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Entries in Fiction (6)


Manning the Ramparts

“It’s still out there,” he said. He wasn’t fully worked up, but she could tell he was headed that way. Not frothing, just the usual rolling boil. He was exhausting. Always had been.

She looked at him, now, as he stood tensed at their living room, peering through a parted curtain at the offending van parked out front. There were times lately where she noticed herself being a little disgusted by him. Now, in his agitation, was a such a time. He was only on his first goddamn cup of coffee, and he was already in a lather. Which was made worse, somehow, by the fact that he was still in the dingy long johns he slept in. They were all stretched out in the ass, making him look even more disheveled and pear-shaped than he already was.

She directed her gaze away from him, standing there all aggrieved and saggy-assed.

“Joel. Just leave it,” she said in the same kind of exasperated tone you’d use with a dog you caught drinking out the toilet for like the millionth time.

She turned back to her tablet and read the same goddamn line for the fourth goddamn time. Jesus. She just wanted to read the goddamn paper before she had to shower for work.

“Listen,” she said. “Could you grab me some more coffee?” He shambled over to her, eyes still fixed on the gap in the curtain where he’d been surveilling the van. He took her mug and headed to the kitchen, muttering.

“Idiot,” she said softly, at the screen of her tablet.

She didn’t even want more coffee. She was just redirecting him. The way you do with a toddler. He brought back her mug, trailing steam. He returned to the window. She read the same line again.

“Been out there for like thirteen days,” he said, in that voice he got when he was seething about something, but trying to sound like he was not seething. He also, she knew, tried to sound like he was estimating. “Like thirteen days,” he said. As though he didn’t know exactly how long that van had been parked out there, which she knew good and goddamn well he did. He always knew the particulars when he was on one of his tiny crusades. He believed that facts imbued his idiot causes with something like justice. In this, as with so much, he was entirely wrong.

She turned off her tablet. If she read this same line one more goddamn time, she was pretty sure she’d whip her coffee cup at him.

“I’m gonna shower,” she said. He gazed out at the van. He called it the Abduction Van. Cause it looked like the kind of van you’d see in an Amber Alert.

She turned the handle, held her hand under the faucet, waiting for the water to get hot. Was he technically correct? Sure. That skeevy-looking van should not be out there. Or the guy who owned the van should have gotten Illinois plates and a city sticker and all that shit. But he wasn’t gonna. He was gonna leave his beat-to-shit van right where it was, hulking on the goddamn curb like a dented primer gray pile of robot poop. And the handyman or whoever it was that owned the thing was probably not making a goddamn nickel now, in February, because everybody who might hire him was just hunkered in their houses waiting for a thaw to start refinishing their floors and shit.

And, yes, it sucked that this ugly space-and-a-half-taking van was out in front of our place; and yes, it is technically wrong that the dude has not gotten his Illinois tags and stuff; and yes, this unsightly Abduction Van represented an incremental increase in the hassles Joel encountered trying to park their car on the block – but guess what? Living in a city means dealing with all manner of inconvenience and indignity – it’s death by a thousand cuts. That’s what it IS. If you goddamn rail against every goddamn cut, you have no goddamn time for anything else.

But Joel was nothing if not compulsive – he pursued every inconsequential thing to the bitterest extreme. Because like every armchair revolutionary, the closer he got to being absolutely right about something, the more feverishly insufferable Joel became.

She couldn’t do this today. She had to get ready for work. Joel had time for this shit. He freelanced writing blog posts for a handful of search engine optimization companies – brainless, easy work she considered not merely beneath him, but beneath us all. As a species. Because his mind was effectively unoccupied, he could spend his days surveilling the offending van and its criminal owner.

The next day, after a crappy workday, followed by a tense dinner where Joel’s attentions remained divided, followed by passing out on the couch to Netflix and snorting awake in the dead of night to shuffle, teeth unbrushed, to bed, she awoke to find Joel skulking at the window with an even more crazed edge to him. He was just about dancing like he needed to pee. She said nothing and headed to the kitchen.

Joel had made no coffee. As she grabbed the filters, she made a mental note to use this fact in their next fight.

When she had a coffee, finally, she went out and sat in her chair and fire up her tablet to read the paper. Out the corner of her eye, she could see Joel bouncing on the balls of his slippered feet, head swiveling between the van outside and her in her chair. He was clearly bursting with a desire that she ask him what he was so keyed up about. She sipped her coffee, pointedly ignoring him.

Something happened outside. Something Joel had been waiting for. He flattened his nose against the cold window. She sipped her coffee. Joel, suddenly, was crestfallen. She suppressed a malicious laugh.

She rose to get ready for work. Joel followed her to the bathroom, and the bedroom, and the kitchen and the bedroom again, barely taking a breath in his incensed monologue about the note he had written to Van Guy, a note that Joel quoted liberally, using air quotes each time, a note that repeatedly featured the word “discourtesy” and told the heroic tale of how he snuck downstairs in the predawn to tuck it under the van’s wiper then hustled back upstairs for the big reveal. Then, in sputtering outrage, as she snagged her keys and made for the door, Joel told how Van Guy had plucked the note from under the wiper, balled it up unread, and deposited it on the curb.

As she left, the thought she might have seen a tear quivering on Joel’s lower lid.

“Idiot,” she said, as she made her way down the stairs.

Of course it escalated from there. Of course it did.

In the coming days, Joel called the city’s non-emergency number a bunch of times, anonymously, to narc on the shirking van. Then he let a bunch of air out of the van’s tires. His masterstroke, she thought, was when he scattered a bunch of birdseed and crumbled suet cakes on the van’s roof. Within hours, the criminal van was spattered and streaked with a Jackson Pollock’s worth of bird shit.

But ultimately, of course, Joel’s frenzy and fury led nowhere.

Because Joel, she could see clearly, now, was very much the idiot she’d been calling him for months. As his jihad gathered intensity, she soured on him completely – expressed as a line graph, Joel’s van fervor climbed in spiky ascent, while her Joel fondness plunged precipitously downward.

Joeal was an ineffectual turd and she had come to hate him.

Eight days after the bird shit caper, she kicked him out. Joel made like seven trips back and forth past the van as he loaded his shit into an Uber.

She watched out the window as the Uber pulled away.

“Idiot,” she said, really meaning it.


The Night In Question

The Chicago Tribune's (pitifully slim and roundly disregarded) Printers Row Lit supplement ran a contest a while back, requesting Chicago stories (for CASH PRIZES!!!) - needless to say I did not win/was not selected. I reckon this was not the kind of civic boosterism they were after.

But, given the growing list of such episodes, and the city's simpleminded pledge to put more cops on the streets, it seems germane.

It was grisly out there. No question. He peered between his mungey curtains and shook his head at the slashing needles of frozen rain as they pinged off the stop sign on the corner outside and made the puddles all stippled and fidgety. He knew he’d have to go out in that, and was not thrilled. But neither did he wish to suffer the pain of a cigarette-less morning. He shuffled away from the window. Thought for a second about stabbing around in the mound of mashed butts in the wide glass ashtray on the end table, to look for a long one.

“Nah. Gross,” he explained to nobody.

He headed back to the kitchen to see how the coffee was coming. Checked in the freezer. Sometimes when he’d been drinking, he’d stash a pack of smokes in there. He rolled the frosted vodka aside, shifted the thing of frozen peas. Nothing.

The coffee maker burped and gargled, exhaling a burnt perfume. He stared into the nicked-up drain, speckled by a mealy tiara of rice from the Chinese place from like… Tuesday, maybe?

He scrutinized the coffee maker. He scolded himself again for not buying the kind where you can take the decanter thing out and pour a cup and it won’t hit you with a scalding jet of coffee. This one had been a few bucks less. At the time, in the store, that had seemed to matter. Didn’t matter now. The thing took forever. And he had to wait till it was all the way finished before he could pour some. He’d tried the thing where he’d do a quick switcheroo between the decanter thing and his mug, but it never worked. Always spilled – couldn’t get the – what the hell do you call it? Carafe. The carafe didn’t come out smoothly – had to sort of dog-leg is up off the heating element thing. Every damn time. And since the Formica of the countertop was cracked pretty bad from that one time he’d set a pot of boiled pasta water on there – from back when the kids would still come over, back when he made something like an effort – you could still make out the brown burn ring, like the kind of vague corona that made people see the face of Jesus in a water stain, or the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast. The spilled coffee would always find its way there to the crack and seep into the core of the counter. And that particleboard was already spongy and warped enough. He was pretty sure he’d never be able to sell this heap of a house anyway. Soon as some hopeful young couple, the advanced guard of the Yoga Mat People who’d been infiltrating for the past maybe seven years, got a look at this 30-year-old kitchen with its electric non-stainless stove, they’d spin on their heels and head back snickering to their realtor’s SUV. “And that WALLPAPER? Can you stand it?” That kind of thing.

He thought ruefully about how you were expected to line the nests of the richer people who came to displace you – before they’d stoop to conquer your neighborhood, you had to put in maple cabinets and subway-tile your bathrooms and all that. That’s why he’d half-resolved to die in this house – a lone dirtbag holdout who watched as garden gnomes and boat trailers got replaced on all sides by Japanese maples and shiny-coated dogs. All the stucco and siding was gone, pretty much – ripped down by the people who talked among themselves about houses in the area having good bones. Hardly anybody honked when they edged their crypt-quiet hybrids out of the alleys, which could just about kneecap you every time. He’d been driving down Lamon the other week and there was a house with a set of solar panels up top of it.

He waited, anyhow, for the machine to finish so he wouldn’t have to sop up coffee. He stared at the coffee collecting in the decanter thing for a minute, then decided he should maybe go put on a shirt. He’d gone to flab. So he kind of hated catching sight of his shirtless self reflected back at him in the window or the shower door.  And in the window over the sink, standing on the beaten linoleum of the slanting kitchen floor, he could see his pointy and wall-eyed man-boobs, which sickened him some.

In the bedroom, out back, he caught a glimpse of a cardinal as it alit on the wind-silvered wood of the back fence. He pulled on his least rancid t-shirt. He bet himself he could find the spot along that fence where they had buried the turtle. This was years ago, now.            

Before Ginny and the kids took off. He could remember the funeral – Emma clutching a wilted bouquet of dandelions to lay on the turtle’s coffin. Those flowers. Yellow heads dangling over the top of her fat little hand, like sunny heads lolling off slender green nooses – saddest goddamn thing he ever saw. It was like a dryer sheets box, that turtle coffin. That was one of the things he missed – the way his clothes used to smell when they came out of the dryer, all Ginny-folded and fresh. How the dryer sheets made it kind of nice to lean on his own arm and breathe in that flower smell. He bought those same kind of dryer sheets once after Ginny and the kids left. But the smell was no good, now – it was soured a little, like everything else.

He remembered Emma bringing that turtle home – back then, she was always like half a driveway ahead of Joshy, who still needed Ginny to unbuckle him from his car seat. Emma came pounding down the hall to show him this little guy, this stunned-looking turtle, in his little glass box with the fake hollow log in there, and the parti-colored pebbles. He’d been having a coffee before second shift, was reading the paper. He’d asked her – in that half-attentive way you do when you’re talking to your kids about something they’re all hopped up about – what she was going to name him. “Sanchez!” she’d shouted. “I wanna show him his new room!” And she’d tromped up the carpeted stairs. He hadn’t wanted to make a big deal. So he didn’t say anything. But what was with the beaner name? He’d made a note not to let the jags at the squad know about this, or he’d never hear the end of it. Or have Emma change the name to something white. He’d meant to talk to Ginny about it. But he didn’t know how, without it turning into a whole thing.

Whatever. Long time ago. He gazed at their back fence and mentally pinned a little flag in the spot where they’d laid Sanchez the turtle to rest.

He was still staring absently when he heard the final shuddering belches of the coffee. So he headed back in the kitchen. He snagged one of his chipped Fraternal Order mugs and poured in coffee, which he knew would be burnt-tasting again. It was. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cleaned out the decanter thing. Which had a scalded ring of coffee crust all along the inside.

He’d have to grab smokes soon, or his head would be splitting. He went back to the bedroom to pull on his maroon track pants and grab his wallet. He took a last slug of coffee. Ugh. Maybe he’d grab a coffee at the 7-11, along with smokes, since you could clean an engine block with this swill he’d just poured – swill he’d had to wait for.

He slid his keys out of the plate-bowl thing Josh has made in pottery at camp that one year. Ugly and malformed as this dish was, with its uneven coat of booger-colored glaze, he felt just about sure that if this dump burned down, it’s one of the few things he’d grab on his way out. Even though it looked like ass, the picture of those stubby little Joshy fingers molding it just for him – he couldn’t shake it. And even though it was just an everyday thing where his keys and coins and Chapsticks lived, he was pretty sure it’d mess him up inside if he didn’t have it.

He hauled his parka off the back of the kitchen chair and stepped out into the cold. Whenever he got out on the cracked concrete, he realized how bad it stunk in the house. He’d have to hire somebody to give the place a real and thorough cleaning – there was like a vinegary musk funk in there. He was trapped inside his own old man smell. Which – whatever – it’s not like anybody ever came by.

He patted himself down. Keys? Yeah, in his hand. Wallet? In his parka pocket, yes. Before he inserted his key in the lock and twisted the bolt home, he thought: “Should I take the Glock?” He always asked himself this. Force of habit. Asked it when he was still on the force. Which was like seventeen years ago, now. Asked it every time he went out. Better not, he answered. Nearly every time, now. Better not.

He crunched across the dimpled ice of the walk and slid in behind the wheel of the Durango. Used to be so proud of this thing. Used to get it washed every week. Used to glimpse it out the kitchen window in the drive, looking mean and ready in the moonlight. Now, though. It was all salt-ravaged and banged up, pocked and rust-blistered, the leather on the driver’s seat was split and cracked, foam bulging out of it. The Durango’s starter sounded like it was about to seize up for good, and overall it ran really rough. When it finally gasped its last, he figured he’d just set a couple road flares down behind it and walk away from it for good. He hoped he’d at least get to the store for smokes before it came to that, though. He absently stroked the dash before he tried the key. She started up, even if the starter made a shrieking sound like a pig being chased. He drove. This was a route he’d passed over probably ten thousand times. Out the alley, up Lavergne, west on Winnemac, right on Laramie up the store on Foster.

Returning to the scene of the crime, he nearly always thought as he crossed the parking lot and set off the electronic chime when he opened the door. Ging-gong. Sounded Korean to him, that chime. Like a Korean robot trying to sing or something. In the years since The Night In Question, he’d noticed that lots of 7-11s, the ones in the richer neighborhoods, mostly, had installed a door tone that was more… what? Understated, maybe. Like it was supposed to be the summons for a bellhop or something, instead of an anti-theft measure in a place that sold Skittles and leathery taquitos. But not this one. This one still had the same Korean robot song.

He’d been back by the coolers when he shot that kid. On The Night In Question.

It wasn’t slow motion, like the movies. It all went crazy fast. The kid had Ging-gonged in with a couple of his buddies. Buying condoms, the kid was. Making a big deal for his friends about the action he’d be seeing later.

He’d been staring into the cooler, on The Night In Question, deliberating between the usual Old Style tall boys, or whether he should splurge on a six of Löwenbräu, which was on sale. He knew it was dumb, and he knew it wasn’t really German, but the little dots over the “O” and the “A” made it seem like a bigger deal, somehow. Umlauts, his grandma had told him they were called, those dots. The umlauts and the slender-necked green glass bottles made the Löwenbräu seem like a bigger deal, he now remembered went the line of his half-drunk thinking, as the kid and his crew Ging-gonged into the store.

Maybe. If he hadn’t been such a loudmouth, he’d be alive today, that kid. But he’s bouncing off the walls and hollering – not matching his energy to the hum of fluorescents and the low volume of the canned music drizzling from the speakers in the ceiling – an instrumental cover of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” – he knew this because he hated that song.

But no. Didn’t matter that the kid was yelling, just about. It was his fault. He was to blame. He was just another trigger-happy racist cop. Who’d driven drunk to this convenience store. To shoot a kid while he was off duty.

But the kid had been like roaring, almost. In what sounded like a menacing way. And pointing something at the cashier. Gun, he thought. Turns out it was a cigar. But the kid was all “mother-effer” this and “n-word” that. At the top of his lungs. Showing off for his friends. Who could’ve known the kid was quoting some movie?

Later, when the security footage leaked. He could plainly see it was a bad kill. But then. On that night – The Night In Question. He’d been sure he’d yelled “Freeze!” and that the kid had wheeled around. And then he’d yelled “Drop your weapon!” And then he’d fired. Four times. Hit the kid in the chest.

But the video showed him yelling and firing all at once. The freeze frames on the news showed a veined and enraged-looking guy with a buzz cut, red-rimmed eyes and glistening lips blazing away at a teenage boy.

When he met with the lawyer the union hired him, the guy froze a frame from security footage and listed the ways he was screwed – off duty, out of uniform, failed to identify himself and a police officer, blew a 0.7 on the Breathalyzer – not full-on drunk, maybe, but impaired for sure.

Still, though. Pretty tight grouping, those shots.

But his main offense? Being white. Being a white cop. White cop shoots a black kid. That had been a year where that same story played out over and over in every big city in the country. And people were sick of it. But worse, for him: the Mayor was sick of it. There had been something like sixteen police-involved shootings that were sketchy that year. They had to make a show of retaliation, so the Mayor picked him to twist in the wind as penance for the sins of the department.

In that conference room, under quivery, buzzing fluorescent tubes, the lawyer had somebody bring in two easels with blowups of his own face and the kid’s face. The lawyer asked him which seemed more sympathetic. He gazed at his own face – thick-necked, star-shaped scar high on his forehead, Nazi-blue eyes sunk far back under the ledge of his brow. Even in repose, un-agitated, he had to concede he looked like a goddamn leg breaker – and in this photo, it was worse, even: a white man full of bile, blunt-headed and screaming through chisel teeth. The kid had long lashes around eyes like liquid chocolate, still had a touch of little kid pudge to his cheeks. Lawyer told him he’d be crucified if he tried to fight this. He believed the lawyer – the lawyer knew his stuff. The kid was the sleepy-eyed picture of innocence – and no amount of his telling how gangsta the kid had been the night of the shooting would do a thing. He was a goddamn cherub, this kid, a poster child for slain innocence.

Lawyer tells him if he quits – right now, tonight, like early-retire right then in the conference room, like before midnight, lawyer says – he’ll get two thirds of his pension. If he fights this, lawyer says, the Mayor’ll see to it he gets nothing. Except maybe a whole bunch of prison.

So. That’s how he had become a forty-two-year-old retiree. They made him clear out his locker down at the station right then, that night. No send off. No nothing. Just “Mayor can’t afford this. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.”

There’d been a grand jury and all that. But nothing came of it.

He maybe didn’t take it so great. He could admit that. Ginny was sweet enough at first. Then she started riding him about why wouldn’t he get a job. Or at least look. Or go out. See people. Do something.

What could he do, though? Fishing was stupid. Nobody bowled anymore. He hated the gym, libraries were full of homeless weirdos. That left movies and booze. To get Ginny off his ass, he’d buy a half pint of something and go to a matinee. He’d get one of those giant cups and fill it like halfway with Sprite, then top it off with gin. He’d duck into a stall in the john, and fill his cup with smuggled hooch. Then he’d sit through the movie, getting blankly buzzed, blinking up at the flickering story he only half followed. He’d sit through just about anything. He liked action stuff mostly, but if he’d seen all the explosion-and-gunplay movies, he’d stare at one that was supposed to be a comedy, or even a few times the chick flicks. Where he’d elicit lots of sidelong looks from the handful of shawl-wrapped pudge-piles who went to those things. He got a little charge out of that – being the only man in among the dateless fatties with their faces like rice pudding who came to watch British guys with their so-called charm profess love at fawn-eyed American girls on a weekday afternoon.

Or when he wasn’t getting buzzed at the movies, he’d just drive around. That’s how the Durango got to be so high-mileage. Those months and months of driving around. All over the North side. All hours of the day and night. Soon enough, he stopped going to movies. And just drove.

A couple=few years on, Ginny lost patience. Moved back to Rockford with the kids. Kept books for her dad’s lumber yard. At first, he drove out there every couple weeks and took the kids for pancakes or to a petting zoo, or whatever. But then Ginny called to tell him she could smell the booze on him whenever he picked up the kids, and to stop coming. So he had. She filed the papers and he signed off. Of course he did. And he sent the alimony and child support, mostly. Almost always.

So then, with a divorce finalized, completely alone, there nothing stopping him from driving around and around the city. Stewing himself with travel mug gin. Windows down. Even when it was sub-zero, he liked the ragged chomp of the February air as it raked his face and pulled his exhaled smoke into a long tail behind the Durango. He never blacked out, or anything. Never once got pulled over, even. A time or two, he took the mirrors off parked cars. But that was about it.

He never got drunk-drunk. Just kept it to a slow burn.

He did that for the better part of the next couple years. Hired a hooker a couple times. Went to the riverboats and lost a few hundred bucks now and then. But aside from that, he didn’t talk to another soul, except to say “Pall Mall blues, box,” or “Handle of Seagram’s.” He brushed his teeth some days.

His mom stopped calling, even.

He pulled it together a little bit to take a job as a security guard at a furniture warehouse. It was high-end stuff, but there were still rats scuttling along the baseboards of the place. But since all the job required of him was to walk the floor wielding a flashlight, and swipe a key card in a sequence of checkpoints, soon enough he was hitting the gin on the job, too.

And that’s how the last decade and a half drained away. Working and driving. Driving and working. Prowling. Vexed and hypertensive. Glazed and boozy. Shuddering over potholes. Static-y talk radio kazoo-ing faintly out of blown factory speakers. Gazing past the striped arches dragged by the wipers through the filth of his windshield – mosquito guts and dust in the summer, salt and soot in winter.

He came across stories. Constantly. Stories of hope. They set his teeth on edge these stories. Redemption. Restoration. Transformation. On those lady talk shows that cooed at him while he stepped into his uniform pants for work. In the magazines at the Jewel checkout. On the radio, down at the bottom of the dial where the Christian stations were. Seemed like there were no end of these stories – the crackhead with a masters, the foster kid who tutors at the homeless shelter, Shakespeare in prison.

But here he remained. Unsaved. Unmended. Entirely unchanged. Scalded and pitiless. He’d stare at the TV while that Ellen laid her hand on some weepy mom’s leg, or he’d listen to some churchy idiot on the radio tearfully recount how they’d been saved and greet it with a twist of the dial to land on a Seger tune or some Stevie Ray. He didn’t believe stories like this. He shook his head the way you would at some rube plunking down another twenty to lose at Three-Card Monte. Bemused pity. With contempt.

He couldn’t believe in these sorts of stories. He was all used up. He caromed along the outskirts of his own life, dumb and dogged as a housefly bouncing off the window of a house, trying over and over again to get out. Failing to escape. Failing to adapt. Lunging at the glass, planting its brute face with a soft gonging tone.

That’s how he felt. Like a bug. Brainless. Small. Persisting for no purpose.

He’d seen a nature show a long time ago where this ant was scrabbling along the desert sand, and it meandered too near the pit of a wolf spider, and began to slide down into it. But instead of tumbling down into the waiting jaws or sidestepping the trap altogether, the ant flailed in the sand, sending grain after grain of grit down into the crater. Eventually, of course, the spider devoured the ant. But for a time – what seemed as he watched a long time – the ant clambered on the edge of the pit – neither safe nor slain, just wheeling its spindly legs, desperate. He wasn’t sure if this was actual to the memory, or if it was something he added in his mind later, but whenever he thought of that nature show, he could see grains of sand pinging off the spider’s face, like the thwarted heavy in a silent film comedy. This is how he’d felt, more or less. Since The Night In Question. Like he was on the brink. Of being devoured by something unseen.

As he paid for his smokes and headed back to the beat-upon Durango, he was seized by the urge to get ahold of his kids – Joshy lived out near Santa Fe with his boyfriend, or partner, or whatever, Samuel. A good enough guy, seemed like. Emma was in Ann Arbor. Taught at Michigan. Well, when he thought to contact the kids, this thought was always followed by remembering that he couldn’t contact Emma. Like ever. She had concluded at some point in late adolescence that he had straight-up murdered that kid on The Night In Question. So she wanted nothing to do with him. He wasn’t welcome. At her various graduations. Her housewarming. None of it. She hadn’t met his gaze since she was maybe nineteen or twenty. Which is, what? Six years ago, maybe? His guts uncoiled a little whenever he thought of her.

He had days where he didn’t know if she was wrong. Most days, now, maybe.

Plus, calls to Joshy were excruciating for all sides. His own voice was croaky from disuse and his manner was rusty. And if he was going to send an email, he’d have to get home to the scuffed old piece-of-crap Dell and power it up, then hope it didn’t seize up with that clacking noise it’d been making for a while. Then he’d have to navigate the tone of such an email. Too chatty, and it felt stupid and strained and pointless. Too serious, and it sounded like a suicide note. The prospect was exhausting.

He’d text, he guessed. After he got a Pall Mall lit and coaxed the Durango to life, he pawed his phone out of his too-deep parka pocket. Pulled up “Joshy” from his meager list of contacts. Stared at the cracked and smudgy screen.

Squinted as he put in, after some beefy-fingered mis-keys:

“Thinking of you.”

“Pssh,” he muttered. “Hallmark-y.” He backspaced over it. Couldn’t think what else to say. Tossed his phone on the passenger seat, threw the Durango in reverse and pulled out of this spot. Another day. Like another hash mark scratched into a cell wall. Another day that he had failed them. As each of these new days of neglect stacked up, it made the next day tougher to do something with. Another damn day of stinging eyes and clenching guts.

“Forget it,” he told the cab of the Durango. “No point.” He threw it in reverse and bounced, creaking, out of the lot. He figured he’d swing by the house and snag his uniform. His shift wasn’t for another seven hours. So he figured he’d grab a half pint of gin, top off his travel mug, and go burn through a tank of gas. He pointed his truck toward the lake and gunned it. As he always did, he considered driving across the sand at Foster beach and into the frigid water. He pictured the spray fanning out over the hood and tendrils of fog boiling out of the shallows as the wheels got mired and locked up. When the Durango stalled out, he’d step into the churning, slush-skimmed water, his soaked pants entwining his legs, slurping at his thighs, lapping at him. He would push himself into the waves. Until the lung-squeezing cold of the water was over his head. Then he would take one final gulp of air and wait. To be claimed. And know relief.

But he never did that. Or, he hadn’t yet.

He couldn’t. Because it wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be even. It would be against the rules. The kid had not ging-gong-ed his way into that store looking to get shot. So he couldn’t walk out into the lake. No matter how bad he wanted to. He had to be ambushed by it. Like the kid had. So he kept driving around, half in the bag, till somebody ran a red and T-boned him, or he hit a patch of black ice and rolled the Durango. He thought about the sound of his own breaking neck filling his ears.

He turned left and bombed up Sheridan, and between buildings, he caught sight of mist feathering along the lake. He clamped his chisel teeth down on the filter of his cigarette and drove north. He looked at the mist scutting along the dun-colored foam with some longing. But he kept driving.



Thornton sloshed awake, his face sliding through the grit of a metal floor. The drool at the corner of his mouth split like a young scab when he lifted his head.

He winced as the floor lurched, creaking, under him. There was a throbbing egg-sized knot just behind his right ear. The thick idiot meat of his tongue probed at the stubby horn of snapped-off tooth in the pulpy socket where his incisor had been.

He could smell diesel and dust. His gut had curdled into an acid slurry. He heard the toneless hum of tires on a road. A truck. He was inside a truck.

He tried to focus. Parcels. Dozens of them. He squinted toward the stripe of daylight at the front. He caught sight of a pair of hazel eyes in the rearview as the truck leaned around a turn.

“THERE he is,” said Hazel Eyes. “How’s the head?”

“Nf. Not good.” He tried to sit up. His wrist was pinned.

“I bet,” said Hazel. “You should have stayed down the first I hit you.”

Thornton groaned, looked down the length of his arm. He was handcuffed to a steel rail low on the wall of the truck. He felt more alert.

“Um. Listen,” he said. “You can take my—“

“Got it,” broke in Hazel, holding up Thornton’s wallet. “And, no. This is not about money.” Hazel grabbed the thick sheaf of bills from inside the wallet – unblinking eyes on Thornton in the shuddering mirror – and hurled them out his window. A twenty got blown back inside and twirled to rest by Thornton’s shackled hand.

“What is it you—“

“What I want, Mr. Thornton, you’ll see soon enough.” The hazel eyes found Thornton in the jostling mirror. “Now shut up.” Hazel was in a brown uniform.

Thornton shut his mouth, mind ricocheting, breathing ragged.

They drove on. For a while. The stripe of daylight at the front turned golden and crawled up the truck wall. Then it turned red. The headlights flickering in through the windshield grew less frequent. City sounds dropped away. It sounded really open outside. It sounded far.

Thornton started awake, snorting a little. The truck wasn’t moving. Hazel was not up front. The engine ticked.

He heard footsteps outside. The latch on the back door was thrown. The double doors swung wide. A dry herb smell rushed in, like the ghost of soup. Sage, Thornton recognized sage.

“Come on out,” said Hazel, tossing something. A single short-bladed key dinged onto the deck of the truck, near Thornton’s free hand. “Let’s go. Chop, chop.”

Thornton unlocked the handcuff.  He sat up warily. If felt like his jaw had come unhooked and was hanging to one side.

“Why are you—“

“We’ll get to that. Come on.”

Thornton slid his sore body along the nubbled metal. He set his feet in sand. He was missing a shoe, his left. He looked around. He knew this place, he thought. He had been here. Long time ago. Before it was run down this way. The white paint was abraded off the stucco walls. The paths were sand-blown and buckling. But he had been here. This had been a spa. He had come here to this pampering place with one of his wives. Or a mistress, maybe. He couldn’t recall – which woman it had been, or the name of this place.

“How did…” Thornton trailed off, struck dumb by the riot of stars, paisleyed and arabesquing across a vast sky. He had sat in a long-ago Jacuzzi, marveling at this confounding and luminous carpet above. Any sense of the woman was erased by time and indifference. The residue of these stars persisted.

“You remember this place. I can see it,” said Hazel.

“A little,” said Thornton. “The sky, mostly.”

“Yeah,” said Hazel, taking it in. “It’s something, isn’t it?”

For a weird minute, it felt to Thornton like they were friendly. Which couldn’t be. That’s not what this was. You don’t wake up cuffed in the back of a truck and then get all, what? collegial with the guy who put you there. A sky like this, though. Made you feel so small. Like you wanted to huddle in caves with other humans, eating meat with your fingers and reasserting your existence.

But, no. This guy with hazel eyes had hauled him away. Had beaten and cuffed him.

He caught his first good look at the guy’s face. Craggy, worn. The face of a guy who’d worked outside for a long time. Downturned mouth, pursed by many disappointments. His close-cut hair was like silvered sand. Bit of an underbite – his creased top lip sat on the yellowing chisels of his bottom teeth. Color of his teeth matched the flecks of gold in his hazel eyes.

Thornton got a flash of memory, now. He’d been leaving the office, checking his phone.

Car service was late again. This guy – Hazel – had approached, in his brown uniform with the short pants. He’d extended that tablet thing and said: “Mr. Thornton. May I get your signature, please, sir?” And while Thornton had looked the guy over, taking dim note that he had no parcel, parting his lips to ask the guy to leave the package – wherever it might be, in the truck, still, Thornton guessed –  with Angela on Monday, a burst of light had detonated in his head. The guy had struck him. Hard. Thornton had tried to form some mush-mouthed protest, the guy had smashed him on the jaw. With a long-handled silver something. Wrench, maybe.

This had been… when? Earlier today, Thornton guessed.

“Your shoe’s in there,” said Hazel, jerking a thumb toward the truck. “Might want to grab it. You’ve got walking to do.” Thornton looked dumbly in the direction of Hazel’s thumb.

“Dark,” said Thornton. His mouth was swollen and loose-toothed. Hurt to talk. “Can’t see.”

Hazel clicked on a long-barreled flashlight, like cops carry. Thornton stepped unsteadily inside the truck.

“Grab that jug of water. And the pouch of jerky. I’m not interested in killing you.” This came as no small relief to Thornton. But he grew wary. Long walk. Gallon jug of water. Thing of jerky. Provisions. Hazel was going to cut him loose out here. Wherever the hell here was. Thornton grabbed the stuff. Pulled on his shoe, laced it up. He should be ready, he figured.

“Now,” began Hazel. “I could cat-and-mouse you all goddamn night, but I’ve got to get back. So. Here it is. You know this place. Because you were here. Eight years ago. Getting mud baths and hot stone massages and whatever the hell else people like you fill your days with when you come to places like this. You recognize her?”

Hazel extended a photo of a determined-looking green-eyed blonde. Mid-thirties, maybe. Thick hair in an unruly knot on top of her head. Collar of a denim shirt and chunky turquoise necklace visible at the bottom of the frame. Thornton regarded her for a moment. She meant nothing to him. Which made him afraid. Right now, this face mattered, a lot. A crucial face. Most important goddamn face in this whole desert, and Thornton couldn’t place it.

“No,” said Hazel, after a moment of letting Thornton scour his memory. “I don’t expect you would.” He gazed at her briefly before returning the photo to the cargo pocket of his uniform shorts.

“Her name was Daphne. Daphne Benson.”

Thornton waited for more, mind revving. “Was… name was.” This woman was dead. And Hazel thought Thornton had something to do with it.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Thornton’s eyes darted at the arched entryway to the drained pool, the busted terra cotta on the Spanish-tiled cabana visible over the crumbling stucco wall. He tried like hell to shuffle together that anonymous face with this desiccated place, but came up with nothing.

“OK,” replied Thornton at last. “Sorry to say I don’t know any Daphne Benson.”

“No, I know,” said Hazel. “I did, though. I loved her. Still do, I guess.” He looked up at the shocking excess of stars. “Daphne’s been dead four years, almost,” he told the sky sadly.

Thornton waited.

“Sorry to hear it,” offered Thornton at last. “But. Like I say. I didn’t know her.”

“Right,” said Hazel. “You didn’t. You just wrecked her. Pulled her life down. Like it was a dead tree. And you moved on.”

“I don’t… I’m not…”

“Eight years ago. Like I told you. You were here. Daphne worked here. She was a maid. You complained about her. Complained enough over a long weekend to get her fired. Fired cause you were throwing your weight around.”

Thornton remembered a little, now. Not this maid. But this tactic. He’d have been here with a mistress, then. Made sense. Even looking past the decay, this had never been a top-notch place. It was the kind of place with faux Navajo rugs that catered to strivers. Exactly the kind of place he’d bring somebody young who didn’t know better. Somebody who responded to displays of power, however empty. So he’d bitch about his turn-down service, or the chatter of his caddy, and the Rebecca or Chloe he’d bring to these places would be suitably impressed. And would make known how impressed she was between the sheets. Or in the shower. Or at a rest stop on the drive home.

It felt less clever to him, now.

“It wasn’t the only thing that befell her,” continued Hazel. “But it was what her counselors at the rehab place called a ‘precipitating event.’” He kicked at the sand. “She’d been off the Oxy for maybe four months when they fired her from here. She could never seem to kick it after that. Didn’t want it enough, I guess. Brutal stuff, Oxy.”

Thornton waited.

“Took me some while to find you. I’d given up, actually. After Daphne’s funeral, I tried maybe a year to hunt you down. Couldn’t do it. All I had was a last name and a city. ‘Thornton, Phoenix A-Z.’”

A coyote yipped off in the brush.

“Figured it would never happen. Then they gave me a new route at work. And I was in the reception area at your office. And I heard you on the phone. How you were. On the phone. Mean. Arrogant and mean. And I saw your name in metal on the wall behind the reception desk. And knew that a man that puts his name on things in gold-toned metal – he likes to feel important.”

Well, shit, thought Thornton.

“So I observed you for a while. Few months, actually. Had to be sure. Then. When I was. It was just a question of picking a holiday weekend. When I could take you back here. Let you walk it off.” He looked at Thornton for a minute. “So,” he said at last. “Get going.”

“Wait,” said Thornton. “Who are—“

Hazel gave a barking laugh. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ve accepted a transfer. To far away. I leave tomorrow. It would surprise me greatly if you ever found me.”

Hazel pointed East. Or easterly, Thornton guessed, since it was the opposite direction of where the last coppery light painted the final sliver of horizon.

“Plenty of starlight. And you’ve got a half moon. You can see OK.” As he spoke, he set Thornton’s phone on a rock and shattered it with the butt of the flashlight. “Your wallet’s out that way,” he said, hurling it far, toward the East. It landed with a barely audible Fuff! as it hit the sand off that way.

“Get going,” said Hazel.

Thornton thought for a second about trying to overpower the guy, knew he couldn’t. Thought about pleading, could tell it wouldn’t work. Thought about apologizing, knew it was a lie.

So he started walking, resolving to follow the road.

“Get some good thinking done,” Hazel called after him. “You think about Daphne.”

And there was the sound of a gunshot. It sounded small in the desert.


The Blue Gables


Fawn was less quiet, now. But only because she had to be. She had to make known somehow her strandedness. She could not cross the parking lot. There were reasons for this. But Fawn didn’t understand them. Fawn was made up of a longing she could not name, for a place she could no longer conceive. She knew only that she was ensnared here.

The motel Fawn couldn’t leave was two stories tall and clad in vinyl siding that was cadet blue. It wrapped in an L shape around the lot where Fawn’s mom and dad had parked a long, long time ago. The neon out front proclaimed in a flickering white-then-blue stammer that the motel was called the Blue Gables. They were gone. Her mom and dad. Had been for more time now than she could say. Out behind the motel, shielded from the road, was a small swimming pool, shaped like a kidney and blue as window cleaner. Fawn didn’t go near the pool, wouldn’t go near the pool.

Fawn did not know much. But she did know the pool was a Bad Place, a shimmering basin of her unease, a cruel sun-lashed lagoon.

The effort it cost Fawn to make herself known was exhausting to her. It demanded all her focus and depleted her badly. Things would go sparkly around the edges of her vision and she’d have to rest. Besides. It was only the one maid Natalia who ever took notice. Guests at the Blue Gables never detected any vestige of Fawn’s presence – they were too in-between, too consumed by homes left behind or obligations ahead. Fawn stood watch over what they took to be their seclusion, bearing witness to their most secret activities, their rutting and tears. The rest of the staff at the Blue Gables was too stricken by chatter – on phones, out of radios, inside their own heads. Mostly, Fawn believed, people were too intent on being the hero of the story, and as a consequence, other intersecting stories got crowded out, shouted down.

Natalia was the only person to frequent the Blue Gables who was suitably inward and attuned to recognize it when Fawn summoned the will to slide a key card off the nightstand, watching it drop softly on the worn carpet, or to riffle the shower curtain, or jostle the squat wicker wastebasket. The vocabulary Fawn had to communicate with Natalia was vexingly small. And the messages she sought to send were indistinct, veiled, like trying to pass coded notes in a language sloppily translated. Fawn sometimes tried to trace out letters in the dust of the windowsill or the fog of the bathroom mirror where Natalia bent and scrubbed, but Fawn’s fingers exerted no pressure, had no point of contact. She could carefully trace the block-lettered message “I AM HERE” in the dust, but her powdery, insubstantial fingers produced no trail; they could not breach the skin of dust, could not cut through the rind of steam.

Fawn kept trying, though. Because she sensed that she and Natalia shared the kindred-ness of the bashful, that wordless ability to seek out the reassuring eyes of those similarly afflicted by crowds and uproar. It is the unnoticed who notice each other, who counsel each other to persevere with a nod and no more, citizens who exercise their right to assemble in solitude.

All Fawn knew of Natalia was that she spoke little, had eyes always trained far away, on the horizon, and came from one of the countries in the skinny part of a map of the Americas – Guatemala, maybe, or Panama. One of those, anyway. Fawn retained a shard of awareness from her time before that geography had not been her thing, that maps failed under her gaze to coalesce into anything sensible.

Fawn could no longer even remember, really, the house she belonged in. She could picture her father, a little. A mustache. Short-sleeved dress shirt – sometimes mint green, sometimes russet. And she could see fully her mother’s kind, wet eyes. Eyes the aqueous color of young jonquil stems. She could see also a nimbus of honeyed hair that framed a face she could no longer conjure clearly.

Fawn had been groping along through every part of the Blue Gables for as far back as her awareness stretched. She didn’t know how long it had been. Could not know, maybe. But the things in the vending machines were all different, now. Gone were the tubes of Lifesavers and sleeves of Chuckles, replaced by oblong boxes of something called Nerds and bags called Skittles that looked like M&Ms but weren’t. Over time, the bulbs in all the light fixtures got replaced by luminous coiled things that looked like whitely lustrous grubs.

She was tethered to the Blue Gables, like a goat to a stake. She could roam as far as the edge of the grass-tufted lot to the west, its corners filled with drifts of flattened cigarette filters and mashed bottle caps; the tree line to the south, fat cones like grenades opening in a ragged stripe under Ponderosa pines; and the scarred back fence of the oil-change place to the east, the bottom of several wood slats kicked out; and buckling and patched parking lot out front to the north. Whenever she attempted to wander farther than any one of these frontiers, she came dismantled somewhat and translucent-er.

One day, after Fawn had tried in vain to knock over a stack of hand towels on Natalia’s cleaning cart, she felt a jolt like a tongue on a battery. Natalia had been changing the sheets on the bowed bed in Room 116. She straightened from tucking a fitted corner. She smoothed front of her teal poly smock.

“I feel you,” said Natalia, simply. “I know you are here. I think, also, I know who you are.”

Fawn was beside herself. To have remained unseen for so long was maddening, like a ragged snag of cuticle flesh that would not tear loose. But now. To be heeded. In what she felt certain was a kindly manner. This felt bounteous and giddy-making. Fawn swatted at the hand towels, attempting a reply. Nothing.

“I visited Madame Vadoma. She does readings near my home.”

Fawn saw a flash of a battered-looking bungalow with a giant neon eye and the word ‘TAROT’ in flickering red letters. She could see Natalia seated across from a wrinkled woman with stiff pile of steel wool hair and pale gray eyes like a wolf. The cloth laid over the table between them depicted constellations. Fawn could see the scene between Natalia and Madame Vadoma unfold before her like a movie.

“She is real,” Madame said. “She is there.”

Natalia seemed relieved to learn that madness had not overtaken her.

Madame gripped both of Natalia’s coarsened hands. Madame winced in concentration.

“She died in water. She was not yet a woman.”

Natalia’s eyelashes glistened.

“She is imprisoned. Is in need of help. Your help.”

A tear escaped and made its way down Natalia’s face.

Fawn was back suddenly in the room now, facing Natalia, whose hands were clasped before her. Natalia bowed slightly, in a formal way, and extended her hand toward the door leading out of the room.

“Please,” she said. “This way.”

Fawn felt apprehensive. She believed Natalia to be good and kind, but knew somehow that she was being guided to the pool. She hated the pool. It was the only place in all of Blue Gables that she feared.

Natalia exited the room. She turned and beckoned to Fawn from the concrete landing. After a moment, Fawn wafted after her.

They descended the stairs. Fawn was feeling jagged. She did not wish to approach the pool. But she knew somehow she must. Fawn had been once to see a rodeo. She recalled now the eye-rolling terror in the face of a calf as a cowboy on horseback thundered after it and trussed up in the divoted dirt of the arena. Fawn now felt as she’d imagined that calf had – pretzel-ed and strangling. She drew lungless gulps of air, air she no longer needed.

Natalia led the way down the dewy cool of the breezeway that connected the parking lot out front to the pool in back. Natalia walked at a somber and measured pace, as Madame had cautioned her to – “You must not startle the dead girl,” she had said.

Natalia looked almost stately in her smock as she mounted the low steps up to the pool. The latch clanged faintly as she opened the chain link gate. To Fawn the latch sounded like a guillotine.

“Come,” said Natalia. “In here.” She gave a stately little bow, presenting Fawn to the pool.

Fawn felt disparate and spattered, unmoored and twitchy. The pool was Bad Place Number One. She couldn’t say why, exactly, but she knew at the root of herself that the pool was to be forever avoided. But Natalia was so patient and placid, her eyes black and shining like coffee.

Fawn hated the pool, but found herself trusting in Natalia. So she rippled up the steps and inside the fence. This, now, was nearer to the pool than she could remember being. Since… since it had become for her the Bad Place.

Natalia, sensing somehow that Fawn was beside her on the concrete deck that skirted the pool, swung closed the gate with a quiet kang noise. Natalia sat at the edge of one of the sagging deck chair and slipped off her crepe-soled nursey-looking shoes and rolled her socks down over her feet. With some ceremony, she pulled her smock off over her head, standing now in a sleeveless undershirt. She folded the smock with care and laid it over the arm of the deck chair. She sat with a hand on each knee.

Without her smock, she seemed no longer to be Natalia, of the Blue Gables. She became Natalia, human – she was just a person, now, perched at the edge of the a sun-bleached deck chair, a person alert to the possibility of helping. A breeze riffled the surface of the pool.

“Ready?” Natalia asked the air.

Fawn did not feel ready. Not in the least.

Natalia rose from her seat, and padded across the deck on bare feet. She held the chromed handrail and strode with an even grace down the three nubbled white steps into the shallow end of the pool. She turned and extended her hands to Fawn, whom she could not see. The water pulled at her thin pants, a stripe of darkness wicking up her legs.

“Come,” said Natalia, her hands welcoming, palms up, coaxing. “You have nothing to fear.”

Fawn could nearly believe, as she hovered next to Bad Place Number One, under the soothing spell of Natalia’s cool, quiet voice, that she did have nothing to fear, that the gnawing frazzle at the center of her was a lie.

“Come,” said Natalia again. Matter-of-fact. “Your name. Was Fawn.”

Fawn entered the pool. The water did not touch her, for there was nothing of her to touch. Fawn felt a panicked spike of distress run up through her. She saw flashes of herself. Her former self. Her fleshly self. Thrashing in the water. This water. Then a big inrush of water into her windpipe. The witch hazel-y taste of chlorine. The divestment of tears from her eyes, invisible, subsumed by the water. This water.

Then. Blackness. And floating a few feet above her body. Her dad in a rumpled taupe shirt, bent over her. Her honey-haired mom, dropping to her knees, wailing.

As Fawn strode without striding deeper into the water, she could feel herself – whatever self of her there was – begin to dissipate.

Natalia thought for a moment, in the late afternoon angle of the light, that she spied something like iridescence dancing languidly upon the water – like motor oil in a rain puddle, but lighter and lovelier.

It was pleasant enough, thought Fawn: this dissolving. As the water claimed her once more, Fawn was unafraid. And she was free.


Dave Boobs.

So I entered this short story contest in hopes of winning a cash prize. Made it through first two rounds before getting knocked out for the finals. They give a Genre, a Main Character, and a Subject.

For this story, I got Drama (shudder), a 13-Year-Old Girl, and Overbearing. Here's what I did. I like it pretty well, I think. 


Look, I’m sorry. But Davinia is a stupid name. It just is.

So I call her Dave. Not to her face or anything – since I can’t really face another respect lecture from Dad. Which is a sick joke, given the Mom Situation.

But, to me, she’ll always be Dave.

Which she might not be if she wasn’t so gross and horrible, but she is. That waxy face. Like a fried egg. And she can keep burning that mustache off, but that thing is stubborn.

And those bulgy lips Dad bought her over spring break. And that Trinidadian or whatever doctor. Who squirted her lips full of that poison so they’re all lopsided, like drifting to the left, so she always looks like a melting platypus.

And if she doesn’t ease up on the chemical peels, she’s gonna wind up like that one lady in Argentina or wherever, who kept peeling and peeling and peeling, till they finally burned into the little blood vessels inside her face, which started leaking, so she wakes up one day, and her already weird face is basically a skin bag full of blood. That’ll be Dave – gross, immobilized blood mask of a face.

And those boobs. Those ridiculous, hard boobs. Like hugging a bag of coconuts. Which – if she would take the HINT – is not a thing I wish to do, all the hugging. Best I can hope for I guess is like wriggling over to get a side-hug, since she’s always storming me with her coconut Dave-boobs, completely disregarding my OBVIOUS anxiety response every time she’s closing in.

But, like every other aspect of how she deals with me – totally tone deaf. Total overkill. The texting – I swear if she sends me another string of stupid Hello, Kitty emojis like I’m some kind of baby, I will scream. Plus, her eyesight is too crappy to be able to really see them half the time, so she’s basically just sending me a string of total nonsense. Plus: those Post-Its she always puts in my lunches – lunches we BOTH know Esperanza is making, which, I mean, YES, is Esperanza’s JOB, obviously, but Dave thinks if she sticks a Post-It that says “Miss You, XO” or “You go, Girl!” on the Tupperware thing of baby carrots in that TOTALLY annoying super-girly handwriting, that I’ll get worn down and accept the stupid fact that she married my stupid dad, and we’ll all be a big stupid family, even though I already HAVE a mom (even if it’s only for few more weeks, and even if she’s mostly pretty out of it from her meds) – it’s ridiculous and pathetic.

Which would all be fine – or bearable, I guess – if she didn’t have such a boner for fondant. I mean, I will include a ganache in CERTAIN cakes, but fondant is a full-on crime.

Because I have been baking since WAY before she showed up – but she watches one frickin’ episode of Cake Boss (which just proves her lameness, because how can you watch that crap show when Ace of Cakes exists?) and thinks we’re all bonding or whatever. So I keep coming home – from my CLASS, where I’m actually learning to bake WELL, not show-offy stupid baking like on TV – and she’ll be sculpting little malformed, like THINGS. Where you can’t ever really tell what it’s even supposed to BE, except like “An Animal of Some Kind,” and she’ll come tottering out of the stupid kitchen in those heels she’s always got on (you’re not tall, Dave – we all know you’re not tall, so you’re not fooling anybody with your stupid, slutty-looking shoes), and will be SHRIEKING at me the SECOND I walk in, before I can even get my JACKET off:

“Emmy! Emmy! Come see! Come see the panda I made as the topper of your Chinese New Year cake! Isn’t it the SWEETEST?”

Which, OK, first of all – I have told her like fifteen thousand-million times my name is Emma. Emma is my name, and I do not appreciate being called Emmy. My MOM called me Emmy. When I was LITTLE. And not for a long time. And if she DID, like a couple months ago when she woke after that last surgery, she’d remember, and try to RESPECT my feelings a little bit. And, also – this THING she’s do proud of and eager to show me is very much NOT the sweetest. It looks like a turd. A black and white turd. This, like, butt bullet. That dropped out of a Dalmatian. And she comes bursting out of the kitchen, cupping this sad little turd like it’s an orchid or something. Nice try, Dave. But your stubby man-fingers are not any good at this kind of stuff. Like at all. If you were like six, this fondant panda would be incredible. But you’re like forty-nine. So this sucks. And you suck. And STOP HUGGING ME. Let me at LEAST put my stupid backpack down before you start ASSAULTING me with your hard, weird Dave-boobs.

And then the look on her stupid Frankenface is so, like, DESPERATE for approval, and she’s BLOCKING MY WAY, so I can’t even get past her, till I say like “Yeah, nice, OK,” or whatever noncommittal thing. While in my head I’m going “I would smash my own cake with a skillet before I’d let that piece of panda poop sit on top of it. Now GET OUT OF MY FACE SO I CAN GO TO MY ROOM.” So pathetic.

Or like how she pretends to know tennis. When it’s completely OBVIOUS she like panic-searched Wikipedia after she saw me watching the Australian Open last month to find a couple facts or whatever. And I also honestly think it’s a little bit weird that after I’ve told her like eight separate times that Venus Williams is my hands-down favorite player, she keeps like trying to steer me toward all these different WHITE players, who are nowhere NEAR as badass as Venus Williams. And how she keeps printing out these like Yahoo News stories about Maria Sharapova or whoever. When I have EXPLAINED to her that I like Venus because Serena is so obviously more dominant and how Venus has to play harder cause she’s in her sister’s shadow all the time. Like Mom, how she can’t talk anymore because the feeding tube, but her eyes are still super fierce – not stupid Taylor Swift fierce, but like actual fierce. So I couldn’t care LESS about Martina Hingis or Maria Sharpova or Ana Ivanovic, or any of the WHITE players Dave thinks are more SUITABLE, or whatever, because why else would she keep killing TREES to print out these dumb things, which she HIGHLIGHTS, with a HIGHLIGHTER – a BLUE highlighter, which anybody can tell you is the shittiest color, instead of sending me a LINK like a normal person.

I know. Karma and everything. But GOD, I hate her so much.

And then all the selfies. All the “snap from up high, just like I learned from Buzzfeed” pictures she’s mashing herself into me to take. When she drags me to Girls Spa Day, or Virgin Daiquiri Party, or any of thousand other idiotic Bonding Experiences she’s always organizing. And guess what, Dave? Even though you frame the pictures so nobody can see your gross neck, we can still see it in real life, so you’re wasting your time. And she puts them ALL on her Instagram. For her only followers, which are like my dad, and maybe her Zumba instructor.

The worst. Just. The worst.

But of all the asshole things she does, maybe the awfulest is also the nicest, or whatever. The rides to the goddamn hospital. In her stupid Audi. That smells like a demon made of Skittles farted in there. The stupid, stupid, shitty rides to the hospital. Where I get to go watch my actual mom getting slurped away by the cancer, like the mattress underneath her is giant sponge, and it’s drawing the meat off her and replacing it with morphine. Those are the worst. Because Dave tries to keep things light (“We can hit the DQ after!”) which is horrifying. Or she’ll try to furrow her eyebrows, but can’t, really, because of the Botox. And call me “kiddo.” Makes we want to slap the teeth out of her head.

Because she shouldn’t be giving me THESE rides. I’ll sit in her stupid candy-stinking Audi to go to volleyball or River Clean Up or the library or even therapy – pretty much ANY place else, and I’ll be fine. But HERE. To the hospital. THIS ride. Is one she shouldn’t even BE on, much less the only one WITH me. SHE should not be in the goddamn lobby thumbing through her stack of magazines, her Lucky and Allure, or swiping her way through Pinterest on her stupid iPad. SHE should not be working her way through a Frappucino while I’m upstairs staring at the respirator skeleton where my mom used to be.

SHE should not be taking me to stare at a Peanut Buster Parfait after. HE should.

HE should be taking me. HE should be able to set aside his Survival Guilt and his stupid Trauma About Grandpa and his Throw Money At the Problem Philosophy and TAKE ME ONCE A WEEK TO WATCH MOM DIE. He needs to have some balls. He needs to be a man.

He needs to be a dad.

And as shitty and stupid and fake as she is. I hear Dave arguing with him about it in the night. Every week. And really, I can only hear her. His voice is just a muffled drone – wordless, rational-sounding, measured. “You need to do this, Paul.” Dad murmur. “That is shitty, and you know it. I am doing the best I can with the bullshit situation you’ve put me in, here.” Dad mumble. “Fuck YOU, Paul. You don’t GET to be the coward asshole, here. You need to step up. Because if you don’t, she is going to hate you forever. And she’ll be right.” Door slam.

Wow. Way to be, Dave.

I can picture my dad after she stomps down the hall to the exercise room, staring at nothing and swirling the ice in his glass. Doing that remote, abstracted thing that he seems to think gets him off the hook for stuff. Dick.

I mean. I get it. Mom was never easy. Peering over her glasses at you. Always giving you the feeling you were interrupting something big. That she was favoring you with her attention or something.

And then when she first got really sick. She turned mean, so mean.

And Dad folded up. Like the terrified asshole he is. And they got a divorce. Because he couldn’t take it. Couldn’t take her. Then he found Dave. Who was simple for him, I guess.

So Mom is in a coma again. And Dave takes me down there. And for whatever reason it sucks worse than usual. I don’t know why, really, but over these months I’ve made a rule: I don’t cry in the room. Even if Mom is totally out. I don’t cry in the room. So on this Saturday, I hustle down the hall to the bathroom. Then when I compose myself a little bit, I head back. And I hear a voice. Dave’s voice.

And she’s saying, to my mom: “Gloria. I don’t know if you can hear me. Or if you’d care if you could. But I am so, so sorry. And she is such a great, tough, smart kid. And this is so totally awful for her. And Paul is such a weak chickenshit. And I’m just so sorry.”

And I leaned against the wall and smelled Dave’s makeup smell mixing with the sour dying smell of my mom.

And I didn’t say anything. Not then. But from then on, I tried not to be quite so hard on Dave.