment when the entire world is pain, wide and comforting.

Finally: the mouth moves as if to speak through the closed lips—jaws making way for the seething tongue, which flicks the gums and molars—the jaw strikes shut. The lips push against each other brutally: a stealthy, sour taste coating the mouth after the smell of bad milk.

This marks the end of the soundless fury that develops in the belly and spreads to the arms, toes, the burning ears—something so raw and old that the intensity seizes the muscles of the chest and squeezes them: the mind perceives only the present moment.

***

The clasping is essential, and is a custom passed down without words, having evolved in many places into many actions; the rage and screams and spilled blood all fall in on each other until the chest feels completely still, a star after collapsing: it encompasses hurt too big and buried to be spoken of and thrusts it into the bones of the living.

***

A witchdoctor danced in Botswana, the same dance his father and his father’s father had done, swinging his arms and shaking his beaded chains—luck seeds and plastic bells, whistles and reed skirts—and said he had a vision of Suzanne, the honey-haired elementary school teacher from New Jersey, “that she is good luck.” The villagers all turned to her, speaking and patting the pale skin of her back; she looked directly into their eyes for the first time, smiling—their lips no longer clasped in her presence.

***

Those who clasp their lips have been chained in the dark, sent to ships and taken to another world; worked like machines until they were; they have felt their spine, hands, feet as open callouses, the bones brittle and close to the skin; the bullets and sun, the spit and swinging rope.

***

The clasping can be done any place, at any time deemed necessary; the chest may tighten while outside or indoors, and the clasping comes whether you have planned for it or left the thought unattended. Standing on the grass in Hiroshima, people’s lips are clasped; in Berlin, touching broken stones; the clasping is seen on the arid reservations of the Western U.S.; and in Dresden, they are always held clasped—tourists with cameras, agitated smiles.

***

The Americans did not meet Dineo, the African who never clasped her lips, until later, after the village and the witchdoctor: her eyes never narrowed, the tannin-brown was always searching; her skin was taut, her laugh deep and throaty; she threw her many tiny braids over her shoulder while she spoke. Her daughter, she said, would be sent to America to go to school, in hopes that she could come back home to Africa and aid her people—help to ease the clasping.

“It will happen,” Dineo—whose name means ‘gift’—told the Americans that night. “Sometime, our children will not be scared when green trucks pull into the villages. They will not fear skin lighter than their own or the men who speak only English. We push them quickly, the parents and generations older try, but the undoing of things is harder than the doing, yes?” Dineo smiled. “It will happen. When it does, the people will dance, open their mouths to laugh; they will never stop singing again.”

“Dreams Without Sleep (Notes)”

Published in Gone Lawn 10 (Summer 2013).

Dreams Without Sleep (Notes)

I.S.O. Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

“And I will always feel, like those great damned
souls, that thinking is worth more than living.”
Fernando Pessoa, Always Astonished: Selected Prose, 1988

1.
Immediately, I notice how big the sky is: so wide, and eternally deep. On mornings like this, when I notice things like these—the yellow that reflects in the fountain, the grey-green of trees at dawn—I often feel more vibrant, my fingertips cool but my core smoldering. But on today’s morning walk, after having slept for twenty minutes just before the sun rose, the people seem uniquely shadowed, their features blurring into monotony before my steady eyes; the leaves, however, the appearing sun, even the lampposts lining the blocks and roads shine in a way that only I can feel.

2.
One often wonders, when caught in streams of thought so unprovoked that they must be followed, how exactly the eagle—which dropped the fatal tortoise onto Aeschylus—mistook his bald head for a jagged rock in the first place.

3.
Where else in the world could I ever conceive of being except where I wish I was? My ordinary surroundings are so repetitious that they are ingrained in my mind—therefore, however—disappearing from my mind’s eye. The few postcard pictures I do retain—filed away together in a far-off corner of my conscious mind—are of places I have heard of where I will never walk: long-destroyed cities, the scorch of leather sandals under my feet, volcanoes and icebergs which shift and change, islands that exist only on ancient maps. No life exists in daydreams—nothing more real than this clay and flesh—but the only thing left in my waking life is dreaming.

Even the stars change over time, maturing like we do: growing brighter and duller until we fade, our glow only seen light years away from our remaining substance.

4.
I spend hours in front of a mirror: one hangs above my desk, crisp and lightly dusted, the depths of which contain shapes I can never seem to find on the opposing walls. I stare behind myself, thinking of where these stains, visible only to the mirror’s eyes, may have come from: the wallpaper is smooth and clean.

More often than not, I resolve to take a walk after this mirror business ensues, pursuing the same route on which my mornings take me: past the bus station, the power plant’s chimneys, the darkened downtown buildings—all locked. The world seems hidden behind a veil of dust, catching light in ways that it usually does not; I walk with the same heavy, lucid eyes as in my dreams, trying to discern the stains lining the sidewalks.

5.
There is an intensity that lives constantly in the present moment when one has lost the time for dreaming and those stories begin to steal your waking attention: the mind’s survival games….

My dreams are easier to translate than reality. Isn’t it only normal that they would bring more comfort?

6.
A strange heaviness is resting in my belly, stretching its long legs, rubbing its swollen stomach. It spreads to my head, a hazy recollection of what I have not done: the scattered stones that should be resting securely in concrete along with the others I have stacked, and not in the wet dirt where they still lie. There is a tightening deeper in my gut that twists my torso and hollows my legs, immobilizing my terrified aspirations before they have a chance to take breath….

An impending beginning is tiring: the suffocation of ambition by the bony hands of fear.

7.
Wherein

I have found the beginning; now I must dig up the rest of my ripening words.

8.
An air of mischievous glee always accompanies me to a friend’s house, when I get to experience a new place for the first time. I will wait until I have entered the house: from there, I begin to plan out the rest of their abode—down to the trim color—before I have seen even another doorway. I walk through the rooms just before we arrive in them—on the “official tour,” of course—and try to fix arrangements done incorrectly, each wall erected in the wrong place, pictures which don’t suit the colors in my head.

A certain delight finds its way into my fingers and I touch objects that I like, labeling them mine—by the rule of finders-keepers—even if I allow the objects to stay with their now-former owners. Just before the front door is again opened and closed for me, I look around and imagine my things—the ones formerly theirs and currently mine—clearing the floors, brightening the walls, filling the rooms.

I always leave smiling—my vision crisp—at having found a new place for my restless dreaming legs to roam.

9.
When I wish to sleep, my eyes never tire; when I must forge ahead, my mind decides to hastily fade: before I notice, I am waking up, minutes or hours later, panicked, work still to be done—as there always is, threads left unwoven, paths never sojourned.

Something magic rests in the moment of tired realization, though—something that presses its warm neck against our hanging hand, rubs its calico face against our cheek—when I can feel my dreams swelling within my mind, pushing lean fingers into my attention span: disabling it. I often catch myself with my eyes averted, bleary with thought, my pen hovering above the page, until I realize my unconsciously-conscious state; I sit sculpted: a bent, distracted tree.

I clutch those moments of tired erasure—internal, expansive nothingness—as if my arms are spread and I feel no barriers, just a low, steady breeze that is cunning and warm touching every part of me. Just when I sacrifice my remaining mind to the tired intrusion, my eyes brighten, thoughts lucid, the zephyr having grown and moved the fog from those reaching arms, closed eyes: a dream begins, the dreamer building as he goes.

“Lies I Never Meant to Tell”

Published in Apocrypha and Abstractions Vol. 3 (May 2013).

Lies I Never Meant to Tell

I won’t throw rocks at cars or my brothers, not even small ones that won’t really hurt; I’ll try not to cry on the playground when the other boys call me names; After dinner I’ll finish my math homework; Don’t worry, my new khakis won’t get dirty; I promise not to eat any of the cookies that are for the church social; We’ll always be friends; I’ll never interrupt class again; No matter what the popular kids do, I won’t ever start smoking; And if it’s a R-rated movie, I’ll call you right away to come pick me up; He and I just like hanging out together, nothing more; I’ll be home by nine; Of course I’ll bring home any boys I’m interested in dating; Be right back; Look, it doesn’t matter if my door is shut anyway, because we’re not going to do anything; I promise to be extra careful driving at night; I swear never to come on to him – I know how much he means to you; But this time, I mean it; I hate the taste of beer; I love you; No, you look great, really; I’ll do anything if you just give me a passing grade; I will never drink and drive; All I can say is, I mean it when I say it will never happen again, especially not with him; Pleased to meet you; I’ll bring him home safe, Mr. Fischer; I don’t know how it happened, Officer; Okay, I forgot where I put your t-shirt, but I’ll find it for you later; I still love you; I have to go – I’ll explain it another time; Look, I’m sorry, but really, none of it is my fault.