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We're All Damaged coverIt’s scary how many details I remember about the night Karen left.

That’s the thing I hate most about my brain, the way it stores and catalogs things, all this dumb shit on a giant hard drive in my head, so I’m forced to obsess over it all like a crazy person.

Here’s a perfect example.

Our waiter had a button stuck to his apron that said “Ask Me about Bacon Time!” Why in the hell would I remember that? He had to have been wearing, like, thirty buttons—they always do—but that’s the one I remember. He brought us our food, I saw the button, and I wondered if he was ever tempted to wear it outside of work, like with jeans and a T-shirt, just hanging out with his friends.

Hey, everybody—you guys—ask me about Bacon Time!

TroubleLexie.BlondieThe problem wasn’t so much that Lexie had taken the Klonopin. And it wasn’t even that she had stolen them. At thirty generic pills for ten dollars, the theft of a handful (two down the gullet, the rest down her bra) had to be less than . . . seven bucks? The problem, as Lexie saw it, was that she had fallen asleep in the bed of the owner of the Klonopin. And the owner of the Klonopin was the wife of her lover.

“Miss James?” Jen Waite said. Her dyed hair was blonder than Lexie’s and her pale face looked prettier than Lexie remembered from their single meeting at Parents’ Weekend—brow furrowed now, head tilted with concern.

Lexie looked down at herself. Her fitted red dress was scrunched up to her hips and she wasn’t wearing underwear. A shadow of hair trailed from crotch to mid-thigh. Lexie tried to yank the dress down but her brain-hand-body coordination was off and she couldn’t manage the required butt-lift.

True Stories at the Smoky View coverVrai wished she had the nerve to leave Skip’s ashes and the box of things from his apartment on his mother’s doorstep. Why not loop Cassi’s leash around the dogwood, ring the doorbell, and run? She didn’t regret the phone call to his mother to offer condolences. Skip would surely have done the same for her. But this visit would be downright awkward.

She and Skip had both grown up here in Knoxville. Decades later they’d become close friends while working in the same library in Baltimore. Just up the street from that library, four days ago, Skip had been hit by a car. According to the article in the Baltimore Sun, the driver, an optician, claimed Skip had stepped off the curb with his hands over his eyes. The article had his name right, Jasper Pascal Howard, Jr., but said he was fifty years old. Skip was only forty-nine, two years older than Vrai.

Bittersweet Way, Skip had ruefully called this quiet, tree-lined street where his mother still lived, and for Vrai, too, his old neighborhood was steeped in sadness. Her best friend, Laramie, had lived next door to Skip.

11873373_879110155493027_2034678384430381309_nBlack Mamba

Blinky ran the pet shop out on Route 64. There was nothing wrong with his eyes—20/20, he said—but he only had one and a half legs and he said he believed the nickname stopped people from staring at his stump. A die-version, he said. I didn’t stare at his stump mostly because I’d know Blinky since I was a kid and had gotten used to the fact that he refused a prosthetic. Said it wasn’t American. He’d lost the leg in the war, and he wanted everyone to know even though he didn’t want people to stare. He was weird like that.

You went to Blinky’s pet shop—named Randy’s House of Reptiles, for no reason whatsoever, Blinky’d always run the place—to buy shine. There was the bar in town, but they stopped selling at a certain time and they didn’t sell the good stuff. Blinky would never really say where he got his supply from, but damn it was good. Real good. You had to buy something pet-related when you went—I usually bought a cat toy, or dog bones for the mutt that hung around the back of my property—but if you did, Blinky took care of you. He was good like that.

BOTR_CoverDearest Elswyth,

All is lost. I am far from the road, and several times during the nocturnal hours, when my eyes were wide and no sound broke the stillness, I imagined I heard wagons in the distance, like the uncanny creaking of ghostly ships. A hunger dream —I imagined it was a supply of provisions. The cries of the men were punctuated by the cracking of whips, the clatter of hooves and wagon wheels. The sky was lit by a full moon and a host of stars, but I only saw gray silhouettes moving in the night. Animals, riders, whole caravans that flew from my eye when I tried to view them dead-on.

When dawn broke and the crying of the coyotes ceased, I was exhausted. I built a shelter against the sun with my blanket and some straight branches from a desert plant that has no name I know of. During the day and much of the night I vacillated between sleep and waking, trying to rest my weary mind. The sun is large and vibrates heat without ceasing. There was no shade in the desert, and the condition of my skin worsens.

31gFl7NEfALThe Char Paper Blues Band

They were the type of band, over time, that could play just about any kind of gig you could imagine: wedding, supper club, football stadium, birthday party, Christmas morning brunch, open-air pavilion, museum, right down to the back seat of a car. Not that there wasn’t some controversy in coming up with a name that stuck.

“For the last time, we’re going with Char Paper Blues Band. I appreciate the sentiment of the Dissolution Unit, and the Demolition Unit has a similar feel, but again: they’re both misleading. We’re not doing the dissolving or the demolitioning, are we?”

Silence. Initially. Stafford was used to it. The harmonica player would probably grumble for a few days over having failed, yet again, to rename them.

41bKsL5ED+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_OK, Goodbye

Let’s say the first time she tries to walk out she loses her car keys in the front yard at night. She’s sassy, maybe a little drunk. She tosses her keys in the air but misses them on the way back down. The next thing she knows, she and her husband and the neighbors’ kids are on their hands and knees on the front lawn, feeling around for keys. Wet pieces of mowed grass stick to her legs as she crawls in the dark. She’s cussing to herself and dizzy and hungry. She’d like to stay angry enough to leave once she finds her car keys, but she’s also tired.

Then there’s the scene outside in which the neighbors are loading their truck to move. It’s a hot afternoon, and Vivie says, “You probably won’t be here when I get back, so I want to say goodbye now and tell you how nice it was to have you as neighbors. I mean it—we won’t ever get neighbors as good as you,” and she starts to tear up.

Everyone hugs. They laugh and say, “Keep in touch.”

“You keep in touch, too.”

Vivie gets in her car and pulls away. She drives slowly and waves. They wave, and she honks and waves some more. At the corner she turns to go to the store, and they’re out of sight.

BarefootDogs.coverimage

It Will Be Awesome Before Spring

It is the year everybody’s planning to spend the summer in Italy. Tammy and Sash will take a photography workshop in Florence and Jen will take a cruise around the Mediterranean with her family, and mine will rent a house in Tuscany. We’ve already made arrangements to meet in Milan for a couple of days and perhaps drive to Portofino and hang out there for another day or two—Italian highways are the best, we’ve heard, and no one cares about speed limits there, same as here, but highways there don’t suck, so everybody agrees it will be awesome. Before spring breaks, we’re already taking Italian conversation over cappuccinos at Klein’s on Avenida Masaryk once a week with this beautiful middle-aged Genovese woman I remember as Giovanna but I’m sure that was not her name. She looks like Diane von Furstenberg when she was in her prime, only with much less expensive clothes. She wound up in Mexico because she met some guy in Cancún, and has been trying to make a living here since, teaching Italian and any other language to foreign executives, because she’s a polyglot. Whenever we want a break from class we ask her to tell us stories about her other students—she’s an avid raconteur too, so she can talk and talk for hours on end—and she comes up with the wildest tales. My memories of that year have started to blur and I can only recall the story of the Danish executive who’s taking English conversation and fashions a grinding, horrible accent, our teacher says, flapping her branchy hands over our cappuccino glasses as if they’re logs on fire and she’s trying to turn them into embers. Irregular nouns and verbs make this poor Danish lady crazy, Diane—let’s call the Italian polyglot that—admits with a frown that makes the crisp features of her face look worn rather than sophisticated, so every time Diane asks her to talk about her morning routine, the Danish lady says, “Well, firrst ting rright out of my bet, I torouffly wash my teets.”

9780670016761_large_The_Poser“There you are! Christ!” Anthony Vandaline, of all people, came waddling up the stairs. “I’m a pilgrim in the dark. I’m searching and searching. And—ah, finally.”

At this late hour, only four men remained at the balcony bar, stoking each other’s laughter with shouted stories. One even bent at the waist, g ripping the back of a chair. Performing for me. Soon, I knew, would come the sharp compliment or offered beer, and I prepared myself by seeming unaware, a man immersed in his life. I stroked Lucy’s hand, doing that thing where I looked from her hands up to her eyes and down again. What she was saying in that low voice, however, the one she risked only when we were alone, I can’t rightly say, for I was listening to the men.

Then Vandaline arrived, and they fell silent. Lucy stood to meet him.

“Ugh, you’re one of those people who’s always heeere,” she said. “It’s like I’m gonna turn around and trip on you.”

“Look, my priest is gonna blush at this thing when I print it in full. All my sins. But I was talking to Max, and he said, and I quote, ‘the heart of his technique is something called’—yeah, here it is—‘the thread.’ ”

A show tune played through the house speakers.

“Now you answer this,” Vandaline said, “and I’m gone. I mean, I walk out the door.”

“It’s a skill you should practice more,” Lucy said.

american-monsterSometime in the night back in the Spill City trailer, Norma had woken up and eaten the last churro but in the morning had no memory of doing this, or of anything else. She tried to shrug the burn out of her shoulders, her night with Bunny slowly coming back to her. Calling Mommy down at the beach. Half-falling over some kid outside the pay phone.

fun partsThe sign in the Sweet Apple kitchen declared it a nut-free zone, and every September somebody, almost always a dad, cracked the usual stupid joke. The gag, Laura, the school director, told Tovah, would either mock the school’s concern for potentially lethal legumes or else suggest that despite the sign’s assurance, not everyone at Sweet Apple could boast of sanity.

Today, as Tovah leaned into the fridge to adjust the lunch bag heap, a skinny gray-haired man in a polo shirt, old enough to be the grandfather of the girl who called him “Papa” as he nudged her toward the cubbies, winked at Tovah, pointed to the sign.

Here it came, the annual benediction.

handmedown_CVF_ppkMy mom and her husband are doing it in her bedroom. I listen to her bedsprings squeak and their hushed, heavy breathing. I need to pee, but if I get up they’ll hear me, and that sudden, conscious silence would be worse than the sound of chimp squeals and hyperventilation muffled by our hollow bedroom doors and the three feet of hallway in between. At least she’s not screaming, Oh, God, like I’ve seen in movies. I chew the slippery skin on the inside of my mouth and wonder if it’s still a sin to take the Lord’s name in vain during sex, or if then, it is like a prayer.

It is Terrance’s first night out. For two years my mom has saved her nice voice for his collect calls, driven the hour and a half to Vacaville every Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning to see him, waited expectantly for his twenty-page letters full of shaded hearts pierced with arrows, poems wrought with adolescent angst, and fantasies I can never, ever, repeat out loud. His dark penciled writing is frilly with curled loops and a childlike slant. I only read the letters because Jaime made me. “Why would he want her to do that thing with the marshmallows?” she asked after she found the envelopes, dozens of them, in a pile under our mom’s nightstand. I told her I’d rather not think about it.

13592237***

Alice would come shortly. Sandra waited in the breakfast room, wiping her fingerprints off the laptop, her crumbs off the table. She had chosen slacks because it was not quite warm yet and her legs were pale, freckled with brown.

The blog was Andrea’s idea. A blog for Beatrice and Elvin to read about their grandmother before she grew cotton for brains and peed her pants. No, she did not have Alzheimer’s, she would assure Alice. But she was at the age where anything could happen. Jack was not at that age and it had already happened, and it had happened to many of her acquaintances already. One must be prepared.

The memoir pleased her. She had always written, she would tell Alice, here and there when Andrea was born and Jack was still alive.

The blog did not. An idea from a magazine, surely¾her daughter’s entire life was molded by Women’s Day and Better Homes and Gardens. How to baste a turkey. How to have better sex. How to not feel guilty about being a failure.

imagesImagine a fantastically drab ballroom. Seven square tables have been set up in front of a large stage, each table seating two couples, including Bob and Jane Coffen. Imagine everybody has finished gumming their salmon and parsnip purée and now the overhead lights go out.

Darkness.

Intrigue.

The sound of a recorded heartbeat thumps from the speakers. Loudly at first. It fades until only faintly playing in the background.

The lights go back up, and there are two people standing on the stage, a man and a woman. The man wears a sign on his chest that says SPUTTERING HUSBAND. The woman’s sign says ZOMBIE WIFE. They both stagger around the carpeted stage, weaving wildly, like blind people doped on booze without canes or dogs or good Samaritans.

Mother is cleaning the spoons again. From where I sit in the kitchen, I can see the reflection of her trippy-looking head: bulbous skull, stretched down mouth, eyes that scoop away at the rest of her face. A droop-faced woman. Jeeeez. Just look at her. She’s rubbing the holy crap out of those spoons. Poor, silvery utensils.

That’s what it felt like to be her kid, too.