Issue 84 — Lewis J. Beilman III, Eleanor Leonne Bennett, Carole Glasser Langille, Susan Sage, Andrea
Lewis J. Beilman III
Maggie licked a Tootsie Pop and held it out to John. Do you want some? she said.
John screwed his eyes shut. Blechhh! he said. No thank you! He stuck out his tongue and gagged himself with his index finger. Then, he reached down, pinched Maggie's cheek, and tousled her hair. She giggled, her bright teeth glimmering in the lamplight of the living room. There are some things you just don't share, Maggie.
Like what? Maggie said, still giggling.
Like used tissues, dirty underwear, and chewed spinach—that's what. He grabbed her under her arms and hoisted her towards the ceiling. He twirled her through the air. Her long brown hair and candy-striped dress billowed and trailed behind her as she held her arms parallel to the floor. She closed her eyes, straightened her legs, and craned her neck skyward.
I'm flying, she said. Look! Mom—Dad—I'm flying!
Maggie, let Uncle John get some rest, Anne said. He and Auntie Jane leave early tomorrow.
John set Maggie on her feet. She hopped up and down with her fists clenched. But I don't want them to leave!
Don't worry, Anne said. They'll come back again soon.
Kids, it's getting late, George said, rising from his armchair. Maggie—JoJo—Daddy let you stay up past nine. It's time to go to bed.
I'm not going, Maggie said. She dropped to the floor, hunched her shoulders, and rolled herself into a ball, her legs and arms crossed.
George picked up little JoJo, who had already dozed off next to his mother on the sofa. I'm taking JoJo upstairs now, he said to Maggie. You better be up there in two minutes. You don't want me to have to come down to get you.
George carried JoJo upstairs, and Maggie remained on the floor in a ball. John, his face flush from twirling Maggie in the air, knelt beside her. What if I take you upstairs? he said. Maggie, her eyes still closed, shook her head back and forth. John put his arm around her. What if I take you upstairs and tell you a bedtime story?
Maggie tilted her head up partway. She opened her eyes. Would you?
Of course I would, John said. You know you're my favorite little girl. If Auntie Jane weren't already mine, you'd be my bestest one-and-only. He poked Maggie on the nose and turned to wink at Jane. Jane smiled wanly in return. She smoothed the front of her black skirt, which clung to her hips, and resumed her conversation with Anne.
John stood up, bent over, and held out his hand. Maggie relaxed her arms and legs and placed her hand in his. He pulled her up and lifted her to his chest. Uncle John has a special story for you, he said. It's about an alligator that falls in love with an ibis.
Maggie's eyes opened wide. Really? she said. What's an ibis?
Just wait, John said. In a few minutes, you'll learn all about Jack Gator and his love, Juliet. He carried her up the stairs, his arms wrapped securely around her back.
Anne rose from the sofa, took two empty wine glasses from the coffee table, and went to the kitchen. Jane heard her grab a bottle from the wine rack. Would you like another glass of wine? Anne said.
Yes, Jane said, please. She could hear the clanking of the bottom of the bottle against the kitchen counter as Anne struggled with the cork. Jane scanned the living room. Toy trucks littered the floor, small pieces of Play-Doh left yellow, red, and blue flecks in the carpeting, and juice stains darkened the sofa and loveseat. Imagining the difficulties George and Anne must face keeping up with two young children, Jane cringed.
Anne walked back into the living room with two half-full glasses of wine. She placed them on the coffee table and sat next to Jane. I hope Shiraz is all right, she said.
Of course, Jane said. Thank you again for having us. It was so nice to see the cherry blossoms in bloom.
Anne placed her hand on Jane's arm. Maybe next time you're here you'll bring a little friend for Maggie and JoJo.
Yes—maybe, Jane said.
John is so good with children, Anne said. He'll make a wonderful father someday.
Jane looked away from Anne, out the living room window. The yellow face of the full moon hovered in the distance. I know he will, she said. But maybe not just yet. She reached forward to take her glass. She swirled the wine before she took a sip.
Anne released her hand from Jane's arm. You'll know when it's time, she said. But I wouldn't wait too long. You don't want to be forty when you're having your first.
Before Jane could respond, George and John came down the stairs. Mission accomplished, George said. They're both asleep. John must have tired Maggie out earlier. She only made it through the first few minutes of the story.
Jane stood up. She brushed the sleeves of her white blouse and yawned. I'm sorry to be a party pooper, she said, but I'm worn out. I think I need to go to bed myself.
Anne rose to say goodnight. They embraced and kissed each other on the cheek, and Jane thanked her again for her hospitality. Jane hugged George, too, and, before she got to the stairwell leading to the downstairs bedroom, John came to her, brushed her golden hair from her eyes, and kissed her on the forehead. I'll be down in a few minutes, he said. I'm going to have another drink with George and Anne and then I'll join you.
Jane kissed John's cheek, patted his back, and, with her hand on the rail, descended the dark stairwell. When she reached the bathroom adjacent to the bedroom, she switched on the light. She looked in the mirror. Her face was pale. She ran the hot water and washed her face. The water brought color back to her cheeks, and their ruddiness accentuated the blueness of her open eyes.
* * * * * *
Jane was lying on her side in the darkness when John came downstairs. She could hear him brushing his teeth in the bathroom. Within minutes, John entered the bedroom, turned on the lamp on the night table, and lay next to her. Did I wake you? he said.
No, she said. I can't sleep. I have a headache.
Would you like some aspirin?
I already took some, she said.
You have the most beautiful eyes, he said. He put his hand on her side and pulled himself closer to her.
You always say that, she said and squared her shoulders to face him. It makes me blush.
I say it because it's true, he said. He leaned towards her and kissed the bridge of her nose, which was freckled from a childhood spent in the sun. Do you ever think what it would be like to have a family of our own?
She said nothing at first, but his eyes prodded her. I don't know if I'm ready yet, John.
Why not? Don't you want a child?
It would be a big responsibility. It would mean a lot of changes.
It wouldn't be that bad. George and Anne have it under control.
But Anne doesn't work. I'd have to give up my job, at least temporarily—and that's not to mention the pregnancy itself. I'd have to go through the weight gain, the bloating, the kicking . . . .
I'd be there for you. You know that. And financially, we're doing pretty well now. We could make due on one salary for a while.
She closed her eyes, placed her hand on her forehead, and massaged her temples. I'm sorry, but could we talk about this later? I don't think now is the right time.
Of course, he said. He ran his hand over the curve between her hip and her ribs. I just had so much fun with Maggie and JoJo this weekend. I guess it got me thinking.
It's OK, she said.
John kissed her. We don't have to have a child now, he said, but maybe we could practice making one. He lowered his hand and began to inch up her nightgown. She put her hand on his.
Not now, she said.
I know, he said, grinning like a mischievous child. You have a headache. He rolled over and turned off the lamp.
Good night, darling. I love you.
Good night, she said.
* * * * * * *
The next morning John and Jane woke early and packed their things. Jane's headache was gone, but she did not feel much better than she did the night before. After packing, she returned to bed and read while John showered. Before she got more than a few pages into the story, a knock came at the door.
Uncle John . . . Auntie Jane . . . Can I come in? Maggie said.
One moment, Jane said. She went to the bathroom door and knocked. John, make sure you put some clothes on before you come out. Maggie's here.
Jane opened the bedroom door. Maggie rushed in and jumped on the bed. Auntie Jane, don't go today. You and Uncle John have to stay here with me.
Jane joined Maggie on the bed. I wish we could stay, but John and I have to work tomorrow.
Maggie frowned. No! she said. You don't have to work. You have to stay here with me.
The bathroom door opened. John wore khaki pants, a light blue polo shirt, and tan dress socks. How's my favorite little girl? he said. He charged the bed, jumped over Jane, and landed next to Maggie.
Uncle John! she shouted and put her arms around him. John started to tickle her. She laughed. Stop! Stop! she squealed.
John stopped when Maggie's face turned red. Are my two number-one girls ready to head upstairs? he said. He rolled over towards Jane, took her hand, and lifted her from the bed. He held out his free arm, and Maggie stood on the bed and rushed towards him. She jumped onto his chest and clung to his neck. With Jane's hand in his and Maggie draped around his neck, the trio ascended to the main floor.
JoJo waited for them at the top of the stairwell. His hair was awry, and he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. When John reached the top step, JoJo clutched onto John's leg. John staggered into the kitchen, his ragtag army in tow or latched to him.
George and Anne turned simultaneously. It looks like you have your hands full, George said to John. George was holding a spatula and turned back around to tend to the stove. Anne approached John and pried JoJo from John's leg. The smell of frying eggs, home-made biscuits, and fresh coffee permeated the kitchen.
I don't think he's going home today, Jane said. He's having too much fun. You may have to take him off my hands.
* * * * * * *
During breakfast, John made various faces to amuse the kids. Their favorite was the Chinese pig, which John performed by turning up his nose with his thumbs and slanting his eyes with his index fingers. John oinked loudly when he made this face, and Maggie and JoJo laughed so unexpectedly that they spit out the food they were chewing. Jane rolled her eyes and shook her head. Sorry, she said to George and Anne.
When they all had finished eating, John and Jane bade their farewells to Anne and the kids, grabbed their luggage from the downstairs bedroom, and piled into George's car. The children pouted on the front steps as the car backed out of the driveway. Anne waved goodbye.
John sat in front with George, and Jane sat in back. As they drove north, away from the house, the sun shone bright through the passenger-side windows. It warmed Jane's face. She watched the brick buildings and strip malls flicker by before she closed her eyes and drifted away.
George and John talked excitedly. They had been friends since they were teenagers. They talked mostly about George's work in the Foreign Service, but Jane couldn't focus on what they were saying. Instead, she trudged through her memories of the weekend. There, in her mind's eye, John carried Maggie piggyback up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. There, too, he disregarded the stares of less playful tourists and chased JoJo round and round the Washington Monument. And there, again, amidst the fallen white and pink blossoms of the cherry trees, he rolled with both children upon a grassy field.
Anne was right, Jane thought. John would make a wonderful father. And Jane knew that John loved her dearly. Still, at thirty-five, she felt young and didn't want the cares and worries that came with children. Moreover, John hadn't seemed interested in starting a family until a year ago when they had last visited George and Anne. For whatever reason, before then, John had never really talked of having kids. Now he seemed to think of it always. Jane opened her eyes and caught John's face in profile. He looked back at her and blew her a kiss before continuing his conversation with George.
She examined his face as he talked. At 38, he looked younger than his years. His high cheek bones and pale eyes bespoke a sensitive, though playful, spirit. Her friends, for instance, found him handsome, and he took care of himself by eating well and exercising. He could still meet someone else, she thought. He could still have the life he wanted. She closed her eyes once more, leaned back in her seat, and let the warmth of the sun carry her away.
* * * * * * *
After George dropped them off at their terminal, John and Jane checked their luggage, passed through security, and waited in a food court. They had an hour before they could board their flight. Jane read the newspaper and drank a cup of coffee. John watched the families that passed by. He stroked Jane's arm, which was bare below the elbow.
That could be us someday, he said, squeezing her hand.
Huh? she said. Her eyes focused on the paper.
That family there. That could be us.
She pulled the top of the paper down and stared quizzically at him. What?
That family over there. He nodded in their direction. Wouldn't it be nice if we could be like that—dragging a little towheaded boy or girl with us on our next adventure?
John, do we have to talk about this now? she said sharply. I'm trying to read. She pulled the paper up and breathed audibly through clenched teeth.
Oh, John said. He released his hand from hers and asked for the sports page.
Jane tried to continue reading, but she couldn't focus. Her eyes passed over the same sentence again and again until she grew frustrated. Her face turned red, her palms started to sweat, and her heart throbbed. She set the paper down and stood up. She felt light-headed.
I need to go to the restroom, she said.
John looked up from the sports page. Are you all right? he said. You look sick.
I'll be OK. I just need to walk around a bit.
* * * * * *
In the restroom, Jane washed her face with cold water. She looked in the mirror. Her face was blotchy and perspiration ringed the pink fabric around her armpits. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. The palpitations in her chest began to subside. The worst is over, she thought.
As Jane steadied herself to leave, a mother entered the restroom with a baby boy. The baby cried in his mother's arms and shook his fists. Excuse me, the mother said as she pushed past Jane. The mother opened the baby station attached to the wall. She set the baby on his back, removed his pants, and began changing his soiled diaper. The baby continued to wail, his face beet red. Jane backed away from the spectacle. A strong odor emanated from the baby's diaper, and Jane gagged. The mother flipped the baby over, and he stopped crying. That's a good boy, the mother said as she wiped the baby's behind. Jane's heartbeat accelerated again, and she fled the restroom.
Jane rushed through the main corridor of the terminal, gliding by the book stores, gift shops, and restaurants. The pilots, flight attendants, and other passengers walked by in their own worlds, either conversing with one another or talking with people on their cell phones. Jane kept a quick, steady pace as she knifed through the crowd. After speeding past a bar, she stopped abruptly and doubled back. The person behind her, who was following a little too closely, had to jump aside to avoid running into her.
Jane ducked into the bar and sat at the stool farthest from the entrance. She ordered a Bloody Mary and drank it quickly. The vodka went straight to her head and her nerves settled again. She ordered another Bloody Mary. She knew John would be waiting for her and she drank the second one quickly, too. Still, before she paid her tab and left the bar, she took her cell phone from her purse and called her sister. She needed to speak with someone she could trust—someone who would understand.
* * * * * * *
Jane experienced a sad sense of relief as she left the bar. She made her way back to the food court and found John in the booth where she had left him. He was looking at his watch when she approached. As soon as he saw her, he stood up and went to her. Where have you been? he said. I was just about to call you. Are you OK?
She told him she was all right. She had just felt a little anxious. She said she had had a drink and felt better now.
We should really get to our gate, John said. The flight's going to start boarding soon.
Jane's heart ached as John took her hand in his. On their way to the gate, a little girl darted in front of them and fell at John's feet. The girl wore a blue denim jumper and a white shirt beneath it. She had blonde hair and freckles on the bridge of her nose. She had scraped her knee, but she wasn't crying. John helped her to her feet, and she ran back towards her parents.
John smiled at Jane. Jane began to cry and turned away from him to hide her tears. They reached the gate a few minutes before they were to board their flight. Several passengers had already started a line near the departure-gate, but John led Jane to two seats that looked out on the runways and taxiways. Jane knew that John liked to watch the planes taking off and landing and taxiing to and from the gates.
The sky was still bright blue, and sunlight glinted off the Potomac. It's beautiful. Isn't it? John said. Jane didn't respond. John turned to face her. Her eyes were red and the mascara she wore formed narrow black rivers on her cheeks. What's wrong, Jane? he said.
This time she took his hand in hers. She tried to explain. She said she loved him very much. She said she wished she felt the same way he did—about their life now—about having kids—about their future together. She said he would make a wonderful father someday. But she knew it would not be with her. And then, as if in slow motion, she watched John's heart break. His almost constant smile faded. His cheeks turned white. And his eyes, which just a few moments ago had gleamed as they gazed upon the shining airplanes and shimmering river, lost their luster and welled with tears. Jane fought off tears, too, and told him that she would spend the next few nights at her sister's until she knew what to do. John closed his eyes, shook his head, and let his head fall into his hands. Attempting to comfort him, she held him in her arms.
Before long, the gate attendant announced that their flight was ready for boarding. Jane rose to her feet and took John by the hand. They fell in line with the other passengers and moved, heads bowed, as if in a dream. They inched along towards the podium. The attendant took their boarding passes and returned the stubs. John thanked the attendant but couldn't meet her eyes. Jane let John lean against her as they walked through the jetway to the plane. With slow, steady steps they crossed the threshold to the cabin. They were boarding the same flight, but heading to different destinations.
Copyright © 2016 by Lewis J. Beilman III
Lewis J. Beilman III writes short stories in his spare time. His stories have appeared in Door is a Jar, Garden of the Goddesses, Empty Sink Publishing, Cactus Heart Press, Balloons Literary Journal, Reed Magazine, The Middle Gray, Blood Lotus, Gravel Magazine, Straylight Online, Red Fez, and Larks Fiction Magazine. In 2009, he won first prize in the Fred R. Shaw Poetry Contest. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with his family and two cats.
Eleanor Leonne Bennett
Greys and Brearley's Sheffield
Copyright © 2016 by Eleanor Leonne Bennett.
Eleanor Leonne Bennett, from the UK, is an internationally award winning photographer and visual artist. She was named the CIWEM Young Environmental Photographer of The Year 2013 and has won first places with National Geographic,The World Photography Organisation, Nature’s Best Photography and The National Trust to name only a few.
Her photography has been published in the Telegraph, The Guardian, The British Journal of Psychiatry, Life Force Magazine, British Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and as the front cover of books and magazines extensively throughout the world. Her art has been exhibited in New York, Paris, London, Rome, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Copenhagen, Washington, Canada, Spain, Japan, and Australia amongst many other locations.
Carole Glasser Langille
When her favourite uncle got sick, Honey went to his place every week to give him a massage. Uncle Gil was already in constant pain; the cancer had entered his bones and he wasn't up for much. But he let her rub his hands gently with oil. As she did, he talked to her about her ex-husband.
I don’t dislike Quinn, he said. I feel sorry for him.
Quinn was always eager for a fight, Honey said. You know, he couldn’t get a good night’s sleep unless he argued with someone. He would call up a friend and make up a story he knew would be terribly upsetting like, ‘I hate to tell you, but I think your wife is playing around. When he was sure the friend was agitated he would get off the phone and sleep well.
That’s appalling. Why were you with a man like that?
Honey didn’t answer. Then she said, Someone at work asked me out. —Jarrett. A doctor.
When her uncle asked her what he was like, she hesitated.
He just returned to Nova Scotia after living out west, she said. He’s good looking. But something about him is odd. He stares at me a lot.
I don’t think you can afford to waste more time, her uncle said. She still found it hard to tell whether or not she was wasting her time.
I’m worried about Maddie, she said. What kind of future does she have?
A fine future, especially now that you’re on your own. Have faith in Maddie. She’s a great kid.
Having faith in her daughter wasn’t the problem.
Honey went into the living room to pay some overdue bills by phone. Not being able to pay them all, made her anxious, but at least she would take care of the most pressing. Unfortunately, when she called the number for automated banking, she ended up not with a computer, but with a person and had to answer a litany of questions to prove she was who she said she was. She must have pressed the wrong button, she explained to the man on the phone; she just wanted to pay a bill, not answer the date she was born, or her mother’s maiden name. Could they switch her back to the automated system? How frustrating this all was. Finally she got off the phone.
That man must need a Valium after talking to you, Gil said from the other room.
She had no idea he’d been listening and went to his room to explain. But Gil kept talking. Your attitude is, —oh you little people, if you knew how I detested you. Kiss my ring, kiss my hand, I don’t care, just solve my problems already! I have important things to do. And here I am talking with you! I’m getting off now. It’s been a pleasure for you to serve me.
By the time he finished Honey was laughing. She’d been so worried about finances, but her uncle could lift her beyond that. He was right, of course. When had she become so impatient?
When the phone rang, a few minutes later, her uncle picked up the extension near his chair. She heard him say, No, I’m not interested in a cruise. The woman on the phone was talking loud enough for Honey to hear her say, We’re giving you this cruise for free. It’s worth 10,000 dollars. You won the cruise.
Thank you, Gil sighed, but I don’t want to go on a cruise.
We give you pocket money too, the woman continued, frantic with frustration.
You’ll have to give my prize to someone else.
What is wrong you with you Canadians? the woman said and hung up. Gil started laughing.
Should I have told her I have terminal cancer? Should I have said, —I’d love to go on this cruise but I’d die on board!
Later, when Honey was about to leave, he held both her hands. Don’t worry, he said. Don’t worry.
Was he referring to the fact that he was dying, that she was getting divorced, that everything was spilling out of control?
It’s all okay, he said, you’ll be fine. And perhaps she would be. Perhaps her uncle’s courage would rub off on her like the coconut oil she could still smell on her hands.
When she had called her sister Jenneke to tell her what the doctor said, Honey broke down crying. He probably only has a month or two. I thought I was prepared, but you can never prepare yourself.
She would be busy at work taking a patient’s blood pressure and something her uncle said would pop into her mind. He’s dying, she’d remind herself as if in preparation.
Because she was so often lost in her thoughts, she felt slightly removed from the world and, to some extent, invisible as well, as if her preoccupation shrouded her. So it was a surprise when Jarrett came over to her in the cafeteria one day.
You keep avoiding me, he said.
What was he talking about? She was busy on the cardiac ward, and though he was on the same floor, he worked in Emerg and she rarely ran into him.
He asked if he could sit at her table. She started talking about her uncle, how good he’d always been to her. She had not intended to share so much, but her uncle was always on her mind lately.
Jarrett listened intently. When she mentioned her ten-year-old daughter, he asked if her little girl liked horses. He was visiting friends this weekend who owned horses. Did Honey and her daughter want to come?
Maddie might enjoy that, she said.
That weekend Jarrett took her and Maddie through the stables which had that wonderful horsey smell of manure and hay. Honey eyed a large, handsome stallion who perked his ears as if wanting to hear what she was about to say. She felt slightly fearful when he neighed and moved closer to where she stood outside his stall.
It was obvious Maddie wasn’t afraid. Jarrett gave her apple slices and Maddie laughed as the stallion took the apple from her flat palm. She asked if she could ride next time.
That’s up to your mother, Jarrett said.
When Jarrett invited Honey to a movie, and the next week asked her to dinner, she said yes. She liked getting out of the house and being courted. But she knew it was the movie she wanted to see, not Jarrett.
When he asked her to spend the night, and her daughter was staying at her sister’s, it was easier to say yes than no.
I just want the physical contact, the closeness, she told herself. She could imagine her uncle asking, Is this who you want to get close to?
There was a reason, which she barely admitted to herself, why she didn’t want to date Jarrett. Lately she had been thinking about women again. Before she’d married Quinn, she remembers telling her uncle that she was attracted to women. She could always say whatever she wanted to him.
What are you going to do about that? he’d asked her.
Apparently nothing, she thought to herself now.
Maybe he can make my life easier, she told Jenneke. She was so tired of having to pay all the bills herself.
Compared to Quinn, anyone would make life easier, Jenneke said.
Honey knew that even though she worried about raising her daughter alone, money was not the cure-all. What was that adage she’d heard, What’s the difference between sex you pay for and sex you don’t? Sex for money always costs less.
Since her uncle’s diagnosis she felt that the world reached her through layers, as if she were under water. Being with Jarrett was like being pulled by the tide.
When she told Jarrett that she and Maddie were going to her Uncle Gil’s the following weekend to cook dinner, so she wouldn&rquo;t be able to see him, Jarrett’s anger surprised her.
I made reservations at a special restaurant. You know that, he said. Is your uncle always more important than I am?
Yes, she wanted to say. But what was the point?
Instead she explained how serious Gil’s illness was, that he was too sick to have anyone but family with him. So she was stunned when she heard her uncle’s doorbell ring on Saturday evening and, looking out the window, saw Jarrett standing by the door.
Later Honey thought, if my uncle hadn’t just been diagnosed with cancer, if my ex hadn’t been calling every few days in a drunken rage, I would never have gone out with Jarrett. Or if I had, I would have seen more quickly who he was. At least she hoped that was the case.
It’s fine, her uncle said when Honey explained who was at the door. Invite him in.
He was carrying a large gnarly fruit she’d never seen before. It’s a cross between a mandarin orange and a grapefruit, Jarrett said, handing it to Honey.
It’s ugly, Maddie said touching the mottled orange-brown rind.
That’s what it’s called, ugli fruit, Jarrett laughed. I wanted to bring it over because it’s medicinal, high in folate, good for the kidneys. You can eat it like a tangerine.
Thanks, Honey said. I’ll give some to my uncle after dinner. She thought surely Jarrett would leave, but he hung around and finally Gil invited him to stay. She knew talking to Jarrett would tire him.
Earlier that day, on her walk, a wild dog had frightened her. She’d just climbed the rise a half a kilometer from her house, in that part of the woods that was mostly pine and fir, when she heard its feral growl. Then it came out of the trees, a thin mongrel with yellow eyes. She knew she couldn’t run; it would run faster. She’d turned around slowly and began to retrace her steps. The dog had been quite a distance off, but she heard it trotting toward her. She didn’t dare look behind to see where it was; she might inadvertently glance into its eyes. And didn&rquo;t dogs perceive eye contact as an act of aggression? She’d seen those eyes before she’d turned and they were jaundiced, wild. She could feel fear, like rancid oil, seeping through her pores. Surely the dog would smell it.
Should she make a dash for the road? How close was he? When at last she saw the main road and people walking by, she sprinted for the road, and then she kept running until she finally made it home. She burst into the front room and slumped in a chair, her legs shaking.
Now she wondered if that dog were a portent of something unsavoury. This uninvited and unwelcome visit, for example.
The next day Jarrett called to apologize and Honey was pleasant. But she decided to take a break from the relationship.
Then Jarret’s dog fell ill. Poor old Clarence was about 9 years old and doted upon. Jarrett asked Honey to come by after work, but she was too tired. A week later she got a message on her answering machine: Look, I’ll probably have to put Clarence down tomorrow. Can you come by?
It was too late to call him back.
Did you put him down? Honey asked when she phoned next day.
Yes, he said.
She couldn’t help but feel sad for Jarrett. After supper, she asked the neighbour’s daughter to watch Maddie and drove to his house.
This must be a hard night for you, she said when he opened the door.
Yes, he said. He stood in the entrance and did not move.
Can I come in? she asked finally.
The living room was dark when she entered, the blinds closed. And there, lying on his matt in the corner, unable to raise his head but still breathing, was Clarence. Honey turned to Jarrett.
I was going to take him to the vet, but I just couldn’t.
But why lie? Honey thought. Yet she didn’t ask. It occurred to her he’d say whatever was expedient.
She walked over to Clarence and stroked his droopy head. He didn’t turn, as he usually did, but lay still, breathing heavily.
He hasn’t eaten in two days, Jarrett said. He won’t drink. This morning he couldn’t get up to pee. I had to carry him to the yard.
They sat together in silence, watching Clarence.
I should go, Honey said.
But Jarrett asked her to stay. In the end, tired, and feeling sorry for Jarrett, she called and arranged for the babysitter to stay all night and went upstairs to bed.
Perhaps his dog’s immanent death made Jarrett confide his secret that night. Honey rarely stayed over; had he convinced himself, now that she was here, that she cared so much for him, his secret would be hers as well?
There’s something I think you should know, he said. Honey, drowsy, turned toward him. My first wife died, I think I told you.
She knew he was a widower, though he’d never gone into details. As she lay there, she felt tension in the darkness around them.
My wife was murdered. She was shot, Jarrett said.
What? Honey tried to process this. No one she knew, even remotely, had been murdered. She remembered that as a girl she’d asked her uncle, What’s the difference between being murdered and being killed?
You know the difference, he’d said. You can fall off a cliff and die. That’s an accident. But if someone puts a knife in you, then you’re murdered. That’s deliberate.
She was seven then. At seven she thought death was so horrifying that the end of any life, even a long satisfying one, was, by its very obliteration, murder.
She was not quite sure she heard what Jarrett said next, but he repeated the words and she could no longer doubt them.
I shot her, he said.
Suddenly she was wide awake. Could Jarrett hear her heart hammering? What could she say that wouldn’t sound as if she were repelled? Surely he was testing her. She felt like she had earlier that week when the wild dog had crossed her path.
Did you hear what I said, Honey? Jarrett’s voice was odd, rough. She had to let him know, just as she’d let the dog know, that she wasn’t afraid.
Why did you shoot her? Honey heard herself ask. She wanted to leave. But she knew that wasn’t part of the scenario.
It was an accident. I didn’t mean to shoot her. Though no one could live with that woman.
Honey lay silent. It was a late fall night, the heat was on and they were under a duvet and still she was shivering. She could hear Clarence get up in the living room downstairs and walk to a bowl and lap water. Was Clarence strong enough to get up? She must be imagining it.
The truth is, I went crazy that night. She kept saying I was gambling away her money. Jarrett laughed. I think I just cracked because of her false accusations. But I’m haunted by what happened.
The furnace clicked and Honey started.
Say something, Jarrett said, his voice cold. But what could she say?
Did the police suspect you?
Why do you ask that? Jarrett asked. No. There was a burglary the night she was shot. The police assumed the incidents were related.
I can’t quite picture what happened.
Why do you have to picture it, Honey? I’m telling you this because I’d like to start this relationship with a clean slate. I don’t want there to be secrets between us.
He squeezed her, leaned over and kissed her. She lay still. Then he started fondling her breasts. Surely he did not want to have sex with her?
He must be aware that she didn’t want him near her, much less caressing her. And yet, if she let him know, if she showed any disgust, wouldn’t she possibly, even probably be putting herself in danger?
The entire time he was on top of her, thrusting more forcefully than he ever had, she kept thinking, I’m fine. I’m fine. When he finally rolled off her, they lay in the dark for what seemed like a long time. Then she got up.
Where are you going?
To the bathroom.
She had half thought she’d grab her coat, slip on her shoes and leave. But of course, he would follow her. She had to get some control over her thoughts. What would her uncle advise her, navigating as she was on a dangling bridge above a river of alligators and shards of glass.
When she slid back under the covers, she lay beside him and listened until she could hear his breathing grow steady and knew he was asleep. And still she was afraid to leave.
All night she lay in a cold sweat. By the time the first pale light streaked through the blinds, she didn’t see how the day could restore itself. It seemed paralyzed, as she was.
Call in sick, Jarrett said when the alarm rang. Shutting it off, he turned to her. Let’s spend the day together.
My supervisor is on my case for missing days.
He told her he would drive her. We’re together now, Honey. It’s you and me.
While he ate breakfast, she sat drinking coffee, the liquid bitter in her stomach.
He parked in the lot and they walked into the hospital together. She thought, This looks normal, as they took the elevator and got off on their floor.
I’ll meet you at noon, he said.
She went to her locker to change into her uniform. If she left the floor, he’d get suspicious. She could tell him the school had called, her daughter was sick, and she needed to pick her up. But he might insist on coming with her.
How ironic that before she met Jarrett she was nervous and didn’t know why. Now, it seemed her vague anxieties had found their way to something real and terrible, like metal filings to a magnet.
You&rquo;re okay, Honey, you’re still in control here, she imagined her uncle saying. But it was her own inner voice that told her she could no longer afford to make any mistakes.
She decided she’d go to the cafeteria in the basement. If he followed her she could tell him she was hungry.
She walked past the elevator slowly. She could not see Jarrett. But the elevator was not there, so she opened the exit door to the steps. Just as she closed it behind her she heard Jarrett’s voice.
Did you see Honey? he asked the nurse at the desk. Honey couldn’t catch the answer. If she ran down the steps, he’d hear.
She squeezed against the wall, hoping he wouldn’t see her shadow, and waited until she heard the click of his walk as he went up the hall. Then she raced down three flights to the basement.
She phoned the taxi from the payphone, said a few words to Molly who worked the check-out counter, then went into the bathroom and waited. How much time did she have till Jarrett got suspicious and discovered where she’d gone?
She put on a scarf to cover her dark hair, in case Jarrett looked out his window and saw her get in the cab when it drove up. Finally she came out of the bathroom, and there was Jarrett on the check-out line. She slipped back into the washroom. She’d asked Molly not to mention to anyone she was here. Had Molly taken her seriously?
She waited as long as she could bear. Miraculously, when she left the bathroom again, Molly let her know her cab had arrived. And Jarrett was nowhere in sight.
Did the driver know where the closest police station was, she asked. He did; it was ten minutes by highway. But there was construction on the turnoff and they had to wait as a worker held up a stop sign. A little further on they were caught at a red light.
Would the police be able to do anything, anyway, if all she had was a confession? She kept glancing at the cars beside her, dreading that Jarrett would suddenly appear. Finally the cab arrived at the station.
It was agonizing standing before the policeman at the front desk while he finished his phone call. At last he asked Honey if she needed help.
Yes, Honey said. I’m here to report a murder.
And then fear gripped her. She asked if she could use the phone and called her uncle. He answered right away.
Did you remember Maddie and I were coming over today? I’m going to pick her up instead of having the school bus drop her off. Don’t open the door to anyone, okay? Honey said.
What are you talking about? he asked.
I can’t go into it now. Just trust me. Through the phone Honey heard the door bell ring. Was that the door?
It’s just Jarrett, her uncle said. I can see him from the window.
Lock the door. And do not let him in. The police will be right over.
Later that month, when her uncle was readmitted to the hospital, she was the one alone with him when he drifted into a deep sleep. He looked calm. He’d been calm during the police encounter earlier that month as well.
After they came to her uncle’s place, and after Jarrett had been given a restraining order keeping him away from her and her family, Gil had said, An angel’s watching over you, Honey. He managed to put a positive spin on everything. He didn’t say, What lousy judgement you have in boyfriends.
When she told him Jarrett had transferred to another hospital, he’d said, Good. I was going to suggest you get a job somewhere else, if he were still there.
She had many questions. Had he meant to harm her uncle? Would the police reopen the case of his wife’s death? They’d confirmed that she had had been shot. Why did he tell her his secret?
Now it all seemed surreal as she sat beside her uncle in his hospital room. Then he opened his eyes. He looked at her, and then he looked at something beyond her. She heard his breath get ragged and forced, she heard a long rattle, and then she couldn’t hear any breath at all.
She stared at her uncle’s face for a long time. He had a beautiful, gentle face. So this was what it was like to know he was gone forever.
You’ll be fine, he’d told her. How long did she sit there, looking at him? She didn’t know. She leaned over and kissed his forehead.
When she finally forced herself to raise her eyes she was surprised the light was streaming through the window and it was still early afternoon.
Copyright © 2015 by Carole Glasser Langile.
Carole Glasser Langille is the author of four books of poems, two children’s books and a collection of short stories. Her collection of linked short stories,I Am What I Am Because You Are What You Are will be coming out in late 2015. She teaches Creative Writing at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The Toppled Book Towers
Claudia had never felt like such crap in all her twenty-three years of living, yet she’d never felt so positive about her future. Her newfound optimism was all because she had a plan—actually, a couple of them. No point telling her parents about the bigger-picture plan for they’d only laugh at her as they always had—like after she told them when she grew up she was going to build a house of shells (she’d been five at the time). How they’d howled after informing them of her future career as a race car driver. She was too tall, they told her, and adding insult to injury: she didn’t have the right personality—whatever that meant. Then there was part of the large yard she sectioned off with wooden stakes for a pet cemetery. They’d been shocked more than amused by that one. Always, they’d been such buzz killers, balloon poppers, party poopers and basic pains in the ass. They were on their way to her apartment now, ostensibly, to save her from herself.
She didn’t need them anymore, nor did she need to see her 14 year-old sister, Kristen, who no doubt, would show up with them, and ask—as she always did—too many questions. The first one, no doubt, would be, “Why are we taking you home?” “Home?” she’d ask, in response. Then she’d give her sister a look of such disgust, hopefully, it would silence the reporter-in-training.
Claudia’s brushed by one of the tallest of her several book towers (over five feet high), a little too closely, and caused it to collapse. She glanced about her studio apartment trying to decide if she should topple the others, too, but decided against it—then it really would feel like her kingdom was in ruins. She hurled herself onto her mattress on the floor, and rolled up in the pink blanket she’d had since infancy.
If Eli hadn’t left her, her world wouldn’t be crumbling—falling down around her. Maybe he’d texted her last night, but then again, he hadn’t in over a week now. Other things she hadn’t done for about that long: eaten anything besides peanut butter on a spoon and cookie dough ice cream; changed her clothes; taken a shower; or left the apartment (except once to buy more ice cream and a bottle of wine). There’d simply been no point—Lately, no one from Kelly Service’s had called to offer her a temporary office job; they hadn’t in several weeks. Her two college classes she was taking (art history and American lit) were being taught by the absolute worst professors imaginable. Why bother going to class? Besides, she hadn’t finished a course in a year, why ruin her track record? Some other reason she’d remained walled up in the apartment —what was it? Oh, yeah—If Eli were to contact her, she wanted to be here, as talking to him anyplace else would be too much of a distraction. Always the chance he’d call—
Since her parents would soon be here to help pack, she probably should try to make a dent in all the stuff she’d accumulated—particularly her books. All of them; every last one of them would take up residence at her parents‘ house, that is, until her next move. Yesterday she’d managed to find a few cardboard boxes out by the dumpster. First, she’d toss out what she didn’t need and attack the overflowing wastebaskets, then the moldy gross food in the fridge (But, Mom, I was merely growing mold for a science experiment for one of my classes—) Somewhere in the mess were garbage bags—
Before things began going downhill a year ago (not a week ago), one majorly wonderful event occurred: she’d at last moved out of her parents‘ home and into an apartment. Claudia recalled how when she’d first moved here, she’d gaze lovingly at possessions acquired by one of her mom’s friends who was getting a divorce: black futon, beige bean bag chairs, art prints on the walls, along with her swivel office chair and giant wooden desk. All of it hers, no one’s but hers—It had caused her to feel for the first time, excited—exhilarated even—about her life, her future. The most striking art print was one of a tree surrounded by a fence. Shed missed the irony, though she saw it now.
This was in the pre-book tower days. She’d been enrolled part-time as a student and worked full-time as an office temp. The weekly or monthly job placements were something she could mostly rely on; she never stayed at any one place long enough to get bored. She rescued a stray kitten and proved to be a good cat-caretaker until Sabrina wandered away when she was bringing groceries up three flights of stairs—Claudia must have left the door open.
Right after losing the kitten, things began to slide. She got super fidgety in her two classes. When she tried to take notes, she always wound up doodling. Any leftover money from her paychecks went to the cause of book buying. She’d hit library sales, used bookstores, and sometimes order a new title from Amazon. Problem was, she’d never get beyond the first page or two.
Her book towers began to grow. She liked admiring them once they got to be several feet tall. Once they got shoulder height, she’d immediately begin building another tower. Some of them stood alone, others she grouped in cityscapes. She always cautioned her visitors to be careful around them.
Boys began visiting her on the weekends—seniors from her former high school. They’d heard the word that she had her own place on the university campus. One guy told another. Sometimes two would show up on the same night. At first she enjoyed luring them with wine and snacks. At least in the beginning, she’d hoped one of them might turn into a boyfriend. Sure, she had sex a little too soon after meeting them, but how did anyone ever know whether or not a relationship would turn serious? Then she heard from a friend, an older sister of one of her male visitors, how she was being referred to as ‘Cum Queen Claudia.’ She never took money from any of them. Still, word got out about the services she provided. Things got out of hand, and before long, there were three or more ‘new’ guys. Some returned; others didn’t.
Despite having a unibrow and a few acne scars, she was attractive enough, if not exactly drop-dead gorgeous. Her mother always said she would’ve been considered beautiful in the 19th century: willowy with pouty lips and a widow’s peak. One night, a visitor bumped into one of the book towers. She yelled at him to “get the hell out of my apartment!” He left without saying a word. It was the only time she yelled, but Jason obviously hadn’t understood how important books were to her. None of them did, that is, until Eli. Eli had a unibrow, too. At nineteen, he was older than her other boys, as he’d flunked two grades because his mom moved around a lot. He’d never met his dad. What made Eli special: he was the only one who admired her book towers. He’d read quite a few books, in fact, several of the ones in her towers: novels by Bradbury, King, and DeLint. “You’ve heard of the fantasy author, DeLint?” She couldn’t get over that he had.
At first she didn’t tell him that she hadn’t read any of her books. On their first evening together, she’d enjoyed listening to his take on several, though he at first talked ‘at her’—at least he spoke and didn’t make her kneel before him. Unlike the others, he didn’t want to have sex right away. Later, he admitted the other boys had pressured him into visiting her that first time, but on their second ‘date’ (the next weekend) he made her spaghetti and garlic bread. After dinner and a couple glasses of wine, they kissed, held hands and told each other all the places they’d like to travel to. They both had Paris, Vienna, and the Black Forest on their lists, and decided to someday travel together.
The day after their second date another one of her boys showed up. She couldn’t recall his name, but wound up giving him a quick blow-job. Later, she felt a weird guilt she’d never experienced before. Of course, she didn’t tell Eli, but shortly afterward, received a text from him informing her: “If u want me to be yr boyfriend—no other guys, ok?” She readily agreed.
It was Eli who convinced her to see a doctor for her problem with concentration. However, she didn’t have health insurance and was afraid she might have something majorly wrong, like early onset Alzheimer’s. If he hadn’t harangued her about it, she wouldn’t have lied. She wound up telling him it was ADD and a very nice doctor—Dr. Smithson—had written her a prescription. In order to convince Eli that the medication was working, she began reading online summaries of several of her books and memorizing them. He seemed impressed, though sometimes he’d ask her questions she couldn’t answer. She didn’t bother telling him how she’d dropped her classes, though he did find out in time, along with the fact that she’d never seen a doctor. Maybe if she had money for the prescription she needed, her situation wouldn’t feel so hopeless: she’d be passing her classes because she’d be able to concentrate longer and do the required reading—no matter how lousy the profs—
She began reading poetry and loved it—understood it in a way she had little else. She loved reading it aloud to Eli, as well as writing her own. Right before she fucked up everything, she came up with an idea for a café, as well as a new kind of poetry—one that maybe she’d invented. The café would be called Tangled Word Café and customers would get tangled in a poem that would drop on them from the ceiling—the lettering would be like a spider web. Maybe there’d be audio versions of the poems playing—Book towers (poetry only) would be part of the interior design. Eli looked at her like she was crazy, though he didn’t say she was, she knew him well-enough to see it in his eyes. He left early that night.
An hour afterward, Jason was at her door with flowers. Months had gone by, and he still felt bad about toppling over one of her book towers. She was poised, really fried at Eli. Maybe Jason would turn out to be a better boyfriend than Eli and wouldn’t think of her as a nutcase. Besides, Eli knew her too well, and maybe that wasn’t a good thing, as she was mentally unbalanced. Jason and she were in the middle of things when the buzzer sounded. Hair still disheveled when she answered the door. Eli stood there with roses for her tangled word idea (“Such a good one,” he’d said), when out of the bathroom strutted shirtless Jason.
That happened a week ago. It was the last time she’d seen Eli. She felt better about things until it hit her that almost a full year had passed with only Eli visiting her, (not counting the boy whose name she couldn’t recall, and Jason). Why couldn’t Eli see that those two guys were mere blips or hiccups in the scheme of things?
A couple days ago, her parents received a letter from the university explaining how she’d dropped all classes for three semesters and how she’d now have to be re-admitted if she wanted to continue her studies. Her parents hadn’t liked the sound of her voice. When she told them she hadn’t paid rent in a couple months, they said it was time to come home for a while, until she got “back on her feet.” She wondered if they also knew about the first few months and the dozens of boys—Unless they brought it up, she sure wasn’t going to divulge anything—Nor would she say anything about the Tangled Word Café, as the words were so tangled in her head just now—
She looked around at her messy place. Still, it had been hers. How could she go home again? Hadn’t she always heard that once a person left, there was no return? She’d been like the tree in her art print, surrounded by a fence—Silly, if you think of it, for it’s not like trees can go anywhere, but living at her parents’, other would be fences off from her. A new plan occurred to her: she’d tell them she needed to use a restroom, probably at a fast food place off the freeway. She’d disappear inside and go out the door on the other side of the building. Then she’d hitch a ride—somewhere—maybe to a place near where the Tangled Word Café would someday exist. She’d buy a new art print of a tree surrounded by nothing but maybe green grass or a field.
The buzzer sounded. She wasn’t ready for them, and doubted she could look at Kristen in the eye. It wasn’t them; it was Jason— her new ‘boyfriend.’ Her words again tangled in her mind. She looked for a ‘no’ or a ‘get lost’ in the word-web. Once she found them she knew she’d be able to handle the situation.
Copyright © 2016 by Susan Sage.
Susan Sage has recently been published in Referential Magazine, Storyacious, E.T.A. Literary Journal, Digital Papercut, Black Denim Lit, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Rockhurst Review, Passages North, Metis, Qua, The Wire, and Corridors. Her first novel, Insominy, was published in 2010 (Virtualbookworm) and is working on a second novel. She received my B.A. in English from Wayne State University. As an undergraduate, she was a recipient of The Tompkin's Award in Creative Writing, and she has taken graduate coursework at The University of Michigan-Flint.
On South Flat Road
There is only one piece of chicken left
When he punches a hole in the wall
Gets up and leaves. The garage door opens with a growl,
He only had a quarter tank of gas left earlier that day.
The albino Nissan glares its beady tail lights at the woman.
Inside the house, she leaves her story inside the wall
While covering the knuckled holes with plaster.
In the kitchen, she washes the dishes,
Barely humming, staying as still as possible.
He comes home drunk and eats the last piece of chicken.
She is in bed,
Unable to move.
It was a wing.
Copyright © 2016 by Andrea Shipley.
Andrea Shipley is a writer, activist and higher education professional. When time permits, she can be found somewhere in the mountains in Wyoming, writing, relaxing and contemplating her next big plan.