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catching up with contributors: recent work from Amanda Miska

12 Jul

Let us count the ways we love Amanda Miska. She’s a writer! She’s an editor! She’s an amazing colleague!

One day, a comet zoomed through our sky, and from it fell an Amanda Miska story, and, blessed souls we knew ourselves to be, we published it in our Fall 2014 issue. If you have not read it yet, you should. And if you read it in 2014 but haven’t returned to it, please do. It’s beautiful. Go read it now: “Slow Wave.

We’ve watched Miska stories (and essays) emerge, and we always read them as soon as we see something new. Here’s a sampling of the past few years’ publications. (go read them all)

The Sinner and the Saint” at Atticus Review

A Good Ache” at Matchbook

Incompatible with Life” at Hobart

Weightless and Hysterical” at Little Fiction

 

PRJ 1, 2, and 3, and Remaking Moby-Dick: an update

12 Mar

We are now making all issues and projects of PRJ available as free download. If you’d like a print copy, we are offering them at cost.

PRJ 3 print ($7.40 cost plus shipping)free download


PRJ 2 print ($7.04 cost plus shipping)free download


PRJ 1 print ($6.86 cost plus shipping)free download


Remaking Moby-Dick print ($11.48 cost plus shipping)free download; at Scribd; at Amazon

 

The files are huge, but they are now all yours.

Liz Ahl. Walnut.

22 Feb

WALNUT

I shove the couch away from the wall
to clean out what’s collected there—

and the walnut glows like a knob of kryptonite,
brings me to my knees amidst the dust balls.

The memory’s all sucker-punch: the glint of nutpicks,
the hard shells of hazelnuts, pecans, filberts, walnuts

rapping their knuckles against the sides
of that special bowl you saved for Christmas parties.

To impress me, you’d crack a pair inside your fist,
offer me the treasure of those shards and innards.

Defeated here, years later, on my knees, the bitter tannin
of nutmeats ambushes me. How long

since I cleaned under here? Has it been five years
since the tumor’s tight fist slowly unfolded inside you?

Once, this dry brown knuckle was a seed. Inside it,
a tree waited. Now it’s dry, a desiccated mummy in a coffin.

It is the sharp taste of your absence, rattling its cage;
it is this lump blooming in my throat.

Susan O’Dell Underwood. Tick.

15 Feb

TICK

Cruelty went by other names:
necessity, caution, tradition.
My daddy would haul a hound dog to his side,
ribcage firm against ribcage,
and with his free hand search along the short-haired hide
to find each tick stuck like a backward
bloody nipple, suckling, full enough to burst.
The old dogs never skittish of the sulfur smell,
the match he struck burning close enough
to shrivel the tick’s legs and then the tick.
And I was never skittish either,
nuzzling the young pups nose to nose,
calming them that it would be okay.
I couldn’t help wanting to watch each tortured,
sizzling black release of ruptured oily ooze,
the smell of hair and death,
and sometimes even laughing at the yelp
when the flame came close to skin.

Nothing in that memory torments me.
A tick is a nasty creature.
Habits haunt me which they never let me witness—
the calves bawling in the barn at their castration,
the ball-peen hammer cracking the grown steer’s skull.
I found the copperhead already hoed in two
beside the garden lilies.

One day my brother and I
would visit the dog’s pen near the barn
to see her pups. The next day they’d be gone.
No grown up said a word about her pacing solitude.
How did we figure out the strangling or the drowning?
I never saw, yet still see in my mind
their little whiskered faces
puckered up, eyes closed and wincing
for one more breath,
and someone’s hand I loved
moving to choose another.

Trina Gaynon. Sixties Tract Plan.

8 Feb

SIXTIES TRACT PLAN

Blindfolded, you could find your way
through any house on any cul-de-sac—
living room opening before you,
sliding glass doors to the rear.

Dining room to the right of the entry,
a galley kitchen behind, hanging cabinets
between them, often vanquished
in the process of remodeling.

This is the house whose private rooms
dangle off a hall, four bedrooms, two baths.
A sharp angle into the master suite
creates a sense of privacy for parents.

You could sleepwalk to the mirrored closets
and dress before stumbling out to the sidewalk.
If the next front door is unlocked,
find where your room would be, try on a new life.

Ed Higgins. Poem for the Betraying Lover and His New Love.

1 Feb

POEM FOR THE BETRAYING LOVER AND HIS NEW LOVE

Wishing he holds you all night, unshaven chin
between your breasts. The loosed pillow case
wedged between the headboard and box springs,
around your neck. The two of you dreaming I’ve
set lit candles under the bed. And now, now I have.

Danny Powell. Tomorrow Was Hers.

25 Jan

TOMORROW WAS HERS

It had to be a note. The words would have never come out of his mouth the way he wanted. He would have stared at her and sputtered. She would have heard the words in her heart and cried.

The pen ran out halfway through and he hurried to the kitchen drawer where they kept a stash of others. He grabbed one without looking, not realizing it was blue, and missed the irony as he traced over the last fading black word on the page—bruised—and continued writing.

She was sobbing long before the colors changed. The only other time he had left a note for her on the table was the only other time he had left. It was two years before and she had known he would be back. Now, she knew he was gone for good.

They had decided on a name: Erin Emily. Everyone was secretly hoping she would have Rebecca’s smile and Charlie’s eyes. The opposite turned out to be true, but no one mentioned it. Charlie had forgotten about them and they were going to forget about Charlie.

Forgetting wasn’t so easy for Rebecca, and after Erin Emily entered the world she sat down and wrote her own note—

Dear Charlie,

I just want you to know that Erin Emily and I are doing fine. She’s sixteen now and beautiful. More importantly, she’s brilliant and kind-hearted, and she has the most amazing spirit. I thought you might like to know. I also thought you might like to know some of the things you’ve missed over the years. Well, here’s a quick rundown:

Erin’s first smile. Her first laugh.
The first time she crawled, and her first steps.
Her first word: mama. Her second word: milk.
Her first Halloween—she wanted to be an astronaut. I made the costume myself.
Her first day of pre-school. She cried and cried. When I picked her up in the afternoon, she couldn’t wait to go back the next day.
Her first time without training wheels.
Her first broken bone. It was her right arm when she fell off the monkey bars at school.
Her second broken bone. Left ankle. Skateboarding.
Her first straight-A report card. She’s only received two B’s since.
Her first Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy. The pictures are adorable. Her favorite books, too many to name.
Her first crush. Her last boyfriend.
Her first goal in soccer. Her first home run in softball.
Her first spelling bee victory. She went on to win two more…in a row.
Her love of the flute. Her hatred of the flute. Her love for it again (and still). Her vegetarian phase. Her Goth phase. Her poetry phase.
Her valedictorian speech at 8th grade graduation. Funny, poignant, and unforgettable.
Her Sweet Sixteen birthday party.
Passing the driving test on her first attempt. Her first car: my hand-me-down van.
Her smile. The light in her eyes. Her love.

—then folded the paper into a square and placed it inside a small, wooden box given to her by her grandfather when she was too young to remember.

Erin Emily discovered the box at the bottom of a suitcase of clothes in the back of her mother’s closet. She read the note, shed tears, and laughed, the memory of her mom drifting between thoughts of her 5th grade clarinet, the pictures of the pumpkin costume, the broken pinky finger, and her high school valedictorian speech.

Luke Wortley. Sarah.

4 Jan

SARAH

Even as she lay dying, Sarah knew that, when it was over, she must remain dead forever. Sarah also knows that, when she uttered her last syllables, her family gathered round could only hear her as one hears through the crackle of radio while driving through the mountains on the way back from Richmond. She’s since heard the same fizzy murmurs from other people in the house as they died, but for some reason they don’t come to join her. Sarah also remembers the coughing and the tightening of muscles in her face, remembers her mama’s palms, calluses catching in her snowy hair, her daddy’s first tear. She remembers iridescence angling through her window and leaking onto her forearm in a pool of dusty air the way it does down at the mouth of the holler well after the rest of the world has already woke up. She remembers the feeling of light scraping her skin without warmth, and she remembers the cooling band of her grandma’s turquoise-studded ring against her earlobe.

Sarah remembers a building pressure beneath her skin that bubbled up and collapsed inward again, drawing all the tightness to her chest. She was the fish her older brother hauled out of the Kentucky River, jaws opening and closing with such violence, throats bloating and gills flaring as they sucked in the terrible, terrible oxygen. They thrashed on the end of the line. She, too, thrashed beneath her coffin quilt til she bit her tongue, just before her eyes closed and her head folded into the pillows like an egg being cradled by a feathered breast.

She awoke almost immediately and felt unreal. She could see her body crumpled into the sheets, her mama’s hands trembling like tuning forks.

After several years of being dead, Sarah now has an acute awareness of the existence of her own hands, their uselessness. She still imagines they itch, even though she knows she can’t actually scratch them. She can’t feel anything, actually; it’s as though her skin is covered in healed burns. Sarah can walk, can’t glide as she thought ghosts could. She’s gotten used to it, the idea of being a ghost, though complete darkness still scares her. And she’s remained in this form since, unable to see herself as she used to, the clear and colorful way she looked in the vanity while mama touched up her blouse on Sundays.

She has, however, seen her parents die, seen her brothers and sisters leave. And she’s seen two other families move in before this one. Her older brother, Scotty, toasted the first ones with a glass of bourbon. No ice. No chink of the glass. Just the silent slap of caramel liquor against the lips and a sudden swallow. During his final days at the house Sarah watched him smoke on the back porch and rock in a bleached wicker chair. She remembers she could almost hear the bluegrass growing, could almost see the pollen roiling about in the air. She remembers a few cowbirds, dark as the topside of a catfish, nesting in the sycamore trees out back, the smell of honeysuckle.

When Scotty left for the last time, Sarah ran down the gravel drive after him. Something, though, held her back—a pressing force that prevented her from leaving. She went back to cower in the entryway on the tile and cried. In the days following, she prowled around her empty bedroom. Every once in a blue moon she thinks about when her furniture got taken outside. Her mattress folded and thrown in the trash, the wooden headboard tossed on the burn pile in the washout basin lined with stones. Sarah waded through the smoky remains the next morning, unaware of the heat, and watched white smoke rise from the ashes. She wanted to feel the stones poke the bottoms of her bare feet, hoping the fire might rekindle. Though, of course, she felt nothing, and before long, she climbed the bank and walked through the bluegrass and into the thistle which, as most things did, made her miss her mama a lot. She remembers when, before she died, she wandered through a thistle thicket and emerged about a mile from the house at the old Holloway crop line, legs swollen and covered in tiny red gashes. Her whole body itched and stung at the same time, and mama gave her a wet washcloth and slathered something on her shins that eased the burning.

She remembers that, shortly after her own death, she started to lose her mama. Her mama would light candles in the bathroom and soak in the tub without washing herself until her hands turned wrinkly. Sarah thought the water made her older. Her spine started to curl, and her shuffling footsteps became barely perceptible unless you listened real hard. What was most surprising of all, though, was not her mother’s aging. She had always known that old people existed. Her grandma had been old. What was truly strange was that she found herself watching her daddy more and more, and although Sarah knew he mourned her death, she had no specific memory of his weeping other than the dangling thought of a tear. So, the first time she really saw her daddy weep still came as a shock. He drank a lot that night, and each time he brought the bottle to his mouth he unbuttoned another button of his shirt. She saw the big bulge in his throat bob up and down several times before he finally let the bottle back down to the couch cushion. He screamed something incoherent over the top of the television that crackled with black static. And then he started to cry. Sarah remembers his gut jiggling as his shoulders heaved up and down. A shiny wetness slid out from his eyes and clung to his cheeks like dew.

Sometimes, especially when the Kochs are out, she goes upstairs to the guest room, her old room, and cries. The bedspread is crisp, and the paisley pillows match the comforter. The carpet is the color of an ancient map. A school desk sits in the corner; above that is a shelf that houses three bumpy, conical figurines of Santa Claus and a wicker basket with a broken handle. The twigs curl and splay like horsehair.

The first family, the Cunninghams, had a dog that whined when she came near. It cried like an old, rusty swing. They didn’t stay long. Sarah remembers the dining room table that Scotty had left behind, covered in papers with all sorts of numbers on them. Jagged envelopes with more papers stuffed in. Stacks and stacks of papers.

“What did we do wrong?” Sheryl Cunningham had asked.

The Smiths, the family that moved in after, made good food. The smell wafted from the stove and snaked through the air like a living thing. Choir tones lifted up and out of the mouth of a large cleaning woman as she washed dishes with yellow rubber gloves that came up to her elbows. Her flat shoes shuffled silently across the checkered-flag tile. And Sarah would run along the fence line with the children, Mary Ellen and Paul. She always wanted to show them how she could blow all the seeds off dandelions in one breath.

“Watch,” she’d shout at them, her fingers slipping through the stems. Once, she thought they heard, but after a brief pause they just stooped and ripped up clover by the handful.

The Smiths stayed for a while and cleaned up the property. By the time Scotty had left, the land was a complete mess. Out back, the two hulking sycamores had been through two bouts of disease, and though they had survived, most of the bonelike limbs had stopped growing, morphing into spindly fibers that curled like insect legs. Scotty had sold some of her family’s land a few years before he finally left, a few acre parcel that backed up to the highway, unable to take care of it any longer, where kudzu had strangled the cottonwoods, wrapping around the barbed-wire fence and growing up and up, adhering to everything, draping itself like a circus tent over the site where, decades ago, before even Sarah and her folks had moved in, they found rusty shackles attached to a plough, caked in loam.

But eventually they also left.

This is the third family—the Kochs—to live in the house since her family. Don is bald and reads the paper. His wife Kathy bustles around the kitchen in the mornings, clinking together breakfast. And Juniper was about Sarah’s age when they moved in, which is to say that Juniper was about Sarah’s age when she died—about seven. Now ten, Juniper likes bubble baths and calls her parents mama and daddy. They’ve been there a while, and even so, Sarah also has yet to find a way to interact with anyone since her death, though not for lack of trying. She’s been trying for a very long time.

She’s repeatedly tried to talk to the Koch family, even gone so far as to reach her hand through the back of Don’s newspaper; she’s tried to blow out candles, open and shut doors—all with little to no effect. All the things she thought ghosts might do. Yet so far Sarah has failed to make any noticeable impression whatsoever on the world of the living. And after years of complete silence, she wonders if anyone will hear her voice again, a feeling compounded by the sight of cardboard boxes beginning to pile up against the back door yet again.

***

As the day wanes, Sarah seethes and watches Kathy fuss over potholders and hand towels. Upstairs she hears the slamming sound of water hitting the tub. Sarah drags herself up the stairs with the faintest hope that she might, after all this time, be able to communicate with someone before they, too, leave her. The bathroom door is open, and there’s Juniper all wrapped in a towel and sitting on the edge of the tub and feeling the water. Sarah remembers squatting in the hot water and the feeling of just squatting there, uncomfortably aware of the heat on her privates until mama made her sit down and tilt her head back.

Juniper undresses. Sarah looks away, covers her eyes. Eventually Sarah hears the sound of feet squeaking along the bottom of the tub for a moment and the sharp intake of breath as June’s body sinks beneath the steamy surface. She uncovers her eyes and stares at Juniper for several minutes, taking in the sight of her. Juniper’s arms are sudsy sleeves, and Sarah can’t help the rolling sensation in her chest that bursts forth—something like a giggle or a hiccup. A combination of the two. A gigglup, she thinks. And this makes her laugh even harder. Juniper doesn’t respond; Sarah just stands there watching Juniper soak, still laughing and unheard. She hasn’t been this close to anyone in a long time.

“Is the water warm?” she asks as she reaches forward to test it herself. Her hand disappears into the water. She looks at Juniper’s face and detects the smallest hint of disturbance.

She says over and over, “Can you hear me? Juniper? June? Please!”

Eventually Sarah closes her eyes and screams and screams, trying to pummel the water with both her ghostly, childish fists.

“Mama!” yells Juniper. Her voice, though shrill, is good.

No answer. She could be in the garage poking around boxes. Juniper sighs and flips the switch to let the water drain.

Sarah is grasping for a connection. The water must’ve gotten cold. Dead people were cold. She was dead. She must be cold. This thought excites her young mind. She’s never come this close to garnering a direct response from anyone. A shout catches in her throat and sort of tumbles out of her mouth awkwardly, like a cough. Sarah feels what she imagines warmth would feel like, what she remembers warmth felt like.

“Juniper? June?” she says again.

Juniper pauses and looks in the mirror and wipes off a section with a towel. Sarah stands behind her so that she can have a look as well. Not too close. As expected, she can’t see her own reflection clearly, but Juniper, on the other hand, is clear. The valleys of her collarbones delicately stretched and indented like the tops of a drum; the mole above her lip clear as a beetle on the screen door; water beads on her shoulders, refracting her freckles, enlarging them. She smiles. Sarah smiles back, only able to imagine what it looks like. Before long Juniper shivers and turns around. She sidles right through her ghostly friend, and Sarah turns around just in time to see Juniper look back. For the first time in a long while, she questions whether or not she is alive. She spends the night in the guest room and imagines drawing shapes in the carpet as she used to.

The next morning Sarah waits for the family to come downstairs, waits for the sunlight to slide through the bay window of the living room. It feels like Christmas morning. Even the cardboard boxes appear glossy. Don traipses down the stairs first, still in his pajamas. It must be a weekend, because he doesn’t come down in slacks. He mumbles something, slides the back door open, and slithers his belly through. Sarah knows he’s peeing off the deck.

“Don, really?” Kathy asks as she thumps into the kitchen. For a skinny woman, her feet make a lot of noise. She also scrubs the calluses on her feet with a stone hairbrush.

“Hell we’re only in here for another couple days,” Don says over his shoulder, “Might as well.”

Kathy throws her arms up, begins to set out some of the remaining glassware for breakfast. Sarah waits for Juniper.

“Come on,” Sarah says, rocking on the balls of her feet.

Juniper finally comes downstairs, working her knuckles into her eyelids as she tries to get rid the sleep. Sarah remembers that her own dreams were always gone by morning.

“Morning, beautiful,” says Don, edging his way back into the kitchen.

Juniper doesn’t respond. Instead she sits down at the table and buries her face in her arms; a hoarse moan escapes.

“You’re up early,” says Kathy, “You feeling okay, sweetheart?”

Kathy walks over and places the back of her hand on Juniper’s forehead. Sarah remembers her own mama doing this, remembers the first visit with the doctor and the taste of treated wood on her tongue. She remembers a swollen, red feeling and heat crawling along the roof of her mouth.

“Don, she’s burning up.”

‘What’s wrong?’ asks Sarah.

Don walks over and puts his hand on Juniper’s forehead as well. “Come on, sweetie. Back to bed.”

He scoops her up. Juniper’s hands look infantile, as though they have never grasped anything. She sniffles and lets out another gravelly moan as Don hoists her up to get a better grip. Sarah watches them walk away toward the stairs.

“I’ll get her some medicine and some water,” Kathy calls after them.

She busies herself pouring tawny liquid into a spoon and gets a glass of water from the tap. Sarah follows Kathy’s measured footsteps upstairs, watches as she hands the glass of water to Don, lifts Juniper’s head up from the pillow, and angles the spoon between Juniper’s lips. Juniper’s face contorts, and she coughs at the bitterness. Even though it looks like honey, Sarah remembers that cough medicine tastes like metal.

“You should get some sleep now, sweetheart,” says Kathy.

“Is she okay? What is it?” asks Sarah.

Sarah looks to the opposite wall, looks at the shelves. A small collection of trinket boxes winks back at her: a baby carriage with candy pink wheels; a pilgrim with white frilly collar and red, red lips; a gold-studded seahorse; a rotary phone on a chain, also pink. Everything looks rusty; the whole world loses its shine.

“Let her sleep,” says Don.

Don and Kathy leave the room. Sarah creeps up to Juniper’s bedside. “I know how you feel,” she says.

Juniper stirs, reaches over for the glass of water on her bedside, and takes a sip. Sarah reaches out to stroke Juniper’s brown hair. Juniper clears her throat, and Sarah thinks she can feel Juniper’s breath as she fusses under the covers before finally getting up and plodding her way down the hall to the bathroom.

Sarah remembers back to her own sickness, remembers that in the final moments she felt far away from everyone. She knew others were there, but she herself was unreachable. She has replayed her final memories of dying so many times: grandma’s turquoise ring, daddy’s spectral tear, mama’s shaking hands. Sarah remembers these things, and she remembers the tightness, the pressure.

Sarah finds herself in the corner hugging her knees and crying.

She opens her eyes and looks at the glass of water. She shuts them again, screws up her face, and bites on the insides of her mouth, the fleshiness of which she is aware for the first time in years. She remembers how it feels to have her inner cheeks crushed between molars, the jagged feeling of flesh rubbing against teeth. Sarah imagines herself small. Small as a dust bunny. Lithe and thin like a dandelion seed being carried up in the wind. She imagines herself submerged in the glass of water on the table and being tilted back, peering down over the rim of into the back of Juniper’s throat. Sarah careens over the sandy tongue, past the uvula and down the throat where she breaks apart and is forced through ribbed tubules, pumped into an outer extremity, washed over insides.

As Sarah thinks this beautiful thought, she hears the unmistakable thunk of the glass wetly adhering itself back to the end table. She opens her eyes to see Juniper crawling back under the sheets. The comforter rises and falls slightly with each breath. Sarah wonders if, when she breathed her final breath, the quilt floated for a moment before it fluttered down and came to rest on her lifeless body. This, of course, the one moment she can’t remember.

 

 

LUKE WORTLEY hails from the Bluegrass and says yall a lot and can whip up some fried chicken that’ll make a tomcat smack a bulldog. He’s also currently the fiction editor at Booth: A Journal and the co-founder of Axolotl. You can follow him at @LukeWortley.

Grant Clauser. Visiting the Old House.

28 Dec

VISITING THE OLD HOUSE

No one knows you here
now, not the cracks in the sidewalk
or the oak tree growing over the roof.
In the first room, you think you see
a face you knew, a ghost on the
glass or shadows coming down the stairs.
It’s just a wish you planted, a dream
you left in the back room or sitting
at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee.
In the yard there’s a new garden
where you buried the dog
and you don’t want to ask the new people
about the bones, how they ran or
if the tail wagged in greeting even once.
If you looked, of course there’s still
a beam in the attic with your name on it
and a hundred nails or so you hammered
in the walls, each one a dedication, a promise
to make things right as you pound the steel.
So when you walk away again,
this time not daring to look back,
the door left open in the winter wind
be sure, be a hammer every step
to the road and then tear it down
as you go home.

 

 

GRANT CLAUSER is the author of the books Necessary Myths and The Trouble with Rivers. By day he writes about home technology and dreams about fly fishing. Poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Cortland Review, Moon City Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review and others. In 2010, he was Montgomery County Poet Laureate. He started the Montco Wordshop in Lansdale, teaches poetry writing at Philadelphia’s Musehouse, and runs the blog unIambic.

Matt Paul. Naked as He Came.

21 Dec

NAKED AS HE CAME

Ben pounded the Dodge Charger’s brake in front of his old house, the passenger-side wheel mounting the rise in the curb. He sat admiring the fender-shaped impression in the garage door, and remembered his wife trying hard that night to shrug it off, the reverend’s intervention a few days later, how at the time he just couldn’t stop laughing.

As the engine idled, he swabbed the flop sweat salting his lips and took in everything that had changed: a black iron lamppost in the front yard caught the shine from a brand new Ford pick-up truck in the drive—a brute of a machine that covered the paving stones he’d painstakingly laid down three summers ago.

In the rear-view mirror he tightened his tie knot to cover the missing button on his Goodwill shirt. He drank cheap turpentine whiskey from a faux-silver hip flask, spilled some, cursed himself. He figured he’d get away with the stains if he kept his suit jacket fastened.

The car door took a few hard swings to shut properly. He counted three times out loud. He heard a soft purr and scratch that he reckoned was him reaching the level of drunk where sounds become a living, ungrabbable thing.
The scratching continued, low and muted, like the treble turned all the way down. It pushed its way through into the here, now, happening. A fox standing in the middle of the cul-de-sac’s turning circle was staring him down.

“Welcome to the neighbourhood,” he thought it would say if it could. “Don’t even think about getting comfortable.”

In Ben’s mind, the fox spoke like a grizzled detective from some fifties noir. He flipped it a middle finger, the fox cocking its head with curiosity.

Walking heel to toe along an invisible line in the road to test his poise, Ben reached an L-shaped row of neck-high redwood trees lining the yard. He pushed through the branches instead of shuffling by and they sprang right back up into his face. Graves’ Property Solutions was emblazoned along the side of the truck in italic script font. Ben cupped his eyes and peered inside the driver-side window; an open map and crusted burger wrappers littered the foot wells. All he knew about cars was that people kicked the tyres, but it looked like a nice ride. He took aim and booted the front tyre, his foot bouncing onto the wheel arch and setting off the alarm. A bedroom light came on, and more from neighbouring houses. He still had time to run, he thought, but these days he was trying to be a man who stuck around, learning through a self-help book that no problem is solvable unless you own it. He rubbed out the pain in his shin and wondered if it was bleeding. Movement at the door activated the porch light and he only had a moment to adopt a casual pose.

The silhouette of a stocky male appeared in the doorway.

“Can I help you, pal?” said in an accent Ben couldn’t place. The silhouette was holding something in his sweatpants pocket.

“Travis, it’s OK. It’s my husband.”

Mindy stepped out beside Travis, folding a thin robe across her chest. Her hair had been pulled into tight braids. She looked like she’d put on a few pounds. Travis stretched a tree branch arm across her and leant on the porch support, handgun brandished.

“This guy?” he asked.

“Hey, beautiful.” Ben said. He stood tall and made his chest swell as if he were confronting a bear in the forest. The effort made him sputter and cough, and he knew that Mindy could already tell he’d been drinking.

“I just came for my personal effects,” he said, doubling-over.

“Buddy, it’s after two, whatever junk you got can wait.’”

Mindy stepped down into the yard. There was a succession of soft pops and fizzes as a swarm of horse-flies kamikaze’d the bug zapper. The late-summer breeze carried a waft of sulphur from the flooded storm drain.

“Kim told you about Travis?”

“Your sis gets real truthful after a few.”

“Take her home with you?”

“Came right here. Remember when you said you wanted to be the priority?’”

Mindy made a knot in her robe. “Let’s just get this done,” she said. “Leave your dirt on the porch.”

Ben wriggled out of his shoes at the top of the steps and followed Mindy inside. He tried to breathe in the familiar smell of her coconut body butter, now replaced by citrus perfume. He purposely passed the Travis sentry within inches of his face, thinking he could take him if the situation called for it. He made a mental note to aim for the band-aid stretched above his eyelid.

“First of all I resent the accusation that I’m drunk,” Ben said in the front room.

“No one said a damn thing about anything,” Travis said, shutting the door and pulling the chain across. Ben thought Travis looked around the same age, but his skin was worn out like a cattle-hide that’d been smacked down by the sun after years of working outside. He wore an oversized grey-white tee shirt saying I beat the meat feast challenge. Ben bet he’d beaten a few.

Mindy said Travis’ name from the kitchen like a mother chastising her child.

He showed Ben his palms in surrender. “Gotta do what the lady says, right?”

Ben said nothing, jangling the small change in his pockets instead. He felt something different swell in his chest—it was his house, bought and part-paid, but he was a visitor now. His life, but he’d been uninvited. Wallpaper strips pasted across the once berry-red feature-wall formed a New York cityscape, recognisable from the Empire State building’s needle piercing the leaden skyline. The gas fire had been ripped out and replaced with a cast iron wood- burner framed by a marble-look surround. Above the mantelpiece hung a silver filigree-framed mirror instead of his plasma TV. It really did give the box room the illusion of space like Mindy always said it would. A seat made from railway sleepers had been built into the bay window where his liquor bar had once stood. He scrunched his toes into the soft carpeting, tried to imagine assuming this role again, what he’d change if given the opportunity, what he’d admit to keeping the same.

“You sittin’ or what?” Travis said from Ben’s recliner—the tan leather executive edition with built-in shiatsu setting and an ice chest underneath the armrest. Ben had bought it on layaway and hadn’t finished paying it off when he and Mindy split.

Travis picked at his teeth, wiping his fingers down the side of the seat cushion.

Mindy carried a mug of black coffee and a brown bottle of something that looked like beer but was probably organic elderflower. “It’s late, Travis, we don’t want to keep him,” she said, handing out the drinks then sitting in the window. She eyed Ben as she folded her loose ankle-length skirt underneath her, as if to make the point that she’d rediscovered her dignity and was sure as hellfire not misplacing it again.

As Travis carefully peeled the bottle label, and Mindy posed lotus style with her eyes closed, Ben thought she looked like she was about to teach a class on how a diet of green tea and lima beans leads to existential enlightenment. She’d flirted with new-age stuff when he was still around, sporadically taking Yoga classes, touring each major religion. The dyed-in-the-soy-cotton-wool life suited her. All he had to do was figure out where he fit.

While Mindy fussed with the window seat cushions, Travis lifted the lounger’s armrest and shoved the bottle deep into the ice. He pulled out a brown bottle of something different, the label pre-peeled, and faux-smiled wide at Ben as he slouched further into the chair and released the footrest.

“It looks so different in here, darl’n,” Ben said, circling the room. He glanced down the short hallway that led to the kitchen, taking smug comfort in it looking much the same: the foundation crack still ran from the baseboard to the yellow-haloed damp pooled behind the cornicing. “What else is new?”

“I boxed your things. Why don’t you go grab them from the utility room and I’ll call you a cab,” Mindy said from behind a veil of calm.

“Utility room? You have been busy, Trav.”

Travis drummed his pocket to some internal beat as he watched Ben pass
by him towards the fireplace.

“Chop your own wood?” Ben asked.

“Naw, we just throw in your old clothes.”

“What was wrong with the other fire?”

“Gas is so inefficient, Ben,” Mindy said, scraping her hair back into a ponytail then stretching her arms above her head into a pyramid. “We’re going off the grid. Travis is getting us a deal on solar panels for the roof.”

Ben ran his flat palm across the recently plastered chimney wall as if he were inspecting the finish. He didn’t know much about anything but to his mind it looked like Travis was a pro. “Seems like you got with the right guy for the job,” he said, careful not to sound wistful.

“Everything else is easy once you find the stud, eh, babe?”

Mindy shook her head but let a smile slip through. “Go on, Ben, out
through the kitchen.”

“Rustle me up a sirloin while you’re out there, boy.” Travis added.

Ben let that one go. He was a better man now, and Mindy would soon see it.
The kitchen still smelled like turned milk from when Ben had a smoothie explosion and couldn’t mop the bulk of it without tearing out the cabinets.
He’d seen plenty of Travis’ type when he’d spent a few summers working the forklift on a strip-mall construction site: all nail gun, no nails. He’d crashed at enough of these guy’s trailers to know exactly what he’d find if he searched hard enough. Opening the wall-mounted cupboard, it turned out Travis was a rookie when it came to hiding his stash. Tucked lengthways behind stacked rows of canned corned beef was a bottle of Jameson’s, half full. Ben took the hip flask from his inside pocket, filling it until the liquid bubbled at the rim. He kept taking sips to bring the level down.

“Did you find it?” Mindy shouted from the front room.

“Just refilling my mug. It’s great coffee.” Mindy hadn’t dropped the habit of stirring hot drinks with a cinnamon stick. It still tasted like compost but this time it made him balk at the filter in the motel coffee-maker that dripped all damn night and had already claimed his security deposit by water logging the carpet.

Searching for cream to mask the earthy sediment, he noticed a photo fixed to the fridge door inside a heart-shaped magnet. He internally poked fun at
how feeble it looked, the way a group of emotionally anorexic teens would point and laugh at an old man sitting alone at a bus stop.

From their orange lifejackets, red-brown faces, and the sea foam filling the background, Ben guessed they were on a speedboat somewhere warm. Mindy used to hate the heat.

“Let’s go on a road trip,” Mindy had said from the porch swing when Ben got back from his last shift at the site. “Wanna be bums or bohemians? Hallucinate bats along Route 66, or wear berets and black turtlenecks while we sit in the back of a jazz club in Nawwlins? We can be whoever we want. I would’ve been bored on a beach, anyway.”

Life, Ben surmised with the newfound wisdom from a fresh whiskey buzz, was a succession of what-if, if only I’d, and why didn’t I.

What if he’d rented an open-top before he got all scared and dismissive? If only he’d taken her somewhere instead of buying a 60” TV and a used
Dodge while she was away for the weekend at a guided meditation retreat. Why didn’t he get out of the car when she begged, instead of drunkenly
gunning it into the garage door while she was standing vaguely in its path?

“Women and photos, huh?” said Travis, who’d sneaked into the room while Ben was daydreaming. “Click, click all the damn time, and the doghouse if you refuse to get in the shot.”

He turned a full circle, rubbing patchy weeks-old stubble, and eyed up the hip flask Ben was still holding. “Sharing’s caring, pal. I’m fucked if I can remember where I put anything.”

Ben offered it without complaint. Travis rubbed the rim on his tee shirt and threw back a long one, dribbling on the tile. He met Ben’s stare as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and pushed the flask hard into Ben’s chest. Travis whooped and shouted hot damn, and Ben placed his accent at somewhere down in bayou-country with miles of nothing between Wal-Marts, KKK rallies, and gun stores hawking assault rifles to rednecks sober enough to find their credit card.

“That was in Florida,” Travis said, gesturing towards the fridge. “Got a cousin down there fixes up hovercrafts. Fifty em-pee-aytch, gators snapping at us, and she’s yellin’ at me to keep the camera steady.”

“What a drag,” Ben said. Mindy never used to like pictures. She always said it was good enough to experience something without needing proof that it
happened. They once drove all day to see Pearl Jam play Wrigley Field. From their nosebleed seats they could see a dotted seascape of camera phones like pinholes in a black sheet. The crowd were watching the entire concert through a screen, a split-second delayed rendition of the here-now event. Mindy couldn’t see the sense in it. “Why delay the present when you could be living it now?” she said while driving us along the vacant highway that night.

“Speaking of,” she added, on a roll. “I’ve decided we should do California on this road trip—got it all mapped out. First we visit my mom in Tijuana. Now don’t start with me, she got remarried last year and I haven’t even met the guy. After TJ we take the I-5 to LA, where we gorge on tacos and decide who we want to be, then along the pacific coast highway to San Fran. After that I want to keep going north to Eureka cos I want to shout eureka when we pass the welcome sign, then maybe Crescent City for the redwood trees because you know how I love those. Who do you think you’ll be? I’m thinking of becoming a tree surgeon.”

Ben pretended to be asleep, letting her words fade into the blacktop. Through to their first wedding anniversary she kept raising the subject, and he stopped answering long enough for her to quit it by the second.

“I got this, you know,” Travis said, eclipsing Ben’s personal space by leaning against the fridge with that tree branch arm. “I mean, Jesus H, man, did you steal this suit from a homeless guy? You look like you fall asleep on buses.”

He unfastened one of Ben’s shirt buttons and flicked his tie. One of Travis’ molars was yellow-black. His breath smelled like a wet mop in a dive bar. Ben knew there was no way he could take him, even with the butter knife he’d tucked into his shirt sleeve. Travis brought his hand up quick like he was throwing a punch, but at the last second ran his fingers through his flimsy widow’s peak.

“Yeah, we’re good here,” Travis said, then up-nodded across the kitchen to an open door. Satisfied that he’d thrown a scare into Ben, he cowboy-walked through the arch. His hand hovered over his pocket, ready to draw.

The whiskey had given Ben enough nerve to square himself up and follow.

“What’s his deal, showing up so late?” he heard Travis say from the corridor.

“After this we’re free and clear. Promise.” The recliner shifted and groaned under added weight.

“Just want you to myself is all,” Travis said.

“You’ll soon have to learn to share.”

“Still can’t believe it’s happening.”

“This is what happens when a mummy and a daddy love each other very much and we get too drunk to tear the condom wrapper.”

“Quit it, space girl. You know I can’t wait to meet this kid.”

“I love that you smile when you say that.”

Ben heard smacking lips and tried to taste it. He pictured himself as Travis and tried to imagine what he was feeling. This version of Mindy was a bad facsimile. She’d never wanted kids, never settled for settling. What Ben loved about her had gone, or been buried deep enough to be forgotten. She’d chosen who to be and it wasn’t a person he knew, or cared to. This house, this street, this life was someone else’s pop-up picture book.

Ben slipped back down the corridor to the wood-panelled annexe. On a shelf above the washing machine and dryer he found a cardboard box labelled Ben’s crap. Inside was a roll of green felt, packs of playing cards, and multicoloured poker chips. He found a rusted can of Zippo lighter fluid under the kitchen sink, and a box of matches in the cutlery drawer. Ben wanted the Jameson’s, too, but Mindy’s mawkish giggle in the other room sent him through the screen door into the back yard.

The sulphur stench had thickened in the dying breeze. Ben’s shoes sank into the overgrown lawn, damp with dew. He lay down a couple of loose two- by-fours from half-built decking, and dropped everything on top. He got one good spray out the can and set the pile alight, allowing himself a whoop as it went. The flames were slow to build, so he tossed the hip flask in, too. The fire swelled appreciatively.

Ben watched the poker chips warp and bubble. He wondered what else he could toss in. First to go was the tie, then the jacket, soaked in sweat. Ben stripped down, all the way down. The fire grew something fierce as it took everything he had.

Movement came from inside the house. The flames nudged Ben backwards, and as the bubbles popped he remembered the gun. He ran to the side-gate, twice losing his footing on the wet grass, and gave the wood a hard shove. The rusted hinges had little give, so Ben tucked his head into his chest and squeezed through. He spilled back out to the front yard where the fox bolted from the trees to bare its teeth at the sight of this pale laughing phantom coming at it like death, naked as he came.

 

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