All posts in Fiction

  • Dementia


    Art by Peter Roman

    Annie studies her reflection in the door of Schaeffer’s Gourmet Foods. Her hair is tidy, washed and set. Costume studs sparkle on her earlobes. A department store choker masks the crepey folds at her throat. She mourns her South Sea cultured pearls—three perfect strands with a clasp of round-cut diamonds, consigned to the bottom drawer of her jewelry chest, right below her Birkin bag.  At least the Novacheck tote on her shoulder matches her Burberry double-breasted trench coat. Even though it is eighty degrees and sunny, Annie checks her pocket for her fold-up plastic headscarf. It is one of the things she will forget when she cannot remember: To come in out of the rain.

    Annie lifts her chin and pushes through the door. The haughty teenage clerks exchange a glance and roll their shadowed eyes.

    “Crazy Annie,” they whisper, cracking their pale pink bubble gum.

    Annie marches past them, heartened by the whisper of the index cards pinned to the lining of her coat. Yellow cards, on the left side, record names and addresses—her own, of course; her bank and her attorney; her hairdresser and internist; even Trixie’s vet. The right side is more complex, the cards multihued: Blue is for warnings: Look before you cross the street and Don’t eat foods with nuts. Green cards remind her to Tip the doorman when he calls a cab and Take dry cleaning on Wednesday (senior discount). The pink card makes Annie’s eyes mist and she swallows hard. Find Trixie a good home, it says Now, however, she must focus on the task at hand.

    Years ago, when Annie hosted formal dinners in the big house on Cherokee Road, this store was called Roy’s Meats. Roy, Sr. kept her in crown roasts and chateaubriand — his glace de veau was superb, his pâté campagne the best she’d tasted since the commune in Gimont — but when he died of liver cancer in 1987, his eldest son inherited the store. Roy Jr. has enlarged it and enhanced it with an artisan cheese aisle and a website. The bright blue awnings and checkered aprons are gone, but the refrigerated cases still hold tender filets, standing rib roasts, and bacon-wrapped pork loin. And Annie’s name—Mrs. Gerald Oscar Phillips—still commands Young Roy’s respect if not his affection.

    Annie spies him where he lurks among the frisée and artichokes, arranging the bell peppers, bottoms up, pretending he does not see her. She bears down on him like a ship under sail, prepared to grill him: Are the lamb chops lean? Is the chicken free range? Have the greens been triple-washed and wrapped in Earth Friendly paper towels inside perforated plastic bags? Roy loathes her, but how else can she be sure that he will know what she expects, when she no longer does?

    Roy’s daughter, the bottle-blonde in the too-tight shirt, has followed Annie to the back of the store as though she might pilfer a jar of chutney or a can of peas. The girl wears a ring in her navel above hip-hugger, bell-bottomed jeans. She snickered last week when Annie asked for French fries when she meant French roast. Pausing by the dairy case, Annie fishes a card from her pocket and writes with the Waterman pen she has kept in her purse for forty years, Next time, shop at Whole Foods, but she won’t. It’s too late.

    Annie has seen her internist at ten a.m. on the third Tuesday of every July since 1996, when the Olympics snarled Atlanta traffic. Annie was late, her blood pressure sky high. While Dr. Ginsburg waited for it to settle, he prattled on about his family: Son Matt, pre-med at Duke, and daughter Beth, a summa cum laude Doctor of Economics at Emory, who had joined a think tank in Switzerland. She lives in London, married to a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician named Hobbes. They have a daughter, Elise.

    Annie remembers all this, yet last month Ginsburg’s office called at a quarter past ten to ask where she was. Annie, who had managed Gerry’s international travel, three children’s schedules, and a host of volunteer activities, had never missed an appointment in her life. But then, neither did Annie’s mother until she was seventy-three. And so, over Earl Grey tea each morning at eight o’clock, Annie lays out her day in a cramped and slanted script, on monogrammed note pads from the stationer she and Gerry had used for dinner-party invitations. Places to go, people to see, things she must do.

    She signs Schaeffer’s tab and requests delivery at four o’clock. Then, alone on the sidewalk, she opens her coat. After Shop for groceries she must Pick up Trixie from the groomer, Buy stamps at the post office, and Have a light lunch of leftover tuna salad on a slice of whole wheat bread with half a navel orange. After a Nap at two for thirty minutes—not every day, just Thursdays because the grocery is a mile from her home and unless it is raining, she walks—she will Do the yoga tape by Susan Winter Ward. That will leave time to dress, comb her hair, and apply fresh lipstick before Eric delivers her groceries.

    Eric is a lad of eighteen, a blond body-builder who reminds her of Richard, a lover she took when she was forty and he was twenty-six. Richard had the bluest eyes, the softest hands— and an ego so fragile it cracked like an egg without her daily tributes to his biceps, his buttocks, his…well, never mind. One day he rolled over and propped himself on one elbow. Staring at her rudely, he said, “When I am thirty-six and in my prime, you will be fifty and wrinkled like a prune.”  She was tired of him anyway.

    While Annie waits for Eric, she sips spring water and nibbles on shortbread with bits of orange peel, listening to the stereo installed by her grandson, an engineering student at MIT. It pleases her to be high-tech, although the system with its sleek cherry speakers— four in the great room, others concealed in the walls of her bedroom and kitchen—cost a small fortune. There is a CD player, an amp, a subwoofer, and a DVD player. Her Sirius subscription allows access to two hundred music channels from satellites orbiting thousands of miles above the northern hemisphere. She likes Classical Voices and Symphony Hall, and sometimes Pure Jazz. Idly she searches the listening guide for a program to fill her newly free Friday afternoons.

    “You’re quitting bridge?” Nedda had cried. “Mother, you’ve played for forty years.”

    “Forty-two,” Annie corrected her.

    Yes, it’s sad, but it can’t be helped. Detailed notes could remind her to take a cab at one p.m. to the Ritz Carlton where they serve crisp lavender cookies; that the redhead with the penciled-on eyebrows is Nancy, the upswept blonde is Lenore, and the blue-haired troll is her partner, Eileen, but Annie cannot scribe a hand of bridge on index cards.

    Their club began the year Nedda started high school with Eileen’s son, Jeffrey. Nedda and Jeffrey married in 1981. Their only daughter, Reneé married a Chicago obstetrician; they have three pre-teen children— Robert, the eldest, and twins Katie and Chester. Like Nedda, and then Reneé, they will attend private academies, their tuition paid by Gerry’s estate.

    “Will you still come for September?” Nedda asked.

    It has been Annie’s custom to visit Sausalito each fall for a month or two, but she answered, “Not this year.”

    “We’ll miss your birthday,” Nedda protested. “You can’t celebrate it alone.”

    But Annie is not lonely, and at this stage in her life, a distant family is best. Her loved ones won’t detect her burgeoning senility as long as Carter, her attorney, doles out shares of stock for birthdays and generous checks at Christmas. Like Goldman, her banker, Carter is on retainer, with named successors in case either man predeceases her. Both are under fifty, but Carter smokes and Goldman drinks too much.

    Tired of the music, Annie switches on a PBS program about the world’s worst dictators. That category should have ended with Hitler and Mussolini. Unfortunately, others—Omar al-Bashir and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—have risen up to replace them. She will not write their names on an index card. A few things she is happy to forget.

    Annie’s conscience prickles as it did the day before, when, in a sweep of her apartment, she discovered her first scrapbook in the back of her sweater drawer. Among the snapshots of slick-haired boys and full-skirted girls leaning against shiny Chevrolets and Buicks, one photograph stood out: A wide-eyed child in a sea of adults laughing and smoking on ornate sofas. At six, Annie had accompanied her mother to Paris to bring home Auntie Jean, her mother’s wayward twin. There Annie had met Gertrude Stein.

    Annie does not remember the visit, only the story told to her at age sixteen when her mother gave her the photo to distract her from the war. Annie had immersed herself in Stein and her mentor, William James. Later she devoured Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the Lost Generation, vowing that one day she would have her own 27 rue de Fleurs—though perhaps not a lesbian partner—where she would shelter outcast dignitaries and blackballed artists.

    As it always does, life intervened: college, marriage, divorce, and enough lovers to make her blush. Then a second husband and step-motherhood to Nedda, age eight, postponed Annie’s activism. The dry spell lasted until Nedda was twelve and felt called to protest Vietnam. Gerry forbade it—the poor man was a Republican—but Annie took Nedda anyway. On a clear day, in biting wind, they marched along Pennsylvania Avenue toward Capitol Hill, chanting, “One, two, three, four, Tricky Dick, stop the war.”

    So much has happened in Annie’s lifetime. Men walked on the moon, others fought for civil rights. The Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall came down, and so did the towers. Meanwhile, Annie joined the hospital guild and the Junior League. She baked cupcakes for the Girl Scouts, led the PTA, and walked for Breast Cancer, three years in a row. She chaired benefits for children, native Americans, and hemophiliacs, always meaning to do more. And now this.

    When the calendar in her head began to fail, Annie bought a daily planner, leather-bound and tidy, but soon she grasped the frightening truth: Dates and events can be coached and cued; an entire life cannot. Now, like feathers on a giant parrot, like scales on a rainbow trout, Post-Its cover every surface in her apartment. Notes on her bathroom mirror tell her to Take valium when anxious and Shower daily with Caswell Massey oatmeal soap. On the wall behind Annie’s bed: Your sheets are di Firenze, 800-thread count. You can’t abide satin. Don’t read in bed. On top of the baby grand: You prefer Rachmaninoff to Mahler, Chopin to Debussy. On the refrigerator door: Eat three prunes at breakfast. Turn off the stove. Drink decaf after three p.m.

    At four, the doorbell rings. Eric puts away her groceries, pretending not to notice the dust—she has fired the cleaning lady who dared to remark on the “foolish clutter.” Annie’s “foolish clutter” is a priceless guarantee that, when her sensibilities are gone, she will still be who she is. She will not live out her days in a Florida trailer park, watching Jerry Springer and Survivor, eating Lean Cuisine and Double-Stuff Oreos, wearing zip-front polyester tracksuits and Keds with holes in the toes, voting for Jeb Bush. (You are a Democrat. You are pro-choice. But you will NEVER vote for Hillary Clinton for President. Unless Hillary runs against Jeb Bush. God forbid.)

    Annie tips Eric handsomely for his discretion and when he is gone, she prepares her dinner: Broil lamb chops, six minutes each side. Microwave broccoli, five minutes on high. And of course, Feed Trixie, although it would be hard to forget since Trixie is dancing the Macarena at her feet. The day is warm enough Annie serves their dinners on her rooftop terrace, where the view to downtown lifts her spirits. Crazy Annie indeed! Her three-bedroom penthouse is bright and airy. The large rooms brim with Regency antiques, Persian rugs, crystal chandeliers, and gilt sconces left over from the big house. The kitchen is gourmet, the bathrooms tiled in marble.

    Yet Annie’s rich and varied life has been streamlined and abridged. Her breakfast is the same each day, a soft-boiled egg and a slice of toast. Lunch and dinner vary, but repeat—today she is having lamb chops because it is Thursday. Once a fashion junkie, she clothes herself in lounging pajamas and St. John suits, always in the same order—the crimson tweed, then the navy blue knit with cream piping, followed by the lime shantung and a classic herringbone in brown wool—each stored with matching shoes, scarves, and purses.

    Annie has canceled her series at the opera and the symphony, along with her membership at the High Museum. She has culled her magazine and newspaper subscriptions to a favorite few: the Times, Vanity Fair, and Southern Living. All that remains is to sort out the personal keepsakes she cannot bear to part with but cannot leave behind. There are cards and letters she has collected, boxes stuffed with photographs, and treasured mementos like the faded fuchsia blossom that marks the balcony scene in her college Shakespeare text. It takes her back to the second-floor apartment in Philadelphia where she fled after she broke up with Liam, the activist poet. Her downstairs neighbor’s son—Chad, was it? Christopher? Craig?—pinched the bloom from a hanging plant. For three days, they were in love.

    Annie has saved her journals for last. There are forty-nine, begun on the urging of a psychologist friend when Annie started chemotherapy nineteen years ago. They fill an entire shelf of her bedroom bookcase—enough for a lengthy memoir. She packs the clothbound volumes in cardboard boxes and writes herself a note: Call the superintendent about incineration.

    When she has sealed the last carton with strapping tape, Annie collapses into a deep wing chair. Can it be that she is done? Her eyes sweep the room and land on a card stuck to the TV. Go to bed at 10, it says. It is 10:15 but she isn’t sleepy. She would like to watch the news. Instead, she goes into the bathroom and obeys her own instructions: Change into nightgown (top drawer of dresser). Cream face with Dior Capture. Brush teeth (in circles) with Colgate Extra Whitening—paste, not gel.

    Annie slips between the sheets and turns out the light. In the peaceful dark, her eyes drift closed. Yes, she is done. She lies there, content for a moment, and then she bolts upright. What if she goes blind? What if she has a stroke? What if there is a fire? Stop it, Annie, she scolds herself. You cannot prepare for everything that might happen. But isn’t that what she has been trying to do for the past month? Isn’t that what she has done all her life?

    Not long ago Annie would have said she had no regrets. Now she regrets everything: That she ever cared what people thought of her; that she made her choices based on other people’s needs; that she didn’t stay in graduate school, get her Ph.D. and work for world peace; that she didn’t believe she could make a difference and now it’s too late. What Annie regrets most is being afraid—of failing, or looking silly, or doing the wrong thing. And here she is, a slave to fear again.

    Annie sighs and flips on the lamp, climbs out of bed, and pulls on her robe. With the scissors on the bookshelf, she slits the tape on the carton she just packed. She pulls out a red-suede journal from 1997 and opens to a bookmarked page. The words astound her; they are lush and magical, deep and brooding, rich and joyful. Annie reads and reads, and finally she understands: If her memories fade like the pigment in her hair, these books will remind her who she is.

    A pen and a stack of cards lie on the nightstand. Annie starts to write.

    Call Nedda about flights to San Francisco. Get Glenda in to clean. Renew the opera series (Tosca, at least, and Porgy and Bess). Rejoin bridge club. Buy a laptop computer. Start my memoir.

    She giggles softly and writes one more line. Next time, shop at Whole Foods. 

  • What is Sweet

    Every time I see him I think of candy.  I think of that letter he wrote when he was four years old.

    Dear Santa. My mommy is dead. I have been a good boy. I want some candy and Lego. 

    Now he is ten years old and the fattest kid in the centre. The other kids make fun of him on the field trip up the snow hill. The swish-swish of his snow pants as they rub together between his thighs; the pants are men’s pants and much too long. The way he breathes, as he walks up the hill: slow heavy breaths like someone trying to contain their rage.

    Six years is a long time for both of us.  More than half his life.  Longer than I’d ever been in one city, much less one job.  Even back then I wondered at the wisdom of posting letters to Santa up on the daycare wall, or asking the children of Buddhists and Hindus and junkies to believe in Santa Claus at all, but I was new, so I kept quiet.

    Every year the boy gets a little bigger, already my weight and inching up to my eye level.  Next year he will probably be taller than me.  I walk beside him because I always get the loners and the slow walkers on field trips.  When I was a kid, I was one of them too. I’ve been here forever, at the end of the line.  Some kids hardly seem to feel the natural world: cold, gravity, speed. But me and the boy, we’re the type of people who feel it all the time: we are carsick, phobic, clumsy and asthmatic.

    The snow is coming down, thick and steady and the other kids seem to disappear in and out of landscape, their faces obscured by the mist of their breath and the falling snow.  Some of these children have never seen snow before. Hakim from Nigeria, all elbows and knees thrashing his way through the drifts, and quiet Daksha from India who follows the other girls lead as they guide her through the rituals of snow angels and snowflakes on the tongue.  Like this, they urge and she shivers but follows.

    Through the air, mingled with laughter and other conversations, certain words seem to swirl around the two of us: Fatty, Baby, Teacher’s Pet.  I wonder if it is helpful to assume that each of these comments are directed at him, although there is no other explanation, just as I know the perpetrators will deny it if I challenge them.  This is another thing I remember from when I was a kid, the new kid, that the intervention of adults, the loud proclamation by the teacher that you were to be left alone, could instead be a renewed call to attack.  And I can’t manage all of it, the children, the boy, the hill. So I pretend not to hear, which I know is another kind of mistake.

    Just once, I said to him at the bottom of the hill.  It’ll be fun. Just try it once. 

    And I want to believe that.  I need to believe that.  That when he gets on the sled, the sled I am pulling up the hill for him, he will be pulled down into a moment of pure white joy, something he will remember for a lifetime, or even only something that will trick him into forgetting this long difficult walk.

    Just once; you don’t have to go again if you don’t want to. But you’re going to love it, I promise.  And as soon as I say it I know it’s a mistake, this promise.  But everyone knows you can’t take back a promise.  You can only keep it or break it.

    The letters to Santa were posted on the daycare bulletin board.  For days I watched the staff and parents admire the drawings and colourful signatures attached to each one, laugh at the hopeful requests. But at his, their faces changed.

    Dear Santa. My mommy is dead. I have been a good boy. I want some candy and Lego. 

    Candy and Lego.  It was such a cautious request, such a tentative belief.  He doesn’t ask Santa for miracles, he doesn’t ask for her to come back.  He just wants more of what he’s learning this tragedy will buy.  Candy and Lego for a good boy.

    Was he a good boy? His Granny asks every day when she comes to pick him up.  I always say yes.  I say yes even though he cheats at board games and steals extra snacks. I say yes because if I don’t, I know Granny will call him a bad boy.  And he is a good boy, as good as any.

    When I asked about the letter, about the little boy who kept asking me new questions about mommies and death, one of the daycare staff told me what the boy did not know, might never know.  That it was his crying that made the neighbours break into the room.  He’d been alone with her body for four days.  The next morning I woke up and I thought: this is day one.  And all day I imagined it: his tears, his small hands tugging, demanding, and her body turning hard against him.  I imagined his voice echoing in the room, and how each of his baby words was just another word for want, for need and how he probably used them all hoping she would give him something, anything.  And the morning after that I woke up to day two.

    And now every time I see him I think of candy.  This small repetitive act seems like its own lesson on how memory can be trapped inside the body.


    Last night my boyfriend and I stayed up late to watch Shackleton. I didn’t want to watch it; I was not interested in heroic tales of white men exploring far off places. I’m bored by that story, in all its manifestations.  Still, there was Branagh and popcorn and nothing better to do.

    My boyfriend had read a book on Shackleton, so afterwards he filled in what the movie left out, the backstory and the small details.  He said what the men missed most during their ordeal was sugar.  Not even wine or women could seduce them more than a dream of cake, although he didn’t say it that way.  He is a scientist so I believe him when he tells me this craving for sugar is almost universal.  Even animals want what is sweet. And the reason is because in nature, what is sweet is rarely poisonous and easily converted into energy.  At our most stressed, we all wanted what was safest, what was easiest to absorb.  Even after a day of thinking about it, I can’t decide if he deliberately told me this just as I reached for the leftover Halloween candy. Am I stressed? Does his mind even work that way? I should know these things but I don’t.

    I was surprised by how much the story moved me.  The men’s willingness to sail away from everything they knew, their simple desires.  Walking uphill with the boy I consider telling him about arctic explorers and what they went through, but instead I find myself saying:

    Knock Knock

    Out of the corner of my eye I watch him try and resist.  I watch him survey the hill ahead of him, the other children slipping and weaving on their walk upwards. Finally he gives a deep sigh.

    Who’s there?


    Wooden who? he says impatiently. He doesn’t want to be caught playing this game with me, and I can’t really blame him.

    Wooden you like to know!

    He scoffs.

    That’s the stupidest joke I’ve ever heard.

    Yeah probably, I say.

    Still the next minute he says Knock Knock and I’m relieved that my strategy, if I can call it that, has worked.  He’s distracted, from the hill, from the other children, if only for a little while.

    By the time we reach the top of the hill, many of the others have gone down already.  I can see the grooves where the sleds have ploughed through, and smudges along the side where their hands and feet have touched. Down the hill a new line of children are walking back up, white snow on skin the colour of birch, wet cedar, and teak.

    The boy wants me to ride down the hill with him.  I’m irritated and touched. Does he even like me?  This is probably another thing I should know after all this time. Maybe he doesn’t know either. Sometimes he seems to look right through me. Other times he says hi and wants to talk. Mostly what he wants to talk about is hockey.  All I have is a willingness to listen and second-hand opinions I’ve stolen from my boyfriend: So and so is a bum, the Flames won’t make the Stanley Cup. He is a good boy, as good as any, but we don’t have a lot to talk about.

    But now he has this request; it will backfire.  For one thing the other kids will notice, and for another it’s strictly not allowed.  I try and talk him out of it.

    Just once, he says to me.

    He is willing to try it once, if I go too.

    And the next one you’ll go alone?

    I promise, he says, and I take it because even though it might be a lie, it’s the only thing he has to offer me in exchange for his fear.

    The sled slips easily into the grooves made by the other children’s tracks and the speed hits me in the stomach where it always does, the fear in my head just an afterthought. The boy’s boots are at an odd angle on the bottom of the sled, driving the fine snow into our faces until all I can do is shut my eyes and hope for the best.  And hoping is what I’m doing when the sled flips. I feel the boy’s weight fall against me and hear a small snap of what must be plastic.

    The world is changing at an amazing rate, my boyfriend told me last night. In a hundred years the places Shackleton explored will be virtually unrecognizable. Icebergs that have been around for thousands of years are disappearing.  In a hundred years from now, even the shoreline of this very city will be different than it is now.  Maybe he was trying to tell me that it doesn’t matter, what is happening now, in the silence between the two of us, in the sad stories I bring home from work.  When the ocean rises, the basement apartment on Powell Street where they found the boy will fill with water too deep for land creatures and not quite salty enough for ocean animals.  In the big picture, this is just a moment, an insignificant moment.  Or maybe he was only telling me this because he wants his own sad stories, or because he is interested in facts and I claim to be interested too.

    You think too much, he says to me sometimes, but really he means: you think about the wrong kind of things.

    The boy is sitting in the snow holding his arm, tears running down his face. My first thought is relief that he isn’t angry. I’ve seen him fly into a rage over the smallest things.

    Someday this boy might become something else, a man I do not want to know.  A man with a hunger that nothing can ease.  But today he is just a boy holding out his arm to me so I can make it better.   And as my fingers, cold and light, trace their way along the surface of his skin looking for where it hurts, I can’t help but wonder if the chill of my touch is reminding him of those four days, of everything he remembers but does not yet know.

  • Dark Room

    “Honestly, I don’t think he was enjoying living in this world.” 

    Bård Eithun of Emperor


    I read some newspaper article that said the Devil made me do it. The journalist didn’t ask me, though. He was afraid. Everyone’s afraid, and they’re right to be. I am not locked away, not like they think I am. My spirit is free and it is hungry.

    This all started with the church burning. I have been unable to tell this story because it is so intimate, it is like me telling you how my face looks when it twists in orgasm or how it feels to cut my veins open, hard, and watch the contents spill. I have to tell it now, though; the journalist—Erick Per Blumberg, something like that—he got it all wrong.

    The fire burned, first, and it was beautiful. Deep blues bleeding into oranges.  But isn’t that how everything starts? A moment of beauty consumed by raging, uncontrolled fire. It was such a strange church to begin with, tucked away on a wooded hillside, the roof such a deep triangular “V” that it went all the way down to the ground. It looked like the middle little pig’s stick house. It was ready to burn. It had been ready since some naïve fool built it back in the 12th century. I didn’t do anything that wasn’t waiting to be done.

    Most arsonists, they crouch behind a bush. They watch, but they don’t want to get caught, you know? I’ve never cared to get caught. That’s fine with me. I stood in front of the fucker and watched every moment, close enough to feel the ash sizzle and pop on my forearm like grease from bacon. Small red spots bloomed, and I breathed the smoke in deep so that my lungs would hurt and swell. I wanted this moment to become a part of me. I turned around, felt the warmth on my back. Bergen is such a strange town: coastal, so the salt and breeze filters in. You’d think the weather would be awful in northern Norway, but there’s a strange force field around the town: something prevents it from ever getting too hot or too cold. I looked out over the green treetops, saw the coast lined with cars and shops and houses, and I spit. By the time I turned back to the fire, it had erupted. Flames were shooting out into the trees, jumping from flammable surface to flammable surface. One flame caught my cheek, burned it pretty badly. I did not cry or even really feel it. I was sad, but it was time to walk away.

    How did that fire lead to this, you should have asked, Erik Blumberg—you should have asked me about the fire. I would tell you. I would tell you that it was about defending my own religion, about taking back the land that was given to the gods more years ago than you can even fathom. But nothing would have happened without that fire.

    The day after the church burned, I went back to the site and took pictures, black and white ones. I knew I would need them for something. Then I went back home to Oslo, went to Helvete, our record store, the one that sold our albums. “Simen,” I said to the kid behind the counter. His face was heavy with piercings and his hair was spiked with deep purple and black glue of some kind. “What do you have in for me?”

    “I don’t know, man. Nothing you don’t already have. Fucking slow week,” he said. He was reading an alt-weekly, sitting on a battered barstool that had, at one point, been attacked by spray paint. Everything in the store looked that way—except almost all of the store was in black spray paint. The chair was red, with big drips of red paint that had run and then dried that way. “You got the new Emperor record?”

    “Sure,” I said. “Sure.”

    “You’re a wreck,” he said, looking up from his magazine for the first time. “What happened to your face?”

    “Burned it.”

    He laughed. “Oh, no. Dude! You didn’t burn that fuckin’ church down, did you? In Bergen?”

    I smiled. He knew. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

    “You need to get that looked at. Hang on, my girlfriend, she can help. She’s good at cleaning up wounds. Star?” he yelled, and she popped up from the basement. I always thought her name was so stupid: she had been named Astra, but had gone with an American name. Everyone’s so quick to lose their homeland these days.

    Her pale belly stuck out in a few rolls underneath her t-shirt, and she wore a long plaid skirt covered in safety pins and chains. Her arms were covered in small white scars and a few bigger white scars. Even more sparsely were pink cuts, light ones that seemed recent. I would not say anything to Astra about this: we all had this problem at the time. It would be like if I got drunk and went to teach at a rehab, telling the drunks to quit.

    “Oh,” she tsk-ed at me. “Oh no, Kristian. You are hurt, I can tell.”

    She was such a cow. She never said anything interesting. I am only remembering now in the re-telling how annoying I found her.

    “It will be fine,” I said, but she touched me, insisted that she could fix it. How do you fix burned flesh? She didn’t know.

    “How will you go onstage tonight?”

    “The same way I always do.”

    “And your makeup?”

    Finally she was helpful. I hadn’t thought of that.

    “Is Jon around?” I asked. “I need to figure that out.”

    “Hey, asshole,” he yelled from downstairs. “I’m here, like always. Where else would I be?”

    Going down the stairs at Helvete was always an experience in and of itself. There was not great lighting, and there seemed to always be spiders ready to surprise you in the dark from the handrail. Cobwebs dusted the ceiling, and the paint, the constant smell and visual of the matte black paint.

    “Tykje,” Jon said when he saw my face. I knew he was just cursing, but I couldn’t help but tease.

    “Did you call me the Devil?”

    “Do you name the Devil to his face?” Jon laughed. “Perhaps that is a good nickname for you. We have been having the hardest time coming up with your name.”

    Jon was Skull. Of course, Erick, you would know that. You must have viewed it on Google or something before you wrote that article. Simen, our drummer, was Bonelick, and I was, at least for a while, Snaketongue. Everyone was always so surprised it was just the three of us, just bass, guitar, and drums, but we were very loud, and we knew how to make those sounds multiply together. I cannot take all the credit: as the guitarist, Jon was key. He played open, loud chords instead of the power chords the other metal bands worshipped. All of the strings vibrating together in dissonance while Simen and I played hard and fast.

    “I like that,” I said. “Devil.” The word felt good in my mouth. I thought about that church, burning to the ground with me as the only witness.


    I am feeling bad. The church burned almost like that. But maybe the flame didn’t leap off the building and randomly attach to my cheek. Maybe I walked so close to the building that I couldn’t avoid it. Maybe I stuck my face in the flames and held it there until it finally hurt.


    I did not do these things because I am evil. Honest, Jon was my friend, and I loved him. I loved Simen, too. But even now, when I say those words, I get a picture in my mind of some things that we never did: a hug we never shared, a laugh that never happened. We did not spend our time well, I guess. That might be my only regret. Everything else had to happen.

    One night after I’d started calling myself Devil, I had a dream where the real Devil came and spoke to me. He said, “If you are to use my name, you must do it right. You must understand that it’s a great responsibility.” We were in a field—no, a forest. And he held my hand to the cool ground, which felt like it was just barely hovering over the water. But all of the sudden, it was as if the water started to boil, and my hand started to boil, but instead of burning, I grew taller and taller. My chest puffed up and my hair grew long and I was a god.

    “I won’t let you down,” I said, and he slapped me across the face.

    “You are not beholden to anyone now. Do not let others sway you with their pride or anger.”

    Of course I woke up, and of course I felt good about it. It was a good dream. It was, in a way, freedom from all of the things that scared me.

    The night after the fire, I did go onstage, and I did play in full makeup. It hurt to put corpse paint, thick, sticky pancake stuff, over open weeping sores, but I knew that once I hit the stage it wouldn’t matter. (That was another thing you got wrong, Erick Blumburg: it was nothing like KISS or Alice Cooper. We wore our makeup to look like decomposed bodies. It was not the same). Jon kept patting the makeup on, sometimes gently, sometimes less so, and saying, “I am so jealous of you. This looks so hardcore.”

    That night was one of our last shows. It was the last one I remember. I wish you had asked me about this. It is important to know what the people who were actually there remember, and not the way historians and journalists look at it. I remember the show in Oslo, for a home crowd. I remember everyone in unison, screaming and moshing and throwing things. There was a blind fury that night. At one point, a small group of boys in the front row started screaming, “Skull, Skull, Skull” so loudly that it is like I can still hear their voices echo. And I was proud of him, honest. I was shocked to see that people were finally appreciating his genius, our art.

    Erick, you seemed to think the lyrics in our songs meant something, but they didn’t. It was noise to fill the void between guitar solos. We said whatever sounded the meanest. It was the only thing that seemed to make the kids feel better, to scream something mean and heartless at the top of their lungs. They seemed cauterized by that. They were almost able to cut their pain and suffering off like a bad limb and leave it on the floor of the concert. You seemed to think that we were worshipping Satan, but we were really just worshipping the music. I remember Jon, after a particularly nasty solo, smashing a bottle of whisky on the ground, using it to cut through his guitar strings, and then cutting his own tongue with the broken glass. His tongue. But that was the man Jon was. Perhaps crazier, he got another guitar and finished the show, spitting blood the whole time. My face didn’t look so gruesome then.


    Sometimes I wonder if the Devil was a dream. Is it possible that he had that whole conversation with me in my apartment? He is the Devil. I suppose he can do anything he wants. Of course, I am a believer in Norse history and Norse gods. I don’t recognize one evil being, soaking up all the evil in the world and spitting it back to the deserving. The world is a much more terrifying place than that. If the Devil had made me do the things I did, wouldn’t he have had me hurt sinners? Or maybe he wouldn’t. I do not know. I am not a scholar.


    I have heard that the night Jon died, someone had thrown a goat’s head up on the stage. I was on the other side of the stage and didn’t see it, but I was assured it was a real one: a goat that had been alive and was killed for the sole purpose of throwing its head onstage. Back in those days, I was numb to things like that, but now I do see that is pushing the boundaries of good taste. It seems ridiculous that we garnered that kind of frenzy. It was nothing like what would come after my arrest, after everyone else was dead. Then we would really be famous.

    According to Simen—who was the only person there, but certainly can’t be trusted to tell the truth on this matter—when he got to Helvete after the show, Jon was already dead, his head blown off and the gun still warm in his hand. He hadn’t left a note (at least not one that we could read: everything in the basement was covered in blood). The wall, however, was so dark and so painted, his blood barely showed up as anything more than a red sheen: barely visible in the dim basement. I do not know what happened next, but when I showed up after the long, painful task of removing my makeup—the wounds, remember, had not healed yet—there Simen was, over Jon with a camera. He had the flash on, I remember, because when it went off, it illuminated the whole scene. The blood was a different color than I thought it would be; like corn syrup with red dye in it. So bright. Everywhere.

    “What the fuck,” I remember saying. Did I cry? That’s a question for you, Erick. I bet you wonder if I cried.

    And I ran to Jon and I cradled his head in my hands, and I said, “Simen, what did you do? Why did you do this?”

    He looked confused. “I didn’t,” he said. “He did this himself. He always said he would. We knew this was going to happen.”

    “Why are you taking pictures?” I asked. I was kneeling on the cold unfinished concrete floor, my knees on fire from the hardness of it.

    “It seems like the smart thing to do,” he said. “I know you took pictures of the church. I saw them. I know you did.”

    I can’t remember exactly what we said, but if I could rewrite the conversation, these are the things we would have covered: what happened, why the pictures. I think at some point Simen was crying. I was so angry, I couldn’t care.

    “Why would he do this?” I asked over and over again.

    “It will make for a story, though,” said Simen.

    I didn’t let him finish explaining. I could have shot him, true: Jon’s gun was right there. It would have been easy. But I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I hit him in the face, over and over, until he was unrecognizable. I hit him until he didn’t look human.


    Or maybe it happened the other way around. Maybe I saw Jon dead on the sofa, head tipped back and dangling behind the couch. Maybe I was the one who, anesthetized by all the death and darkness, moved the hair out of his face and positioned him for the picture. Maybe I thought it would go with the church pictures. It’s possible, I guess, that I ran my fingers on the upside-down cross tattooed between his ribs, and perhaps then the whole thing hit me. When Simen walked in on me, he could have attacked me, and I killed him in self-defense. It’s hard to know exactly what happened. I am sure Erick, you have an opinion on this, and maybe you could write the definitive story. I am still so unsure.


    I know my memories of Jon are tinged by what we learned after his death: that he had actually slept in a coffin at night, that he had been diagnosed by a psychiatrist as actually believing himself to be dead. My memories of Simen are less specific: I remember his girlfriend, Astra, weeping inconsolably at my trial, almost as if she thought it were still the funeral. Everyone had moved on to the next thing: the sentencing. She was still stuck on the dying.

    I don’t write this to make myself look better. I know that these things will never look right to most people. But I need to be understood: if I had not been still taking off my makeup, if I had never been burned in the fire, I would have not allowed Jon to die that way. I wouldn’t have had to hit Simen.

    And maybe—if you had asked—I would have told you that I hated myself for taking pictures of that rotted church, empty and flaked with ash. I would have let it stay there, forever, like it was. There are things, I’ve learned, that cannot be captured. No matter how much you think you’ve got them in the frame, in a manageable way, there is always something lurking outside the borders, sneaking and evil. Perhaps that is like me.



  • Slight Overbite

    Art by Peter Roman

    Art by Peter Roman

    Your sleeping profile is just like your twelve week ultrasound picture. That little square of paper is more than fourteen-years-old now. I keep it tucked in my purse, behind my library card and in front of a scribbled note to remind me which ink to buy for the printer.

    In the ultrasound picture you have a smooth forehead, a button nose and your top lip juts out a little further than your chin. You still have a slight overbite. Of course you’re much larger now. A rash of angry red pimples, yellow heads begging to be squeezed, line your  jaw.

    The month you were conceived Rob and I were at it almost every day. Every time we went into my bedroom, after smoking pot and drinking Jim Beam in the shed, Mum just turned up the TV. One time we did it on the beach, next to a pile of seaweed. Rob filled the bladder of a wine cask with air so I could have a kind of pillow. I thought Rob very chivalrous, at the time.

    You must’ve had a big night last night. You slammed the door when you came in at 3:00 am. You don’t stir when I stroke your forehead. I used to do this when you were a baby and wouldn’t go to sleep. You’d scream at me and bat my hand away until eventually your eyes would droop. When you were older and felt sick, you used to climb into my lap and rest your forehead against my shoulder. I called you my little satellite because you were always somewhere nearby, in orbit around me. Now, I barely touch your shoulder and you shake me off.

    Last night Andrea came around and told me something. Something Milly said… about you. At first I apologised—she was upset and she’s my friend. Remember when they moved in across the road two years ago? Andrea and I instantly bonded, a pair of single mums with a string of useless men to complain about. Then I wanted to take the apology back. The movie projector in my head switched on and I saw you as a child, my child, six years old with one front tooth missing, telling me you loved my voice even though nobody else could bear to hear me sing. I thought it can’t be true. You wouldn’t do anything like that. I accused Milly of exaggerating or lying; Andrea yelled and threatened to call the cops. I wanted to talk to you, so you could tell me it’s not true and everything’s going to be fine. But you didn’t answer your phone and I didn’t know where you were. I didn’t want to harass your friends, just because some little girl made up a nasty story about you. Milly probably just has a crush on you. Girls start young these days, with their little jean shorts and nail polish.

    I stayed awake and waited for you. Doubts crept in. I remembered when Milly came into the lounge, pouting with that scabby bottom lip she always picks at and said she didn’t want to play in your room. Andrea and I sent her back. We didn’t want her hanging around, we wanted to talk uncensored and unmonitored by little ears.

    When I discovered I was pregnant with you, I decided I’d be a good mother. One of the best. My child wouldn’t look back and snigger and judge and blame me for all their problems. I imagined you grown-up, tall and with a face like a young Matt Damon, famous for one thing or another, being interviewed by Oprah. When she asked about your childhood you’d wipe a tear away and say, ‘My mum’s a saint. She had it tough and she raised me by herself. There wasn’t a thing she wouldn’t do for me and I felt loved and safe and supported.’

    I was unprepared for motherhood.  I thought the intention to be good at it and some kind of maternal instinct would be all I needed.  I should have read a book or taken a parenting class or something.

    In the hospital, the midwives had me clocked—another young mum from the western suburbs. You cried all night and I asked for help. The nurse strode in from the bright hallway, wrapped you tight and thumped you on the back until you burped. You were a little Houdini when I tried to wrap you, your arms and legs broke free and you screamed and arched your back.

     You’ve really fucked up this time. Despite being an unmarried mother, there’s only one other time I thought having you might’ve been a mistake. You were five years old and Aunty Irene had just died. You bounced around the backyard and pretended to dribble the basketball. I sat on the back step and licked an ice-cream cone and you just turned to me and said, ‘I’m not going to die, am I Mummy?’

    ‘Everyone dies,’ I said.

    You stopped bouncing and your eyebrows drew down.

    ‘But not me.’

    I knew then I’d betrayed you when I brought  you into this world. There were so many horrific things you were going to have to live through. Terrible things would happen to you, you would experience pain and despair and I couldn’t do anything about it. And one day you’d die. And I’d bear the burden of worrying about you every day for the rest of my life.

    ‘No. No you won’t die,’ I said, hoping you wouldn’t remember the lie when you were older.

    Milly’s just a seven year old girl. Why would you do this? I thought I knew everything about you. Has somebody touched you? A teacher or a friend’s parent? You would have told me, wouldn’t you? Have I raised a monster? Maybe the drugs I took when you were just forming, when I didn’t know you were there, corrupted you. Maybe my pride caused this. I thought  I’d be better than my mum, I wouldn’t raise my child in a council house with holes kicked in the walls from biker parties. I read an article on the internet just the other day about how mood swings during pregnancy can affect a child’s mental health. Did I have mood swings while pregnant? I can’t remember. It happened so long ago. Maybe we’d be better off if we grew babies in glass jars where mothers can’t fuck them up with soft cheeses and alcohol and tobacco and mood swings. Then they could be raised by experts, in a sterile white facility set on acres of grassland, so their mother’s parenting mistakes don’t ruin them too.

    Maybe this began the moment you were conceived. Some faulty genetics or chemicals. Something from Rob’s side. From the moment you could crawl, containing you was like holding water cupped in your hands; the tiniest loss of concentration and it leaks away and takes any disastrous shape it wants. Then again isn’t that normal for little boys?

    I wish I could fix this, stroke your head and say, ‘Mummy’s here, it’ll be ok.’ I hate you because I can’t do that. I can’t make it better and it’s your fault.

    This is bad. This is really bad. I wish we’d never met Andrea and Milly, hadn’t spent Friday nights with them drinking lemon squash, with slugs of vodka for Andrea and I, and eating fish’n’chips on the coffee table.

    I don’t want you to wake up now. I’ll have to talk to you when you do. We’ll have to figure out what to do. Perhaps the doctor can give us a referral for counselling. Will you be considered a criminal? Will legal action be taken? Will they take you away from me? I’ll have to get on the internet and look it up. What would I type into Google, child sex offenders? I’ll get hold of as much information as I can. I’ll become a world authority on this kind of behaviour. I’ll search out the best treatments and specialists for you. I hope it’s not too expensive. Maybe someone official will step in and put you somewhere where I don’t have to worry about you. Would I be a bad mum if I didn’t mind so much? Will you deny everything? I could just believe you and pretend it never happened. Walk on the other side of the street when I see Andrea, concentrate on the ingredient list on the Coco Pops box when I see her in the supermarket.  I don’t know. I just wish you’d just sleep forever, trapped in time, like the ultrasound picture in my purse.

  • Day of the Dead

    When I was a child, Day of the Dead meant sugar skulls, staying up past midnight, marigolds, burning copal, blazing votives. I didn’t recognize any of the faces in the photographs on the altar. Now I have my own dead – and no sweet bread, hot wax, or tequila to lure them, no fancy papel picado. The dead come anyway, in fragments, perforated memories. My grandmother wearing a man’s fedora, a secret greeting card folded into her dress pocket. My grandfather, who burned basura in his basement fireplace, sending obscene odors throughout the neighborhood, whose last act was to eat a bowl of strawberry ice cream in the middle of the night. The crush I smoked pot with behind the brick chimney in the attic of his parents’ home, wrapped up with me in his sleeping bag. He confessed he had no plan for after graduation, and he laughed, and he never needed the plan. The stillborn girl who looked like a baby bird with bulging eyes curled in a nest under the acacia. The man I’d once thought was the one who wasn’t and whom I couldn’t live with once I understood that, who on a tear of amphetamines put a gun to his head.

    The dead. I want a belly of bravery. I want to know the kindness sent out of the cage of the heart. An eye that never becomes insensate to the invisible spectrum, an ear that never dulls to the song of the pulse. The night grows long until it’s short, and the sweetened tongue kisses the breath, and the breath is the breath is the breath.

  • Lost

    Art by Peter Roman

    Art by Peter Roman

    When I was a little girl, my parents took me to a town on the coast. It was a capricious summer, heat crackling off the terracotta roofs and pouring up from the pores in the stone. All day, the road to town was slick and wet with sun, but at night, the wind rose off the water and made the shutters slam. The rains came every afternoon and poured with such ferocity that the few little stores closed and a street in the next town was washed into the sea, but the sky always cleared by dinnertime, and it was dry enough on the porch for my father to have a drink and watch the sun set.

    We stayed in a stone house that overlooked the rocky beach and the sloping flanks of the cliffs. Mama was not yet pregnant with my brother, so I could have been no more than six years old, hanging over the rail of the balcony in a flowered bathing suit. There are no photographs from that trip; the camera was left out on the deck in one of the rains and ruined. My memories, though, have a photographic quality to them: bright and clear and fractured. Here is my father in his red shorts, reading the paper on a dock; here is Mama, leaning across a table with the end of her braid trailing salt water; here is the sea around the base of the cliffs, the dark rocks sliced open by the bleached bones of driftwood, my childish certainty that these were the skeletons of whales, the long shadows of the bluffs, and the static sound of the tide.

    Two memories have kept their moving pieces. Mama and I stand at the cliffs rising blank-faced from the rocky beach, and Mama says, “Look,” pointing out to sea. I stand on my tiptoes, trying to see whatever has attracted the attention of the gulls, marooned out on some tiny, flat-backed rocked out in the middle of the sea. “It looks like a plane,” Mama says.

    “Like the one we flew here?”

    “No, love, much smaller. The little ones go down all the time.”

    I don’t remember if we ever found out what had wrecked itself against the rocks. Something jutted up from the surface—the accusing finger of a broken wing, maybe, still pointing at the sky—but by the next morning, it was gone.

    Mama tells me that my second memory must have been a dream. We talked about it only once, years later, but she said that I could not have possibly remembered the night of the storm. It is the last vivid memory of childhood; everything after began to tuck itself into the ordered drawers where memories may be folded up and kept for years and then taken out to reexamine, like rare maps. Soon after that vacation, my father got sick and filed for divorce from a hospital bed, and childhood was over.

    The night of the storm, though, I had a dream that my skin turned to glass, and my stomach filled up with the sea. All my organs had been hollowed out, leaving only my ribs, hanging over the fishbowl of my belly like cliffs. I felt hollow—hollow in a yawning, aching kind of way. Perhaps I was too young to know it at the time, but it was the hollowness of that first stage of loss, when the world seems irreparable and the absence is still new and surprising as the gap left by a missing tooth that you cannot help but poke at with your tongue. It was a feeling I wouldn’t be able to recognize until I was much older, not until it crept up on me years and years later, already familiar, sitting at the bottom of my stomach heavy as a stone. In the dream, I knew only that I was empty, but that the emptiness itself had weight. I watched hermit crabs scuttle across the glass floor of my insides.

    When I woke up, I was tangled in the sheets, my six-year-old body thin and damp with sweat. The house we rented was so quiet, and so filled with unfamiliar darkness, that I lay in bed for a long time, holding my breath and waiting for something to make a sound. When nothing did, I went to the window. Later—much later—I would read the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on marine bioluminescence, which, in cold scientific language, reduced what I saw that night to the chemical reaction of flavin pigments in blooming phytoplankton. The sea was lit up with the Northern Lights, breaking waves haloed in St. Elmo’s fire. Everything was blue and green and burning, including the stars.

    I crept down to the beach barefoot, in my pajama bottoms with the frogs on them, jumping at every gust of wind through the scrub brush on the side of the road. The afternoon clouds had not entirely cleared, and were beginning to cover the halo of the moon. At the railing where Mama had pointed out the plane, I skidded down the bluff on my heels and tumbled out into the little rocky cove. The stones at the shoreline were all lit up when the tide came in around them. I stood knee-deep in the shallows, making ripples of blue electricity.

    It began to rain a bit. The tide began to pull at my ankles and push things up on shore: a stone with a perfect hole through the center, a pacifier, a wooden block with the letter H on it, a bracelet, a shoe, a perfect pink shell like a closed fist, a silver baby spoon. I squatted in the rising tide, water soaking into my pajamas, picking through the rocks.

    With the quality of something from a dream, a boat came around one bent arm of the bay, and at the oars, a woman in a red flowered dress carrying a net, lit up by the blue glow where raindrops disturbed the unearthly plankton and scooping the strange debris from the surface of the water. I watched her for a long time, the waves nearly to my waist, as she methodically dipped her net again and again below the surface. Finally, she looked up and saw me on the shore.

    “You have to go home,” she called to me. “It’s not safe out here.”

    I didn’t move, frightened that I might be in trouble, frightened by the rain, and by the rising swells.

    “Go on—back up the hill.”

    “Why are these things coming up from the ocean?” I asked, my voice small.

    Her boat was tipping dangerously, disappearing sometimes behind the waves. She had to shout to be heard over the wind. “Sometimes things get lost and turn up in the sea,” she said. “Now, you have to go home. Go!”

    I was wet to the bone, but I scrambled back up the muddy face of the cliff and ran through the rain back to the house. From inside, the rain sounded like a thousand piano hammers playing on the roof. I took off my clothes and climbed beneath the blankets.

    By morning, the clouds had cleared, sunlight coming through the open windows. I woke up covered in sweat or salt; it was impossible to tell. Mama sat on the side of the bed, laying her cool hands on my feverish skin. I’d been sick all night, she said.  It had all been a dream. “It’s okay,” she said over and over again, lying down beside me. “Shh, shh. Mama’s here. It’s okay.”

    In June of the year I turned twenty-five, my father died. He was in hospice, and not speaking too clearly towards the end. I tried to tell him the story of the night of the storm—that one, final, disordered memory of childhood—but he kept calling the town Macondo, fiction all confused. He died at four a.m. on a Tuesday, Mama asleep in the chair beside his bed, and was buried on Friday. Two and a half weeks later, the man I thought I would spend the rest of my life with followed him into the ground. That emptiness I had known since I was six years old came back and settled into my stomach, blank-faced and expansive, with suitcases full of stones.

    Work ended up paying for the trip back to the coast. It had been twenty years, but still the place was stuck in my memory like a bent page; some part of me always knew I’d come back to it. I rented a car in the airport and drove through the mountains toward the sea with the windows rolled down.

    Nothing had changed. The same couples seemed to sit at the tables outside the bar—the same boats were tied up and covered with tarps—the same driftwood and brine and static sound of the sea. I parked and unpacked and changed into the red flowered dress Mama had given me as a going-away present, like a reminder that there was still color in the rest of the world. I drank a glass of wine on the porch, watching the clouds come in for the afternoon rains.

    “You’re going to get wet if you sit there too much longer.” An old woman stood on the little stone path of the house next door, holding a bag of groceries.

    I laughed. “I like knowing that it still rains here every day.”

    “You could set your clocks by it,” she said, shuffling a set of keys out of her purse. Her house was small and whitewashed, with a blue door and shutters and a collection of shells pressed into the plaster around the address. Two bay windows looked out onto the street, their sills covered in lace shawls, stones, and pieces of driftwood. In the window closest to my house sat an old camera and a potted fern.

    She asked if I was visiting, and I told her about the childish memory of the coast, and my father, and the plane crash that had taken my fiancé. I told her in the voice we save for strangers—too honest, and too matter-of-fact.

    “Oh lord, love, you’re much too young for that,” she said.

    “It’s—” I couldn’t quite say ‘It’s alright,’ yet. The end of the platitude still lodged in my throat, hard and sharp as a chicken bone. “Well, the little ones go down all the time.”

    That night the storm broke; thunder shook me out of bed. It seemed to rattle the glass in the window frames and send change skittering across the top of the bedside table. I lay and listened to it for a while, but it rattled my bones until they were loose in their joints and I had to stand up. It was not raining quite yet, but the thunder-clouds were thick and heavy over the ocean. Their bellies were lit with the electric blue-green of bioluminescence. I pulled on the dress Mama had given me, hanging limp across the back of a chair, and walked down towards the water.

    The smell of brine and the bitter, metallic taste of lightning got stronger the closer I got to the water. I walked around the jutting fingers of the docks and towards the boat launch, where the waves broke in glowing eddies against the steep pitch of the shore. Debris drifted in the shallows: keys, gloves, crumpled umbrellas looking like broken-winged birds—all the things we’re used to losing, things that might have belonged to anyone—pens and pencils, socks, train tickets, cell phones, bobby pins, sunglasses. It looked as though somewhere, the crate of loss had fallen from the back of a cargo ship and smashed against the rocks. Soon, though, standing on the boat launch in water up to my ankles, lit by thousands of tiny plankton, I began to see things that could have only been mine: a garnet ring I had borrowed from my mother and lost in a stranger’s bed, a black leather change purse, my grandmother’s collection of crystal perfume bottles, a jar of blueberry jam I bought in Maine and left in a hotel room in the mountains, a set of tiny worry dolls, a paper fan, a burgundy coffee mug, a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude that I left on a subway, a note from my father on the first page. I pulled the novel soaking wet from the tide and opened it to a random place: “At the beginning of the road into the swamp they put up a sign that said ‘Macondo’ and another larger one on the main street that said ‘God exists.’”

    As far out into the luminescent waves as I could see, things I had owned and lost floated on the surface like strange boats. I walked to the end of the dock and watched a photograph of my mother lift itself from the crest of a wave, flutter for a moment, then disappear. I climbed into a wooden dinghy and pushed a little ways out, into the mouth of the bay. There in the water was a t- shirt from a band I could only barely remember loving, a silver flask my brother had given me one Christmas that I had left at a party, a pair of cards from a Mexican bingo deck, depicting el valiente and la sirena. In the bottom of the boat was a net, knots hard and tight as fists, and I cast it over the side and dragged it back, pulling in piles and piles of things I had thought gone forever. I felt a greedy desire to reclaim them all; a sudden, belated fear of someday missing them. Baby clothes, holiday cards, birthday presents; I put the net down again and again, coming around the arm of the bay just as the rain began to start in earnest.

    The uncomfortable feeling of deja vu prickled at my skin like static electricity and I looked up. On the shore, partially obscured by the sheeting rain, knee deep in the tide, stood a little girl in pajama bottoms with frogs on them, looking earnestly out to sea. She seemed so fragile and so small.

    “You have to go home,” I shouted. “It’s not safe out here. Go on—back up the hill.”

    “Why are these things coming up from the ocean?” she asked, her tiny voice barely rising above the storm.

    The boat rocked dangerously, rain pouring down and swells pushing over the sides. “Sometimes,” I heard myself saying above the growing roar of the ocean, “things get lost and turn up in the sea.”

  • Pulposito

    Art by Peter Roman

    Art by Peter Roman

    I had not come to Mexico to mop floors. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing in Mexico —I didn’t speak a lick of Spanish—but I knew it wasn’t this. The youth hostel in San Miguel de Allende required each person staying there to contribute to the daily chores, and since I was the most recent arrival I had the unenviable task of cleaning underfoot—as opposed, say, to watering the plants or folding sheets.

    Emily had been staying at the hostel for three months already. If she had a chore assigned to her, I never saw her do it. Emily and I quickly discovered that we were only a year apart in age, from towns in Massachusetts 30 minutes apart, and we both listened to Phish and Ani Difranco. She was looking for an apartment with three other people from the hostel but had recently seen a place that would be perfect for two, for us. So she ditched her other friends and we went to talk to the landlady. After my third night in the hostel, Emily and I moved into the first place I had ever called my own. I was 18, had just graduated from high school and deferred from college for a semester so I could travel. I wanted to leave the country; Mexico was what I could afford. Emily had just deferred for her third semester; she couldn’t seem to leave Mexico behind.

    The furnished one-bedroom, second-floor apartment sat adjacent to the landlady’s roof, a peach terra cotta surface that looked south to the spires of La Parroquia, the Gothic church in the center of town. Inside we had a small bathroom with rust brown tiles that seemed to attract large red spiders; a kitchen, in which we cooked noodles in tomato sauce sweetened with sugar and stocked the fridge with nothing but Negro Medelo beer; and a bedroom with two single beds separated by a small table. The blankets on the beds were thin and, as October progressed, proved to be entirely inadequate. Instead of buying more blankets down the street at the market, we simply layered on more clothes, drank more, and shivered through the pre-dawn hours.

    In the mornings, I checked my shoes for scorpions before slipping them on and walking up and down the cobblestoned hills, past El Jardin, to the art institute where I took classes in ceramics, photography, and Spanish. For lunch I ate burrito gigantes slathered in guacamole and sour cream, stuffed with refried beans and rice. Despite all the hills and the fact that I walked everywhere, I gained ten pounds in two months. In the evenings I met Emily at home for dinner and a few beers before heading out to Mama Mia’s, our favorite bar.

    Emily had a lopsided smile that showed her crooked teeth and made her eyes pull down on the sides. She remained pale after months in the intense Mexican sun. Her favorite outfit was a pair of blue hospital scrub pants and an orange T-shirt with a clown’s face on it, which I had bought at the dollar-a-pound thrift store back home. (My daily attire was not so dissimilar: a pair of black-and-white checked chef’s pants and a 1986 Chilmark Road Race T-shirt I had stolen from my friend who had actually run in that race when she was eight-years-old.) Emily’s hair was a nest of dreadlocks—a persistent, but pleasant, oddity to most of the Mexican men around town. She wore headphones whenever she walked to class or the store to drown out the their catcalls. “Chica!” they hollered, but she would not respond unless it was to occasionally yell, “I’m not blonde!” She told me once that technically “chica” referred to a blonde white woman; I was never sure if this was true. Emily had studied Spanish for four years in high school before moving to San Miguel. I had studied German for four years in high school. I trusted Emily in all things.

    The Mexican men were not the only ones charmed by Emily. She knew all the expatriates in town, including a 14-year-old runaway who had renamed herself Star and lived in a stone hovel for $50 per month, the house full of Americans who owned a television and VCR, the guy who knew the guy who could take you out into the desert to find peyote, and the people who lived in the apartment once visited by Neal Cassady—we stopped by to see his writing preserved for fifty years on the wall. At Mama Mia’s she associated with a mix of Americans and locals, dancing to salsa music and accepting free drinks from strange men. I tagged along, sipping at all the extra sangrias and margaritas that piled up on our table. Often I went home alone, stopping on my way through El Jardin to buy Mambas, those brightly-colored chewy candies of my childhood, from a street vendor.

    No matter how late we stayed out, I never skipped school. Emily took classes elsewhere, but soon she started dating a guy named Paco, who owned a local nightclub. She loved saying his name. “I didn’t know people in Mexico were actually named that,” she’d say and then repeat his name to herself again and laugh. Emily’s school schedule was less full than mine, especially when she stopped attending class altogether to hang out with her new boyfriend. At Paco’s club she began doing cocaine and staying out all night. She tried to set me up with Paco’s friend, Turtle, but I wasn’t interested.

    My Spanish tutor, Carlos, told me the best way to learn the language was to go to the bars at night, get drunk, and converse with the locals. I did. In the bar, after a few beers, I was fluent in Spanish. The next day it all disappeared.

    I hadn’t seen much of Emily in a few days when she came home one afternoon with a bunny so small it fit in the palm of my hand.

    “What are we going to do with it?” I asked. It was gray with black eyes and resembled a field mouse.

    “The boys selling it on the street probably weren’t over 10-years-old,” Emily said. “If I hadn’t bought it, they would have killed it.”

    “How old is it?” I asked. It ran up the sleeve of my shirt and tickled my neck.

    “We got the runt of the litter.”

    “But how old is it? A day? Two?”

    I pulled the rabbit out but it quickly found its way under my T-shirt again.

    “I couldn’t let him die,” Emily said.

    We named it Pulposito, or “tiny octopus,” because it seemed to be everywhere at once.

    That night we both stayed home trying to devise a way to keep Pulposito warm. A box lined with socks did not seem to do the trick. It was early November and the nights had grown cold. If we couldn’t stay warm with our inadequate blankets, how could a tiny bunny be expected to keep warm without help? Emily cradled him against her body in bed and fell asleep that way, even though I was afraid she would crush him.

    A few hours later, she woke me. “He’s shivering,” she said. “I rolled over and left him uncovered. What should we do?”

    “Let me take him for a little while.” I tucked him against my neck and lay still for hours, until the chickens began to make noises in the street below and cars, most of them ancient VW beetles, began to rumble by, and the light behind the thin curtain turned from orange to yellow.

    I went to class.

    When I came home, Pulposito was shivering again. I took him out of his box and cradled him in my cold inadequate hands. Emily showed up a few minutes later with a dozen beers.

    “You left him? You should have waited for me,” I said.

    “I had class,” she said. I couldn’t remember the last time she went to class.

    We held Pulposito and stroked his soft, downy fur. His thin ears remained pinned against his head. He ignored the eyedropper of milk we forced between his lips. He sat in our hands instead of running up our sleeves. The shivering continued long into the night, as we sat at the table playing cards and drinking beers, taking turns holding him. Later Emily snuggled with him in her bed across from me and we fell asleep.

    At 4:00 AM I woke up and discovered Pulposito in his box, dead, on the kitchen table. We had a narrow balcony off of our kitchen and I sat out there with my knees pressed to my chest, my feet propped on the wrought-iron railing, until the sun came up, until the store downstairs and across the street opened, the same store where we bought Frosted Flakes—“Zucaritas”—and huevos and leche. The owner stood in his doorway waiting for customers. He looked up at me and smiled, the same smile he always gave me when he was unable to understand my accent. “Huevos.” It seemed like such a simple word until there was nothing to point to, no way of showing him what I meant.

    Eventually Emily woke and plodded into the kitchen. I watched her prod the dead rabbit with her finger.

    “He’s dead,” she said.

    “I thought you knew.”

    She stared at Pulposito. Behind me the sun filtered through the television antennas and laundry lines that littered the roofs of buildings across the city.

    “I thought it was just a dream,” Emily said.

    That night Emily resumed her schedule with Paco. Those Americans, the ones with the TV and VCR, they had taken one of Pulposito’s siblings. Emily saw them that night, ran into them in the street. The next afternoon, after I had returned from the Institute and Emily had woken up and come home to shower, she told me: a hot water bottle. That’s how to keep a baby rabbit warm. Those other Americans had called a vet.

    Just before Thanksgiving, Emily returned to the United States. I was supposed to stay through Christmas, but I changed my flight to leave in early December. As soon as Emily left, San Miguel lost its charm. No more free drinks at Mama Mia’s, far fewer salsa partners. I’d run up a massive phone bill calling various friends in the United States, calling anyone I could think of just to chat. It was 1996 and I didn’t have an email account yet. For the first time in my life I was out of shape, friendless, broke, and homesick. I hated to admit I couldn’t make it on my own, so I persevered for a few weeks. I attended an ex-pat Thanksgiving with a mariachi band. I watched a guy I’d met at salsa dancing lessons—disturbingly—gore a bull as an aspiring matador at a bullfight on the outskirts of town. I drank beers and played cards with a girl named Anne-Laure from the same town as Emily. Then, finally, I packed it in and flew home.

    Almost immediately, my brother forced me on a few runs with him. Soon I was running and skiing regularly. Vegetables re-entered my diet. I got a job tutoring a family friend’s kid. Then, miraculously, I fell in love for the first time.

    A few months later, in February, I started college in Vermont. Emily was supposed to start college then, too, at a small school in Arizona, but she deferred for yet another semester, and moved back to Mexico to be with Paco. We exchanged letters for a few months and then we lost touch.

    Somehow I doubt she ever made it to college. I graduated, got a job, got married, had kids.

    I google her name every once in a while, but I have found no trace of Emily in fifteen years. I picture her in Mexico still with an adopted stray dog at her side as she walks the dusty cobblestone streets, always uphill. The dog wears a red bandana at its neck. When Emily reaches home, Paco waits for her, the stems of two cold beer bottles laced in his fingers. And there, too, are a couple of chickens in the yard, scorpions hidden in the toes of shoes, and a cage full of rabbits by the window—in the sun where it is warm, always.

  • The Embalmer’s Assistant

    His photograph stands out to me.

    It’s faded and folded, probably kept in a wallet.

    He isn’t smiling, nor is he staring at the camera.

    He is looking off somewhere, at something that nobody else can see.

    When I look at the body in front of me, the only part of him I recognize is that stare. His eyes wide, looking through the ceiling, looking through me when I examine his face, staring at something above the both of us until I close them permanently and glue them shut before they dry out.

    I don’t usually ask about cases like this, because I don’t want to know.

    But this man. He was…is, I guess, practically my age.

    When I asked for the story, Rick told me he had drowned.

    “Idiot just went sprinting off into the ocean,” he said, shaking his head. “The family says he saw something and went after it. Poor fool never came back. They found him and fished him out the next day.”

    I stared at his skin, loose and colored with yellows and purples. His jaw hung open, gaping, his eyes wide and unrelenting.

    Yet somehow, filled with the light of curiosity and aliveness.

    “I’ll hand him over when I’m done,” Rick muttered. “Shouldn’t be too difficult. Hopefully the veins haven’t gone soft. ”

    “Take your time. I’m going to be here for awhile tonight anyways by the looks of him.” I said. His hands were a map of lines and folds; loose skin and pruning from water. The fingers were an odd shade of blue, and the veins were raised and wide. A few of his nails were missing. The others were transparent.

    “His file is over there.” Rick gestured to a folder resting on the counter. “If you want it.”

    Now that his eyes are shut, I wish I hadn’t closed them.

    I feel like I’ve lost a clue, as if the thing he saw might still be reflected in them somewhere. I’m sure that, even though they are closed, they are searching.

    Plaster the left side of his nose. It is missing.

    Sew the gums to align the jaw. Caulk the teeth with plaster to keep jaw shut.

    Repair right ear with wax. Cartilage is damaged.

    His face begins to take shape, and I begin to see the young man from the photograph.

    Adam Garrison

    D.O.B: March 3rd, 1988

    Drowned- In ocean for about 24 hours

    Funeral Date: July 12th

    Type: Standard Burial and Service

    Family Requests: Please do not make him look like he is wearing makeup.

    After about two hours of basic reconstruction, his face, save for the color, is serene.  His skin, blue and deep lies flat against the planes of his face. I glance at my watch. 11:47p.m.

    I still need to put the color into his skin. People forget that I cannot bring the deceased back to life, I just make them look that way. However, I imagine that if I could raise the dead, it’d be a much quicker process.

    I used to watch my mother apply her makeup when I was young. I would sit on a small stool behind her, silently, as she brushed on rouge and mascara. When she turned away from the mirror, she no longer looked like my mother. A woman with hard eyes, waxy skin, and wet lips had taken her place. She terrified me.

    Eventually I decided to try my hand at makeup. I was young then, curious. I stole into my mother’s bathroom that day and grabbed a handful of brightly colored cosmetics. I mimicked her movements, her brushstrokes, her expressions. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I found my lips to be too red, my eyes too dark, like a living doll. I washed my face until it stung. This exaggeration of life was frightening to me. When my mother found her makeup on my hands and clothes, something changed in her face. She, too, was frightened of something she did not understand. She, too, saw something other than her son standing before her. So much color on such a young face, I thought, must not be allowed.

    But the dead are different.

    My hand shakes a little as I spread an orange foundation over his face. His skin is soft and cold against my fingers. The orange neutralizes the blue into a deep peachy color, alien to anyone of the human race, but a more workable color nonetheless. Then I add whites and skin tones. His skin begins to look more like flesh.

    I draw in his eyebrows, not too dark and careful on the arches so as to make him look restful. I add highlights around his eyes, on his forehead, and along his cheekbones. His face looks fuller now.

    Before I paint his mouth, I pull it outward, into something between a smile and a frown. Then I add color: a soft, nude pink.

    It takes me two hours to make him look like he is alive… rather, that he is not dead. To make him look almost like he is sleeping peacefully on a metal table under harsh lights. Even now, his skin is not skin. It is too yellow. I can feel his eyes staring beneath his eyelids, permanently closed to the outside world. I know he can see through them, and I know I have to keep trying. I will bring him back.

    I do not sleep. I spend the night bent over the dead Adam Garrison, my face inches from his breathless one, working to fill his features where his skin has grown sallow and loose.

    I dress him the next morning. Rick and a few others load him into a coffin and then into a car. I go with them to the viewing. It’ll be my first.

    “You did a fine job on him. Kinda freaked me out actually,” Rick smiles as he climbs into the driver’s seat.


    “I was afraid he’d jump out of the coffin or something. This is one of your better ones.”

    “I just…this case really intrigued me,” I admitted, turning to face Rick directly.

    “Never get too invested,” he warned. “Makes things more difficult when they put’em in the ground.”

    I nod.

    “Nice suit by the way,” Rick chuckles. “You look like a waiter.”

    When we arrive at the house, it is early afternoon and it is hot outside. It’s the kind of heat that hits you like a punch to the stomach, so that you feel like you’re drowning in thick air. Rick and the other men in the back of the car lift the coffin out and carry it to the door. I ring the doorbell. After a few minutes, a wiry man in a black suit appears in the doorway. I recognize him from the photograph.

    “Hello sir,” Rick begins. “Is Mr. or Mrs. Garrison available?”

    The man nods solemnly.

    “I am Mr. Garrison. My wife is currently occupied. She…she’s been having a difficult time. We all have. It’s to be expected I guess, but no parent should ever have to put their child in the ground.”

    He gestures for us to come inside. It is hotter in the house, and pricks of sweat form along the back of my neck. I wonder if it is acceptable to remove my suit jacket, but I leave it on.

    Mr. Garrison leads us through a small crowd of people dressed in black, talking in whispers. They all stop and turn to stare at the coffin as Rick and company struggle to carry it through the house. We enter one large room, with a long wooden table backed up against the wall.

    “We will put him here for the viewing,” Mr. Garrison explains, almost apologetically. “I know it is a humble space, but it is all we have really.” Everyone is silent save for the a few grunts and a loud thud as the coffin is hoisted onto the table. Rick wipes his forehead.

    “Seems a good enough place,” Rick smiles reassuringly. “We will set up with decorations unless you have anything specific that you want to incorporate.”

    Mr. Garrison holds up a finger and nods, and then rushes out of the room.

    Suddenly, a wail erupts from somewhere in the house. It echoes through the muttering of the crowd, then dies softly. Rick raises his eyebrows.

    “Probably Mrs. Garrison,” he informs us. “It’s difficult for mothers.”

    We are silent for a moment. I think about my mother and how she looked in her coffin. Restless, but in an empty sort of way. As if they filled her with so much paint that it erupted over her face in a rash of splotchy reds, blues, and yellows. I think about how angry I was and how I couldn’t look at her. She looked like the monster from my childhood. The other mother that I had tried so hard to forget. I didn’t want to remember her like that, and I knew I could have done better. I could have captured her better. I could have saved her face.

    “Anyone heard of A.C.?” Rick whispers, wiping his forehead with his shirt. The other men nod in agreement. Mr. Garrison returns with a box of slightly wilted red poppies.

    “My wife wanted to incorporate these somehow,” he says, dropping the box at our feet.  We stare at the poppies sadly, as if it is their funeral. “I’ll leave you to it then.” He turns and leaves, merging with the crowd of black suits just outside the door.

    “They’re practically dead,” I say, pointing at the flowers.

    “So am I in this heat,” mutters Rick as he begins arranging the table.

    When we are done, I open the casket. Adam looks like he is sleeping, the only one unaffected by the heat or awkward, limp poppies surrounding the coffin. He looks content. He looks beautiful. Then we are engulfed in a sea of black as the crowd rushes into the room.

    I watch from the back of the room as, one by one, relatives and friends approach the coffin, teary-eyed and quiet for one last look or a few words of goodbye. This continues for about forty minutes until an ear-splitting shriek erupts from the center of the room. People clear the way as a woman, frantic, rushes towards the coffin. Mrs. Garrison.

    “My son!” she cries. “My son!” She lets out another wail and flings herself onto the table, sending dead poppies to the floor. The crowd backs away from the coffin, afraid, in awe, in shock.  Rick moves forward.

    Mrs. Garrison throws herself onto the coffin, her panicked face inches from Adam’s sleeping one.

    “Where are his eyes?” she screams. “Why won’t he look at me?”

    Mr. Garrison rushes forward.

    “Carla, stop!” he hisses. Before he can reach her, her hands are on Adam’s face, attempting to open his eyes.

    “Wake up! My baby!” she cries. “Where is he?”

    A thick tearing sound echoes throughout the room as one or both of Adam’s eyelids are ripped open.

    I gasp and run towards the table, pushing past guests rushing the opposite direction. But the damage is done. Adam’s eyelids hang laxly over his eyes, as if they just happened to be a size too big. His eyes, smaller from drying out, have disappeared deeper into his face. They stare out at Mrs. Garrison, who is still screaming and crying profusely, now struggling against Rick and her husband.

    “This is not my son! This is not my son! Why won’t he look at me?”

    I watch in horror as she attempts to wipe the makeup from his face, exposing the blue, loose skin beneath the paint, shifting his mouth into an odd grimace, cracking the plaster and revealing the gaping hole on the side of his nose. Some of his skin has torn. Still, Adam lays there, indifferent to the suffering, smelling of embalming fluid.

    I stare as Adam is destroyed before my eyes. As my work is torn and beaten. As Adam becomes too real for anyone to believe.

    “Perfection isn’t a thing,” my mother once said, casually, as she smeared on lipstick. “It’s just an idea that we try to live with.”

    Another scream brings me back to Mrs. Garrison. She thrashes against the two men, one of her hands hitting Adam’s jaw and knocking his face to one side. His eyes roll to face me, and I stare back at him. His mouth hangs at an odd angle, the plaster probably cracked on the inside, and his lips form some irregular expression that I cannot place.

    My head swims in the waves of heat. I feel my mind reeling backwards. I put my hand over my mouth and run out of the room, past the guests in the entrance of the house, and out onto the lawn. My stomach heaves and empties itself of everything and nothing. I try to catch my breath, but I feel myself lurch again. I sit at the end of the lawn, shaking and covered in sweat, chilled in the heat. I feel alive. I exist.

    I never went back into the house.

    I haven’t touched paint of any kind since then.