Issue #91 Guest Editor Dan Lopez is a San Francisco-based writer who previously appeared in Storychord Issue #8. His the author of Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea. His work has appeared in The Collagist, Mary Literary, Time Out New York, and Lambda Literary, among others. Follow his humorous, topical musings on Star Trek on Instagram where he goes by the handle Sissy_That_Trek.
YOU ARE THE SWEET SPOT
by Jacqueline Colette Prosper
I’m stuck under my neighbor Mrs. McHenry’s elevated cement deck. It’s dawn and I’m watching the old lady water her overgrown plants. Her garden has no free space. Three high fences and two apple trees shield her from surrounding neighbors, and every inch of ground is blanketed in ivy, clovers, rose of Sharon, dandelions, prickly lettuce, thistles, raspberry bushes, honeysuckle weeds, and morning glories, all in record abundance. Along the perimeter of her property are three raised rectangular plots of irises and gladiolus, tall, sword-like and lovely. She seems upset, treading lightly in her brown plastic sandals, observing a gaping hole where some trees used to be, presumably. The early morning glare causes my eyes to squint, making it appear as if she’s being absorbed by light.
Issue #91 soundtrack: Mike Williams "Airmen Calm"
A wind arrives, fast and harsh. Mrs. McHenry holds a black opaque bonnet with lace trim close to her head, trying to pull down her knee-length nightie, which features a fat tabby cat laying flat like a starfish in front of a roaring fireplace with the caption I didn’t choose this rug life. The rug life chose me. I notice her high cheekbones, cracked leather-worn skin, and her brown legs swollen with edema, as thick as tree stumps. Her thick Jamaican patois is hard to understand.
“What you gon' cut my tree for? Gawd made dis tree!” she yells, stomping her feet, clapping for good measure.
Maybe she’s carrying a watering can, not a hose? Perhaps she was more bereft than perturbed? Why is this woman upset over a tree or two, and why am I in the least bit interested? This is obviously a dream with too many details to remember. But what I do recall is a seizing pain in my right wrist, a tight sensation, like a foreign object was wedged in there.
I taught you clip bran-chaises but you cut to root! she continues, hands to the sky as the wind presses the back of her shirt against her silhouette.
I can’t see the wind, just the plants bending like musical keys and patio furniture screeching toward me, trees vibrating with air. Mrs. McHenry is strangely stationary, her feet lodged in a bed of weeds. Tree branches take hold of her arms and hands, lifting her off the ground. Soon all of the plants from every direction reach long, curling themselves rapidly, mightily around her body, leaving a tall cocoon to dangle off one of the trees like a hangman. Twisted into a long swirl suspended in the air, it pulsates an incessant lub-dub heartbeat sound. Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub... I look down to my wrist; a weird bump shaped like a bean protrudes from the base of my thumb, pumping to the same rhythm. My body is seized in fear.
It’s a man’s voice, a warm moisture heating my ear.
“Do you think she’s talking about me?”
It’s Paul, my husband. I open my eyes to the view of our three bay windows, high and curved to the shape of our Brooklyn brownstone. I quickly realize that it’s Mrs. McHenry, not inhabiting my dreams, but actually ranting in real time.
“I pray under dees trees in summa time!”
I begin to understand that Paul is worried that he might have cut too much sage growing into our side of our shared fence. Even though we’ve lived in Flatbush for over five years, we’re insecure gentrifiers scared to upset the natives.
“No, there’s no way. You didn’t cut much, let alone a tree,” I whisper then yawn dismissively, a loving tap on his hip. “She needs medication.”
My husband’s warm, long arm holds me against him tighter in fetal position, hand grazing my knees. My daily six a.m alarm goes off, a marimba ringtone. I reach for my iPhone to unlock it, and I immediately feel a hard bump at the base of my thumb. I begin to rub the sore point, do some circles with my hand, bending it back and forth. It’s red. “I think I have carpal tunnel,” I think out loud.
“You don’t. Maybe you banged it on something.” My husband, always quick to dismiss my ailments, turns away from me.
I walk to the far right window to see Mrs McHenry in a white blouse and khaki pants, holding the bible she carries at all hours. She’s slender; a bald spot in the center of her head from years of over-processing is clearly visible from my vantage point. I watch her standing at the back fence in her garden, staring out at an empty space where a gigantic fig tree used to be. I surmised that the neighbor behind her house cut it down. I am suddenly reminded of its extensions that once stretched from their house to ours. During our first summer here, Paul and I used to eat the fruit with Roquefort, tangy, smoky, crumbly, delicious.
“Guess she’s pissed at Mrs. Foster for uprooting that fig tree,” I shrug and reach for my black stretch pants on the floor, then grab my phone off the nightstand. I want to Instagram something about the kooky neighbor talking to herself/whoever would listen about a tree that she can no longer pray under with the hashtag #caribbeanqueens but I don’t know if anyone would find that funny, and I need to head out to my food co-op shift. I speed-scan Facebook instead, scrolling for news, maybe a cute pet video. I want to write books about my life as a Haitian-American so I’m constantly searching for inspiration. But all that is striking my interest is a link about a man’s sexual relationship with a dolphin.
“Did you see the thing about the Wet Goddess?” I ask Paul, walking to his side of the bed to kiss him goodbye before biking to the Park Slope Food Co-op.
“Dude, I know!” Paul puts his phone down. “I just don’t know see how you could want to fuck a dolphin?”
All of Flatbush is quiet and there are hardly any cars whizzing around me, no vans double-parked in the bike lane. Clarendon Road has severely cracked sidewalks. The hair salons are— surprisingly— open this early in the morning. There are several neglected trees lining the road, full with empty drink cans, beer bottles, candy wrappers and chicken bones. The streets smell of hair grease, fried food grease, and car grease. I hang a right onto Flatbush Avenue and I’m hit with another foul stench. Fish, perhaps? Not sure. Growth and development is slow to start in this part of Brooklyn, which makes us feel like pioneers. I laugh to myself spotting some tumbling pieces of hair, seemingly disentangled from someone’s weave. “A diaspore in diaspora Brooklyn,” I think. I tweak my wrist while twisting the gearshift on the handlebar. “Fuck!” I shriek, shaking out my hand. The bean-shaped bump is now hot to the touch. I decide to ice it down later, go to Urgent Care if needed.
I walk into the loading zone at the members-only food co-op to find Lalou the seven a.m. Receiving & Shipping squad leader talking someone’s ear off yet again about the bike documentary that he’s raising money to produce. He’s the only Frenchman I know that consistently sports a beret— almost as often as the black nut-hugging, cycling jumper he wears at every monthly shift. His movie is about his six hundred mile bike trip through Denali National Park in Alaska. He loathes Kickstarter and would rather hit people up for money in person.
“Film iz shit, man!” Lalou explains to a tall Nordic-looking hipster in a red skullcap and turquoise, short-sleeved button-down.
The squad leader is holding the sign-in book and communal pen against his chest. I wait, annoyed.
“What I’ve learned about modern culture is that you can’t make any movie without haute cheeks.”
“Cheeks?” asks the hipster, confused. The Nordic dude looks like an extra from The Life Aquatic with Bill Murray. Everyone is their own distinct character in this market, yet I don’t feel like there’s anything distinct about me. He’s straining to hold a rather cumbersome box of Greener Tomorrow pork loins steady in his arms as he politely listens to Lalou’s sales pitch. I find the tagline on the box “responsibly raised to taste extraordinary” to be mildly amusing.
“Cheeeeks, like SHEEken. You know, bok bok.” Lalou’s arms become less-than/more-than symbols, signifying wings. He even flaps them for effect. I reach for the book, startling him.
“Sorry, I just need to sign-in?” I’m quickly looking for my name, releasing Life Aquatic from the torture of hearing another word about this movie.
“$2,165 for a studio in Crown Heights? What the fuck?!” I hear someone shout. I turn to see a blond man wearing a small, sleeping baby in a hot pink one-shouldered sling entering the loading zone with another woman, also blond, carrying a crate of egg cartons. “Yeah, I read it this morning in the Times,” she tells the young dad in amazement as he follows her to the main conveyor belt. “It’s like, supposed to be conveniently located to her medical school or some bullshit like that.” The woman presses the red ‘down’ button to send the crate to another section of the market. “Wow, so I guess that neighborhood’s a wrap.” says the man, hunched over, knees slightly bent, doing what appears to be a rocking/swaying dance to keep baby asleep. “We’ve been looking at Flatbush anyway. It’s cheap and I heard Swallow Coffee is opening up a spot on Clarendon.”
“Excuse me,” Lalou breaks into my people-spying session. “Can you please help dem throw away milk en de basement?”
“Sure, no problem.” I close the ledger, handing it back to Lalou.
“Ask for Ruby,” he says, taking the book, scanning the loading zone for a new mark.
I find a U-boat stacked high with boxes and Ruby behind it, attempting to pour gallons of grass-fed, locally-sourced milk down the drain of a gigantic stainless steel utility sink that is now plugged up inexplicably. I reach the quiet corner of the basement to find a tall, heavy-set, dark-skinned black woman in a large lavender wide-brimmed hat pouring a gallon bottle of milk into a large plastic storage bin. Puddles of white liquid everywhere, a messy display of empty bottles and milk caps strewed about the squared off space.
“Hey,” says Ruby brightly, wiping her hand on her black cut-up "ACAB" t-shirt (which she later explains means All Cops Are Bastards) before extending it to greet me. I immediately zero in on the highly unflattering shade of black lipstick that’s not right for her complexion. As we press flesh, an acute pain alights on my right thumb like it’s just been attacked by a thousand blowgun darts. I recoil, wincing. “I’m Colette,” shaking out my hand again. “I have carpal tunnel. It kills, but I can still help out,” I say, assuring her. Ruby looks at me blankly, making me feel uncomfortable. “I like your hat?” I say nervously, trying to change the subject. “It’s so… fancy!” The straw headpiece has white coq feathers and horsehair curls— a sharp contrast to her brown matted coils of hair, red sarong and overall Goth aesthetic. Her genteel chapeau seems more suitable for the Kentucky Derby than the food co-op. Ruby giggles, handing me a gallon of Better You Bet Pastures. “You know, I put it on at a store in Oakland, California and just walked out with it,” she recounts with a laugh. “I don’t know,” she adjusts her hat, pulling at the ends with both hands, giving a side-glance to the tin ceiling as if she’s a diva. “It’s just me fucking with the fabric of time… You know what I mean, of course.” Ruby, head down, resumes pouring contents into the tub.
“Um, can’t say I do,” I smile at her, mildly perplexed, peeling the lid off a bottle. Everyone at the co-op thinks whatever comes out of their mouth is fucking organic, politically correct, fair-trade brilliance.
There are a ton of boxes that we need to go through for the next two hours of our shift, but with the sink backed up, I’m not sure how we’ll dispose of it all. “You know, they’re making us get rid of this because one person called the co-op office complaining of a sour smell,” Ruby says frustrated. “It’s such a waste. We could’ve donated this to a soup kitchen,” she tells me as I concentrate on pouring into the bin without a spill. “I made an announcement on the intercom earlier about the sink, but no one’s come down to check it out yet” she says. I’m quietly plugging along, absorbing her words.
“We’ll just send it up on the food lift when this container’s full. Okay?” she offers.
“Or couldn’t we just station ourselves at another sink?” I think to myself.
“That’s a pain in the ass,” says Ruby, waving off my suggestion.
I accidentally splash myself, startled. “I didn’t say anything.” I look at Ruby, pausing. “Did I?”
How did she know what I was thinking?
“Oh,” Ruby catches herself. “I thought you said you wanted to move the U-boat.” she squats before switching to cross-legged sitting. “I was like, you know how hard it is to push this cart?” she laughs, averting her eyes as she fits a number of flattened bottles into a translucent blue recycle liner.
We hear a man’s voice on the intercom, inquiring after minimally processed, free-range spotted dick.
“Yeah… we have it, next to the Greek tapenades,” a woman responds on another line, then hangs up the intercom.
The amount of milk in the plastic tub is quickly rising to full capacity. I stare into the sink as Ruby crushes more hollow gallons, attempting to jam them into the liner, already tied and ready for the recycling dumpster. “Don’t you want to just swim it?” Ruby moves closer to me, her eyes motioning to the sink as I glance at her face. “Gross,” I say, laughing off the thought, taking the bag from her, placing it under the basin in order to keep our workspace more open.
My gaze returns to the clogged basin with gobs of sour stuff floating, a revolting odor of yogurt. “I’m sorry,” I add catching myself in one of my weird introspective moods. “For some reason, all this milk’s reminding me of a night when I almost drowned,” I share, reluctantly. “Really?!” Ruby sounds surprised. She’s probably not interested in listening to me, I think. “Was it at a milk silo or something?” Ruby shakes her head and guffaws. “I’m kidding, you know.” She brings out a spare bin for more spoiled milk, ostensibly. “Let’s fill this one up, too, before we send them upstairs on the lift,” says Ruby, now using her box cutter to jab through cardboard to liberate more gallons for us to dump. “I’m sorry. You were sharing...” She hands me a gallon of Better You Bet.
“Um, no, it’s cool,” I say, peeling the purple strip off the bottle lid. “I was four, hanging out at our town pool with my brother who was a lifeguard.” I search for the right terse phrases to quickly recount a story from my life. “He’d let me and his friends in after hours… let me dangle my feet off the shallow end.”
I sit on the wet cement floor, still pouring milk, and I look up to see Ruby, who is stepping firmly on freshly dried bottles with her sandled foot.
Cut to the chase, I remind myself.
“Anyway, you know the black divider lines at the bottom of the pool?” I ask. “Sure,” says Ruby, opening up to a new recycle liner to store more empties.
“They looked like gigantic letter I’s and I wanted to touch them.” I hand her a voided gallon to crush.
“Shit… so you jumped in?” Ruby seems amused by my story or at least happy that I’m almost done telling it.
“Yeah, and all I remember afterwards was waking up, wrapped in towels on the front seat of my father’s car with him behind the wheel, screaming “Jamais le faire ça encore!”
“Oh, never do that again.” Catching myself. “We’re Haitian, my parents speak French.”
“You’re Haitian?!” she asks glowingly. “I’m Haitian!”
“Really?” I’m pleasantly surprised, yet I know she’s probably not from the same social class as I am. To prove it, I ask for her last name. If I don’t know it, she’s a descendant of peasants as suspected.
“Well, I was taken away at a young age. I grew up all over, but lived mostly in California,” she shares.
“So you’ve never been to Haiti then?” I probe.
“Not exactly… It was a long time ago, but… I feel like you know that already.” She walks over to me, staring intently.
“How would I know? Do I know you from somewhere?”
Suddenly, a whirlpool of white miraculously spins down into the sink's drain, gurgling productively. We stand up to watch the sink finally perform its function. Ruby grabs my hand and holds it to her chest. I turn to her, bewildered. She rests my palm flat, fans out my fingers. I feel her thumbs rise up the inside of my hand. I’m seized by her stare; I acquiesce in her hold.
“You’re holding a lot of tension in your metacarpals,” she says, massaging my hand, peering closely. "When did you see this bump?” she asks, gently touching the top of the injury. We’re standing over one of the open full plastic tubs that we’re supposed to load onto the lift. Her arms, neck and a small part of her face are blanketed with tattoos of random objects like a pair of scissors, a chanterelle mushroom, and something that resembles a gourd or maybe a beehive. The one I can’t take my eyes off of is the one on the base of her thumb, same location as my painful bump. It looks like a kidney bean from an old-timey botany book. She accidentally kicks the tub, resulting in a slap of milk against my pant leg, but I continue to stare at the tattoo, unfazed.
“Oh it’s a stick-n-poke that Frantz did on me,” she smiles matter-of-factly, noticing my gawking. “It’s just a needle and ink, like they do in prison.”
“Um, it’s cool,” I say, awkwardly realizing we’re alone in this corner and I’m unable to move. “It really looks familiar…” My eyes move up to the rattling tin ceiling. I can hear food co-op workers’ foot stomps above us, accompanied by sporadic laughter. I wonder if they could hear me if I need someone to intervene.
“I know.” Ruby’s hands move down my forearm; she presses into the bump, now as firm as a golf ball. An intense bolt of pain radiates to my kneecaps. “Tu ne me rappelle pas, Makini?”
Her face is squarely locked into mine. I’m flustered, at a loss. “I don’t know you?” I shake my head, not completely understanding her French. “What is a Makini?” I attempt to push out of her grasp. Too tight. “I don’t know who you are or what you’re talking about…you seem to be mistaken.”
I immediately examine our environs. The U-boat of milk blocks us from sight. The food processing team to the left of us is too busy cutting cheese, packaging nuts and dried fruit for the bulk section. A few of the Receiving & Shipping guys are yards away at the basement conveyor belt unloading heavy boxes. It’s just us. Alone.
“Ah Makini, t’as vraiment changé, mais… Ruby reaches for box cutter, pierces into my wrist, dislodging a black, curved stone, which falls into the tub of milk below us.
“Let me go!” I yell.
“Ne bouge pas, Makini. We’re almost done.”
A stream of emerald green oozes from my wrist, coating my arms. The milk makes a sizzling sound as green droplets fall from my wound into the plastic tub. I tremble, frightened.
“Tu ne peut pas cacher de toi,” Ruby says, admonishingly.
“Please! I yell, still trying to break free, but I’m too weak. The attempt is unsuccessful. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
All too quickly she takes the back of my neck, and I’m on my knees. Ruby slams my body into the ground, pushing me into the milk bath. I struggle, stunned under her hold, gulping liquid, choking. She is murdering me. Her words reverberate in my mind: “You can’t hide from yourself…”
I suddenly feel like I’m glowing. My view is no longer opaque. I’m no longer struggling or fighting to break free for breath. It seems as though I’ve been transported to a park. I walk along a path, a lush, rugged wood that’s defined by a steep narrow gorge. Diverse trees and foliage line the forest, and the cool whisper of water makes me wonder if I’m still in the middle of a bustling Brooklyn. I spot Ruby, standing between large trees, waving to me. It’s a picnic setting.
As I walk towards the group, I look down to notice my wrist has completely healed. Why has Ruby brought me here?
“I hope you robbed her,” an Asian-looking man says jokingly as I reach the convivial group. A blond woman adds, “White transplants to Brooklyn have a serious problem with asking other ostensibly white transplants to validate their racism.” Ruby meets me back at the picnic blanket, falling onto her knees, thighs perpendicular to the floor in perfect yogic Hero’s pose. She introduces me to the group as Makini. The bold 70s pattern of burnt orange roses, yellow blossoms, purple zinnias, and white daisies are disorienting. She’s casually welcoming me as if it’s a normal day at the park with friends. I’m quiet, hoping for some answers. I keep my gaze down, crestfallen, press flesh with Andreas, waving awkwardly to Polly as she glances in my direction, holding a baby to her breast. Andreas, scruffy and bearded, looks uncomfortable, keeps tugging Polly’s hair, biting the top of her left shoulder. She puts the sleeping baby down. “No biting,” Polly says to Andreas flatly.
“Sorry.” Andreas, now contrite, wipes his nose with his forearm, eyes steady on her, hungry. Polly reveals her left breast and the man shifts his legs forward to lie on his side, cocks his head up to meet Polly’s nipple, and then opens his lips to latch onto her teat. Polly tenderly watches as Andreas begins suckling at her breast, breathing a sign of relief as her milk lets down. She grabs her phone, using the free thumb to snap a selfie with her nursling. “I’m supposed to post pics of breastfeeding friendly spots around the city for our collective,” Polly chortles. “If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.”
“And, you remember Frantz right?” Ruby points to a brown-skinned, 30-something-looking man with a bike messenger cap, brim flipped up to reveal the word "Philadelphia." I don’t remember him. I don't know any of these people.
Who is Makini?
What am I doing here?
Frantz's arms are also heavily tatted with odd symbols like a shovel centered on his knee-cap and a five-panel door on the back of one of his hands. Frantz’s eyes bulge out from deeply swollen sockets. His nose is flat and wide, reminding me of a housefly.
He nibbles on what looks like a brick of tempeh. His gaze is fixed on me as if he’s ready to pounce should I attempt to dart away.
Ruby stares at me quizzically. A thoughtful smile appears on her face.
What was lost is found again, I guess.
“Am I dead?” I ask her, low and searchingly.
“I don’t know yet...”
Jacqueline Colette Prosper discovered her love for pop culture when her teenaged sister forced the then five-year old Ms. Prosper into a Prince and the Revolution fan club and soon kicked her out when she couldn’t pay the dues. A former office assistant at Miramax/Dimension Films and a survivor of New Jersey suburban angst, she bounced around from film production to print media. Ms. Prosper has also contributed articles to Time Out New York, Huffington Post, Zink Magazine, New York Magazine and Metro Newspaper. She is most inspired by her colorful and often uptight Haitian family as well as her husband Sean. You can follow her on Twitter: @yummicoco.
Morgane Santos is a programmer-photographer-poet living in San Francisco. She has always lived near the ocean and has only recently seen what the night sky looks like without light pollution. It's beautiful, if you were curious. See more of her work at unnegative.com.
Mike Williams makes music in San Francisco, California. In 2008, he had an idea for a music blog where original music would be posted every day. He started the blog Hella Gems and recruited musical friends in both California and Atlanta to participate. At its peak, each person had roughly two weeks to compose, record, and then post a new song. You can listen to some of Mike's latest work at Hella Gems and on Soundcloud.