Issue #6: Fiction
Something to Hold On To
When the package store calls, Wishbone always answers. Same time every afternoon. Pint bottle of whatever brand of Scotch is on sale. Handed to him inside a brown paper bag, which Cinco, the manager, wraps with a couple layers of duct tape. Makes a good grip. And an hour later, with the night to look forward to, his problems are forgotten.
The package store is calling and Wishbone is on his way over when his phone rings. He pulls it from his pocket, thinking it’s the girl whose apartment he just left. It’s the other. She’s called three times in the last hour. She’ll just keep calling, he thinks. “Hey.”
“It had a plus sign and it turned pink.”
“What does that mean?”
“That means I’m pregnant.”
“All right, then.”
“That all you got to say?”
“I gotta go,” he says, ending the call. He wraps his hand around the phone, squeezing the device as if smothering it will change this news. She’s crazy, he tells himself. That baby’s not mine.
He wishes he could keep driving, right out of town, go somewhere where no one knows him, where he could start over. But he knows better. He’s lived here his entire life. Just like his mother and grandmother. Just like his brothers and sisters.
He wonders for a moment what his father is doing these days, or if he’s still alive.
Soon, he rolls to a stop in front of the package store, which is teetering on the edge of an otherwise bankrupt strip mall. It’s surrounded on one side by a strip of dilapidated structures that used to be homes, and on the other by a litter-strewn field. The package store is the strong shoulder on which the rest of the building and, evidently, the neighborhood itself, lean. It’s been here as long as Wishbone can remember.
As he steps out of the car, a girl wearing short-shorts and a halter-top saunters out from behind the building. She looks familiar, this girl. It’s Katrina! Katrina, yes, the daughter of one of his mother’s friends. Her daddy is in prison. Been there a long time. Dealing.
“Wishbone, where you been keeping yourself ?” she says, muscles in her thighs vibrating with each high-heeled step. “You going out tonight?”
He tries to remember the last time he saw Katrina. She was just a little kid. Now look at her. Is she seventeen? Eighteen? “Just stopping here,” he says.
“I gotta get on home,” he says, fighting to keep his eyes off Katrina’s long legs. Then he hears what sounds like an alarm clock.
Katrina pulls a cell phone from her back pocket. It’s covered in a pink Hello Kitty case.
“What?” she says into the phone, her tone sharp, her eyes cutting to the street.
He looks around at the empty stores, their bleak facades and blank, nameless doors, then back to Katrina and her pink phone, her smooth cheeks and jaw rolling the gum around in her mouth, grinding, grinding, now pausing to blow a short-lived bubble. As it bursts, Wishbone feels something pop inside himself, an abrupt snap in his sternum, his throat, his head. His eyes blur, then reset themselves, keen as ever.
He realizes he’s still holding his phone. He slides it into his pocket, lets it go, while telling himself that Katrina is just a kid, a baby without her daddy to look out for her.
“I’ll be home when I’m home!” Katrina says. She shoves the phone into her back pocket, rolls her eyes. “She never wants to let me go anywhere. I told her I’m sixteen. I can look after myself !” she says. Then she smiles. “So, we gonna party?”
“You need to get on home, ” he says, surprised by his response. It’s as if he’s listening to someone else utter these words and the sensation he feels, born of the sudden recognition of his responsibility, his inevitable, heavy responsibility, is completely foreign and new. Who does he think he is, anyway, giving orders to this young girl, to Katrina? Hasn’t he done enough for the both of them? Who is he to talk?
He realizes he’s undermining his own reputation, his own identity, twenty-two years in the making. Still, he pushes on, shouldering this new weight, heading now in a new direction, clinging to the thought of what should be.
“I’m sixteen. I don’t have—”
“You’re gonna get into trouble out here. Get in and I’ll give you a ride.” “What? You gotta be my parent now?”
“Your daddy wouldn’t go for you being out here.” “My daddy’s in prison!”
“That’s what I’m saying. Get in. I’ll be right back,” he says, stepping into the package store. Inside, Cinco, the manager, says, “Happening, Wishbone? Bottle of Scotch tonight?”
“No,” he says, shaking his head, turning his attention now to a small wooden box on the opposite end of the counter. He takes one of the cigars and places it under his nose, and smiles. It smells sweeter than he anticipated. “Just one of these.”
When he looks out the door, Katrina is sitting in the car, pink phone to her ear. “Yeah, man. I tell you I’m gonna be a daddy?”
John Gifford is a former Marine and lifelong angler and nature enthusiast. His work has appeared recently in Whitefish Review, Saw Palm, Harpur Palate, Santa Clara Review, Portland Review, and The Christian Science Monitor. He lives in Oklahoma.
Letters From His Wife Regarding The Progress of Her Enlightenment
How are the girls? How do you like schlepping them around for a change? Here it’s no picnic either. Bells, service, work period, tea ceremonies. Meditation ten times a day. The head monk is like that gruff ballet master who lived off Marlboros and Diet Coke. The one who would inch her lit cigarette close to my thigh to urge me deeper into the plié. At our first private interview, he says I’m a couple steps ahead of myself. Like being halfway out the door while reaching for the keys.
I trust you’re keeping an eye out on Crissy’s boyfriend. Remember how you were at that age. By the way, thanks for sending me off with flowers. I hate chrysanthemums, as you know— too ordinary—but it was a lovely gesture.
All in all: excellent progress! You’ll be glad to know, I haven’t blown up at a single person. There’s another bell. Got to go. Love to the girls.
This is the first I’ve felt like writing you back. I know. Sounds harsh, but the senior monk suggested we sit with our attachments and not act. It seems to be working. We meditated for six days straight, the pain worse than being en pointe. The fifth day—it’s hard to explain—it was like the pain wasn’t me. I used to feel this kind of exhilaration at the end of a long day taking ballet class. That time in Brooklyn before we married keeps coming up; the walk-in closet we rented at that dumpy apartment! Impossible to believe we lived that way, that we had so much potential.
Already someone here quit. On the cushion next to mine in the meditation hall, she left a single flower. A chrysanthemum. This is crazy, but it felt like she was playing some kind of fuck-you joke on me. I hid the mum in the sleeve of my robe and threw it away first chance I got. I’ll write when I can. Forgive me in advance if I’m a laggard.
Why did I think the senior monk was reprimanding me yesterday when he placed another mum on the empty seat next to mine? Why did I hide in my room for the rest of the day and say I was sick? Do you know how much it bugs me when you say you don’t mind me getting angry, just me running away? Why have I never told you I failed my Joffrey audition? Why don’t you paint anymore? Shouldn’t I be calming down by now?
I blew up at the question-and-answer ceremony yesterday. I was really yelling at you. Not that I don’t appreciate the things you do for me. Your many kindnesses. It’s just...we had such purpose, before the girls, your job. I shouted in the senior monk’s face, “Why do I want to hurt everyone I love?” The students looked at me in horror, like they’d seen a fatality on the side of the road. The senior monk put his hands together, bowed deeply and said, “There is no place the Buddha is not.” I told him to go fuck himself.
Sorry I made you feel so low. I’m low too, thin, like a blade of grass when you hold it to the sun. At fifth period yesterday, I felt the ghost of your hand on the small of my back. That’s the first soft feeling I’ve had in weeks. I brought chrysanthemums from the garden to the missing woman’s seat. Made a small shrine to her failure: incense holder, candle. Not allowed, really, but the senior monk let me anyway. Wherever she is, she’s Buddha. That’s small consolation, but failure’s the only thing I have to hold on to. I can’t promise you when I’ll be back exactly, or that I won’t get mad, but when I do, try not to be so nice to me.
Lucian Childs writes about fiction for the 49 Writers blog and is the founder of the 49 Alaska Writing Center’s reading series. He is the winner of the 2013 Prism Review Short Story Prize. His stories have three times been finalists in Glimmer Train’s fiction competitions and have appeared in a number of literary journals, including The Puritan, Quiddity, Rougarou, and Sanskrit.
The Realty Agent
Before going to his office, and sometimes at night, her husband speaks by telephone to a realty agent. Rosemary, she’s heard him call her. She doesn’t like to ask about it.
What she prefers to hear, and can only hear if she listens for it, is the sound of the city several stories down. In bed or in a chair, looking straight out the thick windows at an empty sky, she finds it reassuring to hear the city, still there.
I’m listening, she says, looking up from a book when her husband stops talking to ask if she is, but it isn’t usually to him. The sounds of the city change by time of day and time of year and weather. There are versions that recur, similar but new. A favorite is the orchestra, dissonant, preparing to be perfect. She hears that in a green silk dress and smiles at the gentleman next to her just before the lights are dimmed.
Rosemary calls one afternoon and asks to leave a message for her husband.
Instead of taking the message, she takes a train from Grand Central to be met at a station in Connecticut and driven a long way to see a house so grim that witches might have brewed their dinner in its kitchen fireplace. Each downstairs room is empty and curtainless and out the windows is a cemetery, full for at least a century, its thin stones tilting or broken from the weight of odd and unused names.
Its proximity calls to mind the brief lives of the Brontës, the tainted water of their well, their nearest neighbors restless in the boggy earth—real estate picked by relatives who once professed their love but could not be moved to tears by anything so familiar as loss.
No, I don’t think so, not this, she would say if only she could get the edgewise word. Of course, there is no telling if that would settle the matter. Her husband is Rosemary’s client; she is just the client’s wife. A house in the country isn’t her idea.
The road is lightly traveled, says Rosemary. Your husband insisted that it had to be a quiet house. I suppose a place in the country ought to be quiet most of all.
She listens, then, past the incessant voice to a quiet so absolute that she is grateful, after all, for the litany of the home’s fine features because if the agent’s chatter stops, if it ever stops, the quiet might be frightening enough that she will pee, spreading her legs as best she can in her narrow skirt, watching a puddle grow on the recently refinished pine plank floors.
When she laughs out loud it is because this thought recalls the memory of her little son so mad about bedtime that he peed on his father’s shoe. She had laughed then too.
Although startled, Rosemary’s pause is brief. You’ll never be bothered by a late night party here, she says. You’ll never get a baseball through the window.
Privacy, she says, drawing out the word, supposing you couldn’t have that in a city.
What Rosemary doesn’t know is that sometimes she sits in her son’s room or naps on his small bed and wonders, when she’s there, why everyone thinks it’s a good idea not to mention him to her. This realty agent, with her cropped hair and funny shoes and clothes from L.L. Bean, does not know privacy better than she does.
What has my husband told you?, she wants to ask. Has he explained why he thinks a house in the country is a good idea or is it enough for you to know he can afford it?
But Rosemary is talking still and instead of interrupting the steady noise of her—a Xerox machine is making hundreds of copies; she is wearing a tweed suit and has a yellow pencil tucked behind one ear—she reads the names on weathered gravestones. Eliphalet Hull. Elihu Winship. Thankful Mussey. She whispers them and her breath makes a little pond of fog on a window pane.
I just know your husband will love these twelve over twelves, Rosemary says.
It amuses her to think her husband would know what a twelve over twelve is without Rosemary to point to an example and sing its praises and mention that she has the name and number of someone who does windows. And even then, even if he loved the twelve over twelves, what would he think of the view? How would he feel about the dead watching through the windows every day and night with all that time on their hands and nothing better to do? He has always gone out when window washers are working on their building. The idea of them on a scaffold, up so high and looking in, unsettles him.
Knowing that, recalling his unease, it surprises her to think her husband might be more afraid than she is. She has met the neighbors and, suddenly, this house on the outskirts of living feels almost cordial and meant to be, as if she will discover the stack of her favorite novels by a bedside in an upstairs room just as she has them at home, convenient for rereading. All of Austen, every Brontë, she has kept them close since girlhood.
Thankful Mussey, she says again, her favorite of the neighbors’ names and Rosemary steps beside her at the window just in time to see the fog evaporate and, through it, Charlotte, Emily and Anne drop their clothes on the grass before each selects a fallen stone to lie upon and turns her head to the window to watch.
To stare, really. To invite.
It is Charlotte, nearest the house, whose gaze she holds with her own, Charlotte who eventually sits and turns her back to show, upon it, the chiseled names and dates of ghosts—a man, his wife, their boy—transferred to pale fated flesh. It is a promise and, as much, a seduction, and when she turns to say she has to go, Rosemary nods and lifts her hands to help with the buttons of her blouse.
James Pouilliard writes short fiction and poetry that has appeared recently in Boston Review, Weave, The Quotable, and Stoneboat. He lives in Harwinton, Connecticut.