FROM ORANGES, PUBLISHED BY New Rivers Press
First published in Great River Review
The entire time Michael Dolin was growing up in Mason City, Iowa, his family lived next to a man they called The Bachelor. Michael was never sure how exactly The Bachelor got his name, though he always assumed it was because he wasn’t married, and never had been as far as they knew. To Michael, The Bachelor had always seemed old, like he never could have been young. Though Michael knew he had to have been young some time, he could never picture him that way.
The Bachelor was a part of their daily life, but in the same way that you see the same building or tree everyday but don’t really think much about it. The Bachelor put lights up at Christmas every year and handed out Halloween candy like everyone else, but Michael often thought about how they knew nothing about him—where he came from, where his family was, why he lived in Mason City.
On the Saturday before Christmas, not quite a year since Kevin died, I went to the Electronics Department at Dayton’s to try and find out something about Donny. I did need to shop for some CDs and other last-minute gifts, but there was any number of other stores I could have gone to that day and found those things. I went to Dayton’s to see if Donny was still alive.
I had decided, when I went up to the cash register, I’d tell the sales person that I was a friend of Donny’s and that I was just wondering if he was still around, ask how he was doing. I hadn’t figured out exactly how I would react when they gave me the news. I’d have to act surprised, of course. I thought, I’m sorry to hear that. He was a good friend of mine, sounded good. But if I was a friend, wouldn’t I have known what had happened to him?
As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry about that. Donny was there behind the counter.
Now that I knew, I wanted to get out of the store before he saw me. I didn’t know what I was going to say. It’s good to see that you haven’t died? But just as I was about to leave, he called out my name.
First published in Water~Stone Review
My mother says the oranges I bring from Minneapolis are much better than any she’s ever found in Mason City, Iowa. She’s been eating three or four a day, according to my father, and after every chemotherapy session she asks for a big glass of orange juice and drinks it down in two or three gulps. It usually comes right back up, and my father has to be ready with a washcloth to wipe her mouth, her nose, and the front of her pajama top. But it doesn’t bother her. “It cleans things out,” she says. “Better than that poison they’ve been pumping through my veins.”
This weekend, I’ve brought a dozen for her and half of them will be gone by the time I leave Sunday afternoon. “You never bring enough, Michael,” she’ll say when I call on Wednesday to check up on her. “Your father’s rationing out what’s left until you come down again.” But for now, she has plenty, and she likes the way they look in the wicker basket next to her chair in the living room. I’ve mixed them in with apples—red and green—and bananas that I buy along with the oranges at the co-op down the street from my apartment. “We need the colors,” she said as she watched me arrange them last night on the fake green grass she used to put in our Easter baskets.
I’m here for the weekend to watch her while my father’s away in Des Moines on a business trip, one of his last before his retirement begins. He didn’t want to go, but I told him he needed to get away and it would be good for him to have a break. My sister Anne, who lives nearby and comes by twice a day, offered to stay, but I told her she could take a break, too. Let me do this, I said. It’s my turn.
After Michael first began dating Stephen, the two of them had several discussions in which they each revealed their sexual histories: who’d they’d been with, for how long, what they had done. For Michael, there wasn’t much to tell. He’d come out in the “golden days” of the late seventies, before AIDS, but when he looked at the numbers he hadn’t been with that many people. Michael had never been sure why that was. He’d certainly had many opportunities; men had been interested. But at the last minute he often backed out. As he got older he often wondered if his hesitation had perhaps saved his life, though it seemed perhaps a bit overdramatic to put it in those terms.
When Michael met Kevin, who was HIV positive, he thought again about the opportunities he’d had and lost, and about what Kevin had done with his opportunities. It wasn’t a subject that Michael felt comfortable bringing up. “It just happened,” he told Michael, and there was no sense in trying to figure out who it was who gave it to him. “I can’t waste my energy thinking about him.” Still, Michael often wondered if the man was still out there and what had happened to him, even if Kevin claimed not to. Sometimes when they were together, Michael felt the man’s presence hovering over them, watching. While their precautions protected them—protected Michael—from certain things, they weren’t enough to keep him away.
FROM CARL PAULSEN, A NOVEL IN PROGRESS
First published in Callisto
It’s the official start of tenth grade, and everyone is talking and texting at the same time, even though the person they’re texting is probably less than 10 feet away. But if you can do both, and do them well, your coolness quotient is obviously very high. Mine, I’m afraid, is in the negative digits, but then again it probably always has been.
Everyone is also showing off their summer pictures: for some, trips to the Black Hills or the Wisconsin Dells, or for the rich kids, California or Florida, and for the ultra rich, maybe even further. Sue Tilford, whose dad is president of Fullerton Savings and Loan, went to some fancy summer camp in France to learn to speak the language so she’d be ready for some fancy college in a few years, and a group of girls is crowded around her like she’s a rock star, oohing and aahing over her pictures of the Eiffel Tower and Mediterranean beaches. But for most of the class, it’s photos of late afternoons and weekends at Woodland Lake, tanning on the raft anchored to the muddy bottom in between shifts at the Dairy Queen or canning factory, or after hot July days walking soybean fields to weed the corn out that isn’t supposed to be there but somehow always manages to get mixed in with the soybean seeds.
I don’t have a cell phone, and most likely will never get one unless I can talk my father into joining the 21st century or I find some way to pay for it myself. Too expensive, my father would say whenever I asked for one, and besides which this whole texting insanity is destroying what little is left of the English language, not to mention face to face social discourse, whatever that was. As a former high school English teacher he was concerned about such things, even if everyone else in the free world didn’t care one way or the other.
It didn’t matter. There was no one I wanted to text anyway. If there was someone I wanted to talk to, I would do it in person. That would please my father to no end. More than anything, though, I just want to get my piece of paper telling me where to be the Tuesday after Labor Day, the first day of school, what my locker combination is, so I can go home to my true friends, my cows.