Joe Baumann: Two Fictions

Lake| Drive: An Excerpt



What makes Rion a good server from the start is acting. Knowing how. It’s all about finding the right depth of voice for each table, knowing how much to smile, when to joke. Knowing how to keep a grin on your face when some asshole keeps running you ragged or is clearly going to be a bad tipper or complains about something that is not your fault. Appearances are everything.


Lake | Drive is the only nice restaurant in Thomasville,too nice to actually be in Thomasville, located ten minutes outside of town among the St. Augustine grass and pin oaks that line highway six. During his interview for the job, Rion sits up straight, domes his hands on the table. Across from him Glenn, the owner, fires questions his way. Rion nails one about what appetizer he would recommend to a table: the onion rings. When Glenn raises an eyebrow, Rion leans back and says, “I know they’re the least expensive appetizer. But onions are cheap. The overhead is low. I’m guessing they have the highest profit margin of anything on the menu.”


He leaves with the job.


As a kid, Rion had dreamt of being an actor. Mostly for the money, he supposes now, and the fame, because he didn’t really have any idea what it meant to take on a role. But his parents indulged his whim and signed him up for some amateur acting classes for children and let him attend drama camps during the summer even though his dad would have rather seen him playing soccer or baseball. He learned gesture, cues, affectation. He learned how to empty his head of himself and fill it with someone else. And that’s what he does when he starts his training at Lake | Drive.


It only takes him a few days to realize that all of the front of house boys are sleeping with one another.


Donny says something first, a joke about Carter’s uncut dick that turns out not to be a joke when Evan, the night bartender, confirms as much, waggling his eyebrows while mixing a champagne cocktail for one of Timothie’s tables. Andre and Andrew slap each other’s asses too much for it to be nothing, especially when Rion catches the former’s fingers sliding too far between the creases of the latter’s pants, which are admittedly snug and leave little of the derriere to the imagination. Rion’s convictions are solidified when Doug, the salad guy, the only guy who works in the kitchen, catches Rion watching their games of grab-ass and says, handing him a pair of Waldorf salads to run to table eleven, “You know they’re all fucking each other, right?”


Rion isn’t sure what to say. Doug blinks at him. He’s short and blond, but with a nice build; muscles pulse beneath his white t-shirt and matching apron that drapes all the way past his knees, veins beating against his smooth skin. Rion takes the salads to the table and offers to refill their water glasses, for which Timothie says thanks later because he was in the weeds because a nine-top couldn’t figure out how to order fresh drinks all at once. Rion wonders, based on what Doug said and what he’s seen, whether Timothie’s wink is just a tired half-blink or if Timothie, who is tall and Grecian, with thick dark hair and nice dimples and shoulders that fill out his white Oxford nicely, would, in fact, like to sleep with him.


Lake | Drive is all windows and natural light. The front doors deposit diners into a baroque entryway with a coat check near the bathrooms, which are all brass fixtures and soft light, the porcelain scrubbed every hour by the bus boys, Micah and Toby, who grumble and hide the spray bottles filled with alien-blue sanitizer behind their backs as they march through the dining room toward their messy charges. Past the coat check is the host stand, a massive oak creation that looks like it belongs in the Oval Office rather than at the front of a restaurant with thirty tables, six of which pass in front of the small bar with its dozen stools and Megatouch gaming machine whose volume is kept locked on low so as not to interfere with the soft symphonies that pump through the restaurant’s speakers. Past the bar is a large bump-out of a room that looks out on the water of Thomasville Lake, which is frightening in its clarity, a blue so shockingly crystalline you can practically see to the bottom. The quartet of tables in this area, Timothie has explained to Rion during training, are available by reservation only and features a prix fixe menu. Past the bump-out is the regular dining room, with booths lodged against the wall of windows as well as the opposite, plus two rows of tables in between. A private dining room used only for parties of at least twenty sits at the back of the restaurant. Everything is bleached blonde hardwood flooring and creamy white walls that match the tablecloths. The booths are wiped down after each seating, their chocolate leather practically gleaming like a new car.


Because he spent two years in high school as a busser/host when he abandoned his dreams of the big screen and the Broadway stage, Rion is subjected to only three days of server training at Lake | Drive rather than the usual week and a half. Glenn says this to him as if it’s the greatest gift in the world. He is a big man, Glenn, always dressed in a rumpled Oxford that chokes at his throat until he unbuttons the collar after the dinner rush ends, when he settles in at the bar for a Dewars neat, which Evan pours without prompting. His cheeks are ruddy, juggly; Glenn has certainly bought into the notion that guests will never trust a skinny cook. The first two days of Rion’s training are mostly memorizing the menu, which is small, the focus on meat and potatoes as well as a hearty supply of high-end, exotic-sounding vegetables. This is because, as Glenn has explained, even though Thomasville is squarely in northern Missouri and full of plenty of down-home folks who are most interested in mashed potatoes and sirloins, the fancy liberal arts college in town—where most of his staff are students—is home to enough pot-smoking hippies and yuppy vegan humanities professors that they go apeshit for his haricot verts and mustard greens and mache and sorrel. Rion learns fast, especially when he doesn’t have to instill in his head all of the low-brow side dishes (Lake | Drive offers only potatoes au gratin, small Caesars, baked potatoes and their sweet cousins, frites, and a homemade slaw) and three kinds of salad dressing (“We serve balsamic, Italian, and, begrudgingly, ranch,” Glenn said). Then there is the Point of Sales system, which he breezes through, and the table numbers, easy enough. By day three, which is all food running and expo, Rion is practically waiting on tables on his own. His final test is doing so while Glenn sits at the bar, drink in one hand, pen in the other, watching Rion’s every move. Timothie, who trains him, looms nearby, eyes unblinking.


One of the first things he noticed about Lake | Drive wasn’t its weird name, which was a reference to both the pristine lake onto which its windows gaze and the restaurant’s quirky schtik of having, like the bump-out room, an expensive prix fixe—pricier than the bump-out room’s—available on the weekends at a table situated at a gazebo located a tenth of a mile from the restaurant proper, to which both eaters and server arrive via golf cart. No, what attracted Rion’s attention are the weird gender lines along which the restaurant operates: the bartender and host and servers are all men, except for Angela, a tall, willowy woman who closes the dining room; the back-of-house, the dishwasher and line cooks and expo lead, are all women who wear their white coats buttoned up tight, hair pulled back behind thick bandanas. The exception there is Doug, the all-seeing eye of the salad station.


What’s the deal with that?” Rion asks Timothie as he finishes up his last shift of training, having passed Glenn’s exam. Not a perfect score—eventually, Timothie tells Rion that no one has ever earned a perfect score on that initial evaluation—but pretty close, Rion’s only blemishes a failure to inquire with specificity about the table’s potential interest in dessert as well as a shaky refilling of their glasses of petite sirah, two droplets staining the white tablecloth.


It’s just what Glenn does,” Timothie says, leaning against the counter at the front server’s station, wedging himself between the coffee urn and a pitcher of sweetened iced tea that was sweating onto its napkin and saucer. “He thinks women are better cooks and men are better talkers.”


Seems antiquated.”

Timothie shrugs. “No one’s complained yet.”


And what if a woman wants to be a server?”


He finds a reason not to hire them. Or convinces them that grilling steaks is more impressive. He pays them well.”


The first three weeks fly by. Rion falls into the rhythms of summer: waking up late in his empty apartment, his roommate gone for eight weeks to an internship at the Capitol in Jefferson City; hitting the McClain State recreation center in the morning, sweating off the cocktails he drinks at the Lake | Drive bar every night after his shifts are over; lazing around until three-thirty, when he changes and walks out the door to drive to the restaurant; works his shifts, every day acclimating himself more and more to the movements and nuances of the restaurant.


The money at Lake | Drive is good; appetizers are pricey, and the wines are pricier. The few college students who come in order Bud Lights and fried oysters and tip well because they all know at least someone who works there and don’t want to get bad reputations. Because it’s summer, the clientele is mostly bored history and business faculty as well as the cadre of surprisingly well-to-do real estate moguls who somehow make good enough money only an hour south of Ottumwa, Iowa, to afford expensive bone-in tomahawk steaks and scallopini. Though there’s no official dress code, men wear suit coats and women pearl earrings. One man accosts him gently for not knowing Haydn from Beethoven—soft symphonic strings pump out through speakers, often drowned out by the drone of voices—but still tips over twenty percent, laughing with his tablemates at Rion’s ignorance. For the sake of paying his bills, Rion laughs along, too, but doesn’t offer to-go boxes for anyone who hasn’t finished their porterhouses. They congeal fat and blood on their plates in dark, oozing rings.


He enjoys the work. Things are great. His desk is strewn with stacks of cash.


And then, after twenty-one days at Lake | Drive, it happens: the disappearances.





The Weight of Bones

Our parents flew away on Good Friday. I was sixteen. My sisters were twelve.

I shared this with Lucas on our two-year anniversary, while we ate dinner at a restaurant he’d read about online. The dining room held only ten tables; the bar had eight seats. Everyone spoke in whispers so as not to be overheard. A pair of LED candles, one red and one white, illuminated each table. We were in the middle of our dinner salads, romaine and kale and spinach topped with pepperoncini dressing, when I told him about my mom and dad.

We tried to keep them happy for as long as we could.”

Lucas had recently cut his hair, a buzz down to stubble. The blond filaments caught the light so his scalp glowed a soft gold. He blinked at me through the dimness that had felt romantic but now seemed gloomy.

It happens to everyone eventually,” he said.

Not everyone.”

We’d seen his parents just last week. They seemed happy, heavy with satisfaction, as though full from a constant, extravagant feast.

Most people,” he said, then reached for his wineglass. We were splitting a bottle of expensive Beaujolais.

I drank, too. The wine was too dry for me. When our server had presented the bottle, I’d nodded even though Lucas had ordered it. The server, looking first at him and then at me, decided to fill his glass first.

Is there a reason you’re telling me this?” he said. “Now?”

I just thought you should know.”

I already knew they were gone. But I’ve never met your sisters, you know.”

Do you want to?”

Our entrees arrived, steaming and huge, which meant I didn’t have to talk about why Annie and Elizabeth and I had stopped talking, why they moved to the east coast for college and never came back while I stayed in Missouri. Lucas had ordered breaded pork chops with Yukon potatoes and roasted vegetables, which glistened with oil and flecks of garlic the size of fingernail clippings. I had chosen the veal cacciatore, which was served in red sauce and heaped over a pool of twisted noodles.

Whoa,” Lucas said once the server was gone. “You’re going to need a to-go box.”

How do you know I’m not famished?”

You sound like a Victorian lady in a novel. ‘Famished.’” He cut into his pork.

We ate. Although I had no interest in talking about my sisters, I wanted to say more about my parents. I don’t know why I had thought of them; after they’d ascended into the sky, pastel afternoon light rimming their bodies, I’d spent years angry at them. My sisters and I had no aunts or uncles to help us, as they, too, had disappeared into the sky, and my cousins were all dealing with their own parentless lives. One day, on the cusp of eighteen, I woke up and simply wasn’t angry any more, as if my rage, too, had taken flight. But that was almost worse, because instead of anger I felt nothing. This was something Annie and Elizabeth would accuse me of when they were old enough to start those kinds of fights.

Lucas polished off one of his pork chops. The empty bone was gnarled with glistening gristle. He reached across the table and laid his hand over mine, even though I was still gripping my fork. One of his potatoes rolled around as he set down his steak knife.

You couldn’t have done much to stop them, you know.”

I know that. But it didn’t feel like that at the time.”

Our server appeared. He refilled our glasses, emptying the bottle. Lucas asked for another.

You drove,” I said. “And I can’t drive a manual.”

He waved his hand through the air. “I’ll be fine. Will you?”

I nodded.

Good Friday,” he said when the fresh bottle of wine appeared.

The symbolism doesn’t escape me.” I’d been raised Catholic, though we didn’t go in for the bonus ceremonies, no stations of the cross, no washing of the feet. Half the time we skipped church on All Saint’s Day. My mom was more interested in Easter baskets than Easter mass. My dad periodically served as a lector on Sundays, but sometimes he was assigned the seven-thirty mass, and our family split up because my mom had no interest in rousing a teenage boy and his pre-teen twin sisters at the crack of dawn. After our parents ascended, I kept going to church through the rest of high school, just long enough to keep the routine up for my sisters. But then when I started at the local community college, I stopped. So did Annie and Elizabeth. In exchange, we all started drinking on Saturday nights, cheap beer that a kid in my comp class agreed to buy.

We finished dinner pleasantly, Lucas taking his second pork chop home for leftovers. When I said I didn’t want the rest of my veal, he scooped it into his Styrofoam box, the red sauce seeping like spilled blood. I wondered if he might make some grand gesture; I’d thought about proposing, but when I imagined myself walking into a jeweler’s to find an engagement band, my stomach clenched like I was ill. I couldn’t imagine the selection, the kneeling, the weepy words, the attention from the other diners. I could see Lucas doing any of those things. But then he didn’t; instead, he paid the bill, tipping generously as always, and carried our leftovers out, walking behind me as we traversed the narrow spaces between tables. Outside, he put his hand on my lower back, fingers gently playing at my spine like he was fingering the strings of a guitar. He wasn’t guiding or pushing, just touching, and that made me feel heavy, my feet settled square on the sidewalk.

* * *

On our first anniversary, Lucas asked me to move in with him. His apartment was an industrial-style loft, with smooth concrete floors the color of melted chocolate, exposed ductwork snaking around the high ceilings, granite countertops in the generous kitchen. He lived across the street from the community college. Lucas taught sociology there. I, by comparison, was living in a studio apartment above a laundromat not because I couldn’t afford something nicer but because I couldn’t be motivated to find anything. The idea of boxing up my dishes and the few books I kept scattered about was too much. After our parents had flown off, Annie, Elizabeth, and I had managed to keep their house until we were all college graduates and gainfully employed—I worked for an accounting firm in their billing department, pushing paper and collecting payments—and agreed it was time to sell; none of us wanted to live there anymore.

This is all to say that I told Lucas yes, of course. We were in his apartment at the time, having chosen to stay in that night. He cooked risotto in a white wine sauce. We were sitting on his couch, bloated with carbs, a Cardinals game muted on the television. When I said yes, he kissed me, hard. My body felt stiff and heavy as Lucas leaned into me. He was himself like something cast in bronze. I relished the anchoring weight of him as he pushed me down onto my back and slithered on top of me, his knees like brass, his ribs like iron. With him there, close and thick and pinning me down, I didn’t feel any risk of flight, of disappearance, of being scorched by the setting sun as I rocketed toward its heat.

Out of the corner of my eye I watched the Cardinals hit a homerun, take a late lead. The crowd was wild, cheering and clapping and whipping towels around their heads. I closed my eyes, tasted Lucas’s breath, and imagined all of that clamor was for us.

* * *

Annie and Elizabeth left together. After I finished two years at the community college I transferred to a nearby four-year university to complete my business degree. My classes were easy enough; mostly, I learned about how to talk to people. I was good at absorbing this information, turning it into a successful part-time job at a busy, expensive restaurant where my gleaming voice and sly persuasion increased my average check total and thus my tips, which were almost always over twenty percent.

Three years without our parents had hardened my sisters. The beer drinking didn’t help. Their faces were always bloated, eyes red even if they hadn’t been crying. Annie had fallen in with pot smokers, and she recruited Elizabeth to the habit, too. I tried not to parent them, didn’t like the way I felt a sudden hollowness in my elbows or jaw if I started scolding them or thinking about their downward trajectory, though I did give them a hard time whenever they set off the smoke detectors, even if they were quick to wave the noise away by opening and closing the back door or turning on the attic fan. Elizabeth had always been a reader, Annie a soccer enthusiast, and even though they became alcoholics as high school freshmen they maintained these habits, becoming even better readers and athletes—I’m not sure how Annie kept up, all that beer sloshing in her gut as she ran up and down the field—earning impressive college scholarships. They refused to apply anywhere near home, and despite the mounting tuition sticker prices, Elizabeth snagged enough scholarship money to coast through a degree at Bowdoin without going into massive debt. Annie’s soccer scholarship at Duke did the same.

Even though their schools would be a thirteen-hour drive apart, they took the same car off to school. Annie had to be in Durham early in the summer, so Elizabeth dropped her off in North Carolina before climbing I-95 up to Maine two and a half months early, where she’d secured some kind of sublet from a professor going on sabbatical. How my sister convinced this stranger she would be a good housekeeper for the ten weeks before she moved on campus I had no idea. By this time, they were hardly talking to me.

When I’ve tried to explain to Lucas what happened between me and my sisters, I’ve struggled. No major dust-up led to a hard, sudden schism. We were kids, alone, trying to understand what we could have done differently to prove our love to our parents, to keep them happy and anchored. If our parents had been dissatisfied with their life, with us, that was their problem, not ours. I might have said so once, on a night when I’d drank several beers too many, slipping out hissing words of judgment that made Annie and Elizabeth go quiet. I didn’t think much of it at the time—or times; there could have been more than one—but it must have stuck with my sisters, because they slowly stopped speaking to me, and definitely stopped drinking with me, finding ways to achieve intoxication with people who wouldn’t say such things about our mom and dad. I didn’t understand: why did I deserve abandonment when it was our parents who had rocketed up into the sky, leaving us to fend for ourselves?

* * *

I woke hot and stiff, Lucas settled against me. He’d started lifting weights in high school, downing chalky protein shakes that left him constipated if he didn’t drink enough water. In college, he played intramural flag football and soccer, leaning down from the bloat he’d made of himself. I liked the hard shape of his body; he had the breadth and height of a basketball player but the hints of a wide receiver’s bulk in his legs and biceps. He shaved his chest and stomach, claiming that body hair made him feel fat, even though his grew in golden and translucent, giving him an angelic sort of look. But when I said this he shook his head, laughed, and added “six-pack of razors” to the shopping list he kept on a dry erase board on the refrigerator.

Sometimes, right as he woke, Lucas seemed to think he was alone, as if his memory of me had been erased. He would rub at his mouth, yawn, and stretch, his arms ending in fists that nearly clipped my nose or temple. Something serene was set in his face, something I couldn’t quite read. But then he’d brush against me and that calm would recoil, replaced by awareness, the performance we put on when around other people.

Even though I was still half-asleep and dried out from the second bottle of wine, I grabbed his wrist at its most delicate point, where the knobby ends of his radius and ulna met in a slender oval that no amount of weightlifting had been able to enlarge. Somehow this gesture had become one of our signs that one of us was interested in sex. I wasn’t, not really, blood pounding at my temples, my throat yearning for some water, but I held on, the pads of my fingers pressed along the gate of his ligaments and veins, feeling his pulse.

Lucas kissed my neck. His breath smelled faintly of wine and his mint toothpaste. His saliva was tacky and sour, but I let it collect beneath my jaw anyway. He moved atop me, underwear sliding against my stomach. He was already hard.

Well,” I said.

The croak of my voice made him laugh. “Hang on.”

He peeled the sheets and comforter away, a blast of cold air prickling the hair around my knees. I watched as he tiptoed out of the room, boxer briefs strained by his arousal. Moments later he was back with a glass of water.

Thanks,” I said when I set it down on the nightstand, empty.

He grinned. His canines looked like fangs.

As he was hopping back into bed, caging me with his knees, my phone vibrated, pinging against the water glass. I’d have ignored it, but it was strange for me to receive a call or text on a Sunday morning. Lucas knew this and froze, glancing toward the phone. I plucked it up. A text from Annie: Elizabeth was gone. She’d flown away.

* * *

Annie, Elizabeth, and I were good children. We ate our vegetables and took our baths and as we grew older we rarely fought and didn’t throw tantrums. Our grades were strong and our teachers gave good reports during conferences. We did not demand participation in dozens of extracurriculars that would leave our parents trapped in late-afternoon traffic or arranging meals at ridiculous hours of the night. None of us drank—until after they were gone, that is—or became aloof, angsty teenagers who would pick fights for the sake of it. We didn’t use drugs; they just didn’t cross our minds as something to do.

We knew, early on, what was at stake. When I was in fifth grade, my classmate Sam Butler came into school sobbing. We surrounded him at recess as he choked out the story of his parents’ ascension. Sam was an only child, had always been quiet, as non-demanding as me and my sisters, and yet, as he told it, on a Sunday afternoon in early February, slushy snow on the ground from a weekend storm, his father opened the front door to let a blast of chilly air in as he was sucked out, twirling up into the gray-knit sky. Sam’s mom, rushing from the kitchen where she was hand-rolling cinnamon buns as she did every weekend, the house already filling with the aromas of butter and salt and sugar, followed suit, twisting and curling as she lifted off the ground, practically parallel to the shag carpet when she was rushed out the door, as if she was swimming through deep water. Sam watched in horror, his mouth agape.

I don’t know what I did,” was all he could say. He said it over and over, so much that our teacher sent him to the principal’s office. I never saw Sam Butler again.

Every day until our parents flew away I remembered the look on Sam’s face as he stood on the blacktop, surrounded by kids playing basketball and foursquare. Something had come untethered in him, his skin snapping loose around his eyes and in his shoulders. His mouth and jaw seemed unhinged, lifeless. I told Annie and Elizabeth about him, and they trembled together in their shared bedroom as if I’d told them a terrible ghost story. I spent years watching my parents for any signs, doing everything I could to make sure they were happy, heavy, grounded.

And it was not enough.

Because we went to a Catholic high school, we were home on Good Friday. Our dad left work early, only a few hours after lunch. I never found out why, because shortly after he walked through the door and uncinched his tie, he and my mom were outside, lifting into the clouds. I’d dreamt about this moment before, terrible nightmares in which they ascended into storms, tornadoes, hail. But I’d never imagined that sunshine and a light breeze would carry them away.

I don’t know what my sisters were doing at the time, but I was sitting on the living room sofa when it happened, watching television, something irrelevant and noisy. I was mostly keeping an eye on my parents, the back of my neck tingling at my dad’s unexpected presence. When he ran to the front door, I knew what was coming. I wish I could say I’d stood and blocked his way, or grabbed at my mother’s leg as she floated up from the floor, or screamed out to Annie and Elizabeth to help me. Anything to make one last gesture, one desperate act to keep our parents content, grounded. But I stared like Sam Butler had as they wandered outside, leaving our lives forever.

* * *

Annie and I had not spoken in over a year. When we needed to update each other on something, we sent texts. I’d told her about moving in with Lucas; she’d told me about her engagement. Elizabeth, a year after she graduated from Bowdoin, announced that she’d eloped and was pregnant. Her son was now four. I mailed him a present every year to a house I’d never seen. I could picture nothing about either of my sisters’ lives.

What happened?” I said. Lucas was perched on the end of the bed, massaging my left foot, sending warm shocks of pleasure up through my leg and torso. Each knead of his thumb added a plumb weight behind my lungs.

What do you mean, ‘what happened?’ She flew away.”

I had no idea she was unhappy.”

Well, why would you?”

That doesn’t seem fair.”

Annie was silent. Lucas frowned and moved to my right leg. I felt as though I was sinking into the mattress. His face brightened seeing my shoulders relax.

Look, I just don’t know what to do. Reece is just a little kid,” Annie said.

Doesn’t he have a father? Or did he fly off, too?”

Still there. But I can’t imagine this will keep him there for long.”

You seem to want me to do something.”

Jesus, Michael. I don’t know. Our sister is gone.”

Lucas’s kneading had grown more intense; he was moving up my calf. I glanced at him. Despite what he must have heard happening between me and Annie, he had a wolfish look his face. His fingers pushed further up my leg. I knew where this was going.

What should I do?” I said. “Just tell me what you think I should do.”

Annie sighed into the phone, a bit of dark static. “Nevermind. I guess I just thought you would want to know that it’s just you and me now.”

I wanted to say that it had been just me for a long time now. That Lucas, my boyfriend, whom neither she nor Elizabeth had ever met, was about to start fondling my scrotum and so I should probably go, but before I could do that, she hung up without saying another word. As if she, too, had flown away, leaving her cell phone and the noise of the world behind.

* * *

On the weekends, I went with Lucas to the gym. He was more devoted, willing to rise early during the work week to go sprint on treadmills and complete endless sets of side raises and arm curls, so I was always behind, never able to increase my weights at the same pace, but he never gave me a hard time for this. He liked to wear headphones when he worked out, so we rarely spoke, except when he exhorted me to finish one more rep, my muscles screaming, face red, arms jiggling and threatening failure. Though Lucas was muscular and strong, he didn’t wander around the gym with any swagger; in fact, he seemed to shrink, as though embarrassed by the amount he could squat or skull crush. He never grunted, never let out obnoxious screams.

We were wrapping up our workout with chin-ups and pullups when he finally broached the subject of my sister.

You should go to her.”

Which one?” I said. My mouth was dry, my head still fuzzy with wine. I was also tangy with sex, thought anyone who came close enough would be able to smell the chlorinated scent of seminal fluid on both of us.

The one that didn’t fly away.”

We’re not those kind of siblings. You know that.”

Things are different now.”

I grabbed the bar overhand and hoisted myself up, feeling the ache in my lats. My temples pulsed. Around us, women in Lululemon and men in torn muscle tees grunted and swiveled on ellipticals.

When I was done, I dropped to the floor and said, “I don’t see how.”

Your sister’s gone.”

She was already gone.”

Lucas shook his head but didn’t say a word. As he jumped up to start his last set, I felt the briefest tremor, an unfounded fear that he would rise toward the gym rafters. That he would find his way through a port in the ceiling that would set him free. But his hands found the bar and he started lifting, lowering, lifting, lowering, and soon enough he was back on the ground.

* * *

My sisters and I went to church on Easter. They wore matching yellow dresses with flecks of blue. I watched YouTube videos for an hour, teaching myself how to tie a Windsor knot. I wore one of my father’s ties. Annie raided our mom’s left-behind purse, and I found our dad’s wallet and keys. I took a heap of twenties and his insurance card.

For two days we’d examined every single decision we’d ever made. Annie lamented choosing soccer with its far-away tournaments. Elizabeth was convinced she had been too picky an eater, even though she’d always cleaned her plate. I should have told them, when they started crying, that none of this was our fault. I should have cried with them.

Church was packed. By silent assent we slipped into a pew at the very back, near the baptismal font giving off its mineral reek. We sat through the mass, kneeling and standing at all the right moments. I fiddled with my tie, convinced something was wrong with the knot. At communion, neither Annie nor Elizabeth made a move to leave to receive the host and wine, so I didn’t go either. When the recessional was finished, no one noticed us; everyone was too wrapped up in their own families to see what had happened to ours.

Outside, we marched across the parking lot. The day was serene, warm, breezy. Dresses flickered up women’s thighs. My tie lifted up like a tongue licking at the air. People milled about the church entrance, and I imagined, hoped, I would see some ravaged father or harried mother shoot into the sky. But no: everyone was content, or content enough, feet squarely on the ground. When I turned the car out of the parking lot, I took the turn hard. For a second I thought I felt the tires lifting, my own sorrow pulling me, the car, and my siblings into the heavens. But of course all we did was drive home.

* * *

Neither Lucas nor I liked using the showers at the gym for fear of scuzzy fungus. Plus, the water pressure was garbage. At home, he cleaned up first. Neither of us enjoyed the intimacy of a shared shower, so I stood around, swallowing down the protein smoothie he’d whipped up, and listened to the sound of water rushing through the pipes. He grabbed my ass when we switched, Lucas fresh, me still sticky with sweat.

When I was done in the shower, he was waiting for me in the kitchen. He slid a piece of paper toward me.

What’s this?” I said.

Annie’s address.”

How’d you get this?”

I called her.”

How’d you get her number?”

I looked on your phone.”

You know my password?”

You should go. See her. See your family.”

I picked up the paper. The handwriting looked foreign, as if someone pretending to be Lucas had written it. When I looked at him, he was frowning. Suddenly, his new haircut seemed all wrong. I could see the shape of his skull, which was unfamiliar, asymmetrical in a way I had never noticed before. He frowned.

Michael,” he said. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

You’ve never snuck into my phone.”

Before he could say another word, I felt it happening: sudden and swift, an escape of air from somewhere deep inside me. Deeper than my lungs; I didn’t feel punched in the gut, or winded from too many sprints. I felt a raw, hollow exhumation of everything that held me to the earth. I could tell I was going to float away. For just a second, I thought of my parents, how my dad seemed to intuit his departure. Had he tried to stop it? I felt a tingling in my bare feet as they started to lift off from the floor, the smooth concrete that Lucas loved and I found cold. I wondered what my dad and mom might have done had they truly wanted to stay. That, of all things, had made me the most angry: that they’d made no effort to hold on, to resist the urge that was lifting them off the ground. But now, as I felt my arms buoy up like helium balloons, I understood that they could have done nothing. They, like me, were powerless to stop themselves.

But then Lucas, sensing what was happening, came around the kitchen counter and dove on top of me. His body tangled up in mine and we crashed to the floor. I felt a hard pain in my right elbow and hip. The shock of hurt and the heaviness of his chest pressed the airlessness out, compacting me against the unyielding floor.

No,” he said, voice ragged and runny against my ear. “You will not. No.”

He kept saying it, over and over: No, no, no.

And I didn’t. Despite being so sure that it couldn’t be that easy, that a simple incantation of refusal and the grip of a strong, warm hand, the shield of a dense package of human flesh and bone, could not possibly stop me, I knew that I wouldn’t fly away after all. Something sunk hard and hot and deep in me; my bones felt weighty, titanium.

I’m sorry,” Lucas was saying, repeating himself, voice scratchy as an old record. He made himself heavier, his body covering mine as I settled back down to earth, as I tried to speak but could find no words. I wanted to tell him that it was okay, but I couldn’t. He wrapped his arms around me, tight against my shoulders, the weight of his bones enough to hold us both there for as long as it took.




Joe Baumann possesses a PhD in English, with an emphasis in Fiction Writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (2014).  While there, he served as the editor-in-chief of Rougarou: An Online Literary Journal as well as The Southwestern Review, the university’s student literary journal.  He completed his B.A. and M.A. in English at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri.

Currently, Joe teaches literature and writing at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri, where he coordinates the program in creative writing, which offers an Associate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree as well as Certificates of Specialization in Creative Writing and in Literary Editing and Publishing.  He is also the department chair.