Nashville, TN

At age 29, she found herself noticing the way that young men interacted with their small children.  She imagined the way she could love someone with whom she shared a child, romantic love turned familial, an unbreakable bond.  She scrolled through the instagram account of one of her favorite actors, and felt her body warm at the sight of photos of him holding his gorgeous blonde three year old in his broad, caramel covered arms.  He was Mexican and Italian, with thick features, and very handsome.  

She had always wondered if this would happen at some point, in fact she had been waiting for it.  In her early twenties she had sat awkwardly silent as her girlfriends chatted about wanting children and she had felt like a foreigner, it just didn’t appeal to her.  And yet, she knew that many women felt this procreation instinct kick in at some point. Therefore, she had remained vigilant, alway warily searching for it. Now here she was, looking at photos of young families, and imagining her husband cuddling with a toddler. 

She watched a TV show featuring four divorced working mothers, and found herself craving the chaos.  The mothers dropped their children at school, and ran to their jobs at which they excelled. They would get emergency calls about forgotten flutes and rush to the school in professional outfits with good hair. They were super heroes, needed in an existential way.  They were beautiful and strong and probably had zero time to nurse anxiety about global warming and the meaning of life. Was that why people had children? To make themselves too busy to think?  

Shit, she thought.  It’s really happening now.  She imagined her husband Tim and her raising a child.  She would land at the airport only to find him waiting in the car with a carseat in back.  “Your turn” he would say. He would look tired, and his clothing would be stained and rumpled.  She would smile wearily and pretend to be excited for the next two weeks of lone diaper changing. Then he would get out of the car, kiss her goodbye, and board a plane for his tour.  She would load her instruments into the same car and drive home with their now wailing child. A life of alternating single parenthood. An interesting idea, but it didn’t really appeal.

She could give up touring and become an interior designer.  She imagined herself stylishly dressed, sipping on a latte as she strolled around a half empty craftsman home with a well-off couple.  “We just aren’t sure what color to go with”, the one woman would say. Her partner would chime in “She loves purple but I just think it’s way too much, even for lesbians”.  She would sit down at a table and pull out a  mood board featuring shiny magazine photographs. “This is what I’m thinking for the color pallet,” she would say.  Then she edited this image in her brain, it would more likely be a Pinterest board on a laptop, it wasn’t 1995.  In her fantasy her phone rang. “Oh, I’m so sorry, my kid is sick,” she said. “I have to run but I will have all these edits done for you by Thursday!”  “Of course! Of course” they would say. “Thank you so much, you’re a lifesaver!”. 

Then she imagined herself never touring, never playing songs again, never writing them.  She tried to really feel it; a mindset in which she wasn’t committed first and foremost to songs.  “I still like to play and write, I just don’t do it as much” she would say to friends over dinner. In reality, she wouldn’t have touched a guitar in months. What would she be rooted around? She would be a planet orbiting a sort of black hole, grounded by nothingness.  Her work propelled her, she realized. And songs were above all, her gravitational pull. 

New York, NY

SCENE: Jeanette is walking through park mid-afternoon on a sunny day.

FRANK: Hey gorgeous how you doin today? (walking alongside Jeanette)

JEANETTE: (uncomfortable); Hi. I’m good, thanks

FRANK: Can you help a guy out?  See i’m trying to get to my sister.  She sick and she live in Harlem. I told her I’d go there and visit but I need a couple dollars for the train

JEANETTE: Sorry man, I don’t have any change

FRANK:  I just need a couple bucks.

JEANETTE: (over-apologetic) I can’t help you i’m sorry

FRANK: You ever heard of Jesus? Jesus helped the poor.

JEANETTE: (Sarcastically) Don’t get me started on him.  

FRANK: You don’t love Jesus? You better watch out, you goin’ straight to hell.

JEANETTE: And why would you believe in the lord? What has he ever done for you? You don’t even have enough money to go see your ‘sick sister’ (uses air quotes)

FRANK: My sister sick. And she might be dying.  But at least she know she headed for heaven. Better than you can say. And, the Lord brought me to you! You real pretty.

JEANETTE: Well thanks. And sorry about your sister.

FRANK: God bless you. Where you goin’ in such a hurry? You work a job?

JEANETTE: Yea, I work at the ACLU, you know about them?

FRANK: The lawyers?


FRANK: That’s good, good for you, you a lawyer! You real pretty for a lawyer.

JEANETTE: I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, but I guess thanks? Maybe you should consider your expectations of what a lawyer looks like.

FRANK: Oh, OH! You got them big words.  PUT ME ON THE WITNESS STAND, Oh Lawd! (feigns fright)

JEANETTE: (genuinely laughing) Haha. Sorry sorry.

FRANK: (kindly) Don’t be sorry, gorgeous! You just fine, i’m jus playin’.

JEANETTE: So what kind of illness does your sister have?

FRANK:: She got cancer. And she got three little boys too.

JEANETTE:  Oh wow, I’m sorry. That’s really hard.  Is she getting Medicaid benefits?

FRANK: Naw naw, I don’t know ‘bout all that. We prayin’ for her.

JEANETTE: I’m sure there’s a program that could help with her medical costs.

FRANK: I got a program that can help you find the lord! HA HA! First teaching of Jesus is ‘give to those in need’. Like me. Now, you don’t have a couple quarters ?

JEANETTE:  I’m sorry man, I just don’t have change today. Maybe I could buy you a sandwich

FRANK:: A sandwich? That ain’t gonna get me to Harlem.

JEANETTE: Well, sorry then.

FRANK: So what, you don’t like black people?

JEANETTE: What? No, of course not, of course I do!

FRANK: White folks is all the same.  Always got to keep the black folks down

JEANETTE: Your race has nothing to do with me not giving you money!

FRANK:  What is it then?

JEANETTE: You know what, you’re right. White folks have kept the black folks down.

FRANK: Like I said.

JEANETTE: You know what, here’s two dollars. I’ve really have to go now.

Stoughton, WI

Sal watched the girls load their instruments and gear in from their minivan which was parked outside of the old opera house.  Their movements were punctuated my loud shrieks and laughter, and he felt a mild headache building at his temples as he walked into the dark building. It was chilly outside and the sky was a beautiful cloudless blue, a perfect northern May afternoon.  He yearned for the desolate quiet of his land, for the long stretches of flat fields with nobody in sight and cows bellowing softly into the wind.

As long as he could remember, he had known himself to be a farmer.  He knew it the same way he knew his own name, not that he could specifically remember anyone telling him, he just existed in the fact of it.  His family kept cows and a few horses on their 500 acres of land. Even on the coldest days of winter, when three inches of ice walled the inside of the barn, and he’d had to throw down hay and extra feed with his numb hands and separate the calves from the cows to prevent them from getting Pneumonia, he’d loved the work.  He’d taken pride in caring for the animals and the soreness of his muscles. He slept deeply every night and consumed huge meals at midday, feeling the calories convert to energy almost instantly.

It didn’t get so cold in the winter anymore.  It used to stay below zero for two weeks at a time, maybe more. Now those breathtakingly cold days that knocked the wind out of you as soon as you opened the door were few and far between.  

Now he reluctantly abandoned the beauty of the day and slowly plodded through the entryway of the theater and up to the stage, where he laid out XLR lines for each microphone, and found and unfolded five tired and taped up mic stands from behind the velvet curtains.  He felt a sharp complaint in his lower back as he dragged monitor blocks to the front of the stage and positioned them in what he hoped would be the desired spots.

In high school, Sal had started a rock band with two of his classmates. They practiced in his family’s barn through the Spring and Summer, and Sal had slowly pieced together an entire PA system from various parts he found at the local junk shop and at various garage sales.  He was never really more than a mediocre guitar player but he became the go-to guy for sound equipment repair, record players, tape machines, CD players, speakers, and mixing desks, although there really weren’t too many of those around Stoughton.

Around the time that his bandmates had left town, one for college in Madison, and one to Minneapolis with a girlfriend he had gotten pregnant, the town had rallied and raised funds to restore the old opera house, which had been abandoned for twenty odd years.  Excited by the idea of live music coming through the small town, he had volunteered to help purchase and install a world class sound system, and he soon found himself employed by the venue, working sound for touring bands that did not bring their own tech.

Through the years, as his parents aged and his siblings moved away, one to Chicago and two to California, he had watched the farm slowly go into disrepair.  He did his best to keep up with it, but milk prices were so low, and they were reaching their credit limits almost every year. The trade war with China was impacting soybean exports, and the farm barely brought in enough income to keep itself afloat and pay for the hired help, let alone support his parents in their old age. So, as it turned out, all those years spent tinkering with gear in the barn in hopes of blaring AC/DC into the rafters had been a lucrative education.

As the band set up and he began to dial in the monitors, he imagined being out in the fields on an afternoon like this, riding around on the green tractor, feeling the sweat on his back and a cool breeze across his face, smelling the scent of cow shit and mowed grass.

Can I have more guitar? Said the fiddle player

He didn’t even hear her. He stared at the wallpaper, a royal blue with a gold fleur de les pattern, imagining raising a family in the old farmhouse.

Excuse me, said the dark haired girl again.  I need more guitar. She sounded annoyed

OK! He barked. Hold your horses.

The dimly lit room made him feel sad and sleepy.  What he wouldn’t give to feel the sun on his face right now.

Crossville, TN

When he opened the front door, Seth was greeted by a waft of old food and body spray.  Tom was splayed out on the couch in red sweatpants and a white T-Shirt, playing a video game. Loud bursts of noise punctuated the steady clicking of buttons.

Hey, Tom said, without looking up from the TV, How was the tech?

Um, they messed up the lighting again so I did half my songs in the dark, and the band really needs to get their shit together.  But other than that, it was good.

Huh, said Tom, distractedly.

Seth lingered awkwardly behind the couch, wanting to continue the conversation but Tom was absorbed in his game, so he walked through to the kitchen.  He was giddy and tense, he knew he should eat something. After last night, he felt himself teetering on the edge of Tom’s whim, afraid to fall, nauseous and simultaneously hopeful.

A half eaten pizza lay in a soggy cardboard box, folded on top of itself on the table, and there were dishes piled up in the sink along with a plate of spaghetti, now sauced with brown dishwater.  He went to the counter and carefully plucked a package of ramen noodles from the wreckage, and began searching for a clean pot in the cabinet below. He wondered if Ramen would make his mouth taste bad.

The house belonged to the small theater company that Tom, himself, and their four other roommates were working for.  His contract ran for nine months, and he was three months in. Only six more months of using dishes encrusted with frozen bean dip and waking up to flies buzzing around leftovers in the morning.  

Everyone in the house played video games, constantly.  The atmospheric shooting noises and dead stares of his roommates gave him a dull headache and sent him down frequent existential spirals, but he tried to mask his hatred of the pastime in an attempt at camaraderie.  

Outside of the housing situation, he was enjoying the work more than he thought he would.  When he took the job (the only one he’d been offered after an entire season of auditions) in a rural community outside of Nashville, he had been a snobby conservatory graduate, and it was embarrassing to tell his friends that he was headed South while they went to New York or Los Angeles.  But now, with most of his classmates from school waiting tables six nights a week (they tried to make it seem more glamorous than that, but he knew the reality), he was feeling grateful for the opportunity of a full time acting gig. The theater was surprisingly professional, and each time he got a paycheck it still felt like some small miracle.

Tom had arrived at the house  just a few weeks ago. He had been hired to play the lead in an upcoming show and was starting rehearsals.  The company was small, and when a new actor arrived he was usually preceded by a good-natured gossipy review from those who had worked with him before.  

He’s straight, said Khalil, pouting, but such a babe.

This is honestly such a straight company, said James.  I’m so glad I have you Khalil, I’ve never worked with so many straight people in my life.  WHERE ARE ALL THE GAYS?

Seth laughed, Sorry! Sorry, jeez. I didn’t know I was so undesirable.

Shut up, you know we love you, said Khalil

On the day that Tom arrived, Seth came back from rehearsal to find him the kitchen, waiting on a piece of toast. Seth popped his head into the doorway enthusiastically.

Hey man! You must be the new guy, he said.

Tom turned to him with a slight smile and droopy stoner eyes.  He was tall and uncomfortably handsome, with serpent-like features and broad shoulders.

Hey, he said slowly with a hint of humorous sarcasm. Yeah I’m Tom.

Seth immediately felt overeager, sweaty, and childish.  

Cool, nice to meet you. I’m Seth, Welcome.

He retreated to his room as quickly as he could, hating Tom for his faux coolness.  Why had that been so weird?

The two had hardly had a conversation since. They were working on different shows, and came in and out of the house at different times.  Tom joined the video game constituent, which pretty much rendered him a social dead zone in Seth’s eyes. Still, Seth found himself overly aware of his appearance and actions when Tom was around.  He loathed this feeling, which he picked at and analyzed like a scab.

Last night, after his rehearsal, Seth had returned to the house to find Tom hanging out with a few of the girls from his show.  They were perched on the sectional like turtles, passing around a vape pen and watching Tom play Zelda.  One of the girls, Chloe, was particularly cute.  She was rumored to have a boyfriend, but that could change. Seth was feeling wound up from rehearsal, and he sat down on the couch between Tom and one of the girls with a beer and tried to get into the spirit of the hang.

Hi and bye, said Anna, the girl seated closest to him.  I gotta get going, early rehearsal tomorrow.

I’ll come with you said Chloe, and then all three got up to leave.

Within three minutes of his arrival, Seth found himself sitting alone with Tom on the couch, full beer in hand.  Tom said nothing and continued staring at the screen.

Seth had seldom felt more disgust for gaming then he did at that moment. How infuriating that he could be seated next to a colleague at the end of a long day of rehearsals and not even be worthy of a conversation. Surely, he and Tom had something to talk about.  Acting? Music? Girls? Life in this weird fucking town? I am living among zombies, he thought.

He stared at the floor moodily, feeling sorry for himself.  

After a few moments, he noticed a subtle heat against his leg.  It was a hot pressure that he realized all at once, but must have accrued while he was lost in thought. Tom’s thigh was touching his own.  He quickly moved his leg away and looked up. Tom continued staring at the screen and pretended not to notice what had happened.

Seth took another sip of beer and felt the cold liquid loosen his tightly clenched jaw. He looked down again, and as soon as he did he felt Tom’s leg press against his own once again.

Seth didn’t move this time.  He was frozen, and burning hot at the same time.  He tried to analyze the characters (himself and Tom) in the current scene.  What was the motivation? What were the past experiences each was drawing on? what was the body language saying?  His heart was racing and he felt himself get hard.

Tom paused his game and turned to look right at him with a slight smile.

Want to fuck? He said.

Ann Arbor, MI

He was fighting with the espresso machine when she came in. He didn't actually care about timing each shot to perfection, but he was hoping to avoid a reprimand from his sweaty and over-eager manager Andrew.  

The cafe was in the basement of a new storefront for a brand selling expensive handmade leather wallets and watches, packaged neatly with socioeconomic responsibility and the rebirth of Detroit. Along the darkly painted cinder block walls were three separate record players with headphone listening stations, and a stack of albums, carefully curated for sense of cultural longevity; Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young, Miles Davis, and Dolly Parton.

Andrew, whom he had spent almost every day with for the past three months, was passionate about coffee; a feeling which he was actually envious of. Occasionally, he fantasized about impressing future girlfriends with perfect latte art, but now that he actually had the chance to learn, he maintained a safe distance of apathy. Caring about coffee in that way would mean giving up some rough edge of himself that he still took pride in.  

Working behind a counter, he felt an affinity with the espresso machine.  He was a smiling hub of input and output without any real personality. In the eyes of his customers, he was the guy working at the coffee shop; a seemingly singular character which fully described all guys who worked at all coffee shops. He didn't mind, he actually enjoyed the chance to embody a persona which he felt with certainty was not his own.

Looking at the new interloper, he couldn't decide if she was pretty or not. She was small and slightly boyish, wearing jeans and a bell-sleeved floral top that had the soft faded look of a secondhand store.  A canvas backpack swung loosely from one of her shoulders. Her eyes moved around the room like a vacuum, taking in the details. After flipping through some of the records with a sort of performative confidence, she approached him.

Hi, he said, giving her his most generic smile. What can I get for you?

Greetings, she said, How is your day going?  She spoke with an ironic, almost flirtatious tone.

My day is fine, he said flatly.

She seemed not to notice his failure to engage, and continued with her interrogation.

Do you like working here?

Um, he said, suddenly feeling blank and awkward, what?  

Do you like working here? She asked again.

Oh. yeah, it's good. He said, looking around to see if Andrew was listening. Do you want an application or something?

No, I was just wondering because you seem bored

He felt annoyance manifest as a slight headache. His anonymity had been intruded on. Did he have to be supremely enthusiastic on top of friendly and functional now? He wiped his hands on his work pants, a pair of khakis that was slightly too short and made him look like a teenager.

Oh, sorry. He said, in a tone which conveyed exactly how not sorry he was. I'm fine. What can I get you?

She sighed. Just a regular coffee, please, and one of those, pointing at almond croissant. Her face had gone slightly pouty, and she sounded dejected.

Jesus. He thought.

He gave her a quick, insincere smile and placed the croissant on a small white plate with a pair of tongs. He filled a mug with coffee and handed it to her.

Thanks, she said, taking the plate and mug, and sitting down at the small industrial style table directly in front of the counter.  

He felt flustered by the interaction, and continued to study her from his vantage point behind the counter. As she sat down, the hem of her jeans pulled away from her white canvas shoes, revealing what looked to be a sort of metal pole in place of her right ankle, a prosthetic leg.

At this unexpected sight, a wave of hot adrenaline passed through him, like he'd seen something he shouldn't have, and he looked away, suddenly feeling a desperate need to clean the counter of coffee grinds.

His annoyance with her evaporated, and was replaced with a dull, pounding shame. I'm such an asshole, he thought, mentally reviewing their entire interaction in his head. How had he missed it when she walked in?  He tried to reassure himself by thinking of all of the morally righteous things he had done recently. His Grandmother lived in a nursing home 30 minutes away from his apartment. Since his dad had taken a job in Minneapolis, he visited her frequently.  She always smiled and told him to cut his hair, and asked him when we was going to get married. She smelled bad, like formaldehyde and feces. He was a nice person, wasn’t he?

He looked back up at the girl. So, he said, trying to sound casual, do you live around here?

Oh, now you want to talk, she said, flashing him a grin. When she smiled, her face relaxed, and she seemed like an entirely different person than the one who had accused him of boredom just minutes ago.  She seemed suddenly fascinating, a person who had fought battles that he could never imagine.

Sorry, he said, genuine this time, you just caught me at a bad time with this machine.

She looked down at her coffee, and then pulled a battered book out of her bag and opened it in front of her. The book had a picture of a shirtless pirate man on the cover, his shirt ripped open with abs glistening in some kind of faux moonlight. A busty teenage girl clung to him, her arms around his waist.

He had no idea how to redeem himself so he shuffled around behind the counter, arranging and rearranging large bags of coffee beans. He picked up his phone but the sight of the screen made him mildly nauseous, and he put it back down. He scratched his left elbow with his right hand and then mindlessly ran his index finger over a geometric black and white tattoo on his wrist.  The dim lighting in the dark basement was making him sleepy and he wished someone else would walk in, but there was no relief to the tension. He could hear Andrew clomping around upstairs, showing customers beautifully backlit displays of leather belts with monogrammed initials, displayed against stark white walls.

The girl quietly sipped her coffee and appeared to be engrossed in her pirate romance. After twenty minutes or so, she reached into her bag and pulled out a ten dollar bill and a white dentist’s office pen with a green clip. She carefully wrote something in the front cover of the book and then put the pen and the money down. When she pushed her chair back from the table, it made a scraping sound which rang out almost apocalyptically. Then, she got up and pranced out of the room with her backpack slung over one shoulder.

At the sound of her chair he looked up. Her jeans were still pushed up around her waist and as she sauntered away, and before they fell back into place, he could clearly see the bottom of her legs, both looking very normal and flesh-like. Confused, he looked down to where she had been sitting and saw, for what seemed like the first time, the strangely jointed metal chair legs.

Her book lay carelessly on the table and he walked out from behind the bar to pick it up. He opened the front cover, inside of which she had written

Call me sometime, Pirate

734 662 3490

Wilder, TN

Sarah waited impatiently at the gas station counter as the bleary eyed clerk scanned her purchases.  He was clearly stoned, and having trouble punching the right buttons on the tablet. Next to the checkout was an add for ‘Krunchy, Krispy Chicken’ and ‘Home Fries’, under which a glass countertop revealed a variety of dried out brown nuggets, which probably smelled good nine or ten hours ago.

Sarah was wearing an oversized tie-dyed shirt, and her chubby white calves were bare beneath knee-length blue shorts.  She held her phone in one hand and pecked at it with the other as she distractedly instructed the clerk on her cigarette preference.  When she had paid him and gotten her change, she turned quickly towards the door, noticing the girl waiting behind her for the first time.

The girl threw her a half smile, which somehow felt more to Sarah like a quick assessment of her value than an attempt at politeness.  In a pair of expensive looking yoga pants, the girl looked rich, despite her messy hair and plain face. She had soft, smooth skin and perfect white teeth. Sarah could tell she was from out of town, nobody around here dressed like that. What the hell was she doing in Wilder, alone, at this hour?  Sarah walked by without acknowledging her, internally rolling her eyes.

When she got to the truck, Trey was waiting in the driver’s seat.

‘You took long enough’ he said

‘I was getting your cigarettes’ she retorted

‘And a whole bunch of other shit’ he said, eyeing her Twix bar.

Sarah rolled her eyes, out loud this time.

It was late, almost eleven, and the gas station was lit up like a fire escape under the black, small town sky.

As Trey started the engine, the rich girl walked out of the storefront glass doors, looking like a perfectly ripe fruit among moldy produce.  Sarah watched Trey’s face to see if he would notice her. She saw the subtle twitch of his mouth as his eyes followed her stride longingly across the parking lot to her shiny SUV.  Sarah felt a hot fist clench in her stomach, and she looked away.

They drove home in silence, along two-lane county roads littered with fast food bags and beer cans, framed by dark fields and cattle. Sarah was restless in the passenger seat. She felt sweaty and ill formed with her scratchy clothes and frizzy hair.  Earlier that evening, she had applied a new lipstick shade that she’d picked up at Walgreens on a whim, and it felt sticky on her lips. She flipped opened the car visor, and the mirror confirmed her fears that it looked cheap and stupid.

As soon as they got home, Sarah scrubbed her face hard with a paper towel over the small bathroom sink. Better to blend in than to look like a try hard, she thought.

Trey had turned on the TV and didn’t even turn to her when she walked by him towards the bedroom.  She lingered in the doorway, examining the back of his head. “Look at me”, she thought.

But the TV blared on and Sarah walked down the hall. She tore off her miserable clothes and crawled into bed.