Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2021    poetry    all issues

Fiction Winter 2021 cover


Andrej Lišakov

Kati Iso

Devon Bohm

Sarah P. Blanchard
Playing Chess with Bulls

Brandi Sperry

Parker Fendler
Mittens and Things

L. Michael Bohigian

Elizabeth Lyvers
The House and the Sea

K. Ralph Bray
Rocket Girl

Brittany Meador
Darkside Knocking

Nick Gallup
My Son's Grandmother

Rodney Stephens

Salena Casha
When you find yourself at the bottom of the stair, think of Diderot

John Maki
Max, They

Writer's Site

John Maki

Max, They

The dog jumps into the video call, grey and scruffy, saliva flying from his mouth. My daughter Nina yanks him into her lap and hugs him. He is a stray that never left, a Toto. It’s late afternoon and she wants to talk about her seventh grade students and yesterday’s school lockdown in Las Vegas. She still feels uneasy, jittery. I’m jittery too especially about how Nina’s anxiety could affect Max, my only child’s first child, a baby, an unborn. I should be listening, calming her, but all I can think about is Max, Max not Maxwell or Maximilien, one-syllable Max, long-awaited Max, just Max. Toto wiggles and licks Nina’s face and jumps out of the iPad’s frame and I finally see my daughter’s round bulging tummy ensconced in a gray tee shirt. I’m filled with envy.

Later at dinner, my husband Jim and I eat from small black dinner trays balanced on our laps; our Seattle kitchen is under remodel. I tell him Nina is okay, although I don’t know how anyone could be okay after that. I’ve seen her portable classroom but not been inside. It’s a white box with no windows. She loves her kids and I imagine it full of life. The lockdown signal was a series of horn blasts. Her kids had practiced. She secured the door while they circled up on the floor. A girl, Shaniqua, fainted and Nina revived her. Everyone scoured their phones for information but found none. Someone played “Uptown Funk,” loudly. When the all-clear came, more blasts, Nina opened the door onto to an unchanged world. Later, it was reported that a twelve year old boy had been seen in the neighborhood with a handgun. Why boys? Jim and I wonder. Why do boys, guns, and shooting go together?

The next morning, still in my bathrobe, I step behind a temporary plastic barrier to inspect my dusty in-progress kitchen. The contractor has inserted small wood shims underneath and between the new cabinets. The poky-outy effect looks silly, unnatural. Those shims have a big job to do, keeping everything level.

Lunchtime. I’m knitting outside at the patio table, listening to the contractors work, when Harter joins me. He’s my new best friend, eighteen, just out of high school, one of the crew’s little buddies. The boss is his uncle and Harter thinks everything is stupid because he isn’t allowed to touch power tools. He opens his sack lunch and plows down a hot dog rolled into a slice of American cheese. We listen to the warm spring buzz.

“What do you want to do with your life, Harter?” I ask.

He thinks. “You know, get good at something.”

“Like what?”

“Like computers or games or something.”

“How about carpentry?”

“Too dirty. Besides, I have asthma.” He coughs to prove it.

“You can get help for asthma.”

He points at my knitting. “What’s that?”

“A Christmas stocking for my grandson.” I hold it up. It is red. White block letters encircle the green neck. MAX.

“That’s cool. How old is he?”

“He’s not here yet. Soon, though.”

“Cool. I want a mini-me someday.”

“You have other things to take care of. Parenting is a lot of work.”

“I know,” he says, nodding. “Cool. Cool.”

I’m trying to understand boys’ lives. Their default shape is maddening. So much willful desire. Will Max survive? I wonder. Will he thrive? Will he be a they or she or them or her instead of a him or he? Nina was always unquestionably feminine. Now, thirty-two years later, things are different and I need to change. Sitting and staring at Harter, something claws at me, a busy beast. I try to understand it, examine it, rename it. After Nina’s birth, I couldn’t get pregnant again. Artificial insemination didn’t work, so I turned to In Vitro fertilization. Five attempts and as many years later, I gave up. Jim memorialized the medical code and I began to use words other than fallow to describe myself. If only. The mind wants but the body claims, seldom an equitable exchange. Five losses, all of them mysteries.

For years, my family’s mission has been to make sure I’m okay, keep me on track. Therapy and physical activity help, I promise, but my most constant symptom, a stubborn inability to appreciate Nina’s vitality, persists. Last September, when she announced her pregnancy, I discontinued my depression medication, so I could be more present for her and Max. It has worked. I feel more focused and attentive, more alive.

My next conversation with Nina is tense. It is a week after the lockdown. We’re on the iPad again. Her voice rises and falls with fatigue. Her freckled face is swollen and her brown hair is wispy and limp. Before the pregnancy she worked hard to maintain her appearance. She knows I’m envious of her marvelous fecundity. I need to be strong for her. “You’ll snap back,” I say. Toto’s unfortunate black nose appears and fills the frame. “What happens to Toto when Max arrives?” I ask. Nina is silent. Her husband Brad is installing a dog door, an opening to the outside. I think about my openings and how each In Vitro deposit felt like a breath and every exit a sneeze. Toto licks Nina’s camera, his large tongue a gray smear. She pushes him away and my openings throb with misapprehension.

The next morning Nina goes into labor and I schedule a last-minute flight to Las Vegas. The contractor is laying hardwood floors, four-inch boards, finely grained with lovely brown streaks. They’re beautiful in their solidity. As I step out the door to catch my Uber, Harter bids me goodbye. He looks eager, hopeful.

After my uneventful flight arrives, I see a text while waiting at baggage claim. My contractor wants me to phone him. He needs decisions about drawer pulls. Background noises creep into the call. He’s in the emergency room. An hour ago, Harter sawed off his pinky finger.

I’m still thinking about Harter’s pinky when I get to the rental car center. I’ve seen injuries before, my own and others, but severed digits really get me going. He’s on my mind when I pick out a black Dodge Charger and take off to the hospital. On the freeway I accelerate toward the desert’s vast horizon. Looming lawyer billboards reassuringly promise help if I get drunk and screw up. Behind them, outcroppings of new housing developments stretch into the filmy horizon and disappear. I like the desert’s blandness, its sweeping anonymity, and lack of blame. People come here every day to start over.

At the hospital, I greet Nina’s in-laws who are waiting in the birthing center. We chat and I head for Nina’s room. She is awkwardly pretzeled beneath tented blankets, seven hours into labor, four centimeters dilated. Her epidural has kicked in and she is wanly cheerful. She jerks and Brad jumps to attention. It’s nothing and we all laugh. I leave for the cafeteria to get Brad a hamburger and when I return, nurses are probing Nina’s midsection. Max is out of position and Nina’s blood pressure is rising. They need to adjust the baby so he can get out. I beat back a surge of worry and tears and put my faith in Nina. I’m here for her.

In the waiting room, my co-grandmother clutches my hand, sniffles, and takes large bites out of Brad’s hamburger. Hours pass. None of us are allowed in. At 8 PM, Brad comes out. Nina has been pushing and is spent. Max will arrive sometime, probably in the middle of the night. We should all go home. He will text us.

I check into a nearby motel. It is cheap and uncomfortable and I’m lying awake at midnight remembering Nina’s birth, a high forceps delivery that followed a 30-hour labor. It took all my strength and that of three nurses to push her out. Her scrapes and bruises healed quickly but I memorized the feeling of the forceps’ undertow. The thinnest of membranes separate joy from sorrow. My depression medication withdrawal ended a while ago but some effects remain. My head hurts and the imaginary space beneath my skin and muscle burns. I try to focus but my thoughts race. I kneel on the floor and pray for joy.

Morning. Sunlight streams into my room and I groggily grope for my phone. Max is here, a bright photo of a small face. I dress quickly and rush to the hospital. Nina is nursing a wee person in a blue stocking cap. I’m happy and breathless and relieved. I touch his cheek and take in his measurements, the baseline numbers of an uncertain future. He stares at me through shrouded unsullied eyes. My newest best friend has entered the world. “Pretty great,” I whisper and Nina replies, “Yeah,” nonplussed and exhausted. Behind Nina, a white board reads Thomas Maxwell Cranston. I blink and re-read the words. Changes have been made and the Christmas stocking is wrong, all wrong. My mind chugs. I squint again at the words. I want to scream bloody murder but head to the bathroom instead, where I weep into my shirt sleeve. After a while, I pull myself together and call Jim and when I utter “Thomas,” I break down all over again.

“Are you okay,” he asks. Okay, okay, okay.

“Yes. I am okay.”

When I finally return to Nina’s room, Brad asks if I wouldn’t mind straightening up their house for tomorrow’s homecoming. I accept his offer and kiss Max and Nina goodbye. In the parking lot, I can’t locate the Charger. I click the key fob’s panic button and hear a wail. When I finally find the car it looks huge and I am overwhelmed by its extravagant masculinity, its ripe bulges, oversized tires, Hemi engine, and mean grill. I climb in and run my hands over the steering wheel like it is a round gun barrel. I imagine Harter in the back seat, crowing about torque and horsepower, urging me on, holding up his maimed hand, yelling, “Fuck yeah!” I turn onto the freeway and punch the accelerator and shoot past a Prius, a panel van, and a red Cadillac, biting down on my adrenaline. The car is flying, almost out of control, taking me somewhere new.

“Fuck yeah!” I scream. “Fuck yeah! Fuck yeah! Fuck yeah!”

Finally, a grandson and a legacy.

Finally, a baby.

Finally, a life.

I was a teacher once, like Nina, high school English, but I quit a few years ago. I don’t miss it. I wasn’t very good at it. Jim is a librarian and will retire soon. We met in college, fell in love, and settled down. No wild streaks, just us and our fates and later the petri dishes. My therapist likes to talk about the movies trapped in our heads—the ones that loop over and over again. We each have private collections. Watched up close, they can dominate your emotions, but from a distance they’re manageable. I have a new movie to watch.

I drive the Charger to Nina’s school instead of her home and pull into the parking lot. I get out and stretch to gather strength. The surrounding neighborhood of cracker box houses and rusty cyclone fences feels foreign, yet I’m calm. I’ve been summoned. The school’s main building looks like a World War II bunker and the portables are in the rear. Endless boxes. I want to get inside Nina’s box and absorb its impenetrability. I walk across a grassy play field. It’s hot outside and I’m sweating. I wonder why I ever wanted a second child. I wonder why Nina never felt like enough. My movie reel slaps loudly as I parse each celluloid grain. There is no way out, no small openings. “Stop,” someone yells and a school security guard, a woman pointing a handgun, motions at me. I smile and wave. I’m just a sixty year old woman in jeans with a gray ponytail, for crying out loud. The security guard advances. “Hello, I’m a mother,” I yell. “My daughter teaches here. She just had a baby.” I lift my hands and someone tackles me from behind and drives my face into the grassy field. Horns blast and I am cuffed.

The next day, Nina, Brad, and Max arrive to a well provisioned ready-to-nurture home. Nina places the baby in a bassinet and Brad helps get her comfortable on the couch. She is pale and bloated and still shaky. It’s the blood loss. They are grateful for my help. They know I have a kitchen to finish. I’m bursting to tell Nina about yesterday’s school debacle and how security detained me and how a nurse put me down for a nap and how I have resumed my depression meds. But I don’t. I’m too afraid, too ashamed of my uncertain mental state. I stare at Max in his bassinet, at his acne-dotted skin and bland expression. After a while, he begins to fuss and I pick him up and change his diaper. His dotted meconium is a perfect yellow. I dab ointment on his raw belly button and whisper, “There, there.” I pull him close and he wriggles his face into my dry breasts and I flinch with phantom pain.

Nina wakes up. “What happened?”

“Max is hungry. Very hungry.”

Nina takes the baby and unbuttons her top. Max struggles to latch onto her breast but finally connects and calms down. Nina strokes his head.

“Mom, you’ve got to start calling him Tom.”

I stay a week. I cook and freeze meals and tidy up and run errands, while Nina and Brad tend to Tom. The mood is tense and vigilant. Nobody wants the baby to die. I check in at home with Jim and the contractor. The floors are waxed and the backsplash is being tiled. Harter can’t work yet. The contractor laughs. The injury messed up the boy’s video shooting hand.

I have to leave tomorrow. I try to act sad, but the medication is beginning to numb me. Brad’s parents bring Toto over. He slowly advances toward Nina, bewildered. She coaxes the dog, “That’s a good boy,” and he jumps into her lap pushing Tom aside. She hands me the baby and he begins to cry a loud hoarse cry and I try to imagine him as they. He’s bewildered too. He will have too many choices to make too.

After dinner, my phone’s news feed turns red, a middle school shooting in Texas. Lockdown memories flood back. Nina says that she would have killed her school’s shooter, would have ripped his throat out to save her kids. Her mama-bear intensity excites me. I mention a voicemail she left as the lockdown was occurring. She was in control, her usual self. Fortunately, we talked before I listened to it. I sometimes replay it, taking in every inflection, every pause and strain, and wonder what I would have said, how I would have sounded in the moment, how I would have comforted her, she my only survivor.

“What would you have said if I had picked up when you called?” I ask.

“I don’t know. I won’t call next time,” Nina says, amused, attuned to my lack of confidence.

“Dear Lord. No next time. Please.”

In the morning, I kiss Tom goodbye. He is growing up already. His eyes are wider and his eyebrows more visible. I give Nina the stocking and offer to make a new one. She laughs and hugs me and apologizes for forgetting to tell me about the name change. It happened after Tom was born. He’s still the same little person. It is our best moment since my arrival.

The sixteen-year-old gunboy from Texas is dead, killed by police. His girlfriend had just broken up with him. I remind Nina that the leading cause of death amongst teenage boys and young men is suicide, information gathered since Harter’s accident.

“I know,” she says. “Thanks, Mom.”

I wonder if such statistics will be gathered about they and them?

The day after I get home, my therapist squeezes me in. We talk about the inexplicable feelings grandmothers can have. We discuss the Charger, Harter, his stump, the shooters, my remodel, and how much I already miss Nina. I tell my therapist how much I love Max, so very, very much. I can’t say Tom.

As I speak and listen to my words, I take in the office’s neutrality, its half-shut blinds, the oak bookcase, the stiff medical tomes, and shiny magazines. My therapist smiles and types, fingers flicking over a small laptop on a rolling desk. She is always a little too alert. She nods and asks questions and I fill in the spaces, careful to sound reflective in a meaningful way, careful not to incriminate myself. I want her to know that I will be okay. We discuss my latest movie and go over my medications. I admit to having watched some old movies recently and finally mention Nina’s school and how I was mistaken for a killer.

The kitchen is finished. It is spotless and shim free. It’s exactly what I wanted and for the next few weeks we get acquainted. I line the cupboards with white mesh and buy new pans, my first copper. I try out new cooking techniques, oven-dried fruit, sous vide chicken breast. I wipe down the stainless steel three times a day. I stare at the granite. I video chat with Nina on the iPad. Each time Tom is dressed differently, a polka dot onesie, a turquoise kerchief, teensy knitted socks. I ooh and ahh. Her leave of absence from school will end soon. I hang up and stare at my granite. Then I take my therapist’s advice and call Nina back to explain why I tried to crash her classroom.

One day Harter stops by, ostensibly to see the finished kitchen, but I know he wants to show off his stump and talk. I want to talk too. I’ve missed him. He holds up his prosthetic pinky, a science-fictiony thing made of hard rubber and metal. Now he can shoot his video gun again. Bang, bang. He picks up a strawberry and pops it into his mouth. He tells me he has met someone and could I tell him about restaurants and wine. I remind him he is not old enough to order wine. He asks about Max.

“He’s great. His name is Tom actually. My mistake. Getting big.” I hold up a picture on my phone.

“Well, he looks awesome.”

“Yes. You’ll know someday.”

He stares, pensive, thinking about it.

“Why didn’t you have more kids?” he asks. “You’re a great mom.”

“I couldn’t.”

“You could have adopted.”

“I couldn’t,” I say more firmly.

“Want to be my mom?”

“Don’t you have a mom?”

“She died when I was ten.”

I’m surprised I don’t know this essential bit of information, given our many chats.

“What does it mean? Be your mom?”

“Nothing really. You can just think of me that way. No strings attached.”

I peer into Harter’s goofy face. He’s serious. It’s such an easy solution to a difficult problem. A gift. I grab his hand and pull it to my cheek. We hug and he whispers, “Cool, cool.”

Nina calls on the iPad again a few days later. She has returned to school and is wearing make-up and a necklace. She holds up Tom, so I can see him, before handing the baby off to Brad. Her strength has returned along with her stern teacher look. Toto has been moved to Brad’s parents. I don’t miss the big black nose and out-of-control tongue interrupting our calls. She holds the camera closer and the border frames her face. Something she says reminds me of my last In Vitro fertilization attempt. We’ve been talking more openly and in more detail recently. She has context now, flickers of understanding.

“What happened?” she asks.

“I’m not exactly sure. I was combing your hair and felt a twinge inside. I pulled your hair a bit and you cried out and I knew the last one was gone. I’m sorry I hurt you.”

For a split second the video freezes. Then Nina’s face returns, her freckles singing, her eyes full, her voice knowing.

“It’s okay, Mom. I don’t remember.”

John Maki lives in Seattle and studies with Hugo House and One Story. He very much appreciates Sixfold’s caring editors and readers. Other publications in which his stories have appeared include Jam Tarts, Desi Writers Lounge, Eastern Iowa Review, River River, and Across the Margin. Check out and a forthcoming audio book of his work to be published Spring, 2022.

Dotted Line