Close Range

By Colleen McCarthy


It was dangerous to like a guy like him. I did it anyway. Looking back, I can now recognize the moment I should have wised up, saw him for who he was, and ran. But I didn’t. Not then. (That wouldn’t come until many months later, when he abandoned me mid-PTSD panic attack at a party so he could go fuck some girl he had met at the pub.)

On the night I should have learned, we were in a friend’s small house on the lake—me, him, the friend, and some other girl whose name I never caught—sitting on two pleather couches the color of dark espresso. This house, covered in wood-paneling, with rooms full of cluttered nonsense from someone’s childhood (a toddler’s Strawberry Shortcake scooter, a stack of Disney coloring books, a binder full of Pokémon cards), was where I’d spent every weekend that summer, fall, and now late into winter. Because he was always there.  

            I sat still beside him on the couch, holding my breath. We were so close his thigh grazed mine each time he moved. Was he doing it on purpose? Then he leaned back, and I felt the weight of his arm as he casually rested it behind my shoulders. A subtle gesture, but a gesture.  

            While he talked, his arm around my shoulders, he would occasionally glance at me. When the conversation turned in a direction that he liked—toward aliens, or conspiracy theories, or, most especially, Justin Timberlake—he’d use his free hand to tap at my knee. Every once in a while, he’d turn to me and just smile. I felt like he saw me.

            An orange kitchen plate was laid out on the coffee table in front of us, lines already cut, as if it were cheese and crackers. A rolled up five-dollar bill hung carelessly off the edge of the plate. As I sat there, I mentally prepared and rehearsed several potential responses in case someone offered me a line: No thanks, I’m good; or, I don’t like to mix with alcohol; or (and this one I would deliver laughingly), I had my experimental phase in college. Nobody offered.

            The weight of his arm lifted from my shoulders and I watched as he scooted forward, perching on the edge of the couch. He grabbed the five-dollar bill and rolled it tight between his fingers before putting it to his nose. He leaned forward, snorted loudly. I could hear it over the TV, which was playing a Childish Gambino music video on YouTube. I watched as the rolled bill glided across the plate vacuuming up the line. Still sniffing, he threw the bill back on the plate and wiped his nose with the meat of his thumb.

“I should have known then; I should have walked away right there. But seeing how sad he’d looked standing there blinded me.”

Later, he led me to the back porch where he lit a cigarette. I stood with my arms wound tightly around myself and watched as he exhaled thin curls of blue smoke that hovered in the frigid winter air before finally dissipating. He seemed to want to talk, so I listened. His voice was deep and smooth, a voice you could listen to endlessly. He told me a story about how that previous summer he’d been shooting his BB gun “in these very woods.” He said he’d been trying all afternoon to hit something—a squirrel or a chipmunk—wanting to prove to himself that he could.

            I followed his eyes as he stared into the darkness, as though I might be able to see the events unfolding as he spoke. He set his sights on a chipmunk frozen in fear. As he described it, he slowly lifted his arm, his middle and index fingers extended, imitating a gun. He closed one eye and jerked his fingers upward, mimicking the kickback it made when it fired. He stood like that for a moment, silent. He’d hit the chipmunk, he told me. With a mixture of dread and excitement, he’d strode over to see the damage he’d caused. The chipmunk wasn’t dead. He watched as the tiny creature struggled for breath, blood running from its wound. In that moment, he said, he felt regret and sorrow, and he wanted to take it back. He wanted to put the chipmunk out of its misery, but was unable to bring himself to kill it. To shoot from a distance, from the safety of the porch, that had been one thing, but to kill an animal at such close range was another game entirely. He said it was the most oddly beautiful thing he’d ever seen, how the sun reflected off the blood and pooled in a leaf.

            The ghost of a shamed-smile spread across his face and I almost felt bad for him. I should have known then; I should have walked away right there. But seeing how sad he’d looked standing there blinded me. He was a coward. He’d taken an innocent animal to the brink of death, then walked right up to it and hadn’t had the courage to end its misery. He let it suffer, watched as it struggled for its fleeting life. He’d found beauty in it.

            For months after, we’d step away from our friends to come out here on this porch. We would have quiet conversations alone. Huddled together against the chill, he’d tell me he was no good, that I was too good for him. He’d tell me that I shouldn’t like him, and then he’d ask why I did. He’d say this over and over and I’d tell him again and again that he saw me, and that that meant something. I told him I believed in him, I believed that he could be a good man, that he was a good man. He’d just been dealt a shitty hand.

Every time we had these conversations it brought me back to the night when I should have stopped liking him.  It took me back to when he tore his gaze away from the woods and looked at me. He wiped at his nose, dripping from the coke, and asked if it was running. I shook my head, no, and he smiled. “You’re sweet,” he said. “But you’re lying.”

Colleen McCarthy is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

He Liked Cheese

by Josh Zinn


A friend of mine died last month.

Truth be told, he wasn’t “mine” so much as he was tangential––one of my husband’s best friends whom, over the eight years we’d known one another, I’d grown to care for immensely.

He passed away unexpectedly, in that sudden, numbing, “should-we-cancel-tonight’s-dinner-party?” fashion where processing the shock of what’s happened feels insurmountable, so the easiest thing to do is tuck the pain away and stay on track with the day’s agenda: buy wine, make sure we get those garlic n’ herb crackers everyone likes, and try (in vain) to get all the dog hair off the couch before guests arrives. Fill the hole, rinse, repeat. It’s not that you don’t care. It’s that you care too much to accept part of your life is now bound to a path which ends in sadness.

That evening, seated amidst baguettes, brie, and the beginnings of bereavement, those of us who’d known him began asking the how’s and why’s which always come in these times. Could any of us have stopped it? Had we let him down? Was he at peace when it happened or, god forbid, was he scared? Of course, no one knew for certain––we weren’t questioning with the expectation anyone had answers––but that didn’t curb our casual speculation between bites of muenster and sips of Chablis. Like Trump, Game of Thrones, and impending summer weddings, the mystery surrounding our friend’s abrupt demise––this horrible, tragic, raw thing all of us had internalized but no one seemed prepared to deal with––became yet another topic to discuss over finger foods. As big as our collective pain was, turning him into small-talk was the best anyone could muster.

I’m no stranger to death, but death never stops feeling strange to me. Over the past decade I’ve lost my mother, grandmother, uncles, as well as several good friends––at least one a year for the past five (but who’s counting?) Some of their exits have been peaceful and expected. Others, jarring enough I’ve since become conditioned to answer every phone call I receive with trepidation, fearful the frog now permanently lodged in my throat will leap forth the moment I’m told to prepare for another season of sorrow. If we’re talking semantics, then, yes: like everyone else in this world, I know death eventually awaits me. That’s fine; it’s part of the process. What bothers me is that, in the here and now, I’ve become far too used to waiting on it.

No one told me this part about growing up––that life inevitably settles into one long, dragged-out goodbye. When I was a kid and even well into adulthood, I can recall cheerfully bragging, “I’ve never known anyone who’s died!” as if having been spared the experience of grief was proof of my own specialness. Though I’m sure, at the time, I believed I was merely hunting for facts to stand out in the crowd, in hindsight I can’t help but wonder if somehow there was a sense of what was to come: an avalanche of loss ready to bury the people I love six feet under. I can’t help but question whether the universe was trying to tell me to take stock of my life, saying, “Hey, kid. Yeah, these people may piss you off, but try to enjoy them. This ain’t gonna last.”

That’s what death does. It makes us question every moment, every interaction we’ve had with someone, leaving us asking, “Was it enough? Was I enough?” Death funnels voices into one-sided conversations––our arguments and apologies falling on the deafest of ears––where the only thing we can be resolute about is our perpetual lack of resolution. It is a destroyer, a haunter, a gatherer of memory, and, aside from being loved, it is the single most overwhelming and powerful force I have ever encountered. In the short span of ten years, death has reshaped my life, decimating my sense of security and self, then taunting me to rebuild in spite of. Have no doubt, my heart still runs. Years of goodbyes, however, have made sure it runs with a limp.

“I like cheese.” If you were to look at our friend’s Facebook profile, those are some of the first words you’d see. Sitting around the table that sad February night, stuffing faces to make up for our loss for words, I don’t think it was lost on any of us that, in our own pasteurized and aged-for-six-months way, we were paying tribute to the gem we’d lost. Like all those loved ones who’d left us along the way, we quietly wondered to ourselves how our world would go on without them. That was the rub, though: we still had our lifetimes to figure it out.

Josh Zinn is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  Currently, he is working on a collection of comedic, autobiographical stories about mental illness.