How to Make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

I was once a classically trained chef. I studied in France, then in Italy, even did a short stint in Japan to learn the art of making a perfect sushi roll. I’ve worked in some of the finest restaurants too, right beside the greatest chefs in the world. At this point in my life most of these skills are ill used. There is little need for blanching and deglazing when you are working in an industrial kitchen with fifteen other men, turning powdered cheddar into macaroni and cheese and busting open cans of slimy chicken and mushy green beans.

But every once in a great while, every few years or so, they come to me with a dinner request scrawled in shaky letters on a scrap of paper.

“Can you make this?” they ask. “Can you make it good?”

Yes. Yes I can. And over the past thirty years I have made many a perfect meal. I’ve made coq au vin with buttered egg noodles, maple glazed ham with charred pineapple and candied parsnips, and steak, steak, steak. T-bone, ribeye, prime rib. So many of them want steak, but they want it their way, the perfect way; the way they remember from that time they went to a real BBQ joint with their dad on their thirteenth birthday; or with cinnamon and nutmeg, the way Aunt Susie used to make it every Christmas Eve.

You name it, I’ve done it. Seafood too. Lobster more than once. Any time I get an order for the big red sea bug, I send my nephew down to the docks to get it—one perfect mid-sized lobster. People often go for the giant four-pounder, but that’s a mistake. It may make for a great photo-op when you are trying to wrangle its six-inch claws into a pot of boiling water, but in the end the meat is tough.

They mess up the butter too, which is almost as important as the meat itself. You can’t just zap it in a microwave and pour it into a plastic ramequin. No. It must be melted slow, the foam top removed, cooled, and then warmed again.

When I do lobster, I leave the warming of the butter to the very end. I have everything else plated and ready to go. I allow the temperature to rise just a hair above perfection, so it can withstand the cold walk down that long narrow corridor.

I never deliver the meals myself. I never take that walk. I am just the chef. But a damn good chef I am. I have made more than a few perfect meals, over a dozen, and always on a Tuesday night.

Today is Tuesday and at 7:00 p.m. dinner will be served. The priest comes at 8:00. The doctor at 9:00. The witnesses at 9:30. Lights out at 10:00.

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My eyes narrow at the note that has been left for me on the countertop. No explanations, no caveats, just three neatly printed letters, PBJ. 

I can offer him what no one else can, thirty years of expertise, an understanding of how it feels to be trapped in this place, of what it’s like to have the world start working against you.  

I had an instructor once, early in my culinary education, who had us make boiled potatoes for a final exam. He used to say that the simple dishes were the hardest to make. That complex sauces and entrees with dozens of ingredients came with spaces in which to hide errors, but the simpler things got the smaller those spaces became.

From a tiny closet in the kitchen I pull a pressed white chefs coat. It’s the one I got when I graduated from culinary school, the one I wore to every job interview, and now the one I wear on these rare Tuesday nights. I button up the front of the jacket and look down at those three letters. 

Where do I start?

Bread. I must start with the bread. White, oh yes, it must be white. Not even fresh baked or organic, but that cheap airy sort. The kind that’s smack dab in the middle of the grocery store bread aisle, the loaves twice as long as the others and two dollars cheaper. The kind you cradle on the car ride home like a newborn infant and still it arrives mutilated.

That is the kind of bread peanut butter and jelly sandwiches ought to be made of. And they should be eaten off paper plates while shooting hoops in the driveway with your friends, hand-delivered by a smiling mother who is much sweeter than your own. The kind of mother who asks if you would like chocolate or strawberry milk with your lunch and puts the cool beverage—foamy, rich, and stirred to perfection—right into your sweaty hands.

I pull a brand-new loaf from the pantry and bring it to the countertop. I grab a handful of slices and set the heel aside, because there is nothing more disappointing then opening your lunch box in a screaming cafeteria, trying to forget about the bully who knocked you down at recess, and that girl who laughed when you mispronounced “negotiate” while reading to the class, only to find that one side of your sandwich is supple and pure and the other side is the goddamn heel.

I examine the first slice. It’s too small and a bit dry. The second is moist but has a giant hole. I stick my finger through, whirl it around a few times, and fling it across the kitchen. The third also has a hole.

I pull another handful. Slice number four is hole-free but the whole right side is caved in, a serious deformity that also afflicts slices five, six, and seven.

Eight is perfect. Absolutely perfect.

Nine is a marred by a crater-sized dimple, victim of an errant air bubble.

Ten is okay.

I stack eight and ten on top of each other but they don’t line up. I flip one piece and try again. Flip the second. Still nothing. It’s useless; the slices must be adjacent, brothers cut from the same cloth.

I check two more loaves to no avail. I almost had it once, only to find that my own brutish fingers had dented the soft bread. 

I step back from the countertop, grumbling. Any bum off the street could have made this sandwich by now. You do not need a chef to smear peanut butter on a slice of bread. 

Then again, you don’t need a Michelin star to run a kitchen like this, but here I am anyway. Because I need to make a living and because, just like these men, I was cut off from what I love the most by a series of poor choices. An argument with a restaurant owner, a flying pot of soup du jour, an accumulation of rants and ravings I will never remember, and morning after hot morning being pulled from the pantry, hungover with whiskey on my breath. My flagrant outbursts layered themselves so thickly over my name that when that final night came, no one could see the man any more.  

I grab an armful of loaves and lay the bread on the counter. Carefully unwinding the ties—while holding the end of the plastic and keeping my hands far away from the bread—I ease each loaf onto the counter. After fifteen loaves, I find them. Number 287 and 288.

Choosing the right kind of jelly is a total no-brainer. Smucker’s grape. I pull a new jar from the pantry, twist the top and smile at that oh so satisfying pop. I touch the smooth glossy surface with the tip of my finger. Perfect. It always is.

I head to the pantry for a fresh container of peanut butter, because nothing is better than seeing that smooth, caramel colored surface—sometimes riddled with little specks of nut, sometimes not.

Fuck. Smooth or chunky?

It’s a personal preference. It’s been a personal preference since the beginning of time. Adam liked his peanut butter smooth, creamy, and luscious. Eve liked hers chunky, rich, and crisp. Neither one is wrong, neither one right. Except to the individual. Then it is either absolutely right or completely wrong. There is no in between and no way of knowing, except to ask.

He is likely on the phone now with a mother, a father, a wife, or a child—saying goodbye. Excuse me sir, I realize this is the last time you will ever hear your beloved’s voice, but do you like your peanut butter smooth or chunky?

No, I do not think so.

I grab a jar of each and a spoon.

I dip into the smooth, take a big glob, shove it into my mouth, and close my eyes. It feels so right. It tastes like life when it was perfect. When all you had was moment after precious moment. Because two-year-olds don’t understand past and future, they only know the bright red of their favorite fire truck, the way it glides so effortlessly across the kitchen floor, how it climbs straight up the legs of Father as he sits in the recliner, and how it fits so perfectly in the palm of his little hand as he falls asleep in Mother’s arms.

This peanut butter is pure comfort, but for good measure and to be sure, I take a swig of water then plunge my spoon into the chunky. Damn it’s good. A bit dangerous. A bit exciting. A six-year-old would choose chunky and eat it at the top of the playground jungle gym, mouth gaping and drooling, looking down at the world.

Chunky or smooth? Smooth or chunky?

I try to focus but all I can taste is peanut butter. It lingers even as my tongue slides around in my mouth, cleaning it up, polishing my teeth, savoring the richness.

I stare at the jars on the countertop for the next thirty minutes as the tightness in my chest grows and the panic that started in my toes burns up my spine.

I am running out of time.

Chunky or smooth? I need to decide but all I can think about is this speck of peanut lodged in between my molars from the chunky. Amazing, how a tiny thing can cause such discomfort.

My tongue has it under control though and works methodically to root it out. The fleck of nut feels as huge as a boulder between my teeth, and as my tongue scrapes over it, the salty sweetness of peanut rises in my mouth.

Dinner at 7:00. Priest at 8:00. Doctor at 9:00. Witnesses at 9:30. And then, 10:00. Can a speck of peanut last that long?

When his senses are flooded by the smell of sweat and disinfectant, overwhelmed by the squeeze of the leather straps on his ankles and the cold of the chair that seeps through the fabric of his jumpsuit—when they place that hood on his head and pull it over his eyes, when all goes dark and the fear comes, more intense and burning than he ever thought possible—when he can’t decide what he fears the most, death itself or the indescribable pain, will he find that speck of peanut?

I ease my knife into the chunky and lay heap after careful heap onto number 287, smoothing it out with wide, deliberate passes of the knife, matching the thickness of each stroke like a barber cutting hair.

I spoon the jelly carefully. It matters less how much peanut butter is on the sandwich and more how much jelly alongside the peanut butter. Ratio is everything.

I myself was balanced once, early in my career—talented and driven, with a passion for food and life that swung me perilously from pole to pole. Until that night when my knuckles slammed into the jaw of a pinch-nosed critic sitting in the middle of the restaurant, arms folded, sneering. 

That blow could have landed me behind these bars, but it didn’t, and yet I am here anyway. Because what is a person to do, lying flat on their back at rock bottom? What is left when the reputation of a man is infected with rot, his name akin to the black sludge that builds up in the crooks of the pipes of a kitchen sink?

I put the two pieces of bread together and it is perfect. I press down ever so slightly with the flat of my palm and the grape Smucker’s oozes out the sides.

I sharpen my best bread knife for five minutes. Then I take the blade to the bread. It cuts with ease into two perfect triangles. I place them side-by-side on a large plate.

The footsteps of the guard echo down the hall. This one walks heavy, but it doesn’t matter which one it is, they are all the same. All tired and depressed, pulling graveyard shifts, sick of the bullshit and the drama, brushing insults and curses off their uniforms like settled dust, thinking of their ladies and their babies asleep in their beds and not about the danger behind locked doors, and certainly not about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a white porcelain plate.  

The boots of the guard hit the kitchen floor. 

“Is it ready?”

“Yes,” I answer, “but I’ll take it myself.”

A Window into Worlds Unfamiliar

A Pioneering Writer Feature

Over the course of her 60-year career, Joyce Carol Oates has published more than fifty novels and thirty short-story collections, many of which went on to win prestigious awards such as the Pushcart Prize, the O. Henry Award, and the National Book Award. 

Her dedication to the arts and diligence in production have not gone unnoticed. In 2010, she was awarded a National Humanities Medal from President Obama, in 2012 she received the Norman Mailer Prize for Lifetime achievement.

For most people, awards like these would be capstones to already incredible careers, and reason enough to slow down. But not Joyce Carol Oates. Fresh on the heels of last year’s The Hazards of Time Travel comes a new novel slated for publication this year. Due out in June from Ecco, My Life as a Rat follows the story of a young woman who goes into hiding after providing testimony that sends her brothers to jail. Be sure to check out our exclusive excerpt, “The Sorrowful Virgin,” after the interview. 


You have published over 40 novels, as well as a number of plays and novellas, and many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. Is there anything about the creative process that gets easier with time? Any elements that grow more difficult?

Writing is probably “easier” for the beginning writer because they have all the world to explore of fictional technique.  As time progresses, these strategies are explored, and as each is executed, there are fewer possibilities remaining. For instance, first-person unreliable-narrator confessional mode is a fictional perspective that is very appealing to me, but I feel that I can (probably) not use it again, or at least not soon again.  

The psychological effects of writing—the oscillation between frustration and (if but minimal) satisfaction, dismay and (if but temporary) excitement—become more familiar, so that, ideally at least, one expects to be discouraged, disappointed, and dismayed in the execution of the text. The older writer understands that writing is a process, and must take time. A younger writer might feel impatient with slow progress. The older writer also understands that the revision process will be a thrilling experience, no matter how arduous the first draft has been, so this is encouraging; indeed, something to look forward to.

What was the industry like with regard to personal When beginning a project, how much do you plan? Do you always have specific intentions when approaching a piece? Do those intentions or goals ever shift as you get into a piece?

My new novel My Life as a Rat has its genesis in a short story titled “Curly Red,” which was written long ago, so this is quite new for me—the experience of revisiting a story and developing it. Obviously, the early version of the story was much too sketchy and condensed, and one can see that this should have been a much longer narrative.  (The story appeared originally in Harper’s Magazine and was reprinted in I Am No One You Know (2014).) The tragedy of being rejected—“disowned”—by one’s parents must be deeply imprinted in my imagination since it is also, in a very different way, a theme of my novel We Were the Mulvaneys.   

Developing a story into a novel was—surprisingly—more difficult than writing a novel out of sheer imagination. For some reason, the early stages of this novel were extremely arduous, and I remember having written 200 pages and having only about 20 that were actually useable.

You’ve said before that you use the pseudonym Rosamond Smith as a way into an “adequate voice” (Nightmare magazine). Can you talk about what you mean by that? Do you have other methods for finding the “adequate voice” for telling a story? 

I have also written under the name “Lauren Kelly.” What I’d intended in these pseudonymous novels was to create narratives that, unlike my usual narratives, move quite swiftly, without much accommodation for background, exposition, and description. Each chapter is imagined as a sort of short story, propelled forward. Because they are “suspense” novels, each final chapter clearly resolves the mystery, though it may have an element of irony, as in Soul/Mate with its ambiguous ending.

In your memoir, A Widow’s Story, you say, “Writing fiction is hard to do when real life seems so much more important.” Have you ever struggled to continue writing? Broached a difficult topic? On the other hand, have you ever found writing to be therapeutic? 

Creating fictitious worlds is problematic when the “real world” is so broken, tumultuous, and ever-changing. The imagination is most fertile (and feels more worthwhile) in times of relative calm, even stasis. (Recall the Bronte children trapped in their father’s parsonage at the edge of the moors.  Nothing to do but read and write for years.)

You’ve spoken about the rhythm of writing, revising, writing, and revising (The Paris Review). What would you recommend to a new writer working to develop their own rhythm?

Just follow one’s intuition, I suppose.

I’ve heard that you’ll sometimes leave a work-in-progress alone for years at a time. Do you continue to think and wrestle with it while it is shut in the drawer? How do you determine when it is time to pull it out and continue to work? How do you know when a piece is finished?

I did work on the manuscript for the novel that would eventually become The Accursed for a remarkable number of years—from 1989 to 2011. But I did not work on it consistently and often did not look at it for months at a time. The manuscript was in another room—I would enter the room and re-enter the novel’s world—or rather, I would try—but was usually rejected or rebuffed after an hour or so. This went on for years until eventually I discovered the ideal “voice” for the novel and so could rewrite every word, every line, while maintaining the plot and the characters. It became an ideal experience of revision because I did not have to re-invent anyone or anything—I only had to rewrite, and since I love to write, this was a joy.

You’ve said, “There is no fiction so horrifying as the horror of actual life” (Nightmare Magazine). When writing fiction, are you seeking to replicate the horror of actual life? Are there factors that might motivate you to write genre fiction over literary fiction? Do you see genre and literary fiction as separate and distinct? 

We don’t replicate “reality” in art but present a distilled, selective simulacrum of it. Most art that deals with extreme subjects depends upon the principle of synecdoche. The scene in which the affable hedonist Gloucester suffers the loss of his eyes, in King Lear, is terrifying to behold on stage, but if there were numerous other eye-gougings in the play, the dramatic effect would diminish considerably.

How much fun do you have with Twitter?

Twitter is a window, or rather windows, into many worlds unfamiliar to me. I learn a great deal from Twitter—things not available in mainstream media.

You’ve been teaching since the age of twenty-two. Is there anything you would tell that fledgling educator now, if you could?

I think I have been very fortunate to have had excellent students over the years.  So “teaching” is really a pleasure, and is often just intense discussion among like-minded persons.

In the literary world you’d like to see “less emphasis by publishers in promoting just a very few titles while not attempting to promote other titles that might be equally meritorious” (The Rumpus). Are there other aspects of the literary world you’d like to see changed? Are there recent titles/authors that you think deserve more attention?

This is difficult to answer since there are so many prizes and awards, especially in poetry, that the effect has been somewhat numbing. Yet some sort of “award-giving” seems inevitable—since at least ancient Greece. Of course there are countless titles/ authors who “deserve more attention”—but there is not enough space to do justice to them, I’m afraid.

Ground Covered: The Life and Career of Joyce Carol Oates

MAYBE HE WILL SEE ME, SOON. ACKNOWLEDGE ME. 

That is all that I want: to be seen by him. 

WANTING TO PLEASE THE MAN WHO WAS NOT READILY pleased. 

Wanting not to disappoint the man who was frequently disappointed. 

For more than once when I was cleaning his apartment I’d overheard Orlando Metti on the telephone speaking harshly to someone at the other end who’d been presumably silenced, abashed by the man’s speech precise and cruel as rapid face-slaps with the palm of a hand. 

Someone female, I had to assume. Ex-wife, or another woman. Fluttering moth-wings, broken. 

But to me, Metti was courteous. What pride I took in this! 

Gentlemanly, soft-spoken. Expressing (mostly) satisfaction with the work I’d done. Pressing tips into my hand. 

It was a matter of anxiety to me, standing only a few inches away from my well-groomed employer, that possibly/probably I smelled of my body after hours of dragging a vacuum cleaner through the apartment, stooping to scour tub, shower stalls, toilet bowls, tile floors. Cleaning, polishing, buffing fixtures until they gleamed with manic and pointless intensity as I’d been instructed. 

Sweated through the thin white T-shirt, you could see the shadowy outlines of my breasts, nipples. If you wished to look. 

My forehead was damp, oily. The little star-shaped scar at my hairline throbbed with heat. 

Out of shyness/cageyness I did not exactly look Orlando Metti in the face. My wistful glances at the man were sidelong, covert. It had become my way to register the world in quick sidelong glances hoping that the world would do no more than glance at me in turn. 

Metti was amused by me, it seemed. The little star-shaped scar intrigued him but (of course) (as it intrigued many men) he was too polite to inquire about something so personal. 

“Would you like a drink, Violet?” 

So unexpected a question, I thought at first that it might be a joke. A test? Heard myself stammer No. 

Standing very still, smiling inanely. 

At Maid Brigade we’d been warned of certain of our (male) customers but no one had named Orlando Metti as a threat. 

“Are you sure? Wine spritzer, vodka soda?” 

The damp T-shirt was sticking to my skin. Damp hair straggling down my neck, hot-tingling scar on my forehead. Determined not to scratch the scar with my fingernails and inflame it. 

“I guess—not. But thank you, Dr. Metti.”

“Next time then?”

“I—I don’t know…”

Metti laughed at my stammering reply as if I’d meant to be amusing.

Now staring more frankly at my forehead—the scar that felt so livid, alive. Wondering if indeed it was a scar, or a birthmark. Tattoo? 

Would you like to tongue it? Kiss it? Suck it? 

Feeling dizzy, as Orlando Metti smiled at me. 

“Y’know, Violet—you could take a shower here. I mean—if you wished. Before leaving.” 

Another unexpected remark I could not answer. My face pounded hotly with blood. 

Metti laughed again, and relented: “All right, Violet. Don’t look so alarmed. We’ll plan for some future time. What I’d like you to do now is—” 

Drop off clothes at the nearby dry cleaner. Drop off a prescription at the nearby drugstore. Or, take the dog for a quick walk, he hadn’t the time or patience for his daughter’s damned dog today. 

HE MEANT TO INSULT ME. ALLOWING   ME to know he could smell my body. 

He meant to excite me. Allowing me to know he could smell my body. 

THE GAME. FOLLOWING THIS METTI would leave money scattered about the apartment for me to discover. And small expensive items—jade cuff links, coins from foreign countries, figurines of crystal or mineral, so small they could easily be slipped into a pocket. 

One- and five-dollar bills. Half-dollars, quarters, dimes and nickels in unexpected places like drawers used to store towels, linens. 

Are you tempted, Violet? Go right ahead, dear. Help yourself. Plenty where this comes from!

And when I’d become accustomed to discovering bills of small denominations, which I always left where I found them, there was a twenty-dollar bill made to look as if it had casually fallen between a bedside table and a bed—and here, on the floor of a closet, amid shoes, a fifty. 

A fifty! This was serious money, to me. 

Of course, I was not tempted. I would never steal from Dr. Metti even with his tacit permission. But the game excited me. 

For the nature of a game is uncertainty. How will it end? And who will be winner?

A treasure hunt, it was. Except nothing would be moved far from its place of discovery, so that Metti could have no reason to think that it might be missing. 

The bills, I would leave in plain view, on a tabletop. Which is where a cleaning-woman would naturally leave something she’d found on the floor in a room. 

Articles of clothing to be put in the laundry, with pockets— frequently there would be coins in these pockets, even folded bills. (Since all clients leave items in pockets, I could not determine if this was part of Dr. Metti’s game, or accidental.) Felice had instructed me: check all pockets before putting clothes in the laundry, place items you find in a small basket in the laundry room where the client is sure to see them. 

But the bills and other items scattered through the apartment had not been there when Felice and I had cleaned it together. 

This is new. This is for my sake. But—no. 

By this time I had cleaned for other clients at the Agency, uneventfully—all women. No games. No one remotely like Orlando Metti. Anxious—waiting for the client’s key in the lock. Waiting for him to return. 

Obsessively shutting off the vacuum cleaner so that I could hear more clearly if he was at the door—but no. Not yet. 

I’d learned: Metti had been divorced eighteen months before. In the rooms of the apartment there were no visible reminders of a past: no photographs of a family. 

No wedding pictures, family pictures, baby pictures. Not even pictures of Metti at a younger age. Works of art, framed, under glass, prints and lithographs by artists of whom I’d vaguely heard, on the walls, tastefully neutral colors, abstract designs. A row of framed Modigliani prints, ethereally thin nudes, young girls with beautiful mask-faces, small sculpted breasts. That was all: nothing personal. As if the man had divorced not just a wife but also an entire shared past. 

Wistfully I thought—That is the way. The only way of salvation. 

Digging out weeds. Yanking out weeds. Toss onto the compost, into a bushel basket.

Recalling from my mother’s garden how quickly even the sturdiest weeds would go limp, begin to die.

This was heartlessness, and heartlessness meant survival. Extirpate the past like weeds.

Metti wasn’t a medical doctor, I’d learned. Instead, an administrator at the Saint Lawrence Biomedical Institute, a research center. His degree was not an M.D. but a Ph.D. How rich was the man? I wondered. Not knowing what rich might mean, exactly. 

Forty-three years old. At least six feet two or three. Towering over me as I’d towered over Felice. Or so it seemed. 

And there was comfort in this, the man’s height. As there was comfort in the man’s confident manner, the modulation of his voice, the very dark eyes, the air of restraint and reticence where another man, in such close quarters with a lone young female, might have exuded an air of sexual aggression. 

Beautiful clothes he wore. Closets of clothes. Shirts of fine cotton or linen, in pale, pastel colors, with thin stripes. Trousers with a precise crease. Sports coats of soft wool flannel, rich tweeds. (There were several suits in Metti’s closets. But I would never see Orlando Metti in a suit.) Handsome leather shoes, black. Always kept polished to perfection. 

He’d asked me to polish these shoes, once or twice. See if you can remove the scuff. Thanks! The elegant shirts that required ironing were done at the dry cleaner’s and not entrusted to a cleaning-woman. 

Sometimes he asked me, would I pick up these shirts? An errand that wouldn’t take more than a half hour. Usually. 

And sometimes he asked me, could I run out to the drugstore and pick up a prescription refill and while I was there, in the store, could I buy a few small items for him?—Thanks so much. 

A terrible sick rage stirred in me, for the individual who lived in this lavish apartment. Who owned such elegant clothing, and who took advantage of his employee’s wish to please him. His employee’s need to survive. 

Your mother oughtn’t to have let you. This voice, I could not recognize. It was not an accusation, I wanted to think. 

FALLING IN LOVE WITH AN EMPLOYER. You have to be very naïve, foolish, or stupid. Or desperate. 

HOUSEWORK IS GRIM WORK. HOUSEWORK is solitary work. You are made to toil in the service of another’s house. You are made to inhabit the interior of another’s life. You are made to experience an unnatural and one-sided intimacy. 

Hairs in drains, stains in toilets and on sheets, indefinable smells that make you gag. Clothes, underwear carelessly flung down for someone else to pick up. Disheveled beds, soiled towels. A spillage of shoes underfoot, no matter if they are expensive leather shoes—too much intimacy. 

The scummy condition of his safety razor. Broken, yellowed bristles of old toothbrushes, for what unfathomable reason saved beneath a bathroom sink. 

Dishes encrusted with food, soaking in gray water in the kitchen sink. In the dishwasher, more dishes, glasses, silverware encrusted with food which I would have to chip away with a knife, scrub off with steel wool, before they could be properly washed in the machine. 

Scattered through the rooms of the apartment were dirtied glasses. In some of these, remnants of alcohol that smelled sharply. Whiskey glasses, wineglasses. Beer glasses. Occasionally, those delicate glasses I’d learned were for champagne. 

Felice had taught me: start the laundry as soon as you can. Strip the beds, gather the towels, haul the soiled-laundry baskets into the laundry room and start the machine. The time you spend housecleaning should approximate the time required to do the client’s laundry for you may have to do more than one load and you must make sure that the clothes are sufficiently dry before you leave. Especially, you must not—ever—put away damp things, for the client will discover them and be unhappy. 

Wash, dry, sort, fold, put away. Repeat. 

Felice had taught me: never leave a room until you’ve checked it thoroughly, all the corners, ceiling, floor, and beneath furniture especially beds where filth can gather. Then, check it a second time. 

Still, Dr. Metti had not valued Felice, much. She’d assumed a good relationship with the (single, male) client who tipped more generously than other clients but he’d dropped her, the more experienced house-cleaner, with a single curt call to the Agency. 

Just the girl. Not the other. 

When Ava informed me I’d felt a sensation of panic. But then, later, satisfaction. For I’d been preferred, unfairly. 

Fact is: one day I would be Felice. And another young girl, not beautiful but young, with that expression of naive curiosity, wonder, sexual possibility in her face would supplant me. 

You know I want to fuck you, dear. Is it—Violet? 

I knew this. But, I did not wish to know this. 

Thinking of how my mother, as a girl, cleaning houses on Highgate Avenue, had been approached by her employers. Some of her employers. 

For all that I knew, my young mother had allowed these strangers to exploit her. She may have clipped the old man’s gnarly toenails, she may have massaged the old man’s flaccid body. Certainly she’d have said yes if he’d asked her to do extra work for him without the cleaning service being any the wiser. Off the books

Thinking these things. Dragging the vacuum cleaner from room to room while in another part of the apartment the lonely little French bulldog was barking. Here I am! Feed me! Free me! Love me! 

Each Thursday the forlorn sound of the little dog barking tore at my heart. Yet I could not allow Brindle to run free as I worked, he would cause too much commotion. Nor did Metti allow him in most of the rooms for he had a mischievous habit of dribbling urine. 

The little bulldog was someone else’s responsibility, not mine. I wanted to think so. 

When at last I opened the door to the sparely furnished, carpetless small room in which he was kept Brindle blinked at me in astonishment as if for a magical moment he’d convinced himself that I was not a stranger but his beloved mistress, who seemed to have abandoned him; then the frantic barking began again. I was hurt that Brindle didn’t seem to recognize me from the previous week. Or wouldn’t forgive me for being the wrong person. 

Each week, I had to win the little dog’s trust another time. Each week, the little dog’s tremulous affection, that seemed scarcely distinguishable from terror. 

How strange, this breed of dog! A miniature bulldog, scarcely as large as a cat, with a very short, compressed face, bizarrely flattened pug nose, enormous wide-set shining eyes that bulged in their sockets. Deep-chested, short-legged, dwarfish. His coat was stiff-haired, brown mingled with white. Yet there was something elegant about the dog, so unlike the coarse-haired mongrels of my childhood who were free to roam the neighborhood and were never “walked” on leashes. 

You had to laugh at Brindle, he took himself so seriously. No idea of his small size though when he tried to run, he sometimes tripped and fell. To me he displayed bared teeth, raised hackles. Panting, and growling deep in his throat. Sharp toenails that clattered against the hardwood floor as he slid and skidded about trying to gain traction and rush at my legs. I wondered—was this miniature animal going to attack me? Bite me? Hadn’t I been the one to take him on a walk the previous week when the master hadn’t had time for him? 

“Brindle, no. I am your friend.” 

He’d overturned his water bowl. He’d devoured all his dry food. A puddle on the tile floor—urine. Quickly I cleaned up the puddle, mopped and cleaned the floor before Metti arrived and was furious. 

Bleach, Dutch cleanser. Windex. Doggy-Out! Paper towels. With rubber-gloved hands fending off Brindle feinting and rushing at me. 

Felice had been frightened of the little bulldog, taking him at his own self-assessment. She’d complained of having to clean up after a dog though (it seemed to me) this was hardly the dog’s fault, that he was so neglected; Brindle had no choice other than to make messes indoors, and wherever he could in the apartment when he was able to run freely barking and knocking things over with the joy of abandon. Felice had told me that Brindle belonged jointly to Metti’s ex-wife and their daughter, and that the daughter was away at college in another state and couldn’t bring Brindle with her; the ex-wife was living somewhere not far away but in another city, unable or unwilling to take on the responsibility of the damned little dog

I could not decide if the deep-chested bulldog, with his short legs, and ridiculous mashed-in face, was ugly or in his eccentric way beautiful. It seemed sad to me that he was so lonely for companionship. Ravenous for food and for affection. Dutifully I fed him, and replenished the water bowl, that had become scummy since last Thursday and would have to be scrubbed clean. With a tissue I tried to wipe away mucus that had gathered in his eyes but he shied away from me with a little whimper as if I’d hurt him. Badly the room reeked of dog, I dreaded Dr. Metti reacting in disgust and blaming me. 

Last time he’d said, reprovingly—This place needs airing out. Please. 

A previous time he’d said—Not all the stains are out of that rug in the foyer. Try again. Please. 

I wondered if anyone had spoken to Brindle with affection since the previous Thursday. Or had spoken to Brindle at all. 

After he’d eaten, and sloppily lapped up water, Brindle reconsidered me and decided that I was his friend. His stubby little tail whipped back and forth. His hindquarters quivered. My heart was suffused with an exasperated sort of affection for the damned little dog

But exertion caused Brindle to pant, wheeze. I knew that miniature bulldogs are prone to respiratory ailments. Their joints become arthritic as they age, they are susceptible to many health problems. The compact little creatures are bred for display, not for survival. Not for their own sake but to flatter an owner’s vanity. 

Brindle had lulled me into petting him, and speaking to him, and not watching the opened door behind me; he managed to dart past me, out into the hallway skidding on his toenails, and into the living room where I dreaded he would leak urine in his excitable state, onto the newly shampooed soft-beautiful-beige-woolen carpet from Ecuador . . . 

“Oh, Brindle. Oh no.” 

I wondered if the little French bulldog was the punishment the former Mrs. Metti and the daughter were inflicting upon Metti for his having expelled them from his life. 

By the time I finished re-cleaning the carpet, and putting away most of the laundry, and dragging the vacuum cleaner back into its storage closet, there came a sound of a key in a door—the door opening at last. Metti had returned. 

A shock of anticipation ran through me. Like Brindle, in an instant I was alerted to the arrival of the master. 

Hesitantly Brindle trotted toward Metti. His hindquarters were quivering. His tail moved hesitantly. He was eager to greet the master yet fearful of the master. I didn’t want to think that the master sometimes “disciplined” him—struck him or gave him a kick. 

“Ah. You’re still here, Violet—is it? Violet.”

Metti greeted me courteously. I saw his eyes moving on me more readily than in the past, when he’d scarcely noticed me at all. 

With an effort, Metti greeted the little dog. Laughed at the dog’s antics. Damned if he’d acknowledge how irritated he was with the dog, in my presence. Like a parent with a disfigured and obstreperous child, wishing to be rid of it but not when others were observing. 

I was feeling very warm. Metti’s gaze made me uneasy. Through a roaring in my ears I could barely concentrate on what he was saying. The gist of it was, could I spare a few minutes to do a favor for him, by taking Brindle for a quick walk?—“I will pay you of course.” 

It was gratifying to feel that Metti had come to depend upon me in such ways; yet, it made me anxious that I had already spent so much of the afternoon cleaning the apartment, and dealing with the little dog, I hadn’t had time to complete the reading assignment for that evening’s class. Also, during the housecleaning it had come upon me with a small thrill of horror that I had yet to prepare a one-page, single-spaced critique of the assignment, to be handed in that evening. 

But I had to say yes. I could not say no to the man who smiled at me so warmly, and who had secreted bills and little treasures for me in his apartment, as a game; or as a suggestion of what I might claim, if I wished. 

When I returned from walking Brindle in the light-falling snow Metti greeted me at the door and took the dog’s leash from me. He thanked me profusely, and asked me another time if I would like a drink before leaving; but now I did tell him no, for really I had to leave. My pulse was quickened, snowflakes were melting in my hair. I could not raise my eyes to Metti’s face for I wondered if I seemed beautiful to him, in that instant. 

“Tell you what, Violet. Stay, have a drink, and I’ll drive you home. Or—to the university? D’you have a class tonight? I think you said.” 

Metti was breathing audibly as if he’d been running. He did not step toward me. Yet, I would recall that he’d stepped toward me. 

Quickly I told him No thank you. Suddenly eager to escape. 

Not even noticing, until I stepped dazedly out of the elevator on the ground floor, that the bill Orlando Metti had pressed into my hand at the door was a fifty-dollar bill. 

I’D CONSIDERED INFORMING THE AGENCY that I didn’t want to return to Dr. Metti’s apartment. And why? Has the client harassed you? 

No. No! 

IF YOU WON’T FUCK ME, YOU’RE DONE. We’ll give it another week or two. Understand? Sure you do, you’re not stupid. 

JERR SAYS, OK, LET ME FIX IT. 

Squatting beside my bicycle. Frowning at the jammed chain. 

I’d been riding my bike in the street when something happened to make the wheels lock, I’d fallen tangled with the bike, shuddering with pain as my right leg was dragged against the pavement so that my jeans tore at the knee, a bright burst of blood seeped through the fabric. 

Blue Schwinn bike with balloon tires, already an old, discontinued model when Daddy brought it home for me, a trade for carpentry work he’d done for a friend. I’d been ten years old, totally thrilled. 

Falling from the bike on Black Rock Street within sight of the house but there’d been no one to hear my cries, I’d had to drag myself home limping and bleeding. 

And now, Jerr is repairing the bike for me. For in my dreams of my brothers, Jerr is alive. He and Lionel are just boys. When they’d liked Violet Rue, or anyway had tolerated Violet Rue, as the youngest sister who adored them. 

The time before I’d learned to fear them. Before they’d learned to despise me. 

SHAME. THE EX-WIFE WHO CALLS METTI too often, leaves (drunken?) rambling messages on his answering machine which I am tempted to erase out of shame for a woman so abased, abandoned. 

Never! I would never. Absolutely never beg. Not me! 

EVIDENCE. IN EACH OF THE (THREE) bathrooms, in the sinks, on the tile floors, in shower drains there have been strands of hair conspicuously longer, different in color from Orlando Metti’s hair which is dark, gray-streaked. 

In a bureau drawer in his bedroom, a silky black nightgown—smelling of faint, fragrant perspiration. 

Yes, I’d pressed the nightgown against my face. Yes, my eyes had closed in a swoon of angry rapture. 

On a bathroom counter, a half-empty tube of maroon lipstick. 

On a shelf in the shower, an unfamiliar brand of hair conditioner. 

On a bedside table, a jar of what appeared to be face cream or moisturizer, an Italian brand—Yves Rocher. So rich and buttery, I am tempted to rub some of it on my face. 

Quickly removing the rubber gloves from my hands, that stuck to my fingers. Always, the gloves felt moist, even wet inside. I thought there had to be a tiny pinprick in the rubber but I haven’t been able to locate it. Hated the feel of the gloves and wished never to have to wear them again. 

It was rare that I paused to examine anything in a client’s house. The women whose houses I cleaned had little that appealed to me—clothes, jewelry, cosmetics, husbands. Possessions. 

I wasn’t jealous/envious of their lives. In thrall to the husband, or rather to the idea of the husband of years before now fading, vanished. 

Recalling my mother’s stricken face when Daddy stared at her coldly, insulted her. Look. You were the one who got pregnant, not me. You were the one who wanted children. 

Sure he’d loved her. This was the voice of love. Sometimes meant to hurt, and sometimes just for laughs. For other men, husbands of other wives, could be counted upon to laugh heartily. 

In the bathroom mirror the face was a wan hopeful girl’s face. Not a bad-looking face, I thought. 

The scar at my hairline might’ve been a birthmark. Or a clever little rose tattoo. More than once I’d seen Metti glance at it and his glance linger. An exquisite sensation, to imagine the man pressing his mouth against it. 

Also, I’d changed the color of my hair since the previous Thursday. 

Metti had seen my hair as brown. If he’d noticed at all. Now it was glossy-jet-black, with “russet-red” highlights. Shorter, with bangs that fell to my eyebrows. 

Changing the color of my hair at intervals. Though I knew that no one was stalking me still it seemed prudent to take measures to prevent someone from stalking me.

And the maroon lipstick, that smelled like overripe grapes.

I wasn’t so shy when I was alone. People who believed they knew me would’ve been astonished to see how brazenly I rubbed the fragrant Italian cream onto my face, neck, hands. 

Telling myself no one would know. Whoever owned the cream had left it behind. If she did return, she wouldn’t ask Metti what had become of it. Or, she’d have forgotten it herself. Or, Metti would never bring her back. 

Maybe he tired of them, quickly. That was the male prerogative. 

More than one woman. I was sure, examining the evidence. 

Thrilling to me, that my employer was cruel to women. Adult women. 

In years I was an adult woman—twenty-five years, seven months. But so slender, lean-hipped, with small breasts and a flat belly, at a little distance you might have mistaken me for an adolescent boy, in T-shirt and jeans. 

Not unlike the Modigliani nudes on the living room wall. So it had occurred to me. 

Just the girl. Not the other. 

Indeed I was smelling of my body. For I’d been working very hard. Determined to do a good job for Orlando Metti, to earn the generous tips he gave. To please the man, to avoid a look of displeasure, disappointment in his face. 

Should I take a shower?—would that please him? I would clean up after myself, if I did. 

The idea was thrilling. I could hardly breathe, considering. But had not Dr. Metti invited me to take a shower in his apartment? Smiling at me, enjoying my discomfort. Taking care to call me by my name—Violet. To prove he hadn’t forgotten my name. 

How many girls, women whose names the man had forgotten. Shaken off like something on a gleaming leather shoe. Quickly then, before I could change my mind, I stripped off my clothes—T-shirt, flannel shirt, jeans, underwear. Gray woolen socks. Rare for me to glance at myself in the mirror for I did not like to be reminded of who I was but I saw now that my small hard breasts had oddly large, soft-looking nipples, a pale brown, like freckles. There was a shadow at my belly, a kind of cleft. A swath of downy pubic hair. The pallor of my skin suggested illness or malnutrition but it was the winter pallor of the Irish, the Kerrigans.

In a bathroom drawer I found a shower cap, saw with interest that there were several blond hairs stuck to it, which I shook out. One of Metti’s women. 

How many, I could not guess. Perhaps two or three. Or more. I had not once encountered any woman in the apartment, leaving or arriving. Yet there’d been the evidence of soiled sheets. Mucus stains, lipstick stains. Though I stripped the king-sized bed in Metti’s bedroom as quickly as I could, not wanting to see anything, half-shutting my eyes that I would be spared seeing anything, yet it was my sense that yes, Metti’s bed was often slept-in by more than one person, and for all that I knew, Metti had changed the bedsheets himself during the week, or one of the women had changed the bedsheets replacing soiled sheets with clean sheets out of a sense of delicacy, decorum. 

Languorously I stood beneath Metti’s elegant nickel-plated showerhead, slowly I soaped my body, and let hot water stream down my torso, belly, legs. Even before I shut off the shower, and rubbed myself dry in an enormous soft towel, I began to feel sleepy. 

Removed the shower cap, fluffed out the glossy-black hair. Still there was maroon lipstick on my mouth, smudged. The buttery-rich cream had worn off in the shower and so I applied more to my face, flushed now from the heat of the shower.

Made my way barefoot, wrapped in the towel, to the room where Metti kept his liquor. Had not Metti invited me to join him in a drink, more than once? Of course I’d always declined. But now, brazenly I went to the liquor cabinet and poured an inch or two of whiskey into a glass. 

It was an experiment: observing myself. Smiling at Metti as he handed it to me. Thank you, Dr. Metti! 

In small cautious swallows I consumed the whiskey. When men bought me drinks I did not always drink them but found ways to dispose of them. But when I did drink, I became sleepy. And now, I was very sleepy. 

I intended to dress quickly, and to complete the housecleaning. If Metti was to return home before I left, he would return in about forty minutes; he’d already left a tip for me on a table in the foyer, a sign that he might not be returning. 

I had not yet taken the tip. That would be my reward, when I completed my housecleaning. 

In Metti’s bedroom the bright sunshine of an hour before, that had spilled through the tall windows, had become muted, bleak. The king-sized bed was awkward to make, requiring a fit- ted bottom sheet. As soon as I’d arrived to do the cleaning that afternoon I’d stripped the bed to throw the sheets into the laundry and in the interval I’d begun to make the bed with fresh sheets. You do not want to use the same sheets each week. Nor hang the same towels in the bathroom each week. In the midst of making the bed I’d become diverted by the Yves Rocher face cream on the bedside table. 

So very sleepy, I had to lie down on the bed. Shut my eyes for only a moment, I thought. 

Should’ve removed the maroon lipstick but too tired. If Metti saw, he would know . . . 

But too sleepy. Sleep like ether lifting into my brain. 

Then I was asleep. That delicious voluptuous sleep like floating in dark water. No dreams, for the water is too shallow. Yet the water is deep enough to cover your mouth, nose, eyes. And soon then, it seemed that I was being wakened—not by a light switched on to blind me, nor by an exclamation of surprise, but by a sudden presence close by. 

The man had returned, and was standing in the doorway of the room, staring at me. 

Utterly astonished. Staring. 

Outside the tall windows the wan winter light had shifted. Hours had been lost, it was much later in the day. There were no lights in the bedroom. 

A single light in the hall fell slantwise onto me sprawled naked in the oversized towel and my arms outflung as if I’d fallen from a height, helpless. 

“Violet! Hello.” 

At last Metti spoke. His voice caught in his throat, he was deeply stirred. His face was livid with feeling. I thought—He is furious with me. He will fire me. 

Then I thought—He will make love with me.

“Violet. My God.”

This was not an Orlando Metti familiar to me. This was an abashed man, totally taken by surprise, smiling, but dazedly smiling, almost at a loss for words. 

“You are so beautiful. So sad. Like the Sorrowful Madonna—or maybe—Sorrowful Virgin…Can’t remember the artist’s name, something like Rossi, or—Bellini? Italian Renaissance…” 

In the doorway the man stood indecisive, tentative. This was his bedroom, and that was his bed, and yet: What was permitted him? He had not yet removed his overcoat. His dark, graying hair glistened with melting snowflakes. He was waiting for me to give him permission to approach. He did not want to misunderstand. He did not want to make a terrible mistake. He did not want to be accused of a sex crime. He did not want to be sued by Maid Brigade, or blackmailed by the naked girl wrapped in a towel in his bed. 

By this time I was sitting up. Groggy, uncertain where I was. An aftertaste of whiskey in my mouth. (Was I drunk? Who’d made me drunk?) Hugging the damp towel close about myself. 

Yet strangely calm. Not at all frightened. For whatever happened, had happened. And whatever was yet to happen would happen, beyond my control. 

At last unable to resist Metti stammered: “Violet? May I—OK if I—touch you? Is that what you would like?” 

Yes. Yes. If you will pay me extra.


Clean Slate

I have purchased 28 boxes of chalk over the semester, and that is simply too much. I am convinced that neither the other teachers nor my students are responsible for the theft. I have been watching them carefully and asking questions. My students do not seem to care, but my fellow faculty all complain that they are also missing a piece or two. I do appreciate their efforts to empathize, but my situation is quite different. I am missing more than 300 full-size pieces of chalk. Most are white, but there have been other colors along the way—blues, reds, purples, and even a limited-edition box of neon colors.

When it became clear that this was more than forgetfulness, I had a recollection from childhood. Squirrels stole seed from my father’s bird feeders. Rather than traps, my father spread seed, bread, and dried out pieces of cake across our yard. The squirrels ate it all and still ate the seed in the feeder. After two weeks of doing this, my father went to the yard with his rifle. “They’re much larger and slower now,” he said. “Remember son, the best way to catch a thief is through an abundance of evidence.”

My father wasn’t an educated man, but I have taken this advice to heart and left numerous pieces of chalk behind after every class. It is obvious that this is a compulsion on the part of the thief, but no one can hide this amount of chalk forever. Eventually, it must fall out of a pocket or desk drawer. But it is now nearly the end of the semester. There are no signs of fat squirrels. My students’ essays need grading and I have office hours to fulfill, but instead I spend my days either in my classroom or the hallway outside it, watching. I only leave the room so my fellow faculty can teach their classes.

My wife wonders where I go at night. She may think I am having an affair. 

A few nights ago, as I was rifling through the A/V supply closet, I noticed that my left shoe had split at the seams. Everything is falling apart, but I must find the responsible parties.

After my class, I fill the trays with deluxe dustless chalk and plant myself in a desk in the corner, a new therapeutic pillow underneath me. I have packed a lunch and will not leave the room. Other faculty members still need to use it, of course. I am not here to stop them, but they will not stop me, either. I cannot help but fall asleep during a lecture on geological formations and I dream of icebergs on misty lakes. I feel myself become a part of both. I consider if I am iceberg and water, am I floating in myself? Do I surround me? I awake, shivering. I have slept too long, and the classroom has emptied. It’s nearly midnight and the board is clean. The chalk is gone.

I run from the room and see a tall man in blue coveralls turn the corner from the hallway into the open foyer leading to the cafeteria and elevator banks. He is pushing a cart with two squeaky wheels that cannot find harmony or rhythm. I follow him to an elevator. I could call him out now, but the area feels too open and empty for a quality confrontation. Instead, I must find out why he has stolen my chalk. He gets on the elevator, and after the door closes, I rush to watch the counter above the door mark his ascension. 

13, 14, 15, R.

R?

Roof.

When the elevator returns, I try to follow, but roof access is restricted to those with a key. I sort through my keys. The office and house key are too large, but my mail key is close. I shove it in. I know there is no chance of turning, but I hope. Either the lock or my key will give. There is a struggle and a groaning. I feel my hand feel the metal of the key and for a moment I believe that if my hands are soft enough and my wrist is firm, the key will align. And it does. The lock gives.

The elevator opens again under the city sky. The moon hangs high and the cold creeps across my neck. There are approximately two inches of still black tarpaper on the ground in front of the elevator. The rest is chalk. My chalk. There are brilliant starbursts and swirls. I recognize maps of long dead nations and my childhood bedroom. It is the universe decontextualized and reconstructed, the Big Bang spilled across the rooftop.

I want to call out, but words feel tiny. What is chalk, anyway? Scribblings on the wall to be nodded at by a captive student body? No. Chalk is never erased. It is laid in lines and then violently spread beyond its limits, leaving shadows and dust. It may be washed away, but then it turns the water opaque. The dust is suspended but it remains.

Then I see them—two janitors on the far side of the roof, their hands still covered in pink, blue, and white dust. They have drawn themselves into a black corner. Without a word, they disrobe completely. Man and woman, but only bodies in the vastness of this art. They are oblivious to me. The smaller of the two bodies holds up a stone, as if to absorb gossamer light, and then tosses it underhanded into the air. It lands on a white square. With a nod, the larger body leaps to the spot. There is no sound upon landing. 

The second body launches into the air, seeking the same spot. Just in time, the first body is in the air again, finding another white square. They leap over and over, landing on one foot, then two feet, then one and then the other, always finding new white squares buried in the pattern. The second body follows the first exactly. The routine is not planned, but it is ordered.

It’s hopscotch.

The moon moves closer. The stars cast spears of light. For a moment, I consider joining them, but I feel as obscene as a crashing plane. I turn away.

As the elevator descends, I want to cast out the memory of what I have seen. To think on it would be to invite madness or devotion and I don’t think I can invite either into my life now. Tomorrow, I will buy more chalk and leave it, but I will never come to the roof again.

I remember the squirrels—fat, happy, and completely unaware of their fate. The night before my father went out there with his gun, I laid awake at the window, listening to them chatter. I remember thinking the noise seemed almost like language, and if I listened long enough, I could distinguish between the clicks that meant “cake” and the chirps that meant “bread.” I imagined that I would be the one to translate and begin interspecies communication. When I was young, I could imagine just about anything—except what my father was going to do to those squirrels. I looked down at my torn shoe.

The elevator door opens, and I go home to my wife.

The Reds

The first time I ripped out a beast’s throat, I cried. In spite of all my training, nothing could have prepared me for the stain of blood scalding my naked hands.

She was supposed to be an easy kill, an execution almost, which is part of the reason why they sent me instead of my mother, Ruby. With the beasts dying out, I was the last to complete my training. It wasn’t my choice. My name itself, Garnet, shows I was chosen to continue this honor from birth. I am one of The Reds.

So, at nineteen, I was sent on my first hunt. I think now that my mother wanted to test me. Perhaps she saw in me what I hadn’t yet acknowledged in myself—the doubt beneath my bravado. I was both excited and scared to set out, in the way of young people, though the pride in her eyes made me feel it would all be worthwhile. A gatherer had spotted the beast in the woods and hit her with an arrow. I was told she lay wounded at the base of a great tree, wheezing, near death.

When I arrived at the tree, the sun was melting into the branches, soaking everything in shades of crimson so rich I thought the pool of blood I was looking at was simply water tinged by the light.

She pounced from above—dropping like a blanket of muscle, fur, and claws—screeching the eerie cry of the beast.

If I’d been holding my spear straight up, she would’ve impaled herself. But with it at an angle, her attack knocked it from my grip and sent it rolling. She was twice my size, and I was trapped on my back beneath her.

It’s too often said that time slows down. The truth is that time doesn’t waver, doesn’t care. In that moment it was I who changed, not time. My thoughts doubled their pace, stretching my perception of the moment.

I’d like to say that when I reached my hand beneath her mighty, snapping jaw, I was simply doing my duty. It’d be honorable to report that my training kicked in.

In truth, I looked into her eyes as she lowered her head to devour me, and she looked into mine. I hadn’t expected that, to see someone looking back at me. Her gaze pierced me. She seemed to see me, to know me in a way I had not yet known myself. And I knew her.

Everything inside me prickled to life, as if I stood on ground struck by lightning.

In the dying light, I saw the spot over her ribs where the gatherer’s arrow had wounded her. I tasted the sharp tang of metal in the air, and beneath that, I smelled raw meat and the desperate beginnings of infection. I felt her panic.

Lest I appear to be claiming some sort of misplaced nobility, I freely admit that mixed with that deep, electrifying understanding was a strong dose of survival instinct. I was more frightened for my life than sorry for hers.

I think about that moment often, when I lie awake at night listening for some distant howl that never comes. Which feeling drove the reach of my hand? 

In the end, I suspect it doesn’t matter. I tore out her throat before she could clamp her teeth around mine. Her corded neck was thick, so thick, and coated with soft, dense fur. Her cry broke in two. Then silence.

The blood was red as it poured over me.

The beast went limp.

It took me minutes to struggle out from beneath her, to look down upon her massive back, her silken ears, her lean, powerful legs.

I cried as I severed the claw on her smallest digit to string around my neck—the first of many—and headed home for my celebration.

Ruby didn’t understand my grief. I wonder now if that made her more or less suited for this job than I. It makes no difference. With my mother now dead, I’m the last of The Reds. There are scarcely any beasts left. Soon I will not be needed. 

In the past eleven years, since completing my training, I’ve slain twenty-two beasts. My necklace is nearly full. 

I don’t cry anymore.

I haven’t been sent to the woods in over a year.

In the middle of the night, when the villagers are snug in their squat, thatch-roofed homes, I venture to the fence line. The moon is large and white, but the light it sheds on the melting blankets of snow is blue. The woods are bare, silent, empty.

My mother died in the depths of this wicked winter. Her passing was expected, but it left me strange. The weeks have dragged long and cold, confusing. I venture out almost every night, alone, as if searching for something I don’t know I’ve lost. Only now do I see the first hints of spring: melt that turns that falsely pristine surface into a wet, sloppy mess, revealing the deadness waiting underneath.

One of the last times my mother spoke was to ask me who I would take as my mate. She told me that I should choose someone strong—not Irving, is what she meant—so my daughter could carry on as one of The Reds. She didn’t mention the possibility of a male child, as men aren’t suited to our line of work. I didn’t tell her that I want twins, one boy and one girl, that I don’t care if my lover is strong so long as he makes me feel something, that I pray my daughter will never be as bloodthirsty as she taught me to be. I didn’t remind her there will soon be no need for The Reds. I told her that I didn’t know which man I might choose, and I suppose I still don’t. After all, what right have I to want these things?

I smell the ghostly smoke of dying fires escaping the chimneys within the village. It makes me think of a type of warmth I haven’t felt in years. I slip beyond the fence, bathe myself in blue. I strain my ears for the cry of a beast, but there’s none.

I remember when Ruby told me about her first kill. It was when I returned home from my own. She’d readied me for the banquet thrown in my honor, and I’d begged her not to make me go.

“Why Garnet,” she replied, pulling my hair out of its tight braid, “this is the proudest day of your life, my child. Why should you not want to claim your glory among our people?”

“I feel no pride for what I did.” In fact, I was imagining the sad stare of a sweet boy with big eyes, his reaction to my new status. Though I had no real relationship with Irving, my mother’s disdain for him had grown from seeing our shared looks, our stolen, stilted conversations amidst crowds, my flushes when she casually commented on his weakness.

“You did exactly what you were trained to do,” she told me.

But I hadn’t understood before what I had been training for, not really, not in practice. 

When I didn’t answer, she moved in front of me. “Were you afraid?”

I looked down, but she tilted my chin up, forcing me to look her in the eyes. “Yes,” I whispered. “Terrified.” But I didn’t know how to tell her that it wasn’t the fear that bothered me, but locking eyes with the beast—seeing, being seen.

She nodded. “Then you should take pride. We face that fear so the villagers don’t have to. It’s our duty. It’s an honor.”

“It’s your honor.”

Then she told me of her own fear.

Her first kill wasn’t as easy as mine; her beast wasn’t wounded and waiting. She was sent out by Cherry, her mother, who took great joy in the slayings. I knew Grandma Cherry only when I was young, and she horrified me. She wore a triple-stranded necklace of claws.

Ruby was sent deep into the woods, all the way to the borderlines where only a small wooden bridge signified that one had gone too far.

It was a new moon, pitching my mother into near-black beneath the summer canopy of the trees. She was cyclical with the moon, as we all are, which is why we are superior to men in this skill. Ruby, truly, was one of the best. I had always pictured her as fearless, but she told me she was afraid then, standing at the end of the bridge, staring into the darkness that heaved and sighed around her like living heat.

“I looked for the glowing eyes of the beast,” she told me, “but he was too clever for that. Nonetheless, I could feel him watching me on the far side of the bridge. So I drew my spear and eased onto the old wooden planks. But the attack didn’t come. I crossed the bridge and searched the woods but couldn’t find the beast.”

My mother curled my hair around her finger, but her gaze was distant.

“I didn’t have to. After an hour of hunting, I headed back to the bridge, and there he was, waiting.”

Only then did she look at me, let me see the fear still haunting her eyes.

“I, too, was afraid, my daughter. But I am one of The Reds, and I don’t take that lightly. I did my duty. I protected my people, as you have done, and that is something to be proud of.”

I was afraid to ask if she felt anything for the beast. I was afraid to learn that something was wrong with me. So I shoved that feeling down, buried it deep. With each slaying, I’ve shoveled another layer of dirt over it, weighing it down in the dark, far from me. Sometimes I feel as though that dirt has made me quiet inside, like a filled well. I drop something into it, expecting to hear it ping and bounce and splash, but it lands, muted, in the dirty shadows. 

I think now, staring into a wood emptied by my family’s killings, that there is little pride to be had in sending someone to slay a dying beast. Little danger to be had from a population of creatures hunted to the brink of extinction. My fingers find the row of severed claws around my neck.

I tilt my chin to the sky, stare at my mother moon, and let forth a howl. The sound is all too human. I have no reason to expect a reply, yet still I’m disappointed when no harmony answers.

A commotion sounds from within the walls. I duck back inside.

A large cluster of people are talking amongst themselves. I tap a boy on the shoulder. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“There’s a beast near the fence!”

I heave a sigh. “Everyone,” I shout. About half of the crowd calms. “Everyone!”

They all turn to look at me. “There is no beast. It was me. I was—I was simply checking that none are lurking nearby.”

“No, Garnet,” the priest says. He’s an old man with honest eyes. Honest, urgent eyes. “We didn’t hear him. We saw him, in the pen, devouring the livestock.” He points across the village.

“Who saw him?” My eyes narrow as I look at the crowd. I can’t trust the gossips, the fearful, or the glory-seekers. It’s been so long since anyone has spotted a beast that I’m not even sure there are any left.

“I did,” the priest says.

I break into a run.

Years ago, not long after my first slaying, I was in the woods by myself and came upon a beast. He was young, dangerously thin—so unhealthy that his coat was bald in places. He didn’t see me as I watched him suffer bee stings to get to the honey inside a hive.

I lifted my spear, poised, aimed to take him with a single heft, but I didn’t throw it. He was too desperate, too pitiful. I let him be.

That night, he killed a young boy playing just outside the fence. I listened to his mother wail, watched her sob over his bones.

I was sent to slay the beast the next day. I cannot tell you even now exactly what it was I felt when my spear pierced his side between protruding ribs, but it nearly broke me. That was the last time slaying a beast made me feel much of anything. It was the last time I let it. 

Tonight, as I run through the village, my boots slapping the mud, I’m tempted to stop at my hut to grab my spear. It’s safer—keeps me out of reach. It’s what my mother would have done, would’ve had me do. But the blade that always lies down my back along my spine, my reserve, lets me get closer. And that’s all I want right now. To feel again.

I hear a cow’s desperate scream and run faster.

The cattle have backed into one corner, pushing against each other, eyes white with dread. Distressed lows sound across the night air, cries for help, for a savior, for a Red. Cries for me.

I draw my blade as I stand outside the pen, panting, sizing up the beast.

It’s a male, larger by half. His fur is a reddish brown that defies the blue of the moonlight. The hump of his shoulder blades bristle to make him look even larger as he bends to his prey.

A small calf, still alive, lies broken and heaving at his front paws, his muzzle buried in her intestines. I’m close enough to hear the wet snapping of some organ rent by his jaws.

Keeping both hands on the handle of my blade, I press my foot to the lower rung of the fence and jump, landing with a soft thump.

The beast lifts his head. His eyes lock with mine. I step forward.

He tosses back his head, black nose to the moon, and screams his challenge. Goose bumps explode on my skin.

The beast steps forward, protecting his kill. His tail flicks back and forth behind him. His ears drop toward his skull. He’s skin and bones like that young male long ago, ribs prominent as a carving in relief. 

My blade’s as long as my arm, which means I’ll be within his reach. I open my eyes wide, eager. He stalks forward, expecting a fight, but that’s where he’s wrong. There will be no fight. I am not a beast; I am a Red.

As I pace toward him, I howl my response to his challenge. His own eyes grow wider, showing a slim ring of white around his dark irises. This is why we study the cry of the beast.

He tilts back his chin to shriek at the sky again, exposing the soft triangle of flesh. I lunge for it.

I’ve never so perfectly slowed my perception of time as I did during my first kill, when everything was crystalline and new, but I’ve become better at responding without thinking. The tip of my blade approaches his neck. It will be an easy kill, even without the spear.

But he’s faster than any beast I’ve slain. He senses my advance even before he lowers his head, striking out with one massive paw. Claws like scythes stretch for me, and my blade is lifted too high to protect my body. I have only one option.

I step into him, so close that his chest fur brushes my cheek, and plunge the blade home as his paw strikes empty air behind my back.

A thrill of heat pierces me, as bright and sharp as my blade in his jaw, vibrating up and down my body. Dangerous, swift, free.

My teeth are cold, and I realize I’ve bared them in a snarl that’s morphed into a savage grin that doesn’t even feel like mine.

I know now what my Grandma Cherry must have felt at every slaying.

The heat rushes up my throat to my face, teeth clamping together. I jerk the blade from his throat, pushing with my free hand, and as his body falls to the earth, blood pours from the wound. It is red, red, red.

As am I.

My great grandmother, Scarlett, was the first. She wasn’t raised with the knowledge I have, nor trained from youth. I imagine she never thought she’d face a beast at all, until her grandmother Rose went missing when Scarlett was twenty.

Rose, my great, great, great grandmother. Arguably, Rose started it all. Scarlett’s mother, Pearl, died during childbirth, so Rose raised Scarlett on her own. The bond between them was a strong one.

One century ago, Rose failed to come home from gathering in the woods. She went out in the morning with a basket for her finds, expected back for dinner. Dinner passed, then bedtime. The woods back then were not empty as they are now. When day broke the next morning, it was assumed Rose had been taken by a beast.

Scarlett was heartbroken. The priest advised her to grieve and move on, as many had before her, but there was only one thing that would bring Scarlett peace: revenge.

Scarlett set into the woods. No one has ever said as much, but I suspect she never intended to return.

I’m told she slayed a dozen beasts in the first three days. Each time, she split them open from sternum to pelvis, searching for the confirmation that her heart surely knew.

Finally, on the third day, she cut open a beast and found her grandmother’s ring among the contents of its belly. She severed one of its claws to hang around her neck: a life for a life.

She returned to the village with proof that a beast had eaten Rose. Her tale struck terror into my people. They fortified their fences, tightened their grips on their children, and retreated to their homes—leaving Scarlett to destroy the scourge that had been lurking in their woods. And so she became the first.

The only thing more dangerous than a broken heart is a cold one.

It’s been three days since I slayed the male beast in the livestock pen, and I’ve barely slept. I run tallies in my head, trying to figure if he truly could have been the last beast. I wonder how I’ll feel when there really are no more. I sit beside my hearth warming my feet by the fire. The heat only reaches partway up my body, never fully melts the coldness inside. I’ve stopped going beyond the fence to wait and listen—for the first time in the weeks since my mother died.

If I am a well slowly being filled with dirt, that dirt has nearly reached the top. I feel it now, choking me, suffocating me. I hadn’t thought of that, back when I started shoveling over the things I didn’t want to see, to feel. In burying them so thoroughly, I’ve lifted other things right to the brim. New, ugly things.

I am not who I want to be. I am who I’m supposed to be.

The urge to call on Irving nags at me—an urge I didn’t feel for years that has returned only since my mother’s death. I push it away. I used to want him, when I was young. He’s not overly aggressive like some suitors, and he possesses an earnestness and tenderness that appealed to me, with hair that refuses to lay flat and wide, emphatic eyes. We have never been together; he has always been an idea, a thing that could have been, had I been someone entirely different. Yet I know he waits for me. I’m expected to choose a mate soon and propagate the line of The Reds, but now I feel heaviness where longing used to be, and Irving deserves more than that—than me.

There’s a knock at my door. With my mother gone, Irving is one of the only people who visits, so I almost don’t answer. The thought of the way he looks into my eyes and really sees me…I should tell him I must choose someone else, but I don’t have the strength tonight. But I’m sure he’s seen my chimney smoke; he knows I’m home. I open the door.

“Garnet,” he pants. “There’s a beast.”

Blood rises to my cheeks, my breath fluttering in my chest, nestling around a strange sensation I barely recognize. “Another? So close to the last?” I can scarcely believe it.

“Yes, beyond the bridge. It nearly had me.”

What was he doing so far from the fences? Had he been alone?

I clench my jaw, letting the door swing further open. I gather my things, speaking as I go. “Did it follow you? Has it trailed you to the village?” I doubt beasts are capable of craving vengeance, but with another appearing so soon after my recent slaying—the first in so long—I can’t shake the thought that these two animals must be linked somehow. The thought makes me uneasy, restless, and tense.

“No. It didn’t even cross the bridge before turning back.”

That doesn’t seem right. I lace my fur-lined boots then toss a bucket of ashes over my fire. “Tell me where.”

“I’ll show you.” He holds the door for me, face flushed.

Our eyes lock.

I want to tell him no, he’s too soft, he should never have been in the woods in the first place, but I can see the spark in his eyes and I don’t want to be the one to snuff it out.

I launch past him, spear in hand. My voice is gruff. “Only to the bridge.”

He follows me into the frigid woods.

I have to slow for him. I bite my tongue at his ruckus. He tramps like a loping bear. When we reach the bridge, I turn. “You must stop here. Tell me where you saw it, then go home. It isn’t safe for you.”

He scowls but must know I’m right. He describes a cave opening north of the bridge, then sits at the foot of the wooden planks. “I’m not leaving you,” he tells me.

“Irving—”

“I will wait.”

I think of the beast that lured my mother across the bridge only to ambush her on her way home. “Fine, but don’t cross. I mean it. Don’t allow yourself to be trapped away from the village.”

Eyes wide, he nods.

I hand him my spear, then draw the blade from my back. He opens his mouth to protest, but I silence him. “I prefer the blade.” I cringe as my intended lie rings true. I cover it with a real lie, so he’ll accept the weapon: “The spear makes me careless.”

I wonder though, why do I want the blade? To feel that savage new joy its closeness brings? Or do I hope that for once, finally, I’ll lose? I’m not sure which is worse.

I walk into the woods without waiting for his reply.

Finally, deep in the dead, dark woods, I come to the cave. It’s like the beast has been waiting for me. She seems unsurprised by my presence as she stalks in front of the opening. Her fur is so black she looks like an extension of the mouth of the hollow—liquid darkness pacing. She’s small for a beast, svelte but muscled, her spine dipped low. Her eyes glisten when they find mine, but she holds her ground.

What’s in the cave?

A low, moist rumble emanates from her throat. She bares her teeth.

Blade up, I bare mine in return, waiting for that wicked joy to turn my snarl into a smile again, bracing for the heat that will burn me up, but it doesn’t come. My teeth are left exposed in a grimace.

I lower my blade a bit. 

Could I leave her, just this one?

I remember the young male I let go, the village boy, and having to go back out. I don’t think I can take another consequence like that one.

But, somehow, I feel myself begin to back away.

The farther I get from her, the lighter I feel. I smile, and it’s so unfamiliar it takes me a moment to place it. I hide it, lest she think I’m baring my teeth after all, but the buoyancy of it glows through me. I find myself admiring the way her dark fur sheens in the night, like beautiful things unearthed from black depths.

A crunch behind me.

I turn.

Irving stands frozen. His big eyes widen further, darting to something behind me. “Garnet!”

I drop, rolling.

The beast is a blur, pouncing where I just stood, screaming her rage.

Irving charges forward, spear out, but he’s holding it wrong. Brave, naïve Irving.

I leap to my feet, jabbing at her side with my blade, hoping to distract her. She twists to snarl at me. Irving uses the distraction to circle behind her.

“Not between her and the cave!” I scream.

She whirls, smacks the spear from his hands, and clamps her jaws around his throat.

I leap on her back, jabbing my blade into the gap between her throat and Irving’s chest, and rip it back, slicing her neck.

Even as she dies, as I ride her falling body to the ground, she doesn’t release him.

We land in a pile of overheated flesh, fur, and failure. I scramble off, thrust my blade in the dirt, and roll her off Irving. She’s limp.

Irving is also limp.

Both of them are dead.

Something begins to bubble up from deep inside me, scalding its way up my spine, my chest.

I let him come here with me, knowing he was too soft. I let her stay, knowing that she was just a beast and couldn’t help what she’d do. 

I let this happen.

The burning rises in my throat, stings my eyes, blurs the world. I throw back my head and cry, a howling wail like the scream of the beast. But it’s not. It’s too dark, too broken, too human.

I howl and howl until my throat is raw. When I can’t howl anymore, I lower my face to my hands and weep.

I’d forgotten what it feels like, this breaking. I shake and shudder with it as I run my hands through Irving’s soft hair, wishing I could’ve protected him. I’m sorry that he fell for me. Sorry that I missed my chance to love him back. Now, he will never again look at me with those wide eyes. Will I ever again feel so deeply known? I close his eyelids with my fingertips. My tears speckle him like rain.

I turn to the beast. Her fur is smooth, glossy. I run my other palm along it, looking at her bowed spine, thinking of her ferociousness, thinking of her fear.

The cave yawns for me. I wipe my eyes, retrieve my blade, and enter.

It’s not as large as I expect. All I find is a smooth dent in the dirt where the beast must have burrowed, layered with some soft forest debris. A bed, a nest. A den.

I race back into the blue moonlight, staring down at her swollen belly. I take the smaller blade from my boot and kneel to slice her open. Red spills in a hot wave, and I think of Rose, found finally in such a place by Scarlett, and what that must have been like, to find her only remaining family buried in the belly of a beast—all the anger and revenge that has fueled The Reds for generations.

I half expect to find something equally horrific when I reach in with trembling hands and feel around, but when I hear a sound—a small, gasping whimper—it’s life that I pull out, not death.

It’s a tiny, blind, mewing thing. A baby beast. I’ve never seen one. I clear the gunk from her eyes and sever the cord. Her warmth nearly scalds me. My heart pounds as I cradle her in my lap. The air smells of blood and placenta and dirt. I look up at the beautiful moon, holding this small, soft marvel as if it might shatter.

I hear something and reach back in. Out comes a second. A boy. Just as soft, just as warm. They are red with uneven black splotches, and I know the male I slayed back home was their father. 

One of each. Almost certainly the last of their kind.

I could kill them now. It’s what Ruby would have wanted. What Cherry would have reveled in. What Scarlett started all those decades ago, avenging her grandmother Rose.

But slaying these babes is not what I want. What has our vengeance brought us? Persistent fear, bloodlust. A line of killers.

We are their beasts as much as they are ours.

I wipe off their fur, steam rising from the freshness of their lives. My cheeks are damp, my chest full of warmth.

Again, I lift my head to the moon. All things cyclical. All things wax and wane. In the blue light, I raise my howl to it.

“I will teach you the ways of The Reds,” I promise them. “I will teach you to hunt. To survive.”A boy and a girl. The last hope for the beasts.

A Dog Ran Down the Highway

He came in from work, carrying firewood. He smelled like the string cheese I put in his lunches. I packed a lunch for him every single day, after cooking him oatmeal for breakfast. I prepared dinner, too.

I also had a career. It was a super long drive, which wasn’t exactly a picnic.

He put down the wood and bit my neck. He grabbed my boob and felt it.

The record player I’d just unpacked was broken and behind us.

What are you doing? I said.

Molesting you, he said.

Oh, no. I said. You’re not.

Three Poems

Alphabet Street

                                      Now,
after / when—she / he 

dies, after a few hours of
hearing her / his  

name on the radio, my 

daughter will ask, why 
was she / he so important, 

why is anyone so 

important? I  
play her a song—we’re.

go. in. down down
down—she 

listens, nods, begins to
sway. He  

made us happy, I say, 
people are not 

replaceable, I say, no 
one, nothing—if that’s 

the only way—is 
replaceable.

Rock 'n' Roll Suicide

                                                       Pink
glitter pencil. My daughter draws

seven tulips along the bottom of a
page & above them a mist of

pollen & as the pollen rises each

speck turns into a star, then
a couple saturns appear & in

the center, floating over it all, an
astronaut—an airtube

connects her to her spaceship
& other tubes radiate out from her

helmet. Each
tube ties her to some sort of pod, each

of which, she explains, contains one of
everything she might need

to survive—she can

pull the banana one in if she’s
hungry, another holds her

stuffed monkey, her friend Evelyn
lives in another. The radio is

on, Bowie has just died—
you’re not alone, he promises,

softly, O no love, all day, you’re not
alone
.

Kurt Cobain Wallpaper

In a Seattle hotel
Kurt Cobain is the wallpaper

I think
I know what Kurt would think of this

but of course I can’t
the sidewalk below

full of hymns
not ghosts

his face still
hidden by his hair

Amorpho & The Leering Freak

The spotlight flared. A familiar collective gasp rippled through the room. The sensation of every eye settling upon Amorpho’s churning body warmed him like an ant under a magnifying glass. 

The music started. Solid protrusions emerged from his flowing form, and he rose on two lengthening appendages as two more unfurled to the side for arms. The tissues of his body folded over each another, every inch alive. Flesh gave way to muscle, muscle sank and peeled apart to present bone, bone was swallowed again by rippling flesh. Features travelled along the currents of his body, surfacing, swimming, submerging again. 

When Amorpho’s eyes breached the surface, he saw the audience frozen. Their wide, white stares burned into him. He saw, briefly, the darkness of open mouths. Shock. Horror. The open mouths were their honest first reactions. Then, embarrassment brought up their hands. Or maybe it was a protective gesture, a way to keep what they saw from entering their own bodies. Either way, the gesture had always bothered Amorpho. Here he moved onstage, utterly revealed, while these people couldn’t even share that small part of themselves. 

He wanted nothing to do with them, anyway. Other people were inherently dishonest, their rigid, impenetrable bodies full of hidden agendas. They only showed what they wanted you to see. He told himself he was better off alone and most of the time he almost believed it. 

Movement by movement, Amorpho progressed through his routine, 

counting the seconds until he could lie on his waterbed and retreat into the contents of his bookshelves. 

Predictably, a few ticket buyers vomited into grease-stained, popcorn bags. 

Out in the Backyard behind the performance hall, Amorpho saw the lights were on in his trailer. He must’ve forgotten to turn them off. Amorpho sped up, anxious to get inside. As he took the steps, he noticed a sheet of paper taped to his door. He could just make out the enormous “RM” scrawled at the bottom—the Ringmaster. As the authority of the operation, nothing happened without her knowledge and approval. She was the Cosmideluxe Circus and Sideshow. 

Unable to read her note in the dark, Amorpho snatched it down with a tendril of skin and hurried the door handle. At least he’d made it back home without being ambushed by her. Amorpho hated surprises. 

When Amorpho stepped inside, he staggered against the doorframe. A stranger sat at attention in the worn leather reading chair in front of his beloved bookshelf. The stranger’s hands rested in his lap, fingers spread, gently cupping his thighs. Thin blonde hair hung over his jutting cheeks, falling partway down his back. The stranger stared, motionless, with eyes the size of fists. 

The stare was unrelenting. The whites of the stranger’s eyes were vast, bright, seemingly endless compared to any other Amorpho had endured. The irises were green. Silver-dollar-sized discs woven with strands of pine needle and clover, dotted by flecks of yellowing mid-autumn grass. A heavy, overwhelming green that bored into Amorpho, kneaded through his body’s convulsions until it mixed with his breath, his pulse, his thought. No words, just two black pupils pinning him in place.

“What are you doing here?”

No reply. 

He considered he might have been rude. “I mean, who are you?”

No reply. 

He’d crumpled the note as he reeled under those eyes. He smoothed and read it quickly:

Amorpho –

Minor adjustment. Boug Signed new artist for sideshow gallery today, branding him “The Leering Freak.” Space limited; will bunk with you for time being. Assured very quiet (as in mute). Will hardly notice, doesn’t even need bed. 

Sure you understand, 

RM

Amorpho sat and sunk and dripped onto the floor, wondering what he’d done to piss off the Ringmaster. For the past five years, he’d lived his devil’s bargain: a few minutes of exhibition as the nightly headliner in exchange for otherwise complete privacy. She knew about his sensitivity to the gaze of others and how much he cherished his solitude, and despite knowing, this was his sudden roommate? He thought about his daily routines, shot to hell. How would he ever get out from under those eyes? 

Cicada song filled the trailer from the open door. Amorpho eased it shut, fighting the force of The Freak’s gaze. 

“Well, I guess we’re roommates.” Then, considering, “Um, temporarily.” Considering again, “Tonight.” 

The Leering Freak just watched, straight and still. His breathing was very slight, very precise. Inhale, two, three, four. Exhale, two, three, four. 

“They call me Amorpho. Because…well,” he moved a hand-ish shape in front of himself. “The note says you’re going by ‘The Leering Freak?’”

Just green. And breathing. 

Right, Amorpho thought. Very quiet. As in mute. He set the Ringmaster’s note down on the small table between them. “Guess I’ll let you settle in. Uh, over there.”

As he moved away, he felt pushed along by those eyes. 

All that night he lay awake while the stare gusted around him.

One of the Ringmaster’s trusted squad of handlers arrived in the morning to escort The Freak to his position in the Gallery. Amorpho had frankly been surprised to see the man move of his own volition when he got up to follow. All of his movements shared that same deliberate quality of his breathing. 

After The Freak left, Amorpho noticed something sitting on the table next to his reading chair. A piece of paper, the Ringmaster’s note, twisted and folded into a strange shape, vaguely human, with four fluid limbs projecting from an ovoid core. A sculpture. Of him. He first felt shock; he’d heard nothing in those long hours, not one crinkle or crease or tear. Then, as he leaned closer, he felt a twinge of admiration. The figurine’s approximation of his shape wasn’t crude or elementary, but actually rather precise. The limbs weren’t merely twisted into serpentine coils, but showed structure and movement, captured a bit of the fluctuation of his tissues in their varied textures. On the torso he could see tiny peaks and folds indicating some of his facial features. The attention to detail spoke of keen observation. And no wonder, he thought. 

Regardless of this unexpected talent, The Freak couldn’t stay. Exhausted and hopelessly off-schedule, Amorpho had no choice but to track down the Ringmaster and beg his way out of the situation. 

On his way to the dreaded Executive Office, he found Naomi—or Madame Dearlove, as she was known to the patrons—squaring off with one of the Ringmaster’s errand boys in front of her trailer. She’d come on as the operation’s fortuneteller, not because she possessed any talent for it, but because the Ringmaster insisted Naomi’s three icy-blue eyes made her a no-brainer for the gig. 

The errand boy worked his jaw, trying to keep his patience. “Well? Was it cigar smoke I smelled coming from the Fortuneteller’s wagon yesterday, or not?”

Naomi rolled all of her eyes. “What if it was?”

“Been over it before, and the Ringmaster’s tired of repeating herself. She says it’s a masculine trait. It ruins the illusion of the role for the ticket buyers.”

“It’s a Naomi trait. Just like everything I do is a goddamn Naomi trait. Plus, the rubes don’t care. You know why?” Naomi pointed sharply to the third eye in the center of her forehead. “The eye is what sells it. Isn’t that what she keeps saying every time I talk about a transfer? If I gotta be Madame Dearlove, then Madame Dearlove’s going to enjoy a Montecristo every now and then, got it?”

The errand boy arched an eyebrow. 

“Well, if you don’t, I foresee a split lip in your future.”

The errand boy marched off toward the Ringmaster’s office. There went any chance of catching the boss in a good mood.

“Morning, Stretch. You catch all that?”

Amorpho approximated a nod. Early on Naomi made it clear that she was to be an exception to Amorpho’s self-imposed solitude, and after a while he’d stopped resisting because he’d found that she hid nothing and made no apologies for it. 

“The nerve, you know? These peons act like they don’t know the entire show depends on us, the premium freaks. We’re the draw. Without us, it’s just another dog-and-pony show full of contortionists and aerial silks.”

He supposed she was right, but he couldn’t be sure he felt empowered by his “premium” status. 

“How are things on your end?”

Where to even begin? Amorpho made a shrug-ish gesture and sighed deep enough to deflate half his body. 

“No kidding. I saw your new bunkmate earlier. He’s an eyeful, huh?” She laughed and gave his pseudo-shoulder a light punch. “Where you off to?”

“Nowhere now,” he said. 

The icy-blue triangle of eyes brightened. “Here’s the best damn idea you’ve heard all morning: let’s check out the new guy’s act.”

To his own surprise, Amorpho agreed. 

Amorpho wore an old pair of oil-splattered mechanic’s coveralls with the name “Frank” embroidered on a white oval patch for the rare occasions he ventured beyond the Backyard. He concentrated on keeping a solid, passable head together until they walked under the Sideshow Gallery’s “Employees Only” sign. 

The Gallery was a separate building with its own admission fee. Ticket buyers followed its dim, winding corridors to ogle the bright displays on either side. The Ringmaster had an aesthetic vision for the Cosmideluxe, one that was all about display, production, and polish. Distance, in other words. Expensive barriers. The Gallery looked more like an upscale natural history museum, each artist placed in individual bays, given unique personas complete with contextual dioramas and ambient sound. The glass doors of each bay were covered with a semi-transparent vinyl overlay that allowed staff to observe, unnoticed, from the access corridors. Amorpho and Naomi stood behind one as they spied on The Freak. 

He sat on an airbrushed resin tree stump in an ersatz swamp. He’d been dressed in an artisanally-stained white tank top and threadbare overalls. Speakers played the layered croak of bullfrogs and the occasional swish of water, the zigzagging high whine of mosquitos very subtle beneath them. There were even fog machines to pump in a lingering vapor that crept over the ground. 

Many passers-by flinched upon locking eyes with The Freak. Amorpho understood that reaction. They gawked and pulled their friends and spouses and children closer. They pointed, snapped pictures of themselves in front of the glass, bulging out their own eyes. They twisted up their mouths like they had upset stomachs. They said “ew” and “ugh” and made meek little screams. Some said “pity” and “poor soul” and “what an awful life.”

Amorpho understood that as well. 

He felt a dull ache—nowhere physical, but somewhere in his memory. Like old injuries in bad weather. He remembered those earliest days at the Cosmideluxe: how deep the audience’s reactions penetrated, how they upset the balance between being the performer and being the performance. 

Naomi rested a hand against the stir of Amorpho’s body. 

“Welcome aboard,” she whispered to the window. 

On stage that evening, veins and arteries sprouted, swaying like sea grass as Amorpho moved to the melody. He’d designed the routine meticulously, every movement plotted to correspond to some nuance of the soundtrack. He hit his cues every time, his body perfectly attuned to his accompaniment. 

Though he could masterfully control his shifting body, the measure of that control was limited. Asking one particular area to solidify required no great effort; he could listen to the distinct voices of his form and hold the harmonies of his face or arm for roughly an hour before exhaustion. However, complex whole-body solidifications were considerably more taxing and required intense concentration. 

The music rushed toward its climax, and Amorpho prepared for the final pose, an elaborate configuration he called The Gaping Flower. Arpeggiated notes climbed to a crescendo. Amorpho pulled himself into a compact pyramid of flesh, then elongated in spiraling revolutions to form a slender stalk. The stalk then peeled away in four broad leaves of flesh, revealing Amorpho’s spine and upturned skull. His circulatory system crowned the display, emitting from his open jaw, arrayed as a flower with his beating heart at its center. The final sustained note of music faded, and the spotlight blinked out, leaving the crowd too sickened or stunned to applaud. In the brief moment before the curtain closed, he saw, again, the deep black holes of their mouths, their hands rising. 

When Amorpho returned to the trailer after his act, The Freak was back in the chair. Green hit Amorpho just the same, despite his attempt to steel himself. 

“How was the first day?”

He risked a direct glance. Light caught in two tear tracks running from the enormous reddened eyes, over the sharp cheeks, down along the jaw. It dawned on Amorpho that it may truly have been The Freak’s first day as a “performer.”

He was at a loss. Naomi had been his only point of social contact for years now, and she’d certainly never required any comforting. Enclosed together in the cramped space of the trailer, Amorpho could now practically feel the stinging sadness emanate from his unwanted guest. He had to do something. He thought back to the years before the Cosmideluxe, what his mother had done for him in such moments. He remembered steaming cups of herbal tea, ginger and chamomile, and he remembered her voice, giving him an unbroken string of stories to surrender to, something else to hold onto with his attention.  

“Well, I usually enjoy some tea after my act. Helps wind down after having to see all of them…the crowd, I mean. Like some?”

No response, but he pulled two mugs from the cabinet and filled the kettle to twice the usual amount. 

On his last morning at home, he’d left his mother’s body lovingly arranged on the dining room table, surrounded by white and yellow irises from the garden. Her favorites. Held her callused hand a final time while, in his other, he held the thick Cosmideluxe contract she’d signed on his behalf the day before. The last words she spoke: “They can take care of you. They understand you.”

Then he’d been ushered into a sleek black sedan, watched every bit of life as he knew it shrink through the rear window in a cloud of dust, while one of the Ringmaster’s errand boys sat next to him, assuring him the burial would be arranged and that he was now part of something grand, something special. “No one forgets what they’ve seen at the Cosmideluxe.” He’d stepped onstage the very same night, no act, just a boy and his body and a spotlight. 

“I grew up on a farm,” Amorpho told The Freak. “Me and both my parents for a while, then just my mother and me. My name used to be Centavo. That’s what my parents called me, anyway. What do you like to be called?”

No answer except the whistle of the kettle. 

“Right. So, Centavo, because my mother carried me in a little coin purse tied to her belt when I was first born. I was very early and very small. She always said this was the stress of the journey to the States. They’d been running for weeks. The first moment she allowed herself to relax, when the ship’s crew said ‘Bienvenidos a America,’ that’s when I decided to arrive. She told me my first cries sounded like a mewing kitten. She was able to go work only a week later, so she put me in this drawstring purse and took me out with her.”

He poured both cups and went to The Freak, leaning into the push of the green. He offered the cup, gently warning against its heat. The Freak stared and breathed his rhythm. Then, slowly, he lifted his hands and accepted the tea. 

Amorpho had already said more to The Freak than he did to anyone in a given day. Yet the weight of those memories and the streaks drying on his guest’s face urged him to continue. 

“She said they knew I was different, unique, but it only seemed fitting that my body was restless. She said ‘Centavo, you were conceived in the midst of a war, and in the months I carried you, nothing in our lives was stable—the country itself was changing shape week to week.’ When the violence became unavoidable, they fled, each night finding a different resting place until finally that rolling week at sea, lured by the promises of freedom. She said this is why I made perfect sense to them. She enjoyed telling these stories.”

Amorpho lifted his cup and aligned lips, tongue, esophagus, and stomach to take a long sip. He savored it, letting the chamomile slide over the surface of his tongue, light and floral, then welcoming the mild burn of the ginger that rose in its wake. He stared into the amber liquid as it settled against the ceramic. 

“My favorite thing about our farm was the pond. I used to float for hours, my own private sea. I’d float in the center and, because of my body, the water moved around me. Ripples went looking for the edge of the pond and then came back to me and so on, until it became like a conversation. The water and me, give and take.”

The words made Amorpho conscious of his audience. “Sorry, I’m babbling, and you’re probably done in.” He began to move away. And then he felt The Freak’s hand rest on the arm he’d formed to hold his cup. The palm was hot from cradling the tea and the grip was gentle, but insistent. Amorpho turned and saw The Freak looking up at him, a plea in those enormous eyes. 

Amorpho moved close again and spoke more of his time on the farm. The tea grew cold. Later, laying in the dark, he thought the green felt less like a push. 

Maybe more of a current. 

Last night’s monologue had invigorated Amorpho. He’d shared a different part of himself, something real, unchoreographed, and no harm done. All day he noticed that the Cosmideluxe possessed vivid new life. The backstage corridors were full of activity, another day’s work winding to a close. People rushed by Amorpho in all directions. Props had to be returned to storage, costumes needed mending or cleaning, audiovisual systems tweaked or maintained. Details and sensations bloomed around him that he’d either forgotten or never paid any mind to, but now stood out as potential topics to expound upon for The Freak. His small world seemed bigger. 

Outside air was a relief when he stepped into the Backyard, despite the pervasive scent of deep-fried carnival foods. Though the midway still hummed with twilight activity on the far side of the Performance Hall, the Backyard was quiet, peppered by the hiss of cicadas and small swells of laughter from other artists who’d finished for the day and now relaxed outside their trailers. Roustabouts stomped past, conversing in too-loud voices, carting animal feed and rigging, hoisting rolled up vinyl banners over their shoulders. You could usually tell the newer hires, as they hadn’t yet learned to disguise their gawking, but there were some who never even made the attempt. They were quartered on the other side of the midway, a strategy Amorpho suspected was meant to minimize contact between them and the performers during off hours. 

Almost home, Amorpho passed into a thick stream of cigar smoke. Naomi, leaning against her trailer. An orange glow signaled a deep draw from the cigar. 

“Hey, Stretch,” she said. “Want a puff? Got stronger stuff if you’re inclined.” 

“No. I mean, no thanks. Thank you,” he replied. 

“Knew you’d say that. Grab a seat anyway; we should talk.” She kicked the trailer’s wooden steps, indicating his spot. He’d long ago given up on the possibility of ever winning an argument with Naomi, so he sank down next to her, hoping this at least wouldn’t take long.

Naomi looked over at Amorpho’s trailer and blew out a long stream of smoke. “Listen, how was he yesterday? I mean after his shift?”

Amorpho remembered the tear tracks. “I don’t think he’s used to the spotlight. At all.”

“Well, you’re right about that,” she said, grinding her cigar out against the trailer. 

“What do you mean?”

She leaned over him and unlatched her door. He shrank to avoid contact. After fishing blindly by the doorframe for a moment, she wagged a manila folder at him, which he pinched between two tendrils. 

“What’s this?”

“Your roommate’s personnel file.”

Amorpho darted eyes up and down the dirt lane, and he pulled the folder into a pocket of flesh to hide it. “Are you crazy? How did you even get this?”

“I can be very persuasive,” Naomi said, bouncing her hip. “You think I’m not gonna do homework on someone they bunk with you? I’ve got your back, Stretch.”

He shifted the folder nervously inside his skin. “What does it say?”

“See for yourself.”

Amorpho peeled open the folder and surveyed the documents inside. 

The Freak’s file mentioned a house leaning on its foundation in a mostly-abandoned neighborhood on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. A back room with boarded windows, no furnishings, strewn with years of loose pages from the local gazette. 

The Freak’s file contained a Cosmideluxe bill of sale, co-signed by both parents, an “X” for his name, that totaled less than the combined sticker price of the books on Amorpho’s shelves. 

The Freak’s file held no medical history. Just his birth certificate, the “X” for his name, and his physical exam upon arrival. All clear. Cognitive tests and lab work normal. Re: the subject’s aphonic condition (pre-existing)—signs of tissue damage consistent with blunt-force trauma, irreversible. 

Naomi sighed, and in a voice softer and gentler than Amorpho thought he’d ever heard her use before, she added, “I’ve been on the circuit my whole life. By choice. I’m here because I want to be, Stretch. But I know that’s not true for everyone.” 

Her words stayed with him as he walked the rest of the way home. With each trailer he passed, he wondered about the people who were his neighbors, who’d remained strangers to him in many ways. What really brought them here? What choices had they made? 

Yelena, the armless knife thrower, honing her blades on a leather strop tacked to her doorframe. 

Sturm and Sigismund, the conjoined twin strongmen, earnestly involved in their game of backgammon because cards always ended in accusations of cheating. 

Bernice the Dancing Bear, curled luxuriantly by a fire pit while her partner Reg sat with his back on her flank, playing soft improvisational jazz on a wooden flute. 

The distance he felt from them all struck him. His treasured solitude felt more like isolation, and he turned his door handle more quickly than usual, stepping inside ready to share a little bit more of himself. 

So the evenings went. Amorpho came home after his act to make tea and hold forth on his past, on life in the Cosmideluxe, on anything and everything that occurred to him. The words poured out with greater ease as, night by night, he learned to navigate in the gaze. The Freak never finished his tea but always accepted and held it with both hands. Amorpho grew certain he could see the hint of a smile on The Freak’s mouth as he listened. In fact, the more hours they spent tending this evening ritual, the more he felt capable of interpreting the person sitting across from him. 

Sometimes Amorpho read aloud from his small library. He even went so far as to share his favorite book, a slim collection of H.G. Wells’ short fiction. He loved the book for a particular story, “Country of the Blind,” more for its setting than anything else. Just the title printed in bold letters at the top of the page had become like a promise of heaven to him. A place where eyes held no power, where being was the only thing. 

He’d “borrowed” a ream of printer paper from one of the technicians’ offices in the Performance Hall and set it on the table beside the reading chair. Every morning when he woke up, a new intricate sculpture awaited him: animals, both real and imaginary, portraits of other folks around the Backyard, and sometimes even purely abstract forms. He looked forward to this daily moment of discovery. Often, they were more portraits of Amorpho, each recognizable but distinctly different from the others. 

One night, Amorpho announced he wasn’t going to call The Freak by his stage name anymore. “We’re not on the clock and I don’t like the way it feels in my mouth,” he said. “You deserve better.”

The Freak’s eyebrows lifted ever so slightly. Amorpho translated this as relief and also, What will you call me, then?

He scanned the bookshelf, lined with miniature sculptures, searching the names printed on the spines for inspiration. On the bottom shelf, a slender coffee-table book with a powder blue spine caught his eye. Lucian Freud, Portraits. LF—perfect. “How does Lucian sound?”

The Freak’s restrained smile appeared. 

One night, Amorpho spoke about his act. He explained how he thought of each set of tissues in his body as distinct voices—how, by imagining their movement in terms of harmonics, he’d learned to orchestrate the complex configurations that made the crowd gasp. Then he admitted how he felt about the crowd, the one-sided honesty in being exposed in front of them. 

“Lucian, do you think…I was wondering if I could maybe…look into your mouth?”

The question hung between them. 

Amorpho sent his heart deep into his middle, hoping its commotion wouldn’t be visible. Lucian stared and breathed his rhythm. Then, a sliver of dark appeared as his lips slowly parted. He opened his jaw. A slender filament of saliva joined his top and bottom teeth. 

Amorpho couldn’t disguise the excited tremor running through him. He lowered himself in front of Lucian and extended an arm. He rested the palm of his hand against Lucian’s chin and peered into the open mouth through an eye on the tip of his thumb. Lucian’s breath blew hot against him in four-second intervals. Amorpho watched the tongue’s slow pulsation. He counted the teeth two, three, four times. He stared up at the ridges of the hard palate with reverence as though it was the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral. 

He found wonder, not written on any of the glistening tissues he studied, but within himself. Warm, thrilling wonder that Lucian had opened himself wide without question. Every second that Amorpho knelt before Lucian, every nuance of the mouth that he noticed and committed to memory, spoke of a trust between them, of a willingness to be seen in full. Amorpho exulted in the privilege of that trust as it breathed in and out around him. 

The tea grew cold. 

On another evening, as Amorpho made his way home, he heard shouting and hoots of appreciation, then a roar of laughter. Lucian sat straight and steady on the trailer steps, surrounded by a group of roustabouts from the animal acts, judging by their scent. Lucian’s drenched clothes stuck to his thin frame. His hair fell in wet strings around his face, still dripping. The man who’d been yelling, a face Amorpho hadn’t seen before, swayed on his feet in front of Lucian, an empty bucket loose in his hand. A flask bulged from his back pocket. 

“Told you to quit your staring, didn’t I?” The man turned to his pals with a sneer, “Didn’t I?”

The sight of Lucian surrounded by these men sent a feeling through Amorpho’s body like cold, prickly vines. A sharp, hard feeling. 

He moved in front of Lucian. “Leave him alone!”

The workman stepped back and drank in Amorpho’s shape with wide, glassy eyes. 

“What’re you gonna do, other’n make me seasick?”

Amorpho swung a wild fist. He’d never had to fight before, to make himself sharp and dangerous. The punch was so clumsy that even in his state the drunk was able to sidestep out of range. He kicked into Amorpho’s middle, sending him crashing into the side of the trailer. Shame registered before Amorpho felt any pain. The drunk snatched another bucket from one of his pals and heaved its water in a glistening arc at Lucian. 

No sooner had it fallen with a wet crash than Amorpho saw Naomi charge through the onlookers and smash her fist into the side of the drunk’s face. She landed two more solid hits before he went sprawling into the dirt, moaning. She turned to the others, all backing away.

“Pick up your trash and get back to shoveling shit,” she said. 

Two of the crew members hauled their dazed comrade to his feet and slung him over their shoulders. Amorpho crawled over to the steps where Lucian shivered in the evening air. He tested the doorknob. Lucian had locked himself out. Amorpho sent a probing piece of cartilage into the lock mechanism, felt his way past each tumbler until he heard the click. 

“Come on, let’s get you dry,” he said. 

Naomi trailed them, rubbing her knuckles. “That prick has to be new. He’ll be out on his ass come morning, bet you anyth–”

She stopped with her foot on the bottom step. Amorpho blocked the doorway, assembling a look that pled for privacy. Naomi nodded and turned away as Amorpho eased the door shut. 

Lucian sat hunched in the reading chair. The rhythm of his breathing was off balance, and he didn’t seem able to help his trembling or the chatter of his teeth. Amorpho brought towels and dabbed at the soaked clothes. When he looked at the enormous eyes, he saw they were reddened, and Lucian’s usually smooth forehead was creased. Lucian clutched at Amorpho, opened his mouth and made wet clicking sounds in his throat. Amorpho understood, even without the touch, without the words. Hurt. 

He placed a hand on Lucian’s neck. The fingers snaked down his back, flattening as they traveled. The other hand he placed over Lucian’s, shaping it into the same flattening extension. He slowly wove a cocoon, coiling around the terrain of Lucian’s shivering body. The coolness of the damp fabric soon warmed in the heat between their skins. The tremors came with less regularity, less insistence, until there was only breathing. Amorpho relaxed into the give and take, imagining himself floating in a sea of green. 

The next morning, Amorpho didn’t leave his waterbed. He replayed the events of the previous night in his mind, each time feeling more helpless. Naomi had needed to step in and rescue the both of them. He remembered Lucian’s cold shivering skin, the eyes he’d grown to love, raw with pain. As he lay in his bed, Amorpho realized he’d never wanted anything more than what he wanted in this moment: to be able to protect Lucian. To never see him suffer that way again. 

Lucian went to his place in the Gallery at the usual time, while Amorpho spread out, listening intently to himself. He sought each of the little voices swimming inside of him. He coaxed them into orchestration, building slowly, methodically. A heaviness formed. He thought of the big sounds: flesh, muscle, bone. The mass of his right hand protruded obediently, more solid than ever before, a fixed point in the midst of his motion. He felt it spread under his attention, cell by cell, a wrist emerging behind the hand. 

There was a discernable border on his body, a demarcation between stasis and flux. 

As the arm emerged and his orchestrations grew more complex, Amorpho guided them with one single thought: one image, one name, one feeling to push his body past its previous limitations. He thought of Lucian and built himself anew. 

For a long time Amorpho had believed that if there was any place on earth for people like them to be safe, to work, to live something like a “normal” life, it had to be the Cosmideluxe. His mother had thought so too, and the Ringmaster banked on this notion. Here, they were stars, attractions. People wanted to see them. Only, that wasn’t quite it. Amorpho and The Freak and Naomi—all the artists at the Cosmideluxe—only existed as warped mirrors for crowds to look into and walk away from with a sense of relief that life on their own side of the glass was so pleasantly flat and predictable. Underneath the laughter and fun was fear, and fear had consequences. 

Amorpho wouldn’t be helpless again. He’d be a shield, a barrier between the world and the person he loved. 

Hours passed. The process accelerated as it unfolded, fed by his focus. Hand, wrist, arm, shoulder, ribs, hip. By the time the pounding on the door came in the late afternoon, only a subtle rippling under the skin remained. 

“Hey Amorpho, open up!” a voice called. “The Ringmaster wants to know why you’re not on your mark. It’s three till curtain.”

He didn’t answer, only held the one thought. 

The pounding continued. “Come on, open up.”

He was covered in sweat, sure this was the first of many novel sensations in store for him. This new body felt sluggish and tricky to steer, but he would adapt. He jerked to his feet and grabbed his coveralls, pitched against the dresser. 

“I hear you banging around in there. What’s going on?”

Amorpho had to get to the Gallery to show Lucian what he’d done, how things had changed for them. When he pulled the door open, the Ringmaster’s errand boy looked up from the steps, confused. 

“Who the hell are you…Frank?”

Amorpho said nothing and pushed past, not really knowing the answer anymore. Each step felt clumsy and dumb, too solid. And breathing, and seeing—even thinking, too—felt different now. Heavy, fixed in place. Centavo again, a name only to be used when loved by someone? He looked beyond the discomfort, toward his hopes. He imagined an indefinite stillness of Lucian’s hand in his own, imagined kicking down the Ringmaster’s door with this solid heel, tearing up their contracts with these short, clenched fingers. They’d go make their own place in the world. Somewhere outside of the spotlight, no ticket booth, no charge for admission. Maybe somewhere near the sea, Lucian and Centavo. 

As he walked toward the Gallery, people gave him only cursory glances. Just a man walking past, a nameless stranger. He felt nothing when they did look, no pressure, no heat. He smiled, experiencing a slow, stiff tension under his cheeks. 

Ticket buyers swarmed around Centavo, a solid stream of bodies brushing and jostling. No one cared who he was, only that he get out of their way or keep moving. His excitement grew as he drew closer. When he reached the door to the Employees Only section of the Gallery, he wrapped his hand around the handle and wrenched it open. He’d made it only a few steps into the corridor before a technician came shouting. 

“Hey, you can’t be back here, pal.” The guy pointed to the exit. “Seriously, man, you gotta go. This area is off-limits to customers.”

Centavo pushed words through his rigid throat. “I know. I work here.”

The staff guy took a defiant posture. “Yeah? Never seen you.”

“Amorpho, from the Performance Hall?”

The guy’s eyebrows drew together skeptically. 

“Come on, I’m the headliner here.”

“Look buddy, I don’t have time for this. I know who Amorpho is and you’re not walking soup. Get out.”

But Centavo needed to prove to Lucian he’d never have to worry again. He would protect them both. Last night would never happen again, and he couldn’t let Lucian think it could, not for another minute. He needed for Lucian to see and touch this new body and know exactly how things had changed. He needed to know it himself. The door to Lucian’s swamp sat just twenty feet away. Centavo took off down the hall. 

Not fast enough, though. Staff guy had the back of Centavo’s coveralls almost immediately and used it to swing him against the wall. Even pain felt different to him now, lingering trickles of something bright and hot. 

“Not today, pal.”

Centavo struggled against the grip, but the man pulled Centavo toward the exit with ease. He fought, leaned toward Lucian’s door, tried to make himself too heavy to be moved, but foot by foot he slid further away. 

He yelled Lucian’s name. 

Staff guy kicked the exit open and heaved Centavo out of the building. He landed on the pavement. The door clicked shut behind him. Something in that sound broke Centavo’s reserve of strength. The ticket buyers gathering around him melted into a blur of colors as his eyes filled with tears. Ashamed, he covered his face. The fresh scrapes and bruises were nothing, only hurt on the surface. But inside, in some remote place he couldn’t locate, rang the realization that still he couldn’t fight off the outside world, even after working this change in himself. All of his effort, every ounce of will he’d gathered, every bit of hope he’d called upon, amounted to nothing. Now he felt trapped inside the still body, smothered by the weight of failure. 

The soft pressure of a hand resting on his arm startled him. He blinked away tears to find Lucian kneeling beside him. Centavo met with the green, and though he didn’t physically feel the gaze enveloping him, he still sensed some intangible force moving between them, pupil to pupil. It shifted the two of them into sharp focus, while the rest of the world faded into formless color. 

Lucian recognized him. His forehead knotted as he brushed black hair from Centavo’s eyes. Lucian’s gaze swept the length of the new body. He took Centavo’s hand and squeezed. 

“Last night, I wanted to make them sorry. I wanted to stop them, but I couldn’t. Seeing you like that, I wanted to never see that again. So I changed. I thought I should be harder, more forceful.” Tears surged. He choked them back. “But it’s still not enough. I don’t even know if I can go back.”

Lucian cradled Centavo’s head. He tensed his lips into a straight line. By now, after such devoted study, Centavo knew that understanding Lucian meant attention to nuance—the difference between looking at the paper sculptures from a distance or examining them up close. Centavo took in the face above him and knew what he was being told: It doesn’t matter if we hurt. What matters is that we are together, that we have each other. Lucian tightened his grip, almost imperceptibly. This. This is the only thing that matters. 

As Centavo read Lucian’s face, the tangle of pain in his chest began to unravel. His body, the show, the entire solid sprawling world, all of it existed far below the place where the two of them touched. Shame and regret and fear still swirled inside him, but these were made smaller and subordinate under the warmth of Lucian’s palm. 

Gazing up, Centavo sheltered and warmed and hoped in the green. Lucian helped him to his feet and led him through the crowd. They went back to their trailer and made tea. Amorpho may have softened himself once again and returned to the familiar body and stage and routine the next evening. He may have remained in the new body and learned how to be something else, someplace else. All of it is possible and none of it matters except that he did nothing alone. 

Editor’s Note

Dear lovely reader,

Spring issues of F(r)iction are always special for us because they mark the birthday of this lovely little journal. When we started F(r)iction back in 2015, there were strict rules to follow if one were foolish enough to start a literary journal. You published traditional literature. You made the books as cheaply as possible. You didn’t publish new writers because they wouldn’t sell copies. And you never, ever, ever uttered the words “editorial art,” “genre,” or (heaven forbid) “comics.”

But we dreamed of something different—a collection of stories that would enchant us regardless of genre, where the biggest names in the industry shared a spine with brand new voices from diverse backgrounds, voices we would mentor every step of the way. It would be a book brimming with color and art and specialty printing. Every page would be as lush as the stories within.

Everyone told us it was a bad idea, but we were fueled by passion and naivety and stubbornness—which turns out to be the perfect mix for doing something wrong in just the right way.

And now, four years later, we are being challenged yet again.

The industry is shifting. Pillars like Glimmer Train and Tin House are falling, and we’re hearing the same warnings that plagued us when we started—that readership is dwindling, that mentorship isn’t economically viable, that while publishing new, innovative voices is great optics, it’s a foolish gamble within an industry in decline.

It’s a confidence shaker, to say the least, to see great journals go under. It’s caused many to lose hope and close up shop, or not start the shop in the first place. And with each new day, a seemingly indifferent world chips away at passion and naivety and stubbornness.

But we’re not going anywhere.

In fact, we’re expanding. Crazy, you say? Indeed. No argument there. But we love stories. We believe in their power to change the world. And we’re not giving up.

So, dear reader, consider this our Comeback issue. If readerships are dying, we’ll find new ways to reach them. As prices go up, we’ll find new ways to generate funding. When innovative magazines fall, we’ll take up the torch.

We’re celebrating with a journal jam-packed with underdog stories. From industry greats like Joyce Carol Oates to brand new voices we’ve mentored for months, this journal is steeped in fighting spirit and some of the loveliest art we’ve ever put out. We hope this helps you with your own battles, because it sure as hell has helped with ours.

For those of you who have been with us since the beginning, thank you. For those just joining us, thanks for taking a chance on our weird little book. You’re as much a part of this cavalry as our editors, artists, and authors. 

Now let’s all charge into the breach, my friends. There’s a battle to be won. 

Cheers,

Dani Hedlund
Editor-in-Chief