An Important Distinction

by Sten Spinella (2016)

This piece won third place in the Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction.

When mom named me “Elan” she said it was to set me apart from the other boys. I’m certainly apart from the other boys, in that the other boys went to college, or the other boys found God, or the other boys were hired at IBM, or the other boys get their hair cut. I work the cash register at a CVS Pharmacy.

I stock the drink cases in the morning and try not to look outside. Looking outside makes me sad, because I’ll be in here for twelve hours, and outside will be outside the whole time, even if an early morning in Providence, Rhode Island is nice for its melancholy, its cold, its sun-yellow-brightness. When I’m not working I’m reading because Ray Bradbury said education is free if you go to the library, or something like that, but in order to attend the library, one has to survive, so here I am, surviving.

It is the usual mix of depressing fluorescent lighting, smart tile floors, and organized rows for hurried consumers, on this morning. I put my feet on the counter and lean back on my stool against the wall. Then I begin reading a short story by John Updike when my manager, Chris, arrives.

He is as bald as an apparent lie, as confident as a well-placed bowling ball, as middling as a beer belly, as powerful as a peasant.

“Do we pay you to read here, Elan?” He’s apparently self-conscious about them, but he bares his 50-year-old teeth in a smile at his comment, those teeth as yellow as American cheese. Putting his fists on his love handles and standing with his legs shoulder-length apart, he waited for my response and drew himself up to his full, 5’6” frame.

“Good morning to you too, Chris.”

“Why do you even read, anyway?” he asked me. “You don’t need that here. I myself gave up stuff like that a long time ago.”

“You know, I could think of a few other things you gave up a long time ago—working out, sex, ambition, direction, the list goes on.” He turned as if to leave, but not before smirking and addressing me further.

“Bold words for a 23-year-old indentured cashier, wouldn’t you say?” With that it was time to start the shift.

I’m not a bad looking dude, so I’m usually treated better than my dowdy coworkers. I’m a white dude, so I’m usually treated better than my non-white, non-male coworkers. I’m 6’2” tall with a sparse beard and hardly any fat (or muscle, for that matter). My superiors like having me on in the morning because that’s when the working class white men come looking for candy, drinks, beef jerky. I’m covering for Andrea tonight because she has to do something with her kids, or something. Here I am, spending my day on a double shift, which, I think, is not what the old philosophers meant by achieving human potential.

It’s 6:30 a.m. when the first consumer of the day walks in. He’s white, around 5’9”, with thick arms, greasy brown hair, and a dense beard. The sound of Timberland work boots and the chime of the open door announce his appearance, and he shuffles in paint-stained jeans towards the chips and drinks aisle. His plain grey shirt already has the beginnings of pit stains, and it’ll be doused in sweat by the end of the day.

There’d be fifty more consumers similar to him before the day was over, but, being the first, he held a distinct significance in my mind. I stopped sweeping the bathroom to greet him at the register, laying the broom against the wall behind my stool. He slid two

bags of Fritos and a Monster energy drink across the counter, accompanied by a five-dollar bill.

“That’ll be $5.50, sir,” I said as I deposited the five dollars in the cash register.

“Christ, man, really? It was $4.95 last week,” he said, his narrowed eyes and gruff voice the only parts of him betraying emotion.

“I know, sir. Obama, am I right?”

“Hey now, he’s working hard for this country,” he said, before breaking into a bout of violent laughter.

“You have it all wrong—you’re working hard for our country, sir.”

“I appreciate you saying that, kid. So am I supposed to leave you a tip now because you complimented me?”

“People don’t usually tip at CVS, but I mean, if you feel so inclined.” He found a dollar in his back pocket and put it on the counter.

“Keep the change.” I’m not sure if he smiled, but his beard lifted a little.

Dan—yes, that name will work—Dan comes home after painting the local college for ten hours. His wife is waiting for him on an old red couch, the kind that swallows you when you sit in it, with two Heinekens.

“How was your day, honey?” she asks.

“An inspiration to us all. Yours?”

“Good, I got home from the restaurant at four. Brett is at a friend’s house.” Dan’s hand stops stroking… Marla? Yes, Marla… Marla’s leg. He raises the beer to his lips and drinks half of it in two gulps.

 “Why? It’s a school night! We paint and wait tables all day for this kid and… I bet his homework isn’t even done yet. Does he value his education at all? The son of a bitch… ’scuse my French babe, but Goddamn! Does he want to eat Fritos for the rest of his life? Does he want to work at fucking CVS? Sorry again. But damn it all.” Marla cuts into Dan’s diatribe and grabs his hand.

“Baby… he’s the top kid in his class. Have you seen his report card? Brett is going to be fine… he knows what having an education means… don’t worry about him, come here.” Marla holds Dan to her like a child and runs her fingers through his beard.

“You know, if you shave this thing, there may be something in it for you tonight,” and with that it is time to start. Dan lunges at Marla like a man to the grass from a falling ladder, he is out of control, and while he grabs at her body she pushes his face away from hers, saying, “Fine, just so long as that furry face doesn’t try and kiss me,” which of course meant hard kisses from what looked like, on the outside, a hard man, and laughing kisses back from a tired woman. They thrash on the couch under a wool blanket until they land on the carpet, and they stay there, sweating on that carpet, because the task at hand is too urgent for them to go to the kitchen, or their little bedroom down the hall, or the bathroom shower in-between their room and Brett’s room, nowhere to be except right the fuck there.

Brett would go on to become a lawyer after attending Harvard Law School. He made enough money to set his parents up in a cushy retirement community in Florida, where they stayed, content and well-taken-care-of by various younger versions of themselves. The End.

“What are you doing?” Chris asked me.


“Why not do your job? We just got in a big order of condoms, go restock.” I quickly removed my feet from the counter, jumping to a salute position, in the process almost knocking my stool over.

“Sir yes sir! Any advice on how to fuck myself as well, sir?”


“Thank you for your wisdom, sir! Can I perhaps utilize one of those packs of condoms, sir?”

“What the hell do you need that for?”

“To fuck myself, of course, sir.”

“As long as you pay for them.” Chris walked away to his office (really a desk in the back of the home supplies section), presumably to swig from his bottomless bottle of Jameson.

After the condoms were straightened out, I had to take care of a line of consumers at the register. A smaller man in my position might harbor resentment for these patrons, but not I. If anything, it’s more like pity. They are contributing to a carousel in which I am a part—and we are both either profiting or being taken advantage of, depending on whom you talk to. Chris and I are living (in my case barely) from CVS money. But the people who own CVS… LAWD are they living. Whereas the consumers need these goods, we make them available for an arranged price, and they keep the carousel moving! Or they come in here like they own the place, but really the place owns them, and they’re just along for the ride, but I lost sight of the metaphor, and in case you couldn’t tell—I came into work high as hell this morning.

I moved through each consumer interaction with skill and precision, though no one seemed to notice. The last person in line, a woman in her fifties, looked like she had once been a great beauty. Of course, my vision may have been biased at that point, since, without exception, the people that come in before 2 p.m. are, as the politicians say, “physically unappealing.” But women over 45 years of age are my wheelhouse. They, without exception, love me. So I took my chances.

“How are you today, ma’am?”

“Good. You?”

“I’m just fine. I sure hope all those cleaning supplies aren’t for anything too pressing.” She made eye contact with me.

“They are, actually. My dog just puked all over the house.”

“I’m terribly sorry to hear that. Please let me know if I can help clean up, you smell so good from over here and I wouldn’t want that to go to waste,” I said as I handed over her change.

She did not answer, rather, her face embodied disgust, and the only acknowledgement I received was a scoff, unparalleled in its intensity.

Chris came over, looking like dog shit, his breath smelling like a bar, and he parted his rotting teeth to speak.

“Oh, you smell simply lovely, ma’am! How bout I come on over and clean up your dog’s puke? Sound good to you?” He stopped, laughed so hard that he couldn’t make any noise, bent his hands to his knees, then lifted one finger up in a signal to wait. “You kill me, kid. You really do kill me.”

It’s okay, nothing I could really do about that one, I deserved it, served him a meatball, and he hit a single. I mean, he could have done better than repeating almost verbatim what had happened, but I digress.

Marie was once a world-class opera singer. Now she stays at home and cleans up her dog’s vomit. Marie was once a source of envy for women, a target of attention for men. Now women laugh at Marie behind her back, women who notice her husband’s winks, and the only men who flirt with her are waiters and CVS cashiers. Marie wondered how it all went wrong… how she went from having tantric sex on the back of her first husband’s cruise ship to having to pretend Mark was someone else in order for her to gain any sort of enjoyment out of the experience.

Oh come on, you were weird, she wasn’t all that bad.

Marie and her daughter had built a relationship on love of each other and animosity towards Mark. Tonight they sat on the first floor of their five-story mansion, quietly eating lobster bisque and reading.

“Mother, where do you think father is?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. You know your father.”

“Yes, but I wanted him to read my college essay before I send it out.”

“He will. How is Eric?” Angela’s eyes became attentive at the name (No, no, “Angelina”).

“Oh, he’s wonderful mother, he really is. He bought me flowers today and called me ‘babe.’”

“That’s nice, sweetheart. Make sure you two don’t get carried away.”

“What do you mean, mother?”

“I’m just saying you have a lot of time before you need to make any decisions or anything like that.”

“Mother, all due respect, but if you’re talking about sex, that ship has sailed.”


“You didn’t know?”

“Know what?”

“About Eric and I.” There was silence for a few moments. “I’m not a virgin anymore.”

“My word! My word! Angelina Elizabeth Corsette!”

“Oh, mother, please don’t tell father!”

“Tell… tell your father? Why, he’d scream at you and kill Eric. I will do no such thing.”

“You’re the best.” Angelina got up from the table, put her plate away, came back in to the room, hugged her mother, kissed her cheek, and disappeared to her room on the third floor.

Marie couldn’t read anymore. Her daughter was not hers anymore. She was the world’s now. Her husband was anything but. She had to make a decision. To go on as is, or to live. She chose to live.

After leaving the table, she went to the sink and cleaned the dishes. Then she went to her room, rolled a joint from her daughter’s weed that she had found, and smoked it while she watched opera performances on YouTube. The End.

Nick, a kid I knew growing up who is now a senior at Providence College, came in to grab a couple Red Bulls, a vanilla Coke, and a box of condoms.

This was always awkward. It’s not that we didn’t like each other, it’s just that, and I can’t speak for him, but at least for me, the glass counter between us and the obligatory “Do you have a CVS card?” question worked as insurmountable gulfs of separation, as seen in our stilted words with each other.

“What’s good, man?” I asked when he came up.

“Bro! It’s good to see you, how was your summer?” he responded. I looked him up and down… pink polo shirt, check, powder blue khaki pants, check, long blonde curls, check, a genuinely fake smile, check… what was different?

“It was good, just been working and chilling. Yourself?”

“Great, I interned at a consulting firm and besides that just hit the beach.”

“You got big plans tonight?”

“Kind of, some buddies of mine are throwing down at their apartment on Eaton Street.”

“Sounds like a good time,” I said as I bagged his purchases.

“Yeah man, you should come through once you get off. The address is 32 Eaton.”

“Thanks for the invite, dude. Have a good night.”

“You too. See you around.”

That was it! He was nicer now… Back in the day he would never have invited me out somewhere… what is it, college? Does it make you more inclusive? Providence College doesn’t have frats, maybe his friends are just all-around good guys. But who am I kidding? That isn’t my crowd. My proud crowd is made up of townies – drug addicts, drug dealers, no-names and lowlifes, anyone who makes me laugh and has a humble spirit.

Consumers are sporadic between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. when we close, so I take a little time to read and write and think. Chris is probably passed out in his “office” by now, anyway.

Nick and a neighborhood boy, William, were playing basketball one-on-one outside William’s house. William was a little taller and skinnier than Nick. He was black with short dark hair and a brilliant white smile. The two boys were pushing past each other to try and get to the rim, but, despite being eight-years-old, they had the maturity to know the contact was incidental, part of the game. With the score tied at 10-10 and the summer sunshine turning tired, William squared up. He had been taking Nick hard to the rack all game, so when he jab stepped to his right, Nick practically fell out of his shoes trying to stop the drive. This left William wide open for an elbow jumper, which he made easily.

“Ay! That’s right! That’s my win!” William yelled, jumping up and down, his sweat spraying. Nick had his head in his hands, but after William’s celebration, he removed his hands covering his face, and smiled.

“Rematch,” he said.

“You’re on,” William answered.

Before the game could begin, a black SUV pulled up.

“Nicholas. Get in, now,” a voice yelled from behind a slightly cracked tinted window.

“But dad, we were—”

“No. Get in.”

Nick knew not to question his father more than once. He offered William an apologetic glance, picked up his basketball, and hopped in the car.

Nick’s father, Robert, was fat and always wore double-breasted suits. He was over 6’3” and walked with a dignified limp. He was the supervisor of over 100 CVS pharmacies in the New England area.

“What are you doing?” Robert asked.

“I was playing basketball with Will,” Nick said.

“But what are you doing? I told you I preferred you hanging out with (insert ostensibly white name here).”

“Yeah, you said that, but you never said why.” Robert sighed, gathered himself, pulled over to the side of the road, and focused his attention directly on Nick.

“Listen, son, I think you’re old enough for this now. I don’t want you playing with that black boy.”


“Sure, William. I don’t want you playing with him, or seeing him. It isn’t good for you. It isn’t good for your family—the one you have now or the one you’ll have one day. Just trust me on this for now, and later you’ll know why I said it.”

“Okay, dad.” Nick stared out the window. Robert’s gaze lingered on Nick for several seconds, before he refocused on the road.

“You’re a good boy, Nick,” Robert said, placing his hand on the back of his son’s neck.

One decade later, Robert had been dead of a heart attack for two years. Nick sat in his freshman year white racism class. He was a declared political science major.

“Race is nothing but a social construct, and whiteness is a concept founded on the definition of non-whites as other,” Nick wrote on his quiz. He was happy studying race… he considered it a defining issue in modern society. His dad’s admonishment did not work. Well, it did at first. At first, Nick was arrogant, and entitled to his arrogance based on his father’s status and Nick’s own devilish good looks (I mean, the kid looked great. Still does.). Later, with that liberal education of his (the truth often errs on the side of liberalism—not the classic definition, the modern one) and the education of having a father who only shouts advice and is happy only with “initiative”, Nick wizened up.

Anyway, class ended and the weekend began. Nick walked back to his apartment with his headphones in, through the narrow streets of Providence he had been raised near. He knew almost everyone he saw, Providence College only having 3,800 undergrads. There was something about Nick… boys and girls alike would see him as he walked by and develop an opinion based on his striped button down shirt and colorful pants. He was the embodiment of classism and racism. But he was not that at all. He just dressed like a total tool.

After picking the headphones out of his ears, Nick opened the door to find his roommate, William, playing video games in sweatpants and a tank top.

“Damn, you slept two more hours than me and you STILL an ugly motherfucker!” Nick said, grinning.

“You tryna play some one-on-one? Game is already over but I’ll give you a 4-0 head start to make you feel like you have a chance,” William said back. The End.

I strode up and down the aisles—my domain—to make sure nothing had been misplaced. A song I liked came on by an alternative rock band. In the context of the store, any song that is played by Chris’s corporate playlist is ruined for me. Music with supposedly inspiring messages take on an insidious connotation when played in the store. “I’ve got a good one lifting me up when I’m, down, well it’s been perfect timing, new horizon, you are looking to, I’m feeling good as, newwwwwwwww,” and now I can’t ever hear that song again without feeling worse.

I keep a duster on the counter just in case Chris comes around and asks why I’m not doing the closing work. He rounds the corner, I pick up the duster. Thankfully, he doesn’t, so I simply count down the minutes until the shift ends.

Who’s gonna be the asshole walking in at 10:58 p.m.? Everyone that walks by is a possible spawn of Satan, but no one dares enter.

Until her.

Black hair, dark purple lipstick, a blank stare into me, a dark blue dress, a purposeful gait. But she is not beautiful. I do not want to run my hand across her bare back. I do not want to dance with her and hold her chest against mine. I do not want to even speak with her because she is what is standing between me and the outside.

“Hi,” she says, approaching the counter.


“Sorry for coming in so late, I just really needed this,” she said, pointing to a bag of peanut M&Ms on the counter.

“You needed it, did you?” I said.

“Are you calling me fat?” I stopped moving.

“Of course not! You are the opposite of fat. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone as not-fat as you. You—”

“I’m just joking, man. It’s all good.” She smiled. She smiled?

“Oh. Gotcha. Well your change is one-fifty.”

“Thanks. Listen, I feel bad. Let me buy that pack of cigarettes too, and I’ll let you have one, since it looks like it’s 11 p.m. and it’s time for you to go.”

“If you insist.”

I packed up my book and my journal, took off my red CVS smock, and followed her outside.

“I haven’t been out here since before six in the morning,” I said.

“You should really get out more,” she said. I noticed her smooth, pale-white thighs.

“This is true.”

“Why do you even work here?” she asked.

“Gotta make a living somehow, right?”

“I mean, sure, but can’t you make more money at a restaurant or whatever?” she asked, tapping out the ash of her cigarette.

“Yeah. But I feel comfortable here, and I get a lot of hours, and I can read and write while I work.”

“Ah, a store clerk with ambition, eh?”

“Something like that.”

“My friend is dragging me along to a party tonight, would you like to come?” The lamplight across the street blurred and I stared at the fire in my cigarette.

“Of course I do. But why would you ask me?”

“You’re kind of cute and I have no one to go with.”

“Should I put the smock back on? I look even better in that.”

“Absolutely.” We were quiet for a minute.

“Why would you have no one to go with?” I asked. “You’re incredibly attractive, as you probably know.”

“Thank you. But people don’t like me. Or they don’t think they do. They see one thing and think that explains me. They don’t know I’m a greedy selfish business major like everyone else.”

“You think they’d like you more if they knew you were greedy and selfish?”

“Yes.” I laughed at this answer.

“What’s your name?”


“Nice to meet you Alexandra, I’m Elan.”

“That certainly sets you apart, doesn’t it?”

We walked to the party, which was close by, burning down two more cigarettes on the way. She told me that since she was a little girl she’s always wanted to marry a CVS cashier. I told her I had always been super into emo chicks.

We get to the party and I take shots of whiskey with Nick. He tells me my girl is cute and I tell him that means a lot coming from him. Alexandra and I dance in Nick’s living room. She tries to teach me how to salsa. I tell her she’s not bad for a white girl. She tells me I’m not a bad dancer for an ungainly and gangly white guy. We leave after an hour and a half, when we’d decided we were drunk, and we head for my place.

“CVS guy has a space all for himself. His mommy and daddy didn’t pay for it like the parents of my peers. How impressive.” I stared at the futon on the floor, the TV on a table, all the amenities needed for one person in a one-room apartment. The wood floor was dusty and without carpet. Empty bottles and cans adorned the off-white counter.

“My mother and father are dead,” I said.

“What?” she asked.

“I said ‘I’m sure a business major like yourself can respect self-sufficiency.’”

We kissed against the front door, eventually making our way to the futon. Her dress disappeared when I pulled it over her head and she unbuckled my pants and we were naked and poor with each other in the night, and again in the morning, when she left in a grey sweatshirt of mine.

“I’ll see you soon,” she said.

“For business or pleasure?” I asked.

“Both.” The End.

When I got home I didn’t bother to shower. I went to the fridge with nothing but a carton of milk and seven Heinekens in it. I took a Heineken. I opened my laptop and watched Netflix as I rolled a joint on my futon. Once I had finished smoking the joint and drinking the beer, I switched over to porn and watched a particularly excited young couple on a couch. I produced a condom and masturbated into it.

Write what you know, right? I think I said something earlier about human potential.

The End.


by Emma Capron (2016)

She hears Jamie rustle in the bed beside her. He is deep within the throes of peaceful slumber, his breathing deep and regular. Tonight is the first night in months in which the gentle rise and fall of his chest has not lulled her into darkness, into the escape of sleep. She sighs, a quiet sigh that no one else can hear. She burrows deeper under the ivory feather-down comforter, a wedding gift from Jamie’s mother. Jamie’s familiar warmth presses against her back as he sleeps, still blissfully unaware of the insomnia plaguing his young wife. She longs to wake him up, to allow the piercing green of his eyes to swallow her whole, to talk into the wee hours of the morning, to place the burden of her existential sadness upon him. But she knows that this is not right. In only four hours, Jamie, much like her, will have to awake and face another day of classes, papers, and all the responsibilities of being a graduate student at the state university, the same university where they had fallen in love.

She wonders still how the two of them had fallen in love. They’d met when both were applying for their master’s degrees during senior year. He was a six-foot tall, bumbling oaf of a scientist, with huge green eyes and an unusual penchant for reciting Horace. He was bright, goofy, and full to the brim of the joy life had to offer. Sunlight radiated from the top of his slightly-overgrown mess of brown hair, to the absolute tips of his toes, which were always covered by the thick leather of his deceased father’s oxford shoes. He frequently wore a lab coat, the uniform of the chemistry major, which was covered with questionable stains. He was laughter. He was light. He was joy.

And she was the serious, somber, melancholy violinist. To look at her was to glimpse living poetry. Slender hands smoothed honey-gold locks, thick lashes framed serious eyes, which she would call “lifeless gray.” She did not wear clothes—they wore her. Every article of clothing was made a work art by the creamy white of her skin, the gentle arch of her back, the swanlike grace of her neck. She was petite, beautiful, and recently diagnosed with clinical depression. You could usually find her boarded up in a practice room for up to eight hours at a time. She had found a solace in the bow of her violin, forcing her deep existentiality to flow out of her fingers into the strings, to replace thoughts of the fragility and hopelessness of her life with Bach, Beethoven, and Vivaldi. The violin quieted her mind like nothing else could. She was darkness. She was solemnity. She was quiet.

She and Jamie had collided in the cafe located in the basement bowels of the university library. He was carrying the biggest black coffee Celeste had ever seen; she was doctoring a cup of earl grey, her favorite tea. He bumped into her while passing by, a bit of his coffee sloshing out of the cup onto Celeste’s real leather violin case. She turned angrily about, but found herself mesmerized by this tall, fiery young man with eyes the color of spring. She couldn’t find words; she didn’t need to.

From that day, Jamie had filled the space that had once been occupied by the great musicians. He filled Celeste with his light, and he tried to guide her away from the cavernous blackness of a mind that threatened to devour her. He cradled her lifeless heart in his enormous vibrant one, and slowly tried to lift her from the pit. Celeste knew she loved him for this. He was her lighthouse through the storm.

The day Jamie and Celeste were married, they received their acceptance letters from their respective graduate schools. Both were within the same university. The two of them moved into a tiny apartment that was characteristic of student housing—wood-paneled walls, suspicious-looking carpeting, and the overall vibe of a 70s horror flick. They tried to decorate, but the house maintained the look of a graduate student’s apartment. Yet, even though it did, Jamie’s presence in the apartment filled the tiny hole with light and warmth.

It wasn’t enough, though. Within the first year of graduate school, the blackness crept back into Celeste’s heart. Slowly, a cold melancholy chill enveloped her entire being before Jamie had a chance to stop it. Celeste tried to suppress it, once again throwing herself completely into the endless music of her violin. Jamie tried his hardest to guide her out again, but this time, even his endless light could not save her. She knew why. She had nothing to give him. Celeste felt like an injured baby bird in Jamie’s hand, useless and broken. She could give him nothing in return for the healing he promised. So she allowed the sadness to take over again. No peace for Celeste. No peace.

The couple had decided not to have children, at least not in the foreseeable future. Busy schedules coupled with Celeste’s depression and the gentle warnings by other professionals in their fields—have a baby at this point, and your life, your career, everything you worked for, is over— steered them clear of offspring. Yet, sometimes life does not happen the way one plans. And one blustery autumn day, Jamie opened the door of the apartment to find Celeste weeping on the bathroom floor, her hair tangled about her face, her eyes red and puffy. In her hand was clutched the fateful reason for her tears.

“I can’t have a baby,” Celeste said over and over again the weekend after that day. Jamie was at his wit’s end. For once in their relationship, he didn’t have an answer for her. He himself was unsure about the possibility; after all, Celeste could hardly take care of herself. She was depressed beyond anything he had seen: some days she couldn’t get out of bed. Sometimes, she forgot to feed herself for three days. Occasionally, she was put on probation for missing too many days of class in her graduate program. The only consistency in Celeste’s life was her endless devotion to practicing the violin. It was that endless devotion that had kept her in the program at the university; she had a talent beyond what her professors had ever heard. She put her sadness into the music, and it gave a heart to her music that was unbelievable. He feared her losing this one thing that kept her grounded upon the earth. Jamie feared that his wife would float away like a ghost if she had to give up the violin, if she had to become a mother. He struggled within himself. “What to do?” he asked himself. “What to say?”

No decision could be reached, and time passed. Celeste withdrew even deeper into herself, and Jamie was beyond reaching her. At night, while she slept fitfully, crying out and tossing about, he tried to hold her, tried to transfer a piece of himself into her, but she would not be pacified. During the day, he made her all types of tantalizing food, but Celeste barely managed to stomach enough to stay alive. He brought her to endless doctors, but even they were at a loss. “Perhaps it would be better for her to get rid of the fetus,” they said, but at even the mention of that option, Celeste would burst into tears. Nothing improved her mood at this point.

Celeste knew that Jamie was trying his best to make things okay, to find an answer that would satisfy her, but nothing really worked. She was truly being eaten alive by the sadness she had never truly abandoned. Some days, when she returned home from school before Jamie, Celeste would throw herself upon the couch and sob; agonizing sobs that revealed a grief that went beyond healing. One time, her sobs were so disturbing that a neighbor showed up, sure that the pretty, young woman next door was being beaten senseless by her husband.

But if anyone was beating up Celeste, it was herself. “I can’t be a mother,” she shouted when she was alone. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!” She looked at pictures of her own mother, holding Celeste as an infant, a bright, tired smile lighting up her maternal face. Celeste knew this could not be her. She whispered to her abdomen, “I cannot be your mother. I cannot. I have nothing to give, nothing to say.”  At her first ultrasound appointment, Celeste ripped up the pictures the smiling young nurse had given her, the nurse with the fire-engine red lipstick that glowed far too brightly under the fluorescent hospital lights. The doctors often feared Celeste would try something drastic. She saw the way the doctors whispered to Jamie whenever the appointments ended. She saw the fear in Jamie’s eyes whenever he left her alone. At night, Celeste found herself engulfed by her husband, his arms protectively encircling her and this alien growing within her, his deep breathing a lullaby to her ears.

There was the scorn of the other professionals to deal with, as well. At first, Celeste and Jamie told no one of the ever growing problem. But eventually, it was obvious to everyone. “Did you hear?” they said, “Did you see?” “Such a shame, such a shame.” “She’s so talented, and this will ruin everything.” “I heard they’re giving it up for adoption.” “She should just get an abortion.” Celeste was surrounded with peers who judged her, criticized her, and refused to support her. If she was drowning in her depression, these people were the ones pushing her head further under the water. “As if this wasn’t hard enough,” she thought. “As if I don’t know. Celeste seriously pondered adoption. One time, when Jamie wasn’t home, she contacted a local agency and very nearly set up a secret arrangement for an adoption. Sometimes, she mused over running away just long enough to have the baby and leave it on the steps of a hospital, a church, anywhere. It was the looks Jamie gave her that kept Celeste home. Those green eyes usually so full of joy and light, now teeming with concern, fear, and exhaustion. He kept her there.

And still, she played the violin. Every spare moment, she played. She played the saddest music she could find, and once she ran out of compositions, she began to compose herself. Eight, nine, ten hours of her day were spent holed up, dripping crisis and sadness into the notes. Celeste’s professors, when they weren’t backbiting about her, found themselves floored by her compositions. “How does she do it?” they thought, “How can she put such feeling into her music?” The compositions were fragile and beautiful, frigid and floaty.

Celeste lost herself in the music. If Jamie kept her grounded, the music kept her alive. She played, and then, on the rarest of days, she felt it connected her to the little alien life inside her body. It was a typical day. No classes. Celeste arrived at her studio at 7 a.m. and practiced. She stopped for lunch at noon, a few stale crackers and a sip of water. She chalked her bow. She continued. Around 3 o’clock, after finishing a lengthy sonata, Celeste felt the little alien flutter within her. She stifled a sob, and picked up the bow again. Every time she did, a flutter. A kick. A sign of life. From that day forward, whenever Celeste played, the little alien fluttered and kicked and started to life. Something within Celeste broke. The tears began to decrease; she quieted.

Jamie noticed the change with a sense of unease. On the day the alien started to life with her music, Celeste came home in silence. She ate her dinner, she slept restfully. A few times through the night, Jamie checked to make sure she was still breathing. He was worried; at the next doctor’s appointment, he told them that Celeste had suddenly seemed resolved, almost at peace. They shook their heads and told him to watch her carefully. Resolved, they said, could be the early signs of suicide. Watch her.

Jamie did watch her, but for the rest of the pregnancy, the strange peacefulness continues. Jamie noticed that it seemed to fluctuate with music, but he thought nothing of it. Music had always, after all, been a kind of solace for Celeste. He waited, he protected, he hovered. Celeste did not change. She hardly talked to him, but at night, he noticed that she slowly began to allow him to hold her. She moved deeper into his embrace every night. He felt an unstable calm settle over him.

Then, the day came when Cadence was born. It was a day filled with rain. The thunder roared, the lightning flashed. The whole earth shook, as if something was stirring, the winds were changing. Celeste looked lost as she labored through the night, sweat beading on her brow, her honey hair damp about the temples. Her eyes, Jamie thought, were different. The dull gray interchangeably brightened and darkened. At one point, Jamie was sure he nearly lost his wife. The thunder boomed so long and loud, it threatened to tear open the hospital windows. Jamie swore the ground was shaking. Celeste’s eyes grew lighter and duller, her hair soaked, her hand loosening its grasp on Jamie’s. Her heartbeat began to slow. The doctors, suddenly concerned, began to call her name. A nurse said, “We’re losing her…”

At that moment, Celeste found herself suspended. She looked around the room at the frightened faces of the doctors and nurses. She saw the familiar green eyes of her husband, ringed with dusky purple, absolutely full of terror. She felt herself nearly slipping away. “Give up,” her brain told her. “Give up. Let go. You don’t have to face this. Let go.” She felt despondent sadness well up within her again, threatening to tear her away. Everything within her longed to give in to the voices. She didn’t have to face life; she didn’t have to face motherhood. She could give in to the quiet darkness of an eternal rest. Yet, just as she began to allow her eyes to close, she swore she heard a stanza of music. One that was not filled with sadness, but with the promise of new life. It was like music she had never heard before. And suddenly, she snapped open her eyes.

At the same moment Celeste snapped open her eyes, Cadence arrived in the world with the roar of a little lion. He cried, and as he did, Jamie saw the color return into his wife’s cheek. He saw a different kind of calm flood into her gray eyes, a color he hadn’t seen. She looked at Jamie, then at the pink and screaming little boy who had just been born. “Cadence,” she said, and Jamie understood.

Now, here Celeste was, in bed next to her beloved husband, who slept the sleep of the dead. They had just returned from the hospital. Earlier that evening, as the two of them slid into bed, Jamie had cupped his wife’s chin into his hand, ran a gentle finger over her smooth coral lips, and said, “I love you. I love him.” She had smiled for the first time in years, a genuine smile that engulfed her whole face. Now Jamie is asleep and she is not. The clock ticks by, 2, 3, 4, 5 o’clock. Jamie sleeps. Cadence sleeps, strangely enough. Celeste does not. Then, suddenly, Celeste hears a tiny whimper from the bassinet beside the bed. Jamie stirs, but does not awaken. Quietly, Celeste slips from beneath the covers, but instead of heading to the bassinet, she grabs her violin from its case. Cadence begins to cry. Celeste raises her bow, and begins to play from memory the stanza that had lifted her from what she knew would have been her grave. As she does, Cadence’s whimpering stops. “I can’t give you  everything,” Celeste whispers, as her heart begins to melt at long last. She lifts her son from his bed, and holds him close. She continues to hum the tune she played on her violin. Cadence snuggles himself against her. She feels her heart swell, with love for this little life, for her husband who will soon awaken to kiss her and love her, and to love his son. She feels love. And she feels peace. “I cannot give you everything,” she says, “But I can give you music. And love.” Cadence turned up his head, and opened his eyes, eyes that were the same color as her own. The sun began to rise, filling her son’s gray eyes with light. She feels herself begin to reawaken.

Four Rules for Professional Thievery

by Tyler Valzania (2016)

“Okay this first rule is the most important of all so listen up,” he said as he transferred a grease-stained wrench from his hands to mine. “The world is not fair, that’s a fact of life alright? So don’t get all high and mighty and act like it should be. Earn their trust, do your job, and run like hell. Now unscrew that right there.” He pointed at one of the nuts that kept a flat tire attached to the axel of his jacked up Ford pickup truck. I crouched in front of the wheel, wiping my sweaty palms on the sides of my jeans to get a better grip on the sleek metal. He reached down and flicked me hard on the ear.

“You listening to me boy?”

“Yes sir,” I replied, careful not to rub my stinging ear in an attempt to feign a hardened demeanor.

“Well shit, son, a little verbal acknowledgement never hurt nobody now did it? I’m here handing out pearls of professional success—the code I live by—the least you can do is give me a little respect.”

“Sorry sir, I agree, life ain’t fair and equal, no use in treating it like it ought to be.” I cranked the wrench until the nut was loose enough to fall off and clang onto the hot pavement of the driveway. “But don’t it hurt people?” I added after a moment. My stepfather came back out from under the hood and looked down at me, a sly grin cracking his sunbaked skin.

“Well now, I guess that depends on how you define hurting people. I ain’t never so much as broke a man’s nail in all my thirty years in this business. I mean, monetarily sure, we may reassess finances quote unquote, but in the long run whose to say they’re not better off? You know Buddhists believe the less material possessions a person’s got clutterin’ up their house the happier they’ll be in life? Now of course I’m a subscriber to the Christian faith myself, but I always did have a soft spot for that chubby little guy.”

“Makes sense,” I said as the second nut fell from the rim of the tire, three more remained locked in place. “Happiness is relative.”

“Happiness is relative, hey now I like that, mind if I steal it?” he chuckled, collecting the nuts from the pavement and placing them in the pocket of his faded grey jumpsuit as he strolled into our garage. He had five of the same grey jumpsuits made up to wear to his job at Greasy Greg’s Automotive, each with “Grayson Webb” stitched over the pocket in bright red thread like the marquee of a movie theater.

The first time I met Grayson was six months earlier, two days after the conclusion of my freshman year of high school. My mother had taken me downtown to introduce us over sandwiches and ice cream. On the ride over, she had briefed me on everything she learned about him during their first handful of dates. According to her he was very kind, handsome, and loved football. “Just like you!” she had exclaimed excitedly. She told me he had messaged her on a dating site called and he was planning on buying Greasy Greg’s just as soon as he got the money together.

When I stepped out of the car I saw him leaning against his truck. He was a large man with a goatee and oil-slicked black hair that was almost shoulder length. He noticed my Dallas Cowboys backpack and told me he actually went head-to-head with Troy Aikman back in his high school football days down in Galveston. “I came out on top, and let me tell you, the better player won,” he reminisced. “If I hadn’t blown out my knee in state that year my whole life would’ve been different. But hey, I ain’t bitter.” Grayson promised that with his help I’d be QB1 by the start of sophomore year. “That’s if your mother keeps me around, of course,” he joked with a wink and a million-dollar smile. Two weeks later he moved in.

My own father had been grooming me to be a quarterback since I was old enough to wrap my fingers around the laces. It was his dream that one day I’d play college ball at UT and he’d be able to root for his own son in the Longhorn orange. Grayson wasn’t my father, but it was exciting to have someone to play catch with again.

The third nut was screwed tighter than the first two, and I had to lay all my weight on the wrench just to get it to budge. Grayson re-emerged from the garage with a yellow tin of motor oil and a white rag.

“You still working on that? God damn boy, lets kick it into high gear before your momma gets home and sees.” Placing the oil and rag at his side, he knelt down beside me and began working on the second to last nut with his bear paw of a hand. It came off with ease.

“What’s rule two?” I asked, rubbing the sweat from my dripping brow.

“You’re ready for rule two, are ya? Well ok then, but just remember that just because it’s rule two don’t make it any less important than rule one.” He rose to his feet, his head blocking my eyes from the beating sun. “Rule two is keep it peacefu—” He hesitated mid-sentence, changing his mind. “Actually rule two is don’t be an idiot. Yeah, that’s spot on. Might be the most difficult rule to follow for a boy of your caliber.”

“Hey!” I snapped “I’m no idiot! I once figured out how to catch a raccoon that was eating all the sweet onion’s in my mom’s garden.” Grayson smiled and put his hand in the air, sensing he had hit a nerve.

“Don’t get all swole up on me now, I’m just playing around. Though for future reference, outsmarting an oversized rodent that eats garbage when your momma’s sweet onions ain’t available ain’t the best example of your colossal intellect.” He bent down and placed his hand on my shoulder. It was strong and comforting in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. I smiled, realizing I had flown off the handle at a simple joke.

“Okay fine, got any specifics for me, or is that where the pearl of professional wisdom ends?” I asked half joking, half hoping for a real answer.

“Ah, yes that’a boy! Now you’re taking part in your own education.” His eyes lit up. He seemed truly excited that I was showing an interest in his business. “First things first, keep a day job, now that’s just don’t be an idiot 101. I don’t care if you want to be a painter, an actor, a goddamn proctologist, you keep a day job until you make it.”

“Like your job at Greg’s?”

“Exactly, ain’t nothing more suspicious than an unemployed bum looking for a quick buck.” Moisture spit out of his mouth with every round syllable. He moved back under the hood of the car with his oilcan and rag. I began unscrewing the final nut before the wheel could be removed. Right now my day job was fry cook at the Whataburger down on Crown Street. It’s a fine job, but not much for money. My father had been a life insurance salesman for twenty years, commuting forty-five minutes to Austin each day to sit behind a desk. I’m not sure if he was happy. If he wasn’t, he never showed it outright, but I remember how tired and annoyed he seemed after a long day of work. It was a job, and it paid the bills, and his company paid off a generous policy when he died.

My mother used to write children’s books, most of them about a talking bear cub named Bernard. I loved Bernard, and my mother loved reading me his stories. She would revel in the look of pure imagination on my face whenever she immersed me in Bernard’s world. After my dad died, she quit writing for a long time, telling me that Bernard had “gone on vacation to Santa Fe, and wouldn’t be back for a while.” She picked up a job as a teller at the Bank of America down on South Avenue where she’s worked ever since. Though, since Grayson’s moved in I’ve noticed her scribbling down notes and sketching little bears again.

“Another thing, don’t load your gun. Bring it, obviously, intimidation is key, but don’t load it. Murder is a much different charge than robbery. But if it ain’t loaded and you get in a situation where you want to fire it, you won’t be able to anyway, now that’s not being an idiot—preemptively! Ah hah.” I couldn’t see Grayson’s face under the hood but I could see his skyward finger wag as he emphasized that last word.

The final nut dropped to the ground and I pulled the tire off the axel. This was the first time I’d ever changed a tire by myself. I remember we had once gotten a flat on a road trip we took over to the Grand Canyon, our last one as a family. A hare had hopped out in front of the car on a backwoods road, forcing my dad to swerve onto the dirt shoulder. We must have hit a sharp rock or something because the front right tire got torn to bits and we had to pull over. I was only five years old at the time but I can vividly remember my dad coming to my window and telling me the tire was too heavy for him and he needed my muscles to help him lift it. He stood me next to the car and took me through every step of the process. Jack up the car, unscrew the nuts, take off the tire, and screw in the spare. I helped him carry the spare and pick up the fallen nuts. His voice still echoes in my head “That’s my man.”

“Flat’s off,” I called up to Grayson who was still busy changing the oil under the hood.

“Hey now, ain’t that something. Spare’s in the back.” I hopped in the truck bed and rolled the black rubber wheel off the lowered tailgate. Grayson came around and watched me bring it around front. “I reckon you’ve earned yourself rule three about now,” he said as he crouched down to help me line the spare up on the axel.

“Damn straight!” I exclaimed, proud of my accomplishment in the field of manhood that was auto mechanics. Grayson grinned.

“Alright, alright, you little shit, as promised then.” We stood and he grabbed me by the shoulders. “Rule three, and this is crucial, is never use the same partner twice. Trust me on this one. Do the job and part ways, don’t even give him your real name.”

“Why not? I always thought a crook and his partner was thicker than blood.”

“No way, José. Men are men and thieves are thieves, through and through. As long as it lines their pockets and tickles their balls people will always be trying to screw you over. Ain’t no changing human nature, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this business it’s that.” He let go of my shoulders and looked at the ground, wiping his hands on the side of his jumpsuit.

“Think you could ever use me as a partner? Now that I’m learning all the trade secrets and all?” I asked hopefully. A shade came over the driveway as the sun hid behind a passing cloud. Grayson looked me in the eyes and then back down at the ground, turning his back to me and heading back around the front of the truck.

“No,” he said over his shoulder. I watched his head disappear under the hood. I had said something wrong.

“I just thought it’d be real helpful to watch you in action is all. Something we could do together. I didn’t mean to be a bother.” I crouched back down to eye level with the spare tire and really examined it for the first time. It looked odd in the set. With such a new sheen that it looked out of place among the dusty and worn down others. It was bulkier than the flat had been and had a much thicker tread. It just didn’t fit the frame quite as perfectly as the original had, despite its best efforts.

Only the grinding sound of metal on metal pierced our silence. I finished screwing in the spare and lowered the jack. I should have known better than to push Grayson too hard. He had only just let me in on his secret last night after I confronted him about cheating on my mother.

I had become suspicious last Tuesday night. I hadn’t been able to sleep, so I stayed up watching television in my room. Around two a.m., I heard the rumble of Grayson’s truck and saw it head out of the driveway into the night. He came back two hours later and snuck back into my parent’s bed quiet as a particularly reticent mouse. “That cheatin’ prick,” I remember thinking to myself in a fit of anger. I decided to stay up for the next few days to gather more evidence—Wednesday and Thursday night came and went with no sign of misconduct. I thought maybe I was wrong, maybe I dreamed the whole thing. But then it happened again last night and all my suspicions were confirmed. When he pulled back into the driveway around four in the morning, I met him in the garage and unleashed my rage in the form of childish name-calling and weak-kneed threats. I must have sounded ridiculous to a man twice my size, but I really didn’t have the first clue as to how to handle a situation like this. I didn’t want to tell my mother, I’m not sure she would have survived the heartbreak, so beating my chest and crying “asshole” was the only option I deemed appropriate. He listened to all my accusations and only smiled, that big charming smile. He told me he wasn’t a cheater, but a crook, and began to fill me in on his side business. I didn’t believe him until he showed me his loot from the evening—two thousand dollars cash in a plastic grocery bag. He said he lifted it from a convenience store just outside Henderson. It was the most money I’d ever seen outside a movie about bank robbers, so I believed him. He pointed to a flat tire on his truck and told me he’d teach me his four rules for professional thievery if I helped him fix it and didn’t tell my mom.

Grayson broke the long silence.

“Alright, look kid, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound like an old swindler ruinin’ the romance of the fugitive life. It’s an exciting existence, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a lonely one too, with a lot of tough decisions. You’re just a kid, you ain’t afraid of nothin’ yet. You ain’t never needed to scramble to survive, and you’re lucky for it. Goddamn, I been scramblin’ since day one. It’s the only thing I know.” He looked back down at the ground and a genuine sadness seemed to flicker in his eyes. “You don’t want to live this life,” he added under his breath. His confident smile was gone, replaced by a look of fear.

“Okay. I didn’t mean anything by it,” I said softly, unsure of the appropriate next move. I stood up and placed my hand on his shoulder, tapping it twice. He recoiled slightly, startled by my comforting touch. I pulled my hand back. My mom would be home any minute with dinner.

“Listen, I know I’m the one who brought this whole thing up so don’t put it on you,” Grayson said, leaning his hands against the truck.

“It just sounded like you might want—”

“I don’t want you to be like me, okay? You’re going to college, UT even, playing football. You’ve got a mighty promising future. I just ain’t ever had anyone to teach everything I’ve learned. That’s all.”

“It’s ok, I’m glad you did,” I replied. My mother had other boyfriends since my dad, but Grayson was the first I had ever bonded with, the first that ever treated me like a man and not an obstacle. Grayson stood quietly for a moment. He looked like he was mulling something over in his mind. The sun, setting now, reemerged from behind its cloud, filling the driveway with ephemeral light. Grayson began nodding his head and broke a single exasperated chuckle that gave way to one of his famous ear to ear grins.

“You know I’m going straight right? Buying Greg’s. Did your momma tell you?” he asked.

“She might have mentioned it.”

“Yup, leaving this life behind and joining the law abiding ranks of American capitalism.” His smile grew even larger and I could feel my lips upturning as well. He had a special way about him, the kind that made you reject common sense and live for the present moment.

“You can call it Greasy Grayson’s,” I joked.

“Yeah, not bad!” he laughed. My mother’s blue station wagon pulled into the driveway and she stepped out holding a full grocery bag.

“Would you grab this for me, hun?” I took the bag from her hands and she kissed me on the cheek. “I got a rotisserie chicken we can cook up, green beans, and that sweet potato stuff you like too. We can have a nice little family dinner.”

“Great. Thanks!” I exclaimed.

“What are you guys doing out here?” She pointed at the truck.

“Must have run over a nail on my way home from work yesterday, came out this morning and it was flatter than a penny on the train tracks. The boy here was just helping me put on the spare.” He placed his arm around my shoulder and I looked up at his strong jaw and slick hair.

“Well that’s a good boy, thank you for helping out your stepfather. He talks a big game but he ain’t as spry as he used to be.” My mother laughed. Grayson raised his eyebrows in acknowledgment of a rare dig from my mom. She usually wasn’t one to poke fun.

“Hey, were you able to stop at the bank, darlin’?” Grayson asked quietly. My mother smiled and crawled back into the car to grab a check from the passenger seat. She brought it out and looked at it for an extended moment, she took a quick, deep breath and handed it to Grayson.

“What’s that?” I felt a pensive shift in the pit of my stomach.

“Well honey, that garage Grayson works at is up for sale, and the current owners want to move quickly.” Grayson nodded with each word she spoke. ”They said its Grayson’s if he wants it but he doesn’t quite have the money for it yet and we still have plenty from your dad’s—”

“It’s a loan, an investment in our future as a family,” Grayson interrupted. “We’ll be owners and operators of a business. Maybe with all your work here today I’ll even give you a summer job.” He winked and held my perturbed stare.

“My boys,” my mother said warmly, grabbing each of us by the shoulder and beaming up at us. “I’m going to go in and start dinner, come on in when you’re done.” She turned and headed into the house. Grayson broke my gaze.

“Well I’m so excited I’m going to make my offer right now! I’ll be back in two shakes,” Grayson called to my mother.

“Okay! Good luck!” she called back.

Grayson met my cold eyes again before climbing into the cab of the truck. I noticed a packed duffel bag on the passenger seat. Only half of the sun peeked out from the horizon of the distant mountains. The big pink and orange sky faded into dark grey twilight.

“How about rule four? I’ve been waiting all day,” I said quietly, almost under my breath. He closed the door and stuck his head out the open window.

“Well, sure, sure, might as well for posterity’s sake.” He revved the engine and the truck purred to life. “Rule four is never be afraid to play the long game.” The pressure in my heart welled to a paralyzing peak. I wanted to scream, like I had in the garage the night before, but this time I didn’t. Men are men and thieves are thieves, through and through. We shared a nod, and I let him go. The truck rolled down the driveway, and disappeared around the street corner, spare and all.

I stood on the pavement until the sun had dipped completely behind the mountain, giving way to the night. The smell of chicken and sweet potatoes filled the air around the house. I went inside to set the table for two.

They Didn’t Mean To

by Carleton Whaley (2016)

The Old Man had a perpetual hunch to his shoulders, which was only accentuated as he chuckled at the cat sitting across from him. His shoulders rose and fell quickly, and at their height they nearly touched his bat-like ears, the same ears that the cat would swat at late at night while the Old Man sat on the couch and watched cable.

But it was only morning now, so the tortoiseshell cat sat on the small table and pawed at the Old Man’s coffee cup as if trying to push it toward him.

“Ah, good beastie, helping an old man you know, but I think I can take it from here,” the Old Man winked at the cat before continuing, “Or maybe it ain’t manners, but you waitin’ for something, eh?” The cat’s eyes followed as the man lifted his donut up from its napkin. It pawed in place on the wooden table, watching as the Old Man dipped his donut into the black coffee, broke off a piece of the moist cake, and held it above the steaming mug.

“Ah, you see? I think you care more about food than you do me, girl. You know most folks wouldn’t spoil you like this, or if they did you’d run off to ‘em as soon as I was-” the Old man stopped and gave a coughing laugh. He shook his head and set the piece of donut in front of the cat who immediately began to gnaw on it. “Ah, forgive me, beastie. I meant nothing by it, sure it’s just what we do every morning, and should I-should I, um. Don’t know where I was going with that. Alice always did say I read into things. Or was it that I don’t?” He let loose another laugh, startling the cat and nearly knocking the table and coffee over.

“Oh that’s the good thing about being old I guess. Who cares? No one really knows you all your life, then by the end even you don’t! Oh beastie, that’s a nice thought. Sure there’s them memories we push away, but there’s them that just slip by on their own, so what’s the matter?”

Several quick, pounding taps sounded from the door, and the cat leaped from the table and darted under the sofa in the other corner of the small apartment.

“Hold on, hold on!” the Old Man grabbed his cane and hobbled toward the door, then looked back at the dank, dim apartment. Everything had an amber tinge to it, whether it was from the incandescent light or simply the patina of old age, the Old Man didn’t know.

“Aren’t you going to greet our guest, you little urchin?” His eyes flashed between the couch and table, and he realized that the piece of cake the cat hadn’t finished was no longer there. She must’ve jumped with it, he thought. He imagined the cat flying through the air, donut clutched in her fangs, eyes wide with panic at the sound of an intruder, someone who might take her prize from her.

He started to laugh as he unlocked the door and pulled it open. A woman with short red hair stood in the doorway, scowling as she peeked around a bag of cat food almost as big as her. She strained as it rested in her hands, her palms up like an offering, her arms each weighed down with bulging plastic bags.

“Sweetie, you gotta see, you shoulda seen, jeezus it was-”

“You gonna let me in, Dad? I don’t have a lot of time today.” Had she dyed her hair? There had been spots of gray in it before.

“Oh, here, let me help with-”

“I got it, Dad, just let me get around you, ok?” She had definitely dyed her hair. She looked just like Alice now, strange how time works.

“Alright, alright, don’t trust my old bones, but while you’re doin’ that, you gotta hear, the cat was just on the table, you know how we always-”

“Dad, my arms are about to fall the fuck off. Ok?”

The Old Man shuffled to the side and said, “Watch your mouth.”

The Daughter stomped past him. It had been snowing outside, and her boots left a layer of slush that the Old Man tried to ignore.

She heaved the cat food onto the couch, then gingerly set the plastic bags onto the floor. Her hands were red from the constriction, and she rubbed her forearms to pump some life back into them.

“Now,” she said, unzipping her long green coat and hanging it on a chair back, “what were you trying to tell me?”

“’S not important.”

“Dad, you just-” she stopped and pinched the bridge of her nose, just like her father did when he was holding back from saying something, then said, “Let’s start over. How are you?”

“Oh, I’m good. You know, I mean, you know how it is,” the Old Man said, trying to smile. She was probably having a bad day, he thought. Not that her fat husband made things easier.

“Anyway, um. The store ran out of the cat food you like, so I got something different, but it’s just as good, I read reviews and-”

“Oh! Oh, I forgot to tell you, that Russian woman grabbed some for me the other day.”


“You know, that old Russian Jew who lives in the next complex over. The one whose husband kicked it last year. Her name’s Katya or something, so I call her Kat.”

The Daughter stared at him, so the Old Man continued.

“They’re all named Katya or something. Kinda funny, Kat getting cat food.” He gestured with his cane at the slightly open closet where the litter box was kept, then said, “I forgot to call you, I didn’t know when you’d be coming over.”

The Daughter stared at the Old Man, then furrowed her brows and pinched the bridge of her nose again, before saying loudly, “That’s fine! Now you have extra! I gotta go, Dad, I have to pick up the boys.”

“Oh, of course. Do you want any coffee before you go?”

“No thanks, but- Dad, how much coffee do you drink? You know Jim says-”

“Oh, well if Jim says-”

“Yes, Dad, he cares about you. He actually likes you for some reason.”

“Well I don’t know why, since I don’t come around to fix the pipes or the roof anymore! He must have to do things around the house now.”


The cat sprang out from under the couch and hopped onto the peak of the Old Man’s back before he could say anything, and the Daughter just stared at the two of them. After a minute, she pulled her coat off the chair and put her arms through it.

“I’m sorry Dad,” she said, “but I don’t have time for this right now. Enjoy your coffee.”

“I will.”

A corner of her mouth curled upward as she looked at her father, then she turned and picked up mug from the table. Steam rolled up from the black liquid as she breathed in deeply, then sighed. She sounded tired.

“What was that about?” the Old Man asked as she put the mug down and walked around him.

“Just checking.”

“What? I’m old, what do you care if I take a drop in my coffee?”

“I didn’t say anything, Dad.”

“I know that look!”

“You don’t need to yell.”

“And you don’t need to bring groceries anymore! Don’t you worry about me. I’ll find someone else, or I’ll just die and make things easier for you. Here, this will help, won’t it?” He had lurched over to the table and grabbed his mug as he talked. His eyes glared wide at his daughter as he gulped the coffee down, steam wafting past his face and clinging to his eyelashes, the bitter smell tinged with the sour notes of whiskey.

She looked from him, gasping as he finished the cup, to the cat, who had leaped from his back to the table. Her hand rose up as if she was about to grip the bridge of her nose, but instead it brushed through her hair. She looked at the both of them again, the Old Man and the cat, and turned away.

“I don’t know how you’re still alive,” the Daughter said as she closed the door behind her.

‘Was she talking about me or the cat,’ the Old Man wondered.

As the quiet crept into the room, it was easier for the Old Man to hear all of the small sounds around him. The creaking of the apartment, the wind outside, the hum off the refrigerator, the soft breathing of the cat.

He went to make another cup of coffee and glowered at the sleek machine. He had always liked the time it took for a full pot to boil, to listen to the hisses and bubbling for a few minutes as he waited eagerly, but when his Daughter had moved him in, she got this single cup, automatic monstrosity. He pulled a small plastic cartridge out of the drawer and popped it into the machine.

‘What did she mean?’ he wondered. ‘What’s wrong with some coffee, damnit?’ Smirking, he opened a cabinet and reached into the back for his bottle of Walker. He had drank this same whiskey for years. Since before his Daughter was born, jeezus. There was that one time that- well, maybe she meant the cat. Maybe she meant him though. Would that have been better? She shouldn’t still worry about that, shouldn’t be worried about the cat, the Old Man thought, and remembered.

She was only six, do they still remember things from that young? Well, maybe eight. Maybe older. Whatever it was, it wasn’t that big a deal. They had lived on a farm. She had been around animals all her life.

They had sat at the table together, the Old Man and the Daughter, back when neither of them were so old. Alice was in the hospital that night, but someone had to feed the Daughter. Someone couldn’t leave her and all the other animals to themselves on the farm.

“What’s wrong with her, Daddy?”

“Ain’t nothing wrong with her, sweetie. She’ll be better soon, and that’s all that matters, so no need to worry what’s wrong if it’s not permanent, eh?” The Man always tried to explain things like this. Don’t make her worry. She’s been free of worry for so long, and there’s plenty in life to worry about later. Don’t let her see the scans that the doctors can read, the black and whites that paint a picture of how hard a life could be.

He threw back the rest of his whiskey, then reached for the bottle to pour while the Daughter stirred the food on her plate. Alice didn’t like when the Man drank at dinner, but she wasn’t here right now.

“Why aren’t you eating?” he asked.

“Not hungry.”

“Did I ask if you were hungry? You know how lucky you are to have food in front of you?”

“Yeah.” She continued to prod at the venison with her fork.

“Then what’s the problem? You think I’m rich? That I can just pay all of these bills and then run to the store when you’re hungry? Fine, that’s fine!” He tore the plate from her and set it on the counter. “We’ll just salt it, how about that? That’s what my father did, he hunted just like me, only he didn’t pay electric bills for a damn fridge, for a damn freezer, damn hospital bills and property taxes and-”

“Daddy I-”

“Don’t interrupt me! You’ve got it good and don’t even know it, just push your food around not knowing a damn thing about the world and how it works, and that’s fine, that’s fine, that’s fine, that’s fine,” he repeated over and over, turning away from his Daughter and clutching his face. There was just too much to say. There had always been too much to say. The Daughter got up and walked out of the dining room.

“Excuse me!” the Man spun around, eyes red, “Where do you think you’re going?”

“My room.”

His boots thudded behind her in fury. She sprinted away, ran from him to slam her bedroom door behind her as he slammed his fist into it.

“Ya kidding me? I’ve taken it eashy on you, gave ya too much rope! Ya know what my Pap woulda done to me if I wouldn’t eat, if I left the table, holed myself up in my room like a brat? I spoiled you good, didn’t I, that’s where thish coming from. Open thish goddamn door! I. Said. Open it!”

He pulled his leg back and kicked the door, snapping the wood near the door handle and sending it swinging into the Daughter’s room. She was huddle on her bed in the corner, arms around her calico cat, eyes wide as the Man stomped into her room and swung his head blearily side to side. He pointed a finger at her then, and tried to speak slow past the slurs.

“You should be so grateful. We give you everything, and you don’t even know it. Shelfish, that’s. That’s. And this damn cat.” He stood towering over her now, pointing from her to the cat bundled in her embrace.

“I bought thish goddamn cat, and all it ever does is sit in your room. The damn thing isn’t any good, it won’t come near me, it doesn’t act like a grateful animal is s’posed to.”

The Daughter screamed as the Man wrenched the cat from her arms. He held it by the scruff of its orange neck and muttered to himself as the cat twisted to get a claw into his skin. ‘Teach you a lesson,’ he thought, ‘teach you a lesson. Don’t worry about anything, don’t want her to worry, but if she doesn’t worry then she’ll get selfish, won’t she? Teach her a lesson.’

His footsteps echoed with the weight of dread. His Daughter tore at him, screaming something now and pounding the small of his back with her tiny fists, but nothing slowed him as he went to his workshop. The room was cold, with a concrete floor and a single light hanging from the ceiling.

“Dad!” Her scream echoed off the walls as he pushed her away from him. The cat might have bit him a few times now, but he didn’t care. He reached for a wrench, found the heaviest and pulled it from its hook on the wall.

In his apartment, all alone, the Old Man remembered his Daughter’s screams as he held the cat under his boot and brought the wrench down. Again. And again. And again.

The coffee had finished bubbling, and the Old Man reached for it with his thick, clumsy knuckles. He pushed the bottle of whiskey away. He stood there for a while, staring into his black pool of coffee as all the quiet sounds around him grew in volume. He always joked that his ears worked better than his memory, which is why Alice needed to repeat herself so much. He had hoped, at least.

The cat meowed and shattered the still air, and the Old Man yelled and dropped his mug, which shattered at his feet and splashed boiling coffee onto him. Reeling around, he tried to steady himself on his cane, but slipped suddenly on the puddle and he fell with a crunch.

“Sons’a bitches!” he yelled before his lungs overtook him with coughing. He hacked and wheezed on the tile, inhaling coffee as he gasped face down in the mess. It felt like his ribs were curling into bony, broken fists, wringing his lungs out like a soaking rag. ‘Dear Lord jeezus that hurt,’ he thought, tears flowing down over his bulbous nose and wrinkled cheeks.

His clothes were soaked by the time the Old Man could calm down and roll onto his back. His shoulder hurt like hell, and it hurt his chest to breathe.

He stared at a brown stain on the ceiling that he had never noticed before. For a second he wondered if coffee had splashed all the way up there, after all that stain couldn’t be old, could it? Then again, it had been a while since he could look up, what with the hunch in his shoulders.

From a far corner, a small mewling sound crept into the Old Man’s ears.

“Betrayal, eh beastie?” the Old Man forced a laugh out from his ragged throat. No, can’t make the cat feel bad, it didn’t mean a thing now. “Never mind, never mind. It was a good trick. No TV tonight, I’m afraid. Just stay close, eh beastie?”

The cat nuzzled with the Old Man, and the two of them waited while the coffee cooled and the sun went down, and the groceries stayed unopened.