Month: April 2017

Alone Among the Many

The smell of cows always makes me nauseous. Not as much as when I first found out my mother had fallen in love with a woman, nor as bad as when our nosy neighbors thought they were living next to the bastard son of a Korean whore. No, that odor reminds me of the creatures and what happened to our heifer, and that alone is enough to make me sick.

We bought the calf from a farm ninety miles from our home, where we lived in an abandoned town in Huginn, Maine. We moved here after the incident in Portland. Abby said we would be safe in the old farmhouse, even though no one had lived there since Abby and her family were the last to leave in the 1940s, twenty years before. She would have been right if we could have just stayed there, but every now and again we had to walk the ten miles, past the trees with the odd carvings, to our truck and drive to Ashland to buy supplies. Buying a cow was my mother’s idea; a way to have a year round supply of milk without leaving the safety of Huginn.

We found an ad in the Yankee Trader and used a payphone in Ashland to call about the heifer. The calf was still available, but that call turned out to be our first mistake. By the time we arrived, the farmer was waiting, watching the rusting remains of Abby’s white truck drive towards his barn. His eyes followed from one end of the frame to the other, as if he was trying to decide whether he would trust his calf in such a beat-up old hulk. He pointed to the homemade wood cab resting on top of the cargo bed.

“You going to put her in there?” he asked me, ignoring Abby. If she was insulted by the slight, she didn’t let it show.

“That’s right,” said Abby. “Roger will hold him steady while I drive.”

“I hope your son is strong enough to keep her still. She may seem small, but she can kick hard enough to knock that wooden frame right off the back of your truck.”

“I’m not her son,” I said, blaming Abby for the farmer’s confusion. It wasn’t her fault, but it was always easier to hate her when people thought she was my mother.

“We drove a long way for that heifer and I don’t intend to leave without her,” said Abby.

“All right now, young lady,” said the farmer. “I didn’t mean any offense. I’m used to selling my stock to men with trailers meant for this kind of hauling.”

“I would have sent my husband, but he died in Korea.”

The farmer’s grin turned downward and I could tell he finally realized who we were. I thought he would refuse to sell the heifer to us, but I guess business comes before religion. “Well, I suppose if a woman wants to farm nowadays, then she should farm,” he said. “Tell you what, I can let you haul with my GMC. ‘66, steel construction with an I-6 engine. Suspension so smooth the boy and the heifer will sleep the whole way back.” He pointed to the blue truck.

His truck was nicer than ours. It was brand new and looked jumped right out of last month’s Digest.

“And how much are you charging for that?” Abby asked.

The farmer’s grin returned. “Oh, just an extra thirty-five.”

Abby scoffed. “My truck will do just fine.”
The farmer rubbed at his neck, but he gave us no more problems.

Before long, the calf was lying on a bed of hay next to me in the back of our old truck. Abby accelerated slowly onto the two lane road toward home—or at least the place Abby and my mother considered home. The first part of the journey would be the easiest; fifty miles of paved blacktop to Ashland. From there, it would get harder; twenty miles of uneven dirt roads and then we had to walk the calf the final ten miles to Huginn.

“Will we be able to get home before dark?” I called from the back of the truck bed, stroking the heifer to keep her calm. “You know how mom gets nervous.”

“Yes, Adeunim,” said Abby. The word was enough to raise the ire I had hoped for earlier. My mother taught me enough Korean to know it was a term of endearment for a stepchild. I was sure that despite their relationship, I was not Abby’s stepson.

Abby met my mother at a bereavement group outside of Boston a decade earlier. Abby had been attending for years, showing up a few days after her husband Arthur’s body was returned from Korea, sealed in a box and left that way at the military’s strong recommendation. The women in the group were either young Korean War widows or older World War II widows that never remarried. Their reaction when a Korean woman opened the door of the Dorchester Congregational church social room was a palpable hostility. It didn’t matter that her husband was an American or that he had died fighting the enemies of the United States. Instead, they saw only Mi-La’s features, pink-smooth skin, silky black hair and rounded eyes that looked like the heathens that killed their husbands. She ran from the room with Abby following her. Abby never went back to that group for consolation again. She found solace with my mother and whatever peace we had in this country evaporated as their love grew.

I tasted bile, groaned, and fought it down. The heifer was well-behaved and I didn’t want to barf on her. She couldn’t help her awful smell.

“Roger?” Abby noticed my discomfort. “Hang in there.”

I swallowed, said I was okay and changed the subject. “Do you think we’ll actually be able to stay here this time?”

“I’m hoping there are enough legends about Huginn to prevent anyone from bothering us.”

What legends? I thought as the urge to puke overwhelmed me.

“Damn,” said Abby. She braked quickly and we came to a stop at a metal barrier blocking a path running perpendicular to the logging road.

The calf remained still and I leapt over the side of the truck as if I were the confined animal, leaning over to grab my knees and sucking in the cool fall air, trying to force the nausea to pass. I knew we’d reached the end of the dirt road and would have to walk it, but it wasn’t until I felt less sick that I saw why Abby had slammed on the brakes.

When It Sticks

It’s Thursday Night, and Darrell is all set to tell the angels he won’t go to their meetings anymore.

At first he thought about just walking away–that is, going home after work on Thursdays, instead of taking two buses out to Jim’s suburban estate. On the other four weeknights he can walk in twenty minutes to his third floor flat, whose one distinguishing feature is that it overlooks the Seekonk River. Darrell suspects the rent would be a hundred bucks cheaper without this. The toilet gurgles all night long, and the neighbors downstairs aren’t always as quiet as he likes, but no matter–it’s home, and he need not share it with any other guy.

Just forget the meetings. They’ll get the idea soon enough.

Angels, though–he’s not sure what they would do. The last time someone left, Jim and his assistant leader, Tom (who’s still not an angel) went to the poor devil’s house and knocked on his door and asked nicely what was going on. Darrell doesn’t know how the conversation went, but the poor devil did not return.

That was before the whole portrait business started, though…

He likes more and more the idea of free Thursday nights. He could fix a proper dinner, like frying chicken in the Fry Daddy instead of stopping at the corner burrito shop and munching with one eye on his watch. He wouldn’t have to balance on a metal folding chair with a boxy guitar on his lap, strumming praise songs he’s privately never really liked, singing those songs besides, and leading everyone else in the singing on top of that. When his own attempts at transformation didn’t work out, he’d thought at least maybe he’d get out of leading the songs. An angel’s singing voice turns even a nursery rhyme into the music of the spheres, and fingers dragged across metallic strings interfere with this more than accompany it.

Still they urged him to play on.

Cat Videos In The Time Of Expiration Dates

On my eighteenth birthday I received a letter from the government. It came in a plain white envelope with a black stamp in the corner. Along the bottom, in faded red ink, was the urgent message, “TIME SENSITIVE INFORMATION: OPEN IMMEDIATELY.” I signed for the letter. Receiving it was mandatory.

I wished there was somebody else in the house with me, but my siblings had already moved out and my parents were shopping for furniture to remodel my room when I left for college. The silence in the house was absolute.

I took out my phone: “It’s here,” I texted Ally.

Ally: “OMG! On my way! Did you open it?”

Me: “Not yet. Door’s unlocked.”

I walked upstairs to my bedroom slowly looking at the envelope. It felt heavy in my hands, but that was probably only in my head. I placed the letter on my desk and sat in front of it. My dim, dark reflection caught in my computer monitor watched me as I tried to ignore the envelope sitting in front of me. I wanted Ally with me, but I could only resist the temptation for a few minutes before I opened it.

I put my finger under the triangular flap and slid it across the envelope. The sound of ripping paper filled my room. Inside was a single piece of paper expertly folded into thirds. The corners aligned perfectly. I wondered if there was one person at the Bureau that spent all day folding these letters into perfect thirds. It was, after all, a very important piece of paper that deserved that level of attention to detail, because printed on this piece of paper was the exact date of my death–my expiration date.

As part of the Third Law of Humanitarianism every eighteen year old received this letter from the government. The date printed on the paper was one hundred percent accurate.

My heart pounded in my chest. “Relax,” I said to myself, “there isn’t anything to worry about.” I was in decent physical condition. There wasn’t any trace of cancer, high blood pressure, or diabetes in my family history. My grandfather had died from a heart attack, but he was eighty-three. That couldn’t be blamed on faulty equipment. Of my immediate family my father had the shortest expected lifespan at seventy-two years, while my sister had the longest at one hundred and three. Everything would be fine.

I unfolded the letter:

Dear Matthias Williams,

In accordance with the Third Act of Humanitarianism we are sending this letter to inform you of your expiration date:

May 24, 2034


The Expiration Date Bureau


I glanced up at the calendar: May 22, 2034.


Finders and Keepers, Its and Not-Its

I’m not the hoarder, Granny Keeper is. I’m just the finder.

I found her the day I lost everything. My boyfriend, my wallet, my job. I had no idea where the boyfriend or the wallet went, I just knew they weren’t there when I woke up. Will’s stuff was all gone, from his Xbox to his nose hair trimmer, so at least I knew he wasn’t kidnapped.

Maybe my wallet was, though.

On the other hand, Trisha the manager was crystal clear on why I lost my job. You’re supposed to write the customer’s first name on the ticket, not bitter identifiers. Codependent Hipsters. Sugar Daddy and the Sidepiece. Short-Term Engagement.

At an aggressively cheerful chain restaurant like mine, such shenanigans are the kiss of death. Termination effective immediately. Absolutely bone-chilling terminology, I would have preferred to be released.

She was sitting at the kitchen table in the dark when I got home. I flipped on the lights and there she was, complacently knitting a bright red scarf. She later gifted it to me as a memento of our first meeting, and I love it now, but at the time it was garish and eerie. I mean, who knits in the dark in other people’s kitchens? Usually psychos, I’m guessing.

I didn’t say anything at first, I just watched her. She was round and soft and friendly looking, like Queen Elizabeth’s approachable twin, and she hummed That’s Amore to the click of the needles. I thought maybe she had wandered off from her family, and I tried to recall the faces of the missing people I had seen posted at Wal-Mart. She didn’t look familiar.

At first, the humming and knitting was kind of nice. Soothing. But then it started making me nervous again. Needles and all. “Hi,” I said, and waved, which was kind of awkward since I was only two feet away.

“Hello.” She laid her knitting down in her lap and folded her hands. “How was work today, dear?”

“Well, I got fired.”

She clucked her tongue at me, a disapproving mother hen. “Well, now, that’s too bad.” She patted the chair next to her, and I slid into it.

She invited me to sit in my own chair.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.

“Not really.” I shrugged. “But we should probably talk about what you’re doing here.”

That was important to get out in the open.

“Why, I’m from Craig’s List.” Wispy grey eyebrows, aged rainbows of surprise, soared into the delicate lines of her forehead.

“Craig’s List?”

“Your new roommate?”

“My new roommate?” Echolalia, the long banished, obnoxious childhood habit was bubbling up. Ms. Jess, my poor speech teacher had worked so hard to break me of it. In her honor, I bit my tongue (literally, front teeth vivisecting quite a few taste buds) and forced myself to listen, without interjecting, while my elderly trespasser explained herself.

“Your ad.” She spoke the words deliberately and slowly, as if to a very small child or crazy person, which wasn’t really fair, considering the circumstances. “I’m taking the extra room. We’ll split rent and utilities right down the middle, but from the looks of you I imagine I’ll be taking over groceries. You’re skin and bones.” She dug around in an enormous patchwork bag, and pulled out a package of Fig Newtons from beneath a tangled web of multicolored yarn. “Please, have some,” she said, brandishing them at me.

Dismissing an irrational fear of being fattened up for Baba Yaga’s oven, I took one and chewed on it thoughtfully. I guess it was nice of Will to put an ad on Craig’s List for a new roomie. It would have been nicer if he had just told me he was leaving. Or nicer still if he’d just stuck around.

On second thought, a Craig’s List ad is a pretty crappy farewell gesture.

“So, how come you were sitting here in the dark?” I asked.

“Don’t talk with your mouthful, dear. No one needs to see that,” she admonished primly before answering my question. “It would have been rude to barge in here and turn on all the lights as if I owned the place.”

“Right,” I said, making sure I swallowed every last crumb first. “What’s your name?”

“You can call me Granny Keeper.” She resumed knitting and humming.

“I’m Bree.”

“I know, dear.” She patted my hand. “It was in the ad.”

Granny Keeper was flipping pancakes when I came downstairs the next morning. Like, literally flipping them. A procession of them soared from the spatula, stopped just inches from ceiling and spun, hurtling back to their blistering doom.

I hadn’t eaten breakfast in five years, but that was all about to change.

“I need something blue,” she said, handing me a plate.

“Something blue?” I repeated. Gah. I bit my tongue, gathered a thought, and tried again. “What do you need?”

“I’m not sure yet. It’s just so empty in here. We need something blue. After you eat, you can run out and get me some things. And then I’ll see which one I want.” She unclasped a dainty beaded coin purse and pulled out a crispy new fifty dollar bill. “Get as many as you can.”

I don’t know what was in those pancakes, but I said yes.