Ropes

 

Alice keeps food in her room. Hidden in the drawers of her varnished oak dresser, in the old roll-top desk she inherited from her grandfather, beneath floorboards, in her crawlspace, beneath her big brass bed with the gaslight blue duvet. Since she was nine her mom has kept her on a strict diet. She is not allowed to eat past eight at night. Among other things, she is rationed to three or four servings of bread a week, and when she goes to school—when all the other kids are in line with their Styrofoam plates eagerly awaiting a fat slice of glistening pizza and curly fries seasoned with paprika—Alice sits alone at a table under a fluorescent light that always hiss and pops and eats a cold salad of iceberg lettuce and balsamic vinegar.

She is beautiful. Standing at five feet four, she has endowed her grandmother’s shapely legs, legs that are reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich’s. At fourteen she endured braces for a year at the behest of her mother and her orthodontist, Mr. Billingsley. Her mother has entered her in beauty pageants ever since she won the title of “Most Beautiful Baby” in the Harrington Times in 1992.

Alice has long blonde hair. It used to be brown, but pretty girls don’t have brown hair, or so says her mother. Every Sunday, her mother buys her a box of Clairol “Born Blonde” and they go out to the sink in the garage. The garage that reeks of gasoline and, every Sunday, Alice endures a migraine that rests heavy on her brain and behind her eyes like a behemoth rock like she reads about from the Galapagos Islands in her biology textbook. She hates the odor of ammonia and gasoline for this reason.

She doesn’t have a boyfriend, and this incites many questions from her mother. She’s in love with Roger Levin, but he doesn’t love her. Roger Levin is tall and sinewy with bright blue eyes, and his girlfriend’s name is Rebecca Thorndike. Rebecca Thorndike is Alice’s best friend. Once Roger and Alice had sex at a party.  They were both drunk and it was her first time. He lied and said he would call her again, but never did.

Tonight is Sunday. Tonight, after having endured another migraine, Alice sits alone on the hardwood floor of her bedroom. She listens to her mother’s telephone conversation from the other room.  She is arguing with her dad about money again and asking him about “that whore you left us for!” They live in a ranch house, something not uncommon to the Texas landscape. She gnaws on a Hershey bar she bought at school last Monday and stares at a strand of her hair, long and coarse like rope from so many years of abuse. She clutches the chocolate bar between her palms, but it is melting fast. The summer sun beats through her windows through the flowing gossamer curtains and Alice shields her eyes, her back arched against the corners that fall from her duvet.

She is wearing her favorite shirt, the cotton worn thin from many years in the washer, and she wishes she wasn’t the only child. She wishes her dad hadn’t divorced her mom. She wishes her stomach wasn’t aching for a piece of bread or some brisket, she wishes she didn’t have to dye her hair every Sunday, she wishes she hadn’t slept with Roger Levin, but she misses the intimacy. She misses the days when her dad was around and she and her mother were happy. Alice looks down at her palms, brown with melted chocolate.

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The Ghost of Electricity

            She came to him always in the middle of the night. He’d feel the cotton sheets rise across his chest and cool wind bristle the hair across his body like wind demanding all the tall grasses in a meadow to stand up. She’d look at him with her eyes the color of algae on a riverbank, her long chestnut hair sweeping across his forehead and draping over the wrinkled indentions of his pillow. He’d look up at her, his lips warped into a grin revealing his milky teeth.

     “I like being here,” She’d say as he’d push his hands down her hair and feel her nipples sway across his stomach.

     “I like it here,” She’d repeat as he meshed his lips upon hers. He loved tracing his fingers across the down of her arm, over the unknown constellation of her freckles. He’d bring the calloused pad of his index finger across the unevenness of her teeth and the thin peak of her upper lip and they’d kiss again—and his heart filled with fresh blood—he felt as though he was lowering himself into a pool of warm water.

     Then they’d move together, her pelvis against his, his phallus strong and sweet within her, moving gently as the waves on a shore. She’d always rise up, like a wave, and he enjoyed this, watching her rise up, her breasts like two white peaches new in the moonlight.

     Then they’d lain together, and she’d talk to him about where she’d been, and always the owl would croon from the maple tree, whose leaves split the moonlight in two like fractions of a crystal and spread them across her skin like some ethereal being.

     He’d bring his finger across the soft down of her stomach, slipping his thumb into the sunk in and wrinkled crevice of her belly button. He memorized the lines of her collarbone and the sweet musky fragrance of her skin (like ripe milk, gardenias and salt water) and then he’d kiss her again, because she said something that hit his ear right or she noted how his eyes gleamed like the Baltic Sea. He’d clutch her to him and they’d begin again, like new, like always and she’d undulate below him like the sea does faithfully beneath the sky.

     Under him she was born new, and she told him this, and they’d stay like this for eternities, always new, always arriving, never going. They’d switch positions and time would always remain standing still.

     She was always young here, always vibrant, always fresh—her skin always dewy and ripe like two white peaches, always sweet with the nectar of spring.

     The starlight would play upon her dark hair as it spread across the cotton of his pillow and she’d bring a diminutive finger to his lips, and he’d grasp it and draw it across the stubble he’d grown just for her and she’d sigh and take him in her again, and again the world was new and real and it was his first taste of life and she was the promise of tomorrow.

     He awoke and smelt the sheets, his nostrils pressed tight against the cotton weave. Had it been vivid once again? He arose, his naked body stiff in the magenta dawn as his feet padded across the frigid planks of the hardwood floor. But she was not here. She was nowhere to be found. 


Desolation Row

The train halted to a stop, wheezing as it approached the abandoned train depot. Humid air engulfed Louise as she stepped down from the passenger car and into the arid flatland of Illinois. The oppressive heat of the sun scalded the land and Louise felt herself perspire under its gaze. The steel train tracks were stitched to the earth like a long zipper. Clouds of dust would kick up in the air by the subtle arid breezes that only made the humidity stronger such that Louise felt as though there was a hot furnace being pressed up against her skin. She was dressed demurely in a white silk gown with a taffeta slip with dyed gold sandals and a white handbag. She had made the bold choice to wear makeup, her lipstick the shade of crushed rose petals that looked soft and delicate against the ivory pallor of her skin. The heat had wilted her chignon, making her chestnut hair fall limp at the sides of cheeks. She was the only person that got off the train.

She was sure that this was the middle of nowhere; the only sounds were that of steel crying out in pain due to the heat pounding down on its flesh and irrevocably warping it. Louise raised a hand to shade her eyes and looked across the train depot to see dormant freight trains limp and waiting against a tall, cracked wooden fence. The highway ran just overhead with cars rushing past and hitting Louise’s ears like the sound of waves crashing on a distant shore.  It was as if the highway above this desolate place made it forgotten by the collective imagination.

Every once in a while, an automated voice from the overhead speakers would tell of another train being delayed. As Louise crossed the tracks from the small and insignificant train kiosk, she was surprised to see a turquoise and white taxi mini-van pull up, the rubber wheels of the van’s tires grated against the gravel and halted to a stop. In the driver’s seat Louise identified a rather burly looking man with long brown hair, heavy eyebrows and a suspect looking mustache.

She watched as he tilted his mirror to the back seat. Louise crossed the tracks curiously. She was not in the mood to make friends. Her liver felt scalded by the vitriolic acid of disappointment such to the point where the bitterness that corrupted her blood began licking and seeping through the skin of her heart.

Louise watched as the woman exited the mini-van cab and withdrew a gargantuan rolling suitcase and a heaving fuchsia purse with blonde leather straps. The woman wore perfectly ironed white shorts, a billowing black silk tunic and black and white espadrilles. Her eyes were obscured by large, ovular jet black designer sunglasses and her chocolate brown hair was piled high upon her head in a tousled ponytail. Her skin was richly pigmented in a deep olive tone and her cheeks were lush, adding a childlike fullness to her face. She smiled at Louise.

Louise eschewed the woman’s kind gesture, turning in profile to gaze at the perforated orange construction fence that bordered an abandoned orange bulldozer.

She listened as the woman’s rolling suitcase kicked up the gravel, a cloud of dust billowing behind her. The closer the woman with the luggage got the less Louise wanted to interact with her. All the same, the woman was fast approaching, her face beaming in a grin. Louise snarled and contorted her features into a maudlin mask, her makeup melting fast like an aging movie star or a pathetic clown. The woman joined Louise on the asphalt strip by the standalone kiosk. Louise folded her arms across her chest. Ten minutes passed.

 

“Are the trains always like this?” The woman asked while peering at Louise through her Jackie Onassis sunglasses. They were the only people at the station. Louise turned to her and exhaled loudly, her body tired from waiting.

“No, not usually. If this ever happened on a daily basis Metra would be out of business.”

Twenty minutes passed and the automated voice over the speakers kept repeating the message of train delays, adding on more minutes to an already significant number that had passed.

The woman sat on her large rolling suitcase and turned on a video. Louise listened to the sound of a giggling baby and turned her head to see the woman watching a video on her phone. Had Louise’s bitterness subsided she would have asked the woman about it, but another part of her chafed at the idea the woman might have done it to inspire conversation.

Would if she was one of those proud moms who always wanted to gloat about their kids? Louise had no intention of having kids, at least not yet; she had experienced a hormonal glitch by means of the maternal gene and was constantly made to feel like an outcast by the women in her family for it. The last thing Louise wanted was to be stranded in the middle of nowhere on a hot, dusty day pretending to care about something she didn’t. The laughing baby video ended and Louise sighed a breath of relief.

When it was made clear that the train would never arrive at the station, when the steel tracks were warped like a bowl of limp noodles, Louise reneged and called her father. After three dropped calls they finally got a connection.

“I’m at Berkeley.” Louise said into the mouth of the phone. She listened to the sound of his shock on the other end of-—a sharp intake of air, an agitated retort.

“Berkeley?!” He said, aghast. “Why didn’t they let you off at Elmhurst?” Louise said nothing, preferring to let the skin of her elbow dig into the grains of wood at the standalone kiosk.

“Well, find me the address and I’ll look for you.” He said after the shock had passed. Louise wanted a martini and a sandwich so badly that she told the woman with the luggage. The woman looked at Louise through her black sunglasses and nodded in agreement.

“Oh god,” the woman with the luggage said, “Me too!”

Louise felt her phone vibrate in her white leather handbag, and unzipping it quickly, was happy to see it was her father. She answered it only to get another dropped call. He left a voicemail.

“I’m going to follow the train tracks,” He said in the message.

“So what were you going to the city for today?” The woman asked Louise. Louise, who was leaning against the kiosk, turned her gaze from the abandoned bulldozer to the woman with the luggage.

“Job interview.” She said. “It was going to be my big break. Then this train delay for forty-five minutes outside Elmhurst and they wouldn’t open the doors until we got to this godforsaken station and I just got out, I was so frustrated. I figured there’d be another train back or it’d be easy to find, but my dad’s had no luck at all.” The woman tilted her chin and turned her lips down sympathetically.

“I’m sorry.” She said. Louise shrugged her shoulders and felt tears welling up in her eyes, she was grateful she was wearing sunglasses as she always hated crying in front of strangers.

“It’s fine,” Louise said, lying. “What about you?” She asked the woman.

“I was visiting my in-laws with my husband and son in Minnesota. I landed at O’Hare and my GPS said that Berkeley was the nearest train station.”

“I bet you’re regretting that.” Louise said.

“I am!” laughed the woman.

“I’m sorry I didn’t ask,” Louise said, curtailing the woman’s laughter, “My name’s Louise, what’s yours?”

“Maggie.” The woman said. The women exchanged a smile and Louise felt her bag vibrate, it was her father.

“Wow! The first call that hasn’t dropped, that’s a miracle!” Louise said into the phone.

“Don’t jinx it!” Said her father. “Now, can you look up the street name?” He asked. “Yes!” She said and walked from the asphalt strip to the gravel parkway and up to the cracked limestone sidewalk covered in oxidized and mutilated apples.

In order to get to the train station one had to go through a disarming residential neighborhood whose corroded garage doors and chipped, water-damaged houses conveyed a message of hostility to any etic if they so happened to chance upon this desolate row of houses.

The heat was especially oppressive as it weighed down upon Louise’s shoulders as she leered over the cracked sidewalk to look up at the street sign.

“It’s Park Avenue and Arthur Avenue.” Louise said into the phone. For a moment her dad did not respond. Louise worried the call had dropped. She felt her nerves corrupted once more by her agitation and the heat.

“Ok…” He responded back after a beat. Louise rolled her shoulders and cracked her neck. She felt her skin becoming more taut and dry and stained with red the longer she stood under the sun. She looked down at her shadow that branded the sidewalk and then back up at Maggie. The two women smiled at each other in solidarity, two strangers becoming friends in the middle of nowhere.

“It’s so hot!” Louise said.

“Hey, at least it’s not freezing…” Maggie said, eluding to the frigid Midwestern winters.

“So where were you supposed to go?” Louise asked. Maggie looked at the wrinkles running through the palms of her hands before mooning over her manicured nails.

“Geneva.” She said, sighing. Louise perked up at the sound of rubber tires pulling against the gravel parkway billowing up clouds of white dust. She identified the car as her father’s. Sure enough in the passenger seat there he was, wearing his signature silk button down shirt and sunglasses.

“You wouldn’t find it creepy if I suggested you come with us? We’re going to Geneva.” Louise said.

“Oh my god! Not at all!” Maggie said in excitement. Louise’s father peeled himself from the driver’s seat and rushed towards Maggie’s luggage, promptly sticking it in the trunk.

“Dad, this is Maggie.” Louise said.

“Hi, Maggie!” He said in reply. Louise’s father was a short and round man with a physique similar to a bulldog and he bore a striking resemblance to Ernest Hemingway. His voice was like Santa Claus, an illustrious baritone. Louise smiled at hearing his voice again without it being hindered by technology. He hugged his daughter happily and Louise slipped in the back seat allowing Maggie the front seat. Both women sighed as the air conditioning blew through the vent.

“Now girls,” Louise’s father said after they’d exited the citadel, “Never get off at Berkeley!” Maggie and Louise looked at each other and laughed.

Louise and her father sat together at the patio table, serenaded by the chorus of crickets and cicadas ricocheting across the garden. The lawn was dry and blanched due to the insufferable heat. Louise’s father clipped his Amish cigar, the cardamom and tobacco scent pungent in the humid air. Louise nibbled on her cold chicken sandwich.

“Now,” He said, putting the cigar between his lips and puffing on it while lighting it with his tarnished butane lighter. “I’ve come to the conclusion had you not gotten off at Berkeley, that poor Maggie would be lying dead on the side of the road somewhere in that abysmal neighborhood like flattened out vermin.”

Louise set down her sandwich and felt the hair on her body bristle. She pushed away the dish and wiped her mouth with the napkin.

“I’m sorry,” He said, realizing he’d eviscerated Louise’s appetite.

“No, it’s fine.” Louise said, her eyes darting over to an apple red monarch butterfly that landed on an empty patio chair. She looked back at her father who eyed her with concern. He set down his cigar on his ceramic ashtray and reached for her hand.

“You didn’t miss you chance,” He told her. “I know you think you did, but you didn’t.” Louise felt her eyes begin to water and the sharp prick of sadness grasp her heart.

 

 


Chances

She was his dead brother’s wife. Of the three women Peter had married when he was alive, Will liked Audra the best. Audra could have passed for a supermodel. Measuring at 5’9”, she was statuesque with long, sculpted legs that went on for miles. Due to her years spent as a Pentecostal and her newfound embrace of New Age philosophy, Audra eschewed her wardrobe of yore (every piece of flesh covered in Pioneer era clothing) and embraced short skirts, halter-tops and animal print. Audra had a warm presence and Will’s sister Judy always said she was, “an angel sent from heaven”, and he had a tough time refuting her on that. Besides being physically beautiful, Audra also had a large and giving heart: when Peter was on chemo and at death’s door, Audra did not shirk and run away and even chose to marry him when he proposed to her. The wedding had been a funny thing in itself as, Will’s nephew Josh was set to marry his fiancée with whom he had recently had a child with; however, there had been a dispute over an image of him and an ex that was posted on Facebook and Lisa (his fiancée) called the engagement off. However, this came on the heels of all the wedding invitations being sent off and everyone in the entire family had already RSVP’d. The list included all of Will’s family on the West Coast who had already bought plane tickets. Peter, whom upon meeting Audra’s mother, had never shut up to her about how much he loved her and wanted to marry her took the chance and proposed to her. Audra bravely accepted. “She’s marrying a dead man,” Judy said. After the wedding there had been three more rounds of chemo, but just before the fourth he told Audra his body had become a wasteland and the chemo would be futile. Three months later Peter died. Will and Audra had presided over his deathbed, enlisting friends and family to say their goodbyes, and keeping Peter company as he edged closer to death.

 

That his death brought them closer together was the elephant in the room; in recent months Will and Audra had gone out to dinner together rather frequently. This flickered across Judy’s radar but she never once brought it up to Will for fear of broaching a delicate subject after all, he was on the heels of his divorce. His ex-wife, Louise, had bled him dry of his retirement pension, humiliated him in front of his children and cuckolded him with their son’s rugby coach. The divorce, with all things considered, had left him erring on the cynical when it came to relationships. However, Audra had insinuated herself into his life in a pleasing, non-aggressive manner and he found himself looking forward to the next time he’d see her. Tonight he sat in her living room as she rushed around the bedroom tidying things up and getting dressed. She had lit candles, bathing the house in a gentle glow. The candles smelt like pumpkin and Will leaned back on the couch, his lanky yet sinewy frame, stretching out amongst the pillows and the blankets. Lola, his niece, had said he resembled David Duchovny. Will attributed her reasoning for comparing him to the famous actor came due to his penchant for watching “The X-Files” everyday after work when he had worked for Gamble & Sons Plumbing when he was still married to Louise. Judy and Louise had contracted a trade-off, wherein Louise watched Lola and Mary (Judy’s daughters) when Judy had to work and Judy in turn watched Frank, Paula and Heidi when Louise had to work. Will felt his head twinge when he thought of his former life. He thought of Louise’s manic states and how the whole house smelt astringent and strong like a hospital because Louise was worried about flu season; he thought of her lowest moods when she’d complain she had a migraine just so she could stay in bed all day. Will had endured Louise’s ups and downs, had fathered her children, had done the unthinkable and salvaged her horrible credit history—all unselfishly—and yet, she had found him unfit as a man and had fucked her son’s rugby coach, unrepentantly. He had a nervous breakdown and took to drinking. His middle child, Heidi, took care of him on the nights when he could not take care of himself, when he drank more whiskey and beer than his body could handle. She would wipe his face of vomit with a warm towel and put him to bed with Ibuprofen and a glass of water, and in the morning she would fix him breakfast. Peter had still been alive at the time and Heidi had confided to him her worry for her father’s health. Taking it upon himself, Peter invited his little brother over for a blunt and a heart-to-heart. It was April but it felt much warmer, and Will still remembered the smell of the damp earth and the cries of the cardinal through the trees. “Man,” Peter had said, “You can’t let it get to you. You can’t let girls like that get to you– you are so much better than that, little brother. You are so much better than that.” He took a hit of the blunt, smashing it between his lips and wincing. Peter was completely bald now and skinny and Will thought he resembled Siddartha. The smoke curled up and he passed it to Will, “You know,” Peter said, taking with air sucked into the back of his throat, “If I would have let Alice do that to me, I would have died years ago,” he exhaled, “But you didn’t,” said Will. “No, I didn’t. I did not. And you know, then I met Becky, and she screwed me over, too, nearly bled me dry just like the last one. And you know, I don’t know why it happened, you meet a bitch and they feel like sucking all the life out of you… but not all women are bad. Some women—some women,” At this, Peter turned around in his lounge chair and stared back at the house, “some women like Audra, are angels.” Will scratched his head and felt a warm tranquility spread over him. Every corpuscle in his body resonated with new life and he tipped his head back on the lawn chair and stared up at the deep indigo sky and the stars looked like shattered diamonds. The subject morphed into a discussion about human mortality. Peter admitted to Will that he knew he was dying. “…and when I die,” Will looked at him with glistening eyes, “Don’t say that, Petey… don’t say that…” “No, no,” he said, “No, I know I’m going to die, I’ve made peace with that. We’re all going to die, Willy. It’s happening. You can’t escape that fact… anyway, when I die…” Will smiled, mystified at his brother’s flippant embrace of his own mortality (he felt giddy from the blunt); “Ok, ok…” Peter leaned in on the arm of the dark green plastic lawn chair, his calloused fingertip digging into Will’s ribs, “I want you to look out for Audra.” Will stared at his brother, his mouth arid. He began to rebuff his brother, but found his serious look too much to contend with his drug-addled state. “Ok.” He said. “Ok.” “I mean it,” Peter said again, “I want you to care for her. I love her.”

 

The memory of that night pulled at his heart and he leaned forward on the couch and smoothed his hands through his hair. He felt a presence in the room and looked up to see Audra standing before him. She was wearing a little black dress that came up to her sculpted thighs, a red trench coat and stilettos. She tilted her head at him sympathetically and pushed her fingers through his hair. Surprising himself, he grabbed for her wrist and leaned in and kissed her hand. She smelt sweet, like vanilla and brown sugar, and she blinked slowly at him, her lips peeling open. “Will,” she said. “Are you ready?” She asked. “Yes,” he said, “I’m ready.”


To Be Perfect

She called it, “the science experiment”, but never to Aunt Doreen’s face. It was a mason jar filled with live probiotic cultures that were clustered together in a gooey white mass that she poured milk over; she put the jar on top of an avocado green coriander and sealed it with a paper towel, making a keffiyeh. She would siphon the mass of bacteria into a glass and swallow it without flinching. Aunt Doreen was loud and heavy-handed. She was married to a wealthy Canadian from Montreal named Paul who was a millionaire many times over, although no one in the family was sure of what he did. “I prefer to be in the shadows,” was what he had said once. The reason for her visit was her son’s wedding. Rather than stay at a hotel, Aunt Doreen decided to stay at Lucy’s parents’ house; “my Chicago house!” was what she called it, although her relationship with everyone who lived there was stale. To begin with, her husband kept trying to steal her brother-in-law’s business through a series of failed coups, each time causing the fault lines of their relationship to fracture a little more. Lucy’s rift with Aunt Doreen came after she announced to her mother that she was no longer a Catholic and identified as a Buddhist. Lucy did not foresee the repercussions her change in religion would cause, but Aunt Doreen saw fit to show her just how wrong she was to be a Buddhist. In the December of her sophomore year, Lucy received a card depicting Jesus in the Nativity awash in golden light, hoping it would only be a few words she opened the card to find it teeming with Aunt Doreen’s evangelism accompanied by a small pamphlet of negative propaganda against Buddhism written by the Vatican. Lucy scoffed and rebuffed her attempts by ignoring them. Presently, Aunt Doreen was staying down the hall from Lucy in her sister’s bedroom. Her sister Julia was in Santa Ana and would be “unable” to make the wedding. Lucy had thought nothing of it at first when she heard from her parents that Aunt Doreen would be staying upstairs with her; however in a matter of days she discovered why there was an ominous tone in their voices when they’d repeated the bedroom arrangements: every morning at four forty-five, Aunt Doreen woke up. The bathroom door, aged with rust, would whine whenever she opened it and the faucet in the shower would drip. This did not particularly bother Lucy, however, the little things culminated significantly one morning when Doreen talked on her phone rather loudly at seven in the morning. Stubbornly, she got out of bed and walked to the bathroom. The cool ceramic tile kissed the soles of her feet and she shook in the frigid early morning air. The faucet in the shower had been left running once more and so after some trouble (the loofa’s strap was locked in the knob, causing the water to drip) Lucy turned the knob and the water shut off. “Oh! I didn’t mean to wake you!” Doreen said, pausing for a moment from her phone call, she stood in between the threshold of the bedroom and the bathroom. Doreen was a very beautiful woman, and for her age (nearing on sixty) she was in spectacular shape; this of course was attributed to her frenzied commitment to cardiovascular and Pilates exercises (naturally she was opposed to yoga as she found it carnal in nature). Blessed with the same Rayleigh Scattering as Wendy, Lucy’s mother, the overall effect of her sapphire eyes and translucent skin gave off a rather angelic effect that was offset perfectly by her dark brown hair. Lucy felt dwarfed in her large pink robe and dowdy in her tortoise shell glasses. “It’s fine,” she said with a passive-aggressive shrug, and Doreen excused herself from threshold to continue the phone conversation she was having. Lucy supposed it was Paul on the other line. Lucy examined herself in the mirror, teasing out all her flaws before rummaging through a drawer and grabbing a hair tie. She quickly stuffed her hair into a topknot and walked downstairs. She felt the residual desire for sleep flicker across her body as she heated up the percolator for some coffee. It was too early for anyone else to be up. Pouring some coffee into a white ceramic mug, the tension in her lower back announced itself sharply. Lucy winced and watched as Doreen walked down the stairs. Lucy, inadvertently, eschewed her presence. Once again Doreen apologized. Doreen was doing a lot of apologizing as of late: on Tuesday night at dinner Lucy had butted heads with Doreen over the new socialist prime minister in France; the former had been thrilled at his election while Doreen had extolled the faults and follies of socialism. The whole argument would not have been so bad, but Doreen was zealous in “promoting the truth” that every time Lucy went to change the subject, Doreen brought it back up again in a condescending tone. Somehow she managed to spin the discussion about politics into propaganda for the Catholic Church, once again demonizing Lucy for not one but two of her differences in opinion. Lucy, who had not smoked a cigarette since January, broke down and stole one of Wendy’s. The buzz made her giddy, but the next day the repercussions of the cigarette had made her heart move at a frenetic pace. On Wednesday, Doreen had come to Lucy with a rehearsed apology—but this apology was not an apology at all, in fact, Doreen continued to push her agenda onto Lucy despite actively saying she wasn’t. Lucy grinned falsely at her, reassuring her it was all right while internally cursing her. The fact that Doreen woke Lucy up came on the heels of their rift, worsening their fray. Later that day, Lucy and Julia hypothesized Paul’s mysterious career over Google Chat. “I think he works for Halliburton.” Lucy surmised. Julia paused for a moment before saying, “I think he works for a lot of bad people, Luce.” Paul had always been an awkward fit in the family geometry: he was tall and blonde and damned with a ruddy complexion. Not only that, but Doreen and Wendy had been raised in poverty; their father was a traveling salesman and a World War II veteran whereas Paul came from old Canadian money and had done more than his share to quadruple his income through out his life. Doreen had met him when she was working as a paralegal at a law firm he was client to in the early 1970s; she had rebuffed him initially, however, he frequently came in to visit her and seduce her and Doreen’s floodgates opened.  Together they had one son (Louis), and that son was getting married on Friday. The woman he was marrying was reminiscent of a mouse. She was short in stature and had dull brown hair and wore heavy, shapeless fashions that did nothing to define her silhouette. Julia did not like her. Lucy had been willing and eager at first to challenge her sister’s opinion of Louis’ fiancée but soon fell short when she overheard her reciting Republican rhetoric at a Mother’s Day picnic a year prior. This stifled any remaining feelings Lucy had of seeking a friendship with the bride-to-be; luckily at the time Lucy exercised tact and excused herself from the conversation.

 

Lucy was a hypochondriac at best. On Thursday morning she woke up thinking she had a thyroid problem. She was convinced she would turn out like the rubenesque Mrs. Betty Draper Francis on “Mad Men”, and had nightmares where her body inflated like a balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She attributed her lethargic state to the day before and the cigarette she’d had on Tuesday. The concoction was foolproof, she’d come down with a thyroid problem and feel weighed down by some phantom anvil her entire life. On another note, upon looking at the clock, Lucy was excited to see she had slept through the entire night—not even waking up once to check emails on her iPhone concerning grad school. Walking downstairs she was not surprised to see the kitchen flipped upside down and Doreen frantically scouring the stainless steel sink. From the corner of her eye Lucy could make out the gooey white probiotics sticking to the belly of the sink, like some strange alien species. Doreen labored over the sink, her hands in school bus yellow gloves—her skin on this rare occasion, void of makeup—and just for a moment, Lucy scanned her face and after witnessing this fact found there to be some leveling. In the summer of 1984, Doreen and Paul had gotten into a traumatic car accident. They had survived, but not without price, Doreen’s face had taken the brunt of the accident and had been sliced up by the splintered car. Paul used his money and connections and hired the best plastic surgeon, but the scars still remained. Doreen never left the house without a face full of the best makeup money could buy (it was her security blanket) and nobody saw her without it. That she had chosen to be bare faced today seemed like a rare embrace of her self as she was—scars and all—but Doreen quickly turned her face away from Lucy and wrapped herself in the agonizing shroud of pretention. In spite of herself, Lucy decided to turn over a new leaf and look at her visit from a different angle: where Doreen was anal, she was also very thoughtful in cleaning up and where she seemed domineering, she was also very innovative when it came to problem solving. Lucy listened as Doreen cleaned the glass door to the upstairs with Windex, each squeak constituting another surface free of residue; and maybe that’s all Doreen wanted: for everything to be perfect.


An All-American Family

Autumn was election season. George would always listen with delight, as the soles of his shoes would crush the stems of the dried brown leaves that the trees on the boulevard shed. He would do it in tandem with whatever conversation he was having on his Blackberry, a smug smile hugging his face as he rounded a corner on Michigan Avenue, his teeth pearly white and glistening as the September sun reflected off the glass windows of the skyscrapers. He was happy to hurry along to his campaign office; one nestled close to the Hancock. He was proud of his ability to order catered lunches to the young, idealistic workers and had the church on his side. Young Republicans weren’t as popular in the sixties when he was growing up, but the tables had turned and the natives were restless, and so they flocked to him with their demands. He thanked the mega-churches who made worship hip again and whenever Reverend Kelley would compliment George’s campaign for pro-life, George would tilt his head skyward (the sun shining upon him and on his golden crucifix pin resting on the lapel of his Hugo Boss suit) and he would say, “But it’s not me who is doing it, Reverend Kelley, it is the Lord!” And the clergy and the congregation would applaud him.

In his time as a senator, George had created a bill (along with a man from Texas) to eradicate abortion clinics through out the fifty states. He had done it successfully and so the idea of a second term seemed largely in his favor. Of course there were bastards that disagreed, but these were lost souls, Satan’s followers, and so he worried very little when Piers Morgan or James Carville demonized him on CNN. He was eyeing the presidency now and knew that the Tea Party would be completely behind him, 100% of the way. He believed it was his mission as a servant of the Lord to be president. He walked forth to his office, a compliment here and there about his new haircut (it made his receding hairline less prominent) and then about his tie (one designed in the style of the American flag) and he’d nod his head in thanks, here and there to every intern. Of course, the women were attractive—with their long hair and their perky breasts—but George was faithful to his wife, Cindy. Together they had three children: two sons and a daughter. His daughter was in the middle, surrounded by his eldest son Timothy who wanted to be a reverend and his youngest son, Joshua who wanted to be (this week) a firefighter. Timothy was twenty-three, while Josh was a meager six-years-old. Oh, and Rebecca. Rebecca was in high school. She was mighty attractive but always talking nonsense here and there about how Reagan’s attack against Grenada was “a massacre”, but he knew otherwise—and so told her to stop speaking that nonsense. But she’d continue on with it, and talk about how the war against marijuana was nothing but William Randolph Hearst wanting to make the nation switch from hemp to trees (he was also jealous of his mistress Marion Davies screwing around with Charlie Chaplin). George believed otherwise. George knew it was because marijuana was Satan’s plant and caused promiscuous sex and mental instability. Whenever Rebecca brought these things to his attention, he’d look at her sideways or down his nose, and ask frankly: “are you smoking pot?” To which she’d shrug her shoulders and exit the room, her nose wrinkled in a smile. He looked through the papers on his desk his mind wandering to how strange Rebecca had been acting as of late. She had gone out a few nights before with Michael Kelley, the Reverend’s son, from church. Michael was one of the youth ministers and as he’d heard from Cindy—quite a catch. George laughed to himself. He knew for certain Rebecca would return to the flock.

*************************************************************

They had sat in his car for fifteen minutes after the movie in a desolate parking lot shaded by locust trees. He had bought them ice cream sundaes from McDonald’s. Rebecca was shy but covered it up in the façade of sarcasm. She dug her spoon into the curls of vanilla ice cream and pushed her spoon in until it repelled against the soft pillow of fudge that rested at the bottom of the plastic cup. It was getting darker out earlier, with the sky graduating from cerulean to indigo before becoming absolutely black in a matter of hours. “You got a little something…” Mike said, pointing to the fudge stain at the corner of her mouth. “I do?” She said, and he nodded before leaning and wiping it (albeit sloppily) with a napkin. “Thanks.” She said, “Is it gone?” He nodded. She smiled and continued eating her sundae. Mike had turned the radio to the Christian station and presently, Jeremiah Wilkins was singing “Our God Is An Awesome God”, his voice all sweetness and light. Rebecca hated the song. It made her cringe. Her face betrayed her emotions, and with a flicker she scrunched her nose, shuddered and looked back out to the parking lot as a Styrofoam cup with the McDonald’s emblem rolled across the gravel of the parking lot and into a pothole.

“What is it?” Mike asked.

“What?” She said, turning to him.

“Why did you stick out your tongue? Is your sundae ok?”

“Oh what? Yeah, no, my sundae’s fine… it’s great…”

“So… what were you stinking your tongue out at?”

“Um… there’s just a cup… rolling around in the parking lot. Can you believe how many people litter? It’s disgusting.”

Mike shrugged. She could tell he wasn’t convinced. “Your dad said you haven’t been going to church a lot, Becky. Have you turned away from our Lord?” She couldn’t help but roll her eyes at his sudden desire to convert her.

“Seriously, Mike? Really? Are we going to do this right now?”

He set his sundae down on the cup holder, twisted the knob on the radio, and put his hands on the lap of his Dockers and exhaled audibly.

“Oh my god…” She said.

“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, Rebecca.”

She lifted her brow superciliously and eyed him with great suspicion.

“Dude, don’t even get me started on the gossip I’ve heard about you.”

He smoothed his hands over his pants and cocked his head to the side.

“He who casts the first stone…”

“Save me your proverbs, Eli.” She said, sharply. “Listen, I know about you and Maggie Hartman.” He retorted.

“Maggie Hartman was a lying slut. I’m glad she moved to Grand Rapids.”

She glowered at him.

“You know what? That is enough. I am out of here!” She said, turning to get out of the car. She listened with fear and watched as the locks of the doors went down in unison, clicking into place.

“Let me out.” She said.

“I’m not letting you out.” He said.

“You are either going to let me out you little scumbag or I am calling the police. Your choice.” But he was on top of her now, and he held her wrists. She squirmed beneath his grasp, avoiding the flicker of his tongue as it protruded from his lips. He bit the skin of her neck and she screamed, the sudden flinch of pain making her vulnerable and so he bit her lower lip. He unzipped his khakis and snaked out his erection from his boxers and pushing her legs open, he inserted himself into her dry vulva and she screamed in pain. He continued on, and she began to bleed and he didn’t stop.

“The Lord wants me to save you!” He said, each thrust like a painful dagger to her innards, and she cried out in horror, and each time she tried to push him off of her, he’d come back stronger and so she was reduced to nothing but a flesh bag for him to put his cock into. She cried, but he didn’t stop and the locust trees watched, shading their tiny yellow leaves over the window of the car and soon she was quiet. And soon he was done. And he put his penis, rife with her blood, rife with what precious bits of herself he had stolen from her, under a small bunch of tissue and wiped the debris and her blood away—like one wipes a dirty nose—and stuffed it back in his boxers. And so she was silent, he made her promise not to tell anyone unless she wanted to go to Hell, unless she wanted this to happen to her again.

**********************************************************

Monday night was the church picnic. Reverend Kelley and his family were hosting it and he asked George and his family to be honored guests. The Kelleys were excited at the prospect of Mike dating Becky, and so they did all they could to get the kids together. But Becky had a headache and couldn’t go.  George shook his head when Cindy related the news (she descended the large oak staircase in a red dress with a blue pashmina, looking every bit a first lady) and George told her he didn’t know what to do with that girl.

She sat in bed feeling at the sore spot. She felt as though someone had ripped her open and left her for dead. It had happened two weeks after her period—right at the peak of ovulation. She knew this because ever since birth control had gone on the Black Market, on the weeks when she couldn’t afford it, she would track her cycle the old fashioned way. The period tracker app on her iPhone proved very helpful on such occasions, but now, seemed a harbinger of bad luck. She wanted to smash the phone against the beige walls of her bedroom but she decided against it.

Her search for an abortion clinic was initially fruitless. She called everywhere she could, asking friends if they knew anywhere in the South Loop or Addison, or even Logan Square if there was a clinic. At the end of ten weeks, she found one. It had come to her through her guidance counselor. The clinic was located in Dundee, a trek from her family’s condo on the Gold Coast, but she was more than willing to take the trip. The clinic was illegal, but her counselor assured her their practices were still safe.

She sat upon the steel table, spread her legs (wincing in pain) the doctor examined her and gave her the RU-845 (it was imported from Canada). She went to a bathroom with a large red door and sat on the toilet and felt a pain licking her uterus, grasping it and pulling it down. They said there were three rounds. She oscillated between clutching her stomach and grasping her hair. A great fever swept over her in a tidal wave, and she groaned, her ass plummeting into the toilet water, her skin dripping with cool sweat. The timing was off. She slipped against the tile floor, convulsing, she clutched her elbows, and clawed at her skin and unable to stop shaking she clutched the grout of the tile until the skin beneath her nails began to bleed. The timing was off. It was ten weeks by now, but she had lied and said it was nine. She couldn’t let her father know, and the church would shun her and look down on her always. They’d never believe Mike Kelley, the reverend’s son, was capable of rape. They’d say Becky was the bad girl. Becky was the whore. Her pupils dilated and she watched as the blood from her vaginal walls began to flood the tiles, thin and watery and smelling of nickel. The smell of death is like the scent of decaying hydrangeas on a cool April afternoon.

*******************************************************

George received news of his daughter’s death as he sat beside Reverend Kelley at the banquet hall. The men laughed together over chardonnay and George patted the reverend. In the pocket of his suit coat, he felt his phone vibrating wildly. The television by the hotel bar was turned on to a local news story. He saw Becky’s face.

What he remembered was a little girl who loved her dolls. He remembered how she loved to collect butterflies in mason jars on a Lake Michigan beach. How she waded between the tall blades of dune grass, her chestnut curls all frizzy in the August heat. He remembered how he comforted her when a mean boy broke her heart by refusing to dance with her in the seventh grade, and how she’d draw pictures of their beagle, Woodstock, tirelessly before collapsing upon the dog in a heap and kissing his wet snout. He remembered how she’d frowned at him when he forgot her birthday present and how happy she was when he took her out on the sailboat for her fourteenth birthday. He remembered when she first began looking like a young woman—how he’d inherited Cindy’s lovely beauty and still was blessed with his nose. He remembered how smart and opinionated she was, and how she refused to let her childlike curiosity die at the first stain of adolescence. He wanted to see her grow into a woman and travel the world and change things.

The news played the story of how she had died. They ran similar stories of how a 20-year-old woman from New Hampshire had died due to a “back alley” abortion, and then another about a 17-year-old girl from Arizona who, after being brutally raped, had succumbed to the same fate as Becky. His mailbox, his e-mail, his office, his wife’s office soon became overrun with hate mail teeming with sentences that disparaged his law.

“This month alone it was fifteen!” One writer yelled, “What will it be next month? Or in a year? Or in three years?” But George could not listen. He slipped into an irrevocable depression, spending his afternoons with a bottle of Johnny Walker Black and waking up in the morning with a pounding headache and a puddle of drool next to his face, his back whining in pain.

Cindy filed for divorce. Timothy began using cocaine. Josh developed a psychosexual disorder where he revealed his penis to girls on the schoolyard—shaking it around with no care of whom he was offending—and the all-American family, this family with stars in their eyes so hopeful to change the world and do “God’s Work”, was reduced to rubble in the imagination of the United States’ consciousness.


The Trouble With The Tea Party

The radical war on women’s rights has been gaining speed effectively, with “Tea Party” Republicans spouting off inane, if not disparaging, remarks toward the modern-day woman. The modern-day woman that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sanger, Juliette Gordon Low, Virginia Woolf, Kate Chopin, Gloria Steinem and countless other women have fought to divulge and preserve. This modern-day woman who can have a choice in whether or not she’d like to procreate or not, or perhaps do later; this modern-day woman who can pursue a full life outside of motherhood in order to fully know herself. A life in which a woman can find true bliss instead of being sterilized to what should be, an ancient archetype that women have grown out of.

Of course the Republicans are scared of this brave, new woman because she challenges the stereotypes that women are frail, delicate creatures; that women are only limited to two different traits: The Madonna or The Whore. But women are more complex than this. Women are not pieces of meat on the cover of “Hustler”, nor the sex-crazed kittens with a bag of tricks that are slapped on the cover of “Cosmopolitan” magazine every week. Women are a myriad of things, but they are not simple dolls meant to sit on shelves while men hunt for food. Women are capable of all things. Republicans are terrified that women will stop producing, and crazed Catholic dogma espouses that women and men should not uncover or experiment with their sexuality lest they risk the flames of Hell licking their bodies, but at the very same time should this occasion happen– a child born out of wedlock is frowned upon, if not defamed– and the woman is looked down upon no matter what choice she makes.

There has never been a world that didn’t demean women. Women whose bodies are important for our species’ survival, yet all the same are looked down upon for this same trait. Women whom for years on end have been told how to be, who to be, what to look like; and for an instance these ideas were squashed; but people began getting scared and they demeaned feminism and disassociated from the word despite the fact that their mothers, daughters, sisters, nieces, aunts and grandmothers were earning .75 cents to their dollar; what a disenfranchisement to the women who work tirelessly in this world, juggling hormones, academia, careers, part-time jobs, full-time jobs, children, husbands or wives, lovers, parents and pets. The women who work tirelessly behind the scenes.

And yet when a woman gets pregnant, and it is not her time and when the world or herself demand something else of her, and in times like these when corruption has spoiled the economy– it would be easier to have an abortion, a safe and effective one– but now that right is trying to be disposed of. But imagine this: imagine a teenage girl who gets pregnant by mistake because she could not afford birth control? And would if that teenage girl comes from a conservative home? And would if that teenage girl tries to avoid the humiliation of revealing to her parents she’s pregnant by sneaking out to get a back-alley abortion? And in the process of that back-alley abortion she dies of complications?

The Republicans believe they are being noble in their efforts to squash abortion and birth control rights for women, but this is not so. What they are doing is setting up extreme situations for all women. By trying to do away with birth control and Roe v. Wade, there will be millions of women like the hypothetical situation above.   I hope they will soon realize their folly, and in doing so may repent, because women have given so much to the world and it is time the world give us something in return.