The Reincarnate Word by Matthew Pitt

Gil Hadchuk could not fully fathom how his clothes, flung last night on the barkeep’s bed, had gotten knotted with the clothes she’d removed in her kitchen. But there were their garments, tangled up in dawn’s bracing bath. One more sign of dishevelment in the place, alongside banana peel tongues wagging off countertops, spiders worrying webs where Gil borrowed floss. While rustling juice, Gil’s toes squished stray berries laying like blood-plump ticks on her tile.

At least the slovenly apartment’s messes gave it authentic weight. So much of the supposed substance in Gil’s life felt feigned. His Catholic upbringing? Stage business. The distemper he diagnosed and dewclaws he mended while at work? Character background. Wife—whose shoulder brushed (when they shared a bed) barely a single square inch of his? Theatre. And not from any play whose run he wanted extended. He longed for the stage direction Lights Down, or one reading Blackout, reading Exit Stage Right.

All this is longhand to explain what he’d been doing alone at 1 a.m. in a dim bar.

Gil hadn’t planned it this way. Truly only drove to 7th and Palmitos to get away for an hour, and confirm that his former dive of choice when he vacationed here, Slug & Chug, had shut down. Or was now filled with men and women who had reached the age his son should have attained.

Turned out he was wrong twice. Slug & Chug still stood, but the butts on the barstools had entered middle-age right alongside Gil. “I’m slipping,” confessed a chain smoker, filter uncoiling like a rattler. She couldn’t summon password-protection answers needed to retrieve her banking info (Last name of your first-grade teacher? City where your parents met?). “All them things have started drowning in my mind, and I can’t rescue even one.” A guy plugging his mouth with Spanish peanuts recounted the parting shot he’d given an ex. “Followed her right to that depot, said, ‘You take a train all the way to Ant-heart-ica, honey, cause that’s where you belong.’” Gil sensed the line had lived longer than the love it scorned.

Gil first noticed the barkeep bent at the waist, dumping ice in chrome bowls. Beer here was self-serve. You scooped a can off the floor, then dropped cash in the jar. Hooch on the honor system. Gil leaned in, to discern whether the barkeep’s ass belonged to a female or male, as dogs in his waiting room sniffed rumps to substantiate gender.

At a pool party a quarter-century before, Laura had hovered over a similar bowl, fishing out lagers. Gil made his move on her immediately, arguing their age gap (she was done with college; he’d just finished high school) didn’t matter. He wanted a woman of experience. What kind of experience you hoping for? she’d asked, smirking. If it’s disappointment, get ready. Gil lost his virginity a few months earlier, to a buddy’s severe older sister—a quick disappointment, more a spill than a sexual union. An act Gil dutifully confessed to the Father at his school, Incarnate Word Academy: half for the sin, half for not executing the sin skillfully.

He swore to himself he’d sin better with Laura, if she would have him.

Laura’s friends split the party, unimpressed by its attendees, especially Gil. To keep Laura from following them, Gil portrayed countless roles in a blur, as if auditioning his full range for an indifferent director. Boisterous, then circumspect, then jaded. Which side wound up working?

One had. Gil and Laura had been together since. A twenty-five-year plunge from “They lived happily ever after,” to “They lived.” Now they were back in New Mexico, site of their whirlwind courtship, to shutter a vacation adobe they hadn’t used in fifteen years. The first layer of stratum hadn’t been too hard for them to chuck: crusted soap, generic towels. Then Gil found Chip’s Zuni animal fetish collection. Shivering at the sight of the dog.

“Can this head talk?” The barkeep had whipped a rag at Gil’s ear. “Or does it just cork all your thoughts?” Eyeing the woman, the phrase “put together” came to mind: too tended to have someone at home to tend. While her skin looked somewhat terrorized by tanning beds, she was around the age Chip would be, arms sinewy in her tank top, familiar with cradling tall glass columns that shatter with one wrong step.

As Gil sipped beer two, she’d placed Saltines in sugar shakers to prevent their contents from sticking. During beer four she wrote her name, Rinne, in sugar spirals atop the bar. Later she claimed to have spilled fewer sugar grains than Gil spilled words since he began sipping. “It’s now clear you can talk,” she mocked. “Do you at least shut up when you get laid?”

“Sure.” Gil smiled. “But why just take my word for that?”

“We close in fifteen. I can lock up in twenty. Got it down to a sad science. If that wait’s not worth it, some patio tourist will surely take you back to her hacienda.”

“You think you’re seeing last-call desperation. I promise that’s not what this is.”

“Ooh, I know this one! Heard it a thousand and three pickups ago: You feel sex provides succor from storms barreling within you. Is that your card?”

“Come on, now. I’m serious. I could fall for you.”

“Can’t call it falling,” she said, “if you’ve already got the next step down in your sights.”

When he returned to his adobe the next morning, a helping of in a skillet awaited Gil in a skillet. He ate it, then fixed a quick lunch, setting aside half for Laura, for later. In place of notes explaining their absences, they left food.

Barkeep was right. Last night with her hadn’t qualified as a fall. Just another step in a long series down, no different from any other woman he’d done this with. Still. Rinne listened, with an intent impishness, her mouth somehow smelling of spilt rosemary. Believing Gil as he told her the gospel truth of what drove him to Slug & Chug. While cleaning out Chip’s playroom, he’d swept an anguished arm like a scythe along its top shelf, sending toys cascading into a wastebasket. Then, one shelf down, he’d found Chip’s beloved animal fetishes. Suddenly he couldn’t stay in that room any longer. He’d taken the canine carving with him, describing to Rinne how Chip always forgot to remove this figure from his pockets, flaking its travertine and turquoise gradually away with each wash...

Gil froze. The fetish wasn’t in his pocket. He’d left it at the barkeep’s.

He hoped Rinne wouldn’t mistake his door pounding as desire for a longer liaison. But she guessed at once he’d misplaced something, and figured the fetish would turn up in one of her piles. “Thank you,” he said, practically panting. “For not tossing it. For trusting I’d come back for...” He halted at the sight of her eyes: one iris was a deep, unfettered blue. Not, as was the other, subdued hazel. “You have heterochromia. How did I not notice before?”

“We didn’t have proper light to go by. Before.”

“Your condition’s rare.”

“In humans. But you take in plenty of dogs that have it.” True. Had they discussed his veterinarian practice last night? “We did,” she confirmed. “You griped about pet owners who come in with leashes around their toddlers, while keeping dogs and cats in plush-lined carriers. How it’s become a world that now treats pets more like kids, and kids like pets.”

“Did I? Well. Dim lighting or not, I must be going blind. To have missed your eyes.”

“I serve a blind regular at Slug & Chug. Blind as a bat but not from birth, like a bat. He’d seen the whole world for years before he couldn’t see any of it, is what I mean. You know what his favorite day is? This town’s hot-air balloon race. He goes outside, tilts his head, and dozens of vivid panel colors come flooding back to his mind. Memory is that strong.”

“That story...the guy you’re describing told it to me too. Years ago. Word-for-word.”

“Same story repeated in a small town? Shocker. We move in common circles, I guess. Or maybe you and I are moving into the right light.”

“For what?”

“To see each other’s frozen lives.”

As Rinne left to fetch the fetish, the rosemary scent trailed her again, reminding Gil of the tower of it by his toolshed; of sagebrush and piñon encircling his adobe; of each perfumed bush Chip rolled wild in with his dog. Gil used to watch Chip bound to the nearby playground each time their vacation started. Approaching unknown faces fearlessly, unfazed to be the new kid. Within seconds, he’d not only ingratiated himself to the group, but been given a plum role in their games. What a handsome ham.

Gil splashed water on his face in Rinne’s bathroom to rouse his energy. Her window overlooked a familiar cemetery. Though it was broad daylight, Gil imagined half the Sangre de Cristo range purpling with dusk, the other half spraying alpenglow on the Catholic cemetery below, where a Pray for the Unborn sign rose like a ship’s bow. Imagined two teens crouched by the sign—he and Laura, twenty-five years ago—bodies thrashing at dusk to honor the summer uniting them, and to defy its nearing end. In what would have been their last week together, Laura’s pregnancy test revealed in two pink strips that they had won that war. Their surprise son was on his way, and their whirlwind summer, destined to continue indefinitely.

Humans,” a robotic voice intoned behind Gil, “shed two pounds of skin each year.

Rinne wedged into the bathroom, removing a scale from her linen closet. “Is he chatting again? It’s a friendly scale.”

Startled, Gil eyed the scale, asking Rinne how she’d come by it. Rather than answer, she affected a pitchman’s voice. “The Talking Sun Scale harnesses solar energy to register your weight, even in total darkness. That’s right. Even if you can’t get to the sun, it finds you! We’re so sure you’ll adore this scale of the future, we have a 100%, all-time, money-back guarantee riding on your satisfaction. Don’t wait for the sun to rise again to seize its power. Order now!

Gil’s lungs wouldn’t lend him air to reply. In the fifteen years following Chip’s death, Gil could no longer recall a syllable of the priest’s eulogy, or friends’ displays of sympathy. The barker’s pledge for that stupid product, though? Chip wouldn’t shut up reciting it, and Gil had never, in the years that followed, been able to shake its huckster pose from his recall.

“Did you know Chip?” Gil asked, miserably hopeful. “Ever play with him before...?”

Rinne cut him off, saying the fetish must still be at Slug & Chug. Once the bar opened she’d retrieve it, then bring it by the adobe.

“Not a chance. You are not welcome in my home.”

“Don’t be rude.” Rinne removed a sneaker shoelace from her neck, a key sheathed in a plastic doghouse dangling from it. Chip’s copy of the adobe key. “I can enter it at any time.”

“How did you get that? Have you broken into our house? Is this some shakedown? Are you out for cash? Will money make you disappear?”

Rinne didn’t want money, didn’t want to disappear. She was familiar with the tragedy that took Chip, and wanted to talk about it tonight with Gil: someplace in town with fry bread, or sopapilla and honey?

Rain pulsed along Rinne’s roof. A quick-hitter downpour. Run to the car, Gil thought. Drive off. Probably she’d follow, but if she were some sort of mirage, she might, like the sugar she’d spelled her name with, melt away under the driving rain.

Rinne spooked Gil so deeply, he was actually eased to find not her inside his adobe when he returned, but three unfamiliar children, circulating in Chip’s playroom. Even the eldest shaking Gil’s hand, solemnly reporting, “My dad says your house is ours if we want it,” felt like a daft relief.

“Are you Gil?” a man ascending the adobe’s deck steps asked. “Sorry about my son. He’s trying out some hardliner persona. Laura invited us to have a look at your beautiful house. Meant to leave, but then those nasty storms rode in...anyway. Givens is the name. I’m Roy.”

“Like a rainbow,” Gil replied, adding, when Roy eyed him oddly, “the first half of that school mnemonic? Roy G. Biv? Red, orange, yellow, green...?”

“Roy and I met at Goodwill,” Laura said quickly, joining them. “Donating unneeded clothes. He’s in the market for a new home. Isn’t that lucky timing?”

She was already showing the place? Before they could make Chip’s room presentable? And what of Chip had she given up? Had she tossed his play clothes, before giving Gil even a chance to run his hands one last time over their grass stains? A seed of hate stormed his decorum; he spoke quickly to fend it off. “Good to know you, Givens. Our place would be tight for five bodies. You and your wife can expand out back, we never had cause to, but...”

“Sleeping in one room has become appealing to my kids and I since...of late.”

Laura tapped Gil’s wedding band, so he’d notice Roy G. was without one. Roy G. was about to say more when the phone rang. “Can’t imagine who’s calling,” Laura said. “No one knows we’ve returned here!” Roy made a remark about robocalls being like blind squirrels, but Gil knew full well who was ringing them. Now she had their number, too. He’d have to agree to meet Rinne, alone, at a neutral site, if he was going to get rid of her crazed scents and declarations.

Gil pocketed the returned dog fetish at a greasy theme restaurant. A choice Rinne insisted had not been hers, but Chip’s. “They have crazy good chicken strips,” she exclaimed—in the exact timbre of his ten-year-old, before his passing. At this sound, Gil shuddered. “No surprise the husky figurine got away from you Dad,” the voice continued. “Just like El Capitan breaking his leash, right!”

“How can you know his life, speak in his voice?” Gil found his hands too shaky to hold a fork; he lowered the utensil before continuing. “Please tell me, and please, cover your eyes when you do. Your blue one, at least. That’s Chip’s color.”

“I know my eye color, Dad. Duh!” Then the voice’s timbre shifted to Rinne’s. “Chip, can you draw us a cool picture? I need to walk your dad through some stuff, and hearing from you might...excite him.” Her head nodded, hands doodling with a crayon packet. Content that Chip was occupied, she faced Gil and spoke. “I’ve lived this way eight centuries. No. Closer to nine, now. Hard to keep track when every birthday’s been mine at some point. For a reincarnate, though, I’m in my prime. Some don’t know when to quit. Those are the ones found muttering random details at bus station benches or Laundromats. That won’t be me. No sir, I’ll pack it in by then. Oh Chip, what fantastic art. Is it the rainbow we saw on our drive here? Can you draw a little longer?” Rinne clenched in discomfort. “Anyway, reincarnates take jobs where we can sponge stories. Pain. Bartending is big, but I’m also a licensed masseuse, physical therapist. My shell, though, never alters. Always a woman. Always incapable of conceiving. Believe me, I tried. After century four, it seemed...desperate.”

“You’re saying, you’re you. And him. At once.”

“Souls siphon into me like—” she poured sangria from pitcher to glass, “—this. That’s not quite the right metaphor. They protrude more than flow.”

“Say for a minute I swallow this hogwash. You’re telling me you’ve mimicked Chip’s voice ever since he...slipped from me and Laura?”

“It isn’t mimicry. I don’t rehearse roles. I started discerning Chip’s life at a flea market, when I bought that Talking Sun Scale.” Rinne suddenly brightened, her vocal pitch rising. “The average weight of a ten-year-old boy is 70.5 pounds,” she reported, in Chip’s gleeful register. “That was on the scale’s TV ad! I never got to hear how I measured up. But I was tall for my age, so don’t you guess I was above average weight too, Dad?”

Pirouetting to an adult voice, Rinne asked Chip if he could draw that scale. Then she told Gil: “When you came to Slug & Chug, Chip’s protrusion sharpened. Don’t pet owners swear to you sometimes that animals in their care take on qualities of departed loved ones?”

Gil cracked his knuckles. He would not deny the depth of bond expressed between animals and owners, but he didn’t believe that Hindu shit. Had long mocked fatuous owners who sutured supernatural properties to their Persians and Pekinese, claiming to detect former roommates’ laughter in their barks. Now, though, he found himself asking: “So how many—souls—are sliding around inside of you at this moment?”

“Useless to count. But only one at a time protrudes. It’s serial rebirth. A soul swells for a few days, then I get stuck by the next. Like a balloon popped and patched in the same instant.” Rinne dropped her head, winded. If this were a ploy, she was playing it to the hilt. “Chip is...begging to break out. Okay?” Gil swallowed, nodding readiness.

“Dad? Can we play video games before we go? Have I eaten enough chicken, Dad? Dad? Aren’t you glad to see me?”

Gil cleared his throat. He’d have liked to prove himself poised—or polysyllabic—but it wasn’t to be. “I’m grateful for you.” He gulped his sangria down to its gleaming stained ice. “Even if I can’t believe you’re here.”

“What’s going to happen to our summer home when you sell it?”

“A new family will take it on as their own. Fireplace, deck, rope swing...they’ll all belong to the new residents, as if they’ve never belonged to anyone else.”

“Will you and Mom stay in Missouri? Never come back here?”

They hadn’t planned past the sale. The story they invented for uneasy friends: leaving this part of their prematurely empty nest would enable them to build their retirement nest egg. It sounded neat as alphabet recitation; as theories of eternity. Did either believe it? Gil felt he should select his reply’s words with the caution he tendered bad news to grieving pet owners. “I don’t know, bud. Moves get complicated. Do you—” He circled this ridiculous question gently, “—need us to stay?”

A shuttlecock danced in Chip’s palm. “I need to see my dog before you leave again.”

“El Capitan’s been fifteen years, pal. He passed on.”

“El Capitan? He did? He weighed 60 pounds. I remember the day I became bigger than him.” Chip’s chastened blue iris forced Gil to shut his eyes, so tightly they trembled. Rinne whisked Chip outside to collect himself, and the waitress, concerned over the unfolding scene, wrapped meal remnants hastily. Stretching cellophane across Gil’s to-go plate, smothering the smothered steak, pinching down hardly-touched potatoes and gravy.

Gil and Laura hired a professional mover, to avoid seeing what was being carted off, letting impartial hands scoop and pack pieces of their son into each corrugated vessel. Now, only lamps, mattresses, perishables, and some towers of boxes remained.

All Gil wanted when he returned to the adobe was to rip open those boxes, resurrect any scraps of Chip inside, covet any item he’d consented to let be given away. To avoid following through on this impulse, Gil pursued another: letting his pants slump, he began to touch himself. Thoughts drifting to Sunday communions: My body, the priest intoned, given for you. A reminder he was still here. To get blood flowing, he needed to devise a figure for his imagination to turn over. It was best to latch onto the last woman he’d bedded; clearly, that wouldn’t work this time. What about the one he’d eyed strolling by the lingerie store beside Slug & Chug? She’d do. Reinvent her, urge her to try on unmentionables. Up it rose. But he had to build his imaginary partner carefully; it had to be a production. Reincarnate her, create an entire cover story, so he might imagine, for ten minutes of cup and throttle, he was with someone willing to start anew with him—as Laura had not been. Over the past fifteen years Gil had sex 454 times—nearly none of them with Laura, who had remained adamant they not conceive another child until recently, when her fertility was all but extinguished—yet he usually came with Laura on his mind. Then...breathe. Clean, wipe. Set the alarm for the day to come. Check if your reading glasses are where you think you left them.

It had gone like so so often. But this night, nearing his sad candle of a climax, a heaving sob swelled from another room, as overwhelming as Rinne’s scents of rosemary and piñon. Gil stopped stroking himself, waited to soften, and found Laura in the playroom, beside the final batches of uncollected toys, caressing a pair of fetishes wrapped inside linen napkins, a (marble) prairie dog in one palm and (onyx) coyote in the other.

“Couldn’t sleep?”

“Couldn’t—any of it.” Laura laughed. “They weigh next to nothing. The carvings? I remember them being bulkier.”

“No.” He pulled out the husky. “Been carting this fellow myself all week. Well, I lost it for a bit actually, same way Chip lost...”

“Do you think we should sell? Givens will want our answer soon.”

“I don’t know. Just clearing it out’s taking a lot out of me.”

“Sure. But it’s returning something, too.” Eying her cautiously, he rejoined the husky fetish with the others, as she continued: “Strange. Our house, floating apart from us, fifteen years. We break out a pen tomorrow, and pop. Like some birthday balloon it stops making sense to keep hung.” Laura nodded, in approval of what she said. “I held Roy’s children in my lap,” she continued. “One at a time, while they played with these animals. The oldest was Chip’s weight. Remember the Talking Sun Scale? Scummy item he wouldn’t shut up about? Singing its jingle, promising to use it to weigh any fish he’d caught, so he could know when to throw them back?”

“I’d forgotten that was his angle. But sure I remember the scale. Ordered it for his birthday in fact. Package arrived right before we lost him. Had it stowed in my office.”

“He always could break you down. Did you open it?”

Not at first. Days after the funeral, in a futile effort to clear his head, Gil agreed to take walk-ins at his veterinary practice. A child came in, lugging a perch in a pail, eye cut badly from a fishing hook. “I aimed for its mouth,” the boy insisted, crying miserably. The parents trudged behind. They were on vacation; their boy refused to return home until he had resolution. Gil hadn’t charged for the visit, saying soothing sentences, agreeing to assist the fish in its misery.

“Did you revive it?”

What he’d done was open the Talking Sun Scale, and his office window. Taken out a strand of fishing wire, strapping the flopping perch to the scale, then laying both on his sill.

“You just ended it?” Laura stared at Gil, jaw gaping. “You could have kept it in a pail. There was a stream two streets from your practice.”

As the perch wriggled at its restraint, the scale had recited its weight, 2.4 pounds, over and over, followed by a parade of facts: On Jupiter, you would weigh 5.7 pounds. On the Sun, you would weigh 65 pounds. “God had just taken something from me. I wanted to return the favor.” And indeed, watching the thing spasm and gasp away its strength under the hot rays, Gil had felt a little of his own return.

Early next morning, Rinne cajoled Gil into meeting her at Chip’s playground. The spot was too close to the adobe for Gil’s comfort, but Laura was running errands; besides, Gil found it harder and harder to deny that voice’s requests. To the point that Gil actually enjoyed spinning on the merry-go-round with her, not bothering to shush Rinne’s joyful squeals, or look over his shoulder at the few families beside them, bemused by this pair of cavorting, childless adults.

While catching his breath in the pavilion, a trio of children entered the playground in matching soccer jerseys. Givens, read their backs. Gil saw Laura emerge with Roy G., pointing out where Chip effortlessly used to play skin-the-cat. She paused by a drainpipe, now shrouded by piñon and covered by security mesh. Gil knew she was telling how Chip had gotten trapped inside the pipe, alone, and unable to clamber out. It was painful to see her relaying this story, even from that distance, even to a stranger, even when he couldn’t hear a single word.

Rinne’s fingers laced into Gil’s. “This Givens? He’s also lost a loved one. His wife.”

Gil paused, waiting for her to continue. Wanting her to. “On a solo hike two months ago,” she at last added. “Helicopters and search teams still haven’t recovered her.” Then the voice’s timbre shifted, and Chip cut in. “But Mom and me met her. We bought fabric from a store she worked at then. To make costumes for my summer camp plays? Nice lady, let me put posters of the plays in the window. If we’d kept vacationing here, Dad, we’d have made great friends. I would’ve taken their oldest boy out fishing this summer.”

“You can’t—” Gil eyed Rinne scornfully, rolling his neck like a bulb stuck in a socket, which, given enough twists, might pop loose and shatter, “—possibly know all this.”

“Let me show you what all I know.” Rinne’s mouth nuzzled Gil’s palm. He felt it then: This was Chip’s skin. His sun-cracked lips. She led Gil’s hands across those lips, like paintbrush strokes freshening a dingy wall. Alpenglow appeared in the distance, as Chip pointed out the slide where he’d scraped himself. Dinged my knee going down too fast, remember? How could Gil forget? Or forget Chip’s habit of joking away injury. Remember what I said? That slide stole my skin. Or what he said after the mishap with Gil’s barbell? I was testing gravity, but forgot to tell my toes the tests had begun. Gil touched Rinne’s suddenly bruised fingers, bruised from when Chip snared a line drive without a glove, touched each place an old wound once compromised his boy’s body, until the sun had completely discharged the night.

That afternoon Rinne came to the house and, by way of greeting Laura, placed a key in her palm. Explaining Gil had left it at Slug & Chug. Thankfully, the plastic doghouse bore their address. “This is Chip’s set,” Laura said, astonished. “I never thought I’d see it again.”

“Thank you for tracking us,” Laura added to Rinne, offering a reward she refused. Rinne asked only if she could trouble the two for a glass of iced tea. Today’s sun was bright and scalding.

Strolling to the backyard deck, Rinne exclaimed, “Gil, you’re right!” Now that she at last was inside the adobe, Gil found he felt no dread. “Your rosemary bushes are even more extravagant than you had me believe.” Rinne transferred her gaze to Roy G., who was already at the adobe, reviewing Laura and Gil’s records of home maintenance and repair.


 “Uh, hi.” Roy offered his hand, confused. “Are you, uh, another prospective buyer?”

“For this home? No, no. Just a longtime fan of it.”

“Have played together?” Rinne shook her head; she didn’t have any. “I can’t place how, but I’m positive we’ve met before,” Roy persisted.

“Not in person,” she insisted. “But I used to work at the free clinic.”

“Did you—know my wife? She volunteered Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

Rinne nodded. “She’s made an impression on me. I am sorry for your loss.”

A ruckus broke out in the playroom among the siblings, and Rinne offered to monitor them a bit, so the adults could concentrate on prices and closing dates. Roy G. thanked Rinne for her help while simultaneously protesting it. She was a stranger. Owed him nothing.

“She can manage for a few minutes,” Gil said. “Besides, she has a calming effect. How are your kids bearing up, anyway? With all that’s changed?”

Roy G. focused on some fixed point past his oversized nose. “I’d say well. Only what do I know from well?” His youngest, Kaye, had taken it best. Too well, to his thinking. Since she’d lost her mom, it was as if Kaye had taken to acting a role: one in which she’d only ever known one parent. Roy couldn’t bear when Kaye spoke in this manner, as if her mother’s loss somehow predated her. “Like my wife’s face and voice never—I’m sorry—existed to her.”

So Roy might privately dab his eyes, Gil and Laura looked away. After Chip’s death, their merle husky—who’d been powerless to help Chip at the end—grew edgy, his bark uncontrollable and triggered by any outside noise, real or phantom, as if compensating for the danger the dog had failed to relay about his human charge. Through this phase, Laura coddled El Capitan with outlandish treats, spilling her nesting instinct into him, while Gil scolded the dog for his indiscriminate noise, muzzling and shoving it inside smaller and smaller spaces. Faced with such mixed signals of care, El Capitan had declined quickly.

On the pretense of locating an estimate for roofing repairs he’d never followed up on, Gil strolled in from the deck, to see what was transpiring in the playroom. Rinne squatted on the carpet, introducing herself to the Givens’ trio, who called dibs on Chip’s unboxed fetishes, while sifting and adding their own toys to the mix.

“I’m Kaye,” the smallest child announced to Rinne. “I’m half an orphan. We’re pretending to own a store.” As Kaye described its interior—in a voice too, as Roy suggested, flat and kempt—Rinne combed Kaye’s fine hair, waiting for an opening to break into the girl’s monologue. This almost sounds, she suggested, like that fabric store your family used to own on Canyon. The one where you, Mick, and Neil curled like kittens in the corners, while your parents rung up customers. Or where you, Kaye, wrapped yourself in fabric bolts. Hiding in all those colors of fleece and felt. You liked to say you were rolled up in rainbows.

Was that the one she meant?

“How do you know all this?” demanded Kaye. “Did Dad tell you about our store? We never did. We don’t even know your name. Plus, your eyes are weird. Well, they are, Neil! Didn’t you look at them? They’re the wrong colors.”

Different colors,” Rinne corrected. Since she’d stepped into the adobe, in fact, one of those eyes had slipped hue, gone from blue to green. “So which is wrong?”

Kaye again asked the barkeep her name. Again, her question was evaded. Instead, Rinne mentioned to the group that the game they’d assembled looked like fun, and asked if she might join in.

“You?” This offer struck Kaye. “You want to play with us?” She seemed doubtful, poised to reject Rinne’s request out of hand. But then she took in this adult’s eccentric eyes, studying them with care until, satisfied, she pointed at leftover choices on the carpet. “Well, I guess okay. Let’s see. Neil’s gonna be our customer. Mick will work the register. And of course, I’m the child. So you could be...” Kaye continued scanning and surveying, first the floor, then back into Rinne’s eyes. “You could be...” At last she chose a female doll, wearing a plum heirloom dress, a bouquet of plastic flowers clutched to its chest as if a kind of gift, good-luck stems offered on opening night. “You could be our mother.”

Matthew Pitt’s second fiction collection, These Are Our Demands, was published by Engine Books and named a Midwest Book Award winner. His first, Attention Please Now, won the Autumn House Prize, and was a finalist for the Writers’ League of Texas Award. Pitt’s stories appear individually in Best New American Voices, Bomb, Oxford American, Cincinnati Review, Epoch, Conjunctions, and The Southern Review, and have been cited in numerous “Best of” volumes. His work has won numerous awards, fellowships, and grants. He lives and writes in Ft. Worth, where he is an Associate Professor of English at TCU. Additionally, he is Editor of descant, and Associate Editor for West Branch.