Breadcrumb #502

JERRY DRAKE

Teddy always found interesting things in the trash. He'd found Christmas presents for his kids; they'd grown up and moved to other cities. He'd furnished much of the family home with the things he'd found. Just a little spit and polish and they were good as new. He'd even once found a diamond ring that he had resized and gifted to his wife. She was gone, too, and living with a new man in Florida.

    Teddy was a collector. Of all the joys in his life, it was collecting that gave him the most pleasure. He built every day around it – finding things in the trash.

    Teddy lived alone now, in a little apartment, but he still picked up wonderful treasures from the trash; they covered every wall and surface of his home. He was a fixture in town around the campus and had been for forty years, running his little garbage removal business, hauling off bulk items on contract. He was good at making extra money from the trash too, picking up gently used things, finding valuable things, and reselling it all.  

    It was a big oak bookcase he was wrangling into his truck, from behind a student housing complex, when he knocked over an overstuffed bag of household trash. It spilled everywhere. Beer cans, booze bottles, coat hangers, and the remains of what seemed to have been a substantial birthday cake burst out of the bag, spilling all over the alley. Resting in the middle of the spread of refuse was a human finger.

    Teddy stopped tugging on the bookcase and looked down at the finger. It was long and thin, with a perfectly manicured nail, painted pink. It was a girl's finger. At first, Teddy thought it was some kind of prank finger or party favor. He stared at it for a long time before picking it up. He immediately dropped it again, realizing that it had, indeed, once been a part of a living person.

    Teddy looked from side to side and up and down the alley; he quickly kicked open all the bags of trash searching for the rest of the body. All his life Teddy had heard about garbage men and junkers finding bodies in the trash but he'd never come across one. Nope. It was just the finger. How did it get there? Was the owner dead? Had they just lost the finger? Cut it off? Accident?

    He started to breathe heavily and the alley around him began to spin.

    Teddy took out his handkerchief and wrapped up the finger, slipping it into the front pocket of his overalls. He finished loading the bookcase and pulled his truck out of the alley, casually, so as not to draw attention to himself. He was planning to take the finger to the police, initially, but he didn't. He took it back to his apartment. He rummaged around in his kitchen cabinets and found a small Mason jar and, gently removing the finger from his pocket, slipped it into the container. He then took some white vinegar out of the cupboard and topped off the jar, allowing no space for air. He ground the lid on tightly and held the jar up to the light.

He rummaged around in his kitchen cabinets and found a small Mason jar and, gently removing the finger from his pocket, slipped it into the container.

    There was the finger, suspended in the jar, long and thin with its perfect pink nail. Teddy decided he would take it to the police tomorrow, but for tonight he would add it to his collection of treasures. He placed the lost digit on a little curio shelf, itself pulled from the trash many years ago, near his TV where he could see it from his armchair. He got a beer, sat back and looked up at the thing wondering who it had belonged to. He tried to imagine the girl in his mind.

    He thought she might have red hair and green eyes and he wanted her to be named Susan. He tried to form the image of Susan in his mind, but it didn't come. Instead a singular image appeared in his mind's eye: tall and thin, pale skin, black hair, and deep blue eyes. She wore a yellow dress and she seemed to whisper a name toward him: Addie. Teddy didn't want Addie, he wanted his Susan back but the image wouldn't reform for him. The finger belonged to Addie and she was here to stay.

    Teddy never did take that finger to the police.

    It was on the third day after he found it that the dreams began; the dreams about Addie, with her pale skin, blue eyes, and that incongruous yellow dress. She whispered to him in a husky voice. Teddy. Teddy. Give it to me. Teddy. Teddy. I want it back.

    On the tenth day after Teddy found the finger, he began seeing Addie while awake. He was driving along in his old truck when he saw a flash of yellow behind a big mailbox. Then the next day the back of a girl with a yellow dress and raven hair stepping into a bodega shop. Then on the day after that, he saw her staring out at him from under the awning of an old dormitory, her eyes locking with his. She didn't smile and he heard her voice in his head. Teddy. Teddy. Give it to me. Teddy. Teddy. I want it back.

    He wasn't scared or panicked in any way. He just accepted that Addie had been real all along and somehow she had projected herself into his mind. He was seeing her every day, now, sometimes twice a day, all along his route. She even stopped in front of his truck while crossing the street, whispering again and again into his mind. Teddy. Teddy. Give it back.

    On the twenty-fifth day after finding the finger, Teddy was sitting in his armchair, alone, drinking his fourth can of beer and watching a baseball game. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of yellow on the fire escape. He leapt up and ran over to shut the window. He slammed it and locked it closed. But it was too late. Addie was already inside. She was standing in front of the old curio cabinet looking up at the finger, smiling.

    This time she spoke with her actual voice. Teddy. Teddy. Give it to me. It's mine.

    "Take it! Take it!" Teddy screamed. "Just for god's sake leave me alone!"

    Addie held out her hands and smiled at Teddy. She had all ten of her fingers; five on each hand, with short cut nails, painted yellow. The finger that Teddy had found did not come from Addie's hand. Addie laughed as confusion fell across Teddy's face. She grabbed the jar containing the finger from the curio and dashed out of Teddy's front door, slamming it behind her.

    Teddy ran to the door and shot the old Yale lock and drew the chain. She was gone. Addie had taken the finger and left him alone. Teddy ran his own fingers through his hair and suddenly realized something was wrong. He looked down at his hands to reveal that he now had only nine fingers.

    It turns out, Addie was a collector.

• • •

Breadcrumb #498

JENNIFER FERNANDEZ

Because words on paper are angels enough to guide a lost soul through whatever forest they might find themselves in, and lead them home. But no one never really knows they’re lost.

We left the Bronx, in June 2007, I was a recent high school grad unsure if I wanted to go to college or move to Hollywood. Actors didn’t do college nor did they need it, right? Everybody on the block knew I was ambitious, “Chesca is gonna be famous” they’d say. Everyone except my mom, my very Dominican mom.

“You haven’t read any of these books,” my mom said as she cleared the bookshelf and packed away what she deemed worthy for our new apartment. “Actors at Work,” I read the title as if I didn’t know which books she was referring to. “Of course, I read it. And will read it again.” No point in explaining that in those moments when she asks about money and demands that I get a real job, that I turn to this very book for inspiration. Actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman to Meryl Streep sharing stories about craft, studying, being, doing – existing. She grabbed the tape to seal the box filled with my acting books and four editions of her ‘Remedios Caseros’ books. As far as this Dominican was concerned and Mama too, Vicks Vapor Rub was the plug, the heck with all of that. Junior walked into the house with sweat dripping down his fore head dribbling a basketball thinking he’s the next Felipe Lopez. He looked at all of the scattered books “We making money off this?” he asked. “Let’s set up shop in front of the building.” He grabbed one of them, “An Actor Prepares,” he mocked. “I bet J.Lo never read this. Diddy prepared, she just followed.” “Spoken like a true machista.” I retorted. “They train them young, huh?”

My little brother chuckled and walked away. By way of encouragement, he said that I wouldn’t have to do any of that because I have real talent. Mom stopped him before he could go too far, gave him a hug and put him to work; he had to do some heavy lifting like the rest of us or like most of us. Junior was the only one who still got a hug from Mom; a true momma’s boy. I discovered more items in the discard pile. I spotted my black and white composition notebook buried under more of her cure all books. Ella no sabe que lo que me cura a mi son palabras. That my writing took me into a world that was my own; finally someone I could talk to. Those blank pages were like the mood rings that turned your finger green; they would let you know how I was feeling. I wrote about whether my crush smiled back at me or ignored me. How my teacher didn’t understand my essay because well, he was a white man. I wrote down hip-hop lyrics, I connected to that world. It was all a dream, I used to read Word Up Magazine. Biggie had bars! I opened the notebook and the inside flap read, Franchesca: Actor/Writer. On some days, I felt like I had to pick, that I couldn’t be both. The reality was that both were pipe dreams in my culture so what did it even matter. I flipped the pages and came across my Dear God letters, which were really prayers unbeknownst to me. I copied poems from Teen Magazine, The Roses are Red ones.

I heard the wind chime by the door which was silly because the closest thing to a breeze we got in that apartment building was when the ceiling fan was on. Papi walked into the house and smiled at me. There goes my princess, he’d say. He kissed my forehead and I smelled the beer on his breath. The stench was coming out of his pores. Budweiser. I only knew that because of our trash can, leftovers and Budweisers. Papi mostly drank outdoors but every so often he’d have a couple at home. He thought we didn’t know he had a problem. My dad was supposed to be home three hours ago to help pack but he was preoccupied with hanging with the fellas in front of the corner bodega. He walked into the master bedroom where my mom was packing their clothes all by herself. This was candela pura especially since this wouldn’t be the first time he hadn’t shown up. A couple of years ago, he missed my mom’s college graduation because he overslept at his “friend’s” house. That was also the first time Papi hadn’t slept in his own bed. I bet he did that on purpose, there was a part of my Dad that didn’t want to see her liberated. Educated. You know, island mentality - he’s the man of the house. She decided to go to college when she realized that my dad’s vicio was costing the entire family. My mom wasn’t a yeller, she had a finesse about it; she knew how to cut you where it hurt without so much as raising her voice. Maybe it was the School Principal in her coming out. I drowned out their arguing, those voices that have become the soundtrack to my childhood, and continued flipping through a few more pages of my notebook. Another Dear God letter, I know God hears prayers but is he reading them too?

“Ya ta bueno, Chesca. Stop daydreaming. Move on to the next thing,” my mom told me as she walked past to get more empty boxes. She carried on as if she and Papi did not just have a heated debate.

A week later, we’re up to our knees with boxes, maletas and even garbage bags. The Dominicans are here, disturbing the peace in a quaint town in dirty Jersey. My brother found a neighborhood park for his daily runs and high intensity workouts. His coach told him he has to stay on top of his fitness. My dad didn’t have the corner bodega; he was home drunk more often than not these days. We had philosophical conversations on how he didn’t finish high school when he left the Dominican Republic. He raved about how he supported the family and put Junior and me through Catholic School while working at a factory. That was a sore spot since mom no longer needed his financial assistance. Our connection got stronger, so did his drinking. I enjoyed being able to talk to someone in my family - albeit an intoxicated parent. Papi wanted to tell me about his Casanova days (read: mujeriego) and how the white women in New York loved a chocolate brother who spoke Spanish. They weren’t sure if they wanted to go all the way black so Dominicans and some Ricans were as far as the experimenting would take them. I had to stop Papi. I didn’t want to know if he was with other women while with mom. I wanted to dialogue but not about that. Over the next few days, Papi and I continued our chats. He encouraged me to keep acting. “I’ll see you at The Oscars someday,” he’d say. The tension in the house was thick. He only had me to talk to and I in turn only had him.

I watched as my mom went straight to organizing, she didn’t have time to entertain nostalgia. She needed order; she avoided memories like the plague. So, this is what moving on up feels like, the Dominican version? Forget the Jeffersons, this was real life. As she tackled her last box labeled ‘miscellaneous’, she pulled out an old tattered pic. Her eyes became fiery daggers as she stared at the photo. Mom realized I was watching and laughed it off. Not knowing what to say, I asked to see the photo as if she would agree. She said it was none of my business. She stormed into the kitchen and grabbed the first thing she saw, one of those aluminum cups from DR. You know the ones where they engrave your name on it. The one where they spell your American name, the Dominican way. My cousin Jennifer became Yennyfer, her wannabe gringa behind was not happy about that. That’s a whole other issue. My dad walked into the kitchen, probably to get another beer, completely clueless. The timing was impeccable, I thought I was in a friggin’ Telemundo novela. She hurled the open side of the cup at my dad’s face and caught the right side with precision. He had a small but deep cut near his eyebrow that started bleeding. Funny thing was that my dad tried to dodge it forgetting he had a six-pack all to himself. Maybe it was more than a six-pack, his reflexes were slow. “VIEJA!” my dad yelled at her. He worried about me being there to see it. I wondered if this happened before. “Vete de mi lado,” she yelled back. “Get away!” He walked over to me and kissed me on the forehead as he pressed down on his cut with his index finger. He whispered, “Don’t worry princess,” and made his way to the bathroom. “Mami … you okay?” I asked her nervously.

It was the first time my mom showed emotion. It was the first time I saw the queen of the house shaken. She didn’t say a word to me. She wiped the tears from her eyes and ripped the photo up. My mom went right back to organizing. I’m convinced she is the Marie Kondo of her era. Except this didn’t look like it sparked joy, this looked like hell. Like an escape. I knew all about that but my mom was like one of those water balloons we used to fill up at the fire hydrant on the block, ready to pop. You didn’t need a PsyD to figure that one out. The doorbell interrupted my thoughts - that’s right we had a doorbell now. I assumed it was our neighbors bringing over some warm chocolate chip cookies. Suburbia 101. I opened the door and it’s a pissed off Junior.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Those racist fucking cops,” he said. “I’m riding my bike and they followed me.”

“Did they put their hands on you?!”

“No. They asked me for ID and questioned why I was in this part of town.”

Junior was a straight A student, not because he wanted to be but because he had to be. He needed college scholarships. His involvement with cops was little to none.

“Junior, we are not in the Bronx anymore. We don’t look like them,” I reminded him.

I tried to talk Junior through racial profiling and the fact that he’s a black male when my mom walked in on us. She realized she still had toilet paper in her hand for her sniffles and quickly disposed of it so that Junior wouldn’t see it. Her eyes looked watery but she’s used the visine line many times before. Supermom - to the rescue. Dad, nowhere to be found. “Que paso, mi hijo,” she said as she rubbed his back. I walked away and rolled my eyes. It didn’t call for all that. Junior needed to be informed not coddled. She got amnesia quick when it came to him. She was trying too hard to make sure he didn’t become the man who didn’t know how to love because he never received love. She didn’t want him to become the man she married.

I walked into my new bedroom; it looked like organized chaos thanks to my mom. I picked up my black and white notebook and I got lost in my writing.

Dear God,
I can’t do this anymore; I’m out to Hollywood.

• • •

Breadcrumb #487

ANDREW PHILLIPS

Sam thought about spadefoot toads. They were a dream so real he could hold them in his fist. His parents had gone out to see them when they’d first come to the apartment. They’d trekked into the woods and found the crater that filled with water one night a year every April. On that night, they’d stood at the water’s edge, watched the spadefoots climb up from their ground homes, and deposit eggs in the pool. It was a beautiful thing, his mother told him, the promise of life passed from parents to their young.

His parents planned to take him one day to see the spadefoots, but that promise was given before his father left on assignment.

In the meantime, he amused himself as best he could. He squeezed his toes together and pretended they were the shovel-like toad feet and dug up pennies and fluff from beneath the sofa cushions. Often, he croaked. Sam was that type of kid who felt moved to croak --  in his bedroom, at the laundromat, and in his school. Kids called him names and his teachers shook their head at him, but he didn’t care.

His mother didn’t mind the noise.  She built him a forest out leaves that she taped to his bedroom walls.  On winter nights, she strummed woodland melodies on her ukulele. She encouraged Sam to supply the lyrics, and they’d dance around the room.

When Sam was nine, his mother told him that Cheyenne and Troy were moving into the basement apartment. Sam was not impressed by this development. Cheyenne, a nurse his mother worked with at the hospital, phoned his mother at inconvenient times to complain about her ex-husband. Troy, her son, wasn’t any better. He belonged to a crew who called him retard. They were the reason Sam stayed inside at recess and read nature books.

“Help Troy feel welcome here,” his mother said.

“He’s very loud,” Sam said.

“Okay, frog man.”

“It’s toad man,” he corrected. “Get it right.”

His mother clasped a hand over her heart in mock embarrassment. “How could I get that wrong? What is my penance?”

Sam deliberated for a moment. “Five gummy worms.”

“Deal.”

Two weeks later, Sam went outside to count fireflies. Troy was whacking tennis balls at rabbits.   

“Wusses,” Troy said.

“They aren’t,” Sam said. “Rabbits are tough.”

Troy shrugged.

“They kill their babies,” Sam said.

“What?”

“The dads do,” Sam explained. “They get jealous of the babies. The mom rabbits give them too much love.”

“What dicks,” Troy said.

Dicks was a dirty word. It’s what Sam’s uncle called his father.

“My father is a dick,” Troy said.

Sam handed him a stray tennis ball. They were teammates without a coach.

On nights when his mother worked late, Sam filled the indoor forest with a tribe of new friends. Troy, Aunt Cheyenne, and a few kids from the neighborhood ate pizza and watched the weather report. It was April and the first downpour was around the corner. On the night of the first rainstorm, the spadefoot toads emerged. This year, Sam, his mother and the other boys would find them.

On the night of the rain, Sam’s mother had to work late, but told him he could go as long as he stayed with the other boys. They were a band of wellie clad explorers, and the spadefoots were calling them to join them at the enchanted pool.

On the night of the first rainstorm, the spadefoot toads emerged.

As they traveled deeper into the woods, the apartment building vanished from view. The only light came from their flashlights, and the soundtrack was the throaty tune of the spadefoots.  They were close. Sam felt it.

“What are you doing?” Troy asked. “Stop dancing.”

Sam hadn’t realized he had been dancing, but he couldn’t stop. He was happy, and it was okay to dance.  His mother and father danced on the night they’d seen the spadefoots.

“It’s fine,” Sam said. “My father---

“He’s crazy,” Billy Stoner said.

Troy’s lips twitched into a smile. “Just retarded.”   

Sam flushed.  The music inside him died.  It had been months since they’d called him a retard. Retarded was too much homework, deflated soccer balls, when his father failed to call.

Sam grabbed a rock and tossed it at Troy’s chest.

War descended upon the woods.  Troy hurled a rock in his direction, and then they launched themselves at each other. Sam fought for the woods and the spadefoots. He kicked, punched, and scratched his way through the wall of belligerent boys, and when he broke free, he ran after the music.

The woods seemed darker with every step.  The others were ghosts of a past world. The music was his future, a fragile one.  This future was pulling in different directions. The music was everywhere and nowhere.  He strained his ears for the throaty melody, but it eluded him. He turned right, then left.  He was back at the sight of the brawl, but the boys were gone. They were walking back to the house, or they’d never really come. Either way, he’d promised to stay with them, but he couldn’t go back. The spadefoots had been counting on him and they were boys that ruined the night.

Sam sat down on a stump and waited for her to find him.

She arrived after the rain, but face was streaked with black rivers and her smile was missing.

“Troy?” he asked.

“Is fine.”  

Sam nodded. He’d fought with the group and left them.

“I’m sorry,” She said.

“Why?”

She didn’t answer. “Climb on my back.”

He wrapped his arms around her neck and allowed her to carry him through the woods. He imagined he was a robin with a broken wing and she was returning him to their nest.  

“You know,” she said. “Everything’s going to be okay,”

Sam nodded. He could see the square top of their apartment building and beyond it, the moon with craters deep enough to shelter a dozen spadefoot toads.

• • •

Breadcrumb #485

MEIKO KO

Jack did not like L. L did not like anyone who did not like her. Every Friday at school she made him do skits, ordered the rest to fold into chairs, play metal dead. It burst now and then—Jack, you’re rotting. You’d better see a doctor. You, Jacob, Tanner, watch it. Things always came back. You pick the fence, scale over, you must know there’d be consequences for it.

L couldn’t help it. That was how mouths went wrong, Jack’s ears perked often. He was a psycho. His talent was anger. L didn’t give a shit, it’d be your cause for regret, Jack thought. The town they lived in didn’t help. It was small and everyone knew your address. The sky was cerulean broad and the first thing to greet, by nights it locked everyone down. Stars were no remedy and the world was confined. L was no fool, she did not think there was anything larger in the cities.

They came for you anywhere you lived. First you fitted, then they assigned you clothes. ‘They’ did not exist, they sat around covered. Leaves and skins had not stop growing, they forgot the earth. L wore whatever thrown at her. A decent life was good enough, she calculated nothing, counted the protein bars and milkshakes, cans of root beer at the grocer’s, whose son sat by the cash register. “You doing good?” “Yes, L,” said the boy with the bluest tongue. “Alright, I’ll see you in a bit.” Then she counted her footsteps down the yellow, dusty path, stopped at her mailbox, patted the good stray dog, went into her house and the screen door shut.

Work was a deception, there was nothing much she could do, the higher-ups wanted the Friday school skits. For the kids to show cooperation and boy band valor in the distinction of the school’s marked years, or there’d be no funding. Look at the new generation of sweetness. Every Friday L gathered the students by the stage, an inspector, hands behind his back, royal accent, came to surprise: “I approve.” L shoved her hand into her jeans pocket, the young sang choruses, they must love to sing by the pastures and big machines,

We welcome you all to our variety show. Lots of different things to see before you go…and don’t forget to cheer for the stage and art crew. That’s what God wants us to do.

L liked lonesome holidays. She did not want company. Men at the bar told her it was sad, she was just thirsty and the Corona was lime fresh, she said leave me alone. For saying that she liked lonesome holidays. Once in a while she put on her boots and drove to the shooting range. Some women shot for power, L did it for commemoration.

Her child was dead.

One Friday Jack wanted trouble. He waylaid Katherine with a pair of scissors and cut a chunk of her hair, threatened to stab her pa. “If you laughed anymore at mine, I will.” And he set the shears on her cheek, his left hand holding her locks of dyed hair, and there was an ugly hole in Katherine’s head. Katherine wanted to sue. Yes, they could fold into cogs and wheels and Barbies, they were pink and drowsy, animation that made you float and sink, but you must leave them alone, Jack. Not everything was about you running the show.

Once in a while she put on her boots and drove to the shooting range. Some women shot for power, L did it for commemoration.

“Apologize to Katherine.”

“I’ll have to call your father.”

L put him on stage but that wasn’t his greatest humiliation. The humiliation was that the stage no longer had any effect, the shame of young men had altered in texture and Jack had none, he stood there continuing to glint and mock and taunt Katherine. You scum of pond in cotton fluff. You children of suburbia. Jack might hate boy bands, but he knew the stage was power. L was wrong to put him there, suddenly she saw him as he really was, Jack was slippery and could dissolve himself, fit into any vase or receptacle, fish through the systems by hook or crook, for looks were deceiving and Jack was lucky with his actor face. Move to the city and sit in an office signing away documents and lives, dictating to the secretaries the colors of their stockings and hair dyes. He was right: Boy bands were primitive. Dull for him, who could play Ken doll better than any.

The problem wasn’t his pa. It had gone beyond that. In the teacher’s room talk was the solution before L dialed, Jack said, his voice wintry, what do you know about children, L. And he sat slouched with his legs wide and one hand playing with a ballpoint pen, turning it slowly on the desk. What do you know about children, he said, as though he knew she once had a dead child, that made her eat her own fingers, each time she fired a bullet at the target, at the man who sauntered into the room and took her baby. “Fuck you,” L said. But she did not call his pa. The old man sat around getting shorter and thinner, when he lost his game of backgammon he got up and knotted the strings of his sweatpants, went to Jack and told him it was time he showed him the world. And papa said, “Run,” before he made Jack face the wall and did what he needed from behind. “Are you going to call him now?”

Policemen said, what a common story, neither mystery nor myth. Soon they’d be packing their bags and moving to Australia. They’d not heard his duck screams, saw the red glue stream down his actor face. They heard and went for his pa at the foundry where he worked, frisked him, or took his money. “Give me back my fucking paycheck,” wasn’t uttered. In its place was only lost memory. An escape he invented to cut his tongue for its failure to resist. They showed him what he was made of. A loser in this world where sweet-mouthed men swam in the upper echelons of the foundry, work, you stupid men, work. They really thought we were squids, son. They thought that because they smoked cigars, they could snuff them on my arms. The heat lovely, the burn rich, smoke on charred skin…

After it was done and over and back for more like clockwork and it happened often that papa said, “Run.” One day the cruelty was complete, a grin hung on Jack’s face, unfathomable like the moon. There was a transparent look in his eyes, hard as ivory, a beyond which said, you were finally free. There were no more cares, Jack did whatever he wanted, with hair or strangers or cats, but not the Doberman, but the kid with the bluest tongue. You had to be blunt, be chained. Something sick moved on his face, a cunning, as he said, “Just play the boy band, isn’t that right, L?” His hands grew baits and knowledge, cynicism wrecked his mouth. After drawing sketches of many dads in his notepad with a ballpoint pen, mumbling, why did they want fathers dead, all papas should die, eagle wings on backs and sweet faces which said, “I love you, son, you are the Roman in my eyes,” he burned them in the trashcan. He whispered to L, as he strutted off the stage like a winner and passed her by, “You’d have to forgive me for anything I do. It’s your job.”

L looked at him and understood. She was concerned, she shoved her hand into her pocket. She knew that Jack followed her down the yellow, dusty path to her vanilla prefab a few Fridays later after the cheap skit. It was a spring day, a television kind of color lit, the peace sacred as wind rustled the hickory trees, the sky a broadsheet. Somewhere an Indian song grieved, “This was our land.” Elsewhere a man in overalls listened to a boom box in a junkyard. L walked, not turning back, her faith and feet steady. This was not the first time. To live in America meant things were on a rerun, history never forgave, you killed my father. She wanted to laugh, but she hardly did at anyone. It didn’t matter what the director of the orphanage at Islington did to her. Every night a set of girls were arranged. One by one or like twins they entered his office and peed into a basin, age ten, he didn’t like the girls bloody. If they could not he gave them more water at supper. Occasionally they drank milk, for their pee to catch the cow’s fragrance. Months after she had the child at nineteen, he sauntered into the hospital room and took her away. She never saw Sammie again.

Behind her the wind carried the scent of cherry almond from L’s hair to Jack. He spat. A truck rumbled past and disturbed the dust, L’s hair was strong and russet, strips of copper ran through, her muscles brawny in her plaid shirt and blue jeans. Jack lifted his head and stared at the smear in the American sky. He had no plans. He would get through this. He’d force her down on the floor, feet planted on her head, his soles the scent of earth, down woman, this was the consequence if you wanted to be a man for Katherine. Fear was ruthless and truth and lies candles, perfidy a cake, he’d be safe. The bank accounts, which liked to romanticize our dollars, would not move, L had to eat, she’d not report him. He churned up his wrath to be ready, spat again: What did she take him for. He never wanted to be a Ken. The live plastic horror which knew no genitals or ethics or heart, the fathers of Katherine, cigars in hand. Gold and esteem the only values they craved, any power they had was ripped off the dead, ratting out prisoners and bribing police, talking to tycoons for their private fashion shows. Jack knew these fathers well, through his own’s hot body. Once your father was a slave, you were too. Jack was fifteen, but old as the wind. Height and build invented racism, he was six feet, hair black, toothpick at the edge of his mouth, chin shaved to consider the moon.

L did as always. She counted her footsteps to seven hundred, checked the mailbox, went through the wooden gate and patted the dog, ever so eager, Henry, down boy, soon there’d be milk bones. She went through the screen door and set down her tote bag, at the fridge took a can of root beer, popped the ring and drank. Never thought a follower would make her so thirsty, she finished it in a sec. In the next minute, she’d take a nap. The couch was leathery and inviting, she understood what it meant to be a woman of America, that she must be taught a lesson, kept wrong, forgotten, made to forget, like a man, a nanny in manland. They never stopped trying to convince her she wasn’t sporty, they always used the ancient methods—cut off her contacts, keep her at home. The living room was their world. Domestication was a horror, a horror.

She whistled for Henry. The dog, eighty-eight pounds, sacks of raw rice, half a Doberman, jumped onto her torso. Later, when Henry growled, Jack would be standing there, watching her wake. L hushed the dog, let him out of the house. “Obey,” she said. Jack growled, his actor face pale. L would let him do anything he wanted to her, as long as no clothes were removed. No rifles, no hands, go ahead, Jack. I give you half an hour. I am an American woman. I am the way I am, and if a beating makes you feel alive, like a man, go ahead, come.

• • •



Breadcrumb #480

THOMAS DISCEPOLA

An Oldsmobile Cutlass and a Mercury Topaz sat in Mom’s driveway, cultivating a world in rot. Their flattened tires spilled down across the concrete, baked to a cragged barren surface. This black desert landscape was full of life -- invasive Jersey Fresh tomato vines crawling up the rubber walls, bay sand embedded in the threads, glass twinkling in the sun. Survivor of Many Offensives, Builder, Black Sheep, First (and Only) of His Name, Father to Three, Husband, Brother, Grandfather (to be) and survived by all, including these, his armada of rust (but they didn't put that in the obituary).

Mom wanted to clear the driveway and revive its adjacent garden since church hadn't exactly inspired the spirit-haunted distraction the old chaplain promised. And anyhow she didn't want the neighbors thinking her a poor old widow that kept a shrine room to her dead husband, like leaving the slippers just so beside the bed as he left them the morning of the attack. So she divided the spoils to the kids: I, the oldest, naturally took the heaviest of those burdens, two unflipped economy vehicles. “Do whatever the hell you want with 'em,” she said. “The Oldsmobile actually runs.”

And I did, whatever the hell, starting with the Cutlass. My brother came along for the ride, driving that once blue hunk of metal back to New York. He congratulated me on the new whip. "You might have inherited the Ding Dong Dealership, but you know I got all the cool shit," including Dad's crucifix-made-weed-stash and a stack of Playboys that Mom pretended to ignore through its 30-year black-plastic-wrapped subscription. (I laughed a little thinking how she might receive the renewal notice in a few weeks and call him a dead prick or something.) We hit a Garden State deficit-sized pothole on the Parkway that sent my brother’s Skittles and Wawa iced tea flying all over the car and he cursed the Governor, the goddamned purpose of tolls, public infrastructure, something about a rat's ass and all things holy including Jesus himself just like Dad. I felt a little moved by it actually and submitted a weepy “fuckin' A, man” for good measure. "Sultan of Swing" was on the radio and I cranked it up through the two speakers that worked. We drove on to New York, bumping along on that shockless frame.

     Goodnight, now it's time to go home
    And he makes it fast with one more thing

Fall came and only one vehicle remained in Mom’s driveway, making room for tomato vines rotting wide open with fruit flies like a gift to the family dog. Meanwhile, the Cutlass sat in an overpriced garage, across the river from our apartment in Chinatown, awkwardly alongside luxury vehicles and vanity plates for three months - three months I hoped to fill with family visits to Storm King, emergency diaper runs at the new Target, weekend getaways to Cape May to visit Mom... I fell into arrears with the garage and waited for the voicemails to become angry before driving it back to Chinatown in hopes of a free street spot. For a week I battled my neighborhood's parking bullies, experts in the waiting game of opposite-side street sweeper rules.

Luckily, I received a callback for my inquiry to donate the Cutlass to Vietnam Veterans in need. "Yes, yes," I said, "the vehicle is still available. It's so cool you called me back. You know my Dad was a survivor of the Tet Offensive!" Silence. The caller said she'd send a representative from the VVA in Philadelphia that afternoon to pick up the Cutlass and leave a tax form for what Mom called “that sweet, sweet write-off.” If I timed it right, the tow truck would arrive just before the street sweeper stormed down the block, kicking up dust and a mad rush of angry Cantonese retirees in minivans. And, sure, I'd feel good about it too, my "commitment to those who served" and all.

For a week I battled my neighborhood’s parking bullies, experts in the waiting game of opposite-side street sweeper rules.

Waiting for the pickup, I turned the radio on and caught the tail-end of an interview in which a woman was saying,

...and we do it this way because we can't in real life. Here, we're all going to the      same place, and it's not a good one

Odd, I thought. As an ex-Catholic, I assumed the "same place" people took a more agnostic view of the afterlife, neither good nor bad given its no-thing-at-all state of, well, literal nothingness. In that moment, suddenly, I found myself dropping in on a big wave of guilt and regret for donating the car and wished I could call Tracy from Philly's VVA back to tell her, “Hey, it’s me - the son of the Tet Offensive survivor. Remember? Yeah, about the car..." But it was too late. Time to make some veteran's day with a beautiful once blue Oldsmobile Cutlass, no shocks, two speakers and a Hoffa-sized trunk.

Jimmy, the VVA's driver, spoke in a thick Philly accent like my Mom. I could picture his EAGLES SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS tattoo under the cliché striped mechanic's long-sleeve, a little name-patch on its breast.  Jimmy. "You might wanna check the car again for any personal effects," he said. In the glove compartment, I flipped up the manual, searching. Beneath it I found an old a cassette of Steely Dan's Can't Buy a Thrill. The album opens with a song called "Do It Again" that Dad used to play at full blast through long rides at night, my child-mind remembering only the scary thunderstorm drives, his joyous singing at odds with the chaos around us. I could hear him through that cassette:

You go back, Jack, do it again, wheels turning 'round n 'round

But I left it, closed the compartment and handed the keys over to Jimmy. "All yours, buddy."

I hoped the next guy to drive it had a falsetto.

• • •