Blue Mesa Review
Precarious: Stories of Love, Sex, and Misunderstandingby Al Riske
In prose that is by turns spare and lyrical, the stories in this collection capture the heady, invincible feeling of late summer as they describe the sharp pinch of doing the right thing and regretting it and recall exhilarating memories of making bets and dancing naked. From rain-soaked Seattle to drought-stricken California, from the front seat of a
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In prose that is by turns spare and lyrical, the stories in this collection capture the heady, invincible feeling of late summer as they describe the sharp pinch of doing the right thing and regretting it and recall exhilarating memories of making bets and dancing naked. From rain-soaked Seattle to drought-stricken California, from the front seat of a mother’s Malibu to a vacation cabin on Cape Cod, and from a tiny island to a desert drenched in light and heat, these 16 short tales introduce readers to characters such as a boy trying to make it through the summer between the end of high school and the start of something else, a woman attracted to a muscular man because it makes her feel safe—right up until it doesn’t—and a man who can only imagine what it’s like to sleep with many different women. The fully-realized, well-rounded individuals who populate these pages will resonate with readers.
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- Luminis Books, Inc.
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- 16 Years
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Stories of Love, Sex, and Misunderstanding
By Al Riske
Luminis BooksCopyright © 2010 Al Riske
All rights reserved.
Sleeping with Smiley
I remember the river and the way it looked at dawn: the glassy water and the wisps of fog. I can still smell the sea air and hear the trawlers chugging out past the jetty in the distance. I remember the feel of my oars catching the water in time with Curt's. The muscles don't forget. I can feel the strain even now in my legs and lower back, in my shoulders and in my arms. I hear the rhythm of our seats sliding up and back in Mr. Alt's racing shell.
It was that summer between the end of high school and the start of something else. Curt and I were best friends, and more often than not you could find us sculling on the Rogue at dawn. We had been at it since May, coming out to the river before school nearly every day. The boat was long, narrow, and unforgiving. It dumped us in the river our first time out, and the water felt like ice that had only just melted. I was ready to quit after one day, but Curt convinced me to keep trying — it was a two-man boat — and I found myself enjoying it more and more as we learned to pull together. By summer all we wanted was to go faster. Still, it was a struggle. So many things could go wrong. Then, toward the end of one workout in the first week of June, everything came together.
We were passing near the dock, and there on its weathered gray planks stood Warren Alt, the owner of the boat, a massive man of about fifty, bald except for a short white fringe. Wearing baggy pants and a hooded sweatshirt, he looked more like a gym teacher than the wealthy East Coast transplant that he was.
"Now, give me a power twenty!" he bellowed, hands cupped around his mouth.
We started pulling hard, really putting our backs into it. Curt was the stroke, the pacesetter, and it took all I had to keep up with him. But that wasn't the problem. He was short and muscular; I was tall and lean. In a subtle way I hadn't noticed before, our strokes didn't look the same. I shortened mine so the angle of my oars matched the angle of his, and for the first time we started to glide — really glide — swiftly and smoothly.
Without looking I knew Mr. Alt was pacing slowly along the narrow floating dock, following our progress. His arms would be folded, and he'd stop now and nod to himself.
As the shell continued to gain speed, I felt a smile creep onto my face, and with each stroke — catch, drive, feather, recover — it got a little bigger. I couldn't see Curt's face, of course, only the back of his wavy hair, wet with perspiration, but I had the sense that he was smiling, too. Catch, drive, feather, recover. We were in almost perfect synchronization. You could see it in the ripple pattern left by our oars.
When we finished the twenty power strokes, it was as if we were crossing a finish line. Our oars came up and the shell continued to glide. Curt looked over his shoulder at me and let out a whoop. I tossed my head back and yelled straight up at the sky with all the wind I had left. We had just experienced something we would never be able to describe adequately. But then we wouldn't really need to. Not to each other.
I was jealous of Curt in those days because his girlfriend, Isabelle Smiley, was beautiful, smart, sexy, and crazy about him in a way no girl had ever been crazy about me.
She was only eighteen, same as us, but she looked, sounded, dressed, and acted older. She was a teller at the bank; we had summer jobs washing dishes at a local pizzeria. The night I took her to dinner, she looked sensational. She had dressed up even though it was just me she was going out with. I thought of her as a woman, not a girl, in her little black dress and a pearl necklace.
"Faux," she said.
We were seated by the window and had a perfect view of the Rogue River harbor. It was almost romantic. Faux romantic. Still, the first words out of my mouth were: "Curt said I should look after you while he's gone."
"Oh, he did, did he?"
She picked up a dinner roll and started buttering it.
"Not like that. He just wants me to keep you company."
"I see. So I don't get too lonely?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Oh Dean —" She stopped, sighed, started again. "Would it sound too bitchy if I said he didn't seem too concerned about how I felt last night?"
"Hey, listen, I didn't mean to butt in. He asked me to come get him and drive him home so I'd have his car —"
She touched my hand, shook her head, and motioned for me to wait. Though Curt was my best friend, it felt odd to be defending him. I was more accustomed to taking Smiley's side in their frequent feuds.
"It's not your fault," she said when she'd finished chewing her bread. "It's just that I'm not going to see him for two weeks while he's on that family vacation in Connecticut, and then pretty soon you guys will be off to college in Seattle and —"
"What do you mean?"
"That's if he comes back," I said. "Regis could offer him a rowing scholarship while he's there."
"He never said anything about that to me."
"He never mentioned Regis — Mr. Alt's alma mater?"
"He said he was going to visit there and maybe do some rowing, but he didn't say anything about a scholarship."
"Mr. Alt thinks he's a prime candidate."
"You think Curt would take it?"
"A free ride would be hard to turn down," I said.
Smiley shook her head, thinking it over.
"I'm not sure whether to be mad, sad, or what," she said.
I told her I wasn't too thrilled about it myself.
After a long pause, she said, "Well, he's supposed to call me tomorrow, so if you want to come over, maybe he'll have something to tell us by then."
Left alone in the living room of Smiley's apartment, I wandered around, looking at the prints on the walls, the fashion magazines on the coffee table.
From the kitchen she said, "I'm having a ginger ale. Would you like one?"
"Sounds good," I said.
On the end table I spotted a pack of Virginia Slims menthols and a saucer with three butts in it. When I asked Smiley how she could live with someone who smoked, she acted real funny and finally admitted the cigarettes were hers, not her roommate's. She hadn't smoked since she was sixteen, she said. Not regularly. But lately she'd taken to bumming smokes from one of the other bank tellers during breaks, and on her way home that night she'd stopped off to buy a pack of her own.
She asked me not to say anything to Curt, and I knew why — nothing was more of a turnoff for him than smoking.
Smiley, wearing tight jeans and a loose sweater, came into the living room then, carrying two drinks in short glasses with cubes of ice. She was barefoot and much more relaxed than I was. She handed me a glass, sat down on the couch, and looked at me as if to say, "Aren't you going to sit down?"
"I just can't picture you smoking — especially not at sixteen," I said. "All the girls I knew who smoked at that age were, I don't know, they ..."
"They wore too much makeup. Is that what you mean? And had dirty mouths."
"Yeah, I guess that's it," I said.
"That was me."
"I don't believe it."
"Oh, I was pretty wild back then — not that I'm proud of it," she said.
I just looked at her, trying to imagine her in that completely different incarnation, and suddenly she said, "I wasn't that wild."
I blushed, and she laughed and blushed, too.
"I guess we all go through a rebellious period," she said finally.
I shrugged. "Not really."
I didn't know how to respond to that. It put me off balance somehow. I thought: Maybe I'm in my rebellious period right now. But I'd know, wouldn't I?
"So," I said, sitting down and sipping my ginger ale, "how was your weekend?"
"Could have been worse, I guess — though I'm not sure how."
Her voice said it all: She was bored. She was bored and there wasn't much she could do about it. Then the phone rang.
"That must be him now."
She set down her drink, let the phone ring twice more before answering.
She winked at me.
I set my drink down and got up. I didn't like the idea of listening to their conversation, or even just Smiley's side of it, but what could I do? I started wandering about again, pretending to be absorbed in Smiley's music collection: The Supremes, Hall & Oates, Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, Emmylou Harris, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones.
"I've missed you," Smiley said. Then: "Well, thanks a lot! The least you could do is say you missed me, too. Oh, thank you, that's very convincing."
She sounded like she was just kidding around, almost. I excused myself and went into her bathroom just to let her talk. I couldn't tell if the conversation was going to turn ugly or sexy — you could never tell with those two — and I didn't want to find out.
The bathroom was a mess, but it smelled wonderful. Atop the toilet tank was a small, open jar filled with tiny leaves and petals and things, and they filled the room with their scent. The counters were cluttered — cold cream, talcum powder, toothpaste, nail polish, eyeliner and shadow, Q-tips, cotton balls, perfume. Hanging above the bathtub were several pairs of her thigh-high stockings in black, white, and tan. Damp towels lay scattered on the bare linoleum floor.
I took my time looking around — I had not been in her bathroom since we helped her move into the Imperial Arms three months earlier — and got a curious thrill from handling her things, opening different bottles and jars and smelling their contents. Then I discovered a little wicker basket in one corner. Inside I found garters, panties, and bras in colors my mother never wore — red, black, hot pink, and mint. I took them out one by one and felt the cool, smooth fabric between my fingers and against my cheek. My right leg began to shake. I put everything back in the basket and shut the lid.
When I came back into the living room, Smiley was still on the phone. She said nothing for quite a while, and then: "Oh, um, Dean's here. Would you like to talk to him? Just a minute."
She handed me the phone.
"Hey, how's it going?" I said.
"It's different here," Curt said. "You know how Mr. Alt talks? Well, everybody out here sounds like that — only worse."
"Have you been out to the college?"
He filled me in on what he had been telling Smiley and asked what I'd been doing.
"Me? I've been lifting weights every other day, cycling twenty or thirty miles in the afternoon before work ... You know, the usual."
He wasn't buying it.
"I row with Mr. Alt tomorrow," I said.
"Show no mercy."
"Well, I'd better get off the line. Let me say good-bye to Isabelle."
"Isabelle who?" I said, just to tease Smiley — nobody called her Isabelle.
She took the phone away from me.
"Hello? Uh-huh. I've thought about that. Yes. Curt!" She blushed. "What? Yes ..." In hushed tones she added, "Would you cut it out?" And then in her normal voice: "Call me again, okay? Alright. Bye."
She hung up the phone and looked at me.
"What's an Ergometer?"
"A type of rowing machine," I said. "They use it to measure your strength and endurance."
"I see. And they measured Curt's."
"The coach there said he never had a freshman score as well as Curt did."
"'Never had a freshman ...' It sounds like he's already signed up for classes."
All I could do was shrug. I was thinking the same thing.
Mr. Alt was already in the boathouse, rummaging through his tool box, when I came in through the open door. One of the floorboards creaked under my weight, and Mr. Alt turned around.
"Oh, you're here," he said. "I was wondering if you were going to make it."
I didn't think I deserved that.
"I'm on time," I said.
He checked his watch.
"So you are."
"I was only late once, and I've never missed a practice," I said.
"I know that, but I didn't think you really wanted to row with me."
He waited for a response but I didn't give him one.
"I thought you only rowed because Curt did," he said.
"What made you think that?"
"I don't know. Am I wrong?"
"Well, I wouldn't be doing it if not for Curt, because he's the one who got me started, but I've stayed with it because I like it."
"And will you stay with it if Curt decides to go to Regis?"
"Why? Is he getting a scholarship from your friend?"
His old rowing partner was now the coach.
"I spoke to Chris last night, as a matter of fact, and he's most impressed with Curt's progress."
"So there's something in the works."
"I think that's a fair assumption. You didn't answer my question."
"Will I try out for the team at Orland, you mean? It wouldn't be the same but, yeah, I suppose so."
"Excuse me if I'm not all gung-ho. I feel like I'm having the rug pulled out from under me, you know."
"You can be a good rower if you want to be."
I gave him a look that I hoped would say what I was too reticent to say out loud: Yeah. Right. But not as good as Curt. Not good enough for your alma mater.
Mr. Alt continued: "I've known other rowers just like you, Dean. Very smooth — like they were born with an oar in each hand. But they would never push themselves beyond a certain point. Curt is different. He doesn't have great technique, but he has something else. He has guts, and —"
"And I don't. Is that it?"
"I don't know. And I don't think you know. I don't think you've ever tested yourself."
"What am I supposed to do? What do you want from me?"
"I think you have to decide what you really want and then go after it."
I said, "Let's row." That's what Curt would have said.
There were half a dozen cars parked along the south bank of the jetty, and the people in them — including me and Smiley in Curt's Mustang — were eating take-out lunches. It was a nice day, not too windy, and of course we had the top down.
"I come out here a lot on my lunch hour," Smiley said.
I bit into my bacon cheeseburger, Smiley stabbed her taco salad with a plastic fork, and we both watched a small powerboat cross the bar, its bow slapping the waves loud and hard.
"Heard any more from Curt?" I asked.
"No, he said he was going to call me again, but he hasn't so far. You?"
"Not so much as a postcard."
Smiley, trying the words on for size, said: "You know, I don't think I even want him to come back."
I knew better, or thought I did.
"You don't mean that," I said.
"Maybe I do."
I remembered the flushed look on her face when she opened the door that night I came down to drive Curt home so I'd have his car while he was gone, and I remembered the way she blushed on the phone with him.
"We shouldn't jump to conclusions," I said. "I mean, for all we know —"
"Right. What do we know? He's not telling us anything."
I tried to shrug it off, but obviously I wanted to know more than I did.
Smiley poked around in her salad for a moment, lost in thought. Then she said, "I don't get it, Dean. Sometimes he treats me like I don't even matter to him. And the stupid thing of it is it just makes me want him all the more." She paused, and I could see the frustration in her knit eyebrows. "It doesn't make sense, does it?"
"Not to me," I said.
Even though I wasn't too happy with Curt myself at that moment, my first impulse was to come to his defense somehow. He had his reasons for everything he did, and I could understand them, most of the time; I just couldn't explain them very well. I wondered if he could. But then I suppose if he could explain, he wouldn't ... ah, who knows?
"I want someone who — who puts me first. You know? Who thinks of me as the most important person in his life." She stopped herself. "That sounds kind of self-centered, doesn't it?"
"I'll tell you one thing," she said. "I'm getting damn tired of waiting around for him to call. I want to get out — do something. Have some fun."
"What do you want to do?"
"I don't know. Anything. I'd like to go somewhere. I'm tired of the bank, my apartment, this town."
I reached for my blackberry milk shake and pulled a sip through the straw.
"We should go somewhere," she said. "This weekend."
"I've got the Mustang. Might as well take advantage of it."
"You want to?"
Her eyes had a brightness in them I hadn't seen for some time.
"Where should we go?" she asked.
"Wherever you want."
"Well, that narrows it down some."
She smiled and I no longer cared if it was reasonable or not, but in the next instant I was having second thoughts.
"Curt'd probably call as soon as we left," I said.
"Tough. Let him wonder what's going on for a change."
"Well, I've always wanted to go to San Francisco —"
"San Francisco would be fun."
"That's a long trip for one day."
"We wouldn't have to do it in one day," Smiley said, a bit tentatively. "We could stay in a hotel."
I sucked hard to pull more ice cream though my straw.
"I guess that'd be the only way to do it, wouldn't it?" I said finally.
Smiley put one hand on her hip and said, "Don't make it sound like Chinese water torture!"
"Oh, no, no ..."
I smiled. She made me feel light and innocent somehow.
"I don't snore or anything. At least I don't think so."
Thinking out loud, I said, "I should be able to get George to cover for me at the restaurant so we could leave Saturday ..."
"Sounds good to me."
"Let's do it."
Excerpted from Precarious by Al Riske. Copyright © 2010 Al Riske. Excerpted by permission of Luminis Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Al Riske is a former newspaper reporter, magazine editor, and ghostwriter, and the author of the novel Sabrina’s Window. His short stories have appeared in 34th Parallel magazine, the Beloit Fiction Journal, the Blue Mesa Review, Hobart, Pindeldyboz, Switchback magazine, and Word Riot. He lives in California.
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