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The final installment of “Dogs.” Browse previous posts to read Part 1 or its “prequel,” “Double Gold.”

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Dogs of an Unknown Origin: Part 2

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The next morning, Marvin waited until half-past eight before heading out to Skyler’s. Someone had called his trailer five times in the night. No one on the line—no voice, no breath. He hadn’t bothered answering the fifth time. From his bed, Marvin had counted to one full minute before the ringing stopped.

Skyler’s truck was missing from the drive and the shades were drawn. No one answered when Marvin knocked, so he checked for a key under a brick by the door. There was the damp outline on the concrete where a key had once been. He nosed around the stoop for a few minutes, but there weren’t many places to hide anything—just a dented cat dish and a stack of clay flower pots. He checked under each, to make sure. Then he got back in his car and headed to Peggy’s.

Peggy lived five miles down the road, near a massive culvert that ran under the highway. She owned pasture on both sides of the road, and her cattle tunneled from one pasture to the other through the culvert. Once or twice, Marvin had caught a glimpse of cows trailing single-file out of the earth and into the sunshine as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

A man opened the door. “Who’re you?”

Marvin gave the man his name, and the man looked behind him, as if to seek advice from someone in a distant room. Eventually, he gave up and led Marvin inside.

The house was stuffy. They reached a faded plum couch and the man gestured for Marvin to sit. He did, and the man sat at the other end, hands clasped between his knees. His eyes were the kind that turned down sharply at the corners, so that he looked perpetually put-upon.

“You her renter?” the man asked. “She said the guy’s a Mexican fella. You look Indian, though.”

“I’m Marvin Enos,” he repeated. “I live down the road. I work with him. With Skyler.”

“Alright, well, sorry—I can’t say I know you. Haven’t lived around here for a while.” Marvin tried to think of what to say, but the man went on. “Well, Peggy ain’t here. I’m watching her place for her.” He took a drink from a cup that stood on the coffee table, beside a massive Art Noveau book with gilded lettering. “She’s in the hospital. Got a blood infection, doctoring cows. Stuck herself with a needle. Anyway, I came out here to look after things for a little while.” He took another drink. “I’m her ex-husband,” he added.

“Is she alright?”

The man was staring into space. “She’ll be fine.”

Marvin explained that Skyler hadn’t picked him up for work that morning, and asked if he could borrow the key to check on him.

“He’s a young man, ain’t he? I expect he’s sleeping in.” But he went to the kitchen and plucked a key from a nail over the sink. “Bring it back soon as you can. If I’m not here, slide it under the door. I’m gonna go visit her ’round one.”

The man looked at a space on the wall. It was empty. He scanned the room, perplexed, and finally found the clock. It was just past nine. Marvin stood and faced the clock with him. They both watched the second-hand make swift, confounding circles.

*

The air conditioner roared gently from its place down the hall. Marvin called for Skyler, but there was no answer—not even an echo. The house swallowed his voice, as if he’d entered a vacuum.

The iguana was on its rock. It opened one yellow eye when Marvin stood over it. “Hello,” said Marvin. Its food and water dishes were empty.

Marvin went to the kitchen. Four plastic yellow cups stood in the cabinet. He filled one at the tap, drank it down, then splashed more water inside and returned to the living room. He opened the terrarium and poured the water in the iguana’s dish. In the fridge he found little baggies of diced fruit and vegetables, and filled its food dish with the contents of one baggy. He fit the lid back on the terrarium and pressed it down tight.

Then Marvin went through every room of the house, starting with the bedroom. It was a sparse room—just a bed, a dresser, the elk painting, a mirror, and a closet. A beer can stood atop the dresser. Marvin opened a few drawers. Unexpectedly, each item was folded and arranged in neat piles—even the underwear. A single suit—navy blue—hung in the closet. Moving around the empty bedroom, Marvin had the sense that some fundamental shift had occurred in this dim, airless space. The world outside seemed distant, a little implausible.

Back in the kitchen, Marvin inspected the contents of the fridge more closely: a 24-pack—mostly intact—and several submarine-shaped objects wrapped in tinfoil. He unwrapped one. A sandwich on white bread, with lettuce, turkey, and cheese. Marvin tucked the tinfoil around it and replaced it. A carton of ice cream and an ice tray in the freezer. A few cans and half-empty boxes of crackers in the pantry. Marvin looked out the kitchen window at the brilliant peonies, the empty highway beyond them.

In the living room, he went to the bookshelf and picked up the photograph of the old man. He turned the frame this way and that. The photo was glossy, slightly wrinkled. He popped off the back of the frame and removed the photo. It was a magazine cut-out. There was a section of an article on the back, part of another picture—some rainforest. He replaced the photo. Then, he picked up the nearest Reader’s Digest hardcover. When he’d flipped through every page of the book, he picked up another.

He was flipping through a book from the bottom shelf when a folded sheet of paper fell from it. In the center of the paper, in a shaky, feminine hand, someone had written the words, “Even if your name is a burden.”

That was all.

There were some scribbles at the top of the page where the old woman had tried to get the pen to work.

Marvin folded the paper. He balanced it on his fingertips as if offering it up to the room. The air conditioner stirred the house smells around him.

From outside came the crunch of gravel under tires. Marvin stuffed the paper in approximately the same spot in the book, replaced the book on the shelf, and went to the window.

The man who climbed out of Skyler’s truck looked like Skyler. But as he inspected Marvin’s car, Marvin could see he wasn’t Skyler. He wore Skyler’s sunglasses. And when he smiled as he strode up the walk, the glasses cut into his cheeks. But Marvin knew he wasn’t Skyler.

Marvin stood in the doorway as the man climbed the steps.

“I stopped by your place to pick you up.” The man pushed past him, into the house. He went over to the terrarium and peered at the iguana. “You fed Hector.” He took off the sunglasses. “Skyler’s my little brother.” He turned the glasses over in his hands. “I’ll be living here now. If that’s okay with you.” He smiled and his teeth were small and square. “My name’s Bernie.”

“Skyler gave you his truck?”

Bernie shrugged. He was looking around the house.

“Where is he?”

Bernie said something Marvin didn’t catch as he walked into the kitchen.

Marvin followed him. “What?”

“He went home.” Bernie opened the fridge and took out a sandwich and rolled down the tinfoil.

“To Guatemala?”

“Guatemala.” Bernie took a big bite of the sandwich. “Absolutely,” he said around the food. Then he sat down at the kitchen table and began eating in earnest. Marvin stood in the doorway. He felt light-headed, and thought distantly of women in bustle dresses, throwing their hands to their head; he felt faint. After a few moments, Marvin slowly approached the table. He sat in the chair opposite Bernie.

Bernie looked up impassively, jaws working, like a lion. His eyes were a flat, glassy brown. The contents of the tinfoil disappeared quickly. When he finished, Bernie brushed the crumbs from his mouth and started for the door. He stopped in the doorway and popped in a stick of gum. Then he said to Marvin, who sat frozen helplessly at the kitchen table, “You wanna work or not?”

*

Marvin drove Skyler’s truck, and found it shifted easily enough. Skyler had been a terrible driver, maybe never drove stick before. Marvin didn’t wear his seatbelt and neither did Bernie. Marvin waited to find out what Bernie wanted. But Bernie said nothing. Bernie did his share of the work, and didn’t turn his face from the stink of the animals like Skyler had done—though he whistled once, in appreciation, as he scooped up a skunk. They passed the day working silently.

On the way to the dump they found the old woman’s black cat dead on the side of the road. Her middle was smashed and Marvin had to use the shovel. “Old cat like that should have known to stay off the highway,” said Bernie. “Who knows why creatures do things.” At the dump, Bernie climbed into the truck bed and used a shovel to scoop the animals out like leaves. The black cat’s body was lost among them as they sailed in one stinking, wobbly mass into the pit.

Marvin felt sick as Bernie hopped from the bed and slammed the cargo gate shut. “I’m driving,” said Bernie.

*

Bernie pulled up outside Marvin’s trailer just past sundown. The nights had been getting cold, and Marvin’s sunflowers were beginning to droop. Their big forlorn heads circled his trailer like a crowd of mourners. He should pull them soon.

“What’re you looking at up there?” Bernie asked, and Marvin realized he’d been watching the sky. “Ain’t nothing up there for you.” Then he didn’t say anything for a long time. Bernie’s eyes cut over the shape of Marvin’s trailer in the dark, the color leeched away, just an ugly shape jutting out of the prairie like a ragged toenail.

“Skyler said you were some kind of”—Bernie waggled his hand—“crossdresser?” Marvin didn’t answer. “So, you must have known about Skyler. Being cousins, of a sort.” He seemed to think that was funny.

“Known what?”

Bernie leaned back and studied him. Then he broke out laughing.

Marvin felt as if his body were lifting away from itself, cell by cell. He felt as if his organs were weightless within his body, floating, bumping into each other.

Bernie settled down, actually wiping a few tears from his eyes. “Well,” he said. “I guess I could see that. You like women, don’t you? Hell, I don’t care either way, man. I mean—I care, for me. I have a distinct preference for females, same as you. What I’m saying is, as long as a guy can do his job, who cares about his private life, right?”

In the side-window, Marvin saw a car pull over on the highway and shut off its lights. Bernie glanced in the rearview.

“You got a girlfriend? That white girl on the oil field?”

“No—” Marvin shook his head. “How do you know about her?”

“You know how Skyler likes to talk,” said Bernie. Marvin couldn’t remember mentioning Liz to Skyler. He couldn’t even imagine it. Bernie turned in his seat to look at Marvin. “He left his truck to you.”

“Left it to me?”

Bernie glanced again in the rearview. “So what else?”

“I don’t know,” said Marvin.

“Come on, man.”

“I don’t know what you want.”

Bernie was watching him. “He ever tell you the story about how he got that lizard?”

“No.”

Bernie felt around under the dash and took out a pack of cigarettes. He offered a cigarette to Marvin, who shook his head. Then he took one out and lit it. Marvin hadn’t seen him smoke all day. He wondered if it was a signal for whoever waited in the car. Maybe it was the same car that had peeled out outside his mom’s place last night. “He tells everyone that story. He’d tell a stranger off the street that story. And he didn’t tell you?” Bernie leaked smoke against the dash. “Strange,” he said. “Very strange.”

There was another silence. Marvin looked at his trailer and felt as though it might as well be as distant as the stars, orbiting a minor moon at the far reaches of his life.

“Your sunflowers look bad, man,” said Bernie. “You should pull them.”

Marvin shook his head.

“Maybe you should get some perennials.”

“Who are you?” asked Marvin.

In one big effort, Bernie smoked the remainder of the cigarette down and tossed the butt out the window. He exhaled through his mouth and looked at Marvin. “Alright,” he said, and flashed the headlights once. Marvin’s trailer lit up. Then it went black again—blacker than before. Marvin looked in the side-mirror, but the car didn’t move. No one got out.

Bernie took out another cigarette and held it in his hand, against the wheel, but didn’t light it. He slumped against the seat as if he had no plans of leaving. “He was an idiot, man.” Bernie’s voice was relaxed, but he jiggled the cigarette against the wheel. “He’d just start taking shit from whoever’s house we were at. He said it was to show them we could. He couldn’t help himself.” They were drug dealers, then. Or something. It didn’t matter, a voice in Marvin’s head told him. He didn’t need to know. He stared, perplexed, at his hands curled up like sleeping animals in his lap.

“He kicked this guy’s dog to death once,” Bernie went on. “He could have shot it, but he was just acting crazy, and it tore up his leg. He had to get a rabies shot. He was always doing things that didn’t make sense. I can’t even tell you all the times.” He stuck the unlit cigarette in his shirt pocket. Marvin thought about bolting out the door, running.

Bernie stared up through the windshield. “What do you think of them things up there?”

“The stars?” Marvin fought a sudden urge to laugh.

“What’s been going on up there lately?” Bernie gestured loosely at the expanse of the entire sky. “Is it expanding or contracting?”

“It’s not contracting,” Marvin said.

Bernie looked at him then with sincere hatred. And just as suddenly, he broke into a spiteful smile. “It’s not contracting,” he said in a high, prissy voice. Then his arm flashed out. He grabbed Marvin’s face and tilted his jaw roughly, as if he were a doll. Marvin fought him off and Bernie laughed. “In the dark, man, you look like something else entirely.” Bernie scooted back across the seat. “Better watch out.” He laughed again. Bernie opened the door and got out. Through the window, he said, “You tell that woman, when she gets out of the hospital, that Skyler moved on. He went back to Guatemala. Took that stinky lizard with him.” In the rearview, Marvin watched him walk to the road and get in the car. The car started. Its lights shot two long beams that, in the dark, seemed to go on for miles. Marvin noticed one of the beams angled up slightly. There was an alignment problem. The car slid away.

Marvin sat in Skyler’s truck, unable to move. His body had gone away and it took some time for the particles to regroup. Light was shooting out of a black hole somewhere, and no one knew why. The CB squawked—just static, but underneath he thought he heard the rhythm of a human voice. It was repeating something. A name. He picked up the CB. “Hello?” He thought he should say his own name, but he couldn’t get the words out, so he only said, “Hello?” once more, and waited. Static—and only static, this time. Marvin got out of the truck and went to his car. He opened the door and stood there a moment, thinking. He closed the door.

In his trailer, he picked up his phone and dialed his mom’s number, thinking about the car that had pulled into her turn-off last night. The phone rang only twice before she picked up.

They made plans for lunch. She sounded excited. “I’m gonna dress up a little,” she said. “You should, too. Just put on something nice and we’ll go to that vegetarian place.”

“What vegetarian place?”

“There is one. You need to get out of that tin can more often.”

He laughed, and a bead of sweat ran down his face.

After hanging up, he got a flashlight and went back to Skyler’s truck. The smoke from Bernie’s cigarette lingered, pooling in the gauges. Marvin shone the light under the seats. He opened the glove box. It had been cleaned out. He checked the driver’s side dash for the VIN and found the little metal plate, its numbers scraped off. He looked under the seats again. Then he turned off the flashlight and stood in the darkness by the truck. The truck still put out a little heat.

*

The next morning, Marvin dressed before the mirror in his bedroom. A wind had come up in the night and the day was cool and cloudless. Marvin’s thoughts seemed rooted in a far-off place, slithering across a dark, syrupy lake over weeks or years, and at last his hand would reach up and find his shirt button. He’d dressed, somehow, in a slim jacket—plum, with black pinstripes—with a blue button-up beneath, and jeans. He’d found the jacket a few years ago in a boutique in Denver. No one had known him there. It’d been easy. Standing before his mirror now, he wound his hair in a high bun. Bruises had blossomed on either side of his jaw, where Bernie had grabbed him. Marvin let his hair down and arranged it over his shoulders. It looked best that way, anyway. He turned his head to feel it move against his cheeks. He flexed his jaw. It twinged a little, not bad. Turning his head too fast had made him a little sick. He hadn’t slept.

He opened the top drawer of his dresser and removed his aluminum makeup case. Everything was in its place—his lipsticks, shadows, powders. Brushes. Pencils. Good, soft kohl. Little pots of color. Marvin stood there, frozen. His mind supplied answers, all on its own, to questions that hadn’t even occurred to him yet. And then, he felt an overwhelming numbness pressing against his temples, his lungs, the backs of his knees, spreading through his entire body—he had to move, he had to get going. He shut the case and left it on top of his dresser.

Marvin had to walk past Skyler’s truck on the way to his car. His sunflowers—what was left of them—whispered feebly among themselves. Soon the wind would gather up their petals and fling them into the air. A few would manage to cling to Marvin’s trailer, and when the snow thawed, they’d look like any sort of petals—ordinary leaves.

*

Marvin drove directly to the little blue house. He didn’t bother going inside, though he still had the key. He was sure there was nothing to be found in there. In the yard, he cut two peonies with a pocket-knife. Their moisture ran down his hand. He hesitated, then cut two more.

No one was home at Peggy’s. He slid the key under the door, and took the two flowers he’d cut for Peggy back to his car. His mom would put all four of them in the glass vase on her table. Then they’d go to lunch.

The culvert was all contrast, light and dark—an ink drawing—the opposite end a raw, white moon. A terrible thought struck Marvin, standing there, looking into the black at the bottom of the culvert. He got a flashlight from his glove box and walked to the lip of it. The flashlight’s beam skittered along the bottom of the culvert, revealing only clumps of earth and cow dung. Marvin swept the light over the corrugated walls—concentric circles flowing out like a ribcage—and recalled the image of cattle stepping, one by one, out of the darkness of its center and into the light at the other side, the new pasture like a new world and they, new animals.

*

Peggy wondered if Marvin knew anyone who was looking for a rental now that her mom’s old place was officially vacant. They were drinking coffee in her living room a few days later, with her ex-husband, who had taken down the clock and was holding it at various points along the wall. He was buoyant and purposeful today and Marvin liked him a great deal less than he had the first time they’d met. Marvin said he didn’t know of anybody.

According to Peggy, every trace of Skyler’s existence had been wiped from the house, except for the iguana’s empty terrarium—the iguana gone, too. Peggy hadn’t seen her mother’s old cat around and hoped Skyler hadn’t taken her with him or killed her for sport, or god knows what. Then again, she had no reason to suspect he’d do something like that. It was just that he’d disappeared, and left the carpets unshampooed and the toilet clogged. “Guess he left a trace or two of himself,” said her ex, speaking around the nail he held between his teeth. He’d climbed on a chair facing the wall. Now he positioned the nail, raised a hammer. He wasn’t a big man. But when he drove the nail into the wall, Marvin felt the violence of it in his sternum. The house murmured with the sounds of quivering glassware for three seconds after each blow.

“I don’t think an iguana would last long out here if he turned it loose,” said Peggy, once it was quiet. “He’d find his way to the highway, and—blammo. That’d be the end of him.”

Her ex fitted the clock on the wall and stepped down from the chair to look at it. “Who the hell owns a reptile?” he said. Then he crossed the room and sat next to Peggy on the couch and observed the clock from there. He seemed pleased. He leaned back and gazed at it through half-closed eyes.

“Did he leave his instruments?” Marvin asked. “He said he had some instruments in the shed.”

“What instruments?” asked Peggy.

“I don’t know exactly.”

“What Peggy’s interested in is instruments of torture,” said her ex.

“Was he a musician?” Peggy asked.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s amazing what you learn about people,” she said. “After the fact.”

“Nothing they do can surprise me,” said her ex.

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Epilogue

Before they found the house by the water tower, and before the long hungry summer before that, the two dogs lived in a yard some thirty miles away, along a crooked road known for vehicle fatalities. The old dog arrived first. Three children lived in the house, and when they woke to him howling under the clothesline, they begged their mother to let him stay. A few months later, one of the girls came home with a puppy in her arms. She presented the pup to the old dog—who sniffed the cold little bundle with a snarl in his throat—and carried her inside, where the pup remained through the rest of the winter. In the spring, the pup was left outside with the old dog. The two dogs hunted for food with the pack that roamed the rangeland, although they were barely welcome among these wilder dogs, and always hungry. They survived on scraps and leftovers and sinew and bones.

When the woman or one of her children came out, the dogs wagged their tails but did not get up from the holes they carved for themselves against the fence. The wild dogs, on the other hand, preferred the prairie. They fought the coyotes in the hills. The houses and the people who lived in them offered no shelter or comfort—only, occasionally, bits of food. The wild dogs never doubted their right to the land. They smelled blood in the dirt and dug at it. They slept in the dirt. The dogs had been here, in this place, as long as the people had. They had come with the first people, a long time ago.

The house emptied of children. The woman who lived there rarely came out, and the dogs forgot about her. The first warm day of spring, many years later, they left the yard for good. Without meaning to, they had become wild.

*

The dogs spent the summer wandering the cedar hills for game. The rabbits were too quick for them. Once, they spooked up an elk calf, but its mother came charging down the draw, bellowing, and scattered them. A few days after that, they made themselves sick picking at a dead cow that had been deposited at the base of the hills by a rancher—poisoned from larkspur or death camas. They recovered along the river, in the shelter of thick brush, and headed east along the highway, where they lived off roadkill and became expert at dodging cars. It grew hotter, and they slept during the day and spent nights along the road, sniffing out dead animals and waste thrown from car windows.

They reached a town. They found the house by the water tower.

The woman there was tall, and called to them.

*

The dogs could remember the minute stirrings of other dirt beneath their feet, the taste of dead things, the lights of cars shooting past, the heaviness in their guts and the lightness of their bodies. But when they dozed under the porch, when they skittered up the steps to greet the tall woman, when they romped in the yard on cold days, they became, more and more, the dogs who lived there.

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Thanks for reading! “Dogs of an Unknown Origin” and its companion, “Double Gold,” belong to my linked story collection, The Flowers Killings.

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Things were looking bleak for Marvin at the conclusion of “Double Gold.” He had been beaten up and humiliated, and had quit his job at Wishes. “Double Gold” is the first story of the linked collection (the collection and its particulars are discussed in the last post); the next story in which Marvin is the main character, “Dogs of an Unknown Origin,” appears near the end, and was finished three years after “D.G.” (Following “D.G.,” Marvin is mentioned in a few other stories, including a scene in which he is spotted playing three-on-three basketball at the Tall Hat community gym at the end of “Bone Daddy.”)

I’ve broken “Dogs of an Unknown Origin” into two parts for easier reading. Watch for Part 2 next week.

Thanks for reading!

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Dogs of an Unknown Origin: Part 1

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“They told me I shouldn’t be surprised if you’re wearing a mini skirt,” Skyler had said first thing that morning. He’d burst out laughing when he saw the look on Marvin’s face. “Hey, man, I don’t give a shit—as long as you can work.” To Marvin’s relief, Skyler seemed more interested in talking about himself. “I was a loader at an airport last. I’d rather be handling dead animals than mail, my friend. Believe me. You know we gotta handle chemo stuff? It just comes in these ammo cans—like the army uses? And I didn’t know this, but people ship corpses all the time. Sometimes just body parts. Arms and legs. It’s crazy. Chemicals. Diseases. Radioactive materials. Roadkill looks pretty good after that. I’ll tell you.”

Skyler had learned Marvin’s number by asking around at the store. Marvin was loath to turn down any paying job, though in lean times he was able to scrape by with his monthly per capita check and his savings from Wishes. Plus—and he hated to admit it—he was lonely. He hadn’t worked with anyone since Wishes—just did solo jobs. Housekeeping. Spraying weeds. Sometimes employers got the wrong idea. They hung around, watched him work. Got close. Marvin had come to understand that such arrangements weren’t uncommon, even in a place like this—the maid who isn’t a maid, and so on. But what was it that they thought they wanted with him? Him—in his work gear, his hair tucked under a baseball cap. His round, watchful face.

This partnership with Skyler—picking up roadkill for an even share of his pay—seemed straightforward enough. Still, he was jumpy. He’d had some experiences in the last few months that made him wonder if it wasn’t time to abandon freelance work and seek out some different kind of obscurity.

While Marvin scraped the remains of a red fox from the asphalt, he thought about distant galaxies in which he might wear a mini skirt. He wasn’t even sure he’d ever wear a pantsuit again. He had considered setting his clothing on fire—to the point of gathering his dresses and bras and tights and lady’s suits in trash bags and dumping them at an appointed place on the prairie behind his trailer, a good hundred yards beyond his sunflowers. It had been nighttime. He’d stood there with the trash bags in the sagebrush. The coyotes started up over the hill.

After a while, he’d hauled everything back inside. Poured it across his bed. And hung it back up.

One day he hoped he would open the closet and find there wasn’t an atom left in his body that belonged in those clothes.

*

Skyler spent the first morning waiting in the truck while Marvin shoveled the dead. It was alright with Marvin. It gave him a break from Skyler’s chatter.

Around midday, Marvin was dumping a skunk into the truck bed when Skyler yelled over the sound of the engine, “You play an instrument?”

Marvin threw the shovel in the back and climbed into the passenger’s side.

“What?” Skyler was grinning. His sunglasses cut into his cheeks.

“I don’t.” Marvin tossed his gloves on the dashboard and sat back. He’d been making an effort to stop wearing a seatbelt. It had transformed into a kind of test.

“Well, do you sing?” Skyler lurched into gear. “I’m starting a band.”

Marvin looked at him, exhausted by Skyler’s mere proximity.

“We’re gonna be the Black Elk Basin String Band.” They were passing the store. “Just play in the parking lot, right there. Why not?”

“What do you play?”

“My dad was a hell of a drummer,” Skyler said distantly. “We gotta make a stop.” He slammed on the brakes and Marvin threw his arms forward just in time to catch himself on the dash. In the next instant, Skyler was swinging off the highway and onto a dirt lane, dodging potholes—as if by a miracle—with one hand on the wheel and the other flinging the shifter in improbable directions.

They were pulling up to Peggy’s mother’s old place—a pale blue house shaded by a trio of balding cottonwoods. Over the years, from the highway, Marvin had seen the old woman sitting on the porch in the evenings or picking her way through the overgrown yard as if the grass were full of mines. She’d passed away last June, and now Skyler was renting the place from Peggy. “Two-fifty a month,” Skyler said. “How much is your trailer?”

“I bought it.” Part of him couldn’t wait to get back to it, draw the shades. Then again, it was nice to be out for change—even picking up roadkill.

He followed Skyler up the narrow walk. The cottonwoods’ expansive root-system had done a number on the concrete—it was rearing up and fissured, chunks of it littering the grass. Efforts toward gentility seemed wasted on the prairie, where the wind blew away what the snows hadn’t crushed, and shook dust over everything, as if all that space were one mass grave. Even so, peonies lined the fence, their big pink blossoms holding up well late in the year. “Bet you wish you had some perennials,” Skyler said. “Fucking around with them sunflowers every year.” Skyler held the door for Marvin. “I wouldn’t fuck around with them.”

The house was remarkably cool. An air conditioner roared from the end of the hallway. They’d entered a dimly-lit living room, and it took Marvin a few seconds to realize the clunky shapes lining the walls were instruments and cases. The room was full of them. “Holy shit,” said Marvin.

“I got them cheap off someone,” said Skyler. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. Now I gotta figure out what to do with them.”

He led Marvin to the kitchen, where a large black cat sat atop the table. Skyler offered the cat his hand, and she pushed her face against it. “She was the old lady’s. You want something to drink? Or eat?”

“We got that deer to pick up.” He caught a whiff of something—maybe the skunk drifting up from his clothes. The cat settled on her haunches and watched him.

Skyler had the fridge open. “We’ll get her in a bit. She’s way down in a barrow ditch. Ain’t hardly any sense in picking her up in the first place.” He pulled out something wrapped in tinfoil, peeled the tinfoil down a few inches, took a bite.

Marvin stepped back into the living room and took a closer look at the instruments. He counted three acoustic guitars, a trumpet, a saxophone, several small instruments in cases, and a decent-sized drum-set. They looked to be in great condition.

An iguana basked in the rosy glow of a terrarium by the couch—Marvin had somehow overlooked it the first time through. He crossed over to the iguana, and its eyes swiveled to look at him. He’d never really cared for lizards, but not for the usual reasons. He didn’t like their smell—that oily, shrimpy smell. In high school, Marvin had gone to a party in Seaton with his cousin Owen, and these meth-peddling skinheads showed up with an iguana; a little skinhead named Skinny Steve or Stinky Steve or some kind of Steve packed it around on his shoulder like a parrot.

“What?” Skyler stood in the doorway.

Marvin had been smiling faintly, standing over the iguana. “I was just thinking about something.” The cat was standing by the door. He thought it would meow to be let out but it just waited, one paw crooked expectantly. “We should probably get going.”

Skyler studied him from the doorway, chewing. “Do other people’s houses make you nervous?”

“I’m just thinking the radio’s probably going off,” Marvin said.

Skyler only watched him from behind his sunglasses, food bulging in one cheek.

The cat finally meowed and Skyler opened the door for her. “I’m Mexican,” he said. “Everyone around here thinks I’m Indian. But we look different. Look at our faces.”

Marvin nodded uncertainly.

Skyler turned from Marvin, heading for the couch. “I gotta use the john,” he said. “You might want to go first.”

The bathroom was at the end of the hall. Marvin walked directly into the breeze generated by the air conditioner. Through the vague plastic smell, the odor of the house was concentrated into a single stream that passed over his body. Old paint and leaves, and a muddy sweetness, like hair caught in the shower drain. Marvin passed a bedroom with an oil painting of an elk pair in a massive gilded frame. Below it, a rumpled bed. He tried to remember what Peggy Lipton’s mom had looked like, and couldn’t think of a face, just a thick, stooped body treading slowly through the yard, as if pushed by intermittent breezes. He’d only seen her from the highway.

“If you’re just pissing, don’t flush,” called Skyler.

Marvin stopped.

“The pump’s no good.”

The bathroom door scraped the linoleum, and Marvin had to force it shut behind him. The toilet seemed about a foot off the ground, and the seat was outfitted with a plush cushion—an old lady’s toilet. He lifted the seat and splashed a halfhearted stream into the bowl. He couldn’t imagine not flushing. He deliberated for what seemed like too long, and then flushed and left in a hurry.

Skyler got up from the couch when Marvin came out. He’d finished whatever was in the tinfoil and left the tinfoil in a ball on the lampstand, and went directly down the hall.

In the corner by the window stood a wide, dark-stained bookcase, lined with identical hardbacks in brown and navy blue—big, gleaming Reader’s Digest anthologies. Obviously not Skyler’s. On top of the bookcase rested a photograph of a man in a flat-topped hat. Marvin picked it up.

*

When Skyler returned to the living room, his sunglasses were pushed on top of his head. His irises were a clear green surrounded by wide black rings. They reminded Marvin of a cat’s eyes, or a baby’s. “That’s my dad,” said Skyler, reaching for the picture.

“Where’s he live?”

“Guatemala.”

“I thought you said you were from Mexico.”

“It’s just easier.” Marvin figured he meant easier to explain. “Hold on, the pot’s still running.” Skyler disappeared into the bathroom again. He’d replaced the picture so that it angled slightly away from Marvin, facing the window. Marvin wondered if the man was still alive. He heard the shudder of pipes, and Skyler reappeared. “Let’s get going.”

In the truck, Skyler seemed somber, and Marvin sensed he’d made some misstep at the house. He always had the feeling he was disappointing people in one way or another. “I was born here,” Skyler said, after a while. “In America. In Texas. A few years ago Mom went back to Guatemala. To be with my dad. Now it’s just me.” Marvin wondered what he was doing in Black Elk Basin, but then Skyler said, perking up: “You know what we need. We need you, me, and maybe a girl drummer, and one other guy. You can be the singer. You’d look good in the middle. You’re tall. You got presence.” His excitement had returned. “You got a real presence to you.”

“What mile marker was it?” But then they both saw the deer, and Skyler pulled over, failing to downshift, and the truck sputtered to a stop. The deer was partly in the ditch, partly out. Skyler walked around her, frowning, and bent beside her destroyed face. “You get the hind end.”

The doe made a tearing sound as she detached from the grass, blade by blade. Some of the grass stuck to her hide. Skyler turned his face away from the rising stench, but Marvin didn’t bother.

*

The second day, Marvin wore a silk neckerchief—color eggplant—over his mouth and nose. He’d bought it at a feed and tack store when he realized most of his new jobs aggravated his allergies. Cowboys wore them. Still, he expected Skyler to say something. But Skyler barely looked at him.

Again, Skyler insisted they stop by his house around lunchtime, disappearing into the bathroom the moment they got there. Marvin went to the kitchen but the cat wasn’t there. He’d pulled down his neckerchief and it moved pleasantly across his throat. He had a silk blouse of a similar color that he’d never gotten around to getting tailored, and now, the idea of walking into the alterations shop in Seaton seemed like something that could only happen in a parallel universe. Marvin wandered back to the living room and stood over the terrarium. The iguana was on its rock again, sunning itself. But he found the rest of the room drastically changed. Skyler’s instruments were gone. “I took them out to the storage shed,” Skyler said when he returned. “Maybe I’ll pawn them or something. What were you laughing about yesterday?”

“What?”

“In here. I caught you chortling to yourself.”

“Oh,” Marvin said, tugging his neckerchief down as far as he could. “This skinhead in Seaton used to pack a lizard around on his shoulder. You know, you always see neo-Nazi guys with snakes and iguanas. Like they can’t relate to other mammals.”

“Well,” Skyler said, “it’s not mine.” Skyler rapped on the glass. The iguana opened its eyes. Marvin noticed Skyler’s knuckles were scraped up. The skin looked raw, it hadn’t scabbed over yet. He banged the glass again with his scuffed-up hand, but the lizard just sat there. “I’m thinking about getting a dog. Keep me company.”

“What happened?”

“What?”

“Your hand.”

Skyler looked down at it, clutching the edge of the terrarium. “Nothing much.” Skyler stuck his hand in his pocket.

*

At home, Marvin showered and changed into a clean t-shirt and basketball shorts. He left the jeans and long-sleeved shirt he’d worn that day on the line out back to air out. He’d wear them again tomorrow. Out of habit, he checked himself in the full-length mirror in his bedroom. He tugged at his t-shirt. It was fine. He looked fine.

He started for his Mom’s house, taking the road to Tall Hat slowly. It felt good to be alone.

His mom lived on the hill by the water tower in a brand new one-bedroom the tribe had built her. A few years ago, she woke to discover two dogs under the porch, and fed them. When Marvin pulled up, they both slid from under the porch like excited seals. The little brown and white female shook her fur, the skin flapping on her back, while the old lab bounded drunkenly up to Marvin and extended his paw as if someone had once taught him to shake. When Marvin reached for his paw he skittered away. The dogs had mated last spring, and Marvin’s cousins had sold their puppies outside the Taco Bell in Seaton. They were ugly-cute—wrinkle-skinned; big, sad eyes. They all sold, didn’t even have to give any away. The dogs had been fixed after that.

Marvin’s mom served coffee after dinner, in her tiny yellow kitchen with the water tower out the window. She’d been a tall woman, and still was, her back straight, her long braid black, just a few grays framing her face. Marvin always thought of her as tall, though he stood a good four inches over her now.

“You’re dressing differently,” she said. “Since you quit at that store.”

He nodded and sipped at his coffee. It was still too hot.

“What happened?”

“Nothing.”

“I thought it might mean something,” she said.

“Just wearing my work clothes,” he said. “Why?”

She’d pushed her coffee away, but warmed her palm against the mug. “I’m not used to seeing your face this way,” she said. “You don’t look like yourself.”

That made him laugh. “My face has always looked like this.”

She wouldn’t say anything more about it, and Marvin was grateful. Instead, she talked about a family reunion that was coming up next year. Her sister was putting it together, and hoped Marvin would make a slideshow. She’d send him the pictures.

After coffee, Marvin’s mom followed him out on the porch. He could hear one of the dogs groaning in the darkness below his feet. “You weren’t wearing your seatbelt when you pulled up,” his mom said. She stood looking up at him. Only her mouth and chin were visible, caught in a bar of light from the windows. Marvin might have been looking at his own face, their features were so similar. “Couldn’t wait to get some stew in me,” he joked.

“Well,” she said after a moment, “wear it all the time.”

“Alright.”

“You know how many deer are on the road.”

“I’ll wear it.”

Just then, a car swung into her turn-off, revved twice, and spun around, tires screeching up the road. They watched it rocket down Main Street and past the cemetery, flying across a series of hills leading to the old highway.

*

In his car, Marvin buckled up in case his mom watched from the window. He stopped at the gas station just outside Tall Hat to fuel his car and use the restroom. The store was deserted. He passed the magazine rack on his way out. When he was a kid, he used to tear pages from fashion magazines and stuff them in his pockets. Makeup ads, mainly—to study later.

Working at a women’s clothing store had made certain things easier. He’d worked hard, kept his head down. And then came something—an effort toward something—with a coworker, Liz, which had ended predictably, but not painlessly. In short, he’d gotten his hopes up and paid the consequences. Now all Marvin wanted was to work—tire his body out during the day and come home at night, too exhausted to do anything more than eat dinner and go to bed. But no one had forgotten who he was, and it was impossible to escape the curiosity of those he worked for. As strange and irritating as he was, Skyler came as something of a relief to Marvin. Skyler seemed too caught up in his own stories to care what Marvin did.

Marvin had nearly driven all the way home, barely noticing. Sailing down the hill by the dump—where they’d deposited the animals earlier—he jammed his foot on the accelerator. His car redlined at sixty-five, but he pushed it as hard as he could. It was a dark night. The reflector poles had a magnetic quality, the spaces between them deep and inviting, like holes in which he might curl up and sleep. Marvin ignored them as best he could. He was becoming aware of a part of himself that was alarmed. There was a shiver in his chest. He hit a straight-away and turned off the lights. His pulse jumped. It was utterly black. He caught a dull glimmer here and there—reflector poles, the eyes of animals. He was approaching something.

He switched the lights on. There was the turn. And then he was on it. He took his foot off the gas, braked hard into the turn. Wheels rose and slammed down again, skittering along the asphalt. The road dived into a narrow drainage. The blackness on either side concealed, Marvin knew, a creek, some trees, a few houses. For a moment there was perfect silence. He rolled down his window. Just the wind, the darkness. He leaned forward, feeling light—no seatbelt. Then Marvin accelerated up the hill, and his little car jumped forward.

A wind came up through the fields and carried the smell of water from the ditches. It was a cool wind—an autumn wind—and above the water smell rose a sharp animal scent. Marvin looked into the moonless sky, at the Milky Way. Supposedly they’d seen light shooting from the black hole in the center of the galaxy—though it had been said nothing could escape a black hole. Sometimes he wished he’d studied a little astronomy. But there wasn’t much a person could do with more than the barest understanding of the world.
as

[ Continued ]

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Part 2 of “Dogs of an Unknown Origin” coming next week! Marvin meets a man who describes himself as Skyler’s brother.

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I’m posting the Marvin stories (2) from the collection I finished a few years back. I’ll post the first story this week and the first part of the second story–it’s a long one–next week.

Skip directly to the story below, or, if you’re interested– 

The central incident of The Flowers Killings, a collection of linked stories, goes like this: One August night in Black Elk Basin, a man named Dean Flowers shoots and kills each member of his family as they sit around the dinner table—everyone but his nine-year-old son, Ian, who somehow escapes; Ian’s tracks lead as far as the highway before they disappear. The collection centers around what happened at the Flowers house, but it mostly isn’t about that night. It’s about Black Elk Basin in the months surrounding the killings, in which people are getting lost, going missing, running away, dreaming themselves away.

I began The Flowers Killings in 2010, when I wrote its core story, “The Reservoir” (published in the Summer 2015 issue of The Gettysburg Review), and finished the first Marvin story, “Double Gold,” a few months later (I also wrote “Three Tornadoes”–here, at Bodega–around this time). “Double Gold” is a simple, speedy, chatty story. It moves quickly, careening along. Look for Part 1 of its follow-up, “Dogs of an Unknown Origin,” next week.

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Double Gold

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Marvin lived in a double-wide trailer painted double-gold. That meant he’d painted it gold once, let it dry, and painted it gold a second time. His brush had dripped drops of gold in the dirt yard as he painted, and he liked the way the gold mixed with the dust in little balls. Some of it blew away and caught in the sagebrush that surrounded his house all the way to the highway on one side, the badlands on the other, the junkyard to the west, and miles of nearly uninterrupted prairie almost all the way to Seaton, an hour’s drive to the east. He decided to plant three rows of sunflowers all around his trailer every year, and during the fall, petals could be found everywhere in Black Elk Basin. Sometimes a single gust would lift hundreds into the air like a brilliant yellow arm flowing out from Marvin’s trailer before scattering at a point high above the small, far-apart houses.

But all anyone could see, when he stepped out of his gleaming gold trailer in the morning—to go to work, like everyone else—was his makeup (every day, deep indigo eyeshadow and black liner) and his clothing (today, a black, pinstriped ladies’ pantsuit). And his hair, which was his own, not a wig, and was long and black and wavy at the ends.

His sunflowers were already up to his windows in July, and no longer needed to be supported with little sticks to keep the wind from snapping them in half. Someone had tried planting trees years ago, when a different trailer—long since hauled away—had graced this property. Their stunted bodies were still out there, barely visible above the sagebrush. He’d stopped watering them after a few summers, but he’d still go out to talk to them sometimes. “Trees,” he said, looking at each of them, “You are a disgrace.” Then he’d remember how his mother had told him nothing would grow out in the prairie with all that wind, and he’d look at his sunflowers with pride, because she’d been wrong about them, at least. Sometimes, when he passed the two flanking his steps, he’d pat them on the head, and say, “Hey, Phil.” All his flowers were named Phil.

Sometimes they answered him in voices he made up—mellow, silly voices.

“Hey, Marvin,” said the Phil on the right.

“What’s happening?”

“Oh. Just hanging out.”

The left-most Phil was slightly more anxious than his companion, and said, “I hope the birds come today, for I am heavy with seeds.”

Monday through Friday and every other Saturday, Marvin drove the fifty miles to his job in Seaton. Marvin worked at a clothing store called Wishes, but he was only allowed to work in the back, take calls, and do things that didn’t require customers or even other employees to see him all that much. The ladies who worked there complimented his nails, his lipstick, his shoes—but Marvin noticed it wasn’t quite like way they complimented each other. It was more like, “That’s good for you, being a guy, and that being the best you can do, but of course, me, me being a woman, I would never choose that shade for me personally, but it suits your man-body okay, and also, I feel bad for you, that you have a man-body, and you’ll never look like me, a pretty woman, or like any woman, ever.” Sometimes, Marvin felt bad about himself, but mostly, he felt that he was doing pretty okay, considering. He had a job. When people told him he had a nice smile, he knew it was true, because that’s something they’d always said.

A few weeks ago, his manager Kimberly sat him down in her office to have a casual chat.

“Sweetie. I don’t know how to say this, but as a woman, it’s offensive when a man dresses in women’s clothes.”

“Oh,” said Marvin.

“All the women around here have voiced this opinion.”

It was true that the first week or so, they’d watched him like they expected him to steal panties or something—but things had settled down lately. They hardly looked at him anymore.

“It’d be kind of like me not shaving,” Kimberly said.

“I don’t care if you don’t shave,” said Marvin.

Marvin did not like the way this casual chat was going. It was time for his six-month review, and he thought he’d be getting a raise, or would maybe be sent out to the floor, where he’d have to interact with people, true, but his job would expand beyond carrying around a clipboard and opening boxes. Wishes wasn’t the first job where Marvin had been kept on a short leash. His last job: late-night checkout clerk, where his request for a transfer to produce was turned down despite his seniority over the other employees.

“No, but listen,” Kimberly said. “I get these hairs, like many women my age, around my upper lip. Yes, indeed, I’ve got quite a ‘stashe if I let it get out of control. Remember when I missed ten days last year with that belly virus? Well, at the end of that, my husband was calling me Timberly? Because I wasn’t plucking? And it was a joke, but it was hurtful. And I looked in the mirror and I did not like what I saw. I was ashamed. I was ashamed to look mannish, because I am proud to be a woman, you see? I like looking like one, because it is who I am in every way. Maybe you should spend some time, look in the mirror, ask some questions, like, ‘Do I, Marvin, like who I see?’ And consider it very carefully.”

Marvin was quiet for a long time. “So,” he said, “you want me to dress differently.”

“Oh honey! Honey! No! No. Of course I wouldn’t do that. I couldn’t, could I? It’d be discrimination—of some sort, certainly. I haven’t actually checked on that, but I imagine this falls in kind of the same category as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and all of that. In that region. Alternative sexualities. No. I am trying to help you on a personal level.”

“Thanks.”

“I am not going to fire you because you dress like a lady,” said Kimberly. “I just thought you should be aware of the effect it has on people. You know, as someone who I know cares about the quality of their work, and probably wants to do the best they can and get along with their coworkers to the best of their abilities.”

“I do.” He could fill out an application at the video rental store, but he doubted things would go very differently there. And anyway, he could buy clothes discreetly at Wishes, and at a discount.

Kimberly was smiling. “That’s why I thought you should know. Although, I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new.” She slid a candy bar across the table. That was his treat. “I do love that suit on you, by the way,” she said, and winked in a way that let him know she meant it, and also meant everything she’d said before.

Marvin worked hard all day, every day, not talking to anyone. Other than the clothes, which weren’t that great, what was he doing at Wishes? Was that the best he could do? He graduated at the top of his class in Tall Hat—a star athlete, bound for college. Which would have meant—what? Realistically, a semester or two. He’d spare himself the trouble. He got himself the hell out of Tall Hat, and somewhere even more remote, where no one would bother him and he could just go to work and come home. Not ideal, but it could be worse. And here he was, two years after high school, and he hadn’t had sex since coming out right after graduation. He hadn’t played basketball either. Every time he drove past the Tall Hat rec center on the way to visit his mom, he wanted nothing more than to shoot a few threes. Just to hear the sound of his high heels striking the floor.

Few people realized that Marvin was straight. Even he didn’t fully understand why he wanted to dress like a woman and be with women; it would be easier if he could just stay a man. Marvin had always felt the way he felt and analyzing it just made him more confused. Meanwhile, everyone else was busy trying to put him on teams. The boy team. The girl team. The gay team. Team Tranny. Pervert. No one had a clue.

Then something strange happened. Last Wednesday, Alicia, the youngest, prettiest clerk, asked him if he might want to go out to Neddie’s with her on Tuesday. It was now Monday. They’d exchanged little looks all week, with smiles that told each other they were looking forward to their date. When he got home that evening, Marvin went on a run down the fence-line that separated his property from the rangeland, cutting a wide circle around the junkyard and into the badlands. His hair whipped around in the wind until finally he had to tie it back in a ponytail. He liked running. He liked that his feet kept moving without him having to think about it.

The next morning, he arrived at work at 8 a.m. sharp, eager to reach the end of the day. Alicia was already helping a customer when he got there. She looked at him over the customer’s shoulder, and he smiled, and she gave a little nod.

An hour crawled by. Marvin was cutting open a box of clothes when Alicia approached him. He stood. Her head reached his collarbone, but with his heels off, and if he lowered his neck, his chin could probably rest on top of her head, which would be about perfect.

Marvin smiled.

She smiled back.

“I wanted to talk with you about tonight,” she said.

Marvin’s heart sank. His mom was always complaining about how he thought the worst of everything. “It holds you back,” she said. Maybe she was right. Marvin willed himself to believe that Alicia just wanted to confirm a few details, or would need an extra half hour to get ready because some unforeseen thing had come up with her cat, etc.

She continued smiling, but the smile stayed exactly the same for a beat too long. “I believe in being direct,” she said.

“Okay,” he said.

“I just wanted to see if—well, when I asked you out, I assumed that when we went out, you’d be wearing men’s clothes.”

Marvin nodded. She still might have sex with him. That would be something.

“I just don’t want to attract attention,” she said.

He said, “Of course.”

“I want to go out with you and just have a good time, you know?”

“Yeah. Of course. I have pants and stuff—men’s pants. I can just wash my face when I get home. No big deal.”

And it wasn’t a big deal, just this once. Women wore men’s clothes and went makeupless all the time.

“Oh good. Good ’cause I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

Marvin smiled because she was smiling.

“Oh, gosh,” she said. “I am so glad you’re okay with that. I was worried I’d offend you.”

“I’m not offended. Don’t worry.”

“Whew. Good. It’s just—I saw pictures of you, you know, when you played basketball, and I just want to see you like that tonight.”

His face was hot. “That was like two years ago.”

“Yeah. You were great. You were in the paper every other week.”

“Not really.”

“You should call me Liz tonight. That’s what my friends call me.”

When Marvin got home, there was a package on his steps. He’d been saving up for a nice pair of false breasts, and finally ordered them online at the county library in Seaton. A free bra came with them. He had a few bras, but they were lacy, embellished things—not his style at all. This bra was black and sleek, and the false breasts would be close to his skin tone. He desperately wanted to open the package. But instead, Marvin hurried to get dressed for Alicia and do some last minute cleaning. He made a sweep through each room, tucking away his makeup, securely shutting all his dresser drawers, gently sliding the package under his bed.

After washing the makeup from his face, Marvin stood before his mirror in jeans and a button-up. He tugged uncertainly at his shirt. His face looked round—he could use some bronzer to define his cheekbones, but he’d already put his makeup away. He put a sports jacket on and turned to make sure it fit right in the chest. He pulled his hair away from his face and held it back. Then he let it down and brushed most of the curl out of it.

On the drive back to Seaton, Marvin passed a field in which a single cow hung her head over the fence with her eyes half-shut. She was an odd color—gray, with a white face—and reminded him of a manatee, floating in warm, sun-drenched waters. It was a windy afternoon, and the way the cloud-shadows rolled over the hills gave the effect of sun-dappled seas, the tall grasses swaying as if pulled by tides. He occupied himself with thoughts of manatees roaming the plains until he arrived in Seaton. Weekday nights, Main Street was dead. Some highschoolers were walking past the bar, and as Marvin got out of his car, the kids looked him over once, without interest, and moved on.

Alicia was already inside. She’d pulled her hair back, revealing a slender neck that Marvin envied slightly, but her dress made her look boxy. Still, she was pretty, and she seemed to like him. There was a mirror behind the bar and Marvin looked at the two of them occasionally, drinking, laughing, Alicia touching his shoulder when she was about to say something funny.

Alicia was on her second martini when she said, “Are you gonna drink that beer? You’ve been sipping it for an hour.”

“I’m just having one.”

“God, it’s gotta be all warm and flat.”

“I like it.”

He didn’t, but he was driving. Also, he wanted to be alert during their date, in case—he didn’t know what.

They talked about work for a long time, and Marvin marveled at how well it was going, how nice it felt to be out on a date with a girl—a pretty, normal girl, who was looking at him the way girls used to. And how good it felt to be out. He’d spent his twenty-first birthday with his mom, who cooked a big pot of deer chili and spelled out his name on a cake with purple icing. It was a pretty good birthday. But he hadn’t had a reason to go out, or a person to go out with, in quite some time.

Alicia finished her drink and turned to Marvin. She studied him. He felt his face getting hot.

“Isn’t it nice when people stare at you for you?” she asked.

“What?”

“Well, usually people are staring at you because of the cross-dressing thing. No offense. You’re not offended, right? I’m sure you know you’re obviously a guy in a dress.”

“I know.” He did know. Of course he did.

“I’m just saying, without all that makeup and stuff, people just see you. And you’re so handsome.”

It was still light when they decided to head back to his trailer. On the drive, Alicia talked about her family, how she’d grown up poor, her memories of tricking a girl into standing on a red ant hill when she was six and how the girl had to be hospitalized for a severe allergic reaction from fifty ant bites.

“You didn’t know that would happen,” Marvin said.

“No. I didn’t know she’d have a reaction,” Alicia said. “But I did want her to get bit.”

The sun was setting behind Marvin’s trailer as they pulled up to it.

“It’s dazzling,” said Alicia.

She marveled at his sunflowers. “How many are there?”

“A hundred and twenty.”

Alicia walked around the trailer looking at them, running her hand along their petals. A few petals fluttered to the ground. Marvin wanted to tell her to stop.

“Have you ever done this?” she shouted. “This feels amazing.”

Inside, she asked for a drink, and he made one for himself as well.

Marvin liked making drinks. A drink was something you could assemble and name. Here’s vodka and orange juice. A Screwdriver. Add sloe wine and Southern Comfort. A Slow Comfortable Screw.

It wasn’t long before Alicia was kissing him and then it wasn’t much longer before they were in his bedroom.

The box containing two brand new C-cups emanated the promise of love and beauty in their secret spot below the bed as Alicia moved on top of him.

Afterward, they fell asleep side by side, on top of the covers. It was very late when Alicia woke him up and told him she wanted him to drive her home. That was okay with him. His bed was really only big enough for one person, and she was all sticky and breathing on his face. Alicia lived on a house on the oil field between Black Elk Basin and Seaton. They didn’t talk much on the drive. When they reached her house, she gave Marvin a kiss before getting out. She’d left a light on to ward off intruders. The shape of a cat pressed against the curtains.

At Wishes the next day, Kimberly passed him in the hall, gesturing at his skirt and giving him a double-thumbs up. She of the ruffled sweaters.

He found Alicia in the storeroom, rifling through shoe boxes.

“Hey.”

She looked back at him. “Just a sec.”

She rummaged around a few moments longer, then stood, holding a shoebox. She wasn’t smiling. In fact, as she approached him, he could see she was upset. He felt alarmed, and at the same time, not really surprised. He assumed she didn’t want to see him anymore. She perhaps regretted everything that happened and wanted him to swear not to tell anybody.

Instead, she asked, “Do you think I’m pretty?”

“Of course,” Marvin said. “You’re very pretty.”

He stepped toward her and moved to put his arms around her.

She pulled away. “We’re at work.”

“Fuck this place.” He was thinking that more and more.

“No, Marvin. I’ve got to go.”

She didn’t return to the storeroom.

At the end of the day, Marvin walked into the parking lot to find her standing by his car. Marvin had parked several yards from the building, in the shade beside a tree.

“Can we get inside?” she asked. “I want to talk to you.”

Inside the car, she had her purse in her lap and was running her hands back and forth along the zipper. They watched their coworkers leave the building—Ashley, with her oversized metallic bag, Clarice, her pompadour slightly askew. Finally, Kimberly came out and locked the door behind her. Alicia seemed to tense as each person exited, and when Kimberly looked their way Alicia slouched in her seat. Marvin was tired and getting hungry. He wanted Alicia to get it over with. But he didn’t want her to, either. Once Kimberly’s car pulled out of the lot, Alicia sat up in her seat, her hands running continuously—almost obscenely—along the zipper of her purse.

“Is everything okay?” asked Marvin finally.

Alicia seemed to have been waiting for him to ask, because she said immediately, “I like you? Marvin? Okay? I like you.”

She looked at him, and he felt he should nod. So he did.

“I really want you to know that I totally do like you, and last night was a lot of fun, but you’re just not really my type.” Her hands finally stopped moving. “I don’t want you to think it’s all about the lady-stuff, ’cause it’s not. But when I saw you today, in your skirt, I was just like, no.” She shook her head for emphasis. “It’s just not for me.” The more she spoke, the calmer she became. “And I don’t want to make you change. That wouldn’t be right.”

She looked at him again, and attempted a little smile. “Do you understand?” she asked.

He nodded. He’d been nodding.

“Good. Oh, good.”

“Thank you,” he said, “for telling me.”

“I’ve got to go.” She opened the door and hesitated. “But I hope we can still be friends.”
Marvin nodded. Then she was shutting the door behind her.

At home, Marvin made a gin and tonic and took out the package from underneath his bed. He closed all his shades. Then he opened the box on the kitchen table and took out the bra, and felt the cups, and checked the tag on the back. Next he took out the breasts, which were the standard twenty dollar chicken fillet variety, without nipples. He squeezed them alternately and flipped them into the air, where they turned lazily, wobbling like globs of dough. He finished his drink and made a second one.

Marvin took his new drink and the package back into his bedroom. When he ordered the breasts, he’d worried they’d be too big, but when he stood in front of his bedroom mirror, holding them to his flat pectorals, he could see they perfectly complimented the circumference of his chest. He put on the bra and tucked the falsies inside the cups. He stood in his underwear, turning before the mirror. He stuck out his chest, and tucked it in again. He did this for about a minute. His boobs looked good. With just the bra on, it was clear they weren’t real, but so what. Marvin put on a black dress and smoothed it over his body. He looked at himself in the mirror. The dress, which he’d bought with his employee discount from Wishes, had been carefully chosen to hide his shoulders. It clung to his waist and flared out a bit at the hips. Over the dress he put on a cropped bomber jacket that accentuated the hourglass shape created by the dress. Finally, he put on his favorite heels. Standing there, turning in front of the mirror, he finished his drink. Then he drove back to Seaton. He passed Alicia’s house on the oil field. The light in the kitchen was on. The cat moved against the curtains.

Marvin went to a bar by the college, which had a nice wood dance floor, though he didn’t dance, and a quiet bar, where people tended to ignore him. He sat at the bar, drank two beers and started feeling better.

A woman came up to the bar and ordered. He felt her looking at him and doing a double-take. He kept his eyes on his beer, hoping she’d go away.

Then she said his name.

It was Sheila Sinclair, the sister of one of the guys on his high school basketball team, Toby. He hadn’t seen most of the people he’d gone to high school with in years, but he seemed to run into Sheila everywhere. She made good money as a dental hygienist in Seaton, and had a pretty face, and was remarkably unfazed by his cross-dressing.

She hugged him, like she always did, and said, “I didn’t recognize you.” She sat on a stool beside him. “Last time I saw you, you were wearing curtains or something.”

For a few months after Marvin came out, he wore too-feminine things that didn’t suit him—flowery dresses, powder blue eyeshadow.

“You look fantastic,” said Sheila. “Are those breasts?”

“They’re falsies,” he said.

“Right.”

“They keep me warm.”

“Oh yeah?”

“They heat up to your body temperature.”

She laughed. “Technology.”

“What’s Toby doing?”

“He graduated in the spring,” she said. “Now I think he wants to move home, and we would love that, but, you know, I don’t know what he would do here. His degree would just go to waste.”

“Maybe not.”

“I can’t believe you’re still here, to be honest. I thought you would have shipped out a long time ago.”

“I thought about it.”

“You should move back to Tall Hat,” Sheila said. “It’s closer to your job.”

“I just needed to get away from everyone.”

“Everyone?”

“Maybe not everyone.”

“I’m meeting friends over there,” said Sheila, nodding toward the far end of the bar, where a group of Indians Marvin didn’t know and a few conspicuous white girls crowded around a small table. “You should stay and hang out with us.”

“Maybe next time.”

Marvin wasn’t in the mood to meet new people. He ought to be heading home.

They hugged goodbye. It had been good talking to Sheila—that she thought of him as someone who could just “ship out.”

Outside, Marvin passed a group of guys. At first, Marvin thought they were the highschoolers from earlier, but they were different kids, a few years older. Maybe one of them said something. Then another said, loudly, “Squaw.” As he turned, someone hit him in the face. He staggered forward, and they formed a circle around him, and another one swung. Eventually, he was on the ground. He could have laughed at how typical it was—these four small-town guys beating up a transvestite in a parking lot. He should have seen it coming. Before anyone could land a kick, the bouncer busted in, yelling.

Marvin tried to stand and wobbled, falling backward on his hands. His hair had fallen in his face and stuck to the blood on his nose.

“Get out of here.” It was the bouncer’s voice, talking to the men.

Marvin heard them shuffling away.

“I’m going to get someone,” said the bouncer.

“Call the cops.”

“What?”

Marvin pushed the hair out of his face and repeated what he’d said.

“Suit yourself.” He didn’t move.

“Do you know those guys?” Marvin asked the bouncer, holding the bridge of his nose and forcing his voice out, like a trumpet-player.

“Put your head back,” said the bouncer. “Or lean it forward.”

“Do you know who those guys were?”

“Put your head back.”

“Just call the cops, please.”

The bouncer tossed a cigarette on the pavement and went inside. Marvin stood and fixed his dress. The parking lot was empty.

He moved to the alley so that no one—especially Sheila—would see him as they were leaving the bar.

A few minutes later, two officers arrived and swung their lights at him. After looking at his driver’s license and holding it up to his face, and asking him to repeat his name—to which he replied, “I’m a transvestite, alright? Isn’t it obvious?”—they asked him if he’d been drinking. Then they took him to the station, where he was left in a holding cell for several minutes. His nose had stopped bleeding, but blood was all over his hands; when he moved, he could feel it cracking on his face, neck, and chest. Finally, an officer unlatched the doors and told him he could go.

“Sorry,” said the officer. “We’d been told by witnesses that you started the fight.”

“Would I start a fight in fucking heels?”

“How you start fights is entirely up to you.”

“No, I’m saying I didn’t start it.”

“Yes. We know that now.”

“They attacked me.”

“Can you identify them? The attackers?”

“I’d never seen them before. They looked like college kids. Four younger guys. Maybe twenty?”

“What did they look like?”

“I don’t know. White. Or mostly white. One had highlights in his hair, like people did in the nineties? It was spiky. He hit me the second time, I think.”

The officer was writing in a notebook. “We’ll talk to the witnesses again.”

“I thought you said the witnesses said I started it.”

“They did.”

“I’d like to press charges.”

“You have to have people to press the charges against, though. Sir? Sir?”

Marvin was walking out of the station so the officer wouldn’t see his eyes watering up. They were angry tears. Tears of rage and exhaustion and defeat. Not tears for just any jackoff to see.

His car was still parked in front of the bar. It was a fifteen minute walk, and he was tempted to take off his shoes, which were beginning to pinch his toes, but he was determined to maintain as much dignity as he could. The bars had been closed for an hour; he passed only one car on the walk. Marvin waited for them to yell, eyeing a chunk of concrete that had broken free from the sidewalk and imagining it leaving his hand and impacting with a tail-light or perhaps the rear window as they drove by him. But the car slipped past him, quiet as a manatee gliding along the bottom of the sea. When he got to his car, he cleaned off his face as best he could with some wipes he kept in the glove box.

This time, when he passed Alicia’s house, he was too tired to look at it. He didn’t have to work that day, so he pulled over at the rest stop and slept in his car until dawn—or tried to. He lay there with his eyes open as if the slowly lightening sky was the most captivating thing in the goddamn world—like focusing on it could help him from losing his mind completely. Then he drove the final leg home. His trailer gleamed like a polished jewel in the first light of morning, the rows of Phils like one hundred and twenty suns shining on one hundred and twenty tiny worlds. He thought of crazy Alicia getting those ants to bite that girl. But he didn’t have the heart to tell his Phils about it like he normally would. He just wanted to lay under them as if they’d transport him to a world made up of yellow, blazing petals and nothing—no one—else.

*

Marvin didn’t return to Wishes. He started seeking odd jobs. Irrigator. Housekeeper. He wore t-shirts and baggy jeans, and kept his hair back in a ponytail. One day, he got a call from a woman outside of BEB, a widow with a big house. She lived on a parcel of land surrounded on all sides by the reservation, beside a sprawling lake fed by glacier water from the mountains. The woman introduced herself as Shareen. She was in her sixties, with short white hair spiked in a flaccid mohawk, and wearing an airy cotton dress.

Marvin started in the kitchen. Shareen followed him, watching him as he mopped the Spanish tiles and wiped down her ugly chrome fridge.

He thought she might be lonely, but she wasn’t talking. When she followed him into the bathroom, he asked if she was happy with his work.

“To tell you the truth, I’m a little disappointed,” Shareen said. She smiled, leaning against the door frame. “I thought you’d be wearing women’s clothes.”

Marvin wasn’t surprised. Even in this isolated shit-hole, people knew everything about him. “Oh, yeah,” said Marvin. “I do. Sometimes.”

“I’d like you to dress as a woman for me. While you clean. I have some clothes here for you.”

Marvin stopped mopping. “Can I just clean, lady?”

Shareen raised her eyebrows.

Marvin said, in a quiet voice, “I’ll be happy to finish cleaning for you, is all I meant.”

“If you won’t wear them, I’ll need you to leave,” Shareen said. “I’m hiring you to clean wearing the clothes. I thought you’d just show up in them.”

In the upstairs bedroom, Shareen had clothes laid out on the bed: a yellow sundress, a white apron, and yellow heels. There was also a bra and matching panties—yellow, both. The dress fit, but the heels were too small. Marvin forced his feet into them. Then he applied the makeup she had set out for him on the vanity. There was lipstick. He seldom wore lipstick, but he put it on. It was bright red, and made his mouth look like someone else’s. She was waiting for him in the hall with a vacuum cleaner.

Shareen followed him around the house with a glass of wine. In the last room, she sat on a fainting couch and watched him.

After a few minutes, she asked, “Do you like that painting?”

He glanced up from his work at a large painting of an antelope standing below a thunderhead.

“It’s well done.”

“Do you find western art dull?”

“I’m not really an art expert.”

“But you don’t like it.”

“Not particularly.”

“Me neither.”

“Then why’s it in your house?”

His feet ached. The bra was too tight on his ribcage. He wasn’t getting enough air.

Shareen said, “My friend’s an artist. She gave it to me. She comes over a lot. We’ve been talking, actually—”

She got up and stood beside him while he polished the bureau.

“We’d pay you.”

He stopped polishing.

“You like women, don’t you?”

There was a mirror above the bureau. He watched her move behind him and untie his apron.

“Aren’t you tired?”

The apron dropped to the floor.

She giggled. He found himself thinking it was the wrong noise for her. Or maybe she was just a bad giggler.

Marvin heard the front door open and close. A woman’s voice called up the stairs. “Shareen?”

In the mirror, he watched Shareen move to the hallway.

“Wait,” she said, and hurried back to him. She reached for his ponytail. He felt the band slip easily from his hair.

sfs

In Part 1 of the follow-up story–available next week–Marvin attempts to free-fall into obscurity, only to find himself caught up in sinister forces creeping in from beyond Black Elk Basin.

 

 

 

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5-GULCH newz

Hey. I finished my book. It wrecked my brain.

Reblogged from my writing diary:

Dear, 

I edited the hard copy (two weeks), then edited the digital copy (one week), and finally spent two 12-hour days revising on a larger scale, chapter by chapter, trying to fix things I could never seem to resolve and probably failing again. Then I sent 5-GULCH to a friend and threw the hard copy into a filing cabinet in a closed off, freezing cold office, so I wouldn’t be tempted to obsessively look at it and torture myself with all the bad sentences!! Revision binges aren’t good for me. Now everything I read sounds a little wrong. I need a break. I’m going out. It’s cold and foggy. It’s fine. I’m also remembering my plan to finish 5-G by last February, and it’s almost a year later, which is also fine and the way it had to be. Three years. I loved working on it, but the book is a lonely one and it was lonely writing it. Time to get out. ❤

– t

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okay. bye.

NOTE: I think of Prairietown as my home-base; I’m pretty sure I’ll be back someday. Until then, I post raw writings and pictures I like at my writing diary.

I’ve been trying to find a better way to say goodbye. I sort of sounded like a dick last time. I am, sometimes, a dick—especially when my mind’s on this thing I hate and hate and still hate doing: sending out work.

It’s difficult. This is just a blog, but writing here makes me happy. Happier even than getting something published elsewhere, in a Real Thing.

I was writing an essay about a book I read recently, with the idea of posting it here, when I decided it would be better if I didn’t; it would be better if I sent it out. So that’s what I’m going to do. But I have to say, I’m less excited about this essay than I was before; actually, I haven’t been working on it. Maybe I’ll find a way to get interested in it again. Or maybe it will find its way here—at least that way it will have come into existence.

I’ve been picking myself apart for years, but I can’t tell you why I’m like this. Is it that everything has to be *my* show? It’s true that I like to have my own space, where I can create my own things and share them when and if I choose. But I also want to see what other people create, and I want to visit their spaces, if they’ll have me. I like to find singular things made by individual people that offer something whole and vast and special.

My favorite things to read are story collections, especially linked collections, and novels. I read very slowly, and I read a lot of the same things over and over again. I’m into full-immersion.

Over the past year I’ve been researching literary journals, and while I appreciate them (some, like Hobart, are fucking gems), and admire the editors who read tirelessly (though they’re probably tired) to find new work and to create these important spaces for young writers, I have a hard time *reading* journals—I support them, buy them when I can, keep them on my shelf; sometimes I pick them up and look at them, but a reader like me will always struggle with the format. And I think it’s for this reason that I find it hard to get excited about sending my work out to journals. But maybe I’m not the only person who should get to decide how to read the things I write. I’m not the only person who gets to decide. How these motherfuckers are read.

Someday I’d like to return to my venue of choice—I guess what you’d call self-publishing. Now is certainly not the time. Now is the time for finishing my book and sending out old stories and new essays. I’ll try not to think of the submissions process in a you’re-just-doing-this-to-get-your-name-out-there-and-that’s-gross kind of way. I’ll try to send stuff out because–I’m-not-the-only-person-who-gets-to-decide! I’m happy to have come up with a good reason.

Alright. I’m really leaving. I’m happier with this goodbye, not completely happy; I just really have to get going. I just really have to go to bed. Talk to you later.

Onward. Love.

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Reblogged from Plague Dawgs

Dear –

I got lost on my hike today. I missed a turn and ended up on the wrong side of the mountain. I was moving fast, jogging at times. By the time I realized the trail wasn’t looping around like I’d thought it would, it had started snowing hard little pellets–so heavily it was hard to see–and I’d found myself in a silent, densely forested area with no view of the gulch. I calculated I’d been heading in the wrong direction, at a good speed, for about an hour. It had been all up-hill, and I was tired and hungry, a little shaky, and thinking vaguely, yet constantly, about bears and mountain lions and what if I twisted my ankle?

I hurried back, cutting corners and running most of the way (once I knew exactly where I was) for about an hour-and-a-half. The first half-hour, hurrying through those trees in the snow, I wasn’t feeling at the top of my game. It was the idea that I was so far out, that I was alone, that I hadn’t planned very well. I was slightly panicked. I’ve had many moments like this on hikes that go slightly wrong, where I think, I’ll just take a short-cut over this hill–except the hill’s incredibly steep , and once I’m up there it’s hard to get down, and I didn’t pack any food and my water-bottle just fell from my hand and rolled down the face and is gone.

Or–there’s a black bear in my path; I go the other way, but the bear follows me, not quickly, but changes direction and follows me. For more than a mile.

Or–I’m miles from home, running out in the rangeland, no one knows where I am, and I’ve broken out in hives and my throat’s closing up and it’s very very hard to keep moving.

Panicking doesn’t help. Sometimes I have to admit I don’t like where I am and that poor judgement or bad luck led me here, and get on with it (and acknowledge that things have been worse). I decided to relax in the knowledge that I wasn’t truly lost, had just gone the wrong way, that at least I had plenty of water and had dressed warmly.

I’d had to go into myself (resisting my iPod, which was packed away), and acknowledge the reality of the situation and my discomfort. And only then could I make a change. The panic momentarily flared back up, but subsided gradually and finally. I relaxed; I got off that mountain.

I think that’s why this journal exists the way it does.

It’s my way of regulating panic so I can keep moving forward. What I have to say isn’t always cheerful, and isn’t always said prettily. But I need to say it, and listen to what I’m saying. And then I can look for a new way.

It wasn’t as though I overcame some huge obstacle–just a moment of fatigue and reflexive, stabbing fear. But up there in that moment, before I dealt with it, it felt like it could have been something much bigger.

When I got home I found an acceptance letter for my story, “Exploded View,” in my inbox. It was the same story another journal had rejected within 13 hours of receiving it. “You don’t sound that excited,” Ryan said.

I don’t usually get very excited when things go right; these are little moments that make it easier to carry on with one less worry (one less story to place) and keep working. So I’m going to get back to work. Grateful that I can. And feeling–I know this is weird–but *different*. Like I’ve been through something–not just the hike. Something that was actually bigger and scarier than I’d understood or can fully grasp now. I don’t think I’m off that mountain yet.

I bought a CD at a Jason Webley show last night (he was amazing).

From “Ways to Love”:

Our minds were sharp, our bodies burning.
We gave ourselves over to learning.
How to break and how to give,
Betrayal taught us to forgive,
We stretched and soaked up everything they
Taught us well, we were first in our classes.
We learned to see through many glasses,
How to sink and how to fly,
We learned to watch each other die.
My God, this course is harder than we
Thought we had learned enough ways to love,
Still I don’t know mother where we are.

 

 

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Dear –

I spent the afternoon infusing my nonfiction piece with a heavy dose of tenderness–what it’s been missing and what took some time to get to–and seem to have reached the right tone and pacing; everything’s falling into place. The early, angry paragraphs offered a good way in, and now I can say what really needs to be said. I’ve had fun working in a great deal of description in this piece–not something I normally do. I really just want to do justice to the time I spent at the Center, and to the people I met there, as well as I can. I feel open-hearted and slightly removed from things, which is a great space from which to write.

(I can tell I’ve had a good writing day because everything I’m trying to say here sounds really abstract and precious; I might cringe later but I don’t feel like taking the time it would take to make this stuff sound less mystical.)

I’ve been moving forward with 5-GULCH in my head–not so much planning scenes as gathering a feeling for the characters, which will sustain them and me to the end. Also continuing with the summary. Today I feel confident–totally, serenely confident–I will finish, and it doesn’t feel like a delusion, as it sometimes does. It’s just a feeling, this confidence, but today I trust it, and I’m grateful. It’s not going to be easy–I struggle with everything on a technical level, on a logical level, on every level, but at least I truly believe I can finish the thing. Taking the full weekend off–from writing and from job-hunting–seems to work every time. I just need to get outside and walk around. And we ate so well, all weekend, and made a little campfire every night. The backyard’s littered with artichoke leaves.

I should probably think about moving this diary to its own home at some point; I just wanted to see if I’d keep it up. It was meant as a way for me to break into the day’s writing, but instead I’ve been using it to summarize what I’ve been working on. Ideally, I’d like to use it for both.

I have to stop now and play with the cat; she’s crouching on the floor, staring at me with dilated kill-eyes, and I can’t let her down. Time for the red dot and the orange rope, and then we can go to bed.

– t

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