“Surprise Me With Something Familiar” by Benjamin Reed

Hank’s out front in the driveway, under his jacked-up old truck, doing something with the wheels or the brakes or something. Caroline’s in the kitchen, making white Russians with her breast milk.

The perfect breast milk White Russian is 3-2-1 vodka-Kahlua-milk. Breast milk has an odd sweetness to it, so you can back off on the coffee cordial if you like. But Caroline likes 3-2-1. The denomination is a hypnotic decline, a counting down into the sugary spiraled efficiency of self-cannibalism.

Kahlua, take me away.

She walks outside and sits on the top step of the concrete porch, takes a sip and watches Hank in the driveway, his legs sticking out from under the red pickup. She knows he must have heard the screen door open and shut, but he doesn’t stop working or say anything. She watches his grease-blackened hand reach out from under the truck, sees it prod the ground blindly, in search of a tool. She regards his stained jeans, his old work boots. Hank busts a knuckle and swears.

Before, she found him sexy when he worked on the truck. He’d get all dirty, grease-stained and sweaty, and she’d get so turned on she couldn’t help it, like the second chapter of a book-length orgasm, pages turned by dirty thumbs in high gear. He’d try to at least wash his hands first, but she’d never let him.

Now, it’s been over two months since they’ve had sex, real sex, actual fucking, and weeks since he’s come. Well, at least while they were in the same room.

She sips her drink idly, happy to be drunk before noon. She waits for him to fix whatever’s broken and wonders why he has to spend the whole weekend working on the truck. Isn’t that why they bought the Honda?

“Goddamn it!” Hank looks at his busted knuckle. The skin is torn free, red underneath. He mourns the scrape, meditates on carcinogens and the microns of grease that must have been sucked into his bloodstream. He can’t work the brake spoon with the gloves on.

He’s got the front end of the truck up on jack stands, the tires back on, spinning the left wheel, watching it turn, counting out one solid revolution before it slows and catches to a stop. Okay, that one’s done. He shimmies out from under the truck, looks at his wife sitting on the porch with her legs open, her robe tied so loose the whole neighborhood can practically see right up her cooch. And she’s drinking her goddamn breast milk again.

“Your tits aren’t gonna go down if you keep drainin’ ’em.”

“I know.”

“And you’re supposed to keep that bandage tight.”

She looks down, fingers the ace bandage that hangs limp across her chest, making her look like the world’s most half-assed mummy. The nurse told them the bandages would help stop her milk production, and give support to her sagging, distended breasts. “I know.” She’s also supposed to wear the organic cotton breast pads, but she doesn’t. She just drains when she needs to. When it’s only a dribble, she just wipes each nipple like it’s a runny nose and runs her hand down the side of her robe. Her grandma told her to put cabbage leaves in her bra.

“Aren’t they supposed to hurt like hell?”

“They do. That’s why I have that spray.”

Hank squints into the sun. “Are you using it at least?”

The lidocaine spray numbs everything. Takes the pain out of her tits, twenty minutes at a time. She doesn’t like to use it, though. The weight isn’t real without the pain that comes with it.

A while ago, she used the spray but hadn’t realized she’d gotten some on her fingers. It was a few days ago, while Hank was at work. Later, she lay down on the bed and tried to get herself off, but the residue transferred from her fingers to the top of her vagina. Numbed her clit like it’d fallen off. She couldn’t feel a goddamn thing.

Hank just looks at her, mutters something under his breath. Caroline swallows some more White Russian and says, “Waste not, want not.” But this time it doesn’t sound funny, not even to her.

Hank walks to the far side of the driveway, gets on his knees, slides under the truck. She thinks he must be crazy, or at least stupid to get under cars. When he was seventeen, a nineteen-fifty-something Buick fell off a jack stand and onto his foot, pinning his ankle between the ground and the frame of the car. He passed out twice before anybody found him. It took three guys to lift the car the inch they needed to free his poor foot. Some of his tendons (or ligaments, she can never remember which) were severed, and it was so-long for football and sayonara to the scholarships. The doctor said Hank would never walk without a cane, but he did, and just fine. Yet one foot ended up being larger than the other, the crushed one a little more narrow and with a deeply scarred heel. She can stab the bottom of his foot with a sewing needle and he won’t feel it. It reminds her of Oedipus. As if Hank had been exposed, left on a hill, his baby feet bound together. She always tries to touch the scar, but he won’t let her. He says when she touches the scar, even lightly, especially lightly, it feels like he’s being electrocuted.

Caroline sees the truck scrape off the jack stands, watches it fall, the frame of the pickup crushing Hank’s head wide open, his legs twitching in a confused electrical discharge. His cracked-open cranium gives birth to blood and brains, like some twisted placenta. She takes another sip of the White Russian, blinks. Hank’s head is back intact, his arms still at work.

She hasn’t told him about the hallucinations. Why should she? She can handle it. She’s inured.

He’s lost his whole weekend to this truck. Because the state inspection sticker expired three months ago and the truck still jerks to one side whenever he hits the brakes, and no mechanic in his right mind would pass the heap, even at one of those lick ’em and stick ’em places on the east side of town.

He thought perhaps the shoe wear was off—he pulled the drums, and saw he was right, the shoes were thick on the left side, barely there on the right—so he changed them out. Then he found a blown wheel cylinder. That could have been it the whole time. At six bucks apiece, he changed them all. Still, it jerked to the left. He jacked it up to balance the brake pressure, then it jerked to the right. Fuck. He’s already bled the brakes three times, crawling under the truck with a slippery brake wrench and a half-deaf Caroline pumping the wide pedal when he tells her to and also when he says nothing, thus splashing him in the face with a yellow surge of brake fluid. And still, the truck refuses to stop without jumping into oncoming traffic, or at best onto the sidewalk.

After each trial in which Hank fails to get the truck to stop in a straight line, he parks it in the driveway, jacks it up, and starts the adjustment process all over again. Scientific, trial-and-error, controlled, one new variation at a time.

The whole time, he thinks about the salamander.

Caroline goes inside, walks back out, padding, still barefoot, fresh cocktail in hand. She resumes her place at the top of the porch. She sees a little dead salamander resting in an overturned hubcap on the bottom step. She picks up the hubcap, holds it like a fragile bowl.

“What’s this?”

Hank doesn’t get up, keeps working on the far side of the pickup. “What’s it look like? It’s a dead salamander.”

“Did you just find it?”

“Yesterday. It was inside the wheel. I found it when I took off the hubcap.”

“Oh my god. Inside the wheel?” she repeats, marveling at the little corpse. Her face twists. “It was probably spun to death. Jesus. What a horrible way to die.”

“It might have starved first.”

The salamander doesn’t look like it had starved. Not to Caroline. The little body is still a bit soft to the touch, pink and translucent. She picks it up, gingerly, holds the tiny body to the sun. She can see its veins, like when she wraps her fist around a flashlight so she can see through her fingernails. The word that comes to mind is ‘embryonic,’ but she knows Hank doesn’t want to hear it. So she just says, “That sucks.”

Hank spins a tire with a gloved hand, watching it. “Everything dies. We kill bugs all the time, under our shoes, without even realizing it. If I’d’ve stepped on it, I’d never’ve even known.”

She sets the bowl down on the porch, repeats his words in her head. This was her Hank talking. Her Hank, who quit his first restaurant job because they wanted him to drop live lobsters into boiling water. Hank who wouldn’t use mousetraps even when it was obvious something was getting into the pantry. Hank who brought stray dogs home. Hank who once grabbed their red Maglite and walked around the neighborhood for an hour because he thought he heard a woman scream. Hank who never poured salt on a slug.

She says, “Take me for a ride in the truck.”

He says, “Can’t. Not ’til the brakes are fixed. It’s not safe.”

It’s his usual line, but this time he doesn’t say it the way he used to. Like she’s precious cargo.

It’s been two weeks since they lost the baby. The midwife couldn’t find a heartbeat and neither could the doctor. Still, Caroline had no choice but to birth it. Hank helped with Lamaze. It was a girl. The casket was the smallest one he’d ever seen. The church had a specially made cart to roll it down the aisle, barely big enough to hold a shoebox. His brothers and two friends were chosen to be pallbearers, but four men turned out to be too many. They couldn’t all get near enough to the coffin to grab a handle. Their shoulders were too wide to let them all get that close.

They had to have the funeral in Amarillo, her mother insisted. They flew up with his parents. After the funeral, they agreed they were ready to try again, just as soon as she healed. But that promise, like so many others, proved relative under pressure.

Yesterday morning, when he pulled off the hubcap to loosen the lugs before he jacked up the truck, he found the little dead salamander inside the wheel. He wondered how it got inside. The little hubcap snapped tight and there didn’t seem to be another way in. He examined the wheel, after he’d taken it off. Then he saw a tiny hole, the diameter of a pencil’s pink eraser, drilled into the steel for some purpose. Maybe to let rainwater drain out.

The salamander must have entered when it was still very small. But why didn’t it leave? Did it follow some insect prey, and after eating become too big to leave? What a trap. He supposed it must have stayed there, growing hungry in the dark, waiting to be whirled to death by the centrifugal force. Probably when Hank drove to the corner store to get some tacos and a six-pack of Lone Star.

What a dizzyingly hideous way to die. And it was his fault, somehow, even though the salamander, ostensibly, had climbed inside for its own set of reasons. He set the salamander in the upturned hubcap, and left it on the bottom step of the porch, where it sat overnight and into the next day, still pink, not yet desiccated by the sun.

Their living room stinks of flowers. Their refrigerator is covered with cards and filled with casseroles.

She stands in front of the mirror in bathroom and lets her robe fall to the floor. She turns, looks over her shoulder to see the gathering ass and thighs, quaking with cellulite. Even after the delivery, she’s still twenty-one pounds heavier than before she got pregnant. She turns and feels her tits, watches their reflection in her hands, cups them, lifts, gently lets them fall. They are amazingly huge. She’s been a B since puberty and her newly huge tits satisfy her in ways she could never talk about. She wants to ask Hank to photograph her. Capture her tits on film, before they go away. She looks like a mother goddess, a fat, full-sized totem, chiseled from soft, stone age eroticism, when aphrodisiacs weren’t about hedonism, but survival.

She gets the battery-powered pump from the cabinet. Pumping breasts should take about as long as feeding your baby. Which for Caroline, apparently, is about fifteen minutes. In that time she can produce seven ounces. Supposedly, her output should be in decline, but she’s making as much as ever. Go figure. She holds the milk up to the bathroom window, sees the slight separation of fat. She gathers her robe around her body and carries the milk to the kitchen, transfers it to a Tupperware jar to sit in the back of the fridge and wait for vodka, ice, and coffee liqueur.

Hank hears the screen door open and shut. Hears ice tinkle in a glass. Hears his wife slurp and swallow. He doesn’t say a word. They haven’t fought in months, so at least there’s that. Some kind of record.

He knows she feels bad about their sex life, or lack of one, so he doesn’t bring it up. Nor does he mention jerking off in the bathroom sink every morning before she finally resurrects herself through a puffy-eyed hangover. What’s the point in argument? They’re married now. And marriage is supposed to mean more than a joint bank account and matching flatware.

Hank stops working, sighs, uses his dirty forearm to wipe beaded sweat from his brow. “You need to tighten your bandage.”

She says, “I’ll do it later. First I’m gonna drain some more.”

“Caroline, stop it.”

“I’ll stop tomorrow.”

“I know it hurts. It has to hurt.”

“It hurts because it wants to come out, Genius. If I drain it, it feels better.”

“Then it’ll just hurt again later.”

“Then I’ll worry about it later.”

“You sound like an addict.”

“Then I’m an addict.”

“Or a drunk.”

“Oh, please.”

“Why don’t you just drink coffee?”

“It never comes out right in the summer. The tap water doesn’t get cold enough for the coffeemaker.”

So why don’t you put it in the fucking fridge first?

Everything is wrong, and now the elements have also conspired against her. Yesterday, at the laundromat, the groundwater wasn’t cold enough to wash her delicates. He had to go to the convenience store next door and buy a $1.39 bag of ice to dump in the washing machine, then another one for the rinse cycle.

Caroline’s fingers tighten and her bicep twitches in an involuntary reflex to fling the empty glass at Hank. The ice rattles, but she doesn’t throw it. Waste not, want not. Nothing more can go to waste. It isn’t crazy, just how she was brought up. To finish her plate before leaving the table. That’s how she gained ten pounds her first year in college. The cafeteria gave her so much food, she couldn’t just throw it away. Yet another casualty of her rearing. Her family hadn’t been poor, exactly, but they hadn’t exactly been anything else, either.

At the funeral, the female priest at her mother’s Episcopal church held up a knotted piece of rope and used it as an analogy to say that she and Hank are now inextricably tied to every couple who has ever lost a child, how they will never again read of a dying child in Africa and feel the same way about it. It wasn’t a community Caroline particularly cared to be a part of. She didn’t want to be tied to death. She wanted to be tied to life, to the carelessly turning, breathing world. The woman priest handed the knotted rope to Caroline. She didn’t want it. The rope was just tied to itself. When they got home, Hank went in the bathroom and Caroline buried the rope halfway down the outside garbage can. It was a sham. She knows she’s still joined to normal life, somehow. She still has a social security number, subscriptions to National Geographic and Vogue. Email overflows her inbox. But the tether feels about as strong as a frayed sliver of dental floss.

Hank sees the glass in her hand, now empty. The look on her face is queer but he doesn’t care. He’s thinking about the brakes. He’s done for the day, but he doesn’t want to test his adjustments. He doesn’t want to know if the truck is still broken.

Caroline retreats inside. Not to escape, or sulk. To make another drink, he’s sure.

Fresh drink, back outside. Inside, outside. Inside, outside. Ad nauseam. At least she’s drunk. She sees the little kid from the corner house. His little body walks into the street. She checks in both directions, and sees no cars.

Practice isn’t allowed to go around the corner. Not on foot, not on his big wheel. Caroline and Hank’s front yard is Okay, even though it can’t directly be seen through his living room window. And he still has to ask his mom. But it’s somewhere, and they’re really nice. Sometimes they let him play with their stuff. His leg itches so he scratches it. He hitches his shorts and double-checks his shoe laces. He looks both ways and crosses the street. He sees Caroline see him and she waves from the porch. He puts his foot in the road and the lady, she looks up and down the block. Practice thinks, I already checked.

Alone at home, they always refer to him as ‘Practice.’ Because they’ve been watching him, talking to him. Giving him candy, little treats. Asking him questions. Learning to be around a kid.

She and Hank have been calling the kid Practice for so long, they’ve forgotten his real name. Sometimes she makes him stay and talk to her until the sun sets so she can hear his mother call him in for dinner, to hear her call his Christian name. But she always forgets what he’s called, his name lost in their mental lists of ‘if it’s a girl’ this and ‘if it’s a boy’ that.

Now Practice sees the dead salamander in the hubcap. Here we go.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a salamander,” Caroline says. Then adds, “It’s dead.”

“Oh…” Practice says in vague recognition. Then: “How’d it die?”

Hank jacks the truck up a few more inches, off the stands. “I don’t know,” she says. “It just died.”

“Why?” Practice asks.

“Because he had to.”


Caroline grows tense. “Because.”

“Because why?”

She’s read about this phase. The age of incessant Whys.

“Why?” he asks again.

She takes another sip from her White Russian. She wants to scare the shit out of him. She wants to tell him that everything dies, even him, especially him. Every tree and every bird and every little kid. Wait for him to ask where people go when they die so she can shrug and say ‘Nobody really knows.’ She wants to him to cry, to bawl with snot all over his mouth, a mouth so gaping nothing can fill it. So she can pull him into her gigantic goddess tits, squeeze the quivering from his little body, coo him, hush him, tell him that everything will be Okay. That death is life and life is change is death. That there’s a good chance he’ll go in his sleep, many many many years from now, it’s Okay, really. It doesn’t actually hurt.

Hank pulls the jack stands out from under the truck. He twists the handle on the floor jack and in a hydraulic hiss he lowers the truck to the ground.

The kid from the corner walks up to look under the truck and stands right in a puddle of brake fluid. Great.

Instead of saying anything to Practice, Caroline picks the salamander up by its tail and flings it into the flowerbed. There it will become bug food, which will become bird food, then bird shit, then a fertile chemical mess which will eventually become flowers again. Repeat. Repeat. Ad nauseam.

Caroline can see that Practice is holding something and she asks what it is. He sticks it out. A G.I. Joe doll. She pays him a compliment.

“They’re not called dolls,” he moans. “They’re guys. Or soldiers.” The lessons keep coming, even though there isn’t going to be an exam.

“Or ‘troops,’” she offers, chewing on an ice cube, but Practice looks at her like she’s from the moon.

Hank gets a new baby blue shop towel to wipe off the kid’s shoes, though they’re probably already ruined. They’re the kind with the little red lights in the heels that flicker with every clomping footfall, and they’ve got old, rust-colored brake fluid all over them, petro-slime. He doesn’t know how much they cost but they can’t be that cheap. Practice’s parents are probably going to be pissed off. He’s about to have the kid sit on the porch so he can wipe off his sneakers when he sees Cheddar, twitching, itching, walking down the hill.

Caroline’s the first to see the crazy guy. What the hell is his name? It’s a nickname, something to do with cheese. A cha— sound. Cheddar. Yeah, she thinks that’s it. Cheddar. He’s like thirty-two or something, but he’s supposed to have the mental capacity of a ten year old. Or he’s an idiot savant, or like the guy in Rain Man. She can’t remember, but he gives her the creeps. If he sees them outside he’ll keep them talking ’til Christmas.

Cheddar walks out his front door. His glasses are greased filthy with some nameless film, but he can see some people down the hill and he walks toward them.

Fluffy little angiosperms float down from the trees, shower his pointed, dandruffed shoulders like white and gold snow, fairy-like airborne seeds rest on a bed of derma-detritus. He sees them and the reel re-sets: He thinks: The botanical term ‘angiosperm’— Paul Hermann, seventeenth century. From his primary division of the plant kingdom, including flowering plants possessing seeds enclosed in capsules, contrasted by gymnospermae, flowering plants with achenial or schizo-carpic fruits.

The people see him and he sees the people. The woman, her name is Caroline. She’s from Amarillo. Her husband’s name is Hank. He played football. The little boy’s name he doesn’t know. But he knows the little boy is five years old and the little boy’s mother won’t let him play with Cheddar.

He realizes his hands are in his pockets so he takes them out. He doesn’t want to appear threatening. One should always take a non-threatening posture when mounting horses, training donkeys, or approaching unfamiliar primates. His hands are still sweaty from his pockets and they clench and unclench at his sides.

Hank sees Cheddar ambling down the street, locked on. He starts to collect his tools, to remove objects that might encourage conversation. When Cheddar gets close, Hank can see white spit crust in the corners of Cheddar’s mouth. His polyester pants are food-stained and his pockets bulge with the shapes of countless angled objects Hank would rather not know about. On top of everything, Cheddar’s wearing a tweed coat, professor style, over a wrinkled white oxford with a plaid bow tie. It must be ninety-three degrees outside.

Cheddar’s head turns and twitches. He looks at the little kid, looks at Caroline, at Hank covered in grease.

Cheddar asks, “You fixing the brakes?”

“Yeah,” Hank says, “but I’m about done for the day.”

“Is that a 1968 Ford Ranger, model number F-100?”

“Uh, yeah.” Hank pats his pockets, searching for cigarettes.

“The 1968 Ford F-100 Pickup has dual servo type brake system with a cable-based ratchet wheel adjuster.”

Hank’s stilled. “That’s right.”

Cheddar pushes his glasses up his nose. “You should really upgrade to disc brakes. Your stopping time will be greatly reduced, but by exactly how much I can’t say. How much does the truck weigh, with you in it?”

Hank ignores him. Cheddar turns on Caroline.

“You still pregnant?”

Caroline wraps her robe tighter around her body, brings her knees together, lies. “Yes.”

“You know, they’ve found this chemical in breast milk. It’s called perchlorate. It’s a byproduct of fuel for jets and missiles. It’s toxic. It gets stored in groundwater and lettuce. It disrupts metabolism and causes mental retardation in fetuses.”

And Caroline can’t stop herself from thinking, Is that what happened to you?

“Do you want to know how perchlorate causes neurodevelopmental problems? It damages the thyroid by reducing iodine ions by a single protein. That means it’s no longer really iodine, and that leads to iodine deficiency, which impairs thyroid development. So make sure you’re getting enough iodine. Are you taking prenatal vitamins? Are you taking them with food?”


Practice scratches his penis through his shorts. He walks off, to the edge of their lawn. He starts walking along the curb, arms outstretched, like it’s a balance beam.

“Perchlorate leeches into the groundwater near army bases. That’s how it gets into breasts. It’s been found in eighteen states, but don’t worry it’s not in Texas. Not yet. But it’s probably on the way.”

“Duly noted,” Caroline says and empties her glass. She stands. “Cheddar, would you like a drink?” She holds up her glass, rattles the ice.

Cheddar pauses, hooks a finger under his collar. “I am a little thirsty. What are you drinking?”

“A White Russian.”

Hank winces but laughs, “God, Caroline, no. Offer him some water. Or a beer. You want a beer, Cheddar?”

Practice ignores them, reaches their driveway, does a kind of pirouette on the curb, heads back the other direction, arms still outstretched, wobbling a little, but keeping his balance.

Cheddar says, “I never drink alcohol. Alcohol impairs judgment and motor skills and can lead to cirrhosis of the liver.”

Caroline hears the screech of tires, and the roar of an engine. She looks to the top of the hill, sees a Jeep Grand Cherokee speeding in their direction. Fucking prick, she thinks. Whole fucking reason we need speed bumps. At the bottom of the hill, she can see a little teal Saturn sedan turn onto their street from 34th, heading up the hill. The asshole in the Cherokee doesn’t see the Saturn, doesn’t slow down, and barely moves over to the right side of the road. Secretly, she hopes they’ll crash.

Practice hits the end of the curb again, attempts another pirouette. But the brake fluid has congealed on his soles, has become slick, and he slips, slides off the curb suddenly, falls backward, into the street, falling, backward, arms spinning like pinwheels, his red-flashing heels stabbing the asphalt in search of some firm purchase, finding none, bleating to the world some illegible pulse of blinking code.

He doesn’t see the cars.

For the second time in his life, Hank’s heart splashes into his stomach. Then it climbs back up, into his throat, clawing on splintered fingernails, rasping toward the light. He knows he has to move, that there’s something he’s supposed to be doing. But he’s paralyzed. He feels a wrench fall from his slackened hand, waits to see Practice get smashed.

Cheddar sees the Cherokee. He sees the Saturn. His legs tense. He feels like a puma.

Puma is the Quechuan name for large cats native to the North, Central, and South Americas, which can climb like monkeys and leap vertically like a tightly coiled spring, two and a half meters straight up in the air, and makes eerily humanlike cries during intercourse.

Cheddar is eight feet long from head to tail, pouncing at Practice with his paws outstretched, claws retracted, coat sleeves cinched so high, you can see his elbows. Cheddar’s hands slam into the boy’s chest just before the Cherokee enters the scene.  Practice, stunned, flies helplessly into safety.

Cheddar’s smile is really a snarl.

Hank can’t move, but the retard, he sees what’s about to happen. In a single glance he sees the Saturn tool up the hill, sees the Cherokee speed down from the other direction, sees Practice stumbling backwards into the street, blind to both cars.

Cheddar dives out, stretched so far his flapping T-shirt exposes his white ribs. He arches over the asphalt, his hard palms slam into Practice. The child is flung out of the street, and lands in the far gutter. Hank goes slack. He hears the wrench hit the ground. Cheddar clears the Saturn, but gets smacked against the grill of the Cherokee, absorbs the force, hurls into the ground, is plowed under by four all-weather tires. He tumbles down the hill, the Cherokee only now stopping. The Saturn has stopped too. The teenage girl behind the wheel is frozen like a Vesuvian mummy.

Caroline’s mind catalogs every bad thing she’s ever done, shuffles them into chronological order, ushers her back into the present. Cheddar, she sees, he can fly.

Her heartbeat is a slow drum beat, heavy, struggling to drag the weight of its own cadence, the rhythm retarded by the great volume of water welling up inside her, spilling into her blood, drowning her voice, spilling from the holes in her eyes.

The driver of the Cherokee throws it into reverse, tries to back up, but Hank’s on him. His door’s unlocked and Hank pulls him from the car and into the street. The man emits a feminine scream. “You saw! He jumped right in front of me!” The guy’s balding, a little overweight, red in the face, maybe from a heart condition, maybe from gin. He tries to run, but Hank’s got him by his shirt collar. The guy takes a swing. Hank ducks easily, then punches him square in the jaw. The guy falls on somebody’s lawn. Hank flips him over and rips his wallet from his back pocket, pulls out his driver’s license. Credit cards also fall out, get lost under fallen leaves.

During this time, the driverless Cherokee continues on in reverse, slowly backing up the hill in a long, lowly arcing curve, then caroms over a curb and comes to a gentle stop against the trunk of an oak tree, narrowly missing a fire hydrant.

Cheddar’s hearing is gone. The world is a silent tumbling, like the combination of a washing machine and a television on mute.

He thinks: Pumas can range up to a thousand kilometers. They can kill and drag an animal seven times their weight. Only a bear can take away a kill. A mother puma will carry a cub by the scruff of its neck. She holds them with her teeth, between her deadly, piercing canines. It looks like it hurts, but it doesn’t. It never, ever hurts.

Cheddar comes to a stop. The last thing he sees is his teeth, tumbling down the hill, rolling, like too many dice.

He feels wet and warm, like he’s in the bath.

The glass smashes next to Caroline’s feet. She blinks, but it’s no hallucination. Practice lies in a fetal position, screaming like a siren, but basically Okay. His scraped knees bleed into a little pool on the asphalt, and there’s a gash over his eye. Parts of Cheddar are all over the place. On a lawn across the street, a neighbor’s dog barks and shakes, his howl comes out as one long rattle. Caroline gathers herself up, and steps down from the porch, barefoot, across her lawn and into the street. She steps around the mess that was Cheddar. She kneels, collects Practice into her chest, feels his sobbing spasms against her aching tits. Her robe falls open, but she doesn’t notice. The ace bandages unravel and fall around her blood-stained feet, but they don’t tangle and she just kicks them away.

Hank’s sits on the Cherokee driver, straddles him like they’re fucking. The man screams again, but weaker now, calling for help, calling for the police. He almost sounds innocent. Hank’s about to hit the man again, his face just begs for it. And then, Hank decompresses. Deflates like a foil balloon hitched on a sudden thorn. He feels the righteous anger drain from him, feels his head decompress like a thermometer with a hole in the bulb. The mercury bleeds from the cracked glass and Hank can feel it drain over the back of his sinuses, feel it collect in his belly, where it coils and waits, so Hank too can wait, until he can deal with the stone fact on some other, far-flung day.

“Come here, Baby,” Caroline says to Practice, petting his hair, turning him to where he can’t see Cheddar, or Hank, or the screaming man. She whispers in his ear, “It’s Okay, Baby. I can help you. Hush, Baby. It’s Okay. Just tell me your name.”

Spring 2007