Month: December 2011

Writer Round-Up: Richard Krech, Micah Ling, Rebecca Schumejda, Brian McGettrick, Hosho McCreesh, & Noel Sloboda

Writer Round-Up: Richard Krech, Micah Ling, Rebecca Schumejda, Brian McGettrick, Hosho McCreesh, & Noel Sloboda

A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft Including the Following: Richard Krech, Micah Ling, Rebecca Schumejda, Brian McGettrick, Hosho McCreesh, & Noel Sloboda Interview by Cynthia Reeser For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 5.4, December 2011 ~ Do you […]

An Interview with Kristine Ong Muslim, Author of We Bury the Landscape

An Interview with Kristine Ong Muslim, Author of We Bury the Landscape

Interview by Cynthia Reeser For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 5.4, December 2011 Kristine Ong Muslim’s fiction and poetry appears in more than five hundred publications—too many to list here (see her website for the complete canon), including recent mentions in Fiction Daily and Verse […]

Drawn from Water: A One-Act Play by Rosebud Ben-Oni

Drawn from Water: A One-Act Play by Rosebud Ben-Oni

Drama, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011

Drawn from Water  was first produced by Thespian Productions at The Playhouse Theater at Roy Arias Studios and Theater in New York, NY in Oct 2011. Directed by Bob Teague and staring Ximena Mieles as Alejandra and Maurcio Pita as Zamora.

CAST OF CHARACTERS
ALEJANDRA — Decoy border-crosser, mid-20s but aged before her time
ZAMORA — Mid-ranking jefe in Los Reyes Magos, late 30s

Time:
Present Day,
A hot summer night.

Place:
Mexican border town near the Gulf Coast

FADE IN. CONSUELO’S BODY is on the floor RC stage while ZAMORA, looking flashy in a suit and cowboy boots, sits in a chair UL stage. ALEJANDRA enters shortly, goes straight to the body and examines it.

ZAMORA
Not going to find a thing.

(Alejandra is startled but recovers quickly.)

ALEJANDRA
So do I have the job?

ZAMORA
Little Alejandra, always underfoot, still half-grown…

ALEJANDRA
I’m not underfoot anymore.

(Alejandra begins stripping the body of jewelry and other trinkets, and continues until noted.)

ZAMORA
If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be underwater. Little more than bones on a riverbank.

ALEJANDRA
I could’ve crossed.

ZAMORA
Still ungrateful, after all these years―

ALEJANDRA
Consuelo wasn’t my mother, any more than you were my father.

ZAMORA
(looking at the body)
The old die young so the young can eat from their remains.

ALEJANDRA
More like the young are bred for food.

ZAMORA
And for that, we owed you a gold medal.
(He gestures to the body, and Alejandra rises to her feet.)

ZAMORA
(continuing)
But instead, all we had to do was wait. That was the thing about Consuelo… I knew she had nowhere to go. I knew she’d never cross me.

ALEJANDRA
She wasn’t one to cross anything.

ZAMORA
Just how bad do you want it, querida?

ALEJANDRA
I’m the only one who can do it.

ZAMORA But every Homero would be lost without you

ALEJANDRA
Who?

ZAMORA
Your― customers, querida. I suppose every Homero who comes to cross has a story.

ALEJANDRA
I never ask; I only lead to the crossing.

ZAMORA I’m sure someone has tried to turn to you―

ALEJANDRA
I turn away.

ZAMORA
Every Homero has left five children on his Oaxacan farm, a wife who died halfway in the
Sonoran desert, a sick grandmother still carving five-peso figurines in San Luis Potosí.

ALEJANDRA
It is merely the buzzing of mosquitos on the river. I do not understand what they say.

ZAMORA
But while they make their escape and you’re caught―

ALEJANDRA
I come back without memory.

ZAMORA
Always?

ALEJANDRA
I don’t care about the people I lead, only that they cross. And when I take Consuelo’s job, one of the women who runs for me will take mine.

ZAMORA
But Alejandra, you’re so good at being the lure over the river. The bait and snare.

ALEJANDRA
I’ve already showed others how to do it. I’ve trained them well.

ZAMORA
But who did you belong to before I caught you, querida?

ALEJANDRA
What?

ZAMORA
Where are you from?

ALEJANDRA
You know I don’t remember. I only want to stop running.

ZAMORA
I think more than anything you’d want to keep moving.

ALEJANDRA
Look, Zamora, the bottom line is, I don’t want to run anymore.

ZAMORA
I can’t imagine you’d want to stop running.

ALEJANDRA
I want to run things― from here. Like Consuelo. I’ve found some women already who’d make good decoys.

ZAMORA You’d just want to stay here― for good.

ALEJANDRA
Yes.

(Zamora pulls out some rolled-up files from his jacket and throws them on the ground.)

ZAMORA
(continuing)
You see, my gringo friend over in border patrol keeps a list of everyone they catch. Takes their photos and fingerprints too.

ALEJANDRA
So what?

ZAMORA
So I was under the impression we pay you to get caught.

ALEJANDRA
Are the crossers’ names in there?

ZAMORA
The crossers.

ALEJANDRA
Yes, all the Homeros.

ZAMORA
Who cares about them? Your name, querida. Your name isn’t in there. Not once. Even after you’re detained and searched. You must be quite―lucky.

ALEJANDRA
Should I be?

ZAMORA
What did he promise you, Alejandra?

ALEJANDRA
Wh-what?

ZAMORA
Asylum? A green card? Citizenship?

ALEJANDRA
You’re paranoid, Zamora.

ZAMORA
Did he promise you…marriage?

ALEJANDRA
Stop it!

ZAMORA
So our little Alejandra has a boyfriend in border patrol. The bait and snare, only this time she didn’t let go. No wonder she wants to run the show. Good way to cash in, no?

ALEJANDRA
It’s not about the money―

ZAMORA
He must be quite a valuable asset to you. Though you’re hardly the trophy wife.

ALEJANDRA
I never took money I didn’t earn.

ZAMORA
(whipping out a photo in her face) Because Hank already married one.

ALEJANDRA (after a pause)
Who?

ZAMORA
Didn’t know he was married? Pretty little blonde. And not from a bottle. They sign their cards “xoxo, Hank and Holly.” Did you know he went by Hank? He only uses Henry formally. So where does he take you? One of the Brownsville motels with the putas in the Day-Glo spandex outside? Or maybe he’s a real romantic and pays for a whole night at La Quinta?

ALEJANDRA
It is merely the buzzing of mosquitos on the river.

ZAMORA
(pulling out another photo)
Helen, Heidi, and Heather. Three sweet little girls with blonde cherub faces. And just a few months ago, they finally had Hank Junior. Poor little thing wondering where Hank Senior goes at night. Probably his mommy tells him just how hard his daddy works to get to deport all the Homeros. Hank the Hero.

ALEJANDRA
I don’t get involved; I only lead to the crossing.

ZAMORA
Church-goers too. Celebrated his parents’ 30th wedding anniversary just a few days ago.

ALEJANDRA
Stop it.

ZAMORA
Just where do you accompany him? To the drugstore for beer and condoms? Of course not. He’s a gentleman; he goes beforehand.

ALEJANDRA
STOP it.

ZAMORA
Greasy Chinese takeout on top of a dirty comforter that hasn’t been washed in years. Tepid shower after with half-brown water. He’ll have to shower again, to get the smell off him. The smell of dirty water and dirty women―

ALEJANDRA
You really think I’d fall for some half-literate gringo?

ZAMORA
Seeing as how you want things, and with limited choices―

ALEJANDRA
No one limits my choices.

ZAMORA
So you do want to leave. You’re using him―

ALEJANDRA
But not to get a green card.

ZAMORA
You wouldn’t get one anyway. We’d make sure of that. If I thought you had any sort of chance, querida, I wouldn’t have come.

ALEJANDRA
Look, Zamora, I’m not running guns. Too risky. If I get caught―

ZAMORA
Guns? How little you must think of me.
(Zamora takes out a big envelope stuffed with cash and hands it to Alejandra.)

ZAMORA
(continuing)
You get to keep everything this time.

ALEJANDRA
What’s the catch?

ZAMORA
No catch. It’s just no use wasting money on a woman like Consuelo.

ALEJANDRA
She’s dead.

ZAMORA
I mean she’s been no use for a while. Realized it a week ago. Best to cut the middle man.

ALEJANDRA
What?

ZAMORA
You’re going to do something big.

ALEJANDRA
So I got the job?

ZAMORA
Can’t promote you to her position when we’ve done away with it.

ALEJANDRA
Damn it, you promised me―

(Zamora grabs Alejandra hard and pushes her down in a chair.)

ZAMORA
I was going to make this so easy for you. We need you at 100%.

ALEJANDRA
I’m not accepting the money until I know what you want―

ZAMORA
You’re going to keep running. You can keep your little romance with the gringo in border patrol. But even he can’t get you star treatment. You report directly to us, and there’ll be no more strip-searches, no more detention. One of our cars will come to take you back. How does that sound?

ALEJANDRA
I’m not as young as I used to be.

ZAMORA
You’re the best. Your reputation extends beyond this shithole. And you know how to train the women. Make them into good decoys. How to get them to run and where and when. And who else could do that and also handle the 20 Homeros so they don’t get caught?

ALEJANDRA
Since when do you care if Homeros get caught or not?

ZAMORA
I don’t.

ALEJANDRA
Because if they get caught, it’s their fault. They’re sent back. Then they save up all over again, so it’s win-win for you.

ZAMORA
(after a pause)
I like what you do, Alejandra. A lot.

ALEJANDRA
You don’t give a shit about people. So if it’s not guns, then―

ZAMORA
Ever hear of Levamisole?

ALEJANDRA
Sounds like a drug.

ZAMORA
It’s used to deworm animals.

ALEJANDRA
I don’t understand.

ZAMORA
It’s what we’re cutting our coke with. Heightens the rush, supposedly, so users think they’re getting a real good deal. It’s amazing, really. But the thing is… in a couple of weeks, the Americans who use it will start to see the effects.

ALEJANDRA
Effects…

ZAMORA
It’s something to see. Your skin dies. In patches. Rots off. Pretty cool shit.

ALEJANDRA
Sounds like what’s been happening to this country.

ZAMORA
I thought you had no memory.

ALEJANDRA
I remember that once a border town was a place to pass through―but then I got stuck here.

ZAMORA
Stuck here? You should be grateful. Who would’ve thought years later the power all resides here? In our hands.

ALEJANDRA
Yes, who would’ve thought that the rest of Mexico would look like the colonias? Soon the whole damn thing will be some makeshift hell. You and your rivals carving up what’s left.

ZAMORA
I recall once you said we run the country better than the government.

ALEJANDRA
I was young and stupid then.

ZAMORA
But you were never young, Alejandra.

BEAT

ZAMORA
(continuing)
You know the craziest part? I’m willing to bet even after the gringos hear how their skin will rot, they’ll keep buying the coke. But my bosses aren’t sure about that. So that’s why we got to do a lot of business―and soon.

ALEJANDRA
You want me to run and get caught, so others can carry it over.

ZAMORA
No, others run so you can carry it over.

ALEJANDRA
What?

ZAMORA
So while border patrol is busying arresting a bunch of filthy illegals, thinking it a real coup, that they grabbed so many Homeros, you’re meeting your contact. Like I said, no strip searches, nothing. And we send a car to pick you up. Star treatment.

ALEJANDRA
But if I’m caught―

ZAMORA
No one can run as fast as you.

ALEJANDRA
You’ll give me up and I’ll rot in some prison.

ZAMORA
I’m sure your gringo will erase you from the files. It’s win-win…for you.

ALEJANDRA
So I’m just another drug mule.

ZAMORA
Animals don’t get star treatment.

ALEJANDRA
(looking at the dead body)
It sounds like you’ve been planning this.

ZAMORA
What can I say, luck is also on my side. We have that in common.

ALEJANDRA
We have nothing in common. You’ve hardly had the life I had.

ZAMORA
I’ve had less, and done worse.

ALEJANDRA
Says the man who pays others to break legs so he won’t sully his pretty suit.

ZAMORA
If you knew some of the things I’ve done, you’d have nightmares for years.

ALEJANDRA
I don’t doubt that. It’s that I struggle not to remember―while it’s so easy for you to forget.

ZAMORA
Memory is wasted on the weak.

ALEJANDRA
I’m not talking about remorse.

ZAMORA
Neither am I.

ALEJANDRA
Did you kill her?

ZAMORA
Be ready in an hour. We’ll send a car for you. Star treatment.

ALEJANDRA
Because I don’t think you’d just wait for her to die―

ZAMORA
Do you really care?

ALEJANDRA
I want to know the truth.

ZAMORA
Truth? That weighs too heavy to carry.

BEAT

ALEJANDRA
How much will I have on me?

ZAMORA
Just enough not to slow you down―too much.

ALEJANDRA
That’s vague.

ZAMORA
You’ll see soon enough.

ALEJANDRA
How soon?

ZAMORA
You start tonight.

ALEJANDRA
What?

ZAMORA
Your usual cargo will serve as the decoy this time.

ALEJANDRA
But they paid so they could cross over―

ZAMORA
Like you give a shit about the Homeros any more than I do. Only some will be caught.

ALEJANDRA
How many?

ZAMORA
It doesn’t matter.

ALEJANDRA
It does. I have a reputation―

ZAMORA
Reputation? Yeah, respect from a bunch of nobodies.

ALEJANDRA
It could hurt business. I’m known for getting people across―

ZAMORA
At least half need to be caught.

ALEJANDRA
That’s a lot. I think word will get around. Then no one will want me to take them over.

(There is a pause.)

ZAMORA
At the moment I’m giving serious thought to saying, the hell with it and―

ALEJANDRA
Give me one more run.

ZAMORA
―break those pretty legs of yours…. wait, what?

ALEJANDRA
One more run as a decoy.

ZAMORA
I’m giving you gold and you keep wanting to be a dead animal.

ALEJANDRA
Decoys aren’t dead animals.

ZAMORA
Doesn’t matter in the end, does it?

ALEJANDRA
One more. I have a reputation here for our customers. If a whole bunch get deported back, it will hurt business. Let me make this run tonight and I’ll set something up that’s actually worth it.

ZAMORA
How?

ALEJANDRA
With my… contact on the other side. I’ll get him to help the run… go more smoothly.

ZAMORA
How exactly will you do that?

ALEJANDRA
If I told you, then it wouldn’t be worth much would it?

(There is a pause.)

ZAMORA
Little Alejandra wants to be a player.

ALEJANDRA
Let me set it up, and you won’t even need me to run a few kilos. You could just drive over a truckload if you want.

ZAMORA
I don’t think your little gringo has that much power.

ALEJANDRA
He’s been there for years. His friends, he―takes care of. They are well-taken care of.

ZAMORA
We know that already.

ALEJANDRA
Sounds like power to me.

(Zamora considers her for a moment.)

ZAMORA
(looking at the dead body)
Don’t do anything stupid, Alejandra… This is the last time.

ALEJANDRA
Is that a promise? No surprises?

ZAMORA
I should be asking you that… Do what you have to do to get the deal done, but remember. Don’t do anything stupid. Or you’ll regret it. In ways you don’t want to imagine.

ALEJANDRA
The older I get, the less I imagine.

ZAMORA
The old die young so the young can eat from their remains. I know that as well as you… But you’re not so young anymore and I’m sure as hell not. And we don’t walk on water. Because we both have masters despite our dreams of a leash-free existence. We always leave behind our smell of sewers and brown water… We can only really know each other.

ALEJANDRA
You don’t know me.

ZAMORA
I know that sad, scared little girl caught in the river. She was Homero too. One of five children on an Oaxacan farm, whose mother died halfway in the Sonoran desert, who too left behind a sick grandmother in San Luis Potosí.
(ZAMORA starts to leave.)

ALEJANDRA
And you, Zamora?

ZAMORA
Me?

ALEJANDRA
What of you?

ZAMORA
I know if we pull this off, we’re going to make a shitload of money.

ALEJANDRA
How did you rise up in the ranks?

ZAMORA
You mean, instead of having to break legs, I have men who do it for me? That’s something you should tell your gringo about: how I have men who just break people’s legs!

ALEJANDRA
I share very little with him.

ZAMORA
We’ll see.

(Alejandra picks up the files off the ground and give them to him.)

ZAMORA
(continuing)
Like you, I have no memory, Alejandra… We are more alike than you think.

ZAMORA EXITS

(Alejandra settles over Consuelo’s body.)

ALEJANDRA
I have no master. I have no past. I do not carry anymore what I left behind. I carry only myself as I am now. For years, I have been another’s journey into the unknown. I have led, but still I am nowhere. In the night I have been caught, but still cannot be found…
(She leans over to pray but finds she can’t.)

ALEJANDRA
(continuing)
You taught me never to envy those who crossed, for they now live in the unknown. For me, every sunrise warmed another’s soul. But now I am growing cold.

Cold as you, Consuelo. Cold as you now, cold as you always were. Cold as we could be. But tonight, tonight… I will not come back. I will not return. I will risk the standing line.
(Alejandra arises and begins to walk toward audience.)

ALEJANDRA
(continuing)
And if they catch up to me, I will lead them astray. And if they catch me, I will pull away to charge down the banks of the river. And if they catch me, I will jump from the river’s edge,
I will drown, I will drown them, remain half-grown, with wild hair of river plants.

LIGHTS OUT

Reaming: A Play by Alex Tamaki

Reaming: A Play by Alex Tamaki

Drama, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011 Cast of Characters JULIAN: The dreamer SILVER: A ghost MAN 1 MAN 2 SEVERAL OTHER ACTORS: to move back and forth, on and off stage, assisting the MEN in cleaning up the mess, when called for. SCENE Nowhere.   I. […]

On Engagement by Bryan Shawn Wang

On Engagement by Bryan Shawn Wang

Fiction, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011 It was 1978, the summer before our senior year at the university, a time for surveying the landscape of my future—the daunting professional peaks to be scaled before settling into whatever halcyon realm lay beyond. As I confronted how I […]

The Passenger by Alanna Schubach

The Passenger by Alanna Schubach

Fiction, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011

It was in the backseat when Arkady woke up. He tried to discern from the rotting flavors in his mouth what he’d had to drink the night before. There was a smell of garlic. He sniffed his hands: it was there, under his fingernails. He remembered the pasta sauce he’d made for his boys three nights previous and was impressed at garlic’s tenacity, that the odor hadn’t been burnt away. When he leaned back against the carseat thousands of cigarette ghosts puffed out. It was bright out and the skin on his face felt tight, stretched over the drumming in his head, and he wondered whether it was possible that he’d gotten a sunburn through the windshield.

When he looked in the rearview mirror its eyes looked back. He turned. It was pale, bald and sexless, furled fetally, blinking wetly up at him.

Arkady cleared his throat. “Um,” he said. He had speech now at least. “Do you need a ride someplace?” It seemed to shake its head but it might have been burrowing more deeply into the cloth seat. “I need to get home,” he said. “Just. Stay down.”

He was parked on a side street that led to Camp Tanglewood, closed since it was October. This meant his last stop had probably been the Lynbrook Tavern, a neighborhood place so quiet as to be anesthetized. So it was unlikely this squatter had fled there for the safety of his car.

“Where are your clothes?” Arkady asked as he pulled onto Ocean Avenue, hoping the appearance of some sort of gendered garment would provide a clue. The thing whimpered a little and started to sit up. “Don’t,” he hissed.

In the sunlight burning off the familiar business fronts on the way to Sunrise Highway—24 Hour Bagel, Chwatsky’s, the Sunrise Motel—it grew increasingly foreign. Another quick glance in the rearview as it rolled over to face away from him suggested the outline of a spine with far too many vertebrae. Morning commuters were beginning to accumulate around him and Arkady felt his head whip back and forth, monitoring them for reactions to his passenger. He found only a man in aviators singing along to the classic rock station, a woman ashing out the window ineptly, gray powder sticking to her door. This reminded him of his wife and her silent, wounded way of cleaning up after him, crouching to take crumpled napkins or swiping the halo of salt left on the table around his plate after dinner in such a deliberately unobtrusive way that it came back around to implication. He hadn’t been home in three days. The boys had probably been banging on the piano in his absence.

“What am I supposed to do with you?” he asked his passenger. It cowered.

*

In the house his wife, Sara, was emptying cups of murky water into the kitchen sink. A further step inside revealed his youngest son, Randal, at the table slapping a sodden paintbrush onto construction paper. His wife liked to engage him in these art projects, though he often just became frustrated and cried.

“Daddy!” he said and ran over, wrapped himself around Arkady’s legs, less an indication, Arkady thought, that he’d been missed than that Randal was happy to be released from painting.

He watched the quick snuffing out of everything Sara had intended to say to him.

“I had a rough one last night,” he told her.

“Give Daddy some space,” she said. “He wants some rest,” and moved to draw him toward her and away from the boy. The thing still in his car was like a throb at the center of his back. The cloud of his anxiety concentrated itself around its nudity—what his wife did trust him for was fidelity. He felt for the first time the acute franticness of having an actual object to conceal, the absurdity of the even voice he used to smooth over it.

“I need James’ help first,” he said, “with a little project.”

His older son emerged from the downstairs den, where he must have been sitting in the dim, the television turned low, listening.

“What?” he said, the cartoon-induced glaze slowly lifting from his eyes.

“I’m having a little car trouble.”

“That’s good!” his wife said in her mother voice, which Arkady’s return allowed her to employ. “It’d be good for you to start learning a bit about cars.”

“I can’t drive,” James said, as though his parents needed reminding of this. “I won’t be able to drive for five years.”

He felt an urge to throw the kid against a wall. “Outside,” he said.

On the front steps he told James, “Now look. Don’t be frightened. There’s a person in my car, I think a homeless person. I didn’t want to upset your mother. But maybe you can help me figure out what to do with this person.”

“Does he need food?” James asked.

“Probably. And um, clothes.”

“He’s naked?” James tried to peer around his father’s big body.

“But he’s harmless, I think. I couldn’t get him to talk—maybe you—” But James was already going to the car, with that steadiness Arkady found increasingly inconceivable. He realized he was waiting for James to normalize this for him with his creepy sobriety, his as yet unconquered willingness to help people. James cupped his hands around his eyes and put his face to the car windows.

He turned back, expressionless. “There’s no one there.”

They opened all the doors, checked the trunk. Just fast food bags translucent with old grease, and an empty bottle James suggested they give to Sara to use in an art project, for its pretty blue color.

“There is a smell, though,” James said.

“Like what?”

“Like temple.” And he knew what his son meant, the mustiness that would have been pleasant, like a library, had it not conveyed authority, discomfort in formal clothing, nothing to connect to in the gold stamped prayerbooks they’d flip through to see how much more was to go during services, until, for the boys, the oneg—the reception afterward where dense brownies and juice were served, and, for Arkady, a release into the mouth of the night. When he sniffed he could smell it too.

“Do you believe me?”

The blankness relaxed a little into something more boyish, more human. “Of course, Dad,” James said.

*

Sara resisted outright expressions of pride and support but couldn’t help herself from squeezing Arkady’s hand and giving him a watery smile at the dinner table for bearing up under the assault of the lights, the sticky linoleum floor, the brainless chatter of the boys, for she knew, she had said, it was harder for him than it was for most other people.

In bed he ran through the calculations. Better to go on little sleep with no hangover than little sleep and a hangover. Of course, it was even better to go on a full night and a small film of alcohol fumes than little sleep and no fumes, though that zone was an elusive one and the calibration removed all pleasure from drinking. Now the most he could get was six hours, respectable, though the calculations were an assault of their own that sent an irritated nausea cycling through his system through which the penetration to rest was not possible, and her steady deep breathing, Darth Vader-like, belied her deep enjoyment of the sleep, her appetite for and unconscious appreciation of it, and further agitated him. Arkady h ad several lessons the next day at the Seaside Music School, a cube in a strip mall between Jordan Lobster and a clothing store called 10 Dollars The Limit. Tim, a deadhead and the first person Arkady had ever met who had a pierced chin, a tiny silver globe glinting out of orangey chin fuzz, would be there too, at least, and usually had good pot that he shared freely with the older man, whom he’d admired to a ridiculous extent ever since Arkady told him about seeing Eric Clapton live back when he was so zonked on heroin that he drooled over his guitar until he was booed off the stage. It was very difficult for Arkady to not see his pupils as stupid, especially when Randal, a seven-year-old, reproduced on the piano with his fat child’s fingers overheard commercial jingles nearly perfectly, with no training whatsoever. He’d inherited the ability to see the instrument as not an instrument but a gate left hanging always slightly opened for him. Less than six hours now. Tomorrow morphing quickly into a stretch of unstoppably irritating hours. Sara breathed on. Arkady huddled closer to her as though the realm of sleep was communicable, but her clammy warmth only sped his heart faster with impatience. She sighed contentedly, expelling a sour cloud. Disgusted, he threw back the covers. Half-roused, Sara murmured to him, “I sleep so much better when you’re here.” He headed for the backyard to smoke a cigarette.

It was there, sitting upright on one of the swings of the dented plastic swingset.

When he was a child Arkady was visited by a little boy no one else had ever seen, who sat on his windowsill at night. It was his mother’s pinched facial expression, when he asked her to suggest a polite way to tell the boy to leave when it started getting really late, that turned the visitations into something unnatural. Until then they’d been only occasionally bothersome, but generally welcome for an only child, though he could never recall the specifics of their conversations.

It watched as it ran its bare feet back and forth through the grass, as though it had never experienced this sensation before.

His mother told him he needed to ask in his mind. To close his eyes and think, I don’t want you here anymore. And just her saying that seemed to ban the boy permanently. Arkady never saw him again.

On the cement patio, cigarette unsmoked in his hand, he did the same: he asked. When he opened his eyes it was still there, dead-white legs crossed over its sex, if it had one.

“I didn’t invite you,” Arkady said.

It shrugged.

He went inside and locked the back door and went up to the bedroom. No sleep, then.

*

Tim sucked his joint dutifully, the same way he pulled down the child-sized acoustic guitar from the wall of instruments for a lesson with a fidgety eight-year-old. There was a sense of duty and integrity in how he administered the drug to himself. The shrubs shuddered at the edges of the parking lot, its asphalt unable to work itself into a simmer under the pale autumn sun.

“How’s your prodigy?” Tim asked, meaning Randal.

“Oh, you know,” Arkady said. The shrubs expanded into waxy fronds past which it was nearly impossible to push his words. This exhaustion, the jungle of hours between him and the grim release of drinking, crowded out language.

“Plays every day?”

“Mmm.”

“And what about the older one?” Perhaps if he was slow enough in responding, the cloud would hit Tim’s head and swathe him in introversion.

“He is a mystery to himself.”

“Huh.”

But what Arkady meant was James was a mystery to him. His firstborn was like one of those nagging dreams in which there’s something you’ve forgotten, a tug in your lungs, made animate. He had dreams Lefty was still alive, in which he suddenly realized he hadn’t fed him in two weeks, and found him someplace strange, like inside the cupboard, a living dog-skeleton. But that wasn’t hard to interpret: Lefty’d had his throat slit by some craven teenager when they lived in a bad part of Nashville, in the interest of Arkady’s career. Tim admired this too: Nashville instead of the City or L.A., the pure singer-songwriter’s home. Sara thought it was because they were Jews. James understood there needn’t be a reason. The nag of his son, growing a husk around himself, was a mystery following Arkady even when James was there, like a ghost crouched under the table at restaurants, or in the attic with the dusty guitars.

In the shrubs, its white face haloed in the leaves, were the hungry eyes of a neglected child.

“Let’s go in,” he said. He felt sure that if Tim saw it several truths would immediately become clear: that Arkady was being followed, that he had done something to induce the following, that the follower was an embarrassment—like a crazy ex, a disabled child, a friend only you had not dropped your loyalty to out of your own bloated and dishonest sense of g oodness, who only made scenes, talked too loud, spat when he talked—that Arkady was not worthy of Tim’s admiration.”

“Break’s not up yet.”

Arkady stood. “Come on, man.” Like a kid who needed the bathroom.

Tim blinked at the unexpected departure of cool. “Okay, okay.”

When he looked over his shoulder at the door he saw the face sucked back into the green like a retreating dream.

*

Sara liked to feed him after his absences. It was true he ate little when he was alone. A drink alone was fine; you could sip, swig, quench in fluid motions. It filled an animal need unrepulsively. But a single man sitting on a park bench, having a snack, was a sorry thing. You were embarrassed for him in his naked devouring of a hot dog, his repeated reachings into an oily bag of chips. Worse if it seemed a pleasure, a little present he gave himself. You wanted him to take it somewhere private, his aloneness, his need.

Over dinner Sara announced the reinstating of Family Stories and offered to go first.

Sara’s story was that a letter had come from For Saam Foong, the Filipina child they sponsored through Childreach, and that in the included photograph she and all her immediate family members were now wearing shoes, whereas in the first letter’s photo they had not been.

James’ was that his English teacher had made him go sit in the hallway after she caught him reading a book instead of listening to her explain how to structure an essay.

Randal’s was that he learned if you light a match after someone farts it masks the smell. He learned this when someone farted and the teacher lit a match.

When Arkady’s turn came he said, “Strange that they had a camera but no shoes.”

“I think maybe someone from a local NGO takes the photos.”

“Can I see?”

Sara passed him the photo.

“Nikes,” Arkady noted.

“Dad is avoiding telling a story,” James said.

Arkady looked at him. “I’m going to need you after dinner tonight,” he said. “It has to do with the car.”

James’ face shifted from critique to the kind of controlled excitement he used to show when Arkady and Sara would tell him, after Randal was born, what a good big brother he was shaping up to be. Here was a role, and a secret one; the illicitness of fracturing off from the larger family unit.

As he was washing the dishes Sara said, “Randal wouldn’t do Family Stories if you weren’t there. So we just stopped totally. It was too weird, going back and forth.”

“But now you’ve restored them.”

“Yes, I have,” she said. She patted his butt, looked into his eyes, smiled. The constant convincing, or the attempts to convince. What had she been before? It was hard to remember. He dried his hands on a soggy dish towel and called to James.

*

They drove up Long Beach Road and turned at the Lutheran church for Rockville Centre, the nearest approximation of a downtown area. They passed a coffeeshop with a burned-out neon sign that said Scotty Dee’s in cursive.

“Teenagers go there,” James said.

“Oh yeah?”

“Scotty is the owner. He looks like a scarecrow. He lets them do drugs in the basement.”

“And what do you think of that?”

He shrugged. “It’s what teenagers do.”

Arkady laughed. “Not just teenagers.”

James turned his face to the window.

He parked in front of Croxley’s. “First stop,” he said.

On entering the familiar dank the bartender, Ronnie, said, “Oh! It’s the Cossack, come to settle his tab!”

James stepped out from behind his father’s bulk in an oddly decorous way, quietly presenting himself for assessment.

“But no,” Ronnie said, raising his eyebrows. “He’s brought a bodyguard. No collecting tonight.” His voice rang over the empty chairs, the chalkboard list of offerings.

“Just wanted to ask if you saw anyone follow me out of here two nights ago.”

“Were you here two nights ago?”

“I thought so.” He glanced at James, who appeared to be reading the list. “Anyway a sort of weird-looking person, very thin and pale?”

“Guy or girl?”

“I’m not really sure.”

“I thought you said it was a man,” James said.

“I never said that.”

“So a skinny pale person of indeterminate gender?” Ronnie said. “Actually. That describes a lot of our customers.”

“But on Sunday night. Following me.”

“Sorry,” Ronnie said. “Want something?”

“I’m driving.”

“Oh, you’re driving,” Ronnie said, and gave a yellow smile. “Very responsible.”

They walked down the block to the St. Leonard’s Tavern.

“What’s in a Dark and Stormy?” James asked.

“Rum and ginger ale.”

“What’s in a Manhattan?”

“Whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters.”

“There was a drink on there called Adios Motherfucker.”

“I know. Don’t tell your mom.”

“She’ll smell the bar on us, you know.”

“It’s all right.”

They had no idea what he was talking about at the St. Leonard’s Tavern. They had no idea at Monaghan’s. Or Stingers or The Blackthorn. They got back in the car and headed for Lynbrook.

The Lynbrook Tavern was a rougher sort of place. The bartender had a pinched and ancient face and Arkady didn’t know his name. He had not seen anyone, either, who fit that description.

James asked if Arkady had gone to all these places on Sunday night.

“Probably not all. I don’t really remember. These are my regular places, though.”

“I’m hungry,” James said.

“The food here isn’t very good.”

The kid just stood there.

“Want some French fries or something?”

James nodded.

As they sat and ate a regular came in, again a nameless man, whom Arkady knew for his usual post at the corner of the bar, hunched against the wall, his chain-smoking of Kools. He walked by and looked at Arkady and then at James, for a while. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“What are you doing?” Arkady said. The man moved away.

“I’m not helping,” James said.

“But I’m glad you’re here.”

James put a fry in his mouth and chewed with what seemed to Arkady an implicating slowness, as though the boy wanted to prolong their stay in this pathetic place. Lingering as accusation. And hadn’t he brought him here to show him, finally, what it was he did? Arrest the flow of increasingly pointed looks, remarks, questions? Show him t here was no mystery, really, nothing James could say tha t he didn’t already know.

Back in the car he said to James, “Detectives get a lot of false leads in the beginning, don’t they, in your books?”

“I don’t really read detective novels.”

The stream past the window again of the squat establishments, the roads emptied out, the commuters in their split-levels, the trees shaking themselves like fists in the wind that blew up from the ocean. And then out the passenger window, standing on the sidewalk, the white flash of its form, bare, the split-second image of its mouth yawning in grotesque humanoid agony.

“There!” Arkady shouted, his voice echoing in the car. “Did you see it?”

“I saw it,” James said.

In the semi-moment before James turned from the window to look at him, what was Arkady expecting? Confirmation that James had seen his unseeable core, an ember not yet extinguished by the dank sickness around it? Something like the smile of some nine years before, when they lived on the 7 th floor of the apartment building on Shore Road and he’d toddle to the elevator and wait, lifting his arms as the doors slid open to present his father home from work, who’d scoop him up—that smile, shot through with the empathy of a burgeoning adult? But it was the other face, the one of masklike solidity, that Arkady found.

“So what?” James said.

The Dead Fly Free by Rod Rosenquist

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Prisoner of the Pines by Roger Pincus

Prisoner of the Pines by Roger Pincus

Fiction, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011

The clock on the wall of The Pines Elementary School gym could be tricky to read because of the metal cage that enclosed it like a primitive mask, protecting it from errant basketballs. But on a September morning thirty-five years ago I was pretty sure it displayed a time of eight-fifteen, meaning our fifth grade teacher, Miss Van Cleve, was ten minutes late. We stood around, twenty-four kids on the first day of school, the soles of our new sneakers squeaking against the freshly waxed oak floor, marking it with dull white rubber streaks. As other teachers appeared and formed their classes into static double lines (girls to the left, boys to the right), our class kept changing shape like an amoeba, leaderless, none of us even knowing how to recognize our teacher, who was a newcomer to The Pines.

Scott Jensen, my classmate and best friend, shook his head with mock solemnity. “Tardy to her first day of school,” he said, arching one dark, bushy eyebrow, a habit he’d picked up over the summer. “We should have a blast with this one.” He smiled, showing a mouthful of straight white teeth.

Scott was more than a year older than me. When he was in pre-school, he’d had some issues. His parents had taken him to a child psychiatrist after he’d bloodied the noses of a few boys when they paid too much attention to one of his 4-year-old “girlfriends.” The shrink had determined that it would be best to delay his entry to elementary school so that he’d have some time to get past whatever was ailing him. He was tall for his age anyway and as we stood around waiting, he towered over me and everyone else in our class.

A door at the opposite end of the gym opened up, and in walked a long-legged blonde woman who resembled one of those sketch figures you still see in Lord & Taylor newspaper ads, her hair pulled back tightly, tied with a band and descending in a narrow waterfall that ended at the small of her back. Without hurrying, she reached us in no time, taking long graceful strides.

She stood close to six feet tall and it struck me that she was probably the only female teacher in the school taller than Scott. With her fair complexion and blue eyes she looked like some kind of Viking Queen. Before she reached us I whispered this assessment to Scott. “No,” he said. “A Viking Princess. Remember, she’s Miss Van Cleve.”

Instead of apologizing about being late, Miss Van Cleve scolded us. “Every other class in this gymnasium is quiet and orderly,” she said, an arm outstretched demonstratively. Just past her slender, elegant fingers I saw other students and teachers turn to look at us, or maybe just at her. “She’s sexy,” Scott whispered from behind me.

We quickly lined up and followed her as she walked across the gym. But when I saw that we were heading toward the door that led to the dreaded school annex, I stopped, frozen in disappointment as I realized that we would be spending very little time in the school’s main building during the upcoming year. The main building consisted of twenty thousand square feet of open space, a bustling city of teachers and students. In there, school was actually enjoyable. Instead of walls, we had portable room dividers with hinges. Class areas could be reshaped, expanded, or contracted to suit whatever was being studied at a given time. Instead of a roof, the building was crowned by a spectacular yellow geodesic dome that seemed to defy the law of gravity, relying on no posts or beams except for door-high vertical supports around the perimeter. We were proud that it was the first school like it in New Jersey, and when we sang the school song, a paean to Buckminster Fuller, we sang it like we meant it, because we did.

The annex, by contrast, had been slapped together when enrollment grew unexpectedly. It wasn’t even a true annex because it wasn’t attached to the main building. Ugly, conventional, and rectangular, it housed four classrooms, one of which was the music classroom, the second of which was unoccupied, and two others, each populated by unlucky students and their teachers who would spend most of their day surrounded by four walls.

“This sucks,” I said to Scott over my shoulder as we walked down the ramp leading to the annex.

“Not the way I see it,” he said. “It should be nice to have some privacy this year.”

At first, I assumed we had been placed in the annex because Miss Van Cleve was the most junior teacher in the school: not only was she new to The Pines, but this was her first year teaching anywhere. However, as the school year progressed, I became convinced that she had asked for us to be exiled to the school’s version of Siberia so that she could teach us in her way, protected by classroom walls from the constant scrutiny to which she would have been exposed in the main building. Her approach was the opposite of teachers like Ms. Covington, the longest-serving member of the school’s faculty, who sometimes brought in her guitar and taught her class to sing Buffy Sainte-Marie songs. And she was not like Ms. Carson, who encouraged her students to record their feelings in diaries and met with them each week to discuss their innermost thoughts. When a student acted out, Ms. Covington or Ms. Carson would gently warn the offender and that would typically be the end of it. But if any of us in Miss Van Cleve’s class did something disruptive, we would be ordered out of the room and made to sit in the hallway for an hour. She didn’t give warnings, though if she thought the class as a whole was losing focus, she would say: “Eyes to the front of the room.”

But she wasn’t a bad teacher. When she stood at the blackboard and lectured –something she did more often than anyone else at The Pines – we almost always gave her our full attention. She was a virtuoso with a piece of chalk; her cursive easily qualified as calligraphy, with sweeping loops in her “Ls” and “Js.” She expertly drilled us on verb tenses, expelling “brung” and “snuck” from our lexicon. She may have been bereft of a sense of humor or any visible capacity for sensitivity, but she knew her stuff. In addition, on mornings when the sun shone through the window and illuminated her golden hair and flawless magazine cover face, she was a more than adequate substitute for the main building’s magnificent dome. From inside the school, the dome’s panels didn’t look like much anyway: underneath their glamorous exterior, they were a drab dark gray.

Scott immediately became Miss Van Cleve’s star pupil. He and I had been classmates the previous two years and I had never seen him so engaged in school before. For the first half of the year his homework was always on time and he aced every test and quiz. He would sometimes study during recess and rarely showed up for late afternoon football games at the park, where the other guys and I mourned the loss of our franchise player.

Miss Van Cleve recognized Scott’s performance only in a perfunctory way. “Nice job again, Scott,” she would say, unsmiling, as she returned a graded paper to him. I knew he wanted more and on the day before Thanksgiving he seemed to make some headway.

The entire school was preparing for a Thanksgiving celebration – a play to be followed by a feast – scheduled for the big, open space at the center of the main building, underneath the apex of the dome. I was one of the Pilgrims and Scott was an Indian. Not just an Indian, though, but the Chief: Miss Van Cleve allowed him to wear the only full headdress allotted to the class, doubtlessly a reward for his excellent schoolwork.

All the Indians lined up in our classroom so that Miss Van Cleve could apply war paint to their faces. From her chair, which she had moved to the front of her desk, she used a small paintbrush to give each Indian a pair of stripes, one black and the other red, under each eye. She dipped the brush into glass paint jars on her desk and, in two quick strokes, each stripe was finished.

Scott waited at the end of the line. When it was his turn, he removed his headdress and placed it on Miss Van Cleve’s desk. We all stood there waiting to watch him get his stripes.

Even seated in her chair, Miss Van Cleve was taller than any of us – except Scott. To apply the war paint, she had to raise the brush above her own eye level. I suppose it was for this reason that Scott’s first stripe turned out a bit messy. It was no big deal, just slightly jagged in its shape. But Miss Van Cleve frowned.

“This won’t do,” she said, examining the imperfect stripe. She pulled two tissues from the box she kept on her desk, dipped them in water, and carefully cleaned the stripe off of Scott’s face. Then she dipped her still-wet finger into the small round jar of black paint and stroked the skin under Scott’s right eye, gently and slowly, moving gradually outward from a spot near the bridge of his nose. She had used only a little bit of paint, possibly to avoid dripping, so she returned to the jar a second and a third time to finish the stripe. It had turned out longer than those of the other Indians. She repeated this process for his next stripe.

“You’re being very patient,” she told Scott after a few minutes of silence.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” he said, looking down at her. His eyes sparkled. “Take your time.”

“There,” she told him. “You’re done, Chief.” She smiled. She had made a little joke, calling Scott “Chief” and following that with an actual smile. Two precedents as far as I could tell.

“Wait,” said Scott in a hushed voice. “The other Indians have two stripes under each eye. As Chief, shouldn’t I have three?”

Miss Van Cleve stood. “As Chief,” she said, “you get this.” And she fixed the headdress on him with such unceremonious force that the plastic band covered his eyebrows. He pushed the front of the band up, adjusted the headdress, and shrugged. I adjusted my Pilgrim hat at the same time and exhaled. Without realizing it, I had been holding my breath since the moment Scott asked for the extra stripes.

*

From time to time Scott spoke to me about how sexy Miss Van Cleve was. I agreed with him but changed the subject, more comfortable at the age of ten to leave such topics undiscussed. He brought up the war paint incident on our first day back after Thanksgiving break, during lunch.

“Man,” he said. “Did you see the way she put that paint on me?”

“Yeah. I saw.”

“She is so sexy. I mean, I bet she knows how sexy she is.”

“She probably does, I guess.” I twirled my plastic spoon in my chocolate pudding, knocking some of it out of its cardboard compartment and onto my grilled cheese sandwich.

“Who do you suppose that guy in the picture is?” A couple of weeks earlier, a five by seven framed photograph of a dark-eyed young man had appeared near the edge of Miss Van Cleve’s desk, right next to the pencil sharpener attached to the desk’s side. You couldn’t avoid seeing it every time you sharpened your pencil.

“Maybe her boyfriend,” I suggested. The man had dark curly hair on his head and on his chest, which you could see because the top two buttons of his shirt were open. He needed a shave. I was certain that he was short, stupid, and unhygienic, the whole New Jersey stereotype. He doubtlessly drove a Camaro. If Miss Van Cleve was the dome, he was the annex.

“It’s hard to believe,” said Scott, shaking his head unbelievingly. “He looks like a monkey. She can do a lot better. I mean, she’s sosexy.”

“He does look like a monkey,” I said.

“I bet everyone thinks so.”

“It’s obvious.”

Scott took a toothy bite of his ham sandwich. “I’m going to ask around,” he said. “Just to be sure .”

The next morning, Scott, who sat next to me in the fourth row, reported his findings right after roll call. “Everybody agrees. The creep in the picture makes Curious George look like Robert Redford.” I didn’t stop to think about whether our classmates had independently concluded that Miss Van Cleve’s boyfriend resembled a monkey or had quickly assented to Scott’s suggestion. Looking back, I’m not even sure which of the two possibilities applied to me. I was simply struck by the senseless fact that Miss Van Cleve, our immaculate, beautiful, brilliant, merciless teacher, had a simian boyfriend.

After the pledge of allegiance, Miss Van Cleve invited any of us to raise his or her hand if we wanted to describe what we had done over Thanksgiving. Becky Grainger, a sweet pig-tailed girl with freckles, said that she and her family had gotten together at her grandparents’ house for dinner. Scott raised his hand next.

“We had a big turkey dinner, too,” he said after Miss Van Cleve called on him. “And on Saturday night, we went to the movies.”

“Oh,” said Miss Van Cleve. “What did you see?”

Scott kept his composure just long enough to answer: “Planet of the Apes.”

The class roared with laughter. Miss Van Cleve frowned, which was nothing new, but then shook her head quizzically, which was. “I suppose a few days off from school has gotten you all a bit mixed up,” she said. The laughter faded. “We’ll fix that. Open your language arts texts to page sixty-four.”

Each day thereafter, during one break or another in the daily schedule, Scott would make at least one monkey reference, always within earshot of Miss Van Cleve. Once, after a social studies lesson about Ghana, he raised his hand and asked whether the class could take a field trip to the zoo to learn about African wildlife. “Especially the monkeys,” he said. “I really want to study the monkeys.” Out on the playground another day, when it was Miss Van Cleve’s turn to help supervise, he bellowed out a Tarzan yell when she walked near him (naturally, he was hanging from the monkey bars at the time). He feigned difficulty with the pencil sharpener on yet another day, saying he was tired of “monkeying around” with it. He even made some wisecracks about bananas that I thought were really pushing it.

During these incidents, which generally provoked laughs or at least smirks from any student nearby, I watched Miss Van Cleve carefully. I had never seen such uncertainty and confusion on her face. She seemed to have no idea what he was getting at. She knew that whatever it was, she didn’t like it, but she couldn’t find a reason to punish him for the jokes, as he was not being disrespectful in any discernible way. Of course, she could have just asked him why he was making the wisecracks, but it was not in her nature to admit to a lack of understanding.

*

After Christmas break, we all noticed that Miss Van Cleve was uncharacteristically sullen. She didn’t make even a token effort to ask us how we had spent our vacations. She lectured us soullessly about fractions, electrical circuits, Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and a depressing novel about a girl trapped on an island off the California coast. The atmosphere in the classroom mirrored the short, frigid days of winter outside. This was the worst time of the year to be in the annex, which didn’t have a bathroom; we had to bundle ourselves in thick puffy coats and sprint up the ramp to the main building whenever we needed to go. Scott abandoned the monkey jokes and wondered along with the rest of us about what was wrong with our teacher.

About a week after this change began, the class was taking a geometry test. While struggling to remember how to calculate the area of a rhombus, I looked up from my paper and was caught immediately by the sight of Miss Van Cleve’s blue eyes, which seemed large and watery as she sat at her desk with a vacant expression. She dabbed them with a tissue. The unthinkable was happening: in the cold of winter, when our Viking Princess should have been most at ease, she was crying.

A few other students looked up from their desks, and then a few more. Eventually, Scott looked up as well. In every instance, our eyes fixed on Miss Van Cleve and did not return to our tests. We were all aware of her tears and of one another’s astonishment and pity. But Miss Van Cleve did not seem to realize that we were staring at her. Her eyes were open but it was as if she was looking through us rather than at us.

It was Becky Grainger who finally broke the spell. She stood from her desk and walked to the front of the room, quietly, as if not to disturb the other test-takers. She was carrying her pencil and, when she reached the front of the room, placed a hand on the pencil sharpener. “Miss Van Cleve,” she said. “What’s wrong?”

At that moment I saw that the photograph of the hairy man was not propped up next to the pencil sharpener. Instead, it lay flat on Miss Van Cleve’s desk, face-down.

Becky looked at the fallen photograph, too. I imagine we all did. And then Miss Van Cleve answered Becky’s question. “It’s nothing, Becky,” she said quietly. She at last noticed that everyone was looking at her. “It’s nothing, class,” she said, deploying that stage voice schoolteachers use when they’re tense, projecting more than necessary. But this only enhanced how shaky she sounded; it was like listening to a blown stereo speaker with the volume turned up. “You all have ten minutes left to complete your tests,” she said. “So I advise you to –”

And then she broke off, as if overcome by static.

This was all Scott could abide. He stood up at his desk. In the four months since school had begun he had experienced another growth spurt. He looked dangerous.

“It’s that little monkey’s fault, isn’t it?” he said. “I’m going to find him. And when I do, I’m going to smack him upside the head!”

A hush fell over the room. Miss Van Cleve stared at Scott. I thought I saw the pupils in her eyes dilate and then contract until they were almost swallowed in blue. “You,” she said to him. “Mark your test with an F and leave it on your desk.”
Scott swallowed. He looked down at his test and then back at Miss Van Cleve. “And then to the hall, right?” He was trying to sound defiant, affecting a no-big-deal tone, but the knot in his throat gave him away.

“No. To the principal’s office. For the rest of the day.” Miss Van Cleve took a breath. “The rest of you can still have ten minutes. Starting from now.”

*

Despite my urging, Scott refused to complain about the F on the math test. “She had no right to do that,” I said the next day in class just before homeroom started, amidst the din of horseplay and sliding chairs.

“She had every right. She’s the teacher. Besides, I don’t care about grades.”

“You’ve seemed to care a lot about them before this.”

“That was then.”

Miss Van Cleve walked in. She looked radiant, just the way she did that first morning in the gym back in September, the way she always had before winter vacation.

“Eyes to the front of the room,” Scott said, ending our conversation.

A couple of days later I noticed Scott doodling in pencil on his desk in the music classroom. He had written “Miss Van Cleve is SEXY” and next to those words had drawn an exaggerated, hourglass version of a woman’s torso.

The sketch didn’t resemble Miss Van Cleve at all; she was slender, built like a fashion model. But for laughs, I doodled my own version, careful to use all capital letters for “sexy” and to do my best at imitating the cartoony hourglass torso. Scott was happy with my show of solidarity and I was glad to see him behaving more like his old self.

Music class met once a week at the end of the school day. At the beginning of every class, Scott and I inspected the desks to be sure our handiwork had not been removed, then sat at undecorated desks and graffitied them. Soon, we had vandalized about half the desks. I started getting nervous.

“We should cool it with this,” I said as we sat down at two clean desks one afternoon in late February. “We’re going to get caught.” My own handwriting was distinctive: it looked like someone unsuccessfully imitating a typewriter, like a caveman – or even a monkey – holding a pencil in his fist, trying to make letters.

“Oh, come on. No one can prove it’s us. Besides, since when did you become such a worrier?”

“They’ll definitely know it’s you. The entire class knows how crazy you are about her.”

Scott’s face flushed and he glared at me silently.

“I mean, how crazy you were about her. I know you’re over that.”

“I was never ‘crazy about her.’ All I’ve ever said is that she’s sexy, all right? If you’re too scared to finish the desks, I’ll take care of them myself.” And he reached over to my desk and made the usual slogan and drawing before turning to his own.

Scott didn’t sit with me in music class the next several weeks. Three or four times, he sat in the back left corner of the room, the one farthest from the classroom door. The ceiling fixture over there didn’t work, which made the area dark. We still hung out together at lunch and in the main classroom, but he kept a distance. Sometimes he brought in comic books – the X-Men, the Hulk, and Spiderman were his favorites – and read them during between-class breaks, brooding like one of the Marvel Comics heroes, each of whom always seemed to be struggling with an identity crisis. As the weather warmed up, I hoped he would get outside and play some ball.

*

It was early April when he sat down next to me in music class again. “It’s done,” he said.

I looked down at my desk and cringed at the sight of one of my months-old proclamations of Miss Van Cleve’s sexiness. To my left and right were desks displaying Scott’s slogans and drawings.

“I’ve hit every desk,” he said.

“Congratulations,” I told him. “If you think you’re an oversized fifth grader this year, wait till next year when you get to do it again.”

“Very funny,” he said. He laughed, but I didn’t.

Two more weeks passed and I started to think that maybe nothing would come of what we’d done. After all, plenty of more offensive statements and drawings had been scribbled on the desks with no apparent consequence. And the graffiti we’d created paled in comparison to what appeared on the bathroom stalls. But then the fateful day arrived.

“You two,” the music teacher, Mr. Turner, said as class broke up. It was a Friday but our weekend, it seemed, would be off to a delayed start. “Sit back down.” Mr. Turner scratched at his mustache, a tick that manifested itself whenever he was especially serious. “Wait here,” he said and exited the room.

Several minutes passed. Scott and I didn’t say much. At least, I thought, we had done it all in pencil. I hoped that would be some kind of mitigating factor. And then I wondered aloud: “Why did we do them all in pencil anyway?”

“Because,” Scott said with a shrug, “Miss Van Cleve won’t be sexy forever.”

And then she walked into the room. Her very presence seemed a rebuke, both to what Scott had just said and, more generally, to every thought we’d ever had about her, every time either of us had gone to sleep picturing her lovely, line-free face, her long, perfect limbs, or her slender fingers.

She had a bucket with her that she placed on Mr. Turner’s desk. As she set it down, some sudsy water splashed over its side. It wasn’t one of the big, institutional-size buckets the janitors used to mop the floors. It was a bright red bucket, one that I remembered she had brought in to school from home. We had planted lima beans in it earlier in the year.

She removed two kitchen-sized yellow sponges from the bucket and threw one at Scott, the other at me. Scott caught his; mine bounced off my chin and landed with a splash on one of the hourglass-torsos. “Clean them up,” she said evenly. A lock of her hair came loose from the band that had held it in place. She tried to shake it out of her eye but it just dropped back down. “Get every one of them spotlessly clean.” She turned to leave.

“Just wait a minute,” said Scott. He stood. “You can’t keep us here and make us clean desks. It’s against the rules.” He left his sponge on his desk and walked to within one foot of her, and it was as if his gaze rubbed against hers in the small space between them. “This isn’t jail,” he added. “And we’re not your prisoners.”

“Fine,” she said. The lock of hair remained at large, obscuring her right eye, but she didn’t seem to mind at this point. It was a new look for her as far as I was concerned and I couldn’t help but admire it.

“Of course you’re not a prisoner. You’ve got a choice. Spend a couple of hours scrubbing these desks clean. Or spend two weeks in detention, one hour per day, staring at the wall. In accordance with the rules.”

Scott turned silently, walked back to his desk, picked up his sponge, and began scrubbing. “Remember,” Miss Van Cleve said. “Every one of them, spotlessly clean.”

“What should we do when we’re finished?” I asked.

“Wait here,” she said. “I’ll be in my classroom grading papers. I’ll be back later to check on you.”

“What a shame,” Scott said. He looked up from his scrubbing, and shook his head.

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Miss Van Cleve stood in front of the doorway.

“Just that the three of us will all be stuck here so late on a Friday,” Scott answered. “You know. I’ve got other places I’d rather be. I’m sure you do too, right?”

“When you’re done,” she told Scott, “wash the blackboard and clean out the trash can.” She glared at me, warned me not to help him with the added tasks, and left the room.

We worked in complete quiet. We both understood our instructions as requiring us to scour every desk until it looked like new, removing not just our own juvenilia but everything else that any other student had ever written or drawn. I moved from desk to desk in a zigzag pattern that I came up with to reduce the boredom, imagining a path like a frog hopping from one lily pad to another. Eventually, the path led me to the rear left corner of the room, the dark corner where Scott had sat by himself.

Scott had finished with the trash can and was cleaning the last bit of chalk dust from the blackboard but turned around after glancing at me over his shoulder. “Hey,” he said. “I’ll get those.” He began walking toward me.

I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter who does which ones, does it? We’ve got to clean them all.” I continued to the next desk.

“Hold it,” Scott said. But his progress toward me was slowed by a traffic jam of desks; the tidy rows had been broken into random clumps as we did our tedious work.

By the time he’d reached me, it was too late. I regarded, with amazement, three desks, each covered by a single sketch that bore no resemblance to the hourglass-torso-cartoons. The sketches were portraits of our teacher. None of the three was accompanied by a caption declaring her sexiness. One was a profile of her left side, another was a profile of her right, and the third, on the desk farthest from the class doorway, showed her entire face. That last drawing reflected every detail that Scott’s memory was able to summon. It was all there: the curvature of the eyebrows, the precise ratio of the almond-shaped eyes to the face, the sinuous lips, the slight cleft of the chin.

And then there was the imagination of the portrait. Miss Van Cleve’s hair was untied. It flowed down around her face, framing and favoring it with a warm glow that invited you to look back into her eyes for as long as you liked.

“Damn,” I said as Scott reached me. “We have to erase this?”

“You heard the lady,” said Scott. “‘Every one of them, spotlessly clean.’”

“I can’t do it,” I said.

“I already said I would.” And without a moment’s hesitation or a hint of regret on his face, Scott scrubbed away his work.

“What a pity,” I said when he finished.

“Don’t feel bad,” he said. “Let me show you something.”

He walked over to the backpack he used to carry his schoolwork and comic books, which he’d left under the chair he had occupied during music class. He pulled a sketch book from it, bound at the top and filled with eight-and-a-half by fourteen inch sheets that he flipped through from the bottom. “Look,” he said.

He held the book open and displayed another picture of Miss Van Cleve, virtually identical to the one erased from the desk. “All right,” I said, by way of congratulations. “You’ve got a backup sketch.”

“More than one.” He offered the book to me and I took it.

I flipped to the next page and the next, moving from one penciled sketch to another, each showing our teacher’s face with a different expression: there was an angry, frowning Miss Van Cleve, a pouting, downcast version, and a full-length drawing showing her in one of her turtleneck sweaters and a skirt, with shading on her legs that represented stockings. Oddly, she wore no shoes.

I looked up at Scott. “Go on,” he said. “Check out the next ones.”

I wasn’t surprised by what I saw next: A drawing of Miss Van Cleve, naked. Scott’s vision had enabled him to see through her sweater, revealing small, exquisitely curved breasts, rounded at the front in a sudden bend, the opposite of the gradually declining roofline of the school’s dome. Miss Van Cleve’s breasts, as Scott conceived them, curved decisively. Her face appeared only indistinctly and Scott had drawn only the faintest hints of hair in the area between her legs. My hands trembled as I held the sketch pad and I was ashamed that they did. My cheeks flushed and I closed my eyes for a few seconds, breathing deeply until my hands steadied.

When I opened my eyes, I reexamined the drawing calmly. I turned the pages of the book twice more, finding one sketch depicting a nude Miss Van Cleve from the left side and another from the right. In each, her unpinned hair obscured her face and one leg appeared slightly ahead of the other, relieving the artist of the need to suggest anything about the vagina.

I returned the sketch pad to Scott. “Nice work,” was all I could think to say.

“You still haven’t seen my masterpiece,” he said, setting down the sketchpad. From another compartment of the backpack, he removed what looked like a scroll, a rolled up paper held in place by a rubber band. Then he began rummaging around Turner’s desk, finally opening a drawer where he found a roll of Scotch tape.

With the tape in hand, he removed the rubber band from the scroll, which partly unraveled, swelling like a snake that had just swallowed its prey. “Take one end,” he told me, and I did. Scott took the other and we each walked backwards until the paper was stretched to its full length of about eight feet. All I could make out from my angle were some long, curved lines. We stood in front of the freshly cleaned blackboard, which still had a few wet spots drying in the afternoon sun streaming through the classroom windows. Scott taped his end of the paper to the metal border that framed the edge of the blackboard. He tossed me the roll of tape and I did the same to my end.

I stepped back to the middle of the classroom, several rows deep, and took a look, figuring nothing could surprise me now. My jaw dropped nonetheless as I realized that the curved lines depicted Miss Van Cleve lying on her back with a man on top of her. Both figures in the picture were unclothed, their legs intertwined. The man’s head was raised above Miss Van Cleve’s and he gazed down at her. It was a bigger-than-life sketch, in pencil like Scott’s other work. As I took a second look at the man’s face, I noticed how bushy his left eyebrow was and how it arched, as if mimicking the angle of his back.

“We should take this down,” I said, battling my dry throat to get the words out.

“No way,” said Scott. “I’m going to find Miss Van C and see what she thinks of it.”

I looked at him like he was nuts. “We did everything she asked,” he said. “The desks. The blackboard. The trash can. This classroom’s never been cleaner.”

He sauntered up to the giant sketch and tapped it with a flicking fingertip. The paper made a smacking, echoing sound. We had stretched it tight. I approached it and flicked it myself, eager to hear that sound again. I imagined myself performing some special ritual, as in the Indian ceremony we’d seen depicted in a documentary earlier in the school year. I was a young brave striking my war drum, just once, producing a decisive thwack.

“I hope you boys have finished by now.” Miss Van Cleve stood at the classroom doorway, her hands on her hips. But as she entered the room, her hands dropped to her sides. Her eyes began squinting. Her smile dissolved. “What in the world – ”

She stood in front of Turner’s desk directly opposite us. While she took in the picture, I sidled away without a sound toward the nearest window, considering whether I should try its handle.

She pointed a trembling finger at Scott. “I’ll have you put away. You don’t belong in this school.” As her face reddened I reversed direction and slipped past Scott. Neither of them looked at me as I quietly left the classroom, then the annex, my sneakers splashing through puddles on the concrete walkway, remnants of a rain shower that had passed through while Scott and I cleaned the music classroom.

*

The Walters Alternative School, where Scott had been “placed,” was a boxy, gray concrete edifice visible from the state highway. It zigzagged through a section of pinelands that had been cleared to accommodate it. The school housed kids from third through eighth grade, most of them diagnosed as “EU” – emotionally unstable. Scott’s school days now lasted into late afternoon. Between that and his grounding, I didn’t get a chance to see him until the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, when The Pines had an early dismissal, a perk that I figured would not be provided at Walters.

The bike ride to Walters was a forty minute journey along the shoulder of the road, where gusts of air from eighteen-wheelers cooled me off on the hot day. The road declined slightly, easing my pedaling burden. I waited on the playground for afternoon recess to begin. Sweating in the steaming muggy air, the blacktop soft beneath my feet, I kept one eye out for Scott and the other on numerous cyclones of swarming gnats. I propped my Schwinn against the side of a bench before sitting down.

Only the occasional cries of birds out in the pines broke the monotony of the muted hum coming from the highway as I waited. Finally, the crackle of walkie-talkies joined the audioscape. Three burly men in white shirts and navy slacks exited the building and took up positions at different corners of the playground. Each wore a thick black belt with a holster that housed a police-style baton.

The Walters students emptied out of the building unevenly. A few laughed and ran, but most walked silently. There was a tremendous variety in height, even more than I’d expected from the broad range of grade levels. I recognized Scott from his familiar casual stride and the blue backpack slung behind him.

He spotted me and came right over, punching me on the shoulder in greeting. His smile had lost none of its confidence and he eased the backpack onto his lap as we both sat down on the bench.

“So what’s it like here?”

“Pretty cool,” he said. I got a better look at the other kids now, spread out on the playground and in the surrounding grass, some sitting, some talking in murmurs, only the youngest ones venturing onto the white vinyl swings or the aluminum slide, which must have been burning from the heat. A boy as big as a high school linebacker stood about twenty feet from us, dressed in torn jeans and a faded black Iron Maiden T-shirt. His hair was long and oily and when I made eye contact with him, he spat on the ground.

“The teachers treat me nice,” Scott continued. “I’m one of the few they don’t think might attack them with a plastic spoon from the cafeteria.” I laughed, though I didn’t think this was funny.

“What are the classes like?”

“Pretty much the same as at The Pines. You know, school is school.”

He opened the largest pouch in his backpack. “There is one difference,” he said. “They’ve got me taking a pretty intense art class.” He took a sketch pad out of the backpack, the same kind he’d used for his drawings of Miss Van Cleve. “Art therapy, they call it.”

The class, he explained, met daily. Most of the kids sketched but others painted and some made sculptures with clay. Usually, the teacher gave them a prompt, like “Create an image that reminds you of something you enjoy,” or, “Show me what your anger looks like.” Other times, the students were allowed to make whatever they wanted. The art teacher, whom Scott described as a big woman in her seventies with a German accent, said that Scott was a gifted artist. Every second Wednesday she took him to a studio in New York, an hour’s drive up the turnpike, where he joined a class of private school students and sketched pictures of live models.

“That’s what I keep in here,” he said, handing me the pad. “My New York portraits. Check them out.”

I flipped through the sketches and was struck by their variety and the particularity of their details. One depicted a young woman with sleepy eyelids and large, round thighs; the next one revealed a slender woman who might be in her forties with short hair and breasts like pancakes; and so on through the collection. The models were white, black, Hispanic, Asian. They were all female; Scott said that the studio had no luck hiring men to pose.

I finished going through the pictures. “So,” I asked, “do they all pose naked?”

He laughed. “No, not completely. But I draw them like I see them.”

I hadn’t expected to find Scott in such good spirits. My parents had told me that Walters was practically a jail. The grim, isolated building, the menacing older students, and the guards all fit that description, but Scott’s attitude did not. And why hadn’t he asked me about Miss Van Cleve yet?

“They’re all so different from each other,” I said, handing the sketch pad back to him.

He shrugged. “Sure. But they’re all sexy.”

I wondered if I’d heard him right. The drawings were excellent but none of the women looked sexy to me. There was nothing sexy about the lady with the bumpy nose and the sagging stomach, or the one with the bony shoulders and the loose flesh at the knees. Had Scott’s banishment to Walters messed with his mind? More than ever I wanted to know how long he would be stuck there.

“When are they going to let you out?”

“Out?” His face knotted into a question, then relaxed with what appeared to be recognition. “I am out.”

“I mean out of here,” I said. “Will they take you out of Walters before next fall?”

“I hope not,” he said.

I stood abruptly from the bench, peeling my sweaty legs off the painted surface. “You like it here?” Several students and one of the guards looked my way. “Don’t you know this is a reform school?”

“Of course I know that,” he said. He stayed on the bench. “I like being reformed. You know. Re-formed.”

A high-pitched alarm pierced through the buzz of conversation among the Walters student body, like the shriek of something primal coming from the pinelands. When it stopped, the students quietly started to file back into the building. Scott stood and clasped me on the shoulder.

“Looks like recess is over,” he said. “Thanks for coming to see me.” He looked down at his backpack, making sure it was zipped up, then slipped it over his shoulder. Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, his face wasn’t even damp. “Take it easy,” he said, “and don’t worry about me. I’ll stop by your house as soon as my grounding is over.”

“Sounds good,” I said. But as I pushed my bike away from the bench, I realized that some kind of invisible barrier, like a thick plexiglass wall, had appeared out of nowhere and lodged itself between Scott and me, an endless partition with no hinges or moveable panels.

I pedaled home, struggling against the highway’s incline, laboring to breathe. The wind had picked up and bore down on me, propelling the bitter black exhaust fumes of cars and trucks into my stinging eyes and burning lungs as the radiating heat from the asphalt threatened to blow out my tires at any moment. I was drenched in sweat and panting an hour later as my front yard came into view, its white azaleas in full bloom.

Once inside, I headed straight for the refrigerator. After downing a glass of lemonade, I lay on the kitchen floor and put my face over the vent register. I waited for the air conditioning to cool me off, but even after it did, I didn’t feel right. There was something haunting me, a feeling that my mind was finally able to distill into words as the remaining sweat on my face evaporated in the vent’s chilly breeze. The feeling was a hope, a desperate, puzzling hope, that when Scott’s grounding ended, he would decide not to pay me a visit after all.

Antonio by R. C. Li

Antonio by R. C. Li

Fiction, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011 After Antonio finished his chocolate milk he closed his one good eye and rested his head on his lap. He knew it would be a while before his parents got home from work. It was cold out in the hallway […]