Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2013    poetry    all issues


Sarah Einstein
Walking and Falling

Jessica Bryant Klagmann
In the Forgotten Corner of the World

Melanie Unruh
Bend, Convolute, Curve

Aliya Amirh Tyus-Barnwell
Love and Marriage

Charles J. Alden

Ann Minnett

Amy Foster
Cripple Creek

Amy Dodgen
A General Rule

Joseph Hill

Lisa E. Balvanz

Ellen Darion

Erin Flanagan
The Learning Theory

Walter Bowne

Chris Tarry
Dairy Barn Angel

Gordon MacKinney
Death of a Motor City Talk Jock

Christopher Cervelloni
Tipping Superman

Daniel C. Bryant

Jane Deon

Justin J. Murphy
The Petrology of South Dakota

Sarah Einstein

Walking and Falling

You’re walking.

And you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling.

With each step you fall forward slightly.

And then catch yourself from falling.

Over and over, you’re falling.

And then catching yourself from falling.

And this is how you can be walking and falling at the same time.

—Laurie Anderson

The steady thump thump thump of the headboard was replaced by a less rhythmic, more insistent, knocking on the ceiling. Leo slumped back into the pillows and sighed.

“I’m sorry. It’s my crazy upstairs neighbor,” he said, shrugging up at Emily. “If I turn on the stereo, she pounds on the floor. If I turn on the TV, she pounds on the floor. I fell once, and she pounded on the floor at the crashing sound I made as I hit my head on the coffee table. Sometimes, even if I’m just sitting around reading a book and nothing at all is turned on, she pounds on the floor.”

“Really?” Emily took one of the pillows from behind Leo’s head and tucked it between the headboard and the wall, then resumed her bouncing. “Wow. You’re fifty years old and you still have to worry about being too loud for the neighbor?” She laughed and sped up a little, her dreads dangling over his chest, their little bells like wind chimes that sounded in time with her movements.

“Well, it’s the first time she’s had the opportunity to complain about this particular sort of noise,” Leo said. “I moved in here two years ago, right after Joy and I got divorced, and, honestly, you’re the first person . . . ” He wasn’t sure how to end his sentence, so he let it trail off. He was tempted to just to tell her the truth. You’re the first person I’ve slept with since I got divorced, which also means you’re the first person I’ve slept with since my dick stopped working. But he couldn’t say that, because for all Emily knew, his dick was working just fine. So he pretended, instead, to be really into the fucking and let his words trail off.

Emily sat up, bracing herself against the bars of his hospital bed and making little circles with her hips. This isn’t bad, thought Leo, but it’s also not exactly sex. It’s like porn, or a lap dance, or like the memory of sex, but not my memory. The memory of someone who would have dated a girl like this back in college, maybe. She was so much younger than he, twenty-six. Three years older than his daughter Rebecca, though he tried not to think about that. Leo watched as Emily rocked back and forth. She looked like the girls who had danced near the stage at the reggae festivals he’d gone to as a young man. He’d admired those girls the way, he supposed, everyone admired pretty girls who were free with themselves and whose wildness seemed more feral than crazy. But he hadn’t wanted to get to know them or imagined they would have much interest in a guy like him; a guy who wore khakis and blue oxford cloth shirts to classes in finance and accounting. Besides, he was already dating Joy then. She’d called those girls “earth cookies,” laughed at their unshaven legs and said they’d be sorry when they were older that they hadn’t worn bras.

Emily took his right hand and brought it to her breast, holding it there a second and then reaching out again for the rail of his bed. Leo tried to hold her nipple between his thumb and the curled fingers of his hand. He focused on the shard of crystal that hung between her breasts from a dirty braid of embroidery thread, watching it sway, but doing anything at all with his hands these days required more concentration than he could muster and, after a second or two, he had to let his hand drop back onto the bed. He watched her closely then, trying to decide if her excitement was genuine or theatrical.

Joy had always said the sex was still good, even after the MS had limited their options so that she always had to be on top, a position she hadn’t liked much. She’d said she didn’t mind the Caverject, although he knew she disliked needles and, as time went on, was less and less willing to give him the injection, insisting it would be fine if they just cuddled. And, because he didn’t really think it was the needle Joy had come to mind, he didn’t do it himself. But Leo hadn’t wanted Emily to know about the Caverject, and so had gone into the bathroom and given himself the injection in the side of his penis. It had been tricky; his hands didn’t want to do such delicate things, but he’d succeeded. Now he watched the clock. It had taken about ten minutes for the shot to take effect, and that had been half an hour ago. He was on the downside of this erection and began to worry that it would fade soon.

Leo reached out and laid his hands on Emily’s thighs. He tried to remember the moments of urgency just before an orgasm, the noises he had made, how he’d moved when he and Joy had made love in the old days, so that he could recreate that now. In the weeks since it had begun to seem this would happen—that he and Emily would end up in his bed one afternoon when she came to deliver the pot he bought from her because it eased his muscle spasms and, if he were honest, some of his boredom—Leo had been practicing. He’d lain in bed at night, composing a series of moans and hurried breathing that he hoped would convince Emily he’d come, but quietly so as not to rouse his neighbor. He had already told her that he didn’t produce much ejaculate, explaining it in the same rush of breath in which he had told her he’d once been pretty well-hung but the MS had somehow stolen centimeters from his cock along with everything else it had taken from him. It was something he found himself explaining to almost everyone who saw him naked: nurses, doctors, even sometimes the aides who came on weekdays to help him bathe, dress, and get his meals, though only if they were young men or old women. When the healthcare agency sent girls, and usually they sent girls, he kept quiet and pretended that somehow his nakedness with them was not real nakedness. To acknowledge it and face their clinical disinterest would have been a deeper sort of humiliation

The clock showed half-past the hour and Leo decided it was time to start the ruse. He began to moan, to breathe heavily, and then—unexpectedly, unstoppably—to chuckle. At first, it was a self-conscious giggle, but it grew into a full on, raucous belly laugh. Emily stopped her rocking, leaned down so that her dreadlocks surrounded him in a patchouli-scented curtain, and looked at him sideways.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Leo said, trying to catch his breath. “It’s just . . .” The laughter had him now, and for a few more seconds he couldn’t stop to speak. Emily flopped over onto the bed beside him. His manufactured erection stood alone like the punch line to his private joke. “Look,” Leo said at last. “I really like you. I really liked . . . this. But it wasn’t real. I mean, it was real, but it wasn’t what it seemed.” He turned onto his side and covered himself with an old burgundy afghan. “I had to give myself a shot just to get hard, and although it felt good, what you were doing, it was in a sort of distant way.” He took her hand and trailed her fingers over his lips. “You’re a beautiful young woman, but my body just doesn’t work like that any more.” He tried to read her face, but she just smiled as if it were nothing.

“Okay,” she said and then tossed the pillow she’d earlier used as a baffle back onto the bed and, turning one of her long, tanned legs to the side, banged the headboard hard against the wall until Leo was afraid she would leave a hole in the drywall. “Oh yeah, man! That’s it. Do it just like that. Don’t stop. Just like that. Oh, fuck yeah, Leo!” Emily moaned and brought her headboard drum solo to a crescendo.

“Uhm, what the hell?” Leo stared at her in bemusement.

“For the crazy lady upstairs,” Emily said. She laughed. “Because you know she’s sitting up there, perfectly still, trying to hear everything just so she can complain about it later to the condo manager. Crazy upstairs neighbors always do.” Then she turned and grabbed a bottle of water from the nightstand, one he’d left half empty there the night before, opened it, and took a long drink. “You want some?”

Leo took the bottle. “Thank you,” he said, though he wasn’t thanking her for the water but for having safeguarded his pride. He held the bottle to his lips and drained it.

“Are you hungry?” he asked, because he didn’t know what else to offer her.

“I’m starving,” she said. And then, as if it was information he would need in the future, “I’m always starving after sex.” He liked the way she said it, the way it suggested that even though she knew everything now, she still wanted to be in his bed. But it also scared him. If this became something, how would he explain it to Rebecca, to Joy? Emily was the sort of person from whom they had consciously kept themselves apart. He tried to imagine introducing her. “This is Emily, my new girlfriend. We met because I buy pot from her.” It struck him as a funny that, even now, his dick was still getting him in trouble.

“There are some gorgeous strawberries in the fridge, and some melon.” Leo began to turn himself toward the edge of the bed.

“Why don’t I get them?” Emily asked and then, without waiting for an answer, got out of bed. Her body was long and thin. Leo watched the tension in her thigh muscles as she stood, the way her calf flexed and relaxed as she stretched. He admired her beauty, but it was a bittersweet admiration. He hated to watch people walk.

In the kitchen, he could hear her opening the refrigerator, rooting around in the drawers and cabinets for a plate, a knife. She was singing to herself, although he was certain he must have been mishearing the words: And the beer I had for breakfast, silver bullet to the brain. And the beer I had for lunch was a bottle of Night Train. And the beer I had for dinner was my crazy neighbor’s pills, we had to sit down on skateboards just to make it down the hill. It dawned on Leo just how young twenty-six really was. Or could be. He was married and working toward junior partner in his law firm at twenty- six. Listening to Emily sing, he thought that she sounded like Rebecca when she was a teenager obsessed with Smash Mouth and would sit for hours in her room, replaying that God-damned song about walking on the sun until he couldn’t stand it any longer and would make an excuse to drive to the store or back to the office just to get away from the endless repetition of it. How he missed that song now, and Becky in her old room that she had insisted on painting a hideous combination of black and purple in the old house that Joy had insisted on buying even though it was more room than they needed or, really, could afford. He missed having other people around to insist on things he didn’t really want: missed the opportunities for giving in to them, for largesse, for generosity. Now, Joy lived in an even bigger house that her new husband could not afford. Becky was finishing her third year in law school. She’d followed in his footsteps, first NYU and then Columbia. She rarely had time to come up from the city and visit, but she called almost every night to ask how he was and tell him about her day. She turned aside his questions about birthday presents or offers to send her cash, saying only I’m fine, Dad, and you need to be careful with your money. He missed the days when she would whine for things she would forget almost as soon as they were bought and thought of him as a man of limitless resources.

Joy had left him because of the MS. She had never tried to hide it. He thought back to the day when her engagement ring had fallen down the drain of the bathroom sink and, unable to hold the pipe wrench himself, he’d talked her through taking off the trap so she could recover it. At the time, it had reminded him of the first years of their marriage, when they were poor and in love and had to do everything for themselves. Taking apart the sink had made him believe they were partners again, like in the old days. Later, Joy told him that was the day she knew she was leaving. She was, she said, too old and too tired to be both the husband and the wife in this marriage. Sometimes he managed to hate her for that, but more often he understood why she had to go. He imagined that Joy would be dubious about Emily’s reasons for being here; would tell him to be sure he kept his wallet hidden and counted the silver when she left. He wished he could stop thinking of her.

Emily returned, balancing a plate of cut fruit in one hand and carrying a bottle of chardonnay he had forgotten was in the refrigerator in the other. It seemed early in the day for wine, barely four o’clock, but it also seemed like a lovely thing to lie in bed on a Saturday afternoon with a pretty young girl and a glass of wine. Resting the plate on his belly, she climbed in beside him and poured a third of the bottle into a single tumbler.

“I couldn’t carry two glasses. I hope you don’t mind sharing one,” she said, and then took a long drink before passing the glass to him.

“I don’t mind at all,” he said and took a very small sip. The wine could make him tired and he did not want to be tired just now. While he held the glass, Emily got the big, woven bag she carried from the floor and dug around in it for a while, finally producing a dented Altoids tin. She opened it and took out a half-smoked joint and a lighter.

“Hey, wait!” Leo moved so quickly to stop her that he upset the plate on his stomach and scattered berries and melon across the comforter. “You can’t smoke that in here.”

“What do you mean, I can’t smoke this in here?” Emily put the roach back in the tin and gathered the fruit. “I mean, you buy this shit from me.”

“Yes, but I don’t smoke it.” Leo gestured toward the ceiling. “The last thing I need is for her to call the management company and tell them I’m smoking pot. I eat it. I make Leary Biscuits.”

“What are Leary Biscuits?” Emily took another long drink of wine and fiddled with her lighter, turning the wheel over and over with her thumb. “You take a cracker, put a small bud of pot on it, then put some cheese on top and microwave it. It’s named for Timothy Leary. He swore by them when he was posting on the web about dying from cancer.”

“Seriously? If I knew you were doing that, I’d have brought you cheaper stuff. You’re wasting your money and some really great smoke.” Emily put the lighter and tin back in her bag and pulled out her camera.

“Can I take some shots of you?” She unscrewed the lens cap and walked backward toward the window.

“What?” Leo burrowed further down into the comforter. “Are you kidding? Now?”

Emily laughed. “Yes, now,” she said, but she let the camera dangle from its strap around her wrist. “There is something beautiful about you in the rumpled bed, a little flushed. Something . . .” and for a moment she hesitated, as if she wasn’t sure she should say the rest. “Something unexpected.”

Emily had told Leo she moved to New York hoping to become a photographer, paying her way by selling the weed her brother grew back in Kentucky. Prices being what they were in the city, and particularly out here in the suburbs, she made enough to afford a one-room walk-up in Queens on her half of the take. Early on, she’d been in a few shows, but she figured out pretty quickly that galleries were only interested in showing the work she did that made Kentucky look like it hadn’t changed since Dorothea Lange got famous photographing hollow-cheeked women surrounded by half-naked children on hardscrabble farms during the Depression. “The thing is,” she had told him, “it really doesn’t look like that any more. It’s still poor, but since Wal-Mart, poor doesn’t look any different in Hazard Hollow than it does anywhere else. Nobody wants to see the pictures of what it’s really like.” She was close to giving up and going home, she’d said, but the money from the weed was still better here than any job she could get back in Harlan.

“So, what, you’ve decided to go from Dorothea Lange to Diane Arbus?” Leo asked angrily. He suddenly felt put on display. “Put the camera away. Please.” He knew he sounded too harsh, and that she hadn’t meant to insult him. “Come and sit down.”

Emily put the camera back in her bag and flopped down beside him. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” She stretched out and rested her head against his hip, gazing up at him. “People keep telling me my work is cliché. But look at me, I am a fucking cliché.” She ran a hand through her dreads. “Hillbilly. Hippie chick. Drug dealer. Another hack trying to make it big in New York.”

“That’s not true,” Leo assured her. It occurred to him then that maybe he could help. He knew people; the wife of an old business associate who ran a gallery in Montauk, a college friend who was the creative director at one of the big ad agencies in the city. He began to see how he might be of use to her, though he wasn’t yet ready to say so. He wanted to know that she was here because she enjoyed his company, not because he might be able to open some doors.

“I guess it doesn’t matter. I’m making it okay on what I earn from the weed and from shooting bar mitzvahs and weddings when I can get the work.”

“But you can’t do that forever,” Leo said, although he wasn’t certain it was true. His friends didn’t include any drug dealers. He had no idea what she could do, or for how long she could do it, so he added, “Can you?”

“No, probably not. Not unless the country gets a whole lot less uptight and legalizes weed, at least for people like you.”

People like you stung, and Leo winced. But he had just been thinking about people like her: people who came to New York with more dream than talent, people from places like small town Kentucky, people who sold pot, dropped the g’s from their gerunds, said you all. He ran his hand along the inside of her leg, up her thigh, and just looked at her for a moment.

For months, Emily had stopped by every other Saturday between noon and one o’clock. She would ring the doorbell and then, because after the first time she visited Leo decided he didn’t want his neighbors seeing her on his doorstep for the five or so minutes it took for him to get from his lift chair to the front door, let herself in through the door he left unlocked. The transactions were quick and formal, and then she was on her way, leaving his apartment smelling of patchouli. But after a while, things changed. At first, it was just that she would linger, ask about the photographs on his mantle and how his week had gone. Sometimes he would offer her a soda or, if there was baseball on TV, a beer. They were both Mets fans, which she said surprised her. She’d thought everyone in Westchester cheered for the Yankees. Sometimes she’d stay for an inning or two.

Then one day she started her visit by putting on the kettle and brewing a pot of nettle tea because she had, she said, read on the Internet that nettles were good for people with MS. He had been so surprised that she had read up on this that he hadn’t known what to say. He was touched, if dubious about the real value of the tea. Neither Rebecca nor Joy would ever have thought to do this small, lovely thing.

After that visit, he noticed she started to dress up a little. Instead of ripped jeans and old T-shirts, she wore long, tiered skirts and gauzy blouses with no bra and she would bend over him, letting his gaze settle on her breasts, when she gave him the little baggie full of pot. They would sit in his den for a while, sometimes listening to music she brought, other times looking at books of photography he had ordered from Amazon just to show her. Gordon Parks, Jack Delano, Alfred Stieglitz. It was clear they were flirting with each other, and although it was unexpected, Leo wasn’t about to scrutinize this gift from the Universe too closely. So he’d asked his doctor for a dose of Caverject and, in a move he’d been planning for weeks, pulled her close and kissed her full on the lips when she’d bent with his tea this afternoon.

Now, looking at her, he realized that he although he’d carefully planned everything leading up to this moment, he had given no thought at all to what might happen after the sex was over and they lay together in bed, the question of whether or not this was the start of something hanging over their heads.

“Why are you here?” he asked her.

“What do you mean? I come here every other Saturday. It’s our arrangement.” “No, I mean, why are you in bed with me?” Leo was afraid to hear her answer, but without it he didn’t know what to do next.

“Because you treat me like a real person,” Emily said. “You talk to me. You order books by photographers you admire just to show me.” She tapped at the string of silver bells tied around her ankle. Their ringing reminded him of the sound of a Tibetan prayer wheel. “Most people just want to get their weed and get rid of me.”

Leo stroked her thigh. In a moment of too much clarity, he saw the ways in which his days and hers were alike, how they were both aimless and mostly alone. He felt a new tenderness toward her that he suspected was akin to pity. And, although he hated the pity of others, it was a thrill to feel it in himself for someone else.

“You know, if you don’t mind helping me get dressed, there is a restaurant I’d really like to take you to,” he said suddenly. “A little French place that just opened up in town. It might be a little dressy . . .” For a moment, Leo wrestled with his own snobbish tendencies. But he looked at her there, on the bed, and saw that no matter what she wore, she was a beautiful young woman. He was a lucky man to have enjoyed the afternoon with her, so he decided not to care what his neighbors would think when they saw the two of them together, he in his Brooks Brothers suit and the ugly black Crocs that were the only shoes he could wear anymore because his feet were so swollen, she in her peasant blouse and old Keds high tops. Let them have propriety. He would take beauty in whatever form it offered itself to him.

Emily raised herself up on one arm and asked, “Are you really sure? I like you, but this is enough. You don’t have to take me out.”

“But I want to take you out,” Leo said. He gestured to the plate of ruined fruit on the nightstand. “This place has great food, and you’re always starving after sex. I wouldn’t be a gentleman if I didn’t feed you.” He laughed to let her know that he was joking, though he wasn’t certain that he was. As soon as he’d said the word gentleman, he realized he had the chance to be one again. Not a patient or a client or an old friend on hard times, but a man who could choose to be a stand-up guy or just another asshole who took what Emily had to give and then hurried her out the door.

In the driveway, Leo handed Emily the keys to the BMW. “Let’s take my car. It’s not good for it to sit here without being driven.” He didn’t know, though, if he was showing off for her or embarrassed to pull up in front of the restaurant in her old pick-up truck with its peacenik bumper stickers and amoeba-shaped patches of Bondo.

As soon as the Emily slid the key into the ignition, the car radio blared Come Together. “I hate the Beatles, mostly,” she said. “But I like the really late, psychedelic stuff.” And suddenly, they were both singing along, loudly and out of tune. He got feet down below his knee. Hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease. Come together, right now, over me.

Leo thought about telling her that John Lennon had written this song for Timothy Leary. He wanted to explain the whole history of it, about how he had been diagnosed with MS around the same time Leary was documenting the minutia of his dying on the Web. That’s where he’d learned about the Leary Biscuits, and that the old LSD guru had wanted his head frozen but, at the last minute, changed his mind and decided to be cremated instead. Leary’s ashes had been shot into orbit, along with those of twenty- three other people, and circled the earth for six years before they fell back toward the ground, burning up on reentry. He wanted to tell her how he’d read about all of this just as he was learning to live with the knowledge that he had MS but hadn’t yet developed any debilitating symptoms, didn’t even really know what the diagnosis meant. He had paid careful attention to the deliberate way in which Leary had orchestrated his own dying, and this had lead him to make certain crucial decisions about what he did, and did not, want for himself. Buying the pot from her was part of a plan he’d formed a long time ago. Back then, he had said he didn’t want to live beyond the point where he couldn’t take care of himself, but all of that had changed as he’d slowly lost the ability to walk without a walker, to cook for himself, to even dress or shower without assistance. He wanted to tell her that the worse his symptoms got, the more he wanted to outlive them, but there were days when he wasn’t certain why. Empty, lonely days when it seemed that all he did was not give up. He was tempted to wonder aloud if maybe she were going to change all that, and to say that he’d decided he didn’t care what Becky or Joy or the people at the restaurant would think of her. But she was singing in the simple, unselfconscious voice of a child and it occurred to him then that if he wanted to keep her around, some truths, some hopes, he would have to keep to himself.

Emily pointed up through the windshield at a hand clutching a partially drawn curtain above them. “Crazy Lady at twelve o’clock,” she said and then raised her middle finger, not so much in the direction of the window, but as if she were flipping off the whole world. She laughed, then backed out of the driveway fast enough to leave behind a black skid mark and the smell of burning rubber. Leo could see his neighbor reach for her phone. Because he couldn’t raise his middle finger separate from his others any longer, he just waved and smiled.

Sarah Einstein is a PhD candidate at Ohio University in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Ninth Letter, PANK, Fringe, and other journals, has been anthologized by Creative Nonfiction and Best of the Net, and has been awarded a Pushcart Prize. She is also the Managing Editor of Brevity.

Dotted Line