Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2018    poetry    all issues

Summer 2018 Cover


Cover Michael Lønfeldt

Emily Rinkema
Child A

Alice Martin
A Hole to Nowhere

Fan Li
Dromedaries in America

Judy Colp Rubin
The Crossing

Rebeccah Dean
Forgotten Dreams

Marianne Stokes

K. Ralph Bray

Zoë Däe
Bugs Under a Spaghetti Strainer

Charles J. Alden
Double Feature

Ateret Haselkorn

M. M. Ehasz
A Shanghai Concession

Kitty Bleak
Sooner or Later

Barbara Fischer
From the Gentlemen at the Bar

Wendy Cohan
The Sweetness of Cowboys

Kitty Bleak

Sooner or Later

The dirt everywhere in Oklahoma is red, something to do with an excess of iron. It hits you suddenly, like the sight of blood, oozing from the jagged edges of a sinkhole or bubbling up from potholes in the road. The houses are red too, low and brick. They hunker down in a vain attempt to blend in: maybe the next tornado won’t hit them. But there is no such luck. All of the roofs, even on the oldest houses, are new.

The roads are not new, but patchwork, more pockmarked than a pubescent teenger. Some holes are clumsily filled in by asphalt of another shade of gray, while others are left gaping until the next round of insanity.

The signboard outside a church we pass says, “Satan intends evil. God intends good.” Nature doesn’t care either way. It hasn’t gotten the memo about morality, ripping up people’s houses whether they’ve been saintly or sinners, not caring about the mega industry that’s put so much effort into paving over its skin as it shrugs off the asphalt. It is indifferent also to my wishes, plowing through my every effort to beat it back as it plants a fleshy little seed in my belly.

It’s almost fourteen weeks now, the size of a lime, the internet says. I picture its too big head, its translucent skin. I catch myself resting my hand on the top of my stomach, though there’s not much to see. I wish I felt angelic instead of stupid. But nature has chosen its vessel. Life begets life; willingness is irrelevant.

My grandparents don’t meet us at the door. We come in, single file through the side entrance in the carport—me, Mom, Dad, and my brother—as they rock methodically in their matching recliners. They have a perfectly nice front door around the side, but this is the South. Only the preacher and maybe the president (if he’s Republican) stand on formality. So instead we wander past the tools and the beat up cars, everything pink with dust, past the hot water heater, rumbling away. I’ve come to associate that humming, bone rattling feeling with these visits.

“Long trip?”

My mother takes point, though these are not her parents. “It wasn’t too bad.”

“Well, there’s pound cake and key lime pie there in the kitchen.”

“Oh, that’s ok, we ate on the road.”

“It’s no trouble, get yourself a snack.”

“Really, we’re alright for now.”

“Well, here then, let me just get you a piece.”

Grandma is up now, creaking across the kitchen linoleum, her elbows bent upward behind her back. The muscle and fat hang together off the bone, like the slipping, tender meat of a cooked chicken.

Despite her protests, a slab of pound cake is thrust into my mother’s hand.

“This looks great, Jean, really. But we aren’t hungry just yet.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll get you some milk. Did you want ice cream?”

I escape while I can and drag my suitcase to the back bedroom. When I return, Grandma has made me up a plate.

“So, how’s wedding planning going, Lacy?”

“Good, it’s not too bad.”

“Glad to hear it. Where is the man of the hour then?”

“Oh, he’s got a big deadline next week, so he had to stay and work.”

“Well that’s good he’s a hard worker. We just wish we got to see him more.”

I say something non-committal before changing the subject.

“So, Grandpa, have you gotten any new stamps since I was here last?”

“Not since then, no. It’s been a slow couple of months.”

I drink bottled water I brought myself. I am the definition of conspicuous, with my crackling plastic. But the water here is tainted, arsenic and other poisons from the red sediment leaching in. My grandparents still drink from the tap. Bottled water is expensive.

Mom breaks the silence. “Jean, did you get new couches?”

“Oh no, it’s just some of those couch covers. They were having a fabric sale at Hobby Lobby. You know, how they do?”

I roam the kitchen while the adults talk, literally bumping into my brother, who is doing the same. I feel young when I come here, as if I am a snake trying to crawl back into its skin. I peel it on, holding the brittle edges together in to mimic the original shape, then walk around carefully, holding my breath.

“Did you see the dessert in the freezer?” my brother asks. He is two years younger, still a junior in college. I envy him his free time, the late nights spent philosophizing, the blissful expectation that after college anyone will care what you have to say.

“No, does it look good?”

“Yeah, but it’s weird.”

I open the door, and mist coats my cheeks. Inside is a rectangular cake pan, the contents hidden by a covering of tin foil. I yell back at my Grandmother, interrupting.

“What kind of cake is this?”

“Oh, it’s just one of those salads.”


“Uh huh, it’s got orange jello and banana slices. It’s got some cherries in it, oh, and some walnuts.”

I lift the corner of the foil to reveal a flat, dense surface, white and iridescent like an arctic plain. There are maraschinos and other candied fruits thinly concealed, lurking beneath the surface. This is what my family calls a salad.

“Looks great.”

Before dinner, we say grace. This is my grandfather’s big moment, more words in a row than he will say the rest of the trip. He always starts the same: “Dear God. Thank you for this food, and the gorgeous woman who prepared it. Even if she does use too much salt.” Always, Grandma sighs and rolls her eyes, with not even a pretense of levity.

After this, Grandpa goes around the table, naming each person and saying something he is thankful for about them. With the men, it is usually how hardworking they are. With the women, how good looking. When he reaches the grandchildren, my brother is first.

“Thank you, Lord, for Connor, who is turning into a fine young man. Thank you for giving him courage and a hard working spirit. We know you have big things planned for him.

“Thank you for Lacy, who has grown up to be a beauty, just like her mother. We also thank you for her fiance, even though he can’t be here with us. We know you’re watching over him, wherever he is. We ask only that you lighten his load at work next time around, so he can make it for the holidays, and we can get to know him better.”

Once grace is dispensed with and guilt firmly cemented, we eat.

“Did you get enough rolls, hon?”

“I’m fine, Grandma, thanks. I really don’t need any more.”

“Well of course you don’t need more! Here’s another one for you.”

The salad makes an appearance as well. There are special plates for it, little flower-rimmed tea saucers that Grandma has been keeping in the china hutch. It sits atop them in perfectly straight squares, melting secretly along the bottom, so that if you try to cut off a bite, the whole thing slides away from you like it’s on an ice rink.

Spurred by the sugar rush, my father finally speaks. “The new shed looks nice, Dad, did you hire it out to have it done?”

“Well, nothing fancy, just paid of a couple of them Mexican boys cash to put it up. They sure do know how to work. I thought later I should’a just paid ‘em in hot sauce and chimichangas, they’d probably like that better!”

I tense, and I hear Connor’s intake of breath. We exchange glances, a secret liberal handshake. But I can’t even help myself, can’t summon the courage to tell them how I’m in the family way, barely a ring on my finger to cover my shame. I’ve got no business intervening.

Dad seems not to notice our reaction. “What you need to do is get some of them Indians from these reservations. They’d probably do it for a bottle of whiskey.”

My grandpa wheezes like an old accordion. “Yup, that’s true, I should’a thought of that.”

For dessert, we are treated to another piece of snow white coconut cake.

I bitch to Michael after dinner. “You should’ve seen it. It was like a competition to see who could be the most racist. Actually, I’m glad you weren’t here. I’d be mortified.”

He laughs, though there is a several second delay. “Yeah, I’m sorry. I know how that goes.”

Silence on the phone always sounds funny, pregnant with almost-static, always as if someone is listening in.

“What are you up to?”

“Oh, just thinking about dinner.”

He is doing something else. I can tell from the pauses and half answers.

“How was work today?”

“You know . . . it was fine.”

I think I hear typing, the faint clacking of shallow keys against his laptop keyboard. He is always attempting to multitask; he can’t bear the thought of just sitting and talking on the phone. Meanwhile I sit crossways on the bed with my feet against the wall, staring at the ceiling like a lovestruck teenager.

“Anything interesting?”

“Not really . . . .oh! Actually, this thing happened with Kellerman. He was—god, I was so pissed!”

The typing stops. He is on a roll now. Like high tide at a beach with no wind, he has worked himself into an isolated frenzy.

“Uh huh, that sounds really annoying.”

“Who does he even think he is?”

“Yeah, totally.”

“Damn, I hate that guy.”

“Me too, babe.”

Something has happened to us lately that I can’t seem to undo. There is a lack of pressure in our relationship, a leak somewhere from which I can feel the blood seeping out of us, oozing in a way that is nothing like the red dirt. That blood is pulsing, raging. It is single-minded in its fight against suburbians and manifest destiny. This is more of a slow drip, like an IV, carrying us away in little plastic tubes. We are fading silently, going gently as if we are already corpses.

I am relieved when we finally hang up the phone.

The next day, I ride with my mom and grandmother to the local flea market. The ground is flat here and the grass sparse. The trees we see are mostly strategic, meant to flank neighborhood signs in order to make them appear majestic, gated, but instead they stick out like Charlie Brown Christmas trees.

We pass several prefab houses being built, the skin of the construction workers almost as red as the dirt. There is a poster board sign in front of them that reads, “Coming Soon: OK Living! Family Housing. No Credit, No Problem! Apply Today!”

“We’re trying to stop that company,” my grandmother explains, nodding. Her padded chin wobbles, lending her a dignified air. “We don’t want a bunch of low income people coming up in here. We need that tax money to pay for upkeeping of roads and such. We have our standards.”

Just then our car lurches in and out of a fissure in the asphalt, narrowly escaping two pot holes. I grapple against the car door for leverage.

“So how often do you fix them?” I ask.

She laughs.

We reach the store on the town square, and a bell dings as we enter. The building is rough, made of concrete and cement blocks, with the ceiling struts exposed. It has the feel of an unfinished basement, cool even in the heat of Oklahoma summer, complete with a faint mildew smell.

Grandma has a booth off to one side, from which she sells hand-embroidered handkerchiefs with Bible verses on them and sweatshirts onto which she has laboriously puff-painted pictures of cats. I finger one of the handkerchiefs, running my thumb over the bright flowers. It reads, in careful, thin stitches, “Love is patient, love is kind. 1 Corinthians 13:4.” The first “L” is big and looping, running through the rest of the script, so that the “n” and the “d” in “kind” are hard to make out.

“You want that one for Michael, sweetie? I’ll bet he could use a handkerchief.”

“Nah, that’s ok, Grandma. I don’t want it to get snot on it and everything.”

She nods and turns back to what she was doing.

Michael and I met at a college party, an auspicious beginning, fueled by Miller High Life and the dank, enveloping humidity of a Arkansas night in August. He arrived late, something I later learned was a habit that would have seemed calculated if it didn’t always take him by such surprise. The group I was with erupted with cheers upon seeing him, standing and dissolving into back-slapping hugs.

“Where you been, man? It’s been dull as hell without you!”

“Ah, man, you know, just working. Been up at Enterprise, renting cars. You’d be surprised how much they pay up there.”

“Ah yeah? Well damn, man, I’m glad you’re doing well!”

It is a woods party, someone’s idea they think will stop the cops from finding us. The seniors arrive late with Michael, but they don’t stay. Dropping off the boxes of beer, they fidget and look over their shoulders while they collect the cash, charging us extra for the drive out to “the middle of nowhere.” I pull out my wallet, but Michael waves me away.

“I got you,” he says.

And just like that, I am caught. There is a purity to his actions, a selflessness in taking on my debt. And already he is turning back to the departing seniors, expecting nothing, thinking nothing of it.

“So, do you come out here a lot?”

“Not really. You know, I kind of make the rounds. Try to see as many people as possible.”

“Oh wow, Mr. Popular over here!”

He laughs. “What can I say? Gotta give the people what they want.”

“Lucky them.”

Someone calls his name from across the clearing.

“Sorry, one second.”

“You weren’t lying about being popular.”

“Nah, I just haven’t seen him in a while. We’ve got to catch up real quick. Be right back.”

I wait almost thirty minutes, but by then he is gone, moved on to another party. I don’t make it into his rotation again for several months, but when he reappears, or rather I appear, it’s like he’s won the lottery.

“Hey hey, there she is!”

I am flattered he remembered me. Not only that, I am his favorite person. His is smiling, baseball cap cocked to one side. He meets me at the door of Jake’s house and hugs me before I can even make it in. I feel his body laid out against mine, arms enveloping my shoulders, my head cradled against his chest as if we have known each other a long time. He smells like Axe. The shape of his bones feels right against mine.

He lets go. “You want a drink?”


“Alright, let’s get you one. Come on, I want you to meet my friends.”

I don’t realize until later that he is already drunk. I don’t realize until after we are engaged that he didn’t remember my name. There was a girl when we met before, someone he was “talking to” that I didn’t know about. Now he is off the hook, and I am there. Like so many things that hadn’t mattered before, it is one of those details that is suddenly of great importance.

I wander the booths at the flea market while Grandma and my mother talk. I should go help, ease the conversational load between in-laws, but instead I rub the dust off of glass lamps filled with red oil and shoestring wicks. I touch the heads of creepy ancient dolls. I pass woven baskets and blown glass figurines, moonshine jugs and the kind of heavy, dark wood furniture that really dates a house.

A common trend is shabby-chic, artfully distressed signs with wanderlust quotes and hideous candle holders made cool in matte white. This is the kind of thing Michael loves. He wants a loft with painted-over brick and frayed-edge countertops. He wants a view of a city skyline and the kind of square footage people only have in movies. I used to love his ideas. My pragmatic self could take a leg off and get swept along for the ride. But now we need to be saving money, being smart. My patience is wearing. The baby is going to be expensive.

We always used condoms. I didn’t like hormones, and IUDs were expensive. Occasionally there would be a slip up, but it wasn’t a big deal. I took the Morning After Pill, and it was all cleared up, like allergies or a UTI. Until it wasn’t.

It was so cliche, the way it happened. It was like a scene out of any daytime sitcom.

We are sitting on Michael’s plaid thrift store couch, watching The Walking Dead. A bloated zombie is ripped in half. Blood and bits of pulpy matter spray across the screen. Michael shifts, rearranging my feet, which are in his lap.

MICHAEL: Hey, have you gotten your period in a while?

ME: Yeah, I just had it on . . . I’m not sure, actually.

MICHAEL: Maybe you should check.

ME: Check what?

MICHAEL: You know, like, your calendar or something.

ME: (laughs) What are you talking about? I don’t keep a calendar.

MICHAEL: You don’t? Seriously? I just assumed you did. You should really know when it is.

ME: What are you, my dad? It’s none of your business, it’s my lady bleeding.

MICHAEL: Well actually it is my business if you wind up carrying my goddamned kid.

Awkward pause. Close up of my shocked face. Zoom in on Michael as he looks at the floor.

MICHAEL: (quiet, remorseful) Don’t you think maybe you should just take one of those tests?

Cut to ad. Next week (spoiler) the test is positive.

“There you are!” Mom had found me, sniffed me out among a bunch of handmade pins, the kind you put on backpacks or berets. “Thanks a lot for the help, Grandma and I have been having a really great talk about M*A*S*H.”

She blows her bleached white-blond bangs out of her eyes, then cocks her head when I don’t immediately respond. Warning signs go off in my brain. Intruder alert. Sadness detected.

“Ah right, sorry about that.” I try for joviality but can’t tell if the smile makes it to my eyes. “I was just really busy over here, trying to choose between the diaper pin and this Elmo.”

My mom reaches out a finger, scratching at the threads of the diaper. It’s depicted as the old fashioned cloth kind, with a silver clothespin in one corner. “How cute! You know, I sometimes miss having you little ones running around everywhere, making messes.”

My throat closes up, and there is a sudden flash of heat across my eyes. I could tell her all of it now, just fall to pieces in this little store, but I am terrified. If I stay silent, everything is fine. It all goes back to normal. If I tell her, anything could happen. Yet it feels so good, leaning over the edge, that first feeling of weightlessness before freefall.

I open my mouth, but I see Grandma there, lurking with her papery skin and her finger so gnarled she can’t take off her wedding ring. She turns her head, one cloudy blue eye peering at me as if she already knows, and I bail, making a break for the bathroom.

We thought, under the circumstances, it would be best to have a quiet engagement. Michael took me out to dinner, Italian, and had the waiter put the ring in a glass of sparkling grape juice. I knocked over the glass trying to get it out, sticky soda liquid spreading across the tablecloth.

“Wow, way to ruin the moment.”

He pokes me to signal it’s a joke, but I’m not in the mood. He’s ordered a bottle of real champagne for himself and nervously fills up his glass. There is an awkward pause.

“The ring is a little small, I know, but I figured you’d want to get engaged fast. You know, so you still look good in the pictures and everything. Before you turn into a balloon.”

He tries another smile that I don’t return.

“Yeah, thanks a lot. That’s really what I want to be reminded of right now. How fat and terrible I’m going to look. Sorry this is all so gross and inconvenient for you!”

“Whoa, hey, I didn’t say that!”

“Michael, what are we even doing? This is never going to work, you shouldn’t get married because of a kid. We’re such idiots, what were we thinking? We—”

“Shh, Lacy, stop!” He reaches across the table, his sleeve squelching in the juice, “Hey, I know this isn’t what we would have planned, but we’re gonna be ok. Things are good at Enterprise, I can pick up a few extra shifts, and then we’ll have a little squirt running around. Whatever the kid is, we’re gonna spoil it rotten. What matters is we love each other, right? C’mon, stop crying. It’s all gonna work out. We’re gonna be the cutest, Instafamous parents, and our kid is going to wind up all screwed up from it, like Macaulay Culkin. And then we’ll just stick him in movies and live off of the royalties. It’s gonna be fine, ok?”

I laugh and burst into tears, and he pats me and makes shushing noises from across the table. I feel better for a while after that.

Dinner this time is fried okra and heaping mashed potatoes, flaky biscuits and chicken-fried-steak. Michael is trying to get ahold of me, sending messages that I put off replying. There is a mounting feeling of terror since the flea market, a weight on my chest and a pressure in my ears that grows and grows. I feel as if my skin is stretched too tight, like the button on my pants will explode and my ribs will burst from my chest at any moment. I tell myself it will be easy, like stepping through a door. Anything is better than this.

Mom and Grandma are talking again, more talk about prices and coupons, trading exclamations over deals on craft items. There is a lull in conversation, and before I can stop myself, I blurt, “I’m pregnant.”

There is a pause. There is no gasp, no tinkling of breaking glass. There is only a pursed-lip, sucked in kind of silence. My mother frowns, and the men pause a moment before resuming eating with more intensity than before. Only Conner reacts. His head snaps up, and his eyes dart around the table. Then he ducks again, and there is a head-bowed moment of waiting.

Grandma finishes chewing and sets down her napkin. She clears her throat. “Well, I don’t know why you had to bring it up. Right now, when we’re having a nice dinner.”

“I just . . . thought you should know.” Blood pounds dully in my ears. My voice sounds far away.

“Know? It’s not as if a body could miss it! Being old don’t make us blind. At least you’re marrying him, Lord knows why you feel the need to swan on about it. But then, I guess kids do things differently these days.”

She stabs at her icy slab of dessert, the ambrosia salad skating away and tipping over the edge of the saucer. It lurches and then lies half erect, one corner on the tablecloth, the bulk of it jutting up against the rim of the plate like a sugary, pink iceberg. As I watch, half a maraschino cherry falls out, flashing red as it gains momentum. It rolls off the table and falls wetly onto the floor.

Grandma hisses, sucking in her teeth. “Gosh darn it. Now I’ll have to bleach the tablecloth again.”

Kitty Bleak enjoys ice cream more than most people. She also likes science fiction, summer breezes, and shooting things in video games

Dotted Line