Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2015    poetry    all issues


Cover Hannah Lansburgh

Paul Heinz
I, Monster

Absolom J. Hagg
Someplace South, Anywhere Warm

Valerie Cumming
Among These Very Trees

Jenny Belardi
The Girl in the Leather-Bound Notebook

Chris Belden
Private "I"

Lindsay Mohlere
Last Cast at Indian Falls

Lora Hilty
Some Terrible Beauty

Katherine Enggass
Ghost Floor

Lee Houck
Real as Life

Benjamin Schachtman

Kelsey Tressler
The Chrysalis Center

Luke de Castro
Funeral for Max and Greta

L. L. Babb
The Religion of the Rich

Julie Zuckerman
The Book of Jeremiah

Writer's Site

Lee Houck

Real as Life

Olivia sits at her kitchen table eating Club Crackers straight from the box while ShiShi the cat spreads out on the table near the laptop. Five days ago the cat began acting strange, severely more affectionate than normal. She stared at Olivia for an hour at a time, hardly blinking. Four days ago the cat didn’t come out of her hiding place in the closet, not once, the whole day—not for treats, not for the laser pointer, not for even a tiny warmed patty of fresh ground turkey. She wouldn’t eat, or sometimes she would try to eat and then stop. Three days ago the cat started sneezing a lot, and drooling, and this went on until yesterday when the drooling got worse, and turned from the thin, clear stuff you might leave on your own pillow at night to a thick, opaque mucus that got on ShiShi’s fur and then turned matted and brown. ShiShi’s arthritis, already bad in her shoulders and hips, must have been flaring up again—she could never get comfortable, always shifting, over and over. Olivia thinks that after eighteen years spent alongside this creature—her longest chosen companion—maybe it’s time to take ShiShi to the vet for the last time. Olivia calls to make the appointment, which they set for the early afternoon.

Then the crackers are gone and it is already 9:00 a.m. For a few minutes Olivia scrolls through, then an email from her retired father pings into view in the corner of the screen:

Hello Oli. Yesterday I made an adapter to hold Scotch Brite disks in the die grinder and used them to clean charred material off the underside of the pans on the stove. Then I walked along the Riverwalk and pointed out some turtles to children on bikes and one on some kind of modern skateboard. It was a very productive day. I went to WalMart. Parked very close to the door and there was no line.

Olivia works as a real-as-life model. She is of real proportions. She lacks that ethereal, cervine quality a runway model should have. They used to call it “plus-sized” but that terminology fell out of favor for some reason Olivia suspects has to do with the softening and shrouding of all culture and directness, everywhere. Six months ago her agent asked her to change her resume and website to read “real-as-life,” and immediately she started getting better bookings. Olivia considers her schedule—commute, shoot, commute again, vet. Canceling her morning gig is not an option; the only way to make the appointment is to take the cat with her.

Olivia snatches ShiShi up and guides her into the cat carrier. Olivia attaches some fabric to the front so that ShiShi doesn’t hurt herself pressing her face against the metal grate. ShiShi is howling the worst of all howls the entire eight blocks to the train and then she urinates, either on purpose or because she’s scared, and it drips out of the back of the carrier onto Olivia’s leg and the sidewalk.

In the train car there is a print ad for a Sheepshead Bay language school that features Olivia standing at the front of a classroom full of adult students, with the words LEARN ENGLISH TODAY written on the chalkboard. In the image she is smiling and holding a thick textbook. It was The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers—nothing to do with language; they just handed it to her. Olivia is looking at herself in the ad and ShiShi is wailing and scratching at the holes in the side of the carrier and the other passengers are staring and Olivia starts crying.

Olivia arrives at the loft space on 37th Street. ShiShi has stopped wailing, and curls up, panting and exhausted inside the carrier, which Olivia places in the corner. Then, an assistant hands her a tight black bodysuit with tiny yellow spheres sewn along the limbs, and in three lines down the front and back. Behind a dressing screen, Olivia squeezes herself into the suit.

A redhead with a clipboard gestures for her to step to the center of the room—walls and floor and ceiling all painted the same shade of froggy green—and Olivia eases her body into the space. A camera on a tripod stands in each corner. Cables covered in tape the same shade of green pour out of each, then snake along the floor and disappear into the wall. There is a man in a beret sitting behind one of the cameras, the director maybe, and he does not turn away from the screen of his phone to look at or say anything to Olivia.

“You’re my real lifer?” asks the redhead.

“That’s me,” says Olivia.

“Nice of you to bring that,” she says, pointing to ShiShi in the carrier.

“Sorry,” Olivia says, “I couldn’t make other arrangements.”

“Okay,” says the redhead, “We’re gonna have you do ten or twelve different walks, five different ways to maybe look at apartments, enjoy the amenities, hang out along the waterfront, you get the deal.” The redhead’s voice is pinched but blurry, she runs words together, and she is very loud.

Olivia says, “Honestly, I’ve never done a job like this.”

The redhead continues, “Great, that’s no problem. You’ll move your body and your body will move the sensors and the cameras in this big green room will record the movements of the sensors. Got it?”

“Got it,” Olivia says. “Where’s this going?”

“It’s a package for an architectural firm,” says the redhead. “A new development is going up in the spring, so there’ll be TV spots and some subway presence, busses if they decide they have any money left.”

Olivia is usually hired to play real people, or at least human beings in real space. Last week, she was asked to portray a “mid-30s urban woman without insurance” in a television announcement for the Essex County Department of Health. The week before that she sat in a dental chair for three hours while eleven dentists from the SmileBrite chain came through, one at a time, and pretended to work on her open mouth. They shot print and web ads for eleven different neighborhood circulars.

“We hired you to perform many female prospective renters, then we’ll create different digital skins and combine them in groupings. In the end it makes for more natural, more real-looking renderings.”

“I see,” says Olivia.

“Because they’re from a person, not a computer. People like the feel of it more.”

“Right,” says Olivia.

“And it’s cheaper,” says the redhead.

Olivia says nothing.
“Sorry,” she goes on, pretending to bonk herself in the head with the clipboard. “What I mean to say is we hired you for you. Just be you. Feel free to move around a bit, to get a feel for how the suit reacts. It’s Olive, right?”

“Olivia,” she answers.

“Okay,” says the redhead, “Let’s have you do your regular walk. Like the most normal walk you can do without any kind of acting or affect.” The director puts his hand on the camera and leans over to look through the viewfinder. The redhead points, “Start over there and end up over here.”

No one has ever asked Olivia to walk as normally as she possibly can, and upon hearing this request her body becomes stiff and cartoonish. She feels eyes, both real and mechanical, watching her.

Olivia walks.

“Great. Now back,” says the redhead.

Olivia walks two more times, and then back to the starting place.
“Okay, hold there for a minute,” says the redhead, who leans in close to the director. They are talking and gesturing and periodically looking back at Olivia.
The redhead walks over to the wall, somehow opens a door, which seems to have no handle or knob, and slips through it. A minute later the redhead returns holding a man’s tweed blazer, and Olivia takes several deep breaths. The redhead is talking quietly when Olivia hears the director say “She is kind of mannish.” The blazer has dark leather elbow patches and reminds Olivia of the dandruffy professors she had at Oberlin. Professor Proctor who gave everyone Ds. And Professor Norris, who everyone called by his first name, Gerald, and then eventually Geraldine, since he walked the fine line of whatever gender he was or eventually was. Some of the freshmen were uncomfortable and silent for weeks.

The redhead walks over to Olivia, holding the blazer away from her, like you would a dirty diaper, and Olivia realizes that the blazer is for her. She smiles, “Can you try this?”

“Won’t it cover up the sensors?” Olivia says, running her hands along the lapels.

“They’re dynamic,” the redhead says, “the cameras will capture them through the fabric.”

“Oh, okay,” says Olivia, not sure how this will happen. But she is trying to do a good job, so she puts the coat on. It’s too small. It fits in the shoulders but it won’t close around her belly and the arms are too short. The redhead seems excited and goes back to talk with the director behind the camera, so Olivia thinks they’re probably going with it.

“Okay, walk again,” says the redhead, and Olivia does, sharply.
“And again,” says the redhead.
“Again, back and forth, three times!” The redhead is ecstatic, and Olivia paces, walking with her feet and then with the weight in her shoulders, and then head first, like Professor Proctor would, through every door of every room like he owned the world.

When Olivia was twelve, she and her classmates were selected to participate in an international penpal program. Each of them was paired with a student of the same age in a similar town in Japan. Olivia had to bring six self-addressed envelopes to school, and those envelopes went into a box with all the others and that box would go to Japan. Then every other month a letter from Miyako Kuta arrived addressed to Olivia in Olivia’s own handwriting. She never got over the shock and excitement of the letters arriving, the confusing flash of her own markings, a minor but indelible part of her, moving across the ocean, unharmed—as if part of her had made the journey itself. All these years later, Olivia still remembers the first sentence of the first letter she ever wrote to Miyako. At the time it was all she could talk or think or write or feel anything about: “Today I got a kitten and she is perfect and her name is ShiShi.”

At the vet’s office, Olivia signs some paperwork and checks the box marked “group cremation.” No, she doesn’t need a custom ceramic paw print made post-mortem, although she agrees with the vet tech that it is a precious and unique memento for someone who wants that sort of thing. They ask her if she has any questions and she has a lot—Can you bury animals in Brooklyn? That is, if she hadn’t already chosen cremation? Would they give ShiShi back to her? After? Will her eyes be open or closed? But she doesn’t ask any of these.

Olivia waits in room number three with ShiShi panting and growling and drooling all over her brown and matted front, her back half wet with urine and her fur in clumps from where she can’t reach to clean herself properly. The vet explains that they’ll give her a sedative before they give her the drug that does the thing that it does—Olivia doesn’t know what happens, exactly. Does the heart stop? The vet explains that what they’ll give ShiShi is actually Ketamine, and Olivia thinks this is kind of charming and weird—the same stuff she used to do at The Rave back in Atlanta when she was a teenager and ShiShi was the only creature in the world awake to greet her when she stumbled home, dehydrated and achey, as the sun was rising. The vet gives ShiShi the Ketamine and ShiShi lays her head down on the blanket they’ve brought for her, relaxed and glassy. They tell Olivia she can step out of the room at any point during the next part of the procedure, but she stays.

Every night when Olivia sleeps she dreams of how the world will end. In Olivia’s version there are no plagues or radiating explosions, no catastrophic dust storms that black out the sun. There are only things that people do to each other, with small, rusting handguns that jam easily, and most people use their bare hands. Olivia sees a child running down the street, naked but wearing a backpack full of homemade arrows and metal throwing stars. The girl leaps onto Olivia, knocking her to the ground, driving her tiny hands into Olivia’s face, which is suddenly like Play-Doh, and collapses into a brown, unseeing ball.

A few minutes later, alone, Olivia collects herself. She wraps ShiShi in a towel, and leaving her still and empty body on the table, walks back out into the day.

Dear Oli. Today I dug post-holes for the railing. The soil was soft maybe because of all the rain. I did encounter one head-sized rock that gave me fits. I could only do about 25 minutes in one go but I took my time and now it is finished. Then I made a trip to Ace Hardware and BI-LO and have been resting since. Bad news: my Milwaukee 1/2” Hole Gun stopped working but I have used it loyally since 1978 so I suppose things go the way they are supposed to go. Very productive!

The next morning Olivia fills the French press and then while she waits for the water to boil she empties the cat’s dish, pouring what’s left of the dry food into the garbage and then putting the bowl into the sink. She looks around at the toys on the floor and the scratching posts in the living room and she wonders if the animal rescue center nearby takes donations.

Then Olivia’s older sister Ruby calls from Virginia.

“Hey,” Ruby says. “What’s shakin?”

“Hey,” Olivia says.

“How are you?”

“Fine, same. Are you getting emails from Dad?”

“Yes, they are so weird and so him.” The first sip of coffee is too hot and tastes strangely soured, and Olivia wonders if coffee beans get freezer burn.

Ruby says, “Every time I go over he’s watching something about the Civil War on YouTube, what are those called? Re-enactors? He watches videos of all the different battles. And he looks at eBay constantly.”

“I hope he isn’t buying everything in the world.”

“I don’t think he buys much,” Ruby says. “But I saw an email on his screen the other day and the subject line was ‘Your eBay alert for “Dremel attachments rare” has returned the following items.’”

“That’s cute,” says Olivia.

“It’s boring,” says Ruby.

“Not to him,” says Olivia, and Ruby laughs. Olivia loves the sound of Ruby’s laugh—it has been this way even when they were children, never changing, rough and throaty, and Olivia is happy that after all the years, out of everything, this has stayed the same.

“Ruby,” Olivia says, “ShiShi is gone.”


“Well, dead.”

“No way, I’m so sorry. Shit. You’re kidding?”

“Not kidding,” Olivia says.

“What happened?”

“She was eighteen years old. Everything stopped working all at once.”

“Wow, I can’t believe it,” Ruby says. “The end of an era.”
Olivia feels the strange weight of grief on her chest, and she stares at the mug. Ruby sighs, and there is a brief moment where neither sister says anything.

“I’m going to come down this weekend,” Olivia says. “I’ll take the train, I’ll let you know.”

“Oh good, I can’t wait,” Ruby says, and they hang up.

Everywhere Olivia looks, a phantom moves like a brown blur—in corners, in the bathroom, at the foot of the bed. We remember them first with our bodies. They live forever in our cells, and we conjure their ghosts by rote.

Olivia calls out into the room: “Is it you?”

Hello Oli. That is great news. I am looking forward to the visit. I got some things at BI-LO and WalMart both in anticipation of the weekend. Doing two stores on the same day is very nearly as exhausting as a full day of work! There were children running around wildly and riding in buggies and not at all supervised. When I got home I worked on the leaves and made large piles that I put into the shredder and the best part was that the shredder started right up.

Penn Station is Olivia’s least favorite place in New York, and she is glad only for the rushing, ticking sound of the departures board, which tells her that the Northeast Regional leaves in twenty minutes. She will arrive in Charlottesville at just past dinnertime. She goes looking for snacks and magazines and buys three kinds of granola bars, a bottle of water, and a bag of Fritos. She buys a People, a Cosmopolitan and a book of word search puzzles that she will leave at her father’s house, maybe he’ll do them. In one aisle there is a brand of herbal supplements that she once modeled for, but now the box features another woman pretending to have a migraine, and this seems fine to Olivia since she posed for it so long ago, and now it is not even in her portfolio. A voice announces the track number and Olivia streams down the escalators with a hundred other people. She settles into a seat by the window, on the right side of the train so she can watch the stations and parking lots go by—she especially likes the sea mammal murals at Wilmington, their blocky, hard proportions and the soft teal color someone chose for the sky. Olivia keeps her luggage in the seat next to her, and no one asks if she will move it. Soon she has eaten everything and she rolls her jacket into a ball, tucking it between her head and the glass. For a while she sleeps, and there are no dreams, no lurching journeys into a broken and burning future, and when she wakes the conductor is announcing the stop in Manassas, which sounds to her like a place from the history books. Olivia wonders if maybe this is something they could talk about—what happened there and what it was like.

They will try not to talk about Olivia’s mother. In fact they will do everything possible to avoid talking about Olivia’s mother, who sits every day in a wheelchair near a window, because that’s where the nurses leave her, who has not spoken since the day she arrived in the extended care unit, except to moan and mumble incoherently when the moon is full, or on Thursdays, no one can say what brings it on. Olivia was eight years old when her mother went out for cans of beans—she made them with brown sugar and strips of bacon—and something in her brain snapped. That’s how it was described to Olivia later, like a circuit, like a string suddenly cut in two. So her mother stood in the middle of Seminole Road, miles from the store, refusing to move, until the police put her in the back of an ambulance. Olivia didn’t actually see it, but since then she has turned the moment over in her imagination and now it replays like a dim reel of old film: Metal cans stacked in paper sacks on the double yellow line. Her mother standing out in the road, crying and screaming, waving her arms.

As a girl, Olivia had no real answer to the question that seemed to inevitably arise at the sleepovers and toenail painting parties. There were long strips of paper and pens with metallic ink and everyone wrote questions to pull from a big Tupperware bowl: What boy would you kiss? Are there any teachers you would marry?

Then it was Olivia’s turn. What is your most embarrassing moment?

The train arrives and Olivia walks along the platform to the parking lot. Her father is there, waving from the window of his car—a giant pale blue thing, restored over years and years in the garage; she is surprised that it is even running. It feels like a boat moving down the freeway.

“Do you like Chinese food?” her father asks. “There is a place I like to order from, but they don’t deliver like Domino’s, so we have to pick it up on our way to the house.”

“That sounds good,” Olivia says.

“Chicken and beef, lots of rice,” he says. “It will be fine when we re-heat it.”

She sets her bag in the spare bedroom. There are photos of her and Ruby from over the years, from all the years, in the shelves—no books or back issues of magazines. The frames seem to be all he kept in the move. He sold the house that she and Ruby grew up in a few years back, and landed here, in something smaller, but with more yard, plus acres of forest and hills surrounding. If something were to happen to him, Olivia sometimes thought, who would ever know it? In one of the frames is a picture of Olivia and ShiShi in their first apartment in Jersey City—a horrorshow of leaks and crooked floors and blaring insistent Bachata music all day and night without end—but she is smiling and ShiShi looks bright and healthy. Olivia mailed the photo to her father about six weeks after moving away—she meant it as a promise, a reassurance. See, she wanted it to read, we are here, we made it, we are okay. Olivia puts the frame into her purse.

“It’s too bad about the cat,” her father says.

“Yes, it is.”

“I tell you, though, every day there are a dozen of them in the newspaper listings, any kind you want, some free, some for charge. I think they ask for money so, you know, it’s not some kind of teenagers doing sadistic devil worship, where they do crazy animal sacrifice.”

“I don’t think that happens,” Olivia says. “I think that’s just urban legend.”

“Probably you’re right,” he said. “But they do ask for money, I can tell you that. Good way to make some, I guess.”

They settle into the couch and her father turns on the TV, zipping through his DVR, landing on The Price is Right. The room fills with ambient applause and plinky, pastel music.

“I record it,” he says. “In case I’m outside doing something. You don’t mind?”

“I like it,” she tells him.

Olivia divides the food between two bowls and puts each in the microwave for two minutes. They sit together on the couch and the food tastes good, everything hitting the same brownish note, but it is warm and salty and she finishes quickly. A bronzed lady in a cotton candy-colored bikini is lounging on a speedboat, fake wind blowing through her hair. A college student wearing a Nebraska sweatshirt stands frozen behind a chalky-colored podium, staring into the audience. He wins and her father seems happy. “Dammit, Oli, amazing. Would you look at that,” he says. They move on to the $25,000 Pyramid, a few episodes of Match Game, Jeopardy! and finally Wheel of Fortune. Her father is a pro and guesses all the puzzles before the contestants. He narrates everything out loud. “R-S-T-L-N-E,” he says. “C-D-M-A.”

Olivia cleans up the coffee table, wipes the spots of sauce from the glass, and washes the plates and plastic containers. He switches the TV over to The History Channel and for an hour they watch something about airplanes in the Second World War, tiny snippets of jumpy, static-filled footage. In every clip, bombs pour like strands of beads from their berths.

Then her father points the remote to the screen and the picture fades into a tiny white dot. He moves around the room, clicking off lamps and re-checking the latch on the front door.

“Goodnight, Dad,” Olivia says.

“Goodnight,” he says. “I’m so happy that you’re here.”

Olivia finds a bottle of Revlon ColorStay in her purse, an almost purple red called “Queen of Hearts.” She sits at the small kitchen table, dipping the brush into the polish and drawing it over her nails, one then the next, coat after coat. She waits for her fingers to be dry, and then an hour has gone by, maybe three, and the night is in full bloom and everything is quiet.

“What is it, Oli?” her father asks.

Olivia turns to see her father standing in the kitchen; his pajama bottoms seem as bright and pale as the moon. He is without a shirt and Olivia notices for the first time how much older he looks, older than she remembers. Vulnerable, like a body she has seen in medical books. He does not seem like the man who raised her, all those years after, without real help or a companion. His house, his truck, his two little girls and his nutcase wife tucked away in a home.

“What are you doing awake?” her father says. “It’s almost three o’clock in the morning.”

“When I go out in the city I don’t see young fresh faces. I see people not aware of how messed up they are. They’re moving through the world with no place, just tourists.”

“What are you talking about?”

“And when I sleep I dream the most awful things, and sometimes I don’t know where I am. And the only books I can read are memoirs. Hikers and long-distance sailors and Food Network chefs. Even Sally Jesse Raphael, remember her?”

“I think I do,” he says. “Oli, are you okay?”
Olivia leans back in the chair, lets her body slide down, her posture has always been the worst.

“I don’t know,” she says, “The other day I put whole coffee beans in the coffee press, and I wondered—”

“It’s not genetic,” he says.

“Isn’t it, though? Mom was only 39 and I am getting closer to that number every day. I realized recently that in only a few more years I will have been an adult longer than I was not an adult.”

“You will always be my wonderful, caring, beautiful daughter.”

“I get it, dad. I get it.”

“Olivia, you’re confusing me,” he says.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “Go on back to bed. Everything is fine.”

He stays still in the doorway like a wax figure, his hands at his side held in fists.

After her father has gone back to bed she calls a taxi before gathering up her things. She didn’t bring much and it only takes a minute.

“Airport?” the driver asks.

“Four Oaks Community Care,” Olivia says.

“Coming right up,” he says. They pass through the university campus, then out onto the wide roads on the way to Monticello, where there are gnarled rows of apple trees. Olivia asks the taxi to wait in the parking lot. She goes through the double doors, which send a burst of cold air smelling like bubble gum and too many cleaning products across her face. She stops at the desk, as the large signpost says to do.

“Hello,” says the receptionist. “What can I do for you?”

“Hi,” says Olivia. There is a propped-open box of Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner of the counter, glowing and pink.

“Did I . . . Sorry,” the receptionist says. “But you’re from TV, aren’t you?”

“Oh, you might have seen me in a commercial,” says Olivia, which is the line she has practiced and used time and again. It could have been anything—Wendy’s or American Express or AirBnB. She will never learn how to navigate and deflect this sudden intimacy. It’s not really her they saw, anyway.

“I just came to leave something for one of the residents. Can you deliver this to Mrs. Gilbert?”

“You’re her daughter, right?”

“Um, yes,” Olivia says. “Her younger daughter.”

“Patty,” the receptionist says, calling out to someone sitting in another room. “Patty, come look, Mrs. Gilbert’s daughter is someone from TV.”

“Oh, no, I’m not really an actor. They just call me when they need someone.” Olivia hands over the frame, “Could you maybe put it near her bed? Somewhere she can see it. She might ask about it. I don’t know.”

“Sure thing,” the receptionist says.

“Thank you,” says Olivia, and she goes.

The train back to New York leaves at 4:25am. The taxi drops Olivia at the station where she waits on the platform with only a few other travelers, quiet coffee sippers and two cigarette smokers—everyone seems resentful of the strange hour. She boards the train and the conductor motions for them all to walk to the front. “Empty seats in the first two cars,” he says, over and over as everyone boards. They walk down the aisle together, like a team. She sends apologetic texts to Ruby.

Olivia worries the edge of her skirt between her fingers as they pull away from the station. The train moves heavy and loud, across the land, through the night.

Hello Oli. I understand. Hope you are ok. Today I walked again along the RiverWalk. There was cloud cover from all the way at the bridge at Ringgold Road to the veteran’s park and then up each side of the mountain. I extended the afternoon by walking on to the far part of Hunt’s Pond and saw some herons there fishing and standing and being together it was glorious. Haven’t seen so many out there in years since you were a kid I think. Its not that far to walk if you are following it on a map. But it is the farthest I have walked in quite a while.

Lee Houck was born in Chattanooga, TN, and, in 2015, celebrates seventeen years of living and working in New York City. His writing includes poetry, essays, short fiction and interviews that appear online at The Nervous Breakdown, Chelsea Station, and The Billfold; in print anthologies including The Outrider Review, Where the Boys Are, and the Australian art book Hair; and in his own old-school b&w zine, Crying Frodo. His novel, Yield, was published by Kensington Books in 2010. More at

Dotted Line