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The cemetery at night looked like the inside of a jagged British mouth. Henry was waiting for its lascivious tongue to wrap its wetness around him. The damp humidity, even at this hour, made him almost believe in it.
He was supposed to meet someone; someone whose name remained a mystery, though he believed he could recognize the voice when he heard it. The voice was gruff, non-endearing, and husky. Henry believed it was the voice of a man who would gladly let Henry join the assortment of plaque-encrusted graves.
And then his heart froze.
, the rusty voice said.
It was her body's warmth more than her skin he cherished in the early morning dew light. She stirred; got up to pee; his legs found the space she occupied, and they swam in the cocoon of her perfect latent heat. He could only count on one Saturday a month that would serve this languid pleasure. Otherwise, their lives were like shiny steel balls perpetually playing a pinball bonus round.
But one Saturday a month, he felt the warmth she left behind before she punched the plunger sending her spinning again. He lay in the space she left and laughed.
Two birds landed before the rest. They found a telephone wire strung between two poles in the usual way of telephone wires. When their feet found the coiled rope, their small claws gripped while the wire swayed under their slight weight. They were blackbirds, if that is important.
Then the rest came, and the two birds became indistinguishable from the hoard that weighed on the wire and forced it into a swooping smile. The birds never thought about the conversations running just beneath their feet. Or, if they did wonder what we were saying, they never thought to mention it.
Our waitress stepped over to where we were sitting: "Another?"
"Yes. And thanks," I said. I have never been known for my sympathy to waitresses, but the tender black eye that looked fresh on her face let me ignore how long our breakfast was taking; we hadn't been offered toast while we waited.
She poured the coffee, which was more like black water, and turned. A second waitress stared as the first returned with the licorice-filled pot. The second's steady gaze shot through the other, beaten woman and said plenty. This wasn't the first time; it wouldn't be the last.
The wide-winged and dark birds hovered over what was surely some old carcass being picked clean by an unseen avian below. There should be some consolation in knowing that what waste I am will be deposited in the gullet of some bird, put there to continue the circle of life. There isn't.
What is it like to die? you ask. I'll tell you. It is about as entertaining as watching grass grow, though it correlates better with the lawnmower. It is like finishing a dark and rich truffle, discovering it is the last such chocolate goody I will ever have.
The squirrels got into the house over the latest and very cold winter. In the spring their children ran about in the attic as though it were merely another extension of the great outside in which they played and conquered. The house was active—there were people in it; there were other, more domesticated animals as well. But the squirrels continued to thrive in the attic where they were only sounds to the inhabitants, and frustrating sounds at that. At night, when the people were asleep, their dog would sniff and trounce about searching for the creatures by their smell.
Sarah felt a sinking in her gut. On an empty stomach, she waited outside the grocery store, hoping someone would offer change.
"Do you have... Spare some... Just a little..." she said but faltered. There was something of pride in her that wouldn't allow the denigration necessary for begging. She could feel her acrid stomach gurgling the last of her cold breakfast: discarded chicken wings from a local bar's dumpster. She filled the rest of her stomach with water from potholes.
"Sorry," they would all say when she lowered herself to ask. They were all smiles. "No change this time."
The wood was rotten from the inside. Water, likely from storm damage, crept up the bottom and sides, wicking its way across the wall.
This will be expensive
, the contractor informed them.
It'll set you back for sure.
They, the young couple, stared at the wall turning their dream home into a nightmare. Load bearing, he thought, why'd it have to be load bearing? She thought less technically. She wondered how they might afford such an elaborate expense. Especially with the baby on the way.
, she wished her husband would say. Silently, she stared at him and hoped.
Grass will not grow beneath a magnolia tree. My mother told me that. Her mother's name was Margaret; she was called Maggie when she was little.
She was a hard woman, my mother's mother. Of course her times were hard too; of course they were. Maggie had three children who lived past the age of ten and none who lived past thirty. My mother died from exhaustion. She was exhausted by her mother.
On Maggie's deathbed, she said this to my mother:
Never allow a single kindness to go unrewarded. After all, look at how kind I was to you.
The twisted trees slipped like snakes around their trunks, like slim-throated lovers. On the old land, my grandfather could never explain why they ended up this way wound up if you can forgive the pun. When I was a little boy, I believed they were scared to be left by themselves in the dark, nighttime woods for so long. They found each other and huddled for bodily, tactile security. I still believe that. There is no other logical reason, and so logic then loses its appeal. I like to believe in frightened trees. We are all frightened now and again.
"Where are you?"
"What? I can't understand."
"I said where are you?"
"You'll have to speak louder. Half deaf you know. Can't hear a thing."
"Just keep talking then, and I'll follow your voice."
"No, I didn't hear that noise. Do you need something? Who are you, anyway?"
"No, I'm not walking. I'm lying down, actually. Stuck, actually actually."
"I know Jason. We're coming for you."
"It's what happens when you get old. Can't hear worth a damn. Gina—that's my daughter—she says I need a hearing aid."
"I know, daddy. I know"
My cat bears a look of disdain. The look is the usual look, though I can't help feeling its fierce intensity can be attributed to the new food choice I've made and of which, so it appears, my cat disapproves. He has run his nose through it; his paws too. Can my cat be aware of the five dollar savings attributed to the off brand of food? He licks his own body after rolling in cat litter—it cannot be the taste. What then? What derives this feline ridicule? Is it the image of the pleasant cat on the bag?
Karen felt like she was being watched since she left her office and climbed into her four-door. She kept glancing back in her rear view to see if she could detect any car following her. She was no good at this; she couldn't tell one car from another. She stared hard, intent on the rear view and the headlights reflected inside. She missed the taillights, the brake lights ahead. The red light splashed the front of her car directly before she met their source, head on, and with speed. Karen's head hit the steering wheel. The follower swerved to miss.
"With the tide this low, the whole bay looks like mud puddles," the man in the gray suit said. He was an adjuster, and as such, dismissed anyone who lived in this area.
"It's the moon," I replied. I was one of those people he dismissed, talking of phenomenon he wished to know nothing about.
"What's the moon have to do with it?"
"Did you ever pay attention in sixth grade science?" I asked.
"Go back and learn something, then."
"About the moon?"
"About anything," I said with some contempt, knowing perfectly well why I lived where I lived.
There is a sense, on the river, of time flowing backward. A foreknowledge not offered in the landlocked areas of the forest finds me here, believing before evidence, hoping without reason. If this could be proved—well there wouldn't be much point in it then, would there?
Back in the city, all is lost. Nothing remains of that feeling, except the memory, fleeting as it is. I wonder if I've imagined the sensation, created the desire from the desire of creation. In the land of lights and sound, what else is there but the memory of the lost and found?
The knife that cut him belonged in the third slot of his own knife block, kept to the right of the stove where there was a little counter space, but too little to use for any purpose. Such considerations, he realized, were wholly unimportant to consider while being stabbed and, if things went poorly, murdered. Still, these were his considerations, this thoughts on the subject. He thought how interesting it was to have provided the instrument of his own demise. If only he knew whose hand held the finely crafted handle. Yes, that would have been nice to know, too.
The lily pond seemed like a place forgotten by the rushes of time and an industrial age. The young couple sat beside the pond and imagined their clumsy feet tripping across the lilies like steps to the opposite shore. The boy acted out his attempt, falling through the first lily he trusted with his weight—such was his sense of humor.
The girl wondered openly what was on the other side of the lily pond. Shaded, the other side was not readily visible. The boy suggested they walk around the shore, but she explained that that was not the way.
The pitcher sat in a basin that allow it to be filled so it overflowed. There was no need for such a full pitcher, but the housewife liked it because, in the event of a distracted pour, there would be a safety net against piles of towels and angry cries of stains.
But mostly, the pitcher sat, correctly filled with the drinks the family appreciated and, in their moods, loved. They appreciated the basin too for the security it afforded. And even though, most of the time, the basin served for nothing more than a glorified coaster, it felt welcome.
Leaving the house and traveling west, abandoning the paved road and directing on foot, you will come across the magnolia forest. There is something in the shining, waxed leaves, the thin but sturdy trunks that frightens the flora from the ground. Nothing else grows in the magnolia forest, not even grass that might soften underfoot. It is a place of singularity, where difference and integration are as foreign as sinners in church. And yet, it too is a place of peace and, if one is apt to appreciate, serenity. The only words spoken are those misplaced by our own mouths.
The man stood behind the podium and gazed at the wide sea of faces that shone back at him like white-capped waves on a clipping wind. Even with awestruck visages and hushed-tight lips, low murmurs could still be heard across the audience. There was hope; there was doubt. There were people who believed these to be the same thing. No one, not even he, knew what he would be capable of, what he would accomplish with his new found power. Behind him sat his wife; behind him sat his children. In front of him stood his followers and his future.
The spigot behind the house drips constantly, no matter how far to the right you turn the handle. In its defense, you think, it only drips when you turn the handle left too. On some cosmic scale, the water that drips from that spigot is roughly equal to the amount it might usher even if it worked correctly. The handle, spigot, pipes, and water line have all reached a state of equilibrium, where what you want doesn't matter in the least. Most of the things in your life are like this spigot. Tomorrow you will try to call the plumber.
The alcohol in Mary's stomach had an unfriendly disposition. It gurgled and gnarled inside her belly like a beast awaiting its conquering day. In it's glass, reflecting the light like so many amber afternoons, it called to her; it promised her greatness. But that was a lie. The amber lied too much to conceive and thus made its lies inconceivable. This, for Mary, was how logic worked; and how it worked against her. If allowed one truth, it was this: in the morning she would do it all again. Why had she placed her bed so far from the bathroom?
Beth Ann's two children were driving her crazy, and the stain in one of her blouses had not come out despite the dry cleaner's guarantee. She was supposed to have dinner ready by eight, but at seven thirty, the only thing on her stove was a raw chicken, and the local take-out sounded like a good option.
Three rings, and the machine picked up: "Honey, I'll be home in fifteen. Love you Beth-y." She dialed the phone after the machine clicked off. She breathed relief as the voice of an older, Chinese man filled the receiver and her right ear.
Sweat soaked the players as the night drove on until their bare arms wore a slick-shiny sheen. At intervals—short breaks between their two or three song sets—they paused for pictures and to sell CDs and t-shirts out of a battered suitcase. Their fans noticed neither the late hour or their numbing intoxication; cigarette smoke hung like curtains. And though post-Christmas, small, delicate lights still hung in colorful strands as though the entire community still hoped for some blessed visit from the saint of wishes. Instead, the crowd calmed, the band tuned; music filled wasted ears and hollow beers.
When the time would come to look back on this day, the young father would not identify anything particularly special concerning what he did or where he went. But somewhere in the arrangement of things, in the disorderly sequence of events, he and those around him managed to fill the day with hope and love, which are the measure of all things. In the deep shadow of his mind where his memories were stored, the young father would keep this day carefully preserved for no other notable reason than that, despite the unnamed inanities, this alone was the perfect day.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Carrie rose for a drink of water. It was then, or shortly after when she came back to bed, she noticed her husband missing. She attributed the delay in her recognition to the known fact that it was much easier to notice something that shouldn't be present but was rather than something that should be present but wasn't. He had disappeared from the face of the earth, and what shocked her so much—so much that she dropped the glass of water she held—what shocked her so much was she was glad.
The wood boards around the boathouse rotted away, and there stayed no evidence of a genuine floor on site. How the house had ever been used was a mystery resigned to past summer afternoons. The roof remained, as did the few mechanical parts that still hung from the rafters and would have, in better times, been put to use now and then lifting the heft of vessels in and out of the water. At present the hiss of a moccasin was as likely as the purr of an Evinrude, and the silent lap of the tide more prevalent than laughter.
Laying brick was a task that took patience, courage, and faith. There was no guarantee that the brick would nestle nicely on its bed or mortar, or that, when it did, it would stay there. Drying, hardening—all of these were acts of faith committed by the mason on the little mounds of clay. The clay's process was becoming: becoming brick, becoming wall, becoming house, becoming home. From earth to earth and earth remained. These were the simple lessons of the mason passed down through generations of quiet nights alone with sons and brick-laying lessons on sun warm, windy afternoons.
As he surveyed the right of way on either side of the highway, Corey doubted that there was a single business in town that wasn't offering 50, 60, or even 70% off of its wares. He figured this was a good time to buy if a person had money, but no one he knew had any to speak of. Last week he asked a cashier at a fast food chain if the business was hiring.
"No," she said, "I'm sorry; we're not. There's nothing worse than being unable to support your own family. But would you like fries with that?"
The clapboard house made unexplainable noises in the middle of the night. Well, they could be explained
. They might be the sounds of a foundation settling or the rush of new wind through the branches of a craggy pine. But the foundation settled years ago, and there were no trees in the yard.
Her brother died in this house. When he was ten—it was an accident involving the confusion of pharmaceuticals for candy. She still felt responsible; they were her pills, her illness, her guilt to live with or without. The house creaked with his name: Jeremy.
When the notes left her lips, Carol's face made a serene oh, as though she were setting free the spherical thoughts that had sent her on a spiral these last few months. She didn't know whether or not her career was on its way up, down, or careening sideways like a car on black ice. But now she was back; she returned to the forgiving stage with a real audience and real fans who wanted to know the secret behind her red-painted lips, her long, slender neck. Her voice rose into the concert hall and flooded joy into the streets.
The Tip Jar