“Lyle and the Space Man” by Lee Rozelle

“Haircut for me,” Space Man said.

“Buddy,” Lyle winked, “you got a wig on.”

“Haircut for me.”

“Then get up here bubs,” Lyle grunted.

Lyle’s jug ears flapped when he laughed like the wings of a bat, but he wasn’t laughing now. For a second he was stumped. As the bald man sat in the barber’s chair with erect back and loose face, Lyle tried to act unperturbed. I seen stranger heads than this, he told himself. Lyle swung the black cape around the man and, with a low clearing of the throat, selected the nose and ear hair trimmer.

The thing about Lyle’s is you could drive past that place and never even see it. A white block building with the words “Barber ‘$8.00’” stenciled on the side, Lyle’s was as close to a heart as you could find in that mean strip of Alabama highway called East Tallapoochee. The shop was part hunting camp, part museum, and along the back wall posed an assortment of stuffed fish and deer heads garbed in dust. Old Lyle lived in a trailer back behind the place, and he worked every weekday except Friday when he went fishing.

Lyle was a character. With his hair and shag eyebrows dyed jet black, oiled and slicked back, the fuzz jutting from the neck of his cowboy shirt was white as snow. He was tall, old, big bellied, skinny-legged, and stooped way over the barber chair, scissors snipping and mouth moving nonstop. A gold chain dangled near the faces of customers as Lyle shaved, clipped and razed, all the while speaking low and from the gut. Occasionally he glared up at his audience to accentuate tales that never seemed to end, scissors angled, elbows up, his voice deep and serious. He said stuff like, “Slapjack put mouthwash on his arm cause it was itchin’” and “Slapjack was shootin’ dogs in the pecker with a pellet pistol.”

With the exception of the bald fellow they called Space Man, most of the regulars who hung around Lyle’s shop were backwoods folk. The regulars figured Space Man was just asking directions when he first drove up at Lyle’s in an aged van wearing a black turtle neck and slacks. But, to their surprise, the mysterious personage opened Lyle’s screen door, walked without a sound to a narrow space on one of the benches along the wall, and sat down amongst the likes of Ronnie and Old Man Dyer with the straightest back in the world. Old men looked at each other without changing their faces.

Levitating at the tip-top of a longish head, the man was wearing this really bunched up mushroom-shaped toupee like Moe from The Three Stooges. His skin was as pale as the belly of a catfish, and he stared straight forward with eyes the color of olives. For hours and days that turned to weeks, Space Man would sit at the barber shop like a plastic dummy as Lyle told wild stories and jokes. Space Man never once cracked a smile, not even on the rare occasion when the jokes were funny. But this one day, without warning, Space Man went up to the barber’s chair with a stare on his face.

“I was out there at the bend,” Lyle half nodded at a retiree named Fred, “first cast, didn’t even get a chance to sit down ‘fore a fish snatched my Ambassador right out of my hands. My best rod and reel. One I caught that 175 pound catfish up at Lake Guin.”

“That’s a lie,” said Fred.

“And it was gone.” Lyle removed the toupee with one quick pop and began to lather Space Man’s shiny head. “Fish sucked the damn thing right off the bank. And I could see it down there in the creek. Course I kneeled down there to get it, stuck my hand in the water, got way over, just about to get my fingers on it…and then it moves, just a little bit, crost the creek, over toward the deep end. And shit I can still see it. I just got to get it. So I get back up on the bank, take my shoes and socks off, take my pants off, take off my drawers, take off my shirt, take off my hat, lay my pistol on top of my clothes—my ass is butt-ass nekkid. I scooch down there on the bank and slide right into the creek. A bass goes after my pecker!” Lyle squeezed the front of his pants.

“Bull,” said Fred.

“Son of a bitch bites my goober six times but I ain’t studying that. I’m going after that reel. So I dive in there, I can still see the damn thing way down there at the bottom. I dive down there, swim way down to the bottom, and grab it with both hands.”

“One ‘nem Candiru Fish woulda…” T.J. blurts.

“…I grab it,” Lyle continues, “both hands, and all of a sudden it feels like I’m getting pulled by a ski boat. I ain’t lyin’ that fish snatches me all the way back across to the other side of the creek, pulls me up under this brush pile, all these logs and sticks piled up there above me, and that damn bass is still biting my dick ninety to nothing. And I’m surrounded by ‘em … circling … bass, bream, suckerfish, catfish, big old gars, messed up looking fish I never even seen before, prehistoric like, big spikes on their heads like some kind of dinosaur. And they circling, staring, giving me funny looks. There was one fish with these real long tentacles, fish grinnin’ with big teeth and I think this is it, I’m a goner. And all of a sudden the rod pulls my half-drowned ass back across to the shallow end. That’s when I start reeling, and brother that fish put up a fight. Fish jumps up in the air seven feet and looks me dead in the eye. I’m thinking this has got to be some kind of mutated gator, a sea serpent, I can already see my picture in the paper and I’m pulling in that butt fucker an inch at a time. And that’s when I see a fin, like a shark, I swear to God, so I lean back with one hand and grab my pistol…”

“Eight dollars,” Lyle says as he shakes the nonexistent hair off the barber’s cloth and beckons T.J. to the chair with a long, black comb. “I grab my pistol off the bank and start shootin’. I must have capped that fish three times. And then it’s like he just jumps up on the bank and runs off, snatching the rod and reel out of my hands, again. That fish, and my prized reel, is gone for good.”

“Whad’ee look like?” T.J. asked.

“What the hell you thank he looks like?” Lyle grunted. “A fish!”

“That has got to be the stupidest fish story I ever heard,” Ronnie said.

“Oh I got stupider.” Lyle cut on his razor.

“I seen ‘eem,” Old Man Dyer said. The aged trot-liner gazed around at everybody with red-rimmed eyes. “I seen that fish.” The shop went quiet as Space Man attached the wig back to his head and handed Lyle a pristine $50 bill. The only sound made as the man shut the screen door behind him was the turkey hunting DVD playing in the corner.

The regulars figured now that Space Man got his haircut that was that, the nut was gone for good, but the next week he came back. Nobody took that much notice when he took his narrow seat, however, because the crowd that packed out Lyle’s that morning was making fun of this tubby fellow everybody called Slapjack. It was clear that Slapjack had roused the crowd into a state. Slapjack had heavy eyelids and he grinned in a slovenly fashion that said “I am bed shittin’ drunk.” Everyone seemed to be interested in Slapjack’s new false teeth and wanted to see them over and over. Every time Slapjack grinned with those horsy, spotless white falsies the boys grew agitated and confused. In the recent past Slapjack had sported a mouthful of rotten little nubs, and it seemed that the entire geometry of Slapjack’s face had changed, from jack-o-lantern pumpkin to jackass mule, by virtue of the new choppers.

“More offth top,” Slapjack said with a toothy grin. High-pitched laughter ensued from all quarters.

“Damn, look at them teeth,” Ronnie said. Clearly Ronnie had crossed the line because the crowd stopped laughing and scowled at him.

“You just jealouth,” Slapjack said and pooched his lips.

“Don’t let them mess with you Slapjack,” Lyle said as the scissors snipped along the straight edge of Slapjack’s bangs. “They don’t understand.”

“Understand what?” Ronnie blurted. “Slapjack looks like a gopher?”

“Have you ever worn a set of dentures?” Lyle stooped over Ronnie like some spook house ghoul.

“Naw,” Ronnie scowled.

“You mean you never tried on your Grandpaw’s teeth, the ones in a jar? I bet you did. Or maybe that old aunt of yours lives up the road…”


“Then shut your fat ass. Cause if you did you would have learned something about the human condition.” There was a sudden stillness in the room, all eyes trained on Lyle as he held up the mirror so that Slapjack could see the back. “Eight dollars.” He beckoned Ronnie up to the barber’s chair and spun it like a Tilt-A-Whirl.

“What you want?” Lyle pumped the chair with his foot. “High and tight?”

“Ball-headed like him.” Ronnie grinned over at Space Man.

“I’m gone tell you something. And I want you to listen.”

“Uh oh,” T.J. said and bit into a honey bun.

“Years ago there was a man,” Lyle said, “lived way down past Eclectic. Caul, they called him. Big old tall ball-headed son of a bitch.” Lyle cut on the electric razor and started working up one side of the young man’s head.

“Caul Jeter.”

“What’s that got to do with Slapjack’s teeth?” T.J. said.

“I’ll tell you what that’s got to do with Slapjack’s teeth,” Lyle said, “if you give me a minute. Caul Jeter.

That’s his name. Jeter. Back then he had this big, long, white Chevrolet, come driving up. Never seen the man smile. Never got a haircut either cause, you know, he was ball-headed.” Lyle paused reflectively. “Some folks said he had second sight. He’d just kind of lumber up and down the street on Saturdays, get stuff at the Piggly Wiggly. But here’s the thang. He didn’t have a tooth in his head neither. Just gums.”

“That’s charmin’,” said Ronnie.

Lyle looked at the ceiling. “But back then a lot of folks didn’t have, you know, proper hygiene. Hell my Grandpaw never once brushed his teeth, ‘cept maybe with a sweetgum limb. He didn’t have but one maybe two little old snagglers when I was a kid. But boy you ought to have seen him go at an ear of corn. Being toothless made them old folks’ faces kind of look like witch faces. The nose would dip, and the chin would curve up, long creases next to their eyes. Kind of like a catfish…”

“My Grandpaw uthed to…” Slapjack said.

“…this fellow Caul,” Lyle continued, “one day he was in town, you know, just kind of loping up and down the street when Minnie Cleckler run up bawling her eyes out. Your great aunt,” Lyle pointed his scissors at T.J. “It was the day her daddy died. Everybody in town knew that he was ‘bout to die of liver cancer. She came running up holding a jar with a pair of false teeth in it. It was her daddy’s. She gave those teeth to Caul Jeter and without so much as a suck yo titties he stuck the false teeth right in his own mouth.”


“But here’s the thang,” Lyle doused Ronnie’s head with a squirt bottle. “The minute he stuck those teeth in his mouth his eyes lit up like a pinball machine and he started talkin’. He was grinning, nodding…but see he wasn’t talking in his own voice. He was talkin’ in Minnie Cleckler’s daddy’s voice. Minnie hugged Caul and talked to him, asking all these questions about the great beyond. Everybody started to gather around Caul asking all kinds of questions. And you could see that Caul’s face little-by-little was starting to look like old Cleckler.”

“I ‘member,” Old Man Dyer uttered.

“After a couple of hours I guess Caul had enough and he tried to take the teeth out of his mouth. But Minnie went crazy and tried to stuff them choppers back in there, wanted her daddy back, crying and begging him to just put them teeth in his mouth one more time. She just wanted to hear her daddy’s voice one more time again. Couple of Minnie Cleckler’s cousins starting roughing old Caul up, telling him to put in the teeth or they’d whoop his ass.”

“What did he do?”

“What could the man do? He spit the choppers out and ran like hell. Got to his car and drove off. But it was too late. When he got home there was already ten or eleven people out in his yard,” Lyle grinned, “all clutching these little jars.” Lyle turned Ronnie toward the mirror.

“That ain’t right,” Ronnie stared at his hair. One sideburn had been removed, and the other one extended way down the neck.

“Boy you ain’t right. Eight dollars.” Lyle snapped the apron like a whip. Old Man Dyer wheezed and got up in the chair.

“One lady,” Lyle continued, “said her husband had a thousand dollars in gold hid out in the yard. She wanted the teeth to tell her where the money was. Another man wanted the teeth to tell who shot his uncle. Caul tried to keep them all happy, sticking one set of teeth or another into his mouth, but it was no use. People just kept a-coming. So finally, after two weeks of folks chasing him down sticking false teeth in his mouth, he run off. But weren’t no time they found him holed up in Tuscaloosa.”

“What he do?” asked T.J.

“This is where the story gets kind of peculiar,” Lyle said. “He’s in a motel and this pretty little woman comes to his room, got these military-issue false teeth that belonged to her husband. Supposedly the fellow drowned the year before and his body was never found. When Caul puts them teeth in his mouth he starts shaking and hunching. His face turns purple and his whole body starts to jitter. ‘You whore!’ he hollers. ‘You’re tryin’ to kill me! I’m gone kill you!’ And then Caul grabs a coat hanger out of the motel closet and starts gouging at her with it, all the time the teeth have gone crazy dog-cussing her, clacking and gritting like plastic magic shop choppers. Caul’s eyes look like a devil’s, his face dark and full of murder. But then suddenly Caul chokes up the teeth and they hit the floor. And Lord he’s catchin’ a spasm. She screams and crawls away from her husband’s teeth cause they’ve come alive. There’s slobber everywhere. Blood. And you know what? They find out the husband hadn’t drowned at all but was hiding out in Cleburne County with a woman. Next day they found the husband dead in the bed with his Charlie McCarthy bit clean off. You see when Caul put on those teeth he went where nobody but God can go.”

Space Man stood like a soldier and left without a word, the door slapping shut behind him.

“Damn,” Ronnie said. “What happened to Caul?”

“Went to work at Waffle House.”

That Friday, Lyle woke before daybreak and staggered to the kitchen. Still kind of snoring, he stood next to the stove with his half-closed eyes fixed on the orange light of the coffee maker. The first whiff of the coffee stirred him a little, and he turned to the refrigerator to get out some bologna and mayonnaise to make sandwiches for his fishing trip. As he reached for the white bread, he was puzzled to see that the lights of his barber shop were burning. For twenty years Lyle had gone back and forth from shop to trailer, and he had never left the shop lights on. Lyle shuddered and grabbed his gun. In boots and white underwear, Lyle tiptoed the twenty feet from the trailer pointing the .357 at his barber shop the whole time. He crept up to the back door and tried the handle. It was locked, and he had left the key at the trailer. Arms starting to shake, Lyle stooped over and made his way around to the front door, which he found was half open. But Lyle was no fool. Instead of kicking the door wide in a blaze of bullets, Lyle backed through the door, gun pointed backwards over his right shoulder, then swiveled around like a geriatric cowpoke.

“What the hell you doing in here?” Lyle said. Space Man sat erect in the barber’s chair.

“Take me fishing,” the man said. “I want to see the big one.”

“What you talking about?”

“The big one.”

Lyle was about to slap the man’s jaws when something happened. It was nothing more than a subtle change in the man’s face, something Lyle couldn’t quite register, like parts of his face were vanishing for a second then coming back, moving, blinking on and off. Lyle clutched his throat for a second then put down the gun.

“Let me grab you a rod and reel.” Lyle coughed into his fist and glanced at the man. “You? You look like a Zebco 202.” Lyle handed the man a child’s pole.

Lyle drove the man miles down two-lane highways and crooked dirt roads until they got as close as they could to the creek then walked down a deer trail holding their rods in front of them to catch spider’s webs. Both men trudged through mud, over barbed wire fences, around brush piles and streams. The man held the tiny rod straight up with no emotion on his face. After walking for almost an hour through briars and hardwood trees, they got to a rock overhang next to a cliff thick with mountain laurel. Cigarette butts, knots of fishing line and bobbers in trees, and some charred sticks on the bank marked the fishing hole. The dark water at this bend in the creek made a slow ring, a deep eddy.

“See that brush,” Lyle caught his breath and pointed at the far edge of the creek with the tip of his rod. “That’s where I almost got ‘eem. I was using a purple worm.” Lyle opened his tackle box to get a lure, but the man had dropped to his knees. To Lyle, Space Man seemed to be having some kind of a convulsion.

“You alright Goober?” Lyle said. The man quivered, squirmed, and writhed, his body now flopping on the muddy ground. Lyle tried to lift the man, but he slithered out of Lyle’s grasp into the water. Undulating, the man moved just under the surface across the creek and disappeared in the deep water under the brush pile. For ten minutes Lyle watched and waited, then twenty minutes, thirty. He cast a few times, but the fish weren’t biting.

“Hell with this,” Lyle said. He picked up his tackle and went home.
But when Lyle drove up to his shop, the lights were burning again. When he poked his pistol through the opened door, Space Man was sitting in the barber shop chair dry as a bone, back erect, a Mason jar between his legs.

“Caul Jeter,” the man said. “I want to see Caul Jeter.”

“What’s in that jar mister? How’d you get back here so fast?”

“Caul Jeter.”

“What you want to see Jeter for?”

“He went where nobody but God can go.”

“I don’t know about all that. Some folks don’t even believe that story.”

This time the man’s whole head flickered, shifted around, the nose taken in by the skin for a second, the chin becoming blank then the forehead, entire eyes seeming to go out and come back. And when it stopped the man’s head was somehow swollen, his skin even whiter, the olive eyes flatter. Lyle again felt a tingle in his throat.

“I’ll take you,” Lyle wheezed. “Just cut that shit with your face out.”

Space Man stood up holding the jar.

“What you got in that jar? That moonshine?”

The man pulled from the jar a set of twisted teeth the size of a child’s fist.

The long hallway at the retirement home was empty, the room cold and dark. A stark night light and a couple of aged medical machines created this empty haze around the man-sized knot lying in the bed. When Lyle and the man entered Caul Jeter’s room, it was clear that the old clairvoyant and former Waffle House employee was near death. His aged face was half-squinted like a man who had suffered many strokes. His eyes continually rolled, his lids flickered, and his pinched hands were twisted up around his neck.

“Mr. Jeter?” Lyle said as they stood by the bed. “Mr. Jeter? This feller…”

“Rise,” Space Man said and pulled back the sheet. Caul Jeter sat up like a made-for-TV vampire, his arms up and toothless mouth opened wide. The man put the strange teeth in Caul Jeter’s mouth and with long, skinny fingers pushed his lips together. In an instant Caul Jeter got different. A sharp pair of eyes opened as Jeter leaned forward, his grayish face and head seeming to stretch. Jeter glared at the man, teeth exposed…

“…I tell you what,” Lyle lathered T.J.’s neck. “Ain’t too much I haven’t seen, but I ain’t never seen nothing like that.”

“Seriously,” Ronnie said, “what happened to Space Man?”

Lyle wiped the straight razor on both sides. Fred clicked the remote looking for the basketball game.

“It’s like he was made out of paper,” Lyle said in a half whisper. “Jeter just kept staring at the man, him staring back, both of them froze, their faces almost touching like they were whistling into each other’s mouths until the man just slumped. Space Man just kind of bent sideways, and it’s like I don’t know he looked like a corn husk, like he didn’t have nothing in him. When I reached over to get him out of Jeter’s face, his shoulder and his shirt just kind of broke up in my hand like crumbs. Then, from everywhere I’m talking about, ants and roaches crawled from every crack in the room and started clustering all over him. They were on him just like that. I couldn’t see him anymore there were so many bugs on his body. The ants were inside him bubba, eating holes big as soda crackers and scurrying in and out of the holes in strings. I just stood there about to puke. Less than a minute later I’m telling you that joker was gone, vanished, carried off by the roaches and ants and creepy crawly bugs bit-by-bit-by-little-bit. But when the nurse opened the door, all she saw was me standing by Caul Jeter’s bed. Jeter was still there, but the bugs was gone. It was like nothing had happened. There were still a couple of roaches clinging to the ceiling in one corner, but she didn’t see ‘em. She pulled Jeter’s sheet up, fluffed his pillow, and told me visitation was over. Looking at me funny, she put her hand in Jeter’s mouth and pulled out the fish teeth and stuck them in the pocket of her scrubs. With the look she had on her face, she let me know that this kind of thing had happened before. Said she wouldn’t report me if I promised to leave the old man alone, said Mr. Jeter needed rest. Then she walked out.”

“‘Ma’am, what you got in your other hand?’ I asked the nurse in the hall. She didn’t say nothing but just kept on walking. But I knew. I saw ‘em. She was clinging to her own set of teeth, trying to answer some questions of her own.”

“Bull ‘thit,” said Slapjack. “Tell another one.”

Lee Rozelle is a professor of English at the University of Montevallo and author of Ecosublime: Environmental Awe and Terror from New World to Oddworld. This story was recently featured on the Scare You to Sleep podcast.

“Sabotage” by Robert Earle

When they made New Orleans, Tommy said he wanted to go to college as soon as he could—and they needed to stay put so he could say he was living under a tarp behind a shut-down canned fish factory. That was why a college would want him.

“I’m a minority.”

“You’re a white kid,” Maybeth said.

“No, the homeless are a minority. We’re discriminated against. That’s my pitch.”

“Ball one.”

He tried Tulane. They brushed him off: go take these tests, fill out your application, write your essay, send it all in. A scholarship came last, if at all. Next, he wanted her to go with him to the University of New Orleans.

“Why should I?”

“Help me figure things out.”

“I don’t know anything about going to college.”

“Neither do I. Come on.”

She worried things would change between them if he got in, but she could see how determined he was. She said all right.

They found the Privateer Enrollment Center in the Earl K. Long Library of the University of New Orleans. Tommy explained he needed a full scholarship and work on campus or some kind of extra grant so he could get his degree and go to law school. The girl at the counter said they could join a campus tour in an hour. Tommy said they’d already walked around. He wanted to talk to someone who could make a decision, yes or no. The girl said it didn’t work like that, but he could talk to a counselor when one was free.

Ms. Agnes Hoppy, the counselor, wore tortoise shell glasses and had a purple needle through her hair bun. She settled into her chair and let Tommy tell her the story of how he ran away when he was seventeen, how he made it to L.A., how he met Maybeth, how L.A. sent them back to where they’d come from—him to St. Louis, her to St. Paul. So, he went to St. Paul and found her. From there, they took off first to Memphis, now down here. He needed a scholarship and a campus job since he still lived on the street and didn’t have any money. But that meant he’d add to the university’s diversity.

Ms. Hoppy took this in like she was watching a TV program different than any she’d seen before. “Why law school?”

“I want to defend people who can’t defend themselves.”

“What about you?” she asked Maybeth, the gray-green-yellow spindles in her eyes tightening around her pupils.

“I’m just here with Tommy.”

“You don’t plan to go to college?”

“I don’t have a G.E.D.”

“She could get one on-line same as me,” Tommy said. “Just doesn’t want to.”

Ms. Hoppy turned back to Tommy. “Where are you staying?”

He told her about the canned fish factory.

“You’ve been there how long?”

“Maybe a week.”

“Coming from Memphis?”


“Why stop in New Orleans?”

“I guess because you can’t go any farther without getting wet.”

Maybeth said, “He’s a great skateboarder, but he doesn’t know how to swim.”

“Is that true, about skateboarding?” Ms. Hoppy asked.

“I don’t even have a board right now.”

“Do you miss it?”

Maybeth wondered if Ms. Hoppy was fucking with Tommy, but Tommy pretended like she wasn’t. Yes, he missed it. He missed going nowhere all over the place, he missed being weightless up in the air.

“And the camaraderie of other skateboarders?” Ms. Hoppy asked.

“I guess you could put it that way. If you don’t know where they are, you don’t know where you are, either. That puts you in danger you might sabotage each other.”

Maybeth saw in Ms. Hoppy’s widening pupils that Tommy had passed his college interview when he took in the word camaraderie and responded with the word sabotage. Meanwhile, she felt no camaraderie at all in this office, in this building, on this campus, which put her in danger.

Ms. Hoppy said she needed to consult with someone. When they were alone, Tommy asked Maybeth how it had gone so far. Maybeth said Ms. Hoppy probably went to get security to throw them out. Tommy said come on, how had he sounded, what about his pitch? Maybeth said people on the street wouldn’t be on the street if they fit, and they didn’t fit here, either. But what about him saying he planned to be a lawyer and defend people who couldn’t defend themselves? Tommy asked. Maybeth said if he became a lawyer, maybe he’d turn out like his father, leave his family, cut off their money, and move to another city. Tommy said no, he wouldn’t. He was part of an economic minority fighting back, that was his value, not skateboarding. Why did she want to know about skateboarding?

Maybeth kept what she really thought to herself. “Come on, let’s go. She just walked out on you.”

“No, let’s play it, like you always say.”

That was what she said. Wherever they were, the only alternative was to be hustling somewhere else, so what was the hurry? But she turned that against him. She said if he got into college, he wouldn’t ever be somewhere else. He’d have a schedule, he’d have classes, he’d have to study, write papers, take exams. He’d be trapped.

They looked across the snaky plants on the windowsill toward the buildings around the Earl K. Long Library. Tommy said he wished they could see some water and boats. What if that’s where they ended up, living on a boat? She said she’d rather live in a trailer again, the Mississippi irritated her, the way it kept following them. He said it wasn’t following them, they were following it, and the water by the university wasn’t the Mississippi, it was Lake Pontchartrain. He went back to talking about living on a boat, being Tommy again, and it amused her, listening to him speculate about what kind of boat it could be and what they’d do on it and where they’d take it, technically not on the street anymore, probably with a gas refrigerator. Gas was the kind of refrigerator you had on a boat. How did Tommy know that? He hadn’t known anything when he showed up in L.A., too scared to be smart.

Ms. Hoppy came back and said that Tommy could take the ACT test right now. If he got a good score, he could fill out his application, no essay needed.

“But my essay might be my best part,” he said.

“We can do this without it.”

“What about money?”

“We’ll get to that. First things first. What about you, Maybeth? There’s a workstation for you, too, if you want to use it.” Ms. Hoppy didn’t have a bun anymore. Her brown hair was loose down over her neck. She looked younger and friendlier, as if while she was gone, she had decided to swallow the both of them.

“I told you I don’t have a G.E.D.”

“If you got a high enough ACT score, we could work with that.”

“No thanks.”

Tommy said come on.

Ms. Hoppy said why not just give it a try.

Maybeth said she’d just walk around outside until Tommy finished. That upset Tommy—when she went walking around in L.A., sometimes she didn’t come back for days—and she knew it upset him, but everything about the University of New Orleans upset her. She felt like she had no idea where she was. She felt like Tommy and Ms. Hoppy were the pair.

She went outside and headed toward the lake, big as the ocean but without waves, only a watery shrugging along the shoreline, sailboats here and there, and some speedboats you couldn’t live on, and some fat dark boats with long poles and big winches on the stern for fishing. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe she’d rather roll with the Mississippi out toward the delta instead of parking on that lake. But then what? Islands? She didn’t want to think about islands. Her on one. Tommy here.

A cool breeze was blowing. The sun drifting west was turning the sky a peach-tinted blue. She didn’t like that. She didn’t like anything about New Orleans. When it wasn’t gaudy, it was rotting.

She sat down on the grass and leaned back against a palm tree. She knew she’d made him feel bad and wondered if he’d screw up the test on purpose and come out looking for her with that disappointment in his face he always carried around in his chest, threatening to surface when something else didn’t work. It was what she wanted, not him defending people who couldn’t defend themselves, the two of them defending each other, not sabotaging that.

With more than 100 stories in U.S., Canadian, U.K., and Australian literary journals, Robert Earle is one of the more widely published contemporary writers of short fiction. Vine Leaves Press published his story collection She Receives the Night in 2017. He also is the author of a nonfiction book about Iraq (Nights in the Pink Motel/Naval Institute Press), a novel (The Way Home/DayBue) and was contributing editor of a book of essays (North American Identities/Stanford). He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

“Next Time Take the Skyline” by Mather Schneider

Dispatch sent me to a house in the Tucson foothills. It was a typical foothills community full of upper class false-adobe houses all painted the same sallow desert tan. No real color was allowed by the neighborhood ordinance. It was 111 degrees and there hadn’t even been a cloud in 4 days.

When I arrived in my cab I heard loud music inside the house. I didn’t see anybody. No phone number had been provided. I got out of the cab and knocked on the door several times. A man grunted: “RIGHT OUT!” I waited on the sunny driveway and looked at my watch: 2:15 p.m.

The door opened and a Rottweiller leaped out at me. A man inside caught the dog by the scruff of the neck.

“You son of a BITCH!” he screamed, and kicked the dog viciously back inside.

He was Hispanic, around fifty, black hair slicked back into a tiny, perfectly tight ponytail. He wore sunglasses, brown wool sports jacket, new blue jeans and walnut colored dress shoes. And he was BUILT. Not tall, but wide. He had a confidence. He held a glass of beer and walked toward the cab.

In the cab, he said: “I’m Carlos.”


“Very sad about Big John,” Carlos said.

Big John had been a cab driver for many years. He had died a few weeks before of a kidney infection. He had complained about pain for days but he wouldn’t go to the doctor, he said he didn’t have the money. That’s what sitting in these vehicles day after day can do to you. One day he drove his cab to the hospital and walked into the emergency room. He was dead 7 hours later.

“He was a friend of yours?” I said.

“Of course!” Carlos said. “He was my driver for ten years. I’ve been…out of town. I just heard about his death. Big John was a good man.”

I had never liked Big John much.

“Where we headed?” I said.

Carlos looked at me as if he had been offended.

“Craycroft and Pima.”

The east side. That meant at least thirty five dollars on the meter.

“You want me to take the freeway?” I said.

“Whatever you want.”

“Or maybe Skyline Drive?”

“Either one.”

I sat there a moment. I was nervous. I was just a middle aged guy with a studio apartment, I didn’t want any trouble. Carlos took a hand gun out of his coat pocket and sat it on the seat beside him.

“I’ll take the freeway,” I said.

Carlos had cans of beer in the pockets of his sports jacket. He finished his glass and took a can out and filled it again. He was perfectly shaved except for a little hair under the middle of his lower lip.

A piece of rubber tire came upon us on the highway. I swerved to miss it and Carlos nearly spilled his beer.

“Take it easy,” he said.


Halfway there Carlos said, “Next time take Skyline.”

Carlos told me to pull into the parking lot of a pawn shop. He got out slowly and strutted into the store. He stayed inside for at least twenty minutes. My palms were wet. I should leave, I should leave, I thought. Carlos had taken his gun with him.

After a while, I got out of the cab and looked in the glass doors of the pawn shop. At that moment Carlos came out, almost hitting me in the nose with the door.

“I see how you are,” Carlos said.

“Just checking my hair,” I told him.

“I need a beer,” Carlos said. “Take me to the south side.”

The south side was another twenty minutes away, and once we got there he wanted me to go to a gas station, where he bought a twelve pack of beer. Then he instructed me to park in an alley looking out onto the street, right next to a Mexican guy selling corn out of the back of his truck. The corn nearly steamed in its husks sitting there in boxes in the sun. The meter clicked more slowly as we sat. I watched it like the doomsday clock.

Carlos drank his beer.

I turned around and looked at him.

“Can I ask a question?” I said. Carlos nodded and lifted his hand.

“What exactly are we doing?” I said.

Carlos smiled and shook his head.

“In life you must be flexible,” he said.

“But what is our ultimate destination?”

“You’ll have to ask God that question, my friend. Just drive.”

He wanted me to drive when he told me to drive and to turn where he told me to turn and to listen when he talked. Carlos measured my reactions.

“You have a girlfriend?” Carlos asked.


“Are you a man, or what?” he said.

“I think so.”

“I have four girlfriends,” Carlos said. “One in New York, one in Brazil, and two in Mexico.”

“That’s a lot.”

“Not really,” he said.

“They like the money,” I said.

“No!” Carlos said. “It’s more than the money.”

“All right.”

Carlos wanted the music turned up. Then he talked in whispers.

“A man needs to have some fun once in a while,” he said.

I knew what he meant.

“You know what I mean?” he said.




The whole thing was some kind of test.

“Can you keep a secret?” Carlos said.


I didn’t want any secrets, I’d had enough of secrets. My heart was racing and I was sweating all over. My fear was mixed with anger.

“I mean,” he said, “you know where I live, you know all this about me.”

“You haven’t told me anything.”

“I’m not stupid.”

“I didn’t say you were stupid.”

“I don’t want to wake up with an ice pick in the back of my neck,” Carlos said. “You have to be careful. Just like driving this cab around, you never know who you’re going to pick up.”


“Can you keep your mouth shut is what I’m asking you,” Carlos said.

“If I have to.”

“One day a man might come up to you,” Carlos said.


“This man may look just like me, this man may even claim to be me. What will you tell him?”

“Nothing, Carlos.”“Pull over here.”

We sat on 12th Ave., which was Carlos’s street. He “ran” it. One of the perks of running a street is he never had to pay for anything and could supposedly walk up to any woman he saw and take her to a hotel.

It was all about something he called “protection”. Big John had been his driver for nearly ten years. Carlos was never in Tucson long enough to have his own car, so he used Big John. Big John was driving a cab around hell right about then, which was probably not much hotter than Tucson.

“Nobody’s gonna take care of you,” Carlos said. “You’ve got to take care of yourself. A man’s got to take care of himself, you know what I mean?”


“Look around you,” he said. “That guy selling corn out of the back of his god damned truck back there, he’s got an old lady at home and four kids, man. Who’s gonna take care of them?”

“I don’t know.”

“Me!” Carlos said. “Nobody else is gonna do it! I take care of them. They are like my children. I would do anything for them. I mean, sometimes you gotta kick ass, but that’s just how it goes.”

He held out his right arm and flexed his biceps.

“Go ahead,” he said, “feel it. Eighteen fucking inches.”


Carlos looked at me. He liked me, but he didn’t like me.

“You don’t understand anything, do you?”

“I’m not from this world,” I said.

Carlos laughed. He shook my hand about twenty times and said he wanted me to be his new driver. My hand was still sweaty and when Carlos let go, he wiped his hand on his jeans and smiled viciously.

Intimidation vibrated from Carlos. He sat back there, ensconced in malignant ego, completely full of himself, ready to kill at any moment, or ready to die. He was a man you just did not fuck with. And his gun sat there the whole time.

The next part of the afternoon was spent going to various places. He kept barking at me.

“Pull over there! Not here, there! Do what I tell you!”

At one point I pulled the cab over outside of a little taco stand. I told Carlos he was wearing me out, and that I was tired of his mouth. My fear had been exhausted and I was just plain pissed. Plus I was hungry. Carlos looked at me with shock. I figured I was done for. But Carlos softened. He grinned and patted me on the shoulder.

“You have some balls after all, my friend,” he said.

After that, he was quiet, and more polite.

We stopped at many pawn shops and bars, so Carlos could collect protection money or just throw his weight around. He was never in these places more than a few minutes. Sometimes he returned slightly winded or with a layer of perspiration on his upper lip. Other times I heard loud voices from inside the buildings, and one time a muffled gun shot. I sat behind the wheel and stared through my sunglasses into the sunshine, at the palms and cactus and dusty alleys. I just could not leave. Carlos knew what company I worked for and unless I was willing to leave the city, I was afraid Carlos would find me if I just drove off and left him.

Outside of one Mexican restaurants there were four Mexican musicians unloading their musical instruments from a truck. Four old Mexican men, dressed like farmers. They were preparing to play in the restaurant.

“Stop the car,” Carlos said.

He got out and walked over to the musicians, snapped something in Spanish. They jumped like Satan’s jesters. Carlos walked back and climbed into the cab, leaving the door open. The windows were down. The musicians scrambled over and stood right next to the cab. Carlos named a song and they exploded into it. They played their hearts out. The instruments that they strummed and pounded were held together by duct tape and carpentry nails, too beat up and old to even interest a pawn shop.

They were more scared than I was. They knew this Carlos. I could see it on their faces. They were all sweating in the afternoon sun. Everybody was sweating except Carlos. There was no joy in that music, only fear of hitting a wrong note. After about five songs, Carlos tired of them, waved them off. Not a dime tip.

When he walked out of yet another pawn shop, he told me he would be staying there for a while, and that I was free to leave. I had been held hostage for over four hours.

“Whatever you want,” I said.

“I’m a man,” Carlos said. “I do what I want.”

The rest of his twelve pack of beer sat on the floor of the cab.

“You want your beer?”

“Fuck the beer.”

“All right.”

“You’re my driver, right?” Carlos said. “You will take me here and there, sometimes?”

“Sure, Carlos.”

There didn’t seem to be anything else to say.

The fare was one hundred and eighty dollars. Carlos took out an inch-thick fold of bills and handed me the exact amount. Then he made theatrics about giving me a five dollar tip.

“I always pay my debts,” he said. “Remember that.”

He said he would be calling, and warned me again about keeping my mouth shut. I drove, my heart beating like a rabbit’s, very much alive. I found a shady spot on the north side of town, rolled the window down and turned off the engine. I sat there thinking about those skin-and-bone musicians, their strained smiles, their yellow teeth, their long brown fingers plucking the guitar strings, tapping the drum, holding the horn that shined golden in the sun. The sweat rolling down their faces like laborers in a field. The lone singer who closed his eyes and lifted his head and prayed his voice would not crack. I could not remember the songs he sang, not a word of them, not a note, only his courage, his bared throat.

Mather Schneider is a 47 year old cab driver who has had many poems and stories published since 1994. He has 4 full length books available.

“Poolside at the Hemingway House” by Holly Hollar

When you ask—how much is enough?—like Cecilia Malone, who reclines in the sun on a sailboat at harbor in Key West, who asks herself, how much money did I donate to the Humane Society of Greater Orlando last year? Is this particular shade of green from the Michael Kors fall collection over now? If you dare to ask that dangerous question—how much is enough—do try to find yourself in less opulent surroundings. Not a word about it on a boat. Otherwise, it’s just obnoxious.

A thirty million dollar beauty floats less than fifty yards away. It boasts a neon-lit hot tub on the second story and a seventy-inch flat screen TV she can see through the floor to ceiling windows on the main deck.

She was looking inside when she saw a man, she presumed the owner, remove his shirt, so she fixed her aging eyes on his taut abdomen—he must be in his thirties?—and felt a familiar twinge that had been gone since her last husband, Frank, passed away two years ago. She is sixty two. The yachtsman looks at her and she glances away and eyes her phone instead, wishing her daughter would call her back, and wondering where the hell Manchi is, because he should be back by now. But most of all she thinks, people just don’t know when to stop. What else could he have done with his money, how many people might have benefited from those millions; in her smug staring she miscalculates the distance to her mouth and spills mimosa on her silk scarf. There’s such a thing as limited, acceptable indulgence, she is sure of it. Really, how much is enough for some people? But also, she is jealous. She should be on that yacht. Not Manchi’s dinky sailboat.

Manchi glommed on at a Humane Society event when Gouda, her pug, wound up in his lap. A neighbor of Cecilia’s, a rigid woman, whispered to her husband, appalled about the dog at the event. But Cecilia didn’t care because she’s the organization’s largest donor.

Cecilia had popped a bruschetta in her mouth and realized too late it was too large for a single bite. She was chewing painfully when she saw Gouda run to Manchi’s feet and Manchi bent down to pick him up and Cecilia had no choice but at least to say hello and retrieve her pet. She noticed his smile. He wanted her contact information and so she gave it to him. She decided he was not bad looking.

Gouda grunts and pants whenever Manchi rubs his belly. Manchi is wealthy and bright. He made his money with a well-placed chain of Señor Frogs along the Mayan Riviera, which allowed him to purchase the boat Cecilia now habituates, for the week at least. The boat is named Rana, Spanish for frog.

The sail from Miami to Key West made her nauseous, excited, afraid and claustrophobic, all of these feelings now exacerbated by the capacious yacht napping in her line of sight. All the more reason to get out and explore. Today they will see the Hemingway house, something she has wanted to do from the moment Manchi floated the idea of Key West over afternoon iced coffees a month ago.

The mimosa sweetens her unbrushed teeth. She curls her toes on the fiberglass floor and tucks a strand of short red hair behind her ear, annoyed with the wind for the constant tousle. The tethered boom swings from side to side. Cling clang, cling clang, metal pieces flapping metal mast. Far off, by the Cuban Coffee Queen, she sees Manchi carrying two iced coffees. He does not see her, but she sees him whirl one eighty to ogle two passing girls in bikinis. So this is what he’s like when I’m not around. She adds a tally to her growing list of “cons.”

Should she say something to Manchi about the bikini girls? No, she decides. Instead, she picks up a tube of sunscreen and rubs the lotion on her face. Maybe.

I got you a Cuban coffee.

Manchi’s aviator sunglasses are mirrors of her ghostly face as he leans in to kiss her good morning. He exchanges a cup of coffee for the tube of sunscreen and begins massaging a dollop onto his bald head.

She rubs the last of the sunscreen into her cheeks. Can we go to the Hemingway House today? I want to see it.

You’re the boss.

She hates it when he says that. She wants him to be the boss. He thinks she wants to be the boss.

I saw you checking out those girls in bikinis.

Beautiful weren’t they?

She snorts. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Every red blooded man is into that sort of thing. Sorry sweetheart.

Maybe I’ll go by myself to the Hemingway House. Maybe that’s my sort of thing. She stomps down into the main cabin.

He sighs and follows her, pausing long enough on the steps to see her rummaging through the onboard cooler.
If you’re looking for the other bottle of champagne, I drank it last night. Come here, don’t be mad. I’m crazy about you. It’s just girls in bikinis.

He pulls her into a hug.

She’s not really mad about the bikini girls. She is mad at time.

When they finally leave the boat, the morning fishing charters have returned to dock. Tarpon undulate in the water below the filet table; from time to time they thrash at skins and heads from snappers which flip into the water with the flick of the first mate’s filet knife. Silver arcs emerge from the murky water and disappear below. The water churns and froths, each fish greedier than the last. No patience, all survival. Tarpon wake slaps piling.

Cecilia holds Manchi’s hand, even though it sweats, and they stare for a while at the feeding frenzy. Cecilia, mesmerized, looks away only when Manchi motions to three skippers hauling a coffin-sized cooler down the dock. She makes way, dropping his hand. If she took one more step back and fell into the water, would the tarpon move in for the kill? And how long would it take for them to finish? And what if Manchi dove in behind her?

We should get a cab. Manchi walks to a line of pink sedans. Cecilia follows, the tarpon still twirling in her mind.

When they arrive at the Hemingway House, they are approached by a fat man in a small t shirt holding a roll of tickets. His face sweats like a cold glass of sweet tea, the droplets eventually dribble down into his beard and fall from the wiry ends onto hot cement below. The man motions for money. Cecilia reaches for her wallet slowly, glancing at Manchi. He does not move. She pulls it from her purse, making an event of the thing, spilling a compact onto the cement that erupts into fine powder on impact.

Can you just pay the man please. She fusses over the compact but keeps an eye on Manchi who is now reaching for his wallet.

She takes in the property as she crouches— yellow shutters, green hedges like a sea wall and palms casting shade on the roof. A cat curls under the porch, Cecilia spots its needy eyes as she stands again and clutches her purse under her left arm.

It’s just like the day she was married to Frank. Nothing has changed except for the people and how they are dressed. Cecilia feels a familiar squeeze on her heart and abdomen—the clenching of grief muscles for the sucker punch of fond memories. Frank’s face on their wedding day flashes in her memory like a movie clip.

Walking tour starts in ten minutes. We close at four. Private event – a wedding. The man hands Manchi two tickets.

Cecilia wore her mother’s gown. Her mother looked severe that day, she wore a high bun, with three karat diamond earrings. Her father’s business partners smoked cigars on the lawn. She was afraid, when she hugged the man her father called Chuck, the man responsible for their fortune, that ash would fall on the fine silk of her dress and burn a hole. Her father – honey, you remember Chuck. She smiled and touched his arm. I’m so glad you could make it. Her father teared up moments before they walked down the aisle. What did he tell her? Compromise only on the little things.

And Frank was so eager to be married to her he went directly to I do before the proper time. Everyone laughed, even her mother. Later she and Frank and their friends drank beer and danced the streets to reggae. And when they made love on their wedding night, the need of their bodies was like a category five hurricane.

Cecilia, the tour is starting. Manchi places his hand on her lower back and she refocuses on his face, on the present, and follows him into the house which smells of the sea, and of old books and maps. A welcome memory.

Her mother was hungover the next morning at breakfast. So was Cecilia. Party of the year, she heard one of her father’s friends say to another.

After the breakfast they caught a ferry to Dry Tortuga. Frank’s blonde hair blew in the wind like the fronds of palms. He handed Cecilia a strawberry daiquiri. She put her free hand around his neck and drew him in for a kiss.

They camped for a night on Dry Tortuga. Frank played a ukelele on the brick walkway surrounding Fort Jefferson. The sunset looked like a cocktail of cranberry and orange juice for the imbibing darkness.

Manchi walks upstairs first, Cecilia follows, to the bedroom, and the old typewriter. Manchi looks around the room. Would you like to live in a place like this?

Frank and I were married here.

Manchi looks back blankly. In this room?

Cecilia smiles. No. On the grounds. We got married on the lawn. I hope that isn’t strange for you.

I imagine it’s rather strange for you.
Strange isn’t the word. She rifles through her purse and finds a lipstick. She uses a mirror in the nearby bathroom to apply it. Manchi observes from the doorway.

Does being here make you miss him? Are you sad?

Sad isn’t the word. Yes, of course I miss aspects of him. Being here reminds me of myself when I was younger, as much as it does of him. No matter how much time we had with each other, it would never have been enough. I probably shouldn’t talk about it with you. I’m sorry.

Then let’s not talk about it. Manchi walks down the stairs and out onto the veranda by the pool where a cluster of people stare down into the cement. A tour guide tells the group this is where they can see the infamous penny in the concrete, buried after Ernest yelled at his wife about the cost of the pool project, something about taking every last penny. The boxing ring once occupied the space in the backyard, before the pool. But Manchi can picture the bloody noses and knuckles and Manchi is only looking on an empty pool but being with Cecilia is like that. Maybe he needs it.

It’s hard to start over, she says from behind him.

I know. He takes her hand. They look at one another. His eyebrows lift and he nods toward the pool. She smiles.

They’ll kick us out. She slides her feet from her sandals and sets her purse down.

Screw ‘em. Manchi pivots toward the pool and pulls her hand. Cecilia does not protest. They splash into the pool. The sound of Cecilia’s laughter fills the courtyard and with its eruption comes a moment of lightness she didn’t know she needed. He stands still beside her, watching her mouth, his own mouth open as he exhales in bursts. Manchi hauls himself out of the pool. For a moment he resembles a frog splayed on the concrete as he pulls his knees to his chest and stands.

Let me give you a hand. He reaches down and lifts Cecilia from the water. No chiding from the staff. Only a little girl takes issue; she huffs and throws her braid over her shoulder. They wet her new shoes.

Cecilia and Manchi squish in their sandals as they walk two miles back to the pier. They stop at a bait shop selling beer cozies and frozen squid and ice cream sandwiches. Manchi buys two of the sandwiches. The white cream runs down Cecilia’s fingers as it melts. Cecilia scrapes the melty brown sandwich from her fingers with her bottom teeth. She is happy and for now that is enough.

A month after their return to Orlando she will appreciate Manchi’s patience, how he knows to calm her when she grows impetuous. She will introduce him to her daughter over lunch at the country club and her daughter will remark on how well-matched they seem. She will laugh as Gouda’s loyalty drifts so that the dog responds only to Manchi’s commands and not her own. And she will go on feeling some need has been filled. But she will still be mad at time.

Holly Hollar is a financial advisor living and working in Nashville, TN. This is her debut work of fiction. Holly received a degree in Creative Writing from Emory University and holds a Masters in Business Administration from Wake Forest University. She is originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. When she is not working or writing, Holly enjoys hiking and camping with her husband Aaron and their sassy boxer, Alice.

“Marriage” by James Armstrong

I have been married for six years. I have not spoken with my wife for the past five. We live together, you understand. We sleep in the same bed and eat dinner at the same table. Yet no matter how hard I try, I cannot talk to her.

We never ran out of things to say while we were dating. We had similar interests—we both liked to cook, and we watched the same TV shows. She was relaxed and easy-going, which was exactly what I was looking for. By degrees, I suppose, I began to fall in love with her.

I had always known I wanted to get married, and right away I began asking myself if Lynn might be the one. I’m not sure I know what that means anymore, but back then I thought I did, and I was sure Lynn was it—true love, or at least something close enough. I proposed to her after dinner one night at a fancy French restaurant, and she accepted.

On our wedding day, I could hardly dress—I was so nervous—but I knew there was no one else I wanted to spend my life with. When I kissed her at the altar, I don’t think I had ever felt happier in my life.

For the first several months, things went well. We fought occasionally, but we always made up. Afterward, we would laugh at the absurdity of the things we’d argue over, the proper way to scrub a toilet or who had made coffee the last time.

After a while, Lynn started having to work more at the office. They were cutting back, and she was doing the jobs of two people. It wasn’t fair, but if she didn’t want to get sacked in the next round of layoffs, we were just going to have to deal.

Then Lynn’s uncle died. She had never been close to her father, who had abandoned them when Lynn was a teenager. Uncle Mark was the closest thing to a father she had. She mourned him for quite some time, and made it clear she needed to be alone in her grief.

After that, she started having problems with her gallbladder—at least that’s what the doctors thought it was. The whole thing cleared itself up after a while, so it could have been something else. The pain was intense for a couple of months, though, and she didn’t want to do anything—even talk.

In all this time, we would wake up together, have our morning coffee, swap out parts of the newspaper, go our separate ways to work, come home, have dinner, spend a couple hours watching TV, and go to sleep at each other’s sides. It was an orderly routine and didn’t call for us to say much of anything. Everything was understood.

That’s why I can’t tell you the precise day on which Lynn and I stopped talking. We had grown used to saying little, and soon we were saying nothing at all. The breakfast table was silent. Nothing was said over the course of dinner. We would sit on the sofa staring at the TV, and it would do the talking for us.

The worst, I think, was in bed. I would lie there next to her, wanting to say something, but I couldn’t. We had grown distant in every sense of the word except the literal one, and that hurt more than anything.

Days and weeks passed, months, and we said nothing. Lynn seemed remarkably calm about the whole situation. She would shower and dress in the morning as if nothing were wrong. She would get home and start sorting through the mail without a word, or even a look. It was as if nothing had changed, but everything had changed. My wife had stopped speaking to me, and I didn’t even know why.

Was she mad at me? Had I committed some unspeakable offense? I tried to think of what it might be. Something I had said? Not said? I began scowling at her when she walked into a room, and she would roll her eyes at me and leave.

At last, I decided I needed to be the bigger person and break the silence. I still couldn’t speak to her, however, so I wrote a note:

“Dear Lynn,” it said, “I can’t stand what has happened to us. Why don’t we ever talk anymore? If I have done something, I honestly don’t know what it was, but I am sorry. I never intended to hurt you or cause you pain. I love you, Lynn. I love you, and I want things to be the way they were before. Will you come back to me? Please? Yours Forever, Bobby.”

I left the note on the kitchen table where she would be sure to see it, then went into the bedroom and waited for her to get home. I heard the sound of her car pulling up and of its motor going still. The car door slammed. The front door to the house opened and closed, and footsteps went off into the kitchen.

I listened for a long time and heard nothing. I wanted to cry out, but I held my peace. Eventually, I heard footsteps again, and then the front door opening and closing.

I went out into the kitchen. Lynn had left me a note:

“Dear Bobby,” it said, “Went to gym. Be back later. Would you mind going to store while I’m out? I’d go myself, but it’s the opposite direction. We need milk, eggs, salad, tomatoes, and green beans. Also, if the mac & cheese is still on sale, pick up a couple boxes. Love Always, Lynn.

“P.S. Got your note. Thanks.”

I read it three or four times, still not knowing what to think. “Love Always, Lynn?” What did she mean by that? I pour my heart out to her, and she asks me to go to the grocery store?

Yet it was the postscript that was strangest of all. The note would have made sense if she hadn’t read what I’d written, but she clearly had. She had read my note, acknowledged it, but acted as if I had given her directions to the gas station.

I went to the store and got milk, eggs, salad, tomatoes, green beans, and three boxes of macaroni and cheese. When Lynn got back from the gym, I fixed green beans and mac and cheese and warmed up some eggplant we had left over in the fridge. We ate in silence then went into the living room and watched TV.

The next day, I left another note:

“Dear Lynn,” it said, “What is going on? I’m confused. Do you still love me? If so, how come we can’t talk together anymore? I feel like I’m living with a stranger, only it’s a stranger I already know. Does this make any sense to you? Help me. Please. I don’t know what to do. Desperately Yours, Bobby.”

I got another note in response:

“Dear Bobby,” it said, “Garbage collector didn’t pick up the trash for some reason. Did we put it out too late? Maybe it’s some crazy govm’t holiday. Anyway, I put it in the garage so it wouldn’t block the curb. Went to the store to pick something up for Mom’s birthday. See you when I get back. Love Always, Lynn.

“P.S. The note was sweet. Thnx.”

I wanted to pull my hair out. I drove to the shore and looked into the ocean. I wondered what it would be like to drown. I’ve always been afraid of the water, and I figured that must be about the worst death there is—to drown in the ocean.

Then I thought I would rather drown in the ocean than in a pool. At least in the ocean, you’re swallowed up by something immense, something so big you can scarcely imagine it. How much worse to drown in a pool—to drown in a bathtub—to drown in a glass of water.

I came back and found Lynn already in bed. I lied down next to her and started to cry. I wept until my tears were gone and there was nothing left inside of me. She never woke up.

The next day we had breakfast together as if nothing had happened. We went to work, came home, had dinner, and watched television. I found the monotony of our life laughable, but I didn’t know how to change it.

I wanted to ask Lynn if she’d like to do something different. Perhaps we could go out dancing, though truth be told, I can’t dance, and I only wanted to do that because I thought it was something you were supposed to do if you were a couple. Besides, who could hear each other with all that music—and what I really wanted to do was talk.

Perhaps the next weekend we could get away somewhere. The mountains maybe. I had never been to the mountains, and I had no idea how to get there, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. At least it would be different than sitting in that house—that tiny house—and not knowing what to do.

I never took her dancing, and we never went to the mountains. I hated the situation, but how could I change it when I couldn’t even talk to her?

So I decided to make tacos. I had never made tacos before, so at least it was something different. I bought tortillas and salsa and lettuce and sour cream and refried beans. We would make tacos, and life would be better.

Lynn’s a vegetarian, so that’s why there was no meat. She scooped extra large spoonfuls of beans into her taco and covered them with lettuce and tomato and sour cream and shredded cheddar cheese. She had four bean tacos, then took a spoon and scraped the last of the beans onto her plate with a little cheese and sour cream. She ate it all then left me with the dishes and went out into the living room to watch her favorite show.

After doing the dishes, I went out and sat beside Lynn on the sofa. The TV had one of those sitcoms that used to make her laugh so hard I was afraid she might fall off the couch. It was a rerun, though, and we had both seen it before. She had the volume turned up really high, and the laugh track ran every time there was a joke. Neither of us laughed.

A commercial came on, and it was louder than the show, as commercials always are. What was more, it was one of those really awful commercials from a local car dealership. Could it get any worse than that?

And there, sitting next to Lynn on the sofa, watching a bad television show break for an even worse commercial, there came a huge, low-pitched, unmistakable sound. It drowned out even the TV. From right beside me came the most enormous fart I had ever heard in my life.

And it reeked. There could be no mistaking this for moving furniture. After eating four tacos and a small mountain of refried beans, Lynn had let rip the most foul-smelling odor imaginable. I wondered if we would ever be able to let people into the house again.

Lynn and I looked at each other. And we began to laugh. It was the first time I could remember either of us laughing in a very long while. We laughed louder and louder, until tears started coming down, and we threw our arms around each other’s necks and kissed each other gently on the cheeks. I lifted her up off the sofa and took her back to the bedroom where we made love and fell asleep and woke up in the morning and said nothing.

Marriage is like that sometimes.

James Armstrong has had stories appear in The Long Story, Birmingham Arts Journal, Concho River Review, The Chaffey Review, and other publications. His plays have been published in Arts & Letters, Canyon Voices, The Louisville Review, Yemassee, and The Best American Short Plays: 2012-2013.

“Breaking the Surface” by Jeannette Brown

She has always been the Good Girl, but here she is, breaking all the rules. She wonders why she hasn’t done it before. And why she is doing it now.

She has recently received her punishment, so now she can commit crimes.

The first rule she is breaking is “Don’t go swimming until two months after the baby comes or when you quit bleeding, whichever comes first.” Or maybe second, she’s a little fuzzy on the details of her research. After reading seven or 20 websites filled with conflicting advice, the results all ran together.

She has not quit bleeding, so she’s wearing a tampon and it hasn’t yet been six weeks. Another rule broken.

It has only been three and a half weeks, yet here she is, in the humid, muggy, perhaps haunted basement of the YWCA, about to swim. Breaking another rule: No Swimming Without a Lifeguard. She’s becoming a regular scofflaw.

The air in the basement is damp and dank, fetid. It is ripe for growing fungi and other sordid parasites, but everyone knows the Y washes down the pool and the walkways, the bleachers and probably the walls with chlorine. Nothing can survive chlorine.

She approaches the ladder, turns, and backs down, slowly placing a bare foot solidly on each rung so as not to slip into the deep. She knows better than to dive or jump in. She eases into the familiarity of the water as she assumed she would ease into motherhood.

By wearing her “new mother” underwear—cotton panties and a nursing bra—she’s breaking another rule: Swimsuits Only. Still inhabiting her swollen postpartum body, she did not want to wrestle it into a restrictive, faux-fabric body suit. Her cotton undies float close to her skin. She opens both flaps of the nursing bra, allowing the water to caress her buoyant, lactating, useless breasts.

The fluidity of the water is a loving caress. She lets go of the ladder and pushes off gently, floating on her back. This is probably what being in the womb feels like, surrounded by softness, as soundless, gentle waves bring slow body bounces. The slightest ripples carry the water away before it returns. She imagines a baby curled fetally, smiling with the pleasure of merely being, floating in silence except for the occasional orchestral music or the murmur of parental voices cajoling, cooing for it to come out and join the two who have chosen its name so carefully, so specifically for this particular baby.

Water movement reflects light off the blue walls and dapples the ceiling, giving the effect of surround movement, being in a bubble. A womb bubble.

But as of three weeks ago, she has not spoken the name, will never speak it again. There is no baby. No baby that screamed in anger at being taken from its mother’s warm body bath and jettisoned into the cold antiseptic, fluorescent-lit birth station to the latex-gloved hands of the doctor.

No, she only birthed the silent baby, blue not because of the fluorescent lights but because it had been dead for over 24 hours. The doctors could not explain why or what. Just because. Maybe it couldn’t catch its breath. Maybe it needed gills. Maybe it didn’t want to be a baby.

Maybe she should be swimming in the ocean. Salt water is buoyant. Salt water heals wounds. But it only heals the kind of wounds that bleed, not the real ones. On the other hand, blood draws sharks, so maybe the ocean is a bad idea.

Floating in the warm water of the pool, she imagines being the baby, imagines that it lives and comes into the world screaming and kicking like all real babies do, so she imagines that she hears the baby screaming. She’s floating in the tepid, body-temperature water, her chin resting on the surface so that the motion of her dog-paddling hands sends tiny waves of water across her lips and into her nose when she inhales.

But after she lets the dream baby float away into the air, it continues to cry. Perhaps she’s losing her mind. According to her internet research, women like her often end up in the psych ward. They just cannot accept a stillborn baby. They lose their shit. She imagines seeking refuge away from her well-meaning friends and relatives. Even from her husband who thinks he is being so supportive but only reminds her of her failure. Her punishment for who-knows-what crime.

But still the baby cries. It wails, screams, demands to be comforted. Slowly, she realizes that the screams come not from within her mind but from the south side of the pool area, the bleachers where in all her years of water aerobics class, she has never seen an audience except for the young, inattentive lifeguard studying her homework, certain that no one in the class would distract her by drowning.

The woman gains the ladder and crawls from the water, wondering if she is hallucinating, destined for the psych ward with all the other crazy mothers and almost mothers. She finds her towel and wipes her eyes, pats her arms, and dries her hair a bit just in case the hallucination would like the opportunity to disappear. But no, when she looks toward the bleachers, she sees a plastic carrier. And a pink blanket. And the round squinting face of a baby so furious it has lost its voice.

Instinctively, she reaches for the baby, lifts it out of the carrier and cuddles it, crooning “ Sweet baby, you’ll be fine, sweet baby.” She holds it close enough to inhale its sweet scent of sour milk and burp and poo, its baby newness. The baby smiles at her with unfocused eyes.

She returns the baby to the carrier in case its mother finds her and assumes the wrong thing. Any real Mother would. Any Mother who had delivered a real live baby. She backs away, looking around, wondering when and how the Mother came and went without being noticed. She looks at the floor, searching for footprints to find a direction for the Mother, but all is wet.

She drapes her towel around her body so the Mother won’t be alarmed when she comes upon a woman standing in wet panties and unflapped bra instead of a swimsuit.

Now she’s confused because the baby is crying again and she wants to hold it but that would be awkward when the real Mother comes back, so she squats beside the baby and pats its stomach, cooing, “Sweet baby, don’t cry. Mommy’s on her way.” The baby quiets. She pats and coos for a while longer.

Where is the real Mother? Who would leave their baby alone for so long? The woman pats the baby one last time and goes to search the dressing rooms and showers. She is alone. She’s even checked the tiny men’s dressing room that she’s never seen anyone use. She’s begun to bleed past her tampon, so she lowers herself to the edge of the pool and slips back in. The red stain floats away from her like an aura, and then dissolves.

She can’t be totally psycho because she does understand that the baby doesn’t belong in the basement of a YWCA. But yes. It does. She’s seen the signs outside and in the lobby a hundred times without really seeing them: “Safe Place.” A safe place to drop off a baby that you can’t take care of, that is inconvenient, that isn’t what you thought a baby would be like.

She weighs her loss against this Mother’s gain. For this baby has a Mother and she did gain a child. But now she, too has lost her child. But why the basement, the dank pool basement? Why not leave the baby in the lobby?

Maybe the Mother was afraid of being seen, being traced. Or maybe she, too, knows the pool is the closest thing to the womb.

Here is a baby. A free baby that looks to be about a month old. Just like her baby would be if her baby had continued to be a baby instead of drifting off into the next world, nameless.

A Mother-less baby. A baby-less mother. The equation is impossibly perfect. She wonders whether the baby has a name, or whether the Mother thought that naming the baby would weigh too heavily on them both. Actually, “Baby” isn’t a bad name for the first few months, until you get a feel for the personality. At least that’s what she’s heard.

She understands the rules. If you find a baby, you turn said baby over to the authorities. She knows what a Good Girl would do. But the rules do not apply in this instance. This baby is out of bounds. This baby is beyond the laws of nature or decorum.

This Good Girl has choices.

Jeannette Brown writes poetry and fiction. Her work has been published in Bellevue Literary Review, Southwestern American Literature, New Millennium Writings, Texas Observer, ArtSpace, Mother Earth, Breathing the Same Air–An East Tennessee Anthology, Suddenly IV, Knoxville Bound, and other publications. She is the co-editor of Literary Lunch, a food anthology. She has enjoyed residencies at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Rivendell Writers’ Colony.

“My Friend Jeb” by Katie Burgess

HR asked me to put together something for Jeb, probably because I was the closest thing he had to a friend at Zoom! Wellness Emporium. See, three years ago I gave him a pound of French roast for Secret Santa. Jeb was always the first one to make coffee in the mornings, so when I drew his name that was all I could think to get him. “You require caffeine to wake up every day”—that was literally all I knew about the guy. But his face when he opened it—it was like I’d looked into his soul or something. Every day afterwards he’d tell me how he’d made some of that delicious coffee, until he used it all up, and then he’d say he tried another brand but it wasn’t as good, so he’d gone back to the one I gave him. “Zach knows coffee,” he’d tell everyone, when really I don’t like it much.

So although we’d worked together for years at the same Zoom! branch at the Green Pond Mall, I didn’t know other things about him, like how he’d joined a class for people scared of flying. That is, not until his graduation flight crashed outside Tallahassee. The obituary mentioned only that he was born in Pensacola and survived by a stepbrother there, nothing about any kind of service being held anywhere. At first no one at the store was sure what to do. But everyone remembered me and the coffee, so I was tasked with honoring his memory.

I sat up that night Googling “deceased coworker ideas” and found a lot of stuff, like poems to read, but I couldn’t tell which ones were good. I drank a beer and then another beer. I read lists of different flowers and what they meant. I ran out of beer, so I poked around the kitchen and found a bottle of coconut rum left by my ex-girlfriend, Nika. It was old but still smelled coconutty, so I figured it was fine. It tasted fine. Then I decided to call Nika.

“What is it?” she said.

“I wanted to say hey,” I said.

“Ok, you said hey.”

“Have you ever heard of candytuft? It’s a flower. Guess what it means.”

“Goodbye, Zach.”

“Wait,” I said. “I need to tell someone about Jeb. He was in a plane crash.”

“Oh my god—who?”

“Jeb. We worked together. He was an anxious flyer.”

“I don’t remember you ever mentioning a Jeb.”

“Maybe he drank too much coffee. That can exacerbate anxiety.”

“Jeb who?”

“Wilkins. I mean Wilcox. Jeb Wilcox. We were sort of friends.”

“Look, Zach, I’m sorry. But it’s late, and the kids wake up at like six.”

I’d forgotten that the guy Nika moved in with had little kids. She was probably terrific with them. “Sure,” I said. “Night.”

Monday morning I printed out a picture of Jeb from when Zoom! had its last Presidents’ Day Blowout Sale—his eyes were half closed, and he had on a Lincoln hat, but it was all anyone could find. I affixed it to some cardboard and propped it up at customer service, along with a vase of silk flowers. I’d ended up just picking flowers that looked nice, all colors, because I got confused over the different flower meanings. I made a sign saying, “A member of our Zoom! family recently passed. We invite our guests to share a few words with his loved ones,” and I left pens for people to sign the picture. HR said the stepbrother in Pensacola would be coming to pick up Jeb’s last paycheck, so I should give the picture, along with any belongings left in Jeb’s locker, to him.

I watched as customers walked past Jeb’s picture. A few stopped and made sad faces before going on to buy their yoga pants and balance balls. I tried to remember what, if anything, I’d said to Jeb the last time I saw him. Maybe some crack about our new uniforms, but that might have been to someone else. Over in vitamins, Jeb’s usual section, a trainee was explaining to customers about the different protein powders we carried, nobody knowing or caring that it should have been Jeb doing it.

At closing time the stepbrother came in to pick up Jeb’s things. He regarded the check disappointedly. I handed him a box with Jeb’s stuff—some paperbacks and a pair of reading glasses—along with the signed picture. Customers had written a few Bible verses and a heart on it. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I said. “Jeb was a terrific guy. We all loved him around here.” The stepbrother nodded and shuffled off.

As I was leaving the mall I spotted Jeb’s picture in the trash. Maybe Jeb and his stepbrother weren’t close, but I thought Jeb deserved better than to be left like that. I took the picture home.

I sat in front of the TV that night and drank the rest of the coconut rum. I called Nika again, but I got her voicemail. I tried to imagine Jeb’s last moments, when they knew the plane was going down. Did he regret getting on it? Or did he think, if only for a second, I’m flying? No telling what he might have thought, or what else I didn’t know about him.

I found an old frame I’d bought and never used, and I trimmed down the picture until it fit. I hung it up over the TV, thinking how one day people would came over and ask who that was, and I’d say, “That’s Jeb. My friend. He was a great, great man.”

Katie Burgess lives in South Carolina, where she does improv and is editor in chief of Emrys Journal.