Call For Submissions || Happy Holidays from Storychord.com

Posted: Monday, December 5, 2016 | |


In these last three weeks of 2016, Storychord.com takes a break from posting new issues to take stock of this past year's offerings and prepare exciting new ones for the site's 7th(!) year of publication.

If you've ever considered sending your short fiction, visual art, or songs for consideration, this month's formal reading/review period is a prime opportunity to do so. Storychord is especially looking for visual art (painters, photographers, illustrators, mixed media/collage, etc.) and bands/musicians to pair with stories selected for upcoming issues.

Read our submission guidelines for more information -- and spread the word to the talented writers, artists, and musicians you know.


Lots more good stuff is ahead for 2017. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail so you don't miss a thing!

Wishing you happy holidays and a bright start to the new year,

--Sarah Lynn Knowles
Editor/Founder of Storychord


ISSUE #134: Alexandra Sanders, Cara Burke, Tiny Stills

Posted: Monday, November 21, 2016 | | Labels:

Issue #134 Guest Editor Jessica Maria Johnson's writing previously appeared in Storychord Issue #101. She works and writes in Los Angeles. She was born in Panama, but doesn't have a hometown. She is currently working on a novel. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her TinyLetter ramblings.

Art by Cara Burke


THE 12TH GUEST
by Alexandra Sanders


I.

Lila Woods swiveled in the rickety desk chair holding her phone inches from her face, waiting for the vibration that meant answers. Her thoughts drowned out the bustling noise of the newsroom, as she pondered why her friend Harper Seaton would invite her to a dinner party without telling her who else was going or why her name was on the list.

As a journalist, she loved mysteries, but loathed unanswered questions. While the prospect of attending a party she had no context for seemed like an adventure worth experiencing, her curiosity got the best of her and she sent a series of text messages to Harper: Where is the party? Why is she on the guest list? Who else is attending? Should she bring wine, or just herself?



Issue #134 soundtrack: Tiny Stills "Burn It Down"


Buzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Her face lit up as her screen did, but fell as soon as she realized Harper had ignored all her questions, writing only: “check your email.”

Lila hit save on another lazy press release rewrite she was banging out for The Daily News. She refreshed her inbox until she saw the invitation. Beneath the date and location was a list of names of the other guests. With a glance over her shoulder to confirm that her nosey editor Davis was otherwise occupied, she entered each name into Google. Of the 11 other attendees, nine had Wikipedia pages, and six were names she had heard before in political circles. Instinctively, Lila began to jot down notes on the attendees in a feeble attempt to make connections among them. She also wanted to pinpoint a reason she might belong in such esteemed company, but was forced to give up when she saw Davis, brows furrowed, eyeing her computer screen.


II.

Lila stood in the marble-walled apartment building lobby and second-guessed her navigation skills. But the Upper East Side building matched the address on the invitation. The conspicuous opulence of the plush cobalt carpeting and gilded chandeliers made her shift nervously in her cranberry dress and cheetah-print loafers. She considered going home to change, but calmed herself and approached the security desk.

“Hello there. I’m a guest of Reese Braddock’s. Lila Woods. I don’t have an apartment number, but the invitation says 15th floor?”

The man behind the security desk smirked and glanced down at a computer screen that bathed his face in a green-blue light.

“Ms. Braddock owns the entire 15th floor. And it looks like she is indeed expecting you.”

Lila felt her face grow hot, and worried her skin would match her dress by the time she reached the party. She managed to blurt out, “of course, thank you so much,” before stepping into the elevator—a space half the size of her Brooklyn studio and more decadent.

Lila exhaled, hoping the scarlet in her face would leave her body with her breath as she gave herself a mental pep talk: Nothing exciting happens if you never try new things.

The elevator doors slid open and Lila’s eyes widened in surprise. The sprawling and minimalist apartment was starkly opposite from the antiquated d├ęcor that smothered the lobby. Everything was modern and bathed in whites, creams, and grays. Massive floral arrangements lined the hallway with branches that stretched out into the space, daring guests who walked by to bring $5,000 plants crashing to the ground.

“Hello?” Lila called out softly.

“Lila! Hi! So glad you could make it.” She was relieved to hear Harper’s voice, and felt the anxiety melt from her body when her friend’s arms pulled her into a hug at the threshold of the kitchen.

“Since you told me you wanted to make your life a little less boring last time we spoke, I thought this might be just the thing.”

“When did I tell you that?” Lila’s memory from their last encounter was as cloudy as the gin fizzes they drank that night.

“Tell me you remember something? You went on and on about your horrific, sexist editor Davis and that dreadful newbie he promoted over you. You said you wanted to start a riot, and so here you are.”

“Well, this doesn’t feel much like a riot, but it is a nice change of pace.”

Lila tried to imitate Harper’s glowing smile, perfected by half a decade as a public relations rep. She wanted to appear gracious and warm to the other guests, instead of a notch above uncomfortable. Lila let Harper lead her into the living room, where the rest of the guests were gathered.

“Lila, please meet Reese Braddock, our host this evening. Reese is the VP at Goldman Sachs and a very generous philanthropist. Really, she’s saving this city with her generosity.”

“It is lovely to meet you, Reese,” Lila said, extending her hand. “What a stunning home you have.”

“Oh thank you,” Reese waved the compliment away as if it were a fly buzzing around her head. “The most important part is the wine fridge! Are you drinking red or white?”

Lila chose white, given the pale hues of the apartment and her proclivity for clumsiness when she was anxious. Wine in hand, she wandered toward the remainder of the crowd, noting how the decor seemed to be an extension of Reese’s porcelain complexion. Of the people in the room, she recognized a film director, a prominent actress, and two politicians immediately, but it took her a moment to identify the other guests from her internet stalking.

“Shall we get started? Please take a seat,” Reese said, gesturing to a white, glossy dining table adorned with golden candles and extensive silverware sets that Lila feared navigating.

“As we’re getting settled, I want to welcome you to my home. I am so glad you all came,” Reese said lifting her hands toward her face in delight. Her charming smile was obscured by claw-like nails painted butcher red. “For the newcomers here, every month I hold a dinner party and ask dear friends to bring their smartest, fiercest friends. Over refreshments, we talk about ways to change the world and smash the patriarchy.”

Lila surveyed the animated faces of the women around the table and felt a burst of adrenaline surge through her body. She may be a poorly-paid reporter, but she realized she might have more in common with these women than she expected.

Reese gestured toward a woman with sheets of cherry-red hair that fell in curtains around her doll-like face. Lila had pegged the woman earlier as the award-winning actress whose inventive outfits always shimmered across the style pages of The Daily News.

“Please start off the discussion by talking about your recent incident at work.”

The actress detailed her latest salary negotiation, which ended with her getting paid several million dollars less than her male costar. While she acknowledged her privilege, the discrepancy spoke volumes.

“I am so pleased to be in such lovely company once more,” Lila heard the woman next to her speak. “This is my fourth time attending one of Reese’s dinner parties, and she has been so wonderful. I am grateful for what she does for us all.”

She identified herself as an advisor to the mayor, and Lila was immediately drawn to her. The woman had bright green eyes and silver-blonde hair. She looked like Lila—just 25 years older—and had similar experiences, starting with an anxiety-filled career in journalism. As women in largely male professions, they had both faced sexist jokes, worked later and harder than their male colleagues, and always over-justified their decisions.

As the woman wrapped up her introduction, Lila felt her face grow hot with anticipation of having to speak and feared that the three glasses of wine she had already gulped down would slow her vowels and soften her consonants.

She cleared her throat: “Let me just say that I am honored to be in the presence of your company. All of you have carved out pathways before me so women of my generation could succeed. You kept chipping away at the glass ceiling so we could break through with a light tap.”

As she listened to her own voice bounce off of the china and reverberate through the chandelier’s crystals, she realized how young and eager to please she sounded.

“Anyway, I’m Lila Woods. And as a female journalist, I have faced hardships that my male peers haven’t had to suffer through. But in the interest of not being redundant, let me raise this question: how do we solve these problems? How do we create a world in which my future children will have fewer obstacles than you did, or even I did?”

“I am so glad you asked,” Reese responded, beaming. “Why don’t you all help yourself to dessert and I will be right back to help answer that question. Harper, would you please help our guests with their wine?”

Lila was struck by their easy closeness. Harper was usually the brightest star in any room, and rarely took orders from anyone—including Lila, her friend of six years. She had never heard Harper mention Reese’s name before, but she seemed to be the hostess’ right-hand woman.

“Every year, there are fewer women involved in politics. Every year there are more reports of actresses, directors, writers, and other women who are all-stars in their fields getting kicked down a notch, feeling less-than, and not being heralded for their accomplishments,” Harper said.

Lila, grasping her wine glass with one hand and passing a tray of gold-flecked macarons with the other, noticed that Harper’s usually inviting smile was firmly pressed against gritted teeth.

“Well, of course, but that’s why we have a great group of people like this to brainstorm solutions to these problems.”

Harper shook her head and sighed, speaking slowly as if attempting to teach a toddler the meaning of a word.

“Lila, we have tried brainstorming. We have tried negotiating and we have tried being nice. Tonight, we are going to talk about ways in which we can actually create progress for once—squash these social injustices for good.”

Harper turned her attention away from Lila and surveyed the faces around the table.

“Ladies, aren’t you sick of being treated unfairly? Aren’t you tired of waiting for change? Well, as many of you already know, we have a plan—and so far, it’s working.”

Lila was so rapt, she didn’t realize that Reese had returned, and she was carrying a small wooden chest.

“Do you all know who Felix Mabry is?” Reese asked the room.

“Yes!” Lila heard her voice leave her mouth before considering her answer. “He was the city official who went missing a few weeks ago. There were tons of rumors about his sordid behavior.”

Lila let out an uncomfortable half-laugh as she realized how quiet the room was.

“Indeed, Lila. Felix was someone who had threatened women, intentionally kept them out of influential seats, and made snide comments about them online to tarnish their reputations. Well, we decided to teach Felix a lesson.”

Reese carefully placed the chest next to the platter of macarons and lifted the lid. Lila was perplexed as steam billowed out of the opening. Her brain heavy with booze, it took her more than a few moments to realize that it wasn’t steam at all, but dry ice. The vapors obscured a smaller encasement inside the chest and Lila leaned closer to see what it contained, studying Reese’s face for a hint.

Reese adjusted the string of pearls laced around her neck and smiled proudly. “Inside this box are Felix’s fingers. Some of them, at least. We have already sent a few—along with strongly worded notes—to his acquaintances who were committing similar offenses. So they know that we do actually mean business.”

This has to be a joke. No way there are fingers in there. Lila instinctively clasped her hands together as if to protect them.

She looked at the faces around the table for signs of fright or disturbance, but only saw smiles and nods of encouragement. Lila, disappointed in the wicked behavior of women she initially hoped might be her friends, seemed to be the one person at the table who did not expect this.

She moved toward the pocket of her blazer to switch on her tape recorder and palmed it firmly, aiming it toward Reese, Harper, and the remains of Felix.

“Forgive me,” Lila said, breaking the silence. Again, her brain lost the fight to her eagerness for information and she heard her voice waver. “But how is this going to help achieve equality?”

Harper gave her a sharp look. “Well, Lila, you’re forgiven because you’re new to this group, but it has already led to progress. These powerful men expect us to sit with our hands folded in our laps and wait for justice, but we have waited for too long. One year ago, we began using this—I’ll call it a slightly more forceful method—of creating change. More than a few well-deserved appointments and promotions have happened since. This has been so effective, it’s why we’ve begun inviting more women to this group, women who believe in the fundamentals of female empowerment and have experienced prejudice for years. From now on, men like Felix, men who plant public lies and ruin careers, won’t have the ability to hurt us.”

Lila was taken aback by Harper, who was panting with rage. The actress pushed her chair away from the table and histrionically threw her arms around her, calming Harper with careful pats on the back as if she were in danger of shattering.

“Oh, I see. Of course,” Lila muttered. She wasn’t sure what the consequences would be if she didn’t agree with the group, but she knew she wanted to keep her fingers.

Lila tried to disguise her horror with feigned interest and moved toward the box to get a closer look. She peered through the clouds of dry ice and saw them: gray-blue and bent rigidly as though Felix was waving when the appendages were taken from him.

As the women continued to take turns peering into the box, Lila excused herself to the bathroom.

Staring into the mirror, she gripped the edge of the sink hoping the cold marble edges would prevent her from fainting. She focused on what she needed to know about the big story just outside the bathroom door.

Here was a murderous cult bent on retribution in the name of women’s empowerment. They were clinking glasses and discussing how rich the petit fours were over an open box of severed fingers. She cracked the door open and Reese’s voice faintly seeped into the tiled space.

“As the night winds down, please consider your assignments. Pinpoint the man who has hurt your career, tried to stop you from being the fierce leader you are. And think of how you can strongly persuade him and his fellow miscreants from doing you wrong again.”

Lila, still gripping the tape recorder in her now-sweaty palm, removed her shoes and tiptoed down the hallway. She peeked into the dining room and saw that the women were chatting in small groups, oblivious to her absence.

Relieved, she turned to retrace her steps and collided with a red-silk-clad figure.

“Careful, hun!” Reese said, gripping a knife now pointing away from them. “You could’ve gotten hurt.”

Lila tried to breathe normally, despite the scream rising in her throat.

“What’s that for? You already served dessert.”

Stop asking questions before you think.

“Well, it might just be for you if you’re running off already. You look like you’re ready to make a break for it.”

Reese’s piercing blue eyes wandered to Lila’s shoes, dangling from her fingers, and Lila began to step backward.

“I’m kidding! It’s to cut the ribbon on a hostess gift. Calm down, Lila. You're here because Harper trusts you, so I trust you. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” she said, smiling and moving toward the living room. She abruptly turned just as Lila was letting out her breath. “Oh, and the powder room is down that hall if that’s where you were headed. It’s quite easy to get lost in this place.”

After Reese rounded the corner, Lila found her office and cracked open the MacBook perched on a massive white desk. She began to dig through the hostess-slash-cult-leader’s email, while periodically eyeing the door for stray dinner guests.

Her cursor paused over a message dated May 13 with the subject line, “Dinner.” Lila tried to figure out why the sender’s name sounded familiar. She realized she frequently heard it from her coworker, who reported on white collar crime.


From: Max Coppage
To: Reese Braddock


Hi Reese,


I really enjoyed our call the other day. I am so impressed by you and the other girls standing up for what you think is right, and I look forward to meeting the new members you welcome after your dinner party next month.


We need to talk about James next. Trust me, he’s the next person you want out of your way. We’ll talk details when we meet for lunch. For now, focus on Felix.


I know this all seems like a lot, but you’re doing great. Just follow my lead.


Best,
Max


She was snapping a photo of the message when she heard footsteps in the hallway.

“Lila? Are you still here?”

Lila flicked on the light and feigned searching the room as if she had lost something.

“In here! Just looking for my jacket.”

Harper pushed the door open and eyed her curiously.

“I don’t recall you wearing a jacket. It’s June, Lila. Eighty degrees. Are you feeling OK?”

“Oh, right.” Lila rubbed her arms to quell the imaginary goose bumps covering them. “I just don’t feel that well. I actually think I may head home, but thank you so much for having me. This is a lovely space and extraordinary group of women. I’m grateful.”

Harper’s face remained severe, but she was now sporting a sinister smile that caused genuine goosebumps to sprout on Lila’s skin.

Or was it the same smile as always?

“I do hope you enjoyed yourself. I selected you because of the prejudices you’ve faced and your desire to change the world. I hope you’ll work with us to create that environment you mentioned you wanted for your future children. I’ll send you an invitation in the coming weeks if you’re up to it. I will say though, this group does not look kindly upon others who don’t return after their first dinner party.”

“I truly am honored, Harper. Thank you. We’ll speak soon, promise. Please give my regards to Reese and the other guests, I wish I felt better. Have a good night.”

Lila felt Harper’s cold stare on the back of her head as she slipped her shoes on, slung her purse across her body and headed back down the flora-lined hallway toward the elevator, holding her breath the whole way. As the doors glided open, she stepped onto the carpet and saw sticky stains along the edges of the elevator’s walls that she hadn’t noticed earlier. She studied the lustrous marble she had leaned against on her ride to the 15th floor, and now spotted mottling and pockmarks. Above her, the rusted light cover was shaded in spots where bugs had perished.

As she stepped into the lobby, Lila tapped out an email to her editor with a note about the bizarre dinner, the blur of VIP guests, and the photo of Max’s email. She decided to save the morbid details for an in-person chat. A shiver ran down her spine as the image of the freezer-burned fingers flashed through her mind. Suddenly, she felt the doorman’s eyes on her, and she hurried through the revolving door, shooting her hand skyward to catch a cab before she reached the curb.


III.

The next morning, Lila ambled down the paint-chipped hallway to her editor’s office, mentally rehearsing her pitch. This scoop was a far cry from her usual local dog park opening stories.

“Lila Woods. You look tired.”

“Did you get my e-mail? From last night?” Lila clutched her cell phone tightly, as she had sleeplessly done all night until the corners of the device created divots in her palm and the metal and plastic felt like an extension of her limb.

“Yes, and it was vague. What did you learn in Journalism 101 about including the facts up front? Tell me more now.”

Davis turned back to his computer screen and continued typing, nodding along as she elaborated on the party. When she uttered the word “fingers,” Davis’ perpetually annoyed expression jerked into one of shock.

“Like, human fingers?”

“Human fingers! Human fingers of Felix Mabry! Who I’d guess is dead though he’s just been reported missing, as far as I know. And Coppage might be behind this whole thing? Like, this billionaire possibly grasping at a political seat is leading a group of women to go on a man-killing spree in the name of what they are touting as some positive change movement? And I was up all night researching Mabry’s disappearance and trying to figure out who James is—”

“It’s gotta be James Rossi.”

“The mayor?”

“Remember he took sudden leave during an awfully busy political season? You might be onto something, Woods. Go make some calls and see what you can find out about Rossi’s whereabouts. I’m going to send a note to a source I have in city council to see what I can get. You might not be a horrific reporter after all, you know that?”

Lila smiled curtly and turned to leave his office. As she weaved around the paper-strewn desks that dotted the newsroom, Lila eyed her red, blotchy hands and attempted to rub out the dents.

“Hello there!”

The voice wasn’t one that belonged in the newsroom, let alone in her cubicle. Reese, now wearing a cerulean version of last night’s dress, cheerfully swiveled back and forth in Lila’s chair.

“You didn’t say goodbye last night. Is everything OK? I wouldn’t want there to be any trouble, you know, with you being a reporter and all, so I figured I’d stop by to check for myself.”

“Oh! Of course. I just didn’t feel that well. I got swept up in, uh, the jubilance and had a bit too much wine.”

“Understandable! I’d love to have a little follow-up chat, though. I’m meeting my friend Max now for lunch. He’s a gem who you should absolutely get to know. He might even be able to enlighten you about the importance of our work. Join me?”

“You know, I’d love to, but I’m quite busy—”

Lila felt Reese’s nails dig into her wrist before she saw them. Reese was still sporting a genial smile, but her eyes were cast downward toward her purse. Poking out from between the metal clasps was a small, razor-sharp knife.

Lila glanced around the newsroom and saw only empty chairs. She furtively glanced toward Davis’ office in a silent plea for help, but his door was closed. Reese stood, not waiting for Lila to accept her invitation, and intertwined Lila’s arm in hers.

“Seems like everyone else has better things to do—even your dreadful editor, huh? Harper told me all about that pig. Shall we?”

Reese led Harper into the street and gestured to a black town car that was double parked.

“Well? Hop in. Let’s go.”

Lila, eyeing Reese’s hand that was still half-submerged in her purse, climbed in hesitantly.

MMMNNNNMMM!!!

Lila heard muffled screams and her eyes widened in shock. Davis was bound and gagged in the seat next to her.

“I know you and Davis know one another, but please meet Max,” Reese said, gesturing toward the driver. “We’re just trying to help you move up the ladder, my friend. That’s all we want to do. Now, let’s discuss next steps for you and your editor here over tartine.”


Alexandra Sanders lives and writes in New York. By day, she's an editor at The Huffington Post who innovates in the editorial product space. By night, she bakes mostly pumpkin-flavored confections and dances around the kitchen to 90s alt rock. Check out her recipes, writing and photography at alexandramsanders.com.

Cara Burke enjoys various tactile art forms such as collages and embroidery. She has recently been exploring doodle art, drawing inspiration from the botany of her hometown Austin, Texas. She recently opened an Etsy shop showcasing her hand-made embroidery items. View examples of her art, as well as pictures of her beloved pitbull, Pippa, on her Instagram.

Tiny Stills is an indie pop band from Los Angeles, fronted by Kailynn West. Tiny Stills has toured nationally and shared the stage with artists such as Anthony Raneri (Bayside), Allison Weiss, and Motion City Soundtrack and is currently staying up very late at night and eating lots of sugar and working on the next perfect feel-good-sad-anthem-sing-along for their 2017 album release. Get their debut album “Falling is Like Flying” on iTunes or Bandcamp, and watch for tour updates on Facebook.




ISSUE #133: Jennifer Ahlquist, L.K. James, Zigtebra

Posted: Monday, November 7, 2016 | | Labels:


Illustration by L.K. James

REPOTTED
by Jennifer Ahlquist


I found my brother again at the garden center. I was sure I’d imagined his voice, just over my shoulder in line for the register. He’d only been dead six weeks and I’d read that things like that could happen. Auditory hallucinations. But then it came again – Paul’s growl, unmistakable and very close. Becca, it said. I swiveled, bumping into pansies and tomato vines around me with the unwieldy fern in my arms that Dr. Chakiryan said might help bring life back into the apartment. I thought this was a poor choice of words, or maybe an apt one because he also said that we find the meaning we want to in what other people tell us. Ben hadn’t come with me, so I couldn’t ask him if he heard it, too. He’d said he couldn’t take any more paid time off after the funeral since it was his girlfriend’s bereavement, not his. Again I heard it, practically on top of me. Becca.


Issue #133 soundtrack: Zigtebra “Where Have You Gone?”


Paul? I whispered. The fern in my arms rustled. Paul? I looked down.

Hi, Paul said, waving his frond.

The woman behind me pressed her flat of flowers against my back to tell me the next register was open.

Shhhh, Paul said, don’t freak.

I started to protest when they wrapped Paul’s roots too tightly in burlap, but he waved again to shush me up.

Beautiful plant, the cashier said, really a home-maker.

Thank you, I gushed, and clutched my brother to me across the counter.

* * * * *

We drove home in silence. He draped a frond out the passenger side window and we both listened to the breeze whip through the car. That was one of my favorite things about Paul – the way we could be quiet together. It’s what made us good friends and better roommates, and what had united us against the loud, untidy lives of our parents. Once, we spent the whole drive from Indianapolis back to Mamaroneck in total silence just to give them the spooks. They didn’t fight for a week after that. When they divorced mercifully a few years later, Paul took me to the driving range while the movers ferried our stuff to Mom and Darrell’s new place the next county over. He liked it better there than at the mini golf course. Too messy, too many noisy families. Thwack! Thwack! Our hits rang out and the dimpled balls raced each other into the turf. We didn’t know how to golf. We said nothing but we felt better. I felt better. Dr. Chakiryan said I need to stop using “we” when I talk about Paul.

* * * * *

At home, I had to grab Paul’s stalk with both hands to wrestle him into the pot. He wasn’t very large, but the weight of his roots surprised me.

I’m sorry it’s just terra cotta, I said.

You know I’m not picky about my pot.

He rustled, so I laughed, too. I put him in the sunniest window and grabbed a couple of beers. I stuck the long neck of one bottle upside down in Paul’s soil and sank into the couch.

Thanks, said Paul, I’m sick of water.

We air-toasted to being alone together again.

* * * * *

I skipped lunch with Ben the next day, said I was finally sorting Paul’s stuff. I held things up and Paul said yes, keep it, or no, I don’t need a toothbrush anymore. We kept all the vinyl because we could still listen to them together. I remembered reading somewhere that music helped plants to grow.

I’m sure he would have been glad to see these put to good use, the Vietnam Vets donation guy told me when he came to pick up Paul’s clothes.

Well, they don’t fit me, I said, and he smiled at me like Darrell had when he brought Mom over to the apartment after the burial. A toothless smear of well-intended pity. Darrell and Ben had sat in our secondhand armchairs drinking iced tea and watching football like it was Thanksgiving instead of a funeral. I didn’t even know we got the sports channels.

Ben, it means so much to Darrell and me that you were a pall bearer today.

Mom’s voice was thick but didn’t falter. She hadn’t removed her ridiculous black hat with its bird-cage netting and clutched a black silk bag in her lap. I could see the tag poking out of the top. She’d probably return it later, and I hoped she’d only get store credit.

It was so special to see everyone who loved him, all his most important people, there together for him.

I left them in the living room and got in bed. Mom ushered Darrell away from the game and out the door without saying goodbye. Dr. Chakiryan said that my non-confrontational attitude was why I hadn’t gone to the funeral.

Limited to his terra cotta pot, Paul talked more than he ever had with legs. Things I barely noticed him doing as a person became the subjects of lengthy tutorials. The filter on the air conditioner had to be cleaned, the couch cushions rotated, the glue traps reset under the oven. The prickly fuzz on his stems bristled whenever I didn’t follow instructions quite right. An internet search told me they were called rhizomes. I wanted to know everything about him. I learned how much sun he needed and not to over-water. He walked me through setting the right rpm on the record player, taught me how to make his perfect pan-fried quesadillas (low heat, patience), and finally explained how to get the TV to sync up with the DVD player so we could re-watch Ingmar Bergman movies until I passed out on the sofa.

Are you asleep, Paul? I asked once, after Through a Glass Darkly.

I don’t think I can, he answered.

I didn’t sleep much that night either, and when I did, I dreamt of a terrible spider crouched in Paul’s leaves. I dusted him in the morning in spite of his protests, just to be sure.

* * * * *

Before we became roommates, I’d visited him in his first and only year at college. He took me to a house party where I wore a skirt Mom didn’t know I owned and got drunk fast on vodka mixed with Kool-Aid powder. When one of his friends offered me a bump from the crook of his thumb, Paul swatted the guy’s hand away. He handed him a ten for the spilled coke and practically frog-marched me back to his dorm. We ordered a pizza and Paul made me sleep on my side. He didn’t tell me off ever, but the next night at the next party he tallied my whiskey punches in pen on his arm. I was never as good at keeping track of him as he was of me. He’d gotten in the habit of staying away overnight while he was using, and I was so used to the quiet that it took more than a day for me to find his body. I’d made breakfast, done the dishes, slept in a bedroom that shared a wall with his. I hadn’t even gone in to see him, I just wanted to borrow his headphones.

Oh Bec, Ben had said when I called him from the hospital. Honey, please don’t tell me you’re surprised.

And then I was ashamed of both of us.

When the 24-pack of beers ran out, I invited Ben over. I hadn’t gone back to work yet so cash was running low, and besides, I was beginning to miss my boyfriend. I told Paul that he was coming over and the leaves at his crown drooped.

Couldn’t you just pick something up? he asked.

We hadn’t had anybody else over all week, not counting the Vietnam Vets guy.

C’mon, just the two of us.

I tied the sleeves of a blue flannel shirt I’d held onto around his pot, to help him feel more like himself. The doorbell rang.

I’m not ready, Paul said. Brrrong went the doorbell again.

You look awesome, Paul, I said.

Ben’s a prick, said Paul.

Hey pretty, said Ben when I answered the door. He took a bottle of whiskey out of his bag and gave it a little shake. I grabbed two glasses and a turkey baster from the kitchen while Ben dropped his stuff in the living room.

Are you making something?

He watched as I tipped a generous pour into each glass, and stuck the baster into the fifth of Johnnie Walker, sucking liquor into the rubber bulb. I handed Ben a glass and shoved the long tube of the baster into Paul’s dirt. I hoped he’d loosen up soon.

Do you want to watch a movie? I asked neither of them in particular.

Ben swallowed whatever he had been preparing to say. I picked Paul’s favorite Bergman, Fanny and Alexander. He hadn’t said a word since Ben came in. The apartment got too hot, even with the windows open. Paul’s smallest leaves were looking spindly, and sweat condensed where my back pressed against the sofa cushions. Life got worse for Fanny and Alexander, despite their well-meaning family. Ben was bored. The turkey baster was only half full.

It was always like this when the three of us hung out – which had been rare. Ben and Paul rooted themselves in opposite corners while I tried to bridge the space between them. I couldn’t blame Ben. He didn’t know he was ignoring Paul because I hadn’t told him anything yet. I felt the room grow more oxygenated as Paul completed his vegetal respiration furiously in the corner. I refused to speak for him. He’d been so forthcoming all week, I resented guessing at his thoughts. I hated him sitting there like an impotent chaperone. He could have tried. He could have asked for help.

Ben’s hand slid from my knee to my thigh, and upwards still until it found the Y of my jeans. I stiffened, Paul swayed in the corner. I closed my eyes and breathed through my nose. Dr. Chakiryan’s voice counted in my head. In for seven. Hold for five. Out for nine. Ben’s lips found my neck, my collarbone, my earlobe. We hadn’t had sex since Paul died.

Maybe we should go to your room? Ben asked from deep in his throat.

No, I said, and pulled his face back towards mine.

I pushed my tongue past his teeth and leaned into the cushions, arching my back so he could slide a hand around to unhook my bra. Paul said nothing. I pulled Ben’s shirt over his head, and he grinned. He reached for my breasts with both hands, his mouth a hard line. I turned my head to offer him my neck and saw Paul, perfectly still by the open window despite the breeze. We had never seen each other naked. His leaves were curling in on themselves, and I knew he’d have to say something soon. I stared, daring him.

Jesus, the blinds, said Ben.

He stood, red-faced, a hand outstretched to move Paul from the window sill.

Don’t touch him!

We stood facing each other in the cramped, too-hot room.

Him? I watched the confusion settle across his face.

I think I fell in love with him because I always knew what he was thinking. I wished I didn’t now. The quiet in the room was heavy. I felt it settle at the bottom of my lungs like cold air.

You okay, Bec? Ben asked, his hand resting on the edge of Paul’s pot.

My stomach felt too full of whatever vomit is when it’s still inside you. The Johnnie Walker made my skin too hot. They stood there not seeing each other, and I didn’t want them to. I didn’t want to be seen by them, either.

You should go, I said, grabbing my shirt from the sofa. I have an early session with Dr. Chakiryan.

I’m sorry, Becca, Ben said.

He kissed me on the forehead and left the whiskey as he went.

Paul was still quiet. I called out to him as soon as the door was closed, but he didn’t answer. I was still sweating and felt dizzy.

Paul, are you still…?

Paul didn’t stir. I got down on the floor next to him, my cheek on the rim of his pot. I stuck my fingers in the dirt and dug and dug and dug for his roots, twisting my fingers through them until they turned purple. The rest of the whiskey trickled out of the baster and made my hands and face muddy.

Paul, I’m sorry.

I tugged at the flannel, tipping soil into my lap while I held him. I petted his fronds and kissed the tiny, woolly leaves.

Paul, I’m sorry.

I spread his dirt across my legs, rubbed it into my arms. I buried my head in the fullness of his leaves. We stayed like that until early morning when I woke up in a puddle of booze and dirt with broken fern fronds in my hair.

I rewrapped Paul, now turning yellow and brittle at his edges, in the burlap from the garden center and carried him outside to watch while I dug in the shared lot behind the apartment building. He stayed silent, stretched his leaves and turned toward the sun. The sun felt good on my face, too. I nestled him down into the fresh hole, packed him in with topsoil. He looked much bigger out in the yard than he had in the apartment. I knelt in close to pat down the earth around his stalk.

Thanks, Becca, I thought I heard him whisper.

I said nothing. I wiped my hands on the blue flannel tied around my waist, and went back inside for the watering can.

Jennifer Ahlquist ​is a Philadelphia-based writer with a background in theater and social media marketing. A recent transplant from NYC, she is currently working towards completing a collection of very short fiction.

L.K. James is an artist making books, comics, and other things in Portland, OR. For more, visit lkjames.com or follow the artist on Instagram.

Zigtebra is Zebra (Emily Rose) and Tiger (Joseph). They are half-siblings who met in Chicago in 2010 while performing in the Pure Magical Love dance troop. Armed with a cassette of collected songs ("The Pink Line"), they set off across America on a summer road trip/tour. When they returned to Chicago they locked themselves up at Observatory Studios and recorded new material for their first studio album "The Brave," which released October 2014 in limited white vinyl from FPE Records. For more, visit the band on Bandcamp, Soundcloud, or on zigtebra.com.









ISSUE #132: Eva Konstantopoulos, Devyn Park, Susanna Rose

Posted: Monday, October 24, 2016 | | Labels:


Illustration by Devyn Park

THERE IS NO ARTHUR
by Eva Konstantopoulos


The sounds of the market burst in Frank's ears as he navigated through the stalls. He held his phone tightly in his hand, the address of the shop within reach as he passed colorful fruit and silver fish, whole chickens and plastic trinkets. Fresh fish here! Apples! Pears! Frank knew where he was going wouldn't fix Anna, but he had to try.

Strangers shouted in Mandarin. A young mother wiped red juice off her son's cheek. Frank passed the last covered stall and walked out into the street. A little further, he thought. Maybe the next block. He'd have to look at the map again to be sure.


Issue #132 soundtrack: Susanna Rose “Ancient History”


From out of nowhere, a car blared its horn. He looked to his left and met the eyes of a driver as he slammed on the brakes. The driver rolled down his window. "Watch where you're going, will you?"

Frank continued on, his armpits sweaty. He could feel the driver's eyes boring into the back of his head as he turned down a litter-strewn alley. He checked the address one more time.

A man named Arthur had called Frank to inform him of the shop. He said it had worked miracles for many families before him. The perfect gift was waiting for Frank. He just had to make the journey. Frank had perused the prices, researched online. There were other shops like the one Frank searched for, but they were in Beverly Hills or Brentwood with heftier price tags. Buying memories was a rich people's game, and Frank and Anna were firmly middle-class, despite years of trying to break through to the upper thresholds.

At first Frank had his doubts. How had this Arthur even gotten ahold of him? Arthur’s voice was smooth and assuring, as if they were old friends. He knew things about Frank, about Anna. Weeks later, Frank would find Anna’s notepad with a small etching of a moon and a phone number. She had seen the experience on Oprah and signed up for more information online.

It was an opportunity to travel to the lunar landscape without ever leaving your living room. Of course, the real thing would be better, but lunar travel was only for the elite. A memory was the next best thing, and even that at a discount place like where he was headed would require remortgaging the house. Still, it was the first time Frank had seen Anna interested in something since the accident. It was a long shot, but Frank had tried everything else. He was willing to bargain.

Frank walked down the length of the alley and then retraced his steps to the only door he could find. It was unmarked. He checked the address on his phone again and then knocked. After a moment, the door opened with the lock still on. A petite woman peered out at Frank. He twisted his wedding ring around his finger.

"Is Arthur here?" he asked. The young woman blinked at him, and then the door squeaked open into darkness.

Inside the shop, the overhead lights were dim and fluorescent. They hadn't been cleaned in some time and scattered dead flies mixed with the grime of the city. The shop girl led Frank down a windowless hallway. He saw she was younger than he had originally thought. A girl of perhaps twenty-five with slightly hunched shoulders. He glanced into doorways, spying drab silhouettes in dentist-like chairs.

The shop girl stopped at a door like all the others. The room was small, but not cramped. A screen was mounted to one wall, and next to it was a metal desk and cabinet. There was a lone chair in the middle of the room connected to a handful of probes and wires. Frank tried to memorize these details in case something went wrong, but his mind was hazy. Too many nights spent at the office, searching for answers he didn't have.

The girl led him to the chair. There was a faded stain towards the front of the upholstery. The shop girl measured his head with a tape measure and scribbled on her clipboard. "How long with this take?" Frank asked. He wasn't sure how to broach the subject of an exchange. He had told Arthur he could well afford to buy.

The shop girl pressed a button. The screen behind her lit up. Bright, cheerful music played. "Watch this," she said. Walking behind Frank, she closed the door.

On the screen, the moon appeared, along with silhouettes of cityscapes. A clear, soothing voice emerged. Thank you for being part of the future. Your memories are in good hands. As the voice spoke, New York, Paris, and Hong Kong flashed across the screen. Do you crave adventure? Is thrill-seeking in your blood? Have you ever thought about what it would be like to fly?

Frank scratched his hands. They were clammy from the upholstery. "This isn't what I want,” he said. “Hello? I talked to Arthur…" Frank turned around and noticed a small camera on the ceiling. Now, you can feel all the danger that life offers without any risk. Know what it's like to always get that promotion, always get the girl, and always get your way.

Frank wondered if Arthur was watching him right now. His skin bristled. He didn't have time for this. He stood from the chair and opened the door, looking both ways down the hall. The shop girl wasn't there.

He walked to the left. The lights flickered above his head. He was definitely not in Beverly Hills. Those memory shops had been alabaster chic, with clear, sleek lines and lavender-infused air. How had he ended up here?

A flash of Anna’s crumpled body flickered through his mind. He took another step forward. "Hello?" he called. “I'm here to trade."

He noticed a door at the end of the corridor, a neon light underneath. He walked closer and reached for the handle. The shop girl opened the door, catching him by surprise. Frank fell back.

"Sir, we will be with you shortly,” she said, her voice clipped.

When Frank returned to the room, he found the video skipping, the calm voice repeating, we have all you need... all you need... all you need...

Frank sat in the chair, but after awhile, he couldn't stand the voice. He tried to fix the transmission, fiddling with the controls. The shop girl appeared at the door. Frank placed his hands in his pockets. "You guys got the sales pitch down,” he said. “Arthur spewed a bunch of this at me already."

She walked around Frank and turned off the video. "How can I help you?" she asked.

"I talked on the phone with a very knowledgeable man..." Frank said.

She blinked at Frank. "Arthur's not here at the moment. Are you looking to buy, or sell?"

This was a delicate matter and Frank didn't want to explain himself twice. "When will he be back?" he asked.

"He's very busy."

"Well, do you have a timeframe?"

The shop girl shook her head.

"Now hold on," Frank said. He had to do something. Otherwise, he would be going home to Anna empty-handed. He couldn’t bear another night hearing her crying. He cleared his throat. "I'm looking to trade."

The shop girl frowned. "We're not trading today." She turned to the door.

“Wait.” Frank stood up. "It’s our anniversary. Arthur said this place could help. We’ve been going through something."

This piqued the shop girl's interest. "Anna is... your wife?"

Frank nodded.

"And you think one of our memories could lighten the load?"

"I want her to be happy. I'd buy if I could. But I can barely afford the third tier stuff. A trip to Alaska, Miami before it was flooded at most…"

"How can you put a price on experience?"

“Can you help me?” Frank asked.

“Perhaps,” she said.

"And it’s safe, correct? Has anyone been hurt?"

The shop girl smiled. "As far as I know, no one has ever been hurt from a transfusion. Of course, trading is much harder nowadays. Moments are more muted. We'll have to see if you have anything worth gifting."

"Of course. With the memories, how does it work? Does one delete another? Can you... overload?"

The shop girl took a breath. "All of our memories are 100% natural. We do not fabricate and we do not manufacture. This is a reputable business."

"And what about the shelf life?”

"As long as you don’t expire, sir, our memories don't expire." The shop girl checked her clipboard. "Is there a certain product your wife was interested in?"

Frank sat back in the chair. "An expedition. To the moon. Arthur said it was in stock."

"Your wife has good taste, sir. That’s a top of the line gift. Culled from an esteemed passenger of the flight. It’s one of a kind."

"Well, that's how Anna is. She’s always trying to find the next thing. Maybe to distract herself from what's happened..." Frank trailed off. "Do you have someone you love?" he asked.

The shop girl glanced up at Frank. "Of course," she said, though she seemed off guard.

"When Anna and I first met, we were dead broke. Used to live off those boxed mac n' cheese dinners. But none of that mattered. We could just look at the moon. That was enough."

"Perhaps another, less luxurious memory would suffice?"

"The first date I took her to we laughed for three hours straight.” The shop girl seemed uncomfortable with this information, but it felt good to say this to someone. “That's how you could tell she meant it,” Frank explained. “Her shoulders would shake and they wouldn’t stop. She used to drag me on these impromptu adventures. Exploring little neighborhoods. She'd just take my hand and pull me away from whatever work I was buried under..."

"Sir, I'm not sure how I can help you," the shop girl said.

Frank nodded. He looked up at the camera on the wall. "Will Arthur be here soon?" he asked.

"I'll check." The shop girl took a step towards the door, but Frank grabbed her arm. She startled.

"Look," he said. "She's my world..."

"If I may, sir?” the shop girl said. “I don't think now is an opportune time to trade."

"And why’s that?”

"You're upset. Which is never good for the machines. Besides, it won't be enough."

"What do you mean?” Arthur said.

"I'm not sure you have what others would want," the shop girl said. Her voice was gentle, but the words still stung.

"Hey, I'm a good guy. I have a job. An assistant named Maureen. I'm not a dead beat."

"It's just…not enough," the shop girl said. She seemed sorry about it, but Frank didn't need her pity. He stood and shuffled to the door.

The shop girl watched him go. "Wait,” she said. Frank stopped. “Close your eyes. What’s the best memory you have? The most distilled moment you can remember?"

Frank closed his eyes. He thought long and hard. "But why that one?"

"There's a reason why you don't want to give it up."

"Jesus," he said. "And you're saying that would be enough?"

"I'd have to weigh it, but..."

"How the hell do you do that?"

"The machine, of course."

Frank nodded at that. Life was all machines nowadays, technology and convenience. "On Dateline," he said. "There was this segment. Say you go in there and take more memories than I even know I have. The memories that are locked away. And it’s only later, when I’m on the outside, that I find out I'm less of a man."

The shop girl seemed to relax. "With anything worthwhile,” she said, “there’s risk. In the procedure, we take memory clusters linked to a focal point. Everything's connected, like the branches of a tree. If you’re not comfortable with that, you can opt-out.”

Frank twirled his wedding ring on his finger. "No,” he said, thinking of Anna as she sobbed through the night. “Let's do it.”

The shop girl took out some paperwork. "Sign here. And here. Also, here. One more." She turned the sheet over and pointed to a dotted line. "Here."

Frank did as he was told. The shop girl smiled.

"Now, sit back, and we'll begin."

She walked over to the door and locked it. The bolt sounded like a gunshot as it slid into place. Frank's hands started to sweat. The lights dimmed as the shop girl placed probes on his head and chest. Frank realized Arthur hadn't been mentioned in awhile. A small, firm truth clouded his mind.

"There is no Arthur. Is there?" he asked softly.

The shop girl said nothing. Frank licked his lips. He needed water. Closing his eyes, he nodded. Go ahead.

She pressed a button. On the screen, a jumble of Frank's memories flashed by. The shop girl studied the bursts of swirling faces. He remembered sunlight, lost afternoons, wandering through markets, evenings entangled in Anna's arms. Strange how long hours at the office seemed to slip through the machine.

The shop girl clucked her tongue approvingly. "You've got special ones. Pure. Not a lot of people have that." She adjusted the controls. "There. That's the focal point."

On the screen now, Frank came face to face with Anna. She was mid-laugh, her shoulders shaking in slow motion. It had been a long time since he had seen her like this. She was in a field. A park in the city. She was trying to do cartwheels. Dirt was stuck to her knees. Every time Anna swung her legs over her head, her skirt would ride up and a cackle would escape her lips.

It had been one of their first dates. Nervous to be alone with her, he had kept pulling up the grass along their blanket. A picnic. That's what he had proposed to her. "Let's go for a picnic."

Both the shop girl and Frank watched as the images sped up, going through Frank and Anna's relationship together. They ate mac n' cheese, clinking forks in solidarity. They ran up stairs to kiss on rooftops. They listened to songs on street corners and sang along (terribly) to the music. They attempted to cook, dropping whole chickens on the floor. They carried furniture through apartments, searching for the perfect fit.

Through all the memories, Anna was a dancing, breathless whirlwind. She would storm into a room and grab Frank's hand, pulling him up from cluttered desks and chairs, papers strewn all around him. “Let’s go on an adventure,” she’d say, tugging him to the door. “Let’s go, go, go.”

What would his life have been without this bright star in his life? All those endless hours wandering through seaside towns, running down supermarket aisles, making silly faces in window displays, looking up at the stars, driving (the wind always in Anna's hair). Anna's thighs, the stretch marks on her belly, like warrior stripes. A brief flash of a child blinked onto the screen. But no, he didn’t want to remember that. Couldn’t remember. The last time she had seen him, really looked in Frank’s eyes, she had snarled, a primal scream erupting from her lips. "Nothing can fix this," she spat. "Nothing you can do."

But still, he kept trying. The images flashed before him, the days watching and waiting and longing and fighting. His failures. Frank shifted in his chair. "Wait a minute,” he said. “Are you going to take all of them?" He had never allowed himself to consider how much of his life was built around Anna.

The shop girl pressed another button. "Around the focal point, yes,” she said. On the screen, the image froze on Anna and Frank entwined on the couch. “Would you like me to stop?"

Frank studied Anna’s face. She was smiling, her eyes shining. When would she look at him like that again? Now all she would talk about was the moon, drawing its silhouette over and over, tracing the lines on envelopes and magazines.

"I just want her to smile again," he said. He had always strived to give Anna what she wanted. Frank nodded for the shop girl to keep going. The memories whipped across the screen, moments where Anna pushed to the edge of things. She was always doing that, stepping to the brink of cliffs and roads, parallel parking with abandon, riding bikes with her arms above her head, sitting on Frank's shoulders, her touch, soft and sure, her lips, curling upward.

Frank knew what was coming, but he didn't want to see. His mind had placed these memories in a locked box where he couldn’t reach. Yet, the machine knew no bounds. It was smashing the box to smithereens. It was opening it now. No. Please.

And just like that, she appeared.

His little girl.

Her eyes were like Anna’s, fierce and free. Days upon days flashed before him – hours playing with her, fighting with her, wrestling her to behave. Even before their baby could walk she was exploring, her laughter infectious as she learned to crawl. There was so much to look forward to then, so much joy spinning through those bleary hours.

Frank couldn't help the way he remembered things. He didn't like to see their home in disarray. Didn’t like to feel his chest tightening. In these moments, he tried to comfort Anna. He tried to hold her. But nothing worked.

It was no one’s fault. That’s what the doctors said. “Sometimes these things happen.” But Frank couldn’t help blaming himself for how still she lay in her crib, remembering even now the doctors saying that there was nothing to be done. As if that made it okay.

The memories were darker now. There were bills. Dishes piled high in the sink. Anna collapsed, unable to stand, her t-shirts swallowing her up. A kaleidoscope of memories erupted on the screen, all about Anna dancing. Anna eating. Anna singing. Anna fucking. Anna showering. Anna shouting. The machine was ransacking Frank’s mind, looting all the boxes he had neatly organized and forgotten. What sick soul would ever want this? To feel this aching sadness? Though he supposed to feel any pain was to feel alive, to feel anything at all? Frank became unsettled, thinking of his memories, his life, out there for some pervert to see. But before he could stand up, before he could move, there was a sharp sound, as if a cord had been unplugged.

* * * * *

Frank tapped his fingers on the counter. He didn't feel that different, though he had a sneaking suspicion he was supposed to do something, or be somewhere, but he couldn’t remember now. He watched the shop girl expertly tie a ribbon on a wrapped box, the delicate finishing touch on the perfect present. She slid the gift over to Frank.

"Have a good day now," she said, a note of sadness in her voice.

Back at the house, it seemed foolish that Frank had even wanted to find the memory shop now. He watched Anna unwrap the present and hold it close to her chest. He watched her dance for him. He knew he should have been relieved, but he had trouble placing her voice. Was this how she acting when she happy? He tried to remember the facts, why any of this mattered.

He knew he spent nearly seven years with this woman before him. He liked how she walked, how she laughed, the lilt in her voice and the shape of her wrists. She had slender, lean fingers and almond skin, and there was a birthmark over her right hip. He knew that he asked this woman to marry him. He knew where they met, from the pictures. That they had a child…

He still had knowledge of going into the shop. That he acted. Did something. But the pressing reason why, the insurmountable panic that led him to that unmarked door, had escaped him.

And so this was his reality. Every day, he dreaded leaving work, going back to this woman, this house, where the opened present sat neatly on the mantle above the fireplace. In this house, the moon always glowed through the window. In this house, Anna always danced. Frank yearned for the clouds to cover the sky.

* * * * *

Frank walked up to the front door and fumbled for the keys. He hoped that she would be sleeping, but she was never sleeping anymore. As soon as he was inside, he saw her by the window. She was twirling and swaying. Her back to Frank. The moon memory had done this, given her something so far beyond herself she could live with the pain, at least for now.

Frank dropped his heavy satchel by the door. When Anna heard him, she pecked him on the cheek. "Babe!" she cried, lifting his arms, trying to get him to move with her.

"You never dance with me anymore." She pouted, spinning around him. Frank patted her on the shoulder, disengaging from her limbs.

"How was your day?" Anna asked.

"Just need a good night's sleep," he replied.

Anna nodded. She had noticed his brush off, but chose not to react. "It's almost ready. Your favorite."

Frank took off his hat as Anna wheeled out a small TV tray with a plate of mac n' cheese. She brought out another one for herself, humming the tune to "Fly Me to the Moon." Frank knew it from those great outdoor malls blasting Sinatra – American nostalgia to get you in the shopping mood.

"Remember," Anna said. "How she'd fall asleep to this? We'd play it, and she'd be out like a light."

Frank nodded politely. He remembered their child, but not the birth, her first word, but not Anna holding her. These were sunspots on his memory. A flash of a little girl's face burst through his mind, but then it was gone.

Anna saw Frank staring off into space. She traced the outline of his knuckles with her hands and smiled softly.

That smile. Slightly crooked. Pepper in her teeth. He liked how the faintest of dimples appeared when her lips curved upward. He wondered how many times he had seen her smile before.

They ate on. Anna noticed his silence, but wasn’t sure what to think. His eyes strayed, settling on the mantle.

"Hey," she said. "You."

He speared the pasta with his fork.

After a moment, Anna kneeled before him and took his head in her hands. “Are you alright?” she asked. “Is it me?”

Something about his eyes terrified her. A coldness crept under her skin. Anna picked up her drink. "To the good ol' days," she said. They clinked glasses, Frank a beat behind.

She ate a few more bites. Then she wiped her mouth with a napkin. She stood, taking her husband’s hand.

"Come on," she said.

"What for?"

"I want to show you something."

Frank hesitated. Anna’s eyes were glistening, and there was a flash of something, an anti-septic smell, a touch of grey. Her hair tucked around her ear, draped across her shoulders. This was a woman I could love, he thought. Her grip was gentle, but firm, a flickering light in the shadows. And then, ever faintly, he sensed a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spark, the space between, the faintest knowing, and all Frank could think as she pulled him up was he's been here before, this bright, strange land – and when her skin was on his, it was better than flying, better than every memory in the world, because it felt like the golden hour of the day, like running into the breakers and singing in stalled traffic, screaming to the sky we are here, we are here, and more than anything else, more than the moon and the sun and all the stars, Frank knew – finally, always – he was home.


Eva Konstantopoulos ​is a screenwriter and author from New York. ​She recently wrapped production on a short film, Re/collection, which is based on "There Is No Arthur." Her novella, Hush, was previously adapted for the screen by Sigma Films and Thruline Entertainment. She has developed projects with Lost Rhino Films and Midnight Sun Pictures, and her feature screenplay, The Virgin of Poughkeepsie, was awarded Best Screenplay at the Gotham Screen International Film Festival. Her fiction has been published in anthologies and literary journals, and she's received an Equivocality Writer's Travel Scholarship to Thailand for her latest novella, East of Nowhere. Most recently, she was a writers' assistant on Disney Junior's hit show, Sofia the First, where she wrote an episode of the series. For more, visit evakonstantopoulos.com or follow the author on Twitter and Tumblr.

Devyn Park was born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii and received her BFA in Illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. She currently resides in Bellingham WA. For more, visit devynpark.com or follow the artist on Twitter and Tumblr.

Susanna Rose is a singer-songwriter from Rochester, NY. Her latest album, Snowbound, was released in 2015. Susanna plays frequently in Upstate New York. For more, visit susannarose.com and follow her on Twitter.







ISSUE #131: Nada Alic, Andrea Nakhla, Avid Dancer

Posted: Monday, October 10, 2016 | | Labels:


Illustration by Andrea Nakhla

FRANCIS FOREVER
by Nada Alic


Sleep had forgotten me. Each night, I laid on my back waiting for it to come, but it would not come. I would say things like “I’m so tired!” to will it into existence, but it was an ancient thing and not so easily fooled. This was because I’d been in love-- but only for a few weeks so my body was still adjusting. It wanted so badly to attach itself to that other body, the one shaped long and lean, with the right amount of softs and hards. But that body wasn’t around; it was down the hall and tired from its own day. And I was committed to letting it breathe, not consuming it as I usually do. Just taking polite little bites here and there and stopping when I was full.


Issue #131 soundtrack: Avid Dancer “Stop Playing With My Heart”


His name was Francis. He had a ponytail and wore a vintage jacket with the words Sports Suck hand-embroidered on the back. He was the only person in my apartment complex who didn’t recycle. If you asked him about it, he would tell you about his sources on the inside that know the truth. One day I just started taking his recyclables out of the trash and placing them in the recycling bin when he wasn’t looking. He would then take them out of the recycling bin and put them back in the trash. This sort of became our thing. After a while, it was like a call and response. Some might call it romance. And as romance goes, it was mysterious and exciting. Each time I went to the communal garbage area, I felt like I was being watched, and it gave me a full body rush. We never discussed it because we didn’t need to. What we had didn’t require labels because it existed on higher planes of consciousness. Describing these planes to you would be pointless. Dangerous, even.

Francis had only ever addressed me twice. Once to tell me it was a “free country” and another time to ask me if he’d said anything stupid to me in the hallway that one time because he was drunk, and he didn’t mean it. I told him it was a free country! We laughed, but he didn’t know why.

Once I showed him my easy-going side, he was hooked-- because soon after, he asked me to keep an eye out for a package for him while he was away on vacation. He gave me his number and told me to text him when it arrived. He told me not to open it or tell anyone that I had it, that it would just be our little secret. This was his funny way of asking me to be his girlfriend. I nodded with not just my neck, but with my whole being. When his package arrived, I wrapped it in a towel and hid it underneath my bed until he came to pick it up. And when he did, he stood in my doorway and asked me if I smoked and I said “n-yes.” We sat on my fire escape, and he told me about his trip to Miami with a woman named Carla, but I couldn’t hear him over the sound of his lips kissing his cigarette and sucking in, which sounded like music to me.

As the days went on, my want for him felt like a burden, dragging me along with it into very elaborate fantasy scenarios. I was a maid, he: a middle-aged hotel guest. I: a seahorse, he: another seahorse. I: a scrunchie, he: an endless ponytail. But my greatest fantasy of all was the feeling that I was being watched. I thought that if I just believed he was always watching me, I’d be forced to act like the kind of woman he could marry, until I really was that woman. So I made sure to create an aura of sexiness all over my apartment. There are only two ways to create sexiness: perfume and dancing, and I am allergic to perfume.

No one knows this about me, but I am basically a professional in-front-of-the-mirror dancer. This is the kind of dance that no one sees. The secret kind. You’ve done this dance. Maybe it even took you a moment to remember that you’ve done it, but you have. You played a song, faced the mirror, and started moving your body. Maybe you mouthed all of the words to a song and impressed yourself with this. Maybe you turned yourself on by rounding your hips over and over again until you thought to yourself: what if I’m sexier than I even know? You are. Don’t be ashamed. How do you think that those people in nightclubs know how to dance so well? Do you think it just happened one day? No, they spent years in front of the mirror quietly thinking: does this make me look like I am having sex with my clothes on?

I have found reasons to press all of the numbers that make up his number in succession and hit “call.” This is often followed by “end call” but not always. I space out all of these calls as if I were eating popcorn one kernel at a time, pausing to breathe between each bite. Have you ever tried this? It is hard. There is something within all of us that wants more popcorn than our mouths allow, but it is a spiritual practice to chew and swallow each one at a time. One kernel at a time I say:

“Hello.”

“Hi.”

“Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“That sound; it sounded like an animal.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“Must have been the wind.”

One at a time. I hold one of his empty beer cans and, swallow. I hear his voice and, swallow. I see a baby that looks like it could be ours and, swallow.

* * * * *

I have to go to the post office today, which is the kind of thing I’d tell Francis about since our thing really got going because of a package-- or date, was it technically a date? He’d probably take care of it for me if I asked, but I haven’t seen him in a few weeks and this really can’t wait. I am returning a pair of pants because I accidentally hit “small” when I meant to hit “medium,” and I only realized this after checkout, so I had to wait for an entire system to run its course so that I could hit “medium” again. As I tracked my package on UPS, I saw it being dispatched from a warehouse in New Mexico, placed onto a truck headed to Tucson, then to another warehouse in Anaheim, and finally to my doorstep in Los Feliz. When the package arrived, I held it in my hands and felt the hands of every person that touched it, and I felt ashamed. I wanted to call them all and explain what happened. They held up their end of this, and I just watched my mistake move through the country in real time.

On my drive to the post office, I started noticing signs everywhere. This is common. Signs most often appear when you are looking for them. Try it for yourself next time; almost anything can be a sign. Now that I’m in love, all of my signs are love-shaped. The license plate in front of me at a stop sign spelled out FEELNIT, a plastic bag that read Thank You, Thank You, Thank You blew from a branch like a flag, and two goth teens made out aggressively at a bus stop. I kissed my fingers, gently pressed them up against the windshield, and whispered, “Bless you.” Most people don’t know that blessings are free and you can give them away as often as you want, even if you are not religious.

When I walked into the post office, I noticed a long line of people in a kind of snake formation edging towards the exit. None of us chose each other, but there we were. We had all left our special somebody-ness in the car, or at home; none of it would be required of us here. All that was required was to move the line along, and some of us were failing. There were gaps between us. Deep valleys of open space. Some bodies too close, others too far. This is because most people don’t care. Most people don’t do the work; they don’t even show up. They turn up right at the end, all out of breath, and ask, “Did I miss it?” And we say: “Yes, we handled it. It’s over, go home.”

I looked around at the mess we had created and felt anxious. I let out an audible sigh which is like saying, “Unbelievable!” with your breath. Then, I looked up at the fluorescent lights above me and remembered: I am in love. I nearly burst out in laughter that I had almost forgot about this very important thing. Most people in the world right now, at this moment, are not in love. They are out of love or over love or under-loved. They are nowhere near the in part. They are typing online profiles that say “Looking for Love” and refreshing the page. I suddenly became self-conscious that maybe I was feeling so much love that it was making people feel uncomfortable. But I looked around, and no one seemed to notice-- that’s how rare love has become.

In front of me was a large, elderly man. He was both tall and wide, a real bottleneck for our slow moving conga line. His shape demanded all of the space that this great earth would give him, and as I entered his orbit, I feared being swallowed whole by whatever magnetic force sucks you into large, dark masses.

“We’re going to be here for a while,” he said. “Yes,” I laughed.

I thought about pretending I didn’t understand English but remembered I didn’t know any other languages.

“What do you have there?”

“Oh, it’s – I made a mistake, I’m returning something.”

Something about the soft look on his face said he was somebody’s father and he could tell that I was somebody’s daughter, and because of this, he chose me as his temporary surrogate. Like a reclining chair, I relaxed into it.

“Me, too. I never heard the mailman ring the bell.” He held up a note that said, Sorry We Missed You!

“I hate when that happens.”

“I don’t mind it. It’s fun not to know.”

“Yeah, but then you get stuck here on a Saturday.”

“It’s not so bad if you know you’ll get a present in the end.”

“What kind of present?”

“I’m picking up a package from my girlfriend.”

The way he said the word “girlfriend” suggested this was a new arrangement. He hadn’t worn out the word yet, so it felt like a surprise every time the word exited his mouth, and every time, he was pleased by it.

“Oh, that’s nice! What do you think it could be?”

“I’m not sure. It’s for our anniversary.”

Then it came pouring out of him like a faucet. “It’s a crazy story, you know? I met her in an online chat room for sufferers of IBS. Irritable Bowel Syndrome.”

I nodded slowly, as if I had just learned something new.

“It’s a very common ailment, and no one really knows what it is, if you can believe it. But millions of people have it. I’d been to the doctor all my life, and all he told me was to stop eating spicy foods. That didn’t work. So, sometime last year I decided to do some research, and I came across this online forum and started reading all of these stories. That’s when I realized I wasn’t alone. I started chatting with this lady who called herself Barb_63. She told me I should try hypnosis, and you know, I don’t believe in any of that stuff, but she said it worked for her.”

In this time, the line had moved several feet, but he did not. I had become a part of the problem, but it didn’t bother me as much. Love is patient!

“And it worked! The mind is so powerful, you know. Anyway, we kept on chatting. She gave me her e-mail address and that’s when it really started-- I’m talking every day. She lives in Rochester, New York, which is why we can’t be together, but one day I would very much like to see her in person. I just don’t have the money right now.”

A small part of me worried that Barb_63 was another lonely old man or a hacker from some unpronounceable Slavic region. I wondered if she ever asked for his social security number or if he gave it to her before she even thought to ask. I wondered if any of this even mattered to him, or if it was all enough to get him through his day.

“That is a real modern-day love story,” I said.

As we neared the front of the line, I learned several things about Barb_63, as if with each new piece of information, her face came into focus. She used to be a hairdresser. She’s allergic to cashews, but almonds are fine. She’s fluent in Spanish. She loves to dance. I could see why he liked her. I began to like her, too.

I imagined Barb_63 at her kitchen table, slowly curating herself for him via email. I imagined her as shy to start, then over time, unlocking a thousand- year-old desire within her. Something she thought had died long ago. She’d describe what she was doing, what she’d like to do, and what she hasn’t tried but would be open to. This would surprise her, how natural it felt. This is because there is always want for romance, even when it is distant and electronic: it is ancient. The need to consume and be consumed lives outside of time itself.

I imagined their love as two magnets held together through satellites and wires, ones and zeros. I imagined her unbuttoning her blouse and uncrossing her legs. I imagined his want growing for her, typing and erasing the words “I love you” before hitting send. I imagined them both forgiving each other for their soft and unlovable bodies and loving them anyway.

Her long life held so many pieces of herself, and she chose which to reveal and which to bury. A small part of me envied this ability as I was getting tired of constantly being watched. There was so much that I didn’t want Francis to see, but I knew that on some higher plane saw everything, like an all-seeing god. I straightened my posture at the thought of this.

“Next.”

It was his turn. He walked to the front and handed the woman at the counter a yellow slip of paper. She walked to the back and returned with a large blue box. It is from Barb_63. And Barb_63 is real. As he turned to leave he said:

“Here it is.”

“It looks big!” I said.

He proceeded to walk past me and towards his future where there was probably an e-mail waiting for him from Barb_63, asking if he got the package and if he did, what did he think? I turned around and he was gone.

When I reached the counter, I looked at the woman behind it and told her everything. I don’t know why I did this, but I did. I explained my mistake and how I’d pressed “small” even though I was a “medium” and I kept going; I told her about the signs and the swallowing and my profound want for sleep. That it had been so long since I’d slept that kind of dead sleep.

I did not stop. I even told her about Barb_63 and the large dark mass that loved her. I told her how their love was distant and absurd, but how love does not bend in the direction of our desires. It does not look the way it’s supposed to but neither do we, and because of that we are always let down.

“Next!” she shouted.

I looked down at my hands and they were empty. The package was gone and it was over. I heard a sneeze and whispered “bless you” to no one in particular.


Nada Alic is a fiction writer originally from Toronto who now lives in Los Angeles. She is the editorial director for the art platform Society6, a print-on-demand marketplace for 200k artists. For more of her work, visit nadaalic.com.

Andrea Nakhla is an Los Angeles-based painter and designer. Her debut show entitled “Little Joy” at New Image Art was featured in Live FAST Magazine. Andrea and Nada have been collaborating on art books since 2014, when the pair produced the first installment of Future You (2014). Since then, they've also realized I Saw It In You (2016) and Future You 2 (2016). For more, visit andreanakhla.com and follow the artist on Instagram.

Avid Dancer is the moniker of Los Angeles-based musician and artist Jacob Dillan Summers. Summers began as a drummer, winning top honors for rudimental snare at United Corps International’s prestigious annual bugle-and-drum corps competition. He created the album artwork for his latest release, 1st Bath, by writing the album’s title in his own blood over a collage of photos from his early childhood. For more, visit aviddancerband.com/ or follow Summers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.







ISSUE #130: Alice Kaltman, Marni Manning, Jon Patrick Walker

Posted: Monday, September 26, 2016 | | Labels:


Illustration by Marni Manning

BOSS MAN
by Alice Kaltman


There are no olives in the pantry and I distinctly remember buying some organic pimento-stuffed ones at Whole Foods yesterday.

Or maybe it was last week.

The point is I need them now for the dish I’m serving tonight at our small, casual dinner party.

Casual. Who am I kidding? There’s nothing casual about it.


Issue #130 soundtrack: Jon Patrick Walker “Hideous Monster”



My husband’s new boss, Chet, is coming with his ‘lady friend.’ I’ve never met Chet, but from the way Dimitri describes him, he sounds like a misogynistic, entitled fuckhead. A gazillionaire who never went to college, likes to surround himself with brilliant, young, exploitable employees he treats the way a cat treats a litter box. He actually calls them all ‘kiddies,’ except for Dimitri, the new legal counsel at BangleBrains and only other person in Chet’s 50-something age bracket.

“Dimitri,” I yell, “did you eat my olives?” My husband has a tendency to raid the kitchen for anything savory. A deep love of salt runs in his Greek family, and Dimitri uses his ethnicity as an excuse for these briny binges.

“No,” he says. I startle and turn to find him sitting behind me at the kitchen table, clipping his fingernails, gently coaxing each crescent into a neat little pile.

“That is so completely disgusting,” I say calmly. “We eat at that table. Our children eat at that table.”

“Our children don’t live here anymore, Amanda.” He keeps clipping. “We’re empty nesters, remember? Hurrah!”

Our youngest, Adam, left two weeks ago to start his freshman year studying ‘Theater Arts’ at a respectable Midwestern institution where he was immediately embraced by a sea of suspiciously friendly students from all those ‘I’ states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa. He called last Saturday and said everything was "super." Super? Where is my sardonic, little Brooklyn boy?

Whatever the case, I’ve never liked nest analogies, empty or otherwise. Avian imagery indicates flightiness. Plus, more than ever these days, what I need is serious grounding. Sandbags tied to my ankles type grounding. And it’s not just because the kids are gone.

“Big whoop, Dimitri,” I make a little circle in the air with my index finger. “Meanwhile, I can’t find the olives I bought at Whole Foods... whenever. I need them for my pasta dish.”

“You’re making your pasta dish?” He’s working on his left pinky, trying for a single clip.

“Is there a problem with that?”

Dimitri shrugs.

“I thought you loved my pasta dish. The feta cheese, the anchovies, the basil, the olives...”

“I do love it.” He hesitates. “It’s just that I thought you’d make something more, um, unusual tonight.”

“What? I’m supposed to go catch a pig and roast it on a spit for your new boss?”

“No...”

“Maybe the pig could go sniff out some truffles in the backyard before I burn his grunty rump?”

“Amanda...”

I collapse in to the seat across from him. There’s a stray nail clipping on my side of the table. I grasp it between two fingers, drop it in his pile then lay my forehead on the cool glass table top. “I hate dinner parties,” I moan.

“No, you don’t. You just hate Chet. Hypothetically.”

I look up and give Dimitri my forlorn, Bambi Has Lost His Mother look.

“Maybe he’ll surprise you. Maybe you’ll like him.” Dimitri always looks for the sunny side of things. “Some women find him quite charming.” He scoops his clippings off the edge of the table, into his waiting palm, examining his collection with pride.

“Chet’s ‘lady friend’ for instance,” I say, returning my forehead to the glass. “I’ll bet she’s a piece of work.”

Dimitri doesn’t respond. I look up and realize he’s left the room.

* * * * *

Dimitri got me another jar of olives. He also bought me a bunch of roses. Yellow roses, which are my favorite.

“Your pasta dish will be a smash hit,” he says. “I’m an idiot. I don’t know how you put up with me.”

I kiss him and refrain from commenting on his bad, olivey breath. Because, really, in the husband department it doesn’t get any better than Dimitri. Even if he tends towards the unshaven, stinky side. Even if he’s got a weird eating disorder. He puts up with my critical, know-it-all tendencies. He’s a great dad to our two sons, the aforementioned Adam and our eldest, Emmett, who’s doing his medical residency up in Boston-- a provincial, parochial excuse for a city, if you ask me.

And boy oh boy, did Dimitri step up to the plate when the debacle over the profile I’d written on Dr. Frances Wyvern began. He took better care of me than Snow White took of all the Dwarves and woodland creatures combined. Better than Mother Teresa in her pre-scandal glory days. How was I to know that Dr. Wyvern, the pioneering virologist who supposedly excelled at motocross racing and mountain climbing, was a total fake? My research revealed she held a top level position in the Royal Society and a MENSA membership. She sounded authentically medical and sporty during our chatty phone interviews. She looked buff and hygienic in the photos she sent. Dr. Frances Wyvern had a Wikipedia page for God’s sake. And a thoroughly convincing British accent.

Then the truth came out: Dr. Frances Wyvern was actually Fred Wyckoff, a 40 year-old pharmacist who lived with his mother in a Sacramento suburb. I’d never, in my 25 years as a journalist specializing in the ‘unique’ profile, been so thoroughly duped and publicly humiliated. For months I hid out in the den, popping Ativan and watching back-to-back Law and Order reruns. My moods fluctuated between dark and darkest. I was paralyzed in fear that Oprah would come out of retirement and demand to interview-eviscerate me. To avoid such a fate I added Ambien to the Ativan and slept whole days away like a heavily sedated hibernating bear.

But Dimitri kept me hydrated. He made me chicken soup. He rubbed my feet. He cleaned the house and paid the bills. Eventually he weaned me off my pharmaceutical A friends. He never once said, “I told you so” or “It will all be okay.” He’s still letting it play out with amazing patience, because honestly? It’s far from over. I’m still a basket case.

This dinner party is gonna be a stretch.

Dimitri goes off to shower and shave. I set the table with the clunky ceramic plates we picked up in Guatemala last winter, BFW, Before Frances Wyvern. I am not pulling out the good china for Chet. I’ll brown nose only so far. Maybe I’ll go frizzy haired, loud and hippy-ish tonight. Don my “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” tee shirt. If I hadn’t already shaved my legs I’d wear something short and unattractive to compliment my fuzzy shins.

But we need this dinner to go smoothly. Now that I’m unemployable, blacklisted from every major publication, Dimitri’s paycheck is all we have. His job at BangleBrains has to last. There’s that pesky college tuition to pay, a crack in our brick facade, the water heater is acting fickle, the car needs new tires, and, and, and...

I change out the ceramics for the china and go upstairs for my turn in the shower while there’s still enough hot water.

* * * * *

“No talking about my former writing career.” I have my hair up in a flawless French Twist. I’m wearing a black Donna Karan tunic with black jeans. A bit of mascara and some red lipstick. I look like a well-heeled mime.

“Former?” Dimitri says. We’re sitting in the living room, drinking a pre-beer, our traditional warm up, a beer we share before guests arrive and real drinking commences.

“I’ve decided to stop writing for good. Time for a new career. Maybe I’ll become a professional dog walker. It’s more lucrative, and it’ll get me out of the house.”

“Whatevs,” Dimitri shrugs and takes a pre-sip.

“Whatevs? You sound like a 12 year-old girl who adores boy bands. A tween who actually wants to start menstruating.”

The doorbell rings. Dimitri thrusts himself up off the couch and lands solidly on two feet, his arms in a wide V. “Let the games begin!” He sprints to the front door as I scurry to the kitchen. I down the rest of the beer by the sink, slurp a swig of water from the faucet, swish, and spit to get rid of yeasty undertones.

When I return to the living room, there’s Chet. Everything about him is as thick and shiny as I expected. He’s got the kind of hair all men covet, especially men like Dimitri, who vainly holds on to the few pathetic strands atop his head in spite of his barber’s advice to just shave the suckers off already. Chet’s hair looks as if a small fox has taken residence a top his giant skull, all browns and blonds and hints of red, spreading its furry body from Chet’s big ear to big ear.

My husband’s new boss is a massive male boulder. He’s sweaty, bloated. There’s a chance he was handsome once upon a time, with cleft chin and sparkling white teeth, but now he looks like an inflated Disney Prince pool float. Veins pop off bowling ball biceps, which squeeze out of the short sleeves of his button-straining shirt, a shirt that does nothing to conceal Chet’s sizable gut.

“Helloooo,” Chet drawls. He stands spread legged with that gut thrust forward, unapologetic as he scans my body. His bright blue eyes are otherworldly turquoise. I assume he’s wearing colored contacts. “And who’s this sexy lady?” he leers at me, tongue wagging.

Faker, I think. Men like him find women like me as sexy as having their balls waxed. I want to say, “This sexy lady is the kind of lady who you make want to puke.” But I refrain because Chet is Chet. My husband’s boss.

“You must be Amanda,” a much brighter voice calls from behind the behemoth that is Chet. I crane my neck to look around Chet’s block, and I’m face to face with Chet’s ‘lady friend’ who happens to be the most beautiful woman I’ve possibly ever seen. There’s something familiar about her, but I can’t for the life of me imagine our paths have ever crossed. “I’m Talulah.” She glides gracefully towards me, holding out a smooth brown hand. I notice a perfect manicure, big rings, and big knuckles.

I take Talulah’s hand, which is cool and even softer than it looks. Her grip is firm, which I like in another woman. I can’t stand it when I shake a woman’s hand and she goes all fishy on me. “Nice to meet you, Talulah,” I say and mean it. She exudes congeniality, and the more she smiles that sparkling smile at me, the more she reminds me of someone. But I can’t place who it is. I know it’s someone I like, or liked; however, my addled middle-aged brain is extra fucked by my recent Wyvern-ian breakdown, so forget any recall.

Instead I just take her in. Everything on her is long and caramel. Her neck, her arms, her legs. Even her obviously dyed and professionally straightened hair, which goes down to her waist. I can’t place her ethnicity. She’s about my age, though she’s had work done, obviously. Botox and fillers, probably. Rhinoplasty, definitely. Growing up in a suburban Jewish town in the 1970s, I can spot a nose job from 100 yards away. I assume Talulah’s boobs have been lifted, because hello, no middle-aged woman has a rack that upright without a little hitch and stitch.

“Your house is amazing,” she sighs as she gazes at our chotkskes and funky furniture. I hope she doesn’t spot the duct tape wrapped around one leg of the coffee table. “You must have used a decorator.”

“Nope,” I shrug. “We hoarded all this junk on our own.”

“May I?” she asks as she points to a small majolica vase we have on our mantle. I can’t remember where we got it. I’m not even sure I like it anymore.

I nod.

Talulah lifts the vase as if she’s handling a newborn baby. “This is far from junk, Amanda.” She smiles at me. I smile back. She’s restored my faith in the vase. I’m about to ask her if we’ve met before when Chet interrupts, sidling up to Talulah like a horny cowboy, lassoing her shoulder with his burly arm, which he has to do at an odd angle because she’s much taller than he is, especially in her platform sandals.

“Better listen to this gorgeous creature,” he says. “She’s my art and design advisor. She knows good shit from bad shit. We met last Thursday at The Standard, and on the spot I hired her to decorate my new Montauk beach house.” Chet rubs Talulah’s beautifully toned shoulder as if it’s his own cock he’s wanking. “Place is gonna be killer.”

Talulah smiles tightly. Not the same winning smile I got a moment earlier, before Chet interrupted.

“Yep.” Chet can’t shut up. “Took me a whole week, but I finally convinced her to go out with me. So voila! Here we are.”

Chet tries to nuzzle Talulah’s neck. I’m thinking, ew gross, what is this, middle school? Talulah pushes him off with admirable force, and I breathe an audible sigh of relief.

“Anyone want a drink?” Dimitri says too loudly.

“Always,” Chet blurts.

“We’ve got wine, beer-”

“What kind of beer?” Chet interrupts.

“Corona?”

Chet wrinkles his nose. “I only drink IPAs. What else ya got?”

Dimitri picks at his forearm hairs. He does this when he’s nervous. “Full bar, more or less.”

“Bourbon?”

“Sure.”

“What kind?”

“Um, I think it’s Johnny Walker?”

“Forget it,” Chet sighs. “I’ll just have some water.” He drops his arm from around Talulah. She sways as if she’s been released from a body cast.

“Talulah? Anything?” Dimitri asks. He’s wincing in preparation for the next line of alcohol interrogation.

“I’ll have one of those Coronas, Dimitri,” she says. “I only drink Corona.”

We all laugh. The three of us, that is, aside from Chet, who’s sprawled on the couch with his feet on our coffee table. At least he had the decency to remove his shoes at the front door.

“So, Amanda,” Chet says, “Dim tells me you’re a journalist?”

“Dim does, does Dim?” I sneak a withering glare at my newly, perhaps aptly monikered husband while Chet lurches forward to scoop a fistful of almonds from a bowl on the table.

“Where have I read your stuff?” Chet stuffs the entire stash in his mouth, talking through a static of splintered nut particles.

“Oh, here and there.” I’m hoping to leave it at that.

Dimitri has returned with drinks. “Amanda’s profiles have been in The Atlantic, New Republic, Ms. Magazine,” He can’t help himself. He’s my cheerleader even when I explicitly tell him not to be. “You might remember her New Yorker profile on Boutros Boutros Ghali.”

“Whosa Whosa WhaWha?” Chet mimics.

“He was the Secretary General of the United Nations in the 90s, Chet,” says Talulah. She turns to me and smiles. “I remember that piece. I loved how you compared Ghali’s Rwandan connections to your Aunt Sadie’s relationship with the saleswomen at Loehmann’s.”

I’m speechless. It’s been a while since anyone has complimented my writing. After the Wyvern scandal all I got were accusations of being a hack.

“I’ve loved everything you’ve written,” Talulah continues as she settles her gorgeous body on the couch next to Chet. “When Chet invited me to have dinner with his new legal counsel and his wife, the journalist Amanda Lowenstein, how could I resist?” She pats Chet on the knee and smiles at him sexily, manipulatively. Using something I’ve never accessed in my own lady-body: feminine wiles. It works. Chet seems to melt like butter on my couch. He’s quiet, for the moment. Talulah turns back to me and says, “I died over your hilarious deconstruction of the Monkees in Ms. back in the late 90s.”

“I can’t believe you read that,” I finally speak. Chet’s lady friend knows about my Ghali article, even more so, my feminist take on the original boy band. I’m turning red. My cheeks are hot.

‘Keep Davy. I Wanted Mike Nesmith’s Baby’. Oh. My. God. Hysterical!” Talulah throws her head back and laughs a big gutsy laugh. Once again I’m struck with that I know you, who are you, where did you come from, you wonderful woman? feeling.

“Are you working on anything new?” Talulah asks.

“New?” I squeak. My heart is beating cardiac arrest fast. The antiperspirant I caked into the crevices of my armpits is proving useless. Rivulets of sweat travel down my torso to the top of my tasteful, classy mime pants.

Everyone waits for me to answer Talulah’s seemingly benign question. New? I haven’t so much as typed a “please unsubscribe” email or a “TTYL” text since the Wyvern debacle. Chet glares at me like Pablo Escobar eyeing a Colombian snitch. Dimitri looks panicked, rubbing his bald spot as if it’s a bottle and a genie might appear if he keeps at it long enough. Talulah, however, is all sweetness, patience, and light.

Finally I talk. “Dogs,” I say. “Dogs in the Olive Garden.”

Dimitri gapes at me, drop-jawed, with a ‘what the fuck are you talking about’ expression.

I can’t help myself. It’s free association time. “How Fast Food Restaurants are moving to accommodate our pet crazy society to increase sales,” I continue. “The need for commercial service industries to address the uptick in domestic animal ownership.”

“That sounds fascinating,” says Talulah.

“I have a dog,” says Chet, as if he’s announced winning the Prix de Rome.

“How wonderful!” I cry, as if Chet has won the Prix de Rome. “What kind of dog?”

“Dunno,” Chet shrugs. “Labradoodle? Cockapoodle? Cockador?”

Talulah frowns. “How can you not know what kind of dog you have?”

Chet shrugs again. He’s good at shrugging. “I just got it, like, last summer.”

Note: It is now, once again, summer.

“She’s a great dog, though,” Chet continues. “Cute as a button. Only barks when I get too close to her, so like, there’s not a whole lot of petting going on. But the dog walker tells me she gets along great with all the other mutts at the dog run. I picked her cause she’s hypoallergenic. She doesn’t shed, so I can have guests in any part of my apartment,” now he leers at Talulah, “even the bedroom.”

Talulah smirks and takes a long draw from her Corona.

“She sounds great, Chet,” Dimitri says cheerily, like Mr. Rogers talking to preschool viewers. “What’s her name?”

Chet pauses. He has to think.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Talulah says under her breath.

“Bingo!” Chet finally announces.

“Bingo, as in you remember, or Bingo as in her name...oh?” I ask.

“Her name. Cute, right?” Chet is very pleased with himself.

“Adorable,” I say, then I turn to Talulah. “Would you like a lime for your Corona? Dim, you forgot Talulah’s lime. I’ll go get some.”

“Can you please stop calling me that?” Dimitri says under his breath as I pass him on my way to the kitchen.

“Whatevs,” I say back.

When I return with cut lime and almonds to refill the nut bowl, Chet is telling a story about a recent trip he’d taken somewhere far away and exotic.

“The view from my cabana was fucking insane! Looking out over the fucking Indian Ocean. I mean, for fucking real!”

“Sounds fucking wonderful, Chet,” says Talulah in an admirable deadpan. She gingerly squeezes a slice of lime into her bottle and takes another long draw.

“I tell you, the natives couldn’t have been sweeter. You’d think that they’d hate Americans. I mean, we’ve raped that country. Literally raped it. Poor schmucks don’t have a pot to piss in, but they’re still smiling all the time. And the women come up to you, offering you, well...” he looks at Talulah, then over at me and smirks. “Maybe I shouldn’t talk about that in mixed company.”

“Maybe not,” Talulah says as she looks at me and rolls her eyes so quick and subtly I almost miss it, but just almost. We’re comrades, me and this glamorous creature, in spite of our stylistic differences and our taste in men.

“Well then,” I clap-clap my hands. “I’ll get dinner started. You all sit here and relax.”

“Let me help you,” Talulah gets up. Chet reaches towards her, but she’s too quick. She’s around the coffee table in no time, maneuvering like a quarterback to escape his grabby hands.

Normally I’d rebuff her offer. I hate people in the kitchen with me. I find it incredibly distracting. They want to chat, and thoughts fly out of my head while the beans burn, or I turn the burner on under the pasta pot, forgetting there’s no water in it yet, or I dress the salad with vinegar only. But maybe Talulah needs to get away from Chet and his off-the-charts racist, sexist, bigoted ways as much as I do. So I say, “That’d be great!”

Before I know it, we’re in the kitchen together, and I’m letting Talulah slice the olives for my pasta dish.

“Can you imagine what life is like for that poor dog?” she asks.

“He seems very fond of her,” I say.

“Yeah, right.” Talulah is chopping the olives. She starts to sing, “There was an asshole had a dog and Bingo was her name-o.”

We both laugh.

I really want to ask her, what’s a nice girl like you doing with a douche like him, even if it is just a first date, but instead I go with, “So what’s it like working with Chet?”

“Impossible,” she sighs. “But he’s got money to burn, which is an art consultant’s dream.” She’s chopping at weed-wacker pace and her jaw seems tight. “Honestly? I need this gig. I’m in a financial hole.”

“Ah,” I sigh, “I know about financial holes.”

“I mean, let’s be real. Chet’s a bore, right?”

Chet is my husband’s boss. Talulah is his date. His ‘lady friend.' Clearly not his girlfriend. Yet. Still, maybe she’s setting me up somehow? “You could say that,” I nod, trying to keep it tame.

Talulah stares at me with gorgeous deep brown, heavily mascara-ed eyes. She’s about to say something else when Dimitri appears at the kitchen door.

“Um, Amanda, where’d you put Emmett’s old guitar?”

“In the back of his closet, behind all those books he’s never going to read again but refuses to let me get rid of. Why?”

“Chet wrote a song he wants to play for us.” Dimitri is sporting a fakey-fake smile. “Once I get the guitar and he’s ready, can you two come back to the living room?”

“No prob,” I say, turning the burner off and making a note to myself to turn it back on when I’m allowed back in the kitchen.

“Great,” Dimitri says and dashes away in search of the guitar. It’s then when I finally get to ask Talulah, “You seem so familiar to me. Have we ever met before?”

Talulah looks worried. She pauses, and it’s clear she’s making some kind of bargain with her own psyche. Then, presto change-o! She flashes me one of her cover girl smiles and says, “I’m not sure. Maybe.” She hands me the chopped and ready olives.

“Thanks,” I say as I dump the olives into a big bowl. I’d ask Talulah more, but I’m so cautious I’m like the conversational equivalent of a tree stump. We chop and dice in awkward silence for a moment when finally Dimitri calls from the living room.

“Come on in, girls. Chet’s ready.”

“Oh Lordy,” Talulah fans herself as if she’s in a non-air conditioned subway car. “This is gonna be a trip.”

Chet is sitting upright, tuning my eldest son’s semi-forgotten guitar. Dimitri is back to forearm hair-plucking, which is slightly less annoying than scalp rubbing. Talulah sits next to Chet, but with more of a gap between them than before. I remain standing with a wooden spoon in my hand, trying to look like a gourmet chef who needs to get back to work as soon as possible.

Chet clears his throat. He proceeds to sing a song that is a mish-mash of guttural calls and whistles. He hums and then blurts incomprehensible phrases that sound like a blend of Yiddish and Portuguese. He nods his cleft chin, and the fox-like hair flops in his eyes. All the while he’s thumping his hand on the side of the guitar. The strings are barely strummed. When he’s done, Chet is gauging our reactions. He’s eager and expectant, like my sons used to be after they played mediocre pee-wee soccer on D-list teams. Back then we’d lie, telling them they were awesome.

I am so overwhelmed with Chet’s display of clueless, terrible dreck, if I try to talk I’ll break down in hysterics. I can see out of the corner of my eye that Talulah seems to be in a similar state.

My brave husband rises to the occasion. “Wow,” Dimitri says, “that was, ah, some song.”

“Thanks, Dim.” Chet places the guitar string-side down on the coffee table, leans back against the couch cushions, and yawns. “It comes from a really raw place. Deep, man, really deep. Kinda takes it out of me. But I guess that’s what being creative is all about. Amanda, as a writer, you’d know about that, right?”

I’m past the hysterics but still not capable of safe verbal exchange. All I can do is grin. I probably look like a demented jack o’lantern.

Talulah pats Chet’s knee. “Bravo, Maestro!” she says, then turns to me. “We’d better get back to work, Amanda.”

As she rises, Chet gives her a slap on the ass. Talulah’s face darkens, and she looks like she’s going to turn around and deck him. But she doesn’t. She’s back to glamour and sweetness in a blink of an eye. Together, she and I saunter away.

* * * * *

“Okay then,” I say as cheerily as possible when we’re back in the kitchen. “Where were we?”

Talulah’s taken a fierce stance, both hands on her hips. “That stuff about the people in the Philippines? Natives? That shit about the women offering sex? Fuck that.”

I envy her defined triceps. I worked on my triceps many moons ago during three complimentary personal training sessions I got as a sign-on bonus at my gym. I assume my triceps are still there, hiding somewhere under my saggy upper arm flesh.

“So it was the Philippines Chet was describing.” I turn the burner on for the pasta water. And yes, I remember to fill the pot also. “I was wondering where he’d been. Sounds like he enjoyed himself.”

“Chet’s an asshole,” she says.

“Not the most tactful guy I’ve ever met.” I’m still trying to be Switzerland.

“That song?” she cries. “Like a bad SNL skit.”

It is really hard not to join her on the Chet-bashing train.

“And that jerk slapped my ass. Without asking! I don’t mind a bit of slapping when it’s consensual. That was a very non-consensual slap.”

“Now where did I put the balsamic?” This may be more information than I’m prepared to digest. I start opening and shutting cabinet doors.

“Come on, Amanda. This isn’t like you.”

How would she know what I’m like? When I risk a quick glance back, I find Talulah staring at me, like she knows me, like really knows me.

“Whaddya mean?” I squeak. I’m Jimmy Cricket, moving around the kitchen like a jumpy insect.

“Okay. Time to get real,” she says. “You weren’t like this in college.”

“Aha!” I stop hopping and stare back at Talulah. “So we have met. We went to college together.”

She nods. “I remember you walking past Fraternity Row, flashing your tits, giving the finger to cat-calling frat boys hanging off their balconies.”

I did that. For real.

“DREAM ON, CRETINS. YOU’LL NEVER GET A HOLD OF THESE.” Talulah grabs her own, much nicer boobs in homage to my favorite college rant.

I blush. “Did we, um, hang out?” I feel bad I don’t remember her because clearly she remembers me.

“Not so much. Just a bit,” she sighs. “I was very different back then.”

“Weren’t we all?” I sigh, too, and for a moment we’re quiet, remembering our younger idealistic selves, girls who called themselves women, braless, hairy, fearless, gorgeous creatures who could and would have sex with anyone they chose, who protested wars, unfair labor practices, who rallied for freedom of speech, who played guitars and zithers and danced topless whenever they could.

“Alright, I’ve been trying to find the right time to lay this on you, so here it comes.” Her mouth is a taut lipstick line, her eyes are dark and steady. “You might remember me as Thomas.” Talulah stares at me. And then I start to see her, or rather, him. Thomas, a thin graceful guy who hung out with a bunch of Semiotics snobs, a clique I wasted half of sophomore year trying to break into. Thomas smoked Gitanes like the rest of them. He wore a flamboyant, paisley silk scarf around his neck. He did entire London Times Sunday Crossword puzzles without any hesitation. I think he played the piccolo. He stayed on the edge of their pretentious parade by choice, while I desperately wanted to march along, waving my copy of Barthes “A Lovers Discourse” or singing the praises of Derrida. Mostly I remember Thomas was the only one in that clique who paid any attention to me.

Thomas had been best friends with Lars, a waspishly gorgeous blond god I had a hopeless crush on. But I was invisible to Lars. He only had eyes for Sarah, a ruling class pothead with a horsey overbite and ties to the Rockefellers.

But Lars is beside the point. It’s Talulah who matters, Talulah who grins at me now. I definitely remember this smile. The only difference is 30 years ago there wasn’t a smooth coating of coral lipstick highlighting the openness or lack of pretense.

“Thomas!” I can’t believe it, but I can. “Holy shit!”

Talulah puts a finger to her lips.

“Ohhh,” I whisper, “Chet.”

She nods.

“He doesn’t know.”

“Obviously,” she smirks. “Hey, do you remember that party where you and I talked about Petticoat Junction for hours?”

And then it comes back to me, a glorious flash of nostalgia. A smoke-filled, sparsely furnished off-campus apartment. Nina Simone on the stereo. Gesticulating post-pubescent know-it-alls mingling about. Thomas and I were happy schlumped on a saggy couch, talking un-ironically about Petticoat Junction. No deconstructing, no analyzing. No Derrida-ing. Just a couple of fangirls, as we would now be called, gushing about the Jo’s: Betty, Bobbie, and Billie. Toot, toot.

I take her in. “How long have you...” I falter, “when...how...” I sound like an idiot. I’m cool with all sorts of gender variables, I am, but this is Thomas from college! Thomas! And he-she is kind of, sort of, dating my husband’s boss!

“I’ve known I was Talulah since the day I was born. But this...” she traces a long line from her left shoulder to her right hip, as if she’s drawing a beauty queen’s sash, “this has been a work in progress for the last five years.”

“You look amazing.”

She flicks a wrist and rolls her eyes. “You’re too sweet.”

“No. Seriously. You’re so fucking gorgeous, I can’t stand it.”

She shrugs. “Alright. You win. I am.”

“What a coincidence,” I squeal, “you coming here tonight.”

“Well, it’s one thing we can thank Chet for. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see you again. I’ve been following your writing for years. I always said Amanda Lowenstein is gonna do something important.”

“Who’d you say that to?”

“Oh, all those self-important creeps. Lars, Andrew, that bitch Betsy, Stoner Sarah.”

I feel a sense of accomplishment I haven’t felt in months. Years. Decades.

“You really got a bum rap on that Frances Wyvern thing,” Talulah says.

I shake and hang my head. “No. I deserved the ire. I fucked up. I got lazy. I should’ve been more diligent with background checks.”

Talulah grabs me by the shoulders. “Listen. Take it from a former faker. When someone wants to pretend they’re something they’re not, if they work hard enough, they can fool anyone. That sad little man who led you to believe he was a fantastic woman? Guaranteed somewhere inside that guy, that’s who he is. But his insides don’t match his outsides. And you got caught in the in-between.” Her grip is strong, guy strong. I think how marvelous it would be to have her kind of physical strength, her kind of beauty. But mostly her kind of bravery.

“Betwixt and between.” I’m suddenly exhausted, so I lean forward and turn my head to rest my cheek on Talulah’s chest. “Nice pair,” I sigh. “Mine are like two partially deflated Aerobeds.”

Talulah chuckles and my cheek bounces on her fantastic, if somewhat fabricated, firmness.

“We should’ve hung out more in college,” I sigh.

“That’s for damn sure,” she says.

“We could hang out now?” I offer.

“That’s for damn sure,” she repeats.

I lift my head and look up at her face. Her eyebrows are so beautifully shaped. Maybe she’ll take me for a makeover? I could use a makeover. “So, pardon my ignorance. But how does it work? Do you tell guys? Will you tell Chet?”

“It depends. Some I tell, some I don’t. Because,” she lets go of my shoulders, and points to her crotch, “I haven’t done the ultimate yet.”

“You still have a, a, ...”

“Oh yeah,” she drawls, “and it’s a nice package. I’m gonna be sad when it’s gone. But only kind of sad. Meanwhile I’ve decided I’m gonna shock the shit out of our friend Chet tonight. Get him all riled up, then whip it out and wipe the smug smile off that pompous sucka.” She does the sassy head lolling thing that only a woman as majestic as she can pull off without looking like an idiot.

“But what about the Montauk job? What if Chet fires you? What about your financial hole?”

“Amanda, really,” Talulah shakes her head, “we may be a couple of old biddies, but we’ve still got to challenge the patriarchy when we can. Even if it means we lose a chunk of change. Misogynistic dickwad fighting. That’s the real job.”

“There is a God!” I stage whisper and shake both fists victoriously. “But be careful. He’s a big guy.”

“Ah,” she waves a hand dismissively, “I can take him down with one hand tied behind my back if I have to.”

And I believe her. “You have to call me tomorrow and give me all the details.”

After we exchange phone numbers, we get back to work, boiling pasta, kitchen girl talk, catching up on grown up lives.

Dimitri pops his head through the kitchen door just as we’re putting on the finishing touches.

“Everything okay in here?” he asks.

“Right as rain,” I say with a smile.

“How much longer until we eat? Chet’s got low blood sugar and says if he doesn’t eat soon he might faint or something.”

“Is that a promise?” Talulah asks.

Dimitri is at a loss for words.

“Don’t worry, Dim,” I say, “she’s one of us. Dinner will be ready in five. Meanwhile tell Chet to chew on these.” I gently lob a bag of carrots in Dimitri’s direction.

Dimitri catches the carrots, then looks at Talulah to gauge her reaction. She is, of course, smiling. Dimitri looks relieved and confused at the same time. He leaves with the bag of carrots swinging in his hand while Talulah and I finish our preparations.

When we’re done, I follow Talulah to the dining room with bowls and platters of goodness. I think how we might’ve been fearless back in the day, but we were also pretty ignorant and blind. We had secrets. Now we’re wiser. Braver. Or at least Talulah is.

Me? I’ve still got some learning to do. But as I watch my new friend sashay ahead of me, as I admire her perfect, dare I say slap-worthy ass, I think: Let the dogs walk themselves. She’s arrived, she’s the real thing, and I have a new profile to write.


Alice Kaltman is a writer and surfer who splits her time between Brooklyn and Montauk, New York. "Boss Man" appears in STAGGERWING, a collection of stories that released last month from Tortoise Books. Other stories appear or are forthcoming in numerous places including Whiskey Paper, Storychord, Longform Fiction, the Atticus Review, Chicago Literati and Joyland. For more, visit alicekaltman.com, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Marni Manning is a Fairfax, Virginia-based illustrator specializing in watercolor and colored pencil. Recently her work has shown at Artomatic Frederick in Maryland and Gristle Art Gallery in Brooklyn, and next month she'll be part of Spoke Art Gallery's "Bad Dads VII" show in NYC. For more, visit marnimanning.com and follow her on Instagram or Facebook.

Jon Patrick Walker is a singer-songwriter and actor currently living in London. In March 2016, Jon released his second full-length album, People Going Somewhere, which received critical acclaim and charted on numerous college stations around the country. As an actor he has appeared on Broadway, in films and on television. For more, visit JpWalkerMusic.com.