…and in this picture…

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I’m not in this snapshot. My brother stands barefoot on short-mowed grass, a lawn-dart target ringing his feet like a tiny hula-hoop. His shoulders are raised in a tense shrug; right hand palm-up, face startled like he’s dropped a glass and can’t believe his grip let him down. He wears green shorts and a late summer tan, and his five-year-old belly paunches like a man’s. Two red steel darts lie at his toes, weighty projectiles as long as his boyish arms. He appears paralyzed, caught shoeless and sticky-faced, getting target practice with other unsupervised urchins.

If you could follow Sean’s eyes out of the photograph, you’d see me, the source of his flinching body and the danger littered at his feet. I am his opponent, positioned in an identical target across the yard. We’d been warned against this game, and now played it only when the summer babysitter was on watch. A lax guardian, she passed her afternoons smoking in the garage, crank-calling local shops, and practicing new styles she learned at hairdressing school each week. In fact, Stacey probably snapped this photo, leaving evidence both of our bad behaviour and her own ineptitude when my mother developed the film.

Neither my brother nor I was a stupid child; yet, we roped together wagons, trikes and Big Wheels with skipping ropes and swing-set chains, and rode these trains downhill at top speed. We chucked croquet balls into the air then froze, waiting for the polished wooden bombs to pass inches from our skulls. Lawn-darts were versatile playthings, perfect for lobbing, chucking, dodging and running while carrying. Like the cigarettes Stacey dragged on and the aerosol spray she applied to her nest of frosted hair, our games flaunted our ignorance of mortality. We could imagine we were anything, except injured, sick or old.

One afternoon, Stacey read my horoscope from her magazine, informing me that I would marry a blond man, and then let me hold her cigarette while she calculated that in the year 2000, she would be thirty-six and I’d be twenty-seven. That age was so far off that to pair an image with the number, I had to hitch myself to my mother’s life: walking the dog, putting my pantyhose on last, and ticking off rules on my fingers as I plucked my car keys from the peg and left my sun-toasted kids in the care of a girl from down the block.

Ironing Out

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Her love for him existed as a concept, a potential, for months. All through the winter and into springtime, she believed in it as a thing that could happen but no one could say for sure. Like how the polar ice caps might disappear, or like the winning ticket might be riding in someone’s pocket right now. At last, she fell in love with him properly next to the baggage carousel, waiting for her luggage to drop. It happened the moment she felt his wrinkled t-shirt, drab cotton beaten into softness by the spin cycle and smelling of dryer-sheet lemon. Her hands spread to span his ribs, glided up to clutch his shoulder blades, palms moving flat across his warm shirt. A quick and carefree gesture that smoothed the folds from cotton along with the hesitation from her heart. She drew away from that hug a different person than she went in, and spent their next four days together trying to find the words.

Rosa’s Heart is a Shitty Hunter

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Rosa’s heart is a dummy. Rosa’s heart: it never learns. Rosa has no idea what she’s doing to the little pump inside her chest, all the moves she’s played wrong. At 36, Rosa is far too old to keep on treating it like an organ plump with youth.

She knows the family history and believes she takes good care, but really, Rosa is a dummy, too. Widowed aunts and grannies are signposts directing the family’s surviving men to sidestep bacon and eggs, eschew smoking and drinking. In place of delicious fatty vices, they crunch pills and monitor cholesterol like the gadget at an earthquake centre, the doctor’s pen a tiny stylus scratching out the tension between this minute and the last minute of their lives. Ignore the cautionary aunties, pay for it in years off your life, like pay docked for sneaking too much beef.

The men in Rosa’s family drop dead in grocery stores, tumbling to the floor alongside net bags of oranges and dropped pickle jars. They collapse on golf greens, crumple to the sidewalk still gripping dog leashes, go quietly in the night. Their wives wake to cold feet against their calves; an inversion of the winter nights when they crept their toes across the bed to steal their husbands’ heat. Ever since an uncle passed at the wheel during rush hour, there is an unspoken rule that after seventy, the men don’t drive. They claim to have had one too many and relinquish the driver’s seat to wives and women-friends, or build “not driving” into their heart-health mythology, pretending they prefer to walk.

The women, their hearts, they have troubles too. Hovering over the details of others’ lives, they neglect to tend their own and as their hips plump out of last season’s pants, their hearts exceed the limits of their breastcage and slowly smother behind the interlaced bones.

Rosa has always prided herself on staying fit, focused, quiet, trim. Each morning, she runs a mile, drains a smoothie, folds extra fibre into her cereal and pretends not to mind the way it skates atop the milk. What Rosa doesn’t know is that love will be her silent killer. Her appetite for romance will take her out. If only there were a medical chart like the ones that track her uncles, ticking off risk boxes and producing annual stats, devising a maintenance program and warning that if she keeps this up, she’s going to end up with a stent in an artery and a rider on her life insurance.

“You were lucky this time, but next time don’t count on getting out clean. You’re not a young woman anymore—the next one could be the big one. Rosa, you’ve just got to keep an eye on who you invite into your heart.”

Instead, she carries on loading her days with the emotional equivalent of pork rinds and poultry skin and extra pats of butter. Rosa salts her love heavily and washes it down with wine and scotch. They say wine has protective qualities, but in matters of the heart, this does not apply. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Half a bottle of merlot and Rosa’s risk of heartbreak trebles.

“Rosa,” a friend asks, “have you seen yourself lately? This has really got to stop.”

Rosa pauses then continues to drink pork rind dust from the bottom of the bag. Taps the corner to knock the last bit of salty cracklin’ into her mouth then lowers her hands, gathers the empty cellophane into a tight ball.

“I know,” she says. “You’re right. But, did you see his eyes?”

Pure Hot Vibes

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Two kinds of kids skip class to loiter by the trash bins: burnouts and lazy smart ones. It’s not immediately clear which group Lisa claims membership to. None of the usual tells—doesn’t use big words that give away her brain; doesn’t roll her shoulders forward like her arms are so heavy it’s all she can do to lug them from place to place. Totally possible things fall either way. Straight A’s despite the fucking around, or already struggling by October to just get through the year, a future bagging groceries ready to unfold.

Sneakers kicking the greasy steel bins. Dealing high-fives down low, swapping matches for cigarettes, cigarettes for gum, clothes for clothes. The last exchange really only goes one way: girls tugging guys’ sweaters over their heads, long, dry hair snapping with static. Cloaking themselves in the stink of pure hot vibes. So confusing, these unlaundered hoodies and T’s—makes you want to press the fleece to your face like a wash cloth, scrub it against your cheeks, inhale till your lungs balloon. And so utterly revolting, Lisa can’t imagine how many weeks it takes a boy to build up this much odour. Maybe they’ll cover the formula in calculus next term.  Applied mathematics. Ah, now, there’s that tell.

Not sure why she’s so angry or warm or tired. Not sure why anything seems so big, like school or arguing with someone. And, not sure why those same people don’t get why everything about Lisa is so huge—the significance of her position in that fight; the magnitude of the issues bolstering her excuse for turning things in late.

Engrossing late June pursuits: picking a knee scab to pass the time between applying, drying, examining then removing three nearly identical shades of polish from her toes. Cutting a tiny “x” with her fingernail into the mosquito bite that will probably scar purple beneath her tan (she forgets and scratches while she watches TV). Weighing the pluses and minuses of inviting girlfriends to spend the night. House rule—only two allowed at a time. So, then, who to leave out?

Girls on bicycles instantly look prettier.

Boys on skateboards instantly look complex.

Two weeks till holidays. Ugh, so close. Lisa props one shoulder against the trash bin, holds a cigarette in a dumb-looking V that betrays she never inhales. Pretends she believes she doesn’t give a shit about missing conversational French. Anyone can fake it to other people—these are teenagers, for christ’s sake, each kid a planet that believes the others orbit it rather than the other way around, no one paying attention to anyone’s shit but their own. But it’s harder to pretend you buy your own act. Lisa says it out loud—“Who gives a shit if I miss French?”—like the sound of her voice has the power to make it true.

“Are you sticking around after June?”

Probably no. Maybe. Maybe, yeah.

Probably spend the summer at the place. The place where the tracks head out of town and where shopkeepers give up tending the grounds out back of the stripmall. There’s a privacy wall to hold back the sound of trains lugging goods into, through, back out of town. There’s probably a formula for that too—how many feet of lumber above which sound can’t jump. By August, the wall will be swallowed by nine feet of dry grass, matted in patches where guys chuck their upside down skateboards or girls perch atop lumpy purses to avoid putting their thighs right on the itchy ground.

Rattan weave of weeds pressed into tanned skin, Queen Anne’s Lace glued to thighs where shorts hiked up or ankles where socks slouched down, rashy where dandelion milk leaked and dried. Back against the wall, legs bent with knees clunking together and ankles splayed, feet pigeoning inward, Lisa yanks the borrowed hoodie over her knees to form a warm tent. Pilled cotton shields her crotch from the eyes of the skaterboys who are always looking. Like their patience will reward them a flash of wayward underpants or goodness knows what. Lisa is pretty sure these boys have no idea what they’re looking for in the first place. What, exactly, they are hoping to see.

Yeah.

This is how they’ll spend the next however many days until everyone’s limbs are a mess of insect bites and road rash and sunburns both peeled and fresh. Probably, a handful of them will kiss. Not all at once, but slowly, steadily in pairs, swapping off from week to week, day to day, none of it really a big thing or anything, till they form the necking version of the pyramid from health class that illustrates how if you have sex with him, and he had sex with her, and those three got messy at a party one time, eventually you’ve slept with everyone in school. None of them are thinking that big yet, not this summer. This summer, no one will go all the way.

Mmm hmmm.

Another tell: that Lisa sees all this unfolding like an accordion of holiday postcards or wallet of family photos fed into a ribbon of plastic slots. That she remembers last year and could tell you what’s changed, what hasn’t, what never will, no matter how hard anyone wills it to be so.

By next July, pure hot vibes won’t be enough to bring her to the school yard instead of class or keep her back pressed to that fence while bugs suck her blood instead of taking a shitty part-time job. This July? For now, she’s cool with performing the telling-herself-she-believes routine.

Gordon`s Belly

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All over town, dogs sleep. The place is dusty and airless and from lunchtime till just before supper, nothing moves. Lazy beige canines sprawl against cracked door jambs or flop their gritty hides beneath parked cars. Roosters play call and response and step nimbly around tails and paws to peck at the fleas that hitch rides on passing birds, kids, dogs.

Newcomers are startled by the carcasses discarded on the road, littering the beach, abandoned out back of shops and shacks, and think how sad that no one retrieves these poor dead dogs. A few hours in town and they realise those dogs aren’t dead, they’re just laid-back. Nor do they really have owners to notice if they went missing or to fetch their bodies from the sand. The dogs are more like vagrants, local animals that sleep and roam and somehow make their way. The people here don’t have much, and so the dogs have even less, but from the looks of things, everyone has about as much as they need to get by. On the surface, no one complains, and it’s not just the dogs who seem content.

But as with all things, there’s always one asshole who thinks he needs more, who thinks the nature of things bequeaths him the right to gripe. The kind of asshole who resents what his days lack, who sees his neighbour’s situation and only feels right when his own set-up measures a little bigger. And in this town where men with full, round bellies nap on benches in the shade, hats pulled low and fingers laced, and where dogs with full, round bellies loiter at their feet, this town where pretty much everyone comes across laid-back, there are two such assholes. One dog, one man. Gordon and Carl.

Luckily, these assholes found each other one afternoon, because the only thing worse than a regular asshole is a lonely one. Theirs is a simple friendship predicated on not making a big fucking deal about it. They slouch around town, frowns slapped across their faces, brows knitted like prickly scarves. Now and then, they dish out growls but mostly they just sniff. Carl sniffs to mock his neighbour’s new curtains, the street party flyers tacked to a post, the car cruising past with upbeat music pumping from within. Gordon sniffs more literally – at piss-coated poles and the stream of garbage juice cutting a path from torn bag to curb.

Yeah, they know the thing about owners and pets growing to resemble one another, they know it, alright, so don’t fucking bother with that joke. Privately, each believes he’s the better-looking half of the pair but rather than getting into a big thing about it, they keep these opinions to themselves. Gordon knows those ladies would never clock time with Carl without a puppy at his side. Carl hopes Gordon knows how lucky he is that Carl took him in because no one else in town would settle for such a runt.

The truth is, neither of these assholes is much of a catch. Carl is sallow and pale, his complexion a chalky tea-colour that runs to burnt orange in the summer months. His slacks are light brown, his loafers are tan, and on rare rainy days that hose the dust from the buildings and turn the unpaved roads to streams, he’d disappear if he stood still against the backdrop of mud. Gordon is short and pointy with tan-coloured fur the texture of horse hair, a tail like a brown stick dipped in white paint, and an ear with a wedge clipped during a fight. If he huddles close to Carl’s pant legs, no one sees him at first. This is actually a great little trick when Gordon is feeling feisty and up for some biting. Just stand there and wait till someone steps too close, then pop out snarling. Gordon is the sort of asshole that likes to play that way.

Gordon believes himself a dog with big ideas, and in his heart he knows the hiding-and-biting gag is a bit lame. Too simple, not a thinking dog’s game. The sort of thing people expect from a bulldog or a nervous little scrap of fur at the end of a fancy leash. But it’s not like this is a town of overachievers or anything, and sometimes Gordon figures why waste his good material on this laidback bunch of lunks? The truth is, Gordon got fat this past summer and isn’t as quick as he used to be. The truth is, it demands a finer technique these days to hide his bologna-shaped midsection behind Carl’s calves and to dart out with enough speed to snatch a mouthful of trouser before his target jumps clear. As if Gordon wasn’t already lugging enough indignity – the shame of his peers riding in purses, the spectacle of Chihuahuas above their station prancing about at the end of rhinestone leads, his own weensy “ark”-sounding bark – he had to go and get fat. Now, the chilly weather is here and with it his sweater that was already getting a bit tight last year. Now, clearly too small, the wool chafes his armpits and bunches over his gut, inching its way up his shoulders like a turtlenecked shar-pei .

Small mercy that Carl got fat, too, from an especially enthusiastic season of tamales and beer, and they puff around town at the same winded speed. Huffing and pissed off at their own bellies: Gordon at the way his bumps the curb when he crosses the street; Carl at the way his pokes out the bottom of his shirt to grow clammy and dead-feeling in the autumn air. Even before they got fat and angry at their own guts, it was easy to find things to keep this pair of assholes pissed off. But the one thing that brought them proximate to happy, very nearly content, was of all things a tree. A gnarly mesquite with furrowed bark and crooked trunk split by a little knot-hole where it met the ground. It pushed through the sidewalk, cracking the cement into a dangerous bow then stretched its branches in the opposite direction, casting shade over an empty lot. The tree marked the halfway point in their nightly walk, the delicious moment when they slumped against it and took stock of their pissed-off day. And often, although neither Gordon nor Carl would admit as much, they found themselves a little less pissed off in the presence of the mesquite.

But remember, they’re still assholes even when they’re at ease, and the things they like best about the tree are things only an asshole would enjoy. Carl isn’t just an asshole, he’s also a lazy motherfucker, and he likes the little nook at the base of the trunk, perfect for discarding the trash he can’t be bothered to carry home. Wrappers and cellophane and plastic cups and straws. Rolled-up racing pages from wagers gone stale and which brought him little or no return. The blue plastic baggies containing Gordon’s evening poop. And Gordon isn’t just an asshole, he’s a dog that eats and craps AND naps in the street. For Gordon, the tree provides a place to squat, a place to rest, a place to lift his leg and pee. Best of all, Carl isn’t the only lazy motherfucker who comes this way, and the slumping tree is always littered with pizza crusts, hotdog nubs and those soft-serve cones that never melt but just slouch into vanilla globs.

Tonight, they walked a little faster than they’d have liked but the air was cooling fast and they both wanted out of their ill-fitting sweaters. Once around the tree, they figured, and then home. Cresting the hill, their hearts sank into their globe-shaped bellies. Their tree, reduced to a heap of golden woodchips that smelled of the promise of delicious barbecue. A two-man work crew in coveralls fed the last few branches into a machine and with that, the slumping tree was gone. In that moment, Carl and Gordon knew: there was a new pair of assholes in town.       

Escargotoire

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Craig is fond of words, but not just any bunch of letters strung together. Only those with flare make the cut. This thing is a longstanding affair. His first love was words that become swears when they cross over from one language to another. In fifth grade, his favourite joke was barking the word “seal” in French class, smirking as he assured Madame that he was just practicing his accent. Phoque phoque phoque, over and over like zoological Tourette’s.

Later, he broadened his horizon to include words with filthy portions, funny chunks, rude bits or crass onomatopoeia when one part is chopped out to stand on its own. Bushwhack, fumble, butter, cummerbund; the letter “u” a universal socket, the joint that screws onto just about anything to make it hilarious. 

Now, hair receding and belly swelling into a minor paunch, Craig has a thing for the nomenclature of animal groups. Outwardly, this comes across as quirky nerdism; privately, he frames this affection as refinement, that childish smirk aging into a knowing smile. In particular, he loves the words for groups of creatures no one really talks about. Creatures that exist off the collective radar, so rare that it would never occur to people there are enough to form a crowd, or so disgusting on their own the only thing worse than one is imagining a whole bunch hanging out together.

Craig doesn’t think snails travel in packs and yet there is a word for when they gang together – an escargotoire of snails. Sure, they gather at human dinnertime, loitering beneath blankets of butter and fronds of parsley, so perhaps it’s a portmanteau word for “escargot abattoir”. Perhaps there is a snail proverb about how if you see other snails on your trail, you know the end is nigh. Today: slithering through the garden; tomorrow: baking in dairy fat beneath the broiler.

***

It’s a sleepy day at the office. Last night, Craig dreamed of penguins for hours. His backyard was taken over by an aquarium installed for “very serious research purposes”, not so he could hang out with a penguin. But that’s what they were doing: hanging out. In fact, there was a whole parade of penguins (did you know that is the group name? also, a rookery, colony or parcel), and by chance he befriended one guy in particular. The penguin was dirty-white, like penguin mixed with pelican. Together, Craig and the bird (so weird, that penguins are birds) swam in the tank, sleek and easy. Craig figured that if he could hang out and do penguin things, maybe penguins could do people things, too, like join him for lunch on dry land. He thought of robins spearing worms from the lawn and wondered if the penguin would like butter-poached snails, and whether it would peck at its slice of dessert or just paddle at the frosting with its flippers. The dream tapered into groggy morning just as Craig was about to invite the penguin to dine, a bit nervous it wouldn’t remember its manners and would tuck its napkin into its collar all wrong.

A foolish dream, sure, but fuel for a day of workplace procrastination. Squandering company time, Craig uses the dictionary to brush up on animal groupings while case files accumulate on his desk. A backlog — perfect. All the better to hide behind while he skives off his proper tasks.

A bunch of butterflies is a rabble, which sounds too rough for their delicate wings. Once, he got into an argument with another third-grader over pronunciation. They were plagiarizing a book report on butterflies from a library encyclopaedia and she insisted it referred to the “minute scales on each wing,” which, to Craig, was plainly a measure of time. Surely she was reading things wrong. Their class hadn’t got to heteronyms or homonyms yet, and Craig huffed and snatched the book after the girl repeated the sentence a third time, humbled and confused to discover she was right. My-noot scales.

A gathering of donkeys is a pace of asses.

What, then, are the office ladies, the menagerie of bitter crows and snapping bitches penned in cubicles around him? United as “office ladies”, that’s their only common feature — passing eight hours per day in communal space. The way they bicker and balk against coexisting in harmony, scuffing a blast radius of personal space, each one surely descends from her own species. Queuing at the microwave clutching frozen lunches, the ladies prattle and smile and pretend they weren’t shit-talking one another an hour ago, broken into smaller groups at their desks.

Are they a clutch?

Pod?

Yarn?

A yarn of office ladies…

The Day the Pants Didn’t Work

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It was June. Claire was subletting from a traveling friend, hoping a strange city would inspire her to write and to reach a decision about a man. I was crashing on a friend’s sofa, avoiding a waning relationship back home and struggling with the early pages of my own book. Together, we slunk through a steamy New York City, lovelorn and confused and roasting in the heat.

We quickly settled into a routine, meeting at Washington Square station each morning and searching first for a café with adequate air conditioning and espresso, and then for small signs that might help make sense of our lives. We looked fabulous and sweaty, the weather basting us in our own juices until we were plump and salty. Our efforts to stay cool meant that each morning our outfits were a shrunken version of the day before: smaller and smaller shirts; shorter and shorter shorts; lighter and lighter fabrics, until we were barely clothed. But still, I was overdressed and wilted by the time I pulled the last garment over my head or stepped into the second shoe. Eventually things went too far, even for New York, and a helpful citizen pointed out that Claire’s “whole ass is out of those shorts, in case you didn’t know.” If that day were a storybook, it would have been called The Day the Pants Didn’t Work.

As we strolled the Lower East Side, Claire was first to notice the fortune-teller, a red and white card propped against the window advertising $5, Palm Read. We hesitated while a thin, young woman no older than us and quite likely younger signaled from the doorway, beckoning us to part with our reluctance and our money. The place doubled as her home, a filmy curtain cutting the modest room in two. Her small daughter pinched a handful of drapery aside and peeked at us while her mother laid out our futures.

I watched the fortune-teller gently trace Claire’s life line, brow crumpled, a quiet hmmmm escaping between the woman’s lips. Looking up, she said, “Five dollars is one palm, ten dollars is two.” We were silent, then I asked the difference between left versus right, one hand compared with the pair. The woman tsked and shook her head, “I tell you only half. Maybe five dollars, you learn not so much.” I thought of her deceptive red and white sign then of the small daughter, the small room, the luxury of jetting to New York after a fight with my boyfriend, and agreed to ten dollars, two hands.

When my turn came, the woman took my right hand, flipped it palm-up and insisted she saw music in my life. She looked at me expectantly, and grew stormy when I denied having that talent. “But here it is, so clear, I think maybe you just haven’t tried!” I assured her I’d given music a shot. Her revelations remained frustrated and abstract, her powers either scrambled by the heatwave or confounded by my hand’s refusal to surrender my secrets to her gaze.

I’d expected nothing from the encounter, but felt let down by the fortune-teller, no better prepared to meet the day than when I stepped through her door. I was discouraged and ornery and tired from so much walking. I was tired of my ass nearly hanging out of my shorts, and of feeling eluded by a clarity that didn’t want to be reached. Claire was more satisfied with her fortune and scrutinized each point as we ducked into a bar for some shade and cold tea.

The place was owned by a briefly famous musician, and was decorated in minimalist style: bamboo walls and hay-coloured chairs, white ceramic place settings and pale linen cloths. Everything was so subdued, we were drawn to bright flashes: first the tattooed staff and then the chocolate dessert perched atop a glass stand at the counter. The menu was fashionably vegan, including this voluptuous monstrosity, a cake crowned by scoops of marshmallow and chocolate glaze slowly slithering into the crevice where a slice had been removed. It nearly brought us to our knees with desire, but our bellies ached at the idea of such potent sweetness. In the end, this cake, like a bad boyfriend, would do us wrong so we left it on its platter and stepped back out into the sun.

The next night, we headed to the Slipper Room, a cabaret brimming with bright young people who’d gathered up their lives and plunged into New York. Head cocked, listening to a man inventory his publishing success, I realized the crowd had an edge I could never hone in myself, and I mingled and chatted but came off a little shy. Claire admired our cocktails, urban tans and pretty smiles, raised her glass and pronounced us lucky ladies. Twee yet sincere, her words made me realize there would be no resolution to my sweat-basted adventure. I was simply swept along, temporarily caught in a flock of people that was walking, talking, eating, dialing phones and juggling agendas at the same time. And now, I wanted to find some bigger shorts and return home.