Category Archives: Stories

Heaven

Swirving around the roads we pass avocado trees and farms. There are sleeping cows, wandering aimless deer.  A country store that advertises the best beef jerky in town. I ask him on the ride,

“How’s your son?”

“I had a fight with Sandra. She changed her number, but the little guy is doing well. I go up and see him in Alameda when I can.”

As we drive, the sunroof and windows are down, letting a warm breeze swoop in and blow our hair around. We hold hands and don’t speak much.

Before we hopped in my car, heading to the lake, I had met him and his ex, Gina, for lunch. They exchanged I love you, I love you too before Bert and I left. We borrowed her florescent green colored raft.

At the first lookout point, I was laughing. Below us, pristine glassy blue perfection.  A gigantic sprawling lake; no people, just us. And there was that warm wind again. We were only twenty minutes away from home, but here, a different land, an easy air, a
reunion. We hadn’t seen each other in months. Not in this way.

There’s a sign, 3.5 miles to the main lake entrance. We drive and laugh and hold hands and are quiet again.

As we pull up, Bert runs in to another ex and her daughter.  The woman has a black rose tattoo on her thigh and her son’s hair grows long down his back.  Quick hellos and goodbyes.

We find free parking off the road away from the main entrance.

There are signs everywhere, NO TRESSPASSING and we learn the lake is for drinking water, no body contact.

“How could they have a lake like this and not allow swimming?” Bert said.

“The practical answer is polluting, but I want to go in,” I said.

“Should we sneak under the gate?  Here’s a little opening,” Bert said.

“Sure.”

Bert laid a towel down underneath the gate, and I slid under to the other side, to something unknown, something new, something worthwhile.

A bright yellow butterfly flies by, fluttering, traveling, but still stopping close as if to say welcome to this place.

Then it was Bert’s turn, but there were little spikes at the end of the metal gate and they stuck, near the vertical line where ass meets lower back.

“Push the gate up,” he said struggling.

I did and he slid through, easy.

Gravel and dirt found its way into my new shoes as we worked our way down a steep cliff.

“I think the coast is clear,” Bert said.

As we came up to the water’s edge the beauty of this new place seemed like a dream, and suddenly I was feeling something very close to falling in love. There were Mallard ducks, mud and willows, white wildflowers, odd mossy sticks, and that water-more blue than the cloudless sky above us.

Bert jumped in. I felt the water with my foot and was surprised at its warmth. It had to be eighty degrees. Two people stood high above us.

“I’m going in,” I told Bert.

As I got into the water, I swam up to Bert and kissed him on the lips.

“You see those two people up there?” He said. “Do you think they can see us?”

“Could we get arrested?” I said.

“Probably.”

We decided to change locales. Up the muddy bank we hiked and then hiked some more around the edge of the lake, looking for a new spot to lie out, swim, and try to successfully avoid being caught. It must have been a mile of walking and I felt my shoes filling up with more and more twigs, thistle, rock and mud, but it was all worth it for what was in front of us.

A bright green grassy meadow lie right in front of this section of the lake, and now there were no people. It was our lake, our little meadow, the sunshine, the wind, we were part of everything.  At a long distance, we saw a white truck and figured it must be a ranger, but we laid our towels out in the middle of some foliage and Bert undid my bathing suit top.

Lying next to each other, the warm wind blew past my breasts and I wondered if my breasts would tan in this dry heat. Bert kissed me, moving his tongue inside my mouth and then we held hands and closed our eyes for a bit. A little make shift pier made up of floatation devices became a makeshift trampoline for us. I wondered if I looked old to Bert jumping up and down, topless on this pier and I wondered why I hadn’t cared about seeing two of his exes in one day. I had one possible answer, I couldn’t shake. I was falling in love with this place and this place was falling in love with me.

“Let’s go in the water again,” Bert said.

“Yes. Let’s,” I said.

Pushing through dense mud and rooted lake sticks, we finally reached a place in the water where we could both touch the bottom and fully remove our bathing suits.

Bert tied them up together on one of the water tree sticks and swam over to me. I wrapped my legs around him and felt the slip, slip, slide of our naked bodies up against each other. He slip slip slid inside of me and all at once, my legs were wrapped around him and we were breathing hard in each other’s face. The worry of the patrol truck vanished, my whole life in this one moment; perfect.  I was shaking.

He finished and we stayed wrapped around each other with little waves flapping up against us, flapping like our bodies just had.

“It’s been a long time for me,” I said.

“Me too,” Bert looked down.

We start to swim to another old pier, but halfway, both of us decided we’d already polluted the drinking water and were afraid at the chance of getting caught.

Walking back to the car, satisfied soul, my skin feels electric.

“This is living,” I said.

Six female deer and one buck feed.

“There’s one buck and he’s protecting all his ladies,” Bert said.

“Lucky guy,” I said.

Back under the gate we go, into the car, and off we speed away.

“I wonder how much the fine was or how long we’d spend in jail if someone caught us?”  I said.

“Hope it’s a co-ed prison so we could share the same cell,” Bert
said.

“They don’t exist,” I said.

“Everything exists,” Bert said.

And maybe here, everything did exist.  I became part of the earth, rock, gravel, deer, wind, sun, yellow butterfly, lake.

On the drive back we steal avocados from someone’s farm and see a farmer coming toward us.

“Hey, hey, hey,” the farmer said.

We hopped back into the car and sped away with what would hopefully make some good old fashioned guacamole later.

Again, we stop at the country mart store and try the advertised beef jerky along with two cans of iced tea. The jerky is spicy hot and thinly cut. We chomp and chew hunks of the stuff in front of each other, smacking and licking our lips, fiercely, as though we hadn’t eaten in days.

When we got back to Bert’s place, we felt comfortable enough to nap side by side and for a few minutes, we both dozed off.  There was still left over adrenaline rushing around inside me; a butterfly party.

He started to kiss me again. We were sweating, pulsing, breathing, blushing, all over again, all over each other, and I felt the sun and warm wind hot on my skin from earlier and the gravel and thistle in my shoes and that perfect lake, more blue than the cloudless sky above.

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The 7th Floor

I leaned my head on his shoulder and peered outside the bus windows. Mostly traffic, some honking car horns and a drab hazy sky. I had lived in this town my whole life, but never taken the bus. We’d bought a bottle of Jack Daniels at Food Value and I was taking little sips, for him big gulps.

“Want a sip?” Sam asked the young busty brunette with an accent sitting across from us.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Yes a sip. And Germany.” She said.

“Are you going out downtown?” Yes. Other friends from Germany are visiting.

I liked the fact that I didn’t mind Sam’s eyes on her low cut tank top, breasts, almost corseted, plunging upward.  Usually I was jealous of other women.

The night before, 3 am, my feet swelled and I held my high heels as we walked through a little park hand in hand.

Sam said, “I wish you were the pregnant one.  I love you.”

He also told me, “She broke my heart in this park.  I cried forever.”

We fell asleep at his place.  Candle wax dripped from the window down the
wall.  In the morning I noticed a narrow red waterfall of wax.

I shiver on the bus because I’m cold in my breezy cotton skirt with the polka-dots, but also because I’m afraid, and like an unconscious twitch-my attraction to Sam moved my body closer to him-I couldn’t not be close.

When we got to the college, we went into a classroom that seated about 100. Sam had just graduated from this college that sat on the edge of the sea.

I held the bottle of Jack and used it as a microphone.

“Class. Pay attention. Life is a highway. I want to ride it all night long.”

Sam grabbed my hand and led me toward the library.

It was a stuffy 1970’s style library with orange carpet and brown walls.  We took the elevator up to various floors looking for a place to fuck.  He’d said he’d always wanted to, but it had never worked out.  We kissed in the elevator, trying to keep the kisses quiet as not to get him too ready too soon.

It was the 7th floor where we ended up. Sprawling windows overlooked the bright green grass that led to cliffs that led to sea. A gray bearded man sat on one of the stools in between an aisle reading and a couple aisles down from that another young
brunette with a scrunched brow highlighted a large text book.

We walked down more aisles of books with no people in them, toward some tables that were pushed together.  I put my hands down on the table with my back toward Sam.  He pulled my thong to the side, unzipped his pants and started fucking me wildly, but without sound.  My hot pink sunglasses fell down from the top of my head and sat on my face.  I looked back at him smiling.

There was some sort of movement nearby, some sounds of shuffling.  We didn’t care.  The noise passed and we could finish.

I took a gulp of Jack Daniels; wash wash it down.

We walked past the young brunette and gray bearded man, and they didn’t glance up or look embarrassed so we thought maybe we were quiet enough.

“Next time in the aisles,” Sam said.

The sun had gone down through those large sea side windows and now, smeared water color sky, pinks and blues, a wink of purple.

We took the stairs back down in case security had cameras.  And for some reason we ran down the stairs, wildly as though we were late, wildly as when we were fucking, wildly back into the cold air near the sea.  We had nowhere to go but back on the bus, back home, to his place where he might cook some type of camping food-chicken or sausage or eggs or maybe we’d just drink more Jack and fall asleep.

When we got down the stairs, we saw a homeless man sitting on a bench.

“Can I buy a smoke off you?” Sam asked.

“I can roll you one for free.” The old man said.

Sam smoked the cigarette and we walked toward the bus.  I had the occasional puff.  I tilted my nose to my hair and took a deep breath.  Smoky sea salt, stuffy library books, sex; I needed to shower off.

Back on the bus, I leaned my head on Sam’s shoulder, and held his hand.  He
ran his fingers through my hair.

I had to go back to San Francisco. He had to be a father.

“Maybe one day.” He said.

“Maybe.” I said, nuzzling my face deeper into his shoulder.


The Birthday

No one else brought balloons.  Pink was Lara Jane’s favorite color so I brought dozens of heart-shaped ones.  I placed a few around the bar in her living room, a few more in the kitchen.  Then, I put her presents, a bouquet of roses, a pink hat and a long beaded necklace, next to her bed.  We both had keys to each others apartment.  I could get in and complete the decorations just before she got off work.  She said, “I want lots of glitter.  Lots of pink.”

The party’s alarm clock-a fast fading sun, leaving a watery red sky brought in Lara Jane and Iris, Lara Jane’s roommate.

Iris cried, “Peter’s fucking that blond girl in our room. Our room.”  Iris and Peter lived in the room right next to Lara Jane’s room and Peter was a player.  Iris didn’t know until she saw the blonde girl lying underneath Peter on their red velvet duvet cover that Iris picked out earlier in the week.  I practically lived there on the weekends.  I knew the house gossip.

I started drinking champagne and wished Lara Jane, “Happy Birthday”.  Her lips, bright pink, planted a wet kiss on my cheek.  Always fleeting, never in one place, Lara Jane pranced to the bar and turned a vodka bottle upside down into a mug swirling in an occasional splash of orange juice and tonic.  There were random people floating in and out of rooms in the apartment.  A tall white guy wearing a black afro wig kept hitting on me.  He went right up to my face and sang, “Witchy Woman.”

He said, “Can I just tell you, you are one sexy firecracker.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Witchy Woman, Witchy Woman.”

“Come on,” I said.

He put his hand underneath my armpit.

“Tickle, tickle,” he said.

He had a hook nose, big teeth and laughed like a little girl.

“Stop it,” I said.

He wouldn’t stop, so I pulled his wig off.

“Playing hard to get,” he reached down to pick up his wig. “I’m up for a game of tag. You’re it,” he tapped my stomach, too high.

“I’m not into you,” I said.

There was a ladder outside the kitchen door that went up to the roof.  I could escape the singing wig wearer.  I eyed it, and said I had to pee so bad it hurt.

I actually did have to pee a little.  Rogers, Lara Jane’s boyfriend, saw me heading toward the bathroom.

“Hey, hey,” he said.

I looked away and tried to ignore him.

“Hey Sara,” he bumped into me.

He followed me into the bathroom and put my hand below his thick gold belt.

“I want you Sara,” he said.

My best friend’s boyfriend was hitting on me.  Again.  But I liked the smell of his cologne.  It was cedar and pine, lilly’s and fennel.  The perfect masculine, feminine mix.  Like him: colored rings and bracelets on big strong hands, a deep voice coming through a pouty red mouth.

“I want you Sara,” he said again.

I looked up at the ceiling for a moment and let his hands run down my arms.  His fingers moved like curious tarantulas.

I didn’t know what to do.  Part of me wanted to let him slide his tongue into my mouth, feel it touch my teeth.  Let him grab my shoulders, push me against the wall, whatever.

I stared at the mix of different browns swirling around his pupils.  He was too dark; almost like a shadow.  We were both silent for a few seconds.  Lara Jane’s first painting she completed last year hung high on the bathroom door.  A portrait of Rogers’ naked body, every part defined in black ink and pencil.  He was well-endowed.

Lara Jane was dating a sexy idiot, and I was buzzed.  She was a good friend sometimes.  Like when we met, she introduced me to Iris and Peter, other people from her restaurant job at The Lox.  She had gone on night walks with me in the city, found hidden streets, secret doors, ivy and hydrangeas.

I pushed Rogers away, “I need another drink.”

I went into Lara Jane’s bedroom and laid down on her bed.  No one was in there.  There were many naked portraits.  A cowboy at a bar, just sitting there with a hat and beer and red flannel, but no jeans.  There was also an overweight woman wearing silver rings on every finger.  She had curly brown hair everywhere.  My buzz was turning to drunk.  Next to the bed, red candle wax dripped off the window sill.  It smelled like Christmas.  I would fall asleep if I stayed here, so I jolted up and went to the roof.

Up on the roof, two guys were debating over a new roommate.

“She’s sexy,” said the short one with long red hair.

“She’s cute,” said the even shorter one with no hair.

“Sexy.”

“Cute.”

“Fuck you man.”

People were smoking cloves and drinking Mickey’s in brown paper bags underneath a starless city sky, crescent moon.  It smelled like cat piss up here.  I looked over at Rogers who was now in a heated debate with one of two guys who couldn’t decide whether their new roommate was sexy or cute.

“Sexy is fucking sexy man,” Rogers said.

“But who would you rather fuck on a daily basis?” asked the little red head.

“I’d rather fuck them both at the same time on a daily basis,” Rogers said.

“Man, I’m asking one or the other.”

“Fuck man, I don’t know.  What the fuck?” Rogers said.

Then the little guy with long red hair pushed Rogers lightly.

“See man, not an easy choice, right?”

“Don’t fucking push me man.”

I left the roof to go back downstairs and grab another drink, find someone else to stare at, maybe take my shoes off.  Lara Jane stopped me at the base of the stairs.

“Sara! Where were you?  I need to puke.”

Wearing a skirt so short that it showed the tiny curve line of her ass, anorexic, frizzy-haired Lara Jane had started drinking glasses of vodka and orange juice after dinner and had killed about seven by ten o’ clock.  Her eyes were bloodshot.  Earlier in the evening before her pink lipstick was smeared across her face I thought she looked sort of striking.  Her features were so petite, puckered little lips and her neck, the most slender I’d ever seen, too delicate, a vampire’s dream.  Also on her neck was a fake gold necklace Rogers had given her earlier in the day with her name spelled out in italic cursive.  Lara Jane.  This, I envied.  I thought how special it would be to have my name out like that for the whole world to see.  Sara.  I would be the hostess.  Sara.  I could have the hot boyfriend.  When someone asked my name, I could just point at my neck and smile.

Lara Jane grabbed my hand and led me to the bathroom I’d been in earlier with Rogers.

She said, “Hold my hair back.”

I said, “Got it.”

“Here it comes,” she said.

Lara Jane quickly turned her head so that she missed the toilet entirely, puking all over the floor.

She mumbled, “Oh God. I think I’m going to die.”

“No, you’ll be okay.  I’m here.  I’ll stay.”

I opened the bathroom door and saw Iris who was still pacing the hallway, crying hysterically about Peter fucking the blond in their room on their red velvet duvet cover.

“Can you please go get Rogers?  Lara Jane’s really sick, ” I said.

“Peter’s fucking someone in our room! Doesn’t anyone care? Oh my God, why?  And then she screamed, “Why?!”

Iris stomped off.

Lara Jane looked up at me, “There’s puke in my hair, Sara.”

There were chunks of brown and yellow everywhere.  Intense drum and bass music was blaring in every corner of the house.

“Rogers!” I screamed.  “Somebody get Rogers, please.”

“I’m sick Sara,” Lara Jane said.

“I know. It’s okay.  I’m here.”

“Where’s Rogers?” she mumbled into the toilet.

“He’s coming.”

Rogers walked in, “Oh shit! What the fuck happened?”

“Your girlfriend is really sick and I’ve been helping her.  I yelled for you.  Where were you?”

“Let’s put this girl to bed.”

I took some toilet paper and wiped off my new shoes.

I held Lara Jane’s face up, away from the toilet, and asked, “You want to go to bed babe?”

“Yeah.  I drank too much.  I drank too much.”

“I know.  It’s okay.  Let’s clean you up and then you can go to sleep.”

She threw her head back and then jolted her head forward, only to throw up this time on the bathroom wall.  I yelled at Rogers, “Can you seriously help me, please?”

He stood in the corner of the bathroom with his arms crossed, running his hand through his hair, “I deal with this shit every weekend.”

“I know.  You’re lucky I’m here,” I said.

He didn’t deal with this shit every weekend.  I did.

Rogers picked up Lara Jane and walked into her bedroom.  Like tossing a dead fish into a cooler, he let her long, limp body fall from his arms onto the bed.

“My work here is done, Rogers said.  And then he left the room.

I sat next to Lara Jane on the bed and people kept coming in the room and the drum and bass continued making the house beat like a large pulsing heart.  The tall white guy wearing the black afro wig woke her up for a couple of minutes.  He held a beer bong high above her so that little drips hit her forehead.

“More alcohol! Yeah! It’s my birthday!”

“Go back to sleep babe. You’re fine,” I said.

“More alcohol!”

Iris came into the room cursing about Peter.

“Sleeping with a dumb blond whore in our room.  No one fucking cares!”

A lovely French brunette Lara Jane worked with at The Lox restaurant came in and placed a little pink box on her bedside table.

“Tell her I came by.”

“Check,” I said.

“Merci.”

Lara Jane was a sloppy drunk.  Rogers was right.  Taking care of this girl got old quick.  Rogers and I had something in common.  Neither of us could have a real conversation with Lara Jane, and we both wanted to enjoy the party.  The last party I’d been to with Lara Jane was when she kissed her friend Nick on acid in the front seat of a SUV.  I was in the backseat, alone, laughing awkwardly.  I wondered then, where Rogers was and if he freely cheated on her as well.

The night went on; someone turned the music down, people headed out.  I put a wet washcloth over her head, brought in two extra blankets, and a vomit towel and bucket.

Rogers came back in the room, “Let’s split a cab,” he said.

“You want to just leave her here?” I asked.

“She’s fine. Come on.”

He reached out for my hand, grabbed it, and pulled me across the house.  He said, “I’ve got the cab.  I just got paid.  Thank God it’s a motherfucking Friday.”

I tripped down the stairs and decided enough with the black stilettos.  I took them off.

“Nice toe polish,” Rogers said.

“Just got them done,” I said.

He noticed these things.  I liked him and he was with me now.  I was wearing the italic cursive necklace.  It was my name flashing on my pretty neck in the bright lights of a cab he would pay for, and it was for me.  Sara.  I sat on his lap and he held me with his muscular arms and big hands and long fingers and it was sexy.

“Fifth Street, please,” he said to the driver.

Whether it was the champagne or sheer thrill of being the center of attention for once, I didn’t question it.  His apartment came before mine, but we were skipping his drop off.

We went to my place and in a whirlwind rush he pushed me up against the wall and held my arms behind my back.  He kissed my head and licked my mouth and smashed his mouth up to mine whispering, “I want you.  I want you.”

“I don’t really love her,” he said.  “I’ve tried.”

“I know.”

He threw me onto my bed and undid the button of my jeans and zipper with his teeth.

“You good?” he asked.

My head was spinning with excitement and fear and Lara Jane and the champagne.

“You’re a goddess,” he said.

And then, rather suddenly, he got up off the bed.  And I did too.

He winked and pinched my ass.

“Thank you,” he said.

“For what?” I said.

He winked again, but not suavely, this time with both eyes as though there was something stuck in one or both of them.

Looking out the window, there were a few visible stars.  Also a dead pigeon, missing a leg lying on its back, belly up.

Rogers put his hand on the doorknob as I stood pathetically with unzipped jeans starting to fall down my legs.

“See you around,” he said.

That night I found something in my bed that must have slipped out of Rogers pocket.  The necklace he’d given her.  Lara Jane.  I put it around my neck and curled up to my vertical pillow, a substitute man, a fluffy mass of artificial intimacy.


Unfinished Business

I could see her through the window.  Long cascading brown waves.  Her hair.  And the book she held, so close to her face.  Glasses?  Had she lost them earlier that day or month, or no, no glasses, just a close reader.  Perhaps she was a dreamer.  Reading, perhaps an escape.  She paused from reading and cried.  Her hands buried her face and she rock rocked in an oversized chair.
I wanted to touch her.

My breath was short.  The black mask I wore had cut open eye holes.  In the dying light of day I used my night vision binoculars.  Government business.  She was a threat.  But I only got a name.  That’s it.  Find.  Shoot.  Finito.  It was as though she anticipated the shot.  Her crying kept on.  Her arms were crossed and she rocked her upper body back and forth, like a daisy head on a drooping stem, soon to fall off in the wind. Hyperventilating sobs.  I could hear the way she might sound.  She wore a yellow spandex shirt and black leggings.  A honeybee.  Had she worked out at the gym down the street?   The clothing clung to her like a scuba diver’s suit, like a superhero’s outfit.

My index finger rested on the trigger.  She was so pretty.  Those cascading waves.  Those long legs.  Her hands pushed up against her face.  Her delicate face.  Little features, a tiny pointing chin, large eyes, lashes like a llama’s, a model, a queen, pale, she could be a mermaid or empress.  This was new.  I’d never done a woman.
She lived alone.  No one to help her bring in the grocery bags.  She’d been to the market.  I saw her bring in the bags and leave them on the kitchen counter.  Wouldn’t the milk go sour?  Did she have a backache?  How I’d love to rub and smooth out the kinks.

My index finger rested on the trigger.  I could see us.  The two of us on some beach, maybe Malibu.  Bali.  Brazil.  She’d be wearing nothing.  I wouldn’t either.  It’d just be us.  And I’d run my fingers through those cascading brown waves.  I’d touch her on that sharp little chin.  We’d read together on the sand and drink mojitos.  I’d marry her.  She’d look pretty even with a belly.  And we’d grow old and live in a simple house with a red door and three bedrooms, two baths, and also, we’d have a cat or dog or parakeet named Jim or Hector or Phyllis.
My suit was so hot that evening.  All the black.  I could have torn it off.  I could pretend to run into her on the street.  Tell her she looked familiar.  Ask her to coffee or shakes.  Shakes.  It’d be more fun, old style, white picket fence, simple house, red door.

I was sweating profusely.  She continued crying.  I could see it through the window.  And then I started crying.  Just a case.  The government.  Just an assignment.  A task.  A goal.  A contribution.  It was a silhouette.  Nothing more.  Just hair, legs, torso, nose, chin, the sharp little chin.  The legs, long, she moved like a gazelle.  Waves and waves of brown cascading hair, an ocean of tresses.  Who had the time to read?  And she’d read and then cried and then read some more.

My index finger.  My mask like fire.  All the sweat.

An eyelash.  I see it on the side of my finger.  My index finger.  The one on the trigger.  My brother used to say, blow and make a wish.


Arizona

Passing by a shooting range, along with miscellaneous signs to lost desert highways, I was abruptly startled when Pam, the driver of my shuttle, said,
“Don’t nobody live round these parts except havelinas and black beetles.”
“What are havelinas?”
“They look like a cross between a pig and hienna.  No relations to the pig though honey.  None whatsoever.”
“They just look like pigs?”
“Well, like a boar pig.”
“Oh.  Cool.”
I was experiencing an overwhelming sense of doom.  I was headed to a cattle ranch that had been converted into a bed and breakfast.  I had expected cowboy boots and other cliché desert things like cactus and coyotes.  Havelinas and this odd rain even though it was over a hundred degrees outside were not what I expected.  I expected resorts on the side of the road, quaint bed and breakfasts, I expected to feel relaxed.  A loud boom struck outside.  Thunder, but no rain.  An incoming storm.  Perfect.
A fat balding man was sitting in front of me, I think his name was Robert, and he couldn’t stop talking about his nurse girlfriend that he’d be meeting in a little town called Jerome.  They hadn’t seen each other in months he said.  “I’m a lucky dog,” he said.  After discussing his girlfriend for a long half hour, he mentioned how McDonalds would hit the spot.
“Mind if we stop somewhere along the road here?” Robert asked Pam.
“Well we’ve got some other people in the van, mister.  Does anyone else want to stop?”
The man sitting next to me was asleep.  All I knew was that his name was Sven.  He was Swedish, headed to Sedona. Pam’s dad, an old man whose face was covered with coarse gray whiskers, was sitting in the passenger seat saying, “Shoot the trigger,” and other unintelligible phrases as we drove past Anther, a town that Robert said might have a McDonalds.  Pam asked if we wanted waters.  It began to rain.  The booms outside were getting louder and jagged streaks of electric blue lit up the sky every few minutes.
Everyone was ignoring Pam.  She tried to ask again.
“Cool and fresh waters,” she said.  “It’s been as high as 119 degrees out here.”
Sven had started to snore loudly.  He had a cold too, you could tell, because a green iridescent bubble grew out of his nose each time he exhaled.  Pam pulled the van off the road to stretch out her neck.  The rain had temporarily subsided, but not the lightning or thunder.  I got out too and rotated my feet in mini circles until I heard each one crack.
There were black beetles crawling everywhere.  It was a task not to step on one.  I felt a couple crawl up the side of my leg and in order to get them off, I kicked my leg out spastically.  The land looked like a black river, there were so many of them.  They didn’t bite, but they were everywhere.  I wanted to get back in the van.  I was exhausted and alone.  There was only me and the shrubbery and heat and beetles outside the van.  The earth’s soil had that rain smell—fresh sage, mixed with red Sedona rock.  Every smell attached to your skin, dug deep in your pores, so that you were a rock and plant and a beetle.
As I sat back inside the van, I could feel the itch of shrubbery that had rubbed up against my ankles.  Everything was pulling me down, making me level and flat, as though the landscape were trying to pin me to earth.
Without warning, as if it were pulled right from my brain bank and whirled into space, a very large, in fact human-sized black beetle knocked on our window with its right antenna.
“Hello.  I’m lost and don’t feel well,” she said rubbing her enormous belly.
“Oh hey Ella, how are you?” Pam asked the beetle.
“I think it’s time.  The babies are coming.”
All of a sudden, the van was very dark.  The windows were coated with wet, sticky black goo, and swarming baby beetles the size of human hands crawled all over the windows.


Skeletons

The little girl, Anna, saw a skeleton and pointed.  It was in front of the museum.  Her Aunt Carson, a frail, pasty woman, took her hand and said, “It’s a blue whale.”  “White whale,” Anna said.  Her teeth were small, she had blonde curls and a scrunched up nose.  She was laughing.  “White whale,” Anna said again.  How do I explain this, thought Carson.  Shall I just say it’s white?  But Carson continued to try and explain.  “It’s the inside of a blue whale.  This is what the inside looks like.”  Anna laughed and grabbed Carson’s hand.
The bones bothered Carson.  The last ones she’d seen were tiny.  The accident, she thought.  The swerves.  She kept replaying it in her mind, over and over, a song on repeat.
On the way into the museum, Anna and Carson followed painted dinosaur prints.  They hopped from one to the next and little Anna sang, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”  This was odd to Carson.  They weren’t in a game of ring-around-the-rosy, but Carson sang too and let little Anna enjoy herself.
This was a day away with her niece.  Away from all the photographs, the carnations, those awful pink and red speckled carnations.  She hated them.  And the sticky, humid air after the funeral was too thick, she had trouble breathing.  Carson hadn’t opened the blinds or the windows.  Her food was beginning to rot.
But here, alongside the dinosaur path, midnight-blue morning glories with long winding vines, yellow honeysuckle, and iris shimmered in the sunlight.  They were all wildflowers and thank God, she thought, there were no carnations.  Carson touched the vines as they hopped along.
They went to the insect exhibit first.  “Butterflies,” Carson said, and then “Look.  Bees, grasshoppers.”  Anna looked up at Carson with a pushed out bottom lip, “Not flying.  Butterfly.  Not flying.”  And again, Carson wondered how she would explain.  “These are the butterflies who were tired,” she said.  “Oh,” said Anna, but she’d stopped laughing.
In the mammal exhibit, Anna pointed at two cougars.  “Mommy and baby cougar,” Anna said.  “Yes.  I suppose it could be,” said Carson.  And then Carson stared so long at the cougars they began to frighten her.  It’s like if you look long enough, they come to life, she thought.
And then she wondered if she’d looked at her dead child, Charles, long enough, before they shut the miniature coffin, would he giggle?  Would he burp?  Even a twitch?
Anna rubbed her eyes and yawned.  Nap time.  She had started wailing the song, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”
It was time to hop back out, dance down the dinosaur path with the loose vines and vibrant morning glories.  Hop past all the blossoming yellow honeysuckle.  Carson reached out and touched one of the flowers that had changed from yellow to brown.  “Don’t worry, Anna.  We’ll be home soon.  Maybe let’s sing another tune.”


Recapitulation

He had a uni-brow.  Thick and wild gray stray hairs grew out from the strangest places of Barry.  Even the center of his nose.  He said, “Yeah.  Gotta do something about these scraggly hairs, pluck them or something.”  He said, “I have a treat.”
Barry had brought a bottle of pinot noir. Helen’s least favorite.  Too watered down.  I want robust, she thought as he played her a simple tune on his guitar.  Each note, like a mosquito buzzing around her, flew to her ears first, then stung, down, down, all the way down.  And the couch they sat on, the loveseat, vibrated uncomfortably.
Barry had made this seem like a date and Helen was confused.  She thought, he should know we’re just friends.  He’s not my type.  He’s quite unattractive.
The guitar was the gift.  The words.  No other treat necessary, she thought.  The guitar made his ugliness disappear a little.  Helen leaned in to hum with him.
After the wine, Helen felt comfortable enough to announce, “I have to pee.”  When she walked back in the room, he’d poured her a new glass of wine.  “New Zealand vino,” he said.  “And my treat, doll.  It’s ex-traordinary.”  Why is he calling me doll now, she wondered.
While Helen was in the bathroom, Barry had poured the wine and swirled tiny white pieces of ecstasy into her glass with a knife. The morsels sank to the bottom, disintegrating.
This is strange, Helen thought while she peed.  Barry was a good friend of her of ex-boyfriend Jim’s.  Maybe Jim told him to come over, she thought.  Maybe Jim said I was lonely.  And then she felt a wave of exhaustion, heavy eyelids, Barry was not attractive, she decided.  Not at all.
“Mind if I put on some comfees?” Helen asked.
“No worries,” Barry said.
“Look away while I change into sweats.”
But he looked back a little too soon and caught a glimpse of pink panties.
“This wine is tart,” Helen said.
“It’s my treat, sweetheart.”
Helen watched Barry’s face turn into three faces, one on top of the other.  Dark shadows came and sucked up his eyes.  Helen zoomed in on the hairy spot in the center of his nose.
Barry sang and strummed on his guitar the lines, “Can’t smile without you,” over and over again in different keys.  A minor, e, e minor, g.
And she wondered, why is he calling me sweetheart.
Each word bled into the other.  Was he singing or speaking, she wondered.  The hairy spot on his nose was shifting.  It moved to the center of his forehead.  Or was that his uni-brow?  It moved to his cheeks.  Or was that stubble?
“I’m scared, Barry.”
“What’s the matter, cute little thing?”
“You came over here because you thought you’d get laid.  I see through it.  My roommate’s here.  The door’s open.”
“Sweetheart, you’re tripping out.  I’m your friend.  It’s just really strong e.  My treat.”
Helen grabbed the bottle of New Zealand wine and lay on carpet looking up at a shifting cottage cheese ceiling.
“Just keep singing,” she said, grinding her teeth.
He smiled, “You’re such a cute little thing.”
“You brought the e to drug me,” Helen said.
“I’m your friend. Cute little thing.”
Helen was scared.  She called Jim then and he picked up the phone.  She said, “You gotta come over,” but Jim hung up. Click, he was gone.
“Jim’s gonna come over and kick my ass.”
“No.  He’s not coming,” Helen said.
“Such a cute little thing.”
“Play me a song,” Helen said.
He played the same tune, same words, “Can’t smile without you.”
“You’re so smart,” Helen said.  “I know what you’re doing.  You didn’t call me sweetheart when you got here, or cute little thing.  You should go.”
He kissed Helen’s forehead, rubbing the coarse hairs on his nose against her nose.
“Cute little thing,” he said.
“I don’t want to be kissed,” she said.
“Such a cute little thing.”
“I think you need to leave,” she said.
“It’s Jim isn’t it?  He’s gonna kick my ass.”
“He’s on the way, you have to go now.”
Barry hugged Helen then, a little too hard, a suffocating hug, he needed some love.  But she couldn’t breathe, and she begged, please, please. And then a knock,
“Oh fuck,” Barry said.
Her roommate, Juan, a broad shouldered, burly man, stormed in, and grabbed Barry by the back of the shirt.
“Oh fuck,” Barry said it again.
“Get out of here and don’t come back,” Helen’s roommate said.
Helen heard the elevator ding ding.  Barry was gone.  She curled up in red sheets, her jaw clenching tight, teeth grinding, shadows blurring together on the cottage cheese ceiling.  She had a drumming headache.  Those nose hairs, she thought.  “You’re a cute little thing,” she replayed the words in her head and thought cute, not a thing.  Cute, not a thing.
And Helen curled up next to her vertical pillow, a substitute man, a fluffy mass of artificial intimacy.