C. M. McKenna
Reprinted with permission from Deborah Kalb Books
Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your new collection, and do you see any themes linking them?
A: One of my stories from my collection took hours to write and other stories took years to write and revise. Loneliness, loss and estrangement are themes that connect my stories together to form a collection.
Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear?
A: “Demetrius” and “Her Mother, Nneka” are connected stories and since “Demetrius” is the first story of the collection, I thought “Her Mother, Nneka” would be a strong end to it – they are like bookends.
I decided that the collection’s title would be split in half inside the collection to represent two categories in my book. I also decided to assemble the stories into the two categories. Some of the stories are in the “Locked Gray” segment and the remainder of the stories are in the “Linked Blue” part.
Q: How was the collection’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: I ended up choosing “Locked Gray / Linked Blue” because of the interplay between the words and the meanings of the words as they relate to the collection.
“Locked Gray” represents how in relationships (romantic partnerships, family bonds, friendships), people can be locked together. The “lock” – which represents a supposed permanence – can be steeped in uncertainty, which is what the word “Gray” signifies – a kind of ambiguity that the color gray is often used to help describe.
“Linked Blue” represents how people can be connected together through links of family and friendship and how these connections can be surrounded by melancholy, which is what the word “Blue” signifies in the title.
My collection’s stories explore the despondency and doubts of the links and locks of family connections, friendships and romantic attachments. My collection’s title represents that.
Q: The first and last stories feature the same characters, but the story is told from different perspectives. Did you know you’d write another story about these characters when you started the first one?
A: I wrote “Demetrius” first without the idea and the intention to write “Her Mother, Nneka.” “Demetrius” existed for years before I wrote its counterpart.
Both stories are about two sisters who live together and are about to separate when one sister decides to move back to Nigeria where she was born.
“Demetrius” is told from the perspective of the sister who stays in the United States. I was curious about my story after I wrote it – I thought about the sister who leaves, I wondered more and more about her perspective under the surface of her actions and reactions.
I knew her viewpoint but I didn’t know it – I didn’t investigate it until I wrote it in “Her Mother, Nneka.” The story is separate from “Demetrius” yet it is also linked to it, similar to characters in my collection – they are connected to each other yet also disconnected.
I wrote her side of the story and answered my own questions about her perspective, discovering a depth of her complex love for her sister along the way.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on screenplay adaptation of one of my short stories (not from the collection). I’m also working on revising a novel manuscript.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: More of my work can be found at kemjoyukwu.com including information about Locked Gray / Linked Blue and upcoming literary and reading events.
© Kem Joy Ukwu, 2018. All rights reserved.
You look inside your blue backpack to make sure you have everything. Your report card is neatly wedged between your class picture and the book you’re currently reading. It’s the fourth installment of a series of books about a young detective. The other three books you own from that series are placed in the other zipped compartment of your bag. You dream of becoming a sleuth one day, solving the mysteries of other people.
You look up at your aunt, a young woman named Isabel, whose cocoa-brown eyes complement her long braids. She is wearing a black pea coat and a blue cashmere sweater, with her long black skirt draping over her black leather boots. She is royally confident, effortlessly stunning.
“I’m ready,” you tell her.
Aunty Isabel smiles. “Good. Shall we, Mademoiselle?”
You nod, and the two of you leave her apartment. You smile because you love it when she calls you Mademoiselle. Makes you feel taller.
After you and your aunt leave the building, the two of you walk toward the corner of the street. The frigid air makes you relieved that your aunt made you wear two layers of clothes instead of one. Your black bubble-goose jacket and yellow ski cap make you look like a giant penguin. Your walk is more like a waddle because you find it hard to keep a cool stride as you are wearing jeans, heavy stockings, and chunky boots.
A black car waits at the corner. Her boyfriend, whom you call Uncle Reuben, is waiting in the driver’s seat. He rolls down the front passenger window and waves to you. You wave back as Aunty Isabel opens a backseat door for you to enter his car. She takes the front.
“Make sure you buckle up,” she instructs you. You do as she says, making sure your seat belt is properly latched.
“Buckled!” you alert, as if you are on your way to your favorite toy shop or, better yet, your beloved bookstore.
You all drive off, and the voyage begins. You take off your gloves and clasp your fingers together to keep them from twitching and twirling, knowing that you will soon reach your destination, where your reward awaits.
You arrive at a parking lot filled with other cars and buses and people bustling all over.
You and Aunty Isabel leave Uncle Reuben’s car. You say good-bye to him.
The two of you make your way to the line of mostly women and children waiting to step up on a bus. Your fingers are acting up again because they know that you are getting much closer. It has been too long since you have won last. You have been waiting for a long time.
Five months. Eleven days.
Aunty Isabel gently squeezes your hand. “We’re almost there,” she says.
You two step up onto the bus and choose two seats at the back, with you by the window and your aunt right next to you. You remove your backpack from your back and hold it close to your chest. After a short while, the bus drives off the lot and makes its way onto a bridge that crosses over a huge stream of water. You wonder if it’s the Atlantic Ocean or just some wide river. The sun reveals the crystals sprinkled on the surface. You feel like swimming. You think of the last time you frolicked in a pool. It was June. A few weeks before the—using Aunty Isabel’s special word for it—incident.
The incident that made your gift disappear, with the help of blue uniforms and silver badges.
You want to return to happy thoughts.
You now think about the main character from your favorite book series, picturing you’re a fellow detective. You’re answering everyone’s questions, holding a magnifying glass, smoking a pipe that tastes like bubble gum.
The space reminds you of your cafeteria at school, huge and colorless. There are children spread about, kids older than you, some younger. Dressed in bright orange V-neck shirts and matching pants, women are smiling, talking with their children. A few men in gray uniforms with collared shirts and thick black belts are keeping watch. Your beautiful princess is yelling at one of the uniformed watchmen, pointing her manicured finger at him.
Twenty minutes earlier, you two had arrived at this large room with the other children and supervising adults. Both of you had waited quietly by one of the long tables for one woman in particular to walk up to you with big, open eyes and greet you with a tight hug.
Aunty Isabel’s patience had been drifting away, bit by bit, when she approached one of the watchmen to ask what was going on. Now her patience is disappearing altogether, chunk by chunk.
“What do you mean she’s been moved upstate?”
“She was transferred this morning.”
“Someone should have called me,” your aunt says. “Your office knew we were coming.”
“This happens all the time. Not our call,” the uniformed man counters. “Sorry.”
Your detective skills inform you that he is not sorry. He is bored and bothered.
Aunty Isabel turns her face toward you. You know what she wants to say. And you know she doesn’t need to say it. As you grab your backpack and sling it over your shoulder, you tell yourself what your aunt has told you throughout this past year, many times.
Tears solve nothing.
Wyatt stared for another second and then shook his head. It was probably nothing, just an old picture that had been forgotten about.
There was something about the two of them, though. His finger went to trace the shape of the fairer one, the angle of his jaw, the way the light outlined his face—it felt family in a way that resonated deep inside Wyatt’s body.
“Who were you?” He kept his voice low. “Were you hiding?”
There were, of course, the obvious theories, reasons a picture like this might be put away. He could imagine that they had been a couple. This one incriminating piece of evidence tucked away to keep it from being destroyed after the deaths of the people it portrayed.
Wyatt had never hidden being queer, but when it came to everything else, all he did was hide. The weight of passing through the world as something he was not was almost crushing sometimes. For people to look at him and see a man when he so clearly wasn’t felt like the worst kind of lie. It was like having an empty place inside of you, a rough, torn-out spot to be guarded, hidden, lied about. A bruise you could forget even hurt until it was touched.
Had they known?
He tucked the photograph into his breast pocket and descended the stairs to his mother’s new apartment.
The snow started in the evening, big, heavy flakes falling into the dark. Erin took a book and cup of tea to bed and hoped it would stop sometime during the night.
In the morning, though, the world was white, soft and silent, snow still falling from a dark gray sky.
Erin stood at the living room window, coffee in hand, and watched the snow fall. About five inches covered her car, with even more blown into sweeping dunes around it. The driveway snaked from her old farmhouse up to the road, both heavy with untouched snow.
Beyond the small stand of trees that divided their properties, Erin could just make out her neighbors, bundled up and trying to dig out their cars. The schools weren’t closed, then, probably just on delay.
She’d have to dig out, too, eventually. They weren’t close enough to town for the plows to come clear the roads anytime soon. Though Erin had nowhere to be. She could afford to wait, at least until it stopped snowing.
Today would be a jeans, heavy sweater, and wool socks kind of day. Erin changed into one of her oldest sweaters, heather green and going to pieces at the bottom and cuffs; jeans stained with dark patches of book glue; and fuzzy socks. She braided her hair to keep it out of her face.
After pouring her second cup of coffee, she went to look at what projects she had to work on in the office. She’d always had a book to work on in her own time, even back when she was director of the university library’s preservation unit and got to repair books every day. There was a difference between doing something because it was her job and doing something because she loved it. These projects were hers and only hers, not dictated by a library budget or the fact that more-used items needed to be worked on first.
One of the things she’d looked forward to the most after retiring was these little projects.
A stack of about six hardcover books she’d bought at the local used bookstore awaited her attention. Erin put aside her coffee cup and picked up a volume about the birds of New York and how to identify them. The publication date was 1966, the book clothbound in unassuming brown, now faded, with gold lettering. The lettering was what had originally caught Erin’s eye. It was in fairly good shape, although the spine was detached, causing the boards to break away from the text block as well. Some of the other books needed full rebinding, which would take more time, so Erin set them aside to work on later.
She used a utility knife to slice through the binding cloth, fully detaching the spine and boards from the text block. She set the spine and boards aside and put the text block, now bare, spine up, in a wooden clamp.
The sound of wheels crunching through snow made her glance at the window. It sounded too close to be her neighbors or some brave soul on the road. Setting aside her tools, she went to look outside.
A pickup truck with a snowplow attached crawled slowly up the driveway, clearing as it went. Erin pulled open the kitchen door and leaned out into the cold.
The truck had parked at the top of her driveway, and the door swung open. Rye climbed out, big, square body bundled up in work boots, coveralls, farmer’s jacket, and wool cap.
“Hey,” they called, and waved at Erin.
“Hi.” She waved back as Rye waded through the snow and up the steps to the house.
“I thought I’d come plow you out.” Rye kicked the snow off their boots before stepping into the kitchen. “Since I finished clearing off my driveway.”
“Thank you. I don’t want to put you through the extra trouble.” Erin closed the door behind Rye and turned to see them pulling off their wool cap and dusting moisture from their dark hair.
“It’s no trouble.” Rye looked at the floor, cheeks pink. Erin couldn’t tell if it was from the cold or from bashfulness.
“Well, thank you then.”
Rye just nodded. “Let me finish it up.” They put back on their cap and turned toward the door.
“When you’re done, come back in, please. Have some tea, something to eat.” It was the least Erin could do in return for not having to shovel the driveway. Not to mention the thrill that went through her at the idea of sitting down with Rye.
When she’d moved here a few months ago, she’d heard of them as one of the few other trans people in the area. They had friends in common: Emma, who ran the local library, and Peter, who ran the historical society. Peter liked throwing dinner parties, and Emma liked introducing people, so it was inevitable that Erin and Rye would meet and be friendly. They were still hovering in that awkward space between friends and acquaintances, although Erin very much hoped the two of them would come down to settle on the side of friendship.
Rye was quiet, she knew. They owned a small farm and sold at the local farmers market. The two of them had spoken about what was good and what was seasonal, so Erin knew they had eating in common.
Rye wasn’t looking at her. They’d gone all quiet, and she thought they were going to say no until they looked up at her and nodded. “That would be nice.”
“Great.” She beamed.
They just nodded again and pulled open the door, letting in a small burst of snow.
She filled the electric kettle and turned it on, wishing she’d asked Rye if they preferred black tea or herbal. She put both on the counter, just to make sure. There was cake Erin had made yesterday, dark with molasses, flavored with cloves and cardamom. There was also homemade cheese, herb and olive bread from the day before, and goat cheese Erin had bought from a tiny goat farm a forty-minute drive from her house. She put the cake and bread in the oven to warm.
Outside, Rye’s truck moved up and down the driveway until all of the snow had been cleared except for a small patch around Erin’s car. Rye parked and climbed out, taking a shovel from the truck bed.
Erin pulled on her boots and coat, stuffing her hands into mittens as she stepped out into the snow. “Let me help.”
She picked up her own shovel and trekked across the snow to where Rye stood.
“You don’t have to. I told you I don’t mind.”
Rye didn’t stop her, though, from digging into the snow around her car. “With two of us, it will go faster.” That, and Erin felt bad making Rye both plow the driveway and dig her car out, too. She shoveled a space big enough for her to get to the back of the car and popped the trunk. There was an old broom in there she used to sweep the snow off the car itself.
“Fair enough.” Rye bent to shovel again, leaving Erin to sweep.
By the time she’d finished uncovering the car, they’d managed to make enough space for her to easily get it out and down the driveway.
“Now we eat.” Erin stowed the broom back in the trunk while Rye put their shovel away.
They both climbed over the snow back into Erin’s kitchen. Inside, they shed coats, hats, scarves, and mittens, hanging everything on pegs and leaving their boots on the rubber mat beneath.
The food was warmed all the way through, Erin was happy to find, although the water had to be reheated. “Black tea, herbal?” She gestured to the row of tea boxes while she turned the kettle back on.
“Black is fine, or whatever you’re drinking.” Rye shuffled a little, looking ill at ease standing sock clad in Erin’s kitchen.
“There’s cake, bread, and cheese.”
Rye brightened. “I would love some cake.”
Erin cut them a slice, and by the time she’d finished, the water was boiling again. She made them both tea while Rye ate their cake.
“It’s really good.” Rye smiled at her when Erin turned to see he’d eaten almost his entire piece.
“Thanks.” She put more slices of cake on plates, along with bread and cheese, and set them on the kitchen table.
They sat on either side of the table, each with their mug of tea, the food between them.
“So how’s your farm and the animals?” Erin reached for her own slice of dark, moist cake.
“It’s been going all right.” Rye shrugged, hand circled loosely around their mug. “Been busy getting everything ready for winter.”
“Do you put up a lot of food and things?”
Rye smiled. “Yeah, I do put some away for winter—root vegetables, honey, soap, candles, jarred preserves. I’ll sell a lot of it, of course.”
“Of course.” Rye’s farm was their livelihood, after all, and times were tough for farmers. Still, she hoped they were able to keep at least a little of it for themselves.
“What about you?” Rye reached for a slice of bread. “Surviving Upstate New York winter all okay?”
Erin laughed. “I lived here years, and I haven’t been away that long, but yes, it’s been all right. Especially with as mild as the beginning was.”
Rye nodded. “It’s always strange when we don’t have snow in November or December even.”
Silence fell between them.
“If you don’t mind me asking . . .” Rye put their mug aside again. “Why did you come back here? This doesn’t seem like the place most people retire to.”
Erin looked down at the mug of dark tea in her hands. She didn’t say she’d come back here because this was where she’d lived when she’d been married, when she’d had a family, children who still spoke to her—in this beautiful part of the country where for a long time she’d assumed she’d live for the rest of her life. Before she’d come out and transitioned, before everything had been taken away. She lifted the mug and took a sip. “It’s quiet here.”
“It is.” Rye’s voice was gentle and calm. They didn’t ask further, just let what she’d said be. The easy way they held themselves made Erin want to keep talking, want to tell them about it all.
They were both silent for a moment, and then Erin sat forward, elbows on the scarred wood of the table. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Depends on what it is.” Rye looked wary.
“Why use the singular ‘they’?”
That shook a startled laugh from Rye. “Why not?” They picked up their mug and leaned back in their chair. “I go by male pronouns, too—tends to make people feel more comfortable—but the older I get, the less gender means, you know?”
In some ways, Erin didn’t know, couldn’t imagine knowing, but in others . . . she thought about before she’d transitioned, what that had been like, what it was now. “I guess.”
Rye tilted their head to the side. “You know, when I was younger, it was all about being a real man.” They smiled like they were making a joke. “But at the end of the day, I’m more me than anything, and I’m all right with that.”
Erin thought about the truth in what they’d said. “I guess to me, my womanness is part of me. There isn’t a way of separating the two.”
She half expected Rye to protest, but instead they nodded. “I understand that.”
They just let that be between them for a beat or so, and then Erin reached for her mug, and Rye shifted where they sat. Too much intimacy too soon. They both looked away.
Erin cleared her throat. “So what do you do when you’re not working?”
Rye hesitated. “I hike, camp, and I like to forage for mushrooms, wild leeks and things that grow naturally here.”
“Sounds interesting.” It sounded dauntingly outdoorsy to Erin, who couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone camping.
“What do you do?”
“I repair books.” Erin thought about leaving it at that, but then stood. “Let me show you.”
She led the way into the office and undid the clamp holding the book she was working on, handing it to Rye.
“I find books like these at used bookstores and library sales, take them home, and restore them.” She watched Rye turn the half-disassembled book over in their hands.
“You know, when I was working, we mostly just made sure books were functional, that they would last however many more years and be readable, at least. But for my own projects, I want more to make books beautiful, you know? Like, take a book that was mass-produced to be a consumer object and turn it into a piece of art. Or take a book that was originally made to be beautiful but has maybe not aged well and make it beautiful again in a different way.”
“After you’re done making these books beautiful, where do they go?” Rye turned the book over a second time, then opened it carefully to look inside.
“I give them away.”
“That’s a beautiful gift to receive.”
Erin could feel her cheeks heating. “Thank you.” Then an idea occurred. “Do you like birds?”
It seemed like a ridiculous thing to say, but Rye smiled. “I do. I’ve been known to participate in some of Cornell’s bird identification research, actually. Just data collecting, you know.”
Erin stuck her hands in the pockets of her jeans. “If you want, when I’m done, you can have this one.”
Rye went still. When they looked up at her, their eyes were wide with real surprise. “Are you sure?”
Rye held the book almost reverently now, and Erin looked at the floor to keep from staring at their large hands against the binding cloth of the cover. “Yes. I mean, I would be doing the work anyway.”
“Well, thank you.” Rye held out the book to Erin, who took it and put it back on the worktable.
They returned to the kitchen. “I should get going,” Rye said. “Do you need help cleaning up?” They nodded at the table with food, plates, and mugs still on it.
“I’ve got it.” Erin waved them off, although she did let Rye help her carry the dishes to the sink.
“Are you sure I can’t dry at least?”
Erin gave in. “Sure.” She turned on the water and handed Rye a dish towel.
She washed and they dried until the dishes were put away.
Rye hung up the dish towel and wiped their hands dry on their pants. “Thank you so much for the food.”
“Thank you for plowing me out.”
Rye nodded, smiled, and went to pull on their boots.
She watched them dress for the cold. Outside, the wind was still blowing clouds of snow into the air. The sky was the color of pale slate, and the trees looked even darker than that against the sky, heavy with snow.
All bundled up again, Rye nodded one last time and pulled open the kitchen door.
“Be safe,” Erin called after them. Rye turned and raised their hand in a wave.
She watched them make their way to their truck. The truck’s engine rattled and coughed but started up. Rye let it warm for a minute or two.
Erin went back inside. She stood at the window watching until the truck pulled down the drive and into the road beyond.
Then she turned away and went back to her books.
If you look for yourself in the past and see nothing, how do you know who you are? How do you know that you are supposed to be here?
When Wyatt brings an unidentified photograph to the local historical society, he hopes staff historian Grayson will tell him more about the people in the picture. The subjects in the mysterious photograph sit side by side, their hands close but not touching. One is dark, the other fair. Both wear men’s suits.
Were they friends? Lovers? Business partners? Curiosity drives Grayson and Wyatt to dig deep for information, and the more they learn, the more they begin to wonder — about the photograph, and about themselves.
Grayson has lost his way. He misses the family and friends who anchored him before his transition and the confidence that drove him as a high-achieving graduate student. Wyatt lives in a similar limbo, caring for an ill mother, worrying about money, unsure how and when he might be able to express his nonbinary gender publicly. The growing attraction between Wyatt and Grayson is terrifying — and incredibly exciting.
As Grayson and Wyatt discover the power of love to provide them with safety and comfort in the present, they find new ways to write the unwritten history of their own lives and the lives of people like them. With sympathy and cutting insight, Ottoman offers a tour de force exploration of contemporary trans identity.
Available late summer 2016 from Brain Mill Press
More information at documentinglight.com
The first thing Wyatt thought when he saw the apartment was that it was beautiful. The ceilings were high, with some orient patterning across each. The doorways in the living room were tall, sweeping arches, and every room had huge windows. There was a built-in bookcase and a fireplace in the living room, with a fireplace in the bedroom as well. The whole place was fresh-painted white walls and gleaming hardwood floors.
“Forget about Mom.” Jess turned in a slow circle in the living room. “I want to live here.”
“Yeah, if either of us could afford it.” Wyatt stuck his hands into his pockets and looked out the living room window at the tree-lined street.
Their mother was a different story. “It’s not the farm.” She ran her hands over the mantle of the fireplace in the living room, sidestepping the couch the moving men had left jutting into her path. Her big silver hoop bracelets slid and clicked against the wood. “How am I going to walk the dogs without plenty of outside space?”
“You’re not bringing the dogs.” Wyatt took her hands, turning her gently toward him. “Remember? We talked about this. The Baker boys love them, they’ll take good care of them.”
“And the farm?” She looked confused, but then they’d expected this. They’d been told the move would be hard and disorienting for her.
“Yeah, they’re running the farm now, and you’re going to live here, where you can be close to Jess and me.”
Timothy, Jess’s fiancé, staggered past, his small frame laden with boxes for the kitchen.
“And Timothy,” Wyatt added with a pang of guilt. He was glad Timothy was here, even if he would’ve preferred this to be family only. “It’s going to be good.”
She still didn’t look convinced, though.
“Come on.” Wyatt guided her over to one of the built-in bookcases, where boxes of books were already stacked. “Let’s get these books unpacked. You know how you want them organized.”
He opened one, and for a moment she stared into the box like she’d never seen its contents before. Then her face brightened. “Oh, yes. These are my books on herbal remedies”—she pulled out a handful—“and herb gardening. I see some about wild herb identification in here, too. They’ll each need to go together in their own sections.”
“Good.” Wyatt sat back on his heels as she sorted the books, placing each on the shelf. The doctor had told him that breaking the move into pieces that were manageable for her was the key.
“The rest of these books are on gardening?” She tapped the lid of the next unopened box.
“I’m assuming some of them are.” Wyatt ripped the tape off the box and opened it. “But your books on tree husbandry are probably here, too. So each their own section?”
“Oh, I have far too many books on those topics for them to be each their own section. They’ll have to be broken down further.”
“Then you’ll have to do it, and I’ll put books where you tell me to, but I don’t know this stuff well enough to sort them.”
“If you’d paid attention when you were growing up, you would know.” But she was smiling, that little teasing smile that said even though she had her mom voice on, she didn’t mean it.
It made Wyatt smile back, even as his stomach twisted because he hadn’t seen that smile in months and had begun to think he’d never see it again.
It was one of those things you had to let go of. Or at least that’s what he’d been telling himself.
“You two look like you’re doing good in here.”
He turned to see Jess in the doorway looking disheveled in her oldest clothes, curls escaping from the ponytail at the nape of her neck.
“Unpacking?” She smiled encouragingly.
“Yeah.” Wyatt waved his arm, taking in the open boxes and bookcase. “We’re doing good, organizing the books.”
She stuck her hands in her jeans pockets and walked over to look at what they had on the shelf so far. “Well, I think the moving people have gotten everything in.”
“I’ve been organizing by topic. Here, hold this.” He thrust a stack of books at Jess.
“You know what, Wyatt?” Jess obediently took the books. “I’ll help Mom here for a while if you want to move the boxes in the hall up into the attic. The landlord told us we could use the space up there for storage.”
“Sure.” Wyatt dusted off the legs of his jeans as he stood and headed into the hall.
Timothy was in the kitchen unpacking boxes of cookware. “You want to order Chinese sometime soon?” Wyatt leaned into the kitchen, hand braced against the door frame.
“Sure. Chinese sounds good.”
“I have to move some boxes into the attic, but when I get back I’ll order.”
Timothy nodded. “Tell me how much and I’ll pitch in.”
For a moment, Wyatt wanted to say, You don’t have to, she’s not your mother. But that would come out far harsher than he meant it. “Sure. I’ll let you know.” He ducked back into the hall.
His mother’s apartment was on the second floor. It took him a few minutes to find the door that led to the attic. Once he did, it wasn’t as bad as he thought it might be. The stairs and attic space were well-lit at least, not just by the ceiling lights but also from a circular window set into the front of the house that let the last of the day’s sunlight and warmth spill in. It was dusty up there, but not dirty per se, and the floor felt sturdy under him, which made it about a hundred percent safer than the attic of the old farmhouse where he’d grown up.
Wyatt shifted the boxes one at a time up the stairs. It was hard to tell where to put them because everything in the attic seemed to be randomly arranged, without any clear way of identifying what belonged to whom. He opted to push his mother’s boxes back as far as they would go against the wall opposite the stairs—although he ended up having to stack them near the window simply because that was the only space left.
The closer he got to the window, the hotter it got, causing pricking points of sweat to break out along his arms and the back of his neck. His eyes began to water against the light and dust, and when he’d moved the last box up Wyatt sat cross-legged on the floor.
He should go back down and order Chinese or see how book sorting was going. Instead, he tipped his face back and closed his eyes, taking several deep breaths.
They’d been at the old house packing until one or two o’clock in the morning. Then Timothy had arrived with the truck at five. Wyatt’s limbs were heavy, the muscles in his back ached with every move, and they still had the entire apartment to unpack. He rotated his shoulders, trying to get the kinks out.
From the stairs, Jess’s laugh, loud and strong, drifted up, his mother’s laughter, too, thank God.
It was . . . strange, though, hearing them down there with him alone up here.
He stood up, trying to brush dust off his ass as he did, and didn’t realize he’d misjudged until pain exploded bright and hot behind his eyes. Wood, dust, and dirt showered down on top of him. “Shit!” He doubled over, hands going to the back of his head, which he’d rammed straight into a beam. “Fuck!”
The first shock gave way to waves of pain encompassing his entire head, bad enough to make his eyes fill with tears. He went back down onto his knees and for a moment thought maybe he should start screaming for Jess, who was a nurse after all. The pain was already lessening, though, so Wyatt just rocked back and forth while groaning pitifully.
Eventually, it diminished to the point that he could take his hands away, inspect them carefully for blood, and stand back up.
Some of the pink insulation had gotten loose right above where his head hit the beam, but otherwise nothing looked any worse for the wear. You weren’t supposed to touch insulation, if he remembered correctly, but on the other hand he didn’t want to leave pieces hanging out. He pulled the sleeve of his flannel shirt over his hand and tried to stuff the insulation back into the ceiling. Of course it didn’t go back in easily. Wyatt put his full weight behind it and shoved up arm first as hard as he could. The entire thing crunched, and then a large piece fell out, landing at his feet.
“Well, fuck.” Wyatt looked accusingly at the hole he’d made.
There was something behind the insulation. He reached up, fingertips brushing paper. He pushed his hand farther in until he could feel an edge and then pulled. The whole thing came away at once.
It was an envelope, one of the large ones people used to send papers in, brittle and already falling to pieces as he held it. It felt too light to contain papers. Wyatt opened it as carefully as he could.
There didn’t seem to be anything in there when he inched his fingers in, so he turned it upside down to be sure. He squeezed the bottom and shook the envelope several times. Something fell out and fluttered to the floor.
Wyatt bent to pick it up.
It was a photograph. Not a particularly large one, a little bit faded, the corners slightly tattered.
Two men sat, one darker skinned and one fairer, each on opposite sides of a table but facing the camera rather than each other. They wore matching dark suits and posed almost identically, with one hand resting on the tabletop. The light-skinned man’s legs were crossed, his pose more relaxed. His companion stared straight at the camera. He seemed almost nervous in his tense focus, in the way he held himself. Neither of them smiled, but there was something almost candid about the shot, as if the men were waiting for the actual portrait to be taken. As if the moment after this one, the fairer man had uncrossed his legs, sat up straighter, while his companion had loosened his pose, letting some of that energy go, sitting with more confidence. In this moment, though, the two were caught in anticipation.
The back of Wyatt’s neck pricked, and he turned the photograph over, but there was nothing to see there. He picked the envelope up again and inspected it. It was truly empty this time and also completely unmarked.
What kind of photograph got stuck in an envelope and shoved up into the ceiling of someone’s attic?
He looked at it again, the two of them sitting there, caught in that moment, both of them unguarded, their hands slid a little too close together on the table.
Maybe the better question was, What kind of photograph do you hide?
EE Ottoman grew up surrounded by the farmlands and forests of Upstate New York. They started writing as soon as they learned how and have yet to stop. Ottoman attended Earlham College and graduated with a degree in history before going on to receive a graduate degree in history as well. These days they divide their time between history, writing, and book preservation.
Ottoman is also a disabled, queer, trans dude whose correct pronouns are: they/them/their or he/him/his. Mostly, though, they are a person who is passionate about history, stories, and the spaces between the two.
© Karen M. Vaughn, 2016. All rights reserved.
You enter me, and at first I hold back. You admire the flowers in the porcelain vase by the front door. You explore my many windows and rooms, my eaves and attic, even my cellar, with its earthy scent and its piled stone so cool you could rest your cheek against it and never feel feverish again. You declare me beautiful. Still, I am cautious. I am coy. Others have done the same and they have fled soon enough. I am determined to reel you in carefully, so that by the time you understand what is happening you will already be in love with me. Step by step, I will draw you through the labyrinth to my bullish center, to my wild and beating heart. Your voice is music in my hallways. Your hand is a warm thrill upon my doorknobs. I watch you regard yourself in my mirrors, your handsome face turning as if for a photo, and I feel that given time you might be able to see the real me. Still, I am stationary. I do not show you what I can do.
Your friends find me charming. They congratulate you on your lucky find. They help you move in a bedframe and a sofa and a wardrobe and a television, all these physical extensions of you, sent forth like ambassadors of your personality, your designated truth tellers. Each item is a secret crossing over my threshold. And you have so much furniture. Coffee tables. Wingback chairs. One after another they fill me up, until I am fairly shivering with pleasure. I am so euphoric, in fact, that I cannot help but cry out, just for a moment. Everyone stops and listens. Your friends crane their necks and, after catching sight of one another, burst into riotous laughter. They say that it must have been the neighbor’s hot wife going at it with the landscaper. But you are not so sure. You scan the room for several seconds longer, as if waiting for me to reveal myself, to cast up some kind of avatar, and I wonder if you felt my cry threading a silvery path through your bones, if you felt, somehow, that it was for you. Although my timbers quicken at the thought, it will not do. I resolve to be more discreet in the future.
In the mornings I keep myself bright, almost dazzlingly so, so that you will think of me fondly while you are at work. As soon as you step outside, though, I begin to dream. My vast empty rooms fill with images of those who were here before you, their faces decayed or melting like wax, their bodies reorganizing into all manner of grotesquerie. None of them were The One. None of them were like you. When you return in the evening, you prepare dinner, put on a movie or sit on the bench by the bay window, peering out at the darkening world. You bring home friends, girlfriends, coworkers; I sparkle for all of them. You make adjustments to me; I yield to you. New wallpaper in the great room. Modern faucets in the bathrooms and the kitchen. I do not mind. They are tokens of your love for me. One day you drop a bowl of masala dosa in the dining room, and it is such a gloriously domestic occurrence that I nearly allow a contented sigh to escape my vents. I think that I have never been so happy.
But soon I cannot help myself from taking things a bit further. I memorize the cadence of your footsteps, play the sound aloud to myself when I think you are not listening. I make a game of rearranging your belongings. In the night, I funnel heat through my vents to cradle you in your bed, though it leaves icy spots in the hall. I know you do not like your toes to be cold. I fragrance my hallways with the scent of mangoes, your favorite fruit, so that when you awake, there is that first lingering breath of your birth country, a fleeting specter of remembrance to show that I know you. That I cherish you. That I can be all you need. My walls, floors grow thick and luxuriant while you sleep, expanding beyond their prescribed architectural boundaries. I bend low to meet you. I rise up like a tide. I buckle inward, snaring you within my concavity. I envelop you as in an amniotic sac, muffling all the sounds of the peripheral world so that your sleep may remain undisturbed. Once, I even dare to whisper your name.
You wake up, alarmed. It is too much. Sirens blare and the police arrive, do a quick walkthrough then declare me free of burglars. I am properly chastened. I endeavor to show restraint. But of course that is easier said than done. I find myself marveling at your beauty, as once you marveled at mine. In the past my inhabitants were lighter of skin, and my wooden surfaces were always ash or birch. The hardwood floors, the doors, the built-in sideboard, all pale as a winter sun. Now I convert them to a fine mahogany, to match you. I think this will please you, but instead I can see you regarding me with dread. What is happening, you ask with a frown.
I have heard stories of houses, special houses, houses like me, which have managed to hold onto their residents for a lifetime. They do this by changing only a little at a time, in increments too small to notice. A spit coat of varnish here. A repaired newel post there. A bookcase arranged just the way the occupant likes it, though it was last left in disarray. Only much later, when the occupants have become old and eccentric, do the houses venture larger expressions of affection. It is then that a wish for light might translate to a new window; that a pair of bruised and diabetic feet might summon a soft carpet in the hall, a quiet ribboning down the staircase; that a midnight waking might cause the appearance of a bathroom directly across from the master bedroom. These houses are Zen masters of patience. I have never understood how to exercise such self-discipline. I love too soon, too recklessly, too often. There is a savagery in my love. And it has had its effect. Already, I can feel that I am losing you.
I try to make up for my mistakes. You complain of flies in the kitchen; I marshal all the ones I can find into the sewing room upstairs, a room you seldom enter. But I fail to account for the noise. You go to investigate and are instantly besieged by them, a thousand pinpoints of black peppering your face and limbs. And so you bring in the psychic who walks slowly through my rooms and mouths inanities and burns sage. She claims to see the flickering of spirits all around: a child drowned in the claw-foot tub; a man dangling from the balcony above the great room; a woman with wrists carved up like cuneiform. The latter, apparently, still holding the bloodied kitchen knife with which she did the deed. These accusations are patently absurd. There is nobody here but me. Still, I am on my best behavior while she is here, though it gives me pleasure to imagine the dust swirling into bright funnels around her, a sudden nebula of debris filling her lungs until her eyes go wide, her face slack. Of course, I do not do it. I remain as quiet as a mouse.
You are gone for a week, and when you return you station tiny statues in all of my shadowed corners, chanting some mantra about cleansing and rebirth. Is this what we have come to? I groan to let you know that you have wounded me, but you brush this off as well. Muttering to yourself, you blame the plumbing. How dare you. I am only trying to say: I do not like it when you leave me. I do not like it when you enter other houses. And I could keep you from leaving if I wished. You have a right to know this, and so the next time you use the upstairs bathroom I wedge the door shut tight. It is a small demonstration of my power. It is not a threat at all. Next, I cause plumes of water to come jetting up from the sink, to remind you of the kind of whimsy of which I am capable. I create for you a veritable geyser, high and strong and lovely. Your very own Vegas spectacle. The tiles at your feet become saturated, cementing your feet in place. Dark shapes bloom upon the porcelain like bloodstains. Am I not spontaneous? Am I not still charming to you?
You begin rattling the door with great violence. “Help!” you cry, to no one in particular. Wrenching your shoes free, you kick at my hinges until they are hanging limp and useless, until they resemble the mangled legs of an animal caught in a trap. Unimpeded, the door at last swings open. I vibrate with rage, with betrayal. Downstairs the wallpaper you placed begins to boil, bubbles spreading like a pestilence across its damasked surface. The chandelier lurches, responding to a shifting gravity. Something low and rumbling sounds from the cellar. I try to contain it, but it is too late. I am beginning to dream again. Soon there they are, vengeful, monstrous in form, their flesh hideously curdled, still curdling. They grapple for space in the narrow hall, and for the first time, I see your face disfigured with horror. This was not what I intended, I want to scream. I only wanted you to love me.
You make for the stairs and the front door, and I know that if I let you leave this time, you will never come back to me. I prepare one last gambit, an act of desperation. I loosen the portraits from the walls and drop them like grim Valentines all around you.
Remember this? Remember when you placed the frame and smoothed your hand over my grain before driving in the nail, hard?
Remember how I shook then, as if convulsing with joy?
You thought you had done something wrong. You thought you had hurt me. You got out the stud finder, just to be safe.
Remember how gently you managed it the next time? You were so careful, so tender. You wanted to do it right.
So many pictures, and each one an intimacy.
Just look at them.
We have all these memories together, you and I. I know you. I love you. Don’t leave me.
You reach the foyer, and the front door flies open, then shuts just as quickly. There is the sense of something rising up. A howling, whistling sound like just before a tornado hits. Know that you, my beloved, might have hidden in my skirts while I stood against the winds, my front lashed and battered, my shingles ripped from their underpinnings. I would have done whatever it took to protect you, even if it meant my own dissolution. The vase by the door moves through air that is suddenly viscous, shatters against something. The glass from the windows explodes into fragments. All my protean pieces laid bare. You never pursued the farthest reaches of me, nor even wanted to. You could not know what it would mean to truly inhabit me. You only loved me in my silence. You only wished to come and go as you pleased. But I am not an address. I am not a thing to be entered and abandoned. I am, and have always been, the destination. And now the winds are settling and I can see that the jeweled shards are radiating outward from a region on the floor, capturing the sun within each knife’s edge, holding it there in a glowing rosette, a splayed mosaic that is the color of flesh and fire and lamentation.
It is over.
It is all over.
Time passes. I collect myself over the course of days, weeks, long idle months. At first the grief sweeps through me like a torrent through my ruined windows, but eventually I find that there is more of it on the outside than the inside. It keeps to the periphery, a starved coyote hanging back from a fire, and I am left with pleasant thoughts and only a few more dreams than usual. Once again, I begin to prepare myself. The rich pigment vanishes from my wooden beams, returning to a neutral maple. Broken things knit together: cornices, mirrors, lamps, the grandfather clock you never noticed had stopped at the stroke of midnight. Scratch marks on the door are drawn out like poison. Mysterious stains recede into the rugs and the grout. A fresh coat of wallpaper corsets my edifices. Finally, an unblemished vase of flowers materializes to grace the accent table in the front hall. I am ready to receive. I am all gloss and polish and shine. I am practically delirious with hope, because the next one is sure to be The One. You have to be. And until you come, I will remain in my perfect state of readiness, the most beautiful house on Earth, and as quiet as a mouse, just the way you want me to be.
Whoever you are, my love is waiting to swallow you.
Isaac Rubenstein has no choice but to kill himself.
He’s in love with Rudolf Valentino, and now Valentino is dead. His acolytes are committing suicide all over the city. The window to definitively display his devotion is closing, and for once the New York tenement apartment he shares with his mother, his grandmother, and his siblings is quiet. It has to be now.
Unless he doesn’t, because his grandmother calls out for him right before the blade touches his skin. Unless he does, and the cuts bleed away his heart’s blood.
In Karen M. Vaughn’s romantic and darkly funny melodrama, Isaac Rubinstein does both. Dies, and is united with his beautiful Valentino. Lives, and finds a reason to live.
A Kiss for a Dead Film Star is a astonishing debut collection of stories that inspire weird love and uncover surprising caches of eroticism. Psycho-medical-magical realism intertwine with old and new New York City, epic love stories, and tales best told in the smoky alleys behind bars or beneath the covers. Karen Vaughn’s capacious imagination and remarkable voice glitter—this collection is a comet that comes around rarely.
More information at akissforadeadfilmstar.com
The most beautiful man in the world has died.
Sixteen-year-old Isaac Rubinstein sits on his cast-iron bed, in the tiny room he shares with his brother, and prepares to slit his wrists. Around him there is only melancholy, which has taken the form of various objects. It is masquerading as a sheet that has been fastened to a drawstring in the doorway. It has permeated the ink of a lithograph depicting the Old Opera House in Frankfurt. It has poured its essence into the wick of the oil lamp, into the small pine bureau, into the Bavarian lace curtains, into the plumes and flourishes of the green damask wallpaper. It has settled, also, over the tattered quilt, which has itself been buried beneath a doleful sea of photographs. These images are of particular relevance to Isaac’s present state of despair. The settings and costumes they portray are multifold, but they all feature the same impossibly attractive man, gesticulating, or dancing, or just standing still. In this one, the man has been photographed wearing a sheik’s flowing headdress. In that one, he holds a cigarette and exhales a sinuous column of smoke. In this one, he wears a powdered wig and a silk brocade coat, and in that one, he strums a Spanish guitar. And of course, here is the treasure at the root of Isaac’s collection, a portrait of the man as he is emerging from the water, magnificently shirtless, with a small racing boat hoisted above his head.
The man in the photographs is Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla. He is Rudolph Valentino. The Great Lover. The most beautiful man in the world.
Isaac’s own features are rather less impressive. He is tall but gangly, with a narrow chest that is little more than a monolithic slab. He has got the standard allotment of muscles, but you’d never know it to look at him. No matter how many games of stickball he plays, they remain just below the skin’s surface, dreaming and undisturbed. (This is in stark contrast to his buddy Asher, who seems to have been born with calves like coconuts and biceps the size of summer peaches.)
Isaac’s face is equally unexceptional. His eyes are set a bit close together, his lips are too thin, and his ears are pointed where they should be curved. These characteristics, combined with his unruly black hair and the overall gauntness of his physique, succeed in giving him the appearance of a half-starved animal. His habit of reading in public only serves to heighten this impression. Sometimes, when he is sitting alone on the tenement stoop, women will rise up from the pavement and bring him sandwiches.
But today there will be no sandwiches, and no stickball. The possibility for those things ended several hours earlier in a crowded hospital across town, when a glorious heart stopped beating, when a pair of lungs fluttered like moth’s wings and then lay still, when a brain emptied out its last unknowable thoughts, when a doctor made a grave pronouncement to the assembled masses and watched the effect of his words slide outward like waves, provoking bouts of fainting and hysteria.
Isaac has been left with a single clear path. He must forge a connection with this man in the only way possible, and he must do so without delay. Already, he knows, the actor’s body is beginning to divest itself of tiny particles of matter, which are lifting like delicate insects into the air around him. Already, the viscera are growing cold.
And so the razor blade makes its approach, sweeping downward onto a strip of blemish-free skin (one of the few qualities of which Isaac is unashamed).
He does it.
He doesn’t do it.
His heart splits in two beneath a blue-enameled sky.
About the Author
Karen M. Vaughn rattled around eastern Kansas for much of her life before finally settling in Lawrence, where the best weirdos are. For several years she edited for a medical journal (just ask her about the famous Eyeball Issue), and now does academic editing on a freelance basis. She loves reading and writing off-kilter fiction. Her work has appeared in A cappella Zoo, Whiskey Island Magazine, Illya’s Honey, and REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters. Karen enjoys traveling to mountainous places with her husband and daughter, watching supernatural horror films, and teaching herself guitar so that she can fill in for Jack White if he should ever become ill.