Flash Special: Works by Curtis Smith (September 2014 / 14.17) — with artwork by Leslie Marcus
Bluecurls and Aster
The cavalry detachments stumbled upon each other. The fog thick, October in the valley, and with the men away, the unpicked apples lay rotting in the grass. Fifteen minutes, a butchering, the fever of those mad years. After, the bodies of men and horses littered the field. Rigor mortis, bloat, the stench overtaking the apples’ vinegar scent. Before the dead could be buried, a local boy picked through the corpses’ pockets. He left the valuables but took the photographs of wives and children. The boy’s father dead. Another field, another state, the same stars above. Or so the boy believed. The months to come brought snow, the first in years. Then spring, the wildflowers, bluecurls and aster. Their blooms unaltered by the blood in their roots.
A man and woman, both naked, a chase through the field. The headlights of his car faded, the doors open, and on the radio, Bobby Darin crooned “Dream Lover.” The man slowed. His hand pressed to his side, blood between his fingers. The knife still in her hand, dull moonlight on the blade. The whistle of a distant train. The fireflies’ dance. A slowing within him, a clock’s unwinding. His senses dulled. A haze in his eyes and ears. The distance between him and the woman grew until she was swallowed by the sea of bluecurls and aster. Alone, he stumbled then sat. The dew soothing. He was not afraid. He lay back. The flowers rose above him, a breeze-touched frame for the stars. He shut his eyes and imagined each breath as a step in his escape.
I am the son of the man and woman. The great-great grandson of the boy who stole from the pockets of dead men, portraits cracked and faded, curiosities handed down through the generations. I stand beneath the moon, surrounded by bluecurls and aster, and offer these ghosts back to this place. The stalks sway, murmurs, and in the stillness, a tide of voices. The cries of men. My mother’s Polish lullabies. My father’s hunting stories. I close my eyes, and on the breeze, the pulse of history and blood. An echo I carry in the meat beneath my skin.
The things Thomas missed: heat without thickness and the bite of sage in bloom. A horizon unbothered by man. His favorite mountain lake and the snowmelt chill that lingered into summer. His last day home, just him and his girl. The mountain lake, the hills, the sky—all theirs. A day that had not faded; which had, in fact, grown clearer, a defying of the physics of memory. Her lips so close. “Do you love me, Thomas?”
Thomas alone today, his partner at the hostel. A fever, his skin as white as his bed sheet. The buckle of Thomas’s satchel glistened in the sun. His initials stitched onto the flap. The bag a present from his aunts and uncles and cousins. Inside, letters from his girl and the scriptures he struggled to fold into his heart. At the bus station, his mother gave him one of the black ties his father had worn on his mission. She stretched onto her tiptoes and knotted the tie around Thomas’s neck. Mist in her eyes. “He would have been so proud.” Singing voices carried from the bus’s open doors: “On the glory road! I’ll meet you, Lord, on the glory road!”
The thing Thomas feared: that his misgivings were the only connections left between himself and the God he once knew. He’d confessed this to his girl on the lake’s rocky shore. She touched his cheek. “Our Lord is a shepherd, Thomas.”
A group of boys blocked the sidewalk. A few with stickball bats in hand. The boy at the front with a stained T-shirt and long legs, a growth spurt the rest of him had yet to match. A scar on his cheek, a dog bite Thomas guessed, the side of his mouth tugged into a sneer. The boy’s stickball bat nudged the satchel. “What’s in there?”
He’d held his breath beneath the lake’s surface, naked, waiting. How could this be a sin? A dull wave pulsed, the violence of entry, her body sheathed in bubbles, a cloak that faded as she rose. A smile, her lips moving. Do you love me, Thomas?
The first blow from behind, another stickball bat, a crack against his skull and white flash across his eyes. A dozen hands reached forward, Thomas pulled one way then another. He gasped, his hand against his Adam’s apple as he fought to loosen the tie one of the boys had snared. Back home, he’d baled hay and branded steers, but he’d never returned evil for evil, the language of violence beyond him. Two sticks pummeled him, his back, his knee. Punches and kicks. His tie now around his face, Thomas blinded until it was ripped from his head. A sharp whack across his knuckles, the thud of wood on bone, and he let go of the satchel’s strap. Another blow to his knee, and he fell, the satchel ripped from his neck. His hands covering his face.
The girl he loved. His father. Thomas stood. His knee buckled, a stab down his shin. The boys running, his satchel gone. Thomas had built a fire on the lake’s shore. The wood crackled, a giving of ancient life. Smoke rose to the stars. His girl held his hand. “You will never be alone, Thomas.”
The breeze scattered his pamphlets. Thomas stumbled after them, wincing back the pain. His shirt untucked, his cuff torn. The clumsy workings of his swollen hand. The tang of blood in his mouth. A gust blew a paper unlike the others into a parched flowerbed. Thomas knelt, the dirt dry and crumbling. His girl’s writing. Wilted blooms tumbled into the paper’s folds.
Do you love me, Thomas?
A shadow fell over him. A child’s sneakers in the dirt. The toes scuffed, a lace broken and tied short, a pair of gray socks. A round, shirtless boy, one of his attackers, the sun behind him. Thomas flinched, fearing the bat, but when he realized the boy was empty-handed, he latched onto his arm.
The boy squirmed. Thomas squeezed harder, and the boy stilled. Here was an equaling of scales, his rancher’s hands strong and callused. The contrast of skin, and the boy’s pulse in Thomas’s fingers. The boy’s free hand reached for his back pocket. Thomas twisted the boy’s arm. The boy cried out, his knees buckling. In his extended hand, Thomas’s tie.
Thomas’s grip loosened. The boy ran off. Thomas opened his mouth, but he couldn’t speak—his throat a pit, the dryness and blood, his shame. He held his cupped hands before him, the tie across his palms. He lowered his face. The tie a mask for his tears.
On downtown’s morning sidewalks, the businessman imagined himself a fish. He spent his days migrating in schools, a search for a familiar fin, a colored stripe that acknowledged kinship. Above, the clouds, the dark undersides of an endless armada. One day, the man and everyone else in the city would die. Years would pass and then their children would die, and then, even his ghost would be forgotten. The net of memories would haul him and a thousand others upward. On the deck, he would witness the confession of what was once shadow and conjecture. Finally, he would see the sun for what it was, a fire so high.
The inquisitor sat before the prisoner. The heavy door locked, a cube of gray concrete. Between them, the truth, buried, waiting to flower. The prisoner jerked against the chair’s restraints. A small man, a matchstick frame the inquisitor could snap in two. The prisoner pleaded. The inquisitor heard him as he would a thunderclap or a dog’s bark. He stared, saying nothing until the other man fell silent. The inquisitor lost himself in the prisoner’s eyes. For a moment, they were simply two men who shared a language and skin color. They cheered the local teams. They loved their children.
The prisoner fixed his jaw and looked away. “Get on with it.”
The inquisitor tended his patio grill. A late-day sun, slanted light and long shadows. A songbird in the olive tree. Flowers, colors like miracles after a day in the windowless cell. Heat rose from the grill. He flipped the steaks. Flames spit across the ashed charcoal. The air flavored with honeysuckle and burning meat. His shepherd nearby, its long teeth gnashing a bone. Within the inquisitor, a sense of contentment. There was beauty in this life, ordinary moments begging for recognition’s frame.
A little girl burst through the backdoor. She was four, blond curls, barefoot in the short grass. She considered the world with wide eyes and the expectation of wonder. The inquisitor knelt and filled his arms with her. Candy on her breath and sticky hands. A honeysuckle wreath atop her head. She disappeared within his embrace, a gift like no other. He held his lips to her ear. “Tell me you were good today.”
The inquisitor removed the plastic bag. The prisoner gasped. Eyes blinking. A riot in his chest. He reminded the inquisitor of a fish pulled from the water, a creature plunged from one world into another.
The inquisitor lifted a tin cup to the prisoner’s lips. The prisoner slurped, coughed, slurped again. The inquisitor poured water into his palm and tenderly washed the other man’s stubbled face. “We are not animals,” he said.
He pulled up a chair. Minutes passed. The inquisitor didn’t speak until the prisoner’s eyes met his. Only a lucid man could dread what waited. Slowly, calmly, he asked the same questions — names, meeting places, plans.
“I’ve told you everything.” The prisoner’s voice barely a whisper. “Everything.”
The inquisitor walked behind the prisoner, the bag clutched and released. The prisoner’s sobs gurgled in his parched throat. The inquisitor spoke as he would to a child: “You need to trust me.”
He slid the bag over the other man’s head. The prisoner thrashed, his voice muffled. The flesh of his restrained hands burned red.
The inquisitor curled in bed next to his daughter. Moonlight on the window, her room a shadowland. A naked doll on the floor. Beside the doll, the shepherd, its watery eyes glistening in the muted light. Honeysuckle on the breeze. The girl had woken from a nightmare.
“I will stay until you’re back to sleep.” He wiped a tear from her cheek.
“What if I go back to the same dream?”
“Then I will be here, waiting.”
A pause. “I was afraid.”
The inquisitor loosened an ankle strap. The restraints’ leather had worn smooth, the buckles tarnished. The chair was oak, solid legs bolted long ago to the concrete floor. Echoes rose from the metal drain beneath the chair, cries from another room.
He moved to the wrists. His reflection waited in the prisoner’s dull eyes. A priest had once accused the inquisitor of being no different than the men he strapped into his chair. One day, he said, the inquisitor would have to answer to God. The inquisitor thought of the faded bloodstains in the marketplace. He thought of his daughter barefoot in green grass. “I have made my peace with God.”
When he unhooked the torso strap, the prisoner slumped forward. The inquisitor pressed his shoulder into the other man’s gut and grabbed him behind the knees. He stood, the prisoner slung over his shoulder. Air escaped the prisoner’s mouth, a single, stale puff. The inquisitor unlocked the door. Tomorrow, he would return. He would ask his questions. He would gaze into another man’s eyes. He would discover what he needed to know.
The Smiling Gods of Ohio
They’d been driving since lunch. Jo for the past two hours, the seat slid back to accommodate her belly. Her husband asleep in the passenger’s seat, peace on his face. The night clear and moonless. Stars above, so many more than she was used to. That morning, they’d stood by the sea. Her toes buried in the surf, a hand on her belly’s curve. The baby kicked, wild and blind. In Jo’s bones, the pull of distant lands.
Their tires hummed. A light in the distance, an earthbound star. Pennsylvania’s hills behind them, the flatlands just beginning. She checked the dash, surprised by her easy speed. She nudged her husband. “Baby’s coming.”
He lurched. The seatbelt snapped across his chest. “What?” His hands slapped his pockets.
“Said I need to pee.”
They pulled into the lot. Gas pumps in a halide oasis. Semis in the shadows. A convenience store and beyond, a diner. They parked. Plate glass windows for the diner, frames for the quiet scenes inside. A bell on the door. Three men in T-shirts and jeans at the counter, the lazy swivel of stools. Belted keys clanked against the stools’ chrome. Country music, a song about a cheating lover. The waitress tended to the coffee machine. “Menus are on the counter, kids. Sit anywhere you’d like.”
He picked the table. She made her way to the bathroom. Her stride had changed this past week, the baby turning, its head down. New pressures all around. In the bathroom, the scent of chemicals and mint. When she was done, she washed her hands and studied her reflection in a smudged mirror. She’d begun to think of herself as a vessel, the carrier of cargo. The notion pleased her. It wasn’t a reduction but a new chapter.
The waitress was at their booth when Jo returned. “Coffee, please,” her husband said. “A short stack.”
“French toast for me. And water, please.” Jo considered a picture on the menu, plates of breakfast foods, steam rising. “And sausage. And eggs. Scrambled eggs.”
The waitress’s pen scratched across her pad. Her smile an echo of a hundred others Jo had received these past few months, invitations to a secret sisterhood, mothers all. “You can have it all, honey.”
Her husband a dreamy echo: “Yes, have it all.”
Jo handed back the menu. “Perhaps I will.”
The waitress brought their drinks. Her husband slid the saucer and cup to Jo. A new ritual, her allowance of a cup’s first sniff. The brew was burnt, thick. She was looking forward to drinking again, but not in the way she once had. There was, she’d discovered, a freedom in doing without.
“Welcome to Ohio,” she said.
“I like waking in a new state.” He sipped, grimaced, sipped again. “It’s magical.”
She closed her eyes and focused on the coffee’s scent. A memory—her as a child, her family taking a ferry across Lake Michigan. Her gut twisted for a hundred different reasons. She couldn’t swim, but her father promised they’d be fine. Her hands gripped the deck’s cold railing. She studied the shore until it disappeared. Then water all around.
She set the saltshaker at one end of the table, the sugar’s glass cylinder at the other. She placed her water halfway between. “Think we’re about this far?”
He moved the glass back a few inches. “Here.”
“And by tomorrow night?”
He slid the glass forward. A smear of water glistened on the tabletop. “Here. If the highway gods are smiling.”
“Only smiling gods for the next few weeks, please.”
“Only smiling gods.”
“And in a few weeks, where will we be?”
He nudged the water to the sugar, a glass-on-glass kiss. “Here. Waiting. Or maybe not waiting anymore.”
Her voice softened. “And the year after that?”
He considered her then stood, glass in hand. Alone amid the empty chairs, he held the glass in front of his face, a single bloodshot eye warped by new mediums. “We’ll be here. Someplace new. Someplace we can hardly imagine.”
“And in ten years?”
He walked backwards into the hushed dining room. The truckers turned, the waitress, too. He stood atop a chair, his arms held wide. Not a drop spilled from the glass. “We’ll be here. And it will all be new again.”
She smiled. “That’s what I thought.”
Curtis Smith has published close to 100 pieces in many fine literary journals. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing.He is the author of nine books, the most recent being Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53) and Witness (essays, Sunnyoutside). His next book, Communion, an essay collection from Dock Street Press, will be released in early 2015. His next book, Lovepain, a novel from Aqueous Publishing, will be out in 2017. You can visit him at www.curtisjsmith.com.
Born and raised in New York, Leslie Marcus maintains a cutting edge, continually taking her artwork to greater heights with passion and sensitivity. Moving to California in 1974, Marcus immersed herself in the Fashion World of downtown LA, creating exclusive, original and exotic textile designs for apparel and home furnishings. Derivatives of these designs are now found in her Contemporary Fine Art Paintings of sensuous female figures. Marcus, also an art educator, has taught visual arts in high school and elementary school. She continues to offer private and group classes in watercolor and oil painting. She has achieved numerous awards and recognition. Her art has been reproduced for wine labels, limited edition giclees, and fine art greeting cards. Marcus’ work was recently installed in a permanent collection at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital in California. You can view more of Marcus’ work here. Inquires & contact at: firstname.lastname@example.org.