You scratch because it itches. You’re over the moon with excitement. Good news always drives your histamine reaction and now you’re breaking out in hives. You drink a glass of water. You breathe, slow breaths, in, out, the way the yoga teacher and the meditation guru and the homeopathist and the ENT guy instruct. The itch gets funky, like a dance, up and down your arms, the backs of your thighs, a place between your shoulder blades you can’t reach. You ask Ben to reach for you and he says he won’t because scratching only makes it worse. If you’re going to marry this guy, you want to know. You tell him he has to and when he does, you know you made the right choice.
Susan Tacent’s work has been published in a variety of literary journals including Tin House Online, Michigan Quarterly Review, decomP, Blackbird, Ontario Review, and DIAGRAM. In addition to teaching writing workshops, she facilitates an assisted living book club where the participants’ collective age exceeds 900 years. You can find her online at susantacent.weebly.com.
The truth is, she misses everything from those days, the skirts they wore and the bangs they had, side-swept, always on the verge of disappearing, like youth. Like life. It all slipped away, as her parents had warned her, even the people. Girlfriends you thought you’d have forever, poof, lost to marriage or motherhood or minds suddenly changed. They didn’t want to be girls anymore. They moved to other states. They changed their names and lost themselves.
Disappearance can happen so easily. It was her turn, that one summer, when she was still taking the bus home. She was walking to her apartment across a huge parking lot, nearly deserted in the afternoon heat. Done teaching for the day, in her business attire, carrying a briefcase. Good hair. Makeup starting to melt. As soon as he pulled up alongside her, she knew who he was and what he was doing. How could she miss him? His face was on flyers all over town, guest-starring on the local news. This time he was wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap, trying to grow a beard. He had been to her apartment complex before; a woman’s screams sliced into her sleep one humid morning.
Hey, do you want a ride?
A ride? (But my apartment is right over there, she thought but did not say.)
Yeah. It’s hot, so I figured you might want a ride. (Perfect words, faulty tone. The lie crept out.)
This was her cue. She bent at the waist and leaned in to get a better look. The audition ended there, with her bowing before him, briefcase tapping against her knee, all her lines cut. He knew what she was doing, could already hear her calling the police, though she never actually did. He tore off so fast she couldn’t read the license plate.
Sometimes she thinks she should have gotten in the car. If she had sat right down in the mystery, she would have had her answer. The truth can be dangerous but she likes to brush up against it. What if she had chased after the speeding car until the sweat rolled off her? Or she could have ditched her briefcase, jumped on the roof, and held on for the ride of her life, surrendering her hair to the wind. Her favorite scene: throwing her head back and shouting Northwest Stalker!, just to see his face. To show the world she got one thing right.
Jan Stinchcomb is the author of The Kelping (Unnerving), The Blood Trail (Red Bird Chapbooks) and Find the Girl (Main Street Rag). Her stories have recently appeared in Wigleaf, Hobart, and Pithead Chapel. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and featured in The Best Small Fictions2018 and Best Microfiction 2020. She lives in Southern California with her family. Visit her at janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb.
Squinting against whiteness the child left her mother beside the woodpile. With the sudden drop in temperature an icy crust had formed on last night’s new snow. “We’ll find it!” her mother called, watching the child walk on the surface while she stood shin-deep, clutching her stump to her breast. It was tightly wrapped in rags. Bleeding was stanched. The throbbing had slowed, perhaps due to the cold. But she was burning up, dizzy.
For a moment her mind took flight and she observed the two of them from above. Her daughter moved away, shrinking to a dot. “It all looks the same!” the child cried. “I don’t see anything.” . The voice brought her back. “Everything will be all right. We’ll find it. I promise.”
Charles Holdefer is an American writer currently based in Brussels. His work has appeared in the New England Review, North American Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and in the 2017 Pushcart Prize anthology. His recent books include Magic Even You Can Do (hybrid) and the forthcoming Agitprop for Bedtime (microfiction). Visit Charles at www.charlesholdefer.com.
She says: your mother must want something from you.
My mother can’t walk or talk. Her body is bones wrapped in reams of moth skin. Her brain works in insect twitches.
At the nursing home, there’s an awkward expectation for her to die.
My mother looks at me, wanting something. The dark yokes of her eyes are always the same. I think we’re both confused about beginnings and endings.
I imagine telling the nurse: You’ve got the wrong girl. I never give her what she wants.
I’m a grabber and a snatcher.
I knew it when I plucked the rose from our neighbor’s prized garden. My small fist on the stalk. The snap made me think I’d surprised it, and I was ashamed. My mother, watching from the kitchen window, came outside with her Nikon. The picture’s in a frame on the wall. It is the closest of close-ups. Black and white. Me, in profile, the face slack, the one eye in distress, the flower-head pressed to my lips. I’ve stopped wanting the rose already.
I knew when I found the dead bird with the metal leg band in our backyard. I thought the metal was a precious thing, and I wanted it more than anything. I raced inside for my blunt school scissors. The procedure was premeditated and slow. Long enough for me to be repulsed by my persistence. The leg flopped back and forth as I worked its sinew, working it into a not-a-real-leg. When it was over, I knew I’d mutilated a dead bird and that I’d never forget that about myself. Those digits etched in the flimsy cuff. The stupidity of hope.
Here’s what I need to tell that nurse. My mother started to want when I was one year old, when she took me on a plane overseas to see her dying, estranged mother.
My mother always told the story with gritted teeth. Her mother was gone by the time we landed. I had been an unsleeping terror on an all-night flight.
I imagine that plane’s hydraulic thrum. I hear it in the obscene lift the two attendants use to move her in and out of bed every day.
In the middle school popular clique, it was shoplifting. At the local department store, Liz Miller and I glided up and down the escalators, licking our chops. I plucked at trembling racks of earrings. I got so good I could take one, two, three cardigans on the featured rack. I wanted and wanted, and so it would only stop when I got caught. My mother says: You’ve always been a greedy little girl.
These things that I took and took and snatched and grabbed? The bird band and the rose and the cardigans? Their currency was bogus.
As soon as I get to her floor, I hear my mother loud and clear. She can’t talk, but now she is screaming.
An attendant understands this as: More tea!
I’m the only one who can translate her. She wants her mother and I want my mother. I picture us all as hungry bird mouths. Little openings, skyward, stretched out to an aching point, stretched to infinity.
Give them permission to go. Help them settle the unfinished business. Assure them you will be fine.
I imagine death as no more asks and no more wants. I imagine the coolness that comes over the body, just like the hospice pamphlet described. My mother, myself, at peace, wanting nothing, limbs unencumbered by flesh and blood, unmoved by removal.
Michelle Ephraim is Associate Professor of English at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she teaches courses on literature and creative writing. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Tikkun, Lilith, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Morning News, and other publications. She has been featured on The Moth Radio Hour and is the co-author of Shakespeare, Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Dramas (Penguin, 2015).
IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT
by Brenna Womer
While shopping what’s left of the canned goods at the grocery store, an announcement at the top of the hour, robust and autotuned: “All employees must now perform a personal temperature check,” and I, in a pair of disposable vinyl gloves but not a face mask because Dr. Gupta says they’re unnecessary for the still- and now- and currently-healthy, holding the last can of Kroger no-salt garbanzos, recall they’ve always made this announcement, but two weeks ago they were checking the temperature of the meats.
Brenna Womer is a poet, prose writer, professor, and editor. She is the author of honeypot (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019) and Atypical Cells of Undetermined Significance (C&R Press, 2018), and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Indiana Review, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere.
There are three women installed in the living room when I arrive. Smartly dressed, young moms most likely, with highlighted loosely curled hair, gleaming toenails, and tailored pantsuits. All have open laptops and cell phones—new information and guidelines saturate the air. I arrive with a friend because this is where our weekly writing group meets, at Hope’s house—because she’s wheelchair-bound and can’t easily secure a ride to our usual meeting places. The women are from the hospice—nurse, social worker, and gerontologist. It occurs to me that the more they deal with the dying, the farther away they get from death. They bring a pleasing scent to the room, perfume and doughnuts and pastries, which overpower the disinfectant used to clean up after Hope’s father’s renal stent failed in the middle of the night and urine soaked into the carpet.
We offer to come back at another time, but Hope wants us to stay. She rolls into the adjoining dining room and we follow, spreading out pens and Xeroxed poems and coffee on the table. We’ve done this every week for more than ten years. Today I’ve written a sestina about the character from Verdi’s Rigoletto and related it to the overwhelming feelings of vulnerability a father feels for his kids. Patti’s written about safe places and all the terrible truths a child must be protected from. We come down harshly on her attempt in the final stanza to tie this in with a drowning female Narcissus. Hope’s poem is about the mythological underpinnings of celebrity worship, the Roman Saturnalia, and human sacrifice. By the end of our two-hour session, all three poems are substantially improved. We will place them in folders, stick the folders into desk drawers, and repeat the process next week. I will probably bring another sestina, Patti will bring another poem about wrecked innocence, and Hope will bring one about some other aspect of popular culture. Or one where she flirts with and then castigates the Italian painter, Caravaggio. We hold fast to our comfortable subjects and styles.
We hear the conversation from the adjoining room. I’m sure they can hear bits and pieces of ours. Hope’s dying father is brought in. The nurse asks him about an open sore in his groin and if he still has trouble swallowing his meds. The gerontologist explains what hospice means, using simple and direct language, avoiding the word death. The social worker asks him which facility he’d prefer after reeling off a string of them. How about this one, she says, and I picture her positioning the screen of her laptop so he can see from across the room. Or here, she says. He doesn’t respond, and I’m reminded of my meeting with the activities director of the nursing home where they sent my father to die. He was barely alive and had a feeding tube attached to his stomach. So, what’s your dad’s favorite ice cream, she asked, we pride ourselves on our weekly ice cream socials.
No one uses metaphors, and Hope’s father gives simple yes, no, or I-don’t-know answers. One time the nurse uses the word spot, referring to an open bed at The Arbors. I think of Wordsworth’s phrase, spots of time, when he relates a particularly overwhelming experience from his own childhood where he steals a small boat and rows out to the middle of a lake. He’s surrounded by huge mountains illuminated by the piercing moonlight, and he’s terrified. And yet, he writes, these very spots of time “lift us up when fallen.”
Hope sits with her back to the others. When someone asks her about her father’s sleep schedule, Hope raises her arm, and without swiveling around, waves the question away. Several times we suggest that she join the conversation in the living room, but she insists she’ll find out all she needs to know later. Patti points out that living rooms ceased to be called parlors once funeral homes became known as funeral parlors, living rooms as opposed to dying rooms. I ask if parlor derives from the French verb to speak. If so, I say, then, we should think of our workshop as a beauty parlor.
Leonard Kress has published poetry and fiction in The Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, and others. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex and Walk Like Bo Diddley. Living in the Candy Store and Other Poems and his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz were both published in 2018. Craniotomy appeared in 2019. He teaches philosophy and religion at Owens College in Ohio. Read more at www.leonardkress.com.
It’s a damp, drizzly November night—Thanksgiving—and I can’t help but think of Melville’s famous orphan, who sets out from this insular city of the Manhattoes, goes to sea with branded Ahab, and eats hardtack with his shipmates aboard the doomed Pequod. ■ Blinky grew up on a cattle ranch in Miami. As a boy, he spent time in foster homes, on the street. He tells me about his father—then asks me to leave him out of it. Saw his mother for the first time when he was 12 or 13, around the time he started smoking crack. Saw her again—and for the last time—a few years later. ■ Blinky met the love of his life in Central Park. He was sitting on a bench, drinking a forty. Dani was sitting nearby. Hey, she called over, can I have a sip off your beer? No, replied Blinky. “She got all huffy and puffy, started talking shit in Spanish to her friend. ‘This cracker, blah blah blah.’” After a minute or two, he said—also in Spanish—Hey, I understood everything you just said about me. Dani blushed, got flustered. “Then I told her she could have the beer.” Soon, they were dating. She’d tell him about things like Pangaea, ask him about the farm animals back home. She spoke Spanish, English, German, Portuguese. ■ Blinky eventually asked Dani to go to Florida. They spent five years there. “We used to dress up as clowns and do street performances.” What kind? “Do jokes, bug around. Shit that clowns do.” By the time Miami police found Dani’s body, she and Blinky had been together ten years. Something about her death didn’t jibe. “The autopsy says one thing, the cops ruled it an overdose.” What’d the autopsy say? “She had lacerations on the back of her head, bruises running up and down the side of her body.” His voice softens. “She was everything. My best friend…” ■ A crisp, smiling couple stops, hands us each a small bag. Inside are soaps, lotions, Oatmeal & Shea Butter body wash, a single tampon. We thank them. They move on. I look over at Blinky. “We’re gonna need bathrooms and vaginas for all this,” I say. Laughing, he pulls out a small box of Ritz crackers. “I don’t have enough teeth to eat hard crackers. Baguettes, maybe. There’s not much to a baguette. I could just eat the inside.” ■
After kicking heroin in 1999, Jamie Alliotts went on to study writing at Columbia, Oxford, Dartmouth, and Iowa. A native of Oradell, New Jersey, he’s won awards and fellowships for his playwriting and essays, which appear or are forthcoming in Star 82 Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Bayou, 40 Towns, and elsewhere. Alliotts is writing a series of stories about the horrors associated with twelve-step recovery, as well as a memoir about his experiences as a heroin addict in the U. S. Navy and on the streets of Manhattan during the 1990s.
After we order the chicken for two, I run a theory by my friend Lois: certain professions are more conducive to being good spouses than others. I’m not referring to practical considerations here, like the wear and tear a surgeon’s hours (both long and unpredictable) will inflict on her marriage. Rather, the same qualities that make people good at certain jobs make them decent spouses. “Architects, for instance,” I say, “like me. We need to be meticulous, we need imagination and long-range vision. Looking at a building pared to drywall and studs, we picture the pristine home it will become. We gravitate to the fixer-upper.”
What I don’t say—but Lois knows what I am thinking, because I intend her to—is that I am married to the converse: someone whose job primes him to be a crappy husband. Curt is a food critic. A good food critic, like my husband, is the ideological opposite to the architect. Instead of seeing things through the rosy glow of potential, Curt sees flaws. He’s like the boy Kay in the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Snow Queen,” who gets a splinter of cursed glass stuck in his eye that makes everything grotesque. When Kay looks at a rose, he sees the slick, black bug crawling on the stem.
Also: a food critic is motivated to discover the next shiny thing. The new restaurant is the one suffused with a honey glow.
I used to imagine myself as Curt’s favorite restaurant, where we still go once a year and always order the same thing, where Lois and I are eating now. More specifically, I would imagine myself as a particular dish at his favorite restaurant: roast chicken, served with bread salad, black currants, and pine nuts. You have to order the chicken as soon as you sit down—there’s a note about this on the menu—because it takes fifty minutes to cook. It roasts at 500 degrees in a cast iron skillet. I know this because I bought their cookbook this summer, so I could make the chicken myself. I burned my hand lifting the skillet from the oven.
But it’s Lois here with me today, not Curt, because Curt is in Bologna. Bologna has the best food in Italy. Married to a food critic, I thought this was a universally known fact, though Lois is clearly surprised to hear it, after she asks, so casually, “Why Bologna?”
This makes me consider which other facts I consider universally known are not, and then which facts other people know that I would be equally surprised to learn. For instance, Lois just told me, assuming this is something that everyone knows, that only 15% of used clothes are donated to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. The rest become landfill. “Didn’t you know?” she says, perfect eyebrows arched. I’m at a loss to explain my horror is not just about the waste. Suddenly the world is full of knowledge that I am not privy to, and learning this knowledge will only make my world darker.
This feeling is so oppressive that I almost lose my appetite for the roast chicken and bread salad that I once believed represented me, the dish my husband would always rank first.
I’ve bullied Lois into ordering the chicken and bread salad, since the restaurant will only serve it to two people or more. Lois mostly avoids meat. I watch her pick at her chicken thigh and feel guilty, despite having every right to manipulate her.
Lois writes grants for nonprofits. She thinks this makes her a good person.
“So, what are you going to do all week while Curt’s in Bologna?” Lois asks.
“Work. See my friends,” I say. “And,” I hesitate, because I didn’t plan to say this next part. I consider reasons to disclose, reasons to withhold. It’s like an imaginary house I am building and dismantling. I hesitate for so long Lois repeats, “And?”
“And, I’m going to get my eggs frozen.” Lois’s eyes are her most beautiful feature, black and moist as olives. They widen. “I thought you didn’t want children?”
I’m almost certain Lois is having an affair with Curt. But I am willing to see Lois with an architect’s eye, and imagine as I look at her, her plum-colored lipstick mostly rubbed off, her lips shiny from the chicken skin that she only reluctantly eats, that Lois is having regrets. She feels guilty for betraying me. She suspects Curt is a pain in the ass, finicky and difficult to satisfy, and she could find a better man who would cause considerably less trouble and stress.
“Curt doesn’t want children,” I say. Lois bites her greasy lip. I watch her set down her fork with its chunk of bread salad, its dainty, impaled currant.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her story “Madlib” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press). Her story “Surfaces” was selected for Wigleaf‘s Top 50 2019. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. See more at www.kimmagowan.com.
the first step is to love someone who will let you touch their hair. this is very important and cannot be avoided. next, to find them one day in their kitchen, shoulders so tense you think of cliffsides taut with stone—so you take them by the hand, pull them to their living room and sit them on the floor in front of their couch. the couch is soft with love, easy and giving as water. you go to their bathroom and fetch their comb from the coffee mug by the sink. you take a seat. place the comb under your right thigh. then, you tuck their shoulders between your knees, take out hair pins if they’re wearing any, gently tug out rubber bands or hair ties or anything else pulling their hair tight from their skull. don’t start yet with the comb. first you must run your fingers through their hair, careful, so careful not to catch painfully on any snag or tangle. you whisper your fingers through, flicker them softly when you encounter a knot, do your best to pull it apart without yanking at the root. it is not always possible. if you must cause some pain, as sometimes you must, give them warning. a soft, murmured sorry will suffice. consider coconut oil, warmed between your palms, soaked into the roots of their hair like fresh rainfall, pulled lovingly through each strand. when their hair seems softer, their shoulders slacker, the muscles of their neck less prominent and stiff like a royal guard, it is time to take out the comb. here, too, you must be gentle. work slowly, methodically. right to left or left to right. starting always at the root. move slow and sure when there is a tangle, brace the comb against your hand whenever possible so as to spare their scalp. do this for some time. silence is like fresh snow settling on the lonely earth, the shuffle of snowflakes as you work through another snare, the thick, dappled comb glinting with lamplight. even so, they might speak, and you must listen, responding in a low, warm voice whenever appropriate. this is love, you know. this is how you must learn to love. with the patience to sit for however long it takes, the bones in your seat going blunt and numb, your muscles filling with restless thrum. pull the comb through the same section of their hair until it travels smooth and easy and shines with your still effort. you will do this again. you will do this for every section, every strand, you will sit until the work is done. and then, you will press a kiss to the top of their head, you will squeeze their shoulders, and let them walk away.
Uma Dwivedi is a sophomore at Yale University. They’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Black Warrior Review. Their other publications include Picaroon Poetry, Right Hand Pointing, Broad Recognition, and Third Wednesday. They are a prose editor for Persephone’s Daughters and a poetry reader for Winter Tangerine. Previously, they’ve been a finalist in Write Bloody‘s 2017 manuscript competition, an editorial intern with Scribner, and a poetry mentee with The Adroit Journal. Dancing Girl Press released their first chapbook, They Named Her Goddess (we called her girl), in January of 2019. Catch them watching Winnie the Pooh or the Paddington movies.
AT NIGHT THE WOMAN’S DOORBELL RINGS. IN HER DOORWAY, THE MAN HOLDS HIS DOG IN HIS ARMS.
Is that a dead dog, she says, moving so the man can puncture her otherwise quiet house.
In her living room, the man lowers his dog towards her couch cushion.
Squinting at his whimpering dog, he says, Sartre might die.
The man tucks a nylon blanket under Sartre’s chin. Sartre pants. Sartre ate too much chocolate cake, he says, shifting towards the woman, Thank you for being here. She says, I’m glad you came over. Sorry he got poisoned. His steps pace oddly around her living room. Are you alright, she says. Hugging her bathrobe to her waist, she wanders to the window, where her reflection is foliage, gargled vines.
Pacing in her hallway, he says, It makes me fucking sick, how we all eat, eat until we burst, and I can’t do anything to change it…
THE WOMAN AND THE MAN LIE ON THE MAN’S BED, WATCHING TELEVISION, WHEN SUDDENLY THE MAN LEAPS OFF.
As he begins to kneel on the carpet, the woman says, What are you doing.
The man says, kneeling, I have a question to ask you. She stands, and he stays on his knee.
The man says, Will you move with me to High Plains, Nevada.
A hot pause.
The man says, I’vebeen offered a position at the world famous All-Elvis enclave.
The woman says, Elvis.
The man says, It’s been a life dream to mimic the king.I’m moving to High Plains, where my face will be plastered on television sets across the nation. I want you to come with me.
The woman says, Let me google it.
THE NEXT DAY THE WOMAN MEETS HER AUNT IN A COFFEE SHOP WITH OCHRE STAINS ON THE CEILING. MAKING A FACE AS SHE SIPS HER WATERY COFFEE, HER AUNT ASKS:
So you’re dating that guy who writes perverted love songs about birds. The woman says, I guess you could say that. The TV attached to the wall displays an image of a female’s headless body, oiled, positioned on a dinner plate. An advertisement jingle plays. Her aunt says, Don’t you think it’s a little funny you’re dating an activist. The woman says, I guess so.
The waitress approaches them to ask if they would like anything else; her aunt looks at the woman and says no.
I’m sure you know what you’re doing, her aunt continues, By the way, it looks like I’m about to go through another divorce. Do you have any money I could borrow.A man in a suit enters the coffee shop with blood on his shoes, tracking it as he bumbles over to the register. The woman says, I don’t have access to my university stipend anymore. Plus, I’m moving to High Plains.He got a job at one of those Elvis enclaves.
Her aunt’s face goes slack and she hesitates,You should probably follow him there.She sniffs. Well anyways I’ve got to get going. These lawyer checks won’t write themselves, and unlike you I don’t have an Elvis Impersonator for a boyfriend.She tosses a crumpled five-dollar bill on the table, adjusting her faux-fur vest and prancing around the blood tracks in her soiled-cream stilettos.
BEFORE BOARDING THE TRAIN TO HIGH PLAINS, NEVADA, THE WOMAN AND HER PURSE ARE SEARCHED. HANDS GROPE BENEATH HER BREASTS. AN EXTRA SECOND.
She sleeps during the ride and wakes to the slur of wheels slowing.
From the window her eyes stare at High Plains, Nevada. Black tall buildings, a sky tinged with smoke.
At the arrivals platform, the man waits behind a barrier. His shoulders clumped. Moving towards him. A haze of stubble over his forehead, chin. She’s clutching her potted plant from Pinecoast against her hip.
At the edge of the throng, their bodies sizzle. As she collapses into him, she says, Home at last.
Careening through the emptied station, he offers her a white handkerchief. To protect your lips from the ash, he says, forehead glossed with sweat.
Luggage in tow, they sprint towards the yellow cab gunning in the shade. Heat throttles in her lungs.
Yellow cab smashing through strange cool streets. A graffiti-phrase on the side of a concrete building reads, HIGH PLAINS, CITY OF HOMELESS COWS. She says aloud, Homeless cows. Cab driver says, In High Plains, cows run free in the city. There is nowhere for them to graze. All the nearby pastures have caught fire.
He says, Look.
In the street, a herd of cows exposing their slack pink tongues. Ribs poke out from their skin. The woman licks her lips. This is us here, the man says, dispensing a wad of cash into the cab driver’s palm. In front of their new apartment complex, the woman widens her step to evade a cow snacking on the innards of a vulture.
Vanessa Saunders is a writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She teaches writing at Loyola University, New Orleans. Her cross-genre manuscript, The Flat Woman, was a finalist for the Seneca Review‘s 2019 Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Contest. That manuscript was also longlisted for the 2018 Tarpaulin Sky Press Book Award. Her poems and cross-genre work have been published in PANK, Entropy, Nat. Brut, Stockholm Literary Review, Poor Claudia, Passages North, Heavy Feather Review, and other journals; her nonfiction has been published in Redivider. She studied at the University of East Anglia and San Francisco State University for her BA in creative writing and received her MFA from LSU. She is presently at work on a novel of eco-fiction.
The first of my brother’s birthdays that he wasn’t there for was three months and two days after he passed. He would have been twenty-two on the 22nd day of June, but he wasn’t. We let twenty-two lanterns go over Shanksville School. We lived a minute from the school. It has this big parking lot, it’s small compared to other schools, but so damn big when no one’s in it. Big enough. All of our immediate family and friends came and parked and stood and let go of the burning pieces of paper that are supposed to work like tiny hot air balloons.
It was windy. We lived on a hill. The school lived on that hill. The burning paper lanterns couldn’t get off the damn hill. Some of them did, about eighteen, made it over the pine trees.
I spent eight hours of that day at work, thinking about how much I wanted to stay there and not go home to spend time with my family in a lot of burning paper.
Three of them wouldn’t take off. One got stuck in a tree. Aunt Betsy, who bought the lanterns for her first nephew, said she’d have to call the fire department. That the little fire would burn the whole tree down, and then the school. I hoped it would. Burn down everything so we could start new, fresh, the soil fertile from flames and mistakes and misjudged wind.
We laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed. My grandfather sat in a lawn chair on the pavement with his oxygen tank and laughed. My uncle kicked the pebbles left behind by winter snowplows and laughed. Betsy picked up smoking again and shook smoke out from the belly. My grandmother talked to my cousins on the other side of the family, told them it’s okay to cry. His best friend showed up late, but that made sense when nothing else did. We laughed when his wouldn’t take off the ground, wanting to stay in his hands. No one cried externally. I think we all cried on the way home. All 98.6 degrees of us helped to burn down the bad of the day, but we had to wake up the next day and do it all over again, without each other.
Matthew Tyler Boyer is a writer from Western Pennsylvania. He is a student in the Creative and Professional Writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. He is the author of the self published book Due to an Underwhelming Sex Education System in America. He is a fan of cats and oversized sweaters.
“This closet can hold many dead bodies. At least fifty.”
That was the first thing I told my roommate when I first met her.
The closets in our bedrooms really are huge. They are wide. They are tall. You could stack corpses up in there like sacks of rice. One on top of the other, rows of stacks. Many tall stacks. Not moving, not breathing.
My roommate uses her closet to line up faux fur coats and scarves. They’re lined up like a small army of foxes. I like to run my fingers on the soft furry surface and pretend that I am raising obediently still pets in her closet space.
But me, I keep mine simple. I walk past all the clothes, mounds of clothes strewn on my bedroom floor like defeated soldiers at the end of a long-fought battle. I slide the heavy wooden door open, get under my warm sheets, slide the door back closed, and lie still, until I fall asleep in the perfect dark.
Neeru Nagarajan is a writer from Chennai, India. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Forge Literary Magazine, Hypertext, Kitaab, The Adirondack Review, Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Bowling Green, Ohio, where she is at work on a novel.
The children make a ball the size of a cantaloupe out of looseleaf paper and book tape. They throw it across the classroom, not listening to my adult cries of “Stop it!” All I want is quiet. These children don’t know how to behave. They are boisterous and loud, and I wonder what their parents would do if they were left alone with them for five minutes. I don’t even want to be here with these children. I am substituting, a thing I do when I am only left with ramen and frozen corn in my larder. Substituting is the emergency brake of my life, the ripcord on the parachute. It keeps me from crashing harder, falling farther than I otherwise would.
These children are wild and out of control. They are not doing the work their teacher left for them, but instead some are playing poker in the corner. Others are using the rest of the roll of book tape to encase the left sneaker of the smallest kid in the class. These children toss the ball across the room, the object whizzing toward my head. I lift my hand in the air and grasp it. It was in motion, and now it’s not. The children gasp. I am too old and worn to participate in their homemade games. I am of the adult world, I am the one who is asking them to grow up, to take things seriously, yet they don’t want to. I am falling hard and fast. I might not be the best role model for these children. They look at me and roll their eyes. I roll my eyes back at them. They are not nonplussed. They’ve seen this look in adults before.
But I hold the ball in my hand for a moment. I keep it in the air, holding it before them, a jerry-rigged, disappointing, cobbled-together world in my hand. They expect me to throw it back to them because I am the sub. I have a light bill that was due last week. I am tired of their shenanigans, and other things, as well. I already ate the last bit of pretzel dust in my lunch bag. There are no more snacks at home. They are wearing me down. I have nothing to lose. I hold the ball for a moment too long, and then, with great deliberation, I throw it at the loudest of them all.
Amy Kiger-Williams holds an MFA in Fiction from Rutgers Newark. Her work has appeared in Yale Review Online, X-R-A-Y, Ghost Parachute, and Juked, among others. She is at work on a novel and a short story collection. You can read more of her work at amykigerwilliams.com and follow her on Twitter at @amykw.
I saw it happen before I heard it. My phone dropped from my grip, pulling my earbuds out and to the ground with it. A cellist played in my head. My breath hot, fogging and unfogging my glasses. I licked my chapped lips before doubling over to retch onto my rubber boots.
It had been snowing that morning. What some called awhiteout. Each step to work was a near-silent crunch. Unable to make anything out in front of me, I was one of the only employees going in because of how much had accumulated overnight. I would have been paid if I had stayed home, but I didn’t believe in taking unearned money. Working kept me busy, anyway. Keeping my mind occupied was the only way I could avoid unraveling since the accident.
Two sets of headlights came into view in front of me. A Jeep, at a stop sign, spun out. A snowplow, coming on perpendicular, didn’t slow down. Didn’t know to slow down. The Jeep’s brakes couldn’t hold up on the ice. The plow couldn’t see them coming. It was out of their control and now someone was dead. I had never witnessed a car get crushed into something so small and unrecognizable. There was smoke and a sizzling. The driver of the plow got out and ran, in slow motion, to his vehicle’s victim. He tried prying, what might or might not have been the door, open but there was no point in optimism for the surely distorted body. The man ran toward me. TheChariots of Firetheme song played, which made me chuckle. His murmuring’s volume increased as he grew nearer. I couldn’t hear him over that song, over my heartbeat—my temples pulsing. Vomit lodged in-between my teeth. I spat onto the ground.
“Call 911! Call 911!” He shrieked, too close to my face, before running back.
My eyebrows drew closer. I looked down at my empty hand, then my gaze fell to the ground. It was covered in the snow that kept falling. The snow that didn’t let up, even after it had pocketed a life. I ungloved my right hand, but my screen was too saturated to dial.
My wife, two winters earlier, died in a car accident on a day not unlike this one. As the Jeep morphed into its new, fatal shape, before my eyes, I finally felt released. My grief transformed into a sadness for whoever loved this individual as much as I loved her. I hoped it had been as instantaneous for her as it was for them. I hoped neither felt the pain that losing them unearthed. Approaching ambulance sirens overpowered the man’s sobs. I set my phone back down and tossed my glasses onto the ground, too. Red flashing lights came around the corner. Red flashing lights that I never called. I laid down and let the white everything consume my vision until my eyes couldn’t stand it anymore.
PARCHMENT, ABSORPTION, & SPLINTERED PALMS After Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhone” (1888)
Every night I was intermittently woken up by a flashlight peeking into the small window in my door. A confirmation of my staying put. Double checking my pulse without having to hold my wrist. I’d been there for years. Set schedule. Second hand desk that you can’t brush up against without getting splinters. The walls and floor, off white. My bed sheets are pale blue. My smock, pale blue. Most of the time, I wish I could be pale blue, too. My mind winning marathons, winning trauma responses. This is my box of unhealthy coping mechanisms. This is the box where they’ll bury my empty body. Pins in my mouth, in my eyes. Maybe ashes to be spread, spilled, swallowed. I am a pacing nothing. At night, the internal hum dimmed. Everything outside of my body grew quieter at night, too. The river outside continued flowing—still reflecting, still evolving. From my encased window high above humanity, I had an even better view of the moon than the people who sat on park benches, who walked their dogs, who knifed open champagne on their anchored sailboats. I preferred moon slivers to full moons. I liked when the water balanced out and I could see every glowing bit of the above resting on its surface. I’d often stay up all night trying to replicate it on canvas. Trying to capture it in my hand. Trying to tuck it away—to save it for when I couldn’t see out. When the sun rises, I can still feel the constellation aftermath on my skin; yes, I am made of stars. My bones are these window bars. This is my rib cage. I am encased. Some people like to watch the sun rise and set; I prefer the in between. Yes, I am an in between. When your mind doesn’t fit the mold, it is the ever-changing phases of the night sky that show me I’ll be okay. Their flashlights walked me outside. Their fingers on my pulsing wrists. I soak up the night. I put it on paper. I save it for later.
Savannah Slone is a queer writer, editor, and English professor who currently dwells in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Paper Darts, The Indianapolis Review, Glass: A Poetry Journal, Hobart Pulp, and elsewhere. She is the Editor-in Chief of Homology Lit. Savannah is the author of An Exhalation of Dead Things (CLASH Books, 2021), Hearing the Underwater (Finishing Line Press, 2019), and This Body is My Own (Ghost City Press, 2019). She enjoys reading, knitting, hiking, and discussing intersectional feminism. You can read more of her work at www.savannahslonewriter.com.
WELCOME TO MY GALLERY OF GENUINE LOOK-ALIKES
by Anne McGouran
That grating drone is the wind off Nottawasaga Bay whipping along Main Street. The Freshii outlet just duct-taped their front window and HappyHooka Bait & Tackle closed one hour early. As I struggle to stay vertical, a Gandalf lookalike falls into step beside me. We walk abreast for several blocks and I stare at hisperfectly shaped cigarette ash. He turns into the Molly Bloom Pub where he’ll trot out his magic-cigarette-ash bar trick for all theold vets and rooming house drifters.
In the Arboretum, aman whosleeps rough near the meditative labyrinth is examining the Trembling Aspen’s memorial plaque. Arms around itspale white trunk, he’s a dead ringer for the epic-bearded cigarette ash guy. Homeless people make me nervous, sad and guilty but I try to make conversation. “Hey man, did you knowthat the aspen has hands down the most restless foliage of any tree? My tree atlas says its leaves pivot in the slightest breeze. No kidding.”
Easter egg huntson the windy Plains of Abraham, sugar shack excursions for boiled maple sap rolled in fresh snow… I always pictured my mother’s Quebec City childhood as a kind of lost paradise. The year after she died, I retraced my mother’s childhood haunts. Still standing were J. A. MoisanGeneral Store (now an ultra-hip foodie haunt) and Le Capitole recital hall (now a Beaux-Arts theatre with a “Who has not looked for calm in a song?” frieze above the loge seating). I lingered in front of her old house on Saint-Gabriel: a three-story Georgian, the green shutters gone, half-moon fanlight miraculously intact.
Eighty-three-year-old cousin Annette wasmy mother’s last surviving relative. During our brief visit, I was struck by her resemblance to Madame Hermine, the flirtatiouslandlady in Children of Paradise…the same tight curls and chain of office necklace. Annette’sidea of haute cuisine was a 7-Up and a “Super-Club” sandwich at Snack Bar St-Jean. After dinner, sheexecuted a soft-shoe on the rain-slicked cobblestones while warbling“Je cherche un homme bon caractère. S’ilestgalant et beau, envoyez le moi. Expérience, pas nécessaire.”(I’m looking for a man of good character. If he’s gallant and handsome send me to me. No experience necessary.)Annette stopped hiccuping after fennel tea and a shot of Harvey’s Bristol Cream thenstared off into the distance.“After Sunday Mass we’d walk down toBasse-Ville for tartelettes à la crème de citronandboules au rhum.The baker’s twine cut into my fingers when I carried that big cake box up the hill… a white box with blue letters that said ‘PatisserieKerhulu. ’”
Quebec’s Charlevoix region is notorious for its hilly terrain. While we were admiring the north shore’s panoramic views, our Dodge Caravan’s back axle began braking and revving as if possessed. “Cripes!” my husband said. “I know you had your heart set on whale watching but we’d better head back… stick to the concession roads.”
We made a last-ditch stop in the village of Les Éboulementsoverlooking the St Lawrence River. Inside a dovegrey, shotgun-style barn, an elaborate diorama overflowed its papier-mâchébackdrop. Hand-painted terracotta figurines, tiny country chapels and cedar-roofed shacks arranged in tiers. A replica 19th century village of millers, bakers, lamplighters, town criers, knife sharpeners,aioli makers—all daydreaming, pontificating and haggling.
A pale, freckled girl named Adéloniewrapped our purchases in butcher paper and twine and affixed a label: “Les Santons de Charlevoix.” When I asked if the santonniermodeled his figurines after real people she half-shrugged, half-winked. Later that afternoon in Quebec City, a mechanic replaced our car’s universal joint and threw in complimentary maple sugar candies.
Twenty-eight santonspopulate our front room bookcase: abearded peddler with a samples case; a midwife balancing swaddling clothes in an olivewood cradle; avillage fool in a rucked-up nightshirt. The baker woman carrying a pannier full of bread and cakes bears an uncanny resemblance to cousin Annette who died twenty years ago. The same sultry-avariciousvibe.
Anne McGouran’s stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in The Account, CutBank, The Smart Set, Mslexia, Switchgrass Review, Gargoyle, Queen’s Quarterly (cited in Best Canadian Essays 2019). She lives in Collingwood, Ontario where she has developed a fascination with ice huts and orchard ladders.
The fire writhes, manic in a straightjacket. I too feel an appetite for all things.
I managed to open a bottle of beer with two rocks—modern man and the fire in his belly.
The beer rebels and foams, a harmless volcano.
It knows its criminal, this beer.
Night approaches. All the usual: purple, orange, blue. And then everything at once. Big black nothing, Conor Oberst sings.
Started the fire too early. Tent poles, broken but taped. A lopsided pyramid, instead of one forgiving arc. I zip up my sarcophagus.
The embers have a forcefield of heat that outdoes the light. If I wish to write, I will be burned.
I’m not far off the highway. Every truck frightens me.
I knew it would be cold. But knowing something means very little.
The embers in the sky could outlast those of my fire. I might burnwriting this. I’m on the last page. Imagine, all these words burning. The fire would go a little longer. A few minutes. Nothing more. Hours, months of writing, gobbled up by my most faithful reader.
Nothing is buried here. Everything is beaten, skinned, feasted upon. Tread lightly.
The first bone I found was clean of fur and meat. A crow nearby cawed and flew off into the buttermilk sky, wings beating in my ear.
The sun shrugged over the first mountain, and then the next. Turn back.
I gathered wood and came back with bones empty of marrow.
Tufts of animal fur flitted through camp like dandelion wings. What beast?
The sight of trash set me at ease. Mountain Dew bottles, candy wrappers, the many plastics of this world. These were things I knew.
I am a forensic scientist trained by Hollywood horror. Images from that buttered darkness (dull chainsaws, slashed tires, beards dribbled with chewing tobacco) visit me here in this boneyard once known as a picnic site.
Solitude. I wish I didn’t write that word. I have nothing to say about it other than I’ve had a lot of it.
Those with many rings write history. Elms write poetry. Wet wood, the kind that blows smoke, writes headlines.
Best known for tragedies, fire has authored the end of cities. Remember Chicago, the cow, the water tower.
Leave a mark like a fire would. Which is to say, no signature but itself. Recognizable to all, but only legible to the fire department.
The final burn. Let the sleeping pills settle. Throw on a free newspaper from the gas station and watch it bloom into black. Watch fire ants race over its petals and fly into the wordless night.
They say democracy dies in darkness, but lots of things live there too.
If you listen close, the fire says all kinds of things. Sometimes it says Rice Krispies in a bowl of milk. Sometimes car wheels on a gravel road. What would the fire say if I burned my notebook? Would it hiss or sigh or die? Or would it simply burn.
Connor Goodwin is a writer and critic from Lincoln, Nebraska. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, Poets & Writers, Los Angeles Review of Books, BOMB, X-R-A-Y, Back Patio Press, and elsewhere. He is working on a novel. Follow @condorgoodwing.
THE GREATEST LANDSCAPE HE HAD EVER SEEN
by César Valdebenito translated by Toshiya Kamei
In the summer midday, he was seated on a blanket in his underwear, with his boots on. His horse was five or six meters away while his gaunt dog Toby was asleep. He had turned on the radio and was listening to the news, but twenty minutes later he got bored. About fifty meters away his flock of sheep wandered. Robust, peaceful, and healthy, they kept grazing. He grabbed his rifle, which he had brought back from Pueblo Seco, Mexico a few years earlier. He had always wanted to try it, but he had never found the time or the opportunity. He was one of the best shooters, if not the best in that mountain range and had always wanted to know how good he was. What had stopped him? He had no answers. So he took aim at the nearest tree. The shot sounded and the leaves shook. The dog woke up and the horse jumped. Then, with great deliberation, he aimed toward his herd. He gunned down a sheep with the first shot. The horse trotted away. With amazingquickness, he aimed at the horse. For a moment he followed it with the crosshairs and, seconds later, knocked it down with another shot. The horse kicked and lay there. He kept aiming at the flock and knocking down sheep. Each time one fell, he lowered his rifle and gazed into the landscape. He felt the warm air as the sun scorched the earth. He felt drops of sweat forming on his forehead. He continued firing for three or four hours. After that, the flock had been halved. The dog watched the sheep raise their heads and then continue to graze. As the dog observed, sometimes they collapsed or disappeared behind the horizon. “See, Toby? I’m very good, aren’t I?” said the young man. Then his cousin arrived on horseback. He came full gallop. He stopped about thirty meters away and shouted at him what the fuck he was doing. “You’re nuts! You’ve gone totally nuts! Bernardo!” shouted the cousin. But the young man aimed at him, fired, and gunned down the horse he was riding. The cousin ran out and got lost in the plain. In the middle of the afternoon, gunshots were heard throughout the region. The young man had already been surrounded by PDI agents andpublic security officers. But still, from time to time, he loaded the rifle and aimed at a sheep. The last image he would ever see was his dog looking at those sheep and the sheep looking at him. In the end he would think this was the greatest landscape he had ever seen in his life.
Born in 1975 in Concepción, Chile, César Valdebenito is a poet, writer, and essayist. His books include the novels La vida nunca se acaba (2017) and Una escena apocalíptica (2016), as well as the short story collections El bindú o la musa de la noche (2017) and Pequeñas historias para mentes neuróticas (2018).
Toshiya Kamei holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Arkansas. His translations have appeared in venues such as Abyss & Apex, Cosmic Roots & Eldritch, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Helios Quarterly Magazine, and Samovar.
I’m a spotter. I’m good at spotting people, what their weaknesses are.
I look for what feels familiar, it’s that simple. It’s that easy.
I see you, gentle men and women. I see you.
You may smile smile smile. Always smile smile smile.
But all the time I’m waiting. Waiting for you to slip.
I’m thinking about power. Always thinking about power.
The First Mark
“Come with us, we’ll show you,” I say to the short man.
“I don’t trust you, I don’t know you,” he says, pulling slightly away from me.“Why should I go with you?”
“Sounds like a Wookie,” I say to Joe.
“Sometimes,” I sayto the short man, going right up to him, “sometimes you just have to get out.”
Victims aren’t always helpless. Does that sound like an oxymoron?
Is it strange, that I’m asking?
The world is made up of those who control and those who are controlled by. That’s just the way it is. No use, as they say, wishing for the moon.
Perhaps you think I sound manipulative? Cold?
All I’m saying is: Don’t get a wife. Don’t, don’t, don’t.
Or you bury yourself. In a tomb bigger than Arundel’s.
The Second Mark
As to how the situation with Molly developed.
She was a toad. She had big, gelatinous eyes. Why was she squatting in my life, what cause did I give her ever? Tears always spilling from her eyes, towards what end?
She called me a brute. Oh la-di-day, oh la-di-day.
“Molly,” I said, “Is there someone you love? More than yourself, I mean? Because six days a week I toil. Driving that cab around.”
“You make me sick, Molly,” I said. “The way you’re always making things all out of proportion. And are you a pauper? Do we live like paupers?”
Molly crying and rubbing her eyes. She going: “Why do Dorothy and the others get to live like queens? Up-lane, in the big houses that always smell sweet, like roses? And we ourselves smell like tinned meat.”
“You seemed to like it once, Molly,” I said. “Ten years ago, you’d no complaints. You seemed to like it, remember? I would tickle your bare feet – Good God! Unspeakable! I must have been mad. And if I were brave enough – Stuff your cooking and your cleaning! And the three wee nippers, good Lord! The way the lot of you eat – ! Has you starved? Has any of you? What dreams I had once, Molly. That’s the stuff.”
You’re a toad, Molly Molly Molly. And again I said Molly Molly Molly. You go hop hop hop, hop hop hop, giving me the stink-eye. Hunkers hard like a cow’s, but no milk in your udders. Lips cold as snow.
Now, only the Lord knows. Only the Lord knows why.
Being a victim is like having a smell. When some people drink a lot, their skin begins to smell like corned beef. It has nothing to do with cleanliness. The smell comes from somewhere deep inside.
And this particular smell, the smell of a victim, is a lure.
But oh that’s all water under the bridge now.
I’m as jointed armour now, true as a knight’s steel.
Bees sting and ducks swim. Sniffing out marks –that’s what I’m good at.
That’s what I do.
Marianne Villanueva was born and raised in the Philippines and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has published three collections of short fiction:Ginseng and Other Tales From Manila, Mayor of the Roses, and The Lost Language. Her novella, Jenalyn, was a 2014 finalist for the UK’s Saboteur Award. She has also collaborated on a full-length opera with the New York composer Drew Hemenger. Marife, the opera, received its world premiere in New Hampshire in 2015. She has just completed her first novel.
COAXING LIFE FROM DEAD MAN’S FINGERS
by Keygan Sands
Branching tendrils like spongy green fingers cling to surf-pummeled rock, doing their endless work of collecting sunlight filtered through silvery cloud. The air chokes and refreshes, rot and salt-scent both thick and invigorating. I pluck the seaweed fronds, Codium fragile or “dead man’s fingers,” from their nest amidst skin-slicing barnacles and mussels: they falter to human hands where endless pounding water could not break their holds.
Within the seaweed are tiny beings: pale, semi-translucent, grazing sea slugs. A plume of rubbery filaments—cerata—crest their backs, each one brilliant green with a thick web of dendritic veins. Their bodies taper, are topped with two independent eyestalks—rhinophores—that cast about gracefully and shrink at my touch. They feed upon the skin of the seaweed, ripping into the flesh, sucking from them chloroplasts. They are sacoglossans: sapsuckers.
Much later—I have migrated from rocky shoreline to sterile, clean-lined lab room—I separate the slugs from their food. I hold them with utmost care in a pair of metal forceps: squishy saclike body oozing between cold, hard prongs. The largest of them could stretch out comfortably to full length inside an eighth teaspoon. I place the slug in a glass vial which goes into a plastic box of water; the vial must be in a controlled environment. Tubes snake from the plastic into a steel box the size of a mini-fridge that calculates somewhere in its dark maze of innards how to keep the water bath at a constant temperature of 4℃. Another device connected to a thin probe impaling the vial’s cap measures dissolved air within the slug’s tiny, artificial environment. Just like that, I control a world.
Being an animal, the slug respires. I cover the vialin aluminum foil, blocking all light. Oxygen decreases predictably as the sacoglossan uses up what there is; it’s a neat line being birthed in blue on my computer screen: oxygen concentration as a percent of atmospheric pressure. After the designated period of darkness, precisely timed at half an hour, I proclaimthat there be light, and remove the foil without jostling. The slug clings to the glass, muscular foot flexing to progress its pinprick bulk, film of mucus left in its wake. The light, warm and piercing from a lamp suspended above, casts a halo glow upon the sacoglossan’s semi-clear skin, and green becomes gold. Amazingly, over the next thirty minutes,the little line of oxygen rises on the graph.
Some sacoglossan slugsdon’t kill and digest the chloroplasts from algae they consume. The organelles, fragile sacs of green pigment and photosynthesizing apparatus, make their miraculous way through gastrovascular systems and into the cerata in the slug’s back. There, the chloroplasts continue to coax sugar from light, life from sunshine.
Are the chloroplasts, then, alive? They survive, somehow, the vicious rending of the slug’s toothy, tongue-like radula tearing through algal flesh, the passage through the squirming digestive tract, and entrapment in a foreign body. Some varieties of these fed-upon seaweeds have incantations imbedded in their genetic coding that toughen their chloroplasts and enable them to function independently. Are they merely functioning, or truly living?
A well-known hypothesis: in the long-ago depths of evolutionary time, chloroplasts were once independent organisms—single-celled, photosynthesizing bacteria—that, upon being engulfed by another cell, did not break down, but traded nourishment for protection. They were incorporated into algae and, eventually, plants ever since. It seems to be happening again: perpetual innovation of the animal kingdom. Kleptoplasty: the stealing of plastids.
There is still ambiguity. Do the chloroplasts camouflage the slugs, or feed them? The answer might depend on species. Mine, Placida dendritica, remains a mystery.
I return my specimen to its tank. The seaweedis slowly decaying. A webwork of emerald slime floats like mist—I need to refresh the water—but the slugs, tiny pale specks, feed on. Even as the algae dies, the chloroplasts live. Mortality is a spectrum sometimes.
Keygan Sands is a candidate in the Creative Writing and Environment MFA program at Iowa State University. Her work explores the confluence between science, nonhuman environments, and society. Her writing appears in Cold Mountain Review and the climate fiction anthology Nothing Is As It Was. She presented literary research at the Fantasy and Myth Anthropocene International Conference in Brno, Czech Republic. Her visual art was featured in the “Welcome to Iowa: Letters to Carp and Other Immigrants” exhibit at the Signal Poetry Festival in Ames, Iowa.
Meg’s first husband was a kind man. They’d been good friends before they started dating. On long walks Meg would complain to Louis about her boyfriend of the time. At some point she realized that Louis was in love with her; however, she wasn’t attracted to him. But she liked Louis so much, and she feared that he would find a girlfriend, whereupon his devotion to her would inevitably slip away. So Meg overcame her lack of attraction. She did this partly by imagining Louis as an art object. Things about him that were repellent, like his concave chest or almost hairless legs, became appealing when she imagined him as composed of marble or aluminum.
For several years they were very happy. There was a skylight above their bedroom that opened on a hinge. Sometimes a wild peacock would land on the roof, and they would feed it Crackling Oat Bran through the skylight.
Louis was extremely neat, and did virtually all the cleaning. Before his family members would come to visit, he would scrub, sweep, and mop, and send Meg out to buy fresh flowers. Once Meg’s sister Evelyn, over for dinner, rinsed dishes and stacked them in their dishwasher, and Louis promptly restacked all the dishes. This offended Evelyn (though she was very fond of Louis). She asked Meg if she found her husband overly controlling. Meg shook her head in confusion; she couldn’t understand why anyone would object to having a husband do all the cleaning.
Louis had faults, though it took a long time for Meg to perceive them as such. He drank too much. His kindness trumped honesty. He would lie to people, including Meg, to avoid hurting their feelings. And eventually, though its source was mysterious to them both, he stopped being attracted to Meg. Her attraction to him had been of the talked-into variety, responding to his own rather than independently reaching toward him. So they stopped having sex altogether, and finally split up, though their break-up was painful and protracted, since Louis was such a kind man.
Meg’s second husband, Nicholas, was an honest man, though Meg sometimes felt that he used honesty as a club to bash people. Nicholas was messy, and Meg did nearly all of the housework. Sometimes she would pass a flower stand and think of how Louis would send her away from the house when he was on a cleaning frenzy and have her select fresh flowers.
As she approached middle age Meg thickened—that’s how she saw the twenty-five pounds she’d put on, as a thickening, a wrapping of fleshy layers around her body, like plaster of paris around the chicken-wire webbing of a sculpture. She knew the best way to lose weight was to quit drinking, but this prospect filled Meg with despair.
Occasionally Nicholas would stack the dishwasher, and when he did, Meg would restack it, because he left too much space between the plates. Nonetheless she resented the gender dynamics of doing the lion’s share of the housework. One day she told their daughter, “Vicky, make sure when you get married that you marry a tidy man or woman, because the tidier person in a couple by default does ninety percent of the cleaning.”
Vicky laughed, thinking Meg was kidding—Meg would often make light, snippy complaints about her husband to her children in this semi-abstracted way.
But Meg stopped her dish stacking, horrified.
She realized that she had become, in her second marriage, tidy, passive aggressive, hard-drinking, and duplicitous, that she now prized kindness over honesty. Even though she had deliberately married an honest man, she resented and blamed Nicholas for his candor. Meg had become, in essence, Louis, as if she needed to fill his vacancy with her own self. Thus her second marriageperfectly reproduced her first.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her story “Madlib” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press). Her story “Surfaces” was selected for Wigleaf’s Top 50 2019. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com
I come in the back door from outside, where the cicadas whine as I take out the trash. This is the dirtiest place I’ve ever lived, my first home with my first husband who I am still not convinced will be my last, but some invisible thread binds us. We say this love will last forever.
In the kitchen, there is a dingy curtain covering what is below the sink. A dirt floor I cannot clean unless I dig it up entirely.
This is New Orleans, I’m told. Which is supposed to mean I should expect something less than I’m accustomed to. The Big Easy.
I walk the hallway toward the bedroom, past what we have chosen to call the office. It houses my treadmill, where I spend hours running, the only thing that quells my anxiety.
The bedroom is dark. A cool space. Interior. A mascara smudge stains one of our white pillow shams. The mark is from a day I lay crying. A time when things got to be too much, and I stabbed the truck key into my skull, bleeding a trail home from the church.
There is a mysterious dark matter that collects on the bedspread during the day. We sweep it off with our palms, reading the texture of the bedding with our hands before we climb in, silent. To sleep.
One night we awaken there, clinging to one another, afraid the house will capsize at the sound of thunder rolling in off the Gulf.
I trail my hands along the dusty window frame as I enter the living room. The couch sags under a slipcover concealing where the dog ground her teeth into the cushions, liberating a cloud of filler beneath the loose fabric.
There is a two–inch space between the bottom of the front door and the floor. When I stand outside at dusk, looking in from the street, a pool of lamplight floods through the gap likea warm puddleon the front porch. This is where the bugs get in.
Anna Oberg lives and works in the Colorado Rockies. She is a professional photographer, specializing in terrain and creative headshots. When she’s not hiking around Rocky Mountain National Park with her camera, she writes from home. This is her first publication.
A SATURDAY MORNING EMAIL TO MY FRIEND:
FIRST DAY OF MY VACATION, NOT WITH YOU
by Mary Senter
It’s raining? Just as well Ididn’t godown for the fiesta. I can get crappy weather here. But … I can’t get you. I miss you. I shouldn’t, I know, but I do. I want to see you again. That week I spent with you was among the best weeks of my life. Even though we didn’t do anything super exciting or have any grand adventures, like my typical vacations, I enjoyed just being beside you and holding you in my arms. Even though I cried buckets on my walks—like I did the trip before, when I saw you for the first time in twenty years—I also laughed and smiled and sang. I was happy.
I’ve tried to find a word to describe how I felt, but I don’t think a word exists in the English language that properly conveys the emotion. I’ve tried words like content, safe, comforted, loved, serene, protected, calm, energized, hopeful, joyous, peaceful, blissful, whole, but none of those words alone is quite right. Even together, they don’t portray the particular feeling. I’m not sure I could even describe it. Maybe I don’t need to. Maybe you felt it, too, I don’t know. Odd that being in a person’s company could make me feel such things. I don’t understand it.
I can’t describe with a word how I felt, but I’ll try to describe it this way: It was like … It was like carrying a heavy load for a very long time, alone, over treacherous terrain and often in torturous weather conditions, through tribulations and strife, hunger and pain, fighting thieves and scoundrels along the way, and thinking all the while that you’re doing just fine. But then, you come to a refuge, where someone welcomes you, and knows what you’ve been through without asking. They invite you into a place that is new to you, yet feels very much like home. The person removes your pack, rubs the pain out of your shoulders, runs you a hot bath, and prepares a delicious, nourishing meal, accompanied by a cool, clean glass of water.They sit with you and let you tell them your troubles and joys while you sip wine after dinner. They lead you to a cozy, warm bed, tuck you into the down comforter, stoke the fire, and bar the door against the elements and anything else that could hurt you. As you close your eyes and listen to the crackle of the fire, you let out a deep sigh as you realize how bone-weary you have become, carrying that load on that long journey; and you think, briefly, ofhow much farther you have yet to carry it. But for that evening, it all falls away, and you have not a single worry in the world.
That’s the feeling I had with you.
Mary Senter writes in a cabin in the woods on the shores of Puget Sound. She earned certificates in literary fiction writing from the University of Washington and an M.A. in strategic communication from WSU. Her work can be found in Chaleur, SHARK REEF, Claudius Speaks, Six Hens, FewerThan500, Red Fez, and others. Visit her at www.marysenter.com.
Sometimes when I set up for the afterschool program in the multipurpose room, I see Miles skateboarding down the sidewalk, cutting class. Miles is in my fifth period writing elective but mostly he’s not there. Mostly he’s off somewhere in his red hoodie.
Sometimes I look out the second story window of Mr. Creasman’s room, where I teach my writing class, at L.A.’s looming maw, the chattering raspado carts, the gathering haze. I imagine Miles in his red hoodie, at the LACMA, stealing a Picasso or Cezanne’s Still Life With Cherries, or getting a burger at Tommy’s on Rampart where all menu items come with chili, unless otherwise noted.
I envy Miles’s freedom and yet every day I set out in the late morning toward the great grey chasm beyond Pasadena, sharing the Gold Line with the others not pulling their weight full-time, those who fail to produce. We careen above the Arroyo Seco as the skyline grows bigger in the graph paper of the train windows. When the train breaks down or someone kills themself on the tracks, I cross the city in buses, waiting at street corners in the wake of fumes. Once, at Union Station, I saw a woman on the Red Line platform with her eyeball hanging out by the optic nerve. On sixth street I saw a man steaming along on a skateboard, waving a sword.
Sometimes, setting up the afterschool program in the multipurpose room, I fart and listen for an echo.
When I see Miles skateboarding down the sidewalk, it’s like I have to tell him something urgently, knowing all the while that if I knew what I had to tell him, everything would be different.
One day, cutting class, Miles found a naked man in the alley behind the school and poked him with a stick. Another kid filmed with his iPhone. The man woke up and began muttering things beyond language, low growls, hoots.
After I lock up at night I usually see Miles sitting on the curb by 7-11, sometimes with a girl. Miles is bad at skateboarding. His face is all cut up from falling.
One time I didn’t know what to do so I drove up Mount Wilson. I got up above the smog. I found a trailhead with train tracks from when you could ride all the way to some resort. The tracks led into a tunnel and when I came to the other side I expected a miracle, some gleaming ruin with banquet halls and martini glasses, but it was just more of the same—gravel, train tracks, little wisps of trees and the long way back down.
Matt Greene teaches writing in Appalachia. “Larchmont Charter Middle” is from a linked series of prose pieces, some of which have appeared in or are forthcoming from the Cincinnati Review, Spillway, Split Lip, and Wigleaf. Other recent work has appeared in Moss and Santa Monica Review and is forthcoming from CutBank, Conjunctions Online, and DIAGRAM.
You stand on the balcony of this ancient castle looking down at the American President’s wife, eyes transfixed by the pearls in three rows against her neck like teeth sucked from the ocean. White gloves from fingertip to elbow separate her, mark her celebrity and off-limits. Your status from the arranged marriage affords you this glimpse, but it’s like a bird looking down at a lioness.
Here, in India, the other young women chitter. And why not, you want to ask, but you’ve promised your husband that you won’t make any more scenes. This word he spits just beforesaying good night, his sturdy door locking hollowly behind you. Now, from the walls centuries old but as strong as ever, keeping out the poor and pestilent, you raise your hand, desperate to reach across time and space. Months you awaited her arrival, fantasies of sharing meals, of grasping her skin around her elbows, whispering your condolences about her Earth-returned child, asking her to grant her mercies upon your own swollen stomach. There is no time to think of ways to get closer. No way to land at her feet, so you wave at her back.
When the news of her husband’s assassination makes it to your country, you sit in the closet, legs crossed, and scream. I know, I know. The pink dress, so feminine, its lines so sharp, but soiled with blood and loss. You no longer wish to be her, and yet you continue to ask for pearls, because the desire for elegance never leaves your mind, because all other escapes are forbidden. You think, but do not utter your wish to drape them over your child, a talisman, surely, for though her husband is dead, Mrs. Kennedy lives, broken-mouthed, and rotting with grief.
Your due date comes and you hold the bloodless infant in your arms, dabbing endlessly at the forehead that will never wrinkle at the surprise of your touch. You ask for pearls and you are rebuked with a solemn shake of the head. You demand white gloves and your husband acquiesces under your silent grief. For days he makes promises while you wait for the cloth to arrive, inspecting every thread before sending it off to the tailor. How you hate yourself for not having the skill to sew them yourself.
And still you pray for Mrs. Kennedy, twinning her eternity with that of your child’s as if braiding their hair together. You pray without hope, rote ritual creating a stupor that numbs. You blow softly down the length of your child’s body, guiding her spirit out to the balcony where it might mingle with the wind. Again, you think of those pearls, wondering what it would feel like to run them through your hands. If spirits could nestle into objects, you think this would make a fine palace for your child to spend her eternal days.
Tommy Dean lives in Indiana with his wife and two children. He is the author of the flash fiction chapbook Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. He is the Flash Fiction Section Editor at Craft Literary. He has been previously published in BULL Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Lascaux Review, New World Writing, Pithead Chapel, and New Flash FictionReview. His story “You’ve Stopped” was chosen by Dan Chaon to be included in Best Microfiction 2019. It will also be included in Best Small Fiction 2019. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.
I want an easy swing, that parabolic arc over grass, weeds, garter snakes, grubs, snapping turtles, beer cans, rotten logs. My legs out, my head and chest back. My arms taut. My thighs and ass pressed against the ball of rope: extending joy. I want that stomach lurch and gravity unease; blood shivers. I’ll land and wave to the one who pushed me, and I’ll climb back up the hill or out of the water toward that woman I’ve dreamt of so often. My REM time melts into her: strange visions of roads illuminating before us as we ride our bicycles in the dark. Is she dead, too?
We drink cheap wine stolen from Safeway and that woman—she has many names—will scratch her initials on my skin with a rock. Not deep, but enough to see later, before I rub myself to sleep. I’m seventy-nine. Can I admit to that rubbing? Older people who seek pleasure might have their hands tied to the arms of wheelchairs. So they rock back and forth. Maybe they drool. Maybe they moan. We don’t ask why. No one’s told me what’s appropriate now. I’ve been to more funerals than strip joints. I can’t ask my doctor. The only one who’s touched me recently was the nurse, but she stopped those friendly pats once I asked too many times to touch her hair extensions. I try to be friendly and culturally relevant, but I’m off the game. Can’t call anyone a turkey. They wouldn’t know what I meant.
To be a lover of the dead ones.
My last stripper friend died or stopped answering emails. (I should check—we do that now, in our seventies.) I’d wanted to co-write an advice book with her. Her thoughts on “basic dick.” How her vagina is hers. How she walks to demonstrate her dominance. The stripper mystique. No one will rub her velvet dress in a disco without her permission. I let strangers touch me. It’s how I was raised.
That swing: that cleaving from ordinary burdens. I present to clouds, to dirt clods, to the sun that I once believed saw me: spidery veins and rubbered skin. My crooked teeth. My barking laughter. My white roots showing through drugstore black. Something unseemly about the old. The flesh museum.
My age spots. My creaks. My slowness. My brain works like spongy brakes. I need more time for things to make sense, to remember the right word. Climate change is a useful topic with younger people. They want to talk to me, now that Roger’s dead. I took the gazelle rug to Goodwill after one made a fuss in an interview. The ivory-handled cheese knives went, too.
I sit across from Teddy, a man I’ve hired to go through my dead husband’s correspondence. We are in a booth, and the vinyl sticks to the back of my legs. I’m wearing a skirt that’s too short. We got so many clothes in the mail from groupies. I was too cheap to throw them out, but I did donate a lot to Goodwill. It’s embarrassing, what women send. Those stained thongs? The thing about aging: I lost weight. I can fit into the miniskirts, the fringed vests, the rayon jumpers. Most still have a faint scent. Roger always came home with some new odor. The suitcase reeked.
I hired Teddy because he’s handsome, but he’s off. I’m not into perfection. I like off-brand. Always choose the drummer, never the singer. That’s my motto and it’s served me well. Look at me now: I’m financially solvent. Penicillin solved the road romance and tour disease crises, or I insisted that Roger wear condoms. God, who cares now what he did or didn’t do. His ashes are on the bathroom shelf by his dentures.
Teddy, across from me, tells a story while driving French fries through catsup. He offers me a French fry. I shake my head no and sip my herbal tea. It’s about that childhood reckoning. He found maggots in a Hostess Ding Dong at the back of the cabinet, and at first he believed they were Rice Krispies. “I thought,” he says, “the world isn’t what it seems.”
Alex Behr’s writing has appeared in Tin House, The Rumpus, Salon, and elsewhere. Her debut story collection, Planet Grim, was published by 7.13 Books.
/ counting one one thousand two one thousand three one thousand four; / and, then, standing, the woman says: / what’s the line? / and the first time i made love and the first time i made love and the first time i / bus plunges from bridge and eight die / in the paper that day / and one one thousand and two one thousand and three / and, standing, the woman says: / and removing things, fiddling with buttons clanking and the loud roar of zippers / you don’t need all these let’s get more comfortable / and then later telling friends, the first time i made love i / but who knew love could feel so like anger / a guttural punch / on the day of the murder / and, standing, the woman says: / mother and father can’t come home no more but will be home soon no more / one one thousand and two one thousand / and let’s play games and you be the patient / and i, the nurse, / on the day of the murder, fire in his fists / and, standing, the woman says, the first time i made love i made i made made made made no more / stop no more / mother and father can’t come home / and mom are you there mom / mom is not coming home / but mom, well versed in your lies, doesn’t believe your stories / bus plunges into river below / in the paper that day / the day of the murder / no one / no more / bus plunges into river below and eight die / six one thousand seven one thousand eight / made you bleed / ripped you in two / buckling under his weight / no more no more / count one one thousand two one thousand three / until he lets you breathe / and lungs fill with breath / and then out again / the day of the murder / when she had it coming / and, standing, the girl says: the first time i / quit telling lies! / mom wants you to quit telling lies / and i and i and i / no more no more no more / and crawled out like eggs split cleanly open / and bus plunges into river below and eight die
Jude Vivien Dexter (they/them) is a poet living in Charleston, SC. They like to write poems about things, in that order.
BRINGING DEAD FRIENDS INTO CONVERSATION
by Corey Miller
I think about how I’m always depressed, which makes me more depressed, and I wonder if it’s becausemy friends (all three of them) have died and now I have to attempt to talk with someone who won’t be able to replace them but maybe could hold a candle next to them like that scene in Star Wars where the dead mentors are watching over Luke and that sister he kissed before knowing it was his sister (but we won’t talk about it) and that they’re there guiding me into this conversation with a stranger at a bar that may think I’m hitting on them when all I really want is someone to vent to and help me feel less lonely and maybe they’d help me perceive some purpose on this planet at this specific time in the universe and that I could do something meaningful with my life like how I wanted to become a scientist who studied molecular biology (before I settled for data entry) so I could create things to change the world instead of standing awkwardly near people drinking beer hoping that they’ll ask me absorbing questions so I don’t have to make the first move like: Hey, you look familiar, did we go to college together? or Hey, you look like such a fun and interesting and smart person, would you like to join my trivia team every Tuesday night? and I’d be swept away by all of these new people on a team that banded together as the family I never had (not that I don’t appreciate my grandmother who raised me, but I wish she’d remember who I am when I visit the nursing home) and our team would go on to win some national trivia team competitionand travel and we’d room together and none of us would feel the sadness that I’ve sat through in the past because we’d accept each other for who we are and wear helmets but this guy realizes I’ve been standing behind him staring without a beer even and everyone is looking at me like I shouldn’t be here and that I’m weird for bringing my ghost friends to hover over me wherever I go, so I go and I don’t know if I ever can go back to this bar again(another space off-limits) but maybe I’ll try chat rooms, for now.
Corey Miller lives with his wife in a tiny house they built near Cleveland. He is an award-winning brewmaster who enjoys a good lager. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in X-R-A-Y, Barren, Bending Genres, Writers Resist, Hobart, Gravel, and Cease Cows. When not working or writing, Corey likes to take the dogs for adventures. Twitter: @IronBrewer
and my mother doesn’t know. But I know, and it shivers me like stone February to see this ghost that’s not at all like my father, who is lonely and clean-shaven. This ghost doesn’t give a hoot that my mother is asleep, but I’m not so sure she’d stop it, because if sleeping in separate rooms is any indication, my father hasn’t touched her in years. And that started around the time he lost his job and moved himself a sock at a time, a shirt at a time until he was gone. And now they are both sexless, but at least my mother has sleep. Not like it used to be with her walking the floorboards, tango or foxtrot or whatever the hell. I live in the room under hers and when she stopped moving I went up there, and that’s when I saw the ghost, his white ghosty sex hand trailing up her nightgown and she’d moan and shift, and she really seemed to like it, big smile crossing her sleepy face, and that’s when I came to realize that a ghost can be a better lover than a real-life lover, and it just might change how I think about dating and marriage, which, to tell you the truth is kind of a dead thing anyway.
Francine Witte’s latest publications are a full-length poetry collection, Theory of Flesh from Kelsay Books and the Blue Light Press First Prize Winner, Dressed All Wrong for This. Her flash fiction has appeared in numerous journals, anthologized in the most recent New Micro (W.W. Norton) and her novella-in-flash, The Way of the Wind, has just been published by Ad Hoc Fiction. She lives in New York City.
The yo-yo slams me in the teeth and I buckle to the ground. It makes the guys gleam to see me on my knees like this, like the women in the videos we watch who are always begging. Tyler grabs his blue jean crotch and says “Nice teats.” I am fatter than them, sure. Me and Tyler are thirteen. Ace, fifteen. About my weight, my mom doesn’t say that I’m a teenager, that I’m still growing. She says I’ll be as fat as my uncle Louis who died from stomach cancer when he was thirty-two. I was too young to remember him. Anytime I open the refrigerator—even for some ice cubes to drop down my shirt in the summer—Mom says, “It could have been all that sugar that did him in. He didn’t eat half as much as you, though.”
Where did my tooth go? I try to focus on one thing at a time, ignoring Ace’s toady laugh and Tyler saying things we’ve heard a million times before. “Big ol’ titties on Erick,” he says, lightly kicking me in the calf. “Did you see how well she took it, that yo-yo in her mouth?” His hands move from his crotch back to the yo-yo. He swings it, winds it up again. Loops and loops around his grubby middle finger. Walk the dog, around-the-world.
“Is the baby crying?” Ace asks, standing over me.
“It sthucking hurths,” I say. I manage to get up on one knee.
“It was an accident,” Tyler says, not looking at me.
“But it sure made me hard,” Ace says. He looks at Tyler for approval.
Tyler doesn’t respond, keeps working the yo-yo like a marionette doll. We’re behind the old Pizza Hut where we go to poke at condom wrappers, half-empty cans of beer, lone tufts of black hair. I half-heartedly look for the tooth, my hand mumbling over gunky bottle caps and dried balls of chewing gum.
When I find it, a shiny yellow-white fleck nestled atop a piece of potato chip bag, Tyler is rocking the baby. His face is calm, a sheet of pale dough. Paternal, almost. Maybe this is what Louis looked like. I don’t know anything about him aside from the fact that he was my uncle and he was fat like I am and he had cancer. Maybe he was like Tyler somehow. Maybe it’s good that he’s dead. I dust the tooth off and stuff it deep in the front pocket of my t-shirt.
“You do a trick,” Tyler says, throwing the yo-yo at me.
The yo-yo feels heavy in my hand, my jaw throbbing with pain. The only thing I’m able to do is make the yo-yo sleep. It purrs on the ground near the rest of my blood.
Tyler stomps it, grabs his crotch. “That one is called ‘gang bang,’” he says.
“Gang bang,” Ace says. He laughs and also grabs his crotch. They both look at me.
“Gang bang,” I say. I grab my crotch. When I pull my hand away, the splayed, bloody fingerprints look like a pitiful stain. Like a person turned upside-down and falling.
Nicole Rivas teaches writing courses in Savannah, GA, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Alabama, and is the Flash Editor at Newfound. Her chapbook of flash fiction, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, was the winner of the Rose Metal Press 12th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest. For a list of publications, visit www.nicolemrivas.com.
My grandson is five months old, and smiles as he orients to the burble of voices above him, the sounds we adults emit when we are making baby-talk. We coo when we are cuzzling infants and raise our voices when addressing foreigners, as if the sound and tone of our speech will cue them to what we mean. Someone should give us a talking-to, or, perhaps, a spanking.
The soft vocalizations that make us sound like Old World monkeys are the least of our offenses to the young. Baby talk, researchers say, may even aid children’s development.
What we are doing to the planet is another matter.
A June heat wave cooked mollusks in the rock beds of Bodega Bay, littering the shoreline with shells opened like the mouths of infants waiting to be breastfed. Someday, climatologist James Hansen warns, the earth’s oceans may even boil away.
Imagine the earth is an enormous pot. Solar radiation warms the pot like soup in a microwave, but the pot doesn’t boil over because some of the sun’s rays are reflected back into space in the form of invisible light, called infrared radiation. Since the Industrial Age, greenhouse gases entrapped in the upper atmosphere have significantly reduced the amount of infrared radiation reflected back into space.
It is like partially closing the pot with a lid. Infrared radiation still rises from the pot like steam, but the kettle is getting hotter and hotter.
You can throw a frog into a pot of cold water and gradually increase the temperature of the pot to the boiling point, and, contrary to popular opinion, the frog will NOT allow itself to be boiled to death. The frog will leap from the pot. That’s because frogs, like other ectotherms, use environmental cues to regulate their own body temperatures, and will respond to increases in external temperature by getting out of the heat.
Thermoregulation by changing location—seeking sun or shade or Calaveras County-jumping from a boiling pot—is a necessary survival strategy for frogs. With human beings, particularly very tiny ones, not so much.
Humans, like other endotherms, such as dogs and birds and rats, regulate body temperature metabolically. We raise body temperature through muscle contraction and reduce it by increasing blood flow to the skin. We shiver, we sweat, we pant.
These mechanisms enable us to maintain a constant core body temperature.
Unfortunately, children may not thermoregulate as efficiently as adults. The human infant is more vulnerable to cold temperatures and more prone to hypothermia than adults. Due to this vulnerability, the infant’s body compensates with extra fatty tissue and reduced sweat production, but this compensatory response may make infants more susceptible to higher temperatures. Infants and younger children also may be physiologically more vulnerable to elevated temperatures because they produce more heat in relation to their body mass, and expend more effort to cool down, shunting blood to the skin and away from the body’s core muscles.
Physiology may not matter much at all, of course. Neither frogs nor children will escape the boiling cauldron of our planet’s future. Unless you are one of the billionaires booking a flight on Elon Musk’s SpaceX, there is nowhere to leap.
In space, you cannot hear the screams of those you left behind.
Like Musk, I am a citizen of the only country to refuse to sign the Osaka joint statement on climate change, the nation that withdrew from the Paris Accord in 2017. The main aim of the accord, ratified again in Osaka, was to keep the rise in the global average temperature below 2ºC (3.6ºF) above pre-industrial levels, primarily by reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Due, in very large part, to my country’s refusal to get with the program, that goal will not be met.
As the sun sets on Bodega Bay, it almost looks like the ocean is aflame. Sunsets, the novelist Laura van den Berg once said, remind us that we are at the raw mercy of the earth.
As the sun sets on the planet’s future, our grandchildren’s mouths are like seashells, open in arrested cries.
Michael Zimecki is the author of a novel, Death Sentences. His prose has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The National Law Journal, and College English, among other publications. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his wife, Susan.
The way she squints worries me, my mother tells the optometrist. In the dim room, sitting before the gentle doctor, being whispered to, One or two? Three or four? I learn a secret. My ability to see tiny things up close is superhuman. The doctor tells me so, not like she’s telling a child a complimentary fib, but like she’s embarrassed since it was the only word to use and it sounds silly.
It makes sense, though, because I’m tiny, too. At school, a boy I hate calls me “mouse”. My friend Nina says, At least a mouse is cute, and totes me around like a doll. We line up by height for all occasions, and I’m always first. During lessons, I bend as close to the page as possible, examining the shapes inside the pencil-letters, and I’m so focused I don’t hear when the teacher calls my name. Sometimes the principal doesn’t even notice me sitting in her office, I’m so small, but there’s no office to send her to for not paying attention.
My mother doesn’t believe the optometrist, but she’s too busy to make another appointment with a different one.
At home, armed with the knowledge that my up-close seeing isn’t me being a total weirdo, but a power, I search for the tiny. I realize the problem with being called a mouse is that a mouse is not small enough. I can do so much better.
The ants that march through our kitchen are okay, but even more interesting are the near-microscopic mites. The ones that look like specks of nutmeg until they start to move. I invite one of them onto my finger.
The day-after-Valentine’s-day tulip bouquet my mother bought for herself is nice, but way better is zooming in on the center of a single bloom, taking in every grain of pollen dusting each stamen’s tip. The threads of color striping along the petals are playground slides to tumble down. I reach out and smuggle a dot of pollen.
In the healthy dinner I’m forced to eat because my mother is just one woman trying her best, a fleck of quinoa is still too large. I concentrate on the mini tail whipping out and pick it apart from its seed. Why are you squinting at your finger like that? my mother asks.
Because they’ve invited me to tea, I want to say, but don’t. After dinner I run upstairs with my three new friends on my fingertip. One breath, and I join them.
We’re sitting together in downtown Crayola, surrounded by sixty-four multi-colored skyscrapers. The mite, the velvety fleck of pollen, the curly quinoa tail, and me. We don’t need teacups. We slurp directly from the single droplet before us.
When my mother enters the room, she calls and calls, but doesn’t see anything.
Taleen A. Shaleh’s writing has appeared in The Bold Italic and Cal Literature and Arts Magazine. She lives in San Francisco, where runs a research team by day, parents a spirited toddler by night, and writes when she can (you should see the notes app on her phone). You can find her on Twitter at @taleenashaleh
After the house fire, the neighborhood boys searched the rubble. A chimney teetered. Cinders smoked. Parents said it wasn’t safe. Stay away. The boys didn’t listen. Treasures might be found. A young couple had lived there. Maybe a bra had survived the fire? Maybe a blackened spoon?
Only metal eyelets were found, shoes erased by flames, metal tarnished by heat so the eyelets looked like tiny ancient coins.
The boys hid them in a hole by a tree. Later, they remembered where. Later, they didn’t.
Wicked Source of Light
Before he dies, my father asks, “What’s a six-letter word for a wicked source of light?” Outside, wind shakes power lines. Plastic bags snap on bare tangled limbs. Dad’s newspaper rustles.
“A wicked sort of life?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “A wicked source of light.”
A week later, my sister’s kids find a box in his closet, scented candles, the ones Mom used to decorate their home. Her kids line them up on the kitchen counter, rank the scents. Christmas Cookie is best. Balsam Wood and Life’s-A-Breeze are the worst.
“Don’t you want any of Dad’s things?” my sister asks.
There’s an empty bowl on the stoop outside his kitchen’s sliding door, a dish he’d leave out for strays. I think, candle.
Joshua Shaw is a philosophy professor at Penn State Erie who began writing fiction midcareer because it made him glad to be alive. His stories have appeared in Hobart, Booth, Split Lip Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Sundog Lit, and Kenyon Review Online. More information about him can be found here.
Your daddy took one look and said, “She’s beautiful—she looks just like me!” Funny, but no joke. He’d experienced mirrors, and mirror neurons, even if he’d never heard of the latter. It helps to have a handsome father because evolution makes babies look like their daddies so their daddies will know they belong to them and take care of their genes.
Don’t Try Too Hard (TTH)
Your uncle is a professional photographer, and your mother always wanted a little girl to dress up—she’d waited 15 barren married years to get one. There’s a picture of four-year-old you in a navy sailor suit with a brimmed hat. The hat makes your head itch and you pitch it out the car window after the shoot, you temperamental mo-del!
You’re a fourth grade crossing guard—they still have children do that in 1970s Iowa. You have an orange flag and you use the pole to push the walk button to let the littler kids cross. One day on the lunch patrol two boy hippies walk up. One asks your name and mentions that you have curly eyelashes. When he asks if you are “old enough” and chortles, you feel nauseated and tell your school he asked “if you were old enough—to take drugs.” Which makes no sense or just makes it worse, you don’t realize until you are just about old enough for whatever.
Quadruple whammy: glasses, braces, nose zits. Acquire a terrible, clever nickname based on your last name. Epic cuteness fail for several years.
Braces off, tanning helps heal the zits and acts as nose contouring, and you only need glasses to see. Meanwhile you’ve grown your T&A and got some nice curves.
“Hey sexless,” some guy will yell from a car, just when you thought you’d made it.
“She tries to be cute.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. You are controversial, like Sarah Jessica Parker, like Jennifer Aniston will one day be. A girl’s girl. Good company.
Take a Break
Live in an engineering dorm in college. Just saying. At the time, 90% of your dorm mates are men. It’s a numbers game.
Get married young (snag an engineer!) and don’t have kids. Work out. Don’t wear a lot of makeup.
Get divorced. Work out more. Get an expensive haircut and go all-out blonde. Discover spray tanning.
Juggle a lot of jobs to pay the rent while middle-aged randos on the street stop you to say: “Smile! It’s not that bad.” It is, though.
Settle down with an actual aesthetics professor and stop dating. He thinks you are both cute and sexy. He also thinks beauty is a real thing, and also not your thing. But it’s hardly anyone’s! Why are you crying?
Get older. Try to straddle the line between Trying Too Hard and Letting Yourself Go. Keep the long bright hair the homeless guys always comment on. You’re still getting caught trying!
A woman will try to compliment you by saying she likes you because she prefers smart girls to pretty girls. What? Can’t one be both? Why not? Better try a lot harder or else give up completely.
Some guy yells from a car, “I want to ________ you in the _______,” then: “No I don’t.” Caught trying again?
Do beach yoga as two adolescent boys lounge nearby, gazing toward you in a friendly fashion. One starts talking about his grandma—she’s so crazy and hilarious. He obviously loves her a lot. Realize why he thought of her, at the beach, with so much else to pay attention to. You…reminded…him…of her!
Make up. Make up to break up with makeup. Make up with your mirror; make up with yourself. Make up your mind. Make up your own rules. Make up for lost time.
Julie Benesh lives in Chicago with two cats and a lot of books. Her creative writing has appeared in Tin House, Florida Review, Crab Orchard Review, and other magazines and has been anthologized in Bestial Noise: A Tin House Fiction Reader. She has earned an MFA in Fiction from Warren Wilson College, an Illinois Arts Council Grant, and a Pushcart nomination. She is completing her first short story collection and is working on a book length micro-memoir manuscript. She teaches writing workshops at the Newberry Library and has a day job as a professor and management consultant.
Joe joined my gym when he started third grade so I pick him up after work and we bike over to Gifu Yokozeki Boxing Gym, companionable, Joe chatterboxing the whole way and throughout each session, Dada, Dada, his lungs propelling his eight-year-old voice, small, high, curious, into the ambient soundscape that includes whirring jump rope thwacks, heavy bag thuds, the quick rattling smack of the speed bag, the start and stop of the three minute timer, general shufflings and cracks and grunts, somebody yelling with every punch, somebody’s ragged panting breathing, my own. And because Yokozeki-san puts it on when Joe and I arrive there’s also the Beatles radio channel: Getting Better, I’m So Tired, Joe singing along to Strawberry Fields Forever.
Usually: warm-up stretches, jump rope, shadow boxing, mitt practice with one of the trainers, heavy bag, weights, that roller wheel thingamabob, cool-down stretches. Sixty to ninety minutes.
Joe uses a stool so he can reach the speed bag. I can hear his faltering, patient practice over the sounds of Ruito and Nozomu whaling on each other in the ring.
When you’re finished with heavy bag work you mop up your sweat with one of the yellow mops provided for that purpose. It’s customary to mop up everybody’s sweat, whether they’re finished or not, when you mop up your own. Joe sometimes forgets this.
My mother had asthma, and recently I’ve felt a tightening in my chest. Try and remember to relax with the breath. Leave the breath alone.
The unlikeables I imagine while I belabor the heavy bag: the janitor at the school where I work and his incessant hissing, the teacher who grunts all day long, various enemies and rivals from my near and distant pasts. Joe has his enemies too: mockers on the dodgeball field, unkind classmates, the fifth grade kid who kicked him in the balls.
Jogging with my father, a long time ago. Legs and lungs working. Proud to keep up with him.
Boxing is getting back to your body, staying in the body. Boxing is getting lost in your body for three minutes at a time. Boxing is running your breath down your shoulder to your fist. I forget this sometimes.
The world is full of things that will hurt my son. Leave the things alone.
The ring floor is blue, the ring ropes red, white, and blue. The neutral corners feature a smiling cartoon tiger face with the words CHINA FOOD above and SAN COCK below. Joe and I drape our hand towels over the red top rope and do two rounds of light sparring. Very light. But if he gets lazy or sloppy I’ll tap him on the forehead or belly. He needs to know.
Japanese uses one character for both breath and son.
Jason Emde is a teacher, writer, amateur boxer, Prince enthusiast, and graduate student in the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. He’s also the author of My Hand’s Tired and My Heart Aches (Kalamalka Press, 2005) and the co-author of the parodic action novel The Crunch Gang Meet the Deadly Zombie Ninjas of Japan (Amazon e-book). His work has appeared in Ariel, The Malahat Review, Anastamos, Miracle Monocle, Prometheus Dreaming, and Short Writings from Bulawayo III. He lives in Japan.
When your father tells you he secured a flight for you and your husband and children, you don’t ask questions. You race home and fill up a suitcase with photos and heirlooms. You tell your three-year-old to grab a spoon and thank god that the baby is still fed by your breast. Your husband tells you to slow down so he can remember where he put the passports and you regret ever loving him. You wish you had more time to hug your mother and father. You wish your children would stop crying. Fraught but calm, you try to memorize the shadows on the wall cast by the afternoon sun, bougainvillea tapping lightly at the windows, a tender scent woven into the furniture and the textiles and all that you will leave behind.
You push your family into the taxi and tell the driver where to go, to hurry. He nods and sweats and stomps on the accelerator. The car crunches down a rocky driveway, stirring up a cloud of red earth. You can’t see them but you know the neighbors are watching, always. And soon the commandos will come. They will knock knowing no one will answer. They will enter knowing no one will return. They will take knowing no one will stop them. No one will be there to resist them—yet their sandals will still leave skid marks.
Your husband instructs the driver to go faster, but the square is glutted with mopeds and bicycles. “Fuck this country,” your husband sputters. You hate how quickly he blames others. You stare out the window and paint a memory of this place. Mothers yank on bony child arms. Food vendors stir and grill. A lunch crowd spills into the streets, bodies lithely crouched and clustered and doing what they must to survive uncertainty. Mutts are shooed away. A legless man pulls his torso along, trailing empty trousers. Your three-year-old is hungry and asks to stop for chè. You shush him with dried mango strips as your baby roots for your breast by kissing the air.
Your family arrives to chaos. The plane is full. But how can that be. No one will listen to you. But your father made arrangements. But nothing. But wait. Your children cling to you, frightened by your forceful insistence. Your husband drops the suitcase to clutch your arm. Do something, his grip begs. Why did you choose this man to marry? An official in a crisp white shirt scurries by and you thrust your passport in his face. You announce your name, your father’s name, his job and title. You promise your father’s good word. You promise glory and status. You hold out your jewels and promise to keep your promises. You demand to speak to someone with more authority. You plead. You pray. You fall apart. The plane departs without you.
You spot the driver’s scaly elbow slung out the window, a cigarette smoldering towards his thumb. Your family files inside the idling taxi, but where can you go when there is no one to trust. “Fuck this country,” your husband whimpers while you weep. The driver nods and steers, knowing of another way. He takes you beyond the hustle of the city. Past the pastures and the paddies. Heavy with fatigue, your children sink into your flesh. They smell like sea mist, so potent that it fills your lungs and lulls you under, and under, until dusk turns the earth to rust.
Your family arrives as moonlight sweeps the water. You walk to where the shore is shallow. Your three-year-old dips his spoon into the mud and makes a little hole that can’t be seen. The dock is neither here nor there. The boat is neither big nor small. On it is a figure crouched and waiting. The driver says the captain is a kindly man who can take your family to a place, and there it should be easy to keep going—but the boat cannot accommodate your suitcase. You stare at the driver whose eyes are gleaming in the dark. You glance at your husband, whose eyes are also gleaming. Your heart racing, your eyes must be gleaming, too.
Vivien Cao is originally from Los Angeles. She previously worked in film and television, and has taught writing at several CUNY campuses. Her writing has also been published in SmokeLong Quarterly.
A mother leaves her daughter in a highchair by the window, baking in direct sun. Eventually the child shrivels up into an old, brown, decrepit woman. She expires quietly, motionless, in similar fashion.
“Rats,” sighs the mother.
Her child is unrecognizable. A dried-up peach pit in her hands.
She buries her daughter in the garden with the others, moonlight gnawing at her back, knowing the cycle of life is a hoax, and that nothing else would grow.
Her husband laughs heartily at the TV in his cold, dark room, “!”
At every birth, she checks her children for an expiration date — tucked under armpits, on the bottoms of feet, inverted in nostrils — to no avail. She discovered her own date at a young age, stamped beneath an eyelid. With each blink, a countdown. The future bulldozing towards her, heels dug firmly into the ground.
Her husband falls asleep in his armchair. She checks him for an expiration date, but finds nothing.
He is obviously far past his prime. She sniffs at his salted skin, his pale meat dripping off the bone. Fungus spores plague him in his moistest corners, yet his life force remains strong. His heart thrashes behind his ribs like a caged monkey.
What is the secret to immortality? What is it?
“Tell me,” she begs, and smacks him when he doesn’t comply. His squishy body sloshes like mud in a bag.
The mother births another child, who falls down a well.
The mother births another child, who chokes on a bug.
No offspring will survive her — is she even, then, a mother?
Her husband thaws into a puddle in his armchair, holding tight onto his secret, despite his own wife’s expiration date, which is fast approaching.
Across the hall, the mother takes shelter in the empty nursery. She nails up a blanket over each window. Shoves towels between the cracks in the door. She curls up under the crib, a pillow pressed to her head, perfectly still. Eyes shut tight, she watches her expiration date pass by into the next, then the next, then the next, endlessly forward.
If I can stay just like this, she thinks, I just might live forever.
Stephen Wack is an Atlanta-based writer. He earned an undergraduate degree in neuroscience from the University of Georgia, where he briefly interned at the college’s literary magazine, The Georgia Review. His work has previously appeared in Five:2:One Magazine, After Happy Hour Review, and is forthcoming in The Hunger and Rougarou. To get in touch: @stephen_wack / [email protected]
Back then he said he could make anyone’s confidence bloom, especially mine, and I said that if he ever could really pull this off, it would be his best gag yet. I chalked the failure up to his lack of creativity, but then I remembered that I was part of the act.
But sometimes, in the middle of the night, when he was down there, going for the standing ovations, his act became old. The way it felt to me, he stood between me and the Strong Man. “Now that’s a bit of business!” I said about the Strong Man. After that, Chuckles stopped trying to win me over every night. He rested his cherry-nose on my stomach and cried about how I had never really loved him.
“Honk if you believe in Jesus,” he’d croak, and I’d reach down, honk it twice, make him laugh.
The betrayal didn’t happen at first, not when it should’ve. And later, it wouldn’t stop. I loved Chuckles, and I didn’t want him looking up at me like that anymore, trying his best, but failing to make me sing, every time.
My final act of defiance, of course, was to actually sing my song. I’d been waiting my whole life to do it. One regular night, Chuckles doing his mediocre best, it warbled out of me like breaker waves in Maui. He stood up, as if the alarm clock he’d been waiting for, pretty much forever, had finally gone off. “It’s time,” he said, love dripping from his chin.
Meg Pokrass is the author of five flash fiction collections. Her work has been recently anthologized in two Norton Anthology readers, Best Small Fictions, 2018 and 2019, and has appeared in 350 literary magazines, both online and in print. She currently serves as Flash Challenge Editor at Mslexia Magazine, Festival Curator for Flash Fiction Festival, U. K., Co-Editor of Best Microfiction, 2019, and Founding/Managing Editor of New Flash Fiction Review.
I wait for a train that circles the city like bats. At night in Berlin you can imagine anything you want. Can a train circle a city like bats? Carriages here are full of inviting people I never talk to and bicycles that require a ticket to get on board. Everyone wears black so hard you don’t notice after a while that there are differing shades. Sometimes, I see a chair being carried on board by a passenger and I wonder where the chairs go, whether they rest at tables. I think about the people invited to sit, what kind of meals they eat together or whether their furniture is flee-market vintage or discarded by the side of a road. Inside pinch close buildings smeared in graffiti are people, and they are talking to one another in languages; I don’t know.
I think of these things as I wait for a train. The Clash plays on repeat in my ears as a punk appears on the platform. There are a million surprises to be found in this world. The punk’s tights are ripped up the inner thigh, haircut edgy, looks that could draw blood. It’s winter, yet she glows as she moves across the platform chewing gum that matches the color of her hair. As she does this a toothless man allows drool to form at the edges of his peekaboo mouth. He wants her in ways he’ll never be able to realize. She lights a cigarette next to a sign that says smoking isn’t permitted, spits gum on the ground, it’s pink. A train arrives like a swooping bird through a tunnel. I consider if my similes are too abstract, too animalistic, step on to the train.
Time passes like clouds on a windless day, I step off the train at the same station as she does. This is neither planned nor coincidence, happens in a fashion that only commuters with little interest in one another can know. The punk looks over a shoulder, her eyes are green and brown like falling leaves, and I too am falling.
David Moran is a Scottish writer of fiction and poetry and is currently finishing up a novella set in Eastern Europe. He resides in Berlin and has previously lived on four continents. Previous fiction, poetry, and articles have appeared in The View From Here, Litro Magazine, Curbside Splendor, The Dundee Anthology, First Edition, Tefl England and the Argentina Independent.
I’ve decided to kill my son. This is not a new thought. It did not come to me overnight. I’ve nursed it for a long time like an actual thing, a child that was a seedling first and then a sprout, but the idea has taken hold.
I am filled with it. Asher. Gift. Precious boy. Three years on this planet and never a qualm or complaint, refusal or resistance. A child who does not even know how to fight. A miraculous boy who knows what his mother is thinking. Our eyes lock and words, ideas, flow between our silence. I know his heart. And he knows mine.
When he was born, I pushed and pushed, each push a relief for I knew I was giving birth to perfection. Fatherless, but still. I would be there. And fourteen hours later after arriving in the hospital, already three centimeters dilated, he was here. Healthy. His blue eyes, savage, pierced my soul.
My Asher. Healthy, they said. Every day I held him in my arms, dreamed on him. My handsome boy. Asher. Then, when he was one, his little legs swelled one day. He couldn’t breathe.
Allergies, they said. Masks, they suggested. Wait and see if it passes.
But it was not allergies. The masks didn’t help. And it did not pass.
I am single. One child. My world. I watched over him. Dedicated, I took my boy, my blue-eyed savage with his soft sweet smile, to hospital after hospital until I heard the truth.
Atrial Septal Defect.
A hole in his heart wall.
Too big. We cannot operate due to the size. But hold out hope. In time, the hole may close.
The hole in Asher’s heart did not close. It widened, even as money depleted, and hope withered and died. Some days, all I have are his blue eyes fixed on me, memorizing as I have memorized him.
Give him all the love in the world. Love heals, works miracles, is what they say now.
Do they not understand he came with all my love, fourteen hours like years. Do they not see my love in his eyes or his love in mine? Do they not know anything?
My son is tired all the time, so tired he cannot walk or speak. Sometimes a mask breathes for him. I hold his tiny cold feet and his limp hands until they are warm, until his eyes full of questions stop gazing at me and close and he sleeps.
They think that like a perfect mother, I will stay here day and night watching over him as he struggles to breathe, watching him gaze at me as shadows crimp my eyes and the unspeakable passes between us.
No more. It is easy. I press his sleeping body to my chest, press into me his entire being, back into my veins, my belly, my history, back until he is just beginning, a part of him separate, just as his father, a night jack of all trades, skips out the door pulling on his t-shirt, just as he drives away and I wait, an expectant mother, for seed to find seed, for something to flower after I open the door.
Arya F. Jenkins is a Colombian-American whose poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and zines such as Anti-Heroin Chic, Black Scat Review, Brilliant Corners, The Feminist Wire, Front Porch Review, The Matador Review, Metafore Literary Magazine, Mojave Literary Review, and Provincetown Arts Magazine. Her fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017 and garnered three nominations in 2018. Her poetry has also been nominated for the Pushcart. Her poetry chapbooks are: Jewel Fire (AllBook Books, 2011) and Silence Has A Name (Finishing Line Press, 2016). Her short story collection Blue Songs in an Open Key was published by Fomite Press in November 2018 and is available at www.aryafjenkins.com.
There he was, as always, on the eve of her birthday.
She never expected him. Never dreamt of him, but there he was. As always, he was standing on the corner waiting for something—her perhaps—but she didn’t see him until she tripped, snagged her heel, rolled her ankle and fell slightly into him.
“Whoa! You okay!”
What’s the rush, buttercup?
Each time, his hands felt slightly different. Firm like a contractor. Gentle like a surgeon. Scarred from a fire. But with that first touch, all of their lives came flooding back to her. She remembered how he smelled of cinnamon on that morning in South Bend and how his nose crinkled when he laughed. She remembered the feeling of his fingers running through her wet hair on the shores of San Juan and the feeling of her knees buckling when the military police came to her door in the summer of ’42 to give her notification.
In this life, however, he was a piano player. After nearly rolling into an oncoming bus, he’d steadied her and offered to take her for a drink at a bar up the street. She stared into his eyes and saw their lives together. The last time they’d met, he was a newspaper editor with eyes the color of coffee mixed with cream. In that life she’d slipped her hand into his and they danced all night, his arms supporting the whole of her as she leaned in and smelled the familiarity of him.
In this life, she declined his offer for a drink.
Just one, he’d insisted, reminding her that he’d saved her life and the trauma was inevitable for them both. She laughed and agreed to just one. As he walked her towards the bar, she remembered their fourth life together. He’d written letter after letter from the frontline, until one day they stopped, becoming nothing more than yellowing pages tucked into some forgotten chest–memories of a distant time.
In one life he’d asked her to be his wife against her father’s wishes. She could still smell the gun smoke as her father took aim, and chased him from their front porch.
After losing him in New Orleans, she’d asked her mother if love always felt like inevitable loss. Her mother explained that the love within some souls is too powerful for this world and bringing them together can cause an explosion so forceful that these souls splinter off, leaving bits of themselves across time. These souls spend forever searching for their missing pieces—trying to make themselves and each other whole.
She followed him into the bar. It reminded her of the tavern in Northern Ireland where they’d drank whiskey until the sun rose over the southern border.
This piano player was the twelfth incarnation of him. Eleven lives that she remembered, all fighting to be recounted as she stared into his green eyes. He smiled at her and slipped behind the keyboard. Softly he began to play the song they’d danced to at their wedding—the one in the hills of Mississippi when her hair was twisted into braids and his eyes were as black as coal. She could almost taste their wedding cake as he tapped gently on those keys.
Do you believe in reincarnation? she’d asked one evening as they lay in their bed in Tehran. He smiled and said, Only if it means coming back to you each time.
And so they did. Each time they touched, she remembered. Eleven lives together. Eleven times loving him. Eleven times losing him. Not once did he remember her as that wide-eyed debutante, nor that rebellious poet. He didn’t see her as that jazz singer in Paris, nor that acclaimed scholar in East Berlin.
She swayed softly to their song, remembering the way his arms felt around her at their Junior Prom in Santa Cruz. She smiled at him. She had found him again. As she always had. Soon, she remembered, she would lose him. To war. To illness. To accident. Each time she would lose him.
She studied his face. The way his nose wrinkled and his lips curled back into a smile. She wasn’t sure if she could bear to lose him for the twelfth time. A long time ago, her mother had told her that when the soul is ready to heal, it finds a way. She wasn’t ready to let her soul be ripped from her again. She patted her pockets gently, searching for her keys—searching for her out.
The music lulled to a stop and he moved towards her, a flash of silver in his hands.
“You dropped these.”
She thanked him. Taking the keys from his hand, she excused herself—explaining that her friends were waiting for her at another bar. She would have to raincheck their drink.
“Of course,” he smiled and winked, “Maybe next lifetime.”
Tory Lord O’Neill is a Philadelphia-based writer. She is an alumnus of Temple University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She is currently pursuing a Certificate in Creative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. When she isn’t writing, Tory spends her time developing her blog (unheardheart.wordpress.com) and honing her witty rapport on Twitter (@1porcelaindoll).
The patient is nervous. He should be. His renal allograft is new, he has an infection and his immune system is compromised. It’s a bad combination. But I’m going to be positive. I’ll emphasize that he is getting better, his white blood cell count is in decline, he seems to be eating and he isn’t coughing. I intend to be reassuring, cautiously optimistic. He’ll be looking for optimism.
His room is in the new hospital tower overlooking Mt. Talbert, which is basically a small hill covered in Douglas Firs. It’s painted an off colored beige, not what I would have chosen, but it wasn’t my decision. There’s a nice window with a decent view of the Douglas Firs. Nothing fancy—this isn’t a hotel—but it’s pleasant enough if you’re sick. I enter the room. We exchange pleasantries. I listen to his heart and lungs, feel the squishiness of his new kidney and ask him some meaningless questions. It’s all a warm up. I’m really here to have the talk. “Your condition is bad, but it will probably get better… Probably.” I try and discuss cautiously-optimistic hard truths, which is pretty much as muddled up as it sounds, but I can tell he’s clinging to the positive parts and failing to hear any of the caution.
Then I see it. It’s sitting on the window ledge outside the room. Big carrion beak, bright red head and flesh-tearing talons. Right there. Ten feet away. Beautiful in the way only natural things can be beautiful.
For a couple seconds I stare. I realize the patient hasn’t seen it. He’s looking at me, not the window. It dawns on me that if he sees a buzzard sitting on his window sill, our conversation won’t be inspiring the kind of cautious optimism I’m trying to relay. I immediately revert my gaze to the patient and make direct eye contact. People don’t look away when you are looking directly at them.
In my peripheral vision I can see the big bird standing on the window sill. I won’t look at it, lest the patient follow my gaze. It’s hard. This is a National Geographic moment. The bird is just standing there, not moving. I try and focus on the conversation and make some big hand gestures to get the bird to fly away. It remains unfazed.
Voltaire said, “The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient until nature cures the disease.” He was a little harsh, but basically correct. I’m an entertainer. A ringmaster in a white coat. The “art” in medicine is learning to accept the futility of it. Death and disease come for all, doctors be damned. Sick or well, there is always a vulture waiting, just outside the window.
Micah L. Thorp is a physician and writer in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Operation Honeybee and Handbook of Common Problems in Clinical Nephrology. He works as a clinical nephrologist, as VP of Business Affairs for Northwest Permanente and as a researcher in predictive analytics. His hardest (and best) job is raising three teenage boys.
DEAR ZUCK, I THINK WE ARE GOING TO MAKE IT THROUGH THIS
by Graham Oliver
death of a pet
coping with death of pet
where to take pet body
where to take pet corpse
can i bury my pet in a public park
affordable pet cremation
what to do with pet ashes
what to do with pet ashes
planting a tree at a public park
rivers near me
big lebowski ashes scene
what to do with pet ashes
are cremation ashes edible
are pet ashes edible
whole wheat bread recipes
Graham Oliver lives and teaches near Austin, Texas. His book reviews, interviews, and essays have previously appeared in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Ploughshares‘ blog, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Fiction and an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from Texas State University. You can find him on Twitter @grahammoliver.
Because of the D.C. sniper, I get my first cell phone. A Nokia with impossibly small buttons. When I look up, my parents’ smiles are even faker than the ones in family photos. I’m twelve. Old enough to know they want me to be able to call for help. Last year was 9/11. We live sixteen miles from the Pentagon, and the CIA is around the corner. Since 9/11 we hold our breaths when we drive past Langley. Everyone’s afraid that’s next. But we’re wrong. This year some guy is shooting kids for sport.
My middle school changes its protocol. We’re not allowed outside. We play board games inside for recess. P.E. is in the gym. We get on buses to leave, but once they drop us off, we have to find somewhere indoors if no one’s arrived yet. The woman organizing my carpool tells us to hide out in Popeyes if she’s late. The other adults agree. We’re like chicks being herded, peeping, one wrong move away from the fryer.
We get used to it: staying indoors, looking over our shoulders, avoiding white box vans and listening for the sound of a car backfiring. We don’t huddle together. It’d only make us a bigger target. We stay home and watch TV. Call each other and make plans for when this is all over. The radio in Mom’s car says it hasn’t even been a full month, but it feels like forever.
Then one day they catch the guys. They weren’t in a white box van, after all. I don’t listen to the news. There’s no sense in killing people pumping gas. Nothing to be learned. I play Snake on my phone. We go back to soccer practice. Wait at the bus stop for our parents. We don’t get murdered. We’re lucky.
My mother says she needs to pick up something and parks at the edge of a Home Depot lot. There’s a hardware store down the street from our house. I don’t know why we’re all the way out here. It’s late afternoon, but it’s winter so it’s dark already. She tells me the sniper shot someone here, that she died on her way in. The shadows created by the overhang become sharper. I can just picture an ordinary woman running an errand and disappearing from the world in a pool of her own blood. This is what the sniper gave me.
My mother hasn’t moved. She takes a breath, a moment, and sits still. Her face is impassive. I can’t see fear or excitement or anything beyond an unfamiliar blankness. I reach out and feel her frozen fingers like individual icicles. Each colder than the last. The windows fog until the outside world is obscured, immense and unknowable. We can only see what’s right in front of us.
Chelsea Stickle writes flash fiction that appears in Jellyfish Review, Five on the Fifth, Crack the Spine, formercactus, Hypnopomp, and Occulum. She’s a reader for Cease, Cows and lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George. Find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.
“Country life has its advantages,” he used to say. “You sit on the veranda drinking tea and your ducklings swim on the pond, and everything smells good. . . and there are gooseberries.”
― Anton Chekhov, Gooseberries
1. A barn owl croons across these drunken hills and every song inebriates. The world stumbles, sinks in sleep at a magic spell, strewn, until the sun-god again snaps its burnished tendrils and wakes the earth with shine. Just as literature is language charged with meaning (Ezra Pound), rural is expanse charged with life.
2. There’s black ice on this road, so-called because of its ability to blend in; we can’t see it. My vehicle slides sideways, is going slow enough, no harm done. Two cars behind me inch along after watching my shenanigans; they can’t be far from home this far from anywhere else. Curiosity is our greatest gift, and mystery our greatest frustration. Maybe it’s time for a horse. Something needs to curtail this unquenchable desire to drive through every construction site and quarry, every snowy field, road and ditch, alongside every river. When God made Jeeps, it forced the hand of the trespasser in all of us.
3. A flicker jabs the suet block between glances toward the sky and behind itself. I have it easy, but it’s the stress that kills. A life of hard work with little stress is preferred over an easy one with trouble and worry. Granny worked every day of her life beginning at age eleven in the cottonfields of Arkansas, moved constantly, but seemed to worry little about world problems or the state of the economy. She lived to ninety-five and died in stark oblivion.
4. Ships’ captains knew how to read the heavens. Sunstones filtered sunlight on cloudy days and provided solar direction. The Vikings may have first used crystals to navigate. On any given Sunday, these Episcopals talk about spiritual formation. Fraction anthems. Sanctus. New terms which force me to think, which is a good thing for people in general. I make a note to bring a dictionary next time. A ringing bell, the sign of the cross, more new words, give and take a robe or two. They know what they’re doing, but I get lost in a place where finding is key.
5. Cattle hail, a valley firms, the stream flows thin, this view is thick. Fields and farms and forms of fields and farms of fields and forming farms. Tangerine sunset, fuchsia glow rimmed in blue and snow. I know. I always know. There is no sky I haven’t seen, no brush-stroked lid atop earth’s vault. This isn’t no, this yes on yes.
6. A rattling sound emanates from the base of the lilac bush near the back door. Fearing the worst, I call my farmer over along with the neighbor he’s talking to. “Jesus Christ!” the neighbor says, seeing the snake and hearing the rattle. “I really don’t think that’s Jesus in there,” my farmer replies phlegmatically.
In 1999 in southeastern Missouri, the fields grew rocks suitable for raising mangy cattle, and in the flooded lowlands, rice. Near St. Francis, a retirement home had been built, spacious grounds and a swimming pool. Sometime after, the surrounding land was sold, and rice paddies put in. The irrigation began, and the snakes, especially cottonmouths, but copperheads and rattlers too, were drawn to the water. The owners stepped out of their house one morning to snakes on their driveway, in their yard, and in their pool, and the snakes were there to stay.
7. The electricity has gone out. Like some kind of Amish keeper of the home, I light three hurricane lamps purchased for nights like this, and crack the windows an inch or so. Woodswoman Anne LaBastille would often sleep naked in the woods next to a nearby lake. Her cabin, the place she loved best, was an example of minimalism: no phone, electricity, or heat except from wood she chopped herself. I may be a kind of hero for trying something new.
8. “You remember that you love me,” I tell my farmer. “Is it what you wanted?” he asks. Love is common, I say, but hate is where we think. I tell him I hate an absent sunrise and a forgotten sunset. I hate an abusive imprint on a natural world. I hate lying, liars, libel, and belittling. I hate absolutely nothing about this day, for every second is precious. And to those who care too much: we can only hope. He smiles and invites me in.
9. Something strange is happening. There’s that orange wall. And it’s hard to trust someone who smiles after being punched in the face. It’s the middle of the night, the world’s anger feels ridiculous, life’s stresses gasp for air, and a Big Sky Kahuna seems to lay behind it all. But I could be wrong; I’m writing in the dark.
10. The sheep cry for attention, and the sky for a viewing. I give and give, worn to the frayed end of my rope, yet wonder if it’s ever enough. Sometimes we think we’re one big light in the darkness. We think our words are saving the world. But a dim bulb at dawn or dusk does little to dispel the indifference and fear we’ve dragged along our journey, and words from a broken keyboard are always missing something. No matter that the universe beyond our itsy bitsy sphere feels shy and indifferent. No matter at all. Every single caring act we give or receive, every word that lifts up, defines a miracle.
German-born Chila Woychik has lived in the American Midwest most of her life. She has been published by Passages North, Cimarron, Portland Review, and other journals. She’s the recipient of writing awards from Emrys Foundation and Red Savina Review. She’s also the founding editor at Eastern Iowa Review and is seeking a home for her first hybrid essay collection. Her most impressive role thus far has been as Grandma. www.chilawoychik.com.
Daisy has this boy that none of us like. She says they aren’t boyfriend-girlfriend but he sure acts like it’s more than a hookup when he texts her things like, where are you? and i miss you much right now baby.
Daisy tells me she likes the way he takes control. Like on their first date, he put his hand on her chest and she pushed it away cause she’s “not that kind of girl,” but then after a few more minutes he tried again and she let him.
“I wouldn’t like that,” I tell Daisy.
Daisy spends the party in the bathroom and she’s not even drunk.
Phoebe and I try to get Daisy to come out, but she won’t and she’s locked herself in the stall with her feet pressed flat against the door so it won’t even budge when Phoebe tries to kick it open.
“What did he do to you?” Phoebe asks.
Phoebe calls me and asks if I know where Daisy is and I say no I haven’t seen her since they broke up. She says that Meg told her she saw them together at Commons and we decide to run there and see for ourselves.
Daisy looks like a puppy caught chewing up the couch and he doesn’t even look at us. We make up some excuse of why she needs to come home, but she looks at him when she says she’s not leaving.
Daisy asks me if my boy ever pressures me to have sex. She’s also wondering if it’s normal to start crying after.
I tell her a half truth, because I don’t want her to feel so alone like she does, so I tell her, “It’s normal to start crying cause it’s an emotional thing, ya know? But I don’t think it’s right.”
She asks if my boy ever does things that I say I didn’t wanna do, and I say, “No, cause he’s not a rapist.”
I know I shouldn’t have said that, cause she gets all quiet.
“I was just wondering if it was normal.”
Daisy says his heater’s broken so he’s gotta live with us for a while. Phoebe tells me that being around him makes her want to throw up, so she’s gonna be spending a lot more time in coffee shops.
Meg asks us why we’re letting him live with us if we hate him so much, and we just shrug our shoulders.
“We aren’t the ones who would deal with him if we say no.”
Daisy tells me, “This is it. This is really the end,” cause she spent all night looking after him cause he tried coke and thought he was gonna die.
She calls her mom crying, and her mom gets all worked up and says, “What did you expect, Daisy, you let him treat you like shit. I told you, Daisy, I told you.” Daisy keeps saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Meg tells Phoebe that his roommate told her that the heater was fixed weeks ago. Phoebe and I decide not to bring this up with Daisy at first, but when we get back to the apartment and he’s there, and she’s got her head on his shoulder, I look him straight in the eyes when I say, “You can’t live here anymore.”
I don’t wanna look at Daisy, her arms hugging her waist, curled up and folded until she is small enough to get lost between the couch cushions.
Daisy’s boy opens the door to the apartment, which makes all of us jump. Daisy says she’s sorry a million times, and tells us not to pause the movie, cause she’ll be right back. I tell Meg to pause it anyway once they’re in Daisy’s room, cause I wanna hear what he’s gonna say.
But all I can hear is Daisy’s boy crying, which I find strange cause I’ve never heard a boy cry so hard before, and all she keeps saying is, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Meg says it’s her fault cause she told Daisy to stop texting during the movie, and I kind of agree cause Meg should have known what would happen if Daisy stopped, but Phoebe says, “No it’s not,” and Meg doesn’t say anything more. We sit there doing nothing for a while but then we play the movie cause Meg says she doesn’t wanna listen to him scream anymore.
The next morning I must have shown the disapproval on my face, cause Daisy gets all defensive and says, “You know I can’t leave him.”
“That’s not true.”
“I’ve tried to. I can’t do it.”
“You could leave him,” I say.
“No matter what I do I’ll go back to him. I always do.”
“It’s cause he loves me,” she says, “You think I’m crazy. Do you think I’m crazy?”
“I would,” she says.
“You’re not crazy.”
“Remember when I locked myself in the bathroom?”
I nod. “If he hit you,” I say, “you’d break up with him, right?”
But Daisy doesn’t answer.
Allison Dreier is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying the Biological Basis of Behavior with a minor in creative writing and chemistry. She is the recipient of a Gold Medal and two Gold keys in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in short fiction.
In the pink glimmer streaking the bottom of the sky, crows stuttered east in pursuit of their resting place. The woman looked up and thought how they seemed right where they should be and sure of the journey. She was not. If this was a journey, it was a fractured, unsure turmoil of one. And the end of it might be soon and brutal and would erase everything that had gone before. Curled in a nook of old concrete at the overgrown end of a park she hoped was mostly forgotten, she was wrapped in a blanket she’d been given, slate gray and speckled with something that had been recycled and was now the cloak of the homeless. She’d brought a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from the drop-in center—supper. That morning she’d told the volunteer that her son had died and now she was lost and didn’t know how she’d go on and thank you very much for your hospitality. There were no tears. She’d cried herself out. She carried a small knife not for protection but because it was handy, even if it kept her out of the shelter which was fine by her. She was tired of the stink. Tomorrow, if she was still breathing, she’d stop in at St. Agatha’s and see if they had any socks. Socks didn’t last long in street life. Before things had fallen apart, she’d had a whole drawer full of socks. Everyone had a sock drawer, didn’t they? And when a single sock went missing in the laundry, it was annoying, but it wasn’t the end of the world.
I was going to the doctor and I fell and broke my arm and the dogs were elated to see me back so soon, but saddened when the medics arrived and came into the house, stirring the normally calm air of our little family. The dogs were sorry for my pain and confused by the disruption but not knowing my diagnosis, which was not at all hopeful, they were not struck by this “minor” incident being a sort of insult in the light of a “major” incident waiting around the corner as I was. I had no reason to believe the dogs had any notion my end was nigh but I wouldn’t put it past them to take the route of denial. Yes, some dogs live their lives in gleeful oblivion, the la-di-da dogs, the lucky dogs. One of mine fit this category; the other exists on a higher plane and would indeed be of greater comfort in the days to come. But now, the dogs were locked into the immediate, trying to make sense of these clipped and efficient visitors huddling around me. No doubt some of this disturbance would linger in the shallows of their brains after I’d been hauled off in the ambulance and they were tucked up in their corner of the kitchen, patiently awaiting my return. Meanwhile, I was having my bone assessed and cursing myself for the stumble over no discernible impediment and thinking I must cancel my appointment with the doctor’s office—those kind people who delivered the bad news with a touch of grace. They may be thinking something far worse than a broken bone had occurred. It would, in fact, be some time before Death came to call. There’s a word few are comfortable saying aloud, when it might turn out to be the greatest relief of all.
Mercedes Lawry has published short fiction in several journals, including Gravel, Cleaver, Garbanzo, and Blotterature and was a semi-finalist in The Best Small Fictions 2016. She’s published poetry in journals such as Poetry, Nimrod, & Prairie Schooner and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize four times. She has a book forthcoming from Twelve Winters Press. Additionally, she’s published stories and poems for children. She lives in Seattle.
Because I love her we will cross four states and a time zone to find a Waffle House, because it reminds her of home, but “only the good parts.” Because I love her we will order the hash browns scattered, covered, chunked, and smothered, with a side of waffles as big as the browns themselves. Because I love her we will sit on the same side of the booth, hold hands under the table, and down the hours-old coffee that holds a dull black pall even after six creamers. Because I love her we will return the “are you together?” look the waitress gives us with a “yes, we are” and exchange hickeys as we wait for our hash browns to arrive, in case she wanted to stop wondering. Because I love her we will split the waffle, but not the tab. Because I love her we will pay the tab with my lucky twenty and I will leave the change as a tip. Because I love her we will return homeward, careening down the dark farm town roads, the crossings, and onto the Interstate. Because I love her we will stop at the McDonald’s rest stop near Lothorian because she wants fries, and when I say I am surprised she’s still hungry, she will say I ate more than my half of the waffle. Because I love her we will try not to argue while we wait in line for the fries, but we do anyway, and when I collect the fries she knocks them out of my hand, and as they sprawl across the tile floor, a kid in line says, “man, that’s cold.” Because I love her we will not bother to pick up the fries and because my lucky twenty is gone, we can’t pay for the fries we can no longer eat. Because I love her we will sit in the food court with no food or money, across the table from each other, and I tell her this is not about the waffle. And because I love her we will not leave; we will stay there, holding hands or not, our twin hickeys mellowing to brown, talking or not, about what made her mad or not, about what life I want to build for us or not. Because I love her.
Erica Plouffe Lazure is the author of a flash fiction chapbook, Heard Around Town, and a fiction chapbook, Dry Dock. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the Greensboro Review, Meridian, American Short Fiction, The Journal of Micro Literature, The Southeast Review, Fiction Southeast, Flash: the International Short-Short Story Magazine (UK), Vestal Review, National Flash Fiction Day Anthology (UK), Litro (UK), Meniscus (Australia), and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Exeter, NH and can be found online at ericaplouffelazure.com/.
I’m always sad when the gig ends. Three grueling weeks with a showroom crew I only see each spring and fall, preparing for the home textile market. I’ll especially miss the Flower Marys—a jubilant self-named group of gay men who fashion stunning floral arrangements. Peggy, Mary, Louise. Men whose real names I never learned or have long since forgotten. Over time, a musician among them will marry the showroom designer. Others vanish into illness, addiction. The displays shrink, the crew downsize with budget cuts. But this warm spring evening, in the early aughts, it’s all still in place, and I’ve got one night left in New York, where old friends, commercial photographers soon to be forced from the city by hostile buyout, have graciously lent me their tiny West Village apartment while they’re out of town.
Bags packed, rooms tidied, I’m caught in familiar disjunction between east and west coast. “Pick up,” I say, over-ordering Chinese from the place on Bethune, though it’s blocks away.
At Bleecker, a yellow cab slows; the driver stares rolling past. Exhaust trailed by a faint scent of honeysuckle. Violet dusk dissolves the thin wedge of playground ahead, memory slip-sliding into overlay as I cross the street—this neighborhood the stomping ground of my early adulthood. I was forged here, but it’s no longer my home.
Exiting as I enter, a delivery guy blocks my view. But when I reach the counter and give my name, there they are. The Flower Marys, in their casual best, gathered around a banquet table in the garish dining room.
Community’s a tired word that doesn’t capture their spirited bond. Its sharp edges of derogatory wit. The longings shared, the common drive for physical release. No late hour, no black eye, no drunken fall down a brownstone stoop, too much to preclude comfort, rescue by any means. A belonging that I—a straight woman, single, middle-aged—will never know. My envy most shameful considering the era they came of age.
Their boss, who resembles the silver-haired partner on Mad Men—and on whom I’ve always had a crush—raises his chin in smiling recognition. He tips his head; an invitation to join. I smile back, nod toward the takeout bags lining the counter. He shrugs, as if saying, your choice. Indecision races my heart.
“Twenty-nine-oh-four,” the cashier says loudly. I’m slow to realize he’s speaking to me.
“Sorry, sorry,” I say, fumbling for my credit card.
When I look over at the table again, glasses are raised, the silver-haired Mary’s head thrown back in laughter. If I walk over, someone will pull out a chair. They might even fill me in on the joke. But my lonely status, so painfully blatant, will change the evening’s tenor, their raucous pleasure curtailed. For a moment, I watch. Then the cashier returns my card, motions me to clear the way. Inside flimsy white plastic, the paper bag’s already seeping grease. I take my food and slip back out into the velvet night.
A graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, Sue Mell’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Newtown Literary. A collection of her flash fiction was recently selected as a semifinalist in the Black Lawrence Press chapbook competition.
“Sexually, I’m more of a Switzerland,” he says to her over mediocre merlot in a sleek, dark bistro. As in later he’ll be neutral about positions, she wonders. Or he’ll remain silent and smiling afterwards—polite but distant? Perhaps what he means has nothing to do with making choices or bold pronouncements. Maybe he means that he’ll wind her up expertly, her body a sleek Piaget. Melt, stir, and stretch her like fondue? Who would say such thing about sex, and why is she here with him? Perhaps he simply means that nothing and no one is worth fighting for.
Yasmina Din Madden lives in Iowa and her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in PANK, The Idaho Review, Word Riot, The Masters Review: New Voices, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Carve, and other journals. Her story “At the Dog Park” was shortlisted for The Masters Review Anthology: 10 Best Stories by Emerging Authors, and her flash fiction was shortlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions of 2017 and Pulp Literature’s Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction. She teaches creative writing, literature, and women’s and gender studies at Drake University.
“He doesn’t want to work. He just wants to get drunk and grow his hair long.” I could hear my grandfather’s mocking voice as I stood beneath the rusted ass of a machine that roared and spit cranberry residue. It was the end of summer. I’d just returned from California, a cross-country one-sided love affair with a hippie woman and her dog that ended in disgrace when we settled in with her stunt pilot boyfriend in a San Fernando bungalow and I realized I was the third wheel. I was twenty-six and going nowhere, back home and living with my mother, who worked nights at a nursing home. After a few weeks I was hired at a juice factory through a temp agency.
Three hours into my first shift, with blisters blooming on the heels of my hands like stigmata, a man with a toothpick between his lips and an Ewok’s beard tapped my back and motioned with a greasy thumb.
“Break time!” I followed him through a maze of metal work and fruit slop. The noise was horrendous, the heat devouring. I felt like I’d been plunged into the depths of William Blake’s satanic furnaces.
On Fridays my grandfather and I would go to The Knights of Columbus for fish and a beer. He always paid, smiling as I gulped down my first draft, eager for a second. The portions were small, the batter soggy, but my grandfather liked the bartender, who looked like Andre the Giant’s kid brother and hosted a local sports radio show. After dinner I’d drive my grandfather around town in his red Pontiac. We’d stop at the pharmacy, the grocery store—all the while he’d point out the empty lots that used to be something—a barber shop, a bar, Brooks’ Locomotive Works, the church he and my grandmother were married in.
Outside the factory a soggy breeze hung in the air like bad breath. The sun had gone west, but the sky still held its saffron aftermath. I watched two men in blue jumpsuits stand against the wall smoking cigarettes.
“Screw this,” I said in a moment of delinquent inspiration and walked across the parking lot, kicking bits of gravel in my path. At the corner of Central and Second I turned left, meandered along the lakefront. Seagulls soared and screamed, fought over garbage. One stood on a tire and blinked into the wind. “Goddamn shit!” I screamed with pride, until my lungs burned, while in the distance a ship’s silhouette rose above the horizon line, beyond which I traced the jagged blue outline of Canada. I could hear my grandfather’s voice again:
“He doesn’t want to work.”
And he was right. All I wanted was to stare out at the lake, the clouds, the cracks in the sidewalk, to drink cheap beer and read Camus, to dream of all the places I’d yet to travel, the person I would one day become if I had the guts, if I could survive.
Jason Irwin is the author of A Blister of Stars (Low Ghost, 2016), Watering the Dead (Pavement Saw Press, 2008), and the chapbooks Where You Are (Night Ballet Press, 2014) and Some Days It’s A Love Story (Slipstream Press, 2005). He is the winner of the Transcontinental Poetry Award, and he has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. He has essays published or soon-to-be-published in The Crux and IO Literay Journal. He lives in Pittsburgh. More at http://www.jasonirwin.blogspot.com.