The God of Small Things

Sterling Clay Printz’s house had seven windows on its face. All seven windows were too small.
The two flanking the front door–the house was porchless; you stepped up to the door and more or less fell into the house–were higher than normal windows and seemed as though they should have been bay. But they weren’t. They were small, bathroom windows really.
Above the front door there was a tiny window that would have presumably served as a skylight, had the builder any idea what a window’s actual functionality might be, or had the builder any idea where the sky was located.
The second floor windows were stationed in lonely singles flanking one lonely pair of windows, each with their own dilapidated shutters bulging from the gray edifice.
More than being too small, the windows were useless.

Sterling Clay Printz didn’t see the uselessness of his windows, though, for his back was always to them. Once inside the comfort of his home he remained; he preferred the solace of its small hidden rooms and even smaller closets. There were no windows in the rooms he preferred, no natural light, or light of any kind. Sterling Clay Printz preferred the silence and the dark.
Sterling Clay Printz’s road was dirt, perhaps one of the only dirt roads left in this paved state. His road was shared by eight other neighbors whose houses were closer to the highway than his. Sterling Clay Printz’s house was the last on the road, at least a quarter of a mile away from the nearest turn-around should one of his neighbors’ guests find themselves lost. Even if the large Spanish oak tree didn’t obstruct the sky and obliterate the world around the house the windows would have been useless, for there was no one coming up the drive to see, no one strolling down the drive to greet.
Sterling Clay Printz used to find himself standing at his own front door staring out into the hopeful dusk kicked up from somewhere down the road. Every morning before work and every afternoon after he would stand on his stoop facing the place he presumed the sun to be. He did this until the afternoon he met the mailman’s eyes.

Sterling Clay Printz lacked self-awareness, but somehow the watering of the mailman’s eyes coupled with his sad “cheer up fella” smile, made him feel gawked at. He wondered if the mailman mentioned him later. What kind of story would the mailman tell about him? Would dinner center around him?
Sterling Clay Printz didn’t mind being the center of attention, of course.
One of Sterling Clay Printz’s biggest problems, his mother would remind him, was his tendency to over share information.
“You can’t let things grow, Clay,” she would condescend to him as he lamented another failed friendship. “You shoot your load the first go.” She had a knack for mixing metaphors, but her greatest gift was her uncanny ability to make Clay feel slightly uneasy with himself.
Rather than take his mother’s oft repeated advice, Clay over shared.
On Facebook he posted enough about politics to embarrass his friends into complete silence.
On Instagram he tagged celebrities in photos of his face awkwardly positioned near half empty Starbucks cups.
On Twitter he found religion and the many gods of education.
Clay’s mother’s gift was for bringing grown men to their knees in the dark to weep silently like children, and Clay’s own gift was for shedding unnecessary light on the mundane. This was almost expected of one who over shares–eventually all of the large stories will be taken.
“Red or blue,” was the original caption for his photo of his ties. He had staged them beautifully, his rapidly cooling Starbucks accenting the background. He is partially nude and will most definitely be late, but this will be a beautiful photo and he must retain evidence of this for posterity.
The caption serves many purposes: the filter he chose changes the color scheme, so he must identify the color for his patient followers. He also wants feedback. Perhaps he should mention donkeys and elephants? He checked his phone ten minutes ago and discovered he had one like for the photo posted from the stadium. He considers deleting it, but changes his mind. They’ve only had a few hours to respond.
He chooses the caption, “Red or blue: never know when you’re going to be a democrat or republican!” He gives his phone a satisfied smile.
In the end he chooses blue. In ninth grade a girl (Sasha? Sarah? Antoinette?) told him his eyes were cornflower blue like those which grew in her grandmothers garden. He wasn’t particularly fond of blue then, but he very much liked the compliment.
As Clay drives easily to work and pulls into his designated parking space it occurs to him as it does every morning that he has surpassed the expectations of others. He knows he shouldn’t have others so often on his mind, but he can’t help it. Before he exits his truck he pulls out his phone again.
Two likes.
Before unlocking the door to the building he takes a quick stroll around campus. It is beautiful in the silent dark, and for a moment he holds his breath and stares out into the loneliness.
Then he pulls out his phone and shares the moment.
Before he can put it away he receives a text: running late; can someone unlock my room?
He sends a response with a smiling emoji, but his face never moves.
He lingers for a few moments checking emails mindlessly. He adjusts his tie and enters his office.
He has a smile that he has practiced for so long it doesn’t sting as much now as it once did.
He offers this smile robotically before she catches his eye. His eyes narrow as he focuses on her, the rest of the world tuned out.
She walks as though she has been here for as long as he has. This shouldn’t bother him and she shouldn’t so often be on his mind, but he can’t help it.
As if she can feel his gaze she turns abruptly and meets it. She holds his eyes until he tears his away.
She makes him angry.
He knows what she says about him. His school is like a small town and he considers himself the mayor. It is his job to know. She’s small and new, but her words bother him all the same.
He sends a text—Did you finish Janine’s observation? I want that asap.
He receives the reply—on my list for this morning; I’ll send it to you after I’ve finished—almost immediately.
It isn’t that she’s beautiful. He’s certain that’s what she’s said. That’s one of the rumors he hasn’t heard, but he’s almost positive she’s said it.
He can hear it condescended from her lips now. “He hates me because he’s in love with me.” She’s said it.
Of course she has. She wears bright red lipstick that emphasizes the perfect bow of her lips. She only wears black clothing paired with sky-high heels. She walks with her head high and when she chooses to look at him she always stares longer. She offers him a raised brow but she does not smile.
She tells others that his ship is not his.
This bothers him even more than her arrogance. They listen to her.
Some hate her. They hate the way she talks and dresses, the way she sizes them up with a look. But they hate him more and they listen to her.
“Mr. Printz!” The hair on his neck bristles. Her. He fixes the smile on his face and turns to her carefully.
“Hey Janine! How are you?”
“I’m great. I just wanted to know if you might have time to talk to me this afternoon? I wanted to know how we’re going to address diversity in the curriculum? I’ve noticed that it’s extremely white.” She offers him a tight smile at the end of her statement, her deep brown eyes searching his. He is stunned into silence for a moment.
A pin could drop in the hall. His throat constricts as he struggles to contain himself.
She is new. Too new. Who is she to ask questions?
His mother would think this is small. She would say it that way—“Clay, why are you so angry? This is all so small and mundane.”
“Check with Lydia,” he offers, turning away from her. “She’ll put you on my calendar.”
“Another thing—are you not getting my emails?” She has a tone. Her face is expressionless. But the tone is there.

“Make sure you’re always copying Lydia on all emails.” He pats her arm as he brushes by her. “Thanks, Janine.”
He sends an email reprimanding the hourly staff on their continued use of the mass email. After this he walks into the lunchroom and the lunch ladies are conveniently too busy to meet his eye.
He inspects the trays of the kids in isolation for something to do.
“Mmm, school lunch,” he jokes so that he has something to say.
He attends a meeting that includes forty-five minutes of a mother berating him. He prides himself on his calm.
No ma’am, your daughter will still face consequences for skipping.
Yes ma’am, missing an entire class without permission is skipping.
No ma’am, it doesn’t take anyone an hour and a half to get from one side of campus to the other.
Yes ma’am, that is my boss.
He pulls out his phone again—he has ten texts. Two are from the same teacher from this morning stating she’ll be back late from a doctor’s appointment. He makes a note to keep an eye on her attendance. He needs to build his case carefully.
One is from the superintendent stating a review will be conducted soon.
One is from his mother telling him God loves him.
One is from one of the PE coaches asking for an administrator.
One is from the same PE coach stating never mind.
One is from a member of the old guard asking if she can meet with him during lunch to discuss a private matter that he overheard her complaining about publicly just this morning.
One is from Ms. Pride-Hall, stating the observation was complete.
One is from her, stating that her kids are going to the lab.
One is from Starbucks, telling him he’s a gold star member.
He ignores all of them, opting to check his Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Two more likes, one comment, and a retweet.
He spends a few minutes selecting a song for his special announcements. They aren’t until Friday, but he likes to do a soundcheck early Friday morning and he doesn’t want to come unprepared. The kids like his announcements, he thinks.
She smirks when he passes her in the hall after, but then she smirks at him all the time.
She must know she is on his mind because she arrives promptly.
For the duration of their conversation she is pleasant and he wrestles with himself. He wants to yell at her. He wants to shout. He wants to stun her, to tear from her that calm exterior.
What meat does she eat that makes her grow so large? She is uncomfortable with Julius Caesar and would hate that reference. It makes him chuckle.
After she leaves his office Ms. Pride-Hall enters.
“Well,” he begins expectantly. Ms. Pride-Hall swallows visibly.
“She’s great. You’re not going to go into her room and see anything but good teaching.” For a moment he allows his shoulders to fall.
“But—“ Ms. Pride-Hall offers him an opening and he leaps.
“Yes?” He wills himself to prompt her calmly, but internally he’s singing.
“She wants to file a grievance against you.” Lava boils up inside him and burns.
How dare she?
“Why,” he asks, though he doesn’t actually care for the answer.
“She said that, and I’m quoting here, “if I died you would roll me under the desk and keep teaching.”” He pauses for a moment.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he responds, and Ms Pride-Hall shrugs.
“That’s what she said.” He considers her words. He considers them for so long he fears they will leave a mark.
He swallows hard, calming himself. “I think it’s time to have a serious conversation with her.”
He sends a message to Lydia to ask Janine to swing by his office at 3:30.
His discussion with Janine might as well take place in a vacuum for all he hears.
At some point she tells him that he is a tyrant. She doesn’t use those words, but she implies it. Her eyes harden as she speaks to him directly.
“You walk around and you don’t see anyone. You didn’t notice that last week when you asked Kentavious if he’d registered for College night that he was uncomfortable—he doesn’t want to go to college. You know how I know? I spend time asking people things. You don’t listen. You only want to hear how great you are. You are so busy looking at all of the small details you don’t actually know what you’re missing. You’re missing the people. There are actual people behind those numbers.”
He catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind her and briefly he wonders if he should have chosen the red tie.
He lowers his voice and he attempts to quell her anger.
“I don’t have to give you a reason. I like you. You’re not happy here.”
She interrupts him. “It isn’t the place I’m unhappy with.” His heart skips a beat. There she is again.
He sees her clearly now. Everyone else is wearing the school colors. They know the rival. They know to smile at him and they know to be colorblind. They know to ask the right questions and give the right numbers and even the ones that look like her know how to behave.
Why doesn’t she know that? Why is she wearing black even now? Even her hair—it coils from her head reaching the sky, seeming to defy him.
“You aren’t right for here,” he tells her. She is stunned. He can see it in the way she blinks rapidly, the way she jerks back as if slapped.
At last he has silenced her.
He continues while he has time. “We just aren’t a good fit for you. Do I think you’ll be great somewhere else? Absolutely.”
He thought she would cry. The last time this happened the woman cried.
Janine’s face is dry, her eyes dark and deep.
Her voice is passionate and fierce, and he has to lean forward to hear her. “In a few years you’ll still be here wondering why they don’t all like you. It’s because this place is small and even smaller with you in it. You’ll have my resignation in ten minutes.”
She must note his surprise because she smirks, “I’ve had it ready and waiting. After so many threats it loses its appeal.”
She turns on her heel and leaves his office.
He turns to send the email to human resources. She is a problem and he wants to make certain he’s covered himself.
He loses himself for awhile in the email, because when he turns back he discovers a Starbucks cup on his desk—Venti. Hot. The handwritten note says “we love you, Clay!”
He smiles to himself, sighing heavily.
As he leaves to head to the field he receives a few greetings. The lunch ladies still don’t meet his eye.
A letter from her lay in his box.
In the stadium his voice reverberates all around and when he says cheer they cheer.
He shakes hands and kisses babies and his mouth hurts from the talking.
He gets that tell-tale thrill down his leg when he is introduced as the principal.
This is his town. He is the mayor. He has earned this.
On the ride home he belts out the words to the song half a beat behind.
He stands in front of the door for a long while, wishing he could see the sun from his house.
In the dark loneliness he feels a god.
As the door closes behind him he thinks he hears a car pulling up the drive.
He pulls his phone from his pocket at the same time, though, and he is too busy checking his phone to open the door again.
He can’t see from the windows, and as he disappears into the empty house he curses those small useless things and wonders not for the first time if he is too big for them, if they are not too small even for him. He wonders what visitors he missed, what small slips of sun they keep just beyond his reach.

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All The Little Broken Things

I don’t want you to fix me.
That piece there–the jagged edge?
The one
That catches sunlight
and spills over all of the places
the sun cannot reach?
I earned that:
years of tears,
the jagged places,
tracks and scars the tears made.

And that piece there–the concave place?
The one
That smoothed out the rough edges,
strange but beautiful and necessary?
I earned that:
healing my own heart over and again,
and it hides more but there is
no less of it than before.

I don’t want you to fix me.
I am.
I am made
of sinews and
of marrow and
Of All
The Little
Broken Things
And I am perfect.

in a dark dark room

I have not always been insane.
When I was younger I was bored. “You think too much,” she said to me.
I tried to think less. I did.
When I was younger still I had nightmares. “Pray about it,” she said.
My knees bled as they scraped against the cold, bare floor.
There were monsters in the darkness. They waited until the house was still. They knew I would never sleep. They waited until the light just beyond my window flickered and went out, and even the dead, non-living things were quiet.
The shadow streaked under the door then, the lone nightlight from the bathroom making giants of all things. The door creaked open
Slowly
Slowly
Slowly
Until wide enough for a monster to pass through.
I closed my eyes and prayed the monster away. There was no answer.
I heard a voice in the dark. It wasn’t God then. I heard him later, though.
It wasn’t late enough, so when I heard him at last his voice mixed with the monster and they were one.
God was the monster long before she told me to pray to him.
On trembling knees I prayed, heart hammering against my ribs.
I prayed and hoped he wouldn’t hear me.
***
The house then was gray. The gray of charcoal and of rain, the gray of the waters surrounding a drowned man. An uncertain gray. A death gray.
Lucy and I sat on the porch letting our popsicles melt down so we could slurp up the red juice. Lucy’s left a red tint around her lips, themselves pale and petal pink. She wore her hair in knotted, tangled pigtails that would stiffen and stand on their own by the end of the summer.
I wore my hair in tiny french braids with stark white beads on the end, my scalp blistering under the pull of the braids. I loved them and Lucy loved them, but I still envied her the tint left by the popsicle. Just beyond our tiny yard was the house that the Branson’s sometimes lived in.
Mr. Branson always lived there. The kids and Mrs. Branson were the ones in and out. If on a Sunday Mr. Branson didn’t attend church (which was most Sundays), Mr. Branson would drive to the next county and purchase two large brown bags. We never saw inside of the bags, but Joe Branson said his dad only drank “cheap liquor.” Mama and Daddy were still church-going then, and Lucy and I didn’t know what liquor was.
But Joe made it sound enticing.
From our vantage point on the porch we could see and hear the comings and goings of the Branson’s. Beside the washed out gray of the house was a large oak tree, a dirty rope with a broken wooden string slung around the lowest branch. Just beyond that the Branson’s yard.
Lucy and I started at the sound, a loud clatter of something heavy falling beyond our yard. We glanced at each other before racing across the yard, our bare feet kicking up red clay and dust. It was our habit to press our noses against the Branson’s living room window, in spite of Mama’s warning. It was a Saturday, but she was still catching up on her “stories,” so we were on our own until late afternoon.
In our fashion we crept up the chipped concrete stairs and moved in to the window. The front door was slung open and inviting, but we knew better than to go in. The window faced the cluttered living room. In the middle of the room a sagging couch held Amelia, Derek, Harold, and baby Emma in Harold’s arms. Joe was nowhere. Emma was wailing, a screechy, terrified sound. Muffled sounds wafted to all of us from the back room.
As suddenly as the clatter came the house fell silent.
Then everything exploded.
Mrs. Branson screamed. It was a bloodcurdling scream, and Lucy gripped my arm, her dirty nails piercing the skin. Amelia and Derek covered their ears with their hands, their eyes meeting ours. Harold clutched Emma to him, tears streaming down his dirt covered face.
Our view was obstructed by Mr. Branson, but only briefly. When he moved Mrs. Branson stood before us, shielding the children cowering on the couch. It didn’t stop Mr. Branson. He swung at her with a crowbar, and it caught her on the arm. She shrieked in pain but did not move.
Mr. Branson threw the crowbar to the floor and moved in on Mrs. Branson wildly, gripping her hair. He dragged her to the ground and out of our line of vision, oblivious to her screams. He threw open the screen door and it clattered loudly against the house, its sound reverberating through the neighborhood. Lucy and I screamed, and Mr. Branson stilled us with a monstrous glare.
As she was dragged bleeding onto the porch, Mrs. Branson’s eyes caught mine and in that moment I felt my own soul wither.
Her eyes were the bright blue of the first Spring sky in Georgia. They glittered with youth, normally. Then they were bloodshot, a cut adorning her right eye. They met me and they pled with me, but I did not know what she wanted.
Mr. Branson dragged Mrs. Branson down the stairs and into the yard. He tossed her down a rag doll, and began kicking her, in every place his legs could reach.
When his legs tired he used his hands. The blows were sickening and heavy, and after awhile she stopped screaming.
Amelia, Derek, Harold, and baby Emma joined us on the porch, and we wailed together. Mr. Branson didn’t hear us, and Mrs. Branson was already gone.
Mr. Branson was so focused on Mrs. Branson that he missed Joe. I saw him. His eyes met mine.
They were the same Spring blue of his mother’s. They looked like sunshine and new beginnings.
“Hey!” He shouted once. Mr. Branson stiffened and wiped his mouth on his hand. Even from the porch I could see the blood on his wrist.
Mrs. Branson’s blood.
“You ready, boy?” Mr. Branson yelled. He whirled around and stopped. He froze for a moment before a sneer played on his grotesque lips.
“You gonna kill me, boy? You ain’t ready.”
The first shot hit him in the gut. The second his neck. The third hit him in the head.
I turned away for the rest.
I wasn’t insane then. By the time the police came and the social worker spoke in hushed voices to Mama and Daddy about mine and Lucy’s fragility I had already separated myself from what we had seen.
Watching a woman beat to death by her husband and watching the husband’s body explode should be enough to make you crazy, but it wasn’t. Not for me.
I did have nightmares though, after. At night. Before my dreams were empty.
After they were plagued with monsters.
Every now and then the monster would turn into Mr. Branson. He would moan. His face would be shattered, pieces of him stuck to everything. A piece of him on my shoe.
I would stand over him while Lucy pled with me to leave and Joe Branson cradled his mother in his arms.
I would kick him in the face. Hard. His eyes would fix on me and the light would out.
This was the nightmare I remembered. The one I didn’t share.
It was real.

Patria

Speak softly, Father.
The light that pierces the darkness
Paints shadows on your face
Marring you,
And the creases that cut
Your forehead do not catch
The light.
Thunderous rumble
Of your baritone
Quivers my bones
And I think to hide from you.
In your hand it flashes
And catches the light
And like lightening slices
Across us.
Still the thunder fills us with a terror
Mere lightning cannot reach.

Tread softly, Father.
The rubber that softens your heaviness
Wears bone thin and
Unforgiving
Each step sounds
The death knell
Drawing you closer to us
And us to an end.
The melody of your gait
Is indiscernible yet;
We do not know
Whether to melt ourselves
Into darkness
And pretend we are nothing,
Or to reveal ourselves fully,
Your wrath subdued for
A moment.

Go softly, Father.
Remember that while
The years have faded
The memory and the scars,
You are yet untarnished.
So we wait for the
Soft lines that blur you
To harden,
And we wait for your jagged
Cruel edges to return,
And while she has forgotten
The history of our scars
And we pretend we don’t remember,
Time is nothing in memory
And the scars are ever present
Breaking open
And bleeding again.

Smile softly, Father.
Cracked and broken,
Your face has not
felt the warmth of a smile
In an age.
It won’t weaken you, if you love
Softly. You are still a man
If you smile and say,
“I love you.” If you lower your voice
And speak softly, Father, we will still
Know you.
It is alright for us to know you, Father.
You won’t break.
You may crack from disuse
But you are strong, Father. You’ll heal.
Just once, before you go beyond us
Tread softly. Let us love you, Father.

civil wars

I had a dream that water overtook them.
They were submerged and
I could only watch as they gasped
and flailed,
their eyes boring into me,
I could only feel my heart
stutter to a halt as theirs
did the same their eyes staring into
the glassy cold wet
and gasping I awakened from the nightmare.

They did not die,
but I watched them leave all the same.
Jagged tears slowed to a halt
on their cheeks
and their eyes
Their eyes couldn’t see me
as they were ushered
over the threshold and
away from us, my silent sobs muted
by the civil war
raging around,
she, her hair still wet from the pool, her tongue red from the lollipop
him with the dog tags slung from his neck,
the new gift smell still attached,
and the skirt he chose clinging to his hips.

They did not die,
but I watched them leave all the same.
Their backs
and their faces
crusted from the wet
are all that I have.

They will not pass this way again.