Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2013    poetry    all issues


Tristen Chang

John Shortino
Final Notice

Chris Belden
The Woodpecker Problem

Naima Lynch
And I Will Bring You Oranges

Daniel C. Bryant

Susannah Carlson
Killing Methuselah

Afia Atakora

Mackenzie E. Smith

Sabra Waldfogel

Lainey Bolen Burdge
Paper Thin

Erin Rodoni
Crossing the Street in Hanoi

Tim Weed
The Afternoon Client

Rick Kast
Of Wolves and Men

Andy Jameson

Thea Johnson
Baby Doll

Charles Alden
Holy Orders

Julie Zuckerman
Birthday Bash

Kathryn Shaver
The Fourth Monkey

Chip Houser
The Goatherd of Naxos

Susannah Carlson

Killing Methuselah

Marcy Fitzsimons and Donald Shortz discuss my handiwork while I, all but invisible, sweep blood and hair off of the linoleum beside the operating table on the other side of the room.

“I just don’t get it,” Marcy says, in her bright and girlish way. “He should be dead. And what’s stranger, he is still moving his bowels.”

I can’t help it, I snicker, smothering it with a sneeze. They don’t notice.

Marcy pulls a black-and-white rat out of a cage by its tail. It tries to climb up to her hand, falls back, waves its paws. She sets the rat on a tray and tucks its head into a little guillotine. “I wish we could open him up and see what’s going on in there, but he’s too weak at this point. He’d just die and ruin everything.” She flicks a lever and the blade drops. The rat’s legs kick. She wipes her hands on her crisp white coat, leaving bloody streaks. She puts the body and the head into a plastic bowl.

“Does it smell like flowers?” Donald sits at a desk nearby, eating a sandwich.

“Hunh?” Snick. Another rat goes into the bowl.

“His shit,” he says, his words muddled by the bread and meatloaf in his mouth. “Poo.”

“It smells awful. Why would you ask?”

“I read a study recently about a yogi in Calcutta who says he hasn’t eaten anything or had a drop to drink in seventy years. He says his shit smells like lotus blossoms.”

“Do you believe everything you read?”

“It’s a scientific study, Marcy.” He stands, brushes off his hands, and takes the bowl of rats to the operating table I just finished cleaning. “Hey, are you going to The Nut House tonight? I heard a bunch of folks are planning to.”

“Yeah, I think so.” Snick. “You forgot this one.”

I go to the other side of the room and start wiping up the blood, polishing the little guillotine with alcohol. It is tiny, sharp, and perfect, like an intricate and dangerous children’s toy.

Here at LifeWorks International, I clean cages, scrub floors, polish centrifuges, and fuck with the experiments. It’s not like I am messing with a cure for world hunger or cancer or even acne. LifeWorks International is a government contractor—DoD to be exact. I’m not sure what they are trying to discover by irradiating mice, shooting pigs, and starving dogs to death, but they make a lot of money doing it.

Since my most recent escape, and subsequent divorce, I don’t have much of a life beyond work and appointments with my shrink. Almost as soon as I left Jeb, the clouds came in. I was unemployed and had left absolutely everything behind in his big house in Los Altos when I made my escape to my mildew-stained apartment in Santa Cruz. One night, when I caught myself wondering what antifreeze really tastes like, I knew I had to get help. Luckily, I got this job not long after, and the insurance covers my appointments, with a fifteen dollar co-pay.

Her name is Hasannah Fortune, which is the reason I chose her, and it is probably the only good thing about her. I’ve been seeing her for a couple of months. She knows all about my exes, the beatings and beratings, the bruises and the heartbreak, but her knowing those things isn’t fixing them. Lately she’s been pushing me to talk about my childhood. I don’t see the point but I try to oblige. I just don’t have a lot to say about it. I was smaller, I lived in a house, I went to a school; now I am bigger, I live in a hovel, I go to a job.

The first time I saw her I’d expected to lie on a red leather couch with brass studs to finger as I pondered my tribulations. Even sitting on the ratty arm chair in her waiting room, picking at the stuffing that poked out where too many hands had tensely gripped the arm rests, I pictured Persian rugs and that red leather chaise lounge.

It was not to be.

Ms. Fortune’s chambers were sparse and sweltering. An old grey fan on the floor turned its head from side to side, pushing the stagnant air around. Hasannah, herself, sweated in her damp tee shirt on a rattan armchair. I was motioned to a matching loveseat with tropically upholstered cushions. Sitting comfortably on it was impossible. The cushions were so soft my thighs sank down hard, the rattan frame cutting off circulation in seconds, and it was far too short to lie down. I perched on the edge, resting my weight on my feet so my legs wouldn’t fall asleep.

She told me I wasn’t crazy. She said I had a “faulty bullshit monitor.” I laughed, and she looked at me, curious and stone faced. “There’s nothing funny about it, Jane.”

I pictured a meter recessed in my head, I pictured her giving it a good whack, and the needle rising, tipping right, toward red. I giggled.

“What is it you’re trying not to feel right now, Jane?” she said, leaning toward me.

“I’m trying not to laugh, Ms. Fortune.” I choked another giggle. “I’m sorry.”

“I can tell that what you need to do is cry, Jane,” Ms. Fortune said to me. She stood then, and, oh God, she came across the room toward me, she sat down next to me and she put her arms around me. Good Lord. She pressed my face against her breast and said, “Go ahead. Let it out.” I was thinking, “But Dahling, I hardly know you,” and trying not to laugh again. But now I was stuck. Now I had to cry OR ELSE. Or else she would go home to her sterile apartment and her well-groomed cats and sit down on the sofa and worry about what a bad shrink she was. Bad, bad shrink.

So, for her sake, I kind of searched around in my head for something sad. Something I could really cry about and mean it. There wasn’t much, because it all becomes funny after a few days. Doesn’t matter what “it all” is. But there was that September 11th thing. It had been almost a month. I’d just begun to see the humor in it. Okay, so I thought about that. I thought about the couple who jumped from way the hell up there, from forever up there, holding hands; and about the pair of hands, just hands, someone found after, still clasped. The men I had been with would be much more likely to push me out of that window. Any window. So, fine, I cried.

I’ve gotten really good at crying when she wants me to, and sometimes I’ll even make things up so she won’t get bored, but I don’t tell her about Methuselah. I don’t trust Ms. Fortune as far as I can throw her. She was one of five names offered to me to choose from when I called the company EAP. I can’t tell her everything. She is surely one of them.

His name wasn’t originally Methuselah, or at least I doubt it. It was probably Jack or Bowser or Clyde or Rover, once upon a time, before he wound up at LifeWorks. He’s a beagle, as were his cohorts, all brought in by the same shady dealer, all weighed and measured and judged to be equivalent enough for the study; all starved to death over the course of a few weeks—all but him. Then he wasn’t Methuselah, he was Subject 12-X-15TD. But once he outlasted his cohort and proceeded to continue breathing for weeks on end, the researchers granted him that mouthful of a name. They haven’t fed him a thing for two months. He is the talk of the facility, and his limp, near-lifeless body is often poked and prodded and shown off for visiting scientists, or reporters, or whatever they are. His picture, one from several weeks ago, when he still looked like a beagle, has been published far and wide, along with excited papers by the researchers in charge of him.

He is my opus. Up until Methuselah I had entertained myself by switching genetically modified mice with normal mice, throwing off the data almost imperceptibly, or so it seemed, because the papers got published and the money rolled in. And frankly those little pranks were harder to pull off beneath the watching eye of the security camera than simply bending down with my back to the camera, reaching through the bars as if to pet his boney head, and feeding him some kibble.

Ms. Fortune tells me I should get in touch with the little girl I once was. I really don’t see how anyone can “get in touch” with a long-dead child, or how that is going to help me get up in the morning, or figure out how not to marry men who hurt me, but I figure I might as well try.

I like little places. In a little place you can be sure what’s there. You can’t get snuck up on. There’s a pile of clothes on my closet floor. I like that. But today I’m behind the piano. I’m eating grapes behind the piano and spitting the seeds on the floor. It feels kind of good, knowing no one will ever find them. I am the only person in the world who sits behind the piano. I stay here and listen to the clock ticking, the refrigerator making refrigerator noises, you know. And I read the names of my dad’s books through the crack between the piano and the wall. My dad’s walls are made of books. I read the names and wonder what’s inside. When I have to pee I run to the bathroom. I run because the minute I get up and start walking I can feel something behind me. I can feel it looking at me, following me, so I run. And I run back, too, because that thing follows me, and then I have to curl up and just suck my thumb for awhile until I feel safe again. No one ever finds me. No one ever even looks.

I lie on my bed that night and close my eyes, looking for the kid: The grimy little urchin with knotted, blondish hair, who sucked her thumb, and preferred hiding to living. The weird little girl who insisted on wearing the same red jacket, indoors and out, season after season, until it just kind of faded off of her, never to be seen again. The kid I was. But I don’t see a kid. I see a hole in the ground. A well, maybe, or just a hole. It’s dark in there, it’s tight and deep and cold. Maybe I catch a glimpse of red, hear a sniffle, hear the distant echo of a sigh.

No. No fucking way am I going in there. No man, no shrink, no nobody can coax me down into that darkness. If the kid wants me, she’ll have to crawl on up and find me. Shrinky Dink thinks my tears are important. I can make them happen for her. I don’t need to go down there. I don’t need to go that far.

“Listen,” I say. “I’m not going in there. Nothing is worth that. Let the kid rot. She’s been rotting a long time, it’s her style. I just won’t marry again. I’ll buy a vibrator.”


“I’ll stay single forever, who cares? I’m the only person who has ever made me cum every time anyhow. What do I need a man for? Why am I seeing you? I mean, thank you and all for helping me realize I don’t need them, or you.”

“Jane,” she says. “Listen. I have an idea. You have a hellish commute.”

“I like the roads. But you’re right, it’s long.”

“Okay, let’s not give up. Do me a favor, alright?”


“While you’re driving to work and back, just let her ride with you. Just let little Jane ride with you. Talk to her.”

“What? Out loud? Like a nut?”

“In your head, then. Talk to her.”

I picture myself driving with a blow-up Suck-Me-Baby-Jane doll on the passenger seat. I try not to laugh. “OOOHKAY. Okay, but if this doesn’t work I’m just going to have myself sewn shut. Deal?”

It’s cold. I curl up in my sleeping bag and drag Bongo in with me. I tie her leash tight around my waist so she can’t get out. Her warmth fuels mine. Through the branches, I can see the moon, full and wailing, and a few stars. I’ve made myself a little den of branches here on Stanford campus, across the street from the high school I’m supposed to attend, though I don’t bother with that middle class bullshit. I’m a little scared, but my camp is so small, the size of my sleeping bag, like a cocoon. It comforts me. No cop’s gonna find me here. I’ll get to the smoking section in the morning, and my friends and I will figure out my next move. Tonight I’m safe. I’ve got Bongo, and branches scratching softly at the fullness of the moon.

I think of my father’s face tomorrow when he tries to wake the me he thinks is me. Shaking what he thinks is my shoulder, and “me” coming apart, piles of pillows and blankets. The look on his face makes me laugh. I put my thumb in my mouth and fall asleep chuckling.

So, fine. I’ve paid my fifteen bucks. I’ll obey Ms. Mindfuck.

I am on Page Mill Road, the raunchiest, windingest road I know. I like to speed on that road. I like to go as fast as I can and masturbate and see if I can keep it together. But this day I am summoning a spirit. I ask the little girl to come. I close my eyes on a tight, uphill curve, and I summon her to join me. I am commuting with the spirits.

I open my eyes and look over, and there’s the passenger seat, all covered in papers and crap and stuff I need to throw away, but I see her, too. The wrong her. She’s sitting there with her arms crossed, one leg slung over the other, a foot wagging. She is chewing gum and glaring out the windshield. She is tapping a purple fingernail against her upper arm and rolling her blue-lidded eyes.

“I’m sorry?” I say. It’s like I misdialed the psychic hotline.

“What?” says she of the bleached and feathered hair. “You got a problem with me? Can we change the station to KSJO PUH-LEASE? What IS this crap you’re listening to? Got any Zep?”

She lights a cigarette.

I hate her. Always have.

“Go away,” I think, or say.

“Fuck you,” she says. “You’re stuck with me.”

Well, I’ve really got nothing to say to the little bitch. I drive awhile and listen to her popping her gum. Smoking and chewing gum at the same time—a class act, all right. “Listen,” I say. “You were a real bitch when you were me.”

“I’m still a bitch, judging from the looks of things.” She turns her head and stares out the window. “Let me out,” she says to the glass.

“Get out the same way you came,” I say. “I wasn’t looking for you anyhow.”

“Can’t,” she says.

This is ridiculous. I stop the car and open the passenger side door so She Who Isn’t There can get the hell away from me.

“Just going to abandon me by the side of the road?” She sneers. “You’re just like your mother.”

Oh that’s it. That is so very much IT.

I don’t know why I’m crying. Mom leaves all the time. But this time I’m crying. My breath hitches up and up and up. It’s that kind of crying. Like a twitch under your eye. I can’t control it. I put my thumb in my mouth and my whole body jerks with each gasp. It sounds like I’m trying not to laugh. I hope my mom can’t hear me.

She never once looks back as she walks toward the plane.

I suck my thumb. I clutch my Daddy’s hand.

I gesture at my imaginary nemesis, waving her out of the car. I slam the door.

As I drive away I can feel her standing there behind me, and this cold kind of wells up within me. A terrible chill that raises the hair on my arms. I know that feeling. The frostbite of utter abandonment. I feel her bewilderment and sorrow as if it is my own, which of course it is. I cry the rest of the way home.

Mom tells me Michael wants to talk to me. He’s sitting on the frayed Lay-Z-Boy in the living room, his freckled, red-furred feet propped on the footrest, staring at the TV. Good things never happen when Michael wants to talk to me, but I’m stuck here for two months, and he thinks he’s in charge. This time he says I’m not washing my hair right. He takes me to the bathroom to teach me how to bathe.

I have had it up to here with Ms. Fortune and her fantasyland, her conjuring of tears and ghosts—her uncanny ability to make what I used to get a good chuckle out of no longer funny at all. She is trying to turn me into some tragic creature, some humorless victim. Next she’ll suggest a support group, Adult Survivors of Childhood, or something like that. If I let her keep at me I’ll become one of those preachy shrink junkies who feel so very saved and are, in fact, as dull as Shrinky Dink herself. I’d rather hie me to a nunnery than spend another hour with her.

I call her to tell her so. I am still sniffling from the good cry I’d had driving home. To my chagrin, I get her instead of her answering machine. “Ms. Fortune, I am calling to say I no longer need your services.”

“Are you okay? You sound like you’ve been crying.”

“I have. I’m done.”

“Oh, you have? Good work, Jane!”

“No. See, I’m done.” I tell her about the teenager. I tell her that was enough.

“Jane,” she says. “You’ve had a genuine breakthrough. Please don’t stop now. Don’t waste that good work.”

This morning I went into my dad’s workroom, behind the garage. I went in to feed Steed and Mrs. Peel, my rats. I closed the door behind me, because it’s hot today. I forgot there’s no doorknob on the inside. I forgot we aren’t allowed to shut that door because we can’t get out again if we do. I can’t believe I forgot, but I did. I’ve been in here a really long time. I’ve been screaming, “HEEEELP!” with my face pressed to the door. “HEEEELP!” I have to really say the “P” hard at the end. If I don’t, it just sounds like I’m screaming, “HELL!” Who comes running when a kid screams, “HELL?” Nobody, that’s who. Except if it’s on the playground and it’s the yard duty coming to take you to the principal and get you in trouble. I have to make sure someone knows I’m in here. I’ve been crying a lot. My face is all sticky with tears and dirt, and my sleeve is wet from wiping my nose. I’m hungry. It’s getting dark out. I’ve been in here screaming, “HEEEEELP!” since right after breakfast. I remember that because I brought my rats the last bit of my toast. There’s still a little crust in the cage, and I am so hungry I think maybe I will reach in and get it. I could wipe the cedar chips and rat poop off it. Maybe no one will ever notice I am gone. “HEEEELP!” I scream, even though my throat hurts and my voice sounds like it does when I get sick.


There’s a big celebration in the LifeWorks cafeteria. I can hear them laughing all the way down the hall. It’s Methuselah’s three month anniversary and the researchers are celebrating with a catered luncheon. I find it amusing that the two main players in all of this are not invited.

Methuselah and I are alone with the mice and rats of Laboratory 15. There’s not much left of him, really. At first glance you’d think he’s been dead for weeks. Just a scrap of brown and white fur at the back of his cage, ribs protruding over the hollow of his belly. But when I walked in, a bit of that fur lifted and thumped weakly on the concrete floor.

I do my usual act for the cameras. I clean some cages, sweep the floor, moving naturally and gradually closer to his cage. I’ve brought Methuselah a treat today. Meaty Burger. It’s this odd, waxy, meat-like substance that comes formed into a patty wrapped in its own plastic wrapper, with a happy poodle printed on it in red. I squat beside his cage and reach my hand through the bars to pet him. His watery eyes look up at me as if I am God, and again that furry bone of a tail thumps. “Poor thing,” I say. He licks my hand—one long, slow, dry lick—and his head falls back to the floor, but his eyes still hold mine.

Laughter floats down the hall from the party, and for the first time I find nothing funny about this. I couldn’t care less about my job or the Department of Defense, but this scrap of hair worshipping at my feet breaks me. My throat is tight. I feel tears starting to build.

I reach into my pocket and pull out the Meaty Burger. I unwrap it and put a little in my palm. Methuselah laps it up slowly. Even swallowing seems to be agony for him. “I’m sorry,” I say, stroking the boney crest of his head. “This is the last time.” I shift my position while I feed him his last supper. I want to be sure the camera sees what I am doing. I’m going to cry any second but I refuse to let the tears come in this place.

I leave the wrapper on top of his cage and take off at a dead run. I run down the long hallway, the laugher and clinking of glasses growing louder. I run out the front door. I run down the marble steps, tears now pouring down my face. I’m sobbing. Running, weeping, and sobbing—my breath hitching in my throat in great, spastic gasps.

I know I am going to be in some kind of serious trouble for messing with Methuselah and making fools of the researchers and the DoD. Probably very big trouble. I don’t care. They will kill Methuselah, of course. When I think of him, guilt flays me like a scourge. I’d thought he was a joke. Ms. Fortune was right, there is nothing funny about some things. Nothing funny at all.

I find myself in College Terrace, the neighborhood I grew up in. I’m standing against the chain link fence of my old elementary school, kind of holding myself up with my fingers through the links, my chest heaving. The playground is a mass of shrieks and color. I can see the corner where I used to hide from the wind, to read during recess; the jungle gym under which I smoked my first cigarette. It hasn’t changed much since I was a kid.

As I turn to leave, I think I see a glimpse of red running toward me. I spin around, but see nothing there but a bunch of kids I don’t know.

On a whim I head up Stanford Avenue, taking the route I used to take home from school. It is strange, as if time or existence has become schist. Layer upon layer I can look down through. A multiple exposure I am only one part of, though parts of me shimmer in each brittle, glassy sheet.

I remember being five and forgotten after kindergarten. Mom still lived with us then, but was probably drunk and just forgot I existed. That day I waited between the pyracanthus bushes and my classroom wall, watching a colony of ants moving things around. As dusk fell, and the playground grew so quiet that there was only the occasional shriek of a blackbird and the eerie ping of a deserted tetherball rope against its pole, I knew I had to go home. I started walking, trying to remember the route my mother’s car took. I got to a street I thought might be mine, but I wasn’t sure. I started up the hill, darkness coming down hard now, and that thing I’d always felt behind me materializing at my back. I was scared enough to cry. So I did.

I saw an old woman, out picking loquats from a mass of trees in front of her house.

“Can you tell me where Amherst Street is?”

“Honey, you’re on Amherst Street. Where’s your Mama?”

“I think she’s at home. I’m trying to get there. It’s on Amherst Street. It has a green door.”

“Let’s go find it,” she said.

And she took my hand.

Now, walking up Stanford Avenue, passing the immense weeping willow where I used to hide, and the old culvert that seemed so big back then, with its concrete pipe, like a cave I could sit in and listen to the cars and voices passing by, I feel someone or something behind me. The old tingle that used to send me running when I was little. But I am too big to hide in the culvert, too old to careen, screaming, up the hill toward the house that is no longer my home.

I don’t look back. I put one hand out behind me like a parent crossing a parking lot, and I feel a child’s fingers against my palm—small and warm. Fragile as the bones of a bird.

Susannah Carlson’s poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in a number of literary journals, including Sequoia, the SFSU Review, Pebble Lake Review, Red River Review, and Quiet Lightning. Susannah lives in Sunnyvale, California, even though she can’t afford to.

Dotted Line