See S/tick on the NewPages Magazine Stand!

S/tick’s new issue has been listed on the NewPages Magazine Stand!

Under Alternative Magazines, March 31, 2014:

S/tick

Volume 2 Issue 1, 2014 [o]

Managing seeks to tell the stories and illustrate the emotional experiences of men. How have dominant gender roles limited development of men’s identities? What are some of the unique violences faced by males? What are the intersections between the emotional experiences of men and the emotional experiences of women?

Check it out at: http://www.newpages.com/magazinestand/newmags/

Issue 2.1 Launch!

Greetings everyone,

S/tick is very excited to announce the launch of Volume 2, Issue 1. Managing seeks to tell the stories and illustrate the emotional experiences of men. How have dominant gender roles limited development of men’s identities? What are some of the unique violences faced by males? What are the intersections between the emotional experiences of men and the emotional experiences of women?

Click the link to Issue 2.1 in the frame to your left to check out the new issue, which features:
image

Bold short stories by Brandon T. Madden, Benjamin Toche, and Robert Earle;

Eloquent poetry by Karl Parker, Louie Clay, Nels Hanson, Josh Anthony, Reymond Drew, Gerard Sarnat, Iain Macdonald, Kenneth Pobo, and M. F. Nagel;

And innovative photography and artwork by luke kurtis and Jeff Watt!

We hope that you enjoy and share widely! We also hope to put out another issue of this theme in the future, so keep your eye out for a call for submissions! S/tick is now accepting standard submissions for Issue 2.2 to be released in Summer 2014, so e-mail submissions and gentle feedback to stickyhaibuns@gmail.com.

And please like us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/stickjournal!

Benjamin Toche

Please welcome Benjamin to S/tick! Benjamin’s story will appear in Issue 2.1 of S/tick, entitled “Managing,” which will be launched this Friday, March 21st! So watch for that, and in the meantime, drop Benjamin a line and check out his blog!

Kites

“You can come back and finish that later,” the man said as he entered the kitchen with the Star Wars kite in his hand.

The boy put down his pencil and looked from the man’s face to the kite. The boy smiled, showing the gap in the top row of his baby teeth, and the man watched him get down from the bench seat of the kitchen table and run to the back screen door that led out to the porch. The boy pushed the door open and it banged shut. The man followed.

Outside, the sky was the immense blue of spring, a smooth canvas where flat bottomed cumulus coursed from west to east, following a chaotically propagating and pre-determined pathway from the distant mountains across pine forests, pig farms and tobacco fields to the ocean. The wind was up, pushing the clouds in a fast clip and rustling itinerant trash across the new shoots of grass and sandy soil of the man’s yard and into homes at the corners of his fence. The man stopped outside the door and watched the boy jump from the planks of the porch. As soon as the boy’s feet hit ground he began to run in ever larger circles on the lawn, laughing and yammering nonsensically in the high voice of childhood, a sound made even thinner in the stiff breeze.

“Come on,” the man called and descended the steps. The boy came alongside the man and the man tousled the boy’s hair as the two set out for the empty lot adjacent the house. The kite in the man’s hand whipped as a thing quick and the long plastic tail of the kite fluttered out slanting in front of the two as they walked; the boy’s arm around his father’s thigh and the man’s hand on his son’s head. The man made for the small scrub oaks and myrtle bushes that lined the windward edge of the lot and positioned the boy in the lee of the brush cover there. Wordlessly, he twisted the boy’s wrist so that the palm stood open to the sky and placed the red, plastic handle of the kite string’s nylon spool into the sweaty skin of the boy’s palm. The boy automatically closed his grip around the handle and looked, smiling, up at the man. “Now hold this tight,” the man said.

“Okay.”

The man unwound a length of line from the spool and let the kite fall toward the brown weeds at his feet. A gust of wind caught up and ballooned into the plastic sail of the kite, sending it tumbling a few feet down the yard before it caught on the scrubby ground cover. The man unwound more line forming a pool between himself and the boy. He looked down at the boy.

“You stay here and hold the line.” The man bent and picked up the thin white nylon of the line and followed it to the kite. The boy behind him had set up his yammering again, describing, at length, the novelty of the kite to the man. The man lifted the kite from the weeds and with his free hand he smoothed the tail out to where the plastic strips whipped downwind of the kite. The man walked to the end of the slack he had unwound and held the kite so that the panels got the full impact of the wind’s force. As if throwing grass to judge the direction of the wind, the man lofted the kite and it jerked against the line as it took flight.

The man stood clear of the line and watched the kite ascend. He could barely hear the boy’s ceaseless chatter over the wind. The wild and disjointed nature of the boy’s speech was high and thin, made all the more incomprehensible by the punctuation of the boy’s laughter. The man watched the kite but then turned and walked back to stand next to the boy.

“Daddy, Daddy. It’s flying!”

“Don’t let out any more slack.”

“Look at it! Look at how cool it is. How high it’s going!”

“Yes. Hold the line taut.”

The boy laughed and laughed and the man watched his face and smiled but the boy didn’t notice. The boy’s mouth dipped downward as the man watched. “Daddy!”

The man watched the kite plummet at a steep angle and crash into the sand of the lot so forcefully that a cone of ejecta erupted from the impact site. He patted the boy’s head and left the boy. The man walked to the end of the line and lifted the kite again but for some unknown reason the kite refused to ascend as easily as it had before. The kite fluttered and the tail trailed behind but the line grew slack and the kite fell back to the earth. The man lifted the kite four more times with the same effect, each time expecting to see it take off, but each time the kite listed and fell. He tried tossing the kite higher into the wind. The kite resisted. The man looked back to where the boy stood some feet in closer to him than his previous position.

“Hold the line taut,” the man called with his hand cupped to his mouth. The boy nodded but failed to do anything that might accomplish the man’s direction. “Hold the line taut,” the man repeated.

“I can’t!”

The man dropped the kite and walked back to the boy. “Hold it taut. Close to your chest. Don’t move. Your moving is making it fall.” The man folded the boy’s hands across his chest as some mummified god-king might. The boy looked up at the man but said nothing. The man walked back to the kite. He lifted the kite and the wind bit into it, drawing it up. “See?” the man called over the wind, “You have to hold it taut!” The boy wasn’t listening.

The man watched the kite jump and twist up on the unseen and rabid currents, fluttering and starting in the same wind that whipped at his face, snapped the man’s trouser legs and drove ankle high walls of sand toward the fence row and out into the suburban street beyond. He watched while the boy’s voice kept its constant and dimly heard commentary. The man watched the boy standing separate in the half barren lot, his arms crossed on his chest, his face alight, his mouth and voice struggling over the wind. As he watched and listened, the drone of the boy’s sound pushed the man into thought. The man’s eyes dropped from the kite and followed the soft undulation of the wind’s passing across the ground and his mind roved about its own vermiculate topography as the wind became a background rush of silence. The man stood lost in some nether region of his mind where events past had run to rest and the outside world had become some artifice, a diorama in which he stood apart from boy and kite alike.

“Daddy!”

The man’s mind jerked as did his eyes to the boy and then to the kite. He caught the last seconds of the kite’s flight as it dove into a water oak that stood along the roadside fencerow. The man watched the wind immediately begin to wrap the tail and line around the higher branches. The boy dropped the line and ran toward the tree. The abrupt slackness of the line swam out, toward the tree, in an action that only served to entangle the line in the tree’s lower branches as well.

The man watched the kite flap in the tree and cursed to himself. The tree stood a solid twelve feet high and at its top sat the kite. Driven by the wind, the line and tail became hopelessly tangled in the short, waxy leaves. The boy ran to the man’s side as the man spat.

“Daddy! Can you get my kite?”

The man didn’t reply but moved to the tree. He reached up and began to unhook the nylon line from the lower branches. “I told you to hold the line taut,” the man said.

“I wanted the kite to do stuff. Fancy stuff.”

“You have to get good at basic flying before you do ‘fancy stuff.’ ” The boy said nothing and the man looked down at him. “Now the kite is stuck.” The man worked at the kite’s line, freeing it from the lower branches. He looked up into the tree and saw that the tail was wrapped around the line which, in turn, was wrapped around the leaves as it had been on the lower branches. The man sighed and reached up the limber trunk of the tree, freeing the line as he went. He worked until his hands came a foot short of the next closest snag. The man grabbed the line and pulled at it but the kite remained anchored in the leaves and branches out of his reach. He began to jump in small and futile hops, reaching for another strand of the kite’s string, each time making ever more frustrated exhalations as his boots thumped the earth and sent out plumes of sand toward the boy’s feet. The man struggled and jumped to reach the kite and the boy watched for a while before he became lost in the grunts of the man and decided to kick piles of sand over his shoes. The man stopped to catch his breath and looked at the boy.

“Son! Why are you ruining your shoes?”

“I don’t know.”

“Stop doing that. I just bought those and they need to last.”

“I know. I got bored.”

The man stooped down and grabbed the boy’s shoulders. “We can’t afford to keep buying you new things because you get ‘bored.’ Things are tight enough as it is.”

“I’m sorry, Daddy.” The boy put his hands behind his back.

“You need to think of these things. It’s like the kite.” The man pointed above his head at the flapping plastic.

“I didn’t mean to, Daddy!” The boy’s voice pitched higher as if expectant and fearful of punishment. He stared at the sand covered shoes. The man stood and put his hands on his hips and looked down at the boy. The man sighed.

“Come on, let’s go get some food.” The man patted the boy’s head and the two walked abreast through the spring wind toward the back door of the house.

“Will you get my kite?” The boy’s voice was snatched away by the wind and the man barely registered that the boy had said anything, but he looked down into the boy’s gap-toothed smile as they walked.

“Patience,” the man said, and his words fell loudly into a broken space in the wind.

The man and the boy sat opposite each other at the kitchen table, their faces hovering over shallow plastic plates of canned beef stew and gummy pre-sliced white bread. The boy eyed the food and used the tip of his finger to poke a tomato iceberg that sat in the middle of his stew. The boy frowned and the man caught the expression and frowned in turn at the boy. The boy stopped poking at the food and put his hands in his lap.

“We’re going to say grace.” The man made the sign of the cross and the boy followed in an incomplete mimicry. The man interlocked his fingers, the boy copied, and the man recited the prayer aloud. When he had finished and the two had crossed themselves again the man took up his spoon and began to shovel the thin and overly salty stew into his mouth. He chewed and spoke through the food in his cheek. “What are you thankful for today?”

The boy pushed a lump of meat from one end of the plate to the other. “I don’t know.”

“You’d better think of something.”

“Umm, I’m thankful for the food and the house.”

“That’s it?”

“That I have a family?”

“That’s a good one.”

“And that people care about me?”

“Yes.”

“And I’m thankful for Mommy.” The man stopped his spoon halfway from the plate to his mouth and held it there as he watched the boy. The boy fell silent and the two looked at each other in the abyss of sound so large that a drop of the stew broth falling into the man’s plate clapped like a handgun’s report in the paralyzed air of the kitchen.

“You haven’t mentioned her in a while.”

“I know.”

“You’ve been thinking about her?”

“Yeah.”

“Anyone at school ask you about her? Teachers?”

“Sometimes.”

“What do you tell them?”

“I don’t know.”

The man watched the boy stare at the spoon before bringing up a finger to push at the fluted shaft of the utensil. “Finish your dinner. Then you can go play.”

“Okay. Daddy?”

“Yes?”

“Can you try to get my kite out of the tree after dinner?”

“We’ll see. You’ve got that homework to finish.”



The boy’s room was pastiche: the creative disaster of a child’s imagination accented with second-hand goods purchased from yard sales. Fraying paged books rested slantwise in an improvised bookshelf made of two cardboard boxes stacked one atop the other. A collection of checkout aisle, die-cast metal cars peppered the carpeted floor. The boy’s crudely painted yellow dresser top held a combination television and VHS player. An overly large carnival penguin with a drooping, stroke victim pull to his bottom lip watched from a corner. The faux pine paneled walls held taped-up examples of the boy’s artwork and a bronzed crucifix that rested above the boy’s headboard.

The man knelt at the bedside where the boy lay. He placed his left hand on the boy’s head. Father and son looked at each other and each said nothing as if some deep understanding welled in the silent space between them. The man rubbed the bangs back from the boy’s forehead. The man rose smiling.

“Alright, you get some rest now.”

“Okay.”

The man turned from the bedside and moved gingerly through the toy strewn room. As he reached the door and lifted his hand to rest on the light switch he looked back to where the boy was watching him.

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

He extinguished the light and stood for a moment in the open rectangle of door, watching the boy’s room over his shoulder. The boy spoke.

“Daddy?”

“Where do you think I’m going, son?”

“Thank you Daddy.”

The man closed the child in the darkness of his room and went to the garage. He drew down the freestanding two-stepped stool from its folded perch of a corner and hefted a large black and metallic flashlight that rested near the doorway. He went out into the night.

The night was a patchy overcast with a full moon winking periodically behind swathes of fast-moving clouds. The wind stirred the spring’s new grasses and buds of the trees in a way that was at once eerie and settling and across the roofs of the neighborhood came sounds of dogs.

An occasional door slammed or child wailed from some unseen warren but these sounds were just the normality of the spring night seeping into the latticework dark provided by the speeding clouds, and after the dogs quieted and babies hushed only the wind and its attendant noises remained.

The man had worked at freeing the kite for some time and the stars as revealed in the clouds’ passing had wheeled a few degrees across the sky and the man had become sweaty against the wind’s chill. He tried different combinations of reach and illumination to free the kite’s nylon cord and plastic tail. He held the flashlight under one arm and with the free hand unlaced the long plastic tail. He buried the butt of the flashlight into the sandy soil and stood on tip toes on the step stool to untangle the nylon. He wedged the flashlight into his belt and trailed away the freed strands. With each successive and apparent victory he seemed only that much further from his ultimate goal, and the kite and wind seemed to conspire in some unspoken way to prevent the liberation of the toy. The man paused for a moment, sat down to rest on the top step of the stool, and killed the flashlight beam. The night air picked through the seams of his clothes and tingled the sweaty skin underneath. The man was looking toward the house when an eruption of light spilled from the windows of his living room and pooled on the ground below. He rose and made for the house.

Inside, the boy was standing in his feeted pajamas and holding the white cordless telephone receiver to his ear and listening to the other end of the line. He was smiling.

“Who is it?”

“It’s Mommy.”

The boy handed the phone up to the man. The man took the phone in the slickness of his hand and scowled down at the boy. “Now you get on back to bed.”

“Okay.”

The man watched the boy’s pajamaed feet trope back to his bedroom before he shoved the receiver to his ear. “Yeah. What do you care? I was out trying to get the boy’s new kite out of your tree. Bullshit it’s not yours. Yes it is. Look, what do you want? I just sent off your check two weeks ago. Wow, you already spent it? When’s the last time you were sober? Fuck you it is my business. Well, I don’t have any. Because the fucking gas man came by last week. Listen you fucker, I don’t even have enough to get me through the next two weeks and I can’t spare anything for you. Call whoever the fuck you want! Fuck you!” The man slammed the receiver into the charging dock and looked over his shoulder toward the boy’s bedroom but the hallway and room were quiet in the aftermath of the man’s shouting. The man breathed heavily as one spent from climbing a steep grade and he bent forward and rested his palms on his dungareed knees. The sound explosion of the telephone ringer jolted him, the motion of which caused him to shift forward a few inches onto the balls of his feet and he looked up at the phone’s display to see the familiar number play across the caller ID. He grabbed the small cube-shaped base of the phone charger and jerked the device free from its lines. He strode to the screen door and kicked it open, planting his boot on the crosspiece of wood that separated the screen’s top half from its bottom and launching the phone and its charger from the doorway in a singular, fluid motion. The phone and charger arced through the light that spilled from the doorway and impacted, shattering on the railing of the porch. The man watched the pieces fall and then turned to the garage, plunging down the steps and rifling through a cardboard box for the rusty bladed hatchet that lay there.

He stormed out into the night, hatchet at the ready, and made for the water oak. The man collapsed at its base where he sat about hammering the dull hatchet blade into the white fibers of the bark. The man cursed as he worked in a furious back and forth, entire body motion, chopping at the base of the tree, sputtering out vitriol and promises of revenge to absent ears, allowing all the shame and regret and rage concomitant to loss that he had kept bottled and stoic to flow out of him and into the cutting edge of the blade, showering down a corporeal and kinetic incarnation of helpless love onto the hapless tree. He breathed in ragged gasps and sweated in the chill of the night air but refused to yield his pace until the tree canted over and fell like a feather into the cyclone fencerow. The man threw the hatchet away into the gloom and stalked to the apex. He seized the kite, ripping the thin plastic as he pulled the kite free of the branches.

“You goddamned motherfucker,” he screamed at the now ruined toy. He tried to thrust away the kite as if he could further damage the flimsy frame and tattered panels but the kite mockingly drifted to ground, reflecting a small glow from the now exposed moon. The man stood, looking at the kite until his breathing settled. He put his cold hands into his jean pockets and walked back to the warmth of his house where the boy slept unawares. The man entered the house and walked to the bedroom where his son lay under the dim illumination of a nightlight. He pushed open the bedroom door a crack and watched the gentle movement of the boy’s chest as he slept. The man lowered his head and pulled the door closed.

He went to his front door and exited. He creaked into his car and brought the engine to life. The man reversed and drew the car out of the driveway, heading up to the nearby dollar store for a replacement kite.

Copyright Notice: All work appearing on this blog is copyrighted to its stated author and has been posted with permission. Please post a link to a post you like rather than reblogging in order to avoid copyright infringement.

Reymond Drew

Please welcome Reymond to S/tick! Reymond’s poetry will appear in the “Managing” issue of S/tick, to be launched next Friday, March 21st! So watch for that, and check out Reymond on Twitter @ThePortlandPoet!

Prancer

I have this bright blue plastic reindeer.
He cost $8
He is shiny
fake metallic
and the best part is his antlers, they are bright fucking glittery pink!
I named him Prancer
He is strong, he is fabulous, and he doesn’t really give
a shit about gender
or that he is hunted
by real men
who want to put bullets in him,
simply for being the
sweet
deer
that he is.

But it’s OK

He is safe now.
He will spend eternity guarding my thesaurus
and being adored by my friends
like the total
divine spirit
that he is.

 

Blowin’ Down the Road

Another brittle dawn
folded into another dusty day
I’m headed North to the warehouse
to make some money
just like our
four fathers
did
except they didn’t
have iPhones

North Chautauqua Transfer to Line 35

Oh glorious chariot
All One Hundred Twenty Thousand pounds of you,
that fine government steel!

My coworker is up ahead in her
orange hat
She goes by Elliot and calls women Broads
she moved here from the Appalachian Trail with just two backpacks
and found this job in just eight days

If life is one big pissing contest
I obviously
lose by default
ha ha, nature

The joke’s on

whatever.


Monday Night Fight

If a man commits an act of violence against
a woman
he is making a
conscious,
moral,
decision

to do wrong.

If a man commits an act of violence against
another man
especially
a fucking faggot
He is
simply
winning the game.

Congrats, bro.

It’s a real blood sport out there,
ya know?
pay.per.view.
other men gather ‘round and watch
eat
peanuts,
make
bets.

Copyright Notice: All work appearing on this blog is copyrighted to its stated author and has been posted with permission. Please post a link to a post you like rather than reblogging in order to avoid copyright infringement.

Josh Anthony

Josh’s thought-provoking poem will appear in the upcoming issue of S/tick, to be released March 21! Watch for that, as well as another great post this Friday, and in the meantime, drop Josh a line with any feedback on “Mouthwash.”

Mouthwash

The smell of mouthwash
reminds me of my father
who is always washing
a taste out of his mouth;

he keeps a toothbrush
in the console of his car,
floss is tucked in the
glove box.

Copyright Notice: All work appearing on this blog is copyrighted to its stated author and has been posted with permission. Please post a link to a post you like rather than reblogging in order to avoid copyright infringement.

Robert Earle

Please welcome Robert to S/tick! Feel free to drop him a line, and watch for another creativity-inspiring post here on Wednesday as we prepare to release issue 2.1, “Managing,” on March 21st!

On Being a Woman

    “What do you do, Mr. Chatterjee?”

    “Evidently I produce prostatic cancer cells at an alarming rate.”

    The doctor suppressed a smile. “I mean professionally.”

    "Until my illness, I was a museum director."

    "Interesting work?"

    "Very interesting. I’d like to return to it in some fashion."

    Now Dr. Blair did smile. 40s. Pretty. Thin. Impressive long nose. Excellent posture. Beautiful clothes. “That’s our objective. We develop an effective treatment plan, and you survive for many years.”

    "But you don’t treat me yourself."

    "I advise some patients who come to our group and treat others who have been advised by one of my colleagues. That way you receive a quick second opinion. Or you can get your second opinion elsewhere. So," she continued, leaning forward, her fine black hair drifting toward her jawline, "tell me more about yourself."

    Henry understood that Dr. Blair worked with the whole person, but Henry wasn’t interested in the whole Henry. He was focused on the cancerous Henry and after a brief autobiographical recitation turned the conversation in that direction:

    "I am fifty-six, a tad overweight, but cancer aside, I’m fine. My mother is a Hudson who endowed me with my first and middle name, Henry Hudson. My father, surnamed Chatterjee, was a London-trained Bengali proctologist who practiced here in New York. I have degrees from Choate, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia. Initially I planned to obscure myself as a classicist, but I was drawn into sociology by Professor Michael Sudbury who became Senator Michael Sudbury. So…politics, of which fifteen years proved a surfeit. I then moved into the directorship of the American Museum of Folklife and Social History and was happy there until last January when I had my prostate gland removed because my Gleason score was seven. But unfortunately the subsequent velocity of my PSA readings suggested there had been a jail break; the cancer had tunneled out of the prostate capsule. Now I’m told we ought to radiate the prostatic bed. Then we ought to retest my PSA levels. If they continue upward, we go after the vagrant prostatic cancer cells before they get into the lymphatic system one of two ways: either we suppress my testosterone production through hormones because testosterone has a nourishing effect on prostate cancer cells, or we—I say ‘we’ with reservations—chemically or physically castrate me.”

    Dr. Blair had a long look at the olive-skinned Henry Hudson Chatterjee. He was a short, paunchy, highly intelligent, witty man who deserved old age.

    “Has someone been going through all this with you?”

    “Senator Sudbury’s former wife, Patricia, is a dear friend of mine.”

    “She lives here in New York?”

    "She does."

    “And you?”

    “I’ve left Washington and taken refuge with her. May I add that I don’t think any of this is going to work?”

    “Oh, but we’re far down the road in treating prostate cancer,” Dr. Blair protested.

    “I’m afraid my prostate cancer is far down the road, too. I picture it having a cup of coffee somewhere along the Route 66 that courses through my troubled body. Let’s think of it as a character in a Cormac McCarthy novel out there, up to no good.”

    Dr. Blair couldn’t help laughing. “Okay, given your skepticism, what are your thoughts?”

    Henry’s voice tightened as he struggled to retain his sense of irony. “My principal thought is that women don’t die of prostate cancer.”

    “No, women don’t have prostate glands.”

    “Nor testicles. Nor testosterone.”

    “Meaning?”

     “Meaning I foresee a period in my life that is dramatically miserable and prematurely terminal. I already have ceased to function as a man.”

    “You’ve only had your prostatectomy seven months ago.”

    “I know it’s early, but in the midst of my likely hormonal treatments, radiation, and chemotherapy, I fear I shall have a sick, discouraged Henry Hudson Chatterjee on my hands. It therefore occurs to me that if the idea is to prevent my masculinity from killing me, I might rather experience my final years not as a eunuch but as a woman. Don’t just castrate me. Commit to that antiseptic phrase I’ve come upon: reassign my gender. Give me the Tiresias experience so that I, too, will experience life from both sides, male and female.”

    Dr. Blair had never heard anyone say what Henry had just said. “Are you homosexual?”

    “I am not.”

    “Have you felt you should have been born a woman?”

    “I have not.”

    “Those are prerequisites for what you’re suggesting. Gender reassignment isn’t an accepted treatment for prostate cancer.”

    "This may be true, but if I end up merely castrated, I’ll be a selfless self. By going further, I’ll be a woman. Is that such a hideous fate?"

    Once again, Dr. Blair had to laugh, “I haven’t found it so.”

    But Henry knew he’d have to push hard. “I won’t say I’m indifferent to sex as a man, but I will say that I’m a cerebral/aesthetic sort, and as I think of all the women I’ve known, with the exception of my ex-wife, I have sensed that being male isn’t necessarily the better lot in life. Woman take things in that men miss. If this were a Kafka story and I woke up tomorrow morning not as an insect but as a woman, I think it would be interesting.”

    It had been a long time since Wellesley, but Dr. Blair had read Kafka’s story, “The Metamorphosis.” She also knew that the prophet Tiresias had come upon two copulating snakes, struck them, irritated the goddess Hera, and as a consequence been transformed into a woman. For the next seven years, Tiresias had been a notorious prostitute. At this point she came upon another pair of copulating snakes and either struck them again or passed them by. Whatever she did was sufficient to release her from her femininity and make Tiresias a man again. This qualified him to settle an argument Zeus and Hera had about who enjoyed sex the most: men or women. Tiresias said women.

    But Dr. Blair stuck to medicine. “Again, gender reassignment is not a prostate cancer treatment.”

    Henry smoothed the thighs of his gray flannel trousers. The two of them were talking in the doctor’s office, not an examining room, and he was a master of one-on-one negotiations that didn’t involve digital rectal examinations.

    “Perhaps not yet, but as I see it, step one is a simple procedure. I am castrated, an outpatient operation. Voila! I instantly stop producing the testosterone that will hasten my death. Naturally most men don’t like this option, but why stop there? Why not make the balance of my life an adventure? I’ve found no evidence that someone who has had a gender reassignment has lost her personal memories, legal status as an American citizen, access to her bank and investment accounts, or acuity of mind.”

    “Mr. Chatterjee, women are different from men,” Dr. Blair objected. “If you had a vagina and a clitoris and amplified breasts and buttocks and altered facial features and possibly an altered voice, none of that would matter as much as the female hormones you’d receive. They’d change the psychic ground upon which your existence rests.”

    “You put that beautifully. I shall remember your phrasing.”

    “What do you want from me, Mr. Chatterjee?”

    “I want you to refer me to a sex change physician with a ‘please expedite’ sticker on my forehead.”

    She wanted to say that would be unethical, but was it? “You’d have trouble getting any insurance company to pay for this.”

    “In the valley of the shadow of death, money isn’t an issue.”

    “All I can say is that you’ll have to let me think about this.”

    “Okay, but please remember our friend is going to finish his cup of coffee any minute, and as in a McCarthy novel, he may be hard to track.”

#

    Patricia had seen him in her study with piles of Greek and Latin books from his days at Choate and Penn. He was fixated on Tiresias. There was the story of Tiresias being both a man and a woman. Then there was Tiresias in Oedipus Rex, reluctantly revealing that Oedipus had killed his father and married his mother. Oedipus wasn’t pleased. Tiresias was thrown out of the palace. Along the way he’d also become blind, some said as retribution for having spotted Athena naked while she was bathing. But his mother, the nymph Chariclo, persuaded Athena to wash out his ears (the blinding being irreversible) so he was able to understand birdsong, enhancing his prophetic gifts (birds know what’s up in the world). And then there was Tiresias in Antigone, where he told Creon, the king of Thebes, that the city was sick because of him. Tiresias apparently had a habit of annoying gods, goddesses and kings on a fairly regular basis.

    Patricia loved Henry for many reasons, one of which was that he reminded her of the restlessly inquisitive Michael Sudbury. They cared about things; they wanted to understand. Tiresias for instance.

    “So many things happened to him that he’s obviously a composite, more than just a prophet, almost a prophecy in himself,” Henry said. “Isn’t he, in fact, an emblem of mankind’s quest for total knowledge?”

    “What are you getting at?”

    “I’m considering dealing with my testosterone-fueled prostate cancer by becoming a woman.”

    Patricia sometimes said she lived to be bowled over. Michael had bowled her over. She knew New York’s best writers, publishers, artists, lawyers, bankers, and architects. They bowled her over all the time. No one, however, had bowled her over like this. She couldn’t help her reaction.

    “But what about us!”

    “You have never had relations with a woman?”

    She’d had a crush on a girl in boarding school. They did each other’s hair. Sometimes they looked at one another sternly in the morning (they were roommates) and said, almost at the same time, “Now I’m going to kiss you so you have a great start to your day.” And they would kiss, but no tongues, and part with protracted secret looks binding them eye-to-eye.

    “Not really. Have you with a man?”

    “Mason suggested it in college. I declined, but we’re still best friends.”

    “It’s different. Mason is gay. You wouldn’t be gay.”

    “No, I’d be embodying the Tiresian prophecy in a way that goes beyond gay.” Henry was looking at her with Euripides’s Bacchae—in which Tiresias cross-dresses to have an intimate encounter with the Theban women—open in his lap. “As things stand, I have ceased to be a man and soon may cease to be a human being. Alternatively, I might live and explore dimensions of life that hitherto have been walled off from me.”

    Patricia involuntarily plumped down on a hassock. She was reeling. “Henry, you could do anything you wanted at the museum, but this isn’t curating an exhibition.”

    “No, we’re definitely not talking about exhibitions, we’re talking about life. What would I be like as a woman? Can you picture me?”

    “What I can picture is that we might not have any sex at all.”

    “Presently the case.”

    “It could change.”

    “Not as things are going. I wish I’d had SAT scores as high as my PSA scores. Would have made Harvard.”

    “What if you became a woman and fell in love with a man instead of me?”

    Henry said he would always love her; they had been secret soulmates from the beginning. “You know that. And I mean holding you, kissing you, being yours.”

    Patricia wasn’t sure she’d like being held and kissed by a woman, even if the woman were Henry. She said this softly, supposing he must be in incredible pain despite his frightening composure. To think such a thing! But he went on thinking it:

    “Ask yourself, is it better to be dead than to be a woman? Wouldn’t Tiresias look around him now and see his prophetic example fulfillable? Be a man, be a woman, have it all? If I can kill myself, which I don’t want to do, why can’t I become a woman? How could I possibly become so disagreeable as a woman that you would want nothing to do with me?”

    “You may lose your view of things, your personality, your irony, which I hope is on display at the moment.”

    “Or I may fascinate you with new insights. I may take us places where we’ve never been. I may write a book that is dual in its gender perspective, or I may just keep poking at Tiresias, returning to my undergraduate studies in the classics.”

    She tried to imagine Henry’s body transformed. Who hadn’t looked at cross-dressers and marveled at their ability to appear what they were not? But this would go further. “A sex change operation wouldn’t give you the sense of what it is to have been a woman all your life, the memories and disappointments and hopes and resignation…and what about giving birth?”

    “Don’t you see, I would be giving birth precisely because I don’t want to die.”

    “I don’t want you to die, either.”

    “Or live as a eunuch.”

    “Castration isn’t inevitable.”

    “Perhaps not, but the fact remains that my testicles are killing me. Everything that will be done to me over the next few years will be aimed at neutralizing their effects.”

    Patricia didn’t know how you went from Tiresias to reshaping a penis into labia, a clitoris, and a vagina. Henry wouldn’t be Henry, but how could she stop loving him for that?

#

    Dr. Blair discussed Henry’s case with Dr. Hart, a gender reassignment specialist. Dr. Hart first wanted to know whether this really would deal with Henry’s prostate cancer. Dr. Blair said that his body scans were clean; the issue was confined to the prostatic bed.

    “Which, yes, I would remove in a sex-change operation,” Dr. Hart said. “But here’s the problem: he’s not proposing this because he’s convinced he’s a woman in a man’s body.”

    “Apparently not. I talked to his urologist and his internist, though. They said what is obvious: he’s bright, clear-headed, and quite rational.”

    “Were they surprised to hear he’d come up with this idea?”

    “The urologist, yes, but the internist laughed. In any case he’s definitely a normal heterosexual male. He has a female lover, Michael Sudbury’s ex-wife. He went into the prostatectomy eager to maintain his relationship with her. Instead, he ended up with more cancer.”

    “How long would he last absent this radical measure?”

    “Two years, three?”

    “But this way?”

    “How can I say? This has never been done before.”

#

    Michael Sudbury had vowed to get back to New York from California to see Patricia every two months. Didn’t happen. The demise of their marriage provoked him to invent an odious new word: it peripheralized Patricia while centering him in his new West Coast life, not the easiest of transitions. People in California thought of the Atlantic seaboard as though it were somewhere under the national bed, littered with dust bunnies, porn magazines, and long lost slippers. Michael had to scramble, network like crazy, spend more weekends on elaborate patios and in overdecorated hunting lodges than he wanted to, and learn not to annoy people in Seattle by talking about the people he knew in L.A. Everything was the future, and the future had an irresistible honeyed taste accompanied by relationships with women who had a lot more money than he did, but at seventy-three, he was choosy and often fouled things up with memories going all the way back to Nixon. So what if Michael had worked for him? No one cared. People hadn’t read Michael’s books, either. This made him wonder if he should write a new one. He hadn’t done so in fifteen years, but then he’d had Henry’s help. And now? My God, news of Henry’s operations—plural—motivated him eastward. He sat in business class brooding about whether he always knew Henry coveted Patricia. Further, he asked himself what his reasons for leaving her were. In short, he couldn’t bear what she obviously had come to think of him. Once upon a time he was a gorgeous academic steed, then politics turned him into a sway-backed nag who never stopped casting his eyes around for the next bag of oats, or, if you will, donors. He raised money until he wanted to scream. When he entered the senate he had to raise $5,000 a week. When he left, $100,000 a week. Every week for six years. She didn’t like the man he became; he didn’t like the man he became, and the peripheralization set in. He had transferred his erotic energies from his wife to other people’s wallets. That’s where he wanted to put his prick…plus the occasional fling…but this…this…

    He sipped his bourbon and remembered both Patricia and Henry when they were young. He used to say Patricia was so slender you could slip her into a cigar tube. He used to say that Henry had the most uselessly interesting mind on the planet. And Patricia was more fun than anyone else in New York City, certainly in Columbia faculty circles. Who pulled off pot luck dinners with that stuffy crowd? Patricia. Who arranged picnics for thirty people in Central Park? Patricia. Skating parties? Patricia.

    He had to get back to New York and see her, though he was leery of seeing Henry.

    "What does he call himself?” he’d asked on the phone. “Etta, you say? Henrietta Chatterjee, is that it? Listen to me: I can say it without stuttering. I’ve been shocked into a cure. What’s he look like? This is real, not just cross-dressing?"  

    He listened to Patricia describe Etta’s weight loss, her surgically sculpted figure, the miracle of cosmetic surgery on her face that shrank her nose, gave her brown Indian eyes greater play, strengthened her weak chin (inherited from old Chatterjee, the proctologist) and then the vocal chord modification. She still had a deep voice, but it was a mature woman’s voice, and her hair was jet black. If Henry had a sister, this would have been her. Henrietta Hudson Chatterjee.

    “Isn’t this sort of thing supposed to happen in California, where I’m six steps behind all the time, and not New York? I’m not sure I want to see her.”

    "You won’t have a choice. She’s left the museum. She lives with me."

    “And you two…how do I ask this?”

    “If it’s none of your business, don’t ask it.”

    He got nowhere. You are married to someone for so long and then realize your relationship has dwindled to an encounter at a high school reunion. But he missed her. She was so real, so consistent, so grounded. All those years while he was politicking around New York, she’d escaped to estate sales, barns and basements and attics, buying and shipping curiously intriguing artifacts to her own little warehouse in Brooklyn. Why? Pure love, fascination, simply to escape from Michael’s endless barbecues, clam bakes and pig roasts, but now, by God, she’d used her scavengings of signs, furniture, picture frames, andirons, glassware, doors, mantlepieces and so forth to jump-start an interior design business that mattered to her…and the buildings and neighborhoods where she worked meant something to him, too. She was deeply involved in the city where he was born and he wasn’t. That hurt.

    He twisted his big body around to retrieve his smart phone and look at the picture Patricia sent him—an elegant South Asian woman with Henry’s restrained, knowing smile only smaller, Mona Lisa-like. You would not think this was once a man.

    A chill passed through him. The little woman scared him. What must she know given what she already knew before she did this to herself? Was that Tiresias stuff Patricia had relayed to him real? And during all those years the three of them had spent together, Henry the ingenious diplomat had been his aide-in-chief while Henry the folkloristic sociologist had been Patricia’s stoutest moral support and admirer. That hurt, too.

#

    Patricia had come through spectacularly when Henry had his prostatectomy. More spectacular still was her love seeing Etta through her sex-change operations. When her penis was inverted and reconfigured, Etta found herself in turmoil; for quite some time she couldn’t look, dreading the mass of red swollen tissue between her legs. Meanwhile Patricia sat with her and read aloud the new Fagles translation of the Odyssey. The Oxycontin made Etta woozy; she’d drop off repeatedly. Nonetheless, when she wakened, she found Patricia still reading, holding the book with one hand and Etta’s hand with the other.

    At last the hormones began to comfort her as much as the painkillers.  She developed a new sense of self, kindred to birth or having given birth, she wasn’t certain which, but a new beginning. She asked if there wasn’t something she could do that would help Patricia in her business. Patricia said of course she could; she let Etta examine her financial statements and marketing schemes and project plans. As an interior designer, Patricia was, in a sense, just like Etta: a make-over artist. They joked about that. One day a dreary apartment or townhouse became a new one without losing its connection to the past.

    Patricia was out when Etta had her first look at her groin. She sat on the closed toilet seat deploying a little pocketbook mirror. Her nethers remained swollen and confused; she could barely touch them to wipe—only pat—but the fundamental statement was clear: no penis, no scrotum. Was there, in fact, something beyond her puffy labia, as Dr. Hart promised? Would she use it? There could only be one reason—sex—but she was so feeble that the thought of sex wasn’t much of a thought. She pushed her knees farther apart and used her fingers to expose her new clitoris. It was swollen into a kind of tiny tulip bulb.

    What about her breasts? The nipples and areolae were darker than they’d been, larger than they’d been, angled somewhat downward and away from her breastbone. She thought of her bosomy mother and her scrawny father, who’d lost weight year by year as he aged. Mixed physical role models at best, who had a pact that when Henry was ten, they would separate and when he was twelve they would divorce. Henry would live with his mother, and they would live well because his father was affluent and his mother got a ton of his money and first dibs on the estate if his father died first, which he conveniently did.

    The work on her face wasn’t terribly painful, but any operation saps you. The human body rushes its phalanxes of recuperative powers to the site of what doctors sometimes called “the insult.” What part of her hadn’t been insulted? She went back to Dr. Blair for an assessment. Dr. Blair couldn’t find a speck of prostate cancer anywhere.

    “So your idea apparently worked,” she said.

    Etta was dressed in clothing Patricia had bought her, a white cashmere sweater and a black skirt with an interesting weave. Not too girlie. She hadn’t had her vocal chords adjusted yet, so her voice was exactly the voice Dr. Blair had heard the first time they met.

    “And now I shall live, you see.”

    The two women contemplated one another, seemingly inquiring what the other might consider living to be, what being a woman meant.

    Dr. Blair asked, “What will you do with your life?”

    “I’m helping Patricia with her interior design business at the moment. Eventually I may do some museum consulting.”

    Dr. Blair asked if she would consider writing about her experiences.

    Etta didn’t know. “I don’t have enough perspective yet. You’ll recall Tiresias became a notorious whore during his period of femininity, but frankly, I’m feeling rather timid. Dr. Hart didn’t give me a literal hymen, but I’m a virgin, wouldn’t you agree?”

    Dr. Blair agreed. Who knew where this demure Indian-American’s new anatomy and hormones would take her? Beyond that, when Dr. Blair took the trouble to look into the Tiresias myth, one thing struck her: his gnomic utterances were consistently rejected, just like Cassandra’s, the prophetess doomed to be always right and never paid heed.

#

     Patricia observed Etta’s transformation with wonder. Etta walked, sat, talked, minced celery, chided herself for forgetting something, and held her tongue like a woman…a certain kind of woman, a very good kind of woman. She retained her exceptional mind and knowledge, yet managed to probe her own thoughts and observations with even more discrimination than before. She confessed she was wary of men not only because she feared the moment of discovery but because, like many women, she found men could be awkwardly disruptive or mulishly reserved. In other words, they forced their opinions on you or played dumber than they were.

    Michael fell into the disruptive category as both Patricia and Etta knew.

    “I think you ought to see him alone, without me,” Etta said before his visit. “I could go to Boston for the weekend and get out of the way.”

    Patricia said, “No, if he’s going to see me, he’s going to see you. We’re a pair.”

    “He won’t like me,” Etta said.

    “Have you considered that it might be you who doesn’t want to see him?”

    “But I do want to see him. I’m curious about what he’s like not being in academe or politics anymore.”

    “And older.”

    “Do you think that’s a factor?”

    Patricia said, “With men you never know. Some hang around in a state of formaldehyde-like preservation from their sixties to their eighties, and then, zip, they die. Others wizen to the point you can scarcely believe they are who they were. Women generally fight the aging process. Men either are lucky to escape it or give up without knowing that’s what they’ve done.”

    When Michael reached the apartment he and Patricia had shared for twenty-two years, he was the same tall, silver-haired, red-cheeked, haughty Michael.

    Right off he teased Etta, “I am pleased to meet you, Ms. Chatterjee. Don’t think we’ve met before, have we?”

    He said this quickly, defensively, wanted it on the record that he didn’t know what he was dealing with. Etta clearly didn’t take what he said especially well, having worked with him through her doctoral dissertation and most of his three terms in the senate.

    “I wanted to live,” she said to him quietly. “That’s all.”

    “Of course, of course,” Michael said, sitting down and asking for a bourbon, which Patricia already was pouring. “Of course,” he said a third time, at a loss.

    The facial reconstruction had made Etta look at least ten years younger; her voice now was that of a woman. Her hair, surely it was dyed, was as black as a Bengali’s, and it appeared to be hers, not a wig. So much for looks, which Michael could barely take in, stopping somewhere around her throat.

    “But let’s not talk about me,” Etta said. “Let’s hear about you.”   

    Then came the questions about his life, what he did at the Rand Corporation, his visiting lectureship at Stanford, his board membership at Microsoft, and how he found the West—the kinds of questions an old female friend might put to him and he might half-answer or fend off with a chuckle or turn into a disquisition on the effects of immigration on California (immigration was his scholarly speciality), ignoring the fact that the woman with whom he was speaking wasn’t interested. But Etta was Henry, and Henry was Etta, and there wasn’t anything Michael could say, however detailed or abstruse, that Henrietta couldn’t follow.

    Indeed, now this pretty woman took him to task for criticizing California’s high personal income tax rates.

    “So I’m rich and want to get richer,” Michael laughed. “The people I know constantly put me on the spot to repay their hospitality, and I don’t have their kind of private palaces and have to do it commercially—fancy restaurants, that sort of thing. The whole bloody West Coast costs a goddamn fortune.”

    “New York doesn’t?” Patricia asked.

    Michael appeared ready to continue his eruption on tax policy but suddenly stopped. “Okay, filibuster’s over,” he said seriously. “When last I saw you two, you were heading toward coupledom. Does that remain the case? Which of you, if either, is gay? I mean…”

    “We know what you mean,” Patricia said.

    “Well, for Christ’s sake, Patricia, what do you want me to say? We were married a long time. Henry was my right hand man for a long time. Henry, I mean, Etta, were you gay then? Is that why your marriage didn’t work out?”

    Etta had married a redheaded folklorist from Kentucky who was fierce, smart, and thought Michael Sudbury was a big-time phony for whom Henry shouldn’t work. Her name was Bernice. She thought even worse of Henry’s mother and father. In fact, the punishing attitude she took toward Henry’s entire life mystified and repelled everyone except Henry, and there was general relief when she marched back to Louisville.

    Now Etta said she wasn’t gay as a man but might be as a woman. Michael said not even in California had he heard someone say something so screwy. Etta said she had been told she was more unique than screwy. Michael said she could assume her uniqueness to be a fact until proven otherwise.

    Just like that, they were fighting. Patricia remembered them fighting all the time during the senate years, and then afterward, once Michael got Henry the museum and foisted a big political donor onto his board, but this was unmistakably a sexually tinged fight. Patricia saw that despite himself Michael found Etta attractive.

    She was attractive. Initially at night they began lying side by side, Etta under the sheets, Patricia on top of the sheets, so that Patricia didn’t disrupt things too much getting up and down to give Etta her pills, a sip of water, even help her turn over. Eventually she said, “Etta, we’ve been under the sheets together a hundred times, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be there again. We’ll both sleep better, won’t we?” Sleep? People sleep together precisely when they are not sleeping. But again, given Etta’s condition, they actually did sleep at the outset. Then came a point when her condition no longer mandated regular assistance and the old soulfulness between them drew them together for a true embrace, an unrestrained kiss, an explicit movement of hands. Patricia told herself, “Well, I’m not getting any sex with men, am I?” Etta spoke to herself a bit differently, “My dear Patricia,” she would think, over and over again, remembering her so well and yet experiencing her so differently.  

    The fight between Michael and Etta continued. Patricia could see that Etta, too, was stirred. Michael was best when he was nettled; his brain cells crackled; his eyes grew fiery; he still had some Pegasus in him. To put a stop to this curious flirtation, she fed them the kind of dinner they had shared so often when Etta was Henry and Michael was Patricia’s husband. Then there were after-dinner drinks. More calm, some chuckling, a kind of normalization and acceptance. Inevitably, though, Michael began to grow restless. He had his luggage with him, but would he spend the night? If he spent the night, where would he sleep? In the guest room? In his old study, now the focal point of Patricia’s interior design business? Did he think, had he thought, that Patricia would let him sleep with her?

    He surprised both Patricia and Etta by talking frankly about sex. He admitted he used to be a fiend, but now he had the devil’s own time escaping California’s numerous divorcées, some of them half his age. He wasn’t bragging, or only a little bit. In fact he said he was lonely, he had no one out west with whom he could be candid. Saying these things in front of Etta—they’d never discussed sexual matters, Henry had just overlooked Michael’s philandering as did Patricia—embarrassed Michael a wee bit, but not enough to stop him from saying that he had always wanted what he wanted and still doubted he understood what a woman wanted.

    “What is it like being a woman?” he asked Etta. “Maybe you can tell me that in a way that a—what should we say, ‘a woman of origin’?— might not. Speak, Tiresia. Tell Hera and Zeus your tale.”

    Etta looked at him like a woman who understood the rule of secrecy that bound her to her femininity from within, but she forced herself to speak. “As a latecomer to the club, there’s only one thing I really know about women, and it’s not whether they enjoy sex more than men. That’s a stupid question.”

    “Is it really?” Michael asked.

    “Very stupid.”

    “Then what is it that you’ve discovered that’s more important?”

    “I think no woman would ever do what I did for the reason I did it. No woman would become a man to escape death. We’d rather die, we’d rather accept death and let it have its way than become you.”

    “Is that an indictment of men?”

    “I think it’s simply sense we have, perhaps because women give birth, that life will go on without us. In that regard we’re much more alive while we live than men. Death is not our enemy. We are more free than men, and having learned that, I’d never go back.”

    Michael listened as carefully as he’d done many times when Henry was his aide—that’s why Henry had been his aide for so long—but never on a subject like this.

    “I hear you speaking from somewhere beyond my ken,” he said. “I suppose I’d say that as a man I’m on this earth to wrestle my troubles to the ground. And if I succeed, I go looking for some new set of troubles. It’s in my nature, it’s who I am.”

    Patricia said, “Then you’ve certainly been true to your nature. Now where do you plan to sleep? Here or in a hotel?”

    Michael said he thought he’d spend the night there, with them. “Is the guest room free?”

    “Yes, it is.”

    “And you two will…?”

    “Don’t worry about us,” Patricia said. “We’ll work things out.”

    The three of them shared in the cleaning up, and then there was the sound of doors opening and closing on bedrooms and bathrooms and water sluicing through sinks and toilets and the rustling of bedspreads and sheets and the soft background wash of New York’s nocturnal tides—elevators whining up and down their shafts, street traffic mildly cranky ten floors below, rooftop HVAC systems hissing, and the cries and moans of people sleeping together who weren’t asleep.

Copyright Notice: All work appearing on this blog is copyrighted to its stated author and has been posted with permission. Please post a link to a post you like rather than reblogging in order to avoid copyright infringement.

Iain Macdonald

S/tick’s “Managing” issue is now only a month away! In the meantime, please give a ponder to the thought-provoking poetry of Iain Macdonald, which will appear in the issue.

Insight

Given the chance
to erase one event,

and the entire sequence—
from trash talk
to hard-man posturing
to the sudden fist
exploding my retina—
never happens.
I simply walk away
into a lifetime free
of semi-blindness.

A high school coach,

I look around the huddled
circle of my team.
Some loudmouth rival
has been talking smack,
and now the heady
scent of spilling blood
is in the air.

I say what I can

and the guys nod solemnly,
because they’re good kids
all of them, but still kids,
who will do what they will do
and perhaps one day will wonder
what else they might have done.


Copyright Notice: All work appearing on this blog is copyrighted to its stated author and has been posted with permission. Please post a link to a post you like rather than reblogging in order to avoid copyright infringement.

Karl Parker

Karl’s long poem will appear in S/tick’s upcoming “Managing” issue, to be released in March. Watch for it, and in the meantime feel free to e-mail him with any feedback!

BIRTHSONG

Steve, my brother, my twin—
What is the simple violence you found in life?

Though he’s older than me by two years—
my brother Dave stood crying, twelve years old, in our green
linoleum kitchen. His left hand holding his right, slit
straight across the palm like a red envelope: tiny ribbons
of blood pouring into the creases of his fingers. Standing there,
looking up into my face, he cried and cried and even cried softly
after that.

My two brothers had been shouting, fighting all morning;
now Dave was standing here, before me, dumbfounded.
Steve had called him fat but he wasn’t. Now he was standing here
crying and holding out his hand to me or my hand.

I could not have stopped the fight, or didn’t, and I mopped up
my older brother’s blood, how dark, with Bounty paper towels.
All of it soaked up in the paper towels from the rack which hangs
above the dripping sink—and I cried all along, dumbly, as I did it;
and did not know where Steve could be at that moment, or where
he was, howling, shrieking with hate in the garage
near his archery targets and tools.

One day, I remember clearly, my head cracked on the pavement
of the sidewalk, some summertime, when Steve was chasing me
around in our garden. I fell backwards and the shock
of the concrete made my head feel hollow and hard as wood. Then
Steve appeared over me. Someone who knew us both from the third
grade, back then, older than us, was passing by on that sunny day
and he saw it happen through the roses and the fence.
As I lay there hurting in the middle of it, dumb and frozen, his eyes,
walking by, met mine for an instant, and kept on walking.

Steve, how strange it would leave me when you would come home,
years later, drunk and hot and half-seeming not to cry or even yell;
but terrified, spitting things at me in the driveway, I couldn’t see
what they were, and in my fear I thought you were actually spitting
some kind of seeds at me, those hard little things you were spitting—
and you saying you wanted to kill me, and such—though then,
outside the gate, I also saw that night for a second the awkward wound
in your hot drunk eyes, which would bring no tears to cool them.

And how strange it always was how you loved and made happy
the stuffed animals in your room alone, longer than I ever did.
Much later you’d end up giving them to me when you were finally
through—even your very favorites; all except the one I know you still
and always will have, and I remember in good time you even used
to go by its name—Oh God—

And when we grew, so slowly, and grew alone, you replaced them
on the walls with a small crown of deer antlers, tiny tufts of fur, your
guns stacked in polished wood. The bows and arrows all tangled with
feathers and cheap blue string—I remember it all—and that we also
used the string, tied with the end of a raccoon’s tail, to play with the cats
who could smell faintly the animal still left in it; they were, by this foreign
and living scent, excited into playing with the left-behind part of another,
stranger, animal.

And I know there was a deer’s heart in the refrigerator in a white
plastic bag, too; the smell of the shock of that dizzying blood in our house
for the first time—I remember—and the tiny pools it left behind to dry
in the bottom of the freezer. The far-away smell of that recent meat
filling the kitchen from a sizzling pan; or spitting up tiny needles of spicy
oil onto the hand which moved the pan around, from side to side, raw, over
the glowing coil. Or cooking venison in the oven which didn’t work right
and always took hours-too-long to cook. And you there, yelling and
grumbling, spending the whole day hovering in and out of the kitchen like
an angry hawk, half-hating its prize.

At first I never ate the meat you killed, though somehow you wanted me
to, didn’t you, so badly, speechlessly, full of hatred. Sometimes it sat on
the counter all day and night for a week, Good Lord, and only later,
in the days of college, would you actually send an entire plastic dish of it—
through the mail—for me to have in my room, four hours away, alone.
And there I ate it with such fearful love in my heart, remembering your hate
yet knowing and wondering how you, alone, found and reaped
and made this food for me.

Once at our grandmother’s in the woods you fell so high and hard
to the ground, out of the treeswing that got cut down a week later.
The rope you held which held you creaked at the highest point of its arc;
the most fearful moment of its swing, and you shot down so hard—ahh—
poor body—right from the top of the tree—like an arrow—straight down
to the hard hillside, face-down, I alone saw it! Only me, and your head
was pointed to the earth as you fell and oh how your eyes were wide
and flat with terror, flashing by me—through the air—a child—dropped—
in an instant you were down. I heard the dull blast, the sickening dead
thump when you hit the ground like a hard fist against solid dirt.

Only me—I saw the dead grass pounded into your sides, your ribs so sore,
were they broken, too? It was so hard for you, so difficult and crazy,
to try and get up before I or anyone could have gotten there. You,
there, seeming so far away from me and so quickly shot from
the dry rope. You had not worn a shirt. No sound from your mouth
now as you lay there—but a hurt in you so bad and so new you cried
dumbly like a scared animal, head turned up, softly, no sound, wondering
what it was, that enormous hurt on all sides.

Your eyes didn’t even know where to go—
I saw them wandering, looking all around at the faces in the kitchen,
after you had come quietly through the screendoor in slow-motion, deadly,
vacant, no hearts beating in that second of time. It’s all still there—everything stops—the flowery patterns on the walls cease—as you hold
out your bent wrists at all the faces, the ends of your arms so thin
and made clumsy now. Such a long way across the kitchen floor of our
grandmother’s house, was it? Holding out your useless arms, oh the grass
stains on your pale stomach and our mother’s eyes: we couldn’t recognize you
then. I shook with how strange and childishly your arms were broken,
Steve, like I’d never seen you before, and I was so afraid.

In your other years of hating our mother and still to this day never-again
to speak to our father, often, in the garden all covered with high weeds,
we even wore dungarees like each other’s, and loved them. Doing something
in the yard we had been forced into—with all the toothless rakes that you
probably broke, the broken handles, the lost parts, all the insecticides
which never killed anything. I see and remember even the poison ivy,
a strange leafy thing, half-inviting, half-threatening, spiraling along
the bottom of the fenceposts behind the compost heap, where we have
and will always have buried our cats when they die.

All our cats who strayed to us, and left us, each alone in cardboard,
wrapped in whatever blanket they liked so well in life, now dead,
even softer and more failed than the compost heap. Steve,
you always dug the holes for them and their small newly-lost bodies
that we had all grown so familiar with—you would let no one else do it,
ever. You demanded and insisted upon it, and never once cried at it,
though everyone was, inside the house, crying, hardly knowing
what else to do. And you outside all the while, doing it—holding
the tiny weight of their bodies in your hands, frightening now
in being so unresponsive and quiet behind cardboard—you placed them
in their small graves. I don’t know what you thought in those moments,
then, when you were outside and alone with them, the now-dead things
that we had all loved—the only things we had all loved—in common.

So we bury our cats, and their names disappear like the memory
of the expressions on the faces of the children we knew, deloused
in grade school, with Standard black combs rifling through the dirty
heads of hair. They will all vanish into the high weeds—what they
are and were will be breathed out into the night air around our house;
small clouds of heat radiating from the compost heap, under the thick
disheveled wall of pine needles, steaming, slick with resin;
these memories collapsing always further downwards into hot decay,
so far beneath the distant and heartless stars.

In our small town they always knew about weeds and the uneven
jutting sidewalks of the back alley behind the high school. No-one
really had any name but a nickname. When the janitor’s son,
or the bus driver’s son, went to school, he was quiet and ashamed
of this man with no name, his father, with the slick hair,
and old jeans as worn and tired as his dirty jokes.

It was in those days that I could never hug you or anything, Steve,
except in peacetime forced upon us after a fight, your fight mostly,
as you know—and Mom would continue making us shake hands
until we were fourteen years old. Not that you wanted my nothing
arms on your back, or had any reason to, really, with my mouth
of those days in such a crooked smile, full of orthodontics and
a half-broken tooth in the front, that got broken in school, you
remember. Back then you knew I couldn’t make a real face anyway,
even if I tried to or you had wanted it. And last month you told me
how now, strangely, you actually need braces, “But
who’s gonna get ‘em at nineteen?” And then I see how small
your teeth still are, in front, for some reason, small like
I don’t know, a little boy.

Then I remember how truly it was so strange that I was so near to you,
long before this same house appeared for us, when I was cradled
right next to you, cradled up against you, even, in our mother’s body
so long ago. Before there was a world for us. In the first days, in the dark
healthy heat where I knew you when we knew nothing. Knew you when we
had no mouth or arms to speak of, when we had no eyes or ears to hear
the sounds of family life—only when we were inseparably involved and
kept firmly within those immensely loving vibrations of blood, the huge
mothering blood, rushing by us, and around us, and inside of us as one.
Then when we felt, not heard, only the constant drum of a vast heart
beating over us, living over us and us within it, and behind it feeling only
the softer beating of another drum, yours felt by me and mine by yours,
in all the warmth and softness, a response. Oh my brother I was touching you
then before there was love. Only many years after that time of togetherness
would the local doctor tell me, off-handedly, one day during a visit
that my heart murmured: and it would, always.

Only years later would the cats, other cats, new wandering ones,
try so hard to kill you a twisted bird, especially mine, the black one.
She loved to hunt them out of the air and lay the offering on the stone steps
of our porch to be discovered, many days, in the warm afternoons, arriving
home from the schoolbus. These offerings—tiny kills—with ants
and the shine of spittle on the stiff blades of their feathers; even bats
sometimes, found on the porch, cold and mysterious in the morning;
or a baby bird—and once I saw a long wasp—its black feelers curling,
vibrating with curiosity—crawling up out of an empty eyehole
from inside the almost-transparent skull of a sparrow.

These cats which remain with us for a time rarely catch baby rabbits
anymore, or anything swift. The steps are swept clean from feathers and
these things, pitiful offerings, I buried with my own hands—because you
couldn’t care less about them, which made a kind of sense: none of us knew
these things’ names or what they were ever like, in life, and besides,
my cat had done most of the killing anyway. So I used a toy shovel
I found in the garage to scoop up whatever broken-open little body,
dirty smelling things, black-eyed, mouths strangely left open
below the door of our house. What scream or thought, muffled
with unintelligence, was drying there, inside the motionless fur, now limp?

Once or twice, because I knew no better, I even prayed Our Father
Who Art In Heaven for the dead crumpled-up bird, usually dead from
the twig of the neck being broken, or merely the shock of the oncoming
attack. Sometimes while burying it I was so tired and up late at night
I cried for the dead bird, senseless and inescapably small, and sometime
in those times it would rain, even hail, all over me and over it, as I was
fumbling over it, putting a speechless broken life away in that hard ground.
The weather so damnable, once it even seemed like a gigantic funeral,
almost majestic and universal, grief all over the land and sky, yet
redeeming us, I thought; because the animal, no bigger than a hand, was
dead in that rain and hail, and I was, in life, of some use to it.

In our last years together at home, yes Steve, when we were in highschool,
you drove me there every morning at seven AM, a half-hour car ride,
you drove us; and didn’t like it or me at all that early in the morning
but would have hated me more if I hadn’t come. The radio blasting heavy
metal the whole way there—you always in a crazy way wanted to protect
me at school, said you’d kill the kid who called me a faggot, and you’d have
done it pretty much, I know… . You had always wanted some way
to care for me, only now do I know this. Forgive me.

Please help me to come to you once more now, here.
It’s almost time to go.

Driving all the way to school was pride and going fast as hell,
sometimes ninety or a hundred. One day before we left town a rich guy
in a car, a lawyer whose kid we had known, said Fuck You
out of his window, to you, because of your driving. And Steve
you got so angry so fast, almost growling in your throat you swerved
around his car, and he pulled over with a screech, and both cars jumped open
in front of the post office. I heard it all through the open window
of your car—and why will I never forget this as long as I live? I felt
every word go into you so fast and sharp, Steve, and you, slamming the door,
told me to shut up and stay there. And when the lawyer tried
to get tough with you you just swore and swore at him, and he was
just a rich bastard but I heard him, my brother, I heard him hurt you once,
in a way he could never know—and your anger at him died down
and changed at that, sickened; it was impossible to harm him then
and you were left alone with your hate like that bee sting
in your shoe you couldn’t shake loose—the hurt he could never know
and could never suffer under, as he made fun of your car, just that;
but it was enough—saying, “It probably cost less than its speakers!”

But the car, the red one, that thing—somehow it was so much
of your pride, I had never realized it until then; you’d shine it
every weekend when you worked at the garage, you put stickers
on the doors and a toy with suction cups on its hands in the back window,
looking out. The car was yours, you had worked for and bought it
in spite of our family. And this one comfortable man cut it down
and you down with it, in an instant which I would never forget because
I felt, only then, in myself your true hatred and fierce shame I wanted
so badly to kill him, for you, for me, break his goddamned neck
in my hands, all red—and then we could leave—finally leave
and not ever look back, not even once, you motherfucker, Oh
help me.

Finally we roar from the scene in front of the post office that day
in schooltime, roar away a hundred miles per hour, pass through
the one-street town and the farms and the silos all together as one,
all left for good, forever, the radio blasting in our ears, whatever
songs, real brothers at last, unafraid, nothing more, no more shame.
We yell and make jokes with each other and pound on each other’s shoulders
and pass by the school screaming and never ever go there again, those
faded speckled halls. Drive on and on and never run out of gas or radio
stations and good songs, past the rotting barns full of lawnmowers, past
the stumps in the snow. Past the wide Susquehanna frozen over
in January, past the harvest moon. Past where you once got a bow and arrow
ready to shoot our dad on his farm, walking the entire length of the macadam road
in your bare feet, eleven or twelve years old. Past how much I really believed
that day you’d kill him. Past our lives. Past when you came home
from camp with your knuckles so swollen and torn with scabs and
wouldn’t say why. Past the black eye you had at the Thanksgiving
table last year. Past when you were suspended from school when
the deaf kid told on you because he saw you breaking a desk.
Past the stitches in my reattached finger from your axe when we were cutting wood.
Past the tiny place on the back of your head where no more hair
will grow out of a scar, I remember that day in our dad’s van, the dark stone
stuck in the back of your head. Past when you loaned me your shoes
when I cried and was lonely one summer and Mom forbade me
to wear my shoes down to see the fireworks. Past
the times we went fishing together and you showed me how
it was really done, but would never tell me who showed you. Past
when you made me a giant paper-maché tooth when I lay on the sagging
couch for two days drugged from my wisdom tooth operation and you
wrote on the huge tooth you gave me I Love You Karl. Past
your grey cat with one white toe whom you named Mittens.
Past when you saved our house from catching on fire and Mom
was drunk that night and you were so scared you were shaking, even
cried tears in her arms afterwards. Past whenever you cried or swore
to yourself in bed at night and maybe I heard you through the wall.
Past the nightmare you had of crocodiles coming down the hall
when you woke up screaming and went into Mom’s bed. Past
when we went to Jamaica at seven with Gran and Grandad
for our “once-in-a-lifetime” vacation and you found a pet coconut
for yourself, and I had pet sea-urchins, and how you cried
and screamed the last day of that week when Mom had to bury
your secret friend in the sand, saying It Will Always Be Here
For You To Come Back To. Past how I cried when
we got home from vacation and I realized I left my two
dry sea-urchins on the plane, under my seat
in an airsickness bag. Past every morning you went hunting
alone in freezing dawns, the heart of the woods goes with us.
Past every Christmas when we had no heat. How Mom stood up,
past driving a hundred miles to work every morning for four years.
Past all I remember. Past I love you Steve. Past the note
you once wrote, so drunk you fell twice on the stairs, the note
lying scrawled on the kitchen table in the morning saying
Mother Forgive Me For My Sins—and we will ride on
and on past every other disappearing past the car
past all we are past the ends of my arms we will walk
hand in hand in the night.

Copyright Notice: All work appearing on this blog is copyrighted to its stated author and has been posted with permission. Please post a link to a post you like rather than reblogging in order to avoid copyright infringement.

Brandon T. Madden

S/tick is back with a touching story from Brandon T. Madden. If you like it, check out Brandon’s website for a sneak peek at his novel, V.S.A, or give him some feedback.

Snowed Tea

Snow tumultuously fell from the sky, wiping around the car as we slowly drove down the street. We should have taken the first warning sign as we ate lunch in the dining room, looking out the wide bay window at the storm, or at the very least we should have taken the second warning sign when Meredith couldn’t open her car door because it had been frozen shut. But nonetheless, here we were, traveling at a whole whopping 3 miles an hour and still sliding, trying to keep this metal death trap straight on the road.

The road itself was isolated from the rest of the world, lined with numerous pine trees that seemed to stretch on for miles. The only source of light was my car’s headlights, and the only souls around were Meredith and me. Maybe there were some animals in the forest, if they hadn’t already succumbed to the brutal temperatures and snowfall, but as far as I was concerned we were the only two lost in this abandoned frozen world.

I turned on the radio so as to eliminate the tense silence in the car. But each station had promptly moved on to its severe weather advisory warning, as if a mocking third warning to stay home and not travel.

But that was no longer an option.

Finally, I found an oldies country channel that assumed everyone was at home and knew about the storm and continued playing its music. It was completely foreign to me, with artists’ names that I had never heard of, but it did its job.

The car continued to slip and slide down the road. I could feel the tires, gripping onto nothing but snow, which at this point was the only thing I could see. Meredith stared out the window. Her scarlet winter hat pressed against it as tendrils of white steam flamed on the glass, leaving behind wispy curves. She placed her finger on the glass and out of the corner of my eye I could see her tracing something.

Finally, the inevitable happened. The car slid to the right and into a snow bank.

“Shit.”

I tried to reverse the car, but it was no good.

“You’re going to have to get into the driver’s seat,” I said to Meredith, who kept her eyes focused on the darkness outside the window. “I’ll try to push the front as you reverse.”

I got out of the car. The snow on the road was already up to my calf as I examined the tires, which were cradled deep within the drifts—trapped. The hood of the car was wedged inside the icy drift. I squeezed into it and shouted to put it in reverse. The car revved and oscillated back and forth as I pushed harder and harder.

No ground gained, just deeper into the snow.

I rested my gloved hands on the hood of the car, which was warm, as I tried to figure out a solution to get the car out of the bank.

I shouted to her to try again, but the car just oscillated back and forth, slipping in its self-created rut.

I had to accept the reality: we were stuck and weren’t going anywhere. Meredith climbed back into the passenger seat as I closed the car door and took out my phone and wallet. I took out the Triple A card and called the number.

The phone synced with the car stereo system and I got a voice answering.

Due to the severe winter storm, calls will be forwarded to an automatic machine. Please leave your name, number, Triple A number, and emergency. We will get back to you as soon as possible.

The message beeped. “Um hi, I’m James O’Brien, my car is stuck in a snow drift off of Pineview Road, probably in the middle between Little Beaver and Crossings.”

I hung up the phone.

Meredith looked at me, “You forgot to give them your numbers.”

“Son of a bitch.”

“You probably should call back.”

“Screw it. They can call back after they see the caller ID.”

“Why are you so angry?”

“Because we’re stuck in the middle of a fucking snowstorm on the side of the fucking road.”

“Why did you insist on driving? I could have just stayed at your place.”

The radio synced back on with the strumming of an acoustic guitar. The singer sang, “My baby is gone. My baby is gone.” I looked at her incredulously. “You think you can just reappear after a year and a half on my doorstep and pretend everything is okay and go back to normal?”

The artist again: “My baby is gone.”

“I had to go away for a while and figure out what to do,” she replied. “What was I supposed to do, with you finishing your degree and flying around the country to get into a PhD program? I wasn’t going to add additional stress. It’s something I had to do alone.”

“It was something we did together, you can’t just choose by yourself.”

“It’s my life that was going to be changed.”

The artist strummed his guitar and hummed, “Baby, oh baby. How I miss my baby.”

“You think I would abandon you?” I said.

“You haven’t called since that night, and that was nearly a year ago. What was I supposed to think? I had no idea what you were going to do or how you were going to react,” she replied. “Plus, you know how my parents are. If they knew then there would be no choice.”

“So you decided to abort our child without talking to me.”

The guitar began to fade in the background but the artist continued his words. “I would go and search for my baby across the world.” Then the music stopped and the car was silent. The pause lingered in the air, as if the DJ had fallen asleep and forgotten to cue the next song—or maybe the next song was playing, but it was lost in the darkness of night, trapped beneath the blizzard, trying to reach the audience but with no real hope of touching their ears. Regardless, the car was silent.

“We weren’t ready to be parents. I wasn’t and you weren’t,” said Meredith, calmly.

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes I do,” she replied. “I was not ready to be a mother or to get married or to have any commitment. I was still trying to figure out who I am and what I want. And how do you think we would raise a child as you go off and pursue a PhD?”

“I would have taken an extra job or two if I needed,” I said.

“Would you have stayed here?”

“We could have moved together.”

“I wasn’t ready for that.”

“So instead you ran away like a child,” I snapped back.

“Yes,” she said, and a tear rolled down her face. Her chest heaved a little. “I went to California to stay with a cousin, told my parents I was looking for potential work. And I had the abortion.”

She clutched her stomach and heaved again. “They showed me an ultrasound of the kid. You couldn’t tell the sex of it or anything like that. And I signed the paper saying I didn’t want it.”

She paused.

“And that was that. I stayed in California for a while to recover. Told my parents I couldn’t find work and then came back home.”

“When did this all happen?”

“End of June, when you were overseas at Cambridge working in the lab.”

I sat there, letting it sink in. I flicked the wipers on to remove the snow from the windshield, hoping to see if any trucks were driving by, but all I got was pitch black darkness and the sound of crunching ice as the blades jutted over the frozen windshield. Not even the radiator could melt away the ice.

“For what it’s worth, I think you would have been a good mother,” I said. “I don’t think this would have been a burden for us.”

She clenched her eyes shut and silently sobbed to herself as she rested her head on the window.

I reached out my hand touching hers, it was cold and trembling. I felt my own body shake as if it was trying to melt away both her and my sorrow and pain.

We sat there in silence for a moment as I held her hand, without knowing what to say.

“Can I do anything for you?”

She shook her head.

I opened the glove compartment seeing if there was anything I could offer her. Littered inside were napkins, hot sauce and ketchup packets, and loose change. However, in the corner was an unopened tea bag.

An empty McDonald’s cup sat in the cup holder and I picked it up, opening the nearly frozen car door. The car sat pathetically in the snow bank, slowly becoming one with it as I walked farther off the road into an untouched part of land. The snow looked clean, but then again there wasn’t any light and no way for me to know for sure as I scooped up the snow into the cup. I tasted it. The wind nipped at my fingers and nose as it raced through my body, chilling my bones. The snow was well past my knees. For a moment I felt panicky, as if we really were trapped in the middle of frozen tundra with no hope of survival and the choice of freezing to death or dying from starvation.

But I needed to get back, because she needed the tea, if not for warmth, at least for comfort.

The car lights ahead were so dim and faint that I stumbled quickly towards them in the hopes they wouldn’t fade away in a mocking attempt to teach me a lesson. What that lesson was I had no idea. It could be a number of things at this point.

I reached the car and yanked on the door, which had attempted to develop a new layer of ice. A cold chill entered the car as I got in and closed it, lingering even as I cranked on the heater. The snow in the cup slowly melted, collapsing in on itself as it created a lukewarm pool. I placed the tea bag in, swirling the cup around, hoping some of its flavor would infuse the water.

“I made you tea,” I said, handing her the cup. “It’s not very warm, or rather it’s not warm at all, but it might help.”

She gave off a small laugh as she accepted and sipped it.

“What are you going to call it?”

“I don’t know,” I said, trying to force my frozen muscles into a smile. “Maybe Snowed Tea.”

“That’s not a very good name,” she said with a smile.

“I never was good at naming things.”

“Neither am I.”

Ahead of the car, which was now almost indistinguishable from the snow bank, four bright yellow lights broke the darkness around us as a large snowplowing truck rumbled down the road. Its diesel engine roared as the plow took the fresh snow and heaved it effortlessly out of the way, without hesitation.

“Finally, our chance to be free,” I said.

I opened the door as Meredith rested her head, staring at the car window. As the bright yellow lights hit the window, I looked back at her.

On the car window, drawn in the fog she had created with her breath, was a small hand. She gently placed her hand beside it, looking at it.

I hailed for the truck to pull over, trying to keep the light on the small hand for just a little bit longer before it would be lost in the darkness once again.

Copyright Notice: All work appearing on this blog is copyrighted to its stated author and has been posted with permission. Please post a link to a post you like rather than reblogging in order to avoid copyright infringement.