April 18, 2012 § 2 Comments
HOW is proud to present the winners of our 2011 fiction contest. All winners’ work will appear in Issue #9 of HOW.
The fiction contest was judged by award winning author Mary Gaitskill. For our first place prize, she chose the story “The Repository Emporium” by Gloria Beth Amodeo.
THE REPOSITORY EMPORIUM
The Repository Emporium sold cedar blocks, too. They were available individually on an end-cap in the closet section, with lavender sachets and little balls that absorbed moisture. After her training was complete, Daisy often turned the cameras on them. People liked to slip them in their pockets.
“Every item matters!” Ivan insisted during training, when Daisy was a newbie and going through the month long “Principles Program”. It took her that first month to retain one-fourth of the information, watching Ivan’s eyes tear up behind his glasses as he spoke of the “register pod area” and the “suction cup attachment guide”. He taught her about the grippy glass jars in Kitchen and the expandable file folders in Office and the bamboo clothes folding carts in Laundry, all the things that held things, but weren’t the actual things. Daisy noticed the display items. A red dress, hanging in a display window garment bag. A mountain bike, resting on the claws of a bike hanger across from the eco-friendly trash cans.
“Do people ever steal those?” she joked.
Ivan’s head twitched towards her, his eyes drying as he looked from her face to her feet, then back to her face. “You’ve been hired to catch the most powerful thief in retail history,” he said. “Keep this in mind: There’s nothing funny about stealing the props.”
Daisy followed me to the one-dollar pizza stand on our first day of training. Ivan told us to take an hour break and she watched me with this white face. Her eyes shook, like water when something’s swimming in it. I felt like I should give her a bottle or else she would cry. She was so skinny. She had no ass, like maybe when she sat down her bones scraped against the chair. I tore my nametag off and stuffed it in my pocket. The bank never gave me a nametag that fancy. The retail job I took because I was out of work was acting better than the real job that fired me. Daisy’s face was in the corner of my eye. You know when you’re being watched. I left with a dollar in my hand.
She came to my bench with a piece of pepperoni and sat down, like the sidewalk was kindergarten and teachers told us where to sit. “Sucks being here for eight hours,” she said. “This place is intense.”
I took a bite of pizza. “Why, you got something better to do?” I said, my mouth full of hotness.
“No. I guess.”
“You never got something better to do than work, girl. City‘s expensive. Everyone wants to live here. Complainers never prosper.”
“I’ve only been here a month,” she said. “I don’t really know what’s going on yet.”
“Well, wake up. You’re gonna be behind the cameras, right? You’ve got some big thief on your hands?”
Ivan spent an hour at training on the guy. He had been stealing from the store for two years, and his theft alone was the reason for 40% of our shrink. He wore the same thing every time. This faded pair of jeans and a giant orange t-shirt, no shoes, bare feet even in the winter. Still, no one caught him. The cameras had hours of videos. Ivan had the police sitting downstairs in Daisy’s soon-to-be chair for six months, but nothing worked.
“You gotta step up,” I said. She was so sad looking, and she had such big responsibility.
“Just know that you can’t complain here.”
“Okay. I know.”
She sat next to me that whole hour and ate. When she wasn’t eating, she didn’t say anything. Maybe she was waiting for the cars to stop moving. Maybe she was waiting for the pigeons to talk.
I was a salesperson and scanned things at the register, but because Daisy was the new big bad thief catcher, Ivan got her good. I saw her walking around with him for a couple of weeks. She listened, and then she brought a notepad. He made her stay longer than anyone, and he gave her homework.
It was nasty, working anyone to the bone like that. I tried to ask this chick Gina about it. She was at the returns desk, wearing a jean skirt with a polo and Crocs. Banging away at this drawer unit thing with a rubber mallet. Like an elf.
“All employees must be as dedicated to the business as possible!” she said, banging and looking at me. “And if you work your way up in the company, you’ll be just as lucky to receive such thorough training!”
Scary crap, this girl was. But the more I tried talking to people, those were the answers I kept getting.
“Oh, what a pleasure! To spend so much time with Ivan as a new hire!”
“She must be a real treasure for Ivan to have so much faith in her!”
“Isn’t it precious, seeing someone so passionate about our products? Passionate enough to make sure they’re always paid for!”
Every person made me feel like I just walked into another world, some place where people smile all the time and maybe kill you if you don’t smile with them. I got scared, wondered if all the elves were telling each other through their Repository elf grapevine that I was trying to talk smack. I thought about what else I could do if I got fired from this, too. Nothing that wanted a forty-year old woman with no college degree, that I knew forever.
But when I walked out that day, Daisy popped in my head.
“Why are you even here?” I had asked, when she was getting in my space.
Her answer: “To start my life, I guess.”
And maybe it was because I wanted to feed her a bottle at first, I don’t know, but I saw where her life was starting, and I got scared for her. Just as scared for her as I was for me.
Daisy was perfect for this position, for the following three reasons:
(1) She didn’t talk much during her interview. Tad says that people who talk a lot never catch thieves, because thieves are quiet, and to catch a thief, you must be on his wave length of sound. You must be sensitive to his movement, aware of his nuances, you’ve got to feel it in your gut when he picks up a product. Daisy was all of these things. She flinched when I picked up my pen.
(2) She used to work at a nursing home. Tad says that some of the most unassuming elderly people are thieves. I can’t tell you how many times I go through camera footage at the end of the day and see old women putting pill bottles in their plastic grocery shopping bags, or old men hiding stain removal pens in their fifty-four pocket carry-on suitcases.
(3) She’s got freckles. I like that. They’re brown, like the wicker hampers in laundry. If she ever needs to put on brown makeup and camouflage herself inside one, it will be easier than if I hired a person without any freckles.
I offered twenty an hour and a guaranteed forty hours-a-week, and she said that she only wanted part-time. She needed the remaining time to ponder her future.
“With all do respect, I just don’t think I have what it takes to really catch this guy,” she said. “And I don’t want to spend the rest of my life watching people steal boxes and bins.”
“People steal the label makers too,” I said. “And the shredding scissors.”
“I’m sure they do. I just don’t know if I’m interested enough in this type of thing to work at it full-time.”
To be honest, I would have normally revoked my generous offer on the spot, with Daisy’s obvious lack of passion towards the business. But there was something about Daisy, a gas leak inside of her that just needed a flame brought to it. And I had needs to fulfill, if the business was going to survive. Needs that Daisy could satiate with her lack of direct experience. The directionless. I needed someone who didn’t know where to go.
“Do you know how many Repository Emporiums there are in this city?”
“I think I’ve seen about six…”
“Seven,” I said, standing. “There are seven in this city. And do you know which store makes the most money?”
“This one. This store makes the most money.”
I made my way to the picture frames, stopping to observe their sweet faces. The husband and wife team who had built the corporation from the dust of the earth, both of whom I had met many times at various Repository Gatherings. How I had bathed in their insight.
“Do you know who these people are?” I asked.
“This is Father Repository, Mr. Tad Winston. And his wife, Mother Repository, Mrs. Winnie Winston.” Tad’s hair, grey and parted slick down the middle, framed his face with nobility, and the pearls around Winnie’s neck matched the white of her teeth, her bouffant reminiscent of Jackie O.
“They work at the Mother Ship, in Oregon.”
“The Mother Ship. That’s what we call headquarters, where all the corporation leaders go for training and other necessities. Fifteen years ago, I met Tad across the street at a coffee shop. He approached me, saying that he could feel my goodness burning from across the room, and he spoke of building a store in this space. And I did it, Daisy. I worked with Tad at the Mother Ship for a year and learned everything from him that a person could possibly learn, and I built this place, toiling over every nook and cranny with the blood of my veins and the sweat of my brow. To work at The Repository Emporium, to even be considered for a job here, is an honor. An honor, Daisy.”
“Sit, it’s not that I’m not honored…”
“No, Daisy. Before accepting a position here, you must understand what this store is about. It’s about passion.”
“Passion, not only for the selling of boxes and bins. Passion for the future. If this business does well, you will do well. At the end of the day, this company would be doing you a service.”
I pulled my papers together and walked towards the door. “Oh, and by the way,” I said, stopping at the handle. “BA’s in English these days are practically useless. Trust me. I went for one myself.”
I left and took a seat in the break room, and she didn’t walk out my office door for another fifteen minutes.
Daisy arrived before opening one morning and took her place behind the cameras. She turned the three rows of three screens on, pressing arrows on a keyboard. The screen in the center, like a nucleus in a cube, adjusted towards the front of the store.
She had been there for three months and hadn’t caught one thief. She wondered when Ivan was going to realize that she had zero intuition and fire her, but he just kept walking into the Loss Prevention Office and giving her “tips” to “help her along”, such as, “Watch out for tin foil. People might try to trip up the metal detectors with it.” And, “When young men with hats walk in with middle-aged women in wind suits, they’re usually drug addicts, and they probably want to steal our half-inch boxes in Gift Packaging.”
The bare-footed thief was showing up in spasms, stealing keychains and hooks before Daisy could see him on the screens, before she realized that a man without shoes had walked into the store. She favored the front door screen from her first day on the cameras, her gaze wavering for seconds at a time, but she never saw him enter. It appeared to her, after rewinding an entire day’s footage, that all he ever did was walk out.
She couldn’t forget the poster of faces next to Ivan’s office, The Repository Emporium Family Tree. Ivan went through each person during her training, to give her a sense of who she’d be disappointing if the job wasn’t done right. Tad and Winnie Winston smiled in separate portraits at the top (“Like Adam and Eve,” Ivan had commented), and from the fruit of their professional loins, the rest of the corporation leaders followed. It was a chain of command, a list of credits. But at the very bottom, Daisy saw a name without a picture.
“Billy Winston, Department of Use,” she read aloud, pointing to a silhouette. “Where’s his picture?”
“Oh, that’s just Tad and Winnie’s son,” Ivan said. “He’s never really liked cameras.”
At 1:33PM, Daisy’s stomach yelled. She reached into the bag next to her chair and pulled out a plastic fork and a tupperware bowl of pasta. There was a microwave in the adjacent room. She looked to the upper left corner camera, saw Ivan in the Office Section and stood up to run.
When she returned, Ivan was sitting in her chair. She stopped short and fumbled, almost dropping her pasta.
“We need to rewind the cameras,” he said, fingers clasped over his belt buckle, sitting back and swinging the chair to and fro. “The bike has been stolen off the bike rack.”
I was on the sales floor when the bike was stolen, getting all these questions about shoe boxes and filing cabinets. I walked into the hook section because no customers were by the hooks and I just wanted everyone to go away. I saw the bike. It had a bunch of red tape on the front wheel, and it made a shape that looked like this:
I had to pull the ten sides off one at a time, they weren’t sticking together. It looked like red tape from the registers. I figured some of the other workers were being stupid and making their gang symbol or something, so I took it off and walked away.
When I walked over again, maybe only fifteen minutes later, the bike was gone.
I told Ivan, and then I kept my mouth shut. I just wanted to live in peace. So I listened to customers’ stupid questions and told them where to go for stuff until Ivan called me on the radio.
“Please meet Daisy and I downstairs in the Loss Prevention Office. You are excused from the floor.”
I went down and Ivan was in Daisy’s chair. His hands were on his stomach like he had just eaten dinner or something, all fat and happy. Daisy stood behind him, the white parts of her fingernails in her mouth.
“Miraculously, we have a video image of the event,” Ivan said. “The first where we can see his face.”
Ivan called all the workers who weren’t working from his office phone. I sat at the table on my break and heard him talking. Sometimes whispering.
He was calling everyone in for a meeting. 6AM the next day. Mandatory.
Waking up that early the next morning made me want to throw up. I was there at 5:55. Everyone got there before me. The break room downstairs was empty. Music pumped against the ceiling, fast drum and flute noises.
I went up. Everyone stood in front of their chair, looking at Ivan. He was behind a huge podium, two speakers on the sides of him. His head was down, like he was praying or something. Daisy sat in a chair next to one of the speakers. She had a computer on her lap that was hooked up with all these wires.
The music stopped and Ivan looked up. “You may be seated,” he said. I hadn’t found a chair yet so I looked like an idiot, standing there when everyone else sat down at the same time. I turned around in a circle all crazy and then saw a chair folded by the tupperware, so I ran to that and put it behind everyone. Ivan didn’t start talking until I was sitting down.
“At last!” he said. “We know the face of our enemy!” People side-hugged each other. They kept their eyes on Ivan but some were shaking hands. A lady in from of me cried, I could hear her nose sniffling.
The screen in back of Ivan lit up with past videos. Sometimes, the thief hid his face with boxes, carried different ones on both shoulders. Other times, he used his hands. But most times, his face was blurry in the camera, like someone had messed with the video. Protecting him.
A map from the store popped up on the screen. Daisy was typing fast at the computer. Ivan pointed out every department that the thief had stolen from. A dot showed after he pointed to the place. And then, all these lines started connecting the dots.
“He’s made a shape,” Ivan said. And there it was, all the lines, looking like a gang symbol, something with wings.
I remembered seeing it on the bike. I kept my mouth shut.
And then, they showed the video.
The thief wanted to be seen, he kept staring at the camera. He stacked boxes into stairs and walked up to the bike. Once he got to the top, he smiled. He wheeled the bike right out of the store.
Ivan closed in on his face and told us to study. Everyone took pens and notepads out of their pockets but of course I hadn’t thought to bring anything.
These were the facts I still remember. He was kind of handsome. Skin tone: olive. Eye color: brown. Eye shape: almond. Eye brows: thick and connected in the middle. Hair color: dark brown. Hair style: shoulder length and straight. Silky, shiny. I wanted his hair.
I walked up to Daisy afterwards. She was by a box of donuts on the table in the break room, just looking at them. I hadn’t talked to her much since that first day on the curb.
“You gonna take one?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Go ahead, your pick.”
We were quiet, because I didn’t know what to say. She talked before I could figure it out.
“I’m useless,” she said. “Like a lamp that doesn’t work. BA’s in English these days, they’re useless.”
And I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t know about BA’s, didn’t know what made them work.
“This is practical,” she said. “All of this is practical.”
She laughed, and her eyes got all wide, like she had just breathed in some sort of drug. My eyes shut for a second, and when they opened again, I thought I saw Ivan.
A day after the bike was stolen, Daisy walked into my office.
“We need to finger print the bike rack,” she said. “I want to know everything there is to know about this guy.”
I explained that the authorities had used all the latest technology to catch him, but she thought I was withholding information from her. I wanted to take one of her hands in mine. I wanted the stroking of hands to be appropriate in the workplace. I resisted.
She stood up, walked behind my desk and took my right hand, clasping it between her palms as if she were awaiting communion. “I need you to trust me now,” she said, her eyes green like a potion she had just sipped from. “I need you to know that I’m going to catch this guy.”
I realized that a flame had been brought to that gas leak. Daisy was ignited. Emitting light, her only use.
When Tad began managing The Repository Emporium, he discovered that the mere sound of his voice implanted a wordless wisdom into his dedicated employees, as if he could impart both everything that he knew and didn’t know by saying, “Hello”.
Because he couldn’t clone himself and be a presence at every store as the corporation grew, he decided to bottle his voice in an automated voice telephone line.
It took him three months to complete the project, reading long lists of words from three different dictionaries. All I have to do is dial 428.968.7823 (or “I AM YOUR TAD”) from my office telephone to access his life changing vocal intonations.
I looked at Daisy through the glass window of the Loss Prevention office, passionately watching the screens. My gut writhed. I needed to make a personal call.
“Hello, employee 5282. Or Ivan Romanovich.”
“Tad, I’ve never done this before. I’ve never strayed from the needs of the business. I hope you will forgive me.”
“Business is bad? Business is good? Business could be better? Say ‘bad’, ‘good’, or ‘better’.”
“Oh, falling for the food! You’re never supposed to fall for the food!”
“Do you need catering for an event? Listen to the following local options.”
“She could be my Winnie, Tad. I could have found my Winnie! Could I just promote her and find someone else? Is it too late? I only have ten days!”
“I do not follow.”
“It’s incredible, Tad. Over night, she grew from awkward new employee puberty into a real repository woman! I could make a life with her. We could run the business together!”
“I heard ‘overnight’. Are you interested in overnight shipping?”
“But he already has his eyes on her, he already wants her for himself. Can’t I have anything, just this once, Tad? Why do you give everything to him!”
“Arrival dates of new products…”
“I did what I always do! She had some skills, I thought she could catch a couple thieves before she fulfilled her real purpose, but I underestimated how beautiful she would become. She’s so amazing, Tad, I couldn’t bare losing this one!”
And then, my radio screamed.
“Carla to Ivan.”
Oh, Carla. One of the new employees who hadn’t experienced full immersion, demonstrating the passion required to have the secrets of the business revealed to her. She was a pedestrian, useless. If only I could make her trade places with Daisy, if only it wasn’t too late!
“Ivan to Carla.”
“Yeah, the thief just did his thing again. Dress from the garment bag.”
I had to make her think I cared. “Drat!” I said. “How did he do it this time?”
“Most obvious way possible. Put it on in the bathroom and walked out of the store wearing it.”
Daisy sat in front of the camera screens for five days. She fell asleep occasionally and drooled on the melamine desk top. At approximately 11:52PM, moments before the official morning hit on the fifth night, she spotted the thief next to the drawer organizers. Staring at the camera as if he were staring at her.
Just like him, she thought, too tired for surprise. Just like him to be stealing after hours.
But he wasn’t stealing anything, she realized, the longer he stared at the camera. She pushed her chair towards the desk and pressed a button, magnifying his face. His lips were moving, slow and rhythmic, pushing out sounds she couldn’t hear.
She left her chair and went upstairs to see if she could find him, to hear the sounds firsthand, to meet his face. But when she reached the drawer organizers, he was nowhere to be found. He’s evaporated again, she thought. He’s uncatchable. I will never be able to catch him.
And then, static enveloped the PA system, shrill and consistent like white noise. Daisy put her hands over her ears, but the sound died within seconds, replaced by a singing whisper. It grew louder, as if someone was turning the volume up. Daisy could finally hear the words.
Your life had stood a loaded gun
In corners ‘till today
Your owner’s passed, identified
and carried you away!
Dickinson, she remembered, from her BA. This sounds like Emily Dickinson.
And then she realized that her feet weren’t touching the ground.
I got used to seeing Daisy behind that window, staring at the screens like her eyes were tied with rope. But one day, she wasn’t there anymore.
The office had nothing in it, no pictures or colors other than white. It was just sad looking, like no one worked there, even though I knew someone had been there for about a week straight. The only thing that was on the wall was a calendar. I stepped closer to see if she wrote anything on it, like she was out for a meeting, but before I could get close enough to read, Daisy came walking through the wall.
Yeah, it was weird, seeing someone do that. Definitely thought I would have freaked out more. The wall opened up for her in pieces, at every part of her body. Like a thousand little doors.
“What are you doing here?” she said.
“Uh, I just came to check on you?”
“Because you’ve been at your desk five days straight like you died with your eyes open or something.”
“Why do you care? Why are you always trying to talk to me?”
“Why did you just walk through a wall?” I asked. It had just hit me.
She got quiet and pushed past me and pulled the black swivel chair out in front of the cameras. “You don’t know anything about me,” she said, sitting down.
“Why did you just walk through a wall?” I asked again, a little crazier. She got out of her chair and closed the door.
“Please, please be quiet about this,” she said. “I’m not supposed to let anyone know. That was stupid of me, I wasn’t thinking. I’ll tell you anything, just don’t talk about it outside of this office.”
I sat down in her chair. She knelt and started talking weird stuff. She wasn’t even looking at my face. Just my knees.
He lived in the PA system, she said. The PA system and the pipes and the walls and inside the cameras. He was fully collapsible. He could live in every Repository box and bin, on sale or already sold. He could do anything he wanted, go anywhere he pleased, he was the thief and he was letting her into his world. They were going to be married. She would stay with him forever.
“He’s going to find a use for me,” she said. “He has a plan. He’s had one all along.”
“Get out of this place, Daisy,” I said, knowing that she wasn’t hearing me, knowing that I still needed to try. “You’re so young, don’t you know?”
She didn’t know, like maybe I didn’t know when I was her age, in a very different way. But it all came down to the same thing. What we wanted to be used for, I realized.
I made phone calls, using the code sentence I had used for years to give him women I never loved.
“The affected will become the object,” I said once they answered their phones. I usually made the calls with glee, knowing that once it was done, a wedding feast would take place in the night. A product would be created, that product would earn me a bonus, and a series of feasts would follow. A joyful sacrifice, I had once thought. But loving Daisy made me realize that I had never sacrificed anything before.
I did my duty. I made the phone calls. And then I stepped into her office.
There she was, the bride to be, sitting in front of the cameras with smiling lips. I knew what she was seeing. He did the same thing with all of them. She watched him walk out of the store with merchandise over and over again. He told her to think of each item as a piece of her heart.
I leaned against the door. I knew she didn’t see me. “You have been tricked,” I said.
She turned her head away from the cameras and towards my face. The first time she had looked me in the eyes for so long. I could have held that stare forever.
I didn’t close the door, didn’t need to. No more formalities to deceive her, all I wanted was honesty. “I hired you to be eaten,” I said. “The man you’ve fallen in love with is the son of Tad and Winnie Winston, Billy Winston, from the Department of Use. He was conceived at a time when they were both possessed with so much passion for boxes and bins that the passion exploded and created a person with supernatural powers. From a young age, they harnessed his powers to be used for the business, and once he reached his eighteenth year of life, they let him loose into the Repository world. He lives in the infrastructure of all the buildings simultaneously, and he chooses to lure loss-prevention investigators into his world.”
“I don’t believe you,” Daisy said.
“He’s going to eat you and then shit you out as a piece of plastic, Daisy. He’ll use his insides to mold you into whatever he’s planning to market as the next best-selling product, and then you’ll come out the other end.”
“This isn’t logical,” Daisy said.
“This has all been a hoax. We’ve done it so many times.”
“This doesn’t make any sense.”
“He’s attracted to women who aren’t working quite right, who have a switch turned off somewhere.”
“He doesn’t have what you’re looking for.”
I put my hand on her knee. I knew it could be the last time I ever touched her. “Run away with me,” I said. “I can do better than him.”
She turned her chair towards my body, slow and welcoming, her head tilted in a sort of pity, maybe even acceptance. But I was so enamored by her face that I didn’t feel her knee jerk. Her shin quickly hit the parts between my legs.
I knew it was only a matter of time before he found me, so I hid underneath my desk and made one last phone call.
“Carla,” I said. “Be here at 11PM tonight. Daisy is in trouble.”
“Who is this?” she asked.
“Ivan. It’s Ivan, your boss.”
“What do you mean Daisy’s in trouble?”
“Just be here tonight. A sacrificial ceremony is taking place. You’re the only one with a keycard who will do this, you must do this.”
“What the hell is going on?”
But I had to put the phone down, because his bare feet and faded jeans came through the wall and into my view. He walked through my desk. And then I felt teeth grazing my hair.
Daisy’s wedding night smelled like plastic burned in an electrical fire. When she walked out of the wall and on to the sales floor with her fiance, she was surprised to see the employees of The Repository Emporium in attendance. She watched as rows of people stood in front of a line of bunsen burners, one by one holding pieces of a bike with tongs over an open flame. A woman held the display window dress, and forming a line behind her, each person held another item that the thief had stolen within Daisy’s time at the store.
When she looked to the right, she saw Ivan on the floor, trapped in a plastic cube. He hugged his knees. Fresh wounds sliced his face.
“What’s happening?” Daisy asked. “Why are all these people here?”
The thief didn’t have to look at her to speak the truth into her mind. He didn’t want to keep their love a secret anymore. A public profession.
She turned towards him and the wedding ceremony began for her, forehead on his cheek, ready to commit herself to a life of use. The music started. She didn’t know if it was coming from the PA system or somewhere in her own mind, inspired by him, created by him, since he knew how to get there. He turned towards her and put his hand on her waist, drawing her close, and he sang into her ear.
O God! can she not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can she not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Poe, from a time she couldn’t remember. When she was searching in all the wrong places.
He kissed her with lips wide enough to wrap themselves around a can of soup. They grew wider as she found her nose in his mouth, then her eyes, then her head. And in a hybrid of ecstasy and confusion, Daisy realized that her body was in the thief’s mouth.
If she could have seen her reflection in the display window, Daisy would have seen that she had ten sides. If she could have thought about it, she would have known that she was shaped like the figure the thief had stamped all over the store, the stamp he used to reel her in. If she could have asked him, he would have said that he was experimenting with the shape when he knew her, and from her attraction to it, he knew that others would follow.
If she could have tasted anything, it would have been dust, as she was just the display, used only for aesthetics. An adjustable drawer organizer, with slits in her side so owners could reshape her however they wanted. Her shape wasn’t meant to be permanent, but in her case, it would be. The Repository Emporium never sold props.
If she could have smelled anything, it would have been the residue of herself, plastic burned into a shape. If she could have heard anything, it would have been voices spoken and sung. A voice that had only ever sung was singing to her again.
You’ll see in you the estuary that enlarges and spreads itself grandly as it pours in the great
Words she wouldn’t have the chance to remember.
But what she hadn’t lost was a bit of feeling, and one day, she felt that she wasn’t on the ground anymore. If she could have looked up, she would have found herself in the hands of the one who arrived at the ceremony too late. Carla walked out of the store with unpaid merchandise.
Gloria Beth Amodeo is a retail retiree who received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her work has appeared in NY ______ and is forthcoming in Carrier Pigeon. She lives in Brooklyn, rides a triangular folding bike and contributes time and love to The Literary Review.
April 11, 2012 § 2 Comments
HOW is proud to present a preview of the winners of our 2011 writing contest. Five writers were chosen out of hundreds of submissions. All finalists’ work will appear in the next print issue of HOW.
When Eddie saw the job candidate’s name, he smelled the Chesapeake Bay, its saltwater and jellyfish, its speedboat oil. He saw the moon roll a thin silver carpet across the water. He felt his blood fill him everywhere, deliciously, and he felt hands on his chest and in his hair and on his cheeks. He felt lips on his lips as cool and inviting as the night.
But the Alvaro López Eddie knew had returned to Guatemala after the summer they were counselors at Camp Go in Edgewater, Maryland. He had plans to go to college in Guatemala City, buy a coffee finca, live with his future wife and children on the shore of Lake Atitlán. The Alvaro López Eddie knew was history.
Eddie was supposed to meet with this other Alvaro López at two-thirty on Friday. Alvaro was the last of three finalists for the position, a late replacement for a candidate who had withdrawn. Eddie had met already with the two other finalists, whom he had found adequate if uninspiring. He wasn’t on the four-person search committee and had no vote on who was hired. The committee simply wanted his input.
A note at the bottom of Alvaro’s schedule said a copy of his dossier was available at the departmental secretary’s desk. But when Eddie asked to see it, the secretary said one of the committee members had taken it home.
Who needs a candidate’s file, Eddie thought, when there was the Internet. But when, sitting at his desk in his third-floor office with its view of downtown Sherman, Ohio, he Googled Alvaro López, he was greeted with hundreds of Web links to three musicians, one a drummer, another a guitar player, the third a saxophonist. He tried to narrow the search by putting “Alvaro López Guatemala” into the search field. This yielded stories about a drug lord and links to YouTube videos of the guitar player strumming in a dust storm.
Late to pick up his son from preschool, Eddie raced down the stairs to the parking lot and his Nissan. During their summer by the Chesapeake, he had driven an ancient Volkswagen Beetle, which smelled of dirt and Alvaro’s nectarine-scented cologne. On their nights off, he and Alvaro sometimes drove into Washington, D.C., to watch movies and drink beer in Georgetown. One time at the Alligator, a club on K Street, Alvaro, who was five-feet, seven-inches tall only by the most generous measurement but had brilliant black hair, skin a color somewhere between copper and gold, and dark eyes with lush eyelashes, spent an entire night dancing with the young women in the club as Eddie watched from a table. Alvaro spun them, twirled them, drew them into his chest. He was masterful, and Eddie found himself becoming jealous, which was, he suspected, Alvaro’s intention. Later in the Volkswagen, before they reached the camp parking lot, Eddie pulled to the side of the dark road, lined with maple and oak trees, and after clicking off his headlights, grabbed at Alvaro’s slacks in a gesture as much angry as lustful. “Gently,” Alvaro said twice before it was over.
Having propelled himself into the past, Eddie didn’t remember the turns he’d made to reach the Discovery Center, where his son, Adam, was in his second year of preschool. Eight minutes late, he sprinted the ten yards from his car to the front door, his breath filling the February air. “Are you feeling all right?” asked Sabrina, the Discovery Center’s director, after she opened the door for him. She was tall and thin, with straight, gray-black hair and a repertoire of sneers. He had never liked her, but she was a high-school classmate of his wife’s, and he did his best to be friendly.
“I’m fine, thanks,” he panted. He peeked into the playroom, glad to see he wasn’t the only late parent. A blond-haired girl—Lila or Layla, he couldn’t remember—was flicking paint from a brush in the general direction of a piece of paper tacked to an easel. He remembered Ona, the art teacher at Camp Go, who was only two years older than he but was rumored to have been divorced. She had brownish-blond hair and enormous breasts the likes of which he’d encountered only in dirty magazines. He wanted to sleep with her, but his desire made him awkward around her, and he mostly found himself answering her questions about Alvaro. “Do you want me to arrange a threesome?” Alvaro asked him one night as they dried themselves after a swim in the bay. He said, “No,” with a kind of panic, unwilling for Ona—or anyone—to know the extent of his relationship with Alvaro.
“Where’s Adam?” Eddie asked. The answer came from Adam himself. He burst from the bathroom at the far end of the room, his pants down by his knees. “I’m here!” He had a piece of toilet paper in his right hand and a Matchbox car in his left. The blond-haired girl made a squeaking noise before resuming her painting. Eddie ushered Adam back into the bathroom, where he tidied him up.
On their way out of the Discovery Center, Sabrina, who stood beside the door like a witch awaiting trick-or-treaters, said, “Please say hello to Jenny for me.”
Sabrina was the only person Eddie knew who called his wife Jenny. It spoke to an intimacy they had once shared, and from time to time, on little evidence, he speculated about how intimate their relationship had been. “I will,” he said, and passing by her, he drew in a breath of perfume, as strong as a reproach.
In his car, he thought about the candidate. What if he was the Alvaro López he knew? What if he was hired? How long would their history stay secret?
“Go, daddy!” Adam shouted from the back seat of the car. “Go, go, go!”
Eddie dug in his pocket for his car key, but he realized he had already put it in the ignition. He started the car, then turned around to look out his rear window. His eyes fell on his son in his car seat. With his reddish-blond hair and pinpoint orange freckles, he looked like Jennifer. He wondered how he would feel if his son grew up to be gay. Of course what he and Alvaro had done at Camp Go had nothing to do with being gay; they were simply young and curious and full of displaced lust. He wondered if what they’d done had been a never-to-be-repeated experiment for Alvaro as well. He wondered what Alvaro would think of Sherman, whose voters had recently declined to reelect the two openly homosexual city council members because they had proposed a gay-pride parade.
He turned on a CD—Free to Be You and Me, his wife’s nostalgia purchase—and listened to two babies speculate about whether they were boys or girls as he and Adam drove home. They lived in a two-story redbrick house in The Summit, a gated community in the hills on the west side of town. The realtor had spoken of the spectacular views, and while it was true one could see the Sky River from the guest bedroom, the most prominent landmark within eyesight was the coal-fired power plant north of town. Eddie had once compared it to a serial masturbator, its long, thin smokestack shooting carbon dioxide into the sky in a never-ending orgasm of pollution.
His wife wasn’t home, but the house was Jennifer personified. There were photos of her, and her and Adam, and her and the three of them, on the piano, on the mantel, on top of the television. The rooms were painted, by Jennifer herself, in her favorite colors. The place smelled like she did, of a perfume Eddie remembered from their first date; of coffee, which she drank by the pot; and of horses, which she rode twice a week at a stable half an hour out of town.
“Well, what do we want to do, A-man?” he asked his son. Adam wanted to watch TV, which Eddie wasn’t supposed to encourage; Jennifer thought TV stifled originality and creativity. She was right, of course, but Eddie was tired, so he grabbed a beer out of the fridge. He walked back into the living room and plopped down on the couch. Adam had already commandeered the channel changer.
An hour and twenty minutes later, when he heard Jennifer’s car pull into the drive, he turned off the television to a cascade of disapproval from Adam and rushed out to the back porch to bury his four Sam Adams bottles in the recycling bin. Jennifer had been horseback riding, and she smelled of horses and hay. Adam raced up to her, wrapped his arms around her legs, then darted off toward his toys at the back of the house.
“Welcome,” Eddie said, suppressing a burp.
“What’ve you been doing?” Jennifer asked, glancing around, suspicion in her eyes.
“Relaxing,” he said.
“Father-son time. All good.”
“I’m starving,” she said. “I don’t suppose you made dinner.”
Eddie snapped his fingers. “Forgot.”
She shook her head, but she was smiling as she slipped past him and into the kitchen. He might have joined her to peel carrots or cut apples, but the beers had made him languid, and he plopped back onto the couch. The sounds from the kitchen were a soporific; anything shy of a thunderclap would have been. Before he closed his eyes, he tried to remember the last time he and Jennifer had made love.
He awoke to his son’s loud voice: “No more dreams, Daddy! No more dreams!”
At several points during dinner, Eddie thought he might bring up Alvaro’s name, if only because Alvaro wouldn’t leave his thoughts. He was relieved when Jennifer finished dinner and asked Adam if he wanted to take a walk. Eddie had declined these outings so often Jennifer had stopped inviting him. He heard them leave with a soft shutting of the front door.
What would Jennifer say if she learned he’d had sex with a man? Would she be horrified? Probably. But he would explain that his relationship with Alvaro had occurred half a lifetime ago, when he didn’t know himself, when he was experimenting with everything. She might ask him if he had been afraid of AIDS. He probably should have been, but he and Alvaro were so young, it didn’t occur to him to worry. If Jennifer blanched at his disclosure, however, he could point to her own experiments in same-sex sex. During college, she’d become involved with a fellow horseback rider, also named Jennifer. Eddie had found something comic about a Jennifer bedding a Jennifer or vice versa, and his reaction had been to laugh and tease her. He doubted she would find his revelation funny. Besides, the time to confess had been early in their relationship.
Presently, he found himself on the second floor, standing in front of the full-length mirror nailed to the closet door in his and Jennifer’s bedroom. He removed his sweater and T-shirt and stared at his chest. Hair swirled around his nipples, met in the middle of his breastbone, and cascaded toward his bellybutton. He’d borne this hirsute letter T since he was sixteen. What was new, or new within the last half decade, was the relative flabbiness of his chest, his budding man-breasts, his rub-a-dub-dub-three-men-in-a-tub paunch. He used to run and lift weights, but since Adam’s birth, he’d given up regular exercise.
He remembered how he and Alvaro, at midnight, used to leave their campers dreaming and slip down to the shore. They would walk to the end of the pier and strip in the moonlight, piling their clothes into two tiny volcanoes. Alvaro’s chest was hairless and flat, like gold slate. His other features—his feet, his thighs, his ass—were as small, as dainty even, as a girl’s, and sometimes Eddie would have him before they dove into the water. After swimming and floating on their backs and talking in the radiant moonlight, he would have him again on the dry dock.
Eddie had pushed his trousers and underwear to his feet, and he was gazing at his naked body, at his tangled brown pubic hair and his circumcised penis, swelling in his hand.
“What’re you doing, Daddy?” Adam stood in the doorframe, gazing at him with a half smile. He marched next to Eddie. “Can I show the mirror my penis too?”
Before Eddie could answer, Adam pulled down his pants. He mimicked the solemn look on Eddie’s face. A moment passed. “What are we doing, Daddy?”
Eddie thought to say something about a testicular exam. But Adam would follow up with questions, and his lies would find their way to Jennifer. He sighed, gazing at himself. Somewhere beneath the body he owned now was the body he’d owned when he was eighteen, like a beautiful, hard Russian nesting doll. He said, “We’re seeing who we are.”
Adam puffed up his chest in imitation of his father. “Yes, we are,” he said.
But when Eddie heard Jennifer coming up the steps, he quickly pulled up his underwear and pants and whispered, “The show’s over.”
As Jennifer read a goodnight story to Adam, Eddie grabbed his running shoes from the closet. They were at least five years old, but they looked new, the silver outlines on the black swoops shining. They even had a new-shoe smell. He changed his clothes and put on sweatpants and a T-shirt. He popped into Adam’s room to tell Jennifer where he was going. “Running?” she asked, as if she hadn’t heard him. But she gave him an encouraging smile.
Outside in the crisp air, he felt exhilarated. This lasted all of ten seconds before his body recognized what it was being asked to do. He felt a dull ache from feet to ears. His breathing became the breathing of someone on Mount Everest whose supplemental oxygen had run out. But even as his body said stop, his brain, fearing a capitulation to soft and flabby, urged it on. He ran a mile to Sherman High School and ran two miles around the school’s track. The route on his return was uphill and he found himself slowing to a near walk. But he never gave in entirely, and when his house was in sight, he sprinted like a man in pursuit of a medal.
In the kitchen, Eddie dropped to the floor. He was on pushup twenty-two when he heard Jennifer’s steps. He continued, finishing thirty (he’d wanted to do fifty). He collapsed and looked up at her standing in the doorframe. It was only nine o’clock, but she had on pajamas. They were baby blue and baggy and hid all of her curves, which were subtle to begin with. “You’re very cute, in a mid-life crisis kind of way,” she said. “Keep panting, I’m going to change.”
She returned in black underwear and a black bra, and after a brief attempt at sex on the kitchen floor, which proved cold, hard, and the bearer of two smashed grapes, they walked upstairs to their bedroom. She threw a towel over the lamp and turned on the CD player on their bedside table. It was Tori Amos’s latest, her voice high and elongating syllables beyond recognition. Eddie remembered one night when lightning and rain had spoiled their midnight swim, he and Alvaro sneaked into the boathouse, whose second floor hosted the camp’s drama classes. Alvaro discovered a long, red wig and a toy pistol, and after he slid the pistol over to Eddie, he put on the wig and pretended to be Tori Amos singing “Me and a Gun.” Eddie had heard the song a few times, and he found the lyrics chilling and disturbingly stirring, but Alvaro changed the words, and Barbados became not a place to dream of while being sexually assaulted but an oasis they were creating, a paradise of heat, lust, and soon-to-be fulfilled desire.
In their queen-sized bed with rose-colored sheets, Eddie and Jennifer climaxed simultaneously, something they hadn’t achieved since before Adam was born. “My God, that was good,” Jennifer said, collapsing next to him. “I don’t know why we don’t do that more often.”
Although Eddie had reviewed Alvaro López’s dossier that morning and realized exactly who the candidate was, it was hard to accept him as real, so profound a part of his fantasy life had he become. But after Seymour Stolzenberg, the department head, with his crooked glasses and gray beard stubble, said, “Fifteen minutes and I’ll be back,” Alvaro—his Alvaro—was alone in his presence. Eddie’s first impulse was to rush up to him, embrace him, say, “How the hell have you been?” This, he remembered, was how the two cowboys in Brokeback Mountain had reunited. No, they’d done an embrace one more by kissing like they hoped to pull the breath from each other’s lungs. But he hadn’t loved Alvaro. They’d been two boys full of life and lust, and he, anyway, had outgrown this manifestation of his curiosity and desire. At the same time, he remembered lying on the dock with Alvaro after their swim, after sex, and staring at the stars, talking about whatever they wanted. He seemed to remember holding Alvaro’s hand.
Alvaro hadn’t changed aside from his face, which seemed heavier around the mouth and chin. His hair was the same vivid black, and he was as slim as an exclamation point. “Come on in, Alvaro,” Eddie said, and he offered him his hand to shake. Alvaro’s hand was cool, small, smooth. “Here, have a seat.”
As Alvaro sat in the hardback chair in front of Eddie’s desk, Eddie found it difficult to read his expression. Was he nervous? Pleased? He couldn’t have been surprised: Eddie’s name had been on Alvaro’s interview itinerary. He’d had time to wonder if Eddie was the Eddie. Their eyes connected, moved off each other, connected again. “Well,” Eddie said, and he was about to launch into his usual speech about what he did at the company when Alvaro said, “It was because of you.”
Eddie’s heart rumbled. He’d wondered if his employment with the company was the reason Alvaro wanted the job. To have his suspicion confirmed scared him. But beneath his fear, there was something less frightening or, rather, frightening in a thrilling way.
“My career,” Alvaro said. “You helped start my career.”
Eddie released a breath, relieved but also disappointed.
“Do you remember how, during the inventions contest at camp, you built the solar shower?” Alvaro asked.
It was a twenty-gallon tank lined with tinfoil and surrounded by magnifying glasses to intensify the sun’s rays. For three straight days before the judging, the skies were overcast. The water in the shower was as chilly as if it had been pulled from a mountain creek. “It was a colossal failure,” Eddie said, smiling.
“For the contest it was, yes. But do you remember a week afterwards, during the evening of a very hot day?”
They’d tested the shower together, first in their bathing suits, then, assured no one was around, without them, and the water had been perfect, a few degrees shy of hot. He nodded, smiling more cautiously this time. He didn’t want to engage Alvaro in a reminiscence of their relationship. He was worried it would give him permission to mention their connection casually to whomever he met today. “It was long ago,” he offered.
“Yes, but it was the spark I needed. I went back to Guatemala and I founded my company, and soon we were selling low-cost solar ovens in poor villages in the orient. And before long, we were even selling—yes,” and he smiled warmly, and Eddie, recognizing his smile from a lifetime ago, smiled back, “solar showers.”
There was a long pause. The smile left Alvaro’s face. “But then I had to leave the country.”
“The war. We had begun selling in the Petén, and when you sell cheap to campesinos in a war zone, no matter the profit you make, the army thinks you are a communist. So I began to receive death threats. And, one day, as I was driving in Chiquimula, far from the war zone, an army jeep pulled next to me and—.” Alvaro made a pistol of his right hand.
For Eddie, there had always been something at once terrifying and titillating about the casual violence in Alvaro’s country. He justified his occasional roughness with Alvaro by thinking of what he might be facing at home. “They shot at you?”
“They shot at my engine. Destroyed my car.” He paused. “It was a warning.”
“So you came to the States,” Eddie said. “And you’ve been working here ever since.”
“You’re a U.S. citizen now.”
Alvaro gazed at him. Was his look conspiratorial? “I was married. It lasted two and a-half years. No children.”
“I have a son,” Eddie said. He didn’t mention Jennifer. There was more Eddie wanted to know about Alvaro, more he wanted to tell about himself. But the situation precluded this. “Why would you like to work here?”
Eddie half expected him, perhaps even wanted him, to say, “Because you’re here.”
“Your great spirit of invention,” he said. “There is cautious invention, and there is your fearlessness. You risk ridicule. You continue anyway.”
Eddie wondered if “you” was intended to refer to him or the company. They’d been so reckless; it was amazing the entire camp didn’t know about them. He was terrified they would be discovered. But night would fall, the camp would settle down into cricket chirps and sleep, and he and Alvaro would escape to the lake. Yes, I haven’t seen Barbados—but I’m going to tonight.
“I’ll mention this to you only,” Alvaro said, his voice lowered. “I have another offer, from a company in Spain. It’s attractive, but I love what you do here. This is where I’d like to be.”
Eddie felt his heart race again. What if Alvaro moved to Sherman? He’d ask him to keep their past a secret, and they could be friends. He would introduce him to Jennifer. It might all work out.
There was a brief silence before Eddie said, “I’ll tell you a little about what I do here.”
“I know what you do,” Alvaro said.
Eddie must have looked surprised because Alvaro held up his hand and, smiling gently, said, “But of course I would like to hear this from you.”
“All right,” he said, and he began his usual spiel. It was as if he had memorized lines to play a part, and because he knew them perfectly, he could think about anything as he spoke. He wondered again what would happen if Alvaro was offered the job. He felt terror, and beneath it something like the opposite, and he reached the end of his talk at the same time Seymour Stolzenberg opened his door and said, “All done?”
The answer, Eddie thought, depended on what his colleagues decided about Alvaro.
Alvaro stood and so did Eddie. “Nice to meet you, Alvaro.” Eddie couldn’t keep the grin off his face as he shook Alvaro’s hand.
“Very nice to meet you, Eddie. Very nice.” A smile—and a wink? Eddie might have imagined it—and Alvaro was gone.
Distracted, his mind wandering, Eddie didn’t finish what he’d hoped to at work until late. It didn’t matter. It was Jennifer’s turn to pick up Adam, and he’d called and told her he wouldn’t make it home in time for dinner. It was eight-thirty by the time he left the office.
His route home took him downtown past the Hotel Sherman, where Alvaro was staying. He slowed and pulled into a parking space across from it. A doorman in a ridiculous red top hat stood outside. Eddie was happy to see he was sneaking a cigarette. Eddie considered what would happen if he walked into the hotel and asked whoever was at the front desk to let Alvaro López know he had arrived. Alvaro would invite him up to his room. He would open the mini bar. They would have a drink.
But he didn’t allow himself to imagine what would happen next. He wasn’t like some reckless politician who would risk everything to consort with pages and prostitutes, videographers and interns. Such men—and they were inevitably men—had no foresight. They couldn’t see past the pleasures of their blowjobs and sock-wearing tumbles in hotel beds with Russian émigrés who haven’t outgrown their acne but charge a thousand an hour. They couldn’t see how stupid it is to treat a good, steady life—a life anyone would envy—like a chip on a roulette table.
Alvaro had only a one in three chance of being hired. If he didn’t get the job, Eddie might never see him again. He could at least say hello, catch up a little more on his life. He stepped out of the car, but only, he decided, to breathe the air. The doorman tossed his cigarette stub into the street. It rolled, its orange light sparking. He and Alvaro could have a drink, couldn’t they? Two old friends? This wasn’t reckless or stupid. This was civil and polite.
From somewhere nearby, Eddie heard a baby crying. He remembered the night he and Jennifer had brought Adam home from the hospital. At three in the morning, Adam, sleeping in a Moses basket in the middle of the bed, had released such a terrible howl, Eddie sprung immediately for the phone, prepared to dial 911. But Jennifer wasn’t concerned, and she quieted their son soon enough with her breast. Eddie had been unable to fall back to sleep. He had realized his life would now be dedicated to staving off whatever would cause Adam to feel such anguish.
He returned to his car and drove home. The house was dark. Jennifer had forgotten to leave the porch light on. She’d locked the front door, and in the darkness, he put the wrong key in the lock. For a moment, he thought it might be stuck. But he was able to extricate it with force. He stepped under a streetlight in order to find the right key, then returned to his front door and let himself in.
Jennifer had gone to bed but had left his dinner on the kitchen table. The salmon and asparagus were cold but he didn’t put the meal in the microwave. He drank a beer with dinner and drank another in the living room, the lights off. He thought about Alvaro. He thought about Adam’s cry. There was something—no, everything—primal about its anguish and plea. But if a baby’s or a child’s cries had simple remedies, an adult’s—a man’s—well… But I should be happy. I am happy. I am.
The weekend came, and if Eddie hadn’t forgotten Alvaro, even for an hour, he had saved serious thought of him for private moments, when Jennifer and Adam were asleep, when he had the night to himself. On Monday, he picked up Adam at preschool, and it was Adam’s teacher, Veronica, instead of Sabrina who remained after school. Veronica was his age, slim and dark-haired and unmarried. If he’d wanted to have an affair, here was his chance. But there were good reasons he’d chosen a life straight and narrow. He was a good father, a good husband, and this mattered to him. It would be easy to make his life implode, but he wasn’t this dumb.
The next day, there was a knock on his office door. He opened it to find Seymour Stolzenberg and the three other members of the search committee standing outside. After Eddie invited them in and they’d sat down, Seymour said, “Well, as might have been expected when we decided on a four-person committee, we’re deadlocked. Instead of flipping a coin, we thought we’d employ you as the tiebreaker.”
“Alvaro,” Eddie said, as if he’d been prepared for the question. At the same time, he was stunned by his impulsiveness, his reckless desire to have his cry answered the only way it could be. He saw the future light up in fire, but his heart dashed like a boy racing toward the bay. “Alvaro López,” he said, as if they might misunderstand.
Seymour looked at his colleagues before turning back to Eddie. “He wasn’t one of the two we had in mind.”
Already Eddie had bolted ahead to Alvaro’s welcome, to the help he would give him in finding a place to live. He imagined the realtor waiting on the front porch as they revisited the second floor, the master bedroom.
Eddie recovered, offered the name of another candidate. But after the committee members left, he heard the echo of his voice enunciating Alvaro’s name—like a lover would in bed—and he felt transparent, exposed. It was as if they’d known about him and Alvaro and had only been waiting for his confirmation. They’d wanted to embarrass him. They’d wanted him to speak his humiliating desire.
But of course they didn’t know anything. Only he knew, and maybe this was worse. Only he knew what he’d been willing to lose. Only he knew what he’d lost.
Mark Brazaitis’s most recent book of stories, The Incurables, won the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and will be published by the University of Notre Dame Press in the winter. He is also the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and An American Affair, winner of the George Garrett Fiction Prize. His book of poems, The Other Language, won the ABZ Poetry Prize. He directs the Creative Writing Program at West Virginia University.
April 3, 2012 § Leave a comment
HOW is proud to present the winners of our 2011 fiction and poetry contests. All winners’ work will appear in Issue #9 of HOW.
The fiction contest was judged by award winning author Mary Gaitskill. For our third place prize, she chose “Seeing Makes Them Happy” by Jacqueline Kharouf.
“Seeing Makes Them Happy”
In the morning, Aymen takes a journalist and the platoon to Doura, a southern section of Baghdad where Sunni and Shiite insurgents wage ground war. The whole neighborhood has divided against itself and the US army has decided to abate the conflict before it gets too far.
Aymen follows the journalist, who wants to talk to some of the locals. He wears the vest and helmet, listening and translating, but also scanning the quiet buildings at their backs. The old man they meet shifts his feet and wrings his hands. He does not wear a turban and his sweat-soaked hair shimmers in the heat.
You should not be here, the man keeps repeating in Arabic. Tell them this is the time to go. Sweat slips down his neck, soaks into the front of his t-shirt.
Aymen pulls the journalist by the wrist and says, Go—go. He doesn’t look back until they are sitting in the Humvee. The old man wrings his hands, shuddering.
Small bits of roof and plaster, metal pieces of car and glass clatter around the shards of a body. Aymen sees legs—busted—coated in dirt. Brighter than the sun, a fireball hangs in Aymen’s eyes—a huge green patch he cannot blink away immediately. The parked car against the closest building where they were standing rises on the horizon and bellows and only then he remembers the old man.
Less than a week later, Aymen finds a handwritten note taped to his apartment door. He lights a candle, closes the curtains. “Traitor,” the note says. “We will torture and kill you for your crimes.”
It is April 2003. Sarah is sleeping in the next room with the door closed and Aymen thinks to keep the note, but packs their few belongings instead, loosening the linoleum tiles where he has hidden the last of their money and the crucifixes she doesn’t want anyone to see. He argues that to really avoid suspicion, she should wear a hijab, but she tells him she never will, shaking her ink black hair so that other women turn and stare, so that their hijabs tug against the hair pins they use to keep them in place.
He thinks back to that morning in Doura and wonders, waiting outside the door to the bedroom, but who had been left to see, to follow, to leave this note?
The next day, Aymen holds Sarah’s hand, motioning for the cars to slow down, to notice. Her skin is papery thin against his and the traffic heats around them, dry, unrelenting. A slow dark space folds around her eyes as the horns and starts of the taxis blast behind them, or come up too fast from between buildings. Aymen wants to stop in the middle of the street, press his hands over her ears, take away the echoes, and bring the night with its chilly silences before the curfew. Wishing night held Baghdad, he pulls her closer, his hand wrapped close to her armpit, and leads her along the narrow, crumbling cement, past the vendors with thick beards and eyes rolling bloodshot with their mouths, calling in anyone to buy a scrap, a dirty tank top, a hijab fading in the off-white morning. There are palm trees and more cars, dust as old as time—floating in circles or spinning under the wheels of trucks loaded with boys and golden bullets—and Aymen imagines exposing Sarah to a danger he cannot stop, even if he sees it coming. His only plan is that in order to protect her, she has to leave without him. She must escape to Jordan first. There she’ll wait for him until they can leave together, flying from Amman to the United States.
The US Embassy in Baghdad is on the corner, only a few yards away now, and still the sound is a plume over them, sitting on his shoulders so that he shudders and squeezes her hand more than he knows she likes. Sarah stops as he does this, leaning into him. She smells like jasmine and soft crushed flowers, even in the overheated coils of garbage and sewage. Blood splatter dries on the side of the building across the street, but Aymen doesn’t close his eyes. While her hair is warm against his face, he thinks how he should regret what he is, or what she is—how he should tell her he’s never loved her, that he’s been secretly betrothed all this time, that even though he promised himself for her, he was lying. He cradles her head in both his hands and thinks to do it. Her eyes are blue, blackened at the rims, creased with the time they lost—the time in which they could have been together had the world been different, had this war receded like a stone won over by the wind.
She smiles, all cheeks and dimples, and her fingers are cool and sweaty as she pushes his hair from his forehead. You’ll see, she says. I’ll be in Amman by the morning.
He bows his head, full and empty at the same time.
Her hair flutters, each strand distinct, like scripts of letters and words streaming across her eyes. He knows it will not be enough, but he presses again into her, struggling to hold her to him. The heartbeat from her chest flows out, quaking on her lips and tongue, and even as she’s there, her body a pounding tunneling through his, he feels how easily she could come apart.
That evening, Aymen moves into a new apartment full of rickety furniture. Gifts, the landlord tells him, from looters. The apartment is the last unit on the sixth floor of one of those tower blocks lining Haifa Street, a main highway running along the west bank of the Tigris. He lights candles, hunching close to them after the electricity shuts off for the night so that he can read the books and tattered newspapers he has collected from emptied cafés. When he can find them, he reads books in English, and books that are cheaper now because of violence in the Market District—threats and car bombs that keep customers away. On his days off, he studies in Mutanabi Booksellers, just memorizing the page numbers where he’s stopped reading, daring not to fold the corners in case the owner finds out and makes him buy the books outright.
During the night, he hears shouting and screams, voices hollowed through the walls, and in the morning there are bodies in the street, in the courtyard, the shoes still hugging their feet and blood thinning in the puddles.
The next day is April 9, 2003. The platoon officer opens a navy blue folder and hands Aymen a map with a route outlined in yellow highlighter. Today’s coordinates, he says. Aymen calls him “sir” like the rest of the men, lowering his gaze from the man’s buzzed blond hair. Aymen doesn’t like the stare from this man, the sparseness of his pale features, but he will hold it if he has to, speaking slowly so that he understands exactly where they need to go. They stand in the barracks—or in the short corridor between them—and there is a gray collection of newspaper on the floor. We’re passing out food and pamphlets today, the officer says. Aymen reads the script again, even though he knows most of it already, and mentally deletes the portions about what has improved. He does not ever tell the people that everything is OK—even when the Americans ask him to—because even if he tells them, this is something he cannot translate yet.
He hands the officer a few forms he needs him to sign, proving that he has completed this mission, proving his services to the United States and the new Iraq. He has forms and applications for his visa, a long list of things he still hasn’t received: three letters of recommendation, his most recent academic records, his birth certificate translated into English, but he also has his own record of what happened, dates and events scrawled into journals and notebooks. Leaving his apartment that day he wrapped everything in plastic grocery bags so he wouldn’t get unwanted attention on the street.
The first time Aymen went on this kind of mission he tried to thank the officer for his generosity. The officer shook his hand, but told Aymen it wasn’t anything really to do with kindness. He does not wear the helmet now. The officer offers and Aymen says no because he wants the people to see who he is. He knows the other soldiers take it as a good sign when he doesn’t wear it. Their strides are more relaxed—still cautious, hands always near their weapons—but something loosens in the muscles around their jaws. Something is less heavy than it should be.
After these forms are signed, Aymen sits in the open hatch of a US Army infantry tank, shouting into a loudspeaker. This is food, he says, this is the goodwill of the American peacemakers. Aymen holds the bullhorn in his left hand, swaying with the tank, and brings his right hand back and forth through the air as though he is quelling the desert wind. The waving is redundant, he knows, but he does it anyway, ignoring the weight in his shoulder, the new pulling that stretches from his elbow to the back of his hand. He makes a fist in the air and the men on the street do the same. Then there are boys running alongside the tanks and Humvees, shouting “Hello! Hello!” because it is all the English they can say.
They turn the corner to see a group of Marines, a horde of photographers and the rope snapping taut as the bronze statue of Saddam Hussein comes down in Firdos Square. A small score of his countrymen use hammers and bits of wood to beat the metal after it has fallen. And while he watches that—captured under a blaze of cameras and words—he thinks back to yesterday, when he watched Sarah board a bus that would take her Jordan. The sun was setting and something inside him was beginning to collapse: the knowledge of being able to survive fading and in its place the dread that his survival had cost too much.
After Firdos Square—after watching Marines pull down Saddam Hussein with a rope and a tank, the bronze face of the dictator draped first in an American flag, then an Iraqi one—he stands in the hallway of his apartment building on Haifa Street. The door to his unit is wide open, the lock and the door frame have been scraped away like someone has taken a crowbar to it.
In the hallway, he creeps up to the edge of the door, crouches to his knees, and looks inside from the bottom of the frame. His cot is collapsed in on itself, all six legs in the air like an overturned beetle. The chair is on its side and some of his books lay open on the dusty floor. He holds his breath, but he can’t hear anything. Aymen finds a CD taped to the center of the card table.
His hands don’t shake when he pulls the tape from the CD, even though he’s heard of CDs left like this before. Aymen takes his laptop from the loose ceiling tile above his bed, thinking how he could throw the CD away, but he needs to know who, or what, is on it. He plays it, telling himself it is just like before, just like watching when the bomb exploded, standing in the yard behind his parents’ house, watching when the shrapnel flew and struck his father in the head; it is like hearing about his brother, knowing the exact route he took when he had walked home too late that night, finding out later he’d been pulled into the back of a van.
In the pixilated video on Aymen’s laptop, Sarah says his name, over and over again. The image sticks and freezes into square chunks, zoomed into her hands tied in her lap, the blood running down her chin, half of her hair cut or shaved. The sound and image buffer, stop-motion snippets at her clothes covered in sweat and dirt and reddish stains, the blurry haze of the rope around her neck. Aymen sinks into the chair at his card table. The sound scratches through his speakers, a high distended whistling that breaks when the image resumes and he can count four men in the background. Black hoods cover their faces, ruffled loosely down their chests. The one farthest on the right holds up a long curved knife. The image blurs and something like a dark cloud starts and stops to cover Sarah’s head. The man with the knife throws his head back in jerks and pulls like his limbs are on strings. The video pauses, and Aymen is close to the screen now, holding it in both his hands as the image breaks through and the man’s laughter, throaty, deliberate, puffs up the cowl where it covers his mouth and the hint of his eyes barely flash through the slits. He draws the machete under the brown, fuzzy coil of rope, and the screams start and stop until the video pixilates, flashes, and fades black.
The floor is dirty and yellow. His lungs are still paused in exhale, clotted, too-thick. He thinks, No, but they will be coming back, and he wonders if he should just let them. He stands, but he does not change his clothes or comb his hair, his dark eyes glaring at him from the bathroom mirror. He stares through the window until the sky is almost fully light and blue, until there are the honks of cars instead of guns, taxis crisscrossing the dirty streets, until there is only garbage, dogs, and rubble, the shot bodies turning white in the sun.
At the American Embassy in Amman, Aymen uses the English he learned at school and from years of listening to British radio programs. I was a translator, he tells the woman at reception, for the US Army. A name tag engraved with the word “Bonnie” sits on the desk. He shows her his paperwork to apply for the lottery visa, his credentials, his letters and recorded expeditions with troops signed by the officer on duty. He all but describes how they’d say “Tell him this,” and unfold maps of streets where he and his brother had played football with other boys as the quick nights fell, places marked by metal gates locked over storefronts, buildings cluttered in wiry balconies, and dirty palm trees. They never made me carry a gun, he tells her. Bonnie unfolds all the documents and arranges them square across the table.
In the entryway, the floor is glossy. Sunlight flashes when the inner doors swing open, the heels of boots clacking clear and then dampening as they round the corner. Bright, silken leaves potted in tangled mulch fill the reception and Aymen counts four people folding over newspapers smeared with too-orange, too-red photographs of car bombs.
How do you say your name? she asks. She wears a silver watch so snug the metal clips squish the pudgy freckled skin.
He lowers his eyes. His black hair, slick with sweat, sticks to his brow. It’s like “amen,” he says. Like when you pray. He says the “a” softly—like father, like tall.
Aymen, she says and she smiles, but he doesn’t understand. He is 22 years old, born in the May four years before the war in Kuwait. When he is alone, he holds his hands to his chest and tries but can’t imagine how fragile this arrangement is. Just skin, he thinks, the black hair on his chest curved over the seismograph scribble of the scar he got when his father died—a scrap of war that had once burrowed into him and, later, was cut out.
He wants to tell her that his name means truth, that it comes from the Arabic word for “right,” as in “accurate,” as in “fair,” but he only follows Bonnie’s wrists while she collects his papers. A few children, smiling, clasping the hands of their parents, pass the reception and he finally wonders what he’s tried to avoid thinking ever since he found Sarah’s CD. How long had Sarah been able to hold onto her belief—how long until she’d regretted ever telling him she’d be here? He follows the eyes of these children, trying to see how they see.
Jacqueline Kharouf is currently studying for her MFA in creative writing, fiction, at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. A native of Rapid City, SD, Jacqueline lives, writes, and maintains daytime employment in Denver, CO. In 2009, she earned an honorable mention for the Denver Woman’s Press Club Unknown Writer’s Contest, and in 2010 she earned third place for that contest. This past winter, she published her first story, “The Undiscoverable Higgs Boson,” in Issue 4 of Otis Nebula. Jacqueline blogs at: jacquelinekharouf.wordpress.com; tweets holiday appropriate well-wishes and crazy awesome sentences here: @writejacqueline; and would perform a small jig if you liked her Facebook professional page at: Jacqueline Kharouf, writer.