REALLY ABSOLUTELY DEVASTATING by Robert Zander Norman

The Ash of North America are in a dire state.

You’ve got to drill a hole deep in the trunk for inoculation against infection, or infestation, rather. And then the syringe looks just like one that you’d get yourself, for a vaccine. It’s weird, or it looks weird I guess, to give a shot to a tree.

Somebody parked by the side of the road once while I was doing it, giving one, and she got out and she didn’t even ask any questions about what was going on, what I was doing, she just started yelling at me, right on the side of the highway, about how it looked evil and was, you know, at the very least unnatural, whatever it was I was doing. And the forest has been through enough. And I said “Ma’am, ma’am, I work for the state, I’m supposed to be doing this, it’s on purpose and to keep it alive.”

But she wouldn’t hear it, she said, “Better to let it go natural than by plastic and chemicals and humanity.”

And I said, “Well, you know, that depends a lot on your definition of natural. It’s the Emerald Ash Borer is the danger ma’am, it’s a bug. An Asian bug. From far far away. And it’s boring, like a hole, like its name, boring into the trunks for warmth, parasitically, and cutting off the nutrition supply. And it’s organic, you know, natural that way, because it’s a bug, but this isn’t its habitat and it’s a different sort of offense against nature for it to be here at all, sweeping through and committing this sort of very natural genocide. The death toll in America is going to be in the billions.” I said it just exactly like that.

And she looked me in the eye with this hot, fiery, mean look and she said to me, “And you think you can do something about it?”

And I said to her, “Well ma’am, it’s still unclear, but we don’t really think so. Our efforts so far have been ineffective.”

And I was being sincere and honest and sort of raw and emotional, because that’s tough to admit, your impotence is, but I guess it didn’t come off that way, or she was confused or didn’t quite get it, or maybe I just didn’t understand her so I wasn’t saying the right things. But what she did was she spit on me, on my chest, on my uniform, and climbed back in her car and peeled away. I only saw her the one time.

I got her license plate number, but I didn’t send it to anybody because I felt more confused than assaulted. People don’t usually protest a last stand.

The treatment, the inoculation, is an annual one, and it’s expensive. And I’m not certain it will work forever. There are eight billion Ash trees in the U.S. and more in Canada and it’s been predicted, by scientists, specialists, entomologists, that ninety-five percent of them will die in the next decade or so because of the Borer.

It’s a pretty little green shiny grasshopper looking bug.

We didn’t notice it at all or take it very seriously at first, so it spread around in a big way before we knew it was an issue. We means North America, the continent and everybody in it, a lot of us. It was alarming, and scary, to realize how far it had crept in without us realizing. But what’s also true is that it wouldn’t really have mattered if we’d known and tried to catch it right away. It’s really a very efficient killer of trees, and besides the annual inoculation there’s no way at all we know how to stop it.

The way I look at it sometimes at night when I can’t sleep and want something to hold onto is that real, true Hopelessness is rare, and that I should savor it while it’s here, washing over me. More often there are answers and ways out of difficult situations than real, complete hopelessness.

Most of where I work is Ash, and with where we are and what’s predicted, it should mostly be gone within the decade. I understand it, definitely, but I find it difficult to picture, to imagine.

My uncle, my dad’s way older brother by fifteen years, was this very rugged, handsome geologist who had a picture of himself shirtless, bronzed, sitting on a camel in front of the pyramids during a business trip he once had to take to Cairo. And I would look at it a lot, the picture, when I was over there, at his house, and think, wow, perfect. And then, when I was in seventh grade, he got cancer.

But he didn’t die. It was operable. They got it in time, like we never could have with the Ash Borer. It was jaw cancer, though, he chewed tobacco and that’ll happen. So they
took out his entire lower half of his face. He still had skin and lips and everything, but they weren’t connected to a chin. So he would always be drooling and mumbling and stuffing his tongue back into his face with it slipping back out over and over again.

He fell off very suddenly in my brain, I was twelve, from a perfect Egypt adventure man into a cripple, and I could never really look at him the same. He got married, later, to a lady he met after the surgery. She said he was a beautiful man and all you had to do to see that was to look at his soul. But that doesn’t make any sense in a literal way, and I’ve never been able to understand.

I hope I land on a similar sort of senseless and spiritual love when everything around isn’t the same sort of beautiful I’m used to. It’s true that everything here didn’t used to be like this. It’s looked different before, a bunch of times, more than we know even, since the beginning of forever, dinosaurs and ice ages and everything, but I’ve never actually had to watch it change. They’re easy to mention, the phases of the world and the universe, but we’re not used to witnessing devastation in the slow way it washes over.

I think it’s going to be awesome, in the pure, overwhelming, literal way of the word. Awesome. And I don’t know if I’ll be able to take it.

 


Robert Zander Norman is a graduate of NYU’s Dramatic Writing program. He is from San Jose, California and is the founder and publisher of curtainboybooks. His plays have been performed in New York and the Bay Area.

PROJECT CAULDRON (excerpt) by Darryl Whetter

Collage by Marisabel Lavastida @marlava88

Collage by Marisabel Lavastida @marlava88

They weren’t up in the Mac half a day before Ocean finally, truly understood Canada’s national industry (the family industry). Rory was right: thugs in trucks. Paid barbarians. Mad Max: Fury Strip Mine. Fort McMurray wasn’t so much a city as a giant probation office.

“The Nazis had their Brownshirts, the US have their Marines. We’ve got drunk rednecks in trucks,” Rory said. “Meet our exulted bullies.”

Fort Mac itself was bad, an oil city of pollution, drugs, bar fights and the sex trade. The gender ratio was easily three men for every one woman. Even with her boyishly short hair, Ocean was cat-called constantly. You there, with the tits and the pulse. The local cops earned less than any kind of oil-sands pipe-fitter, truck driver or smash-smasher, and they were thin on the ground. Another pair of drunk Sanders pounding themselves senseless at the Spigot, The Pipeline or The Patch? Let that sort itself out. Overworked officers might think Sluggy MacSlug should just go ahead and fight himself out of the gene pool, but of course Ocean could tell at a glance that all these amorous Maritimers had wives and 2.4 kids back home. All the excuse they needed to work at smelting planetary death. My wedding ring? Nah, don’t want to lose it on shift.

The fights barely got policed. The drugs and the hookers just slightly more so. Back when some camps briefly tried drug testing, half of workers tested positive for cocaine and residual THC. “And that,” Rory qualified, “was with a booming trade in clean piss samples.” The few times they went out to bars—with her hit on and him invited to fight every five minutes—they overheard cocaine referred to as “the white fuel for the black.” Weed was “green gas” and “CAT fuel.” No one was going to stay in the city driving a taxi for $10 an hour when they could head out to the strip mines of Encrude, Synthcrude and ReachCor to drive a CAT haul truck for at least seventy. Without taxis, Fort Mac was awash in drunk drivers, a fact these urban cyclists could feel in just seconds.

Collage by Marisabel Lavastida @marlava88

Probation office, frontier trading post for vice, one large bordello and a glorified airport, Fort Mac was bad. The isolated, fence-enclosed, on-site work camps patrolled by private security outside the city were far worse. Military compounds, walled cities, prisons with six-figure bars.

 

Not that they were pure anymore, not with their mission car and their undercover paycheques. Strange to see how differently Rory used the Green money from his own (and, she just started to admit, hers). “The fucking insurance oligarchy,” he had seethed back in Calgary when they were, however reluctantly, car shopping. “As soon as they see that I haven’t been insured, up goes the rate by three-hundred percent. If we do all the car through you, we can max the op funds.” He was proud to not have a diver’s licence. “Car equals identity?! This is how we validate ourselves, with our burning kill machines? No thanks.”

Maximize the operational funds. Neither eco-justice nor crime nor irony eased her discomfort at her vigilante lover sounding more like her dad than her dad usually did. A father who regards eight hours at the office as a half-day can easily leave work at work (especially when Andrea had kept the home and family running). Away from him geographically and emotionally, Ocean started to see that Blake clocked the hours but then had other people, always had other people, actually operationalize his plans. Don Petroleone. Not true for her and Rory, autonomous cell in the Green Army. Well, autonomous until the Fort Mac stage of Project Cauldron II.

So strange to suddenly see Rory the former bike courier stretching every dollar for green vengeance when he didn’t in life. Back in Calgary she’d once teased, “Do you get paid in cash or just bike parts?” By the time he made Calgary’s gouging rent and stocked up on vegan staples (brown rice vinegar: the champagne of vinegar) he wasn’t stuffing any mattresses with surplus cash. What little remained was either turned into a new bike accessory this week or saved for one the next. Anything to perfect the ride, to better chase that flashing silver fix. Rory was profligate but his alias Ryan was parsimonious. Ocean had a unique name, even if she did now regard it as more of her dad’s greenwashing. Undercover, she went by Sarah. Just another ponytail with large hoop earrings.

One standard ecoteur practice was to buy used clothing for a job then, depending on whether your crime left chemical residue, donate them in another city or simply burn them. Even with giant socks worn over them, shoes were always the liability. “The fingerprints of the sole,” Ocean tried to joke. In used boots, any partial prints would have somebody else’s wear pattern, not theirs. Do a search, and eBay could easily look like it was designed to sell used shoes, especially when both Calgary and Fort Mac rent denied them any sort of charity clothing shops selling the pale, thin dress shirts of dead grandfathers. No threshold of entrepreneurial hipsterdom could turn fifteen-dollar used shirts into a store’s thirty-six-hundred-dollar monthly Alberta rent. Rory told her that back in his ancestral Nova Scotia even the tiniest villages had multiple used clothing dealers. “You’ve got your Guy’s Frenchy’s, your non-Guy’s Frenchy’s, your up-start Louie’s, your Jackie-come-latelys. If one Maritimer turned a bale of second-hand clothes into a million bucks, he’s never going to lack imitators.” They began ordering clothes and boots online.

To make herself less noticeable, she’d dyed her hair “mouse brown.” When he first saw the wet brown dry into a dull mare’s coat she saw the shock in his eyes and used her best country drawl to sing that truck-fixin’ anthem, “Jack and Diane.” For them it was “a little ditty / ‘bout Sare and Ry-an.” Criminal love was still love.

Of course her father could have procured them any number of jobs up in the Mac. Ocean and Rory didn’t want jobs; Sarah and Ryan did. Not a challenge, though, to get hired into the planet’s foremost look-the-other-way industry. While friends and acquaintances a few years older were getting criminal record checks before flying to Korea to teach ESL—those Rory dubbed “missionaries of capitalism”—she and Rory made paperless, in-person job queries in the one industry that would grind to a halt the second criminals were excluded. You’re here applying for the job, so you’re obviously not currently incarcerated. Don’t worry, we all chip in to have probation officers drive out to the camps. Time is money.

Back East in the ancestral Roreland, drug tests would have been a problem. When Ocean had wondered why offshore Newfoundland rigs imposed drug testing on all workers while half the Alberta workforce was high, he gave her two quick answers. “We’re talking about Newfoundland: a salary’s still a rare thing, let alone a salary higher than what Gran’da ever earned on the cod. Here, they get high while they earn the truck-and-TV money then again while they use them. On the Rock, ‘three weeks on, three weeks off’ is true for the rigs and the THC. Also, never forget: these are rigs out in the frigid North Atlantic. It’s true—” he glanced at her “—oceans kill.” At the start of their Fort Mac infiltration, they both thought he was joking.

The Wild West. And north. The wild commodity, really. Succours green, white or liquid to make all the black endurable (or even whoop-ass fun). Take a little energy to mine all that energy. One chemical or another, one chemical for another. With Dickensian levels of particulate ash falling around Fort McMurray, they were constantly in a conversation they couldn’t get enough of (and one nobody else wanted).

“Oil is twentieth-century capitalism.”

“The twentieth-century was the century of oil. Modernity is oil.”

After her year at U.Cal she knew the petro timeline better than he did, was even more adept at fingering the carbon rosary. The First World War: Nobel-Prize winning German chemist Fritz Haber invents both mustard gas and the industrial synthesis of ammonia that would see farm fertilizer petro-cooked, not shovelled out of the barn. The pentaerythritol tetranitrate explosives they were about to risk their futures for, and their lives with, was invented (and patented) by the German government during that same war. And the car companies: Henry Ford not inventing the assembly line so much as transposing it from the slaughterhouse. The symbol of twentieth-century modernity wasn’t a book (go, universal literacy) or the condom (go, recreational sex) or women at the polls, but the car, explosions anyone could steer on rubber tires ripped out of Africa.

“The symbol of the twenty-first century,” he said in homage to their half-secret Green training, “is invisible. The Web. The ‘Net. All that hidden, pulsing flow.” Setting Fires with Electrical Timers was still the ecoteurs free and downloadable (yet “copylefted”) arson manual.

“‘From the century of the molecule,’” she quoted from class, “‘to the century of the system.’”

“Exactly,” Rory said.

After, Blake would have pointed out, the century of the rock.

Graphic designers periodically try to render the Internet’s swirling bits and bytes in swaths of synthetic magentas, cool blues and poltergeist greens, possibly letting clumps of binary numbers gather like so much windswept litter. That data flow was even more invisible up in Mordor. No one in a boom town lacks toys. Smartphones and tablets everywhere. Male workers Skyped bi-nightly with their baby mommas back East. Gaming. Movies. Looking for hookers. All that Web traffic remained just a tiny whirr compared to the rumble ‘n smash, the grind, all that slopped money and oil. No sound better than squealing down Suicide 63 on your next break. When fast food restaurants close for lack of anyone willing to settle for fast-food wages, you know you’re in a boomtown. By the time they arrived, the Fort McMurray Burger King was no longer anyone’s king, the playground building for sale but too industrial, too weird, to be carved into apartments.

Posts, message boards, articles, the comments of petro strangers willing to friend these unknown Sarahs and Ryans on Facebook—they’d read everything they could to build their covers.

How do you write a resignation letter in Fort Mac?

Burn rubber when you leave one parking lot before showing up to work at another.

No background checks. No calls to references. Everyone a graduate of Wink-Wink, Nudge-Nudge High. Grade Twelve grad? Sure am. When your foreman gets paid off by your coke dealer and last week you were both blown by the same hooker (a hooker younger than your eldest daughter), you’re definitely not working anywhere near a forensic accountant.

If they could have just attacked Mordor and its thug employees, that would have been an easy sell, ethically. Trouble was, they also had to hurt the innocent up there in the black land of the blind. Their first attack was latent, indirect, not yet the full frontal, and that bothered her more.

“I’m gonna hurt somebody, shouldn’t I have to look into his face? Or hers?”

Spiking trees had definitely been latent violence, but that at least was latent violence against assholes, chainsaw marauders. It wasn’t the indirectness of the attack that made her lose interest in leaving behind those little ceramic hurt parcels. They did what they did because the clock was ticking, because this was the turnaround decade. Unlike some e-pundits but like her father, she never doubted that the human species would survive the planet’s sixth mass extinction (the one it caused). The daughter of an Alberta geologist turned petro-executive, Ocean had grown up hearing about the five preceding mass extinctions like some kids grow up hearing their dad’s expertise in football or Star Wars. The Ordovician-Silurian and Late Devonian die-offs showed the clear-eyed what even natural climate change could do. Oh, the planetary ass-whoopings of nuclear winter, whether from volcanic activity like the Triassic-Jurassic or asteroid strikes like Blake’s KT or the Permian-Triassic (aka the Great Dying). With the latter, she knew all too well, all of today’s life on land and sea evolved from just the 1-4% of the species that survived what was probably a combined asteroid strike and volcanic event. Even evolution, they were all starting to admit, prefers the 1%.

With the racheting Anthropocene, their extinction, the attack was as self-inflicted as lung cancer, not death from above or below. And the smokers sickened everyone around them, dumped their ash trays everywhere, flicked their butts out windows to start a forest fire in the glowing rearview. However quick the accelerating collapse would be, she was certain the super-rich would survive the Anthropocene, with their robot soldiers and isolated air fields, their Elon Musk batteries and Chinese solar arrays. This was not, she disagreed with Rory, the end of the human species. Hundreds of millions would die quickly then a few billion in the lean years of crop failure, salinated water tables and humidity-cooked disease pandemics (for the humans and their animal food). Still, the bunkered rich would survive, would sit out even some raging brown government sending up the first nuke in what their Green cell called “the Bangladeshi Hypothetical.” A million Indians and Pakistanis killed each other with their bare hands—what the eco-bloggers chillingly call ‘artisanal violence’—during Partition in 1947, long before both sides developed nukes. Acceleration accelerates, Ocean and Blake mutually, silently agreed. Less than a century after Partition, hunger and thirst would soon take out hundreds of millions the old-fashioned way. For the billions, weather would be the Reaper’s scythe. Even Blake had to admit that NASA’s chief climate scientist hit it with the title of his latest doomsday book: The Storms of My Grandchildren. More like The Lethal Storms of My Grandchildren. There is one way and one way only to survive the massive tsunami getting cooked up in the Pacific: don’t be anywhere near its coast. That coast, like all coasts, loses a bit more land each year. “Half a century afraid of the mushroom cloud,” Rory liked to say, “and now the tiny mosquito is going to level most of us.” Make the world a hot swamp, pile the human carrion, go Air Force Whine.

Though they didn’t know it, Blake, Rory, Ocean, and Andrea all agreed that, once the mercury rose high enough, Canada would become America’s fifty-first state with little more than a phone call.

“The US will divert, build and drone-guard one set of pipelines for our oil,” Rory opined, “and another for our water without firing a single shot. Invasion by telephone.”

“Canada,” she knew, “America’s climate bitch.”

“China and the US each have a resource-rich neighbour with a low population density. At least the Russians will fight against their thirsty, hungry neighbours.”

“Arsenals, rage, vodka and history,” Ocean agreed.

“Like us, they’ll be releasing all that methane trapped beneath the ice but will be just as affected by it as every other country. Emit locally; destroy globally.”

“Methane,” she acknowledged, “the gas jets of the global oven. Time, Canada, to get our head out of the oven.”

All that she could understand, yet still her purchased (/stolen) social insurance number got to her. Speed Bump 1. The Sands employees may have been assholes and criminal dads, but they were at least real. Even when an ex-con has to provide piss samples and can’t leave the province, he can still use the same state’s social insurance number to fill a bank account care-of Synthcrude. For Sarah and Ryan to have randomly invented social insurance numbers would have had them yanked in about 21 days. The Sands would employ anyone, but, legally at least, they still had to be real people. “Wouldn’t want to threaten those million-dollar-a-day tax breaks,” Rory knew. On the SIN black market, the cheapest option were simple rips. Anyone careless enough to have transmitted their SIN by email could have unknowingly had it scooped by Russian or Chinese hackers then sold back into Canada, with clients ranging from the Hell’s Angels to Vancouver triads to the good ol’ mafia. The best fit for Project Cauldron II cost much more, financially and ethically. Lose a father, husband or brother in May, and Mr. Deceased still owes five months of tax. Using his SIN wouldn’t trip any wires at the Canada Revenue Agency for another eleven. These “ghost numbers” get sold by low-level bank employees and/or legal secretaries with big travel plans to brokers in acrylic sweaters who walk around with at least three cheap cellphones in their pockets. The bad men in bad sweaters sell the numbers on to whatever scheming asshole needs to earn below the federal radar. Jihadis, deadbeat dads, drug launderers, illegals and at least two members of Alberta’s Green Army.

Kiln-hardened ceramic shrapnel shooting into a logger’s arm (or face) had excited her. Taxing the dead, though. Or, more accurately, stiffing the grieving with a higher tax bill—she’d backed herself into a moral corner.

“All activists,” Rory had told her early on, “have to situate themselves on The Grid. Two times two options: violent or non-violent; okay or not-okay. The Elves freeing medical test animals—”

“Non-violent,” she saw, “and I’m perfectly OK with that.”

“The Elves torching that SUV lot?”

“Violent. Pollution is latent violence. That’s why we’re here. Violent, definitely.”

“And are you okay with that?”

“Torching the guzzlers? More okay than not. Big release of pollution, yeah, but waving a placard isn’t going to make anyone stop buying and driving Hummers.”

Rory took this as another moment to catalogue his idols. “Ghandi was non-violent and okay with it. Satyagraha sucking up all those billy-club blows during the salt march. Today, everyone looks at Madiba’s grey hair—”

Despite now being criminally militant, she still secretly hated that he insisted on calling Mandela by his clan name. You’re Calgarian, not Thembu.

“—and listens to his YouTube speeches with his kinda British accent and thinks he was non-violent. Unn-uhh. Before he got pinched, Madiba, surrounded by armed cops, led a protest crowd in singing, ‘There are the enemies, let us take their weapons and attack them.’ Never forget that Madiba moved himself over to non-violent, not-okay. Two negatives—”

“Make a positive. Mandela was pro-violence.”

“Pro-violence to end the violence of the oppressors. History doesn’t change without non-violent, not-okay.”

“If you’re gonna fight,” she’d agreed, then and always, “fight to win.”

They began looking for Fort Mac work under two false identities because, in the violence of planeticide, non-violent was far from okay. To be non-violent against oppressive violence was to be violent. Sayonara satyagraha. Complicity with violence is the coward’s violence. Planet getting murdered, shit’s all violent.

In the Mac, shit was all sexist, too. The only time she’d felt this much like a she was racing out of prom in that dress (racing into Rory). Jobs hung everywhere up north for him, and at thirty to seventy percent higher than any wage she could find. Waitress or bartender, dispatcher or HR flunky, she could either clean up after men, get men (more) drunk or move them from money-making spot to money-making spot. A few women worked on site at the upgraders, loading the world’s largest washing machines, dialling up the heat or the rinse, and a very few even drove haul. Despite what every member of Team Stubble and Baseball Cap declared loudly to anyone who would listen, women were physically just as capable of driving a seven-million-dollar CAT. Engineering, not muscle, allowed 50-100 kilograms of human to move more than half-a-million kilograms of rock-laden truck. A few women drove CAT, but Ocean could see in a second that she’d have to wait years to haul, all while blowing far too many foreskinless foremen to get the job. Viva the Wild West.

Where others have irony, Rory and now, largely, Ocean, had political rage. His regular (cloaked) reading of sites like The 99% and The Commons were his intravenous drips of social rage. The hourly updates of these sites (Powered by the people!) trafficked in enough highly juxtapositional adbusts, photo collages and videos to provide him some scattershot political history. Assign him a history textbook chapter that mentioned Emma Lazarus’s poem chiselled into the base of the Statue of Liberty, he’d never read it. That was the System’s learning, not his. Scroll the same words—words he previously hadn’t known existed—over some video footage of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the guy clicked his way into Lazarus scholarship.

 

Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to break free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

 

So they both guffawed, not just her, at the sight of two Statue of Liberty photos above the bar at The Nozzle, yet another Fort Mac boozeporium. A master shot and a detail of the statue were framed beside a small Stars and Stripes screwed into a stained Canadian wall. Ocean snorted, and the eight closest heads in the bar save Rory’s, each of them in a grubby baseball cap, turned towards her spoiling for a fight. The whiskered glowers dropped a little, shifted from stomp to rape, when they saw that Ocean, not Rory, was the openly derisive one. She lowered her voice to sum up the Sands, that inky Canadian fingerprint.

 

Give me your fired, your bores,

Your boy-toy masses yearning to smash well,

The wretched refuse here for young whores,

Send these, the brainless, alimony-tossed to Hell,

I light a fuse beneath these black doors.

 

When their private silence ceased crackling, Rory said, “Sarah, we gotta use that.”

“We will,” she said, leading them out of the bar. Light in the face of an activist doesn’t come from a smile, but from the anger in their eyes. Ocean’s were glowing. “And most of the time, for you, it’s Sare.” With him, she’d never once been Oash. Undercover, she was definitely Sare.

Later that week, Ocean read more about the Elves torching that SUV lot in Santa Cruz. Jeff Luers, the original three-truck arsonist the Elves claimed was their incentive to sympathy-torch a whole dealership, got sentenced to a rare twenty-tree years, nearly eight years per truck, for an arson with zero casualties on a fully insured car lot. No rapist gets sentenced to twenty-three years.

 

2

 

The problem, in every way, was water. Once they blew open the retaining wall of a ninety-square-kilometre oil-sands tailings pond and flooded the entire area with 250-million litres of fantastically toxic liquid sludge, a cache of drinking water in their apartment was going to look like a whole lot of pre-meditation. When 100,000 Fort Mac residents suddenly had their drinking water flooded with 100,000 Olympic swimming pools worth of toxins, every water table that liquid could reach would be poisoned for decades. Open the spigots on rivers of arsenic, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and napthenics, float the tonnes of cyclopentyl and cyclohexyl carboxylic acids—they’d shut Mordor down forever. Release a fraction of the life-destroying liquid by-products of Sands oil, Alberta bitumen would once again have to remain a solid, would never again go into another cauldron to become a liquid. Poison the scorched earth to stop the scorching once and for all. Sundon’s Tar Island dike has been leaking steadily for forty years. Sarah and Ryan were just going to press fast-forward on that toxic leaching. Her dad knew, but never disclosed, that every tailings pond dike they’d ever built leaked. To Blake, that was simply a cost of doing business. The Sands couldn’t have been so bad when they kept the same provincial political party in office for forty-plus years and changed who got to become Prime Minister. Parlez à mon cul, cher Québec.

They’d needed no shortlist to come up with the title Project Cauldron II. If Blake had been an Alberta geologist a few decades earlier in the 1950s, he might even have been part of the home team for America’s Project Cauldron, the patented late Fifties proposal of American oil companies to detonate the nuclear bombs of its government in triply-north Alberta. North of America, north even in Canada and racially north. Back then, only governments could afford and source nuclear weapons, and only oil companies thought to use them to turn black rock into liquid fuel. America’s northern-glancing (not northern-living) American oil consortium knew that their combined Alberta lease lands were bigger than a quarter of the countries on the planet. From boardroom to patent office to White House then—Just give your President a minute on the phone—a few calls to Ottawa. Free nukes and foreign investment, eh, Mr. President? Our natives? No, no problem there. Pleasure doing business with you.

Project Cauldron II: blow one wall of a tailings pond to let out the small lake of toxins and shut down the entire area/industry. A mass evacuation would, finally, swing the political sympathy their way while also hitting black shareholders with massive clean-up costs. Poison the drinking well, not even Maritimers would work there anymore (if the industry ever got running again). Suddenly every worker, not just a handful, would be like the new African temporary workers: thirsty, unemployed and forced to leave for work yet again. Bye-bye boomtown. Oh, Canada: time for a new national industry.

In the early 90s, when the Corvus Consortium decided that the highest corporate profits in Canadian history weren’t quite high enough, they’d met for a round of golf at Canada’s most expensive course, the Fairmont Springs in Banff. The nuclear-liquefying Project Cauldron hadn’t worked, but Corvus could, financially at least, always liquefy bitumen. The Corvus goal was simple: triple Alberta oil sands production within a decade. How to convince three levels of government to do this for them? Hand them short-term bribes and remind them how well they’re playing into the IMF’s key development index: will this massive investment of state and foreign capital allow uneducated men to buy more trucks more regularly? Time to talk brass tacks here, Corvus: how many Sea Doos and ATVs is this economic development going to buy on credit? Okay then, where do we fill up your haul trucks with public money? The Fairmont’s most difficult hole is the fourth, and its name is never forgotten by the grinning petro executives who keep the course going: the Devil’s Cauldron.

Variety being the spice of erotic life, high-end sextrade workers and dancers tour incessantly. None involved—not worker, promoter or customer—can resist saying Fresh meat about this perpetual rotation. Trouble was, many of the escorts at Fort Mac’s High Octane Playmates refused to work any other Canadian city. Toronto’s corporate lawyers and banking oligarchs just won’t shell out the $800/hr. that their Manhattan counterparts will. In New York, the clientele are hedge-fund managers and angel investors. In the Mac, they’re anyone who can lift a two-foot wrench or drive a dump truck the size of a house. “No hooker,” Ocean predicted, “is going to stick around post-Cauldron when bathing means emptying an entire case of now-expensive bottled water into a cold tub. Not a one.” Pulling down the Mac’s notorious sex trade would be a nice perk to their smash. Provided Sarah and Ryan could get from the blown dam back into the Mac, they’d be just another pair of rats fleeing the sinking ship. Like all mammals, even rats need water to live.

Before the attack, simple possession of the PETN explosives meant immediate arrest and several federal charges. Most weapons, any child porn, drugs unattached to multinational profit—their use is so unwelcome that mere possession is a serious crime. After the attack, drinking water would be nearly as indicting. Post-explosion, when everyone was thirsty, violated and suspicious, all would become witnesses, cooperative informants, some even vigilantes. Ocean and Rory worked every day on a plan that could have left Sarah and Ryan as hunted as the Boston Marathon bombers. Even anti-TV Rory had seen footage of the Boston manhunt. On TVs at Derailleur or his dispatcher’s computer he’d caught glimpses of that most novel of broadcasted emotions: civil cooperation. Worse, police adoration had been displayed on cardboard signs in houses and car windows or held proudly aloft in crowds. Catch them! and Keep us safe read half the Boston signs then, almost instantly following the brightly illuminated arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Thank you! and even Loooovvveee You! All that, and none of those Bostonians had been thirsty or filthy or hungry for lack of water.

For this eco Bonny and Clyde, Spike Lee’s heist film Inside Man was their aquatic playbook. The movie’s bank thieves used a false wall in the vault to hide one of their crew, while these actual eco-warriors built a false wall in their bedroom closet to hide something that should be more valuable than money: jug after jug of potable water.

Shopping for groceries once Rory had noticed that rectangular ten-litre jugs of water were nearly twelve inches wide. The oblong jugs would fit neatly between wall studs. Wordlessly he added a jug to their Fort Mac cart. Ocean/Sarah didn’t so much as nod at the sight of this previously verboten drain on public water thumping into their cart. At the checkout, each was keen to heft it onto the rolling black belt. Spies like us.

Only in the car did Ocean finally speak. “Bottled water. We’re truly evil now.”

In a boomtown, even lumber is four or five times the usual price. Especially lumber. Everyone there thought to build was to grow, to improve. More must surely, always, equal better. No one cared that most of the lumber for sale in Fort Mac hadn’t been imported up Suicide 63 and needn’t be as over-priced as it was. In order to dig up the slab-like bitumen entombed in air-filtering peat, lung-scrubbing forests had first to be felled, harvested and, unlike anywhere else, have their stumps torn out. With deforestation rates now exceeding Brazil, the Canadian tar sands sold race-horse land knowing full well the prized specimens were only going to be used for their bones down at the glue factory. That some of the levelled forest was milled on site into usable lumber, well, we at ReachCor will sell our lumber at local rates, not national ones, provided you will too at Syn, Sun and En. A two-by-six in a boomtown sits on expensive real estate and is rung up by someone who could quit today and walk into any number of menial jobs out in the fields for a salary much higher than most of the country’s professors. Out in the fields, stumps, saplings and branches not sold as lumber—what the industry calls overburden—were doused in gasoline and burned in situ. “The funeral pyres of the species,” Rory called them.

Sati, Ocean thought but didn’t bother saying. The religiously dutiful wife throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.

Their aged and faded Corolla was already conspicuous in the boy-toy realm of eight- and ten-cylinder trucks that were never more than three years old. Those young, unlikely renovators looked even more unusual when they drove home with a load of two-by-sixes lashed onto a blanket on top of their car. Conspicuous, but not unwelcome. That flagrant sign of intended renovation was a familiar rite of passage in a city where many porches had been converted into bedrooms. That’s it, Buddy: build out the back of your house. Half of us have done it. The city had palpable, visible ash. Everyone hacked and coughed. Still, some saw the young couple hauling home lumber and thought, nursery time. At an intersection, a guy driving between job-site, bar and massage parlour leaned out the window of his truckosaur to say, “Won’t be in that l’il Toy-Toy for long.” His whiskered smile was nearly as wide as the bill of his baseball cap. Just as the light turned green, Rory shot Dude-ee-oh a thumbs up entirely designed, Ocean knew, to crack her up. Undercover, the emotions were hidden, not eradicated.

From summer visits and countless family stories, Rory knew that to drive anywhere in Cape Breton with anything conspicuously new—car, wading pool strapped to roof, four-by-eight utility trailer—was to move curtains, eyebrows and tongues. In the Mac, everyone else was usually too tired, too flush or too hacked with pollution or substance abuse to care what you bought, this week or the next. No one looked beyond the pluses and minuses of his own competing bank statements, savings versus credit, in versus out. At the heart of the energy economy in a city with the motto We have the energy, most of those workers would tell Rory/Ryan and Ocean/Sarah that they just do what everyone else does: work to own without being owned. That new young couple over on Diefenbaker got their one sheet of drywall and a disproportionate number of 2X6s into the apartment without, they thought, so much as a turned head.

Building the false wall of their water case emphasized the false wall of their fake identities. Where normal, civilian walls sometimes have a little horizontal blocking between the vertical studs, the new wall they built out from the back of their closet had far more blocking than studs. Really it was a very strong bookcase with a drywall cover. Or, more accurately, a watercase. Every thirteen inches up they knocked in a shelf for another rectangular ten-litre jug of water. Six up. Five across. Three hundred litres of life juice. “Time, Canada,” he said, stroking and patting the plangent, translucent jugs, “to remember that this is our proper fuel.”

Back in Calgary they’d started practicing what Rory called “water discipline.”

Water discipline?”.

“You know: hot islands in World War Two. Rommel and the desert tanks.”

To reduce themselves down to just drinking and—heaven forbid—days without exercise, they could, given their growing stockpile of non-suspicious baby wipes, survive on four litres of water a day. Naphthenic water could still flush a toilet, so their hidden three-hundred litres had to hydrate them, wash and cook their food and rinse whatever they couldn’t clean with a handi-wipe. If they had to, he calculated, they could survive a month trapped in the Mac behind their own moat of poison. “Glimpse of the future,” he said, as they slid their final jug into the case. “When water is wealth.”

After they’d tipped over their cauldron, their country’s cauldron, they could retrieve water in at least two ways. Sarah and Ryan could pass the days tapping a line into one hidden jug after another then filling bottle, pot or bathing bucket with an inserted stopcock and a length of Home Depot plastic tubing. Hopefully, though, none of that Plan B would be necessary. Project Cauldron would contaminate Fort Mac’s already over-burdened municipal water system (along with everything else). Their attack was also their escape route (was everyone’s). They too would nose a hastily packed car into the honking chrome line of a forced evacuation down Suicide 63, the only highway available. If they first had to hole up in the apartment to survive their own siege, they could dump any leftover water down the drain before they were finally allowed to leave. In the extreme-case Plan C—Ocean and Rory running as quickly as possible—they could always just tear down the drywall with the pry bar they kept under the bed to haul out as many jugs as time and trunk space would allow.

In their suddenly shallower closet they avoided papering, mudding, sanding and painting the corner joints and screw holes of the new (temporary) rear wall by aping the very consumerism they loathed. They hung “decorative” turquoise acrylic rope from a fabric store in the far corners and attached a ridiculous number of women’s scarves with clothespins. They ordered the scarves wholesale off eBay for peanuts. “Thank you, five-year-old Bangladeshi garment girls,” she tried to joke. Actual, visual shelves were quick-mounted over what would be their line of siphon holes. The shelves were steadily lined with shoes quickly acquired from yard sales and eBay. She’d never felt more undercover than when buying floral-print heels. “After we get the planet killers, we go for the tasteless.” Shoes and—perfect camouflage—baseball caps they would never wear quickly filled the whole back wall of Sarah and Ryan’s closet. Nothing to see here, Officers. We, too, shop ‘til we drop.

“Look for a couple pairs of runners for the job. We can burn them after.”

“Can’t we burn them all?” She made gaging noises while holding up some sort of heeled sandal erupting in plastic flowers. “These look like a funeral arrangement puked on my feet.”

Stealth, labour and fake acquisitions distracted them for a while, but even mounting the shoe shelves made them thirsty. Thirsty and something else. Thirsty and. Every gleefully laughing child they heard, every dog wagging a tail like crazy in park, car or backyard. Time to hurt them all. Inoculation, a homeopathy of hate. A temporary pinprick, given the global suicide pact.

Climate refugees is a contingency term of the Pentagon’s, not Rory’s conspiracy theorists. If their strike on a tailings pond dam worked—maybe Blake’s ReachCor, maybe not—more than 100,000 people in and around Fort Mac were about to become water refugees. Worst hit, they knew, would be the isolated, northern First Nations they claimed to be serving. One way to keep that guilt at bay was to let the fear flood in. Get caught with a trunk or a closet full of water, they’d become the first suspects for the tailings pond blow.

“Remember,” Rory counselled yet again, “the cops and the prosecutors will start lying as soon as they separate us in custody. The pigs are allowed to tell you I’ve ratted you out even if I haven’t. Which I never, ever would. Rory won’t talk,” he added, all too accurately. “Say it with me one more time.”

“I said it with you last time and the time before that. Rore, I get it. ‘Nobody talks; everybody walks.’”

“That’s what the Elves all said. Look at them now. State jumpsuits for all.”

She reached under his mop of dreads to cup the back of his neck. “We’re not them. Remember?”

Would the Elves, she still hadn’t asked, hurt the very First Peoples they claimed they were protecting/avenging? Drinking water was already challenge enough for far too many Canadian First Nations. Latent genocide was part of their anti-sands cri de coeur. “There’s no such thing as by-product genocide,” she argued back when all they’d done was talk and seethe.

Central to the geographic conditions that made the Sands was the northern flow of the Athabasca River. However northerly in Alberta the Mac was, the Athabasca carried its sludge much more north. North meant native, and the Sands existed in part because they poisoned disparate northern aboriginals, not urban whites. From coast to coast to coast, Canada’s First Nations were already sick from ghetto-reserve drinking water with mediaeval sanitation, yet none of them swallowed cancer by the mouthful like the Chipewyan, Dene and Cree north of Fort Mac. To try to stop that, Ocean and Rory were becoming like the very cancer they beheld. Attack at the source. Poison the intake. Posters and protests wouldn’t make Canadians stop poisoning the Cree. Only poison would. Fight hard to end the fight.

Living the hate wasn’t the problem. Their entire purpose in being in the Mac was to do damage. He repeated the mantras of Setting Fires with Electrical Timers: Guarantee destruction of the target through careful planning and execution. She sang Massive Attack: She’s doing so much harm / doing so much damage. Until the Mac, poisoning the well had only been a rhetorical phrase. Call someone defensive, Blake had taught her, and they sound defensive refuting you. Produce two-hundred litres of poison a day, and the Canadian government will give you a million dollars in tax breaks. Same thing tomorrow, ad nauseam. Albertans, Canadians and their American customers/bosses wouldn’t do anything about the shockingly toxic tailings that were the by-product of the national by-product. Ghandi couldn’t beat the Sands. Shining a light was not enough. Mandela was their man, not Ghandi. They (too) would overcome.

What changes history? Technology. Chance (just ask the ash-shrouded dinosaurs below Blake’s KT line down at Drumheller). And the will of the people. Trouble was, democracy is not an arrow, let alone an arrow of goodness. Raise public consciousness and, this was the tricky part, direct it. “Amazing Grace” (written by an opium addict). Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No one they’d half-met in the Green Army had sifted the Harriet Beecher Stowe scholarship to definitively determine whether or not President Lincoln had really greeted her with the words, “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that made this big war?” A chauffeur’s wrong turn in Sarajevo didn’t cause the First World War, but, they knew, it allowed someone to light the pre-built, heavily doused fire.

Project Cauldron II, the vaccination. Hurt a little, heal a lot. Every fake smile in a checkout line was hard to endure. Make no jokes, make no friends. Trade no beer or bar recommendations. They were up north to hurt. Yes, hurting Fort McMurray would hurt Fort Chipewyan even more. If you want to scrub a cauldron clean, first you have to tip it over, empty it all out.

Collage by Marisabel Lavastida @marlava88

MOSCA by Itzel Alexis Basualdo

On a Wednesday before we head to Grandpa Eugenio’s house, while waiting with arms crossed and wet lips for the red bell above Señorita Arcilla’s desk to announce that it is lunch time, Ximena Robaina, the one with the Cheeto curls who bites her nails as if she was hungry, this even though she looks fuller than most people in our town, tells me that Mama is a pupusa loca, and I think maybe she is the loca when she says it, opening her eyes and mouth so wide I could see straight through the dark sliver of her two front yellow teeth. I stare at her and then ask her what does that mean, and Ximena laughs. “Ay, mosquita.” She calls me little fly and turns around, just as the red bell dings and it is time for lunch.

later in the hallways and at the lunch table, everyone in El Centro Escolar Salvador Diaz reminds me that my Mama is a pupusa loca – dancing with her frijoles and shimmying her queso with a big grin. I ask the kids around me about the meaning of pupusa loca but no one responds. There are herds of whispers and murmurs in the long hallways with talk of “verguenza” and “the poor Velasquez Castro brothers.” I ask why, and what does that mean, and I ask why they cannot tell me, then they suggest I ask Director Somabarriga instead, whose name is really Somarriba, but because his stomach extends so far beyond his body he decided to incorporate his barriga into his name. When I was younger and the hairs above my lips had not yet started to prickle through like a cactus, they used to say at school that the disappeared children were actually hiding somewhere in Director Somabarriga’s belly because he ate them after school. But these children were too big, and el Director’s barriga seemed more like it housed 10 kilos of rice. I don’t believe this anymore because Kike said it was the stupidest thing he’s ever heard, and stupid is a bad word.

The Director has a nasally voice and a shiny gold watch that is just as conspicuous as his belly, but he drives an even shinier car and arrives to school, with his dark windows down, playing the loud, bouncy cumbia music Mama loves. I look for Kike in the halls to ask him about pupusa loca, and even decide to peer in the gaps between the metal bathroom stall doors to see if he is there, and this is not something I do often as I have been told it is bad. It is only when the school day is over and all the kids swarm to the dirt patio that I see my brother Kike sitting in the far corner with his head low.

Kike does not look at me even when I tap him on the shoulder.

“Kike, can I ask you a question?”

My brother does not respond.

“Kike, I have to ask you a question. Kike, they told me Mama is a pupusa loca. Is that good or bad?”

He does not like it when I ask so many questions, but I ask him again.

“Kike, can I ask you a question?”

Collage by Marisabel Lavastida @marlava88

Mama’s black wheels make a loud screech every time she hits the breaks, and they screech even harder when I ask her if she is as they say in school, a “pupusa loca.” Screeches and honks from the lines of cars around us scream like the school choir when I say this, and Mama’s black eyes dart to me through the rearview mirror. She asks me why I would say such a thing, and I tell her that’s what all the kids at school call while my hands are push my against my ears and the scandal of traffic. Grandpa Eugenio says I cover my ears to keep the lice from crawling in and nesting inside, but Mama tells him her children are no piojosos. Not her children because she keeps our hair neat and trimmed to keep our heads lice-free. I say, “Right, Kike?” but Kike doesn’t reply beyond rolling his eyes,” and still no one has answered my question. Now he is looking over at Mama’s red hair, today spiking out like the hairs of a battered broom, and I sense he too is awaiting a response, but instead today Mama agrees with Grandpa Eugenio says I am acting like a piojoso and that I should get my hands out of my ears. “¡Y callate! Que calladito te ves mas bonito.” Kike looks out the window to the other cars that drive by the avenida, and the very poor children we always run into when we walk to the kiosk around the corner, the ones whose eyes are coated in eye boogers and offer to wipe your windshields at the stop light, are standing at the meridian sprinkled with torn wrappers that sparkle in the sun, and papers, and cans. The children hold boxes of gum and candy in their hands, and in that moment I think I would’ve rather been eating candy too. 

 

This amount of clanking and screaming is unusual in our drives on most Wednesday’s after school when we go to my Grandpa Eugenio’s house in my mother’s car and she switches between radio button ‘1’ and radio button ‘2’ every few minutes even though I can hear no difference, and she pulls up into his crooked, gray driveway, gives a honk, another honk, and my hands know to fly to my ears for protection, and Mama then always looks at me through the mirror because we sit in the back and tells me the damn hospital tubes and hospital machines cursed me after birth, and if only my father wasn’t such a lazy puto we wouldn’t have to be driving here every week. “Puchica! He should be out there en los Estados Unidos sending us money so we can be living in Santa Elena with a muchacha,” and she flings her arm to point beyond the mountains. Then she always sighs and says something about a man named Jesus Cristo, but I still don’t know who he is, and then we get out of the car and Grandpa Eugenio’s three little brown dogs, who I am not sure if are dirty or were born a mud color, greet us with barks and warm licks. They are not just Grandpa Eugenio’s because they roam the streets, and so they also belong to the rest of the town. I hurry inside where the dogs cannot be and I am safe. Even though Grandpa Eugenio is Papi’s father, Mama always tells us in a low voice before we arrive that this will soon be our house, but never should we dare mention anything to our Grandpa or she’ll staple our lips shut.

 

In Grandpa Eugenio’s house, there is always sheet of white dust covering everything from his house phone to the coffee table to the frames on the wall. It is a big house, bigger than our house, made up three different floors, that I think once belonged to three different houses. On the first floor, there are two televisions but only the small, white one with the antenna longer than my body works. It can only play telenovelas because that’s the only channel Grandpa Eugenio has. There is another television in Grandpa Eugenio’s bedroom, but you must first go up a set of creaking wooden steps, where you’ll find a pink bathroom, strawberry milk pink, and a bedroom where I once found a calendar of naked women with blonde hair underneath the bed. They were naked or wore metallic blue stars over their chests, and weren’t smiling for the picture but stared with mouths wide open instead. I told Kike about my discovery, who was downstairs eating a pupusa, and he ran up the steps in an instant with his backpack over his shoulder, ripped the calendar out of my hands, and stuffed the calendar of naked women in there. He cracked up saying something about how Grandpa Eugenio was dirty, which was a little true considering the dust in his house. To the third floor you walk up a metal staircase that is not rusty, and then you arrive at Grandpa Eugenio’s bedroom where there is another deep black TV, a bed, a mirror with perfumes and some watches, and a holy cross. I can only imagine that snow is this soft, as soft as the dust that sheets his home, and suddenly the possibility of living in Grandpa Eugenio’s house excites me! Even though I am upset, I flutter my arms and whirl a little while sitting on Grandpa Eugenio’s green couch, and when I do this my brother Kike sighs, “Mosca, quieto,” but I do not think I am a fly.  He says that although collecting beetles is my favorite past time, I am truly most like the insect I don’t collect. The fly. He says this is because I am always buzzing around asking questions and being a general disturbance. The kids at school do a humming noise and buzz around me in recess, and giggle. Kike is younger but almost as tall as me. Kike is very good at humming and can hum to all the songs on the radio perfectly. And now, even though Kike tells me to be still, I don’t want to sit anymore, and I am excited, and so excited I get up from the couch on Grandpa Eugenio’s to go over to Grandpa Eugenio’s desk in the corner of his living room, also coated in the snowy dust, where there is a cemetery of clocks and screws and tools. Some of them are still alive inside with miniscule moving hands, and I reach for them to feel their ticks inside my palms. Mama does not pick things from Grandpa Eugenio’s pantry today, like the plain white rice and beans and the pinkish ham from the fridge, but instead collects the envelope and counts the cash inside, and before I know it Mama’s long red nails are upon me and sinking into my ear. She says that she’s going to have to tie my hands if I don’t learn to keep them to myself. “I’ll use tie wraps next time,” she says. I am ashamed for messing with my Grandpa’s work and his collection of clocks and watches, and so I shout that I am sorry. She’ll tie my manos largas next time, Mama says, that way I’ll never touch anything that’s not mine again.

 

 

It doesn’t bother Papi that Mama always goes to Grandpa Eugenio’s house and takes most of his food, or money for food – old people don’t eat that much anyway according to Mama. Most things don’t bother Papi, like the crack on our bathroom mirror or the leak in our roof that drips a cold, dark water onto the kitchen floor. The only things that bother Papi are the little holes in my socks, and that Kike and I don’t like playing soccer with the other boys from our block. “I’ve got two mariposones,” Papi grunts, but I think it is a good thing we are like butterflies for many reasons, one being their colors. I know Papi must like colors because what he loves most about Mama are her long red nails. I say they’re a lady bug red without the tiny black dots. Mama informs him her nails would be even nicer, maybe even have some diamond stones, if only he didn’t spend so much time at the gym. She says that Papi’s getting too old to attend these competitions where he looks like a glazed donut on a stage to flex his muscles for the crowd while nearly naked. The other day Papi told me me I’ll soon be old enough to start lifting some weights, and I too can be like him on stage holding big gold trophies. He showed me a blurry picture on his silver phone, which I am not allowed to touch, where Papi was smiling bright and I wondered if the glaze he wears is sweeter than the one of glazed donuts.

Papi is a math teacher at a school nearby, but it is not like our school that has a church with spider webs at the altar, and small nuns scurrying in black and a plastic playground and a bell that rings goodbye in the afternoon. It is a school for older kids where parents don’t pay, Mama told me once. Papi only comes back home in the evenings smelling of week-old, dirty socks and reminds me I should be doing homework instead of looking for bugs outside. Mama then screams at Papi says we’re both equally useless, and leaves us to go be with her friends around the block. She comes back even later than Papi and usually never says goodnight, and I hear her burping, sometimes singing her favorite cumbia and drumming on the walls as she walks to her bedroom, but that never changes my favorite thing about Mama. In the mornings before school, she stands behind me and we both face the cracked mirror. I look at the streaks and the fingerprints on the mirror as she tells me to stop fluttering my arms, and she runs her fingers through my hair with a clear and ice cold jelly that later turns my hair hard and flattens all my rebellious little hairs that can’t seem to find their place. This makes me forget the itchiness of my navy uniform pants and anything that came before. This is how much I love it. Once in a while, when Mama is rolling her hair around a hot wand that gives her perfect red slinkies and Kike is brushing his own hair, I’ll squirt some of the cool jelly on my palm, and lick it off slowly, like if it were spicy salsa Valentina, but I’ve learned it is not as good. Any day now I will stop doing this. Some of these mornings, after she’s run an old black comb with broken teeth through my hair, she tells me I’m so handsome and I smile. “Acuerdate que calladito tambien eres mas bonito,” she reminds me some mornings and then gives me a kiss.

 

***

 

It is unusual for me not to receive a response to my questions, even though I have been told that I ask a lot of questions, even the ones that are nonsense and of the kind that shouldn’t be asked. Mama says it’s because of the damn hospital tubes that they tied me up to at birth and the roaring of those hospital machines, but I cannot remember them so maybe she is wrong. Pupusa loca does not appear in the dictionary, only pupusa and it is defined as what I know it to be. It is food, a very delicious kind of food. A soft tortilla, a warm one, with cheese that strings apart inside with maybe some beans or chicken. My favorite pupusas are sold by the lady around the corner from Grandpa Eugenio’s house, who likes to stand by her cart and talk for hours in the hot sun of midday and she will lean in and offer him pupusas to take home because he is an old hunched man with three, wiry gray hairs on his head. Grandpa Eugenio says this woman is his girlfriend but Mama told us last week, as we watched him buy pupusas from car, that that is a cause for sympathy and to never believe Grandpa Eugenio. I want to know the meaning of pupusa loca. Being a loco or a loca is not a good thing, and I’ve heard around town that I am one of those on the loquito side, one of those with wandering hands and a dangerous imagination, but in these conversations Mama always adds that I am the harmless kind. “He wouldn’t even hurt a fly!”

 

I collect insects instead of doing homework when we arrive home from Grandpa Eugenio’s. We stop there first because it is on the way and I collect insects whenever I can, especially when no one is home and Mama cannot scream if she sees what I hold in my hands. They sleep and live and eat in a glass jar besides our bed, where a fish once lived but died. The insects speak to me with the twiddling of their antennae or the way in which they shake their legs. I hold the blue beetle that I saved last year during recess up to my nightlight, the one on whose shell I wrote “B” for blue with a white pen, and ask it about the meaning of pupusa loca. I do not see or hear a response. It is still. I place the blue beetle back in the jar, and speak to all the other beetles collected in my jar in a loud voice. There is a brown beetle no larger than a frijol, the green beetle that is bigger than all the beetles combined, three lady bugs, the blue beetle, and a short centipede. They lay in the sandy dirt and the grass that has now gone dry, and I go on repeating my question in a loud voice but they do not answer. Kike screams callate from the bathroom and I ask Kike why he cannot tell me! I plead to know the answer and I begin to bang on the wall, and Kike does not reply but I can hear the sound of water roaring from our bathroom and I know now that Kike cannot hear me, but I still bang on the wall and I ask. The water shuts off and Kike then storms out of the bathroom, walks over to our room and shoves me into bed and tells me to shut up or he will hurt me. He digs his finger nails into my arms, and then runs off back to the bathroom.

“Kike, tell me. Please.”

Kike is out of room and locks the door from the outside. The water goes on again.

I scream for Kike.

I scream. Again and again. I walk over to the door and cannot get out, and I call Kike but Kike does not reply. I scream in my room. Kike. Tell me.

Tell me, Kike. Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.

I ask until I fall asleep.

 

***

 

I begin Thursday and I think about pupusas locas, and realize there are only two more people to ask. I ask Señorita Arcilla at the beginning of our class about the phrase, and she quickly exclaims that I am a grosero and that I should be ashamed! She sends me to wash my mouth at that very instant, and I speed into the bathroom but do not use as much soap as the Señorita asks because she isn’t looking. I drink some of the sink water instead and walk back feeling refreshed and ready to continue with the day. Señorita Arcilla then asks for several volunteers to pass out materials for our next activity, hands shoot up into the air and my arm goes up too. I don’t get picked because my hands are not quick. I once told Papi that I never get picked, and Papi said the solution was basketball. Maybe if I did a little sport, like basketball, my hands could be the first ones to get picked.

We receive feathers of every color and stickers of frogs, cars, flowers, and rainbows to decorate our journals, and I decide to put wings on my journal in the event it needs to fly. I tell Pablo Salomon, the boy who sits next to me about my idea, and he tells me maybe if I put them on my head I would fly too. I am not sure if I should believe Pablo Salomon, but I do anyway and I stick a feather above each ear into my hair. They stick because Mama uses a gel called Moco de Gorila in my hair, and she tells me there’s nothing tougher than a gorilla’s snot.

The day goes by, I behave well without asking too many questions, and today Señorita Arcilla does not sit me in the corner and Ximena Robaina no longer reminds me that my Mama is a pupusa loca. In the hallways, I do not hear the whispers of my name or Velasquez Castro, and I no longer imagine Mama as a pupusa wrapped in aluminum foil like when we buy them from the Grandpa Eugenio’s fake girlfriend down the street from our house, but as my Mama. I was sure that only Director Somabarriga could give me the best response, being the director of our school. I had heard that he offered chocolates to his best students, and I was always a little hungry while I waited for Mama to pick us up after school. Señorita Arcilla announced to the class that I am very good at asking questions, even the bad questions, when she sent me to wash my mouth, and I think that maybe I might be among the best of the sixth grade class. This leads me to decide that today, Thursday, I will knock on Director Somabarriga’s office and receive a response to my question.

Our school is white on the outside, but it’s brick core is beginning to show through and the white that is left is streaked like tears on a face. Our school does not have a pretty face, and we, the children who wait for our parents, stand and run in front of it waiting for a honk or Mama’s red nails to appear through her window with the voice of the man from radio station button ‘2’. We are not usually among the last to be picked up from school, and the longer I wait the greater the urge in my arms and legs to roam the space. We are not allowed back inside the building once the bell has rung, but the rusty handles to the main corridor remain unlocked and occasionally some students will run in to do things in the bathroom, a boy and a girl, and I’ll walk by very silently and listen to loud breaths, screaming, and panting. The boy and the girl will then walk out smiling, sometimes with hands together, and so I never think much of it.

Director Somabarriga’s green car, the green of limes, is still parked in the dirt lot by the school even when there isn’t a soul around, and it is beginning to get dark. It is said because he’s up to no good there in his office at the end of the hall. Even though everyone hates Director Somabarriga, mainly for being ugly and the paleness of his fat white fingers, I do not hate el Director because I do not hate anyone, not even the roaches that sometimes run across my feet in the morning, or the saliva that lashes out onto my arms from the tongues of Grandpa Eugenio’s brown dogs. I decide to enter the school a little after our 2:15 PM dismissal, but not long before Mama’s typical arrival at around close to five o’clock. I wait for the clock to hit 3:30 PM, for the slicing of the arms along the 30 minute black mark to pull the rusty handle and run inside the school. As I walk down the hall, there is only the warm creaking and breathing of the walls, and the spin of the metal fans above my head, and I sing the morning anthem of our country nice and loud for the walls and for no one to hear. I raise my voice and run through the hall alone, and I flutter my arms, and the feathers still in my hair make me feel free! El Centro Escolar Salvador Diaz is transformed and the centipedes dance around my feet, and the moths spiral in the air as I turn into the corridor towards el Director’s office and sing the morning anthem in the heat of the afternoon alone. But faintly at the end of this corridor, behind the rusty red door, I can hear two voices both of which I recognize! I walk to el Director’s door quietly without singing now and stand alongside the door. I stand waiting for him to finish speaking to his visitor to prove myself a good student. But the other voice replies, and I push the door with my arms to discover a hand of fiery red nails wrapped around the Director’s hairless pink head. They are Mama’s red nails. Mama is naked, as naked as she was when we would shower together and I was a small child, and she is panting. Panting louder than the kids from the bathroom do after school. She is the pupusa loca. I watch the Director places his thin lips on Mama’s pale neck, something she never allows Papi to do anymore as she washes the dishes. Mama turns around and her black eyes meet mine. She quickly fumbles to grab a t-shirt and hurls around the desk to run after me, but I am off into the hallway. Mama is screaming my name, and I turn to see the shirtless Director scrambling behind her, but I know she will not catch me anymore. I am running as fast as I can, and I remember there are two orange feathers still stuck in my hair and my name is Mosca, and now with these wings, I can fly.

 


Itzel Basualdo’s work has primarily appeared in places few eyes have seen (like the “Documents” folder on her laptop). Her experimental short story, Saturday, did appear in Creative Nonfiction’s 2017 summer issue, however. She is currently struggling to keep warm as an MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

THIS IS NOT A MAZE by Jesse Bradley

The Lord's Mom sat Him down to teach Him how to prevent Him from leaving a smaller version of Himself behind. Using a police nightstick, She rolled the condom down it. You won't be this big, She said before She caught herself saying it.

What if I want a smaller version of myself?

The Lord's Mom handed Him the nightstick and an unwrapped condom: show me what you've learned.
 


J. Bradley is the author of the forthcoming flash fiction collection Neil & Other Stories (Whiskey Tit Books, 2018). He lives at jbradleywrites.com.

OUR HOUSE OF BROKEN THINGS by Donna Miscolta

by Donna Miscolta

For most of my childhood, I never ate toast.

I don’t remember why I said this. I wasn’t one for non sequiturs, but looking back, it’s hard to construct a context for my confession. I was eleven years old when I divulged this to Ella, a watchful and intense thirteen-year-old, with whom I was in love. We were sitting at the table in her gleaming kitchen with its shiny appliances, its double-door refrigerator, large-capacity microwave, six-slice toaster. Ella herself glinted in the sunlight that streamed through the window behind her. I tried not to stare every time she put her lips to her Pepsi can and tilted her head back.

“You’re still a child,” she told me, which I supposed was intended to give me hope that I might yet eat toast at my family’s breakfast table. I refused to believe the alternative – that she was being heartlessly condescending.

Still, I reminded her, “I’m advanced for my age.”

“When did this discussion become about you, Alexander?”

We were at her house to come up with a project that would help save the environment. We were in the Environment Club at school, though that afternoon we had severed ties with our faculty advisor and we were now a renegade club. Ella had joined the club because she believed she could make a difference. I was in it because it didn’t require physical coordination, ability to carry a tune, a sense of spatial relations, or other skill missing from my repertoire. But that aside, I was interested in the environment, though my concern up until then had not gone beyond a diligence in removing contaminants from our family recycling bin, continually compromised by my sister’s chewing gum which she aimed indiscriminately into any available receptacle.

I was rarely self-indulgent, so Ella’s reprimand stung.

“Tree-planting,” I said, getting back to the subject. “I vote for planting a tree.” Ella wrinkled her brow, making delicate impressions in her forehead. “Is that what we’re about, Alexander? Symbolism?” she said. “Aren’t we capable of something more?”

I hadn’t known Ella more than a few days, and I certainly had doubts about myself, but I was smart enough to answer yes.

“Then let’s go for my plan.”

She raised her Pepsi and when I raised mine to meet hers, my hand shook.

 

As I walked through the gate to my family’s house, I peeled off a piece of the rotting wood, not maliciously, but absentmindedly, and carried it inside with me. My father sat at his worktable in an alcove off the living room, which he called his office, a space Mia claimed should have been a yoga room and my mother maintained should have been just an alcove and pointed to its lack of electrical outlets as proof. Telephone and computer cords snaked from the alcove office across the living room, tangling with the television and lamp cords in a crowded electrical strip. The visible wires gave a sense of exposure and vulnerability to our lives.

“Home already?” my father asked from his desk which wobbled from a loose screw.

My father said that every afternoon when I came through the door, even on Thursdays when I stayed for Environment Club. He just got so absorbed in his work that the space between my leaving for school and coming home passed quickly for him. My father and I lived in separate time zones. He regretted it more than I did, which was only right.

“Got any homework,” he asked.

I still held the piece of rotting wood and now tossed it into a potted fern, itself rotting at the edges.

“Yep,” I said, settling down in the permanently reclining recliner chair to watch TV, since my father had turned his attention back to his work. My mother would not be home for a few hours and Mia was at volleyball practice spiking balls across the net at the heads of her opponents, so I watched reruns of Gilligan’s Island. The remote control was broken, preventing me from channel surfing during commercials, and I stared at the ads for laundry detergent and furniture polish that showed families in spotless, shiny homes with furnishings and appliances that had all their arms and legs and buttons and knobs intact.

 

My family’s toaster broke when I was six, and that’s when I realized that when something stopped working in our house, it never got repaired. Not really repaired. There would be duct tape or scotch tape or rubber bands, Elmer’s glue, staples, Ace bandages, dental floss – some kind of emergency first-aid administered as a temporary measure. Sometimes temporary was a few days, sometimes it was years. And when temporary was over, the failed object would sit ignored and untouched, until someone set it out of sight – under the table or on the front porch. Eventually it would find its way to a pile of junk in the side yard where it would rust and rot, and fallen leaves would compost in the rifts and hollows.

Things were rarely replaced. We just learned to go without toast. And without hot water in the bathroom sink, without a screen in the screen door, without the use of three out of four burners on the stove. We were neither indolent nor indigent – just, I think, immobilized when it came to fixing the daily mishaps of our lives, never thinking about what it all added up to. “You’ve got to take the long view,” said my father who had plans to one day remodel the family home into an architectural jewel, which is how he justified the slow disintegration around us.

“Sacrifice now for future gain.”

My mother disagreed. “We could die tomorrow,” she grumbled, “without having had an unbroken sofa to sit on.”

“Or the house could burn down,” Mia said, like a mediator putting an offer on the table.

My mother shot her a look, though, of course, Mia, despite her worst intentions, was not capable of such a solution. But I knew my mother worried just a little.

 

When Mia came home, she dumped her books and gym bag on the floor and switched the TV channel to Sally Jessy Raphael. She liked to watch the exhibitionism of the guests – the thirteen-year-old sluts, the obese women who strutted in bustiers and mini-skirts, the drag queens. I wondered about Mia’s social life. Worried about her, in fact.

“Hey, loser, did you do your homework?” she said, without a trace of affection.

“No.” Stupidly, I always answered her.

“You are such a disappointment.” She sighed deeply, threw a ratty pillow at me and stretched out on the couch, her feet at the end that was held together with packing tape. We watched the misfits on TV, comparing the discord in their lives against our own.

My father was an architect, my mother an office manager in an insurance firm, and each was in the wrong career. And then there was my sister, who was in the wrong family. Me, I was in the wrong grade, having been skipped a year in elementary school and so at eleven years old, I was the smallest, smartest boy in the seventh grade, and had embarked on a comfortable phase of ignorance, low expectations and invisibility, with no reason to change. Until Ella moved in down the street and joined the Environment Club.

As I watched the shrieking and hair-pulling on TV, I tried not to think of Ella’s plan and what consequences might ensue. Sally ended, and we heard our mother’s car pull up, so Mia jumped up to shut off the TV. She was still wearing her practice shorts and jersey, but after her hour on the couch, she had lost that breathless glow of physical exertion. She did a few jumping jacks and then some toe touches to make the blood rush to her head, so that it looked as if she had just schlepped her books, her gym bag and her athletic, but fatigued, body the eight blocks from the high school.

When our mother walked in, she, as usual, directed her first words at Mia, since anything less would provoke an accusation of disinterest, neglect, or the highest crime – favoritism toward me. “How was practice?”

“It would be a lot more convenient if I could drive,” Mia said, stomping out of the room and dragging books and bag.

“I feel like a mule,” she yelled behind her.

“I think she means ass,” I said.

My mother was not amused. Very little amused Nora Ramos at the end of a workday. She stared at me. “She doesn’t turn sixteen for eight months.”

My mother always presented these arguments to me as if I was the one in need of logic. I nodded sympathetically.

“Have you finished your homework?”

“Almost.” I could get away with such fibs because I knew my mother still wanted to believe I was living up to my potential.

“Well, do the rest after dinner.” She patted me kindly and I let her. She was afraid to touch my sister. Mia had grown too loud.

 

We ate dinner in the battered and broken living room as Tom Brokaw delivered the evening news about the latest disaster or scandal, the downturn in the stock market, the human interest story that brought lumps to our throats, because even as we sat amid our deterioration, we knew there were people out there less fortunate than we were.

“And you kids think you’ve got it bad,” my father would say, shaking his head.

“It’s all relative,” my mother would say back each time.

It was an exchange as automatic as achoo-gesundheit, or thank you-you’re welcome.

 

I met Ella a few days after she moved in down the street. I was walking to the bus stop for school when I saw her emerge from the big house. It was the biggest and newest house on the block, on the lot where a house much like ours had once stood, and the Franklins, a family totally unlike ours, once lived. The Franklins used professional landscapers for their yard and each summer held a neighborhood party and served barbecue outdoors against a backdrop of dahlias. From the patio, we could see inside to the graceful, well-kept interior, where afghans draped across sofas were merely decorative and not camouflage for tattered upholstery. When they put their house on the market to buy a bigger one, a developer bought it, stripped it to its foundation, and built a new one, both quaint and imposing in its farmhouse style and bulk, and incongruous on our suburban street. When the seller held an open house, the neighborhood trooped through to see what they could not afford. Mia and I accompanied our dad, but our mother declined. We reported to her the features – hardwood floors, coved ceilings, gourmet kitchen, five bedrooms, three and a half baths, walk-in closets, utility room, family room, study, all of which my mother listened to with pursed lips and pained brow. My father assessed it all with a critical eye. “Shoddy workmanship,” he said. “Second-rate materials. Inefficient floor plan.”

“Yeah,” Mia said with the sarcasm honed since she was three, “that house is totally disgusting.”

That morning as I followed Ella to the bus stop, I thought of how I knew what the inside of her house looked like and I felt privileged with knowledge as I observed her movements, her clothes, her body. Ella was slim but sturdy. She wore flared jeans, a white crewneck pullover and Reeboks. She wore what most kids wore, but everything looked different on her – better, more natural. And the backpack slung over her shoulder was neither a burden nor an accessory. Her hair was sleek and short, though long enough to bounce as she walked.

I told myself I was interested in girls only insofar as they offered a comparison against which to measure my sister and her high-strung sensibilities. Mia, first-born, was first in loudness, meanness and stinginess. It wasn’t just an adolescent thing. It was in her bones, her fingernails, in the hairs she left in the bathtub after shaving her legs. I didn’t hate her. That was in my bones – not to hate. Even so, my sister had long discredited girls in my eyes. While I knew that not every girl was going to stick her foot in my path to trip me, put Friskies in my cereal bowl, or steal my allowance, I regarded most with suspicion. Even the quiet ones. There seemed to be among all of them a scheme which involved my humiliation or exclusion. Ella, I would find out, was different. She needed me for other things.
I was looking at the back of her neck when she turned around and then I could see the blades of her collarbone, and, for the first time, all of my family’s imperfections seemed so plainly pathetic.

“I’m Ella,” she said.

Most girls didn’t talk to me unless they had to, like Morgan Hansen, the cheerleader who told me to stay ten feet away from her locker, which happened to be right above mine.

I looked at Ella, or rather, her collarbone. “Hi,” I answered, fixed on this surprisingly engaging part of a girl’s anatomy.

“Is your name Alexander?”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling stupid that I hadn’t introduced myself. “How’d you know?”

“It says so on your math homework.”

I looked at the paper sticking out of my book. I never put it in my backpack in the morning since I always finished my homework on the bus.

“What, are you a detective?” I asked, forgetting for a moment who I was talking to and falling into the sarcasm I used as a defense against most girls.

“No, just observant.” There was no conceit, no sarcasm, no malice. Just a statement.

I wanted to say something to let her know that I was observant, too. Because I was. It was my defining feature. But someone else had claimed her attention and I watched her mingle easily with the other kids at the bus stop as I stood alone.

On the bus, I watched Ella some more and in second period I turned in an incomplete math assignment.

 

Ella wasn’t in any of my classes and she wasn’t on the bus home that afternoon. When I walked past her house, I looked straight ahead, but I thought of Ella, impeccable, singular Ella, inside its newness, its unbrokenness.

The next morning Ella wasn’t at the bus stop, but I saw her go past in a car, an elegant looking woman, probably her mother, driving. Ella waved and I stared dumbly back, unsure if she was acknowledging me or the bus stop crowd in general. Even without Ella to watch on the bus, I didn’t do my math homework. She was a distraction even when she wasn’t there in front of me. It was Ella I was thinking of when I failed to answer when called on in history class, when I blurted out of turn in English class, when I accidentally sent my pencil airborne over two rows of students in Spanish class. “Discúlpame,” I said, though my plea for forgiveness was rather half-hearted. It would all earn me a visit to the seventh-grade counselor by the end of the week. They kept a close watch on me at school, concerned about any mismatch between my advanced academic placement and my social readiness. I occasionally transgressed on purpose, maybe for the attention, maybe to test the system.

But I had an ally in Ms. Noonan, who stood up for any and all members of the Environment Club. She was the faculty advisor for the club, the membership of which fluctuated from a low of one (me) to a high of five or six when we had our end-of-the-quarter party at the Pizza Palace, Ms. Noonan’s treat. By school policy Ms. Noonan could disband the club for lack of participation, but she generously proclaimed that if even one student was interested in saving the environment, she would gladly give her time. I doubted that her motives were so pure. I knew mine weren’t. The club made us feel as if we were doing something worthy without having to do much of anything at all. Our weekly meetings were spent writing cliché-ridden opinion pieces for the school newspaper and thinking up slogans for Ms. Noonan’s bulletin board.

After not seeing Ella all that day, I was ready to put pen to paper in a fiery tirade against every conceivable threat to the planet. But when I walked into Ms. Noonan’s classroom after school, Ella was there, seated at a desk in the front row. Ms. Noonan sat across from her, beaming, gratified not only for someone other than me showing up, but for someone like Ella, to give credibility, even glamour to our otherwise dubious club.

“Look who’s joined our cause, Alexander.” Ms. Noonan was almost giddy. “This is Ella.”

“We know each other,” said Ella.

This declaration from Ella ensured my loyalty to her. I sat down smugly next to Ella. But Ms. Noonan was still the boss.

“Ella,” she said, “why don’t you start the discussion, something in today’s headline, a special interest of yours. Just anything you want to talk about.”

“Talk about?” Ella asked, her face softly scrunching.

Ms. Noonan nodded her head in encouragement.

“What good does it do to just talk?” Ella looked at me as if she didn’t trust Ms. Noonan. I couldn’t say that the Environment Club was just a nice opportunity to complain about the problems of the world and the self-absorbed, tunnel-visioned people in it. I couldn’t say that I was satisfied just to point out the wrongs, that I had no compulsion to right them. So I feebly pointed out the poster that hung on Ms. Noonan’s bulletin board.

“What else?” Ella asked.

“Ella,” Ms. Noonan said, her voice patient, “our group is small so our impact is small.”

“Well,” Ella said quietly, “I think the effort is small.”

“We need to be reasonable in our undertakings. After all, we have limited resources.” Limited resources was what we used in our slogans on our posters, in our editorials in the school newspaper, in our letters to our elected officials. Limited resources was our anthem, our rallying cry, and now our justification for our feeble actions to save the environment.

“Right, Alexander?”

But I was on Ella’s side. “I think the effort is small, too.” I could see that Ms. Noonan was taking the criticism personally, and for an instant I regretted my words as I foresaw the end of the pizza parties. But only for an instant, because then I blurted, “Infinitesimal, in fact.” I rose from my chair and left the room in a disappointed shuffle I copied from Mia, whose repertoire of postures and exits I had been witness to since my high-chair days.

I waited in the hall, expecting Ella to follow, but she didn’t. At least not right away. After ten minutes I was about to give up, questioning my action and the motive behind it. What principle had I stood up for, what ideal had I pursued, I wondered. Then Ella came out of Ms. Noonan’s classroom. We were the only ones in the hallway and I listened to Ella’s soft soles pulse against the unswept floor, and watched dust motes halo at her head as she came toward me.

“That was quite a dramatic exit,” she said.

“Cinematic,” I said admiringly.

Ella looked at me, puzzled. “I meant yours.”

“Oh.” I wondered if I looked confused. “I was making a statement,” I said, almost defensively.

“That’s what I was explaining to Ms. Noonan. That we are not about words. We’re about action. Come on. We have work to do.”

I followed Ella out of the building and onto the street where we caught a city bus. I was aware of the half inch of space between us on the seat, and as Ella looked out the window I looked at her up close – the small ear lobes, the slim nose, the fine lashes, all lending a fragility to her face, all balanced by the resolute chin. Her left hand anchored her backpack to her lap, and I thought of what it might feel like to lay my hand over hers.

“It has to be meaningful,” Ella said, suddenly turning toward me.

“I know,” I said too earnestly.

“We need a project that will stir people to action.”

“I know,” I said again, though not as earnestly.

Ella eyed me curiously, then turned back to the window.

“We could plant trees,” I proposed, borrowing a suggestion from a poster I had done for Ms. Noonan’s bulletin board, Breathe free, plant a tree.

“Maybe,” Ella said with a small shrug.

I decided to wait for her to come up with an idea. Maybe I would shrug it off.

Then she was tapping my knee. “Look,” she said, and I stared at her hand on my leg until I realized she meant for me to look out the window. The bus was stopped for some dawdling pedestrians and I was able to read the sign that sprung up at the edge of a weedy lot. It exclaimed Coming Soon! For Your Shopping Convenience! Six New Boutiques! The sign made Ella grimace. I myself found all those exclamation points irritating.

“That is so unnecessary.” Ella was indignant and I nodded in support, but kept my mouth shut.

“All that stuff,” she said, shaking her head. “It just encourages buying and using and…”

“Wasting,” I said, finally catching on. “It’s criminal.”

Ella stared at me. “Of course,” she said softly. “Someone needs to bring that sign down.”

“Vandalism?” I asked. “It’s criminal.”

And Ella shrugged, never giving me a chance.

 

It would take all of three minutes to throw kerosene and a match on the sign and spray-paint the sidewalk in front of it with some pithy slogan. I would’ve settled for the all-purpose Save the Earth which required less paint, but Ella insisted on Stop Consumption, though consumption made me think of a character wracked with cough and spit in a Dickens novel. I said this out loud to Ella, but she gave me an icy stare. Humor or showing off, whichever I was guilty of, had no place in the mission, as Ella called it, which was to be executed on Saturday, early in the morning when traffic at that corner was practically non-existent.

 

Friday evening I was feeling restless, so I wandered into the living room where my father was reading the paper. He seemed untroubled by the ruins of our living room, even though the broken recliner he sat in leaned farther back than it should have. His long frame overshot either end of the chair. He had been a pole-vaulter in college. Mia had inherited his athleticism. I got his nearsightedness, though I didn’t require glasses yet. I expected they would come in handy if one day anyone suggested I join the pole vaulting team. I would point to my corrective lenses in their fragile wire frames and, with feigned regret, decline. I didn’t care to know the feeling of lifting myself 17 feet in the air, just to come crashing down on my back, the sky farther away than ever. On his desk in his alcove office, there was a picture of my father in mid-air, but still, you knew it was inevitable, the fall back to earth.

I hadn’t sought advice from him since I was in the second grade when I had taken it upon myself to redesign my elementary school. I suppose it was as much approval as advice I was seeking when I presented him with my blueprint for what resembled an amusement park.

“Very imaginative,” my father had said. Then he tousled my head playfully and he chuckled in a way that grown-ups do when they understand something kids don’t. “Not very realistic.”

My father was Ben Casey, not the TV doctor of 60’s television, but Ben Casey, Architect for the Future. It was printed on his business cards, stacks of them in his desk drawer and whenever he had the opportunity to pass one along to a potential client, he would always be dismayed by the person’s response to his name. If the person was my father’s age or older, he or she would invariably make a joke. “Switching careers?” “Got tired of saving lives?” My father would perform his chuckle, but underneath he would panic at the thought that he indeed was in the wrong career, because he wished he really could save lives – maybe ours, at least his own. If the person made no mention of Dr. Casey, then my father would know he was dealing with a person much younger than himself, and he resented that too.

My father lowered his newspaper. “Something on your mind, Alexander?”

“Kind of.” I sat on the edge of the broken sofa so I wouldn’t sink back into its springless cavity. I looked at my father who had not tousled my head in years. “No, not really,” I said.

I decided to go down to the basement to see my mother. I took a cup of peppermint tea, but she was in the throes of concentration, her foot pumping the potter’s wheel, her hands persuading clay, her face muscles tense. I set the tea down on the worktable where she painted and glazed her creations, and then I sat on the bottom of the basement stairs to wait. And to watch my mother.

She didn’t seem like my mother then. She seemed someone different, and I sometimes thought this is who she wanted to be – someone other than the office manager who directed the flow of claims and policies on life and health and property, someone other than the mother in our house of broken things. She had gone underground, turning the dank and musty basement into a gallery of pots and vases, bowls, butter dishes, cups and saucers. Around the walls where my mother had installed shelves, colors and patterns swirled in garish, unchipped, uncracked perfection.

Everything screamed.

I watched a bowl emerge from my mother’s hands. She held it up to admire and I thought of a photo I’d seen of her holding a baby Mia all new and clean after a bath.

“What do you think, Alexander?”

“Excellent,” I said, genuinely admiring the bowl before it would be covered with immoderate strokes of color.
I decided to go to my room and ponder my situation. Mia’s door was open when I passed her room. Incense burned on her dresser and chanting came from her stereo. She was in a backbend, her upside-down face level with my shins. Still, she managed to direct her gaze up at me. At that angle she looked almost friendly, and I considered asking her for advice. But then she exhaled and offered her philosophy unsolicited. “Get enlightened, loser.”

I left Mia to her posing and went to my room, which was really a loft, only a rail where a wall should have been, and, of course, no door to slam shut against the world. When I was younger, I would create my own privacy by building a fort fashioned from blankets and rearranged furniture, until I realized my makeshift walls were superfluous in our house.

I puttered around in my room for a while, moved a few chess pieces, played air guitar to Carlos Santana, practiced bathroom graffiti on a piece of notebook paper. Eventually I heard my parents go to bed. Then Mia’s door closed, but I knew she wasn’t asleep. I wondered what she did when she didn’t have an audience, when she had no one to bully, when she felt safe. What would she say if she knew that tomorrow I would carry out a crime for a cause? I set my alarm for 5:30 and went to bed, thinking of Ella.

 

We were to rendezvous at the site by separate routes. I arrived first, lighter fluid sloshing in the container zipped into my sweatshirt. Rather than loiter at the sign, the object of our planned destruction, I hid behind the Port-a-Potty already in place in anticipation of the crew that would soon bulldoze the weedy lot. The corner was deserted except for a few pigeons that bobbed along the sidewalk. Six new boutiques would bring traffic and noise and litter and more pigeons and their gluey shit. But wasn’t it inevitable, I thought. And what would our little act of eco-terrorism accomplish? I dug in my pocket for the book of matches I had taken from our kitchen drawer. While I waited for Ella, I practiced lighting matches, each time letting the flame burn down nearly to my fingers before extinguishing it. Ella was late. I began to wonder if she’d chickened out. Just when I hoped that she had, just when I could start feeling betrayed, I saw her slim figure in blue jeans and a gray hooded sweatshirt slink behind the sign. She leaned into one of the posts as if trying to blend into it. A lost cause, I thought, and then I found myself jerking backward when she turned to look my way. Shielded by the Port-a-Potty, I stared at the spent matches in the dirt in front of me, sat there counting them over and over, until I knew that when I stood up Ella would be gone.

 

When I got home it was still early, though I knew my parents were up, my mother in the basement, my father in his alcove. Mia was still in bed, awake and daydreaming, plotting her fame on a TV talk show. I didn’t want to go inside, so I veered off to the side yard and sat near our pile of discards where metal rusted and wood rotted far too slowly. I took the book of matches from my pocket and struck a match and watched it burn to my fingertips before blowing it out. Ella had been late, I told myself. I could very well have given up on her and left. She was the one with explaining to do. I struck another match, blew hard on it as it singed my skin. I struck a third and this time when it threatened my fingertips, I dropped it on the pile of decaying cast-offs. It flickered and seemed to go out, but then glowed yellow as it skittered around the remnant of a legless stool. I waited and watched the flames grow confident and incontestable, begin to blister the paint on our house, then catch the wood. I waited some more. Then I ran inside to rescue my family.

 


Donna Miscolta’s story collection Hola and Goodbye was selected by Randall Kenan for the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman and publication by Carolina Wren Press in 2016. She’s also the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Excerpts from her novel-in-progress The Education of Angie Rubio appear in The Adirondack Review and Crate (now the Santa Ana Review).

MACHO by Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés

by Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés

Murderous thoughts consumed her as she peered under the fence in search of that cabrón Macho.

At first it had been cute, but now she thought it a stupid name for a stupid dog. He was ridiculous looking too—sticks for legs, long neck, antenna ears, freakishly barrel chested and three different colors. Mari had squealed at his photo on Craigslist.

“Look, a Chihuahua puppy! For free! Mira que cosa más linda, Raquel. I have to have him. Pleeeeze, can we get him? Look at that face.”

Raquel smiled at Mari’s pushed out bottom lip and baby-sounds.

“Yea, he is pretty cute.” She kissed the top of her head. They’d only been a couple for the last three months even though they had been living together for a year. Becoming lovers was not in Raquel’s plan, though neither was adopting a dog. As soon as she landed a decent accounting job at a big construction company’s headquarters, she had spread the word among her friends that she needed a roommate ASAP since living at home with her constantly-up-in-your-business familia was not at all what she’d had in mind when she moved back to Orlando. Rent for the 2/2 apartment in a yet-to-be-gentrified area ten minutes from a getting-to-be trendy neighborhood was an even grand, minus utilities and WIFI. And the roommate had to be quiet.

Raquel’s plan was to take and pass the CPA exam in the next six months so she could get a better job auditing. Her ultimate goal was forensic accounting—discovering other’s mistakes or intentional book-cooking. But getting to her goal required intensive studying every night after work. Sometimes her eyes would tire and she drifted to daydreams, imagining herself driving a cream colored Boxster convertible headed to the beach. An ultramodern condo in one of those downtown high-rises springing up everywhere and a long cruise around the Mediterranean would be so nice. Then she’d wake up, her face creased from being plastered against the study guide, her laptop dead and only two hours until it was time to get up for work.

Mari was a Zumba instructor and didn’t mind practicing her routines in silence with her wireless in front of the big TV she brought with her when she moved in. Sometimes on her way to the kitchen, Raquel would catch Mari wearing her official gear, brightly colored tanks and coordinated parachute pants with zippers and streamers waving with her movements. It was sexy as hell but Raquel wasn’t interested so she laughed at Mari while badly imitating some fake rumba steps then shutting herself back up in her room.

They had been good roommates in that neither shared friends, occupations, nor interests and so they didn’t have to spend any time together. Then Mari found out that her girlfriend was two-timing her on the same day that Raquel saw her crush sticking her tongue through the forest of some aspiring-hipster’s bushy beard.
Raquel needed to talk to someone and Mari was there. She tried to explain the sense of betrayal she felt at the sight of them tucked into the hookah bar’s back booth until she noticed the tears.

“What happened?” Raquel touched Mari’s hand as she wiped her cheeks. “You ok?”

“It’s just that . . . my girl,” Mari hiccupped, exhaled and tried again, “My girl Milexi’s been cheating on me.”

“Ay, mama, I’m so sorry.” Raquel’s own face reflected Mari’s pained expression. She reached over to hug her close and started to cry too.

There was no need to exchange stories of past hurts; their bodies did that for them. As the early morning sun revealed Mari’s tranquil face, a smile Raquel couldn’t help stretched across her own.

 

Weekends Raquel and Mari would parade his highness around Lake Eola, always sporting an absurd little doggy shirt—he couldn’t tolerate the spiked punk collar. Faux leather biker jacket with itty bitty chains stitched at the sides, a camo vest with Duck Dynasty embellishments, even a muscle shirt. Nothing prissy or girly for Macho! Inevitably somebody would stop in their tracks to coo.

“Oh-my-gawd, is that the cutest!”

“Thank you.” Mari would always pick him up for them to get a closer look.

“What great coloring he has!” Given his huge penis, there was no mistaking his sex.

“He’s brindle,” Mari’d say to the admirer, then turning to the dog, “No es verdad, bebé?”

“What’s his name?”

“Macho,” Mari would grin. If the asker was Hispanic and sufficiently engaged, she’d finish with proper introductions:

“This is Raquel and I’m

Mari, Macho’s mami.”

Mari thought it was hilarious. A twist on marimacha—that ugly old name for dyke.

 

The little things that annoyed Raquel when Mari was her roommate became endearing habits once they were sleeping together—the half-drunk glasses of water in the fridge, the way she scraped clean the caked on pans with a knife instead of the scrubber, the sofa throw pillows hijacked into her room. Mari’s protein shakes’ ingredients took up two whole shelves in the fridge and one side of the pantry; Raquel didn’t mind. She could survive on ham and jelly sandwiches and café.

They had agreed to keep their separate rooms for sleeping—Raquel could study late into the night without disturbing Mari and Mari could crank up the ceiling fan (Raquel was convinced in her belief that sleeping under a fan caused sore throats).

Then Macho came into the picture. Not surprisingly, he shivered if the temperature went below 80 degrees but slept under Mari’s covers because, well, it was obvious from the start, he was her baby. Not a problem for Raquel. In her house, dogs slept on the floor. The problem came when the women sought each other out.

First Macho growled ferociously at Raquel—as much as a Chihuahua could—when she slipped into Mari’s bed. They laughed and laughed and put him out into the living room where he whined and scratched until he quieted down and they thought he had worn himself out. In the morning, Raquel gasped at the pile of veneer chips that Macho had gnawed off from the bottom of the door. He didn’t even look up from his yoga poses to acknowledge her.
That was when Macho began his crate-training but many times Mari would forget to close the door’s latch when she left for work and he would have a heyday pissing and shitting all over the place. If by chance the bedroom doors were left open, he only marked Raquel’s furniture and he’d find a way to climb onto her desk to chew up her study guides. If she got home before Raquel, Mari would usually clean up his messes but if Raquel got home first, she would let the dog out in the yard and leave the cleaning for his mami—no matter how tiny the messiness.

Then he bit Raquel, drawing blood on the tip of her nose when she approached Mari for a kiss. Only Mari laughed that time. Raquel was stunned.

“What? He’s a freaking Chihuahua. That didn’t hurt, did it?”

“Coño, Mari, can’t you see what he did to me?”

Macho’s half-closed eyes mocked Raquel.

“That little mother . . .” Raquel raised her hand.

“Hey, what’s the matter with you? He’s just a little baby dog.” Mari pulled away, cradling the dog.
Raquel felt defeated. She wondered how five pounds of skin and bones could cause so much animosity between them. Mari became guarded, and not just when she held him which she was doing more and more.
Before long Macho discovered a bitch five times his size on the other side of the backyard fence and he dug himself a pathway to her.

Raquel didn’t notice he was gone until Mari came home and she called out for him.

“Oh, yea, I let him out in the back.”

“You can’t just do that, Raquel. You have to stay out there with him.”

She didn’t wait for a response as she brusquely made her way to the back door.

Of course, Macho never came back when called. Mari found his tiny tracks in the sandy soil by a post; she could see him through the fence slats, nonchalantly sniffing the bitch’s hindquarters. After a long while Raquel came out to half-heartedly help, but it was apparent to both of them that Macho was Mari’s problem. And the fact that the dog turned out to be the cabrón-hijo-de-puta that he was, well, that was Mari’s fault too.

 

 

Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés’ work has appeared in Guernica, Kweli Journal, Literary Mama, The Bilingual Review, Caribe, and The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Her books include story collections, Marielitos, Balseros, and Other Exiles and Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You; a poetry chapbook Everyday Chica, and a poetry CD. She is professor of writing and literature at the University of Central Florida.

THERESA SCOTT by Nora Bonner

We made a club without her. Mary was the president because her father built the tree house. Lindsay was the vice-president because she was Mary’s best friend. That left me as the combined secretary and treasurer, responsible for organizing the drink stand at the end of Mary’s driveway. We sold mixed-berry Kool-Aid for fifty cents a cup, along with the friendship bracelets we knotted while we talked about Theresa Scott.

Theresa ran across the street with a dollar and the desire to buy a friendship bracelet. “Five dollars,” Lindsay said, attempting to cover the sign with her arm before Theresa could read it.

“That’s not what it says.”

“Five dollars for you,” Mary said.

“Where am I supposed to get five dollars?” Theresa waited for an answer and when we gave her none she said, “Fine. I’ll ask my dad.”

We figured he didn’t live with her because we never saw him come out of her house, though Lindsay joked about him locked up in their basement. Theresa said, “My dad could buy me a way better bracelet than anything you’ve got here.”

“So what,” Mary said.

Theresa went on about how her father lived in LA and designed special effects for movies. She was going to live with him once she started junior high.

Lindsay said, “Maybe you should move there right now.” Theresa kicked the table, toppling the plastic pitcher. The Kool-Aid stained the pavement until the next time it rained.

Theresa turned to me and said, “See you tomorrow, Sarah,” and went home.

Lindsay and Mary stared at me. I shrugged.

I had no idea what Theresa wanted from me in that.

 

That evening, I went to Lindsay’s house. She stole one of her mother’s thank you cards and I wrote out a message in my most adult-script: Dear Theresa, thank you for being such a great daughter. I bought a puppy today and I want you to name him. Maybe you can come live with me this year? Miss you, Dad.

We spent the next afternoon watching Theresa’s mailbox from Mary’s bedroom. Theresa was sitting on the porch when the mailman arrived. He didn’t see her sitting there but went straight to the mailbox at the end of their driveway. When he pulled out the letter, I realized that I forgot to write an address or stick a stamp onto the envelope. He flipped it over, puzzled, and then gave Theresa the letter along with the rest of the mail. “Here we go,” Mary said as Theresa opened the envelope. A few moments passed before she looked up, straight at us, and went into the house while she left the other mail in a pile on the porch. That was the last time we saw her until school started.
The three of us requested Mr. Villanueva for fifth grade. His wife managed a card shop at the mall, so he celebrated all the card shop holidays. On Doctor’s Day, his class took a field trip to the hospital. On Secretary’s Day they presented a fruit basket for Miss Redman and her assistants. On Administrative Professionals Day, his class performed for the principal an appropriately edited version of Jimi Hendrix’s, “Are You Experienced?”

Mrs. Harper, the other fourth grade teacher, was also known as “Mrs. Harpy.”

My mother took my brother and me to school on that first day and stayed to help out in Timmy’s kindergarten class. Our classroom assignments were posted near the entrance of the auditorium. Mary and Lindsay found their names under Mrs. Harper’s and though I was pleased to get Mr. Villanueva, I was not pleased to share him with Theresa Scott. She was sitting in the front row of his classroom surrounded by unoccupied desks. I sat in the back.

After we each shared our names and favorite holidays, Mr. Villanueva announced that our first assignment would be to interview each other about our grandparents because the Sunday after Labor Day was Grandparents Day. Once he’d explained the project, he led us to the auditorium. Theresa jumped beside me in line and asked if I wanted to be her partner. I told her I wasn’t sure; I hadn’t thought about a partner. She said, “I don’t like anyone else in the class.”

“All right,” I said.

In the auditorium, I slid away from her and took the seat Lindsay saved for me in the third row. Theresa stood near the entrance, searching for a place to sit. Mary shook her head. Theresa looked like she was about to cry. I’d almost forgotten about my mother until she came in at the end of Miss Lee’s procession of five year olds holding hands. She motioned for Theresa to sit with her. Any other kid would have refused to sit with kindergartners but Theresa didn’t seem to mind.

“Looks like somebody’s found a friend,” Mary said, nudging me.

My mom might have been mad at me for making Theresa sit by herself.

Miss Lee played the school song on the piano while the fifth graders shouted their version from the back corner. Yes it’s possible! became It’s impossible: It’s impossible at the McClellan! It’s impossible at McClellan! It’s impossible at McClellan school! I looked at my mother to see if she could hear them. She didn’t show it. Miss Jones, our principal, had noticed. “What’s possible is up to you,” she said, attempting to inspire us. The adults were the only ones to applaud the speech. After we were dismissed, the adults had to scream over us as we rushed to the aisles.

My mother waited at the end of our row and announced that it was good of me to ask Theresa to be my partner for the Grandparents Day project. Theresa left. “She’s really a nice girl,” my mother said with a sermon in her voice. She said that she invited Theresa over for pizza. “You girls can join us,” she said to Lindsay and Mary. “We can have a school’s back pizza party.”

“No thanks,” Mary said.

Lindsay said, what a coincidence, they were having pizza her house that night. “I guess you can’t come,” she said to me. “Bummer.”

“Next time,” I said and swallowed hard.

My mother said, “I asked Theresa what kind of pizza she wanted and do you know what she said after that? Do you know why she likes pepperoni?” We waited for the punch line. “Because they’re the easiest to pick off!” Mary laughed, I figured more at my misfortune than at Theresa’s joke, and this encouraged my mother to ramble on about how pizza was pretty much the only option in our house that night because there was no way she was going cook after a day in Timmy’s class.

As she was going on, Lindsay whispered that maybe Theresa would let me pick her pepperonis off. My mother must have heard. “I’m going to order plain cheese,” she said, “and ask Dad to pick them up on his way out.”

She returned to Timmy’s class and I didn’t know what was worse, that she’d invited Theresa over or that she brought up my father’s work. He managed a supermarket meat department. Mary liked to make fun this, sometimes referring to him as “The Butcher” or asking me how many cows he’d slaughtered that day. Mr. McGregory and Mr. Edmonds both worked for Blue Cross, which meant she and Lindsay got to dress up for Take Your Daughter to Work Day; I never got to participate in that because my father said there was too much commotion at his job. Not that I wanted to watch him show people how to slice slabs of meat. On our way back to the lockers, Mary said, “Maybe your dad can get a deal on pepperonis for Theresa.” She and Lindsay burst out laughing.

“This is going to be a long year,” I said, and blurted out that I’d agreed to be Theresa’s partner Grandparent’s Day.

“At least your class doesn’t have assigned seating,” Lindsay said. “The Harpy won’t even let us choose where we sit.”

 

Theresa and her mother came for dinner. They brought daisies from their yard. The bouquet also had dandelions in it; my mom acknowledged these as “interesting” while she arranged them into a vase and set it on the dining room table. We ate in the den so we could watch the documentary Mrs. Scott brought over about life of Woody Guthrie. I’d never heard of him. Theresa and her mother sang along with all the songs. My father asked her how Theresa knew them and she said, “I thought everybody did.”

Mrs. Scott explained that Theresa had inherited her taste in music from her parents–her father was a blues guitarist. “Her favorite is Bob Dylan,” she said.

“The old Bob Dylan,” Theresa said. “Before he went electric.”

I cleaned up the plates–paper, as usual–and as I took Mrs. Scott’s away, she asked if I was going to recycle it. “We really should start doing that,” my mother said, and Mrs. Scott offered to show her how to make a compost pile in the backyard. I wasn’t sure my mother knew what a compost pile was–I certainly didn’t–but she said it sounded “interesting” in the same way she’d referred to the dandelions.

That’s when she and my dad got out their cigarettes. This was why I hardly invited Lindsay and Mary to our house; my parents were unapologetic about their smoking. Mrs. Scott covered her mouth but didn’t say anything. Theresa, on the other hand, exaggerated some coughs and told my parents that they were going to die. “It’s only a matter of time,” she said.

“We’re all going to die in a matter of time,” said my father.

“Have you ever seen a photo of smoking lungs?” she asked. They said they had.

If my parents were unapologetic about their smoking, Mrs. Scott was unapologetic about Theresa. “We’ve seen a lot of those pictures,” she said. “Before we buried Theresa’s father last year.”

“I’m sorry,” my mother said. “Cancer?” Mrs. Scott nodded and they put out their cigarettes.

Theresa grabbed her backpack and went to the back hallway without asking me where my room was. I followed her. We sat on my bed and she asked why I let my parents smoke. I said I didn’t know. “Maybe your parents will both die and you can come live with me,” she said.

I said, “I had no idea about your dad.”

Theresa pulled out a notebook and a pencil from her bag. “Don’t tell Mary and Lindsay.” I told her I wouldn’t.

The notebook was a sort of scrapbook she was making with her mother. They’d pasted a Polaroid on the inside cover of her dad showing her how to play the guitar. Her hair was long then, and so was her dad’s–he had a ponytail. I told her I didn’t understand why she had to make up the stuff about living in LA; wasn’t a musician cool enough?

She smoothed the page as if to show it off and spoke of her father–his band and the dive bars where she watched him play since before she could speak, the time he played at the Jazz festival downtown.

“I sometimes hate my dad,” I told her. I readjusted my seat on the bed. “Well, not him,” I said. “I hate his job.” She asked where he worked and I told her.

“Do you get free samples?” she asked. “I always want to grab free samples and my mom says I can’t because they’re processed.” Without looking for my reaction, she took me through rest of the pages–scotch-taped clippings of recipes for vegetarian casseroles, a brown blade of grass from her old house, and the ticket stub from a Bob Dylan concert.

“You must have been the youngest person there,” I said when she showed it to me. “But you’re so tall, probably nobody noticed.”

“It’s hard looking twice your age,” Theresa said. She stopped at a picture of her grandparents when they were young. “You can pass it around the class,” she said, peeling it free from the scotch tape without ripping the page.

I told Theresa that I only had grandmothers, that both of my grandpas died before I was born. She asked me what they died of. I didn’t know. “They were probably alcoholics,” she said. “Both my grandfathers were.” She told me the one on her dad’s side died of liver poisoning while her other grandfather was still alive and retired from Ford. I told her one of my grandfathers worked at Ford, too, though I couldn’t remember which one. Later, we’d find out that just about everybody’s grandpa in the class had worked for one car company or another.

I grabbed my own notebook, a boring spiral, as Theresa told me that her dad’s parents were dancers and that her dad grew up in Brooklyn. Her grandpa was in twenty-three Broadway shows before his career ended, and once it did, he took up smoking and tried to write musicals of his own that didn’t go anywhere. She told me her own mother moved to New York after college and met her father. Her mom got pregnant and her parents never married. They moved to Livonia and she spent the first few years of her life living with her mom’s parents–the ones in the picture. She pointed to the living room and said, “I’m so mad we moved. I hate it here.”

I believed very little of this, but for some reason, that much didn’t matter to me. I believed in the idea of it all, in the possibility—Theresa somehow convinced me that this was enough.

 

On the Friday before Grandparents Day, some of the kids passed around photographs, cookie recipes, knitted caps, and war medals. I gave Theresa a photo of my maternal grandmother holding me at the piano. I thought she might like it. Theresa told everyone that my grandma was a concert pianist. She told them my grandpa was an army general and died in the war. Mr. Villanueva asked her which one; she said she didn’t know, so he asked me. With my eyes on my notebook, I said I wasn’t sure. He asked when my grandpa was born but I didn’t know that either.

When I spoke about Theresa’s family, I found myself caught up in the details she mentioned about her parents, how her mother moved from Detroit to New York and met her father. I even added a part where they all tried to live in LA and be a part of his life in the movies. These details seemed to hold my classmates’ attention more than the other presentations. Then I remembered that I only had five minutes and I hadn’t mentioned her grandparents, so I spoke of their Broadway careers. I threw in a detail about how Theresa rode the subway by herself all the way across the city. At that moment, Theresa seemed more important than the rest of us. It was clear she was destined for more than any of us could predict for ourselves. I ended the presentation by saying, “Theresa will probably be famous one day.”

But then she opened her eyes and smiled, her crooked teeth poking from her lips, and I wanted to take those words back.

 

At lunchtime, I left the room before Theresa could say anything and met Lindsay and Mary in the cafeteria. We filled our trays with Friday’s cheeseburgers and juice boxes and took our usual seats at the table nearest to the door. Theresa, who always brought a tattered paper bag to lunch, sat next to me. I didn’t look up at her.

“Don’t even think about it,” Mary said.

“There’s no assigned seats,” said Theresa, taking a lid off a Tupperware container filled with browning apple slices. “Sarah’s my friend and I want to sit with her.”

“She’s not your friend,” Lindsay said.

“Find another table,” Theresa said through a mouth full of apple slices.

“Sarah is not your friend,” Mary said, “And we don’t eat lunch with people who have nasty teeth.”

Theresa slid a turkey sandwich out of an old Zip-lock bag. The bread was soggy in the middle from mustard, and she tore off a piece and balled it in her fingertips before tossing it into her mouth.

“You’re gross,” Lindsay said.

“And annoying,” I said. I told her that just because she forced me to be her partner for Grandparents Day did not make me her friend and that I never wanted to be her partner again.

Mary and Lindsay laughed and Theresa told them to shut up, that I was her friend and that I told everyone in our class that she was going to be famous.

“That’s not what I meant,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. You can be famous all you want but you’ll still be weird.” I waited, expecting her to kick the table as she’d done before.

She said, “At least I have a grandpa.”

I said, “At least I have a dad.”

“You hate your dad,” Theresa said, tearing her paper bag in half. “Everybody hates him because he’s gross. He smells like cigarettes and sausage. He kills baby cows–”

“He does not,” I said.

“You hate Mary and Lindsay,” Theresa said. “Sarah said she hates you. She said you were snobs.”

I shoved the pieces of the bag in her face as she grabbed the front of my shirt with both of her fists, lifted me from my seat, and slammed me to the floor. I yanked her hair as hard as I could, which wasn’t too hard because her hair was so short. “At least I don’t lie about my dead dad,” I said, shouting for everyone in the cafeteria to hear. Theresa paused long enough for me to clutch her shirt, roll her to her side, and slam her skinny arm into the bench. I looked up and found Mary and Lindsay standing over us. They were cheering, not for me or Theresa, but for both of us to fight. I stood as soon as I heard her name.

Theresa must have heard it, too, and it must have empowered her to pin me down and hit my face with repeated blows. It took two lunch ladies to get her off of me, and by that time, my nose was bleeding. The lunch ladies sent us both to see the principal while Miss Re dman called our mothers to come pick us up.

Miss Jones was on break and wouldn’t be back for another forty-five minutes. While we waited, the janitor held a paper towel to my nose. Theresa sat as far away from me on the bench as she could. I spent most of that hour checking out the state of my face in the reflection of the curtained window in the door to Miss Jones’s office. I had a bloody nose and a busted upper lip. Miss Jones unlocked her office, shaking her head. “Sarah Mason. Theresa Scott. I didn’t expect this to be about you.” She talked to Theresa alone for a while. At one point, Mary and Lindsay peeked around the hallway corner and left without saying anything. It would be a long time before we’d say anything to each other again; they became friends with the girls in their class.

Miss Jones invited me to take the seat next to Theresa. “It sounds to me like you girls know how to hurt each other,” she said. She told us that we should think about the things we like about each other, that we were both smart and nice and if we wanted to, we could probably be good friends.

“I don’t want to be her friend,” Theresa said.

“You might change your mind if you got to know her.”

“I won’t change my mind.”

“That’s fine,” I said.

Miss Jones put her hands on her knees and leaned in a little. For now, she said, it was okay to just avoid each other. When she let us go, my mother was waiting outside the of fice with my brother. She offered to drive Theresa home.

“I’d rather swallow glass,” Theresa said, and sat on the bench to wait for her own mother. It’s last thing I can remember her saying to my face, though she’d say plenty about me behind my back. Whether it was her beating me up, or what I’d said about her during the presentation, I don’t know, but after that, she would be the most popular kid in our class.

On the way home, my mother asked me where I thought Theresa picked up such an ugly thing to say. My brother asked her to repeat it but she refused. “She’s a strange girl,” she said, and then, “Poor thing.” I found myself looking for Theresa as we passed her house, even though we left before she did, as if maybe she’d be on the porch waiting for me. I looked for her in the side view mirror but could only see the discolorations of my face, the unfamiliar lines that, if you had shown me a photo of them hours before, I would not have recognized as me.

 

________________________________________________________________________________________
Nora Bonner is a PhD student at Georgia State University. Her work has appeared in the North American Review, the Bellingham Review, Hobart, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. She is originally from Detroit.

AMERICAN GENERAL by Ernest White II

Diego flicked on the bathroom light as he let the door slam behind him. His mother probably didn’t hear. Not with Mongo Santamaría’s syncopated percussion dancing a loud mambo from the record player in the living room out of the house through the open Plexiglas slats of the hurricane windows. The night was breezy, typical of late October, and the faint smell of oranges from the Valencia tree next door mingled with the dying aroma of garlic from the kitchen. While ferns danced in white, plastic pots suspended from the ceiling, his mother’s feet danced while she was busy working on a charcoal sketch of Cousin Laura. Mami wouldn’t notice anything, especially since the gang of trick-or-treaters tapered off after nightfall, distracting her less often from the easel. Behind her, the glass case holding Diego’s trophies vibrated with Mongo’s horns. The sweaty lifeguard t-shirt and gym shorts Diego had played basketball in earlier that afternoon hung languidly on his body. The sweat dried, making the cotton of the shirt feel papery against his skin. His mother had been bugging him about taking a shower all evening, but gave up after a half-hour of near-silence at dinner. She had cooked a pan of lasagna she bought at the Sam’s out by 95 and baked a pumpkin cheesecake decorated with sixteen candy-striped candles. Diego had blown them out with a quiet thanks, slowly eating a section of lasagna that would have ordinarily taken him a few minutes to devour.

“What’s wrong, mi vida? Tired?”

“A little. I’m really not that hungry, Ma.”

“You have to eat something. You know how you love some lasagna.”

“I’ll eat it later.”

“Well, what about your birthday cake?”

“Más tarde, Mami.”

Teena-Marie had serenaded them earlier and Marvin Gaye before that. Now it was Mongo and his bongos. Mongo peppering the entire street with his bongos. His mother always played her music loud, a habit Diego was quickly acquiring as his own music collection grew. “Loud-ass Puerto Ricans,” Diego knew the neighbors were mumbling under their breaths. They always did.

The fluorescent light showed moonlike in the clear water of the toilet bowl. Diego leaned over it, the curly shadow of his hair eclipsing the light’s reflection. Dried urine stained the rim of the bowl, usually left a few days until his mother got tired of waiting for Diego to clean the bathroom only he and houseguests used. The stream of urine sputtered to a milky start, breaking through the film of dried semen from earlier in the afternoon and sprinkling clear droplets on the rim and floor. Diego sighed as he relieved himself, the light rippling in the bowl, the smell of the urine rising warmly from the stream. Once done, he stared as the ripples quickly became smaller, then stopped. Diego moved his hand from the shaft of his penis to the base, then ran his three middle fingers down the backside of his testicles along the warm, moist skin, slightly parting them. He raised his fingers to his nose and inhaled. It wasn’t the first time he’d smelled himself. But it was the first time he smelled like someone else, like another boy at least. Diego realized this male commonality, earlier in the afternoon. Like a humid day at the beach—heady, sticky, salty, strong. Jennifer and Erica and Melanie and Jolene were…different. A different part of the beach.

“Yo, D,” Ron had shouted. “I know your punk-ass ain’t ready to take it to the court after school.”

“Ah, nigga, you can’t take me.”

“That’s wussup, dog. Gym. Three o’clock,” Ron had challenged. “You better have your high yellow ass out there, too.”

Three o’clock came.

“I jayed that shit right in your face, fool. And you supposed to be the center of the basketball team. You ain’t shit.”

“Oh yeah?” Ron spun around under Diego’s left arm, then shot the lay-up off the backboard. “Bim, muthafucka! Stick yo ass to the football field, bitch!”

The ball thwacked rhythmically against the painted wood, interspersed by squeaking rubber soles for a long while. Grunts. Sighs. Shit-talking. Elbows. Feet. A tripped body crashing into the floor, Diego wincing from the impact. Ron pinning him down. Grunts. Shit-talking. Ball bouncing, less and less high. Elbows. Ball rolling. Struggle. Knees. Sweat. Hands. Grunts. Knees. Shit-talking. Less. Resistance. Grunts. Breath. Awkwardness. Skin. Grunts. Hands. Lips. Grinding. Hips. Stiffness. Sweat. Breath. Wetness.

Rectangular, dark green tiles edged half-way up the bathroom wall, followed by white, fleur-de-lis-etched wallpaper that was beginning to curl slightly at the ceiling. The cold water was on, sounding like television static. A cartoon coqui grinned goofily from the bottom right corner of the bathroom mirror, holding a Puerto Rican flag. Diego stuck it to the mirror soon after he and his mother first moved into the house. He got a spanking for it, but she never peeled the sticker off. Diego looked at the dark, thickening hair underneath his nose. He looked at his lips, pinkish-beige, soft. Lips just touched by Ron’s lips. Ron’s lips which were fuller, browner, under darker, thicker hair. Lips like Seth’s. It wasn’t right. Not right, to enjoy it so much. To enjoy stiffness over softness, angles over curves. Jolene, now that was right. A stallion. Fine, stacked, brick house. Track team. Thick thighs, hips, lips. Put her mouth anywhere. He could go over to her house right now and have her tongue all over…where Ron just had his. He’d be sucking all on her chest, her breasts. Wasn’t fucking right. Fuck. Fucked. He’s fucked. They fucked. On the fucking gym floor. On the fucking pirate in the middle of the fucking gym floor. Where the fucking custodian could have caught them fucking in the middle of the fucking gym floor. That fuckin’ Ron and that fuckin’ Diego fuckin’ in the got-damn gym.

Tylenol and Campho-Phenique and Q-Tips and Speed Stick and Band-Aids and Dimetapp and Pepto-Bismol and Aqua Fresh and Plax and Vaseline and Reach Floss and 70% Isopropyl Alcohol Rubbing Compound and nail clippers and tweezers and African Royale Hot 6 Oil and Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Lotion and Luster’s Pink Oil Moisturizer Hair Lotion and a container of double-edged American General razors. The light flashed in the mirror as Diego closed the medicine cabinet. Mongo’s bongosflutessaxophones still thumpedblewsang, muted, through the bathroom door. Through Diego’s head. Loud-ass Puerto Ricans. Erica, she gave the best head. Loud, crazy-ass Puerto Ricans. Best head he ever had before today. Faggot-ass Puerto Rican. He rotated the plastic razor container slowly in his right hand a couple of times, then slipped one of the thin strips of metal out of the package with his thumb. The box fell into the sink, sliding to the bottom and resting on the stopper, doused under the running faucet. STEEL RAZOR read the shiny silver thing between his right thumb and index finger. It felt cold, wet. But it was dry. “Have your high yellow ass out there.” High yellow. He wasn’t high yellow now like he would be in January, when the season was over and he wouldn’t be outside as much. He was low yellow. He was almost red. He even had to look hard to see his veins. He wasn’t yellow, he was red. Taíno. Fuck it, he was black. Strong black man. Mandingo warrior. Uncut, baby! Shit, ask Jennifer. Erica. Ron. Fuck.

Diego stared, engrossed at the bluish channels of life beneath his skin. He traced the blade flatly against the dermis, scratching white streaks of dead cells. He wondered if he should slit across, matching the creases just below his palm. Or should he trace downward, following the vein south like a road map. Bracial, basilic, bronchial, one of them muthafuckas. Who the hell pays attention in class anymore? Right? No. Not fucking right. The steel traveled slowly, determinedly, leaving an expanding trail of crimson staining the road map of his left arm. Jacksonville to Miami. He only got just beyond Titusville, and barely half that distance on the right arm before the blade fell into the sanguine lake already forming on the tile.

Sitting under the sink, life coursing rhythmically from his body, Diego didn’t know if he made any noise when it happened. Mongo didn’t stop bongoing. Mami didn’t shout, “Diego, que fue?” The earth didn’t stop spinning. Crazy Puerto Rican. The bathroom light didn’t go out. Letting another boy touch you like that. The water in the sink didn’t stop running. Do stuff to you. The red on the floor looked black, reflected in the green tiles of the wall. That shit ain’t right. Loud-ass Puerto Rican. You ain’t right. Loud, crazy, faggot-ass Puerto Rican. What the fuck were y’all doing? Ron? Ron, what the fuck you doin’, man? Ron’s tongue entered Diego’s mouth, silencing his protests, their kisses echoing in the deserted gymnasium.

Ernest White II is a storyteller and explorer. He is the creator of multicultural travel portal Fly Brother, a contributing writer at literary travel journal Panorama, a former assistant editor at Time Out São Paulo, and founding editor of digital men’s magazine Abernathy. A Florida native, Ernest’s obsessions include Indian curry, São Paulo, and Rita Hayworth.