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Joelle Lynn Renstrom

Location: Ann Arbor, MI
Date of Birth: 5/2/78
Published In: The Allegheny Review, Nostalgia, Gotta Write Network, Moonlighting, Isosceles, Stirring V1:E3, etc.
Awards: Hopwood Prize for Poetry, First place story in Byline Magazine


2:45 a.m. An old newspaper lands on an old man's face, jarring him from the kind of sleep that comes to the undead - the sleep of the restless, of the wandering. The air pierces through the night in spurts, suddenly and sharply, practicing to commit a fast crime. The man's frayed, scratchy wool jacket opens and flaps, and he pulls the buttonless sides tightly around him. Taking the newspaper off his head, he wraps it around his chest. Marmaduke and Dick Tracy peer up at him. Marmaduke is running away from a picnic table with a chicken leg in his mouth. Tess Truehart is kissing Dick Tracy while perching on the keys of a typewriter.

He readjusts himself on the hard concrete bench. Shivers. Shuts his eyes against the big orange dog and the woman wearing too much lipstick even in the black and white. A headache rings through like bells before mass. Rolling on his side, he nudges the empty Thunderbird bottle off the bench and forces his eyes open, blinking hard to stop the spinning and start the candles and quiet prayer.

He hears panting under the bench, hot breath ripping through night. Reaches under, checks for her, his dog. Feels her cool nose, smooth and damp. The man rolls to his side, trailing his hand over the bench as if over the edge of a boat cutting across a lake lit by a hovering moon, trolling its own line in the water.

Dawn. It has not rosy fingers but grey ones, not thin and feathery but heavy. German fingers. Dawn wakes him, light shooting through trees raising shadow puppets up out of the grass. Crocodiles behind the bench, falcons underneath the oak. Shadows at night never bothered him, but there was something sinister about day shadows. The dog would be up, sniffing for acorns for breakfast. The man lifts his head, scans at knee level. Nothing. Leans over the bench, peers under. Counts his green pennies. Sees the pink child-sized mitten and the empty container of mouthwash. Bocky lies there quietly. She appears smaller today. The man pulls her by the left hind leg, and sets her on the bench. Bocky is sick. Her skin is withered, dry and wrinkled. The blue is fading, the balloon is shrinking, little bulbs of cold on the back, a bubble on her left ear from the afternoon she sat in the sun. The man glides his fingers along the spineless back, ending on the rounded tip of the tail. A difficult sickness, he thinks.

Bocky is having trouble breathing. Her stomach is not hard and tight. It sags as if weighted at the bottom by water or stones. He knows no veterinarian. Has no medicine for his dog. Bocky pants, shallow pants mustered from deep down, she breathes from her feet, from her tail that is starting to droop. The man's mind paces along the back of the bench, peering through the trees for a cure. He thinks of the clowns, how she was born from a mouth, a breath. He saw it happen.

Bleak. He does not know the time or the name of the day. He cannot distinguish anything until the spidered red veins sprawling across his eyes stop screaming, and he focuses on silhouettes running across the park. They are caricatures set against the moon, wild curling hair and baggy pants. They are racing. The wind picks up again and stabs him, this time not with its harshness or chill, but with their laughter. It does not, will not, go away. The single gust holds its diaphragm open and strong until it becomes one note of laughter snagged in a treble clef, held and held. He covers his head again with the newspaper and they sprint toward him. A shred of light finds its way through the tress and he sees their faces. Clowns. He huddles down into the bench, hoping to press down through it. Peeking from under the paper, he and Tess Truehart stare at a spiral red wig, a bulbous nose. Stare at a shoe slapping and flapping, the long awkward flipper of a giant seal loping across the ground. One has a small silver trumpet. It gleams as if it has just risen up out of the water. Another has rubber balls, orange. He tosses them up a few feet ahead, and runs to catch them. He practices juggling, sometimes dropping one and then scooping it back up. There are ribbons, metallic in the moonlight, glinting like chrome on a car, but softer, flexing in the air and bending. The last clown has a package of balloons. They are small and long, and he stretches them before putting them to his lips. Filling them with air, they burst from his mouth, instantaneously inspired to exist.

The man thinks of circuses and lions and elephants that let people ride on their backs. Monkeys and organ grinders. He almost laughs thinking of circuses. He wonders who thought of them, the idea that animals can be trained to perform tricks, and that people should think those tricks charming and funny. And clowns. Slipping and falling and bumbling, on purpose. And people laugh and children ask for them. He thinks he hates the clowns streaking through the park.

The balloon clown clutches balloon animals. A snake squeaks through his arm, peers out. A bird with a ready-made nest riding his hip. As the clown runs by, one of the balloons squeezes from his hands and falls without sound. The man waits, hopes the clowns do not fall over their feet and notice. Waits until he scans the darkness and sees only trees waving at him, thin fingers of moonbeams. He inches off the bench, creaking with stiffness and cold, and plucks the fallen object from the ground. It is smooth and full. He passes it between his hands like it is a Chinese medicine ball, full of silver and healing. A blue hot dog dog, nose attentive and pert. He calls her Bocky.

Bocky listens. Hears the birds in the morning, chases the pigeons around the bench. Steals snow cones from vendors and discovers kernels of popcorn in the grass. Bocky drinks the beer at the bottom of the bottle. Sometimes she stands on her hind legs and reaches up for the man, nose wet with mischief. They dream together. The man dreams of a house, and Bocky dreams of the yard. The man dreams of a steak, and Bocky of the tough T-bone. Their dreams work in tandem like that, the dog picking up after the man, finishing up, capping off. He wishes he had a collar for her, in case she is ever stricken with a bout of wanderlust and decides to cross the street when the restaurants empty their trash into backyard dumpsters. But he trusts her. When he whistles, she scampers frantically on her short legs. The man thinks the dog thinks the park home.

The slow sickness is rough and ugly. The man remembers the life in the clown's lips, the sprouting up of the animals like poppies pushing through dirt. He strokes his dog, then begins the untying. Twists the tail until it is straight, angling off from the hips. Undoes the legs until they become part of the dog's trunk. Shuts his eyes and bends the neck until the head disappears and there is a withered blue egg in his hand. Cold fingers manipulating the tight knot, his teeth carefully holding the tip. Works and works at it with the cautious urgency of Houdini working the chains around the trunk sinking into the ocean. The knot smoothes out and he holds the balloon shut with his fingertips. Drawing in a great, clown breath, he blows until the sickly dog is full and fat. Ties the end carefully, knotting his precise suture.

He stares at the roll in his lap, twists it in the middle. It swells grotesquely. He is afraid it will pop. Torques it at the top, and a bubble juts out of the end. It does not look like paws or a tail, but like the stump of a limb. He considers drawing a face on the balloon. Whiskers. Drawing a bark into the blue. The man stares at the lump in his lap. He knows she has stopped dreaming of steaks and yards.