Jae Kim

The Sloping Lawn

Kay was on the campus lawn trying to wrap his thoughts around the fire hydrant when he witnessed a roadkill. A sliver of the wild rabbit was sucked under the tires, and then he saw the aftermath. The animal was disfigured to the point where you couldn’t tell what it had been to begin with. It could have been a pigeon or a fat rodent. The dusty campus bus stopped at the stop sign and moved on. Students were released with the twelve o’clock chime, and many crossed the road where the roadkill had happened only moments ago. The lawn was on a slope, the road below. Kay could see the rabbit at the center of the swerving foot traffic. It was like an abstracted painting, the parts barely recognizable, streaks on a patch so dark it was almost as black as the pavement. The road was the only road that cut across the university campus. The bus wasn’t going fast. Perhaps the rabbit had been sick and limping, or old and senile, like the long-legged mosquitoes trapped inside windows, inching up for all their lives. Kay looked at the fire hydrant. It was more a part of the lawn and the brick buildings than the clump on the road. On the other side of the road another lawn sloped up. On either side of the road were ditches and drains so the road wouldn’t turn into a river when it rained. If it rained, with the first few drops, the blood would thin and flow. If the road turned into a river, the rabbit would come unstuck and float, and the students, unable to cross, would line up along the banks. A woman’s hair fanned down from behind her ear and blocked Kay’s view of the dead animal. She leaned over it, her checkered skirt tucked under her knees. There was hardly anyone around anymore. She lingered over the rabbit, hugging her legs. She buried her face between her knees. A sedan came to a stop next to the woman. The driver, a young man, poked his head out, and was about to say something mean, Kay thought, but stopped himself. There was just enough room to go around the woman. Her hair took on a reddish hue. She was no longer watching, but soaking in it. She wasn’t sobbing. She was almost sleeping, taking an afternoon nap. The fire hydrant was the same as others on campus, those along the streets of the residential neighborhood surrounding the university. Worn, rusting at the edges. The woman stood up. A part of her shoe touched the rabbit, then she looked up in Kay’s direction as if to come up the slopes. There were two ways to come up the slopes. Some took the long-winded trail, others treaded the shorter path through the grass. The two paths met at the top, and there the fire hydrant sat marking the crossroads. Squirrels climbed it, jumped past it. The woman looked behind Kay. Kay looked and found a man whose face was hard to see under a blue visor. In his gloved hands were a shovel and a clump of plastic bags. He was coming down the slope the long way, which traced a circle around Kay. At first, Kay could only see his scruffy chin. As the man came down, though he wasn’t any closer to Kay, because of the sun’s angle, Kay could make out his shadowed eyes and the pale skin below his eyes. The chime rang, and students filed out like the parade of an automaton clock. In the midst of their stream, the man shoveled the remains of the rabbit. He planted the sharp end of the shovel firmly at the edge and scooped it up. The sheet of steel scraped the concrete in one grating stroke. Now the rabbit lay on the blade of the shovel, curled up in its embracing curve. Where it had once lain—there was only a smudge. The woman had been watching from the sidewalk, was still watching as the plastic bag was tied, tied again, and hung on the man’s fingers. A pickup truck blared its horn, and the woman stood back, but before the truck could pass by, a pair of students crossed the road. One of them nearly stepped on the smear, but the other caught him by his elbow. They climbed up the shorter path. The truck tires missed the spot, threw gray dust on it. The woman watched the plastic bag get carried up the slope the long way, and followed it from a distance. More cars passed and threw gray dust on the smudge. The smudge became a mere discoloration. Kay told his students to write about the fire hydrant while he watched, from the window of his classroom on top of the hill, the road. The chime rang, students poured out, and shoes and tires took turns rubbing the spot. On the blackboard Kay had written: мртва животиња. Kay had asked the students to write about мртва животиња to see if anyone else had seen the rabbit die. The students were there to learn to speak their minds in a new language. They were there to listen, read, and communicate with others. A student had written: Јуче сам видео мртво животињу—Yesterday I saw a dead animal. The name Sonya didn’t bring to his mind a face. On his way home Kay made himself step on the spot. He ran up the opposite slope and looked back. The smudge was nearly invisible, and because of it, the spot was prominent. He loved a woman much like the woman who had sat on the road and buried her face between her knees. Then he loved another, much like the woman who had followed from a distance the rabbit’s remains being carried away by the pale-faced man. They were two different women. Then it was raining, and Kay wrote on the blackboard: киша, meaning rain. While the students scribbled on their notebook papers, the sun came out and dried the road. The worn road. It would have to be repaved. Otherwise, there would soon be potholes to patch. On his way home, Kay hit a pedestrian. Clear sky, the trees along the street barren, though not pitiful. Behind them the townhouses crowded one another. The scenery could well have been that of a warm spring day. Kay imagined the naked branches sprouting shoots. But the whistle of wind that came through the gaps in the car’s doors and windows was a cold winter’s whistle. Kay lamented the fact that he was driving, not walking on the sidewalk with his coat and scarf in the wind. There was no cloud in the sky, which became whiter toward the horizon. It was like an ocean he could plunge himself into. Turning the corner at the stop sign, Kay was basking in the sun. The angles were such that the rays hit the dusty parts of the windshield, conjuring an explosion of brilliance. Kay couldn’t see anything. He wasn’t thinking the right way about how he couldn’t see anything. Kay hit a man named Pincos, who said his daughter was nearly twelve. His wife and daughter were away; that was how he put it. Pincos’s weight transferred fully through the chassis of Kay’s car. The sun had been blinding, and the shadow of Pincos had loomed over the windshield, allowing Kay to see him just before making contact. Pincos dusted off his pant legs and examined his coat for tears. The right things to say didn’t feel like the right things to say. “I’m so sorry. Are you hurt?”  Pincos held up his hand at the windshield without looking and began to walk away, limping slightly. He drew together the collars of his coat below his chin. Kay got out and said, “Wait!”  They exchanged their names and phone numbers. The cold resonated with the deep register of Pincos’s voice. Kay called him that evening to say the things that couldn’t be said before, and learned that Pincos had checked himself into the hospital. Drawing his down coat tight around his neck, Kay went out into the night to go to the university hospital, which was not far. He heard a chime. It reverberated through the air vividly. A nine o’clock chime. The snippet of melody followed by nine low-pitched gongs was different than the school’s chime; it came from a church nearby. For a moment, the clarity of the gongs made him pause in his tracks, riveted his two feet to the sidewalk. Pincos showed Kay a photograph of his daughter when she was only a baby. His wife seemed happy in a world of autumn leaves. A walk through the trail behind their house where they’d met a photographer. The picture had been taken with a large camera on a tripod. A nurse carried in Pincos’s meal: two slices of a meat loaf, peas, carrots, and a lump of mashed potatoes. Pincos asked Kay, “Would you mind stopping by my house to bring me some change of clothes?  I live down the road.”  He scratched his cast. Kay put on his coat and went out again into the night. Kay drew the coat’s zipper all the way to his nose, threw the hood over his head, and walked headlong into the wind. When his feet found stray rocks, he kicked them. There was no moon. Tap, tap, tap. The rocks spun away, skipping under street lights. Kay listened to his own breathing and felt the moist, slippery fabric of the coat on his lips. He sent another rock ahead. Tap, tap, tap. Was it the same rock?  Pincos had left his heater on. Kay shed his coat in the dark and fumbled for the light switch. The light, from a ceiling lamp, was as bright as the hospital’s lights. “Hello?” Kay said, knowing no one would answer. “Hello?”  Above the dresser in the living room, there was a family portrait in a frame. It was the same photograph Pincos had shown Kay at the hospital. Kay opened the shelves of the dresser. The top shelf contained towels and sheets, neatly folded. The other three shelves below were completely empty. Kay went into the master bedroom and found another, smaller drawer, where there were underwear in one shelf, shirts in the other. He put down Pincos’s clothes on the coffee table in the living room and surveyed the tidy, uncluttered house. In the kitchen cabinets: two sets of utensils, two white plates, two ceramic bowls. Salt and pepper, a bottle each of basil, thyme, and yellow curry. Tea. Sugar and honey. Cooking oil and vinegar. A lightweight, matching set of pots and pans. In the freezer there were blocks of frozen beef, in the refrigerator a carton of eggs and fresh tomatoes. A stick of butter down to the last slice. Half a clove of garlic inside the flower of its skin, the dry, broken bits decorating the prize. The refrigerator whirred and came alive. In the walk-in closet, Kay found a set of gray suit, a number of shirts, and a burgundy-striped necktie. A pair of socks stuffed into one of the brown dress shoes. An iron and a checkered ironing board. He pictured Pincos bent over the board, meticulously creasing the sleeves of his shirts. The stack of Pincos’s clothes were on the coffee table where Kay had put them. Kay lay down on the unruffled couch next to it, his head and ankles propped on the armrests. He folded his hands over his stomach. I could fall asleep, Kay thought. I won’t show up to class tomorrow. My students would chat for ten, fifteen minutes, then go home. The thought made Kay want to be there to see it, to hear their words and frustration. One student might remain throughout the class period, scribbling. Probably someone who isn’t always there, isn’t always on time. Someone who isn’t interested in learning to speak his or her mind in a new language.

Jae Kim lives in St. Louis and teaches fiction writing as a Third-Year Fellow at Washington University, where he recently finished his MFA. Jae’s stories have appeared or will appear in Puerto del SolThe CollagistNOON, and Platypus Press, among other places. His translations of Korean poetry are forthcoming in Poetry Review and Asymptote.

Aliceanna Stopher

Public Spaces

He’d put it to a girl like this, “Name somebody. Anybody. I’ve got ‘em.” Greg’s record collection was usually the clincher. His record collection took the date from subway platform to bedroom floor, before an altar of milk crate stacks. Nearer the endpoint, his bed, closer proximity translated to better odds. Greg had hundreds of records, at least that many. It was unfailing.

But Cheryl’s northbound train had arrived ahead of schedule.

A multicolored sea of toothpick legs in skinny jeans, stout women in trash bag parkas, bodies in hoodies and pantsuits off boarded. Cheryl smiled at Greg, started to extend her hand then withdrew it, laughing a little at herself, her own discomfort. Her uncertainty. A handshake felt sterile, a hug too intimate. She shuffled with the crowd towards the open doors.

“Give me a call,” Greg said, “when you get in. Or text. Whichever. Just so I know you got home okay.” The doors closed, he watched her take a seat by the window, her palm pressed against the glass, then she was gone.


Cheryl dreamed the city inverted.

In these dreams she hangs by her toes from the railing of a trolley car. A bat; bald-blind-leather-night mouse. Cheryl is happy, loose, swinging her arms in the light and pleasant breeze. The trolley floats, unattached. A truce between ground-turned-sky and sky-turned-ground. The trolley, because of this agreement, cannot stop. Cheryl instinctively understands this. Hangers-on accumulate. Insectoid strangers, limbs without faces, scuttle from the ground-turned-sky. They fasten themselves by tooth or claw onto the railings. Cheryl becomes afraid they’ll weigh the whole thing down. That they’ll somehow break the unspoken gravitational agreement and she will topple, head first, to a ground that is just sky. Everlasting falling into nothing on top of intolerably blue nothing. Forever and ever, amen.


They started with drinks and a playful argument over territory.

“You don’t live in the city,” Cheryl said. The bar was dim, cavernous. Though the bartender had not asked for their ID’s, Greg had left his new California license on the counter and Cheryl had swiped it, tapped his zip code with her chewed-down nail and tsk-ed. “94112? Boy, please, that’s Daly City.” She affected that Bayview speech, an east side almost-aggression, to cover up her Chinatown roots.

“No, it isn’t, not really,” Greg said, and smiled.

Greg was mild mannered and had a kind of boyish appeal. He was not unattractive but just, what was the word, tame. She would have to ask her sister Kim later why she kept setting Cheryl up with white boys.

“It’s almost not the city but it’s still technically the city.”

“Sure,” Cheryl said, “okay.” She traced the lip of her highball with her finger, shuffling her ice until it clinked. “You drive, though, huh? You’re not a real San Franciscan if you drive. If you drive then it’s settled.”

Greg threw up his hands. He wasn’t sure this was true; the everyday scramble for available street parking in his neighborhood directly contradicted this. And sure he took the BART, when he had to. When, like tonight, he knew parking would prove more trouble than it was worth.

Besides he liked his car, couldn’t imagine not having it. Even in the city, yeah, it was a hassle but most of the time it was worth it. For the freedom of movement. That was America, right? The open road? That he could get into his car and drive as far as his tank or his wallet would take him?

Cheryl was smirking in a slightly unpleasant way, and Greg noticed now she had finished her drink in two awfully unladylike swallows. He had about half a pint to go and still they had an hour to burn before their reservation. Would she order another? If she ordered another would she pick up the tab? Would it be weird of him to ask?

“I’m only teasing you,” Cheryl said. Greg noticed her shoulder go slack as she leaned back, the tumble of it, like air getting let out of it.


Cheryl watched herself against the rush of steel and wire, her outline barely perceptible. She imagined her mother in another seat somehow able to see Cheryl. See the way she could fold into herself, how in her reflection her cheeks seemed less wide, the fleshy pouch under her chin tucked itself away. See her looking so very much like a woman.

By 16th the pair of women she’d been casually watching, a pair of salt and pepper shakers, were comparing methods for at home pubic hair removal.

“I slipped once straddling the lip of the bathtub – ”

Another woman, or what sounded like a woman, somewhere behind Cheryl, shouted, “Is nothing sacred?” The shakers tittered. “Is nothing sacred?”

In the moments that followed it became more and more unclear whether this outburst was actually directed at the pair with the carrying voices. Was this other woman talking to herself? This seemed possible. To someone unseen? Also a possibility. It was almost dark on the Millbrae bound train, after all. The shakers’ shoulders softened then they resumed, albeit more quietly, their previous discussion. The kid beside Cheryl had closed his eyes, he was drumming his index and ring fingers against his flank.

The car doors opened, three consecutive beeps, then closed again.

Cheryl turned Greg’s business card in her palm.

“Next stop, 24th Street Station.”


Cheryl propped the phone between shoulder and ear, where the crook of her neck met the dip of her collarbone, a marriage of mind to body, spirit to flesh.

“Just don’t wear the blue thing,” Kim said, “It washes you out.”

Cheryl was turning over the card Kim had given her. Gregory Patrick Sobol. Floor manager. Sears. Cheryl knew she was supposed to be impressed.


“What about the purple top? You look so nice in jewel tones.”

“Have you ever loved anybody?”

Her sister clucked her tongue on the other line.

“Don’t be stupid,” Kim said.

Cheryl tore a thin line, as straight as she could, between Greg’s first name and his last, severing the Pat from the rick.

“Do you think she loved us? Really loved –?”

“Don’t start in.”

“I’m serious, do you think Mama –?”

Kim said, “Don’t wear the blue thing, meimei, okay? Okay? Are you listening? Walk me over to the closet. I want to hear what you pick. Pick something that swishes.”


Cheryl was lost in her own two eyes, twin black holes, so was surprised when the garbled voice over the intercom said, “Next stop, Montgomery”, her station. Sometime when she had been trying to unbleed pupil from the dark mechanical sheen of iris a man had sat down next to her. She shifted, her knee grazed his thigh, and smiled when he met her eyes.

“That’s me,” she said. Cheryl thought the man’s head looked something like an arrow. She gathered herself up. When the train stopped, she stood.

“This is me,” again. “This is my stop.”

Around her the shuffling of bodies. Everything moved in fits and starts.

“Please, excuse me,” Cheryl said, “This is my stop.”

The man stared. He said nothing.

Did he expect her to climb over him? To hike up her skirt and climb over the back of the seat in front, land into the laps of the elderly Filipino women seated there, examining their hands? Did he need her to say it again?

“Please, excuse me,” she said. She didn’t want to keep looking down at him looking back up at her, glassy eyed.

“Please,” she said, the intercom beeped, once loud and long, then twice, shorter and brighter, birdsong. The car doors closed. Cheryl had missed her stop. She remained standing but let herself fall back into her seat when the car pitched forward.

“Please,” she said.

The man seemed to jolt into sudden recognition. He hooked his arm around her shoulder. “My girl,” he said, breathy, low, “My girl.”


Is nothing sacred?


Kim was not wrong, Greg thought. Cheryl was pretty, even despite her slightly matronly glasses. He wondered if it was the glasses that gave her a more, what was the word, ethnic look than her sister. Cheryl had a firm body and those exotic eyes. Eyes that, despite their downward tilt, were maybe too wide for her face, really, and eyelashes thick enough to be fake. He wondered if they were fake. Glued on. He decided this was not the right moment to ask, but maybe later, he would ask her, “Were you wearing false eyelashes on our first date?” and she would say, “Wow, you noticed? I love you best for your fine attention to detail,” and then they might make out a little, but tastefully, because in this scenario they would be outside, on his front stoop, in full view of the neighbors and all, and it wouldn’t be dark quite yet.


Cheryl shifted her weight and waited to cross the street. This part of the Mission smelled like stale coffee and pomade, a sort of tarry smell, which depending on the breeze was tinged with either agave or rotted fruit. The high palms towered over the streetlights just waking up. It was dusk, speckled pavement awash in a shallow bath of neon. She kept a hand in her pocket, ran a finger over the tiny tears she’d already made at the edges of Greg’s card, some lines thin and long, others jagged and short. She took its corner in her thumb and ripped.

“Young lady,” a woman’s husky voice on the corner, “Excuse me, miss, young lady.”

The woman wore an obscenely purple coat. Under her arms she cradled copies of the Street Sheet but held, in her hands, a plastic bucket brimming with magnets she was selling for five dollars apiece. Cheryl recognized the magnets first. She couldn’t remember the woman’s name, which was Josie, or where she’d seen her before but she knew she knew her and for some reason this knowing made her feel ashamed.


Cheryl dreamed labyrinthine dreams.

In these dreams she stands in a line behind and in front of strangers whose faces are obscured from her. In these dreams they march, Cheryl and this horde, single file, twisting and turning, the knotted hedges growing taller, blocking out the sun, until everything becomes verdant, close. Faster and faster the line moves until the hedges begin to spread in. An invasion.

Sometimes Cheryl woke from these dreams scratching herself at the base of her throat; unable to untangle an outstretched vine coiling around her neck, convinced she is suffocating.


By the time their dinner had cooled enough to start eating they had exhausted several strands of conversation – it was established where each had grown up, had gone to college, their favorite colors, and the number of their siblings.

Here, Raleigh. UCSF, Emory & Henry. Green, also green. One, none.

Things began to take a more philosophical bent.

“You can rename a cat,” Greg said, “but you can’t rename a dog. Not one that’s a few years old, that’s learned to respond to a certain name.”

They’d been talking about a stray kitten that had shot into Cheryl’s lobby. She’d wanted to keep it but her downstairs neighbor had seen it first and shooed it out with a broom.

“I think what you’re saying is dogs have a stronger attachment to their first identity?” Cheryl said, her inflections making it sound like a question. Since they’d left the bar she’d felt less sure. “Like, they’re more invested in how we see them than cats are?”


Two women sat next to one another on the handicap accessible bench closest to the train car doors. The brunette from head to toe in ivory, the blonde in soft shades of black. They looked, Cheryl thought, like a pair of salt and pepper shakers. Perfectly matched. Complementary. A kind of yin and yang.

“Dressed to kill,” the dark haired woman said to the blonde, “When I go out I really go all out. And it’s not for Harry, it’s for me.”

Cheryl leaned against her window. This was the view she liked best; the occasional bright flash of tile as the train sped out of or into another station, the rest a not-even blur of blackness, grit, grime. Her city’s underside. Not soft, but hard. Mechanical. Cheryl liked the way she looked in this reflection, her shadow self. Here, she looked like the kind of woman her mother would have liked to have been seen with uptown. The kind of woman her mother used to point at, tug at Cheryl’s ponytail, and say in her perfectly imperfect English, “That’s a woman.”

The blonde scoffed at and to the brunette, “the blisters, the tweezing, the salon fumes, the cracked heels, the eyebrow threading, the waxing. Yep, all for you.” The women’s laughter was drowned out by the clack of train to track, by the sheer speed of forward motion.


It felt good to tear along the edges of Greg’s business card. Felt good to gnaw with careful fingers away at the heavy cardstock. Floor manager. Sears.

Someone had taped a poster for the annual Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Easter Sunday in the Park over the bottom half of the BART map. As usual was scheduled the Hunky Jesus contest with cash prize—though no cash prize, it should be noted, would be awarded for the foxiest of the Foxy Mary’s—accompanied by the traditional trashcan marching band parade. But new this year a midmorning egg hunt with Sister Betty. For the children. Fun for the whole family. Cheryl crossed and uncrossed her legs in her seat.

At the next stop a kid wearing an A’s cap settled himself in next to her. She could hear the heartbeat, the war drums, playing in his headphones.


Cheryl was enjoying her food more than Greg. Meaning, she liked her food more than Greg did his, and also was enjoying her food more than Greg’s company.

The set up had come together like this: Greg worked with Kim, in appliances at Sears in San Bruno. Although he was Kim’s floor manager he still worked the sales floor. Moved among the little guys. He specialized in refrigerators. Kim seemed to think that this would make them a good match.


Josie didn’t need to keep trying to get Cheryl’s attention although now she had it she was not sure what to do with it. Josie had also forgotten Cheryl’s name but remembered her round pale face and long eyelashes. She remembered Cheryl stopping for her on a Saturday in the not-too-distant past, maybe late winter, an early afternoon after the fog had burned off. Stopping on a Saturday in Noe Valley, a kind of miracle. Stopping in a sea of people rushing past Josie, eager to avert their eyes, taking up sudden conversation as they began to move towards and then away from her as if Josie were stupid, as if she wouldn’t notice, as if they couldn’t hear her saying, “Street Sheets, Street Sheets” or “Anything helps.”

But this girl, Cheryl, had slowed and stopped and smiled and, after minimal coaxing, had lost her delicate hand in the deep well of magnets Josie was selling. She had pulled out and examined several as Josie explained to the girl how she knew a guy who helped her take the photos from offline at the library and print them out, all laminated and nice, and repurpose plainer magnets she’d find, for a price.

“That’s why they’re five a pop, baby girl,” Josie said, a kind of apology.

The girl deliberated, decided finally to buy two: one a black and white picture of a fire breathing Angela Davis, the other, a profile of John Coltrane and his sax.


Sometimes Cheryl didn’t dream at all.


Greg bit into his penne. It was a little undercooked. He would lodge a complaint as they were leaving, making sure Cheryl was already outside. Maybe he’d say he’d forgotten his coat. Maybe he’d actually leave his coat at the table. But would it be worse if she let him do that, let him walk out without it? He got so wrapped up in his scheming to complain to someone without seeming like an asshole to Cheryl, who, remember, he had only just met, that he never responded to her perhaps astute observation about cats, dogs and attachment, identity.


“My girl” he had called her, “My girl.”

He had made her his girl. He had named her, claimed her.

He was saying something else, now, with the breath of the ocean, a tidal hiss, saying something Cheryl was straining to hear. He was sitting close to her, she could feel the heat of his body where their legs met through her sheer stockings, could feel the rhythm of his breathing as he pulled her body closer into his, his soldering of ribcage to ribcage, armpit to shoulder. Still, she could scarcely hear him. What was he muttering?

“Pretty,” she thought she heard, or maybe “Fine”, or maybe he was saying something about the city, or the line, or the lights. “Bright lights,” he was maybe saying.

“Next stop, Embarcadero,” the voice over the speakers rasped, “This is a Richmond bound train. Last San Francisco stop, Embarcadero, this is a Richmond bound train.” Static.

Should she say please, again? Should she ask again, say excuse me, should she pretend that whatever had happened at Montgomery had been a kind of glitch, a mistake? Something she could laugh about when she got home, when she called Kim, if she texted Greg? You’ll never believe the mishap I got myself into on the train or, if to Greg, Next time we’re out, please put me in an Uber. Though Greg’s card was a wound knot of shredded paper she had been worrying all night in her skirt pocket she hadn’t deleted his number just yet. She could still chastise him if she wanted to. Would she want to when she got home?

Would she get home?

Cheryl cleared her throat. The man with his arm around her shoulder did not like this. He seemed to have shaken off whatever had frozen him before, his eyes were no longer glassy, his fingers clutched greedily, he did not like her noises, her stiffness. No, he did not like it. Not at all.

“Cunt,” he said, this time, loudly enough for her to hear him, “stupid, you stupid dog bitch, stupid.” Cheryl shut her eyes with every crash of fricative-s to t.

She lifted her chin, scanned the car between bursts of consonance, in the downbeats of the stranger’s noise. A body here, a body there. Everywhere cell phone glare. No one was watching. No one was paying attention. Not, at least, to her.

 “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he was still saying it. He shifted his emphasis from the front to back half of the word, gnawing on the sounds. Spitting them back out before swallowing.

Across the aisle, a bearded man cupped his hands over his child’s ears. The father shushed his sleeping baby, kissed the crown of his child’s head.

“Embarcadero.” The car doors opened. No offboarders, a spattering of on.

The father’s visual assessment: Man in the aisle seat, wiry. Girl in the window seat, slight, Asian. The father wished the man and the girl would settle down, would handle their business at home, not make such a scene.

Three beeps, the car doors closed. “Next stop, West Oakland.”

The train shot beneath the Bay.


“His commissions are always really high,” Kim said, “and he’s got good taste in appliances. Really good. I’d kill for Sara to look at a toaster the way Greg does.” Kim and Sara had been living together for six years and though ding-dong-DOMA-was-dead, Kim was dragging her heels. This heel dragging had translated into setting Cheryl up with almost every male person Kim encountered. Kim seemed to have the idea any man might do. That straight women were somehow less picky. Cheryl was not sure where her sister had gotten this idea. Kim’s standards for her younger sister had gotten even lower, in Cheryl’s opinion, since their mother died last summer.

Cheryl, having set the phone down and put Kim on speaker while she continued to extol Greg’s virtues—he brings salads in cute little salad-specific Tupperware for lunch!—walked into her kitchen. She poured herself a glass of water and stared for a little longer than she ever had before at her microwave. She had no idea what brand it was. She wondered if she cared.


“This was interesting,” Cheryl said, her body already turning away. The bright lights from the oncoming northbound train preceded the boom of its arrival. Cheryl was saying now, although Greg couldn’t hear her, that they should get together again. Though Cheryl had made a paper nest of Greg’s card in her pocket she had saved his number in her cell phone before their date. Soon? Maybe after Easter? Maybe they could meet a little closer to her neighborhood? Maybe just for drinks?

When Cheryl was seven she’d taken a city bus, the 5, after dark for the first time without her mother. Her mother, bent over the dumpling wrappers she was wetting in the egg wash, lifted her heavy hand and shooed Cheryl out of their restaurant. “Here’s a dollar,” her mother had said, and sent Cheryl home.

It was a summer night, cool and a little wet. A man in the back seat climbed out of his open window and onto the roof of the bus. Cheryl remembered seeing him jump off, first onto the bumper, then onto the road. This was not the strangest thing she had seen on public trans. Or the strangest at night.

Approaching thirty she knew a few things for certain: not to take the 14 after nine thirty p.m. The K after ten. Never get off at Civic Center between the hours of eleven and one, or at any time of day if you’re meeting someone important and don’t want to run the risk of getting spit on, or if you’re wearing anything remotely revealing any time other than Pride weekend.

Greg didn’t know this much. When his train arrived he would take it two stops south, walk the mile from the station up a winding hill to his apartment, wearing headphones. He would feel unafraid.


The Coltrane magnet was what did it. “You like jazz?” Josie asked the girl.

“My mother did,” the girl said. She paid for the magnets with an astoundingly flat ten-dollar bill. She’d asked for Josie’s name and in return gave hers.

Now, what was it? It was soft name, wasn’t it? Something that swished?

“Your mama’s no longer with us?” Josie asked. The girl shook her head.

Josie remembered telling the girl right then and there that God was going to bless her. She said, “Chin up, baby.” She said, “Aw now, honey, don’t cry.” She said, “Your mama’s gonna bless you, she’s up there, looking down, and she’s gonna send a miracle your way, just you wait, aw now honey, don’t cry.” Josie gave her a Street Sheet, no charge.

And now, weeks later, after climbing out of 24th street station, Cheryl’s hand in her pocket on Greg’s card, she stared at Josie’s teeth, several of which on the bottom were blackened or missing. Cheryl fixed her eyes on the sidewalk. She waited for the light to change so she could move away.

“Young lady, young lady.”


Greg picked at his penne. “So what’s physical therapy like?” he asked. He had a pretty good sightline down Cheryl’s shirt and wanted her to keep looking at her food, sawing away, distracted, so that he could keep looking at the patch where she was exposed for just a moment longer.

“It’s very rewarding,” Cheryl said. She was weary of answering this question. It was, honestly, grueling work. She pushed people’s bodies and though they were grateful to her when she improved their mobility or range of motion, the process was long, strenuous, and her clients were often resentful for the small pains she caused them.

Also she was tired of being groped by elderly men who would pretend, at least when they were caught, they didn’t have control over the grasping fists opening and closing on her ass.

“One of my clients recently sent me home with a really lovely painting. Her husband was some kind of impressionist.”

“What’s the painting of?” Greg asked, a little annoyed. He knew very little about art.

“Sunflowers,” Cheryl said, “Enormous sunflowers.”


Greg was waving a hurried and hopeful see-you-later then was gone. Finally, Cheryl was on her way home. She let her palm slide off the window into her lap. In her peripheral vision she could make out a bearded man with a toddler asleep against his chest. He was rubbing the child’s back and may have been murmuring to it but Cheryl couldn’t distinguish his voice from the ambient hum. She could feel the lateness of the night, even here, underground.

She could be okay she decided, in a bunker without any sun or fresh air, any lightness. There is safety in the dark. Cheryl wondered if this certainty made her, even a little, she didn’t know, animalistic. In the depth of her skirt pocket she fingered her paper nest. She side eyed her reflection, wanting to believe she would find in it freshly sprouted whiskers or feathers or a forked tongue.

What might her mother think, then?


Cheryl dreamed apocalyptic dreams.

In these dreams she climbs down a ladder.

At the top of the ladder, or as close to the top as she is ever aware of beginning, the rungs are slick, cold. As she descends, as happens in dreams, this changes. The rungs transform, become braided vines, earthen, warm to hot in places, and this, this climbing, becomes a challenge for Cheryl, a challenge to know where to place her feet and hands or how to grip or for how long.

She never touches solid ground.  


But we were on the northbound train, weren’t we, headed home?

A snake of a man, arrow-headed, muscularly compact, thin, flitted on the opposite side of the car from one seat to another. He prowled the length of the car, unsatisfied. He was hungry for something he may not have had a name for. Let’s call it dream logic.

He sat down beside Cheryl. We already know this. He took the aisle seat. He was pleased.

24th Street.


Civic Center.


Next stop, Montgomery.

“That’s me,” Cheryl said. She’d been preoccupied with her reflection in the glass. She noticed the man for the first time seeing he was wiry and long. She shifted her body, her knees knocked gently into his thigh, and smiled at him.

He remembered his first county fair.

The reds, yellows, whites of the lights bouncing off the smooth edges of game booths, concession stands. Everything had a little shimmer. Then, coming into soft focus, the Scrambler. Only three tickets.

He remembered the noise, the vague smell of oil.

The ticket taker said, “Keep your limbs inside if you want to keep them,” and his grown up man’s fists swallowed the yellow tickets. The ticker taker ushered him on with a backwards glance at a gaggle of girls in tank tops and short-shorts waggling off into the violet night. The snake of a man, who was then just a bright-faced boy, was barely tall enough to climb into his seat without the man’s help. He pulled down the slick, cool bar across his lap until it clicked.

The Scrambler churned to life. The boy gripped the bar, the ride moving in a semi-circle, slow at first. Then faster. Then violently. The night air lapped against his cheeks and nose and he was beaming, and watching all the people start to blur together as he passed them. In flashes and bursts he could make out, behind the wall of porta-john’s, figures in the dark, a kind of slow motion chase, wolf and sheep, a dance, one body pressed against another, in sharp focus one moment, indistinct the next.

“This is me,” Cheryl was saying, tapping him lightly on the shoulder, “this is my stop,” the doors to the car were swooshing open but he was immobile. Cheryl was standing up but he didn’t see her. Couldn’t see her. He was elsewhere. He was gone.

He was thinking about force. About being slammed into the crook of the Scrambler’s seat. About how he made a game of trying to grip the bar and inch his way back into the middle but couldn’t because he was too small and the force, the gravity, was much too strong. Gravity as strength. Gravity as taking what’s yours.

“Please, excuse me, this is my stop.”

He was moving too fast and his stomach was flipping inside of his tiny boy’s body. He was whipping back, forth, tears stung his eyes, everything blurred, but the ride cranked along, oblivious.

“Please, excuse me.”

His seat kissed the ride’s enclosure. Though he had been warned against it he wanted to reach out to touch it, see what it felt like at this speed, but he couldn’t move his arms. Couldn’t move a thing. Back and forth, weaving in and out. Joyful shrieks and high-pitched screams. A woman’s glasses flew past and were lost in the high grass. Music, on a loop, from a ride somewhere he could only hear when his body was flung towards the ticket taker. Music against the tinkling of blackbird song, tawny owl, or warbler.


It was all too much. He wanted to get off.

Aliceanna Stopher is a fast reader and slow writer, a short story evangelist, and a cardigan enthusiast. She is an MFA candidate in fiction at Colorado State University and editorial intern for the Colorado Review. Her short fiction can be found in KindredThe FemPretty Owl Poetry, and elsewhere.

Finley MacDonald

The Beachcombers

Can’t tell you how long we’ve slouched in heraldic chairs, waiting as if for a thaw in the wintertide of the soul while droplets streak like white eyes from the eves, and the foraging of rats recalls a harpy drawing her talons along the walls. Across the table from me, in the granite of his head, his eyes are lost to the mountain ebonies lashing in window. At his elbow, close upon a yellow, Marathon-Finisher disk, rests a crownlike lump from the beach sanded down to the words Charleston Lamp Company, Charleston, SC. This lassitude, inexorably, is also the Procreant Body, and these, its phylactery; this muddle of bones between us on the chop plate; the three ugly sutures, in the area behind his thumb, knotted and tailed. Yet, you cannot just say, while he rubs his fingers in his beard, I believe that we can change everything.

From the table’s edge, I lift the scuffed, battered Antediluvian nail polish, and I shake and unscrew it, and I withdraw the brush, still glittering after an epoch of tumbling, and a ferment of meadowsweet impregnates the space. I lay my right hand on the table and paint my nails. Above my knuckles, in speckled glass, a black torso bobs alongside the drystone dike: the clam digger we’ve seen crossing, skiffborne, at high tide. He comes on in a fishskin cape, trailing smoke, and his thumbs press out straps of his creel, and his earless cur gimps, tail walloping. Hood wide and dripping, our purgatorial custodian appraises two silhouettes in the window. He is sliding in guest trees, hastening to his skiff before the tide strands him behind fields of mire. And yet, even this constant and dumb ruckus is in some way allusive, as objects and bodies are transcendent, yet contingent, these boughs twitching and droplets falling from leaves, the raw gush that fills the room while the front door knocks the brick stop. I move my fingers in my breathstream. “You could set your watch by that man.”

My bedmate draws a long, ragged breath.

“Bloody mossback.”

That first afternoon before the rain, while he probed for artifacts, I clambered up metal whiskers and broken slabs and ventured upon the ancient freeway with its antediluvian rigs, as rumored, following a broken runway. A queue of tilting, crucified, vegetation-sprouting roachoids. Upon rusting hulls, cormorants shuffled and dug beaks and stretched wings. I mounted a riddled lorry and sighted down the spine where vehicles once hurtled across a tract potted with reservoirs and mills and mines and burrows. From islets like cleavers of chipped stone, clouds were coming, high-piled and tumbling, casting stripes upon the pumice-green sea. In the first sheets of rain, driftwood darkened among the piles.

We fled for the winter cottages. Magpies cheered in the rattling gush, and palms slung one way. In his belted swim trunks, through hawksbeard, he climbed ahead, towel furling about his neck. He tossed the bags over the gate and made a stirrup for my foot. He smashed the lite in the door with one blow, spraying the floor with glass, and he reached through, already dripping blood, to turn the latch. In the sitting room, with his hand swaddled in a shirt, he pried open crates of tomes and bobbles, and he made a fire of the boards. I removed the leather washers from the wood-oil stove in the kitchen and dropped them in a jar of oil. When I returned to the sitting room, he was pushing a broken stool into the flames and had stacked up picture frames by the hearth and laid out the wool rug. He pulls his stitched hand down his face, and he looks out the window, his eyes dull and insomniac.

“I know the old mossback’s game. The old mossback’s a helmsman for the ship of Eyrines.”

“The what, lover?’

In a beard dark as the taproots of swamp trees, his fingers move up and down and pull at the skin of his throat. “Eyrines. Snake-headed envoys. I suppose they are after me because I broke my wife’s china. Along with the crystal swans in the sun room. She had these plates from her mother with clovers along the edge that sat at just such an angle. I threw them all down on the floor. One at a time. Quite methodical. She couldn’t stop me. Epwort, Epwort, she kept saying. I’d push her off and break another. And another. She loved those bloody plates. The swans were harder to break. I am guilty of worse. But always as vengeance upon that world. Its microscopic regularity. I never wanted to be a part of that, but it got me by attrition. A little retreat here and a retreat there. Finally nothing left. The savage crumbles. Nothing left to fight for. Question is, what will they do when they catch up with me? Death by ten-thousand pricks of the salad fork?”

“You are safe. Nobody will find you here.” I blow on the nails of my left hand. In the window, beyond flinching leaves, shellpink pools fire droplets upward to meet the falling rain. “I had an odd dream last night.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“You and I were following a narrow track under this iron grid full of predatory birds. We had to escape by walking on water. You needed to hold your feet just so, no mistakes. You were not getting it. You kept sinking down.”

“Sounds right.”

“Just before I awoke, though, I found myself in a patch of yellow flowers like small, yellow crosses. These had curative properties. Oh yes—there was a huge moth in the sky. The wind from these big, gray, swishing wings swept the flowers, whoosh, whoosh. I could hear music—lovely, peaceful, heavenly music.”

“Meanwhile, he lies sweating in air thick as concrete. Prey for the Eyrines. Don’t mind me. I can’t function without my demons. I’m like Saint Anthony that way.”

A breeze surges through the cottage, and a door to a back room slams, and the orchid trees outside thrash purple-fisted (I shall be that, purple-fisted and bent back). Thumb gourds shake honey-colored nodes, and the horse-eye beans weave in the settling mist of rain. I finish my nails and blow on them and rouse myself and shake bones from the two cokeware plates onto the lapin carcass in its moat of wine and grease.

I cross to the door, lug the hooded wrap from its ball-tip, and I slip it on heavy and roll the cuffs. Along the hearth, where tintypes of the family have hung, rectangles mark the flocked wall. On the shadowed side of the room lurks a piano. I slip on the kidskins of the wife of the house and tie them at the ankles and go stack plates. I bear the stack across the wood floor and out the doorway. Along the rails nod parched hagbonnets, and crackbeaks dart in the azaleas. I step down onto the flesh-colored gravel. In the plunge and toss of fleabane huddle blinking and chewing lapins. You can spook them into nets by feeding a serpent down a burrow. After hanging them overnight, you strip the fur like stockings and boil the quarters in coconut liquor. Wild cockerel too I have dispatched among far magnolias with a stone. We dine upon their roasted flesh and drink beer from the cellar. In the pantry, there are stacked rounds of cheese, tins of chickpeas and lentils.

I set the plates on the swaybacked table, and I fling the bones. With the shirtsleeve hanging from the hand pump, I scrub the dishes, my fingernails circulating like platinum whirligig beetles. I leave the dishes filling with rain, and I pick a rusting clothes iron from the table and grip it aloft. In the glare of the window, while the surf tears, distant, cavernous, I mark his face, the eyes hooded, before he dims into the cottage interior.

Through long, wild, wet weeds, lapins round the cottage. Under the cistern, they move in jerks. Ears stiff. Eyes like obsidian buttons. They move past the latrine, vanishing under the shed with its sagging roof and windows planked. The pond is set behind in a hollow, shrouded in dry lotuses and encircled by a rock wall. Bullfrogs groan, and jungle ravens caw, and a serpent ribbons his way across the shine. Below the rowboat tipping in grass, an egret steps, and ducklings dart for the vine-covered islet. Along the shed, buckets, stoves, pallets, cycle wheels, axles, and kitchen fixtures are tumbled along, and brambles and vines climb green stone, screening burrows along the footing. I rattle the door hasp. I lift the iron with both hands and strike, and the egret flaps up and slides, neck folded, sailing round a dim, sky-potted chimney on the ridgeline. I batter the metal edge, smashing it down, and the hasp rings and bolts pull loose. It clinks to the earth.

The inside smells of henfeathers and harness. Saws and planes hang on nails, and palm-worn handles lean to the corners. Remember that? That’s the gimcrack. The block creaking, a tile cracking. Old Nean set a block upon the bare earth. You get maybe five out of a block like this. See that this tool gets into the shed when you are finished. This was your great grandfather’s, anit works good as it did then. Between two ridges along his temples, a vein wriggled up the center of his hard, wide forehead, his mud-blue eyes funneling out of the backward will that bequeathed us mud-blue hearts. This cay has drawn me (mud-blue) as if by ineluctable summons. I have sought this, or I have been drawn, by an enormous body, moist and palpitating, with chambers in which I should be penetrated, throats I should crawl down, sphincters I should pass in order to rest in its healing heat. With faith and a certain kind of courage, I approximated the Procreant Body in visitations to the city’s mouths and arms and breasts and pubic niches. They have led here.

I draw a sickle from the corner. From the doorway, I start a swath to the cottage, nestled among steam-drinking Charybdis figs. The stalks of sedge and buffelgrass cut poorly, and each swath takes several passes, and wet heaps drag on the backswing. Along the way, thumb gourds proffer sleek, lipstick-colored nipples. Hibiscus blossoms extend tongues like serpents. Leaves of orchid trees wander like double-lobed hearts, and star-burs collect on the wife’s house robe. I have set traps for snails in this grass, lodging washbasins in the earth. I have plucked pitahaya from the orchard. All of this will go to ruin. The master of the house, from the tintypes, is a shiny-headed Koko-Qulao executive with spectacles on a chain, a mule-toothed housewife, and towheaded whelps. The fever outbreak chased upscalers from their private refuges. No harm in us taking advantage. Their floors our stage. Their possessions our props. Their lives our raillery.

I return the scythe. Shuffling over the earthen floor, I knock the sides of hollow, rusting canisters. I force open a lid. Woodoil. I lower the wheelbarrow from where it tilts and set in the canister. The handles are rough and the canister sloshes as I push the wheel barrow out through the doorway, where the rain dots the crust of mortar, and the iron wheel wobbles in the axle bracket. I set the oil can on the rim of the old foundation and drive the wheelbarrow to the back portico (a fine place to dry sailor’s tobacco). Look at all of this junk. A defunct radio. A violin with a broken string. Nipsy balls and sticks.

I stand on the edge of the deck and drop the radio and children’s shoes and wooden dolls into the wheelbarrow. Fig branches scrape the portico and the leaves of rose and buff clank about a trunk wrapped like a heart in a system of ventricles. A rat spurts from beneath a bundle of shingles. From the bottom of the steps, I watch it. Fever-bearing low beast. It scurries, nose up and twitching. I have seen a deep-chested cur, in a mechanical frenzy, flinging torn corpses up the sides of a salted pit. My date leaned over the barrier, and blood spattered his white shirt. The umpire called a halt so that the owner might mop down his grinning, panting cur. In the gutter that ran past the doorway, the sewage was flowing, pooling. The rat slides under the stoop, and I hear its pinkies beneath. A scent of orchids drifts. I climb back up on the deck, drop the nipsy sticks over the rail. As I drive the wheel barrow along the path I cut, a flatblue crevice runs through cloud.

In hours when the rain lets off, we have taken the plunge seaward, him clambering between vine-wrapped rucks and mountain carpet, stubshovel jutting from his haversack. An ether scorching the lungs and slowing time and shining up the red, foot-pulling clay. Charybdis trunks: rainblack. Masses of jacaranda on green banks blowing forth fecal leafrot. Steam cataracts muffling ridges and trees and boulders like old women in knit caps. The runoff digging ruts among banana trees in mantles of curling parchment and between dead ferns and giant asters with russet stems.

At the beach strewn with broken and sea-blunted rowboats, he might pick up some lump of pot metal, brush off sand. Polish a bit of glass under his cape and stare into the brume as if to sight a ghostchild or ensign pointing to a hole through his breast. Waves here come plowing about the frame of lashed bamboo, where the crone must have waited for us in the rain, rocking in her skiff. Across the bay, behind a dim ring of trawlers, lies a fishing village, gray as old bones under the brow of a fog.

At the narrowing of the roughly pear-shaped cay, we arrive at pillboxes like scorched coffins throwing up warped, metal nets. Assault vehicles drown in the apron, gun barrels pointed in contradictory directions, and wrinkles and spilling bands slip among tires, chassis, motors, turrets and drive trains like spines of buried fossils. A jumbled, globular, dolorous shambles. With the stubshovel, he tosses sand through a screen. He names the cartridges he finds, bending to the sea to wash them while I sit among boulders, waving off insects, scanning the guidebook.

Once, he took off his trousers and waded out toward the freeway that snakes across a band of pot oil, vanishing under blue, undifferentiated cays. According to the guide book: a vast sunken complex yonder. On a clear day, you might see the distant jumble of cloud busters (where screws should by now be searching for my dead body). Between boulders, a pulverized haystack of antediluvian plastic, shoe heels, bottles, and wire was ascending, descending. On boiling rush, it mounted, then sank, guttering and hissing. My companion stood beneath the ancient, muttering, susurrating heap. And why not worship here? In the Procreant Body, all is incinerated and annihilated; rocks, bones and holy writ, these too are annihilated; and from the Procreant Body in her creative posture, all things reemerge.

I open the back door to the cottage and cross the threshold. In the far oval mirror, my own hooded figure lumbers up the green-papered hallway. Beneath my feet, the floor creaks, and the walls exude a woodsy reek. Framed by the bedchamber doorway, empty bedsteads throw long shadows. The clockwork dog will take short, stiff steps. A gust furls bed netting. Identical lamps jut between guilt frames that have witnessed whelps rising in the night to press their noses to the glass to gaze through lashing palms and shuffling Charybdis figs to the far pricks of light.

I push down the brass lever to the study and ease the door open. The room is warm. In window light, he sits cross-legged, crushing a hand-rolled cigarette in a teacup full of them, the exec’s Typomatic upon his lap. At his shoulder, a line of slugs and cartridges traverses the low table. A battered radio sits behind. Upon the wall, a horseman and mesas replaces the tintype of the two whelps. I creep up behind him and push my fingers into his curling hair, and his head rears back under my hands. “Taking the chill off,” he says, smiling. In the open coal burner, bright-gray sheets are settling, filling the room with their scent. I squat down beside him and pick up a piece from the half-finished jigsaw puzzle, a still life of flowers and fruit.

“The rain’s let up. You want to go out?”

His hand moves in his beard.

“You ever look and look for something? Go back to each and every place you already searched in?”

“What you looking for?”

“The figurine I dug up on the beach. The one with the broken arm. It’s somewhere in this damned house.”

“If it’s here, we should come across it.”

I fit pieces into the puzzle. I watch his hands attacking the keys in spurts. The Typomatic dings and the platen jumps. If he baited, she would fish the dock. She liked to deck out the cats (their future offspring) in ribbons, and she was certain their tables would stand on cabriole legs. She let him get to her, after several attempts. During his military service, he operated a radio. Upon his return, he found that his wife had filled rooms, including his study, with prize budgies. He killed them all by feeding them raw rice. Beyond his forest of hair, ink splatters the wall. Black, misbegotten coryphées twirling upon the field of battle. Shiva danced and flung. In the night, in the darkened house, I opened the door and gazed upon his bonewhite shoulder against dull window boughs. The inkpot was in his hand, and the exec’s tomes were strewn upon the floor. Lonelyache. Eyes of Dust. Incal. Godbody. A heritage of skates who locked themselves in vermin-ridden flats, went mad or to prison, imbibed potions, fought duels. Allow the interior deity, and the holy church of your body, to descant. He lifts the heavy Typomatic off his lap. He sets it beside him on the floor.

“I’ve been pondering.”

“What about?”

“Why not move higher on up to the neighbors’?”

“What for? This place is all right.”

“We are too exposed.”

“We can have a look if you want.”

“I want. This room. This desk.” He cowers behind two, weaving hands, fending off some maleficent spirit from the tomes. “The energy is all bloody wrong.”

“Will it be better up there?”

“There is a clear view of the bay. If I can just see the ocean, I can breathe. I know that will feel right. I will be able to really get to work.”

I bring his lighter outside to the stoop. I load the wheel barrow once more and sweep. I thought I might drag chairs from the house and fill a bowl with kapok blossoms, but I am not sure now. I dump one last load. I kick the edges together and dribble woodoil. I flick his trench lighter and touch it to the bottom. Tiny waves ripple and the pile crackles and blackens and withers under the sheets of liquid flame. The heap gutters and throws heat, and the smoke billows up the middle of the pond and spreads before rippling bluffs. You can reach the peak, if it isn’t too slippery, in ten minutes to survey the mangroves and bay, and you will see caimans working their tails in the clear pools.

The clam digger crosses along the drystone wall each morning, and each morning, he looks at me. Into me. Each morning, I say I shall stay. When the blood registers a promise, have you a choice? You might have gotten it wrong. If the heart be misguided, your bones may be broken or you may be stabbed a hundred times. If the heart be misguided, and blood, vain, you may be crushed, as if by the machine. But if heart be sound and blood be true, they will name the blossom to calm Moloch; they will whisper the holy song to restore the man.

Finley J. MacDonald grew up in Sun River, Montana. For the last decade, he has lived in China, currently in Zhuhai with his partner Yang Meiting, where he teaches English writing and speaking at Sun Yat-sen University. He is the author of a work of speculative fiction entitled Angels, Delirium, Liberty. His work has been accepted by The Shanghai Literary Review, Embodied Effigies, and Near to the Knuckle.

Sara Schaff

Claire Tells a Story

I always felt relieved to see Claire because she inevitably had a lot on her mind. Talking with her gave me an opportunity to get out of my own head, which was also full but not of useful things, nothing I wanted to discuss with other people.

At 34, Claire was tall and striking, the woman everyone watched at a party. She was born in a sunny state to cardiologists who still paid for her phone plan and promised to help with a mortgage on a house, should she ever settle down. One thing I liked about Claire was that she didn’t hide her luck. She could admit she was generally happy, even though her life always seemed like an entertaining mess: a series of girlfriends she wanted to marry until they proposed, a boring temp job to pay the rent while she wrote her danceable breakup songs, and a successful younger brother her parents always compared her to.

Whenever I drove into town—which wasn’t often anymore—Claire and I met for coffee or lunch, and she would launch right into the latest dilemma. She was a captivating storyteller, with a gift for narrative structure and the perfect, telling detail. Even though another person might have come across as self-absorbed, Claire always managed to pull me right into her life the way my favorite books had as a child.

The last time we met, she was getting over a three-day visit from her parents. They stayed with her and her girlfriend in their tiny apartment and, in spite of Claire’s initial fears, the visit began well, with everyone happy to see each other.

Her parents were physically vigorous and enjoyed the outdoors, so Claire and Elise took them canoeing. The bright day cast a general glow over most of the afternoon, during which they had a picnic on the riverbank, with a view of other boaters passing and waving.

As one particularly enthusiastic kayaker wished them well, Claire’s mother remarked how friendly Midwesterners are, in comparison with most Americans. That’s when Claire noticed her parents giving each other little eyebrow signals, and she immediately felt annoyed.

Her mother and father had always been snobs about the Midwest. When they visited, they came laden with oranges and ripe cheeses, as if Claire lived in a food desert and not a collegetown full of hipster organic-farmers. And of course there were her Midwestern girlfriends. Claire knew her parents were afraid she might marry one of them instead of the college boyfriend they had preferred (the tall engineer from Stanford) and never move back west.

But as she watched her mother and father, she noticed how warmly they smiled at Elise. And her opinion shifted again. How could they be upset about Elise—beautiful as a fluffy new sweater and responsible with her money?

Claire’s next thought, and this was much worse, was that one of them was terminally ill and afraid to tell her in front of Elise, with whom she’d been living for just two months and could hardly be counted as part of the family.

So Claire made a space the next morning to be with her mother and father, while Elise was teaching a water aerobics class to senior citizens at the YMCA. She made breakfast and a huge pot of dark roast coffee for all of them to drink while they read the Times. When they all had their newspapers open in front of them, her chest pulsed with happiness at her life: a small but tidy home, a solid relationship, and a job she didn’t like but would leave for in an hour like a grownup. In short, she felt the most together she’d ever been around her parents, and prepared for what was to come, even if it meant moving home to help take care of one of them, should that be what they needed.

But that wasn’t it at all. When she asked if they were well, her father grimaced. Never been better, he said, in his mouth full of oatmeal.

Her mother said, We’re about to invest a lot of money in Patagonia, in fact.

For a minute no one spoke. Claire’s parents were as attuned to the power of a good pause as she. Finally, she asked what the hell they were talking about.

It turned out that Claire’s brother, the successful attorney, had fallen in love with an Argentinian woman while traveling with friends in South America. The woman owned the Patagonian hostel he’d stayed in. He was moving next month to be with her and help run the place.

And help raise her daughter, Claire’s father added.

Yes, Claire’s mother said, the woman has a child.

Now Claire felt torn. For years, her brother had told her she was wasting her Ivy League education on odd jobs. Yet now he was the one prepared to give up his practice and become part of the business sector he most abhorred, the hospitality industry. On the one hand, Claire was relieved that her parents were healthy and that it was her brother disappointing them for once. On the other hand, she envied him. She hadn’t traveled abroad or used her Spanish in years. She had never loved anyone enough to give up everything to be with them. All she’d given up to move in with Elise was a cat she was allergic to anyway.

To make matters worse, her parents had agreed to pay for a lavish wedding in Argentina, a country they’d never visited, so that the woman’s family could attend.

Couldn’t they try living together first? Immediately, Claire knew it was the wrong question to ask.

Her parents became quiet, and she felt herself falling under the appraising gaze she was more accustomed to.

What about you, they asked. What do you want for your future?

Oh god, she said. Here goes.

This girlfriend, her father said, seems like a keeper to me.

It’s too early to tell, Claire said. I just moved in!

And then they plagued her with a series of familiar questions: didn’t she want to have a baby one day? A house with an actual guest room? A job she was proud of instead of one where she sat in front of a computer all day and answered phones for people with more influence than her?

It was at this point that Claire sighed and set her cup of coffee down. The clink of it brought me back into the life around me: the students’ faces turned blue by their laptop screens, the grinding of beans behind the counter. My chair felt too solid, and a draft from the nearby door blew meanly at my ankles. Claire smiled her miraculous smile, roused by inhabiting the voices of her disapproving parents.

Anyway, she said, I’ve talked the whole time. Same old same old, right? She laughed. What about you?

I wanted her to keep talking. Whenever Claire became aware of me not just as an audience but a person with concerns and hungers, the air between us shifted and left me feeling unbalanced and hollow. But to appease her I provided a brief summary of my life that included fractious faculty meetings and of my sensitive child, burdened with hours of homework at the age of seven.

I skimmed over the impending separation from my husband, my insomnia, and the great surges of emotion that sometimes left me weeping stupidly in my office with the door closed and locked. Not because I didn’t want Claire to know, but because it bored me to talk about.

Eventually I turned the conversation back to Claire. Would she bring Elise to her brother’s wedding in Argentina?

Claire shook her head. She’d decided to take the opportunity to travel for a few months, be alone, and write new songs inspired by the people and landscape of South America. There’s nothing keeping me here, when it comes down to it. She looked around the little café as if were suddenly provincial.

My drive home came as a relief—an hour between the mainland of my old friendship and the island of my home, which, in the ways of islands, left me feeling isolated from former versions of myself. Once upon a time, hadn’t those selves wanted the things I currently possessed?

My husband never liked Claire. He found her flakey, and it was true she sometimes canceled plans at the last minute. What we couldn’t agree about were Claire’s stories, which my husband described as trivial. This slight bothered me as much as if I’d told the stories myself. How could I convey to him the power Claire had, the joy she provided? As I held her in my head, her voice rising and falling in imitation of her parents, her girlfriend, the new sister-in-law she could already imagine befriending, I felt the satisfaction of the child whose bedtime story is not yet complete, who will go on listening to the words until her eyes are closed, until she is asleep and dreaming peacefully.

Sara Schaff’s debut collection, Say Something Nice About Me (Augury Books) was a CLMP Firecracker Award Finalist for fiction and a Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist for short fiction. Her writing has appeared in Joyland, LitHub, Hobart, Southern Humanities Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction, creative nonfiction, and playwriting at St. Lawrence University.

Nora Garrett

The Blind Man’s Mirror

The office was built in the 1970s, a concrete monolith with water-stained ceilings and tinted windows that didn’t open. Every time Ruth walked into work she was reminded of big ties and sideburns; coffee from a can and rolodexes. The kind of stuff you couldn’t get without trying anymore, and usually only if you were trying to be ironic.

Depending on where you stood, the floor belonging to Richter Communications Group LLC was either overly fluorescent or eerily dark. The hallways were especially dingy—the carpets a color grey not seen in nature, the color of obedience. The bathrooms, on the other hand, were so bright Ruth sometimes put on her sunglasses to use them. She would watch herself washing her hands in the mirror, the pink soap so sticky between her palms it was almost sexual, and grin to her reflection like a famous actress in a heist movie.

Ruth had stolen the sunglasses. They had been there on her first day, staring up at her between stretched-out paper clips and dusty rubber bands in the top drawer of the desk she had inherited. Without recognizing the specific brand name, she knew they were designer—a label she could never afford, with hardly a scuff on them. They weren’t that useful for the city (the buildings so tall they cast a perpetual synthetic gloom), but she liked the person they made her feel like, so she kept them.

To Ruth’s credit, she had left the sunglasses in the desk for a full two weeks before stealing them. She had even had a few casual conversations with coworkers, wondering if the woman who had used her cube before her was into expensive eyewear, or had reached out to the office manager for any reason after she quit, perhaps to pick up a missing item? But no one seemed to remember anything out of the ordinary, nor even a defining characteristic of her predecessor. So, it was with very little guilt that Ruth slipped the glasses into her purse at five fifty-nine p.m. on a Friday, walking past her coworkers and into the freedom of six o’clock with her heart pounding.

She had never stolen anything before.

In fact, the word “steal” felt too dramatic for what she had done. But “borrow” was inaccurate and “trade” too much of an implication, so Ruth settled on “gift.” The glasses had been a gift to her, a present for showing up every day, for keeping her head down, for expecting nothing.

Up until the day she decided to take the sunglasses, Ruth had lived a quiet life. Not out of asceticism or lack of imagination but more because she felt her options to be limited; by her upbringing, by her talent, by her looks—even by her name.

“Ruth” was the type of name that made a baby an adult. She couldn’t imagine her mother cooing to her, shortening her name to Ro-Ro or Ruthie. In her mind, she was always the grown-up Ruth—the Ruth who shopped at Banana Republic and drank two-percent cappuccinos (one sugar please), and worked out at the all-female gym that was three blocks away from her subway station and ten blocks away from the office and who used a plate for everything, even a midnight snack. She wasn’t prim or prude. She wasn’t uninterested or insecure. She was just herself. And the girl with her life and her name hadn’t had many adventures.

It felt odd, then, that she was constantly being called “brave” by her colleagues. Perhaps that was the reason she had finally taken the sunglasses, she thought, lying awake the night of their adoption, staring at the black frames where they stood silhouetted atop her dresser. Perhaps enough people had called her brave that she was beginning to believe she was.

Ruth had the worst job at the office.

It wasn’t just Ruth who thought so; her boss had mentioned the unofficial honorific to her in her preliminary interview. “Well, your resume looks great, and like most post-grad Millennials—can I call you that?—you’re way overqualified for the job. I’d love to offer you a position here: there’s plenty of room for growth, competitive starting salary, eventually benefits if you stay on with the company, but it is probably the worst job you will ever have. At least, that’s how it’s known at this office.”

He had winked at her, slipping her resume into a pile on his desk. “Don’t worry, you’re young. You’ll survive it.”

Ruth had imagined herself buried in papers and fast-food bags stained with grease; working her way up the ranks and sleeping at her desk, doing the best-ever work at the worst-ever job, triumphant music playing behind her rumpled hair and bluing under-eyes like those transformation montages in cheesy romantic comedies.

The reality was something different. But then again, it always is.

What most people didn’t understand about their experience of the world—what Ruth now knew, and didn’t know how to unlearn—was that it was highly curated. The scenarios put forth by popular sci-fi movies and TV shows in which human beings could pick and choose the actualization of their food, children, news, opinions, desires, hopes, sexual proclivities, etc., through screens implanted in their occipital lobes or hologrammed above their kitchen tables wasn’t that far off. For the most part, it was already here. Ruth knew this because it was her job to do the curating. She was the docent of a museum that no one knew they were visiting, a thankless guard of useless, disposable, irreplaceable images.

Technically, Ruth’s title was “Quality Assurance.” Which made it sound like she worked at a car dealership. Every time she saw her name placard: Ruth Patet – Quality Assurance, she had to stop herself from cringing. What made matters worse was that Ruth was very good at assuring quality. She was efficient and emotionally compartmentalized. She was a perfectionist and had always been good at cleaning up. In fact, the job used to be called “Scrubber” before her boss changed it, citing lack of political correctness. Yet coworkers who had been at the office long enough to remember the old name would still walk past her desk singing that TLC song from the 90s, nodding knowingly at her as they did so. Ruth got the joke. She just didn’t find it all that funny.

To her coworkers, the internet was a beautiful, amorphous mystery—a massive and unseen system, like the Milky Way or plumbing. To Ruth, it was not. To Ruth it was square and defined, tiled and grouted. It had nooks and crannies and caverns and high shelves and it was her job to search every inch of them for what couldn’t be seen, but might be found. It was an impossible task, Sisyphean in nature—a horrible Groundhog Day Zen parable in which every day was both full of effort and useless; a glass of water that each time it was emptied, filled right back up again.

As Quality Assurance, it was Ruth’s duty to scour the internet for violent, “triggering,” mutinous, fetishized, or otherwise depraved content. Every morning she sat at her desk and thought of the worst possible words to put together to lead her to the most assaulting images, which would lead to sites with built-in devotion to those images, which would lead to followers and feeds devoted to those sites. Then, using a series of ethically ambiguous tracking networks, she would find the people who were responsible for the images and sites and block them, pulling up the drawbridge and lowering the gates on their online inhabitance.

The blocking was the tricky part. Her first few weeks on the job had been spent learning the Blind Man’s Mirror, a sneaky bit of code developed by Richter Communications Group LLC (and the reason for her boss’s three houses and one Porsche as well as Ruth’s ironclad N.D.A.). The code provided a graceful solution to the smut problem without puncturing anybody’s ignorance. In the Blind Man’s Mirror, everything would seem normal from the side of the person blocked—pictures go up, posts are published—but nothing actually makes it through to the other side, onto the internet’s walls. There had been a small hiccup when, after his particularly vocal following went silent, one troll found them out, but the technicians quickly developed a way to add bots into the code so that any post made by a Blind Man would still get comments and likes from a seemingly wide array of sources. It was a perfect double-bind, a flawless trick of mutual denial that left no one the wiser. Except, of course, for Ruth.

What surprised Ruth most was not the images she was able to find, nor how the depth of human depravity was both inexhaustible and repetitive. It was how easy it was for her to discover what no one else knew to look for.

Everything about Ruth—whether she liked it or not—made her good at her job. What made her great, however, was her ability to pinpoint exactly what others were most ashamed of in themselves, and so, inevitably, what they could not resist exploring. She was like a random word generator for the horrid and deranged; a psychologist and a mathematician with infinite variables for both sickness and solution. Ruth found her knack especially odd considering how carefully she lived her life. How adamant she was about staying firmly at the center, avoiding the pull of any extreme. Maybe that was why she could so easily imagine other people’s nastiest desires: she’d never had any herself.

At first, her coworkers were delighted by Ruth’s consistency. They liked not having to get used to another person every two to three months (sometimes weeks), and enjoyed the relative good mood Ruth’s lack of complaint engendered in their boss. But as time passed, Ruth could sense a certain growing unease towards her, a distrust of her unflagging productivity widening in conjuncture with the berth people kept when nearing her desk. It was unnatural, Ruth knew, to exhibit so little side effects in her line of work. There was the retreat from social life—a slow returning to herself like a lake shrinking in the desert—which she justified as a normal part of starting any job. But Ruth had heard that people in her position often fell prey to much worse afflictions: debilitating depression, crippling anxiety, amputative disinterest. That a scrubber in Phoenix kept Zoloft and Xanax taped to the bottom of her desk so she could take the pills at work without her colleagues seeing; that another in Ontario had jumped from the highest floor of his building into a freezing lake after only a month. Maybe they didn’t have the Blind Man’s Mirror. Maybe more people came after them. Or maybe they knew something Ruth didn’t.

Yet Ruth continued to feel fine. Contained. She had shored up her boundaries and fortified her mind against the influx of endless shit greeting her each morning. She behaved no differently than before she started the job.

Except, of course, for the stealing.

A few months into her tenure at the office, Ruth had discovered the Lost and Found. It was located in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet in the break room, where—Ruth realized—she was supposed to have put the sunglasses when she found them; where occasionally a scarf or a monogrammed pen ended up. Once, somebody put a Forever Flower in the drawer—a pink orchid in a hardened topiary of gel and pebbles, its petals crimped by the cabinet’s metal teeth. Ruth took the immortal thing. She also took the scarf and the pen, even though she knew whom they belonged to.

She started walking into fancy restaurants and making up items she had left behind. At best, her descriptions were close enough that she walked home with something. At worst she left with apologies and the promise of a complimentary dessert if she decided to return. She wore and used everything she took—after all, it was rude to neglect a gift. And the longer she stayed at Richter Communications Group LLC, the more adamantly she maintained that she was fine, the more each item she took felt like a reward, like the smallest part of what she was owed for protecting the unconscious from themselves.

Ruth’s boss, unashamed of her productivity, expanded her position, giving her more jurisdiction over more quadrants of the internet’s infinite grid and spooling out new reams of The Blind Man’s code for her to learn. As Ruth’s work hours increased, so too did her extracurricular habit of Bogarting and pinching; palming and ripping off. She spent so much time with her stolen tokens—distracting herself so as to avoid seeing the worst of the images she deleted replayed on an incessant loop inside her head—that her internal landscape began to resemble one of those roadside memorials: the paraphernalia of the forgetful stuck alongside flowers and random personal artifacts in the apathetic holes of a chain-link fence, sagging under the weight of memory.

Ruth, with the slow immediacy of noticing a precancerous mole or a lover’s disinterest, awakened to a second life growing alongside her own. It seemed to her that everything she did or saw could be replaced by the experiences of the objects she collected. Her memories became their memories—what the lady having dinner in her Hermes scarf had felt like, drinking red wine over ravioli as her fiancé gazed at her through candlelight; how inebriated the Uber passenger had been when he left three Lotto tickets and a matchbook tucked into the brim of a stretched-out fedora in the back seat on a humid summer’s night. She had been alarmed, at first, to discover the alacrity with which she inhabited so many other people’s stories, how their personal effects felt so familiar to her, like things she had once lost and found again, buried in a box in the attic or hidden underneath the bed. But as time passed with nothing bad happening and no one noticing anything out of the ordinary, Ruth forgot to be worried. The only slight problem was that, when asked, she had a hard time remembering the particulars of her own life, so attached were they to the particulars of the lives she had gifted herself. But people weren’t asking that much anymore.

In hindsight, Ruth realized she should’ve known. That if her job had taught her anything, it was that the anonymous never stay that way for long.

One morning, in the middle of month in which Ruth had stolen more than she ever had before, including two of her biggest items (a Razor scooter and three bulk boxes of cereal from the loading dock of a local grocery store), Ruth arrived at her desk to a note, peeking out from the corner of her keyboard.

It was pink, her name written in silver sparkle pen across the front. Its colors felt shocking against the industrial taupe of the office. Ruth was convinced instantaneously and irrationally that she had been caught; that someone had finally discovered her small habit and would now expose her. But who would put such a nasty note into such nice packaging?

Ruth clutched the envelope, heart pounding in a way it hadn’t since the sunglasses. She swiveled her chair so that her back faced the other cubicles. Sweat beaded on her upper lip, ignorant of the year-round air conditioning. Her hands were shaking.

All the objects she had hoarded came to her in a series of images more violent than any she had erased: a watch without the second hand, a gift card to Victoria’s Secret, a baby’s rattle, a vintage shawl with the initials S.E. stitched into the label. Scenes from her life and the lives she had adopted flitted across her brain like she was seeing death; their colors as vibrant and abrasive as the envelope’s neon. Breathing deeply, Ruth forced herself to trail her finger under the lip of the envelope, calmly lift out the note inside, and place the empty envelope upright on her desk, turning it so the glittery “Ruth” faced her. The series of stolen stories kept clouding her vision, the carefully constructed boundaries in her mind crumbling against the battering ram of her heartbeat. She blinked. The note looked like a cartoon, like a demon, like a shadow. Just as she managed to make out its first two words: “Dear Ruth,” she heard from behind her:


“Huh?” Ruth nearly shouted, swiveling her chair back towards the office. She felt like someone who had just turned on their hearing aid; the whole world was tinnitus.

“I see you got my note.” The moon-face of her boss loomed in front of her. It seemed to Ruth that she hadn’t seen him since her first day here; that she hadn’t seen anyone for a long time.

“My wife did the calligraphy; forgive the you-know of it all.” Her boss laughed.

Ruth swallowed, her throat contracting against words she couldn’t remember, had forgotten how to pronounce.

“You made it! Eleven months! It’s the longest we’ve ever had someone in this position. I considered waiting until a year but that seemed like counting my chickens.” He winked. “Keep going, Scrubber. We’re all pleased, if a bit dumbfounded. I don’t know how you do it!” He pulled up his pants with a hitch, and gave Ruth’s shoulder a well-distanced squeeze.

“Well… Back to work!”

Ruth listened to her boss walk away, the pad of his loafers heavy and insignificant against the office’s carpet. She didn’t bother to finish reading the note. With something like relief, Ruth put the card back in its envelope and placed it in the top drawer of her desk, face up.

Eleven months, she thought as she turned her computer on. Eleven months, as she logged into the multiple servers and watchdog organizations she trolled. Eleven months, and she couldn’t remember any of it.

She didn’t delete a single image all day.

At five fifty-nine p.m., Ruth took the sunglasses out of her purse where she had kept them for the past ten months and two weeks. She placed them exactly as she had found them: turned on a forty-five degree angle in the first drawer of her desk, only this time right on top of her congratulations card. That way, she thought, the next person who found them would know to whom they belonged.

Ruth powered down her computer and walked the dingy hallway to the fake wood-paneled elevator that always dropped an inch whenever she arrived at the floor belonging to Richter Communications Group LLC. She watched the hour turn to six o’clock as the elevator doors shut, aperturing the office like at the end of an old-fashioned cartoon. Ruth pressed 1, the button cool and polished under her finger. She was reminded of the playground her mother used to take her to as a child. There was a copper statue of the Mad Hatter from Alice and Wonderland right at its center, after the swings and before the seesaw. All the kids loved it, sitting on the Hatter’s outstretched arms and pretending to drink from his fake teacup. The grooves of his fake copper shirt had worn smooth by the time Ruth was big enough to climb on it. She used to run her fingers over his arms, feeling the nooks and crannies that were somehow softer for their hardness. She imagined she was the sculptor—her little hands remaking the statue into someone new, someone whose story only she shared, like a secret.

As the elevator doors opened, Ruth started: whose life was that? Was that her childhood, or someone else’s? And how was she supposed to know either way? Ruth tried to think of a quick method to test for the truth of her memory—one that didn’t involve pictures, people, anecdotes, all the things she was so tired of. She couldn’t.

Shaking herself, Ruth pulled her purse—ten pounds lighter—from the crook of her elbow onto her shoulder. Right before she crossed the threshold of the office, Ruth stopped. She realized, now that she was thinking about it, she had no idea how to get home.

Nora Garrett is a writer and actress living in L.A. by way of New York by way of Denver, Colorado. She is a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in the Stella Adler Studio. This is her second published work of fiction; her first, entitled “Proxima B” appears in the inaugural issue of The Cantabrigian Magazine. She loves her family very much and abhors social media. Please follow her on twitter: @NoraEGee.