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**PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006. | PAST BROADSHEETS |

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Paul A. Toth

A long time ago in a village in Ohio lived a woman named Shelly who existed in this world as if everything had always been here, as if cars arrived just as babies were born and jets had soared overhead since the days of dinosaurs. Then one day she read an article about stress and immediately noticed that she herself was very stressed, that her son seemed to have a terribly busy calendar, that between her mother-in-law and church and keeping a household going that she felt a little strange, very weird. Why must she spend so much time with her mother-in-law when her husband was dead? Why did her child have so many goddamn activities? Why did she not let the house erode, disintegrate? Why were cars the shapes they were? Why, if some jets crashed did they not all crash? Why did everyone continue going to church as if nothing had happened? Nothing was as natural as it had once seemed. The mechanical was unlikely. There was no possible way human beings had gone from fishing and hunting to building cars and skyscrapers. Nature was foreign, alien. And now that she thought about it, she wonderered why the hell baby tigers and elephants could get their shit together in two, three weeks, but you had to hold a human baby's hand for eighteen fucking years.

She began to drink. When she was drunk, everything seemed normal again. When drunk, she no longer wanted to wag her finger at her son and say, "You get one activity and that's it." She imagined misty scenes with God and knew that not all priests were bad, only a few. Cars were certain shapes and only a very few jets crashed due to accident, just as sometimes sparrows spiralled into picture windows. She enjoyed the cartoons her son watched and no longer wished to heave the television through the picture window.

The only events that remained strange and weird were the weekly visits with her mother-in-law, who had noticed Shelly's drinking. She would squeeze Shelly's hand and say, "Dear, is everything all right?"

Shelly wanted to smack her mother-in-law across the face and say, "Dear, everything is fine, you stupid bitch."

This angry visualization disturbed Shelly. Normally such images involved objects, not people, but in the case of her mother-in-law the object of violence became a person.

Over time, this smacking evolved into punching, choking, shooting, stabbing and, finally, slashing. To ease the thoughts, she started drinking slightly more heavily than normal before the arrival of her mother-in-law. The thoughts did not dissipate, but Shelly could let them come, rather than trying to stop them, and this decreased their intensity.

However, at the same time she began to experience terrible anxiety attacks when she awoke. The only thing that stopped them was drinking again. Steadily, Shelly went from drinking half the day to drinking almost all day long.

Soon, her son found rides with other parents and barely talked to Shelly. Her mother-in-law stopped coming. Only the mail woman still visited, faithfully leaving the bills, which had gathered unopened in stacks on the kitchen table.

After a while, Shelly grew acclimated to the swing between anxiety attacks and drunken relaxation, and would tease herself by extending the discomfort of the former just long enough to increase enjoyment of the latter, like eating a few more potato chips before finally taking a drink of soda.

Still, Shelly was lonely and wished she had a few friends, perhaps some drinking pals with whom she might go to Indian casinos or something along those lines. But that was not going to happen, as most of the ladies in town would never drink the way she did.

So, to help pass the days and have something to anticipate, she began ordering things from television the way old ladies did, except she actually needed the things she ordered, like special cleaners. The products arrived a few days later and she used them all. She began to enjoy cleaning, until her son started asking if the house wasn't clean enough already.

One day there was a heavy snowstorm and -- she could barely believe it, because she had never heard of such a thing -- the mail did not come. She knew because she could always hear the rumble of the truck half a block away, and this time she never heard it. She fell asleep waiting. Later when she checked, neither bills nor boxes had arrived.

That night, the plows came and swept the streets clean. In the morning, Shelly drank slightly more heavily than normal and waited for the rumble of the mail truck. Finally, in the early afternoon she heard the truck, hurried outside to the mailbox and waited. When the truck pulled up, the mail woman jumped at the sight of Shelly.

"Where were you yesterday?" Shelly shouted, startled at the volume of her voice.

The mail woman did not reply but turned and handed Shelly a box and a few envelopes.

"Aren't you going to say something?" Shelly said, dropping the mail in the snow. "The mail always comes." she said. "Haven't you heard that before?"

"Ma'am, the truck could not get through."

"Then how did my son get home last night?"

"He must have walked, ma'am. No car could have gotten through that snow."

"That's a lie," Shelly said, realizing how drunk she must be when she added, "You're a fucking liar."

The truck pulled away and Shelly ran after it, stumbling and shouting in its exhaust as it trailed away toward the next house down the street.

Shelly brushed herself off and gathered the mail. On the way inside she picked up the newspaper from the porch and unfolded it. On the front page was an article about the old priest. He had been sentenced to five years in prison for the usual.

When her son arrived home from school Shelly said, "How did you get home last night?"

"I walked. I got home an hour late, remember? I tried calling and no one answered. You must have been...sleeping."

"Well, mommy was tired," she said. "Mommy is very stressed out. Come here and give mommy a hug."

When she hugged him, he did not hug back. "The old priest never touched you, did he, in some strange way?"

"Are you crazy?"

"Well, I'm going to begin researching religions. I'll check out books from the library."

"Whatever," said her son, who then went to his bedroom and slammed the door.

Shelly stood there and looked at the ceiling as though it were the sky. She could have sworn a huge smiley faced formed. Her burden lifted. Everything was all right now. She made a drink and asked for the guidance of an unknown god or gods.