Issue No. 3, Winter 2012

Reflection on a Line by James Wright
Ellen Roberts Young

I would break
into blossom if you planted me
between stickleaf and wire lettuce,
my blooms soft, small like theirs.

Among Mexican primrose and poppies
I might manage buds, a quiet cream
near vivid pink and gold.

But not in the rose bed!
Beside their debutante grace
I could only break
the mood.


Ellen Roberts Young, a California native who spent almost 40 years in Pennsylvania, is now part of the writing community in Las Cruces, NM. Her chapbooks Accidents (2004) and The Map of Longing (2009) are published by Finishing Line Press. Recent journal publications include Common Ground, Slant, and online journals Melusine and qarrtsiluni. She blogs at www.freethoughtandmetaphor.com.

Issue No. 3, Winter 2012


Rocks in Snow
Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz

St Moritz
Jay Rubin
—March, 1980

Mountains rise beyond the glass
green gives way to gray
I try to catch a rolling nap
a panorama passing by

A frozen lake, a wedding cake
an icy crust on cobbled streets
icicles on stone-cold eaves
each falling star, a waxy flake

No tale to tell, no epic rhyme
just a slice of rye tonight
this shallow bowl of brine

Just a hush, a quiet hum
another log gone red—
and now, to sleep, O feather bed


Jay Rubin teaches writing at The College of Alameda in the San Francisco Bay Area and publishes Alehouse, an all-poetry literary journal, at www.alehousepress.com. He holds an MFA in Poetry from New England College and lives in San Francisco with his son and Norwich terrier.

Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz is a writer and aspiring photographer. Her work has appeared in various journals, online and print, as well as several anthologies. She blogs about the creative life at http://wwwonewriter.blogspot.com.

Issue No. 3, Winter 2012

Four Sirens
Martin Willitts, Jr.
Based on the Picasso painting, The Harem (1906), from his Rose Period

Picasso painted four erotic sirens, which came to life.
They were tinctures of roses. He could not decide
which nymph was formerly a river of laughter,
which wore the ringlet of lush cardinals of hair,
who was the one unwrapping outbreaths
of feverous lust, and who was the deer-footed one
startled into dawn-shivers. Why decide at all, he proposed,
why not just pile them all on top like layers
of arms, torso, cheekbone, gossip, larkspur whispers,
breasts of envy and judgment. Why choose,
when all is here?
Free-thinking and amorous are traits,
not tactual decisions. Free love should not have a price,
he demanded, and the women blurred into every
and all women. His fingers were paintbrushes on lemon nipples.
The women were lake-songs and dances of grass.


Martin Willitts, Jr. retired as a Senior Librarian and is living in Syracuse, New York. He is currently a volunteer literacy tutor. He is a visual artist of Victorian and Chinese paper cutouts. He was nominated for 5 Pushcart and 3 Best Of The Net awards. He has 13 poetry chapbooks and his 3 full length poetry collections are “The Secret Language of the Universe” (March Street Press, 2006), and “The Hummingbird” (March Street Press, 2009), and “The Heart Knows, Simply, What It Needs: Poems based on Emily Dickinson, her life and poetry” (Aldrich Press, 2012).

Issue No. 3, Winter 2012

Underneath the Eaves
Ryan Bollenbach

Tangled in telephone wires, even the gray
beards of moss seem bored. The tinsel
gears grind to a halt—

That electric murmur,
is that the generator? Or the howl
of this town folding

inward? Someone is filling
their car with carbon monoxide.
Percocets gush from the cracks
of front doors.

Not even the gardenias can sober
this sodden block. Not even the wisteria
can squeeze out the loneliness hiding

underneath the eaves.
In my backyard there is one light,
glowing, just enough to see bones
nearly swallowed by the soil.


Ryan Bollenbach lives, writes, and noodles on his guitar in Tampa, Florida. He is a fan of poetical mysticism and cinematic minimalism. His poetry can be read at Prick of the Spindle, and is forthcoming in Brevity Poetry Review. His editorial work can be read at www.sweetlit.com.

Issue No. 3, Winter 2012

Allerleirauh in the Woods
Sandi Leibowitz

When I fled I didn’t choose
the gown golden as the sun,
the gown silver as the moon,
or the gown shining as the innocence of stars.

I wore instead the cloak of fur
stitched with a thousand animals’ pain.
I became all beasts and none,
my silence singing with a thousand tongues.

Run! calls Deer.
Leap stone and bramble!
Escape the thicket
of your memories.

Hide, says Rabbit.
Hunch.
Lose yourself, gray as bark,
low as grass.

Sing! howls Wolf,
a litany of your injuries.
Fling your song to
the bones of the Moon.

Girl, whispers Fox,
where’s your skin?
Steal shadow.
Gnaw on solitude.

Forget, growls Bear.
Make winter of your grief,
dream it gone;
stumble out in spring.

My father’s kingly hide concealed
darkness deeper than night;
the forest is guiltless of sin.
Here we will survive,
creature of a thousand-and-one cracked hearts,
creeping at the margins of the world.


Sandi Leibowitz lives in New York City and teaches in New Jersey, hence she spends a great deal of time suspended in the air on bridges over water in a contraption with a combustible engine. She is therefore very much a creature of all four elements, and afraid of trolls. She writes fantasy, mostly based on myth and fairy tales. Her poems have appeared and are forthcoming in magazines such as Mythic Delirium, Apex, Strange Horizons, Niteblade and Silver Blade. Her stories may be hunted down (and hopefully not killed but served a tasty brunch) in Jabberwocky, Mirror Dance, Shelter of Daylight, Cricket and Shining Cities: An Anthology of Pagan Science Fiction.

Issue No. 3, Winter 2012

Snickering Girls and Other Atrocities
Donelle Dreese

There are things about school that I could live without, such as the violin section in orchestra class, cigarette ash on the toilet seats, cold tater tots, and Mrs. Wentz’s legs. Her feet are deformed from twenty years of wearing high-heeled shoes, so her calf muscles are not much longer than a pencil. I feel bad for her since it must be hard to live your life chained to a pair of three-inch pumps.

There are also these girls in English class who snicker and whisper to themselves whenever I raise my hand to speak in class. Or, they lower their heads while I talk as if they are embarrassed to be in the same room with me. They want others to see them behave this way. I know this because I sit in the back of the room and I watch them. They think I’m stupid, and they want others to think I’m stupid. The problem is, the others don’t think I am stupid, so the snickering girls are alone and stuck with themselves.

“They are jealous of you,” mom says. “If there are people who are jealous of you, then you must be doing something right in the world,” she added. “Those who are jealous and mean have to figure out their own way. You can’t change them.”

Once in a while, when these girls are separate and alone and they think no one is watching, I’ve seen them look down at their bodies as they are walking down the hallway as if to calculate how they measure up. When the hallway at school is full of people, they hold their heads up high and talk and laugh the loudest. When they think the hallway is empty, they look down at themselves in shame.

That’s not all. They don’t want anyone to know they smoke cigarettes, but after lunch, their clothes smell like a fireplace, and they think the teachers don’t know, even though everybody knows, but they don’t seem to know that everybody knows, and that makes them feel powerful.

I didn’t believe mom when she said I couldn’t change them, so I tried to talk to them one day to show them I’m not this terrible person they made me out to be, but they laughed at me and asked me stupid questions about my hair. They made each other feel powerful, so I tried to talk to each one separately, but they couldn’t look me in the face. “They’re not worth it,” my boyfriend said, and he kissed my face until I couldn’t remember their names.

I didn’t tell mom this, but there are times when school makes me want to run away forever, but I have no place to go, so I order my tater tots with a slice of greasy pizza and pray for a quiet table in the lunchroom. They say you can’t run away from your problems, but sometimes I think you truly can. If Mrs. Wentz, with her high-strung calf muscles, could kick off her pumps and wear a pair of Nikes, I bet she’d run.


Donelle Dreese teaches literature, creative writing, and composition at Northern Kentucky University. Her fiction has appeared in the Journal of Microliterature, Sunsets and Silencers, Postcard Shorts, and Gadfly Online. Other publications include two chapbooks of poetry and a book of travel writing, America’s Natural Places: East and Northeast, published by Greenwood Press in 2010.

Issue No. 3, Winter 2012

Leaving Home
Amee Schmidt

“You’re my best friend,” Quenten says.

“I know,” Roger says, looking up across the hitch that the two men are hunched over. The nearly-full moon lights Quenten’s face, and for the first time in twenty-five years, Roger notices that his friend has gray hair. Not gray really, but a sort of dirty white, especially the sideburns. As they finish wrapping the chain, Roger grips it tightly, rubs the rust, and says, “I have to go.”

Quenten walks around the back of the semi-trailer, stopping to nudge some of the tires with his boot. As Quenten makes his way toward Roger, Roger feels queasy, but he smiles and reaches out his hand.

“Handshakes are horseshit,” Quenten says, and hugs Roger. Without saying another word, and without looking back, Roger climbs into the cab and shuts the door. He turns the key, careful not to start the engine, holds the clutch, puts the truck in neutral, and lets off the brake. The tires squeak a bit forward as the trailer, heavy with the bulk of the Tilt-a-Whirl, propels the truck down the gradual slope toward the road. Through the side mirror, Roger notices Quenten running up to the cab. He rolls down the window and taps the brakes, and Quenten jumps up onto the step.

“I changed my mind,” Quenten says. “You’re not my best friend. You’re my brother.” He quickly jumps down, and Roger watches as his brother runs off toward the park.

When the truck finally rolls out to the road, Roger pulls the wheel hard to the right, pops the clutch and fires the engine. He’s not sure if anyone can still hear, so he guns it, kicking dust and gravel behind him. It’s about an hour’s drive to Crandal’s place, and Roger can’t see anyone in his rearview, so he relaxes a bit. As a matter of fact, there isn’t anyone on the road at all. Just miles and miles of dark corn-field jungles. Every once in a while, in the bright moonlight, he sees straw hats perked up over the beans, or a rusted pickup—some of the migrants trying to get ahead of the summer heat. He just continues on, keeping to the back roads, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible: a lone semi, hauling a Tilt-a-Whirl through farm country.

Having been up all night loading—it took nearly twice as long with only two men, and was twice as hard to keep quiet in the still night—Roger is feeling drowsy. The soft orange of the sun is starting to glow at the horizon. His hand fumbles behind his seat for his thermos, struggles to untwist the pressure-sealed lid. He stuffs his gas-station plastic coffee mug between his thighs and pours the strong, bitter, campfire coffee he’s learned to love. Black, not dark brown, but black, sludgy, thick, gritty.

A few tears well in his eyes as it hits him: he’ll never see Quenten again. Last night, after hiding from Joe in Quenten’s trailer, Roger snuck out. He ran fast and low behind the trailers on the edge of the park to Jenny’s trailer. Even though the two of them have been separated for a few years now, he still trusts her. They broke up because she thinks that a cat-woman and a regular guy can’t really make it work. He’s convinced that he’ll change her mind. After all, they’ve been together, in one form or another, for more than thirty years. He barges in without knocking and tells her everything that happened nine years ago.

*

The summer of ’81 had been wicked. Even in Iowa there were heat advisories. Most of the trailers didn’t have air conditioning, so the guys spent a lot of their time in swimming holes. That day, Quenten told Roger that the other guys were going to check out the new bird-girl who Joe got from Santa Cruz the previous week and asked Roger if he wanted to go.

Roger was unsure why Joe got a new girl, since Lola’s act was set to fill that bill. Roger had a special attachment to the kids he helped Joe recruit, and Lola had been one of Roger’s firsts. Her show turned out to be a top-seller, right after Jenny’s of course. Lola took to the persona of ape-girl immediately. Joe didn’t have to train her much, mostly they had worked on ape sounds, and Joe seemed so pleased with her. He even had a special night every week where he’d have her over for a private dinner.

Curious and concerned, Roger asked, “What happened to Lola?”

“Don’t know, dude,” Quenten said.

He felt his ears get hot and it felt like his heart was beating in his fingers. He knew that Lola had been fighting with Joe. Roger had overheard her talking to the bearded lady a few days ago, she seemed a little scared, but he had thought it was usual Joe stuff. Lola was crying and talking about the bruises on her legs and arms. Joe often left some bruises on most of the girls, but he always made it up to them. Roger was sure that Joe never really meant to hurt any of them except when he couldn’t break one, and even then, he’d just take her back to where he found her. But Lola had been with them for nearly fourteen years, and Roger didn’t understand how she could just disappear. Roger stood there a moment, the possibilities running in his head: Maybe she ran away. Maybe she found a new family. Maybe Joe really hurt her. Did he kill her? No. That wasn’t possible. Joe had pummeled many a drunk ride-jock, nearly killed a few, but…Not a girl. Not Lola.

He took off running, and Quenten ran after him, and grabbed his arm.

“Don’t do it, Roger,” Quenten warned, “He’ll beat you bloody.”

“I have to.”

Across the grounds, Roger stopped at Joe’s door. His legs were shaking, and he couldn’t catch his breath. He rustled up the nerve to knock, Joe said to come in, so Roger pulled the handle and stepped inside the door.

“Yeah?” Joe said, without looking up from the Playboy he was reading.

“What did you do to Lola?”

“I couldn’t give her what she wanted, so she had to go.”

“What did she want?”

“To be left alone. ‘To not be touched,’ she said,” Joe mimicked the whine of a child. “But the thing is, Roger, no one in my carnival is alone. We live, together. Always. There’s only two ways to leave this carnival: with my assistance or over my dead body.” Roger thought he would vomit right then, but nodded to indicate his understanding, and asked Joe if he could have the night off.

“Of course you can! You’re my best guy, Roger,” Joe said with his biggest smile. Roger nodded again, walked back out the door, around the back of Joe’s trailer, and puked. He knew then that he’d never be able to leave the carnival.

*

As he makes the final turn onto 14 Mile, he can see Crandal’s windows and can hear the dogs. He’s a bit anxious and a bit unsure of how Crandal’s going to react, but Roger doesn’t have a choice; this is his only chance. Jenny knew about Joe all along. Lola wasn’t the first and she wasn’t the only one. Jenny knew, and she didn’t care. She didn’t care.

He slows to a crawl and is relieved to see that Crandal is outside feeding the dogs. It’s barely dawn, and it looks like Crandal has done a day’s work. The old man’s overalls are covered with muddy paw prints, and there’s a wet oval from thigh to calf. Crandal looks up, places his hand over his brow as if the sun were in his eyes, and squints. Roger waves out his window, hoping Crandal recognizes his face.

“Bear muzzle! Is that you?” Crandal hollers as he walks out the gated fence.

Roger nods and smiles. The knot in his stomach breaks, dissolves like fresh cotton candy. He pulls the truck in, puts it in park and hops out of the cab. He walks up to Crandal and shakes his hand. Crandal asks if he came to return the muzzle, and Roger says yes and then asks if he can park the truck and trailer in the polebarn.

“I suppose. Mind telling me why?”

Roger shifts his feet back and forth in the gravel and wonders how to explain. He decides that the less Crandal knows, the better. Joe can’t come after him if he doesn’t know anything.
“Truth: I’m in trouble, Greg. I need to hide for a while, and I was hoping that you’d, that I could stay here, in the barn, for a while.”

“You look hungry. Lemme go move Daphne out the way, then it’s all yours,” Crandal says. “You can tell me the story over breakfast.”

Roger gets back into the truck and pulls into the pole barn. Daphne growls and barks, probably more pissed off that she has to share her space than anything else, Roger thinks. He releases the brakes, shuts down the truck, and gathers his things into his sack: billfold, bathroom kit, the green notebook, copies of Joe’s schedules and maps. He picks up the picture of Jenny on the torn leather seat and puts it back, face down. Crandal hollers for Roger to hurry up because breakfast is on, so Roger locks the doors and heads out of the barn, stopping to say hi to Daphne. He scratches her black, shiny head, and she wags her stub tail. The two men pull the doors shut and head back to the house.

“You hungry?” Crandal asks.

“Yep.” Through the back door is a big kitchen: cedar cupboards and a butcher’s block, dark red granite counters with a bar, recessed lighting, stone floors. Roger asks if he should take his boots off, but Crandal says it’s fine. Roger stamps his feet at the back door anyway, and moves slowly into the brightly lit room.

“Bathroom’s around the corner. Go wash up,” Crandal says. Roger nods and does as he’s told. He passes the breakfast bar and walks through the living room, which in comparison to the kitchen, seems grossly out of place. The olive-green shag rug, tar-stained wood paneling, and 13-inch turn-knob television come from a completely different time. Roger finds that the rest of the house is much more like the living room than the kitchen, and he thinks it odd that a single man puts so much effort into a space traditionally reserved for women. The bathroom is very masculine: there’s both a toilet and a urinal, only a stand-up shower, and cracked plastic yellow panels over fluorescent lights. The mirror is spotty, so Roger wipes it off with the hand towel. “You’re gonna make it,” he says to his reflection, older and harder-looking than he remembers. He doesn’t remember having as much forehead as he does now, either, but the hair he has is still full and fire-red, no gray yet. He already feels comfortable here. Crandal seems like a stand-up guy. This house is far enough from the carnival grounds, so the locals probably don’t know Joe, and the polebarn will hide the Tilt so people don’t start talking. A few days, and Joe will have moved on. He just needs to stay here a few days to make a clean escape.

Roger does his business, washes his face and hands, thankful to feel damp and cool, brushes his teeth, and heads back out for breakfast. As he walks down the hallway, he can smell bacon.

“Ah, there you are. Thought you got lost,” Crandal says. “Grab a stool, breakfast’ll be up in a jiffy.”

Roger sits down. “What are you making? It smells great.”

“My spe-ci-ality: Southwestern Egg Bake.” Crandal pulls a pie pan out from the oven that looks to have scrambled eggs with green and red peppers in it and sets it on a cooling rack on the counter. He slices the pie in fourths and places one slice on each plate, then sets the plates on the bar. He sits next to Roger and tells him to dig in.

Roger forks the large tip of pie-slice and blows on it softly before stuffing it in his mouth. The flaky, buttery pie crust melts into the spicy, salty, crunchy filling. He closes his eyes and chews slowly. He thinks, maybe, this is the best breakfast he’s ever had.

“So?” Crandal asks. “Whatcha think?”

“Mmm hmm,” Roger mumbles, his mouth still full.

“Good shit, right. I tweaked Mrs. Greene’s recipe a bit, but that lady knows her eggs. She’s the pastor’s wife. Here, this is her book.” Crandal hands over a tattered cookbook with a plump woman smiling on the cover, and Roger nods. He doesn’t much care who she is, he’s just happy that Crandal found her book. The two munch on, finishing their slices, and Crandal asks if Roger wants another. He says yes, and Crandal serves up the last two slices.

“So whatcha running from?” Crandal says intently focusing on his plate of egg-bake.

“My,” Roger starts but isn’t sure what to call Joe, “boss, I guess.”

“You stole it, then. The ride?”

“Yep. It’s mine, really. I kept it up for twenty years. Fixed it, cleaned it, ran it. It’s mine.” Roger surprises himself; he’s always thought of the Tilt-a-Whirl as his own, but he’s never said it out loud to anyone.

“Where are you going, then?”

“Dunno. Away from him.”

“What’d he do? Seems like a lot of trouble to haul that big’ol thing.”

“He’s a killer.” Roger is immediately sorry he says this, and hopes that Crandal doesn’t ask any more. The more Roger tells him, the more danger he puts him in. Crandal’s been nice so far, and Roger really doesn’t want anything to happen to him.

“Seems a good enough reason to me. So, how long you staying here?”

“Couple days, until the carnival moves on. They’re headed to Oregon next, so I’ll go east. I can pay you for the space. I’ll sleep in the truck, and you won’t even know I’m here,” Roger answers the next few questions before they’re asked.

“Nah. I don’t need no money. You just help me out while you’re here, and you can stay on the pull-out.” Crandal stood up and stretched. “How about you clean up breakfast. I’m off to nap, then it’s time to tend to the yard.”

The sun is out full now, and Roger doesn’t think he can make it through a day of chores on no sleep, so he washes up the dishes quickly, and lays down on the couch. He’s not sure he can sleep, but he plans to try, so he pulls out his cap from his sack and tilts it over his eyes. The sounds of the morning are vivid, but Roger eventually falls asleep. He doesn’t dream, and when he wakes up, it feels like he’s been sleeping for hours.

When his eyes adjust to the brightness, he’s startled by the unfamiliar rust-colored curtains and forgets for a moment where he is. Recognizing the brown, suede-like recliner to his right, Roger remembers that he’s safe in Crandal’s living room. Then he hears snoring from the back of the house and realizes that Crandal hasn’t woken from his nap yet. Roger rummages for the travel clock in his bag and finds that he’s only slept for forty minutes. Feeling strangely refreshed, Roger tiptoes down to the bathroom and decides to shave and shower, ready himself for a new day, since that’s what today is. Not just a new day, he thinks, a new way of being. He has a chance to be something more than Joe’s bitch. Something more than Jenny’s dog. He can get away, start somewhere new. Maybe get a job, pay taxes, buy a home. He hasn’t lived in a real house, or stayed in one place for longer than a couple weeks in over twenty-five years. He can’t help but wonder what his life would be if he had stayed home so many years ago. What would have happened if he never met Joe?

As he’s toweling off, Roger hears an alarm and a grunt from Crandal’s bedroom, which must be the sign that it’s time to work. He dresses in a hurry, gathers his things in a pile, and moves back out to the living room where he waits for Crandal. Crandal only takes a few moments to emerge from the back of the house and nods a good morning to Roger. Crandal swigs some milk from a glass jug, holding the refrigerator door ajar, lets out a dramatic “Ahh,” and motions to Roger to follow him into the mudroom.

Crandal pulls some old leather gloves off a shelf in the mudroom and tells Roger to put them on. He hands Roger a rake and shovel and picks up another of both for himself. They walk out the back door, toward the back of the polebarn where bags of grass seed are stacked five high all along the side of the building. Crandal tells Roger that he recently moved the dog pen to the other side of the house, and this area needs grass replanted. He instructs Roger to dig up the hills and fill in the holes from the dogs, then smooth it out with the rake. Roger gets right to work, feeling unusually proud to be doing manual labor. There are no complications, no people to deal with, no wires to fix, no bolts to tighten, and most of all, no one screaming at him. He hasn’t felt this way about doing work since he was a boy, when he still respected Joe. The two men work heavily into the afternoon, but when lunch time rolls around, they’ve smoothed and readied a fifty-yard square patch. After lunch, they’ll lay seed.

“Asian-style pork and noodles,” Crandal announces as he tromps down the steps with a plastic bowl in his hand. Roger waits at the picnic table under a patch of great maples, gulping ice water from a plastic jug, eagerly awaiting the next taste of Crandal’s cuisine. Crandal explains that the dish is cooked, but served cold, so he can make it up in batches. This one, he says to Roger, is from two days ago, which is the perfect time to eat it. Roger thinks that any day that Crandal makes food is a good day. Again, the meal is delicious, and they finish the bowl. Roger is tempted to ask for bread to soak up the remainder of the sauce puddle in the bottom, but thinks of his manners and decides against it. He sets his bowl down on the splintered wood top. Crandal offers a cigarette, and Roger takes one, though he hasn’t smoked since he was a teenager.

“My stepdad was a mean mother. Used to tie us up to a tree in a storm when we back-talked,” Crandal says. “Never had kids of my own.”

Roger isn’t sure what to say, so he just nods and listens.

“Bet he’s a bastard. Just like my stepdad, huh?” Crandal asks.

“Worse,” Roger says.

Crandal takes a long pull of his cigarette and drops it on the ground. He stomps on the butt, stands, and stretches. Then he heads up the steps into the house. Roger realizes it’s nap time, so he lays on the grass, tips his hat over his eyes, and sleeps. Thirty minutes later, Roger awakes feeling that odd alertness again, but he stays under the tree. He looks into the branches, admires the symmetry of each leaf, randomly shaped, but all the same somehow. He wiggles his toes inside his boots, which gives him a strange sense of joy, so he does it again, and again. His hands seem to feel different too, so he holds them in the air, above his face, palms up, and wiggles his fingers, and laughs. The sound of the back screen door snapping shut startles him, so he sits up to see Crandal coming down the stairs.

For the rest of the afternoon, Crandal walks the seeder across the patch of smooth dirt, and Roger follows with a wheelbarrow full of dry grass to cover the seed. Crandal tells him that the deer and birds will eat the seed if it’s left uncovered. Crandal goes inside to make dinner, and tells Roger to finish by hauling out the hose to water the seed. Roger attaches a sprayer to the hose and makes high sloping arches of sparkly water. He feels like he could stand there forever watching the water reflect colors from pink to blue to red and back again. It reminds him of confetti on a birthday cake. He hasn’t had a birthday cake since he was seven, the year before he joined the carnival. His mother used to bake him a cake every year, but in the carnival, he got elephant ears decorated with icing. He misses cake, and for the first time in a very long time, he misses his mother. Thinking about cake makes him realize how hungry he is again, so he winds the hose and goes inside to wash up.

As he nears the back door, he hears a woman’s voice coming from inside. It’s a voice he’s heard before, a crackly, dry voice. Through the rusty screen, he catches a glimpse of Sue from the corner store in Elma, and he can’t quite figure out what she’s doing here. What if Joe found her, threatened her, and sent her here for Roger? She’ll tell Joe where he is and then this is all over. In a panic, Roger turns to run for the pole barn; he’ll fire up that truck and get as far away as fast as he can. But before he makes it off the last step, Crandal calls to him through the window and tells him to get ready for dinner. Roger hesitates a minute, but then realizes that Joe wouldn’t have sent “a woman to do a man’s job,” so he climbs the stairs into the house.
Roger nods when Sue greets him at the door, and he soon finds out that Sue and Crandal have been “going steady” for some time. Today, Sunday, is their date night. Sue tells Roger that he’s welcome to join them for dinner, she doesn’t mind. Roger feels awkward, but accepts the invitation.

Dinner is pleasant enough. Conversation with a couple of old sweethearts gets a little mushy at times, but Roger is happy to have been included. He listens intently to the story of how they first met, how Crandal spilled an entire bag of dog food in Sue’s grocery, and she had to clean the mess.

“He was so sweet. Embarrased and fumbling on his hands and knees picking up Kibbles and Bits,” Sue says, as she demonstrates by clawing at the table. Roger laughs so hard his face hurts. He can’t remember the last time he’s been so happy. Other bits of conversation don’t include Roger, but he listens anyway. The two lovers recount their days at work, talk about who is running for county commissioner, and giggle at inside jokes. Roger remembers his mom and dad like this: comfortable and happy.

After the dinner plates are moved and Crandal’s “famous” raspberry pie is served, Sue’s smile fades a bit.

“I’ve got some bad news, Roger,” Sue says. “A couple of those grimy grubs were in the store today asking around about a missing carnival ride.” Roger clamps his teeth down on a raspberry seed.
“What?” Crandal asks.

“I told em I didn’t see nothin. But they were pretty scary. Even cornered poor old Mrs. Greene in the corner of the frozen foods. I had to ask them to leave, and they were not happy.”
“I’m sorry about that, Sue.” Roger says. “I guess that means I ought to be leaving soon.”

“Fuck em!” Crandal says, and lets out a deep chuckle. “You’re safe here. Ain’t nothin they can do, right?” Roger agrees, but he knows he can’t stay. He’s pretty sure Crandal knows it, too, but the two men finish their pie. After dessert, Crandal walks Sue to her car. When he comes back in, he sits in the recliner next to the TV and drops his head in his hands.
“I know, Greg. I’ll go.”

“Dammit. Alright. Goodnight.”

The sun’s only half down in the sky, but Roger’s thankful for rest. He wants another glass of milk, and goes to the kitchen but as he’s about to pour, he realizes he’s grabbed a bowl from the cupboard. The knot reemerges, this time lower in his gut. He thinks of Jenny’s picture out in his cab, and wished things could go back to the way they were when he first found her.

*

Two years in the carnival had taught Roger a lot. They had done a few towns in California, a small string down the west side of Nevada, and were just setting up thirty miles from the Navajo Army Depot. Folks may come round from Tuscon, but mostly the locals would come to see the shows. Joe liked to keep it small, stay “off the radar.” He and Joe were having fun together, but Joe was strict, and he sometimes would get so mad he turned purple. Roger had only made Joe that mad once, and he never wanted to go without dinner again. Besides, Joe had begun to give Roger more responsibilities. He already knew how to operate all the kiddie rides. It was easy work; all he had to do was push buttons. Joe had just started teaching him to work the Zipper and told him that soon he would begin teaching Roger the Tilt-A-Whirl. When he did what he was told, Roger got his own money, all the Ho-Hos he could eat, and he always got to help pick the new recruits. That was his favorite part. Finding new kids and teens to work the food carts, and sometimes even help Joe decide about a new ride jock. He was happy in the carnival because Joe was so different from Roger’s brother Michael. Not that Joe didn’t yell a lot, but he gave Roger confidence and reassurance, things he found out were important to feeling good.

Near dusk the day before opening, Joe took Roger out on a cruise through the desert that stretched west and north of the depot.

“Some of my best customers come from out here,” Joe said as he showed Roger a few weathered houses along the sandy road, one or two every few miles. Joe drove slowly over the packed sand and rock, and Roger looked out over the vast emptiness. Roger played connect-the-dots out his window with the green blobs of midget cacti, the only thing that penetrated the tan, flat sand. He counted blue houses. That was the color of his old house, and he liked them best of all. There were always many more white ones than any other color, but white was boring. Blue was the color of summer sky.
“It’s important to know who your customers are. Pay attention to the cars they drive, son. That way you can find out where they live.” Joe often took Roger to the local bars where he’d make friends with the townspeople. Everyone loved Joe. They invited him to community barbeques, to the church fish-frys, sometimes even to their homes. He watched as Joe would talk about a farmer’s wife’s earrings or shoes. Sometimes he’d compliment the daughter on her pretty eyes—that one always worked. Roger especially liked these drives, this short time of silence before a week of work and noise and people. He learned the most during his quiet time with Joe. Roger stared out the window at the red dirt, the mountains in the distance. On the side of the road, a group of black vultures were picking at the carcass of what must have been a coyote. Roger could see the tufts of fur, and a long tail of dry bone. The birds screeched and lunged at each other, vying for the half-rotted meat. A few hours went by, and Joe took a right at a two-track that would circle back to the carnival grounds.

“Look there, Roger.” Joe pointed to a small house with a long drive a few miles off the main drag. Joe told him about the old couple who lived there, who made ends meet by collecting government checks for foster kids. The husband and wife didn’t talk much, he said, just sipped lemonade and only watched the side shows. He said they were fascinated by the pin-heads, and they always went to see the bearded lady.

“These are the sort of people you need to know.” As Joe crept past the house, Roger noticed a little girl, about five or six years old, playing on the patchy grass in front of the small yellow house. She had a black hooded cape and gloves. Most of the other kids he had seen at the carnival were barely dressed. The summer heat was stifling. There was a boy who looked like he had a hump on his back, though Roger wasn’t sure since he was crouching near the porch. The little girl turned to look as Joe and Roger passed. She had hair on her face! Roger turned himself around to look longer through the back window, but the furry girl was lost in a cloud of orange dust.

Joe pulled into the grounds and back toward his trailer. Roger hopped out and hurried to help finish set-up on the rides. He always wanted to show Joe that he knew what needed to be done. Most everyone was set, a few of the wire runners were testing out the electrical, and some crews were tightening the last bolts on the ride cars. Roger helped by coiling the extension cords and tying them with jumbo zip-ties. He felt important when he didn’t have to ask what he needed to do. Joe told him to always “anticipate the next move,” and Roger had listened. They were ready to open in the morning, so Roger made his way back to Joe’s trailer where a few ride jocks were bullshitting and drinking after a snag-free set up.

“Checked and double-checked,” Roger reported to Joe with his arm raised in salute.

“All right, nice work, everyone,” Joe said. He gave Roger a firm pat on the back and then cracked open a beer. Whenever they did a gig in the desert, Joe bought lots of beer. He did everything he could to keep the crews from driving to Vegas. “If they go out to that blasted city, I don’t see them for days,” Joe said.

Over the next hour, more ride jocks and game workers trickled over toward Joe’s trailer. Big tubs of ice and beer were set out, and people brought lawn chairs. Joe even let them build a fire. The night sky was clear and the moon was bright, so after a while they let the fire burn out. The young couple from the balloon game brought their guitars and harmonica, played familiar tunes. Everyone sang along and clapped in rhythm. “A Girl I Once Knew” was one of Roger’s favorites, and his mind drifted to the little girl at the house that afternoon. He needed to see her face, her whole face. But these were Roger’s favorite nights—the family gathered together, being together, so he stayed and watched.

The beer ran out and everyone staggered home to sleep. Roger started collecting the bottles in trashbags. He would collect and keep bottles until they visited a state where he could return them for money. There were a lot of places he couldn’t. When they got to California last month, he had nearly $200 in bottles. Roger liked making extra money, and no one else cared to. Roger made sure to scan a long way around Joe’s trailer to be sure that no one left bottles out where customers might see. Joe always said “Make sure they get what they pay for,” and Roger was always sure to do what Joe said. Someday, he knew, he’d be in charge. Joe would give Roger the keys, and like a father to a son, trust Roger to carry on the tradition.

Roger sighed at the thought of his inheritance, and then trudged back to Joe’s trailer with his bag of cans. Joe was snoring at their kitchen table, which was also Roger’s bed. The table had a crank, and it lowered it to be level with the benches. He had a foam topper that he stretched across it, and a small couch pillow. But he didn’t dare wake Joe. Joe always seemed more angry after drinking, and he’d often get in fist-fights with the teenaged boys. So Roger plopped down on the steps outside the door and thought of the young girl. Joe would be so happy to have her.

Roger walked the few miles to the house with the patchy grass. The road was rough to walk in the dark, and he tripped over rocks and twigs. It was best to walk at night because the desert air cooled and even felt a little damp. Roger felt like the darkness was wet, and he missed the moisture like it was back home. The orange porchlight from the tiny house came into view, and before he knew it, he was sneaking up the long driveway. From out in the dark, just beyond the glow of the light, Roger heard a noise. “Hey, who’s there?” He began walking toward the noise and could make out a few small figures moving toward the edge of the light, just beyond the porch.

“Hey, kids. What are you doing outside so late?” Roger continued walking toward them.

“They like it better if we play at night,” a young boy said.

Roger still couldn’t quite see them; the clouds had come in and doused the moonlight.

“Come over here by the porch so I can see you.” The children walked into the light. The boy speaking was the one with a large hump on his back. One eye open wide, the other eye socket empty and black. Another little girl, one Roger hadn’t seen earlier, had a very long torso attached to 12-inch legs. She was probably eight or nine years old, but she was no taller than a four-year-old. Her arms dangled down her sides. Roger did recognize the last little girl from the drive earlier that evening. She had a black hood on, and he could see the hair on her face. Long, bushy black fur, really, covered her entire cheeks and a bit of lighter colored fuzz was across her forehead. She had beautiful eyes, dark green that shimmered just a bit in the soft light from the porch. He guessed that she had to be about seven, and the excitement built in Roger’s chest, he felt his heart start thumping, and his hands were clenched in tight fists. When he brought these kids back to Joe, he was sure to make him happy.

“What’s your names?” Roger asked, calming himself enough to smile welcomingly, just like Joe had taught him.

“I’m Bud, this here’s Lola, and the little one is Jenny.”

“Hi, Jenny. I’m Roger.”

Jenny looked toward the ground, twisting her foot, and then up again at Roger. Her eyes were so green it reminded Roger of the carnival lights. He noticed her twisting her fingers, and they were covered in fur too. He wanted her to pull off her hood, but he didn’t want to scare her. He wanted to keep her. Jenny said, “Hi,” in a soft voice. She smiled, and a low hum began to sound from her throat.

“She likes ya,” Bud said, “she’s purrin’.”

“Aren’t you the prettiest girl in the world!” Roger smiled. Jenny looked down at the ground, and Lola giggled and turned red. Roger was amazed; these kids would be stars. He had to take them; Joe would be so proud.

“Why don’t you three come with me. To the carnival? I’ll get you a glass of lemonade, maybe a cookie? You can help me test the rides in the morning.” Roger put his hand out to Jenny.

“I love lemonade!” Bud said. The three children and Roger made their way down the dark dirt road toward the dim lights of the carnival.


Amee Schmidt, a flash-fiction writer, aspiring novelist, and occasional poet, holds an MA in Creative Writing. In her spare time, she is Owner/Editor/Publisher of One Wet Shoe Media and Associate Editor of Mayapple Press. She is co-editor of and contributor to Greenhouse: The First 5 Years of the Rustbelt Roethke Writers’ Workshop. Her work has also appeared in Cardinal Sins and The Ambassador Poetry Project.

Issue No. 3, Winter 2012

The CEO Who Could Fly, But Didn’t Want To
David Dickerson

Quotidianly, Phazrael Chang walked into Hazel’s Side Bar Restaurant, pushing aside a solid thirties-era door. The walls were freighted with tintypes of a poised, time-frozen middle class, all picnics and spinets and pinafores, harking to an era when the men—then the public face of pale humanity—all wore solid mustaches and seemed to share the same round hat. (Nostalgia. Noun. From the Greek nostos, to return home, and its partner algos: pain.) The Side Bar had been designed with Art Deco interior, and its every featureless curve and confident molding seemed to describe, as with a blind seer’s fingers, a futurist trajectory toward a kind of burnished, hill-borne Jerusalem. The Side Bar was new, as such things were reckoned in Prairie Lick, and Phazrael loved it as much as he loved anything having to do with food or optimism, which was distantly, with an anthropologist’s wistful passion.

Phazrael breathed, troubled. There was something new here today. Something in the air, reckless and worrisome—a tension he hadn’t felt in eight slow years. He took in the restaurant at a glance: thirty-two diners, most of whom he knew, and who knew him. Nothing from them but familiar noises: Three people coughed at once, on a backdrop of murmurs. Someone lit a cigar at the bar, eight cubits away. “I bet she’s here to see him,” said one particularly distinct voice (male, nervous: Nathan Martin, 54, a clerk at the E-Z-Go Mart on Collinswood. Divorced, with one grown child. From the timbre of his voice Phazrael could see that Mr. Martin would die in a hotel fire in seven years).

The odd feeling wasn’t from the reporter, either; he could read her clean through. She waited in the high-backed satin couch, which lay in an open area across the room, diagonally from the entrance. She had long brown hair, a light green business suit, cream blouse beneath. Phazrael squinted: thirty-four, unmarried, childless. He could have seen her death if he’d wanted to, but it was a long way off and he wasn’t interested enough. They wouldn’t be talking about her anyway, and he tried to avoid directly facing human needs. Complicated hair, a pointy face, pale eyes. Phazrael couldn’t tell if she was attractive or not. He had no sex organs and didn’t know how libido colored such estimations.

She hadn’t seen him yet. (The joy of obliviousness! Hail ignorance!) Phazrael stood for a second, relishing this moment of not-knowing, of hopeful guesswork before crushing certainty. He wanted her to be surprising, but humans rarely were. For all the free will they’d been given, they rarely seemed to exercise it—staying in the same jobs, living among the same people, finding one conventional slot and staying put. The sense he’d gotten of the reporter over the phone had given him little hope.

So where was this new odd air coming from? It was like a puzzle with a time limit: the philosophical equivalent of a lit fuse. Phazrael wrinkled his nose and decided to wait for whatever it was to make itself known. No reason to hurry.

The reporter flipped through a notebook, bent in curiosity. She had laid out her brown raincoat and two folders on the couch. A handheld tape recorder (as if you could capture a voice) lay on the coffee table, beside a cell phone that was face up, probably to show her the time.

Phazrael had wanted to be punctual, but as he’d walked out of the office a peanut shell, of all things, had appeared from stage right, blowing down the sidewalk in the afternoon breeze like a little boat. There was a big storm passing to the south; all the omens pointed. He’d watched the shell for almost half a block as it slid, skipped, yawed, an inch or so at a time, until it finally capsized off the curb near the Greeley Street bus stop. Even then Phazrael couldn’t look away, frozen in abulic conflict over whether to right the nutshell and send it skiffing further, watch it lie there helpless and full of potential, or simply decide enough was enough and walk away. By the time Phazrael had chosen the third option and looked up, the sky was watercolor gray, the sun preempted, the air transubstantiated to mist. Late! And he walked at top speed all the way to Hazel’s, eight blocks, pulling his overcoat tight around him, pumping his arms comically, ignoring the familiar itchy discomfort of the huge wings sprouting from his back which fought to free themselves from under his coat with every footfall.

Now Phazrael paused, dripping a trifle on the cool black tile. He wanted to go straight to the reporter, understood the urgent need for apology, but a table blocked the most direct route. An old man sat there, bald and sour-faced, and having nineteen months to live (coronary thrombosis, in his car, a roomy Dodge something). He was eating a soup redolent with barley, tomato, basil, and sodden crackers. But the man (Morton Blandish, his name came now) was paused, his half-filled spoon poised over the center of the bowl, his left hand—the one holding the spoon—held precariously close to a salt shaker placed near the table’s edge. His head tilted toward his right hand, which housed a twice-folded newspaper—weddings and obituaries. Under his right hand were piled the other sections—sports, money, world—which jutted many inches and curved down from the table as if preparing to leap to the floor.

Which way to go? To the right, letting a finger trace the table’s oaken curvature, gently brushing the bumps of the salt shaker with the back of the left hand? Maybe even spilling the saltshaker, seeing it smash to the floor, anomalous and fascinating? Or left, letting one wrist bump against the day’s news, feeling the papers bounce against his sleeve, with the give and take of the trees they’d been a few months prior? With choices like these, how could anyone decide what to do? How could people bear to sweep past it all so quickly?

He chose left. Though he loved statistical improbabilities—such as a saltshaker brained on the floor and leaking crystals—they were better, ipso facto, unplanned. Too, there was something even more compelling about the transience of the day’s events, already forgotten beneath Morton’s hand. The trees-turned-pages called out for a compassionate touch, and it wouldn’t cost Phazrael a thing.

“Hey, Phaz!” said Rachel, the greeter, a woman of twenty-six who, though sporting her tasteful caterer’s uniform, had long red hair tumbling toward her waist, dark mascara and a pierced nose; the signs of amiable small-town rebellion. Irony hung even in the way she was folding silverware into napkins—in the open, instead of furtively behind her lectern. As with many open-faced types, Phazrael could see her future already, as easily as glancing down a wide hallway: that she would meet someone passing through (tall, Irish), would fall, marry, and settle down, though she’d never live further away than New Orleans. Late in her life she would cruise to Europe with her husband and two daughters, and would pass the cliffs of Dover on a perfectly sunny day. She would swear never to forget the sight, and five months later, at the age of 56, she would succumb to leukemia. Phazrael could see all of this, but he couldn’t understand the final scene. Why was she smiling? And why would she remember those distant cliffs ahead of everything else? How had her heart settled here?

“Got another interview?” said Rachel. “It’s getting so I can spot reporters.”

“Yes.”

A server walked behind them, carrying a cold and odd-tasting breeze. That was it! Phazrael would have caught his breath if he’d been mimicking human behavior. “Who’s that?” asked Phazrael. His own voice, he noticed, had grown excited. Interesting.

Rachel looked back. “That’s Stephan, the new guy. I’d wave him over but he’s pretty focused. I’m sure you’ve seen him around. He just came back into town. He’s been at Auburn.”

Here he was; the new trouble-charged element. Phazrael looked at the young man’s retreating head: sandy hair, 22, a brief glimpse of a clenched-looking face, two bright freckles on his left temple and . . . nothing else. Phazrael actually couldn’t predict anything about him. It was tantalizing, like snatching at air. He would die, of course, and death was even close to him, but like a polite neighbor, with an almost gingerly grip. If most people’s lives were brightly lit hallways, Stephan’s seemed to take a sharp cloudy turn early on—a turn Phazrael had never seen, and so couldn’t see again. To his own surprise, Phazrael’s heart quickened at the presence of Stephan, the anomaly. Was this fear? Curiosity? Love? They all felt the same in this body. How did anyone ever distinguish? It was a distracting question.

He wanted to rush over to Stephan. He wanted to touch this unusual person and get his whole unpredictable story, to feel the sensation of such a person’s voice; a fresh steed for his ear’s anvil and stirrup. But no—rushing was the problem with angels, with humans, with everything. Best to take things as they came. That was his ironclad, life-saving rule: no pushing.
“Will she want something to eat?” asked Rachel, gesturing with a bundle of silverware.

Phazrael looked. The reporter’s left knee was pistoning absently. “No. A drink.”

“Okay. Knock ‘em dead, tiger,” Rachel said, and almost punched him playfully on the arm. Her fist stopped a breath away from contact and then, after poising for an uncertain moment, she went back to folding silver into napkins. Phazrael heard it as he walked away: jing-cling; clank. He had moved to talk to Rachel and now his way was clear: no table blocked him, and anyway Morton was collecting his things. Phazrael walked straight to the couch, his hands curled longingly around phantom spoons.

“Hello!” said the reporter. “Thanks for coming in this weather.”

Phazrael never understood what weather had to do with anything. “You’re welcome,” he said. And with a bit of trepidation, he removed his overcoat.

The wings sprang out, the way they always did when they’d been confined, and as the reporter’s mouth opened weakly he could read in her eyes the story’s lede:

    Prairie Lick, LA—In dim enough light, Phazrael Chang looks like an average businessman with a tailored navy suit, an understated tie, and carefully managed hair. But in brighter conditions it’s hard to know which you notice about him first: his bright blue skin, suitable for a Hindu god, or his large feathered wings, which stretch twelve feet tip to tip and…

The restaurant silenced itself duly, then resumed its chatter with a new undertone of muffled speculations. He folded his wings behind him, and she composed herself and smiled, sweeping her raincoat towards her and patting the couch: thap-thap. “Well, let’s get this interview started, okay?” She clicked on the tape recorder. He sat, and the couch, which was antique and stiff, made faint crinkling sounds. “You’re Phazrael Chang. Did I get that right? So, first thing, where did you get that last name? I mean, you’re not Chinese or anything!” she laughed.

You’re wrong, he thought. I am anything. “I was born without a last name, so I chose it for business purposes. It was supposed to be inconspicuous.”

“Inconspicuous?”

He sighed. “It’s the most common name in the world.”

“I would have thought an angel would have better wisdom than that,” she said, then tilted her head defensively. “You are an angel, right? A fallen one?”

How he hated this question! If he said “yes,” she would assume he occupied the popular definition of the word; that he had left heaven (and what was that, anyway? Heaven and hell? As if the gradations had ever been that precise!), and that there was some tragic or romantic tale behind his current estrangement. That he’d fallen in love with some woman, or envied human beings and their capacity to feel things. Ridiculous. He didn’t even love humans that much—it’s hard to love anything that so consistently disappoints you. And love? That was what he’d been trying to escape. An angel is an agent of love, trapped by it the way a corpuscle is trapped by an artery. Angels were born in cosmic fire and set obsessively loose, never to stay still or be reignited. It was a kamikaze mission from the start. Though they did not die, angels could burn out, becoming robotic and devoid of will, doing nothing but going instantly wherever they were needed, loving unconditionally and on cue. Surely there was more to existence than that. And anyone who suggested he was being selfish and therefore evil didn’t understand that the world had more than two categories—which meant, alas, he was the least popular with the people who most wanted to believe in him.

“Yes,” he said, hardly listening to himself. “I’m an angel, but not a fallen one.”

The ceiling drummed with insistent rain. They both looked up briefly. No leaks; the roof would hold.

“So what brings you here?”

Sometimes even trite questions are good ones. What Phazrael loved these days was watching anything that didn’t ask for his help: grass peeking through a sidewalk; a spontaneous trash fire; the chance collision of an old hamburger wrapper with a barbed-wire fence; the determined limping of very old dogs. There was so much to see and notice in Prairie Lick that he’d given very little thought to going any place more exciting. Although the people had been something of a letdown, the world itself and all its ephemeral zigzags had so absorbed him that in eight years he had barely explored, to his satisfaction, the six blocks between his home and his work.

“I like working with people,” he said. “They’re so unpredictable.” How ironic it would be, he thought, if lightning cracked right now.

Stephan walked by carrying a tray of fajitas, and Phazrael almost jerked his head to look closer. Calm down, he told himself. You’ve got plenty of time to meet him later. Nothing you’re feeling is worth rushing for. Don’t be suicidal. Don’t be a blind angel.

She smiled politely and continued, looking vaguely at her notes. “You’re the CEO of Prairie Lick Extruded Plastics, right? PLEPCo? Been there for eight years. And since then you’ve greatly expanded the business, which was originally industrial parts—flywheels, bottles—and you’ve moved it also into an intense focus on . . .I can’t believe this . . .on those little things at the end of shoelaces. What do you. . .”

“Aglets, they’re called.” Didn’t reporters ever look things up?

“. . .and the company continues to grow. You’ve got the shoelace-and-aglet market all sewn up in the southern US and you’ve begun to expand abroad, and even with less concentration on the corporate contacts you used to have, the board is happy with the dividends. Have I got all this correct?”

“Yes.”

“So I have to ask. Why shoelaces? Is it an obsession or something?”

He wanted to tell her the truth: it wasn’t the shoes. It was the aglets. Those invisible little haloes of plastic, quietly and selflessly buffering workaday laces from the early ruin of fraying. But again it was almost the shoes, too, in a way he’d never quite been able to express. From the moment humans had stepped out of the trees and started peering around, Phazrael had thought there was something pathetic and helpless about them. Those weak eyes! Those frail spines! Their bodies so soft and hairless, their infants so killable, their birth process so deadly! But especially he’d been shocked by the humble slowness of their feet: how were they ever going to outrun anything hungry and determined? And yet how else could they expect to get around? Worst of all, what could such ungainly creatures ever hope to pursue? It seemed to him from the beginning that the tragic essence of humanity was their hunger for motion, coupled with the fact that they were poorly equipped to accomplish it. So: enter Phazrael, soi-disant Angel of the Human Foot and Other Hobblings of Potential. It wasn’t exactly the shoes; it was feet and aglets. And it wasn’t an obsession. It wasn’t even a job title. It was an habitual vocation, which to an angel is as strong as a promise. That was really why he was here: force of habit. Maybe tomorrow people would be different, and could see things his way. Failing that, maybe next year. If he didn’t extend himself too much, he could afford to wait.

But he couldn’t tell her this. In her eyes he could see that she wouldn’t understand, or that even if she could understand she didn’t have the time. Deadlines, a flight back. She was a creature of motion. The wings question was inevitable.

“Why does everyone ask me that?” Phazrael said, reverting to a script his vice-president, Kecia Collins, had suggested a few years back. “Surely you, as a woman, know that there’s nothing odd about obsessing over shoes.” He tried to time it right—it was a joke, not a greeting, and went by different rules—and though he remembered to smile at the end, he thought he’d left too much of a lag.

But it worked. The reporter laughed and said, “Good point!” and made notes. This was something else Phazrael didn’t understand. Some women liked shoes, some women didn’t. Some men had shoe fetishes, others did not. The reporter herself didn’t care for shoes and should have known that what he’d said was inaccurate. If she’d asked, Phazrael could have listed fifty cultures, past, present and future, where such an assertion wouldn’t even make sense. But humans never had time for such discussions. They had to use shortcuts to get any kind of thinking done efficiently, before they all died and the next set of humans took their place.

“So here’s the popular question,” she said. “You’re obviously . . . different. The skin, those wings. Everyone’s curious.”

“I just want to be judged by my management skill,” he said, on script.

“But don’t you ever want to just . . . you know?” She made a two-fisted busting-out motion.

“Did you. . .ah, see my interview on Oprah? It was several years ago, but. . .”

The reporter smiled. “That was going to be my next question. What happened there?”

The board had outvoted him: go on the show. It would be good for business, promote the company. And maybe, Kecia had pointed out, it would kill people’s interest in his novelty and help them to just see Phazrael as a guy who sold extruded plastics, and who just happened to have wings he never used. They’d get fewer random calls. Kecia could focus on her main work more. Phazrael’s own mistake may have been that as his date approached he became aware that he would be addressing millions of people who were receptive to what he had to say. How many chances do you get to sound a nation-sized clarion?

“Do you ever fly?” Oprah had asked, leaning forward, concerned but polite, exuding sensitivity. She knew the answer but posed for everyone’s benefit.

“No,” he’d replied.

The audience gasped and muttered. News to them! “Why not?” He could see Oprah’s skill then: she actually asked what people were thinking, was the natural voice of a million conventional wisdoms. Talk to her and you’d be talking to everyone.

“I can’t tell you,” he said.

“Sure you can,” she said, and smiled with pure beneficence. “We’re dying to know.”

He opened his mouth to reply, but at this time he was still freshly exiled, and that stray thought—talk to her, you’re talking to everyone—reminded him of God; something about the room—the unduly bright lights, the intensity of the cameras, every eye on him, every inch of floor electrified—reminded him of the Gold Chamber of the Holy Presence. The host’s face so assured, so strong and trusting. He thought, for one dangerous second, that he could truly unburden himself. He was frightened by his own desire to be unburdened. How terrifying, to need so much of everyone!

Even as he opened his mouth, though, he realized he was about to speak in the angelic tongue. It was instinct. The only way he could think to answer Oprah’s question, and the question after that, and the next one and all the questions forever, was to use the most powerful language. But he caught himself in time, for an angel’s heart is like a tiny sun, and the speech of angels exposes the heart. The verb “to be” causes sonic booms; the merest whisper of “I love” has bred wildfires. If he started a sentence with his fiercest “I want,” he could picture the black void opening up, the building imploding, blood and bones; more suffering on top of the world’s overbrimmed portion. So Phazrael bit his tongue and stayed silent, fighting his urge to speak his deadly longings. Oprah kept asking him questions, but he didn’t really hear them; he was focused innerly. Eventually they cut to a commercial and thanked him goodbye, Oprah’s face clearly registering frustration. Kecia later reported that while sales hadn’t gone up, non-business calls had plummeted. “That’s how you kill hype,” she told him. “Just get out there and suck on national TV. It pays to keep your mouth shut.”

The fresh cold, the odd taste: Stephan walked by again and Phazrael, ignoring his own advice, really looked this time. The boy was built round and folded, with a kind of permanent hunch. But unlike the reporter, he held himself casually and had a soft face. There was a confidence that suggested that whatever gave him a reason to live, it wasn’t going anywhere. Perhaps something burned inside him as well. Something so tireless it could afford languor.

“I’d rather die young than alone,” said the reporter, finishing some other thought.

“What?” asked Phazrael.

“That’s what Oprah said after you left.” She peered at him. “I thought you knew.”
“No,” he said. “I never watched it and I didn’t ask.”
“I could have guessed,” said the reporter. “You didn’t look happy.”
What he wanted to ask was, Would Oprah have said the same thing if she was pretty sure she could live until doomsday? He wanted to go back in time and ask everyone in the audience, Do you believe in predestination or free will? What if I told you that free will is just the dark side of fate? And what happens when a piece of grit slips through God’s fingers and has nowhere meaningful to go?
“I didn’t invent entropy,” he said, and ended the interview.

Phazrael was relieved when the reporter left. But he found it impossible to think in Hazel’s, with Stephan moving around nearby. So he walked back to the office through the rough rain, trying to enjoy the way it played across his body like a massage. But his mind was troubled. Why am I so distracted by Stephan? he thought. Am I in love? Am I lonely? How can this be?

An hour later, Phazrael found himself still standing in the PLEPCo parking lot outside his office building. The rain had stopped some time ago and he hadn’t even noticed.

*

Phazrael woke the next morning, not in his apartment, but on top of the Cutler Hotel. He found himself curled fetally around the broken heating vent with his back to the brick shack housing the elevator mechanism. His wings splayed carelessly. He’d been dreaming about the old days working in the Great Gold Chamber, where purpose electrified everyone and God’s presence was deafening. Then Phazrael woke, undeafened, cold, and ten stories above Greeley Street’s 8 a.m. traffic. He was horrified. How had this happened? Stephan, perhaps?

He was able to compose himself enough by nine o’clock to attend a meeting, but even after he called his secretary, George, and asked him to find all the information he could on some young Auburn graduate named Stephan who’d just moved here, Phazrael was still distracted. The meeting was a standard monthly report. Jason Staggers, Head of Southeastern Operations, was presenting a growth chart.

“As we can see here,” he said, pointing with a little yellow dot of light emanating from his keychain, “all of our areas of production experienced growth last quarter, and the aglet market is in double digits. Except here . . .” he added, pointing to a line at the bottom, “where the Sparkle Aglet’s demand has fallen sharply from its already low initial position.” Jason formed these words with some relish, and when a gust of air-conditioner air rattled the slats and caused a little sunlight to break into the room briefly, the determined way Jason glimpsed the outside made Phazrael sure that if he’d been able to, Jason would have flung all of PLEPCo’s Sparkle Aglets out that very window.

Fallen sharply. How depressing and inevitable. Phazrael had known the Sparkle Aglet wouldn’t take off. He’d known it even as he’d argued for its design: a simple aglet, spangled with glitter, to make dull business shoelaces glint in the usual fluorescent lights. Everyone had fought him, and acceded only when it became clear he wouldn’t back down. Now there was proof: no one older than twelve wanted sparkly aglets. Phazrael was disappointed anyway. He’d had dreams of corporate hallways filled with reflected lights, small shiny objects that winked and called attention. He’d had some hope that, with this invention, people who tied their shoes would take a moment and notice what they were doing, how gravely pleasant it was. But he realized now that even if the sparkle aglets had succeeded, their mission would have been vain. There was nothing, however compelling, that humans couldn’t learn to ignore. His own life was proof of that.

Ultimately he and the board agreed to cancel the Sparkle Aglet (“and put a stake in its heart” was how Jason put it), but the word “fallen” nagged at him and he asked his secretary to hold his calls, then he stood in his office, looking out the window, thinking again about the roof of the Carlton, trying not to notice the twitch of his wings.

He preferred to think of himself as “drawn” rather than “fallen,” to put the blame on gravity and the lure of inertia, where it belonged. Perhaps this is why he had never fallen very well. In his first few years of expatriation, even after swearing never to live like an angel again, never to help anyone selflessly or give in to the temptations of martyrdom; even after he thought he’d discovered something like mortal balance, he’d still found himself flying in his sleep. He woke up in haylofts, on the tops of buildings, on fire escapes, in the crotches of trees—never the same place twice, never on a predictable schedule, but about once a month and always above ground. He heard honking one morning and opened his eyes to find himself hanging upside-down, swaying over a major intersection with his ankles hooked between the pole and the lights.

That lapse had been too public and worrisome. After that he began tying himself to the bedposts and strapping his wings tight against his body, though they always managed to wiggle free by morning. The binding was enough to keep them occupied, however, and in the six years since, the worst waking he’d experience had been when the bed had flipped in the night and he opened his eyes in deep shadow, staring at dust bunnies a bedpost’s distance from his nose. But that had been four years ago, and eventually he didn’t have to tie his wings or even do anything at all. He hadn’t flown at night since. Until today.

But the other troubling part had been the dream. He’d been reliving the terror of the Gold Chamber where he’d tendered his resignation. As a fairly omniscient CEO, he tried to keep his expectations loose because he understood how his employees felt sometimes when they needed to leave. When you are resigning from a job you were expected to love, and your boss, whose system is hidebound, knows about it ahead of time and also knows exactly why you’re leaving and what you’re going to say, the resignation process is an exercise in the pain of stating the obvious. In the case of Heaven—that most inflexible of organizations—it also involved profound shame. I wanted something different. I could see the future and the job I was built for was killing me. He could hear his own sentences echoing back the way they’d sounded when he’d entered the presence of the Almighty in the Bold Chamber; shrill and muffled, like cries for mercy, a victim yelling above the beating. Phazrael had crawled in backwards, one hand over his eyes, his wings shading him against the heat and intensity of the Holy Presence; the customary and only safe procedure. It was something that throbbed through you, the way a bystander feels the bass drum in a parade: a raw martial and elemental power that not only disapproved of expatriation, but couldn’t even understand it. The excuses had tumbled out of him at random, impossible to synthesize, and in the end all he could really say was I’m sorry, but I failed; I failed everyone. Even then, he didn’t say fall.

In his Mercy, the Almighty was waiting for him to come back, would reaccept him in a second. But in his Holiness, the first move would have to be Phazrael’s. So far Phazrael had resisted all temptations to rapprochement. Today he wondered why. After eight years of exile, he hadn’t collected much except a series of memories, like the one about the peanut shell. It would be nice, he realized, to share some of these memories with someone else. God had shut his door, and he could no longer even see other angels. He understood their need for distance; rushing to help him would be a waste of mercy. So was that his hope—that some human somewhere might be able to survive his most honest expression of need? Did he actually think Stephan, just by being mysterious, might be that impossible a person?

He stood there until closing time, when Phazrael’s secretary knocked, waited, and slipped a note under the door: SORRY BOSS! NOTHING MUCH ON STEPHAN WAKELY. GREW UP HERE, LIVES WITH HIS PARENTS ON MAYFLY LN. DAD’S AN AUTO DETAILER, MOM’S A SCIENCE TEACHER AT PLHS. STEPHAN WORKS WEEKDAY LUNCH & MORNINGS SAT/SUN, AND RACHEL SAYS HI. HAVE A NICE WEEKEND! –G. Phazrael stayed in his office and read the note over and over, the way he had long ago when he’d been remembering the names of his colleagues, sounding them aloud as if the words themselves were magic: Anixiel, Charbiel, Colaptiron, Kemuel, Saranana.

After another night of dreams, a night where he’d actually tied himself into bed and still couldn’t sit still, Phazrael decided he couldn’t wait anymore. He drove—actually drove—the company car home and then out the next morning, to get breakfast at Hazel’s and see Stephan. He wasn’t sure what he’d do next. He drove because he felt too edgy to walk and maybe, he thought, if he drove slowly it would be almost as harmless. He kept the chest belt unlatched, though. It forced his wings into painful positions. He was anxious to see Stephan working, of course, but on the drive there he took time to enjoy the slant of morning sun across the dust on his windshield, which at certain angles stellated the motes and turned the whole windshield opaque, a galaxy up close. He had to shield the glare with his hands to squint at the road. But he made it to Hazel’s and parked right next to Rachel’s car—which, he noted, was still emitting warmth. They’d just opened.

Rachel was bustling past her lectern when Phazrael came in. She looked up, startled: the angel for breakfast?

“Where is Stephan?” he asked, and Rachel looked confused. It felt odd for him to voice a sentence that implied a need. It was the opposite of his usual conversations. If a lie was a socially necessary falsehood, “Where is Stephan?” displayed a socially unnecessary truth. Just saying it made Phazrael feel redundant.

“I don’t know,” said Rachel. She checked the lectern, which held and open menu and a watch. “He’s fifteen minutes late, but you know, he just started, so he’ll probably come in soon.” She looked out the window to the street. “He’d better.”

Phazrael felt it before he thought it, felt it like a cold earthquake inside him: He’s already leaving! It’s happening too soon! Whatever instinct taught him to read people sensed it now: death’s arrow singing somewhere to the north. (Mayfly Lane was north.) He rushed out the door to his car and pulled away. He didn’t say goodbye. He failed to observe two pigeons in the parking lot across the street, fighting over a donut. He didn’t smell the burning odor that meant Rachel’s car would soon need a new transmission. He didn’t have time.

He drove to Stephan’s house, wings straining and thumping against the doors. He felt all the angelic temptations rising under his scapula: speed, altruism, power. He fought most of it down, but the urges that leaked through were still intoxicating, like a whiskey kindling his head. He almost ran off the road twice and when he arrived he stumbled out of the vehicle like a drugged acrobat who is graceful only by accident. He’d never been to Stephan’s house, but if he’d been in any less dizzy of a state he would have felt awful about how he was spurning the magnolia tree, the leaf-strewn walkway, an unpainted porcelain rabbit, hunched and blind; all the front yard’s plaintive transiencies. Phazrael unstoppered his eyes and all the buildings turned wavy and translucent, and off in the back he saw Stephan in his bedroom, dying.

Stephan was almost naked, clutching his swollen sexual organ, and had a belt around his neck that was attached to a strong hook on the wall. Stephan had bucked an inch too far in the throes of pleasure, had slipped from the bed, and the noose had tightened too much. He’d thought at the time, I’ll fix that in a moment; first let me finish. Because the thrill of asphyxiation, the sexual surge of walking the line between danger and joy, was the greatest drug Stephan had ever found. He’d done this many times this year and what surprised him was that this time was the best: a happy, as it were, accident. It wasn’t until he was closing in on his pleasure—enjoying the anoxic crush on his throat while he squeezed himself ever tighter—that he realized shadows tinged the edges of his vision, his world was obscured by stars; too late! And what was that blue-skinned angel-looking man from the restaurant doing here, bending over him with a face so sad? But no, it no longer resembled that guy. . .

Phazrael was so fascinated by Stephan’s small but reliable self-contained circuit of pleasure that he didn’t even notice he had “turned invisible” or had “walked through walls,” as some might have put it. He almost freed Stephan with a single nail-cracking word. But as he leaned toward Stephan, Phazrael saw his reflection in Stephan’s eyes and jumped back. His own face had been so caring, it was a shock. He had simply taken on the burden of being an angel again, and the unthinking selflessness of it made him gasp. He almost cried: years of abstinence, and look how he rushed to the drug that could kill him! Yet it had been so sweet . . .

Instead, Phazrael stood over Stephan, hands cradling his face with helpless longing, reading Stephan’s body and trying to memorize it. For uncertain moments, Phazrael found himself frozen in awe. What it must be like, he thought, to have all your blood rushing to get to one place! For your whole body to tingle and explode; to really feel passion, and not merely trace it through memory. It must be something to have a joy you could depend on. (Depend. From the Latin to hang. Something like a rope, to catch you if you fell.) I understand your loneliness, Phazrael told him silently. I know what it is to live a life buffeted by wild joys you can never express, keeping silent because no one will understand. You’re not alone. I envy the intensity of your wanting. What should he do? If he saved Stephan, he would be violating the way he’d determined to live. No pushing. No need. But if he let Stephan die, mightn’t he lose something hard to recapture? A potential friend? A customer for his favorite laces?

In Stephan’s upturned face—turning blue now, like Phazrael’s own—Phazrael read that while Stephan found himself dying, he was picturing Phazrael as Rachel, and then imagined Rachel sprouting wings, a well of understanding and thrilling warmth. This too was amazing: how much joy Stephan could derive from a mere cliche! Even Stephan had ways of avoiding thought. How dispiriting, such weakness, and how compelling.

It was the cliche that got to Phazrael. A long-untouched chord of mercy sounded throughout his body, and he broke the nail with a thought, wincing even as he did so, unwilling to see the effect of his own obscene generosity. He felt heat rush from inside him and he gasped as it left. An angel can’t win. Eight years of fighting it, and he was still trapped by the architecture of compassion.

He opened his eyes, and saw that Stephan wasn’t moving. He lay on his floor, propped up awkwardly against his bed, his head almost touching the bedroom wall. Stephan’s lips were parted, revealing a blue tongue. His hands and face were also blue, his wide eyes purpled with burst blood vessels, his penis dark and red and decreasing in size. His neck was swollen and almost flowing over the cord that bound it. His underwear was soiled where his bowels had emptied upon death. Phazrael had waited too long and it was beyond his power to do anything more. Why had he rushed over here? What pain goaded him so? Why couldn’t he have continued to take life as it came?

Phazrael straightened himself and left, confused as if after a long sleep. He admitted it: he felt alone. A bird flew by and he recalled that sometimes death attracted angels, who clustered around the scene, bent in fascination. Maybe some of them were here now, unseen. As he walked away across the Wakely’s yard, leaving the car behind, he looked to the sky and silently called their names—Anthriel!, Baragyal!, Hananazel!, Zagzagel!—unaware that he was walking an inch above the ground.


David Dickerson is a regular contributor to This American Life, and his work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Gettysburg Review, Camera Obscura, and Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.

Issue No. 3, Winter 2012

I am Robert Moulthrop
Robert Moulthrop

Four words in an e-mail subject line.

Possibly a test, sent days before, but forgotten.

Haven’t you done that? Sent an e-mail to yourself? You’re sitting, writing, occasionally not writing by playing Free Cell or Hearts, then going back, forcing words, then stopping, then starting, but hoping the room will burn down, when you notice an absence of the e-mail ping. It’s now two hours, and you haven’t received even a cleverly disguised sex enhancement pitch. No travel bargains. Has the world stopped? Have I been forgotten? Should I call Bangladesh to see how Scott or Tim feels about the situation? Is everything suddenly Junk? So, you send a test message. Usually I put “test” in the subject line. Sometimes, if it’s been a really slow day, I’ll send two tests. So the second one is “test 2.” But I might have slipped, I think. I might have been mindlessly idle, a Hamlet-typing monkey. I might have typed “I am Robert Moulthrop” while I thought I was typing “test.” I might have thought I was typing “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy red dog.”

    [Picture the green field, a child’s book illustration, something around the corner from the original Winnie the Pooh or down the road from Charlotte’s Web. A pleasant field, full today of buttercups and white butterflies, a meadow, if we had meadows in the U. S. of A., which in most places we don’t, all gone to strip malls. But a pleasant green landscape, with a rail fence, and the yellow flowers and the white butterflies, blue skies, and white puffy clouds gently moving across the sky because Mr. Wind is out today, getting some early practice for next week’s storm.

    And there’s Mr. Lazy Dog, he’s an Irish setter, that deep color red, with those sweet, brown eyes and lopsided grin. See him there? In the shadow of the tree by the fence? He’s so lazy. That’s why we call him Mr. Lazy Dog. And look out. Here comes Mr. Quick Fox. Usually foxes are red, but this one is deep, dark brown, as if his mother had been a grizzly bear and his father a mink. And Mr. Fox is very quick. Hence his name. He’s here, he’s there. If you saw him across the meadow, you’d barely be able to keep track of him…he runs so fast. He comes around the corner and sees his old enemy, Mr. LD, and Mr. QF thinks it would be fun to show Mr. LD a few tricks this time, to tease him good for all the times Mr. LD has chased him around the meadow. This time he will jump over him and call him Lazy Dog! Lazy Dog! as he does it. So Mr. QF sneaks up behind Mr. LD. But as he begins the jump, Mr. LD turns, opens his mouth, finds the soft spot on Mr. QF’S neck, and snaps it with one clean clamp of his jaws. There is blood, of course, and in the warm afternoon, the dog suddenly discovers that he likes the liquid’s taste—sweet and sour—and the thick way it sits in his mouth and the smooth way it slides down his throat. So he stands on all fours, shakes himself awake, and moves from the shade of the tree out into the meadow in search of other animals to kill.]

Or maybe instead of doing that “use all the letters” exercise, I typed “I am Robert Moulthrop” and clicked Send. Could have happened that way. But then I saw that, in the reading preview pane, there was an actual message, one I knew I wouldn’t have typed if I had been sending a test.

I’ve thought about this for a couple of days. Two to be exact. Three days would, of course, be a triplet of days. If it had been three, I would have said so. The derivation of couple, I believe, is from putting two things together, like coupling the freight car to the oil car, or vice versa, the oil car to the freight car, on your electric train before your father takes it away from you. Two things. Not three. Or four. Bound together by something as common as circumstance—the sinking of the Titanic, a road crash in the fog—or as fragile as love or the inward workings of the body that produce children who move us forward through time and, if we’re lucky, carry our name.

I’m avoiding the obvious, I know. “What,” one asks, “was the message?” You, Gentle Reader would be the one who is asking. Dear Reader. Constant Reader. We tend not to speak to each other that way these days. We write short, clipped sentences. We get to the point. Keep things short, digestible. And above all, we’re admonished not to talk down to those who might be reading one’s prose (in the same fetid breath we’re told to not split infinitives, not to split, split to not, slip knot not). Readers hate that, don’t you? Being talked down to. Called Gentle or Dear. Those are wuss words. Pussy words. No one wants to be talked to like that. I’ll try my best.

Or—sorry, I can’t help it. Constant Reader. Sounds as if you’re just sitting, eyes focused on some pages in a book or pixels on a screen. Anyone watching would say, aloud, “What are you doing? Don’t just sit there. It’s a beautiful day. Go outside and do something. Play with your friends. You’re not doing anything.” These days they might say, “There’s no action, no interaction, no place for feedback. Get yourself a game, at least. Or some Wii. Play air guitar, learn a new tennis stroke.”

“Reading is so passive,” they say, the ones who say everything.

Reading. Move your eyes, move your eyes, move your eyes. That’s action. Taking in what I’m saying, that’s action. Are you listening? You did, after all, ask me a question. It was you, wasn’t it? Just a few sentences ago? At the beginning of that paragraph up there?

So, yes, two days later, I went back to my inbox, delved, scrolled, moved through the blur of subject lines until I found my own name. Robert. Six letters. Moulthrop. Nine letters. An easy six. A difficult nine.

Robert is a regular Joe name, a glasses-wearing nice-guy name, probably a studious name. With thin hair and a pinched smile at the ready. Not me. I don’t look like that at all. Just the name is all I’m saying.

And then Moulthrop. What kind of a name is that? English sounding. Complicated to spell when paying for an artichoke where they should know my name or ordering a carving knife over the phone. A whole alphabet of people has to come into play. “M, like Michael.” “L, like Louis.” Tedious. One sometimes wonders, I sometimes wonder, Gentle-Dear-Courteous-Constant Reader, who they are. Are they friends?

    [Hey, Mike, how the hell are you?

    Louis Louis Louis. Haven’t seen you since Grant was a cadet! How’re they hanging?

    Getting’ by, getting by. How ya doin’?

    Pretty good, pretty good.]

Whoever they are, they’re not very bright, not very good conversationalists. Maybe I should introduce them to Marvin and Melvin, to Ulale (she’s a hoot!) to Lancelot and Lawrence (that couple with the witty repartee). Tom and Harry, of course. And Peter. It’s a good thing Mike and Louis have each other for company. I don’t think anyone else would ever want them for friends.

A strange name, Moulthrop, therefore, generally easy to find. I could have organized the subject lines alphabetically. But I wanted to take the time to sift through the subjects that were there, review the last few days, postpone arrival at the message. If I’d clicked in the area for falling alpha, I would have missed the accumulation of notices, offers, pleas, ads, and the few actual letters, one from my son, who has stopped using the name Moulthrop, for reasons he has never shared. I have yet to respond. To his name change. To the letter. There would have to be another time for that. Now, after a couple of days, I was ready for the “I” in the subject line.

It was there. Waiting.

I decided to click on it without looking at the preview. Just dive in. Be strong. There was the subject line. My hand felt clammy on the mouse. But i did it. No, I did it. I. Did. It.

Click. And there was the message:

“Now there are four of us.”

I stared at those six words and tried to parse the meaning, dive beneath the black curves of the letters into the white depths.

Now. That word means there was a before, a time when there might have been three or two or one. I knew about the one. That was me. Me. I. Was I now I I I I? But I am here. I exist. I write as I am writing now, through space and time. I am energy, I am me. I have the me-ness of myself. I am unique. I can say that. I have my own chromosomal structure, my own DNA twirl strands interlaced with quadrants of polarities. But my Now is not the Now of this e-mail. This Now means there must have somewhere been a two. A duad. A twin. A doppelganger. An other. One other. Or more than one. Because, as the poet says, “Now there are four of us.” Like the mirror when you’re trying on a new suit, standing on the stool, looking into the mirror while the tailor pulls down the pants, prepares to cuff you, cuff them, them them them them. Not you. Prepares. And in the mirror in front and the two mirrors on either side, there are suddenly three of you. You You You. But there are really four. You You You You. Because the you standing there is the real You. Or should be.

Unless, of course, you’re not. Which is absurd. Glass coated first with tin chloride, then silver, other chemicals, copper, then black paint, then turned to face you, face your face, face-to-face, see your face, but the mole is on the wrong side, the nose tilts the wrong way, the bad tooth is hidden in a different part of the mouth. Evidence, true evidence, I say, that the mirror person, that none of the mirror persons, is the real person at all. They are fakes. In the mirror. The other is, of course, not.

Four of us. Us. Four Robert Moulthrops. Even assuming the unique properties of my own DNA, and therefore the unique property of the DNA of others, there must, I felt sure, be similarities. I didn’t know much, but what I did know was there needed to be action.

Here would be the place for me to get my act together, forge ahead, unearth the server from which the e-mail was sent, track down the Sender and in my own Lazy Dog switch, find a way to assure that I remained the only person who could claim to be Robert Moulthrop. This could take the form of a ripping yarn, a good old-fashioned Noir, if I’m lucky, maybe coming close to Highsmith.

    [He swiveled to the phone, picked it up, and dialed the number he knew too well. As he waited for her answer, he lit a cigarette, exhaled and watched the smoke caress the bare light bulb above his head.

    “Darling Agency, Effie speaking.”

    “Effie, sweetheart,” he said, smiling at the sound of her voice, syllables that promised everything, but offered nothing. “This one’s easy. Just need you to track down the server on this wild e-mail I just got.”

    “Wild’s our specialty, Mr. M.,” she chirped. “You know that.”

    “Got a pen, baby? You’re the best.”

    I knew she’d help me. Some ex-wives really are the best. And I knew I could take off, get wherever I needed, and be back before I was missed. Pick up whatever I needed to get the job done when I got there. Improvise. Leave fewer traces. As for the two others, I’d take care of them later. It was a good plan. What could go wrong? Get off the plane, use the stolen credit card to get the rental car, show up at the front door for the face-to-face confrontation.

    “Hello.”

    “Hello,” I say. “I’m me.”

    “No, I am me.”

    “We can’t both be me,” I say. “One of us is you.”

    “Hah!”

    “Hah!”]

Sorry, Dear, Gentle Reader. No. No can do. I know I’m sounding perhaps a little too familiar, but you’re so far along here, we’ve been together for a whole seven minutes, don’t you agree it’s time we moved to more intimate terms, whatever your sex, whoever you are? Ridiculous for us not to get along better. You can call me Robert.

If this were a story about a killer, it would have to be a serial killer these days, or cereal killer, or surreal killer, or sir-real killer—and all of those are too cliché—worse than turning this into a vampire story, which is maybe where you thought it was headed, the phrase about how the dog found he liked the taste of blood. After all, you are my Terrific-and-Interested-Reader, and you noted that phrase, pulled it out, kept it on file. You’re swell.

But Sorry! Again. No assumptions, okay? Remember, if you assume it makes an ass out of you and me.

    [Jack and Jill were walking up that hill for the fourth time when Jack found a stone, brightly polished, and gleaming in the sun. “Put that down,” said Jill. “We have work to do, this pail, this water, or have you forgotten the way you did it the first three times, breaking your head open, making me trip over you. Try to get it right, Jack, for once in your life.”

    “But it’s really lovely,” said Jack, turning the stone over and over in his hand. “I think it’s a wishing stone. Something this bright wouldn’t have been left here if it wasn’t important, especially in this story.”

    “You’re always making assumptions,” said Jill, grabbing the stone from him. “You are such an ass.”

    And Jack immediately turned into a donkey with very long ears and began to bray. Jill could tell by the look in his eyes that the donkey really was Jack, and she began to laugh, because she could tell he was terrified and wanted to get out and be Jack again. But he couldn’t, he wasn’t, and he never would be again.

    Of course what should have happened next was Jill saying, “Oh, Jack, I feel like a fool; I’m such an ass,” and then her turning immediately into a donkey so they could frolic over the meadow and find the dead fox, now buzzing with flies while black crows gathered and a single vulture circled in the sky.

    But she didn’t say those words. She didn’t say anything. She stood for several moments, relishing the silence between the donkey’s brays, noticing the blueness of the sky, the whiteness of the clouds, and the feel of the wind across her face and budding breasts. Then Jill pocketed the stone, picked up the pail, and walked up the hill to the well.]

Shows you should never make too much of what’s in a story. After all, it’s just a story. Even if you parse it, meta-size it, supersize the crit with fries on the side, hold the catsup, even if you do all that, what’s still left on the page, what the words fall into, after sentences, after paragraphs, after pages, what is it?

It’s good old Oedipus, is what it is. It’s Grimm. It’s A is for Apple and Z is for Zebra and Die Harder Than That Dammit and Leave Me Alone. All we want to know is: What happened? What happened then? What happens next? What happens now?

Now. Now there are four of us.

I know I am, but what are you? I know I am, but who are you? I know I am, but why are you? I know I was Alice when I got up this morning, but I think I’ve been changed several times since then.

Sometimes it’s more important to look at what’s left out. What happens in the space between the period at the end of a sentence and the next capital letter. Or even between the last letter of a word and the first letter of the next word. White space. Silence. Open invitations. White [space] White [space] White
.
Silence. Becomes tiresome after about five minutes. Then you want some noise, right? Another murder might do it. Another blot. More blood.

Three others. Not clones. But unmistakable resonance of DNA. A nose. A smile. A look. A way of laughing. Like offspring. Or relatives. He’s got his daddy’s looks all right. Look at that—she’s the spit and image of Aunt Mildred on her death bed.

What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Call me Peony.

You is you. You sit there, reading this, solid, breathing, inhabiting a space. Sitting in that chair at Starbucks or in the library or on the subway, where instead you might be standing, holding on to a pole as the rattle-clack pulse of time escorts you home to your lamb chop, or earlier inward to your desk, secure in your You-ness, pleased to be unique, even if your day has been shit, made you terrorized because he’s left, she’s yelled, the milk spilled, the diagnosis came, there was blood in the toilet or the carpet frayed. Any one of a hundred thousand grains of irk and rocks of consequence that grind against what someone’s termed happiness.

Even then, You are you. Lucky You.

Whereas I am one of four who can say I am Robert Moulthrop.

The others? Maybe a Dentist, a Barkeep, a Butcher, a Grandchild, a Baker. But only three. Others. And all secure. Because they don’t care. They didn’t get an e-mail. One of them sent it, but none of them got one. None of them left their house two days ago and saw the sign.

You would. Written in magic marker on the plywood face of the building two doors east, the building under constant renovation as if, like San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House, the developer assumes he will keep himself alive as long as he’s hearing the construction sounds of saw and hammer and sander, the rise of fall of Hispanic voices molding plaster, teasing brick, mixing mortar. He had them put a fresh piece of plywood up on the surround after the drug gangs tagged it as their own. But then, on the new piece, someone wrote YOU WOULD. Like that. Bold capital letters, but unadorned. Not graffiti the way we have come to know it, with its glorious swirls, pictures, pictographs, pictoglyphs, art. Just a two-word message. You would.

Yew wood.

If I could. But now, I am a quarter of my former self and that vanishing, like a cake of soap, frothing into a lather, washing over bare toes, swirling around the tub, words draining down my chin, joining the self-lather, two imperative word stones whirlpool-eddy-whirling- forcing draindown.

You would. Incomplete without if you could. You would, if you could. But even those five words demand completion, cannot rest on their final dentalized consonants.

Come on, finish up, Bob. I don’t want to. Do it. It is imperative that the thought be completed.

    You would, if you could. But you can’t. So you won’t.

    [One day a grasshopper met a pig. The pig ate the grasshopper, but choked on its fluttering wings and died. The pig lay rotting in the sun of the hot meadow until the red dog, lazy no more since he had tasted blood, found him and ate him.]

I am Robert Moulthr


Robert Moulthrop’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Berkeley Fiction Review, Confrontation, Eclipse, The Griffin, Harpur Palate, The MacGuffin, Old Hickory Review, Portland Review, Prime Number (a one-act play), Quaker Life (non-fiction), San Jose Studies, Sou’Wester, twenty-four hours (e-zine), Reed Magazine, Rio Grande Review, River Oak Review, and Willard & Maple.

In March 2011, he was awarded an e-Chapbook publication of a collection of seven short stories (“Grace”) by Wordrunner; and in 2010 he received first prize in the Literal Latte fiction contest; he has also received a grant for prose fiction from the New Jersey Council on the Arts. In 2005 he was awarded the New York International Fringe Festival’s Outstanding Playwriting Award for my original full-length drama, Half Life, about what happens to a family and community when dad—a convicted pedophile—comes home from prison. A second play, T. L. C., garnered the 2006 Fringe Outstanding Performance award for the tour de force 80-minute solo turn by its actress. In 2008, nytheatre.com called his Fringe play Lecture, With Cello “a tantalizing puzzle of a play … a remarkable feast for the intellect, brimming with ideas that help us look at what we take for granted in art in new and compelling ways.”

Issue No. 3, Winter 2012

Flourisher Department Store
David Massengill

Seventh Floor, 2012

Helene Lightfoot looked at herself in the mirror of the private dressing room and said, “This is the one for me. I think I’ll wear it on New Year’s Eve.” She ran her palm along the front of the dress, which was green with gold fringe.

The sales girl smiled and said, “I must say I’m thrilled to be helping a member of the Flourisher family. I’ve never met any of you.”

“Oh, right,” Helene said with a weak smile. “Sometimes I manage to forget I’m one of the family. The name didn’t stick with me when I got married.”

She saw a shadowy, leering figure dart behind her in the mirror, and that’s when she began sweating. She lowered herself into the chair in front of the mirror. Hives formed along her bare arms, and her breathing became wheezing.

“Should I get you a glass of water?” the sales girl asked.

“Please call 911,” Helene said. She touched her swollen belly and said, “I’m concerned about the baby.”

Sixth Floor, 2006

Doug Lightfoot tried not to look nervous after Helene left him alone with her mother in the Flatware Department.

“You don’t have to talk to the Dagger-Tongued One while I’m in the restroom,” Helene had whispered, pinching his rear. “Just pretend like you’re focused on looking for our wedding silverware.”

Doug peered into a glass case containing sets of solid silver while Marla Flourisher inspected shelves displaying Russian saucers. He froze when he saw a fork that appeared to be coated in blood. The crimson liquid pooled on the white cloth beneath the utensil.

“This can’t be real,” Doug said.

Marla soon stood behind him and said, “You’re probably not used to silverware as fine as that.”

Doug ignored the insult. He understood he was the only one who saw the blood. He wondered whether he was hallucinating.

Marla said in a gentle voice, “It isn’t my or my husband’s greatest desire to introduce you to our world. We know the problems that can happen when people of diverse backgrounds mix. But we’re respecting Helene’s choice because of her past…problems. Do you think you can adjust to our setting, Doug, and become like one of us?”

Doug glanced at her and back at the fork, which was now gleaming silver. He attempted to conceal his confusion when he said, “I do.”

Fifth Floor, 1996

“Come quickly!” Marla Flourisher called to the sales girl standing behind the counter of the Juniors Department. She glanced back down at Helene, who lay on the yellow carpet near a rack of floral summer dresses. Helene’s eyes were round with panic, and her entire body trembled.

The teenager looked at her mother and said, “I saw him. He was sneaking around behind me.”

Marla touched her daughter’s cheek, which was pale and cold. “Darling,” she said, “I was in the restroom with you. No one else was in there.”

“He was like a shadow,” Helene said. “And he had wings. Fleshy wings.”

“Mrs. Flourisher?” the sales girl asked in a nervous voice. She kneeled near the mother and daughter.

“I need someone to carry Helene to a private, quiet room,” Marla said. “I don’t want a scene. Maybe a fellow from the Shoes Department can help.”

“There’s a janitor repairing one of the dressing room doors,” the sales girl said. “He has his son with him.”

“Get him,” Marla said. “Now.”

She saw that Helene had closed her eyes. The trembling was lessening. Marla thought of all the therapy and medications her daughter had received since the age of 10, and still Helene was off. Surely, she and Robert could find the right doctor to fix her.

“Ma’am?” a man asked.

Marla glanced up and saw a dark-featured, middle-aged fellow standing over them. He wore a brown janitor’s uniform. Beside him was a younger and more handsome version of himself.

“We’re here to help,” the man said. “This is my son, Doug. I’m Caleb Lightfoot.”

Marla nodded toward Helene and said, “I ask that you not speak with her. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”

Fourth Floor, 1976

Caleb Lightfoot sat on a bench near a door bearing the sign PERSONNEL. He was concerned about dirtying the white leather beneath his rear. But the hiring manager had told him to wait here while he talked to someone inside the office.

Caleb heard a chorus of high-pitched laughter, and he glanced up to see another crowd of elegantly dressed, snowy-haired ladies enter the cafe next to the office.

“This is a mistake,” Caleb muttered to himself. And yet he thought maybe it wasn’t.

He’d been outside Flourisher’s, on Pine Street, when he heard the voice, masculine and whispering.

“Your purpose is inside this store.”

So he stopped his wandering around downtown Seattle. His mother used to tell him, “Listen for your guides, baby. They speak inside your head, and they’ll tell you just what you need to do.”

Caleb entered Flourisher’s for the first time in his life and spoke to a woman arranging watches beneath a glass counter.

“I need a job, ma’am,” he said. “Someone said this store might have one for me.”

Caleb now heard the door to the office open. He turned to see the hiring manager standing beside a young, golden-haired man in a sky-blue suit.

The young man held out his hand and said, “I’m Robert Flourisher. And you must be our new janitor.”

Extending his hand, Caleb had the crazy thought: What if that voice he’d heard didn’t belong to a guide, but something less benevolent? After all, it hadn’t come from his head. It came from the store.

Third Floor, 1965

Robert Flourisher followed his grandfather toward a group of sales girls congregated in one corner of the Hosiery Department. Robert saw that the girls were giving Grandpa Vince suspicious looks.

“Where is she?” Grandpa Vince spoke in a growl. Some of the sales girls flinched at the sound of his voice. Robert understood their fear. Grandpa Vince was 6’5,” broad-shouldered, and thick-limbed, and he had the sloping back of an ogre. Robert never dared contradict the man—even when Grandpa Vince told him, “You’ll be spending every Saturday of your senior year working at Flourisher’s.”

As they neared the sales girls, Grandpa Vince whispered, “Watch your elder and learn, boy.”

“So you’re not going to give her up?” Grandpa Vince asked the sales girls. “You’d prefer that you all lose your jobs?”

One of the sales girls—a pretty, red-haired one—folded her arms over her cream-colored uniform and said, “We don’t know who you’re talking about, sir.”

“The witch,” Grandpa Vince shouted. He held up the bundle of desert sage he and Robert had discovered beneath his desk. Someone had tied two long white feathers to the bundle with a strip of red ribbon. “My secretary said she saw some of the girls from the Hosiery Department leave my office.”

“It was me.” One of the sales girls stepped forward. While the other girls’ hair was sprayed or tied up into tight buns, her black locks fell to her shoulders in natural waves.

“This store is damned,” she said, glaring at Grandpa Vince. “You can make the place glitter and glow and hide the truth from all your ‘girls,’ but the spirits know what happened here.”

Grandpa Vince reached for her arm, but she dodged his grasp.

“You’ve got a very dark complexion, girl,” Grandpa Vince said. “Where are your people from?”

The sales girl’s gaze remained locked on his. “The spirits know what happened here,” she said, “and now I know what happened, too.”

“The only thing you know,” Grandpa Vince said, “is how to get yourself fired.” He turned to Robert and said, “Take our little sorceress down to the street.”

Robert stood staring at the sales girl, trying not to reveal his fear. He wondered whether he should try to grab her.

The sales girl grinned and shook her head at him. She asked, “Do you have any idea what you’ve inherited?”

Second Floor, 1927

Vince Flourisher led the long-legged sales girl up the darkened stairway, past the banner that read:

FLOURISHER DEPARTMENT STORE
Flourishing for 20 Years

He glanced behind him to make sure nobody had followed them from the anniversary party. He at least had the assurance that his wife had gone home with a migraine.

“There’s this new sofa in the Furniture Department,” he told the sales girl, slipping a hand inside her open-backed dress. “It bounces real well.”

The sales girl laughed drunkenly until she froze at the top of the stairs. Vince looked up to see the source of her hesitation.

His mother stood hunched over the railing, a ghostly white hand pressed against her chest. She wheezed as she eyed her son, and then she collapsed on the marble floor.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” Vince cried, running to her. He kneeled and squeezed her frigid hand. “I didn’t know you were up here. I never meant to cause you shock.”

Lise Flourisher looked at him with horror. “Not you,” she said. Only half her mouth moved when she spoke. “Him.” She stared in the direction of the Suits Department. The area was utterly dark.
“Somehow he’s returned,” Lise told her son. “And he’s grown his own wings.”

Vince ran into the Suits Department, ready to pummel whoever had so frightened his mother. He thought he saw a figure, but it was only his silhouette in a gilded mirror.

Mezzanine, 1905

Lise Bjornsen peered up at the gold leaves bordering the ceiling. She backed up until she was in the center of the room and staring at the painting of Aphrodite on the ceiling. The naked, voluptuous figure was surrounded by a ring of variously colored flowers and fruits. Aphrodite looked as if she were in her early twenties, like Lise.

Lise heard her own footsteps echoing throughout the space.

“The emptiness of this building unsettles me,” she had told her fiancé, Theodore Flourisher, before he went upstairs to speak with some of the construction workers.

“Just imagine all that it will hold,” he replied. “Jewels, gowns, furs. And you, my young beauty, will be the queen of my empire.”

Lise sensed someone nearby. She gasped when she saw the stranger standing behind her.

The man’s black hair was long and matted, and he wore only a mud-caked blanket. Attached to his back were wings crudely made from driftwood, animal hides, and crow feathers. His widened eyes revealed his insanity.

He didn’t move to touch her, but he fell toward her after Theodore charged him and swung a metal pipe into the back of his head.

“I should have guessed you’d try to attack my family,” Theodore said. He swung again at the winged man, who now lay on the floor at Lise’s feet, bleeding.

“But he didn’t-” Lise said in too soft a voice.

She looked up at the flowers and fruits on the ceiling as her fiancé continued to beat the man. Her eyes were on a pineapple when she heard what must have been the crushing of a skull.

Ground Floor, 1899

Theodore Flourisher stared out the cabin window at the crowd gathering around the slabs of marble. That was where the stairway would be built.

“It’s the damn Indians protesting again,” Theodore’s brother Arthur said. “They came during the night, with the fog. The Climbing Pines clan, some new ones, and, of course, the Lightfoots.”

Theodore picked up his rifle from beneath the illustration of the future Flourisher Department Store. “We warned them,” he told his brother. “Get your gun, and tell the others to do the same. This is private property. Trespassers will be shot.”

As he marched toward the mass of Indians, he heard a cackling from behind him. He turned to see that silly member of the Lightfoot family who was always hopping about with the wings on his back, pretending to be some kind of bird or bat. The young man was obviously off.

“You should be the first to go,” Theodore told the young man, cocking his rifle. “No one will miss you.”

The man continued laughing, looking mad with his slanted eyebrows and dropped jaw.

Theodore brought silence with one shot, but he didn’t bring death. The winged lunatic dashed into the evergreens bordering the construction site.

The following cries of the Indians caused all the other men to lift their rifles and fire.

Basement, 1897

Arthur Flourisher stomped through the mud toward the ladder, cursing to himself. He should have left Millie in New York until the store was complete. He didn’t need her out here, meddling in his business. She thought too much for a woman.

“You’re cross with me for coming, aren’t you?”

Arthur looked up the length of the ladder and saw Millie peering over the edge of the pit at him. Her gray stallion remained feet away from the drop.

“It’s raining, Millie,” Arthur said as he began to climb. “You shouldn’t be traipsing about outside.”

“It’s been raining for the past three months,” Millie said. “I wanted to see your work.” She pointed into the pit.

Arthur paused on the ladder and looked down at the rows and rows of bundled Indian bones. At the end of one row was a huge mound of skulls.

Arthur blushed as he looked up at his wife again.

“You didn’t tell me you were building a store in a graveyard,” Millie said. “Are you going to make all those skeletons your employees? Or perhaps you’ll sell them.”

“Very funny,” Arthur said. “We’re getting rid of them. Today. I’m going to have the men dump them in Elliott Bay.”

Millie continued staring at the Indians’ remains. She had a distant look in her eyes, as if she were imagining some horrible scenario. She then peered into Arthur’s eyes and asked, “And what happens if the bones wash up on shore?”

*

Pine Street and Sixth Avenue, 2034

Doug Lightfoot, Jr. stood across the street from Flourisher Department Store, staring up at one of the tinted seventh floor windows. That was the floor on which his mother had given birth to him before the paramedics loaded them inside the ambulance. Doug’s mother had died from internal bleeding on the drive to Harborview Medical Center.

“And my father inherited nothing,” Doug mumbled to himself. “Eleven stores across the West Coast, and the damn Flourishers didn’t give him a dime.”

Doug removed his cell phone from his coat pocket and began typing the pass code. The first would be the one stuck with gum beneath the table in the ground floor cafe, then the transparent one on the stall door in the sixth floor men’s restroom.

Before tapping the DECONSTRUCT icon on the screen of his phone, Doug recalled his father insisting, “I never wanted a piece of that store. There’s something awful about that building. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it.”

“Maybe people will see it now,” Doug said.

All seven bombs detonated just as Doug had planned during his stints in jail and his father’s slow demise from throat cancer. He’d anticipated the locations of the flames and the screaming shoppers pouring out of 650 Pine and the billowing, blackened sky.

What surprised him was the winged thing that emerged from a smoking hole in the side of the building and lifted into the air.


David Massengill lives in Seattle. His short stories and works of flash fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Eclectica Magazine, Word Riot, 3 A.M. Magazine, Pulp Metal Magazine, and Yellow Mama, among others. His stories have also appeared in the anthologies Gothic Blue Book: The Revenge Edition (Burial Day Books), State of Horror: California (Rymfire Books), and Long Live the New Flesh: Year Two (The New Flesh). Read more of his fiction at www.davidmassengillfiction.com.