The Lavaliers - Donna Vitucci
Still Life - Ethan Bernard
Wednesday's Truck - Robert Edward Sullivan
As his mother's gaze bore down on him, he noticed how raddled she looked, her lipstick smudged by yet another drink, mascara running in rivulets down her face. He could tell that she had been crying but whether from pleasure or pain he could not say. Her voice, wheedling at first, rose in pitch, thundering, inquisitorial.
"Come to think of it James, you've never said much about the year you spent in Norway."
Suddenly that Sunday afternoon in the living room, the darkness lying impenetrable beyond the bay windows, all eyes were upon him. Could an insect impaled on the end of a pin have felt more helpless?
Blushing, he longed to rush from the house to cover his face with the snow that lay in thick drifts in the garden. But how would he explain? "I had to leave, I felt ill." That would fall flat. The mirrors threw glaring eyes back at him. And, as if taking its cue from the muffled snow falling outside, the babble gave way to a recriminatory hush.
"You lived with him for a year- with that doctor."
"You mean George. He wasn't a real doctor—he had a doctorate."
Lighting another cigarette, then lifting the glass of whisky to her lips, his mother quipped to general laughter, "I propose a toast, not to George but to this liquor, my true religion, and more entertaining than any of Angus Macpherson's Sunday sermons." When he didn't answer, she said, "Come on, James! We can't take the tension any longer. You even went to Hell and haven't breathed a word about it."
For days George had gone on about a Norwegian town called Hell; a colleague had told him, "People go there to send their loved ones postcards saying 'Greetings from Hell'". George enthused, "Why don't we postpone our trip to Edvard Grieg's house and head to Hell on Saturday morning? It's best to approach it from Hommelvik, that way we'll have views, while the light lasts, of the Strindfjorden." Although he had reservations, James was enticed by one of George's kisses, overtures he had once found disquieting but which he had come to hanker after.
That Saturday, having shoveled back the snow around Bernhardhinnasgate 20, they set out. They drove past uniform rows of wooden houses, their privacy guarded by pine trees, and were soon on the highway. There was nothing worth looking out for, just an unremitting whiteness—with everything so white, he felt blinded. Seeking relief, he closed his eyes and, the heating on full blast, started to nod off.
The same torpor had invaded him during the bus trip to London. "You can stay with friends of the family for a week but then you will be on your own, you will have to find lodgings, a job, no-one forced you to leave Scotland. They will miss you in the village, don't forget to write." The bar was cavernous, thick with smoke, the stranger's stare a prelude to his approach. "Another drink? I don't live far, why don't you come home?" The terraced house in the drab district, that snatched embrace, queasy but inciting his hunger. And then Norway. "They need another Engineer-my first posting. I'll go, you come two weeks later."
He opened his eyes to ice-clad hamlets, monstering boulders and now they were climbing higher, soon it would be ether. Later a sudden dive, and with the jolt he woke again, and they were skirting another fjord. He wondered which was more unfathomable, this stretch of water or the vaults of our hearts and our brains where—as Knut Hamsun said—the war with the trolls takes place.
George exerted a slight pressure with his hand. "You've been asleep for hours. Wake up, there's Hell. It's hard to see but you can still make out plumes of smoke."
When he looked back on his year in that Nordic landscape, he saw that he had spent much of it closing the shutters. If it was not against the all-encompassing darkness, it was to shut out the summer light, an insistent intruder that ransacked his sleep. It was easy to close the shutters but often he could not find the strength to open them, not even that day he had heard the brass band, people laughing, children larking about. He knew that summer's day that if only he could drag himself from his bed to fling open the shutters, the course of his life might be different. But his body failed to obey his summons and he lay there all day and into a surreal night.
"Well James, that's a long silence." As his mother lit another cigarette, he noticed that her make-up was more smeared than ever. He tried to speak but could only emit an inarticulate sound. Looking again at the gilt-framed mirrors, he felt that the circle of spectators, their eyes glinting with sharp suspicion, was closing in on him. The balcony lights had been lit and, remembering Bernhardhinnasgate 20 where any illusion of time had been effaced, he saw that it was still snowing. If only more and more snow would bear down on them to render the house a snow-covered sepulchre. Thus interred, the secrets of his year in Norway could never be prised from him.
Peter Robertson, born in Scotland, is based in Buenos Aires and Madrid. He is the Founding Editor of The International Literary Quarterly. His work has appeared in many publications including The Oregon Literary Review, The Houston Literary Review, Spike Magazine and The Cafe Irreal and is forthcoming in The Literary Review and Turnrow. Other of his passions, apart from literature, are lawn tennis and good wines.
Everything fled from the house. Even rain from the drain spouts sluiced through the swampy yard and into the bottoms that the river swallowed. Built so close to unsteady water was a mistake of engineering, but the renovator and owner, Desmond Lavalier, would have his way. He loved a river view from his master suite, from his parlor, from his front porch and back porch and garden promenade. Desmond's eyes wanted to capture water the moment they lifted, and he got what he wanted.
How Lizzy Lavalier would love to shove his face in that muddy sludge down the hill, to submerge her husband with force equal to how he pushed her to her knees. She'd coveted him once, had been duped by his odd blue eyes, the color of the house's shutters. As a sorority girl from such-and-such a family, Lizzy fit into his passion for acquiring.
A nut for period detail, for recreating an era, Des got involved in the city's comeback. Riverfront property he owned skyrocketed in value. It may have been inflated since he called the auditors and developers and investors his friends. He made a killing on the project. He had people in his pocket, and Lizzy knew she was one of them. He liked pretending, this chameleon. Lizzy, too, had a role he assigned her, which relied on her spilled dark curls, the lips she ruby-ed, the haughty carriage of her body. Her waist fit his grasp. She was the Mississippi Delta he could hold and mold.
When lovemaking grew bland, Des insisted on debasing games which corroded them both. Like the river damp, so flourished their enmity. They had lives and jobs and enlightened outlooks, but they suffered old lusts and hates and back stabbing. Besides his new riverfront money, Des had inherited a fortune, ill-gotten gains which tarnished them, too.
Scout, the sleek German Shepherd, had been a first rate pet. When Desmond stayed away—whatever flimsy reason that kept him from home—Scout harbored Lizzy and Lizzy harbored Scout. They buoyed each other. See, how river talk invaded, how it lapped at the foundation, which should have been shored up in the renovation more adequately than it was? Somebody wasn't paying attention. Lizzy buried her face in Scout's scruff. Call her crazy but she loved the honest smell of dog, of Scout, her ally in the house's morose and lonely atmosphere.
"I'm in real estate," Desmond said. "Deals don't know the clock. People need swaying."
Lizzy said, "Some of that swaying horizontal?"
"Don't talk filth."
"Then don't listen."
"The neighbors will hear."
"Closest neighbor's a half mile off."
"The walls have ears."
"And what they haven't heard," she said, all sarcastic.
"What you do when I'm not here. Never pinned down, stopping in and out. In and out. The thoughts disgust me."
"You're disgusted? You and that dog, that's what disgusts me."
Their usual argument's call and response, no new news.
Then they fucked, to prove the scum they spit was tepid compared to what could boil up between them. In the morning, Lizzy tested new bruises at the insides of her wrists. Desmond fled early to broker a deal. Head a-throb, she rose from messed sheets, grabbed her robe, made a sloppy knot at her waist, padded barefoot down the cold stairs to let out the dog.
In his slapdash exit, Des wouldn't have tried too hard to keep Scout from bounding through the door. Lizzy walked and called and drove and searched while the horizon eroded her hope. She was distracted and useless at work; the university sent her home.
"I know he's dead somewhere," she keened. She slept little; she certainly didn't sleep with Des, whom she blamed. The house had three other bedrooms.
He rolled his eyes and called her crazy over a damned dog.
She'd endured so much of his mockery, but this time what hit her might as well have been the back of his hand, and it slapped loose something in Lizzy's blood. She felt less tethered to earth, to circumstance, to consequence. Like the house's foundation, she accepted wobbliness; she compensated by wearing stones in her pockets. Stones and schemes and valium kept her weighted as the rain that spring lifted the river from its bed.
Who knew she had the kind of strength needed to chink away and lift the biggest loose foundation rock, then drag Des to the bottoms that crept closer now to the house? She gifted him her stones until the muddy water swished past his teeth with their three gold crowns, and his lovely, masculine throat, which had suffered the strangling sex he demanded from her. Immobile on his back, Des swallowed and gulped until he could swallow no more.
Lizzy stood with her hands plunged in the bottom of her pockets, fingering the few pebbles stuck there, watching the lure of his eyes fade to a most ordinary blue. "Bon voyage," she whispered. The river drained off his hateful stare, and she broke away from it finally, looked upstream. She swore she saw Scout then, his coat gleaming with the river, alive and swimming back to her, a ghost dog who brought with him no blame.
Donna helps raise funds for local nonprofits, while her head and heart are engaged in the lives of the characters mounting a coup in her head. Some of her recent work appears in Ward 6 Review, Pequin, Temenos, The Oklahoma Review, MO: Writings from the River, Diner, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and others. She has just begun attempting this short form and it's exciting!
I've been spending the weekend with William's family, until my parents figure out what will happen with ours. Dad left, mom's hurt, and I'm a Jew in a Christmas tableau. They call me Joseph.
It starts at dinner, where William's mom heaps generous portions of meatloaf on my plate and asks polite questions.
"David, what's your favorite class?"
"I do pretty good in English."
"You do pretty well." William's dad, he's a minister.
"David, our annual Christmas tableau is tonight. You could participate."
"Christmas taboo?" I ask.
"No, tableau. A live still life of the birth of Jesus. You can be Joseph. He has the best costume. It'll be great."
Maybe it will be.
For two hours I stand still, watching lines of cars edge home. Palm trees sway in the Santa Anas. "Just hold on, Dave, it's almost over," William jokes. The other tableau characters are out Christmas shopping with their parents. William, who was playing Joseph, is a wise man. He says he wants to see the scene from a different perspective. With a long robe I'm stuck in a box (manger?) filled with cardboard cutouts, a plastic donkey, and hay. My fake beard itches.
The trees bend in the wind, which blows the heat from the lights against my face. I focus on the plastic donkey, put perhaps a bit too close to the lights. The plastic changes colors slowly and its cotton blanket browns.
William doesn't notice. He says he wants to think about holy things, which involve goodness and light. I don't know what that means, but by the concentrated look on his face, I can see he's trying. When the donkey's blanket ignites, he acts as if his blazing holy thoughts have caused it. It's possible. He begins to scream, high-pitched like a siren.
Robe flying behind me, I blast the donkey with a mighty kick. My heart pounds. The donkey sails through the air, like one of Santa's reindeer.
"Jesus," William's dad cries, as he runs over and stamps out the fire. "Jesus."
Exactly, I think.
He shakes his head. "Boys, it's time we get home."
We pack the tableau into the church's utility shed. No one's hurt, but the donkey was lost. While winding up the cords William's dad puts his arm around me and leans down until his head sits level with mine. "Everything ok?"
He looks at me, waiting for something to come out, then hands me a wet-nap for my beard. I rub it over my face, but it doesn't work too well.
William and I pile into the back of the station wagon. The thing's enormous and it handles like some galactic cruiser, with the two of us leaning every time we take a turn. William's mom has complained about being cold, something about being very sensitive, so the heater is on.
His mom turns around. "A lot of action this year, huh?" She smiles.
The car slows down and bumps as we turn into the driveway. "It was great," I say, and I think of light and goodness and donkeys flying. Soon, though, my mom will arrive, and a tear streaks down my cheek, mingling with the glue from the beard.
Ethan Bernard lives in Queens. His work has appeared at Pindeldyboz, Word Riot, Cafe' Irreal and Poor Mojo's Almanac(k), and he holds an MFA from NYU.
"Hey George, how did you lose that tooth?" Molly asked George while he unloaded the bags of soil from the trailer.
"What?" George was deaf in his right ear and assumed that he would not hear anything the first time.
"I said, how did you lose that tooth?"
The two were "co-members" of Majors Lumber and Landscape and were unloading the Wednesday truck. Many items were stacked on pallets, but some would fall during the trip from the warehouse. George was up in the trailer, while Molly stood with a cart and awaited each item for him to unload.
"Oh. Well, I lost it when I was younger," he said, handing her a bag of soil.
"You act like you're all ancient, you ain't, you know."
"Yeah… I s'pose."
"How did you lose it?"
He stood at the end of the trailer, looking at the fallen materials. "Let's see… It was on my first tour."
"Tour? Where you in a band?"
"What? Oh, no. Tour of duty. I was in Vietnam for three years."
"You were in Vietnam?" She put her hand on her chest, her eyes large.
"I never knew that." She looked out beyond the truck for a moment.
He shrugged and went back to unloading the truck.
"Did someone punch you?" she asked.
"No… not quite. My gun misfired, blew up in my face. Some chunks of metal caught me in my mouth. That's how I lost my hearing in this ear, too." He pointed, now cradling the bag of soil as if it were a child.
"Were you scared… over… there? If you don't mind…seems like you and I ain't never talked too much."
"What? Hell yeah we was scared. Me and a buddy of mine figured we was going to get drafted anyway, so we signed up, fool ourselves into thinking we had a choice. We didn't know a damn thing about Vietnam."
"What was it like?"
"What? Oh it was hot. Hot. I remember getting rash after rash from damp clothes and the heat… didn't see a lot of action… but when we did… Holy shit. I remember just shooting and running. I don't think anyone knew what was going on. Sometimes the fire would come out of nowhere, and just like that it would be calm. We sometimes never saw what we was shootin' at. And we really never seemed to know why we were going to this or that place."
He sat down at the end of the trailer.
"When we was at camp, we would try and do our drills. Try and look sharp at least. As soon as we started playing football, or goofing off… that's when they would strike. There's only so much drillin' a guy can do. We were too close to the lines, I guess, to be foolin' around too much. That what the Majors said."
George quickly got up and continued to unload the fallen pieces.
"What happened to your friend?"
"What? Oh, after basic he got shipped one place and me another. I never found out what happened to him."
"That's awful, George."
He just shrugged. "I 'spose it could've be worse."
"So what happened when you came back?"
"Well… I smoked a lot of dope for a while. Pretty much worked every job I could. Got tired of all that other shit… got a job working here."
"That was how long ago?"
"19 years I've been here," George said, the words imprinted on his mind, slightly updated each year and always anxious to jump out. "How come you was never married?"
"I was for a few years, way back."
"What happened?" Molly sat down on the cart, dropping all pretenses of even looking like she was working. "I mean, if you don't mind."
"No, I don't mind. Helps the day go by."
"Yeah. Should be break time pretty soon."
"Well anyway," he said, "the ex-wife was a drunk and I was a stoner. The only reason I think we hooked up was we were both okay with that. We didn't really have anyone else. But I outgrew all that shit, stopped smoking… and that's when we started havin' troubles."
Molly stood up and took the bag George was handing down—a manager was walking by. They both quietly worked together, saying nothing else for the next twenty minutes.
"So why here, at this place?" Molly asked in a soft voice.
"What? What's that?"
"Why here… doing this?"
"This was pretty much all that was left after all those other jobs. Ain't much out there for a half deaf old man like me. The missing tooth probably doesn't help much either…"
He smiled and sat down.
"Now I just work on my garden… drink a few beers now and then… you know, try and relax while I'm not working. Make the time go by… take it easy… that sort of stuff."
"Yeah… me too." She looked up at him. "Do you think you'll ever…ya know, hook up with someone again?"
"I don't know… I try not to think about it. Sometimes I think about how nice it was to hold someone while I slept…other times I just think about that crazy bitch, always boozed up and yelling at me. But who knows." He looked at her; they held each other's gaze for just a slight moment. He stood up, once again looking at the remainder of the fallen materials.
"Yeah, who knows," she said looking out. "I've never been married."
"What? What's that?"
"Nothing. It's just that… I didn't know all that stuff about you."
"Yeah…well. That's the way it goes, I guess."
For the remainder of their shift they worked in silence, pondering how many minutes were left before their next break, and then how many minutes left until they could go home…where they could try and get as much relaxing in before they came into work the next day, and unload the next truck.
Robert Edward Sullivan is from and lives in the Midwest. He's a perpetual student working on an English degree as well as a journalism degree. He is a former editor of a college newspaper.