“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.

“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.