By Julie Rea
Photograph by Reelika Ramot
The fireworks accident happened a week after Becca made her father cry.
Becca, age six, and her father played a game when she was in the bath and he was in the bathroom with her, shaving or using the toilet. She would say sternly that she didn’t want to be friends anymore; he would pretend to be devastated. Then she would say that she was kidding, and he would act like he had heard the best news of his life. But one day, Becca told her father that she didn’t want to be friends anymore, and he started to make high-pitched noises. It took her several seconds to realize that he was crying.
Covered in suds, she sat in the bath, watching her hands squeeze a plastic doll, not knowing what to do. She had never heard her father cry before. It was like she had thrown him a ball, his arms had fallen off when he went to catch it, and she had seen his insides in a way she shouldn’t have.
She listened to her father tear toilet paper from the roll and blow his nose, flush the toilet, and exit the bathroom with a loud clearing of his throat.
She looked at her bathwater with its islands and frothy coasts of soap bubbles, trying to understand what had happened. She had wanted to make her father laugh, not cause more upset. Her parents had fought the night before, fought worse than ever. From her bedroom, Becca had heard the raised voices, the front door slam as her father went out, and her mother crying. Now, her father was home from work because it was Saturday, and he and her mother mostly weren’t speaking to each other. When they did, their voices were low with anger. Becca had spent much of the day in the backyard in order to avoid the thick tension of the house.
When Becca was done with her bath, her parents went for a long walk in the woods behind their house. When they came back, they were holding hands. Her mother told Becca not to say mean things to her father.
Becca said she was sorry, but she was embarrassed for her father. He was a big man who played basketball and taught math at a troubled Portland high school. He was the toughest man in her world. But now, he made her think of that boy in kindergarten who had cried in class. And in the days after the bathroom incident, her father didn’t pick her up and swing her around after he got home from his summertime job at the Parks Department, like he usually did.
A week later, Becca’s father drove the family to the fern-carpeted hills of Northwest Portland and her mother’s parents’ house. They were celebrating Becca’s parents’ birthdays, both of which were in July.
In the back seat of the car, Becca looked out the windows at the bridges and buildings of Portland. She was glad to be going to her grandparents’ house, where Becca’s grandmother, after whom Becca was named, doted on her.
Strawberries grew in front of the grandparents’ house. It was dark, and Becca and her parents followed a trail of stones, illuminated by lights at foot-level, through the strawberry patch to the front door. In the living room, scattered couches and easy chairs were upholstered in pink fabric. On the walls were mirrors, clocks, and prints of Oregon flowering plants in pink frames.
Both of her grandparents were thin and athletic. They spent lots of time playing tennis at the Club (although her grandmother had done so much less since her knee surgery). Her grandfather was a vice president of a bank. Her father responded seriously to his questions, as if doing his best to answer a teacher. Her grandmother, who had skin the color of milk, wore silky cardigan sweaters and habitually pinned back her bobbed red hair in a particular way.
The family ate in the dining room that had a view of Portland and Mount Hood. There was a white tablecloth and old dishes with intricate patterns. Her grandfather sat at one end of the table; her grandmother sat at the other. Plates were handed around carefully. Everyone knew to mind his or her manners.
After dinner, Becca went downstairs to the finished basement, where all of her grandparents’ old things were. On the floor were baskets of glass Japanese fishing weights that had washed up on the Pacific Coast and polished agates, also found on Oregon and Northern California beaches. Fishing rods hung on the wall. Pieces of rose quartz sat atop books and photo albums. In the photos, her grandparents appeared in France, in Belgium, in Hawaii, and in a series of camping sites from their trips around the American West.
Becca found an old volume of fairy tales and sat on the floor, reading as she waited for her grandmother to fetch her to decorate her parents’ birthday cake.
The story Becca read was about the brotherhood and rebellion of a peppercorn, an onion, and a lemon that were trapped in a cupboard. All expressed a determination to fight their captors until justice was achieved. They lined themselves at the edge of the cupboard, ready to leap to freedom. But the cupboard opened and a hand reached for the nearest ingredients: the peppercorn, the onion, and the lemon. The pepper was crushed, the onion was diced, and the lemon was sliced and squeezed into tea. That was it. Nothing else but the beginning of the next tale on the following page.
At the sound of her grandmother on the stairs, Becca put the book back in its place on the shelf and got to her feet, feeling a little sick.
Her grandmother stopped halfway down the stairs, a firm grip on the banister for balance. She said, “Ready, honey?”
Becca picked up her backpack and followed her grandmother up to the stairs to the kitchen.
In the backpack was a sooty metal box that smelled a little bit like eggs gone bad and was about twice the size of a Rubik’s Cube. It had a big smile and triangle eyes cut into one side, like a metal Jack-o-Lantern. It had been the hit of their family fireworks 4th of July celebration a couple of weeks prior: the tallest fireworks fountain Becca had ever seen, the sparks shooting out of the box a good five feet or so into the air. And after the sparks ended, the box glowed from explosive heat. Orange eyes and an orange mouth floated in the dark. Becca, her mother, and her father laughed in happy surprise.
The morning after the Fourth, her father had asked her to help him dispose the carcasses of the fireworks that littered the street in front of the house. She had kept the foul-smelling smiling box because it was shiny (where it wasn’t sooty) and neat looking.
Now, Becca wanted to use the smiling box as an ornament on the birthday cake to remind her parents of that happy night, of how it had been before the fighting, her father crying, and the awkwardness.
Her grandmother led her into the kitchen. Aside from the cake and the plates on the counter, the kitchen was spotless and smelled of lemon-scented cleaner. The only sign of dinner was the hum of the dishwasher.
Her grandmother narrowed her eyes as Becca carefully placed the smiling box on top of the frosted cake.
“That smells a little funny,” said her grandmother.
“I know,” said Becca. “But we can take it off as soon as they blow out the candles.”
“I think they’ll like it; I really do.”
As always, her grandmother looked at Becca like Becca’s opinions were significant. “Okay, honey,” said her grandmother.
Her grandmother encircled the smiling box with candles and lit them. The long flames of the candles lapped the box as she picked up the cake.
Becca went into the dining room to turn off the lights. She opened the door for her grandmother, who carried the cake to the dining room table.
Becca worked the dimmer so the lights came half-on.
“Well—my goodness,” said her grandfather.
Smoke was coming out of a corner of the smiling box.
“What is that,” said her father.
That was when the smiling box began to spout sparks. The sparks became a fountain of colored fire that reached the ceiling. Sparks rained down on the white tablecloth and cloth napkins and fell into glasses of wine and cups of coffee.
Becca screamed, “Fire!” Her mother yelled at her father to do something and pulled Becca back from the table.
Her grandfather went into the kitchen and came out with a fire extinguisher. He tugged futilely at a plastic ring that locked the extinguisher. Her father went to help by sawing at the ring with a dinner knife.
Meanwhile, sparks left slash marks all over the tablecloth, napkins, and dishes. Part of the carpet was smoldering. A finger of sparks touched the window, and the drapes began to smoke. Red, white, and blue sparks blackened the ceiling.
As Becca’s grandfather barked, “Rebecca, wait!”, her grandmother approached the smiling box with a large rag.
The tower of sparks sputtered at if it were running out. Seeing her chance, her grandmother rushed toward the box on the cake, holding the rag before her like she was going to smother a wasp’s nest with it.
But then the tower violently spewed sparks. Her grandmother lost her balance and fell, grabbing the tablecloth and pulling everything on it towards her as she did so. The movement of the plate caused the smiling box to fall off the cake and onto the table.
The box’s fall didn’t stop it from belching a fire of sparks. Her grandmother fell to her knees, face-to-face with the box, her head and hands enveloped in a shower of sparks. It was like she was facing the firing engine of a tiny rocket.
Becca and her grandmother screamed.
Her grandmother was admitted to OHSU’s burn unit. Becca saw her the next day, when she visited with the rest of the family. The doctors were going to operate to try to restore sight to her grandmother’s blinded eye. Her hands and her entire face, aside from her mouth and nostrils, were bandaged. She wasn’t conscious.
Becca’s mother was on one side of her grandmother’s bed; her grandfather was on the other. Her mother was crying and telling her grandmother how much she loved her, how everything was going to be fine, and how the doctors were going to fix her. Her grandfather stared into space, refusing the chair Becca’s father kept offering.
Becca waited with her father on the side of the bed nearest the door. Her mother and her grandfather stood with their backs to them. Visiting hours were almost over, an announcement on the PA told them. Her father said that maybe he should take Becca to the car. Her mother, not turning, told him to go; she would be there in a minute.
Becca walked by her father, feeling like she was choking on the guilt that filled her mouth, black as tar. “It’s all my fault,” she said. But she wasn’t alone in the doghouse: her mother was enraged at her father for letting Becca sneak off with the smiling box. Her mother had screamed at him until three o’clock that morning.
Her father took her hand. “You were trying to do something nice,” he said.
She started to cry then. As she cried, he continued to hold her hand. She wondered if the kitchen ingredients in the old fairy tale, who had met their fate because of their resolution to do something good, had had any time to hate themselves for their stupidity before they were eaten up.
Julie Rea’s work has been published in several places, including The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, The Otter and Vol. 1 of Mosaics: A Collection of Independent Women. Her essay “Keying a Car” will be published in Vol. 6 of The Nude Bruce Review. She is a graduate of the City College M.F.A. Creative Writing Program and the N.Y.U. School of Law.
Currently, she lives in the Philadelphia area and writes about life in a wheelchair and other
By Alan Girling
I was sure that inside that box would be the biggest TV set in the whole world. From my spot on the arm of the chesterfield, I watched the two men unloading it off the truck. In those days, a new color TV was a huge deal. For me, it meant getting rid of the black and white on its wire stand and rollers, and no more going to Brady Lee's after school just to watch Monty Hall and Dark Shadows.
The men squeezed their way through the door and Dad greeted them with pats on the back. "In the corner next to the fireplace, boys."
My brother Stanley and I jumped and ran circles around them. "For crying out loud!" Dad yelled. "Didn't I tell you boys to stay on the chesterfield?" So we clambered back and started bouncing.
Months of talk led to this day. Dad was getting some success selling kitchenware. He said the TV would be a great addition to the household, a piece of fine furniture, a once in a lifetime deal. Not that he watched TV much, other than the news and Ed Sullivan. Years before, he'd catch a football game at every chance, if he wasn't playing himself, that is. It used to be his job, kicking goals for the Ti-Cats. After he cracked his knee, that was the end of that.
The men were shifting the box into place when Mom appeared at the door to the kitchen. She was wiping her hands on a dishcloth and standing stiffly like she always did when she came to check up on us. "Russ, no, not there." she said. "It's too close to the fireplace. The heat will ruin the wood."
"Where else do you suggest, dear?" Dad said. "I'm not going to rearrange the whole darn living room. Besides, now that we've got a color TV, when are we going to have a fireplace?"
The men laughed, and Dad grinned and winked at them. He gave a smile and a nod to Mom to let her know he was kidding, but she just shook her head and turned back to the kitchen.
A banner of tape stretched diagonally across the screen, "25 INCHES" written in bold letters, each letter a color of the rainbow. One of the men tore off the tape and attached the rabbit-ears while the other unraveled the electric cord. Dad stood with his arms folded, grinning and looking as satisfied as ever.
When it was ready, they turned a big knob and we waited almost a minute until the black turned to a dazzling blur of shifting orange and blue shapes. One man flipped through the twelve channels, getting the same.
"Aren't we gonna have Cablevision?" I asked. "I thought we'd be able to watch The Rat Patrol, like Brady Lee can on his TV."
"Sorry, boys. Cablevision costs money. You just get three more channels anyway."
"But they're the best ones!"
"There's plenty of American shows on our channels. Tell you what. You can stay up to watch Ed Sullivan Sunday night. The paper says Topo Gigio's on."
We loved Topo Gigio with his funny accent and big mouse ears, but Sunday was still two days off, and this was Friday night, the one night of the week Mom and Dad kept for themselves: hors d'oeuvres and wine in the living room with lots of adult talk. That's what they called, "having a fireplace."
"We can't wait that long!" Stanley said from the floor in front of the screen. "We want to watch tonight! Come on, Dad."
"We'll see. You're lucky it's not a school night."
The two men then came forward. One handed Dad a large, brown envelope.
"The manual and contract's inside," he said. "We'll let you play with the setup yourself. If you have any questions, call the service center."
When the men were gone, Dad dropped the envelope onto the chesterfield and shooed Stanley away. Then he hitched up his pants, squatted eye-level with the screen and began fiddling with the panel of knobs. I didn't expect much; he had little patience for technical stuff. Eventually, something like a picture began to appear on channel twelve. With the volume turned up, we listened to the sound. It was the ring-around-the-collar commercial. I thought about how it'd look in color. Dad reached for the rabbit ears.
"Hey, look," Stanley blurted. "The Big Show's on! Let's watch."
“Yeah, yeah, let's," I added. "Today's 'Creature from the Black Lagoon'!" It was a movie we'd seen a hundred and twelve times.
The image was stronger now, as good as our old TV. I could read the credits, hear the music, but still I hadn't seen any color. Dad said the movie was old and in black and white, that we'd have to wait for something in color. For ten minutes we watched until Mom called us for dinner.
I scooped my meatloaf, potatoes and peas into my mouth as fast as I could. But I knew we couldn't go anywhere until Mom and Dad were done. As usual, they weren't in any hurry.
"Just a few more adjustments and the set will be ready to go," Dad said. "Any good suggestions, dear? I'll leave tonight's schedule to you."
Mom looked down at her plate, shook her head slightly and looked up. She wore a flat but open expression. I knew that meant there was business to take care of first.
"I'd like to know if we can move it away from the fireplace, for one," she said.
"Well, you know, that might be difficult. I just assumed--"
"We can discuss it, can't we?" Mom's face was hardening now. This time, it didn't look like she was going to hold back. "This is my house, too, I live here, too. Come to think of it, I live here more than you do, all the time, in fact. So naturally I want to be comfortable and keep things nice. I do keep things nice, don't I? And that TV will not be nice for long with that heat right next to it. Or were you serious when you said we won't have fireplaces anymore?"
"I know it's Friday night, dear, of course. I just thought, it's a special occasion, this TV, and we don't want to deprive the boys, I mean, we can have our fireplace tomorrow or anytime, and sure, we can discuss the layout of the living room. You're a lot better at those things than I am."
"Am I? Or do you just not want to be bothered thinking about such trifles? Perhaps you'd rather have your live-in woman take care of it."
"Oh, come on, Joan! You know that's not fair. Here we are with a brand new color TV, a once in a lifetime deal. We should be feeling proud and enjoying it, but instead . . . well, all I can say Joan is thanks, thanks a whole lot!"
"Half-price is still too much to pay for colors I can see looking out the window or at the members of my family. And a lot more clearly, I might add. But it's your money, Russ, it's your money. You have your TV, your home entertainment, but I need to get out in the world and--"
Dad flung his napkin down onto his food, stood up, almost knocking his chair over, and turned to leave. I'd seen him do this before, whenever Mom complained about something, which was happening a lot recently. He got to the doorway of the living room and stopped, his fists clenched. I thought he might punch the wall or something.
"You can't let it alone, can you, Joan? I'll say it for the last time. No wife of mine has to work. Got that? But I'm not going to discuss it, not now, and certainly not in front of the boys."
Before she could answer, Dad disappeared. We heard the front door slam, then the rasp and sputter of the car.
"Go watch the new TV, boys," she said. "I've got dishes to do."
Her eyes looked tired, beyond the doings of the day. Even as Stanley and I got up, she stayed with the plates and leftovers. With a softness that broke the strain in her face, she said: "Sorry you boys had to hear that."
"That's okay," I said, feeling relieved and a little bit bad about being in the way. But I was free to run and switch on the TV, so that's what I did.
Stanley and I lay sprawled on the carpet watching The Big Show, the glow of the screen filling the darkened room. Dad walked in, holding a small yellow bag from Beaver Hardware. I didn't know what was in it, but I guessed he had to have something to do after storming out. He tossed the bag on the chesterfield, then stood towering behind us. I kept my eyes on the TV. I wanted to watch Daktari, see the African game reserve adventures of animal doctor, Marsh Tracy, and the cross-eyed lion, Clarence.
Dad sat down on the chesterfield with a thud.
"What's on, boys?" he asked. The colorless Creature (bright, reptilian green in my mind) battled the scientists who would soon kill him. When I looked back at Dad, I saw he was holding up a small sheaf of paper and squinting, trying to read in the faint light. The brown envelope from the deliverymen lay on his lap.
"Creature from the Black Lagoon," I said. "It's ending."
The colors in the commercials were a dazzling blur and when Daktari started, we saw Clarence staring at us with kaleidoscopic eyes, his coat and mane a fuzzy, cheddar orange.
"Fix the color, Dad," I said, but got no reply.
"And the eyes!" Stanley said.
Dad sighed and muttered something hard, like a word we weren't supposed to hear. He pulled himself up and walked to the kitchen, the papers scrunched tightly in his hand.
"They're supposed to be that way," I told Stanley. Dad now stood hulking and shadowy in the doorway, backlit against the glow from the kitchen.
"Can't you fix the color, Dad?" I asked.
On the TV, a jeep roared through the jungle, bearing down on us. The image suddenly vibrated, then split into two, a cross-eyed view of the world. Identical jeeps roared at us out of the trees, then drove right through each other like ghosts. Clarence reappeared, clear and whole, only his eyes askew. We laughed.
But Dad didn't answer or move from the doorway. I heard Mom's voice from the kitchen.
"Russ, come back in here," she said.
"Bastards! Goddamn fucking bastards!" he said, this time plenty loud enough.
"Russell!" my mother yelled.
I looked over at Stanley, but he was caught up in the show. Two of these words I'd heard before, but not the one in the middle. It sounded worse. I didn't feel like laughing anymore.
I stared at the TV for an hour. The show ended with everybody gathered around Dr. Tracy and Clarence, celebrating their defeat of the ivory poachers. Then Mom hurried into the room, turned on all the table lamps, hustling us upstairs to bed, "off we go, off we go now," not asking us how we liked the new TV, not even telling us to brush our teeth. But it was okay. I never minded early bedtimes because I got to hide under the covers and listen to old radio dramas on my crystal radio set. Tonight was "The Shadow" with another story where the invisible Lamont Cranston saves Margot Lane from the bad guys. Anyway, something was wrong with the new TV, something about it being there.
A banging noise from downstairs woke me up. I heard murmuring voices and what sounded like groans. Slipping out into the hall, I quietly made my way down the stairs. Before I reached the living room, I stopped and sat down, snug against the wall and holding my knees close.
From the kitchen came a wracking sob and an occasional moaning, like something sparked by the sudden memory of a deep hurt. I had to struggle to imagine who was making these sounds, but I actually knew. Then heard my mother's calm tones.
"I just don't understand, Russell," she said. "I just don't understand how this could have happened. They said half-price, right?"
"The goddamn fine print," Dad said, his voice breaking. "It didn't apply to layaway plans, only cash up front!"
"It's bad, you know, but, but for you it's nothing new. And that's the horrible thing. It's not the money. That's not what's bad."
"I swear, in the morning, I'm going down there with the TV. I'm gonna make sure we don't pay them another fucking cent, and I'll get everything we paid back. I swear!"
"You can try. But you know what? I don't care, I just don't care. This is just the last of a bad lot, and so many, that camper trailer, that insurance swindle, the, the, trip to Disneyland we never got to take because of you and your stupid . . . not to mention all those months of low sales --"
"Damnit, Joan, I've been getting good commissions. Things have really turned around. That's why we got the TV."
"Those 'good' commissions are gone, Russ. Sunk, in your wonderful TV. Things look like they're turning around and you toss it in the trash. Heavens, even when it's good, it's bad!"
"Our TV, ours! You never objected!"
"I would have if I'd known about this, if you'd let me be part of your deals--"
"Christ almighty. Don't you think I work goddamn hard every day to provide for this family? Do you think I'd flush hard-earned money down the toilet if it meant any kind of hardship for you and the boys?"
There was anger in his voice but also a sinking, a pleading I'd never heard from him before. My mother paused before she spoke again.
"Maybe you weren't meant for this sort of life, Russell. You were meant for football. That's the man I married. The man who could kick one field goal after another, win games, the love of the fans. That's where you belong. Not selling pots and pans. Not playing the sales game. I'm sorry you smashed your knee, it was an accident, I know, and I love you no matter what you do, but you're not winning at this. You don't know how, so you're losing. Badly. And I'm so very tired."
"So I made a couple mistakes. I'm doing my job, I'm doing right by you. You have a roof over your head, who got you that? Two great boys, your bridge club. You can't say I'm a loser, Joan. I'm not a loser, I'm not!"
For a long while, I heard only a convulsive breathing coming from Dad, the occasional cough. Then the tap running, the clink of drinking glasses. I should hurry back, I thought, but I shivered and couldn’t move. I wanted to hear more, wanted an ending, a happy one. No angry tired mother. No angry loser father. No old black and white TV.
Then my mother said, "Tomorrow, return the TV, Russell. On Monday, I'm looking for work. That's final. Now I'm going to bed."
I ran to my room. Mom climbed the stairs, flushed the toilet, clicked her bedroom door shut. Dad didn't come up during the long minutes it took me to fall asleep.
In the morning at breakfast, before Dad came down, Mom told us. A mistake had been made; the company had sent the wrong TV; we'd have to wait until we could afford the right one. There was no telling how long. I stayed quiet, but Stanley made a fuss, and Mom scolded him for not appreciating how lucky he was to have such a good provider for a father.
We weren't allowed to see our Saturday morning cartoons for the two hours it took him to come downstairs. When he did, we watched from the chesterfield as he took out a roll of brown packing tape from the Beaver Hardware bag and began sealing the TV into the big box. It was strange, that tape, as if he knew he'd be needing it.
On Sunday, we stayed up to watch Topo Gigio on the old set. I wondered whether Topo was grey, pink, brown or maybe some crazy purple color. Dad came into the room to say he was sorry about the mix-up, but didn't stay to watch.
Eventually we got our new TV, but for a long time, I couldn't really put Dad into focus, or see him whole, like he'd been split in two and would dissolve at any moment into a ghostly haze. I guess there were other late night talks, maybe even other times he cried. Just not in front of the boys. He did keep selling his kitchen goods, though, and Mom started working as a boutique clerk and was even promoted to manager, which was when we got our new TV, big, in full color, and with Cablevision, too. Not that anyone would call it a fine piece of furniture. At least I didn't have to go to Brady Lee's house after school anymore, he even came to mine. Anyway, it was thanks to Dad because it was pretty much understood in the family that getting a new color TV came from his long and hard work, and he was very proud of that.
Alan Girling teaches college in Vancouver, Canada, and writes mainly poetry and fiction.
His work has appeared in journals and anthologies, heard on the radio, at many live
readings, even seen in local shop windows. In his spare time, he helps promote the written
word through his work with the Royal City Literary Arts Society in New Westminster, B.C.
"Daktari" is available in audio form here
By Meagan Lucas
Photography by Reelika Ramot
It's four AM. I'm in the ER waiting room.
Jesse is here. I was sleeping, like usual, with my phone next to my pillow when the call came.
The nurse at the desk won’t confirm anything. Hollows hang under her eyes and her lips are
grey. I doze. She shakes me awake.
"Reverend?" From her movements, I can tell she wants me to follow her. I do. She leaves me in
the doorway of a darkened room.
He is shirtless, a bandage around his shoulder. There are dark valleys where skin sinks between
ribs. Even in the half-light, I can see the familiar, raised, ribbons of scar lining his torso. This
isn’t the first time I’ve seen Jesse in the ER.
When we met, he was the new foster son of members of my church. He was lucky to have
been placed with them. They'd been dealt a hand like this before. Unlike me, they knew how to
create boundaries for a child who would constantly push them.
Small and wiry, he was scarred and pockmarked, and buried in clothes straight from a rap
video. He couldn't sit still and had a habit of cracking his knuckles. I couldn't help but
seek similarities between him and my fifteen year old self. There were none. My own solid,
comfortable childhood something I've always needed to atone for. The curse of the silver spoon.
Jesse attended my Youth Group that evening and quickly engaged everyone with his self-depreciating humor, and enthusiasm. I didn’t think twice when my cell died and he lent me his.
Even when the police showed up at my office a few days later and accused me of theft, I still
thought it was a mistake. They traced a call I made from a stolen cell phone.
I could justify conveniently forgetting where the phone came from, by pointing out that the
church has long protected those who sought asylum. I could say I felt I could better punish
Jesse. But, after I mailed the phone back to the police, we never talked about it. We’ve talked
every day for years and it hasn't come up.
Sitting next to the bed, I kiss his palm and tears wet my face.
I've been in Sherri's shitbox apartment for hours, surrounded by her junkie friends, but haven't
seen her. Last night on the phone she slurred when she invited me over.
I close the door to the tiny bathroom. I lift the lid and drop my fly. My chest hurts. It's only
been a week since I got stabbed. Three days since I got out of the hospital. You'd think she'd, at
least, ask if I was okay. Exhaling, I try to relax and get a good stream going, but the door opens
and she stumbles in. My eyebrows touch in the middle.
"What?" she asks, too loud. "I wanted to get you alone." My dick is in my hand and my face is
hot and damp. "I think you should listen to Derek."
If she had wanted to talk to me alone, she shouldn't have invited over a houseful of people. I've
been fending off her asshole boyfriend and his shit ideas for an hour.
"You think I should retaliate, too?" I ask. "That's a good way to get killed."
"You can't let Patrick get away with cutting you."
"He didn't get away with it, he's going to jail."
"For like six months. You can't let him disrespect you. We aren't like that."
She sits on the edge of the tub and flicks cigarette ash into the grey smudged harvest gold
interior as I shake off, zip and pick up a dingy bar of soap at the sink.
"It's a little late to play the mom card."
"I've always been your mother," she says, spitting the words.
I put my hand on the door to leave.
"Wait, Jesse, I know..." she pleads. "I know. You have lots of reasons to ignore me. But,
he'll come back for more." I don't know why Patrick attacked me in the first place. There is
apparently a mark on my back.
"Derek knows where you can get money. Money... so you don't have to do it yourself."
"That's a fuck-load of money. If Derek can get his hands on that kind of money why..."My eyes
scan the peeling wallpaper and the grimy linoleum.
"It's the Angel's money."
A snort escaped. "Shit. So, I'm safe from Patrick, but the Angel's will kill me."
"Not if they don't know you took it. You ain't got no ties. They won't suspect you."
"He's, what do you call it, probationary. We're trying to protect you. The guy who stabbed you
is bad. He'll try to do it again."
"I thought you didn't know Patrick?"
"I don't." She won't meet my eyes.
It's hot as fuck and the AC in my ghetto apartment only drips water and occasionally hums.
The thing you don't know about money, when you don't have any, is when you finally get some it won't make up for years of being poor. I've got a quarter million of the Angel's stashed under
my bed, but it doesn't make it any easier to rent an apartment. Took me a month after I had the
cash to get anything. Those leasing agents all looked me over, from my hair to my shoes, and
they knew. They didn't even have to run my crappy credit, they could feel the bad risk in their
bones, they could smell the poor on me.
I have nowhere to go and no one to see. Melanie loved the ring I gave her until she found out
where the money came from and now it's back in a box in my underwear drawer and she isn't
taking my calls. A loud knock startles me. Hoping it's Melanie and she's changed her mind, I
hop up and run to the door. I fling it open. It's not her.
Two police constables fill the frame. I turn and run through the kitchen to the open patio door.
Jumping over the balcony, I land two stories below on a dry patch of brown grass. My ankles
and knees burn. I'm across the parking lot and through a hedge before I look behind me.
Hopping some fences until I find a yard with a kid's playhouse, I lay on the dirt floor. The house reminds me of one of my foster families. Their backyard was full of these kids toys, years
old, used and abused by their own children long before I ever got there. Still, I spent hours by
myself, making mud pies with my make-believe mommy, tucking in my imaginary brothers and
sisters, rocking the fantasy baby to sleep.
The sky is black when I wake. The night will help cover me. If only I were wearing shoes. Dan's
church is close, and he'll be leading evening service now. I can stay with him. Relief floods
me. The four blocks are behind me in no time and I'm standing in the parking lot watching
people emerge. I'm imagining them taking me back to their place for food, and sweet Jesus, air
conditioning as I'm hit from behind.
My head hurts. My mouth tastes like blood. My nose is dripping and my hands are twisted
behind my back. I'm yanked upwards.
"You are being charged..." a voice says in my ear. As he states the rest of my rights, I shake my
head and try to clear my vision.
They shove me into the back of the cruiser I look out the window to the front of the church.
Dan is standing there. His eyes are huge and his mouth keeps opening and closing.
I fucking did everything right. I followed Derek's plan perfectly. I shouldn't be here.
The courtroom bench is hard beneath me. It's been two months since Jesse was dragged across
the asphalt and stuffed into a police car in front of me.
Memories of Jesse and my daughters fill me to breaking. Jesse and Elizabeth debating a lyric
in an old rock song or puzzling out chords on her guitar. Jesse, with Emily in his arms, racing
across the field toward the house, red-faced and sweating. She had fallen and twisted her ankle.
Could this young man in court be the same boy who woke the entire house up at four AM on
Christmas morning to open presents?
Jesse has no one here but me. At first, I’d wished I’d let my wife, Bonnie come. She’d wanted to,
but I was afraid of what was going to be said. If I’m being honest, I was afraid what she would
learn would make him unwelcome in our home. It’s awful of me, but I still talked about the
long hours, and how unproductive it would be. I said: “I might even wait all day and then it
will be rescheduled. You never know.” That’s what clinched it. Bonnie hates to waste time. But
now, after the most shocking revelation, I’m so relieved she isn’t here I can barely breathe.
A man named Derek is on the witness stand. He admits to being a member of the Hell's Angels and he says he knows Jesse stole the money, and why. I swallow a mouthful of vomit.
A hitman. He stole the money to hire a hitman.
My skin is hot and my vision takes on a blue blur. What I think is a hiccup bubbles up my throat, it isn't until it bursts on my lips that I realize it's a laugh.
The irony is not lost on me that Jesse actually planned something. Jesse who has fetal alcohol syndrome, who can't remember to bring a change of clothes when he stays over at my house, actually planned something. Sure, it was a murder, but part of me is proud.
Putting my head as close to my knees as possible to control my whirling stomach, a small smile tugs at my lips.
I pick up the handset and agree to the connection. There is a hitch in his breathing, a shudder.
He doesn’t have to say anything.
“I’m coming,” I say. “I’m coming.”
I know I wasn't the first call. Part of me hoped Sherri wouldn’t let him down. But the other part
hoped he would spend his first night of freedom under my roof.
Driving down the street in front of the prison I see a dark figure hunched on a bus bench.
Bareheaded, his face tucked into the collar of a puffy vest. His thighs and feet are covered in
a skiff of snow. I stop and scoop him into my arms. I buckle him into the passenger seat and
crank the heat.
“Thank you,” he says.
I spot a picnic basket tucked behind the passenger seat and I’m filled with warmth for my wife.
Inside, I discover a blanket and tuck it around him. His favorite foods follow. I expect him to
tear into them with abandon. He takes small bites and looks out the windshield.
I’m going to take him to my house, even though I know it isn't where he wants to go.
Sitting on the park bench, we both balance our coffee between our knees. Jesse lights a fresh
cigarette off the butt of the last. He’s been out of prison for two weeks now, and out from under
my roof for twelve days.
“Your name is on a cinnamon bun for Christmas morning.”
“Thanks, but I’ve got stuff.”
He won’t tell me what is plans are because I’m not going to like them.
“Come over Christmas Eve, at least, the girls would love to see you.”
“I won’t be able to make it. But thanks, you know.”
We sat in silence for a moment.
“So what are you doing? You’ve spent every Christmas with us since you were fifteen, save the
last two. What’s different?”
“I’m going to see Sherri.”
All of the air leaves my body.
“They warned you not to come back. The Angels will kill you!”
He laughs. “Only if they know I’m there.” He's studying his toes, cracking his knuckles. “She is
my mom. I told her I’d take her to dinner.”
“But the Hell's Angels?”
“They won’t know. In and out. I’m safe.”
“You aren't. I wish you could see that. I wish you could see we love you, and you have been
spending Christmas with your family all these years.”
“It’s not the same.” Fury crept up my neck and wrapped itself around my head. He stood to
leave, I followed.
"I can't be a part of this," I said.
"I didn't ask you to."
"I don't think you understand, Jesse. I've been here for the last ten years. But I can't this time."
He walked away.
I believed Sherri when she blamed everything on Derek. When she said she begged him not to
testify. When she said they were done.
Yet, walking through the restaurant, past the tinsel hanging from the ceiling, I spot him sitting
next to her in the booth. I'm dumbstruck in the aisle. I'm still prison skinny, buying dinner with
borrowed money, and there he is, his arm around her, drinking a beer.
A scalding froth builds in my throat. My jaw clenches and my lips press together. I still sit down
across from her and pass a present across the table. I don't look at him.
"Oh," she said. Her hands shook as she tore into the paper I spent an hour trying to get perfect.
I don't flatter myself that she was wracked with emotion. She's obviously high.
"A cow mug," she said, pulling it out of the box.
"Yeah, I remembered you love cows."
"Yeah, you used to have them all over everything when I was a kid."
"Yeah.. well.. if you don't like it I could get you something else. I just..."
"No. No. I like it. Thanks."
She stuffed it down in the space between her and Derek.
"It's good to see you," I said. "Merry Christmas."
"Sorry, I couldn't come get you at the prison. You know, things happen..."
The waitress takes our orders. She brings the food and we eat, the silence only broken by their
whispering and giggling. I pay. They drive me to their new townhouse. It isn't what I'd call nice,
but apparently Derek has moved up in the world.
"So," Derek said. "What are you going to do now."
"Get a job. Get a place. Try to start over."
"A job would be good," Sherri said. "Unless you still have the rest of the money?"
"Police took it. You guys look like you're doing alright."
"Yeah," said Sherri. "The money you gave us helped. The Angels were pissed about it being
missing. But once Patrick knew what you were planning to do to him, he forgave my debt,
so..."A sinkhole opens beneath me, and I scratch and flail to keep from falling in.
"You owed him money?" She lied, again. "Is that why he attacked me? Why you wanted me to
take him out?" The sinkhole is getting wider and the only thing I can do to keep from being
sucked to the center of the earth is to scream. My anger keeps me buoyant. "Then fucking
Derek ratted me out to the police! Motherfuckers!"
"Derek was getting heat for the robbery. The Angels thought it was him..."
I'm losing the battle. My anger is used up and the sinkhole is tugging at my legs.
"The Angels would kill me... but I came anyway. You're a cunt."
Derek moved, and before I knew it I was on the snowy front lawn and she was throwing my
shoes at my head.
I ran, my footsteps echoing in the cold air. The night silent except for the occasional whoosh of
a car on a distant street and the creak of cold rubber sneakers.
The bus station is deserted. On a holiday, people want to be with their families, laughing, piled
into an over warm living room, eating cookies. Not riding a bus. That's where I should be, with Dan.
It's snowing. I tuck myself back into the doorway of the closed ticket office, rest my head on the
wall and doze. When my eyes open the formerly brown and mushy parking lot is an expanse of
feathery white. The street lights cast shadows of tree branches, charcoal against a canvas.
It's cold. I pull my arms inside the body of my sweater. I'm drifting again when I hear a new
noise. The whisper of leather on leather and the clink of chains. I slide my arms back into my
How the hell do they know I'm here? Two round the corner and I see the surprise on their faces
to find me in the alcove. The snow covered my tracks. I dash, but the bigger one trips me, and
the smaller one pins me to the ground with a baseball bat between my shoulder blades.
"You're not supposed to be here," one says.
One kicks me in the side, the steel toe of his boot making contact with my ribs. I hear cracking
and white hot floods my abdomen.
"We told you never to come back, " he says, as another kick lands, my kidneys, I think,
"We told you if you did, we'd kill you."
"And yet, here you are."
There are more kicks but I can't be sure how many. My mouth is full of blood.
"I'm leaving," I wheeze. I can't get enough air in my chest to get the words out. "I was here to
visit my mother."
"Who do you think called us?"
All I could see was the shadow of the baseball bat sweeping towards my head against the pearl
white of the snow.
I'm sitting in my chair, Elizabeth and Bonnie are finishing the dinner dishes in the kitchen.
Every so often I can hear their laughter above the carols playing on the radio.
His absence is a hole in my skin. I thought it would have been in the morning when I missed
Jesse the most. Maybe I would have missed him most when his usual heckling of my turkey
slicing skills were silent. Or when no one was here to share third servings of pumpkin pie. But
it's now. Now, when we usually would have been sitting across from each other, staring at a chess
board, solving the world's problems, that I miss him most. In the quiet, peacefulness of this
warm house, with the scent of cinnamon and gravy in the air, my chest aches.
Bonnie enters the room, "I'm going to bed, but I put a plate for you in the fridge."
"Thank you, honey. You know me too well."
"I miss him too," she whispers.
There is a sharp pain in my nose as my sobs break free.
"You shouldn't stay up too late."
"He's all alone out there..."
"Do you remember when Elizabeth was dating Bryan and we hated it? We told her she couldn't
and she did it anyway? But even then, when he broke her heart, she knew she could come to us
"Do you remember when your mother was so angry that you changed your major from
engineering to divinity that she refused to come to commencement? And you were devastated
she would miss something so important in your life over something so trivial? But you knew, you
knew even though she didn't come, that she loved you."
"Yes," I said, unsure of where she was going with this.
"You don't have to love someone's decisions to love them. He knows."
She kisses me on the cheek and disappears.
The picture window looks out onto the street. It's snowing and the brown of the street looks fresh and clean again. Heading for the stairs I pass the front table and deposit my wallet. My phone feels heavy in my hand. I don't need to keep it next to my pillow tonight. I place it with my wallet in the bowl before I go up.
I brush my teeth and put on my pajamas. Bonnie is already in bed as I tiptoe in and slip beneath the quilt. I watch the clock for three hours before
oblivion takes me.
Banging on my door wakes me.
"Pop!" Emily says, racing in the room, my cell held out in front of her like a bomb. "It's for you, it's the ER." I grab the phone. The woman on the other end of the line explains about blood and snow and baseball bats, my stomach falls out of my body.
"I'm coming. I'm coming." I jump out of bed, hoping it isn't too late.
Meagan Lucas is a Canadian writer, living in the mountains of North Carolina. She is
a wife, a mother and a handful of other things that never seem to stick. Her stories have
been published in The City Quill and Degenerate Literature. Meagan whines a lot about craving
carbs and finishing her novel at www.meaganlucas.com