Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2014    poetry    all issues


Cover Mia Funk

Bill Pippin

Chris Belden
The Finger

Amberle L. Husbands
Only Whistle Stops

Kyle A. Valenta
The Narrows

Robert Martin

Eileen Arthurs
Portrait of an Artist, After All

Gibson Monk
The Tenth Part of Desire

J. S. Simmons
Bodies In Motion and At Rest

Nancy Nguyen
Truck Stop

Melissa Ragsly
The Pigeons of Apartment 9C

KC Kirkley

B. Yvette Yun
Fire in the Sky

Katharine O’Flynn
The Island

Brent DeLanoy

Daniel C. Bryant
Out County Road

John Mort
Red Rock Valley

Zac Hill
Conversations With Dakota Fanning

Haley Norris
The Last Day

Robert Martin


There is a meadow somewhere on Mt. Hood, the northwest slope maybe, where the grass rises up past my ankles, past my shins and calves, maybe tickling the backs of my knees in the breeze. There are scattered wildflowers, Indian Paintbrush, I don’t know the names of the rest. I’m not worried about names. Yellow and white flowers, little beauties, their faces upturned to the sky. This meadow, maybe not Mt. Hood but somewhere in central Oregon, one of the Sisters or Mt. Jefferson, some place I’ve never been but a place I have reason to believe exists, it smells like Oregon and life and the epitome of what I thought it meant to be me and the scent seeps in through my skin, it blends into my bones, it is me and it is Oregon and mountain and blood.

I button my pants and look out the clinic’s window. A woman plows an overfull shopping cart across the parking lot. No supermarkets nearby. It’s a day of things where they don’t belong.

I married young and we had a son, in that order. He’s six, beginning first grade. His hair is never right, always a transition from one cut to the next. He reads all the time, stupid books. He’ll read out loud to no one, sounding out the platitudes of talking animals. When he’s finished a sentence he’ll look at us like we should be proud of him. We are. My wife and I are proud of our son, talking to himself like an animal.

I am thinking about my wife, vaguely, as I watch this homeless woman shuffle across the parking lot. I contemplate the lies I could tell her, my wife. That the tests were inconclusive, that nothing will change. That I’ll be alright. I can’t resist wondering whether this would be a good thing—nothing changing. I wonder if I want things to change. I wonder if I will be around to witness the inevitable change that is about to occur.

The woman with the shopping cart comes to a curb at the end of the parking lot. She rams the front wheels against the cement. Like a mechanic, she walks around to the front to diagnose the issue.

Doctor Hunter returns and I am still buttoning my pants, a numb-fingered baby. The buttons refuse me. The shopping cart is gone, lifted over the curb and across the grass and out of view. I don’t know how long I’ve been staring out there at nothing.

“It’s early,” Doctor Hunter says. He drops his clipboard on the exam table’s crinkly paper.

“They only ever got me into trouble anyway,” I say. The buttons do their work. For the moment, I am contained. “So what’s next?”

“We kill that fucker,” Doctor Hunter says. “We get it out.”

“I need to ask,” I say, “for my wife. She’ll want to know.”

Doctor Hunter looks at the surface of me, the part everyone can see. “It’s a risk,” he says. “If we go with radiation. Could be temporary. But your chances at conception will likely be diminished.”

This is not the worst news I’ve heard today. I nod my head. It’s already been six years. Our son is already most likely an only child for life.

Doctor Hunter says, “Come back next week, I’ll cut your balls off.”

I say, “It’s a date.”

When I bought my truck, less than four months ago, the salesman gave me a canned line: “It practically drives itself.” Today, I arrive home without steering, without consulting street signs, without putting it in gear.

I have a dog that weighs as much as me, a Newfoundland named Henry. We keep his coat trimmed so he looks less like a bear. His habit is to slumber just inside the front door so I can’t open it. I speak soothingly through the crack. “Henry. Get up. Come on boy, let’s move.” My wife and son aren’t home. Grocery store. Buying Pepsi, buying lunchmeat. Buying tortillas and cereal and juice concentrate. Buying paper towels, Band-Aids, buying ketchup by the gallon because James won’t eat anything without it.

I owe twenty-one grand on the truck. Fifteen fifty per month on the mortgage. Sixteen thousand on our Chase and Visa and Discover cards. Combined, we owe various lenders upward of forty thousand more for our student loans. This will be my legacy, the ghost of a debt haunting my wife and son’s FICA score. And if not, if I am not uprooted from this earth by a disease nibbling at my testicles, then the biopsy, the surgery, the radiation will put us under. No more ketchup, no more deli meat. We’ll sell Serena’s car. We’ll dress James in his cousin’s hand-me-downs. We’ll take him out of the private school where he developed his joy of reading, the habits of please and thank you, the restraint needed to walk and use an inside voice.

I lower my shoulder into the door. The dog grunts and sighs, then moves out of the way. He gives me a long, annoyed gaze when I step inside. “Well, don’t lay there,” I tell him. He nuzzles my hand for a pet but I don’t have the energy. He nuzzles my crotch instead. I am not aware of curling, falling to the floor. I’m not aware of hitting the ground, rocking on my hips up to my knees, crouching, pounding the carpet with my fist.

I am still on the ground when James and Serena’s voices ring from the driveway. Henry is on the ground with me, his chin on his paws, his enormous eyes waiting for mine to tell him what’s wrong. I manage to lean against the kitchen counter, pretend to be looking at one of Serena’s magazines, full-color spreads of idiotic humans, before my son bolts through the door, tosses “Hi Dad” over his shoulder, slams his bedroom door shut.

Serena yells “Walking feet!” in an outside voice.

She drops her day bag on the table, snacks and sunblock and popular fiction. No groceries. She knows better than to ask, just looks at me. I stare at the glossy pages of her magazine, teen idols celebrated for their public failures.

She comes closer than I want her. She leans against my back, her palms curling around my shoulders, her cheek resting against my spine. Her smell, a thousand times inside my nostrils, the scent of a mountain meadow, twining inside my brain. The page of her magazine softens with starbursts of moisture, my tears seeping into the gloss. I turn the page.

James complains of hunger through the door, his whine a dentist’s drill. Serena detaches toward the freezer and lugs out a sack of chicken nuggets. It’s the easiest ketchup-delivery food we’ve found.

“I’m hungry, too,” I say, watch our son emerge from his bedroom to boogie on the sofa, no music.

“James,” I order, “put on your PJs.”

He looks at me like I’ve lost it. “We haven’t eaten dinner yet.”

I say, “Well you’re dancing like it’s a pajama party.”

He pauses in a pose, pointer finger in the air. He does this a lot, this being a kid type of stuff. I wonder if he would be so wonderful if he had a little brother or sister to set an example for, to show the ropes. If that would change him in any way, because if it would then good riddance. Behind me, chicken nuggets plunk on the baking pan.

I say, “Don’t tell me you’ve never had a pajama party.”

“Okay I won’t.”

“A pajama party is when you get in your pajamas even though you’re not going to bed. Everyone gets in their pajamas, and then you do things you’re not supposed to do in pajamas.”

His eyes work at this new concept. I take a moment to remember that he doesn’t know. That the instability and brevity and tragedy of life aren’t a part of his story.

“Things like what?” he asks.

“Like dance around how you just were, except to music. And, you know, play games and stuff.”

“Hide and seek?”


“Does everyone wear pajamas, or just me?”

“Everyone. I wear pajamas. Mom wears pajamas. We can put Henry in pajamas.”

James laughs so suddenly he falls to the floor. His laughter sends tears from his eyes, beautiful little droplets. The dog tilts his head.

“I have pajamas, right?” I check with Serena.

She raises her eyebrows, a curious affirmation.

“I’ll race you,” I say to my son. “First one in their PJs gets to hide.” And to convince him that it’s an actual race, I move quickly into my bedroom, marveling at the bright light flashing with every step. His door slams behind him—he’s shy, these days, about being naked.

Serena finds me on the foot of our bed, breathing. “A pajama party?” she asks. She sits beside me, leans into my arm like she did when we were just married, when we were engaged, when she was my girlfriend. We haven’t been this affectionate in years.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Is he changing?”

“He is. It’s amazing. You may have started a tradition.”

For some reason when she says this, I hear the word “trepidation.” When my brain autocorrects, trepidation is precisely what I feel at the thought of a new tradition. I imagine a pajama party every night between now and whenever, I imagine my wife and my son carrying on the tradition after I’m gone. Dancing, falling to the floor laughing as they remember the husband and father I had been. I remind myself that death is about as unlikely as growing my balls back after the doctor cuts them off—still, there’s a chance. I say something just to shake the current of self-pity, the surge of trepidation coursing through me. “I have an appointment next week. Soonest Doctor Hunter could get me in. He pulled strings.”

“Well, and what?”

“Just chop it off. Start radiation.”

Her hand on my shoulder, I brace for the question about whether we can still have children. Instead she asks, “What can I do?” She isn’t crying, she isn’t tears and panic. She is business. She says, “I can fundraise.”

“We can’t fundraise radiation.” I blow through my lips, a horse sound. I do it again.

She says, “We can fundraise the copay.”

James knocks on our door. He is a good son, a good boy, he knows not to come in if the door is closed. “I win!” he declares through the wood.

“Come in here buddy,” I say. “I want to talk to you.”

Serena shakes her head, telling me don’t you dare. Reminding me this is a conversation we don’t have with our son until we’ve agreed on how we’re going to have it.

“What’s the matter?” James asks, staring at my crotch, and it takes a miracle to realize that he’s asking why I’m still wearing my pants.

“I can’t find my PJs,” I say. “We need your help.”

He drops to the floor to check under the bed—the place anything he can’t find is ultimately located. “Not here,” he says.

Serena says, “Check in the closet, sweetheart,” and James scurries to the disorganized cave where we keep our clothes. She pets my neck, fingers a whisper on my clavicle, and steps away to pull her bathrobe from the hook on the door.

“Are these them?” he says. He holds up a pair of pajamas, sure enough, tops and bottoms, long sleeves, like old men wear. They’re still in the cellophane packaging, a price tag taped over a price tag taped over a price tag.

“That’s them,” I say. I have never seen them before in my life.

“I’ll go hide,” James says. In the kitchen the timer dings, and one by one my family vanishes.

The pajamas are not my size at all. The buttons strain as I near the neck, I barely get the top on. I’m pretty sure these are lavender.

I drop my pants and take a second in front of the mirror, man to man, balls to balls. Greet the swollen object that aims to kill me. They’d shaved it for the biopsy, and now stubbly hairs sprout among the wrinkles. A thin scar shines purple and distraught up the side, stitched like a baseball.

“Why does it look like that?” James says, surprising me. He stands in our doorway, which he’d opened without knocking. The mirror shows me what my son sees: not a father, not a familiar and dependable institution of a man, but a shaken and disorganized individual in a too-small lavender pajama top lifting his dick to better view the swollen, purpled nuts underneath.

“It’s infected,” I say.

“Can I see?” he asks. He walks right up to it. I flinch a little. He’s inches away, breathing through his mouth.

Serena fills the doorway, a terrified spatula in her hand.

“Does it hurt?” he asks.

“Sometimes,” I say. “The doctors are fixing it.”

He inspects it like mysteries are solved there. To a six-year-old, this might be accurate. How much does he know about balls? What healthy adult balls should look like, what they shouldn’t? He’s six years old: his testicles are meaningless as a knuckle.

He stands up, unimpressed or satisfied with my reasoning. He says, “Dinner’s ready,” the message he was sent to deliver, and he scoots past his mother into the dining room.

The bottoms are tight before they reach the knees. I put on sweatpants instead and take my seat at the table. A pyramid of nuggets on a single plate in the center, a free for all. James grabs with his hands and Serena doesn’t stop him. My plate’s already decorated with a pond of barbecue sauce, Serena’s with ranch. James has his squeeze bottle, but tonight he doesn’t douse his nuggets. He says, “I want to try mustard, I think.”

Serena looks at me, looks at him, looks at Henry hovering nearby, hoping for spills. She says, “Mustard? Like, yellow mustard? Or what? There are a lot of mustards.”

“Mustard mustard. What’s on hot dogs.”

“That’s yellow mustard. It won’t be good on chicken,” she warns, but she retrieves it.

“Dad, your pajamas are too small,” James says. In between buttons, the fabric offers little oval-shaped windows to my chest.

“And purple,” I say. “These are some tiny man’s pajamas. These aren’t my pajamas.”

James laughs, chicken mush in his teeth. He says, “Maybe they’re for Henry,” and he laughs harder, a windfall of laughter. He falls off his chair—this is apparently something he does now, this falling down. Half-chewed bits of nugget spew from his mouth. Henry rushes over, vacuums it up.

“Enough mister,” Serena says, setting the bottle on the table. “Here’s your mustard.”

“Is this yellow mustard?” he asks. The bottle is yellow, it says “yellow mustard” on it. This is how far talking animals have gotten him.

He hesitates, and then reaches for the ketchup.

I let out one quick, bark-like laugh. The jolt shudders down to my crotch and I almost choke—even this, I think as I’m curling over, it will take even laughter from me.

“Don’t make your dad laugh, honey,” Serena says.

“It’s not his fault,” I cough, but I’m lying. It is his fault, somehow, all of it. The years of waking up in the middle of the night, the fights between Serena and I, the twelve-hour days, the inability to pay down our debt, the two and a half years since I’ve seen Serena naked. It has nothing to do with testicular cancer, but somehow it does.

In this one terrible second of pain and frustration and weakness and fracture, my son is smiling, the little fucker. “I’m full,” he says, and he jumps from his chair. His mother and I stare at the nuggets on his plate, doused in ketchup like discarded bloody lumps. He retreats again into his room, closes the door, moves on to who-knows-what.

“They’re mine,” Serena says, pointing with her fork at my straining buttons. “I was going to try something.”

“Try something?”

“Spice it up,” she says.

“You were going to wear these,” I confirm, “to be sexy.”

She dips a nugget in ranch and crams it whole into her mouth. She nods.

“What’s wrong with lingerie? What’s wrong with blowjobs?”

She swallows. “I feel weird wearing that stuff. Like I’m trying.”

“What’s wrong with trying?” I ask, my arms in the air, exasperated not by the conversation but that we didn’t have it five years ago. I demolish a nugget between my teeth and can’t help but imagine my wife in old man pajamas. There is an undeniable stirring in my crotch, however slight, not unpleasant. Futile, but not unpleasant.

“Why didn’t you do it?” I ask. “They were still in the package.”

She looks away, embarrassed or doubtful, or embarrassed that she’s doubtful.

“I’ll still be able to,” I say. “There’s still a chance.”

“I don’t know,” she says, but she looks at me with a new conversation in her eyes: her ears perked, hearing something in James’s room that I don’t hear. She disappears and I hear her voice a second later, calm and soothing, the best voice she has: “What’s wrong sweetheart? Oh, come here baby.”

“This always happens,” James groans. “You say you’ll play and then you don’t. You just don’t. You never keep your promises and it’s not fair.”

I join them in James’s room. Serena’s hand smoothes the shitty hair at the back of his head. My parental instinct is to chastise him, to tell him it isn’t time for games, that it’s still dinner time and he needs to finish the nuggets he spilled ketchup all over. Serena simply says, “We’re going to play. We’re going to play.” She holds him against her chest, and he cries into the soft lapel of her bathrobe. His shoulders shudder and he gasps, that abject, selfless crying that children take for granted. He sniffs long and burbling, fluids pouring out of him. “I heard you talking. You forgot all about the game.”

“Mommy and I had to talk about something. We’re ready to play now,” I say to him. “Do you want to go outside and count?”

“You go outside and count,” he snarls, as though these are the meanest words anyone has ever uttered.

In the living room it’s Henry and I. He jumps up on the sofa I shouldn’t have bought, drops his head on my thigh.

It’s been about a minute, I figure, I hope. “Ready or not,” I announce. Henry’s little eyebrows twitch. He doesn’t lift his head to let me up. “Ready or not,” I say again, drawing the words out. I pat our dog on the head, try to communicate to him that my family depends on me standing up right now. Their hearts are beating in some darkness in my son’s room, their breath preparing for the long hold, their bodies locking into a stillness that will not give them away. They know that eventually they’ll be found, they know that it will end with losing, but those moments in the dark when they are convinced there is a chance, that they might continue on indefinitely undefeated, that is why we play.

Robert Martin is the executive assistant for the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and a contributing editor for Rain Taxi Review of Books. He studied writing at the University of Montana and earned his MA in English from the writing program at UW-Milwaukee. His work has recently appeared in Rain Taxi, The Great Lakes Review, and Revolver. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, son, and tiny dog.

Dotted Line