“A Lungful of Air”

Placed Fourth in Pithead Chapel‘s 2016 Larry Brown Short Story Award; published in Vol. 6, Issue 1: the contest issue (January 2017).

A Lungful of Air

The soft crash of waves moves away from the dock, the square platform in the middle of Crater Lake that’s held in place by a heavy chain connected to the slick wooden bottom and rooted deep in the muck twenty feet below. Alex sits closer to the shore, his palms flat on the rocking planks, as I sit with my knees up, elbows perched. I glance behind me at powerboats humming across the water, the big brick houses across the lake from the state-owned stretch of sand, then turn my head to the beach, the girls sunning in their new bikinis, the clutter of guys drinking by the grill, Shana’s two kids in the water and her watching them from the little sandy crescent of the shore.

I watch Shana, one hand blocking the sun from her eyes, and remember leaning on my kitchen counter finishing a Milky Way as she promised over the phone that there would be enough people here that I wouldn’t even have to look at Alex, and that she’d be sure to keep an eye on him to make sure he wasn’t bothering me. I hear laughter as the youngest kid, perched on a green inflatable crocodile, drifts to shore by the boat ramp and Shana pushes the float back out into the water. I wish it was shaped like something more docile—a duck or something.

“It’s weird, huh, Mark?” Alex turns to me, his tricep flexing like it would when he used to bend over me in the bed of his dad’s Chevy.

“What is?” I look at the land, at the tall pines that border the sand and then hold close to the uneven line of red-clay shore that curves out from the beach to make this tiny cove. I know the pattern the trunks make after coming here for years—in high school, Shana and I used to drink here when the moon was full because we could bring our boyfriends and there was plenty of space to sneak off, be alone with them. She brought Jason until they split up, then it was whoever she happened to be dating, a lacrosse player or a man too old to go to our school. I was always with Alex.

“That we’re all here together again.” He swings his hands around when he talks, like an orchestra conductor—we used to make fun of him for it, but he would just flick us off as one of his hands swooshed by. “It’s been, what, three years?”

“Four.” I gaze down and lower one of my hands to the wood beneath me to peel a large splinter from the dock. Fucking dangerous. “Since we were all together.”

“Damn, it’s been that long?” He turns his body toward mine now, spreading his legs across the dock so that his dripping feet sit on either side of me. “Doesn’t seem like it.”

I look up at him, the even-toned olive skin over his swimmer’s muscles, the dark blond hair that falls over his eyes, the bright red swimsuit. “No, it doesn’t.” I toss the splinter into the water where it floats like the inflatable crocodile by the shore; my mind, like I knew it would when I saw the float, even when Shana first told me that we were coming to the lake, starts grasping for every image of a crocodile I’ve ever seen and places them all in the water beneath me. Sometimes it’s not crocodiles, but it’s always something. For years—beginning after Shana and I watched Jaws when we were eight—it was sharks, even in fresh water—

“So what’ve you been up to?” He looks straight into my eyes and leans back on his arms.

“Nothing.” He doesn’t need to hear that I’m still not over him after three fucking years and haven’t left this podunk town, that I work too much at the deli and drink whenever I’m not working. “You?”

“Well,” he says, turning to the line of trees to his right, “Darryl and I had a one-bedroom up in Richmond, but then he left a few months ago. I kept the apartment.” He pauses as beyond him, the sparrows flit from branch to branch. “Got a job as a bank teller downtown.” Alex flicks his head back in my direction, moving the hair from his eyes. “You want to swim?”

I look down at my baggy t-shirt and loose jeans. “Nope.”

He blinks and pouts his lips. “Why not? You like swimming.”

“I used to like swimming.” The crocodiles beneath me swing just past my mind’s eye, stirring up sediment as they circle the thick chain beneath the water. “Besides, I didn’t bring a suit. That’s why I wanted to row out.”

Alex glances behind me at the paint-flaked rowboat I rowed to the dock. He had swum behind the boat, despite the fact that I had already told him to leave me alone. I give Shana a death-glare, but I know she’s too far away to catch it. 

He stands, his calves and forearms suddenly solid and lined as he stretches. “Well, I’m going to swim.” He does a perfect swan dive into the water by the boat, making the dock sway.

I lean my head back and shut my eyes, the warmth from the sun creeping along my face and neck. I can see the hungry crocs below, waiting in the shade while he dives before zooming up from the silt to catch his leg, his arm, his mouth opening to scream, bubbles floating to the top as the water turns red like in the movies. 

I hear Alex surface and blow water from his lips before going back under. I pull my t-shirt up to let the sun on my skin, the soft cotton rubbing the point of my nose and along my arms; I try to ignore the skin that folds over the waist of my jeans—the weight that’s crept back ever since he left and I started volunteering for more shifts—lay the t-shirt on the dock behind me and lie back. I don’t know why he’s so stupid. I barely swam the last time we were here, after graduation—we swam all the way out, but I only thought about getting on this dock and lying in the sun together. We stole touches and stopped to kiss under the water until we reached the dock—I rest a hand over the ache in my chest. The dock was new then, the boards freshly lacquered, the metal not yet rusted. I jumped in with a snorkel mask to try and follow the chain down to the bottom, and when I looked around in the murky brown, I could picture rows of big, white teeth charging out of the depths faster than I could hope to swim. I knew they weren’t there, and I do now, but I still told Alex I was tired and made him stay close as we swam back. It’s always what I can’t see that scares me, the places where I know shit lurks but I can’t sense it. It’s why I shut my bedroom door when I’m alone in the apartment at night; you never know what’s creeping up behind you when you stop payin—

“Come on, get in the water, Mark,” Alex calls as I sit up, water splashing onto my feet, speckling my jeans.

“No,” I say to his head, bobbing a few feet out in the blue-brown water. “I’m not wearing trunks.”

“So what? You have boxers. Come on, it’s fun.” He splashes more water onto the dock. I roll my eyes and lie back down as my stomach churns. Why is he being like this? He was the one who made me leave, told me he had grown past me, why—

“Come on, babe.” Alex’s voice is low and a little raspy, the same tone it would always fall to when he whispered to me. I turn my head to see his hands wrapped around the gray metal poles of the foot ladder, his eyes trained on me.

Did he just call me babe?

I cough lightly to clear my throat and sit up, folding my forearms over my lap. “You’re not allowed to call me that, Alex.” I look down at the near-white wood of the bleached dock, the twisting dark lines that show the color of the wood at its core. The dock rocks as Alex climbs the ladder and I exhale hard, the muscles in my hands flexing tight.

“Why not, Mark? I used to call you babe all the time.” He stands over me, smiling down, his abs flexed in the sun, drops of water shining on his skin, then kneels, softly placing his hip, then his elbow on the wood beside me as my shoulders and neck tense. His wet fingers graze my bicep and the muscle jumps, the skin tight with goose-pimples. “Remember?”

The water and the crocodiles, the dock and the shore wash away as I look at the bright sky and the slowly moving clouds and think about that word, babe, that single word. When he would squeeze my hand at home football games in the back of the bleachers and wink as he said it; the times when his jock friends would sneer as I waited for him at the pool and he would say it into my hair when they were out of sight; the e-mails he would start with it; the hand-written notes on Christmas presents and at my birthday; breathing it in my ear because I told him to be quiet while my parents slept in the next room or while we had his dad’s truck for the weekend; when he actually told me, “Babe, we had a good run, but I think Darryl won this one.”

I sit up and push his hand away. “Shut the fuck up, Alex.”

“What?” His stomach flexes as he speaks and I fold my arms over my belly.

“Shut. Up.” I turn and grab my t-shirt, pull it over my head and stand, taking a step toward the boat as he scrambles.

“What are you doing?” He steps between me and the boat, the layer of fine hair on his chest catching and reflecting the sun’s light. Beneath me, a crocodile’s black eye gleams.

“I’m leaving. I don’t want to be trapped out on this dock with you.” I stare at him, trying my best to keep a “don’t you even” face on as a shiver runs through my knees.

He reaches out for my shoulder. “It’s just been awhile since I’ve seen you—”

I step back, over the shallow puddles he left on the planks, the dock and boat mashing together, our movement driving them into each other, forcing waves out toward the shore. “I know it has, Alex. And hopefully it’s going to be even longer next time.” I turn back to the shore and step to the edge of the seesawing dock, my toes clutching the worn rubber bumper that goes along the rim. The crocodiles are swimming closer in my mind, lingering where my shadow cuts through the sunlit water—need to get that fucking rowboat—and my heartbeat doubles, my neck goes slick with sweat. The muscles of my legs feel like they’re going to explode as the sound of a speedboat swings nearer behind me.

“Mark. Come on. I just want to be close to you.”

The dark green and brown ridges of the crocs split the water before me, their jaws opening as they twist and swim around the chain, as they wait in the shade of the dock, ready to flick their tails and break the surface with rows of jagged scales.

“Like I used to be.”

When I feel his fingertips on my back, I suck in a breath—filling my lungs despite the pressure in my chest—and leap away, kicking wildly at the claws and teeth waiting to slash and swallow me whole; the water moves coldly up my skin as the shore disappears from sight and Alex’s voice fades behind me into the din of rushing water.

“Continental Drift”

Published in The Vignette Review (December 2016).

Continental Drift

Greg is gone—the bright-eyed young man who in her mind is still skinning his knees and getting vexed when other kids don’t get along, the one who has decided in his second year of college to specialize in veteran medical care and who wants to explore other sides of the world, do things like climb Kilimanjaro and scuba the Galapagos—but he’s really only away for the summer and it is for school credit after all, a trip to Spain to fulfill his foreign language requirement, though as his mother sits in California drinking lukewarm white wine, watching heat roll off the asphalt—the only human among three cats in the condo she kept when her second husband left—these facts do not really seem like any consolation. When she knows Greg is at the university just halfway up the state, in his dorm room or at the dining hall, she can tell herself that she could see him in less than a day if either of them really had the time or inclination—but now her son’s absence is felt the way she notices hunger or that her foot has fallen asleep: aggressively and as she simultaneously recognizes a multitude of other feelings.

More often now, she imagines the 6000 miles—roughly 9000 kilometers—of vast country and ocean between them, but sees the distance in terms of tectonics: a path along the hard exterior of the lithosphere from the Pacific plate to the North American, then all the way across, a little skim along the edge of the African and then securely onto the Eurasian plate—but those images always evolve from where he is to what he’s doing: tasting an actual Valencia orange or taking a selfie in front of Moorish architecture, or maybe, really, more likely sleeping at the exact times when she thinks of him. Regardless of what she pictures him doing, at the end of the process she cannot help but go to her bedside table, to the drawer where she quietly keeps small luminous stones Greg used to bring her way back when he wanted to be a geologist too—of course she’d never have enough room to keep all the rocks he had given her, but the ones he’d thought were really special or that she might have never seen before tumble about now as she gently tugs the soft wooden handle. She used to buy Greg books about minerals and the Earth’s core, about magma and fossils and tectonics, fill his shelves with discarded specimens from the lab where she worked, anticipate his excitement on the rare days when he got to go to work with her—she had never thought even once before giving birth to Greg that he might like the same things she did, especially something everyone else found so dull.

So, now, when it’s a little too much that Greg is absent—and enjoying himself no doubt, nowhere near miserable and perhaps even ignorant of her anguish—she pictures the globe and divides the distance in her mind: she watches the Earth’s crust fracture along tectonic faults, the mantle giving way and the magma roiling beneath the hard exterior as the lip of the Pacific plate rises to overtake the North American, sliding its hot belly all the way across the U.S. and then into the Atlantic Ocean, nudging the African toward India—reconnecting Madagascar in the process, surely—and up the underwater shelf toward the Eurasian plate, allowing her to indulge in a new proximity, California touching Spain’s coast like a kiss on the forehead, like a soft hand on her shoulder, like a steady voice in a dark room when she thought she was all alone.

 

“Who You’ve Come to Be”

Published in Strangers Volume 1 (October 2016).

Who You’ve Come to Be

How It Starts

You, another woman at Palms, the martini bar—or do they call it a lounge?—mingling, twenty-six, with a tight skirt, big earrings; he was at the same bar, handed you a cosmo before asking your name and wore a ribbed sweater that hid his belly and showed off his chest, maybe a year older; you were the woman who admitted your secrets—how you would drive him crazy, what to do in bed, the way you prefer your eggs—and he was the man who listened—came up with routines to avoid freak-outs, let you be in control the first time, prepared them scrambled with no yolks and a pinch of pepper the next morning; you were the one who wanted to date, he was the one who asked to be exclusive; he always wore the cologne you said smelled like men should; you dyed your hair blonde because he liked dark eyes and light hair; he brought the pomegranate cherry juice you love on random dates; you kept a change of his clothes in your compact car for dinners.


What to Do If His Phone Rings While He’s in the Bathroom

If at home, call for him softly, if in public, simply watch the caller ID until the last ring; in the final second, answer—your voice slow and thick like honey from the refrigerator—and make it apparent the two of you are together, but without ever saying so; place his phone just as it was before he left, sure to remove your hand before he enters the room; tell him who called and that you answered, that she seems like a lovely girl and you just wish he’d introduce you to more of his friends; if he smiles, fall back into what you were doing before he left and place a hand on his strong thigh at the soonest opportunity; but if he lifts his phone to scroll through the call log or says he didn’t know she had his number, stay up after he falls asleep and sit in the dark of the bedroom—on the mattress you bought for yourself after college, between the sheets you washed just before you left for dinner—to record and double-check every phone number you don’t recognize.


When to Be Sure Your Time With Him is Up

When he stops answering his phone, which is always on, or texting back with a wink at the end of his messages; when he is late for dinner more than three times in a row and his only excuse is traffic; when he decides he dislikes his favorite restaurant, or yours, and would prefer to order take out, eat on the couch, and watch “Lars and the Real Girl” for the fiftieth time; when he no longer throws an arm over you while he’s snoring; when he begins panting too soon during sex and then strolls to the kitchen before you’ve had a chance to finish, or tells you that James was in the break room discussing the advantages of a “permanent third”; then the time has come to collect your things from his bedroom before he gets up for work the next morning, quietly shut the front door and pause on the steps to tie the laces of your shoes as you think of him—inside, shirtless, still asleep—the key to his apartment on the kitchen counter.


Why to Go Shopping After He’s Gone

New pajamas and sheets to make sure the bed doesn’t smell like him tonight; backless blouse for clubbing this weekend; Marlboro Lights, carton; necklace to replace the one he picked out; new day planner without anniversary reminders; a box of hair dye, ash brown to forget the bottle blonde; smooth metal trashcan to fill with still-framed pictures and e-mails printed to show friends; twenty-four pack of Yuengling; gasoline, at least a gallon, in case metal picture frames refuse to melt quickly; sweater to wear while building the fire; and, just in case, a flavor-locked single serving bag of the only Colombian roast he’d agree to drink.


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 skee-ball; 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.


Who You’ve Come to Be

He only likes comedies; you watch horror and romance; he loves to hike and play horseshoes; you want to swim and read; he smokes a Marlboro every morning before breakfast; you scrub and disinfect ashtrays at bedtime; he takes walks when angry, sings in the shower when aroused; you dole out silent treatment, wink when you get a glance; he never hugs strangers, leaves when someone tells him to go; you kiss everyone good bye, lock your knees when challenged; and in the early morning din of an empty apartment—sipping Colombian roast, half-watching the news—you suddenly wonder if these things are anyone’s fault at all.

“Stand Your Ground”

Published in Knack Magazine Issue 34 (March 2016).

Stand Your Ground

I creep down my apartment’s dark hallway, beckoned toward the living room—beside the front door standing ajar, lock hanging loose—to investigate soft, persistent noises. I use both hands to grip the handle of the revolver I bought after Jeffery left for college—my fingers are numb and I can feel the heavy thing trembling in time with my arms. ‘I need a fucking dog,’ I think.

I peek into the doorway, at the shadowed back of the figure crouched by the DVD cabinet; I step into the room—he rises as he turns.

My finger contracts, the chamber releases—his head cracks backward before he drops, crumples on the rug. I turn on the light, head swimming—he looks young, Jeffery’s age, a child playing a game, blood like drops of melted ice cream coming from his open mouth.

My stomach turns to ice as I realize he’s still moving.

“Token”

Published in Knack Magazine Issue 34 (March 2016).

Token

An air of mischievous glee always accompanies me to parties and gatherings—especially those held in lavish whitewashed households, with pedicured lawns, oh, and a circular brick driveway, perhaps a fountain resting in the center—when I get to experience a new place for the very first time. I wait until the sturdy red door has been answered by a gracious woman in a teal dress—her hair styled like Veronica Lake or perhaps Linda Darnell—and I have entered the house, but from there I begin to plan out the rest of their abode—down to the very color of the trim—before I have seen even another doorway.

Led by my hostess on the “official tour,” I walk through the rooms just before we arrive in them and try to see which statues she wrongly arranged, which walls seem to have been erected in an incorrect place, which pictures do not suit the colors in my head. The dining room is always simple and just right, though they should have chosen lilies rather than roses and used a burgundy rug; the kitchen immaculate, silver all polished and gleaming—but a permanent island counter would be more appropriate than a wheeled bar; the living room such a gauche, crowded display of bright color and mahogany that it’s hardly worth mentioning the list of corrections; and the master bedroom would do well with finer drapes and a different—perhaps hand carved?—headboard.

A certain delight finds its way into my fingers as we pass from room to room and I begin to lightly touch the trinkets I like, labeling them mine—by the rule of finders-keepers—even if I allow the objects to stay with their now-former owners. When I finally see an article I truly desire—they are always small and shiny, like a polished elephant of jade or a gilded sand dollar on a grey marble nightstand—I ask my hostess as politely as I know if I may pick it up, feel it, inspect it. She always agrees, beaming, and then continues to tell me a story about where she found such an artifact—at a quaint beach shop in Peru—or how difficult it is for such things to be made. She will then turn, one hand gesturing around the room as she laughs, not unlike the tinkling of glass, and steps into the next room to continue our tour.

The only problem with such actions is that I—every time, it seems—forget to place the object back where I found it—unless, of course, they mention the item, in which case I gasp at the forgetfulness that seizes me when I am amongst such sumptuous surroundings and pointedly situate the article just as it was.

If they do not happen to notice, I will only realize the treasure is still in my hand after we have descended the grand staircase again—which curves too widely into the foyer and could be carpeted with something a bit softer—or as I stand before the shallow black marble sink in the bathroom just at the top of the stairs—which calls for a different shade of mauve in the floor tile and someone to please polish the mirror’s gold frame. As soon as my mistake is realized, of course, I slip the Brazilian quartz prism or silver snuff box into my pant pocket for safekeeping, until I can work up the courage to again brave the lilac walls of the guest bedroom or the game room’s chartreuse curtains and promptly replace the relic. I will then rejoin my hosts in the parlor—swaying dully to music or sipping vermouth and gin from crystal glasses—to converse and mingle with the other guests, possibly try a taste of the brie—which was aged perhaps a week too long—or a sip of the cabernet—which was uncorked a season early—and fraternize generally with the other attendants of the party—who are, despite their best efforts, quite charming indeed.

Just before the front door is again opened and closed for me, I will turn in the foyer to picture the house and imagine my things—both those that are theirs, the souvenirs and artifacts of these glamorous travelers, and those that are mine, the everyday belongings which sit plainly on the other side of town in a two-room apartment situated above a butcher’s shop—filling tall rooms, brightening wide walls, clearing the hardwood floors.

I always leave the congregation of polite sophisticates smiling, the edges of my vision crisp, at having found a new place for my mind’s restless legs to roam; and at the weight in my pocket—perhaps a silver skeleton key or a tiny owl statuette—to arrange on a simple wooden shelf when I arrive home.

“Nightcap”

Published in Knack Magazine Issue 34 (March 2016).

Nightcap

(In the style of Dave Eggers’ “She Waits, Seething, Blooming”)

He is sitting at the wooden kitchen table, the white layers of remaining coconut cake resting just in front of him; his name and the numbers of “Happy 40th” already eaten by guests, now gone. After work, his husband John phoned, telling him he was sorry, but he’d be home in an hour, at 7:30. It is now 12:13 and the driveway is empty except for a blue Nissan, which he imagines getting into to track John down, still wearing his bow tie and vest; he will storm through the streets like a riot, his cries leading him through tangled avenues and dimly lit alleyways. He thinks of John’s face when he pulls up to the restaurant where John sits with his lover, their legs rubbing together, laughing and winking; he imagines throwing his patent leather shoes from the car—the ecstatic thump on the thick glass, the pause in their conversation—before fuming inside, showing everyone what kind of man his husband is and how badly John has treated him after so many years! A wicked dryness rises in his throat as he moves from the table to the cabinets, searching for the leftover vodka and a tall glass; he knows, however—and realizes as he is on tip-toes, fingertips grazing the bottle—that there is no other man, that John often has to stay late for work, though usually not this late. He fills the clear water glass to the top with vodka and stands over the sink, taking slow sips. This is still inexcusable, he thinks, to do this tonight, of all nights, and of that—no matter the excuse—John must be made aware; he looks through the small window over the sink to the house next door, now dark—they came to the party, saw John not here. The half-empty cup meets the countertop with a thud as he turns back to the clock; 12:26. His pink tongue slides across his dry lips and he closes his eyes, focusing the pressure building in his chest, shaking through his arms and fingers. What will he say when John walks in the door? Should he even let John speak? Perhaps he should sit there, silent, until John’s rambling excuses are done, before letting go of the supernova burning in his lungs; but what will he say then? He can’t possibly concentrate on only the follies of this night; there are so many other things this could lead to, so many other places this one night could take them!; like just last year when he waited for hours at the airport; the time John said he should start going to the gym, no matter his honesty; the hotel bumping their reservations on their last vacation.… A buzzing begins in his ears and he grins, thinking of when he was a teen and would turn Metallica and Def Leppard up loud enough so that he could scream without his parents hearing; that overload of noise would shut out the rest of the world, and he had never found anything else quite like it. He turns back to the sink as the low rumble of John’s engine slides up next to the house, the low headlights bleaching the pines in the backyard. This will be delicious, he thinks, swallowing; it feels absolutely like my birthday, my surprise party about to begin. This will be loud, volatile. We will scream and scream until I explode. He sets the empty glass in the porcelain sink and turns, resting his back against the counter, arms folded in front; the clock says 12:32; this will be delicious.

“Fluency”

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

Fluency

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.

Bleu.”

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

Œuf.”

“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 crisp November morning my grandpa died, I stumbled from my grandparents’ small house 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, what should I say?”

Just over a month later, at bedtime on Christmas Eve, my grandma stood quietly before the cuckoo clock that had hung silent since our 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 in the same first-story bedroom where my mom grew up.

Grandma turned and stepped through the bedroom doorway, her hazel eyes half-lidded. “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 I’d always hear cuss under her breath at church before smiling and shaking hands with people who talked to her like she was stupid; who had once whispered “Close your eyes” as she pulled a steak knife out of my forearm after I fell while carrying it. “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 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 do it. He used to pull the chains just before bed, last thing. And I do 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 still shaped like a smile. “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. “Merry Christmas.” 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 my 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, sincere horror on her face as Jeremy and I—probably 4 and 7—look to be screaming with laughter in the foreground; 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.