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Paint by Numbers
Nancy Hightower

My FitBit reports I’ve taken 3,975 steps today and I swear to make 5,000 before midnight, even if means walking around my block enough times to worry the neighbors. I consumed the proper 1200 calories, although 600 of them came from ice cream and another 100 from a shot of whisky. Starting tomorrow, I can only have 80 grams of carbohydrates. I take five milligrams of Ambien at 2 a.m. to ensure that I am asleep by three so that I get at least some sleep before the alarm goes off at seven. I can shave my legs in under five minutes, finish my makeup in two, and will eat a cereal bar on the way to the train. My therapist, whom I get for 50 minutes once a week with a 20% copay, says I should eat better. I tell her I’ve been obsessed with fractals. She tells me to slow down. Use bath salts. Splurge on a fluffy blush brush to glide across my cheeks. I tell her brokenness has its own beauty.

When I get home, I check my Facebook status to see that my recent post received 47 likes and 20 comments. On Twitter I have 1,000 followers but it was a dismal day with only five retweets, and I seem to have lost a fan. My calendar is mysteriously full of Facebook events that I’ve been invited to by strangers. I try to plan out which outfit I will wear for each occasion, how many pounds I need to lose to fit into the red dress. Endless repetition. A recursive dance. Fifty crunches left to do and then I treat myself to an Ambien and a bath with vanilla fizzies.


Jie, Lue
(Hong Kong 1996)
Uzodinma Okehi

Blocky, big porcelain teeth, chicklets. But then Lue was the type to stare at the floor, mouth closed, and here’s a thing I think girls have trouble with, Chinese and otherwise. Because there’s different types of pretty. Anyway, Jie did the talking. Jie was also tallish, flat-faced, so she was the one with ideas, loosing them both from those factories in Luoyang, Songxia, from Shenzhen, over land and water, clouds and thunder, all the way to Hong Kong, the Wing-Wah, and now what? Also, weird machines, 3-arms, with flashcards, the assembly-style language schools, the promise of English. If not factories then pimps . . . Professors. Boyfriends. Formen. If not money then what? Stacks of money, sweeping mythology, more promises, that much I knew about. I didn’t speak Mandarin, I was listening though, it was Jie chattering in Lue’s ear, scolding her, or some diatribe, back in the corner, or on the couch, but again, off to one side while the rest of us ate, and Jie’s got a grip on her arm, smoothing her hair, insisting, whispering, and I’m thinking about Lue in some street level, filthy office, flinching, her real front teeth being pulled out one by one.

If I had to guess, I’d have said Lue’s dream was to pile enough money, get back to the village, the town she came from. Open a store, hair salon, maybe. Maybe that’s what she told herself. But you gotta frame it. Khira, her little dance, foot to foot, around in a circle. Jie, Lue. Thanh. Bela. All of us. There’s Scottie, busboy, Chinese kid, the girls ignore him completely, even cruelly, and not just on the clock. But in other places, I’ve seen the kind of savage way Chinese men handle the girls, Chinese girls, mind you, and those are games we play within ourselves. Jie and Lue were the only two actual Chinese girls at the Wing Wah back then, that was important. And Lue, with her mouth closed, was a statue; milk-white skin, no tits, a museum piece, and I’ll say, I couldn’t imagine her fucking. Eight times out of ten, guys go with Khira, any of the other girls, and I could tell Jie thought Lue wasn’t trying hard enough. My thing with Lue was to somehow get them both out there with us on the street. To think about Scottie, also that always-there cluster of local guys out front, looming, looking and staring. Now take that same show on the road. For the expatriate set. That’s me and Benoit. Sequined jackets, forking down noodles, so forth, but see us out there with two smooth, tall Chinese girls, and it’s about Lue, breeze in her hair, that face, and forget handing out the cards, she’s not gonna smile and I’m not even gonna try and convince you, but see us around Mong Kok, strolling, lounging, in and out from that doorway on Parkes street with the purple lights, and it seems to be open all night.


Small Talk
Stephen Thom

Raymond wriggled in his seat and nestled into his scarf. He drifted between staring out the rain-streaked windows to watching the next group of drenched pedestrians stagger on, rattling change into the machine, tearing their ticket stubs and sinking into vacant seats. Grey faces were wiped dry, noses blown, newspapers uncrumpled and eye contact meticulously avoided. As the driver was about to pull off, a final would-be passenger burst through the curtain of spattering raindrops and lurched at the door, slapping his open palms against it and mouthing a silent appeal. Sighing, the driver relented, the door hissed, and the soaked latecomer was wobbling towards the last empty seat beside Raymond as the bus tore off. Grasping a handrail for support, the man levered himself down as a tight corner was negotiated with heavy swaying, and a pocket of puddles exploded against the window outside. Dribbling globules smeared the pane and Raymond was tracing them with his finger when the man leaned in to breathe hot air in his ear.

'The elephant's ears are big and flappy,' he whispered, loosening his tie and wiping his suit arm across his forehead to free the hair pasted to it. Raymond's head rotated round as his consciousness absorbed the statement.

'Pardon?' He retorted, his eyebrow raising. The man's own eyes narrowed and took on a beseeching intensity, and as he leaned in further his hands raised to punctuate his words with soft, rhythmic claps. 'The...elephant's...ears...are...big...and...flappy.' The hands froze flat out in anticipation. Raymond shrugged and a panicked expression spread throughout the man's thin face. Reaching out, he grasped Raymond's wrist with his left hand, and with the right, pinched a section of skin between his thumb and forefinger. There was a brief struggle, and Raymond cast desperate eyes around. 'Help!' he cried in a near-falsetto, but the other passengers appeared to turn away, staring with renewed interest at their papers, phones or feet. A warm red patch developed around his wrist under the man's tight pinch, and abruptly the bus jerked to a halt. Again, a white crash of water vibrated against the window and the man was gone, lunging down the aisle and out into the sheets of rain. Raymond rubbed his wrist and glared round at the rows of passengers, stooped as one with their heads to the floor.

***

He was diagnosed two weeks later, and six months down the line he lay in a small bed in the corner of a hospital ward, dripping with sweat and hissing short breaths with the same sound the bus door had made as it slid open. His mother sat by the bed, kneading her bag in her lap, exchanging occasional words with nurses and doctors. On the final morning, as rippling streaks of light bled through a window across the ward, he saw the man click across the floor in sharp shoes to join his mother at the bedside. Twisting shadows interspersed his vision, and he watched through the black kaleidoscope as the man leaned in and whispered something to his mother, moving his hand towards her wrist. 'Oh yes,' she nodded, looking round to meet his eyes, 'and he has a long, wrinkly trunk too.' The man smiled, clasped his hands together and rose again, taking a brief, sad look at Raymond before gliding off out into the hall.


The Man Who Lived in a Cage
Mel Waldman

Professor Joseph Crown, a prisoner of his persecutory mind, lived in a cage of his own creation. The little man with dark brown eyes owned a brownstone on 57th Street. Yet he invited no one to his home. Then in the summer of 1960, my distant cousin called me.

“I want to see you tonight.”

“Who is this?”

“Your cousin Joe.”

“Dr. Joseph Crown?”

“Yes. Come over tonight. Recite your pretty poems. I’ll feed you.”

He buzzed me in and spoke over a loud speaker. “Climb the stairs to the third floor, turn left, and enter my study.”

Tons of books, newspapers, and foul-smelling garbage filled his crimson home.

With his gift of synesthesia, he listened to my words and painted the eerie visions that flowed through his brain. When he read my words, he heard surreal music and composed symphonies. The former professor of art and music fed me and gave me his key.

“Come back in seven days.”

The following week I found his shriveled-up corpse in a metal cage. Beside his rotting flesh, I discovered a bottle of pills, a will, and a short note.

“With pretty words you freed me.”


Havens
Richard Baldasty

Apartment 5C
An early January morning surprisingly bright, Ren drops by his uncle’s apartment. He walks into the kitchen where awaits a breakfast of mushrooms, acrid and woody but sweetened with good local honey, and the two of them take a trip. They chat briefly about amusing distortions of perception—the ceiling expands, contracts, allowing them to reach arms up miles high, forcing them flat on the floor. They listen in silence to the bracing strangeness of Penderecki’s Anaklasis for strings and percussion. Given his uncle’s druthers—Ren smiles at the expression—they’d progress to Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. But Ren says why spend good magic on old sorrow; his uncle relents.

They agree to “Here Comes the Sun” from George Harrison’s Live in Japan. Ren’s uncle checks his impulse to mention the coming of age ceremony, Seijin shiki, held each early January. Better not to speak, not to deepen. Yet by caution, too, much slips away. The building is being converted to condos. Unlikely he can afford to buy, and the developers indeed prefer that elderly renters go. Reducing the number of units, gutting them and removing walls, creating open plan luxury flats, promises better rewards, an updated scene.

Sometimes he comforts himself by making believe he’ll die rather than move.

7 Ocean Court
Elisa lives in a narrow house, tall and narrow. No wider at most wide than a striding llama but nearly tall as linden trees that grace Berlin. It stands by the sea.

Each spring she gets out her aged ladder. When the last robin hatchling departs a nest, she climbs to gently retrieve blue eggshell fragments. Another mission fetches dry moss and daub and twig. Once all is sorted and prepared, she affixes the color bits to board to betoken sky, pastes the drab roughage into shapes of hill and vale, pencil sketches in a rope bridge across an Andean ravine.

By her silences, Elisa invisibly indicates storm clouds too—portents immediately perceived and understood by anyone beset by sadness.

She’s eager to show her art if ever someone visits her retreat. A left turn little known, a cul-de-sac, off False Harbor Drive. The house, tall and so narrow, 7 Ocean Court. Weather-bleached clapboard, loose shutters, the shining shock of a freshly varnished pumpkin door. In springtime, a rickety stepladder awaiting assignment in the orchard yard.

4218 E. Eggenberg Blvd.
Rubber bands, paper bags, old toothbrushes, burned out bulbs, dried herbs and flowers, aluminum pie plates, soap ends, broken pottery, socks minus mates, bottle caps, clothesline, hotel ashtrays and souvenir matchbooks, parking tickets, birthday cards, shoeboxes, pencil stubs, dryer lint (saved, organized, by color in Ziplocs), grocery receipts, nails and screws and bolts: Tobias hoards anything and everything.

In the garage, a ’54 Chevy Bel Air, four sad pancake tires. Fuzzy dice and St. Christopher medals by the dozen hanging from the cracked rearview mirror.

The postwar bungalow next door has been converted into a Tibetan house of prayer, flags fluttering, big beasts of beautiful stone on the postage stamp front lawn. Majestic rhubarb plants and reddish to maroon-black chickens behind coil fences of thin wire. Tobias bangs his head against changes in the neighborhood, yet his traitor nose adjusts to wavelets of sandalwood. Incense once on Eggenberg, all but impossible to resist.


 
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