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Midnight Until Morning

sodium light


The light in the Kroger parking lot buzzes, and I amuse myself by pretending the buzzing is coming from the moths circling overhead. It’s muggy tonight, and my cigarette somehow makes things feel warmer in the car. Eventually she comes outside, and when she climbs in she changes her clothes in the passenger seat.

We sneak into her house as quietly as possible. Her mother’s still at work and her kid sister is asleep. She calls her a kid sister even though the girl’s almost seventeen now.

We get to her room, which she’d tried to abandon for a few years for an apartment across town, but she is inextricably tied to this drywall box. Poverty is a lock built for heavy use.

I text my sister to tell her she doesn’t have to leave the hall light on for me, at the house we both share on our parents’ dime. Our folks moved out of state a couple years ago but kept the place as an investment, though not so much monetarily as familial. We try to pay them rent, but generosity won’t allow them to keep the money for long. It always comes back in Christmas cards or unusually generous amounts of “gas money” for errands. I would complain, but it’s something of a sin to do so when there really aren’t any complaints to have.

We drink warming beer I bought while waiting for her shift to end. The cashier in the next line seemed exasperated when I wouldn’t respond to her attempts to wave me over. I very nearly whispered “But it’s this cashier I want to fuck!” but crudeness is not a taste for every palette.

She opens her windows and we smoke cigarettes. We sit on the floor and watch headlights trace across the walls. We’re no longer teenagers but we don’t want to know it.

She has red hair that’s almost orange, and it curls so that every movement makes it leap from her shoulders. The ends of it brush my face when she stands and bends to kiss me, before shambling to the bathroom.

I crack open two more beers, and she comes out in green cotton boxers and a white men’s tank top she likes to sleep in. We drink beer and talk about anything other than the fact that we won’t be doing this – any of it –very long from now. That’s a topic we’ll visit later, when we add “not thinking about it” to the list of luxuries she can’t afford.

The ends of her hair tickle my face again. They puff with every breath I take. She hugs me tight around my neck, and her breath makes my left ear feel wet. The boxers have tied her right ankle to my left one, somehow.

In movies and novels, only the boring parts about sex are covered. The parts of each other’s bodies that everyone likes. The generic mentioning that someone eventually climaxes. The interesting bits are always overlooked. Like how your stomach always makes a paunch, no matter how skinny you are, when you’re hunched over towards the other person. Or how small flecks of stubble ignite the nerves in your skin when her leg brushes yours. Sometimes I see dark bristles under her arms. They’re short, regularly waxed away, but they’re there, just barely.

I want no one else as much as I want her in this moment.

My teeth brush her ear and I feel her arms tighten. I keep forgetting that’s something she likes. She scratches at my shoulders, and I feel undutiful because she clearly remembers that’s what I like.

We fall asleep for awhile. She wakes me an hour before her sister usually gets up. Her mother has already come home and gone to bed. We dress and kiss and she goes to shower while I lock the door behind me. I start the car and drive home. The sun isn’t up yet. Last night will stay on my mind all day. It will be years before I realize we were saying an early goodbye.


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Speechwriter Interview


Barry feels too much like a child who’s in church. Nothing here in the hallway is younger than he is. The red carpet has begun to pill, has probably been pilling for the last five men who worked behind that gigantic door. Barry thinks they must have a vacuum exclusively devoted to this strip of red carpet. When it’s vacuumed, it must be stunning in its simple boldness.

The fussy guy who told him to sit finally comes back out; the man leaving with him smiles. He’s younger than Barry, not outside his peer group, but young enough that Barry feels the tinge of panic that comes when you’re only a year or so away from knowing that you have, without doubt, failed at something.

The man, the fussy one, he’s wearing a flat black suit. That’s the only way Barry can think to describe it: flat. The material isn’t faded; it just seems to give nothing back. Black suits that pop use the light of the room like a frame. The suit this man wears is plain, utilitarian, demanding and unappreciative.

The man in the unfortunate suit looks to the bench beside the door. Barry decides then he can’t ever like this man. They could end up working alongside each other for decades, and they could only ever be workmates. When the man told Barry to have a seat Barry had gone for the bench the man now looked to. He’d been chastised for this choice with a sharp, mechanical: “Not that one.”

Barry was back up automatically, and had stood stupidly, looking to the five identical benches that lined the office’s end of the hall.

“Where should I sit then?” he’d asked. The fussy man only gave him a look of confusion. Barry settled on the next bench over.

The man in the resentful suit looks to the bench behind him, then to Barry. He looks confused again. He seems to inspect each bench, like there’s a chance they only seem empty due to a trick of the light. Finally he looks back to Barry. “Come in,” he says, impatiently reassuring. He taps his thumb and finger together soundlessly, gesturing without any real meaning. Barry takes his leather folder and rises. The grandfathered bench almost startles him when it croaks.

The man and his sullen suit stay outside this time, and when the door closes Barry is alone with the senator.

“Have a seat.” Everything seems inflected with the senator. He gestures quickly, with a casual jerk of his eyes, to the leather office chair before his desk.

He’s writing. Writing is a prop in politics, but it’s also a practical one; every scene in a commercial of a politician writing is legitimate. There’s never enough time to put off the paperwork. Directors just film around the workload.

Barry sits.

“So, Barry,” the senator says. His writing quickens into rapid slashes, and with a snap he lays his pen down and sets the sheet of paper into his outgoing mail tray. Now it’s all eyes on Barry. “Director Wash speaks well of you.”

“I’m fond of Dr. Wash,” Barry says.

“Well, I’m sure Dr. Wash is mutually fond of you, but fondness does not necessarily translate into competence. Director Wash doesn’t make referrals on a whim.”

“No,” Barry agrees. “He certainly doesn’t.”

The senator smiles warmly but never gratuitously. He does not smile now, just watches Barry with tired brown eyes.

It takes Barry a moment to realize what he’s doing. People so rarely, honestly do it. He’s listening.

“Before I worked on Dr. Wash’s housing initiative, I interned with Senator McCormick…” He says this while opening his folder. The resume is three sheets of beautiful cream paper.

“I know your work history,” the senator says. “Dr. Wash was an adviser of yours, so I know how well you fared in school.” He’s a man who listens with both hands clasped against his chin. He sweeps his right hand quickly. “That’s just data. There are three things I want to know.”

He’s quiet until Barry realizes he’s listening again. Barry lets the resume hang limp in his hand. “What are those?” he asks, careful not to try and mimic the senator’s tone.

“The first is: why did you get into politics? And the second: what is your philosophy on writing?”

“Why I do what I do?” Barry shuffles the resume inside the folder.

“No.” The senator measures every word; now he allows a small measure of irritation. “I don’t want a summary. I asked you exactly what I meant to ask you. I only work with precise data. You are going to define for me the two aspects of your character I care most about for this job.”

“Well…” Barry fights the grin, struggles, “…I’m not sure those are questions with exact answers.”

I’m sure that they are,” the senator tells him. “At least I’ve always found them to be.” He gives a small smile, a brief one.

Barry prepares himself.

“Why did you get into politics?” the senator asks.

“There are…” the senator is a man of precise action and word. It is not easy for a poor black kid to rise to be the man he is now. His path was one with very little room for error. Improvisation for him could only ever be a decisive act. “There are,” Barry says again, his words now the pins they always are in his head, “so many people in this nation who need help. There are people who will…fight through this life with everything they have, and more, who will still fail if they are never given the smallest amount of help.” Each breath risks a pause. Any silence must be filled by pinning his thoughts to words: “Those people cannot be described in more honest a way than as helpless. And because it is human nature…inevitably…there are people who have the means to offer such help, and they have decided that human nature compels them to act.”

The senator is a smoker. He’s careful to take regular mints, but there is that unique huskiness to his breathing.

“It is…so very easy to adopt a cynical set of ideas regarding the political process. It is a very lazy, very seductive, very self-important mindset. There is, undeniably, corruption in politics. There’s corruption everywhere. Allowing yourself to become discouraged, to never fight behavior that is dwarfed by overall goodwill is, frankly, lazy. It is critically important that you do not focus on inconsequential negatives at the expense of inarguable good.”

“Those sound like a set of directions,” the senator tells him.

“They’re not.” There is no argument in the correction. “I got into political work because I believe there are people who honestly want to make things better. Certainly, I am concerned for my own interests: my professional advancement, my financial success, and my personal accomplishments. But there is something else that compels me to seek those things in such a way that this drive can be channeled for good. Essentially, sir, it’s this: I want to help the people who want to help The People.”

The senator grins. “Maybe I should just have you give the speeches. I can just speak into a dead mike.”

The words are pinned in place now, exactly where they need to be.

“Question two,” the senator prods.

“Words define half of who we are.” The folder leans against the leg of the chair, its spine nuzzling the lush blue and green carpet of the senator’s office. “The manner in which we translate those words into action completes that definition. There are those for whom words are simply shields to protect actions that are in direct opposition to what has been said. This does not mean their words do not reflect on their character; they do. Their hollowness reflects tremendously upon them.” Barry settles into the chair. The leather is smooth, soft, younger than the rest of the chair. “For those whose words translate into direct action, the value of their action also translates directly into the worth of their words. When they say anything, there is greater value there than in the words of those who do nothing.”

“So what about writers?” The senator looks down, glances between two documents just out of Barry’s sight. He looks back up. “Writers are their words, correct?”

“Everyone is their words,” Barry tells him. “But so too is everyone their actions. Writers are no different, we simply understand this connection.”

“So what would your action be? What actions do you connect your words with?”

“I connect them to those I have committed them to.” Barry, young, white, wealthy, has never suffered. The senator has. The senator has a strong instinct for untruths. He has had need of it. “My words are committed with the belief that they are the purest distillation of the truth. They have to be, because they are pieces of my heart that I have torn out, and laid into the hands of others. What I write must be true, and it must be true because it is all I can do for the good of others.”

“You’re not one for manipulation then.”

“One could say the truth is a form of manipulation, but it would be a lazy correlation, and a false one. The truth is not reliant upon manipulation. The truth is reliant upon persuasion.”

The senator looks to his papers again. “So…”

Barry waits. The senator isn’t listening yet.

“…why do you do what you do?”

Barry takes a single breath. “The same reason as you.”

There’s a quick nod, and the senator leans back in his chair, reaching for his pen. He shuffles papers and says: “I appreciate you coming in. You’ll hear from my office within twenty-four hours.”

His eyes are already following his pen as Barry grabs his folder and heads to the door.

“So you know,” the senator says, and the cliché is that Barry turns at the door, “the gentleman I interviewed before you is extremely qualified.”

“He seemed confident,” Barry remembers. “Did you ask him the same questions you asked me?”

“I did not.”

“But you said he was qualified.”

“I said he was extremely qualified.”

Barry gives a nod. “Have a good day, sir.”

“You do the same, Barry!” The sentiment is genuine but compartmentalized. He returns to his work before Barry is out of the room.

The fussy man, maybe eaten by his suit, is not at receiving. When Barry leaves the Chicago air is still, so it catches him off-guard when it blows in force a block away. It snatches at the leather heart in Barry’s hand, but his grip is firm, and he walks home.

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Dead Cat

cat carrier

I let myself into my parents’ house through the front door. Paper towels litter the carpet, sporting brown and yellow stains from hairballs my mother hasn’t gotten around to cleaning away yet. I count about ten before disgust compels me to just ignore it and step over.

Spotty is lying on the couch. She’s so thin I can see her skeleton in clear definition beneath her fur. The brilliant orange and white pattern of her coat contrasts less sharply than I remember it. The orange is dimmed, the white is yellowed. She’s growing more muted with each day.

Her breath rattles in her ribs. I pet her behind the ears and it’s a full minute before she acknowledges me. She strains to look up, with eyes clouded over with discharge. I stroke her softly, and she makes a hacking sound before lying her head back down.

My father’s cat leans beside her. She’s old too but not as old as Spotty. Every few moments she leans over and licks Spots behind the ear. Dad’s sitting on the couch beside her, sniffling.

“Is the carrier ready?” I ask him.

He takes off his glasses and makes a show of wiping at his eyes with his finger before answering. “No, not yet. I’m gonna grab a quick smoke before we head out. I’ll grab it when I’m done. Give ya some time to say goodbye.”

I don’t want to enable either addiction, so I just walk into the kitchen to the pantry. The cat carrier is tucked behind the trash can, and I grab some old newspapers to line it with.

“Oh, I can do that,” Mom says. She scurries over. “I think your daddy wants you to be able to say goodbye to Spots.”

“I know what he wants.” I stuff paper into the carrier. “But we can’t sit around. The vet closes in thirty minutes and it’s a holiday weekend. We have to get this done quick.”

“Yeah.” My mom pauses for a bit, then asks: “I just wish I knew we were doing the right thing.”

“We have to, Mom. Her kidneys are shutting down.”

“I know. I just wish we could know one way or the other if she was going to get better.”

“No, it’s old age, Mom. She’s not sick.”

“What about that medicine he gave us?”

“It didn’t work, remember? That’s how he knew it was old age. He can’t treat her. Her kidneys just don’t work anymore.”

“Didn’t you say something about him suggesting surgery?”

“There’s nothing to repair. They just don’t work anymore. The vet said outright it’s just old age. You can’t treat that.”

“I guess.”

“No, you know. She’s old.”

“Missy was twenty-one before she died.”

“Yeah. Missy was really fuckin’ old too, Mom. Cats get old.”

Oh, I wish you wouldn’t swear!” she whines, and I ignore her as I make my way back to the living room.

“You ready to go, Pop?”

“Don’t you want to hold her a little bit before we go?”

“We don’t have time.” I’m not joining his histrionic ensemble piece. I gently pull Spotty into my lap. When she was younger she would race across the house whenever I sat down and dive bomb me, before curling up to go to sleep. She’s completely limp when I lift her up. Limp, but breathing. I lean over and open the top of the carrier, and set a couch pillow inside. I carefully lift Spots and lie her on the pillow. She doesn’t change position the whole time.

“Ryan, did the vet think about her gingivitis?” Mom asks suddenly, bolting into the living room. Her eyes are wide, like something huge has just occurred to her.

“No. Why?”

“Maybe she’s just not eating because her gums are bothering her. I think that’s why she’s so weak. Ask the vet about her gingivitis when you get there!”

“It’s not gingivitis, it’s her kidneys.”

“No, Ryan. Her gingivitis could affect her kidneys.” She affects the idiot note of condescension, the way people do when they have nothing else to stand on. “Gum disease causes a lot of problems.”

“I’ll run the AC in the car a bit.” My dad fumbles with his cane and his keys.

“Dad, I’ll just take her. My car’s right outside.”

“No, no. I…I want to be there.” He forces his voice to crack. My own prescription of antidepressants is nearing his in dosage size. Will I need to supplement them the way he does, with liberal doses of melodrama?

“You’re just going to let them kill her, aren’t you?” My mother’s eyes flash, the way I remember them flashing when I lived here. The cold gray rage she can only briefly mask. I was always guilty of something. Once she told me I rustled my comic book so I wouldn’t have to hear her yell at me. She had to keep me out of school for a week while the bruises faded. “You little bastard.”

I keep myself from laughing so as to avoid a spittle-flecked tantrum from her. She’s 5’1 and stooped. I could probably lift her with one hand and put her on a shelf if I wanted to. It wasn’t bastard that surprised me. It was little.

“You little brat!” Her lips are peeled back, showing yellowed teeth. Half of them are implants. The strays they’ve collected since my sister and I left home scatter to hide. “You never even took care of her! What gives you the right?”

They’ve gathered about twelve strays since I moved out. None of them are sterilized or inoculated. They scratch constantly at fleas. It would have been eighteen cats if not for me and Aggie. Spotty would have been mauled by the strays each of us adopted if we’d taken her out of the house. Aggie’s wrapping up her Master’s, so I foot the bill for her three’s vaccines each year.

“Please!” my father moans. He covers his face with both hands. “Please, let’s not make this any harder…!”

“He’s always criticizing!” Mom snaps to him. “Have you gotten them their shots?” She uses a bizarre, high-pitched tone to mock me, even though my voice is pretty deep. “Like we don’t know how to take care of our animals. We can’t afford to get all of them shots, Ryan.”

That affected condescension again.

“That’s right. You can’t afford to get them shots.”

“Do you see how he does?” my mother screams to my dad. My father wails behind his hands, to hide the fact that he’s not actually weeping. My parents bicker. I quickly slip outside and take Spotty to my car.


The vet gives Spotty the phenobarbital and throws the needle into the sanitizing bin. “I’m sorry for your kitty,” he says, and I can tell he means it. He leaves right after. The place is packed and they close the doors in five minutes.

Spotty’s breathing slows. I feel her heart stop. The vet’s aid cries a little. I don’t mind. I wrap Spotty in a towel, set her in the carrier, and walk out.

“Oh no,” one of the patrons moans, when she gets a look inside the carrier. She’s pale, wrinkled, her gray hair tied back but still somehow messy and everywhere.

“I’m so sorry.” She reaches out to grab my arm. “Can I get a look at your kitty?”

She grabs my elbow, and I swat at her hand. Not hard. I swing the way I did when I housebroke Spotty, when I’d pat her on the rump with a newspaper if she peed outside the litter box. My fingertips barely touch her knuckles, but I get the desired result. She yanks her hand back, shocked. I go out into the hot, noisy day with my dead cat. I was fourteen when I first took her to this place. I carried her in wrapped in a towel. When I handed her to the aid to get her fixed, she hooked her claws into the collar of my shirt, and mewled when they finally carried her into the kennels.


My mother is silent when I get back, and after a few moments of scowling in the kitchen she scurries down the hall to her bedroom and slams the door. Twice. My father has finally managed to produce actual tears, and he tries to pull me into a hug as I pass. I work my way out of his arms and go out to the back stoop for a smoke.

Mosquitoes buzz just out of reach of my cigarette. Two houses down, I can hear an old woman bellowing about the “Arabs” that live between her and my parents. Her adult son is trying to calm her down. The neighbors she’s complaining about are actually Pakistani, but I doubt she’d appreciate the difference. They live in a house that was only built two years ago, but it looks every bit the same age as my parent’s home. Everything ages fast in this part of town.

The carrier with Spotty’s carcass sits on the bottom step. Tree frogs duel cicadas in the trees. My clothes stick to me. I decide I won’t tell my parents I’ve left when I’m finished. I stub my smoke and grab a shovel from the garden shed. I don’t cry while I bury my cat. I do that later, in the privacy of my apartment. There, the memories of my childhood pet are felt in service to no one but myself. My cats sit in a ring around my ankles while I grieve. Later, when I go to bed, they all hop onto the comforter, and lie across my legs while I sleep.

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