The summer before I started seventh grade, not long after Patty Hearst was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, my mother married a man who owned a ranch house with a yard full of lemon trees. As far as she was concerned, she'd hit the jackpot. Gerry didn't drink, he had a job, and, whenever we went out to eat, he always picked up the check. After dating a string of losers, after moving from apartment to apartment at least once a year for nearly a decade, my mother told me—three weeks into her new relationship—that, no matter what, we could not spit on the luck God had given to us. "This chance is once in a lifetime," she said.
My mother met Gerry on a ski trip organized by Amway. She put the vacation on her credit card and arranged for me to stay with a family that lived down the street. "Bingo," she announced on the phone, four days after she left. "I met someone perfect. He's a little tight-lipped and has a tummy, but he's an accountant, and he owns a condo in Mammoth." A few months later they got engaged and we moved from Ventana Beach down to L.A.
Enormous in the Moonlight
Published in Glimmer Train, Fall 2017 (Nominated for a Pushcart Prize)
Last night, after scouring the vegetable drawers in the fridge, Stewart set his alarm for 7:30 a.m. He set the back-up travel alarm for 7:35, then brushed his teeth and checked both alarms again. Not that either alarm was actually necessary—he spent most of the night awake, dozing off briefly just after 1:15, then waking up for good at 2:54. He thought about taking a sleeping pill but worried that, even with the alarms, he might not get up in time. For the last twenty-four hours, his stomach has been going haywire, pitching and churning and making animal sounds.
Finally, at 6:45, he gets out of bed and makes a bowl of plain oatmeal. Maybe that will calm him down, he thinks, but when the phone rings at 7:50, he's only managed to eat a few bites. "Hello?" he answers. For some reason, there's a hopeful sound in his voice, though there's no reason to think it's Luis. Luis's plane won't arrive for another three hours.
Outside Is the Ocean
Published in Ecotone, Spring/Summer 2017 (Nominated for a Pushcart Prize)
The man offers him a drink. Gin and tonic? Bourbon? Cognac? Stewart isn’t much of a drinker. “Whatever you’re having,” he says, standing in the living room, awkwardly, looking over the harbor. He can’t quite remember what the guy said he does for a living—something with investments, some kind of advisor or banker. Clearly he’s loaded. The apartment has floor-to-ceiling windows and a Steinway. Stewart wishes he’d paid more attention when the guy told him his name. Tizak or Tazak, something with a z and a k. Stewart was too surprised to register what he actually said. Stewart had been checking him out from across the room for at least half an hour, until the banker disappeared in the crowd, then bam! he was right there, introducing himself.
He had a British accent. It threw Stewart off; he wasn’t expecting him to sound like he’d gone to Oxford or Cambridge. He was ripped and had a leather band around his left bicep. Stewart wasn’t sure what the band meant, but he felt himself growing aroused. “How come you’re standing there all by yourself?” the banker asked, smiling. He had a killer smile. Stewart liked the contrast of his white teeth against the black skin of his face. Stewart imagined the man sticking his tongue deep in his mouth. He looked strong. He looked like he knew what he was doing.
Memoirs of a Gentleman Caller
Published in StoryQuarterly, Winter 2017 (Nominated for a Pushcart Prize)
I should probably state, up front, that these particular events took place around the time the shoplifting started. It's not that I couldn't afford the things I stole; I wasn't destitute. I'm not sure why I did it—maybe it gave me a thrill, like those kids in high school who asphyxiate themselves.
The first item I stole was a vase small enough to fit in my hand. I was in a store downtown that sold home furnishings, and everything was overpriced. It was the kind of place frequented by women with too much time on their hands: celebrities and housewives with sunglasses and gold jewelry and large, leather handbags that cost God knows how much. I'd only been there a few times, just to browse.
I was on the second floor, looking at the vintage bottles—bottles that were cloudy and weathered with age. "Where are these from?" I asked a clerk standing nearby.
"They're beautiful, aren't they? Our buyers get them from flea markets all over the country. Those are from Texas."
I looked at the price tag, as if I were the kind of person who would pay $80 for a trinket from the junkyard. The vase was on a shelf across from the bottles. It was emerald green, like something from the ocean, and stout: small, rectangular, made of glass. I picked it up and examined it. It reminded me of something my mother might have owned. My mother, who died when I was just 36, had lived in New Jersey, in a mobile home full of knickknacks. Woodcarvings from Vienna and Salzburg and Munich, glass figurines she ordered online, ceramic dogs and cats made by a woman she met at church.
Five years ago, when his mother announced that she was flying to Moscow to adopt a six-year-old girl, Stewart did his best not to react. His mother had always been the kind of person who made threats, who cajoled and coerced, until she got her way. For years, she'd been threatening to adopt one of the children she sponsored in Mexico and Guatemala and Romania, to bring a child home to live with her in Ventana Beach, so she would have someone in her life who loved her, who appreciated her.
According to his mother, Stewart was an ungrateful son. He was ungrateful and unloving and his decision to move to the East Coast had been a slap in the face.
And what had Heike done to deserve such an ornery child? Why should she grow old alone in California and die, leaving her savings to him, when she could adopt one of the cute little girls whose photos she'd seen in the magazines and newsletters and Christmas cards she received from abroad? After everything she had endured in this country wasn't she entitled to a little happiness?
Published in The Florida Review, July 2016 (Editors' Award Fiction Winner and nominated for a Pushcart Prize)
In a matter of weeks, it seemed, Stewart's mother had become obsessed with the dog. Despite—or maybe because of—the fact that he, Banjo, didn’t belong to her. Things like that didn’t matter to Heike: who was the rightful owner of something, of a pet or a piece of property. She had no sense of boundaries or decorum. She liked to be in charge, to exercise control. Over pets, renters, people she came across at Vons or Taco Bell, over her husband, Gerry, over her twenty-four-year-old son, an adult last time he checked.
Heike lived in California; Stewart lived in New York, where he was in grad school, studying oppression and alienation and identity politics. He loved New York, loved sitting in his room overlooking Amsterdam Avenue, listening to the traffic—the sirens and horns—reading until midnight, then going out to the bars. He took the subway downtown.
The Sky and the Night
Published in Joyland, March 2016
The dog’s name was Marydog, named after the woman Ray loved, a dancer from Lubbock, Texas, who he swore was the most graceful creature he’d ever set eyes on. The Airedale was meant to lure the woman, his love, the angelic being he could not live without, back home: to coax her, if not to stay permanently, then at least to visit him for a time. The truth was that over the expanse of months and eventually years during which their romance had developed, he and his love had spent just a few weeks together—her arrivals always sudden, taking Ray by surprise, lifting the heavy fog from his soul until she disappeared again, equally unexpectedly, leaving him heartbroken. Between visits, the woman, Mary Frances Lucero, a descendant, she claimed, of Spanish royalty, called from various payphones—motels by the side of the road, gas stations, truck stops—places that made Ray fear for her well-being.
“I love you,” she said. “I miss you. I want to come home.” This from a train station outside of Sacramento, California. “I’m having a baby, a baby girl.”
It was his child, she said, conceived miraculously during a handful of rapturous nights, nights that still nourished him, the expression miraculously used by her and eventually him, because it was a kind of miracle that a woman who in four weeks would reach her fifty-ninth birthday and a man twelve years older could come together at this time in their lives and make love to the sound of ten thousand crickets lost in the high deserts of New Mexico and thereby create a new life.
Queen of Sheba
Published in Cosmonauts Avenue, October 2015
Al gives me zero. All day long he sits glued to his armchair, drinking glass after glass of V8 juice and making a mess with his crackers. The crumbs end up everywhere—the upholstery and carpet, not to mention the little table he drags in front of the TV. At dinner, he’s tight-lipped. In bed it’s the same. For quite some time, he’s been unable to satisfy me. From the moment we met, he had difficulty in this department. He was not even seventy then. I was just fifty-four. For a woman, especially one who keeps in good shape, this is quite young.
I play violin. I play tennis. I go hiking and skiing. None of this interests him. Finally, for my birthday, I said, “That’s it! I go crazy with you. At least take me on a small trip.” I called up his daughter, Laurie, who has this adorable little Crystal, and invited them along to Las Vegas. “Come on,” I said, “we go to the Circus Circus hotel.”
The summer before I started seventh grade, not long after Patty Hearst was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, my mother married a man who owned a ranch house with a yard full of lemon trees. As far as she was concerned, she’d hit the jackpot. Gerry didn’t drink, he had a job, and, whenever we went out to eat, he always picked up the check. After dating a string of losers, after moving from apartment to apartment at least once a year for nearly a decade, my mother told me—three weeks into her new relationship—that, no matter what, we could not spit on the luck God had given to us. “This chance is once in a lifetime,” she said.
My mother met Gerry on a ski trip organized by Amway. She put the vacation on her credit card and arranged for me to stay with a family that lived down the street. “Bingo,” she announced on the phone, four days after she left. “I met someone perfect. He’s a little tight-lipped and has a tummy, but he’s an accountant, and he owns a condo in Mammoth.” A few months later they got engaged and we moved from Ventana Beach down to L.A.
A Period of Time
Published in Guernica, May 2010
It had been such a small thing, the thing that made them split up, the thing she later cited as the reason she’d left him. At least it had seemed small to him. He’d left the stopper in the bathroom sink plugged—he’d meant to leave it open, but then the phone rang and he went to the living room to answer it. He was only gone a few seconds, but the bathroom sink was shallow, and the water filled up quickly, and soon enough, water had spilled over the side onto the counter and the floor. Some of the water had made its way into the lower cabinet, the drawers with her combs and clippers and toothpaste. He’d mopped up the water quickly, had acted quite efficiently, he’d felt—he’d been proud of how he had handled things. He hadn’t hesitated, as he sometimes did. She’d been at work and he had taken charge.
Wasn’t that always what she’d wanted him to do? Be decisive. Be proactive.
He’d mopped the water up, and then he’d dried the counter. He’d emptied out her drawers and dried each item carefully—with paper towels, just as she would have done.
He’d been meticulous.
Published in Hobart, January 2010
The man is older than the woman, but not by much. They're out for a stroll in the park, taking in the sunshine and fresh air. "Look at that," says the man, pointing at the mud. He crouches down at the water's edge and reaches toward a small turtle.
"Don't touch it," says the woman. "It wants to be left alone."
Published in Slice, Fall 2009 / Winter 2010 (Nominated for a Pushcart Prize)
All summer long she's used her savings to pay the girl down the street, a high school student, to tutor her. "Even if it is a small thing, please correct me. It is very important that I make not so many grammatical errors." She meets the girl three times a week. Yesterday they were practicing the past perfect tense: On Tuesday Eloise ate baked potatoes, but last week she had eaten nothing but ham.
House Made of Snow
Stewart reads the words to his father, one by one, making sure no letter moves. Then it happens again—the tail of the y curls up from the paper, reaching out toward him, like the tail of a lizard or an iguana or a black dragon. It lassoes his neck, tugging the l and the a and the i, pulling free from the page. He watches the letters peel up—the word, then the sentence itself, like a streaming ribbon, slippery as a minnow.