Brian J. Helt

Scars On A Doll and The Art Of Release

Tamara’s severed foot landed in the plastic waste bin with a muted, fleshy thud and its soft percussion cooed hollowed melody into Ori’s ears.  The long walk to inventory and back was a trip he had made countless times daily under the sickly fluorescent lights hanging high above him, mindless.

Flesh on the right, compartmentalized and divided by the gradation of skin tones, skeletals on the left.  He kept his eyes on the flesh inventory labels: fingers, hands, arms, head templates, torsos hanging by their fixtures, breasts piled one on top of another.  Feet were kept at the back.  He turned the corner of the last shelf and raised Tamara’s foot up, comparing skin tones and as Ori thought of her, he saw in his mind, her eyes; the eyes of devastation and sharpness, a stare that pierced deep into the heart of a human with the canorous reminder: you are only that, only human, you are imperfect and aberrated.  He knew that he was closest to perfection with Tamara, closer than he had ever come with any other one before her, entirely within his grip.  She was perfect and perfectly tractable.  The soothing inebriation that came with the taste of control was something that haunted him and though he tried his best to expel it from his heart, he simply could not.

Ori found himself back at his work station and the stool was hard against his hindquarters and he knew that he had spent a long day in that spot, working on Tamara.  He took his shaping tool in his left hand and one of Tamara’s new feet in his right and while keeping an eye on Tamara’s old foot, began to shave away at the arch of it.  Bit by bit he peeled away flakes of silicone composite, translucent with the faint remembrance of fleshy pinks.  The flakes flittered down onto his lap, rolled off and fell onto the concrete work floor and still, Ori worked, lost in his own meditation.  Synthetic precision, he reminded himself, was the only perfection in the sex-death-world, the world of flesh smashing against flesh, sticking into flesh before birthing more flesh, born of flesh only to die as flesh.  Nothing greater.

Ori glanced at the clock.  Five Minutes.  He hated to wait for her.  He had always hated that.

Any time now, she would call to tell him she was outside, as she did every night and through the torment of waiting, falling under the whim of another, a whirling synthesis of excitement undercut with dread gripped Ori at his core as he wondered what damage she had done to herself this time.  Had she tried to re-angle the septal cartilage of her nose, tried to thin it out again?  Had she gone after the bleach?  Ori wondered when she would finally cut deep enough to hit that human nerve and return to herself.  But he knew the more likely case was that one day she would cut too deep and the bleeding would not stop and she would fade away into the obscure and shapeless void, as all things of flesh do and Ori knew that he would blame himself for it until the day he died.  If only he could replace the parts of her he had broken, fix them the way he replaced the dolls’ broken parts.  But somewhere in him he knew the pieces that were broken in Ellie, he couldn’t fix.

The truth, Ori thought, is that the scars a human leaves upon themselves are nothing compared to the scars they leave upon another, intentional or not.

The prattling chatter of Ori’s phone, dancing across the table as it jittered and chimed, tore him from his saturnine meditation.  He snatched his phone up with the same hand that he held his shaping tool and swiped his right index finger across its screen to answer.

“’Lo,” he said.

“I’m outside,” Ellie replied.  Her voice came through the phone like a crumpled plastic bag.

“Be out in a sec.”

Ori hung up his phone, slid it into his pocket and placed both feet between Tamara’s legs with the shaping tool between the feet.  He drew the big tarp over her as he returned to the foot of the table, fastening it with four large clamps at each corner.  After, he crossed the warehouse to the entrance and shut off the anemic fluorescent tubes hanging sickly above.  He opened the entrance door and locked both the handle and the deadbolt as he listened to Ellie’s car gasp and wheeze behind him across the gravel driveway.

He turned around and saw the apparition of her, through the driver’s side window; platinum blonde hair, fire engine-red lipstick, dark ink rising up the side of her neck.  Something like a frenzy of joyful bees awoke, stirring in the hive of his heart.  He crossed in front of the car, his boots crunching and grinding the shards of rocks below them.  The headlights blinded him, white ringing pain in his eyes and ears and he opened the passenger side door, inviting out the bowel-screams and soprano-shrieks of some death metal, tussled by the dissonant tremolo of a shaking guitar.  Ori was transported years before when things were different, and the two of them were on their way to oblivion, together, tweaked out and blistered.  Ori fought off the recollection, shooing it away as he tried his best to focus on the moment before him.

With a slender hand, nails painted black, Ellie turned the nob on the stereo and quieted the noise as Ori sat down, swallowed by the scent of cigarette smoke choking out the fruity florals of some cheap perfume.  The roof light faded once the door had closed with a whinnying cry from the dried metal joint and Ori caught a glimpse of Ellie’s swollen and bruised nose.  In the fleeting moment, he saw the realization in her eyes, that of her self-exposed injury and she turned towards the steering wheel after putting the car in drive and creeping slowly along the driveway.

“How was work?”  Ellie asked.

“Not too bad.  Got a repair order today, probably finish tomorrow.  How about you?”

“Same.  Had a shoot at Old Oaks Inn.”

“Kind of like way back when, huh?”  Ori asked, met only with Ellie’s silence though she had undoubtedly heard his question.  “Not too shady, then?”

“Not too shady.”  Ellie paused.  “So I got some big news.”

“What’s the news?”

“Talk about it over a beer?”  Ellie asked and the unsure tone of her voice made Ori suspicious.  He knew her too well to believe all was well.

“Sure,” Ori replied.

As Ellie pulled onto Old Valley Road, Ori leaned over and turned the nod of the stereo all the way to the left, silencing the death metal and leaving only the muted roar of the tires as they rolled along the cracked and bumpy road.

“So was that before or after the shoot?”  Ori asked.

“What?”  Ellie asked.

“Did you break it?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ellie said, her voice unsteady.

“Don’t deflect.  Did you do it?”

“Why are you nagging me?”

“I’m not nagging.”  Ori defended.

“Well you’re gonna start, I can already tell,” Ellie pressed.

“Just tell me, was it part of the shoot?”  Ori asked.

“You know they’re not Johns right?”  Ellie asked with a new venom to her voice.

“I know that, Ellie.”

“So why would it matter if it was part of the shoot?”

“Because it would.”

“And why’s that, Ori?  Are you gonna go hunt them down?  Beat them bloodied?  What’re you going to do, Ori?”

“That thing’s fucking broken and you’re gonna tell me that it’s a fucking fantasy and that it’s okay?”

“Maybe I broke it myself.  Maybe some big motherfucker smashed it with his fist before ramming his cock in me, what the fuck do you care?  It’s not like you would never have done the same.”

Ori cringed.

“I care because it’s fucked up that you think that’s normal.” He said.

Ellie shot Ori a glance that by which he knew she meant business.  “I don’t think you get to decide what’s normal anymore, Ori.”

A silence, which let in the howling from the unkempt road below and the air as it rushed all around the car, seemed to stretch so far and so long.  He felt naked in that car, stripped of all power he ever had.

“I think I get at least some say.”  Ori declared.

“Don’t try that shit with me, we both know it was the only option.” Ellie said, desperation glowing at the edges of her words.

“Maybe it wasn’t to me.”

“Oh, and were you just gonna drop everything?  Become an upstanding citizen and role model?”

“At least I didn’t kill it like some fucking gnat.”  Ori said, tasting the bitter poison of his own words.

As Ellie crammed her foot onto the brake, the tires seized at their four corners and screeched, sending the car into a gentle fishtail before arriving to a nauseating and lurching stop that threw both Ori and Ellie back and forth.

“Get the fuck out,” Ellie said with a sharp finger pointed across the center console.

“Ellie, I’m-“

“Get the fuck out!”

Ori gripped the handle of the passenger side door and gave it a pathetic tug, leaned over and lifted himself out of the car.  The scent of hot rubber perfumed from the asphalt and found his nostrils, burnt and curdled.

The engine to Ellie’s car revved as she sped off down Old Valley Road and into the night, gone again, leaving Ori behind.  He thought about all the things he had put Ellie through and began down the block under the sodium vapor streetlights.

 

Tamara laid across the worktable, legs ajar, body centered within the rectangular frame.  Her eyes shot invisible tethers into the space between the air and the nothing and they remained fixed and immovable like some exotic and ornamental flowers.  Ori sat on his stool and stared into the vaginal cavity as he replayed the previous night in his mind over and over and over again.

Despite the very palpable urge to avoid those thoughts, he couldn’t stifle the remembrance of all the previous nights at shady motels, sitting in the adjacent room, listening so closely with his ear to the wall, ready to pounce.  He shook off the specter of years since gone and stared into the fleshy silicone composite of Tamara, seeing her as she was, rendered eternal, an everlasting configuration of the only perfections of the human specimen.  Things were different now. He was different, or so he promised himself.

She was truly amazing, Tamara, a staunch and glowing monolith of glory which spat in the face of the human, a grotesque beast, not above the slovenly mewling of swine and shit-eaters.  The human is a machine, Ori thought, of consumption and hatred.

He wondered why Ellie couldn’t be more like Tamara.  A doll is not prideful, does not go against its best instinct, will not scream or insult but most important of all, Ori reminded himself, a doll cannot be hurt.  He hated himself in that moment, that very human moment as his own imperfection stared him in the eyes, inescapable, no new thing.

From his pocket he pulled out his phone and scrolled through the contacts to Ellie’s avatar before pressing it with his finger.  The dial tone rang rapturous in his ears and at the moment he wondered if Ellie would ever pick up, her voice rattled in the speaker.

“’Lo?”  She said.

“Hey, it’s me.”  Ori said through an awkward pause, unsure of what to say.

“What’s up?”  Ellie asked and Ori could tell she was still so far from him.

“I wanna talk about last night.”  He said.

“Can’t.  Got a shoot in a minute.”

“Pick me up tonight?”

“K.”

Ellie was the first to hang up and Ori kept the phone to his ear with his eyes fixed on Tamara, wishing he could trade one for the other.

 

Time crawled by like a lost crab across hot pavement.  It had taken all day, which it shouldn’t have, but by the time the warehouse was approaching its closure, Ori finished the repairs on Tamara.  With the lower skeletal joints tightened and feet replaced with a seamless composite fill, he put the final cosmetic touches on her; new nails, eyelashes, lip and nipple pigmentation.

She was heavy across his shoulders as he carried her to a crate.  Feeling as though he could drop her at any moment, he strained to lower Tamara onto a chair in the crate before taking a wide fastening belt and propping her upright before clicking in the belt which kept her that way.  He stepped back.  He saw Tamara sitting there, almost alive, and knew she would outlast him and her owner and he could no longer find the comfort in that.  The eternity of Tamara in the face of his own fading human existence terrified him in that moment, and she seemed to remind him that at the time of her owner’s death, she would remain on this earth without him as he would have moved onward into the void.

When he turned around, he saw her standing there like a doll escaped from its crate, staring at him with her anguished eyes, buried under the soil of a young woman with nothing to fear and nothing to live for.  Still, her pain, the agony he knew was inside her, reaching in all directions for years, seemed to peek out through the cracks of her crafted exterior.  She was nowhere near perfect, her thighs and arms riddled with the pink pigmentation of cicatricial tissue, stitching her together like a bundle of found rags and Ori wondered if any of them had been carved in his name.  He was ashamed in how he hoped there was at least one.

Her hair had been dyed and bleached so many times that it reached out for years like the spectral arm of a never before thought of god-being, untamed and wiry, and looked as if it would snap if given the slightest tug.  But she was there, she was in that moment, an expanding and contracting respiration and so was Ori, and he thought in that moment that between two metabolic, organic beings, there was no room for a doll, no room for the synthetic and imagined love story.  Between two people, there was only room for the true and fleeting war of adoration and love and self-loathing whereby both parties do their best jobs of destroying one another.

Ori knew he had already destroyed so much of Ellie.

In that moment, he could almost feel the words crossing his own flushed lips: I love you, but something kept him silent, something composite, something muted, something of a doll inside him.

“You’re early,” said Ori.

“I-” Ellie began before her words trailed off and her eyes searched the floor to recover them.  “I can’t drive you home tonight.”

“What’s wrong with your car?  I might be able to fix it” Ori asked though he knew the truth, anticipating what would undoubtedly come.

“Car’s fine.  I just can’t drive you home.”

“You could’ve texted me.  Didn’t have to drive all the way out here.”

“I just know,” Ellie said as her eyes rose to meet Ori’s, “that if I did, everything would be undone.”

“What’re you talking about, Ellie?”

“All the work I’ve done and the decisions I’ve made would be undone and I’d have to go back if I drove you home because I know that’s where you would take me, like you always have.  Even before we cleaned up and quit the old life, it’s always been that way.  You’ve always had that power over me, even when you didn’t want it.  And I’d do the same thing tomorrow night, and the night after and I’d never really ever do it, make the break, because I’m in love with you, and you’re the worst thing for me.”

“Take you?”  Ori asked, fighting back the storming beehive inside him.  He wanted to scream at her and the urge pulled and tore at his guts and chest.  He wanted to shout out how different he was, how things would never be as bad as they were all those times before.

“I’m leaving, Ori.  I’m moving to the Palm Desert.”

The words struck Ori with a tragic familiarity and he knew in a flashing moment, smaller than a second spun out like the sugar chains of cotton candy, he knew that he had done this.

“When do you leave?”  Ori asked through a knot in his throat, telling himself that after what he had brought them through all those years before, that this is what he owed her.

“Tomorrow.”  Ellie replied.  Her words, bladed by their truth, sunk into him and cut through the core of his soul and Ori worked furiously to unscramble the tangled lines of his heart, to unlock the puzzle of this torrent inside him.

“How long have you known?”

“Studio called me last week with the offer.”  Ellie replied.

Silence returned; crept into the warehouse like a low lying fog.

“You don’t think I can change,” Ori began, “but I can.  I did.  The minute you told me you were-we got clean, we’ve stayed cleaned.  On the straight and narrow.  It was all for you.”

“Ori,” Ellie said with a matched pace of her words, “if it wasn’t a game of power to you, I’d have kept it.  I’d have stayed with you.  But this is who you are, you’re a pimp.  You’ll always be a pimp.”

Ori stared into the floor, seeing for the first time, the pocks and scratches etched into the concrete year after delicate year.  A silence had snuck in between the two of them, standing so far from one another, each positioned at opposite points of the universe.  The air had frozen inside the warehouse as Ori looked up saying, “I regret everything I ever put you through.”

The door thudded hard, severing his words, and the latch clasped with a quaking resonance that could’ve pushed Ori into the ocean all those miles away.  She was gone and he was left with nothing more than his workstation and the dolls which seemed somehow all too permanent for him.

 

The following afternoon, in a rapturous moment, Ori was torn from his thoughts as the freight door rattled and shook with a rapping from outside.  He pulled the chain adjacent to the freight door and watched it climb incrementally with each tug, revealing a freight truck and a man standing at its rear with a coffin box.

Ori took the clipboard from the man who stood, waiting.  When he finished, Ori handed the clipboard back to the man before retrieving his dolly from his workstation.  He tipped the box up and slid the tongue of the dolly underneath before tipping it back towards him and wheeling the coffin in, peaking at his path from the side as he craned his neck outward.

He tipped the box down in front of his work table and, with a crow bar from under his worktable, pried open to the front palate of the coffin box to reveal a doll.  From the interior of the box, he pulled out the order form, seeing that it called for a renewal of hair and eyes, cosmetic touch ups and a vaginal replacement.

With the doll sprawled out across his work table, Ori observed its ivory flesh contrasting with the heat of fiery red hair and the celeste-blue eyes that reached out into the void, through the space of all things.  It could’ve been so much more than a doll, a supreme apex of ornately chosen features, the gorgeous sum of its parts.  But it wasn’t, not anymore at least.

As Ori kept his gaze on the doll, he saw not a doll but a clumsy aluminum skeletal frame, bound by tight silicone composite, trimmed, buffed, glued and painted and the synthetic odor of the composite reached into his nose and Ori knew he was truly alone.

He closed his eyes and saw her laid out on the table before him, Ellie, the scarred and misarranged misanthrope, choosing all the wrong ways to be human, or so it had seemed to Ori.  He wondered if she was as miserable as he, imagining her bleached hair, choked and dried, resting atop her head where the contours of her face were far too pronounced from the heavy hand of too much make up.

Ori opened his eyes, hoping to see Ellie standing before him, his eyes meeting only the doll, laid across the table in her contortion of limbs, gaping and vapid.  A hatred boiled inside Ori as the doll reminded him that it was everything Ellie wasn’t and he knew he had received all he had worked for.

Across from his work table, he saw the clock staring back at him, immovable.  Time stood still.  He turned towards parts inventory and took small and slow steps to it.  There seemed to be no rush as the boundaries of time had dissolved into the horizon.  Infinite.

He felt his phone buzz in his pocket in that very moment, and with a diving, digging hand, tore it from its denim tomb to see a screen unlit, and to feel the stillness of its non-vibrating being.  A stone.

Ori stared into the blank screen.  He waited for it to ring.  He waited an eternity for Ellie to call or text or anything, powerless in the shadow of her whim.  He was alone in the vacuum, surrounded by the inanimate death locked inside the dolls who seemed to watch him, waiting too.

 


Brian credits attending CSSSA/Innerspark in 2006 and again in 2007 for igniting his passion for writing.  He continued to study Creative Writing at San Francisco State University which took that passion and directed it towards a focus on fiction.  Brian’s work has appeared in publications such as Ginosko Literary Journal, Forge Journal, The Blue Moon Literary and Arts Review and more.  You can follow him on Twitter at @brian_helt.

Adam Martinez

I’ve Seen the Blood Moon

“Eclipse”

There is always a certain sadness that is felt upon leaving the Indio Polo Grounds in the early hours of a Monday in April, long before the sun has risen or reached its point in the sky where you can no longer escape its rays. There is an instant longing for the magic that is spending three days in the desert with the one you absolutely love, or with close friends, or sharing in debauchery and dancing with someone strange and new—pausing to kiss at dusk while Calvin Harris plays “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place” and segues into  “Sweet Nothing” just as you peak. And then, you come down.

The next night, reveling in my Post-Coachella depression, I watched the Blood Moon eclipse with my roommates, Jeff, De Maio and Tatiana. We read excerpts from Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse” aloud while sipping port and eating truffles. I told them about how I saw her on Sunday. I told them that, strangely, I would have rather watched her walk into a bedroom with him than see her holding his hand, guiding him through the crowd in a place that used to be ours. I was a devout Catholic watching an unconfirmed sinner take the sacrament and get blessed with Holy Water. It was bullshit.

“What are the odds of that, Adam?”

“Yeah, dude. You have to write about this.”

I stared at the Blood Moon, an orange-reddish circle that looked tangible, if only I’d just reach up and pull it down. I was afraid. What would happen if I reached up to touch it and it wasn’t real? It looked like a clementine. I wanted to pull it down and rip open its skin, peel it to its bare flesh and taste the citrusy pulpiness burst in my mouth—a mouth that had dried out from talking and crying and yelling and talking and talking and talking about a girl with a perfectly circular mole in between her big wide eyes.

Looking up at the Blood Moon, I waited for my Rustin Cohle moment of clarity. I waited for the sky to open up, for all worlds to connect in my brain, and for time to flatten. A wave of anxiety rushed over me, like the time I watched the uninterrupted six-minute shoot-out scene in the fourth episode of True Detective. Sometimes love becomes a botched drug deal. I wondered if we were doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. I stopped fighting and let the wave hit me, and as the eclipse began to lift, I felt a sense of hope that everything is cyclical. There is a time for happiness, sadness and more happiness—then, more sadness and that is life and it comes with seasons. It’s all circles – Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds and Tea Cups – and patience is what keeps us still in between the phases of the moon and the tides that wash in and out of our consciousness.

***

“A Conversation at a Coffee Shop”

“How are things with your boyfriend?”

She smirks at me.

I chuckle back and force out, “How are things with Hilgard?”

I can tell she is shocked and I myself am shocked that it came out of my mouth. It took me three years to get here. And it doesn’t hurt the way I thought it would.

We are sitting in my bedroom; a room she has never slept in. A room littered with Coachella posters, books, movies, a ukulele, articles of clothing (somewhere buried in a dresser drawer is the “Cupid’s Chokehold” Gym Class Heroes t-shirt I bought on our first date) and other knick-knacks she bought me over the years. A room she’s had no physical presence in until now. We are working on a gift for our godchild, and it feels all right. We share our recent shortcomings, vices, lack of consistent income, and how we thought it was ironic that we started smoking a lot of pot these last few years when, together, we were staunchly against it.

“You’re totally judging me right not, aren’t you?”

“Nah, I tried coke once at Coachella with Jon and Diego a couple of years ago. It was weird. My face was all numb for a few minutes, and I had this tunnel-vision focus walking from our campsite to the entrance. I didn’t want to do it again.”

“Ew, I’m totally judging you right now.”

We both laugh.

We carve our names into the frame of the canvas, a Mother’s Day gift for our godchild, Omi and her mother, Irish (Manang). That is a strange word to see as I type: The possessive adjective our. We are not a we – nothing is ours together, except for the six years of memories we both spent the last few years, and will perhaps spend a lifetime, trying to forget. The canvas is beautiful. I am proud of it. We made it together, despite us being not together. It is a sepia-toned photograph she took of Manang standing in front of horizontal window shades, the light bursting through each blind, illuminating her beautiful pregnant body. Manang is in the center with her baby bump, her little seed sitting inside of her, pointed to the right. She is a silhouette, a moon in total eclipse, surrounded by the words of a poem I wrote, “A Flower Blooms in Virginia.” The words surround her like stars in the night sky.

When we finish carving initials, birth dates and hearts into the wooden frame, we go for a walk.

“Sorry I didn’t tell you ‘Happy Birthday,’ it’s just that, you know, I hate you.” I laugh.

“Yeah, I know, it’s okay.”

“Let me buy you a belated birthday drink.”

“No, it’s fine.”

“No, let me. I have a gift card.”

“Oh. Well, then, yeah. Cool,” she says, with her dorky chuckle.

As we sit outside of the coffee shop across the street from my apartment, drinking our caffeinated drinks, I tell her, “It’s not that I’m not over you, it’s just that—the hardest part has been that I lost my best friend and I miss that. You’re the only person I’ve ever met who just got me and I feel like I got you, too.”

I try to avoid eye contact because my voice is shaky and I think I might cry but I make it anyways and see that her eyes are welling up too and she says, “me too.”

***

“Girl With Mole”

Her mole. That was the first thing I noticed—the mole on the bridge of her nose. It was nearly hidden by her black-framed, rectangular glasses that matched her equally black hair. Perfectly circular and protruding thickly off of her face, pulling me in like a black hole, full of mystery.

I met her at orientation, at UC Riverside, in 2004. After lunch, outside of a dining hall full of hot-blooded virgins, we participated in various Ice Breakers like “name your favorite band.”

“The Smiths,” I said, looking in her direction.

“Hot Hot Heat,” she said, as if it were some kind of retort.

She thought I was cool. I thought she was, too.

We played “the human knot,” clasping onto each other’s arms with the goal of trying to unthread the mess of body parts; just two shy strangers then.

I sat next to her in University Hall while a corny “Welcome Freshman” type of informative film about the exciting adventure that is living on campus played in the background. I caught the reflection of the film in her glasses while I snuck glances at her face. I found myself attracted to her face in a way I’d never been attracted to a face before.

After a day of guided tours and choosing fall quarter classes, it was time to go home—back to whatever routines and familiar faces we were accustomed to on sweltering summer nights that were melting quicker than ice filling red cups. She and I exchanged numbers, which led to texting. “Call me, Jojo.” She handed me my phone with her number freshly added – a number that is still in my phone, changed from “Baby” to “Anne” and erased from my memory.

***

“Tree”

A single text from her about borrowing a book prompted a dialogue between the two of us that led to a love I am not sure how to remember or forget. I continued to text her and soon, we learned each other’s schedules. I waited for her at a tree between the Bell Tower, Watkins Hall and Rivera library, walking back and forth from the tree to the corner of Watkins, placing myself back at the tree, pretending I had just arrived there when she finally made her way around the corner. From there, I walked her to her class in Olmsted Hall. For weeks, I took these brief moments to get to know more about a girl I was growing increasingly fond of with every footstep.

Soon, she invited me over to watch a movie at the apartment she shared with her older sister, Irish. I brought over Garden State and I sat utterly frozen, mouth closed, breathing through my nose, one hand gripping the couch cushion and the other on the arm of the couch.

***

“2005”

Our love story did not begin as one of Hipsterdom. Coachella transformed us into monstrous music snobs. Music was our thing and we protected it with a pretentious air. It was our secret. Initially, Hip-Hop is what we bonded over. Jay-Z was my favorite rapper, I was really into Kanye West, and I loved all things that had to do with Pharrell Williams. She loved Pharrell for reasons that made me jealous but I was just glad I found someone who knew who N.E.R.D. was. I thought “underground” rap was Mos Def, Talib Kweli and The Roots but she quickly showed me through the door of indie rap with, Atmosphere, Aesop Rock, El-P, Sage Francis, and the Living Legends, and I fell in love with this music as quickly as I fell in love with her.

At the time, I was also into emo and post-hardcore. I showed her Brand New and Taking Back Sunday.  I invited her to a show at the House of Blues on Sunset. This is where I first took her by the hand as we made our way through the crowd to watch Gym Class Heroes, Fallout Boy and the Academy Is… sing pop-punk songs about the importance of teenage love, while sad teenagers made out, moshed, and bloodied each other’s noses.

On our way home, we stopped at In-N-Out, and in the backseat, I watched Anne slowly and meticulously nibble at her cheeseburger, taking the entire ride home to finish. I found her coyness completely charming and I followed suit early on in our relationship when she brought me a burger and fries from In-N-Out after her shift working there. I carefully and quietly ate my meal in a span of an hour and a half as we watched Battle Royale in my dorm room. I didn’t want to ruin my chances with impolite eating habits.

***

“We”

We began dating, officially, on March 27th, 2005. The night before, I had been in Pomona watching a band called Northstar at The Glasshouse. She called me and told me there was a spider in the kitchen and it scared her. Her excuse was enough to make me leave the diner I was at to drive to her apartment. That night, after the spider mysteriously disappeared before my arrival, we watched The Ring with the lights off. We shared a blanket and told ghost stories after, as a candle flickered and gave us cause to snuggle just a little closer than before. To distill the quiet, we shared a Guinness and then, I finally kissed her. This is when Anne became “Jojo” to me and I was inducted into the intimately familial world in which she had been nicknamed after her mother’s friend. I felt privileged. This is where I lost myself completely to that unexplainable, inescapable feeling we are blessed and cursed to experience every so often in life.

The next months were pure magic. The stuff Puppy Love is made of. The stuff that made us go half on a half-Basenji, half-German Shepard puppy we called Luca, after a few years together. We named him after the Brand New song, which is about the character, Luca Brassi from The Godfather, one of her favorite movies. Early on, we spent our days ditching lectures, playing tennis, browsing through CDs at Mad Platter, and eating tacos from Del Taco and drinking Vitamin Waters every Tuesday.

We took trips frequent trips to Melrose and La Brea to shop at Buffalo Exchange, Wasteland, Urban Outfitters, and Crossroads, and spent hours watching Family Guy, Chappelle’s Show reruns, HGTV, and other junk TV. We celebrated month-versaries and romanced each other in a way only naïve lovers know how: Surprise picnics at botanical gardens, Hershey’s Kisses trails leading to bedrooms filled with balloons and rose petals like it was our own private prom, lipstick love letters on bathroom mirrors, living room concerts covering Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” and Foo Fighters’ “Everlong.”

***

“Our thing”

Over the years we went to so many shows, fighting our way to the barricade in front of the stage – I still have a shoebox full of ticket stubs and wristbands of all the bands that we spent days and nights watching together, lying in the grass or holding hands, kissing, hugging, brushing bangs from each other’s foreheads and fighting off taller, sweatier people in the crowds just to reach the front of the stage for.

Our first capricious trip to Coachella was in 2005. We went to watch Coldplay. We camped in the desert and fell in love with the festival culture we found. Novices of the festival circuit, we learned quickly that to be in close proximity to a headlining act, you must dedicate hours of waiting at a particular stage. At first, I was devastated when we couldn’t get anywhere near the front to see Chris Martin sing hits from Parachutes, A Rush of Blood to the Head and newer stuff from X&Y, but my bad mood was quelled as we lied on our backs in the grass, completely absorbed by the beauty that was us. Coldplay became our background noise.

When we came home from the desert, we bathed together after a weekend of dirt and sweat and no showers. It wasn’t much later that I lost my virginity to Jo. It was spring and I wanted this forever. Spending days and whole weekends, drinking whatever alcohol our underage selves could get our hands on and indulging, only separated by sleep. She twitched when she slept.

***

“Let Down”

Three years later, I cheated on her. It was a sloppy, drunken kiss that I barely remember. Maybe it’s because I saw betrayal followed by vague forgiveness in the home I grew up in and I thought that all couples worked the same. I was scared it was too good to be true anyways and it would eventually end. Maybe it was the fact that she wasn’t a virgin when we met, and I was, and that notion gnawed at my immature mind. Or maybe it was just a case of you always want what you don’t have and I didn’t have the freedom to sow my wild oats like young adults are encouraged to do.

And then we tried and tried to make it work for three more years. And then it finally ended. And then my whole life changed like the first time I met her. And I’ve never been the same. And I started to find the irony in my birth name, with the Forbidden Fruit, and all. I began to look at myself differently and I wanted to see the good in me. Instead, all I heard was myself repeating, “And I did this to myself and I did this to you, but you were brave enough to be happy without me, and you are happy now, and that is just what you deserve.” Slowly, I unraveled and didn’t know what to do with myself. I wrote songs and shot videos in which I got rid of all of the cute pictures of us and the cards and notes but it didn’t help. And I wrote poems about how much of a wreck I’d become – how jealous and impatient and needy I now was. And it was Richard and Irish consoling me often, and suddenly, I had become a let down.

***

“Days after the 4th

It was the day after the 4th of July 2011 and I had taken Luca to visit my parents for the holiday while Jo was out of town with her family. I was in the middle of walking him at dusk when the fireworks began. I should have known better, he started to freak out. We rushed back to my parents’ small apartment and he jumped into their bathroom tub, shaking from the shrill Piccolo Pete’s and M-80s. I held him and stroked the back of his ears until he fell asleep.

The next day, Anne and I broke up. There wasn’t an argument this time. Not like the times before. It wasn’t out of the blue, but it wasn’t expected either. I fought it, but the words she said to me were like a sedative. She gently put me to sleep.

“I know I don’t want to be with anyone else but you, but right now, I just need to be on my own. I can see us getting back together in the future, in a few years. You’re what I want. You’re who I want to end up with.”

I was draped in an anesthetic fog. Surrounded by these words I played back over and over. Her soft words that I clung tightly to like a body pillow. The things people say when there is nothing left to say become the keepsakes we’d rather not keep. They burrow into our brains and eat away at our delicate membranes until we are swallowed up and completely digested.

***

“Loft”

I saw her three months after later. She had already started seeing someone new. She wasted no time. We were at the bar underneath her loft in Brea with Manang and Bernard. I drank way too much and she spent the night with me in her bathroom. She nursed me, like always, and I cried, asking, “why are you with him?” and I took it out on her porcelain. I woke up with a blaring headache but everything felt okay because, somehow, we’d ended up lying on her bed and I was holding her the way I used to. And that was the first of many awkward interactions between us struggling to find a balance between ex-lovers and best friends (see: Atmosphere “Body Pillow”)

***

“Ritualism”

Some people dive deep into fitness, while others focus on their careers to distract themselves from a broken heart. Art was my catharsis. I wrote an EP called Three Days in the Desert, rapping over songs from bands we’d watched together at Coachella. I shot several music videos, trying to figure out ways to destroy any and all sentimental pieces of our relationship I had clung to. In the video for “You Win” a rap cover of the song “A Walk in the Park” by Beach House, I walked along the Santa Monica Pier to toss a Tootsie Roll lollipop flower she had made me one Valentine’s Day into the Pacific Ocean. I passed lovers, young and old, holding hands, kids playing on the boardwalk and in the arcade, a belly dancer, a trapeze artist, a sad clown making balloon animals, a psychic, troubadours with their guitar cases open for spare change, fishermen with guts in buckets, a spinning Ferris wheel, and a fortune-teller machine as I walked those wooden planks towards the open sea, fake flowers in hand – despair being filmed for others to see, be entertained by and feel pity for.

These are the rituals of the post-modern broken-hearted. Every action must be dramatized to the degree of which we feel an emotion in order for us to believe in the pop culture and/or art that we define ourselves by. These acts, of course, have to be sensationalized in writing, whether they are nonfiction or not, for fiction is already a given the second we perceive a moment in time through the senses and the image presented to us in our brains – a replica of an incident that becomes highly romanticized. It is the artist and the writer’s choice, or some may feel, responsibility, to produce a work of art that does not shy away from such perceived anguish so that someone searching for meaning in a time of heartbreak can chance upon it and identify with well thought-out, aggregated keywords.

I thought of all of the poems I had written about Anne in my thesis, the thesis that I had successfully defended a few months prior in November 2013. I was a recent graduate from a dual master degree program with no clear direction. I was not well. By Spring, as I cried and began to write the makings of this piece, I thought of the song “This Modern Love” by Bloc Party and how much it meant to us. I thought of another song called “Anne with an ‘E’” by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Perhaps it is the English major in me that could allow the romanticization of death, the idealization of dying from heartbreak—a tragic Shakespearean death, and Anne gave me that pure, unadulterated heartache that only a First Love, only someone who was everything to you and took and gave everything that made you, you, to push my mind even slightly in that direction.

***

“Watching Blood Orange at Coachella 2014”

I dreamt of her on a Saturday at Coachella, nearly three years since we broke up.  I hadn’t thought much of it. I had plenty of dreams of her since she became my ex. Despite my near-constant anxious state, I was happy I had survived the weekend without running into her.

I was watching Blood Orange with a girl that had potential. A girl that I slept with. A girl that hurt me. A girl that I had fleeting feelings for.  A girl that I wanted to sleep with again because what else was there to do. A girl that was there to distract me from the anxious and depressive state I had been in for months now. But when I saw Anne walk mere feet in front of me, boyfriend tailing behind her, an eclipse fell over it all.

In that moment, the girl became a shadow and I thought of various scenarios: Me calling out Anne’s name, Anne turning around and me sticking my tongue down this girl’s throat in the coolest way possible; me walking up to Anne and her boyfriend, saying “hey,” and punching him; Anne turning around and seeing me and it ruining her day.

It was in the upper 90s to low 100s and my face was on fire, burning with sadness and defeat, tears forming. My throat closed up for a moment, I stared ahead at the stage and watched Devonté Hynes sing, “Time will tell if you can figure this and work it out/No one’s waiting for you anyways so don’t be stressed now/ Even if it’s something that you’ve had your eye on/It is what it is.” I kept my eye on her in my peripheral vision and I realized something: after three years, I never truly let her go.

***

“Happy Birthday”

I couldn’t bring myself to tear up the two remaining photos of her. One a wallet-sized college graduation photo that I found in an old commencement announcement from 2008, the other from the Los Angeles County Fair in 2005. I wore Aviators and sported a shaved head. She had on that pure smile that was always too good for me, along with a black beaded necklace and top that accentuated her jet-black hair, eyes and the mole that I loved so much but always made her so insecure. She wore a sheer long aqua blue skirt that came down to her sandals and life was good.

I was tearing up trying to tear them apart, listening to Just Once EP by How To Dress Well. I participated in this pathetic ritual on her 28th birthday, and the first one in nearly a decade that I did not bother to call, email, or text her a simple “Happy Birthday.” It was difficult and I cracked up and it’d been three years and I didn’t know why I was still all fucked up.

The day began with me cracking jokes to myself and singing the lyrics to “Unhappy Birthday” by The Smiths. I thought, maybe I’ll tweet the link to the YouTube video, or post it to Facebook. Maybe one of our mutual friends or followers will see it and know what I mean by posting it. And maybe it’ll reach her and maybe she’ll think of me for just a moment of her day. Maybe it’ll bum her out, just a little.

I tried to distract myself by cleaning my apartment. I started in the kitchen, and made my way to the living room. After I Lysoled every inch of the bathroom, I finally got to my room and lied on the floor with sweat on my forehead. I thought of how ritualistic and methodical I had made the “getting over” process over the years; it was almost unnatural – too sterile. I’ve heard people say that it takes half of the time you’ve dated someone to get over them, or, for saps like me, it could double in length. Anne and I were together, on and off, for six years. The first six years of our adult lives. I knew nothing else. I no longer remembered the person I was that first quarter of college. He is a fictional character in my brain. With three years behind me, I was either right on time or a quarter of the way there. When I started to accept that I wasn’t going to get her back like in TV shows and movies or like my mom, with her motherly intuition, would claim for a time, I wanted desperately to speed up the process of moving on. I wanted it too badly. Just as The Supremes sang, “you can’t hurry love,” well, you can’t hurry healing. Everything in due time—it all depends upon the ticking of the clock. The clock is the object that one must surrender to in order to truly get where one hopes to be, instead of being a dog chasing its tail. We make this big deal about healing, like it has to be this ritualistic thing. Like we have to wait to go to therapy or have a religious conversion to see progress when really, it is something that happens naturally over time. The moment you feel the pain, the healing has already begun.

***

“Baptism in Sacramento”

We hadn’t spoken for three months, but for a weekend in August, we stayed up late every night, drinking beers and talking. Talking about us. Talking about her and Hilgard. God. Work. Music. Talking about anything. I just wanted to talk to her. I just wanted to sit with her in perfect silence and look at her and think about what she was thinking.

I glanced at her.

She glanced back and looked away sharply, asking, “What?” and laughing.

“Nothing, what?” I laughed back.

There was a lot of nervous laughter, like when you meet someone that makes you nervous in an exciting way, and for a moment, I had my best friend again and all was well in my world. But then, I’d see her phone light up. She’d walk out of the room, and I knew my place in reality.

“You can’t do that, man.” She said, whenever I brought something up that reminded her of the times we’ve shared. The good times.

“You didn’t fight for me.”

She said that because I had gotten so close to Manang, she didn’t have anywhere else to turn, and that’s where he came along—maybe in the same way I came along once.

On the drive to Omi’s Baptism, I rode with her cousins, Jay and Ida.

“Adam, have you met Jojo’s boyfriend?”

“No, not yet.” I said, chuckling.

“He is nice. He’s kind of like you.”

“Yeah? Then, I hope you like him.”

“We like you, Adam. Why did you and Jojo break up?”

“It wasn’t up to me,”

“Well, you know, Adam, maybe you will get back together in the future. You never know. We hope so.”

“Time will tell.” I said, turning my attention from Jay and Ida to their son, Jacob, who was sitting next to me in the backseat, asking about going to the mall to eat Panda Express.

We arrived at the church on Sunday, August 10th, 2014. It was a bright day, it was mid-afternoon, and hope was in the air. I’m not Catholic, or even baptized, so the first thing I did after hanging up with Manang and Bernard on the day they asked me to be Omi’s godfather was Google, “Godfather’s duty at baptism”. As Manang prepared Omi in her white baptismal gown and bonnet, Jo and I stood awkwardly in a pew, anticipating.

“You nervous?” I asked, not looking at her, but staring ahead towards the altar, where the sunlight burst through the round skylight, onto a crucified Jesus Christ hanging over a regal pulpit, which was surrounded by lush plants and golden candelabras.

“Yeah, you?”

“I’m all nerves. I don’t even know what we’re supposed to do.”  I was enchanted by the majesty of the cathedral and I thought it was the perfect place for Omi, a queen in the making, to be dedicated.

“Me either.”

“We’ll be okay.” I finally looked at her with a half-smile. The priest called us over – it was time to begin.

The Baptism was picturesque. We surrounded the baptismal fountain and as soon as the priest, Anne’s cousin, started praying, I felt a calm and I prayed every prayer. I prayed as hard as I could for Omi, her parents, and for Anne and I to be protectors, providers of love and guidance, and godly godparents. I prayed to lead by example. We stood side by side, Anne and I, as Omi was blessed with Holy Water. We said various “I do’s” like, do you believe in God, do you believe he suffered for us, do you renounce the devil and all of his pomp? Anne lit the candle and held it near Omi, as a symbol of God’s light. It shone brilliantly on her forehead.

As everything beautiful in life, the ceremony was over quickly and we were taking pictures with the mighty Omi, servant of God. We returned to Jay and Ida’s and I devoured plates and plates of delicious Filipino food that I’d missed for years without realizing.

Tired from her big day, Omi napped, while the rest of us drank and ate in her honor. I watched Anne take shots with her dad and cousins. I took their photo to commemorate the occasion. In the photo, she holds the shot with her left hand, and the tattoo on her bicep is seen clearly. Flowers entangled in the words, This Modern Love Rhymes With Fire. Her smile stood out to me. It always stands out. Sometimes all you can do is smile.

On the drive back to Southern California, I sat with her father in the front. I still call him uncle as a sign of respect. She sat in the very back of their maroon Toyota Sequoia with her mother, whom I still call auntie. Anne and I texted from the front to back seat through out the drive. Separated by years and sleep. We got home and went back to separate routines.

***

“Songs I’d rather not sing”

I remember playing “The Highest Commitment” by Qwel over and over again in my freshman dorm room on the weekend that she showed it to me. It was raining and I spent all of Saturday playing Bomber Man, Dr. Mario, Dig Dug, or some other video game from my childhood, on an NES emulator. It was the same when she showed me El-P’s “TOJ.” It resonates with me now that I can say that I used to be in love when he raps,  “and one time when I was deep inside your body, you purred/And I was sure that you were gonna have my baby.” This is how the verse ends, immediately followed by the aching hook, “And you can tell that maybe time is out of joint, my love/So this is maybe just an S.O.S. shrapnel/An echo of dead sentiment/Measurement tossed to nothing for no one/A wasted effort/A shrug.”

There was a time when I was certain that Jo and I would marry and have kids and we would never end in this mortal life. In that way, I always imagined our story to be unfinished and that made me feel safe. When we broke up it felt unfinished in a completely devastating way. It felt as though we’d spent years writing this remarkable story and the paper we had written it on got decimated in a fire because she left a candle burning or I fell asleep with a cigarette in my mouth; or maybe the sheets got drenched in a flood, causing the ink to smear and ooze down the page, forming one giant abject blot of ink.

Some songs will haunt me. Any song by Atmosphere will do the trick. I traded in Gwen Stefani’s “Real Thing,” which I once recorded a cover of for her birthday, for “Cool,” hoping we’ll eventually get there. I think about No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom album cover, with the moldy, rotten oranges with holes in them. And I think that’s what I’d become. Then, I think back to that Blood Moon eclipse in its wholeness and rejuvenating vitality. And I knew that, all this time, I had started to foster a new sense of self in a singular way.

***

“Boarding a plane to Virginia”

It’s December, and I’m boarding a plane to Virginia Beach to visit Omi for her first birthday. And the ruminating starts again. But that is okay, because I will be fine, and I will recover like I have in the past. And she will always be there, and I will always be there, and there will always be some form of love.

I think about how we all fall in and out of love. I think about how we’ll sit in Manang and Bernard’s living room on these late winter nights like we did in Sacramento. And I wonder if, for one glance, we’ll fall in love all over again.

“You made a huge mistake being with him. Why are you so afraid of being alone? All you do is jump from one relationship to the next. I resent you for not taking the time to be completely on your own—to be your own person, because you have so much to offer yourself.”

She’s staring at me in shock with tears welling in her big wide eyes.

“I miss you. But I guess I should thank you for leaving me because it was what I needed.” We’ve being drinking a few beers while we sit on the couch. In an inebriated stupor, I just go for it. “Look, Jo, I love you still. I do. I wish I didn’t but I do.  I dream about you at least once a week. I haven’t met another girl who has come close to you.”

The fact that I’ve just divulged this information frustrates me. “You said I didn’t fight for you enough? That’s bullshit. I fought for you. And then I fought myself, and sometimes, I still do. And I daydream about being the person you settle down with. What it would be like to come home to you, after work. Or what it would be like to see you walk in the door after a long day, and I’ve just taken Luca out for a walk, and he runs up to greet you, and you talk to him sweetly.”

***

“Maybe”

The plane hasn’t even left the ground yet. Everything turns to a maybe again.

Maybe I’ll tell her how I’ve been writing this for the better part of a year now and it’s something that finally feels right, after all the shitty fiction, and poems, and songs indebted to my own personal Lucy (see: Atmosphere “Fuck You, Lucy”). And maybe in a few months time, if I should be so lucky or blessed or whatever the fuck you call it, maybe it’ll get published. Maybe I’ll turn it into a perzine and make Xeroxed copies. Maybe I’ll gift her copy and sign it, “Jo, I still love you like the first time. Love, Adam.” Or maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe we can be friends and she can start listening to my music again, because, even though she’s with someone new, it’s been too hard for her or whatever.

Or maybe I’ve been missing the point this whole time. Maybe this is bigger than us. Maybe we can be cordial godparents and Omi will never need to know that Ninong and Ninong used to be in love, because maybe that beautiful girl was why we were brought into each other’s lives in the first place. Maybe that’s all the hope I’ll ever need in this story that remains unfinished in a way that doesn’t frighten me, because now, we are bound together by a beautiful girl. I’m sure most exes would love nothing more than to put planets between each other, histories of biblical proportions, to make it so that they were from two different dimensions entirely. But this is what it is. As the plane ascends, I can rest easy knowing that Coachella is coming up. It will be my tenth and final year, and I know I won’t be running into her again. Instead, there will be birthday parties and holidays where we’ll sit and reminisce for a few hours as we watch Omi grow.

***

 


Adam Daniel Martinez is a musician, writer, and native of the Inland Empire region of Southern California. He holds a B.A. in English from UC Riverside and an M.A./M.F.A. in English and Creative Writing with an emphasis on poetry from Chapman University.

Michael Overa

We Live Here Now

My kid sister Phoebe stood in the doorway of the cheap motel staring into the dimness. Cubby, her stuffed bear, dangled from her five year old hand, his butt hanging a fraction of an inch above the crinkled gray paint of the outdoor hallway. It’s one of those indelible moments that will be forever painted on the inside of my eyelids.

“S’this?” She asked.

“Our home,” I said.

I channeled every possible sentiment of good nature I’d ever witnessed, but never felt. I squeezed past her and ran my hand up and down the wall until I found the switch. The warm orange glow of the table lamps didn’t seem to make her feel any better. Phoebs took a few reluctant steps into the room. She was still wearing her scuffed pink slippers. The dingy fake fur at the ankle was worn into a threadbare fold. She hugged Cubby to her chest, his button eyes regarding me suspiciously.

“See,” I said.

“It isn’t a home.”

“It sure is,” I said, “it’s our home. It’s yours and mine and Cubby and Mama’s.”

Ma was out at the van grabbing our bags. Suitcases clattered on asphalt, and I could hear her cursing into the evening humidity.

“It’s not even a ‘partment.”

“It’s just like an apartment,” I set my duffle bag on the floor, “In fact, it’s even better than a ‘partment.”

Mom thumped up the steps, the metal railing pinged as the suitcases hit it. I picked Phoebs up and half-flung her onto the far bed, where she bounced to a stop without ever letting go of Cubby. Ma appeared in the doorway suitcases dangling from each hand. I may forget the day of the week, or the name of the place, or whether the soap was in little rectangular packages or little round packages – but I will never forget that image of her.

“Great,” she said.

“Is there more?” I asked.

“Phoebs, brush teeth.”

“Want me to get anything else from the van?”
“This isn’t even a ‘partment.”

“Teeth.”

The door stood open to the late summer and the heat came through in waves, shimmering the street lights into blurred halos. The suitcases were piled on the carpet at Ma’s feet. I picked up Phoebe’s pink roller suitcase and dug out the Ziploc with her toothbrush and glittery toothpaste.

“Listen to Ma,” I said.

“I’ll be back,” Ma said.

“Where are you going now?” Phoebs whined.

“I’m going to the store.” Ma was looking at me but talking to Phoebs, “Carl can grab you a snack from the vending machine.”

“I’m ‘posed to do teeth.”

“Pick something out. Then teeth.”

Ma fished a crumpled wad of cash from her wallet and held it out. As I grabbed the bills she held them fast and pulled me close. With our faces inches apart she mouthed: I don’t have to tell you.

And she didn’t.

Down in the parking lot I heard the van start and pulled back the heavy curtains in time to watch Ma ease onto the otherwise empty street. She’d be gone a while. She wasn’t going to the store; she was going to get blind drunk.

Phoebs sat on the bed with her arms around Cubby.  I looked at the wad of cash in my hand. I’d seen a row of glass-fronted vending machines on the ground floor next to the rumbling icemaker. I hoisted Phoebs to my hip and walked down the stairs. The staticky sound of cicadas electrified the middle distance. I set Phoebs in front of the machines and she examined her options. The stink of industrial cleaners and melting tar loitered among the cars.

“S’that one?”

“Peanut Butter cups.”

She pointed to another.

“Milk Duds,” I said, “Carmel with chocolate on the outside.”

“Skittles?”

I looked. “Yeah, they have Skittles.”

I lifted her up and she fed the dollar into the machine and punched the buttons. The thunk of the package made me wince. Phoebs squatted in front of the machine and I pressed back the plastic door. She peered into that pocket of darkness and grabbed the package. Back in the room she curled under the blankets as I opened the package for her and found cartoons on TV. She looked miniature on the king sized bed; the wrapper crumpled as she fished out several Skittles at a time. Cubby sat beside her, the shadow of the two of them morphing into a glob of round bear ears and little girl ponytail. The smell of stale cigarettes and dust had been ground into the carpet. The AC chugged along behind me, prickling Goosebumps along my arms and neck. I stared down at my backpack and gently nudged it into the corner with my toe.

The room was one more unfamiliar place in a growing chain. Everything was a rental for us: apartments, falling apart houses, motel rooms. Other than a long winter we spent with Mas parents, we’d never lived anywhere long; never owned anything other than two cars and our clothes. North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee. We’d lived a dozen different places before Ma landed a job at the hospital in Virginia. That spring we lived in a brick rambler, tucked back off Grandin Road. By mid May the heat settled in, pressing humid hands down on our shoulders. Ma’s worked nights, opposite of Pops, and most days she left right after he got home. If she left before he got home it was no doubt because of the argument I’d heard through the bedroom walls the night before.

Going into the basement was verboten. Pops disappeared down there for hours at a time, often right after dinner. Thin wooden stairs that led down into the basement seemed as if they’d barely support you. It was a late weekday afternoon when, mostly to escape the heat, I ventured into the smell of mildew, spilled beer, and sweat. At the bottom of the stairs a chain dangled from a single bare bulb. Along the far wall was an old workbench. Tools and faded porno mags littered the scarred wooden surface. Behind the workbench, tacked to the wall, was a tattered Rebel Flag. Off to one side an old rag covered something bulky.

I grabbed a corner of the cloth and folded it back. Underneath was a pistol I didn’t know Pops owned. I sat down on a barstool near the workbench to examine the thing. It was heavier than I expected. The dull metal shined in the stark light as I turned it over in my hands, running my thumb along the crisp edges.

I hadn’t heard his truck pull up or the front door open. Through the opened door I could hear the TV playing. But there he was, standing at the top of the stairs with a beer in each hand.

“You piece of shit,” he said starting down the steps.

He was so focused on me he forgot to duck under a low ceiling beam. His head cracked against it and he tumbled backwards onto the steps. His beer cans skittered across the concrete as he groped for the railing, swinging one arm up to keep his balance. His hand smacked against the dangling bulb and the chain rattled as the light swung back and forth casting hideous shadows on the cement. It looked like someone turned on a red faucet above him. I never thought a person could bleed so much.

“Piece of shit,” he said.

One of his eyes was squinted closed. He looked from me to the blood on his hand, edging towards me like a drunk in a darkened room. I moved out of reach, backing up until I was against the brick wall. Pops placed one hand on the workbench and sat on the barstool. An entire galaxy of blood stretched across the floor.

“Get a towel,” he said.

I didn’t move. He was leaning forward, his hands pressed to his head as he grimaced. The tendons and muscles of his back stretched the black cursive letters of Donnelly Construction from shoulder to shoulder. Dribbles of blood curved down his cheek and neck. He leaned so far forward that the back legs of the chair hovered above the floor. I counted the rhythm as he rocked slowly forward and back. As he took deep breaths his shirt stretched and went slack. I took a step forward and hooked my toe under the crosspiece of the stool. I waited. The legs inched upwards. I kicked hard. The chair came out from under him and his chin smacked the workbench. His head ricocheted backwards. His body bounced against the concrete.

The light bulb slowed to a soft, lazy circle. The chair splintered beneath him, one of the legs snapped off and landed across the room. He laid there motionless. A bubble of spit and blood expanded and contracted on his lips. The silence of the basement settled in as I stared down at him, the gun gripped tightly in my hand. I backed up the stairs. In the kitchen I set the gun gingerly on the counter; the image the gun bent and distorted in the chrome finish of the toaster. Phoebs stood in the hallway; behind her in the living room I could hear the babble of cartoons.

“S’that,” she pointed to the gun.

“Nothing.”

“I want juice.”

My kid sister pulled back a chair and clambered up. Numbly I walked to the refrigerator and opened the door. The humming coolness of the refrigerator chilled the sweat on my forehead as I bent down. Phoebs hummed one of those kids’ songs from TV. I poured her apple juice and set it in front of her.  Grasping the cup in both hands she tilted her head back, swallowed, and finally gasped when she the cup was empty. I listened to her slippered feet scuff down the hallway to the TV.  She sat cross-legged in front of the TV with Cubby at her side. The gun sat on the counter and as I reached towards it I could see my hand shaking.

Each creaking step into the basement was louder than the last. I braced one hand on the low ceiling beam and ducked under. Pops was lying on his back in the middle of the room. The bubble of spit and blood had popped, speckling his lips with pink froth. He made a little groaning noise, but didn’t move. I took a few steps forward and crouched down, listening to his shallow breathing. I wasn’t sure if I was happy he was alive.

From the kitchen phone I called Ma at work and told her Pops had fallen down the stairs. She asked me if he was conscious, and if he was breathing. She told me to hang up and call 911. Phoebs came down the hall again as I stood there on the phone with the dispatcher. I hung up. I stood there in the thick, stale heat of the kitchen. The weight of the gun dragged me towards the ground. Without much thought I opened the freezer and set the pistol on a bag of frozen peas, pressing it down as the metal fogged over.

When they arrived I led the paramedics to the top of the stairs. The lights of the ambulance lacked urgency. As the two men trundled down the stairs with their boxes, my sister hid behind my arm, pulling it around her. Her tiny weight pressed against my leg; her clammy hands twisted around mine as we stood in the kitchen. The men bent over Pops and talked to each other in casual voices.  Ma got home as they loaded him onto the gurney. She stood in the kitchen with her keys in her hand, her gray hair curled in heavy waves across her scalp. I could see the heavy lines etched into her face. She wanted to know how bad it was. She told them she was a nurse.

“He’s stable,” one of the men said as they wheeled Pops past.

Pops looked at me around the oxygen mask with nothing but shear and absolute hatred. Ma, Phoebs, and I stood on the front steps as they loaded the gurney into the back of the ambulance. We watched as they pulled away. Ma led us inside and closed the front door. The TV was still playing in the next room. She looked at the two of us there in the narrow doorway. Phoebs hadn’t let go of my hand since the paramedics arrived. Ma turned and walked down the hallway to the bedroom.

Over her shoulder she said: “Start packing,”

 

Phoebs fell asleep just after midnight. Ma wasn’t back yet, and I didn’t expect her anytime soon. I turned off the TV and tugged the edge of the covers over my sister. She hadn’t brushed her teeth, but I figured it didn’t much matter. I took off my shirt, the fabric was damp from sweat and cold from the AC. I shivered as I wrapped myself in the scratchy wool blanket. The floor was hard and the room was so dark I could barely see anything; light from the parking lot bled through the curtains. I could hear Phoebs snoring on the other side of the room. I imagined a hospital bed somewhere. Pops connected to a tangle and tubes and wires. Ma in a back road tavern with a Boiler Maker and a cigarette. A whole new chain of rentals. New states. New schools. Nothing would change.  I stared at the ceiling and listened to the drone of the AC.  Rolling over I reached out and placed a hand on my bag, feeling the contour of the pistol beneath the canvas.

 


Michael Overa was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. After completing his MFA at Hollins University he returned to Seattle where he currently works as a writing coach and is a writer in residence with Seattle’s Writers In The Schools Program. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the East Bay Review, Across the Margin, Fiction Daily, Portland Review, and Fiction Daily, among others.