Nothing More Deceptive

“Nothing More Deceptive,” published in Helen Literary Magazine, January 2020

https://www.helenlitmag.com/deceptive-flash-current-issue.html

 

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The Lacquered Cabinet

“The Lacquered Cabinet,” published in Blue Lake Review, August 1, 2019:

The clearest memory I have of my father is the week we spent in a tent on the shore of Cranberry Lake. A city boy, I’d rarely seen so much nature at once. As we sat under the stars toasting marshmallows, my dad told me for the first time how he met my mother. They ran into each other—literally—outside the Franklin Avenue station. My father was running late for a child’s birthday party, my mother, on her first trip to the Big Apple from Iowa. As her two girlfriends looked on, she was knocked to the pavement by, in my father’s words, “a tall, handsome stranger in a tuxedo who took one look at her and gasped, ‘Where’s my rabbit?’”
“You know, Jon,” my father concluded. “I believe I was supposed to meet your mother that day. It was like some force brought us together. It was destiny.”
My father was killed in a car crash a few months later, before he had time to show me the secrets of his tricks. I mention this by way of explanation; I suspect it may be the reason why I harbored a secret belief in magic—or if not belief exactly, then at least a suspension of disbelief—from then on.
My mother, for her part, was a big believer in adventures. We have an adventure coming up this weekend! she’d tell me before a trip to a museum or a play performance. Wasn’t that an adventure? she’d ask after we missed our bus and walked home in the rain. Life, she gave me to understand, was one big adventure, with surprises and plot twists and occasional setbacks, but in the end more pleasurable than not. I lived with this sense of adventure until I lost my mother to cancer, after which I couldn’t seem to regain it. My heart just wasn’t in it anymore.
Then, more than a decade after my mother’s death, I had a real adventure of my own.
It started in April, at a meeting of my Aspiring Novelists group in the Macon branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. There’s nothing I’d rather say than that the group was comprised of gifted writers offering brilliant criticism, but the truth is that we were a sorry bunch, all six of us, hashing and rehashing the plots and characters of our insipid novels on a bimonthly basis. And the worst of it was, we all knew it.
After one of these exercises in futility, as I was leaving the conference room with the third draft of the wretched murder mystery I’d been toiling away on for months, my groupmate Desmond stalked up and laid a hand on my shoulder.
“Jon!” he barked. I should mention that Desmond had taken to telephoning me for insignificant reasons a couple of times a week, and I suspected he was working himself up to ask me out. Many was the time I’d cursed the day I jotted my contact information on the group list. It wasn’t just that Desmond wasn’t my type; it was more that he was Jeffrey Dahmer’s type. The body counts in his writing were high, the details graphic… and a bit too realistic for me.
“Desmond,” I returned, surreptitiously looking around the basement. There was no one else in sight, the other aspiring novelists having beat a hasty retreat.
“You gave me some good advice this session,” he told me. “I’d like to repay you.”
“Ah, that’s not necessary, Desmond. I just thought six might be a couple too many bodies for a deep-freeze. Minor point, really.”
“No,” he insisted, his hazel eyes fixed on mine. “It was helpful. About the nun too.”
“Oh, well, it would be… an unusual mother superior that ran a human trafficking ring out of her convent.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” he said, rubbing his gingery beard reflectively. Then, leaning in closer, he went on, “I know how I can pay you back.”
“Really, Desmond. You don’t have to do that.” I scanned the basement and was gratified to see a burly man in a checked jacket coming down the stairs. He looked more than capable of splitting Desmond’s skull should the need arise. “Listen, I’d better get go—”
“I know a magician,” he went on in a lower voice, “who can send you into books.”
That stopped me in my tracks.
“Into books?”
“You just take the book over to her place, and she sends you into it. Into it,” he emphasized, raising his eyebrows and giving his head a vigorous nod. “You want me to have her call you? She has to call you.”
“Yeah, alright,” I said, eyeing Checked Jacket over Desmond’s shoulder. He was rounding Sci Fi.
“I’ll have her get in touch.” He narrowed his eyes importantly.
“Okay, well, thanks, Desmond.” I took the stairs two at a time.
A couple of days later, as I sat drinking a cup of tea and thumbing through the New Yorker, my phone rang.
“You Yon?” asked a woman’s voice, deep, resonant, and heavily accented.
“I’m Jon, yes.”
“I hear you looking for ma-yish-i-an.”
“What?”
“Desmond tell me you looking for ma-yish-i-an.”
“Oh, no, not really.”
“Señorita Macha, maybe you hear my name?”
“I can’t say that I have.”
“I do the miracles.”
“The miracles?”
“The miracles,” she repeated with feeling. “You come now?”
“What?”
“You come now, bring a book.”
“Um…”
“Understand me, Yon. You believe in the des-ti-ny? You don’t say no to your des-ti-ny.”
It was that word—my father’s word, buried under the weight of so many years—that did it.
“No,” I agreed. “I guess you don’t.”
It wasn’t as if I had anything else to do. It was my day off from the second-rate coffee shop where I worked, and I was pathetically, painfully single. Even my cat, Sir Gawain, had died a couple of months before.
“And don’t forget the money,” Señorita Macha added eagerly. “Thirty-five dol-lars.”
“Thirty-five? Isn’t that a bit steep?”
“Cheap, yes! Is very cheap for the miracles.”
“Alright,” I said wearily, chugging the last of my lukewarm tea. “What’s the address?”
Though I don’t think I actually believed that Señorita Macha could do what she promised, I nevertheless found myself scanning the bookshelf. If there was even the remotest chance of my getting into a book, I knew exactly which book it was going to be.
*****
The address was a couple of streets over from Bushwick, a run-down and forlorn-looking brownstone with a Mexican grocery on the first floor. As I stood on the pavement debating whether or not to go in, a shiny silver snack cake wrapper cartwheeled over the sidewalk and came to a rest on one of my Chuck Taylors. Maybe it was a sign. I climbed the cement stairs.
The creature who answered the door was tall, plump, heavily-perfumed, and so thoroughly made-up that it was impossible to tell her age; anything from forty-five to seventy seemed plausible.
“Señorita Macha?” I asked.
“Sí,” she beamed. “You bring the cash?”
She looked me over, her black eyes shining under lashes a good two centimeters too long to be real, then, taking my elbow, she ushered me through the front room.
“First, you want to know about me,” Señorita Macha told me, perching on an easy chair and patting my knee reassuringly. “Long his-tor-y of doing the mayic. I studied with Persky, you know him? No, course not, you too young.”
She stood up and ran her hand over the crowded mass of picture frames on the mantle until she found the one she wanted. Pressing it into my hand—it was of a thin, waxy-looking man in a purple cape—she said, “Buen hombre, died in a fire in ’77. Terrible tra-ye-dy.”
Solemnly, she crossed herself.
“Now, Yon.” She sat back down and smiled at me. A gold tooth gleamed. “You tell me something about you.”
“Hm… I have undergrad and graduate degrees from Columbia, and I currently work as a barista at Beany Baby’s.”
“Is good school, Columbia.”
“It’s a great school. I have the debt to prove it.”
“But the coffee?” she asked incredulously, her brow furrowed.
“I’m afraid so.”
“What you go to school for?”
“Oh, the humanities,” I joked.
She stared at me blankly.
“English,” I clarified. “Both of my degrees are in English.”
“No, I mean, what you go to school for? Why you go to school, you yust gonna pour the coffee after?”
“That’s a fair point.” I scratched my knee. “I think that my education has served to make me a more well-rounded person.”
“Rounded?” she asked, eyeing my thin torso.
“Like, a more fulfilled person.”
“What is this full-fill?”
“Happier,” I said. “Learning can make you happier.”
“You very happy then.”
“Well, no, actually. I guess I’m a little lonely.” I hadn’t expected to say those words, but once they were out I realized how true they were.
“You looking for somebody spe-ci-al.” Señorita Macha nodded knowingly. We seemed to be moving back into her territory.
“Yes.”
“Maybe you search there?” She pointed to my book on the sofa.
“Oh, no, I just brought this to see if I could get some advice about something I’m writing.”
“You writer too? Like Desmond.”
“Well, no, not much like Desmond, really.”
“Good,” she sniffed. “Desmond está loco. But you, Yon, you got promise. I think you ready for the ca-bi-net.”
With that she stood up and left the room, returning a minute later pushing a badly lacquered Chinese cabinet on roller skate wheels.
“The ca-bi-net!” she announced proudly. “This gonna change your life, Yon.”
“What’s it for?” I asked.
“It’s for send the people into books.”
“You’re joking.”
“Course I’m not yoking. You get in.”
“You aren’t going to lock it, are you? I’m a little claustrophobic.”
“No lock. Just three raps and ¡chas!, you go in book. What you bring?”
I passed it to her.
“Sherlock Holmes. Interesante. No one ever ask for this one before.” She laid it on a shelf at the top of the cabinet, then gestured for me to get inside.
I climbed in. It smelled faintly of incense. “Don’t lock the door,” I reminded Señorita Macha, but instead of an answer I heard three loud raps.
Instantly I found myself standing on the landing between two floors of a wooden staircase. There was a large window and, in front of me at the top of the stairs, a single closed door.
I must be on Baker Street! I told myself excitedly. It worked! That’s his door!
Then the door was thrown open and Holmes, looking just like a Sidney Paget illustration of himself, rushed out amid a cloud of bluish smoke. When he finished sputtering, he stood looking fixedly at me for a long moment.
“I’m afraid you’ve caught me in the midst of one of my chemical experiments. But you’re quite welcome to come in once the air has cleared.”
“Oh, yes,” I promised eagerly. “I will.”
“I’ll just open the windows, then,” he said, disappearing back into the room.
After a moment I walked up. It was exactly the way Watson described it: a large, airy sitting-room, cheerfully furnished, with two broad windows. As I approached, Holmes turned toward me. He was more handsome than in the illustrations: tall and well-built, with intelligent, steel-gray eyes and a surprisingly sensual mouth.
“It’s a great pleasure to finally meet you,” I said, shaking his hand. “I’ve been an admirer of yours for years.”
He modestly averted his eyes and gestured me to a burgundy divan. Then he sat down across from me on an elegant wooden chair in the same velvety fabric.
“How may I be of assistance to you?” he asked, looking at me coolly through the acrid mist.
“I’ve come to you for help with something I’m wor—” I began. Then, overcome by curiosity, I paused and asked, “Well?”
“Yes?”
“What can you figure out about me?”
The hint of a smile played about his lips. “You’re puzzling, I admit,” he said genially. “English is obviously your native tongue, yet you speak it with an accent which has never before now reached my ears. As it is more similar to American English than to other varieties, I must conclude that you come from one of the more obscure states in the Union, perhaps a place isolated by a mountain range. Your denim trousers are like those used by cowboys and miners, but your hands tell a different story. You have, perhaps, traveled to the Orient, for your shoes are of a style not seen in the West. Cloth,” he added musingly.
“Go on,” I told him, smiling.
“It seems as if you may keep an animal in your home, as there’s a concentration of fine white hairs on the back of your garment—an article of clothing which itself defies description. Rather like a nightshirt, but of a shortened variety, and with an unusual decoration that seems to imply membership in an esoteric society of some kind. Not the Freemasons, but perhaps something in that vein. You are not more than five and twenty, and you have a visual defect that makes the pupils of your eyes appear rather thicker than is normal.”
“Is that it?” I asked.
“That’s all I’ve ascertained thus far,” he said, “and I’m by no means certain that my deductions are correct.”
“Wrong on every count, as a matter of fact!” I cried.
“How so?. he asked calmly.
“I’m from New York City. I’m neither a cowboy nor a miner; nowadays everybody wears jeans. The same for my shoes.” I looked down at my Converses. “Where I come from, this is what passes for fashion.”
“Indeed,” Holmes replied, not, I thought, without a hint of sarcasm.
“My cat is recently deceased—within two months—though his fur still pervades my apartment. I’ll be thirty-two in November, and my only visual defect is near-sightedness, which is corrected by what are known as contact lenses. They’re like a pair of glasses slipped right over the pupil of the eye.”
Upon hearing this, he stood and took a step toward me, then knelt down and carefully examined my eyes.
“And I don’t belong to any secret society. What’s on my garment—it’s called a t-shirt—” I stretched it out to get a better look. “—is one of the nine lantern rings, Green Lantern’s.”
“I’m afraid I’m at a loss to decipher your explanation.”
“It’s from a comic book—” I began.
“A comical book?”
“No— it’s, well, it’s a book with pictures, usually about a superhero. A person with superhuman powers.”
“They’re for children, then, these comic books?”
“They aren’t just for children,” I said defensively. “I have an idea— I’ll bring a few with me the next time I come. That is, if the magician says it can be done; I don’t want to confuse the cabinet with too many books.”
“I fear you’ve confused me,” he said, cocking his head.
I spent the next hour or so explaining who I was and how I came to be there. When I saw that he remained incredulous, I took my cell phone from the pocket of my jeans and was able, with a series of deftly executed Google searches, to convince him of the veracity of my tale.
“What I really came for, though, was to ask your advice regarding something I’m writing.” I hesitated, then went on, “I could bring it to you the next time I come… that is, if you’d like to read it.”
“I should do so with the keenest enthusiasm,” he replied.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” I thought wryly.
We spent the next several hours deep in conversation. When the light began to fail, I said with reluctance, “I guess I’d better be getting back.”
“Of course.” He looked at me keenly. “You will come again, won’t you?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “I honestly don’t know when I’ve enjoyed myself more.”
“Likewise,” he smiled, and I could see that he meant it.
We shook hands, then, in a loud, clear voice I said, “Okay, Señorita Macha, I’m ready.”
There was an audible pop, and I found myself in the darkness of the cabinet again. When the magician opened the doors, I stood for a moment blinking in the glow of a strand of multicolored Christmas lights running the length of her front room.
“Was I gone that long?” I asked in surprise.
“What?”
“It’s Christmas.”
“Is not Christmas, Yon.” Señorita Macha shook her head. “I use the lights every day, make the room look nice, like a fiesta. The time pass nor-mal, same here as inside the book.”
“Listen,” I said excitedly. “I have a question for you. Could I take a book in with me—a different book, I mean? I wouldn’t get split in two and sent into both of them at once like in The Fly or anything, would I?”
“I’m gonna have to check the man-u-al,” she said, frowning. “I get back to you.”
On our second meeting, I accompanied Holmes and Watson to the cellar of the bank from “The Red-Headed League,” adjacent to Jabez Wilson’s house. As I crouched in the dark behind a crate with Holmes’s shoulder pressed against mine and his warm breath on my neck, I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so alive. This is what I’ve been missing, I thought to myself. Companionship. Adventure. Attempted bank robbery.
Later, after Watson had gone home, Holmes served us a couple more whiskey and sodas, which we drank as the sun came up.
“You know, Watson didn’t do you justice in his descriptions. Physically, I mean.”
He chuckled. “Dr. Watson is the very best of men, but he’s rather a poor observer, I’m afraid.”
I could feel his eyes going over me.
“And there’s something else he missed about you,” I said, looking him directly in the eye. “Not even when he mentioned your ‘aversion to women’ in “The Greek Interpreter” did he seem to suspect… though I suppose I might have guessed from your ‘cat-like approach to cleanliness’ in The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
He laughed at that, then said seriously, “Poor Watson, he wouldn’t have known how to phrase it, even if he had guessed.”
“But I thought you had a thing for Irene Adler.”
“Not at all!” He laughed heartily. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
“Well, you kept a photograph of her as a souvenir.”
“Oh, I certainly admire her mind, but it would be quite another thing to…” he trailed off. When he spoke again, he said earnestly, “The truth is that affaires de coeur are not my specialty.”
“They could be,” I said softly.
His eyebrows shot up, but he said nothing.
“Haven’t you ever been in a relationship?” I pressed.
“Well, there was Victor Trevor, my old school chum.”
“I remember his story, I believe,” I told him. “Wasn’t he the only friend you made at college?”
“Yes,” Holmes said. “But then there was that business with his father, and as it resulted in the old man’s death, in the end I thought it better that I go. In any case, things hadn’t progressed into the realm of the… physical.”
I walked over to the window and looked outside. The first weak rays of morning sunlight were beginning to hit the windows of the row of brick buildings on Baker Street; their contrast with the dense fog gave the street an otherworldly aspect. I took a deep breath, as if in a supreme effort to pull the place inside me, to carry it all back to the other world—the real world, I reminded myself—which was becoming increasingly dull and colorless.
“I’d better go,” I said.
As if he’d read my thoughts, Holmes’s voice intoned from behind me, “I can already feel the ennui of the commonplace pressing down—”
He broke off mid-sentence, but I turned in time to see him give a great, shuddering sigh. When I left, he was still sitting on the divan, fingertips pressed together, eyes toward the ceiling.
As the months passed, I went more and more frequently to Baker Street. Even with Señorita Macha charging me a discounted rate—“best cus-to-mer price,” she called it—my bank account began to run dry. I took out a loan, then another, then a series of cash advances. Somehow I couldn’t make myself care about anything as mundane as interest rates or credit default. The most vivid moments of my life were those spent on Baker Street in Holmes’s company, and that was all that mattered.
*****
One Saturday morning, as Señorita Macha and I sat in her cluttered kitchen eating huevos rancheros and watching a telenovela—the scene at the moment was two brothers struggling over a knife by the hospital bed of their dying father—she pulled my Illustrated Sherlock Holmes across the table and began to flip through the pages.
Stopping at a drawing of Holmes at a concert in St. James’s Hall, she read aloud, “‘All the afternoon he sat wrapped in the most perfect happiness… his gently smiling face and his languid dreamy eyes…’ What this mean, ‘lan-guid’?”
“It means without energy.”
She looked up from the book. “This not u-su-al version of Sherlock Holmes.”
“That’s true,” I agreed. “He’s quite complex.”
“Is handsome, too, your Holmes,” she grinned, studying the illustration and waggling a finger in my direction.
“He isn’t my Holmes,” I said glumly.
“But you like?”
“I do like,” I admitted. “As a matter of fact…” I pushed a few bits of tortilla around on my plate. “I love.”
“You tell him?”
“No.”
“Why not?”
“I don’t know,” I sighed. “Fear of rejection, I guess.”
“You should tell him, Yon. You may be sur-prise what he say.”
It was August, and I’d been away for longer than usual when I found him finishing my novel-in-progress, one of several books I’d brought. The trick, it turned out, was to put them inside a bag of some kind. I could see that he’d been reading the books, as several of them were stacked on the table beside the divan.
After our handshake and initial greetings, we sat down together and I asked, “So, what do you think?”
“I wonder…” he began. “That is, I think— ahem…” When he spoke again, the words came out in a rush. “It’s only my opinion, but I think you’d be well-advised to consider another profession,” he said apologetically.
To his surprise and obvious relief, I burst into laughter.
“I’ve had that feeling for a long time now myself,” I told him. “Thank you for your honesty.”
He nodded, lips pursed.
“And now, what about the other books? Surely there were a few good ones in the stack?”
“The comic books, I confess, were of little interest to me,” he said, picking up a volume from the table beside him and holding it up. It was The Mysterious Affair at Styles. “But I found the novels delightful. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Madame Christie should bear the title of best-selling novelist of all time. Her work is so taut, so controlled. Very… cool,” he tried out tentatively.
Suppressing my smile until my back was to him, I stood and walked over to the window. Then I said, “You know, I didn’t plan to be away for so long. I felt obligated to work because I’d been pestering my boss to give me more hours… but I missed Baker Street every moment I was away.” I paused, then added, “And I missed you.”
I turned back around, and we looked at each other for a long moment.
“I was wondering if you might like to accompany me back for a visit. Señorita Macha says she thinks she can manage it. Apparently Persky once sent Madame Bovary to New York.”
“Oh, I doubt I’d be very useful there, with your Internet and D.N.A. analysis and G.P.S. and all the rest of it.” He paused, looking at me through half-closed lids. “But you could stay.”
“Is that what you want?” I asked softly. The question hung in the air between us.
“To tell the truth, I hardly know whether I’m on my head or my heels here. I almost— I don’t suppose I’m even real, in the strictest sense of the word.”
“You’re real to me!” I said fervently.
“Still I— I dare not hope—”
“‘Dare not hope—’?” I prompted, but I couldn’t get another word out of him. For the rest of the afternoon, he sat slumped in a chair, biting his nails.
*****
Look at you, I told myself, staring into my careworn face in the bathroom mirror before I left for Señorita Macha’s one afternoon in early November. Pining away for a life of adventure in Victorian England. Pathetic.
By now Señorita Macha wasn’t charging me at all. She pitied me, lovesick as I was, and out of place in my own world. When I got to Franklin Avenue one blustery evening in early November, I saw that the furniture in her front room had been rearranged to make space. A giant altar was stacked up like a step pyramid, five layers tall. Votive candles flickered among bunches of orange and yellow marigolds, bottles of tequila, sugar skulls, and brightly colored cut paper flags.
“I know about these,” I said. “I once did one as a project for Spanish class. Nothing as elaborate as this, of course, but… Day of the Dead, right?”
“Eso es,” she nodded.
“Are these your parents, then?” I pointed to the two photographs in wooden frames at the top of the altar. One was of a severe looking woman, unsmiling and with the same black eyes as Señorita Macha. The other showed a thin, dark-haired man in a black suit and a top hat.
“Yes,” she said. “You see, my father was ma-yish-i-an.”
“Mine too,” I told her, a lump forming in my throat. “His name was also Jon.”
It felt strange even to pronounce his name; I hadn’t spoken about him for the more than a decade since my mother’s death. “I was his assistant,” I told her. “And he was going to teach me his tricks, but… there wasn’t time.”
“He die?” she asked.
I nodded.
“I lose my parents young too,” she said. “Death, no. That was later. I lose them in worse way than that.”
I looked at her, puzzled.
“They, how you say—like the divorce, only when the parents do it?”
“They disowned you?”
“Dis-own,” she said sadly. “Eso es.”
She took a heavy bottle of Reposado from the altar behind her and set it down on the coffee table.
“We drink a toast to the dead,” she told me, disappearing into the kitchen. “I bring the glass,” her voice called back amid the clinking of glasses.
Several shots later and with the dead duly honored, we sat silently in the warm glow of Christmas lights and votive candles. After a few minutes lost in my own thoughts, all at once I turned to her and asked, “Señorita Macha, what do you think of the idea of my staying at Baker Street… permanently?”
“What I think? I think I could of told you that long time ago. Happen more often than you think, too. The cold cases, missing persons. Known quite a few myself.”
“Of course, it would be a total change from my life here—” I began.
“Change!” she said hotly. “Is yust what you need, the change! What you have here? A tiny apartamento, a mountain of debt, no love life, no career, nada. Don’t be a pendejo, Yon.”
“Okay, okay,” I said. “One thing, though, if you don’t mind my asking. I can’t get it out of my mind. What did your parents disown you for?”
She stood up and plucked a photograph from the crowd of picture frames on the mantle; it featured a boy of about sixteen with a faint dusting of a moustache on his upper lip. He bore a striking resemblance to Señorita Macha.
“Your son?” I asked, passing the photograph back to her.
“My-self,” she said archly. Then, seeing my shocked face, she burst into laughter.
“The point is,” she waved a long, bejeweled index fingernail in my direction, “sometimes we end up a long way from where we started.”
“I’ll miss you,” I told her. “You have to promise you’ll visit.”
“Yon, you know I will.” She planted a wet kiss right in the middle of my forehead. “What I’m gonna do without you? Got nobody now but that crazy Desmond…” I could hear her muttering all the way to the kitchen, and if I’m not mistaken I believe I heard some nose-blowing as well.
*****
When I got to Baker Street, I went in without knocking.
“I heard your footstep on the stair,” he said softly.
Noticing his quizzical look at my suitcase, I told him, “I’ve come to stay this time. That is, if you’ll have me.”
“Nothing would please me more,” he said in the same subdued voice. And I could see that he meant it.
“However, these aren’t my things,” I continued, setting the suitcase down on the floor and closing the door behind me. “They’d be out of place anyway. I brought a few modern literary gems… and the entire Agatha Christie collection. For you.”
I stepped forward into the room, adding, “Well, the mysteries anyway. I didn’t see any need for the romances.”
“Didn’t you?” he asked, moving closer to me. I noticed that his face was flushed.
“No,” I said. “I think we’ll have more than our share of that.”
We had reached each other. I stood looking into his eyes. “I’m saying yes to my destiny,” I told him. “I’m no pendejo.”
“Indeed.” I heard him swallow. “I have cocaine, you know,” he said hoarsely.
I put my arms around his neck and shook my head. “That won’t be necessary.”
“A singular case, yours,” he murmured just before his lips touched mine. “Very singular indeed.”

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The Garden of Cats: On Heroism

“The Garden of Cats: On Heroism,” published in Millennial Journal, October 10, 2018

The Garden of Cats: On Heroism

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Uncle Alfredo

“Uncle Alfredo,” published in The Maine Review, Issue 4.2 (Fall 2018)

The first time Uncle Alfredo came to visit, Elaine couldn’t take her eyes off him. It was as if he’d been made with age-progression software: Lisandro in ten years, talking, drinking, all in 3D. Lisandro and not Lisandro, for there was a magnetic quality about Uncle Alfredo that her husband lacked.
Money, Elaine thought.
*
The first time Elaine saw him, he was standing outside one of the tías’ houses, the second of four men. There was nothing to set him apart from the others; he was neither more nor less handsome than Lisandro and was an inch or two shorter, but even so. Elaine couldn’t unhook her gaze from him even under threat of her mother-in-law’s notice. That night when Lisandro asked, “I look like my uncle, huh?” her only answer was an inarticulate hn, like air squeezed from a rubber ball.
*
The tías had all wondered aloud to each other por qué chingados Alfredo married Roberta, with Mexico full of beauties—soft, obliging women who rolled out tortillas by hand, any one of them worth fifty of his hawk-nosed, waspish wife. When he went to Paris on business, alone, they nodded knowingly at one other over their atole. No one goes to Paris, on business, alone.
*
With Elaine, Roberta spoke English. “I need to call and check if the pool boy’s been. The house is such a lot to keep up. Six bathrooms,” she sighed languidly, pulling out her cell and flashing through pictures. Elaine had trouble taking the house in. She was staring at Roberta’s acrylic fingernails, longer than any she’d ever seen and clearly meant to convey a message to the women of Mexico: Unlike you bitches, I don’t have to lift a finger.
*
“How did you meet Lisandro?” Roberta had asked the first time she met Elaine, sliding out of the grim smile she’d managed at Timoteo’s rendition of “Silent Night.”
“Oh, we met in the States. I was his teacher, adult English at the community college.”
“He speaks English then.” She sounded surprised.
Lisandro called germs Germans and women womans and toes fingers, but Elaine said, “Yes.”
Then Timmy pulled his pants down and tore his diaper off, shouting, “Pee-pees!” When he threw the diaper at Roberta, the look on her face said that she’d been expecting something just like this to happen.
*
It was Elaine’s mother-in-law who told her that Roberta hadn’t let her son learn Spanish. “I called Alfredo once. My nephew picked up the phone, shouted, ‘I can’t understand you! I don’t speak Spanish!’ and hung up on me. Now you tell if that’s any way to raise a child.”
Just then Fifi walked in and asked, “Abuelita, ¿me das un mango?” Elaine looked at her daughter as if she were someone else, someone she didn’t know. The slope of her nose, so like Lisandro’s, with her own pale skin and green eyes. What a beauty she was going to be. Elaine thought of the slogan from the Inglés sin Barreras commercials: “He who speaks two languages is worth two people.” Or she, Elaine thought, squeezing her fists into tight balls.
*
The money had come as a complete surprise.
“My mother told him I was saving to open a corner store,” Lisandro told her. “It’s to help me get started.”
“To help you?” Elaine repeated, her brow furrowed.
“I didn’t know anything until after the deposit was made. My mother gave him the account number.”
“It’s a lot of money,” she said.
“I know. I’m going to try to pay him back once the store gets going. In the meantime, it means you don’t have to work.”
Elaine closed her eyes and smiled. “He loves you,” she breathed softly.
“Don’t mention it to Roberta. Apparently she doesn’t know.”
That night Elaine lay chewing her bottom lip in the dark bedroom, thinking back to their next-to-last farewell. “Fiona, come and tell Uncle Alfredo goodbye. He’s going back to New York tomorrow morning.”
“Bye, Tío.” She held her hand out shyly.
“Beautiful,” he murmured in English, the hint of a wistful smile playing about his lips. But he wasn’t looking at Fifi.
*
“My brother has everything but happiness,” Elaine’s mother-in-law was fond of saying. “The boy, of course, is entirely her creature.”
If externals were any indication, this was surely, almost comically, so. He had the same round, overlarge face and sharp nose as Roberta and was even named after her.
“Robbie, be a love and go get me a Coke,” she said plaintively, and the boy, seventeen and too big for his body, lumbered sullenly off to the kitchen without looking at either woman. He plunked the unopened can down on his aunt’s coffee table and turned back to the television with a protracted sniffle.
“His allergies are acting up,” Roberta told Elaine in a pained voice. Then, lower, she added, “It’s so dusty here.”
The words lay glittering between them: an indictment. An invitation.
“You ought to come down for the fair,” Elaine returned blithely. “It’s one of the best things about Mexico—and that’s a long list.”
*
On Uncle Alfredo’s last visit, there was a quince años party and everyone drank too much. The salón was decorated with garish tangerine balloons, and the quinceñera, done up in a matching dress, was round and festive as a pumpkin.
They stayed until the waltz. Because Timoteo lay sleeping, mouth wide open, in his father’s arms, Lisandro went out first, waving to the family members at each table he passed. Fifi, laden with the baby bag and party favors, followed a few paces behind. Elaine lingered, thanking their hosts and giving hugs and air kisses. When she came to Uncle Alfredo, he remained in his seat and looked up into her face through drink-bleary eyes. Then, taking her white hand in both of his, he pressed his half-open mouth to her fingers in a gesture of such tender sensuality that Elaine’s knees weakened and her heart knocked at her chest.
“Good night, Elaine.” Roberta’s voice came to her, as clear and jagged as a shard of glass.
“Good night. Good night.” Elaine cast a quick glance back at Uncle Alfredo, whose eyes were closed, then stepped out into the warm night.
From somewhere nearby she heard the splashing song of a fountain, and along the stone wall, bougainvillea bloomed like a thousand red mouths. Elaine hugged herself, rubbing her palms up and down her arms. The best part, she thought, was what it was that united them. That was what made her happiest: how much they both loved Lisandro.

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Too Beautiful to Be Believed

“Too Beautiful to Be Believed,” published in Four Way Review, Issue 13, March 2018

https://fourwayreview.com/april-vasquez/

 

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I Didn’t Email You on Christmas Eve

“I Didn’t Email You on Christmas Eve,” published in Plural, Issue 6 (July 2017)

I Didn’t Email You on Christmas Eve

… like I said I would, I know. Here’s what happened: I got a little drunk. I even nursed the baby like that, then woke up in a panic about what it might do to her. I got up four times and watched her breathe. She looked normal, but you never know.
The thing is that Jay and Rosy had bought vodka, just for me (Smirnoff, which is not my brand, but still), and I drank a couple shots too many, to show my appreciation. Then I fell on Rosy’s nativity scene when my dancing got out of hand. It wasn’t so bad, just the roof and the manger, and when I sobbed all the way home it wasn’t even mostly about that. Nativity scenes can be restuck with wood glue.
Seeing the shards of wood all sticking out at jagged angles like that reminded me of the time Eric fell coming up our front porch steps when I was in the sixth grade. Mom was at work—that was when she worked at the Quick Snack, before she married Jim, and she was on the supper shift—so nobody but me was home when Eric smashed the jar he was using to catch lightning bugs and cut his hand up. I couldn’t get the bleeding to stop. I held his hand under the tap, but the blood just kept pouring out, splashing the sink all red, bright as Kool-Aid. Finally I grabbed a kitchen towel and wrapped it around his little hand. Hold it up, I told him, but he kept forgetting. He was clinging to me, his warm body trembling and jerking against mine. He got my neck all snotty from crying, but I didn’t care. He was so little. I kept whispering to him, It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay. Like a magic spell, a charm. As if my words had the power to make it happen.
Somebody was shooting off fireworks all night on Christmas Eve, and I remembered all the memes about how for the love of dogs you shouldn’t do that, but do people care? But it wasn’t that or the humiliation or my skinned elbow that kept me awake; it was really something else all the time. (Another thing it wasn’t was that Jay once hugged me at a wedding reception. Close. And breathed all hot on my neck. We were in a dark hallway outside the bathrooms, back behind the ballroom. But we’ve both acted normal since then, and I know he loves Rosy, just like I love Sam.)
What it really was, was Eric. You remember how crazy he always was? Like jumping off the shed behind the Gas & More, and eating thirteen hotdogs that time at Joey’s? He was always that kind of crazy, but now he really is crazy, B. He really is. Listen to this: he thinks Casey’s cheating on him with the train conductor. I mean, not a coworker or a neighbor or anybody normal; the train conductor. You know the train track that runs right by their house? He says the conductor uses a code, and Casey knows by the way he blows the whistle—long or short, with an echo or not—where to meet him and what time and all that. He even says he saw Casey’s initials scratched into one of the train cars, with a heart around them.
It’s probably better I didn’t email you on Christmas Eve, because I would have just ended up sniveling about how lonely I am here. I was kind of getting to feel like my ob./gyn. was the only friend I had, then the baby was born and now I don’t even see her anymore. And it’s not like you can make an appointment and then just walk in and say, hey, you’ve seen my privates four ways to Thursday; wanna hang out some time? I can’t see Rosy as a friend, either, not since the time she made fun of me putting on weight and blew her cheeks out all fat like a blowfish in front of everyone at the fourth of July picnic. That was bitchy. (What she didn’t know was that I was pregnant, we just hadn’t told anybody yet.) Plus I can’t get used to this weather. I mean, who wouldn’t hate cold and cloudy every day?
I have to say that I think it’s to my credit that when Jay’s hot breath was on my neck, I wasn’t thinking about how bitchy Rosy can be. I wasn’t thinking anything, and that’s the truth. Sometimes you can do that, a Zen thing, I guess: a total blank. I kind of wish I could do it now, just so I could sleep at night and forget that the one sibling I have in the whole world is crazy. Mom and Jim had to lock him away, B. He was crying when they took him. Doesn’t that break your heart? That he was crying?
So that’s why I didn’t email you. It didn’t even feel like Christmas to me, even if I did dance, and then when I cried all the way home, Sam said we’d get some eggnog and watch It’s a Wonderful Life, which was nice of him because Sam hates It’s a Wonderful Life. I kept trying to think of some time when Eric saved my life like George Bailey saves Harry on the sled, but I couldn’t come up with anything. All I could see was when he was small and used to wear those footed pajamas, and he’d play my recorder and get the dogs howling. His eyes were so big and round and blue. It kind of makes you want to stop the clock and send time spinning backward, like there might be something that if you could just find it, just catch it, would stop your only brother from going crazy in twenty years.
(I don’t even know if Jay was hitting on me. Maybe to him it felt like that, but to me it didn’t. If you want to know the truth, it just felt like strong arms around me. Brotherly, even. Like he knew that I felt out of place and wanted to tell me that I wasn’t, not really.)
The thing is, he was eating glass—Eric, I mean. He had it all smashed up into dust and rationed out in a bunch of zip-loc sandwich bags with numbers on each one. Not even sequential numbers, just strands of nonsense numbers. He said it gave him powers. Powers, B.
So here’s what I wanted to ask you… I wondered if maybe you could go visit him one day? I mean, Alaska to Alabama’s no hop skip and a jump, so I know I won’t be able to go any time soon myself. But I can’t really stand the thought of him sitting up in Broughton Hospital alone either. I took a tour back in Mr. Jamison’s psychology class, and I can tell you, it’s institutional. But you could go for me, B., and hug and hug and hug him and tell him it’s going to be okay. I know it might not help, but how could it hurt, B.? You tell me that: how could it hurt?

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The Election

“The Election,” published in the Red Mud Review (2015-2016)

http://www.apsu.edu/redmudreview/rmrpdf/aprilvazquez.pdf

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