Angry Bear

Posted in Uncategorized on January 30, 2011 by Trave

Today’s story is by Walter Plotz, an English major at Stony Brook University, who is sick of the snow, but excited at the prospect of a career in publishing.  Angry Bear focuses on Alan, a disgruntled copywriter at a greeting card company, who finds a risky outlet for his daily discontent.  Enjoy!


Angry Bear
by Walter Plotz

My Lovely Wife, My heart moves faster when you are near…

Love, some customer who just wasted $4.95.

That was the first card I wrote, I still can’t believe they printed it. It was 1987.  My nametag said Alan Haxby, Assistant Greetings Technician.  Despite only working at the Happy Bear Greeting Card Company for two years, I was the most senior writer on the greetings staff.  Happy Bear had such a high turnover rate, permanent nametags weren’t issued until two months of employment; most rookies didn’t even last one.

Happy Bear’s motto was “Touch Someone Today,” no kidding.  They had it written all over, even inside the envelope building where crackheads and work-release pedophiles packed boxes of folded paper for minimum-wage.

The bigwigs upstairs constantly littered our mailboxes with memos saying how important it was to stay innovative and competitive in today’s growing market.  Sure we had what were called “classics,” perennial cards with one-size-fits-all greetings like “Congratulations Graduate!” or “To Someone Special: Happy Birthday!” But they always wanted new cards to hit the market.  Cards with fancy new letterings and fonts, cards with brand new greetings, cards attached to teddy bears, cards that played songs when opened, 3-D cards with layered paperboard.

*  *  *


“Huh, what’s up Will?”

“Is it safe?” Will whispered.  He stood on his tip-toes to look over the cubicle walls, in case someone was within earshot.

“I don’t think anyone’s around,” I said.

“I got that new design for A.B., just wanted you to okay it,” Will said.


“It’s in my car; I’ll give it to you at lunch break.”  Will worked in the graphic design department.  “See ya later, I gotta go touch someone,” he said.

It began as a joke; I was already sickened by my second Valentine’s Day on the job.  Working on modifications of the classic Wishing You the Best greeting, in frustration I wrote Wishing You the Best Body-bag Money Can Buy and drew a crude headstone underneath.  It was a stupid joke to me, something to get me through the day, but then Will saw it on my desk.  “Hey, that’s pretty good, Alan.  You know, they really should sell cards like this.”

That was the origin of Angry Bear, an unofficial subsidiary of Happy Bear I accidentally started last March.  It was too risky to say Angry Bear out loud, so we said A.B. instead.  Will and I were the first on board, which isn’t too surprising.  We were friends long before working there; in fact I helped him get his job with Happy Bear, rescuing him from working double-shifts at Burger King to pay off his student loans.  He started to work on a secret portfolio of different Angry Bear graphics to use, some of which looked familiar.  In high school Will was always drawing in his notebook instead of taking notes.  I knew he had an eye to create any design we would need.

To make A. B. work, Will and I needed to round up personnel from key departments of Happy Bear.  There were so many jaded people stomping around, slamming doors, kicking the flimsy cubicle walls, that we had a four-person team by the end of the week.  I had met one guy named Gary in the cafeteria, he complained about working there every time I sat next to him.  I wasn’t shocked when he agreed to help.

We recruited Gary in printing and packaging and his brother Tony in the paper department.  Happy Bear had recently switched to a new paper supplier with a stronger, heavier weighted paper which all new Happy Bear cards were printed on.  Tony had access to the old, thinner paper, a whole room full with forgotten dusty stacks of it. He could also set the knives on one of the machines to cut at a sharper angle than normal.  Tony assured us that a sharper, thinner cut on our cards made paper-cuts more likely.  Our cards had bite.

*  *  *

Angry Bear printed its first batch of cards two weeks later.  We ran my body-bag card as well as a new one.  On the cover: a guy sleeping in a spacious bed with an empty spot of ruffled sheets next to him.  It read, “The bed was too empty without you here…” The inside opened to a picture of the bed with a naked couple under the sheets.  “…so I filled it with her.” The female looked like Will’s ex-girlfriend from high school.

Gary found an outgoing order to a nearby stationary store.  He wrote FREE SAMPLES on the two boxes and threw them on the truck with the Happy Bear order while I distracted the driver by endlessly ranting about last Sunday’s Giants game.  We never printed Angry Bear anywhere, not on the boxes, not on the back of the cards.  The only reason I liked coming to work anymore was bundled in those precious boxes, I felt like a ton of sweat was dripping off my body until that truck finally drove away.

*  *  *

There were letters in everyone’s mailboxes the next Monday morning.  “It has become apparent to the management that unauthorized materials were mixed with a recent outgoing order.  We will be monitoring all subsequent shipments and any personnel found guilty of unauthorized manipulation of any orders will be immediately terminated.”  We held an emergency meeting after work in a nearby bar.

“So we all got the note,” I said, “now what?”

“I don’t like it,” Tony said, “we’re gonna get caught.”

“No we’re not,” Gary said.

“What do you mean?”  Will asked.

Gary smiled.  “They gave me a different note:  Dear Mr. McMillan, blah, blah, blah, unauthorized materials, blah, blah, blah, you will now be monitoring all subsequent shipments and reporting any suspicious activity regarding outgoing orders.”

“They put you in charge of it?  That’s perfect,” I said.

“You think one of them is gonna risk getting ink and grease on their suit everyday?  They trust me with this but still don’t give me a raise…dicks.”

“So we can keep going?”  Will asked.

“Yeah,” Gary answered, “but we gotta be careful.  I thought about it all day.  I’ll print them during the week whenever I can, you know, at night.  On Thursdays, when I have off, you guys will have to be down there to get them on the truck.  I never see anything, I never report anything.”

The next day Will and I started a new card.  Thinking of you…under my car. I asked him to make an image of a dead body with the legs sticking out from under a Cadillac.  I wanted to have it printed, packed, and ready for delivery, along with the previous cards we made, by the next week.

*  *  *

On Thursday we were ready to go.  Gary was off as planned; Will and I went down to the loading dock before the truck was scheduled to leave.  There was a Happy Bear order going to a drugstore.  Gary had left our two boxes waiting on top of the order; Will grabbed a marker and wrote FREE SAMPLES all over them.

“Why don’t you go get lunch,” I said, “I’ll hang around and make sure it’s alright.”

“Okay, see ya later.”

I watched the truck get loaded and waited for the driver to return from the cafeteria.  After the truck left I walked down the hallway toward the elevator.

“Mr. Haxby,” a voice spoke from behind me.


“Mr. Haxby, what were you just doing by the unloading dock?”

“What?”  I knew this guy was one of the administrators from the top floor.  “Nothing, smoking a cigarette in the doorway.  It’s a little chilly outside.”

“Don’t lie to me Mr. Haxby, we are well aware of recent events, and now we know you are aware of them too.”

“What are…?”

“Don’t bother, Mr. Haxby, you have five minutes to clean out your desk.  Security will be waiting to see you out.  You’re done here.”

That was my last day at Happy Bear.  I met Will after hours in the bar as we already planned.

“I can’t believe they fired you,” Will said.

“Yeah, me neither,” I answered.  “Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure they think it was just me.  He didn’t mention anyone else.”

“So A.B.’s finished?”

“Yeah,” I said.  We raised our glasses one last time for Angry Bear.

*  *  *

Two weeks later, as I was eating my soggy cereal, thumbing through want-ads, watching “The 25,000 Pyramid” with Dick Clark, there was a knock on my door.

“Will, what are you doing here?  Shouldn’t you be at work?”

“I am, kinda; they sent me to find you.”


“Happy Bear.  They want you back.”


“No, really.  They want us to make Angry Bear cards.”

“Stop messing with me; it’s too early.”

“That last store we shipped to must have sold out or something ‘cause the owner called the front office yesterday asking for more.  Get dressed; we got work to do.  I already talked to Gary and Tony.  Here’s your new nametag.”

Will threw the nametag on the kitchen table.  It read: Alan Haxby, Senior Management, Grumpy Bear Division.


Three Pigeons and Caught

Posted in Uncategorized on January 4, 2011 by Trave

Today’s post is something very different as The Outer Monologue does something it may never do again: feature poems. Three Pigeons and Caught are by Brian Alward, a man torn between the corporate world and the natural world.  His poems give us insight into what happens when these two opposites find themselves struggling to coexist, inhabiting the same space while existing on different plains of thought and perception, and yet coming together to create something beautiful.  Enjoy!

Three Pigeons
Brian Alward

Three pigeons march across the bus station floor
Looking nervous and uneasy at the first signs of winter.
December is more than two months away
And Autumn is young, hardly visible,
Yet they cannot ignore the subtle chill that flows
Through the open door on a cool evening.
Winter has traveled across the world
And sent messengers to announce its return.


Brian Alward

Cool welcoming breeze
Bounces off the hot pavement
Like a child’s rubber ball
And hangs in the air.

Run with the breeze,
Mouth slightly open.
Taste the onset
Of the thunderstorm
As it chases.

Beauty surrounds
Late summer’s afternoon miracles.
But does nothing to calm the nerves,
Sprinting down the street
To the house, to the car.

Windows down
In a brand new sedan.
New car smell,
The hint of decay.

Houses with unfriendly doors,
No neighbors to lend a hand,
To roll up windows,
Keep the moisture from getting in.

The first drop strikes,
Racing, faster,
Faster on the pavement.

At the far end of the street,
You watch the storm roll in.


Posted in Uncategorized on November 3, 2010 by Trave

Today’s story is by Matthew Ziegler, a Brooklyn resident and all-around winner.  Below is untitled, a voice driven piece about a man who has something to prove.  Constantly on the move, he feels the need to cement his presence, showcasing it to whomever will notice, whether that be a fellow passenger or a surly bartender.  Enjoy!



Matthew Ziegler

I’ve recently developed a love of airline lounges. I used to imagine that I was drawn to the convenience on long layovers, the free drinks, a quiet nest in which to check email and read the paper. But the more I fly the more I realize that what I actually like is being seen. I don’t mean by the people in the lounge; they are, nearly without exception, insufferably dull folks, talking loudly on their cell phones about some string that Frank pulled so that they could get on the 11:05 and go see the Parmalat guys on the way back in. The only ones with any character are generally too drunk to be of much use.

No, I mean that I like being seen by the passengers outside the lounge – those wretches with whom I’ve just spent three hours in coach, lining up and sitting down and following orders and pining for a beverage cart and quietly resenting one another, as I swoop my bags across the pedestrian traffic in the terminal towards those frosted doors next to the Chik-Fil-A. I am better than you. My seat next to all of you on the plane, with its occasional wafts of urinal cake and its sagging marsupial pouch stuffed with advertisements for resin garden-giraffes, did not adequately communicate my status. I am better than you. That’s why I’m walking through these frosted doors, which you cannot see through, and you are looking for Burger King. I may emerge shortly for some Burger King as well, because the lounges do not actually serve meals, but I will leave my bags behind in a cubby so that you all realize that I am a gentleman of leisure and taste. And I might walk out chewing a pretzel rod or noisily sucking the last traces of whiskey out of a plastic cup of ice, and gaze upon the terminal for a moment just outside the door, like a man emerging onto his front lawn in his robe looking for where the paper landed, just in case you failed to recognize that I am without bags and at ease. It is for this simple pleasure that I pay $50 at the front desk for a day-pass.

My favorite airline lounge is the Delta Sky Club at JFK. It’s actually pretty crummy, as airline lounges go – there’s a little whiff of Penn Station in all of New York’s transport orifices – but by its very crumminess it tolerates the continued presence of a rather surly bartender I know as the Michelada Woman. The Michelada Woman would never make it in one of the glitzy, suburban Sky Clubs in Atlanta or Minneapolis. When you ask for a drink she responds in Spanish, possibly in obscenities. She calls me “blondie,” or perhaps she’s referring to the beer I typically order. I don’t speak Spanish, and neither does anyone else in the Sky Club.

Michelada Woman has a right to be upset, I suppose: in a free-drink environment, few people have the presence of mind to tip. I always do, but I suspect it’s too little, too late. Michelada Woman hates us. But I like her.

I call her Michelada Woman because she never wore her name tag and she once told a patron who was drunkenly hitting on her, in my presence, that she is from Honduras. “What do they drink in Honduras?” he slurred. “Micheladas,” she answered curtly.

I want people to like me, especially those who hold the keys to the liquor cabinet, so I chimed in and beamed that I love micheladas!

She paused and squinted at me: “what do you know about micheladas?”

I told her eagerly, and untruthfully, that I’ve been to Central America “lots of times,” which only made me look more like a travel-jackass, I’m sure. The other patron, hoping not to lose his toehold in the conversation, asked me how one makes a michelada. I was suddenly in over my head.

I’ve been to a number of places that serve something called a “michelada,” and they all do it differently. Most of them are in Park Slope. But during my two actual visits to Central America, one as part of a cruise, I’ve had something that seems to involve beer and tomato juice, with, I’m pretty certain, a dash of lime juice and salt. Kind of like a Bloody Mary, but with beer. I went for it: “You pour tomato juice and lime and salt into a beer—“

“—this is not how you make a michelada!” she screeched. Fuck. I hate losing the respect of a bartender – especially one who pours free drinks against her will. Hoping to regain her good favor, I begged forgiveness and asked how one makes a michelada. She puffed up, like a peacock. “Well, first you pour all of this,” waving her hand over the Worcestershire and the Tabasco and the bitters, “and then the lime and the salt and the beer,” as though that was somehow an art form that I never could have grasped.

Simple enough. Hoping to prove that I really do know about and like this drink, I asked if she could make one.


“Why not?”

“Because I have no limes.”

I had actually noticed this before. The Sky Club does not supply limes for its bar. The Sky Clubs provide for their patrons, inevitably: Dewar’s & Jack Daniels, some nameless vodka, Beefeater gin, and some sort of white rum. And then something stupid, like Campari. And then there’s Budweiser, Amstel Light, and Heineken in bottles; canned Minute Maid orange juice and a Canada Dry lineup and Mr. & Mrs. T’s Bloody Mary Mix; jumbo-bottle California red and white; Worcestershire Sauce and Tabasco and Angostura bitters. And lemon wedges and olives and little red swizzle-sticks adorned with the Delta logo. But never limes.

“What if I brought you a lime?” I asked the Michelada Woman, hoping she’d stop scowling at me. I prodded, and got her to agree in unfriendly formalities that next time I flew through JFK I would bring her a lime, and she would make me a real michelada. It would have to include Amstel, she stipulated, and that still wasn’t really going to be “the best” gringo beer for making a michelada.

Needless to say, I forgot all about the Michelada Woman. I tend to say things in order to be liked by those around me, with no regard to the long-term consequences. Therefore I was unprepared, a month or so later, when I arrived back at the Sky Club with no fruit and a powerful urge for booze.

“Where is my lime?” She demanded when I asked for a Dewar’s. “I thought we had an arrangement.”

Shit, I thought, now I pissed off the Michelada Woman. I hurriedly probed my brain for excuses. “They wouldn’t let me bring it through security.”

She squinted hard at me. “You tell me they won’t let you bring it through security?” I nodded eagerly. My palms began to sweat, as they do when I utter even the most innocuous lies. “Then I tell you I don’t have no Dewar’s,” she responded plainly, turning away.

Being coy, old girl, are you? I played along. “Oh well,” I said, glancing at the three-quarters-full bottle just out of my reach across the bar and panging for it and trying to formulate something that would charm her enough to just pour me a glass of it and leave me be. I went with, “How about a rum and coke and a Dewar’s, then?” Pure gold, dipshit.

She swung back around at me: “I don’t have no Dewar’s, I don’t have no rum, I don’t have no coke. Bar is closed goodbye.” She shooed me with her hands and then strutted off to the Employees Only room behind the bar.

I stood, perplexed, until it became clear that she wasn’t just going to get me a fresh glass. I wandered to the back of the lounge, where they have the massaging chairs, unsure how to proceed. I had, moments earlier, forked over $50 at the front desk with the intention of recovering at least half that in gratis liquor before my connection. From my perch, I watched as Michelada Woman returned to the bar, where an elderly couple had arrived, and poured them each a glass of wine. She did not look at me. I pondered swallowing the loss and heading out to the T.G.I.Friday’s across the concourse, but that seemed ridiculous. I wasn’t about to complain to the other staff or try and circumvent her – what would I say? Force this woman to pour me a drink? Anyway, it was apparent that they were all terrified of her, too.

And so it came to be that I sat, chastened and dry, for the next two hours and surfed the internet. Michelada Woman did not look at me when I finally gathered my things and exited.

It was only then that I saw that my flight had been canceled. I stood in line at the rebooking counter, where you wait for little red phones to some call center, with the rest of the unwashed plebs hoping to snag a seat aboard the flight that boarded in another four hours. Upon reaching the desk, however, I was informed that, by whatever incalculable rubric that they use to make decisions, I had been upgraded to first class.

First class. To London. That meant a flat bed. Even business class has a flat bed and its indulgences had  heretofore been beyond my wildest imaginings. Those guys get to get on the airplane first and then sit there, with glasses of champagne, while everyone else totes his luggage through the thickly-carpeted boulevards between their seats. It ‘s like making people on Section 8 drive through a rich neighborhood before they can get to their housing assignment.

The first class folks, however, get something more perfectly engineered. When they first step onto the plane, where everyone, including the business class crowd, is directed right, the stewardess (always female) pulls back a curtain and directs you to the left. She then closes it behind you. In other words, this is not just look-at-my-luxury status. This is you-can’t-see-my-luxury status. Hills of L.A. shit. Private helipad.

And, best of all, there’s another set of frosted doors inside the Sky Club where only the international first-class passengers may enter. The gate within the gates. The Sky Flagship. I had spent my life staring longingly at these folks, with their marble fountains and player pianos and premium spirits twinkling at me from a self-serve bar every time the doors opened.

And now I got to sail up to the electronic door at which I scan my boarding pass, right past Michelada Woman, and enter the land where I didn’t have ask some hag for a Dewar’s. I poured myself a Glenlivet. In a pint glass if I fucking well felt like it. It was bliss. I don’t think Michelada Woman was looking when those doors silently slid shut behind me, which sucks. But oh well: now I could get well and doused without having to bury my face in anyone’s loins.

No surprise twist here: it was exquisite. It was as though they had assembled a team of psychologists to study my weaknesses and exploit them in lounge-form. The guys in here aren’t Chuck from Abilene; they’re Marcel from Luxembourg, barking orders in German over a cell phone that clearly hasn’t come to America yet. There’s a man in bright West African robes sitting with what appears to be his finance minister. There’s Veuve Clicquot and aged cabernet. Private showers with hand-laid mosaic and rain-heads and little tubes of pineapple facial scrub and organic cucumber toothpaste. And a masseuse. And I’m pretty sure the 85-pound woman pacing around having a phone-fight with her boyfriend is Gianni Versace’s niece, because there’s a picture of her in the copy of Esquire I’m reading.

So, in other words, fuck the Michelada Woman. All the bartenders are friendly back here in Flagship country, because we pour our own fucking drinks. Enjoy the Dewar’s you withheld, you old bitch. I’m having something I don’t exactly recognize that’s probably much nicer. It’s called Lavalugeen. It sounds like a snot-chunk made of molten rock, but it’s complex and has saddle-leather and maple and it got a 92 in Wine Spectator, so fuck yourself. Maybe I’ll take a piss on your junior-high little free-Popov bar on my way out. Don’t be surprised if it smells like Grey Goose for a while.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t there when I left. It occurred to me that she had probably finished her shift while I was eating desiccated chicken breast and choking back all that peat-mossy-tasting scotch. I was disappointed; once again I had hinged my greatest enjoyment of luxury on who was watching me. I might as well have been drinking some noxious aged liquor in my living room. Oh well.

Off I went to London. It was nice. The trip itself wasn’t important. I was so hammered by the time I left the lounge that the stewardesses refused to serve me once I boarded the plane. I didn’t care. I just held my finger on that little electronic recline button until I had a bed. Then I passed out until someone put my seat back upright and we landed at Heathrow. I took a cab to the London office of my company, where I spent the next three days sorting out some IT bullshit that I easily could have done by hiring a guy who works at Best Buy.

As the days went by my anger at the Michelada Woman subsided and I resolved to impress her with a fresh, waxy lime upon my return layover. I would make one more attempt to squeeze a drink out of her and rekindle the stranger-friendship that had almost been within my clutches.

Unfortunately, they don’t have anything too outrageously juicy-looking in the shops in London. The best I could do was one of those plastic mesh bags full of rather aged looking limes from, of all places, Florida. But it would do. She would understand. I would win her over with quantity.

And so, I boarded my plane – back in the back where no one knows your name, sandwiched between a broad-shouldered girl with a Villanova Volleyball sweatshirt and an breathy man who described himself as a “professional roulette player.” He spent most of the flight explaining his system, whose many mathematical incongruities did not appear to have fazed him. He said he likes to game in Europe because they have double zeroes, or they don’t have double zeroes, or something, and because the wheels at the Royal Grosvenor have been due for the last eight weeks. And that’s why, in his carry-on, he had forty pages of printouts from the Grosvenor’s roulette hits over the last month, stoking the dreams of what appeared to be the casino industry’s chief financier.

Although, I suppose everyone is a gambler, no matter what class you’re in. In the back, they rely on roulette hits and mutual funds and 401Ks. The folks in front are just standing closer to the table – close enough to swipe some of their chips back if all hell breaks loose and it turns out no one will buy an acre of former Target parking lot for $3.2 million. But they’re all gamblers. Even the airlines are gamblers. Southwest, the Greyhound of the skies, ended up in a position to offer the most legroom of any domestic airline because they had taken out a risky petroleum-futures contract with Conoco shortly before September 11, which permitted them to lift planes for 75% of the cost of every other carrier for years to come. While American and the rest of the real carriers were squeezing extra seats into the lavatories in order to break even, Southwest was tossing out entire rows and packing free Millers into its carts.

But, at any rate, this guy I was sitting next to was a fucking idiot, and I employed every strategy in the book to try and keep him from wafting any more Winston-wash my way. I put on headphones, I pulled out my laptop, I pretended to watch Love, Actually, but I was stuck. I suffered with the masses. It all made me that much more excited about my reunion with Michelada Woman at the Sky Club, where these gross people don’t exist.

* * *

They took everything. They dogged my bag – I thought those beagles were there for bombs or drugs – and took the limes. Then they fined me $400 because I had lied on my customs form and said I wasn’t importing any plant-matter. I tried to argue: these came from Florida! I was just returning the god damned things to their native home. No dice. At least they had the decency to let me put the fine on my credit card, so I got some miles for it.

Needless to say, I was not looking forward to seeing Michelada Woman again. But, after having spent $400 bringing her her god damned limes, I was due for a drink. Otherwise, I resolved, I’d do everything in my power to have her fired.

I paid my $50, I entered, I saw Michelada Woman shaking a cocktail behind the bar. I approached, steeling my nerves, and told her I wanted a Dewar’s on the rocks.

She cussed under her breath in Spanish, then poured the drink and passed it across the bar.

She didn’t even remember me. The Michelada Woman didn’t remember me. This woman, who had caused me so much angst, didn’t damn well remember me.

“I tried bringing you limes,” I told her.

“You what?” she asked.

“I tried to bring you a lime, for the michelada.”

She squinted at me. “What do you know about micheladas?”

Jesus Christ, I thought. “I brought you a bag of fucking limes because you wouldn’t serve me last time because we had an agreement and they charged me four hundred fucking dollars because I tried to bring you limes.”

She paused, then a glint of recognition crossed her face. “Ah, you’re the boy who is going to bring me the lime for the michelada.”


“Who charges you four hundred dollars?”

“Customs.” And then, for good measure, I added, “aduanas.”

“Ah, las aduanas!” And then she took off on that in Spanish for a minute. The tirade was momentarily heated. But she softened. “You try to bring me the limes and they don’t let you?”


“That was very sweet.”

I slid the glass back across the bar. “Can I make this a double?”

“Con mucho gusto.” She smiled.


Posted in Uncategorized on September 18, 2010 by Trave

Hey all, today’s story  is from The Outer Monologue’s editor, Travis Rave.  Backups is told from the perspective of Toby, a young boy whose rambling observations give readers insights into his family’s darker side.  Enjoy!



Travis Rave

Mom’s at the door again and I think about telling Dylan, but he’s busy making more.  You always need to have backups is what he said.  That way you never run out, dummy. I’m trying to learn because business is important, but sometimes I forget.  Dylan used to call me dipshit, but mom said he couldn’t anymore.  So I don’t tell him she’s there, I just stand out of his way and look at her face through the screen door.  Her forehead and mouth look like upside down V’s.  Verb, vanish, voluptuous.  I’m not sure what that last one means because mom didn’t tell me when I saw it on her magazine, but I heard Dylan laugh when I asked so I’m going to find out.  She sees me looking and smiles.  I wave and Dylan kicks me and says, “Grab the sign, Toby.  Here comes another one.”

I grab it and start swinging it above my head.  “Slower, stupid.  They need to be able to read it.”  I slow the swinging, but add in a little jump to make up for it.  Swing, jump, swing.  Swing, jump, swing.  The man at the wheel smiles, but drives by.  I wave the sign faster at the back of the car because maybe he’ll change his mind if he sees how excited I am.  He keeps going and I stop swinging.  I look at Dylan and he shakes his head.  “Damn it, Toby.  You blew another sale.”

“You can’t say damn it,” I say.  “I’ll tell mom.”

“Go ahead, dipshit.  Like she’d even care.”

“She would too,” I say, but not as loudly.  I look towards the door and she’s not there, just the empty screen.  It looks dark in there and I wonder what she’s doing.  Maybe walking the house in circles, seeing how many laps she can do before the next car shows up.  I bet five.  She can be really fast when she wants to.  She can catch me no problem and I’m the fastest kid in the neighborhood, except for Joey, but he’s older.  Some of the boys call him Fleetfoot, but I don’t know what that means so I just say Joey.  He smiles when I do, so I think it’s okay.  Sometimes I wish he was my brother instead of Dylan.  Dylan never smiles.  I look at him and he’s stirring the lemonade.  I can hear the spoon banging against the side of the pitcher.  I didn’t know you had to stir it so hard.  Maybe that’s how you make it sour.  I think about asking him, but now he’s looking at me and I panic for some reason.

“You can put the sign down, dummy.”

I put it down and look at the door again.  She’s not there.  I bet she’s on lap seven, maybe even eight.  It doesn’t seem fair that she’s allowed to run in the house and I’m not, but she doesn’t like when I say stuff like that.  Her face just gets all red and she says something like, “That’s because I’m in charge.”  It must be fun to be in charge.  I would run around all day and put so much fudge on my ice cream that you couldn’t even see the white anymore.  I’d still use a spoon I think, but it would be a big one.  I wonder why mom never does things like that.  Maybe it’s not as much fun when you’re allowed to do it.

Dylan is making another pitcher.  I walk back behind the stand and look up at the tree above us.  There’s a bird chirping somewhere, but I don’t care.  I just didn’t want Dylan to see me peeking at the shelf.  “There’s a bird chirping up there,” I say.

“Great,” he says without looking up.  He’s stirring again.  Clack, swish.  Clack, swish.  This is my chance, so I lean down and sneak a look at the shelf.  There are three full pitchers sitting there already.  Seems like a lot to me, but Dylan knows business better than me, so I don’t say anything.  He helped Dad make the stand last year.  They were out here all day, sawing and hammering.  I was hanging out with mom drawing, but I came out when they were adding the shelf.  I heard Dad said it was for backups.  I didn’t know what that meant, but now I do because Dylan’s been teaching me business.  I think dad would be proud, but I’m not sure.  Mom says he would be and that’s pretty good.  Dylan’s head snaps up and I think I’m in trouble, but then I hear a car coming.

“Get the sign,” he says and jumps to his feet.  Some of the lemonade spills out and I can tell he’s annoyed, but he doesn’t say anything.  I grab the sign and start swinging, but not too fast and I try to only jump a little, even though I’m excited.  Dylan doesn’t say anything, so I think I’ve got it right.  The car slows and a lady looks out and smiles and I don’t know what to do.  My face feels warm.  “Should I keep swinging?” I say.

“No, dipshit, it’s time to make the sale.  Grab a cup.”  I drop the sign and it bounces into my shin.  It stings and things get tight in my chest, but there’s no crying in business, so I just blink my eyes and grab a cup.  It’s blue and feels cool when Dylan pours the lemonade in, which I like.  Some of it spills out and onto my hand though and I hope it’s not my fault.  The lady stops and her window goes down.

“Are you okay, honey?” she says.  Things get tight again, but I nod and say, “Uh huh.”  She smiles and I think about telling her that Dylan called me dipshit and said damn, but I don’t.

“So how much?” she says.  My face gets warm again and Dylan frowns at me.  “Seventy-five cents,” he says.  “Per cup.”

“Whew, seventy-five,” she says.  “Not a bad deal.  I’ll take two.”  Dylan nudges me and I hand her the cup through the window.  She’s leaning over the passenger seat, but I still have to stand on my toes to reach through the window.  Dylan hands me another full cup and I give her that one too.  She puts them down somewhere and then starts looking through her purse.

“It’s a dollar fifty,” Dylan says, stepping up next to me.  He handles the money because money is the heart of business.  I’m not sure what that means, but I guess that’s why I don’t get to handle it.  I ripped a dollar in half once and thought maybe it would bleed or something, but it just ripped like paper.  It was Dylan’s dollar, but I didn’t tell him because he’d probably kick me, so I threw it in the garbage and put a tissue on top of it.

The lady hands Dylan the money and he smiles.  I smile, too.  She says, “Well thanks, boys.  This looks delicious.”

“We stirred it extra,” I say and Dylan frowns again.

“Oh good,” she says and then looks at Dylan.  “Tell your mom I said hi.”  Dylan says okay and she drives away.  We turn around and I wonder how she will drink both cups and drive at the same time.

Dylan puts the money in a cup that he keeps on the shelf and I ask him if there are backup cups in business, too.


“Are there backup cups?”

“Yeah, stupid.  There’s a whole stack right there.”  He smiles and his lips look like a U, but I don’t even care because I think he’s going to laugh at me, which I HATE.  My eyes get little and I can’t help but wonder what letters are on my face.  But business is business and I’m trying to learn, so I just say, “NO, I mean backup money cups.  Are there more money cups like there are pitchers?”

Dylan rolls his eyes and says, “Yeah, Toby, there’s a hundred, but you can only see one at a time because you’re not in charge.”

“Oh.  Are they on the shelf, too?”

He laughs and says, “Yeah, Toby.  They’re on the shelf.”

Dad always said that if you’re mad you should count to ten, but I don’t feel like counting so I walk over to the swings instead.  Mom is back in the door and I don’t even care how many laps she did.  She has a drink in her hand and I wonder if she’s making lemonade, too.  She waves and I get on the swing.  I’m a really good swinger.  Dad taught me that the key to swinging is to point your toes.  You point your toes out straight when you lean back and you point your toes down when you lean forward.  I’m getting up pretty high now and I can hear the wood creaking and it mixes with the wind as it whooshes in my ears and I close my eyes and think about jumping off.  With my eyes closed, it feels like two clouds are pushing me back and forth, trying to get me to the ground, but can’t because they don’t know how swings work.  I hear someone talking and open my eyes and stop pointing my toes so that I can hear better.  Mom is sticking her head out the door and saying something to Dylan, but all I can hear is “brother.”  I’ve had enough of swinging so I let my feet drag when I swing by the ground.  I only need to do it twice before I’m stopped.  I think that’s because I’m growing up.

The screen door closes again and I see Dylan throw a cup on the ground and start kicking it towards me.

“Hi,” he says and stops the cup with his foot.  It crinkles and pops as he slowly crunches it into the ground.  The grass is kinda brown, but the cup is very blue.


“Are you coming back to the stand?”

“Can I have a lemonade?”

“Damn it, To…yes. Yes, you can have a lemonade.”

“Okay.”  We turn and head back to the stand and a car drives by.  Dylan doesn’t say anything, but he whips his head around and stares at Mom’s V’s.  She shrugs and they almost turn into U’s, but then she takes another sip of her lemonade.  There’s a stick on the ground and I pick it up.  It’s pretty thick.  Too big for a wand, but it will make a good staff.  I give it a few thrusts and a few stamps on the ground to make sure, though.  Dylan catches me and I say, “You shall not pass!”  He shakes his head and turns back to the stand.  Whatever, Joey would have liked it.  I lean the staff against the stand and sit down next to it.  I like sitting Indian style because it makes my legs look like a pretzel.   Dylan hands me my lemonade and I take a sip.  The sourness makes me shiver for a second, but it’s cold and I like it.

The grass feels good on my feet and legs even though it’s brown.  I wonder when we’ll set up the sprinkler again.  When I stayed with Aunt Jody last winter she told me that sprinklers are good for two things: keeping the grass green and your face wet.  I asked her why her grass was so brown then and she said, “Because it’s winter.”  And I said, “So you need more sprinklers?”  She laughed and said, “Well, I’ll just have to ask Uncle Dave about that.”  We had meatloaf and Aunt Jody said I could put as much ketchup on as I wanted.

I see a car coming and it’s a big one, green with shiny tires and I make a joke in my head about sprinklers and growing cars.  Dylan starts to yell about the sign, but I’m already up and grabbing it.  Music is playing and I hear thump da chi, thump da chi as the car gets close.  It slows down and I see older boys and then one sticks his middle finger up at me and they speed away.  My eyes get a little heavy and I notice my hand wiping at my nose.  There’s no crying in business. There’s no crying in business.

“Fuck you!”

I turn around and Dylan’s eyes are shining and he’s yelling down the street.

“You shits!  You fucking shits!”

I look at the screen door and Mom is leaning into it with her body and I want to say twist it, but then I don’t think I should for some reason.  Her hand is over her face and I wonder how long she’ll ground Dylan for.  He’s still yelling down the street even though the car is gone and finally Mom opens the door and says, “Dylan Francis, you stop that this instant!”  Her glass is sitting on the porch railing and I can see that it’s red, not yellow.  Cranberry juice, probably.

“No!” Dylan says, but he stops anyway.  His shoulders are hanging now, like Dad’s old coat in the hallway.  His face is streaked with bits of brown like the grass.

Mom walks up and says, “What the hell was that, Dylan?  You can’t scream at people just because they don’t want your lemonade.”

“I didn’t.  That’s not what happened.”  His voice is low, but I can feel his eyes.  They’re hard, I just know it.

“Well then what happened, Dylan, because I was standing right there and then all of a sudden you’re screaming profanities down the street.”  Dylan starts breathing faster and I notice his fingers are shaking a little.  They’re only standing about five feet away, but it feels like further, like I’m swinging in the sunlight and they’re standing in the dark.  But they’re not, they’re right there and I’m right here and maybe we’re all in the dark.

“They gave Toby the finger, all right?”

“They did?”  She looks at me.


“Well…”  She sighs and her hand goes over her face again and when she talks again is sounds quieter, like how she used to tell stories, but more tired.  “We’ve talked about this, Dylan.  I know you were standing up for your brother, but you can’t just go screaming at people.  I mean, what do you think the neighbors will think?”

“Nothing worse than they already do.”  Dylan is speaking low now too and I wonder if it’s because I’m getting closer to the swings or because it’s just quieter in the dark.

“What did you say?”  Her hand is down now and she has her bad voice on.

“Nothing.  We need more lemonade mix.”  I feel my toes curl into the grass, little pieces of green pulling between them.

“Dylan, if you ever…” but then she takes a breath and glances back towards the porch.  We’re all outside so I wonder who she thinks will be in the screen door.  She’s looking back at Dylan now and says, “What do you mean you need more?  I gave you a brand new thing of it.”

“Well, it’s empty.”  Mom steps over and looks at the shelf.

“Jesus Christ, Dylan.  You have SIX PITCHERS under here.  That’s enough lemonade to last a week.”

“They’re backups,” I say, but I’m not sure anyone hears me.  Dylan’s whole hands are shaking though and I think it’s spreading.

“Why do you have so many?”

“Because it’s important!”  Dylan screams and kicks the stand.   “Dylan!” Mom yells.  It wobbles and my staff falls onto the ground.  I think about grabbing it to maybe try a spell, but Dylan gets to it first and starts bashing the stand with it.  It’s shaking as much as he is now and I don’t know what to do.  Mom isn’t even yelling anymore.  She’s just sitting on the ground and I want to crawl over and climb in her lap like I used to, but she won’t look at me, just keeps rocking slowly, breathing loud and staring at the grass.  A hear a crack and the wood next to the shelf pops a little.  Dylan is yelling with each hit and I think he’s crying, too, but I’m not sure.  The side comes off with a pop screech and I see what Dylan is going to do.  Something is in my throat and I drop my lemonade and take a step back, but Mom just sits there.

The first pitcher explodes and the lemonade splashes across the back of the stand, making a big circle stain.  The second one breaks in half and a chunk of plastic or ice almost hits me, but falls in the grass instead.  He hits the third one and I think it’s raining for a second, but I’m just being stupid because it’s lemonade and it’s sticky.  Dylan really winds up for the fourth and it smashes against the back of the stand and comes flying out.  A piece hits Mom and I say, “Uh oh,” but she just sits there.  I want to tell her to come with me, to come this way, but her shoulders start bouncing and I don’t know what to do.

A car drives by, slowing down as it passes.  Dylan looks up and stops for a second and then yells again and raises the staff to hit the next one, but then all of a sudden Mom is up and grabbing him from behind.  Dylan keeps wiggling and I think they’re going to wrestle for a second, but then he drops the staff and Mom is holding him, her arms thin, and they’re both crying.  Not fighting, just crying and sort of rocking.  Mom is mumbling something in his ear and they’re nodding together.  I lick my fingers and wonder if Dad will ever come home.


Posted in Uncategorized on August 17, 2010 by Trave

Today’s story was written by Marissa Forbes, a writer of prose and poetry, who graduated from Pratt Institute in 2008 and has since published work in several online magazines.  You can see more of her work at  Sublet features a dilapidated apartment, an obtrusive landlord, a medicated roommate, and the desperate tenant who’s trying to hold it all together.  Enjoy!



Marissa Forbes

A “Piano Lessons” sign hangs on the rusty fence. The old Brooklyn brownstone is painted like a Victorian-style house and thick vines run up the front and block my view into the windows. The door swings open and an older man with a grey ponytail half-smiles at me, revealing teeth the color of bruised banana meat.

“Are you Natasha’s new roommate for the sublet?”

“Probably,” I say as I step past him and cautiously up the rickety staircase.  A petite twenty-something with a bounce in her voice appears and exclaims, “I am so happy to meet you!”

The apartment is filled with mix-matched stoop sale furniture; candles give the space a homey ambience. I’m slightly relieved. The brownstone needs tons work but she seems to have been here for years so it couldn’t be so bad.  She directs me to “my room.”  It’s so tiny I question if my full sized bed will even fit.

“The landlord, Fred, built these rooms when I told him I needed a roommate.  They’re not permanent, as you can see.”  She points above my head. “Those wires hooked into the brick keep the walls in place.”  She stands smiling like a teenager hiding a cigarette behind her back, like she senses my skepticism.

“Why did he put the two-by-fours on the outside of the sheetrock?”


“What’s with the foam up there by the ceiling?”

“Fred didn’t cut the walls to size…”

Chopin suddenly swells up from the floor. Dusk fills the room and casts long shadows of vines across the walls.

“…So he stuffed foam up there,” she continues.

The room becomes quaint in the autumn glow.

I smile slightly. Well, I’m pretty desperate.”

“You can move in this weekend!” Natasha shrieks.

“It’ll be November first. My current roommate is moving uptown and my new place won’t be available until March first.”

“You can pay Fred the $650 then, right?”

I nod my head and slip quickly out of the apartment.

* * *

My boyfriend carries up the last boxes. As I’m shutting the door, Fred appears at the top of the stairs.  “Be careful when you’re moving stuff in because I’m trying to keep the hallway nice.”

“We’re finished,” I say, looking past him at the walls permeated with shoddy patched-up holes, “So I wouldn’t worry about it.”

He turns back toward the stairs. I say, “Wait,” and hand him the rent check.

Jakob yells from the bathroom, “Phoebe, you won’t believe this!”

“No way! Is that a pull flush?”  I say about the tank at the top of a water pipe with a long rope hanging down by the seat.

We laugh for a minute, and then set out fitting my possessions into my “shanty-room.”

* * *

A month later, Jakob and I wake up an hour early because the delivery trucks for the grocery store across the street reach jet plane decibels rather than the usual alarm-clock-you-can’t-shut-off. I get dressed on my bed because there’s not enough room for two people to stand at the same time. We can hear Natasha crying heavily in the shower then she turns on 90s pop, which doesn’t mix well with the jarring piano lesson in the apartment below.

“I have to get out of here, it’s driving me nuts,” Jakob says. He leans in for a kiss and closes the door a little rougher than usual.  I lie in bed, reading until I have to go to work.

I have twenty minutes of peace after Natasha leaves for class and Fred heads down the block. I get up and grab the doorknob but it falls to the floor. The door is a “street find” so the latch jams in the doorframe and the knob doesn’t reconnect in the slot since there’s no knob on the outside. My heart races.

I bang my elbow against the dresser when I try to nudge the door open; I try to bump it with my butt but stub my toe on the bed leg. It’s too high to climb down the vines.  After the walls close in even more, I remember the screwdriver under my bed.  I squeeze under and shimmy the toolbox closer with my fingertips. I stab the tip between the door and frame. The door finally pops opens.  While walking to work, I calm down from the agitating forty-five minute escape.

* * *

It’s two a.m. and Natasha is in the living room framing her photography finals and I’m packing for my Christmas trip. A large metal frame hits the ground.  Glass shatters.  Natasha stands with tears welling in her eyes.

“You okay?”  I ask.

I clean everything up while she sits, sobbing about how she’s screwed because she procrastinated.

“Did a window break?” Fred yells through the door.

“No, it’s Natasha’s large-scale picture frame,” I say and she begins full-on crying, blubbering about how she’s always messing up.  I grab her anti-anxiety pills, knowing it’s the only way she copes, and give her two with a glass of water.

“You know, I really should check if a window broke.”

I swing the door open. “Really?  I just told you what broke.”

He turns to go, then stops.  “Is that your bicycle down there?”

“I told you ‘no’ when I came in earlier tonight, now goodbye,” I say with a tense jaw.

“Are you going to take this to the garbage?” He asks pointing to the glass on the trunk in the hallway.

“Yes, when it’s not two in the morning.”  I slam the door.

Between snivels, Natasha says, “I told him yesterday that it was my bike.”

* * *

I walk against a fierce wind and it’s definitely the coldest day of the new year.  At my stoop I stop a stroller that kept going when the mom let go to answer her phone. We exchange the close-call look and I head in.

As I change into lounge clothes, the vines snap away from the house and crack loudly onto my window.

Hours later, after collecting five more dead mice from under the counter, Fred hits the door with an open palm  I throw it open and stare into his beady eyes for a minute. “What?” I’m so sick of not even going a day without him knocking on my door.

“Why did you rip the vines off the house?”

I throw my hands in the air. “Are you kidding me?”

“You know those vines are older than you,” he says creepily.

“Do you live in the world?” I take a deep breath.  “Fred, it was obviously the wind.”

“Oh yeah, right,” he hisses through his chapped lips.

“Why would I rip off the vines?” I holler.  “Because I want even less privacy?”

He raises his eyebrows, which look like caterpillars spinning cocoons.

“Let’s talk about real issues. Like how you insist on playing the ‘Fifth Symphony’ at six in the morning every Saturday.”

“It’s my building, I can do whatever I want.”

“Fine.” I roll my eyes.  “How about the huge mouse problem?”

“I gave you mouse traps,” he scoffs.

“How about the oven that doesn’t work in the middle of winter.”

He walks in, opens the oven and slams it shut.  “I’m tired of paying to fix things that keep breaking.”

“It’s your responsibility,” I shout.

He walks out the door and I mumble, “Thank god I’m leaving in a few months.”

“Leave now if it’s so terrible.”

“Fine. I won’t stay or pay until the oven works.”

* * *

I sleep at Jakob’s for the rest of January and all of February.  One day I come to get my mail and some fresh clothes and there’s a note on the door: “!!!!!!!!The oven’s fixed!!! Pay me or you won’t get your mail!!!!!!”

I rip it off, go to my room, and shut the door.  My eyes widen. Crap, the screwdriver is on the counter. I try to open it but jerk back, falling on the bed with the knob in my hand.  All my nerves tingle and a scream rises out of my throat that actually drowns out the Bach.  I stomp on the floor, yelling help.  I throw myself into the door: once, twice, three times.

Tears stream down my cheeks. I climb onto my bed and jump into the door.  My head smacks the wood as I crash to the ground.  White dust rises, I stand, and the door under me is still attached to the wall.  My body is so tense that little half moons line my palms from my clenched fists.

As the dust from the fallen wall settles, I hear someone coming up the stairs. My mind races as I try to get some moisture back into my tongue. Is this really my life? The apartment door opens and Natasha drops her grocery bags. Her expression is tranquil, except her mouth is awkwardly ajar.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

And his fingers continue to provoke the piano keys beneath us.


Posted in Uncategorized on June 17, 2010 by Trave

Today’s story was written by Kia Carbone, a  photographer, writer and soon-to-be teacher. Untitled‘s rocky cliff face and its precipitous drop mimic the narrator’s frazzled and lonely mindset, as she contemplates life and the recent deaths that have driven her to this graveled edge.



Kia Carbone

The gravel under my bare feet tosses dust around my ankles before cracking apart, dropping, spinning, falling into the water below. Five feet, fifteen feet, twenty… who knows from up here. My sandals lie next to me, one on top of the other, one upside down, one on its side, twisted together, dusty, one strap broken, the soles dusty, sitting, immobile, waiting, waiting, waiting. The dust in my eyes goes ignored. The ringing in my ears, the crashing of the waves, the wind in my head, these ambient sounds twisting together like mangled steel beams. The big toe on my right foot is rubbing the gravel, pushing the sand, inching its way to the edge, waiting to fall, waiting to fall, waiting, waiting, waiting.

Stick of tobacco sits lightly in my fingers, flirting with the idea of drifting to the ground to its ashes. My hands tingle with each flake; they’re covered in dust, covered in scars, scratches, marks, mistakes. I knew I should’ve ended when I could, should’ve stopped when I could, walked away when I should, drifted, faded, disappeared. I don’t smoke because I want to, I smoke because I can, because it says more than cheap words, because it looks sexy, because it makes boyfriends angry.

Hood pulled tight around my ears, blocking peripheral vision, hiding from the outside, fingers tap, tapping, ashes burning through my lungs. There’s a howling, a humming, a whirring in my head. Memories forgotten, buried, ignored, nagging, nagging, won’t quiet down, won’t ease the regret, the guilt, the anger, the fear. My eyes squint into the glare, squint against the dust, looking down into the waves. My gaze rolls across the rocks dropping from the ledge, stares after the falling pebbles, pebbles pushed by my calloused feet.

“You need to come home.”

“I need to tell you something, but come home first.”

“I’m sorry to call you so late, but something happened. Come home.”

Come home, come home, come home.

The first time broke my heart, streaked my face with tears, burned my eyes with shock. A lame excuse of a boyfriend sitting in the pew, checking his watch, clicking his tongue, sighing when a stifled sob slipped through my throat. We walked to the car together, hand in hand, keys jingling in his pocket, cigarette hanging from my lip. “It’s his fault, really. He asked for it, so don’t blame yourself.” Cigarette dropped, drifted, fell to my feet, ashes showering onto my painted toenails. It landed the same time the sound of my hand across the weak stubble on his chin exploded, landed and burned a hole in my shoe as I stared at him, through him, past him. “Give me the fucking keys.” I left him in the parking lot, didn’t look back, didn’t look back, it’s pointless to look back.

My shoes always make too much noise from the car to the doors of the funeral home. I smell a little too strongly of whiskey and cigarettes, my face stains a little too deep with tears and anger. The bottle of Tylenol bulges unnecessarily and rattles from my bag even though I try my best to keep it still. No one will come back to life, no one will dig up the truth, say the late-apologies on time, unspeak the crushing words, take back the slaps and pushes. Rewind.

Two months go by, two years, two weeks, two days. Two best friends, two overdoses, two suicides. Always walking alone from the church, alone from the parlor, alone to the car, alone to the subway. “It gets better,” he promised me over the phone. “This will get easier, these things will be more bearable…” He talked to me as though he knew, he understood, he could feel the pain, the guilt, the nausea that overcomes me every time I tuck a mass card into my purse, and put a warm hand on top of the lifeless. He doesn’t know why I feel guilty for the warmth of my skin, why my head throbs with the “why not me? why him?” mantra.

“The reception is terrible,” I lie. Digging through my purse to find the lighter, something to make a tiny flame with, something, something, some match stick of comfort. “I guess I’ll just talk to you later.” I hang up and drop the phone into my bag before his half-assed words pour through the earpiece, the obligatory “I’m here for you” when he’s really just heading home to crack a beer open with his friends. The chirp of my car keys fools me to think he’s calling back, promising to be there, to hold my hand, to sit silently, to love each other, to crack open a beer together. I climb into the front seat and sob, alone, driving, alone, speeding, desperate to feel something, any physical pain, permanent pain, real pain, telephone poles blur by, fences, parked cars, sides of bridges, it’s so easy, it would be so easy, so easy.

I end up in Montauk, the end, the tip, isolated, quiet, alone. In a daze I called to say goodbye, called to tell him to fuck off, to enjoy the beer, to enjoy the friends, to do whatever he wants because I’m done. “I can’t understand what you’re saying, just slow down,” he sounded desperate, afraid this would make him look bad, afraid for himself and not for me. Just tears falling into the mouthpiece, sighing from his end, sobbing from mine.

Swerve off the road, rest-stop, stopping-point, breaking point, breaking down, melting down.  Grab my purse, ugly and falling apart, searching through it desperate for a lighter, digging around for the laminated cards, throwing them into the dust, into the gravel, into the ground, silent, wordless, tearless. Watching myself kick my shoes to the end of this dumb hill, a Long Island hill that drops drastically into the water, rocks, dust, trash. It would be so easy.

Fifteen minutes… thirty seconds here and there, an hour. I can’t tell how long I’ve been here.  Can’t tell how long it’s been since the tears stopped. How many cigarettes I’ve lit and hardly smoked. I lost count of how many rocks clattered off the edge and how many birds circled and drifted and screeched over my head. My knees are burning, aching to bend, begging me to have a seat, have a rest, relax.

Car tires crush the gravel behind me and the engine stops. I imagine the key resting in the ignition while he sits in the driver’s seat, looking at me, watching me, studying the back of me and trying to figure out what to say this time, what to do now, how to avoid me. It doesn’t matter what he says, what he does, nothing will change. He just sits there, and watches, digging through his mind for the right thing to do, hoping I’ll just turn around and make this easier for him. It could be that easy, I could go to him, he could come to me and push dust around our ankles, step over the sandals in a heap, useless, waiting to be worn, waiting, waiting, I’m just waiting for him, waiting for this to be over, waiting for this to pass.

Chapel Quad

Posted in Uncategorized on May 17, 2010 by Trave

This week’s featured story belongs to Caroline Cobb.  She’s a linguist, a teacher, and now a published writer.  Below is Chapel Quad, a story about a woman looking back on her last days at Oxford and what she chose to leave behind.  Strong nostalgic and emotional ties evoke a feeling of connectivity and universal completeness that culminates in, and wells out from, a particular Oxford quad.  Enjoy!



Caroline Cobb

Pete Ramsay, an undergraduate I had mistakenly let fall half in love with me over drinks one evening in the college bar, had said to me then that when he laid on his back in the grass of Pembroke’s Chapel Quad, he felt as though he were connected to the whole earth, like he could feel all of it moving beneath him, even the churning of its very core.  At the time, I had thought him merely melodramatic, and had dismissed him and his attempt at natural philosophy without another thought.  It was nearly five years later, when my Oxford days were coming to an end, that I finally understood what he meant.

I found myself lying on that quad with Tom the week before I left Oxford.  He had asked me to come over that day to help him organize his things in preparation to move from his college room to a house he had rented with some other graduate students just outside of town.  And so we had spent the whole of the hot, gorgeous English summer afternoon together in his room, which managed to retain a vapor of its winter must despite the open windows and steady breeze of mid July.  We had cleared out his cupboard of old clothes and sorted through academic papers – articles and early drafts, old notes for graduate society speeches from his brief stint as president.

I had stood behind him as he sat at his desk and had pinched the taut tendons running down the back of his neck and out to his shoulders, and he had run his hands, absentmindedly, from the backs of my bare knees down to my ankles and up again, reaching behind his back to do so, like he had so often done when we were together, before the intervening months of hurt and bitterness, and strained civility.  In those days, despite being constantly thrown together, we’d been careful not to touch one another at all, for fear of causing one another further pain, or, perhaps worse, remembering the good things that had come long before.  I knew then that we had passed through the in-between, and that the last remnants of our languishing relationship were finally ready to be allowed to die.

We dawdled about his room, dusting and boxing things up until the evening.  We were supposed to meet several friends in a bar out in the artsy quarter of Cowley that evening, near where most of us lived, but not until eight or nine, so we went to Café Rouge on Little Clarendon around 6:30 or so to eat before heading out to meet them.  We had been there so many times before that we both ordered without even opening our menus; Tom had the salmon, I the croque monsieur.  The food was good; it always was at Café Rouge, but neither of us was interested in eating, both instead picking idly at our meals and making occasional benign comments about the progress we’d made packing up his room, the article he’d finally sent off for publication, the teaching post for which I was leaving.

As we sat, gazing silently and somewhat blindly at the other patrons, Mike Finch rang Tom, who didn’t answer, then me.  I told him where we were and invited him to join, as he obviously wanted to be around people.  He had been working every night at the Somerville pub and rarely got to hang about like we all had during term.  Tom and I obviously weren’t the only ones with a sense of nostalgia, of something coming to an end.  Finch arrived just as we finished eating and helped us finish the bottle of wine we’d ordered – white, not our usual, but Tom had been uncomfortably hot for days it seemed and needed something chilled.  Plus it was summer, and we were sitting in the open street-side windows; white just seemed appropriate.  Finch planned to meet everyone in Cowley as well, after his shift, and asked if that’s where we were headed.  I let Tom reply, as the possibility of not going had arisen during dinner, only to be immediately dropped, as neither of us knew what that might imply.  Tom said yes, he thought we’d probably head over there in a few minutes, and I was a bit disappointed, as I knew that if we met up with the others, the night would end with one of the boys who lived on my road walking me home, and Tom hailing a cab to avoid the solitary thirty-minute walk back to college.

We finished the bottle with Finch and chatted with him while he smoked.  He was waiting another 15 minutes or so before leaving for his shift at the pub.  I was restless and could tell that Tom was too, but it’s un-Oxfordian to leave a friend alone in a café mid-cigarette, and so we sat and chatted idly.  Finch was uncharacteristically lively, much more so than either Tom or I, and carried the conversation single-handedly for a while.  At length, Tom said he thought we’d better start the walk to Cowley.  Finch was nonplussed and happy to finish his smoke alone in Café Rouge amongst our deserted plates.  We stepped out from the table over the low window sill into the street, foregoing the doorway altogether.  As we stepped off the narrow sidewalk into the cobbled street, Tom swung around my side, turning to the right, away from Cowley, pressing his side against the length of mine so that I would turn too.  “I thought we were going to Cowley,” I said, not quite questioning, not breaking stride toward Walton Street.  “No, we’re not doing that,” he replied.

We rented a movie at the shop on Walton Street, a process that took an unnecessary length of time.  I think we were both too unsure of the tone of the evening and didn’t want to choose anything that would make a definite swing one way or the other.

Tom’s room had cooled with the sunset, tempering the mustiness that had been so stifling earlier in the day.  I’m not sure why we avoided the futon, where we had always watched movies, and slept, and not slept, but we ended up watching a dry foreign drama on his laptop, pressed together in his single bed.  He set the laptop on his side table and reclined onto his bed.  I hesitated, I thought imperceptibly, before sliding in between his side and the wall and resting my head tentatively in the crook of his shoulder.  I thought my hesitation had been only mental, not physical, but he must have noticed because he looked at me bemusedly and said something to the effect of was I coming.  I’m not sure whether we were genuinely disinterested in the movie or whether the tension had simply reached a critical point when Tom reached out and shut off the movie in silence after only a few minutes.  “What now?” I said.  Tom breathed a suggestive “Well…” as he rolled to face me, simultaneously using his knee to slide my leg between his own.

It was as though we both knew we were saying goodbye, finally, after all the goodbyes we’d said before without ever being able to actually separate ourselves – he to me, and I to him, but also to all of Oxford – the brisk, tipsy cycle home on late nights, the afternoons standing in front of the heater in the Wood Room (the only warm place in the Wood Room in the winter), the languid post-exam summer I’d peacefully lolled through.

Later, Tom was too hot to sleep – we both were – and so we dressed and spilled out into Pembroke Street.  We wandered into the college grounds, which were empty, the undergraduates having finally gone home, and lay in the farthest rear corner of Chapel Quad, near the Hall and the entrance to the Fellow’s Garden.  We lay on our backs, barely speaking, and I felt what I knew Pete had been feeling years before but hadn’t correctly labeled.  It wasn’t the earth I felt, but the essence of all the shimmering youth that had rioted through there for the last four hundred years.

I quietly slipped out of Oxford the following week without seeing Tom again.  Though I’m content with my memories of Oxford, and of Tom, nowhere else have I felt the squandered youthfulness of follies pursued, energies spent, and loves known and lost, well back up from any patch of ground, as if trying to resurrect themselves in another life’s body.