SmokeLong Quarterly

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Leonardo or Lenin or Princess Diana

Story by Kendra Fortmeyer (Read author interview) March 21, 2016

Art by Johnny Villarreal

It has been a long, strange winter. There was the thing with Jon, which was a mistake, then Jenna quit speaking to you. There was the water main, your sister’s accident, that haircut. When you look back toward November, you feel you are standing over a field strewn with invisible boulders–everything deceptively calm, idyllic, with no plausible explanation for your bruised shins.

On top of it all, your turtle is sick. Or possibly dead. When you go to the basement to change the laundry, it is spread-eagle in its aquarium, shriveled beneath the glow of the heat lamp. Its tiny legs look desiccated, like someone has sucked its life out with a straw.

You cannot explain this to people at the party: the shock of seeing a dead thing. The small, barking twist of your heart. You didn’t interact with the turtle much. You’d given it a succession of names when you brought it home, witty and pop-cultural. You liked the idea of being a person with a turtle called Bukowski. Liberace. The Republican Party. Now the turtle has died and you can’t remember the last name it was called. You stuff your clothing into the dryer and flee without cleaning the lint trap.

When you open the door to the party, you are awash in a flood of light and laughter. Everyone shouts your name. Hello! It is you! People give you hugs, drinks. You have Alex and Tiff and Danae and Clint and Zig; you have more drinks than you have hands. People listen to your stories. They want to know what you think. For the first time since November, you feel warm. When new people come in, you shout their names. You hand them drinks. Everyone laughs and laughs and laughs.

Gradually, you become aware that your phone is buzzing in your pocket. You are holding hands with Rhea and laughing with Loretta and being slightly offended by Roy but your awareness of the phone is insistent, now. It whispers, someone wants you, and it could be your sister, or Jenna, or Jon. It tugs at you like an undertow, and in that undertow you feel magnanimous, taller. I’ll be right back, you say, ducking to the quiet back porch. You pat everyone’s faces. You squeeze their wrists. Hold on.

Out on the quiet porch, you see that it is an unknown number. Your chest, inexplicably, feels filled with stars.

Hello? you ask.

Hello, the voice says. Is this poison control?

The voice sounds a little shaky. You feel a little shaky. No, you say, like it’s obvious. Shouldn’t it be obvious? Someone might be dying! No, you say again. This is not poison control. Don’t call me, please. Call the proper authorities. You need help.

Yes, the voice says, still shaky. And then, as if you’ve been a help, Okay. Thank you.

The line goes dead.

You stand on the porch a long moment. The whole night feels fragile, the world beyond the lawn a quiet abyss. In the dark, there is not very much distance between you and that person on the other end of the line. Just luck and common sense. A failure to swallow toothpaste, or drink bleach. When you blink, everything flashes in negative across your vision, bright.

Everyone shouts your name when you come back inside. They are grinning like they have just had the best orgasms. OMIGOSH, they shout. You just missed it!

What? you say. What?

They shake their heads. Their eyes are shining, faces flushed. You kind of had to be there, they say.

Oh, you say. Can you do it again?

It wouldn’t be the same. They gaze into each other’s eyes. Traces of smiles stain their cheeks. One says, radish, and everyone dissolves into laughter.

You smile along. You think about radishes, all of the potential humor therein: the shape. The rootiness. You wonder if they are poisonous. When no one is looking, you collect your coat and go.

When you get home, the dryer is buzzing. You walk through the rooms of your empty house, the benevolent glow of the party cooling on your skin. You turn on every light, but it makes everything hollower: the couch sagging, dark windows gaping in the walls.

Reluctantly, you climb down the stairs to the frozen basement, each step a beat of a mantra: don’t look, don’t look, don’t look at your sad fucking turtle with its shrink-wrapped legs. But impossibly, your turtle is standing. Your turtle is alive! You run and press your nose to the glass. On the other side, your turtle chews a red cabbage leaf beneath its heat lamp. It blinks at you with small amber eyes.

You stare at the miracle that is your turtle, that is Tolstoy or Stephen Hawking or Mother Teresa. You begin to laugh. You’re alive! you say. You’re alive! You snap a picture, apply a filter. You reach for witty captions: I am Lazatortoise, come from the dead. Maybe something longer, emotional. Maybe something Jenna would see, and know.

But these constructions fall flat. The stillness of the basement is rich and warm. The night outside is so cold, and you are already in your socks. You slip your phone back into your pocket, watch the cabbage leaf shiver silently in the pebbled world behind the glass. If the poisoned person called back right now, you would say this: Everything will be okay. Sometimes the terrible things are wonderful things, waiting. Or you would say nothing. It is a thing you could never explain to anyone, even the dying: how whole you can become in the face of so small a thing. How sometimes you need no one else to see.

About the Author

Kendra Fortmeyer is the prose editor for Broad! magazine and the author of the fiction chapbook The Girl Who Could Only Say ‘sex, drugs, and rock & roll,’ (Awst Press). Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize as well as Best American Nonrequired Reading, and has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, Black Warrior Review, The Literary Review, PANK, The Toast and elsewhere. She received my MFA in fiction from the University of Texas at Austin.

About the Artist

Johnny Villarreal is a collaborator, visual artist, technologist, designer and educator. Whether he’s painting, doodling, editing, experimenting, guiding, or working on the social fabric, Johnny is happiest when those around him are doing what they do best. Johnny has a loving wife, an amazing baby girl, an excitable Chihuahua, and a big white cat with sharp, sharp claws. He loves gesture drawing and he doesn’t believe in coincidence.
To see some of his work, go HERE.

This story appeared in Issue Fifty-One of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Fifty-One

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