Happiness In Burnt Sepia
Our teacher likes to keep the windows open and the curtains drawn during class, curling them around the panes like heavy sentries. It beckons the light in where it crawls over the blank surfaces of the easels set up in the center of the room. My eyes follow the beams of light around the room, watching the way the early afternoon sun makes its own patterns across bright mosaic tile flooring,
I set up my station the way I’ve taken to doing these past few days. I prefer having all my brushes laid out beside me, with my drawing pencils seated at the edge of the easel. My strict attention to order may have rubbed off on me from early childhood. I remember my old bedroom, with its calm yellow tinted walls, all my things placed into neat corners and organized drawers. Everything was where it was expected to be, and it still is. Sometimes I think of how different my apartment would look if I started leaving a few things lying around here and there. Toss my sketchbook at the foot of my bed, scatter a few charcoal pencils across my desk. I think I could manage with a little mess in my life.
Considering it for a brief moment, I run my hands across the orderly stack my pencils make. I toss a few of the paintbrushes in with them, head cocking to the side to discern the difference. It isn’t big, but I feel a strange flutter in my stomach at the sight of it. It feels silly, thinking of this as any significant kind of change, but I remind myself that baby steps are still progress.
In my two weeks taking this class, I’ve found that I like the feel of the brushes in my hand, polished wood tucked into the curve of my palm. The classroom has a wider variety of color than my ratty desk drawer at home, filled with earth tones and pastels and hues that burst like snow flurries on the canvas. I don’t have to force it as much inside this tiny, nondescript building on the far side of town. I suppose I’ve started to anticipate the moment where I can sign my name on a newly finished painting, the three letters looping quietly at the corner: B-e-a.
I haven’t been here long enough to finish anything yet, but I’d like to stick around for it. I imagine there’s a certain sense of pride in it, in watching your passion come to life before you, knowing that it’s happening because of how your hands and heart managed to work together. I’ve spent a lot of time separating the two, allowing my hands to move me through any given day while I left my heart behind, stuffed somewhere into the clean-cut drawers and shelves of my old life.
I never quite knew what color was, surrounded by the grays of a childhood spent in a small country house and the monochrome of rural Indiana. Now, I know what rainbows taste like. I know that reds and purples taste the best, sit the heaviest and fullest on my tongue. They look like radiant life on a canvas, deep carmines and ripe plums. I don’t think I’d be able to take grays anymore, not with how harshly they settled in my throat.
Orange is nice too, especially the burnt sepia of the sun coming through the classroom windows. It forms auras at people’s backs, bright and glaring, but I like the harshness of it. There’s nothing subtle about it, nothing simple, nothing someone could easily pass by and ignore, like a crumpled paper rummaging around a gutter. It’s nothing you’d find in the sunset behind an old farmhouse in the most boring state in America.
I keep my eyes trained on the image for several moments, burning a bit at the force of the light. I blink away the sting, reaching out for the color palette hanging from my easel. There are a few bottles of paint scattered around the station around me, and I grab at them, snatching up whichever browns and golds I can mix to get that lurid color. The paint squeezes out with a soft squelching noise, some drops splattering onto my jeans, but I don’t wipe them away this time. I think I might be fine with the stains.
Dabbing a brush into the small puddles, I combine the colors with sweeping strokes, hand moving in broad circles. The gold lightens the brown into a hearty color, mid-November and warm autumn air. A smile tugs at the corners of my dried lips, soft and timidly present. I coat the brush in a few preliminary strokes and raise the brush to the white canvas before me. The dampened bristles meet the fabric smoothly, and for a second it feels like I’m slipping a little further away from the classroom.
It’s often like splitting myself up before the easel, digging for something to plaster on top of it, when I paint. A lot of the time, it spills over into my lap, and it’s almost easy to think that I’m actually good at this, this thing that’s slowly unfurling in my gut. It feels a lot like a confession, sometimes. Whether I’m confessing to myself or the canvas itself, I’m not sure. But it’s in moments like these that I feel natural, in all the ardent spirit I spent so long tamping down. There’s an openness to it, to me, and tearing myself apart doesn’t seem so bad if it happens surrounded by curtained windows and the pungent smell of wet paint.
The people in the room are splattered with all kinds of colors staining their clothes, or black smudges of charcoal and lead clinging to their fingertips. Despite the open window, I think we’re all choking a bit on the fumes, like melted plastic. It’s all a mess and I’ve ever known any good messes, but I think it’s a nice way of putting whatever it is we do in this classroom into words.
I guess this is the life. We make messes wherever we go, but at least it is beautiful to make them. At least they come from somewhere deep within our chests, exhaled like fresh breaths after a long time of holding them in.
It all started not long after the honeymoon. At first it was just yelling or a slammed door from time to time. It only took a few weeks for it to escalate to throwing. Roger would throw anything he could get his hand around. Amy had purchased a lot of new dishes during those first couple of years. After every outburst, he'd beg for her forgiveness. He'd promise it would never happen again. He'd plead with her not to leave, that he could change, that things would be different if she just wouldn't give up on him. And every time Amy believed him because she loved him.
By the time the beatings started, she was too far gone to get out. Plus, as horrible as he was, as hard as he would hit her, no matter how crazy he was in his anger, he was always smart. He never left a mark on her face or hands or anywhere she couldn't easily cover up. Even if she'd had the self-preservation to get out while she still could and found the strength to tell someone, she feared no one would have believed her. No, Roger got all the belief, from her and from others. He was a nice guy. Until they were behind closed doors. He really did have two sides. The monster that only Amy saw, and the angel all others knew.
She'd gone to the hospital emergency room her so many times that they started asking questions. How could a news reporter get so many broken ribs? What did she do to dislocate her shoulders four times? Where did those massive bruises come from? When she could tell that the doctors and nurses were not falling for her lies anymore, she just found a new hospital to go to for help. She'd had to do that twice.
Tonight was different. Roger's anger tonight was harsher, louder, and more violent than ever before. After dozens of blows to her torso and arms he'd punched Amy in the face for the first time. The right hook had sent her crumpling to the ground while lights flashed at the edges of her vision. Once she was down on the floor, he'd only gotten worse. He started kicking her. His steel toed boots connected with her legs, chest, back, and arms over and over until her body gave in and she passed out. Another first.
Amy's eyes blink open some time later. Well, one eye opens. The other is swollen shut. The taste of blood is heavy in her mouth, coating her tongue with the tang of iron and bitter salt. The fog lifts from her mind enough for her to become aware of the pain. It's all over. Throbbing and sharp, achy and dull, it burns through every part of her. With every shaky breath it feels as if hot coals are being poured into her lungs. Something in her left leg feels broken, and she can barely move it. She feels the familiar agony of broken ribs - definitely more than one. Every movement - or attempted movement - sends fresh tears pouring from her eyes.
She needs help, more than she's ever needed help before, and she's going to have to get it to come to her this time. The nearest phone is in the kitchen, but it's too high for her to reach, so she'll have to go for her cell phone. It's in her purse which she'd dropped on the bedroom floor when Roger's fury had erupted. Unfortunately, the bedroom is over forty feet away and since getting up is out of the question, she's going to have to drag herself.
Slowly she reaches out with her left hand, then her right. The right can't go all the way out because something in her shoulder isn't connected properly anymore. Even so, she grabs on to the bloodstained carpet as best as she can and pulls with all her strength. The resulting sound that comes from her mouth doesn't sound human. She sucks in a desperate breath, which only results in more pain. The worst part of it all is that she'd only moved about half an inch. She'd pulled herself with all her might, making it feel as if every part of her was on fire, and for her effort she only gained half an inch. She can't give up though, so she reaches forward as best she can and does it again. This time her scream isn't as loud, but the tugging is no less painful. On her third try she also pushes with her unbroken right leg, gaining an extra half inch or so.
Sixteen minutes later she's developed a strange but effective rhythm. She reaches out, grabs the carpet, tugs with her arms and pushes with her leg, then tries to catch her breath through sobs of pain. Each cycle of painful effort takes her between 30 and 45 seconds, so she still has a long way to go to reach the phone.
Suddenly the front door slams open and closed, then Roger's heavy footsteps make their way towards Amy until he's stopped right behind her. Then she hears the unmistakable click of the hammer of a gun being pulled back and she knows why he'd left. Amy whimpers as she turns her head enough to look up at him.
"Why?" she chokes out.
"Dinner wasn't ready when I got home," Roger replies.
Then he pulls the trigger.
There is Nothing like Pandering to Change Your Perspective
“So tell me why you’ve come to therapy?”
The summer was sultry. It had been hot for what was most definitely an impossible number of weeks to count. The thermometer read 104°, but the index was there to remind you that the weather actually felt more like 118° and that mother nature was still the squat and earthy headed bitch-on-the-block.
The therapist’s office was surrounded by pictures of her children. Not that I had anything specifically against her children, but in each photograph they had shaved, unsightly heads and jagged, Swiss Alp looking teeth that made me wonder how much advice a woman who could look at those kids each day could possibly have for me.
“Last Saturday I slapped my girlfriend. I know. Pains me to hear too. It sounds as bad as it actually is, and I’m mostly here now because I love her and I’ve been told it is necessary to seek objective advice on how to correct whatever deep seeded issues that I don’t believe exist but may be harboring. I honestly don’t think I need to be here to discuss things with you when I could be accomplishing more speaking to her.” I was surly and too disgusted with myself to find any happiness in the moment, so I had no interest in being there.
“Necessary by who?”
I talked to a friend of mine the day before about therapists and their interrogative trade. He could only say, “I haven’t been to one, but play dumb. If you act too intelligent you’ll only slow down whatever progress can be made through the process.”
I told him I hated the idea of having to pay a doctor for a conversation that I had literally just had with him, a conversation in which the sole purpose is to explain an obvious concept about how one must look into their past to be able to properly reflect upon their present.
He said, “ass, that’s exactly what I’m talking about.”
“By my girlfriend. Who you’ve already met.” I paused. “Or seen.”
The doctor was a stocky and rotund Italian woman named Miranda. Looking like Gertrude Stein with more understanding and care for people’s feelings, but no taste in great art and, on first impressions, not a huge lesbian, she came off as smart and I was appreciative. She seemed to sense that I didn’t want to be there right away – she was right - and was perfectly calm about it.
“In this first session, I simply ask introductory questions to learn about your background.”
It hadn’t hit me until she said “first session,” that there was the implication I would have to follow up with this awfulness more than once. Shit.
“Are you employed?”
“I’m currently a student, but I work as a tutor. Unfortunately, it’s the summer so I get cut off from the writing center when there is no school. If there are no students then there is no one to tutor, so currently I have just started serving at a restaurant so aptly named Stella’s Milano. Stella is the 50 foot tall neon woman outside. The Milano is her sauce. I’ve yet to actually figure out the best joke for how Stella originally got the sauce so creamy.”
She didn’t laugh, “then why technically?”
“The restaurant is my work. School and teaching are my job. I also write, so, technically, I am always employed.”
“Do you use any drugs?”
There was a pause in our conversation. She noticed my obvious, semantic dilemma in the term.
“Yes. Of course. I smoke pot when the occasion strikes.
“Are you on any medication?”
“No. I take allergy medicine and aspirin as needed.”
She paused and asked like she’d been waiting, “do you drink?”
“How much would you say you drink?”
“More than most.”
“Say, on average, how many drinks a day?”
“As low as three as high as twelve. It depends on the day.”
I was slightly incredulous.
She flexed those round cheekbones with psychological authority not quite knowing how to take my responses, but certainly knowing that the CDC defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking five or more units of alcohol to raise the blood level to .08 or higher, for men (for women the unit level is four).
She was snarky. There was some comfort knowing the woman was curt enough not to take any shit from me, “how about your family? Parents?”
“I have them. They exist. Still love them. They’re still married and have been for some 29 odd years now.”
“Any history of fighting or abuse between them?”
“Never. No abuse. Arguing, sure, but nothing that could be considered a long standing history of fighting.”
“I’m the oldest. I’ve two younger brothers.”
“What do they do?”
“Tyler sells energy efficient light bulbs to outsourced factories around the world. He’s actually quite good at it as well – just got hired on at his company. Daniel has no idea what he’s doing in school, but has been working on developing a plant that is both edible and can soak up oil. They aren’t doing too bad.”
“No. It doesn’t seem like it.”
“Did you fight?”
“Two actual fights with the middle brother, I kicked him when he was on the ground once, but nothing that I would say goes outside of the normal latitude of brothers fighting.”
“No, I wouldn’t say so either. Any history of drug or alcohol abuse in your immediate family?”
As soon as she asked the question I knew I was fucked. She had struck psychoanalytic gold. I sighed
“Yes to both. I’ve got plenty of aunts and uncles who are either alcoholics or recovering drug addicts, but neither of my parents are or have been.”
She bore down on the only hook she could possibly find in my childhood.
“Still, you know what that means though?”
I could only sit straight back in the chair and imagine all of the glaring intrinsic lines she was tracing from my past to where I currently sat.
“No, I can’t imagine.”
“You’ve inherited that gene genetically. You’ve always been pre-dispositioned towards alcoholism.”
Well, praise science for providing a higher power – DNA. My mind was screaming fuck you - for ten thousand years people have been trying to escape the concept of consequence by blaming fate, and now she slaps a new pair of tits on the word and calls it “genetics?” – but my mouth was at least able to hone down the words into a more polite phrase.
“I tend to think that we all make out own choices.”
“Yes, but did you ever think that you made those choices because you were genetically inclined?”
“No, not at all. Genetics may make you have more of a proclivity to booze, sex, or paint thinner, but there is passive to active line one must cross to make their own choice – and I am a big fan of free will. Your way is a self-fulfilling Catch-22, ‘I was always prone to make the choice, but, now that I have, I can blame my genetic makeup upon the fact and not myself for the action.’ I can see where you are coming from, but I’m fairly positive that the bulk of the choices I make are rooted in a variety of personal, social, and environmental factors that influence the ways in which I choose my random course in life.”
I think it was a spasm in her ass that made her shuffle in her chair, but her fidgeting gave off the impression that she didn’t believe me or hadn’t put too much value in social evolution. She took a second to collect her thoughts, forming the next angle to her following barrage of questions.
“The thing about therapy is that I can only give you the tools that are available for bettering yourself. You have to be the one to use them properly.”
I cut her off.
“I know those tools. I say the same thing to the freshman that I T.A. for. Reflection and analysis is key to understanding some greater significant meaning of about yourself. Right? We all inherently go through that process – depends on how much we’re aware of it.”
“Yes, but you’re aware that you’re the one who got drunk and hit someone you love.”
I was silent. She had struck a chord. A minute passed before my tongue could spit out some phrase, “and you really think that you’re going to have any effect upon some change in my behavior that I’m not already doing?”
“No, I think that the change and the effect have already taken place. Now you need to continue to dig yourself out from under all that dirt in your hole. You may have immediately changed, but time and consistency are about the only things you can prove. When is the next time you can come?”
I truly did abhor the idea of coming back for the exact same conversation next time, “you really think that I need to come back, or, for that matter, can afford it?”
“No, but she does and probably doesn’t care about money.”
“You’re right.” I said in exasperated italics.
She looked at her schedule, “how about two weeks from now? Same time?”
“I suppose that is going to have to work.” I stood up to leave the doctor’s office.
“By the way I have some DVD’s for you to watch with your girlfriend in the meantime. 7 Ways for Self Improvement, 10 Power Moves to Betterment by Successful White Men, The 5 Deadly Sins Self Awareness, and Jack Schlepps 8 Choices You Can Make With Your Own Two Hands. All of these are focused on the process of making better choices for yourself. Take notes and let me know what your thoughts are for when you come back.”
Jesus, these all sounded like hour long How to Masturbate sessions, “yeah, I’ll do my best to get through all of them.”
Before I got out of the door to leave and process she stopped me.
“You really don’t think that you need to be here?”
“I really don’t think that I need to be here. I perhaps need to converse with a friend or a swift kick to the head, but I don’t need talk sessions with some third party who can really only tell me that understanding the subtext of our actions is key to self-awareness. I can hear that every day at school and they’ll even pay me for saying it to others.”
“How do I know that you’ll even come back then?”
“Because I love her and therapy has the appearance of betterment, so I’ll keep coming while I work on myself.”
She quietly chuckled. I hadn’t heard what I had said.
“You’ll keep coming while you work on yourself.” She burst out laughing.
Of all the things I’ve said so far, she laughs at a dick joke.
“You can certainly make someone smile.”
“I have moments. I’ll see you in two weeks, doctor.”
As I left her office, I saw a blue and green dragonfly sunning on a picnic table. I wondered if it thought the weather was hot as hell too and whether or not its colors changed over time.
Jamal S. Grey
Talk about pathetic, look at him panting and gasping for air, he’s alone for fuck’s sake, jerking off to web cam sluts on a Friday night, this is low. Alas, a knock at the door, Jonathan’s body seizes, and he tucks his johnson back in his pants. His race reddens as he arm wrestles the laptop screen shut. His roommate pops his head inside.
“All right Jon, I’m off for the weekend.”
“Okay…tell your parents I said hi,” says Jonathan.
“Will do,” his roommate says with a coy smirk.
Jonathan’s chin drops to his chest. He was affable, like most ordinary young men. He earned decent grades, was mildly athletic, and females would consider him as or more attractive than his male peers. He had healthy cocoa hair mixed with chocolate eyes. On the exterior he was as clean cut as a mom could hope for, but inside where a mom’s access was denied, he hid a secret that would derail his routine sexual desires from ever becoming a reality if he did not loosen its strangle hold on his life.
If you were to pinpoint the origin of disconnect between Jonathan and his desires, you need to reflect on the relationship with Mel, his high school sweetheart. She was the talk of their small public high school, with her silky black hair, juicy lips, and amazing brown pupils. Her and Jonathan dated as upper classmen, all the male students were jealous of his catch, in the locker rooms they would ask, “Have you hit that?” or “So how was she?” Jonathan would field their questions, but his answers were that of any insecure teenage boy, and that meant overly excessive descriptions that to any mature male would suggest exaggeration for the goal of elevating one’s status among a room of his peers. And being boys, his teammates and friends would loan him their ears and hang on every single adjective his mouth could cough up, because there was no shortage of sexual details for a teenage boy to consume. He would explain with great details her moaning, and thrusting, and godly fellatio skills. The truth however, behind his lies, was the fact that Jonathan and Mel had never done it. Their privates remained separated like dates at a middle school dance. They were intimate in almost every sense, kissing between classes, hours of private phone conversations, and heartfelt gift exchanges, but when it was time to express their love physically Jonathan always came up with an excuse. The onset excuses ranged from being ill to acquiring a rash that was severely contagious, then gradually increasing in their ludicrousness to out of the blue meetings and false last minute groundings. It reached a point where Mel simply concluded he was gay, using her as a prop to project his heterosexuality.
One night as they hung out in her basement, after she told her parents he was just coming over to watch a movie. Mel flung off her white tee shirt and threw her body onto his. Jonathan had no time to react in the situation, his hormones kicked in and he let his self-conscious wall down. He thought of how his favorite male porn stars became dominant in such fortuitous events, but in porn as Jonathan should have recalled, if not for all the blood migrating from his brain, the male cast members were usually well-endowed, a trait Jonathan was not fortunate enough to have, in fact he was devastatingly unfortunate. Mel dropped her pants and Jonathan dropped his, she tugged at his briefs only to become deflated and amusingly frightened. Jonathan froze when he saw the sympathetic grin on her face as her eyes studied his adolescent like anatomy. Even worse, not only was she sympathetic but she laughed, she laughed all the way upstairs and into the arms of her mother, just like a teenage girl would gossip with her best friend. He wished his body would just seep into that couch and he could disappear forever, an understandable request in such a scenario.
Despite his charm and good looks, Jonathan has just never felt whole. He spends his idle time, buying and testing every gimmicky lotion and cream imaginable, promising him the opportunity to add inches to his hapless personal situation. More so, he lacks the confidence to talk to the opposite sex for extended periods of time, for any relationship could lead them to a bed or couch and the chance to re-live such a horrible experience. Many a night is spent just like this, all alone, with only virtual beauties to pleasure himself to, beauties that are not there to tease or judge, and all they require in return is a nominal fee of five dollars a month, sixty dollars a year, for twenty-four seven sexual availability whenever the mood should strike, which for a male between the ages of thirteen and thirty, could be anytime, even multiple times a day in some rare but agreeable cases.
Jonathan allows a few minutes to pass before surveying their small two-bedroom apartment to make sure his roommate was indeed gone, and to Jonathan’s delight, he seemed to be. His roommate’s bedroom door was locked, always a good sign. He steps out on their balcony which towers over the asphalt parking lot, and yes, no car resembling his roommates was present, it was actually very sparse. Jonathan must have missed the memo that if you needed to save face back home now would be a good weekend to do so, but with rare time alone to find relief from his funk his parents would just have to wait. Their apartment was unusually tidy for college men. The decorum was inviting and well thought out. The walls played canvas to photos of city landscapes and original paintings. Miniature sculptures sat atop their pre-installed but adequate coffee plus end tables. If one didn’t know any better, they’d suspect a habitually present girlfriend to have decorated the place, but both roommates shared a taste for the aesthetically pleasant. They entertained no concern of whether their tastes would categorize them as homosexuals or whatever classifications exist for those who do not fit the cultural standards of the two primary and majority ruled sexual orientations, but in Jon’s case it did not combine well with his self-imposed exile from the opposite sex.
Jonathan re-opens his laptop and switches gears, as it was time to accelerate his training course. In the two and a half years since his embarrassing night with his then lover, Jonathan’s sexual appetite and its desires have only increased, while his past shame still haunts and ceases any flesh based encounters he yearns to have. Upwards of two years is a long time to sit on the sidelines in the prime of your hormonal career, a frustratingly long time no matter how attractive each new starlet seems to be than last week’s pick. He knows if he can just find a companion that is comfortable enough with herself and compatible enough with him outside of what goes on sexually, then and only then will he feel ready to participate in the much sought after act of intercourse.
So where does one in need go to find a real woman? A nonjudgmental woman that is there for the sole purpose of pleasing her mate no matter what social or physical handicaps may plague him? The classified ads. It is in this crevice of the internet where a person in need can fulfill each and any sexual desire that until its moment of realization has formed cobwebs in one’s mind, like a hoarder that swears one day their classical grand piano which has never been played or even visited will someday be of use, and all the days it has patiently waited in storage will not go unnoticed, because the day the sheet is removed, and the piano has found its time and place to exist, it will bring unadulterated joy to its hoarder.
The ability to care for his wound could not have come at a better time. His birthday just passed three weeks ago and his sacred birthday wish was to once and for all lift the curse his cruel ex-girlfriend had bestowed upon his life, and the birthday cash from his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, elder siblings would be the strong arm to do so. If only a new, pleasurable, or at least mildly superior memory could replace the haunted one from his mental play loop, and if he can just get past the initial visual interviews in his first return since the incident, then his confidence to engage his next true love interest would be much less angst-ridden. With more than enough funds saved for this occasion, he promised himself a decision would not be made in haste, and more importantly a woman to rid this spell would not be chosen because of business savvy. The money set aside ought to be used in its entirety if called upon to serve him in what he viewed as a life-saving opportunity.
Jonathan collects his computer and situates himself on the love sofa. His eyes are keen to the screen’s glow, his upper torso slumped forward, while his fingers hack at the keyboard like a skeleton possessed. He dives into taboo archives, and the local advertisements. He must separate the trash from the not quite as trashy, which ultimately leads him to a vibrant and organized webpage. One biography on this page reads, “Samantha, blonde, bubbly, 25, loves to be tied up and whipped.” Jonathan’s eyes wander up towards the ceiling, painting himself a portrait of the painful pleasures they could share before his eyes return to the screen in dismissing fashion. He clicks over to the next gal. “Candy, petite, ginger, 22, loves to use toys and swap gender roles.” Jonathan’s eyes widen at his unwillingness to participate as a female character in another’s fantasy, even Candy’s. “Penelope, 23, jet black hair, supple lips, innocent little sex toy at your service.” Jonathan’s back perks up, her picture, and descriptors bring a rush of emotions and familiarity. His breath picks up in pace, he realizes if he is to abandon this demeaning chip on his shoulder, what better way than to simulate that awful experience with a somewhat identical looking partner, only this time ensuring a positive result.
Jonathan digs in his pockets for a phone and begins to dial the given number. After the area code is punched in, he stands up to press the next digit, but he’s soon met with overwhelming panic, his face becomes flush and he tosses the phone into the couch cushions. Just as before, once the rush of anticipation presents itself, his body reacts in self-defense, enabling him to conjure up an excuse for his sudden lack of availability. In this instance however, there is no excuse to be made, he reaches inside himself to reveal the foolishness of his fear. On the other line, just minutes away, is a woman waiting for his call, the woman to save him. With a heavy foot he stomps over to his phone and dials up the number, this time with determination and anger. Anger that he’s let some immature high school girl deter his life up to this point. The operator answers, Jonathan orders Penelope over in due time just as he would a pizza, before tossing his phone yet again, but this time in disgust for all those long months of behaving like the object he was scheduled to penetrate.
Jonathan’s heart plunges to his stomach at the sound of her knock. He smoothes his shirt’s wrinkles and shows Penelope in. She greets him with her endearing smile, as innocent as advertised. He avoids the sweet talk and escorts her to his room, he had a mission to complete, and words were unnecessary. Once they settle on the edge of his bed, he instructs Penelope to remove her clothing, as he does the same. His heart skips several beats in the midst of this ritual, this territory has become foreign to him, two and a half years is a long time. Penelope tugs at his boxers, his skin begins to crawl, goose bumps make their way to the surface, and he forces his eyes shut with apprehension. He thinks to himself, “Oh not again, what have I done?” But his internal trepidations were interrupted by a soft spoken “Wow,” as Penelope’s brow heightened from beaten expectations. For Jonathan, an extraordinary grin of relief reared its head.
Shadow of the Town
A small town sat idle under the night sky. Along its edge ran a forest, cold and silent except for the harsh wind brushing against the trees. A shadow slipped out of the forest and moved towards the town. The dark figure took the form of a wolf. It moved through the streets with its nose in the air. The wolf stopped in front of an old hospital building and sniffed the ground. As it drew closer, the front doors opened and the wolf entered.
With its nose to the floor, the wolf wandered the halls. None of the doctors or nurses heard or saw it. Quietly, the wolf searched the hospital until it entered the room of an old man. As it walked over to the bed, the man stared at the wolf. He said nothing. The wolf lifted its upper body onto the bed and placed its large teeth on the man’s neck. It pulled him off the bed and dragged him across the floor. The old man didn’t scream. With the man between its teeth, the wolf left the hospital.
A man sat at his kitchen table drinking coffee. His name was Michael. He read the morning paper as his wife, Katherine, washed the dishes.
“Did you hear about Mr. Singer?” Michael asked.
“Debbie’s husband? Isn’t he in the hospital?”
“I guess he disappeared in the middle of the night.”
Katherine looked back. “The wolf?” she asked.
“That’s what they say. He was in too much pain to just get up and leave.”
Katherine shut off the water. “Maybe it’s for the best.”
“What do you mean?” Michael asked.
“You know what they say about the wolf. It takes the dying away.”
Michael shook his head.
“What?” Katherine asked.
“Just because you don’t believe it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
“It doesn’t make any sense. How would it carry them? Where would it go?”
“Do you really believe that?” he asked.
“I’d like to.”
Michael started to say something, but he was interrupted by a loud cough from their daughter’s bedroom. Katherine went in to check on her. Michael finished his coffee in silence. A few minutes later, his wife came back out into the kitchen.
“She isn’t getting any better,” Michael said.
“Her fever went down this morning, but she had chest pains all night,” Katherine replied.
“I’ll stay home tonight.”
“You need to go to work.”
“I can’t be in the shop while she’s like this.”
“I’m giving her antibiotics. There’s nothing else we can do right now.”
“You need to get some sleep.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I’m staying home,” Michael said before getting up and leaving the room.
Michael stood in the doorway of his daughter Elizabeth’s room. He watched as she swallowed a pill that her mother gave her. Katherine placed the back of her hand on Elizabeth’s head.
“Goodnight, sweetie,” Katherine said as she pulled the covers over Elizabeth.
“Night,” the girl replied.
Katherine got up and walked towards Michael.
“Still too hot,” she whispered.
“Is there anything we can do?” Michael asked.
“The medicine should help with the fever.”
“I’ll stay up with her tonight.”
“You sure?” Katherine asked.
Katherine kissed Michael on the lips. He didn’t expect it, they rarely show affection anymore. She pulled back and looked at him.
“I was going to make something to eat.”
“That’d be nice,” Michael said.
Katherine left the room. Michael stared at Elizabeth, watching her small chest rise and fall under the blankets. He listened to her slow, labored breaths. Michael could remember a time when she didn’t spend her days in bed. He missed seeing his little girl smile as they played outside together.
At dinner, Michael and Katherine ate silently. After he had finished, Michael stared at his wife. He wanted to tell her how scared he was. Scared of what might happen to their daughter if she didn’t get any better. But he couldn’t. Even if he knew she felt the same way.
That night, the wolf came to Michael’s home. It sniffed around the front of the house. After it climbed up the steps, it slowly pushed the front door open. The house was dark and silent as the wolf wandered from room to room. It held its nose to the ground. Once it entered Elizabeth’s room, the wolf walked over to her bed. Michael was asleep on a chair in the corner. Elizabeth opened her eyes and stared at the wolf. She didn’t scream.
Michael woke up and saw his daughter wasn’t in her bed. He looked around her room, but there was no sign of her. He began to call her name. Michael left the room and continued to yell her name throughout the house. When he got to the living room, he noticed the front door was wide open. Katherine came to Michael’s side.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
Michael didn’t answer.
“Do you think it was the wolf?”
Michael ignored her as he slipped past and went into their bedroom. Once there, he opened the large closet and dropped to his knees. He pulled out old shoes and boxes as they fell in his way.
“What are you doing?” Katherine asked from behind him.
He pulled out rifle shells and set them on the floor.
“Are you going to kill it?”
Michael kept digging through the closet.
“I thought you didn’t even believe in it” Katherine said.
“I don’t.” He paused. “I don’t know.”
Michael pulled out a large rifle. It was his father’s. Holding it brought back memories of failed hunting trips. He had no idea why he kept it. As Michael held the neck of the gun, his hands felt unfamiliar. He looked at the shells to his side. Michael admitted to himself he couldn’t remember how to load it. He picked up one of the shells and looked at the gun. Michael could hear his father’s frustrated voice as he slid a bullet into the chamber.
Michael quickly walked through the town. He held the gun firm in his hand. When he hit the town limits, grass appeared at his feet. Michael pulled a flashlight out of his pocket and turned it on. Once he saw the large footprints of a wolf, his pace quickened. It wasn’t long before Michael made his way into the forest. A dense fog clung to the trees. There were no signs of life, not even the sound of birds.
Eventually Michael’s flashlight fell on a dark figure. He could see the wolf. Elizabeth hung from its mouth. Michael crept closer. When the wolf noticed him, it turned and walked away. Michael ran after it, breathing heavily. Before he could reach the wolf, it disappeared, along with his daughter. He looked around, but couldn’t see them anywhere. Michael began to cry out for Elizabeth.
Soon he heard a noise behind him and turned. He saw the wolf, but it didn’t have his daughter anymore. It stared at him, and then turned and started to walk away. Michael called out to it. The wolf didn’t stop or look back. Michael held up his rifle and took aim. He stared down the barrel and pulled the trigger.
The wolf let out a large yelp as it was struck in the back. It turned and showed its teeth. The wolf charged. Michael loaded the gun with a shaking hand. He placed the bullet in the chamber and raised the rifle. Before he could shoot, the wolf jumped on top of him. They fell to the ground and the wolf bit into the barrel of the gun while scratching at Michael’s chest. Michael kicked the wolf in the stomach and it fell back. He rose and fired a bullet into its shoulder. Michael attempted to reload the gun. Suddenly, the wolf stopped snarling and backed away. Michael watched as it disappeared again. He waited for hours, but it never came back. In tears, Michael left the woods without his daughter.
It would be daybreak before Michael made it back to town. He would tell his wife what happened. They would both grieve and try to move on. The other townspeople would find out what he had done. Some would rejoice. They believed death had been conquered. Others would occasionally go to the forest, hoping the wolf would return. These people feared life without the wolf, life without end, without relief. Still others ignored the wolf’s absence completely, just as they had ignored its presence.
Elvira looked at the smooth surface, felt the raw edge of the dock biting into the bottoms of her feet. She could see for just a moment the soft outline of his face and his dark hair in the summer wind, illuminated in the gentle light as the two of them perched together on the edge of the dock. Fingers inched closer to one another, though they weren’t quite holding hands. It was Sunday afternoon and they had only just met, because Elvira had snuck out of church early. He had already been sitting on the dock when she found him, skipping stones into the water.
“I don’t know about you,” he had said, lips the colour of grapefruit flesh curled upwards.
She took her hand back and placed it into the white cotton folds of her dress.
“Maybe I don’t know about you either.”
The boy cocked his head and belted out a hearty laugh. He flipped a black, shining stone into the air, the light glinting off its rounded edges. It landed at her feet. “Then why you here?”
She shrugged. “We’ll see,” she said, rocking on her heels as if at any moment she might take flight. She reached down and picked up the stone, smooth as glass.
Cool and smooth against her palm, she slipped Henry’s stone back into her cardigan pocket. It was as if she had added a ten-pound weight and the floors protested in squeals as she shuffled along the hallway. She had the sense that in the dark, the hall had become much narrower than she remembered.
Elvira snapped on a light. Everything was the same as it always had been, frayed and dusty and old, like her. Oriental rugs, chewed by the dog on one end. The keyless balcony…rows of framed pictures watching her—a smattering of their lives together. They had walked down this hall many times, he rushing up the stairs on their wedding night, a fervor coursing through him, though she had paused on the landing. Elvira had peered out their bedroom window at the rose quartz sky and smiled as the birdsong broke the veil of night. The balcony door rattled with the wind and she jumped. She looked at her feet instead of acknowledging the howls from outside. White, chalky, arthritic things webbed with blue veins; they were rivers, winding their way through a ghostly countryside.
A whistling snore crept out of the darkened room, as if beckoning her inside. This, a natural, breathy sound, was punctured by a shrill beep. Poised on the edge of stepping inside, she peered around the corner. Acrid and dirty, the hot stink of sickness clung to the walls. He lay there, swarmed by tubes. Sleeping beauty, covered in vines, sleeping for hundreds of years. He had been, sort of. Illuminated faintly, his pale hair grew long around his face. Elvira had stopped cutting it some time ago. She forced a shaky hand into her pocket; the stone rested heavily. Elvira put her hand on the oblong doorknob and stood in the doorframe. The floorboards creaked; she was transported once again to the dock where she and Henry had stood.
“You want to give it a try?” she parroted back, youthful again in the brilliant sunlight.
Shaking his head, he said, “I don’t even know your name, but I want to.”
“Elvira,” she replied.
He cupped his hand over hers. It was warm, his fingertips pink under all that dark chocolate. “Henry,” he said.
She smiled. He waited. The sunlight beat on their skin, making everything pulse. Henry stood up and held his hand out to grab hers, but she looked at it uncertainly.
“C’mon, it’ll be fun. What’ve you got to lose?”
She blushed. “Your kind—“
“What ‘kind’ of person do you think I am?” said Henry.
Shrugging, she said, “You know.”
“Oh,” said Henry as he ran a finger along her bare arm. Her skin rippled. “Maybe it’s your kind we need to worry about, huh?”
To her surprise, Elvira smiled. “Sure,” she said. She liked the way the word “worry” dropped out of his mouth, as if he couldn’t be bothered. There was a carefree feeling to him that Elvira had never seen in the other boys in her class. They were always so rigid and pale.
“You sure stare a lot. Didn’t your mama tell you that’s rude?”
She blinked. “No. I mean—yes.”
“Which one is it?”
“I haven’t got any…” Elvira cleared her throat. She looked away as the heat rose in her cheeks. When she looked back, he was still grinning. His eyes glinted. “Who needs ‘em?”
In the sunlight, dandelion seeds drifted like spirits over the water. A cricket began whining somewhere in the luminous, bottle green reeds.
“It’ll be fun,” repeated Henry as he pulled off his white shirt.
Elvira giggled at his bare, dark chest.
“I’m twelve! Jeez! It’ll look different when we’re old.” He shimmied out of his pants and shoes, stumbling as he left them in a rumpled pile.
Blushing, she said, “Don’t look.”
He turned around and the pink lashes that stretched like long craters across his back distracted her. Elvira looked away, peeled off her dress and then she was standing there in only her underpants. She took his hand. The clearing, with its river running through it was empty. They stood there, feet pointed towards one another. They were glued together by the electric pulse charging between them.
Hand in hand, Elvira and Henry walked to the edge of the dock. The water was lovely and cool and deep. The wind in the trees whispered, blew ridges across the rusty brown surface. Elvira peered into the water and saw the dark outline of their shadows against the sun, ghostly. She couldn’t decide if it was the silent depths below or the voices on the breeze that chilled her arms, but she knew that here on the cusp she could only teeter for so long.
“…If someone sees…?”
Henry said, “The ghosts have better things to look at.”
Elvira giggled. “On the count of three?” she said, clutching his hand harder. The voices on the wind shrieked. A water bug skimmed frantically across the surface leaving a frenzy of ripples crashing into one another. Poised to make the leap, her heart rocketed. A thought crept into her mind: you don’t even know him.
A crow screamed its distaste to the steely sky and she startled. Their hands fell apart.
“Three,” shouted Henry.
He dove head first, calm waters erupting, a crack. The slow leak of crimson, spreading out along the ripples, spilled ink the colour of corrections on worksheets. Flushed, she leaned out on her stomach to grab him as he lolled there, sinking and broken. She must have been shouting, but could not remember the sound of her voice, thick and coated with shame as she ran, still in her underpants down the woodland path to the church where there would still be people. The hot wind and the leafy green blurred at the edges of her vision.
People looked up, glazed, comfortable, when she arrived. Elvira bent over, weeping.
It was her mother that came to her first, lips two frayed strings pulled taut. “What is it? What is it?”
Elvira pointed in the direction of the woods. More people were gathering around her now.
The priest snatched her up by the arm, his red little hands pinching crescents into her wrist. “What have you been doing?” he said.
She shook her head, crying now, but the words wouldn’t come.
“What’s the matter?” whispered someone to her left.
“Henry,” she finally spat out, choking on the dry air as it rushed into her lungs. “You’ve got to—“
A swirling sea of worry-lines and thin lips.
“You were out with who?” said her mother. “Who is Henry?”
Elvira nodded, crying harder. “He needs your help!”
“Shut your mouth this instant,” said her father, his pinched, red face taking up all of her vision.
Twelve years later, at the same spot where Henry’s real grave was, down by the river she skipped stones across the water just like she did every year. At the edge of the dock, there was a small wooden cross.
Elvira heard the echo of feet on the dock, but didn’t look up. All she could think was I didn’t put that there.
“That someone you know?” asked a man with dark hair and pale skin, gesturing towards the cross. “My daddy said you used to live around here. This’s his land, you know.”
Elvira nodded. She watched as the man rocked back and forth on his heels.
“You know what happened down here?” He smirked and she noticed his dimples.
“I saw it happen,” said Elvira.
The man tilted his head the way dogs do when they are looking for food. He leaned in and whiffs of bubblegum made Elvira wrinkle her nose. “You mean the boy. You push him or something?”
Words caught in her throat. She made a move to run, but didn’t get far.
He grabbed her hand. “Bad joke,” he said, eyes like milk chocolate. His palm radiated on her bare skin. “How ‘bout we start over?”
“No,” she said.
His forehead wrinkled. He dropped her hand, the cool air bristling around her. “Not like you can make other peoples’ choices,” he said.
She looked away, towards the tree line. “Maybe,” she said.
“Don’t you have a name?” he asked.
“I might,” said Elvira, securing a glimpse of his freckled cheeks.
“Well, mine’s Andrew. How about we get us some hot coffee? This place gives me the jeepers creepers.”
Elvira pursed her lips. “I guess,” she said. Later, when he asked her to marry him, Elvira said the same thing.
In the gloom of early morning, still on the edge of the guest room where he lay, still as handsome as that morning at the dock, Elvira took a step in and regarded Andrew shrewdly. She wanted this moment to be simple, but it was weighted with all of their memories, a slideshow filtering through her mind.
Peppermint cream aftershave
The mornings they had read on the porch.
A pinprick of light punctured the drapes.
The moment he had stopped using the “N” word, because it made her cringe.
Laughing for hours when they had gotten stuck on the side of the road and Andrew had shoved a peanut M & M up his nose.
Only a few years married. In the stairwell, a groan startled her into action. Her big toe caught on the top steps and throbbed like a tiny heartbeat as she walked. When she reached the bedroom door, she peered in through the crack. Breath whistling out of her like steam on an old train. White sheets twisted, draped over the end of the bed. Four feet, toes curled. A moan rippled out into the air. Elvira’s chest constricted, her eyes welded to the scene unfolding. She might have turned on the lights, ripped off the sheets, pressed the pillow that had fallen to the floor into his face and held it there. On the threshold of a decision she could not make, she the observant wife.
Many years later, the pale wallpaper yellowing in the dim light. A fly buzzing, trapped in the nearby window. His hand, colder than usual, in hers as she heard the words ricocheting in her mind.
Lung cancer, he said.
Her ears whined; her face remained swollen and hard.
“Oh,” she said.
In the present, Elvira sat on the edge of the bed and drew out a small knife from her pocket. She hesitated, hovering over the fishing wire tube that led to his air supply. Her hand began to shake.
“It isn’t your decision,” she remembered Andrew saying. “A man’s decision is his own.”
Andrew had begun to mutter in his sleep, most of the words unintelligible.
“Are you still in there?” asked Elvira as she leaned over him.
His eyes roved fiercely. “Anna,” he said.
She wanted to close her eyes, but couldn’t. In all of these months, he had never spoken to Elvira once. Cheeks scorching, Elvira drew her hand up across the clear tube and the cord snapped with a click. Andrew’s eyes shot open, widened. He grabbed her hand, cold, chalky, slick.
The trunk lived under her bed, getting dusty and old, worn around the edges. She let the hard stone settle, its weight centered in her palm. It had been a long time since Henry’s stone had seen the open air. Holding the pebble in her hand brought back breathing in cold, wet air and being startled by the warmth of Henry’s hands.
The decision had always been hers to make. Running the stone over and over her wrinkled fingers like a solitary worry bead, the answer was clear. Elvira left the house, still barefoot, and found herself on the old wooden dock. This time, there would be no second-guessing when she reached the cusp.
Everything was sex with her, even when it wasn’t. The first time I saw her, at some vomit soaked frat party in the University Heights, I didn’t think she was that pretty. She has curly hair, and black eyes, and a little bit of an overbite, and there was something about her that held me to her. I couldn’t quite place it at the time, but it caught my attention and wouldn’t let go.
When I got her text the next day, I was surprised at my excitement.
“Well, Jon with no H,” it said, “if you’d like to do something, you should probably ask me out.”
She was all brown skin and hips and lips and runner's legs. She was all thick brown hair and Bloc Party remixes and deep, black almond eyes that suggested depths that may or may not have ever existed. She cradled a can of Molson like a child and when she drank to blackout, she draped her body across the bed like a painting.
It was that part of her, the sweat that covered her body late at night, the way she’d curl her lips up and bite down tight, the way she moved like a snake, with grace and rage all balled up into something I’d never seen before. She was something new to me. She was terrifying and exhilarating and exhausting, and when I watched her burning bridges faster than she could build them, watched her imploding, melting down before my eyes, it was almost like watching a tiny, dark version of myself.
It was the posters of bands I’d never heard of. The weird pride she had in horrible Bollywood musicals. It was the way she’d stay up with me, pounding cheap beers and fucking until the sun rose, explaining how I’d like Tom Perrotta and wouldn’t understand Rushdie, or wondering how I could hate Bukowski.
“Agony agony,” she said “is one of Lorca’s best lines.”
We had sex after our first date. In a bid to prove my sophistication, I took her to a martini bar on Elmwood and, after a mediocre dinner, we somehow ended up at a nondescript apartment in a complex somewhere outside UB. When we'd drunk too many beers and talked about books I only pretended to have read, I awkwardly leaned in to kiss her.
“Do you have condoms?” I asked, and she told me she did.
The next morning, she called and asked if I wanted to go to the beach. We spent the day in the sun and the shitty waves of Lake Erie and then lay in her bed, still warm and soft and tired and battered with sand. She asked if I wanted to spend the night and I told her I did. It was the only thing I wanted.
There was a chemistry I’d never felt before. She left me exhausted, elated and empty. Later, she’d tell me she liked me because I could buy her beer and give her orgasms. Then she apologized. I guess she thought she was being insulting.
I’m not sure how she broke my heart. We were never exclusive, never anything but two warm bodies drinking too much and spiraling toward self-destruction. When she called to tell me she’d made a mistake, my heart dropped out through my feet. I was somewhere in northern Michigan then and she was a million miles away.
Things changed after that. The dance slowed to a crawl and the gradual cannibalism of mind and soul faded from our memories. When she told me she'd met a guy and had a date, I was crushed.
“I thought you'd be happy for me,” she said.
“Why would I be happy for you?” I asked, and I was a little sick to realize I didn't know the answer.
Things just faded away. As meaningless as everything had been, I’d nonetheless found meaning threaded in every night together, in the drunk four AM philosophizing, in the way sunlight filtered through the tiny, nearly invisible hairs that lined her skin, in the way she canvassed my loneliness with her own when I couldn’t bring myself to go home.
She stopped answering my calls. I left voicemail after voicemail to no avail as she dropped out of my life forever, leaving only a vapor trail of happy online pictures with her new boyfriend and new life. And I should have been happy for her. A good person would have been happy to see her find a certain amount of satisfaction with a healthy, stable relationship – with a healthy, stable, dependable partner. I should have been glad to see her putting the pieces together, but I wasn’t.
I was just where I’d always been and she’d moved on. The last time I saw her was through the window of a coffee shop on Elmwood, walking her dog and oblivious to my existence. I started to wave and then stopped. She passed by without a glance in my direction, and I stood still, silent and planted to the ground like always.