Bless You

Even at a distance the holiness itched at her, burrowed under her skin, inflamed her infernal mucous membranes.

Minnie, sitting alone in a pew at the back of the church, was trying very hard not to sneeze. 

She was nearly as far away from the altar, cross, and font as it was possible to be while still physically remaining inside the church, so the effect was not as bad as it could’ve been, but even at a distance the holiness itched at her, burrowed under her skin, inflamed her infernal mucous membranes.

The priest was droning on and on— kingdoms of the holy and such, blah blah. Minnie tried to force herself to pay attention, in the vain hope that distracting her ears would also serve to distract her itchy noise and throat. 

“Alethea’s memory will live on, and all that knew her will remember her as a pure, kindhearted, innocent—” 

ACHOOO!” 

The entire church swiveled at once to stare communal daggers at Minnie, who at that moment was grateful for her own demonic histamines, which had so conveniently covered up the far less appropriate reaction of bursting into helpless laughter at the idea of Alethea being called innocent. 

The priest cleared his throat. “As I was saying, Alethea will be remembered by her loved ones, her mother and father and sister, faithful congregants all, and of course by her dear fiancé, Mr. Norman Henderson…” 

Minnie resisted, with some difficulty, the urge to blow her nose ostentatiously into her sleeve at the sound of that bastard’s name. Come on, she told herself. Just a little while longer, and then it’ll all be over… 

She closed her eyes, sat back, and thought of Hell as the service droned to a close. 

Finally, after what could’ve been days, the organist struck up a dour hymn that made Minnie’s nerves crawl, and the assembled mourners stood up and began to filter, murmuring sadly, out of the church. Many of them stopped to pay final respects to Alethea, laying flowers in her casket, letting tears fall on her pristine gown, and suchlike. 

Minnie slowly made her way up the nave and joined the queue, politely waving little old ladies and stone-faced teenaged boys to go on and make their farewells before her. 

She watched from only a few feet away, a hiss pressing against the inside of her teeth, as the execrable Norman leaned over and pressed a sloppy, weepy kiss to Alethea’s cold cheek. 

At last, everyone had gone. The final notes of the organ rang out as Minnie sidled up to the casket, boot-heels clicking elegantly on the stone floor of the church. 

She leaned over the side of the casket, and gazed tenderly upon Alethea’s face, pink cheeks and delicate lips frozen into peaceful stillness. 

“Friend of the deceased?” 

Minnie whirled around, and, taken by surprise, sneezed explosively right into the pinched face of the priest. 

“Oh dear, I am so so sorry,” she lied. The priest looked as if he were trying his best not to seem perturbed, wiping Minnie’s snot carefully off his face and collar with a fusty, ancient-looking handkerchief. Minnie could see red welts forming where her demonic fluids had landed on his skin, and managed to transform her triumphant grin into something resembling a bereaved simper before he noticed anything out of the ordinary. “Yes,” she said sadly, “you might say we were friends…” 

The priest nodded solemnly. “So sad, what happened to her,” he said gormlessly. “Such a shock to the whole community. I christened her, you know… beautiful child, beautiful child…” 

“So horrible,” Minnie agreed. “I mean, an aneurysm, at her age… You don’t expect that sort of thing to happen! And just before she was about to get married, too… a tragedy, really…. Oh, Alethea!” 

Giving into her most theatrical instincts, she swooned dramatically, draping her whole upper body over the side of the open casket, and emitting a keen that echoed through the empty, cavernous hall. “So beautiful, even in death!” she howled. “You wouldn’t even be able to tell, if you didn’t know! It almost looks like you’re just sleeping, Alethea…” 

The priest put an unwelcome, clammy hand onto Minnie’s shoulder, fashionably and unorthodoxly bared in her black dress, which he instantly withdrew with a jolt, as if he’d been burned. Minnie smirked, her head buried in the crook of her elbow. Still got it. 

She straightened up,  resolving her expression back into grief as she turned to him, and noted with satisfaction that his hand was already beginning to grow inflamed where it had touched her skin. 

“I’ll just, uh,” he said, beginning to itch in earnest at the red marks on his chin and neck, “I’ll just. Hm. I’ll see you at the graveside service, I suppose…?”

Minnie just smiled at him, perhaps a bit too sharply, as he tottered away, muttering about aloe vera. 

When he’d disappeared out through the transept door, Minnie leaned over Alethea’s still form and grabbed her cold wrist, flipping it upwards. With one black, needle-sharp nail, she dug an unspeakable shape into Alethea’s pale, bloodless palm. Then she raised her own free hand, where a corresponding design, equally as grotesque, had been scratched just days before at the outset of the ritual.

“Here goes nothing, babe,” Minnie whispered, and pressed her palm to Alethea’s. 

One circle of Hell… two circles of Hell… three circles of Hell… Minnie counted, taking deep breaths, praying to all that was unholy that this would work. 

Beneath her hand, she felt a sudden flood of heat. From Alethea’s wound, bright red blood was flowing, slicking Minnie’s fingers and splashing down onto Alethea’s immaculate white gown. 

“Lethe?” Minnie whispered. Alethea’s hand spasmed, clutched around Minnie’s; her whole body jerked, and her eyes flew open. As Minnie watched, the pure, cornflower blue of Alethea’s irises was crowded in by scarlet, the same rich wet red as her dripping blood. Minnie would miss the blue, but really, it was a small price to pay. 

“Minnie,” Alethea said hoarsely, blinking those big red eyes, fluttering those long lashes. Minnie wanted to kiss her. Instead, she sneezed again. 

“ACHOOO!” 

“Bless—” 

“Don’t!” hissed Minnie, pawing at her nose with her unbloodied left hand. “That’ll make it worse!” 

“Sorry,” giggled Alethea. She sat up in the casket, and pulled Minnie forward with a gentle tug, pressing their foreheads together. Minnie could sense the hellfire heat surging through Alethea’s veins, clearing out the embalming fluids, lighting her up anew. A second chance— everything she deserved. 

“How does it feel? How do— how do you feel?” Minnie whispered. 

Alethea rolled her head, cracking her neck and letting out a sigh of pleasure. “Incredible. You did incredible, babe. It’s like— oh, it’s so warm, it feels so good…” 

She lifted her bleeding hand away from Minnie’s, and gently blew across it. Her eyes glowed, slightly, as the cuts healed over in an instant, leaving a scabbed scar to match Minnie’s own. Then she smiled, showing off teeth slightly sharper than before, and Minnie felt a swift flush of desire clutch around her insides. “Come on,” Minnie said. “Let’s get out of here before they come to take this stupid box to the cemetery.” 

She helped Alethea down out of the casket, then snapped her fingers. The lid of the casket swung shut with a muffled thump. 

“What’ll they do when they find out I’m gone, darling?” Alethea said, wiping blood off onto her dress. “Someone will surely notice.” 

“Don’t care,” said Minnie with a shrug. “We’ll be long gone by then.” 

“Car’s outside?” 

“Always.” 

Minnie, at that moment, could feel no sneeze lurking in her sinuses. With an easy, relieved confidence, she leaned in towards Alethea, ready to finally find that kiss she’d been craving—

“ACHOO!” 

Minnie lurched back, unbalanced by the force of Alethea’s sneeze. 

“Oh. Right. You too, now, huh.” 

Alethea wiped her nose on the puffed sleeve of her burial gown, and rubbed at her eyes, the whites of which were visibly irritated now, going red as her new irises. “Yeah, I guess so. Ugh, I’m itchy. You were really sitting in here dealing with this for the whole service?” 

“Of course,” Minnie said. “Anything for you.”

Alethea batted her eyelashes. “So sweet.”

“That toad of a priest called you innocent, by the way.” 

“Ha!” Alethea laughed. “If only he knew that—” Minnie never found out what the priest should’ve known (though she could’ve probably guessed) because Alethea interrupted herself with a triple-decker sneeze, nearly toppling over into Minnie with the force of it.  

“I think I’ve got some tissues in the glovebox,” said Minnie, swinging a stabilizing arm around Alethea, guiding her back down the aisle towards the exit. “And hey, it doesn’t last long. By the time we’re halfway to Memphis we’ll both be feeling right as rain.” 

“Memphis,” sighed Alethea dreamily. 

“First stop, Graceland, just like I promised.” 

“And then…?” 

“And then, babe, I’ll take you home. Show you around, introduce you to the family… you know, all that stuff.”

Alethea’s eyes were watering, and Minnie was pretty sure it wasn’t just from the allergies. They got into Minnie’s bright red convertible, sitting pretty (and pretty illegally) at the curb just outside the church doors. 

“Let’s go to Hell!” Alethea shouted, raucous and free, and Minnie slammed on the gas, and they sped off down the road, away from the church, leaving the empty casket behind. 

Strange Bathrooms

Do not pass from short-term into long-term memory, do not collect $200.

Think about those times when you’ve end up in a strange bathroom. You’ve never been there before and you will never be there again, but you’re there now, sitting down, vulnerable in your animal humanity, in a novel environment utterly unaffected by your presence.

It is a moment both visceral and transient. It engenders certain questions: how many asses has that toilet seat known? Conversely, how many toilet seats has your ass known? And how many of those do you actually recall?

It’s a least-important filler moment of your life, the kind your mind discards almost immediately, do not pass from short-term into long-term memory, do not collect $200. Is that a good thing? Are you thankful for the automatic neurological functioning that means you don’t have to recall with perfect accuracy each and every urination experience?

Roadside gas stations, the homes of distant relations, campsite outhouses, frathouse water closets. Stare, as you squat, at the uncapped Axe deodorant, the fractal pattern of rust on the faucet. Commit it all to memory, in your drunken haze, realizing in that moment that it is a one-time offer: odds are you’ll never be here again. The room will forget you; the porcelain amnesiac, the cracked mirror having no power to preserve you inside its frame, past the moment you give it one last bleary stare before stumbling back out into the punch-sloshed scene.

My question for you, or perhaps more of a challenge: what’s the most memorable bathroom you only ever used once?

For me, it was the pink-tiled restroom of a friend’s neighbor’s house. We’d walked about a block to this particular backyard, in order to make use of their pristine trampoline (with permission). Those with trampoline experience might feel a flutter of foreboding already, at the idea of going full force on the springs encumbered with a full bladder— and so too did I, at age 9, understand the danger. Thirty minutes of bouncing passed before the situation grew too grim to bear any longer.

With my friend’s encouragement, I sought refuge inside this neighbor’s house. As I was bid enter, I was aware with every passing moment of the utter alienness of the situation— it was strange enough to be inside a neighbor’s home, but the home of a friend’s neighbor, miles away from my own block? Utter madness.

I did my business in that foreign magenta lavatory, oddly and poignantly aware that I would, in all likelihood, never experience a repeat visit. I had the urge to learn by heart the frayed edges of the towels, the floral pattern of the shower curtain, as if I’d be quizzed on it later.

Then I returned to the trampoline, unburdened and free. I may have done a flip, I don’t remember. It’s possible.

Watershed

Did you think the river felt no pain?

There’s a harshness to it
stringency, a decree loud
as sirens:
Grow up!
Your so-called calling is a cozy lie
and must be tugged on,
heave-ho—
until like the river
it reverses,
flows
backwards.

You draw your own future to yourself, it is
the only way,
(UNFORTUNATELY)
oh— and it’ll hurt,
of course, did you think the river
felt no pain?
When it was forced into a fastflowing
adulthood, serving the needs of the city?
Yes, it missed being fed
by the great mother watershed.
(Was she always asking it to come home?)
Yes, it felt wrong, taking from Michigan, instead of giving,
but it had to be done.
Health and safety and such of course.

It won’t happen overnight—
locks to build, detonations, the most marvelous,
impossible control.

But soon you too will wrench
at the shrill sound of change,
as you sit in the driver’s seat
and navigate.

Hole, With Teeth

The hole was not a mouth, and could not answer. 

The hole in the floor had teeth in it. 

It was not a mouth—of this much Elena was sure. The criteria for mouths, she thought, included much else besides just aperture + teeth. Mouths had tongues, palates; mouths had the implication of a larger system beyond it, the suggestion that after the teeth did their job, there was more yet to be done by other organs, in the workaday business of peristalsis, digestion, defecation.

No, this was simply a hole, with teeth. The teeth were sharp, with a carnivorous gleam in the low light of her bedside lamp, and beyond them there was only blackness, a deep and sharp dark that descended far past where she imagined the foundations of the house came to an end. 

That first night she crouched beside the hole and fed it dust bunnies and tangles of long black hair from beneath her bed. The accumulated dirt of her floor vanished, speck by speck, into the fanged hole, which did not so much as acknowledge its new contents with a burp, hiccup, or smile. 

The second night, Elena worked up the courage to touch the teeth, reasoning that the hole, un-mouthlike as it was, did not seem to have the facility to suddenly clamp down on her fingers, bite them clean off like a shark in a summer blockbuster. To her surprise, the teeth were warm to the touch. Their enameled heat sent a tingle up her arm as she ran her fingers lightly atop their neat rows.

She didn’t spend very long touching the teeth that night, but when she fell asleep with the hole beside her she dreamed of them slicing her palms open. She dreamed of waiting for the blood to well up, worrying if she’d have enough bandages to staunch it, and then feeling a wonderful, blissful relief when the wounds remained dry, clean, redless.

“Hello?” she yelled down into the hole the next morning, when she was supposed to be getting ready for work. “Is there something you want?” 

But the hole was not a mouth, and could not answer. 

From the grocery store by her office she brought home to the hole an array of foodstuffs. What would I want to eat, she thought, if I were a hole with teeth? It was difficult to get into the mindset of the hole, but Elena had taken a few drama classes back in undergrad, and tried to approach it from the perspective of motivation.

The hole did not react to any of Elena’s favorite foods: salt & vinegar chips, pretzels, Fig Newtons, ice cream, Mentos, cheese sticks. 

This impartiality quickly began to wear on her. The hole’s frozen silence seemed accusatory, the kind of judgmental side-eye that one could easily take offense to, conveyed purely through the gleam of stacked rows of conical teeth. 

She began to cook more. She had long relied, semi-shamefully, on frozen dinners and takeout and that endless parade of processed snacks, but the sophisticated, almost elegant arrangement of the teeth around the rim of the hole inspired her to whip up increasingly elaborate dishes, meringues and goulashes and ratatouilles. She’d eat half, sitting there on the floor, and spoon the other half gently, noiselessly, into the hole. 

The hole seemed to like her clothes; she fed it her worn blouses, her ancient, moth-eaten cardigans, and the teeth (she thought) would grow slightly warmer in gratitude, and then she’d go out and buy, to replace the deposited garments, expensive new dresses from stores she’d long been too intimidated to enter.

She wished the hole would grow a tongue, a larynx, so it could speak to her, thank her for all the gifts. She’d have taken a dream of the hole’s voice, but even in sleep it remained resolutely silent; gaping black and keen in the dreamed quiet of her solitary bedroom. But she kept trying, night after night; she went to sleep on time, earlier than ever, in order to maximize the hours that the hole might choose to make its appreciation known, and in the morning she’d wake disappointed but extremely well rested. The dark bags beneath her eyes even began to fade away.

One morning, Elena shared her breakfast with the hole (poached eggs and semolina toast with avocado), and then knelt beside it, admiring its symmetry, its now-familiar anatomy. 

Then, for the first time, though it had tempted her ever since she’d dreamed it, she pressed her palms deeply against the hole’s teeth until they broke the skin. 

Unlike in the dream, blood did burst forth, flowing down the jagged white rows until it vanished into the dark of the hole. She could feel, beneath the pain in her hands and the sticky wetness of her blood, the teeth growing hot, and then hotter.

She looked around at her room, so neat— all its dust and down swept daily into the hole— and she cast an appraising eye at the clean, new shapes hanging gracefully in her closet— and she spared a glance to her plate, cleaned now but formerly host to a delicious, homemade meal.

At that moment, Elena was filled with an overwhelming sensation of gratitude. The hole had done this for her; it had made her anew. She’d been horribly mistaken, waiting all those nights for it to speak to her, thank her— she’d had it all the wrong way around, she was sure of it.

Elena had not kissed, nor been kissed, in years, but perhaps now that she was clean and beautiful and healthy, thanks to the hole, it was only a matter of time. 

She drew her bloodied hands out and braced them on the floorboards. Had the hole always been the precise height of her own head? She’d never considered it before, but now it seemed so obvious. 

Elena leaned forward, and kissed the hole.

Did it kiss her back? 

No. 

It kissed her face. 

Until there was nothing left. 

Then, and only then, did the hole become a mouth, and smile. 

Sonnet for Balcony Tea & Coffee

The greatest cafe in LA.

The sound of Sunday coming does precede
That frequent opportunity I take
To post up in a verdant Balcony
And see what kind of stories I can make
My entrance causes smiles and waves hello
A croissant and a coffee will be mine
They know me here, and as such so I know
I’d trust no other cafe with my time
With instrumental jazz as company
A fragrant mood, the hours rushing by
My word count’s high, ha! What ADHD?
Now evening draws, and I must say goodbye
   But I’ll be back, as soon as Sunday next
   To K-town, and the table I love best.

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