by Len Kuntz

I am wearing the same Fry boots I bought at age twenty-three, used boots then, used now. Gary threw one at me when we were watching ‘American Idol’ and he didn’t think I was paying attention. The heel hit me square in the eye and now I have only one that works. Sometimes I like it better that way. The world’s not always a pretty picture.

Even after that episode I stayed, lingered like an alley cat scared by vagrants and night sounds but still starving. What I was famished for was love, even a facsimile of it, even a cruel torch masquerading as love, and so I stayed with Gary too many months and years until my family disowned me for my weakness, my lack of spine, as Dad said.

A knife to the throat one evening in bed tipped things for me. Gary liked it weird in bed—holding an unloaded Luger to my head as he took me doggy, a pair of used panties stretched across my face as he took me doggy, searing hot candle wax dripped down the back of my neck and across my shoulder blades as he took me doggy.

The guy in the apartment above has been coming around when I go out to the patio to smoke. He says I look too wounded to be alone. He’s asked me out but I keep saying no. He seems like good people and it’s a mistake for someone like me to pass up such an offer, but when you only have one seeing-eye your focus is always off. You get clumsy. You miss things. The world is tilted.

Today was the first day of school, and as usual I was nervous how the kids would react when they saw me because it always happens in one form or another.

As we broke for recess, sweet little Fiona with her afro and Sues-striped socks up to her thighs pointed and asked if I was an ogre. Kids are smarter than you think. At any age, they are. She was just being a child, curious, a seven year old with no will ill yet.

When I laughed and raised my arms, making my hands into claws she started to whimper. I felt like shit about that, and said, ‘No. No. I’m a human being. I’m real.’

I went to Group for a few years after leaving Gary. People shared their stories. Some of it was very hard to hear, some of it heart-crushing, some of it self-pity. It took almost as much strength to stop going as it did to leave Gary because Group was the only place I felt safe, even though I knew feeling that way just made me weaker, less.

One woman there had been burned with lit cigarettes on her face so many times that her skin was a rope of wedges melded into each other, like moon craters if moon craters were skin and not quite as deep. People called her ‘The Thing’ because she resembled a deformed comic book hero.

When I phoned last night, for no reason other than I was thinking of her out of the blue, her sister answered and I found out about the suicide. The pull of darkness and despair can get to a point where a quick end seems inevitable and there’s no alternative. People who call suicide victims selfish don’t get it. They’ve never been there. Life is that much brighter for them.

I look at my boots now, noticing a nail is coming through the left heel like a snaggle tooth. I hadn’t felt it when walking, hadn’t detected it at all until now, and I feel even more blind than I am, more stupid, sort of how a relationship can be lethal even when you’re in it and all the signs are right there, red flares screaming at you to run.

When the kids clamber back into class, I stand up and write on the chalkboard Something I want to teach you, then erase it and write Something I need to teach you is how to love the right way. Turning around, I see Fiona’s upraised hand.

‘Yes, Fiona?’

‘I already know that one.’

‘You do?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yep. My Daddy loves my Mom. He calls her Baby and they hold hands when they watch TV.’

I let myself smile.

‘That’s good,’ I say. ‘Let’s start there.’

Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State, an editor at the online magazine Literary Orphans, and the author of I’m Not Supposed To Be Here and Neither Are You from Unknown Press.  You can also find him at lenkuntz.blogspot.com