Turners to See

Turners were mostly yellow.  The sky, the sea, the reflection of the boat in the water and its image through the mist, were yellow.  I walked through halls and halls of yellow paintings, all of boats, all using minimal lines to create the cliffs and the birds and the water and the horizon.  They merged together, a collective blur.  I glanced slightly to the left, slightly to the right, as I passed.

Through large arches hung a Turner like no other in the museum.  It was black.  The oils swirled in grays and bulged from the canvas, crawling to me.  A ship — the same ship from the yellow paradises? — was engulfed in a storm.  The paint was a vortex, consuming us whole.  The sails whipped in the wind and to its mercy.  The vessel dipped into the sea, which rushed into every crevice, but I was the one swelled and weighted with salt water. Hours passed, and I walked out off the hall, still alone and waterlogged; and there were no more Turners to see.

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Turners to See

Pointing Fingers

Tyler and his sister Tara ran around downtown counting pigeons in the allies.  They did it with their BB gun and a packet of pellets Uncle Aaron bought for their 16th birthday.  “One!” Tara shouted, pointing up at the pigeons, as Tyler practiced his quick draw and the reflexes of his trigger finger.  “Two!  Three!  You keep missing!”  she shouted over the echoes of airplane engines and car horns.  She turned to the carnage of broken pigeons she had left behind them in the alley, the ones she shot with success.   Some of them were merely stunned and sat there panting on the asphalt.  Some of them lay flat and lifeless on the ground with the pellet still lodged in their skulls.

Without asking, or warning, Tara wrenched the gun from her twin’s hands and ignored his yelp when the trigger caught his index finger.

“Tara, you stupid–!”  Tyler wheezed, holding his finger tightly in his left hand.

“Let’s see,” she commanded, but Tyler wouldn’t release the grasp on his finger, too afraid that if he loosened his grip the entire finger would fall into the dirt of the street and become covered with loose pigeon feathers that still quivered from the breeze.  “We gotta know if you need to go to the hospital,” she snapped, getting her fingers between his hands and prying them apart.

He was strong and in pain, but she was vicious.  Her fingernails were jagged pieces of glass, so thick and sharp that girls in her homeroom sometimes asked Tara to use her nails to pick the locks of the teacher’s desk so that they could steal the candy and test questions inside.  Tyler’s fingers started to peel back from each other.   Just as he feared, the flesh had ripped open.  The bone twisted around until he was pointing to himself, though his palm faced the ground.  His insides, the torn tissues, felt the air for the first time.  He was exposed.

“WHY?”  Tyler cried, so loudly that it snapped some of the wounded pigeons out of their daze.  So loud that it echoed off the sides of the buildings, ping-ponging until all the space between them was completely filled with “why”.

You, his finger spit at him, you know exactly why.

Tyler stood paralyzed, his rapid breathing instantly became shallow, as if his chest expanding and caving too greatly would agitate the finger further.

You knew this was coming, his finger hissed to him.

“I don’t know what you mean”  he whispered, no longer registering the pain that came with a broken finger, nor noticing the blood splashing onto the concrete below him (and spraying the pigeons that still laid there).

“What’s going on?”  Tara asked.  Her raspy voice high enough, her face pale enough, her backward steps shallow enough to let Tyler know that she could hear everything too.  Tyler’s face matched his twin’s– their once dark complexion was now pasty and sick, becoming the color of the milky flesh around his finger, still losing blood.

Gracie was never shy about telling you…

“Shut up.”  Tyler’s eyes darted quickly between Tara and his finger, which continued to twist so that it pointed at him no matter how he rotated his hand.

…that you were the only thing worth living for…

“Stop it–” he shouted, grasping his good hand over his mutilated digit, squeezing more blood out.  It flowed over his fist, ran down his hand, and dripped into the ever growing pool that raced towards the grounded birds.

“What is it talking about, Tyler?  Who the hell is Gracie?”

“It’s not my fault, Tara–” He said quickly, looking up with big, pleading eyes.

She shook her head.  That was never the right way to start a sentence.  She had heard this time and time again from their father, but never from Tyler.  She was surprised how much he sounded like their dad in that moment.  Tyler didn’t speak to him most days, so she never expected him to pick up on father’s bad habits.

“It’s not my fault, Tara–” said Papa, when he drove them 2 hours late to school.

“It’s not my fault, Tara–” when only her clothes were used to soak up the water from the overflowing toilet.

“It’s not my fault, Tara–” when the money was missing out of her sock drawer, pillow case, and jewelry box.

“It’s not my fault, Tara–” when her father twisted words and sentences into elaborate labyrinthes, hoping she would get lost trying to follow the path.  She was lost for years, but found the key to getting out:  only listen to the last sentence.  There she’d know if it was really his fault.  So far, it always was.

Her mind wandered through these thoughts as she recognized all the features of Papa on Tyler, features she had never noticed that they shared before.  Growing up, Tyler’s face was only his.  Perhaps it was because of their starkly differing personalities that she had never seen the family resemblance.  But now she looked on, running her father’s famous words in her head; they faded into the background and synched with Tyler’s voice.

She noticed the heaviness of his lids, exactly like dad’s:  thick and weighed down with too much skin and long eyelashes.  The pores on his nose were inherited too: large and planted with thick black hairs, too far north to make contribute to his sparse mustache.  Small patches of bald skin freckled his beard, in the exact same pattern as father’s.

What was strange to her was the water in his eyes.  She had never seen that before.  Perhaps it was new.  She found herself transfixed, and searched in her databased mind what the tears could mean.  As her own voice took up the space in her head, she wished she was listening to what Tyler was saying, or understood him through his gasps for air and clumsy words.

She would have heard all about Gracie Tran from Lincoln High.

And how Tyler had dated her briefly.

She would have known about how Gracie watched her mother kill herself, how she convinced Tyler no one could love him as much as she did, or how she called him the n-word when she got angry.

Tara would have heard how her brother stayed for months after he had stopped loving her, afraid Gracie would overdose on sleeping pills if he left, and how it was the hardest thing he ever had to do.

Instead she heard this, the last sentence crawling painfully from his throat:

“She’s dead because of me.”

The BB gun fell loosely from her hands.  The blood below her brother still running rivers down the street, streaming around their pricey sneakers, split between the bodies of pigeons laying still in the street.

“But I am not a killer,” he said.  The sound of airplane engines and car horns echoed between them.  Lost in the city sounds, minds strangely blank, both their eyes now noticed the lines of red against on the pavement.  The color vivid against the gray of the street, the darkness of the alley, the overcast in the air.  “I am not a killer,” he repeated, fainter, softer, before his head hit the ground, his hand still clutched tightly around his pointing finger.  It rested on his heart.

Tara chose just to stand there.

Pointing Fingers

What You Cannot Replace

“The spider is our pet now, children, but one we can’t touch.  We leave him in the corner above the lamp. And we don’t hurt his webs.

“Charlie, you do not blow on the spider.  Do you see how he jumps and wiggles about?  He think’s there’s a storm and he panics.  Do you want to make your pet panic?”  Mary looked down at her son.  Charlie huffed and crossed his arms.  His sister, Emma, kept her eyes trained on their new pet.

“Yes, Emma, we can name him.  No, we cannot name him Mommy, because that’s my name.  No, we cannot name him Daddy either.

“Charlie, let your sister decide the name.  You named the dog and the fish, and now we have two pets named ‘Charlie.’”

Emma thought for a while.  Though only a year younger than her brother, she was never quite as creative as Charlie was.  And here she was, with the important task of naming a new pet.  Charlie looked up at his mother.

“No, we cannot ‘just kill it’, Charlie.  Can you make a new spider?  No, I didn’t think so.  Don’t destroy what you cannot replace.”  Charlie’s eyes shot down to the floor.  He stomped his foot.  He could not name the spider, he could not touch the spider, he could not kill the spider.  The spider might as well have never bothered to exit.

Charlie turned his body and marched over to the couch where he sat, sulking and breathing heavily.  He stared at Charlie, swimming between rocks in the fish bowl.  Another pet he wasn’t allowed to touch.

“It’s okay, Emma.  Your brother is being a poor sport.  We’ll let him mope until he is ready to join us again.”  Emma moved closer to her mom, holding the fingertips of her hand and humming.  She stared endlessly at the spider, studying its thin, brown, branch-like legs, and trying to think of names outside of her family.

Emma’s mom was also thinking about names, or rather, one in particular: Roland.  If Emma choose any name but that, it would be okay.  It already belonged to a loved one.  Mary kept her head high, and was glad that her son was pouting on the couch and her daughter started so intensely at the spider that she did not blink.  It meant no eyes were on her, and unwatched, she could reflect.  Her memory worked in faded colors, like the old home movies she sometimes watched when she couldn’t fall asleep.

Though staring at the spider, she could see the room she grew up in, white, and its hardwood floor, glossy.  She felt the rug she was rolling up, stiff, and the metal from Roland’s cage under her bed, cold.  She enjoyed the pitter patter that his toes made wandering across the hardwood flooring.  He was smart, and she had taught him to grab ahold of her hand when he was hungry.  He’d grip her finger firmly, and she’d feed him a piece of bread tightly coiled into a ball.

Roland had come from her 4th grade teacher, who did not want to keep the pet rat in the class after school had ended.  Mary was very skilled at forging both of her parent’s signatures.

Though only 10, Mary had learned a lot that year with Roland.  It was true that her father normally knocked on doors, and it was true that she could quickly sweep Roland back into his cage and under the bed when he came to visit her.  But these truths were not absolute, she found out.

Without hearing the light switch flick on, without hearing footsteps in the hall, and without hearing the door knob turn, Mary was caught by surprise.  And so was her father, who stood at the doorway with a bowl of popcorn.  The bowl slammed to the floor, scattering kernels and warm popcorn .  Both of her father’s hands gripped the door frame at the sight of Roland running across the wooden floor, his feet slipping.

There was yelling, mostly from fear, and mostly from her dad trying to protect his daughter from such a dirty creature.

There was so much yelling that he could not separate his voice from hers.

So he did not hear her say that his name was Roland.

And that she was his friend.

Or that his favorite snack was bread.

And she did not hear the bones break.

But she saw the neck twist.

And she saw his kicking legs drop loosely beside him.

And learned that blood can sometimes seep from the mouth.

Emma finally took her eyes off the spider.  She gazed, instead, at her mom.  “‘Leggy’ is a fine name, Emma.  From now on, he is Leggy.”

What You Cannot Replace

Broken Pen

The president signed an order to stop digging individual graves for the astronomers who were committing suicide.  Your sister turned off the TV in disgust and slammed the door on her way out of your apartment.  That night, your bartender refused to discuss the matter, gesturing to the full tip jar.  “Opinionated bartenders don’t get paid,” she whispered.  Your cat was willing to listen to you, but he fell asleep as you talked.

“Why is it only the astronomers, Paddy?”  you asked.  “What do they see that we don’t?  And do you think we’ll get to visit the mass graves when all this blows over?”

When the night skies cleared in November, no longer fussed with overcast keeping the ground warm, the president signed another order.  Curfew was at sunset.

Your sister made signs out of cardboard and glitter and wore them around her body.

“Government can’t tell me what to do!”  She shouted, gently shaking the excess glitter back into it’s bottle.  She invited you along in her after-hours protest.  You refused to go with her so you could bail her out of jail the next day, which you did.

Your bartender became looser with her lips, now not so concerned about losing tips.  “No one drinks well in the sunlight hours.”  She invited you to drink more, buy a bottle or two to take home.  And some shot glasses.  And don’t you need a couple of kegs, just in case of a surprise party?  Though you hated to see her disappointed, you said no because you needed an excuse to come and see her the next day, which you did.

The sun started to set.  The sky grew red.  Even when the last string of sunlight licked the edges of the clouds, it was only with different shades of scarlet.   It missed the gold it once held.  Seeing the reds turn to gray made you realized how much you missed the colors in between.

You passed by the shops on the way home.  All were closed.  Some of the smaller businesses tried to stay open, but the cop cars mosied by.  The owners saw them and flipped their signs:

“we’re fucking closed”

Handwritten with a sharpie.

Made for no one to read except the cops who patrolled at night.

The police roamed in partners, each watching the other carefully to make sure they didn’t look up by accident.  Just in case.

They didn’t look up.

No one looked up.

No one was allowed to look up.

Ever.

Above your head, a light bulb flashed on.  No one could see it–they couldn’t look up.  But that was the point, after all.

At home you sat on the couch in your boxers–the ones with no useable elastic left in it and a hole ripped across the entire seat.  Your sister asked you why you even owned them when you complained.  “There’s no point in new underwear when there’s only the cat at home.”

The couch had lumps.  Lumps you never noticed protruding out so much before.  They were harder than you remembered too, and you wondered if it was really old filler, or if this was where the remotes went–eaten by the cushion.  Digested, but never passed.  Paddy liked to rest his chin on them, so you never bought another couch.  What if the rigid chin-rests were what kept him there next to you?

In the morning, as soon as the dawn broke, you woke up.  So did everybody else.  Everyone was desperate to find hours now that they had lost the ones at night.  They needed alarms, but your eyes shot open as soon as the sun crept in through the window.  It was as if you’d been awake the whole time, but kept your eyes shut to keep out the darkness.  Did time even pass?  The hair in your beard, longer and grayer, said yes.

Paddy jumped off your lap as you stood straight up from the couch.

You visited your sister.  Her curlers were still in, peeking out from underneath a tinfoil hat.  She offered to make you one, but you refused because your thoughts weren’t as interesting as hers–at least that’s what you told her.  She shrugged and nodded her head, agreeing with you completely.  She didn’t catch the smirk on your face.  If she did, she’d know how you appreciated her innocence and her authenticity.  Since you were children, you relied on her honesty, and she had never let you down before.

You visited the bar–or rather, you visited the bartender.  She drank with you now.  Anything to make it look like sales didn’t drop as much as they really did.  She told you her boss was a dick.  “Who’s ever heard of a quota at a bar?”  She didn’t look into your eyes, where you were certain affection lingered just behind the surface.  If she did, she’d know you just like to talk to her–to hear the rhythm of her words, soft and subtle.

You bought two bottles of chardonnay and a keg to take home.  There was an opening for a hug as you say goodbye.  You don’t know why you didn’t take it.  The eye contact, prolonged and steady, was begging for a break in body movement.  Instead, she  shouted that she’d see you tomorrow as the door swung shut behind you.

All the shops were open still.  Sunset wasn’t for hours.  The hobby store was the opposite way from your house, but you walked there anyways.  It was the only place you had seen telescopes before.

A very tired man stood underneath a sign written in large, black words:

“Telescopes–90% off”

He slumped over the counter, resting his eyes in the palms of his hands and letting tuffs of stringy brown hair weave through his fingers.  To the right, you saw boxes and boxes of telescopes, all lined up and thick with dust.  He didn’t say anything when you brought one up, the original color of the box visible only where your fingers laid on it.

He just laughed.  Loudly.

This on its own would have been alarming, but the film of salt water glossing his eyes humanized him.  Every tear that escaped him whispered “If only I had your balls, man.”  You knew he wouldn’t tell anyone.

You used the rest of the daylight to set it up.  The instructions weren’t clear, nor were the pictures.  But you could do this.  At one time in your life, you had assembled furniture, computers, and drones.  Hell, you constructed an entire shed–with shelving!–for your ex-girlfriend’s parents.  Ignore that the wind blew it down and crushed the dog a week later.  You still did it.

Everything was ready by nightfall.  You snuck onto the roof of your apartment building, telescope in tote, when the sky had completely faded to black.

What could all those astronomers have seen to make them want to die?

Your notebook sat beside you, the corner of the pages lifting lightly in the breeze.  A pen sat on top to jot down any quick notes, anything that could help everyone know–just in case you ended like the astronomers.

The city didn’t bother funding electricity to street lamps anymore.  The horizon was lost between the ground and the sky, and slowly, windows in apartment buildings vanished as their lights went out.  Above you were all the stars, the missing gold from the sunsets.  It was here, thick like wet beach sand spread across a stone.  Your eyes watered and bounced from star to star, all at once and hardly moving.

The cops didn’t look up, didn’t see you standing on the roof that night.  With all your discipline, you pulled your eyes from the beauty above to the rubber ring of the telescope eyepiece.

You focused on the moon, on stars, on planets.  The rings of Saturn distinct and crisp.  The craters of the moon deep and rough.

You studied them for hours, your mind laying amongst the celestial bodies.

You didn’t have to wait for your sister to see your smile to tell her she was important.

You didn’t have to design excuses to visit the bartender.

You didn’t have to quit engineering after the dog died.

Or follow all the rules in school.

Or go to college–or graduate.

Or sit on a lumpy couch for the cat.

You knew it all now.  The texture of the moon, scarred, like your heart.  Your entire life as still as Saturn’s rings looked.

They found your body in the morning.

You left your notebook on the roof.

Only one line, scratched with a broken pen.

But no one could read your writing.

Broken Pen

Mi Abuelita Muere Cada Noche

Every story is a gateway to a more detailed dream, so I asked my dad to stop telling them.  My bedtimes were filled with recounts of the death that he has seen, and that I now cause.  It’s a memory of mine now, one we share, and when I close my eyes I can hear the wood creaking when the ropes tighten, as my abuela steps off the chair.  His stories, my dreams, are what my father remembers from when he came home from school that day.

The rigidity of her fingers and fabric, unaffected by the wind generated from her own swaying, tells me when I’m dreaming, but I still wander the crooked flooring of the apartment building and become suspicious at the air standing still.  I know what will happen before I gaze inside her darkened room.  I don’t choose my this, but Abuelita swings from the rafters of her bedroom and dies every night.

That same year my dad found his mother, he quit school.  School hid behind ugly fonts and stories about perfect white families, and he could no longer pretend to listen.  He had seen what the world was like as the paramedics sawed the rope from the rafters, letting her carcass collapse so heavily to the floor that the downstairs neighbors ate bits of the ceiling that had dusted into their cereals.

My dream tonight was not like the other ones.  On the night Abuelita died, my dad said the rain water fell in quarter-sized drops, and all of them hit his head as he spent the night in the park’s tennis court, alone.  Tonight’s rain mimics this, and she knows it.  Her legs kick wildly for the first time, and water spills from ceiling around us.  She screams Stop this, Mija.  

I jerk awake, hyperventilate, and run for the park, for the tennis court, while my dad takes sleeping pills.  His back slouches along the couch as the TV’s voice sooth his thoughts into reruns.  He does not stir when I swing the door open or shut.  He does not ask me where I am going.

I sit against the tennis net with the breeze that comes with it biting my nostrils down through to my throat.  All of the rain hits me, but the drops against my skin fade while I think about her voice in my dream.  She had not only kicked, she had spoken.  For the first time in 30 years, her voice clawed through to her mouth.  I only starred.

Every story my dad tells me is a new memory.  Each word builds the room she is in, until it is more like my home and less like her casket.  From old photographs, I know of a sign she kept above her door:  love is not bearing the pain alone.

The truth is, Abuelita did.

And so will I.

Mi Abuelita Muere Cada Noche

Results

Half the sky, sunlit cerulean.  Ashen clouds softening the remainder.  Skylar throws rocks.  In his hands they break the skin.  From under the skin, the dirt seeps in.  Through the blood, the dirt flows.  From the veins, it meets the heart and also his brain.

Hospital tiles are dirtier than they want him to know.  His feet dangle above the grimy floors.  Phlebotomists can’t stick the needle in just once.  They gossip: “hard stick.”  Skylar’s veins were worms hiding safely, fearing greatly the sharp beaks of the needles.

The needle presses long before it pierces him, his skin slowly rising around the syringe.  He doesn’t dare look.  Echos of blood slurping into the barrel is all the information he needs.  Wafts of rubbing alcohol and new plastics invade his lungs, assaults his tongue.  He counts seconds, hundreds of them.  Nurses’ voices bounce off the labyrinth of walls and down the halls.  He hears only the last syllables, and the last word.  “Positive.”

He is left with arrays of old needle points on his arm and the rising bruise.

Straining his ears, phlebotomists mumble apologies.

He doesn’t tell his girlfriend the news.  He coughs a lot.  Skylar can’t hide health.  He tries.  Sarah stops asking, turns on her side in bed.  He does not press, but wants to.

They don’t speak.  They talk over dinner.  Neighbors hear yelling.

Half the sky, sunlit orange.  The sun, running away.  Sarah follows suit.  Her jacket, forgotten on the lawn where boxes of her things sat earlier.  Her car, driving away.

Skylar smokes heavily again.

Results

Sky Writing

Joaquin spun clouds, based from oils, for tourists and locals alike.  When he was younger, businesses paid him for this.  When the money stopped coming and his family stopped visiting and he no longer set his alarm for his medicine, he kept flying every weekend.  Even though Joaquin forgot to turn off the TV, the lights, and occasionally the stove, he never forgot how to skywrite.

On his last Sunday, his plane looped in the sky.  With elegant twists, the locals on the sand watched him spin the words “How do I land?”  Within minutes, the clouds smeared with the winds.  “What a sense of humor,” someone said, watching him fly deeper out to sea.

Sky Writing