Category Archives: Prose

Burning Polaroid

Simon waited on the hood of his car on the third floor of the parking garage of the mall that was two counties over from where his wife lay sleeping. It was almost midnight. Simon smoked a cigarette. His wife hated cigarettes. He only smoked them when he was out of the house. He would roll down the window when driving back home and let the air blow-dry him clean.

The source arrived in an old Cadillac. At least, Simon thought it was a Cadillac. He didn’t know much about cars. It just seemed like the right word. The source exited the car. The source was a man. He was old, but not elderly. He was short, but not squat. He was balding, but not hairless. The source hobbled over from his car. Simon stubbed out his cigarette on the ground. The source gave Simon the pictures and Simon gave the source five thousand dollars. They shook hands. The source went back into his car. The source left. Simon waved as he drove off. He looked at the pictures.

Picture 1: A man undid his belt.

Picture 2: A woman exited the bathroom.

Picture 3: Fellatio.

Picture 4: Some other sex act.

Picture 5: A cat.

Picture 6: A penis.

Simon didn’t know what to think of the pictures. He felt for a moment that maybe he should be shocked or maybe even upset. He decided to think about how he should feel on the ride home. He put the pictures in the glovebox. He drove home. He listened to “Sweet Home Alabama” the whole ride back. It reminded him of his brother.

Simon got back. He parked in the street. The garage door was loud. He did not want it to wake up his wife. Or the dog. Or the son who was home from college for the night because he was avoiding seeing his ex-girlfriend on campus. He opened the door slowly. The light was on. His wife was in the living room. She was smoking. The window was down. Simon didn’t say anything. She looked angry, so she was smoking. It happened. From time to time. She asked Simon where he had been. Simon said that he had been out. Simon’s wife accused him of sleeping around. This was not the truth. Simon said this was not the truth. She tossed the cigarette outside into the bushes. Simon said she shouldn’t do that because there was a drought and the plants were dry and that she could cause a forest fire. Simon’s wife didn’t care about forest fires. She asked Simon where he had been, again. Simon said he had been meeting a source for a story. Simon’s wife didn’t believe this. She asked for proof. Simon said he didn’t want to show her. Simon’s wife was getting loud. She asked for proof again. Simon didn’t want to wake the dog. Or the son who was home from college for the night because he was avoiding seeing his ex-girlfriend on campus. Simon showed his wife the pictures. Simon’s wife was quiet for a second. She asked if the people in the picture were who she thought they were. Simon said that yes, they were. Simon’s wife was quiet. She reached for another cigarette. She laughed. She told Simon to go to bed. Simon went to bed.

Simon’s wife had trouble focusing on the road the next day on the way to work. When Simon had been sleeping, she had taken another look at the pictures. She felt like she was part of something secret and important. It reminded her of the games she would play with her neighbor when she was a small thing living in the woods just outside of Pittsburgh. Her neighbor would pretend to be her secret wife. She would bring her flowers and they would smile at each other. No kissing though. That was against the rules. Simon’s wife thought about the pictures more at work. Her coworker remarked that she looked distracted. Simon’s wife lied and said she was okay. Simon’s wife’s coworker was not convinced. She could tell when her coworkers were upset. According to a man in the office, she had a success rate of 65% when predicting divorces and interoffice relationships. She asked again what was the matter. Simon’s wife told Simon’s wife’s coworker about the photos. She whispered quietly so that no one could hear. Simon’s wife’s coworker did not believe her at first, but Simon’s wife insisted that the photos were real. She made sure to mention the cat. It was important, she felt. The cat added humanity.

That afternoon, Simon’s wife’s coworker called her husband, who was currently in Las Vegas for a business meeting. She told him about the photos that Simon’s wife had seen and that there was a cat involved in sexual activity. Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband was also skeptical about the contents of the photo, but Simon’s wife’s coworker insisted that the photos were genuine. She said she had seen them herself. The cat was there. It saw the whole thing. She lied. Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband called an acquaintance of his who worked for a newspaper based out of Washington, D.C.

Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband’s acquaintance who worked for a newspaper in Washington, D.C., asked Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband for verification regarding the details of the location. Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband apologized and said that he did not have any specific details beyond an anonymous tip. Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband’s acquaintance who worked for a newspaper in Washington, D.C., hung up and Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband returned to doing lines of cocaine off the stomach of a stripper, who wore her hair in a black and red pony tail and liked to call him “daddy.” Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband’s acquaintance who worked for a newspaper in Washington, D.C., contacted his editor regarding the possible lead they had for a potential story. They made sure to mention the cat.

Simon woke up the next day and made himself a cup of coffee. He sat on the porch and sipped at the edges of the steam and watched cars go by. He remembered when his dad would do this with him when he was young. They would stay out even when it rained so, they could watch the thunder. Simon’s wife joined him on the porch. She reached for his hand because she felt guilty. Simon grabbed her hand. They sat for a moment. Simon’s wife told him what she did. Simon laughed. Simon’s wife told him what she did. Simon laughed. Simon’s wife told him what she did. Simon cried.

Simon’s source was tailing a man who wore a red leather jacket when he got the call. Simon told him that the secret was out. They knew about the photos. Even the cat. Especially the cat. Simon’s source stopped following the man who wore the red leather jacket and bought a plane ticket to Indonesia.

At work, Simon avoided calling his client all morning. Simon’s wife had taken their son out for a bonding day which he didn’t want. Simon thumbed through the channels on the television if only to catch glimpses from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, WQSTEF, News News News, and the local cable channel. Staying too long on the channels made him uncomfortable. So he flipped up and down a few dozen times. The man in the pictures was in a bad spot. He was having sex with animals, the report said. The woman wasn’t mentioned. It was just a rumor now. Word got out somehow. The pictures hadn’t. The one man on CNN who looked like a starving owl made lots of angry faces and tried not to dwell too much on the rumors.

Simon got the phone call from his client that evening. His wife was still out. The client on the phone asked if he had the pictures. Simon nodded. Then he remembered he was on the phone and his client couldn’t see. He said yes. The client asked Simon to get rid of the photos. Maybe they could squash the rumors now and prevent further damage. Simon said that was probably the best idea. The client asked if it was true, what the news was saying about the cat. Simon said he didn’t think so, but he couldn’t say for sure. The employer cried. Simon cried too. Simon asked if the client wanted to see the photos before he disposed of them. The client shook her head. Then she remembered that Simon couldn’t see this and said no.

Simon drove home. On the radio the man in the picture made a promise to the public that the rumors were false. He was not involved in feline fornication. He had two missed calls. One from his wife. One from a newspaper based out of D.C. He ignored both. He made a fire in the fireplace. He took the photos and tossed them in one at time like he was dealing cards. He watched the faces, fur, and genitalia blacken and twist and form together into some sort of crumbling polaroid mess. Simon was still watching when his wife returned. She came and stood next to him and took his hand in hers. Simon watched the fire for a while. His wife went to bed without him.

Simon stepped outside and lit a cigarette. Simon called his brother. He asked his brother if he was okay. His brother said yes. Simon told him mentioning the cat fucking on the radio was probably a bad idea. His brother said yes, he was probably right. Simon told him he had seen the pictures. Simon’s brother didn’t ask how. Simon said the pictures were the first time he had seen his brother’s penis since he walked in on him pleasuring himself in middle school. Simon’s brother laughed and then stopped and breathed into the phone for some time. Simon asked how his brother’s wife was. His brother said she wasn’t talking to him. Simon wasn’t surprised. His brother sounded tired. Simon was too. He told him they’d get lunch tomorrow. His brother said yes and that he would clear his schedule. Simon suggested the place with the crab cakes that Oprah Winfrey had really liked. Simon’s brother said that was okay and that he’d talk to his people. Simon said goodbye and hung up.

Unfit Conditions

There were many people in the lobby of the Bestland Hotel, but Uri was looking at the chandelier. It was as wide as a park fountain, but it spilled with crystal facets instead of water, making Uri—a slight man with a cheap haircut—feel vaguely dizzy under its shine. The hotel had been booked by a very prominent board of directors for an international scientific conference. He found it funny that men who were in charge of grant funding for his department always seemed to have good taste in hotels with chandeliers.

Uri was representing his company as an experienced frequency-measuring equipment lab technician, or, he feared, as a man whose job was quickly becoming redundant to a lab whose budget was being sucked up by other labs who could quench the military’s thirst for weapons development. He felt like a frog in a pond that was being baked into the earth. He needed to find his chance to jump. And so the long, out-of-country flight with an economy class ticket. The kiss from his wife at the airport. The jetlag. And the mild nausea from the shine and spill of cut glass over a lobby full of men speaking loudly.

He walked toward the bar, looking for a glass of real water. On his way, he spotted something familiar. It was a loudly-printed, orange paisley shirt, worn by a man with curly hair. Uri knew only one man who would wear a shirt like that to a professional conference.

“Marc!” he exclaimed to the man. The two had worked together two years ago on a collaborative project between their two countries. “It has been years! How are you?”

Marc turned from the conversation he was having. “Uri! My friend!” he exclaimed, grabbing Uri’s hand and pulling him in close. “Let’s go,” he whispered. “I need to gracefully escape this conversation.”

Uri let Marc steer him further into the crowded lobby until they reached a spot too inconvenient for Marc’s former conversation partners to catch up with them.

“What was that? Are you in some sort of trouble?”

“Not a big deal. Just some people trying to convince me that I need to do more work for them for less money. A lot of people are willing to push your nose to the grindstone, but not willing to pay you enough for the ointment to put on it afterward.”

“Oh dear.” Uri lowered his voice a little. “Are you also having hard times? The news makes it seem like things are going so well for your country, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they…there is a lot of talk where I work. Many people are saying that your country is the place to be right now.”

“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way,” Marc sighed. “I bitch too much, and I should be thankful.” He ran his hands around the rim of his cocktail glass over and over while speaking. “I have work to do, and it’s useful work, or at least my supervisor has told me so every time I’ve tried to take a day off this past summer! But I’m sorry to hear you’re doing badly.” He had a desperate look, Uri thought. Like a man who did not want to hear any more bad news.

Uri pulled up a false smile from some dusty corner of his being and tried to adopt his friend’s flippant tone. “Maybe I complain too much too. Maybe it is not so bad. And at least we do not have to suffer through eating your food. You are a physicist, yes? Are you sure that the things your women are calling ‘meatloaf’ is actually matter?”

“Wouldn’t know what the women are calling anything these days, would I? I’m not married.” Marc clapped his arm with the free hand that was not holding the cocktail glass. “Tell me Uri, don’t your people still eat horse meat?”

“Only on Sundays. Every other day, it is rat.”

As they talked, the two men migrated away from the crowded lobby. They paused in a side hallway by a Coca Cola vending machine, which was possibly the only thing in the hotel that was not covered in department-store brocade and crystal fittings.

“It really is good to see you,” Uri said. “Actually, I have been thinking”—he paused and stroked the names of the glistening drinks on the machine’s buttons—“of taking some time off from work and traveling. I think it would be best if the kids got to leave the country. Maybe before they are too old to enjoy traveling with their parents.”

Marc nodded, but Uri could see that the sympathies of parenthood were uninteresting to him.

He paused. There was sweat in his hair and under his arms. This was it. The moment to jump. “I know my wife would like to meet you finally. Do you think maybe we could stop in at your place for a few days, see the sights, and even give your food a fighting chance? She likes to joke, actually—my wife—that I used to talk about you so much when we worked together that she wondered if Marc was a woman’s name in this country, and I was cheating on her.”

“You’re a cruel man, Uri, if you want to put a woman and children up in my sad bachelor’s apartment,” Marc said, laughing. “But really, there’s not a lot of room. I’m sure the conditions just wouldn’t be fit for them to want to stay. And also, I’m involved in a pretty big project this fall. I’ll be spending a lot of time working. Not really the standards you’d want for your vacation home.”

“I think you underestimate how much my wife hates to spend money. Her passion for saving money is almost as incredible as her cooking.”

Uri maintained strong eye contact with Marc, until Marc flicked his eyes to the vending machine. It would have been too easy, he thought. You cannot try to make the women and children save the sinking ship.

“What are you working on? I have to admit, though I’m ashamed, that there just isn’t that much work for a man in my field anymore back home. Maybe I could even help you out with this project. We could be partners again.”

“I’m sorry, pal, but I really am in deep on this project. Technically, it’s confidential stuff, with a lot of international interest, and I’m not even very comfortable talking to you about it, much less having people around my apartment all the time from whom I have to keep it secret. I’m really sorry. Really sorry, I just can’t.”

“That’s perfectly okay. We couldn’t impose ourselves if we weren’t wanted. Perhaps we can have dinner sometime anyway,” Uri said. His eyes were flat now. Marc fished around in his pockets until he found enough change to buy a Coke. The machine grumbled and turned its wheels but didn’t spit out anything.

“You were right on with what you said before.” Marc was rubbing his neck quickly. “This really is a good place to be in right now. I think all the economic stuff… I don’t know. I’m no expert on that kind of thing. If you give me shares in a company, I’d probably ask you ‘Where’s Sonny?’ but I think it’s safe here. I do. I’m sorry to kick you out into a hotel, but I think you should visit. We can talk about your research.”

“Oh yes, my research. Can’t say much has changed. I’m still studying things you can’t see with instruments nobody wants to pay for.” Uri attempted one last smile. “I should really get back to the conference and try to be charming, I suppose. Maybe I will see you again someday soon.”

“Maybe.”

A day later, Uri boarded a plane at the airport and got off in his home country. He did not notice very much about the ride, except that it was long. It was his last.

A few months after he failed to secure any grant money for his laboratory at the conference, he was let go with the budget cuts. These cuts also sent the machines he had been working with for fifteen years to a scrap metal processing plant, where they were turned into aircraft parts. Not parts for commercial aircraft. For military aircraft.

Uri was watching out his window when those planes came into the air over his city. He wondered if the instruments in the planes that contained the metal of his laboratory equipment were any more sensitive, if the metal was endowed with any special finesse from the hours he spent slaving over it to understand the frequency of the universe. He was imagining that the metal beasts felt a shiver or a vibration from the presence of their former master when the bomb hit the city, leveling everything, blowing clouds of concrete dust and streams and streams of broken glass.

When Marc watched the news on the night of the bombing, he was sitting in his armchair, bouncing his legs and smoking more than usual. He watched every night lately, looking for cities and names.

He’d left his job a week earlier, first becoming stubborn and aggressive, then dropping out altogether. “I won’t do it,” he had said to his supervisor. “You don’t know the right frequencies.” But he had done it. On that night, the planes made from Uri’s equipment sung like tuning forks with the frequencies from the override protocols that Marc had helped to develop. Their pilots could not regain control. A man somewhere in Marc’s country pushed a button, and Marc watched on TV as the planes’ dark bellies yawned open and loosed their cargo.

Now Let it Go

“Uncle Bennett is voting for the liberals,” Cousin Laurel whispers at Easter brunch. I pinch her hand under the table, the white plastic tarp excuse for a tablecloth brushing over my knuckles.

“Gran said no politics on the holidays,” I tell her, unsticking my nails and smoothing my fingers over her hand apologetically, taking it in mine.

Laurel is relentless. “The liberals!” She whispers it louder this time, looking around her shoulder to where our uncle sits with each of our parents by the grill out on the lawn. I watch my mother pull her hair out of its ponytail, wrap it around her fist, and twist it up into a bun before securing it again. Uncle Bennett, ever the big brother, leans over and pulls a strand of it out of place and laughs as my mother swats at his arm.

“You think Gran knows?” Laurel begins to pick at her food, two deviled eggs that she mushes back together, the olive oil staining the paper plate in blotches. “’Cause I bet she don’t know.”

I don’t answer her. Instead I grab another small roll of bread and shove enough into my mouth that I can’t possibly talk. Laurel is hoping I won’t be able to help myself. She hopes I tattle. I know if I don’t, she will. Last year she got our cousin Honey thrown out of her middle school by tattling on something she done with a boy in the girl’s locker room after gym. I never asked what it was she done. I think I know, but I don’t think I want to hear anyone say it to me.

“I think we ought to tell her. I think we ought to tell her before Easter’s over, or then he’s going to leave and we won’t be able to tell her then.” Laurel shoves a fork through her eggs and stares at them as if they were about to throw a fit about Uncle Bennett and his business.

“You’re not really gonna tell her, Laurel, are you?” I’m getting fidgety and my nice yellow dress is too warm for the heat in the yard right now. “Gran’s in a good mood and her knee’s been bad this week.”

Gran’s knee is probably fine, but she don’t let us forget it wasn’t always, and sometimes she uses it to get us to stop making noise, or to make us get her things from the back room when she don’t feel like walking too much. I think the knee is a lie, but I’d take it to make Laurel shut her mouth.

“You’re the only one who wouldn’t find this interesting,” she says, and her red hair whips violently over one shoulder as she turns again to look at the adults on the grass. The white lace bow her mama stuck in her hair that morning had been discarded about an hour or so before, and was now lying in the dog house with Gran’s dachshund, Bert.

Sometimes I want to tell Laurel she’s behaving bad. I think she might not know what she sounds like, though. She never had any sisters or brothers, and my Aunt Elaine works nights every night but Sunday, and I don’t think she ever had someone to tell her she’s being foul, like I did. Now she’s just kind of rotten, but I don’t think she means it. I try to tell her myself sometimes but she’s older than me by a year and she don’t listen to me anyhow.

“How do you even know he’s voting for the…them?” I ask quietly, trying to pick the green bean bits out of my ham casserole.

“Pete told me,” she says smartly.

I stare at her. “Laurel, last Christmas, Pete told you Christmas trees weren’t flammable because of a spiritual protective wall.”

“Yeah, but this is different,” she says.

“Laurel, you set a tree on fire in our living room—”

“Completely different, Uncle Bennett told him!”

She’s turning pink in her cheeks now. Over her shoulder, I see my dad get up to offer Gran his seat as she walks over.

“He says right before Pete went off to college in August, Uncle Bennett took him out to shoot and told him he was gonna find himself at college and himself might not be who he thinks he is.”

“That doesn’t make sense, Laurel.”

She hums impatiently, pulling idly at her ponytail. “So he said that Pete didn’t have to vote for the Republicans, he could vote for the liberals, and he knew he could vote for the liberals because he voted for them!”

I stand up quickly. “I’m going to go sit by Gran and Mom. Finish your ham.” I move to step over the bench we’ve been sitting on, and she grabs at my leg, the skin of my knee pinching between her fingers and the crinoline underlining my dress. “Laurel, let go.”

“You gonna tell them?”

“No, Laurel, I’m not—”

She stands up too, moving quicker than I do and bouncing back a little bit.

“Fine, don’t tell them. See if I don’t though.” She’s off running before I can grab her, her white ankle socks catching the afternoon sun as she skirts across the lawn, and I can hear her laughing and I don’t think it’s that funny. I set off after her but I’m slow and she runs for a soccer team and by the time I make it to the adults I’m panting and heaving and Laurel is in the middle of ruining Easter.

“—and who am I voting for this year, Gran?” she’s asking, and her smile is all unkempt like her hair and her dress and she looks back at me quickly to make sure I’m watching.

“Nobody. You’re thirteen, Laurel, you don’t vote,” says Gran, drinking her fourth diet coke, her hair all waved around her round face. She’s holding my mother’s hand in hers. I swallow stiffly and glance at Uncle Bennett. He leans forward, shag-blonde hair on his shoulders, listening to Laurel.

“But if I could? Like, if I was voting tomorrow, who do I vote for?”

She’s needling and everyone can tell. They don’t know why she is, probably, but it’s always obvious when Laurel is trying to get at something. Her voice goes real high and sweet and she twists her body at the ankles back and forth like she were two years old.

Mom speaks up. “You just go ahead and vote for whoever you like, darling.” She’s stirring a sweet tea and looking more at me than at Laurel and I don’t know how to tell her Laurel’s being a brat without Laurel hitting me.

“But I should vote for somebody, right? There is, like, somebody who I should vote for? Who’s the best? That’s why they win.” Nobody answers and Laurel looks at me. I shrug. She tries again. “Who are you voting for, Aunt Janet?”

My mother smiles obligingly at her and talks for a moment about a few men I seen running for president on TV. I don’t know much about them anyhow, but I try to nod smartly and glance at my dad to make sure he thinks I’m paying good attention. He’s whispering something to Gran. Behind us, back by the tables, our littler cousins are trying to make towers out of their sweet rolls and green beans. I wish I could join them, but I’m here with Laurel, sweating through the armpits of my nice dress.

Laurel’s done waiting. “What about you Uncle Bennett?” she asks, cutting my mother off in the middle of a sentence about lobbyists. “Who are you voting for.”

Uncle Bennett’s eyes close and he smiles, head hanging down briefly for a second. He opens his eyes and takes a sip of beer, nodding to the others.

“I think I’m going to go check on dessert,” he says, and stands, wiping his palms on his jeans. Dad waves idly and there’s a calm silence over the group. I watch Laurel’s face pinch. Her trouble is, she don’t like to tattle on people she can’t see. It takes all the fun out of it. Uncle Bennett walks across the yard and through the back screen door. Nobody says anything.

Laurel fusses with her ponytail. “How am I supposed to learn about politics when he won’t even—”

“Laurel!” Aunt Elaine snaps, setting her plate down on the arm of her lawn chair. “Don’t you think you’d better go find your ribbon before one of the children takes it?” She gestures to her daughter’s hair and Laurel glares at her, before looking at me.

“Tonya doesn’t like the bow either, do you Tonya?”

I don’t answer, I just look at my mother, who smiles a little. I shuffle my feet.

“I’m going to go help Uncle Bennett with dessert,” I say finally.

Gran hums approvingly. “Good girl. He only got so many hands.”

I go to leave, but stop short. I turn quick to Laurel and cup my hand over her ear, whispering, “You’re such a little nasty sometimes, Laurel.”

I feel her hand come to swat at my hip but I’m already headed back toward the house, past my little cousins and up through the screen door into the kitchen. Uncle Bennett is scooping trifle onto plates. The radio over the stove is on, and a man’s voice, thick and slow, is rumbling out of it. He looks up at me.

“You come to help me, kid?” He smiles and I tug at my skirt a little.

I take a deep breath. “I don’t care if you’re voting for the liberals.”

He blinks twice. I’m still holding my breath and I glance nervously behind me as if Laurel and Gran will be there, staring at us through the mosquito netting. Uncle Bennett picks up two plates of trifle, catching the radio in the crook of his elbow and sitting at the table. He reaches out a long arm and pulls lightly at my hand, moving me forward and onto his lap. He straightens my dress out and turns the radio up. The man is saying something about something gone horribly wrong in a place I’ve never heard of. I try to nod again. I always thought nodding made you look like you knew what was on.

“Do you understand what he’s talking about?” Uncle Bennett asks.

I almost say yes. “No…not really, I suppose.”

“Thought so.” He hands me a fork and takes a bite of trifle. “You don’t need to yet, honey. You’re eleven years old, you’ve got time. You’ve still got a little time.”

“I’m twelve,” I correct. “I’m twelve and three months. That’s twelve and a quarter.”

“Twelve and a quarter,” he agrees. “But you don’t have to worry about this stuff till you’re eighteen and some change. So don’t let Laurel worry you about it.”

I turn on his knee to look at him. “I’m not worried for me, I’m worried for you! What if she tells Gran?”

He laughs, his chest puffing and his head thrown back a little. It’s a big laugh. It’s a laugh that’s not afraid of Laurel.

“You think my old lady doesn’t know? I came home from my first year of college with a ‘Dukakis is on your side’ button on my jacket, and he was as left as it goes. No, kid, Gran knows. She just thinks it’s best we don’t bring it up at Easter is all.”

I suddenly feel a little silly, and my face is warm again, even inside the cool kitchen. “I told Laurel, Gran said no politics at the holidays.”

He laughs again. “It’s a family event, there’s always going to be politics.” The radio crackles with the sound of cheers. Uncle Bennett listens for a moment. He kisses my head, rests his nose against it.

“Do something for me, Tonya,” he says, and I nod. “Take a deep breath.”

I do.

“Now hold it.”

I don’t let it out.

“That’s what the entire family is doing,” he says. “Now let it go.”

I exhale and he looks at me. The man on the radio is talking about the future.

“Now take another deep breath—now hold it.”

I get a little dizzy this time, but stare at him, cheeks puffed out.

“That’s what the entire nation is doing,” he says. “Let it go.”

I release my breath heavy this time, and he looks outside through the screen.

The radio interview ends, and a song about America starts to play.

He says quietly, “Do you know what the whole world is doing?”

I shake my head, and he smiles.

“One more time. Hold your breath.”

Firestarter

Frederick, Maryland 1893

Olivia sat in her bed and cradled her two-week-old son, stroking the soft slopes of his shoulders. The baby waved his right arm, almost smacking her chin and catching some loose strands of her unkempt curls. Olivia caught his wrist with a coo when she noticed a spot of red.

She gently turned the baby’s hand this way and that. A faint red mark splayed over his wrist like butterflies and ended at his knuckles except for one ring around his pinky finger. Olivia frowned. She recognized the mark, but it had once been on her brother’s hand.

The baby’s cloudy eyes ran up his arm to his mother’s face and back down to his hand. He turned his head to a lit candle on the nightstand. Olivia’s breath faltered as the firelight danced in her son’s eyes and glimmered off the spittle on his lip. She leaned over and blew out the flame. The room dimmed. A small wall lamp illuminated a faint halo around the door.

Olivia heard her husband’s boots thumping up the stairs. The baby turned his head to the door, looking for the source of the sound. Olivia hid the mark under her son’s blanket as her husband walked into the bedroom.

“Hello, James,” Olivia said.

He sat next to her on the bed. Olivia could faintly smell on his coat the vegetables from the cannery he managed on South Carroll Street. He kissed Olivia’s forehead and stroked his son’s cheek.

“How was he today?” he asked.

“Quiet,” Olivia said, fixing the blanket around the infant.

James unwrapped her hand and the blanket. The infant curled his chubby fingers around James’ pointer finger. Olivia attempted to fix the blanket around his wrist, but James spotted the flash of red.

“What is that?” he asked, gently prying her hand away. He stroked the mark. Olivia held her breath.

“When did he get this?” James asked.

Olivia shrugged, pretending this was her first time seeing it. “Perhaps it is a birthmark.”

James raised his brows and nodded, but then he leaned forward to examine the mark.
A minute passed; the mark slowly vanished. James frowned and slowly twisted his finger out of his son’s grip. The baby groaned.

“When have you last eaten?” James asked. Olivia said a few hours ago, but she wasn’t hungry.

“I will make some tea then,” James said. He left the room without a backwards glance.

 

For the next few weeks, Olivia watched closely whenever James held the baby. The mark would reappear whenever he held his son’s wrist toward even an electric light.

“It looks like your brother’s mark,” James said one day.

“A little, but it may be nothing,” Olivia said, taking the baby. “Stop holding him to the light like that. You might burn him.” But when James wasn’t home, she did the same thing with a candle. The mark returned redder than a bee sting.

Olivia remembered her older brother Oscar, from his red hair to his monkey-feet. He used to walk Olivia and her sisters to school and sometimes bought them candy when he walked them back home. She also remembered how fire was Oscar’s lot in life. Before Olivia was born, Oscar accidentally burned the family’s first home down while playing with a candle when he was four. He had burned his hand working in their father’s bakery and later, when he was an adult, died in a massive fire that almost killed James too. James had been the one to meet Olivia in the street, his skin dressed in ashes and cuts. He had said to her with broken phrases and trembling breaths that Oscar had started a fight in the bar, which led to the fire. By the time the flames were put out, there was nothing left of him but a scattered dusting of ash.

Olivia noticed her son’s hand turned redder around fire than electric lights, so she stopped lighting candles in the house. The baby explored, ate, and slept happily and quietly. He would moan, though, whenever James lit the fireplace, and the mark would return.

Soon, James wouldn’t touch the boy. Whenever the baby was in the same room, James would pace around and fiddle with objects he’d otherwise never take notice of; he fluffed the furniture pillows or tapped the unlit candles. He barely looked at the infant crawling at Olivia’s feet.

He started to return home later with books under his arm. Olivia once peeked over his shoulder as he read. She had no idea where he found books about exorcisms or superstitions concerning the dead, but her face prickled like insects were crawling in her skin when she saw a block of text explaining how if one leaves something of theirs in the deceased’s coffin, the deceased will return for that person.

Olivia glanced at her son. His brows rose, and he practiced smiling at his mother. There was no trace of the mark. She carried the baby upstairs and set his cradle on her side of the room. She slept lightly until James left early in the morning for the cannery.

 

One night, Olivia felt the bed shift. She quietly turned her head away to watch the cradle. The wardrobe door creaked. Clothes rustled as James got changed. His boots thumped faintly against the wooden floor and down the stairs. Olivia slid out of bed, careful about where she put her feet down on the floorboards. She grabbed one of James’ jackets and a pair of his boots as the downstairs door opened and clacked shut.

The sound must have woken the baby because Olivia saw him blink groggily toward the bedroom door. He laid with his right, spotless hand to his mouth. Olivia stroked the peach fuzz on his head before tiptoeing toward the door.

The baby whimpered and squirmed. Olivia shushed him as gently as she could, looking back and forth between the cradle and the door. With a heavy sigh, she picked up the baby, swaddled him in a blanket, and hurried after her husband.

The spring air was warm and damp as it settled on Olivia’s goosebumps. James strode up the street with a shovel in his hand for about twenty minutes until he turned into St. John’s Cemetery. Olivia hid behind the brick archway as James looked over his shoulder and every which way before going any further. She shifted the baby from one arm to the other to stretch her stiff elbows. The baby blinked his round eyes at the dark buildings and sky, pursing his lips but never making a sound.

Olivia crouched behind a stone cross as James began to dig. She didn’t have to go up and read the gravestone to know who he was looking for.

When she wasn’t watching her husband, Olivia watched the stars. Normally, they were veiled behind the lamplights, but in the cemetery, Olivia could faintly point out the Big Dipper wheeling overhead, marking the minutes. The smell of soggy soil rose as James sunk further into the grave, and the dirt sliding off metal kept a steady rhythm until the shovel suddenly struck against wood.

The baby whirled his head toward the sound. Olivia peeked over the cross as James bent down, out of her view. She could only hear the wood creak as he opened the coffin.

The baby wrestled his hand free from the blanket and reached up to Olivia’s cold face. She clutched him to her breast and ran back home.

When she returned, Olivia packed a carpet bag with clothes, cloth diapers, blankets, bottles, and an illustrated fairytale book. She made up her mind to hide away at her sister’s place. The baby moaned and smacked Olivia’s hand away, but she took him in one arm and the bag in the other. The clock on the mantelpiece downstairs read it was almost five in the morning.

Olivia swung the front door open, and James jumped back with his key in his hand. His eyes made Olivia think of an orange moon that stared from a foggy sky, and she choked on her own breath. James lowered his shoulders weakly. The baby whimpered.

James walked slowly past Olivia and shut the door. He took a match and lit a candle on the round parlor table near the window and wooden armchair. The baby’s mark deepened to a cherry red as he watched the curtains with pursed, spittle-coated lips.

James nodded to the bag and asked, “Where are you going?”

Olivia put the bag down. Her lips had dried shut, and her breath quickened. The baby cried at the candle.

James looked away and said, “You followed me, didn’t you?”

Olivia licked her lips and asked, her voice shaky and hoarse, “What did you find?”

“There was no body,” James said.

“Of course there was no body,” Olivia said with a quivering mouth. “There was nothing left of him after the fire.”

“There were a few trinkets,” James said. “Pictures, a rosary, his favorite hat—”

He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a stiff pair once-white-now-yellow children’s gloves.

“And these.” He fiddled with the fraying fingertips. “I remember you wore a pair of white gloves to school.” James glanced up at her with narrowed eyes.

Olivia swallowed a dry lump in her throat. She thought back to the books James brought home—all those superstitions about the dead coming back for those who leave something in their coffin. The baby cried and put his right hand to his mouth to suck the deepening mark.

“Oscar bought those for me when I was young,” Olivia said. “That’s all.”

James reached out his hands.

“Let me see the boy.”

Olivia narrowed her eyes and asked why.

“I am putting him back where he belongs.”

Olivia’s face burned. She slapped his hands away as her voice rose to a snarl.

“Have you gone mad? This is not Oscar. He’s our son.”

“What about that mark, then?” James pointed the baby’s glowing hand. “What? It just happens to look like Oscar’s?”

His son wailed.

“It is probably just a rash from the way you kept holding it to the heat,” Olivia said, smacking his hand.

James threw up his hands and cried, “Who are you trying to convince? Me or yourself?”

Olivia faltered but said, “Even if Oscar was somehow involved, he would never hurt us.
You are not putting our son in that coffin.”

“Do you have any idea what he will do if I don’t?” James cried. “He wants me dead after what I did.”

“After what?” Olivia cried. “What did you—”

The firelight danced in James’ pupils. Olivia glanced to her baby, remembering the first day she saw the mark— how the candlelight danced in his eyes like a finger beckoning him. She turned her gaze to the candle, and James followed her eyes.

“Oscar never started the fire,” she whispered. She raised her voice. “You bastard.”

“I never meant to,” James cried, pacing the room. “I got into a fight. Oscar tried to stop me, but—”

He waved the gloves at Olivia.

“No, it was his fault. He shouldn’t have tried to stop me. I—”

James cried out and hurled the gloves at the table.

“My brother is dead because of you,” Olivia cried. “You didn’t even have the decency to tell the truth.”

“Oscar was already dead,” James roared. “I still had to live here!”

Olivia’s brow darkened. Smoke seemed to flit around her like a ghost as she said, “Not anymore, you don’t.”

The baby shrieked, making the two jump and smell the smoke for the first time. He smacked Olivia’s face and pointed his burning red hand at the parlor table. The flame from the knocked-over candle spread over Olivia’s gloves like a phoenix’s wing.

Olivia cried out. James made a frantic grab for the gloves, knocking the candle onto the wooden armchair. He flung the gloves to the floor to stamp them out, but the fire leapt onto the green curtains and bloomed upward. James tried to tear down the curtains, but Olivia screamed as the candle ate into the wooden chair. James ripped off part of the curtain in his lunge for the candle. The fiery ribbon spread its seeds all the more.

The baby screamed as smoke slithered up from his mark. Olivia wrapped her hand around it and turned to run out the door, but he squirmed and reached back for James. Olivia looked over her shoulder incredulously as James stomped around in his panic. The baby squealed at his father.

Olivia lunged forward, grabbing James’ arm. She yanked him firmly away, almost to the floor, but he stumbled after his wife who screamed, “Fire,” into the street.

Neighbors bolted outside to watch. A few ran for help. James and Olivia could only stand and stare, marked with ashes and burns. Olivia still had her hand on James’ arm, clenching the fabric of his sleeve in her fist. James placed his hand over hers. The baby whimpered at his smoldering hand and up at his parents like one who had been betrayed.

Our Places at the Table

I walk into the dining room and notice that my chair is missing from its normal niche. My eyes are possessed by that empty space. I look away to check the other seats to discover if they too had been taken. Dad’s chair is accounted for, right there to my left. My brother’s is an orthogonal swing beside his. And Mom’s chair is there at the other head of the table.

I didn’t even notice that Mom is in her seat. And there’s my chair, pulled alongside hers, occupied by Dad. The backs of the chairs are pushed against the sill of the window. They are sitting there together for who knows how long in a quiet that is becoming more distinct every moment.

The light is punching through the glass and forcing itself into the room. But somehow the brightness falls away into a low glow of aged sunlight. It’s something that seems to happen in most rooms at the end of summer days. Mom and Dad camouflage well in the indoor darkness. Their faces aren’t all too clear but their bodies are in distinct profile, outlined by a sliver of soft white.

I say, “Hey guys.” I walk into the room. I go past Dad’s chair and stand in the spot where my seat would be. I pass the large cabinet that keeps its place against the wall. The thing is filled with overly fancy dishes, china plates and crystal glasses that are taken out for special occasions, but are otherwise kept inside the case for the entirety of their lives. Adler is paranoid that the cabinet will fall over one day and crush everyone at the table in an explosion of glass and porcelain. He’s being ridiculous of course, but as I walk by, the vibrations of my footsteps cause it to shake. I move slower. Where is he? The last time I saw him was at breakfast before he left for his morning shift.

I stand in the empty spot and try to fill it. The room feels unbalanced with my parents on one side. There should be a parent on my left, a parent on the right, and a sibling sitting in front of me. These are fixed places, truly eternal. So I say, “What’s going on?”

Did they just wince? I lean against the table and the cabinet trembles again. I’m thankful for the clinks and clatters; the silence is becoming unbearable. My hand rests on the tabletop and I feel a small spot of rawness, and I looked down under a finger. I look down and see a black mark beneath it. Where did that come—oh yeah. That was from my tenth or eleventh birthday. Can’t say for sure. But that was the year Adler started first grade. We were sitting together in my chair as Mom was lighting my birthday candles. It must have been a freak accident, but a lit match fell onto the table, just inches away from Adler’s face. We stared at it for a moment and then suddenly—clang! Mom had grabbed the metal cake server and slammed it down onto the flame in one perfect strike. That was also the first time either of us had heard her say, “Shit!” It’s hard to say which shocked us more.

My eyes move from the burn mark across the wooden field of dinner scars to look at Adler’s chair. God, this table is well-used. I guess there was a time when it was unmarked, and unstained, and unscratched, and just plain un-. Did Mom and Dad buy it before or after Adler was born?

My head snaps to the sound of small shrieks. Mom and Dad’s chairs are shaking, old chairs that cry out with every movement. There’s something wrong. I don’t know what but something is wrong.

I ask, “What’s happened?” I don’t know if they’re looking at me or not. There’s only the shadow of their bodies and the way they seem to pant and gasp together.

Dust is flying around them, floating through the frames of the window panes. I still can’t see them. If I could only actually see them I might know. I don’t know what I’d know, but I’d know something. I need something.

I don’t notice I’m clutching the edge of the table. I don’t notice that the dishes in the cabinet are rubbing and scratching and moaning against each other. I don’t notice that the chairs are loudly crying out, screaming. I notice the dust. And then they tell me that Adler was killed today.

I’m in Adler’s chair, but I can’t remember sitting down. Mom and Dad are to my left together at the window. They haven’t moved. I look at the space in front of me. It feels so unnatural to see where I sit, to see where I should be. But I stay in this seat as the light outside drops away into the late evening darkness.

Hanky Panky

It’s the night before my family’s biannual Big Gay Family Weekend, and I am admittedly looking for amusing anecdotes to share with the aunts and uncles and what have you. They only just started talking to me like a real person last year, and I still feel the need to make a good impression after all the time my dads spent dangling me over their heads. Out of all the queer folks—most of whom aren’t connected by anything but their complete lack of heterosexuality—that make up my family, my dads are the only pair to acquire a child so far. It was kind of a big deal back when I was a baby. Not so much anymore, which is why I now have to work for anything more in-depth than inane questions about school and my love life.

That’s beside the point, though. The point is, I just found something I shouldn’t have: a particular webpage that looks like it’s straight from the Dawn of the Web. It’s dominated by a multi-colored three by seventy-seven table on a white background, with a small block of Times New Roman text above. The three fields, from left to right, are as follows: COLOR, WORN ON LEFT, and WORN ON RIGHT. The subject is innocuous enough: handkerchiefs.

But the context. God. The context. All I can think of as I stare at a dark red row is that one time when I was six years old that I had tried desperately to get my dads to allow me to wear one of their wine-colored bandanas in my back pocket. The worst part isn’t that I had been desperately and unknowingly attempting to advertise myself as a “two-handed fist fuckee;” the worst part is that I hadn’t wanted to wear the thing on a whim. I had only wanted to emulate them—them being my loving parents.

My one dad, the one who wears his two-handed fist fuck bandana in his left pocket, chooses this exact moment to knock on my door.

“Hanky!” the calls—

“Spanky,” the word drops out of my mouth before I know what’s happening. Fuchsia is flashing behind my eyes. I clap my hand over my mouth and groan quietly.

He opens the door, “What was that?”

“Nothing,” I shut my laptop and turn to look someplace that isn’t his pocket. “What do you need?”

Either he doesn’t notice how shaken I am, or he pretends not to.         

“You should go to bed; we have a busy day tomorrow,” He leans out the doorway and calls something to my other dad.

I pretend not to notice that there actually is a fuchsia bandana in his back right pocket. That’s another kink on the list. “Yeah,” I say. Busy is right. Busy trying not to think about how spanking can lead into a rigorous fisting session, not to mention the veritable forest of bandanas I’m slated to encounter at the Big Gay Family Weekend. The last thing that I need to know at this point in my life is who has an eight-inch schlong, and who’s hosting an orgy.

It all makes sense now, why everyone found my fascination with the little squares of fabric so funny. Why my nickname is so funny. I stand up from my desk with as much dignity as I can muster and brush past my dad.

He pats me on the back.

“I know you’re not looking forward to getting up early, but you can sleep in the car.”

With that, he ducks away and wanders back downstairs, presumably to get spanked. Or maybe that won’t happen until they think I’m asleep. I hope it’s the latter, presuming that sleep will even come to me with this great knowledge bearing down on me.

The next morning finds me sullen in the backseat of Spanky Dad’s Jeep. It’s strange to me, that he would deign to own one, and that my other dad doesn’t hate it either. One would think that such a rugged vehicle goes against the aesthetic sensibilities of every gay man alive, and yet, here I am.

Spanky Dad knows how much it can cost to get a car serviced. Jeeps are the cheapest pieces of shit out there, he’s said on numerous occasions. Thinking about the car almost clears my mind—at least until I remember the flag stuck to the back right of it. It’s a neutral blue color, which I have on good authority means “copsucker.” It can’t only be for show; I’ve heard too many stories over the dinner table about being “pulled over” on the way home from work.

Yikes.

The ride is brief; this Big Gay Family Weekend is taking place at Uncle Kurt’s ranch. I can’t decide whether it’s a blessing or a curse that we only live fifteen minutes away. I decide curse when Latter Dad grabs Spanky Dad’s spanktastic bandana from his back pocket and playfully hits him with it.

I think, to protect me, my subconscious may have severely underrepresented the sheer volume of bandanas I would encounter. They were bursting from back pockets, bouncing around in my relatives’ individual wakes, as if taunting me with this terrible knowledge.

All the colors of the rainbow, and more.

Twenty-first Century Wergild

I rubbed the constricting chill from my limbs as Simon checked us in at Vincent’s Italian Restaurant. It was warm and cramped inside, but I only rubbed my sleeves more vigorously.

Noticing my irritation, Simon said, “I’m sure he won’t bring her.”

I scowled at him. “Oh, I’ve got a feeling he will.”

Simon sighed and said that he just wanted to get through dinner for his father’s sake. A young waiter led us to the table where Pop-Pop Clark Blythe drank wine with my brother-in-law, Chet, and a woman we had never seen before. My step faltered. I wanted to turn around for the ladies’ room, but Simon nudged me onward.

Pop-Pop stood with a chapped-lipped smile. His pepper hair was still thick as ever, but his skin felt thin as he embraced me. He patted my seven-month-old baby bump, stretching the olive and burgundy fabric of my dress.

“The little bundle of love’s getting bigger,” he teased.

“You look like Christmas come early.”

I kissed the old man’s cheek, wishing him a happy anniversary.

Chet shuffled forward. Of the two brothers, Chet was probably the better looking, and he knew it. He shared Simon’s emerald eyes and Pop-Pop’s hair and square face. He was once married to my best friend, Gabrielle. When I met Simon after college, I thought I was doing her a favor introducing her to Simon’s adventurous, younger brother. Chet liked to parasail, ski, and take Gabrielle to friends’ parties.

But then they married. Gabrielle settled down as a florist and hoped passive-aggressively for children, but Chet wouldn’t even leave her with that much when he took off with the car.

Now in the restaurant, I could’ve slapped him one, but I just nodded back after he hugged Simon and nodded to me.

Chet gestured to the woman behind him and said, “This is Freddie, my fiancé.”

My eyes felt like coal in a furnace. There on Freddie’s finger was the braided, silver band Gabrielle once wore. Freddie must’ve weighed 108 pounds. She wore a black, leather pencil skirt and a silk blouse. Her dark, styled hair and silver jewelry with violet gems reminded me of a French poodle. I raised my eyebrows at the Michael Kors purse on the table—I could only ever afford a fake one in New York City. This woman either had money or came from money.

Freddie gracefully extended her hand to Simon. “Chet talks a lot about you,” she said.

He smiled and shook her hand. I took my seat before she could reach over to me, my hand on my belly as an excuse.

I sat on the end next to a seat that Pop-Pop insisted remain empty.

“For the missus,” he said. Mrs. Blythe had been a cute, curly-haired woman who could drop just about every curse word she knew like pennies in a mall fountain. She did all kinds of volunteer work for hospitals, animals, and education, and she got her husband out of the house. Sadly, she passed away from a long battle with cancer, and since then, Pop-Pop became adrift in his wave of heartache. He’d flip through photo albums and cook Mrs. Blythe’s favorite recipes when Simon and I visited.

Freddie sat across from him with Chet in the middle and Simon on the end. Simon asked when they got engaged.

Freddie said, “Two days ago when we got out of the theatre on West 45th Street.”

I gave Chet a tight smile. “Wow. That must’ve been expensive.”

Chet’s upper lip bulged as his tongue ran over his teeth. He managed a liquor store back in Pennsylvania. Whenever he came home to Gabrielle, he’d tell her business just wasn’t going well. She paid all the bills and for food, even when they went out together.

Chet waved away the comment. “Pa helped with the tickets.”
I looked at Simon. I could tell he caught on too by the way he frowned. “Pop went with you?”

“No,” Pop-Pop said, buttering a piece of garlic bread, “but Chet always talked about taking Gabby to the theatre, so I gave him a couple bucks.”

Simon glared at Chet. Chet scowled at Pop-Pop. Pop-Pop said that when he heard Chet was proposing, he was glad to help.

“I only wish that was me again.” Pop-Pop gazed upward and raised his glass of wine to the ceiling.

“Pa,” Chet wrapped an arm around Freddie. “This is Freddie.”

“I know,” Pop-Pop said with an innocent smile and bite of his bread, and it tickled me ever so slightly to know how much this annoyed Chet.

He kissed Freddie’s hair. “Sorry, babe.”

The waiter came and took our orders. Pop-Pop ordered Scungilli, his wife’s favorite dish, and a glass of wine for the seat next to him. Freddie looked searchingly at Chet who rolled his eyes. Simon nodded to the waiter. He returned about 30 minutes later with the food. The plate of Scungilli steamed like an offering to a pristine shrine of silverware.

All throughout dinner was stiff-necked and fractured conversations. Chet said he and Freddie dated on and off back in school, and he told high school stories about her. She’d blush and explain herself.

Chet said, squeezing Freddie’s waist, “I’d just never stopped thinking about her.”

Freddie smiled. My stomach simmered; even my baby was sick.

I watched as Freddie tore her garlic bread with the flat of her fingertips, keeping her manicure clear of crumbs, and pursed her lips when she chewed. Chet gave her cat-like smirks and pinched her thigh. Pop-Pop seemed oblivious. Simon smiled awkwardly. I finally had to go to the bathroom.

I staggered down the crooked aisle of wooden chairs and tables to the ladies’ room. I didn’t vomit, thank God. I went into a stall, peed, and cradled my stomach. I thought of what Chet did to Gabrielle and how I had what Gabrielle wanted most—a baby. I held back frustrated sobs and imagined constricting my fingers around Chet’s throat. Then when he was on life support, I’d turn it off and on like a light switch.

There was a knock on the stall.

“Bernie, sweetie?” Freddie called. “You okay?”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine, just pregnant.” I flushed the toilet and went to wash my hands. Freddie reapplied some mascara and watched me.

“I actually wanted to talk to you,” she said as I turned off the water. “Chet told me you were friends with his ex.”

My nostrils flared. I’d known Gabrielle since elementary school. We carpooled to dance every year, attended summer camps together, drove to the local diner every day in college for milkshakes or cocoa—she was the sister I never had.

“Still am,” I snapped. “She’s not dead you know.”

“Of course not,” Freddie said. “I just really hope my relationship with Chet doesn’t affect your opinion of me.”

Freddie rested her hands on her hips. She explained that when she moved back to Pennsylvania, she and Chet reconnected. He was still married but said he was getting a divorce, but Freddie said no.

“Then when he was single again, I didn’t want to say no,” she said. “But I swear, I never intended to ruin a marriage. I just don’t want you and Simon to have a bad opinion of me because I’m not that kind of woman. I waited until after the divorce.”

Freddie stopped there, waiting for a response. I looked down at my belly. Throughout dinner, I had looked for any excuse to hate Freddie: the tight skirt? It was tasteful. The Michael Kors? Maybe she earned it.

I tried to think of what she had that Gabrielle didn’t and decided that Gabrielle was too good for Chet, but then where did that leave Freddie?

I could smell a mixture of fragrances from Freddie—her lotion, her deodorant, her fruity perfume, and even her hairspray. My baby nudged my stomach. I glanced up and saw the sweat spreading under her arms. I sighed. Imagine the guts it took for her to clear her name, and besides, it wasn’t her fault Chet was an asshole.

“We’d love to have you over for Christmas,” I finally said as gently as I could.

Freddie smiled and nearly pounced on me. I flinched away.
“The baby.” Freddie apologized and giddily stroked the mound as if it were a pet we suddenly shared.

We weaved our way back to the table. The plates were gone and paper bags remained. Simon and Chet flipped through their wallets as Pop-Pop signed the check.

“I’m out of cash for the tip,” Chet said. He leaned forward. “You think you can cover me, Pa, and I’ll pay you back?”

Simon quickly put his hands over Pop-Pop’s. “I got it. Chet can pay me back.”

“Nah, hang on,” Chet said. He glanced at Freddie. “Can you cover me, babe?”

I frowned. Freddie began to rummage through her purse, and Chet smiled and leaned back in his seat.

And there it was—another Gabrielle.

I suddenly felt a thick, bubbling sauce rising to my throat from my cringing baby. My head burned. I reached for my water to cool down, but I snatched something stronger—Mrs. Blythe’s untouched glass of wine—and I splashed it into Chet’s face.

The violet-red drops dribbled down his shirt. Chet cursed. Freddie cried out. Mr. Blythe exploded into crackling laughter.

“What the hell was that?” Freddie cried.

I twisted the cup in my hands and said, “Trust me when I say a good girl like you can do much better than Chet.”

Freddie scurried after Chet but couldn’t enter the men’s room. My husband sighed and got up to check on him. Pop-Pop just cackled to himself and grabbed the bag with Mrs. Blythe’s Scuingilli and a bottle of her favorite wine.

“Here, Bernie,” he said. “This is for you.”

See Jane Run

Mother complains about slaving over the hot stove while Daughter, who did all the work, is seen, through the skylight, smoking on the rooftop. Stepfather lounges on the stiff, uncomfortable, and yet “oh-so-posh” couch in the living room, complaining about providing a roof over the heads of such ungrateful sacks of worthlessness who don’t know the value of a dollar. Nine-year old Son locks himself in his room and cries until it is time to don a mask of happiness.

Grandmother arrives first, twelve minutes early. Twelve minutes too early for Mother to bear.  With half-finished hair and a bare, makeup-less face, Mother yells for Daughter to entertain Grandmother while cursing under her breath about the meaning of six o’ clock. The others arrive shortly thereafter and, with this, the serenity fades. The calm before the storm is an exchange of cordial greetings and pretentious kisses bestowed upon both cheeks. Daughter wrings her hands with anticipation and sneaks shots of grey goose poison when she thinks no one is looking.

Dinner is served, and mother makes a show of praying before the meal.  Daughter rolls her eyes and spears a stalk of cauliflower, blander than the dinner conversation. She catches Mother’s critical glare and drops the silverware, suddenly gaining resolve not to eat this night.

Then the tornado of questions takes wind. Grandmother addresses Daughter, “Have you been to church recently?” Mother interrupts, and with great disappointment says, “I do believe I somehow managed to raise an atheist.” Uncle asks Son, “How is school going? Getting good grades like your sister?” Stepfather mocks his son’s learning disability and his need for ADHD medication. The topic of Daughter’s antidepressants is avoided. She sighs in annoyance and Aunt directs her attention to her, saying, “You know I’ve already lost forty-seven pounds from my new water and fresh greens diet. You should really try it sometime. It would do wonders for a girl like you.” Daughter maintains a white-knuckle grip on the sterling silver fork that has yet to touch her mouth. Uncle broaches the subject of Daughter’s studies and her plans for the future.  Mother immediately assumes control of the conversation and says, “Oh she’s studying English; my daughter the English major. Good luck finding a job or earning an income.”  Stepfather sheds his cloak of silence and tells Daughter, “I assure you that you will have no home with us after graduation; that is, if you even graduate at all.” Mother and Stepfather join in laughter.

Uncle has heard enough and rises from his chair with a ferocity of which the family did not think him capable. He chastises Mother and Stepfather for their behavior towards their children. Mother claims Uncle wouldn’t understand since he has no children. Mother says she doesn’t blame him; she knows it would be difficult to raise them with Uncle’s disability. The mention of his handicap infuriates him and he shouts, “Fuck you, Debra! Fuck you.” Aunt sips her water. Stepfather appears aloof. Mother, who cannot fathom her perfect family dinner being soiled, demands that Uncle leave. She says, “You’re not welcome here, Jim. Go to hell. You’re dead to me already.”

Fed up with the evening and protective of her uncle, Daughter rises from her seat, knocking down her chair as her full plate of food rattles against the table. She addresses Mother, “He can’t go to hell because you and your ego occupy the entire vicinity!” Aunt chokes on her water and Stepfather checks his Rolex. Son fights back tears as he stares intently at his untouched food.

Daughter storms out of the room. The jovial holiday music is drowned out by the slamming of the front door followed by a screech of tires and the echo of Son’s footsteps as he retreats to the safety of his bedroom. Mother pretends nothing has happened and asks, “Dessert, anyone?”