“Arcadia” by Sharon Mauldin Reynolds
Esta, a few months shy of her ninety-first birthday, makes the quarter of a mile trek from the house and is nearing the mailbox when she hears the noise. A breath, almost. An expulsion of air so subtle it could be the wind in the water oaks. But she knows it’s a living creature. And even before she turns to see what it is, she feels the steady chill creeping into her chest.
It crouches in the leafy shadows, looking for all the world like a picture in one of the National Geographic magazines she has in her attic. It’s at once familiar and alien, the eyes slanting just so, merging with the flat nose. Quiet and still as moss, the cougar is watching her. No mistaking what it is. No chance she’ll think it’s only an overgrown housecat. Even as the cold weariness of fear enfolds her, Esta marvels at the creature’s beauty, the alignment of the yellow eyes with the lines down the sides of the mouth.
How funny, she thinks. Her sister was right after all. June had warned her, going on and on about how terrible it was that people like their new neighbors, who’d moved in with what they called a “collection of exotic animals,” were going against nature, trying to raise those creatures up like family pets.
“You take your high-bred wolves,” June had said. “I saw a picture in the paper once of a little boy who’d been mauled by one of those things. Looked like he had a mended stocking stretched over his face. High-bred, my eye. You can’t breed the wolf out of it.”
June was always finding stories like this in the Tupelo or Memphis papers, reading them aloud to Esta and mulling over the details. After she read several articles about home invasions up in Germantown, she started keeping a loaded shotgun propped against the corner in her bedroom. It was the economy, she said, criminals looking for easy victims in suburbs and out in the country.
“They’re just looking for sitting ducks like us, two old ladies,” she said when Esta tried to protest the shotgun. “They better not mess with me.”
A sign she’d tacked up on the gate in front of their driveway warned trespassers: We have guns and know how to use them. We will shoot you if you come on our property. We are serious.
Before Esta started out this morning, June had taken the old German Luger their brother brought back from World War II out of a shoebox in the back of a closet.
“Here,” she said, handing it to her sister. “If you see anything that looks like one of those animals coming toward you, shoot first and ask questions afterwards.”
“Is this Jim’s?” Esta asked, feeling the weight of the pistol dragging her thin hand down. “Does it even work?”
“There’s at least one bullet in the chamber. I guess it’s still good. Those Germans made things to last.”
“June, I don’t know how to use this thing.”
“Just cock it, point and pull the trigger. How hard can that be?” June cocked the pistol and showed Esta how to release the safety.
“I never killed anything in my life.”
“You might change your mind if it was trying to kill you.”
“Surely to goodness they don’t let those animals run loose,” Esta said as she gingerly placed the weapon inside the pocket of her windbreaker, shuddering when the long, narrow barrel pressed against her thigh. She seriously doubted she would need to shoot anything, but she knew her sister wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Wild animals escape all the time,” June said. “Didn’t you hear about that gorilla at the Pittsburgh Zoo?”
“Okay, well, if you hear a shot, call nine-one-one,” Esta said, setting out in the early morning chill. As usual, she was neatly dressed, even for a walk on the farm, wearing a white sweatshirt embroidered with pink and blue flowers and a pair of blue pull-on slacks. Her daily walk was less than half a mile, both ways, just down to the mailbox and back.
“I’d go with you, but my knee and all,” June called after her. She was the younger of the two, barely eighty, but years of childbearing had taken a toll on her legs. Esta didn’t even need a walking stick.
Esta has been standing on the path for goodness only knows how long when the fist begins rapping inside her chest. Her legs grow still as the useless fence posts that separate her property from the neighbors’. How easily the cougar must have cleared the fence. Maybe there’s another one somewhere behind it, ready to enjoy feasting on an old lady.
She forces herself to turn and begin putting one foot in front of the other. Mustn’t let it smell the fear. She hears the light echoing movement of the animal, just a few yards away. Expects to see teeth flashing just for a moment before they sink into her neck, claws ripping her chest open.
The animal stops when she turns again, one sleek, taupe paw in front of the other as it inches toward her. Esta pivots slowly, tottering, pulse pounding in her ears like an advancing army. A thin tributary of perspiration trickles down her neck and between her breasts. She hears just the barest whisper of leaves stirring as the cougar keeps in step with her.
The path she had walked so casually half an hour earlier stretches before her, an endless corridor. At any point between here and the house, the animal may spring. She has watched Animal Planet on the TV. She has seen how far these creatures can leap, how the sharp teeth tear the flesh off their prey. Killed and eaten. As if killed weren’t bad enough.
Walk. Walk. Stop. Stop. Esta and the animal continue their solitary dance up the lane. She moves. It moves. She stops. It stops. Suppose she just stood there forever, until she dropped to the ground, exhausted. Would the cougar freeze too, watching her for its next cue? The walking Esta sees the frozen Esta, even as the leaves are scuttling around her feet.
June sits down at the dining room table for a cup of coffee and her first cigarette of the day. She opens the paper to the crossword puzzle. Since she left her husband, Tillmon, and moved out in the country with Esta six months ago, she feels like she’s on a never-ending vacation. It had started out to be just two weeks, after Esta’s cataract surgery, then dragged on to four, and now she can’t imagine going back.
“You know you don’t want to live with two old women in the house, and somebody’s got to take care of Esta,” she had told Tillmon. “I simply cannot bring myself to go off and leave her out there alone right now.” She had failed to add that she was also enjoying not having to be his personal secretary and maid.
“You’ll be fine with Amber here,” she said. Amber was the teenage granddaughter their youngest daughter had dropped off for them to raise, another task June was glad to get away from.
Chores at Esta’s were practically nonexistent. Cooking and cleaning for two people was nothing to June, who’d raised five kids and babysat umpteen grandkids. Plus, a Mexican girl named Immaculata came over once a week to do the laundry and bring a load of groceries from Jitney Jungle. And there was plenty to occupy their leisure time. Esta had everything you need in the way of entertainment in the big old log house her late husband had built. Every movie Disney ever made and a host of musicals like The King and I. An endless supply of crossword puzzle magazines and romance novels came once a month in the mail.
Sometimes, when they felt adventurous, they would climb into Esta’s old Buick, with June at the wheel, and head down the back roads for Tupelo or New Albany, where they would eat at Shoney’s buffet, stopping by the Shoe Carnival or Wal-Mart afterwards. Invariably, Esta would buy another pair of Easy Spirit shoes or comfortable pull-on slacks for herself and June.
“An actress—‘Joanne.’ Three letters in the last name.” June muses over her crossword puzzle. The only Joanne she can think of was married to Paul Newman. Her last name has more than three letters.
A breeze stirs the sheer green panels over the dining room windows. June looks up from the polished mahogany surface of the table. Seems funny now to think Esta’s had nearly as many husbands as some of these movie stars. Her first one, Harold Gene, was mean as a snake, belittling Esta in front of the family all the time. June felt downright uncomfortable around the second one, Martin Lowry, the way he tried to kiss her on the mouth whenever he saw her. It was a shame Esta hadn’t found a keeper until Mr. Earl. And then, wouldn’t you just know it, he had to go and die on her right after they built this house.
Esta’s hand trembles as she tries to grasp the long, cold handle of the Luger in her pocket. Even though it’s only early October, the morning chill has stiffened her fingers. Years ago, when she and June were growing up, Jim had tried to teach them how to shoot a .22 rifle. Esta wishes now she’d taken the target practice seriously. Thought it was too countrified back then. Besides, she gave herself a manicure every Sunday night and didn’t want to break her fingernails, fooling with locking and loading. June took to guns right away. But she’d loved all that outdoors stuff, played football and baseball with boys right up to high school.
Esta glances out of the corner of her eye at the shadow moving slowly, implacably through the underbrush, wishing Mr. Earl were still alive. Her husband’s been gone five years now. She’d respected that man, worshipped the ground he walked on. He would be right beside her at this very minute if he were alive. March up to that old cat and order it off his property without firing a shot.
He was nothing like her first husband, that crazy Harold Gene, who deserved to be killed and eaten if anybody ever did. Stayed with him all that time for their son Tommy’s sake and look how much good that did. Esta was always too ashamed to tell June the things Harold Gene had done to her in the privacy of their bedroom, making sure to leave bruises where they’d never show. And she certainly wasn’t proud of the fact that she’d committed adultery with Martin Lowry, but if it weren’t for him, she’s sure she would be down at Whitfield, the state insane asylum, right this very minute. Martin had an antique shop right across the street from the bank where Esta worked, and she’d been one of his best customers. Nothing improper had ever happened between them until Martin’s wife left him. He seemed so lonely that Esta opened up and told him how a person could be married and still lonely. When Harold Gene had disappeared on a fishing trip at Sardis Lake, Esta waited a year before accepting Martin’s marriage proposal. Tommy had refused to speak to her ever since, and that was forty years ago.
Maybe it really is true what they say about your whole life passing before your eyes when you’re facing death, she thinks. Martin hadn’t surfaced in her consciousness in ages. She’d pushed him so far down, he could be at the bottom of Sardis Lake right along with Harold Gene. Martin had never raised a hand to her in all the years they were married. But, then, Harold Gene hadn’t run around with other women, either. At least, not that she knew of. As it turned out, Martin never stopped, although it took her a while to figure out that others were finding their way to the cot in the back of his store just as she once had.
June is concentrating so deeply on the crossword puzzle that she doesn’t hear the shot, which is the only one Esta manages to get off before the creature flees, clearing the six-foot-high, chain link fence in a flash of amber. But eventually she begins to feel restless, so she goes out to the backyard to smoke another cigarette, careful to hold onto the wrought iron railing Esta had installed on the steps so neither one of them would lose their footing and crack a bone. The yard is half an acre deep, walled in with cinderblocks. One ancient pecan tree with pansies surrounding its trunk provides most of the shade.
She wonders if Esta has fallen. It’s not like her to take so long. She has to have her glass of warm water and fifteen pills before breakfast or the world will come to an end. You just never know. Might be a bull or a wild pig roaming around out in the fields. Or one of those so-called exotic animals.
June had saved Esta’s life once years ago when they were teenagers. It was a summer Sunday afternoon out on Dumas Lake, the two of them with Jim and his girlfriend, reclining on a quilt they’d placed on the narrow sandy beach. Jim was still dressed for church, wearing a white suit. June had swum out and back to a raft anchored some fifty yards from shore, doing a perfect Australian crawl without stopping.
“Bet you can’t do that,” she said to her sister, who hadn’t even gotten her bathing suit wet.
Esta looked out at the raft, rocking slowly in the murky water, then at Jim’s girlfriend, a redhead who worked at Union Planter’s Bank in Memphis. June didn’t think she’d really try it, but sure enough, Esta stood up, waded into the lake and struck out. Halfway there, it became apparent she was in trouble. The three of them leapt to their feet, Jim removing his hat and yelling for Esta to hang on. But he couldn’t bring himself to get in the water, not in that white suit. So June, only thirteen at the time, ran in after her. She had Esta in her arms when her sister panicked, pulling them both under. June hauled off and socked her. Afterwards, Esta had the gall to complain about a sore jaw, never even saying “thank you.”
Truth be told, June used to always think Esta was too prim and proper, even secretly took pleasure in seeing her embarrassed. She’d once told a boy who’d come to the house to call on Esta that her sister was “still running around in her teddy.” Esta about died when she heard that.
But after Mr. Earl passed and they started spending more time together, things changed. Esta always seemed so glad to see her. “My baby sister,” she took to calling June. When June put the drops in Esta’s eyes twice a day after the cataract surgery, her sister’s serene, upturned face reminded her of their dead mother’s.
She decides to go look for Esta now and hollers for the old yellow lab, Sheba, even though she can’t bear the sight of that mutt and it wouldn’t be much protection. The dog rises from its corner in the yard, a grumbling mass of yellowing folds, shuffling toward June.
“Come on along, you old hound. Come on and earn your keep.”
Esta’s arm is still trembling from the kickback of the pistol. She can’t believe what a noise that thing made, setting her heart to pounding so hard she wonders if it will give out on her completely. But she refuses to stand still, to die out here alone, carrion for wild animals. The path back seems so long, she can’t imagine making it all the way to the house, so she turns around, walking backward. That way, she reasons, it won’t seem so far and she can see if the cougar comes back with its mate.
Halfway down the path, June sees Esta, walking with her back turned, like a movie reel rewinding. What on earth is the matter with that woman? Stroke is the first thought that comes to her mind. Esta’s had a stroke and is disoriented. In the split second before her sister turns to face her, June sees herself back in town, back in that house with Tillmon and Amber, no place to go with Esta dead.
Sheba spots her mistress, then springs into a gimpy little trot.
“Sheba, come back here. You’re fixing to make her trip,” June calls. “Sheba, Sheba! Heel.”
Esta turns at the sound of June’s voice, and the presence of an animal leaps into her line of vision. The other one, the cougar, had fled when she’d fired into the bushes, mistaking a sudden loud rustling in the leaves for a prelude to an attack. She isn’t taking any chances now, so she turns around completely, waving the pistol back and forth, holding it with both hands the way she’s seen them do on TV. It’s another cougar, she thinks. This must be its mate, maybe its mother. Just as her finger tightens on the trigger, she hears June’s voice clearly.
“Esta, put that thing down before you hurt somebody.”
I should’ve let her drown, June thinks. The trigger clicks on an empty chamber.
“You were aiming right at me, Esta. You had me right in your crosshairs.”
Esta drops the weapon to the ground, wondering dumbly if a pistol has crosshairs. “I, I was aiming at Sheba, guess I thought she was the cougar. Things looked kind of blurry.”
Sheba, exhausted from the short walk, collapses at Esta’s feet, dust clouds rising from the swish of the long, bedraggled tail.
“A cougar? What cougar?” June asks.
“There was one. A real one, just like you said. I fired at it. Maybe even nicked it. I could’ve been killed and eaten.”
“Are you all right? You didn’t get bitten, did you?” June takes her sister’s thin arm, guiding her back toward the house.
“No, I’m okay. Just got to catch my breath. Did you hear that thing go off? Sounded like a cannon. My ears are still ringing.”
“Guess I wasn’t paying attention, working on a crossword puzzle. I’ll call the sheriff on those folks. We can’t have wild animals running around here.”
Esta pauses for a moment on the front porch to look back at the path disappearing up a slight incline and through a corridor of cedar trees. She sees herself disappearing like the path, just out of reach of her sister. The way Mr. Earl had disappeared, and before him, her son and her first husband.
“You never know,” she says, half to herself, “you just never know. You walk out your front door one day. . . .”
“I know what you mean,” June says, helping her into the house. “I read about this woman in California? She was out in her garden? All of a sudden, this big old black bear jumps out of the bushes and bites her on the head.”
Esta lets June finish the story, but she isn’t hearing the words, just the familiar, comforting sound of her sister’s voice.
“I was thinking,” she says, when the woman in June’s story is finally saved from the jaws of death, rescued by her two large dogs, “why don’t we drive over to Tupelo later on and have lunch at Shoney’s? Maybe do a little shopping afterwards at the Shoe Carnival.”
“You sure you feel up to a road trip after fighting off a cougar?”
“It really wasn’t much of a fight. I expect the thing was half tame anyhow,” Esta says. “But maybe I oughta target practice a little, just in case.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” June says. “Next time, why don’t I go walking with you, and I’ll carry the gun.”
“Swimming Upstream” by Kevin Winchester
In the summer of 1973, a man walked along the South Carolina shore, sounds from a prototype personal metal detector beeping in his ears. A few miles north, at the Myrtle Beach Municipal Airport, another man, a pilot, launched his aircraft. The plane was a Cessna kit model, assembled solely by the pilot. When he felt liftoff, he swelled with patriotic pride. He lovingly tapped the plane’s console. This kind of ingenuity is what made this country great, he assured himself.
He flew south, toward Charleston, then circled, and buzzed Edisto Island before heading back north. Ten miles south of Murrell’s Inlet, where the man scanning the beach for buried trinkets listened to the sounds in the machine’s headphones, the pilot noticed a thin spray of oil hitting his windshield. Two miles south, the plane’s single prop worked loose and spun harmlessly into the Atlantic. The pilot wrangled the plane into a downward glide, aiming for the hard packed sand at the water’s edge.
As the plane drew nearer, the man with the metal detector listened as the beeping in his headphones increased. His anticipation increased proportionately. When the plane was only inches from touching the earth, the beeping became a continual buzz and his anticipation grew almost uncontainable. The buzzing and the anticipation both ended when the plane hit him. Livingston Carr, eight at the time, clutched at fuzzy memories of his father for the rest of his life.
His father was an influence, though. Genetics installed the father’s neuroses into the boy and Livingston’s mother told him everything about his father, instilled his work ethic, his morality. Repeatedly. She buried those lessons deeper than the shrink’s brand of detectors could fathom. By the time Livingston graduated college he’d wrapped his dead father’s dogma around him like a prophylactic.
When something challenged Livingston, he silently repeated his life’s mantra: honest, stable, dependable, loyal. He believed it, he lived it. He even developed a series of tics, twitches, habits, and rituals to remind him of the mantra when he faltered. Practical, comforting routines. Something as simple as making sure all the light switches in the house pointed downward led to a consistent eight hours of healthy, rejuvenating slumber each night. Down implied safety, a closing, a proper flow toward completeness. All things flowed downstream, did they not? So, swimming downstream became effortless, preferable at all times. Up? Up was blasphemy, willy-nilly randomness. Nothing flows upstream, it would upset the order of…of…everything. And order was…necessary.
His boss at the Orangutan Condom Company appreciated that about Livingston, especially the loyal part. He focused on it as he waited for Livingston to appear in his office.
“Liv, come in, have a seat.”
“Thank you, Mr. Arnold.” Livingston took a seat.
“Listen, you’re a valued employee, a straight-shooter, so I’m just gonna get straight to it.”
“We gotta let you go. Nothing personal. We’re cutting nine others. This damn economy, nobody wants to screw when their house is being foreclosed. You know what I’m saying? Nobody but kids anyways, and hell, most of them don’t wear rubbers. Then you get more bastard young ‘uns, more sucking the government tit, more drain on the economy, more lay-offs. It’s a vicious cycle, I tell you.”
“Oh security’s cleaning your desk out right now. It’s today, buddy. Sorry about that.”
“Well…I guess…Is there a severance? What about my retirement? I’ve been contributing for all of my twenty-two years here.”
“Here’s your last check. And you need to sign this.”
Livingston signed it and slid the paper back toward Mr. Arnold. “What is it?” he asked.
“About that retirement…” He waved the signed paper in the air. “This here is a confidentiality agreement you’ve signed, so what I’m about to tell you, you can’t tell anyone, capice? I know a man like you would never think of such a thing, right?”
“Okay. I guess…”
“Our retirement fund, all of it, every freaking cent, was invested with Bernie Madoff. That shit’s gone. It’s like Elvis, Livingston, it ain’t ever coming back.”
“But what am I…”
The door opened and two security guards entered. One of them carried a small box of personal items from Livingston’s desk and the other gave Arnold a thumbs up. “Good to go,” he said. Arnold nodded and stood.
“Well, Livingston, it’s been a pleasure working with you. Joe and Bobby here will walk you to your car. Let’s see…” he shuffled the papers on his desk. “Yeah, here it is, all your paperwork.”
Livingston stared at the manila envelope in his hands.
“Oh, I almost forgot.” He reached in the credenza behind his desk and tossed a box of Orangutan Brand Condoms on the desk. “Corporate said to give everyone a box when they left.”
Livingston picked up the box and read the slogan: Orangutan Brand—For Those Times When Only Wild Monkey Sex Will Do. How could he tell Trudy?
He couldn’t, and that presented Livingston with a problem. In sixteen years of marriage, he’d never lied to Trudy. Not once. Sure, he told her the poodle perm looked great, he adored her mother, and he agreed that Barry Manilow was a musical genius, but those weren’t really lies. Sometimes Trudy needed reassuring, that’s all. She’d endured enough in her life, she deserved that much. Being a little person brought its own share of ridicule, he knew that, not to mention the everyday things like grocery shopping. At three-foot-ten, how was she supposed to reach products on the top shelves? And the fruit and produce, they always put the best selection at the top of the pile. The company Christmas party a few years back nearly turned into a disaster on several levels. Had Livingston known his boss, Mr. Arnold, had pedophilic tendencies, he’d never have insisted Trudy go. Liv ran interference all night, but Trudy was still furious and Arnold gave him petty tasks for a month afterward.
Trudy depended on him, counted on him to provide. The news would upset her too much, she’d think him less a man. But lying to her violated everything for Livingston and that violation, combined with having no job, would upset the order of their lives, and Liv held that order above all else. He rose each morning, weekends included, at precisely six o’clock, enjoyed a breakfast of bran flakes, one slice of wheat toast—no butter, a glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee as he read the Local section, obituaries first. Always. In winter, he warmed the Volvo’s engine for seven minutes before leaving for work at twelve past seven. Every light switch in the house pointed down before Livingston retired to bed. Tuesday nights were lasagna, Wednesday’s meatloaf, and salmon patties with garlic-mashed potatoes on Thursdays. He and Trudy reserved Sunday mornings from nine to nine-thirty for sex followed by cuddling, missionary position unless a Sunday fell on February twenty-ninth. Then it was leap year sex—still basically missionary, but Liv would move his right leg outside of Trudy’s left leg, for variety.
These were the things that held life itself in place, and were not to be tinkered with.
Rock, meet hard place. Livingston saw no option, so he did what any sane husband, any man would do. And he did it for love. He continued to get up each morning, follow his routine, spend the day at the library reading Walker Percy novels, and come home at the usual time. He’d simply avoid the subject until an idea presented itself. Liv considered his bank account, the likelihood of finding another job at his age, with his qualifications, in the current economy, and convinced himself he could continue the charade for six, maybe seven months. By then, he’d have an idea, Obama’s stimulus money would have trickled his way. Until then, he’d stay shovel-ready and keep his mouth shut.
Like Christ in the tomb, Livingston lasted three days.
The first thread in Livingston’s plan freed itself on Thursday, three days after Arnold fired him. Liv was reading a particularly riveting section in Percy’s Love in the Ruins when he heard a commotion at the front desk. The discussion grew loud, even by coffee shop standards, let alone a library, and Liv found it hard to concentrate. Apparently, word had just come down that, due to budget shortfalls, several branches of the library would close. He ignored the discussion until he realized this library, his sanctuary, was on the list. A second thread worked loose. Liv abandoned his Percy novel and chose a volume of Yeats poems lying inconspicuously across the table. He opened the book and stared at the same page until his shift ended three hours later.
The unraveling continued when he arrived home. It being Thursday, the scent of salmon patties frying and garlic-mashed potatoes…well…mashing, he supposed, should have greeted him. Instead, he smelled pork chops and asparagus. No, no, no. That was Saturdays in months with thirty-one days. A thought gripped him—she knew. She knew, she had to. He closed the door, placed his briefcase in the appropriate location, kissed Trudy—who stood on her stool by the stove, turning the chops—on the top of her head, excused himself to the bedroom under the auspices of changing clothes before dinner (which he never did), went into his bathroom instead, closed that door, turned on the fan, respectfully lifted the toilet seat, and threw up violently. How did she find out?
It didn’t matter. How he handled it, what he said, that mattered. He rinsed his mouth and looked himself in the mirror. Wait. A thought. If she knew, shouldn’t she be angry? If she were angry, she’d serve Spam and sauerkraut for dinner. Sunday’s evening meal, his least favorite. Pork chops over wild rice and asparagus was his favorite, favorite meal. No, no, no, no. Everything was fraying. The center cannot hold, he thought, and now I’m the slouching beast. Livingston took a breath and turned toward the kitchen. Act natural. Be unaffected. Deny. Let her talk first.
“What’s for dinner?” he asked.
“I thought I’d change things up a bit.” Trudy turned to smile at him. “It’s your favorite, honey glazed pork chops, wild rice, and braised asparagus.”
“Is something wrong? What’s happened?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Liv” she answered. “I’m just feeling… I don’t know, not like salmon patties. Does that make sense?”
“But, but…it’s Thursday, Trudy. Thursday.”
“I know.” She flipped the last pork chop and shuffled around on the footstool until she faced Livingston, and then held the spatula above her head and shimmied, starting at her shoulders and ending at her knees. “Exciting, don’t you think?”
Livingston swallowed hard, then swallowed again, his mouth suddenly so dry he thought he’d need the spatula to prize his tongue from his palate. “Well, sure. I guess. That’s great.”
It wasn’t great. Deep in his gut, Livingston felt his universe beginning to shift. He choked back the urge to blurt out the whole story, confess even if she already knew every detail. Beating her to the punch might restore some sense of order. He wished she’d just say it, he hoped equally she wouldn’t, and he wanted his salmon patties and garlic-mashed potatoes.
Trudy served dinner and Liv concentrated on devouring every morsel on his plate. Each bite tasted of guilt, deception, condemnation, and fear. Trudy made small talk and Liv answered, as always, but was suspicious. The news said there’d be nice weather for the weekend. A trap. I’m thinking of painting the guest bathroom. Full of subtext. We need milk, but there’s enough for your morning cereal. An accusation? I’ll pick some up when I get groceries tomorrow. Does she buy groceries near the library? Wait, they’re closing, but when? How are things at work? Oh, dear God.
“Work’s fine, everything’s good. You know, business as usual, the daily grind. Yes, everything at work is perfectly normal.” Livingston’s last bite left his stomach and lunged up his esophagus, gripped the back of his tongue and threatened to reappear on his plate. He cleared his throat, swallowed. “Another delicious dinner, Trudy.”
“Thank you, Liv. See, a little variety can be a good thing.”
“I suppose. Yes, occasionally.”
The rest of the evening proceeded as usual. Trudy worked on her latest cross-stitch project while Liv tried to watch a Discovery Channel show about the mating habits of spiral-shelled snails. His heartburn distracted him and at the show’s end he realized he could never distinguish the sex of a spiral-shelled snail should the opportunity ever present itself. At the commercial break, Trudy announced she was going to bed and a new wave of fear drenched Livingston. Ten o’clock was his bedtime, Trudy always watched the news then Letterman before turning in, well after he’d fallen asleep. Her plan revealed. She’d confront him as he drifted toward sleep and his defenses waned. Trudy kissed first his forehead, then shocked him with a lingering kiss on the lips before going to their bedroom.
Livingston walked to the kitchen, drank a glass of water, walked back to the den, to the dining room, to the kitchen, drank more water. Sat down, stood up, ate Tums, then sat down again before giving up and quietly brushing his teeth and sliding stiffly into his side of the bed without checking to make sure all the light switches pointed toward the floor.
Trudy faced the opposite wall, away from him and for a few calming minutes it appeared to Liv that he’d survived.
Then, Trudy turned and snuggled against him, her hand slipping beneath the elastic band of his pajama bottoms as she did. He wanted to scream: It’s Thursday, for god’s sake, this is not right. It’ll upset everything. What’s wrong with you? But he feigned a yawn and turned his face away from her instead. In his head, he began repeating do not get an erection over and over, but he soon felt that method failing. He thought about Mr. Arnold, he thought about the trade deficit, he thought of a tribe of indigenous Eskimos living within the Arctic Circle. He thought about spiral-shelled snails, and still his blood rushed south. Too much variety for one night. What did this mean for Sunday morning? Did this advance change the terms for Sunday? Replace their usual session? Or was this in addition to?
Trudy’s plan lacked all fairness and bordered on cruelty, which began to make him angry. Unfortunately, that didn’t work either as now, were he to stand up, he could hang a pair of wet dungarees on his erection. He yawned again, but it became apparent this tactic had no effect on Trudy. As she slipped his pajama’s down past his knees, he vowed he’d admit nothing.
Trudy worked the pajamas free and repositioned herself. His breath caught in his throat. Oh my god. Some of the guys at work talked of this. He’d always ignored them, but—oh my god. No, no, no, no. Not fair. Concentrate. Use the anger. Not playing fair. Oh… The light switches. What about the light switches?
Trudy sat up, then straddled him. Okay, he thought, but I’ll not enjoy this. Won’t enjoy. Snails. Nancy Pelosi. Nancy Pelosi. There, that’s some better. Let her do all the work. Trudy positioned herself, cowgirl style, and grinned at Livingston. Liv closed his eyes. Eskimos. Multiplication tables. Mmmm. No, no, no. Golf. Nancy Pelosi. Golf. Spiral-shelled snails. Nine holes at Augusta. Azaleas. Amen Corner. Trudy’s motion increased in speed and efficiency. What was she doing, other than all the work? She couldn’t possibly know about his job, or lack of. “Yes, yes, yes…” Wait, that came from Trudy. But usually, she never made a sound. She must know. She didn’t know.
It had never been like this. Maybe she did know. Maybe she thought of him as dangerous now, maybe she found the lie made him more mysterious. Livingston eased one eye open, and once he saw Trudy’s eyes closed, he opened the other. Her head tilted back and her breath came in bursts, faster, quicker, making an abbreviated “hee-hee” sound with each exhale. The expression on her face was foreign to him. She seemed content to continue doing all the work, but Liv couldn’t help himself once he saw the look on her face and he pitched in. The other images had not helped so he switched to his usual Sunday morning method, counting each thrust. One. Two. Three. Four—why delay the inevitable for her sake, she’d started this. Besides, the quicker this ended, the quicker they’d both fall asleep, which meant another day passed without Trudy’s discovering the current job situation. As soon as he made that decision, he was lost. Maybe she…Oh, oh, oh—the pressure rising. No, no, no, not yet. Snails, spiral-shelled. The lie. The light switches. Snails. The lights. Snails-the lie. Snails-lights-snails-lights-snails-lights-lie-Lie-LIe-LIE—“I LOST MY JOB!”
“You WHAT?” Trudy stood straight up on the bed, and even at three-foot-ten, she towered over Livingston. She insisted, Livingston couldn’t meet her gaze. He looked around the room. This was his life. The beige walls, matching window treatments, accented pillows placed just so on the chair in the corner. The beige walls. The windows closed, the drapes drawn. The framed Kincaid, the un-attributed floral print on the opposite wall. The beige walls, with the white trim and the white, plastic switch cover. Two switches, one for the light, one for the fan. Two white switches in the white cover on the beige wall. Two white switches in the white cover on the beige wall, one pointing down, and the other pointing skyward. Livingston sighed and faced Trudy.
“It’s Thursday, Trudy,” he said. “Thursday. Thursday’s are salmon patties and garlic-mashed potatoes.”
Trudy wanted to admit Livingston was right, wanted to console him, but it was too late. He was already swimming upstream.
“The Possum” by Kevin Winchester
Donnie Flowers liked Budweiser beer, every song George Jones ever recorded, and his job. He liked his brother’s kid, James, too, just not as much as George, Bud, or his job dispatching the trucks at the dump, but those were beyond compare. In one sense, he felt sorry for James, even pitied him a little, but Donnie realized those feelings weren’t really directed at James, but had more to do with his brother being such a tool.
Over the years, Donnie tried to compensate. His brother and his sanctimonious sister-in-law adopted James as a toddler, just in time for his first birthday, and immediately began to scar the kid with their worldview. The summer James turned ten, they sent him for a week at Math & Science Bible Camp hoping James would gain an outside perspective on guilt while learning the fuzzy math needed to properly calculate the age of the earth to explain dinosaurs and disprove evolution once and for all. Donnie rescued him on the fourth day, claiming a family emergency. He spent the next two days teaching James to chew tobacco and shoot empty Bud bottles with a .22. Donnie dropped James at the camp’s front gate on the last scheduled day and drove away, making James swear he’d not tell his parents when they arrived an hour later to take him home. It was a bonding experience for both and a tradition was established.
Donnie saw James and that black kid walking along the back fence of the dump, climbed on the four-wheeler and rode to meet them. “Hidee-ho James. Colton, what’s happening, homey?” He held up the black power soul brother fist for Colton. “You boys shooting rats today?” he asked.
“Hey Uncle Donnie. Which yard’s open?”
“East lot. Nobody’s working over there until end of the week. Won’t nobody bother you. Fresh stuff, too. Stinking like a dead polecat in August. Be plenty of rats out.”
James and Colton kept walking. Donnie eased the four-wheeler along on the opposite side of the fence. “Must be something heavy on your mind,” he said. “You ain’t been out in months.”
“Thinking about a career change, is all.”
“Well, shooting rats’ll sure clear your mind. You remember where I cut the fence for you, right?”
“It ain’t been that long, Uncle Donnie. We got it. Want us to leave you a couple beers in the usual place?” Colton held up the twelve pack, which now held eight beers.
“Naw. Much as I’d like one, better not chance it. Old Barack Hussein Obama’s got the economy so screwed up, they’re even laying off County workers. Best not give them a reason. No offense, Colton. I don’t care that he’s black nor that he’s one of them Muslims, you understand.”
“None taken, sir. I know what you mean.”
“Good, good. I best get back to the dispatch shack. You boys have fun.”
James and Colton settled in. They positioned themselves on a small pile of garbage partially covered in dirt. The ground was uneven, but James found an old cooler and Colton a five-gallon plastic bucket for seats. They wedged them into the dirt and trash, trying to get a stable foundation for aiming. In a few minutes, the first rat crawled to the top side of a freezer that lie on its side forty yards away. James took a pull from his beer and pointed at the varmint with the can. “Fat one. You take him.”
“You can have the first shot if you want it.”
“Go ahead. I’ll take the next one.”
Colton raised the .22, sighted and squeezed. His shot plinked off target by a couple inches and hit the rat in the hindquarters. It fell spread-eagled, its front claws trying to gain traction on the slick sides of the freezer as it slid toward the edge. It caught itself on the rubber gasket where the door once connected and hung by its front paws, swinging slightly left to right as it tried to haul itself to safety. Colton sighted again. The force of his second shot knocked the rat inside the freezer.
“Good one,” James told him and took the rifle. “Extra points for style.”
“So what’s next?” Colton asked.
“It’ll come to me. You just got to stay open to the possibilities the universe offers, C-note. Chill-ax. You worry too much.”
James wanted life to be just that easy, as easy as shooting rats. Spot your target, aim, squeeze, and done. The past week, like most of his life, proved that untrue. It started last Sunday evening when he dropped Brittany in front of her house and pulled away as she stumbled up the walk and inside, where her parents waited. An hour past curfew and more than one Smirnoff Ice past her limit. After her father calling his father, and his father saying “it’s the last straw” over and over, after taking the Marine Corps entrance test yet again, after failing it yet again, James was essentially homeless, jobless, and according to Britt’s dad, girlfriend-less. He ended the week with a night of celebrating his newfound independence, which led to Colton picking him up from the Mason County Jail this morning. None of it fazed James, not really. It didn’t count as real, not yet. James knew that somewhere his real life waited, concrete and three-dimensional, all he had to do was find it.
Two more rats appeared and crawled inside the freezer to inspect the damage inflicted upon their cousin. After a minute or two, one waddled out and started edging its way along the backrest of a broken sofa, its body silhouetted in the slanted rays of sunlight.
“Not worried about me,” Colton answered. “I took deferred enrollment, remember? I start classes this fall.”
“Oh yeah. Almost forgot. Gonna be a college boy.” James pulled the trigger and the rat fell out of sight behind the couch. “Lectures, classes, tests, reading, for God’s sake. Bor—ing.” He handed the gun back to Colton.
The second rat followed the same path toward the sofa and Colton tracked him through the scope. “You could take some classes at the community college,” he offered. James grunted. Colton squeezed off the shot. The rat squealed as it died. “You know, learn a trade, if nothing else, something to draw a paycheck. We’re not high school kids anymore.”
“Got bigger things in mind, a real payday. Something’ll come along.”
“What about Brittany?” Colton reloaded the magazine, slid it back in place, and chambered a shell. “How you gonna patch things up with her?”
“Britt?” Yeah, that was a question, even before the latest interruption by her father. There’d been plenty of hints and innuendo the past few months. They’d been hooking up for well over a year, since James graduated but, with her own high school graduation looming, Brittany now mentioned things like the future, responsibility—a job, often enough that it made James uneasy. She wanted to be a photographer, she had plans. Sure, she was a hook-up, at first, but somewhere along the line he realized that, even when she wasn’t around, he thought about her, remembered something silly she’d said, the way her forehead furrowed just so when she concentrated on getting the right angle or focus for a shot. But that wasn’t the kind of thing he could tell Colton, or anyone else.
“That stuff’s there any time I want it,” James said. “Naw, I’m thinking older, a cougar maybe, one with a paycheck and an itch needing to be scratched. Damn, look at that one.” James stood and pointed to the corner of the garbage pile where a larger rodent had just come into view.
“Yeah, you keep thinking that, it’ll be you and Rosie.” Colton looked through the scope. “Ain’t a rat. That’s a possum.” He stood up for a better look. “Yep. Possum.”
There. Right there. Plan on shooting rats, along comes a possum. No point planning on anything, the universe didn’t run on, or care about, any plans.
“My shot, gimme the rifle,” James insisted.
Colton took a step toward James with the gun outstretched. The rubbish beneath him shifted and he lost his balance. When the .22 hit the ground, it went off and the shell Colton had chambered rifled out of the barrel and through the top of James’ right foot and out the bottom before burrowing into a discarded bassinette. James grabbed his ankle with both hands and started hopping around yelling, “ow, ow, ow,” until he finally fell over backward. He let go of his ankle, but kept his foot in the air. Colton got up, walked over, and leaned in for a closer look. He inspected the top side of James’ shoe where the bullet entered and which was now staining red. He grabbed James’ heel and turned his foot to inspect the bottom where the shell exited. James “ow-ed” a couple more times.
“Ha. Went right through,” Colton said.
“What’s it look like on the bottom?” James asked.
“You remember that commercial where they shot an apple or some kind of fruit in slow motion? How it kind of exploded out, all jagged, and stuff? Looks like that.” He took his thumb and pushed on the sole of James’ tennis shoe an inch below the wound. “That hurt?” he asked.
“You bastard,” James said and jerked his foot away. “Help me up.”
Colton looked toward the trash pile, and then picked up the rifle. “Hang on a second,” he said.
The possum never saw it coming.
David, a computer science major in college, was completing the setup of his new bird feeding system. Instead of the usual tree house, painted with bright colors, he had designed a more elegant solution. Altruism aside, he wanted to do more than just provide food for birds in the bad weather; he wanted to see the birds enjoy their treat while keeping squirrels from squandering the seeds.
So he set up a trough with three lids, mechanically operated based on a computer program. The first container had birdseeds and suet, the second fruit and nuts and the third meat scraps and insects. In front of the trough was a bar that activated a 13” LCD screen when the bird landed on it. On the screen was a picture of the three food types, corresponding to the placement of the trays. The bird would peck at the screen and a touch sensor would open the appropriate food tray. If the bird didn’t peck, a camera would snap a picture of the bird and open the tray that species of bird prefers. To complete the environment, audio/video of like birds would play from the LCD.
But what about the bane of bird feeders, squirrels? The locked trays prevented them from eating. If a squirrel pressed the landing bar, the camera would snap a picture of the offender, then play a 3D video, complete with sound of foxes, coyotes, hawks, owls and snakes eating squirrels. The longer the squirrel stayed there, the more graphic the video progressed. Last but not least, a small spray of that predator’s scent would shoot onto the squirrel’s leg (don’t worry, it washed away in the next rain). Needless to say, most squirrels never returned to the bird feeder.
No matter where David was, he could enjoy the feeder. A second, wireless camera sent a signal to the Internet so he could watch from any computer. He even wrote an app so he could watch the action from his cell phone. Why all the work to feed birds? David discovered that this was 100% effective in meeting women, especially when showing it off at a coffee house or party. Rube would have been proud!
“We all suffer the long lines of merciless doom” – C. Bukowski, by Alan Catlin
The music in his head was
too loud like The Passion of Bach
on synthesizers and meth,
frying all the circuits of his brain,
the massing confusion inside,
a projection, an aura that was slowly
leaking from his ears, surrounding him
with a corona of light and heat,
simulations of a formless fear that
was assuming a shape, becoming an
actual, living thing, an object that would
replace, would displace, all the others
in a dream of his life like 24 Hour
Psycho he was the taxidermist in,
all the birds he fancied, doppelgangers
affixed to the walls, ceilings in his mind,
glass eyes and pointed beaks, extended
claws and wings spread like a feathered
cloak, something out of Bergman’s hours
of the wolves, all the elements present in one form
or another, a miracle play in action
no League of Decency would approve,
not the movie of his life in progress nor
his role as Die Meistersinger in an unholy
chorus of moral crusaders defying the physics
of imaginary objects; the ones he conjured
and the ones who conjured him and how
they imprisoned all they came in contact with,
the living and the dead, the imagined and the real.
“Leona Carrington, Down Below 1940-1942” by Alan Catlin
In the courtyard of the beasts
of perpetual transformation,
in the cells with no windows,
no light, water seeking its
unnatural level underground,
spawning new monsters that
grow leaves, heads instead of
flowers, bulbs that spout as
fire flies, carried upward with
multicolored winds, each hue
a different dream for a disordered
mind to describe in detail to
headless horsemen newly released
from service in some surrealist’s
civil war between elements stricken
from periodic tables and the tables
themselves, balanced on cubes
circus animals are escaping from,
a personal trainer close behind
with the stilt walkers, fire eaters and
swords that turn into swallows that fly
into the artist’s eyes making sounds
like crickets do on the hottest summer
nights that always end the way this one does.
“Defeated” by Alan Catlin
empty LIT glasses
bent sipper sticks
along the informal
waiting for long
the here and the now
from last calls
the red ones
“The Quiet Woman” by Alan Catlin
Whichever degenerative disease
she had made walking with two
metal arm support canes a struggle
that would soon have her in a wheelchair
with a bean bag ashtray duct taped
above the toggle switches on the arm
she used to control, with difficulty
forward motion to and from the kinds
of stores you could buy Newports
by the carton in with an unfair exchange
of discounted loose Food Stamps,
along with beer and other staples like
Cheetos, Wine Coolers, and Diet Coke,
all on her restricted diet list of foods and
items to avoid, “All the things I like
are on that list. What’s the point of
living if you can’t have what you like?”
She liked sex too but no one would have
her except the sickos in the kinds of bars
that didn’t bother with niceties like
valid licenses and permits, papered
the john with legal notices and code
violations, even the orders to vacate
equally ignored, the way she ignored
all her past due notices, bounced checks
and summons to appear that collected
in her own home, so far beyond pity
and human kindness now, her next step
could easily be her last.
“Big Bill and Me” by Corey Mesler
Big Bill Broonzy
shows up at all hours.
I can barely step
over the blues on my stoop.
In the afternoon
Bill and I watch all the new
shows. He taps his
foot to the soundtracks. I
eat my birdsnest
full of buckshot, a meal, if
only for the time left.
“Bunuel’s Car” by Corey Mesler
“The man who cannot visualize a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot.”
— Andre Breton
We are all
of Bunuel’s car.
We are still learning
his roads, his ess
curves, his juxta-
positions. We may be
cruel as children.
We may want only
to fuck in the mud.
We may want merely
to bite the hand
that pets us.
In the end there will
always be the
In the end, the
of the animal orgy.
“Thorn” by Lisa Zaran
Hardly an hour passes
I don’t think about my father.
God’s little sing-song voice
whispering curse words
in my virginal ear.
Nightly, his melody flashes.
Dreams I’ve had
where I look so hard
but can only see mountains,
Suppose the soul takes off
like a mind on some mournful
drug, where purple grasses
swell and bend, the sky vertebrates,
and memories get pinned
like flowers to the side of a highway.
Is it reasonable to suspend
the splendor of life with the brilliance
of dying? I imagine this question
as indecipherable as asking:
do mirrors blush
when I know it is only a reflection.
“The Girl, Declined” by Lisa Zaran
Brute, our father called you. Afternoon
and the sun keeps forsaking us, drawing its monster
tongue down our backs.
Mr. Drew, the neighbor, comes home from work
in his beat up oldsmobile, smoking his last cigarette
We joke about calling child protective services.
Sissy, our brother called you. Just then, you spied
his crack pipe and he swiftly rebuffed,
promising you two dollars when he got paid.
Nobody listened when you came home bruised
and bleeding from the park.
Love is not beastly, the school counselor said.
We, each of us alone, knowing, his behavior
toward you was full of diseases
we couldn’t name.
Alan Catlin is from Schenectady, New York. He has been publishing in small press and university magazines since the early 1970s. He is retired from his profession as a barman after spending 25 years in Albany’s legendary Washington Tavern. He has won numerous awards and contests, has been nominated 20 times for the Pushcart Prize, and has over 60 chapbooks of prose and poetry to his credit.
John Counts can be found on the web at: http://www.johncountsphotography.com/
Jerry Guarino writes short stories (http://thedevilsorchestra.us). “Practical Goldberg” was selected for initial publication by Eskimo Pie. He is also a teacher, cook and junk food critic. His stories include The Devil’s Orchestra, 30 Minutes of Hell, Bird on a Camera, Coq a Doodle Do, The Duke of Yelp, The Grand Poobah, Pie or Die, Practical Goldberg Part 1, Practical Goldberg (A Love Story in 3 Parts), Preheat the Microwave.com and The Tightrope. His work has appeared in, 6 Tales, Bewildering Stories, The Chaffey Review Literary Magazine, Daily Love, Eskimo Pie, Leaning House Press, The Legendary, Piker Press, Postcard Shorts, Ray’s Road Review, The Scarlet Sound, Weirdyear, Writing Raw and Zouch Magazine and Miscellany. He is currently working on a murder mystery for the stage.
Corey Mesler has been published in numerous journals and anthologies. He has published four novels, a full-length poetry collection, a book of short stories, as well as a dozen chapbooks of both poetry and prose. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize numerous times, and two of his poems have been chosen for Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. With his wife, he runs Burke’s Book Store, one of the country’s oldest (1875) independent bookstores.
Sharon Mauldin Reynolds grew up in Ripley, Mississippi, and now lives and writes in Lexington, Ky. In her previous life she was a teacher and newspaper reporter. A graduate of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, she has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and Kentucky Arts Council. Her short fiction has appeared in Habersham Review, New Southerner, The Southern Humanities Review, SNReview, The MacGuffin, and Underground Voices. She is currently at work on a novel.
An internationally-acclaimed poet, novelist, and Jungian/Queer literary critic, Clifton Snider’s novel, Loud Whisper (2000), the story of the rise, fall, and recovery of New Wave rock star Adam Avery, is in the process of becoming a major release from the award-winning independent film company, Iconoclastic Features. His other novels include Bare Roots and Wrestling with Angels: A Tale of Two Brothers (both 2001). The cover of his latest book of poetry, Aspens in the Wind (2009), features his photograph, “Wurlitzer Aspens, Taos.”
Kevin Winchester is a North Carolina native and now lives in the Waxhaw area. He holds a BA in English from Wingate University and a MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University. He is currently the Director of the Writing Center at Wingate University where he also teaches Creative Writing. His short story collection, Everybody’s Gotta Eat, released in the summer of 2009. Other short fiction has recently appeared in Gulf Coast Literary and Arts Journal, Story South, Barrelhouse, Southern Hum, and the anthology Everything But the Baby. His creative non-fiction has appeared recently in the Novello Press anthology entitled Making Notes: Music in the Carolinas and also in Tin House Literary Magazine.
Arizona-based Lisa Zaran is an American poet, essayist and author of six poetry collections, including The Blondes Lay Content and the sometimes girl, the latter of which was the focus of a yearlong translation course in Germany and was subsequently published in German, titled das manchmal mädchen. Her work has also been translated into Bangla, Hindi, Arabic, Chinese, German, Dutch, Persian and Serbian. Her poems have appeared in hundreds of publications, including Juked, Ramshackle Review, Apparatus Magazine, Hudson Review, Black Dirt, Other Voices, Kritya, The Dande Review, Soul to Soul, Nomad’s Choir Poetry Journal, Not a Muse Anthology, Best of the Web 2010, Literature: an intro to Reading and Writing by Pearson. Additionally, her work has been performed in Glasgow’s Radio Theater Group and displayed in the Belgian museum, SONS. Lisa is founder and editor of Contemporary American Voices.