And we’re live! Volume 17 Issue 1 of The Birmingham Arts Journal is now available to read in print and online, featuring my short story Ink / Mud:
And we’re live! Volume 17 Issue 1 of The Birmingham Arts Journal is now available to read in print and online, featuring my short story Ink / Mud:
Some pleasant news amidst the craziness of the world right now: my short story Ink / Mud took second place at the 2019 Hackney Literary Awards!
Since the story is going to be published in a future issue of the Birmingham Arts Journal, I’ll just post a snippet here for now:
People liked to see twins together, names and outfits in sync – Nicole and Katherine, Nikki and Kitty – and classified us out loud to their children and friends. You get used to being looked at as something special. Whenever our parents took us out separately, on excursions recommended by psychologists to encourage us to develop as individuals, I felt uninteresting, reduced. But Nicole hated being part of a set. No matter how much she loved me and I loved her, I couldn’t change that. She constructed a firm boundary around her, one I had to knock on to enter, one where permission was not always granted. At least in high school, even if we rarely spoke on schoolgrounds, she was nearby, her orbit tugging at mine.
Freshman year at college was like re-learning to walk after the loss of a limb. Autumn settled into a belligerent winter. My incessant texts to my sister went unanswered for days. She’d mention weekend plans or new friends, and I’d pretend I was busy too. If my roommate was out, I escaped to the library or the art studio or a party. Anyone’s party. When I was by myself, I wound down, my clockwork actions growing slower and slower until I could only stare into space. But by the time the campus belly-flopped into spring, I managed to reach a wobbly equilibrium. I was beginning to see myself as my own center of gravity when, in the final heat-swollen days of the semester, Nicole appeared unannounced at the tattoo parlor where I worked part-time. Thrilled, bewildered, I was simultaneously reset and off-kilter.
Very excited to announce my short story Terra Incognita received Honorable Mention in the 2018 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize and has been published in the Fall 2018 issue of Ruminate Magazine! The theme of this issue was “exposure” and my story is about the impact of a new map arriving in a small town in Flanders in the 15th century.
Yyyyeah, this is one of my weirder ones.
The old map had congealed to the wall, taken on its texture. There was no removing it completely, so they didn’t remove it at all, just pinned the new map on top of it, bottom corners loose and still curled from the roll it had slept in. Word ambled down the street and the neighbors came to see the new face of their country. Big-cheeked Hanna, spackled with flour. Blonde Ria with her skinny husband. The young, curly-haired brothers Isidoor and Thomas. Erik, old and bearded. The very pregnant Juytken. Pretty Jo, the town’s white flower. Philip and his two flunkies – a gang formed in boyhood and cemented by adolescence. A few others. The tavern seemed embarrassed to be so full in midday, caught in the light. Perhaps it was this unusual combination of time and place that dampened their spirits and lent the rosy new map a poisonous sheen.
The town wasn’t invested in books. With no library or school, with the sea far to the northwest, the old map had been a rare window into the country beyond their fields. For some, it had been the only window. Ivo the innkeeper had won it over a decade ago, in a card game with a sailor in Antwerpen in 1504. Ivo hadn’t felt old yet then. Hanna hadn’t been married. Ria’s youngest was still alive. Erik had yet to be widowed. The map had hung above the bar since. It softened with them. The colors lightened. The words gently bled. The tiny ships on the painted waves of the Germanicus Oceanus contracted into strange ink creatures. Over the years, the map ceased to be, or perhaps never was, a representation of their country; in the townspeople’s minds, it was their country.
And in the span of a short morning, the world they believed was aging with them had been replaced with a crisper, more vibrant version. Borders they had come to think of as blurred and gauzy became impenetrable again. A black line squiggled down and around the land, marking the edges, trapping them inside. Even the eternal northwest waters had a new name: Maris Germanici. Hanna and Ria joked and scoffed. As though you could change the name of the sea! More startling, their familiar country was crammed with at least twice as many cities and towns as before, nests of calligraphy punctuated by circles and corralled by weaving roads. The old yellowed map had been spotted with its share of settlements, but the names had long been demoted to decorative details, a pattern for one’s eyes to roost in while a tankard was drained.
Thomas buzzed about, investigating the musty adulthood of the tavern, new territory for the 12-year-old. He tilted his head back to take in the map.
“Have all those towns existed all this time? Or are they new?”
The innocent question was a stab in the ribs of the gathered adults. They didn’t know. As before, Ivo had dabbed a spot of red paint on their town. But the comfort of knowing precisely where they were on the Lord’s green earth had vanished. How could anybody feel found in a crowd like that?
“The old map was better,” Ria declared, blonde eyebrows pinched together. “This one has errors.”
Ivo had left his duties to his overburdened wife in order to preen amongst his neighbors. Though a regular traveler out of town, he hadn’t acquired the map for geographical guidance; for that, he preferred the compass of his own memory. The map drew him for another reason. The warm palette and dark lines, the chocolatey curls and perked ends of the letters, the mellifluousness of the incomprehensible Latin maxim that crowned the frame – the entire composition was pleasing. When his gaze sank into it, a panting horse into a cool river, he felt that his heart and his mind were connected. Closer than connected. That they were the same. Just as black dots on rich paper could also be a sea. Both the sailor’s map and this newer one climbed inside him and stayed there. Art, however, was not a well-trod topic in their town and, if asked, Ivo would have said that he couldn’t say a single word on the subject.
He rounded on Ria.
“This map does not have errors. It’s just more recent.”
“No,” Ria insisted. “There aren’t that many towns.”
“How would you know?”
“It’s common sense. Look at how crushed together all the names are. Are we really supposed to believe there is no countryside in our country? Look outside!”
“I bet the mapmaker invented some towns so he could f-feel important,” Philip asserted, juvenile ego tripped by jitters.
Ivo set his jaw and folded his great arms. Had he known the phrases artist’s interpretation and not true to scale, he would have used them. As it was, he could only sense their unarticulated truth.
“Perhaps you could put both maps up?” Hanna submitted, picking at the dough drying on her knuckles.
“No, I won’t have an out-of-date map on my wall.”
“It was fine for the last ten years and suddenly it’s out of date?” Philip asked with a huff, glancing over at his lackeys.
“We didn’t need a new map,” one said.
“We didn’t want one,” the other added.
“This is my tavern and it’s staying.”
“It’s a disgrace!” Ria snapped in a tight voice. “It’s— What proof do you have that these towns are real? You have no right to spread errors, maybe even lies, about our country.”
She had been like this in childhood too, Ivo remembered. Her temper and tears erupted if you changed the rules midgame, if you told a story differently than before, if you abandoned the plan. Her heels were forever dug into the earth. Ivo pitied her husband, a man who was clipped around the edges and crumpled in.
The argument continued, heating the pub to a stuffiness only enjoyed by the passionately angry or by drinkers on a winter evening. Hanna attempted to placate Ria, but Philip’s gang was teething, hoping for a real fight to chew on. They followed up on Ria’s flares with handfuls of fuel. Younger and slimmer than the other men, curly-haired Isidoor kept both his tongue and his little brother in check. Beautiful Jo was still entranced by the new map and paid attention to none of them. Erik stroked his greying beard and held the door for the waddling Juytken. Age serving youth. Near-death serving near-life.
Blue skies on a market day meant a busy street. Children in filthy smocks brandished sticks and screamed their games. Straw baskets filled, townspeople who had heard the gossip gravitated towards the inn. Erik helped Juytken out of their path.
“You ought to return home. Walking around in your condition is dangerous,” Erik said.
Juytken nodded. The fingers not curled under her pregnant belly were fiddling with the sleeve of her linen undershirt. She studied the knobbed hand Erik rested on his walking stick.
“What do you think of the map?” she asked.
“I’m too old for it to make any difference to me.”
“The world around us changes so quickly. Ten years and the country has been completely redrawn,” Juytken mused, eyes lowered. “How can I know what sort of place my son will grow up in?”
“Take it from me. Some things don’t change.”
Juytken gave him a smile and made her way down the street, layered skirts skimming the earth. Erik monitored her until she turned the corner. Youth cannot believe what Age tells them to be true. It won’t be real until they have aged themselves. But he was correct. Some things didn’t change. A pint of ale will always improve a meal. A new map will always cause an upset. A young wife filled to the brim with life will always be a blessing. It was the natural flow of time. Juytken’s son would be his third grandchild. She was downriver from her mother’s pregnancies and from Erik’s own wife’s, the last of which took her from this realm.
The road east shrank, became a path that bordered the farms. Escorted by his wooden cane, Erik’s steps were unhurried. Sheep bleated and moved as one away from the fencing. Clouds dragged a net of shade across the green fields. And he was an old man wandering after his thoughts, recalling how his wife’s right leg had a slight limp that made her shy. When she died, the priest assured Erik that such a good woman was unquestionably with our Lord in his Kingdom. It was a comfort to hear and it was what Erik repeated to his children, but he was embarrassed to discover that he was unable to imagine his wife in heaven. Erik was never a man for daydreams or fantasies, and he simply couldn’t place the image of her anywhere but home. Since birth, she had fit her years comfortably into their town, a small circle of which her and Erik’s house became the center. Even attending church or walking to the market spurred a frenzy of preparation. Her impatience to return to the cauldron, the cradle, the clutter of half-woven garments, often snipped conversations with neighbors short. A frequent and amicable patron of Ivo’s, Erik had found this tiresome. After her death, it troubled him. How could a woman who had burrowed, body and soul, into this patch of earth, a woman who had never followed the road east beyond the farms, traverse the long journey to heaven?
A chilly breeze slinked through the expanse of sunshine. Erik held his wool cap to his head and listened to the rustling trees. The new map spread itself out in his mind, the precise lines, the four tiny trees, and he was delighted to see a figure on the butter-colored paper, barely more than a dot, traveling through the copse, away from the red heart of their town. The roads were so neatly marked. The rivers. Finally, they both had a guide. The path towards the borders – of the country, of the sea, of the entire map – was distinct yet crossable, even with her uneven gait. After a pause on the edge, she stepped off into an ungraspable realm, a kingdom of faith hidden in the thin air. The thought lightened Erik’s bones and his feet. Sunlight swept across the grass, like satisfaction. Joy, even.
The quarrel at the tavern swelled and receded and swelled again. After failing to douse Ria’s blistering hisses, big-cheeked Hanna – whose heart pounded whenever voices were raised – retreated to the bakery. Young Thomas’s question stalked after her, clinging to the hem of her kirtle.
“Well?” Her husband asked, sweating.
She circled the loaves of bread, retied her apron, shrugged.
“Ria thinks it’s fake, that there are too many towns for it to be a true map.”
“No reason to change what works,” he said, shrugging back.
Grunting, he opened the oven grate and withdrew a pan of hot and fluffy koekjes. The aroma of butter mingled with the brusque smell of charcoal and the autumnal scent of chopped apples resting in a bath of spices. Hanna hunched over the table to pull and knead the dough for appelflappen, massaging it thin with her chubby fingers, loving strokes she had learned years ago, when she married both a man and his trade. No reason to change what works. A recipe can be played with a little – raisins added, perhaps – but the ratio of flour to sugar to fats had long been determined. Like the name of the sea.
“Hanna. Why are you crying?”
“I’m sorry. It’s frightening.”
“It’s a painted picture. That’s all.”
“I feel small, as though I was a mouse all along.”
“You’re certainly not the size of a mouse,” he chuckled, belly jiggling.
But she didn’t smile. In front of her gaze hung the circle of their village, a droplet once buffered by empty space, now swept up in a swarm. All those towns filled with strangers. All those roots unearthed and bared to the sun. Names for things that didn’t need names. The more men stuck pins into the land, speared it with titles and dimensions, the more it would bleed. A pile of cake ingredients was not appetizing, couldn’t they see that? It was only the whole, the elements combined, that made something sweet and wonderful. Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great. To fear a gnawing appetite for knowledge was humanity’s earliest lesson and still there was this vulgar reaching for higher and higher branches of the tree. One did not inherit the Kingdom of God by dismantling and renaming His creations. Nor by following any ink-sodden map.
If their dear country could erupt in a sudden wealth of new details, like the distant hills sharpening after a storm, then what other unknowns lay hidden, ready to pounce? Insignificance wormed into Hanna for the first time since girlhood and her hands trembled. She could be crushed by so much, all that she couldn’t see and didn’t know. It was one thing to feel small and humble next to the unfathomable glory of one’s Savior, but to be trampled underfoot by unknown armies from unknown cities, the human unknown… Her shoulders rose in a fear that set the Lord’s Prayer rumbling over her tongue.
Its familiar rhythm lulled her back into her work. Dough, apples, sugar. The formulas and measurements, the simple causes and effects, formed a landscape she knew intimately, one she could find shelter in. She would hold to the mystery of faith, the recitations of recipes. Give us this day our daily bread. Warm water and warm milk so the rolls rise properly. Add the flour a tablespoon at a time. And deliver us from evil. Amen.
Hanna wasn’t the only one ruffled by Thomas’s question. It roosted in his elder brother Isidoor’s mind, noisy, feathers and droppings coating his contemplation. Which did he prefer? That other towns had lain cloaked in mist all this time? Or that they had sprung up out of the earth like weeds in a neglected kitchen garden? Ignorance or rapid change? Hoping to avoid the notice of Philip and his drudges, he gave the map his full attention, fluttered from town to town, forwent space and time to touch on all the borders, run down the canals, and pause in places that resembled the names of people he knew. Canegem. Tempelmare. Dadisele. Trechyn. Gendt, of course. Antwerpen. He’d like to see Antwerpen. Just once. Just to peek at the crashing flow of life in an international city, the Italian sugar and Portuguese pepper, the Spanish gold and American silver, the scholars and the sailors in combat with uncertainty. Just to walk alongside men who saw the coast as a starting point instead of an end, who entered into long affairs with the unknown.
And after seeing the worn and weathered faces of these men, Isidoor would be glad to come home. He was sure of it. How little the void attracted him, the opaque waters, the days flung wide open and blinding, especially in comparison to his work, his mother, his brother, the pleasant possibilities and manageable problems he would have here. Thomas, though, would become the type of man that the bottomless sea, with its promise of sugar and silver, would seduce away. Isidoor could only hope that she wouldn’t take his brother’s life as payment for his curiosity.
Isidoor’s eyes descended from the heights of the map to Jo’s pale and freckled face, which glowed in the half-light, framed by a wheat-colored linen hood. They had only spoken two or three times, nodded to each other at the market – her hands separating gourds and cabbages, his full of upside-down and baffled chickens – but for Isidoor she was a clearer map to his future than any. He could see, though, that Ivo’s new atlas held her fast. She seemed deaf to the clamoring newcomers, to Philip’s exaggerated posturing, to the squabble that ended with Ria yanking her husband out the door. Was Jo dreaming of travel, too? Of Gendt or Antwerpen? Of an adventure they could hold up years from now and see their reflections in? It was as though she was having a conversation with the map, a dialogue he didn’t understand and so could not interrupt. He resolved to wait for the right moment.
Philip shouldered past Isidoor, his flunkies trailing him out into the ripening midday. Sounds from the market rushed through the opened door. Isidoor ought to return to the poultry stall; Thomas would need help hauling the sacks of feed. They couldn’t linger any longer. But tomorrow would come, no matter what was drawn on any map, and Isidoor would wash his face, tamp down his curly hair, and ask Jo’s father if he could marry her. His heart quickened at his resolve, but Jo still didn’t look his way.
Before his wife reeled him back to his obligations, Ivo too observed Jo, puzzling over her fixation on the map. She had never granted the old one more than a glance. Her parents and siblings weren’t the sort to chew over these things. He left her in peace. Girls’ fancies were marshes too murky to ford.
At the altar formed by the map and the bar, Jo paled and blushed, hid her flooded eyes and sudden smiles, embraced the storm and then the calm. So. There was no definitive version of their country, of the world. There never would be. If the old map was fallible, a temporary reflection, then the reign of this newer one must be equally precarious. The truth, so fixed, so obvious, could change. It all depended on who drew the map. And really, anyone could draw a map, could sketch the world as it was true for them. A local shepherd’s survey of the land would differ from a foreign merchant’s, but neither would be false. They would simply see with different eyes, sculpted by different lives. Could the truth ever be reached then? Certain atlases might approach it, breathe down its neck. But even if the truth were somehow captured, fully contained in inked borders, one felled tree would change the face of their country into a different creature. And what of other maps, other guides, other truths? All those laws and facts, decreed by God and nature and men and mothers? What makes a lady, what makes a cake, what makes a life… Were they transient too?
“Jo, oughtn’t you get back to the market and help your mother?” Ivo’s wife called over an armful of cleaned linens.
One foot on the stairs, she cracked her neck and waited in vain for a reply. She was unsettled by the… lust, she’d have to call it, in Jo’s eyes. If her parents had any sense, they would get that girl a husband soon. Everyone knew pretty things were a danger to keep around too long. White flowers could be poisonous.
Soul still full of the map, Jo left the tavern and turned down the familiar street, its dips and curves long memorized by her feet. This road and this market, seemingly permanent fixtures in the landscape of her life, were really just one of many roads, one of many markets. In the burn of the late afternoon, the shops and stalls and houses took on the hollow echo and weightlessness of a traveling troupe’s set for a play. It was all manmade, wasn’t it? What was right. What was wrong. What was possible and impossible. The corset of certainties Jo wore – marriage was her next step, children were a woman’s greatest love, churchgoers went to heaven, cities were sinful, the sea was monstrous – loosened. She couldn’t think of what had prevented her from wriggling her fingers into the knots and undoing them before. Fear of not adhering to the world as mapped by someone else? Jo smiled. Maps could be redrawn.
At dawn, Jo’s mother would notice her absence but think little of it until a canvas bag and supplies were discovered to be missing from the pantry. Under a field of clouds yet to be ploughed by the sun, Ivo would be woken by caterwauling and bangs on the inn door. Jo’s red-faced father and inconsolable mother would thrust their distress onto Ivo’s broad chest, hoarsely damn his new map for bewitching and spiriting away their white flower, who had spent the night talking nonsense about walls not being walls and truths not being truths. They would push past Ivo, hearts like torches aimed at the map, but be brought up short at the bar, their bonfire of anger left flickering in the wind.
The new map would already be lying in a froth of paper on the floor. Ivo would feel the bright shreds as keenly as though it were his own flesh in pieces, and he would groan upon noticing a long peel of the old map, thought to be permanently wedded to the wall, uncoiling to the floor in a limp arc, a casualty in the attack on its successor.
Very excited that my short story Turpentine appears in the current issue of Wraparound South! Have a read:
An audience, withdrawn from the eddying crowds, stood or shuffled in the stiff grass and soft dirt. Summer in Woodstock never got too hot, swaddled as it was in pine trees that combed the cool breezes. The tame heat of the July day unclenched, roping in a gray-gold dusk and a whistling little wind that scratched at the holes in the stage. No longer than a pick-up truck, it was barely more than a few wooden boards on metal poles screwed into place by Cal and the rest of the boys back in May. The real sturdiness had been saved for the inner stage, hidden by the canvas tent and guarded by cartoon women, paint cracking on bare stomachs and bikini tops.
The stage moaned and creaked, but Cal figured the speakers would swallow up the noise soon enough. He was stocky for a 17-year-old, his arms peppered with spots from the sun. He stood with the other hired hands, all teetering on the cusp of manhood and the edge of the crowd, wearing long hair and mustaches that didn’t quite fit yet. Obscuring German’s view from the ticket booth, they clustered together, ostensibly to nudge and josh one other, but really because it was harder to be singled out this way. Cal cocked his head, put a bored look on his face. He couldn’t stand to be mistaken for a member of the goggling audience. German hurled out a scolding, fat lips still around his cut-rate cigarette, and made a few hard gestures. They moved back a step but bet on German staying put, which he did. He smoothed greasy dollar bills into wrung out piles, pinned them down with coins too dull to catch the light. His fingers, dirty with ink, fished in the tires of blue tickets. $2.00. $2.00. $2.00.
The music erupted like a cannon, sending a ripple through the onlookers. Jacko, their own Jimi Hendrix knock-off, sauntered onto the stage and cycled through his smooth sell, cajoling and joking into the microphone. His words crackled and fuzzed.
“Don’t bust no water pumps, alright? Okay. That’s right. Now look, fellas, this is gonna be the last outside appearance that the girls are gonna make before we start this show. You see, we have some of your friends and neighbors on the inside waiting for the show to begin and we can’t keep ‘em waitin’ much longer.”
Jacko’s wide collar, which had wilted in the heat, caught the breeze as he went through the usual gotta-be-18-no-babies-no-ladies respectable rules for the striptease, the burlesque, nothing terrifying or too sordid, just a fun time. His easy spiel wound down into a roll call. Cal felt one of the guys’ elbows glance off his arm and land in his ribs. He pushed back, eyes still on the stage.
“Erma, step out.”
Erma had been given a gauzy green get-up, an old one of Ginger’s, with a swoosh of fabric from her bellybutton to the floor, a flimsy curtain hiding promised goods. She twirled and plucked at it, flipping her dyed Farrah Fawcett do in a move she must have picked up from a movie. Her smile slid off, then flickered on again, bigger this time. The white make-up pancaked across the summits of her heavy breasts began to glisten, catching the yellow legion of lightbulbs drooling above her.
“Bet they’re bigger than Margie’s,” Cal said, pulling at his belt loop.
“No shit, dimwit.”
Out came Lily-Rose, whom they knew, and then Josie.
“Shit, how old is she?” Brian hissed in awe behind Cal’s shoulder.
The pink sequins made Josie—all sticks and freckles—look awfully teen pageant in Cal’s mind. The bulge in his jeans retreated a little. Her straw hair had been wrangled up into a ponytail with a scrunchy, tinfoil-like in its crumple and shine. She was sharp where Erma was plush, and she spun and posed with a mean, determined air. Her smile stayed painted in place, pink and white, a crescent moon above the rosy froth and ebb of her liquidy costume (also borrowed and a skosh too big).
“Margie, step out. The body!”
Cal saw Margie wrinkle her nose and try to hide it by playing cute. The smells drove her nuts: the hot dogs and fried dough, the hay and horseshit, and the summer stench of people, their fingers sticky from sugar and the grime of safety bars. She wiggled and a few onlookers hooted. Some commented to each other in low tones. Cal peered around at them all with dislike, wishing there was something in his appearance, some badge or way of standing, to show his kinship with the girls. Something that would make people stop and nod with respect.
“Now, fellas, when the girls leave this stage, they’re only gonna be wearing two things: just a pair of shoes on their feet and a big smile on their face. Go on, give ‘em a bit of walkin’ music. There ya go. Come on. Show time.”
The girls shook their shoulders, fluffed hair and peachy rolls bouncing, the loudspeaker a bit too close and a bit too loud. The sun dropped down, a quarter into a slot, and the girls lingered a few minutes longer before slinking into the tent, leaving Lily-Rose to walk in circles, her hips swinging in a bid to convince the hesitators near the “Girls Show” sign. It was always ‘girls’, even if one was going on 40 and her tits were really starting to sag and she likely wouldn’t be here next summer.
Lily-Rose had been around a while and the boys turned from her with accentuated ennui, subtly searching the others’ faces for the same.
“Not bad. Not great,” Sam said, scratching a nipple through a fraying Led Zeppelin t-shirt.
“Not as good as my Lulu,” Brian called over the noise of the crowd.
“She may not know she’s 100% mine but she will.”
“Wouldn’t mind giving it to Josie’s pink little pussy. Imagine being the first to rip her open.”
“Sure, a little pounce and push.”
“Would be easy enough with your tiny prick.”
“Bigger than yours. Could get any girl on that stage if I wanted to.”
“Bet I have her begging for it.”
“Like you and Margie,” they crowed at Cal, their breath banging into his cheeks and ears. “Your girl.”
“Not my girl!” He stammered. For despite her large breasts and full legs, Margie was over 35 and Cal was embarrassed.
German sent Paul, a towering black man, to scuttle them and they retreated to their posts: brooms and shovels, pulleys and ropes, light switches, and sponges long blackened and ragged from filth.
Didn’t matter the time of day. Even at high noon when the girls wore sunglasses for the teaser, the sun was never permitted entry into the Girls Show tent. It made its presence known in other ways, in tiny glimpses in the linings and the ballooning humidity. Shows started in the early afternoon, continued until early morning.
Erma now understood what Margie had meant when she said that the exhibition beforehand was worse than the inner show. Out there, people laughed, convinced themselves they would never be low enough to pay the entry even as the girls silently screamed, “But you will! You will!” There was the frowning, the ushering away of families. Old bearded men hoisted their grandsons up by their armpits so the girls could wink and blow kisses at the small, wide-eyed face as they tried not to think of the children they had, or had and lost, or never had. The married couples on double dates appeared after dinnertime, the husbands shaking their heads and smiling, pleased to have moved beyond smutty teenage indulgences and onto clean relations with their wives. Then they murmured plans for later into each other’s ears while those wives directed stone gazes anywhere but at the girls. Usually at their own sensible shoes, which the mud would ruin.
But in the smelly, womblike interior of the Girls Show tent, there was acknowledgement. The crassness had been agreed upon. The girls would be met halfway, no longer a sideshow but the entire point. Men came in alone, mustachioed, arms crossed, often still frowning, but with a paid ticket. Or they entered in packs of four, five, six—the high school boys just over the 18-year cut-off, safe in their numbers and hassling each other about sex. You done it? With who? How many times? Bullshit. Who hadn’t done it? Why not?
“Time to be cavewomen. Make ‘em think they can be cavemen,” Margie wheezed in the stuffy and dim dressing room, which was only the passage between the outside stage and the inside one. It was a nothing space the girls used as a chrysalis, morphing from advertisements on the front stage—mere tempting gloss—to full bodies on the inner stage, stripped and solid.
“Good way of putting it,” Erma replied, sliding a finger under the straps digging into her shoulders.
She and the girls sipped bottles of beer through straws to preserve the magenta or scarlet or garnet. Lipstick wasn’t as cheap as it used to be. Prices kept inching up. Beer, warm as it was, made the time on stage whizz by, spread the memories of it into a jazzy blur. Like trying to remember the shapes of clouds while keeping afloat in salacious, white rapids. Buzzed and silly, she wasn’t there really. Erma heard the music, saw the lights, felt her back on the wooden planks pocked black from cigarette ash, heeled shoe pressed against a vertical beam.
Near the end of the 45 pop record, if Jacko gave the nod, the girl would choose one of the men leaning on his elbows over the lip of the stage, usually someone young and astounded, slink up and press her crotch towards his face, her knees coming to hover past his ears. Hairy hands would grip her thighs while she shifted to avoid a cramp and convinced them all she was enjoying herself. Sometimes she was.
Erma counted fifteen beats, her sight up in the pointed ceiling—all shadow, murky and safe. Then she placed her palm on his forehead, sweat meeting sweat, and pushed gently. His fingers dug in harder (sure to bruise, would have to powdered over for later shows), so she gave a theatrical shove, removed herself with a coy roll and hit a wobbly final pose a beat after the music fell off. The men cheered and smiled, pleased to have gotten their money’s worth along with a story to tell over work drinks on Monday.
Backstage was an orgy of rushing. The guzzles of water. The girl coming off sliding past the girl next on. The scrabble for matching tops and bottoms. Slick breasts and stomachs pressing into heads or arms reaching for cosmetics. The missing compacts. Mascara reapplied or wiped off. And some girls just trying to sit down for a moment, to light cigarettes and not to lose their flame in the shuffling by.
A carnival was all noise until it wasn’t. Somewhere before dawn (Cal wasn’t much for watches; they reminded him of his father), the trembling Ferris wheel and the hoarse Tilt-a-Whirl collapsed into silence and stillness. The crowds were replaced by worn tracks in the dirt, boot prints and litter. Balloons fell into rubber scraps in the dark. There was just the flapping of the flags—colorful by day, black teeth by night—and the trickles of conversation caught in puddles of orange light.
The greasy pink letters of EXOTIC glistened as Josie emerged from the tent, her knees red and her feet bare. She never did like the habit of shoes. Dawdling, she tilted her face up at the rolling piles of clouds, juicy-looking and icy white from the moon.
“Saw you boys divvying us up back there,” she said, accepting Cal’s half-smoked cigarette and noticing his fingers were smudged at the knuckles.
Cal meant for her to give it back but she didn’t, and he didn’t know how to ask.
“Boys nothing,” Erma said, letting the canvas flap close behind her. Her breasts had been re-holstered and shelved inside a sweater patterned with seagulls, their wings brushing her collarbone and gliding over her curves in a way that made Cal wish he had held onto his cigarette to offer it to her instead.
“Boys nothing,” she said again. “Didn’t you see that awful girl during the teaser? Right in the middle and by herself? First thing I saw when I stepped out.”
“Tried not to look too close at them all up front,” Josie said, catching falling ash in her palm before tipping it to the ground.
“She was all pinched in, falling socks and unwashed hair. Coulda just killed her, aiming those slitty eyes at me. Can guess what was galloping through her mind. ‘My panties may be dirty but at least they’re on.’”
Erma caught her breath.
“Don’t mind them, Erma,” Josie murmured.
“You feel all that?” Cal asked with wonder, his eyes tracing the thin lines of anger roosting around Erma’s mouth.
Cal hadn’t heard the other girls talk this way, never heard them do more than snarl at the day. Most of them had sealed shells like Josie, only letting in the occasional peep or shooting out the occasional barb. Even when Margie had let him into her cot and bullied him into pleasuring her properly before letting him stick it in, she never talked too much in the past tense. Cal realized he had learned to do the same since he arrived over a year ago.
He gave Erma a small smile, a real one. Out of her make-up, she couldn’t be called pretty; more handsome. Big sister-ish, but your best friend’s big sister, so there was a charm there, a cozy type of sexiness. Josie saw the soppy infatuation in the smile, steeping like a cheap teabag in cool water. She snorted and threw Cal’s unfinished cigarette into the grass, where it sent up threads of smoke. They watched her beeline for the girls’ sleeping tent.
“Josie doesn’t like boys too much, huh?” Cal said, his unsure hands finally settling in his front pockets.
“They’ve been rough with her. Always had the three older brothers tussling, chasing her around, giving her Indian burns and plummy bruises.”
“Daddy stripped her down before whipping her? That sorta thing?”
Erma’s eyes, an old brown, fixed on the tent flap where Josie had slipped out of sight.
“Your daddy do that?” She asked.
“Often as he could.”
“You sound too moneyed for that.”
Cal grit his teeth and looked away.
“No amount of cash can fix a primo jerk. He tattered up my step-mom for years ‘til she finally snapped. Booked it back to Colorado three months ago.”
“My daddy never laid a finger on me. Spoiled and petted me ‘til I was rotten as my teeth. Hardest time in my life, the spring he died.”
Cal had a thought and strained to examine it: Women were good at appearing to give you an awful lot. They opened their legs, sometimes even just for him. They could make you feel real lucky, let you touch the innermost part of them, and still not really give you anything of themselves. Only a weeny memory she could whisk away with a neat and straightforward denial. She could make you strangers again with a snap of her fingers. She could throw every layer of clothing at your feet, and while you bask in her marvelous nakedness, for her it’s as routine and impersonal as the jokes a train conductor makes as he moves through cars collecting tickets. But Erma tipping out her past and her feelings was intimate. To tell the spiteful world to its face that it had hurt you, now that was a real thing.
“It’s rad that you talk, you know? I could get a big crush on you,” Cal confessed, feeling boyish and daring.
“I don’t doubt it, kid. But I figured it wouldn’t take much.”
Erma knew an overripe heart when she saw one, purpling and full and stretching out to her. Her daddy’s gave out on him, seized and stopped in the middle of his evening coffee in an April so wet the walls sent the windows groaning in their frames. Mud got into the pipes. Flowers drowned before they were born. The cemetery was a terror.
Not much wonder she married a neighbor boy two years older than her, who was tan with door-to-door sales and stuffed with a heart liable to gush with too hard a squeeze. Like her father, he was too gentle with her, as though her full figure was thin china. Her husband’s kisses were as tenderly placed as playing cards on a tower. The lamps in their bedroom were kept off so often, she kidded to her friends that she couldn’t recall the color of the pillowcases. In the dark, he would crouch over her on all fours, worried of resting too much weight on her, and stroke feathery, tickly touches up her chest and arms. Then, a timid entrance, a weak burble that would never plant a thing in her, and if she even sighed too loudly, he would rear up and out of her, begging to know what was wrong, he was sorry, had he hurt her.
Josie had laughed at that, Erma remembered, but there had been a low finish of wistfulness. Josie had skipped senior year of high school to get hitched to a chubby-cheeked, soft-voiced mechanic from one town over. He had whimpered fine promises in the garage as her head bobbed in his lap, under his hand. She had figured him a safe bet after all those boys who had yanked her about in cars in the school parking lot. But she discovered that she couldn’t have kids and he took a wrench to her, and that was that. Back to where she was, but with a fractured shoulder, an annulled marriage certificate, and a toxic cascade of sneers and pity hosing down the sidewalk around her feet.
“I’m not really like those other guys,” Cal blurted out.
“You’re young and might not know, but men say that an awful lot to girls,” Erma replied, eyes unfocused.
Cal’s mouth twisted and his hands burrowed deeper into his jeans pockets.
“Still,” he said. “I wasn’t divvying you up at least.”
“You were watching us real close.”
“Watching people on a stage isn’t a crime.”
She studied him for a few long seconds. He fidgeted, wishing he could take that last sentence back.
“I suppose it ain’t.”
Just as he made up his mind to try and put an arm around her, she said good night. But instead of following Josie’s route to a cot in the sleeping tent, she ducked back inside the dressing room. With a pull of a knob on a string, one of the bare bulbs shuddered into life. Erma thought again of that girl in the crowd out front, who had stood alone, arms crossed, sour mouth ossified, her face filling with the evening light.
“Know exactly what it was: At least I’m not you. At least I’m not you,” Erma said to herself, poking around the heaps of fabric until she felt the familiar corners of a cigarette pack.
Tears drizzled from her eyes but she paid them no attention. She sat in one of a pair of fold-out chairs, the bulky fuse box leering overhead, and struck a match. The metal of the seat was cold and the paint flaked under her touch, revealing rust.
Two cigarettes later, Josie found her. Erma’s gaze was hooked into something Josie couldn’t see, but she could guess well enough.
“I told you don’t mind,” Josie said, words snapping like branches.
“She was just…poor. She was poor and dirty and she thought—she knew—she was better than us.”
“Probably just some prissy farmer’s daughter, dumb as a rock unless you’re talking about how cows shit.”
“But that’s what I mean! To have that kind of stupid filth thinking it has a right to look down on…” Erma’s hand covered her own mouth with a firm grip, Barbie-pink press-ons against her cheek.
“Damn, Erma,” Josie said, exasperated. “What d’you think this was gonna be like?”
“You’re acting like a daddy’s girl again, looking at me with those big wet eyes, hoping someone else’ll make the world just what you want. We’re not going back.”
“No. Of course not.”
Erma pulled in air through her damp nostrils and let Josie stub out her cigarette on the floor. Josie cupped Erma’s chin and leaned in. The kiss was pushy and caring. It was the kiss Erma had left town for, discarding her house and husband after a single week of mulling it over. Though Erma cut a more maternal figure, it was Josie who did the holding, cradling Erma into her bony chest and petting her hair the way Erma normally did for her. The mental susurrus of not allowed, not allowed, not allowed faded as she inhaled the smell of Josie’s skin. Josie planted little bites on her ear and neck until Erma’s breasts were firm and sensitive in their cheap bra. They pressed into the flock of gulls and then Josie’s possessive fingers. Unlike the men’s greedy fistfuls, Josie’s stroking and opening of Erma’s yielding body was about making all of Erma hers, a responsible ownership.
“What you looking at, little boy?” Josie’s voice rang out, javelin thrown at the wide eyes of Cal, peering around the tent flap.
Erma’s red face dove into her palms as Josie leapt up, advancing like a foul-mouthed scarecrow on Cal, who vibrated in hesitation.
“Little sonuvabitch. Looking for a free show. Acting all nice so you can get a few decent screws later. Why don’t you—”
Cal stumbled away from the Girls Show tent, away from Josie’s blistering anger. The cool summer night trickled into his lungs. Worried she would come after him, he began to lope through the alleys between tents, his erection painful against his zipper.
Turning a corner, he found the unwelcome figure of Margie, smoking with a tremulous hand.
“Oh Cal, honey, you won’t believe. German just told me—”
“Jesus Christ, Margie. Not now,” he moaned, peeling her needy grip off his arm.
“…it’s my last summer. They’re turning me out September first.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll find yourself a nice warm street corner somewhere. Now, just leave off!”
There was unbelievable hurt on her face, but all he saw was the flab of her cheeks, the puffiness of her eyes, the new wrinkles. She hiccupped, sobbed.
“Didn’t I tell you not now?” He demanded, turning away, his own eyes hot and threatening.
He marched out into the charcoal morning, chest squeezed, the taste of turpentine coating his mouth. Once, he had tried to spook the artist touching up the busty silhouettes on the truck and got a handful of the stuff winged at his face. That choking and stinging, he felt it now too.
Much obliged to Susan Meiselas, whose photography and recordings inspired this story.
On July 1, 2017 my short story The Ride Home appeared in the inaugural issue of The Shanghai Literary Review:
The bus swayed as it sidled back into traffic. Air conditioning scoured the windows, fogging the exterior in dribbling mist. The seats were cordoned by ribbed rails of dense fuchsia plastic. Gripping a pole to steady herself, a young Indian girl stood and motioned with a skinny arm. Natasha took the seat with a grateful nod. Such reminders of her age normally grated, but today her bags were heavier than usual. Or perhaps they just felt that way.
Cattycorner to her, in the center of the backbench, sat an older Chinese man with rings on the pinkie and ring finger of his right hand, each gold with a jade stone, one round and one rectangular. This hand darted through a series of gestures every time he spoke – a gruff blend of Teochew and Mandarin, syllables shushed and yanked. His left hand, twisted to display a fake silver watch, rested on his knee. The shells of his long ears gleamed waxy every time he turned to provide his simpering friends with another bon mot. When he wasn’t speaking, he stared straight ahead and smiled, repeating his own words in his head with relish. He decided they should get off and moved towards the door with the swagger of a teenage gang leader.
Natasha was reminded of her husband, the first one, though not because of the old guy’s looks (Jerome hadn’t been Chinese, at all). It was the swing of showy confidence, the high opinion of one’s wit and intelligence, the kind of arrogance that belonged only to the elderly or Americans.
Shedding her years, Natasha looked after them with the same shy interest she had fastened to the posturing boys in school. When two years of National Service had squashed the thrusting egotism of the local boys, she had been surprised at her disappointment. It was that easy to cool and iron out their fight? Jerome’s effortless, warm American noise, the self-assurance of his first proposal and the tender bravery of the second after she had turned the first one down, had seemed exquisitely permanent. Like most prim girls, she had been waiting for an invitation, for permission.
They had been 23. So young, ah? Cautioned parents, friends. They had been married just two years when he died. Her aunts tsked at the inevitability; the wedding had been on an inauspicious day, so what had she expected (and he hadn’t even given her a baby, they clucked in pity). It was a simple death. Sad, but straightforward. No mysteries to solve or regrets. He knew how much she loved him. She knew how much he loved her. Those two years. There was an endlessness there that she found extraordinary, impossible. Their blue skies and watercolor breezes bled into the white squares of her calendar, imprinting onto her days even now. On sharp-edged afternoons like this, heavy errands in Singapore’s blistering storm of sunlight, she held that small parcel of time in her mouth like an ice cube.
Oh, not that her marriage to Henry now – the decades of married life stockpiled – was bad. But it was the marriage she was supposed to have. No matter how attentive Henry was or how lovely their daughter, in her heart of hearts, Natasha considered her life a little less special than the one she almost had. Her first marriage had felt like she had stolen something, been truly selfish for the first time, looked her father’s expectations square in the eye and discarded them. She had nearly gotten away with it too.
Marrying Henry was safe, a neat clicking together of old family friends, her parents in ecstasy that their silly widowed daughter had been moored at last. Henry was a manager at a chemical engineering plant. And he was of Chinese descent, like them. So much easier. Her parents never had to explain Henry the way they had had to cobble together introductions for Jerome, an Egyptian-American who had been going for a PhD in Southeast Asian history when she met him. Jerome had been distressingly outside of their categories. Every odd glance on the street pained them. Every stuttered conversation about hopes for their future grandchildren. And implicit in their suffering were the accusations, silent or disguised.
Henry didn’t look out of place in family photographs, but gawky Jerome never shed the cloak of an interloper, his golden skin alien amongst their pale Asian faces. She had once heard her aunt whisper to her mother, “His skin cannot lighten a bit, ah? Maybe can try those whitening cream like from Taiwan, that type?”
But, as her father had been careful to reiterate almost every time Jerome was in the flat, Singapore was a harmonious multi-racial society and they believed in many races coming together to live in peace. And, of course, they weren’t against interracial marriages in theory. But, as her mother often muttered to friends in dialect, did they have to go so far as to be the poster family for it? Wasn’t being open-minded enough?
They must have breathed sighs of relief over Jerome’s body; he finally fit into a box they understood. It was a thought Natasha had had many times, first with a vicious bitterness, then a sore ache. Now, it was simply a fact, shriveled and ugly.
Natasha pressed the red, square STOP and began to pull herself to her feet. The trim businesswoman next to her hugged her purse into her stomach and twisted her knees into the aisle. Natasha scowled and pushed by, irritated that the woman hadn’t stood up. Jerome, homesick for the States, had regularly snarled at Singapore’s lack of graciousness, the stingy efficiency of strangers’ interactions. He moaned (though never in the presence of her parents) that he just wanted people to smile back when he passed them on the street. Safe in his one-bedroom apartment, he had laughed at the government’s campaigns to encourage kindness, the jejune posters on the buses. When Natasha had blushed, embarrassment and wounded pride, and pointed out that the campaigns were working, he laughed harder.
Ginger steps brought her down to the curb, hot sunshine soaking her through. She worried about the greens and peered into her plastic bag for hints of their wilting. Then, impatient with her old-aunty fussing, she retrieved her umbrella and launched it open. For the short distance through the courtyard of the housing development, she was escorted by a personal, carefully-apportioned shadow. She risked a glance up, through the piercing light, at the carefully-apportioned public housing, thinking how in other countries, government-sponsored tenements were derided. In Singapore, they were expected, demanded.
The whine of their neighbor rolled up to greet her as she shuffled off the elevator. The open-air corridor channeled the warm wind. The woman stood in her doorway, parental nerves and antique superstitions bundled in rolls of fat mercifully hidden beneath a head scarf. Her full-length dress, always coordinated purples or blues, pinched at her wrists.
“Your mother forget me already, is it? You know, yesterday, I say hello three times,” she said, chin wobbling above a faux crystal brooch as she thrust up three plump fingers. “Three times leh! And she just…” Her eyes bulged wide in pantomime, sharp white and black in their frame. “Like know-nothing one.”
She stared at Natasha with aggression, expectancy, defiance, her simple and spoiled ego on display. Natasha clucked.
“Aiyo, she’s sick, you know.”
“Oh, sick, is it?” She echoed with a rearranging of purple layers and emotions. “Can fix or not?”
“Dunno lah,” Natasha sighed, unlocking their front door.
“You know, there’s ve-ry good program for memory. I make my girl go. One session only and wah! Because my girl, you know, exams so hard now. How to prepare?”
“I’ll think about it.”
“One session only, siah!”
“Talk later, can? Must cook lor.”
After stepping inside and out of her shoes, Natasha exhaled with force. A child’s cry echoed somewhere. Linoleum, scrubbed by her mother in the past, these days by her, clung to the sweating soles of her feet. The lingering smell of chili peppers nicked her nostrils. A fan whirred in the corner of the living room, its breath flipping up the pages of a magazine. The windows, elegantly barred, provided a sliver of sky between the other buildings of the complex, all mirror images of each other.
Their family had swollen in number and pressed against these walls, three generations quibbling over bathroom sinks and crowding around the table for dinner. Being part of a family meant claustrophobia, supporting grandparents while being prodded to have children, and then it meant bewildering lack. The departures of the dead and the married children hollowed out the small apartment, painting it in shades of agoraphobia.
Her mother lorded over the flat, a ragged cat feeling her way around, dull claws picking over furniture she had pushed under her children, grandchildren, husband, guests. Her hunched memory and whittled eyesight dimmed the rooms.
“Jerome not with you, ah?” Her mother asked in crunched Hokkien from her place on the couch.
“Jerome? Ma, you mean Henry.”
“Aiyo!” And she smacked her forehead in a grand gesture, as though it was all part of an act. “I was just testing lah!”
“I know, Ma.”
They had been saying that a lot lately. A hit duet. Natasha felt a scream pull at her ribs and push at her throat. A desire for violence pulsed through her. She wanted to watch her mother groan and struggle and win; not silently misplace people, places, facts. Not mask and forget that she was forgetting. When she finally went, she would take hunks of Natasha with her. She wanted to puncture the scene, to shake her mother and declare that everyone knew she was losing precious, precious things and that foisting on them this feeble excuse that she was playacting was desperately sadder than if she just accepted it. Or maybe it wasn’t. How could anyone gauge one agony against another?
Her mother fiddled with her empty coffee mug. The expectation and need for her daughter to believe her threw shadows across her wrinkled face, flimsy but impenetrable.
“Henry will be home in an hour.” Natasha said, unpacking her canvas shoulder bag.
Library books. The fresh greens for dinner. A text from her daughter waiting on her phone. Natasha stopped.
“Hey Ma,” she said, turning and approaching the withered woman on the couch serenaded by expensive cable television. “Why were you thinking of Jerome?”
“Jerome, ah?” Her mother mused, twisting the cup in place, the porcelain a mean, youthful white in her knobby and spotted fingers. “Don’t think I know. It’s the provisions-shop delivery guy, is it?”
“I don’t think I know Jerome lah.”
Natasha’s eyes burned into her mother’s vague face.
“More kopi?” Natasha asked, snatching up the coffee cup before anything else left her mother’s open mouth.
She returned to the groceries, sorting them into the fridge and pantry, measuring her breaths. The coffee machine gurgled. In a sulk, Natasha’s gaze drifted to the balcony. It was narrow and pale peach, empty except for a stubborn trio of cactuses, crisping brown at the edges and coughing up tiny mauve flowers.
Jerome had once fucked her out there, with all the family asleep in humid rooms bullied by air conditioners several paces away. She had tried so hard to enjoy it, but guilt and fear had drowned the sense of adventure she knew Jerome had been trying to spark in her. Even now, the memory was impossible to appraise calmly. It was as though she were trying to examine an ember burning in her palm.
She considered it the most grotesque thing she had ever done. A marriage, no matter how peppery and resented, is still tied off with a bow, a fine conversation topic and a respectable act. But sex? The word itself skittered across the floors of the flat, searching in terror for the safety of darkness. The gulf between marriage and children went undiscussed. It was presumed that, somewhere behind a closed door, you would learn to swing over it on a rope without looking down, like everyone else.
She half-remembered half-imagined how quietly Jerome had slid the curtains closed, and then the balcony doors. He had put his hand behind her head and, kissing her, lowered her onto the off-white tiles. Guarded by hanging laundry, the balcony wasn’t really long enough for them to lie down. Her hand came into contact with cement, grazing her knuckles as she crooked and bent and accommodated.
A whispered ‘Wait’ almost left her mouth, but didn’t. Surely, he deserved something from her, some concession for spending the entire day and evening crushed into the apartment with her family. So, she had pretended to be excited when his fingers pushed up her skirt and dragged her panties aside. She had reached for his fly and maneuvered out his erection, because she knew he wanted her to. As he heaved into her, she kept her eyes on the thin black break in the curtains, petrified that a hand would worm through to pull it aside. It was a truer loss of virginity than her first time had been.
Over the years, the vacant minutes she stumbled upon – between pages of a dull book, while pans gathered heat from the stove, TV commercials – brought her eyes to the balcony and to the memory of their violation of it. The rectangular, peach container seemed filled to the brim with an emotion that charged all facets of her. Anger at Jerome, which then splintered into defiance of everyone but him. Disgust at her childishly sculpted sexuality, then pleasure at Jerome’s soft fingers molding it further. Pain at the memory’s presence persisting beyond Jerome’s, how it cooled into permanence while other aspects of him faded. The wrestle of giddiness and guilt whenever Henry and her father leaned over their elbows on the balcony, conversing in serious tones not meant for her or her mother’s ears.
And, all of a sudden, for the first time, Natasha thought of that crumpled coupling with pride, a pride so clear and fierce that she was sure her mother would be able to taste it in the coffee. It waved like a bright, rough-edged flag. She had spent years jiggling in fear and shame, wondering whether her family knew and what they must have thought. But her grandparents and father had passed years ago. Her mother’s prejudices were being sluiced off that (and every other) memory of Jerome. He was hers again, vibrant and young and perverse, ego glowing. At least, until she too returned a memory to the fastidious shelves of her mind, and later, when she went back for it, found it had moved.