Archive for the Fiction Category

The Heart Beats, The River Runs (working title)

Posted in Fiction, Prose on September 11, 2011 by melissa merin

I went to the river this weekend, got home a few hours ago.  Sat down to write this.  It feels a little out of control.

 

Barbara was sure that the joy left her face for good the moment Gary collapsed on the floor of the River Run Saloon. One could hear her desperate plea – Gary? Gary? Gary! – up and down the river, and probably all the way to the floor. The trout would scuttle this way and that, confused by the sonic scream from the dining room. Pieces of shale were hastened toward metamorphism as the echo of his name loosened them from their dark grey slabs. Glasses rattled on their shelves as everyone else stood stock still, afraid to do anything but gape in awe of Gary’s giant body, lifeless on the floor.

Across the river and down about 50 yards, three friends stopped frolicking in the glacial tide of the river and scurried to the shore. Unaware, for the moment, where the sound had come from, each felt naked (which they were), and terrified. A certain alienation swam through each of their veins when, for that one moment, the moment of Barbara’s wailing, they each wondered if they were safe with the others. They listened as the terror above thawed and one person called 9-1-1 while another ushered children out onto the grassy lawn behind the saloon and still a third, cool headed woman demanded that everyone take some steps back.

Back in the Saloon, Barbara’s husband smoked cigarette after cigarette at the edge of the dining room. The sound of Gary’s body falling to the floor had shattered any hopes he had that Barbara and Gary were only friends, only creative partners. Barbara never panicked at pain, never swooned in agony at death. Barbara had seen death most of her life, which is why she and her husband decided, on their fiftieth birthday, to move to River Run, Population: 93. With her savings from the hospital and his hands weary and withering from running his father’s carpentry business, they knew that they could lead a simple and quiet life. Barbara would no longer have to tend to the dead and dying, and Robert could fish and do a little carpentry on the side. Robert thought of these plans now as he stared at Gary’s massive chest. He’d been the most powerful man Robert had ever met – the kind of man who could fell a redwood with just an ax and maybe some whiskey. The kind of man who could send his wife into hysterics.

The ambulance drove quietly into town. No sirens, only flashing red lights. Neither speeding recklessly, nor honking at stoned, sun-scorched twenty-year old men loitering in the middle of the narrow two lane road. The paramedics pulled in slowly and parked the bus carefully, a respectful distance from the door. The waitresses of the River Run Saloon had already draped Gary’s body with a table cloth. As the medics lifted him into the bus, one enormous brown, calloused hand dropped to the side. Barbara thought he was waving.

She watched streams of light rest across the curtain of pines atop the tree line. The sun was falling. She held herself with both arms tightly across her chest and leaned solidly against the oak door frame. Even the frogs and the crickets and dragonflies seemed to honor the quiet. She could hear Robert pacing in his shed, rummaging through his carefully organized drawers full of tools and nuts and bolts. He chiseled a piece of wood. Then the sound of his lighter. The faint breeze carrying his smoke to her nostrils. She hadn’t smoked a single cigarette all day. Inhaling deeply, Barbara closed her eyes to remember the day Robert nailed the final nail in the door frame and carried her over the threshold to their new cabin and new life. The scents of the freshly cut pine and oak boards in the studio built especially so that she could paint. Each shelf, each pane of glass laid by Robert’s hands. She opened her eyes and it was now truly dusk. Robert watched her back from the kitchen. He hadn’t touched her all day.

Robert soaked his hands in lemon juice and warm water for hours the night before the service. He scraped layers of soft dead skin from his hands with a pumice stone. To look dignified. The same way he had when he first drove to the town to make a bid on the land. Barbara thought of this as she watched Robert tying his brand new black tie. His hands were softer now and shiny, yet his finger tips were still not sensitive enough for the delicate intricacies of tying his tie. Before he could throw it off of his neck, Barbara walked wordlessly to him and finished the job. She let her hand rest on his chest and felt his heart skip a beat. Gripping the front of his shirt quickly, she exhaled, looking only at the new wrinkles she had created. Robert didn’t remove her hand.

Until the funeral, Barbara and Robert and Gary were the darkest people to settle in River Run in two hundred years. It hadn’t occurred to either of them that today there would be scores of brown faces milling about the town. Driving toward the funeral home they discussed it. Gary had a lot of friends in town, but no one had spoken to each other much since he’d fallen down. They weren’t sure if anyone had made preparations. Robert approached Keating Jefferson, the owner of the River Run Saloon about it. “I hadn’t thought that far ahead,” he said pensively. “I guess I’ll call down to the Saloon and make sure there are enough beds. And whiskey.” Keating surveyed the lines of cars now arriving, full of cautious and anxious people. He nodded toward them, “If Gary’s folks are anything like Gary, they’re gonna want some whiskey.”

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Another excerpt from Dead Friends (a satirical love story)

Posted in Dead Friends, Fiction, Novel Insert on September 8, 2010 by melissa merin

I’m A Chicken

To say that my girlfriend and I had been having problems is an understatement. It’s probably more accurate to state that we despised each other. We stopped taking each other seriously, and we definitely stopped having anything in common. But it’s hard to live alone, and since both of us were afraid of the dark and of expensive rent and lack of sex, we made things work. She accompanied me to philosophy conferences and Balkan music festivals, and I followed her to rallies to defend the rights of animals or people or whomever.

One thing she couldn’t stand was the way I mechanically nodded my head toward people as a form of acknowledgement. She said it reminded her of chickens, and although she loved animals, she hated chickens. She thought they were stupid and she hated stupidity. It never really occurred to me that I did that until a Farm Animals Unite benefit back in ’06. My girlfriend and I had gone to see the critically acclaimed exhibition of Portraits of Farm Animals, By Farm Animals. It was an unoriginal title for what was supposed to be a noteworthy exhibit, and most of the pieces were abstract – a tuft of lambs wool stomped on by a bloody hoof, goat feces strewn across a sheet of butcher paper with just a drop of dried milk at the edge of the fecal drawing, a single horse shoe print on a picture of the then President of America, Herbert Walker, jr.

I was nodding to a friend of a friend, when I noticed a piece titled Chicken Dinner Dead. I let go of my girlfriend’s hand and strolled over to take a closer gander. My girlfriend said something I didn’t understand and wandered away. Chicken Dinner Dead was mesmerizing. The chicken had stapled an amputated foot near the top left corner of the wall length canvas. Several feet of white spread between the foot and three groups of messily bunched feathers. Over this and the rest of the canvas a plethora of chicken wire was spread, with minute drips of blood hanging precariously from one place or another. It’s violence and minimalism spoke to me, and I couldn’t look away.

When my girlfriend reappeared, bringing our friends and her brother with her, I wasn’t done looking at the portrait. “It’s fucking amazing,” was all I could say. I didn’t look away, but I know that she and our friends were rolling their eyes, and she was becoming impatient. After all, she didn’t come to look at the art. She came to hear the great Jungian animal psychologist Bravo Marcksuh speak.

She tried to lure me away. “Do you want another glass of wine? I heard the horses helped press the grapes…”

I nodded.

After this we should go see the animal band in the petting zoo out on the mezzanine.” Her brother guffawed, I nodded.

And then we should get naked and smear pigs blood on our legs,” she added.

I nodded.

You’re not even listening!”

I nodded, then shook my head. “Yes. I’d love some wine.”

She thrust her cup in my hand and walked away as I studied the blood and feathers beneath the chicken wire.

The room grew louder as more people arrived. My concentration on the piece was broken every so often by the rustling sounds of hearty handshakes and back slaps or smooches just missing ruddy cheeks. As I flitted around the gallery, I was surprised to see so many familiar faces. I was more surprised that so many people I knew cared about the artwork of animals. I nodded to this and that person, chatted with others and became more overwhelmed by the minute. Instead of searching for my girlfriend, I decided to retreat to the Chicken Dinner Dead for protection against inane conversation. No one wanted to stare too long at the piece.

A woman wearing a cut up Earth’s First t-shirt cut into a scoop neck and three inch heels barelled right toward me. Casually leaning against a wall doesn’t afford one much time to dart out of the way. Before I could juke, she shoved my shoulder and shouted, “This shit doesn’t make any sense!”

I didn’t make it,” I said, lazily staring at her bare shoulders.

I didn’t say you did. I’m just saying that it’s garbage.”

Do you think the chicken would say so?”

I don’t think a chicken had anything to do with this!” She flung her beautifully manicured hands at the portrait to emphasize her point.

Why are you so mad at it?”

Can’t you see?” I saw that the pink lipstick she wore did not compliment her dark brown skin, clashed with her red nails. “They’re exploiting these animals!” She waved a frantic hand around the room, “They are exploiting art!”

What is art if it isn’t exploitation?” I was intrigued.

Expression!” Her eyebrows were joined at the center creating an even crease from her widow’s peak to her nose. “Art is expression!”

I decided to test out the idea I’d been turning over in my head, “You don’t think the chicken that created this could be expressing something? Perhaps the bird feels oppressed by its own body, exemplified by the violent way the chicken wire encases the feathers-”

I highly doubt that a chicken stretched this wire across it’s own bloody feathers!” (I’m always tickled when people from the UK say the word bloody.) She pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a strike-anywhere match from her tight blue jeans.

Do you have an extra smoke?” I asked, ready to change the subject.

Hold on, let me get some wine.”

I have some here.” I’d been holding my girlfriend’s, and I offered it to my new favorite art critic who took it and turned to walk at the exact same time.

We weaved in and out of the animal pieces, strode purposefully down corridors of flannel-and-trucker-hat-wearing art fans chewing on glutinous chick’n wings or slurping down plastic cups of cheap red wine. In our hurry to get out of the gallery, we’d knock into a marble column, or an older matriarch from the beginning of the animals rights movement – both equally staunch in their positions, and both equally pale. My new British cohort, seeking to strike her match anywhere, did so on the hemp wallet protruding from the back pocket of one such witchey looking column. The sulfuric smell came as quickly as the puffs of smoke blowing from her face.

Out on the mezzanine, I was gulping down the cheap red wine left on the ledge. Each swallow brought a sweet tinge of sour on the back of my tongue, then slight burning in my esophagus. Standing under the stars next to this aggravated woman, feeling the dull consistent fire in my belly, I was alive! My head-nodding began to make sense as the dj’s mash up of Poison’s “Talk Dirty To Me” and Cher’s “Believe”, (with complimentary thunder from Dan the Automator) became louder and louder, propelling me toward my British comrade. I’ve never been much of a dancer, but there was no time to be self-conscious. As my head, then my entire body, began bouncing forward, my arms surrounded her and my hips pulsed toward her. I remember wondering – for only a second – if people were staring because they wanted to join in, or because she was trying to unbutton my shirt as I held a fist full of her hair. I’d sway, jerk, gyrate, my head continued to bob uncontrollably as great gusts of wind “Hah-huh-huh!” rushed from the scarred tissue in my chest. “Huh-huh-high! High!” Her warm breath melted every pore in my body. I could only see her crooked lips, impossible to kiss, while she knelt below my backward bending body, bucking wildly toward her.

I realized the music had stopped only when I started buttoning my pants. She was grinning, flipping her middle finger in every direction. People wandered away, shaking their pretty, liberated heads; I was still nodding my head like a damn chicken.

After I fucked that girl on the dance floor, in front of my girlfriend, her friends, her brother, and probably some squirmy board of directors, my girlfriend left me. Understandable. I didn’t try to win her back. But she didn’t just leave me. She disavowed of me. She burned every single shirt I had ever lent her, made little balls out of my stray pubic hairs in her sheets and torched them as well. Every scrap and scrape of my dna, my very existence, was burned from her life, from her memory. I was told she had a memorial for me. Her therapist suggested that it was part of the letting go process. She invited our mutual friends to a memorial at the queer temple in town and announced that I was dead to her. Dead to her.

Understandably, most of our friends decided that I was a liability as a friend, and they too disavowed of me. They too began to regard me, for lack of a better term, as dead.

In spite of the fact that we hadn’t been in love in years, a sort of malaise settled over my body. I didn’t want to go out. After a month of friends not returning my phone calls, it started to feel as though nothing in the world mattered. In a last ditch effort to reach out to anyone who might remotely care about me, I looked up Angie DiLaggio. I finally tracked down someone who used to know us both back in the day. When he picked up the phone, I could almost imagine him spitting out his latte.

Jesse Pilou? Uh, you might not remember me…” I spent about two full minutes describing myself and why I was calling.

Angie Di Laggio? Whoa. Yeah. She died in like ’94…”

I could feel my heart speed up as I remembered her and Chuckie and the snack machine, but I didn’t remember her dying. How could I forget something like that?

What happened?” I asked earnestly.

Damn, you know, I don’t really remember? That was almost 20 years ago. I didn’t really know her.”

The Curve In the Road

Posted in Fiction on April 26, 2010 by melissa merin

Over the weekend I pulled out a handful of old stories and ongoing projects, desperate to get myself writing.  I found this story which I started so damn long ago.  The first drafts were edited by Ivy, Arwen, Kat and Double Ears.  This is the second draft.  Tell me what you think!

You were not seventeen. We took your dad’s car and drove it all the way to the top of our city, where you can see everything. Yo were already jumping out of the car before I killed the engine. With this elation that I’ve only seen in you, you yelled, “Goddammit!”

I reached for the door handle. “What?” I yelled back.

Can you believe this is all ours?” I looked at the thousands of lights sprawled across our town as you stared straight up, your face mirroring the handful of stars we could see in the sky. I released my grip on the door and looked at you, too nervous to smile. You wrapped your arms around my waist, gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. You said, “C’mon now. We’re all right.” The way your voice cracked, the slight way your body jerked when you got excited, always made me have hope in things, you know? Like the world wasn’t so bad.

I needed my arms around you, so I kept them there even though it wasn’t supposed to be right. I knew. I was twenty then, getting ready to go to college, to learn something, do something other than this. But everytime I thought about leaving I thought about you.

On our second or third 40 I was posted on the hood of the car while you tossed pebbles over the cliff. I was having second thoughts about school, about leaving town for good. I can still hear you saying, “You have to go…” The night was balmy, like the Gulf Coast in summer. “I just think about, like, how I’ll be out of school soon,” you slurrped the dregs out of the bottle and licked your perfect lips.

Yeah,” was all I could muster.

I mean, it sucks! We’re like best friends, you know?” Yes, I knew. I was trying to remember where Polaris was as you slid along the driver side door, closer to me. I looked back at the sky and I could feel you staring at me. “What?” To this day whenever I try to play coy I end up lookin like a fool, but you kept that sly face on – where you kept your eyebrow cocked high to the right of your narrow face and your mouth followed suit.

School…” I always talk when I should listen.

If I was going away in two weeks, I would just take you with me,” you said, still smiling like a joker. Why was that funny? I didn’t get it. You leaned in and kissed me so quick and I didn’t pull away. I moved closer, shifting the dirt beneath my feet. Your hands were so light on my waist and I think mine were more like lead. I didn’t dare let go.

I didn’t feel that drunk. We were just tripppin on the city. I was driving over the hill to get to that second view when all of the lights in the city suddenly went out. The stars seemed to jump out of themselves right into our eyes. We were laughing and whooping when I missed that curve in the road and your head flew through the window. Bright lights and blood and panic.

We finally got to the hospital and your dad was already there. You only moved when the gurney did. You held your eyes shut, like you were dreaming. There were doctors and nurses and someone actually yelled out the word “Stat!”

I couldn’t believe the blood. They wouldn’t let me come in so I had to wait with everyone else in triage. They kicked your dad out too, and he wasn’t saying anything yet. He ran toward me next, his arms out ready to grab me. He screamed, “What happened, goddammit?”

I didn’t want to tell him. We were crying and hysterical in each other’s arms. My chest spasmed and I blacked out.

As I dreamt, I replayed the stars and the lights and the curve to the soundtrack of your heavy, echoing laugh. When I finally opened a blurry eye I remembered where I was. Relief swept over me for several minutes until I remembered your smiling face stuck with shards of glass. I puked and heaved all over again. The walls were so white, and the floor and the uniforms checking my pulse and my eyes; the lights they were shining in my eyes and the sheets, everything a white dwarf.

Where’s my friend?” I asked the first nurse I could focus on. He was big enough to block out the lights over my head. He kept talking without looking at me. I followed his eyes to your dad, weeping in the doorway with two cops on either side of him. The nurse’s face was contorted in half hearted lament and sorrow.

I laid my head back and closed my eyes and breathed.

In that dream we got away.

A scene from Dead Friends (a satirical love story)

Posted in Dead Friends, Fiction, Novel Insert on October 28, 2009 by melissa merin

This is another part of Dead Friends – just a scene.  It’s pretty rough ’cause I just churned it out this evening.  I’m posting it  prematurely, in light of my friend Al’s news that a man is currently trying to commit suicide on 16th & Valencia tonight.

Or Something


A man stood in the middle of the intersection of 16th and Valencia waving a gun. Mechanically we turned from reading the menu in the restaurant window to look in his direction. I quickly took stock of him; probably 32, disheveled clothes, scruffy beard…We’d learned the warning signs long ago, after The Panic At Southern Point Mall in Paso Robles, California. Three days before christmas, a young college student walked into the food court and pulled out a gun. Herds of shoppers clung to their bags of merchandise as though they were tiny children and charged hysterically toward the main entrances. When the dust settled, five people had been stomped so hard they had ceased to breathe. One man, the man with the gun, lay bleeding, forever breathless, from a single gun shot wound to the head in front of the Panda Express. The public outcry over the lifeless five people prompted the joint chiefs of police, fire, and medicine to release a statement that is now as memorable as the pledge of allegiance; A man with a gun is either a danger to himself or a danger to you. The man with a gun and a clean shirt is more likely to aim the gun at you than the man with a dirty shirt. If the man has a dirty shirt, he will likely shoot only himself. Nothing, however, is 100%.

As I looked at this man, a question lodged itself in my frontal lobe; who had buried him before? I scanned the faces on the sidewalk for any hint of epiphany from the passersby. As he raised his gun, a loud, unintelligible slur of words fell from his lips. Was it pain? Laughter? I ducked when I heard the shot, afraid to stop breathing.

The first thing my blurry eyes focused on was a four year old girl, curiously nudging the man’s cracked and bleeding skull with the toe of a pristine shoe. The child stamping her foot in the growing puddle of blood from the man’s head did not look terrified or even shocked. My friends rolled their eyes at the typical drama and brushed imaginary dust off of their shoulders. We continued down the street, hardly noticing the aggravated sirens fast approaching. I found the kid once more, this time her mother leading her gleefully away from the body as the medics mechanically checked his pulse, covered his face and hoisted the man with the gun into the ambulance. I yawned and followed my friends into the restaurant.

More laters!

Dead Friends (a satirical love story)

Posted in Dead Friends, Fiction, Novel Insert on September 24, 2009 by melissa merin

This story takes place in an alternate universe where elaborate memorials and tearful eulogies are common place.  I won’t give the whole concept away here, but this is how I plan on starting it.  Stay tuned…

Part One- The Details

When I was thirteen years old, my best friend Angie DiLaggio tried to steal my man.  She didn’t employ that sure-fire ghetto style that her mama used to land Andrew DiLaggio (everyone knew that story).  She used the creepy Sharon Stone style instead.  She showed up to the quad during morning break wearing a faded grey skirt and blazer get up, (I later learned it was purchased at Devlin Thrift), and her hair was pulled back so tight I heard Jesse Whirwol say she looked Korean.  He was an asshole and everyone knew it, but that’s beside the point.

My man Chuckie noticed her too.  “Is that Angie over there?”  She was shoving a handful of orange-flavored tortilla chips into her mouth, simultaneously laughing at something some boy was saying.  She approached us with a cougars precision.  As the chips were falling  from her face, I knew that she was trying to pull off her best black Basic Instinct.  We had watched the movie nine and a half times together – the last time her mama caught us rewinding and pausing the part where home girl crosses her legs. She grabbed the remote from me and yelled “Stop actin like a buncha lezzies!  I ain’t feedin no bull dykes in here!  What this look like? A petting zoo?”

I didn’t want anyone, much less Chuckie, thinking that I was a lezzie, but I couldn’t accuse my best friend of trying to steal him without real proof.  Angie’s hand was on Chuckie’s shoulder and she was laughing at the same stupid joke he always told about Jesse’s penis.  I listened to him prattle on in that same southern drawl that made all the boys laugh at him and call him ‘cracker barrel’. I woulda punched him right there, but I didn’t want Angie to know I was on to her. My hand gripped his arm as tight as I could without cutting off the circulation to his heart, and I’m sure I was grinning like a crazy person because right then I came up with the best plan ever.  A pencil fell from my half open bag.  Chuckie, a real gentleman, bent to pick it up but I stopped him.
“I got it, baby.”
I bent over real slow from the waist and reached for the useless implement.  While Angie stood there, hand still on my man, I fell off of the bench, landing on the ground with expert precision, my head underneath her skirt, and my worst fears confirmed: bitch had no underpants on. She was definitely trying to steal my man.

I didn’t tell her right away that I was never going to talk to her again.  I felt confused about the whole thing.  She and I were best friends.  We had cut our wrists with safety-pins to solidify the blood line between the two of us.  We ditched school every day before gym to get milk shakes from am/pm.  She helped me figure out how to paint my manish face so that cute boys like Chuckie would pay attention to me, and there she was, trying to steal him from me.

Instead of grabbing her by the puff ball plastered to the back of her head, I pretended to concentrate on putting my pencil neatly back into my bag.  When she got tired of laughing like a woodpecker at Chuckie’s jokes, she sauntered away, crumpling the bag of chips and tossing them at Jesse Whirlwol’s head.  Chuckie was still watching her when I pulled him close and said, “I think she’s a buncha lezzies.”
“What?  Not Angie!  She’s too…too fine for that!”
“I heard her mama say it once, that’s all.”  I rolled my eyes so he knew I didn’t really care, but  could tell he was thinking about it.

I didn’t really care if she was a lezzie or not, but everyone else did.  I started to notice that Chuckie wouldn’t talk to me if Angie was around.  In the locker room, girls whispered about whether or not she was a bull dyke.  Angie came to my house everyday talking about how this boy or that girl wouldn’t even look at her. I helped her strategize her revenge fantasies against all the friends who had suddenly turned their backs on her. I knew that I still wanted to hang out with my best girl even though she tried to steal my man, but I didn’t want anyone to think we were lezzies together.

So I spread another rumor.  Every morning during  first period lab Debbie Acker would find a way to sit next to me.  Debbie always had her hair pressed perfectly, like she had just walked out of the beauty shop.  Her skin shined under the flourescent lights and for whatever reason, it was hard for me to focus on my work whenever she came by.  She’d sit down close enough for me to smell the shea butter on her skin. Blood would rush to my cheeks making them hot and cold at the same time. She’d lean in real close and pump me for information about Angie.  One day I told her, “You didn’t hear this from me Debbie, but I heard that she don’t wear no underwear?”
Debbie jumped back in her seat.  “You mean she skankin?”
“I’m just sayin what I heard, girl.  I don’t really know though, you know.”

By lunch time, Chuckie and every other boy in the eighth grade was trying to talk to Angie.  As she stood by the vending machine, fumbling with her crumpled up dollar bills, Chuckie offered her a crisp one from the black patent leather wallet his uncle gave him for his birthday.  Her fingers grazed his as they exchanged currency.  I stormed across the quad, my busted back pack spilling homework and paper clips and pencils behind me.  I grabbed Angie’s wrist and twisted it up to her terrified face, “Skank!  You tryin to steal my man!”  Angie’s eyes started tearing and all of the guys around us broke out into wide grins. I heard Jesse Whirlwol whisper “Chic fight.  Awesome.”

Chuckie pulled me away from her and walked me down the hall.

“What’s wrong with y’all anyway?”

Of course the very next morning, Debbie Acker, and every other girl in the eighth grade was whispering about how Angie DiLaggio tried to steal my man, and by then my confusion was over.  Skank or dyke, I couldn’t be friends with her anymore.

I spent the rest of eighth grade ignoring Angie.  I erased our best friend tag from the walls of the mall bathroom to the tables at the taco stand.  I threw away the notes we passed in class.  Angie was out of my life.  She was dead to me.

Loss In Air

Posted in Fiction, Prose on June 8, 2009 by melissa merin

When the doorbell rang, I was eating potato chips and watching c-span. I didn’t think I should answer the door – after all, it was my brother’s house and I wasn’t expecting anyone to come all the way to Brighton to visit me. I opened the door anyway. I guess I was curious but not as curious as Jefferson. He was taller than I and skinny with a pot belly and slightly bowed legs, almost the way you might imagine someone with rickets to be. His straw-straight hair was a mess on top of his head. His hands were jammed into his pockets, even though it was a clear 57 degrees without a hint of wind. I watched as his eyes floated this way and that, two big brown pools with slight red eels slithering over the glassy white globes.
“Hey there,” I said in my friendliest Southern Californian.
“Hey yerself,” he grinned. We stood there for a moment with only the mile high air and the occasional hum of a diesel truck from the frontage road around us. I shuffled, a little uncomfortable.
“How’s it goin’?” My second attempt at perfunctory conversation.
“You live here?” he squinted his eyes at me like he was looking for the Colorado tattoo between my eyes.
“Nope. I live in California.”
“Huh,” he said thoughtfully, as though that explained all of it.
“What can I do for you?”
“Oh,” he kind of stumbled over his next words, “I thought we’d come and uh, you know, uh, say hello.” I looked behind him to see who ‘we’ was. It was just him.
“That’s nice of you.”
“I figgered since y’all er, whoever was new here ya might have some questions.” His voice was thick like there was mucus stuck in his throat and the way he said “I” was exactly half way between Texas and Wyoming. He must have been born and raised in Colorado. There was something else familiar about him, like he could have been one of a hundred boys I’d roamed through creeks and ridden bicycles with when I was a child. The familiarity vanished quickly though. He just stared and stood, every once in a while moving something around in his mouth.
“Well,” I said, “thanks for stopping in. I’ll be sure to tell my brother you were here. What’s your name again?”
“Oh, I’m Jefferson. Me and my wife live over there-” he pointed down the road toward the water tower.
“I’ll tell him you came by, Jefferson.” I started to close the door but he didn’t make any move to walk away and I didn’t know what to do, so I just said, “Goodbye,” as he stepped off of the stoop and walked east toward the water tower.

Later that night I asked my brother if he knew Jefferson, and he said not at all. My brother and his wife had only moved into the house a month before, so they didn’t really know anyone in the neighborhood. It was just they and their dogs and the pinball machines in the basement. In fact, everyday when they went off to work, I’d go out for a smoke and it seemed like no one else really lived there. Sure, Bridge Street was busy with passing cars, but all of the houses they passed felt empty. “I don’t know how you do it.” I was telling him after dinner. “I mean, how do you get anywhere except for driving?”
My brother said, “I like the quiet. I couldn’t live where you live.” He was defiant, but still friendly. He winked at me and smiled, “I know what you’re really worried about, and don’t worry. If we get stuck at the bar we can always take a cab home.”
Which is precisely what we did after a few beers and a few neat scotches. I don’t normally drink scotch, but then again, I don’t normally hang out in the bars of Brighton Colorado singing along to Garth Brooks’ “Thunder Road” with a bunch of guys who drive pick-up trucks, either. When we got out of the cab and my brother paid the driver -he always paid, even when he was down to his last ten dollars- he hurried inside to grab a fresh pack of smokes from the freezer. “One last beer?” he called through the open door. “You know it!” I yelled, a little too loudly for the quiet track.
He was taking a long time and my lungs were impatient, that or they were ready to collapse. This was before the smoking ban that finally swept into Colorado, and I had been taking advantage of not having to leave my seat to go smoke in the cold. I lit up my twentieth cigarette and tapped my foot to the country songs still ringing in my head. My friends down south and I always make fun of ‘new country’ but I had to admit that it was catchy.
I saw his hair before I actually saw his face. Jefferson was creepy. I didn’t understand how I hadn’t seen him before, but there he was walking toward me at two-thirty in the morning.
“Hello?” I decided it would be better to pretend I didn’t recognize him. It’s sort of a trick I learned growing up.
“Hey yerself,” came his voice.
“Oh, hi there.” We were playing the greeting game again.
He stepped onto the lawn, blowing smoke out of the right side of his mouth like a cowboy might. His face was a permanent squint as he said, “Y’all just come back from the bar?”
“A couple.” I answered.
“All right,” he said.
“Um, Jefferson, is there something I could do for you?”
“Oh. I – ya know I’se just wonderin’ somethin’ today after I left.”
“What’s that?”
“Well,” he started sheepishly, “I guess it’s my wife really, but we were wonderin’, are you from Katrina?”
I actually wondered for a second if Katrina was a town in California where he might have had some relatives. Then the water rushed to my eyes and I blinked it back and laughed maniacally. He looked a little hurt, but I didn’t sympathize with him. “It woulda made sense, I guess,” he said.
“What?”
“Nothin’. I guess that’s it.”

My brother was kicking one of the miniscule pebbles from its place among the other rocks and chain smoking. The cold snap seemed to pass and now it was only brisk. Our part of the earth was starting to tilt toward the sun. The stars were starting to disappear. “Maybe he just didn’t know.”
“Clearly, Pete, he doesn’t know.”

“Don’t get mad, I’m just saying, he doesn’t know better, he’s an old Colorado hick and he’s ignorant. Who cares?”
“He’s not that old.” “What?” My brother had a way saying what the same way you might say, You’re an imbecile.
“You said he was an old hick, and he’s not that old. He’s probably our age.” “That doesn’t mean anything.” He chugged his Bud Light and pulled another one out of his coat pocket.

“It does. People our age shouldn’t be so stupid.”
“Maybe he doesn’t have a TV.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Television allows people to see things they wouldn’t ordinarily see.”
“What, like black people?”
“Maybe.”
“Pretty smart for a soon to be Doctor.”
My brother sank his beer. “I study rocks, not people,” and burped loud enough for Jefferson and his wife to hear. “Go to sleep. We’re going to Denver in the morning.”
“It is the morning.”
“Stop it.”

A few observations:

lying in the bed, no window coverings, lots of open land, dead grass ’cause of the snow. On the perimeters are big trucks, big brand new houses. Out of the top left hand corner of the window, the flag ripples in the wind. I sat below that flag last night. It must have been twenty degrees, but I was determined to smoke that last cigarette; cool my nerves before going to bed. I heard it, but truthfully, out in the plains it’s hard to tell where a noise is coming from. I kept staring at the big polished rocks on the border between my brother’s house and the neighbors’ and I imagined that there was a creek running over them. That’s what my ears told me was happening and I was so drunk that I started to believe it. I stood up and grunted – my brother does that too- and I stumbled toward the rocks to see the rushing water and that’s when I looked up and saw the flag whipping in the wind. no window coverings in the entire house, however there are security systems. No big city, no crime

the dogs bark at everything, there are so many pillows it’s almost like lying on a big fluffy mattress.

my brother will drink a half a case a night, if he wants to; in a whole day he may drink an entire case.

don’t forget in the distance there are trains and there are coyotes and you are in the middle of a brave new world.

and there are the times we broke windows in the alley with rocks
and the time before when we weren’t allowed to go near the alley
the breaking into peoples’ homes
the lighting everything on fire.

Jefferson, again at the front door. His eyes peer at my face fascinated. I want to be offended, but it’s impossible to ignore the boyish cheeks and the crooked, tobacco stained grin. He asks, again, if my brother is at home and I have to tell him, again, that he’s at work.
“What does he do?”
“He lectures at the university. Geology. He studies the earth; rocks, minerals, dirt.”
“He ever tell you what these rocks are called?” he asks, bending to run his fingers along them.
“Well, technically it’s gravel.”
“I know that much, Miss,” he grinned again.
“I mean, gravel comes from all sorts of places. It’s an aggregate.” I had heard that somewhere.
“Right.” He kicked the stuff around a little and massaged his neck awkwardly. “How long you gonna be around here?”
“Are you trying to get rid of me, Jefferson?”
“Nah. Just wonderin’.”
“I fly home in a week.”
“I’ll be back in a bit.”
“Oh-” There is also waiting on the runway, watching the big metal birds roll slowly, one behind the other and the other. When suddenly the captain thrusts the bird forward and your eyes are glued on the window – it never gets old, watching the boring buildings zoom by and suddenly your feet aren’t on the earth anymore and you’re in sitting position, but it doesn’t matter much what position you’re in, you’re in the air. In the air; angled up toward the clouds or the smog, and you can’t help thinking of every cheesy song that has to do with love and being high; -er than a kite; as the sky; on you; Edging toward the skyway, you can feel it, first in your feet, then your belly and finally your head; you’re getting lighter and lighter. at some point you become heavier again, the pressure from the cabin and the gravity trying desperately to bring you back down to earth, but now you’re not in control any more. There’s nothing you can do about it. You’re flying. A fumnambulist is a tight rope walker.

How amazing this is.

Jefferson said, “Have you ever flown while the sun is going down? The bright red scorch of the sun on the earth’s horizon underneath a maze of city lights and highways and backyards with swimming pools in them…” “Yeah, I have seen that before,” I said it automatically, but it was true. I had seen everything he said.
“It’s the only time I got to take my feet off the ground if you know what I mean,” he grinned and spat a small bit of tobacco to the floor.
“It was nice talkin’ to ya,” he said abruptly and turned and walked away.
I watched him saunter up the street back to his house and when he was out of sight, I mimicked his gait in the three car driveway. I was trying to write how his hair went, thin and wiry and all over the place, like a three year old’s.

My brother was certainly tired of hearing about him. Delilah, Pete’s wife, was struggling with a giant frozen lasagna. We could hear her wrestling with the cellophane. At one point it sounded like she was stabbing the cardboard. I imagined her eyes narrowed like a jackal’s and her tongue furiously wagging from side to side as she battled the giant glacial beast. I looked at my brother over the Denver Post. He was hunched over a stack of papers, oblivious to the carnage in the kitchen. He looked up, slightly nodding toward the kitchen and muttered. “This is her catharsis.”
Over the burnt remains of dinner, Delilah gossiped about co-workers neither I nor my brother knew. She was an accountant at a run down law firm near Elitch Gardens. Every six months the partners would get comped tickets and the whole firm would go ride roller coasters and eat funnel cake together. She had worked for the law firm of B & J, Denver since college and she knew everyone’s business. Tonight she told us about the senior partner’s secretary, how she was getting a divorce because she had slept with the boss. I stared blankly at the vinyl table cloth.
When Delilah seemed to run out of steam my brother announced, “I have my final dissertation argument in June.”
“Babe, that’s great!”
“Yeah Pete. That’s awesome.”
“Does that mean you’ll finally get tenure?”
“Delilah, I keep explaining to you, I’m not even staff. I’m considered visiting until the degree is finished.”
The high vaulted ceilings and chiffon dresses disappeared from Delilah’s jade green eyes, while my brother’s placid blues focused on the limp iceberg salad on his plate. He pushed it around clockwise and then counter, trying to appear thoughtful.  Delilah took a deep breath and smiled slightly, “Either way, that’s great news honey.”
“Thanks.”

The sign of the King Sooper’s was exactly the same as it was when we were little. There was a puke green van in the handicapped space and a wind catcher was hanging from the mirror. The driver slept with his mouth open, the fog on the windows expanding and retracting with his breathing. “Do you remember going to the one in Denver to give away puppies?”
“Yeah!”
“Delilah doesn’t believe we ever did that.”
“Why would you make something like that up?”
“When you figure it out I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to hear it.”
We stood there for a moment. The bright red glare from the sign made the circles under Pete’s eyes seem darker. He looked tired. We got in the car and headed west. The view of the rockies was like a giant photo stretched across the windshield. “When does she leave for Vegas Pete?”
“Tomorrow night. I’m taking her to the airport.”
“You mean her work doesn’t have a giant roller coaster that will come pick her up?” Pete had to smile.
“I don’t understand why you don’t like her.”
“It’s not that I don’t like her, it’s that she’s…she’s…”
“Shallow? Uninteresting? Self Centered?  Fake?”
“Damn Petey.”
“Well?”
“I think she’s waiting for you to get famous.”
“I think she’s tired of waiting.” He lit a smoke and held it. “I’m thinking about going back to California.”
“The Land of the Liberal?”
“Without Delilah.”

As we pulled into the driveway, a pick up truck full of teenagers careened down Bridge street and screeched to a halt. “What was that?” I strained to see a shadow flit across the road.
“Prob’ly a deer.” My coat was tangled in the seat.
“In winter?” I wrenched it free and started to roll up the window.
“Global warming,” my brother smiled, and then, “I think that’s your friend coming.” He flicked his cigarette and rested his hands on the wheel. I turned in the direction of jaunty Jefferson and smiled for a minute. I raised my arm and Pete was already backing out of the driveway.

Cahokia Creek

Posted in East St. Louis, Fiction, Novel Insert on May 31, 2009 by melissa merin

For the last five years I’ve been working on a piece of historical fiction which takes place largely in East St. Louis, Missouri, during the race riots of 1917.  One of the more atrocious scenarios of the white-inspired race riots occurred at the hands of a group of white men who marched Black people into Cahokia Creek at gunpoint as the town behind them burned.  According to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, the creek was also a dumping ground for many burned Black bodies.

He can’t wipe the grains of dirt from his eyes…choking in the creek with the fire from the town hot on his wet clothes and the men yelling. If he could clear the dirt from his eyes he could see which direction the baby’s echoes were coming from, but it’s all he can do to stay above water. How can this be happening? Something is on his shoulder, pushing him under. A foot. Someone is stepping on him. NO! He thrashes and ducks below the current to swim away. The creek is thick with limbs and hair tangling around his ankles and wrists. NO! He remembers now, he was looking for someone…he has to stay alive…who…

“There! There! Get that one!” He’s come up for breath and now they’re coming for him. It’s not raining…There was a man hanging above him…Everything turns on its side while the men drag him from the river. He can’t kick and he can’t scream. There is nothing left in his body. Ernestina.