Rattle

by

Amanda R. Howland

Originally published in Moonshine Baby online literary journal, March 2015

Sleep—in a sleep like charcoal unsettled on black construction paper. Sitting asleep—mouth sealed. 

             A sleep so heavy, it was work. My body knew we were in a car, wrapping around mountains. Black trees rising up on my side, dropping off on his side. 

            A long black moment—then brakes before impact—desperate breaking jolt. He said shit and I didn’t want to open my eyes but I did. 

            It was so dark—night in that old country with no lights—Virginia mountains. 

            Neal—the man who was my husband then—looked at me, smiling because we were alive. There was only the sound of our breathing.

            A deer, he said. And there was blood on the glass in front of our faces. 

            We were coming back from a vacation in Nags Head, North Carolina. We’d split from my brother and his wife—they drove back through Maryland. I wished they were still with us. 

            Still waking up, I stood with him off the side of the highway. We weren’t safe in the dark sedan, we figured. Afraid to leave the lights on, who knows how long we’d be here, and we didn’t want to drain the battery. Traffic was sparse but treacherous. The cars flew past us, invisible, shaking the Toyota. With the hazards on, we waited in the dark curve of the road. So we got out—our cell phones weren’t picking up reception in these black mountains. There wasn’t much of a shoulder. Cicadas, frogs, crickets made sounds around us. The grass was wet against my ankles.  

            He lit a cigarette. I went for his free hand, he squeezed my hand fast and let it go. 

            I wanted to help—to figure something. I opened my useless cell phone again. Searching…it said. I shone the weak light of it around, to see, and there a few yards behind us, was the white bottom of the deer, the deer on its side, still. I closed the phone. The vision struck me with a physical pain rising from my guts to my chest. 

            Neal opened his phone and looked back at the deer a long minute. “Well, I guess you were right, Mu, we should have left earlier.”

Not long, maybe twenty minutes, or forty, a car slid in behind the Toyota. The walking light of the state trooper moved toward us. 

            “Hey, y’all better get from that ditch. There’s rattlers down in them grasses.” Her voice was stern and raspy. It was too dark to see her face, just the unmistakable outline of the forward-tilted hat.

            I gripped Neal’s arm, afraid to move. He jerked us forward, back onto the tar road.

            “I didn’t know…” I said, “We were hiking in Sedona a month ago, we heard a rattle then, but, I didn’t know they weren’t just in the desert.” How could it be – in this humid green night.

            “Oh yeah, ma’am, they mate down there, liable to be a dozen or more there now.” Her flashlight glazed off the mirror and lit up her face, revealing tiny features recovering from a smile. 

We were grateful. It was sometime close to midnight. The trooper drove us into a town, told us this town, believe it or not, had just installed indoor plumbing three years ago. She’d take us to the man who could tow our car to his garage, and then give us a ride to a hotel by the highway. 

            In the back of the police car, we sat still behind the solid partition. I wondered about the plumbing and the darkness. How could it be—in America? I looked over at Neal. He turned and gave me a fast smile, a reassuring wink. We’d been married seven years. He was skinny, white and poreless with thin red hair he parted unnaturally on the left. His eyes, once disturbingly beautiful to me, heavy lidded and dark red brown, now seemed to bug out a bit.

            Our week at the beach! I’d laughed so easily with my brother. Sisters and brothers have the same humor. I felt lonely for it now. Neal and I couldn’t laugh together. Did Neal even see the faint flicker of superiority on the elfin officer’s lined face when she said this town had just received indoor plumbing? Smug pride that hertown was more cosmopolitan than this one?   

            Neal would say I was being mean, but I thought it funny in a friendly way—we are all susceptible to foolish comparisons of our town to the next.

            It seemed all night till we were in the hotel an hour away from the village in the mountain where the tow man and his wife lived. I felt sleepy like a child, pressed between Neal and the window of the tow truck. The guy was nice enough to drop us at the hotel after he dropped our car at the only garage around.

            We were broke, had no credit. Ashamed, I called my brother and asked for help—they were almost home, back in Ohio, but he gave me his wife’s credit card number, said we could charge it all and then pay them back over the rest of the summer. My stomach knotted up.

            The hotel was incredibly new, as if forest had just been cut to make way for this commercial strip along the highway, corporate billboards guiding the way. But I had no reception. 

            In the room, Neale automatically flipped on the TV. The TV showed women with black hair and dark tans getting pedicures, then a reality show about prison, then a game show about war, then a reality show about meth, then a reality show about bridezillas, then a commercial for a hamburger with many patties, then a commercial for floor wax. Bees flew out of the rays shining from the floor.

And I felt suddenly awake.

            “Hey Baby, let’s have a hotel party!” I jumped off the bed and onto the floor in front of him.

            “Let’s not, Mumu,” he lay on his belly channel surfing. The sound of the TV made me sick – we never watched network or cable at home, just streamed shows. Commercial TV disturbed me. The racing images, the banners and emblems stuck on the screen – I couldn’t believe people put up with it.

            Neal wanted me close, but not to talk to, not to touch. Just to be near while he watched compulsive instant Netflix viewings of Nip TuckPrison Break, and any law show. If I picked up a book, or my phone to text, he’s look at me sideways and say, “Now Muriel. Do that on your own time.” Meaning, when I am home and he is not. Which, being that he was rarely employed, was not often.

            After being trained these past seven years, I would sigh like an adolescent and obey. If I picked up the book or phone again, he would yell my name, hit my hand. 

            Once I wrote on the back of an envelope a deal: I would not text while he was in the room, and he would drink with me and listen to music with me once a month, maybe on a Thursday night. 

            He laughed, he said, you’re so silly, Mu.

            I said, no, I’m not happy, I need to have fun. I need to have someone to talk with, you to talk with.

            He said, you arehappy, you don’t even know about unhappy. Go make me some coffee. Then he pinched the soft part of the back of my arm, hard. I winced. I said, I hate that. He said, oh you love it. Go on now. Chop chop. 

“Well, maybe I’ll go see if there’s a bar downstairs, or a convenience store, get some wine or something.”

            “Just stay put, will you? God Mu, such a drink drink drinker – didn’t you drink enough with your brother this week? And don’t be stupid, you know there’s no bar in this place.”

            “I’ll just go for a walk then—it’s a gorgeous night.”

            His face glowed blue as I put my boots back on. He held the remote tight, but wouldn’t press mute, he looked over and said, “What the fuck, Muriel, get back here, come on, it’s ridiculous to go walking around, shit, it’s almost three…”

            A sudden Jolt—a blind jolt like someone ramming their elbow into me, and I staggered, but nothing was there.

            “Yeah, I’ll be back.”

            “What’s wrong with you—why’d you fall like that?”

            “I’ll get you a candy bar, if I see a machine,” my throat felt tight, “I love you, Neal.”

            He turned back to the TV, “Yeah, whatever, love you, too. Don’t forget your key.”

I rubbed my shoulder—I swallowed my desire to cry when I passed a couple of women, mother and daughter maybe, silently going to their room. What hit me in there? It was like the air had become a wall and rammed into me. Could there be a ghost in such a new place? Or from what was here before this place?

            I just wandered the halls, the light dead and awful, useless. Everything smelled new, what was that smell? Drywall and glue.

            I was outside myself. Arrested, examined. Moving down the halls, I could see still images of myself from three angles: face slack, the light imprinting me in this dimension faded, first red, then cherry pink. I felt the weight of the corpse I had become, alone in this marriage. Eyes dull. Guilty.

            There were just two floors. Soon I was wandering around on the first floor. The only soul around was the front desk woman, who asked me if I needed any help finding anything. She had a black and red wig that looked squished on one side like she was napping on it before I came around. It didn’t look very soft. I said, no, I said I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t bother asking about a gas station, too late for anything. 

            She adjusted her wig and turned toward a muted television. She looked how I felt: heavy joyless eyeliner, exposed skin, skin dented from unfriendly surfaces. 

            My throat was swollen with sorrow—I wondered if carrying this sorrow all the time would affect my lymph nodes. There was no chlorine smell in the hotel, no coffee smell. I stepped out front—the night heat felt good—I’d forgotten it was spongy summertime—my fingertips numb from the air conditioning. So much power to keep this place cold, and how many of us were here tonight: a dozen people at most? The highway rushed from the darkness, and the crickets.

            Then—a slap hard on my back and I stumbled forward, falling to my hands on the hard concrete. My wind was knocked out of me—no one was there. Embarrassed, I looked through the glass windows, but the front desk woman was faced away from me, toward a screen.

            I sat back on the ground, catching my breath, looking at the palms of my hands, scratched and bleeding a little, as well as my right knee.

            I was having a stroke, or a seizure of some kind. A brain tumor was pushing on the part of my brain that keeps my shit straight.

            I felt strange calm in the panic, wondering, what next, and, will I die here, and I sat for a long time.

Back in the room, my eyes dry from too much wakefulness. He was sleeping, soundlessly as always. His hand lay still stretched out across the cover, so peaceful. I ached. I wanted to reach for his hand, to touch him and be touched by him. Flickers of our first days together, sitting in the café at the art museum with acorns falling around us, hugging at the beach, sitting around a fire with Halloween paint on our faces, these flickers rose up then fell away. They were losing their power. I’d held them close for seven years, but three sweet months followed by six years and nine months of—something like tension—and their power was fading.

            I remembered the candy bar, so I slipped out again, but only had 72 cents, there was nothing. 

            The room was dark, except for the blinking red lights on the DVD player. I turned away from him in bed, because he didn’t like our skin touching while we slept. I thought my eyes would not seal shut, but just stay open over the dry air, but no, I fell asleep fast.

In my dream, I was standing on a rock, at the edge of a mountain, over a valley. I knew there was a fire somewhere down in between the mountains, but I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. The forest moved behind me—I sensed Another at my back. I knew then who was there. The Bear grasped my shoulders in his paws, hard, but I stood still. I could smell his musk, and the paws were larger than I would have thought. He began to shake me, and occasionally a claw grazed my cheek, but I didn’t look back, or fall. He shook me harder, and I began to cry, but it was honey-crying—sweet streams of honey pouring down my face, pouring into my mouth, down the front of my body, down to the ground and down to the valley below. 

(I knew him like a Mother. I felt safe in his ravaging.)

            Then, with a grunt, he tore off my arms, and I didn’t fall. Suspended. And the honey cleared from my eyes. And then he tore off my legs and I hovered over the town. My torso rang through and through like a clanged tuning fork. He tore my head from my trunk and threw my body parts down to the fire, and I flew away.

Of course, morning came fast and hard. Nothing was easy, and the continental breakfast was over at eight, before we got up, and the shower had a weak stream, and the cell phone etc. etc.

            And of course, the car was so damaged, we’d have to rent one, and somehow, get this car ten hours home in a few weeks. And my brother had to give me a second card, and I was ashamed, and felt guilty for the thousandth time, that I didn’t make more money. And angry at Neal etc. etc. Old bruisy feelings, our vacation most completely over.

            We had to take a cab to the rental car place. (We were so hungry.)

            We waited in the heat an hour for the cab, first in the cold hotel lobby, then in the heat out front. Then, a banged up flat grey Chevy from the eighties puttered up and stopped in front of us. The cabby, also flat grey, ushered us in like a grouch, as if, of course we were supposed to recognize this unmarked jalopy as a commercial service vehicle.

            Of course we were, because, as George the cabby told us, he was the only cabby in town. He was known. George wore a black Greek fisherman’s cap with a peeling sticker on the side facing me. I wanted to read the sticker’s faded blue lettering, but I didn’t want to stare, so I only caught “-asps!”

I sat up front and Neal sat in back. We did not stop at the first stop sign down at the bottom of a hill. We slid on into the intersection right in front of a speeding truck that slammed to a stop and honked for a long honk.

            “What’s his problem,” said George.

            I looked back at Neal and we exchanged a yikes look.

            We rode slowly down a lone state route that gradually turned into a main street lined with two-story buildings from a hundred or more years ago – businesses with apartments above. 

            “Hey you old coo!” George stuck his hand out the window at a man sitting outside a barbershop smoking and reading a paper. He stopped in the middle of the road, but it was okay because there weren’t any other cars.

            “When you opening up, George?”

            “Gotta run these ‘uns to Gladsdale, then I’ll be back, better side an hour.”

            “I’ll be here.”

            Slowly the cab pulled forward again. George said to us, “See, I’m the town’s only barber, too.”

            I looked back at Neal again and we smiled. I was feeling good for the first time since back at the beach with my brother and his wife, with the ocean in front of us, a warm kitchen and deep drinks.

            I could never figure out whyour days at home were so difficult—it didn’t seem like they had to be that way. 

            But I reached back and Neal squeezed my hand. I felt calm, and suddenly looking forward to being back home. After this bumpy cab ride, once we settle the paperwork and got into some boat of a rental, I would look out the window and daydream about the changes I’d make when we got back home. The new routines, rituals, rhythms, the way to finding happiness again with myself, and with Neal.

            We were approaching what seemed to be the main intersection of town, and George put on his turn signal. It ticked loud and fast. As we got closer to the red light, I saw a dog across the street, a big moppy dog running between people on the sidewalk. I laughed—the dog was clowning and the people were enjoying him. His red tongue flapping against his big white body, running from this person to that, stopping to roll, hop back up and side to side.

            Then the dog walked into the street and I worried for him—but there were no cars, we were coming to a stop, and the dog was walking slowly.

            I turned to Neal to point out the dog, but then George wasn’t stopping, and I turned back to see the dog walking diagonally across the intersection, and everything was moving so slowly, but instead of saying stop, I looked back at Neal, and then I heard the yelp, the cry of the beast, and felt the bump as we ran him over.

            My stomach rolled. I looked back to see if he was lying in the street, but we’d turned. Moving fast away from the town, down long country roads. Riding up, and then down. I looked at George—his eyes were inscrutable, aged like wood, maybe he only knew the road by feel. His feet charged the gas and brakes with no regard. 

            After a long minute Neal gave a nervous little laugh. “Jeez, Mu, how many animals are we going to hit this trip?”

            George snorted. “There’s critters jumpin’ out at you from all sides these parts.”

I couldn’t look back at Neal. The guilt waved through my body. My heart was with the body of the white dog. 

When we got to the barren industrial park that housed the car rental office, I got out fast, feeling like I was going to vomit. I was grateful to Neal for dealing with George.

            “What’s wrong with you?” He squinted in the sun, his hand shielding his eyes.

            I was bent over, breathing hard with my hands on my knees. “That dog—Jesus, Neal.”

            “Oh, that,” he laughed, “That dog’ll be fine, Mu.”

            “I don’t think so.” I stood up and looked at him, my face laced in cold sweat. 

This thing between us—it was contempt. Contempt I saw in his face, for the words I said, and for the movements of my body.

            “Well. Come on, chopit, Muriel, I want to get out of this sun.” He clapped his hands and walked ahead of me into the one-room building.

We stood in the rental office. The carpet was blue like a boy’s new room, and the walls were blue, and the whole thing smelled like the hotel, new wood and glues and paints. There was no music, just the receptionist, holding her index finger up to us, saying, just a minute.

            We didn’t look at each other. We stood apart with our hands not touching. The new air, cooling and sweet like canned water, the new air seemed to expose the field between us. We were waiting for a safe car, however expensive, to take us back to Ohio. We didn’t look at each other.

            I looked instead into a painting behind the receptionist. It was loud and out of place here, framed in garish yellow wood, slightly crooked. It was a messy sunset—paints of melted egg yolk pouring into heavy golden water. Rough black trees scattered on the shore, some reaching veiny into the sun, and then repeated on the water.  A forest somewhere, a dark molten sun.

THE END

Hunger Town

by Amanda R. Howland

This story first appeared in Adanna Literary Journal issue 4, September 2014

Carmel angled her elbows around her doubled paper plate as she worked on loose shreds of roast beef, two soggy slices of Wonder Bread and potatoes coated in corporate Cajun spice. She was hungry, and didn’t want Mark to take her plate prematurely. Even though she loved him. 

            She ate her meat, bread and potatoes at the same curved corner of this bar most every night.  She should feel safe. The bread floated away from the meat, hanging off the edge of her plate. She ate the bread last, even though she didn’t want it. When she was done, she smoothed her hefty blond bob back behind her ears, pulled her blue knit cap down and pushed her ruined plates forward.

            “What kind tonight, Carmel?” Mark’s head was narrow, as if he’d been clamped too hard at birth, but his smile was genuine. Brave like a skull smile. One canine tooth gone from a fight back in high school. By the Coke machine. Carmel had been there. 

            “Rum and Coke. No. Vodka tonic.” She tried to order a different drink each night, until one day she would finally hit on her drink. Something exotic, beautiful. Something he could make for her. But everything she thought of was so generic.

            He zipped around, working fast, even though the bar was dead. One bar in this town, and it was dead every night except for Tuesday Karaoke. Now there were always a couple guys around in blue and red flannels and caps in the winter, by the darts, or laughing at the giant TV, which she hated. Tonight the TV was on mute and the radio played bland hits from the eighties and nineties. The guys were just like the squirrels she passed on her walk over, benign, but not company. And not really wild.

            A woman walked in. The long rounded bar was empty, but she sat by Carmel. Heat came off the women, even in this cold bar, where the heat was kept low, and everyone else wore a hat and coat. 

            The woman slid forward, focused on Mark. Her smell was chokingly cheap jasmine and stale cigarette. Her color was dried out orange: hair crispy dyed, skin saturated with freckles. Carmel couldn’t tell where her freckles ended and her lips began. Her lips were dry and cracked and bare, but her eyes were lined and shadowed in black. They looked weird because she wore no mascara, so her pale red lashes twitched against the black makeup. 

            Carmel had never seen this woman before. 

            Mark came up and let himself flop against the bar, exhaling and smiling at the woman as if he knew her, but Carmel knew he didn’t. “What can I get you, sugar?”

            Her body swiveled and scissored toward Mark, but her eyes flicked at Carmel twice. “MM – how bout a mojito with extra lime, baby-man.”

            He popped his eyebrows, then his body and hopped to it. Carmel wondered, how did he know how to make a mojito? 

            The woman leaned into Carmel, “He’s a sizzler, sister, I think I’ll be taking that boy home.”

            “Home…you don’t live here. He’s married. His wife just had a baby.”

            Mark came back with a beautiful emerald drink and, with his long elegance, handed it to the woman. He asked Carmel if she’d like to have another vodka tonic. Carmel pulled something out from the recesses of her memory. “No. How about a pale russian?”

            “Uh, white russian, Carmel?” He smiled at the other women. “I don’t have any cream, how about a black russian?”

            “Ok. How’s Karen? Is she recovering from giving birth to the baby?”

            “Oh yeah, she’s happy as a horse.”

            When he left, the woman sucked her drink and nudged Carmel. “A horse.

            “You don’t understand. He loves horses.”

            “What do you love?”

            Mark brought back the dark drink and winked, zipping away, god knows why – there was no one waiting for service. He crossed his arms and looked at the giant TV.

            “Come on, gal…” The woman gulped down her mojito, jerked her head at Carmel’s drink and called to Mark, “Two double shots of Citron and the bill, kind sir.”

            Carmel wasn’t used to two drinks followed by a double shot. She followed the woman out to the parking lot. The mud was hard, frozen dry. The woman had bare feet shoved into pink heels. It was too cold. She walked up to an old brown sedan and turned to Carmel.

            “Where’s your car, Babycakes?”

            “I walk. I just live down the block, above the drugstore.” She swallowed, wishing she hadn’t told the stranger where she lived. Carmel didn’t work. She stayed with her father. The drugstore had been closed for nineteen years.

            “Come on, it’s early. Let’s go drink by the river. Hop in.”

            A wind came up and knocked the car about. Then disappeared. If they were going to the river, Carmel was glad the air tonight was still for the most part, and dry. She looked out the window, feeling like a child. Trailing, sleepy. Not as curious as she imagined she should be. 

            Carmel asked, “Where you from?”

            “Cross the border.” Across the Ohio border into West Virginia. “But don’t you even want to know my name?” She turned and smiled at Carmel, her eyes off the road a few seconds longer than Carmel was comfortable with. A canine tooth flashed gold. 

            Carmel looked back out the window. They wound down a side street, down to the riverbank. “What’s your name, then.” Like telling where she lived, she felt a stab of regret after the words left her mouth. As if speaking were more dangerous than riding.

            “Star. I’m a starworker! HA! That’s your oldest profession, ok?”

            “How did you know people drink by the river?”

            “You should get over that bar-keep, Carmel. Enough suffering.”

            Carmel felt her cheeks get hot and put her hand on her left cheek so Star wouldn’t see. “I don’t like him. He’s married. Did you bring any wine coolers?”

            “You’re corny.” Star pulled fast against the street closest to the river. They got out. The doors squealed like dogs. “You got family, Carmel?” She pulled out a bottle of something clear and they headed over to the river’s edge. 

            They sat down on a rare patch of dry winter grass. Nothing was natural along the river – concrete, brown water. Maybe the brown was natural. Carmel was more careful this time, didn’t mention her emphysematic father she lived with in the two-bedroom apartment above the closed drugstore. “No.”

            “Water looks like chocolate – is it rusty?”

            “I guess.” Carmel tucked her hair behind her ears and pulled her cap down over them.

            They passed the bottle back and forth in silence. It tasted like nail polish remover, but Star drank it like water. Again and again it returned to Carmel, who touched her lips to the bottle and just pulled a tiny kiss out of it, already feeling sick. 

            The orange streetlight fell dead onto the moving brown water. What makes it move? Where is its source? Where does it go? 

            Carmel said, “You stay in your car or what? What you doing in Crayton?”

            Star turned. 

As Carmel turned to face her, the world shifted and she realized she was very drunk. She put her hand to her mouth. Her lips were numb.

            Star looked less dry here by the river. She looked clammy even. The harsh orange light was behind her, so it was hard to see her face, but when she turned and the light flashed on her cheek, it looked wet. They’d taken off their coats, the cheap vodka making them hot even as their breath was visible. Carmel’s eyes adjusted and she could see Star’s mouth, nose, eyes. For a long minute they looked at each other. Carmel felt a lift as their eyes locked. Were Star’s eyes grey, or silver? How long, maybe never had someone met her eyes so long before. She felt aroused and tried to hide her shaking.

            “I’m in Crayton for you, Carmel. I came here for you.”

            Carmel smiled. Closed her eyes then. This must be that moment before a kiss. Her chest opened, hoping for touch. 

            Knocked instead back into the ground, rough grass at her neck, concrete clanging the back of her head. Star on top, riding her like a fresh demon, slapping her numb face over and over again. Laughing. Laughing that was high pitched but quiet, like nails on glass.

            “The hell you’re doing?” Carmel tried to say, but her cheeks, her mouth, were muffled with hits. Not devastating hits, but hits that stung, and were getting heavier.

            “Ya ratty frump! Sitting around waiting for shit, ya shit.” Star stopped hitting and began to pet Carmel’s face. 

Carmel’s eyes gently opened. Star’s hands, tracing unknown shapes on Carmel’s battered skin felt so good it made her mouth ache. Again, the orange light was behind Star, it was hard to see her face. Carmel wanted to ask what she was doing, but all she could do was swallow. 

Star’s hands trickled down to Carmel’s throat and began to squeeze. 

            Her breath caged provoked rage, and while Star was planted firmly on the core of Carmel’s body, Carmel was bigger and stronger. She pushed the ground with her feet and they both toppled over, rolling, slipping into the water.

            Frigid water. Carmel’s neck free, she exhaled heavy bubbles, and pushed off the muddy floor, aiming for the orange light blooming through the dirty water just ahead. But skinny white arms came out. White hands gripped her hands. No, Carmel moaned, her brain fucking crazy with supernova fireworks, all she could do to keep from inhaling the water, taking it in.  Kicking.

            Star’s face up in her face now. Star’s smile gummy, no teeth. Carmel kicked. Star’s eyes, still looking in. She held tight, laughing in the water. Just the orange light showing her face, her white hands. Carmel thought, If only this were a dream, I could just breathe the water.

            Her street flashed in her mind. Hird Street. Empty. The drugstore next to the hardware store and the bar down the street. Her father on one end, Mark on the other. In her sock drawer, an ancient orange stuck with cloves she’d made with her mother the same year the hardware store closed. She felt sick for oxygen, and she felt sick about going back to Hird Street. Star moved her face closer. She said monster things in the dark, in the water. So much air lost, thickly flicking up into the space above them.

            Carmel mashed her mouth to Star’s mouth and sucked, their eyes still locked. Carmel sucked Star’s air out. The air tasted like gas heat coming out of grates. Star’s eyes were holes into her true self, but Carmel couldn’t see what that was. She sucked Star’s air. The irises were sealed grey like the lids on soup cans. The pressure of Star’s grip on Carmel’s arms faded. Star let go, and Carmel kicked up, bumping her lips together to conserve air. 

Carmel broke the surface just above them, gasping, breathing. The drunk out of her head but still in her body, and the cold in her body, made climbing the little bank difficult. But she lay there on the hard grass, breathing. Feeling warm, but shaking. 

            The water moved in delicate weaving patterns, steady, unbroken. Carmel felt doubt. Dread shimmied up her legs. She’d killed Star. Star had just been playing, and now, Carmel had killed her. Still, she stayed, watching the water. Her whole body shook. She finally stood up. Darkness to her feet. Knowing she had to get out of the cold, soaking wet, it couldn’t be safe. 

            She heard splashing to her left, and staggered as she saw a longhaired figure pull itself out of the river maybe fifty feet away. Carmel ran. She ran home. She took a long hot shower. 

            The next day she watched the news – no dead people. Her father liked a TV dinner on a TV tray. She kissed his greasy forehead as he flipped the channel. She left as always, heading out to Mark’s bar for her own meal. But then, she turned down Robin Avenue instead. There was no traffic, really. A brown sedan drove past. She walked until it was dark again.  

THE END



Beasts and Creature

by Amanda R. Howland

CHAPTER ONE

DRY EYES

Down the hallway again. Most walls in apartment building halls are white, maybe grey or tan or cream, but those walls were red. The hall stank like eucalyptus and apartment cooking, other people’s cheap meat and noodles.  I knocked and stood back with my hand at my throat, annoyed by the deranged pulse. Waiting at the door. I looked out the black window. Waiting. There were trees in the dumpster below, silver tinsel shivering on the edges. It was cold, but there was no snow.

            The door opened, not on Lizabeth, but on her nephew, called Matt or Mike or something.  He slumped with a bowl of ramen noodles and a bored face, eyebrows barely raised.

            “Hey, man, where’s the old woman, she home?” I said.

            “Come on in, Margot.” He turned into the room. I followed him into the heat, hoping the human smells wouldn’t be too intimate.  Steam heat invaded my nose and my very pores with old woman smell: scalp and powder. Mildew and medicine. Not much evidence of the nephew in here.  Just piles and piles of papers and magazines. The long living room was dark with the shades drawn against streetlights and just two dim lamps on.  It was quieter than usual, and I realized it was because Lizabeth’s oxygen machine wasn’t on. “She’s not here. Where is she?”

            Matt or Mike pushed some dusty Ladies Home Journalsand Usmagazines off the couch and onto the floor and motioned for me to sit while he went over to the old woman’s La-Z-Boy and reclined with his noodles.  “Oh, do you want to share my noodles, Margot?”

            “No, thanks.” I smiled politely and sat in the dust.

            “She’s at Giant Eagle.” He twisted up a fat wad of noodles on his fork. “She should be back soon.”  

            “I’ll wait.”



This is the opening of my first novel.

Ryan Bakan

by Amanda R. Howland

Originally published in Contraposition Magazine, February 2015

It wasn’t his going away party because he wasn’t going far. It was just his last Friday night in Stow, Ohio. And Ryan Bakan felt a touch stoned. He was moving to Cleveland in a week for no reason, other than that’s what he’d casually told a woman online that he was. He strolled around the hilly yard, smiling here and there, avoiding direct conversation. He had no job up in Cleveland, no people, nothing. It was a hot September and the sun was making its long way west. The yard was bare save for a young crabapple tree. Other yards stretched on. Ryan’s skinny stomach stretched tight with regretted hot dogs. The beer wasn’t working anymore. The warm blue can sweat in his hand. 

The last two years had felt like five years, but he couldn’t name what had happened. Two years ago he was just thirty, which was still almost in his twenties. Two years ago he was with the pregnant girl and worried all the time. Now it was past Labor Day, and he hadn’t seen his daughter since Memorial Day. He nodded at his dude Matt, who pointed at Ryan’s aviator glasses and gave him thumbs up: “Brah! What’s up.” They shook hands. Ryan was known for his sleazy sunglasses. He didn’t care if Matt said he wore them to make up for being a tiny man, a man who looks like a kid. 

He thought he felt a vibration in his pocket, but no, no text. He was waiting from a text from Rochelle—a girl he’d known in junior high. She lived in Cleveland. He’d found her online. He felt like an asshole thinking she was the reason he was moving, but there was no other reason.

His dudes were setting up the cornhole stuff. His heart hurt. Grass stains on the white paint of the cornhole board. He told them he’d be down all the time—it wasn’t even an hour away. Something else—some other feeling hit him that was not the anticipation of missing his dudes. It seemed like they’d been playing cornhole forever, but also, like it was a new thing. New like pushing their hair up with gel and the new century and reality television, but look at the thing. It was banged up, and it seemed kind of sad, like, how long had they been slinging those bags around, and why hadn’t there been a new game?

He stood aside, his hand on his phone. Cari, a girl he knew, stood beside him. Cari had the knobby bruised legs of a child and sticky dirty-kid skin, but the lines in her forehead were deep. They’d hooked up the summer before and now she was with his dude Matt. She looked at him, though. As if it had been something. 

            “Days are getting shorter, you notice that?” She rubbed her nose. Her voice was scratchy like a young boy.

            “Fucking sucks.” It had been nothing. Electrical shorts of wasted late night. The bar lights coming up, then a warm body under him in his bed. Waking up thinking, will she stick? Will she stick around – will one of us have to decide?

            But, as it happened, she broke her leg playing softball that day after she spent the night, and he didn’t hear from her again. He heard about the break, and understood that the interruption erased the evening. But still, after she hooked up with his dude, and he started seeing her at parties, she looked at him. She said things about the weather, upcoming holidays, time. 

            Rochelle, the girl who he was holding his phone for, wasn’t even single. Or a girl. She was two years older than him, had two kids, was married. But he remembered her rising up from behind the seat in front of him on the school bus, twenty years before. He was in seventh grade and she was in ninth. She knew he liked her. The joyful sun of that year played in her smile. Sometimes she asked him to tell her blond jokes, and she’d laugh, even though she was blond. Sometimes she didn’t talk to him but just listened to Nirvana on her Walkman. On those days she didn’t smile: grey Ohio days, her face pressed to the cold glass, Nirvana jingling around her head, her eyes serious against tears, angry acne on her high cheekbones. Ryan watched her on any kind of day, sometimes just her reflection on the window through the gap between the arc of the green leather seat and the glass.

            Now, Matt came up and put his arm around Cari. She shrunk a little bit. “Dude—you in?” 

            Ryan was startled. He needed another drink. He didn’t meet Matt’s eyes, just looked at his long thin chin with the dimple at the end. His face seemed to pulse. “Sit this one out.”

            “What?” Matt’s sleepy mouth hung open a little. He moved slightly from side to side, breathing hot beer, and gave Cari a couple irregular shoulder squeezes.

            “I’m going to sit this one out.”

            “Oh, right on.” Matt scampered off. Ryan turned away from Cari and walked back to the cooler. He put his hand on his chest—it felt like his rib cage was fusing tightly together.

            Rochelle rising on the bus twenty years ago. Popping up. She wore a painted drainpipe around her neck. Her hair was blond, curly, frizzy and all over the place. A year before, she would have worn it pulled into a ponytail. She would have kept her head down. Because, a year before, it wasn’t cool to be weird, and people attacked anything that stuck out. To cut it off. But in 1993, freaks rose up—girls with burgundy hair, boys in army fatigues—tall boots, green shoes, bands bands bands, suddenly music was everywhere. It was ok to be silly. It was ok to be dark. 

Rochelle hadn’t given a shit that Ryan wasn’t cool—he still wore his hair in a crusty 80’s spike, he still wore starter jackets, he was a head shorter than her. His voice was still the voice of a child. She talked to him because he was nice, because he smiled at her with the open face of a kid in love.

            He remembered his little hard-on riding his jeans that whole year on the bus. Listening to Rochelle talking, doing impressions of teachers, gossiping about kids in her grade. His prick a spark of light.

            Now, as the sun slipped slowly west, and he turned from the cooler with just a can of diet caffeine-free Coke because he was really thirsty and the beer wasn’t working anymore, Cari lingered.

            “So, Ryan. How many times have you been to Cleveland? Do you like Cleveland?”

            He looked past her. His dudes were slinging sacks. Some girls stood by the grill. A little lapdog zipped past and one of them scooped it up. This house belonged to one of those girls, but he couldn’t remember which one. “Yeah. I like it.” Duh. Though he’d only been up there twice, and one of those times was just to drive his uncle to the Cleveland Clinic.

Cari waited for Ryan to say more. She made him kind of sick—he couldn’t believe he put his dick in it. She must have wanted more because she always gave him that look—even though she was with his dude. A look like the thirsty clerks in the cell phone store where Ryan worked. Ryan kept his cool around customers, and he did better than his needy associates.

He adjusted his sunglasses. “Whose house is this?”

“What house.” She knit her brow and shook her head.

“Here. Where we are now. I know I should know, but I forget.” He put his hand to the back of his neck where a drop of sweat slipped down. “One of those girls, right?”

“Jenn. Jenn’s house. Her parents’ house. We come here all the time, Ryan.” She rolled her eyes and pulled out a pack of Misty slims. Maybe she didn’t roll her eyes, but it seemed like it.

He nodded and looked off. She didn’t have to be a bitch about it. Sure, we partied here, but we were always here all at once, right?

Ryan had been cyber-stalking Rochelle. So, she was a mom in her mid-thirties. But she still seemed arty. No, not arty, that’s a word his mom would use. Bohemian. She was in some kind of band. She posted paintings of lions and moons. Bohemian.The word felt good in his mouth—it was something secret—linens and incense and secret sexual positions. Bohemian.

            “What?” Cari shifted her hips.

            He felt blood fill his face. She must have been watching his mouth. “What. What. Nothing.” He walked past her. Pushed past her. The late afternoon sun hit his eyes out the corner of his shades and he staggered: Had he pushed her? No. He felt like pushing her, but he hadn’t. Relief flooded. He had to get out of this sun for a minute. He touched his phone.

            His dudes called to him to come over! They were going to smoke a bowl in the garage. But there was a sting in his eyes like sweat. He turned away, had to get out of the light, into the house. He avoided eye contact on his way to the bathroom. 

His image above the bathroom sink. The quiet in the house was loud. For just a flash, his face crumbled like a baby about to burst into tears, but then recovered. Solidified. The air-conditioning was powdery soft, soft like the dusty blue toilet paper and cushy toilet seat cover. All of it too much and too monochromatic. His mouth felt full of lint. It wasn’t hot enough for air conditioning. Maybe it was, but it was too cold in here. The cold air hurt his feet. What was happening to him? He’d lost his shit out there for a minute.

            Cari—in her overly large t-shirt with the cartoon character. It was supposed to be a sponge, but always looked to Ryan like a block of cheese, it’s eyes dumb and gaseous. Cari—when they’d fucked, she hadn’t taken off her shirt. It was a better shirt, black and tight—but he remembered in a flash that she wouldn’t let him peel it off. Her lips went tight as she kept it down. How did he remember that, after all the shots they’d done and with only the dim street light coming in through the bedroom window?

            He turned on the water. Someone knocked. 

            “Just a minute.”

            “What?”

            “Occupied.”

            No response. Had he yelled? Did he sound pissed? 

Rochelle had responded to his long Facebook message. He’d been confident enough to confide his childhood crush to her: ha ha, boy I sure had a crush on you back then! How are ya?

            She’d said that she’d liked him a lot, too. Ryan looked up her husband. He was black. He looked at the man’s picture. His face was hard to read: stoic, military. He wore a shaved head. Ryan had been expecting some bearded hipster, or working class punk guy or something. What did it mean? 

            His heart beat in his narrow chest. He could chase it. His narrow chest. He never had a hard time getting girls, though. Rochelle had been really cool in her response. She even asked him if he ended up becoming a veterinarian. So, she hadn’t looked at his profile. But she did remember he loved animals, wanted to be a vet.

            Ryan was the guy who loved animals and was going to be a vet. Into his twenties, or the slower first half, that’s how he was known. But at the huge state college he partied, just like everyone else, listening to leftover 90’s rock and blowing loans on glass bongs only to shatter them at the worst possible moment on the hard black and white checked linoleum on the tiny dorm floor. Lost at OSU. He didn’t flunk out, but he couldn’t pass organic chemistry, so eventually, he dropped out. All those half semester loads still left, it seemed as if the longer he went, the longer there was left to get a degree, even a worthless general degree. So he came home. 

            Home to Stow and his older cousin who’d raised him, and the dogs. The dogs’ stink he’d been so used to as a kid—it was just the smell of home. He’d roll with them, grab their skins like a brother, they’d kiss his face, and he’s say, ok ok,cut it out guys but really, the big sea lion mouths lunging toward him made his heart ache.

            Returning, he smelled their stink. He washed his hands, after gingerly petting them, and he didn’t get down on the floor with them anymore. His cousin, on disability for morbid obesity, noticed the change. But he was kind enough to say nothing. Ryan hid in a drugstore cologne shield. It felt blue and crisp and carried it’s own nauseating reek of those early fall semesters in Columbus, the big city.

            The TV as background noise. Endless company from sarcastic newspeople and bacon hawkers. It was no longer home. The TV was an old big wooden one, a piece of furniture anchoring the living room. One day, not long before he left for good, he tripped over one of the dogs and jammed his finger in the doorway. The hound wiggled her ass and shuffled out of the way. Ryan’s cousin pulled himself away from the flashing primary colors and teeth on the TV—he turned with effort in his chair and said, “Hey Ry, you ok? You hurt?”

Ryan wanted to squeeze his cousin’s face, dig his nails in, close his fat mouth, close his eyes. Then cold shame flashed in his belly and Ryan looked away. “When are you going to get a flat screen—you waiting for the magic polar bear or some shit?” 

            So, no, he wrote Rochelle that he didn’t end up becoming a vet. Or a vet assistant, or a clerk at Petworld. He didn’t add that he didn’t even love his dogs any more—they literally made him gag. And when he got his own place in this little suburban complex, where everything is single guy quiet, there wasn’t even a fish.

            Rochelle asked what do you like to do? What did he do—he had a daughter he didn’t see. He worked at a cell phone store. He went to top 40 bars in shopping plazas and fucked girls like Cari. All he could say was he was moving to Cleveland. 

            It was a lie—but it became something to do. 

            The water ran. How long had he been in the bathroom? Someone would think he was taking a shit. 

            On cue, the door thumped. He popped like a pussy: “Just a minute!”

            He opened the door on a little girl with big brown glasses, not the pissed off character he expected. He had to hang on to his nerves.

Outside the sun hit the grass too hard. He heard, from a distance, his dude say, “dude.”

            He didn’t turn, felt a sweat bee in his sleeve, wiggled his shoulder.

            It was as if he couldn’t see any of them clearly anymore. It was his sinuses, making his head feel stuffy and weird. He saw his dude charging at him from across the yard, Cari behind him, pulling his arm. Everything seemed farther away than it probably was. He saw the guys and girls near the picnic table with the plastic green cloth by the skinny crabapple tree. He knew there were baked beans with bacon and potato salad and two of the girls wore crocs, those big plastic shoes he didn’t understand. He knew there was some music coming out of some little speakers in the grass, but he couldn’t tell if it was country or hip hop or metal: lazy whole notes of some instrument that could have been a guitar, or synthesizer or even a voice. 

The sky—something about the sun. The weird angle of the sun made his head feel like a mushroom whose cap is slightly separated from its stem. It hurt and it was scary. He wanted to ask the others if they’d ever seen the sun at an angle like that before: something was wrong with the sun.

He turned then, and started walking away, down the hill, not running. 

Did Rochelle think he was a creeper? Rochelle laughing in that younger sun, the same sun, but not so runny and white. Rochelle with her blue spiral notebook, a face carved into the cover. An old man, or woman, a face like wood grain, carved hard during long class days. The bridge of the nose gone over so much that white showed through the black ink.

  Did she think he was rapey? He written, “I’d crushed on you hard, lol.” The words: crush, hard, the qualifying lol, did they make him sound like a creep?  

            But there she was on Facebook—her face rising up, and there was a picture he’d taken! From back in the day: her arms out, looking at him with her head cocked, flirtatious, some third party had posted it—he remembered grabbing some girl’s camera. And there was Rochelle now, her hair a shade darker, her neck just a little thicker, but beautiful, tending a baby, and why was it so strange to think, we could just slip out and have a drink and marvel at—the possibility of knowing each other across this divide.

            “Dude.

            This time there was a vibration—Ryan slid his hand in his pocket. 

            The hit to the side of his face registered a second after contact was actually made. 

            Stars, light and meat. The earth rushed up and slapped the left/back of his body: hip, occipital bone, then ear, shoulder blades. And there was a brief expansive void – time taking a swallow, silence and then the noise, people around him on either side. 

A voice, his voice: something was supposed to happen, something should have happened, why didn’t anything happen, and then, blocking out the scene unfolding in real life, images rose up from his mind, filling his eyes: of Rochelle laughing, her frizzy hair whipped into and out the little rectangular window of the bus, the heat in his lower belly, the primary colors throbbing from the ear buds of their Walkmen.

And then he saw his baby girl, suddenly, his baby—he was there when they held up the baby pulsing blue and pink and wet with vernix—she turned her black almond eyes to him, opened her mouth and howled. 

The hit hadn’t even seemed to come from Matt, but it must have. That’s the only thing that made sense. Ryan, still on the grass, craned his neck forward as his body closed in defense like a pill bug, and he saw dudes holding Matt back, and Cari looking not proud but ashamed, her face in the shadows of her hand. Matt tried to break free because he was supposed to, but his face was slack, worried.

All the shit talk they’d talked over the years: punch that little bitch in the nuts when you see him, he’s gonna have my crusty dick in his mouth, if I see that punk-ass bitch, I’m gonna make him wish his daddy were still sticking it up his ass: for all the talk of all the nights of shit-talking, none of these thirty-something bros had ever been in a fight. 

Ryan sat up, hands trembling. The people: he looked side to side and didn’t recognize them, some guys and girls he knew sure, his friends, but he didn’t make eye contact. Their support felt like shame, as if they were pulling his pants down.

“Dude!” said Matt as he pulled away from the guys holding him back, took a couple steps toward Ryan, still on the ground but sitting up somehow, then turned and stormed off. Didn’t run away, but walked off pissed. Didn’t need to specify as to whether he was pissed with Ryan, Cari or himself because his walk was general: no regret, but no pride in the act. Cari ran after him. More material for their relationship. 

Ryan looked around. A girl, Jenn, was asking if he was ok, did he want a paper towel or some water? His hand was to his mouth and it came away wet with blood. He couldn’t answer. Did not know the right thing: to take comfort? When all he wanted was to blow it away, make like it never happened. He looked at her mouth. She held her eyes and mouth set in concern, but the corners of her lips were twitching up in pleasure. She couldn’t help herself. Something was happening, here in the yard. 

“I feel like I should know you, but I don’t,” he said to her. 

“Oh my god,” she turned to a girl with short hair, spiky bangs and short shorts. “Julie – he’s had a concussion.”

Right. Ryan knew. Julie was a nurse. “No—I know you’re Jenn. But I don’t know if we just met this summer at parties, or if your friends with dude, or if we’ve ever had a conversation, or why you’re here—why are you here?”

“Ryan. You’re moving to Cleveland. You met me three years ago at Rob’s. We’re here cause it’s Friday. We’re here to give you a send-off.”

Ryan stood up and walked away from her, after letting her hand drop, both their hands limp like ghost hands.

“Plus, it’s my folks’ house!” She said after him.

They stopped calling and let him go. He walked through the grassy dip between houses, what was once called a side yard in cities where yards were scrappier, not flowing verdant green, fertilized and caressed like here. Someone’s parents’ house, even though they were all grown ass men and women. He remembered his phone, and pulled it out. The text was just from his dude at work. 

Three weeks later Ryan stood on the upper level of the James Garfield Mausoleum at Lakeview Cemetery on the east side of Cleveland. It was a squat castle tinged black. He looked out over the blue sky and orange trees, red trees of Cleveland. From there he could see downtown skyscrapers folded into the distance, and to the right, the vast lake. Jolly graves poked through clean grass that would soon enough be dirty with winter. Behind him on the stone floor of the balcony, an old man sat on a blanket. Ryan turned to the old man, who was picnicking alone. He asked the man if he was from Cleveland. 

“No, boss, I’m from Kansas. I been here since the seventies though, early seventies, came out here to work with my cousin. He’s dead now.” The man had a mouth like a shovel and a flannel shirt—cheery blue, like the October sky.

“It’s a good city?”

“Sure enough. Want an apple?” He held up a green waxy apple with a small circular sticker. Ryan waved away the apple, then changed his mind and took it.

“Thank you.” It was good—gushing sweet, sour water. The water of a living thing. The skin gave way to his teeth, and Ryan devoured the fruit. Even this corporate apple that had come from far away, maybe grown under artificial light, that hadn’t had the chance to live an honest, wild life. It was still a life, and life has a taste and he was tasting that life. The water molecules stitched from atoms eternal, had grown up through the tree, passed through to her daughter apple, and now flowed into her son, Ryan Bakan.