I’m watching an old movie on my bed, holding my laptop close to my face to hear what the characters are saying.
It’s loud outside.
My apartment has no air conditioning or heat. But the weather is that breezy hardly-noticeable kind so my window is open and I can hear everything going on. The party down the block. The weekend traffic on Pacific Avenue. And the homeless man digging through the dumpster right outside my window.
Once a week he’s been doing this, since I moved in a month ago.
I know this because every time I hear him I have this fantasy.
A fantasy about getting up the guts to talk to him.
I will discover he is actually a genius and that he wrote the greatest L.A. novel of all time. But lost it in a house fire that also claimed his wife and children.
After the incineration (his words) he took to the streets and started garbage sifting– just as a form of therapy at first– but then discovered it to be the purest form of artistic expression. An art form that he would then pass on to me.
After getting paid, Goya drives to Walmart hoping to purchase a gun and spending an hour looking at guns and picking one out and filling out all the necessary paperwork and handing her background check to the clerk.
“So, it will take a week for the background check to process?” Goya asks the clerk.
The clerk turns the forms to read them, and he makes little reading sounds under his mustache, and his eyes go back and forth across the paper, and he breathes a deep breath in to his mouth and out through his nose.
“I can tell you right now that it probably won’t pass,” he says, turning the form around and pointing to a checked check box that reads, I have been diagnosed with a mental illness. “They cannot sell guns to people who have been diagnosed with certain mental illnesses.”
“Okay,” she says, taking the paper from him and walking through the parking lot to her car and driving down the highway and pulling into the parking lot of a different Walmart and filling out another background check without checking the box called, I have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
My eyes-wide are boring holes into this pallid glass of orange juice in front of me. I hear him -the pancake dude – but I cannot break my vision away. My drink has netted itself into tiny ripples, vibrating from the buzz of the restaurant. Tiny clumps of pulp bob up and down like buoys in salt-water sea.
There are waiters waiting for the old grey dying couple to choose their 2:00 PM dinner. Bus boys carrying plastic grey tubs of dirty melamine dishes into the sink sloshed around with soap, just to be slopped up again with eggs and sausage or chicken and waffles. His voice is a tiny speckle in the boisterous breakfast spot.
“So… was that a short stack?” I look up. Pancake Dude smiles, but he’s annoyed I haven’t answered him yet. Thick black dreads line the back of his scalp. His calm skin claims an innocent mind. He is older than me, but I have seen more than he ever has. I resent him for this.
“Just the 3 is fine.” Mom finally answers for me. Tight jawed. Furrowed brows. An almost convincing smile. “Let me put that right in for you, ok?” Pancake Dude takes our menus. Stephanie is sitting next to mom, twiddling her hair into her fingers. Around her thumbs, across the tops of her hands, and back again her brown curls move in the conveyor belt. We sit unspeaking in these unpleasant vinyl booths. I can’t believe they still make vinyl booths.
Now that I think about it, nobody has spoken to each other since last night. Mom is dancing with sideways glances, trying to catch a glimpse of sadness or tears on our faces. She won’t look us in the eyes though. She feels responsible. Which is and isn’t true.
I look up from the table and catch her staring at me. She clears her throat and pretends to look behind my head, at the clock on the far wall.
Hair into fingers, around her thumbs, across the tops of her hands, and back again.
Mom holds her cross pendant in the palm of her hand.
Breakfast tastes like sour milk and sugar. Nobody wants to go home.
Dad’s favorite song comes on as soon as Mom’s engine turns over. She slaps the radio dial mute with the heel of her hand. I think he was trying to reach out and pull her down into the speakers.
Mom turns to us and puts her finger up to her lips right before she lets us out of the car. “Don’t wake up your dad, ok? He’s sleeping upstairs.”
My breath instinctually becomes more shallow, quieter. I think maybe only I could hear the difference, but I wasn’t willing to take the chance. Steph and I slowly lower ourselves to the ground and unlace our sneakers with patience and precision. Socks stay on; bare feet squeak on linoleum floors. We become methodic in our movements. Don’t step on that floorboard, it creaks. Open the cupboard, but don’t let it slam. I even see mom gently placing her purse on the countertop. We are tiny, uneasy guests in our own house.
Aunt Joyce is already there when we get inside the house. She’s cast out any trace of evidence from the night before. Dad’s favorite chair is right side-up and back against the wall where it’s supposed to be. Our floor lamp is gone, but so is the broken base and shattered bulb. She even replaced the repugnant smell of Jack Daniels with Lysol, and a peppermint candle. Everything almost looks normal. It feels as sterile as a hospital, but it’s better.
The only thing Aunt Joyce didn’t manage to cover up was the immense gouge of freshly chipped paint and cracked gypsum board in the wall. I can hear the yelling and screaming again as I start to think about what happened. I stare at the dent in the wall until I don’t see a dent anymore.
Mom makes us dinner as usual, and Steph and I watch Nickelodeon after, as usual. The white dent seems to have eyes. It twists and turns in my peripheral vision. Morphing into a disfigured face; something foul and unearthly. I don’t think Steph can see it, but I know it’s there.
Aunt Joyce is helping mom clean up in the kitchen. I can hear their whispers over “Legends Of The Hidden Temple”, and the sound of plates being put into the dishwasher. They are being too loud.
“Are you sure you and the kids are safe here, Lisa?” “Yes, of course. He’s their father. This has never happened before.” Which, of course, is and isn’t true.
Tip toe up the stairs. Brush teeth. Put on clean pajamas.
Mom folds the sheet and blankets underneath my mattress the way I like. Usually being strapped in snug is nice, but tonight it feels like a cage. She smiles at me and kisses me goodnight, but lingers on the bed for a bit.
I close my eyes, turn to the side and feign sleep. There has been so much silence today in rooms full of people. I don’t want to spend another single minute like that. Mom leaves. I stare at the glow-in-the dark planets on my wall.
I reach out to touch them and trace the stars.
I think about the dent.
The door creaks, and light spills into my room. The noise immediately wakes me up, but I do not move. I don’t move. Don’t move don’t move don’t move.
His breathing is so heavy, and loud. Careless, clumsy footsteps approach my bed. My eyes are shut so tight. I try to relax them so he won’t notice, but I can’t help it.
“Hey bud, are you awake?” I smell the bite of alcohol from his breath as he stands over me. It burns my nose, but I don’t move. If I don’t move he won’t know I’m awake.
He ruffles my hair, hapless and sloppy. Tries to shake me awake. I don’t want to be touched. I know what he did and I know who he really is. I want him away so I can sleep. My head screams. My body screams.
“Jack?” Mom calls him from the master bedroom.
Dad stands over my bed for another minute before leaving. I think he’s looking at the planets. We look at the planets together, apart. I don’t notice him and he doesn’t remember me there anymore.
I think of my mother.
The taste of sour milk.
I feel the dent with every step he takes away.
Ryan Westmoreland loves reading, artisan cheeses, and napping. Her work has previously been published in The Tiny Journal & Beyond Words Magazine. Find her at twitter.com/reeltuffcookie
Didn’t much matter where we ended up because it was always the same faces doing the same things with the same people and the same perspectives. Not much happens when nothings going on.
(practice in dialogue and realism just to make sure we could still do it). Tony asked what Callie’s favorite star was. Unprecedented conversation.
“Star Wars?” Callie said.
“No, just Star.”
“I don’t know any stars.” “You don’t know any stars? Of course you know stars.”
“Name one star I know.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Okay,” he repeated.
“So the sun’s not your favorite star?”
“No, the sun’s not my favorite star.”
“Then what’s your favorite star?”
“I don’t know I haven’t really thought of any of them. The North star? I don’t know that’s a stupid question.”
“Of course it’s a stupid question.” He paused to let that sink in before bringing the conversation back to his answer. “The sun is my favorite star.”
“It keeps us alive. All the other stars don’t even really matter.”
There were three other conversations happening around the table, one staying true to the well-worn subject of Star Wars and which was and wasn’t the favorite films from the series. While nothing of any substance could ultimately be added to the exploration of fandom, it was a conversation that would continue until the end of the universe despite, recycled for as long as the medium of film continued to exist (and maybe even past that). Someone tried to interject themselves into Callie and Tony’s conversation, but came up stopping short.
“If all other stars don’t matter, then why did you ask the question?” Callie asked.
“I wanted to see what your answer would be.” Tony said.
“Well of course it’s the sun now that you explain it. What am I supposed to say? The one my Dad bought my Mom for Christmas?”
“Your Dad bought a Mom a Star for Christmas?” Mikaela asked. (interjection interstitial).
“We all did. It was a family gift.”
Eventually the conversations would collide upon Garrett asking Tony what his favorite Star Wars film was. Someone handed around a plate of cocaine. Kyle did a bump and handed it to me. One in each nostril just to make sure it worked. Later we played some house music. Kyle played three or four tracks and then Garrett played about the same and then I played a few more than that and then Kyle played again for a long while, maybe an hour. I played once again later, but only after Kyle came and got me and told me to.
Fourth of July was coming up and someone offered the idea of the group of us camping instead of staying in town like we’d already been doing for weeks on end. The same thing we did every day. It didn’t need to be special, but living at the beach might just end up making the day worse. A series of differing opinions, but ultimately group consensus decided the best thing to do would be to do what we were already doing, either Tony’s house or Kyle’s house or maybe the beach.
The party ended around midnight. It would be just about the same again.
KKUURRTT is the author of ten books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
You’re in a rusty, beat-up green pickup that squeaks and sputters on a long, painfully straight highway. The lighting is orange and dusty-glowy but it’s unclear whether it’s dawn or dusk. Literal desert. Tumbleweeds. Cactus. Even in the dream you know it’s cliche. Pawn Shop by Brandy Clark plays on the radio but the static keeps cutting through so you turn the dial. Your car swerves into the opposite lane. An evangelical is telling you you will go to hell. You swerve back into the right lane and turn the dial again. Hot Girl Bummer by Blackbear comes on. The reception is crystal clear but you’re confused because the song alternates between saying “fuck” and censoring it. You feel dizzy. You reach for the can of Coke in the cupholder and take the last lukewarm half-sip left. You can’t tell if it’s half backwash or if it’s just gone flat. You see a gas station on the horizon, some townie off-brand kind you’ve never heard of. You glance at your meter and it’s far past the line for “E” but your car is still moving, lurching, running on fumes. You press the gas pedal down further and power past the station and turn the radio up. It is now playing Dance Monkey, but you didn’t register the moment the song changed because you were distracted. You visualize all four wheels falling off like caramelized sugar melting in your mouth, but they don’t. You visualize the body of the car coasting through the air after the wheels fall away and then coming down gradually several feet later as though the Earth’s gravity had been significantly reduced, but not eliminated. But it hasn’t, and it doesn’t, and it doesn’t have to because the wheels are superglued in place and spinning, propelling you forward. You glance at your odometer. Forty. A sign for the speed limit says 70. No one else is on the road. No one else has been on the road. You haven’t passed a single car since you started driving. When did you start driving? The radio cuts out and you know it’s because you’ve crossed a state border or a dimensional plane or the car is low on gas. Dua Lipa starts singing in your head. You let her. You don’t hear her voice, just a song stuck in your head. The way that downstream part of your brain hears. You see a storefront up ahead. It isn’t a gas station, but you notice you’re both hungry and thirsty. You glance at the clock on your dash and it’s 7, but you still don’t know AM or PM. You picture some vandal filling your tank in the car you leave unattended. You picture the thermodynamic arrow of time running in reverse. You remember that you can call Triple A after you get something to eat. You pull into the tiny lot for the convenience store and check the battery on your phone to make sure you can make the call later. 24%. You notice when you do this that it is PM and not AM, but by now it is almost 7:30. The lettering for the convenience store is big, blue, and unilluminated. The wiring in the letters doesn’t even flicker or short circuit or catch fire. The place must be broke. The letters say PIT STOP. The letters say REST AND DIGEST. The letters just say someone’s name, the name of someone you don’t care about. He probably isn’t the guy working the store. There is only one person working the store. He’s a pimply redheaded boy with glasses, late teens. His shirt is an ugly mustard yellow that clashes with his hair. He is reading a book by Descartes or Hegel or Wittgenstein. It is thick. It is paperback. It is oily-wet. The kind of print so fine it strains your eyes. But you aren’t the one that needs to read it. You turn your attention to the shelves. They are all the same. Red painted, wire, flat red metal bottoms. The paint is not chipped. The paint is still wet. It has come off onto the packets of chips. The packets of chips are all the same too. They are single-serving Lays Sweet Southern Heat BBQ. You count the racks, the aisles. There are six of them, they are about ten feet long, and both sides of each are stocked. Your eyes come to rest on probably twenty or thirty bags, individually. You glance at the wall opposite the cashier. There’s no clock, and the lighting is dim. There are three anti-theft posters but they all say different things and have different images. You don’t care about them. Your eyes scan higher. An official Lays logo advertisement is placed in the corner of the room like a postage stamp. “Lays: betcha can’t eat just one.” And below it and below the anti-theft posters, at the bottom of the room, appropriate eye level for maybe a rat, another advertisement with an identical logo says instead, “Sweet Southern Heat BBQ: it’s all we have.” You plunge both hands into the pockets of your faint black stained jeans. Your right pocket has a frayed hole in it and nothing else. Your left pocket has a wrinkled bill and three coins, all different sizes. You pull them out, unfold the bill and inspect the coins. They’re sticky with something. It is a one dollar bill, a quarter, a dime, and a penny. The orange tag by the first row of chips says $1.22. You grab one bag and take it to the cashier. He rings it up and the total with tax is $1.36. You give him everything you have and ask if he has a water fountain. “By the toilets, but it’s gross. Here.” He hands you a Coke, half-finished. You drink the whole thing gratefully in one gulp. It is lukewarm and it tastes like backwash, but it quenches your thirst, for now.
Lana Frankle grew up in the bay area and got her BS in neuroscience from UCSC in 2015. She is currently a neuroscience PhD candidate at Kent State University. Her short story collection, The Dismantling, was published by Gnome on Pig Productions in 2016.
The route I delivered mail in a remote area, but COVID still was here. People stayed in their houses and rarely came out, but they ordered lots of packages.
Porch pirates thrived now, and since it was fall, spiders set up webs big enough to catch me, dogs barked and growled at me as approached their houses even though I loved them, and
worst of all the bandits with black masks liked to harass me. Raccoons.
I complained about it, but all I received was a letter saying Erin was out-smarted by raccoons. It was posted on the bulletin board and everyone laughed at me.
I couldn’t afford to quit. Since my divorce, I lived in an apartment and needed this job to survive.
I removed my mask to eat my lunch and a raccoon grabbed the package that I just dropped off. I gritted my teeth.
“Drop it, you stupid bandit.”
I ran toward it holding out my dog spray out. The raccoon joined two others and ran toward the woods. I lost too many packages to porch pirates and got letters of warnings. I would like to add some men who lost packages did not receive any warnings. I chased the raccoons.
I turned the corner and one of the bandits threw a chicken bone and hit me in the eye. I turned and it looked like the raccoon was laughing at me. I covered my eye with my hand.
“You must have rabies?” I yelled out. It hissed when it slumbered away.
The package was gone. Another one lost. I made a partial eye patch out of some paper and rubber bands. I finished the deliveries with my one good eye looking out for the raccoons. The last delivery was for a house on a dead-end street. I didn’t even know anyone lived there, but the car in the driveway was the one I saw the girl get in earlier.
Near the front door, I glanced into the window with my one good eye. A girl was laying on an air mattress with a syringe beside her. It looked like she wasn’t breathing.
I called 911. It would take too long if she was overdosing. The window was open and I pushed in the screen and climbed into the empty room. The girl looked like a lifeless doll, I kept my mask on and tried CPR then glanced at an ID next to her. Her name was Emma. She looked like a teenager.
“Emma,” I said over and over, but she remained still.
The ambulance crew arrived and took over trying to save Emma. Someone ran out the back door. He got a head start, but a girl slowed him down and I gained on him. After a few more minutes, the man dropped the girl, turned around, and pointed a gun at me. I froze and saw my sad life fading away.
The man laughed when he looked at me. “Are you a pirate?”
“Let the girl go. I won’t tell the cops anything.”
His hand shook and the girl moaned and that idea faded away.
“What’s her name?” I pointed at the girl.
“Let her go.” I stepped forward.
“No. I’m not afraid of you. You’re just a minor threat.”
He steadied his hand and his finger twitched. He was going to kill me. I closed my good eye then heard a rustling sound. When I opened it, a blur jumped on the man as sparks flew out of the gun. I dove to the ground and everything became fuzzy, but I crawled forward and grab Hayley then we stumbled away from the scene while the man wrestled with the raccoons. I heard another shot and a searing pain in my leg knocked me to the ground. I looked back and saw a raccoon holding a gun. It sounds crazy, but I swear the raccoon was holding a smoking gun. They saved me, and yet one of them took the opportunity to shoot me. Raccoons are insane.
I limped with Hayley toward the arriving police cars. She wasn’t wearing a mask and that made me worried. When I got closer, some of them pulled guns while others stared in shock. I limped toward them with a drugged girl while wearing an eye patch and with blood pouring out of my leg. I collapsed to the ground when they reached me.
In the hospital, my eye improved but remained circled with a dark bruise. I looked in the mirror and thought the raccoons somehow made me one of them.
A negative COVID test was good news. My leg hurt and was wrapped in thick bandages. Nobody believed that a raccoon shot me, but I knew it was true. I played Animal Crossing and the raccoon in that game ran the town. After my experiences I knew that made sense.
I fell asleep and woke up to a blue wolf trying to catch a fish. I shut the game off.
Emma survived the drug overdose. The police arrested the man and explained away the bite wounds on him as from a stray dog despite what we both said about the raccoons.
On my third day in the hospital, Hayley and her mother used a tablet to do a virtual visit.
“You saved mine and Emma’s life,” she said. Her mother nodded.
“The raccoons helped,” I said.
They looked at each other and shook their heads. “Pain meds,” the mother whispered.
“You’re a hero.” They promised to stay in touch with me. Maybe they would.
On my first day back to work my pockets were filled with cookies, cat treats, and crackers.
I threw the treats out and before long a group of raccoons came out and gobbled them up. We made a truce that day, but they still stole food from me since raccoons can’t help themselves. I believe they are born to be mischievous.
The police never found the gun and I kept expecting to turn a corner and encounter a raccoon pointing it at me. No matter what its intentions are the sight of a raccoon with a gun made me shiver. That would be more than a minor threat.
William Falo studied Environmental Science at Stockton University. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The UK journal Superlative, The Raconteur Review, Train River’s first fiction anthology, and other literary journals.
In the market, even though preoccupied, I see her headed my way again, in a well-tailored black suit, white blouse with cuffs showing at the sleeves, black heels.
“What are you doing?” she says, stopping this time.
Most people out of work are beat, never curious.
“Picking out dinner,” I say.
That day, in the meat section, a small steak for $6.26 looks good, but then underneath is another for $8.08. So I have a decision to make. Have been making. Leaning.
She says, “I came back this way because I forgot nuts and you’re still here with that same two packages of meat in your hands?”
“You forgot nuts?”
“Yeah, right, I’m the one.”
I like what I see in her eyes.
And that’s how it starts, isn’t it? The ignited look—right conditions, it rages through the scrub, heads for tall grass.
“It wasn’t ten minutes,” I say. “Not quite eight.”
“If you say so.”
And that could have been it. But then, another day, deliciously eight weeks beyond, more shopping, there she is again.
I favor this store, the only one that has the proper lowest items checkout—even though it takes a longer route (4.4 miles from work; 8.2 from home) to properly get there.
I think she gets it too. I like her basket: smoked oysters, a pack of figs, a carrot juice, two-pack of brownies, pre-made wrapped roast beef sandwich, single roll of toilet paper, what looks like breath mints… and a crumpled white cup from the free coffee station at the front of the store.
(Does that count?)
She turns—looks at me looking.
I should know better but I’m getting drawn into those blue-gray eyes of hers. An edge beckons. She’s like one of those deep dark pools in abandoned quarries, where stolen cars and the parboiled bodies of teenagers end up.
I’ll skip the particulars. After I move in, we fall into routine. First eight days are great.
Neither of us is much of a cook. She uses the kitchen sink only to brush her teeth, and even then, not so often, but I like to do things right, the microwave my friend. I use one of the multiples, 24, 32 seconds depending on volume, to nuke or re-nuke. Eight more, if that isn’t hot enough.
“What are you doing?”
“You ever wonder how the mind can spiral? Loop back on itself,” she says, “so the routine becomes so credible it becomes incredible to believe one could change in any way?”
“Never,” I say, blowing on my spoon.
But she’s one to talk….
She doesn’t want loose batteries around. When the occasion arises, I have to reload a flashlight in the garage.
Speaking of cars, out somewhere, shopping or something? And she sees a dog someone has left alone? She circles the parked vehicle until the poor animal begins to bark. (If it doesn’t, and it’s time to, I stop her.)
When she wakes up and goes into the bathroom at night, she throws off the covers, gets out of bed and walks in backwards—comes out and into the bed the same way.
When she brushes her thick blonde hair? It’s four strokes down the left side, then the same, four, on the right.
I can live with that.
We all have our quirks. To be fair about it, I like to park in the same spot at work. It just makes me feel comfortable. How I start my day. Part of the set I work with.
Like when you hit eight minutes in a shower? You know, don’t you?
Maybe time to get out.
Maybe it’s what happens to any couple, together for that stretch, the feeling-out time, at the end of which you decide to keep it going or not. After say, eight weeks in, you take a long hard look and what do you see?
You see maybe, that day at the grocery was not about matched shopping methods, but instead a pedestrian chance encounter, where the compatibility you felt was a pent-up release, a transitional phase perhaps, rather than any soundtrack made from the music of the spheres.
Number two, you’re in an ice-cold garage puffing breath, changing flashlight batteries.
Number three, you sit down with eight chips, eight spoonfuls of soup and an eight-piece pizza pie because what’s eating healthy got to do with it?
Number four, you can’t believe that even if she doesn’t know that the Chinese consider eight a fortuitous number, a lucky number, a number promising good fortune—she should not be so as crass to remark, “We’re not in China.”
Number five, once you point out to her the base logic of certain numerical tidings she should definitely not smile.
Number six, you see that—don’t you?
Number seven, you see what you know now is the most important thing.
There is no number eight, so there you have it.
But you move on, don’t you? You go into to work, but you take a slightly different way. You may question the routine if not the reason, but you certainly don’t douse the baby with the cold bath water, as the saying goes.
You cut the wheel a little sooner than usual, and your heart thumps, as you swing it into the spot.
You take a deep breath, get out of the car, circle it, count each one out. Get inside on the good foot. Step it off, get it right. The new right.
And just that simple, like magic, yes like the music of the spheres, it begins the moment you see her: at the end of the row of cubicles, short black-haired, not long blonde (as if that mattered), seventh one down on the left.
What you hear is a song you hope will never end. It’s got the right beat, the rhythm to which the dance of your dreams plays out.
Jon Fain’s short fiction can be found here and there. He lies low in Massachusetts.
When Paul came in Susan’s mouth he shouted, ‘WrestleMania!’ It was the second time Susan thought about killing him. On Boxing Day Paul walked out of the toilet saying, ‘the turkey has left the building.’ His hair was damp and swept like Elvis. She wished he’d gone out the same way.
Susan spat thick like an athlete and rolled onto her side. Paul tried to explain but gave up somewhere between Triple H and 1999. He sighed and said, ‘sorry’. Susan switched off the lamp and patted Paul’s knee. She put one hand against her waist and willed him toward sleep. She didn’t need to wait long. Deep shadows rolled over them. Susan made circles with her fingers. She thought about the sea and Paul Rudd and the dead futures that had glistened on her tongue.
At dawn Susan smoked in a chair and tended to a lily. She ate dry cereal from a box, cracking down on the honey clusters. Paul snored and flopped over on his back, feet stuck out, his sounds heavy and irregular like the confused mourning of a bear. On their first date Susan asked why he was so tall. Paul told her that he was bitten by a radioactive basketball player. Susan smiled and laughed and when he said, ‘do you want to come back?’ she told him that she did, but now she’d moved in the joke didn’t seem so funny and he wasn’t as tall without his boots on.
Susan leaned back against the wall. The low sun burned like spotlights. Pressure gathered in her chest, pins and needles, vague and burning. The room was strewn with clothes and used towels. In the corner was a folded steel chair. Susan looked at Paul: flat out, grunting, helpless. A new strength rose in her. It was now or never. Susan crept towards Paul, a crowd of voices roaring in her head. She slipped back onto the mattress, ducking the imaginary ropes. Susan grabbed Paul’s leg, lifting the heavy, tattooed thigh. Somewhere behind her the referee counted: 1…2…3.
Daniel Fraser is a writer from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. His work has won prizes and been featured widely in print and online. He lives in London.
Frank passes by the house a second time, the pack of lithium tablets in a bag on the dashboard of the van, wondering how to tell Anne he isn’t well. The light from the porch swells outward, imitating warmth. He parks.
Anne is walking around in thin linen, floating from room to room. Frank drops his bag and makes for the stairs, head low. He feels the sweat and dirt bound closely to him, a weight that tingles.
‘Don’t change,’ Anne says, woozy in the doorframe. ‘I like you just like that.’ Her voice flicks like a tongue inside his stomach. She pours another glass of Sambuca‘to refresh her,’ she says, ‘like a holiday.’
They are on the sofa. Anne looks over at a bit of skirting board with a dead spider curled up on it like a little hand stuck trying to make a fist. Frank crinkles the medicine inside his pocket, feeling confused and sad and a little bit like “this is a problem” but one he’s not allowed to talk about because how much does he drink and besides isn’t he the one who’s crazy and WHO THE FUCK IS HE anyway?
‘Are you…?’ Frank says, with no idea how the sentence is supposed to end. Anne’s grinning, pouting, quivering her lips. Her eyes are swollen, full of aniseed and webbed dust.
‘What?’ She says. Her hand coils round the tumbler like its moulded there. She twitches out a thud of ice like rock hitting crystal or cold hitting throat. Frank shivers.
‘Nothing.’ He chews the corner of his cheek. Frank’s dad comes back from cancer, filling his brain-space with insults, calling him worthless. The voice gets replaced by a montage of drugs and childhood tears. Frank wants things to be his fault.
Anne gulps and swallows, sighing with a snake hiss. Frank smells sweetness. Anne drapes an arm across him, her white bra peaking through loose cloth.
‘You look good,’ Anne says, lilting, a slight slur, thin fingers brushing Frank’s hand. Frank wants to have sex and break up and take Anne to therapy and get a job where he can afford therapy and go back to college and kill himself. He gets up and makes pasta. Anne eats six slices of Parma ham thin as razor blades and smokes two Pall Malls with the door open. Frank takes the tablets and feels a little further away from himself; like his consciousness and body were somehow a TV he was looking at from across the room. Limbs move, mouths move. There are rooms with lights on, bodies sharing space. It all seems fine in a way that seems dead. Like a still life.
Anne kisses his neck while Frank thinks about those aniseed sweets his grandma used to suck, little red balls that spilled onto your tongue. Anne puts pressure on his thigh and pulls up her dress. Frank puts his hand under, feels the wet warmth. His grandma dies just as quickly as she lived. Anne slips away her underwear. It stays hooked on one leg like a hula hoop rolled around a belly. They have sex fully clothed, scratching and tearing at the hard places behind each other’s backs. Frank examines them both from somewhere else, his mind locked in a threesome with a slower, greyer version of himself and a woman that several drinks ago used to be his wife.
They finish and sit side-by-side, breathing heavily, staring out. Frank turns on the news and lets the world do its work, the dissolving bigness of it, the vast expanse of anything that can crush you down and make everything close seem bearable. There were wars and fires in California. It would be ok. Frank holds on to his knees, feeling them shift beneath his hands. Anne pours a drink. Outside the city makes its broken music: sirens, aeroplanes, cheering, and underneath it all a cool wind swirling, whispering with leaves.
Frank gets up and crosses the partition back into the kitchen. He watches Anne through a dark reflection in the window, a mass of hair and neck. He’s there too, an oblong of grey sweatshirt, a piece of face; all the rest of him cut off by the frame, severed by awkward angles of light.
‘The days are getting colder.’ Frank says, pulling a beer from the fridge.
‘But we’re not Frankie,’ Anne says, ‘we’re not.’ and she lights up another cigarette before she’s even finished laughing.
Daniel Fraser is a writer from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. His work has won prizes and been featured widely in print and online. He lives in London.
Even though my trailer park butted against the stilted drive-in screen, the fence made it so I couldn’t see the movies for free. But I could still hear them.
The drive-in used speakers you hooked on your car window. They got ripped from the stands when the cars took off and the owner got tired of fixing them. So he put the movie sound on 89.9 FM so you could hear the movie on your car’s radio.
If you drove down 144 late at night, and listened to 90.1 FM, which was WTTX OUTLAW KOUNTRY, and you passed the drive-in, the movie sound would cut-in for a mile or so before it would fade back into David Allan Coe.
I tuned my Barbie clock radio and waited for it to get dark. I listened to the movies with my dad. If the drive-in played a movie we’d both seen a hundred times, we acted-out the scenes and lip synced the talking. We had our little adaptations right there in the living room. The drunker dad was the better actor he was. When there were new movies we hadn’t ever seen, Dad left because he was only ever interested in things he’d already seen, and I’d lay in bed listening and I’d cast my actors and paint my scenery and cut away and fade and dissolve.
In the winter when the drive-in was closed I watched my Unsolved Mystery tapes. I watched them alone and it got dark early. Some of the stories scared me so bad that I wore several pairs of panties to bed. In my mind it helped with two things: a raper would have a hard time and if I had nightmares and wet the bed all of the layers of underwear would keep my bed dry.
I tried to peek over the drive-in’s sheet metal fence but it was too high and too sharp to climb. I couldn’t sneak in either because somebody sat in the ticketbooth all night. But it wasn’t a total waste of time because I liked to investigate the sweet smell that came from somewhere along the fence. It smelled like Teddy Grahams. I sniffed the leaves and the clusters of showy flowers but I couldn’t locate it. The hot air really made it smell.
The movie sounds with no pictures and the Teddy Graham smell were what kept me from running away. They were my own unsolved mysteries.
But then I started riding around with boys and sneaking into the drive-in was easy when two or three of us girls hid in the truck bed under a tarp or in the backseat covered with a sleeping bag. Four or five of us got into a double feature for four bucks that way as long as we stopped giggling and were still. The smell of the Teddy Grahams was masked by our boozy breath and the boys’ stink of creosote and cum. We never stayed for both movies or we forgot what we saw. It turned out we made our own movies and I wasn’t missing anything I hadn’t already seen. Ours were better. I didn’t like watching beautiful people on screen try to make me feel things that weren’t really there. I liked making my own scenes.
Once I was taken out to the pastures, somehow alone with somebody. The boy said he was taking me out to podunk with him so we’d get abducted by aliens. He told me the story of Barney & Betty and I told him I’d seen them on Unsolved Mysteries and he got me all witless. We parked by some substation and he flashed his headlights over the sleeping cattle to attract the mothership. All that did was scare away the bats and attract the lightning bugs. He tried to touch me and I tried to stop him. The back of his neck smelled like raw pie dough. I smelled like the hot metal handles of a merry-go-round.
We sped through clouds of lightning bugs until their phosphorescent ooze was smashed out and covered every inch of the car. Until the car was glow-in-the-dark. Until we looked like the mothership we wanted to be taken up in.
“You ever seen Repo Man?” he said.
“No,” I said.
“Well that’s what our car looks like right now. The car in Repo Man. I hope we start flying away.”
We went faster and he turned the radio up louder. This was our adaptation.
He brought me back to the trailer park. I walked along the fence drive-in fence and found that Teddy Graham smell because the booze evaporated and the boys were gone. I could tell finally that the source of the smell wasn’t from one thing. The smell was an amalgamation. The smell was all the flowers and weeds and roadkill and trash and exhaust. I picked the smell apart into its pieces. I didn’t sense a whole anymore.
With both mysteries solved, I felt untethered but not free. I saw where I had been tied and what was used to tie me there. I thought I’d drift. But all I wanted was to find another mystery that I wouldn’t be able to solve. I didn’t want a bigger world. I didn’t want to know anything anymore. All I could do was be a mystery myself so I got wild until I didn’t know who I was. Until I was like a merry-go-round. Sort of spinning until there were many transparent copies of me. So many of me nobody knew which one to grab a hold of. I drifted and I couldn’t see what I’d been tied to anymore, at least. I knew it was still there. And here I am now trying to cut that piece away that’s still dragging behind me.
Adam is a writer and lives with his wife in Franklin, Indiana.