Wild Geese

by Abby Knudsen

“Fallen” by Nicholas Rex

Within an hour after slipping off the little cliffside, she accepted that she would die there, among the juniper trees and sagebrush and sand. While she lay there on the rocks at the bottom, unable to stand, she grazed her fingertips over the familiar place where her left ribs should be. A few ribs protruded under the skin, unfamiliar, and every time she allowed air into her lungs, the left side protested violently. In exchange for air, she set her chest on fire. She tried to call for help but couldn’t breathe enough air to yell louder than speaking volume. She couldn’t stand, either—her left leg faced the wrong way, and her calf was torn open by bone.

It had been a mistake to go off the trail and think she could find the waterfall by tracking the sound. She realized now that it had been an echo, probably from nowhere nearby. She had been careless to wander and careless to lose her footing in a place with no cell reception.  

So, with only her arms, she had crawled in the direction she believed the trail to be, leaving a stream of blood behind herself, until she could no longer continue from the pressure on her punctured lung. And as she had crawled, with thoughts circling of her parents and sister and of food and water, she couldn’t help but remember her favorite poem—the one that says, “You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” 

If only, she thought. If only it was that easy, to walk on knees rather than crawl with arms. 

But she could still repent, she knew. If not for punishment, why else would she have been put here? She stopped crawling, rested her head on her backpack, and spoke her guilt from the bed of sandstone and sticks, rather than the traditional deathbed she’d always imagined. I’m sorry for not going to church, she said. I’m sorry for telling Amy I loved her, even when I didn’t. I know—I should have gone to Mom’s funeral and helped Dad with the house. I’m sorry. What else do you want to hear? 

And then she called for help again with her lung splitting open, even though she could barely whisper. There had to be someone—maybe someone else who had wandered far from the trail, looking for the waterfall too. But the amount of air she could breathe lessened, lessened as her lung depleted, and she could do nothing but lie there and repent. The sun fell behind the mountain, and she watched it from her sideways view, wishing she could reach out to hold it in her hands and stop it. 

She kept her eyes to the sky, looking instead for the wild geese that Mary Oliver said would be there, high in the clean blue air. But they didn’t bother to show. Only the vultures circled—just a few at first, then a whole flock, pacing in a circle in the air.

With such little oxygen flowing through her body, her mind was lightheaded and her vision began to blur. In a way, the vultures almost looked like geese—geese, if they were circling around to come and save her, to scoop her up and fly her home.

She closed her eyes and let the world go on.

The vultures were kind enough to delay their approach until after she had taken her last shallow breath. Then, as one, they stooped around her and tore away at her body, grateful for their fortune. They peeled away her skin first, hardly savoring it in order to devour the fresh flesh still warm inside her. The vultures’ beaks and chests stained red, and blood pooled on the sandstone. Then they flew away, satisfied. 

They left behind her shredded bits of clothing, along with her skeleton—the only parts of her that the rescuers would find. And when she could not tell her own story, the broken bones would.

 

 

Abby Knudsen is a senior at BYU majoring in editing and publishing and minoring in creative writing.

(Art) Nicholas Rex prefers to refrigerate his milk and eat his cereal cold, as do most people. Despite this characteristic, Nicholas Rex likes to think he is different from other people. He is also very interested in God, or the absence of God.

A Few Miles Off

by Ella Jakobi

"Unknown Body II" by Katelyn Field
“Unknown Body II” by Katelyn Garcia

“How far are we?” she asked.

“Only five hours from,” he replied.

“Great.”

“Great.”

They had been married for about a year and would not be together for much longer—a fact they both knew but were hesitant to admit. No one wanted to be the one to say it first. To be branded the one who ruined things.

A landscape of red rock and blue sky washed by the windows. It was the sort of view that was beautiful only for the first thirty minutes. Afterward, all that either of them would think—but not say—was how awful it would be to break down in the middle of nowhere. They wondered who would die first.

He was certain she would, by thirst. Or starvation.

She also thought she would die first but figured her death would arise from a tumble from a red-rock cliff. Or the bite of a diamond-headed snake. Or they could stumble upon an ancient civilization holed up between the I-90 and I-122, where she might be sacrificed as a beautiful woman. She thought of how her husband might weep if he saw her bleed. Oh, how he would weep then.

“Babe?” he said, breaking the silence.

“Hm?

“I love you.”

“Sweet. I love you.”

He drove thirty miles over the speed limit, but there were no black-and-whites to stop him. He did not want to wait around and play the patriarch if their car did break down: Everything will be fine, he would say. Calm down, even as he would watch his wife wither like a husk before him, scratchily complaining until her last breath.

His eyes blurred over the road, but he would not admit it. The last thing he needed was for her to drive. That would have been so much worse.

She thought about helping with the driving, but knew that even if he pretended to sleep, he would keep his eyes half-open so he could watch the road and ensure that she wouldn’t get them in an accident. Which wasn’t really the point, was it? She checked the dirt under her nails and looked pointedly out the window. If there was an accident, it would be an accident. She would try her best, but it would never be enough for his high standards.

Great, he thought, looking from the corner of his eye. She is upset again. Always always always ups—

When she said, “Look out!” it wasn’t a warning but a lightswitch, shifting the world to a whole other color: one brighter, like a surgeon’s chair. Suddenly more alert than he had ever been—even on that day in fifth grade when a soccer ball hit him in the face and he was certain he would die—he slammed the brakes. The car screeched on that toothpick road. 

It was only as they slowed that he realized he wasn’t sure what they stopped for. 

“What did you see?” he asked. Hands tight on the wheel. Heart rate ready to kill something.

She did not answer.

“Babe. What. Did. You. See.”

She lifted one shaky finger and pointed to the side of the road. There, lying on its side, was an escaped milk cow, toppled over on the edge of the asphalt, its hide the color of ruby wine. Long departed, it seemed to be. 

Even from a distance, he could count four of its white ribs, poking out through stripped flesh.

But sitting behind the cow, and suddenly rising, emerged the head of a calf. 

Brown, skinny, its cheekbones hauntingly sharp. Its beetle-black eyes yawned in their direction, blinking gently. As if the blinks were blown kisses.

After a moment it rose, and that was when they noticed patches of its legs were pink. And festering. It looked toward them, but did not walk. After a moment, it cried in their direction: a small, thirsty cry.

“Pity,” she said.

“Why did you tell me to stop?”

Her defenses were already up; her tongue was a knife behind teeth. “Well, it looked like it was more in the road, babe. Like, in the center. The road weaves, you know.”

The road had not weaved for miles.

He knew this; she did not.

See? he told himself. This is why I am driving.

“Poor thing,” she said, pressing her fingers against the car’s window—as if to touch the calf.

“Yeah.” He paused. “Do you want to help it?”

Her brown eyes trailed over the scene for a moment, her bottom lip trembling. There was so much she wanted to say.

“No, babe.” She shot him a weak smile. “It can’t be helped, can it?”

His jaw tightened, and he looked away from her. It was much easier to digest the image of the diseased calf on the side of the road. “No. Can’t be helped.”

“Should we hit it?” she asked. 

First, he processed it like a joke. Second, he toyed with his seatbelt at the shoulder. Then, “You want me to wreck the car?”

“I was just thinking we could tap the calf!”

“Tap the calf?”

“You know, knock it over. Doesn’t look like it could run far anyway, Babe.” Her lip trembled all the more. “Seems like an awful way to die. Young and confused. Might as well end it quickly. Not…drag it out.”

He thought on this, or rather, pretended to think on this. But he was the one driving, and he shook his head. “Better for things to die out naturally. Not to rush nature, you know. More respectful for it to pass away on its own.”

“Pass away?”

“Sure.” He lifted his foot off the brake and let the car return to movement. The calf watched them slip by. “You know, death’ll be so easy, so simple, for something young like that. Like falling asleep. It won’t even realize it’s happened until it has.”

They continued down the road, and he accelerated the car, this time to thirty-five miles over the speed limit. At that moment, he decided that he was going to sit on the balcony of their hotel—alone, after she was asleep—and think about the calf, good and hard. To see if this was the right choice.

Minutes ticked by in the car, as slow as an apple dries in the autumn sun.

“Babe?” he said.

“Hm?” She was still looking out the window, in the direction of the calf.

He attempted a smile. “I love you.”

She adjusted in her seat, folding her arms and holding her breath, as if noise, any noise, would be an argument. She looked at the sky far away from him. “I love you, too.”

 

 

Ella Jakobi is a writer in Utah county who has never been married, but tends to write about marriage quite a bit. She enjoys aimlessly driving, boiling eggs, and rearranging the pillows on her couch so they look JUST right. She fervently believes everyone should write stories, even if they don’t show them to anyone, because, often, you can only find truths about your mind in the stories you tell yourself.

(Art) Born in 1996, Garcia grew up in Cache Valley, Utah and is in the process of receiving her BFA in studio art at BYU. Her artwork centers on meditative interactions with the land, through the use of her body, documented through video, photo, and installation.

Thetis

by Courtney Lehikainen

"Sister Vol. 2" by Nicole Konecke
“Sister Vol. 2” by Nicole Konecke

Her name was Thetis, and she was from the sea. And like the sea, she could not die. She ebbed and flowed, her mood changing with the centuries. At times she beat the rocky cliffs into sand relentlessly, drowning sailors and sending ships to the bottom of the sea that was also Thetis. Sometimes she was smooth and placid, movements precise and sometimes barely there at all. She was too uncaring, nearly unfeeling, and always undying.

His name was Achilles, and he was from the sea. But he was also from the land, and that was the problem. The land could be beaten into submission, devoured by waves and floods and rain. Thetis had killed many from the land, had personally eaten miles into the cliff faces that dared touch her. He was from the land, and he was from the sea. He was not like his mother.

The birth was simple, though to Thetis most things were. When she realized the child needed air, she was frightened. What was this creature that she had created, half one world and half another? If Achilles were not so beautiful she may have killed him then. Her sisters wanted to, eagerly reaching for the bundle in her arms. But he had a head of dark curls like hers, and amber eyes. She waved their sharp fingers off, confused at herself, and made for the light above.

She hid him in a cave on the surface, where cold rock and water met. He floated on the surface in her arms, and she hated that she loved him. Such a fragile thing with wide eyes and red blood running through his veins. So hungry and so small. They thought she was crazy, her sisters. He will die soon, they told her. His life is but a moment. You are unending, Thetis, leave him. She had tried. She left him in the cave for two days, once. Hoping she could resist the urge to return. But his weak cries were carried by the sea to her ears, and she clutched him and promised not to leave again.

He was not growing as the other land children seemed to. She tried to get him to eat—fish and seaweed and even some seabirds. He would not take them and seemed to be dying before her eyes. She was growing desperate. This small thing, this accident that she had made, she could not save. She began to watch the people on land, the father and his followers. She saw the children they raised, healthy and pink. But she also saw the way they killed each other, the diseases that took the children, and the fear on their faces as they died. She did not feel bad for them. She had killed many. But she would not let them kill her son.

That is what brought her to stand on the bank of the river, feet unfamiliar with the feeling of land but steady. She held him by the heel and dipped him in the river. Please, she pleaded. Make him steel. Make him metal. Make him live. This thing, this child who should not exist. Please make him live. He did not have the strength to cry, though he flinched as he entered the water. She wondered if it burned his mortal infant skin. Even still, she dipped him twice, to be sure. He was raw and red when she pulled him out of the darkness, hardly moving. 

His father found him on the beach, cradled with seaweed and feathers. Thetis was nearby. He is a monster, she told Peleus. He belongs nowhere. The man gathered Achilles in his arms. He belongs with me, he told her. He is my son. Thetis’ eyes flashed. Then he is yours to keep or kill, she replied, for I am no mother. Peleus nodded in deference, fear evident on his face, and Thetis turned back to the sea. She did not look back at him, but four men from the land drowned that night, and the mother who was not a mother felt no pity.

His name was Achilles, and they killed him anyway. He did not even live very long. The fragile child became a hero and then the child was killed. 

Her name was Thetis, and she was from the sea. And she was his mother. And she could not save him.

 

 

Courtney Lehikainen is a senior in the photography program at BYU. She specializes in fine art and darkroom processes, but will always have a love for words. Courtney was born and raised in Modesto, California, though she now resides in Utah Valley,

(Art) Nicole Konecke considers the turbulent shores of Lake Michigan home, but finds temporary residence in Providence, Rhode Island where she attends Brown University pursuing a degree in Literary Arts, recently celebrating her first publication in the Indy, a Brown/RISD literature and arts journal.

A Bullet for the Renafern Man

by Benjamin Vance

The Meek Shall Inherit by Pamela Parsons
The Meek Shall Inherit by Pamela Parsons

When the lawn mower engine exploded and the barn caught fire, Mom got the boys together and told them that everything happens for a reason. They were young boys—all three of them between the ages of seven and twelve—and they had never seen such a fire before, nor had they seen a scorched goat, and the dead goats and the fire excited and scared them.

The boys talked together after the fire. The fire had a reason, a reason, but what was the reason?

At church that Sunday, the pastor called out to the congregation and asked them to pray for the family that had lost its barn and goats and reminded the congregation that God, in His wisdom, used such difficult times to test and educate His people.

God was the reason, then, thought the boys, but then they realized that if God, who was locked so far away in heaven, had caused the fire, there wasn’t much they could do about it. 

They played with dominoes after school and found in them a certain order. Cause and effect as real and as simple as the reactions in their chemistry classes—a push and down down down they went. There was comfort in that order—push, down down down. They found that that simple order could cause great things. The fall of a domino, then a block, then the triggering of a lever that blew a house of Lincoln Logs to pieces.

Causality, they realized, was everywhere—the world made up of a vast tangle of lines of dominoes, nothing random, nothing–but the opaqueness of causality and the breadth of it made it hard to sort out. 

A tornado came and ripped across the valley and tore the roof from the Johnsons’ house and canceled their friend Tommy’s birthday party. 

Later, Mom got cancer, and the three boys knew they needed to examine all of causality to make sense of it.

After school, when Mom would go away for her treatments, they would go out to the potato field behind the house and play cowboys and Indians and go on adventures that had cause and effect and, with cause and effect, blame and coherence and principles of cosmic justice. 

In their playing and in their adventures, they found him—the Renafern man. He was a distant man, the Renafern man, hard to make out. In the great chains of metaphysical dominoes, which in playing, they could see and grasp and pull from the air, they always found him at the critical junctions. In ignorance or vice, the Renafern man had taken the chains of causality and shaped them and set them rolling so that when they reached the three boys down the line, they had burned up the barn and scorched the goats and wrecked the Johnsons’ house and given Mom cancer. 

The high plains where the boys lived were all potatoes, or, where not potatoes, sage brush, but Mt. Taylor in the countryside rose from the flatness and grew evergreens and turned white as it reached the clouds. That was where the Renafern man lived—they were sure of it.

They discussed the ways in which the Renafern man had interacted with causality.

He had leveled trees on the mountain. The lack of trees had caused mudslides, which had delayed gas trucks and caused impurities in the fuel that would one day blow up in the lawn mower and light the barn on fire.

He had burnt wood at the top of the mountain. The smoke had risen and enhanced the warm air. The warm air hit the wind coming south and caused a tornado which ripped across the valley and tore the roof from the Johnsons’ house and canceled Tommy’s birthday.

The cancer was harder to trace, but radiation in all its many forms was so volatile and malleable that the boys, who had become familiar with causality, found in their playing that the dominoes traced up the valley and to the place where the Renafern man lived.

The longer they talked, the more the boys settled on the Renafern man. 

The day Mom died, the three boys came home from the hospital and went into the storage room and packed. Candles and a lighter, sleeping bags and a tarp, a rifle and a bullet for the Renafern man.

They got on their bikes and hefted their packs onto their shoulders and set off.

They cut across potato fields, the tires of their bikes printing a string of hieroglyphs in the soft earth.

They forded canals and stopped to drink from the pivot-irrigation sprinklers, whose pipes stretched out in the shallow arcs of a stone skipping across water.

When they got to the base of the mountain, the youngest came to a halt and turned and stared at his brothers and shook his head.

I’m done with this, he said. I don’t believe in the Renafern man.

What do you believe in, then? asked the oldest

I don’t know. 

In the great chains of causality, who, if not the Renafern man, causes the bad things to happen? Who burned the barn and made the tornado and killed Mom? asked the middle child.

I don’t know.

If you don’t believe in the Renafern man, are we to assume that all occurrences are events in themselves and that nothing has any significance in the great chains of causality? asked the oldest.

If you don’t believe in the Renafern man, are we to assume that people are powerless in the face of chaos and that—

I don’t know, said the youngest.

They left the youngest where he stood, and the two of them went on to the top of Mt. Taylor and found the Renafern man.

The paper said that when they found him, whoever he was, they crept up in the bushes until they were real close and leveled the rifle and aimed for the back of his skull. It said that the man must not have felt anything when the boys killed him, couldn’t have. For him, it was all woodchopping, then blackness—his thoughts clear and unmuddled, then his thoughts strewn on the leafy floor.

The sheriff and the police department didn’t know what to say about those kids and the case and the murder. What could you say? Hard to make sense of it. Their mother’s death had something to do with it, that was for sure. But what was the cause of all this madness with the boys and chain reactions and the Renafern man?

They brought the boys’ chemistry teacher in and held him for a night and would’ve held him longer if they had had cause. They knew he must be a strange man, for these were strange boys.

Nothing, they knew, happens without a reason.

 

Ben Vance is a Senior studying Chinese at BYU. He enjoys reading and writing in his free time.

(Art) Pamela M. Parsons recently retired as a Professor of Art from Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. There she served as Department Chair and taught classes in painting, drawing, and art history survey. She earned an MFA in Painting from Indiana University in Bloomington and a BFA in Painting from Boston University. 

Rhythms

by Marni Asplund Campbell

My father’s heart is strong and scarred, bound in spots by
thread, a delicate patchwork of veiny fabrics. I imagine, when
I talk to him on the telephone, his physical presence. I can hear
his breathing in the brief pauses before he answers a question-
a necessary affectation, no doubt, after years of playing the
law professor, gently withholding wisdom like a tweed-coated
Socrates. He always signals the end of the conversation with a
heartier tone, “Well, we love you Marni,” and it is at this
moment when I think I can hear his heartbeat-slow, deliberate,
like his golf game, or the way he plays “Laura” on the piano.
It was my lullaby, as he nursed me through cold Edmonton
nights, his first pink daughter, a rhythm of protection, quiet
reassurance.


While he was a bishop for ten years, his heart must have
absorbed the shocks of a hundred lives’ worth of infidelity,
drunken, angry hatred and poisonous despair- absorbed them
well on the outside, never showing the pain that threatened to
burst its walls, like Milton’s cannon, with the combined combustion
of saltpeter and sorrow. A father for twice as long, it must
have torn and bled with each scrape and sin. He taught me once
how to skip, step-hop, step-hop, in front of our house. An
uncommon moment for a man, tall legs moving to a child’s double
rhythms. But I tripped when I tried, and fell on my nose, making
it bleed. He carried me to the bathroom, and cried, just a few
small tears that got lost in my hair. I was secretly thrilled with
the glamor of the injury and impressed by his emotion.


His father’s heart was no less strong, but grew fat on Alberta
beef and fried bread. It sent him signals, tiny bursts of hot
semaphore-stop, slow down – but they were silenced by ignorance
and a glass of bicarbonate of soda. A heart as wide as the prairies,
but still one day in the church cloakroom by the chapel, it
stopped. Just stopped. In a glorious seizure it ceased and settled,
my grandfather falling on the floor by the dripping winter boots.
Dad, still in college, bore the loss. But his heart also bore the
hereditary weaknesses- the too-tender empathy that made it
shudder at pain and ugliness, the fierce integrity that made it
tremble at avarice, that luscious longing for meat and gravy. At
the end of his meal, Dad would go to the cupboard for a piece
of soft white bread, and slowly sop up the last of his gravy, winking
at his pleasure. And that germ of weakness that pulsed
through his veins spoke to him one day. Stop. Slow down. He
called the ambulance himself and waited for it in front of his
office.


I told my little sister when she came home from kindergarten,
“Emily, Dad had a heart attack today.” I don’t remember how I
knew. Was there a note on the fridge, by the picture of Mark in
Brazil? Did Mom call? Emily sat on my lap and cried silently,
like a woman.


Dad spent a month in the hospital, waiting for the slow revelations
that could chart the waste of flesh, the hardenings and
softenings of chambers and tissues. The worst test, said Dad, was
the angiogram. You were conscious so that you could cough and
make the muscle jump for a more lively picture, and it was more
painful than the attack, like having fire shot into your veins. And
there, in the basement of the Hotel Dieu hospital, lit up like a
crazy neon roadmap, was the impasse, the heart-plug, the 45 years’
worth of saturated fats and silent anxiety. It was a quadruple
block, and needed to be removed.


The night before his surgery, we all went to the hospital and
sat in a room at the end of the cardiac wing. Beautiful-
surrounded by windows, on the eleventh floor, where we could
see miles of Lake Ontario, dull grey and silver. It must have been
January, because it wasn’t quite frozen . From that height, the
waves looked like a relief map, the continent of Europe in
motion. We sang some hymns-we’d never really done much with
Family Home Evening, but this seemed an appropriate time to
approximate the form – and each one of us said something about
Dad. But the miracle came when he, like Abraham, silenced us
with his presence, and told us simple stories about his love and
gratitude for his children, his wife. We have no promise of a
painless life, he said, or even the presence of beauty to temper
the suffering. All we know is that it is good to love. Then we
prayed, kneeling by the windows, and left. I slept with my
mother that night. She couldn’t stand to be alone with the extra
pillows and the telephone.


I also stayed with her during the surgery, when I wasn’t in
school-10 hours that I remember in small bursts. Friends brought
sandwiches, jello, ice cream. Mom ate nothing. Another family
was waiting for their father in surgery, and at midnight a nurse
came to tell them that he had died. And I learned then that
death was nothing, really nothing, and that was the awful, leering
injustice of it. Just a word and an absence -he is no more.
Mom and I cried like it was for us, and we were alone.


Another friend came – she took me to the cafeteria; Mom was
immovable as a sphinx, convinced that her vigilance would speed
the miracle. When we came back the nurse had been there. The
doctor had asked if we wanted a priest-the operation done, Dad’s
heart, romantic little organ, insulted by the thoughtless vivisection
of the scalpel, refused to beat again. I found a quarter, called
my father’s bishopric counselors. As moments crystallize into
permanence, they acquire unnatural dimensions. This one seems to
me now gigantic, the time drawing out like Einstein’s light-speed
clock, aging more agonizingly than the bean I planted in Primary.
They came and washed and anointed their hands, then his head,
surrounded by green nurses and the surgeons, with the ghastly
chest exposed, ribcage casually set aside like kindling. His heart
began to beat. I asked him later if he’d had a near-death
experience, and he said, “No Marni, just a damned painful one.”


I suppose a girl always harbours a peculiar love for her father,
a subtle fascination with his tallness and inherent opposition to
her substance, but this is not really going to be about Dad. For
I learned, during the hours in the waiting room, when we sat
holding hands just for warmth and the reassurance of vitality,
during the weeks after, when she lost twenty pounds, and let me
drive the car, even though I was still fifteen, when she finally ate
with me, a whole strawberry pie with cream between the two of us,
that my mother was a woman, enigmatic. Not a monolith of power,
dictating piano practice and clean the bathrooms, but a wife and
lover, who knew much more intimately than I the rhythm of my
father’s life, the rhythm of my own creation. Her frantic energy
was an expedient counterpoint to his soft sureness, the two bound
endlessly together by mysterious ties of blood and bone. And last
week, as I lay on a paper-covered table in the Health Center, I
heard a new rhythm, an insistent swish-swish twice the speed of
my own, transferred through jelly smeared on my stomach and
a tiny microphone. It filled the room with a mystical presence,
stronger, it seemed, than my own life, more lovely than my
husband’s eyes as he smiled.

Babyloo Across My Twinkling Floor

by Stephenie Swindle Clark

Redbank’s porch faces my porch, and I have seen him tumble-
rumble the twenty-two steps that lead off of it. It was the summer
I learned to drive and I was like I always was, sitting in the yellow
chair with a hat and some water. It was sunshine and a radio on
upper dial stations. A radio that played all June, all July, all
August, blown in from somewhere. And for this radio, the sun,
my yellow chair and water, Redbank’s spill passed easily. And I
helped him up. I shook him. I said, “Can you hear me? What do
I look like?” I said, “Your knees, your chin and this by your ribs –
what is it that goes on in your head?” And I took my back-pocket
comb and combed. I tied his shoes. I said, ”All this smells of dirt
clods being thrown against the sidewalk- to scare away animals
and small children-kerwangy!” Just like that. Redbank was eight.


My father, John Joseph, when he was tired and mad, in bed
watching game shows, I bargained. “John Joseph, what do you
want with that despicable green-thingy Volkswagen? You don’t drive
it like I’d like to drive it,” I said. “Give it and I’ll clean your house.
I’ll pick tomatoes – all summer, I tell you. And then you hand
over the keys with no backstabbing, no wishy-washy, John Joseph.”
“Razor-backed, blood-gushing daggers,” he said. “You do this
to me. But the keys I’ll give you. You’re a Virginia deal maker.”
“Damn, damn, I’ll make sure you can see it when you smile
in that kitchen floor, my twinkling floor.”
So I swept. I mopped. I made Vienna sausages into French stew.
I sorted laundry. I made piles for boys’ and mens’. Underwear I
kicked into the corner. And I pre-spotted. I folded, pressed,
steamed, groceried, fed the baby and kept him away from
the garbage cans. “Tasty, tasty,” I would tell him when I took the
butter wrappers from his mouth. I set his Star Wars playpen in
the kitchen there by me. I would put him there and he would
murmur and be pleased at how he could adjust his legs, his
arms, spit at his toys.
The pretend bay windows in our kitchen went from floor to
ceiling. They showed our porch, our garden, our fence . And then,
Redbank’s garden and Redbank’s porch. For the first three weeks
of summer Redbank sat, like a sailor, in white underwear, and
watched me from his porch while I shook the kitchen rugs, swept
and hefted, stood with my hands across my waist; I would carry
things from room to room and stop to rest and think and look
at the baby with my hands at my waist. Before napping, the baby
would stand and whirl holding fiercely, so fiercely to the edge
of his pen.


John Joseph handed over the keys when he really did see his
face in the linoleum. “I got my driver’s license,” I told him. And
he sucked air through the hole he had drilled in his thumbnail.
He looked at my twinkling floor. “Here’s ten bucks,” he said.
“Good one.” And I got in my car and drove. I drove everywhere.
I went through high school and college and I said, “You want
a ride? Do you?” I was a good driver. And I am still. I drive like
fire. And today I say, “Yeah, I’ll give you a ride,” and I say, “I’m
with child. Yes, I am.” And I shake my body like hollandaise and
Jello. I smack my gut and say, “It’s St. Santa right here in your
own living room. What do you want? What do you want?” And
then I laugh into my hands. I’m twenty-seven and it’s November.
As you would expect, there’s very little snow.

When I’ve closed the store and called my ever-vigilant-
doctor-man Matheson, been to the cleaners and fed the cats,
I sit down to make a list. I have baby things in one column,
food in another. Sweet day, I love a good grocery trip. I have the
crib and the blankets. I have the big things. What I’ll get is
the sterile soap and a soft brush for head scrubbing. Q-tips and
the pointy funnel thing to clear the nose for cold and flu season.
Diapers. Powder. I’ll get it all. My breasts, like cotton candy, are
achy-achy.


I move my cart into the aisle flow and follow two women I
know. Cosmetics, dairy, baking, household items, meat. One is
Reba Jules and the other Jerilyn Wokler, and they are silk. Silky,
silky, high-waisted control-tops. I reach down deep inside me-
past my gullet- and glide with them as best I can.
Reba says to Jerilyn, ‘Jerilyn, attractive pants make the woman.”
”I’ll say,” says Jerilyn. “I had that woman make them-
Joe Silver’s mother, I had her make them for me.”
“Tailored,” says Reba.
”I’ll say,” says Jerilyn.

They skate and they roll-a figure eight without thinking.
And me, my stomach’s on the tile. I’m loafing. I’m dilly-dallying.
But they go. They race forward, their heads touching, and I
watch them move. They stop at the cranberry juice and reach for
quarts. They move on to the peas. And they are thin. Reba is
thin. Jerilyn is thin. Their hair minds them. They met in college.
They walk Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in purple tights. I’ve
seen them.
I take my purse and throw it sliding to their feet. It hits Reba’s
heel, spins ninety degrees, and I shuffle off to Buffalo.
“Sorry,” I say and heave over. I put my bottom in their faces.
I get up and I’m breathing hard. My face is red. I’m puffing.
They breathe in like small mosquitoes.
I offer my hand, “Hello, Reba, Jerilyn. Won’t you stop by my
anti-Indian and African store. We’re changing our look. And,”
I circle my hand at my stomach, “Babyloo will want to get a look
at you each.”
“Hello,” they say.
“Hi, Susan, how are you?” says Jerilyn.
“Here I am,” I say.
“Well we were just talking about you, talking about your
wonderful store. We love your store. We think it’s a wonderful
store.”
“Yes we do,” says Reba. “It is.”
“Stop by,” I say. “We’ll talk. There’s a place in the mall that
delivers Mexican. We could eat. You could see my baby.”
“Yes,” says Jerilyn.
“Any day now?” says Reba.
“I’m going to keep a crib in the back. You’ll be able to come
back and see. I’ll have everything I need, back there as well as
at home. Two sets.”
“Two sets,” says Jerilyn.
“We look forward to seeing you,” says Reba.
“Goodbye,” I say and they move away. They take their carts
and go, and I watch their hips. I watch and I wish for their well-
shaped forearms, Reba’s switchy trumpet skin, their good noses- I
think and think about the line of their noses.

I’m taking sacks from the trunk to the cement to the kitchen.
The cats are walking the counters like tigers. I put away the baby
and grocery things and the cats start dancing. “Ole,” I say and
they fight. They love each other. They turn circles on the counter,
off the counter, down the stairs if I had any. They tip the garbage
can and drink from the faucets-very mincingly as though they
had just done their hair, gloves on their hands and a light colored
dress.

I know that Redbank came off his porch a morning the baby
would not nap. He walked down the twenty-two steps, through
his garden, our garden, and sat across from me on the porch. I
had come out to see if the sun and the radio would make the
baby sleep. Redbank poked at his eye and I jiggled the baby. He
pinched his nose and he honked it. I kept with my jiggling.
He said, “Hi, baby.” And he did not look at me. “Hi, baby,” he
said and let the baby grip at his fingers and eat them. “This is
a cute baby,” he said to my chair, my hat, my glass of water.
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes,” he said and got off his chair. He went back to his porch
and sat there and called, “Hi, baby. Hi,” until the baby finally
slept and I rolled him up and went inside. The radio played till
dark.
To go to bed and be warm is to have one cat on my chest, the
other on my stomach. If the baby starts to jostle, the stomach
cat sits up. And it’s the beacon of all truth. The covers swoosh
down from his ears and head and he sits still – except his ears –
to feel the baby beneath his feet. His ears crane and stretch. We
all listen. We are all so tired.
November-it is cold again, suddenly now-21st, 1982. The
baby comes in one week. l put my letters to answer in my second
white desk drawer. When I open the drawer to find hidden
things and only find letters, I know it’s time to write back. But
not today I can tell you. Peter called. He thought I had had the
baby. “Not yet,” I told him. “Not nine months yet.”
“You feeling okay?” he said.
“I’m feeling okay. You called-and it’s nice.”
“I am nice. Are you big?”
“I’m fat.”
“How do you feel?”
“I’m tired. I’m bloated. My prenatal blush has lit the sofa on
fire. I lounge in flames. Surely blisters any time now.”
“Whiney, whiney. I didn’t think you’d have it, this live baby.”
I blew into the phone.
And he listened.
I wrap a scarf around my head, a coat around my stomach.
Peter opens the door and I smell fish . He takes my coat and grips
his hands around my stomach. He makes a pumping iron face
and keeps gripping. “You could really whack someone with this.
Ever jostle in a crowd?”
“No, I only cut loose with cats. We turn out every last light
and dance it in the dark.”
“Rock ‘n’ roll?” he says.
“Swing-time, big band,” I say.
He turns and hangs my coat and scarf on a sculptured metal
tree. I flick the tree with a fingernail and listen to it ring.
“Need help with your housekeeping?” I say. “I know all about
it.”
“Dead wrong,” he says. “I am completely hard-water-deposit
free. Bathroom and kitchen.”
“I’m going to look,” I say.
“And, Susan,” he says, “What do you know about this baby?”
He walks into the kitchen to look into pots.
I sink into the couch and look at my knees. “What are we eating
besides fish?” I yell.

Peter has dogs. They come in to see me, but I don’t quite reach
their heads, caught as I am in the groovy couch. They walk over
and climb on a furry bean bag, standing and looking at me until
the bag sinks to their liking. The decor hasn’t been changed since
August ’73. Because it was me who painted the super graphics
on July 4th. Me who said everything felt like orange, brown,
and rust. Me who papered the east wall in a forest mural
( the imagination of water and rocks and trees and humming
things) and chose the toe-snuggling wool rug toss. We wished
only for the possibility of an E PA approved wood-burning stove.
Peter clinkaty-clink-clinks in the kitchen and I say, “Here
poochie poochie.” I pat my legs. “Here-come here and see me.”
It was that early afternoon time of day that Redbank fell down
the stairs and I try to tell Peter. “He was gleaming in his
underwear,” I yell into the kitchen. “He was waving. He said,
‘Where have you got that baby?’ ” And then he went; he
spilled, tumbled, split right open and greeted each step with a
forced, broken breathlessness. Oohwee, I was scared.
Peter comes in with TV trays. He comes in with the food and
the dogs start bouncing and grinning. “Skipper, Mack-sit,” he
tells them. And they sit. They have tight little chests and proud
little heads. Peter says, “How ’bout those 49ers?” And we both
sit right up and eat.

After the fish, after the brussel sprouts and bread, there is
four-layered gelatin parfait with fruit cocktail accents.
“You know, Redbank wasn’t really even hurt,” I say.
“Is that a fact?” he says.
“You know, my dog . . . ” I say.
“I don’t remember a dog,” he says.
“That little thing loved me. I used to take him up the canyon
and walk.”
“If you take these dogs and walk-if you scratch Skipper and
scratch Mack-they’ll follow you hell-near anywhere,” he says.
“I took mine up mostly in fall. The sun was still warm. I wore
shorts and a tank and the car keys around my neck.”
“The dog died, huh?”
“No, he drowned,” I say.
“Drowned?” he says. “I never take my dogs near water;’ he says.
“There was water all over the canyon. He loved it. I didn’t
worry. He came back with a wet chest and jumped for the radio
antenna. I had a green flag on it.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Well,” he says. He scrubs Mack and Skipper
down the back and over the stomach, spanks their bottoms. He
takes our TV trays and plates all at once. A magician. He turns
the music on.
I get my coat myself.
“What a time we’ve had today;’ he says. “Come again and
again.”
“I think so;’ I say. ‘TH come and walk your dogs. I’ll come with
Babyloo in a backpack and we’ll go up the canyon and find
water- a pool with a pleasant clearness.”
“Pollution,” he says.
“Pleasant clearness,” I say. I say, “The dogs will strut up and
down its banks for the pleasure of seeing their fine muscles swivel
and wrap each bone. They are fine dogs and for all their time
spent admiring the lines of their back and stomach I will have
fallen asleep nursing Babyloo. I will wake up to a splash-one
dog ankle-deep and the other giving me a hello from the bank.
And before I know where or what, their heels will fly up and
they will whir to bottom, stirring up this and that, and the pool
will no longer be clear with the stroked back of the bristly pooch
and the caressed whitish pooch stuck so very well to the bottom.”
Peter has me by the wrists, palms up. He’s cocking his head.
But he’s listening.
“But,” I say, “it is only that I will bring them back with wet
chests. I would throw Babyloo in and they would swim back up
from the bottom and drag the baby by the knees and ankles
carefully to shore. They would come to me for praise and I would
give it.”
Peter drops my wrists. He pushes me. He opens the door and
walks outside.
The baby will come, I know. Late maybe, but it really will. It’ll
come and I’ll know insides are ripping, are falling apart. I’ll think:
I’m bleeding and count each knocking fist. This baby will want
my life for sure thing. It will want my days and my nights, my
bedsheets, my shoes and my socks. And I’ll give them. It can have
them. I’ll give them. I am falling down stairs. My cats flip through
a quiet apartment. We are all so tired.
I wash the baby’s head with the sterile soap and soft brush.
No more cradle crap. I touch Q-tips to its ears and nose. I sack
it in a sleeper and cover it with a striped blanket. It sleeps just
fine. The cats jump and perch on either edge of the crib. They
hang their bodies low. They wave their paws. They hold still and
they fix their eyes on what I have made. I pick up my cats by the
scruff of their necks.

Woodshedding

by Paul Rawlins

I first learned about woodshedding in Vancouver.
I tell people sometimes that I did studio work while I was in
B.C. What I did was rough framing: tacking together two-by-four
skeletons, screwing heavy sheets of gypsum board to naked frames
and standing them as walls. But I did this in a studio.
The studio was in Raphael’s backyard. He was converting an
old garage. The outside was weathered brown paint and splinters.
The inside was grey-white walls dotted with the black heads of
drywall screws.
“We’re calling it the Woodshed,” Raphael told me.
“I like it;’ I said.
“Do you know what it means to woodshed? “
I shook my head.
“When you lock yourself away with a difficult piece and work
it through note by note, that’s called woodshedding.”
“So you’ll woodshed in the Woodshed.”
Raphael seemed pleased that I’d understood.
After I learned the word, “woodshed” popped up all over. It
was like when I learned “crest” in the fourth grade, and then later
the same day I came across the word in my library book. I don’t
know if I’m looking for a word because I’ve just learned it or if
fate is running strong, and I’ve learned some new word to deal
with life to come.
I woodshedded learning a tune by Paul Gilbert when he and
Billy Sheehan were in Mr. Big. I worked for three days on eighteen
measures of Gilbert’s solo, living on cheese sandwiches. I didn’t
collect my mail, and when I quit, the garbage stunk, and the
neighbor kids were wading in the swamp the sprinklers made in
the backyard.
“It’s a four track studio, good for rehearsal, good for demos,”
Raphael told me. “Big albums you need a twenty-four track studio.
Only so much you’ll be able to do in the Woodshed.”


Raphael was my brother’s friend growing up. They played
together in garage bands in the 70s, with my brother on drums
and Raphael playing guitar. They made up new bands every school
year and gave them names like “Mother Lode” and “Crankshaft”
and “The Peter Crenshaw Group;’ and they cut school a lot to
practice. I know they hitchhiked from Bend to Boise or Portland,
sometimes even Seattle for concerts. And then my dad would
ground my brother, but he always made it out to play on week-
ends. I can’t remember a Friday or Saturday night he and Raphael
didn’t while I was growing up.
Once I asked Raphael if he had any old guitars. I told him my
mom and dad wouldn’t buy me one. I was seven then, and he
was sixteen. Raphael didn’t have any extra guitars, but he taught
me my first chords on his Strat. I have a picture with Raphael’s
guitar. I have a tough look on my face and a guitar slung down
around my knees. Raphael showed me more chords until he and
my brother left home the next year. “To take it on the road,”
Raphael told me.
My brother was back off the road in three months after he broke
his leg badly in an accident he never would explain. He read me
letters from Raphael. Raphael was floating, sitting in with groups,
looking for a band and a steady gig.
“He’ll make it,” my brother said. “He’s good, he’s so good.”


Raphael hooked up with a Seattle band that started making
a name on the local scene about the time my brother had decided
to try college. My brother quit after his first semester and went
to Seattle to take over for a drummer who’d missed three gigs
because of booze.
“Three strikes,” he told me, ‘I’m up.”
I was eleven when that band broke up with only a demo. When
I was thirteen, both my brother and Raphael got married, and
that ended the next band. My parents let me bus up to hear their
last performance. Raphael wasn’t holding back those last nights;
he was doing all the flashy stuff. He played a nine minute solo
the night I was there that came straight from heaven and the
angels.
Raphael did a classical number at my brother’s wedding, but
after that, I didn’t hear him play live again until almost ten years
later-when I was in Vancouver helping him with the studio.
He was in other bands, and he tried running a club. He was
reproducing tapes when he decided to get “out of the business
and back into rock and roll.”
“So I’m getting out of the business and back into rock and roll.”
That’s what he said the night I pitched up.
I was over halfway to his house when I had called from Tacoma.
“I need a place to hang,” I told him.
“Bring your hammer,” he said.
We sat up in the kitchen when I got there. Anne, Raphael’s
wife, asked about the family, teased me about losing my hair.
She loaded me down with sheets and blankets after we finished
talking.
“Stay as long as you want,” she said. “Raphael can use the cheap
labor.” Raphael gave me a place on the couch downstairs and told
me we’d start in on the studio in the morning whenever I got up.


I heard him play that weekend at the Lamplighter in Gastown.
Raphael was coming up fast in Vancouver. He packed the clubs
he played, and crowds shouted for blues and old rock tunes to
hear him. The older set let him take them back, and the young
ones were caught up in revival.
You had to see Raphael play. He would stand with his feet close
together when he soloed, and you waited to see him lock his knees
and faint. He didn’t close his eyes. He looked down at the stage
in front of him, looking to see if the music was hidden there on
the floor or trying to remember, to hear something faint, way
back in his head. He wrung music from his body and from his
instrument- never coaxed, never faltered.
The band did an old tune for me that night. “Taking Care of
Business,” from the garage days. Raphael called me to the stage
to sing backup, and we had a good time.


I learned about studios when I wasn’t listening to Raphael play.
A studio is a floating room, a room built within a room with no
inner wall touching an outer wall. The drywall can be five, even
six sheets thick, to cut out any noise from outside. A control room
floats in the studio. A studio control room must have no parallel
surfaces, for technical reasons, waves and such things. One wall
is corrugated like sideways Z’s, sections of the ceiling tip and rise,
the windows slant. Like a room in the fun house. You want no
leakage from the outer studio into the control room, so you
double all the walls and doors and windows and plug all the gaps
with acoustic sealant.
The control room is twice removed from the world, adrift in
a sea of quiet, a center with nothing surrounding it, nothing
beyond the lights out in the studio.
I sat up in the studio some nights trying to figure how big a
screwup I was. Thinking how I was supposed to be marrying
a girl named Sadie who’d run off with a friend of hers to L.A.,
and how I wouldn’t go get her. Thinking how I didn’t want the
family janitorial business that had kept me and my brothers in
jeans growing up. Thinking I didn’t like the guilt I felt for not
taking charge, for letting life happen to me. I waited as long
as I could stand for some tragedy or revelation to save me, then
I left school without stopping by the administration building to
withdraw and drove home. Then I left home and headed for
Vancouver.
I liked just working on the studio. I could measure studs, plumb
walls, slit drywall with a utility knife with no one wanting more
of me. I liked building and then sitting with Raphael against
a wall at ten or eleven o’clock at night to look at a day’s work
and talk about the next day’s. Anne would wander out after the
kids were in bed, and we would talk about gigs and old times,
and then I had my couch and a cool night for sleeping with not
even tomorrow to worry about.
It went on that way for a couple of weeks. Me and Raphael,
and the boys in the band over in the afternoons.
I was out picking up chips and sodas when the power saw took
Raphael’s fingers. I came back, and the door to the studio was
open. Byron, Raphael’s bass player, was outside with his head in
his hands. I saw the blood when I went in. I had to sit awhile
before I could drive. Byron was white. He had seen it and been
sick.
Byron and I had to pick up the kids from school. We told
them their daddy was sick but that he would be all right. We
fed them sticky macaroni from a box and let them watch TV until
it was time for bed. Byron went home at eleven with no news
from the hospital. I kept the kitchen light on and fell asleep at
the table sometime in the middle of the morning.


One finger had been cut off. The doctors sewed it back on and
stitched up two others Raphael had cut badly. He was on pain-
killers when Anne brought him home, and he said crazy things
for three days. Anne told me when he first came to he said he
wanted to die. I stayed away.
He called for Anne one day while she was out and I was in
the kitchen eating bread for lunch. I stood in his doorway. His
left hand was bundled up in a mitten of tape and gauze.
“Is Annie home?” he said.
“She’s gone for groceries,’ I said. “She’ll be back just now.”
I refilled his pitcher with water and asked him if he wanted
anything else.
“Bring up my guitar,” he said.
He looked at the window. I went downstairs to get his guitar.
He had a ’64 Strat right then. Sixty-four was a good year for
Fender Stratocasters, like it was the last good year for Winchesters.
This one felt soft to the touch, sweet and responsive, unforgiving.
I brought it up in the case and laid it on the foot of his bed.
“Take it out,” Raphael said. I laid the guitar on the bed and left.
Anne didn’t hold it against me, taking the guitar to him.
“You know,” she said, “a couple of years ago, I woke up one
night, and Raphael’s hand was doing scales on my arm.”
“What’s he doing?” I asked.
“Sitting up in bed. He’s got the guitar on his lap, and he’s
looking out the window.”
“He can see the studio.”
“He watches while you’re inside working. He says he wants to
get back to it.”
“He’s not on pills anymore?”
“No more pills,” she said. She asked if I could stay around
awhile.


Raphael spent his days in the studio when he got up and around
again. He did some mixing in the control room while I worked.
I would call him out, and we would conference on how to turn
the next corner or what materials to buy the next trip to the
lumber yard.
He was moody those days. He brought his guitar out from the
house, and it sat in its case in a corner of the control room. He
saw the doctors often. He would come home after and close
himself up in the studio until late. I would talk to Anne at
dinner, and she would tell me that the doctors talked about
damage-nerves, muscles, bone.
I asked her what Raphael was saying, and she said they weren’t
talking about it yet.
I was framing in the second set of control room doors when
the bandages came off and Raphael started spending his days in
the control room with the guitar. He was teaching the little finger
how to move again, teaching all the fingers, teaching the hand.
The strength was gone, and the speed was gone. He couldn’t keep
it up very long. Anne worried, but the doctors said it might be
good therapy. They said it was hard to know just what he would
get back.
The little finger wasn’t moving well and Raphael didn’t have
much feeling in one of the others when I left. He hadn’t played
for a week, but I’d shrugged it off because we’d been busy
painting. I was shoving my loafers in a canvas flight bag when
he told me to take the Strat. He said he would come see me at
the Lamplighter. He said he could still whistle. I told him no.
I said I didn’t want it.
”I’ll pick it up after your gig,’ he said.


Raphael is engineering and producing now. We finished the
studio before I left for home, He’s very good. He could take in
more money, but he’s soft on new bands. He gives them breaks.
He keeps a gun in a drawer below the soundboard. I think
about it, and think that most days he reaches for both. He pulls
down two levers on the board for a fade-out. He thinks about
his own. There’s an imaginary “X” in the middle of a control room
floor. That’s where the sound is perfect. That’s where Raphael sits,
passing out tips to young guitarists on the other side of the glass.
That’s where he assembles sounds now, piece by piece. He can
favor his left hand.
I want to take the ’64 Strat and play the gig at the Lamplighter.
But I can’t go until I am perfect, until I am how I heard Raphael.
School’s still out, and I’m buffing floors nights. Sadie is alone,
still unsure when we talk sometimes by phone. She says L.A.
isn’t Bend, but she’s getting used to it. And Anne has to think
of something to say every night when Raphael comes in from
woodshedding. We are all still new at it.

Missouri

by Stephenie Swindle Clark

The neighbors-two boys, dark-haired-are hitting the snow with
a stick. Mother in a coat that rises and falls with the noon wind
is no one that they see. Her coat has a red leather collar and cuffs.
Her head is naked. Her gloves are tight. Her high heels match
the coat collar and cuffs- red. She goes to the car and I let my
eyes, my body go with her, wobbling as one must to move
through the frozen footprints from days before. It is a little before
Christmas.
Mother and her boyfriend Ted (“My boyfriend for now,” I have
heard her say on the phone) line up alongside the Buick and
cheese it. “Okay,” I say. I say, “Ready? Ready?” They are ready.
I punch the button on the Polaroid and hold them there in my
eye through the viewfinder. They weren’t ready. But it’s done,
and it’s good enough, I think. It’s done and we are going to
Missouri. Mother, Ted, and me.


Mother told me, “Nathan, say, ‘I appreciate the sympathy and
kindness you have shown Mother, myself, and Ted on this sad,
sad occasion.’ ” Ted said, “Passed on and we’re sorry for it.”
My brother’s the one. The Tuesday before Missouri, my older
brother-James, seventeen-died straight out. I am fifteen. I play
football. We did the funeral and it was like eating marzipan for
the first time. I had said, out loud, “This is good.” And my friend
said, “Yeah it is, it’s candy. Eat more.” I ate more. My mother
said, “Stand here.” I stood at the casket. I stood there – all night,
with Mother – and people I did not know pressed me against
them and traced my head with cupped palms.
Given twenty-four hours, Mother, Ted, and I sat down and ate
soup. We ate heartily. Ted issued me knowledge on the status of
his built-in-the-U.S.A.-mother-loving Buick. He talked engine.
And it was the best engine. It had shown an inestimable amount
of dignity and self-respect by starting each morning-every
morning-for the whole damn winter. “A sign from God,” I told
him and Mother stretched her arms across the soup. She touched
our shoulders and rested.
“It’s been too long since Jefferson,” she said.
Ted rocked his chair, set it down on all four legs. ‘Jefferson?”
he said.
She said, ”I’ve been away too long. I am missed and Jefferson
City wants me.”
“Missouri?” said Ted.
“Ted,” she said and put her hands, palms up to the ceiling and
sky, “yes.”
I got up in a hurry and cleared the table. I wiped up crumbs
and cleaned the placemats. I put a tablecloth on and replaced the
Santa centerpiece. Ted and Mother sat at the table still. I
did the dishes and set them out in rows to dry. I wiped the stove
off and shined the metal parts. I swept up the floor and that was
it. I walked into the T.V. room. Mother and Ted picked up the
Santa centerpiece and pretended it was walking-rocking the length
of the table. “Look at Santa,” they said.
To go, to find Missouri, Ted drives us. He puts his arms straight
out like baby wings and drives with his chest. ”.Jefferson City,
Missouri. Jefferson City, Missouri,” he says and ruffles his fingertips.
Mother turns her chin at him. He drives with his chest and lays
far enough in to make the horn honk. He honks it like a tune,
a rhythm in his own head, and we wonder what it sounds like
and where it comes from. Mother turns the radio on. Ted changes
the station to bebop and honks in time. He turns the radio even
louder and I am excited. Mother turns herself around and stares
out her window with her chin in her hand. Ted sits up and puts
his hands on the wheel. Mother rounds her back over and pulls
her head down. Her forehead taps the window with every small
stone, every ripple of the road. Ted looks at her and lingers. He
stretches his hand to her. He says to me, “You miss your brother,
Nathan?”
I lean back into my seat and Mother turns from her window.
“My God, Ted.”
“What?” he says. “It wasn’t to hurt.”
“Why not?” she says.
“No problem;• I say.

We stop for lunch at a grocery store and I choose juice and
sliced ham. We walk slow, aisle by aisle, and feel rested. We
talk about Hawaii and James, ice cream and good books, luck.

We walk through the aisles and touch cans, touch each other.
Ted says, “We feel better to be out of the car.” Mother says,
“Guarandamntee it Sir.” ”Amen,” I say.
We drive and find the Jefferson City capitol building. We’re
here all right. The building is huge and it’s ugly. There are yellow
Christmas lights wrapped all down the pillars and a Santa and
sleigh and reindeers on the roof. It looks like all the rest. Ted
and Mother rustle in the front seat. Ted finds Mother’s hand and
they giggle. They are out of the car and up at the hood to find
each other’s hands again. They run for the stairs of the Jefferson
City capitol building and take them in fat leaps – three, four stairs
at a time. They keep laughing and laughing.
At the top they kiss. They hug and kiss, and they are tight
hugs and tight, lippy, movie kisses. I get out and walk around
the car. I walk around the car four times. Mother and Ted look
down at me and I put my hands in my pockets. I press my lips
together. I tip my eyebrows. They come right down from there.
Ted comes off the last capitol step and rubs his hands in circles
on his stomach. He opens his mouth in an ‘ahhh.’ “It is time to
eat,” he says. “Wouldn’t you think?” he says.
At the restaurant called Dino’s, Mother says, “Here I am with
my boys.” She touches each of us like soft-furred mice. We are
seated near the kitchen and decide the chicken-whatever smells
best. They bring it to us hop-to and my mother says, “Easy boys.
Easy.” She orders dessert while the waiter is still standing there
and then pulls a locket from under her jacket, a blouse, and a
blue silk scarf. She points and opens it. “Patrice – my grand-mother;’
she says. “She was mean. At nineteen she had white hair.


Her hair was short as long as it was white. She had white

hair always.” Mother shrugs her shoulders. “She was my grand-
mother.”

I set my fork in my dessert. “Who will have some?” I say.
“Was she courageous?” says Ted. “Patrice was a tall woman,”
Mother says. “She lived alone. I was told I would not have
her height and I believed it. Yet, I would get her legs. Maybe her bust.
I have her good hair.”
“Indeedy,” says Ted.
We leave, each with a mint. We are fat, edgy and warm. Ted
looks all around- to me, the sky, Mother. He gets right into her
face and says, “What’s next? What is it?”
My mother takes her hands from her pockets and sets one,
sets each on Ted’s face and kisses him with her eyes closed
and satisfied. Ted holds still and has his eyes open to her when she’s done.

So she kisses me. I think she thinks I’m three and it’s funny. She
puts her hands back in her pockets and clicks her heels. “Let’s
go home,” she says and walks on ahead.
We leave Jefferson City. We leave Missouri. That night.

To be home is snow in chunks and balls everywhere you have
to step. I get out of the car and my legs and head are the target
for the neighbor boys. I walk slowly, evenly, and every snowball
misses me. They scream, “Come out and catch us. Come out and
fight, Nathan Callister.” They are seven and eight. They have a
dog that fetches rocks.
Mother stands looking at the mail, turning her head to the
left and to the right to see what to open first. She has it fanned
across the hallway. Ted is stepping over it and bringing everything
in from the car. Mums from the funeral are arranged on each
of the kitchen counters. A neighbor kept them watered and
plucked, but I think I know why it is they are flowers for a funeral.
We unpack standing in the laundry room. Most everything is
dirty. ”I’ll put these cases away;’ Mother says. ”I’ll go for groceries;

Ted says. I go into the kitchen looking for something salty. I sit
on the couch and watch T.V. and lick my fingers. My mother
comes and sits beside me. She wears green pants, a green shirt.
She has a neck like Cleopatra. We sit deep in the couch together
and tell potato jokes.
Ted honks when he reaches our cul-de-sac. He circles it and
honks three more times. Mother is happy, she says to him, “Ted,
you look good.” And he says, “There’s my baby.” We walk
quickly to meet him, to touch the car. Ted holds my mother’s
hands. He says, “Let’s make a fire in the fireplace and roast
weenies. . “
Ted carries the groceries inside and pulls out three extendable
roasting forks. “Hah, hah,” he says and jabs a weenie on every
fork. Mother holds hers up like a microphone and sings something
about bees and honey. Ted sings back because he knows this one.
They dance with their shoulders, their heads. But not for long.
It is just that one part of the song they can remember. I have
seen them dance around the couch in the T.V. room. They
swung their hips and stamped their feet. They dance best to
Sara Vaughan-“Ooh What-Cha Doin’ To Me”-and though my
mother’s hair is short all over, she brushes it back and laughs and
screams. She is pleased with her. steps and turns. She is pleased
with her laughter. I have stood up and moved with her and it
is the best kind of living I know.
Outside it’s dark and the neighbor boys have made a snowman
by floodlight. They run, elbows locked, and ram their heads into
its body. They land on their backs, elbows still locked, coughing
and screaming-or laughing. You can’t tell. We go through the
full package of weenies, eating some raw and some without buns.
Christmas Eve is tomorrow. Everyone kisses everyone and we go
right to bed.

In the morning Mother comes to my room and runs her hand
through my hair. “Ted’s gone all day,” she says. “If we start right
now we can have this ready for a present.” She has fabric, blue
on one shoulder, green on the other that runs the length of her
back and legs and then spreads onto the floor. “We’ll make a
quilt,” she says. “I have appliques of football helmets and rifles.”
I put slippers on and help her set up the frame. We secure the
fabric and batting and sit down to it. Mother runs her hands out-
ward in fans across the fabric. She tells me, “Your father played football.
You look nothing like him.”
“Do I look like you,” I say.
“Look,” she says. “What do you see?”
“But when you were younger,” I say.
“No,” she says. “Not at all.”
“Nothing?” I say.
“Well, your hair,” and she reaches to me. “You do have good
hair. Like Patrice. Like me.”
Then for that-for that thing-I was rolling myself in neat,
tight circles. I was curling in her lap.
I say to her, “Did you have a boyfriend then?”
“A lot,” she says. “I was sweet.”
My Mother stitches more stitches. She places my hands, my
fingers as they should be. She watches me work and smiles catlike.
And then she lifts her head and tells me-she says, ‘James looked
just like your father. And James knew more about women than
I ever thought right. You’re not like him at all.”
It is Christmas. I can wear James’s clothes I discovered last night.
I find his blue robe and walk to the bathroom. The sun shines
blazing across the toilet and floor. It’s nearly afternoon. I brush

my hair with my fingers and start down the stairs. Ted is
standing by the tree with gold and red foil in waves around his feet.

He’s telling my mother he’s leaving. “I’m leaving,” he says. “You
knew. It’s just a little thing for us.”
Mother pinches her nails into his calf and I sit on the bottom
step.
Ted sits down. He shakes my mother’s thumb. He smiles a
little smile.
She pulls her thumb away and she takes it back.
She says, “Give me my thumb. You telling me. You tell me
like you know, and you don’t. You know too much about any
of it.” She looks up for God, I know, and finds me on the steps,
listening and seeing all of this.
I close my robe around my shins. She’s looking at me hard.
She would pinch my calf if I was there. I look to Ted and I won’t
look back. She comes over and comes down to me. “Look at me,”
she says. I cover my eyes. She pinches my calf. I squeeze my hands
to my face. I hear her get up and I hear her go to the kitchen
and tip each potted mum from the top of her head to the tile
below. Like water flowing. Ted yells at the kitchen, “You get what
you want, Mama.”
I go back upstairs and my robe splits open top to bottom. I
am bare-footed, bare-legged, bare-chested. I walk down the hall
undoing the sash. I fold the robe into a square and set it on my
bed. I go downstairs in boxers, chilly. I walk past Ted. I walk into
the kitchen and she’s standing in the dirt and petals. I say,
“Should I get the garbage?”
She puts her hand on my face. “Should I get the garbage?”
she says. “Should you? Should you? Move.” She flips her shoulders
and pushes by. She walks out the front door and leaves it open.
She goes down to the street sliding and tipping. And she goes
with the face I know best-her neck, her eyes, her cheeks and
lips-it’s beauty. My mother is beautiful. She’s my mother.

I bend over the flowers with a dustpan and brush. Ted comes
in and sets a hand on the counter. He sighs like a dog. I keep
bent over my work. My spine is sharp along my back. I work and
my muscles flutter and grip. Ted comes over to help, but with
a few more sweeps I am finished. I stand beside him and he looks
at me-my bare chest, my hands and legs. I will miss him. I hand
him the brush and the dustpan. “All done,” I say. Ted nods his
head. He says, “Get dressed. We’ll go for a drive. We’ll go by the
lake. I’ll get you a hamburger. We’ll take James’s things to a
shelter, a food bank.”

Nine Lessons and Carols

by Paul Brownsey

 

As the years went by, I got really worried that Richard was turning religious.

In the beginning, we wanted to spend Christmas alone together, a celebration of the miracle of finding each other. On Christmas Eve, as we made our excited preparations, the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, was playing on the radio, and it felt as though, in the bleak midwinter, love really had come down at Christmas. On our first Christmas morning, we made a reverent event of opening the presents we’d got each other—a Liberty dressing-gown from me to him, a Turnbull and Asser shirt from him to me. His enthusiasm about how the shirt looked on me totally swamped the fact that I wouldn’t have chosen it for myself.

We had a small artificial tree decorated with red and green glittery metallic baubles, the kind Richard remembered from his childhood. I liked to set one rotating slowly and mysteriously among the tree lights. We weren’t sure how to cook a turkey but didn’t want to spoil our self-sufficient seclusion by asking anyone, so we did it from a cookery book.

I’d have settled for the same indefinitely, Christmas as a sort of private retreat for the two of us in which we renewed our love and commitment. But one November I noticed him gazing at a Christmas card he was writing. It depicted people in Victorian clothes sitting around a massive table bearing the remains of Christmas dinner, while others were taking presents from a tree, feeding titbits to a dog, playing cards with an old lady in an armchair, standing at the door with skates in their hands, waving at a wee boy who was galloping on a rocking-horse. “God bless us, everyone!” said the legend across the top. At the time it didn’t alarm me, for it was Dickensian.

He said, “It’s a family thing, really, Christmas, isn’t it?”

I set myself to be accommodating. When Richard and I moved in together and told my parents we’d invite them for tea once we’d settled in, my mother said, “I can tell you now, I won’t be coming. The life you’ve decided to live!” But my father, accompanying us to the door, shook Richard’s hand and murmured, “Hope it all goes well,” adding still more quietly, “She’ll come round.” She hadn’t come round, but she was now dead, so I felt free to offer my father to fulfil Richard’s fantasy of a family Christmas. “My lump of a brother, too, I suppose,” I added. He always seemed tuned out from what was going on; I wasn’t even sure he’d cottoned on to the fact that his brother wasn’t just Richard’s flatmate, despite his mother’s fuss about it.

So there were the four of us in paper hats at Christmas dinner.

“His mother would be pleased Ewan’s got such a good cook to look after him,” my father said to Richard, who raised his glass of Chablis to him and then to the rest of us. On Richard’s behalf, I said, not yet alarmed by the first word: “God rest ye merry, gentlemen,” careful about where the comma came. Richard seemed elevated at being at the core of a family Christmas dinner.

“That went well,” I said afterwards.

“Ye-es,” he said in that two-syllable questioning way that I came to realise meant that Christmas had fallen short.

He screwed up his face. “Paxo stuffing. Waitrose Christmas cake. Mrs Peek’s Christmas Pudding from Tesco. Bird’s Brandy Sauce. Marks and Spencer mince pies. It’s all so commercial.”

“Shop-bought Chablis,” I said. “Shop-bought tangerines. Shop-bought sprouts.”

He seemed not to hear me.

“I mean, Christmas is about giving, yes,” he said, “but real giving is giving something of yourself. We’re just middle-men, just channels for big business to offload its products on our family. It’s all so, well, dehumanised. We’ve been turned into cogs exploited by capitalism.”

“O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free Thine own from Satan’s tyranny,” I sang, without realising the whiff of brimstone in it.

I needn’t have worried—not this time—because his remedy for dehumanisation was not to take up with religion, but to go on a Nick Nairn Festive Cookery course. The next year he made his own stuffing, his own Christmas pudding, his own Christmas cake, his own mincemeat, his own mince pies, his own pastry for the mince pies.

“Up to your usual standard,” commented my brother.

“The food was marvellous,” I reassured Richard as we washed up.

But he had that faraway look in his eyes telling me that something had been lacking, and I felt a tremor that, one day, that look might get trained on me.

“Somehow it’s not Christmas without children,” he said, “The look on their faces at the magic of it all. I mean, it’s all about a child being born anyway.”

“Unto us is born a son.” Was he raising the question of adoption? A procedure with test-tubes and a surrogate mother? I deflected: “I wonder if there’s somewhere we can rent a child for Christmas. It’s a perfect entrepreneurial opportunity. I can see the advert: ‘It’s not Christmas without a child. Contact Rentachild now. Backed by Barnardo’s.’”

“No, we don’t have to do that. There’s my sister’s two girls.” His sister, Beryl, had married an American but was now divorced and back in Scotland with Meredith, aged eleven, and Chyenna, nearly two, who was a failed attempt to save the marriage.

They lived a distance away, so we had to put Beryl and the girls up. Richard and I slept on a sofa bed in the living-room and I had to sort of slither into bed to avoid knocking baubles off the Christmas tree. He was starry-eyed at getting up in the middle of the night and creeping in with stockings for the children, stockings for which he’d been buying wee toys and novelties for months. He didn’t come back to bed at once but tiptoed to the hall cupboard.

“What’re you doing?” I said.

Without telling me, he’d bought a crib. That, and the way he fussed about setting out the crib figures on a coffee-table in the crowded living-room, on real straw that he’d driven out to a farm to acquire, started to get me seriously worried about where all this was leading.

We were up early on Christmas morning, clearing our bed away. Before the girls came into the living-room, he posed a light shaped like a star above the crib and set “Away in a Manger” playing. He got the look of wonder he’d been hoping for, but when I asked if he was satisfied, I got, “Ye-es.”

One evening, walking home in the dark from his job as regional manager of a chain of charity shops, Richard encountered our neighbour in the flat downstairs, Mr Robertson, poking about in a skip outside some tenements that were being refurbished. As they chatted, Mr Robertson leaned in to catch hold of an electrical cable and hauled up an old electric fire.

“His face was ecstatic. He said, ‘I can keep warm again’.” We’d known that Mr Robertson was unable to work because of MS, but apparently a new assessment had declared him ‘fit for work’ and his benefits had been slashed. He was getting food from a foodbank, and when his heater broke down he couldn’t afford to buy a new one. He had been entirely without heating until he found the discarded one.

“Gathering winter fuel,” I said.

“A modern version of it, yes.” Richard was enthusiastic. “You know, Christmas is a bit inward-looking with just ourselves and family. Perhaps that’s why it always feels like something’s missing. It’s supposed to be about goodwill to all.”

So now, cramped around the table in our little kitchen for Christmas dinner, there were me and Richard, my father and my brother, Beryl, Merry and Chyenna, and Mr Robertson. He complimented Richard on the food, telling him that when he married he wouldn’t need a wife who could cook. He brought us a calendar. I guessed he’d been given it at the church that housed the food bank. Each month had a picture of something like sunshine trailing through the branches of a tree or a sunset with multi-coloured clouds: not exactly religious, but pointing thataway. And each page bore a wee inspirational quotation. One was from somebody called C.S. Lewis: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

What if Richard connected that with his itch for something from Christmas that it never delivered? He might decide that God and religion were what was lacking. I put the calendar deep in a pile of newspapers due to go in the bin right after Christmas. With luck, it would have been ‘accidentally’ taken away before he realised.

Although—true to form—Richard didn’t feel that Mr Robertson at our crowded table was the perfecting touch, his next attempt to fill the gap was reassuringly secular. “We don’t do anything on Boxing Day except sort of slump around. Let’s go to a pantomime.”

“’Tis the season to be jolly, Fa la la la la, la la la la,” I said, and we all got press-ganged to the King’s Theatre on December 26 following, Richard having bought tickets nine months before. Merry said a cow with two actors inside was disrespectful to animals (Richard now made her a nut loaf for Christmas dinner), but Chyenna cried when the cow was sad. Richard joined in the cries of “Oh no, he isn’t!” with gusto; likewise the singing contest between the two halves of the audience. Did he really enjoy it all, or did he just like the idea of enjoying it as part of a family party (plus Mr Robertson)?

“The perfect end to Christmas,” he said afterwards, as we stood buttoning coats on the pavement outside the theatre, and I knew he wasn’t convinced. Though I’d thought of the panto as secular, I began to worry that a world dominated by an ogre, up in the sky at the top of the beanstalk, might suggest religious parallels.

I got a major promotion at work, and we decided to move to a bigger house. More rooms would make Christmas easier. Squeezed around the table in our little kitchen, we had nothing like the comfort of those depicted in that long-ago Christmas card of a Victorian Christmas.

We went to view a new-built house in Alba Gait, where porticos, Georgian windows, half-timbering and even, sometimes, a bit of a turret were meant to flatter. I didn’t stand a chance when the front door opened onto what the estate agent called an atrium, going up into the roof through two storeys.

“It would be a bugger to heat and clean,” I warned.

“Now we can have the Christmas tree we’ve always wanted.”

“O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum.” The little artificial tree, now rather broken-branched, that we’d bought when there were just the two of us, Richard put out for the bin men, but I rescued it and smuggled it into our attic in Alba Gait.

We took about two days to erect Richard’s chosen tree and decorate it. Chyenna asked if it went all the way up to heaven, and I said loudly, “Who wants a mince pie?”

“Well? What’s missing now?” I said in bed on Boxing Day. At least it was no longer a sofa bed.

“You’re right, there’s something missing.”

“Christmas needs carol-singing,” he said as next Christmas approached.

That was ominous.

“We’ll do it as a group on Christmas Eve. Around the houses here. Carol singers in the distance, then coming closer, then they’re at the door. The magic of Christmas itself coming closer.”

I sang, “Sing, choirs of angels, Sing in exultation, Sing, all ye citizens of Alba Gait.”

He printed booklets of the words and in the run-up to Christmas Eve had me and himself practising harmony lines to accompany the tunes that the rest would sing. He supplied us with long stripey scarves, plus top hats for the men and Victorian-style bonnets for Beryl and the girls. He handed out old-fashioned-looking lanterns on poles. He even got Mr Robertson to stick on false side-whiskers. Perhaps Mr Robertson was scared he wouldn’t get his Christmas dinner if he didn’t comply.

While Richard prepared us, I tried to persuade myself that carol-singing wasn’t ominous after all. Yes, carols are all about Jesus coming down to earth from heaven, God, Mary, angels, etcetera. Carols touch deep things in us. But the deep things they touch go far deeper than religion. We can be moved by a line like, “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n!” but it trashes that experience to interpret it in terms of a theological doctrine about someone being born to be sacrificed to take the punishment for various ways in which people have offended a cruel and cantankerous tyrant. The dark midwinter forest, warmth, light, birth, hope, humanity, love, mystery—these things are what carols really express, and they’re much deeper than religion, so carol-singing was nothing to be afraid of.

It was a great success. The people in the nice new houses in Alba Gait said how nice it was to hear carols at the door, and they gave generously, sometimes not even asking what charity it was for, so I made a point of saying, “It’s for the food bank,” and even if some of our neighbours were among those who paid workers rotten wages on zero-hours contracts, they said how nice it was to support food banks. Sometimes I joked, “The Holy Family probably used food banks. A jobbing carpenter like Joseph would have been unable to compete with the new IKEA in Nazareth.”

Alas, my attempts at self-persuasion were in vain. Carol-singing was another station on the slippery slope. As we undressed for bed after the second year of carol-singing, he said, “It’s sort of incomplete, isn’t it? We sing away about the Word of the Father now in flesh appearing, but we just stop there. There’s that special service they have at midnight on Christmas Eve—Midnight Mass, is it? Christmas Vigil? Watchnight something? Anyway, that’s what we need to round off the carol-singing. The finishing touch.”

“And that will be the finish of us,” I thought afterwards, while we were making love. The obscure yearning that, year after year, had caused him to be dissatisfied with Christmas, had finally drawn him to religion. I knew that once he was through the church door there would be no stopping him: greater and greater involvement, new things to be believed, more sins acknowledged. And then would come, “It’s not God’s plan for us,” and he’d announce a divorce but add that it wasn’t really a divorce, because marriage between two men wasn’t true marriage anyway.

“We’ll just dump the lanterns and things at the house and then be off to St Margaret’s,” he said after next year’s carol-singing, as if I must be as excited as he was. Only Mr Robertson and my brother were coming with us, the rest begging off with excuses about the lateness. I thought it confirmed my brother’s lumpishness that he didn’t make the same excuse.

St Margaret’s was Victorian Gothic, so it felt like the real thing, which renewed my dread. People were streaming in. After the cold and darkness outside, there was brightness and warmth, a buzz, a sense of something important about to happen. That, too, was worrying. To one side of the altar was a tree even taller than ours.

Things began with a procession headed by a small boy carrying a lit candle almost as tall as he was. He sang the first lines of “Once in Royal David’s City,” voice wavering like the flame, and then the choir progressing behind him joined in. Last came a vicar-person in green and gold, smiling joyously, raising his arms—now to this section of the congregation, now to that. Richard turned to me and grinned, so sure that I shared his elation that I loved him for his certainty. Unlike me, who knew where all this was leading, he sang the carols heartily, and when people started heading down the aisle for Holy Communion, he moved to join them.

I said, “You can’t just go up. Don’t you have to be confirmed or something?”

“They won’t be checking tonight. Come on.”

Richard exited the pew into the aisle but I stood firm, my last stand against the encroaching evil, and he stared at me, puzzled, until my brother—my lump of a brother—who was next to me on the other side, hissed, “For fuck’s sake!” and shoved me out of the pew after Richard. What could I do but go with him? It would be the beginning of the end, but I had to be there for it.

And then he took my hand. Side by side, hand in hand—I saw Mr Robertson stare—we walked to the altar together for Christmas Communion. The vicar-person did not bat an eyelid when we knelt at the railing—was it that he just didn’t want a fuss, tonight of all nights?—and when we rose from our knees, there before the altar, before we headed back to our pew, traces of the bread and wine still in our mouths, Richard turned and kissed me on the lips slowly, with some fervour, people passing back and forth around us. And when we sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” the line about “God and man reconciled” seemed to acquire the Christmas spirit it hadn’t had before and to tell me my years of worry had been needless.

 

 

Paul Brownsey lives in Scotland and is a former member of the philosophy faculty at Glasgow University. His book, His Steadfast Love and Other Stories, was published by Lethe Press, New Jersey, and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly as well as being a finalist in the Lambda Literary Awards. Recent work has appeared in The Ocotillo Review, Event, upstreet, Dream Catcher, and Orca, in which the present story previously appeared.

Death

by Chanel Earl

 

They built a sign on the corner of Center and Main. It had little tracks to run the letters along, like movable type. But the letters fell off and the youth dance became the “YOU         A  CE,” or the “   O  TH    AN   E”—I can’t remember which. Maybe it was the “   OU      D    CE.” Christmas became “C   RI  TM   S,” and we all celebrated “   OTHERS   AY” in May, which became “    O    E   S      Y” when they forgot to change the letters in June. And then one day, the people left, and they closed down the dance hall. The bank and the diner were the next to go. They closed down the gas station, and then they closed down the town. They closed down the sign too, for all practical purposes. And for years it simply read “  ODE   ”—its last message, all that was left of the summer Rodeo.

 

Chanel Earl recently graduated with her MFA in fiction from BYU. For more about her work, check out chanelearl.com or follow chanels.stories on Instagram.