Gila Green is a Canadian author living in Israel.
By Megan Cassidy Hall
Josh Barrett was typically cool under pressure. In fact, he considered this to be his defining quality. It was this same unflappable charm that allowed him to bluff his way through high school and date nearly anyone he desired. However, after graduation a mere eight days prior, he found himself thrust out into the real world to search for a job. And this may have explained why, for the first time in his life, Josh Barrett was anxious.
Josh looked about the austere room, waiting for the interviewer to return and trying to convince himself there was no reason to be nervous. After all, he rationalized, the head-hunter had called him. But then again, Josh knew, there had to be a host of other candidates with more experience. At this thought, his heart beat erratically and his palms began to sweat. He might have experienced a full-blown panic attack, but just then the interviewer, an older, startlingly handsome man by the name of Alex Green, came back into the room.
During the first portion of the interview, Green’s good looks and intense gaze had unnerved the young man. However, the researcher’s demeanor now seemed drastically altered as he smiled and handed Josh a cup of coffee. Josh noted with pleasure that the cup was ceramic instead of the usual paper or Styrofoam, and this small gesture of permanence immediately calmed the young man’s nerves. He flashed Green his usual charismatic smirk. The interview process may have been rigorous, but the job was clearly his.
“Well, Josh,” Green began, “we’ve finished the initial questions, and I can say with some certainty that we’ll be asking you to stay.”
Josh smiled slightly so as not to appear too eager. Green mirrored the gesture, “Just sign these confidentiality forms, and we can tour the facility.”
Josh filled out the paperwork and followed his new employer down a sterile white corridor. “This is our inception room,” Green pointed to an area filled with tubes. “These days, it’s merely monitored to guarantee everything keeps running smoothly.”
“I wouldn’t be working here then?” Josh sighed. He thought he could fake it, but he had no experience and had copied off a girlfriend to pass his last few science courses.
Green gave him an odd look, but continued walking, “Of course not. Only a few lab techs work here. This part of the process was finalized nearly forty years ago. Research began long before that with the Adam model, but the Adams had a defect written into the original coding. Most weren’t able to last more than ten years.”
As they stepped into an elevator, Green continued, “The Bryans came twelve years later. They lasted, but there were slight flaws in the replication process, so only a few sets of Bryans were created. A few years later, the process was entirely perfected in the Caleb models.”
Josh interrupted, “And what will my role be?” His previous job had involved selling insurance. Before that, he worked in a mailroom. He’d been fired from both positions and wanted to seem interested in this job, even though he was already tiring of Green’s speeches.
“We’ll get to that,” Green grumbled. “As I was saying, the Calebs were a bit too perfect. At that point, we were unable to alter physical characteristics without changing major genetic sequencing, and the Calebs were far too unique for mass production. So, the line was terminated, though for obvious ethical reasons, the company did not recall the models.”
They arrived at a windowed room. Turning toward it, Josh looked into a nursery with three identical infants lying in three identical cribs. Green smiled warmly at the babies squirming in their tiny beds and whispered, “It’s a two-way mirror, so they’re not distracted by any outside visitors. This is our Dylan Project. The female equivalent, the Diane Project, produces models monitored by our sister facility.”
Green straightened his lab coat, “The Dylans have proven to be most satisfactory—not as bright or handsome as the Calebs, but with average intelligence and easily adjustable features, they blend into a crowd. Wonderful for long-term production.”
“And you’ve been getting away with this for decades?” Josh probed.
“Well,” the researcher opened a door leading into a room of screens monitoring the infants’ movements, “cloning was controversial in the early days.”
“And banned now,” Josh snorted.
Green turned away from the monitors and glared, “Banned by private enterprises, yes. But, our company has full government backing and conducts research under strict ethical guidelines.”
“You’re not organ harvesting then?” Josh asked.
This time, it was Green’s turn to smirk, “Of course you would think of that. No, Mr. Barrett. We are not organ harvesting. Nor are we creating soldiers for a secret militia, or treating the clones like bodies without souls.”
Josh opened his mouth, but Green continued, “I know. I’ve been calling them models. They are that, but more importantly, they are individuals, which is the very basis of our research. For example, I myself am a Caleb. It is rare that one of us returns to the company, but it can happen. Like my adoptive parents, I developed an interest in the sciences, and like the other Caleb models, I possess a high level of intelligence.”
Green led Josh back to the office. Once seated, the researcher pointed to a stack of folders on his desk. “The Dylans have been in production for about 40 years and most live normal everyday lives. For example,” he lifted a sealed manila envelope, “Dylan 32.1 was the first of two children born his year. He is now Samuel Prendergast, an active eight-year-old living in Iowa. He enjoys baseball and reading, just like his father.”
He held another file, “This is Dylan 20.2, the second of two babies born in his year. He was placed with his twin, Dylan 20.1. Both boys have embraced their mother’s love of music, and have taken lessons since childhood. Dylan 20.2 has a gift for stringed instruments and studies musical theory.”
“Then your work here is philanthropic? You’re just a specialized adoption agency?” Josh tried not to sound annoyed. He’d rather harvest organs than do something this foolishly sentimental.
“The philanthropic side of our work is secondary,” Green sipped his coffee. “Our primary goal is psychobiological research. We study abnormalities. I’m sure you’re familiar with the work of Sir. Francis Galton?”
Josh nodded and was displeased when he saw Green bemusedly purse his lips together. “Ah, well, to refresh both of our memories, Galton was an early genetics researcher who discovered that twins offer a unique way to distinguish genetic traits from those traits developed through nurture and the special circumstances of our lives,” he paused. “Do you understand now?”
The question seemed slightly condescending, as it was most likely intended to be. Josh spoke slowly, trying to appear thoughtful, “So, this is similar to the studies done before they cured schizophrenia? The ones where they studied twins, one with schizophrenia and one without?”
Green beamed in acknowledgement, “Quite so! The Bryan model was considerably valuable in discovering the cure, in point of fact. Our company’s sole aim is to study nature versus nurture. We have identical genetic material placed in homes throughout the world. To prevent flooding the market, we only create two to three children every other year, trading off opposite years with the Dianes. And, as I mentioned previously, we change the physical sequencing so the clones do not appear identical. Though genetic duplicates, the children have surface variations in skin tone, hair, and facial features.”
“And how are they monitored once they leave?” Josh wondered.
“Cameras,” Green waved a hand about his head. “There are so many these days. And we employ field researchers—not parents, of course as that would taint the study, but teachers, neighbors, even employers, once the children reach maturity.”
“And you’re the ones who cured schizophrenia?”
“Yes. We study other things as well—anything that could be either genetic or influenced by outside factors. It’s fascinating work. For example, on the whole, the Dylans have a propensity to be personable and easy-going. So, when we have one who becomes a cut-throat CEO, we examine how his upbringing may have influenced him.”
“Or if one develops cancer at an early age?”
“Precisely,” Green slapped the desk. “We’ve produced exactly forty eight Dylans. To date, none have cancer, even with high-risk environmental factors such as smoking.”
“Age could be a factor,” Josh supplied, trying to play the valuable team member.
“Which is why this is a longitudinal study with built in control groups. Will some develop cancer, or is there something in the Dylan’s genetic sequencing, which provides natural immunity? Can we replicate that immunity? If some develop Alzheimer’s as they age, what environmental factors can we correlate with the disease, and how can we eliminate those factors? That’s what we’re doing here.”
“And you’ve really never had any incidence of cancer,” Josh attempted to sound impressed, even though he felt bored.
“No. We’ve never had a Dylan with cancer, or any kidney or liver dysfunctions. We’ve had a few suffer from slight depressive episodes, but none with major depression, bipolar disorder, or sociopathic tendencies,” Green paused, “until now… and here we come to your role in our project, Mr. Barrett.”
Josh was glad they had finally come to the point. He swallowed his irritation and flashed Green a charmingly toothy grin, “My role? Do you need another field researcher to follow someone?”
“Quite the contrary, though you do have a propensity for following people, Dylan 10.3.”
“What?” Josh gripped the chair, trying to keep the fear out of his voice. For the second time in his life, his palms began to sweat.
Green pulled a file from his desk, “We want to know… what went wrong.”
He began reading, “Age seven, the subject sets his mother’s cat on fire. Cat goes missing. Dylan 10.3 is not suspected.”
He flipped to another entry, “Age nine, Dylan 10.3 bullies female classmate until she is forced to transfer schools. Parents contacted. No other actions taken.”
Flip. “Age fourteen, female classmate accuses Dylan 10.3 of rape. The school gets involved. No official charges filed. The subject is allowed to continue high school undisturbed.”
Flip. “Age seventeen, Dylan 10.3 strangles his girlfriend and disposes of her body.”
Here, Green flopped the folder onto the desk in front of Josh. Pictures, apparently taken with a satellite camera, clearly showed Josh’s hunched over form as he shoved a blonde corpse into the trunk of his car.
“It’s been almost a year, and the girl’s parents are still looking for her,” Green said. “We’re looking for an explanation.” Green looked over Josh’s head, and the young man realized there were three others behind him—one in a lab coat identical to Green’s, two carrying weapons. Josh’s mind was racing. He fell silent, trying to control himself.
The tactic must have worked because after a few moments, his breathing eased. He shrugged nonchalantly, “That’s not me.”
Josh moved as if to leave, but the guards behind him moved in as Green pointed to a photo in which the young man’s face was clearly visible, “Let us not lie to one another, Josh,” he said. “I’ve told you everything that goes on here—very top secret stuff, and there’s nowhere for you to run. We’re doing research here, as I said. Just tell us exactly what happened.”
Josh licked his lips, his eyes darting from side to side looking for an exit. He thought that perhaps Green did only want him there for research purposes. Perhaps he would be free from any repercussions. He might as well be frank, given the fact that there seemed no alternative. With this in mind, Josh leaned back in his chair and answered coolly, “Linda was a lying cheating idiot who got what she deserved.”
Green’s lips formed a thin white line. “Then, you claim that it was Miss. Evans who precipitated the attack?”
Josh rolled his eyes, but said nothing. Still trying to seem relaxed, he could feel a drips of sweat beginning to trickle down the back of his neck as Green leaned forward, “And, what of the childhood incidents?”
This question was met with a harsh laugh and another shrug, “Well, those are just the kind of sticky situations every guy finds himself in now and again.”
“Many men, are violent,” Green acknowledged, “but our Dylan models are typically friendly and easygoing. Was there any history of abuse or neglect we may have overlooked?”
Even though Josh’s heart had begun beating wildly, he blinked twice, removed all trace of emotion from his face, and simply replied, “No.”
Green made a note, “It would be difficult to detect lying with your personality, so I will unfortunately have to take your word for it. Typically, we would know about and prevent any maltreatment, but we have been known to make mistakes.”
When Green was greeted with more silence, he pressed further, “Now, this incident with Miss. Evans. In your mind, precisely how did she provoke the attack?”
“She lied to me,” Josh’s chest began heaving with ragged breaths, “and she slept with the captain of the baseball team, and the sensation of my hands around her neck was the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever felt in my entire life, if you really want to know.”
“You note the lack of shame or remorse,” Green said to his colleague.
The other researcher nodded and placed three additional photos on the desk, “Which is why we do not believe this to be an isolated incident.”
“I didn’t kill anyone else!” Josh shouted, completely dropping his cool façade.
“Only because our field researchers began monitoring you twenty-four hours a day since the first incident,” Green interrupted, pointing to the first two photos. “When you stalked and attempted to assault this young woman in the park last month, we surreptitiously intervened moments before the attack.”
Josh’s mind reeled as he recalled following the same path as the slim jogger for months, planning how to approach her in just the right way to seem both menacing and friendly. Just as he had run up behind her, a second jogger had come around the corner calling out, “Sarah, I think you dropped your wallet back here.”
Startled, Sarah had turned around, only to see Josh a few inches from her face. She jumped back in surprise and Josh knew she would always remember what he looked like. She would be on guard and he would not have the chance to surprise her again. He tried to control his anger at the realization that his carefully laid out plans had been thwarted by these low little men in their ugly white coats.
“Interesting,” the other researcher said, turning to Green. “You see now that he is finally showing some emotion, though he tries to hide it.”
“Anger born of selfishness,” Green nodded as his colleague made a notation. He turned back to Josh, “This,” Green tapped the final photo “is one of our researchers, posing as a decoy. You have trailed her movements for the past two weeks, just as we have trailed yours.”
Green’s colleague cleared his throat and added, “One is an isolated incident. Two is a coincidence. Three is a serialized pattern.”
“I’m not…” Josh jumped to his feet, but one of the armed guards firmly pressed him back down into his chair.
“As I explained previously,” Green stood, “above all else, our process is ethical. We must discover what brought on this abnormality in personality and psyche. If it is not environmental, it must be physical. The other two young men of your birth year have shown none of these symptoms or behaviors but are becoming, like our other Dylans, happy productive members of society. You are, Mr. Barrett, a clone who appears to be entirely unique.”
Josh smirked at this, but his face fell as Green continued, “And that is why we have chosen to terminate your program.”
“You’re going to kill me?” Josh felt his bladder give way.
“No. Of course not,” Green said, as the two security agents lifted Josh to his feet. “As I said before, you’ll be staying here.”
Josh roared in both terror and fury, “You’ve got the photos! Why not just send me to prison?”
“Ah, but then we wouldn’t have any tissue samples,” Green answered, as if this were obvious. He inclined his head toward his colleague, “Dr. Albert has never performed a lobotomy, as they have not been standard practice for quite some time, but we believe this form of tissue extraction to be sufficient, both to control your behavior and to conduct our research.”
Josh began flailing his arms and legs, trying to strike his captors. He felt his fist make contact with Green’s jaw and felt a momentary surge of adrenaline. But then a long syringe was thrust into his arm, and his knees went weak as he was lowered onto a waiting gurney.
Green stood over his prisoner, “We’ll have to keep you for observation, but you shouldn’t be too much trouble. When we need more tests or further samples, I’m sure your new, sedentary, infantile personality will happily comply.”
The drugs had nearly alleviated the last remnants of Josh’s anxiety, but then just before falling into a hazy, drug-induced sleep, he heard Green say the last words he would ever fully comprehend, “Dr. Albert, procure as much tissue as necessary, as long as he stays alive. If he wakes up during the procedure, which he certainly will, don’t give him any further sedation. You saw the pictures.”
Screaming, Josh fell into oblivion.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
By Conor White-Andrews
He has already seen the two lifeguards looking. He has seen them glaring, and he can see Oscar—his brown skin dark against the turquoise-grey swell—waving at him irritatedly, further along in the water, scowling and shouting something inaudible. They had entered the water together—he, Oscar, and Juan—but now Charlie is at least thirty metres away, alone, away from the other swimmers. The beach is quieter today because of the incoming storm, a fraction of the usual crowd, and there are very few people in the sea. The waves are three or four times their normal size, but still, Charlie is alone, away from the other swimmers, struggling against the current. It is for this reason that the lifeguards are looking.
They are wearing electric, luminous yellow polo shirts, which have, Charlie knows, the word “socarista,” (lifeguard) printed in red letters across the back. They are also wearing red shorts that stop halfway down their deeply tanned legs and plastic mirror sunglasses and one of them, the one on the left, is holding a long, red float attached to a white string that has been tied around his waist. The man is holding the red float up by one hand and looking at Charlie and now the other people on the beach are watching him too. A situation has developed, and Charlie is not sure how.
But it is real, this situation, and Charlie has lost control. His companions are already leaving the water, now even further along, treading back along the sand towards the others, and Charlie is in a spot. The current has moved him toward the rocks at the far side of the beach, and the waves, three or four times their usual size, are too strong. They are crashing down from exceptional heights, seemingly two at a time, and pulling him underwater. His eyes are stinging because of the salt and he cannot wipe them because his arms, already exhausted from his limp efforts at fighting the current, are busy keeping him up. Beneath him he can feel the hard, sharp faces of rocks, and the thought of sea urchins, of black needles delicately puncturing the paper-white soles of his feet, is as bad as that of his skull being suddenly, violently forced down against the stone. His green swimming shorts have come undone and are slipping down. With one hand he is wildly, uselessly grabbing at his crotch. The waves are unrelenting against his face, in his eyes, and he is spluttering, coughing up water.
On the beach, there are maybe thirty people watching. They are standing there, hands at their hips. Later, in conversation, Charlie will say how eager—how keen—the lifeguard was to enter the water, suddenly tearing off his yellow polo shirt to expose his dark, sculpted chest and dashing through the waves towards him. He looks amused when he arrives, his green eyes taunting Charlie, laughing at the pale English boy in the water. His hand grips Charlie’s left arm and it hurts, being dragged back to the shore with the salt stinging his eyes. His right hand holding up the green shorts that cover his penis. Later, he will say that it was unnecessary, that he was fine. But in the moment, he is content to be saved.
He keeps saying, in Spanish, that he didn’t know there were rocks. He says thank you very much, but that he didn’t know there were rocks. He says this—tells himself this—in order to add reason: he was swimming too close to the rocks and this is why the lifeguard had intervened. If somebody is swimming too close to the rocks, then the lifeguards must do something. It is as simple as that.
And this is what he tells his friends, back on the sand, once the lifeguard with the green eyes has shoved him off and his friends gather around him. I didn’t know there were rocks, he splutters, not meeting any of their eyes. He doesn’t look, but he knows that Oscar is shaking his head and that Juan is bent forward laughing. He is laughing so hard that there is hardly any sound, only a high-pitched squeaking. Beside his friends—who are Spanish and brown—Charlie is an unhealthy white. When they go back to the edge of the water, to sit down in the damp sand and let the turquoise-grey waves wash up around them, Charlie returns to his towel. His towel is at the top of the beach where the sand is fine and dry, and he brushes off the edges before sitting down.
He knows that there are still people watching—laughing at the stupid guiri pallido in his green shorts—and that the lifeguards, now back together, keep glancing back at him and grinning, giggling. A whole beach of people, though fewer than usual because of the incoming storm, is laughing at his expense.
On his towel, he lies down on his back. While the sky was gray and overcast when they arrived, walking slowly down the beach from Oscar’s house, there are now vast patches of crisp blue and white sunlight burning over the sand. They have been saying that the storm, la tormenta, will arrive tomorrow for three days now, but again, it will not be today. Perhaps it will be tomorrow. Lying on his back, Charlie closes his eyes. The sun is hot on his skin, and soon he will begin to burn.
Conor White-Andrews is based out of London. Follow him on Twitter @ConrWA.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
By Forrest Brown
It was one of those miserable summer days in Creek County, Tennessee, the kind where your bare legs stick to the vinyl seats of your car. You wouldn’t be outside for more than five minutes checking the mailbox, and you could already feel the sweat running down your back. The thermometer read 85 degrees, but the air was so humid that the sweat never evaporated from your forehead. The air simply couldn’t hold any more moisture without coming up a downpour.
The river felt refreshing when Isaac Johnson first stepped into its waters that summer day in Creek County. It had been a wet July, and the heavy rains made the water feel like ice around his feet. He had just finished mowing the grass at the Douglasville Church of the Holy Redeemer like he did every Saturday morning, and he watched as the little flecks of grass that were stuck between his toes gently floated away as the water washed over his feet. He waded out deeper, taking it slow to allow his body to adjust to the water gradually. The first nearly unbearable point was when the water was above his knees, then his belly button, then his chest.
It was freezing, and he was breathing heavily for a short time while his body got accustomed to the ice bath. He stopped there, with the water right around his chest.
Before Isaac’s daddy died, he had always told Isaac never to go any deeper than his chest when swimming in the river alone. It wasn’t safe. In some of the deeper places the current got strong and could knock a grown man off his feet. Isaac’s body was cool, but he could still feel the sun singeing the back of his neck and the crown of his shaved head. He dunked himself under the water, came back up, and was wiping the water from his eyes when he heard a cheery voice call from the bank.
“Good morning, Mr. Isaac!”
Isaac whipped around to see Pastor David standing on the bank. Pastor David was wearing neatly ironed khaki pants with leather shoes, a short-sleeve button-up shirt, and the big, rounded wire-frame glasses that were popular for businessmen in the 50s.
He looked like he should be burning alive, but as far as Isaac could tell he hadn’t broken a sweat.
“Hi, Pastor David,” Isaac called back.
Something about the man made him want to stay as far away from him as possible. He took a step back even though he was a good twenty feet away.
Pastor David gestured behind him with his right thumb.
“Lawn looks nice. You sure do a good job of keeping it looking pretty.”
“Thank you, sir,” Isaac replied. “I just finished up about ten minutes ago. I thought I’d cool off in the river real quick.”
“It is mighty hot out,” Pastor David replied. “Say, mind if I join you? I’m sorry to say I haven’t been river swimming since I was a boy.”
Isaac shivered. “Yes sir, of course. Water’s a bit chilly but it feels good once you’ve gotten used to it.”
“Oh, I think I can handle it,” Pastor David replied as he began to unbutton his shirt. “I may be old, but my body still does a fine job of keeping itself in check.” He finished stripping down to his boxers and stepped slowly into the river. “Ah, now that’s nice.”
Pastor David’s face and neck were tan from many sunny days such as this, but underneath where his shirt usually covered his skin was so pale it almost hurt Isaac’s eyes to look at him.
“I learned about how people’s bodies stay warm in biology class,” Isaac replied. “Most people’s temperature stays about the same most of the time, usually right around 98 degrees. My momma taught me that last part.”
He talked more when he was nervous.
“My, aren’t you a smart boy? I bet you’re almost too smart for school. They probably let you teach the class, don’t they?”
“No sir, not quite yet. But I might teach classes one day.”
“Really?” Pastor David was up to his belly button in the water by now. “That sort of career choice usually requires some sort of higher education, usually at least a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university. Have you thought at all about continuing your education after you graduate from high school next year?”
“Yes sir, I have. I’m looking at a few schools already.”
“You don’t say! What schools would those be?”
“UT Knoxville, Arkansas, UNC, and UCLA.”
“UCLA! That’s mighty far away, Mr. Isaac. Not too many people of faith in California either, now. They’ll try to tell you that we all evolved from monkeys! You don’t believe that you evolved from a monkey, now do you, Mr. Isaac?”
Isaac blushed. “No, sir, I’m a Christian.”
Pastor David was up to his chest in the river now. He didn’t gasp as Isaac had when the water reached his chest.
“That’s right, Mr. Isaac. And I don’t care how you try to spin it, the Theory of Evolution is simply incompatible with Scripture! The Bible says very clearly that God created man and woman, not ‘God created monkeys that evolved into man and woman.’”
“Now, college is mighty expensive. Say you do get accepted to one of these fancy schools you applied to and you do want to go there– how might you pay for that exactly? I know Mr. Herb gave you this job helping take care of the church property, but surely that wouldn’t be enough money to cover four years of tuition at one of those prestigious universities.”
“I’m not quite sure yet, sir. I’ve been looking at a bunch of different scholarships, so maybe I’ll get one of those.”
“Well, maybe so, but you can probably imagine how many other boys and girls are also looking at those scholarships! I thought I heard something one of the elders was saying about a college fund through the church…you wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you, Mr. Isaac?”
“Yes, sir, I think I’ve heard something about it.”
“It would seem that Mr. Landry…you know who Mr. Landry is, don’t you, Mr. Isaac?”
Isaac nodded, taking another step back in the river.
“Well, the Lord has been very good to Mr. Landry, so in return Mr. Landry made the extremely generous offer to pay the entire sum of tuition for an intelligent young man or woman, given that they are a baptized Christian. Have you thought about looking more into that scholarship, Mr. Isaac? That could be a really good opportunity for a bright young man such as yourself, and just as you said, you are, in fact, a Christian. Isn’t that right?”
“Well, see, that’s just it, Pastor David,” Isaac said. He could no longer back up for fear of being caught in the rapids on the far side of the river and being swept off downstream.
“What do you mean, Mr. Isaac?”
“I do believe in God and in the Bible and in Jesus, Pastor David, but I’m not a baptized Christian.”
“Well, you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for your sins, don’t you?”
“Yes, it’s just that I haven’t been baptized yet.”
“Well, how come?” Pastor David replied, as if teasing a confession out of a small child.
“I don’t know, sir, I just haven’t. I really wanted my daddy to be the one to do it, but as you know he passed away when I was a little boy.”
“Well you want to go to heaven, don’t you, Isaac?” He paused for a moment and said in a deeper, quieter voice, “I sure would like to see you in heaven one day.”
At this Isaac was nervous. “Yes, sir, I do. I guess I’m just waiting to see what God wants me to do.”
“Well, I can understand how a boy would want his daddy to baptize him, but it’s written in the Scriptures that baptism is necessary for salvation. Even Jesus himself was baptized by John the Baptist. You don’t think you’re better than Jesus, now do you?”
“No, sir, I just…”
“Well, what are you waiting for? I can baptize you right here and now! God accepts all who accept the gift of Jesus on the cross. All you need to do is repent and be baptized.”
Pastor David stepped closer toward Isaac and he was almost within arm’s reach. “Come on, Isaac. You want to be saved, don’t you? I can take you into His Kingdom.”
A strange look came across Pastor David’s face, and Isaac could see the devil in his eyes at last.
“No!” Isaac screamed and Pastor David lunged forward. Isaac ducked his head underwater, kicked off from the riverbed, and swam back towards the bank as fast as he could.
When he finally did reach the bank he grabbed hold of a tree root sticking out of the water and came up to catch his breath. Perhaps only a second had gone by before he noticed the muffled screams coming from the far side of the river. Pastor David had stepped off into the deep end when he lunged at Isaac and was swept off in the rapids.
Isaac looked on in horror as the current flung the pastor’s body against massive boulders and dragged him underwater between cries for help.
Breathing heavily and on the verge of a panic attack, Isaac made his way back up to the shore where his and Pastor David’s clothes lay in a heap up on the grass. He dragged himself out of the water, grabbed his clothes, and was about to take off running for the church when he nearly ran right into Mr. Herb. He was standing behind a honeysuckle bush, staring off through a break in the branches. Isaac followed his gaze to catch the last glimpse of Pastor David’s still body floating down the river. Isaac’s eyes darted back to Mr. Herb.
Mr. Herb turned his head slowly to look down at Isaac. Everyone always said that Mr. Herb was mostly blind, but Isaac knew from the way he looked at him that he had seen everything.
“Mr. Herb,” Isaac said, feeling the onset of hot tears at the corners of his eyes, “It was an accident. He…Pastor David…stepped off the deep end and…”
“…and nothing,” Mr. Herb said slowly in his quiet, deep voice that could silence a room.
He was standing so that his wide-brimmed straw hat blocked out the sun, and it looked like the rays were emanating from his skull. His cataract-misted eyes contrasted against his almost pitch black skin gave Isaac an uncomfortable feeling, like he could see right into what Isaac was thinking.
“Pastor David agreed to baptize you in the river. You lost your footing since the rains have been so heavy and the water is so quick, and in the process of trying to save you, Pastor David regrettably drowned. You just ran up to the tool shed and informed me, whereupon I went to call the police.”
Isaac stood in awe, his mouth wide open.
Mr. Herb slowly turned his back to Isaac and started walking towards the church to find the telephone. Within thirty minutes the police were taping off the area, and a crew was on their way to come drag a net up the river for the pastor’s body. Isaac sat on the bumper of his mother’s old Buick LaCrosse, watching from a distance as she talked to the police. Mr. Herb stood over by the front door to the church, catching some shade while the July afternoon sun beat down hellfire.
Isaac stared at him, and Mr. Herb eventually looked back at him. This time it was different though, as if he were looking at something behind Isaac. His gaze shifted to follow a bird flying overhead. He hadn’t seen Isaac staring at him after all. The bird flew over where Isaac sat and landed on a white oak branch beside the church, near Mr. Herb. It ruffled its feathers and looked down at Mr. Herb, as if in admiration. Mr. Herb looked up and nodded his head, then he went right back to looking straight ahead. Isaac cocked his head sideways in puzzlement—it was the first time he had seen a dove, white as glory, in Creek County.
Isaac remembered learning in Sunday school about the story of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River. Even though Jesus asked John the Baptist to baptize him, John the Baptist had refused because he said he wasn’t worthy to baptize Jesus. Jesus insisted, and after John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the river, a dove came and landed on Jesus’ shoulder. The Sunday school teacher said that the dove was a sign from God that he was pleased with Jesus. Isaac wondered now, looking up at that dove near Mr. Herb, if maybe God wasn’t telling Mr. Herb that too.
The Pharisees were also there when Jesus went to be baptized, and Jesus had called them a “brood of vipers.” They were religious leaders, just like Pastor David. Isaac had always been taught to respect Pastor David, but now he couldn’t shake the thought of how much Pastor David had looked like a snake, like the devil, back there in the river. Jesus said every tree that didn’t produce good fruit would be thrown into the fire. Isaac couldn’t help thinking Pastor David was trying to drag Isaac down with him.
Isaac’s mother came back over to the car where Isaac sat, pondering the events of the afternoon.
“Come on, honey, let’s go home.”
Raised in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the outskirts of Metro-Atlanta, Forrest Brown grew up mostly unappreciative of the musical and literary traditions of the South until high school. After a brief stint in the music industry, Forrest returned to doing what he loves most– writing fiction informed by his love/hate relationship with the region he calls home. Forrest Brown currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter @frrstbrwn.
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Ella May knew she wasn’t pretty, had always known it. She didn’t have to come all the way down the mountain from Tennessee to Bessemer City, North Carolina, to find that out. But here she was now, and here she’d been just long enough for no other place in her memory to feel like home, but not quite long enough for Bessemer City to feel like home either.
She sat on the narrow bench in the office of American Mill No. 2—the wall behind her vibrating with the whir of the carding machines, rollers, and spinners that raged on the other side, with lint hung up in her throat and lungs like tar—reminding herself that she’d already given up any hope of ever feeling rooted again, of ever finding a place that belonged to her and she to it. Instead of thinking thoughts like those, Ella turned and looked at Goldberg’s brother’s young secretary where she sat behind a tidy desk just a few feet away. The soft late-day light that had already turned toward dusk now picked its way through the windows behind the girl. The light lay upon the girl’s dark, shiny hair and caused it to glow like some angel had just lifted a hand away from the crown of her head.
The girl was pale and soft, her cheeks brushed with rouge and her lips glossed a healthy pink. She wore a fine powder-blue dress with a spray of artificial, white spring flowers pinned to the lapel. She read a new copy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and she laughed to herself and wet her finger on her tongue and turned page after page while Ella watched.
How old could that girl be? Ella wondered. Twenty? Twenty-five? Ella was only twenty-eight herself, but she felt at least two, three times that age. She stared at the girl’s dainty, manicured hands as they turned the pages, and then she looked down at her own hands where they rested upturned in her lap, her fingers intertwined as if they’d formed a nest. She unlocked her fingers and placed her palms flat against her belly, thought about the new life that had just begun to stir inside her, how its stirring often felt like the flutter of a bird’s wing. She didn’t know whether or not what she felt was real, so she’d decided not to say a word about it to Charlie, not to mention a thing to anyone aside from her friend Violet.
Charlie had blown into Bessemer City that winter just like he’d blown into other places, and Ella knew that one day he’d eventually blow out the same way he’d come in. He didn’t have children or a family or anything else to tether him to a place where he didn’t want to be.
“I hadn’t never wanted a child,” he’d said after they’d known each other for a month. “I just never found the right woman to care for a child the way I want it cared for.” He’d come up behind Ella and spread his palm over her taut belly as if trying to keep something from spilling out. She’d felt his hand press against the hollowed-out space between her ribs and her hips. She was always so racked with hunger that she found it hard to believe that her body offered any resistance at all. “But who’s to say I’m always going to feel that way?” he’d said. “I might want a family of my own just yet.” Maybe he’d meant it then, and, if so, she hoped he still meant it now.
Perhaps it was the soft thrash of wings against the walls of her belly that made Ella think further of birds, and she considered how her thin, gnarled hands reminded her of a bird’s feet. She placed her palms on her knees, watched her knuckles rise like knobby mountains, saw her veins roll beneath her skin like blue worms that had died but never withered away. What was left of her fingernails were thick and broken, and it was laughable to imagine that someone like Ella would ever spend the time it would take to use a tiny brush to color such ugly things.
She resisted the urge to lift these awful hands to her face and allow those fingers to feel what waited there: the sunken, wide-set, dark eyes; the grim mouth that she imagined as always frowning because she did not believe she had ever smiled at herself when looking into a mirror, and she had only seen one photograph of herself in her lifetime, and she was certain that she was not smiling then. She recalled the photograph of a younger version of herself taken more than ten years ago; she and John and baby Lilly posing for a traveling photographer inside the post office down in Cowpens, South Carolina. John with his arm thrown around Ella’s shoulder, his face and eyes lit with the exaltation of the gloriously drunk, Lilly crying in her arms, what Ella knew to be her own much younger face blurred in movement as it turned toward Lilly’s cries at the exact moment of the camera’s looking. John had purchased the photo, folded it, and kept it in a cigar box that rattled with loose change and the quiet rustle of paper money when and if they had it. Ella had removed the photograph and gazed upon it from time to time over the years, but never to look at her own face. She’d only wanted to see the face of her firstborn, the girl who was now a tough, independent young lady who mothered her little sister and brothers more than Ella had the time or the chance or the energy to. John had left her—left them all, for that matter—over a year ago, and Ella assumed that he’d taken the cigar box with him because Lord knows he’d taken all that money, but the only thing that Ella missed now was the photograph.
By David Joy
For Uncle Butch
In all honesty, my father probably had it coming when he bolted a three-foot bar off the side of my mother’s ragtop Park Avenue to get a mirror far enough out to see around the twenty-foot Travel Mate. Then again, his decision was a matter of safety.
The water pump was out on his pickup, the part he’d ordered hadn’t come, and, though I wouldn’t call him cheap, my father wouldn’t pay five times what it’d cost him to fix it himself for some glue-sniffing teenager at the Jiffy Lube to spend half a day on an hour’s work. Mama’s car wasn’t ideal for hauling the pull-behind, but we were headed out of town. The family reunion was in two days, and, like always, the old man made do.
But Dad’s making do didn’t make a damn to my mother who peddled cosmetics to family and friends, bored housewives, church secretaries, PTA committee members, Bojangles cashiers, and anyone else who considered it rude to blow her off entirely when she moved into her pitch. We’d be walking through the Food Lion and she’d stop some lady with a buggy full of groceries and say, “You know, I hate to bother you, but you’ve got absolutely gorgeous lips. You ever think of adding just a touch of lip-gloss? Maybe Sassy Fuchsia, or, no, no, I think Shock Tart might be your color.” She’d hand her card to the stranger and I’d try to avoid eye contact, walk behind kicking those cards under shelves so Mama wouldn’t chase the strangers down and try to hand off another when she found the card she’d given tossed on the floor. My mother was blind to a lot of things. She really was. But one thing she saw clear as day was how that mirror my father bolted onto the side of her car was going to be the final nail in her Mary Kay coffin.
“You think anybody’s going to buy product from a woman in a car like that? You think anyone’s going to take me serious with a trailer mirror bolted five foot off the side of my car?”
“Three feet seven and three-eighths inches,” my father said. He’d had me hold the tape eleven times to make sure he’d measured correctly, that extra three-eighths being just enough for him to see around the back of the trailer from the steering wheel. “I’ll take it off just as soon as we get back.”
“What about the holes, Tom? You don’t think the holes where you bolted that thing on are going to hurt the resell? Take that mirror off the side of my car.”
“I don’t think we’re going to be making any trades," he said as he tilted the mirror a few inches in then nudged it back an inch or so out. "And I’ve already told you. I’ll take it off when we get home.”
“If we get home,” my mother yelled. “What if this thing breaks down in the middle of nowhere?”
“Then I’ll just underpin the son of a bitch and we’ll live out the rest of our days right there where the universe decided to set us,” my father said, finally looking up. “Hell, we’ll open up a hotdog stand, Grace, maybe sell boiled peanuts right there on the side of the road. You like boiled peanuts, don’t you? That'd suit you just fine.”
“It’ll buff out,” I said, trying to ease the tension just a hair to keep all that blood in Mama’s face from blowing her head up like a hand grenade.
“Be quiet, Henry. Just go in the house and see if your sister has her suitcase packed.”
“I really don’t think—” I started to reason.
“I said go in the house,” Mama barked.
So I set the tape measure down on the driveway and went inside like I was told.
If my little sister Anna hadn’t gotten into Mama’s product halfway between home and hell, I imagine my mother would’ve wrapped her hands around Dad’s throat and squeezed till his Adam’s apple shot north or south. The Buick wouldn’t plane off with all that weight on the back so the exhaust ground the pavement till a flurry of sparks followed behind us like the tail end of a comet. It was the tailpipe, muffler, and everything meant to hold the exhaust in place that finally broke free just as we crossed the state line. The Travel Mate hopped over what fell off and Mama turned to look behind only to find Anna smeared with Purple Eclipse eye shadow and Peach Pop cheek stick like some sort of six-year-old carny with lipstick on her teeth. My father never was one for praying, but folks who do always talk about a merciful God and to me that’s exactly what this was, mercy.
We must’ve reached the campground some time in the middle of the night, because I was asleep. I don’t remember my father parking or him moving me from the backseat of the Buick into the camper. I just woke up in the Travel Mate and stepped out that next morning beside a catfish pond with a few dead channel cats circling around a floating fountain that was anchored with white rope a hundred feet off the bank.
Dad’s cousin Larry came to give us a ride. My grandfather couldn’t drive anymore, and, ever since my grandmother died, Larry was the only one in the family who would volunteer to take the old man grocery shopping or to the doctor or across the county line so he could buy beer on Sundays. Grandpa told Dad to call Larry. When Larry came, we loaded up and hung a right by a sign that read Turtle Creek Campground with a giant smiling turtle holding a stringer full of fish, and Larry drove south on a state road as broken and crackled as a dried out snakeskin.
“I hid your daddy’s keys inside one of those spice boxes in the kitchen,” Larry said when he pulled in front of my grandfather’s house. “You know the ones I’m talking about that got roosters painted on ’em, those wood boxes that all fit inside one another: the tea in the coffee, the coffee in the sugar, the sugar in the flour, and so on?”
My father nodded.
“Well, the keys are in one of them. The sugar one maybe,” Larry said. “That truck ought to fire right up. I crank it and let it run for a little while about twice a week, drive it out to the grocery every couple of trips. Still runs good.”
“Thank you, Larry,” my father said. “For everything.”
“I’ll see y’all here in a little bit,” he said, then backed out of the driveway and sputtered down the road.
A pair of beagles bawled when we went inside, but my grandfather didn’t stand to greet us. He didn’t say hello, good to see you, or drop dead and die. He just shouted over his shoulder from where he sat at the kitchen table, “You’re late,” and went right back to shoveling cold oatmeal into his mouth. He wore a gray woolen coat with two stars on the collar, and a pair of sky blue trousers the same heavy material as the coat. A battered and worn kepi lay on the table next to his bowl of oatmeal. He looked like he’d just stepped out of a museum.
Our family reunion was centered on one of Dad’s cousins, a woman named Sherry who spent a year of her life in a mental hospital, having discovered the grave of one of our Confederate ancestors. She was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary and headed up the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and had stumbled onto some diviner who used dowsing rods to track down the unmarked graves of long lost relatives. For $300 this woman would wander around a field till those rods crossed and then she’d stop, raise her hand to God, and right there would be the grave. According to Sherry, this lady was batting a thousand, never once came back empty-handed, and so Sherry ponied up the $300, the lady went to work, and now here we all were to dedicate the grave of Alphonzo A. Roseman who was discharged from the Confederate Army on May 16, 1863 and died without a penny to his name.
My father’s share came to $27.32. Sherry said this over and over on the phone like he wasn’t good for it. Dad asked how much his father owed and she said that totaled up to $42.67. Dad asked if that was for both of them and Sherry said, no, that they each owed separately, so he rounded up one penny to $70 when he wrote the check, said it would all come out in the wash. That Saturday Dad shoved that check in an envelope and muttered something under his breath about brain cells and well water. He licked the envelope closed then sucked back on his Coors so hard that the can crumpled. I rode with him to the post office where he dropped another fifty cents for a stamp with Elvis on it.
“Well, are y’all going to sit down and eat, or just stand there drooling on yourselves,” my grandfather said.
“Are those steel-cut oats?” Anna asked.
“No, they’re Quaker Oats,” he said.
“Mama makes steel-cut oats.”
“Well, these here are Quaker Oats. Are you too good for Quaker Oats?”
Anna shook her head and shuffled a little to the right to hide half of herself behind Mama’s leg.
“Wilford Brimley used to be the spokesperson for this oatmeal, and if it’s good enough for him then I reckon it’s good enough for any of us,” my grandfather said. “Wilford Brimley was in ‘Cocoon.’”
“What’s ‘Cocoon?’” Anna asked.
“He has diabetes,” my father said, pronouncing it like “beat us.”
“Diabetees,” my mother corrected him.
“Diabeetees. Diabeetus” my father said. “However you say it, Wilford Brimley has it. Now he’s on commercials for insulin or something.”
“Suit yourself,” my grandfather yelled. He hammered his fists against the table and the spoon jangled against the rim of his bowl. “Picky eaters have starved to death in this house.”
We held still for a moment or two and waited for my grandfather to go back to eating. Stay still, be quiet, and don’t look at a bear, and it will usually just mosey on about its business. When he did, my mother took my sister into the back to get her ready for the reunion. Dad sat down next to his father, and I sat next to mine.
“I don’t know why y’all couldn’t just stay here,” my grandfather said. “There’s plenty of room.”
“I know there is, but Anna’s allergic to dogs.”
“That’s nonsense,” my grandfather said then knelt down to pat one of the two beagles on the back. “A person can’t be allergic to dogs.”
Dad shook his head.
“How are you holding up?” He asked.
“Hot dogs make the gout flare. Liver mush makes the gout flare. Cube steak makes the gout flare. Hell, even beer gives me fits anymore. Sometimes I just want to take out my pocketknife and chop that big toe right off. Can’t get around anyhow. And what don’t bother the gout gives me the diarrhea, so how’s that for—”
My father had stood up and was halfway to the coffee pot when he interrupted.
“No, Dad. I mean how are you?”
He was trying to ask how my grandfather was holding up since my grandmother died. That first month or two after we drove down for her funeral, Dad called his father every night to check on him. Months went by and the phone calls turned from once every couple of days to once a week to once every “I’ll get around to it” actually got around to it back to just birthdays and holidays. Grown-up chores weren’t all that different from childhood ones.
“I wish I could tell you it gets easier everyday, but it don’t,” my grandfather said. “It just don’t. That ain’t the way life works.”
Dad poured a cup of coffee into a camouflage Waffle House mug. He took a sip, spit that sip back into the mug then took the pot over to the sink.
“That’s two days old,” my grandfather said.
“Well then what in the world you saving it for?” my father asked as he dumped what was left down the drain.
“Cause I’ll still drink it.”
“Ain’t no wonder you got the shits, Dad,” my father said and I snickered.
“You can make a pot of fresh if you want. Coffee’s in the cabinet.”
My father washed out the pot and carried the old filter and grounds over to the trashcan with those beagles circling his ankles, tripping him up like he was going to give them a slice of cheese. He grabbed a tub of JFG from the cabinet and started to make a fresh pot.
“While you’re over there, look in the freezer and grab that trash bag for me,” my grandfather said.
Dad reached into the freezer as the coffee maker started to percolate. There were patterns of icicles that looked like Queen Anne’s lace frozen on the black plastic, and the bag seemed to steam when my father set it on the table.
“What is this?”
“Your old uniform,” my grandfather said. “I thought Henry here might want to wear it to the dedication. He looks about the same size you were.”
“No, Dad,” my father said.
“What uniform?” I asked.
“This is the uniform your father wore when he was your age. We used to travel around doing reenactments. He ain’t ever told you about that?”
I shook my head.
“I don’t want—” my father started to say.
My grandfather pulled a folded uniform the same colors as the one he wore from the bag and continued to talk over my father.
“How old are you, Henry?”
“Twelve,” I said.
“Then this ought to fit you just right.” He slid the uniform across the table like he was passing bread.
“Why’d you have it in the freezer?” I asked.
“Because it stunk and I didn’t want to wash it.”
“I don’t want him wearing that thing, Dad,” my father said.
But my grandfather wasn’t listening and I was intrigued.
“What do you know about the War of Northern Aggression, Henry?” my grandfather asked.
“I don’t want him—”
“Have y’all covered that in school?”
I didn’t know what my grandfather was talking about and I shook my head. Dad kept trying to say that I wasn’t going to wear that uniform, but my grandfather kept right on talking. When I tried to unfold the britches, the wool, frozen solid, crunched in my hands. Dad poured two cups of coffee and carried them back to the table. He pushed one to the old man, hoping, I think, that the coffee would shut him up. I sat on the edge of my seat and listened to something I didn’t know the first thing about, just waiting for that uniform to thaw, waiting for my father to give me permission to try it on.
Lesson number one, wool doesn’t breathe. I learned that halfway through the service. There were about a dozen of us in uniforms, probably sixty or seventy people in all, crowded in a fenced-in cemetery that was just two degrees shy of catching fire. My father kept staring at me during the service. He looked disappointed and I wasn’t sure if it was with my grandfather or with me, and he finally just quit looking altogether when the crowd sang, “Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.”
Lesson two was that Cousin Jeff was always remembering something, like how my grandfather purged a ’possum for two weeks, feeding the animal nothing but sweet corn and buttermilk, to get all of the gaminess out of the meat, or how one of his and Dad’s cross-eyed cousins, Robbie Gipe, played the guitar solo from Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” on a busted accordion to win the eighth grade talent show, how Robbie’s mom sang funny in church because of her cleft palate, or how Aunt Betty wasn’t always Aunt Betty, but when they were real little was Uncle Bert, though no one ever talked about Bert anymore and so really it was like he’d never been born at all.
“Me and your daddy used to go squirrel hunting,” Jeff said. “We went everyday after school and every weekend that I didn’t have to go see my dad. Your dad was a crack shot, Henry. See a squirrel. Bang. That fast.” He shook his head with amazement. “I bet you’re the same, ain’t you? Y’all do a lot of squirrel hunting where you live?”
“No,” I said. “I ain’t ever been squirrel hunting.”
“That’s a shame,” Jeff said. “I bet you’re a natural.”
I’d never met Cousin Jeff before in my life.
My father stood with my grandfather under a sweetgum in the middle of the cemetery, and my mother was just a few feet away from them twirling Anna beneath her fingertip like a windup ballerina. Some relative I hadn’t met came over and asked Jeff if he’d gotten his license back or if he still had to drive a moped to get back and forth to the plastics plant, and, while Jeff explained that he didn’t work at the plastics plant anymore, that he’d taken a job driving a school bus, I tiptoed away.
“You hot yet?” my father asked when I walked over.
“Itchy,” I said.
“A lot of soldiers died of heatstroke on long marches because of these uniforms, Henry,” my grandfather said. “None of our ancestors, of course, but families like Sibleys and Powells and Browns, hell, them sissies killed off in droves.”
A fat redheaded woman in a black pencil skirt that was shaped more like a pear than a pen popped out from behind my mother and said, “Tom, I want to introduce you to Mrs. Galloway.”
I learned from context that the redhead was our fat cousin Sherry who spent a year in a mental hospital and money on nonsense.
“Mrs. Galloway here’s who found the grave,” Sherry said.
Mrs. Galloway held out her hand. “You can call me Perline,” she said.
Perline Galloway didn’t look half as crazy as any of our family. Petite and kept, she wore a pale yellow pants suit that brought out the green in her eyes.
“How’d you go about finding this grave?” my father asked.
He never was one for mixing words. My father shot straight and didn’t care whether what he said came out sarcastic and dry because that’s exactly how he meant it. That was just his sense of humor.
“Well, it was awfully hard with all of these power lines,” Perline said, looking overhead and waving her hand about like she was shooing flies.
“I said it was awfully hard with these power lines,” Perline repeated, stressing each word as if it might’ve been her accent that caused his confusion. “All the electricity makes it difficult.”
“Say those dowsing rods were spinning like helicopter blades, huh?” Dad laughed and shook his head. “Say you lifted right off the ground?”
“No,” she said. “No, Mr. Roseman, that’s not what I said at all.”
“You can call me Tom.”
“You ever think of wearing a little eye liner, Perline?” My mother stepped forward and rummaged through her purse for a card. “A little touch of Mint To Be around those eyes and you’d have men lining up to buy you supper.”
“You’d be surprised how much of a demand there is for finding graves, Mr. Roseman,” Perline said. She glanced at my mother long enough to take the card, snapped open her hand purse and slipped the card inside, and my mother, sensing a tough sale, took Anna by the hand and walked toward a group of women who were smoking cigarettes behind a minivan. “I get two or three calls a week,” Perline said.
“Really?” my father asked.
“Really,” she said.
“You ever run any specials?”
“You know, specials: buy one get one, half off during hunting season, a free Dairy Queen Blizzard. Anything like that?”
My father stood staring at Mrs. Galloway with a slight grin on his face, and I think he wanted her to laugh with him, I honestly do. I don’t think he meant to hurt her feelings though it was obvious he did. For my father, laughter made things bearable. But Mrs. Galloway didn’t share his sense of humor, and, for that matter, very few people I ever met did. My father always came off in a way that he didn’t intend.
“Family is still important to people around here, Mr. Roseman,” Perline said. “But I wouldn’t expect you to remember something like that.”
Perline Galloway turned and walked away and Sherry stood red-faced and huffing like she was having an asthma attack. When Sherry stormed off, my grandfather looked at my father for what seemed an eternity. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. And once forever had come and gone, he shook his head, turned his eyes to the ground, and walked away.
We were alone, my father and me, and I stared to where a group of headstones rose from a parched patch of land, the red clay cracked and grassless. There were trees in the cemetery where we were and there were trees further in the field, but none of the trees could cast shade onto that place. It made no difference where the sun was in the sky.
“Who’s buried over there?” I asked.
“Over there.” I pointed. “Outside of the fence.”
“That’s a black cemetery,” my father said.
“Oh,” I said, though I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. I’d never really thought about one cemetery being any different than another. Six feet deep is what they said on the old Westerns my father watched on Saturdays. All graves were that deep, one no different than the next. “I don’t understand,” I said.
“I don’t either.”
A moment passed.
“Did anybody in our family ever own slaves?” I asked.
My father stared to the place I’d pointed.
“They did,” he said.
“How come?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Henry.” He didn’t look at me, but he squeezed my shoulder so hard that it almost hurt. “Some things don’t have a good answer.”
There’d been around seventy family members gathered at the gravesite and that number was nearly doubled now that there was free food. They circled the buffet like a wake of buzzards. The way they pecked and fought over fried chicken and frog legs, white potato salad and yellow potato salad, fruit salad and ambrosia salad, every kind of salad except real, honest-to-god salad, green bean casserole and squash casserole, broccoli casserole and macaroni casserole, quartered pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread, quartered peanut-butter-and-jellies on white bread, Aunt Fay’s homemade persimmon preserves on white bread, and plate upon plate of deviled eggs, oh, the way they pecked and fought and snarled and pulled pocketknives made it hard to deny we were family. The same blood that coursed through their degenerate bodies coursed through my own. We were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins, third cousins, no matter how you cut it kin. Blood kin. And it was my mother, sister, father, and I who butted our way to the front of the line.
The adults ate together at long tables that stretched the length of the fellowship hall. They crammed all of us kids into a Sunday school classroom that still had Vacation Bible School decorations taped to the walls—a giant smiling Jesus in a bathrobe with all of these laughing children playing ring-around-the-rosy around his legs—though my cousin Austin said Vacation Bible School had been over for over a month. That’s who I sat beside at a table that was no more than a foot off the ground, Austin and his little brother Odell, the three of us crouched in preschooler chairs with our knees up to our ears.
Austin was seven months older than me and he must’ve learned a lot in that seven months because he seemed to know more than any kid our age ought to know about things like sex and income taxes and how to check the transmission fluid in a ’94 Astro van and why Uncle Richard was missing those two fingers so that it looked like he was signing “I love you” the way deaf people do when he waved. Austin had a mud-colored birthmark that looked like a horse standing on its hind legs that ran from the corner of his mouth up and over one eye. Odell was a year younger than me and he and I had the same birthday though Austin had to tell me because Odell never said a word.
“Most folks think he can’t talk at all, but he can talk if he wants to, can’t you Odell?” Austin asked and Odell nodded his head up and down with a big, wide smile on his face.
“He just don’t want to talk. Don’t like to talk, do you Odell?” Austin asked and Odell shook his head no. Austin said Odell hadn’t said a word to anyone except him since their mother died in a house fire. He said this over and over while we ate, “Our mama got burnt up in a fire. Our mama breathed too much smoke and now she’s up in heaven with Jesus. Our mama got burnt up in a fire. Now she’s an angel.”
Austin knew most of the other kids in the room because he lived just down the road and they’d all grown up together. When we finished eating, he called over our cousin Ricki, a girl named Ricki, who wanted to audition for "America’s Got Talent" with this trick she’d taught herself to do with a ball chain. Ricki reached into her pocket and pulled out a long stretch of ball chain like you might hang dog tags on, or cut short and use for a key ring. She tilted her head back and ran that chain down one of her nostrils and started snorting back about two inches at a time. When there was a pile of chain gone, she coughed and choked and shoved her hand back in the back of her mouth till I was sure she was going to be sick, but she didn’t get sick. Ricki pulled the end of that chain through her lips so that it ran up her nose and out of her mouth then stood there with one end in each hand, her eyes crossed, and her tongue out saying, “Ahhhhh,” like she was in the doctor’s office.
“Bet you ain’t ever seen nothing like that have you?” Austin asked. I hadn’t and neither had Odell, and we sat there wide-eyed shaking our heads.
After lunch, all of the boys were headed down the street to one of our cousin’s houses. His father had built a paintball field in their backyard with piles of worn out tires and busted pallets stacked up for bunkers. According to Austin, this kid’s dad got ten dollars a head to let local kids shoot the hell out of each other with high-powered paintball guns. According to Austin, this kid almost lost one of his eyes after a boy named Ty, who wasn’t kin to us at all, froze his paintballs for an entire week inside a meat freezer then came and almost killed half the JV football team with paintballs as hard as marbles.
I didn’t think my father would let me go. I told Austin that I couldn’t mess up my grandfather’s uniform, and, seeing as I didn’t bring a change of clothes with me, I wouldn’t be tagging along. Austin said he could scrounge up some clothes and for me to go and ask my dad, and, though the truth of the matter was that I was scared to death and didn’t want to go, I couldn’t think of any good excuses so I took my plate to the trash and went to track down my father.
I found him standing with my grandfather outside of the church by a thick hedge of boxwoods. My father’s back was to me so he never saw me standing there. My grandfather glanced in my direction, but turned his attention back to Dad. He didn’t seem to care that I was there. Maybe he even wanted me there to hear what he had to say. He was yelling about how my father made Sherry cry. He jabbed his finger into my father’s chest and talked so sternly through clenched teeth that his words broke apart into spittle. He glanced down at me again then asked if my father thought he was above his raising, if he was embarrassed of where he came from, of who he came from, and, if so, why in the hell hadn’t he just stayed home. My father stood there staring at his shoes, shaking his head, and didn’t say a word until the old man was finished.
Later that night, back at the campground, I would listen to my father explain things to my mother, while they thought I was sound asleep. I would lie awake in the Travel Mate and eavesdrop through the opened trailer window as she listened to him the way that she always did when he needed her most. My father would say that he knew the Civil War was about more than slavery, that it was also about economics and land and states rights, but that regardless of what his ancestors may or may not have fought and died for the war was about one thing now, 150 years afterward, the war was about one thing, slavery, and that it was a waste of time to try and amend how the history’d been written and taught, that it was a waste of time to try and convince others that it was about something else, that if it all boiled down to one thing and that one thing, whether it be true or not, was slavery then that was nothing to be proud of.
That very next summer when three lunatics tied a black man behind their pickup truck in Jasper, Texas and dragged his conscious body down the asphalt for three miles before he struck a culvert, the murderers towing what was left of him another mile after that, I watched my father cry as he stared at the television and listened to the story. He prayed those first few nights, something he didn't think anyone saw, and, afterward, something I never saw him do again. A few years later, when the NAACP rallied at the Statehouse to have the Confederate flag removed from the capitol building, I watched my father rip a six foot by four foot flag off of a seventeen year old kid’s pickup truck as he spun donuts around a black mother and her two children in the Ingles parking lot one Sunday. I watched that kid slam on brakes, climb out of his truck, and tell my father that that flag was about heritage. I listened as my father told that boy he didn’t know a thing about heritage, that if he wanted to talk about heritage then he needed to name names, he begged the boy to name names, and when the boy said he didn’t know their names but that his dad told him he had ancestors who fought and died for the Confederacy, my father told that boy that if he wanted to talk about heritage then he’d show him graves. He’d take him to the monument for Alphonzo Roseman or the grave of Quintus Curtis Patterson who was imprisoned as a POW or the grave of Robert Franklin Smith who was wounded at Gettysburg, taken prisoner, and later died in a prison camp in Point Lookout, Maryland. My father would scream that that was our heritage, that that was our family, that that boy didn’t know a goddamn thing about nothing.
But right then outside of that church, while I waited to ask my father if I could go let my cousins shoot my teeth out with paintball guns, my father didn’t say any of that. My father just looked at his dad and told him how much he loved him.
We stayed at Turtle Creek Campground the rest of the week and only saw my grandfather once more when he agreed to let my father take him out for the Wednesday night buffet at Shoney’s. Cousin Larry leant my father two fishing rods and a tackle box. I took a handful of quarters and bought a tub of red wigglers from a vending machine that sold live bait by the campground office. I was trying to catch catfish and my father was trying to catch a buzz. All I caught that was of any account was a bluegill shaped like a saucer, and a shellcracker that had a giant tumor growing out of the side of its head. My father got drunk.
There was a black man and his son fishing just around the lake under a giant pin oak that had catalpa worms tangling its limbs with webs. The man had cut two sticks shaped like Ys and whittled the bottom ends into points with his pocketknife then jabbed those sticks in the ground to hold his fishing rods. He had a small copper bell clamped to the end of each rod and every couple of minutes one of those bells would get to ringing and his son would run down the bank and set the hook on another fish. They had an entire stringer of catfish, and, in between setting hooks and reeling in fish, the boy would walk down and pull the stringer up out of the water to count how many they’d caught while his dad re-baited the hooks and cast again.
“Why don’t you go ask what they’re fishing with?” my father asked. “I bet they’re using chicken livers.”
“They didn’t have any chicken livers in the vending machine,” I said.
“Or stink bait. They might be using stink bait.”
“They didn’t have stink bait either,” I said.
All of a sudden one of the bells rang and a fish yanked so hard that the rod holder ripped out of the ground and the rod skipped down the bank toward the water. The man jumped out of his chair, tripped over his tackle box, fell, and had to scuttle on his hands and knees those last few feet to grab ahold of the handle just before the fish drug his rod, reel, and all into the lake. The man came up with the rod doubled over and waving high in the air, and he tried to regain control as the drag screamed on his Zebco. Once he had his footing, he handed the rod to his son, and my father chugged the last half of his beer, crunched the can in his fist, stood, and said, “Come on, Henry.”
We were right there when the boy finally managed to reclaim enough line to get the fish within wading distance of the bank. The man had already rolled up his pants and taken off his shoes and socks. He waded into the lake with a trail of bubbles marking each step he took. When the fish came close, the man yelled instructions for his son to move a few feet to the left then a few steps to the right so that he might have a chance of getting his hands around their trophy. He knelt and cradled his arms in the water as the fish swam into him, and, when he had his catch in his hands, he carried the fish up the bank as if he were carrying a drowned child.
“My God, would you look at that,” my father exclaimed, his words almost breathless.
The fish was three feet long with scales as big around as fifty-cent pieces. Its barbeled mouth opened and closed for air, but its golden body was too spent to move.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A carp,” my father said.
The man and his son looked up when they heard my father’s voice.
“Y’all want this thing?” the man asked.
“What for?” my father asked.
“I thought y’all might eat these things,” the man said.
“What do you mean y’all?”
The man suddenly looked like he was about to choke on what he’d said and he stuttered, believing that he’d offended us. My father held his expression long enough that even I started to believe that the man had, but then he cracked a smile. Dad burst into laughter and the man looked confused for a second or two before he too started to laugh.
“You got any pliers?” my father asked.
“Yeah.” He nodded. “Right there in that tackle box.”
My father lifted the trays from the tackle box and when he found the needle-nosed pliers he carried them over and knelt beside the man and the fish.
“These things got mouths like rubber,” he said. He worked to get the hook loose while the man held the fish against the ground. “You know I had an uncle who used to eat these things. He used to go catch them with some kind of dough balls he made in his bathtub. He used to put all kinds of things in that dough, everything from garlic to Kool Aid. He’d fillet all the bones out, cut out that mud vein—they’ve got a nasty mud vein running all through the meat—and then he’d smoke them.”
“I’ve got a cousin who grinds them up and makes carp burgers,” the man said.
“Poor’s poor,” my father said. “My dad brought one home one time when he was between jobs, but my mother wouldn’t let him bring it in the house.” He set the pliers on the ground and looked up. “There,” he said. “I think that’s got it.”
The hook was out of the carp’s mouth and the man grabbed the fish by its gills. He carried it down to the water and set the carp in the shallows. The man’s son was around my age and we stood together in silence watching the fish lie on its side, its flank out of the water, one fin rowing the air.
“You want a beer?”
“No. I better not,” the man said.
“Come on now,” my father urged. “Just a beer. Just right over where those chairs are. We can watch the boys fish.”
The man agreed and their voices softened as they climbed the bank and walked around the lake to my father’s cooler.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked.
“Henry,” I said.
“Mine’s Marcus,” he said.
We watched as the carp rocked its head side to side and before long the fish had righted itself. Marcus and I stayed put and watched as the carp slowly recovered. The fish lay there, its gills opening and closing, catching its breath and we did not say a word. All of a sudden, the surface exploded, water dripped from our smiling faces, and our wetted shirts clung to our chests. We looked at one another and keeled over in laughter. Marcus shook the water from his hair and I turned back to where the fish had been. Mud swirled the bottom and the water lapped the shore. And just like that, like the final act of a magic show, the thing we’d been watching was gone.
When we left Turtle Creek Campground, I didn’t know when I’d see my grandfather again. I didn’t understand what had happened between the two of them and I couldn’t foresee the day when my father would get a call and we’d drive down to bury his dad, just as we had his mother, beneath that scorching sun.
What I knew was that, come Monday morning, I’d start sixth grade at Smoky Mountain Middle School. I knew that I’d have Mrs. Hedgepath for Language Arts and I knew that was going to be a bad thing because everyone knew she was a bitch. I knew that I’d go out for basketball that fall, that I’d probably wind up riding the pine, and that, given the way I already felt, I’d more than likely fall in love with Jenna Gilmore.
That was the thing about twelve years old is that there was only black and white. There was no distant past and there was no far off future. There was only one way to think of time.
Mama’s Park Avenue blew a tire and lost the back left hubcap just as we came into town. My father didn’t blink and my mother didn’t say a word. He hobbled the camper home, threw the car in park, and the two of them walked inside the house holding hands and slept for two days straight. I kept Anna and me alive on Chef Boyardee, Cool Ranch Doritos, and fruit snacks until that Sunday night when my parents stumbled out of their bedroom and my mother asked if we were hungry.
I asked my father when he was going to take me squirrel hunting.
I told my mother I felt hungry forever.
David Joy is the author of the critically acclaimed Where All The Light Tends to Go. Check out his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @DavidJoy_Author. Also check out our interview with the author, his novel’s appearance on Bruce, Bourbon, and Books, and Joy's drunken playlist.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
By Sean Tuohy
I met Gracie Rosen on a warm Tuesday morning at the Pelican Hotel on Fort Lauderdale Beach. It was less than a mile from the hotel that I call home but they were worlds apart. The Pelican was a grand place located right on the beach. Piercing the bright blue Florida sky, The Pelican offered stellar views of the ocean from their five hundred dollar night rooms. The balcony dining room offered brunch to the public and I figured since I was meeting a client I could foot them for the bill and grab eggs.
Gracie and I sat across from one another in the air-conditioned dining room. To our right floor to ceiling windows gave a sweeping view of the surf below. I sipped at coffee as Gracie abandoned her fruit salad. She was a tall young woman, long limp, shoulder brown hair, and wearing a pants suit that was muted but tasteful.
“Dennis recommended you to me,” Gracie started. “He said you used to work with him.”
I nodded, “I was still with the Sheriff’s office then.”
“And now you do private work?”
Gracie considered this before she spoke.
“My firm hires a lot of private detectives but they don’t look like you,” she said.
I glanced down at my outfit; tropical shirt that was fraying and stained khaki pants. Not my worse but not my best either.
“Lawyer?” I asked.
Gracie nodded, “Dennis works for us now. I work in corporate law. A lot of south American clients opening businesses here.”
I studied her face and could see the distress in her eyes; it was lingering pain.
“But that’s not why we are meeting, is it?”
Gracie quickly pulled out her cell phone and unlocked it. She handed it to me and looked away. On the screen I found myself looking at a young olive-skinned man with tubes coming out of him lying in a hospital bed. His face was a black and blue mess.
I handed the phone back.
By Elizabeth Nicklis
The wind, the rain, the water, it was all the same. The pilgrims had been seeing the same landscape for the last two weeks: the rolling waves, the occasional blue sky, the clouds, the boat, and the people. There were more than 100 people on board, and it was very crowded. They had all been excited and ready to leave so they could live according to their own beliefs without a king to boss them around. It was a brilliant dream, but many were getting pretty tired of the boat and were growing anxious and grouchy. Two people had already died—one drowned, the other got sick—and everyone was getting restless.
Stephanie was very tired of the boat. The closest person to her age was Olivia, who was only nine. Stephanie was eleven, one of the oldest children on the ship. She had dark brown hair worn in braids and a pretty pink and blue calico dress. She was cheerful and had rosy cheeks and a voice like a lark.
The captain walked by. He, too, seemed to feel the toll of this journey.
“Captain,” Stephanie said. “How much longer to shore, may I ask?”
“A good while. A storm’s brewing,” he said in a gruff, gravely voice.
Another storm, Stephanie thought. Great.
Stephanie noticed that the boat had begun to rock and the sun was hidden from view by dark, ominous clouds. The waves were big and choppy. The whole scene was scary and promised death. The rain began to fall and people rushed to get under the cabin's protection.
However, Stephanie stayed on deck to see the stunning storm. The waves crashed onto the deck, soaking her skirts. The rain came in torrents. Thunder boomed and lightening flashed in great shows of light. The boat rocked violently side to side, the boards screaming. A yell went up followed by a splash and commotion. A rope was thrown into the sea. Stephanie watched with horror as a man was pulled up wheezing, shivering, and dripping wet.
“Oh my,” she said softly.
A towel was placed on the shoulders of the man and he was brought to the cabin. The boy next to Stephanie suddenly fell over the railing and tumbled into the sea. Stephanie gulped and made her way to the waiting comfort of safety. The storm was over as quickly as it begun and people filed out of the cabin in rows.
Three more weeks went by. Week after week of everything being the same. But then, Stephanie heard it, a thin wail spread across the boat. A wail of life. Men, women, and children rushed around a young woman. She looked tired. She had deep circles under her eyes and her skin was pale, but she was smiling proudly and her eyes shone. A bearded man, whom Stephanie recognized from around the boat, was kneeling next to her holding out a bundle. If Stephanie had any doubt of what was in there, it dissipated when a tiny pink face peeped out from under the wraps. The baby gurgled and cried.
Stephanie approached the mat where the boy lay. His blue eyes sparkled when he looked at her and he smiled adoringly at her glowing face.
“He likes you,” the mother whispered, smiling.
“What is his name, ma’am?” Stephanie asked.
“His name is Oceanus, for he was born on the sea,” the mother said. “And what might yours be?”
“My name is Stephanie,” she said shyly, blushing.
“What a beautiful name for a beautiful girl.”
Stephanie’s cheeks flushed again. She slowly backed away from the crowded area. She went to her cabin and sat smiling until sleep arrived.
As the days went by, more and more sickness overtook more and more people. They were little more than seventy-five people still alive. Hope was needed, and badly. One woman threw herself off the boat in a crazed state. Stephanie’s family had perished tragically and they all were resting under the water. Stephanie was grieved and lonely. Then the call went up,
“Land! Land ho!”
Those that remained excitedly gathered around the deck to view land. The idea that the horrible journey was over was bright in people’s minds. A majestic, dark mound rose out of the mist, but then…they went through it. The boat just simply cut through the huge cloud and all hope was dashed. People, even more discouraged than before, solemnly walked back under cover.
Is There Enough?
The food rations were smaller and smaller. Survivors could only have meager meals two times a day. Stephanie stared at her plate. Dinner consisted of dried fruit, some corn, and dirty, unfiltered water. Her stomach growled more and more often. Rumors spread that there wasn’t enough food for everyone and that sacrifices had to be made. And on top of that, people were getting angrier. Their leaders had promised land. Where was it? The brilliant sea voyage on shining blue waters, happy people, enough food for a feast every day? The ribs showed on the animals and nobody smiled, laughed, or joked anymore. Stephanie was lonely, hungry, and alone.
Home at Last
“Land ho!” the booming voice sounded again.
Three months after they left, the pilgrims had finally reached their destination. Preparations were made and people gathered their things in celebration. Everyone crowded against one another to see land, and this time they were sure it wasn’t a cloud. The trees, rocks, hills, and flowers were definitely real. The waters glistened and the sand sparkled in the sun. Women cried and children shouted.
The long journey was over!
Well, not quite. They had to sail for two more weeks to get past the large, spiky rocks. In December, they finally docked in Plymouth.
Plymouth Rock marks the spot, Stephanie thought.
People poured out onto the hot sand, weeping and praying. The minister gathered everyone ‘round to join together in an earnest prayer to God for delivering them safely. Little did they know that in one year, they’d host the first Thanksgiving for the Native Americans who helped them through hard times.
But all Stephanie cared about now was that she was home. She was finally home at last.
Elizabeth Nicklis is a homeschooled 11-year-old who is crazy about writing. She hopes to some day make more money than her Uncle Daniel. Also read her first Thanksgiving tale, "A Tragically Hopeful Thanksgiving."
By Gary Almeter
Holly’s curiosity about the contestants never waned. Sometimes, as the contestants were pondering how much the big screen television cost, or as Bob was explaining how to play Cliffhanger, Holly would wonder a variety of questions. “Who does this person love?” “Who, if anyone, does she wake up next to every morning?” “What did your mother call you as a baby?” “Are you a good girl?” “How do you treat your wife?” “Do you drink too much?” "What kind of man was your father?"
Holly had red hair, that brilliant iridescent rusty orange color, which both belied its humble Texas origins and solidified her unique girl-next-door-meets-Hollywood-glamour charm. She came to be known as the clumsy one; the one who provided comic relief. While she understood the need, she grew to resent this role because she wasn’t really that clumsy. Task anyone with parading up and down a sleek and highly-illuminated sound stage in an effort to transform ordinary household items into concupiscent objects of desire and that person will drop an item or two in a decade. So yeah, clumsy was a misnomer. That notwithstanding, she did recognize that her name by itself did connote a certain frivolity and effervescence since it was one of the plants most associated with the Christmas season and also the first two syllables of “holiday.”
The house where Holly grew up, the house that her father built, is still there, on the corner of Hacienda and Magnolia Streets. The manager of a fast food restaurant lives in it today. Aluminum siding has replaced the cedar shingles and a closed in porch has replaced the veranda where they used to sit. Holly likes old words like that—words her grandparents used to say like veranda, foliage, rubbish, and shears. The shed and the fence and the barn are all gone as are the shade trees and the adjacent fields, upon which dozens of houses, split-level ranchers clearly built in the 1970s, now stand. Without the tall elms there are unobstructed views to the backyards, the clotheslines, the swimming pools, the trampolines. Where Holly grew up, people decorated their yards with big rocks and drove big trucks and believed that when they talked to God he listened to them exclusively.
The first time Holly saw snow she was 12 years old. She was brushing her recently washed hair and for inspiration, had a little transistor radio tuned to a Top 40 station. She was using her hairbrush as a microphone and singing along to Petula Clark’s “Downtown” when she heard her mother jubilantly exclaiming from downstairs that it was snowing. Holly rushed outside. Everyone else on their street spent the next half hour or so gazing upwards with tongues outstretched, taking running starts and sliding on the street pavement, and generally frolicking about. Holly was also staring up when Larry Cooper, a new kid a grade above Holly in school who had just moved to their street from Atlanta and who Holly thought was fresh, came over and old Holly that he was in love with her. The snow didn’t stick at all. In the midst of making a snow angel, Holly saw that her still-wet hair had frozen which, when considered in conjunction with Larry Cooper’s proclamation, made her laugh. Her mother had freshly laundered dungarees on the clothesline and those had also frozen.
As it turned out, Larry Cooper’s mother was sick so his parents sent him to live with his aunt. One day Larry asked Holly to the movies. After some efforts and orchestrations on the part of Holly’s mother and Larry’s aunt, it was agreed that they would go see “Beach Blanket Bingo” starring Frankie and Annette. Larry’s aunt, who everyone fancied a suppressor of such exuberance, had advocated they go see “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” which chronicled the life of Jesus Christ. At the movies, Larry told Holly that his uncle had lost his job and that he was likely going back to Atlanta. When at the theater, which in its day was one of the nicer ones, Holly had difficulty not focusing on the marble black and white checkered floor, gleaming brass railings, and red velvet ropes embellishing the lobby. Holly remembers Larry telling her that he was moving back to Atlanta and thinking only that the red plush on the chairs had balded to such a degree as to render them almost unusable.
Holly’s mother was Miss San Antonio Bexar County Outstanding Teen in 1948. She did not have iridescent rust colored hair but did have the same iridescent smile that she passed down to Holly, but she was a real beauty. She had brown hair with glimmers of bronze in it and blue-blue eyes that held within them an infinite capacity for chastisement. To chastise Holly she did not have to speak, her eyes did it all with one piercing gaze. But when she approved of something that Holly did, everything about her seemed to soften. The stream of bluish light emanated from her eyes was like a melting delphinium. Holly recalls being five and watching her mother get ready for an evening out. Her mother wore a silver-fox fur piece and a white kettle hat and a silk dress and her father wore a tuxedo. Holly’s mother dabbed some Chanel on Holly’s wrists.
If I don’t like it here I can always leave, Holly had thought when she first arrived in Los Angeles.
Leaving San Antonio was the first time she had ever left anyplace without feeling totally bereft at the departure. The only thing that terrified her about living in Los Angeles was thinking of her parents’ demise, that her parents would die while she was away, that they would die alone (which was ridiculous in light of the fact that they had a sizable family nearby), that they would die before Holly would have kids. They would go about the minutiae of their daily lives thinking that Holly had moved to Los Angeles as a means of escape rather as a destination.
The rental agent who showed Holly her first apartment was named Mr. Voltura. He spoke with a slight British accent and taught mathematics at the community college at night. He told Holly that he was not supposed to show the apartment as its former tenant had just died and the entire contents of the apartment was part of an estate that still needed to be appraised. He said he was making an exception for her. When they entered it, the apartment looked like it had been ravage. All the drawers were open and there was grime on top of every single surface. As Holly walked around the entrance and what would soon be her living room, the decedent’s brother emerged from the bedroom and told them that he was trying to get things in order. He told Holly that his sister, the former tenant, was a nurse and that her friends and patients were always giving her things to thank her for things that she had done for them. The brother, who Holly pictured sleeping atop the sofa covered with invoices and old financial documents, told Holly that if she wanted anything she could take it.
Her first roommate J.D. was an enthusiastic production assistant for a company that made pornographic films. Holly saw his ad for a roommate on a bulletin board. He would come from work wearing a carpenter’s belt repurposed and filled with porn accouterments: dildos, lotions, lip balms, towels, lubes of varying scents and viscosities, hair brushes, and spray bottles. He would sometimes wash and disinfect the dildos while the two watched television. Holly got her own place when she got the role on the show.
Holly never married. She had a number of lovers and a less significant number of boyfriends while she lived in Los Angeles, including one of the stars of “M*A*S*H” who I won’t name because that would just be poor form and I generally don’t like to gossip. They dated before the era of omnipresent paparazzi so no one knew about it. Her singleness made the on-air flirtation with the contestants, especially the ones in the military, that much more endearing. Her mother said that Holly never had any taste in men. Holly broke up with the only one Holly’s mother ever liked shortly after she told Holly that she liked him. As justification, Holly told her mother that he was dull. The thing is, Holly had really liked him too but such an admission would have felt like acquiescence to her mother who had not wanted her to move to Los Angeles. The boyfriend—his name was Denis—was Russian. His family had moved from Latvia where his father had worked in a Riga Autobus Factory when the factory was destroyed in a war of some sort.
She kept a pile of paperback books on her nightstand. The book tower featured Russian literature mostly, “The Brothers Karamozov” and “Anna Karenina” among them. Denis went to Tufts University and majored in Russian Language and Literature. He had also been a member of the Tufts Beelzebubs, Tufts University’s premiere all-male a cappella group, and frequently regaled Holly with stories of their a cappella triumphs. She had heard him speaking Russian once and it made her feel so naughty. She dated him during the xenophobic Reagan years. It was so unlike her on-screen persona.
After Holly had to literally push Bob off of her, she filled out a sexual harassment complaint form. By the time she had sat down in the offices of Mark Goodson and Bill Todman she had lost her nervousness. Mr. Goodson lifted the pink sheet of paper and shook it at her.
“Do you recognize this?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.” That is the sexual harassment complaint form I filled out.”
“It would appear to name Bob on the complaint,” Mr. Todman chimed in.
“Yes,” Holly said.
They went on to explain everything that Bob had done for people and what a nice guy he was and how everyone looked up to him and how sometimes innocuous things like remarking on someone’s clothes might be construed as sexual innuendo when in reality, there was no such innuendo attached.
Holly wanted to say that this was far greater than mere innuendo and that she was often scared to come to work. Bob had made his intentions quite clear and that really the police should be called. All she said was, “I’m sorry.” She twisted her lips, as if she had tasted something foul that he just had to spit out , and walked out of the office.
She used to resent the other two ladies with whom she was, and would perpetually be, associated. With the help of her therapist, that resentment has now dissipated. She thinks about them with some frequency and with fondness. Nonetheless, in light of geography and the passage of time she rarely sees them and was surprised when Dian called her and asked if she and Janice could visit for a few days. They were both still in Los Angeles and doing well.
She bought the home that she now lives with the money she got in the settlement. “Millions,” she told Ann Curry on NBC’s “Today Show” after telling Ann how she lost everything during the decade-long court battle. She had to fill the home from scratch and while so doing would, with great frequency, happen upon products she once coyly caressed on national television. She reveled in it—walking up and down Best Buy and gingerly massaging the Whirlpool refrigerators, the Amana washers and dryers, the GE self-cleaning ovens. With great flourish she walked through the Bed Bath and Beyond at the Alamo Quarry Shopping Center and caressed the Hamilton Beach coffee maker, the Cuisinart blender, and Kitchen-Aid toaster before she put them in her cart. She even bought a Michael C. Fina diamond necklace for herself just because. She stocked her pantry with foodstuffs she never would eat—Chef-Boyardee ravioli, Sue Bee honey, and Jif peanut butter—as a celebratory and defiant punctuation mark to the years she spent shilling that shit on the show.
She rarely watches television so, when in need of ambient noise to fill the home, she listens to The Beatles. Her parents, Beatles devotees, listened to them non-stop when she was growing up. This made them anomalies in San Antonio where most people listened to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. She can’t think of her father without picturing him with a cigarette in his mouth. She recalls the smoking and the cigarettes fondly in a good, 1950s, “we are an indomitable species” sort of way. He had rust colored hair too. Holly has also inherited his mannerisms. He was both elated and disappointed when she told him she was going to Hollywood. She also pictured her mother with a dishtowel in her hands.
Holly found herself slowly drinking coffee in her kitchen with the two women mentioned earlier. She notices that Dian’s tits are less perky and Janice’s skin isn’t as luminous, but that is of no consequence to these old buddies who each secretly suspect the feeling they have for each other is more akin to what veterans might feel. They are remembering the past, talking about Bob, Rod, and Johnny as though saying their names would summon them from the dead. They all had issues with Bob. Holly was prudent and judicious, and had no patience for any sort of wrongdoing. After her complaint, she had simply tried to disassociate herself with what was happening until he asked her to lie with respect to Dian’s suit against him. They sat outside and drank mimosas remembering contestants they abhorred or adored or for whom they felt profound sympathy. They recalled those t-shirts with iron-on fuzzy letters evincing the contestant’s devotion to Bob, and how Bob would make people who guessed the price of the item up for bids with precision dig deep into his pocket and pull out a hundred dollar bill. They did this all day.
That night after dinner, they sat on the terrace and watched the sun set. Barrels of bright orange poppies separated the flagstones form the lawn that sloped down the hill to the lake, where it ended abruptly as if it were a scene in a child’s coloring book.
Holly gathered up the dishes, carried them to the sink, sprinkled them with dish soap, adjusted the water. She let it run while she took some paper towels from the dispenser next to the sink and wiped the kitchen table down. Janice and Dian were upstairs packing. It was almost time to drive them to the airport and Holly wondered if she would drop them off at the departing flights gates or park her car and walk in and wait with them.
For the first time since she has known these women, the threat of betrayal is not widely felt, does not seem to invade every conversation and every meal. They had survived the chronic and perpetual threats that come from being models in Hollywood and the perpetual litigation that came as a result of Bob. For several years there was no communication whatsoever and at court dates and depositions and hearings they would sometimes not acknowledge one another and studiously look the other way. But they were still intimately bound up and to one another. Holly noticed how their posture as each of them sat in their chair—leaning forward arms on knees—made their bellies bulge. This would have made Holly sad at one time but currently didn’t. She couldn’t even recall when she last felt sad.
People recognize her with some frequency when she is out and about in San Antonio. Sometimes people see her and point and say “Holly!!” or “Come on down!!” Other times people will say something akin to “I know you from somewhere” and then go through their mental Rolodex until they get it. Most of the time she feels people stare, wonder, and point. Her thirty-pound weight gain was well documented in public court documents. She wanted it that way. She’s in her 60s now.
It’s hard for a woman of limited means to plan her own demise. She learned that during that time she lived in her car and would entertain thoughts of suicide at odd times. Not when she was sleep deprived and gazing up at the stars when parked outside Concepcion Park; not when “Eleanor Rigby” came on the oldies radio station she usually listened to and she had to simultaneously think about how lonely she was and about her father playing the record in happier times; not when she was hungry. Depression is mean. It hits you when you least expect it. It hit her at times like when she saw kids jump roping. Or the tree that reminded her of the tree in the backyard of her childhood home.
But what could she have done? Her car was not reliable enough to accelerate to a speed that would guarantee her death if she tried to wrap it around a telephone pole at 110 m.p.h., and she could not afford prescription pills. She could neither afford nor tolerate the idea of putting a gun in her mouth. She wasn’t going to jump off anything because that method invariably gave you seconds of lucidity to regret what you had done. So she stuck with it, the lawsuit and the living.
Oddly, the worst thing about living in your car after losing your home while in the midst of a protracted lawsuit with a beloved game show host and a television network isn’t the actual living. It was actually quite cozy. You get accustomed to the contours of the seats and figure out how precisely to arrange your jean jacket against the window to achieve maximum support. You figure out which parks and Wal-Mart stores to get to and when to get them to guarantee a safe spot underneath a street lamp of some sort. The tough part of living in your car is getting out of your car. The toughest part was walking into a gas station restroom with your toothbrush and toothpaste and deodorant in a plastic bag so that onlookers could only assume that you were living in your car. Moving about in the presence of other humans feeling the exposure, the humiliation, the embarrassment. Otherwise, you were shielded by a roof and four doors.
Holly stops with some frequency at the Neiman Marcus at the Shops at La Cantera and buys bags for people. Holly likes the Tory Burch tote bags. They’re luxury items and probably impractical but she feels that you need that sort of stuff the most at hard times. She delivers them to the Battered Women and Children’s Center. Holly will also stop at CVS and buy enough toothpaste and deodorant and lotion—the good brands—to fill up the bags.
Now and again, she will pick up a product once featured on the show. Holly will secretly hold the item, as if to a camera, and smile before she defiantly and triumphantly drops it into her shopping basket.
Gary M. Almeter is an attorney and has been published in McSweeney's and The Good Men Project. He lives in Baltimore, Md. with his wife, three children, and beagle. Also check out his short stories "The Love Song of JFK Jr.," "Goodbye, Buster Bucheit," and his writing playlist.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
By Anne Leigh Parrish
They sat on six acres, so there was plenty of room. And since getting laid off, he had plenty of time. When the cement plant was hiring again, he’d gotten a phone call from Dodd, his supervisor there for more than fifteen years. Clarence said no thank you, he was doing just fine in retirement. Sandy needed a second cup of coffee for that one. Clarence was forty-seven years old. Who the hell retires at forty-seven? Especially with five years left on the mortgage and the salary from her job with the school district not exactly plush?
Sandy’s mother advised her to button her lip.
“The man’s in bad shape,” she said.
Sandy knew all about his bad shape. The hunting accident had happened more than four years before, but Clarence was in those damned woods every day, walking silently as he’d been taught to do by his own father, waiting for the buck, holding perfectly still, taking his time, then very gently squeezing the trigger of the 30.06. Poor Lucas had to get his ass in the line of fire at the wrong moment. Well, not his ass, his left arm, which was probably better since he was right-handed. Not that he used either hand for anything gainful, living off his little sister his whole adult life. Lucas was in the hospital for a while, learning how to deal with a shattered humerus, enjoying the morphine and the kindly touch of his nurses.
Really, he’d taken the whole thing a lot better than Clarence had. Lucas was proud of his arm’s gnarly surgical scar, even of its shrunken muscles, and the way it dangled by his side while he gestured wildly with the other one.
No matter how many times Sandy told Clarence that things could have been a whole lot worse, because after all Lucas was alive and well, he got all dark and distant.
And then the lay-off came. While Sandy put pencil to paper and figured out how they were going to make it on his unemployment and her salary, Clarence sat in front of the television set with the sound off, his feet on the coffee table, arms folded across his round stomach. When he looked up from the screen, he seemed not to recognize his surroundings.
He needed to pull out of himself. So it was ironic that the vehicle for that action was Lucas, the one who’d shoved him down inside in the first place.
Lucas had a car with a bad carburetor. He’d rebuilt it four times already with no luck. Maybe his funky arm and hand made the job a failure, maybe it was because he’d always been a few bricks short of a load anyway, but he just couldn’t get it to work. So Clarence told him they’d go out to the junk yard and look for the kind of car he had, a 1980 Buick Le Sabre.
The junkyard was under new management. Clarence didn’t know Foster had sold out. The boy behind the counter told him so. Not much of a boy, really, at well over six-feet with the tattoo of a dagger on his forearm. What threw Clarence, but not so much Lucas because Lucas had had a bunch of weirdness in his life, was that the guy was knitting a baby sweater with tiny needles. Doing it well, too, as far as Clarence could tell. Sandy was an occasional knitter. The boy, Glen, explained that his wife was expecting and had wanted to knit a bunch of sweaters, hats, and booties for the coming winter but had very bad arthritis, the kind you get when you’re a kid, so Glen said he’d learn and do it for her. His mother showed him how, and then asked him flat out if he had a thing in general for girlie stuff. He wasn’t offended. It seemed like a fair question. He liked to knit, he realized, but it made him reluctant to handle auto parts, on account of the grease and grime, so the customers did their own picking and carrying.
Clarence digested this information and said what he was looking for. Glen nodded. The GMs were in row three, more or less. His father—the new owner—had been trying to get the place organized. That guy Foster had had a screw loose when it came to keeping order, but then that made sense, didn’t it, owning a junkyard. Get it, screw loose? Old cars? Glen put his knitting in his lap and laughed until his face turned red and his eyes watered. Clarence had to hand it to him. Being able to crack yourself up was a worthy talent.
Clarence and Lucas made their way down the wide, dusty row. The drought was in its fourth month. Burns, Oregon was naturally dry anyway, and now it was even drier. Clarence wanted to move somewhere wet, with sixty inches of rain a year, like the Olympic Peninsula, maybe, or the east side of any island in Hawaii. He used to have quite a thing for geography when he was a kid. He’d picked up a lot from his mother’s old books. He didn’t figure he’d be able to talk Sandy into moving. She didn’t love her job, but she was dedicated to it. She was the secretary for the whole school district. Okay, it had maybe four hundred students in it, but someone had to keep all the paperwork straight, and that was her.
After forty-five minutes no Le Sabre was to be had, so they took the carburetor out of a Monte Carlo instead. Although the Le Sabre had a bigger engine, a V-8 versus a V-6, Lucas was pretty sure the carb would work. And it did. Lucas was delighted.
Clarence wasn’t. He was agitated. Something had woken up inside him, and wasn’t being at all quiet about it. He’d never been one to believe much in second chances, but his was staring right at him. He wanted to bring old cars back to life, thereby bestowing a second chance upon them too.
Sandy said a hobby was fine, a hobby was good, as long as it didn’t end up costing them a lot of money. Clarence removed his baseball cap and scratched the back of his head. Clearly, the thought of money hadn’t occurred to him. Salvage cars were cheap, not free. He begged her to take a closer look at the books and see if there a little funny money he could have. Sandy brewed another pot of coffee and stood, listening to it drip. Clarence had three more months of unemployment coming. He could use half of it. That was the best she could do.
The first was a 1975 Camaro. He got his buddy, Brewster, to tow it home for free. Brewster didn’t have much to tow in the summer. Winter was when everyone broke down or skidded into ditches, so he glad for something to do.
The wreck itself only set Clarence back seventy-five dollars. In good condition, the car would have been a collector’s item, but it was missing both bumpers and the passenger seat. And the radio. And the back lights. It lacked a windshield, too. Clarence listed all these drawbacks in his head while he circled it lovingly on the dead swath of grass where Sandy once had had a flower garden.
Every morning he was up to beat the midday heat. He took things off and put them back on. He went again and again to the junkyard, prowled the rows looking for what he needed. Sometimes he found it. Usually he didn’t. Glen was still knitting. He’d stopped making baby clothes, and was now working on a scarf for his dad.
After a week and a half, Clarence gave up on the Camaro and was jonesing for a sweet little Ford Galaxy. It had no steering wheel, but the leather seats were intact. So were two of its whitewall tires. The paint must once have been red. It was impossible to tell. He got it for a song because Glen had just taken a phone call from his wife. His side of the conversation made it clear that some medical issue had come up, and he was clearly worried. He let the Galaxy go for fifty.
By the first week of September, roughly nine weeks from the time the first injured car had made its appearance on their property, there were six rusting carcasses outside Sandy’s kitchen window. Clarence spent every daylight hour, even in the heat, under them, inside them, on top of them, poking, prodding, in an obscene display of affection that bordered on sexual.
There was fire in his eyes, and a cool steadiness in his hands. Even the way he sat on the porch when the day was done and watched the sun sink beyond the distant rise spoke of man standing firmly in the center of his own heart.
After another week, Sandy was back at work, using the ancient computer system to update enrollment records, vaccination records, absenteeism among both students and teachers, and the roster of licensed substitutes. Then she met with the head of the PTSA, a toad of a woman named Emeline Dorn, about her plans for fall fundraising. This was an annual headache, because residents of Harney County weren’t exactly knee-deep in riches. Bake sales, rummage sales, and sending a troupe of six-graders door to door with a canned speech about needing to buy new sports equipment (when the district really needed to invest in technology) were going to produce about the same number of dollars that year as in all the years before, somewhere between one hundred and one hundred and fifty. Emeline really wished Sandy could be a little more enthusiastic. Sandy suggested Emeline consult with the principal, Alvin Crockett. Alvin’s father-in-law owned the local radio station. Sandy made this suggestion every year, and Emeline acted upon it every year, and every year the principal’s wife wrote a check for over a thousand dollars just to make her go away.
In the middle of the second week of school the new high school science teacher was accused of inappropriately touching Marla Mayvins on the buttocks. The teacher was a young man, in his late twenties, and Marla was fourteen going on thirty. The usual hysterical uproar ensued, and he was put on leave without pay, pending an investigation. Sandy was reminded again how little true justice there was in this world. She’d crossed paths with Marla a number of times over the years because her attendance was so spotty and her mother had no interest in urging Marla to get up in the morning and get on the damned school bus. Why Marla had gone to school that particular day, when the science teacher, Roy Randall, was supposed to have goosed her, was proof that the thread holding all things together was unfair, corrupt, and basically stupid.
It was this sour mood that Sandy returned home to find that Clarence’s latest acquisition was blocking her access to the driveway. She had four bags of groceries to unload. She found him around back, sitting on an iron bench he’d also brought home from the junkyard, drinking a diet Coke, and staring happily into space. He offered to carry the bags in for her, if that would help. What would help is if he got rid of some these useless relics, called Dodd, and went back to work. The merry light in his eyes turned cold. He was sorry she’d had a bad day, but that was no reason to take out her problems on him.
You and those fucking cars are my problem, she almost said. Keeping those words to herself was the most painful thing that had befallen her in a long time. She wished then that she had developed a taste for liquor.
Glen’s baby was born and he took time off to help his wife at home. He told Clarence to take whatever he wanted from the yard, that they’d settle accounts later. Clarence and Brewster transported four more cars and parts of cars, particularly tires which Clarence had become attached to. Sandy’s yard looked like its own salvage operation, and she told Clarence he should go into business for himself. He didn’t understand. He didn’t bring the cars home so he could resell them. He had them to work on. Only he didn’t work on them the way he had. He seemed to have come to the end of his already limited expertise. Sandy said he should look for work at a service station. Maybe one of the guys there could teach him about cars. They were certified mechanics, right? Clarence couldn’t possibly mix commerce with art. He hoped she understood. Fine, she said, then call Dodd and see if he’ll still take you back. Clarence wasn’t ready for Dodd, either.
Another day, Sandy came home to find Clarence welding car parts together. He’d been a welder when he was younger, and still knew his stuff. As to what he was making, he couldn’t really say. There was just something so beautiful about how the metal could come alive under the heat, bonded, and become something else entirely. Sandy felt like she was losing her mind. Roy Randall, the science teacher, had been let go, and Marla Mayvins was playing the downtrodden but plucky victim for all it was worth.
She didn’t mean to break down and cry, because she wasn’t a crier. But it was just too much. She needed him to help, to earn some money, it didn’t matter how. Would he possibly think of selling his pieces? She knew people who did that. One of the English teachers at school crocheted hats for cats. She posted pictures on the Internet, and people actually bought them. The cats looked cute with their ears all bundled up. Clarence realized she was coming unglued, and brewed a nice strong pot of coffee. As she sat, huddled, still sobbing quietly, he regretted that he wasn’t a drinking man.
The weather turned cold. Clarence gave up working on the cars, and longed for a large, heated garage. What would it set them back to build one? Sandy didn’t answer. The set of her chin said he should probably not bring it up again.
The day that Clarence’s last unemployment check arrived, it snowed for the first time that season. Gorgeous fat flakes drifting all around. Sandy usually loved snow and how cozy it made their home feel. Now their home was a trap, with Clarence always in it, doing nothing but silently wishing for what he couldn’t have.
She supposed it was inevitable, really. She’d read cases of people who’d reach the end and become desperate. The spare gas container they kept out back had just about three gallons in it, which was plenty to douse all the cars, and parts of cars. She was careful not to get any on the tires and pulled them out of reach because she didn’t want to smell burning rubber. She also moved the welding equipment, which might have some future value. Clarence had fallen asleep in front of the television when she went out in the twilight with the matches in her pocket. For a moment she wondered if the flames would reach the house, and if so, would she wake Clarence up and drag him to safety?
The noise, smell, and dancing light woke him up. He stood beside her, with his hands to his head saying, what the fuck, what the fuck? She told him to shut up and appreciate how pretty it was, the flames and snowfall, like some ancient scene or reckoning. A true clash of opposites, she said. Fire and ice. Does that make sense? She asked. He could find no words at the moment, though he agreed wholeheartedly that it made complete and perfect sense.
Anne Leigh Parrish is an author based out of Seattle, Wash., and recently published her first novel What Is Found, What Is Lost. To learn more about the author, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @AnneLParrish. Also read her short story "Smoke" or check our interview, In the Business of Fiction: 11 Questions With Author Anne Leigh Parrish.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
Editor’s note: Writer’s Bone favorite Anthony Breznican asked me recently if we wanted to run an illustrated excerpt from his novel Brutal Youth and I couldn’t have been more excited to oblige. When you’re done reading, be sure to check out my interview with the author, as well as his chat with author Steph Post. Enjoy!—Daniel Ford
With school back in session, the artist Cassandra Siemon has created new illustrations to accompany excerpts of Anthony Breznican’s dark coming-of-age novel Brutal Youth, which is new in paperback.
The main villain in the novel is a character named Father Mercedes, a priest who is literally stealing from the church collection plate and planning to scapegoat the parish’s troubled high school if the shortfall is ever detected. That won’t be hard—it has become a dumping ground for delinquents, misfits, and troublemakers.
The character was inspired by a real priest named Fr. Walter Benz, who was caught embezzling more than a million dollars from the churches he served in my hometown.
In this scene, we meet Father Mercedes for the first time in St. Michael the Archangel’s gymnasium, which has been converted into a chapel after a catastrophic church fire. Sister Maria, the school’s principal, has come to give him she needs money: the school is literally crumbling around them…
His back was to her, his face turned up at a ceramic statue of the resurrected Christ, suspended from the ceiling with its arms extended in the shape of the cross and a peculiar neutral expression on its face—less the throes of agony than the boredom of a minimum-wage employee at the end of a long day: Don’t ask me, I’m going off shift.
The dark figure in the pews looked back at Sister Maria, an unlit cigarette hanging from his lips. His eyes were shadow pits, and his thin gray hair was neatly combed across his scalp, though a little damp with sweat. His face had a similar expression to the impatient Christ.
“Good afternoon, Father Mercedes,” she said.
He smiled, and the cigarette bent upward toward his nose. “Sister,” he said. “Let me guess—bad news?”
She walked toward him down the central aisle of the church. “The ceilings are leaking again—four of them,” she said. “You’ve seen the problems, I take it?”
The priest’s unlit cigarette danced as he spoke. “Oh, that and a lot more.”
He held a gold-plated Zippo in his hands, sparking the flame, touching it to the tip of his cigarette, and exhaling a corona of blue haze into the air. She despised this about him, smoking in a church. He did it all the time when no one was around—no one he cared about, anyway.
Father Harold Mercedes was only seven years older than her but always seemed much more ragged and tired. Many parishioners found his roguishness charming. To the students, his bad habits made him a maverick, a fellow rebel—the priest who bought rounds of beer at the P&M Bar, placed bets on the Steelers, took annual vacations to Vegas and Atlantic City, and occasionally let slip a curse word.
His Friday-night poker buddies would tease the priest, “Ah, better go to confession, Father!” And he would close his eyes and say: “I forgive myself.”
Behind his back, the older parishioners called him Diamond Hal. The kids called him Father Pimp.
“We’ll need money to repair the damage, Father,” Sister Maria said. She reminded him about the eroding brick and the past failures of temporary fixes. He smoked his cigarette and let her talk, not really listening. When she finished, he rose from the pew and shrugged. “Why bother fixing a school that may not exist in another year?”
The nun crossed her arms. “I don’t think that’s very funny, Father.”
The priest blew smoke through his nose. “That’s because it’s not a joke, Sister. When I ask for things, when I ask for extra money—a special pass of the collection plate—our parish council tends to ask two questions. First is: ‘Why are we supporting a school that only causes humiliation for the parish?’ And the second question is: ‘When will we finally rebuild our burned church?’ My answer to the second one is, ‘We can’t afford it yet.’ And so the parish council’s response is to repeat the first question—‘Why, why, why’ . . . ,” he said, exhaling smoke again. “. . . ‘Why are we supporting a school nobody wants?’”
In the twelve years he’d served as pastor, Father Mercedes had proved himself adept at wielding the parish council like a bludgeon. He didn’t need the panel’s approval for much, but it was always easy enough for him to manipulate them into whatever cause he supported.
The nun’s shoulders sagged. “Shall I control the weather in the meantime?” she asked.
“I’d prefer you control your students,” Father Mercedes snapped back. “If you want to keep this school, you’d better force these students to become something worth saving. Frankly, a lot of parishioners believe you’re the worst principal we’ve ever had at St. Mike’s. Do you like the idea of being the last one, too?”
The nun closed her eyes. The priest was waiting for an answer. “No,” she said finally.
“Good.” He nodded. “Then we’re going to see some changes around here, yes?” He reached out his hand, and the nun shook it reluctantly. “Take care of that for me,” he said.
As the priest left her, the silence of the empty school returned, that great after-hours stillness she had once found calming. For the first time, Sister Maria felt lost there—and, finally, afraid.
She sat down in the pew, opening the hand that had just shaken the priest’s.
In her palm was the blackened stub of his cigarette.