Familiars (1 of 5)

1. You know how some people are crazy? Meanwhile, there are others merely follow different rules. You’ll find me under the second category. Better yet, you’ll find me and some animal. But I don’t follow different “rules” so much as keep particular habits.
For as long as I can remember without having to strain, I have been accompanied by a familiar. An animal with whom I share a special bond, a close and dare I say “spiritual” (as many breeds as that comes by) friendship.

Today I am happy to be joined by Larincia, my little honey-colored cat, now 11. She’s been with me through this whole thing–the Leukemia, that is. But she’s had her own problems which I won’t go into. I can only hope that we pass together, and not separately. Call it sentimentality. Anyway, I’m writing you all because I expect not to last many more months, and I haven’t spoken to some of you in some time. Most of you, in fact. And in the spirit of the season (whatever season that is, in mid-September), I’ve decided to give you the gift of my life, distilled to its clearer moments, and arranged the only way I can–by animal.



2. My growth spurt came one morning after I’d turned 8, so my mother (Petunia Grace-Mithers) left the house to go find clothes fit for a 12-year-old boy. This left me alone in the house with Horp, my robin-turtle, whom I had adopted as a baby in the creek behind our first house that summer, and Father, who was too young to take care of even himself and was sleeping and whom we can safely count out. My turtle and me, then.

This was the summer of storms, when each day could be sliced into alternating patches of clear periwinkle sky and savage, stampeding rainstorms. Inside for an hour, outside in the wet grass for another. When mother left that day, and I was wobbling around with my limbs jutting out of my clothes, with Horp in a little handwoven sling tied around my wrist, I went outside.

I wanted to see how it felt to get under one of those little ravenous storms, so I went out to the shed. The shed at this time was supported only by the things inside it–all tools Father had inherited and forgotten. I dragged out the big folded tarpaulin while Horp wiggled her little blunt legs from where they dangled out of the sling from small holes. Like she knew I was making trouble.

I looked to the West and sure enough I saw this little hell-raiser of a cloud, its dark thick strings of rain falling like a huge daddy-long-legs slowly, loudly overtaking the hill.
I threw out the tarp and crawled under it and pitched it up with my head, shivering with excitement. I fed Horp some wet grass to calm her nerves as the clattering, slopping sound got nearer and nearer. It was about as far away as the house when I heard something else: screaming. Father had woken up and was racing along the veranda in his socks.
“Son! Where are you, son?!”

I got on my hands and knees and punched the tarp in front of me for a path. I held the ends of the sling in my teeth and Horp swung freely. I thought my teeth’d come out. Finally I made it to the end and thrust my head out into the calm air. A few yards to my left was the storm, and directly in front of me, on the stairs, was Father, gaping at me and holding his throat in both hands. Father was more frightened of lightning than anything else, because the legend goes that if you get struck by lightning, you’re more likely to get struck again, and he’d been struck while canoeing down the Hensbend River when he was 18. Snapped the canoe in half and he washed up on the shore of the Mither farm.
“SON! SON!” he was waving his arms like they were on fire. Even now I catch myself imagining they were on fire, but that’s nonsense. “THE STORM’S–!”
Then the storm hit me, and I threw my head back in. The tarp bucked and grasped all around me, and all my ears filled up with pure noise while I laughed my head off. Horp was sucked back into her prickly shell with her ears open. Then the storm trampled on across the yard.

“NNYAAGH!” came Father’s voice again, and I wriggled out into the wet, cool day to see him leaping after the storm, now sockless. Mom came home shortly thereafter, but Father was gone. The best I can figure is that he was so scared of getting lightning-bit that he wanted to get it over with (and maybe start doing something with his life). But according to that logic, he’d only be struck more and more frequently, until finally it happened a few times in the same minute and he died of shock. We’ll never know.
Horp lived until just after I started junior high and Mom and I moved into town.

by Josephson

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Norton in the Snow

Norton walks through an apartment parking lot every day coming home from the unemployment office. Today the tops of cars are caked with snow and Norton can’t help but notice that on one green pickup-truck someone had carved a penis and testicles and the word “faget.”
Now Norton, he does not care for trucks. At least, he thinks, this was a smallish one. And its owner may be a kind person, one who was gifted the machine by mistake. The owner has a kindly face and a kindly manner. He’d tip his hat if he wore hats other than baseball caps. He’s down to earth.
“Faget.” Norton shakes his head. There are college kids afoot. Probably construction electricity students. Real brainers. They don’t even know the truck owner, let’s call him Owen. And Owen may or may not be gay; it doesn’t matter.
“Not today,” announced Norton, stepping two feet off his path to erase the message with the underside of his forearm. Some snow scurries down into his sleeve. He erases quickly, so as not to get the germs of the snow-penis, and stands back to make sure he got it all. He’s not the only one looking.
“Uh, what are you doing?” says a man offscreen to Norton’s left. Norton flinches and looks at the man who is putting on a huge fur-lined coat and stomping over.
Norton’s head shakes. He can feel the redness in his cheeks. “Oh, no. Nothing. There was a distasteful image written on this truck and I erased it.”
The man puts his mittened fists on his hips. His eyes have black irises. “What did it say?”
Norton’s shoulders shrug. “Doesn’t matter. It’s gone and you won’t have to let it spoil your weekend.”
The man squints at Norton. “But what did it say?”
Norton squints back, and his mouth takes a nasty shape. He thinks, I wasted my time.
“I’m helping you out.”
“Did you write it?”
“NO I didn’t write it.” Norton scoffs. His fingers are numbing.
The man doesn’t look like Owen looks. For one, Owen has blond should-length hair and glasses. The man has five-o’ clock shadow and pimples. Maybe he’s just butting into Norton’s business.
“Probably some college kids,” adds Norton, his boots crunching the snow. He’s inching away. He shouts, “I’m defending your honor!”
“I’m calling the cops, man, if you don’t tell me what you wrote and why.”
Norton’s running away.

by Josephson

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The Slapdash Omnibus

‘Give that to me, you punk!’
He kicked the child in the stomach, sending the child to the ground and into fathomless unconsciousness. Henry turned the gilded dinner plate over in his hands, glowering at the small, muddy fingerprints.
‘Could use a good wash. Then it’s back to market value!’
Jim was on the other side of the sliding glass door, in the sunlight by the pool. He was doubled over, face stretched to show gritting yellow teeth. He groaned through them, and fell over. One dirty sneaker fell off his foot and appeared to wriggle to the rim of the pool where it plopped in.
‘Jim! Jim, get up! …Get this glass outta my way.’
Henry took the door in both hands and shot it off to one side with a crack.
‘Jim! Cut it out! I got this thing, and we better get out in case that kid called some cops!’
Jim’s face started to gleam and fill with air. The groaning stopped. His black-knuckled hands clutched vaguely at his stomach-region.
‘Hell, Jim. That ain’t your internal bleeding again, is it?’
Henry looked around with his arms limp at his sides. The backyard had a cabana and was, luckily, deserted. The edge of the gold plate banged his thigh. His cement-colored jumpsuit was full of desert air.
‘Jim, you know I can’t call an ambulance, Jim. What if I dragged you back to the van? Eh?’
Jim said nothing. The shoe was already a yard off, sole-up and laces spread in leisure. Jim was quite a liability, and he never found anything good. Anyway, it was time they put this blue-and-cream-colored mansion behind them.
‘Goodbye, Jim.’
Besides, Jim took for sentiment, not for money. But tell that to the cops, man. Just you try.

“Monica, Monica, please. Listen, you just have to find my blue pants–”
He was strangling the phone cord.
“That’s what they’re saying, that’s what they’re saying, yes, but–No, this has nothing to do with “us.” We’re, we’re strong, Monica. Strong as ever. No, they say these things but they’re speculation.”
At the far end of the hall was a burly man in an orange uniform, sitting like a pineapple on the bench sticking out of the wall. Was this man looking at him?
“Monica, stop. Okay? Fuck, Monica. This is not what it looks like.”
The man wore orange, but had no handcuffs. This made Leo nervous, which made him even more irritated.
“NO! Don’t you SAY these things! If you WANT to get THROUGH this, you have to support me! Give me some credit for Mary Magdalene’s sake! Just find my pants, and take out that set of keys.”
He shot another glance down the hall. The bench was obscured by an orange blur that turned out to be the gorilla-man coming this way, strolling. Leo’s voice didn’t rise but rather got huskier. Spittle came out.
The gorilla stopped short of plowing Leo right against the wall. The belt buckle was badly tarnished. The stomach protruded, the shape and color of a basketball. There was some kind of musk.
Leo peered up, cupping the receiver, lifting one side of his upper lip as if by a hook.
Monica found the key and was on her way.

She was very short and her habit long, so that her feet may not have even existed. You had to believe they were there. Yes, the whole point of the religion encapsulated in this eighty-year-old sack. Near-sighted, too. Watery little beetles for eyes, and black-painted fingernails. Once I heard the Stones coming from under her cell door, but maybe that was the chalk talking. I used to eat the little stubs of chalk. Plug my nose and down it went. I thought of her every time, and how I wanted to tell her what her discipline tasted like to me.

Paul held his arm out at full length, set upon his nephew’s snowy scalp. Bruno had white hair and five years of life experience. Paul said, in a sweet voice, “You stay there, remember? No hand-holding. Literally.”
“Pick me up!” insisted Bruno, tugging on his itchy sweater vest.
“Fuck no forever!” cried Paul, and he ran as hard as he could. Then he tripped, scuffed his chin and palms on the sidewalk, and felt a weight on his back.
“Now you have to pick me up.”

by Josephson

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Wing Man

They’re at their first middle-school dance when Billy Twin spots Hale Bruxter across the gymnasium and charges over.
“Get out of here with that thing!” says Billy Twin and he yanks off Hale Bruxter’s headwear. “You’re going to ruin it for yourself! See how the girls stay away from you?”
The offending headwear is a hive-shaped wad of gray curls that roosts on top of Hale Bruxter’s oblong skull and even parts on either side for his ears.
“I just got here. And I never get to wear hats in school so bitch off, Billy.”
Billy Twin grinds his teeth, bearing his braces.
“That’s not a hat, moron. It’s a wig!”
“I said bitch off, Twin. Tonight is my night and my style is my style and go drink some punch or something.” He won’t be bothered.
“If you want me as your wing man, lose the wig.”
“It’s an ergonomic hat–it’s wool. Get off my case.” Hale Bruxter is nodding to the 49-year-old DJ’s beat.
“Take it off,” says Billy Twin, assessing the crowd’s girl-density (it is low.) There aren’t many on this side of the gym, where all the lights and the snack table are. “There’s a tag inside that says it’s made from real, human, hair.”
“Listen, I can get a date tonight on my own. I’ve practiced all the moves. I don’t need you.”
Billy Twin stays close. They will not get laid tonight, at thirteen, but it’s better that both of them don’t get laid than just Billy Twin not getting laid. Besides, he’s the wing man. A wing man’s supposed to be there for his client.
A girl. Suzie McHadfin. Eighth-Grader. She comes by, her dragonfly eyes pinned on the wig. She stops–the punch bowl will have to wait.
“Hey. Is that a wig?” she hollers incredulously over the undanceable music.
Hale Bruxter doesn’t hear, or ignores. She makes eye contact with Billy Twin, who stares back like he’s wet himself. He raises an eyebrow.
Suzie McHadfin’s in fishnets and her long night-colored hair is wrapped all over her, like a loom. Her skin glistens with wasted sweat: the fans aren’t even going. For a moment she seems about to smile her tiny mouth, looking at him, as the slow song breathes its last. And in the fluctuating multicolored lights Billy Twin almost sees that infinitesimal mouth say, “Come. Here.”
Billy Twin looks at Hale Bruxter bobbing his shoulders in boredom. Hale Bruxter looks back intensely, widening his irises in a meaningful way. As if to say, “Go.”
And Billy Twin takes a breath, and Billy Twin takes a step.
And Suzie McHadfin is at the punch bowl for a much-needed draught. Another wasted night, she thinks. She watches some weedy black-haired boy dredge some punch and bulge his eyes at her over the rim of the plastic cup as he drinks, the punch bleeding down the front of his shirt. Billy Twin has nothing to say for himself–but he does say, with some modicum of detachment, “It is totally a wig.”
Suzie McHadfin seems to smile.

by Josephson

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Mysterious Ways

On my last day, the first thing I did when I got in was start all the trucks in the lot. It would be embarrassing for them not to run when the customers come, and this way they’ll be nice and warm. With the rumble of idling engines providing a comforting murmur, like a hushed but enthusiastic crowd at a big dinner party, I went to sit in the office, a small, vinyl-sided building. A sort of cabin, really. When you’re a staff of one, you don’t need much space.

This was the third winter for Bob’s Trucks, and I still wasn’t ready for the cold. Since when does it get below zero in early November? I couldn’t believe my parents lived here for their whole lives. Right up to their funerals. They had to wait for the ground to thaw to be interred. Both my parents died on the same weekend, and then got to spend another three months in adjacent refrigerated lockers until their big day, in early April, when the ground was soft enough to open up and take them in. The mouths of the Earth stayed clapped shut in winter months, teeth chattering away underneath us.

I was bending the frames of my glasses when the guy came in. It takes a while for the shape to set in. I have to bend my frames whenever I get new glasses because my left ear is higher than my right, and they look stupid at an angle. I have to be careful not to bend them too much, or they’ll look stupid the other way. So it’s a gradual process that sets in slowly over a couple of weeks before the frames take to their new shape. The guy said, “You Bob?”

I’d started going by Bob when I moved back up there three years ago, and it still sounded strange, like an alias. It was my mom’s idea to not call the place Robert’s Trucks. It was an alias, I suppose. I always had to pretend a bit with the customers. Pretend that I cared about trucks, that I liked the snow. That the wool-lined flannel coats and hearty reinforced leather boots I wore were choices that I’d normally make. Normally make? After three years, what is a choice I’d normally make?

“Yessir,” I grinned a bristly grin. “What can I do for you?”

“I thought you might like to show me a truck,” said the guy. He pulled off his cap, and I noticed his hair was matted like he’d been sweating. It’s strange for a man to sweat when it’s zero degrees. He wiped his brow with the crook of this elbow, and I saw that he wasn’t wearing a winter coat, but a loose flannel shirt. He was grungy and sweaty like he’d been out baling hay all morning.

“Well, you’re right about that,” I said, rising from my chair. “I’d like nothing more.” I put on my glasses, and the left side was still a bit higher.

“Looks like your glasses are a bit cockeyed,” said the guy, breathing hard.

“Well, my left ear’s a bit higher,” I said. “Takes a while for the frames to settle down.”

“Guess the Lord missed a bit when he slapped that ear on,” the guy said, without the least bit of humor in his voice. I hadn’t believed in God since the eighth grade.

“Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways,” I said, still grinning. “What are you looking for today? Two-door? Four-door? How many horses?”

“How many horses. That’s a good question,” the guy sighed, looking down. Then real quiet, he said, “You know that song, All the Pretty Horses?”

It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t think of any of the words.

“Like most songs for children,” he continued, “it’s about death.” He looked up to my eyes. “Your parents died last year, right?”

“Um, do I know you?” I asked. I didn’t think that song was about death. I thought it was about horses. He must be one of the cousins, or somebody from church. Everybody from church knows when somebody dies.

The guy took off his gloves, and his hands were a translucent green color, his fingers long and froggy. He was blinking really fast, and his pupils were growing huge, filling his eyes. This I didn’t expect.

“You alright?” I asked, with halted breath.

“It’s really hot in here,” the guy said, his sweaty skin looking a bit spongy, eyes still fluttering. “Nevermind about that truck.”

He left quietly, shutting the door softly behind him. I sat down and started cleaning out my desk.

by Willis

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1. As kids, Mom and Dad brought my sister and me to buffets. The buffet: a working class dream. Hell, they still bring us to buffets. Only now I see how miserable or foolish lots of the families there seem, and I don’t go straight for the dessert section. (My flight instructor taught me a few things that stuck).
2. I’m nontraditional, so salad comes second. First: the comfort foods. A little quiver of excitement rattled through me when we parked the old van–the almost-spring weather had been melting the snow into mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes, green beans, macaroni and cheese. Pile it on. This only happens once a year.
3. Father, once huge, is now deflated and knurly, but as shiny and thick-armed as ever. He found waffles. His head is down in front of his neck with his eyes rolling from face to face as he grinds his food with those teeth I inherited. Deer’s teeth.
4. Mother, whose neck moves like an iguana’s and whose wig looks exactly like her real, pre-Chemo curls, spears the table with her elbows and eats with hands and wrists only. Dad loves us, too, but Mom gives us the call to come down. We pay for our own flights now. It’s Wyoming, and the air is grayer each year.
5. Nicole has stopped talking to me, which is uncomfortable. Her upper lip gets more and more dagger-like all the time. Mine has plumpened.
6. “Nicole, how’s the loft? Um, Lizzy, how’s Michelle?” Mom inquires to each of us simultaneously, which is hateful. She almost always forgets I’m transgendered, and slips up. In her letters I’m Dylan Lizzy. Once she asked me why I’m trying so hard to seem like a lesbian but, at least I’m not wearing women’s clothing, so no one has to know my ‘business.’ Anyway.
“Yup, it’s good,” says Nicole, sliding her jaw to one side like it’s on ice. “My birds get lots of sunlight and…yup.” She forms a tornado of undercooked spaghetti around her fork. Did I mention, she always sits right across from me? Mom likes to sit next to me, and Dad across from her in our booth. At these dinners, Mom asks lots of questions and lets everyone get by with saying next to nothing. Satisfied, Mom blinked at me, running her eyes over my face to see of her little boy would pop out at her. My peek-a-boo days are dead and I’m full of anima.
“She’s really good, actually–Michelle. Not me. Ha.” Dad pushed his chair back with his hips and nodded, looking at the other patrons. “Yeah, she’s looking into adopting a cat soon.”
“But you’re allergic,” says Mom quickly and shortly. I look at her with half-screened eyes, deadpan. “We’re still getting married. Even if we have to keep living in separate apartments.”
“Right, you said you were moving in with her and out of the tenant building.”
I sighed and looked at Nicole’s plate. Full of faux-Italian pastas and breads. “What floor do you live on?”
Nicole jammed some garlic bread into her face while coughing and looking around. Mom made a face. She knew the Heimlich.
7. As kids, Nicole and I were close. We beat up each other’s bullies and we made dioramas of scenes from our favorite movies and when we hit college I got more and more “girly” and our communication went into hibernation. My guess always was that after a sea change, that communication would thaw out. Now our family patriarch has died and here we are. It’s like an indie movie, but that works, too. My life has dredged up its own meaning so that now I’m ready to help my family to integrate itself after so many fractures.
“Funeral’s on Thursday,” Dad says, placing his second dirtied dish on the pile. Mom hasn’t said a word about Grandfather’s death–not one. This year, Dad called us up. Broke the bad news. Usually it’s mid-late December when we visit, to do Christmas. Now it’s only early December, and somehow we’re going to have to cram both a funeral and a celebration in.
8. When the meal is over Nicole rushes out to the car, as usual, with the pretense that she had a call to make or that the weather was ominous. She sits shotgun. I ask my parents to wait behind for a few minutes, which they didn’t understand.
“I need to talk to her alone for a minute,” I explain, holding my hands up to keep them at bay. Dad unsheathed a toothpick and Mom mutters, “Okay,” so that I know clearly how inconvenient my attempt at reconciliation is. I nod and go to the Mazda.
Finally I get her to talk, just as Mom starts shivering and bouncing toward us in the side view mirror.
“I don’t like the paradoxes. Having a good job and being miserable, having a brother who’s a girl.”
“I can see that.”
“Mom and Dad have no idea what kind of world this is, so I can’t talk to them. And I can’t talk to you because you got me thinking this way.”
“Can I do anything to help that wouldn’t force me to get rid of my authentic self?”
“Grandpa had even less of an idea, but we were close.”
“You were close with Grandpa?” I’m astounded–no one in our family is close.
Of course, that’s when Mom raps on the window, frowning.
“He was even less aware of how complicated and disjointed the world is. But he stuck to his guns.” That upper lip crawls over her lower lip, like a turtle’s beak.
“I don’t like talking like this. It’s not normal in this family.”
Mom pulls at the latch of the door, which I locked. “It’s cold out here!” Conversation over.
“If you want, come find me between grieving sessions. I like talking like this.”
9. The ride home is silent, until Dad starts quietly humming some Christmas song. At least, it seems like a Christmas song. Dad always knew how to melt the tension.

by Josephson

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Nine-Fingered Vixen

His foot went tappity-tap to his words, “Well what did she look like, Remy?” and I wrapped my lips around the end of the red straw.

“Her skin is really…white…”

His keys jangled musically in his hand, in his pocket. “Pale?” he said. “Or just caucasian.” His car had been running for almost ten minutes but I needed this.


“Uh huh. Well I’ll keep an eye out, buddy–”

“And one of her fingers ends at the first knuckle.”

His lips smacked together like two little anchovies. He squinted, too. “We talking index finger here?” Then he cut me off before I could start– “Listen I gotta go I’ll tell you if I see anything ‘kay buddy?”

With my eyes on the bill I let him leave. Good old Miles Clark from HR. My key to Love. My key to the door of the vehicle in which Love sits, passenger-like, in the form of a pearly nine-fingered vixen whose normal left hand rests softly on my thigh like a hamster.

I met her of all places outside my third-story window one night. The snow hadn’t yet dropped on us and she thought the apartment above mine (from whence she’d come) was on fire or something. Fear was shattered over her face with its juicy yellow eyes.

“So you live upstairs?” was the first thing I said, after she had shrilled something about a microwave oven. She stared at me, then past me, into my place, maybe at Nixon licking his belly on the piano.

“No,” she said, frowning into the distance, and then she wordlessly descended. I knew instantly that I’d spoiled the opportunity, so I climbed onto the fire escape myself. And do you know what? She was gone. But she had on one of those blue post office jackets, and Miles’ wife Nola worked at the post office!

Then the snow dropped. Nixon put on five bulbous pounds and I was back at the canvas, but shivering now. My last art show was a bust but not this time. This time I had authentic Inspiration. No more jumbo pastels of animals’ teeth. And no more artistic advice from my hopped-up mom. “You’re not an artist,” I pointed out to her last time. She glared at me, and without looking she grabbed a new box of cereal, ripped the top open, and dumped its sugary flakes all over my floor. My mom is more like a pissy older sister. She sees past our intimate blood connection to know that I’m a person too, albeit one close enough to dump her broken personality on.

by Josephson

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