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  • Writer's pictureLannie Neely III

Echoes of Idioms

Silver Lining + Bugatti

The man gets off the phone. He smiles. His bets have been placed and his purchases have been made.

Tomorrow, the race will run, and he will win, he knows it. He feels it. He saw it in his dreams.

The dreams were clear and consistent. For seven distinct nights, he saw a greyhound named Mister plunge ahead of the other race dogs. He had never even watched the races, never gambled. He knew nothing about this world of money and sweat and abuse. These dreams were anomalies. Prophecies.

He checked online. There was an upcoming race with a new runner. A dog named Mister.

After work, he talked with his favorite escort—and she believed in his dreams! She was excited. His Rainy Day Fund was growing mold, she said. Wouldn’t this be an investment? An investment in dreams? She helped him place the bet late on Wednesday, three days before the big race. He promised to buy her something nice.

He dreamed about nothing in the nights to come. He couldn’t even sleep.

And now he stands, sweaty, eager. He hangs the landline phone on the receiver. 

With this money placed at 1-to-12 odds, his life will change. The phone call confirmed a down payment on a new Bugatti, bright yellow with lush, dark leather seats and a license plate that says AG-LINE or maybe AGLING. This stands for “silver lining,” like the idiom, which he thinks is clever. He remembers from high school that “Ag” means silver. Every cloud has its silver lining, and this Bugatti will be the silver lining to every shitty day of hard work and terrible romances the future has in store. He will come home, beaten by whatever life unfairly launches at him, and at least he’ll have this. At least he’ll have his Bugatti.

He goes to the kitchen, opens his fridge in the dim light. Inside is a basket, woven, filled with plastic grass and colorful Easter eggs. Some are blue, some red, some half yellow and half purple, some with an uncolored stripe around the equator. He sets the basket on the table. With a Sharpie marker, he numbers each. The blue egg, one. The red egg, two. And so on, until all seventeen have been labeled and nestled back into the shiny green grass. He returns the basket to the fridge.

Tomorrow is Saturday. Tomorrow, he will have his Bugatti.

Bugatti + Raindrops

The vapor rose higher and higher, until it reached a height that was considerably cold, and then it rose a little higher still. There, it met other vapors—bumped into some, twisted around others, often dancing with carbon and dust. A few vapors latched onto our particular vapor, begging for warmth, unleashing big bear hugs, big squeezes. The squeezing itself was whip-fast, magnetic, and the pain of such a squeeze soon became another layer of skin, another layer of identity.

Our vapor danced harder yet slower. The altitude sapped it of its energy. It was hugged and in turn hugged, becoming the hugs, absorbing each dance partner with the satisfying squeezes and snaps of a jigsaw puzzle, growing with silent cries of joy. It was changing beyond recognition. It could not cogitate, but it could precipitate, and this was new. Its whole being was defined by this act.

More and more vapors rose and slowed and greeted the other vapors in the wispy dance of the cold and huddling, pushed along by invisible wings. Pushed and pushed. The blue surroundings darkened as the family gathered. They congealed and condensed and smashed playfully into one another until our favorite vapor grew fat and tired and ready. It was time to go.

A shock ran through them all. A crack. Light, thunder, electrons whizzing left and right and toward the agricultural land below. Our vapor knew to drop, and did.

It dropped first, and fastest... but not alone.

Many other drops pushed down through the younger, lesser vapors that were still rising from the day’s heat. The racers were all fat now, and cold, and falling—! This was their calling now. They clung to gravity like a leash to a dog. Their fat bodies stretched high and thin like blades of grass.

Our drop was in first place, but only by millimeters. By nanoseconds, picoseconds, femtoseconds. By eternities.

The quilted land rushed closer. Square patches of green and yellow, blobs of dark green, lines of silver with black or blue or red specks flowing along them like ants.

As our drop plummeted, some of its skin burned off, shooting back skyward as vapor. As our drop plummeted, its brethren kept pace, like hounds chasing a fox. 

The only thing our favorite drop needed to do was hit the ground first. And as a narrow country road came closer and closer into focus, it seemed this would be the way of it. It seemed inevitable. It was beyond comprehension that our drop, destined by the stir of nature, viewed through the lenses of an unknowable curator, could do anything but smash full-forcedly into the pavement and be the harbinger of the coming rain.

As the ground rushed nearer, so too did its colored specks. They zoomed along the gray veins between the green-and-yellow patches. And at the moment before our favorite raindrop could touch the earth, a Bugatti shot by, summoning the wind around it, bursting our raindrop back into vapors, which rose and rose.

Rain began to fall, but we had lost it all.

Raindrops + Plastic Bags

He understood that color had meaning and that gray meant death. So he pulled another black plastic trash bag out, draped it on the leafless branches of the spindly cottonwood trees, and poked the budding tips of each twig through the plastic. He poked and poked. Every edge and every corner was secured in the open fingers of the tree, a tree who was brown like sadness but also green inside, a hidden color of madness and glory.

The second trash bag had less options. His nook along the river’s edge was open to the water-skim breeze, and in that direction, against the grayish murky reflection, his simple outdoor home didn’t have a wall. A facile fix, he thought, because he had lucked upon these two heavy-weight trash bags which must be of the finest quality among the nobles. One bag was already secure on the hooks of his column-esque trees. The second was merely a redundancy stop-gap backup.

The black of the bags were like pupils in the leafless tree-haven of late winter. Not even pupils, for there was only the one speck. And not even one pupil, for the bags were an eye patch along the river’s edge. A crow would smirk if it saw the hidden wink behind the color black.

There were infinite purposes for such quality bags. At such a strength, it could hold tinned food. It would be good for wet leggings and jackets until there was a place among the sun bushes to dry them. It could act as a poncho. They might be used for raw trash goods, edible but in high quantity—and you’d need to hide them from the fucking flies but they always find a way. A good quality trash back could save that chicken, save the bones and flesh. A good strong bag could be the outer layer to a sleeping bag.

These two good strong bags were black.

But then the rain fell, one drop at a time and all at once.

He scrambled under his sheet of black. At first he felt safe, but then the rain hit his eye. And his clothed knees. And his bare feet.

The sheet was crooked. Worse, the holes leaked. Each puncture from the tree became an enemy, one who poured earthy water onto his precious bedding of newspaper and burger paper and cloth. The water was sponge-green and clear, the color of sickness.

Within an instant of the rain, he was depleted of shelter.

There was nowhere for him. Everything was wet. All of his rectangular cardboards, oval cardboards, cap-less Sharpies, booklets, books, day-old donation muffins, plastic sporks, plastic pencils, plastic plastics, and pleather-bound photographs were exposed to drips and drops.

There was a cylinder of space beneath his lonely sky-seen eyepatch that guarded him, and he wrapped himself in gray and brown blankets, then tucked himself into a scratchy sleeping bag. It was warm and life and orange for him, the color of survival and health. But it didn’t last long. It didn’t stay dry. The rain came through like tanks against a fortress wall.

The wind came, too. It took his sturdy bags with one sudden strike. They left with a wave but no goodbye, tumbling across the choppy river water. 

He and many others in his lot abandoned their simple homes. They wore plastic ponchos and wadded their meager belongings into their own plastic bags, with none to spare. Even then, most of the blankets and sleeping bags were heavy with wet and meshing with their cardboard beddings. Only the few who had lucked into owning tents stayed behind.

He was most ashamed. He had wasted the extra thick, extra powerful trash bags. Of all their many uses, he had gambled them away at the least utilitarian.

He slept under the awning of the local bank building—he was removed forcefully. And then he slept beside the dumpster at the abandoned Safeway. He slept there, shivering, near the turmoil of corporate merging and shedding and colors beyond his spectrum.

He was wet.

He had become wet and stayed wet, and he had lost his shelter.

For years he had managed to hide among the blackberry bramble with his fellow intransients. For years he had remained relatively dry—dry enough to emerge at the end, like a fruit coming from a flower. And yet now he quivered in eternal wet. His skin was sticky and purpled, the color of orphans. His underwear itched at his orifices, and clumped. Water pooled beneath him on the gray cement.

The rain never halted. The rain never cared. It had fallen with a single drop, and that drop had been the harbinger of all the misery to come. He had asked for this by living too much beyond the light, and by using his strongest colors where he shouldn’t.

The sky stayed gray, the color of death. He, too, became gray.

Plastic Bags + Left Hand

The girl breathes in the biggest breath. Her lips are purpled, the veins in her neck squirming along the surface of her snowy skin. Her brother takes the black plastic bag from her hair, crumples it up, and pockets it.

“You passed the final test,” he says.

Their backyard is a million miles wide and a million miles tall as it comes back into focus. The grass greens and the sky blues, and the color comes back to her flesh in red patches. She flinches as her brother smacks her cheek.

“You hear me?” He swats her again. “You in the boys’ club. You made it.”

She has spent every day for the last seventeen days enduring a new brand of torture. Her brother is devious. He is inventive. Her ankles still bear the scars from the red ants and the melting popsicle. Her elbows are scabbed from the sandpaper army crawl. She still has trouble sitting after the salted bedposts.

She’s gasping and snotting, but she understands where she is again. Her brain feels light and wrong, but she has survived. She has held her breath and endured the seventeen trials of manhood and is ready to join her brother and Uncle Canasta and the trillions of others who came before.

Her brother takes her hand and leads her down into the cellar. She’s having trouble keeping on her feet and nearly falls into him after the third step catches her heel and yanks her down. He holds her up against his back, gripping her hand tighter. He turns, looks her in the eyes, and says nothing. 

His cruel grin is gone. He’s paler, even in the receding light. He’s sweating. 

They both know this is real now. This is dangerous. Everything before this was ceremony—was fun and games. If she messes up now, they could both be banned from the boys’ club.

They continue for over a half hour. The light from the cellar door has retreated too far to guide them, abandoning the descent altogether. They are in complete darkness. She knows where to go only by the firm tug of her brother’s grip and the clip-clop rhythm of each step. Another half hour passes, and finally she can see the flicker of red-light candles. She’s eager to reach the end, but her brother slows, and his breathing scares her.

The stairs end and the room opens like the flicking of a light switch. There, in the red glow, is a tower of cardboard boxes and plastic bins. The boxes are stacked like thrown dice, as if dumped from the back of a garbage truck. They only manage to create a mountain slope from sheer volume.

At the very top of the tower sits a man on a throne. Uncle Canasta.

They ascend.

The boxes fold in with every step, putting them both off balance. Clothing spills out, toys, CDs, games. One box is full of pacifiers. Another has leather belts and shimmering buckles. Another is a mixture of rib bones and colorful beads. 

Glass crunches. Paper crinkles. Wood snaps.

Her brother wobbles ahead of her, following a path of plastic tubs that provide more stability among the shifting cubes.

Candles dangle on black cords from an invisible ceiling. They burn upside-down. She steps into a box of mason jars and one shatters, cutting her bare foot, moldy goop unfolding onto her in clumpy layers. She flinches in pain and falls backward, just barely catching herself on one of the black cords. Her hands burn with hot red wax.

Uncle Canasta is close now. She can hear him breathing. He doesn’t bother looking at them. He finishes a beer and lazily tosses the can at her brother, who carries on like a mule on a dusty canyon trail.

They arrive, and her brother takes a knee. “She’s passed all the tests, Uncle.”

Uncle Canasta shifts in his dark-and-copper throne. He looks her up and down, and through. He belches. “You want that I should save your soul?”

She nods.

“Lemme see your hand.”

She lifts her right hand. He yanks her over, places her hand on the arm of his throne. He pulls out a machete and passes the blade under the sizzling flame of a nearby hanging candle until it glows like the setting sun.

He places the edge of the machete squarely along her wrist and pushes. It cuts through her like a bike tire cutting through a clay road after the rain. Her hand tingles. Her hand comes off. 

Uncle Canasta gestures to her brother with an eyebrow. Her brother removes the sturdy plastic bag from his pocket and places her hand inside, twisting the top and tying it shut, then passing it to Uncle Canasta who tosses it into a cardboard box overflowing with similar black lumps.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” her uncle whispers with sour breath. “You can borrow mine.”

Uncle Canasta leans to the opposite side of his throne, reaches off to the side, and pulls up a new hand, a large, harry, knobbed hand. He places it on her stump and seals it with red wax. The wax sizzles, solidifies, and disappears.

She looks at her new hand. She compares them both. The soft, young hand of a girl who is barely fourteen, and the old hand, tanned, too large for her. It replaces her right hand, but it is not another right hand. Her right hand is now the left hand of her uncle.

Uncle Canasta brings her left left hand—her soft, young hand—to his lips and presses his lips against her knuckles.

While he does this, she holds the palm of her right left hand to her face, inspecting the deep lines in the flickering light. She looks down to her brother, who is still kneeling.

She is in the boys’ club now.

Left Hand + Egg in the Basket

My new Jeffrey Trainer touched the top of my head with his left hand, which I liked. He was in a good mood. When he was in a good mood, he touched me soft and slow.

My Jeffrey Trainer sat in a big green chair. I sat beside him, my head in my arms, secretly smelling his feets. My old Jeffrey Trainer had feets, too, but they were always in shoes and smelled like the road and the dirt and the hot cement of the Polish academy. I had been robbed from the Polish academy by my new Jeffrey Trainer, who said words I didn’t understand and then petted me too hard when I didn’t understand them. 

I heard a car. I lifted my ears, and then my head, to better hear it. It was outside. It was loud. I was guided to the front door, where my Jeffrey Trainer greeted and hugged another Jeffrey Trainer. The car’s tires were warm, and its sides were yellow and refracted the sun. I tried to inspectigate the inside, but my Jeffrey Trainer pet me hard and told me no, that this was a boogatti and it was gold. I was forbidden from anything gold. So I laid in the front-yard grass with my head in my arms.

More cars came, and when the darkness climbed into the air the house was full with three Jeffrey Trainers. There was a female Jeffrey Trainer who smelled like blood and sex, and a big male Jeffrey Trainer who smelled like old food and the smokey outdoors.

My Jeffrey Trainer called me to the center of the room. He pointed at the ground with the bottom of his food bottle and said “werk feryer munny,” which is a thing he said when he wanted me to lay on my back and spread my lower arms and present my tummy and my marker. Everyone laughed, which I liked. I did a Sit and a Roll Over, too, which they liked. And then I did a Fetch and got a dirty sock from the basket, which they also liked. Then I did another Werk Feryer Munny and they laughed so hard I got excited and wanted to go on their laps and kiss them and taste them, but my Jeffrey Trainer got mad and petted me the fast and hard way, which I didn’t like. I liked being touched slow and soft and on the ears. The fast and hard touches scared me.

For the rest of the night they barked and laughed and drank from their food bottles until they were fire, and then their fire went out and they slept.

The next day I woke up to the smell of hot oil and eggs in the kitchen. I wanted some, but I knew not to climb up and take any. So I stood near the female Jeffrey Trainer and made sure I looked at her very much so she understood that I needed those eggs.

She touched me softly on my snout and fed me a toastered bread with butter and an egg cooked inside it, which I liked very much. I made sure to eat it quick so it wouldn’t disappear. Then I wanted more of that so I looked at her and crawled closer. But my Jeffrey Trainer barked something at her and she no longer paid attention to me.

Then I was left alone for most of the day. I ate some food and drank from the special white bowl in the small room. I had to urinize, but there was nowhere practible to go so I went on the kitchen floor and hid in the corner hoping no one would see me.

When my Jeffrey Trainer came home the darkness was up. He told me to get into the back of a large van, where the others were waiting. The van smelled like smoke, leather, and sweat. All of them were nervous.

After a short ride I was let out. We were all being quiet. We walked across a long yard, and behind bushes and trees. I could understand by the smell that this propriety belonged to another person. Then we came to a giant house, taller than I could see, a wall of white and glass. It was dark inside.

My Jeffrey Trainer bent down next to me. He pulled out a sock and put it to my nose. I could smell it, it was very strong. I knew what he wanted, what would make him happy. He was going to hide the sock, and I would bring it to him, and then he’d pet me on the head and maybe he’d give me a treat like my old Jeffrey Trainer used to. This was a game I played a lot at the Polish academy. I smelled the sock good. Then he pushed me towards a small door at the bottom of a big door.

I went through the flap. The house had many strange smells, including the smell of the person who had urinized on the bushes outside. This was their propriety, I knew. If they found me here, they would not want me around and would probably bark and bite at me. I could smell this person was a female, and that sparkled something in my marker. But I couldn’t think of this other person, I had to focus on the sock that my Jeffrey Trainer hided somewhere inside.

I inspectigated the carpet and couches and cabinets. Then I caught a faint whimf of something by the stairs. I liked stairs. I went upstairs, and the smell was stronger. The sock was near. I pressed my nose under a closed door. It had to be inside.

Doors were complexual. I scratched at it, and pushed my arms against it, but that wasn’t enough. Then I hooked my hand over the door nibble and it turned and it opened.

I searched under the bed where the smell was strongest and found it. Somehow they had hidden the sock in a bag of snow. This was normal. Jeffrey Trainer loved hiding socks with snow. I pulled it out and balanced it firmly between my teeth. I knew I had done a good job. This was fun!

Then the house began howling and howling. Something was wrong. I ran downstairs and went outside. The noise was so loud.

My Jeffrey Trainer was angry. The female Jeffrey Trainer was having a picnic attack. They must have also hated the howling. I felt the urge to howl myself, so I joined in. But then he petted me hard and fast with his left hand and chased me back into the house. The sound was everywhere. I wanted to go back outside, but my Jeffrey Trainer kept pushing me, and then he shoveled the sock in my face and I smelled it and I remembered the sock in the bag of snow I had left upstairs. I ran ran ran up and got the bag and ran ran ran back.

But no one was out there. The van was gone. The Jeffrey Trainers were gone. I didn’t know what to do, and the howling wouldn’t stop.

So I ran ran ran into the woods, and I howled until the Polish showed up and made the house stop and went away. And then I placed my head on my arms and I waited. And I waited.

Egg in the Basket + Chapel

Hal woke to birds chirping and the sun shining directly onto his pillow. During the night, he had finally become a 40-year-old. And in becoming 40 years old, Hal finally looked like himself. He was the 40 he had always felt, and the 40 he had always looked.

Since as long as he could remember, he felt too small, or too smooth, or too colorful for who he really was. The way he dressed, the music he listened to, the food he enjoyed—all of it was anachronistic and cloying. When he was seventeen, the principal of his high school came into his classroom and mistook him for the substitute teacher. When he was 25, he had a one-night stand with a 35-year-old musician who, after dressing herself shyly in the previous night’s clothing and making them both coffee, lamented that she normally didn’t screw older men.

Now that he was finally 40, he could stop pretending. He was free to do as he pleased. He could take up the hobbies of a 40-year-old without shame, like reading in the park or getting very into model trains. He could watch game shows after the news. He could forget how his phone worked and no one would mind. Fishing? Golfing? Yes, yes. Sandwiches for dinner! Mid-life crises!

Hal bounced from bed (ow, his back) and dressed in his finest 40-year-old’s sweatpants, t-shirt, and sandals. This was it. This was the day he went into public as the man he had been for so long, but was denied.

Hal paraded into the nearby diner and ordered a stack of pancakes, an “egg in the basket," a coffee with cream, and a newspaper. He traced his finger over the interwoven colors of the kitschy tablecloth. His egg in the basket had a perfect yolk in a perfect hole in a perfect slice of wheat. His stack of pancakes was the exact right height. He used only half of his pat of butter—he had a 40-year-old heart to consider—and wrapped the other half delicately back into its silver wrapper. When he was finished, he stayed 25 minutes longer than he ought, simply reading his paper and watching the world go by.

As he sat up to leave, he caught the eye of a woman alone at a nearby table. She was reading a mystery novel, an old Christie. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he stammered. He wasn’t sure if 40-year-olds said “ma’am” or if there was some other term. He’d have to do research. “Do you happen—and forgive me for my intrusiveness—but by any chance do you happen to be 40 years old?”

“How did you know?”

“I just turned 40 myself.”

The woman smiled. She wore a light brushing of darker lipstick, but no other makeup. “It’s funny you should say that, because my family always tells me I look thirty-eight.”

“Well, if you don’t mind me saying, they’re blind to the beauty only a 40-year-old woman could possess.”

“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me all year.”

Hal danced through the park, lingered under the awning of a coffee cart, and watched the children crossing the street in herds to their morning classes. It then occurred to him that he had spent more than enough time outside for his age, and ought instead to find appropriate 40-year-old tasks. He considered taking his car to the mechanic, but... there was nothing wrong with it. Hm. Traffic eased by with the sluggish morning commute. People shuffled around him balancing paper cups and pastries. He scratched his scruffy face. What should he do, then?

He made his way to a sporting goods store and asked them about their fishing rods and lures. The young woman behind the counter adjusted her cap and gestured to a wall the width of his shoulders—five rods, six plastic tackle boxes, and a set of lures. They didn’t have any live bait, though, because this was the city, and finding anywhere to go fishing would require at least a six-hour drive.

At the toy store, everyone gave him odd looks. He, an older man (forty, to be exact), had no business surrounded by blocky warriors and pink dolls and plastic dinosaurs and video game characters. He asked if they had any model trains, but the answer was a confused “no.” They only had chunky plastic trains for toddlers.

Hal found a more adult-oriented hobby store. This one was also filled with games, but more aggressive and more detailed than he had even known about. War games. There were miniature orcs and goblins and WW2 soldiers, each priced well above the cost of their plastic, and completely uncolored. He liked the idea that he would be the one to paint them, but they just didn’t feel 40-year-old enough. Plus, they were meant to be organized into large battles with other people, and he wasn’t sure 40-year-olds were ever supposed to have friends. 

The shopkeeper showed off several models of large Japanese robots that he could assemble himself, but when the shopkeeper asked who Hal was buying the robot for, Hal understood this was the wrong place, the wrong hobby.

Hal passed by a community college. He liked the look of it, but no; college was a young person’s game.

Hal passed by Canasta Pond. An elderly couple were walking in the shade, tossing bread to the swans and seagulls. He liked the look of it, but no; mid-day strolls by the pond was an old person’s game.

Hal passed by a wedding chapel, one of the modern, blocky ones that could fit into the grid of a manufactured city. Marriage? He thought back to the fellow 40-year-old from the diner. She was a pleasant-looking woman. Maybe she would have liked to spend the day with him. They could share in a hobby, or walk by Canasta Pond. But for that to happen, he’d have to flirt with her first. Flirting at forty? That was certainly out of the question.

Hal went home.

He watched an old car expo on TV for six hours. At one point, he made himself a bowl of cereal. He shaved his scruff into a light goatee, the mid-life crisis of facial hair. But none of these activities could sustain the high he had felt upon waking. There was a sadness setting in, a bloated raincloud that had made its way into his stomach and lungs.

He had wanted this for so long. He had wanted to metamorphose into his imaginal 40-year-old form. And now that he had, he was completely unprepared for it.

Chapel + Button-up Shirt

Emma was addicted to getting married.

She had been divorced for seven months. Her previous husband, Oliver Plankton, had been the only man in her life since she was seventeen. She had never known her father. Oliver Plankton had been her youth pastor, marrying her at eighteen and holding her tight for fifteen years.

After seven months of the sweetest, most delicious freedom she had ever known, she now found herself itching to go back. Not with Oliver Plankton—he was scum, cast out from the church and currently galavanting around Tuscany with a student he had scooped up during an international exchange. What surprised her was that she found herself itching to go back into the abstract notion of marriage. Her itch disgusted her, and she was addicted.

She left work early. Her job as a paper jockey at the Copy & Paste didn’t need the extra hands. One of the customers from earlier in the day surely wouldn’t miss the birth certificate and ID she had left in the copy machine—the ID of Belle Donahue.

Tonight, Emma was Belle Donahue. And tonight, she was going to get married.

The Luckland Casino held within it the dry smoke of cigarettes and love affairs. At the bar, she met Cam Delacruz. His wallet was thinner than his hair, and his breath was foul. None of that mattered. They walked the aisle and joined in holy matrimony, and then she drove home, alone.

The next day felt better. She had gotten her fix. Her coworkers noticed the skip in her step and asked if she had found a boyfriend. They had drinks later in the night, and she would have drunkenly (and gladly) spilled her secret if she hadn’t felt guilty about the real Belle Donahue, who would certainly have some tricky paperwork to deal with down the line.

After a month and three days and seventeen hours, the urge to marry bubbled and burst like a skin blister. She had to get married again. It sickened her. She had money, she had friends, she had a simple life and a nice job. Her empty apartment was a sanctuary for her thoughts, her books, and her framed jigsaw puzzles of Irish countrysides. There was no reason to destroy this perfect peace. No reason.

That night Belle Donahue became the loving wife of one Jimm Day.

The crumpled, toothy pastor of the Luckland Casino chapel looked the other way with Jimm Day. But he had more than an air of disdain in his voice two weeks later as she hooked arms with Chance Clemmons. And the week after that, with Jeremy Sims. The pastor’s bloodshot eyes never stopped staring into her soul. Yet he never took her aside, and she never felt the need to confess. She had chosen her method of worship at the church, and it was with a white veil.

She determined to take a break. The last two marriages were only snacks compared to the meal of her first. With a break, she would build her appetite again and savor every moment of the next one.

For the next two weeks, she had a steady routine. She would wake up, eat an egg with toast or oats, drink a glass of almond milk, open the Copy & Paste, spend all day printing papers (and making copies), go home, have a dinner of mashed potatoes and broccoli, and watch TV while putting together a 25,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a wolf howling during a full moon at the Cliffs of Moher. On Friday she would go out with the girls. And at any other time, be it midnight or 2AM or during lunch break, if she felt the urge to get married, she would rush to the back rooms of the Copy & Paste and make copies. Every leaf of paper was a candidate for copy, no matter the text, the privacy, the images, or even if there was nothing on the page to copy. She would make 100 copies and then 100 more. And then 100 more. Until the urge went away, she would copy.

The yellow walls and red pews of the chapel took on the same hue as the pastor’s jaundiced, bloodshot eyes during her marriage to Jeffrey Trainer. The room itself vibrated.

After she said “I do” and Jeffrey Trainer said he did as well, she took him by the wrist to a motel bed. Together they consummated the act and, as she sneaked out the bathroom window, the sun rose over the topaz hills. She grinned.

But it didn’t stop, and it didn’t stop.

It wasn’t long before she wormed further into the marital role. She married on Friday nights, consummated on Saturday mornings, and then prepared breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the motel room until early Monday mornings when she would greet the sunrise through the bathroom window. None of her husbands seemed to care why she was conveniently equipped with a camping stove and cutlery, or why a newly wed woman would hand-wash their dirty underwear in the sink, dry them with a hair dryer, and fold them neatly into the nightstand drawer beside the Bible and the condoms.

Her new life had a familiar cadence. She knew what needed wiped, how to service a sexual hunger, how to shine a shoe. It was like breathing. 

The Luckland Casino became her soup and salad. The Luckland Casino chapel became her appetizer. The Luckland Motel became her entree.

As she ironed striped, button-up shirts and a pair of khaki slacks she came to the realization that her addiction had been self-misdiagnosed from the start. Emma wasn’t addicted to getting married, she was addicted to being married.

The pastor became her colleague and wordless confidante. He would reserve an hour for performance, and greet her with a sportsmanlike smile of defeat. And even the motel workers would have her room set up with potted plants, tea rags, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and other special accommodations—as if it were her vacation home.

As she laid in bed one night alongside her new husband, Gerald McSomething, she realized that the chapel hadn’t checked her ID and birth certificate. They hadn’t been doing it for months. The ceremony had become so routine for everyone involved that all the life and spirit had drained away. Getting married had become a monotonous routine, the same thing week after week. The ideal of “starting fresh” had become overripe.

Next time around, she ditched her safe persona of Belle Donahue and risked her own ID—Emma Merriweather. The chapel workers were astonished to see the name Emma. The pastor himself was baffled and suspicious. A security guard was summoned. The head of the Luckland Casino was roused from his sleep and forced to approve the proceedings only after his team of experts confirmed that she was, in fact, Emma Merriweather, and that she wasn’t lying about her identity... not today, at least. It was the first time the Luckland Chapel showed any professional integrity. The man she had dragged drunk and stumbling to the chapel sobered up and slipped away.

But it didn’t take long to get back into her rhythm as Emma Merriweather.

Her marriage to Brian O’Something lasted a full week before she got it annulled. Her motel room was now exclusively hers, rented out at a reduced rate on a moon-ly basis. Every day she would leave the Copy & Paste, fetch dinner from the supermarket, and greet her husband in a parking lot with a long hug. On Thursdays she would disappear. On Fridays she would go to town hall and get her new marriage annulled. On that same evening, she would start again.

So it came that the Luckland Casino, the Luckland Chapel, and the Luckland Motel were the soup, appetizer, and main course in her weekly meal, with the annulment as her dessert. Her fourth course. Her comfort food. And it was the most divine of all the courses. After all that build-up, she would sit down to a heaping bowl of ice cream with dark chocolate divorce.

 It was Someone Somethingson who finally caught her in the act of escape. She tried to make excuses, but he stopped her short. He shook his head and shrugged, lips tight, quivering, and shut the door quietly on his way out. She laid alone that night, soaking a perfumed pillow with tears. She ironed his button-up shirts in the morning, and packed him a bag lunch with pastrami and cheese, but he never came back.

When it came time for annulment, she ended her signature short of the final loop. Heavy sigh. She tucked the blue ink pen behind her ear. She tossed the annulment papers into a public toilet. At work, she meditated with her fingers pressing onto the copying machine. Copy, copy.

Perhaps it wasn’t being married Emma was addicted to. Perhaps it was getting divorced. That moment of being free. That inelegant release from responsibility. The torture of Oliver Plankton had crushed her soul for fifteen years, every day of which she yearned to break away and float off into the sky. And that successful moment where she signed the papers, got half of his money, and stepped out into the cool Spring air had been truly chocolatey. It had been the single greatest moment in her life.

Now she was shackled again. Shackled to a man she didn’t know and who had done her no harm. But he was the victim this time. She was the corruption. The villain. She could never replicate that first high because she was no longer the one escaping cruelty. Her husbands were.

The paper ran out. She reloaded the copy machine with more copies.

Five months later, she went through with the divorce. It was too late for an annulment. Her husband, Something Somethingson, had been cordial, expectant. He smiled when her lawyer said she did not want any of his money. They signed papers and walked away, neither giving each other more words than necessary. He was free of her shackles.

She swore off marriages from that day forward.

Her final three marriages went more smoothly, but then she swore them off for real.

Button-up Shirt + Silver Lining

You arrive in an ironed button-up to the cafe in the public theater on the private university campus. You are starting your new job as a barista.

You have never made coffee before in your life. All of your skills and experience point to other professions. Filthier professions. Sometimes, professions barely considerable for the title of “profession,” especially with the froggish-ness of the private university mascot looking over your shoulder from every banner and every sweater.

But you have already been hired. Time to work.

Ms. Clara greets you. She is a slim Ukrainian woman. She looks tall but she is much shorter than you. Her proportions play a trick. Her toothpick legs, her hawkish face, her fur vest and brown leggings. She towers above you from below. Ms. Clara guides you through the kitchen of the cafe in the public theater on the private university campus.

“This is Kateryna.” Ms. Clara gestures to another employee, also Ukranian like her, and also clad in blue and white like you. “She’s learned everything she knows from rereading Idioms for Idiots.” The book is face-down on the far counter. It must be over 1000 pages. Its corners are puffy from water damage and the edges of each page are yellowed and browned, the smudges of a million oily finger presses.

“Nice to meet you,” you say.

Kateryna looks you up and down. She doesn't like what she sees. “I will try and not judge a cover by its books.”

“Don’t worry,” Ms. Clara assures you, “she understands everything we say. But you’ll have to excuse her if her responses are a little...” She searches for the right word.

“Idiomatic?” you suggest. She doesn’t understand the joke.

Ms. Clara shows you their operation. She shows you how all the equipment works: how you have to jiggle the knob to turn the oven off so we don’t burn the premade scones and croissants again; how you have to spin the salad greens shortly after washing them so they don’t dissolve into green mush again; how you have to load the sink with hot water and suds only to a certain point lest the floor get slippery and we have an accident again. You replace the sponges. You locate the backup carafes and the bucket and mop. You take note of the trash cans and where to empty them when they are full. You assure Ms. Clara that you will give the refrigerator door an extra little push when you close it so the milk doesn’t spoil again.

“This is Regiane. She’s from Brazil.”

Regiane is poking at the touchscreen of the register. She doesn’t look in your direction. “After I get the system booted up, I’ll show you how to use it.”

“If you need me—which I hope you won’t—I’m usually in the back office.” Ms. Clara squeezes your shoulder in a way that feels menacing and flirtatious, her fingers skeletal and clamping.

You spend the next hour with Regiane learning how to make espresso shots, then americanos, lattes, and cappuccinos. At no point does your cappuccino foam look the way it does on the chalkboard menu above you. This fact is hidden expertly by the plastic to-go lids.

Over the course of five hours, you attend to only three customers. You make the americanos, Kateryna bags the berry scones, and Regiane takes the money. You are a well-oiled machine with no purpose. Three customers is a lot, Regiane tells you, for a cafe in a public theater on a private university campus in the morning.

You chuckle at the near-empty tip jar. There is just one coin, one euro. “How should we split this?”

“We will bridge that come when it crosses,” Kateryna says.

The lunch rush sells six more americanos, two more scones, and three croissants. The three of you close the cafe for an hour and take your mandated break outside in the freezing wind. Regiane eats a container of chicken and rice while wrapped in a puffy black jacket. Kateryna fills herself with a smaller snack of two cigarettes. You eat a scone which fell on the floor but is otherwise totally fine.

“So, you ran out of options.” Regiane leans against the brick exterior of the public theater. Red dust sticks to her shoulders.

“What makes you say that?” you say.

“No one works here if they have a life. If they haven’t made a mistake.”

You say nothing. You flex and stretch your hands, wrinkled things that should have retired already. You are sixty-three going on one thousand.

“This shithole is the last haven of the damned,” Regiane says. She still hasn’t looked directly at you, not even once, all day.

Kateryna puts a cigarette out on her shoe. “Do not gift a look-mouth in its horse.”

“This is no gift,” Regiane says, somehow able to decipher Kateryna’s nonsense.

“I don’t know what you mean,” you say. You’re pretending. You understand exactly what she means, but are afraid to talk about it. You point the spotlight back at her. “How did you end up here?”

“We all end up working here the same way. Me, Kateryna, some of the others you’ll meet tomorrow. Even Ms. Clara. No other choice.”

“Do not count your eggs in one basket before they hatch.”

“Exactly, Kat.” Regiane’s breath hovers in the air. “I made some... investments when I was young. Money investments, life investments—it doesn’t matter what kind. But I thought I’d be okay. And then it all went south.”

“When it pours down, it rains.”

“Right. Then I had to make some compromises, I guess you could say. I had to deal with some shady people.”

“We make deals with the devil to lend us hand.”

“I did things I didn’t care for. No need to get into details. But when I was finally set free, well...” Regiane bites her bottom lip, she stares at her black boots.

“Old habits die hardly.”

“Who’s telling this story? Me or you?”

Kateryna puts her palms in the air and shrugs.

“So yeah, I kept doing those things, until I couldn’t any more. Until I was all used up. Time passed, and there was no place left for me. I had no education, no skill set, no more youth.” It occurs to you that Regiane, who looks in her late twenties, might be older than that. Maybe her mid-forties. Maybe it's her makeup that keeps her looking younger, or the way she holds herself, or the cut of her button-up shirt. Maybe it’s because she stays fit. But, looking closer, those are crow’s feet dancing too close to her eyes. Her skin has dried and ashed. She stares intently at the university’s iced-over fountain. “I wish I had respected my body more, along the way.”

You don’t know how to respond.

After a cold wind blows by, Kateryna nods and says, “Your body is a wonderland.”

Regiane scowls. “That’s not an idiom, that’s... from a song!”

Kateryna shrugs. “Is a good song.”

You all go back to work. You know Regiane is right. She must be. You are not working at the cafe in the public theater on the private university campus at this age for fun. For no reason. Life hasn’t gone the way you had hoped, and now you are living with that. But you feel no need to share your story. No one needs to hear it. This story is their own as well. It’s a resonance. The soul of your story is not new, it is not unique. It lives on throughout many creatures, in pieces and parts, and only the details differ. Sometimes the story ends earlier, or sometimes it starts later. But the spirit is a thread sewn through all of them, from front to back, and needs no exposition. It’s a song with many singers.

This unites you and your coworkers. You are all the same—in some way. Your stories are a dime a dozen, a blessing in disguise. You all bite the bullet, pull yourselves together, catch your second wind, and put your nose to the grindstone. At the end of the day, you all hang in there. At the end of the day, good things come to those who wait. At the end of the day, every cloud has its silver lining. 

This resonance comforts you.


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