‘The Shapeshifter Principle’ by CJ Hauser


Photograph by Tim Daniels

From TinHouse:

It was summertime in Flatbush. I had just graduated high school, the fruit stands smelled rotted, and the coolest place to be was the old Dutch cemetery because of the trees and stones. Everyone was shuffling slow down the sidewalks, dirty feet in sandals, swearing they’d kill themselves if the ice-cream truck didn’t stop jingling.

Our building was a tan cinder block low-rise called the Greenbriar. It had a crest over the door with vines and birds on it. When I came home the night Mama disappeared it looked like someone had tried to dislodge the crest with a penknife. There was a stomped-on orange in the stairwell and about a million cigarette butts. Up in our apartment on the fifth floor I found Joey in the black dark, heating a can of beans on the stove. All I could see was the silhouette of his hand in front of the gaslight. Joey lost his sight when he was eight and if it weren’t for Daphne and me he’d live without any lamps at all.

“Where’s Mama?” I said. I flicked on the light.

“She never picked me up from practice,” he said. “Coach Benny drove me home.”

The only reason I could think of a person would want to live in the Greenbriar was the balconies. Ours was six feet wide and had two camp chairs on it, the seats too low, so you had to look out through the railings. Still, it was outside. “Al fresco,” Mama called it. Where are you going with those bills, Mama? To the damn al fresco, she’d say. I went out and sat in a chair that was made to look like the Puerto Rican flag, even though Mama was from Albany and we were pretty sure our daddy was Egyptian because of a ring Mama wore from him with an ankh on it. I kept a pack of Parliaments outside in a tin and when I opened the pack I was missing a few.

“Joey, have you been smoking my Parliaments?” I said, even though it didn’t seem likely.

“Tina,” he said, “I’m an athlete.”

I slid one out and lit it. I counted them. I was definitely missing three.

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