CHRISTOPHER AYALA





BEACHCOMBER:


We’ll barbeque, they said. Our friends all over will visit weekends. We’ll swim. We’ll clambake. We’ll make mustardy roast beef sandwiches. Long breaks’ll nip our toes. We won’t worry about tracking sand and water in the house. We’d have roast beef sandwiches.

Friends lost their number. Itineraries hung unapproved. Their bulk lobster tail order spoiled by when they found a cellar ice chest an old family unplugged. Storms knocked askew furniture set in hope constitutional folk saw their neighborhood commitment. They reset Adirondacks, availed wooden frescobol paddles for spontaneous games should passersby feel empty in their souls. Constitutionalists walked new hours. The kids loaded their cars in night cover, were gone.

With meat rotted, chairs smashed, frescobol gear rage booted in the ocean, kid abandoned, friends exiled, baseboards muckish, fun crept from an empty room whose cleaner grease spread sand fleas. Familial voices: Why so eager? Why Adirondacks? Frescobol? Lobster tail? Why didn’t the kids bring friends? Why this house? Why offseason?

The ride home quickened to their old life condo living downtown. They swore off the dinner party scene. Nights were pasta. A stroll by a giant eyeball sculpture put them in contact with a friend from charades who said, Thought you two wanted to be beach bums forever.

They stared for three hours in a triangle.

No one budged.





GOURD CHRIST:


Corgal’s agape maw divined cataclysms beneath the Bulb Feast moon. Five garlic cloves a day burned his lung clods, affixed, in broad daylight, a horrid gourd stink. He pulled gourds from earth, chopped a hole in a big one and hollowed gourd in muck piles, hissed “bottom’s up” each pulpy gnaw. Cave spires would summon a new body his mortal one would drip onto, smolder crops with. The premonition played clear, yet no such birth.

Jubilant song sunk Mount Pyre like weather. A harvest troupe in role cloaks surrounded him. They travelled season’s Death Plains March where, food starved, they’d eat elders until their minds rotted. The Great Spirit could then whisper harvest secrets survivors would raise their children on for a generation blessed by Earth Grain, our Holy Mother.

Post-orgy, Corgal limped behind troupe cow and a dragged deserter corpse stripped bare. On deserter’s chest read a ritual for the harvest troupe’s cleansing rites. The elders, before themselves devoured, would eat this body and bury its teeth in the Death Plains. They’d await rainfall. If rain revealed teeth from the burial plot, the Harvest Troupe would be forsaken, unable to lilt a bounty’s tune, the whole of them returning to Mount Pyre until winter nebulae exhumed each child touched by blight season gallstones. A jetty quake would reveal their new path.

“And the cow?’” Corgal asked.

“Bartering.” Spoke an elder.

“Passage,” said another.

Corgal and the Harvest Troupe entered a birch grove and knifed the cow who balked. The Barterer and The Passage assured the cow that she, like them, would soon yield better soil if their sacrifice, like hers, came willing. The Passage demanded Rune Warlocks take blood and bold safe travel songs into birch bark while the envoy camped. Corgal stroked udder, filled his gourd with subtle yanks. The Barterer seized his hand, said, “Thief,” And tried exposure when the cow back-kicked and collapsed The Barterer’s skull.

“Help,” Corgal shouted.

The Passage and Rune Warlocks observed the body spew bile. Warlocks were bid spell work. They swathed blood brushes from the cow, wrote signs for Earth Grain in hope she’d grant rest eternal. The cart maidens brought ropes of elder hair, wove a noose, strung The Barterer on a branch, danced beneath the corpse and sang. Drivers latched horses and dug a fire pit where dripped The Barterer’s death piss.

“What have ye to spare?” The Passages’ glossy eye seethed and a quartz polyp birthed on Corgal’s knee. Gourd milk boiled. “What have ye to show?” The Rune Warlocks rolled mud with chants. Corgal smelled cow blood from The Passage’s song and slit his palm with a little conjure blade. The troupe maidens with ovarian ulcers lapped Corgal’s wound then laid him down in hot mud, slaughtered the cow and forced a warm cup of flux down his throat. “Give and take,” The Passage said.

The harvest troupe slept. Corgal’s palm stung. A beetle gorged on his cut flesh. He ate the nibbler, said, “I return what’s mine.” Thousand more beetles carried the deserter’s corpse. Thunder roiled. The grove rankled wine dark around the beetle hoard. From the void emerged a bandaged traveler who smelled of raw wound. They reached and said:


Be wary wet earth

Branded stock consumes.

Be wary the mother’s clamped hip,

Made swamp of seldom sons.

Be wary, sky, our father’s blow

Whose hallow yearn takes his cave.

Behold.

Lightning bolts struck The Barterer, woke the Rune Warlocks. They huddled and The Passage sang birch songs. Tree runes glowed red and burst their roots. They could walk. Corgal panicked, gathered his gourd and shorn a lock of maiden hair, ran deep in the wood as aether crackled behind him.

At dawn he half trekked Mount Pyre’s summit and saw craters, not the Harvest Troupe’s encampment. He traveled deep crag and managed a few drops of festered palm blood in the gourd alongside a maiden lock steep. The quartz polyp grew and shone with a wish Corgal be made eternal. He drank milk and, right there, melted into earth.





STERLING JACK:


Sterling Jack coned his dog. The vet said her cornea hung by a thread bad enough she might lose her eye. He asked, “Can we put her down? Last she had an eye issue you made us appointments with your friend.”

“Dr. Carlisle is a specialist. I bring my dog to her practice.”

“All Carlisle did was slip an eyelid and we were out three Gs. Whatever grift you two’ve kicked up for corneas will be a mint.”

The vet clipped the dog’s nails, told her, “These are long, huh? Must be why you got yourself so good,” then creamed the dog’s eye and massaged artificial tears into the grunting pup, said to Sterling, “Worst case—she loses the eye.”

“That’s why I say we put her down. I won’t have emotion sway me into a price gouge.” He twiddled the dog’s downy patch, pulled her tongue. “I’m not trying to have an ugly dog, neither.”

Sterling Jack and the old girl were sent home with antibiotic cream and a duct lube the vet said couldn’t be overapplied, but fewer than four times a day and you’re in no-no land. “You’re the antibody,” the vet said. “We can check in a few days. If the eye has to go, we’ll plop it out and sew the lid shut. Call with any concerns.”

The dog bumped every house corner and sighed. “This is your fault,” he told her. “What’s so terrible about your life? You eat designer food in bed all day and never held a job.” He did her medicinal cream. The dog bucked her tears. Half the tube squirted on the floor. He punched a hole in the kitchen wall. The second application succeeded and she trotted in her room. Sterling, by himself, shouted, “What do you do if not comfort me when I’m alone?

*


He sported cash from an old tip jar in his couch cushion and solo strut the town like a big guy with pocket money. Lots changed, none more than the tiny ranch on Brick Lane whose owner, in mild winter, ripped the entire front lawn apart and laid new sod. “Would I have done it then?” Sterling thought. “No, but I rent.” Grass sprouted not like others on the block who, now late spring, peacocked the season’s first checkered cuts. Sterl assumed the owner bargained a lush August lawn should this drought lift. Then, next spring, who among these neighbors could laugh?

His walk pivoted for a not-close gas station minimart. He wanted a snack, helped himself to a pickled beef chew and queued the taquito roller linehead. A cashier talked to another cashier who counted cash. The guy three people ahead asked why they didn’t open a second register. “There are two of you,” the guy said. “I know you hear me.”

A tiny, blood-soaked counting man walked into the store a finger short. One of the line women asked if he was OK, adding, “I think you’ve been in an accident.”

“Phone.” Blood gushed from his cupped hand. No one wanted their phones touched by him. “Phone,” he said. This time he cried. The cashier who held money gave the landline and dialed 9-1-1. He took hold, said, “I slashed my kid brother’s throat. Knife’s in there. He chopped my finger off. Twelve years old. A man has to learn—you just can’t do someone like that and not feel pain. I’m at a gas station.” He dropped the phone.

Sterling caught whiff of those taquitos.


*

The vet reexamined his dog and pitched. “She needs an ophthalmologist in the next few days or this eye is forever toast. There are things humans can do for dogs, dogs can’t do themselves. Complicated eye surgeries are one of those things. Is she on a grain-free diet?”

“The finest.”

“Grain free diets are linked to heart disease. Dogs aren’t humans. We’ll have to get you on a prescription nutritionist diet when she comes out of surgery. We carry some brands.” The vet rubbed Sterling’s baby girl whose tongue flopped in the way that makes dogs look like they’re smiling. “I’ll call my friend and let her know we have an emergency. It’ll cost extra but it’s a priority. When should she schedule you?”

“Tuesday if available.” Sterling leered into the cone. “And we’re morning people.”





JUG CHUGGER:


A woman friend Owen hoped something would happen with brought four Michigan cherry wine jugs to the work function. He thought he could impress if he chugged two jugs. He gorged himself, smashed his car into a parked car in the wrong neighborhood. Houses peppered on their lights. This for sure netted a DUI. He sped from the scene, paint on his bumper.

Owen’s wife woke him on the recliner, asked if he’d been drinking.

I had a glass of wine, he scoffed, teeth bruised. Hardly call that drinking all night.

Look here: The car—diagonal on lawn, hood scrunched into windshield.

Sausage grease sopped his head clean. He confronted his form in the appliances. Eyes sunk in his skull, skin like damp paper. Someone must’ve driven into the car, he said. I shouldn’t park close to the street like that. I won’t get mad, though, babe. People need breaks. If they were drunk driving they must be in a bad place where they could use a well-wish. I send them well-wishes, not wrath. You should too.

All morning he browsed news for if a maniac mowed down any kids.

When he closed his eyes, he remembered driving the wrong side of the highway.

When he closed his eyes, he saw a child’s car seat in the car he hit.

He prayed some, searched headlines for a body.


CHRISTOPHER AYALA is a writer from Massachusetts.