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Everywhere He Sees Her-Fiction by Oliver Lodge
Vegas Phoenix-Fiction by Steve Prusky
Bad Burger-Fiction by Willie Smith
Death and Forsythia-Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Eileen-Fiction by Ray Valent
Eleventh Frame-Fiction by Bruce Harris
Regarding the Destruction...-Fiction by Matthew Lyons
The Next Step-Fiction by Nicholas Manzolillo
What Men Show Whores-Fiction by M. E. Purfield
You Should've Called Me-Fiction by Carol Sojka
At the Zombie Five and Dime-Reprint by Kenneth James Crist
Cassie-Reprint by Frank Zafiro
Nice Life if You Don't Weaken-Reprint by Michelle Reale
Old Aunt Sin-Reprint by Gary Lovisi
Yellow Mama-Reprint by Cindy Rosmus
Bald Baby-Flash Fiction by Paul Beckman
Ruby-Flash Fiction by Liz McAdams
Widow's Might-Flash Fiction by M. C. Neuda
Saturday Night, Sunday Morning-Flash Fiction by Victor Clevenger
Sunday Evening-Flash Fiction by Victor Clevenger
Monday, Around Noontime-Flash Fiction by Victor Clevenger
The Woman on the Train-Poem by Luis Cuauhtemoc Berriozabal
What Have Some of Us Become?-Poem by John D. Robinson
She Knows Something-Poem by John Lunar Richey
Harley Caress-Poem by Joe Balaz
The Unspoken Words-Poem by Ayaz Daryl Nielsen
A Thunderstorm's Sideshow-Poem by David Spicer
Fruits, Vegetables, and Mindy's Topaz Eyes-Poem by David Spicer
Catherine-Poem by J.J.Campbell
Failures With Past Lovers-Poem by J.J.Campbell
Stomp-Poem by David Mac
Wilt?-Poem by David Mac
Carol of the Bells-Poem by Robert Beveridge
Eden-Poem by Robert Beveridge
Crazy, Crazy-Poem by Marc Carver
Love-Poem by Marc Carver
The Worst Poet in the World-Poem by Marc Carver
Hail, Tiger!
Angel of Manslaughter
The Gazing Ball
Strange Gardens
Gutter Balls
Calpurnia's Window
No Place Like Home
ALAT
Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

nicelife.jpg
Art by Lonni Lees 2017

NICE LIFE IF YOU DON’T WEAKEN

 

 

Michelle Reale

 

 

     Sarah’s mother had always been a bit strange, a bit off kilter.   Even though Sarah was proud of her mother and a bit ashamed, too, because while everyone seemed to like her mother, she never fit in. Her mother Elaine knew this about herself but never seemed to mind.  “Know thyself, kiddo!” she’d say, pointing at her daughter, with her ever-present long brown cigarette, breaking her own rule about the rude gesture.  In fact, Sarah had always yearned to know herself, had always thought that if she were someone else, she’d want to be friends with someone like herself. She was kind, like her mother, but had a tentative personality that seemed to put kids her own age off.

 

  Sarah gave in to her loneliness in a way that fascinated her father, Stan, who had always kept his eye on her, like an object in a curiosity shop. Her mother didn’t try to understand her, or try to mold her into anything at all.  “Dare to be different, Sarahbean!” she’d once  said, taking a long drag and blowing smoke up to the ceiling, one arm cradling her own waist and her small freckled hand holding the brown cigarette, poised, as if she meant to say something else.  She had begun to call her daughter “Sarahbean” when “She began to grow tall and graceful, like a beanpole,” Elaine had explained.  Sarah thought the nickname unique and was proud when her mother called her that in public.

 

     While Elaine was a free spirit in her own right, Stan always seemed to be needed in a way that choked her feelings for him, made her feel confused. He seemed ashamed of her outsider status with her peers, though Sarah could not imagine her father ever being even remotely “popular.”  Poor Sarah,” he’d said once taking a long look from the newspaper that rested on his lap on one lazy, sunny Saturday afternoon, one of many when Sarah was alone and without friends.  Sarah looked up from her book and sighed. She’d look forward to when her mother would come home from her Saturday shift as a nurse at the VA Hospital. They’d cook dinner together and her mother would turn the radio on, loud, and she’d show Sarah the dances she did as a kid, like the “bump” and the “freak.”  Her mother would smoke and pour a glass of wine and they’d talk about everything that mattered and didn’t matter.

 

     Sarah had often wondered at the powers that brought her mother and father together.  Her father was an orderly, cautious man, hair parted and combed to the side with precision neatness. He had a penchant for order that he would occasionally impose on Sarah.  He was never as concerned with the cleanliness of things, but rather with how things appeared.   Her mother would laugh her smoker’s laugh and shake her small head slowly. “Oh, Sarahbean, I couldn’t care less about things like that!”

 

     It had been, in particular, her mother’s precise lack of interest in anything around her that first alerted Sarah to the fact that something was wrong.  Towards the end of October, Sarah had begun to notice a slight change in what her father would describe as “Elaine’s worldview”.   Sarah didn’t care about the world, she cared about their life at home, about her small and tiny mother with her frizzy red curls, who had begun to spend so much time on the couch she seemed to blend in with the scenery.   She’d begun to call in sick at the hospital and then decide to go in, donning her beige nurse’s scrubs and lassoing her stethoscope around her neck, confusing the charge nurse when she’d show up.  Other times, with no knowledge to expect otherwise, they’d wait in vain for her.  Finally, they’d reach her by phone at home and she’d lie, saying that she’d thought she called in; it must be the fever. . . .

 

   “Sarahbean, what do you need?  Don’t hover like that,” her mother said from her position on the couch, dressed in leggings and an old “Freedom of Choice” tee shirt.  Sarah’s mother looked like a tiny rag doll someone had picked up and dropped carelessly into place. The late day sun aimed a strong beam into the living room, fading the image on the television, while millions of dust particles hung in the air, swirling ‘round and round.  Her mother seemed unaffected by the distorted image on the television, but seemed eerily transfixed anyway.

 

     “If you can’t afford diamonds, those would be the ones to have, Sarahbean” she said.  Sarah glanced at the two women on the Home Shopping Network, with their halo of glossy and gleaming hair, mouths painted on in juicy, wet colors, and soft-looking and manicured hands with perfect nails.  One held up a two-karat Diamante pendant while the other rotated her small wrist with a gleaming tennis bracelet. Elaine whistled slowly, obviously impressed. “Sarahbean, would you like a bracelet like that?”  Her mother didn’t seem to care that she was having this conversation by herself and Sarah knew her mother had no intention of buying her such a gift. Her mother picked up the smoldering cigarette that had been resting on the edge of the end table and, closing one eye, took a deep drag.

 

  Sarah watched her mother and experienced the one of many “suspended moments” she’d suffer through as she watched the smoke her mother never bothered to exhale escape out of her slightly parted lips in soft, dreamy tendrils.  Sarah heard the thud of the back door and said, “Mom, Dad’s home,” in a voice that didn’t even seem to be her own, like a kind of warning.  She looked at the detritus of what had become her mother’s life on the coffee table in front of her.  She barely resisted the urge to swipe her long, lanky arm over the entire table, dumping the evidence of her mother’s decline into a trash bag. Cigarettes, tissues, dirty socks, the dregs of coffee in the chipped robin’s egg blue mug, hard candy, and a sampler box of chocolates littered the scratched and sticky surface of the cherry wood coffee table.   Family Circle Magazine, with coffee rings on the front, boasted the headline “Start Now to Take Charge of Your Life!” mocking the life of the woman who’d been resting her cup on it for a week now. Sarah turned away, not wanting to witness the look in her father’s eyes when he would, once again, come upon his wife’s inertia.  “This is getting to be a habit,” he’d say with gross understatement and then ask Sarah, in the strange and soft voice he’d been using lately, to “Help your mother, honey, and clean up a little You’re a big girl now.”

 

   Little that Sarah loved of her mother seemed to be left.  Sarah lay in her bed with the acute notion that her entire fragile existence seemed to depend on whether or not her mother ever became “herself” again.  “Well, she’s not herself,” is what she’d heard her father say to her grandmother on the phone.  Who was she then?  Sarah feared for her mother but feared, too, for herself.  What happens if you become lost before you are even found?  

 

    Sarah heard the soft footsteps of her father, but ignored them.  A soft knock and then he enters the room without waiting for a response.  “I want to be left alone, Dad.  If you don’t mind,” she says and her voice catches in her throat, striving for aloof politeness to make her point, the way she has always spoken to her father.

 

     “Crisis time, Sarah, sweetie.  We need to talk,” her father tells her in a voice that both condescends and sickens her.  He has never had any of the unstudied smoothness or joy about him that made her mother spontaneously lovable.    He seems to be all soft, and bloated but with jagged intentions.  He stands by her bed with his hands in his pockets.

 

     “Pretending won’t make it go away, Sarah.”

 

     “If I pretend, will you go away, Dad?” Sarah whispers, surprising herself. She hunkers down and feels the warmth of her breath melt into the soft darkness under the sheets and feels embraced in the embryonic comfort of her own space.  She thinks if she stays there long enough he may go away.  A sudden jerk of the sheets and the shock of cool air on her face and she feels her father’s stare before actually looking into his piercing eyes.

 

     “Sarahbean.  Mom needs to go away to get better.  She’s depressed or mentally ill or       God only knows what it is; we don’t know how it started or what might have caused it. She’s lost touch with reality.  We’re going to have her committed, Sarah.  It’s going to be just you and me for a while.” He says this in one long breath then exhales, watching her for a reaction.  She can hear the television on downstairs, a sound she’s become so used to, it is almost a lullaby; the Home Shopping Network again, Christmas ornaments, this time, joyful preparation of the season, a must for the Happy Holiday Home.  She can smell her mother’s cigarette smoke and somehow this comforts her amidst a sudden and gripping fear that time will not pass quick enough, that time without her mother, in any condition she might be in, might be more than she can bear.  She begins to cry softly.

 

     With a quick and deft movement defying his girth her father heaves himself onto the bed.  “Scoot over, sweetheart.”  He begins to make soft cooing sounds and murmurs that sound like strangled words of comfort, but Sarah wills herself not to listen, not to feel.   Lying flat on her back, tears flow down the sides of her cheeks through closed eyes.  Then it seems in an instant, her father is on top of her, moving up and down slowly and deliberately.  A slight quiver of his chin and a moan as soft as a baby’s and he is in a world all his own.

 

     “Get off! Get OFF,” Sarah shrieks. Heaving upward she pushes against her father’s weight, laying like lead, on top of her.

 

     “Calm down, Sarah.  Calm down, now,” he says in a voice that sounds dreamlike.  He seems disoriented as though needing just a moment, “Just a moment, please” as he would say, to get his bearings.  Years later she will think that he almost seemed glad for the opportunity of her mother’s illness.

 

     “Don’t. Ever. Come. In. Here. Again,” she manages to sputter between rage she didn’t know she had and choking sobs.  As her father walks unsteadily toward the bedroom door, he says, in a shaky voice, the thing that will seal the deal concerning Sarah’s relationship with him and any chance at marriage for the rest of her life:  “I feel sorry for your future husband, Sarah.”  He leaves the door ajar, as if his reentry, should he be bold enough to dare, is his perfect right.

 

 

 

     Sarah creeps downstairs in the middle of the night to see her mother. Elaine, wearing her old, red cardigan, smells of smoke and nutmeg.  Her arms are wrapped tightly around her waist as if she is holding onto the semblance of herself for dear life.  The room is lit with the narcotic haze of the television, a light that seems sinister at so late an hour.  An old black and white film flickers on the television and Sarah imagines herself as the leading lady, wishing she was anyone else but who she is at the moment. Sarah notices her mother doesn’t appear to be watching the television but is, instead, rocking herself back and forth, humming a tune that seems vaguely familiar to Sarah.

 

     She stops humming as Sarah comes closer.   She looks vaguely frightened and slowly picks up her lighter and a cigarette, then stops.

 

     “Look at me Mom.   Please. Hold me,” Sarah says, feeling like her heart has just gone and taken off into some wilderness, where she’ll need to fend for herself. How her mother responds is so important to her right now.  “Please, Mom,” she whispers and instead of crying, clenches her fists until she has lost all feeling in them.

 

     Elaine swivels her head toward her daughter, with the look of someone who truly wants to do as she is told but simply doesn’t know how.  She looks down at the rug, hunter green with burgundy specks mixed with cracker crumbs.  She rubs her hands along the worn brown corduroy of the couch cushion until they feel hot.

 

     “Come back, Mom,” Sarah whispers and leans her head on her mother’s bony shoulder.   Elaine gently shrugs her off and reaches over to the coffee table. Nervously she picks up the chocolate sampler, staring as if seeing it for the first time. She rifles through the empty brown wrappers that fill the box, scattering them, and then looking down as they drop to the floor.  Sarah watches the mixture of confusion and hopelessness, and feels moved by it and at the same time envies her mother’s ability not to feel.  Sarah feels an urgent hunger for something that will be denied to her for a long time. In later years, everyone will say that it was a real shame that Sarah had to be so grown up at only fourteen years old.  Elaine peers into the box of chocolates strewn with the empty papers, digging around for something worthwhile, though it is clear there is nothing that she really wants anymore. She quickly gives up and tosses the box toward the coffee table. It misses and lands on the floor.  She looks down at the box, unaware of her daughter’s hand on her shoulder. She heaves a heavy sigh, full of resignation.

 

  “Someone,” she says, deliberately, “has surely gone and taken the very best I had.”

 

 

 




Michelle Reale is an Associate Professor at Arcadia University and holds an MFA in poetry.   She is the author of five collections of poetry including The Marie Curie Sequence, forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. She conducts ethnography among African refugees in Sicily and blogs about some of her experiences at www.sempresicilia.wordpress.com 


You can visit her author website at www.michellemessinareale.com.




In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2017