Selected Fiction from Issue #47
Cover Art: by Linda Hillringhouse, Descending Figures with Bird and Dog, 2019, gouache on paper, 10 ½" x 14 ½"
House on Fire
by Kristina Branch
“You kids!” Dad was yelling from the foot of the stairs. “Rise and shine!”
I turned over and pushed my face into the pillow. It was Saturday, not even daybreak. And our drafty Massachusetts house was freezing. Dad liked to save on heat.
“Make it snappy!” he shouted. “Both of you!”
I held my breath and listened for my brother, but he wasn’t stirring. I squirmed down further beneath the blankets.
The alert silence from Walter’s room told me he was stiffing Dad like I was. Neither of us wanted to look at Einstein’s desk in Life magazine or be conned into grouting tile with some new gadget.
“All right then,” Dad roared. “The Pratts’ house is on fire! Oh my god, it’s collapsing! Mrs. Pratt is running outside in her nightgown, screaming!”
My feet hit the floor. Walter was running to my end of the corridor, and we barreled down the stairs together, knees and elbows in a wild tumble.
Dad was standing on the porch, holding a silver serving spoon, and as Walter and I lit out the front door and looked up the road, we saw the Pratts’ grand home --- its mansard roof and tall arched windows --- perfectly intact. Even in the pallid haze, we could tell it wasn’t a charred pancake. Mrs. Pratt was nowhere to be seen.
I stared in disbelief. The picture in my mind was so completely formed I almost couldn’t square it with what was actually there.
Walter pointed up the hill. “It’s fine,” he said in a dazed voice. “Dad?”
Dad glanced toward the Pratts’.
“So it is, son!” he declared. “Wonder what fooled my eye!”
I knew my father sometimes fudged the truth. He could be squirrely about the price of tag sale items he brought home, and he might fib a bit to make a story good. But today he’d told an out-and-out lie. Telling the truth had been drilled into our bones by Mother, yet Dad was standing right in front of us, exuberant, without a trace of guilt.
“But…” I could barely say the words. “Now you’ll go to hell, right?”
“Now? I doubt it. Not on this fine morning, my pet,” Dad answered with a quick pat on my head.
And then, exclaiming Look!, he gestured outward with the long curved spoon. It was as if he cued the sun. Light welled up behind the stand of spruce and slid along the threads of power lines.
I gave a start.
Overnight the world had changed. Great quilts of snow were spread across rooftops. Hedges looked like clumps of lace. And our yard? Immaculate --- not a single track. Everything was still.
“First snow of the season!” Dad declared. “It’s the best snow when it comes so big like this. See, almost to the porch!”
He stepped across a cord extending from the kitchen and crouched down near a hot-plate where maple syrup bubbled in a saucepan. Scooping up a spoonful of the sticky mass and leaning toward the snow, he tossed down a few short stripes that puckered on the pristine surface and began to set. As he drew back for another round, he reached into his jacket pocket and took out two steel camp forks.
“Quick, twirl it up right away if chewy is your ticket! Wait a little if you want it crisp.”
Walter and I gathered the sepia ribbons with our forks. And because it seemed that Dad had risked his mortal soul to spring us from our beds, we savored every mouthful with a kind of reverence. Hot and icy, gooey and glassy --- the sensations mingled on our tongues. The fantastic fiction that had jolted us awake now made us feel more keenly what was real.
Mother rapped on a window, calling from the mudroom. “Send them in --- they’re not wearing slippers or robes! They’ll catch their death!”
“But it’s sugar on snow!” Dad shouted back. “Let them have another minute!”
So we stayed out on the porch a little longer, gazing at the day unfolding. Yet, in the blink of an eye, it would all be gone --- the deep white drifts, the snow candy, and the dawn my father summoned with a spoon.
Kristina Branch, a painter and writer with residences at MacDowell, Yaddo, Ossabaw, and Skowhegan, is a professor emerita at Stanford University. A Smith College graduate, her solo exhibition venues include Farnsworth Museum, Cantor Center, and University of Iowa Museum of Art. These selections are from her novel, Nicer Than Jesus.
Collection of Broken Things (novel excerpt)
by Jaimee Wriston Colbert
“Broken!” Mercy grins, staring at the two parts of the compact DoDo held in her hand, dropped by accident when Mercy reached for it and her sister saw the ragged purple slashes across her wrist, winding like strands of ivy up her inner arm, its color where the skin is soft and pale an angry, crusted red. They’re in the break room at The Seagull. Fry stink and Cook shouting something at the dimwitted busboy, brother of a cousin of the owner Jack Marsh’s son, something like that. Dull but with family connections who could fire his ass?
“Ah shit Merce, not again. Don’t tell me!”
“So don’t ask. I’ll take the pieces of your compact though, add them to my collection.”
“You should add your own sorry butt to your collection! What the hell, I thought we agreed—I get you the job, you stop the cutting.”
Mercy shrugs. “The job’s Mom’s bug up her ass. I could give a shit.”
“Uh huh, so what would you live on?”
Mercy stares out the salt-flecked window over the Formica table they sit at. The way the wind blows off Nantasket Beach means every other day someone has to be out wiping down the glass. Yeah, add that to the list of everything else they do around here for less than minimum wage with tips that’ll get you a cup of coffee. Stabs her half-smoked cigarette into the Red Sox ashtray. “Got to love a baseball ashtray; think those dudes smoke these things, in between steroid boosters?” Narrows her eyes, focusing on the view in between the salt residue. You can’t see it from here, but if you walked outside and crossed the street, you’d see out to the point, ocean the color of a dime, Boston skyline in the distance. “Anyway, who said living’s at the top of my agenda?”
DoDo pops out of her chair, hooking her hands on her wide hips like some behemoth kettle. The wall behind her is dingy as her uniform, white shirt gone grey from all the hard-water washes. Mercy shifts her eyes from the window to DoDo’s figure, a deliberate, mean perusal. Her half-sister may’ve gotten the better life, plus two same-size legs, but whatever genes Mercy got different didn’t end up sprouting those hips at least.
“We saying this a cry for help, babe? Should we call the Suicide Line or something?” DoDo growls.
“Let’s shit-can the drama queen act. Nothing to do with you, Dodo, there’s no we here. I don’t know why the hell I do it, OK? It just makes me feel better.”
“Slashing your skin with razors or nails or whatever the tarnation you use, making butt-ugly trenches and scars makes you feel better! Jesus, Merce, you are some kind of fucked-up. Thirteen-year-olds do it for attention, not a grown-up in her late thirties closer to menopause than pimples.”
“Hah! That’s just too cute, menopause. Real cleaver. Got that one too? And for the record, I’m still in my mid-thirties.”
“Yeah sure, thirty-seven going on fifteen. In fact, why don’t you take the rest of the afternoon off, there’s only an hour and a half left. I’ll cover your section. I’d rather that than have anyone else see those arms.”
Mercy shakes her head. “Nope, I committed to this sucky job and I’m doing it. Besides, could be I’ve got a tipper at table seven.”
DoDo tugs her skirt down, shakes her head, her little frizzy bun poking up at the top of her head like a toothbrush, strides over to the door that separates the break room from the kitchen, peering out the small square window over the counter area into Mercy’s section. “What, the old guy in the Panama? Looks like a disability check short from a homeless person.”
“You don’t know who that is? No, you wouldn’t.” Mercy smiles smugly. “That’s Leo French. He was pretty famous, for a photographer. Fashion, the music scene, he even did The Doors.”
“The Doors? We’re talking what, like forty-something years ago? Geez, you weren’t even born. So how do you know this?”
Mercy grins. “FYI, I wasn’t born when Lincoln was president but I know about him. You need to get out of your own head more, big sis.” Pops a breath-mint to hide the cigarette smell—she nabs the smokes at break from DoDo who claims medicinal, helping her control her weight—marches back out on the floor.
Only to see him lurch out into the afternoon, jingle of the bell as the door shuts, one buck under his cup. “Shit!” she whispers. But OK, reality check, he only had a coffee and an egg salad sandwich. She wishes she’d had the nerve to let him know she knew who he was. Saw his signature on some note he was writing when she refilled his coffee, Leo French, shaky but certain, the looped L and F, the way it was on his photograph. Dear Daniel… the note began, that’s all she saw because she was focusing on that signature. But then he might ask how she knew about him, and what would she say? My first husband, biggest asshole in the city of Seattle, loser bastard liar was a photographer too, when he wasn’t drunk or out with some slut, and he had one of your prints on the wall of our shit-hole apartment?
DoDo sidles up behind her. “Your big spender leave you enough for a doughnut? One dollar, wow.”
Mercy’s cheeks flame. “Here!” handing her the cleanup rag. “You’re the one who looks like the doughnut fan. I’m checking out.”
“Fine!” her sister snaps. “I learned years ago not to depend on you. In fact make that family, you can’t depend on family.”
Mercy nods. “No argument from me there.”
Instead of heading home she walks along Nantasket beach, the sky a thin shield of clouds, high and pale grey allowing brief flashes of late sunlight through. The tide is going out, brigades of seagulls march along the shore popping their beaks into the wet sand, snagging clams, mussels, whatever’s in there, she’s no marine biologist. OK, so a lot can happen to someone in forty years, tides turn, fortunes gained, lost, folks just fade away. Look at her life in fifteen. First husband a train wreck, second a good guy so she goes and breaks his heart, no career, no college, no talent unless you include collecting broken things as a kind of art, nothing of any worth to lose when you come right down to it, at least not the kind of worth folks measure these things in, and she ends up in her mother’s garage after a foot-killing day’s work at The Seagull (nobody gets how hard it is, walking in two different kinds of shoes, two different sized legs, a balancing act every effing minute of your life), cutting herself. Secret slices at first, on her torso, insides of her thighs where no one else goes these days, skin soft as a kitten; then a few nights ago she thinks, what the hell! Does it where it’s easier, freer, one arm to the other like a partnership. Some night she might even do it in the window so the freak next door can watch, let him slide further inside her dirty little world.
Thinks about Leo French’s photograph Rico had hanging opposite their bed. Mercy would stare at it when he didn’t come home and enough times when he did, so drunk he’d pass out before they could even get into it. A folksinger sitting on a piano bench, the raw brick wall of some club behind her framing her pale hair. Rico said she’d been famous in the Greenwich Village folk scene, the sixties, before Mercy’s time though he’d been closer. Mercy was so impressed with herself when she first started dating him, an older guy, hot, that lovely brown skin, she liked it that he didn’t look suburbs.
She can’t recall the folksinger’s name, but that wasn’t what mattered, only what the photographer had captured in the photograph: her watery blue eyes, such longing in them and awareness, like she could see off that wall into Mercy’s own heart. Yeah, those eyes said, I know, I get you. Her eyes were swimming pools, like you could drown in whatever it was she saw. And since in the photo those eyes could never shut, Mercy was forever seeing them, couldn’t get away from them. That’s how Mercy had felt too, like she was drowning, suffocating in her pathetic life by virtue of loving a dick like Rico, who didn’t feel the same about her.
One night she came home early from her job at the Last Exit Coffee House and she catches his slut climbing out the bedroom window. Not a she slut, a he, and not even a nice guy slut, someone she’d consider inviting to dinner for Rico, the three of them could play cards or whatever, the three of them could be friends—she would’ve done even that rather than lose Rico. But why? Rico had shrugged. Climbing out the window, the photograph’s eyes said, can’t you see where this is going?
The next night when he’s dressing to go out without her, combing his thick black hair behind his ears, it’s Mercy on the floor holding onto his knees, begging him to stay, him dragging her through the front room when she won’t let go, and finally pulling her up by her ponytail until they’re face to face at the door, his breath reeking of whiskey. “I’m sorry,” he said, and he at least had the decency to look like he was. “Don’t think any of this has been easy for me either.”
“But you married me!” she cried.
“You asked me,” he said. “And… I felt bad for you…” staring down at her legs. She let go of him then and he walked out the door.
Those eyes in the photograph witnessed it all, through the bedroom door of their shitty shoebox apartment. And when Mercy drank the other half of his fifth of Jack Daniels, tossing her jeans on the fired-up electric heater then sinking for an hour into a bath until the water turned cold, until smoke filled the apartment, until the neighbors called the fire department while Mercy, towel-wrapped and coughing ran pails full of bath water into their bedroom, the eyes saw this too. When the firemen came racing up the building’s back stairs, forcing her outside, her biggest regret would not be their burning bed (a lie), or their flaming curtains they’d shopped for together at Target, or even her clothes, thrift-shop finds, easily replaced. It was the photograph. The smoke and water damage rendered it beyond recognition, its metal frame scarred the color of coal.
When Mercy moved back home, the first time, it was DoDo, newly divorced herself who took her in. The two of them with a bottle of wine on her sister’s slumped porch, Dodo’s kids watching TV in the front room.
“He probably only wanted me for my blowjobs,” she’d said.
Her sister laughed. “Hah! told you you had a big mouth. And no TMJ I’ll bet, that’s the killer.”
Mercy nodded. “Said he was bi. I thought that made him more sexy.”
Now Mercy squats down on the sand. It’s coarse and cool, still damp from where the high tide had covered it. Tide’s higher these days, less beach, global warming with its bigger storms dragging the sand away. Coast getting smaller, tighter, maybe in her lifetime it will disappear and all of them that live by it either relocate to Ohio or disappear with it.
She shouldn’t have been so mean to her sister, Mercy thinks, peering up the street toward where The Seagull is, its rubble of a building like so much of Hull, old. DoDo to the rescue, all through Mercy’s life—DoDo, she’d even named her half-sister as a child when she couldn’t pronounce Dorothy, those few good years when they’d lived together as kids, and DoDo thought it cute enough, her cute enough to let it stick. So instead of thanking her Mercy goes ballistic. Maybe her mom’s right about her anger: “Who made you God’s pet?” she’d said. “What makes you think your life deserves any less shit than the rest of ours?”
Wonders if now, with things more open about being gay, hell TV shows make it out to be almost a fashion statement, whether Rico would’ve even looked at her that day in The Last Exit, playing chess by himself, moving the ivory pieces both sides of the board like he’s strategizing what another player might do if only someone were there. Rain slashing against the window behind him and he looked like a painting of himself, his beautiful face framed by rain and the light over his table. After she served him his tea (with skim milk, she’d noted, a man who cares about his shape), he asked her when she got off. “You have a great smile,” he told her. Which made her smile again, her heart starting that crazy little beat it got when her body sensed some possibility.
The next night he took her out to dinner, a nice Italian place, tablecloths, candles, even paid for their dinner, drinks at The Pub, then she took him home. They made love and it felt like a kind of promise, maybe this would be it. He seemed to want her as much as she wanted him, said nothing about her leg, and in the morning there was blood on her sheets. My period, she told him, embarrassed. He laughed, said he didn’t think she was a virgin. Already a sexual history? he joked, and just like that he was part of it. She can’t recall when things changed. Was it a slow transition? How it became more and more about her stroking him, her admiring him. It’s OK, he’s just tired, she’d tell herself, then soon enough, it’s OK, he’s had too much to drink. She would’ve done anything for Rico. That was the real betrayal, not that he loved men, just that he didn’t love her.
Jaimee Wriston Colbert is the author of six books: Vanishing Acts, Wild Things, Shark Girls, Dream Lives of Butterflies, Climbing the God Tree and Sex, Salvation, and the Automobile. Her books won the CNY 2017 Book Award, a 2018 International Book Award, Willa Cather Fiction Prize, Ian MacMillan Fiction Prize, and the IPPY Gold Medal, among others. She is Professor of Creative Writing at Binghamton University.
Graceful Hands (for my brother Isai)
by Nicholas Rodriquez
I walk into your room at Barnert Hospital and I’m apprehensive. The air smells stale, not medicinal. You stare at me then compliment my appearance. I'm dressed in old jeans and a plain shirt—nothing remarkable—but I'm grateful you greet me on a lighter note. We chat about the weather (insistent April rain), the hospital food (cold and crappy), what's going on in the world (who knows—who cares).
I’m 35 and living in New York City, performing and traveling. You’ve lived in Paterson your whole life. Three wives and five children later, you’re in and out of the hospital (This is your third visit since January). I wasn't expecting you to be awake or for us to be alone. I'm uncertain what to say next, and discussing your health strangely enough feels off limits. You look older but still handsome, except your hair and skin are thinner, and you keep losing weight. It's 1991, and AIDS is frightening to everyone—including the hospital staff.
We catch up on family. "Hilda is fighting with Nilda or is it Manny and Danny?" We laugh and acknowledge our family pattern: our siblings take sides with one another and take turns bochincado. We gossip! Eventually, some family members kiss and make up, and the pattern starts over. It's cyclical and pretty hysterical when you’re not the one in the line of fire.
Some of us are more compassionate about your situation than others. One of our brothers is angry at you for not being more forthcoming about your habits; he criticizes your lack of disclosure. "How long has this been going on? Why didn't you tell your wife last year," our brother protests. "Kiss my ass," is your response. Profanity was always your first line of defense.
Our conversation shifts abruptly when you start complaining about a constant lower backache. You then ask for a massage. It's an awkward request, but I oblige. You untie your hospital robe, remove your white cotton T-shirt then hand me scented oil—menthol. Next you complain that the nurses can't (or won't) touch you. I suggest it might be hospital policy, and remind you that you're an obnoxious flirt. “The nurses are on to you,” I suggest and we laugh in agreement, breaking the tension.
I start massaging your upper back tentatively before you instruct me to be more aggressive. “Put your body in it." Offended, I apply more pressure expecting you to wince but you sigh, and I feel your body weight sink into the hospital bed. You grow silent.
I think to myself, as you put your T-shirt back on, "You were always the strong one – Isai, the boxer and father at fifteen, Puerto Rican Casanova and sure-footed Salsa dancer—el macho.
You, with the strong hands that won boxing matches; hands that calmed me down when I got stitches under my right thigh at age eight. Hands that built and stained that gigantic wooden platform bed in the Manhattan railroad apartment on 29th Street & 10th Avenue that Manny and I rented. Magical hands that offered me my first toasted buttered corn muffin as a six-year old kid. (I spun on that River Street diner stool with delight!)
You with the smart-ass mouth that could curse out a brother, manipulate our mother, defy our father, 'rap' up a storm (before rap was a thing!) to get your way with the girls. You had no idea how much I looked up to you, convinced I could never be your kind of man: romantic, impulsive, conniving and convincing.
I longed for just a sliver of your confidence. Fantasized about kissing girls, strutting up the asphalt pavement in the Christopher Columbus Projects, people stepping aside or walking up to me, patting me on my back, exchanging urban handshakes—creating new slang with other teenagers, “Todo esta bien ‘chevere’!” I idolized you but occasionally hated your guts. Our neighbors called you ‘Easy’! Your friends gave me nicknames like Eddie Munster and Spacey from Mars.
The last time I visit you, it's close to our birthdays in June. I'm relieved to see your energy level is high and you're in better spirits. The weather is brighter—finally sunny. You immediately start talking about leaving the hospital, "I want outta this place now. Not wasting away or wasting anymore time. Turning things around. Change my eating habits. Gonna give up cigarettes and liquor. I'll get back in shape like before all this bullshit happened.” Then you change gears, “I appreciate you coming all the way from the City, Nicky. Means a lot to me."
There is a theory that as some people approach death, they have periods of renewed energy—a spiritual burst! I realize, in hindsight, that my last visit with you may have been on just such an occasion. I was sure you’d hang in there for years. It also occurs to me that during those final days with so much medical information being unavailable, I was fearful of AIDS—ignorant—and judgmental of drug addiction. How many other friends did I avoid or ignore?
Sometimes I look for you in the streets of Paterson; I turn a corner and think I catch a glimpse of you under a streetlamp downtown. The boxing annex behind City Hall where you used to train is gone. So many properties on River Street—the corn muffin diner—were burnt down or demolished.
I write stories to conjure you up then you vanish again. I try to imitate you when I dance salsa but come up short every time. I try to remember secret handshakes, shadow box, curse the world out in Spanglish. And, sometimes resent you for dying too soon, stare at a picture and rationalize, "You did this to yourself. Why should I feel bad about your ‘antics’? You should have known better than to share needles.
Then I remember the day I offered you relief and comfort with graceful hands.
Nicholas Rodriguez is a Juilliard graduate, Fulbright Scholar, writer, teacher and performer-choreographer living in Paterson, NJ. He directs the Inner City Ensemble—a nonprofit youth arts group. Nicholas is also the Assistant Director of the Passaic County Cultural and Heritage Council. His poems have appeared in PLR #43 through #46.