Humans Can Lick Too

Flash Fiction winner of the Spring 2023 F(r)iction Literary Contest.

With Real Dog long-dead, your vlog is thriving. We both know they only came to hear about the murder.

You play coy, It’s hard to talk about.

It’s not. Watch me: You heard noises at night—a running tap? an intruder?—and reached below your bed to find comfort in Real Dog’s tongue lapping at your palm.

In videos, your currant-colored wall read as honest, somber. The nights I spent there, it was eggshell. Red must’ve been cheaper than the countless coats of white it would’ve taken to cover up the punchline scrawled in Real Dog’s blood: Humans Can Lick Too.

You won’t dole out gruesome details until views dwindle—an aging musician withholding his one-hit wonder. You tell them about waking up to your dog’s life puddled on the hardwood. A one-two punch: the world-stop of losing such an obedient love, then, horror. That wet sandpaper tickle against your hand didn’t belong to Man’s Best Friend, only Man.

Sniffles. Pretend camera-shy eyes. It wasn’t who I thought it was.

I’m less than sympathetic; you weren’t who I thought you were.

The ring light behind the camera casts a frosted halo across your cheeks. You’re suddenly solicitous, hawking a candle with a pithy label: “Candles are fire you can keep as a pet.”

What brings you comfort? you chirp, For me, it’s one of these.

What brings me comfort? When the night is blue-black, I conjure memories of running my tongue along your body’s every valley, the hopeful cave of your neck. It stilled me.

But you were already looking for reasons to leave. I’d ask, What’s wrong?, and the way you looked at me made me want to put my clothes back on. How humiliating to have believed you could love me in high-definition.

Now I only see you in your shining rectangle. I zoom in, reducing your face to a desert of blinking squares. I interrogate every pixel. Can I hold this line of ones and zeros responsible? Can I blame this string of code?

You sometimes mention Ghost Dog, a combination of air and hope, phantom tongue licking your fingertips. The heart isn’t there, you admit.

I fall asleep to your gilt voice lapping at my dreams. You’d hate it, the way I marionette you in my mind, but you don’t own You any more than you own Ghost Dog.

I wonder if you have a ghost of me, and if you do, what she does.

I can’t relax into new lovers now. At every soft scrape of new teeth against my collarbone, I stop. Is this real? A steady drip, drip, drip of doubt. I turn on lights, double-check. Am I allowed to love this?

When they’re gone, the light of my computer screen paints my face blue. I watch your lips crinkle at an imaginary audience. I press my thumb against your face until the colors pool.

Nights like this, I am glad that when you reach out in the dark, you have no one.

The Will to Power

Short Story winner of the Spring 2023 F(r)iction Literary Contest.

His stage name was Sommersby the Great, and he put on shows out of a battered theater in the north of Newton, close to the Watertown border. He liked to read the paper over a cup of Sanka instant coffee, and typically he wore mahogany-colored Florsheim shoes with fat tassels and silk ties dotted with pictures of pinecones, candy canes and children. In the afternoons he also wore a large gold watch with a stretching golden linked band, and when he talked, his watch clunked on his wrists, though he always took it off for a show. His hats tended to match his suits, often an unvariegated conifer green. His teeth were a perfectly ordered array of corn kernels–I only subsequently realized that they were dentures.

That summer, I was with him daily, Wednesday through Sunday. Wednesday and Thursday were for practicing his act; the remaining days were for his performances. I would ride my bicycle to his theater in the early afternoon and enter through a disused loading dock, and I would wait for him by sitting discreetly next to a window in the foyer, meditating over a book by windowlight. That was also the summer I took to reading Thus Spake Zarathustra, among others, which mostly just baffled me. I had been drawn to Nietzsche by a circuitous path strewn with comic books, odd fortune cookie predictions, and collections of aphorisms, and when I arrived at him at last, I was an adolescent eager for the instruction that I, too, might find it within myself to become a kind of Superman. Such grandiosity and misery–the siren songs of a young man’s life. Stare too long into the abyss and it begins to stares back, I read–and I tried–I really tried. “Abyss!” I begged. “Stare back into me! Be my shaggy beast!” But during those early summer afternoons alone at the window of Sommersby’s magic theater, I met only the pallor of my own boredom.

After my first two weeks, the routine was the same. I filled the concessionaire with Raisinettes, then swept the foyer clean, then restocked the toilet paper in the bathroom. Afterwards, I puddled by the foyer window with an early afternoon view of the street. There were few passersby to distract me. I assumed that the magician was working secretively on his new illusion, but no: Sommersby snuck up behind me and caught me unawares. He sat across from and offered me a mint lifesaver from his pocket, and I took it because it gave me a reprieve from the Sanka smell wafting from his clothes.

“It’s really time for me to ask,” he said in an amiable and fatherly way. “Is there anything you would like to learn from me?”

I shrugged. What could I put into words for him that I wanted? Every such fatherless adolescent meets every such grown man with the same desire: show me how to be.

“I want to learn the arts of enchantment,” I said.

He mused on this with a practiced grimace, his upper lip protruding duck-like. “Because you’re fascinated by the mystery.” He theatrically glanced at the cover of my book. “Because you have a will to power!”

I nodded again.

“I don’t know about Nietzsche,” he said to me excitedly, “but let me tell you about magic: the mystery’s a sham!”

I was disappointed because of course I already knew this. “Next you’re going to tell me that the earth orbits the sun?”

He stood up on his tiptoes and made a grand flourish. “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a teenager!” He sat back down. “But what I want to convey to you is that all artists are manipulators. And that is great power. And with great power, comes great responsibility.”

I perked up, because I felt that with this talk of power he was embarking on original ground. It was not so much an answer to the core question, but it was still a passable application of what I’d uncovered in the pages of Nietzsche. Perhaps I did have a will to power.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said mystically.

“You do?”

“And yes. The answer is yes.” He gazed fondly upon his own inward memory. “In the years before my marriage, I used magic to seduce a great many women. And to be honest, sometimes I paid women, and I’m not ashamed to say it. And sometimes I was just good, and they waited for me in the back of the theater after the show. The most enchanting words in the world? Make me pregnant.”

I closed my book and put it in my lap. It was the early eighties, and this is what passed for being instructed by a man on the byways of adulthood.

“And then you met–”

“The woman who changed everything,” he said sadly. “God rest her soul. And once I worked with a monkey!”

Wednesdays were short days. After I helped Sommersby the Great hook up various apparatus, after I watched him pace through several stages of his act–hampered in those first few weeks by the absence of his stage assistant–he released me early to my own devices. I was back on the streets, riding my bike through a late afternoon in June, twenty dollars in my pocket and no obligation to anyone. A Newton June could be temperate, cool enough for blue jeans and long sleeves, a season where people could stroll out of doors and birds could feather their nests free of terror.

Sometimes that summer I rode my bike to Strymish’s New England Mobile Bookfair. I wandered among its stacks, into its overstock and remainder section, past the side room devoted to history, around the bend beyond the infrequently haunted area devoted to poetry, and through what was a little-known door, perhaps only about two feet wide, into a more distant room that I had discovered one day labelled Health and Wellness. The books there were dusty, and the stock looked to have been tended perhaps only once a month by Fletcher Strymish himself. Therein I sat sponge-like in the dim sunlight provided by an overhead glass canopy, browsing among the remaindered books on herbal remedies, talking cures and other arcana in search of secrets that were otherwise jealously guarded by the cognoscenti in the days when information was neither accessible nor free.

And this afternoon, behold: a remaindered copy of Selections From the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, with commentary by Porticia Shakespeare. Salubrious, athletic, gesturing toward prurience, it sat off in a corner, its cover tattered. Who could resist? At the discovery of its interior, of the full-frontal depictions of female nudes, I squirmed with embarrassment, the heat rising in my throat. Furtively, jealously, endeavoring to be a good student, up until closing I read achingly of the mysteries of the “Thousand Petal Lotus Blossom.”


I reproach myself now for the reading materials of that summer. Some greater part of me wishes that I had instead been reading The Feminine Mystique, or better yet Jane Austen, either of which would have prepared me for the world in which I actually dwell. The Thousand Petal Lotus Blossom was a promise of a technique that never, to this day, solved any mysteries. Yet the overstock and remainder section of the New England Mobile Bookfair, with its scuffed titillations dressed in the accoutrement of hippy age eastern mysticism, was what was available to a boy raised in the shadow of the seventies. We opened the floodgates of ourselves, and those were the books that rushed in to greet us.

I look at us now, men my age, and I realize that for so many of us it was the same, fed on a daily stew of sitcom pablum and benevolent paternalism and off-hand sexploitation. In our dreams we were astronauts, or annihilating mercenaries or baseball stars, and then on television our action heroes were spasmodic gigolos. At night all of it would sift down into our bodies, so that over years we learned that this was the world we should anticipate, that we should take and demand and disrespect, that we should all of us carry ourselves as swaggering tinpot tyrants. And I look at us now, and I think: really, how far we’ve all come.

The day after my discovery of the Kamasutra, I was back again in the foyer, reading Nietzsche in the theater windows. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, he wrote, and I thrilled to read this because in my ignorance I thought that what I wanted from life was to be tested in extremis.

Sommersby ignored me the early part of the afternoon while he hammered, sawed, and welded scraps of wood and metal and line into a contraption that, from my limited experience, looked like a piece of junk. In the late afternoon, he summoned me while he took a Sanka break. His brow was sweaty, and he frequently wiped himself with a large beach towel draped across a hat stand beside him, his white hair matted against his scalp.

He was working on his major illusion, he told me. One that would astonish the audiences beyond all puzzlement, one that would forever immortalize his name. He would implement it in a month or so, once his actual, long-time assistant returned from her trip to San Francisco. “Now, for instance, I could without trouble make a car disappear from the stage,” he said.

“That’s amazing,” I said.

He nodded appreciatively, a flick of sweat popping from his forehead to the stage. “But it’s not enough,” he said. He paused for another sip from his oversized SAM mug. “And I could make a disembodied head prophesize,” he added. “Perhaps you’ll do that with me before the summer is out?”

“Also amazing,” I said.

“It’s nothing,” he said. “Not compared to this. This will be true magic.”

I waited for the reveal. He lapsed into silence.

“So what is it?”

He nodded quickly. “You ready?”

“I’m ready.”

“But are you really listening?”

“I’m really listening.”

He considered. “But are you really, really –” and I frowned, and he continued: “Anyway – what I want . . . is to make a woman disappear.

I was disappointed in Sommersby. He winced at my skepticism.

“You people never understand,” he said dismissively. “It’s not the effect. It’s the technique!”


That following Wednesday when I reported to work, she was already there, on stage, rehearsing a new trick with Sommersby. It was his actual assistant. She was a medium-sized girl, almost sixteen years old, with a widow’s peak of chestnut brown hair and glowing brown eyes and thick brown eyebrows shaped like gables. She dressed in a slimming ballerina outfit and little brown shoes, and she wore about her neck a pendant of a rabbit carved from the heart of an old redwood tree. She was animated, and she carried herself with a jaunty spring, which I later realized was a result of years of dance classes, but was also a sincere expression of her own enthusiasm. She was a year older than me, at an age when that year was a chasm.

Jessica had been working with Sommersby since girlhood. I owed my job that summer to the fortuity of the custody arrangement that had long ago been ironed out between her parents. Every June, immediately upon finishing school, she was sent to live with her father for three weeks in San Francisco. Her parental visit had now run its course, and she had returned to Newton, and to the theater, to resume helping Sommersby mount his bigger and more entertaining illusions.

That first day they worked on an illusion in which Sommersby the Great sawed Jessica in half. It was a bloodless illusion, simple and horrifying, requiring Jessica to lay on a table, to enter a trance, and to remain motionless while a blade impossibly passed through her entire body, cutting a carrot in two. At the trick’s conclusion, Sommersby revived her, allowing her to dismount the table and saunter across the stage, poised and lucid, with nary a drop of blood staining her bare torso.  I watched them practice a dozen times. The last time was like the first, except that by Sommersby’s calculation, through diligent effort, he was able to shave some ten seconds off their performance.

They had worked together long enough that they spoke in a kind of shorthand. He chided her. “This last time around you walked off like a drag queen,” he said. “You’ve picked up bad habits in San Francisco.”

“No, I picked up Dad habits in San Francisco,” she said. “It’s all about the Haight.”

“It’s actually all about the Castro, dear one. I never understood your father.”

“He has always been true to himself,” she said flatly.

“To each his own,” said Sommersby, grudgingly. “Did he at least persuade you to dump your boyfriend?”

“Don’t speak that way about Denny,” she said.

“He isn’t Jesus and I’m not taking his name in vain. But did your father try?

“He gave me a very stern lecture and I told him that I would very sternly ignore it.”

“Perhaps you should trust the voices you’re hearing.”

“I trust my own voice,” she retorted.

With that, the matter dropped. In my imagination I conjured a beefy and insensitive upperclassman wearing a letter jacket. I learned the truth that afternoon when, carrying my bicycle, I passed by Jessica in the foyer. She was waiting for a ride from her boyfriend.

“That’s nice of him,” I said.

“It is,” she said. She scowled in the direction of the theater. “And I wish some people would butt out of other people’s business.”

“It’s cool that he has a license,” I said.

“Of course he does,” she said. “He’s twenty seven.”


She was that sort of person: she might show up one day in a crass t-shirt featuring two rolls of toilet paper on her chest, Don’t Squeeze the Charmin, and then the next day in bowling shoes and tights, as if she were on the set of Grease, and then the day thereafter in a hoop skirt, her hair done up into a French aristocratic tower, her skin patted with white powder so that she resembled the ghost of Marie Antoinette. She liked to keep us guessing.

Sommersby’s illusions all involved the impossible manipulation of Jessica’s body. Over the next many days of practice, and on into the weekend performances, I beheld Sommersby the Great serially impale, transect, squish, and re-produce his assistant from a series of ornately colored tables, boxes, cabinets and chests. Behind every great illusionist is a great woman he has dismembered. Jessica’s job was to appear as if she were a pliant, mildly disinterested participant, for whom such physical trauma was mere distraction, while under the curtain and behind the arras she had to contort herself to render the magic flawlessly. Now and then, however, she would smile broadly, to signal that she was at once alive and amused, and such momentary flashes of exuberance only added to the mystery of the illusions.

Among the most remarked tricks of that decade was a Robert Harbin effect first unveiled in the sixties. Sommersby the Great had bought his way into an inner circle authorized to perform the Zig Zag Girl, by which Jessica stepped into a large upright box and proceeded to have her midsection displaced from the rest of her body. It required her to exhale and hold her breath. The first time I saw them practice it, he became enraged.

“You need to eat less,” said Sommersby. “You don’t want to get fat.”

“I’m trying,” she said.

“You need to try harder.” He held his head as if he were swooning. “It’s not just about the Zig Zag Girl. If you swell up like a whale, no one will marry you and then you will lead a pathetic lonely life.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it,” she said, and she herself was angry now. “I’m going to have men eating out of my hand.”

“It’s only half bullshit and I’m worried that you don’t know it,” retorted the magician. “We men are both more and less complicated than you think, whatever it may be your stupid pedophile boyfriend may be telling you in his parent’s basement apartment.”

“He has his own apartment,” she said proudly.

“Oh, 27 and his very own apartment?” said the magician. “I apologize. I got it so wrong. He’s a screaming success. Just you wait, he’ll be the mayor of Boston.”

The magician cut short our practice. At his insistence, I went with Jessica to the Newton Creamery across the street, under the express instruction that she was to have either a black coffee or another diet coke. The Newton Creamery was an ice cream delicatessen, with pink vaulted ceilings and waitresses in magenta plaid skirts with pencils behind their ears and Elvis songs on a juke box. We seated ourselves and ordered chocolate frappes.

“I’m sorry about all that,” I said.

“About what?”

“I think Sommersby gets carried away.”

“Please,” she said, and she produced a Certs from her pocket. “I’m not just going to dissolve in a puddle of weepy.”

“I know that much.”

“Then at least you know something,” she said. “The way to rise above it all is to shut it off. You have to cauterize it. You close your eyes and you think of a faraway place with a funny name. For me, it’s Peoria.  I’ve never been, but the name sounds delicious. Denny and I will drive there someday.” I was about to interject, but she looked at me reproachfully. “Don’t spoil it with the truth.”

The waitress brought us our frappes. Jessica took a sip and closed her eyes.

“When you’ve loved like this, it reduces every other emotion to frump. After sex with him, I feel like I’ve communed with God.”

I was eager to impress her. “There is no God,” I hazarded. “Thus spake Zarathustra.”

She tapped my arm. “I told Denny about your Nietzsche fantasies and Denny said that Hitler used to read Nietzsche while masturbating into a sock because he didn’t like women.”

I flushed, indignant. “And how does Denny know?”

“Denny just knows,” she said balefully. “He says that if you’re an intellectual, you should read Vladimir Nabokov and watch Roman Polanski, because they’re blazing a trail toward the future where children are allowed the same autonomy as adults.”

“Don’t you ever think it’s strange? You and Denny?”

She eyed me as if betrayed. “Now you’re getting started?”

“I’m just asking.”

“You’re still a boy,” she said bluntly. “I get it. You don’t understand some things.” She drank her frappe near to the bottom. “So then, boy, what will you be when you grow up?”

I had pondered this quite often. If I were to be a magician, it would be only through metaphor. “I’ll be a father,” I said.

“It sounds so simple,” she said. “But it really can’t be that simple, or more people would stick with it.” She reached into her pocket and extracted another Certs. “I’ll be a magician,” she said. “And I’ll make an array of handsome boys sit in a bevy of tight boxes. That’s simple.”

Afterwards we walked back to the theater. Sommersby was in the bowels of the building, tinkering with his revolutionary new disappearance device. Jessica sat in the foyer, waiting for her ride, and I sat with her. She took my tattered copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra and paged through it, and then handed it back solemnly, in deference to its sway.

Soon enough a battered orange Volkswagen Beetle drove up to the entrance and idled by the curb. The window was open, and an unsmiling man leaned out of it, his cheeks lightly scarred by acne. He had a great bushy mustache that formed a helmet for his upper lip, and he wore dark sunglasses which concealed his identity and enhanced his air of mystery. His nose was a beaten clump of cauliflower. His shirt was unbuttoned, and he had chest hair. He seemed like someone’s father – for all I knew, he already was.

Jessica left the theater then, sauntering toward the car and around to the passenger’s seat with an exaggerated stride, a sort of long-legged catwalk. She was vamping again. Denny ignored it imperiously, seemingly oblivious to the contrivance that she unleashed for his benefit alone. His face was washed out by the July sunshine. He raised the window as she got in his car, and just before driving off, he bent toward her to put his tongue inside her mouth.


You talk to me about feminism in the eighties, and of course there was feminism. We saw articles about it on the cover of Glamour, of Cosmopolitan, of Tiger Beat, all the various rags available at the grocery store check out counter. But the facts on the ground? We were still aspiring to a single career household, paying lip service to equality. Boys were smelly, rude and adventurous; girls were candy, demur, separate but equal. To say otherwise was to aspire.

Don’t ask me to defend it. It was simply my childhood. And hers.


The clouds pushed into Newton one early Saturday and it began to rain, sometimes desultorily and sometimes fiercely, but steadily enough to complicate my bicycle commute to the magic theater. So it was that Jessica called me at home and offered her boyfriend’s services. Around noon the dented orange Volkswagen Beetle pulled up across the street from my house and sat idling. The rain was falling like metal ball bearings, and the air above us was the color of mold.

I ran across the street, and Jessica scrunched herself up to allow me to hop into the backseat. The car started to move just as she closed the door, kicking up puddles in the intensifying rain, its windshield wipers squeaking across the glass.

That was the first time I’d gotten a close look at Denny. He wore a musky cologne and a fat gold chain about his neck with a little golden cross at the end of it. In the murky pallor of the storm, he’d taken off his sunglasses and put them on the dash. He blinked relentlessly, and his face took on the paunchy caste I associated with people in their late twenties, with dark grooves under his eyes and plenty of stubble. In the humidity, he was sweating.

I thanked him for picking me up.

“It’s no trouble,” he said. “Jessica says you’re like a brother to her.”

This was the first I’d heard it, and it came as a compliment.

“Are you a hockey fan?” he asked. “I’m a hockey fan.”

“Cam Neely is going to be dreamy,” said Jessica.

“We’ll see about that,” said Denny.

“I like to help out at the magic theater.”

He guffawed. “O.k. Sure. And what else?”

“I like to ride my bike. “

“Got it,” he said. “Do you read the funnies?”

“Sometimes,” I admitted.

“Good kid,” he said. “After my own heart.”

Jessica smirked at him. He smiled back at her. The car pulled to a stop at an intersection in Newton Center, where a rivulet of water sliced at the sidewalk, and he let the conversation falter. It was incumbent upon me to restart it. “What do you like besides hockey?”

“I like to bone your sister,” he said.

She rolled her eyes. “Why are you so crude?” she asked.

“I’m honest,” he said, and he reached over and squeezed her thigh. “The older you get, the less time you have for pretense. But in all seriousness, I like to see live music, and now and then relax with a good chianti and a steak, medium rare. You know. The good life.”

“It sounds great,” I said.

“Also I like traveling to distant places. Bermuda, for instance. Ever been?” He didn’t wait for my reaction. “I think it’s important to expand your horizons. In Bermuda, they drive on the left side of the road. Think about that for a minute. It’s a different world view altogether. Just a different way of thinking.

“I’ll be psyched to drive,” I said.

“Of course you will. Sometimes you need to open your mind to other possibilities. Look at me and my lady love. She’s a Taurus and I’m a mother-fucking Cancer. You might think they’d never go together.  But they do.”

“Like chocolate and peanut butter,” she said.

“Like gin and tonic, my love.”

After that he drove in silence, concentrating past the rain plinking off the hood of the car. We pulled up to the magic theater. I thanked him, and he waved me away impatiently. “Just take good care of your sister for me,” he quipped. We ran from the car to the entrance, the rain deafeningly loud, and when we got there, we were soaked.

“I’m so glad that you finally got to meet him,” she said.

“He’s all grown up,” I said.

“He’s a man,” she said. “Someday you’ll understand.”


I remember well on a Sunday, stuffing my dress shirt and slacks into a backpack and biking into the heat of the afternoon, a mid-summer day in Newton, and the cars taking the road slowly, glistening in the distance with the heat rising up around them. I was wet by the time I arrived. Sommersby was already there, and with him Jessica, her brown hair blown out over her brown top and black tights, looking sleepier than usual, which I hardly remarked on at the time, and before long we opened the doors and I took my place at the booth to greet the people, who steadily came.

Through the shimmering air, the audience, too, was shimmering, people’s bare arms dappled, their shirts sticking to their backs, and condensation fogging up people’s glasses, and everyone asking for cans of soda, which began to sweat as soon as I put them on the concession counter. People drifted down the aisles into their seats, bumped into one another, apologized languidly upon falling across one another’s legs. It was a typical audience for a late Sunday afternoon magic show, a potpourri of Newton before it had gentrified, a mixture of professors and plumbers and taxi men and petty mafioso, and I wondered at it, where these people came from, how they found us, except that Sommersby had been performing in the same theater for well past a decade, and before that internationally for decades more, and he had become a well-regarded if middling celebrity in that time, someone for whom people simply showed up. And his act did not disappoint.

These were the days when live theater was a purveyor of nostalgia, when the audience still contained people, advanced in years, who had themselves patronized vaudeville in their youth. Some of these people had seen Thurston and Laurant, Raymond and Okito in their heydays, and they came to the theater expecting profusions of silks, and bouquets of flowers popping from Sommersby’s lapels, and perhaps a dove, or two, or three emerging flappingly from out of Sommersby’s closed fist. Sommersby could do it all, and keep a lively ingenuous patter, as well – and then go beyond the early twentieth century staples to newer and more puzzling demonstrations that left people gaping. He understood well that an audience was composed of several individual atomies – a good performer will quickly ascertain its components, know whom to flatter and whom to snub, so that in a matter of moments, the audience is transformed into a hive mind, thrumming synchronously.

But at the ten-minute intermission, he was fatigued. Jessica summoned me from the concessionaire, and I closed the cash register abruptly and hurried backstage to find him slumped into his chair, his suit rumpling around him, a cake collapsing at its middle. He asked Jessica to find his bottle of pills from the dressing room in the basement. She clambered down the steps while the audience waited behind the curtain, and I sat beside him, watching for signs of emergent distress, at a loss for what to do.

He fixed his weary gaze on me pointedly. “She’s pretty today, isn’t she?”

“I don’t know.”

“She’s always pretty,” he said exhaustedly. “Tell me you don’t have a woody. Tell me.”

I was embarrassed by him, and I reflexively looked to make sure my fly was zipped. “I wish you wouldn’t be like that.”

“You’re a sensitive soul,” whispered the magician. “I respect that.” He coughed. “I respect your noble wishes, which will neither feed you nor clothe you nor deliver you so much as an atomy of your so-called power. Admit at least that she’s pretty, though.”

“She’s pretty,” I said.

He breathed heavily and seemed to grow even more pallid. “She won’t waste herself forever on the pedophile.”

“Why are you like this?” I asked.

“Because there is no other way,” he said, scowling. He understood now that I wasn’t with him, that I was young and outraged, that whatever lesson he’d meant to teach me had failed. He convulsed, a descent into weakness, a fit of coughing, and the blood left his face. “If you want to create a different future, you’ll do so over my dead body.”

Jessica appeared with a bottle of pills. He bolted them with a glass of water and sank further into the chair.

“I think you’ll need to cancel the rest of the show,” he said to us both. “And I think you’ll need to get me to my car.”

“Who’s going to drive?” asked Jessica.

“We can’t drive,” I said.

You can’t drive,” he said to me. “That’s only because you’re ineffectual. Jessica’s a girl, but she can drive.”

“I don’t have a license,” she said.

“That doesn’t matter.” Sommersby handed his jangling car keys over.

“Let’s help you up,” she said.  

We each took one of his arms. We each of us stumbled in our efforts, because Sommersby proved heavier than we anticipated, and he fell back again into the chair. Only by scrambling behind him did I prevent him from falling over onto the floor.

He became wild-eyed then, his hair askew like an ocean wave crashing on the shore. “There’s no way out,” he said.

“We’ll get you up,” I said.

“Jesus, I hate medical bills.”

Jessica went out into the theater and, after a bit of by-play, informed that audience that the show was over for the day. The ambulance came five minutes later.

It is only in retrospect that transitions announce themselves. The paramedics moved like ninjas, with stealth and minimal words and blue efficiency. In the moment, it is a matter of logistics, of prying a man whose coronary artery has narrowed its flow out of a chair and onto a gurney and hurtling through the early evening toward a waiting surgeon. In the wake of such leave-taking, a silence descends, and it is only a minor matter of walking through the theater locking up the doors and checking the bathrooms and tying one’s own shoes. I did a cursory sweep of the floor to gather up the loose programs and ticket stubs and cans and discarded candies. I turned out the lights.

I found her in the foyer, leaning against the concession counter, munching on loose popcorn and drinking a can of ginger ale. She took two steps – and then she herself became ashen. She slapped the can on the table and ran to the bathroom.

The door was flung wide. I found her huddled over the sink, throwing up. She wiped her mouth on a tissue. She flushed the tissue down the toilet.

“The popcorn’s not that bad,” I said.

“It has nothing to do with the popcorn,” she said. “I’m just so goddam sleepy these days.”

“It’s been hot lately.”

“It has nothing to do with the heat,” she said. She wiped her mouth again and gathered herself together.

“Can I call–”

“Denny doesn’t know,” she said.

“Know what?”

She shook her head at me and we walked through the auditorium one last time.

As was our custom on performance nights, we exited out the back alley on the left side of the theater, from an entrance unfamiliar and unknown to the public. I walked my bike beside her, and the alley took us around the back of a bookstore to a side street, and from there I walked her through the early dusk as far as the main road, where the cab was waiting for her. I helped her open the door and get in. From the window she faced me sadly, and as the taxi pulled away, she blew me a kiss.


Sommersby the Great called me from the hospital to apologize a week thereafter, and delivered the news with a polite but enervated formality. The remainder of the summer was cancelled.

“Next year?” I asked.

“Next year,” he croaked, though neither of us believed it. He thanked me for all my help, and told me, unconvincingly, that I had a fine future ahead of me in stage management.  “And you’ll want to check in on Jessica,” he said. “Perhaps you’ll get something out of it after all.” And he hung up the phone.

We were in the middle ofAugust when I finally collected the courage to call her. I didn’t know what to expect.

“Come over,” she said, in a voice that mingled pep with boredom.

I doused myself in deodorant and got on my bike. She lived a few miles away, in a small house on the ragged edge of a nature preserve. The yard was fenced in and modest, and the white paint was peeling from the front of the house, revealing rot around the windows. I leaned my bike against the side of the house, well away from the street. When I came around the front door, she was waiting for me in the door frame, holding a sweating pitcher of iced tea.

She was herself, though more luminous, and a bit puffier in the cheeks. Her hair was combed carefully, and she was wearing a new purple dress with a brown sash about the middle. Her chest had grown bigger. There was dried toothpaste at the corner of her mouth.

“The back porch is nice this time of year,” she said, and she led me through the narrow hallway, through the kitchen, out the back door to a small deck overlooking a rotting wooden fence close up against the woods. There were two aluminum lawn chairs with rust stains running down their sides. She gestured and we sat together, staring up at the trees and a pair of squirrels chasing each other scattershot along a limb.

I sat beside her. “So it feels like I haven’t seen you in a while,” I said.

“Yes, sorry about that,” she said absently, and I couldn’t understand why she should be apologizing. “Aside from being tired all the time, I’m fine,” she said. “And aside from the vertigo. There’s that, too.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I have to spell it out for you?”

I shrugged. I understood nothing.

She stared at me blankly. “Speaking of which, I haven’t seen Denny in a while,” she said, and her leg began to jump nervously. She bit her lip. “And I don’t like it,” she said. “I mean, I can’t.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “If there’s anything at all I can do for you–”

“Thank you, but that’s nonsense.” She swallowed, and her arms were tensed. “I won’t be long. It won’t be another week.”

Still I didn’t understand. “You’ll see him in a week?”

Her face drew down upon itself. “I just mean I’ll be fine in a week,” she said. Her hand started shaking. “I’ll be over it. Do you want your lemonade or not?”

I nodded and she poured me a glass. Then she poured herself a glass.

“I’m sorry about Denny,” I said. It felt right to say such a thing, and it helped her to relax. “He’s a fool.”

“You don’t know,” she said curtly. “You’re still a kid.”

“You’re still a kid,” I said.

“Fuck no. I stopped being a kid when I was four,” she said.

We finished our lemonade, and then she poured us each another glass. The mid-August heat was baking into my legs. Small beads of sweat were pricking out below her ears.

“Tell me,” she asked abruptly. “What did you take out of Nietzsche?”

I put my lemonade aside. I had not considered it before in this way, because no one had yet asked me to summarize. I spoke deliberately, in a voice that has since become my own. “To gain power you need to be callous to the feelings of others.”

“True,” she said, nodding thoughtfully.

“And if you’re a man, you need to treat women like shit.”

She looked at me with a funny little smile, though she was inspecting me carefully. “You’re funnier than I thought,” she said.

“Do you want to take a bike ride,” I asked.

“I haven’t done that in years.”

“Not everyone can drive yet.”

“I’m still a few months away,” she said. “Denny drove me everywhere I wanted to go, because everywhere I wanted to go was with him.”

We left the lemonade behind and walked over to the garage. I wheeled out her mother’s bike, which was colored a deep ochre. It hadn’t been used in years. I pumped up the tires, and with several squirts of oil I got the gears operating smoothly. The bike was a bit large for her, but not overly so. “That’s funny,” she said, as she got on the seat. It wobbled only briefly when she started to peddle.


It started out as a short jaunt. We rode past the high school, and cut through the field, which some decades past had been farmland edged with marsh, and emerged from the field past the junior high school buildings into familiar roads, meandering through the plots of greenery and well-built post-war housing. We labored up an incline, and then coasted along a plateau, and then pedaled up another incline and then another still, at the edge of the Oak Hill neighborhood, so that Jessica, who was heavier than she had been all summer, was now panting. I waited for her on the sidewalk. From there we hit a busy thoroughfare that veered past Memorial Spaulding, until we came to my favorite hill.

To look at that hill was to look at one’s grave. It was one of those impossible drops that promised you could coast incredibly fast, get a good breeze through your hair, feel yourself on the precipice of dying. She was pedaling slowly when we got there, her color a high pink, but she looked happy. “I thought they only had these hills in San Francisco,” she said.

“I’ve never been,” I said. I watched her catch her breath.

“I’ll race you,” she said.

“Try it,” I said.

I pushed off and pumped, so that I was speeding down the incline, just on the edge of fear. And in a moment she was right there, ripping up beside me.

“This is nuts!” she yelled.

“Watch the pothole!” I shouted.

Our wheels made a high-pitched whir.

“Fucking awesome!” she yelled.

Half way down, at the point of terminal velocity, she closed her eyes. She kept them closed. Even in my darkest moments, I have never been capable of such bravado. I have never yet wanted to die.

“What are you doing?” I screamed.

We approached, fast, a curve and a cross street.

“Veer left,” I called out to her. “We’re almost there! We’re almost there!”

Listlessly, she opened her eyes again. She veered left, just a little too late, and at full speed, she hopped the curve, and she turned into the embankment of someone’s lawn, went briefly airborne, sailed over the sidewalk, and popped back out again onto the street.

And then we were at the bottom, pulled to a stop. She was laughing a little, and there were tears on her cheeks.

“Magic,” she said.


The following piece is the poetry winner of F(r)iction’s Spring 2023 literary contest.

for Ba (Dec. 10, 1927 – Aug. 22, 2021)

Though it’s hard to take them 
through a grocery store – or 

on a plane – or even ride
them into a conference

panel – or across your cubicle, second
home which is sometimes your first

– horses 

are an excellent emotional		support animal.

          Watch their ears as you prattle on – attunement as if your mouth were a prairie opening– 
          as if your tongue were the grass of their fondest memories. In the 90s, as we traveled hills 
          of Kashmir on horseback, an army lathi jangled. The horse, sensitive. My father’s horse: 
          sensed. Horse reared & swept forth, as if it could suddenly fly, nostrils 

as wings. After flying, it clattered on
          the mountainside, my father –

sensitive to the rock next 
          to his head, sensitive 
to what memories he might

have missed in mountains

                          to come, sensitive to this new desire
for sensation. In 2007, my grandfather burbled, a lack

of oxygen to his brain. I stroked his face as if it were

wet rock, whispered into his sensitive ears, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

Perhaps these sounds reminded him of his own 	     mouth, morning
                                                                              mala japa. His burbling

receded. Some years later, I discovered in truly old
Vedic rituals, priests used to repeat Shanti before 

sacrificing horses. Horses are 	         sensitive, you
know, and must be calmed before slaughter. Rituals

today must not be too sensitive. My Dada

survived. Until four years later when
he died. Two weeks ago, I asked

my father how

my 93-year-old Ba
            is. “Ghoda 

jevi,” he says. Today,
we are all the horses

crossing rituals as if they were 	    nations – or 
loved ones – we could visit with visas – with

visas – we too could somehow 	        visit.

S. P. A. M.


A monster grew out there in the tobacco. 

Delmae had seen it. Shapeless as night. Well, heard it. A howl like a coyote—no, a screech like a bobcat. Or was that the feral tabby who liked to hang around out back for the chicken heads Mama unzipped from their bodies, for supper? 

Well, no matter. Delmae sensed it. Knew it was there. It lived in small touches against the earth, and when it reached out, the universe touched back. The sway of the tobacco leaves when there was no wind. The sudden flight of crows when there were no men in the fields. The patchy death of rotting grass underfoot when there was no drought.  

When her Mama thought she was asleep along with her brothers and sisters, Delmae would tuck her small frame into the sill of their bedroom window and stare out at the endless rows of shivering tobacco. A whole farmhouse between her and that monster. Still she sensed it. 

Its eyes would not be sparks of fire, she decided. They would be blue, like hers. Like those’n on the doll she wanted from the general store in town but that her Mama said they were too poor to afford. Blue was a fierce color, and one day, Delmae was determined to find a pair of blue eyes that could stare back as hard as she stared out. 

She asked her Pa one morning, when dawn was just a whisper over the fields. This was their ritual. Or rather, hers. As the eldest girl, she’d wake up early enough to pack sandwiches for Pa and Mama and her siblings. Shuffling white bread like playing cards didn’t take long, but she knew if she came alive before everyone else, she’d get a moment with Pa, just the two of them, before he left for work. Before his limbs were heavy, before his back was hunched, before his skin was sweat. Before his temper was short. 

“Pa,” she’d start, little fingers curling back the tin lid on the S.P.A.M. can like she was pulling the covers off of Mama, who did not like to rise early at all. (She never understood why—if Mama never got up early enough, she never got to kiss Pa goodbye for the day.) “Did you know there’s a monster living out there? In the fields?” 

Her Pa was doing up the laces on his work boots, the big ones he used to crush monsters in the house, mostly fiddlebacks. “Is that the truth?” he grunted. Somedays he worked in the fields, somedays with the gas-n-electric company, somedays with the mines. The more hours he worked, the fewer hours he spent in the house with Delmae and Mama. The mines were the worst. On those days, her Pa came home looking something scary.

“Uh huh. I know it. And it knows I know. It waits out there, watching us. I think it was here before us and we just gone and moved in on it. It ate the chickens last Christmas—”

“That was a fox,” her Pa shot, voice gruff. “They get hungry in the cold.” 

Delmae peered at him over the kitchen counter, which was almost too tall for her. She didn’t tell anyone, but she hid a small crate in the cabinets; she’d pull it out to stand on whenever folks was on the other side of the kitchen, unable to see. 

“No, it’s a monster! A big one, too. Not ugly, though. Like a shadow, you know. Or a big dog. Like the Jeffersons’ dog down the way, Bullet, I’d bet they be friends—”

“A fox, Delmae,” her Pa said, voice sterner this time. No room for arguing.

“But Mama said when we close our eyes at night, all sorts of things come out of the dark and that’s why we gotta stay in bed, why we gotta go to bed early, sometimes even before you come home at night—”

“Don’t listen to your Mama. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Lets her mind get away from her, is all.” His eyes—blue, like Delmae’s, but darker, or maybe, she thought, washed with the wrong color somehow, like a poisonous sock in the laundry bin—studied his work shirt where Mama had stitched up a hole. Not well enough, apparently. His brow grew low and wrinkly over his eyes and Delmae knew she had only a little more time. 

“It’s real though. I’m not just making things up, I’m too big for that now. I’m not the baby, no matter what the boys say. I bet I could even help you start planting next season. Then I’ll show you. It’ll be out there, I swear it.”

Her Pa only shook his head. He already seemed worn out today, or maybe that was just her imagination. Her brothers were always teasing her for an imagination. Said they didn’t know where she got it from on account of they couldn’t much afford any books. 

“Oh!” Delmae explained. “Maybe it’s waiting out there cause it’s hungry!” The revelation sung through her veins stronger than the church choir on Sundays. That had to be it. “Hey Pa,” she said, unfolding newsprint to wrap the sandwiches in. “How come we can have fields and animals but we can’t buy a doll?”

Her Pa stood then, towering in the room like a statue that had been sized all wrong for its garden. Silent as concrete, he stalked toward her and grabbed two newsprint-wrapped S.P.A.M. sandwiches off the counter without a word. 

Then he was gone.  

Delmae looked down at the remains of her sandwich operation, cheeks singing with warmth but not any kind of warmth that reminded her of a pleasing choir.

Every morning, she cut a single can of S.P.A.M. into eleven slices for eleven lunches: Two sandwiches each to the three boys and Pa for their long school and work days; one each to Delmae and her little sister; and one to her Mama, but Mama always ended up giving hers away to their crotchety neighbor down in the holler, Ms. Lacey, even though that tough old woman always said she didn’t want one but took it anyway. Delmae’s brothers always joked that their Pa and Mama stopped having kids when they got two girls in a row because Pa didn’t want the boys to be equally matched. Equally matched was too much the same as outnumbered. 

Every morning, she cut the slimy chunk of S.P.A.M., jiggly and as lifeless as an un-beating heart, into eleven slices, each slice so thin that if she held it up to the window, she could see the sun rise over the fields through it. She’d slice, layer the meat gently into a pocket of white bread eleven times, and play her favorite game: Imagining what the S.P.A.M. letters really stood for. Sunlight Paraded All Morning. Supper Probably Ain’t Much. 

Someday Pa Answers Me. 

This morning, she looked at the chunk of S.P.A.M. and thought for a minute. And instead of cutting the rest into the remaining nine veiny slices, she made ten, twelve slices total. 

One extra slice for the monster growing in the tobacco. 

He was probably starving. 


A monster grew in the air that summer. 

Delmae could smell it. Something fowl baked in the air quicker than cornbread batter crusted in a hot oiled skillet. 

A little after noon, every time she came back from delivering a S.P.A.M. sandwich to the monster in the tobacco (her new favorite habit), she caught a whiff of something sour decaying in the humid June air. 

Her three older brothers left for school in the mornings, after Pa left for work. She was old enough for learning, too, and had even gone a spell in the school house in town. But then her baby sister’d cried her way into life and her Mama had needed more help than her own two hands from God could provide. So Delmae’d left school; after all, whatever husband she ended up fetching would have gone to enough school for the both of them. Maybe even to high school. Delmae liked to imagine what it might be like to rifle through an entire room of books she’d have in her future big house with her future husband who would spend so much time off at work in town that he’d never bother her while she spent all day reading. 

Delmae had been right, of course. Not that her older brothers or Pa listened to her long enough to even entertain the ideas she was spewing. Sometimes Mama would give her an ear, but only in the golden hour of the afternoons, when Pa and the boys were gone and the littlest girl was deep in her nap. Only when Mama’d slept her full twelve hours and had a cup of coffee in her, maybe coffee with a little splash of something else stronger and more sour than whatever Delmae was smelling outside. Those afternoon hours were Delmae’s and Mama’s, their own special time when it felt like the entire earth could spin around two tiny lives. 

Anyway. Delmae was always right. There was most certainly a beast in the tobacco and he was most certainly hungry. 

As usual that morning, she upturned a can of S.P.A.M. and let the pink stuff drop onto a plate with a sound that reminded her of Pa’s boots sticking in the mud by the creek. And as usual in the early morning quiet and empty of the kitchen, she bullied that S.P.A.M. into twelve slices. She was particularly proud of them this morning, even though the only taste that ever came through was the white bread; they were so thin, they reminded her of the fragile pages of the Bibles in church. 

They didn’t go to church much anymore; that was one thing she noticed her folks agreed on. Pa didn’t seem to have the time or energy when Sunday was the only rest day he got, and even then, he spent it out on the farm. Mama didn’t have the patience. Whenever someone approached them on one of the rare occasions Mama took Delmae into town for an errand, they’d always wonder when Mama was gonna bring the children back to services. They were missed. 

Mama would just stare at them, the plow lines on her face getting deeper as her features sunk into the same look she often threw Pa when she thought no one was looking, like when he tracked mud through the house or when he came home late and decided to sleep on the sofa. Delmae saw everything, of course. 

Delmae didn’t like the soft-spoken preacher much, anyway. No one did. If folks were either S.P.A.M. or white bread, that man was definitely the whitest and blandest of breads. Awful lot of folks caught up on their napping, especially on summer Sundays when the church was hot and the preacher man was prisoner to one of his mumbling, droning sermons. 

Eight slices for the boys. 

Sir Preacher Always Mutters.

Three slices for the girls. 

An extra slice. 

No one saw Delmae slip out of the kitchen and into the tobacco fields around lunchtime. 

The tobacco was much taller than she. She wasn’t positive why just yet, but this lunchtime charity of hers was best kept secret. There wasn’t much left to be personal in a small farmhouse with seven people. And that didn’t even include the chickens! This was hers. No one else’s. Besides, the boys wouldn’t like knowing their sandwiches were thinner, and Mama told her to never wander out into the fields, especially alone. 

You’ll get lost. 

Will not! Pa doesn’t get lost.

Your Pa’s never not lost, sugar. But Mama usually murmured that last part like the preacher mumbled. There are monsters out there, Mama’d try again. 

Ha! Delmae giggled to herself as she stalked through the tobacco, small hands gripping a small plate with a small sandwich. Silly Mama. That kind of reasoning was like butter on crusty cornbread to Delmae; the more someone slathered it around, the more she wanted. Truth was, her stuffy school teacher was probably glad he didn’t have to handle her curiosity anymore. She had approximately fourteen phenomenal questions in her brain every hour. Monsters, for sure. If only Mama knew.  

So when the tobacco leaves enveloped her small frame in a cocoon of smells that reminded her of Pa, letting her disappear from the outside world for a moment, it was for sure a sign from the universe. She was meant to be out here; the forces at work would keep her from being spotted and getting in trouble. She loved learning about the universe and the planets and what lurked in the shadows of the oceans. She’d spend hours at the library in town when she could, but it was only ever open when cranky old Ms. Lacey felt well enough to make the trek in from deep in the holler and open it up. 

Delmae stopped in a specific clearing in the tobacco, the plants stamped down under tiny footprints here. Noontime sunlight streaked through the leaves, but it still felt cooler this deep in. It was nice to be small sometimes. No one would be able to see her from the farmhouse, and this far out in the fields, the noises of the world calmed just a little bit. No chicken squawks, no dogs panting, no static radio nonsense blaring from Mama’s bedroom. Quiet. 

She set the plate on the ground, like she had many times before. 

“This batch turned out real nice,” she said into the silence. The tobacco swayed in front of her as the wind whispered through. Silence. Delmae noticed there weren’t any little critters running around in the underbrush out here anymore, not since she’d discovered the monster. No field mice or rabbits. Not even a barn snake. Like they all knew they’d shifted from animals to prey right quick. 

Not for the first time, Delmae pondered one of her favorite questions. Did this monster like little girls? 

“We even had some jarred onions I forgot Mama pickled a while back. I threw a couple of those on there, too.” 


This is usually how it went. Delmae would talk, offer the sandwich, talk some more, and then leave. The sandwich would always be gone when she came back for the plate in the late afternoon. She pondered what kind of monster this one might be, but as she never saw the creature, that was hard. If not a monster, then what? She swore she saw flashes of lightning bug-yellow eyes at night when she stared out from the bedroom window, but he was no dog or bear or coyote. This monster was…new. 

Delmae dared to ask a question she’d never be able to in church. “Are you a god?” 

The stillness answered back. Then a low rumble sounded. A growl? A hungry stomach? She very much wanted to know more about this monster. Where had he come from? Grown up? Did he have a Pa and a Mama and siblings and absolutely no time and space to do things on his own so he’d run off and now here he was…More importantly, would he be good at her game? 

Saints Ponder Ancient Meaning. 

Yes, this monster out in the tobacco felt ancient.  

Seeing they were done for the day and knowing he wouldn’t eat the sandwich until she left, she gave a small wave and made her way back to the house. 

At the bottom of the back porch steps, Delmae immediately knew something was wrong. 

She took a few steps into the house and let the answer claim her senses. The sour smell wasn’t from her monster, or from the fields. Not the outside world. The foul odor was coming from inside the house. 

It was then she realized there was still untouched coffee burning on the stovetop. Mama had not come down to the kitchen today. 


A monster grew in Pa. 

At least, that’s what Delmae guessed, because Mama spent more and more time in bed on account of not wanting to deal with your Pa today, sugar. 

The days got hotter, the nights grew longer, and Pa came back later. He got home in entirely new days sometimes; Delmae heard midnight chime on the old grandfather clock in the den about the same time the front screen door banged open and closed. She was usually up, sitting at her bedroom window sill, watching for her monster. Monsters liked to come out in the spooks’ hour, of course. She knew this from books in the library. They loved the time between midnight and three in the morning, so she learned to love it, too. Hoping she’d spot the dark mass of a creature brushing sandwich crumbs from his fur…

Tonight, another late night, Pa did what he always did when he finally stumbled home from work or town or wherever he had been: Pa wound the grandfather clock in the den. Delmae knew it; heard it. He loved that thing more than Mama’s biscuits (ridiculous), more than his children (shameful), and certainly more than Jesus and church (understandable). He’d wind it and wind it only to fiddle with it some more, his calloused hands, dirt caked under the fingernails, for once gentle. 

She started to understand why Mama always got a twisted-up lemon look on her face when she caught Pa doing that, caressing the clock’s hands and pieces with such love and care it was like he’d married them. But what was the point of a gosh dang clock that couldn’t keep time? A clock that went bad every single day and had to be made un-bad? A more preposterous idea than the idea of a monster living out in the tobacco, if you asked her.  

From her place in the kitchen one morning, Delmae watched her Pa wind the grandfather clock. He’d actually come home early enough yesterday to go to bed before it needed to be wound, even had supper with her and the boys (Mama was asleep), although it was just corn soup and stale bread croutons. Slice after slice of S.P.A.M. fell to the plate as her Pa busied himself with the clock; she was ready to stash the slices and bread into the breadbox in case he turned around and saw how many sandwiches she was making. 

But she lost count of her slices when a ghost floated down the steps, the floorboards creaking even beneath a willowy frame. Mama was up. Out of bed. In the morning. Delmae almost shaved off her thumb as her eyes followed her Mama as best they could from the kitchen. She was in her dressing robe, hair not done, but still. She was alive in a whole new part of the day. Her Mama approached Pa at the clock. Delmae didn’t know what was wrong, but she knew something was off between them, like they had pasty clumps in their buttermilk. Were they getting back to being friends again?

Her Mama and Pa sunk into a terse, whispered conversation. That didn’t sound like being friends again.  

Signs Point Against Maybe. 

“Why didn’t you come down to supper last night?” 

Delmae couldn’t quite see their faces, but that was Pa. Pa always started with questions. 

“Why did you make it to supper last night?” Definitely Mama. Silence. “What happened, Charles?” 

“What was always going to happen. They’ve lost too many men in the mines this season so they sent us home. Folks is starting to pay too much attention. That mine’ll close. The money’ll move to anothern, a smaller town further away with better mountains and poorer men. Men ever more desperate than us.”

“There are no poorer men. We’re it—”

“Is that the truth?” A hacking cough out of Pa. Delmae’s oldest brother told her it was the mines. Apparently, mine monsters were mostly made of coal dust and crawled into your lungs so they could hitch a ride out of their caves since they were trapped down there, sometimes for centuries. She didn’t believe that nonsense. Not really. It was silly. Mostly. Honestly, why would a monster ever have to get un-trapped? A monster was the trap. 

Her Pa was speaking again, and Delmae’s ears went hot when she heard her name. 

“Del’s old enough to work now. And I don’t just mean around the house. She can join the boys in the field maybe, or go in town—” 

“Honestly, Charles. Del ain’t even got proper clothes to leave the house. You’d know that if you spent any time with her. She needs new shoes.” 

“She can wear the one’s she’s got for now just fine.”

Delmae wiggled her free toes on the cold kitchen title. Thank goodness she didn’t have to wear shoes in the house. Her middle toes were longer than the others, and were starting to permanently curl in and under in her worn Mary Janes. They didn’t hurt. Much. She couldn’t run in them, mind you. And sometimes her ankles started to smart because she kept walking on her heels to keep her toes lifted off the ground and free of the pressure—

Did her monster out in the tobacco have shoes? What if his feet were cold? Bruised and broken? If her Pa couldn’t even get his baby girl new shoes, who was taking care of her monster? 

Just then, her stomach rumbled. She was pretty used to the feeling by now, but for some reason, her gut grumbled louder than her folks’ argument this time. If she was hungry, then surely her monster was, too. She sliced faster, only half paying attention now.  

“She cannot wear those old things anymore. They’re gonna cripple her feet. You think she’ll dance well enough to get any attention from boys with those feet?”

Boys! Delmae wanted to snort. What boys? Pure trouble. She didn’t have time for boys, not for their silliness. Not that she saw many boys anymore since Mama took her out of school. Slice. The boys in class had stared too long at her dusty shoes and crooked teeth, and not nearly long enough at her blue eyes or the tiny bow of twine she braided her hair with. Slice. It was twine she secretly clipped from her Mama’s best and only hat one day, with her older brother’s knife. That hat lived at the back of the closet, anyway. Boys were stupid. Slice. 

Stupid People Anger Me. 

“That just means she’s growing, which means she’s old enough to start some real work. It’d be good for her.” 

“It ain’t good for you, why would it be good for her—” Her Mama’s voice caught in a strange gurgle of a sound then, strangled and short, the way the barn dogs choked on the bones of the chicken scraps they got a hold of after supper. 

Then Delmae heard a wheezing gasp, like her Mama’d come up for air after swimming through a deep, dark well.  

In the next instant, erratic boot-stomping echoed toward the kitchen. “Better than wasting away around here, learning your example, sleeping all hours of the day—”

Delmae didn’t look up in time. Her Pa and Mama barreled around the corner into the kitchen and she didn’t even have half a second to squirrel away the evidence of the extra sandwich. There were twelve slivers of delicate heart-pink S.P.A.M. in front of her, twenty-four pieces of white bread. 

Her parents halted in surprise. Pa’s face was flushed with red anger. Mama’s eyes were sunken in pools of purple, baggy exhaustion, and a red patchy painting was forming around her neck. Silly Mama. Her neck always got like that when she insisted on sleeping with her goose-feather pillow. (Delmae didn’t know why her Mama didn’t just get rid of that pillow when it gave her so much trouble.)

Her folks were silent, staring. At the fact that Delmae was up this early making sandwiches and had likely overheard them, or at the extra sandwich? Oh lord, she hoped the first. Worst case, she’d just say Mama was bringing an extra sandwich to Ms. Lacey, who was only ever not so cranky when she had a little something to eat, and she needed something to snack on after all if she was going to make the trek to keep the library open for Delmae—

Mama’s eyes went to Pa and then followed his gaze, which was fixated on Delmae’s small hands hovering above smaller sandwiches. Her folks glowered at the slices of S.P.A.M., thinner than a top layer of delicate skin. Delmae’d read once that their outside layer of skin was already dead anyway, always dying and replenishing. 

Pa turned and fumed out, stomps echoing to the front door.

Mama stayed a moment longer, the sadness in her eyes losing the fight to tiredness. Her Mama never seemed to be able to win the fight against her enemy of exhaustion. Without a word, she left her daughter alone again in the kitchen. 

Delmae brought the rest of the sandwiches to life. She gave extra care to the twelfth. Even spread a little bit of the mustard they had left in the jar on top of the S.P.A.M. 

Were they really that poor, she thought, as she left a sandwich out in the tobacco fields that day. How could she be poor if she still had something to share? 

Sure enough, supper was quiet that night. As she and her siblings came to the table, Delmae stared at the food Mama placed in front of them when it was clear Pa wasn’t making it home. 

Soggy Peas and Macaroni. 

Yes, she thought. Oh yes. The monster outside might have been hungry, but the heartbeats inside the house were poor in all the wrong ways.   


A monster was not an easy thing to hide, as it turned out. 

Delmae made a mistake. As with all mistakes, this one started with a storm. 

One August night, late summer heat and a lonely front of cool air mixed worse than old skillet grease and the chilly water from the kitchen faucet. And soon, when the moon was high but shadowed behind the clouds, the atmosphere gave birth to a locomotive. 

The sky screamed at midnight, and suddenly the world was awake. Still half dazed with sleep and barely out of a dream, Delmae sprinted after her older brothers through the house. The walls shrieked around them as the old farmhouse bent and shook and swayed in the gathering winds. Picture frames fell and cracked. The few pieces of china they had shivered from the cabinets and shattered. Delmae’s sister, the little one, was crying up a storm of her own but then the baby was in their Mama’s arms and Mama was trying to sing a lullaby over the sound of the train coming right down from heaven—

“The cellar, out back!” 

Delmae saw Pa shout the words before she ever heard them, and suddenly hands and elbows met ribs and everyone was shoving and clawing their way out of the house, speeding like the devil for the cellar out back. Near the tobacco fields. Her ears rung and her head felt like it was overflowing with cotton, and she could barely think straight. The fields! Her Monster—he was out there alone and he must be confused and frightened and lord he was probably so hungry, late-night storms always made her crave milk and some sweet cinnamon dumplings—

Outside, a mass of black hovered on the horizon, spinning in some kind of odd, slow-tempo dance. The tobacco wouldn’t be any kind of shield for her monster. 

Mama shouted over the horn section of winds, at their eldest. “Go check on Ms. Lacey!” 

Pa whirled on their Mama, the lose skin of his face catching and slipping around on his cheek bones like an old sheet. “Are you insane? Don’t send him out there—”

But Delmae’s big brother went sprinting in the opposite direction, toward the road, without even his shoes on. 

Pa was so distracted he didn’t see Delmae slip back into the house.

The foundation of the house shook and nails popped and she was sure her world was vibrating but maybe that was just her brain knocking against her skull. She made it to the kitchen, to the stack of sandwiches she’d already made last night ahead of time, when she knew folks was asleep and she wouldn’t run into Pa. 

But Pa found her this time, a newspaper-wrapped sandwich in her armpit, her feet pointed toward the back kitchen door where he was now standing.

“What the hell’re you doing, girl? Get your ass out into the cellar.” 

Her eyes went wide with what she knew had to be guilt, hair swirling all around her head and looking mighty tangled and pitiful. She didn’t move. In fact, she did him one better. She shook her head. 

Her Pa broke for a moment, his record scratching. “What?” A pause. The locomotive screamed closer. “Did you just tell me no, girl?” 

“I have to feed the monster,” she finally shouted. “The monster, the one in the field. The one I told you about.”

“The monster—” His head tilted and he suddenly looked like he might vomit. “Stop being silly and put your goddamn shoes on.” It was only then that she noticed her Pa had carried her shoes out with him, from the house, like he’d actually been thinking about her. 

“But my monster—”

“There’s no monster! You’re spewing nonsense and we don’t got time for this bullshit so put your goddamn shoes on—” 

The back screen door cracked right off his hinges. Something cracked in Pa, too. Understanding passed over his face as he fully heard what she’d said. Delmae had read about the calm in the eye of tropical storms. She just didn’t think she’d ever live long enough or go far enough to see one up close. 

“You’re leaving our food out there in the fields? For what, the animals? Teaching all them wild creatures to come back and make a mess…You’re just leaving it out there.” Pa always started with questions but now none of his questions sounded like questions anymore. 

She gave the smallest of nods. 

“You’re leaving our food, my goddamn food that I goddamn paid for, out there for the vermin of the world?”

She thought it was the house at first, but no, it was her own bones trembling under her skin this time as her Pa approached her. It happened too fast for her to see it coming. One of her shoes hit her in the side of the face. Pa’s left hand was empty, her right shoe in his other. 

“Answer me, girl!” 

She didn’t budge. Just clutched the sandwich tighter, squished that single slice of S.P.A.M. into an even thinner version of itself. 

“Fuckin rat—” 

Her right shoe smacked into her temple and for a breath her world flashed white in the overwhelming darkness. 

“If you can waste my money, my food, Jesus Christ knows you don’t need any goddamn new shoes, you spoiled bitch.”

She blinked, thinking of her monster, who survived all alone out there in the tobacco fields, who’d probably survived a long time before she ever came along. 

Soon Pa Apologizes More.

She said, “Those didn’t even fit right anyhow.” 

That did it. 

Her Pa lunged after her, murder in his blue eyes that were not really blue anymore, but dark as the mass of air and earth and debris and chaos churning out there in the midnight. 

Delmae was already in motion. She fled into the living room, heart pounding in time with the thunder outside. Her Pa’s heavy boots plowed behind her and when she hopped over a fallen coatrack, she finally had an idea, not for her Mama or her siblings or even for her monster but for herself. She did the only thing could think of. 

Pa raced behind her. She got to that ancient grandfather clock in the den, that ghost of a thing that’d somehow managed to stay upright through all this hell.

And she got behind it and pushed. 

It crashed to the floor in such a cacophony of sound that she almost forgot about the storm outside. Then her Pa tripped over it where she’d pushed it into his path and crushed whatever of the precious thing was left. His face hit the floorboards, nose first, and she heard crunching and cursing before she tore the hell out of the house and into the backyard. 

She didn’t have much time. Her Pa would come after her. But she didn’t run toward the cellar, where her Mama and her brothers were waiting. 

No, Delmae didn’t desert her monster. She dove into the tobacco fields, sandwich tucked in her arm like she might have cradled that doll from the general store in town. Sprinting through the thick stalks, she thought only of her monster, of feeding him, making sure he stayed alive. A minute later, when she heard Pa follow her into the tobacco, his loud cursing an angry battle cry, she smiled. Just as he was supposed to do. 

She was doing this for her family, she told herself. For her sister and her brothers and her monster out here. Most especially for her Mama. The winds spun and the locomotive chugged faster and the world went dark as the inside of a coffin. Most especially for Mama, who deserved all the peace and quiet Delmae could find for her, who probably never got to have a monster all her own to look after, her own private little thing she could nurture until it either grew scary enough to not have to hide from anything anymore, or happy enough that it didn’t want to. 

A sandwich for her monster, a single slice of something to keep it fighting. The world cracked open above and around her. A man’s strangled cry tore across the back of her mind. 

Save Pa and Mama. 

She plunged to her knees, sandwich in the dirt, wrapped her arms over her head. 

Save Pa and Mama. 

She stayed small, unseen, something she’d practiced for a long, long time. 

Save Pa and Mama. 

Then Delmae’s head went quiet. The air pressure lifted like the heavens were taking a much-needed breath. The humid air of August cocooned around her again. A bird whistled a tune. She stood, knees shaking, eyes jumping from a felled tree to their overturned truck to the farmhouse which was leaning into the ground like it was drunk. And the fields—

The tobacco fields were completely flattered around her, and not just where she stood. For as far as they reached, as far as she could see. The sandwich was gone. Her monster was gone, too, his hiding place no longer a dark spot in the world. 

And so was her Pa. Vanished where she had no doubt he had just been before, behind her, ready to put his hands around her neck.

Her Mama surfaced from the cellar then, a daisy fighting its way out of the earth. She looked around just once, just long enough to see her daughter standing there alone in the leveled field. Only Delmae. No one else. A question appeared on her Mama’s face, the littlest girl clutched to her Mama’s breast so she didn’t get sucked away. 

Delmae answered the question with a smile. 

A proud smile, really. After all, she was good at some things. Had a lot to be proud of, most certainly. 

A monster grew in her. 

How to Raise a Proper Young Lady

The following piece is the flash fiction winner of F(r)iction’s Fall 2022 literary contest

As it is the duty of every rational creature to attend to its offspring, and … it is necessary to be prepared to conquer nature’s brute instinct. The first thing you must attend to … is her exterior accomplishments…

-Loosely borrowed from Thoughts on the Education of Daughters with Reflections on Female Conduct, Mary Wollstonecraft, Grandma of Frankenstein’s Monster

Take your sweet brown girl. To the field. Grease her pate like she’s a fine filly. You’ve been telling her so. Let her laze in her favorite spots. Only greens she can eat until she’s almost sick. Wrap a braided choker round her throat and guide her now swollen body to the house.

Shield her eyes from the cool metal, the easy leads of flesh. Button her ears against the sounds of production. She’s meant for better things. Take her to her own little sweet space to rest. Nuzzle her nose. Pet her crown. Don’t look into her eyes.

Now comes the messy part.

Line her up with the others. She blends in except to you. You see the Cameroon-shaped birthmark above her gut and know it’s her. Guide her through the line. Shock her if you need to. It’s nothing compared to the gun. Look away when the bolt of lightning hits her skull.

Collect her. Hook her. You may see yourself in her brown eyes but don’t worry it’s just a reflection. She’s dead. Blood-let her for good measure. Keep the blood away from your shoes otherwise you’ll leave a trace. Cover your nose when her foulness slips out.

Start your work. Dissect her into sections.

Fuck the Chuck and round. They’re both for poor people.

Locate her tender parts. Be gentle here. It sells for your whole month pay, making it worth 1/12th your life.

Finish with the plate, flank and shank.

Take her parts to be weighed. Notice how her insides look like all the others but argue for more because she’s been fed. Wash her blood off.

Take the cast-offs of her you’ve been allowed to take home. Grill her. Notice how her ends now curl up into a tough bowl. Put her on a white plate. Ignore how bland she tastes. How she sticks between your teeth, tweeks your jaws. Swallow her whole if needed.

Shit her out re-born brown.


Stagnant air hangs over the beach. Dancers defy the oppressive heat and flock by the video wall, while Shareef, glazed purple from the lights, lies back on the white leather couch in his fine Italian suit. I lean over so my hair falls—a curtain to hide us as I approach his lips. He’s tempted, but pulls away….

Flaming fiddles, it looks like there’s a roadblock here! If you’d like to finish reading this piece, please buy a subscription—you’ll get access to the entire online archive of F(r)iction.