Blood for Babies

The nurse marks a yellow smear of iodine on my vein and tapes the needle down. In a moment, the blood starts to flow into a clear bag. The bag rests near enough to my hand I can touch it and it surprises me by being warm. Of course it would be warm. It is the temperature of my body, of my flushed cheeks when the handsome nurse across the room runs his hand through his exhausted hair. My nurse gives me a rubber ball to squeeze and moves the blood bag away from my hand, pretending not to notice I have it pinched between my fingers. The warmth is gone. I give the rubber ball a series of pumps and feel the rush of heat trail down my arm.

“I try to do this every year,” I say to my nurse, a girl with blue eye shadow and red scrubs. She leans against the machine and crosses her arms. “My dad is a blood donor. He used to tell us about the cookies he got afterward. It made me want to donate when I was young.”

My nurse gazes up at the face of the clock. “Uh-huh. We have Oreo’s.”

There is a pretty round nurse chatting with a blonde square-headed man reclining in the chair next to mine. The man on the donation chair has a red blanket across his lap, which adds a certain sweetness to the bond between him and the nurse. Before I got to the donation center, someone—I like to think it was the nurse—tucked him in. He’s hooked up to a clunky machine that makes pops and hisses as it extracts and separates an oily yellow fluid from his blood. He and the nurse are watching a music video on her phone, I guess, to try and keep the man awake.

“My blood type is O negative,” I say.

“We’ll do a test later to determine your type.”

“I know my type. It’s O negative.” I squeeze the rubber ball again, feel the prick of the needle in my stretching vein.

“If that’s the case, your blood will go to our baby bag.”

“Your what?”

She glances down and kneads the bag, massaging into place the blood that falls evenly down, down.

“The baby bag. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Your blood will go to babies.”

“Oh.”

No more handsome nurse. I can see him in his regular clothes outside the window that faces the parking lot. He wears a messenger bag across his chest and is maybe younger than I guessed before. Twenty-eight?

“How long until I can donate again?” I ask casually. But I’m not smooth about it. She already saw me checking out the handsome nurse and gives me a dirty look.

“Sixty days,” she says. I squeeze my ball and check the blood bag. It starts looking full.

Two bags slowly fill up with the clear yellow platelets in the chair next to mine. If I saw this blonde man anywhere else, I would guess he was uncomfortably close to passing out.

“You’re almost done,” says his nurse. The man smiles, his grin a little dopey from all the extraction.

“Do a lot of babies need blood?” I ask. The donation has me lightheaded too.

My nurse shrugs. “More than you might expect.”

I don’t know what I expect. I expect babies to be healthy, to not need blood from strangers my age, who only walked in one afternoon because it occurred to them giving blood was something that must be done once in a while. Do I expect babies to need blood from other babies? It forces me to consider the age and plasticity of my blood, which has recycled itself for twenty-seven years, which I have dumped senseless amounts of toxins into an embarrassing number of times. If I have any relationship with my blood, it can be summed up in one word: careless.

“What about that stuff, the platelets?” I nod to the machine making quieter sounds now as it slows down the process.

“Spoken for at St. Luke’s General. A patient there needs this particular batch.” She seems bored with my conversation so I hold back my next series of questions. Together we watch the blood stream out of my arm and into the bag that will be transported to some babies, somewhere near us or far away.

In another ten minutes my bag is full and the nurse pulls the needle from my arm. She covers the entry wound with gauze and lifts my arm above my head. I am instructed to stay like that until the bleeding stops. When the bleeding stops, I am escorted to the snack area and given a bag of pretzels and a bottle of apple juice. The platelet man is at the table, eating a Nutter Butter, watching a cooking show. We sit there like kids, woozy, peckish, under the watchful eyes of the daytime nurses disinfecting the chairs we left behind. The small room smells like a hospital.

“How you feeling?” he asks. Without the blanket covering him, I see he’s in blue scrubs. He slurs, just a little.

“Fine,” I say. “I’ve done this lots of times.” He smiles another foolish grin and I wonder how long it takes the body to replenish the oily matter that binds our blood together. We eat and I watch the cooking show. It’s something I know how to do. Eventually, the man in blue scrubs who donated platelets gets up and wobbles off down a hall that leads to the back of the building. I sit alone a while longer and eat a second bag of snacks while the women on TV spread icing on a chocolate cake and engage in inane banter. Nobody comes or goes.

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The First Humans

The older I get, the fewer stars I see. It must be the glasses, something in the lenses. Or the frightful thought: something in the eyes. On our backs in the camp, the start of the night sky appeared overhead. All four of us wore some kind of corrective lens. There were seven stars, and then there were eight. I counted as many as forty-five until I decided the number was less than I had seen in skies years before. Astronomers believe space is rapidly expanding, moving away from our galaxy faster every year. The first humans must have seen the night sky glittering with stars so bright, they could not have stared all night. If telescopes could see this and predict the distance of the stars over time, the fault was not in our lenses. It was definitely something in the eyes.

We left home without a lot of things we needed. We had enough food for a week for the weekend. Not one of us remembered the water. It was cold and humid in the morning. There was dew on the oven mitts, reflecting the sun in lime green drops, one bit of light at a time.

If we had Pat, he’d chop us some wood. If we had Courtney, she’d build us a fire.

If we had. If we had.

We drank beer so we wouldn’t think about water. Thoughts of water turned into thoughts of a lake of water, of a fresh spring that flowed into our campsite, as if we could will one into existence.

We wouldn’t make it through the weekend without water.

We turned over a stone with the beginnings of a sculpted leg. Da Vinci was just a torrential rain, we said. Michelangelo was a tornado of sand and wind. Lambs ears sprouted in the creek bed, where flat black spiders darted under warm stones when we were posed to step down. Drowned and dried up weeds looked like tattered clothes in a violent way, as if the dry rocks and trickling stream was complacent in a struggle. But they were only plants caught in a flood. But the only tattered clothes were on our legs.

To emphasize our group potential, each of us had a job at the site. The men strung ropes between trees with loops interspersed to hang wet clothes or—jokingly—ourselves when we got too thirsty. The women, used to their morbidity, rolled their eyes and cleared spider webs off the picnic table with sticks of fragrant cedar. Snowy ash from the fire fell into the guac. At least we remembered the guac. We heard a round of bullets fire into the woods, and somewhere in the park a bird left a space in the sky.

At night, a creature walked through our campsite when we turned off the flashlight. We held still at the edge of the woods in the pitch black. The animal moved slow as if stopping to pick fallen berries off the ground. I held my breath when it grew close enough for me to hear her grunts and grinding teeth. When she was beside me, I still could not see. The tip of a soft ear brushed my arm. Danger, fear of wildlife took over, that existence almost exactly like our own, but feral, indigenous. Life was meeting life in an arena with no rules. I closed my eyes to see the sun. I thought please be tame, please be kind as the ear ran across my arm, then my cheek. For a moment, the only thing in the world anymore was the connection of that fur and my skin, the meeting point between girl and unknown animal in the blinding dark. I felt like the earliest human, like I was meeting the world for the first time, like I could look up and the sky would be all white with stars.

Later, in the tent, I put my face into a moist armpit and felt the emptiness of the open night around us settle, turning, in my dreams, to water.

In the morning we left the site in damp boots and unbrushed hair. Our tents were wet, the floor was quenched, but we were not. At the nearby stream, we built a ship. We called her The Mermaid and released the ship into the drink. A maiden voyage, we shouted. Long live The Mermaid! The Mermaid went over a waterfall and drowned in the river.

What we never realized was this: The Mermaid was only a float prepared by thirsty friends. That the stars are there until they’re not. That fur and skin are the only separations between us and the deeper connective tissue of the world. That this life was our maiden voyage.

The Timepiece

Hanan looked at her watch at eleven o’clock. The timepiece on her wrist felt lighter than it used to, although the old silver was heavy with old fashioned gears and a thick glass face. When she removed it at night, she thought her arm would float up above her head and stay there like a helium balloon. But on her wrist it felt natural, a sheath she had grown into. By some miracle, it still worked. Hanan wound the watch each day until she felt tension from the main spring inside. At eleven o’clock, she tied her hair back, wrapped a burgundy scarf around her head and pulled on a long garment that touched her ankles. She was uncomfortable and hot. Hanan found her shopping bags and left her apartment for the crowded Friday market. Her feet ached in the women’s slippers that blistered her ankles until rivers of hot, clear pus burst from the skin. She longed to go home and change into the plush leather shoes made for men. Hanan wondered why men’s shoes were so comfortable when it was the women who did all the walking, while men sat in cafes, judging what was appropriate for others to wear.

The men in the square used to laugh at her hair until she covered it. They had laughed at her men’s shoes until she switched to the women’s slippers. The men in the square laughed at her watch—her father’s watch—but this, she refused to relinquish. Each time she walked by, the lazy men who sat on the roundabout curb chortled and gaped at the big silver timepiece wrapped around her wrist. A men’s watch! She wears a men’s watch! A woman must wear an appropriate watch, one that is dainty and covered with false diamonds or gold, or one that cracks easily like a woman’s emotions. Her father’s watch was wide, sturdy and discolored in places the silver had started to patina. The tick of the minute hand was loud and authoritative, appropriate for a man who wanted the world to know his time was important. Hanan ignored their comments, preferring to retreat into her personal history with the watch, which, her father said long ago, originally belonged to a powerful woman. Who was she? Hanan never knew.

Hanan was examining potatoes when a fisherman slopped a bucket of sardines beside her. A careless wave jumped the cart of ice and sloshed Hanan with the fishy juices.

“Smeh-li,” the fisherman said and continued the job while Hanan dripped with sardine water.

“Really?” she said to the fisherman, but he pretended not to hear her. Have compassion, she heard her father’s voice in her head, as she often did. You be quiet too, she told the voice. She paid for her potatoes and rushed home to change. Stray cats followed her at a distance, delighted by the odor.

Hanan unclasped her watch and patted the leather band dry with a towel. The smell endured. She set the watch on the windowsill to let it air in the sun. Hanan removed her dress and changed into jeans and a t-shirt, took the scarf off her head and let her curls of dark hair fall back into a natural order. The thought of changing back into cumbersome clothes on this hot day made her weary. Hanan dropped onto the bed with a sigh. A flea landed on her skin and she smacked it down. How did a flea get into her room? She glanced at the windowsill, where an orange cat perched, looking at her. Two pieces of soft leather hung from its jaws as the cat clamped down on the silver face of the watch. With a cry of protest Hanan lunged for the window, but startled the cat, who hopped off the sill and galloped out into the street, watch in its jaws. Panicked, Hanan slipped on the nearest shoes—the men’s shoes—and dashed after the animal. The orange tail slipped through her fingers as the cat made a sharp turn into the streets of the lively medina. Hanan raced after it.

***

When she was a girl, her father would let her wear the watch around the house. Back then it was heavy on her wrist, almost slipping off her on the tightest clasp. Before she could tell time, she stared into the face and watched the thin hands tick around the numbers, sometimes for a full hour, only for the pleasure of the movements. During the Revolution, her father’s work took him to rallies and secret meetings, or into hiding in Madrid or Lyon. When he left town, he would let her keep it, and she would sleep with it under her pillow at night. Each muffled tick of the hand was a reminder of him and his eventual return. As she drifted into sleep, lulled by the reliable stroke of the watch, she imagined her father lying awake at the same time, feeling his wrist for the timepiece. She would have rather lost a front tooth than lost her father’s watch.

When unrest bubbled in the region, each loud tock of the watch became a reminder of the fragility of power, the delicate line that separated life from death. Her father’s work during the Revolution cost him his life. With his death, the wisdom he taught her slipped into a similar fate, a little at a time, until Hanan had a partial graveyard of old values spread out inside her. Hanan now wore a scarf around her hair, traditional slippers on her feet, and covered her eyelids in black shadow. As the years went on, she betrayed her father by blending in, by doubting her own strength in the world. But through her transformation, through all the cultural rules she learned to accept, the watch remained on her wrist.

When watches were still a new invention, men wore them on chains in their pockets and women wore them on their wrists. As a little girl, Hanan laughed when her father said this, pointing at the silver piece wrapped around his wrist.

“You’re wearing a girl’s watch” she said. Her father smiled.

“That’s because it belonged to a fearsome female pirate,” he answered and unbuckled the thick leather strap, soft from time.

Before the industrial era, women pirates controlled the river that ran along the southern border of the town. Hanan’s father told her stories of the ungovernable women who took the river as their own and ruled the waters with violence and compassion. Riches entered the city in the hulls of hulking boats, absconded from Italy, Spain, and the sub-Saharan nomads. Men stockpiled the treasure and transformed overnight from modest workers to living like pharaohs. They bought enormous houses and exciting clothes and wore diamonds and gold on every finger. As long as the pirate women—who had no use for material goods—continued to raid the Mediterranean sea, the city would brim with riches. This was the lifestyle, until the kings of other countries sent boats and men out to recover what was stolen from them. Roundups lasted years and many foolish men died protecting their ill gotten means. Only those who were discreet and resourceful slipped passed the search while everyone else was stripped of their gold. Hanan’s father tapped his watch with one finger and winked at his daughter.

“And they never could find all the treasure. Some pieces are still missing.”

Hanan’s mind filled with tales of the Mediterranean marauders, who inlayed ivory and gold in the city walls. She gazed at the silver watch with amazement. Her own father possessed an item of particular value. Who knew how the watch came to him, or his father, or his father before. Hanan longed for every detail.

Then the Revolution came. The old walls exploded, leaving only a cracked and colorless canvas for the soldiers to vandalize. Propaganda still flaked off in ugly tatters years after the fighting ended. When she closed her eyes, Hanan could still see the images of these stories imprinted in her mind from when she was a child, but when she opened them again the city was nearly in ruins. She wanted to go back, to be a pirate untamed by society, to be a woman who was more fish than human.

***

Silver flashed past a pen of chickens. Hanan leapt over pools of grey water feeding into the gutter. The medina ran through the city like an artery, pumping the lifeblood of commerce to the little roads and alleys that fed the seaside port. As she chased the cat past the half walls of the old quarter, where ancient women crouched in doorways and muttered prayers at passer-bys, she imagined she was in the old city under hanging baskets of silver and gems. Instead, more cats watched the chase from their window perches overhead, like tabby gargoyles, indifferent to the outcome of the hunt.

Suddenly, she couldn’t see the orange cat. She halted in the middle of the medina, the center at which all roads converged. When she stopped, she realized she had left the house in men’s shoes, with her hair down and legs stuffed into jeans. The whispers began, then grew louder until they filled her ears. She caught her breath and spotted the cat under a cart of onions. The cat had the watch on the ground and was licking off the sardine slime that still clung to the face. A-ha! She leapt and once again the cat picked up the timepiece and took off down a narrow side street, one that lead deeper into the residential slums. Hanan ran past closed doors made of heavy wood with great iron rings dominating the façade. Family quarrels thrummed on the other side of barred windows. The cat bounced ahead of her, its thin hips protruding, moving like pistons beneath the skin. Just as she was closing in on the animal again, the cat launched itself up to the top of a wall and disappeared down the other side. Thinking quickly, Hanan continued down the residential path. A few more turns and she was on the trail again, chasing the swift animal through the colored light filtering through the blue tarps that covered the narrow street. They ran between shops under banners of hanging green peppers and pale dead chickens, naked of feathers with beaks locked open. They skidded around corners populated by bags of black and red spices. They ran together between women with only their eyes showing, eyes that cut to Hanan’s modern clothes in disapproval. When she caught up with the cat at one final turn, it was by the river. Hanan was out of breath. Had she really run all the way to the river? The sparkling waters lead to the Mediterranean and out into the old waters once commanded by the pirate women. If the watch was swept into the stream, Hanan would never see it again. It would be fished out by a toothless old man who would pawn it for a net, or it would drown under the waves until the loud tick was silenced forever. The cat dipped to the water and released the watch from its mouth. Hanan dove to the bank to grab the timepiece and plunged her hand into the cold river, but she missed. She watched it sink to the bottom, the watch that survived her girlhood, the Revolution, and her father.

Before it touched down on the silty sand of the riverbed, something happened. The leather band stretched out. The face became an eye that studied her. Amazed, Hanan caught her reflection on the surface of the rippled water, her black hair spread wild around her determined face. Like the pirate women of old drawings, she looked dark and formidable. She just had time to gasp at her reflection before the watch made its complete transformation. As she caught sight of her fathers old timepiece again, the watch joined a school of sardines rushing by, and swam back to where it came from, where Hanan suddenly felt herself rushing towards.

Popular Modern Games

There is the one with the bowling balls. Not bowling. Only the balls and an open field or empty parking lot. Five or six people get together as at team and lob bowling balls at one another. So each team brings a bowling ball to an empty area at the designated meeting time. The Sparrows face off with The Tornadoes or The Unwed Mothers. On a good day, Big Man Boy’s show up and give them all a real work out. Using the finger holes in the bowling balls, each person must throw the ball at the other team in hopes that the opponent won’t catch it. Points are scored by catching the thrown ball, one point for using both hands, two points for using one hand, and ten points are awarded if you can catch the ball by sliding your own three fingers into the holes of the oncoming cannon. Tournament season is very short.

They call it Crazy Ball. The oddest thing is that Crazy Ball involves no balls or bats or oblong bullets that fly through the air. Nobody is really sure how Crazy Ball is played, but it has become a very popular sport among the young adults. Players have been spotted wearing makeshift clothes from leaves and sticks, digging holes in the backyard of friendly neighbors.

Twice a year, the ski team meets on the mountain. Once in December and once in mid-July. They don their poles and skis and line up together on the peak. The pop of a starter gun sends everyone into a frenzy, pushing and pulling each other to the edge of the peak. Hair in fists, jacket sleeves in teeth, they try to send each other down the hill while remaining on the top themselves. A whack to the face with a ski pole earns two points. Crossing the opponents skis before toppling them over is a six point gain. In the end the points don’t matter. Parents are separated from their children, who are light and easy to toss over the edge and watch them flail, skis tumbling over poles over snow pants over hats in a puff of fresh snow, down the steep side of the mountain. At the end of the game, the two remaining skiers on the peak of the mountain are escorted into the cocoa lodge where they undress and have a nice big window out to watch as the other players untangle themselves from the sticks and the snow, retrieve their escaped mittens and gloves.

The object of this game is to not look him in the eye. The old man in the doorway stares out at passerby, but if you make eye contact, you lose. Nobody has lost in recent years, but trust me. You do not want to lose.

If you can outrun the tractor, you get to keep it. All year a team of rag-tag mechanics work on the engine and body of the tractor. A favorite sport in rural townships, Run Away is usually played in an area of great historical significances. Battle fields with grave markers that stick out of the prairie grass or henge formations made of petrified wood are popular sites for Run Away. While one team works on the tractor, another team picks a Runner to train. They complete obstacle courses, weight training, timed sprints, distance jumps—the complete package if they want to survive the excitement of Run Away and win the super-charged tractor that chases them through the field.

For those with athletic minds, there is Competitive Contact Negotiating. Teams are given topics to debate and a chest full of blunt objects. The arena for Competitive Contact Negotiating is flexible, more so than other sports that have risen to popularity among those born unusual (the only exception being Blind Quest, which has a very strict set of rules). A team wins the debate by knocking the other teams unconscious with their rounded objects and then alerting the other players with a shrill banshee screech that simultaneously supports the thesis of their debate. Audience attendance is low this year.

Over the years, these sports grew out of a very human need. Traditional games evolved through wildly physical experiments that lead to the games we know today. And as the Sedentary Age set in like a cramp, we invented these escalated games to remind us of our roots. We play because at the center of our being we are hungry for human contact, determined to win, determined to feel something.

In The Earth

Then there was the gentle but healthy pressure to have a hobby. Hobbies are the most wonderful, Agnes says, stroking winsome nightshade vegetables, distracted. Eggplants the size of your head. Don’t you just love the first sign of tulips? No, in fact. Short bloom, premature wilt. Area bees avoid pollinating a flower that crumbles at the lightest touch, like a reckless girl. I prefer the hardy plants—the carpet of moss, the juicy aloe, encroaching mint on everything. The community garden is divided by my tendrils of invasive herbs.

Overalls are what Agnes wears, like a Communist uniform, as she manages the tomatoes. Rotating sunhats for Maude, whose face is a tight paper bag. I simply go in what I’m wearing, being rebellious. I use my trowel to puncture the earth. I turn and knead until I can add the bag of Soil Enhancer. My soil will be so enhanced.

I pour half the contents in the ground and look inside the bag. Curled grey fur rests half buried, eyes closed. Its tail wound over its legs, pinched up to its body. I lift it out of the bag. The soil around it is warm. In my hand, the baby squirrel shivers, unfamiliar with a gentle touch. I have made a discovery in the dirt, like an archeologist. I hold this abandoned relic to my heart, beating like a child’s footsteps. I sink into the garden, holding the squirrel in my open palm. The potato bugs dig away, fleeing my unearthing.

Amber alert. Sirens. Dawn seen in the woods through the pale beam of a flashlight. The meteor impacts my heart, sending my careful saplings into extinction. A clump of yellow hair blooms from the damp ground. My search has ended.

My tulip. My child.

The squirrel stirs, opens her eyes. I lower her to the garden and brush a muddy patch off her fur. She thanks me by doing the only thing she can do: disappear.

What Holds Us Together

Most of us already knew about the kiss. Friends told friends in confidence, all while keeping the secret away from the friend who would be most affected by it. We wanted to see what happened first, so we all pretended to forget about the kiss Mariah planted on that Olympic equestrian. She and Dan sent their kids to camp to work on their marriage. Hell, we all sent the kids to camp that summer, some of them to the same camp. A great pain, we discussed at the Yentz’s party one evening, to want everything for your child and to lack the skills or knowledge necessary to provide. In our childhoods, we learned in school and we learned at the library and then we learned on the street. The things we wanted were mostly within reach. When we wanted something better for ourselves, our parents said “tough,” or, “get to work then, Matthew.” I became something I had to work for, while our friends were groomed for their careers by private schools and Ivy Leagues. Camp was for sleeping outside near a fire, or at it’s most luxurious, sleeping in a musty spider-filled cabin with nine other kids. We know today how dangerous spiders are. How corruptible counselors can be. How nobody ever puts out the fire before they fall asleep. We became weak and fragile vessels that held our children inside us, because if the world came at them with knives out, we had to take it for them. We sent our kids to camps with dorms, stocked pantries, and positive reviews. Our wives warned them not to let anyone touch their privates.

With everyone’s kids off building character, getting feasted on by mosquitoes and giving each other bad haircuts, we decided we were all overdue for a good, long, drunk together. The Yentz’s home had a mountain view. Big picture windows framed by rustic wooden beams allowed us a splendid view of the waves of green, patched with skinny firs the sun painted gold and blue, and let the warm sheets of light fill the room as we sipped our cocktails and thought privately about what our kids were doing.

The Yentz’s sent their daughters to regatta camp.

My wife started with white wine, then switched to red if the party lasted after dark. She leaned against the emerald granite island in the open kitchen and held her glass like a freshly plucked tulip. Her awkward elegance was charming, one of the reasons people liked her so much, and in her dark jeans and blue tank-top under and open white shirt she radiated this rare harmony. I tuned out of my conversation with Lauren for a second and watched my wife from across the room.

“Hey, Matty, are you still thinking about golf this season?” Lauren Yentz leaned forward onto the back of the couch in a way that made his biceps throb. If one were to look only at his hairy forearms, one might think he was in the middle of climbing the flat face of a rocky range with no safety gear. Instead, his hands clutched a hilariously small cup of orange juice. If kids ever made fun of Lauren for having a girls name, they sure wouldn’t today.

“Golf,” I turned away from staring at my wife. “I’m not a member.” Lauren disturbed a pillow at the end of the couch with one large hand. I couldn’t help but think the word minotaur.

“I can get you in.” He left the pillow alone and turned, leaning his back against the couch. “We pay our rates and then some.”

“Tempting,” I said and did a half-hearted push-up against the back of the couch. I almost spilled my gin on the plush seat. “I’ll run that by Gill.”

Lauren nodded and threw the orange juice back down his throat. I expected him to crush the empty glass in his meaty hand. He nodded toward Mariah and Shelly talking in low voices against the east wall, lit by the far reaching light of the picture window on the opposite side.

“You know they’re talking about it,” he said. I lifted my drink and peered over at the women, close friends in our circle for as long as we all knew each other. Dan was demonstrating his free-throw techniques to a cluster of men in the driveway. It felt weird to watch him dash around outside while we talked about the equestrian. “Do you think he neighs?”

“I don’t think it’s worth talking about,” I admitted.

“Terry says it happened again, in a more…illicit setting.”

“What? A stable?” I asked, suddenly picturing Mariah in a skirt cut up to her thigh, ducking into a barn with the handsome Olympic trainer.

“She wouldn’t go into detail.” Lauren excused himself to the kitchen for a refill and I looked for the women again by the wall. They had disappeared. Gill came over and we clinked our glasses together.

“Here’s to a childless summer,” she sighed and sipped her white wine. “Do you think they’ll make friends?”

“If they don’t, we’ll have to send them back,” I said. Gill cracked up. We finished our drinks.

On my way to the water closet I passed a dark shadow in a dim room. At the toilet, I held my breath to save myself from the heavily perfumed air. I thought the shadow in the room seemed odd and out of place. I passed the room again and leaned in to inspect the shadow. It was still there, backlit by the big window, reading a thick book. It glared at me.

“Hi,” I said. “Sorry. Didn’t think anyone was in here.”

The young man did nothing. His black pants were frayed at the cuffs and he sat like the dignified owner of a dilapidated manor, the whole house awash in his shadow.

“Part of the Yentz clan?” I asked.

He shifted his weight and uncrossed his legs. “Sometimes,” he began. “They pass me around.” He sucked in one cheek like he was biting it and stared at me, feathering the pages in his book with his fingers. His eyes never left mine. I tried to be polite, but my vision darted around the room instead. The walls were bare except for a few tacked up items, unsettled and unsure of themselves. “Aunt Terry says somebody’s having an affair,” the nephew noted, as casual as if we were discussing baseball. “I heard her spill it this morning,” he smirked. “Those idiots think I don’t listen.” A draft came through an unseen open window and fluttered the images on the wall.

“Right. Well, nice to meet you,” I pulled back and turned to leave.

“Who are they?” he called.

I hurried back to the party. Gill handed me a drink.

“Did you know the Yentz’s have a nephew? And he’s here? He asked about Dan and Mariah.”

Gill swirled her white wine around, uninterested in my discovery.

“Sure, why not?” she said and waved at a friend across the room. There was something about the nephew that seemed improper, socially unkempt like it could be brushed out with the attendance of a few good parties. I wondered why he wasn’t away at camp, or why the Yentz’s kept his presence a secret tonight, or how a trivial crumb of gossip could lodge in his mind like a cud.

We continued to drink. The party had grown to it’s fully mature size. Gill stood with Terry at the picture window, watching the colors from the sunset change to darker hues. The men were moving between the basketball game in the driveway to the kitchen sink to gulp down more water. Once, I looked down the hall toward the bathroom, hoping to see the young nephew stick his head out of the room, his mussed black hair a clod of shadows against the pastel walls. Everything in the house matched, with lurid knick-knacks tucked into corners like goblins in the shadows. I searched for Mariah, suddenly sympathetic to her position—in a room full of friends, most of them clued in to her extramarital escapade if only by a fine tuned ear—yet unable to discuss it openly. I realized I hadn’t seen her since I saw her with Shelley, and that some of her other close friends were also missing from the party. In the dim light, the shapes of the men—the doctors and the golfers and the swimmers—dominated the area with their big chests and voices. It was a group I inherited with my marriage to Gill. She had the money, however small it might appear to some of our wealthier friends. We had what we had.

The men all came in from the driveway and fanned themselves with the wine enthusiast magazines scattered around the common area, cooling the sweat on their necks. Dan was beaming at everyone and no one, like a flashlight that had fallen to the ground. His sleeves were rolled up over his forearms and he looked less pudgy than when I last saw him, although he was never exactly fat. I sipped my gin on the couch with some guys who were locked in a conversation about ski resorts. I missed my son and daughter, who would be either just coming home on their bikes from a friends house, or sitting on the front porch together watching the fireflies, talking about things my wife and I could not access. I searched for Gill, but she had disappeared.

A shadow passed by the picture window, darker than the early night outside, and I recognized the nephew. My glass slipped from my hands. Gin-covered ice cubes and a few drinks’ worth of lime rinds spilled to the floor and slid under the couch. The men looked up at the noise and someone brought me a towel.

“Oh shit. It just fell out,” I said to Dan, who helped me scoop up the mess.

“Don’t worry, Matt. It’s just a drink.” We knelt on the floor and retrieved wayward ice cubes from underneath the couch. Dan carried the mess to the sink and rinsed his hands. I followed with the soaked towel. All the men were suddenly gathered in the kitchen, staring at the nephew and staring at Dan. The sanguine chatter of women was missing.

I approached the sink as the nephew said, “that’s just what I heard.” Dan’s head was hung between his shoulders and he gazed deep into his amber drink. I watched the liquid for ripples, not wanting to look at his eyes. His muscular body looked suddenly deformed in this awkward moment. He was just a pinched face on a mass of misshapen meat. The blur of gin drifted through my brain like a sail across briny water and I wondered how long it would take us to talk about this moment in the future. Finally, Dan sighed and threw back his drink with one gulp. He set the tumbler on the island and poured another, three fingers full. The nephew leaned against the sink, sober as a nun.

“I knew,” Dan said at last and we all silently released our breaths. “She told me it was over. We’re seeing somebody.” Half the drink disappeared down Dan’s throat and he shrugged, now feeling drunk enough to open up about it. “Have you seen the guy? I know she has a thing for horses, but this guy really loves horses.” The rest of the drink disappeared. “He has one tattooed on his forearm.” Several of us chuckled uncomfortably, picturing the Olympic trainer on his mighty steed, a horse’s flat face peering out from his sleeve with big, dead eyes.

“It’s probably in a wreath,” someone offered.

“Or rimmed with cursive letters!”

I laughed a little too hard and choked on some spit. We came back to life. Dan laughed earnestly, restored to his inflated form, his wrinkles smoothed over.

I needed Gill. It was dark outside the picture windows and the mountains turned ink black in the distance. I wondered if people were walking around outside, looking up into the lavish home, seeing a group of grown men bent around each other, leaning into or away from the moment of intimacy that dropped in the room. Gill wasn’t there. A tune drifted from below our feet and I found the staircase to the finished basement. I felt like a diver on my way down, about to enter the mysterious caverns of the ocean where beautiful fish gather after an evening spent in coral reefs, somewhere they could disappear. Halfway down the stairs the catcalls began. They snapped their fingers at me, knowing I was helpless to their taunts.

Blue moon, now I’m no longer alone without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own.

But the words were sung through smiles, through whoops and laughs. My wife snapped and swayed. She closed her eyes and leaned into it. Her voice dipped and rose and wavered out of tune, but her spirit was invested. The women lounged on the fat couches, reclined on the plush carpet, or twirled each other around in pairs. Mariah swirled past me and brushed a wine-scented finger beneath my chin. Those who knew the song sang together, and those who didn’t kept a steady beat.

I was dumb with joy.

Gill danced with one hand on her hip and the other spinning gently through the air. The women cheered and began again, pulling each other to their feet and dancing all around. I set my drink down, wrapped one arm around Gill’s waist, and grabbed her hand with the other. As I sent us spinning in a circle, navigating the drinks on the floor, she opened her eyes. The women cheered. Her red wine lips half parted.

The Tongue

A tongue came through town with a traveling parade of spectacles. Gypsies, my mother scoffed and waved at the word like it were a bird come in through the flue. The heat stuck on her skin and lingered in the air of the house, where the smells of our combined sweat and the well-fed houseflies held still in the windless summer. Please son, she began. She wiped her temple with the butt of her palm. Go if you really want to.

The gypsies brought wagons and tents fabricated from rich cloth, designed in busy cosmic patterns and repeating images of naked women. Although the show had only just arrived in town, the ground was worn with dusty paths and trails leading up to the tents. Men and dogs reclined on each other in the midmorning heat, each giving off the distinct odors of oranges and tobacco. The grass flattened around each ware-scattered rug, lit by lanterns shaped like stars. We heard the main attraction was not the great black tusks of the fabled white elephant, nor the woman who could play a violin with so much heartbreak, the instrument itself wept. Women in loose skirts lifted up handfuls of brass figures bearing the image of a god I did not recognize. None came to see these as much as they came for a six inch long tongue, floating in a glass mouth.

I followed the worn trail to the tent of the tongue and fell into the long line of hopeful observers. The jar was designed by the glassblowing widows in a town near the harbor. Their paradise grew from the fall of an oppressive patriarch, leaving them free to pursue a new, more impassioned economic system. The widows treated the project with all their attention so that the mouth-shaped jar, as it emerged from the hot flames, blew a kiss in gratitude. The widows, their town independent of crushing male rule, melted like the heated glass when it expressed to them this love.

The story of the tongue itself was what captivated the audience. It belonged to a sailor of the seas, a lover of women and treasure alike. On a meeting with a Persian lord, the sailor let slip some snide observation and had this most vital muscle torn out with his own blade. I looked into the shredded edge of the tongue, ripped apart as if with a dull blade. In fact, the blade had gone dull. The sailor’s own weapon had been used against him in the struggle. Gone were the days of the swarthy sailor’s charm, his tricks, and his humor. His favorite way to please women was through that vital instrument, whether by serenading tales of treasure and adventure or as he dove to part the hair between their legs and lick as if extracting honey from a freshly baked roll. Gone were his feasts of fish—bones and all—the ink-stained potato and squid in tough bows of pasta. No more would his tongue spit in the eyes of his crew.

No longer would it curl around crystals of salt on the posts once the ocean spray had dried. No more would it mutter in the dark the early childhood songs from school, oh which weather would you rather skip along to my dear? We could bury the day or we could run away together through rain or through sun, as the boat rocked and daybreak was a skid in the heavy ocean clouds.

I stared at the muscle, looking tip to base as close as I could to try and see beyond the tongue, into the language of the sailor—foreign to my own, into the warm wet crevasses of a woman’s sex—also unknown to me. I wanted to walk barefoot up and down the tongue until I understood exactly the taste of something sweet after tasting the salt of the ocean for so long. I wanted to feel the surprise of my wit in a room full of men, who laugh and slap me on the back and spit out their drinks on the table. I wanted to feel the dense flattening of those muscles beyond my teeth when someone told me I could not have what I arrived for, and taste the irony specks of blood that came from inside my mouth when I took a bite to the cheek. Indeed, the man lost everything. I paid to see the spectacle over and over. Every time I got back in line I fidgeted and inched until I was in front again, facing the tongue, fascinated, until I was nudged aside by the people behind me, waiting their turn to understand what kind of dishonor would cause a person to lose this important tool.
I ran out of money.

When I returned home Mother was flopped into a chair and fanning under her arms. Lord, she said, bring us some damn rain. I looked out the window toward the gypsy tents and longed for the tongue. I longed to feel the sailor’s drink on my own tongue, his laugh to burst from my chest. I turned to my mother, who was slackened in her chair, her thin arms like clotheslines that let her soft white dress dance in the mild breeze of her fan. One of the big flies rested on her arm and cleaned its back legs.

I want to sail a ship, I declared. She looked at me and I thought she would cut out my own tongue right there for saying it.

Like hell, she replied. No son of mine…she trailed off and that was the end of it for her. I studied the windless air outside and felt the cool kitchen tile on my bare feet. Before I had a ship, I better have a drink. A drink like the sailor drank, then a curse like the sailor cursed. I left my mother in the kitchen and went to the stash of coins she thought I didn’t know about. Under my father’s urn was a loose wooden board where she kept our smallest valuables. I dipped my hand into the musty dark and skimmed a few coins off the top. This is not an everyday thing for me to do. Only in emergencies, and becoming a sailor was an emergency. I scooted the urn back into place and gave a silent thanks to my father for giving me this money for something to drink.

I followed the worn trails again to the gypsy market, passing by exotic birds in golden cages and toothless old men stringing up purple flowers. I turned left down a shady narrow path crammed with vendors advertising goods under their breath. Their eyes darted around, looking for any unseen danger that could put them out of business. They looked ready to scoop up their goods at any moment and dash off into the shadows. A small raspy voice called out rum, rum, rum and I followed it, holding the coins tight in my pocket. The path darkened. Words from the vendors grew more obscure. Some names I recognized and others I didn’t. Opium, hash, hemlock, cyanide. The low rasp of rum was close. Men and women in dingy cloaks swept past me, kicking up grey dirt tornadoes. Their breath heavy beneath dark clothes like another storm blew inside them. Rum, rum, rum pulled me down, down, down the alley of vendors. I kept the tongue at the front of my mind. I knew what I wanted for the first time in my life.

A drink.

A ship.

A life as free as his.

Finally, a decrepit old man with long hair in his ears and on his chin appeared. His hands planted on the small table, only tall enough to cross his legs beneath, and the dusty green bottles laid out front called my name. I approached the old man. Even seated, I could tell he was small, smaller than myself perhaps.

What can I do for you, young fella? he asked and discontinued his chant.

I want to sail a ship. I replied. I’m here for a drink.

He bulged out one eye which he used to look me up and down. How old are ya?

Sixteen, I lied.

Bit small, he concluded and drew his wet eye back under the lid. He reached for a mid sized bottle on his left and yanked out the cork. This’ll here’s a personal favorite with the young boys. A rum from Spain. He handed me the dusty bottle. The liquid glowed amber behind the green glass as it caught a glimpse of sunlight through the awnings of the market. I tilted the spout up to my lips and let the sugary fire fill my mouth. My tongue swam in the sweet bath for a moment, all buds on the surface blossomed to take in the details of every flavor. When I swallowed, my tongue longed to chase the liquid down my throat as if to elope in some intestinal love affair. I coughed from the strength of the drink and wiped the spit from my mouth. The old man cackled like a small, fierce fire. First taste, eh? That’s the mark of a good rum there. The next sip goes down a little better, you bet.

I tilted the bottle again for another sip but his thin hand snatched it away.

First one’s free. Not the second.

My tongue lusted after the sweet sensation of the golden liquor. It all but leapt from my mouth and dove into the bottle, where it would have been happy to stay forever, alive in it’s own glass display. I dug out the coins from my pocket and made the exchange with the man. When I dropped the change in his hand he smiled a black and silver grin.

A pleasure, son.

I walked the streets of town with the cool dusty bottle pressed against my hot stomach. I had some money left from the purchase and thought about going back to the tent to gaze at the tongue some more. The long days of summer with mother and the fat house flies would be there when I returned home. There was a bay nearby, not quite walking distance, but at least I knew the way.

***

For twenty-six years I conquered the seas.

From the first bottle of rum–which fell into the sea with only a single drop remaining on the night of my first storm–to the rum I drank this evening, I remember it all. The merchants found me stowed away my first week, pickled from the salt and the sun. They tossed me out and I hit the Indian ocean like a sack of shriveled dates. I floated on my back for several briny hours, thinking about the layer of sweat my mother left on our wooden chair the day I left home. A shadow passed over me in the sky and I thought my time had finally come, until a voice shouted out and several gruff men hauled me on board. The men promised me fresh water and food, more rum, and gold medallions if I would provide a hand in their raid. I coughed up strands of salt water onto their deck and some of the men eyed me with disdain. There is no place for a boy on this ship, I heard them mutter. He will not be allowed to stay. They put me to work for the months we sailed on our way to the merchants. The men tossed me scraps of meat like they would to a dog, kicked me in the ribs if the ship wasn’t spotless, and denied my insatiable thirst for rum. At night I lay on the stuffed burlap sacks in storage, turning around with the weevils and roaches as the ship rocked and swayed. My lust for revenge on the captain that tossed me out grew with my desire to sail a ship of my own. Not one single night went by that I did not dream of the tongue floating in the glass mouth, reminding me in its perpetual silence what I had set out to do.

When they didn’t push me around, the men taught me to maintain agility and balance on a moving vessel. They gave me a heavy stick and made me practice sword play while they chucked apples at my head. They used my size to my advantage and shoved me into gaps within the ship to retrieve lost or hidden items. Since I was not strong enough to overpower a grown man, I practiced furtiveness. When a man would go insane from the lack of relations with women, I learned the art of stealth and the patience of waiting for danger to pass.

We caught up with the merchant ship almost a year after they tossed me out on their run to Haiti. I was delirious with the fermented choler that seeped out of the cracks the dry sun made in my skin, but I was stronger and smarter than before. I envisioned the merchant who found me stashed away. I replayed again and again the expression of pure hate on his face and the sweep of his hand out to the blue field of the sea as he gave the command to dispatch me. My life and my future now balanced on the tip of the nail that connected to the finger that gave the motion: “toss him overboard”. When we boarded their ship and the men shoved me back onto the deck I was exiled from, I sliced off that finger and then I plunged the knife into the merchant’s chest until his heart leapt out and smacked me in the ribs with its final beat. I stole his boots, which I wore stuffed with hay until I grew into them.

The thieves saw this and changed their plans. Instead of sinking me with the merchant boat like they discussed, they gave me control of the ship for as long as we sailed toward our next destination. My first ship, the ship I was ejected from and then took control of in a delicious revenge, sank first in the back and then was pulled down into the unforgiving waters. All I could see of the ship were the tops of masts sinking below the surface, like the fingertips of a man as he finally drowned. The thrill induced by pools of blood on the sand and the brutal father of sea in the distance carried me to a part of the sky I never knew. The men taught me to protect myself instead of my preferred method of sneaking away, only swooping in to save me from a brawl if they saw I was not going to come out alive. I lost many fights, being smaller than the boys who grew up in this rough life, but when I started to win, I was unstoppable. The fierce men of the ship listened to my story of the tongue and the ones who knew the fabled silent sailor filled in the gaps of my knowledge. They said he, like I, wandered onto a boat one day and never left the sea after that. They said he had a mother, who mourned his father after his death in a cliff-side struggle and was never a complete woman again. They said he also waved his sword, at first, like a girl. They cracked up and smacked me on the back and drank from their rum until daylight ruptured the sky. I looked toward the great expanse of water and thought I could hear the fat black flies buzzing around the kitchen, and a voice that wove through the air and whispered No son of mine…

 

Beefcake Heaven

There are some women who kill wolves with their bare hands. Yes, still today. And there are women who, after an evening of not feeling like they belong in their skin, snarl like wolves to the people they love. There are women who don the skin of a wolf, one they have just killed with their bare hands to gain access to some globally conspiring wolf-club.

I would settle for either as long as somebody else thought of me that way.

Arlo said in the kitchen, “I saw a cooking show with Donald Trump as the guest chef. The camera did a close up when he cracked an egg in the bowl. The crowd erupted in applause and cheer. It was the worst fucking thing I’ve ever seen.”

Arlo said before he fell asleep, “Thanks for having me tonight, Dave.”

In some academic circles, it is believed that space and time extend beyond the 4th dimension, into a realm of unnumbered dimensions, ones where everything in the imaginable universe has already occurred. My diagnosis occurred on this plane, but I think, it’s possible, that on some other plane it hasn’t.

We watched a light movie. The handsome, brave man died, but could still conduct his affairs from heaven (as all white males can when they die). The last breath from his handsome, young mouth was succeeded by profits, inducted into hot-male, last-breaths of history. And the pretty male angels with white wings and tanned shoulders took him up to beefcake heaven, where God was the Beefiest of all Cakes.

Three Short Things (In Progress)

Time for an in-progress post! If you have a strong opinion on which one I should continue, leave it in the comment section!

The Airedales, Sailor and Caesar, were descendants of show dogs with black and caramel hair that kinked close to their skin like the wooly surface of every rug in every basement rec room I have ever seen. The grace of their parents, who lay in feather beds beneath the mantle of Kennel Club trophies, was confined to their ability to catch the far leaping cave crickets that dwelled in the basement. I witnessed Sailor and Caesar team up against the pests and use each other as tables to balance their front paws, lift themselves in the air to catch a cricket in mid leap. Like two friends playing leapfrog, but with more accuracy and patience. Their old, regal parents would later be burned to ash, held in Faberge style urns that glittered beside the golden trophies, holding up the photos of normal looking dogs with winsome coats playing in the yard.

I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. If I close them again, will I see the same flock of birds? Will I see the same number of birds? The image in my head is neither fixed nor fluid, it is the same image yet I do not trust it not to change. I close my eyes again and again, seeing the same flock of birds and seeing a different flock each time, start off in the bare winter tree and take off to the right against the cloudy sky, the faintest color of lavender.

A tongue came through town with a traveling parade of spectacles. Gypsies, my mother scoffed and waved at the word like it were a bird come in through the flue. She wiped the sweat off her temple with the butt of her palm and told me to go if I really wanted to. The heat stuck on her skin and lingered in the air of the house, where the smells of our combined sweat held still in the windless summer. I could still hear the kitchen radio as I left our yard to see the tongue: And over the course of several days, we had collected thousands of rattlesnakes, weighing together about a ton. Take this moment to imagine what that sounds like—one ton of angry rattlesnakes all writing together in our bags. The program faded into a rattling static as a cloud moved to cover the sky.The gypsies brought wagons and tents made of rich cloth, designed in busy cosmic patterns and repeating images of naked women. We had heard the main attraction was not the great tusks of the fabled white elephant, nor the woman who could play a violin with so much heartbreak, the instrument itself wept. None came to see these as much as they came for a tongue, about six inches long, floating in a glass mouth. Although the show had only just arrived in town, the ground was worn with dusty paths and trails leading up to the tents. The grass flattened out beneath each ware-scattered rug, lit by lanterns shaped like stars. Women in loose skirts lifted up handfuls of brass figures bearing the image of a god I did not recognize. Men lounged against their tired dogs in the midmorning heat, each one giving off the distinct odor of oranges and tobacco. I followed the worn trail to the tent of the tongue and fell into the long line of hopeful observers. The jar was designed for the attraction by the glassblowing widows several towns over, who treated the material with love and ease so that the mouth-shaped jar, as it emerged from the hot flames, blew a kiss. The widows, their lives independent of crushing male rule, melted like the heated glass when it expressed to them this kind of love. Beyond the charm and whimsy of the jar, the story of the tongue itself was what captivated the audience. It belonged to a sailor of the seas, a lover of women and treasure alike. On a meeting with a Persian lord, the sailor let slip some snide observation and had this most vital muscle of the mouth taken clean out with his own blade. At the base of the muscle, I looked so close I thought I could see the ripped edges where the knife, at one time the sharpest blade in the boat, was perhaps neglected for several days and had gone a bit dull. Gone were the days—I heard outside the tent by the traveling story tellers—of the swarthy sailor’s charm, his tricks, and his humor. His favorite way to please women was through that vital instrument, whether through serenading tales of treasure and adventure or as he dove to part the hair between their legs and lick as if extracting honey from a freshly baked roll. Gone were his feasts of fish—bones and all—the ink-stained potato and squid in tough bows of pasta. The lord that stole his tongue removed not only the cruelties a man could do with just one muscle, but he stole the essence of the man with it. No more would it spit in the eyes of his crew. No longer would it curl around crystals of salt on the posts once the ocean spray had dried. No more would it mutter in the dark the early childhood songs from school, oh which weather would you rather skip along to my dear? We could bury the day or we could run away together through rain or through sun, as the boat rocked and daybreak was a skid in the heavy ocean clouds. I stared at the muscle, looking tip to base as close as I could to try and see beyond the tongue, into the language of the sailor—foreign to my own, into the warm wet crevasses of a woman’s sex—also unknown to me. I wanted to walk barefoot up and down the tongue until I understood exactly the taste of something sweet after tasting the salt of the ocean for so long. I wanted to feel the surprise of my wit in a room full of men, who laugh and slap me on the back and spit out their drinks on the table. I wanted to feel the dense flattening of those muscles beyond my teeth when someone told me I could not have what I arrived for, and taste the irony specks of blood that came from inside my mouth when I took a bite to the cheek. Indeed, the man lost everything. I paid to see the spectacle over and over. Every time I got back in line, I fidgeted and inched until I was back in front, facing the tongue, absorbed in its wonderment, until I was nudged aside by the people behind me, waiting their turn to understand what kind of dishonor would cause a person to lose this important tool.

24 hour story: January 18th

As you know, I’ve been subbing fiction for criticism lately, but I do have a short story in the works. I will have another 24 hour piece soon. Give me a week to clean it up and I’ll post it on Saturday/Sunday. It’s called “American Foursquare”, like the style of house.

Winter is hard. I took a second job for the holidays which ate up one of my normal days off, as well as the holidays themselves. My car is eternally busted and broke’d. I don’t play outside or ride my bike or get any fresh air and winter just makes me and my writing hibernate. All of this is bad for productive writing. I have been working on residency applications too. When I don’t write fiction, I at least have to write something.

Last year’s resolutions were pretty doable. I wrote more this year than any previous year. My goal is to just keep doing that and being more productive. On the last day of 2014, “Whales” was published , which was great because I wrote it in 2013. Not a bad turn over. Some of my newer work is still under consideration at other magazines. The collection I put together is being formatted, and possibly added to with this new story. It’s now about 100 pages which makes me feel really good.

There you have it. Updates and a new story up soon. Thanks for reading!

-Annie