"Heat is Heat"
Mouth Trap by Rebbecca Brown
The truck turned past fields and paddies while heat held him in its grip gasping with nothing but a gun and desire to drown the water that presses, swamps him.
What do you think the woods would want without the sun to slash them green? he said while the truck bumped over a road choking hope.
He said I would like to break this heat, bottle it up, sell it to the frostbitten, save it. No way else to explain but cold is cold and heat is heat.
The migration of birds across rivers and valleys from icy nights swamped with water wavering vision moved toward someone who thinks he can capture heat bottled and stuffed.
The dead are practical. He takes his gun slings it over a shoulder and shoots blustered feathers into falling. He says There should not be sadness. The dead are practical all piled up.
Think about it he says. In the dirty water the thrashing fish tease worms. What would we do without the heat of the dead to sustain us?
Excerpt from the title story, “The Paper Life They Lead”
The Paper Life They Lead: Stories by Patrick Crerand
Morning on the Pepperidge Farm box is not all chocolate and cheese. The three of them—the farmer, his wife, and the boy—dot the whiteness like breadcrumbs on an apron. It is always cold and it is always morning. When the farmer walks, his feet leave no tracks in the white powder. He is on his way to cut and winnow the tufts of winter wheat that strafe the land below the hill. His hands are small and weak. The wind blows in cold streams and stops him. He scans the horizon and stomps his feet warm. The ache in his knee keeps his leg crooked at a painful angle. It throbs and with each step the ache seeps up his leg and into his groin, then to his heart. He daydreams in the pink reflections the white field leaves on the undersides of his eyes. He can see the day ahead of him: The boy and he will scythe the wheat flat, remove the stalks and then throw the heads in the air, letting the wind take the husks, catching the heads in a basket. They will eat a few to check for blight. The jagged berries will cut up the roof of his mouth if it is a healthy crop. The blood will salt the blandness of the wheat. He can already taste the blood. He limps off again.
At dinner, his wife rolls out dough and melts shards of chocolate in copper pots while the farmer eats wheat cakes. His boy, a wiry hand, almost a man, sits next to him. He sleeps in the barn to keep the animals from danger, but the farmer knows there is nothing more dangerous than a lazy hand, so the boy does the morning milking before helping in the field. The boy eyes two white cookies striped with lines of chocolate on the farmer’s plate. The farmer lets his mind drift and eats another wheat cake. The bitter scent of cocoa taints the air between them.
“You don’t got a sweet tooth, do you?” the farmer says.
The boy looks off through the window where a few Holsteins mingle and swing their udders against piles of chaff near the flour silo.
“Nopet,” the boy says, gritting his teeth. “Tooths I got don’t taste like nothing.”
“Good,” the farmer says, looking at the cows.
The boy smacks his mouth as he chews on a brown tobacco leaf.
“That way you ain’t got nothing for a wife to spoil cept the rest of you.”
His wife raises her brow and spits into the copper pot in her hand. She is a stout woman with thick wrists and tight brown lips. She bakes when he sleeps and fills the huge white ceramic jars in the foil-lined basement with finger snacks: chocolate shortbreads with sugared cheeses, frosted ginger cakes, mint drops, lemon snaps dipped in raspberry jelly. She scrawls the name of a city in black script letters across the belly of each jar. Each city has a story that she tells the boy before he goes to the barn. The farmer does not listen. He allows the boy to eat two cookies after dinner.
“Those are too rich for my stomach,” he says after finishing his wheat cake. “Too much chocolate.” He wipes the chocolate from the round face of the white cookies on his plate. They look like dying suns, he thinks.
“Feed them to the cows to sweeten the milk,” the boy says, grabbing them.
“Too rich for cow’s blood, too,” the farmer says.
“The beast doesn’t smell the sweet milk,” the farmer’s wife says. “But he’ll smell the stink on you.”
As she moves past the boy at the table, a thin veil of flour lifts from her apron and into the air around him.
“No beast I ever seened whoop me,” the boy says. “I’m ready for him when he comes.”
“No beast I’ve ever seen at all,” the farmer says. “Sweet food like that rots your mind. Turn shadows into nightmares.”
“The flour silo’s running low,” his wife says. She lifts two paper bags full of shortbread and stops near the door to the basement. “You boys rest so you can fill it directly tomorrow,” she continues.
A cookie drops from her bag and she eyes the boy before shutting the door. The farmer ignores the look and eats the rest of his wheat cakes in silence.
“Sure is a waste of a cookie,” the boy says.
The farmer stares at the orange flame in the seam of the cast iron oven door.
“Just as well if you never ate one.”
~ from the essay " Sacred Spirit Medicine: “Sacred Spirit Medicine”
Pleasing Tree by Brooke Larson
How did we get here?
God was my youthful drug of choice. I’ve heard descriptions of the euphoria and hard fall of heroin that uncannily resemble the experience of my girlhood prayers. Curiously, I never had that experience when I tried heroin. I never felt anything out of the ordinary when I took ecstasy. My non-experiences of these drugs baffled others and greatly frustrated me. Drugs would always seem modest in comparison to my mutterings in pajamas at my long ago bedside.
"A very spiritual girl," my parents would say. This, I would come to realize, was a euphemism. Once, my Mom, shaken awake in the middle of the night to hear my exuberant account of a message from God, would unguardedly say, “You’re acting crazy.” It’s touchy talking about talking to God, even—or especially—among those who believe in God, who is, by any other name, a certain way of thinking and talking. Personal visions unsettle the narrative.
It wasn’t long after I learned to count past one-hundred that I started telling my mom that I wasn’t meant to be in this world. I cried some, on the bottom bunk I shared with my older sister, and I started sticking my fingers in electric sockets, my butter knife in toasters, daring them to beam me to a different realm. I wanted to die the same way I wanted to change out of my stiff school clothes. A matter of feeling free. Fortunately I didn’t understand the realities of electric conduction—my poking around was innocuous. Looking at those behaviors it would be natural to infer that I was a sad kid. But I wasn’t sad, and not especially angry. Something more like hungry. I wanted what no finger could point to. Fantasy books did or didn’t help. Narnia seemed to be my biological planet whence I was trans-existentially adopted. There came a night that this feeling reached an unbearable pitch, which was the only register God seemed to hear, like Lassie, or Flipper. We talked. Our conversation about the problem would become a core story of my personal mythology.
A prayer: Dear God, this world doesn’t feel like home. And heaven sounds lame. What’s the point of living or even being saved if there’s no Narnia?
Here’s where, according to the palimpsest of memory, I suddenly enter into one of my life’s most emotionally vivid landscapes, reaching the heights of exact language without words, colors without names, sensations beyond stimulation, all behind closed eyelids. I am transported to a world of unknown feeling, and God says, in essence, Girl you ain’t seen nothing yet.
In my fourth-grade class I had a girlfriend who also loved Narnia. We would talk about the sadness of finishing all the books. So, at the point in a birthday slumber party when she and I found ourselves off on our own, slurping blue Otter Pops on the back deck and fireflies here and there, I thought I’d tell her the vision God gave me so that she wouldn’t have to worry about finishing books anymore. I knew, the second the story came out of me, that I was ridiculous. We quickly and silently rejoined the party, and I really knew. Not long after, Mom took the fantasy books away, said I couldn’t read them for a while, because they got me too caught up. She was probably right to do it, but I wonder if she need have bothered. I wonder if my friend need have been silent. The fantasy novels would have been traded for more serious books soon enough. The visions would abandon me soon enough. Soon, like a good person, I would not be crazy, just sad. I would do pills, not prayers, but I would never again see all that I saw when childish faith wasn’t a sin.
That is, until last spring, when I abruptly woke up to plants. When I woke up to plants awake to me. And life was enchanted again. Too wild not to be true.
What are you seeing? I ask Dave. “The colors still, but less. Some wild patterns. And a body rush.” But does your mind feel different? I press. Dave says it doesn’t. He asks if there’s anything happening for me yet. I say no. He tells me there’s still time. It’s about 5 am at this point. If there were magic, it would already be wearing off. Some of our people have wandered off having their inner experiences. Michael’s friend is roaming about in a blanket sobbing and telling her awakenings to anyone who will listen. The cute couple, it turns out, is not a couple. She has a nice place in Midtown. He lives on the street. Their connection isn’t clear.
The absolute fog has become a sort of lukewarm nightmare to me. I would take terrors, demons, blood, over this colorlessness. I can’t look anymore at nothing. I close my eyes and try to conjure my own color show. Vague darkness. There’s no manufacturing any convincing color on the backs of my lids and I start to question if I ever could. Inside me, the graying glare of waves and sand in the dark. Dave says it first, “This is sad.”
I have to sit up. You feeling it here? the Shaman asks me pointing to his chest, patting his heart. I don’t feel anything, I tell him. But I know he can’t take me seriously because now I’m crying. “Awesome, perfect,” he says. “This is great.”
No, Mr. Shaman, this is totally not awesome. This is cosmically shitty. The Shaman keeps repeating that this experience is me, is my mind, is what I’m made of, the story I’m making.
What does that make me? Colorless. Empty. Lifeless...
Stop! I tell myself, but I can’t stop crying and the Shaman can’t stop saying how beautiful this is. So my insight is that there is no insight? No anything? Not even a blue or a green for God’s sake! “Maybe,” enthuses the Shaman. “Isn’t it wonderful! That you were already that perfect?”
Perfectly void? I’m devastated. He says I can drink more if I want. I want. I take two more cups, two more than the others. An hour later, when nothing happens, the Shaman taps my forehead and says, “This is what we call ayahuasca hardheadedness.” But all I wanted was to get out of my head, I protest in my mind. I wanted the plant to talk to me in its own way—why else would I be here? I want. I want.
~ from the short story "Turkeys"
I AND YOU by J. David Stevens
On Thursday, Raymond’s father picked up the athletic permission forms from the high school. Then he took Raymond to buy cleats. He made a production of handling every shoe in The Sports Authority—bending them at the toe, knocking his fist against the molded rubber bottoms—before selecting a discounted pair one size too small with soccer balls on the heels. Raymond didn’t complain. Over the weekend, he knew, his mother would return the shoes and select a pair the proper size, depositing them in his closet without comment.
After shopping, they dropped by the tire store where Tommy Feng was smoking in the back parking lot. An assistant manager, Tommy was almost Raymond’s height but thinner, with angular cheeks and longish hair that always looked damp. He drove a yellow Lancer with a custom spoiler and had never finished high school, but Raymond’s dad liked him because he had an easy rapport with customers: men and women, Chinese and not. “Good in school,” his father said, “doesn’t always mean good in business.”
Raymond was headed toward the building when his father stopped to open the trunk of their Buick and tossed him a football. He saw Tommy Feng glance his way. “You stay and practice,” his father said. “Throw it up and catch it. You only have a few more days.”
He disappeared into the back of the store, and Raymond moved to the center of the parking lot, his fingers grooving into the laces, spiraling the ball upward before it dropped easily into the cradle of his forearm and chest. He threw the ball higher and higher, making a game of it, and had almost started to enjoy himself when he noticed Tommy Feng standing only a few feet away, motioning for the ball. Raymond shoveled it to him.
“Run a post,” Tommy said, cigarette bouncing as he spoke. He barked a snap-count, and Raymond felt his feet move, body gliding in a straight line before angling across the parking spaces. He half-expected a pass like his father would have thrown it, so when the ball rifled into his chest, his hands barely had time to clamp down. “Sweet,” Tommy said.
They ran pattern after pattern, the passes hitting Raymond in the numbers every time. At some point, Tommy got rid of his cigarette and started dropping back, pretending to avoid a blitzing linebacker before he torqued the ball Raymond’s direction. A kind of relief grew inside Raymond with each catch. Where his father’s throws required him to look well in advance of their delivery, Tommy’s throws arrived almost the instant he extended his arms. He ran faster. Cut loose from the anxiety of backyard workouts, his body flowed. He liked the feeling, the smoothness of it, the way his muscles knew how to work even before his mind told them. It even occurred to him that he might have liked football—at least the running and catching parts of it—if only he’d come to that decision on his own.
When Tommy said to go long, Raymond was so amazed to watch the ball float over his shoulder and into his outstretched hands that he almost careened into the concrete barrier separating the tire store’s parking lot from the cell phone dealer. Tommy leaned against the A/C unit when Raymond came jogging back. “Nice hands,” he said, swatting a pack of Marlboros then withdrawing a cigarette with his teeth. He held the pack toward Raymond, who shook his head. “So when are tryouts?”
Tommy finished lighting up, tossing the match. “I didn’t know you liked football.”
“You trying to impress a girl?”
It reminded Raymond of the time that Tommy had asked if he were dating when he was only in the fourth grade. Over the years, most of his comments to Raymond had run that way: jokes about girls, driving, shaving. Raymond folded his arms but couldn’t help glancing toward the back door, suddenly hoping his father would reappear.
Tommy followed his gaze. He looked at the Buick then back at Raymond. “Oh, that’s great,” he laughed. “That’s one I never heard before.”
“Football,” he said. “Violin lessons maybe. Good grades. Even chess, you know?” He shook his head. “But football?”
“I already get good grades,” Raymond said.
“I bet you do.”
Raymond knew this much: his father respected Tommy Feng. He liked the number of tires Tommy could sell. There was a certain quality—a “Feng-ness”—that Raymond’s father wanted his son to possess. But he would be livid if one day Raymond turned into Tommy Feng. “It’s not like that.”
“It’s always like that,” Tommy said, blowing a cone of smoke into the air. He turned back to Raymond, his smile fading. “You don’t need to defend him.”
“Who says I’m defending him?”
Tommy shrugged. He took another pull off the cigarette, holding the smoke in his cheeks before releasing it out his nose. He seemed to be studying Raymond, who would later decide that Tommy—if only for a second—was trying to help. “Have it your way. Maybe it’s not his fault. Too many ghosts, you know?”
Raymond looked straight ahead. He wanted to pretend that he understood, but his face refused to unfrown. Tommy’s hand drifted to one side, knocking away some ash. “You think someone has to die to make a ghost, right? Like a spook? But every choice makes a ghost. Turn left on a street, and a ghost turns right. Maybe you don’t notice at first, but they add up. One day, a guy like your father looks in the mirror, and there they are, looking back.”
Raymond considered the possibilities. “That’s true for everybody.”
“Maybe.” Tommy shrugged. “But some ghosts are more contagious than others.”
In the break that followed, Raymond could hear the traffic on Rt. 22 from the other side of the store. He watched Tommy scratch the back of his head, the cigarette still lodged between two fingers. Old questions stirred in his head, but before he could capture one on his tongue, his father ambled from the back door. Tommy pushed away from the A/C unit. “We’re burning daylight,” he announced to no one in particular.
Raymond’s father focused on Raymond. “Did you practice?”
“Like a pro,” Tommy agreed. Raymond turned to find him still palming the football. “Good luck, champ,” Tommy said, lofting the ball his direction.
~ from the short story "I Am the Voice Calling in the Desert"
“What on earth are you playing?” my mother asked one afternoon when she stepped out into the yard to hang up the wash. I was barefoot, streaked with dirt, and I’d torn my shirt.
“John the Baptist,” I said.
I must have been quite an affront to my mother in that moment. It broke her heart that I could never manage to keep bobby socks from slipping down and getting sweaty and crumpled in my shoes, and here I was, looking for all the world like a mental patient.
“John the Baptist wasn’t a girl,” she said, reasonably. “If you set your dolls up on the patio you could play school.”
I shrieked and ran around behind the garage where I could kick up dust and preach my sermons in peace.
“Don’t come into my house dirty, Helen,” my mother called after me. “Wash up at the hose and put on something clean before dinner.”
That evening I arrived at the table as she’d asked, clean and in a fresh skirt and blouse, but my mother made her displeasure with me known over supper. She regaled my father with my outlandish behavior as she passed around the stewed beef and mashed potatoes.
“Would you please speak to her, Wallace?” she asked. “Helen is absolutely out of her wits.”
“She’s fine, Joyce,” my father said. It was not uncommon for my parents to discuss me over dinner. I listened with excitement and curiosity—what would they make of me?! I turned my head as if I were at a tennis match. “The girl is fine. You’re just encouraging her.”
“No one’s encouraging me,” I piped up.
“Please be quiet, Helen,” my father said, and we all ate our dinner in tranquility.
As my imaginary life took on more and more significance, my parents grew further and further away from me. It was as if I were in a fish tank and we were watching each other through the glass. They thought they could see all of me, but they couldn’t.
I lived breathlessly in the backyard, baptizing everything I could get my hands on. I splashed furiously in buckets of water and went wild with the garden hose. I called endlessly for my dolls to repent. I made straight the path for the coming of the Lord. The wonderful and terrible thing about preparing for the Second Coming is that it brings with it the Day of Reckoning. I began spending more time than a child should thinking about hell. I looked at strangers in the supermarket with a deep sense of curiosity. Whose name would we find recorded in the Book of Life and who would be cast into the Lake of Fire? On the last day, we are told, all will be made known. Judgment is thrilling but also enough to chill you to the marrow. I began to fear for my parents. I called to them, but they could not hear. One evening, as I played long into the gathering dusk in the backyard, my mother stood in the open door of the laundry porch, framed in light from the kitchen behind her, calling my name. The sight of her pulled me out of what must have looked like a snarling rant of gibberish. I was holding a soaking wet Barbie doll in each fist.
“Mama,” I said.
“Come here, Helen,” my mother said.
She sat on the stoop and held her arms out to me. I went to her like someone in a trance, those outstretched mother’s arms calling to me. She hugged me and pulled me onto her lap. She pushed my matted head against her breast.
“Helen,” my mother said, and I could hear the way her voice echoed in her hollow chest, “what’s happening to you?”
“It’s the end of the age, Mama,” I said.
Her arms went slack around me. Her dress smelled like laundry soap. Her skin smelled of powder and of makeup—wax and animal fat.
“What age, Helen?”
“He comes like a thief in the night,” I said. I could feel hot tears in my eyes, and I knew how they would look, cutting a pink path through the dirt on my face.
“You need a bath,” my mother said. I tried to slip free of her as she stood, but she hefted me into her arms. She was still strong enough to pick me up if she had to.
“No,” I howled, struggling. “Helen, stop it,” she said, her arms like a vice around me. I kicked and screamed and twisted. “Wallace!” my mother shouted. “Please fill the tub. Helen needs a bath.”
My father leapt from his chair in the living room when he saw us. He reached out to take me from my mother’s arms, but she turned us away from him.
“I have her, Wallace,” she said. “Please draw a bath. The girl is filthy.”
In my memory, I fought her valiantly as she struggled me upstairs, stripped me naked, and plopped me into the steaming water my father had readied in the tub. I think, though, I probably flailed and sobbed pathetically. We are rarely as heroic or strong as we fancy ourselves to be. My mother didn’t cry or shout or argue. She held my arm firmly in her right hand and a bar of soap in her left. She scrubbed and splashed until I was clean and so worn out that I sat meekly in the gray, cooling water and let her wash my hair. She was nearly as wet as me by the time she helped me out of the tub and rubbed me down with a towel.
“You have to snap out of this, Helen,” she said as she dried me. “You have to pull yourself together. You’re acting like a baby with this ridiculous business, and I won’t have it anymore.”
She shook me by the shoulders when I wouldn’t look at her. She thought I was being sullen, but I was actually mourning the great gulf that had opened between us, our inability to reach each other across such a perilous divided. How could I feel otherwise when I thought she might soon be lost to me forever? I could imagine her, cowering and small, being cast into the Lake of Fire.
“Do you hear me, Helen?” she asked, holding my wet head in both of her hands.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. Now go to bed.”
I could feel her eyes on me as I walked out of the bathroom and down the hall toward my room, the carpet soft and springy under my bare, wrinkled feet.