I'm on the Side of the Wildebeest
From American Short Fiction, December 2018 web feature
Someone in Canada uses my credit card when I’m with my family watching bats circle through the dusk around the upper rim of the Grand Canyon. The bank calls to ask if I’ve purchased twelve hundred seventy-nine dollars of perfume, liquor, and cigarettes in Montreal in the last hour. It seems unexpected, the phone agent says, and I imagine the list of my actual purchases from the last two days: gas, pretzels, candy in cellophane bags, one night at a Best Western in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, where the hot tub was questionable but we all sat in it anyway because after 10 hours of driving, much of it on two-lane highways in western Kansas where the whole world was feed lots and semis driven by opioid addicts who ground pills in truck stop bathrooms, we were willing to take one more risk. ….
"Edward Abbey Walks Into A Bar"
from Joyland, February 2019
1. When someone you’ve been dating off and on for a year calls you from the beer cooler of the liquor store where he works and says he has a gun to his head and is going to kill himself, really, because you don’t care enough, really, you never did, it’s probably best not to embark on a road trip with him the next day, after he’s slept it off and filled a trash bag with the Milwaukee’s Best empties from the back of his 80s Toyota truck, after he’s sold his Sega Genesis and all the games for gas money, and he has a tent from his brother, and anyway he took five hundred from the deposit envelope in the office of the liquor store, and it won’t matter because he’s never coming back, he’s making it to Vancouver where he’ll build a driftwood shack by the water, and he definitely he promises put the gun back in the gun safe under the counter just beneath the tiny bottles of cheap whiskey that homeless men buy when they’ve scraped together enough coins and they want to get drunk enough not to feel the Kansas weather.
2. But I go anyway. I put the vintage costume-wear that is my wardrobe and is inappropriate for camping into a backpack and decide to start smoking Lucky Strikes because why not? During my only two years of college, I stewed about climate change and the swamps of plastics joining forces and riding the surface of the Pacific, but now everything felt in decline. No amount of refraining and recycling was going to knit together the ozone or un-strangle the water fowl. But there had been some small peace in imagining that these efforts mattered, that each recycled newspaper was a direct trade for a patch of rain forest re-sprouting, tree branches reaching out to each other in some dance of commensalism to make us all forget the sky. ….
from Copper Nickel 27, Fall 2018
On the last day of 9th grade, Beatrice found herself at a rooftop party in The Mission. It wasn’t the kind of thing she normally did: friends, groups, music. Someone was playing “Jessie’s Girl” on repeat, and people in gold tennis shoes and embroidered bomber jackets and overalls were dancing and hugging and then dancing again.
It was a moment. Beatrice could appreciate it from a distance: the irony and the glee all wrapped together like a snow globe that someone kept shaking and shaking. After thirty minutes, she went go down the hatch in the roof, down the spiral staircase, and into the apartment owned by the boy having the party. The boy, Frederick, was a junior, and both his dads did something in tech, and it was clear they cared about their apartment. Heath pottery in careful stacks on the raw wood kitchen shelves. A charcoal velvet couch, the requisite art books in their official towers. Hanging plants on delicate wires making a garden out of almost every window.
Her hair had been long then, to her waist almost with the bottom inches of the brown dyed black, and she’d let her grandmother Wendy cut bangs that had immediately developed a mind of their own so that she’d had to shellac them with coconut oil before leaving her house. She assumed they now just looked wet and would elicit a forehead-wide patch of acne.
There was this presumed promiscuity of everyone her age. Her mom Ray’s friends liked to talk about it in the way of, “Bea I’m sure all your friends are hooking up already, so just be careful.” One: she didn’t have friends. Two: no one had so much as kissed her, and she was fine with that. She was a fan of boundaries. She’d seen what it meant to be a girl in 2017, and she had chosen to dismiss it wholeheartedly.
So it was with caution, disbelief, and a little bit of oblivion that she met Frederick’s attention. In the two dads’ bedroom, beneath the noise of the party, she’d hidden out on a corner loveseat, door to the bedroom almost closed, and made a show of flipping through a Vivian Maier book, just to seem occupied should anyone else venture down from the roof. She had practiced staying off her phone on such occasions. She didn’t want to be one of those girls always on her phone. As a point of protest, she did not Snapchat. …..
"This Is Not My Beautiful Wife"
from Arts & Letters, Spring 2019
This Is Not My Beautiful Wife
When you come home from work, your wife has made chicken and lined up the individual pieces on a mid-century pottery platter with widespread hands of rainbow chard like sunbeams around it, none of which she ever does. Your children, the boy and the girl, have bagged all the walnuts whose decaying parts and pieces had created an explosive rash all over the yard as if an entire small forest had detonated next to the house. The lawn and leaf bags sit in a row beside the garage, and your son and daughter are playing Uno at the dining room table while bouncing methodically on blue and green Pilates balls and not fighting, none of which they ever do.
The day before, your wife was gone when you got home, likely fucking your neighbor, which she had taken to doing, and about which you’d known for several weeks and about which she knew you knew. How did you feel about that? You didn’t like it. Of course.
from Wigleaf, February 2019
When you turn ten, you move with your mother to a giant house in Sea Cliff owned by a musician. The pale stucco of the house looks built from shells. From every back window, you can see the orange of the bridge when the fog blows sideways. Glass beads in strings hang from doorknobs so that each opening and closing of a door sounds like animal teeth in an open hand.
You've lived so many places with your mother: Echo Park with a painter, Topanga with an actor, Arcata with a dealer. Six months in some man's house and then out and on someone's pull-out couch or sometimes balled up in the car where you wake hungry to ravens making a cackle of the morning. …..
"The Great Plains"
from The Southampton Review - Online, March 20, 2019
It’s two a.m., Liam is the only one home per usual, and he’s watching YouTube videos of people breaking into dead malls. The man in this one says that abandoned shopping malls are often encircled by locked chain-link fences. Sometimes there are cameras and guards. Gulls swoop in packs behind the man, and then he takes off into a run, scales a fence, and disappears into a dark mass of abandoned stucco rectangles.
The fence won’t be a deterrent for Liam; even with his skateboard, he’s a climber, and he’s not one to fear consequence or retribution. He has grown up in a trailer with his dad and his sister, the trailer park a tiny communal netherworld separated from the Kansas college town’s outer ring of student housing by a block of untapped woods that will soon be purchased and plowed and built on. For now, big fighting dogs roam unchallenged. At night the man who lives next door wears a black ski mask and black clothing and practices with his throwing knives and stars until the old woman on the other side of him calls the cops, which she does nearly every time, and the cops, all obligation but little interest, say, “Craig, enough with the Karate Kid shit. You’re too old for this,” and then Craig pulls off his black mask and gives the finger to the old woman, Karen, who looks out the cracked window above her kitchen sink where she’s affixed a line of bird decals, as if birds walk single file instead of fly: American Robin, Cardinal, Jay, Sparrow, Goldfinch…..
"Soft at the Edges, Going Bad"
from Monkeybicycle, May 4, 2019
It happens on the 42 bus, right after I email the woman I work for, Ellen, practically the thousandth email of the day because she requires that level of attention, and her auto-reply tells me she’ll be “traveling internationally with family for two weeks and so may be delayed in responding.” I fucking know, I almost say out loud. I’m sitting there with the woman’s parrot, Ellen’s parrot, Constantine, in a cage on my lap because Ellen is persuasive and needy, and Constantine’s cage is covered in muslin because, per Ellen, relocating disorients him.
The thing is: I like Ellen. And my daughter, Salem, is eleven, loves animals, and is never around them because our building is officially no pets. But would I have preferred not to carry a parrot and his supplies on several buses? I would have preferred not to. …
from Pithead Chapel, February 2019
On Halloween, it takes June and Phil well over an hour to make it from Echo Park, down through Santa Monica, and up the PCH toward Topanga where June’s sister Irene hosts her annual Halloween party. June—nearly nine months pregnant—is dressed as a horse, and Phil is dressed like a shirtless Vladimir Putin. They are both terrible at Halloween, at parties in general, but Irene was insistent.
“After the baby, you’ll never leave the house,” Irene told June, and if the baby-having aftermath of her friends was any indication of her impending reality, June is sure Irene is right. …
from Hobart’s Jukebox Happy Hour, January 22, 2019
Label: REMember Music
Release Date: August 3, 2018
The world has crash-landed into climate change, and no one should just drive around without destination or purpose because greenhouse gases, ozone, catastrophic end, etc. Obviously. Yet when my son says, “Can we drive around and listen to Mac Miller?” I’m already mostly to the car before he finishes the sentence…..
"Anarchism Is Not Enough"
from Cheap Pop, January 29, 2019
They let the house get taken. At first it was just a juniper that grew as tall as the eaves and started pushing at one of the gutters. The tree had a clear and insistent path (up and out), and there was a regal, piney “fuck you” to anything in its way.
They stopped hacking at the rhododendrons, which had been thigh-high when they’d first had their daughter, until they made an unforgiving cape around the front porch. Squirrels stopped differentiating between porch (for people) and shrubs (other animals). Ravens stalked circles around the house in the morning. Bluebirds flew right up to the window glass, their orange throats ablaze…..
Astrology for Everyone
from South Carolina Review, Fall 2018
I pick up Lisa at her apartment complex, once borderline nice and now a place for minimum-wage single mothers and their children to sit around Craig’s List tables and eat WIC purchases. When Lisa and I go to work, Lisa’s mother stays with my son and Lisa’s daughter. She blasts 80s metal with a football game on mute on the big-screen, and my son, Evan, six but still prone to crying fits and a hater of team sports, is usually on the floor in the corner with the cat when I get back. I know that. But it’s free child care, and it’s part of the deal.
It’s a 20-minute drive to the restaurant, usually about five cigarettes for Lisa and a flight-of-thought monologue that jumps from Tinder to the best Zodiac sign for her to sleep with to the death of her childhood kitten who got stuck behind drywall after fitting through a small hole above a heating vent and never finding her way out. While I half-listen and mess with the radio, I run through a line of men in my head: Justin the one who came over after the bars closed. Levi, the one with the gun who threatened to kill himself in the walk-in of the liquor store where he worked. Jordan, the busboy from the restaurant with an apron pocket full of pills who showed up the next day with two ducks he enclosed in a chicken-wire pen in the backyard of my second-story apartment house. When I had to give the ducks to a friend who owned a restaurant that specialized in local meat and poultry, I lied and told Evan they were on a tour of the country with a circus that showcased fowl dressed in tuxedos and dancing. “They’ll train them to do tricks in a stock pond,” I promised Evan, and he started a notebook diary devoted almost exclusively to imagining their wanderings.
The restaurant is a 50s-themed diner in a suburban outdoor mall, a mall complete with spray fountains and life-sized dinosaur sculptures, all of it not particularly close to anything but still a draw since Americans will go anywhere to shop. …..
Wizards of the Coast
from Faultline Journal, 2018
Ari’s ninth birthday party starts at a castle in the Hollywood Hills. Even though he hates crowds and people in general, he loves Hermione Granger, and so his parents requisitioned a set designer to turn a rented 1930s home built in the castle style into Hogwarts. There are actors playing McGonagall and Dumbledore, and his mother’s giant of a friend who used to play professional basketball is dressed as Hagrid and drinking a martini in the corner by the stained-glass picture window.
The party is mostly his mother’s friends because she is the one with friends, and some of them have brought their children. They have fake scars etched into their foreheads by a makeup artist who has a table set up by the front door. They are draped over by invisibility cloaks made of gray tulle, and they are being sorted (Gryffindor by choice for most and Slytherin for the self-professed rule-breakers) by a sorting hat manipulated by a puppeteer who once worked with the Muppets.
Ari is wearing his Hermione glasses and a tie and cardigan under his tulle invisibility cloak and mainly leaning against a wall turning his fingers ragged with hangnails. When his mother’s friend Steve, the set designer everyone calls Twiggy, leans against the wall next to him and tells him there is a secret person-sized dumbwaiter where the caterers are hiding all the candy, Ari follows him not so much for a love of candy but because somewhere else sounds better than where he is.
He watches the backs of Twiggy’s low brown boots as they ascend the stairs. The carpeting is thick and patterned in a way that someone must have thought looked royal but really looks more mid-range hotel. Twiggy pauses at the top, turns around and “shhs” Ari, even though Ari has not made a sound. There is not a child more capable of absolute quiet than he. At least that is what his mom has told him on mornings when they have sat with tea on the terrace watching the birds fling themselves through the mist that floats over the hot tub while downtown LA hovers like a Lego construct on the horizon. “We are here but not of here somehow,” his mother said to him and held tight to whatever special and powerful stone hung from a leather cord around her neck. He always thought he knew what she meant when she said that—that their superhero power was to skate above the top of any scene while still remaining physically there, to blanch from it what was needed while remaining unaffected by anything clawed or pronged or painful. It was a talent, and she had bequeathed it to him, and it meant that when she looked at him they knew, even if his dad did not. They just knew. …..
What Your Sorrow
from West Branch, Fall 2018
The boy’s chin was scarred in two places, and he kept two fingers in the indentations as he looked out the gas station’s plate glass window and out at the Los Alamos outskirts in mid-morning. The boy said things like: Bring me the bottle, I don’t need a glass, and then: I’m done, I’ve had enough, just lean me back into a ditch and shovel some dirt over me, but what he really meant was: drive me back to western Pennsylvania without stopping, drive me back to my mother who makes cotton shirts out of 99 cent a yard K-Mart bolts and small flowered bonnets that scoop semi-circles around my sister’s eyes, her weak, church-girl chin.
Instead, he worked in a gas station across the street from a water park in the middle of the desert. He waited it out. The air conditioner clicked off, and the fan in the ice cream cooler spun slowly to go. The gas station was the old kind, a place with sodas in bottles and rattly bags of peanuts and bathrooms on the outside.
When no one was around, the boy opened and closed the cash register, counted the money, rolled the ones into tight doughnuts wrapped with rubber bands, and then locked the drawer again. The day was almost always hot and orange around him.
In the station’s lot, a cab driver who wore a pink turban sat sideways in the open front seat while gas pumped in. Every morning at the same time, the same cab driver showed up to add the same twenty dollars cash to his tank. The boy never knew where he drove and with whom, but he liked to imagine something involving the transport of people in danger.
If there was a cloud in the morning, it was a rogue, and it flew by the way a plane would.
At 7 a.m., the wave pool was something to behold from a slight distance, just after the power had started to channel manufactured waves through what had been a flat surface all night. Teenagers stood with long-armed poles and plucked plastic wrappers from the water. They pulled snakes in dead tangles from the pool drains.
The boy watched as the cab driver walked toward the station window with a twenty waving in his hand. For a moment, the sun and the glass made a series of bright triangles on the man’s face. In an hour, the parking lot across the street would be nearly full. Fat people in swimming suits would make flip-flop footpaths in the gravel and stand in a hot line waiting to roll through hours of water going progressively more tepid with each new body in the mix.
If the boy had the day to do nothing, he would lie in his bed and pull down the black-out blinds and listen to the sand hitting the window screen when the wind blew. He hated the sun. …..
The Strange Fauna of the Suburban Pacific
from Nailed, October 11, 2018
Bre was a plain girl. She did not stand out, and she did not try to stand out. Her black hair hung in a low ponytail every day. She was sixteen, still without breasts, played the clarinet, was fascinated by birds, and walked her younger brother to and from the school parking lot every day refusing to make eye contact with anyone. She could not have been gloriously made over in a romantic comedy version of her life.
Yet a small group of seventeen-year-old boys had made her the focal point of their harassment. The boys were exactly what you’d expect. Man-sized but with little limb control and absent of reason. They smoked weed in the back parking lot. They wore vintage t-shirts and drove their parents’ VW vans. They surfed sometimes but weren’t particularly good at it. Nearly all of them had first names that had been surnames a generation before.
When just after New Year’s they’d started with Instagram comments—Bre’s page was entirely nature photos, and the ringleader’s first comment beside her photo of a dolphin off Zuma had been, “An animal documenting animals. Classic”—Bre had only for one second wondered “why me?” Though her parents were both lapsed Jews and though they declared themselves atheists, Bre had heard the stories of great great uncles who’d emerged from Bergen-Belsen staggering through the end stages of typhus. She knew that one need not be deserving of cruelty to receive it. …..
When Thou Art King
Plougshares, Fall 2008
“Policy is what the kingpins want. What the
others want is juvenile delinquency.”
The summer school boys wore coats and ties, even in the heat. They were the irreverent children of suburban lawyers, of diplomats, of hopeful scientists working in the big federally funded labs outside of the city. When their parents dropped them off at the top of the school’s long drive, the boys’ required coats were stuffed into their backpacks, and their mandatory ties were knotted into headbands that cut face and forehead in two.
Ruth taught French to the boys in a school building partially staffed by elderly monks for whom there were no younger replacement monks, so the old monks hung on. They were eighty or ninety years old. The youngest was sixty. They mowed the lawn on riding mowers on Saturday, four or five of them on orange Husqvarnas making blocks and patterns out of the acres around the school buildings and monastery.
The monks would die off one by one, and the monastery building would be turned into classrooms, and there would be no more soft swish and tick of fabric and foot down the linoleum halls in the morning. They would end up with headstones in the graveyard on the school’s grounds, with the other monks who had died at the school, and school boys would stand back by the graveyard smoking stolen cigarettes as boys had done there for years.
There was something improbable about the school: acres of land and trees and stone buildings in the middle of the city. The whole school, set in a corner of the city that had once been slated for gentrification but had been passed over, had the feel of something turning in on itself and giving over to a future of freewheeling decay.
So when Ruth took her class way off course, when she wandered off from the expected curriculum and into a ruleless terrain, she told herself it was okay, expected even. …..
Tell Me How to Do This
from New England Review, Winter 2015
He was not a football player. He was not a badass. He was not a man who could take a door off the hinges, trim it to size with a circular saw, and rehang it. He was not a man who would comfortably first bump with other men in a room full of men who fist bumped. He was a man who liked lying in a hammock, who liked food and pleasure and who drank too much most nights not to gear up in a Stanley Kowalski way but to untether and unreel into bed and dreams. But in spite of what his wife, Kit, thought of him, he was not a pussy. He could rake a yard full of leaves into four lawn and leaf bags in under an hour. He could sit through a sleepless night on the bathroom floor cracking bad jokes while his three daughters took turns vomiting at first every five minutes and eventually every thirty minutes until they were all asleep at dawn in a pile of pillows. He could manage a restaurant wait staff full of young and beautiful women and never once cross the line with even one of them. “There is strength, and there is strength,” is what Mike wanted to say to his wife. But months ago, years ago maybe, it seemed she had stopped listening.
He was forty-two and all his friends’ lives were crash-landing into divorce. He had spent many hours overhearing Kit’s phone conversations during which she paced around the house spot cleaning and picking apart the minutia of the demise of multiple marriages. And he’d felt smug a lot of that time, even though his marriage had troubles, even though they’d been through ten years of counseling, even though their sex had been sporadic. His fourteen-year-old daughter, Esther, his oldest, had even said to him, after eavesdropping on yet another of his wife’s phone conversations, “Name one relationship that isn’t just drama and shit,” and he’d said, “Well, look at your mom and me. We’re good,” and his daughter had rolled her eyes. “I guess so, if you think general avoidance and living under the same roof constitute good.” He should have acted parental and annoyed at the tone, but he was pleased with her correct use of “constitute” and her enviable subject-verb agreement, so he looked at her blankly and asked about archery lessons.
And so he was shocked when his wife of fifteen years, with whom he’d had three children, had had sex countless times, had traveled to forty-eight states, had been to seven funerals, and had opened the restaurant that was now his livelihood, told him it was over, that there was someone else but that the someone else wasn’t the point, that the point was that the universe was taking them in different directions. She’d really said exactly that while he’d stood in their curated living room and puzzled over how he had ended up fifteen years into a marriage with someone who talked about “The Universe,” capital U. Kit wiped imaginary sweat off her face, a nervous tic he’d seen a million times. The first time had been at a Bikini Kill concert years before marriage and children, back when Kit chain smoked and Sharpied her eyebrows and wore cut-off mailman shorts with fishnets and was always looking for an argument or at the very least a vehement debate. That Kit had been enlivening but a little scary. And, as most people’s did, her electrification level had ratcheted down as she made her way into her thirties. It had amazed him how in a decade she’d taken what seemed like an amorphous and un-encapsulated anger and energy and fine-tuned and focused it to such a degree on things that at twenty-five would have mattered to her not at all. As most people did, as he did, she had actual conversations about savings accounts and desktop clutter. But sometimes after their girls were asleep and they had a night off from the restaurant they’d take cigarettes and whiskey out into the backyard and sit cross-legged in the dirt with the chickens, and he’d give her a half-joking argument about something that they both in reality agreed on—the superiority of Scandinavian education, for example, or the ridiculousness of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate—just to see her ignite in that half-drunk way that he missed and loved, and he’d thought that that was definitely sustaining enough, but clearly, he now knew, it hadn’t been……
Jesus Says Come As You Are
from Hobart, October 9, 2018
Saving situations go like this: you’re all in the gym. It’s open-air with floors and walls covered in padded yellow mats because it’s where people do gymnastics, but then evenings and Sundays it’s a church where you can redeem your soul because apparently all souls need redeeming.
If you look like a girl but know you’re a boy, this is not the place for you. Know that, but be good at pretending. Wear the t-shirt that says “Sparkle for the Lord” in glitter instead of the one with the monster truck that you hide in your camp trunk.
Also this: cross your legs. Laugh in a soft way. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t volunteer first. Don’t sit in the first row. Look down for three seconds when someone asks you something. Wait. Don’t take up too much space. Be Quiet. Wait. …..
from Chattahoochee Review, Spring 2019
Instead of high school, Marguerite lives in a tent in the side yard of an apartment building where five people she knows share a studio. She stuffs her pockets with bulk candy from the co-op around the corner and holds tight to it in the early mornings when rats scrape at the nylon tent walls.
Her mother moves to Vancouver with a boyfriend, but her mother has never been reliable, so it is not a surprise. She leaves Marguerite with their two-room apartment of things to sell and a lease that runs out in ten days. Marguerite has a tag sale and makes a few hundred on the 70s pottery, the albums, the weavings, the books about medicinal plants. She hangs onto a backpack of clothes, a tent, her grandmother’s turquoise rings in a silk pouch, an aging Nikon, and a bag full of film.
Instead of selling the camera, Marguerite makes a study of it. She takes the camera out for weeks, unloaded, and pretends. In May, she loads it finally and walks from the Mission to Ocean Beach and then up the hill to Land’s End and shoots the first roll.