fiction

Sarah Estime

Everything was
dashed with snow. The wind dusted most of it off of the windshield but the
weather was still bitter and unbearable. Nikols hadn’t worn her parka—she
thought the fleece would suffice. Her arms and legs shivered underneath her
uniform. She regretted not wearing long johns as well. She ran her thumb over
her ring finger, remembering she didn’t have it on.

Staff Sergeant
Teague was just wrapping up a twenty-minute story about how he became eligible
for upgrade. A few airmen awed around him. Master Sergeant Fennelly rolled his
eyes, moving dip around his cheeks and gesticulating for Sergeant Teague to
hurry his career summary along. The hissing on the tire was slowing to a hush
and the jacking point was ready to be jacked. Nikols felt the wind gust her on
the face, her cheeks becoming icy and blushed. She rubbed the back of her
fingers on her jawbone and then rubbed her palms together.

“So that’s why
they chose me. As an AGR, you guys don’t get to work on the aircraft like I do
so it might be harder for you to get your upgrade. But don’t worry—I’ll get you
where you want to go. That’s only if you show me dedication, first.”

“Alright,
alright, alright,” said Master Sergeant Fennelly, “Are we gonna change this
tire or what?”

Nikols feared
her body was going into shock. “I’ll start,” she piped. She leaned over the
toolbox and grabbed a ratchet screwdriver, duckbill pliers, two bits, and one
crisp cold rubber glove. She put her safety glasses on and started for the hubcap.
Sergeant Fennelly gripped her around the arm, inspecting the tools in her hand.

“No, no, no.
What you’ll want is the brace. And where are your cutters?”

Nikols returned to the toolbox. Her
eyes moved around quickly. Snowflakes flared her in the face.

“Do you know
what it looks like?” he called. She didn’t answer. “One of you boys go help
her.”

She snatched the
brace and the cutters from its cutout.

“Good, good,”
Sergeant Fennelly said, “Gloves? Good.”

Nikols didn’t say anything. She
bent down in front of the tire and began unscrewing. The wide rotations were
making her tired but her body was warming especially with the help of the wheel
well surrounding her.

“Why didn’t you
just use the ratchet?” an airman standing over her shoulder asked.

“This is gonna
be easier,” Sergeant Fennelly answered for her.

She pulled the
hub cap off and handed it to someone standing over her shoulder. They held it
near her face. She tore two fingers of the glove off trapping it underneath her
boot. She unplugged the anti-skid transducer, covered it with the glove finger,
and dropped it into the hub cap. Her fingers were becoming smudged with grease.

“Where are your
gloves?” Sergeant Teague asked.

Sergeant
Fennelly laughed loudly, “She wants to go home and tell her husband she worked!
‘Look, hubby, I got dirty today!’” he mimicked.

The other airmen
laughed with him. Nikols didn’t respond. She moved along quickly with the hopes
that they’d be released on an early lunch. Her wiry fingers and taciturn nature
promised that.

Sergeant
Fennelly apologized, “Haven’t had my sensitivity training!” He patted her on
the back laughing louder, his throat thick with phlegm, his voice raspy and
sore. She stuffed the other side of the transducer into the hole. Then she stood
up, winding one end of a cargo strap around her fist.

“Wait, wait,”
Sergeant Teague said, “We’re skipping a step.”

Nikols sat on
her thighs with the cargo strap across her lap. She stared into the sparse
forest outlining the flight line. The snow brimming the pine trees looked
pretty from afar. They swayed a blast of frost onto the ground. Slowly and
meticulously, he read a Warning out loud. Nikols, instead of rolling her eyes,
glared blankly at the trees waiting for him to be done.

“Now, why do we
have to mind that?” he asked the group. No one answered. “Nikols, why do we
have to mind that?”

“I don’t know,
sir. But I can find out,” she said.

“Well, why don’t
you find out now?” he said.

She hauled
herself up and stepped back into the wind. She took his place in front of the
ToughBook with him overlooking her. She spat out three answers she knew he
would reject. He always gave her three opportunities to say what he was
thinking verbatim saying what he was thinking verbatim. He talked about the
proper way to lift and the dangers of blowing your back out for five minutes
and then said “Okay?”

“Okay,” Nikols
said.

Two scrawny
airmen insisted they remove the wheel. “We’ll take it from here.”

She didn’t argue. They grunted and
huffed and she watched with her arms crossed. Sergeant Fennelly rolled the new
wheel around peeling the plastic label off and crumbling it into his pocket. He
lined the hole up to the axle and brushed the rubber with his big burly hand.
He began to appear to be rubbing it in an arousing way. Nikols was affected.

“Wait, wait!
This is my step right here,” Sergeant Teague said flailing his arms, “This is a
critical seven-level step that I have to perform.”

He moved through
the airmen with a divergent presence. They made way for him. He leaned over the
axle with a flashlight and a keychain magnifying glass.

“Only seven
levels can perform this step right here but why do we—as in ‘we’ as a
team—because we are still a team—why do we have to inspect the axle?”

No one knew.
Nikols began brainstorming three wrong answers.

“To prevent
corrosion which would prevent damage to the aircraft,” she said.

“Right!” Sergeant
Teague said. She was surprised he gave her the credit. “But what could happen?”

“The axle could
literally break off like a twig,” an airman said in question-form.

They laughed
making explosion noises and snapping gestures.

“That’s right,”
Sergeant Teague said, “And it’s not funny.”

He clicked his
flashlight off and waved his palm over the naked axle for them to proceed.
Sergeant Fennelly rolled his eyes and summoned an airman to help. They hauled
the wheel on, wiggled it into place, torqued, backed it off, torqued again.
Nikols shifted her feet back and forth. And then they all went up into the
cockpit to annotate the forms. They debated guns in a language Nikols didn’t
understand; Sergeant Teague began talking about the Section Chiefs organizing a
two-week trip to Spain. Zulu time was nineteen hundred. Finally, they were sent
away for lunch.

Nikols drove
home and sat in the parking lot of her apartment for a moment. She took a deep
breath and then went inside. No one was home. The fridge activated, running
loudly. She jolted at its suddenness. She plopped into the couch staring at the
time on the cable box. She was to be back in thirty minutes, which meant lunch
was fifteen minutes. She watched the seventeen turn into eighteen and the
eighteen turn to nineteen. At one-twenty, she shimmied her phone out of her
pocket.

“Thank you for
calling Sleepy’s. This is Jo-Ann. How may I help you?”

“Hi, I’d like a
quote on a queen-sized mattress, please. I know it’s on the website but I
figured the website only shows blanket prices. I was curious about any local
deals or sales you might be having.”

“Well, queens
usually start at three hundred/four hundred but if you’re planning on getting
the specialty foams or the pillow tops, that price will rise significantly.”

“Do you have a
military discount?” she asked.

“Why yes, we do.
You’ll have to make sure your husband shows his ID in-store though.”

“Or I can bring
my military ID, right?”

“Or you can
bring yours. That’s perfectly fine,” she stammered.

“Thanks,” Nikols
said and hung up.

The two o’clock
feeling overwhelmed her. She shut her eyes for a second feeling the silence
engulf her. She opened her eyes and shot up. She went into the bedroom and
shuffled through some cardboard boxes. She hated wrenching the bulky uniform
off of her. She loosened her shoe laces with each of her hands and pulled her
boots off. She realized her socks were moist. She ripped her belt open and
wriggled her pants off along with her socks. She set the pants on the ground,
the socks still braced by the blousing looking like a marionette. She pulled
her longjohns on, snapping it up above her stomach. And then she dressed
herself in the hefty pocketed pants and the heavy shirt. She tied her shoelaces
tight and tucked them into the collar of her boot. She found her parka in a box
labeled “Either/Or.” A Post-It note instructed Danny to go through the pile and
pick out what was his or what he wanted to take. An assortment of socks, PT
gear, and photo booth photos sprinkled through the box. She slipped the parka
on and left the apartment in a hurry.

A handful of
flight line personnel lounged around the breakroom. Fire Extinguisher training,
Cyber Safety training, Sexual Harassment Sensitivity training were being
conducted via online quizzes and 2D graphic games. She fell into a
crumb-ridden, Honey Bun-smeared, oil-stained lounge couch. Conversation
speckled behind her—men talking about foreign beer and their dumb wives and tribulations
of rolling over when their newborn babies cried at night.

“But fatherhood
is great, man. Ain’t nothing like it.”

“Ain’t that the
truth,” someone cosigned, “My boy told me the other day he wanted to be just
like me. Told him it ain’t easy being a man. Told him to stay young and
innocent as he is.”

Some
rambunctious Vin Diesel movie played on the television. Nikols sighed to herself.
She exited the room and strolled around. The sleek, cold hallway smelled like
coffee. She followed the scent into the Orderly Room. Tender doughnuts were
permeating from there, too. She found Master Sergeant White. He greeted her
with a smile. He asked her how her husband was. She told him they were fine.

“I’m just
wondering if there are any enroutes happening soon. I overheard Sergeant Teague
talking about a trip out of the country in July. Was wondering if I could get
my hands in that.”

Sergeant White
stared at her worriedly, “Oh, well you’d have to ask him about that. I don’t
know what goes on out there. I’m just a paper pusher.”

“Nothing in the
papers about a trip to Spain in July?”

“Not that I’ve
come across,” he said assuredly. “Anyway, don’t you have a baby?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

“Didn’t you just
get here?” he asked.

“This’ll be my
last year, sir,” she answered.

Sergeant White continued
to think to himself and then shook his head. He registered his focus back to
her and, again, suggested she ask her supervisor about it. She agreed cordially
and left his presence. She lingered around the doughnuts for a moment but
rejected them, remembering that she had to be “fit to fight.” Massive picture
windows cornered with snow and fog reminded her of the season. The Orderly Room
was a stuffy warm but she didn’t work in there. She ran her finger around her
bare ring finger again. She didn’t even have the mark anymore.

She decided she
wouldn’t look at the clock again so that she didn’t feel the day dragging on.
She remembered she was hungry. She bent over and slipped her fingers down into
her lower pockets. She felt her CAC card, her debit card, and a pair of
earrings—no dollar bills. She considered owing the Snack Shack back but was
anxious about a misunderstanding dubbing her a thief. She decided not to think
about being hungry either.

She was
beginning to get hot. She went back into the breakroom. Her steel-toed boots
squished on the waxed ground. A couple of the guys had left and a girl sat idly
in the corner. She had short pixie-cut hair and stubby calloused fingernails.
Nikols approached her.

“Just get here?”
she asked.

She took note of
her German name. The girl’s voice was low and shy. Nikols offered her hand. The
girl leaned over with her elbows on her knees and shook it. Nikols asked her
where she was from. They talked for a while about what they were accustomed to,
how Grissom was different, entertainment around Indiana. Nikols checked the
time. Even conversation made the day unmoving. She shared that she was married
and asked the girl if she had family nearby.

“Definitely not
married!” she laughed. She stretched and yawned and rested her elbows back on
her knees. Her legs were spread protectively, her fingertips touching. She
glanced up at Nikols with a faded smile. She opened her mouth underconfidently
as if she wanted to say something else. Nothing came out. The girl itched her
nose and sat up with her ankle on her knee.

Nikols asked her
if she liked the job. “Aw, yeah!” she sprouted, “I’m constantly doing work on
my Corvette. I got it for super cheap because the ECU was busted. I’m pretty
much rebuilding it myself.”

She was sitting
up dignified with an arm hung over the back of another chair. Nikols watched as
the chair tipped and thudded. Back and forth, the girl played with the chair as
she beamed about engines and speed. Nikols was trying to focus but she had no idea
what she was talking about.

“Me, too,” Nikols
said, “I like the job, except for when I get made fun of for breaking a nail.
Contrary to cliché belief, breaking a nail is fucking torment. I’ve bled over
that shit.”

The girl smiled
awkwardly. Nikols tried to think of something relating to cars. She had
nothing. A boy clicking around on the computer beside them asked her how fast
her car was. She gave him a number, a cheesy smile pasted across her face.
Nikols broke away knowing what she might have wanted to tell her.

Sergeant Teague rushed
in with a walkie in his hand. His steel-toed boots squished on the waxed
ground. “We’re going back out,” he told her, “Charlie One, Delta Five—pickup,”
he said into the talkie, “Go get the toolbox. Another tire change.”

Nikols toted the
tool box, her body completely leaned to one side. Her wrist ached so she
switched hands. The rickety truck swung by. Sergeant Teague slid the door open.
The door thundered, slamming metal to metal. He took his seat on the bench behind
the driver. Nikols dumped the dense box onto the stairs, stepping up two feet
at a time, both hands clutching the handle. She placed the box by the bench across
from Sergeant Teague and took her seat.

“Door!” the
driver shouted.

She leaned over
and pushed it shut. She unloaded when they got to the aircraft—she stuck the
deflator into the tire, called for a jack, and pulled herself up the narrow
stairs. The flight deck was quiet. She heard the ringing of silence mixed with a
distant whimpering wind swirling around the aircrafts. A power cart buzzed a
few spots over. The planes were significantly colossal from far away. Up close,
they were intimidating—its big, huge nose and peering windshield eyes
anthropomorphizing. As she learned about its nooks and cranies, however, she
learned that the plane wasn’t that big at all. They were parked in their spots,
their tails sixty-five feet up in the air. She basked in the solitude for a
moment; the forthcoming solitude bereft of marital arguments brought upon by
militant obligations. Her eyes were closed. She snapped out of it, set the
parking brakes, shot out of the pilot’s seat, and trampled back down the wobbling
stairs.

Sergeant
Fennelly had rejoined them. He had a team of young airmen with him drooling
over his cavalier demeanor. They marveled with questions about the aircraft but
Nikols knew he really needed them. Sergeant White greeted them from a distance.
His boots crunched in the slush. The three men opened their arms, smiling like
they were getting ready to sit at the same table at lunch. She unscrewed the
bolts, unclipped the safety wire, and removed the hub cab. She raised the hub
cap over her head for someone to hold it while she deposited FOD into its bowl.
An airman stumble-stepped over and took the cap. He placed it on the ground
next to the toolbox.

Sergeant White
pointed at her with his pen, “What you’ll want to do next time, honey, is keep
the hub cap next to you. You could throw all the FOD in there and then toss it
into the FOD bag in one shot. That way you’re not walking back and forth to the
toolbox, do you know what I mean?”

Nikols kept her
eyes on the tire. “Yes, sir.”


Sarah Estime is  an Aircraft Mechanic in the Air Force. When not working at the day job, she is composing works related to literary fiction. She has been published by the “African American Review,” “O-Dark-Thirty,” “Burner Magazine” and “Pif Magazine.” She currently writes for Blogcritics and Litro Magazine.

Alternatives to Churning Butter

Rich Ives

1.
When I sleep with a knife, we meet divided. The bodies do not underestimate, but the minds are in over their heads. Two of us side by side as if controlled remotely, one forbidden to talk and the other just doesn’t. (Babies go under, but they’re not our babies.) It makes it easier to misunderstand.

We’ve learned to value the lid of the bed, awakened, and finger moons chambered with tensile eye-knuckles, and naked feet running from the ceiling, night’s eye so big we don’t realize we’re inside. We’re not gang-related but visitational, the trees in the forest blackened with that unrelenting deprivations kind of thing.

2.
One seeker said to the other, When a man truly finds what he is looking for, he is at great risk of dying. (We had a great deal to look forward to in our despair.) I wished the man a long life of struggle.

(The hungry pond-fish swim day after day from one little ocean to the next as faithfully as the ocean swims in and out of its dirty pants.)

The letters you haven’t read, the ones you placed in the toolbox, are a toolbox.

3.
All you have to do is find something you haven’t done and approach too slowly. There’s a beautiful smooth nerve in a boat that doesn’t belong to you, that arrives at the porch where the boat shall never be, but the two left behind are arriving at your absence, which may be more successful than you wish. When goodbye to you was hello to another, you could have been missed.

4.
As for the tuba player mumbling in German, he hangs out at both ends of the engagement, an overly generous Weiner dog, and yodels to the tune of an old Bavarian march. On waking, he shakes a cricket out of his shoe, remembers his dream of a spilling police van and tap dancing mice chasing tap dancing cheese. He’s climbing an invisible ladder, and he falls. He’s painting a landscape, and he paints himself into it.

Hello a cow wearing a short skirt and suspenders. Hello a xylophone of wooden shoes, another lovely chicken march. Hello a stolen bag of mice. Hello the drawing of a car, in which he escapes. He draws railroad tracks, the train runs him over.

The tuba in his theme song turns into a saxophone, the notes turn into ducks shaped like wooden mallets. He pounds himself on the head with a wooden mallet-duck. An amorous carp swims out hammered thinking. Hello to a fish-wife with the scales of heaven on. She pounds him on the hammered head with a freshly carved mallet-fish. He sleeps in her lap,
but you have awakened, you have congealed, you can’t do it again.


Rich Ives lives on Camano Island in Puget Sound. He has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. His writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Dublin Quarterly, Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Virginia Quarterly Review, Fiction Daily and many more. He is a winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander and has been nominated twice for the Best of the Web, three times for Best of the Net and six times for The Pushcart Prize. He is the 2012 winner of the Creative Nonfiction Prize from Thin Air magazine. Tunneling to the Moon, a book of days with a work for each day of the year, is available from Silenced Press, Sharpen, a fiction chapbook, is available form Newer York Press, and Light from a Small Brown Bird, a book of poems, is available from Bitter Oleander Press. He is also the winner of the What Books Press Fiction Competition, and his story collection, The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking, is now available.  

A Reconsideration of the Subject

– Rich Ives

Like a single disagreeable letter from several dead philosophers, the subject arrived at the barbeque wearing a torn sweatshirt. The mistakes of others were included, but maybe they were also his own. Maybe he claimed them even if they weren’t his.

Negligence gives us a rather large common ground of confusion to stand on while we disagree. There was no boundary between the thing outside (just thought) and the thing inside (forgotten). The wandering idea’s Teddy bear then perambulates more aggressively, saying Button it Bobbo to the tension walking next to the subject. The subject’s watch is larger now than he is because time stays generous when it’s not yours. Black silk and obsidian edge the incision in its darkness approaching, the darkness that spills on the letter.

Oh yes the subject was overly fond of the gathering’s idea sugar, but intellectual poverty is still poverty. So we wait with an obsessively selected thought donut and a goofy grin. Soon something as simple as weather arrives to unite us and to give us meaning. Yes, the subject wishes to control the weather, but he feels much better failing than worshipping the one wing of a maple seed brought to earth in a rich pile of worm fodder.

The subject, it seems, really does have too much to say about everything, which means it must be said twice or eight times. You swallow it all up, everything disappearing inside what you have been thinking, ushering it down to where such guests are still welcome.

The subject soaks you up like another dead philosopher, and the sweatshirt becomes a renewed fire of intellectual stains. So you take your self home and wash it, providing a more acceptable entrance to social functions. You find a circle in your brain. What’s it doing there? Your brain has too many childhoods. Put some of them in a very small burlap sack. Imagine it’s an ancient choked aspirin entering a dark hole, a landscape without corners. Hold it up to your basement thought, the one announcing separation. Consider the reconsideration.


Rich Ives lives on Camano Island in Puget Sound. He has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. His writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Dublin Quarterly, Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Virginia Quarterly Review, Fiction Daily and many more. He is a winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander and has been nominated twice for the Best of the Web, three times for Best of the Net and six times for The Pushcart Prize. He is the 2012 winner of the Creative Nonfiction Prize from Thin Air magazine. Tunneling to the Moon, a book of days with a work for each day of the year, is available from Silenced Press, Sharpen, a fiction chapbook, is available form Newer York Press, and Light from a Small Brown Bird, a book of poems, is available from Bitter Oleander Press. He is also the winner of the What Books Press Fiction Competition, and his story collection, The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking, is now available.

A Nice Old Man Was Biting My Toe

Rich Ives

It escapes me, this cautionary landscape, moving under as I pace its surface, but I’m counting miles instead of taking in its distinct aberrations. I’m failing to register its transitory existence, liberated with each release of my padded step. I’m slapping my expensive footwear in its open face, again and again, getting only to where I planned on going as it gets itself newly positioned where it already is.

I must have missed it before, I think, missing it in a new way. I’m intent upon a kind of progress that takes me out of myself, into a better body to separate the quick from the quickly dead, a body that could, however, more quickly miss more. I could be entering myself now, even as I carry my “self” away to discover who I am.

On the road last night there were too many frogs for any purpose I could imagine, but then maybe I wasn’t small enough, or I was in too many parts to do things alone.

The old man inside me asks, Which smile is this, which puddle of moonlight?

I found too many aspirations nesting like voyaging seabirds as I arrived at the shore, huffy little summaries of oceanic caravans. I looked up to see myself floating back down, there where a moment before stalked a creature cloaked in fierce intentions and transparent hope.

The old man inside takes a breath and then he gives it back. The whole truth was always guilty of only half the story. He wants a picture finished with falling. The way I can see everything clearly confuses me. It’s time now to listen. Time to take us here. Time for there to wait, and a time for stepping quickly to between, where one step and two hold true, and the end of anything is the beginning.


Rich Ives lives on Camano Island in Puget Sound. He has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. His writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Dublin Quarterly, Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Virginia Quarterly Review, Fiction Daily and many more. He is a winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander and has been nominated twice for the Best of the Web, three times for Best of the Net and six times for The Pushcart Prize. He is the 2012 winner of the Creative Nonfiction Prize from Thin Air magazine. Tunneling to the Moon, a book of days with a work for each day of the year, is available from Silenced Press, Sharpen, a fiction chapbook, is available form Newer York Press, and Light from a Small Brown Bird, a book of poems, is available from Bitter Oleander Press. He is also the winner of the What Books Press Fiction Competition, and his story collection, The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking, is now available.

– Elaine Olund

I was on the ferry, on my way to see Tristan, my uncircumcised English boyfriend. Aside from his accent and his penis, Tristan had few charms; but he used what he had to good effect, shagging me hard in the dark so his spotty skin and undeserved arrogance and roving eyes were not evident. So far I hadn’t spent enough time with him in the light of day for those things to become deal breakers.

I was leaning on the rails, watching the prow cut into choppy surf the color of a cold November sky, thinking of Tristan and pretending in my head that he was a real boyfriend. The sort a woman like me might describe to her girlfriends back in the states as her lover with a capital “L” The sort who might compose well-written letters in which he made allusions to Shakespeare or possibly Pride and Prejudice, the sort of lover you could, in fact, nickname “my Mr. Darcy,” when writing about him on your blog.

I was out on the deck, even though a miserable misty rain was wrapping around me like a wet angora scarf. Even this short crossing made me seasick. I was trying, unsuccessfully, to find the horizon so I could calm my stomach and weave my fantasy again—the one that kept me from wanting to throw myself into the cold channel, the one in which someone, even the very superior, rabbit-faced Tristan, loved me for me.

But my illusions were falling apart faster than a damp scone.

Tristan loved whoever would stand still long enough for him to poke. Tristan was not, in fact, a poet, as his profile had claimed. Tristan was an advertising copywriter, and not even a good one. He wrote sales circulars and direct mail pitches with cloyingly cute headlines like “Somebunny Loves You!” for a pet-rabbit farm outside Surrey, aimed at parents of allergic children. He was proud of that one. Like I said, he was unaccountably arrogant, a boy who must have been doted on too much by his mother, who attracted women like me who weren’t doted on enough by theirs.

And so, I was on the ferry when my aloneness rose up like an invisible tidal wave and nearly pushed me overboard.  Here I was, almost forty, alone and shaking in the cold wet, realizing for the first time that if I disappeared from this earth, no one’s life would come crashing to a halt. My inability to weave my usual magic spell about Tristan, the spell that kept me safe in a relationship or recovering from my last or in the giggly throes of my next—it was like I’d been floating in a bubble that protected me from seeing just how alone I was. The bubble popped and I woke, the spray stinging my eyes as I felt this knowledge envelope me, strong and gagging as a spritz of Tristan’s cologne. It took my breath. 

The lonely hum of the ship’s engine chugged into a deeper roar as the ferry began to slow a bit. Ahead, the shore came blurrily into view. In this cold gray, I felt a warmth flare somewhere inside me, a strange, fiery glow. The faces of all the men of the last two decades flashed through my mind the way calendar pages flip past in old black and white movies; all those handsome and cute and nerdy and chiseled faces (okay, just one was chiseled, and he did turn out to be gay)—they all flashed by and I had a sudden surge, a knowing, elemental as the tides beneath the ship, that I was on the wrong course, and had been for a long, long time.

I was shivering when I spotted Tristan, waiting for me on the shore, standing in a beam of sunshine the color of weak tea, chatting up a willowy young thing who looked from this distance a little like Keira Knightley—long-legged, laughing, wide mouthed.

He wasn’t watching for me, he would never watch for me.

As fellow passengers piled out on deck, I felt a pushing my on back. I turned, but there was only a young mother, kissing the swaddled head of her sleeping baby. No one was touching me.

But the pushing continued, an invisible strong hand, pushing me to go taste something new—because nothing was stopping me from tasting new things. I could taste things far more sustaining than the likes of Tristan, who was the relationship equivalent of a donut, an unsatisfying lump of dough, fried up—temptingly sweet at first taste, but ultimately leading to diabetes. 

I was swept into the stream of disembarking passengers, striding fast, my bag slung on my shoulders when I began to crave Bangers and Mash and Guinness and finishing my novel without asking what Tristan thought—because, really? And long walks down twisty lanes or across misty moors, stopping when I felt like it, and not before. 

I walked faster, towards the cabs queued up at the head of the hill. I heard Tristan call my name, in that accent that once had made me swoon. His voice rose as I kept going. I didn’t turn to look at the disbelief on his face, but I heard it with 20/20 clarity. 

I was laughing aloud, hiccupping almost, as I slid into a cab. 

I didn’t care if the cabbie thought I was crazy. 

The warmth that had begun as a little glow filled me with the sort of joy I hadn’t felt since I was a baby, lying on my back, laughing the funny faces that I suddenly knew my mother must have made, at least once or twice, just for me.


Elaine Olund is a writer, designer and artist. Her work has been published in Bartleby Snopes, Turk’s Head Review, Black Demin Lit, Story Shack, and others. She’s working on her second novel, and looking for a home for her first. She blogs at elaineolund.com.

– Peter C. Ormerod


Note: This is an excerpt from Peter C.
Ormerod’s first novel, the story of Rachel
Porcher, a 27-year-old with sterling credentials and prestigious job at the
White House, who’s increasingly convinced she may be more machine than human. Examining
the age-old question of what makes us human—refracted through the lens of the
digital age, Ormerod has set the book in a near future dystopian America, where
average Americans have been decimated by corporate greed, automation,
ineffective policy, and globalization. All three branches of the U.S.
government have been crippled and corrupted; and the Silicon Valley technology
bubble has popped, leaving only two rival technology titans, FrienDexx and
Brickster, stronger than ever, aggressively expanding to all corners of modern
life, including the defense industry. Against this backdrop, THE REVOLUTION
BLUES follows the members of an as-yet uncorrupted DARPA program tasked with
creating the first Sentient Machines, an enigmatic domestic anti-technology
terrorist group’s attempt to topple the broken government and the corporate
parasites it hosts, and the CEO of FrienDexx’s desperate attempts to obtain the
ability to create his own Sentient Machines.

It was a
surprisingly short period of time before Rachel Porcher appreciated all too
well why residents of the nation’s capital derisively referred to it as “The
Swamp.” Some genius had decided to build a city — one to contain the H.Q. of a country by no means short on
geographic landmass — in a swamp.

The banal platitude
that “it’s the humidity, not the heat” actually seemed like it had some truth
to it, here in The Swamp. Having spent the past decade of her relatively short
existence on the planet in the Bay Area of northern California, the phenom of
feeling as though the late spring air may as well have been the deep end of a
swimming pool was utterly foreign to Ms. Porcher. Nor were her days prior to
Stanford much help: the mountains of Western Carolina kept things really rather
temperate. The Swamp’s humidity, though, that was the real kicker; inhalation
felt akin to plugging one’s nose and breathing with lips wrapped around a
humidifier containing boiling water.

Rachel found it mind-boggling
that her twenty-minute walk from her DuPont Circle area apartment — straight down
Connecticut Avenue to that confusing block where a pair of 17th Streets bound
Farragut Square to its east/west, where Connecticut vanishes only to rematerialize
having switched east/west positions with 17th, and finally a left onto
Pennsylvania Avenue, through a security apparatus and then beyond to her “office” — that she could
perspire so much. She’d never perspired like this ever before — not on a bike,
treadmill, sauna, nothing. Her pair of daily commutes seemed to generate a
greater volume of brine than she’d generated in the first twenty-seven years
her life combined.

And, Christ, the
effect the weather had on her hair was a constant source of consternation.  Never before had Rachel Porcher had hair that
anyone’d fairly described as frizzy—or even, really, wavy.  But in The Swamp?  She felt locked in a perpetual battle against
the humidity’s effect on her long, dark hair.
She spent maybe two weeks trying different strategies to blunt or
counteract the frizz, but truly, it was futile.
So up into a ponytail or bun it went—out of the way and off her
neck.  It’s not exactly like the
Executive Branch’s a beauty contest, after all.

And really now, who
builds a city on a swamp?

Nor did it take her
long to understand the Old Executive Office Building’s security apparatus’s
toad-woman’s hostility towards Rachel on her first day reporting to the job.
The memory still sends pangs of anxiety through her, forcing some weird kind of
involuntary tic-like response — e.g., quietly humming a
foreign melody, sharply inhaling through her nose, blowing out her lips like a
horse, & c. These anxiety-memory-tic-things would draw unsubtle sideways
glances from her coworkers, so Rachel tried her best not to let her mind wander
on over to anxiety corner. But of course there’s that truism about there being one thing and one thing only that you can’t avoid thinking about right
after you command yourself not to
think about that thing — be it vampires or a locust infestation or whatever. Still,
as far as White House staffers go, Rachel tended towards the well-adjusted end
of the spectrum. Government workers were a queer bunch, it seemed.

The first week on
the job had been mind-numbingly brutal. Training this and training that. Even
pain seemed like it’d be preferable to this all-consuming abject lack of
stimuli. Once the training sessions tapered off, that’s when Rachel gleaned a
real understanding of the toad-woman and her kin. Though to be totally fair to
toad-woman, Rachel had been naïve, there’s just no two
ways about it. But naïveté, it seems, isn’t a vice, per se. It can have
unfortunate effects, sure — see, e.g.,
anxiety pangs and tic-like responses — but it wasn’t like Rachel, in her naïveté, had any malice
intent.

And who could blame
her, really? She’d had no previous experience navigating a byzantine
bureaucracy, only to be thrown into the deep end of the bureaucratic hierarchy.
One of the many appealing aspects of working at FrienDexx had been the very
loose approach to hierarchy and rigidity. Which could make things seem a bit
chaotic at times, sure, but getting too rigidly set in your ways was a
guaranteed way to get disrupted into non-existence — that’s what Matt
always said.

Anyways, once, it
seemed, the new job actually got under way in earnest, that’s when it became
abundantly clear to Rachel Porcher why the OEOB security personnel’s hostility
was triggered by a string of mere numbers and letters. Stanford and FrienDexx
had been competitive, obviously, but in a much different way; toad-woman’s
hostility was, essentially, a product of the cruel, crystal clear reality that
Rachel’s deep end was in the stratosphere, while toad et al.’s might well have
been a lengthy trip down a mineshaft, comparatively. The competitive aspect in
D.C., at least in the circles Rachel frequented, was all about “Proximity to
the President,” a.k.a. “POTUS Prox.” Access, access, access. Toad’s mineshaft
reality almost certainly had some pecking order of its own, like, say, Rachel
mused, whose job wouldn’t be automated out of existence first.

Rachel recognized
quickly that there was nothing to be done about the hostility issue, vis-à-vis
the rigid hierarchy of the federal bureaucracy. Because there was, frankly,
nothing that Rachel’d done or could do about the facts causing the hostility.
So as her own personal mother had always said: Kill ’em with kindness.

Though Rachel had
no reason to go anywhere near the security apparatus’s hostile toads, in the
rare event she had reason to interact with a federal employee unconcerned with
POTUS Prox, Rachel Porcher made certain to be utterly and completely polite,
beaming so hard her cheeks ached. Much of this behavior, of course, was just
interpreted as another loathsome layer on a rotten onion, this
“gee-whiz-smiling-as-I-slide-the-blade-between-your-ribs” shtick. But, alas,
this too couldn’t be helped, so Rachel resolved to stick with it. After all, if
she were rude, that would only reinforce the conclusion that the onions in
closest proximity to POTUS really were rotten from layer to core.

Nor did it help
that Rachel Porcher was really quite physically attractive. This too couldn’t be
helped or changed. But Rachel was nothing if not perceptive, which many would
probably describe as enabling the manipulation of others — especially male
humans — as revoltingly
simple.

So too rang true
the trick Rachel had picked up frosh. fall semester, one she previously had no
reason to know she possessed. See, there was something terribly intoxicating
about subtly slipping into her particular sub-Mason Dixon mountain folk speech
patterns.

When people call it
a drawl, there really is some nugget of weird truth to it, the way certain
pairs of words seem to lose their distinct identities — “y’all” of course
being the most obvious but least subtle example. More effective—i.e., subtler but no less intoxicating—was
dropping a “reckon” to denote any marginal degree of uncertainty; following any
remark that anyone could possibly interpret as disparaging with complimentary
verbal tics such as “Bless her heart”; this queer and exceedingly difficult to
imitate emphasis on the first syllable of some words —e.g., “cement” becomes
“SEA-meant” and “insurance” becomes “IN-shurins”; & c.

It was something
about these speech patterns that made people reared outside the historical
Confederacy assume the speaker lacked a certain degree of sophistication. Which, when it comes to Rachel
Porcher, not only fails to accord with reality, but also proves fatal in the
getting-her-way department — even more so when a homo sapien possessing a Y-chromosome is
within earshot.

“Fear” is far too
strong and nefarious of a word, but subsequent to accepting the White House
job, it did indeed occur to Rachel that this little speech technique’s utility
might well diminish in The Swamp — given, of course, its geographic location south of the
Mason-Dixon line.

Not so. Still like
mainlining moonshine.

The only
individuals seemingly both aware and capable of resisting the southern drawl
were other females from the historical Confederacy, especially if they too were
considered physically attractive. There were more women in D.C. who fit these
criteria than in Palo Alto, and Rachel quickly got the impression that there
was some type of unwritten code w/r/t, e.g.,
dropping a “reckon” to get your way — at least within earshot of an attractive Southern-reared
female sharp enough to know what Rachel was doing.

So to Rachel’s
understanding, this unspoken code consisted of something like three axioms: (1)
Don’t flaunt it; (2) Don’t abuse it; and most critically, (3) Bless whomever’s
heart dares trying to fucking use it another
code-knower. Fair enough was Rachel Porcher’s approach. Limits she understood — not just the
mathematic concept.

Training sessions
in the fourth dimension’s rearview mirror, along with the fading temporal lag
to getting settled in a new location, establishing and adjusting routines,
& c., and it turned out that Rachel Porcher quite enjoyed her new job thus
far, aside from The Swamp conditions, of course. The title, however, was quite
the mouthful: “Principal Deputy Special Adviser to the President for Technology
and Intelligence.” Rachel memorized getting it right by staring at her
reflection and repeating it over and over in her apartment’s lone wall fixture.

It, the job, it was
different than anything she’d done at FrienDexx, yes, but Rachel enjoyed the
challenge and there was little that could be considered rote, boring, or
routine about her slate of assignments, at least so far. She was still awaiting
final confirmation of her security clearance — these things can and do take months and months and months,
she’s been told, repeatedly — so there’s still some lingering uncertainty what all
she’ll actually be doing, post-clearance final confirmation.

The whole idea of
having to accept a job without really knowing what, exactly, the job entailed — given the
position’s portfolio was itself classified, Top Secret (‘TS’), Sensitive
Compartmentalized Information (‘SCI’), No Foreign Nationals (‘NOFORN’), in the
compartment referred to only, thus far, as ‘VVFSI.’ This struck Rachel Porcher
as the zenith of absurdity.

But Matt had really
encouraged her to take the opportunity, to go try her hand at something
different, work in service to the homeland, & c., and he’d assured Rachel
that she’d always be welcome back at FrienDexx. Paralyzed by the equally likely
implications of the CEO’s personal encouragement to depart FrienDexx — Was she going to
get up getting pushed out sooner rather than later, with or without the White
House job? Or did Matt trust her enough to think she’d go to D.C. for his and
FrienDexx’s benefit? — taking the White House gig seemed like the prudent move,
since doing so eliminated the former concern, and she’d have
three-thousand-plus miles and a good bit of time to formulate a strategy for
dealing with the latter.

So Rachel accepted the White House position in January— reservations about the position’s portfolio’s existence
within the VVFSI compartment notwithstanding.


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Peter C. Ormerod is a twenty-eight-year-old licensed attorney, who, over the course of a twenty-month career at a large corporate law firm in Washington, D.C., recognized that practicing law could not provide the opportunity to pursue his passion for writing. A voracious consumer of literary fiction and follower of developments in contemporary literature since college, he began creative free writing after law school, and since leaving his law practice, has dedicated himself to writing his first novel full-time.  

We’re pleased to share the news about the recent publication of Jeff Lawenda’s PATHWAYS: novellas and stories of new york – available in hardcover, trade paperback and ebook. The setting of Madison Square Park in Manhattan’s Flatiron district is used as a frame for each of the stories.  

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Two of Jeff’s stories (”Honor Thy Father” and “Lunch With Louie”) appeared initially right here at Turk’s Head. 

The book is available now. For more info, see www.jefflawenda.com  

Congrats Jeff!

The Doctor Empties his Pockets


Kirkley Mehndiratta

1) The Doctor Empties his Pockets.  

The camera delves into the doctor’s pockets, zooming in toward a dark, cavernous space wherein are contained various items.  

They are, first: some loose change, akin to 30 pieces of silver.  Deals made with the devil.    

Within the pocket of his scrubs is also (the camera cuts back to the doctor’s pocket innards):

– An oversize bulging black wallet: leather, orotund, turgid with bills, credit cards, and secrets.  Secrets about hookups, mistresses, nurses and secretaries of choice.  
– A Robocop-style DROID smartphone because he emulates the 1980s version of ROBOCOP; lint; chewing gum, peppermint, sugar-free.  The camera cuts to a shot of Robo-cop from the 1980s: his doppelgänger, the doctor’s muse?    
– Used tissues.  Used…for what?
– The turgid black wallet holds pictures of all his estranged children.  
– Business cards from associates–the not-so-trusted ones.

FLASHBACK:  

The camera wiggles and wobbles—follows sea-green hospital scrubs, old phonebooks, and a red bra—they fly in all directions.  

Cut to the trunk of his silver 1989 Mercedes 560 SEL, which might as well be his pockets.  The Mercedes is—like his children—an extension of him.  

A man doesn’t keep much in his pockets, I suppose, when he has an entire car trunk to contain his junk.    

The keys?  Where are the keys?  He can never find them.  It’s cause for ire (his). 

2) The Doctor Fasts: He Eats

When he ‘fasts,’ because he thinks it’s en-vogue and because his deepest vision of himself is to be a waif-like but mentally tough stick of a blonde amazon woman, he prefers a dish of edamame from a Japanese restaurant, some green tea, and nothing else.  The edamame are steamed and still incubating in their pods, much like the vessels of women carrying his unborn children, or the inchoate dreams he has held onto and pursued only into the tardy aftermath of his life.    

He picks up one edamame pod and, between what my mother likes to call his “tapered fingers” (which are long, dry and of an intellectual, cultivated shape—a surgeon’s and not a laborer’s hands), he applies pressure to the pod.  Pod pops open, releasing a minuscule pocket of steam and some goo-of-edamame bubbles.  The doctor places implement [hand] to mouth, and the fingers, like one of those plastic claws attached to a pole, open and close with a flex/touch and release of the sinews of his wrist.  The edamame pod goes flying into the doctor’s mouth and bypasses his thin, almost nonexistent lips.  

3) Physical Details of the Doctor:

A surgeon’s slight stoop—a curved slingback that manifests in most sartorial forms, save when he chooses to wear a collared shirt, which somewhat disguises and effaces the effect of his curved posture.  

A funny way of running, like how I imagine a jackal would run or a coyote if he was running on hind legs… I think of Wiley Coyote and Road Runner, zooming through a Looney Tunes excerpt.  

The aquiline nose that is not-so-aquiline.  More in the vein of Jewy.  Sadly, Fagin-like, if I want to think of the worst parts of him.  

Roman, if I want to think, arrogantly and problematically, of the best.  Or of how he might imagine himself (in his best of days): in the ‘greed-is-good’ era that was his heyday.      

Stick-thin bowl-legs with ‘docksiders’ attached.  His dowdy footwear choice is a perma-appendage.  Otherwise, the day calls for New Balance.    

4) Things that The Doctor has Said  

He stooped over—he looked smaller.  He said something that I don’t remember, except that he was smiling.  My fear of him melted away to pity, sadness.    

I thought about the spectrum, running hot to ice-cruel, of all the things he has ever said to me—all the things that I remember:

Age 7: “You’re a fucking idiot” over Celestial Seasonings Lemon-Zinger tea with honey (over not-so celestial, ethereal or honeyed commentary—more base and pithy) and in front of a second-grader’s multiplication tables and division.    

Age 16: “I love you the most,” pointing a finger at me from the distance of the driveway, sunglasses on like a boss.  

I remember all the times I cried in conversation with him over something he said or the spaces of distant silence in between.  

Age 26: “Our ancestors sacrificed themselves for others” at a Passover dinner at his sister’s—my Aunt’s—trying to induce his captive audience to feelings of shame.  He is standing, lording over the others at the table like a madman—Moammar Gaddafi trying to squelch the weak, the vacillating.  I can only think of the Ayn Rand quote (yes, Ayn Rand) that says that those who want to talk of sacrifice are really talking about slaves and masters—a toxic binary.  Not so sophomoric on that one, Rand.  

Slaves and masters.  Me and my dad.  "Daddy, Daddy, I hate you,“ Sylvia Plath says.      

I met my father for the first time, again, when I was 23, greeted with: "You’re a sneaky bitch.”  He circled like a wolf around a freshly-hunted kill, the camera reeling toward and away from him, making me, the viewer, dizzy.  


Kirkley Mehndiratta is a graduate of Oberlin College where she majored in English and Cinema Studies. After graduating from Oberlin, Kirkley lived, worked, and studied Mandarin in China for two and a half years. She has two Master’s degrees including one in English from Temple University, where she studied Creative Writing with Samuel Delany. While at Temple, she won the Greater Philadelphia Women’s Consortium Conference paper prize for her work on John Donne and Gender. Kirkley is a recipient of a Banff Leighton Colony Artist Fellowship Award at Banff Arts Center in Banff, Canada. She has been waitlisted for a Vermont Studio Center Fellowship, and she was awarded a scholarship to attend the Wesleyan Writers Conference in 2012 as well as being accepted to workshop with Melissa Bank at the Aspen Summer Words festival in 2014. She is currently at work revising her first novel while living in Boston.

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The Water Way

J. T. Townley

Dr. Marcie’s pool through the ten-foot security gate.  A huge, curved teardrop, or half a yin yang, made of gunite and plaster.  The clear water shimmers in the California sunlight.  Poolside, Shirley the goat chews the cushion of a chaise lounge.

A luxury sedan hums down the street behind me.  I grip the iron bars and wait.  Unseen birds chirp in the trees; a cool breeze blows.  Now I’m up and over, agile as a lynx, but the Tony Llama on my left foot catches the top of the gate.  I hang there, midair, long enough to wonder what time Dr. Marcie will be home.  I tug at my boot, struggling to dislodge it.  Instead, my foot slips out, and I land in a rosemary bush.

I limp across the deck to the water.  Shirley pauses mid-mastication and stares at me.  I reach up to scratch my head at the mystery of it, only to notice my black felt Stetson is missing.  Maybe I lost it in the fall?  I imagine myself wading into the water and slowly sinking to the bottom, only to realize I’m already there.  So I dig a raft out of the shed and slide it into the pool.  On the first step, my right boot filling with water, I lie back onto the raft and push myself away from the side toward the deep end.

Shirley gives me a tinny bleat.

*

I once wrote, “Have little thought of self and as few desires as possible.”  Have the people forgotten?  Did they ever know?  Because except for a few Buddhists, they seem to think only of the self and its desires.  People are bloated with desire, a many-headed hydra of emptiness and longing.

Far indeed is this from The Way.  

“Mr. Tzu,” she says.  “Or is it Mr. Lao?  Forgive me; I never can get Chinese names right.  Anyhow, do come in.”

I step into her rectangular office.  She sits facing the door in an ergonomic leather swivel chair, light pouring in through an immense window behind her.  I can’t see her face.  A vanilla candle burns at the corner of her desk.  Bookshelves filled with heavy tomes line three walls, floor to ceiling.  Between the Persian rugs, the hardwood floors gleam.

“Please,” she says, waving me toward a couch near her desk.

I step toward it but remain standing.

“So you say you’ve lost your way, Mr. Tzu?”

I wait and watch.  The candle’s syrupy perfume makes me lightheaded.  

“That’s perfectly natural, Lao.  May I call you that?”

I blink.

“In this day and age, we all lose our way from time to time.  If I didn’t have GPS in the Lexus, I’d never find my way home.  I’m kidding!  Only not.  What I mean is, you’re not alone, Lao or Tzu.  You’re in good company, meaning 99.9% of Americans.  That’s an estimate.  But just between you and me, if I had a dime for every celebrity or actor wannabe who wandered in off the street after a three-day bender telling me they’ve lost their way, well, I could play the slots in Vegas for a long, long time.”  Dr. Marcie forces a smile, then pivots and crosses her shapely legs.  “Incidentally, did Patricia have a chance to review our fee schedule with you before you came in?”      

I nod, though I have no idea what she’s talking about.

“Good, excellent, perfect.”  She makes a tent of her hands and stares at the ceiling, as if she’s making calculations.  “Have seat,” she says.  “Kick back and relax.  That’s what this is all about, after all.”

I don’t move.  Muffled street noise leaks into the room.

“Or not,” says Dr. Marcie.  “Stand if you like.  It’s a little weird, but whatever.  Creeps me out, makes it more difficult for me to do my job, which, after all, is to help you.  But, really, whatever makes you comfortable.”

So much babble.  

“You don’t say much, do you?” she asks.

“To use words but rarely is to be natural.”

When I see her again, I say, “I have lost The Way.”

“You’ve lost your way,” she says.

“The Way.”

“Are we going to split hairs?  You don’t have many left!  Just kidding.  Only it’s true, and I mean that in a good way.  Makes you look wise.  Wizened.”

“Are you not a sage to the people?”

“Of course, I am.  I’m a psychiatrist.”

Dr. Marcie turns a copy of my book over and over in her hands.  “But it says as much right here in this book you say you wrote,” she says.  Then she thumbs through, loses her place, scans with her index finger, then reads:  “‘In all probability, Lao Tzu was not a historical figure at all.’  Also:  ‘We have no reason to believe Lao Tzu was a real person.’”

“Yet here I stand before you.  Lao Tzu, philosopher.  Author of the Tao te ching.”

Dr. Marcie waves her hand as if shooing away a fly.  She flips the pages, finds what she’s looking for, and reads:  “‘Lao Tzu literally means the old man.’  What do you think of that, Old Man?”

“To know yet to think one does not know is best.”

“What the heck’s that supposed to mean?”

In our next session, I stand in front of Dr. Marcie’s desk.  She tries to hide her annoyance.

“I’ve been reading your book, Old Man,” she says.  “It’s so cryptic I don’t understand most of it, but I think I’ve found your way.”

“The Way.”

“A way back.  For you.  To The Way.”

I wait and listen.  The phone rings.  

“Excuse me,” says Dr. Marcie.  Then, into the receiver, she says, “Yes?  Okay, put her on.  What is it, Ana?  I’m with a client.  No, you let her.  Yes, you let her.  I don’t care if she gnaws your shoes off, Ana.  Shirley eats what she wants.  Goodbye.”  She slams the phone down, takes a breath, and swivels my direction.  “Forgive me,” she says.  “Goat problems.”

“Goat?”

“It’s so hard to find good help, don’t you think?”  Dr. Marcie brushes the stray hairs out of her face.  “Now, where were we?”

“The Way.”

“Yes, of course.”  She takes a drink and clears her throat.  She reads, “‘Highest good is like water.’”

Her breath smells like Stolichnaya.  I nod.  

“Because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures without contending with them and settles where none would like to be, it comes close to The Way.”

I nod again and almost smile; I wrote that.  Twenty-five hundred years ago, but still.

“That’s it,” she says.  “Your way back to The Way.  Or wherever.”

She probably just wants to get rid of me.  Without knowing it, though, she may be onto something.

“Were I possessed of the least knowledge,” I say, “I would, when walking on The Great Way, fear only paths that lead astray.”

Dr. Marcie offers no indication she’s heard me.  “Think fast!” she says, tossing my book to me, then slipping around her desk.  Ushering me to the door, she says, “Bon voyage, Old Man, and good luck.”  She shoves me out.  “And don’t worry about my fee for the time being.  This is You Time.  We’ll settle up later.”

*

Although I head for the beach, there’s no one in the water.  No swimmers, no surfers, no one.  Instead, people play volleyball in the sand or ride skateboards and bicycles along the boardwalk.  A dozen or more gigantic men bench press huge plates of steel or curl giant dumbbells, their oiled muscles like knotted rope.    

“Why isn’t anyone in the water?” I ask.

The responses vary:

“Sharks.”

“Tsunamis.”

“It’s toxic, man.”

The breeze is heavy with the scent of oil, seaweed, and ammonia.

A bikini-clad woman on roller skates suggests I try Raging Waters Water Park.  I’m not sure I like the sound of it, but I don’t have to travel too far.

I give the ticket clerk some currency and make a beeline for the nearest pool.  It reeks of industrial-grade chlorine, which burns my eyes even though I keep them clamped shut, but it’s cool and washes away the film of sweat and grime that covers my skin.

I dive off the diving boards and tube down the water slides and wonder if this might not be The Way.  But what about the entrance fee? I wonder.  Also, the concrete and steel and chemicals?  The screaming children laughing and whining and peeing in the water?  And I witness arguments outside the Tiki Lounge, skirmishes in the line for The Surge, and full-blown physical altercations in the Lazy River.  

So I relegate myself to the Wave Pool Surf Lagoon, which I hope will be calmer and more relaxing.  But as I swim underwater, the edge of my robe lodges itself in a water pump intake, sucking me down to the pool floor.  I frantically untangle myself and swim for the surface, gasping for air.

Mothers scream and cover their children’s eyes when I emerge from the pool, while their husbands heehaw and point at my pruned, naked flesh.  A security detail forces me into an oversized terrycloth robe and escorts me to the front gate.  They threaten me with criminal charges and banish me from the park.  

Forever.  

*

When I first set out, I intend to travel by paddleboat, catamaran, and skiff, kayak, canoe, and outrigger, punt, pirogue, and gondola, sloop, ketch, and yawl, raft, barrel, and inner tube.  I face several challenges, including the fact I have no idea where to obtain any of them.  People here (not unlike those in ancient China) place a high value on property, and no one offers me a loaner.  It wouldn’t matter anyway.  Very few of the waterways connect, so I’d be faced with portage after portage.  I could never shoulder a yawl.

Mostly, I travel by big rig.  

*

I head across the desert, in search of the Colorado River.  Nothing but sand and dust and scrub for three-hundred miles.  The trucker who gives me a lift, a burly, barrel-chested man with a gray braid down his back, doesn’t say a word the entire time, not even about my terrycloth robe.  I’m asleep when he pulls into a giant asphalt parking lot filled with cars and tour buses and RV’s.  “Here’s where she starts,” he says.  I climb out, and he rumbles away.

Tourists swarm, but the focus isn’t on that mighty river.  Instead, everyone goggles the giant concrete dam built across the canyon.  They snap photos of the massive structure, then go inside to buy souvenir key chains, magnets, and post cards in the gift shop.  What do they think?  Highest good is like a concrete arch-gravity dam?

Sour, I hitch another ride.  As we lurch across the bridge, I glimpse a tiny trickle of water in the canyon far below.  

On the other side, a huge, stagnant lake.

I climb out in El Paso, where I pick up the Rio Grande.  I’m not sure about the name; I can only assume it used to be a beautiful, fast-moving river.  Now it’s sluggish and muddy and smells of sulfur.  It takes me forever to get anywhere, especially since I start out on a makeshift stockade fence raft.  Before I’m out of El Paso, though, I wise up and borrow (without asking) a little johnboat with a motor.  It does the trick.  

On the starboard side are haggard women hanging laundry, their children running naked across dirt lots or playing in the mud on the bank.  On the port side, men in brown uniforms and black SUV’s stand guard, automatic weapons at the ready.  They fish out a dozen people attempting to swim from one side to the other before I’ve been on the water an hour.  

Yet when I make it to a place called Big Bend, I think I might have rediscovered The Way.  Although the river’s still murky, the landscape takes my breath away.  I float through deep canyons, cliffs towering up on either side of me.  The panoramas of nearby mesas and distant mountains, the multicolored striations of geologic time illuminated by the midday sun, are stunning.  

I refuel and motor on.

Just outside of Laredo, the sun dipping into the sky behind me, I’m almost shot.  I zip down the middle of the river, an unseen force pulling me toward the Gulf.  The port bank is thick with black SUV’s, while on the starboard side, men in black vests and ski masks skulk behind rusty pickups and washer-dryer combos.  I can’t tell where the first shot comes from.  Rifles explode like fireworks in the night, sending bullets shrieking past my head in the darkness.  I was dead wrong about this river, I realize, for The Way of Heaven benefits and does not harm.  I kill the engine and duck for cover in the bottom of the boat, which reeks of dead fish and mildew.  The firefight intensifies, so I crank the motor and gun it.  As soon as I clear the death zone, I land the boat and sprint for the city.

*

While they’re on my itinerary, and I’ve marked them on the map in blue highlighter, I never make it to the Puget Sound or the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  I miss out on the Willamette River and the Columbia River and Multnomah Falls.  I don’t see the Great Salt Lake.  Likewise, I miss the Missouri River and the Mississippi River and all the Great Lakes.  I never lay eyes on the Atlantic Ocean, not even the one time Brad sends me to Atlantic City to promote my book.  I’m within striking distance of the Gulf of Mexico, but I hear there’s no point, since it’s a giant ecological disaster, more oil and dispersant than water.  

*

I catch a lift with a trucker heading north.  He sports a salt-and-pepper handlebar mustache and cowboy duds:  starched Wrangler’s, a gold belt buckle, and a pressed, plaid button-up shirt.  His Stetson hangs upside down from the headliner in a hat hanger.  I imagine that, down in the floorboard, his feet are shod in armadillo skin boots.  The man has style.

“You ain’t from these parts,” he says.  “Where you headed?”

“Just up the road a piece,” I say.  It’s an expression I picked up, and it seems to comfort truckers.

“Take you far as Austin.”

“Wherever’s perfect.”

“Well, climb on up if you’re coming.”

For the first two hours, he doesn’t say a word.  He tunes into a Country & Western station, and we both stare out the windshield into the black void.  I try not to wonder why he has a six-inch buck knife in a sheath on his belt.  

Then, for no discernible reason, he says:

“How you doin’ there, Tzu?”

“Excuse me?”

“You look a little down at the mouth, is all.”

“I was almost killed, if that’s what you mean.”  

“One of those days, huh?  Well, a wiser fella than myself once said, Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes, why, the bar eats you.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about.

“That some kind of Eastern thing?” I ask.

“Far from it, Tzu.”

The cowboy recognizes the next song, Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Tzu.”  He turns it up and hums along.  I lean against the door and fall asleep.  

*

A woman screaming from the side of the pool.  She’s on all fours, slinging water at me with her cupped hand.  “Who are you, Señor?  Where you come from?”

From the other side of the pool, Shirley bleats, then tears off a mouthful of chair cushion.

I shade my eyes with my right hand and try to focus.  My face feels sunburned, and everything but my shirt and the front of my Wrangler’s is soaked through.  The breeze rustles the expertly landscaped foliage and smells of peat moss, chlorine, and money.

“The Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way,” I say.

I feel a little drunk.  I may be.

“Señor,” says the woman, whose name I eventually learn is Ana, “what you doing?”

“Wu-wei,” I say, and it’s the truth.  

“You can’t be here!  Not when Dr. Marcie comes.”

“But she’s expecting me.”

Ana’s uniform is black and white and buttoned up to the throat.  She seems to be weighing her options, wondering if any harm could be inflicted with the pool skimmer.  

“Dr. Marcie say nothing to me.”

I pull off my boot, then roll into the water and let myself sink to the bottom.  When my feet touch, I push myself back to the surface, emerging into the golden sun as if from a cocoon.  I brush water from my eyes, then swim toward Ana.  

“It’s a surprise,” I say.

Ana folds her arms across her chest.  She looks down at me like I’m an insect she’s about to squash.  

“You are not so smart.”

I shield my eyes from the sun, but I still can’t see her face.

“If is surprise, how she can expect?” she says.  She smells like wood polish and corn meal.  “If she expect, how is surprise?”

I push away from the wall and float on my back, gazing up into the azure emptiness.  “Mystery upon mystery,” I say.  “The gateway of the manifold secrets.”

“You want I call police?”

Shirley rears and bucks, knocking over a small patio table, her hooves clopping against the concrete pool decking.

*

At Take Two, a vintage store on Guadalupe and 32nd, I browse for blue jeans and boots.  A twenty-something with long hair and a bushy beard, dressed only in a serape, cut-offs, and sandals, strikes up a conversation.  I think he works here.

“Need any help?”

I tell him what I’m after.  He points me to a rack of Western shirts with pearly snaps, multicolored embroidery, and horseshoe pockets.  He watches me for a couple of minutes, then says:

“You look familiar, man.  What’s your name?”

“The name that can be named is not the constant name.”

“Huh,” he says, scratching his beard.  “That’s deep.  You’re one of those Eastern philosopher dudes, right?”

“I seek The Way.”

“I know the city pretty well.  Maybe I could help?”

I explain my quest and what it means.  I don’t know why.  He suggests I start a blog.

“To get the word out,” he says.  “I’m interested in your travels, and I know a lot of other people would be, too.  We’re all on the same journey, man.”

After I make my purchases, the bearded man, whose name is Stevie, sets the whole thing up for me on his laptop in the office.  We choose a style and layout, even a title:  The Water Way.  He shows me how to access the blog no matter where I am and tells me the kinds of things people might want to read.  He suggests I start at the beginning of my travels and write something about each place I’ve been.

“That all make sense?” he asks.

I nod.  He pats me on the shoulder and goes back up to the front.  I think about my travels, considering what might be said of them.  I have to hunt-and-peck on the keyboard, but eventually I manage to write:  

One who excels in traveling leaves no wheel tracks.

I’m still at the motel on South Congress when Brad shows up.  It’s taking me much longer than I anticipated to formulate the travel narratives Stevie says will interest my readers.  I’m more inclined to verse, riddles, metaphors.  So I mull and write, word by word, sentence by sentence.  It’s much more difficult than I expected.

But I post enough entries to attract Brad’s attention.  He comes pounding on my door late one night while I’m playing with the Magic Fingers.  I’ve just plugged my coin when I hear him outside:  “Low Sue,” he says.  “Open up!  We have business.”

He’s a slight man in his late-forties, with short hair and a diamond stud in his right ear.  He introduces himself as a “talent agent” and promises to make me a star.

“I do not seek fame or fortune,” I say, easing back against the headboard.  “I seek The Way.”

“Unbelievable!”  He gives me an awkward pat on the thigh.  “And I love the cowboy getup.  Whole East-meets-West shtick.  People are gonna eat you up!”

I’m at a loss.  The bed vibrates and squeaks.  The room is too warm.

Brad examines the lamp shade and bedspread and framed black-and-whites on the walls.  He pretends to be impressed.  His gold pinky ring catches the dull yellow light.

“Dr. Marcie showed me your book,” he says.

“You’re in therapy, too?”

He chuckles.  “We used to be married.”

“Then why do you call her Dr. Marcie?”

“That’s her name.”

The Magic Fingers machine grinds away.  Brad fiddles with his pinky ring, grinning down at me.  

“Here’s the situation,” he says.  “You owe Dr. Marcie big bucks, right?  I can help you with that.  All you have to do is go on being yourself, plus listen to me and follow my advice.  I already have a new name in mind:  L. T. Turner.  What do you think?”

I say nothing.

Brad doesn’t need encouragement, explaining his vision at great length.  When I begin to nod off, he slips another quarter into the Magic Fingers, which jolts me awake.  And he goes on talking well into the night, hands gesticulating, eyes gleaming, drowning me in words I no longer care about or understand.  

“So?” he asks.  “What do you think?”

“One who knows does not speak,” I say.  “One who speaks does not know.”

Brad’s eyes go wide with wonder.  “That’s exactly what I’m talking about!”  He adjusts his earring, then rubs his hands together.  “You keep that up, and we’ll make a killing.”  

I kick my feet up onto the bed, lean back against the pillows, and fold my arms behind my head, waiting for him to leave.

“I’ll make the calls first thing tomorrow, set the wheels in motion.  ’Kay?”

“The Way never acts,” I say, “yet nothing is left undone.”

Neon light pours in through the open door.  Brad points at me and winks.  “Big Star, Mr. Sue, mark my words.”

The bed groans and shudders beneath me, then goes still.

Brad’s true to his word.  He has my book redesigned and reprinted, with my face on the cover, and he sends me out on the lecture circuit.  I continue writing my blog; Brad insists.  “It’s free publicity,” he says, “helps with buzz.”  He clearly knows his business because the book takes off, and hundreds, maybe thousands of people come out to hear me speak.  At a two-hour lecture, I might say:  “Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty.”  No one seems to mind.

Do they, too, seek The Way?    

In places like Dayton, Lansing, and Springfield, I sell and sell.  Maybe not as much as Brad hopes for, but I have plenty to pay Dr. Marcie’s bill.  Only when I hint at dropping the lecture tour, Brad acts as if I’ve suggested we sell his daughter into prostitution.  He doesn’t even have a daughter.  

“You can’t quit now, Low Sue.  You won’t.  That’s not how it’s done.”

So I wind up in Terre Haute, Topeka, and Lincoln, peddling my wares.  But my audiences dwindle right along with my enthusiasm for the project.  Most of these people probably never even read the book.  In the beginning, that sad fact didn’t matter to me, but now I find it disheartening.  Depressing, even.  There’s no point to it anymore.  I still haven’t found my way back to The Way; how can I encourage others to seek it?

A pep talk one Sunday afternoon before a lecture.  Brad keeps dipping a tiny spoon into a bag of white powder, then sniffing it.  I’ve never seen this before.  I watch him as he speaks a mile a minute, not listening to a single word.  When he lifts the tiny spoon from the bag again, I grab his hand and guide it to my nose.  When he resists, locking his arm, his face a knot of disapproval, I lean over and sniff the powder.  Brad relaxes and says, “This is new.”  He licks an index finger, dips it in the bag, rubs it over his gums, top and bottom, then smacks.  “At least it will give you a lift,” he says.

The crowds begin to swell.  I carry my own bags of white powder now, which don’t come cheap, and my demeanor has changed.  Although my delivery might be different—I speed-talk and tell lots of jokes—the message is still the same.  The book sells out; Brad convinces the publishers to print more.  We play Las Vegas and knock ’em dead three Sundays running.  That’s when Brad institutes The Seminar and finagles a regular gig for me at Caesar’s Palace.  Tickets sell out, even when Brad doubles, then triples the price.  I develop a powerful affinity for single-malt scotch.

Apparently, whiskey and white powder are volatile bedfellows.  One time I wake up in a hot tub at one of the fancier hotels, naked, surrounded by three beautiful young women.  From his third-floor balcony, a man in nothing but a sumo wrestler’s diaper yells, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas!  Right, Old Man?”  Another time, I come to out in the desert among the snakes and scorpions, curled up in the shade of a Joshua tree.  It’s the middle of the afternoon.  Luckily, it’s only a ten-minute stumble to the city limits.  

All Brad says is, “Careful, Sue.”

I don’t eat or sleep much, so I’m not exactly surprised when I pass out, mid-sentence, during one of my seminars.  A couple of meaty Midwesterners revive me with slaps and ice water before anyone calls the paramedics.  I try to carry on, but, oddly, Brad won’t let me.  “This isn’t about today,” he says.  “It’s about the future.”  I spend the afternoon in my suite flipping through TV stations and sipping single-malt.

I do my utmost to attain emptiness, but it’s not the right kind.  

I cannot hold firmly to stillness for more than a three-minute stretch.

Yet I haven’t forgotten:  To retire when the task is accomplished is The Way of Heaven.  

So when I wake up in the back of a pickup hurtling down the highway in the middle of the night, I’m almost relieved.  I have no idea who’s driving or where we’re going, but does it make a difference?  I’ve left Vegas and Brad and, most importantly, L. T. Turner far behind.  I gaze up into the star-filled, desert sky.  I reach out to the Supreme Palace Enclosure and White Tiger of the West; I can almost touch them.

I’m in and out of consciousness as we bump and swerve along the highway.  Time passes.  Soon the glow of spotlights and searchlights outshines the stars, and the sky goes hazy.  The air reeks of exhaust, industrial waste, and abandoned dreams.

Welcome to the City of Angels.

*

I’m afloat on my raft in the pool when Dr. Marcie comes home.  Ana trails behind her, saying, “Very sorry, Señora” as they step out the back door.  I sip from the fruit smoothie I convinced Ana to bring me.  Shirley the goat munches on the bougainvillea.

Dr. Marcie stops at the edge of the pool deck, hands on her hips, and glares at me.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Wu-wei,” I say.

“What?” she says.  “Where?”

“I don’t know what you’re asking.”

“You fornicate in my pool shed with some Chinese tramp?  This is how you repay me?”

“You misunderstand, Dr. Marcie.  Wu-wei is action that requires no action.”  I study her expression; she’s impossible to read.  “You might call it ‘inaction.’”

“I always took you for a lazy bum.”  She watches Shirley climb up on a chaise lounge and begin decimating the crepe myrtles.  “Why aren’t you on tour?”

I take a drink of smoothie.  “Tour’s over.”

“Does Brad know about this?”

Before I can respond, not that I intend to, sirens wail in the street out front.  Soon a mob of police crash through the house and over the fence.

“Thank you, officers.  Everything’s fine here.  Just a misunderstanding.”

An older man with a mustache and pot belly says, “A Ms. Ana Rodriguez, domestic, reported an intruder.”  Ana stands by the back door, her head down.  “Do you know this man?”

Dr. Marcie’s eyes light up with possibility.  I’m convinced she’s going to have me arrested when she says, “Yes, Sergeant.  He’s a client—a, uh, patient.  You know, a friend.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I apologize for the inconvenience,” she says.  “It won’t happen again, I assure you.”

“Sir,” he says, pencil point to notebook, “could I get your name, please?”

“Don’t you recognize him?” says Dr. Marcie.  “That’s L. T. Turner.”

“The self-help guru?  You gotta be shittin’ me!  ’Scuse my French.”

“The one and only,” she says.

“It’s an honor and a privilege,” says the sergeant.  “I read your book twice!  Would’ve attended your seminar, too, if it weren’t for the missus.”

I wave him away and slurp my smoothie.

“He’s very grateful,” Dr. Marcie says.  “We both are.”

As the sergeant rounds up his men, Shirley bucks and bleats.  When they’re gone, Dr. Marcie dismisses Ana, possibly for good, then steps around the pool and takes a seat on a chaise lounge.  Shirley comes over and Dr. Marcie cradles the young goat in her lap.  

“Maybe you should have told me?” I suggest.  

She strokes Shirley’s head and ignores me.

“What you had in mind, I mean.”

“There was no plan, Old Man.  I mentioned you to Brad, then he saw your blog.  It’s just the way things worked out.”  Dr. Marcie watches Shirley meander off toward the hydrangeas.  “Only it sounds like things didn’t work out.”

“I am no guru.  But I needed to pay your fees.”

“Can you?”

I stare at my pruned fingers.  “No.”

We listen to the crickets chirp and the jets scream.

“Well,” she says, “did you find your way?”

“I didn’t think so, until I came here.”

“To Beverly Hills?”  She looks around, her gaze taking in the palatial homes and well-manicured lawns.  “I find that hard to believe.”

I suck the last of my smoothie through the straw.  Shirley glances up when she hears the gurgling sound and lets out a loud bleat.  Then I toss the cup onto the pool deck; the breeze catches it and rakes it across the concrete into the grass.  I gaze up into the sky, which is slowly darkening to indigo; the night’s first stars are out, the Purple Forbidden Enclosure and Azure Dragon of the East.  I fold my arms behind my head and say:

“Without stirring abroad one can know the whole world.  Without looking out the window one can see The Way of Heaven.”


J. T. Townley has published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals.  He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia.  To learn more, visit jttownley.com.

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