This issue features
Peaks of the High Lonely
Oil 41.5 x 31.5.
Copyright © 2022 by Kathleen Frank.
About the Artist
Santa Fe artist Kathleen Frank travels throughout the Southwest/West, seeking landscape paintings vistas. Using vibrant hues, she captures light, pattern and a glint of logic in complex terrains.
Exhibitions include Northwest Montana History Museum; UNM Valencia; International Art Museum of America; MonDak Heritage Center| Art & History Museum; St. George Museum of Art; WaterWorks Museum; Sahara West Gallery; La Posada de Santa Fe; Roux & Cyr Fine Art Gallery; and Jane Hamilton Fine Art. Press includes LandEscape Art Review, MVIBE, Art Reveal, Magazine 43 and Southwest Art. Art in Embassies/U.S. State Department selected her work for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
In all her thirty-three years, Kate had never worn make-up. Sure, there’d been the childhood dance recitals and the formal photos commemorating milestones she no longer considered important. Really, she’d never even learned how to apply it properly, so that whenever she did break out the ancient tubes and compacts, she ended up looking like a crime victim or clown. And now her hands, too, were ugly. Not her hands, exactly, but her fingernails. She told her mother that selecting and enduring beauty rituals had never been her strong suit, something she pretended to be proud of but in actual fact was a secret source of shame. Freakish, she called herself, because she never looked in the mirror. She checked her own appearance only in advance of appearing in public, and running casual errands around town didn’t count. Always she walked with the awareness that strangers perceived her as disheveled, another so-called intellectual too immersed in her own headspace to care about any misfortune but her own.
“You need better clothing,” her mother said that day in the kitchen. “You look like a man.”
Kate looked down at her simple blue button-down and khaki pants she’d had for ages; they were worn, but presentable. Only three days ago, her husband had said he liked them, but he was one of those people who always seemed to like everything. Perhaps her mother had a point. “You’re right,” she said. “I have seven other shirts exactly like this one. And my hands. My fingers.”
Shortly after arriving from the Tulsa Airport, her fingernails had taken on a strange appearance, not blackened, not exactly, but she suspected a fungus nonetheless. She, like her hapless younger brother, was temporarily living in her childhood bedroom, now an all-purpose junk room piled high with printed pages of mysterious origin, unread novels by Gore Vidal, and copies of The New York Times magazine dating from the 1990s, her father’s probably, though her mother had similar, untidy habits. The kitchen, the hub of the house, had its own problems of disfunction and disrepair. On her first, full day back in town, she made the mistake of drinking from the tap.
“Don’t drink,” her mother said, too late. “The fracking.”
“You should install a filter,” Kate said. “Or buy one of those plastic pitchers.”
Now that her parents were not just “getting older” but heading on toward elderly, she found herself sounding more and more like a scold; she was only trying to protect them, she reasoned, but she was aware both her mother and father thought of her as overly solicitous, condescending, even, suspicious of every misplaced set of car keys and on the verge of panic if ever clothing meant for the dryer remained in the washer too long. When she arrived from the airport, the first thing she always did was to check all the bottles and jars in their refrigerator: anything within seven days of expiration had to go. And their grocery list? Why had they stopped keeping a grocery list? All her life they’d penciled in their preferences on a yellow legal pad kept next to the rotary phone in the hallway. They’d replaced the rotary phone with a cordless years ago, but the fact they still had a landline at all was not because they wanted one but because Kate insisted it would be easier for the paramedics to locate them when they called 911.
“When we call 911?” her mother said. “How do you know we’ll need to call 911?”
“Everyone calls 911,” she said. “Eventually.”
“Fine,” her mother said. “We’ll keep the landline. But don’t throw away my pickles.”
“Come on, Mom,” she said. “I can see black specks floating in the brine.”
“Those black specks,” her mother said, “Are seasonings. Hands off.”
Kate closed the refrigerator and turned to her mother. “I just want you to be safe,” she said. “I worry you’re so far away.”
“We’re fine,” her mother said. “And Marcus is here.”
Marcus. Marcus wouldn’t recognize a case of food poisoning if someone threw up in his lap. She and Jamie had been the normal ones, the straight-A students, college scholarships, graduate degrees from finer institutions than where their father had taught for a hundred years, fuel efficient cars parked in uncluttered garages, heterosexual relationships of varying degrees of success. But Marcus had barely made it out of high school; in fact, now that she thought about it, she couldn’t remember if he finally finished his GED before or after culinary school, before or after the summer down at Disneyworld where he was supposed to play Goofy but ended up on the grounds crew instead, before or after bartending in Miami Beach, before or after singing with a traveling show choir, before or after he ended up on the street. And now that he was said to be on the straight and narrow, he’d started taking clarinet lessons, something everyone pretended to be impressed by, but actually found embarrassing. He did play well, she had to give him that much.
He'd been practicing upstairs all morning when he finally appeared in the kitchen, his hair longer than its usual shoulder-length, his beard now featuring a prominent patch of gray. She’d seen him for all of three hours last Christmas; since then, he’d lost weight and gained muscle, probably not on purpose. When he pulled a glass from the cupboard, she noticed he had Band-aids wrapped around each of his fingers and both thumbs.
“Let’s put on a play,” Marcus said. He nodded toward the sliding glass door where, Kate could see, their father, still and silent among the long stems of the iris bed, was engaged in his morning yoga practice. “Right here in our own back yard. The Elves and the Shoemaker.”
When they were children, they’d had rock collections and terrariums, bicycle races and lemonade stands, games of kick-the-can that lasted until dawn, puppet shows and bamboo forts and magic shows, and—of course—plays. The Elves and the Shoemaker had been featured in the local paper—they still had the clipping somewhere in a box. Kate had always been the stage manager, the keeper of coins in a Tupperware bowl, the shepherd of the neighborhood’s smaller children, the rule-maker, the first to go inside for a bath. For the original production of The Elves and the Shoemaker, Marcus, who was thirteen at the time, had written a Spanish translation and composed a whole new score.
“Come on, Kate,” he said. He took a sip from her glass of water.
“Don’t drink,” she and her mother said simultaneously.
“The fracking,” their mother said.
“It tastes really bad,” Kate said.
“I like the way it tastes,” Marcus said. “But I’d rather have root beer.”
“I bought you some,” their mother said, as if he were still a child. “It’s in the utility room.”
Kate, who taught American History at a small college in Wisconsin, was in town for only eight days, ostensibly for an academic conference called “Toxins in the Twenty-First Century,” but really to check on and hopefully help her parents and make sure Marcus wasn’t robbing them blind. The conference had moved online, but she hadn’t told anyone that part. Why a historian would need or want to attend a conference meant for biologists was another story, one she didn’t want to tell.
“I’m too old to be in a play,” she said. She watched Marcus drink all the water in her glass. “So are you.”
“Just who do you think acts in plays on Broadway?” he said. “Second graders?”
“They get paid,” she said.
“I’ll pay you,” he said. “Fifty cents an hour.”
“This actually sounds nice,” their mother—Peg—said. “You all should spend more time together. While Kate’s in town.”
Indeed, the Traitor family lore demanded an emphasis on togetherness, just as it demanded all its members embrace a misguided, small-time “showbiz” mentality, the kind that spearheaded every two-bit variety show, amateur rock concert, cakewalk, and silent auction the local left-leaning charitable organizations could dream up. Their brother, Jamie had just finished organizing a series of ill-conceived music festivals, well-advertised, but poorly-attended events that required food trucks and balloons. All to benefit trans children who merely wanted to use the bathroom. Why people in this town wanted to keep the poor trans kids from using the bathroom was still a mystery to Kate, since she understood this battle already had been fought and won in more civilized parts of the country, Wisconsin and pretty much everywhere else. But the local fascists were up in arms: “my daughter doesn’t want boys to hear her taking out her tampon,” one man said on the community Facebook page. And so Jamie had come to the rescue of the trans kids, or at least that’s the way their mother had described it. For Jamie, the whole thing was probably just another excuse to hang out with his bros, live the male mid-life crisis rock ’n’ roll dream, reclaim his lost youth. Kate thought of something she’d written on an ill-conceived student essay about manifest destiny: “I do not find this convincing.”
But her mother had always favored Jamie and even Marcus. Rarely did one witness Peg’s demonstrable affection for her own daughter. But ever since she was a girl, Kate knew she was her father’s favorite, a fact she took advantage of only when absolutely necessary. And now that her father—Hap—was, as her mother put it, “slipping away,” he spoke of his sons with a bitter recrimination Kate didn’t recognize. Her mother and Marcus adjourned to the den “to work on a drum,” whatever that meant; Kate toasted an English Muffin, put it on a saucer, and went to see her father in the back yard.
“I brought you something,” she said. He was frozen in what appeared to be an inelegant combination of downward facing dog and warrior two. His fingers, like hers, were wrapped in flesh-colored bandages. At the sound of her voice, however, he stood, legs shoulder-length apart, arms relaxed beside him. He was still athletic, after all. The yoga, everyone knew, would be the last thing to go.
“I’m not eating bread,” he said. “Ask your mother.”
“I’ll eat it,” she said. “You can watch.”
“Everything is stupid,” he said. He grabbed an iron ice cream chair from the deck and gingerly bent his knees to sit. “Not you, I mean. Your brothers, though: please. Silverware. Plates. It’s all stupid. Why do they call it china when it’s not even from China?”
“I guess this is your way of saying, ‘welcome home.’”
“This isn’t your home,” he said. “Not anymore.”
It had been forever since she’d called Market Town home. When people in Wisconsin asked her where she was from, she always vaguely gestured around her and said, “here,” which, after twenty years, was more or less accurate. Something else she was not proud of: she always lied and said both her parents had been academics, when, in fact, her mother had dropped out of graduate school shortly after Jamie was born. After that, she raised the children, performed dutifully for the League of Women Voters, served on the board of the community theatre, started a local gardening and butter churning and homeschooling magazine that later went digital and then went defunct. Kate always told everyone her father and mother had taught for years in the same History department at the same Oklahoma university, which, if you counted all the times her father had sent her mother in as a substitute, was, like so many other things she told her friends and colleagues, not exactly a lie.
“I need your help,” her father said. He reached for one of the English muffin halves, put his finger to his lips to indicate their shared secret, and took a bite.
“I can get you another one,” she said.
“Five bites,” he said. “Five bites and I’m finished.”
Her mother had warned her about this: in addition to—allegedly—going gluten-free, he was also on the well-advertised Thumbelina’s Portion Control Diet; “eat anything you want, but it should fit in a thimble.” Thumbelina herself, when she appeared on television, allowed that these thimbles did not necessarily need to be small. “Non-traditional thimbles,” she said with a wink at the camera. “Thimbles the size of a child’s lunch bucket meant for the slim, new you!”
He chewed with what seemed like more lips than teeth, though he always bragged about his pristine smile, something she found unseemly.
“Your brother wants to put on a play,” he said. “The Elves and the Shoemaker.”
“I heard,” she said. “The past isn’t even past.”
“It’s for the children,” he said.
“We’re not children anymore, Dad,” she said. “Marcus could take a hint.”
“Not you,” he said. He searched the table for a napkin but came up emptyhanded. “The neighborhood children. The Swiss Family Robinson. Regina’s boy.”
The Swiss Family Robinson was their shared nickname for the Lampler boys, all six of them, who lived down the block. Their father was the mailman and their mother was dead. They always seemed like they needed help. Regina was her father’s former student, also their neighbor, who had a child but no husband or boyfriend. To say Kate’s parents collected strays was an understatement, but in their old age they seemed to have fewer wiling victims to choose from: most people these days tried to cure their loneliness through the world wide web, and Hap and Peggy, ever-committed to some long-ago dream of LBJ’s great society, still believed in the human touch.
“Marcus can work with the children,” Kate said. “I can get some programs printed or something. I’m sure Mom can help with costumes and props.”
“That’s my girl,” her father said.
“I’m due back in Wisconsin at the end of the month.”
“Of course,” he said. “You have your studies to attend to.”
Her father had not been able to get it through his head that she was no longer a graduate student. It was true that she’d been a student for a very long time, but those days were over, thank god, and Kate and her husband had replaced all their particle board furniture with solid wood equivalents, prematurely, it turned out, because their paychecks mandated that their shitty cars and rented, two-bedroom bungalow remain the same.
Her father rose from the table, but not before checking and re-checking all the bandages on his fingers.
“A fungus?” she said. She held her own fingers out for his inspection. “Mine, too.”
“It’s the water,” he said. “I’ve been drinking it on purpose. But you should probably stop.”
She knew the water was foul, but she’d never heard of any city supply causing widespread fingernail fungus. Her father was not the type to become a conspiracy theorist, not even in old age, but he did tend to overestimate his own knowledge of arcane subjects. She decided the matter of the water supply must have sprung from something he’d seen on the Market Town Community Facebook page.
“Mine are getting darker,” she said. She peeled a bandage from her index finger for their mutual inspection.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he said. “It’s a family curse.”
She laughed. “The Fall of the House of Traitor.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “It’s because of my subterfuge. Over the years. All my children will suffer as a result.”
“Okay, Dad,” she said, still laughing. “Our common fungus comes from a contaminated water supply that was compromised to begin with because of your long ago lies. Do I have it right?”
“That’s close,” he said. “But you really ought to keep it quiet.”
The whole thing was absurd. And impossible. She’d heard of skin rashes that sometimes affected entire families, but whatever was happening to their fingernails was probably nothing, a coincidence, an ordinary malady made worse by worry and idle speculation. She looked up. The sun was very bright, the sky the color of a handkerchief. She looked closer at her thumbnail and peeled the bandage away from the cuticle. Looking closely, she saw something that looked like the number seven. And lines like a bar code. And, strangest of all, the smudged but still visible printed words: good until. Good until? Kate was always good, or at least she always had good intentions.
“There’ s something else,” her father said. “We’re kicking Marcus out of the house. On the seventeenth.”
This came as a surprise. She’d have thought they’d let him live there as long as he needed a place to crash. But maybe it was for the best. Possibly, he’d finally get his act together. “Does he have an apartment?” she said. “A job?”
“I’m helping him,” he said. “The Elves and the Shoemaker is just the beginning.”
“He’s a loser,” she said, surprising herself. Everyone—everyone except for her father, that is—loved Marcus, and the less he accomplished in life the more affection they gave.
“It’s too bad,” her father said. “He wanted to be someone.”
Was he not someone? The sounds of his clarinet playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” came floating out of an upstairs window. Of course, he was someone, maybe even someone special. But he rarely had a steady income, and, even as he always seemed to be playing the field, he’d been involved in only a couple of failed relationships, one of them with a woman who thought he was gay. That he professed a willingness to remain in Market Town to care for their aging parents was no small act of heroism, however, and Kate held out some slim hope he’d be responsible enough to relieve her of the burden. She looked at the expanse of the back yard: the raised beds and the dilapidated tree house, the tire swing cut down by the Swiss Family Robinson, her mother’s peonies and poppies. It all seemed smaller than it used to, more vulnerable to outside forces. Already it was almost noon, and she’d done nothing to improve the efficiency of the household. But what did she care—maybe it was better to let the whole thing fall apart.
“I told Mom I would help with the play,” she said.
“That’s my girl,” her father said. “You can be an usher.”
“Sure,” she said, giving it the old Traitor community spirit. “It’ll be fun.”
“Fun and lucrative,” her father said. “The radio station will broadcast it live.”
“Which radio station?”
“KOTU,” he said, singing their well-known jingle. “Where fact trumps fiction.”
“I hate that station,” she said. “I thought everyone did.”
“It’s OK,” her father said. “It’s a local thing.”
That was his entire problem, she thought, his misplaced trust in “knowing the right people.” When he made phone calls to the plumber or electrician or exterminator, he always began by saying, “hello, this is Traitor,” as if everyone in the world knew him by name. A big fish in a small, polluted pond.
“You shouldn’t listen to that station,” she said, as they returned to the kitchen. She put her plate in the sink, but hesitated before turning on the water. “The deejays there have some very backwards ideas.”
“They’re not backwards,” her father said. “These people are struggling, Kate. They need our compassion, not our contempt.”
Suddenly, Marcus stuck his head in from the living room. “Who wants to hear some drumming?” he said. “Mom and I have something pretty terrific going on in here.”
“Marcus,” Kate said to him later, after the forced drum circle, their mother’s departure for the used clothing store, and their father’s return to the garden. “Did you know Dad has been listening to right-wing radio? Does Mom know?”
“Take it easy,” Marcus said. “You’re here one day, and all of a sudden you want to control all our media habits.”
Kate wanted to be the kind of person who could take things easily, the kind of person who didn’t notice stains on the carpet, the kind of person who left surprise gifts on the porches of her neighbors, the kind of person whose lungs inflated with ease. She was none of those things. She was an asthmatic who took things hard. And the stains on the carpet? They worried her terribly. At home in Wisconsin, her husband was allowing the dogs to soil the carpet, she was sure of it, she didn’t even have to ask.
“I do not want to control your media habits,” she said. She was standing in the doorway of her father’s office, forbidden to all Traitor children, now available to all Traitor adults. She watched as Marcus loaded a ream of paper into the still-jammed laser printer.
“You want to control everything,” Marcus said. “Face it.”
“You’re doing it wrong,” she said. “You have to take out the ripped piece of paper first.”
She watched as he made a determined, but fruitless effort to open the printer’s plastic cover. “Here,” she said. “I’ll do it for you.”
“I can take care of things,” Marcus said. “The printer. The play. Mom and Dad. The manager of the radio station is Dad’s former student. His interest there seems pretty harmless to me.”
“Have you heard what they say on all those daytime drive shows?” she said. Finally, the printer was spitting out properly printed pages—a script, she saw, though it didn’t look like The Elves and the Shoemaker. “They’re not just bigots. They’re criminals. They advocate committing hate crimes.”
“It’s a guy-thing,” he said. “It’s not political at all.”
She laughed. “Are you serious?” she said. “Of course, it’s political. Just because it’s not an election year doesn’t mean people should just ignore this crazy talk.”
“You’re not supposed to say, crazy anymore,” he said.
“It’s like retarded and handicapped. You’re not supposed to say it.”
“But you just said, retarded, handicapped, and crazy.”
“Yeah, but I’m just saying them to make the point you’re not supposed to say them. Crazy people don’t like it when you call them crazy.”
“Misguided, then. Aberrant. Angry. Cruel.”
“Dad says we’re supposed to be helping them.”
“Dad,” she said. “Doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“Yeah,” Marcus said agreeably because, fundamentally, he was an agreeable person, a little too agreeable, perhaps, but not a pushover, like Kate herself could sometimes be. So often their conversations ended this way, with Kate making pronouncements and Marcus giving in. Don’t be such a climber, he’d told her on more than one occasion. And maybe he was right: there was nothing left to climb.
Rehearsals began the next day, after which their mother set up a card table in the garage, dusted off her clipboard, and began measuring the children for costumes. During her weekly trip to the used clothing store, she’d bought Kate a dress, an attractive cotton blend that actually fit. After she tried it on, she went, at her mother’s insistence, to show her father her new, womanly appearance. He was in the dining room, a room where no one actually dined. Over the years, it had become an extension of her father’s study, a storage area for various broken appliances and antique rugs. They cleared off the table for guests, but most days it looked like a flea market.
Although she twirled even danced a few halfhearted steps in front of him, he didn’t notice the new—old—dress.
“I want you to tell Marcus he needs his own place,” he said without looking up. It looked like he was paying bills, always a dangerous time to engage him in conversation. “He needs his independence,” he said. Make it seem like a good thing. A celebration. A surprise.”
“I think he can handle it,” she said, stepping closer. “If you and Mom tell him.”
“I want it to come from you,” he said. “He trusts you.”
“He doesn’t trust me.”
“He likes you.”
“He doesn’t like me.”
“On opening night,” her father said. “Right after the curtain call. I’ll help you get ready.”
Opening night would also be closing night, since The Elves and the Shoemaker was set to be a one-time-only affair.
“Yeah,” she said in the manner of the family tradition. “Okay.”
But he could not wait for opening/closing night. Each day, each hour, each minute, he became more agitated, more eager for Marcus to pack up his case of root beer and clarinet case and move out for good. But he would not say so himself. He wanted Kate to do the job.
“What happened to opening night?” she said the next evening over dinner. Her mother had been to “the shrimp truck” that came to town from Galveston every other month. Marcus had not yet returned from his weekly volunteer session at the animal shelter.
“He’s getting too comfortable,” her father said. “Soft.”
“Look,” Kate said. “This house is very large. Now that the dogs are dead—sorry, Mom; now that the dogs have passed away—it seems to me you all could use a little extra excitement around here. And the garage apartment is perfect for him; just tell him to get a practice room on campus.”
But her father would not hear of it, and her mother, ever the spineless one, poked at her shrimp and said nothing. The lettuce in the side salad was brown.
“Dress rehearsal,” her father said. “Tomorrow. That’s when I want you to tell him.”
“I don’t think tomorrow is a dress—” her mother said.
“Yes, it is,” her father said, interrupting her. “It’s a dress rehearsal if I say it’s a dress rehearsal. For Kate, every day is a performance. Right, Kate?”
“Yeah,” Kate said. “I guess.”
Her father turned to her mother. “She’s so easy to talk to. I’m glad our girl is home.”
Home, it turned out, was full of complications. Her mother seemed to be limping. Her father, who’d taken to inviting another child from the neighborhood—Regina’s boy—to his daily yoga practice, was sounding more and more like a conspiracy theorist. The Lampler boys tried dressing Skipper, the yellow tabby like a baby (elf?) (shoemaker?) and making him ride around in a rickety baby carriage they’d stolen from a garage sale. And Marcus, who was not so much leading rehearsals as shouting random lines at no one in particular, spent all his time either working on rewrites or practicing the same songs over and over again on his goddamned clarinet. Although their marriage had fallen on hard times in recent years, she wanted to go home—her other home—to her husband.
And her fingernails, two in particular, were darkening.
“I’m going to paint them for you,” her father said, shaking a bottle of nail polish. Once again they were in the garden, her mother and Marcus having recently departed for the fabric store. Together they sat on the iron ice cream chairs and studied their respective fingernails. “Mine do not require painting,” he said. “Yours, however, are going to look stunning.”
Spread before him also were several tubes of lipstick, an eyeshadow palette case, and a new tube of mascara. Already he’d wielded a large brush as if it were a magic wand and hastily applied face powder and an unfortunate wine-colored blusher.
“Look up,” he said. “At the sun.”
“This is weird, Dad,” she said. “I don’t need all this stuff.”
“But you do,” he said. “I want to accentuate your natural beauty.”
She knew she didn’t have any natural beauty. She was what they called horse-faced and homely. She’d spent most of her life pretending it didn’t bother her—what she lacked in the looks department she made up for with hard work and brains—but something about the trip back home to her parents’ house had inspired a renewed sense of self-doubt. Her mother was ugly. Both brothers were ugly. And her father was the ugliest of all.
“Have you practiced for the interview portion?” her father said, applying eye shadow.
Her eyes were closed. “Yes,” she said. “I am to ask Marcus if he’s considered the advantages of a nice, neat duplex.”
“That’s right,” he said. “You have it. And your mother?”
“I am to ask her if she would like her son to become an upstanding adult.”
“Correct again,” he said. And as he unscrewed the cap on the bottle of nail polish, she splayed her fingers out before him and once again remembered, in spite of professing to believe otherwise, in spite of the very real knowledge he was taking advantage of her misplaced sense of filial duty and her idiotic need to obey, her first and most important role in life was to make him proud.
Her mother was right that dress rehearsal was not scheduled until the following week; tonight’s scheduled affair was to be a regular, old blocking rehearsal, not even a run-through. Why her father insisted that this message to Marcus—that they were kicking him out—be some kind of public service announcement delivered from the backyard stage was a mystery. So often he inflated things for his own amusement. She watched as he cleaned up the make-up and manicure station; his hands were shaking, and his shoulders stiff. Her entire life he’d had a hold on her. Now he was turning her against her own brother. And for what? So they could have more space to house all their ancient copies of Time magazine? And why couldn’t they tell Marcus themselves?
They were scheduled to begin blocking Act II, but her father had invited a small audience: his former student, Regina, his secretary from the History Department, Jamie and the members of his crap-ass cover band, and Steve Lampler, the Swiss Family Robinson’s bereaved mailman father. When she looked out the kitchen window, everyone was talking and eating cubes of cheese.
“I can’t work with an audience,” Marcus said, again drinking water from the tap. “Jesus, have you seen my fingernails?”
She held out her polished fingers before him. “Mine, too. Under the polish. Some of the smudges look like words.”
“What do they say?”
“Good until when?”
“Until later, I guess,” she said. “I don’t know.”
“That doesn’t worry you?” he said. “That this biological blunder is literate?”
“I don’t think they’re actually words,” she said. “It just looks like that if the light is just right. Or just wrong.”
“Mom and Dad are kicking me out,” he said. “Why are you wearing make-up?”
“Dad wanted me to look good,” she said. “For your departure. How did you find out they’re kicking you out?”
“Mom told me,” he said. “At the fabric store.”
“I’m supposed to be telling you tonight. In front of everyone. A little extra humiliation, I guess. For us both.”
“And you were going to do it? Embarrass me in front of all those kids?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I mean, I didn’t think the kids would really notice or care.”
“That’s probably right,” he said. “But you look weird in make-up.”
“I know,” she said. “I’ll go wash it off.”
“Do you think they’re getting worse?” he said. “Mom and Dad?”
“Worse in what way?”
“In the way of old people?”
“They’re just like they’ve always been,” she said. “Only amplified.”
“Right,” he said. “They don’t really need me. They’ll be OK.”
“For now,” she said.
“That’s right,” he said. “For now.”
“Good until ....”
“ ... a later date,” he said. They laughed, loud and hard. And they stood together at the kitchen sink and drank from the poisoned water. It was OK, she figured, just this once, to throw caution to the wind.
Copyright © 2023 by Dinah Cox.
About the Author
Dinah Cox is the author of two books of short stories, Remarkable from BOA Editions, and The Canary Keeper, from [PANK] Books. She lives and works in her hometown of Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Peering through the lens of hindsight, I see the landmarks of my life, yet events that now seem pivotal were often no more than a chance meeting or an unexpected delay. Perhaps I lost my way, found a better route, or took an odd turning that went unnoticed. These moments seemed insignificant, yet each of them altered the course of my life. Looking back from here, I see them etched as if in shining light, though at the time they did not warrant a conscious thought.
We speak of turning points in our lives. We call them mileposts, list them off with pride as if we had conjured them with preordained foresight. It sounds better in the retelling, imagining that we knew all along how the story was going to turn out.
Don’t let me give the wrong impression. I believe in the power of life’s pivotal moments. But I also believe that most of these turning points, when they happen, are so subtle as to escape our notice altogether. Robert Frost’s two roads diverging are wonderfully descriptive, but it is only over time that we see the difference in this twist or that turning. Only with hindsight can we point and say: There, right there, see the milepost? That’s where I turned and then everything changed.
Take my small life. I met my wife in Chiang Rai, a provincial town in Northern Thailand. She is not Thai. Neither am I. A random occurrence. Two travelers in the same spot at the same time. And not just two. An impromptu gathering of wanderers, a group that coalesced for a day, a night. We broke bread together, shared tall tales, laughed.
Our temporary clan consisted of an American couple and their son, two Italian women, an Austrian woman, and her boyfriend. I made a few passes at the more attractive of the Italian women and received a few kisses for my trouble. We shared meals, exchanged email addresses. We floated together and then drifted apart, as leaves caught in an eddy swirling at the edge of a swift stream.
Four years later, I married the Austrian woman I’d met in that jungle garden halfway around the world from either of our homes. It took two wedding ceremonies to finish the knot, one in a small village on the Mekong River, the other in a very official room in Vienna. Thus, both hearts and bureaucracies were satisfied.
Two human beings bump together, and that collision becomes a bridge that spans three continents: Asia, North America, and Europe. So yes, you might call it a milestone, but at the time, I did not see it for what it was. Years later, as I packed up my entire life and moved it across the Atlantic Ocean, that milepost gleamed like a lighthouse.
Milestones punctuate specific intervals. One precedes another, every mile, every kilometer. A full year before I first laid eyes on her, a single turning at a specific milepost steered me towards the Thai guesthouse where I met my wife. My path veered. There was an unexpected detour.
There is an actual milepost stone to mark the spot: Kilometer 282. Looking back, I am able to point to it, the spot where the hard travel began, where everything changed.
* * *
The slow boat down the Mekong River sets out from Chiang Khong in Thailand. It is a two-day journey to Luang Prabang in Laos, two days of enforced relaxation and temporary friends. The foreigners, the Farang, mix with the local river folk. Elephants and water buffalo wander the sandy shoreline. The jungle climbs the steep hills on either side of the river.
Baking in the heat on a hard bench, I watch it all. I see Hmong women sitting on the wooden deck, braiding the hair of a little blonde girl from California. I fall in with another group of travelers. A man who has lost his wife to cancer, and a German woman so beautiful I would gladly sell something to the devil to be young enough for an opportunity. And a Greek guy with five bottles of Lao-Lao, the cheap local rice liquor. When we dock at Luang Prabang, we must carry him off the boat like a sack of rice.
That long, sleepy trip down the Mekong is etched in my memory. I store those vignettes, rolling them out at need. I cobble together a good story to amuse my guests. But it is just a lark, and, had I known it, a beginning. Things change after I leave the tourist ghetto of Luang Prabang.
A treacherous mountain road twists out of Luang Prabang. As I set out from Luang Prabang, I had almost five decades of life to look back on. Not all the people I love carry the same stock of years. The passage of time brought stark diagnoses of cancer, a climbing accident, or a smashed motorcycle. These calamities reached inside my circle but failed to take me. Death called more than once, yet each time I found myself standing upright at the grave, rather than horizontal in it. Long illness and sudden passing, those rare, clear turning points, missed me altogether. I have always been a lucky man.
When folks tell of a close brush with death, I hang on their every word. I have memorized tales of the near miss, the heartbeat restored, or the pistol that failed to fire. The best stories are those of a sudden encounter with mortality, one unforeseen and surprising. The wings of death beating quick and close with no time for last-minute appeals or cheap bargaining. I know this is the truth because it happened to me.
* * *
I am in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. More accurately, I am suspended mid-air over a canyon in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Two hundred feet below, jagged rocks open their maws to take me. I am about to die.
Only a moment before, two heartbeats, I was on my mountain bike riding across an aqueduct. Now I am hurtling head-down through thin and pitiless air. A stupid thing to do, but too late to change anything. My bike stays behind, tangled in the unseen wire that causes my fall. Smart bike.
This is the end of my existence, and I expect a true revelation to take place. An inviting tunnel, a white light, friends and family welcoming me home, perhaps a quick film version of my life. But that is not what happens.
What happens is this: for a moment, time stops. I am motionless in the quiet air far above the rocky canyon floor. A voice fills my head. The voice is deep and rich. The voice speaks and the words I hear come clear and slow as if there is all the time in the world. And the voice says: This is it. Three words for the soundtrack of my life.
I don’t die, of course, as evidenced by my telling you this story. Instead of hitting the canyon floor at terminal velocity, I land on an outthrust ledge of rock. Lucky, I know, but I’ve always been a lucky man. I see a white light when I hit that blessed rock, but not a divine light summoning me home. It is just the impact of my helmet on rock and nothing more. After I come back to consciousness, I extract myself from the ledge and climb to safety.
A close brush with death has its unique symptoms. For some days, the food tastes better than anything I have ever experienced. And the air is so sweet I can taste it on my tongue. The bright morning sunlight has never been brighter, or more comforting. But it all fades as some time passes, and so too fades the idle promises I make about changing my life. Staring death in its bloodshot eyes is dramatic. Revelation is sneakier and more elusive.
Which leads us back to a small road in the mountains of southern Laos.
* * *
Luang Prabang is a former colonial outpost of French Indochine. A few narrow, shaded streets run the length of a small peninsula that juts into the Mekong River. It is a difficult place to get to, but it is crowded with tourists because it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The backpackers and wanderers take the slow boat down the river. Well-heeled tourists fly into the small airport for a quick taste of the exotic and ethnic.
When the rich travelers tire of picturesque Laos, they fly off to the next UNESCO site at Angkor Wat. All other methods of transport in Laos are slow and bumpy. The rest of us make do with the buses or the Vomit Vans. Anywhere from here is a long ride.
Vomit Vans are the ubiquitous transport vehicle of Southeast Asia. They seat fifteen Farang, or twenty locals crammed tight. Vomit Vans never leave until every possible seat is occupied. The vans travel at a speed equal to the highest velocity possible while still adhering to the roadway. Add to this equation a serpent of bad road snaking over karst mountain ranges and you understand how the vans got their name. And the math doesn’t always equal. Vomit Vans do not always stick to the roadway. Just look over the edge.
I am in the van on a six-hour run to Vang Vieng, the next stop along the backpacker trail. Vang Vieng enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a hedonistic party town, where young travelers float the river by day and drink by night. I have no intention of stopping there.
The van lurches up the crumbling pavement, tires squealing around hairpin turns. Buses and vans careen past each other with mere inches to spare. Inside the van, the Farang are turning green. The driver has no mercy. He gets paid per trip. The faster he is in Vang Vieng, the sooner he’ll be drinking a cold beer.
I watch the Hmong hamlets flash past, tiny enclaves tucked into small valleys. Improbable pillars of karst limestone tower above the villages. The ramshackle town of Phoukhoun disappears in a cloud of dust. This is my cue. I try to remember the Lao phrases I will need.
Along the edge of the road stand the kilometer stones. Cast of concrete, they are the shape and size of a poor man’s headstone. Their red and white paint has long since faded under the Asian sun.
We fly past the marker for Kilometer 281, and I turn to the driver.
“Kaluna yud Yuthini.” Please stop here.
The driver is as surprised by a Farang speaking Lao as by my request. He shakes his head, points up the snaking road.
“No, no here, town, Vang Vieng.”
“Ni Kaluna.” Here, please.
He shakes his head again. I nod mine, pointing to the side of the empty road. The driver sighs, shrugs, and hits the brakes. He has his money for the run. Arriving with one less Farang is not his problem.
The driver steps out into the heat and motions me to the back of the van. He pulls my backpack from the stack and hands it to me. The Farang pile out of the van, gulping for fresh air. A few of them vomit in the ditch. Then a few more.
I shoulder my pack, feeling the weight of it. I begin walking backward away from the van. The crowd of Farang is silent, trying to puzzle out what is happening. The driver raises his hand, his face without expression.
“Bye-bye,” he says.
Then he slams the back hatch and turns away. The Farang clamber into the van. A moment later, it lurches onto the road in a cloud of dust.
I am alone on a mountain road in Laos. The way leads along a sharp ridge. A deep valley falls away on the far side of the cracked pavement. Fairytale spires of limestone reach toward the blazing sun. Before I go one hundred meters, streams of sweat run down my back. The road is empty. I’m grinning like an idiot, walking into a myth.
Those first few footsteps on that sunbaked road are the beginning of a love affair. Not the love affair with my wife. That comes later in the story, yet this new love affair led me to her by twists and turns. In the brilliant heat of that moment, walking and sweating, I fall in love with Laos. More than that, I fall in love with the act of traveling, the journey itself. I do not know where I am, nor where I’m going, and I do not care.
Love is the water nymph that lures away the human child, the Will-o’-the-Wisp that we have no choice but to follow. It overrides and subjugates reason. This new love affair with rough travel becomes all that and more.
As that love grows stronger, my career takes a back seat to travel. Hard travel is slow travel. It eats time and asks for more. I buy back my time by giving up money. My employers shake their heads, not understanding. This the beginning of an end. I don’t see the ending because I am besotted and greedy. I care only for more time to explore my newfound love.
The next season finds me in Thailand, riding the train to Chiang Rai. From there I plan to cross the Mekong once again, heading north into Laos, far from the well-worn backpacker trail.
Simple plans, but for tonight, Chiang Rai is the destination. I need a guesthouse. Turning off a dusty Chiang Rai street, I enter an overgrown jungle courtyard. There I meet that little group of travelers. Years later, one of them becomes my wife.
I am walking under the baking sun along an empty road. A few buildings come into view. This is the point in the story where I tell you about finding a paradise in the remote mountains of Laos. Except that is not what happens. What I find is a sort of Laotian truck stop.
A jungle-clad slope rises from the left side of the road, ending in sharp knives of limestone. Six tiny bungalows hug the steep hill, one climbing above the other. At the edge of the road is a large pool of water, a natural thermal spring. Wisps of steam rise from the water. A few Laotian truckers are splashing in the pool. When they see me, they smile and wave. Two heavy lorries are parked along the highway, each bearing a thick coating of road dust.
On the right side of the road is a dilapidated store and restaurant. It clings to the edge of the ridge. A covered open-air eating area extends from the kitchen. There is a magnificent view over the deep valley below. A tiny woman is standing in the open doorway. She smiles and waves in slow motion as if she has all the time in the world.
She greets me as I step into the shade. Her greeting is a song: “Sa-bai-DEE.” The tone of the middle syllable falls, the Dee rising as an exclamation. I intone the melody back to her and we both smile.
We speak in a pidgin of English and Laotian. “You want bungalow, you want food?” I say yes to both. The room is sixty-thousand Kip. I peel off bills from the roll in my pocket. The bills are worthless outside of Laos, wallpaper money that no bank will accept. Sixty-thousand Kip comes to seven dollars and fifty cents.
I sit in a rickety plastic chair at a wobbly table. The valley drops away below my perch, dusky blue shadows at the bottom. The woman brings me Larb, the ubiquitous meat stew of Lao. It is minced fire on a plate. A new sweat breaks out across my face, but the food is wonderful.
I gulp Soda Lao to fight the fire. Every drink is named Lao something: Soda Lao, Beer Lao, and the cheap rice whiskey known as Lao-Lao.
After my meal, the woman shows me to my bungalow. It is nice enough on the outside, dodgy on the inside. I drop my backpack to the floor and a small cloud of dust rises. I thank her and accept the key to a toy padlock. I am glad I’m sleeping alone. My new digs would not impress anyone.
I have a whole afternoon and evening to explore. The hamlet of Ban Huay Satap is one kilometer further up the road. I slip a big bottle of water into my shoulder bag and step into the blazing sun.
The kids find me before I walk five hundred meters. Six of them surround me with their decrepit bicycles. They smile and laugh, delighted by this unexpected diversion. There is a babble of voices as they rush to try out English phrases learned in the village school. Then they are off, bicycles creaking and squeaking up the road. I follow, slower, sweating in the heat.
A dirt lane loops through Ban Huay Satap, leaving and rejoining the narrow highway. My arrival is the start of a one-man parade. Little kids line up on either side of the dirt road. They call out to me as I pass.
I greet each smiling kid in turn. They squeal with laughter, then run down the road to the end of the line. The adults sit in the shade, laughing at the procession. So, it goes through the short length of the hamlet, the kids maintaining a steady wall of smiles along my path.
At the end of the lane, I step back onto the pavement. The kids stop as if I have crossed over a magic boundary line. They shout their last Sa-Bai-Dees and fade back into the village. There is a narrow trail on the far side of the highway that leads up a steep mountainside. I take a long drink of water and begin to climb.
The trail winds up a sharp ridge. Strange pillars of karst limestone and jungle rise to the left. Terraced fields cling to the slope that falls away on my right. The Hmong must be part mountain goat to tend these steep plots of land. These mountainsides are too high for rice paddies, so the farmers grow hemp, millet, and buckwheat.
Three Hmong women are walking down the trail, each bearing an enormous burden of some sort of harvested crop. They see me and stop, wide-eyed as if seeing an alien creature. I greet them and smile, stepping with care onto a solid rock outcrop to allow them to pass. I step back onto the path and continue up the mountainside.
Hiking in Laos is a dangerous pastime. A single step off the beaten path may be your last. There are bomblets scattered over the length and breadth of Eastern Laos, deadly remnants of the Second Indochina War.
The US Air Force dropped whole canisters of the bomblets, almost seven hundred bomblets in each huge pod. The size of a baseball, a great many of them did not explode. They lie in the tangled jungle, waiting for a careless footstep. Four decades have passed, yet the bomblets maim and kill every year. Stay on the path.
I am tired and hot and hungry when at last, I return to my bungalow. I take a cold shower, try not to examine the cramped bathroom too closely. Sometimes it is better not to know.
Back at the restaurant, the smiling woman brings me food and drinks. I sit at the far edge of the dining porch, looking down over the valley. The shadows fall to night. I sit and smoke, watching it all. The woman’s husband joins me. After we exhaust our few common phrases in English and Lao, we sit in companionable silence.
That night I’m glad for my silk sleeping sheet. The bedding has seen more common company than I care to share. Safe in my clean silk cocoon, I sleep like the innocent dead.
The next morning dawns bright and hot, as do all February mornings in Laos. After a breakfast of hot noodle soup, I ask my hostess about catching a bus. She shakes her head and smiles. “No bus, no bus.” She laughs at the look on my face, then takes me by the arm. She leads me to the side of the road, points to the ground. “Here, okay?” Then she holds out a skinny arm, palm down. She waves her arm up and down. “Stop or no stop, okay?” The lesson complete, she walks me back to the shade.
With my bill paid and my hat pulled low against the fierce sun, I take my appointed place at the side of the road. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, that I have all the time in the world. Both are true.
I light a cheroot and wait. A few Vomit Vans speed by, heedless of my arm-waving. They are full to the gills and not about to stop. Before I finish half of my smoke, a beat-up pickup brakes in a cloud of dust. The driver points a thumb at the back of the truck. I throw my rucksack aboard and climb into the bed, taking a seat on a huge hemp bag of rice.
A Laotian couple and their little girl are sitting on rice sacks at the front of the truck bed, using the wall of the cab as a backrest. The couple smiles as we exchange greetings. The little girl beams at me, looks to her mother, then turns back to give me a closer examination.
The driver grinds the gears and the truck moans under the heavy load. The dust falls away behind us as we pick up speed. I spend the next two hours watching a magical landscape pass by, and I with the best seat on the entire road.
* * *
I have not returned to that stretch of road, but it is etched into my mind as if it were the quiet Viennese street outside my front door. That twisting Laotian highway has become my mythical mother road, the starting point that has led to everything else.
The hook is set, and the road lures me back across the Pacific Ocean, as surely as a magnet draws iron filings over a clean sheet of paper. In the course of the next journey, I step into a quiet guesthouse garden and meet the woman who became my wife. Years after that chance meeting, I cross yet another ocean to begin a life with her.
As the years and travels pass, I sometimes see the forks in the road for the possibilities they hold. I pause now, less headless than I once was, less swift. Awed by the possibility of each footstep, I do not regret the slowness.
Travel has become more difficult, the journey made cumbersome by the pandemic that has engulfed us all. Documents must be produced, surgical masks worn on long flights, restrictions and barriers multiply. But the lure of travel remains. The enticement of what lies around the next bend draws me onward, leading to the next choice, the next possibility, and the unseen results of choosing.
I am claimed now by the weight of the endless possibilities, a weight I bear with gladness. When the path presents a choice, I hear the accumulated voices of all my past wanderings. They chant to me, crooning a soft melody that rises and falls. They sing: Pay attention, be awake, remember. This is not chance, Traveler, it is choice. This is your life.
Copyright © 2023 by Marco Etheridge.
About the Author
Marco Etheridge is a writer of prose, an occasional playwright, and a part-time poet. He lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His work has been featured in more than sixty reviews and journals across Canada, Australia, the UK, and the USA. His volume of collected flash fiction, “Broken Luggage,” is available worldwide. When he isn’t crafting stories, Marco is a contributing editor and layout grunt for a new zine called Hotch Potch. Visit: https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/
Es una tarde hermosa. Si.
Vertiginosa como para eclipsarse.
Detenerse en el contraste del sol
holgando sobre la tierra fértil
y brillar en su anarquía.
Recordar bajo mano
aquel primer beso
de labios y lenguas ensamblados.
Los mismos que fraguan las piernas
y te paralizan hasta las
más pudientes capacidades.
Recordar aquella danza de júbilo
que despertó por cierto
una mujer sonrosada
madura y pródiga como Venus
quien rompió la hoja vetada
endiosando en falda
las agitaciones y los espasmos.
Quiero guardar ese instante
en una imagen sublime.
Colgarla sobre mi pecho
con un clavo audaz,
que apriete fuerte
así forjar una emoción
en cada movimiento arduo.
Aquel atrevimiento arrinconado
que nunca volvió a surgir
en las postergadas tardes
donde oscurecí, esperando.
Copyright © 2022 by Murúa.
Es éste un amanecer postizo recién caído
¿O están mis ojos brutalmente resacados?
Si tampoco de bobo arriesgué al distraído
¿De cuál botella me empinaron extasiado?
Pensar y aterrizar sin ningún pensamiento
Traspasar cadavérico por aquellos lugares
Sin que mis ojos desdoblen un movimiento
Por la oscuridad improvisando mala-bares.
Así beb y temblé hasta permanecer alejado
Vomite para que la pobre luna se durmiera
Soñando espasmos no reconocí quien era
Cuando desperté ya-yo no estaba a mi lado.
Copyright © 2022 by Murúa.
About the Author
Jorge O. Muñoz, born and raised in Argentina, has traveled to the USA, where he currently lives. In the Washington, DC area he worked at the Gala Theater and recited his poetry at the La Luna Theater on several occasions. For many years he has participated in contests in Spain. Currently, he belongs to the "Dunken Platform" and has participated in virtual readings in different countries such as Peru, Brazil, Spain and others. Some of his poems have been translated into English.
In Support of Ukrainian Authors
Nash Format Publishers is a Ukrainian publishing company established in Kyiv in 2006. We focus on nonfiction in fields ranging from business and economics to psychology and personal development, biographies, and memoirs. We also have a robust fiction series. Our publishing house has brought more than 300 translations to the Ukrainian readers, including works by Nobel Prize laureates, The New York Times Bestsellers, and The Economist Bestsellers. We published Ukrainian editions of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Jordan Peterson, Francis Fukuyama, Niall Ferguson, Richard Thaler, Ayn Rand, and others. Since 2019, Nash Format Publishers began a vibrant series of Ukrainian nonfiction. We already have several bestselling authors, and are always on the lookout for unique new voices and stories. Publishing both printed books and ebooks, Nash Format has set up an extensive distribution network. It includes more than 800 sales points alongside our online store, nashformat.ua, which ships worldwide. According to Forbes Ukraine, Nash Format Publishers was the 7th on the list of the 20 best Ukrainian publishing companies in 2015. In 2021 Nash Format won the prize from The Association of Ukrainian Entrepreneurs for its project Army is Reading.