Upset The Apple Cart
Jennifer Edelson, 52, Santa Fe
Kelsey stood offstage, waiting excitedly in her town’s Personality Assignment Hall for the Identity Committee to call her name. The Committee had finally reached R, and sometime soon, Kelsey would walk out into the limelight like all ten-year-old Rosedale citizens did on Identity Day every year and assume her societal position. She’d stand under the spotlight, holding her breath as the Committee microchipped her with the personality-specific cliché and fashion blueprint that would shape her life.
For months, Kelsey had been hoping for “You Can’t Please Everyone” and “Punk Rocker,” like her friend Simone’s mom, who unapologetically thumbed her nose at society. Even a fate like her best friend, Sanset, who just minutes ago got “There’s No Time Like the Present” and “Eighties English Invasion” would be awesome.
Lost in a fantasy where she scored something like “And They All Lived Happily Ever After” and “Trendsetter,” Kelsey heard her name and bounded across the stage to the podium. Nervously, she stood next to Mr. Newman, biting back a grin while she steeled herself against the punch needle for the second it took him to seal her fate.
“Let it be written,” he stood and said into the microphone when he was done, “that Miss Kelsey Riley will forever be known as ‘Calm Before the Storm’ and ‘Crinoline.’”
Tentatively, people in the audience stood, holding their hands before their mouths, masking their shocked expressions with polite clapping. But Kelsey read the truth on their faces. As far as they were concerned, she’d just been assigned “Harbinger of Doom.” And “Crinoline?” What the heck was that even?
Kelsey stood with Sanset at the end of the high school lunch line. She looked down at her ballooning skirt, bolstered by stiffened horsehair and shellacked linen ribs; she was bigger than a bloody fifth wheel, separated by four feet in all directions from everyone. Kelsey had to work hard to avoid shifting from “Calm Before the Storm” to “Raging Hurricane” — in direct opposition to the Committee’s edict. Looking around the lunchroom, she roiled with anger. Some of Rosedale High’s other students, like Tylan, who brandished “Ignorance Is Bliss” and “Bohemian” like an overblown peacock, pissed her off. And being pissed off made things worse. Because for five years now, Kelsey hadn’t even been able to take a deep enough breath to calm down.
Kelsey lounged in front of Sanset’s dorm, secretly suspended by the struts holding her skirt out around her legs. Two years ago, she’d figured out how to rig her crinolines into a secret hammock that supported her weight when she leaned back, allowing her to sit comfortably and still look like she was standing. Given the rest of her [expletive] life, at least it was something. Besides, what was the cliche? “Fake it till you make it?” Too bad Sanset’s [expletive] boyfriend, Tod, already landed that label. Tod was a bigger fraud than the sculpture of the Committee on their college’s front quad.
By twenty-five, Kelsey and her crinolines had come to an understanding. In fact, she’d made a pretty entrepreneurial penny concocting life hacks and gadgets that other people had no idea they needed until Kelsey invented them. And the money was a godsend. Because the price of a house able to fit Kelsey’s wardrobe was astronomical. Sanset, and still-an-[expletive] Tod, lived next door. Sanset had a mate, but Sanset also never saw Tod for what he was. Despite Tod’s obvious duplicities, being a “There’s No Time Like the Present” meant Sanset’s life had been full of opportunity but very little chance to reflect or grow from her experiences.
Kelsey still despised Tod, but on her thirtieth birthday, her consolation prize for putting up with him came wrapped in the body of Tod’s new best friend, Albert. People still teased that Kelsey needed her own private ZIP code. But Albert, a “Rule Breaker” who, in a fitting twist of fate, also scored “Biker,” got in Kelsey’s space.
Kelsey fell for Albert on their first date. When her crinoline kept her from riding on Albert’s motorcycle, Albert tricked out the bike’s seat and sides, assuring it sat them both safely. And Albert wasn’t far behind. After a drunk Mr. Newman ran a red light and T-boned Albert’s motorcycle, Kelsey’s crinoline, fitted with steel girders specifically for traveling, saved both their lives. Just days later, Albert asked Kelsey to marry him.
Twenty-five years to the day Kelsey received her identity chip, Kelsey begged Albert to gouge it out of her arm. But after a dose of Lidocaine big enough to down a horse, and nothing to show for it, he gave up. In turn, Kelsey searched for Albert’s chip and also came up empty. Intrigued by what wasn’t there, Kelsey unhooked her crinoline, hoisted it over her head, and dumped it on the couch. They waited for something — punishment, an alarm, or some horrible cataclysmic event to end her. Instead, their cat Litmus climbed on top of her crinoline and meowed lazily.
Hours before Rosedale’s yearly Identity Ceremony, Kelsey donned a pair of Sanset’s high-waisted, acid-washed jeans, then settled behind Albert on his motorcycle. Oddly, the seat felt smaller now. Kelsey suddenly felt small, and it pissed her off. Calm before the storm? Well, now she was the storm, and she planned on unleashing the truth with a fury.
Locking her arms around Albert’s waist, Kelsey fantasized as he pulled down the driveway. Maybe now she could be “Without a Care in the World” and “Japanese Invasion” or maybe “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Hair Band.” But as Albert turned out onto the street, Kelsey grabbed his arm. Rubbing her shoulder where the chip should be, she waited for Albert to stop. She would be the tempest that blew the Hall down. But first, she had to do something. Kelsey hopped off the bike. Shivering, she ran back inside the house and put her crinoline on. ◀
Shannon Kilgore, 63, Santa Fe
It is not yet dusk, but the sun departs early from the canyon. The woman is outside her small rented house, wearing a jacket against the chill, when her pulse quickens to the sounds of an engine and car wheels crunching the uneven surface of the roadway. She is not expecting a visitor. And yet, she is. The noise of the vehicle’s progress ceases. Nothing is in view, so the car must have stopped just upslope, around the bend, where there is no home.
She has just excavated a shallow round pit with a diameter of about three feet, lining it with stones. She has dropped wood in the hole and set it ablaze. Placed on a rock at her feet is a gold ring with a single diamond. Also, a bandana redolent of sweat that, even at this moment, she wants to put to her face for a deep inhalation. She resists that feeling and instead bends to toss the bandana into the flames, where an eight-by-six of her and a male companion is curling, turning to ash. To an onlooker, she might appear to be expelling the man from her life. In fact, she has already done that. Now she is trying to voodoo him out of her heart.
Her ears pick up the muted thump of a car door closed with stealth. In that instant, her vague suspicions bypass worry and explode into reality. He has come.
He loves her, that is certain. But she has watched as his growing frustration with unimportance in an indifferent world has made him irritable and, eventually, dangerous. She formulated her plan to leave him while on her hands and knees, just after a vicious shove that buckled her. Weeks later, at this new address she has not shared with him, she flinches when invaded by the memory of his hands slamming her body forward. Still, she has been telling herself, it was just the one time. He won’t try to find me. He will let me go.
She realizes, though, that the loving version of her man would not park out of sight and creep up on her. The man who is likely edging toward her house through the grasses and junipers is not the charmer from the photo, the giver of the ring. So she slips into her house and returns with a heavy metal pipe to emphasize what she might have to say to him. And, just like that, he steps out of the shadows and stands facing her across the fire.
A crow perched in a cottonwood next to the house trains its brown eyes on this man, noting the contours of his shoulders and belly, his blocky thighs. The bird recognizes the eyes set deep in the intruder’s face.
The man has been to this house before, although the woman does not know it. Three days previously, propelled by curiosity, resentment, and bourbon, he tracked her down and banged on her door. Her absence at the time of his visit felt somehow like insult. Even the crow sitting on a gatepost next to her house smirked derisively. He lunged for the bird, it flew, he yelled and picked up a rock and hurled it, the rock missed by a mile. He cursed and stumbled to his car.
The woman now searches the face above the flames for signs of tenderness and finds, instead, narrowed eyes and a downturned mouth. His gaze slides over the pipe in her hands, the ring, and the burning totems of their love. He raises one hand with a circular gesture taking in the unpaved road, the tiny manufactured house. “Nice new life you got here.” Then with quick movements he steps around the pit to reach out and yank her off-balance toward him. She recovers, plants her feet in a wide posture, and raises the pipe high.
The timbre of that voice echoes in the crow’s brain and takes away all doubt the assailant has returned. The bird lets loose a series of calls that increase in pitch and frequency and, within seconds, other black-winged creatures sail through the air from all directions. They alight on tree branches that bounce with their weight. They shriek with extended throats and wide-open beaks. They hurtle toward the man and flap, suspended in a mad dance just over his head.
He takes off sprinting. The mob makes chase, maneuvering through the trees, landing and flying again, in expert pursuit. Wings pummel his face. He shields his head with his arms and wonders, will they stab his eyes? He dives into the front seat and knows he will forever remember the vision of his ex holding aloft a metal rod to summon her demonic feathered swarm.
I hope he is not hurt, thinks the woman, chuckling at the sound of his speeding car bottoming out on the rutted road.
Some crows follow the car’s dust cloud, but most wheel back to roost in cottonwoods near the woman’s house. Their caws are conversational. One returning bird spots something interesting and swoops to the ground near the dying blaze, then up toward a high branch. The gem tumbles from the bird’s beak, refracting the sun’s low gleam into pinpoints of light that flash over the landscape like reflections thrown from a spun disco ball.
Her rescue by these winged avengers, this spectral radiance…the woman feels magic in the air. She lifts her head to make eye contact, convey gratitude, and share the glory of the moment.
But she is beneath the animals’ interest. They are now intent on what the woman does not see: close to the line where the treetops meet the orange sky, a gliding shadow ominously suggests the onset of an owl’s nightly hunt. The crows stir, issuing cries of renewed urgency. They are ready. ◀
The Power of Light
Greg Wagner, 54, Santa Fe
Alejandro pedals away from the sparse city lights and into the darkness of night. Up the winding road and into the lower hills he rides, the vestiges of sun-warmed sand fading as the night envelops the piñon and juniper. He stops among the conifers and spreads a blanket on the sand below a small opening to the sky. Stars twinkle against the black curtain of the cosmos. Alejandro lies on his back and stares into the depth of the Milky Way. He can feel the sparkle of starlight on the skin of his face, beckoning him to the infinite. Infinite space. Infinite darkness. Infinite freedom. He can sense the suspended tick of time, the clockwork of the sun and moon, resting and hidden. But not for long. Moonrise is in half an hour. He’ll need to be safely home by then. But for a few precious minutes, he slides off his shirt, closes his eyes and relishes the warmth of the starlight on his bare skin. And freedom.
Red light from the darkroom bulb paints the white bathroom a dim, flat red. Alejandro slides the button through the eyelet of his cuff with swift, fluid ease. The vertical blue stripes on the white dress shirt emphasize the breadth of his shoulders and the narrowness of his waist. He turns sideways and inspects his profile in the mirror. The early morning hours of weights and cardio have paid dividends over the last year. He faces the mirror head-on, back straight and shoulders square. His eyes track down to the crumpled tube of prescription sunblock neatly stacked at the back of the vanity. SPF 110. His shoulders sag.
He grasps the tube and squeezes thick white paste into the palm of his left hand. With years of practice, he begins to apply the ointment to his face with smooth even strokes. Creating a uniform white mask is a hard-won skill. He caps the tube, dons his wide-brimmed fedora, pulls on thin tan gloves, slips his wraparound sunglasses on and shuts off the red light. He opens the door to the brightness of morning.
Alejandro slides into his seat at the back of the classroom, farthest from the windows. Miss Grisham gets up from her desk and strides to the center of the room, black-heeled boots striking the floor tile and long, pleated linen skirt swirling around her legs. She smiles at the students as she scans the room, meeting each individual’s eyes. Many years ago, Miss Grisham was counseled to promote a stronger teacher/student interaction in her classroom. She took the advice to heart.
“Good morning class!” Straight white teeth gleam as she continues her ritual greeting. Her eyes come to rest on Alejandro’s opaque sunglasses beneath his Indiana Jones hat. She doesn’t stare at his white-painted face or his gloved hands. Her smile nearly falters. She moves on.
The Mitchels’ dog barks at Alejandro as he turns the corner, the rhythmic strain of his bike’s unoiled chain marking time and the trail of his passage in the dark. The brakes squeal lightly as he stops next to the oak tree in the middle of the block. It’s late for his ride into the hills. That’s been happening more lately. He adjusts his sunglasses and looks up at her light, beaming between the gnarled and crooked branches. Each time he sees her, the impact of her beauty strikes his chest. The potential of her danger strikes his stomach.
Darkness is the only place his condition doesn’t make him an outcast, a pariah, a spectacle to be stared at and whispered about. For years he has dealt with the danger the sun poses, the consequence of his rare condition, the blisters, burns and pain from the slightest touch of its harmful rays. Sunlight can kill him. But he doesn’t know about the moon’s light. He has never tested her consequence. For years, he and the moon have danced around each other, eyed each other with curiosity. And there was a draw, a longing, that was inescapable. But at what consequence? What would happen if the moon’s light settled on his skin? Would his skin boil? Would he acquire more scars to further pock his appearance? Sunlight killed. Starlight tingled and tickled. What about the moon? What price for knowledge? Which path is life?
He continues to the sanctuary of the hills and spreads his blanket. The infinite of the cosmos calls to him.
The school bell chimes. Quiet halls fill with the white noise of massed teenagers on the move, hustling to their next classes. Students jostle, shove and squeeze through the bidirectional throng, the younger classmen progressing like Plinko chips cascading down a peg board. No one bumps into Alejandro. No one squeezes him aside, blocks his path, presses on him from behind. Sunglasses, wide-brimmed hat, painted white face, long sleeve shirt and gloves, he walks through the halls, Moses to the Red Sea.
All here know of his deadly allergy to sunlight, have seen the consequences when it shines on his naked skin. His disease is not communicable. Everyone knows this as well. Most knew him before the onset of his strange condition. The doctors had lots of theories for his condition. The students had more. Best to be careful.
Alejandro sits perfectly still on his bicycle seat, gazing at the moon’s light through the trees. The moon gazes back. He slowly rides up the hill to the quiet clearing of his sanctuary. The moon follows. He spreads his blanket and lays down on the sand. Stars twinkle in the void of space. Fear compresses Alejandro’s chest. What path is life? The moon stands over him, her light filling the darkness. Tears leak unheeded from the corners of his eyes. He unbuttons his shirt. ◀