Monthly Archives: June 2013

Comfort

The rules went like this: Janice cooked and Steve cleaned. Janice shopped and Steve paid. Steve punished Patrick and Janice tended to his wounds.

They weren’t his birth parents, he was sure of that. Yet it seemed perfectly natural to live with them as he had no memory of anyone else. No memory he could trust, that is. He called them “Steve” and “Janice” even to his teachers. They were both too young to be his parents, anyway.

When Patrick was eight Steve broke his collarbone.

Janice kept him home from school, paging through old medical textbooks with her tongue in the corner of her mouth. They didn’t have medical insurance, she explained to him, and therefore couldn’t go to a hospital.

Patrick had never lived anywhere more than two years at a time. Sometimes on a whim, because Janice wanted to sleep somewhere warm, they piled a few essential belongings into the Explorer and just left. Steve did it for her. He would do anything for Janice. His rages were terrible, but he never aimed at her.

He saved that for Patrick.

Janice got good at bandaging, if a little excessive. Patrick’s kettle burn got several thin bandages instead of one big elbow patch. She’d cluck and coo over his wounds, sometimes babytalking a little, petting them gently.

It wasn’t until he turned ten that he realized she never asked Steve to stop.

He didn’t ask her why, curiosity had been culled from him through his entire childhood. But last night’s scenario came to him suddenly during a cold spaghetti lunch: an overturned chair, a hair curler, Janice with her fingers pressed to her mouth, eyes bright with… something.

It was another year before he realized the rules weren’t rules. One day, he might not be allowed in the kitchen. The next he’d get in trouble for not putting the dish towels away. The arbitrary nature of the house edicts, coupled with Steve’s overwhelming zeal in enforcing them, percolated in Patrick’s preadolescent brain.

He watched Janice the next chance he got.

Four broken dishes. Lap. Belt. A classic.

Janice sat small in her seat, as if trying to disappear into it. She held her fingers to her mouth, jammed her knees together. Her breath came fast and heavy.

Steve stood, letting Patrick fall off his lap, and paced to the next room as if he were now forgotten.

Janice leapt into animation, making soothing hush noises, leading Patrick into the bathroom. Her hands were warm and damp. He found it oddly disgusting and tried to twist out of her grasp. She fought him gently but persistently until she wore him down. The strop-marks got a quadruple-thick layer of gauze, an ocean of antibiotic ointment. No peroxide, she hated it because it stung. When finished, she gave his back a little pat and admired her handiwork.

Patrick felt sick and removed it as soon as he could. Steve noticed, one way or another, and made sure he needed it again.

Patrick lay awake that night and listened to them have loud sex in the next room. This had been a natural facet of his life, just as much as the moving, and the beating, and the bandaging. Now he wondered. Now he thought.

Janice never had anything but love in her eyes for Steve. No disgust when he hit a child, nothing but mild pity when examining his wounds. The bandages. Always in excess.

He didn’t purposefully let the P.E. teacher see his back the next day. Or maybe he did.

That night Janice gave him a big hug and a long talk about foster hells and what a terrible place it was to go when you had two wonderful people to look after you and how outsiders didn’t understand their family. She looked at herself in the closet mirror while speaking, cheeks flushed, eyes lowered, smiling demurely.

He cut himself and put a single bandaid over it. Janice grabbed him and began to lead him back to the bathroom, but he twisted out of her grasp. It didn’t hurt. He didn’t hurt. When they thought he wasn’t looking, Steve and Janice exchanged glances.

The next day in the principle’s office there was a nice lady in a gray suit to talk to him. She didn’t even have to bust out the dolls.  He told about his unparents and their lives, the moving, the hurt. He talked on in a steady stream until the woman stopped him and he realized his voice had gone to a scream.

The police kicked down the front door to find a house empty of people. Evidently they’d started off right after putting him on the bus to school, taking even less than normal.  No note.  Not even a threat.

Patrick was in legal limbo for a while, and counseling. The man with the gray sweater told him in hushed tones that it wasn’t his fault.

He’d known that. He’d known it all along. He’d never even figured into the equation.

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Do they need chlorine?

“I’ll meet you through the doors of sleep,” she said.

After the accident I buried her eyes in the desert and headed out west. Seemed the logical thing to do.

You know California was all ocean? Anyone claiming to find a dinosaur bone in the Mojave valley is a goddamn liar.

I found their street front. The brethren were looking a little on the raggedy side, their habits didn’t quite cover their gills.

“Here,” I said, flipping the old almanac their way, “keep the change.”

Burnt motor oil and fish tacos smell surprisingly like grief.

I sat on the hood of my car and watched the sea seethe. Funny how the sun never runs away when you want it to.

I found a working girl watching me. She was a slight thing of pipe cleaners, red hair. Shy.

“I came out here to be in movies,” she tells the floor.

“Aren’t we all?” I ask.

Something like a shuggoth doesn’t leave a skeleton, only a bald, bare patch of oily space where it used to be. Damn nuisances. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live with ‘em.

For our first date, she took me all the way back.

“I kind of really wanted you to see this,” she says. Dimple in her cheek.

The universe explodes with a sound like “meh.”

I wake up and spit out seawater. My AC never kicked in. That was LA.

Her dad had his ashes scattered in ‘Nam by a pretty hooker. She made me promise not to divide her up so much that she could never come back together. The car did that for me, neatly.

Sometimes I wonder what I would be if I had finished twelfth grade.

Just for funsies, I smoke an entire pack of camels. Homeless dude dressed like a Santa pimp glares at my selfishness. A cop shows up and rattles the fence tines. Do I look homeless?

85 miles to Bodega bay, and my car transcends without me. I sit on my hood with her under my arm. Try to make her voice. “Hush.”

Around Thursday, I realize I haven’t slept in 78 hours. Depth perception goes. Coffee won’t do it anymore. Where is magnetic south?

A dream in the desert is like God touching my tongue. The whisperer shows me a rock where water lives. To stave off death, I cram peyote down my gullet for the trip. It barely makes a dent.

UCLA has their dig here. Some wag found what he called a tyrannic cephalopod. I know God is dead. But God leaves no fossil.

Some of her family walked with kinked necks. She had trouble closing her eyes. I loved her, for all that she was.

The world hasn’t made sense for approximately four days.

I get caught sneaking in under cover of afternoon. They rip her out from under my arm and let her escape into the desert air. My tears dried up somewhere around Texas.

I dream of water. There is a crater when I wake up. Some, somewhere, smiles for no particular reason.

I’m chapped. If there’s anything worth living for between here and a smoking wreck in New Jersey, speak now or forever hold your piece.

I wonder if heaven has a swimming pool.

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The Secret Miracle

He was afraid it was a tumor, and so his time in the waiting room was spent worrying little strips of paper into even smaller strips of paper. He did the same to his patient gown.

The doctor thumped his chest and felt his head and his testicles, and finally sent him through an ultrasound machine as if he were pregnant. Pregnancy would have been no less shocking than what the doctor found.

They were quiet at the other end of the bed, and, unless he craned his head to the far right, he could not see even a sliver of the screen. Of course he feared the worst. Finally the doctor turned to him with bemused eyes.

“You have a story.”

His mouth gaped open. “What?”

But the doctor was already wheeling the machine about-face so he could see. There, snug between his stomach and pancreas, was the lump of wonder. Relief filled him, as did pride. He tried to seem humble.

“Really?” he said, “a story? To someone like me? This is incredible!”

The nurse gave light applause. The doctor waved her down, but he was smiling as well.

“Now there will be more tests,” he said, “and a government inspector to validate it, but in my professional opinion it is a story.”

He thanked the doctor, shook hands with the nurse, and handed over his health card to be punched.

It was hard to go back to routine afterwards. He lived a mild, nondescript life with a mild, nondescript job as a filing clerk in one of the larger archival libraries. All day he worked as if in a dream, stopping at times to glance around him. Everyone behaved as if nothing had changed and, for them, it hadn’t. He now carried with him a secret, a fantastic secret that buoyed him up beyond his body, into possible futures.

He planned his responses for the congratulations, the slaps on the back tinged with envy. He would stay humble; he was, after all, a humble man.

He rearranged his assigned sleeping cubicle several times, wondering what was expected of a story host’s home. He bought food differently, sometimes going out of his way to visit exotic stores. When the black-framed envelope arrived in his mail, his surprise had long dissapated into happy expectation. He hummed on the elevator ride to the doctor’s office. There, he shook hands with the government inspector, a grim fellow whose teeth showed through his lips in bas-relief. He undressed hastily and did not bother to fasten his gown; the nurse did before placing the machine’s head against his belly.

He waited, this time in happy silence. The inspector and the doctor studied his screen, heads together. He smiled and restrained himself from swinging his feet like a little boy.

Suddenly, the inspector shook his head. Dread lanced through his happy mood, though he recovered nicely. He wondered if it was only a small story. He wouldn’t mind, he was a humble man. But then a rapid, muttering conversation took place, and the doctor started shaking his head too.

“Is…is everything all right?” he croaked. He was ignored.

The inspector shoved the screen aside as if swatting at a fly.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor said, “I’ll summon security.”

“Wait,” he cried, “what is it? What’s going on?”

The doctor looked at him, all traces of good humor gone. “This cannot be your story.”

He felt all the color drain from the world. “…what?”

“This story belongs to a woman,” the inspector asserted, “you cannot have come by it fairly.”

A panicked smile crawled across his face. “Wait, please, there must be some mistake—”

The doctor pressed a button, and the doors opened. Two heavy-set nurses flanked the aperture.

“Wait,” he entreated them, “wait, wait!”

They did not, because an untold story was a small miracle. But a stolen story? A crime unforgivable.

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Myrtle

They were making reserve contributions, but nothing ever made it to the bank. They’d stop in a back alley or some empty lot to fuck and afterwards George would light a Camel and Janine would sit there in the passenger seat with her panties still twisted around her knees and think about her grandmother.

Cribbage at 8, in bed by 10. She still thought Janine was going for her degree.

After about 15 minutes, her paramour would flick the butt of his cig out the window and drive them to some roadside motel so he could wash her impression off his skin. Then he’d go home to his wife and Janine would pretend to go see a movie.

Pulling at her faded bikini briefs, she noticed the trees. They looked like crape. Crape was in their name, wasn’t it? Grandma had loved them because…

Because they’d had her name.

“Oh, she said, shutting her eyes before they spilled over, “look at the trees.”

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