Building Skyscrapers by Dara Thomas Higgins

The light unravels outside, spills in the windows, across the floor of the hotel bar. The carpet has become golden with day. What’s it trying to prove? We order another round. I’ve switched to whiskey. It’s more formal. You’re telling me about yourself, like an American would.

-In the eighties, you say, I built skyscrapers in Manhattan.

In the eighties I needed to know that, for the kids on the street who pointed and laughed and said you have no da, you have no da, the kids whose fathers came home and painted purple the eyes of their mothers, the bitter tang of chips and booze on the their tongues, the fucking indifference of the world in their ribcage somewhere. Twanging away, rattling around, bouncing off those bones, playing them like the keys of a xylophone. This dismemberment of maleness. But if I’d known, I could say, me Da’s in New York and he’s building skyscrapers. Fucking skyscrapers. And what’s your da building? A car park, maybe. A shopping centre near Cabra. Maybe his week revolves around the dole office, the promise of a few hours queuing in the blue air for a handful of notes and a trip to the bookies on the way home. My Da, single-handedly building skyscrapers. So high and bright, the sunlight twinkling off the glass, the sky fucked by them, these huge things. Single handed. My Da.

-Well, that’s interesting, I said. And I was interested, maybe somewhat impressed. Pictures of workers on a lunch break, perched on a crossbeam, the vista of New York below them popped into my head. I pictured you there, lunch pail beside you, among the other Irish and Polish and Italian lads. Putting down a real legacy, something that will last and be a source of wonderment for years to come. Something even as it’s being demolished will be a spectacle.

-After that, I went residential. Huge gated communities in Massachusetts.

Somehow there was more money to be made in these prosaic sprawls than in five hundred feet tall skyfuckers. Less magic, more money. Isn’t that always the way? And suddenly I’m disappointed, as if you’ve let me down somehow. As if this is your crime, your talk of millions.

The Irish would never, not even from your generation, bandy digits about with such insouciance. I never have money. I don’t know what it’s like. I know, for example, I couldn’t afford these drinks you’re paying for, the largesse of your tab. Or those chinos that hang elegantly off your slim hips. Or the Ralph Lauren shirt. The heavy gold watch. I couldn’t afford it, I wouldn’t want it.

Maybe things are different for you in America. Here old peoples’ maturity is earned in boredom and submission, and worn across the ordinance of their faces. The American male’s greatest misfortune has been an abundance of choice, the niggling doubt you may have bought the wrong thing, perhaps imparted too much of yourself in that television. Oh, you went with the Sony? Yes, I went with the Sony, what’s wrong with the Sony? There’s nothing wrong, per se. I just went with the Samsung. The fear, the fear.

-What about you, you ask. What about me. I’m ordinary, in the way everything is ordinary. It’s a struggle. It’s a succession of minor failures and harsh lessons, this life. It’s a grind. I read French philosophers and complain to walls life is meaningless. That’s me.

-I read a lot. I listen to music.

-What kind?

You see, that’s disappointing. Small. There’s no genre to me. I’ll listen to anything. I don’t mind, I’m just looking to be moved, and it’s the notes that do it. But seeing as you’re asking, I’m an Arcadia man, before the Power Station. Beatles before Stones. While we’re on it, Paul before John. Beethoven over Mozart. Mozart’s just pop music. Right?

You nod. You tell me how you used to hang on Baggot Street as a youngster, still in school. How you’d sneak in to O’Donaghues and sit there during the epic, legendary sing songs with all the greats. Luke Kelly and Anne Briggs and the like. I picture the yellow walls, the smoke an indoor nimbus and the porter on the tables and the mouths open, the decayed teeth and the singing and the singing, and I wish I’d been there, part of something. There’s nothing here nowadays. No scenes.

-Have you ever mentioned me to your other kids?

-No, I have not. I’ve meant to you know, you say, and rest your head on a folded hand for a second, with some intense middle-distance staring that tells me how difficult it is for you. –When I left here. A pause. –I really felt as if I couldn’t come back. It took years. Then my mother became ill. I came back for the funeral.

Great, another family member I didn’t even know I had bites the dust. Corpses are piling up. I’m beginning to think it’s me.

-And then I saw the country was changing. It wasn’t the same grey, hopeless place I left.

You left me to no hope?

-Have you brought them over? Your other children.

-Sure. Ellen met her husband over here, if you can believe that.

Hold on, my sister, prowling for men in my hometown. Perhaps…

-I will tell them. When we’re all together.

-I’d like to, I start. And then I pause and try the intense inward looking, as you have done. But you misread it or disregard it and plough on, telling me how it’s hard to get them all together with the various ex-wives involved, some less accommodating than others.

-Lana never had any more children? You ask. Lana, my mother. Her death left me orphaned on this continent. Precipitated our meeting. I shake my head. -I was sorry to hear…

-It’s fine. She was sick for a while, so it was a blessing.

I’ve said those words to Lana’s friends repeatedly over the last few months. Save your sorrow. Her life was a painful, the end was a release. But whose suffering ended that day? Mine or hers?

You mumble something about how she was a good woman, and you’re sure she made a good mother, but it’s numbing to me. You stretch, the bad leg, the one with veins that had to be removed, wince almost imperceptibly. You flick an eye towards your watch, and pick up your glass, the ice melted. You swirl it around and neck the remains with a calm finality. You’re telling me this meeting is over, as you must have done hundreds of times before in board rooms across the East Coast, discussing the millions and billions required to shelter humans and their belongings.

-I’m glad we did this, you say, and manage to make it sound almost like you mean it. Here in your hotel, your itinerary didn’t even need to change. To get from the plush, combed velour of the couch here in the bar to your suite is a mere matter of a few steps to the gilded elevator, even after your operation.

-I’ve never been here before, I say uselessly. –It really is as nice as they say, I add, for extra uselessness.

-I stay here every time I’m back.

All those times, and where was I?

A regal twist of your wrist and the waiter’s at your shoulder. You place your tumbler on his tray.

You stand and I stand and we’re separated now by only a couple of feet of foot-deadening pile. We admire each other for a moment. I’m taller than you, broader, but you still have your hair and mine is a chimera, wisps plastered across an all too exposed pate. Grandfather, mother’s side, was a chromedome. Not your fault. Your shoes are polished, my Adidas leak. You’re lithe, an animal quality, as if always poised, even with the stick to aid your recovery. We shake hands. I give it everything I have, but yours is rock solid.–It really was good to see you.

-And, uh. You. And I wonder, should I say anything else. What else does one say? –Maybe I’ll drop into you when I’m in America.

-Sure, you say, with a wide, over-bright smile and a twinkle that says: as if that will happen, and I wonder, briefly, if the bank would be quite so accommodating with their pre-approvals now, post-crash, and sure, isn’t it worth a go. Get out a few grand, head to America, meet the family. Try again. Try life again. Fail life again. Fail it better, American style.

-If you’re ever in New Hampshire, you start. But then you stop, and look out the window at the park across the road, the suffusion of golden evening light. Summer in Dublin, its last breaths. The autumn closing in on us, every syrupy sunset coming earlier and earlier. There’s a look that travels across the smooth, soft sheen of your face, as if something simple has occurred to you. Something so simple and so true, something that’s been there for ever and you haven’t noticed. You’re still holding my hand, and suddenly you grasp me. I grasp back, I don’t know what else to do, and when you fall, you pull me down too. I disentangle myself. You’re convulsing, mouth opening and closing, no sounds in there. A waiter reacts quickly. He drops to his knees and listens to your breathing and thumps your chest. I too am on my knees, leaning over.

-I need some space, says the waiter. –Please.

-He’s my dad, I say. The words I have never uttered previously. They sound strange, too weighty, as if unearned by me. The waiter pummels your chest.

-Please.

Someone else from the hotel runs over. A man returning from the gym who’s a veterinarian offers his help. An ambulance is on its way. I watched your face turn blue, a strange hue of polished cobalt. The bustle of hotel staff removes me from your side, and I have to stand, stumbling backwards, falling into a chair as I watch. Within ten minutes the paramedics are there, which is impressive. I imagine they had a special hotline, places like this, with their exclusive clientele of the wealthy and the privileged. There’s overdosing junkies on Thomas Street being ignored right now. And rightly so. Here is a son of Erin, a captain of industry, who did more than the gombeens he left behind here on this sod. He left, he conquered. He accumulated a few wives, as they do over there, and seven children, upon whom he dotes, and a business portfolio, of which he’s equally proud. He won. He deserves his life.

The paramedics are working furiously. Some other patrons are down the back of the bar, looking on idly. The barman hasn’t stopped pouring drinks. I go to him, and ask for another whiskey. He pours silently, freely, not using the little pewter measure. He nods at me, and I back. I upend the tumbler and suck it all down at once. –Stick it on the tab, I say.

There’s nothing for me to do here. I’m no undertaker. I leave. They don’t notice me, any of them. The paramedics are wheeling in a gurney, less enthusiastically now. Outside is dark. Hours must have passed. I take your gold Rolex from my pocket and check the time. I think of the funeral. I wonder will it be here or in America. I’d like to go to America. Start again. Start life again. Maybe get it right this time.


Dara Thomas Higgins is a writer and musician based in Dublin. He currently writes screenplays for State Broadcaster RTE and plays bass guitar for Ireland’s premier psycherock group The Jimmy Cake, among others. @Diplah

Image Credit:  Rohit Tandon

 

They’re on the Roof Again by Odrán Waldron

The stone hit her window and interrupted her shaking. Her teeth cut against each other with fright, the top row jagging off the inside of the bottom row, but she bounded on the balls of her feet towards the window, toes folding underneath. Jess knew the stone had been coming, but had let the anxious pit of her stomach steal away her awareness of time passing. She was shocked back into a linear cycle by the clang of stone on double-glazing. She folded down the handle of her skylight and climbed out onto the sloped black slates of the roof. Laura was there waiting for her.

Jess’ house was the only one for miles. From her vantage point, she could see the metallic red of Laura’s bike, strewn in the ditch that framed a narrow country road roughly half a mile away. The sheen of the bike stood out against yellowing greens of the furze and gorse that made up three quarters of the view from the roof. Laura was singing a Lorde song quietly, underneath her tongue. “L-O-V-E-L-E-S-S,” she sang and then belted the last word out into the countryside as she stretched it beyond all recognition: “GENNNNNNEEEERRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAATION.”

“Shhhh,” Jess hissed at her, tugging the sleeve of a red and blue plaid shirt.

“What?” Laura asked. “Good tune.”

“Yes, it’s fantastic and Lorde is a luminescent spectre of hope in a world severely lacking any, but that doesn’t mean you should sing her songs out loud on my roof while my parents are downstairs.”

“As if anyone would hear.”

“Look around you,” she said, propelling her arm in a semi-circle. “There’s nothing but cows here. There’s no other sound; we hear everything. Things aren’t vying for space in the winds out here, they make the space theirs for the time they exist.”

It was almost as if one of the cows in the field a mile in the direction of the village had heard her kind being referenced. It looked at them. The cow stood on the crest of a hill with the receding sun behind it. Laura held its gaze. She turned back then and sang the word “generation” again in a whisper. “If you mix up your eyes a little bit, it looks like that cow is standing in the sky,” she laughed.

“You’re such a dope,” Jess said, shaking a simper back and forth.

“Relax, Jess,” Laura said, and, oddly, she did. Jess lay back against her roof, feeling the ridges of the slate settling themselves in the interstices between her vertebrae with familiar, yet welcome, discomfort. Laura unfolded herself into the sloping of the roof too and when she had fully lain down, she rubbed the bud of her nose against Jess’s shoulder, the stud in its left side moving with it. “Thank fuck it’s not windy,” she said, her lips brushing the cotton sleeve of Jess’s green Abercrombie hoodie. Laura looked resplendent in the greys and oranges of the pre-sunset summer evening, her brown hair was tossed from her climb, her eyes were wide and dilated to the point of minimising hazel irises, and her smile had widened to flash her fangs and display the brittle chipping on her left lateral incisor. Jess wore less emotion and a heavy peroxide fringe down to her eyebrows, one of which bent as she watched Laura at her shoulder. Her thin lips hinted at a smirk on their outskirts. She looked away, back towards the field and the almost sky borne cow and said, “Yeah. Thank fuck.”

They barely spoke after that; they rarely did on these nights when the absence of school in the morning allowed them to chisel at the evenings without the urgency of looming early awakenings. This was the last one of those evenings for some time; the day after the next was Monday, the last one of August and the beginning of fifth year. At some point, Laura’s head would move more solidly onto Jess’s shoulder and then Jess would stack her head on top, like some cranial, romantic Jenga. The evening air was cathectic with a contentment too mature for the youngsters to fully grasp and appreciate; this was the peace of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, doing exactly the right thing. They breathed through nostrils; Laura’s left soughed with a blockage that she didn’t bother to clear. Still, the girls knew there was something there, some equilibrium of life that would be impossible to maintain as time slicked and slid by them. They never allowed themselves to be out of time, they clung to it and for now it was all they could do to allow their eyes to be flooded by the flooding of greens between ditches and fields and the light to dark greys of sky to road. The cows and bike interspersed where they could, but this was a scene of motionlessness, only varying in degrees. They knew that they would have to get down eventually, and when it came time to do so, they were as silent as possible, with only the knocking of knees on slates, the light bounce from Jess landing back on the balls of her feet on her wooden floors and the harsh crunch of gravel under Laura’s Vans making any indication that there was life in this part of Goldfields parish. Still, it alerted Jess’ parents.

Jess’ father, with beard and cropped hair more white than black at this point, breathed a gust through his nose, a sort of unmouthed attempt at a chuckle, but didn’t shift in his armchair or look away from the television.

“Hmm?” his wife sounded, curled on the armchair’s matching sofa to his left, looking up from the book in her lap, over her glasses and through her forehead.

“They’re on the roof again,” he turned his head and said. They both gave half-smiles at the right sides of their mouths before he turned back to the television and she returned to her book.


Odrán Waldron is a writer and journalist from Kilkenny who has been published in Cold Coffee StandStorgyThe Journal and New Socialist among others. He babbles on Twitter @odranwaldo.

Image Credit:  Sandra Chile

Full House by David Myers

Eric arrived early to the reading, wearing a new pair of tennis shoes he had bought for the occasion. He read some poems, and then a short chapter from a novel he had given up on earlier in the month. Kiki, his agent, was in the audience, sitting in a corner. There were a fair number of people in the room, but Kiki had picked a spot surrounded by empty folding chairs. It was like a patch of barren land or a force field she was in command of. She waved at him after he finished reading. People were still filing in. By the time the store-owner was done setting up the projector, Eric’s anxiousness had grown to the point where he could feel it in his teeth. He wished he were somehow in the audience, or else instantly, improbably, at the center of a small iron ball. Then the ball would take some of the heat off of him, and by the time the fire people showed up with the jaws of life, all of the attention directed his way would have gradually diffused and centered on the ball and its sudden materialization. When he crawled out through an opening that had been bored through it, he would shrug, smile, and take a taxi back to his apartment. The fact that none of this happened was either merciful or not: this would depend entirely on what happened next. Eric sat down at the laptop, and began to type. His words were projected onto the wall.

Michael wrote for a living. He was not unpopular, and sometimes felt like he had to restrain himself from googling his own name. This temptation was strongest in the morning. Most of Michael’s success depended on a gimmick, wherein he would do public readings, then write a story spontaneously in front of an audience. Later, people at home would buy his e-books on Amazon to read the stories they had seen him write in person. It was, “like a concert t-shirt or something,” he told his sister once, while they were at the gym. The stories were always pre-written, though. And while he would emphatically delete sentences and change syntax while doing these events, this all took place in preconstructed patterns known only to himself. It was something he actually practiced.

Eric turned around to look for someone in the audience, but he didn’t see them. He blew on his glasses and wiped at them with a small cloth. A woman in the second row laughed, having just now gotten to the last sentence of Eric’s first paragraph. Eric changed “in the morning” to “on the subway”.

As he executed these patterns, Michael’s mind would invariably wander, like it did when he used to play the clarinet in his high school wind ensemble. At that time he would always pay attention when first learning a song, but after the third or fourth time through, would begin to fall back into himself. He’d play strange little games, ghosting most of the notes while he concieved of the sheet music as nuclear armament codes or else flavor text for an alien vitamin complex that would give him sexual omnipotence. No one could tell. There were so many god damned clarinets.

Michael first got the idea to pretend to make up stories in front of people for money when he was hanging out with his cousin, Tony. Tony was really into rap music, and he didn’t care that Michael wasn’t. Whenever Michael would hang out with him, his cousin would talk about it nonstop, going back and forth as if comparing notes with himself. One day Tony started listing rappers who were good at freestyling. Then he started listing ones who weren’t.

“This sounds not too bad,” said Michael.

“It isn’t. That’s because he already wrote this.”

“What?”

“Look. See the way the radio guy is mean mugging him? Like he knows they both know what’s up, you know? Like, ‘how could he come into my studio and drop this fake ass marble on me’. You know?” Tony pressed pause on the youtube video, and pointed at the jockey’s face.

“Oh,” said Michael.

Eric italicized the “oh”, then quickly unitalicized it. He turned around again to look at the audience. It wasn’t a bad turn out. He couldn’t really get a read on them though. It was a complex thing he was looking for in them; not part of a binary set. Not something like if someone was wearing a wire or had a full house, that could be scavenged in one quick glance. He felt a sudden pang of envy towards comedians or magicians, other performers who could know in the moment how something was going. Instead Eric had to contend with polite people, introverts, everyone recieving the information at a distance, inside their own little head-computers. Kiki gave Eric the thumbs-up, then took a sip from her water-bottle. Eric deleted all of the dialogue and the stuff about Tony.

“Hm,” said a person to another person.

Although Michael didn’t really worry about being a fraud, he did worry sometimes about the truth. The truth was very simple: in the beginning he had just written about things that happened to him, but since he had began sitting down full time to write about them, things had stopped happening, and so he was very nearly out of things to write. It was a situation which was generating a great amount of anxiety in him, but whenever he attempted to communicate this, especially to his sister, it was always misinterpreted as being more about whether or not he was a fraud.

“People don’t believe you’re making it up on the spot anyways,” she said, “they just want room to believe you might be.”

“Sure, I think,” said Michael, “I just think. It’s beginning to seem unsustainable.” He paused, and then said: “cash flow” and nothing else. Pam, Michael’s sister, sold traveler’s insurance.

“Just be who you are,” she said, “it’s easy for someone like you.”

Michael often thought about doing something stupid, like writing a novel with only exposition, or else switching to fantasy, since maybe he didn’t have anything to say about contemporary life. Michael didn’t know any fantasy authors, except for one who was trying to transition into literary fiction. They had met at a writers convention in Carbon Creek, Pennsylvania. Michael thought about what it would be like emailing her and asking her what the money was like. Or maybe emailing one of his professors from college, who had been preparing him for a life of ascetic craftsmanship and the definite likelihood of no monetary reward. In the subject line for both emails he would put “What’s the Deal?”.

The main problem was that Michael had run out of journals. For years he had been taking notes on everything that happened to him in red composition notebooks and stashing them in his bureau. The details always changed when he was writing anyway, but still, without source material, he couldn’t work. He had a very bad memory. The last story he had written in public had been the final part of his last journal. Somehow he had finessed the material so it made sense that the story just kind of stopped in the middle. But now he was done. He had used up every last word. Every last way that the train station had seemed that foggy morning on the way to his father’s funeral.  

Eric took a bottle of iced coffee from out of his backpack. He highlighted everything he had written up to this point and began to play with the fonts while drinking from it. He noticed that his paragraphs had been getting shorter and shorter, and he was having trouble believing that there was anyone behind him when he looked at the computer screen. For a while he kept on, but felt increasingly that he was boxing himself into a corner. He took out his phone to check the time, and then thought about writing a scene in which Michael sat down to give a reading in a book store and then started himself writing about someone with a  similarly anglo-saxon name in a similar situation. Eric quickly turned away from this line of thinking. He could sense no tension in the room, and could sense barely anything at all. He was sure Kiki would wink at him if he looked in her direction. What a crock. Eric felt stupid for thinking anyone would care about this. Like it would be some big dramatic moment.

When he saw the Fed-Ex guy come in, he quickly deleted the sentence he had been writing, and put three asterisks at the bottom of the page. He signed for the envelope, and then began to type, looking back and forth between the printout and his laptop.

***

I remember in some creative writing class they told me not to second guess the audience. Or pander to them or think yourself above them in any way. That this was something a hack did. What I’m asking for then, I guess, is a fresh start. A story is not a democracy, and it’s almost never improvised, except by criminals. That’s why it’s a story. Truth be told, I don’t have anything special, really, like a dessert cart full of words, or a tin can with a time-travelling string. Sorry. What I mean to say is that maybe this relationship has run its course. But here is a story. Here is the last one I’ve got.

We’ve been in the caves forever. It feels like forever, but probably it’s not been not more than a day. In our bag is a trowell, a few toothbrushes, some rope. I’m holding the bag, and you’re holding the priceless artifact. Under the torch-light it shimmers, casting its eyes upon us like shit, I can’t believe they finally got me. At last we can see daylight. We walk easily to the exit, emerging into the pit we dug to lower ourselves down here. But now the ladder is gone, and at the top of the pit stands a smiling man in a white suit. He has on a red fez and is clutching a pistol. Loosely. He knows no one is going to take it away. He says:

“Well, well, well. What have we here?”

 


David Myers is an Ithaca College graduate with a B.A. in Writing. 

Image Credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters

Still Swimming / Swimming Still by Ron Gibson, Jr.

Under a flexible lamp, in an otherwise dark living room, the shadows of Nick’s hands patiently shuffle through random images cut from magazines. The stack is slick and unruly. Every so often a flurry of scraps slips through his fingers. Even at low tide, when the foot of his damp couch is perched on barnacle-pocked boulders, waves of ocean gently roll down the bedroom hallway into the living room and lap up the snow-falling scraps below. Images shine on the oily surface like a school of bait fish. Then, one by one, dart below the water surface, never to answer why Denise had cut them out in the first place.

*

In the dark days when the internet was a lost pod of orcas squealing and whistling for help through phone modems, Denise spent many nights laying facedown in bed, flanked by drifts of paper, an inverted snow angel. Nick would watch her dirty socks kick in the air to the buzz of psychedelia through blown-out speakers as she performed chimeric transformations with a gluestick. Nick once asked why collage, and Denise said it was the way the world should look. Disjointed, ugly, ironic, truer than illusion. Nick didn’t fully understand, but appreciated the beauty of random chance, the electrical exchange, the subtle magnetism of two disparate pieces connecting to create something new, something more.

*

Denise showed up in Nick’s mailbox, mixed with dark-mustard-enveloped bills, stowed away between coupon circulars. Her small, handprinted name was Polaris within galaxies of stickers and cosmic glitter whorls on half-size manila envelope.

The world had once been lonely — an endless black canvas of potential, with skeins of television screens impersonating constellations, all shouting for attention. Culture had been commodified and tamper-proofed. Art was not made (outside of disappearing classrooms) for the great authors had lived, wrote and died already. The foundation of the canon was set. You were to tiptoe through its white marble hallways, no matter how tedious, and pay homage accordingly.

Nick spent hours living vicariously through biographers’ accounts and the correspondence exchanged between the greats. Their adventures incited wanderlust that burned incurably in his veins. Their words inspired an ache to write something memorable, yet also destroyed all creative ambition in the same instant. After reading their works, writing felt like trying to reach the heavens in a tiny helium balloon.

Then the Zine Revolution found Nick. Cured him. Art was everywhere. Most of it bad, but inspired. Rebellious, even if it didn’t know what it was rebelling against. It was exciting to ignore the past, to burn the present, to be without a future. To know that beyond the television glow, there were still stars that burned intelligently. To know that art, differing points of view and new voices were shouting out of every bored bedroom window, transcribed, rearranged and photocopied, arriving like messages in a bottle in mailboxes across the globe.

Nick’s name, which once had been a poor example of penmanship and a punchline for cooler kids’ jokes, now carried some weight. His fiction littered the Xerox highways and his reviews were frequently published in Maximum Rock n’ Roll. The latter led to some unexpected zine trades, lengthy correspondence and surprising friendships formed across the country. His mailbox was often stuffed with new goodies from new names.

Standing in the doorjamb of his apartment before entering, Nick’s fingertips ran across gluestick air bubbles like braille, as if attempting to decipher who this ‘Denise S.’ was before even opening the package.

*

David Bowie’s “The Speed of Life” doesn’t live up to its name. It’s catchy, twinkly, atmospheric, rhythmic. The actual speed of life is a Tour de France sprint win. It’s hard-charging, unbalanced, discordant, a blunt-force amnesia.

For a solitary person, whose life moved like glacial epochs, Nick couldn’t recount the exact events that led from Denise being an unknown name in his mailbox to his girlfriend and roommate. To get near the actual speed of life was disorienting; its current grabbed him by the ankles and sent him tumbling, miles away from his comfort zone, drowning, trying to keep up.

*

That’s true and it isn’t.

Nick remembered the way the man-made lake in his apartment complex was empty of life during winter, the way his face disappeared under a comforter, the way his bones longed for the warmth of one of Denise’s A’s. Her handwriting was sweet, childish and undeniably feminine. The letters in her words were tomboys that hadn’t realized (or didn’t want to call attention to) that they had developed and become women. Curves showed in the right places. Even though the prose might be formless and ordinary — a zine trade, a distro offer, an offer to maybe collab — Nick’s fingertip traced the paths of her words, a lovelorn stray following her home.

That’s also true and it isn’t.

Nick had a sometimes girlfriend and Denise had a sometimes boyfriend. Sometime sometimes wasn’t enough for either. Or at least that’s what they would tell each other. Neither wanted to admit that they’d bought their others Christmas presents, that they’d inscribed the gifts with ‘I love yous.’ Neither admited that their skin still bore fingerprints, that the musk of sex still clung to them.

From afar the view of each other was beautiful and perfect.

Nick still remembered the man-made lake in his apartment complex empty of life. Still remembered the longing, even while his sometimes girlfriend stood behind him and touched his hair as he looked at the man-made lake from his window. Still remembered how his stray thoughts followed a late season flock of geese over the horizon to Denise, while his sometimes girlfriend tried to tell him about her day.

Then time sped. Day became night, became day, night, day. The earth swiveled its hips with the seasons. Nick’s sometimes girlfriend’s voice became Denise’s. Denise’s small hands replaced his sometimes girlfriend’s hands touching his hair. Denise’s atomic reactor of a body now heated his bed.

With each cardboard box moved in and each day spent unpacking, rearranging, claiming space in Nick’s apartment, Denise slowly pasted over his sometimes girlfriend’s presence with her own. In the process, hybrid memories were formed. Disjointed, ugly, ironic, truer than illusion. They were memories Nick didn’t fully understand, but learned to accept as the unreliable nature of memory.

*

When you meet someone for the first time, after having known them from afar, there’s bound to be a period of adjustment. It’s not long before the perfect glimpses of each other are replaced by truer ones.

Nick was unprepared for the sheer velocity of Denise, and Denise was unprepared for his unpreparedness. What she felt was normal, he felt was abnormal. Confused, he looked back over her letters, thought back to their late night phone calls, and neither seemed to truly represent what he was experiencing, now, in person. He wondered if being a slow reader had caused him to miss something, that he’d had the pacing wrong all along, that maybe longing had tuned down their voices, slowed time, until they became only languid whispers in each other’s ears.

It left both sides wondering if Nick was prepared for life. He didn’t seem to be. He seemed lost, forever lagging behind.

On the flipside, though overwhelmed, Denise’s enthusiasm often led Nick to new places he never would’ve reached on his own. And Nick’s sluggishness revealed small details that Denise’s footsteps would’ve stomped on or over.

Both began to find merit in the other’s way of life, began to respect each other’s differences. Without noticing, Nick slowly accelerated and Denise slowly decelerated. Though the distance would always remain great, they never lost sight of each other.

That is until Denise disappeared.

*

Do you ever completely know someone? Even when people claim to be open, allowing access to every part of themselves, it’s oftentimes a bait and switch, a sleight of hand. While you’re staring at the revelation in their right hand, mentally placing the missing puzzle piece into the incomplete narrative, their left is burying another deeper and deeper into their pocket, never to see the light, never allowing you to see the complete picture.

For, just as Nick had grown accustomed to Denise’s forward march into life, always leading without fear, he was baffled by the sudden halt, the cessation of sound, the disappearance of Denise.

It started over coffees at a cafe when they’d decided to make a zine called “Abandon Ship!” The name was chosen because it was the rambunctious exclamation Denise made exiting a cafe booth. She’d turn sideways, hold the edge of the table and top of the booth seat, lean back, pull herself up into a leap, shout “Abandon Ship!” and land with a sneaker slap like an exclamation point.

When she set down to illustrate the cover, instead of collage, Denise picked up a pen. Below the oversized, bubble-lettered title, she began to draw passengers diving from an iron-sided ship into an ocean. Her work rate was slower. She took great care illustrating the sadness etched into each face. Even the ocean began to bear these same sad, stern faces lingering just below the surface of the waves like ghosts. Considering the fun-loving source of the zine, Nick asked why the cover was so sad. Without looking up from the drawing, Denise said, “The ocean’s a serious place. It’s where people go to contemplate things. Sometimes they stay and sometimes they come back, but always different. Nobody ever returns the same.”

As questions from zinester friends increased concerning the launch of their new zine and self-imposed deadlines kept sliding further into the future, Nick watched helplessly as sand began to accumulate at Denise’s feet, as saltwater began to seep out of her, as if from an inland sea deep inside, transforming the landscape of the apartment and guaranteeing Nick would never see his damage deposit returned.

Not knowing what to do, Nick began to bale the living room, but couldn’t keep up. As the rising water threatened to bury the memory of Denise’s smile, Nick hurried her to the bedroom and peeled off her wet clothing. Her ribs sticking out of her pale skin like the hull of a battered ship run aground, he wrapped her shivering body inside their down comforter, where their bodies once radiated with love, then waded back to the kitchen to make hot soup. But when he returned the comforter was already sopping, the floor flooded and waves crawling up the walls. Instead of waging another futile attempt to bale the room, Nick sat on the edge of the bed, freezing water rising all around, tears in his eyes, holding a spoon of hot soup to Denise’s bluing lips. Denise only looked at Nick sadly, her lips never parting, unable to communicate what she needed. He dropped the spoon, reached beneath the water’s surface and held one of her still hands for a few moments. Before the rising water swallowed her, locking her away in the silent depths of her own thoughts, Nick kissed Denise’s forehead, told her he loved her, asked her to please come back to him and swam to the bedroom door before softly clicking it shut.

*

Now, Nick spends most nights awake, beneath a flexible lamp that shines like a burning candle in a sailor wife’s window, waves softly lapping at the foot of his couch, his hands patiently piecing together the scraps of Denise that she left behind, ever hopeful that one day his work will be done. That a whole picture will appear. That one day Denise will make her way back to him through the darkness, barnacles and all, no matter who she is now or what she’s become.

 


Ron Gibson, Jr. has previously appeared in Stockholm Review of Literature, Cheap Pop, New South Journal, Jellyfish Review, Whiskeypaper, Easy Street, Noble / Gas Quarterly, Harpoon Review, The Airgonaut, Pidgeonholes, Spelk Fiction, Cease Cows, etc. & forthcoming at The Nottingham Review, Rain Party Disaster Society and apt. @sirabsurd

Image Credit:  Jason Leung

Stop Staring by Alison Frank

Home at last. Funny how these plush red carpets now seem normal. The building made such a grand impression on me when I moved here, even if the flat I rent within it is small and unremarkable. As I ascend the main staircase, I spot my neighbour, Pete.

‘Evening, Sarah.’

‘Hi Pete, how’re the stuffed animals today?’

‘Behaving themselves. If one of them starts talking back, you won’t be seeing me round here no more! I’ll check myself into the loonie bin.’

He smiles and adjusts his wire-framed glasses. I avert my gaze from his long fingernails. The muscles contract down my back whenever I see them. Women’s long nails should creep me out in the same way, but they don’t.

‘How’s the world of publishing?’

‘Same old slush pile. Actually, an unusual manuscript was delivered today – one full of pictures that might interest you. It’s from a hipster taxidermist in east London, all about the weirdest commissions she’s ever had.’

‘Oh yes, these hipsters. Tell you what, I’m happy to have the competition. Ten years ago, it looked like my trade was dying out, but what with all these goths and dandies and modern Victorians, there’s been more than enough business to go round. What’s the author called?’

‘Delilah Rose.’

‘Don’t know that name. Bet she wasn’t born with it. Maybe I should’ve come up with something a bit snazzier than Pete Hawkins. How was I to know that taxidermy would become so glamorous! You tell me when that book’s coming out. I’ll gladly read it. By the by, did you ever watch those films?’

‘Yes, they were fantastic. I’ve been meaning to knock on your door to give the DVDs back. I can go and get them now if you like.’

‘No rush. I’ll be getting on, let you enjoy your evening in peace.’

He turns away with his careful, precise steps, the keys to his flat ready in his hand.

It’s mind boggling, the things you can find out about the unassuming people that surround you. In the early 80s, Pete worked with a Polish animator on stop-motion films of rabbits. Whenever I see stuffed rabbits in natural history museums, they always looked royally pissed off: maybe it’s hard to arrange that cleft lip and buck teeth into a natural expression after death. But Pete managed it: his dead rabbits had expressions that were dignified, amused, even beatific. I’ve never been inside his shop on King’s Road: stuffed animals still creep me out, however skillfully crafted. When he lent me those DVDs, Pete said, as if reading my mind, ‘I won’t invite you in to watch them. You must wonder what a bachelor like me gets up to, with his dead animals.’ I laughed at this, maybe a bit too much. ‘I’ve a mind to show you round some time to disabuse you of your morbid fantasies. I assure you, no deceased creature has ever passed this threshold. Excluding, of course, old Mrs. Hanson, the previous tenant, 30 years ago.’

I eat my dinner at the little table next to the window as usual. Munching away, I look up at the creeping patterns of sunset clouds. My gaze falls to the jagged rooftops, and down another level to the windows. The buildings opposite are a good 25 metres away, allowing lots of light and an illusion of privacy. You can see people’s shapes but not their expressions.

The majority of us have never met, but there’s a sense of shared community. If I caught sight of a burglary or a murder, I hope I’d call the police right away, and that my neighbours would do the same for me. My gaze shifts from one window to the next. It’s like sitting in a cafe, watching strangers pass by.

As dusk falls, the windows illuminate. Loud music leaks from an open sash in the building opposite, one floor below my own. The lights in that flat blaze more brightly than in any other. Irresistibly, they draw my eyes. Young women in beautiful dresses start to jive. A young man with slicked back hair opens a bottle of champagne. Someone mimes spanking someone else’s bottom—or maybe they’re actually doing it. I avert my gaze to my plate. When I look outside again, translucent curtains have been drawn across the flat’s six windows.

A very thin woman, maybe just a teenager, peeps around the edge of the curtain and seems to look straight at me. I feel a little unnerved, but I don’t want to do anything obvious in response, like pulling my own blind. I casually move away from the window, switch off the overhead light and turn on the small lamp beside the armchair. Sitting there, I can’t see my neighbours, only the sky, still purple and pink with the sunset. After five minutes, I creep up to the window, let down the blind without showing myself, and kneel on the floor. I just have to see what’s going on down there – are they all standing around the windows now, curious about the weirdo who was watching them? I can’t see anyone. I crawl into bed with a hot cup of tea and a new comedy podcast and try to forget the uneasy feeling of that slim girl’s stare.

In the morning, I luxuriate in the thought of a weekend free from commitments. Maybe I’ll treat myself to some fresh croissants, buy the weekend paper, and peruse it for most of the morning with a hot pot of coffee at my elbow. I start setting the table, which is bathed in the mid-morning sunshine I normally miss while I’m at work. I glance outside where a square of white paper catches my eye. There’s a sign taped in the window of the flat where they had the party last night. ‘STOP STARING’.

I put on a tracksuit and a big pair of sunglasses and go out. As I walk briskly and take in big breaths of air, I start to feel less nervous. Why should I be ashamed? I have a right to look out of my window. They’re the ones drawing attention to themselves, even more so with this stupid sign. What egotists, to imagine people have nothing better to do than look at them! If you don’t want people to look, draw your curtains or don’t have such a big party. I almost start hoping my neighbours will confront me, so I can vent my outrage.

There’s a tall couple immediately ahead of me in the queue at the bakery. The man’s hair is combed smooth and the woman’s in a form-fitting dress that exposes her tanned shoulders. It looks like they’re wearing clothes from the night before; perhaps they’ve been at a party that lasted until dawn and they’re rounding it all off with breakfast. Could these be my neighbours? I back towards the door and step on the foot of a man coming in. ‘Careful!’ he cries. The couple turn around to look at me. I mutter an apology as I dash outside.

‘Excuse me!’

The man with perfect hair is loping across the street after me.

‘Do you live in this building?’ His face is eager, almost amused. His girlfriend is standing outside the bakery holding their shopping.

‘Yes, why?’ Immediately I’m on the defensive. This wasn’t at all how I imagined our confrontation.

‘This is terribly embarrassing, but my girlfriend insists on speaking to one of your neighbours. Actually, I’m probably the one who’s going to have to speak to him. She says the man in the flat opposite is staring at her all the time. She put up a sign this morning – maybe you saw it. I tried to talk her out of it; you don’t want to provoke that sort of person. I thought perhaps if I had a word with him, we could sort something out, man to man.’ He smiles ironically at his own old-fashioned turn of phrase.

His girlfriend joins us. Her towering high heels look extremely uncomfortable, but she wears them as though they aren’t.

‘Do you live here?’ she asks.

‘She does,’ says her boyfriend. ‘Sorry, how rude of me, my name’s Max and this is Chloe.’

Chloe extends a cool hand. ‘Has Max told you I’ve been having problems with a voyeur?’

‘I did,’ says Max. ‘And this lady has been listening very patiently and, I think, might be willing to let us in so I can have a word with him.’

‘Would you?’ asks Chloe, with imploring eyes. ‘I’d be so grateful. We’ll be literally five minutes.’

I lead them through the front doors and up the stairs, stopping one floor before mine. Max looks around to get his bearings. ‘I’m pretty sure it’ll be flat…8.’

‘I can easily identify him. I’ve seen his horrible face so often, I’ll never forget it.’

‘You girls stay here,’ says Max, striding down the corridor. I hide around the corner. It’s Pete’s flat.

‘I’ll be so relieved when this is all over,’ says Chloe. ‘I’ve been on the point of moving, it’s become so bad. Every time I look out of my window, there he is.

Normally I keep the blinds at the back closed, but we were having a party last night, so we wanted a cross breeze. My friends all saw him, staring at us really intently.’

‘That must be terrible.’

‘So whereabouts in the building do you live?’

I wave my hand vaguely. ‘On the next floor.’

‘I hope our party didn’t disturb you last night.’

‘No, no – this neighbourhood can be so dead. It’s nice to hear some signs of life.’

‘You should come over next time we have a party!’

A brief vision of myself framed in that window, wearing an elegant dress, fooling around with new friends in their extravagantly large flat.

Max comes striding back down the corridor, pink in the cheeks but hair still in place.

‘Did you talk to him?’

‘Complete waste of time. Denied everything.’

‘Now what? Should I start taking photos as evidence?’

‘Like I said, you don’t want to provoke that sort of person. He can guess which

flat you live in just as easily as we guessed his.’

‘But it was definitely him?’

‘I think I know a pervert when I see one!’

I follow Chloe and Max back to the front door.

‘Thanks so much. I’ll drop you a note once we’ve sorted all this out. And an invitation to our next party!’ Chloe takes my flat number and grins, flashing me a thumbs up.

I go home, grab the DVDs and creep down to the second floor. Silently I place them on the carpet outside Pete’s flat. Will they be stolen if I leave them there? I hammer on the door and disappear down the service stairwell instead of the plush front staircase. I emerge at the back of the building and take the long way round to the newsagent’s. Wandering along King’s Road, I stop to gaze at fancy dresses in the shop windows. The sales will start soon: then I can afford a new party outfit. Chloe and Max are so caught up in themselves, they won’t notice if I only have one dress.


Alison Frank studied creative writing with George Elliott Clarke at the University of Toronto. She lives in London and her published short stories include ‘Roman School Trip’ in The Literateur, ‘The Rupture’ in Hotel, and ‘Dance Lesson’ in Moving Worlds. You can follow her on Twitter @alisonfrank

Image Credit:  Jamie Street