Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2018    poetry    all issues


Cover Elena Koycheva

L. L. Babb
Admit One

Katherine Enggass

John Maki
The Easy One

John Etcheverry
The Third Daughter

Gibson Monk
The Poison Oracle

Jan Allen
My Real Mother

Bill Hodgins
Interior Decorating Suicide

Efrem Sigel
Born Again

Noëlle Gallagher
Le Fanu's Host of Curiosities

AJ Powell
Delivery Man

Gretchen Mayer
To Keep A Promise

JP Roarke

Brett Ramseyer
God Will Provide

Joe Zugelder

L. L. Babb

Admit One

Alexander Marsh goes through a box of condoms in a week.

Alexander Marsh learned to french kiss from a real French foreign exchange student.

Alexander Marsh screwed Miss Casey, the English teacher.

Alexander Marsh is failing every subject except English.

The legend of Alexander Marsh lives in rumors and half-truths whispered in the hallways, his name giggled over in the girls’ bathroom and moaned aloud during dreams at night, his initials surrounded with hearts, scratched into lockers and desktops.

Alexander Marsh has to wear a special jock strap in gym so that he doesn’t expose himself accidentally. Playgirl magazine wanted Alexander Marsh to pose nude but withdrew the offer when they found out he was only fourteen and a half.

Right now Tracy and her best friend Nina are eating lunch a mere ten yards from Alexander Marsh. He is lying flat on his back on one of the stone benches in the middle of the quad. Students are not allowed to lie on the benches but there he is, alone, sleeping apparently, his chin tilted up to the sun. His face, angelic and childlike in repose, is so beautiful that Tracy feels something tip and spill inside her; a delicious ache rises in the pit of her stomach. She stuffs a carrot stick into her mouth.

Tracy usually only sees the back of Alexander Marsh’s head. He sits one desk ahead of her in math class. Tracy has memorized the brown curls that hover over the neckline of his shirt. She has a love affair going with the wings of his shoulder blades. Once Mr. Wendt threw a whiteboard eraser at Alexander Marsh. The eraser ricocheted off Alexander’s head and hit Tracy in the face, leaving a smear of black across the bridge of her nose. Everyone in class laughed and Tracy laughed too, delirious. They were connected in that moment, Tracy and Alexander Marsh. Tracy wanted to save the eraser but Mr. Wendt made her give it back.

Tracy reaches into her lunch bag to fish out another carrot. Tracy would so fuck Alexander Marsh. He would be her first, her last, her forever. Tracy’s virginity feels like the lead apron the dentist drapes over you during X-rays—grey, heavy, and oppressive. She wants to throw it off. She wants to hand it over to Alexander Marsh. Alone in her bedroom in the evenings after dinner, Tracy works on her algebra homework and thinks about Alexander Marsh. Solve for X. Tracy is X, two sibilant slashes to mark the spot, Alexander Marsh is Y, the tail drooping obscenely below the line on her paper. Her pencil scratches an itch against the surface of her notebook. If she could just let Alexander Marsh know that she is available, receptive—that she’s not some goody-goody like most of the other girls in eighth grade.

“He’s so filthy,” Nina whispers with her mouth full of egg salad. “I mean like dirt dirty, you know? He’s got grease or something all over his jeans. I don’t see what the attraction is.”

Nina has a boyfriend of sorts—pudgy George Shyptyki, a boy Tracy and Nina have both known since third grade. The courtship is sketchy and fraught with misunderstandings due to George being oblivious that he is in a relationship. Nina spends her afternoons after school in the bleachers watching George, wedged into the embrace of his tuba, march up and down the football field at band practice. They kissed once. Nina confided to Tracy that it was nice, but his lips were chapped.

Kissing Alexander Marsh would not be “nice.”

“I’m going over there,” Tracy says, balling up her paper bag. “I’m going to talk to him.”

“Yeah, right,” Nina says.

Tracy stands. “Watch my backpack,” she says, without looking at Nina. Her eyes are focused on Alexander Marsh. She wishes she wore something sexier today—the jeans she has on have a funny bulge in the front where the zipper pouches out plus she is wearing her gym shoes. But she can’t put it off any longer. Junior high graduation is in two weeks. She can’t, she won’t, enter high school a virgin. Today has to be the beginning of the rest of her life. And the fact is, Alexander Marsh is rarely alone. Every girl at school wants to hang around Alexander Marsh.

The first part is to just walk over. She hopes that the “what to say” part will come to her before she gets there.

The bench that Alexander Marsh is lying on is just a big concrete block like a slab in the mausoleum where Romeo and Juliet offed themselves. Tracy watched an old movie of “Romeo and Juliet” in English class last winter and embarrassed herself by not being able to stop crying.

The way Alexander is lying there, he looks sort of broken, as if a giant has tossed his body down from on high. One of his legs dangles over the side of the bench, his foot flat on the ground. The thought that a boy as beautiful as Alexander Marsh might be dead makes tears start to burn her eyes. How tragic! How unfair! Tracy cannot live if Alexander Marsh is dead. Poor dead Alexander Marsh, her brain chants at her. She can’t cry, she won’t cry. She does this thing her mother taught her to do to stop crying when she was little. The trick is to keep your head still but look up at the sky, which Tracy does now. It won’t work for long.

She can feel herself hesitating, a pause between each step, she can feel Nina’s eyes on her back, and now she’s dragging one of her feet with a scuffing noise that would raise the dead, no, she is the dead, she’s a zombie approaching Alexander Marsh and he’ll hear her coming, he’ll wake up and see her lurching towards him with her eyes rolled back in her head.

Panicked, she rushes forward and the rubber sole of her sneaker catches on a loose brick. She stumbles and falls onto Alexander Marsh’s thighs, banging both her knees on the ground. For a moment, her feet scrabble uselessly beneath her. His legs are hard and unyielding as she clutches at them. Tracy has the sensation of grasping the slippery stone lip of a swimming pool when she tries to lift herself out of the deep end. His penis, his package, his junk is inches from her face.

Alexander Marsh raises his head to squint down the length of his body at her. He doesn’t seem surprised to see her there. He is too cool to be surprised by anything.

“Hey,” he says to her and Tracy’s mouth goes dry. He says that to HER. He’s talking to HER. She’s inside the golden bubble of Alexander Marsh’s aura. She’s touching Alexander Marsh and he’s talking to her.

“Hey,” he says again. “You got two dollars I can borrow?”

At lunch the next day, Tracy sits on her regular bench with Nina and Alexander makes a beeline towards them as soon as he spots her. He is followed by a couple of the popular girls, girls with hair that hangs in smooth sheets down their backs. They are also the kind of girls that Nina and Tracy try to avoid in the locker room, girls who tell you to move your fat ass, or snicker behind your back at your underwear. When Tracy and Alexander become a couple, when he bestows his popularity upon her, these girls will have to be nicer. Now they eye her suspiciously, like they are trying to figure her out.

“Hey,” Alexander says to Tracy, “can I borrow five dollars?” And Tracy reaches into her backpack. He doesn’t say thank you but he smiles at her—a beatific smile that says everything. Then he leaves, girls trailing behind, giggling, simpering.

“You shouldn’t feed the wildlife,” Nina says. “They’ll get used to it and then turn on you when you don’t have anything left.”

“He’ll pay me back,” Tracy says, irritated. “It’s a loan.” She imagines Alexander coming to her apartment when her mother isn’t home, to repay her, cash in one hand, the other hand holding up the doorframe, leaning in. She hopes he comes over soon. She doesn’t really have that much to lend out. Her allowance is a measly seven dollars a week, doled out one dollar a day, “Candy money,” her mother says like she’s some kind of child. Nobody has asked her to babysit in forever and when she does, her mother makes her put it with her birthday money into a joint savings account.

On Tuesday, that five plus the two, then three on Wednesday, and then one heart stopping moment on Thursday when Alexander Marsh asks for five dollars but Tracy can only find three in the bottom of her backpack. She apologizes feeling very much like she’s received a bad mark on a paper, she’s let him down, she’s a failure. It’s as if the deficit in cash is somehow a deficit in her. At least the bills are crisp and new, they are an extension of Tracy herself—bright, clean, and eager. Alexander Marsh accepts them graciously.

By Friday, Tracy is down ten dollars that in normal circumstances would be a substantial amount of money. But Tracy suddenly understands the economics of investment. There will be a return. Things are moving in the right direction. Today, she tells herself, she will move their relationship up a level. She has practiced what to say over and over the night before. Find something in common to start a conversation. Math class, she thinks.

So at lunch when he asks to borrow three dollars, Tracy launches into her plan. “How about that—” She has lowered her voice trying to sound sexy yet nonchalant but the words come out in a weird growl, a cross between a startled duck and the voice of someone demonically possessed. To compensate, she raises her voice an octave, so that the remainder of the sentence—”algebra test?” explodes from her mouth in a scream, a firework with a tail on it, a comet.

Alexander Marsh blinks. “What?” he says.

Tracy’s mouth can’t form the words a second time. Alexander Marsh looks down at her with eyes so dark and bottomless they don’t even hold her reflection. It’s as if she doesn’t exist. She wills him to see her, to blink like he’s awakening from a dream, to tug her to her feet, lift the hem of her shirt, and slide his rough hands up the length of her body, pulling her close to him. She leans forward. Her breathing catches. If she wasn’t already sitting down, her legs might crumple beneath her. Can’t he feel it? Want, need pulses out of her like a heartbeat. She wants to say something, anything, but she’s afraid of what might emerge from her mouth next. The sound of her voice again may sever their tenuous connection forever. He’ll flinch and turn away.

He smiles his smile, sweet and slow, plucks the bills from her hand, then ambles across the quad towards the cafeteria. His jeans drag on the ground, the hems ragged below his black boots. Tracy nearly swoons. Every inch of him makes Tracy weak in the knees.

“Wow,” Nina says, watching him go, “you gotta wonder if English is his first language.”

Nina’s voice penetrates Tracy’s thoughts and her mood flattens into despair. Tracy turns to Nina, registering for the first time Nina’s plastic butterfly barrettes, her K-mart sandals, the food caught in her braces. Why, Nina is still a child! She will never understand what Tracy is going through.

“Grow up,” Tracy hisses, contempt wrung from each word. Nina chuckles, complacent as a cow. She doesn’t even have the sense to be insulted.

All weekend Tracy thinks about Alexander Marsh, different scenarios playing like movie scenes in her head, but always with the transition from conversation to passionate embrace missing. How do you go from talking to a boy to sleeping with him? It should be so easy. Her mother says that boys always want to have sex; that they think about it six times a minute. Her mother, with her fat knees and double chin, has no problem getting men to spend the night.

Tracy needs to seduce Alexander Marsh but who can think of romance or sex with Nina around? Nina makes a rattling noise when she breathes. She sews her own clothes. Once last winter, Nina wore her Girl Scout sash to school, forty badges and pins going all the way down and up around the back. It was only a half-day but still, who does that? Lately Nina feels like a boulder that Tracy is forced to drag behind her on a chain.

Now here it is, Monday morning. Tracy shoves her face within inches of the bathroom mirror. Viewed individually from a super close perspective, her features could be considered attractive, pretty even. Alexander Marsh will see that her eyes are very nice if he comes a little closer to her. If she could just wear a veil that covered everything but her eyes. She imagines herself, posed on the edge of the concrete bench, alluring and exotic, though the vision is spoiled with a lumpy and sarcastic Nina chomping a sandwich right beside her. She could drop a sheet or a tablecloth over Nina to hide her but that would look stupid. There’s no hope. Nina has spoiled Tracy’s fantasy just by existing.

Tracy wipes blue powder across her lids and outlines them in black.

Her mother is asleep and she’s left her purse gaping wide open, her billfold lying at the top, like a fat leather letter addressed to Tracy. As Tracy removes two five dollar bills, she feels as if she’s being pushed forward from behind, she’s surging into the future, becoming someone hard and cool and grown up. Someone who steals. Someone Alexander Marsh will want. Someone who doesn’t hang out with losers.

Nina is already sitting in their usual spot at lunchtime. She even pats the bench as Tracy walks up. When Tracy doesn’t sit down, Nina squints up at her.

“What happened to your eyes?” Nina says. “You look weird.”

“For your information,” Tracy says, welcoming the bubble of annoyance that forms in her throat, “it’s eye makeup.”

Nina twists her mouth. “I don’t think you’re doing it right.”

“How would you know?” Tracy asks.

“Well, I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to look like you’ve been in a fist fight.” Nina looks up at her with a sly smile, a smile that Tracy has always taken as conspiratorial but that she now recognizes as smug. Nina actually thinks that she knows more than Tracy does. Nina thinks she knows everything. The bubble inside Tracy explodes, red and ugly.

“You need to sit somewhere else,” Tracy says. It feels imperious and momentous, these words spoken out loud, like she’s taken a stand, crossed a line of demarcation.

“Why?” Nina says, but even as she asks Tracy can see that Nina knows exactly why. An expression more of pity than anger passes over Nina’s face.

Tracy can’t bring herself to say anything else. She pulls her books tighter against to her chest.

Nina puts her sandwich back in its baggy, back in its paper sack. She stands up so suddenly, Tracy thinks Nina might hit her, but instead she bends to pick up her pile of books. Nina glares one last time at Tracy, and then marches off across the quad, where she perches on the end of a bench filled with roughhousing sixth grade boys. The boys give Nina a wide berth, moving over and monitoring her out of the corners of their eyes like a herd of spooked horses.

Fuck her, Tracy thinks and the thought fills her up, strengthens her. It was only a matter of time before this happened. Friends outgrow each other. “Fuck her,” she says out loud, testing the words against the air. “Fuck her, fuck her, fuck her.”

Tracy sits and pulls one of the fives out of her backpack, folding it into one hand. She can’t seem to remember how to hold her head in a natural position. Tilt it to one side? Or gaze straight ahead? And her legs? Crossed or uncrossed? She fiddles with the collar of her blouse. She is aware of the rough surface of the bench beneath her, the sun beating down, the shrieks of a gaggle of girls huddled at the door to the cafeteria.

And now here is Alexander Marsh. He’s alone, her Romeo, emerging from the shadows. He blinks in the sunlight and runs fingers through his curly hair. He looks around the quad with a lazy shift of his head and all at once she is a tiny boat bobbing on the sea and his lighthouse scan illuminates her for an instant.

The noise around her ramps up, hoots and screams, someone shouts, “You suck, asshole,” not angrily but with joy, with liberation, a boy runs past Tracy chased by another, someone cackles with laughter, the sounds of her peers beating raucously on the door to adulthood. Tracy follows the boys with her eyes then looks over at Alexander Marsh again.

Alexander Marsh is standing in front of Nina. There’s a sudden hush over the quad as if everyone is listening, turning an ear towards drama. If Tracy closes her eyes, she can almost hear him. “Can I borrow five dollars?”

Alexander Marsh can’t tell the difference between Tracy and Nina.

Tracy’s insides drop like she is on the downward side of a Ferris wheel ride. Nina glances up at Alexander Marsh, then over at Tracy. Nina’s cheeks redden, her juice box suspended in mid-air. She scowls and points with one finger in Tracy’s direction.

Alexander Marsh doesn’t even know who Tracy is.

There will be no bottom to this fall, no swing back to the top. Alexander Marsh turns and starts towards Tracy. He takes his time. Alexander Marsh is coming to usher her into the future, a future where Tracy is no one special, where she is interchangeable with every other geek and nerd and loser, with every other unworthy girl who falls for the popular boy, the hot guy, the Alexander Marshes. Tracy doesn’t think she can stand to hear him speak. She wants to hold up a hand to stop him but she can only watch him come, the price of admission into the rest of her life growing sweaty against her palm.

L. L. Babb has been writing since she learned to read. Her fiction and personal essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the San Francisco Chronicle, Rosebud, MacGuffin, West Marin Review, and elsewhere. She’s been a teacher at the Writers Studio San Francisco since 2008. She lives in Forestville, CA, with her husband, her best friend, and love of her life (all rolled up into one person), a giant Golden Doodle and two cats.

Dotted Line