Breadcrumb #514

MARJORIE TESSER

Up on deck there’s a saline breeze and milky stars and endless ocean, shiny and black and moving like synchronized seals under the moon.

The cruise had been booked by my husband, though I’d barely gotten used to thinking of him as that. We’d gone from our first meeting at the conference to messaging to weekends to wedding, and from wedding to ship, friends and family seeing us off with bubbles instead of rice, which is said to harm the birds. How had I agreed to this?

The ship is our home away from home, our haven, our womb, our first-world vehicle for an arms-length tour of the third. Several days out of port, several more till the next, and then again to be herded down the gangplank to lie, flaccid and pinking, on gravelly beaches, or drift mindlessly in and out of overpriced shops to dicker over tourist trinkets. On board we are scheduled like children; steered, managed, and cajoled to participate in games, lessons, sports, and amateur theatrics. There are plenty of nap times—around the pool, on deck, where the ever-present thrum of engine lulls me to a drowsy stupor.

Everywhere, at all times, there are people. And, of course, my new husband ever at my side. The cabin is tight quarters. If I say I’ll take a walk or go work out or sit on deck and read, he jumps up and comes with. I book a massage; he says great and changes it to a couples one. I’d thought I’d known it would be different but hadn’t counted on this constant togetherness. Yet worse, he keeps trying to draw others into our ambit—at dinner, full of bonhomie, he invites all and sundry to sit with us, at the pool, he hectors me off my solitary float to join in a game of water volleyball, in the lounge, he badgers me to join in the singing, while he plays old show tunes on the piano for a jolly throng. After much too much alcohol and rich, heavy, yet somehow unsatisfying foods that leave me logy and overly full, I find myself again in our small cabin, enclosed in his embrace. He’s currently crashed out in the stateroom, satiated after yet another round of our marital intimacies. I slither from under the heavy arm, dress, slip out.

Outside there’s a night breeze that’s cool but hints of heat, like the breaths you sneak when you’re close to a person you crave, but can’t show it; little sips. I wander until I find the one uninhabited area of the ship, just deck, stars, and a lifeboat hulking under its tarp. A corner of the tarp is loose. “Not a bad place to hide,” I think, and then hear approaching steps. My husband? Not that awful woman from the lounge? I quickly climb, rubber soles gaining purchase on its side. I lift the loosened tarp and lower myself into the lifeboat. Like Alice going down the rabbit hole, or the children in books who, by fluke, luck, or happenstance, enter a mysterious portal to a magic world of novelty, adventure, and danger, without a look back I jump into the lifeboat. The same way Jack climbed the miraculous beanstalk, quickly, without much thought, mainly because it has appeared.

On board we are scheduled like children; steered, managed, and cajoled to participate in games, lessons, sports, and amateur theatrics.

Inside is dark, with just the lifted corner of the tarp admitting a pale haze, the clouded solution of night and deck lights, moon and stars. I sink to the floor of the boat, lean back and slowly let out breath. There’s a spark the second before I hear a striking match and then an orange glow of cigarette end, the sharp tang of smoke.

“Sorry,” I mutter, and make for the opening in the tarp.

“Don’t leave,” a voice. Another match flickers; he holds it before his face—a young man. The flame burns down, nearly to his pale fingertips. I lean and blow it out, conscious of my breath on his skin.

I don’t like cigarette smoke, but his is somehow nostalgic of high school, shared illicit smokes in the bathroom, in the dark corners of the playground. He was pale as a rabbit with hair black as crow. Hiding or holing up, here in the dark alone.

I am polite. “I’ll go if you hoped to be alone.”

“I wasn’t.” He drags; exhales. “Hoping.”

Something of the unworldly about him. Pale and slender, but strong underneath, sinewy. Luminous. Hair black as the night ocean. Faint violet sleepless half-circles under deep-set eyes. His voice a light tenor, hypnotic.

“Then why...”

“This is the safest place. From the bores, the authorities. From pirates, Ninjas, aliens, love. Disaster.”

“Have you been...imbibing?” I ask delicately.

He barks a quick laugh. “Did you know where the Coast Guard has its Lifeboat Training School? It’s called Cape Disappointment.” I think I understand.

Glints of moonlight spark the centers of his eyes with little flames. The lifeboat is a satellite, suspended, its own world.

There’s a dankness in the air and I shiver. I remember the warm, bright lounge, my husband’s cozy bed. “Maybe I should go.” Footsteps outside, close.

A moment—freeze frame, a still second.

The ocean is a chameleon—pearl grey in the morning, bottle green when frosted with foam in the afternoon, shiny black at night. The ocean is a dissembler. It seems as if solely water but underneath teems with creatures bizarre, alien, dangerous, like the seemingly kind neighbor who turns out to have a secret life. There are some who find the ocean peaceful, but others accuse it of being deceptive, passive aggressive. The ocean connects home with the places we go. It is answerable to only the moon.

Once activated, the mechanism begins to lift the tarp and to lower the lifeboat, which after a few moments dips, then buoys in the inky sea, bobbing gently in the wake of the big ship gliding steadily on, lights moving on its tiers of increasingly distant decks.

• • •

Breadcrumb #510

J. BRADLEY

I saw Tim running around the corner, his father’s Glock in hand, the one he showed me the one and only time I went to his house for his birthday and I just stood there. I knew he was looking for Madison because Tim asked her to our end-of-class dance last week in front of a bunch of people and she said there was no fucking way I’d go out with you if you were the last boy on earth loud enough for her to get three days of detention (punishment doesn’t stop just because the school year is ending). I tried yelling he has a gun but I stood there, knowing what was going to happen: it’s not your life he wants, my brain said. After I saw Tim turn at the end of the hall, I hid in the janitor’s closet, crying after the first shot came, then the second, and then nothing. I didn’t leave the janitor’s closet until someone found me, the school resource officer, the one who’s too fat to do anything except keep our school not very safe. Steve, he said, surprised that the star lacrosse player was crying. Is…, I tried asking if everyone was fine and it came out as snot and more crying. I almost thought to ask if Madison was OK but then that would let the school resource officer know that I knew what Tim was doing and then I didn’t stop him when I could off. The school resource officer pulled down one of those giant rolls of toilet paper used in the school bathrooms and handed it to me. Get yourself cleaned up and then come out when you’re ready. No one needs to see you like this. I unrolled some of the thin toilet paper and blew my nose and pocketed the wad. I did it again and again, the roll never getting smaller. I waited 15 more minutes before coming back out. The hallway was empty. When I was asked where I was, I said I hid in the janitor’s closet when I heard the first shot; no one questioned me. I saw Madison across the parking lot, sitting on the back of the ambulance, soaked in Matt’s blood. You need to stay where you are, the school resource officer said. But I’m her boyfriend, I said. I don’t think it’s a good idea to see her right now, he said. I wondered whether he knew I knew what Tim was going to do when I saw him run down the hallway. I wondered whether he knew how I froze when Tim ran past, his father’s Glock in hand, the one he showed me the one and only time I went to his house for his birthday and I wondered whether I should have gone to more of his birthdays, talked to him with my mouth more than my hands, talked him out of asking Madison out since we were together, since no one deserves to have their feelings publicly executed.

• • •

Breadcrumb #507

GABRIELLA EVERGREEN

Maude spent most of her time in the produce section, close to the fresh greens that were misted periodically, so that customers wouldn’t be startled when they felt a sudden cold draft as they passed through her. This was also her favorite place to observe the passage of time through the change of seasonal vegetables. She watched sun-sweetened berries and meaty heirloom tomatoes give way to barrels full of winter squash and still-dusty root vegetables; she loved the excitement on shopper’s faces as they saw the end of a long winter heralded by piles of bright rhubarb and woody asparagus spears.

Maude found that time passed differently now. When she wasn’t thinking about it, the hours seemed to pass quickly, especially at night. She didn’t mind floating up and down the empty aisles, humming a little tune to herself as she watched the overnight stockers refill displays. Aisle 11, the frozen section, was her favorite at night. There was something peaceful about the mechanical hum and the foggy glow of the condensation building up behind the glass doors.

But time slowed down to what seemed to be its normal speed when she was really paying attention to something.

Like that time she saw a man scolding his son in aisle 3, canned food and pasta. The little boy, who was probably about 4, had opened a box of macaroni and spilled it across the floor. The boy’s father had crouched down and put his face too close to his son’s and snarled in low tones. The little boy had already started crying when the pasta spilled, and this made him cry harder.

Maude hated seeing parents being cruel to their children. Not many things made her as angry. She still felt things as strongly as before, but not everything was the same. As she watched the man berate his small son, her rage boiled up inside of her. It was the kind of anger that would have made her shake and clench her fists. Instead, what happened was that a stack of canned kidney beans behind the man suddenly toppled off the shelf and struck him in the back of the head. The man stumbled over, stunned. He wasn’t hurt badly, but he did stop his tirade towards his son. Maude watched them until she was sure the man had calmed down and followed them to the exit.

That was about the most excitement she’d see in any given week. A grocery store wasn’t exactly a prime spot for haunting; she’d heard of other spirits taking up residence in museums, funeral homes, theaters, and old penitentiaries (the last one was rather played out, in her opinion). But Maude wasn’t much for spooks and scares. And while the grocery store might not be the most thrilling place in the world, it was familiar to her. And it was where she saw them.

But Maude wasn’t much for spooks and scares.

Like clockwork, they’d come in every Sunday. They’d pick up a week’s worth of groceries - milk and cereal, bread and cold cuts for sandwiches, and maybe one or two sweets that the boy picked out. When he was younger, he’d ride in the front of the shopping cart, dangling his legs through the bars. As he got older, he’d totter through the aisles, helping his mother by grabbing anything within his 2-foot high reach.

About once every couple of months, they would come in to shop for Sunday sauce. This was what Maude looked forward to most. She had taught her daughter the recipe as soon as she was old enough to stand on a chair over the big, enameled cast iron pot and stir the bubbling sauce. Their house would be filled with the smell of caramelized onion and garlic, slow-simmered tomatoes, and fresh basil and oregano that was tossed in right at the end. Sometimes they’d add whatever scraps of leftover meat there were from weeknight meals - a pork chop, some short ribs, a few sausages. In the summer, when Maude’s garden was in abundance, they’d make big batches of it to store in mason jars and freeze for the winter.

When her daughter grew up and went away to college, Maude would look forward to the weekends she’d return home, lugging a bloated bag of laundry with her. Most of her time home would be spent catching up with townie friends or holed up in her old bedroom writing papers, but they’d find time to be together in the kitchen, sometimes early in the morning over coffee and fried eggs or late at night after Maude had put the dinner dishes away. But some of the most meaningful moments happened when they were cooking that sauce together - there was something about the steady staccato of chopping onions and tomatoes that set the right mood for vulnerable conversations, when her daughter would open up about heartbreak and new relationships, fears and hopes for her future. It was one of these times while they were waiting for the sauce to cook that she first told Maude about meeting the boy’s father, and later it was in the same kitchen when the two of them told Maude that she’d be a grandmother.

Maude remembered all of these moments with incorporeal tears in her eyes as she watched her daughter pick up a plum tomato and show her son how to squeeze it to check for ripeness. She imagined the memories they’d make together over the steaming Dutch oven, laughing as they’d steal tastes from the wooden spoon that was worn around the edges and permanently stained pink. She thought about how, even though she hadn’t been able to meet him, her grandson would come to know her as he wore the faded, frayed mint green apron (that would be way too large for him) and placed his small hands in the same pockets where her weary ones once rested.  He’d hear stories about how she always liked to listen to Oscar D’Leon while she cooked and would dance with her daughter standing on her feet. Maybe when he got older, he’d be told that his sense of humor or the way his brows furrowed together when he was reading was just like her.

Some might wonder why Maude didn’t return to their house, so that she could experience all these moments firsthand; she had considered this herself. But she knew that nothing good would come from holding on too tightly to what could not be. Their home was no place for a ghost - she was better off here, in the grocery store, where no one stayed for very long and she could catch glimpses of their life without intruding too much. She’d wait for them to come in every week, until maybe one day they decided the produce selection was better at a different store, or moved away. And then maybe she’d move on as well, to find out what the rest of the afterlife had to offer. But until then, she had the monotonous beeping of the checkout aisle, and the rotation of fresh vegetables, and the ebb and flow of the grocery’s patrons who were all biding their time in one way or another.

• • •

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 #482

KRYS MALCOLM BELC

Every few weeks you shave my head in the bathtub. I sit naked on the wood stool and you stand behind me, cutting so close to my head I look bald in certain lights. The moment after one of your haircuts is the closest I come to religion. In the damp bathroom church I step out of the tub covered in discarded hair and trim my beard in the sink mirror before showering. Samson has been growing out his hair for over a year. For months his bangs have fallen in his eyes and he wears pins clips ties headbands and sweatbands but still wild blond pokes through and through. Samson says he will never have a beard but also says he likes mine. He rubs his hands along my face and calls me beautiful because that is the word I always use for him. His name feels fuller in my mouth now that I worry one day he won’t want it. Samson. I tell you it makes me anxious to think about how different he is from most boys, from our other boys, and you say Well, that’s on you. It is my job to be ok with what I made. He is sweet and soft in a way I’m terrified of crushing. In his little white drawers dresses stack on leggings stack on jeans. There are bracelets and LEGO creations scattered on his windowsill. You wonder if Sean would have needed his leg braces, if he would need speech therapy, had anyone else made him. Sean looks just like your mother. He is skeptical of me just like she was. But what good is the wondering, we know. We know it does not help our children who are alive, so alive, in front of us right now. They are us and they are their donor but mostly they are themselves.

His name feels fuller in my mouth now that I worry one day he won’t want it. Samson.

When I shaved my head for the first time everyone was shocked but I did not care. You said you were surprised how perfectly round my skull was. It was the first time anyone ever said the word perfect about my body. Your long fingers on my head felt new and wonderful. You held my hand as we walked across campus, heads turning. The air so cold so good rushing all over my scalp. What did we know, then? Samson says other children do not believe in dads who make babies. When he says this my stomach turns like it did when he was old enough to eat something other than my milk because that meant we were separating. We are separating. Thread by thread I am letting him fall away from me. There are no stories of his life that could begin without me but many that could end that way. I do not like to write about Samson as he is now because I cannot make him a character like I’ve made you into one. You can handle it. I can only handle writing about the Samson who used to smear berries all over his face. You stuffed them lovingly into a little mesh feeder and taught him to wrap his hands around food that wasn’t me. His eyes so blue, like mine, his face smudged all over with red and purple sweet. Samson says he doesn’t want to be the only child on this Earth made by his dad even though I’ve assured him he isn’t, showed him pictures of dads and children I’ve only met on the internet. They don’t always seem real to me either. Samson is older now, holds dark berries gently in his fingers before placing them on his tongue, sacred like. The Samson who needs me constantly is as gone as the me who made him. I miss the way his head felt when he used to let me shave it. So round and prickly, so much like mine. My heart burns looking at old pictures of him. I gave him this wild life.

• • •