Issue 97 — Patrick Theron Erickson, Kate LaDew, Brett Weaver, Kobina Wright
Patrick Theron Erickson
There is a rottenness
in the citadel
as when great titans
in men’s bones
is beheld on high
There is a rottenness
in the state of Denmark
as when rottenness
overtakes dear Hamlet
and in Hamlet
every man despairs.
Copyright © 2017 by Patrick Theron Erickson.
A Little of the Nectar
of the honeysuckle vine
at first blush
bud and blossom
the first hummingbird
the first bee
a little of the honey
from the honeyed honey pot
a little of the honeycomb
and no one’s beeswax
but my own
and no beehive hairdos
if you please!
Copyright © 2017 by Patrick Theron Erickson.
May you curl
like a leaf
and wind blown
May your legs
and your arms
May you spin and spin
like a leaf
no new windfalls
no new leaves
You who are far afield
who have fallen
not far from the tree
Copyright © 2017 by Patrick Theron Erickson.
About the Author:
Patrick Theron Erickson, a retired parish pastor put out to pasture himself, resonates to a friend's notion of change coming at us a lot faster because you can punch a whole lot more, a whole lot faster down digital broadband “glass” fiber than an old copper co-axial landline cable. Secretariat is his mentor, though he has never been an achiever and has never gained on the competition. Erickson’s work has appeared in Former People, Literati Quarterly, Burningword Literary Journal, Crack the Spine, and Grey Sparrow Journal, among other publications, and more recently in Tipton Poetry Journal, Lavender Wolves Literary Journal, Futures Trading, Wilderness House Literary Review and Danse Macabre.
1. sudden infant. . .
you were as still as my heart,
lips as blue as the sky
2. a drunk, just like your mother
it’s been the two of you for so long.
all your other friends drifted away, into marriages, children, lives,
but he hung close, for no reason you could imagine, just waiting,
and it took you longer than it should have to realize,
he was waiting for you.
so it’s hard to believe it could be over, just like that
and it’s easier when you give your brain a moment,
blinking your eyes like snapping fingers,
not just like that, a long time coming,
an inevitability, like death.
it’s late afternoon, the middle school playground,
stumbling slow to take the swing beside him,
the only text you answered that day,
ignoring vaguely familiar numbers with vaguely familiar notes of concern and disappointment.
you stretch your lips into a smile, trying to reassemble the one he used to know.
he doesn’t give his back, and the sneer he tries doesn’t fit his face,
but the disgust is real and moving.
so it must have been a terrible drunk,
the last night you can’t remember,
it must have been different from all the other last nights you can’t remember,
when he pulled you up, brushed the hair out of your eyes
and got you home before something life-changing could happen
it must have been something monumentally different for this boy
who loves you and wants you more
than anything you’ve ever wanted in your falling down heap of a life to give you that sneer.
it hits hard, the finality of failure,
you’ve done it this time, let him see too far inside you
right down to that bottle shaped heart that never fills,
and it’s you waiting now, holding your breath.
the quiet crawls between you until he says one thing, just one thing
and it hurts too much to ask why.
maybe later you’ll want that back, the knowledge of the final straw, but now—
he steps away, leaving you with nothing but a hangover to keep you company, and a song,
a drunk just like your mother, a drunk just like your mother
you’ll never get it out of your head.
as you watch him move too far away to touch,
you decide to punish yourself, and look up, seeking some kind of absolution,
opening your eyes as wide as they will go,
the sunlight searing in and washing out the green,
the blue, the rusted metal of the swing set.
running your tongue across your lips,
you try to catch some vague dim taste of him, something to hold.
it’s no good.
you’re alone on the playground, the shadows of the monkey bars slicing across your chest,
wondering how long you’ll have to stay out here before someone misses you,
before anyone comes to get you.
you wait almost two hours, the sun melting down behind the fence.
you’re crying when you finally get to your feet; no one cares.
3. great grandfather
who gave this to you?
the chain pulled his eyes forward,
as I held the flashing silver star of david between my fingers.
it must have been someone important, you never take it off.
after a long pause he said, soft, my father.
and does it keep you safe?
after a much longer pause he said, eyes looking back, back, back, no.
and I knew enough without asking anything more.
4. and you’re thinking this is the worst thing that’s happened to me so far
and you’re thinking what does that mean and can I stand it?
and you’re mad for ever wanting to die
and you’re mad for ever thinking if I just don’t wake up how fine that would be
and he’s inside of you like he’s searching for your heart
like he can’t stand the beating and that’s why he’s doing this to you
and you’re thinking, do what you have to,
and you’re thinking, get out of this moment before it ruins your life,
and you’re thinking, don’t let this be the last thing that ever happens to me
5. good guys
that he’d like it was obvious
it had nothing to do with who or what he was doing it to
a physical response, like breathing
and it was so easy just to like it
be young and drunk and not think beyond that
maneuver the next day to the ready explanation
so wasted, so fun, wasn’t it?
and her, alone, inevitably suffering the looks and whispers like a movie,
everything seemed to be happening to someone else
until she pressed the blue black bruises in places only she could see
because it wouldn’t occur to someone like him he was at all in the wrong,
he was at all being selfish—
but what really erupted the maddening clutches of vengeance
vengeance, like a movie
how adamantly defensive he’d be without saying a word
having no hand in it, owing nothing for how he made her suffer.
he was really such a good guy.
Copyright © 2016 by Kate LaDew.
1. the caesura of a breath
when the soul in her eyes sparks and flickers into ash, it leaves a dark, sudden and immediate, that only exists after a complete brightness.
I’m never going in this room again
so I center the image in my mind
blink my eyes and take a picture
develop it by touch, fingers moving in the dark
cover the dead eyes of stuffed animals
take down the crib, put the letters that spell out your name in a box
slowly dismantle and give away all my hopes and dreams for a person who no longer exists.
3. the catholic church five blocks from where I grew up
think it loud enough so the pews can hear
and maybe they’ll answer back the way god doesn’t,
wood from a slave ship, marble chipped
nothing behind the saints’ eyes
the candles go out when the doors open
when I put my arm out for support,
it’s like a knife under the ribs
I can see it turn in you without my help,
grazing the heart, little drops of blood spreading inside,
reminding you through their drip drop you were so young once.
now I speak to you in sentences a child can understand,
voice raised, sugary sweet, my hands constantly around you,
waiting for you to fail, and you were so young once, you were so young.
and a long, long time ago I was only something at the edge of your vision,
when there wasn’t a thing stopping all you ever wanted.
5. enormously small
when it first starts, I feel enormously small, your weight squeezing me into steam
it’s fast and clumsy and I think of a cruel joke, but saying it would only absolve you
rolling off, you look over your shoulder
unblinking, I replay what you’ve done on the screens of my eyes,
and in some awful mockery of paternal love, you throw a blanket my way,
as if your hands were not enough to hide me even in the darkness.
Copyright © 2016 by Kate LaDew.
About the Author:
Kate LaDew is a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in Studio Art. She resides in Graham, North Carolina with her two cats, Janis Joplin and Charlie Chaplin.
This chapter is from a short novel entitled PAIRIS, which is looking for a home. An American couple rent an apartment in Paris for a week, in an attempt to overcome a tragedy that is hinted in this story.
Four months earlier, Susan would have taken a right onto a lengthy stretch of Naranja Drive, ironically lined with lemon trees, passing the more established, “from-the-low-400s,“ homes, then past the obligatory Walgreens—one on every block. At First Avenue, she would have made a left and headed home past the Mountain Vista Kindergarten and its perimeter wall spotted with multi-colored letters and multi-colored numbers. Susan had always wondered why the number Seven was colored blue, and the letter L was red. Even though she never ran past that wall anymore, it still bothered her because it didn’t seem right. For children.
Today she would be only fifty meters down Naranja Drive, dodging the fallen lemons mottled with holes where birds had pecked at them, she would make a sharp right turn onto Stargazer Way. Her New Balance running shoes pounded the burning asphalt in a style that suggested she was either running away from something threatening, or toward something wonderful. It just depended on the day.
She checked her Garmin outside the front door of the house she shared with her husband, Steven. 39:52. Eight-minute miles. Good.
She pushed open the white front door, went inside, and immediately called out. “Steven!“
She passed down the hallway and into the kitchen where the top of a large pot trembled on the stove. She went over to it quickly, took up a padded kitchen mitt and removed the top cover, then grabbed a ladle from the countertop.
“Did you even stir it?“ she shouted out to the hallway.
The sound of feet bounding down the stairs was followed by Steven who appeared at the kitchen entrance. He was smiling and holding up a piece of paper with a line of type on it.
“The Dostoyevskys want to go to the casino again,“ he said.
“What?“ Susan blew on the ladle then sampled a steaming red liquid.
“I got my first line,“ he said.
“That’s all you wrote,“ Susan said and stirred the pot. “So you had time to be watching this then?“
Steven put the sheet of paper on the granite-topped island and wrapped his arms around her and kissed her neck.
“Well, you taste good,“ he said and kissed her again.
“The sauce tastes good. I taste like salt,“ she said, then eyed the dining table. “And the dining table— is—“
“Is— just where it’s always been—,“ Steven and went to kiss her again, but she pushed him back, passed through the dining area to a wide arch overlooking the living room.
“Like the living room—,“ she said.
Steven came to her side. “I got inspired.“ He regarded the living room.
“And, I’ll straighten the cushions. They’ll be the straightest cushions— “
“Inspired? One line? I suppose you’ve not started packing either?“
“You mean, clothes?“ He put his hands around on her shoulders.
“You don’t need clothes for Paris.“
“I’m taking a shower,“ she said and walked back through the kitchen to the hallway. “Watch the sauce this time.“
Steven picked up his piece of paper and followed her. She put a hand on the bannister and pushed off her running shoes. “Who are the Dostoyevskys, anyhow?“
Steven handed the piece of paper to her. She read it.
“Okay? So?“ she said and leaned one hand on his shoulder as she pulled off one running sock, and then the other.
“It’s a new story,“ Steven said excitedly. “Literary characters who don’t know they are— living in the suburbs.“
“But Dostoyevsky’s an author, not a character,“ she said and dropped her socks in his hand. “Shouldn’t it be the Karamazovs or Prince somebody?“
Steven stepped back into the kitchen. “I’m going to make a drink,“ he said. “Anyhow, it all takes place in a neighborhood called Shakespeare Court,“ Steven said. “It’s like a soap opera of literary characters.“
“Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky?“
“Well, authors, characters— same thing.“
Steven took a half-full bottle vodka from the freezer section of the fridge.
“What do you think?“ he asked. “Martinis tonight?“
Susan ran her hands through her brown hair that matched her eyes. It was about two inches above her shoulders. She used to have longer hair. But she had cut it recently. Herself.
“What about Cosmopolitans?“ she suggested.
“Too much work.“ Steven opened a glass cabinet and took out two large Martini glasses. “Besides, that’s a girl drink,“ he said and placed the glasses on the counter. He removed a bottle of dry vermouth from between the orange juice and milk in the fridge door.
“You can have a Martini for the shower, okay?“ Steven said, then pressed the shaker under the ice dispenser. The ice clunked out inconsistently.
“This has never worked properly,“ he said. “I’ve spilled more ice on the floor than—“ His eye caught the digital stove clock.
“What time are the coming again?“
Susan watched her husband. “Six.“
Steven poured some vermouth into each Martini glass, then swilled one of them around and went toss it into the sink.
“Don’t throw that away,“ Susan took the glass from him and dribbled the vermouth back into the shaker. “You always do that. Why do you always do that?“
“It’s a cocktail,“ he said and began to swill his own glass.
“I would have preferred a vodka and soda,“ she said.
“That’s a drink,“ he held up his glass. “A Martini is a cocktail.“
Susan went over to the pot and stirred it again absently. “I did the potatoes already, and the peas will take no time.“
Steven held the vodka over the Martini shaker.
“Make mine a light one,“ she said.
“Not possible,“ he said as he shook the shaker with both hands for the required ten seconds. “There is no such thing as a weak Martini.“ Steven poured out the two Martinis, almost to the brim of each glass. “So,“ he said as he picked up the glasses, “remind me. Who’s coming again?“
“Karen and Frank,“ Susan said taking one of the glasses.
He smiled as he took a drink. “And I’ve met them before?“
“Yes, I think so—,“ she sipped her drink and also smiled. “Karen and I grew up together— We had the same mother— She’s married to Frank— Your brother-in-law—.“
“Tall man, Frank?“
“And dark, and handsome,“ Susan said and handed Steven the ladle.
“More than me?“
“You’re good-looking,“ she said and brushed his cheek with the back of her right hand. “There’s a difference.“ She turned away and headed for the hallway.
Susan moved to the stairs, then looked back at Steven. Steven who was good-looking, but not handsome. Not like Frank. “What color is seven?“ she asked.
“Seven,“ she said and looked at her husband, now stirring the pot intently. “When I say seven, what color do you think of?“
“Seven isn’t a color—“
“Yes, I know that— but—“ She looked about the room for inspiration.
There was none. Just her husband, the appliances, the food for dinner. “If you were handsome, you’d give it a color—“
“Green,“ he replied.
Steven placed the ladle in a “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas“ dish on the counter. “I don’t know. I suppose because it’s supposed to be a lucky number. You know, lucky number seven. So— you win money.“ He sipped his drink. “Money’s green. I don’t know.“
At 6:15, Karen and Frank’s midnight blue Honda Odyssey pulled up in front of Susan and Steven’s two-story—from the mid 200s—desert house with Spanish tile and tan-colored paint that complemented the Catalina mountains it faced to the east.
When Frank got out of the car, he took in the house next door that had been empty for some time. Its paint was the kind of pink that would certainly no longer have been allowed by the HOA, and there were a few tiles missing from the roof. A broken real estate sign lay flat on the ground like a knocked-out boxer.
His wife, Karen was, and had been, on the phone with the babysitter for the past three-and-a-half minutes. On her lap, there was a white plastic container with a dessert inside.
“Okay, they can have one hour of video games and one hour of television,“ she said into her oversized phone. “You’ve got the list of approved games and shows, right?“ She paused while she looked at Frank who looked over at the pink house.
“I’m sure everything will be fine,“ Frank said, mentally repainting the house a color that would blend it into the mountains and the rusty evening sky. “What’s the problem?“
Karen put her hand over the phone. “What’s the problem? She’s new,“ she whispered. “It’s her first night.“
“First night? What happened to Emily?“
“Night classes. Remember,“ she said and shook her head. “If you were ever home, you’d—“
“Maybe I should take a night class,“ Frank said to the air.
“What for?“ Karen said.
The front door opened, and Steven came out holding a Martini shaker and two glasses.
“Hi there, guys,“ he said. “What are you doing out here? The party’s on the inside.“
Frank gestured Karen on the phone, and she waved at Steven.
“Oh,“ Steven said as he walked down the bricked walkway. On either side was gravel, but it was becoming sparse—two non-compliance-HOA-letters sparse. A few weeds had forced their way up. They were spindly little things, but when Steven had tried to pull them up, he had hurt his fingers. He had not yet opened the gloves Susan had bought for his birthday.
“Apparently, we have a new babysitter,“ Frank said.
Steven approached Frank who nodded to the pink house. “How long’s this house been on the market?
“You know,“ Steven said, pouring out a drink for him, “I don’t know. A while, I guess. The guy who owns it is never around. Wisconsin, I think.“
Frank took the glass quickly. “Thanks,“ he said. “I think I need this.“
“That’s half of it,“ Frank said as he took a drink.
“Training your distant relatives is never easy if you know what I mean.“
Frank’s painting business had been successful enough for him to take on two, new workers, Karen’s cousin’s boys. From “big bad, gang and gun-filled Chicago.“ No skills to speak of, but away from Chicago. Doing a favor.
Susan came outside and up the pathway. She wore a New Orleans apron with pictures of French women dancing happily and men drinking sadly—a Toulouse-Lautrec print.
Karen got out of the car, put her phone away in her purse and waved the plastic container.
“Hey there, sis,“ Susan said and hugged her.
“So— off to gay Paris—,“ Karen said and handed Susan the plastic container. “It’s apple pie.“
“In case you forget all about America,“ Frank said and kissed Susan.
Karen turned to Frank. “Can you get that other thing out of the back seat?
“ she asked him.
“Yes, dear,“ Frank answered.
“Don’t ’Yes, dear’ me all night, okay, Frank?“
“You love birds fighting?“ Susan asked.
Karen took Susan’s arm, and they walked back to the house. “No, we are not fighting, are we, Frank?“
“Not if you say so— dear,“ Frank said, took a drink and went toward the back of the car, opened the door and took out a plastic Barnes & Noble bag.
“What’s that?“ Steven asked.
“It’s a surprise,“ Frank said and closed the car door.
“Good guess, Steven,“ he said, and they both turned toward the house.
“But when you open it, please remember, I had nothing to do with it.“
Inside the hallway, Karen stopped by the entrance to the living room. There was a long mirror in the hallway, and she toyed with her hair. “I’m going to have to change hairdresser,“ she said. “The left side is always shorter than the right.“ She turned to face Susan. “Your hair looks great,“ she said. “So— how’s college going? You started what— Monday?“
“It’s good to be teaching,“ Susan said. “Finally.“
The women entered the kitchen, and Karen went immediately over to the stove and lifted the lid of the pot. “And Steven?“
“Steven? Steven’s Steven. You know. He’s— wonderful.“ She took up a lime from the basket they had picked up in Cabo San Lucas a couple of years before, halved it with a paring knife, then pressed it down into the glass juicer.
“Something smell’s wonderful,“ Frank said looking in from the hallway.
“It’s the food, Frank,“ Karen called out. “Just food.“
“You’ve got to hear this,“ Steven said, pulling Frank to the stairs.
“Come on up to the writing bunker.“ Steven poked his head into the kitchen. “And I was the sous chef, Karen,“ he said. “So— if it sucks... Sue me!“
Susan took up a bottle of Cointreau. “I love this bottle,“ she said,
“because it’s square. And not round. Like normal.“ She held it up to the light and turned it. “That’s crazy, isn’t it? To love something for a reason like that.“
“It’s not crazy,“ Karen said and smiled quickly. “But you’ll drive me crazy, if you don’t make my Cosmo soon.“
Upstairs, the men walked along the hallway that was dark because the shade was down at the far end. They passed a room with several unopened paint cans set by the entrance.
Frank knelt down by the paints and picked up two of the cans. “You weren’t taking any chances,“ he said.
“What?“ Steven was a few steps ahead. “Oh, the paint. Yeah. Well— we’ll use it.“ Steven looked around absently. “Of course.
I’ve been meaning to take it downstairs, but—“
“I’d be happy to take it off your hands,“ he offered.
“Take it?“ Steven looked puzzled. “What for?“
“Well, I am a painter,“ he said. “Remember.“
Steven peered into the room, regarded the furniture huddled in the center of the room covered with an old bedspread from a grandmother, the walls bare, scrubbed smooth. “I’ll let you know.“ His feet did not cross the threshold.
Frank stood up quickly. “Okay, he said and placed one of his huge hands on Steven’s shoulder. “So what’s all this about Dostevskis? You owe money to the Russians or what?“
Downstairs, Susan sipped her Cosmopolitan while Karen blew into a spoon, then tasted the sauce. “I don’t know how you get it so, I don’t know. So just right,“ Karen said.
“Extra pepper flakes,“ she said.
Susan peered into the dining area. “Steven told me he’d done the table,“ Susan said. “I’ll do it now.“ She took her drink into the dining room.
“Let me help you,“ Karen said at her side. “I’m happy to help. You know that. Always.“
Susan opened a drawer, took out silverware, and the two women began to set the table.
When the men came downstairs, they entered the living room where the two women sat in recliners with their drinks.
“We’re going to freshen our glasses,“ Steven said. “You girls all right?“
“Where’d you put the whatsit, Frank? “ Karen asked.
Frank pointed to the foot of one of the couches. “There,“ he said, and the men went into the kitchen.
“What whatsit?“ Susan asked and sipped her drink.
“Nothing. It’s a surprise.“
In the living room, there were two beige couches, as well as the recliners, and a coffee table with New Yorker magazines and a Sunday New York Times, all unread. One of the cushions had a red wine stain.
“That was the other night,“ Susan said and reached over to the cushion.
She scratched it with her nails. “I tried salt.“ She tossed the cushion aside. “Everything.“
“Never catch me with anything even resembling white—“ Karen said and took a drink.
“Of course, so—“ Susan finished her glass. “How are the kiddies?“
“Costing me a fortune in vodka,“ Karen said.
“Now, vodka, that’s the best cleaner, best— stain remover ever invented,“ Susan said and both women laughed.
“No, seriously, the kids are fine,“ Karen went on. “Keeping me busy though. How’s college?“ She held up her glass. “I already asked that, didn’t I? You made these very strong.“
“College is great,“ Susan said and stretched her legs. “Who knows— there may be a few e-stars among the great e-darkness of the Internet“
They were silent for a moment, and Karen looked about the room. It was room that she had been in many times before, of course—Thanksgivings, Christmases, anniversaries, and birthdays. She stood up. “You know what this room needs?“ She walked from one side to the other, then went to the window behind the couch.
“Here,“ she said.
“What?“ Susan said. “What ’here’?“
“A plant.“ Karen took another drink. “A great big, green plant.
There’s plenty of light coming from this window—it faces southwest.“
Karen turned the thin, white wand at the side of the blinds, and the slats opened in unison causing thin slabs of white sunshine to appear on the floor.
“See,“ Karen said looking outside.
“All I can see are the dust motes,“ Susan said and took a drink, then realized her glass was empty. “Before we couldn’t see them.“
She stood up quickly. “I’ll make us another,“ she said and reached for Karen’s glass.
Frank and Steven entered the living room with glasses in hand. Steven held his and the Martini shaker. “Well, Frank says he likes my writing, even if you—.“
“Frank hasn’t read a book in years, Steven,“ Karen said.
“I wouldn’t put too much— trust in—“
Frank plopped down on one of the couches. “I have read books, darling.“
“Oh, yeah. What kind?“
“The paper kind, dear,“ Frank said and took a drink.
Steven came over to Karen and sat on the edge of the couch. “He liked it.
That’s what’s important.“
“He liked the one line you wrote?“ Susan said. “I suppose you have to start somewhere.“
“I gave him the outline as well,“ Steven insisted. “Anyway, he thinks it’s great.“
“I’m going to make another drink,“ Susan said. “Come on, Karen. Let’s leave these—“ she looked back and forth between the two men, “literary—“
“Hey, something’s different,“ Steven said.
“And she’s just getting started,“ Susan said, getting up.
“My sister.“ Susan gestured the window with a sweep of her hand.
“She’s opened the blinds.“ She looked at her husband and angled her head. “Hey, opening the blinds. You like that, Steven? That’s what you call ironic, right? Blind opening? Or a pun. Whatever. You’re the PhD.“
“Yeah, I guess“ Steven noticed the pattern of sunlight on the floor. He pointed at it. “Now that’s ironic, babe,“ he said. “You see how it’s like prison bars. Karen, you’re brilliant. You’ve show us we’re living in a prison.“
Susan leaned over and kissed Steven on the head. “Yeah. Okay. Anyhow, she’s buying us a plant.“
“A plant?“ Steven looked at Karen. “What for?“
“For growing, Steven“ Karen said. “For taking care of. For nurturing. You know.“
Frank nudged Steven. “Lucky you don’t live in— the jungle.“
“We do not live in a jungle,“ Karen was adamant.
“Okay, okay.“ He smiled at Steven. “A small jungle.“
“A jungle-ette?“ Steven suggested.
Susan swatted at Steven as the women passed him. “Put some music on, Tarzan.“
Frank got up and went over to Steven’s stereo system while Steven filled up both their glasses with the shaker. “It’s more of a rainforest than a jungle really,“ he said. “You know Karen. Saving the world, etc.“
Frank thumbed through a long row of CDs. He stopped by one and pulled it out from the rest and looked it over. “You must be one of the few people left in the world with a CD collection,“ he said.
From the kitchen came Susan’s voice. “We don’t hear any fabulous pre-dinner music yet.“
“You think Jazz would be okay?“ he asked Steven.
“Sure. Fine,“ Steven said and picked up the New Yorker magazine from the coffee table. He flicked through it. “You know— all they ever publish in this are the same people.“ He tossed the magazine down. “Or some dead Russian or Hungarian whose been translated by some living Russian or Hungarian.“
“You’d rather be a dead Hungarian?“ Frank chose a CD, slid it into the slot and pressed “Play.“
“There’s a lot worse a person could be, I suppose.“
In a few seconds, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue emanated through the surround-sound speakers. The first song on the album was “So What.“
Susan leaned her head around the corner of the living room. “It’s a bit early for that, don’t you think?“ she said, then went back to the kitchen.
“Want me to change it?“ Frank said to Steven who had settled down on the couch, his eyes closed.
“Hell, no,“ he said.
“I didn’t know what to play,“ he said and sat down on one of the couches. “I don’t know much about Jazz.“ He took a drink.
“Actually, nothing at all.“
“Well, Frank, old buddy, you are listening,“ Steven began, “to the all-time greatest Jazz album ever.“ Steven cradled his Martini glass in his lap, and swayed the liquid from side to side. “You should buy it.“ He looked up to Frank. “It was voted by Playboy as the album to have for— Well, you know. Sex, I guess.“
“What’s this one called?“
“’So What,’“ Steven said.
“Because I want to know.“
“Oh, sorry. No, the song is called ’So What.’“ Steven sat forward. “Listen,“ he said. “Dah duh—. Dah duh. You hear that?
“Yeah,“ Frank said and took a drink.
“Sounds like ’So What,’ right?“
Frank closed his eyes so he could hear the music better. “You’re right,“ he said.
Susan and Karen entered the living room with their glasses refreshed. Karen sat opposite Susan who had her feet up, almost touching Frank. Steven had his feet up on the coffee table and between him and Karen sat the Barnes & Noble bag.
“We’ll be eating in about fifteen minutes,“ Susan said.
“Still smells great,“ Frank said. He turned to Karen. “You never make this.“
“The kids think it’s too spicy,“ she replied and looked to the empty corner of the room where the plant she would buy would go.
“You need to use less red pepper flakes,“ Susan said.
“Fewer,“ Steven corrected.
Susan gave him a look, then faced Karen. “Just tell them it’s barbecue sauce. They’ll eat it like candy“
“Well, they certainly love that Bronco Bob stuff,“ Karen said.
“David. I even saw him have it on a banana once.“
They all laughed and then recalled odd things they had all eaten when they were children. By the time the song “Blue in Green“ came through the speakers, Steven had just finished regaling about how he had once loved ice cream and ketchup.
Then the room went suddenly silent as it does when everyone stops speaking at the same time.
Except for Miles Davis who filled the silent air with his singular magic.
Steven downed his drink. “You know, I think I am finally getting old,“ he said suddenly.
“Poor thing,“ Susan said. “Thirty-four. And he’s all washed up.“
“Painting keeps me young,“ Frank said. “Up and down those ladders all day, you know.“
“And night sometimes,“ Karen put in and sipped her drink.
“I don’t know how you do it,“ Susan said. “And in the summers!“
“The summers are the easiest, really,“ Frank said. “Short days.“
“I still feel old,“ Steven said, then turned to Frank. “Why short days? The sun sets at what? Nine?“
“Too hot to paint outside,“ Frank said. “I get to bask inside in the beautiful air-conditioning all day.“
“So why do you get home so late?“ Karen said quickly.
“Because—“ Susan sat up, then crawled seductively across the couch to Frank, wrapped her arm around his shoulder, and swung her legs over his lap. “Because— dear sister, he spends it with me.“
Frank, playing along, turned dramatically to face Susan. He reached out a hand to graze her cheek, but she swished her head away from his touch. “But now it’s out.“
Both Frank and Susan laughed.
Karen took a long drink, then set her glass down on the coffee table, and it leaned on the New Yorker. Steven straightened it, and when he did, she grabbed his arm and pulled him toward her. “How’d you know it isn’t we who are having the affair?“ She turned quickly to Steven. “Is it ’we,’ or is it ’us’?“ she asked seriously.
“Now that’s a great question,“ Susan said. “Hey, first-time-affair-having husband of mine, are we a ’we’ or an ’us’?“
Frank finished his drink. “I don’t see the difference. I just paint houses.“
Steven thought for a second. “It depends who’s the subject. Or object, I guess.“
“I’d like to just paint houses,“ Susan said sadly.
“There’s a sense of accomplishment. Like that monstrosity next door.“ She got up and went to the window, trampling through Karen’s soon-to-be present plant, and looked out. “I mean—.“ She turned back into the room. “Teaching— there’s no result. No— change. They all walk in, or e-walk in this summer— And then they all walk out.“ She clapped her hands and jumped back on the couch with Frank. “Hey, Frank— let’s have affairs and paint houses.“
“You can’t each have affairs with each other,“ Steven said.
“That makes no sense.“
“Maybe marriage makes no sense—“ Susan began.
“But children—“ Karen started then stopped.
Steven took Karen’s hand in both of his. “Would you have an affair with me?“
“No, I mean— would you have an affair?“ he repeated. “Not really. But would you?“
Susan stood up. “He’s all upset,“ she said. “Because, before you guys got here, I said he was just good-looking.“ She faced Frank.
“And not handsome. Like Frank.“
“A handsome guy who has affairs and paints houses,“ Frank mused and put his hands behind his head and leaned back. “I can live with that.“
Karen patted Steven’s hand. “Yes. Yes, Steven, I would love to have an affair with you.“
Susan examined her empty glass as if it had insulted her. “We are having wine for dinner, right?“ Susan said to Steven. “I don’t want another Cosmo.“
Steven got up and winked at Karen. “No, dear,“ he said and went into the dining room.
“Need any help?“ Frank asked.
“No, you sit there,“ Steven said as he walked past Susan whose hand shot out like an arrow with her empty glass that he took from her.
Susan looked over at Frank, then noticed the Barnes & Noble beside Karen.
“So— what’s with the bag?“
“It’s just a—“ Frank started to say.
Karen narrowed her eyes on her husband. “It’s a little surprise,“ she said and took up the bag. “For your trip,“ she added. “I thought it was quite one-of-a kind, actually.“
Steven reappeared with three bottles of wine. “This going to be enough?
“ he asked Susan.
“I’ve got an early morning,“ Frank said.
“I’ll get another bottle then,“ Steven joked.
“You’ll just have to go in late, Frank,“ Karen said.
“You’re right“ he said. “I’m the boss.“
Karen reached into Frank’s pocket and took out his iPhone and handed it to him.
“Call the men. Tell them to start at ten,“ she said, then chinked glasses with Susan. “I want to have a good time tonight. My baby sister is going away from me— And— I also have to somehow fit in an affair with Steven—“
“— so he can feel handsome,“ Susan finished, regarding her husband like he was something she was considering barbecuing. She turned back to Karen.
“It’s only eight days,“ she said.
Karen finished her drink. “I don’t put a time limit on love,“ she said.
“Why not?“ Susan said suddenly and looked at Steven who was taking wine glasses out of the large sideboard. “You see that man over there.“
Karen and Frank looked at Steven. “Yes,“ they said.
Susan raised her glass like a gun and pointed it at Steven. “You think there’s a limit on him?“
“Shall we use these glasses?“ Steven asked, holding up a crystal glass.
“They’re a bit dusty, but I can—.“
“Sure, you can choose those as your weapons,“ Susan said, shaped her hand like a gun and pointed it at him.
“You’ve got no bullets,“ Steven said and aimed one of the glasses at her.
“You’re empty,“ Susan said.
“So are you.“
“But I was full—.“ Susan nudged Frank with her foot. “Hey, you want to fill me up, Frank?“
There was a slight pause between songs, then ’Freddie Freeloader’ started with its sharp trumpet sound.
“Hey, I know this,“ Frank said, turning to Steven. “This is from the weather channel music.“
Karen said quickly and put her glass down. “Oh, and I almost forgot, and— speaking of weather. Well— of skies really—“
Steven took four crystal glasses into the dining area. “Forgot what?“
“I’ve joined a club.“
“Oh, God,“ Frank exclaimed.
“You can call me Karen, Frank,“ Karen said. “We’re not at home now.“
“Touch—,“ Susan said and waved her arm in a flourish.
“I’ve joined the Pluto Club,“ Karen said excitedly.
“The what?“ Susan asked.
“Oh, God,“ Frank repeated, drawing Karen’s stare.
“The Pluto Club,“ Karen said loudly. “You know. The planet—
“It’s not a planet,“ Steven said and took Susan’s glass. “I read somewhere. It got de-planet-ed, whatever that means.“
“With that I take issue,“ Karen said directly to Steven.
“Oh, no,“ Frank sighed.
“So— what do you do in the Pluto Club?“ Susan asked. “Maybe I could join?“
She turned back to Steven. “Open the wine.“ She said then faced Karen. “Now, I’ve always thought it was planet. Or should always be a planet.“
“That’s news to me,“ Steven said and poured a glass of wine and handed it to Susan.
“Well, we,“ Karen went on. “That is, we, the club,“ she smiled at Steven. “Us. I mean, we’re mostly women—“
“Are there any men in this club, dear?“ Frank asked. “Please tell them—“
“Not yet,“ she said. “But we have had some interest.“
“I’d join,“ Steven said and exited. “Come help me open a couple of these,“ Steven said to Frank.
“Pour me a glass, too, will you, Steven,“ Karen said and swung her legs off the couch.
“Something’s boiling in here,“ Steven called out.
“Well, turn it off— dear,“ Susan shouted. “Turn it off,“ she added, “you’re good at that.“
At seven-thirty, they were seated at the table, Susan had lit four candles, two at each end, and Steven was moving around the table pouring wine.
“Well, older sister,“ Susan said, “you certainly do have seem to have a lot of time on your hands.“
“Hey, Steven,“ Frank said. “What say you and I go out and get one of these Kuiper belts? My pants are falling down“
“That’s not funny, Frank,“ Karen said. “That’s ignorant.“
“Why?“ Susan asked. “What’s a Kuiper belt again?“
“Remember, Pluto is part of the Kuiper belt of—“ Karen faced Steven.
“Lots of mini-planets.“
“So— do you ever really talk about Pluto at all?“ Frank asked.
“Oh, yes,“ Karen said. “In fact, this July 14 is a very special day.“
“That’s Bastille Day,“ Steven said and put the wine in front of his place setting. “French revolution and all that.“
“He’s so clever,“ Susan said and turned her attention back to Karen.
“I’m just getting in the mood, darling,“ Steven rubbed his hands together. “It’s all French starting tomorrow.“
“Anyhow,“ Karen went on. “The New Horizons spacecraft will pass right by Pluto. It’s the closest any, well, any human thing has been to Pluto.“
“Maybe there’ll be a dog there,“ Steven said.
“Or a mouse,“ Frank said and he and Steven both laughed.
“You men are both impossible,“ Susan said and tapped her fork on the side of her plate. “Now, eat your salad. It’s getting cold.“
Everyone laughed, and Steven bent over and kissed Susan on the cheek. She allowed him, then finished off her glass of wine and reached for the bottle.
“That’s all, for now, young man,“ she said and filled her glass.
“Wait until she borrows Karen’s Kuiper belt and—,“ Frank said.
“At least I get out and about,“ Karen said and dug into her salad.
“I join things. What do you do? Why do you have to make a joke about everything?“
“No more fighting now, children, please.“ Susan said.
“We’ve all agreed to have affairs with each other. So— we can relax and talk about the important things in life like—“
At that moment, Karen’s phone rang loudly, and the text-message ring tone blasted out “Stayin’ Alive“ by the Bee Gees.
She checked the caller, then typed a reply.
Steven took up the bottle of wine and filled Frank’s glass, then gestured the bottle to Karen but realized it was empty. He leaned back and took another bottle from the sideboard
“Sorry about that,“ Karen said putting her phone on vibrate.
“They were trying to trick the babysitter into thinking ’M’ meant
’Moderate,’ or something.“
Susan’s chair screeched as she pushed it back to stand. “Sorry,“ she said and cleared the salad plates. Karen got up and cleared her and Frank’s plate, then followed Susan into the kitchen.
“Need any help?“ Frank asked.
“No,“ the two women called out.
Steven used the tip of the corkscrew to tear away the foil, but after he had inserted it into the neck of the bottle and begin to pull, the cork broke in half. “Damn it,“ he said and tried to twist the corkscrew into the remainder of the cork in the neck.
“It’s good wine,“ Frank said and looked about the room.
“Under twenty bucks,“ Steven replied, then called out to the kitchen.
“Can you bring in an ice pick.“
Susan appeared carrying two steaming plates. “Are you wanting to kill my lover, Frank, in a jealous rage?“
“No,“ Steven said and held up the new bottle, and the corkscrew with half the cork on its end. “I want to open the wine—“ He winked at Frank. “And then kill my wife in a jealous rage.“
Karen entered the room with two more plates and an ice pick under her arm.
“Here we go,“ she said.
Steven took the ice pick and, after a moment, removed the half-cork and re-filled everyone’s glasses. They set to eating as if they had not eaten for a week, and Miles Davis played on in the living room.
A little before nine, they all sat back, fully stuffed. Aside from compliments about the food and small talk about the weather, they had eaten quietly.
“Thank you, Sis,“ Karen said and touched Susan’s hand.
“That was truly wonderful.“
Susan took her plate and started to rise.
“You sit right down there, little lady“ Frank said, rose, then sat down. “Let Steven get them.“
Everyone laughed, then Steven got up and cleared the plates and took them into the kitchen.
“You’re not going to put them in the dishwasher now, are you?“
Susan said and reached for the wine bottle. “To quote the great Edward Albee—
’We’ve got guests...’“
Susan topped up Karen’s glass and waved the bottle to Frank who reached across and took it from her.
“Now, we’ve got your Apple pie,“ Susan said, “but I think we should wait a while. I’ve got ice cream to go with it.“
“Let’s go into the living room,“ Steven suggested, and he took up the wine bottle and followed them in
Susan sat next to Steven and opposite Frank on one couch. Karen stood with the Barnes & Noble bag clutched to her chest.
“Right, I think now it’s time for your little surprise,“ she said and handed the bag to Susan.
“Remember what I said,“ Frank said to Steven.
“Nothing,“ Steven said. “Absolutely nothing.“
Susan reached into the bag and took out a worn, paperback with a glossy cover displaying a photograph of the Eiffel Tower before a blue sky dotted with puffy clouds.
“It’s a guidebook,“ Susan said.
“But not just any book,“ Karen said and sat beside her, tucking her feet up by the couch.
Susan looked at the book. “A book on—“ She squinted. “On ’Pairis’?“ Susan passed the book to Steven.
“Here,“ she tossed it to Steven. “You read it.“
“Isn’t it hilarious?“ Karen said and slapped her knee. Pairis. Not
Paris.“ She looked about the room.
Frank sipped his wine. “It’s not hilarious. It’s a typo.“
“But on the cover?“
Susan regarded her empty glass, got up quickly and headed for the sideboard. On the way, she banged her shin on the coffee table.
“Ow!“ she said and grabbed her shin. “Fucking thing.“
Steven looked up from the book. Karen turned to Susan, then to Frank.
Susan put her hand to her mouth. “Oops. Sorry, everyone,“ she said.
“I said a bad word.“
“Steady there,“ Frank said slowly.
“I’ve marked some pages already,“ Karen to her sister.
“All the places you really should get to. I mean, to see it all. The full— experience.“
Susan brought over the last bottle of red wine and dropped it in Steven’s lap. “Open this,“ she said. “And don’t break another fucking cork.“
Both Karen and Frank looked at Susan this time.
“Double oops,“ Susan said and sat down right next to Frank. “Hi there, handsome,“ she said and nestled into his side, under his arm that rested across the back of the couch.
“It’s the book we got,“ Frank explained. “When we were going to Paris.“
“And then I got pregnant,“ Karen said.
“I remember,“ Susan said. “You got pregnant. I remember that day. It was raining. June 20. It never rains in June,“ she went on. “But there you go. It never rains in June. And it did. And you called to tell me you were pregnant.“
“And, well—,“ Karen shrugged her shoulders lightly, “we never got to go.“
Frank sat forward, closer to Karen. “We thought it would be a nice present,“ he said. “Save you some time—“
Steven thumbed through the book. “Yeah,“ he said. There were several dog-eared sections, and the book was well worn. “Hey,“ he said.
“Phantom of the Opera.“
“I always wanted to go there. Of all the places,“ Karen said and toyed with her wine glass. “I mean, we saw the show. But it’s not the same. Is it, Frank?“
“We’ll go another time,“ Frank said. “As soon as—“
“Oh, yeah,“ Karen finished her drink quickly. “When’s that going to be? After the third college tuition is paid?“
“Hey, hey, babe,“ Frank said. “We’ll get there.“
“You never want to believe we can go anywhere,“ she said.
Steven put the unopened bottle down and stood up. “I don’t feel like wine,“ he said. “How about some brandy?“ He faced Susan. “French brandy.“
Susan pulled at Frank’s ear and whispered. “No corks to break with the brandy, you see.“
“What about dessert?“ Karen said and got up. “I think some nice apple pie and ice cream would do us all some good.“
“I’ll help you,“ said Karen as she helped Susan from the couch.
Steven went to the sideboard, put the red wine bottle down and took up the brandy bottle.
“You want some?“ Steven asked.
“Sure,“ Frank said, “what the hell.“
Frank took up the “Pairis“ book and thumbed through the pages.
Something caught his eye, and he opened the page more fully.
“Hemingway’s in here, of course,“ he said. “He’s one of your heroes, right?“ said Frank as he handed him back the book and took the brandy Steven offered.
Steven looked at the open page. “This section is from A Moveable Feast,“ he said.
“What’s that?“ Frank said and swilled the brandy around in the snifter like he knew what he was doing. Some of the brandy spilled onto his shirt.
“Shit,“ he said as he wiped it, making the stain worse.
“It’s a book Hemingway wrote about his time in Paris,“ Steven said.
“Okay. What’s with the title?“ Frank laughed.
“Hemingway in the catering business?“
“He said that Paris was a moveable feast.“
“I thought people went there for the feasting,“ Frank said, then added,
“Any chance of it moving to Arizona? That’d make Karen happy.“
The women walked in the room, each carrying two plates of apple pie and ice cream with spoons. “But there wasn’t really was a phantom, Karen,“ Susan said.
“I don’t know. The author must have got the story from somewhere.“ Karen nudged her sister. “Besides, it’s nice to believe in something— I don’t know— something fantastic.“ She laughed. “Something phantom-sic.“
“Okay. Whatever,“ Susan said and put a dessert before Steven.
Karen handed Frank his plate. “Mind you,“ she said. “With all these new painting jobs Frank’s getting, it’s like I’m living with a phantom.“
Susan held her fork above her dessert as if she were about to stab it. “A final taste of America,“ she said. “Before we get all— Europeanized—“ She stabbed into the pie and regarded Steven, “— and eat frogs and worms.“
“Snails,“ Steven corrected her.
Susan saw the two brandy snifters on the coffee table. “Hey, where’s our brandy?“ Susan asked.
“Yes, I’ll have one, too“ Karen said.
Steven put down his plate, got up and went over to the sideboard, got two glasses and poured the brandy.
The music had stopped some time before, so Steven went over to the stereo and put the Miles Davis CD back on.
“Now, this is the right time,“ he said and settled down in his seat, and for a few seconds, the only was the spoons scraping the plates and Miles Davis playing
“Put something else on,“ Susan said sharply.
Karen sat forward, took a long drink from her brandy and crossed her hands in her lap.
“So,“ she said. “Seeing as nobody else wants to bring it up.
And—“ she paused for effect. “As you two lovebirds will be heading for the most romantic city in the world.“ She hiccupped. “Excuse me. Well, are you going to try to have another baby?“
“Another?“ Susan put her plate down hard on the coffee table and finished her brandy.
“I’m sorry,“ Karen said. “I may be a little drunk. But I want to know.“
Steven came over and sat by Susan, between her and Karen, and he took Susan’s hand.
“We haven’t made any decisions yet,“ Steven said.
Susan wrenched her hand away and stood up.
“We,“ she screamed. “Is it ’we’ or
’us,’ Steven? I can’t fucking remember. Can you?“
“Susan,“ Frank said.
Susan rose unsteadily, went over and turned off the CD Player, swatting Steven’s outstretched hand on the way, then took up the brandy bottle and stood by the window.
It was dark outside by now, but the empty neighbor’s house was partially illuminated by the huge floodlights from the Riverfront Park and its baseball and softball fields that bordered the community.
“Now the music is off,“ Susan said quietly. “You can hear the park.“ She turned to face the three of them. “The children in the park.“ She poured herself some more brandy. “I hear them screaming sometimes. And I wonder— is it because they’re happy? Or because they’re in pain, hurting, sad?“ She brought the snifter to her lips, but she did not drink. “It’s funny because I can’t tell. And maybe they can’t, but it doesn’t matter. You know what I mean?“
Karen approached her sister slowly.
“Don’t come near me,“ she said. “I don’t want to— infect you with my— lack of — ability.“ She took a drink now. “I know you want another one. Christ, after three boys. You’ve just got to have a girl.“ She swung her glass around where the plant would be placed, cutting off its invisible head, slopping brandy to the floor. “You’ve cut the odds down quite considerably.“
Susan crossed her arms, spilling more brandy and began to cry. “I’m sorry,“ she said as Karen reached out to her. “I’m so sorry. I was doing so great.“ She bowed her head. “I’m sorry. It’s just I try to stay— engaged.“ She looked to Steven who had his head down.
Frank moved slowly toward Susan. “Hey,“ he said gently, then stopped and opened his arms to hug her.
“I try,“ Susan wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “Like tonight,
Steven,“ she said. “I tried to think about dinner. About going away. About Paris. This trip. Even about Pluto. But it’s just so hard.“ She regarded her sister through wet eyes. “Even to think about Pluto. As far away as you can get. Even fucking Pluto, Sis.“
“Oh, Susan, Susan,“ Karen said and reached into her purse for a tissue.
Susan stepped into Frank’s embrace, wrapping her arms around Frank’s neck until both hands held the brandy snifter.
“Everything’s going to be all right,“ Frank whispered.
Steven came up behind Frank and gingerly placed his hand on the Susan’s brandy snifter, but she would not let go. He tugged on it, and suddenly the glass flew out of her hand and against the stereo system and shattered, dripping brandy over the CD player.
The CD started to play, and Miles Davis’s “So What“ filled the room, again.
Susan turned back to the window.
Frank backed up to Karen and reached back for her hand. “Look,“ he said, “I think it’s time we went home, guys.“
Karen regarded her watch. “Yes, is late,“ she said and stood up.
“We said we’d be back by ten. Didn’t we, Frank? Ten?“
Susan turned her back on the window and wiped her eyes. “I’m so sorry,“ she said and moved toward Karen who stepped back for a second.
“Susan’s just allergic to Apple Pie,“ Steven said trying to make a joke.
Susan narrowed her eyes on Steven. “Everything’s not always a joke,“ she said.
“Maybe some things should be,“ he replied and looked at the broken glass on the carpet.
Susan and Steven waved from the front door as Frank slowly moved the car forward, then made a three-point turn to leave the community. Frank’s headlights raked the front of the empty neighbor’s house who was in Wisconsin maybe? Maybe with friends. But not with friends who were in such pain.
Karen waved from the open window. “I knew it was too good to be true,“ she said to Frank. “I just knew it.“ She buzzed up her window.
“Maybe Paris will be good for them?“ Frank said.