In the Nude

Brendan Gillen

Charlotte lived in the Village, where the buildings shared narrow courtyards, so it was not a matter of neighbors seeing. Of course they saw. She sometimes waved. The uptight spinster across the street who pulled her curtains. The young men whose kitchen window was adjacent to her bedroom. They did not stare. They smiled giddily and waved and went about their business. Who knows what they said when they ducked out of sight? Charlotte didn’t care. Her days of giving a damn were long gone.


One afternoon, the police came. The knock was polite. Charlotte answered in her robe. She could have been their mother. They hardly looked old enough to drive, let alone carry weapons.


“Good afternoon, ma’am,” said the bearded officer. His nameplate read: Finn. He seemed to be in charge. “There’s been a report of a disturbance.”


She clocked the shaven one eying her figure, which she maintained with water aerobics.


“A disturbance?” Charlotte said. “Here?”


“Yes, ma’am,” Finn said.


Charlotte wondered if one of them always spoke, if their roles were set, or if they sometimes traded.


 “I make a real effort to keep to myself,” she said.


“It has nothing to do with noise, ma’am,” Finn said.


The clean-shaven young man adjusted his belt. His radio chirped. His name was Bradford.


“There was a call that you’ve been going about your apartment in the, ah, nude and whatnot.”


Charlotte bit her cheek to keep from laughing. In the nude! For such a progressive city, New York’s sense of civic propriety was practically Victorian.


“I see,” she said. “Is it illegal? This is my home.”


“Not exactly, but if it continues to be a public disturbance—”


“Who was it that complained?”


“We can’t divulge that information, ma’am,” Finn said. But Charlotte knew. In some ways, she’d been waiting for it. She didn’t know the woman’s name, but they’d passed each other plenty of times on the street. In another life, they might have been friends. In this life, her neighbor was stoop-shouldered and severe, and she pushed her chaotic hoard of belongings around the neighborhood in a rolling cart.

“All we’re asking,” Finn continued, “is that you cover up.”


Instinctively, Charlotte released the clutch she held on the collar of her robe so that it fell open at her throat. Bradford stole a glance at her cleavage. Finn dropped his hand to his taser.


“Ma’am,” he said. “It’s a simple request.”


She thought of Donald. How could she not? His mustache. His overcoat. Always layered. Their marriage was full of love. Over thirty years. Toward the end there was no sex, not because they didn’t want it, but because of his condition. It worsened precipitously in the final months. He was hollowed out, hunched over. Clothes hung about him as though they’d been donated by a much bigger man. It was awful to see. Yet Charlotte had felt an undercurrent of liberation. An unburdening, a shedding of skin. She waited until Donald passed to express it. To do otherwise would have been cruel. She sold the house, bought the studio in the city. She began to paint, went for cocktails. It wasn’t even a year before she brought a man half her age back to the apartment. She was taking control of her grief. Of her life. She knew Donald would have understood. She’d given up her career at McCann to make their home, raise their boys. This was her time. Yes, he would have understood. She was certain. She was the only woman he’d ever loved.


“Let me ask you something,” Charlotte said to the officers. “Have either of you tried it?”


Finn cleared his throat. His hand twitched on the taser. “Ma’am?” he said.


“Walking around the house,” she said, “in the nude.”


Bradford swallowed. The arrowhead of his Adam’s apple dipped.


“Ma’am, this doesn’t have to be difficult,” Finn said, losing patience. “This isn’t a negotiation.”


“Oh, it’s not difficult at all,” she said. “You’d be surprised how good it feels. The world is constrictive enough.”


“I’ve tried it,” Bradford said, seeming to startle himself. “Sleeping naked, I mean.”


“See?” Charlotte grinned. She clapped involuntarily. Heat rose to her face. “And?”


“It was okay. Little chilly.”


“Enough,” Finn snapped. He’d been undermined.


“Oh, give it another shot, Bradford,” Charlotte said. “You too, Finn. Your wives or girlfriends or boyfriends, whatever, will notice the shift, trust me. Especially after a long day in those uniforms. Don’t they itch?”


“Wives,” Finn said, flustered. “Listen, if we get another complaint to this address? We won’t be so cordial.”


Charlotte looked Finn in the eye and smiled. He flinched, and she saw his guard drop. It was all very silly. The roles we convinced ourselves to play.


“That won’t be necessary,” Charlotte said. “Message is loud and clear. All I can say is that I hope you gentlemen find comfort in your own skin before it’s too late.”


“And I hope this is the last we see of each other,” Finn said. One of their radios crackled. “Good afternoon.”


Finn turned and made his way from the threshold. Bradford lingered a moment, and, ever so slightly, smiled, as if to say, Thank you. Then he ducked out of sight.


Charlotte closed the door, went to her nightstand, leaned against the bed. She picked up the framed photo of Donald, touched his face through the glass. He was squinting in the direct sunlight, ballcap pulled low, one of their last journeys to the desert.


“Miss you, love,” she said. “We would’ve had fun. I’d’ve loosened you up.” At least she would have tried. But had he never passed, would she have arrived here, at herself? It was impossible to know.


She went to the window and looked down on the street, the slow-moving traffic, the bustle and flow of a Manhattan afternoon. The spinster was not at her window, but Charlotte could see the tunneling squeeze, the decades of accumulation. She decided she would get dressed and go over there, try the third-floor buzzers until she found the right one. Maybe all the woman needed was someone to talk to, or, more likely, someone to listen.


For now, she closed the curtains against the glare, dropped her robe, studied her figure in the mirror. It was something you had to work for. Not the body, the love for it. That alone was worth the heartbreak.


“Oh, I hope you’re watching,” she said.


Then she danced to the song in her head, the one Donald loved most. A slow bolero, a languid ache, an invitation to the rest of your life.


The Wedding Photographer Photographer

Matt Leibel


The wedding photographer photographer was busier than ever. Couples had decided that typical wedding shots felt too cliché; they wanted photos that merely suggested the existence of these moments instead. The wedding photographer photographer was acknowledged as the best in the business. He understood how to capture the essence of a wedding photographer at work because he’d been a wedding photographer before branching out to this extra, some would say unnecessary, level of remove. He’d always been interested in the art of looking: at museums he was less concerned with observing the art, and more concerned with observing the people observing the art. He made notes: “Woman folding arms impatiently; child with tongue sticking out; man pawing at his own goatee while looking at a chiaroscuro sketch by Van Dyck.” The WPP began taking pictures of museumgoers who were deep—almost erotically deep—in the throes of the act of looking. His fascination with the second-hand extended even to his own marriage. He had become interested in watching his wife engage in acts of intimacy with strange men. (By which he meant strangers to him; the men didn’t have to be particularly strange, and usually weren’t.) In fact, watching her excited him more than being with her himself. This was not a deal breaker—he’d explained his proclivities early in their relationship. They’d met at a wedding, actually. She was a wedding planner, and he was photographing the wedding photographer according to the nuptial couple’s very specific needs (with a focus on the WP’s two-toned bowling-style loafers, a particular fascination of the bride-to-be’s). It was at the WPP’s request that the voyeuristic scenarios with his own wife became more and more elaborate; a second-order element was added as a second stranger was hired to watch the wife’s encounters, and the WPP took candid photos of this stranger. The WPP’s wife especially liked these shots because of the expression the WPP was able to capture on the face of Stranger #2: usually a look of titillation mixed with confusion mixed with the terror of an interloper on the verge of being found out, even though he was an invited guest. Everything seemed to be going well for the WPP. His particular personal and professional desires were being largely satisfied. This is more, he thought, than most people could say—until he noticed what seemed to be a new set of characters at the weddings he worked. These weren’t the usual wedding crashers, nor relatives of the couple who’d grown antisocial after an intrafamily spat. No. It was only after a handful of these weddings, and after talking to friends in the biz, that the WPP realized the truth: these new faces were wedding photographer photographer photographers. The WPPPs were hired to photograph him, and him alone. And the sudden switch from observer to observed unnerved the WPP more than he might have anticipated. He told his wife that he couldn’t be part of a photography sandwich, to which she replied, rightly, that this was exactly what wedding photographers had been dealing with ever since the WPP became a WPP. And that if the WPP couldn’t handle the emergence of the WPPP as the next evolution of a fast-changing industry, maybe it was time for him to move on from the job—and for her to move on from him. And, indeed, just weeks after the WPP’s wife moved out, he quit working entirely. He parked himself on his sofa in front of the TV, where for weeks on end, he did little but watch a show about characters who do nothing but watch other characters on TV. Soon, word of the WPP’s downfall got around, and paparazzi (mostly WPs, a few WPPPs, and even other WPPs with whom the WPP had worked) gathered around the WPP’s windows to snap candid pictures of him. An exhibition of those photos, eventually, appeared at the MOMA. The wedding photographer photographer never attended the show, but he spent many hours online, looking at pictures of museumgoers, who themselves were looking at other museumgoers, who were looking at still further museumgoers, who were looking—from what he could tell—at nothing at all.


When There’s No One Left to Point At

Eric Scot Tryon


On Fridays after school, we rode our bikes to the liquor store to buy sour candy, the kind in large plastic bins with big metal scoops. Sour peaches, sour rings, sour bears and worms and sharks, sour lips and sour rainbows and sour kids. Emily never had money, so I paid, which was fine.


With the bag of candy tied around my handlebars, we pedaled to the high school where we sat in the bleachers, on the top row, and pressed our backs to the metal railing. The first sour bite was the best. The way my jaw clenched like a fist even before the sour hit my tongue.


Meanwhile, the field below was electric with teams practicing and students buzzing, and we played a game called That’s Gonna Be You. Emily and I were still a year away from high school and joked that watching from above was like watching ourselves in the future.


“That’s gonna be you,” she’d say, laughing and pointing to the football player dragging his feet, half a lap behind the team.


“That’s gonna be you,” I’d say and shoulder-bump her, pointing to the cross country runner leading the team in stretches. Blonde hair pulled tight in a ponytail, she barked orders and counted to ten.


Besides pointing out our future selves and sucking the sour off gummy soda bottles, we also complained about our parents. To make Emily feel better, I made stuff up about my dad yelling and being an asshole, but really he wasn’t. He was the kind of dad who always listened, even if sometimes I wished he talked too.


But Emily’s dad was another story. Three months ago she found out he had another family. Family #2, she called them. She found a birthday card in his office desk with a drawing of a dad, mom, older boy, and a little girl with red curls. Emily was blonde and an only child. She didn’t tell her mom, but she told me as we pushed sour rings on the tips of our tongues. How many could we fit until one snapped? She didn’t cry like I thought she might, but instead pointed at a group of boys huddled like vultures under the bleachers across from ours, secretly smoking and punching each other in the arms. “That’s gonna be you.”


Emily started questioning everything about her father. Whenever he wasn’t home, which was a lot—work trips, golf trips, who-knows trips—she assumed he was playing catch with his son or teaching his redheaded daughter to ride a bike. When he was home, she tried to sniff foreign odors on his shirt as he hugged her goodnight. And when the light hit his mouse-brown hair at just the right angle, she swore she saw hints of red.


The more she shared, the less I shared. Having to deal with Family #2 was so much worse than my mom drinking too much white wine after dinner. My mom didn’t get silly-drunk like in the movies, but the next day she wouldn’t remember what we’d talked about. I had to get used to cloned conversations. Plus I was running out of bad things to make up about my dad, so mostly I just listened and searched the field for future-me.


Then Emily’s Dad called her Dylan accidentally. Twice.


Dylan doesn’t sound anything like Emily,” I said. “How can the dillweed make that mistake?”


With a mouth full of sour gummy bears she’d scrunched together until four became one, Emily said, “Whatever. That’s gonna be you,” and pointed to a funny-looking kid sitting against the goalpost doing homework alone.


“Yeah? Well, that’s gonna be you,” I said and pointed to a cheerleader practicing her leg kicks. She looked ridiculous, and I knew that would get Emily good because she swore she’d never be a cheerleader. She said cheerleaders were just decorations for guys, and how stupid was that? I was waiting for her to point out the worst guy and say it was me, but she didn’t. She just sat there working her tongue, unsticking bears from her back teeth. Finally, she said, “Shit, Dylan’s even a cooler name than Emily.”




Today, as I’m scooping the last of the sour fish into the bag, Emily says she has something big to tell me. But later, with our backs against the cool metal bars and one handful of sour keys already gone, she still hasn’t said anything.


“So, like, did something happen?” I ask, as the marching band marches in a giant circle.


“Nothing happened,” she says, tears in her eyes for the first time. “But, like…I realized something.”


I want to give her a hug, but I’m not sure if that’s the kind of friends we are. So, like my dad, I sit quietly. Waiting to listen.


“What if, like…” She stops to tie a sour rope in a knot, then bites off one end. “What if I’m Family #2?” She looks away. “What if it’s not them. What if it’s me that’s Family #2?”


The worst part is I don’t know what to say because she could be right, because who gets to choose? I try to imagine what my parents might say, but I’ve got nothing. So I reach into the bag and grab two sour cherries—her favorite—and give her one. Then she grabs two sour bombs—the strongest of them all—and hands one to me.


“That’s gonna be you,” I say and point to the girl walking like a horse with high knees, twirling a baton.


“That’s gonna be you,” she says and points to a big kid banging a drum hung around his neck.


And then we can’t stop. We point out everyone on the field. The football player doing pushups, the sprinter collapsing on the grass, the kid in crutches asking girls to sign his cast, the couple holding hands, the boy getting yelled at by his coach, the girl with pink hair. That’s gonna be you, I tell her. That’s gonna be you, she tells me. And we eat. We eat until the sour scrapes our tongues and cuts our gums.


Eventually the sun drops behind the mountains, and the lights of the field click, then buzz, then shine. That’s gonna be you, she says and points to a kid sitting alone, picking grass. And to the coach blowing his whistle. And to the boy trying to do a cartwheel. That’s gonna be you, I say and point to a girl sprinting as if she’s late, backpack bouncing side to side. And to the girl crying into her phone. And to the girl who was running laps when we first sat down and is still running laps, her face bright red, and she has not stopped, has not even slowed. That’s gonna be you, that’s gonna be you, we say until all the teams have packed up their equipment and left, until even the non-athletes, the randoms and slackers and stragglers have decided it’s time to go home, and there is only a pile of sour sand at the bottom of the bag, and our mouths are swollen and raw, and we have pointed at everyone until there’s no one left to point at, and still we have no idea what kind of people we are going to be.


The Star Buyer

Will Musgrove



The cop told me it was a Hollywood myth that you only get one phone call after being arrested. He said I could call anyone I wanted, even a lawyer. But I only needed one call. I called my son and asked him to put my granddaughter on the line. He did, and I told her to go outside and look at the stars.


A few weeks ago, I bought a bunch of stars at fifty bucks a pop. After reading a few science articles on space travel and Dyson spheres, I calculated how many greats were needed until humanity left planet Earth behind. I’ll never be rich, not on a bus driver’s wage, but my great-great-great-great-grandchildren could be.


The stars showed up yesterday in the mail. Well, their locations showed up, written on filigreed certificates. You get to name the stars you buy, so I named them not after people I know, but after people I want to know, my future grandchildren. I read each name aloud and placed the certificates in a Folgers coffee can. With the can in one hand and a shovel in the other, I walked outside to bury the stars in my backyard as a sort of celestial inheritance.


My next-door neighbor, Frank, raised his head over our shared fence and asked if I was digging for treasure. I shook my head and told him I was burying it, told him about my not-so-quick get-rich scheme. In a few hundred years, what would be the difference?


“Oh, Bridget and I saw the same infomercial,” he said, pointing at the ground, a gesture I took as stay there.


Frank disappeared into his house, which looked exactly like mine, like everyone else’s on the block, and returned carrying a picture frame. He turned the frame, revealing a star named after his grandson, George.


“His birthday is coming up, and we wanted to get him something special,” Frank said.


His star’s location seemed familiar, so I opened the coffee can, and, sure enough, Frank’s star matched one of mine. Frank scratched his chin like, How do you have my grandson’s star?


I went in and dialed the infomercial number. A man answered, and I explained the situation.


“Stars are really big,” the man said. “Can’t you share?”


I imagined my future relatives traveling light years in stasis only to wake to a flashing sign reading: Welcome to George, the Brightest Star in the Universe. I said no, I couldn’t share. I said I wanted my money returned, and the man hung up. When I called back, no one answered.


Online, I looked up the address of the star-selling company and scribbled it on a Post-it note. I got in my car and drove. I wanted a refund, or else a different star. I imagined the man on the phone searching star maps for a replacement, imagined him describing the light each star gave off. I wanted to make it right. I wanted my future grandchildren to point at their stars and say, “Boy, my great-great-great-great-grandfather sure was a savvy guy to make such a smart investment.” I wanted them to look at their stars and think of me.


Driving down the highway, I considered light, how it takes millions of years for the light of a star to reach us, how, by the time it does, the star might not be alive, how the light might be nothing more than a memory. Red and blue stars pulsed behind me, and I thought about light, about going so fast I stretched for millions and millions of years.


I imagined my future relatives basking in my light, saying to one another, “Can’t you share? Can’t you share?” And me, by then no more than a bundle of particles and photons, replying, “No need. Don’t you see all this light? Look at all these stars I bought you, and for only fifty bucks a pop.”


“Pull over,” came the voice over a speaker.


In my rearview, I counted half a dozen cop cars. My speedometer read 110 miles an hour. Not quite the speed of light. A line of yellow barrels protected the median. Swerving, I bumped one, then grazed the side of a police car, and, boom, I went supernova, exploding into a burst of glittery stardust.


Guns drawn, the cops approached my car and ordered me out of my vehicle. I did as they said, and they cuffed me before bringing me here. Now, I sit beneath humming florescent bulbs, telling my granddaughter to look up, look up, to never stop looking, to remember that, one day, the light of those stars will light her children’s children’s children’s children’s way.


The Chili Cook-Off

In the ninth grade my face got all trucked up in a car accident. The next year my high school let me be a judge at their annual chili cook-off. Ever since, on the eve of the season’s first freeze, I make a big pot, the beginning of two months of competition. I find the process soothing. My recipe changes from year to year. I’ve never written it down and being prone to heavy drink, I invariably forget something. My maxim is to keep it simple. This is Omaha. Don’t need to be showing up at the American Legion Hall with braised short-rib chili.

            The onset of winter around here is a curious thing. There’s excitement in the air despite everyone knowing that in a month we’ll all be begging for spring. My chili season routine goes as such: on Wednesday I hit the grocery store. Thursday, I dice everything up: onions, peppers, garlic, and tomatoes. Fix a drink. Brown the meat. Refill my drink. Add everything to the stock pot, stir it real good, and let it rest in the fridge overnight. All day Friday I cook it down, adding beer/coffee/broth as needed. On Saturday I bring it to whatever cook-off is happening. Sundays I’m hungover. Monday and Tuesday are pretty inconsequential.

            I’ll be up front about it, one of the buddies I was in the car wreck with didn’t make it out. He was sixteen, two years older than me, and he was driving. The other buddy, Tim Slobowski, was my age. We were on a rural stretch of road, what we called out north. Slobowski was ejected from the car. His brain went without oxygen for forty-five minutes, and he spent the next six weeks in a coma. After that they moved him to the Madonna House Rehab Hospital, where he doesn’t know who he is or where he’s at. I used to visit, but it’s been a while.

            People at the Hy-Vee see what’s in my cart and give me looks of approval, the man making midweek chili. Such jaunt in my step. My go-to protein is a mixture of Italian sausage and ground beef (1:3). In the past I’ve done some wild experimentation, depending on how frisky I’m feeling. Have used everything from elk to pulled pork to brisket. Where I draw the line is chicken, white chili, which I won’t do. In a few weeks my hunting buddies will start getting last year’s venison out of their deep freezes and I’ll make a few batches with that, but until then, I’ll keep it simple. Italian sausage and ground beef.

            As I exit the store, the Salvation Army bell ringer is going at it like he’s John Bonham. I wasn’t planning on donating (no idea where the money goes), but I admire his tenacity. I stop the cart and fish around in my pocket. The drummer does a triplet. He’s wearing fingerless leather gloves. The bell is vise-gripped to a hi-hat stand. He goes at it like a trap set. I bend down with my dollar. He looks at me. We recognize each other. He grins in a way that says he knows it’s me, and yeah dude, it’s him: my old friend, Doogie. He stops mid-song, looks in my cart. “Whoa motherfucker,” he says. “You making chili?”

            Aside from family, I’ve known Doogie longer than anyone else. His stepdad coached our little-league team, this mustached dude who’d pitched collegiately and was obsessed with bunting. Later, Doogie and I did drugs and played in punk bands together, which is when he dropped the name William and took on Doogie.

            “Doogie,” I say. “What the fuck man, I thought you were in Denver.”

            “Made it nine months out there, but I’m back. Been so for a few weeks.”

            I nod at the tithing bell. “The hell is this?”

            “The fuck’s it look like? Denver’s not cheap.” He lowers his voice. “You still…”

            “Gave it up,” I say. “Coming on two years.”

            “Congrats. That’s why I moved. Worked for a while too, but you know that junk is everywhere.” He puts a hand on the case of beer in my cart. “Haven’t kicked this, I see.”

            “Technically that’s for the chili.”

            “Fuckin A.”

            “Hey man,” I say. “Is this what it looks like?”

            “Not really.” He looks around. “Actually, maybe.”

            Ninety percent of my friends from his days are gone. Some left to reinvent themselves and some passed away and some got married, had kids. I spent a decade moving around. Whenever things came close to falling in place, something came up. Emergency dental surgery or a bad breakup or x, y, and z. I pull a twenty from my billfold. Doogie pockets it on the sly and gives the bell a thwack, thanks me for being a good friend.

            In the three years I’ve been back in Omaha, I’ve entered forty chili cook-offs. Placed in the top three at thirty of them, fifteen of which I won. I know it’s a weird hobby, but if my biggest proclivity is an obsession with making chili, I consider myself healthy. It’s Thursday morning and my stomach is weightless in anticipation. Been since March that I last made a batch. I hone the chef’s knife, ready the cutting board. The tips of my fingers get prickly. I start my audiobook: Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s been my soundtrack for the last two chili-cooking seasons. Over the next couple months I’ll take it to the house three, maybe four times. Put it away for the year, recharged.

            I am in control of what defines me. Covey hammers that. Don’t have to be defined by my past. Humans have the power to choose. That’s why I moved away. Fuckers all saw me as the dude that had been in the car accident. For many years I was erratic. Covey helped me regain control. It’s like he says, so much about who we are is determined in the split seconds between stimulus and response. And never forget that you have the power to choose.

            The baseball team that Doogie and I played for—the Omaha Tornadoes—the summer after sixth grade we made a run at the Little League World Series, the event that’s televised on ESPN. All season we used the thought of ourselves on TV as motivation. A communal fantasy that grew out of control. We made it to the final round of regionals in Wichita, KS. One more and we were in. We could practically see ourselves in the nation’s living rooms, dominating with small ball. The hope for a better tomorrow. We ended up losing in the last inning of the championship game and shortly thereafter found out that we hadn’t even been competing in the tournament that climaxes on ESPN. We’d been in some rinky-dink knockoff version, lied to by our parents and Doogie’s stepdad, who knew we’d be motivated by TV. The whole experience ruined baseball for me.

            I love waking up on chili cook-down Friday. Last night it was hard to fall asleep, similar to the last day of school as a kid, a memory I barely remember, but it was embryonic, the windows open to perfect weather. I put the pot on the range and slowly bring it to a boil, stirring in cumin, cayenne, and paprika. Half a Hershey bar. A quarter cup of cold brew. Couple tablespoons of Mexican coke. Last year I fucked around with soda syrup as the sweetener. It was close to what I wanted, but the line to toe was thin and it made me feel like I was trying to be something I’m not, unbearably pretentious.

            All told I spent a decade away from Omaha. Went from Tampa to Lake Charles, Asheville and Pensacola—once for love, once for a bar, and the others for no real reason, reinventing who I was every few years. One of the things I consistently missed were the chili cook-offs, nothing like they are in the heartland. To the credit of Lake Charles, they had a bunch of well-attended gumbo cook-offs around Mardi Gras, but I only like that stuff in extreme moderation. At the last one I attended I was eating a bowl in front of the guy that made it—duck and andouille—and on my second spoonful I bit square into a piece of buckshot. I pulled the BB from my mouth and the guy started laughing like a goddamn maniac. I didn’t think it was funny, though. That incisor is still chipped.

            I bring the chili to a hard boil and kill the heat. Add in some bone broth and work it to a simmer. I can’t stress enough the importance of a quality stock pot. I’ve got a top-end chef’s knife as well, German forged steel. Those Japanese brands look sweet, but I’ve heard they require a ton of maintenance. Even though it’s been years since my last relationship fell apart, I still fantasize about the gift registry she and I put together, sorry we didn’t stay together long enough to see it through. The kitchen we would’ve had.

            The cook-off they let me judge after my accident was our high-school’s big annual fundraiser, climax of the blue-and-white weekend. The three judges are usually big-time alumni. It’s considered an honor. That’s what my mom kept harping on after I was invited. I was hesitant, but she insisted. And she was right. Whole crowd gave me a standing-o when I took my place. I was seated next to a famous movie director, class of ‘79. He’d just finished filming something with Matt Damon. It’d been the talk of our high school. The emcee put two flights of chili in front of me. The director noticed my shaking hands, leaned in and said that Matt Damon had found my story very compelling. By the time I reached the next taster, I’d settled down. I took a bite and pretended to gag, real cartoon-like. At that moment everyone in the audience knew I’d be fine. They beamed up at me, proud of the way they’d rallied around the poor kid. Helped him overcome adversity. Many years later I drunkenly tried getting in touch with the director to see if he could help me out. His people said he was on location in Hawaii, and that if he didn’t get back to me in a few months, to follow up. But he didn’t and neither did I. The whole thing was stupid. What was I expecting, him to cast me in some fucking Jason Bourne movie?

            After three hours of simmering, I give the chili my inaugural taste. Swish it around like a wine snob. As anticipated, there’s something missing. Always happens with the season’s first batch. Last weekend I emptied my pantry, which I do at the beginning of every October, keep the spices and toss the rest—hard to innovate while constipated with yesterday’s shortcomings. The pitfall is that this chili needs something I don’t have. It’s no problem, though. Hy-Vee is close and maybe I’ll get to see Doogie again. Been thinking a lot about how I got off the path we were on and he didn’t. The emptiness he must be feeling. I’ve been there.

            After the dust from the car wreck settled my parents hired an attorney. The hairpin turn we wrecked at wasn’t labeled. No guard rail either. Everyone’s assumption was that we’d been drinking, but we hadn’t been. My buddies and I were just out for a joy ride, Nebraska in early April, looking for sandhill cranes. When we launched off the road my stomach shot through my throat. Time elongated into milliseconds I could see and touch. There wasn’t any calm or clarity, or whatever people tell you they feel in the moments before death. It’s all a lie. I only felt terror and all I wanted was to be alive. Then we crashed in a soy field and started rolling. My attorney was a real bulldog. The county was on the hook. My folks put my settlement money into a trust. Every month until I turn forty I get two grand. It’s been a blessing and a curse.

            This time when I approach the entrance to the grocery store there’s no Salvation Army bell ringer. Honestly, I’m disappointed. The vision of Doogie’s face has been in the back of my mind. How worn down it looked, like an old catcher’s mitt. I shouldn’t have left him in the lurch all those years ago when I up and moved away, cutting ties with who I was. From eighteen to twenty-five, he and I travelled the country pursuing punk-rock fantasies. Taught a bunch of shit-hole bars a thing or two about having a good time. Made caricatures of ourselves and called it profound. Swore we were pursuing the life we wanted, fast and hard. Paycheck to paycheck. Then the pixie dust wore off and I moved away without saying much. Just needed a change.

            I meander through the grocery store. Grab some high-end bone broth, a couple ghost peppers, another can of tomato paste. An orange (for the zest). When I’m leaving the store I hear someone wailing on the bell. I’m thrilled. Can barely contain myself as I turn toward him. He’s wearing a necktie as a headband, Judas Priest long sleeve under the Salvation Army vest. Drums a line of blast beats.


            “My dude. Back again.”

            “Needed a few things for my chili,” I say. “How’s it going, man?”

            “Nice as shit out today. I’ve been trying to figure out if there’s any correlation between weather and generosity. Far as I can tell, it’s random.” He swings the donation kettle back and forth. “Bunch of fucking cheapskates.”

            “Dude, you know what I was thinking about after I saw you the other day? Remember that year we almost went to the Little League World Series?”

            “Twenty-three years ago,” he says. “It’s like they say, time flies when you’re having fun.”

            “You want to ditch this and come over for some chili?”

            He fidgets around. “Got any of that beer left?”

            “Eighteen at least.”

            He removes his vest and says, “I’ll hop in with you.”

            The neighborhoods we used to live in are nice now, full of street tacos and cocktail bars. Our drug house was gutted and turned into a vinyl-listening library, $79 a month, one of the best record collections in the Midwest. When we lived there, we were constantly having to scrape together extra money to get the utilities turned back on. Place had revolving doors. My room was on the top floor. Doogie’s drum set was in the basement. Despite sound proofing it with egg cartons and junked mattresses, I heard every beat of his practices, and he was always at it. Ever since I’ve needed a box fan to sleep, that dump was so loud all the time. Makes me glad it’s something pretentious now.

            Immediately upon entering my house, Doogie says, “Good fuck. It smells fantastic.” He checks out my trinkets. I’m a collector of several things. Bobbleheads and postcards and koozies, most extensively. When I started accumulating them, I stopped getting tattoos. Win-win. I’ve got koozies from all over the country. Some from places Doogie and I went together, like the bar in the lobby of the heart-shaped hot-tub motel in Jackson, MS. First time we tried meth.

            “You really hate having a warm beer and a cold hand,” he says, looking at all of them. “I’ll give you that much.”

            “See the one from Slims in Raleigh?” I say. “That place was insane.”

            “Oh man, I still feel bad for that guy. Dude who put us up. He didn’t deserve that from us.”

            “Yeah,” I say. “I forgot about that. Certainly not my proudest moment, but he had money and was an asshole to begin with.”

            I get us a couple cans of beer. The chili is simmering on the range. I prepare the fixins: a bowl of Fritos, Crystal and Tabasco hot sauce, fine-shredded cheddar. In Nebraska it’s customary to serve cinnamon rolls with chili—they get us started on it in elementary school—but I don’t play by those rules. Fuck that. I put the chili in front of us, normal fixins. Before taking his first bite, Doogie wafts it under his nose. “What’s that I detect,” he says, “nutmeg?”


            He wolfs the bowl down without another word. I’d go so far as to say I knocked it out of the park. Again.

            “Well,” he says. “Pretty decent.”

            “Pretty decent? Variations of this recipe are going to win a ton of cook-offs.”

            “I’m no chef de cuisine, but it seems like you over handled it a bit. Folks want a robust, simple chili. This tastes like it doesn’t know what it wants to be. You know what I mean? It lacks an identity.”


            “The fuck do I know, though, I’m a Hormel man.”

            “Get out of here with that. Seriously?”

            “You like what you like.”

            The guy’s got dirt under his fingernails, sniffles a lot. Almost forty-years old and still rocking a Judas Priest shirt. He’s as lost as I once was, an addict. I shouldn’t fault him for the Hormel comment. He doesn’t know any better. I grab us another couple beers. “Listen,” I tell him. “I think I’ve got something that could help you out.”

            “Less cumin in the chili?”

            “Funny,” I say. “I’m trying to be serious for a second.”

            I keep several copies of Seven Habits around the house for this very occasion, a friend in need. I hand him the multi-disc audio edition. He holds it like a problem child with the body of Christ. “You might think it’s bullshit,” I say. “But it worked for me.”

            “Worked like how?”

            “Helped me get in control of everything. I had a victim’s mentality for pretty much my whole life. Bad things kept happening to me because bad things always happen to me. You know what I mean? That type of philosophical outlook.”

            “Fuckin A,” he says.

            “Friend to friend, I’ve been where you’re at.”

            “Look, man,” he says. “I thought we were here to eat chili. If I wanted to be proselytized, there’s any number of people more qualified than you that I could’ve gone to. No offense.”

            “Trust me, I was the same way. This shit, it can take a load off.”

            “That’s not the point.”

            “What is the point?”

            “I don’t want unsolicited life advice. Especially from someone like you.”

            He’s the same way I was, hardheaded. Covey helped me realize that.

            “Just take it,” I say. “Do whatever you want with it. Doesn’t matter to me. But take it, just in case.”

I won the first two cook-offs of the season. Spent three weeks honing my recipe and then boom, I took O’Leavers on the first Saturday in November—$100 bar tab—and The Winchester the following weekend, where this biker in his seventies finished second. By the time they announced the results the biker was damn near incoherent, prison-sleeved and in the throes of what appeared to be a psychedelic trip. For winning that one I got a toilet trophy and fifty bucks. The biker got a bottle of blackberry brandy. He had a tough time figuring out what it was.

            I am a well-oiled machine. My house smells delicious all the time. If they made a chili-scented candle, I’d be the target demographic.

            I kicked the shit out of The Sydney’s cook-off. They never stood a chance. Two different yahoos had chickpeas in their chili. To them I said, “Why does the sexual deviant like your chili so much?”


            “Because the chickpeas.”

            And I rode off into the sunset, gift card in my pocket.

            Bribery and ass kissing are rampant in the competitive chili scene. It’s always better to have a panel of judges than audience voting. No telling whose team folks are on. Another pro tip: invest in a decent crockpot. Nothing too expensive, but nothing too shitty. People judge at either end. What can I say, they eat with their eyes. And if the cook-off benefits charity, do a little research first. Or just avoid them altogether. They bring out some serious amateurs. The ones at old-school bars are where it’s at.

            Oh, and don’t show up with bean-less chili. Whenever someone does, we talk shit behind their backs.

            I open the year six for eight. Lost two to charity, but what the hell, they were for good causes. Not like it’s my fault that the parents of the Kingswood Athletic Association have unsophisticated palettes. Keep your crown, you well-done assholes. And never again lie about how the baseball season could end. None of those cook-offs matter anyways. My green jacket, the creme de la creme, is this weekend at the Homy Inn. Culmination of the season. The place is an institution, beloved by the types of lawyers/doctors/rich folk who give big at my high school’s annual fundraiser. While most cook-offs get between ten and twenty entrants, the Homy will have upwards of fifty, judged in stages. $500 on the line. I’ve never won. Last year I took third. For it I’m breaking out the big guns. I started my prep work a week ago. Went and bought a pork butt that I cut into inch-thick strips. They’ve been curing in crab boil and canning salt in the fridge, a cup of sugar. I’ll smoke the slabs into tasso a few weeks from now. What I’m after in the meantime are the shoulder blades. Left a good amount of meat on them. They’ve been in the curing solution. I’ll add them to the chili at the very beginning, let them season everything. All told it’s a two-week process.

            They ought to crown me champion now, Friday afternoon. This batch is incredible. The pork bones worked wonders. After a few hours of simmering, I was able to shred the meat right off. It’s got a feathery texture, packed with flavor. Perfect complement to the Italian sausage and ground sirloin. I should’ve been writing down my recipes all along. For posterity. Maybe open up a chili parlor someday. Write a cookbook and have Matt Damon blurb it. At the very least, I’d be able to see what the changes say about who I became, no longer the brooding dude on the verge of an episode. I am the chili master now.

            On Homy Inn Saturday I wake up at the crack of the sparrow. Begin the day with thirty minutes of yoga on YouTube. Follow that up with fifteen minutes of mindfulness, guided by YouTube. Then I take a hot shower. After the shower I pull the chili from the fridge and put it on the range, slowly bring it to temperature. I eat a bowl straight up, no garnishes. Phenomenal stuff.

            The cook-off starts at two. I show up at one, bring it in the front door. The bartender takes it to the back, where they’ll transfer it to a quarter tray, to be labeled and served from steam tables. The right way to do things. Total anonymity. I settle into the bar, have a beer and a shot. My chili might be superfluous, but when it comes to drinking, I’m a meat and potatoes guy. More and more people arrive with chili. Some look like straight-up yokels. I rule them out. The rough looking ones are the ones I’m worried about. That old-timer with the neck tattoo, for example, he ought to get a first-round bye. Respect for the lifers. The bar’s capacity is a tight 175. Today they’ll reach that. The bartender brings me another beer and addresses me by name, asks how my chili turned out.

            “Pretty good,” I say.

            I’m tempted to tell him how awesome it is, but I’ve overheard a bunch of contestants running their mouths and in this arena I want to be the strong and silent type. As Covey would say, the choice is mine.

            Forty chilis have been entered. The bar is wall-to-wall. A couple sore-thumb tourists pump money into the claw machine, nothing in it but a big pink dildo. What a dive, they laugh. Folks always act surprised when they realize said dildo is greased, which should probably be a given. The Homy has been putting this on for over twenty years. They’ve got it down pat. Chilis have been separated into groups of ten. The first round will be judged by the audience. Every attendee has been assigned a flight and given a scorecard. Top three from each will advance.

            Minutes before it’s about to start, the front door swings open. Standing in the gust of frigid air is my old friend Doogie. He’s carrying a greasy crockpot, balances it against his stomach with one hand. Fist bumps the door guy with the other, who then hustles it to the back. Doogie catches sight of me. I raise my glass. He gives me a stern-faced thumbs up, goes and registers with the event coordinator—the octogenarian proprietress who takes absolutely no shit from anyone. For the past fifteen years she’s made a pot of chili for people to eat during Monday Night Football and for my two cents, it’s pretty good. I expect her to give Doogie a hard time, but she doesn’t. In fact, they seem to have a rapport. He comes to my side and orders a drink and I say to him, “Didn’t know you were into making chili. Which number is yours?”

            “You know it’s against the rules for me to divulge that information prior to the completion of first-round voting. I may be a fuck up, but I’m no cheater.”

            “What do you say we get a little side bet going?”

            “I don’t approach making chili with a results-based mindset. I trust what I cooked. For me, the joy is in the process.”

            “You listened to the book,” I say. “Awesome, man.”

            It’s vintage Covey. Always act with the end in mind.

            “The hell I did,” he says. “What’s the bet? I’ll take your action all day.”

            “Forget about it. You’re right about being process based. It’s all in good fun. I’m glad to see you’re doing well.”

            “Five-hundred,” he says.

            “You’re good for that?”

            “Here he goes again, Mr. Shit-Together.”

            He does look healthier. Not as strung out.

            “Fine,” I say. “Five-hundred it is.”

            I’ll take this dickhead’s money. Kickstart him into helping himself.

            “I don’t even care for chili,” he says, “but having tasted yours, I know I can beat it. Someone has to put you in your place.”


            “See you at the finish line, asshole.”

            I’m starting to remember why we had a falling out. Dude’s kind of a prick. Only reason he started at second on our little-league team was because his stepdad was the coach, the mustached man who orchestrated the whole ESPN lie. I’m sorry to say it, but his stepson is about to lose five-hundred bucks.

            Will I make him pay?

            Goddamn right.

            The emcee starts the event. First round will take an hour. It’s warm in the bar, spirited. These things aren’t really about winning. They’re about Midwestern camaraderie. The shared misery of another winter, born to die in Nebraska. This bar regular I’m friendly with, Rat-faced Johnny, plays Motörhead from the jukebox. He knows I’m a fan. “Here’s to pissing in the wind and shitting where you eat,” he says. Motörhead ends and Iron Maiden comes on. Rat-faced Johnny does it again.

            I sample all ten chilis I’ve been assigned. Have a sip of Aperol spritz between each. Don’t care if the drink looks ostentatious, it’s a great way to cleanse the palette. Three of the chilis are decent. Four are palatable. And three are downright lousy. If they’re any indication as to how these people eat at home, I feel sorry for them. No doubt I’ll advance to the next round.

            Doogie shuffles to my side and says, “I know which one is yours. Heavy on the cumin again.”

            Before I can retort, the bartender cuts the jukebox—Rat-faced Johnny is not amused, middle of his favorite Black Sabbath song—but they’re ready to announce the first-round results.

            “You think you made it through?” I ask Doogie.

            “At this point,” he says, “it’s outside my control and therefore, I am unconcerned.”

            Another of Covey’s tenets. Even if he’s mocking it, at least he listened.

            “By the way,” I say. “That was a bullshit move your stepdad pulled. Convincing us we were going to the Little League World Series.”

            “You’re telling me,” he says. “I had to live with the fucker.”

            The emcee fumbles around with the PA system. People are mirthful. Days are getting longer. We’re past the peak of winter. In no particular order, the emcee calls the numbers of those that have advanced into the finals. Of course I am among them. Doogie stays calm throughout. “You make it through?” I ask.

            “Man,” he says. “Why’d you have to bring up my stepdad? I’m not trying to think about that guy right now. Fucking ruined my day. That’s a bullshit move.”

            The last thing I expected was tenderness. “You’ve been a prick all afternoon,” I say. “I was just giving it back.”

            “I know why you’re obsessed with this chili cook-off bullshit. It’s because they let you judge that one in high school after the accident went down. Got me thinking, man, when’s the last time you’ve been out to see Slobowski?”

            He knows not to go there. I shake my head.

            “Just a question,” he says. “I’m genuinely curious.”

            “You know the answer.”

            It’s not a conversation I care to have with anyone, let alone an old junky buddy.

            “Anyways,” he says, eagle eyeing the barroom. “I’ve got to go catch up with some folks. Good luck with the next round.”

            The bartender kicks the jukebox back on. Rat-faced Johnny raises hell, says it skipped his songs and ate the remaining credits. Now it’s playing some bullshit Aerosmith song and everybody in the state of Nebraska knows he hates them. Johnny’s nickname isn’t flattering, but it sure does fit. The bartender tells him to settle down. Not like the jukebox is going anywhere.

            The judges take their places at the head table. Two of them I recognize, the chef from the Boiler Room and this stout guy named Dario, owner of Dario’s. Best steak frites in town. The third judge I’ve never seen before, some lady who teaches culinary arts at the community college. Over the years I’ve learned not to overthink what the judges might be thinking. There’s nothing their reactions can tell me about chili that I don’t already know. I lean back and enjoy my spritz. Peace be the journey. I order a refill on Doogie’s tab.

            The judges head to the backroom to deliberate. I sample all ten of the finalists. Seven are solid. Sometimes I get too cocky and underestimate my competition. Wouldn’t be the first time hubris has fucked me. Three of them even, I wouldn’t be ashamed to lose to. One seems to have hit exactly what it’s going for. Perfect combination of heat and flavor. This brilliant texture to it. Oh wait, it’s mine.


            The judges emerge with their results. The emcee has an envelope in hand. He delivers a little hoopla. Thanks us for being here. Says they couldn’t have asked for a more qualified panel of judges. And what a way to kick off the homestretch to Spring. My nerves ratchet up, suspended in the in-between while this guy finishes his spiel.

            No matter the outcome, I know in my heart of hearts that I am a winner.

            I advance into the top five. Those that have been eliminated go and collect their consolation ribbons. The emcee whittles out two more. I’m in the top three. Soon they’ll be etching my name on the plaque, forever part of something bigger than myself. Doogie is stone-faced. I have no idea if his chili is still alive.

            Just name the goddamn winner already.

            And then they do.

            William “Doogie” Donahue.

            The audience gives it up for him.

            Son of a bitch.

            He tries to accept it stoically, but has a teenager’s sheepishness when he takes the trophy. Looks out into the crowd and raises his arms. I’m pissed off, but oh well. I’ve got to admit, his chili, #6 of the finalists, was good. Nice and hearty. Midwestern. I put my hands together for him, my old friend.

            There’s always next year and the next year and the one after that. Adapt and survive. Maybe I’ll open a chili parlor when my two-grand allowance runs out, call it Slobowski’s. I’ll go out to the Madonna House to see him soon. It’d be nice to catch up with his mother as well. I know she was bummed when I quit visiting, disappeared in pursuit of something I never found. Didn’t even bother returning her calls. But I’m back in control now, helping old friends win chili cook-offs. Some much-needed meaning in Doogie’s life.

            The bar settles down. Empties by about half. It’s 4:30 now. In an hour it’ll be dark. For finishing second I got a $200 tab, which I’m putting to good use. Gave rat-faced Johnny permission to drink on it until it’s gone. Would’ve thought he won the lottery when I told him.

            “It was a well-fought battle.” Doogie comes up and shakes my hand.

            “You showed me,” I say. “I apologize. Got ahead of myself.” It’s important that I be the bigger man. “You do Venmo?”

            “Cash only, bucko.”

            He follows me to the ATM. I hand him the five hundred and say, “I guess we’ll see each other when we see each other. Until then, be well.”

            “You know what my chili was?”


            “Just Hormel that I doctored up a little bit, you self-righteous son of a bitch.”


            He walks away—middle finger up—out into the dregs of winter, a champion.




75 Simple Steps to Positive, Growing Change

1. Consider not reading the e-mail from your cousin Tommy, but then read it. Discover that your Uncle Dave has died. Of an embolism. Very unexpected, as is the case with these things. The e-mail notes the date, time, and location of the funeral. It is signed “best, Tommy.” Struggle with how this makes you feel. It’s been at least ten years since you’ve seen any of your relatives. Your mother’s funeral was the last time. You can’t believe how long it’s been. Ask yourself what you’ve even been doing in all that time. Decompressing is the only answer that comes to mind.


2. Take a Greyhound to Harrisburg to share Tommy’s grief as well as the grief of your Aunt Joan and Tommy’s twin sister Linda. Your own grief is of course less severe than theirs, but you are family and are grieving in appropriate amounts. Think about how your mother would have admonished you if you told her that the funeral were being held at a particularly bad time in your life, making it very inconvenient for you to attend.


3. Struggle to maintain your composure during the service, which is as anxiety inducing as anyone could have purposely arranged. Wonder who these people are. Assume they’re probably wondering the same about you. Shake hands with Tommy but don’t approach Linda or Aunt Joan, who seem almost too bereft at the cemetery, under a purpling sky that feels so close you could touch it. Imagine yourself being carried off by birds.


4. After the service, just as it begins to rain, accept a ride to the house from one of the other funeral attendees, a solemn man in his 50s, perhaps a business acquaintance of Uncle Dave’s. Tell him that you are the nephew. Smile and nod when he says, “Oh, the one from the city.” Thank him for his kindness when he offers his condolences. In the car, a twenty-year-old Acura kept in good trim, when he asks whether you mind if he smokes, ask him whether he minds if you vomit. Drive the rest of the way in silence.


5. Stand in the living room eating finger foods and drinking cocktails. The rain is falling in unbroken sheets, white noise humming in the background like classical music played at low volume. The boyfriend or fiancée of one of Linda’s friends, Dom or Don or something, hovers by the rolling bar and threatens with a drink anyone who ventures too close. Due mostly to these predations you’re on your third gin and tonic, which he keeps calling G&Ts. “Need another G&T?” he asks, you’re sure only trying to be of help in your family’s time of need. “Looking a little dry there, my man.” Watch him pick up some ice cubes with his fingers, which someone really ought to talk to him about—the tongs are right there. But, trying not to think about vectors of germ transmission, accept the drink, thank him, and then stand inconspicuously in front of a cluster of family photos. The largest photo is of Linda and Tommy at Epcot Center in their 90s clothes, lorded over by Uncle Dave and Aunt Joan. Picture their teenage resentment as a heavy, opaque liquid oozing right out of the photo.


6. Notice how the house feels like a place of pretty negative juju. Likewise Harrisburg in general, which you haven’t visited since you yourself wore appalling 90s clothes. You’ve come to associate both the house and Harrisburg with many painful instances of youth. Recall the day in 1992 when Uncle Dave body shamed you in front of basically the whole family. How afterwards you’d imagine him stealing away into the night to gleefully commit crimes. You did this to deflect his criticism, to make these the savage words of a vile criminal rather than the casual insults of a family member. But also, if he had no compunctions about reducing his only nephew to tears, imagine what he must have been capable of doing to complete strangers. Or his children. Looking at the raggedy group of mourners, wonder what they actually know about him. Walk to the buffet table to gnaw on a baby carrot.


7. While gnawing, try to remember past instances of positivity and bonding with your cousins since they are currently consumed by grief. Or so you imagine. Your uncle was not a warm man. No one would ever have said that about him, yet here people are in his home, or more correctly former home, celebrating his life. Recall a weekend visit when Uncle Dave pulled Tommy’s arm behind his back at a cruel angle for some offhand comment he’d made about the Penguins. How Linda had tried to intervene while you only sat there frozen to the spot. Remember how she yelled, “Let him go, Dad!” and the speed with which he then turned his anger on her for merely trying to defend her brother. Over hockey, no less!


8. Recall how you dissociated from the scene, even though back then you lacked the word for it. How you saw it instead as a tableau, not anything you were involved in or even necessarily present for. Witness it from a remove, as though watching it on TV or through the illuminated dining room window of a house you are walking past at night. Note your uncle’s hair, how the word that comes to mind is “yellow” rather than “blond.” See Aunt Joan smiling nervously—but at who? At you?—as though this gesture would exonerate Dave, excusing his behavior—his violence towards his children, to call it what it was—as a small peccadillo, as “Oh, you know how Dave gets sometimes.” See Tommy, dark haired like his mother, thin still at the time, having not yet started to lift weights in the garage, something you only now realize might have had to do with his father. See brave Linda, who looks like a beautiful and young female version of Uncle Dave, which she did her best to rid herself of at some point in her twenties when she got a wholly unnecessary nose job and began dyeing her hair red. She is the one to challenge him, not Joan, not Tommy, certainly not you. Note your relief and surprise when Uncle Dave suddenly lets the whole thing go, drops Tommy’s arm and reaches quickly, automatically for his beer, and how you all eat in silence until, finally, Aunt Joan turns to you and asks if you’re looking forward to seeing Santa at the mall the following day.


9. No. That’s not it. You weren’t a Santa-visiting child then. You were older. You and Tommy and Linda were in your early teens. Instead of Santa, you would have gone on long aimless walks together with some of their friends and smoked cigarettes and shared a small bottle of pilfered peppermint schnapps, you always on the outside of the group, the interloper, unable to really talk to anyone except for Linda. Recall their Harrisburg idioms, the slang you struggled to make sense of. The inside jokes you were not privy to, because Tommy made it abundantly clear that bringing you along was an obligation and not something he would have preferred to do.


10. Take a moment to acknowledge your gratitude for Dr. Becky and the tools she has given you for addressing and processing your trauma. Recall the body shaming incident again, only now recall it without the shame. You did not deserve that. Let it go. See? See how much processing you’ve done already? Take another sip of the G&T.


11. Also acknowledge that, despite the processing and healing, your current level of distress is exacerbated by the realization that Tommy has surely inherited some of these traits from his father. Things like that are passed down, cycles perpetuated, etc. Dr. Becky insists that part of what we must do to achieve healthy personal growth is to identify and nullify negative patterns. Tommy is clearly the victim of very powerful negative patterns, as evidenced by the time when, as kids, he deliberately pushed you into a patch of nettles. Recall your mother holding a cold washcloth to your lower back.


12. Wander back to the photos. On the same wall is a shelf on which sits an award statuette engraved with Uncle Dave’s name. Realize there is a lot you didn’t know about him. We are, after all, complex animals. Wonder what you could do in your own life to one day be worthy of an award. Consider doing something for children. Or better yet: orphans. You yourself are an orphan, which strikes you as an odd thing to be at 37.


13. Turn around when someone clears their throat behind you. Discover that Tommy has snuck up on you, which you take as further proof of his dilapidated mental state. “Gary, what are you doing with Dad’s award?” he says. You’re surprised to see that you’re holding the award—a hunk of Lucite in the shape of two hands doing a handshake bearing the words Harrisburg Order of Civic Friendship, Dave K. Lowry, 1997. Even with Tommy standing there with an accusatory look on his face, take a moment to run your fingers over its delicate edges. “You know Dad loved that award,” he says, “so maybe don’t mess around and break it, huh?” This could be a humiliation technique, but he’s not entirely wrong. There are some clearly flimsy parts sticking out at the ends of the Lucite arms. They could snap off. “You think I need this today?” Tommy says, eyeing your G&T. He holds out his hand and you put the award in it. “The glass, Gary,” he says and hands back the statuette. “Back on the shelf, and watch the drinking, okay?”


14. Mentally replay one of Dr. Becky’s DVDs, the one in which she says that inner growth often results from placing oneself in unfamiliar surroundings and seeing how one gets on under the duress of not knowing anybody or even knowing where to go for a decent sandwich. Here you are in Harrisburg, which has grown unfamiliar over the many years of your absence, trying to glean positivity at a funeral. You’ve read that this is how boys become men in Africa. Not by traveling to Harrisburg, but rather by going off into the wilderness to fend for themselves and possibly entering into combat with a lion, and additionally without the convenience and security of their houses and families. And when they return to their houses post-wilderness, they are changed. Positive, Growing Change. Although more likely they live in huts.


15. Careful to avoid detection by Tommy, head to the rolling bar and accept Dom’s (?) offer of another G&T. Then, in need of some peace, sneak off to the pantry where instead of peace you discover Linda crying into a large sack of flour. Wonder briefly about appropriate levels of grief and about catharsis and the various ways in which we as damaged human animals express our many emotions. It’s been years since you’ve given any thought to Uncle Dave’s penchant for casual cruelty or whatever his specialty was, but being here now, supporting your family, you can feel in your bones that he has misused people in bad ways. Wonder if there’s a sense of relief in Linda’s tears. Could a human even discern that? Maybe one of those cancer-detecting dogs could. Gulp down the last of the G&T and pat her reassuringly on the shoulder. When you do this, she jumps like a frightened kitten and looks at you with huge red eyes. “Oh, Gary,” she says, her shock giving way to arms being thrown around your neck.


16. Take this embrace as a sign that the healing can begin. Linda must acknowledge the awfulness of the past in order to begin the rebuilding! Over her sobs, say, “That’s right, Linda. Let it out.” And boy, does she. Soon she’s practically having a seizure. Recall how Dr. Becky says that sometimes when our pain has been sublimated for too long an inner dam must first break before we can allow the river of our emotions to flow once again at a healthy rate. Tell her she’s not alone. Tell her you know all too well that her father was a monster.


17. Feel how, with this avowal of solidarity, her sobs lessen. Her river resumes its correct path! Feel proud that you’ve taken the first beautiful step of an important journey, together as family. She pulls away. “What did you just say?” she asks.


18. Say to her, “We can overcome our trauma!” Say to her, “Your dad can’t make you—or anyone—suffer anymore!”


19. Smile as she calls out for Tommy. Maybe you’ve misjudged your own cousin. Surely he’s suffered as well. Been victimized at great length and intensity, etc. He must be in need of some dam-breaking, too. Identify and nullify, is what you will tell him. This is where it begins! Tommy arrives in seconds.


20. Listen as Linda says, “Gary, tell Tommy what you just said to me.” Here’s your chance. You’ll do Mom proud in terms of familial supportiveness! Put a hand on each of their shoulders. Say to them, “I know how hard this is. The complex emotions, the years of trauma. But we can change this.” The looks they’re giving you? These are grateful looks. Say to them, “Whatever awful things your dad did, we are not hopeless! We can heal.”


21. Take note of Tommy’s confusion, as though conflicting sentiments are waging an important inner battle. Ask him, “He body shamed me, do you remember that?” Ask him, “Did he beat you?” Turn to Linda, knowing that no amount of hurt and damage is unrecoverable from, and ask her, “Did he…touch you?” Watch her eyes go glassy with tears. The healing starts here, is the message you are getting in huge neon letters even as Linda again erupts into sobs.


22. Wonder how you should react when Tommy says, “That’s it. Get the fuck out of here, Gary.” And before you realize it, he’s got you by the arm, painfully jostling you out of the pantry.


23. Protest as he drags you through the house, but do it quietly so as not to bring up family skeletons in front of strangers. But even so, everyone turns to watch this parade of misunderstanding, because that’s surely what this is. Experience genuine confusion when the buffet table gets knocked over. Look in the direction of the breaking China, and as you’re being pushed out the door, see Aunt Joan’s questioning expression. Resist the urge to struggle as Tommy hands you off to Dom, who gives you a weak smile as he escorts you down the driveway. Accept that he’s just trying to be the good guy here, but he doesn’t understand. He’s not family. Up on the porch, see Tommy with his arms around Linda and Aunt Joan who are both crying, clearly in the midst of catharsis, now framed by a bunch of moochers and gawkers.


24. Yell to them, “We need to address underlying traumas! We have to acknowledge these things in order to heal!” Dom, you’re almost certain it’s Dom, pushes you into the passenger seat of his Nissan. Accept that leaving is for the best. You’ll mend fences later, at a less fraught time. Tell Dom that you’d like to go to the Greyhound station.


25. Be surprised to find yourself, again and again, thusly on fire, despite your widely acknowledged talent for flammability.


26. Consider worrying about how Dom drives, because surely he’s driving too fast for the road conditions. You don’t know how safe a driver he is on a good day, let alone now, in this downpour. His instincts could be way off.


27. “Look,” he says, “it’s a rough time for everybody right now. You gotta let the family work through their grief without adding to it, is what I’m saying.”


28. Doing your best to conceal your fury, say to him, “The family? I am the family. I am facilitating! What about you, Dom? You’re a stranger picking up ice cubes with your fingers!”


29. Accept the rightness of your argument when he doesn’t respond, and instead turns on the defrost. Listen to the whooshing air. “It’s actually Don,” he says after a while.


30. Unbuckle your seatbelt when you arrive at the station. As you open the door, Don says, “Seems like you’re carrying around a lot of sadness, man. I hope you can work through that.”


31. The gall of this guy. The absolute nerve. Let this remark go, however, because what are you going to say? What could you even say to this kind of gross oversimplification? Who isn’t carrying around lots of stuff, Don? Exit the car and walk through the rain with your dignity intact.


32. In the station, watch as a man chides several children while attempting to wrangle an old woman displaying all the classic signs of dementia; watch a teenaged boy hiss racial slurs into his phone; watch an elderly couple carrying garbage bags and disintegrating suitcases held together by peeling duct tape. But regardless of this cavalcade of misery, the station is a relief. It’s times like this when you are thankful that you do your shopping almost exclusively with a Citizens Bank Mondo Mileage Card. Travel-related purchases are easily reimbursed with bonus miles, and, thanks to this, attending Uncle Dave’s funeral has cost you only $14 round trip. Change your reservation to the next available Pittsburgh-bound bus, another thing that’s a snap with Mondo Miles. Luckily, there’s a bus leaving in 40 minutes.


33. After retrieving your ticket, hold a free weekly newspaper over your head and step back into the rain to find a liquor store. Circumstances being as they are, you can justify a pint of bourbon. Allow only a small amount of guilt to creep in. There’s actually a whole DVD chapter devoted to stress-propelled intoxication (Disk 4, chapter 2: What Not to Do [Although We Desperately Want To]!). Your sense, however, is that Dr. Becky would understand the need for the occasional drink, given that what you’re aiming for is incremental progress. Going “cold turkey” would be a bit much to ask of anyone, despite Mom’s near constant assertions to the contrary. So allow yourself a drink when necessary and ask quietly for understanding. You can’t be too hard on yourself all the time, is the thing.


34. Back in the station, stealthily sip bourbon from the bottle, which is camouflaged in your backpack. Count the minutes until you’ll be at home and can process the day’s events in a productive manner. Listen to a garbled voice spit out departure information from an overhead speaker. Watch the other Pittsburgh-bound passengers make their way to the gate. Take your place at the end of the line. Sip bourbon from your backpack.


35. Notice, just as the line starts moving, a sudden and insistent discomfort in your bowels. Run, they instruct you with grave seriousness, evacuate with all possible haste.


36. Clutch your stomach as you rush past a row of urinals. Observe each one flushing in turn—a salute to all the times you have communed with toilets! Consider how urine is sterile when it leaves the body—the purest part of you escaping. Bright like liquid sun hitting the gleaming white porcelain and slowly dissolving the innocent pink of the urinal cake. Then the flush. Water rushing your urine seaward in subterranean rapids. Part of you joining the biggest thing in the whole world, the sea, and it is changed by you, not you by it.


37. Attempt not to dwell on the condition of the stall. Refuse to dwell. Think instead of the kind and thoughtful inclusion by the restroom designers of a dispenser full of hygienic seat covers. But then, before you can even make use of them, an announcement crackles through the speaker: Final boarding, 12:45 bus to Pittsburgh. Last call. Since you cannot fathom missing the bus, continue clenching and run.


38. Step carefully onto the bus. Shuffle down the aisle. Notice the other passengers looking at you, possibly sensing some inherent weakness of character for being the last person onboard, for being so borderline irresponsible. Go directly to the toilet but stop when the driver says sternly through the intercom that passengers must remain in their seats until the bus is moving. Find a seat and try to ignore the rumble of the engine. The driver lists all the stops you’ll be making, really taking his time with it, but then, mercifully, pulls out of the station. Get up and lurch down the aisle while the driver casts his evil eye at you in the mirror. Decide that you don’t care. Let his curses come for you! Lock yourself in the claustrophobic’s nightmare masquerading as a toilet. Breathe through your mouth as you drape the seat with hygienic covers and then drop your pants and sit. Briefly consider thanking God for small miracles such as this. Allow yourself a few sips of bourbon.


39. Wake to an insistent knocking at the door. You can’t deny that you are quite drunk. Slap the life back into your legs. Exit the bathroom to discover half a dozen surly passengers waiting. Consider apologizing but don’t. A man in a western shirt with a braided goatee sneers at you. Does he know what you’re going through? Of course not! This is another life lesson: Reserve your judgment! You do not know how hard others have it! Walk back to your seat. The duo of teenaged girls sitting across the aisle look at you and giggle. They have no idea what unpleasantness awaits them, and you don’t want to be the one to tell them of all the heartbreak and job loss and stretch marks in their futures even though you are feeling more than a little pained by their behavior. As you approach Pittsburgh, take solace in watching the landscape grow familiar and soothing, the aqueous quality of the light that is particular to the Steel City.


40. Let your thoughts turn to Tommy, Linda, and Aunt Joan. You have to believe they’ll eventually be able to acknowledge their pain. They’ll see that your actions, even if perhaps the timing could have been a bit better, were only in service of ripping the Band-Aid off to allow the healing to begin.


41. Transfer to a city bus that stops three blocks from your apartment. Ride with your forehead resting against the window and feel the grease of the last forehead to rest there, but accept that the soothing coolness of the windowpane is more important than any potential forehead bacteria. Downtown on a weekday afternoon is so awful you can hardly stand it and yet there are people all over the place, completely at ease, closing business deals or whatever, all without a single thought to the probably impending cataclysmic events in their lives. Or maybe they’re not worried about that. Maybe they’ve already found Positive, Growing Change. At a red light, watch a man kiss a woman on both cheeks as they meet crossing the street. Right in the middle of the crosswalk! It’s the most European thing you’ve ever seen.


42. Arrive at your apartment and acknowledge your gratitude that you have not, to your knowledge, been burglarized. Lock the door behind you, slide the deadbolt shut, and plop down into the comforting embrace of your sofa. Open your backpack for the bourbon and, along with the bottle, find Uncle Dave’s award. Become aware of the hot buzzing in your head, the grotesque cramping in your stomach: the hallmarks of an impending shame-spiral. This is not due to the guilt of having “stolen” a cherished family keepsake, but due to the embarrassment at being thought of by the family as someone who would steal a cherished family keepsake. Become sickened by the idea that you might be judged so unfairly. You can offer no explanation for the appearance of the award in your backpack—this alone should exonerate you! Accept the overwhelming need for a drink. The bourbon is all gone except for a doleful little swish. Drink it and hope for the best.


43. Dr. Becky says it’s good to have a support system in place for when we are handed lemons. Look at the clock. Almost 6:30pm, which is too late to call Gil Zwieback at the counseling center to ask for advice on alternate support strategies. You’ve called him at home before and he seemed genuinely surprised by it. But you told him his phone number was there on the internet as a matter of public record. He said that you should probably talk about boundaries.


44. Become aware of your growing anxiety. You need to find your center, reevaluate, and concentrate on how to return the award unnoticed and unblamed. Put on the Your Power to Heal! DVDs, starting right at the beginning—Disk 1: You Are Also Worthy of Love and, By the Way, Your Emotions Are Valid, Too. Notice your anxiety already beginning to ebb during the opening credits. Dr. Becky is a godsend. Feel a pang as she appears on screen. A pang of what? Comfort? Desire? Can it just be a non-specific pang? A slight but not unpleasant pain in your side.


45. Follow Dr. Becky’s guided meditation and gradually feel a renewed sense of calm. You will find a way to address the award. Even though at this very moment Tommy is surely impugning your character to anyone within earshot, even though your family is surely already referring to you as a petty thief, deepening their suspicion that you are the “black sheep,” you will find a way to fix this. Do the focused breathing exercises and a round of affirmations. With each wave washing over the rocks (the DVDs are filmed on an inspiring Hawaiian beach), feel your desire for calmness manifest itself. Repeat Disk 1’s mantras: I am alive in this moment! I am present! I will persevere! She speaks softly but confidently over the crashing waves, but not in a sexual way, although who can say what other people find arousing? Repeat aloud: I am here, and no one is any more deserving of happiness than me.


46. Meet Dr. Becky on the beach. The waves lap at your bare feet and together you intone mantras over the roar of the ocean, drowning out all the cataclysm and disharmony that the world holds in store for anyone. Then, just as the sun dips into the water: a swell of fiery Hawaiian drumming!


47. Wake up in the dark, the weight of the Lucite hands on your chest, the sunset replaced by the DVD player’s logo slowly floating across the screen, caroming from wall to wall. Note the discomfort in your head. Your phone chimes. Six voicemails from Tommy. In addition to the hangover, find that your right ear is completely stopped-up. This has happened before. Thanks to a mishap in the bathtub a few years ago, you have a perforated eardrum, and this, coupled with chronic sinus issues, sometimes leads to your ear becoming stopped-up, plunging you into temporary partial deafness. It’s maddening—the deafness, the loss of equilibrium, the pressure in your sinuses that feels like a leather strap being tightened. There’s also nothing you can do about it except take a handful of Mucinex, put a hot washcloth over your ear, and wait it out. But that can take hours to have any effect. Stand up a bit unevenly and pace the length of your apartment. Rap your knuckles along your upper jaw hoping to loosen the clog of fluid. You’ve been here before. Every time this happens you’re sure it’ll be permanent. Panic overtakes any rational part of you and even Dr. Becky’s mantras can feel useless.


48. Spin in circles in the middle of the living room. You don’t know why or how spinning ever became a coping mechanism, but when the sinus/ear thing happens it’s never long before you find yourself doing it. It must have helped on some unremembered occasion. Peeking over the top of your panic like it is a wall, think that if you just spin quickly enough the centrifugal force will eject a globule of mucus and you won’t end up being discovered deaf and dead of a panic attack, alone in your apartment.


49. If Dr. Becky has any plans for another DVD installment, which you sincerely hope she does, realize that she’d do well to address this intersection of emotional and physical discomfort. She could even include you as an expert on the subject. Return to the beach. She’ll say something like, “Friends, with me today is a very special guest. A man who is no stranger to suffering and in fact has met his own personal demons head on to come out the other side like a phoenix rising from the ashes of personal trauma!” And you will nod wisely along.


50. Say to the camera, “Trust me when I tell you that no matter how bad you have had it or are currently having it, I can empathize! Do you want to talk about negative life-changes coupled with physical ailments? Let us not even talk about that! Let us instead talk about our ability to surmount these challenges! Let us instead talk about how no amount of suffering is too great for us to overcome!”


51. Think about how you’d act if you were ever to meet Dr. Becky in person. Would her hair smell like you’ve imagined, like coconut? Her face is the very embodiment of inner calm and personal fulfillment. Consider how you’d thank her for her DVDs, acknowledging how helpful they’ve been for you. Although it’s not as if you were some basketcase slob before the DVDs. You were simply in need of some extra tools. You’ve been through a lot. Your mother’s death, for instance. Recall her in those final months. Mostly she was this zombie presence in the house, lying like a small bundle of sticks in her rented hospital bed, out of her senses with morphine. Recall the occasional lucid moments in which her eyes became unclouded and she was able to lament all the things she would never have the chance to do now, like visiting her favorite beach in Maine again, like the bird painting class she’d looked up online. Recall how you became thankful for the morphine because, at least, it dulled those regrets for her.


52. Remember going to Darlene’s apartment, who, even though you hadn’t seen her for years, was still kind enough to obtain marijuana for you, which you then baked into a batch of cookies and fed your mother tiny bites of. She could hardly swallow anymore because of the tumors, but smoking it would have been impossible. Recall how, after she choked down a few bites, nothing happened for a long time, but then just when you thought the marijuana would have no effect on her she asked to be taken for a drive. So you bundled her up in her heaviest coat, although by then you could have fit two of her in it, she was so small, and you half carried her to the car and drove. It didn’t matter where, she told you, she just wanted to look at the clouds. They were so interesting all of a sudden, she said.


53. Think back on how grateful you were later that night once she was asleep and how you called Darlene to thank her for the marijuana. But she couldn’t talk, she said, because her baby needed to be bathed.


54. Recall your rage at your mother’s pancreas. That bullshit little organ. Wonder if it’s even an organ. What does it do? How can something so seemingly inconsequential—does anyone aside from doctors even know what the fuck it does?—decimate a body like that? What goddamn right does it have?


55. Continue spinning, continue hoping to dislodge whatever is clogging your ear. As you gain speed, marvel at how the meager interior of your apartment is transformed into a wonderful pattern of horizontal stripes. The room blurs, close your eyes and keep going, gaining speed.


56. Hit the wall with your head and collapse. As you look around, confused, watch the room gradually right itself. You’ve knocked a photo off the wall. The glass is intact so you pick it up. It’s you as a little kid, Mom and Dad on either side, arms thrown around each other and you, too, in some approximation of a group hug. Look at yourself and wonder who this smiling little doofus even is.


57. Touch the right side of your forehead and locate a hot, tender bump. Your head is chirping like it’s alive with grasshoppers, and for a moment all you can think of is mid-summer and Darlene, and the time you went to that bed and breakfast in the Poconos. There were grasshoppers chirping everywhere at night, so loud you’d have to raise your voice to make yourself heard. But then you got used to the chirping, you got used to Darlene, to her lying on the four-poster waiting for you, and now here in your apartment the chirping fades as well and you hear only a dull noise like some piece of metal that’s been clanged and left to ring itself out. A distant, imperfect bell.


58. Recall Uncle Dave and Aunt Joan welcoming you into their home once, when Mom and Dad were fighting especially badly. They’re both smiling at you as Mom drops you off and without a word gets back into her old yellow Malibu to return to Pittsburgh where she will fight some more with Dad and then leave him at the end of the summer and then you and Dad will spend the fall alone together, him sitting often in brooding silence staring out the window, until Mom comes back to get you and you move into an apartment with her and then Dad eventually moves to Scranton. Wish that you’d had Dr. Becky back then.


59. Feel the inexplicable need to go outside. Maybe the nighttime air will let you work on positive solutions. Maybe being outside will give you the necessary space to process everything that happened at Uncle Dave’s funeral and the unpleasantness associated with trying to foster an environment conducive to healing. Maybe you’ll be able to address the accidental theft of the award and the shame surrounding that. Maybe the stopped-up ear too. Identify and nullify!


60. Marvel at Pittsburgh at night! Dark and humid and quiet. There’s no one on the street, not even raccoons. Feel grateful for the solitude. Walk unevenly, which is now partly due to the ear and partly due to the head konking. Notice that within a block the cool air is already working its magic! Keep walking. Feel the blood rushing around inside of you. Think: If walking is this beneficial, imagine what running will do!


61. Run. Soon there’s something happening. Your hearing isn’t back yet, but over the rush of blood in your head tell yourself that you can hear your footsteps. Tell yourself that you can hear the control boxes at each intersection clicking over to change the traffic lights as you pass. You haven’t run in years! It’s wonderful. Think back on other times you’ve suffered from the ear thing. Wish that you’d thought to run then. Watch as scraps of litter blow along the street seemingly under their own power. Look down Franklin Street and see the broken discs of light from streetlamps where they spill from the sidewalk onto the asphalt and wonder if this is all simply what God, in whatever personal way we each conceive of a higher power, has planned for you. Perhaps these trials are yours to endure and this suffering will eventually make you a better person; no more need for coping mechanisms or mantras. But until that day comes, if it comes, tell yourself that you’ll go on bearing your specific crosses with hopeful dignity. You will repeat your mantras and, when necessary, run. Your ear hasn’t drained yet, but it will. The pressure will lessen with a long triumphant squeal. You’ll spit the mucus, tinged with iron-tasting blood, victoriously into the sink and that marbled glob will slide down the white porcelain into the drain and be gone. Another part of you joining the water, rushing seaward, home. And likewise, at some future point your family issues will be resolved.


62. Notice Uncle Dave’s award in your hand.


63. As you run, holding the shaking hands, think about how maybe you could still return it unnoticed. Tommy’s voicemails might be unrelated. They might be his guilt manifesting itself at having treated you so unfairly. Maybe he’s been calling you over and over (six times!) to apologize. You could take the next bus back to Harrisburg, slip into the house, and put it back. Tommy probably hasn’t even noticed that it’s gone. Things are never beyond repair. Maybe you could all go for brunch!


64. Allow yourself to be buoyed by the sudden thought that despite the feeling of permanence in each individual moment, eventually things may change. The idea that things will never change is something that’s been ingrained in us since birth. You know this for a sad fact, just like you know there are hands at the ends of your arms—you’re not saying that will never change, who knows? Your hands could get chopped off tomorrow! You’re just using it as a point of reference. But through lots of hard work utilizing Dr. Becky’s system you’ve learned that things frequently do change, although more often than not in ways we don’t like. For one, you’re not getting any younger. Kid yourself and say, Your hair’s not thinning up top! No one you’ve ever loved has left or died! These are changes you could do without. Ask God to let you keep your hands, let them stay, let them not leave you at an inopportune time!


65. Look about 100 yards ahead of you—someone, a young woman, is standing on an overpass looking down onto the train tracks. Could she also be suffering unjustly from some manner of panic or injury? But even if so, what can you do? Interact somehow? Place a sympathetic hand on a stranger’s shoulder? That didn’t even work so hot with cousin Linda earlier! But still, slow down and walk cautiously her way. Sharing even just a small moment of human interaction might help during whatever personal life issue she’s undoubtedly facing. Maybe just a quick nod? As in: Even though we are both in this moment alone, in a different but equally valid sense we are also not.


66. Become struck, the closer you get, by this woman’s resemblance to Dr. Becky. It’s uncanny. Reconsider approaching. Decide to just watch for a moment from a discreet distance because, after all, despite any desire for commiseration you recognize that sometimes the best thing is simply to be left alone with your thoughts. She might even lash out, misunderstanding your intentions, irascible and confused as God knows we all have every right to be. She really does bear Dr. Becky a striking resemblance despite how you’ve never once seen Dr. Becky standing on an overpass at night. But even lacking the proper context this is somehow comforting. You’re not thinking of the stopped-up ear or Tommy’s yelling or even your guilt about the award. You’re simply aware of your heartbeat and breathing and how both are now slow and even. This isn’t either how you would have imagined Dr. Becky being dressed in her private, off-camera life. You’d have thought she’d be wearing perhaps a skirt and blazer. A power suit. Or is it called a pantsuit now? The woman on the overpass has on frayed jeans and a sweatshirt that’s several sizes too big.


67. The thing is, the look on her face is just awful. Your heart goes out to her. Despite whatever personal shortcomings you’re plagued with, or even perhaps because of these shortcomings, you can recognize suffering in others and feel that someone should help alleviate that suffering if the opportunity presents itself. Realize that in this moment you want nothing more than to be the cause of this woman feeling any amount of, you guess, less aloneness. If you can do something to affect any kind of Positive, Growing Change for her, it would also surely lessen your own burdens. That must be how Dr. Becky feels. Approach her with a deep sense of calm and purpose, pushing all your feelings of reluctance down into a tiny ball that you will address later at an appropriate time.


68. Watch as she cranes her head to look further down the tracks, perhaps even hoping to alight on some small background detail that will provide her with solace. A bird taking flight, a cloud teased into a pleasing shape. But instead of that you see what she’s actually looking at. An approaching train. As it gets closer she swings a leg over the overpass’s low wall.


69. Overcoming whatever social constraints exist in cases such as this, shout at her: “Hey!” She looks at you with you don’t know what in her eyes, but is maybe fear? Drop into a sprint as she looks down at the tracks again. Shout: “Wait!”


70. She’s got both legs out over the tracks now, the laces of her dirty white sneakers dangling untied. With maybe 30 yards between you still, you can finally see her face clearly. She’s young but her forehead is crisscrossed with lines. Her lips are pale and thin. Her eyes glow dully under stringy bangs. Realize that she looks nothing like Dr. Becky. She looks like Dr. Becky post-hunger strike. Dr. Becky’s cousin on her third round of chemo. Yell, “No, wait!” She looks up again. Yell, “Hey, no!”


71. Run. Close the distance between yourself and this woman as she scoots tentatively forward. Take this as a sign that she hasn’t made up her mind yet. Feel your heart beating wildly. Ignore it. 20 yards. You’ll throw yourself forward and catch her because you have no choice. See yourself doing this: Leaping, diving, grabbing hold of her and pulling her back onto the overpass. Because if you do this, do only this one thing, then it will be okay. Then so much will be okay. You’ll lie together on the sidewalk and she’ll realize what a mistake it would have been. She’ll cry on your shoulder, probably getting snot all over your shirt in the process. You’ll stroke her dirty hair and gradually it will get better. Your ear will drain and your family will be healed and whatever wound has driven her to this will begin to scab over. Whatever fluids you need to expel, you will expel and send home. You’re thinking so clearly now as you fly across those last few yards. It’s almost dawn. The sky brightens, the streetlamps click off, and all your apprehension melts away like frost on a windowpane. Her hands tense on the wall to push herself off. You follow.


72. Manage just barely to make a fist around the shoulder of her sweatshirt. And yes! Yes! She’s heavier than you thought, or maybe you’re weaker than you thought, but you’ve got her. The sweatshirt’s pulled tight but she’s squirming. You have to get a better grip. The collar’s choking her, she’s spitting and gasping but you can hear her clearly over the sound of the train that’s now just beneath you. “Let me fucking go! I want to go!” Think: No way, José! You have to get a better grip. Look down at your other hand.


73. Let go of Uncle Dave’s award and then reach over. Pull with both hands. She’s fighting, squirming, punching. Her wounds must be so deep that this seems like the only way out. But that’s not true. This is just her dam breaking, it has to be. Strain, with every ounce of strength you have, to pull her the rest of the way back as the train finally passes. Collapse together onto the sidewalk. Gasp for air. Your lungs are burning. Your heart, beating its way out of your chest. See Uncle Dave’s award on the ground next to you, broken into pieces. The hands still whole, doing their handshake, but the rest in shards.


74. Look at the woman. She’s on her feet now. You want to tell her about Dr. Becky, about mantras of perseverance, but before you can do this she spits on you, calls you an asshole, and runs off with an arm raised high throwing a middle finger in her wake, her sweatshirt pulled all out of shape, hanging off her like a tarp.


75. Stay where you are and work to get your breathing under control. It’s okay. There it is. You can do it. Notice that your ear is unclogged. You can hear everything. So many tiny miracles! A car alarm down the street; the retreating train siren—both suddenly miracles. Look up as a car drives along the overpass and slows near you. See the man driving it roll his window down. Hear—hear!—him laugh at you and then watch him speed away. But what is this if not evidence of his own personal trauma? And what is trauma if not the opportunity to heal?



House Sitting

Kim asked me to housesit for her parents while they took her on a Hawaiian vacation. They were personal friends to a celebrity shooting a movie there. She promised me: no houseplants to water, and their hound’s anal fissures had cleared up.

            When Kim put her hand on my forearm, two things happened: Everything under my skin turned rotten and sweet, and I knew Kim could ask me anything for anything. All she had to do was be everything I wasn’t.

            I hated dogs. But Kim’s didn’t know that, and her parents paid up front. I was broke because I was always broke. Rent was twice my parent’s mortgage before they lost their house and moved into a motel.

            The dog’s named was Bundy. She barked for no reason. Kim’s parents lived on a street where nothing happened. But Bundy barked at a moth giving itself to the porch light. I walked her along empty, immaculate sidewalks. No crickets sowing songs in the grass. I left her shits where she made them, if only to show that something there was alive.

            The house was nice in a boring way rich people like. The couch and carpet and curtains were comfortable and gray. Within thirty minutes, I’d found a garage full of craft beer and about three grand in bad hiding places. I debated renting a nice car, dialing up some people to drive around and drink with, but I couldn’t think of anyone to call.

            I didn’t have friends, except Kim. The bar where we’d met was a dimly lit refuge for the unloved. Her sorority had planned a “dive-bar crawl” and accidently ended up at a real dive. You could feel the avarice of spirit hanging onto the place. I was drinking the last of my last paycheck from a scammy sales gig when they came in on a gust of colorful noise. They ordered drinks no bartender in that shithole had ever made.

            Kim’s earring fell and twinkled between a barstool’s legs. Real diamond I could’ve hawked and kept drinking for a week. Instead, I tapped her on the shoulder.

            Kim bought me a grasshopper—my “good-deed reward.” For her own opaque reasons, she asked me over to her Kappa-Theta sisters’ corner booth. They smiled like I was something to eat—all teeth and small, small talk. Sales had been an easy job because I was good at lying about myself: I told her I loved animals, volunteered at a dog shelter; my parents hadn’t died last year in a cheap motel; Kim and I shared a birthday. What wild chance—us both wandering into this rattletrap. If I hadn’t loved her immediately, I wouldn’t’ve gone to the trouble of inventing someone worth knowing. But that’s how we became friends.

            Kim whispered to me that a man at the bar was dying; she’d eavesdropped on his death-wheeze and sneaked a pic on her phone.

            “This place is great. We’ll have way better stories than those Omega bitches.” Kim composed her face for a selfie and said “You don’t need to come back here.” There were classier ways to die, if that’s what I wanted. Then she leaned in and sniffed my neck. “No,” she said. “As my grandma would say, ‘there’s still some vinegar in you.’”

            And I didn’t go back. Because after meeting Kim, I didn’t want to die. From then on, she never let me go too long without a visit. We got ice cream; we did drugs she paid for; we threw coins into public fountains, making the most absurd wishes we could think of. Each time, I got a little farther from where she’d found me.

            Now, her parent’s hound shit on the carpet, baying like she knew something awful had happened. Kim didn’t respond when I texted that Bundy’s annal fissures had flared up.

            Her return date came and went. My calls, straight to voicemail. Bundy snuffled my knees, trying to tell me an accident had occurred on their celebrity friend’s movie set, and the family had been mauled by Bengal tigers.

            I drank beers in their hot tub until steam worked into my skull and fogged over the night sky. Brown bottles littered the back yard like abstract dog turds.

            Somewhat outside myself, I rummaged through Kim’s childhood bedroom. Everything she owned smelled like crushed-up Smarties. Leafing through her yearbooks showed me a teen-horror film scrubbed clean of blood and misery, where the serial killer is never even born. Friends signed the back pages with such professions of love, I felt embarrassed for them.

            Tucked into the back of senior year, were rubberbanded Polaroids: Kim, all cheekbones, elan, and flammable youth. She carried a chalice. Another girl, a knife. A circle holding hands. They murdered someone’s hamster and wrote blood-oaths of friendship on one another’s backs. Downstairs, Bundy moaned that Kim was gone, drowned beneath a Hawaiian riptide.

            Days passed. Bundy had started grief-chewing the furniture. She licked my knuckles. Her droopy brow wrinkled like sadness kept going in waves. Didn’t I understand? Kim’s heart had stopped with a nosebleed on a plush hotel carpet.

            After a week, the silence took on a mournful density. I sat still for hours without hearing a car go by. The next time Bundy cried, I cried too.

            I held onto her neck and asked where were life-long friendships? Where was black magic as Kim floated up from her body? Did she meet my parents, passing into the firmament? Did she tell them how she’d fished me from a slow death’s pocket?

            But Bundy only whimpered and licked her bleeding asshole.

            The stars came out. But I couldn’t configure familiar constellations. The planet wobbled around the sun, shedding a million or two mothers, fathers, and friends, along the way. The rest of us poor suckers bobbed in the long wake, staring up at diamond fields too distant and bright to console us of anything.


Hog Suit

One morning, I found one of my pigs outside the pen. He wanted to get back inside; he was tapping on the fence with his snout and his grunts sounded distressed to me. When I let him back into the pen with the others, he seemed pleased. A weird little episode, but I didn’t think much about it.

            The next day two pigs were outside the pen. I checked the fence again; the fence was just fine. I put the two pigs back. Easy.

            The day after that, there were two pigs missing. One of the pigs was right outside the fence wanting to get in like on the other days. But the other pig could not be located. There were no hoof prints. He was just gone.

            So, I looked around my property until I heard some oinking. But the oinking was coming from above me. High up. I’ll stress that oinking ought not come from above. I looked up and there was my pig in a damn oak tree, looking worried. I got the ladder and brought him down—which wasn’t easy, he was a heavy boy—and put him back in the pen. He was relieved to be back with his buddies. But I didn’t sleep well that night. I was up late thinking about the moment I saw him on that branch like a nightmare bird.

            The next day a sow was outside the pen, and she was in bad shape. She had injuries on her ears, little cuts. They almost looked like words, but I couldn’t make them out. I looked for predators. There were none, and there were tracks, either.

            The next day, a sow was outside the pen, and she was hurt—she had cuts on her back and on her ears. I patched her up and set her back with the others. I looked around and found some tracks, but they vanished right at the edge of a pond. I thought whatever had done this might be in the pond, but it was a shallow pond, and I didn’t see anything in there worth noticing.

            That tracks looked like bear prints, but then they also didn’t look like bear prints, not at all, because there was something humanoid about them. The arch, the narrowness. But it wasn’t human either. In the end, I concluded that the tracks were of an indeterminate character.

            The next day, the pigs were inside the pen but there were three pigs stacked up on each other. What it was was a tower of pigs: a little tower, but still. They were in some sort of hypnotic state, standing on each other. When I gasped, they snapped out of it and fell. The tower crumbled. It took an hour to get them to trust me again and to get back into the pen.

            The next day a pig was in a tree, the same tree as before, and another was dead, pale from being drained of all blood, missing its ears. There were no footprints: no boot heels, no wolf tracks, no bear tracks. I thought what in God’s name.

            I had a vet come over. Same vet I been using for years. Good man. Bad divorce recently but knew lots about swine.

            What do you think? I said, as he was examining the corpse.

            Weird shit, he said.

            He said the ears had been removed with surgical precision. They didn’t have any teeth marks on them. They weren’t torn or ripped. They had been removed with a sharp blade and a straight edge of some kind.

            No animal did this, he said.

            The next day I had two pigs outside the pen, each drained of blood and missing eyes and ears. The eyes and ears were nowhere to be found. They had been removed from the premises and carried to God knows where. This must have been traumatizing for the other pigs. I knew it was for me—I had nightmares.

            There was no blood in the pigs. Not a drop. It was like someone vacuumed in there. I showed my wife; she was in disbelief. She accused me of doing it. Are you sleepwalking, Harold? Are you sleepwalking and performing savage acts?

            Later we found blood in our lemonade pitcher. As in, the lemons, water, and sugar mixture had been replaced (or transubstantiated) into blood. You better believe we didn’t drink a drop of that concoction.

            I called a scientist over to do some tests on the blood. The scientist knew his pigs inside and out. It was pig blood sure enough, he said. But he said there was a some magnetic field around the blood.

            What does that mean? I asked.

            He didn’t know.

            He did a battery of other tests. These were inconclusive. I asked him if he had any advice for what we should do. He said the missus and I should try to love the pigs while I still had them, because you never knew what was going to happen. This seemed like decent advice, though not scientific like I was hoping.

            Word got out and soon the Hortonville Gazette was talking about my swine displacements and mutilations. Nobody believed me; they believed the events had occurred, but they disputed the cause and minimized the impact on me. They said it was predators or teenage vandals. They said there was a rational explanation for everything. They published a hurtful cartoon in which I am sneaking into the field and night and putting my own hogs in a tree and cackling about insurance fraud. I wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the cartoon and the tenor of their coverage. But they didn’t print it. They thought I was a loon, and why would you publish the words of a loon in your paper? I wouldn’t. The only thing is, I wasn’t a loon, at the time.

            I was in a quandary: some unseen force was removing my animals from their pen, without harming my fence, and placing them in trees or mutilating them and, in addition, swapping out my lemonade with real blood. Who or what would do these things? And who or what could?

            I installed a security camera and pointed it at the pen. My wife was sure that we’d see footage of me sleepwalking out there, some dark part of my personality expressing itself all over my pigs in the middle of the night. I thought maybe we’d see a new kind of wolf. But the camera kept shutting off before it got anything good. Upon investigating, I discovered that the wires were frayed. I bought another camera and the same thing happened. None of the cameras picked up the other pigs that got lifted out of the pen, treed, or mutilated. None of the cameras survived the night.

            I bought another camera and pointed it at the cameras that were pointing into the pen, so I could at least see what was happening with the mutilated cameras. In that footage, you could see the lights go off in the pig-pen-directed cameras, and that was about it. A figure was seen by my wife in one of the frames. A hand coming out of the darkness. I didn’t see any hand no matter how hard I looked at the footage, but my wife said it was a hand and I believe her. At least she no longer thinks I sleepwalk in an evil way.

            Next, I bought myself a hog suit online. It wasn’t cheap. It was the best-looking hog suit I could find via the Google search engine. The suit was extremely life-like—the skin texture, the bristle hair, the snout, the ears. I donned it and I felt like one of my animals.

            That night I went inside the pen. I wanted to be with my pigs when the malevolent force arrived so I would have an opportunity to confront it and, hopefully, shoot it in its head with my .38, which I had covertly duct taped to my realistic-looking underside/teats region.

            The first night nothing happened: I just oinked around and got weird looks from the other pigs. And man did it smell bad in there. The second night I was tired. I was asleep on my haunches. I knew I had to stay vigilant, but I couldn’t help it. I laid down next due to some sows and it was quite comfortable. Here I am among my pigs, getting a brand-new perspective on life, I thought. I dozed with the pigs and dreamed their dreams.

            I was awakened several hours later by a breeze playing at my hooves. I looked down and noticed that the ground was many feet below me. I was being levitated in the night air, and I could see the moon shining clearly above me as I made my way to the top of a forty-foot oak tree. I could not see the thing that was lifting me into the air. I was placed on a branch in the tree. And then I watched as the other pigs were lifted, one by one, over the fence and into the tree. But I couldn’t get down. I fired off my thirty-eight, but it didn’t stop the force from getting the pigs out. I decided I’d make a jump for the branch right below mine. I figured I could move from branch to branch if I was careful. However, the pig costume was cumbersome and did not allow for the acrobatic maneuvers I was envisioning. I fell.

            I woke up in the hospital. My wife showed me a picture of strange, cramped handwriting on tiny parchment. What is this from? I asked. She said it was from the back of my ears. I felt my ears and there were cuts already scabbing over, raised like a braille. Then the nurse came in and told me I’d been drained of blood and spinal fluid. Not the whole way, but a little. But she didn’t have to tell me. I felt different, lighter, lesser. I didn’t even ask about the fate of my pigs.

          I believe the cuts on my ears spell out a message, though from who or what I have no idea. Are they legible to you?



Welcoming Our New Poetry and Fiction Editors!

We are thrilled to welcome to our new Poetry and Fiction Editors! Read more about them and their work below.

Rochelle Hurt (Poetry Editor) is a poet and essayist. She is the author of three poetry collections: The J Girls: A Reality Show (Indiana University Press, 2022), which won the Blue Light Books Prize from Indiana Review; In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street, 2016), which won the Barrow Street Poetry Prize; and The Rusted City: A Novel in Poems (White Pine, 2014). Her work has been included in Poetry magazine and the Best New Poets anthology. She’s been awarded prizes and fellowships from Arts & Letters, Poetry International, Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo. Originally from the Ohio Rust Belt, Hurt now lives in Orlando and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.

Brandon Amico (Poetry Editor) is the author of a collection of poetry, Disappearing, Inc (Gold Wake Press, 2019), and the recipient of a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. His poetry can be found in journals and anthologies including The Best American Poetry 2020, The Adroit Journal, Blackbird, Booth, Copper Nickel, The Cincinnati Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hunger Mountain, Kenyon Review, New Ohio Review, New South, Slice, and Waxwing.

Blake Sanz (Fiction Editor) is the author of The Boundaries of Their Dwelling, a collection of short stories that won the 2021 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His short fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Joyland, EcotonePuerto del Sol, and other literary magazines. He and his writing have been featured in Poets & Writers, Electric Literature, and other national forums. Originally from Louisiana, he teaches fiction at the University of Central Florida.

Submissions to our 2023 Editor’s Prizes in Fiction, Poetry, and Creative Nonfiction are now open! The winner in each genre will receive $1,000 and publication in the Review. All entries are considered for publication, and all entrants receive a complimentary one-year subscription to the journal, as well as the option to purchase an additional discounted subscription. We thank you for your support of The Florida Review, and look forward to reading your work.


Dawn of the New Age

Three hours after learning the museum has secured a major grant, based largely—the Director assured her—on Luisa’s late night, visionary sketches of a wing for the new space age exhibits, this phone call, or something like it, was due. Bringing the world back in balance: a reporter, asking questions about her husband, about his participation in a reality show called Astronaut Academy. Luisa asks the woman to explain the show to her, though she read an article on it just that morning. It is being produced in partnership with the Space Force, the reporter says. A dozen competitors from around the country, going through the challenges any astronaut would encounter on their training: stints in the Buoyancy Lab, in zero gravity, in Earth-bound models of the shuttle they will ride if victorious. The winner will receive a seat on the Mars shuttle, and the same pay and benefits and stature as the traditionally trained astronauts. “How do you feel,” the reporter asks, “about your husband pursuing what would likely be a one-way mission?”

            “Proud,” Luisa says. “How else should I feel?”

            “But you weren’t familiar with the show?”

            Luisa is silent until the reporter weakens and explains that this is all for a human-interest story. She wants Luisa to share more insight into her mental state, which is a thing Luisa privately feels incapable of sharing even with herself. “Maybe it’s better if we speak in person,” Luisa says, not wanting to volunteer for this additional torment but not knowing how else to extricate herself. “I’ve never been very comfortable speaking across distance.”

            “That will make things difficult, won’t—”

            “I’ll talk to Jon,” Luisa says. “We can find a good time for it.”


            Against her wishes, he is on the sofa when she arrives home. “Go celebrate!” Robert, the Director, told her when she asked to leave before lunch—to which she could only offer a faint, gummy smile, allowing him to think the grant was the cause of her distraction. Sitting on the ottoman, bag between her feet, she waits for Jon to explain the show. Instead he describes meeting the neighbor’s dog that morning; the persistent slow drain of the bathroom sink.

            “Is there anything else?” she asks. A part of her wants him to say there isn’t, so she can catch him in the lie.

            “I do have news,” Jon says. He seems to believe that more detail will absolve him of any wrongs, and so he talks her through the joke of his application. The physical trial and mental assessment, a process that lasted months and which he performed without her notice, taking advantage of her lengthening workdays. “I thought I would flunk out sooner or later.”

            “A reporter wants to interview us,” Luisa says. “She’s writing a human- interest piece.” She doesn’t want to touch Jon or even look at him. It is tempting to label her feelings the inevitable result of his subterfuge, though in truth she cannot recall the last time she wanted to let her body be near his. For the last few years of their marriage she has had the vague sense of them being broken in some elemental way, the thread of attraction that existed between them having snapped while she was looking in a different direction.

            “You spoke with someone? You knew?” He reaches for her, then shakes his head. “Never mind. Okay.”

            “When does filming start?”

            “Two weeks. But we’re due out sooner, for publicity.” He picks at a zit that has scabbed to the surface near his Adam’s apple.

            “Why didn’t you ever tell me you wanted to do something like this?” Luisa asks, but then she remembers: he has. On one of their first dates, crowded into a two-seater in a taqueria, a lime-green margarita sweating between her hands, licking salt from her lips. She laughed when he began talking about the prospect of a one-way journey into space, how he would happily volunteer himself for such a mission. He was a biologist, the most earthbound profession she could imagine, but he spoke of “the greater good” like a man with conviction. “Anyone can see we’ve taken things too far on this planet,” he said, and maybe that much was true: the western half of the country had already been abandoned to forest fires, and the southeastern states to the hurricanes and rising tides. Life was pressing in closer and closer every day, it needed an outlet.

            Anyone would have laughed, she tells herself now as she leaves her bag slumped on the floor, walks to the bedroom and shuts the door. He was twenty-five, a boy in a world that seemed unlikely to ever offer the opportunities he imagined for himself. So she laughed, and was endeared, and slept with him even though it would be months before she felt really compelled in his direction. By the time they married she had forgotten that conversation. She had no concept that he might one day reform himself into this person he had imagined, this person she is now unable to follow.


            Checks are signed, champagne uncorked. The donors to the space age wing, invited to the museum for an exclusive tour-slash-soirée, all want to meet Luisa—not because she imagined so many of the exhibits their money will fund but because they have all seen the interview and know her husband may be one of the men who supplies these artifacts. Suits and goggles, Martian rocks, a replica of a shuttle that will never land on Earthen soil. All of this a departure for a museum that to date is best known for its textile exhibits.

            “I couldn’t believe what they made them do on the last episode,” says Muffy Van der Barg, a woman with a rumored inheritance over a quarter- billion dollars. A fist-sized stone, strung on near-invisible links, rests on her creped chest.

            Luisa has to apologize. She doesn’t watch the television show—

            “My poor dear,” the woman says, “of course you don’t. Who would want to?”

            About forty million households thus far, if the ratings are to be believed. Luisa excuses herself before Muffy can launch into a description of this show she has been studiously avoiding. She retreats farther and farther, until she is outside the museum, cigarette trailing from her hand, watching the parking lot that will be one day be her new wing. Sweat gathers in her elbows and the small of her back. Heat waves rise from the pavement, distorting the streetlamps’ glow.

            Robert appears at her side, his soft-soled loafers having silenced his walk down the marble steps. “It must be hard,” he says, handing her a fresh glass of champagne.

            Luisa sips, the bubbles fizzing unpleasantly at her nose. “We weren’t doing well, before he left. But I can’t say that.”

            “No,” he says, “I suppose you couldn’t.”

            She twirls the glass, watches sweat bead to its surface.

            “You really don’t watch?” he asks.

            “I feel like I’m watching a character.” The first episode is the only she’s attempted so far, and she didn’t make it further than the first challenge before shutting it off. The way Jon described himself in his introduction, the way he smiled for the camera, even the way he held his shoulders back as he walked to the suit room, where they competed to select the correctly- sized outfit—none of it felt familiar to her. The man on screen looked like Jon, but at such a remove that she couldn’t connect him to the person she’s known for the last decade.

            “For what it’s worth, I think one of the women will win. The crew is only a third female right now.”

            “Sure.” She can guess at his reading: an op-ed from just that morning, decrying the sissified nanny state that led the Space Force to refer to “crewed” rather than “manned” space flights.

            “Political correctness usually wins. Natasha would be my bet.” Robert offers a hand and Luisa ignores it.

            “I was joking. She’s the most capable, clearly—come on.”

            And, because Robert signs her paychecks, Luisa lifts a hand to his. “I don’t think I’ll mind if he wins,” she says. “We can call it the Jon Gonders Memorial Hall. We can put a wax figure of him in the entrance.”

            “A statue out front. Maybe a fountain, throw in your coins. Subtle fundraising.”

            “We can offer a widow-led tour for our major donors.”

            “There’s an idea.” Robert’s gaze vanishes into the parking lot for a minute, the streetlights bolting off his glasses, before he leads her back to the party, the donors, all the things he likes to label the “dirty business of philanthropy.” The widow’s tour, Luisa thinks as they step inside. She is almost pleased with her idea, and with the thought that this event is her first opportunity to practice the role.


            The week after the fundraiser, Jon begins to call at night. “Is this being recorded?” Luisa asks. “Is this going to end up as footage to make you seem more compelling?”

            “No,” says Jon. “I mean, they’re filming on my end. But the call isn’t being recorded.”

            Luisa doesn’t believe him. But she can sit on the line, she figures, and wait him out. “How do you feel?”

            “Not bad. The rations are getting old, but that’s part of it, I guess. And I’m worried about the isolation challenges.”

            “You should be good at that.”

            Jon’s exhalation is almost violent against the receiver. “They’re telling me I have to go,” he says. “I love you.”

            To Luisa’s surprise his calls continue, every night between seven and eight. To her surprise, she looks forward to them. When they cease after a few weeks, when she realizes he must now be in the isolation phase of the competition, she is adrift and unsure how to move through their apartment. It isn’t the feeling that she’s lost him, because she’s felt apart from him for so long; it’s just that the loss now feels somehow reiterated.

            The second night without a call, Luisa doesn’t resist tuning in to the now-constant stream of the competitors’ activities. Each astronaut sits in a dimly-lit capsule so small they could stretch out their arms and press their hands to opposing walls. A chyron at the bottom of the screen encourages viewers to vote for their favorite astronaut, and to text donations to the Space Force. On the righthand side of the screen, a public comment stream flows too quickly for Luisa to make out more than a word here or there: love, WOW, Jon! When the feed shifts to Jon, she moves closer to the screen, trying to sense in his hunched shoulders, the book open on his lap, whether he is struggling, or thinking of her, or thinking of anything at all. She can’t tell, and when the feed moves to the next contestant she turns off the television. She does not cast a vote.


            Luisa does not in her heart believe the Space Force will succeed. NASA hasn’t launched a mission in decades, and a rebranding seems insufficient to staunch its woes, however popular Astronaut Academy may be. She suspects Robert doesn’t believe, either, but is pleased that their unspoken doubts don’t stop either of them from pursuing the museum’s new wing. Reality need not place any limits on their ambitions.

            The parking lot vanishes, replaced by billowing dust and torn asphalt. One of the junior curators sources a basketball-sized meteorite, which Luisa exhibits alongside a glass case in which patrons can stuff dollar bills. She plots an exhibit around the textiles of space: fireproof astronaut uniforms, and waffle-weaved long johns, and the inflatable living capsules promised to be part of the Martian mission. Trying to form a bridge between the present-day textile museum and Robert’s imagined rival to the National Air & Space.

            It is Jon’s tenth day in isolation when Robert asks Luisa to stay late. “We might have a new funder,” he says, “and this man has some ideas.” She thinks, at first, that the funder is only a figment Robert has crafted to distract her—but the man is real, a major yarn manufacturer interested in donating if they can assure him the woolen arts will be properly highlighted in the new wing.

            “We can do a case on merino t-shirts,” Luisa says. “Wool air filters. I’ve already been working on long johns.”

            Robert writes this: merino, air filters, long johns.

            “How much are they donating?” she asks.

            “We’re looking at a million.”

            “From wool?”

            “And a gift shop partnership. Stuffed astronaut sheep. Wool keychains that look like comets. That sort of thing.”

            Luisa leans her chin into her fist and watches Robert. She has worked for him almost as long as she has known Jon, a fact that has never previously occurred to her—how much of her life tracks alongside these two men. “Do you think people really want to see these things?”

            He stops writing. “Maybe they aren’t so interested in seeing it,” he admits. “But make it interactive—let them touch the suits, or wear an astronaut’s t-shirt—that’s different. People want to feel like they’re a part of something.”

            Luisa tries to recall what type of shirt Jon was wearing, the last time she watched Astronaut Academy. It’s been over a week, and her memory of him is vague. Just the top of his head, his hand turning a page. The show has slogged into a stretch with no obvious challenges, only the interminable wait for four of eight contestants to declare themselves unfit for the lonely rigors of space. Instead of their usual gossip, Luisa’s colleagues have begun to complain about the unbroken, indistinguishable nature of time on Astronaut Academy. “They could just be showing the same day again and again,” her assistant said that morning.

            “Maybe I can get us one of Jon’s shirts,” Luisa says. “From the show.” As soon as the suggestion emerges she regrets it. She is not sure what compelled these words from her. But then Robert smiles. He reaches across the desk and for just a moment rests his hand on top of hers, not in a way that feels romantic—Luisa assures herself of this, when she thinks of it later—but in a way that only feels human, and comforting, and necessary.


            Jon is not sent home. For two weeks it seems none of the contestants will fall and then, all of a sudden, they do: the strain of isolation is heightened as their televisions and books are taken away, as lights turn on and off at random hours, as an oppressive and total silence is piped into their private chambers. The producers have broken their own promise to not revise challenges once they’ve begun, but no one seems to mind—there is general agreement that mere isolation cannot break this pandemic-reared generation, and a relief that the show is once again progressing. In an article debating the chances for each remaining candidate, Jon is described as possessing “a quiet, monk-like strength.”

            The million-dollar check from the yarn manufacturer is signed. A banner unfurls on the chain-link fence surrounding the former parking lot, with doctored photographs of children wearing merino “space t-shirts,” asteroids flashing across their chests. Jon calls the night after the fourth contestant has left, surprising Luisa at her desk.

            “It isn’t that hard to be alone with your thoughts,” he says. “Which I was worried about.”

            Luisa toggles between a few uncharitable responses, settling at last on, “No, I guess it isn’t.” Thinking of a conversation she once tried to have with him, her fear that her body had toggled off a switch without permission, leaving her with the barest memory of how desire had once unspooled through her, touching him. The loss a thing she had never known to anticipate. “Is that so different, really, from before?” he’d said, before claiming it was a joke—as if that was somehow better, to make a joke of her.

            The office is empty and feels private, with the motion-sensing hall lights switched off. She sets the phone to speaker and rests it on her desk, staring at her second monitor and deleting emails as Jon talks. He describes his tongue’s adjustment to the bland food, how over two weeks in solitary the minutes and hours and days turned into an amorphous span of time that he was unable to separate out into its component pieces. He talks for so long that Luisa believes him on this point, that he has lost the ability to measure time or his place in it. “It sounds like you’re ready to go to Mars,” she says. “There isn’t anything holding you back now.”

            “I still have to do the zero-gravity test. That’s tomorrow—where we go up in the plane.”

            “Right,” Luisa says.

            “They call it the ‘vomit comet.’”

            “Right.” She deletes three more emails. When she looks up, the hall lights have clicked on and Robert is in the door. “I have to go,” she tells Jon. “Good luck with tomorrow.” She feels a need to cover herself, despite her sweater and suit jacket.

            “Do you have someone to talk to?” Robert asks. He is still in the doorway. “About all of that?”

            Luisa is tempted to tell the truth, which is that she talks to him; but to say that feels like opening herself a degree too far. “I don’t know what I’d say.”

            He pulls a chair to her desk. Her phone screen fades to gray, and then black. “He’s got a one-in-four chance now. You should have someone to support you. A therapist. Family.”

            But what would Luisa say to them? That the thought of her husband leaving in this way is almost a relief, because it frees her from the slower work of understanding and then extricating herself from the husk of their relationship? That she has felt closer to him in the month of his absence than in the three preceding years? That a part of her wants him to succeed? “I’ve been thinking,” she says, and tells Robert how they might build on the textile exhibit to focus more broadly on materials in space. “I have so many ideas,” she tells him, hoping that he will listen—to her ideas, and nothing else.


            Two contestants are so violently ill, vomit unspooling through the air before it slicks, in the increasing gravity, down the front of their suits, that they are both eliminated from Astronaut Academy. One contestant, a man the rough size and shape of a professional linebacker, is not ill at all. Jon vomits in a restrained fashion following the final flight, and is allowed to continue to the final challenges.

            There isn’t any doubt now, not for Luisa. “It’s going to be him,” she tells Robert, after watching the clip at his desk. “The other one, he’s just too big.” She has a vague idea that astronauts are a compact class of humans, not on the same scale as jockeys but certainly not so far away, either. Jon, who has always exaggerated his height to 5’10”, is the correct size for interplanetary travel. His competitor is not, and she wonders that he was even allowed to join the show in the first place.

            In that case, Robert says, they should begin planning in earnest for Jon’s departure. “I don’t mean to be insensitive,” he says, before describing Jon’s mission as a coup. “It’s only that no other museum can promise such a close view of the rigors and costs of space travel.”

            When Jon calls that night, Luisa doesn’t mention his increasing role in the museum’s new wing. Robert is envisioning a rocket suspended from the ceiling in direct imitation of the Kennedy Space Center’s Atlantis shuttle, a video of Jon—“our own civilian astronaut”—on loop. She doesn’t want to expose Jon to any of these ideas, to the suspicion that she might use their relationship for her own gain. She thinks the imagined exhibits are too expensive to ever produce, and in any case Jon will be well-flung toward Mars before they come to fruition. Instead, for the first time, she tells him a different truth: “It’s going to be you.”

            “No,” Jon says. “Rick is at just another level of fitness. He’s clearly better.” But even as he speaks, Luisa can locate the lie threading his words. Knows that he feels it as clearly as she does.

            “Do you remember when we met?” she asks.

            “Tell me,” he says.

            “I was at the coffee shop. I went there every Saturday to apply for jobs. And this one day, you sat at the table next to me. You asked if I would drink a coffee with you, and I said I already had one. So you asked if I would get a drink with you instead.” It is hard for her to recall Jon’s face from this day, back when it was only a face with no real significance. A collection of ears, eyes, nose. Mouth. She can more clearly remember the burnt cardboard taste of the coffee.

            “You left some things out.”

            “I know,” Luisa says.

            “I couldn’t think of a way to talk to you. And then this Saturday, I’d finally decided, but every seat was taken. I just sat at the bar, watching in the mirror the whole time for when I could sit with you. And I still didn’t know what to say.”

            “Do you ever wonder,” she asks, “what if that man hadn’t left his table?”


            Luisa has. They met a month before she accepted the job at the museum, a time when she felt faced only with possibility, when it felt like a comfort to close off some of her paths. She wonders at this now, why she felt so sure in dismissing her body’s cues, at how easy it is to accede to a person, a job, a life, knowing they aren’t right. “I’m going to miss you,” she says.

            He is silent.

            “Tell me about your next challenge.”

            He tells her how in the morning they will be repeating mental challenges to exhaustion. They’ll be suited in the pool to simulate zero- gravity, and beneath the water they’ll manipulate torso-sized Rubik’s Cubes, they’ll draw foam puzzle pieces into position on the tiled floor. Challenges with enough of a visual element that viewers won’t complain again of boredom.

            “Do you feel prepared?”

            “Sure,” Jon says.

            She doesn’t think he is being honest. She doesn’t think he really feels prepared. How could anyone? When they hang up she sees they have talked for twenty minutes, their longest conversation since he left for the show and possibly their longest conversation in years. He is leaving, Luisa reminds herself. He is leaving for a year’s flight, he is leaving for a planet so cold that she is only able to comprehend it as a kind of heat—as a cold that burns. He is leaving for a planet where he will, suddenly, weigh seventy pounds instead of nearly two hundred. But these are only facts, and though she cannot stop herself accounting for them, she is no longer sure whether they mean anything at all.


            The wool manufacturer sends a box of micro-fiber merino shirts. The enclosed letter details their resistance to odor, allowing them to be worn for weeks on end. “There’s no laundry in space” is underlined twice, a fact which Luisa stores for use in a future exhibit. She tucks one of the shirts into her purse and later, in the bathroom, slips it on beneath her sweater. The fabric is silken and cool. “What about selling these in the gift shop?” she asks Robert when she brings the remaining garments for his inspection. Each one costs hundreds of dollars, money woven into the moisture-resistant wool and stitched into doubled seams. He likes the idea enough that Luisa’s assistant spends the afternoon on the phone with the manufacturer.

            When Jon calls that night, Luisa doesn’t want to hear about the challenges. He describes them anyway. She is at their apartment, holding the hem of her shirt between thumb and forefinger as Jon talks about trying to slot puzzle pieces into place with the weight of all that water pressing down on him. “It won’t feel like that in space,” he says. “None of this is anything like what it’ll be in space.”

            What he is saying, but isn’t saying: that he made it through. That it’s going to be him. “You’ll figure it out,” Luisa says. “They’ll put you through the normal training program, with everyone else.”

            “But they won’t.” He explains one of the puzzles, how he couldn’t figure it out. Which way to turn the pieces, the water’s weight, how he could hear his own breath percolating through the suit. He will be home tomorrow.

            Luisa smooths the shirt’s fabric. For so many days she has told herself the story of his going, and now she is unsure how to compose herself to this new reality. Perhaps it is not so different from the old reality, how things were before he left. “I’m sorry,” she says, first because she thinks she should and then because it is true. “I’m so sorry. You must feel—”

            “They’ll still want to do some interviews,” he says, “since I was a finalist.” He tells her to expect a call from one of the producers, they’ll want to interview her solo, and then together. A special episode rounding out the contestants’ lives.

            She wears the shirt to bed. Before lying down she opens the closet and each dresser drawer, thinks of how they would have looked half-emptied. Not bad.


            Jon’s loss is big news. It is the only news. Former astronauts appear on television to discuss the difficulty the winner, such an oddly-sized crew member, will present—how he won’t be able to share in the store of standard-sized suits the astronauts normally use. There’s an exhibit in that, Luisa thinks, and when she shares the thought with Robert he touches the back of her hand in what she now recognizes as his only available gesture of sympathy. It is a move, she suspects, that she will one day find illustrated in the dog-eared managerial handbook wedged amidst the knitting books shelved behind his desk. A page labeled “consensual non-sexual touch,” she thinks, sliding her hand back to her lap.

            She leaves work early to be home when Jon arrives with the producers. The cameras appear first, armed with questions: “How did you feel when you imagined your husband was going to be a hero of the space age? Did you always see Jon’s interest in space travel? What do you think he might have contributed, as the first Martian biologist? How do you feel, with him coming home?” There is a role to play here: the woman rescued, at the last moment, from grievous widowhood. Though she has just left the office the producer insists they return so she can be filmed typing at her desk, and standing before the wasteland of the future wing. The makeup woman, who between every shot runs forward to powder Luisa’s forehead, hands her a jacket they say Jon wore through most of his trials. “Hold it to your face,” the woman says. “Smell it.” For minutes Luisa presses her nose to the jacket as the cameraman gathers angles. It is glossy, it smells like detergent. They blot wet Q-tips around her eyes, “for the shot,” and when they drive back to the apartment and Jon is waiting for her Luisa is surprised to find herself crying, really crying. Her face blotching but the producer happy.

            “I guess I should apologize,” is the first thing Jon says, brushing her ear so the mics can’t pick it up, and she doesn’t know how to answer—how to explain that even she isn’t sure why the tears.

            “I was ready to donate all your things,” she says, but this isn’t right. There is no way to reach the place she wants to go—to imprint her story on him in the way he has her. For the rest of her life, she thinks, she will be only the wife of the man who nearly went to Mars; for the rest of his life he will remain himself, Jon Gonders.

            The crew follows them inside, to see them side by side on the sofa, hands clutched. Leaning into each other and sharing a beer, Jon’s first in months. After they leave, Luisa is unsure how to behave or even where to look. To speak to Jon’s face feels unnatural after so many weeks with the phone pressed to her ear. “Are they going to air it?” she asks. “All our conversations?”

            “Maybe,” says Jon, and then, “Yes.”

            He pats the sofa, as if trying to remember it. The top button of his shirt is still undone from when they unclipped his microphone. Luisa cannot feel her face beneath the layers of powder.

            “I can sleep out here tonight,” he says.

            “Robert will probably want you to come out for the exhibit. You’ll be such a big draw. It’ll be a real boost for the museum.”

            By eight they are both feigning exhaustion. Nothing more to say. Luisa starts to collect the extra blankets and pillows for him, but of course he knows where these are, it’s his home as well, and finally she retreats herself to the bedroom where she can listen, from this safe distance, as he readies himself for sleep.


            The launch is confirmed for early June, only six weeks away. The new wing won’t be complete, but Robert decides they can still open the exhibit to coincide with the launch: they will use temporary cases, it will be a final fundraising push. Astronaut Academy airs updates on the winner’s training, and updates on the losers, and because of this—because of all their conversations packaged for public consumption—Luisa feels no guilt at driving boxes of Jon’s clothes and video games and books to the museum. “On temporary loan” is how the pieces will be labeled, but they could stay forever, that is her thinking. She and Jon move around the apartment like wrong-sided magnets, always bumping away from each other, and there must be an action to perform or a decision to make but there is so much work at the museum—and Jon has so much to do as well, figuring out his next step in life, calling his former employer, submitting dozens of job applications, managing interview requests about the show.

            Luisa outsources most of the launch planning to her assistant, billing it as “a great development opportunity.” This a piece of trickery she recalls from her own early days at the museum, when for eight hours a day she sat before the door of Robert’s predecessor and would seize on any non- administrative task offered. The girl reports her progress daily, telling Luisa all about the loaned screens on which they will stream the launch (“life- size,” supposedly) and the plastic champagne flutes with clots of starred black galaxy trailing down their stems. “It sounds amazing,” Luisa says, and “You’re doing great work.” Increasingly she finds that she wants only to rest her face on the desk and remain there, prone, until all these responsibilities have passed her by. She thinks all the things she cannot yet muster the strength to say: I don’t care about wool, and I’m tired of this exhibit, and I want a divorce.

            With two weeks to go, in late May, the apartment’s air conditioning breaks. It is already broaching a hundred degrees, and watching Jon prod at the unit like he’s equipped to repair it, Luisa has this moment—just a moment—when she thinks of the alternate version of his life. How close he came to being someone with a bolded name buried in a history book, the first man to raise potatoes and crickets on Martian soil. “I can figure it out,” he insists, and for days Luisa swelters in her space-capable merino shirt before he admits defeat and calls the landlord. How is it possible, she wonders, that this man was nearly declared humanity’s future, and all because he can sit quietly in a room by himself. She can do this as well as him and all their days feel like they are trying to prove this to each other, their ken for silence, the minutes and hours dragging uncomfortably behind them until they arrive at launch day, when they stitch themselves into their black tie wear and make the apposite remarks on how nice they look.

            Her recent involvement has been so slight that Luisa is able to feel something like awe, seeing the exhibit. All the construction equipment is gone, and the watered ground has a Martian tendency, dirt tinted red by the temporary lights staked around the site. Blue-lit Lucite boxes hold ribbed gloves and boots and helmets, just one item per box both to stretch the collection and, she thinks, to give more room for reflection. “This is what we’ve made.” One broad rectangular box holds twenty Merino shirts, all facing forward above a drawing of the rocket’s path to Mars. Waiters in white jumpsuits circulate with glasses of wine, and despite the evening swelter and the crowd, all their questions and babble, Luisa admits that her assistant has done a good job. More than a good job, she has done a better job than Luisa would have. She couldn’t picture any of this, and now here it all is, the launch screen positioned so it’s framed by the museum’s white columns just across the street, so that at no point in the evening can their guests forget where they are, who made this night possible. She holds a glass of wine, Jon has vanished into a cluster of potential donors, the wool manufacturer is at her elbow wanting to discuss the gift shop partnership. A collective gasp, hundreds of breaths as one, when the screen flickers on to the launchpad, its trembling rocket.

            Robert finds Luisa before she can think herself invisible: already, he has a fifty thousand-dollar check folded in his pocket. “And more where that came from!” he exclaims, toasting her. She recalls her first days at the museum, when Robert was a Special Projects Manager and would walk her through his exhibits, hand brushing her lower back, guiding her.

            “That’s amazing,” she says, and reminds him that it was her assistant who did all this work. A glimpse of Jon, encircled and enthralled, it looks, by his own story. Everyone is gathering, as if by instinct, before the screen, and then the audio comes on—there is a moment of silence and then the sound of all that future, thrudding beneath their feet. “Excuse me, excuse me,” Luisa whispers to people who are not listening, overcome by the need to not be in this crowd, to not be among them in the moment.

            On the street, the sound falls away. No one is out, everyone is watching the launch; no cars or buses pass. Luisa finds herself on the wrong side of the screen, but gazing at it she can find the outlines of the ship and imagine its trajectory. The faint tap of heels to her left, at the other end of the screen: Jon. For a minute they look at each other, she looks at him and marks all his features she must by now know: ears, nose, mouth. They are beginning the countdown. Ten, nine, eight… She turns away to face the screen. It is beginning, now.


*This story originally appeared in The Florida Review 46.2.