“Downward Dog Spiral” by Madhushree Ghosh

It wasn’t that Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan was fat. Or even big—for she was only five feet one and three-fourth inches tall. She was simply…well-rounded. Admiring herself in her floor-length mirror, she inspected her softly enormous behind and pulled her T-shirt over it. The white cotton scraped unnaturally, struggled over the gluteus maximus, before uncomfortably settling halfway on it. She pulled at it again, then pulled up her black tights to hold her expanding stomach in. Her thighs jiggled in excitement at being ensconced so snugly. She applied her favorite Cover Girl Gorgeous Pink Plumper lipstick that stayed soft, shiny and specially pink on her bulbous lips that pouted (in her opinion) quite like Angelina (Jolie, that is), and tied her hair in a tight pony tail with a pink scrunchie that matched her lipstick. She debated on whether to apply some Maybelline foundation, but her face usually looked ashen, gray rather, when she did (because she used a shade ten times lighter than her dark complexion, which she thought suited her just fine), and knowing that she would sweat in her Level 2 yoga class at Del Mar Yoga, she decided against it (streaks along her cheeks and neck would just not do). It was Thursday, and Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan was ready to show every one that she was better at her downward dog yoga pose than everyone else, and her lipstick matched her scrunchie, which made her as equal to the Del Mar socialites as any.

“Hello, Vasanthi,” Michelle, the lovely dark-eyed, dark haired, dark-skinned, very skinny yoga teacher greeted her with a toothy grin when she entered. “You’re in early, come, sit.”

Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan wobbled from one foot then the other, took off her pink flip-flops, and moved to the front of the room, grinning with pride. Her teacher, ten years her junior, had finally started to recognize her, after eight months of Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan turning up for the Thursday class fifteen minutes early so she would notice her. “Yes, yes, Meetchell, that way I can sit in the front to practice, no?” Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan always ended each sentence she spoke with a question mark so people never knew if she had asked them something. Michelle waited uncertainly, and then turned away.

Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan flapped her yoga mat loudly onto the wooden floor, and pulled the yoga belt next to her teacher, and sat down. When she smiled at Michelle again, her yoga teacher had already returned to her eyes-closed meditation lotus pose.

Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan moved closer to Michelle, who sat in front facing her, eyes closed, soft controlled breathing, her Om tank top, green, tight around her taut body, her red yoga pants clinging to her thin yet yoga-transformed supple body. Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan was not in love with her teacher, after all, you can only respect your teacher, but she surely did want to be Michelle. In fact, Michelle looked so Indian, that on the first class, Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan had actually asked her, “Which part of India are you from? North or South?” to which Michelle had laughed and shaken her head, “Oh, I wish, I wish…” and moved to the next student, which had always made Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan suspect that Michelle had some Indian blood in her and it wasn’t the Native-American kind.

But this afternoon was different. Beyond the office, she heard the flush turn in the restroom. Eh, what could that mean, Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan thought. This could only mean that there was someone else besides Michelle and her. Michelle sat still, lotus posed, palms to her heart, praying for peace, while Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan leaned over to the office to spot the most handsome god in the world tying his yoga pant cord tight, walking toward the class. He wasn’t too pale, (she meant, white), in fact, a nice bronze, like he sat in the sun forever, his hair was long, almost till his shoulders, tied in a nice ponytail with a leather band and dream of all dreams, he wore no shirt to cover his ripply abdomen or his taut arms. Only his white yoga pants gleamed, pants that he wore loose and low on his hips, and when he smiled, his front teeth had a soft gap that made him instantly endearing to Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan.

“Hi, I’m new, and you look like you come here every day.” He grinned again, settling down next to her in a comfortable slide. As she smiled back and thought of wonderfully witty things to say, she realized he had a lovely foreign accent, not Indian, not European, but some other place. Mexico? Spain (no, wait, that’s Europe)? Portugal (no, that’s Europe too)? Colombia (maybe…)?

His grin faded somewhat when all she did was smile, so she hurriedly replied, “Oh yes, every Thursday, ever since Michelle’s been teaching at Del Mar Yoga.” She hoped her accent was not too thick, and she wasn’t speaking too fast, since sometimes, when she was excited, her Indianness got the better of her. “And you? You practice yoga?” she tried to talk as she had heard the other yoga ladies make friends with each other, ignoring her completely.

He nodded. “Learning,” he said, making a face, like he was very bad at it, which made Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan giggle like a sixteen-year-old. “Can I place my mat next to you,” he whispered, even though there wasn’t anyone around, and Michelle was still in meditation.

She nodded vigorously, then tightened her scrunchie, so her hair would stay in and so would her ready-to-burst popping heart hidden beneath her trembling breasts.

The Del Mar socialites walked in—all white with speckles of age and sun spots, taut surgeried faces, wrinkly hands, and perky artificial breasts in PrAna yoga tops. They laughed, sashayed to take their designer sandals off, and laughed some more before slowly making their way to the back of the class, flopping their designer mats on the floor with sharp, decisive whacks to straighten them with one swift motion of their twiggy wrists. Some of them adjusted their yoga pants, while some touched their lips to check for lipstick slippage, but most of them settled down casually into their mats and showed off by standing on their heads in shish asana like that was their inherent state of being. They ignored Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan, but this afternoon, she did not mind, for this gorgeous god of a man was next to her.

Michelle opened her eyes, smiled beatifically, adjusted herself, then pushed at the remote. Om, the chant spread through the room, echoing off the pristine peaceful white walls, ricocheting off the Nataraj bronze statue of Shiva, heading to the door with the stick-figure of a woman (Michelle, likely) sketched in tandav pose, and everyone chanted Om along with the wafting music.

“Om! Om!” Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan shouted above the pencil-thin voices of the Del Mar socialites. That would show them to ignore a true yogi like her, a true Indian who had to come to this ridiculously expensive yoga studio because there weren’t very many Indians around with whom she could practice yoga. No, really, she may be ‘prosperous-looking’, rounded in a Hindu goddess kind of way, but she knew her asanas, her poses. She was good in holding her stances, she was good in kicking her legs high up in the air, holding her breath for three minutes straight, lifting her pelvis till it hit the ceiling and she knew she was a yogi, as yogis are supposed to be: calm, peaceful (sometimes), deeply meditative (that was debatable, but she was working on that), and celibate (only, not by choice).

The class was already silent, as was the voice in the CD player. Only soft music played. But Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan would have none of that. “Om!” she screamed again to the low grunts of the socialites. One of them in fact, hissed, “Sh!” toward her but when she opened one eye and saw Adonis (that was the name she decided for her god sitting next to her) smiling at her, she repeated Om a few more times, even after the music stopped and Michelle looked at her for a long moment, waiting for her to quiet down.

Adonis smiled again when Michelle asked every one to stretch, and Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan accidentally stretched in the wrong direction, her slightly chipped nails touching Adonis’ long artist-like fingers. “Sorry, I was only—” to which he smiled at her again, and Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan quivered with love. She imagined coming to yoga class every day, sitting next to him, and the one day he would get out of the restroom, and drop on one knee in front of her and say, “Vasanthi, you’re gorgeous. You’re the best yoga master I’ve ever met, let’s go for a coffee.” Which she knew to mean, to have a rollicking time in bed, and since she was a US citizen now, there was no one to stop her from that. Because once he found out what a tiger she was in the sex department (too bad her soon-to-be-ex-husband couldn’t appreciate that, even though she tried almost every pose from the Kama Sutra), he would fish out a ten-carat, no, twenty-carat ring from his gleaming white yoga pants and ask her to marry him.

The socialites giggled which made her realize she was still stretching when everyone had moved to the first downward dog pose, the adha mukha svanasana, the one where the bottoms rose high in the air and every one was on all fours breathing heavily, and stretching their spines. Adonis stretched like a big, white dog, softly breathing, winking at Michelle who smiled back. Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan smiled at him and whispered, “Do like this, yes, bottom higher, higher, like this!” and wiggled hers to show how high she could go, even though she was now out of breath and her arms were hurting abominably. Michelle walked around class, straightening the poses, pushing some backs down, lifting some stomachs up, then reaching Adonis, and playfully pushing at his feet. “Come on, Ogousto, straighten up, you can do it.” To which he grinned back and scrunched up his nose, but Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan was incensed. That was not nice of Michelle to do that, torturing her poor Adonis (who was Ogousto, according to Michelle). “Don’t listen to her,” she whispered angrily at Ogousto, and he wiggled his eyebrows in surprise. “Why?” “Because I can teach you the right pose, yes, like that, bottom up, chest down, spine curved, yes, yes.” Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan was on a roll. Michelle walked by and told her not to stretch so much, she would strain her back, and anyway, the pose was over, now do some cat-cow poses and then some sun-salutations in rapid succession.

Throughout the next hour, Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan huffed and perspired alongside Ogousto, who for a first-timer was quite a lithe athlete. He didn’t need her help, but always smiled when she offered (which was often), and when Michelle said, “Come on, partner up, and help your partner on their shoulder stand!” he readily offered his help, and Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan was so honored, she stood with her shoulders closer to the mat, and her feet up in the air, admiring her upside-down god.

Michelle wandered closely around them, fixing Ogousto’s pose, telling Vasanthi to stop talking to him (because that turning of her head when she was in a head stand may just snap her neck, but Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan didn’t believe it one bit), and once in a while leaving her hand on Ogousto’s leg or shoulder or back a second longer than Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan would have liked.

Finally, after an hour and a half of backbends, reverse triangle poses, Warrior I and II, and then reverse Warrior, followed by eagle and pigeon, even dolphin, Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan was exhausted. But since this afternoon was a different one, she was energized because of Ogousto. Now would be the last downward dog, the downward dog spiral, and she could turn toward the man of her dreams and ask him for coffee, yes! That was exactly what she would do, she decided.

“Now, ladies, and gentleman,” Michelle’s low voice purred to the giggles of the Del Mar socialites, “let’s spiral before we go into deep meditation. The corpse pose. So, let’s go, downdog spiral!” she waved her thin arms and went on all fours and lifted her left leg high in the air in front of Ogousto. He did the same, with a grand sweep of his left foot, turning toward Michelle, he twisted himself so he faced her almost, on all threes, his left leg touching hers in an embrace that seemed very familiar, very natural. But Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan would have none of that. “Hey, Ogousto, you’re not supposed to do that! That’s the teacher, you’re supposed to respect the teacher, not touch her like that. Come on,” she waved at him and rolled onto her belly, trying to rise up on her tired arms, “Come, you can spiral toward me.”

Ogousto was not listening, and nor was Michelle. They looked at each other, soft smiles on their faces like they hadn’t seen each other for many months. The Del Mar socialites looked at them and sighed a collective “Aw” before settling down in comfortable downward dog positions. Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan shook in anger and pain because her arms hurt and the one man in her life had cheated on her, and how dare he? How dare he! One of the socialites looked at her, and shook her head, disapproving, “Leave him be, Va-san-tee! Ogousto joined Del Mar Yoga last week to teach Level 1 yoga. He knows what he’s doing, so, stop teaching him, will ya?”

A yogi doesn’t lie, and he did, the lying fellow, now pretending to be oh-so-graceful on his downward dog spiral, while he and Michelle looked at each other like lusty, lying canines! Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishan slipped on her sweat, her mat slid and she fell ungracefully on her soft bottom. She did not get up and pretended to go into the corpse pose, eyes closed, heart palpitating.

She remembered the days when she thought she would break down, cry, and return to India, a failure in life, love and marriage. But she didn’t. She became strong.She spiraled down, down and even further and thought, oh, no, you can’t do that, Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan, you are strong, capable and you need to show your soon-to-be-ex Mr. Srinath Venkata Gopalakrishnan you are American. Crying like an Indian movie actress just won’t do. Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan took deep yoga breaths, calmed down, and focused on the next step. She was not going to spiral, no matter what everyone else expected her to do.

Om, the music started again, this time soft, slow, and Michelle walked to the office to log people in. Ogousto got up and sat next to her as the rest of the class pretended to sleep. The Del Mar socialites turned and some of them let out soft snores of exhaustion. Vasanthi Kumari Gopalakrishnan lay on her back, her arms rigidly parallel to her body, and decided to buy a gallon of vanilla frozen yogurt with chocolate sprinkles from the Golden Spoon Yogurt shop next door and eat it all by herself. And then she remembered that there was a monthly film group that met at Horton Plaza and watched all American movies. Yes, she would sign up for that when she got back home with her yogurt.


Madhushree Ghosh has been a contest finalist or has been published in Zoetrope, Glimmer Train, Cerebration, Construction, and others. She was also a finalist at the San Diego Book Awards 2011 and was the Oakley Hall Fiction Scholar at Squaw Valley Fiction Workshop 2009. She is currently the International Fiction editor of Del Sol Review.

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“Awkward” by Cheryl Ursin

He wished he had never started.

Always, in that split second, whenever he hit “send.”

It had begun innocently—or so he told himself. The boy always left his cell phone around. Or more to the point, it always fell out of his pocket: between the cushions of the couch, from when he slouched in front of the TV, between seat and door in the car, on the dining-room rug beneath his chair. He knew the boy didn’t get many texts, or have many friends, but he told himself, as the boy’s father, he should check that phone. So, when he saw it lost among a pile of the boy’s clothes, he picked it up and ran his thumb across the screen.

There were only a handful of texts, dating back to when they first got the boy his phone, and they were all to and from the boy’s mother, his ex-wife.

The boy’s texts were all need-based: “Where r u?” (“Main entrance.”), “Forgot my lunch!” (I’ll bring it. 1 hour.”)

The first time he had done it, there was a text from the mother from the night before, and it had gone unanswered. “Don’t stay up 2 late,” she had written.

If he was ever questioned about it, he would say that he had done it, started this whole business, trying to be nice. But, in fact, he answered that text because it annoyed him. She was busy being the parent, even though he had the boy for the weekend. As if he couldn’t be trusted. And here was the rub—he couldn’t. He had no idea when the boy went to bed last night. When he himself had gone, the boy had still been where he always was, in the gray glow of the computer screen playing a game.

“Good morning¸ Mom,” he tapped out and hit send.

She had answered immediately¸ which scared him a bit. But of course she would. If the boy had made any kind of overture to anybody, that would have been big. Even he knew that.

“Hi sweetie,” she wrote, and so it began.

And it worked, in that he did not get caught. He didn’t do it a lot. He wasn’t stupid. But when the boy came on his weekends, he texted the mother, pretending to be the boy. Since the boy was never away from her overnight otherwise and because he was not allowed, even if it had ever occurred to him, to send texts from school, it didn’t seem strange to her that the boy only texted  her when he was with him. And the boy never checked his own texts. If he was his usual, unresponsive self with her, when they were face-to-face, back in reality, well, she would accept that. It’s not like anybody understood the boy.

He didn’t know why he kept doing it, and that made him feel a little queasy. But he would send a text and then wait, phone in hand, for the reply. Of course, he made himself look good in the texts when he could, having the boy say what a good time he was having or mention, casually, what cool thing his dad was doing with him. It even affected that—what he did with the boy. He began to make plans, have his secretary look for things and buy tickets: to a monster truck show, a Blue Man Group show, they even went to a dog show.

Maybe it was because things weren’t going so great for him. He had gone on a handful of dates since he left, mostly girls, he could only think of them as girls, who were much younger than he. And truth be told, they scared him a little¸ made him feel awkward. Like the one who took him to a rock concert with her friends. He didn’t like standing with his feet gummed to the floor by a film of beer. He didn’t like standing the whole time, period. He didn’t like having to shout into her ear and then not be heard anyway, and he didn’t like the way the inner workings of his ears buzzed deep in his head for hours afterwards.

The older women weren’t better. He hadn’t ever, as a young man, had all this “success,” all these dates, but something about them now wasn’t right. The two or three women his age, all gussied up, mouths brightly smiling but eyes looking hunted, both he and she trying to say smart things, present themselves well, like they were in a tough job interview.

And he had grown to hate his new place, a townhouse he had furnished, all in one go, in a single trip to a furniture store, all chrome, black leather and dark wood. The townhouse itself had no good windows. Every room was dark, something he had not noticed when he saw it with the realtor, a woman his age, who wore a tight red dress and high heels, like she was going to a cocktail party, with whom he had had one particularly grim date.

The townhouse had quickly developed a bad, stale smell; its surfaces were all either sticky or dusty. Nothing but crumbs in the refrigerator, that and an old quart of milk, dating back to when he had moved in, that should be thrown out but instead had been shoved to the back, the sight of which bothered him every time he opened the door.

He had nothing to eat in his house, couldn’t fix himself anything, not even a cup of coffee, though he had bought the most expensive coffeemaker at the William-Sonoma next door to the furniture store. He would have had to learn how to use it.

He couldn’t get comfortable on the leather sofa in the living room, where there wasn’t good lamp to read by, just a very bright overhead light that threw harsh shadows.

When he had finally gotten the cable company in to set up the TV, he sat watching the channel the installer had left on. It was some sort of talk show, with the camera panning over an audience of women who responded visibly to what the people in front of them were saying. The people were talking about why their marriages had failed. One man had left his wife when she turned out to be terminally ill with cancer. A woman had dumped her husband when his business had failed. Adversity, said the expert who was up there with them being interviewed, can make a marriage stronger or it can destroy it.

It was their son, he suddenly felt, when things didn’t go right with their son, that had done it for them. Nothing could be easy, the way it was supposed to be, could it? Could it? That was what he had found himself screaming at the son one evening – thank God his wife had not been home to witness that.

He had been trying to get the son to dress to go out for dinner. The wife wasn’t home, so they were going to go out somewhere. It was already late and he was hungry. The boy came down in a ridiculous outfit, ill-fitting, contrasting patterns, dirty, no shoes. He kept sending him upstairs again and again to change, but the boy could never get it right. And he was overweight and his skin was bad and his hair was greasy and stuck up all over the place. He was just … lumpen.

The other kids in that wealthy neighborhood where they used to live: they were so beautiful, every one of them physically graceful, perfectly and expensively dressed, with clear skin and perfectly tousled hair.

And then there was their son – who was nearly his height, with his dark hair, and had his bad eyesight (which he had always thought he got because he studied too much, but maybe it was genetic). The boy’s hair was not tousled, it was dirty and weird. There was no charm, no grace to the boy. He never even looked clean. His shirts didn’t stay tucked, white pockets always stuck out from his pants, his shoes were always untied. He walked like his body hurt.

His son couldn’t approach a stranger or even someone he knew, look them in the eye and say hi. And he didn’t know what to say when they greeted him, just looked furtively at the ground and kind of rocked where he stood.

This all made him, the father, feel mental.

It started way back. A colicky baby, one who couldn’t be comforted, didn’t coo or smile or babble, one who always had some kind of skin rash, a baby who did not sleep and was not cute.

They got called into conferences, starting when the boy was two. Two! In nursery school.

When he came home early enough, which wasn’t often, he’d try talking to the baby, he would, even though he felt like a fool and would really much rather be nursing a drink and reading the paper. But the baby didn’t respond back, didn’t even seem to realize he was being spoken to.

He saw his wife doing it. She’d be on the floor, staring into the toddler’s eyes, talking, talking, talking, slowly and emphatically. She’d tell him that was what this therapist or that book recommended. Sounded like a bunch of bullshit to him. But when she said the boy needed home visits from a therapist, he didn’t balk. When she said he needed to be in a special school, privately he was concerned. He wanted the boy to go to the prep school, that conduit to the Ivies, in their neighborhood. But then he watched the boy, one rare Saturday morning, when he took him out to the park. Other boys—cute as a television commercial—were kicking a soccer ball around with their dads. Clearly, they knew and were following the rules. They chattered away at their fathers and ran around like tight little springs. Then he looked at his son, who couldn’t even kick a ball, or swing on a swing, who had not said a single word to him during this whole outing, already filthy from sitting in the mud in a weedy corner of the park, digging with a stick.

Which school the boy went to was his wife’s call, he decided. Dealing with the boy was her thing.

Though there were times, when he was angry, when he told her it wasn’t even a thing. What did she do all day, he wanted to know. Eating bon-bons and shopping, he asked, even as he knew, looking at her, getting older and frumpier, hair going gray and frizzy, that she wasn’t going to the gym or the spa or shopping. He even told her, once, that it was her fault the boy was the way he was. She did something wrong when he was a baby. He didn’t know what since he wasn’t there, but it must have been something. And this hovering now: how did she know that IT wasn’t what was causing the boy to be so backward?

Why couldn’t things just be right?

In quiet moments, he knew he wasn’t a nice person, which was why he avoided having quiet moments. He was harsh and competitive and driven. He couldn’t keep a secretary for more than a few months. The last one had left, in tears, on the third day.

But he was right to be the way he was. Look at where all that nastiness got him. He was at the top of the heap at work. A lot of people had dropped out. But not him. He ran things and he made a lot of money. Being an asshole, not suffering fools, was necessary to be a success.

And would the wife even have married him if he hadn’t had some chance at success? And would there be any therapists and any special school—$40 grand a year—without his money?

No. He was what he was and he was right to be.

But, still, he texted her. And it did occur to him that he could just call her—as he held the boy’s cell phone, a call was just one button push away. But he couldn’t. During their last fight, which the boy was present for, he screamed at both of them, he threatened to leave. And she had just said, very quietly, “Go, then.” And he had had to, then, hadn’t he?

He read her replies to the boy, who she always called Sweetie or Honey, sometimes Boo Boo or even just Boo, with a hunger. Encouragements, ever-patient reminders, little “thinking of you” sentiments, decorated with emoticons. He thought, if he was still with her, that he would tell her, shout at her, that he had never had any of this, growing up—it was laughable to think of either of his parents doing anything other than yell at him—and he had turned out just fine, more than fine.

One weekend, he had seen his son pull a textbook and a notebook out of his bookbag and sit down at the dining-room table. He knew that the kid had never done that, not on his own, before. He came over to watch. He looked at the work, which was stultifying easy, over the boy’s shoulder. The boy misspelled something, and he pointed it out. Well, it was misspelled, wasn’t it? What was he supposed to do? But the boy had sat for a moment, looking at the notebook, then shut it and shoved everything back into the bag.

“No,” the father said. “Keep going. You were doing good.”

But the boy just carried the bookbag up the stairs.

He stood there, squeezing his eyes shut.

And, then, one day, he was found out.

He had just texted her. It was pretty late at night. The boy was in the next room, killing zombies on the computer. He had texted, “Good night, Mom.” She didn’t text back; she called. He jumped and dropped the phone. The ring was loud and there was a picture of her on the screen—a very unflattering shot that the boy must have snapped; she was looking away, unaware she was being photographed.

She didn’t leave a message.

Then his phone began ringing in his pocket.

He considered not answering, but then thought, in that split-second, that that would really give him away.

So he answered, like he didn’t know who it was.

“Hello?”

“It’s been you, hasn’t it?” she said.

“What?” he stammered. “Who is this—“

“You know who this is,” she said. “You just texted me from Josh’s phone, didn’t you?”

He briefly considered denial. Not too briefly, though. The silence grew unbearably long.

“Yes,” he said finally.

“You asshole,” she said, then paused. “It’s been you all along, hasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Was it ever him?”

“No.”

He was startled to hear a cry from her. It was her turn for a long pause.

“I will pick him up at the regular time tomorrow,” she said finally, and hung up.

He went in to stand behind his son, watched him shoot a zombie in the chest at point-blank range.

“That was your mom on the phone.”

The boy didn’t respond.

“She said to say hey.”

Another zombie charged the boy, who shot it in the head. Blood and brain splattered all over the screen.

The son pushed away the keyboard and spun around in the chair, nearly knocking his father in the knees. He did not make eye contact. He waited for a beat, eyes downcast, as if unsure what might happen next. Then, he heaved himself out of the chair and fled the room.


Cheryl Ursin is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Houston Community Newspapers, and the restaurant guidebook Gayot’s NYC Restaurants. She is currently a contributing writer for the Buzz Magazines in Houston. This is her first published piece of fiction.

“This Is Mardi Gras” by Murray Dunlap

We fly in first-class on Piggy Bank’s dime, arriving at eight o’clock on Friday morning. The limousine driver with chestnut skin holds up a sign with our names on it. We drink single malt scotch from crystal glasses as New Orleans jaunts past through one-way windows. Tourists in T-shirts and cargo-pants try to see who we are. They think we’re famous. The scotch is Johnnie Walker Blue. Bartenders charge thirty dollars for a glass, neat, and I spill some in my lap. The driver, Sweet Comfort, reminds us that champagne brunch on the patio at Bayona will begin in two hours. He calls us Mr. Husband and Miss Wife. He’s in full livery.

“Ya’ll best take it easy now.”

“We slept on the plane,” I say.

“All right. All right. Just don’t let it slide,” Sweet Comfort says. “Mr. Piggy Bank wants everybody on time. He goin’ all out.”

Wife says, “So are we.”

At the Wyndsor Court Hotel, we shower and change in deluxe accommodations. Our rooms have more square feet than our home. We have a foyer and mini-kitchen that bleeds into a den with three sofas. Beyond that, a dining table set for eight. Then a step through French doors reveals a king-sized bedroom with a king-sized bed that opens onto a balcony overlooking the Mississippi river. I press a button at bedside, and a television rises up from inside an antique chest. We use perfumed soaps and tiny bottles of lotion. We drink beers from the mini bar and charge it to the room.

“It’s too much,” I say.

“Piggy Bank’s got it,” Wife says.

“I shouldn’t have opened the scotch in the limo.”

“That’s what it’s there for.”

“Still. It was Blue.”

“We’re married. He’s your brother too.”

“I’m uncomfortable,” I say.

“So take off your coat.”

The limo arrives at ten o’clock sharp and shuttles us to Bayona’s where Piggy Bank opens the first bottle of Dom Perignon with a sword.  A smooth, white smile never leaves his thick ruddy face. Fifteen bottles are popped in all. The wait staff runs in and out and in and out and our flutes never go dry.

The rest of the party consists of Piggy Bank’s wife, her divorced parents, her siblings and cousins. Don’t forget Piggy Bank’s family, the half-brothers and half-sisters and a menagerie of friends. All flown in first-class. All expenses paid.

This is New Orleans. This is Mardi Gras.

As we are seated, Piggy Bank’s wife Silky clinks a silver spoon against her glass.

“It’s time for Dirty Beads. You should all pick a number from the bag Sugar is carrying to your tables. Once you have your number, start thinking about which set of beads you want. Other Girl, show them the beads.”
Other Girl begins lifting beads from a bright green bag, one by one. She makes hand motions like Vanna White. She has the same hair. On the first set of beads, tiny lights blink inside translucent pink gambler’s dice. Another has cartoonish boxes of Viagra and a life size penis dangles from the bottom. Bald Guy tries to grab them, but Other Girl slaps his hand. One after the other, she goes through two dozen beads. The last ones, plastic oysters with black and white pearls, she holds over her head and twirls on a finger.

The rules of the game make no sense. Everyone is drunk. Piggy Bank snatches the numbers out of our hands and throws them on the ground. He stands on his chair and tosses beads across the room. He throws some over his shoulder without looking. I catch the blinking dice. Wife catches the oysters. Other Girl already has the penis beads hung around her neck and no one tries to take them.

“Sir,” a waiter says. “Could you step down from the chair, please?”

“This is Mardi Gras,” Piggy Bank says.

“Sir, we’d hate for you to fall.”

Piggy Bank slips out a fifty and folds it into the waiter’s breast pocket. He’s still smiling. The waiter leaves the room.


The parade starts at noon. Piggy Bank owns a huge double-gallery style house in the garden district, directly on the parade route. White columns, black wrought-iron gate, and courtyard pool. He has an iron lion’s head in the wall that spits a continuous stream of water into a fountain. His bedroom ceiling is painted in gold leaf with an oval mirror above the bed. Bald Guy calls it the Hotel Frenchafornia, but we all know his ex-wife Sugar said it first. Piggy Bank bought the house so we could watch the parades without driving or walking. He bought it so we could use the bathrooms and not the port-o-lets. He bought it despite the fact that he lives in Connecticut, works in New York, and only makes it down two weeks a year. Two weeks for Mardi Gras.

This is it.

In the middle of the crowd on the sidewalk, we’ve put together a kitchen of crawfish and boiled potatoes. We’ve got fresh silver queen corn and a half dozen king cakes. We’ve got cases of beer and wine. We’ve got expensive scotch. Piggy Bank stands in the middle of us in coat and tie and sunglasses. He’s red-faced and smiling and waving to friends all over the street. Silky hands plates of food to anyone within reach. A Stranger stops and taps my shoulder.

“Who is he?” A Stranger asks. “Is he famous?”

“Have you seen the movie Wall Street?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s Gordon Gecko,” I say. Then I wink.

“So cool.”

A Stranger kneels down and lifts a beer from the cooler.

“Cool?” she asks.

“Cool,” I say. “This is Mardi Gras.”

The floats cruise past, then the high school bands, then the cops on horseback. Then the next float, the next band, the next batch of cops. It goes on like this for hours. Bald Guy throws his arms over Piggy Bank’s shoulder and drinks scotch from the bottle. He may be the father-in-law, but they’re exactly the same age. I eat a few crawfish, wipe the burn of spice from my fingers, and chase it with beer. But I’m not hungry. Wife catches a plastic headband with googley eyes on springs. She puts it on and does an eighties dance routine. I’ll admit to you that she is good looking, very good looking, and her neck is entirely hidden by beads. I snap a picture.

After the parade, Sweet Comfort drives us back to the hotel.

Port of Call at eight sharp,” he says. “I’ll be right here at a quarter of.”

“What do we wear?” I ask.

“It’s a burger bar, Mr. Husband. It don’t matter.”

We shower and change into casual clothes. I stretch out on the bed. Wife stands on the balcony and watches people milling in the street.

“Anyone naked?” I ask.

“Not anymore,” Wife says. “A girl on the corner did a quick flash.”

“How was it?”

“Very pale.”

“How much do you think this room is a night?”

“She was sort of droopy.”

“Six hundred?”

“What? She didn’t even get beads.”


In the lobby, we meet up with Sugar and Sage, Other Girl and Other Boy, and, of course, Bald Guy. He’s still drunk and puts a hand on my shoulder. He holds up a digital camera but his hands shake and I can’t see anything.

“Check this out dude,” he says. “Kiss.”

“Kiss what?”

“Gene Simmons, man.”

“I’m good.”

“No man, Gene Simmons.” Bald Guy squints his eyes and sings, “I, wanna rock and roll all night, party every day.”

“KISS,” I say.

“Right here in our hotel.”

I steady the camera and look at the tiny image. Bald Guy and Gene Simmons, arm in arm.

“Excellent,” I say.

“He’s riding tonight.”

“Gene Simmons?”

“I’m gonna get hammered.”

“Excellent.”

You and Bald Guy wouldn’t get along.

The limo picks us up and winds through back streets. We pull up from behind Port of Call and get out. Piggy Bank is already there, wearing a white linen suit. He’s taking drink orders on the front steps and yelling them over his shoulder to the bar.

“I’ll be right back,” I say.

“What?” Wife asks. “Where?”

“Across the street. They’ve got a cash machine.”

“What do you need cash for?”

“He’s not buying this too,” I say.

“Of course he is. But you can try.”

When I get back, everyone is seated and drinking hurricanes.

“I got your hurricane,” Piggy Bank says.

“That’s okay,” I say. “I’ll get a beer.”

“A beer?”

“Sure.”

“Pussy.”

No one pays any attention. The burgers and baskets of fries come, and I eat fast. I order a dozen boiled shrimp and eat that too. Crab cakes. Even the jalapeno poppers. I use extra horseradish in my sauce. When they take my drink order, I ask for Delirium Tremens. You know the one. It’s the beer with a pink elephant on the label. I tell them to bring me two at a time. Then I ask for a dessert menu, and I’m told that all they have is chocolate cake. It’s not what I want, but I ask for it anyway. By the time it comes out, it’s time to go. We stand on the sidewalk while Piggy Bank pays the bill.


We make our way to Bourbon Street and join the crowd. It’s like walking into a thicket. Six steps in and you disappear. I grab Wife’s hand, but everyone else is gone. Just freaks in costume, men in drag, whores on the job, and pickpockets. We move deeper into the street and I make a fist around Wife’s belt. Beads sail through the air. Men and boys, and sometimes girls, throw them at Wife. She smiles and says thank you. Sometimes she does a little curtsy. Then three women on a balcony above the souvenir shop lift up their shirts. Countless thick-necked meatheads gape. The crowd stops moving and we’re trapped, bodies pressed together hard.

“I can’t breath,” Wife says.

“And they’re ugly,” I say.

“This is miserable.”

“Let’s try for that bar.”

We push our way off the street and manage to cut inside a place called Fat Catz. It’s less than standing room only, but it’s better than outside. I pay cash for two Coronas and we sip them in the corner. Wife leans against the wall.

“This is better,” she says.

“For now,” I say. “We’ll have to get out somehow.”

“But this is better.”

“Yes. This is better. But I’ll want to get out soon.”

I get bumped by the guy next to me and it’s clear he’s been shoved. He pulls a fist back and sets his jaw.

I say, “It’s not worth it.”

The guy looks at me. He holds his fist in the air.

“Bullocks,” he says and throws the punch.

The cops arrive instantly. In less than four minutes, they break up the fight and haul three people to jail. That’s the rule on Bourbon Street. If you fight, you go to jail. Get it off the street. Sort it out later. We watch it like a TV show.

When it’s over, Wife and I take alleyways to Royal and make it back to the hotel by midnight. We’re not tired yet so we walk upstairs to the Polo Lounge for another drink. Bald Guy is there with a glass of pink champagne in his hand. He’s doing some sort of dance move and the girl he’s standing with giggles. Her sequin skirt stops an inch below her crotch. Sometimes less.

“My buddy Gene and I rode with Endymion tonight,” he says.

“Gene who?” she asks.

“I, wanna rock and roll all night.”

“Gene Simmons?”

“Don’t say it too loud,” he says. “He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s here.”

“In this hotel?”

Bald Guy winks and smiles. He orders another pink champagne. He charges it to Piggy Bank.

“Do we stay?” Wife asks.

“We’ve still got the ball tomorrow night. Commander’s Palace on Sunday. I think there might be a lunch at Galatoire’s.”

“I don’t have the endurance for this trip,” she says.

“I don’t have the clothes for this trip.”

“Stop it.”

“Let’s head up then. Get some sleep,” I say. “We could go for beignets in the morning?”

“Of course we’ll get beignets,” Wife says. “This is New Orleans.”

“And it’s Mardi Gras.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“Either way, I’m buying.”

“You’re so cool.”

“You go ahead then,” I say. “I’m going to step outside for some air.”

“I forget, does air suck or blow?” Wife narrows her eyes. “Well. Take your time.”

Wife turns on her heel and makes for the door.


We push through the weekend, overeating, overdrinking, overspending. We have trout almandine at Galatoire’s. We have shrimp remoulade at Commander’s. We have the finest champagne everywhere we go. In between, in limousines, we drink Blue. Piggy Bank never stops smiling and Bald Guy never gets sober. You would have never stopped laughing. And not just everyday laughing, but the kind where your eyes pinch shut and your hands shake. I could watch you laugh like that for the rest of my life.

But before it’s all over and before we fly home, first-class on Piggy Bank’s dime, this one thing happened that I haven’t told you yet. I’m not sure if I should. We were in his double-gallery house. After the parade, but before Port of Call. No big deal. It’s just another story.


We carried leftover parade food and booze into the house and picked at lukewarm crawfish. Wife napped on the couch while Sugar and Sage watched TV. Bald Guy drank scotch and twisted unintelligible words on his tongue. He took wobbly steps to the kitchen island. He grabbed on with both hands. Then he lifted his head and focused his eyes. He spoke, maybe to Sweet Comfort.

“You know that girl,” he said.

“Which one?” Sweet Comfort asked.

“The one with google eyes.” Bald Guy put index fingers on top of his head and wiggled them like antennae. His drinking voice boomed through the house.

“You mean Miss Wife.”

He arched his back. “Came to see me last night. She’s as tight as drum. Mouth like a Hoover.”

Silence. No one moved. Not even me.

I was on the phone with you.

Piggy Bank stood near enough to grab Bald Guy’s collar and drag him out of the room. It was over in seconds. A door slammed, but we could still hear the shouting. Silky asked if anyone wanted a drink. Maybe I should tell you that Piggy Bank is having an affair with a woman named Florida. Maybe I should tell you that Silky wants a divorce and that everyone is waiting to see who gets the house. Or maybe I should just tell you what happened next.

Sweet Comfort took a few steps over and squeezed my arm. He wore the penis beads over black livery.

“It’s Mardi Gras,” he said. “Folks act a fool.”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“You should go back to the hotel,” Wife said.

“I would like to clean up,” I said.

“Come on then,” Sweet Comfort said. “I’ll take you home.”


Mardi Gras parades move through the streets in a cloud of beads and Frisbees, embroidered panties and silk roses, a hail of plastic cups and silver coins. Every few years, someone will fall from their float and die. Some are crushed by the wheels, others by the hooves of horses. There are isolated incidents of stabbings and gunfire. But for the most part, the parades move smoothly. The girls who lift their shirts get the most loot. Little boys with fishing nets scoop up the rest. Everyone else taps feet and sips beer and smiles at how much dirty chaos one city can get away with. They fly in from all over the world. They buy souvenirs and expensive dinners and Johnny Walker Blue. They keep hotels in business. It’s very carefully maintained. Men like Piggy Bank own this town. I pass through like a tossed stone, skipping across the surface of the Mississippi River for a brief moment, only to drop and sink beneath the muddy water. Just like Bald Guy. Wife is somewhere in between. Very soon, an epic convergence of hurricane swells and weak levees and leaking oil will change the city forever. But for these few seconds, the parade holds us together. As bright and blinking as an elaborate string of beads.

We all reach up with waving hands and lifted shirts and fishing nets and hopeful eyes. We reach up to catch them. This is Mardi Gras. I’ve got a piece of it right here in my hands.


MurrayDunlapMurray Dunlap’s work has appeared in about fifty magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, as well as to Best New American Voices once, and his first book, -an early draft of “Bastard Blue” (then called “Alabama”) was a finalist for the Maurice Prize in Fiction. His first collection of short stories, “Bastard Blue,” was published on June 7th, 2011 (the three year anniversary of a car wreck that very nearly killed him…). The extraordinary individuals Pam Houston, Laura Dave, Michael Knight, and Fred Ashe taught him the art of writing. His web site is www.murraydunlap.com.

“The Smoking Bun” by Lucinda Dupree

This story won honorable mention in our Summer 2011 fiction contest.


1

I was more curious than shocked when I heard the first guttural rumble under my feet. Dawn was breaking in auburn and purple waves, but from my position by the fountain in Five Points, the ridge that comprised 24th through 21st Streets blocked my view of the sun itself. I was setting up my easel to do some sketches as I do most mornings, ignoring the transients that were always asking me for change and cigarettes. People right away were saying earthquake.

Well, you have to understand a little bit about how the town is laid out, if you aren’t from here, which most people aren’t. I mean what Birmingham looks like just isn’t famous like New York or Chicago or Los Angeles… Anyway… Dig. The main thing is there is that downtown is just north of Red Mountain, and on the other side are the suburbs. At the peak, there’s that statue of Vulcan, the Greek god of ironworks. You see, Red Mountain is full of iron ore, which is why it’s red.

As I said, it was nigh early, and there weren’t many people other than me on the street. Just a couple of joggers with earbuds, a garbage truck, a couple of street people who were still sleeping in the church doorway with blankets pulled up all the way over their heads. After the initial tremors, those men came out of their cocoons in a hurry.

2

Now, I ain’t no bumpkin, and I didn’t believe any of the nonsense that preacher had been saying about the end times coming on the twenty first of May. But after what happened, I don’t know. I had to think about it. There was an old boy that had been standing around the fountain the last few days with signs saying to repent before it was too late, marching in circles.

And I distinctly remember seeing him a few afternoons before and thinking about Maggie, and about what I’d done to her. Sure enough if I didn’t start to feel sorry in a way that I never felt before that moment. A deeper, more aching kind of sorry, that felt like a cracked rib.

After… the event… I called Maggie, of course. I called her a dozen times if I called her once. She ain’t answered. Matter of fact, nobody’s heard from her a’tall. Not her sister. Not her mother. I have to tell you, I’m worried as a warthog. We all are.

3

Sure, I’ll talk to you. Yeah, I was one of the first people on the scene in Homewood. That’s where most of the damage was. Well, no, I wasn’t an official first responder. I’m not a fireman or an EMT or a policeman. I’m a volunteer. I have this asbestos suit that I made and a gas mask and a particularly powerful fire extinguisher. I live nearby, and I figured I could help somehow. I parked my car on the corner of Valley and Greensprings and just started making my way down the road.

The swath of death and destruction was straight out of Hades. Cars were crushed and covered in rubble. Buildings leveled. There were isolated fires all along Valley Avenue, and all those businesses along the ridge were just gone. A thick cloud of dust still hovered over the area and would stay that way for weeks after.

Through the Plexiglas goggles of the gas mask, it felt like something between real and television, like one of those virtual reality games, not that I’ve ever seen one of those, but it seemed like maybe that’s what it would be like. Virtual tour of Hell.

4

Maggie, you came. Thank you. Do you have the… excellent. Thank you so much. You don’t know what this means, or maybe you do. But how did you get it? No, don’t tell me. It’s better if I don’t know. I’ll have everything ready by Saturday.

Yes, we’ll do it first thing in the morning on Saturday. What? No, I can’t be sure it will work, but it’s our only hope of getting out of here before… you know. I have been building it for more than a decade, and I’m reasonably confident in my work. You haven’t told anybody anything, right? Anyone at all? I suppose it would be difficult to explain even if you did. Your people wouldn’t understand, obviously. How could they?

Believe me, I wouldn’t have believed it possible myself if you’d asked me six months ago. I didn’t think I could have these feelings. Not for a… I hate to even say the word. It sounds so… A human. An Earthling.

3

The gas mask had a little scratch up the side of the right eye goggle. It compromised my view to some extent, but I knew I’d manage. I was also dialed into the emergency radio channel, and I was trying to keep up with the activity, but it was altogether too chaotic. I couldn’t keep up. So I was just feeling my way through that, as I said, underworld of flames and debris.

One of the neon palm trees that used to light up the parking lot outside of El Sol was lodged in a car windshield. Up ahead, I could see the red and blue lights. I figured I’d be most useful around the periphery, not getting in the way. So I started walking up the hill toward what had been Sammy’s, which was, you know, a gentlemen’s club. Something had smashed right through the western wall of the building.

I couldn’t resist taking out my phone and snapping a photo when I saw the flaming hot, still smoking, bare ass of Vulcan right there next to the stage. The stripper pole was still standing.

2

I missed the stupid things about her like the crap TV shows she watched every night and her terrible snorting laugh. She had this burn scar that cascaded from the lower part of her right jaw down to her shoulder, where some scalding water splashed on her as a kid, but it never made her any less beautiful to me. She also had a scar on her pelvis from some surgery she had a few years ago. I remember long nights, caressing it with my head rested on the inside of her thigh while she watched Dancing with the Stars or some other crap.

I made a lot of mistakes. I wasn’t nice a lot of the time. And she always wanted me to have more ambition. I drove her away. Drove her right into the arms of that damned weirdo epidemiologist from the research lab where she works.

1

You see, I knew. I knew something was going on up there. I couldn’t tell you what it was though.

About ten or twelve years ago, they took Vulcan down for renovations. It was down for a while. I guess that’s when it happened. In the 1940s, they replaced Vulcan’s spear this torch, and he held it up toward the sky, you know, just like the Statue of Liberty, in this sort of Superman-like pose. The torch used to light up either red or green. The story is that the city lit it up as red when there’s been a fatal accident on the highway. I have no idea if that’s true. Anyway, during the renovations, they removed the torch and put the spear back, for some reason.

But I’d forgotten all about that because damned if I didn’t see that spear light up just like a torch. I saw it light up, there in the breaking morning, bright fucking red, but then it wasn’t just the spear head; it was the whole fucking thing. The whole fucking statue lit up bright red, like a hot coal, and then the fucking thing began to elevate–the statue, the tower it stood upon, all of it–just shot up into the sky like a goddamn rocket. It went up I don’t know how high into the air, and then it tipped over toward the suburbs south of the mountain and fell again toward the ground.

And then a beam of bright fiery golden light streamed up from the ground into the sky as far as I could see.


Lucinda Dupree is a dental assistant from Warrior, Alabama. This is her first published short story.