|Apr/May 2004 fiction|
By DJ McDougle
They crossed the river some time back, carried by a balloon designed to take them far. Not a real balloon, no basket to rest in or view from, nor any basket with treats to nibble while enjoying the view.
The river was wide, like a desert, like a sea, and it stretched impossible, across more miles than it owned. They had seen houses. Not the submersible kind, as the occasional window, high in its eave, mouth beneath the water's surface, nose and eyes above-still breathing, still seeing—attested to with a look of surprise or stunned disbelief. It was as if there had been a great flood but if asked they would have to say no. Only a sudden darkness and then the balloon.
Cows drifted aimlessly, carried by the water. They'd seen that. Hereford, Angus, the one from Twyler's place with the beautiful blue-tick hide. Like a puppy that one was, one of them remembers. Speckled and probably very easy to love.
They drift now, these three: A red-haired boy, a man with glasses, a grandmother. Or great.
So shrunken, she is, so paper-thin that her blood, coursing through slowly, sinuous as the river, is easy to trace on the surface of her. The man is convinced he will know when she's gone simply by noting the still pools that will form when the spring that sustains her runs dry; no longer spilling out its bounty; refusing to move the fishes, the fallen leaves, the stuff that will catch on a protruding limb, itself snagged in some unseen way, and dam things up to make the eventual (and inevitable) still pools that he knows he will recognize as the end of her.
The boy doesn't think of her at all, this possible great-grandmother. She isn't his.
His are back there, in the river. His people. Of the river, now. Even so, it isn't his grandmother he thinks of. It's Mitchell, down the street, best friend he's ever had. It's Mitchell first and then a little bit of the mother who won't say those things any more; the things that swell him up inside and make him feel important. Like a man, almost. Like what he likes to imagine a man is like, on the inside. Like the man he likes to imagine he himself will be, on a far off distant day. He holds tight, tighter still, to the thin, biting cord.
The grandmother, or the great-grandmother, is afraid of heights. She's keeping her eyes shut hard and it hurts her head, right in the temples, like when she's pulled her hair back too tight but doesn't want to bother with doing it all over again. She thinks what a ridiculous time to think such things and wonders at that, worrying it but not in any serious way—like an old cat, playing at playing because it's expected to and for no better reason.
She wants to think of something important, some great mystery of life. She could think of the children she hasn't had; could wonder about the red-haired boy, his unrelenting white-knuckled grip that can't possibly last. She could think of many things but her head pounds and it's real and not real and she tries very hard to concentrate on the pot roast and how much longer it would have needed the oven to not only finish the carrots (which take impossibly long to cook soft enough, in her opinion, whether they get put in at the start, or in the last hour) but for the meat to come out perfect, fork-tender. She thinks the boy can't possibly last, not with that grip. He's spent it all in the early and what can he possibly do late?
It's days now, so many, and the landscape is black, with cheery twinkling stars. Cheek, the man thinks but he's enjoying the lightness—the absence of weight on the bridge of his nose. He'd tossed the glasses, always too thick and now, finally, redundant, into the below, sometime. He can't think why he hadn't done it sooner. A small joy creeps, then pulses through him. He's alive now and all the women, and the boys from Saint Andrews—georgie porgie pumpkin eater sissy fatso—are trout food; un-eyed, un-tongued. With the weight off his nose (and why hadn't he thought of it sooner?) his vision is clear and he can't tear himself away from the unfolding film—scene upon scene of flesh-ribbons held upright, underwater, and the fish, fewer now but still coming, snatching off a prize here and there; swimming away with smug faces.
The not-grandmother (nor great) has guessed right about the boy. He's given too much, too soon, and is faded now; a translucent whisper, barely red, freckles blinking out in pairs. Mother, mother the soft breeze says and the boy's pale fingers let loose, one by one. Un-tethered, he hangs in the darkness, then, as if carried by some gentle current, drifts downstream and away.
Georgie porgie, the wind says. Carrots.
Something will become of them, the man without glasses and the one with her river showing its pools and eddies. In time, there will be something. Until then, there is the cord. There is the balloon.
On Day Two
By Duncan White
This is what we threw out today:
Bottles. Three glass, two plastic.
Eight tin cans.
Two hundred cardboard boxes of various size.
Timmy's toy giraffe.
Our only television.
"Could you put the light back on? It's hard to see what's left in here," our mother pointed out. "The light won't help any," at least three of us were thinking, but we did it anyway. The glare in the caravan seemed somehow stale. We rubbed our eyes, then told Timmy not to worry. Nobody would mind that he had wet himself again. Samantha went to find a towel, turning the radio up on her way out. The news was the same as this morning. The voices were the same. Timmy was about to cry when his favourite song came on.
"This is for you," our mother lied. "Because of you."
Those of us that didn't shrug went outside to play. Mother was tall with big hair, and we loved her.
"I feel like I've been here a thousand times before," Timmy said. "I shouldn't be this uncontrolled. I should know how to monitor myself. I should know my limitations."
"Not to worry. There's trout for supper." Mother sang. "The oven is hot and ready. The bones are in the rubbish. Samantha has the scales."
Samantha was setting fire to her toys. Benny was her encouragement. When the fire brigade arrived, all they found was the refuse of the past eight days. They hosed us down and wept for mothers everywhere, trying to pretend it had nothing to do with them. One of the firemen, Stevie, went home that night to his dog, Troy, and fed him tuna fish, which he also ate, straight from the tin. That was the hardest part about being a fireman - putting out fires and sustaining the pretense that it would have happened anyway, if there were no firemen. That was hard. Troy licked his lips and looked up at him for more. Stevie shrugged. That was all he had.
Mother made tea and sang songs about Heaven, elevating her performance with guitar and castanets. Mary played the bells. Timmy, now dry, plucked a tired bass-line on his elastic band. Jennifer tried to get back in. The songs lasted nearly all night long and kept many of their neighbours awake. Amanda, in a single bed next door, could not sleep. As it was getting light anyway she sat up by the window and imagined her favourite surroundings. A bird-hide on the edge of a vast and silent lake skimmed by fish-eagles at dusk on the final afternoon of her life.
It was time again to take the rubbish out. There were more glass bottles than plastic bottles in the rubbish today. And fewer cardboard boxes. That done, mother told a story about a librarian whose only friends were children.
"The librarian was hiding where he couldn't be found, in the geography section. School children taking their seats around his desk, their teacher gone, idly assumed a position. He remained hidden, crouching, holding his breath. They had come to ask him questions. He had been outside all day, sweeping leaves. The children had been there then also. They had known what to do, or thought they did, and stood on each others' shoulders as he swept. But he ignored them and did his job. The librarian moved in circles, and the children, paying close attention, could not tell where he wanted the leaves to go.
"The children ask him questions, but they never ask the librarian about books. They ask about clothing: mostly, shoes and socks. They ask about food. Not 'what' to eat, but 'where' to eat and 'when' to eat. They ask about music, love songs he has never heard of, games he has forgotten how to play. They ask about jumping and falling, illnesses and annual days of faith. They ask about karate.
"He tells the children very little. He finds it hard to tell them what they already know. He decides that is why they do it. "They are doing it on purpose," is what the librarian actually decides, hiding in the geography section, holding his breath, waiting for the children to leave."
Mother's stories are always very good. If not a little strange.
"If you remember half of it, you'll be better off," she almost chants in our direction.
Timmy nods, his computer flashing haphazardly making Ernest, the epileptic, fit. Samantha, like always, thinks it's very funny. Mid seizure, Ernest endures what is not unlike a dream:
"She wore a necklace with her name on it. I couldn't think what to say so I said her name over and over. She swore and broke the chain and threw it in the river.
"That's not my name anymore!" she said.
"But I disagreed, tears staining my face, and later drowned in that river the following spring."
This all happens, by the way, upon a ghost train at the traveling fair. The fairground moves across the city from one green spot to the next, the last no different from the first, and is visited by literally thousands of you. Teenagers and dogs are everywhere. There is a sickly- sweet smell of candy-floss and hot dog water. Petrol drips into the grass, and old men drink between goal posts, ignoring the police. Mother has a talent for the fabricated scream. Most patrons assume it is a machine. It is not. It is mother.
"Do this. Do not do this," she says.
But we are not listening. Samantha is showing Timmy how to snorkel, wearing nothing but her honey-coloured bra.
"Supper's ready," mother continues.
But trout won't do.
"We want more than this," we say, learning to swim with measured strokes and controlled breathing.
"It is nourishing and hot. Home-made and sweet!"
Like so, the last of the rubbish out, we go single-file, holding hands, into the open oven, shutting the door and laughing, holding out until Easter.
By Steven Gajadhar
I saw Cecil in the hall the other day, fishing for his keys as I crested the last stair. The briefcase-jacket-grocery-bag-open-the-door-dance. Put something down, I thought. It was so quiet—just my shoes swishing on the cheap carpet—I swear he heard me.
He leveled his ground beef eyes at me: "Hello, Martin."
Cecil manages the butchers department at the grocery store. He's a hard working meat martyr. He considers the patch of rug in front of his door his own private pulpit, "My son does this," and "My son went to such and such school," and "My son works just as hard as his dad." I've suffered through this sermon a couple times. It lacks finesse, but Cecil isn't one for subtle hints about what he thinks of people. I get the point. I don't care.
I tried to keep going.
"Left work early again?" he said.
"You want a hand with some of that?"
"Is that guilt, Martin?"
"Yes, Cecil, I feel so guilty about leaving work early. I can hardly bear it."
I couldn't bear the lurking conversation: "I've got a hot date tonight, gotta go."
I felt his eyes on my back as I walked to my apartment. "Goodnight," I said. "Say hi to Helen for me."
I've never seen Helen. Only heard her. She lives vicariously out of the peephole. A wraith that breathes at me when I walk by her door: "Run away, Martin." I tried to catch a glimpse of her once, waited while Cecil silently oozed into his apartment. No "Hi, dear!" No "Honey! I'm home." I didn't even get to see the wallpaper.
They also have a cat. I haven't seen that either, only inferred it from the soft pacing to and fro when Cecil and I have our little chats and the scratching at the door when I go to work in the mornings. The scratching makes an awful racket. Inhuman.
I like to play chess with a friend in the park. Mustafa. He reeks of alcohol and vomit. He is magnanimous. Compared to Cecil, he is human.
We play for breakfast, pretty high stakes for Mustafa. Between moves we talk about the birth of utopia in the 16th century or the bulging eyes of corporate executives. Even though I try my hardest to beat him, I never do. Mustafa appreciates that. He doesn't want my pity, just my change and company.
Cecil passed us the other day. Mustafa had just mated me with a pawn. I looked up and smiled. "How's the cat doing, Cecil?"
"I don't have a cat."
I thought about the back of Cecil's door and the coat of paint it must desperately need. I thought about taking Mustafa somewhere fancy for breakfast. I thought about my life, and how I have always been neutral, like an observer. I thought about our chess matches, and about finally learning how to play white.