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Fiction

Fiction Issue #71

Wild

“It’s impossible not

to remember wild and want it back.”

Mary Oliver

“You know,” Bets says, parking a wad of Bazooka in her cheek. “The road goes both ways.”

She brushes a coat of Pink Lemonade high-gloss enamel on her big toe, sunglasses perched on the tip of her nose. Earlier, at Walgreens, she bought her purple-pedicured digits a pair of plastic sandals studded with enough fake rhinestones to focus a lazy eye. Bets is counting on those beach babies to turn some heads, and if the sun hits the bits of glass just right, they could blind the casual looker. 

“What exactly does that mean?” I say. “The road, both ways?”

Besides sandals, she bought gum and a bottle of mango-flavored Jose Cuervo pre-mixed margaritas, plus a dirtying fifth of tequila. The cashier, gray-haired with glasses riding the tip of his nose, rang us up like a librarian, requesting an ID, which tickled Bets to no end.  

A treacly scent hangs in the air. Under our red umbrella, our skin looks rotisseried. 

On Lake Michigan, a lumbering frigate heads south. Overhead, cackling, shitting seagulls lift themselves high on the wind, then dive-bomb an empty sandwich wrapper.

“It means it ain’t gonna kill her to come see me. Hit me another splash of that tequila, please.”

*

My flouncy-fun friend with her chewing gum and crazy nail polish could easily pass for a millennial if she’d snap a dozen selfies—sexy pose, a tad slutty—and post to Instagram. Prolly not. Me and Bets, we’re old enough to remember when photos required Kodak film and you couldn’t see them until you busted ass over to the drugstore and picked them up. Bets thinks she can hang with the young crowd, and at work she spends her break time with the peach-faced studs in Lumber—but nobody’s kidding nobody. 

She’s pissed at Fonda, who’s supposed to be enjoying the beach life with us this weekend. The road, I take it, is the rutted one between them, the one stretched out when Fonda hit the Big One in Manistee, distractedly punching buttons on a hot one-armed bandit, dejected over her Ojibwa boyfriend’s slight; he was flirting with a younger model, big tits, tight skin. 

*

We’ve been down Bitch’n Road before. Me, I’m ready to cover new ground—movies, music, books, current events. Hell, I’d even venture down Politics Lane to keep Bets from going on about Fonda.

“I don’t like Taylor Swift,” I say.

Bets puts her brush back into the tiny bottle, and carefully removes a corn chip from the bag. She gives me a blank look before dipping into the NomNom sauce. “What’s the matter with you?”

“It’s not that I don’t like her. She seems like a nice girl and all, and obviously, she’s very talented. It’s just that, well, I don’t … get her.”

“What’s to ‘get’?”

“She’s so young.”

“And rich.”

“And …”

“Talented?”

I try to change the subject. “Ever notice how young people are always staring at their phones?”

“You mean like this?” Bets picks up her iPhone and holds it below her nose. “Everybody does. That’s life.”

I tell her how yesterday, after I’d finished my run at the track, some kid was standing on the sidelines staring at his phone. I smiled and said, “Got it all warmed up for you.” Of course, I was joking. The kid looked up, stared at me like I’d said something pornographic. “Okay,” he’d mumbled. “Thanks.”

“For nuttin’.” Bets cracks her gum. “Well, at least he noticed you.”

“Barely.”

“Kora, you know what your problem is? You’re too sensitive.”

Says the woman who’s been complaining about Fonda since we left town yesterday. I had to wait until she finished her shift at Lowe’s. Watched her come flying out of the store, run over to her car and grab her backpack, before hopping into my Jeep. 

“The trouble with Fonda,” she kept chanting all the way up, a stuck “on” play-button.

I drove, pedal to the metal, so we would get to the cabin before dusk, when all the suicidal deer up north dash across US-31. 

*

Most women our age are retired by now, but Bets’ husband, Earl, didn’t leave her the windfall she was expecting. After the funeral, she found out he’d tapped out his 401K to feed his gambling habit. All those afternoons he’d told her he was playing cards with the guys? She’d thought he meant the guys from the factory, not the card dealers and sharks at the casino. She’d started thinking he was having an affair with a young local girl at one of the gift shops. Turns out, besides the black jack table, Earl had a one-armed honey who took more than she gave. 

“You remember how we used to want to be twenty when we were forty?” I say. “Now, I’d give anything to be forty. How’s that for dumb?”

“You’re not dumb. Fonda’s dumb.”

Here we go.

“Did you know she’s writing a book?”

I’m the only one in our small circle who reads books. I shake my head, try to imagine our friend plunking words on paper or screen. That Fonda reads books is, well, shocking. Sure, her coffee table has magazines scattered about—People, Vogue, Bow and Arrow—but books? I’ve never seen one in her house.

“Her working title is—get this, ‘Of Other T-y-m-e-s.’ Not ‘T-i-m-e-s, but ‘T-y-m—”

“Like the antique store,” I say, tossing a chip out. Seagulls hover, their wings billowed against the wind off Lake Michigan.  

Bets raises her pencil-thin eyebrows. “That place near Mancelona?”

“Yep.”

“A flock of seagulls,” Bets says, staring at the sand. 

“Actually, it’s a squabble. Or a colony.”

“You know what I mean,” Bets says condescendingly. “The band. ‘I ran so far away-aa.’” She lays back on the beach towel. “All I can say is, Fonda better not write me into one of her books.”

That’s Bets in a heartbeat: an egocentric worrier. Funny thing is, if Fonda leaves her out of her book, she’ll be devastated. If she’s included, she’ll be mortified. You almost have to feel for Fonda; she can’t win for losing. Truth is, Fonda used to be a wild woman. Or at least that’s what she’s told us. Like most hellions, she got old and boring. Now, she drinks Prosecco, doesn’t smoke cigarettes or weed, and hasn’t had sex—she claims—since Clinton was president. God forbid, Miss Teetotaler finds out her peers are still chasing life, she nags like a mother. But that was all before she got rich. Now, we don’t know what’s going on with her because we never see her anymore.

“Miss Easy-Money thinks she’s a writer,” says Bets, rolling over to sip her pink tequila. “She should buy books, not write them.”

*

Do people’s fun-meters flatline in relation to their skin wrinkling? Someday, I’ll ask Bets. After all, she seems to know everything. Bets, I’ll say, Girlfriend, what the fucking-fuck happened to you? This is the same woman who drag-raced her red Mustang along I-96 one summer and missed hitting a coyote by a split hair, but not getting tracked by the speed-gun of a Michigan State trooper, who ended up letting her off when she pressed her phone number into his big, beefy palm. This is the same woman whose shaman friend, Kevin Riverman, read our palms and told us we’d all live The Easy Life. The same crazy woman who drove us to the Mystery Spot in Arcadia, put the car in neutral, and kept shouting, “Tell me this is not amazing!” as we rolled backwards uphill, picking up speed. It was an illusion—it seemed we were driving “downhill,” only to be going uphill. Story of our lives.

I’d like to slap Bets and say, “Bets honey, wake the fuck up!”

*

It was like the movies. Well, ok, more like a reality show on cable where the high life looks pretty low. Bets and I slurped down margaritas at a tiki bar in the casino. Slow afternoon, Canadian curling on the tube over the bar. A couple of silver-haired high-rollers plunked down beside us, ordered shots of Wild Turkey with a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill. Bet’s lazy eye brightened. She gave me the look that put us on heightened alert. 

I was done with men. After our divorce, my ex- took off for Bonita Springs and is living “the beach life.” We’re still friends, though. Every year he sends me a Christmas card—one of those funny ones with a dog, sandy beach, and a man and woman sipping Mai-Tais. Got love a good-humored man, and once, I did.

Anyway, Bets and I were in the bar, her flirting with her one good eye, when all of a sudden there’s a commotion on the gaming floor. Last time we were in this same bar, waiting on Fonda while she fed the one-armed bandits, Bets and I had thought our dear friend struck it rich. Flashing lights, sirens. Like everyone else, we rushed onto the floor—only to discover the lucky winner was an old woman with a pink t-shirt that said “I Went to Vegas, and This is All I Got.” Gold coins poured out of that woman’s machine-like water from a fountain. We found Fonda licking her sorrows on an ice cream cone in the snack shop. She’d lost all her money in a tight slot machine.

This hubbub we decided to wait out. We sipped our drinks and Bets adjusted her halter top to show off a little more cleavage. The Big Spenders finished their shots and left, and Bets and I wandered out onto the floor, following the golden sound of someone hitting the Big One. 

Well, go figure, it was Fonda who’d hit the jackpot, a cool one and a half mil. Bets and I exchanged a look of sudden sobriety of a Catholic kid in the confessional, and then we rushed over and hugged her, and we all cried. 

Fonda was a millionaire, and things were great until they weren’t. We started seeing less of her, and when we did get together Bets claimed, privately to me, that our old friend had taken on airs. “She’s not the same anymore,” she said, and I said, “Yeah, she’s got money.” I kept thinking of that F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that he supposedly said to Hemingway: “You know, the rich are different from you and me.” Hemingway replied, “Yes, they have more money.”

That’s all Fonda’s Big Jackpot meant to me: she had more money. I didn’t care that she had to hire a personal accountant, or that her IRS filings were more than Fonda’s and mine combined. I was happy for her; she deserved to hit it big. Her win was all of ours—and I’m not talking about holding my empty hand out either. I mean, I was truly happy for her. She’s our friend. But when the champagne celebration wore off, Bets turned a shade of green I hadn’t expected. 

*

“‘They are rich who have true friends,’” I say, gazing out at Lake Michigan. 

Bets is spread out on her beach towel, painted toes pointing waterside, Ray Bans tilted sunward.

“What’s that?” she asks, “Bob Dylan?”

“Some old saying,” I say.

It’s a beautiful day, the waves gently splashing in and wagging out. Over by the cabana, a friendly game of beach volleyball is in session. Three guys vs. three guys. I remember when my ex- and I went to Martha’s Vineyard years ago on a bus tour, and when our tour guild let us out at Gay Head, we rushed down to the beach and started walking along only to realize it was a nude beach. His tongue fell out when we passed a young girl sunning herself tits-up, but when I suggested we go check out the volleyball game up ahead, like this one, three-on-three, all men, setting and spiking, penises flapping, well, he wouldn’t have any of that.

Bets crosses her ankles, then uncrosses them. The sand flies are pesky this time of year.

“Better the friend we can see than the money we cannot,” she says.

Fonda’s been MIA for weeks. Last we knew, she’d put her little stucco ranch on the market and was scouting out condos down by the marina. And apparently writing her Life Story. Well, knock your socks off, sister, I’d tell her—if we ever see her. We’re like three peas in a pod, but I’m the odd pea out. Bets and Fonda, they always did compete—over skin tone, and clothes, and who got the second glance walking along this beach. You ask me, those two been in each other’s rearview mirrors for so long they don’t know how to drive straight. Bets has really taken Fonda’s winning hard. I’d almost feel sorry for her if I didn’t want to smack her upside the head and say, “Bets! Grow the fuck up! We’re not kids anymore. We got new knees and old skin and the damn lake looks gauzy because of our cataracts. Let’s be happy for once, ok?”

Way out past the roped-off swimming area, two gulls land on the water and sit there bobbing. A third lands close by and one takes off. Closer to the beach, a cormorant floats like a proud mini-swan. I could watch those birds all day. Black and sleek, they dive under and resurface somewhere far away. I like to guess where they’ll come up, a watery version of Whack-a-Mole. 

I hear the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” hanging on the wind and look around. Sure enough, the man with a mound of gut who’s always here has plopped his beach recliner down by the water getting some rays. He doesn’t give two shits what his old age-spotted body looks like. I envy him. He’s out here enjoying the sun. Skin cancer must be the farthest thing from his mind. 

“Where intention goes, energy flows,” I say.

Bets rolls onto her side, props herself up on one elbow, slides her sunglasses down on her nose. “Who’s that, Kahlil Gibran?”

“Nope,” I say. “Read it in some magazine.”

“Hmm.” Bets sits up. “Ready for round two?”

She forgets I haven’t had round one yet. “Sure,” I say.

*

The last time the three of us were together, we sat on this beach, practically the same spot, but it was a clear night, the sky inky-black, the sun long set on the lip of Wisconsin. We’d come to stargaze, and the sky was dappled with blinking light. We all have the northern lights on our bucket lists, but we’ve yet to see them on this northern side of the mitten state. Still, our eyes had plenty to feast on: the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, Orion and Betelgeuse in his belt, Mars and a host of the heavens. 

“I hope we see a shooting star,” Fonda had said, squeezing a wool blanket around her shoulders.

“Not me,” said Bets. “Bad luck.”

“Naw,” said Fonda. “It’s supposed to be good luck.”

“A week before Herb died? I took the garbage out and looked up, saw a shooting star.”

I told Bets she’d made a faulty comparison, the two events coincidence. “If it’d been a full moon,” I’d said, “you would say that its fullness had some connection to Herb’s death.”

“Well, all I know is what I saw,” she said.

The air was chilly, the waves choppy. We each huddled together under our separate blankets.

“Whose idea was this?” Fonda laughed.

I opened the bottle of merlot and poured into plastic glasses by moonlight. We sat there for a long time, for once not talking, just gazing up at the stars. On the southern horizon, a faint glow from Milwaukee; otherwise, pitch black. It was gorgeous that night. We were gorgeous, especially when the vino lit us like fireflies. These girls, I’d thought. These women. What would I have done without them in my life? I was the outlier, the one in the middle, but I was loved. 

There was an eerie calm in the air, and for a moment I’d felt the end of life press against my flesh, and though I’d never been one of those people who saw their loved ones in the flickering stars, I knew that we are made of starlight and that maybe it was true we return to where we’d come from. Ok, so somewhere up there were my folks and all the dead aunts and uncles that had gone before me. Up there were the little girl down the street who’d died of leukemia before she’d ever gotten out of first grade, and the cats I’d had throughout my life, and the first boy I ever truly loved, and the neighbors I’d watched grow old and stooped before moving into nursing homes, and up there spaces enough for the three of us, like Frost said, “They cannot scare me with their empty spaces. Between stars — on stars where no human race is.”

At that moment, a bright orb came toward us and stopped. I said, “Did you see that?” and pointed up at the sky.

“Is that a star?” said Bets, and right then it dropped straight down and hovered, and then it jutted right, paused, and then jerked straight up.

“Whoa!” Fonda said. 

“Gotta be a UFO,” Bets said.

We sat there watching, waiting. It pulsed like a big blob of white energy. It came closer, grew larger, brighter. Fonda dropped her wine glass. It zipped right overhead, its bright light shining down on us three beach babes and I expected us to be sucked up and prodded, prolly not gently like our yearly’s, but then it swooshed off.

“Holy shit!” Bets said.

“What the hell!” I said.

“That was awesome!” Fonda said.

But it was only Fonda who’d thought the strange orb was an omen of good luck. The next month, she hit the big jackpot, and Bets and I sit on this beach, waiting for something other than the tide to roll in.



By DS Levy

DS Levy lives in the Midwest. Her fiction has appeared in many journals and has received Pushcart and Best Microfiction nominations. She has had work included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 2021, and Long List 2022. She was a finalist in the 2022 Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award at The Florida Review.