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    December 2009

    52. Cicada Cadence, Katie Didn’t

    By Craig Davis

    We were in a little bar east of downtown, talking about what we always talk about. We like a little elbow room here, in which to talk. To talk about how we wound up where we were. To talk about where we’re from. To talk about night—about nights—and childhood and boyhood and the neighborhood girls and nighttime and the noise of it all. So we were talking about cicadas. These are J. Ray’s stories about cicadas, even though one of them is probably about locusts. The third is a story about bats. A story that might once have been a lie but now is noise too.

    ~

    When he was a kid, J. Ray had this neighbor. Dale. Ray asked me a couple of times did I know Dale or do you remember that guy. I almost did. I remembered him like a word you want to say but can’t quite. My parents had moved out north of town when I was young. But I spent a fair bit of time around J. Ray’s neighborhood. Most of it with a girl who lived the next block up from J. Ray’s Dad’s place. It was the kind of neighborhood where somebody like Dale might make a little stir. The moms mistrusted him. They scuttled amongst each other about his daily meanderings. That’s really what I remember. More than Dale himself, I remember the mention of Dale. I never knew what was wrong with him. It was hard to say, really. He was probably twentysomething, then. Not quite old enough to be a town simpleton. But clearly well past being just a slow kid.

    Most of us actual kids were slogging through our own awkwardness. Some of us were molting into grace. Brunette grace. But somehow Dale slipped our pity, with his lank greasiness and his digging fingers. He had become big but could not quit his boyhood. Not the kind of boyhood that tugged at the moms, either—the stupid, beautiful, hairless sex of boys in cars after school. No. The kind of boyhood that is unwashed and revels in whatever it expels. The boyhood that holds forth unnamed liquid discoveries. Beautiful boyhood was now a thing those moms twittered about but did not touch and tried not to see. The leftovers of that winsome kind of boyhood now occupied their couches. They saw the worst of boys in their husbands’ slouching. They knew the bore of violence that twitched occasionally in all of them.

    It was difficult, even at our age, not to see the wisp of contempt they harbored for us. It was hard not to understand it. . . . Read More.

    51. The Gift of the Magi

    By O. Henry •, With Illustrations by Joel Priddy

    000-4-inch1

    That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas. . . . Read More.

    50. Belinda

    By Amity Gaige

    For John Updike

    He was sweet, her first husband. Karin met him fresh out of college, at an office party. He was a friend of the boss; she wore an intriguing vintage dress. Looking back years later, the spree of youthful follies seemed almost blameless.

    Her first husband was from a moneyed New England family. When Karin first met her in-laws-to-be, it was all she could do to keep up with their jokes and apocryphal stories. She kept looking face to face for clues. The family seemed to have stepped as a cast right out of the same bawdy play: there was the boozy, likeable mother, walking around with her apron and her smudged glass of Tempranillo, the red-faced father whose life was marked by acts of accidental heroism, as when he saved a woman by walking into a building he did not know was afire, and finally the boisterous sister, who came home to stay after her second divorce, and who liked to amuse them all with nihilistic half-truths.

    Sometimes, until you laugh, you do not know how buttoned-down you’ve been all your life, how reverent, your sense of pleasure asleep like a leg. Around her in-laws, Karin felt veils lift. She felt oppressive laws of the spirit repealed. She felt consequences inconsequenced. In her in-laws’ presence, her suspicions about who she might be at her best were confirmed. Yes, she thought, this is where I was always heading. And whenever it got a little windy—for sometimes, it did get a little windy, the mother too drunk, the sister too black—her husband was there to guide her through it, through whatever it meant to join a family that was not originally your own.

    *

    He was a sensualist, her first husband. He lacked desperations. He had small, comprehending eyes, a pat of soft pale hair through which he would stare at her roguishly. A kernel-sized birthmark sat below his eye like an ironic tear. When he was around his family, her husband was quieter than usual, playing the straight man, an act that belied the tenderness he felt for them. Sitting close together on the ottoman, he would whisper into the softness of Karin’s neck, I know, I’m sorry. They’re crazy. . . . Read More.

    49. The Geology

    By Kristen Iskandrian

    I began to turn mineral last year, the year my mother left. Really, it probably started much earlier, this fossilizing, at birth or before, and had to work its way through so many striations of body to be seen and felt. My first and only visible cues were my feet, about two months after she’d gone: tiny cracks, like in playground dirt, spreading across my soles and refusing to close despite nightly administrations of thick lotion. They don’t hurt, but I can feel them there, razor-thin perforations running every which way, such that each step I take feels like the effort of many feet in close succession. Not unlike, you might say, the movement of a centipede. The process is happening, in order, from the feet up, and is happening slowly. In fact it will probably take my whole life, “take” my life as in snatch or usurp or possess it, and take “my life,” which I imagine myself illustrating by extending my arms, two or three yardsticks wide, to denote length, distance, a measure of time. But I have no sense of “how long” in terms of the calendar. Only a very few people in the world know exactly how long they will live, and fewer still know exactly when they will die. I still have my hair, abundant and thick. It seems to move when I am still, like seaweed in a tidepool. An unseemly crown atop such a calcifying body, it feels less to me like hair than some kind of murmuring, loamy clock.

    North of my feet, there is no discernible evidence that my composition has changed. My limbs look like ordinary limbs, small and wiry as is my build, and my trunk too is unremarkable. But I am unable to trust them as body parts. Their inner content has solidified—veins like unraveled paper clips, tissue liked baked clay—and as such they are no longer responsive, decipherable matter. I have to learn my body consciously as I once knew it unconsciously, how it bends and straightens, how it deals with stimuli, how it goes through doorways. I have not mastered these operations, but I have mastered appearing as though I have mastered them. Much of my effort goes toward seeming at ease. And in place of pain, pure and straightforward as I once knew it—its onslaught, its management after, say, a burn or a stub or a sprain—or pleasure, with its ebbs and swells, its smoothness or stickiness—I now feel a stunning neutrality, constant estrangement from my own person, from my sensory potential. . . . Read More.

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