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Short Story by
Rachel Hale Drew

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Music by Matt Jasper
Art by Melissa Stern
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Spaces

There’s no way I can sit in my apartment and not be watched or be watching unless the curtains are closed. I prefer them open. I’m probably being watched anyway. The interior of the building is a courtyard, open and closed, dark and light. No distinctions. Above, the sky is often deep violet-blue. This means so much to me, I fear I can not explain.

Art by Melissa SternI believed as a child that I don’t understand anything because I am an alien here from another planet, and just like everybody else you must already know that. You must know, because if I am the sole alien brought to this planet from another, all of the rest of you must be figures in an experiment at my expense. I say planet, but I’m not sure, it could be another dimension, another plane, another cosmic cabbage. I can’t know these things. I learned like a human. You did too, but when I think this way I don’t know what human means. Me? You? Mama’s browned skin in an old house? She seems real, but I first dreamed non-existence under her gaze.

But I’m remembering. Right? Childish fantasies of self-importance, grandeur, and alienation. Everything is shaped by this.

Some time between reruns of Happy Days and killing frogs in Granny’s back yard I saw starships. The frogs were easy. Green-brown and skinny, legs drawn straight into an even skinnier line. I took the stick, the end sharpened, poked it into the light under-belly just below the chin. Blood spurted up, then flowed down, and the legs twitched. I dragged the stick down the belly, into the guts, and saw even deeper. I was amazed. I saw the Millennium Falcon, the Enterprise, sleek gray saucers harboring short green men. If I could have dreamed up something different, I believed, I would have.

I can imagine what the watchers, the scientists would have written about this scene: *Summoned by bloody reptile (intra-special gaze). *#009ZZ performs burial ritual. She looks up toward the sky, then back down. Asks the frog for forgiveness.*

If I can ever remember the ship that brought me here, through time and space, to be a cell in a petri dish with loving parents and a sister who cried too much, I would say it was shaped like a womb, pink and puckered, turbo-powered bleeding. I try not to think crap like that.

When my mother held me under her pointed chin, arms around my butt, long hair swinging against my cheek, smelling like radishes, I was there and no where else. She was not the examiner, the trusted head watcher. She was Mama, sweet and strong, muscles popping up and spreading from tiny wrist bones. Bones just like mine.

There were times though, times when the bones were more apparent and unfamiliar. Too much structure. I might have seen it in a tooth, one of her pointy knee-caps. Something mysterious. A rupture in the solid of her flesh.

Daddy died in the living room for two months. His speech was the second to last thing to go, his sight the last. Or maybe he could see, sometimes, when he was awake. He slept with his eyes open, large and blue, unblinking. They always pointed at the same spot, above the doorway into our bedrooms, at the angle where the dark paneled wall met the scratchy white ceiling. Just below that spot hung a fish, a rainbow trout my Mama caught on a trip to Tennessee with a broken tail fin from the time I played basketball in the house. I wondered if he would have rather had his own fish, something he caught himself within his field of vision. Maybe not. I wanted to touch it, not the fish, the ceiling. With bare feet, and also on my belly, and press my head into the paneling.

“Daddy,” I said, “Daddy, can you hear me?”

His eyes blinked. A sign? I took it as one, stared into the gray-blue eyes, the ones that were mine, everyone said so, and tried again.

“Daddy, do you still love us?”

I would like to say there was another sign, his eyes blinking, or even better a tear, a fat pearly tear rolling down his cheek onto his paralyzed mouth.

I am not an alien in reaction to my father dying. I do not believe in the Betty Crocker school of psychology. It really had nothing to do with bones either. I waited and watched. The sun went down at night, and I heard that it came up on the other side in the morning; but I was never able to stay up long enough to see it. Once there was a huge, almost black snake hanging from the tree-house tree. Its head dangled across my sister’s shoulder. Mama said that Daddy put the snake in the basement before I was born to get rid of the rats. Rats are somewhat cuter than snakes, but they carry diseases. Cara, my sister, screamed and cried, and ran across the yard tumbling into laughter and the grass. No one knew if it was really the same snake, the same cow-sucker, but no one mentioned it. If it was the same snake the joke was better. Cause and effect makes things funnier. I chased after Cara, fell on her on purpose, though I pretended it was accidental, so that I could wrap my arms around her, smell her hair, and roll across the grass laughing.

I know what’s funny and I am a happy person when I stop thinking I’m an alien. Occasionally, I’m a happy alien. That’s what happens when I drive through a new, strip-mall town. I see the fronts of businesses, all alike, all like TV, all full of bright, computer-generated colors and advertisements. FEEL BETTER. LOOK GOOD. PLEASE THAT SPECIAL SOMEONE. If you go behind the buildings and look for density and space, you see nothing but the other side of flatness. Support beams shoot up, hold the facades in place. Still, if you walk in the front door, don’t look behind, you can buy a delicious, low-cal fruit smoothie and play old songs on a vintage jukebox.

Behind/Inside the “Feel Better”

(*#009zz) “Hey there, Sam, play it again.”

The female behind the counter ignores *#009zz. The males in the booth closest to the sound box look at her, laugh, and one of them tosses a metallic disk to her.

(male) “What’s up pretty lady?”

(*#009zz) “You boys come here often?”

Then it fades, the game and my confidence. So I let my feet fall from the stool to the floor, grab the smoothie, and ooze towards the door.

E.T., the movie, came to the theatre and we all dashed in like mad dogs on a stray cat. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, this fascination with the other-worldly. Mama scooted on the seat until her butt found the right spot, then sank in, smiling blankly in the dark. I admired her glowing teeth. The funny little alien hid behind stuffed animals, ate Reeses Pieces, and built a space phone, but you all know that. What you don’t know is that in the climax-building scene, when the awful men in white suits and masks were chasing the kids and trying to catch poor little E.T., I stood up in the theatre and screamed, “Stop it, you bastards!” I didn’t get grounded. Mama said she got caught up in the whole thing too, but she did wonder where I learned the word, bastard. I learned it from Daddy, before he died, before he stopped talking and started staring at the wall. I learned like a human, and so did E.T. I didn’t tell Mama.

I watched Daddy die in the living room for two months. His five-month-old pair of Nikes sat in the corner of the living room with the oxygen tanks and his crutches. One was worn gray on the ball of the foot. The blankets sank in and made shadows where his left leg should have been.

When I got tired of staring at Daddy in the dark I went outside into the light and stared at other dying things.

Things that happen with cows

  1. #009ZZ watches a fat brown cow standing still in the field across the fence from her cubicle. Its tail sticks out, a straight line, frozen in excrement. Its head is buried in a “hay stack”. It’s been here three days. This cow is “dead”.
  2. A “Holstein”, quite oblivious to *#009ZZ, grazes in “Henderson’s” field. The left side of its face is raw and open. This cow has “pink-eye”.
  3. A calf, “spry” and skinny, raises its hoof high and scratches it against a grown cow’s bowed head. These cows “love” each other.

One year before Daddy got sick I heard:

Daddy telling Mama to take my sandals away from me, or he’d burn them.

My favorite sandals, the only ones that made tapping noises, and I tapped with them on the only tapping spot in the house, the shiny, wooden step from the living room down into my bedroom. I cried and Mama said it had something to do with Vietnam.

Anyone could guess why I’m an alien. Humans close up everything and hide their faces. I can think about words and things, and try to tell the difference. My name, the names for things, Vietnam the place, Vietnam the police action, abstract things that are only names and objects: things, word, name, façade, cancer. Just try to explain without showing some thing, or saying the word “thing”, or thinking about some particular thing. I bet you can’t. I bet you can’t think without thinking like a human.

Mama said Daddy didn’t talk about the war because a war is the kind of thing you want to forget. I want to forget it too, and everything else, but instead I write everything down, make things up, start records. Do you really know what happened in the war? How people felt? Did Agent Orange and napalm get into our fathers’ sperm? Into us, me? Why did white soldiers come back and ride motorcycles, have kids, and get diseases, watch space alien movies, and talk with their mouths full, eat squash, fart and say, “Who stepped on that frog?”, hate sandals and flip-flops, drink Mountain Dew, hunt squirrels, and never really like Asian people or blacks? Do you know?

Then how can we forget?

Other Crooked Smile Questions

Do you know what happened then?

Can you believe that?

Was that good for you?

Are you okay?

God, are you listening?

God could be listening. He or she could be sitting somewhere collecting data on me, pining away for some more fun idea to come along. Watching me: how fun can it be? Eating nachos, spying on me in the bathtub, writing down responses, keeping notes for some future date. 1/14 Went on a date with a man who smelled like Papaw’s Old Spice, put her hand up when he leaned in for the kill. Both visibly shaken. 6/20 Sat on the couch for six hours straight, farted so loud the cat was offended, called Mama and asked for money. 8/2 Downed the remaining rum while watching a TV movie, chiseled lines into her wrists and inner thighs with an Exacto knife, cut clippings from magazines (quips such as, “Until I find a real man, I’ll settle for a real smoke.”) and strew them about the apartment.

The man across the courtyard could be watching me. I don’t think he’s God. He’s standing behind his own, ample window jungle without a shirt (and who knows about the bottom), scratching his concave chest and staring directly into my apartment. It’s possible that he can’t really see me. The lights are off, I’m as small as I can make myself, balled up in the corner of the couch. I raise my hand, move it back and forth, the gesture of a wave, first friendly, regular, then cupping it, Beauty Queen style, and moving it stiltingly. He continues to stare, scratch his chest, rumble then flinch. Yep, flinch. He must see something, the wave, perhaps, or just a flint of light on my ring, the fat one on the middle finger. He drops his chin, rolls his head to the left, touches his nose to his shoulder (my goodness, the flexibility!), then to the right, this side doesn’t merge, can’t make his nose touch the right shoulder. Looks up, makes eye contact. I know it, feel a burn, and my own flinch. He reaches up, grabs the rope, and closes the curtains with an unnecessary flourish. I remember something like this from before, but when I try to remember what, the moment, it spins away, into the deep blue-black of the couch cushions probably, with everything else.

As a child, and sometimes an adult, I remember lying in bed listening to the whir of the fan in the window, staring into the recesses of the room and trying to make out objects. There was the bigness. How can I describe it? These aren’t the words. The farthest corners rushed in at me, then back out, and in, the objects incredibly big, then small. I was big. Teeth like Titans, which I pressed together to keep them from eating it all. I felt a strange sensation, which seemed to start in my teeth-CLANK-then through my belly, into my vagina, a dry-textured sensation. Like fear, but more visceral, and I can’t remember well when it’s over. The worst part, the fingertips, so big I could kill myself with one mis-placed poke, smash everything into oblivion, stand on the edge, fingertips resting lightly against the sheets, aware of their power.

When I met M. I was just as ready, and as unready as ever to fall in love. I didn’t think at the time that he might have been one of the participants, one of the alien/human actors, trying to test my emotions for posterity. He was most certainly too fractured to be anyone. He drove me to the river, played music about fish swimming in glass bowls, and mentioned something about not wanting anyone to see him in a truck with a blonde who was not Karen. And when we got to the river, and we stared out over the lock into rushing water, and I had the impropriety to kiss him before he kissed me, or even looked like he might, I was terribly happy and told him so without reservation.

“Why?”

“Because you remind me of my father.”

“That is without a doubt the scariest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” he said and paused a long time. “I’m happy too.”

And I believe he was.

So, why now, why now lying on his twin bed, shoulders, elbows, hips and feet touching, why is he telling me to push the corner of reality back down? He must know I can’t push things down.

Shared Hallucination

(male) “It’s nothing. We can see the façade of reality. Anyone can if they just try, but most people don’t try. Quit worrying.”

(*#009zz) “You’ve seen it? You know what I’m talking about?”

(male) “Yeah, sometimes I see it. Fractures. Hallucinations without hallucinogens. Angry swans on the wall.”

(*#009zz) “I don’t see that at all. Everything is too big. I’m too big!”

(male) “Push it down!”

(*#009zz) “If it’s reality maybe we should see it.”

(male) “What’s so great about seeing reality? What’s so cool about going crazy?”

(*#009zz) “Stop screaming at me!”

(male) “I’m not. Listen, I’m very quiet.”

(*#009zz) “You are screaming, and the cars outside are, and that damn clock is, tick-tick-fucking tick! And even the walls are looming, if they could make noise they would. Oh, Sweet Jesus, listen! They are, whooshing like a vacuum cleaner.”

(male) “You’re hallucinating.

(*#009zz) “I’m not, you’re loud.”

(male) “You’re hallucinating, it’s part of it. Just calm down.”

(*#009zz) “ I can’t stand it! Stop it!”

He places his hands over mine, on my face, rubbing, and what’s this? He’s humming, never heard him make one melodic note before, and it’s too loud. It’s the buzzing, feedback from light that’s billions of years old. Hallucinating? I try to calm myself, starting with the heart, which is much too loud, but only to my ears.

M. knows things about me that I’ve never told him. He knows that I can’t
say anything that makes “sense” without feeling like a failure. He knows that my mind works hardest when I sleep and it gets to tangle with my green-gill body. He knows my favorite place is the sky.

He told me once, “Don’t be so goddamned melodramatic all the time. Have some fun, have a bite of this hot dog.”

He bit into the hot dog (which wasn’t a hot dog at all, but a deli frank), breaking the skin with a sickening pop.

I know that my love is at least a million times bigger than his. If I tried I could devour him, swallow him whole and still be hungry. I don’t feel superior to him for this. He’s bigger than me in every other way.

A Deciding Moment

Mother, standing near, crying or laughing, probably crying, because of the sniffles, on the floor an army, dark green, frozen, rifles pointed at the other army, brown and feathered, also frozen with tomahawks and bows and arrows, raised. Doug plays, drags one soldier across the floor, knocks Cara’s Indian to the floor with the feet, actually one long green foot. Cara breaks into sobs, runs to her room, or probably [my] room, which is where she always runs, and [I] arch an eyebrow, mean it as a joke, but Doug, and the other cousin, Billy look at [me] as if [I’ve] done the wrong thing.

“Rickey was a good man,” says an anonymous voice, a friend, an uncle, a brother, a boss, or someone.

Mother smiles, tries to look grateful and reflective, but tenses her forehead, squints eyes, and watches tears start from her own ducts. [I] watch her, then change [my] mind, stare down at the warring factions, different races, and knock down a whole infantry with the back of [my] hand. Look up at [my] cousins, who are strangers and older. They say nothing, sort of look away, like this has to be allowed and they are here to allow it.

[I] wonder who’s recording all this, then I realize it’s probably [me].

And I realize for the first time in my life that all eyes in the room are fixed on me, on my toy game. Aunt Deborah’s, both Grannys’, Uncle Dewey’s, the fish’s on the wall, Mama’s, and several pairs of eyes, many eyes studying me from within bodies I’ve never seen before, or have seen, but never expected to find in my own living room, sitting in the lawn furniture, staring at me.

“Stop staring,” I say, expecting my Mama’s face to go red, and her mouth to open, and scolding words to come out. Instead she looks down, the corner of her mouth tugging gently upward, like a smile or maybe a grimace. There’s something super-human about her, her teeth maybe, the deep spaces between them, or the pinkish tear on her cheek. Is it a tear or a tear? She’s given me the slip, shown me her bloody mechanics. Dozens of eyes are all staring at the science project sitting Indian-style on the floor, smiling in wonder-they can’t imagine-it got this good-all they needed was a dead daddy.

But I’m not an alien because my father went to a war, came back unscathed, and then died in the living room. Not because of cows, strip-malls, or E.T. either. And I certainly can’t blame M. He’s done absolutely nothing to me.

“Sure,” says M., a mite sarcastically, “Of course, nobody had anything to do with it. You created yourself, didn’t you?”

 

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Rachel Hale DrewRachel Hale Drew holds a MFA in creative writing from Colorado State University. Her work has appeared in several print and online literary journals. She hails from a small town in Kentucky and lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, the dog, and far too many cats.

 

 

Melissa SternMelissa Stern is a seminal figure in American letters. Emily Dickinson wrote of Stern, "Brothers and sisters, she has none, Melissa Stern's father is my father's son." She lives in New York City with her dog, Max. Stern is married but does not like to talk about it. Stern began her drawing career as a graffiti artist on the New York City subway system. Struck down by an F train running uptown on the downtown tracks, she now paints with one foot and her tongue. "I love poetry," she says. "Just not poetry in motion..." Visit her website for more information.

 

Matt Jasper's daughter, EudoraMatt Jasper's daughter, EudoraMatt Jasper is a non-musician who learned three chords from Bill Callahan about twenty years ago and then went on to drive his kids to violin and cello and piano lessons so they could collaborate with him. His real band is Pneumershonic and his real book is Moth Moon. His kids (ages 8-13) have a portfolio of somewhat obscene childhood drawings in the Fall 2010 issue of Open Face Sandwich. Collaborating children include Eudora, William, and Albion. (photo is of Eudora inside her playable wearable cello) A much more formal song was attempted ("Some fathers have legs/ Some fathers have wooden pegs/ My father/ is like none of these/ He's got a progressive wasting disease. . . .") , yet everyone's concentration was shot by a certain family member going way bipolar and being hospitalized. Much of the recording (later sort of collaged) is what ensued after the command was issued to "make up a song about mental illness." This seem to suit the story--which, of course, the kids loved. Family friend Kalika Bower read her favorite passage over the top of the wreck.

 

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