Nathan Leslie
 

Nathan Leslie's short stories, essays and poems have been published in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, North American Review, Shenandoah, Chattahoochee Review, and Cimarron Review.  He has published six collections of short fiction—most recently Madre (2007); his first collection of poems, Night Sweat, was published in fall of 2009.  In addition, he is currently the fiction editor for The Pedestal Magazine and his articles and book reviews have been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Orlando Sentinel and in many other magazines and newspapers.  He also served as series editor for the Best of the Web series 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books).  He received his MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland in 2000.

 




 

Rosie

I’m really not dumb.  I’m not.  Took the SAT’s.  Matriculated from Madison.  Got a decent job.  I read a book each month to keep up with the Bottomfeeders Book Club, which has an active membership of seven.  I take classes at the community college for my own edification.  Problem is I’m big.  I’m fat.  I’m bald.  And I drive a Harley.  Perception is everything. 

            One weekend in May my buds and I head out to the Monongahelas in West Virginia, embrace our “redneck roots.”  Annual tradition.  We’re all forty something recovering alcoholics, so we “get” each other.  Worked our way through the twelve steps.  The whole song and dance.  It’s Nate, Doug, Tom, and me.  We ride our ATVs, shoot guns, drink pot after pot of black coffee, play poker all night, crash in our tents at four in the morning.  It’s good clean fun, and it keeps us out of trouble.

            The best part—we all get along.  Before I met these guys my friends would always let me down.  You know the drill:  scheduling get-togethers was a hassle; rivalries cropped-up; stupid arguments over nothing.  But with Nate, Doug, and Tom it was easy.

            So we’re out there for twenty four hours when all hell breaks loose the next afternoon:  the entire sky just opened up.  Flash, bang, boom—the rain slashed down.  I don’t know if it was my proximity to the ground or what, but I’ve never seen it rain that hard before.  I mean, Hurricane Wilma had nothing on this downpour.  Since we were out squirrel hunting by the time we got back to camp, everything that wasn’t socked away in the cab of Nate’s truck got soaked through—the rest of us drove our Harleys.

            “Cripes,” Tom said.  “What now?”  Tom pulled off his baseball cap and kneaded his brow.  He doesn’t handle stress well.  In fact, he quit a high-paying job or two for just that reason.  Since then he’s gone born-again.  Aside from the blonde hair and skin with the pinkish hue, he’s got that scrubbed-clean look as if his pores emitted an unnatural glow.  He’ll listen to a dirty joke now and then; he just won’t tell them.  I wonder why he hasn’t disassociated himself from us; Tom considers himself open-minded.

            “Well, I guess that about does it,” Doug said.  I had the feeling he wanted to get back to his latest girlfriend anyway.  Doug has admitted he scours Craigslist for the young and available—college-girls with a daddy fettish.  “I’m legal,” he says.  He says it keeps him invigorated.  I think he’s replacing one affliction with another.

            Nate shrugged saying whatever we wanted to do was fine with him.  We stood under the largest rhododendron we could find.

            “Come on,” I said.  A little water isn’t gonna hurt us.  Let’s tough it out, make good on our weekend.  How often do we do this?  Screw the rain.”

            Tom and Doug looked at each other, sour.

            “I for one am not going to sleep in a puddle,” Doug said.  “That’s my limit.”

            “No sense in forcing ourselves to have fun,” Tom said, kicking a cluster of Milkweed.  “We should know ourselves by now.”  I hated it when he resorted to clichés.

            “What if we head into town, buy a new tent?  We could wait until it stops raining, then set it up and still make good on the weekend.”  I felt proud for thinking so quickly on my feet, and I didn’t see how Tom and Doug could deny this was a decent plan.  Well, Tom grumbled that it might rain again after we have already set up the tent, and Doug wondered how much this would set him back, but ultimately Nate sided with me, said it “made sense.”

 

            The problem:  as far as we could tell, Elkins, the closest town, didn’t have anything resembling a Walmart or Sears, much less a sporting good store.  When I asked the kid at the gas station he said we’d need to drive ten miles west to Buckhannon or even up to Grafton to get a tent.

            The kid was fiddling with his tortoise shell glasses.  He was an albino with dyed orange hair and a nose ring through his septum.  This made him look like a psychedelic bull.  Not what I expected out in the middle of nowhere.

            “Sixty miles round trip,” Doug said.  “Nice try, Bill.  Give up the ghost.  Let’s go home.”

            “Actually,” the kid said, “there’s this other person.  If you don’t mind waiting for a second I can see if he can help ya’ll.”

            Nate propped his hands in his front pockets and looked at the chips aisle.  Doug flipped through an issue of Cosmo.  Tom stared longingly across the street at a stand of red maple.  I felt that if I kept pushing for an extended weekend I might lose them altogether. 

            But five minutes later the kid was back.  He held a piece of paper between his ring finger and pinkie and I took it.  The paper had the name “Rosie Chetwick” and an address.  The kid drew a quick sketch of directions with a map, making sure we knew it wasn’t far off.  “Shot-gun shock is all.” 

            “I thought you said this was a guy,” Doug said.

            “Sorry,” the kid said.  “Tomboy.  She’s like one of the guys, ya know?”

            By this point Doug and Tom were listing the various merits of being home.  Nate was shaking his head, saying “I don’t know about this.  I just don’t know.”

            “Have some faith,” I said.  “Tell him, Tom.”

            Tom wrinkled his eyebrows.  We were crammed into Nate’s truck, pressed against each other good.

            It smelled of wet denim and B.O.

            When Nate pulled up to the house none of us were sure if it was the right place.

            “Shotgun shack” was an understatement.  It looked like a glorified tool shed:  rusty tin roof, rotting walls, pealing paint.  The front yard—if you can call it a yard—was littered with coffee cans, milk jugs, bicycle parts, heaps of cardboard, moldering sofa cushions.  At this sight even I began to make mental preparations for the journey back home.

            “I’m not getting out,” Doug said.  “You’re on your own, buddy.”  Nate and Tom looked out the window.

            I knocked on the door with all the authority of a bashful thirteen-year old.  I didn’t want anyone to answer.  The last thing I desired was to meet the person who called this shambles “home.”

            After the first tap, the plywood door swung open.  I had to squint into the gloom.

            “I heard ya’ll pull up.  Well, come in, will ya?”  I saw the hand before anything else—all calluses.  “Rosie,” she said. 

She wore a buzz cut, and her tank top revealed hard, tight muscles, and a variety of tats.  Her eyes were alert—small and darting.  Her face was pug-like and pocked with acne.  She had a fuzz of hair on her face, which made me wonder if she had a hormone problem.  I introduced myself.

“What can I do you for?”

I told her.

 “Sure, I got a tent in here somewheres.”  Rosie waved at the clutter.  The living room was stacked to the ceiling with newspapers, paperbacks, magazines, files.  There was a second layer behind that, she said.  Clothes, parts, utensils, bedding, and the like.

“Don’t mind the mess.  This is just me being me.”

Rosie had the gift of gab.  As she was searching for her tent she told me her life story—or a selective version of it.  Born in Montgomery, Alabama, her mother left her father at an early age, but she was a drunk so the judge gave her father custody.  Subsequently, he up and moved to West Virginia, worked as a coal miner until the day he died of black lung.  “Those companies don’t give a holy hell about human life,” she said.  When her father died she was twenty.  Rosie never went to college though.  “Couldn’t afford it,” she said.  “Plus, I’ve never been one to go the traditional route, per se.  No sir.” 

“Ah,” she said.  I could see her head over the pile of newspapers.  “Found it.”  Rosie withdrew a large green plastic cylinder which I could tell right away contained a tent.  “Brand new,” she said.  “Never used.”  She tossed it to me, and I caught it, somehow avoiding stumbling into the edifice of junk behind me.

Rosie said we could “burrow” it as long as we wanted.  Thanks a million, I said.

“Can I ask you a rude question?”

“Shoot,” Rosie said, lifting herself from the clutter.

“What’s with all the stuff?  You a collector?”  I couldn’t help it; I’m naturally curious.

“I have a good memory,” was all she said.  She pinched her temples.  “I kinda run a memory club, actually.”

Rosie gave me the scoop.  Her and the local guys spend their time hopped up on meth.  As a result she memorized articles, books, anything with words.  “To keep me occupied,” she said.  Some meth addicts clean, put together radios after taking them apart, put together jigsaw puzzles.  She memorized things.  Numbers, lists, but mostly words.

“Cheap stuff up here,” she said.  “Makes you smarter really.  A lot smarter.  Go ahead, ask me anything you want about any of these.”  She handed me a folded up wad of paper.  When I opened it I could see it was a list of hundreds of articles and dozens of books.  “I mean, have to work with what I have,” she said, pointing around her.  It was something.

“Ok, tell me about Serial Lies, page 67,” I said.

Rosie didn’t even blink.  She closed her eyes and let loose:  “We knew that Benny would probably sleep out in the little barn behind his house that night, just in case they came looking for him.  Benny’s house sat on a flat at the top of the river bank, on the upriver end of town.  The house leaned a little toward the river and it was so small that Benny didn’t like sleeping inside.  Besides, he didn’t have a bedroom.  Benny’s father had cut out a long time ago and his mother slept in the only bedroom.  Benny had to sleep on the floor of the room that was both the living room and the kitchen.  So he preferred the barn—although it was a little crowded since we still hadn’t gotten rid of our pile of scrap iron.”

“That’s impressive,” I said.

“Darn tootin’,” she said.  “I told you I have a head on my shoulder.”

“Dontcha work?”

“Haven’t in quite a spell,” she said.  “Might change soon though.  I’ll be out of dough in a year.”  I could hear the registers ca-chinging.  She could be a dream, I thought.

“As a matter of fact,” I said.

 

At the time I owned a small store which carried arts and crafts from around the world, a little bit of everything:  handmade luggage, drums, masks, blankets, scarves, jewelry, carvings, parkas.  It was a way of making a living and feeling good about it.  Some of the money for each purchase went to the local artisans.

I knew right away Rosie would be a great addition.  We had over two hundred items in each location, and it was difficult for most of my employees to remember the stock.  So I hired Rosie, told her I’d be happy to put her up for a while until she could afford her own place.

“The only thing is, I’m a recovering addict,” I told her.  “You can do meth, just don’t let me see it or hear about it.  I mean that.  You can come to work as is, far as I’m concerned.  As long as you’re under control.  Those are the ground rules.”

I knew this was hypocrisy, and I felt bad about it from the start.  My buddies would lose all respect for me if they knew.  I was just able to separate her behavior from my own.  I knew I had my addiction under control.  In a sense this was my test.  If I profited from hers who had to know?  But I suffered for it:  I was ashamed.  I steered away from them, even though they were my support system.

At first everything at World O’ Crafts was peachy.  Rosie was a hard worker:  within two days she quickly had the entire stock memorized—names, prices, relationship to other pieces.  Rosie said this was more difficult than memorizing a book—her photographic memory is more “straightaway,” she said.  Less hands-on.  Less about “ins and outs.”  Still, she was the only employee I had like her.  That was for damn sure.  I even got her to abandon the cut-off t-shirts and ripped aprons in favor of more store-appropriate attire.

My wife’s name is Marla, and her middle name is Jane:  I call her M.J.  She always liked having the same abbreviation as Michael Jordan, and I didn’t mind it.  We made a decision way back that I’d provide and she would raise our four kids in our Bottoms townhouse.

“As long as it’s temporary,” she said.  “I don’t know her.”

This, for M.J. was a subtle condemnation.  In her world only a stranger could do her wrong.  If she “knew” somebody, they were bound to be dutiful, friendly, kind.

“She’s going to help me a lot,” I said.  “At work.”

“I’d hope so,” M.J. said.  “If not I’d wonder.”  M.J. poured me another cup of Colombian anyway, and wiped Kathy’s face. 

Since we didn’t have a guest room, we set Rosie up in a cot in my basement office.  She’d spend her evenings memorizing our Encyclopedia Britannica.  The Bottoms’ townhouses didn’t come equipped with enough rooms; the kids all shared one room as it was—even Rhonda, our oldest.

At work Rosie was a pleasure and she was friendly with the customers and the other employees—retirees and college kids went to her with questions. But she could only concentrate on one thing at a time.  I didn’t ask why she leafed through books maniacally.  I didn’t ask why she always brought playing cards.  She was so focused on her books or cards or lists of numbers that sometimes it was like pulling teeth to get her to help out with the customers.  You had to grab her attention before you wound her up.  If she picked at her fingers until they bled I just saw it as par for the course.

                                               

“Can you tell me what the problem really is,” I said.  I was talking to Shelby, the assistant manager. 

“It’s just she’s annoying.  I mean, she won’t lift her head out of her book.  She’s bouncing off the walls, saying all kinds of strange things.  Muttering to herself.  The chick is off, Bill.”

“Like what strange things?  I haven’t heard anything.”  I sensed that everyone had it out for her because she didn’t “fit in.”  I thought they took her to be a bumpkin. 

“Bill, she was reciting Sue Grafton all day.  Then she stepped into op-eds from the 1997 Mountain Statesman.  She has problems.”

So I confronted her.  Rosie was doing squat thrusts in the basement.  The heavy dose of hamburgers she was ingesting from the mall Burger King were bulking Rosie up like a linebacker.  Since Rosie didn’t help around the house M.J. didn’t want to feed Rosie any longer, so she was on her own for meals.  Rosie didn’t seem to min, but M.J. kept asking when “the bitch” would leave.  Rosie dropped the barbell, wiped her brow with the back of her arm.

“Rosie, can we talk?”  I felt tentative, paternal.  There was an odd vibe to the room.

“God, I wish you was my father.  You know how he’d do it?”

“How?”
            “Smack me upside the head, spit it out in three words.  Like he was conserving his voice for an emergency.”

I told her my issues:  we needed an end-game; she needed to concentrate on work; it would be great if she could do something nice for M.J., who felt threatened.  It was that or she’d have to get her own place.

“Sure.  Can do, boss,” she said.

So the next day she bought a bouquet of pink carnations for my wife (three dollars at the corner of Seven and Sterling Boulevard).  She was on her best behavior at work, and she leafed through the apartment listings after dinner.

“Are you bored?”  I asked her.  Her eyes were intense, as if she were about to have a seizure.  The veins in her head almost seemed to pulse.

She flipped two more pages of the newspaper and sucked on a can of Miller.  It didn’t bother me; M.J. drank in front of me all the time.  I had to just take it like a man, pretend I wasn’t tempted.

“I guess,” she said.  She told me she just memorized the classified section.  She leaned over. I swear I wasn’t trying to, but I could see her plum-hued nipples down the neck hole.

“Look,” I said.  I turned my head.  M.J. was out taking the kids back-to-school shopping at the mall.

“Does M.J. make you happy?”  She asked this casually (or maybe fake-casually), stifling a yawn. 

I chose not to answer that.  Unbelievable, I thought.  She flexed her bicep, held it out for me to touch.  I did.  It was solid, like gripping a concrete block.  I was surprised I felt that stirring, but I did.  I reclined onto my back, on her creaky cot.  She pounced on me.  The frame was almost too flimsy for the both of us.  But it held us for fifteen minutes, enough for me.  Rosie’s muscles were that taut, from head to toe.

By then M.J. was pulling into the driveway.  I pulled on my pants.  A knot tightened inside.  I felt immediately brooding and guilty.

I stared at the half-full Miller on the floor of the office.  The condensation sweated down the cold can.  Rosie watched as I took a sip.

 

When Doug called that week I told him everything—except about the Miller.  That was too much.  I knew he had been there.  Doug was good at advice—he cut to the chase.  And I knew he was right.  Talked to Nate and Tom, too.  They wondered where I had been.  That made four of us.  Nate and Tom said we needed to get back into the woods, screw our heads back on straight.

Under the pretense of apartment shopping, I drove west on Route Seven.  But when I passed Purceville, Rosie began to ask me where I was taking her.  Then she stopped asking, tried to grab the steering wheel.  I was able to push her away, settle her down for a moment by telling her I’d tip the cops to her meth stash.  She freaked:  just started spitting and scratching and yelling and hitting.  I tried to pull over, but the traffic was too thick.  Then she punched me in the head.

I wanted to make it all the way back to Elkins, West Virginia, to drop her off outside her shot-gun shack, but Rosie was too strong for that.  The last thing I really recall was the blow to my temple.  I don’t remember slamming into the telephone pole.  I don’t remember the ditch, the cops.  When I came to I was in Loudoun General.  My wallet was in my pocket—that was the first thing I checked.  She wasn’t a thief, I can say that much.  Still, I had two broken ribs and a bruised collar bone and a bandage around my head.  It could have been a lot worse.  But I was afraid she would be back someday.  I was afraid she’d bring her people.

Admittedly, I was lucky:  a day later I was cleaning out my office.  After discarding the empty Miller, I took her necessities to Goodwill.  I rolled up the cot, packed it back in the utility room.  With the exception of the unopened half-case of Miller, I got rid of every sign of Rosie.  The half-case sat in my closet for a week.  Each evening I sat in my office waiting for something to happen.  My pulse throbbed.  I waited for Rosie to rap on the door.  I could hear M.J.’s footsteps above me, clumping around.  She kept clearing her throat something awful.  It was enough to drive me batty.  I could hear M.J.’s phlegm reverberate through the walls.

I waited.  When Rosie didn’t show, I drank the beer.  Each one.








 

Useful Habits

             They have each other:  Gloria Carlson and her great aunt, Bert Smithston.  Gloria came from a small family.  Her mother died of lupus when she was in college.  Her father moved to Wyoming.  She sees him at Christmas, receives a phone call at or around her birthday, sometimes on the 4th of July if he’s had enough to drink.  Gloria was an only child.  She read.  Her best friends were crows and ladybugs.  Gloria is a research librarian.  She doesn’t relish the thought of interacting with the public.

            Bert is eighty-two years old.  From her room she can see the muddy drainage ditch that separates Meadow Haven from The Bottoms.  She refers to it as Lake Superior.  Bert grew up in Ontonagon, Michigan, right on the lake.

            On Sundays in the summer Gloria likes to drive Bert to the farmer’s market.  Bert refers to the market as a church, and each Sunday Bert wears a sun dress and a hat.  Bert likes to talk to the farmers.  She refers to the Latino farmers as gypsies, and each Sunday she whispers to Gloria:  “They don’t speak very good English.”  Bert blinks often, as if she fights off tears.  Gloria nods politely, holds her great aunt’s hand.  Gloria tries her best.

            Mornings, Gloria reads articles from the paper to Bert.  Bert closes her eyes, chews her cinnamon toast, drinks apple juice.  Sometimes she falls asleep.  Sometimes her thoughts drift:  to fields of sorghum, snowshoes, pine boughs bloundering in the wind, her bedroom windows, Lake Superior.  The paisley eyes on Gloria’s blouse are watching her.  The hanging fern tentacles are alive.  Bert looks away.

            At first Gloria felt helpless.  She knew Bert mostly from letters, birthday cards, phone calls.  Now she has come to terms with the fact that doing her best is good enough.  Gloria tries to minimize the demands she places on herself.

            Gloria is reading an article about a twelve-year-old boy who drown at the foot of a local waterfall:  “Authorities are uncertain whether Kenneth Galbright fell from the waterfall or if he drown in the pool itself.  There were no known witnesses to the accident.  Foul play is not suspected at this juncture.”

            Brushing lint from her blouse, Gloria sips her coffee.  She usually refrains from reading bad news to her great-aunt.  If a mystery lingers, however, Bert pays attention.  Bert swallows, opens her mouth.  She stares at the photograph of the waterfall.

            “Can we go there?”  Bert asks.  She says the image reminds her of a waterfall in Northern Wisconsin.  She can’t remember the name of that one…

            “You’d like to go to that waterfall?”

            Bert chews her cinnamon toast.  Bert rocks her body back and forth, blinking.

             After work Gloria picks up her great aunt and they drive west on Route Seven.  The traffic is snarled, as usual.  It takes two or three cycles to make it through each light.  At Leesburg, Gloria turns north on Route Fifteen.

            The waterfall access is roped off with yellow police tape.  Some college kids walk by, sipping Slushees.  They kick at bark and toss pebbles into the trees.  A middle-aged couple walks to the edge of the police tape and scuff through the fallen leaves.

            “We’ll have to come back,” Gloria says.

             A week later they drive to the waterfall again.  This time they are able to walk right up to the top of the falls.  From this view Gloria and Bert can watch the water tumble to the pool of froth and water and rocks below.

            Gloria watches one fixed place.  The water flows past it.  Looking closely enough, the water hardly seems to move at all.  Bert watches the water fall from the top to the bottom.  The water is propulsive.  Her head whirls from the downward motion.  The water tumbles.  The water falls so fast.

            They stand and watch.  For ten minutes they watch.  They don’t speak.

            Gloria thinks of the poor boy.  Kenneth.  She wonders how he found himself alone at the falls.  She wonders where his friends were at the time.  Gloria feels for his parents, for the loss of life.  Bert mentions an article Gloria read her in the winter.  The article was about the millions of butterflies that died in a cold snap in Mexico.  After Gloria read that to Bert, she realized it might have upset her equilibrium.  Bert dreamt of frozen butterflies.  She dreamt of ankle-deep dead butterflies.  Tonight Gloria knows Bert will dream of cascading water.

            Gloria makes macaroni and cheese for dinner and reheats lima beans.  Bert tells Gloria she’d like to go to the waterfall again soon.  Gloria can imagine this becoming a routine.  By eight Bert is in bed, watching the reports of the Western fires raging on CNN.  Gloria can hear the commercials.

            Gloria writes in her diary.  When she is finished she turns on the oscillating fan.  The white noise helps her sleep.

            Bert needs useful habits.  And so does Gloria.  When Bert has passed, Gloria knows she will have to find others.  For now, the breeze is a comfort.  Gloria too will dream of water, flowing in one fixed place.  Constantly flowing past it.  
 

Copyright © 2010 Nathan Leslie