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Fan Voting for 2020 !Short Story Contest! Now Open

Sunday, August 23rd, 2020

First, read the Stories by clicking, here.
Now Vote, here.
One of our Judges has dropped-out–
review the updated How We Judge
Meet the Finalists, here.

Fan Voting will remain open until September 5th, the stroke before midnight.

As we post our Autumn Publication Lineup,
the link to Fan Voting will be readily accessible
from our Retro Navigation Panel,
somewhere around here

<—————————————-



So vote early, vote often, and we’ll announce the winners on September 7th.

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Okoloma

Sunday, August 16th, 2020

by Bryan Joe Okwesili

You are wrapped in Blynn’s arms, in his room, in cold southern Chicago. It is snowing outside; small small white balls toppling one another. You feel the warmth of Blynn’s breath against your ears making your nipples harden like pigeon peas. You edge closer, adjusting your position. You wish to inhale what he exhales. This is what you want your love to be- breathing.

Blynn is saying something about Trump and abortion and more Trump. You nod like every time, agreeing to everything he says. You also want your love to be like this- an agreement, even if it is one-sided, even if you think nothing evil about abortion, even if Trump was what Mama calls a poor harvest; Ngabiga, an experience. When Blynn stops talking and his silence melts into the dimness of the room, the whiteness outside reminds you of harmattan and you a suddenly engulfed with a sickening nostalgia for the place you called home for fourteen years.

You have been reading about Nigeria on the internet; the incessant Labor Union strikes, the fire outbreak in Onitsha Main market, the crawling development of Lagos and Abuja. You have read about the University Library in Calabar with an elevator that terrifies the students rather than amaze them. You laughed at the fight in the National Assembly and at the comic representations of Nigeria on her Independence Day. On the day you read about the xenophobic attacks in South Africa, same day Blynn brought a dog home from the rain, you locked yourself in the basement and sobbed, chewing your tongue because the jerking human with the smashed skull reminded you of the days you could not breathe. 

You imagine what Adazi, your home town, looked like now. You imagine the rash harmattan settling over the town like a shared pride; the ashened knuckles and elbows, the cracked lips, the bustling movements in the market, the old men rolling up in tiers, sipping dry gin. You imagine the ecstacy on the children’s faces; the expectancy of wearing new clothes dubbed ‘christmas clothes’. You try to imagine what Mama would be doing, where she would be. You try not to think of Papa but there he was, darting through your mind like a swift, silver fish. The memories you have of him we’re like the feelings that prickles the nape of your neck when you leave your house and can’t remember if you have left the gas on. You remember the afternoon he looked at you like he knew you from somewhere. That afternoon, when he opened the door, you were still in Mama’s dress, swallowed in it, dancing and swaying. He stared. You stared. A cock crowed; the world did not freeze, did not know it should freeze. At night, he called you to his room- a darkened space smelling of tobacco, stripped you and while he whipped, Mama cried, saying “hapu ya, leave him.” You were ten, suffocating. Years later, when you learnt to stiffen your walk and deepen your voice and Papa began calling you ‘my good man’, a literal translation of your name in English, you still could not breathe. So at night, you stole away, boarded a bus headed lagos- the place of possibilities, filled with people with the will not to unite but to survive. You had read that somewhere.

You knew no one in Lagos, so you slept under the bridge at Ikeja and soon became friends with other boys who knew no one also. You began to breathe. 

You searched bins for traces of sadine oil and leftover noddles. Bread moistened by morning dew was your favorite. Years later, in Blynn’s family home, sitted at the breakfast table surrounded by people talking about Africa as a town, you wondered if they knew that bread moistened by morning dew tastes like scrambled eggs. 

At a cleaning job in Main Lane, a man smelling of crude oil money asks your name and tells you you have the eyes of a mermaid. Max, you say, then you blush because of the way he is looking at you. When he asks if you would love to model in America, you do not know what you said but few weeks later, you are on a plane, revelling in the feeling about what you had read in a magazine- The American Dream. You knew someone here so it was easy to settle, to ask questions and get answers, to ease into the modelling life. The cash flowed in, quickly because you knew how to make white men feel. You used your mouth, your hands, your feet. You were their ‘bitch’. You were beginning to suffocate but you liked that it was called modelling and not prostitution. You were twenty-one.

Then you met Blynn at a park in Princeton, cradling a camera. When he looked at you, you smiled because you knew he had fallen in love. He wanted much. He wanted you to love him, to live with him. He wanted to hang your photo close to the smiling photo of his parents in his bedroom. He wanted you. You could have moved away, said no but you stood there, smiling and saying something about his too pink skin.

The snow outside is now a mass of fallen clouds, sidewalks and hegdes buried under. Blynn is still silent, still unruffling the curly hairs on your thighs. Your memories grip you. 

“I must go home, Blynn,” you say, slicing the silence, startling Blynn.

“What?” He asks. For the first time, he smells of tobacco. You walk to the window. 

“Max, what is wrong?” He beckons. You turn, looking at him 

“Okoloma. My name is Okoloma.” You look away, a little amused at his facial expression- a dawning wha-da-fuck that left his jaw dropped. You are not sure if this is how to breathe, if you wish to breathe, anymore. But, you are glad you remember everything, everything; because in remembering, we heal.





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The Omelet Maker

Sunday, August 9th, 2020

by Ross West

I flew to London to deliver a TED Talk that Rachel, my PR director, had arranged as part of the campaign to promote my newest book. Truth be told, it wasn’t really new, but an updated, thirtieth anniversary re-release of Europe on the Half-Shell, the travel guide that launched my career. The contract for the talk included a first-class flight and a suite at the Thames Westminster, London’s newest 1,000-room hotel. I found my lodging modern, efficient, crammed with every imaginable amenity—and completely devoid of anything even vaguely resembling a soul.

When the time came, I took the concert hall stage and shared with the audience some of what I’ve learned over the years, ending with this:  

In all I do at Half Shell Adventures—the guidebooks, the special tours, the television programs—I try to keep in mind the experience of the first-time traveler. Perhaps a little nervous. Perhaps unfamiliar with the local money, or language, or culture and customs. I try to help that person over their resistance, their hesitancy, because I know that waiting on the other side of their fear is a whole new world of adventure. Thank you.

I’ve listened to many profound and inspiring TED presentations and I know that mine didn’t reach anywhere near those heights. Still, when I finished, the listeners were generous with their applause and I consoled myself with the thought that they got something for their time. 

That night the TED people fêted the day’s presenters at a fine restaurant. Afterwards, in the cab heading back to the hotel I felt strangely unsettled, agitated with a disquiet I feared meant the onset of another bout with depressive thoughts. It would seem ludicrous to most anyone looking at me (the guy who’s told over and over he has the best job in the world), but I often sink into melancholy. I ask myself, is this all there is? Another airport, another country, another hotel.

Rather than return to my room, I rode the elevator to the top-floor lounge. I sat at the bar, sipping a brandy and peering down on London’s twinkling city lights.

It wasn’t long before a woman in her mid-thirties took a seat beside me and ordered a drink. She wore large round tortoise-shell glasses which had the effect of making her pretty green eyes seem unusually large. 

“You’re Colin Parsons, aren’t you?” she asked with a Dubliner’s pleasing lilt.

I get this all the time—along with requests for photos, autographs, and tips on good nearby restaurants.

“That’s me,” I said, which was about as clever as most of my responses in these chance meetings. 

She smiled awkwardly in a way that was somehow comforting, as if she felt as ill at ease as I did. 

“I listened to your talk today,” she said. “In fact, it was to see you I got myself to this conference.”

Our random encounter suddenly felt a great deal more complicated. I would proceed with caution, ready to make a quick exit.

“Oh?”

“I’m doing doctoral research at the London School of Economics on the tourism industry and its global impacts.”

I turned in my seat to get a better look at her. Deirdre O’Fallen, as I soon learned was her name, seemed thoughtful and forthright, a little shy—but definitely not a wacko. 

“Interesting work?”

She laid out for me the essence of her research: 100,000 flights each day, billions of passengers each year—and how each jet emits so many tons of greenhouse gasses, melts so many cubic feet of polar ice, pushes sea levels just a little higher. She pulled a thick folder from her bag, spread it open on the bar, and showed me articles from scientific journals.

“And all that destruction, Colin,” she said pointing to a graph with a line sloping ominously upward, “in twenty years it doubles.”

Our bearded bartender asked if we wanted another round. I looked at Deirdre. She nodded. While he poured our drinks, I thought about the sobering, even frightening tale she told. As to why I was being so very pleasantly ambushed….my best guess was that sooner or later she’d get around to asking me for something; likely an interview or, if she had ambitions of turning her thesis into a bestseller, maybe a letter to a potential publisher or a promise to write a blurb for the dustjacket.

The bartender delivered our drinks. 

“This work you’re doing, it’s so timely, so important,” I said. “If there’s anything I could do…”

She folded her hands in her lap and looked up at me. Her eyes were as sincere as any I had ever seen.

“The time’s now come,” she said, “for all of us to do what we can.”

*     *     *

After parting from Deirdre in the bar I made my way to my suite, my head swirling with thoughts. Some of what she’d told me I knew, of course, but only in bits and pieces. I’d certainly never faced up to the direct connection between my work and significant damage to the planet. I brushed my keycard over the door lock, the mechanical bolt clicked open, but I just stood there, paralyzed by a sickening feeling in my gut: I no longer had the refuge of ignorance.

In bed, I stared into the darkness. I needed to act, needed to alter the course of Half Shell Adventures. How could I do otherwise?

I repositioned the pillow under my head. 

If we shifted our focus from Europe to North America…all those transatlantic flights not taken, all that jet fuel saved…and if we reached tens of thousands of people…year after year…. 

The pillow still wasn’t right. I fluffed it. 

Change wouldn’t be easy—the company had gotten so large and complicated. European travel was what we knew. We’d found a sweet spot and made the most of it. 

I rolled onto my side. 

How simple it had been—highlighting Florence, Barcelona, Paris. But Provo, Kalamazoo, Bangor? Who’d buy those guidebooks or watch those TV programs?

I kicked the blanket off my legs. 

It didn’t matter. We needed to do our part. As Deirdre had so forcefully convinced me, it was the right thing to do. 

*     *     *

I called a special meeting of Half Shell’s board of directors—even flew Deirdre to our headquarters in Oregon to help (and yes, we did see the irony). I kept the subject of this meeting a secret, wanting the attendees to have the same eye-opening experience I’d had in that London bar. 

Eleven board members and company executives sat around the big table in the conference room listening intently as Deirdre presented her facts and I explained my vision. The company would take the high road, divest from our single-minded focus on Europe; we’d adapt to the rapidly changing world, become part of the solution, reshape the company into something new and sustainable—the Phoenix reborn from the ashes. 

When we concluded, I scanned the room. Eleven of my closest colleagues, people with whom I’d worked side by side to build what we jokingly referred to as the Half Shell empire. And each one of them stared back at me, devastated, speechless, and as if I had lost my mind. 

*     *     *

Six weeks later I returned from filming in Scandinavia and got a call from board chairman Kitt Jordon. He asked me to join him and company president Mindy Maxwell for what I thought was going to be an update on plans to transform the company into Half Shell Adventures 2.0. We met around a small oak table in Mindy’s ninth-floor corner office, surrounded by all-glass walls and panoramic views of Portland’s skyline and the Willamette River. 

“Let’s get right to the point,” Kitt said with the same no-nonsense tone I’d heard him use with cowboys on his Wyoming ranch. “The board can’t make any decisions about changing the mission of HSA without solid data. So we instructed Mindy and the team to prepare a comprehensive report.” He turned to her and nodded. 

“I’ll highlight our key findings,” Mindy said as she handed each of us a thick document. “First off, barring force majeure, we’re locked into the television contract for the next twenty-one months. That leaves us with a potential perception problem: taking a public stance against transcontinental air travel while de facto endorsing—” 

“You’d catch holy hell,” Kitt cut in. “Critics would scream bloody murder—call you inconsistent, or, God help us, a hypocrite.”

“The Book Division is where we project the biggest hit,” Mindy continued. “The Travel Guide Unit currently accounts for 83 percent of non-television top line revenue. All of our titles are on a two-year refresh cycle. If we followed your direction to stop updating the content, the books would rather quickly become…stale.”

“Competitors would jump to fill the void,” Kitt said. “And as for replacing those revenues with American guidebooks—that’s more pipe dream than long shot.”

It went on like this for another half hour. Our little gathering had turned into one of those interventions where family members step in to get the wayward drug addict or alcoholic back on the straight and narrow. They looked at me kindly and spoke with compassion while dishing out tough love in the form of facts and figures and charts with the arrow pointing in a downhill direction. Half Shell 2.0, they explained, was so misguided it threatened the company’s very existence. 

I hadn’t expected the overhaul to be easy, but neither had I anticipated such strenuous resistance. 

“Yes, of course there will be costs,” I said. “We won’t be the same old Half Shell—maybe we’ll be smaller, less profitable, have fewer employees. But just for the sake of argument, what if we make those sacrifices…for the greater good?” 

They looked at one another. Kitt raised an eyebrow. Mindy saw the signal and paged to the end of the report. 

“In Appendix One you’ll see that we hired EconoQuant to run a some analyses.  According to their assessment, full implementation of HSA 2.0 would decimate the company and at the same time, the changes would yield an overall impact on global travel sustainability of,” she paused, “approaching zero.” 

“The numbers just aren’t there, Colin,” Kitt said. He stared at me, saw the miserable look on my face. “But we’ve worked up a Plan B that splits the difference between a perfect world and the real world.” The old horse-trader was doing his best to sweeten a sour deal. “Give it a listen and see what you think.”

As they described it, Plan B would be a total rebranding—vigorously promoting HSA as a sustainability innovator leading the transformation of the American travel industry. I would become the spokesperson for a wholesale rethinking of how we vacation: fewer but longer transcontinental trips, more train use, eco-friendly cruises, biofuels, carbon offsets—anything and everything that would lessen ecological impacts. We’d roll it out in stages over the next five years.

“We also like the idea of you writing a book—a sort of manifesto,” Mindy said cheerily. “It would put you and your ideas squarely in the spotlight.” She spoke like a CEO, but her eyes were those of a friend.

“And a whole new television series,” Kitt added. “Sustainable Travel with Colin Parsons.”

“Using the leverage of your brand recognition,” Mindy said, “there’s a real chance we could move the needle.” 

I rose and walked to the window. Out on the river a motorboat sped upstream, slapping over the waves, the white chevron of its wake spreading behind. I watched it for a while, thinking about what they said, about how hard they were trying to find a way, about all that melting ice. 

I turned back to face them. “It’s not enough.” 

They stared with blank faces. 

“What we need,” I explained, “is big and bold and now.”

They had no response, which surprised me as I’d never seen either of them at a loss for words.  

Finally, Kitt cleared his throat. “I’m afraid the chips aren’t gonna fall that way, partner. We can’t sacrifice the company just because you got religion.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” 

“It means—and this is not where I wanted this conversation to go—but it means that if push comes to shove, well, you’re the one’s gonna end up on his backside.”

He was dead serious. Unbelievable. We had eighty employees and without them the company couldn’t function, but as far as the outside world was concerned, I was Half Shell. 

I looked to Mindy for some sort of support, some sanity, anything.

She shook her head, “I’m sorry Colin, it’s our fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders.” 

The lines had been drawn; our positions were clear. We sat in a tense silence, looking at one another, looking away.

“Let me think it over,” I said, rising from my seat. “We’ll talk again later.”

In a daze I wnt to my office and phoned Deirdre. After apologizing for the lateness of the call, I told her about the meeting.

“Are they genuine in their support for this Plan B, or are they just codding ya?”

 “Very real, I think, both of them. You should have seen Mindy’s eyes light up when she used the phrase ‘initiating the process of disruption.’”

“She’s got the gift of the boardroom tongue, that one,” Deirdre said and we both laughed. 

Soon we were talking about the nature of change, compromise versus ideals, the many paths up the same mountain. She was so bright, such a pleasure to talk with, her voice so musical—and as long as we kept talking, I didn’t have to face Kitt and Mindy.  

“We’re getting a tipsy bit philosophical here,” Deirdre teased.  

She was right, and we returned to a more practical discussion of my options. And that’s when I heard exactly what I needed: “Don’t you think that what matters, Colin, is staying in the game?” she asked. “The planet won’t be won or lost in a drizzly weekend.”  

*     *     *

Never had the staff at HSA worked as hard as they did on fast-tracking the development of Plan B—all hands on deck, lots of overtime, the office as busy on weekends as during the week. We set the launch for the Wednesday before Memorial Day, the start of the summer vacation season and the peak of media interest in anything related to travel. Rachel orchestrated a PR blitz that would begin with me appearing on Good Morning America followed by three non-stop days of interviews and speaking engagements, cable news show appearances, meetings with newspaper editorial boards, and on and on. She and I were in a cab from LaGuardia to our hotel in Manhattan when I got the call from Mindy.

“There’s been a leak,” she said.

“Hold on a second.” I relayed the news to Rachel, who grimaced and mouthed the words oh shit

“What happened?” I asked.

“An anonymous employee passed internal company documents to a reporter at the Times—e-mails, HSA 2.0, Plan B, everything. The reporter called, wanting a response. He said the story will be posted online at midnight and run in tomorrow’s print edition.”

We cancelled all the publicity events and took a late flight back to Portland. By early the next morning, the magnitude of the crisis was becoming clear. The Times ran the story under the headline “Leaked Documents Reveal Greenwashing at Half Shell Adventures,” along with a blistering editorial, “Half Shell Sells Out.”

The editorial included this dagger:  

…after calculating that the proposed virtuous actions would cost HSA millions of dollars, the company chose not to do the right thing. Instead, they ginned up a marketing and PR campaign to position itself as a global sustainability leader while doing virtually nothing of real substance. HSA has joined the rogue’s gallery of corporations publicly touting a concern for all things green, while behind closed doors pursuing only one thing of that color, the dollar.  

I had never given much thought to the term media frenzy, but now I saw reporters behaving like crazed piranha stripping the meat off some animal that had wandered into the wrong river. And I was that hapless beast. Social media took whatever passed as reporting and twisted it, coated it with venom, and disseminated it to a vast audience that made a sport of warping it further and adding more poison. I was the chief conspirator at the heart of their theories, the money-crazed, megalomaniacal spawn of Satan. Vicious memes and petitions of condemnation were being circulated; boycotts organized. 

Damage control became our fulltime occupation. We worked around the clock in the HSA conference room, the bunker in which we devised increasingly desperate strategies to protect our crumbling empire. On the third day of the siege Mindy said she had something she needed to discuss and invited me to her office. When we arrived, Kitt was already seated at the little oak table. He started out with some uncharacteristically frothy phrases about my contributions to the company—a preamble that warned me to brace for bad news. And it came when he delivered the fateful words, “a complete severing of all ties with Colin Parsons.” 

I felt like a plant ripped ot of the soil. Devastated as I was, I had to agree, it was now the only hope for saving the company. What followed was a flurry of meetings with lawyers and stacks of papers to sign. I didn’t argue, I didn’t negotiate. It was over.

While walking out of one of these somber sessions, I asked Mindy if she had been able to find the source of the leak. 

“Yes, we found our rat.” She made a face. “Of course, we can’t lift a finger—the optics.” 

“I want to talk with him,” I said. “If I’m going to be banished, I’d like to know why.”

*     *     *

I pulled the employment file on Jude Efferson-Lefarge. He’d worked at in HSA’s Accounting Department for a little over two years. He was twenty-nine, had a degree from an online college I’d never heard of, and claimed no dependents on his W-4. He had been written up once by his supervisor for using his office computer for personal business (which the reprimand cryptically described as being “of a political nature”).  

We met during his lunch hour, not far from HSA headquarters at one of the cement chess tables in Riverside Park. As I approached, I saw that he was thin with pale blotchy skin and a haircut that wasn’t doing him any favors. Resting on the table’s black and white tile squares, his flattened brown paper sack had spread on it a sandwich, baby carrots, and an apple. 

 “You must be Jude.” I said, extending my hand. “Thanks for agreeing to meet.”

“Sure,” he said as we shook, his grip limp, thin-boned, and moist. 

Settling into my seat, I said, “One question I’ve wanted to ask you is, well, what caused you to…do what you did? I mean, I very consciously built this company on my values—that everyone counts, that we’re all in it together. Did we fail you in some way, or—”

“Or fail the whole world?” He finished my question with a sneer—surely counseled by his lawyer about the whistleblower lawsuit they could bring if we retaliated in any way.

“The documents you gave to the Times, how did you…come across them?”

He took a generous bite of his sandwich and spoke while he chewed. “I was assigned a project…gave me special access on the server.” He swallowed. “I’m a curious guy.” I smelled peanut butter and saw a speck of purple jelly at the corner of his mouth. “What I found was like, whoa, smoking gun.” He ran his tongue over his teeth. “People need to see this stuff—how the corporate wheels turn.” 

I took a breath before responding. “And you were certain that what we did was wrong?”

He shrugged. “I don’t have to make any judgements. My job was to liberate the documents. People can draw their own conclusions.” He popped a baby carrot into his mouth and crunched it. “I really had no idea it was going to blow up so big. But you’re famous, right, so it’s like IMAX. God bless America.” 

“What about, I don’t know, context, extenuating circumstances?”

“Not my problem.”

“And if the company tanks, if you and half the people you work with get laid off?”

A mischievous smile curled on his lips. “In the grand scheme of things,” he said, completed the thought with another shrug. “Look, you got rich flying around the world consuming and polluting and writing your little guidebooks to help other rich people fly around the world consuming and polluting. Like there’s no tomorrow. But there is. And if it isn’t going to totally suck, things have to change. So what if people get laid off? Boo-hoo. Nobody cares if you write another book or get your TV show extended for another season—nobody but you and the parasites that depend on you.”

“How are you going to create this tomorrow, the one that doesn’t suck?”

 His face brightened. “We replace the whole cultural narrative. Recode all economic and political models—radically, from the ground up.”

“A revolution?”

He smirked. “Utopia on the half shell.”

“Everybody’s going to get on board with you?”

“We start with the kids—early, before society dumbs them down into idiot muggles. Old people and their obsolete ideas die off. The tipping point kicks in.”

“And if a few eggs have to be cracked to make the omelet…”

He looked at me quizzically, as if he’d never heard the phrase, then after a few moments of reflection said, “If that’s what it takes.”

He launched into his plans for recreating the world, speaking in a manner so energized, so enthusiastic I was reminded of my eight-year-old nephew breathily recounting to me the fantasy novel that had him under its spell—the evil dragon living on the mountaintop, the enslaved princess and her loveable dwarf, the magical coin, the sword-wielding hero. 

I stopped listening and took a long hard look at Jude Efferson-Lefarge, wondering how it was possible that this was the guy destroying a company it took us thirty years to build. With a thumb drive and a call to a reporter he’d altered history, wiped out Plan B, prevented all the good that would have come from it. 

He sank his teeth into the flesh of his apple and ripped off a mouthful. 

“Do you?” he insisted, rousing me from my thoughts. 

“Do I what?”

“Do you really think we can save the world without eating the rich?”

#   #   # 





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One of our Four Judges has resigned, and some Traffic Numbers

Sunday, August 9th, 2020


Unfortunately, our long-term contest judge Christian McKay Heidicker has told us he is unable to judge this summer’s contest.  He seems to be healthy, however, and we wish him the best.  

Tara and I have made the necessary decision to continue without him– and that our remaining three judges plus fan voting still offer enough variety in identities, style preferences and literary tastes in order to maintain a balanced, multi-voice panel.
View the new How We Judge page.

On some better news– here are the traffic numbers, three quarters through the contest:

In the last 44 days since
we announced the finalists on June 25th,
we have received 1,985 hits
from 881 unique IPs,
for an average of 44 visits every day!

Keep surfing through, as
the Omelet Maker by Ross West
publishes in one hour,
and throughout the rest of the contest–
including Fan Voting,
which begins August 23rd.


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Upside Down

Sunday, August 2nd, 2020

by Aditya Gautam

The following account was stumbled upon by a hot-air balloonist near the recently created Haridwar Space Station in northern India. It sheds some light on the chain of events which led up to the replacement of an entire city by a patch of sky in the year 2020. 

However, we make no claims regarding the veracity of this document. Reader discretion is advised: 


The tree was growing upside down. There was no doubt it anymore. 

No one knew what had caused this sudden shift in the tree’s directional preferences. The closest we could come to recognizing a triggering incident was the visit of a municipality official to the tree a couple of days before it decided to do a headstand. 

The official had come with a notepad, a roll of measuring tape, and two surly workmen with axes in their hands. He had taken measurements of the tree’s girth and its distance from the road and our houses. A few of my eternally curious neighbors had learned by hovering in his general vicinity that he was working for the latest Devbhoomi Beautification Drive. 

Devbhoomi, i.e. the land of gods, i.e. Haridwar, my humble city. 

Every few years, around the time when city officials and politicians have to deposit the fee for their children studying abroad in fancy schools, or when their spouses need a new car, Haridwar undergoes a Beautification Drive. 

It is impossible to predict exactly what the next drive will involve, but there are a few things which can generally be expected.

For example, to start with, as many trees as possible are chopped down to provide wood to the builders and contractors who are friends with the right people. The traffic routes are restricted, and diverted, and transformed to look like loopy crayon drawings of a child on the wall of a newly-painted house. Perfectly good roads are torn down to be laid out again while roads with as many, and as large, craters as the surface of the moon are left well alone like precious historical artifacts to be treasured until the end of time. 

A couple of days after the new roads have been laid out, it is realized that the plumbing which needed to be repaired has not been repaired. 

The new roads are torn out again to right this wrong. But, after the plumbing has been done and the roads have been laid down again it is discovered that the new road is 5.7 inches less wider than it is supposed to be, and the budgets are re-proportioned, and the road is torn out again, along with any remaining trees. 

This kafkaesque cycle of corruption and incompetence continues until the Beautification Drive is abruptly declared a success and comes to an end until it begins again. 

But anyway, not to digress too much, the tree was growing upside down. 

It was one of the three very old, almost ancient, trees in front of my house, in the quieter part of the city. The triumvirate had stood there long before shops, apartments, temples, and schools came to settle down at a safe distance from the city’s popular tourist hotspots. 

For all anyone knew, the trees might have stood there since King Daksha, father-in-law of the Hindu god Shiva, had held court in the same neighborhood a thousand years ago. 

According to the old stories, Daksha was responsible for the suicide of his daughter, and Shiva’s wife, Sati. As a punishment Shiva beheaded him, but later forgave him and brought him back to life by attaching a goat’s head to his stump. It’s a good thing there were no Christians around to see that, or they might have mistaken Daksha for Satan, their own cosmic villain. 

Apparently, Shiva had a thing for beheading people and then attaching mismatched heads to their bodies when he felt merciful–he did it at another time with his son Ganesh and an elephant’s head. 

The point is that strange things have a history of happening in our neighborhood. Maybe they had only taken a thousand-year hiatus. 

But anyway, not to go off on mythological tangents, the tree was growing upside down. 

It was first noticed by Jagannath, the garage-owner who operates his open garage under the same tree and hangs many things on the tree’s large tree trunk. 

Deflated tires, car doors which have come off their hinges, miscellaneous tubes, pipes, and extra-large wrenches, are all hung on the large iron spikes he nailed into the tree’s trunk years ago. He could have been an executioner if he had been Roman and if crucifixions were still a popular way of executing trees as well as messiahs.

Anyway, not to switch tracks halfway down the trail, two days after the municipality man’s visit, Jagan noticed the tree had shed all its leaves overnight. 

When he started to sweep them away with Rajkumar, the sweeper who comes to collect our garbage every morning, he found that some of the leaves at the tree’s foot were standing their ground and refused to come away with the brooms. 

He realized it was so because these leaves had sprouted up overnight at the tree’s roots. On the other hand, what had been the tree’s branches were now much thinner and more sinewy than any branches in the world. The longer ones had even extended themselves into the water tank on my house’s terrace to make up for the tree’s groundwater supply. 

By afternoon the news had spread all around the neighborhood and people had gathered around the tree with mobile phones, holy red threads, earthen lamps, garlands of marigold flowers, and pots of milk. 

Some of the women established a 2-feet-high idol of Shiva at the tree in an attempt to chase out whatever spirit had possessed it and turned its mind to rebelliousness. 

Rajkumar, the sweeper, asked people not to gather together, keeping in mind the government’s advice to maintain social-distancing during the Coronavirus pandemic. He was shushed away and sent off by people who declared that a man from the chamar caste had no place near this site of a miracle. 

A large white cow with a distinguishing splash of black on its forehead represented the animals at this gathering by chomping on the tree’s leaves. Those who suspected that the upside-down tree could be the manifestation of a god promptly chased away the cow before it could make a decision about this new taste.

I have thought many times since then that if only we had been less enthusiastic yesterday much of what came to happen may not have happened. 

Maybe, in our curiosity we went to the see the tree, to touch it, to worship it, to put up its pictures on Instagram, and when we returned back to our shops and homes we carried back with us the pollen of its upside-downness, and this pollen then was fertilized in us just like the Coronavirus in those poor Chinese pangolins and bats. 

Curiosity did kill the cat, I suppose, but cats have nine lives and we humans only have the one. 

Incidentally, the Egyptian goddess Bast is believed to have the head of a cat on her otherwise human body. One can’t help but wonder if she ran across Shiva sometime during her eternal life.

But anyway, not to hitchhike a ride on some mythological rocket and fly off into the sunset, the crowd which had gathered around the upturned tree also included my next-door neighbor, Pandit Mishra, a jobless man who sometimes moonlighted as an astrologer in the local newspaper. 

As always, Mishra did the most idiotic thing possible. He informed his friends at the newspaper about the natural wonder blooming in his own front yard. 

The journalists, however, were busy covering the way the rest of the world at large had turned upside down when faced with a pandemic. 

For the first time in history, India had trumped the USA in a scientific endeavour by spraying people with disinfectants much before the American President advised the Americans to drink bleach for ridding themselves of the virus. 

In Bengal, a man had held a party with cocktails based in cow-piss instead of alcohol.

In temples of capitalism such as California and London, homeless people suddenly found themselves being carted off to nice, comfortable hotels instead of jails and asylums. 

All around the world, conservative families which had prided themselves on their ability to keep women in kitchens and bedrooms began sending out the same women to buy groceries while keeping the men safely tucked in bed under two layers of disinfectant, five surgical outfits, and an astronaut’s suit. 

The banks, instead of sending goons in formal clothes to people’s houses for sucking them out for whatever they were worth, had started talking about giving their clients rebates on loans and more time to pay off their EMIs. 

Even the governments, in a complete role reversal, seemed to have given up on mooching off their citizens and were beginning to consider an unthinkable thing: doing the work they had been elected to do.

Maybe our humble tree had decided to aim for hell instead of heaven not as a gesture of rebellion against its impending murder but simply as a matter of falling in line with rest of the world?

Anyway, not to get so lost in the bigger picture that we lose sight of our own little corner in it, a journalist and his cameraman were finally able to leave the serious business of hate-mongering and fake-news-peddling to their more talented colleagues for visiting our humble neighborhood the next day.

The first person they met was a middle-aged stranger in a safari suit who had settled on a folding stool near the tree sometime during the night. 

The journalist asked him what he thought was happening here. 

The cow who had munched on the tree’s leaves yesterday sauntered towards them and the stranger petted it on its head thoughtfully. 

He told the journalist that this was a super-secret mission of the Modi government to dig tunnels at zero cost for installing Super-Fast Bullet Trains that will ferry pilgrims to and fro from Haridwar. 

The journalist loved this explanation, of course. 

He opened his mouth to pose another question to the obviously intelligent man, but at that very moment the cow decided to clamp down its teeth on the stranger’s hand. It had lost the taste of our trash-in-bright-polythene-bags, it seemed, in favor of fleshier alternatives. 

The journalist’s white kurta was sprayed with blood. 

He watched horrified, along with the rest of us in our balconies and shops, as the cow relished the stranger’s hand with the thoughtful munching that is characteristic to cows, instead of the snap-and-swallow generally expected from carnivore beasts.  

Ibrahim, a young mechanic who worked at Jagan’s garage, rushed to save the situation while the journalist filmed the incident with much hand-wringing and outrage. When the usual shooing away did not work to chase off the cow, Ibrahim took off a wrench from the tree’s trunk and drove it through the cow’s eye. 

The bovine gave the world a last red-toothed grin before falling down to the ground, and then, of course, died. 

An ambulance was called to cart away the profusely bleeding stranger who had gotten his 15 minutes of fame. A police van came to take away Ibrahim for killing the holy animal. 

By now the whole neighborhood was finding it more and more difficult to comprehend what was happening around us. 

Patience was running low, and so when the journalist, unfazed by the carnivorous cow and its murder, tried to interview us about how we felt about the recent incidents, he was uncermenously reminded of his utter uselessness in the face of crisis and booed away with the choicest abuses. 

Before slinking away, standing beyond the range of our shoes and slippers, he told us we would face dire consequences for heckling him. But we took no notice of him; there were bigger things to worry about. 

As the branches of our upside down tree bore deeper and farther into the ground, the ripples of its upside-downness began expanding like ripples in a pond. No one knew how to cope with them and get back to our regular lives of comfortable indifference and apathy. It drove us nuts. 

Some people worried that the idol of Shiva that had been placed yesterday at the tree’s foot must be hungry by now and milk was fetched from cows who still were herbivores.

It turned out, however, that even the gods were in on the cruel trick being played on us. 

When a woman reverentially raised a glass of milk to  the idol’s mouth, it opened its mouth and puked out a stream of rancid milk and bile. The shocked woman backed away from the abomination and raised a hand to cover her nose and mouth. 

For hours the idol kept vomiting out everything it had silently swallowed over the years. Every few minutes it would pour out from its heart also streams of blood that had been spilt in its name. 

The stench was so bad that some people began praying to Shiva to behead them and then fix them up with Lord Voldemort’s noseless head when he felt more merciful.

As the night grew darker, people began returning to their homes, silent and worried. 

We went to sleep hungry–because the fire in our gas stoves no longer had any heat–and thirsty–because when we turned on the taps, all they did was make a strange sucking sound.

The next morning, as soon as I put my feet on the ground, I knew something was off with my body. I went out to the balcony and the very act of walking felt like I was doing it for the first time. 

Anyway, not to nosedive straight into an existential crisis, I made myself a practical cup of coffee and came out to the balcony. 

By the roadside a few feet from my house, Mr. Sharma, a sweetshop owner, was talking earnestly to Rajkumar, the sweeper. It looked like society had decided to mimic nature in turning on its head: Sharma-ji, a Brahmin, was asking Rajkumar, a Chamar, to perform a pooja for appeasing whichever deities our neighborhood had offended. 

Rajkumar agreed to that sweetly enough but when Sharma-ji tried to seal the deal by shaking his hand, he got offended by this violation of social-distancing and walked away in a huff. 

A fortunate outcome of this incident was that by some strange mental association between honest workers, Rajkumar reminded me of the gardener in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. 

So, following the reasoning of Rushdie’s levitating Geronimo Manezes, I picked up a page from the newspaper and performed his experiment. As I had suspected, the paper passed underneath the soles of my feet like a hot knife through butter, or like a sheet of paper through thin air. 

The implication, as difficult as it was to process, was simple enough to understand: my feet were not touching the ground, I was floating a few millimeters above it. 

Now, it has been a few hours since my discovery and I am not alone in experiencing a reversal of gravity. The whole neighborhood has followed in my wake. 

Our tree is trying to reach hell, and we are going to heaven. Unless, those two theological concepts have also decided to switch places and we are on our way to cauldrons full of hot oil and mountain treks that never end? 

We are floating away from earth in slow upward spirals like so many oversized balloons, and we are as afraid as Harry’s Aunt Marge was when she found herself in a similar situation. 

It was a pity that the journalist we heckled was not famous enough, or we too could have been banned from taking flights, thus avoiding this unfortunate situation. Or maybe he was even more influential than Mr. Goswami and he had got us banned from earth itself?

We watch from above as the upside-downness extends itself further and the Ganga river begins to flow back home towards the Gangotri glacier. As the water level drops, many skeletons become visible on the river bed.

And now, what is that—what in the name of Shiva is happening to the other two trees, the two as-yet-blameless brothers of our green and brown black sheep? 

But, ah, forget it. Forget it. Après moi le déluge, no? Let these worldly matters not distract us anymore from what is staring us in the face: our impending death. 

The air is thin up here and when it goes into the lungs it feels as sharp as a razor blade on the cheek. It is so cold.  I would like nothing more than to keep writing and make sure that people know how the world is turned upside, but I’m afraid I am feeling extremely lightheaded and must now bring this account to conclusion before the pen slips away from my han








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Cookpot

Sunday, July 26th, 2020

by John D. Payne

“Eat!” I say, and I push the bowl out the door.

The vampire just look at me, with those eyes.  You know.  He don’t want the soup.  He want to eat me. But nobody eat Babulya Zharóvnya.

“Is good soup,” I tell him.  “And you too skinny.  Eat!”

He look some more at me.  He got eyes like the moon, big and silver and beautiful.  Very handsome.  Maybe he try to hypnotize me.  But nobody hypnotize Babulya Zharóvnya.  

The vampire take the bowl.  He nod his head, very polite. “Dear lady,” he say. “The aroma of your proffered sustenance has indeed awakened my appetite.”  He smile, but carefully, to hide the teeth.  Like he gonna fool me.

I no say nothing.  I just wait.

Then he bow, in his green velvet suit and red silk kerchief, to me, in my scratchy black sarafan.  Him, tall and noble, like a prince.  Me, a bent old lady with no more husband and no more children. And no more silly butterfly heart to flutter and swoon for lying vampires. Ha! 

He try again, whispering like a lover.  “It would please me greatly to take advantage of your hospitality.  May I come in?”  

“No.”

He lean in, as far as he can.  “The night is cold, and if your home is as warm as your smile, I would love to break bread with you.”

“You no breaking nothing in my house, vampire.”

He stand up.  “What?”

“You heared me.  Eat the soup, or I no invite you in.”

“Why?”

“You hungry.  You want blood.”  I point at the bowl.  “This soup got beets, hogweed, spinach.  Lot of iron, protein.  Nice and red.  Just as good as blood.  Better!”  Then I take a bite to show him is no poison.

The vampire think about that.  Then he eat.  

“Good.  Come in, Mr. Vampire.”

He come in, and right away he’s try to bite me.  But he can’t.  He just stop, like a statue. Because he ate the soup.  And nobody who eats from Babulya’s pot can hurt Babulya.  Ha!

I give him a smack with my big spoon.  “Bad vampire!  No!”

Then he turn to bat, like they do, and he try to fly away.  But I catch.  And I tear his wings with my teeth.  This not my first vampire. 

“Now you talk.  Who sent you?”

He just hiss and show me his little bat teeth, so I give him another smack.  

“Talk, or Babulya throw you in the soup.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Bats and beets is good together.”

“He’ll kill me.”

“Oh, too bad.  Poor vampire.”  I break his wing. “You want to live forever?  Talk!”

He quiet for a while.  I give him a shake.  “Enough!  You want a name?  Malchior.  He’s the one who sent me.”  

“Malchior, eh?  Good.  I deal with him later.  Thank you, vampire.”

“You’re welcome.”  He sound pretty sour.  “Now will you let me go?”

“Sure.”

I throw him in the pot. Nobody live forever.  Not even Babulya Zharóvnya.







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Pig Meat

Sunday, July 19th, 2020

by A.L. Diaz

I usually only get to go over to Mr. Montano’s house when Daddy goes, though sometimes I do get to go into Mr. Montano’s backyard and play with his dog, Malty. At least once a day we go after Daddy’s done working. I like going to Mr. Montano’s house because we stay there forever and he lets me play wherever I want. I like to play in his den, where Malty has his bed, while Mr. Montano talks with Daddy. The first time I met Mr. Montano, I ran into him by accident. His big belly cushioned me and I fell on my butt. Before I cried, though, Mr. Montano picked me up and lifted me in the air and laughed so hard it made me laugh, too. He sat me on his shoulders and carried me to my house. I could see the top of the neighbor’s roof from his shoulders. I did not get scared of falling, though. 

Sunlight never reaches the back of the house. The nasty green carpet and the wood walls make the room even darker and I like to pretend it’s a cave, a cave that smells like the butcher my mommy takes me to. In my cave, no one can yell or fight and everyone must like each other otherwise theyll hear from Malty, my guard dog. 

Malty is a big fluffy dog who always smells of meat. Mr. Montano says it’s because dogs are supposed to eat meat and that’s what he feeds Malty. He says that since he doesn’t have a family, he gets Malty cuts from the market. It must be true because Malty is almost as big as a bear. He’s even taller than me. Daddy says people need big dogs to do chores and that dogs make better company than mommies. 

I like the wooden bar he has. Dark rings decorate the top, pictures of bubbles in the wood that look like faces. Sometimes I go behind it and sift through the dusty green bottles and shake them just to watch the dark stuff slide up and down the glass. He keeps his toolboxes in his bar, too. If I duck behind the bar, I can’t see or hear anything. That is my favorite spot in the whole world and I would live there if I could. 

 The green bottles remind me of The Wizard of Oz and I pretend I’m Dorothy and Malty is Toto. Sometimes I open the bottles to smell them. They smell like pennies so I close them and leave them alone. Mommy says the liquid in glass bottles make grownups do stupid things that stick with them forever, but I still like to play with them. 

Mostly, I just watch the bubbles disappear when I shake them.

When Daddy finishes talking with Mr. Montano, he calls me back and I always drag my feet up the stairs with Malty to say goodbye. Mr. Montano gets his candy jar from the shelf and lets me get one of the caramels or those strawberry ones with the chewy filling. His house was the first place I ever tried candy. I make sure to enjoy the sweet sensation of strawberries and sugar that played on my tongue. I skip home after to the beat of my taste buds that tingle under the flavor. I like candy because it tastes good and makes me happy, that way I can pretend Mommy and Daddy like each other.

When we get home, Daddy sends me up to my room so he can watch football in silence instead of doing the chores Mommy says he has to do. When Mommy comes home, though, he can’t watch TV in quiet anymore. Mommy instead scolds him for not doing his chores. I ignore Mommy’s yelling and instead play with my toys and pretend I’m back at Mr. Montano’s house, playing with Malty and eating Mr. Montano’s candy.

One day, I ask Mommy why Mr. Montano lives alone. Mommy is planting in the garden while I help her. “Because his wife went to heaven,” she says.

“Why did she go to heaven?”  

 “You don’t ask people those questions.” 

“Daddy likes that Mr. Montano lives all by himself because he can do whatever he wants without anyone nagging him.” 

All the flowers Mommy plants are spaced apart by one of her hands like squares. She shovels out dirt with the mini shovel in mounds and places one flower in each hole and buries them. She doesn’t say anything. She probably didn’t hear me so I repeat myself. 

“Nothing would ever get done if I didn’t nag.” She pokes the hand shovel in the dirt next to the flower she is planting and pushes the dirt into the plant. 

“Daddy doesn’t like chores.” I grab dirt and throw it up in the air and pretend it is snow. Mommy ignores me and keeps planting flowers. 

I play in my dirt snow and I can see Mr. Montano’s backyard next to ours. We have a metal fence between our yards and I see him working on his tools. Malty has a bone in his mouth and is running around the yard. I shout hello. Mr. Montano looks up and waves a gloved hand. I ask him what he’s doing and he tells me he’s making sure he keeps his tools super sharp. Mommy tells me not to bother Mr. Montano but he winks at me and tells her it’s all right.  

I run to the fence and stick my fingers through the holes to pet Malty’s fur. “Mr. Montano, why’d your wife go to heaven?” 

Mommy runs up to me and pushes me away from the fence. “You don’t have to answer that, I’m so sorry.” 

Mr. Montano laughs really loud that it makes Malty bark. “It’s okay, sweetheart.” He grabs a big stick next to his house and cuts the top part with all the branches off. He gives it to me and tells me it is a magical scepter I can use to play with Malty. Mommy lets me play in Mr. Montano’s backyard with Malty while she talks with him. Malty chases the stick around but I ignore him to look at Mommy talk to Mr. Montano. He looks sad but Mommy pats his shoulder to make him feel better. I bet he misses his wife. 

I am playing tug o’ war with Malty when Mommy tells me it is time for dinner. I say goodbye, though I don’t want to, and Mr. Montano lifts me over the fence.

When we get home, I ask Mommy if she would miss Daddy if he died and she says no. She doesn’t say anything else to me. She makes spaghetti and puts a plate in front of me on the table. We don’t wait for Daddy. 

Today, I want to go over to play with Malty. Mommy and Daddy are not talking to each other even though Daddy bought a new television. They are super quiet and I tug on Mommy’s shirt to get her attention and she tells me to go play upstairs. I ask if I can play with Malty and she tells me to go upstairs again. So, I am going to Mr. Montano’s house. 

There is a sharp corner on the door to my backyard I cut my finger on. I stick it in my mouth and suck on the blood to try to make it stop as I walk over to the fence.

Malty always runs up to me and rolls on the dirt when I come to visit. I climb over the fence and kneel down to rub his belly and bury my face in his fur. Malty’s fur makes me so happy I cry. He smells my finger and licks it a lot. He tries to bite me and I slap his nose for being a bad dog so he stops. “I can play with Malty?” I say to Mr. Montano. I can’t see him, but I can hear him somewhere. 

Mr. Montano is in his shed and didn’t see me come over his fence. He sounds mad at me when he says, “He can’t play with you right now, sweetie. I need to feed him.” 

“I can help you feed Malty?” 

“Why aren’t you home? Won’t your parents be mad?” 

I don’t answer at first. I wipe my face and dry my hand on Malty’s fur. Then I try to braid his hair. “Mommy and Daddy don’t want to talk to me.” I tug at Malty’s hair, which he doesn’t like. I do it anyway. 

He walks towards Malty and me and says, “That’s a sign of bad people.” 

I pull at Malty’s teeth. “I don’t want to go home. I can help you feed Malty?” 

“Sorry, sweetie, but little girls shouldn’t play with raw food.” He lifts me to my feet and points me in the direction of my house. 

“I promise I won’t tell anyone.” I give him my hand to make a pinky promise. People can’t break pinky promises.  

Mr. Montano scratches at the stubble on his chin. “Fine. But only if you promise.” He hands over his pinky and we shake on it. 

Mr. Montano has a white freezer behind his bar, the kind Daddy has in the garage where he keeps the drinks Mommy doesn’t let me drink. Mr. Montano unlocks the freezer and hands me two rolls of meat wrapped in butcher paper and tells me to bring them into the kitchen.

Malty follows me up the stairs from the basement, bouncing in front of me and wagging his butt. He bumps into me and nearly knocks me down the stairs three times. So, I push him away and tell him he is a bad dog for trying to eat before we get his food ready. 

I am just tall enough to put the rolls on the counter. Mr. Montano finishes up in the basement and I can hear the clicking of his boots come up the steps.

“What are we feeding Malty?” I said. 

 “Pig meat.” 

 “Mommy only buys chicken. She says Daddy can’t eat pigs because he’ll turn into one.” 

Mr. Montano grabs two large knives from the drawer next to the stove. 

“Will Malty turn into a pig?” 

Mr. Montano rubs Malty’s wagging butt. “He’s already a little piggy.”  

“Malty’s a dog.” Sometimes Mr. Montano doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Once, he told me that soy milk comes from soy cows. He’s so silly. I ask, “Is Malty gonna eat his dinner cold?” 

“No, I’m going to stick it in the oven for a bit until it’s not cold anymore.” 

Mr. Montano unwraps one of the papers and puts a long piece of frozen meat on the counter. I stand on a chair and watch him take what he tells me is a cleaver and chops it into two slices. The knife blade crunches through the red meatcicle and he sets one piece aside and tells me to grab a pan from a cabinet down by the floor. He takes the pan and puts it in the oven while I play with the defrosting blood on the butcher paper. I draw a face for me, a face for Mr. Montano, and a face for Malty. Then I draw a rainbow. I put my fingers on the other half of the frozen meat and scratch off bits of it, some of it getting caught in my nails. I wait until Mr. Montano isn’t looking before I wipe my hands on my pants and scrape the blood out of my nails with my teeth. Then I put my whole hand on it and feel the ice melt under them. My hand sticks to the ice a few times before the meat starts turning squishy. I make finger holes where my palm is, letting the meat re-rise when I take my fingers off it. I like playing with meat. It’s so squishy. 

 Mr. Montano gives me a paper towel to dry my hands of the blood and tells me to go wash my hands in the big grey sink. I pull the chair I was using at the counter towards the sink to use it to reach the handles. It’s right by the window that lets me see my own kitchen. I can see Mommy getting dinner ready and waving her hands at Daddy. They’re so close I see Daddy rolling his eyes. He shouts, “Get over it already,” before he gets a can from the refrigerator and goes into the living room to watch his new TV. Mr. Montano shakes his head and draws the curtains so I don’t have to watch them fight. I make bubbles with the soap and Malty tries to chase them.

At five o’clock Mr. Montano says I need to go home before my parents start to worry about me. I want to stay, but Mommy says I shouldn’t argue with grownups.  

I kick at dirt and rocks and smash an ant trail as I walk home. The walk is not far, but it felt like forever. 

When I get home, Mommy and Daddy don’t even notice I left. I cry to Mommy and ask her why I can’t stay at Mr. Montano’s house. Mommy tells me old people go to bed earlier than we do.

“How old is Mr. Montano?” I said.

“He’s almost sixty.” 

“Is that why he’s so big?” 

“Don’t say that, it’s not nice.” 

I eat my own dinner with Mommy and Daddy while Daddy has his new television on. He likes to watch the news during dinner but Mommy hates it. She says it isn’t appropriate to watch that kind of stuff while we eat. The man on the TV with the funny hair says they are still looking for someone who went missing last week and Mommy makes Daddy turn the TV off. She forgets to use her inside voice and Daddy laughs. They start saying mean things to each other so I get up and leave to go play with the scepter Mr. Montano gave me. I pretend I am queen and that Mr. Montano is my new mommy and daddy because he doesn’t say mean things or forget to use his inside voice. Although Malty does. 

It is almost my birthday and Mommy and Daddy are yelling. They are in the kitchen and I hear something break. I hope it is not the TV.

When I go downstairs, Mommy is doing most of the yelling while Daddy is laughing. I ask what broke but they don’t pay attention to me. I try to get them to stop but Daddy hits me in the face by accident when I am behind him. They stop for a moment to say sorry, but Mommy goes back to yelling at Daddy for hitting her little girl. She leaves me on the counter to keep yelling at Daddy, so I get down and go to Mr. Montano’s house. I have not seen him for a while. 

Malty doesn’t greet me at the fence in the backyard like he always does. I climb over and knock on the back door, calling his name as loud as I could. I press my face to the glass and see Malty shaking his butt and running down the stairs to greet me through the door. Mr. Montano follows him and lets me in. “Why is your face red?” 

I cry and he picks me up and dabs my face dry with his sleeve and takes me to his kitchen. He sets me on the counter and goes to his freezer to get me something cold for my face. I let my sandals fall on the floor so I can rub my feet in Malty’s fluffy fur. I grab at bunches with my toes and imagine he is a cloud. But when I look up, I realize there are boxes next to me. I ask him what they are doing there and he says he is moving. 

“But I don’t want you to leave,” I say. He hands me a bag of frozen peas and I cry again. 

“You’ll be fine without me, sweetie. You’re a brave girl.” 

“I can come with you? I don’t like Mommy and Daddy.” 

Mr. Montano looks mad. “Now you listen here. I don’t like your mommy and daddy either and I believe bad things will happen to bad people. But you need to be a good girl and stay home. You can’t be coming with me. You understand?” He gives me a hug and I hug him back tight hoping he might change his mind but he doesn’t. Instead, he lets me take one thing to keep forever, but I can’t tell anyone. I take the candy jar that still has some strawberry candies in it. If he is not going to be there to make me happy, then at least I have candy. 

Mr. Montano moves away a few days before a bunch of police people come to his house looking for him. I hear the police man tell Mommy this isn’t the first time they tried looking for him. The first time was after his wife went to heaven. 

 The police people find the bones in Mr. Montano’s backyard that Malty sometimes hid after his dinner. I don’t know what DNA is, but it matched the missing man on the TV and three other missing people. Mommy says the police people found awful things in the freezer Mr. Montano has in the den, but I saw what was in that freezer. It wasn’t awful at all.  

The police ask everyone questions, the down-the-street neighbors, the across-the-street neighbors, my parents, even me. Since I spent the most time playing with him, they ask me if I ever saw Mr. Montano do anything or hide anything. They ask about the bottles in the den and if I ever saw what was in them. I never say anything, though. I don’t want to get in trouble. And I pinky promised.

For a long time, I look out my bedroom window and see police go in and out, carrying boxes and containers, dogs sniffing at the ground and people digging giant holes all over his yard. Television people come, too, talking into cameras and telling everyone about the search for Mr. Montano. I listen to all of them talk about Mr. Montano and what a sick-o he must be. Mommy even kicks Daddy out of the house because he let me play in Mr. Montano’s house.

After a while, though, I get mad and go up to my room to play with my dolls and the candy jar Mr. Montano let me have and pretend he and Malty came back so I can play in his den again.







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Sore Must Be the Storm

Sunday, July 12th, 2020

by Malda Marlys

Nettie was almost asleep when the condor crashed.

She spent every rainy night in the greenhouse. The friendly rattling of the ceiling panels was worth leaden midnight fatigue. She was old, and she’d earned the rest she cared to take. 

But not so old she couldn’t roll out of the way of falling glass. Gravity was too familiar a foe to catch her unawares. 

The oily black shimmer of condor armor froze her where she lay for a heartbeat, but denial was a luxury an algae farmer couldn’t afford. She leaped directly to the only useful question. Was there anything left alive inside? 

By the time she had her feet under her, the sheer, seeping volume of red and black put paid to any hope she had for the condor. Armor withstood a lot of abuse, but weight restrictions meant no secondary defenses for the meters upon meters of wing. The long, thin bones of a perfectly engineered fledgling only fared a little better than greenhouse glass at those speeds. 

Nettie’d briefly dared to hope that the condor had been slapped out of the sky by wind and not makeshift artillery. The half her torso burned away reminded her that hope was an indulgence, too. 

Security would send someone to investigate. Several someones with very big guns if they knew what they’d hit. Nettie took another moment the condor didn’t have to spare and sent the roof a repair order. The modified diatoms in her patch program were fast and inelegant. The hole would be one ugly smudge among many by the time the jackboots on duty made it to the farms.

The condor’s face emerged as her bots began to disintegrate and ooze away. Young. Enormous eyes. Ashy with blood loss, but uncannily flawless from a life spent inside her armor. She wheezed pathetically as she took back her own breathing functions. The bots couldn’t hold. Cascading failure.

Nettie guiltily hoped to see her still, have this over with, but the short battle ended with the fledgling’s eyes open.

“Hey, little sister.” Nettie needed a steadying breath before she pulled up her sleeve to reveal the telltale coils of ink she’d kept out of sight for sixty years. “Back to stardust soon. I’ll wait with you, okay?” She remembered the more formal words, but they felt wrong on her tongue, a lie after a lifetime on the ground. 

What was her pride to a hard dying? She’d be ashamed of herself later, when there was time to spare.

The fine mesh of carbon microtubles were beginning to show through as bots died in clusters. The armor was fighting for its condor and losing. “Who…” Such a small voice. All the kid had left in her lungs. 

“Me?” Tiresome old Nettie, ornery matriarch of Spillway Farm. Another deep breath and she put away her dignity for good. “Netwreck Shoal. Never made my wings.” Which was not precisely true, but she held judicious dishonesty a bit dearer than dignity. “I had cousins who did.” In a society of sisters engineered for perfection, you needed a way to distinguish closer blood relations. “You know any Shoals?”

Nettie didn’t expect an answer nor especially want one. What would she do with the knowledge? She was only filling the air with soothing noise. But the condor managed to speak again. “A-access?”

“Sure.” Which was easy to say. Nettie frowned in concentration and nerves long left fallow stuttered to life. The whirls on her arms crept down her fingers, halting here and there as they stumbled over scarred and wrinkled paths, shining too faintly to see.

If the world swam a bit with the effort, that was Nettie’s problem. Between gruesome burns and a syrupy current of failing nanobots, finding a place to connect to the armor wasted a few more of the breaths the condor had in her.

The condor’s name was Troubling Drey, and that much Nettie had expected. Dying unknown was all she’d hoped to spare the fledgling; she’d gladly have named her and held her hand if it slipped out of the armor in time. 

But far more data than that surged between them. The few nanobots hidden in her tattoos were all Nettie had to draw on. She couldn’t store Drey’s intel long before it would decay, unshielded and starved. A surface scan was all she dared. 

Nettie didn’t need details to recognize troop movements and transports. Ship specs. The locations of armories and refueling stations. 

Drey was painfully young. Too young to be away from the clifftop nests. Too young to know her own power or how to evade wild potshots in a stormy sky. Not much point in knowing if her priceless intelligence was a fluke, a last resort, or a clever ruse. It’d soon be a little more sludge around the algae tanks. 

Nettie patted the joint where Drey’s mostly-human hand curled under the bots. The answering twitch of her wing could have been a random spasm, but Nettie chose hope this time. An old woman’s indulgence. “Won’t hurt so much if you keep the armor to the end, but there might not be enough of it left by the time you’re gone. It’s up to you.” 

You was hardly out of her mouth when the bots began to crawl up Nettie’s fingers. Drey’s choice was made, and it wasn’t to buy herself a second longer. 

Nettie could have lost herself in mourning a fledgling who’d have grown to be the best of them, but she’d known too much of weeping not to look to the living first. 

The armor transition phase lagged and stammered. She had time enough to carry what was left of Drey to the incinerator. Nettie had to trust that no one in the house was awake to see their grandmother disposing of a body and glowing like a signal flare. Her tattoos burned wherever they met the newest burst of nanobots, magnesium bright against the night and not much dimmed by a jumpsuit and boots. 

The process nearly stalled entirely when the armor reached the imperfect ink she’d added herself. A condor chick hatched a bit too early, slow in the air, a liability to her sisters. A crash of her own, armor that devoured itself rather than let her die, hiding its remnants in the coils of her tattoos. Years of limping among moonbound algae farmers kind enough to take her in, kinder still to forget she’d ever been other than one of them despite a few peculiarities of her anatomy. A son and two daughters. Seven assorted grandchildren. A farming tunnel too close to a hydroelectric plant and cheaper for it. 

Nettie’s new armor haltingly folded her stories into itself, speeding as it grew, and it wrote Troubling Drey back on her skin. With nanobot reinforcements, her ink would just hold both their stories. She wasn’t entirely Netwreck anymore, a welcome side effect of traumatic transfer. The girl who shouldn’t have been in the sky that night would be returned to her sisters in all the ways that mattered, her more mundane remains fading to ash in the farm’s fertilizer plant. Condors flew light.

Nettie rolled her shoulders experimentally. Sinews and tendons that had rusted tight with age were loose now. Pain was all over for as long as she’d last. There was only so much of her left to give. Her armor slicked into place over the silver of her hair and the age spots on her hands. It promised to get her as far as Drey’s nest. They’d read the data there, Drey’s intelligence and Drey’s too-short story and Netwreck’s, entirely too long. 

They wouldn’t be overrun when the time came. 

And they’d read of a wingless granddaughter with a condor’s heart, one who knew how to operate the clandestine communications that kept resistance alive in tunnel farms and factory hives. Escape routes under a dam that led deep into the moon. How to hide counteragents to biochemical weapons in among algae tanks. Sisterhood that reached deep into the stone as easily as the stars. 

The half-repaired hole in the greenhouse roof was just wide enough. Netwreck Shoal spared one last look for the house, spread her wings, and flew home.

End










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Burning Monkfish

Sunday, July 5th, 2020

by Sage Kalmus

The crazy monkfish really went and did it. Not even he thought he would, but the proof is everywhere: the layers of gauze cocooning whatever he’s got left of a body; the trancelike pick-POCK pick-POCK of the machine breathing on his behalf; the tubes and wires protruding from every part of him like his viscera seeking mad escape; the pain, piercing the dense fog of sedation like white lightning; and then, of course, there’s his absolute incapacity to move. All proof that not only had he really gone and done it, but he had failed.

“Oh Thelonious,” the monkfish hears, though whether from inside the room or his head he’s unsure. In any case it’s right. It hurts too much to be himself right now. Better to just be the monkfish.

“Drew?” comes the voice comes again. This time in the room for sure. “Is that really you in there?”

And the monkfish thinks, Good question. How did they identify him anyway? Who could tell what anything was in all that smoke and flame? That couldn’t be a person in there. Certainly not little Andy Ballard. 

His crusted fishlike eye, the one not sealed shut, seeks the voice’s source, settling instead on a television hanging in a corner, angled down at him. And there it is: Times Square—which he honestly never expected to see again (nor anywhere else for that matter.) And there he is—or at least one would have to assume—no more than a flailing column of orange flare billowing black smoke across the sidewalk. COLLEGE STUDENT SETS SELF ON FIRE, the caption reads. Of course they wouldn’t use the proper term; not enough viewers know what “self-immolate” means.

It doesn’t bother the monkfish, watching it—and watching it over and again in replay. More than anything he’s shocked the doctors would even allow a patient’s t.v. to be on in circumstances like these. Did they let crash victims relive their trauma in endless loop on the cable news while they lay there helpless? Besides, he had expected all this coverage. Hoped for it, even. He just hadn’t expected to be around to see it.

“Well, welcome back you stupid bastard,” the voice mutters, closer now. And with an effort that ignites a whole new conflagration in his skull the monkfish swivels his head the slightest bit to the side—all he can muster and all too much—to set blurred sights on a silhouette that slowly sprouts features like night sprouts trees: a broken nose that never healed right, Vulcan ears too big for the head they flank, a permanent dusting of shadow over chin and cheeks and what’s visible of scalp beneath the brimless woven white cap with royal blue stripes resting atop it all like a halo. Only it’s no silhouette, the monkfish realizes in the next machine-assisted breath, and he tries to form his attending angel’s name but feels only the surviving nerves in his lips quiver, while what’s left of his tongue lays slack. 

“It’s me, man. Yusef,” his visitor says, sparing him the effort. “You recognize me, don’t you?” Leaning in over the monkfish he fusses with his kufi cap, finger brushing the blue stripe like it has texture. With great pains the monkfish slowly lowers his lone exposed eyelid, then tremblingly reopens it.

Yusef gives a small jerk of realization. “Wait, that was a blink, right? You blinked?”

The monkfish repeats the feat, this time with greater effort.

Yusef exhales loudly, stepping back and taking several deep breaths. “Oh thank God.” Then he chuckles, as though despite himself. “I’m sorry. It’s just…one blink for Yes, two for No. It’s all so Star Trek, you know?”

The monkfish lets the first hint of a laugh escape, fully despite himself, and a spasm of pain stills and silences him.

Yusef pulls a chair up close to the monkfish’s sarcophagus and sits. “So do you know where you are? Why you’re here? Do you remember…anything?”

No, thinks the monkfish. He remembers everything. Sitting down in the middle of Times Square. Pulling the gas can from his backpack and pouring it out over himself. Lighting a Bic. The flames and smoke subsuming him—reaching in through every pore, tearing through his clothes and skin like they aren’t even there…and then they aren’t. He blinks once again.

Yusef winces, hugging himself tight, and takes in a quavering breath. “Are you in a lot of pain?”

The monkfish slowly blinks once again…and after a pause, a second time. No point in them both feeling any worse than they did already.

Truth is his skin even feels like burnt fish: dry, shriveled, and scaly. Truth is the pain is the cruelest trick of this whole situation, thinks the monkfish. Long before Drew Ballard ever wondered if he’d have the courage of his convictions, he wondered what it would be like to burn alive. What he’s found is when you’re on fire, pain vanishes the instant it appears, as though in one moment the nerves fire on all cylinders and burn out entirely, like a surge through a breaker: the pain and relief almost canceling each other out, leaving only sensation. Whatever asphyxiation and shock don’t block out is fear, not pain. It’s panic, though when you’re ready for it, resigned to it, it isn’t so great. In any case, a dead nerve feels no pain; it’s when the fried fibers start stitching themselves back together, when a nerve is healing, that’s torture.

“Well, at least you didn’t immolate your brain,” says Yusef with his typical wry smile, disarming as ever, damn him. (Put that with his vow of celibacy and he had all the girls in the palm of his hand.) The monkfish blinks once, then shifts his gaze to the window, peering out at the visible stripe of city beneath the curtain, grotesque and distant, making the pale, sterile room feel all the more like some anemic limbo.

Following his gaze, Yusef says, “Yeah, it’s the next day, by the way,” adding with an ominous wiggle of the fingers, “The day after,” and caps it with a self-conscious snort. “In case you’re wondering.”

The monkfish hadn’t been, though now that Yusef mentions it, the passage of time does bear some measure of interest. It’s a new day, when he’d been sure all of them were behind him.

“You’ve been in surgery all night,” Yusef continues. “You only came out of critical this morning, which is also when they finally identified you…or I identified you, is more like it.” He stands up and starts pacing the narrow moat between the monkfish and the life support equipment surrounding him, keeping him tethered here. “Do you know what it’s like to tell the police you think you know the guy who just burned himself alive in Times Square? They tell you to bring down one of his personal items, like his comb or toothbrush. You ever collect a DNA sample for someone to identify your friend? Something tells me not.”

And the monkfish thinks, So that’s how they did it.

“You realize the entire ride over I was convinced that by the time I got here I’d be identifying a dead man?”

Not far off, thinks the monkfish. Why isn’t he dead? Not enough gas is his first answer. Damn do-gooders, his second. That’s the part the news reports keep focusing on now: all the Good Samaritans rushing to his aid, the hordes converging to smother the blaze with their coats, dial 9-1-1, clear a path for the rescuers—the anchors at the studio intermittently thanking the “Citizen Reporters” at home who sent in footage of the incident shot with their phones. Now those folks had the right idea, thinks the monkfish. They should’ve let him burn.  

“Well, I know it seems bad now, but you hang in there, man. You’ll pull through this. The doctors say they’ve done all they can now. From here on out it’s all up to you, you know. At this point, the power to beat this is all within you.”

He hadn’t, but that explains why he’s still here, swimming in the in-between: to make a decision. One he could’ve sworn he’d made already. 

“You just have to want it bad enough.” Just then the monkfish feels a strange pressure against his shoulder, sending a searing pain radiating in every direction throughout him. He trembles and Yusef withdraws like from an open flame. “Sorry.” He backs up, glances to the door. “Well, your family’s on their way. They should be here in a few hou–”

The monkfish flounders out two blinks. 

“Excuse me?”

Two. Blinks.

No? What do you mean, no? You think you can pull a stunt like this and they’re not going to come running?”

But they can’t! thinks the monkfish. They can’t come here, they have lives. Blink blink. They can’t see him like this. He can’t see them like this. Blink blink. What are they thinking? Mom can’t get off work, Ty’s got practice, and their dad would have to fly in from wherever the hell he is right now. Blink blink. Besides they can’t even stand to be in the same room together! How do they all expect to cram in here around him? Blink blink. It’s not supposed to be like this. This is all wrong. Blink blink. There’s no reason for it. Nothing to come of it. Blink blink. Nothing to see here, folks. Keep back, everybody keep back til they get this fire extinguished! Blinkblinkblinkblinkblinkblinkblink…

An alarm wails and the door is flung open and a blizzard of people in scrubs rush in and Yusef reels, receding behind them, as the monkfish flops and flails on his slab, as unsure as anyone whether it’s life he’s fighting for or its opposite.

*

The monkfish is greeted by three visitors.

The first is a strange spindly woman leaning over him with clasped hands and a sympathetic frown. She says she’s a grief counselor and wants him to know that what he’s going through is normal. She says death isn’t the only kind of loss we grieve. She thinks the monkfish is just another burn survivor. She says the symptoms of grief are: disbelief, sadness, sorrow, fear, vulnerability, anger, rage, guilt, impaired concentration, diminished self-concern, search for meaning, social withdrawal, sleep or appetite disturbance, decreased motivation, and spiritual confusion. By that reasoning, thinks the monkfish, Drew Ballard’s been grieving his whole life; but for what? The counselor leaves behind some literature.

His second visitor is a nurse there to change his dressings. She cleanses his burns with antiseptics, then scrapes off dead skin cells, old ointment residue, and a rancid pinkish pus with some archaic cheese grater device. It’s the most pain he’s ever felt; burning alive didn’t come close. She tells him someone will be coming in to do this every 6 hours.

His third visitor is a cop, staring down at him accusingly. He has some questions he’d like to ask.

Did someone put him up to this?

Did he have accomplices?

Any terrorist affiliations?

And for the first time the monkfish wonders if he could be in trouble for this. And the cop, as though reading the expression beneath the bandages, says he’s just gathering information…for now.

*

“I remember the first time I first saw that guy,” the monkfish hears beside him, and he opens his eyes—the covered and the bare—blinking once…twice. Three times. How long was he out? He looks to the window to see the dark sky edging through the curtain like so much smoke and ash.

“Day one of college and I open the door to my freshman dorm to find him–” Yusef is saying from the chair at the monkfish’s bedside, his gaze fixed on the t.v. where filling the screen is Drew Ballard—or ANDREW BALLARD JR., to go by the caption. His high school yearbook photo. Gold-flecked curls, piercing glare, cocksure grin. A young god.

A stranger.

“You,” Yusef continues, a bit defiant, senses the monkfish, “with your boxes stacked around you, practically to the ceiling. Wearing that same letterman jacket, despite how they kept it a furnace in those dorms. For a while I think you even slept in the blessed thing. And there I am with my one suitcase. You asked where I was from and when I said Jersey City I thought I saw your brain short-circuit.”

The monkfish remembers, the flush of embarrassment turning the heat up even higher inside his cocoon. How many photos like that had he seen before on the t.v. news in his lifetime? Did he ever think about the people behind those snapshots, even once? Were they any more real to him than the characters in the series’ he followed? How real was that kid on the screen now? The one with the perfect pearly whites and unblemished skin. How real had he ever been?

“And now look at you,” Yusef adds, as though feigning playfulness, though coming off only bitter.  

In the ensuing silence the monkfish believes he can hear the beeping of all the EKGs in all the rooms on his hall and the floors above and below. And he notices how they all seem to be communicating, as though seeking a consensus but never quite reaching it. 

“They didn’t find a note,” Yusef eventually continues. “What, did you leave it in your pocket?” He allows himself a half-hearted chuckle for that. “What kind of protest is that anyway? People don’t even know what you’re protesting.”

This shocks the monkfish almost more than the fact of his survival, especially coming from Yusef. Of all people. Why, in Yusef’s mother’s own native country women light themselves up through to this day in order to escape domestic abuse. While in India over the years thousands of young folks have been doing it to protest the class system. Across Eastern Europe people have been doing it to protest political oppression. While the “original” burning monk, and all those throughout China and Tibet who came after, have been doing it to protest religious oppression. Why does it have to be one thing, the monkfish wonders. How much can one body endure?

“The cops even asked me if you’re Buddhist,” Yusef says with a snort. “Don’t worry. I told them you’re about as spiritual as a peanut.”

The monkfish spasms with the effort to squelch another laugh.

“Of course as far as I’m concerned it’s all that damn poster’s fault.” Yusef’s face bears that same muddled distress the monkfish remembers from that day he stood there in the open doorway to their room gaping, not unlike that first time, at what his unlikely pairing from the Office of Housing was thrusting upon him now. A poster Drew was in the midst of tacking onto the wall over his bed—which meant directly across from Yusef’s—that showed a man in saffron robes sitting crosslegged in the center of an urban intersection with a moat of flames enveloping him around the waist, more flames shooting from him in sheets into the wind. “What is that?” Yusef had asked with disgust. 

“What, were you asleep this morning in Poli-Sci?” Drew shot over his shoulder. “It’s the Burning Monk.”

The class had been discussing citizen action, namely how a single individual could make a difference in this world. To help spur the conversation the professor had pulled up this image, explaining the Pulitzer prize winning photo was taken in 1963 in downtown Saigon of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc self-immolating in protest of persecution by the Chinese government. The professor had meant for it both to demonstrate how far one person could go to make a statement without hurting anyone but themselves (or at least ostensibly, as the subsequent student debate revealed) and to raise the question of whether even such extreme and terminal action was effective in producing any proactive results whatsoever.

“I know what it is,” said Yusef, grimacing. “What I want to know is what it’s doing in our room.” Then with a furtive glance up and down the hall, he stepped into the room and shut the door behind him, lowering his voice to add, “Please take it down. I don’t want to look at that every morning and night.”

“You mean you don’t like it?”

“It’s a man burning alive! What’s to like?”

At that, Drew paused to lean back and stare at the poster, squinting as though to check that he’d hung it straight, before replying, “You know, the first time I saw this was in high school. My friend Jason was a big metalhead and when he brought home the first Rage Against the Machine album the day it came out this was the cover art.” Stepping back off the bed without breaking his gaze he continued, “How do they put it? If I’ve looked at this picture once I must’ve looked at it a thousand times? That’s a fact. Yet in all that time I never really noticed it, you know? I mean, I’m not blind or stupid. It’s not like I couldn’t see it showed a man burning. I just thought it was sick, which was cool then. Beyond that I never gave it much thought.”

“So why now? What changed?”

Finally Drew’s gaze diverted from the poster to Yusef, across the room gawking at him. Drew returned the look, wanting to say, Hello? Have you looked in the mirror lately? Instead all he said was, “Forget it. The poster stays.”

“Even your idol left a note,” Yusef voice accuses from the monkfish’s bedside.

The Letter of Heart’s Blood, thinks the monkfish. That’s what Duc’s fellow monks called it, because after they cremated what was left of his body his heart wouldn’t burn. Drew Ballard’s heart had been first to burn, long before striking the match. So if any flames actually reached it, they would no doubt have found it already charred beyond any further burning. 

“You know why?” Yusef rails on. “Because he gave a damn about the people he left behind!”

And the monkfish thinks, How could he say that? Did Yusef really think he would’ve gone to all that trouble if he didn’t care?

“You realize they’re all calling you crazy.”

And this calls the monkfish’s mind the Indian man who self-immolated to protest the screening of a movie starring an objectionable actor. And the middle-aged Swedish actor—with Hitchcock in his credits, no less—who did it to protest taxes. The Bulgarian man who did it to protest the broadcast of Turkish news on his national t.v.. The German teacher who did it to protest nuclear policy. The young gay Iranian refugee who did it after the U.K. rejected his claim for asylum. The Chinese family who did it on the roof of their home the day of its scheduled demolition. And the monkfish wonders if crazy isn’t cause but effect. Not disease but symptom. 

“It’s the only way people can explain to themselves why someone like you would do this.”

Someone like him, thinks the monkfish. That’s precisely why someone like him had to do it.

Around campus his peers marked him a zealot, everyone calling him the Monkfish. And later, when his rabid grip on this nebulous proxy crusade refused to slacken, someone or other expanded it to Thelonious Monkfish, fancying him or herself witty. (It got to where some students—and one teacher, even—believed it to be his real name.) Like any of those brainiacs even understood their own reference, figuring it was probably just some random actor in some obscure movie. Never mind Drew’s only exposure to the jazz musician was through his father. What difference did it make now anyway? Did musician Monk even know about the burning monk? They shared the same era, but so do a lot of folks. And more importantly, why was the monkfish even bothering with this now? 

A few weeks after Drew put up his contentious poster, several of Yusef’s friends tore it down in a rage while Drew was out, and he came home to find it ripped to shreds all over his bed. Yusef, feeling responsible—despite wishing he’d had the nerve to tear it down himself—replaced it. As Drew was tacking up the new burning monk in its predecessor’s place, Yusef grumbled, “I still don’t see what the big deal is. Why you care about it so much.”

“And I can’t fathom why you don’t. Why no one seems to.”

“What makes you think no one else besides you cares about injustice? Because everyone’s not running around pouring gas on their heads and lighting a match?”

“It would make a lot more sense than what everyone is doing.”

“Which is?”

“Nothing!”

“And this is your alternative?” Yusef stabbed a finger at the restored horror scene on their wall. “What does this accomplish? Will you tell me that? What have those wasted deaths ever accomplished?”

Drew had no answer in the moment and only stewed, feeling misunderstood. But later that winter they both got their answer—or the seeds of it—when a Tunisian fruit merchant named Mohamed Bouazizi, fed up with the harassment and humiliation heaped on him by local officials, set himself ablaze in a public square, which several months later, and well into the current spring semester at Columbia, ignited a revolution!

If he could speak right now, the monkfish would tell his roommate (if the term even still applied to them) of the 17th century sect of Russian Christians called the Old Believers who practiced fire baptism to purify the soul from worldly sins. He’d say Drew Ballard simply became the fire that had been consuming him for so long that by the time he even became aware of it the blaze had razed him from the inside out and he had no choice left but to snuff it out. 

“Were you trying to kill yourself?” Yusef asks reeling beside him. “That’s what gets me the most about this. That in all the months I lived with you I never once dreamed you actually wanted to die.”

That’s where he has it all wrong, thinks the monkfish. Drew Ballard didn’t want to die. He just didn’t want to live in a world like this more.

“Do you still?”

And there’s the real question, isn’t it? thinks the monkfish. How would surviving this change the meaning of what he’s done? Hasn’t it already?

In the poster the strong backwind leaves half  the Burning Monk’s face exposed, half his chest, one arm, making him seem almost untouched. Pure. His body finally at rest as it receives its ultimate release. Deliverance. It seems so out of place, his sublime serenity as he submits to the elemental forces consuming him. Of course, deliverance is absolute. It’s final or it doesn’t count. 

“Well, now you get the chance to set everyone straight.” says Yusef. “You can’t tell me no one will listen to you now.”

The monkfish stares unblinking into Yusef’s hopeful expression, which drops before his fisheye in response. Yusef straightens and steps to the window. “Well, anyway, your family should be here any minute. Your mom and Ty texted from the bridge and said your dad just landed, so…” He turns with hesitation back toward the monkfish, as though reluctant to see the reaction. 

The monkfish blinks twice.

“That’s it!” Yusef pushes back from the window ledge and strides to the center of the room where he whirls in circles, staggering, and gesticulates wildly at the man-sized lump on the mattress. “I’ve had it with you! You’re a selfish prick, you know that? And I’d throttle you myself if you weren’t so helpless and pathetic right now.” The monkfish stares back unblinking at Yusef’s pupils bulging and temples pulsing. “I’m sorry but it’s true. I didn’t ask to be here, none of us did. You did this. You put this on us. And what have you got to show for it, huh?” The veins on Yusef’s neck tense like marine ropes and he seems about to cry. “What were you thinking?!” Then in afterthought his hands shoot up between them. “Actually, scratch that. I’m glad you can’t speak right now, because I don’t even want to hear it. You don’t get it. You…you…” He’s scratching so hard beneath his kufi cap now he seems sure to draw blood. “You used me!”

The monkfish blinks twice. 

“Don’t give me that crap! You made me complicit in this, without my knowledge or consent.”

Blink blink.

“You realize they’re going to find a way to hold me accountable for this, don’t you?”

Blink blink.

“Oh yeah? You saw that cop. He’s still out there. Has been since they rolled you in—he or one of his chums. Each took his turn grilling me. You can see them frothing at the mouth to nail themselves a bona fide domestic terrorist.”

Blink blink.

“Bullshit. They’re out there right now trying decide if I radicalized you.”

Blink blink.

“And how do you think my parents’ accents are going to play on American t.v.? Did you ever think about that? About the blowback on them in all this? No, of course you didn’t!” Yusef strides up to the monkfish’s bedside and leans in close over the rail, getting right in the monkfish’s face “You can do anything you want with your life, you understand? Hell, even go ahead and end it for all I care. Just don’t kid yourself you’re not hurting anyone.”

And with that Yusef stands aright and storms out. 

At last the monkfish lets his heavy eyelid succumb to its own weight—lowering as though to blink, then laying there at rest.

*

The monkfish stirs to the sound of voices surrounding him, familiar voices. Saying things like, “Oh my God, my baby!” and, “Is it something we did? Where did we go wrong?”

The monkfish keeps his fisheye shut, looking out instead from behind closed lids.

“Will you shut that godforsaken idiot box off, for Christ’s sake! It’s half the friggin’ t.v.’s fault we’re in this mess. All those news shows reporting on ten tragedies for every ten seconds of good news,” his father’s voice shouts from somewhere across a room that seems shrunken.

“What about the Internet?” his mother’s voice barks back from directly over the monkfish, clearly leaning over his slab, as though to shelter him. “All those websites the kids visit? I swear, we’re putting one of those parental blocks on our computers as soon as we get home. We’re not making the same mistake with Tyler, I promise you that.”

“And what are supposed to tell Ty about this anyway, speaking of? He’s out there right now in the waiting room sobbing on some nurse’s shoulder about he doesn’t know what. He just wants to come in here and see his big brother.”

“Absolutely not! Are you insane? Not like this. We’ll just tell him Andrew is sick. It’s the truth, isn’t it?”

“Well, I sure wouldn’t call this healthy and normal. Certainly not your typical post-adolescent rebellion.”

“Clearly Andrew needs some serious help. And it’s up to us to make sure that’s just what he gets.”

“Of course we are,” his father says as though accused of something. “You hear that, buddy? We’re going to take good care of you.”

“Do you think he can hear us?”

“It’s worth a try. Andrew, buddy?” His father’s voice comes from over him now too, clearly each parent taking opposite sides and leaning in over him. 

“Baby?”

“It’s mommy and daddy.”

“We’re here now.”

“Everything’s going to be okay.”

And the monkfish wonders: What does that even mean—Okay? What does “okay” look like exactly? Like the two of them? Like the world they live in? Why would he want that now, all of a sudden? But it wouldn’t look like that, anyway. Not for him.  Did they realize what they were even asking of him? What sort of life could he expect?

Weeks more in critical care, morphine-addled, shitting in a bag through a hole in his side. Then months, or years, of alternating skin grafts and physical therapy, with all its concomitant infections, rejections, and a burgeoning addiction to pain meds. Eventually he’d get a new throat, harvested from a cadaver: a new, dead man’s voice in some twisted irony. And how long would he stay bedridden, then in a wheelchair, then on crutches. And that’s if he was lucky. Whether he’d ever walk or talk or eat like a normal person again was anyone’s guess. He’d be housebound. Then again, where would he go?

He’d be naked, always. And hideous. Everywhere he’d be the sideshow, a symbol of what not to do: “Kids don’t try this at home—or anywhere. Ever!” A true-life urban legend whispered to the uninitiated every time he rounded the curve. They’d laugh at him because he failed. He’d never escape that blunder, not in private or public. Even those who never heard of him would see the scars and wonder. Innocently some would ask, and their heartfelt sympathy would pry the truth from him.

His parents and Yusef were right: eventually the medical professionals would have to write off the episode as a psychotic break—temporary or permanent depending on how he played it. Throw in a PTSD diagnosis. A pile of scrips for head meds. Regular therapy. Worse, they might actually identify some real physical anomaly in his brain to pin this on. Recommend surgery. And all for what? 

So that once he’s deemed “Better” he can assimilate back into the same society he so violently declaimed? If he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in a padded cell he’d fall in step. And this time he’d have to pull it off even more convincingly than he’d faked it the first time. 

It’s a waste of time, thinks the monkfish, right as the nurse walks in to change his dressings. His family leaves them to it.

Withdrawing deep into the in-between as the nurse proceeds with her scheduled torture of his living remains, the monkfish makes his decision. They don’t need a note and they don’t need him. They found the poster and in time they’ll find every other scrap of evidence they’ll stitch into a palatable theory. The different groups and organizations will comfort themselves with the facts however the facts suit them best. By turns he’ll be Activist, Criminal, Martyr, Freak, Hero, Loser, Artist…Symbol for your Cause: Fill-in-the-Cause. In the end, the burning monkfish will be whatever anyone needs him to be.

And then, like all his predecessors, they’ll forget about him.

Suddenly Yusef bursts through the door, red-faced, dripping tears and sweat, cap on crooked, and ignoring the nurse’s protests, rushes to the stilled t.v., flips it back on, stands back and stabs an outstretched finger at the screen. “Do you see this?”

On t.v. a man is on fire. 

Sitting crosslegged in a public square. In Baltimore. 

It’s not the monkfish. It’s a different monkfish.

Soshigateli! flashes into the monkfish’s mind, the name of the group who, two centuries after the last of the Old Believers was fire baptized, revived the practice. Copycats.

“Do you see?!” Yusef shouts, manic.

And the monkfish’s fisheye widens, and he thinks of the babyfaced Prague student whose self-immolation in protest of Communism not only sparked a rash of copycats over the ensuing years, but 35 years later inspired 6 more young Czechs to reproduce the act in the same location in homage. He thinks of the Lithuanian high school student whose act inspired 13 copycats and the largest post-war riots in the USSR. He thinks of how Mohamed Bouazizi’s act provoked 107 copycats among his own countrymen alone and dozens more in neighboring countries before catalyzing the famed revolution. He thinks of the Indian college student whose blazing declamation against inequality inspired 150 copycats, despite his own survival!

“Now do you see what you’ve done?”

And the monkfish doesn’t yet, but it may be starting to come clearer. Ending one’s life, he realizes, may be the ultimate act of hopelessness, yet what is ending it in this way if not one last desperate grasp at hope? Hope that maybe it will change the people who see it and maybe that will be enough to spur some change in the world. Isn’t that the paradox of the burning monk and all the burning monkfish who followed in his wake: that they’re beacons of hopelessness born out of hope? Or might it be the other way around?

Drew Ballard blinks once and lets his eyelid rest. He’s going to need his strength.







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Blonde Noir

Sunday, June 28th, 2020

by DC Diamondopolous

Kit Covington sat on the sofa in her Pacific Palisades mansion with a cigarette lodged in the side of her mouth. A cloud of smoke floated around her head. She adjusted the oxygen tube in her nose, then brushed ash from her dog Muffin’s champagne-colored curls. The miniature poodle dozing in Kit’s lap startled when the camera crew from The Great Morning Talk Show banged equipment into Kit’s antique furniture. 

“Watch it! You scratch anything, you’ll pay for the restoration.” Since her left lung had been removed, Kit’s husky voice had a rattle that lingered between words chaining them together like loose ball bearings.

“Sorry,” the stocky, tattooed sound woman said. 

Kit wondered if the all-female crew was a set-up—some kind of knife-twisting in the gut. She’d been anxious about the interview and now regretted it.

Her son, Robin, urged her to confront the nonsense. The 1950s blonde bombshell became notorious because of some damn youtube video a pop singer made by superimposing Kit’s dance sequence from the 1956 movie, I Was a Teenage SheWolf From Mars, while he sang to her. It went viral. Paramount capitalized on it with a box set of her films. The Screen Actors Guild sent her checks she hadn’t seen in sixty years. 

Kit would have laughed at the male juvenile obsession with her big breasts, platinum blonde hair, and erotic gyrations in her bullet bra and tight sequined space suit. But it happened at the time actresses came forward and named producers, directors, and actors who raped and assaulted them. The video ignited a firestorm of criticism from young women, who blamed her for their being sexualized. She became the poster girl, Adam’s Eve, the anti-feminist, the target for all the ills cast upon womanhood—making her name Kit into a verb synonymous with “fucks for favors.” 

What a load of shit! 

Kit had had enough after months of headlines, CNN pestering her old studio for her telephone number, and the tabloids offering money to anyone who had a recent picture of her. 

Centerfolds, headshots, movie-posters, her sexy blonde images from the 50s were everywhere.

She chose The Great Morning Talk Show because Bridget Lundgren, the lawyer turned TV host, defended her on the show.

Muffin jumped from Kit’s lap and wolfed a piece of jelly donut the beefy, spiked- haired, lighting woman had dropped. 

“This isn’t a barn! Use a napkin. That’s a three-hundred-year-old Persian rug,” Kit said. 

“Sorry, Miss Covington.” 

Kit watched Lundgren scrutinize the pictures on the wall. She was a real fashion plate in a navy pantsuit, with her short blonde hair tucked behind her ears. Kit tensed when the woman took a photograph from her carnival days off the wall and examined it, revealing a yellow nicotine outline. How dare she!

“Is this from the Gerling Carnival?” Lundgren asked.

“Could be,” Kit said surprised that Lundgren knew about her carny days. 

Lundgren replaced it and moved to the photo of Kit riding bareback in The Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, where she performed flips until she fell from the horse and broke her ankle. 

Above the walk-in fireplace, Lundgren gazed at the huge painting of Kit by Willem deKooning. It was Kit’s favorite, by the artist who inspired her to take up painting. Completed in 1958 when she was twenty-five, the painting recalled the memory of sitting for hours, her back arched, her tits pointing to the North Star, pouty full lips, a halo of platinum blonde hair, and the moist come-hither look women still use to lure men into the bedroom. 

“This is one of the few deKoonings I’ve seen that isn’t an abstract,” Lundgren said.

“He did others.”

“My favorite was the Woman series. I love how he broke rules.”

Kit puffed on her cigarette and flicked ash into a large serving dish sitting next to her. She wondered how much of the art world Lundgren knew. In person, Kit judged her as a cool and calculating woman, the way she inspected the pictures as if they hid the da Vinci code. Why not ask how all the hullabaloo affected her, how it made her irritable, critical, bitchy. She wondered if Lundgren had gone so far as to play nice-nice on TV—knowing Kit would be watching.

Outside the sliding screen door, she saw Robin watering the rose bushes. Since the operation, he’d been pestering her to stop smoking. She cut back from a four packs a day, to two and a half. What the hell did he want? She’d been smoking since she was ten.  When he tried to scare her with images on his phone of how the cancer could spread to the liver and kidneys, she grabbed the phone and threw it at him. She made him swear that when she died, he’d put her in a box, stick a cigarette in her mouth—preferably lit—and prod a lighter in her right hand.

“I can go without oxygen for four minutes,” Kit said.  “So break. I don’t want these damn tubes on camera. I’ll need a cigarette—.”

“Your son told us.” 

Miffed by Lundgren’s rudeness, Kit said, “When do we start?”

“In five minutes. Do you need to use the restroom?”

“My legs are cramping.” Kit struggled to rise, shooing Lundgren away when she tried to help. She stood and rolled the oxygen tank she called Sherman across the living room floor while pulling a pack of Winstons and a lighter from the pocket of her long flowing gypsy skirt. 

“Aren’t you afraid of the tank exploding?” the sound woman asked as Kit wobbled by.

“No, I’m not. If I could walk a tightrope while on my period, I can roll a damn dolly while smoking a ciggie.” 

The girl raised her eyebrows and turned away.

Robin saw her and slid open the screen. 

“I don’t want to do this,” Kit said. “That woman’s going to ambush me.”

“C’mon mom, you liked her.”

“Not anymore. She snapped at me, ‘Your son told us,’” she mimicked. 

Kit pushed past Robin and stood above her tiered English garden. Even with her fading sense of smell, she caught fragrances of her lemon and peach trees. Below the garden was a view overlooking Highway 1, Malibu, and the Pacific Ocean. She had bought the house in the fifties while pregnant with Robin and married his father Daniel soon after.

The April morning glistened as Catalina Island sat like a treasured cast-off from the mainland. Cast-off. When Kit hit her late twenties, it was over. No producer wanted to hire an old hag at thirty. Her agent got her jobs on TV, as a panel member on To Tell the Truth, I’ve Got a Secret, and her big whoop-de-doo, the center box on Hollywood Squares. In the 1970s, her agent dropped her. 

“You signed a contract, Mom. Let people hear your story.” He peered into the living room. “They’re ready for your close-up.”

Kit rolled her eyes. Robin was always quoting from Sunset Blvd., The Wizard of Oz, or All About Eve. On occasion he’d dress in drag and perform dance numbers from Cabaret, A Chorus Line, and musicals she never heard of. Her boy knew how to make her laugh. 

Kit counted five strangers in her house, eating, drinking coffee, moving her furniture, and using her bathroom. Well, at least they were women and wouldn’t be pissing on the floor. 

“We’re ready, Miss Covington,” the sound woman yelled.

“C’mon, Mom. It’ll be fun.”

“I look like an old beatnik.”

“You arean old beatnik.”

Kit’s chuckle rumbled like a truck bouncing over potholes. She smoothed her long white hair with her ciggie hand. She hadn’t worn lipstick or make-up in years. She lived in sandals and, before the operation, went barefoot. 

Robin waited for Kit to enter, then slid the door behind him. Kit rolled Sherman to the couch and settled in. Muffin jumped in her lap and Jezebel the cat slinked around the sofa and nestled beside Kit.

“We’ll open with the video,” Lundgren said. “then cutaway for the interview.”

“Why show that again?”

“It’s the reason for the interview, Miss Covington.”

How sucky, Kit thought. She wasn’t ashamed. She just didn’t like having to defend herself. 

“Everyone in the world has seen it.”

“It’s a lead in,” Lundgren said.

Kit scowled at Robin. He came over and straightened the string of turquoise and silver beads that dangled from her neck.

“Quit fussing.”

“Come out, come out, wherever you are and meet the young lady, who fell from a star,” Robin whispered.

“Glinda the Good Witch,” Kit mumbled.

Robin winked at her. 

“Ready when you are, Bridget,” the camerawoman said.

“Good morning. Today, we have a very special guest. Kit Covington. In case you’ve been living under a rock the last several months,” Lundgren smiled, “we’re going to play the video that’s caused a sensation. Here’s the Grammy-winning pop star, Walker, singing from the hit video, “You’re My Dream Girl in the Night” along with Kit Covington from her movie, I Was a Teenage SheWolf from Mars.

The video played on a small monitor. Kit watched herself from the 1956 horror movie, dancing, spinning, cleavage bouncing, her generous ass stretching the satin on her sequined spacesuit. It was hard to imagine her wrinkled and shriveled body once had so much oomph and had been so sexy. 

She took off the tube and laid it beside her.

The camerawoman pointed her finger, and Lundgren began.

“We’re sitting in the home of Kit Covington, a movie actress known as the Queen of the Bs from the 1950s, who has become infamous for being the poster-girl for the sexualization of generations of women.” 

“That’s a load of shit!” Kit said. “Why blame me? Women have always used their bodies to get what they want. As if women didn’t fuck before 1956.”

Lundgren’s jaw dropped. Seconds went by before she made the throat-slash sign with her hand.

Kit coughed and hacked. Muffin jumped on the floor. Jezebel leaped from the sofa and ran around the couch. Kit took the tube and fastened the nasal cannula inside her nostrils, then lighted up a Winston. She inhaled and glanced at the stunned crew and Lundgren. Robin, with his eyes popping and mouth opened, reminded her of Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

“You can’t swear on TV,” Lundgren said. 

Kit glanced at her, looked away, and flicked ash into the dish. It was a knee-jerk reaction, a build-up from the last several months. Also, she wasn’t convinced Lundgren was on her side.

“You can’t go off the rails like that, Miss Covington. It won’t help you.”

“Infamous. Sexualization. Men sexualize women. Who’s head of advertising? They use sex to sell hamburgers, anything. Look at films! Who runs the networks?” 

“It’s a lead-in,” Lundgren said. 

“I’ve been assaulted and harassed like all those women. I don’t blame anyone but the shits who hurt me.” Kit blew smoke at the side of Lundgren’s face. “How dare you judge me.”

Lundgren waved away the smoke. “I’m not, Miss Covington. Not at all.” Jezebel arched her back and rubbed against Lundgren’s leg.

Kit crushed the cigarette into the plate. She narrowed her gaze at the blonde, who with her furrowed brow and the gentle way she stroked and caressed Jezebel, didn’t fool Kit. Behind Lundgren’s look of compassion was a frozen dish of ambition. 

“Would you like to try it again?” Lundgren said.

Kit caught the rapport—the way Lundgren and Robin shot glances at each other— and now her cat had turned traitor.

She took off the oxygen tube. “Muffin.” The poodle ran to her and leaped in her lap. Robin sat at the far end of the couch.

“We’re ready,” the camerawoman said.

Lundgren looked into the camera. 

“We’re here with Kit Covington. Known in the 1950s as Queen of the Bs, she has made a scandalizing comeback—.” 

“Scandalizing! That’s nothing compared to the shit I see on HBO.”

Lundgren made the throat-slash sign and stood from the sofa. 

“We need to take a break.”

“We sure as hell do.” Kit attached the oxygen tube and rose from the couch. Muffin bounded to the floor. Kit wheeled Sherman to the screen door, shooing Robin away, opened it, and went outside. 

“Mom?”

Kit ignored him. She wheeled Sherman down the ramp while lighting a cigarette. 

She and her boy had been snookered into believing Lundgren was on her side. “Scandalizing,” she mumbled. What did Lundgren know about the life of a girl in the 1940s? Those young punks don’t know a damn thing about what life was like before they were born. 

She clamped the ciggie in the corner of her mouth and steered the wheels over the yellow bricks Robin had laid that led down to her studio. She’d shut the door, pick up her pallet and brush, and lose herself as she disappeared into her painting.

The white stucco building, with red bougainvillea blooming against the side of the wall, inspired the artist in Kit. She painted color in splashes and dashes, mix-matching paint, blending oil, watercolor, and charcoal onto the canvases. Entering her studio was the closest thing to going to church. It was a place where her creativity transported and elated her.

She mashed the cigarette into the standing ashtray outside. The galleries complained of having to clean her canvas’. To show her how the smoke diminished her work, Robin took a moist cloth and gently wiped a painting. The rag turned yellow. Without the cover of nicotine, the colors burst with vitality. It was a huge sacrifice not to smoke while she painted, but for her art, she would do anything. 

Kit went into her sanctuary, the studio overlooking her cactus garden. Rows of tall windows allowed light to stream in. And where there weren’t windows, her imagination decorated the walls. Robin had constructed built-ins for stacking paintings, nooks for brushes and paints, a worktable with drawers. Her boy built the studio exactly how she insisted. 

In the late 1980s, Robin went behind her back and entered her work in contests. Furious by Robin’s betrayal, even when she won, she wouldn’t talk to him for days. He adored being the son of a movie star, but being her art agent satisfied both his nurturing and dramatic nature. He arranged her exhibits at MoMA, the Whitney, and others, with as much flare as his once movie star mother. He made deals so her work hung in The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Prado.

From the beginning she signed her work D. L. Hawkins, after Robin’s father, leaving off his last name, Sutton. He lived his forty-four years as an art form, free and spontaneous, he danced when other men walked. My God how she missed him.

Kit made a fortune from her paintings, donating millions of dollars to art institutes. Who would take her seriously if they knew the esteemed D. L. Hawkins was once a second-rate sex-kitten?

Kit shut the door against the world. It hurt having those young women wrongly judge her. She knew what women went through, especially young women. Mad at herself for being so sensitive, she hated to admit that she cared what others thought of her.

“I knocked but you didn’t answer.”

Kit turned so fast the oxygen cannula pulled at her nostrils.

The blonde talk show host stood in the doorway, holding Muffin. Lundgren wore the same expression—open mouth, wide eyes—as when Kit dropped the f-bomb. 

“Oh my God. I don’t believe it.”

“I’m not doing the interview,” Kit said. 

Lundgren gazed at the art on the walls. “Neither am I, Miss Covington.”

“Then why are you here? And why are you holding my dog?”

“I followed Muffin,” Lundgren said, releasing the poodle. “She brought me here.”

“Fink,” Kit said, glaring at the dog.

“I wanted to let you know I cancelled.” Lundgren continued to stare at the art and the unfinished oil painting on the easel. “And to say goodbye.” Lundgren shook her head. “I can’t believe it,” she said, looking at a pastel that leaned against the wall. “I’m standing in D.L. Hawkins’s studio.”

Kit hacked, “Th—This is,” she stuttered, “private.”

“I’m sorry. I swear—swear, I won’t mention a word to anyone. Are you and Hawkins an item?” she said, glancing at Muffin’s bed and water dish in the corner.

Shaking, startled by the intrusion into her secret life, Kit watched dumbfounded as Lundgren made a b-line to the easel.   

“You, you’re not supposed—.” Kit stammered.

“A merry-go-round, where the horses are riding the people.” 

Didn’t Lundgren hear her? Just barged her way into D. L.’s studio as if Kit didn’t exist. She shuffled across the wooden floor, shoving Sherman over to the easel.

Lundgren angled her head. “Animal cruelty. It’s amazing to me how Hawkins takes an idea and turns it on its head. I saw his exhibit at MoMA when I did my post-graduate work. Blew me away.”

“You know his work?”

“I majored in art. Didn’t have the talent, so I changed to law.” Lundgren leaned into the unfinished painting. “He tells a story with brush strokes. What a genius.” She looked at Kit. “I know he’s a recluse, but I’d be honored to meet him.”

It reminded Kit of when Robin told her how critics and docents praised her work at exhibits. But to have someone stand in her studio and express how her art touched them, well, it made her—happy. 

“He uses horses a lot,” Lundgren said. “My favorite is the Equine Series. You can feel the movement, hear the hooves beating against the ground.”

Kit was impressed by the woman’s knowledge, her trained eye.

“Where did you meet? In the carnival, or circus? It must have been a hard life.”

“Not as bad as home. Carnival came to town, and I ran away. Fourteen years old, a hoochie-coochie girl. It was roughest on the animals and freaks. In 1948, no jobs for women, but I survived.” Kit hadn’t talked about her life with the carny for years. But like Lundgren said, it showed up in her work, often with horses. “The circus. Then the pin-ups and movies. I survived that too. Not like the other blonde bombshells. So many died— suicides, over doses. Jayne Mansfield was killed in a car crash.” Kit felt fatigued. “Yes,” she nodded, “I survived that life, too.”

Lundgren listened, but Kit observed her inching her way toward the collage series on the worktable. 

“This is an incredible studio. The lighting. High ceilings. Skylights. Everything an artist could dream of. Makes me want to paint again.” Lundgren glanced at Muffin lapping water from her bowl and then settle into her bed. 

Kit flinched when Lundgren spotted her pink paw-patterned smock draped over the back of a chair and the unopened pack of Winstons on the work table.

Lundgren turned slowly. She didn’t look at her, just stared off. Kit experienced a shock of her own. She saw Lundgren putting it all together— amazement, then the revelation. Oh shit! What could Kit do about it? Kill her?

Lundgren tidied her short blonde hair behind her ears. 

“I need a cigarette.” Kit wheeled Sherman toward the door. “C’mon Lundgren. D. L. wouldn’t want anyone but me alone with his work,” she said, making light of a moment that changed both their lives.

Muffin ran out the door. Kit looked over her shoulder. “You coming?”

Their eyes met. Lundgren’s were filled with tears. 

“I’m tired. I need to sit down. Coming?” 

Kit and Muffin walked down the path to the cactus garden. She figured Lundgren was somewhere behind. Tears. She knew them well. But when others cried, it put her at a disadvantage, made her feel mushy. And the young woman looked so beautiful standing in her studio with the sunlight catching every nuance of understanding that passed over her face.

Kit sat on a wrought iron bench, pulled Sherman close, lighted up, and surveyed her garden. 

On a lookout, atop the Palisades, her nearest neighbor somewhere below, she really was a recluse. At eighty-five, with death a kiss away, she’d been angry for decades, for her stepfather’s abuse, Daniel’s death, even the small slights, building on top of one another making her view of life a vista of loneliness. 

Muffin whined. Kit looked up and saw Lundgren. Muffin jumped up on her hind legs begging Lundgren to pick her up. The woman crouched down, petted Muffin, and looked at Kit. 

She nodded. 

“I have two silkies, I bet she smells them.”

“It’s more than that.” Kit’s voice had the tired monotony of a flat tire. It wasn’t even noon and she needed a nap. She coughed, hacked, and spit out a glob of phlegm. “Excuse me.” Kit took out her handkerchief and wiped her mouth. “I’m not used to company,” she said and continued to smoke.

“Hey, Mom,” Robin yelled from the top of the garden path, “is everything okay?”

“Yes,” Lundgren answered for her. “Tell the crew I’ll be up in a few minutes.”

Lundgren handed Muffin to Kit and walked around the garden. Her hair was tousled by the breeze. 

Kit preferred her like this—mussed. She wondered what the woman looked like at home, in jeans and a T-shirt. Lundgren walked through the narrow aisles, inspecting the plants. 

“They’re beautiful how they bloom,” she said. “Like a miracle. I love the subtlety of the color, the shape, how the sunlight captures the unexposed side of the petals.” 

Kit remembered how Lundgren studied the photos on the wall. She was sensitive, with an artist’s eye. Maybe she wasn’t going to exploit her after all. The pretty blonde with the slender build must have put up with a lot of sexual harassment. If so, Kit doubted she’d share any of it with her. She thought of Lundgren as quiet, low-key, except when she talked about D. L. Hawkins, then she herself bloomed. 

“I understand why you had to choose a pseudonym,” Lundgren said with her back still to Kit. She turned. “I can’t imagine what you went through.” Lundgren walked over and sat next to her. “Not just your generation. My mother had me young. My father ran off and the only way she could keep me and get an education was to dance in strip clubs. She made a good living. That was the 1980s. It’s still hard.” 

The two women gazed at the garden with the Pacific as a backdrop. 

“There’s a way to make everyone forget about your video,” Lundgren said.

Kit took a deep inhalation of oxygen, closed her eyes, and savored her last moments as D. L. Hawkins. It was her little champagne-colored poodle who had pulled back the curtain and revealed her identity—Muffin, leading Lundgren down the path to her door, giving her away. 

Kit could see it now. Robin would take off her oxygen tube and dance her around the living room, overjoyed that his mom would be coming out of the closet. The thought of his endless euphoria exhausted her, but Lundgren was right. It would wipe that stupid video off the networks and change her name from a verb back to a noun.  

She stubbed out her Winston. Leaning on Lundgren, she struggled to her feet.

“I’m going to lie down. Run this by Robin. You guys work out the details. But tell him not to wake me until three. And I’ll want my martini extra dry.”

Kit shuffled along. She pulled Sherman as the wheels made clap-clap sounds over the yellow brick path, with Lundgren beside her and Muffin running ahead. 





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