Short StoriesLet's start with a weird one, yeah?
The Case of the Manacled Mormon
Oh, Kirk. How I loved you. Your mother said I was too pretty but you didn’t care. When Utah got colder, you went on a mission. I’ve never understood why.
“I love you,” I said. “I’ll find you.”
The flashbulbs caught me, black leather boots, holding a leash tied to another girl. Finding you was so expensive but I saved up.
England was bright and cold. That’s where you were. That’s where they took you. I showed you my gun and we drove to Devon. You knew it was fake. Didn’t you?
I made you chocolate cake for breakfast, Kirk. Macaroni casserole for dinner. Because they were your favorites.
“I have experience now,” I told you. “Trust me.”
Mink-lined handcuffs, so they wouldn’t hurt you. Blue silk sheets, embroidered with your initials. Cinnamon oil. If you didn’t like it, you could have told me.
Two days later, in Trafalgar Square, you ran for the pay phone. Then the train. You said, “I love you.” Didn’t you?
Blue lights, red lights.
“Is there a problem?” I’ll ask. The tabloids will call me Madam Mayhem, a devious femme fatale, but I will call it an incredible love lost.
Dominoes(Published on Literary Laundry)
My girlfriend is sitting across from me, scraping the last of the vanilla yogurt from the container. She catches her reflection in the spoon. I can tell it shocks her a little bit, as if she had forgotten reflections existed. I imagine that might be convenient, to never reflect.
“I meant to tell you,” she says, “that I had the oddest dream last night.” She pauses. I stay seated, even though I’d like to get up and change clothes. The clock reads 5:52 PM. She starts again.
“It started out somewhere in a field. A large field, with tall grasses, and no buildings in sight. And there was a river. A very small river, more of a stream I guess. But you were standing there on the bridge. I think you were there, at least.
“Anyway, I was with you. And you had just flown in, on one of the tiny planes. You flew it, too. You knew how to fly. So we were standing there, and you were waiting for me to fly. ‘It’s easy,’ you said. But as soon as I tried, I felt terrified. I felt out of control and my heart was racing. I’m surprised you didn’t feel it.
“Anyway, I crashed into the river, or the stream. I began to drown, even though you know I know perfectly well how to swim. Still, I began to drown and you saved me. You pulled me out. And that’s all that I remember, I think I woke up then.” She had been staring down into her lap but she looked up. I felt her gaze fixed on my face, searching.
“Have you ever tried to control your dreams?” I say. “I’ve heard of people doing it, you know, when they don’t like the way things are going.”
“Well,” she says, “I liked the way things were going.” She stands up, stretches, walks past me. I sit alone in the kitchen now. The whir of the refrigerator seems impossibly loud. My girlfriend, Merilee, she’s a vacuum. She leaves and with her she takes all the silence and the air. She has never suffered a day from worry, or at least this is what she tells me. I believe that it could be true. I believe many things about this woman.
Merilee can’t believe how much the wind and the time affect me. I guess it’s hard for her to understand. In the time it takes her to tell me about her dreams, I note the clock three times. “Are you going somewhere?” she has asked me before. Sometimes I answer, mostly I apologize. I don’t think she means it, she just doesn’t understand there are some things I cannot control. Like passing by 5th and New Loridans street. Nothing to see but it seems like if the wind blows just so, everything is suddenly different. This is the best way I can explain it to her, or anyone.
“I want to do something,” she says to me from the other room. “Is there something we can do?” I hate to think she is bored.
“Sure,” I say, “there are lots of things.”
“I don’t want to spend money, though. Maybe we could go for a walk, like in the park?”
But the truth is that I don’t want to go for a walk in the park. My heart is racing and I am sitting in our kitchen. I want to sink into the earth and beat from underneath. I want to be still and I want to remove my shoes.
“Should we go for a walk?” she says. She thinks I haven’t heard.
“Are you sure?” I say. She doesn’t answer. I hear the door close.
I get up and make myself a drink. I am about to call for Merilee when someone knocks on the door.
“Just a second,” I hear her say. She has not told me that anyone is coming over. I have to assume she knew about this. I walk into the hallway to see the guest of honor. It’s our neighbor, Phillip. My stomach moves up into my chest. Merilee has invited Phillip over to play dominoes. She can ask him, because he is in some unknown band, for some new music suggestions. Her domino fixation is odd and I have never understood the fun in it. Phillip is hardly ever home, what with his booming career and such. I’m more than a little surprised to see him sitting in my living room while my girlfriend finds the box of dominoes.
“Ah, I didn’t know you were coming over,” I say.
“Nathan,” Merilee says. Like a warning. She wants me to be ‘cool’ with this. I’ll be cool.
“How’ve you been, dude?” Phillip asks me. Dude. And in my living room. I defer.
“Merilee, you didn’t mention playing dominoes,” I say, turning away from the intruder.
“Well, no, Nathan. I mentioned going on a walk. But now I’m going to play dominoes with Phillip. I would have asked you to play but I know you don’t like it…”
“Will it bother you if I turn on the TV?” I say.
“Yes, Nathan. It would,” she says. So I guess I’ll just make another drink and watch my neighbor flirt with my girlfriend. And she doesn’t understand anxiety.
By the time I’ve made and enjoyed most of another drink in the kitchen, Merilee and Phillip are deep into a musical name-dropping game.
“Have you heard the new Best Coast album? The lead singer reminds me a lot of Rilo Kiley, and you like her, don’t you? I think you’d really like them. You should also check out Cults and Sleigh Bells, but they’re kind of heavy.”
“I like Hank Williams,” I say because I think it’s funny. Neither one laughs. I notice Merilee has changed seats; she’s closer to the neighbor now. If I could think about anything else I would. But there’s just this one thing and nothing else.
About a month ago, I had dinner and drinks with a few friends from college. Just the two I’ve kept in touch with. We had dinner at one of those sport bar kinds of joints where everything is real loud and the only lights are neon. You know, the places men can go together. Anyway, I had this planned and Merilee, she knew all about it. She said she was going to go do something with her girlfriends anyway. I got back to our place around 11 PM probably. Merilee was still gone so I sat out in the living room—this one we’re all in right now—and I watched TV. More sports, I guess. Then around about midnight, headlights flashed through the window. So I went over to the window and looked out but there was no car. I don’t know why I kept standing there but I did. And then I saw Merilee and this guy Phillip walking around the corner. Merilee was laughing and she had this smile tattooed on her face, like she’d never been so happy. Not to mention the dress she had on was something else. Phillip’s hand was guiding against Merilee’s lower back. Lightly, but there all the same. When they got about half way up the driveway, Merilee stopped and they faced one another. She smiled, gestured her hand forward and then up. Phillip shrugged, smiled. Then he tried to kiss her. And Merilee jerked. Quickly turned toward the house, shook her head. Still, she wanted it. I know that she did. And maybe it was guilt and that’s the only reason she’s here with me now.
“Nathan,” she says. Interrupting that stale moment. I never told her that I had seen them out there.
“Would you mind making us all a drink? I think one of Phillip’s friends may come over as well, is that right, Phillip? I think she might join us in a little while.” I nodded, made like I was smiling. A regular orgy to take place in my living room and all I can do is make drinks.
“Any preferences?” I ask.
“Oh, how about a couple of dark and stormys?” she says. “Now it’s finally beginning to get warm outside.”
I make the drinks and settle back into my spot on the couch. “So, Phillip, who’s this friend of yours?” I say. “A groupie?” This visibly upsets Merilee but Phillip just laughs. I decide to laugh too, despite how little I am joking.
“She’s just a friend I know from the business,” he says. The business? I’m aware I am in my living room but this is all. My heart feels like its about to come through the back of my neck. And then Merilee giggles; she confirms it. And I find it all unbelievable. They move the dominoes around, Merilee shouts and laughs. I guess she’s won. I finish my drink and look around. 7:13 PM.
“Merilee,” I say, “what about dinner? Are you going to want to eat?”
“Of course,” she says. “Maybe when Phillip’s friend gets here, the four of us can go out for dinner. Wouldn’t that be nice? We could go to that new tapas place over by the park. I’ve been wanting to go there since it opened.” Sit through a dinner with Phillip? No, thank you. As much as I like the thought of him outside my house already…
“Nathan? Don’t you think that would be nice?”
“Honestly, Mer, no.” I’ve had enough of his face, his ‘dudes,’ his ‘business.’ Merilee looks stunned. I sit back and sip the last of my drink. Phillip moves around a little, makes like he’s going to stand up.
“Well that’s cool, dude. I’m going to go meet up with her, with Liz I mean, I think she’s expecting me to be at my house,” he says. Funny, I think, I was expecting you to be there, too.
“That’s okay, Phillip. You don’t have to…” Merilee says.
“You two have a nice night,” he says. Gone, finally. 7:17 PM.
“What the fuck was that, Nathan? Huh? You want to tell me why you’ve had a stick up your ass all night?” I stay where I am. She’s up now, arms waving.
“I haven’t got the stomach for that guy,” I say. “I mean, what’s up with that name dropping anyway? I thought you found that kind of shit infuriating?”
“You’ve got a problem,” she says, “and it’s not with him, is it? It’s you. The problem is with you.”
She’s clicking the dominoes hard and fast against one another, as many as she can fit in one hand before putting them back into the box. She never told me she knew how to play.
“I think I do understand what it feels like to drown,” I say. She stops and looks at me.
“What are you talking about, Nathan?”
“You’re right, Merilee,” I say. I look to take another drink but there’s only ice. I lean forward. “I do have a problem.” She says nothing, makes a look like she thinks I’m being stupid.
“I saw you two in the driveway last month, Merilee. I saw it. I saw his hands and your dress and the way you smiled, I saw all of it. Why didn’t you mention it, Merilee? Did you feel guilty? Huh? Why didn’t you say anything to me, Merilee?”
“Nathan,” she says. And her eyes give. She leaves the room, 7:28 PM. I sit back again, rub my face over and over. I try to breathe but still feel that I cannot. In my chest, the water is there. I grit my teeth. Still it seems that nothing can dry this pain. Then she’s back. And it is 9:36 PM.
“I’m going to stay with my sister,” she says. She holds two full bags. I stare up at her, motionless.
Merilee and I didn’t really meet. We were introduced. A friend of a friend’s girlfriend. Thought that I was lonely and told me she had a friend for me. Almost ten months ago, it was. Merilee blew into my life and I am sure she will figure me out, one of these days, maybe today. When she does, I believe Merilee will not be afraid to take flight, the way she was in her dream. In life, she’s much more bold. She will figure me out and she will fly. And I will remain, motionless.
You Can’t Forget Memories
Have you ever said something you couldn’t take back? I have.
I was seven years old and I said to my then step dad, “It’s my job to get rid of you.”
This year, I turned 30. I haven’t seen my stepdad, Mike, since college. He and my mother split up when I was still in high school. Since turning 30, I’ve had the inevitable existential crisis set in and, as such, have started to see a therapist. I think that’s like a rite of passage. The reason I began seeing a therapist was due to a series of panic attacks. It became clear quite quickly that my job was the genesis of my anxiety. So, after my first session, I gave my two weeks notice. The next time I saw my therapist, a week later, she asked me to rank my anxiety on a scale of one to ten. If I recall correctly, the first week I probably said it was a nine. By the second week, after quitting my job, I said it was a three.
So, my therapist took out a worksheet – a relatively simple, routine exercise that I’m sure she performs on much younger patients. This worksheet had a list of “Unhelpful Thinking Habits” and she asked me to read them and identify the ones I recognized in myself. I chose “Judgemental Thoughts.” She asked me to explain. So I told her that I always just think the worst of people, and I expect the least. This, of course, prompted the follow-up question: what experience in your life may have led you to develop that habit? I said something like, “if you expect the least from people, you’ll be less likely to be disappointed.” And she asked me if I had ever been disappointed. This made me remember my step dad, Mike.
Let me backtrack. When my step dad moved out, I was fifteen. My mom was at the end of her emotional rope, both with the relationship and a few recent traumas. My step dad owned a business with his children, who he later discovered were embezzling money from the company. On the heels of this revelation, his heart failed and he had to get a pacemaker put into his chest. All of this to say, it was a difficult year in our house. Despite needing to go their separate ways, he and my mother remained close friends for years. Until she remarried and her husband could not understand the need for this friendship to continue. That’s when we, my mother and I, lost touch with Mike.
When I think about what disappoints me about this relationship, so many pointed fingers and mixed emotions arise. I could say that I’m disappointed in my mother for not sticking it out, but that’s not it. I could say that I’m disappointed in Mike for not trying harder to keep me in his life, but that’s not it either. Ultimately, the only person I’m disappointed in is myself. Not because I could have kept them together – I know better than that. I’m disappointed in myself for not making an effort to see him, talk more, tell him I’ll always love him. It is a shameful guilt that I have carried with me (and willfully ignored) for years.
“Why don’t you send him a letter?” my therapist suggests. When I get back home, my mom calls to ask how the session went. I tell her I need Mike’s address so I can write him a letter. This audibly gives her pause. She’s not sure she knows it anymore. She asks why so I tell her about the guilt I have and the things I need to tell him. Somewhat to my surprise, she says she has been feeling the same way. She tells me she needs to talk to her husband because she has decided we need to visit Mike. She’s concerned what her husband will think, how he’ll react, and she’s unsure what to say. I reassure her that it’s the right thing to do.
A day or two later, she calls me and says it went better than expected. She’s already booking a place for us to stay. Plans are made with an urgency that’s more than a little unnerving. She rents an AirBnB an hour outside of San Antonio and we book our flights. She flies out a couple of days before me and sends me a picture of Mike, now in a wheelchair, smoking a cigarette. To appreciate this image the way I do, you would need to know that my mom and Mike met at the gym, and Mike used to drink protein smoothies with raw eggs every morning for breakfast.
When they arrive to pick me up from the airport, Mike is in the backseat. He tries to get out to give me a hug but it is physically quite difficult for him. So I lean into the backseat and hug him while he laughs and says, “it’s my job to get rid of you!” This has always been his refrain for me – we have dark senses of humor, I suppose. What follows is four days of nostalgia. Joy, laughter, tears, reasoning and ultimately waxing on a past and present no one could have foreseen. Before the trip, I asked my mom to gather some old photographs to give him. She tells me his apartment is sad and empty, so it’s my hope that this will help. But in her attempt to not dredge up old memories, she only brings a handful of somewhat nondescript photographs. Mike is deeply and sincerely grateful nonetheless. Every time he rolls his wheelchair onto the patio to smoke, which is often, he takes the photos with him and slowly flips through them over and over again. He is so alone in his chosen life now and it confounds me. We plead with him to move back but he vehemently refuses. Maybe going back is harder than just standing still. It’s not my choice to make, so I have to let it go.
On our last night of this, at times, melancholy vacation, we have dinner at a place called Hondo’s on Main. They have a large outdoor patio with live music and Mike is happy because he can smoke. And maybe it’s the stiff margaritas, but we’re all together again and for the moment, we’re happy. I decide to commemorate the occasion by buying him a t-shirt with the restaurant’s logo and eerily on-the-nose slogan: You can’t forget memories.
A couple of weeks after the trip ends, I drive up to my mom’s house to collect all the good photographs I know Mike wants. They are Christmas, birthdays, their wedding, beach trips. All of the time when the three of us were a family. I even included photos of his estranged children, because I know somehow they will make him smile. There are so many photos, well over a hundred. I carefully put them one by one into a new photo album, leaving the first page blank. This is where I will write the letter I never got to send.
It is true that in life, you will say things that you can never take back. Some things don’t get to be wrapped up in neat little packages. They defy the rules of storytelling. No happy endings or resolution. In the end, all we have are the things we do. The ways we show up for one another, no matter the time or distance gone by. No, you can’t forget memories. But you can create new ones. Ones that erase time and guilt. New ones that somehow make the old ones even better.
The Easy Way (Also on my blog)
Several weeks ago, I babysat for a family I'd never met before. This is not uncommon lately since I've signed up for multiple babysitting referral websites and I'll often receive calls, emails, and text messages from parents, too far in advance or at the very last minute, who want me to watch their kids. Do I have a passion for childcare? I don't think I do but then again, I very well may. I've always liked babysitting but mainly because I view it as an easy way to make money. Even as I write that sentence, I'm having to admit to myself that I like making money but don't really like to work.
Anyway, this isn't about me. This is about the family I babysat for several weeks ago. Prior to meeting them and watching their son, I received a series of text messages to confirm (multiple times) that I would be there when I said I would. This, to me, seemed indicative of a kind of neurotic parenting style, one which I saw quite frequently amongst well-to-do, upper middle class, suburban Atlanta families. I confirmed that I would in fact be there when I said I would be there and arrived ten minutes early.
The neighborhood was a slightly older townhouse complex, the type that looks a little more purposeful than those built in recent years. The buildings were classy somehow. Modest, brick, not too tall. I was hopeful when I knocked on the door. A very average looking, middle-aged white man wearing a Steelers t-shirt answered the door. I could tell, I think, before he even said a word that this was a man who had struggled with simple social interaction his entire life. Nonetheless, he introduced himself and told me that their son was upstairs changing clothes. Before I could really get a word in - my usual feigned interest for their day, their plans, etc. - he introduced me to his television. I tried not to notice the living room's decor, worried that if I did, I would be unable to hide my pained and disgusted grimace in front of the room's decorator. And how did I know that he had decorated? It was obvious, believe me.
I forgot to mention that in the text messages prior to my meeting him, 'Dad' had mentioned more than once the phrase "extended cable." I was unsure of what it meant and how the information was supposed to affect me so I didn't really respond. He did want me to know that he had "extended cable," however, and wifi. I wondered if he thought these facts would impress me, when there is literally wifi on subway platforms.
He led me upstairs to meet the child and the child's mother. The mother, also clad in a Steelers jersey, looked to be maybe only a year or two older than I. Once she began talking, I wondered if in fact she wasn't younger. She had a slight accent, maybe midwestern, and held in her hand a hot pink tobacco vaporizer. She gestured toward her son ("Can you say 'hi'?") who was vehemently preoccupied with his game of Grand Theft Auto. I suppose now is as good of a time as any to mention that the child was six years old. Cute, too. Tow-headed, blue-eyed, skin that showed he had spent most of the summer outdoors. The mother and I talked for a few minutes while 'Dad', who I later discovered was not actually dad, got ready to leave.
"So, what kind of fun plans do you all have for the night?" I asked.
"Well, someone dropped out of Chris's fantasy football league and somehow my name got tossed in the hat. I really don't know anything about football but tonight is the draft and we're going out with the rest of the league to pick our teams."
I didn't have much to say to that, could barely feign interest but tried. She told me then that all her son was eating nowadays was macaroni and cheese and said that there was a package of it on the kitchen counter. She said all I had to do was add water to it and put it in the microwave and at that moment, bile rose in my throat as I thought of all the times I had drunkenly eaten that same macaroni in my freshmen dorm room. Sure thing, I told her. Chris reentered the room and announced that the boy would most likely spend the next five hours glued to the tablet, playing video games. I nodded and sort of pretended like he had made a joke, knowing full well that he wasn't joking at all. They left and I sat down with the boy on the couch.
"What are you playing?" I asked.
"It's Grand Theft Auto," he said, "do you know it?"
I knew it only by the horrible reputation it had - the game encourages the player to abuse women, shoot and/or stab innocent bystanders, rob people at gunpoint, and so on. It shocked me that a child of six years old could possibly be allowed to play such a game. I watched him play, fascinated and horrified at the same time, as he manipulated his avatar - a black man wearing a wife beater - to mercilessly yank drivers from their vehicles and crash maniacally into other motorists, pedestrians, and buildings.
I asked him, "What's the point of shooting people in this game?" after one particularly horrifying homicidal beach rampage.
"There is no point," he replied, and maybe he laughed a little.
I tried lamely to refocus his attention. Asked him about his school. Asked him if there were any sports he liked to play. I was no match for the tablet, however, so I went downstairs.
I stared at the individual, microwavable serving of macaroni and cheese on the faux marble counter. I opened the refrigerator to reveal nothing but soft drinks and Gatorade. The freezer, on the other hand, was replete with microwavable chicken nuggets, pizzas, and hot pockets. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't make this kid real food for dinner.
I did, however, decide that I would make him "real" macaroni and cheese, and hid the gross reminder of college in a cupboard. I found butter and milk and cheese and began to boil the water. As I waited, I noticed that he had come downstairs, game in hand, and was sitting on the navy blue leather couch, looking at me. I glanced around the kitchen and realized that this place must belong to his mother's boyfriend. The decoration gave it away, of course, but so did the dried, old bits of food left in drawers and the lack of any real cooking paraphernalia. The dining room was painted a dark red color and I noticed that the house's motif was a Joker. Yes, a Joker. As in the kind you see in a deck of cards. There were several framed prints of a crazed, slightly older-looking Joker around the kitchen, dining, and living rooms. There were matching coasters, too.
As I continued to wait for the macaroni to be cooked, I noticed a television in the kitchen. I don't know if it was the tacky setting or the fact that the child was still glued to his horrifying video game, but I turned on "Keeping up with the Kardashians" for the first time in my life. I started to really dislike myself but found some odd pleasure in that feeling. Like, Yeah, what if this was my life? How empty would I feel on a routine basis? Thoughts like these filled my mind as I shoved forkful after forkful of macaroni in my mouth. The boy barely ate his but insisted on a Gogurt. I was under the impression that this children's fad snack had long ago been discontinued but was proven wrong as the boy revealed a case of the sugary, yogurt-like packages tucked into a refrigerator door. He sucked it down in approximately ten seconds and said, "Let's go back upstairs."
By this time, his bedtime was about an hour away. I started to read a book I had packed but was constantly interrupted by the child who wanted to show me the horrible and pointless things he was doing on his game. I gave up reading and resigned to watch the cartoon show which had been playing all the while on his television. Eventually, I asked him to brush his teeth to which he, of course, said no. I convinced him and he jammed the toothbrush in his mouth and sort of sucked on it for about 30 seconds before he was done. Good enough, I thought. Then it was time for bed and this was met with the not unexpected reluctance.
"I want to sleep on the couch," he insisted.
"You can't," I said, "and besides, the bed is much more comfortable."
He thought about this briefly and decided he didn't care. He stayed on the couch.
"Get into bed," I said.
"Fine," I said, "then I'll turn off the TV if you won't get into bed." I had already been informed that his very attentive parents allowed him to sleep every night with the television on. I fumbled around his room for a remote but found none. So I moved my fingers around the edges of the television searching for a power button but found none. I was beginning to look like an idiot now and I could tell he was laughing at me. My threats were empty.
"Just get into bed," I pleaded. "I've let you do whatever you want all night and this is the first thing I've asked you to do. So please, just get in bed and don't fight me on this."
He agreed to get into bed, but not the top bunk he usually slept in, rather the bottom one. It felt like an inconsequential compromise so I let it go. I turned off the lights and went back downstairs to enjoy the "extended cable."
Mom and Chris got home a little while later and informed me that their night had not gone to plan. Chris elaborated that there had been a special deal promised for fantasy football leaguers at Hooter's but that when they arrived, they were informed that the deal could not be redeemed until the next time they came in. Mom also said there was not enough room for their entire league and that this should have been better planned for by the Hooter's staff.
I was deeply depressed when I left and hardly felt the $55.00 they gave me was earned the easy way.