The other day, I took my antsy four-year-old, Saskia, to the Y for Tumble and Play. The gym, outfitted with toddler-friendly stations—a gently sloping soft ramp here, another odd-shaped cushion-slash-mat there, a low, wide balance beam, and some hula hoops on the floor offered cute smalls the chance to toddle or crawl or run about. Their adults hovered or chased or basically ignored, depending. Saskia is on the cusp of outgrowing Tumble and Play. And at 48, maybe I have outgrown Tumble and Play, too.
These weren’t my peeps. In the noisy room, I felt very quiet. I stood there and remembered when I’d been one of them, a thirtysomething parent to smalls. I lived in that tot-centric world with playground—and the other parent chaperones—as primary destination. Like them, I routinely over-packed a diaper bag (before I got to the third child and began to shove a diaper in my purse). “And then, there was poop everywhere,” I heard one mom say, that last word hit hard and slow for emphasis. Like them, the blown-out diaper constituted major drama. So did the vomiting far from the toilet. “I know every one of Bob’s friends,” I heard someone else confide. Bob the Builder, of course: my toddlers’ ardor for trains or fairies became mine, too. I simultaneously worried about pretty much everything and felt protected, cocooned in a bubble of toddler babble and goldfish crackers. The world could, if I let it, simply drift out there.
As if these parents were in an old home movie that I could almost see myself in I remembered how often I felt lost. There was so much I didn’t know about how to care for my kids. What existed in seemingly equal measures were love and exhaustion and the mind numbing boredom of following those stocky legs and square feet around. They were the best children in the entire world and I would do absolutely anything for them. In fact, I had done much more than I’d ever imagined before they were born. When the first one didn’t bring in the milk, I pumped eight times a day for months, even though it meant I never slept more than three or four hours at a stretch until he was practically walking. I was so tired I felt logic splintering into pieces. The smallest disappointment brought me to tears. I cried every single day and with each day my ardor for my baby grew. It made no sense at all.
I did not toss the toddler’s fruit in a bowl; instead, I arranged a colorful medley on the plate. Whatever my little guys wanted to have, I wanted to give. With all my might, I wished that my efforts and good intentions would be enough. I wanted to be assured that if I stayed on the path begun with picture books—read at least 20 minutes a day to your child and literacy would happen—and fed them unsweetened yogurts and kissed boo-boos and endured tantrums I’d know where to go next, and what to do when we got there.
All that had changed. They grew. While I still love my children to pieces, it’s different. The eldest two, both teenagers, have moved beyond cute. The nine year-old, too, he’s adorable with his marble ramps and scooter rides and penchant for shoveling the driveway when it snows, but not always. These days I want them to clear their plates and tell me when they need a ride more than ten minutes before they need a ride. More than annoyances, I feel concerned about all that energy I expended to make everything perfect. It seems I’ve provided an uncomfortable juxtaposition to the imperfect world. What else could I have known to do? I was so deep in. Their smallness was all there was, their dependence, their preciousness. Tests and teams and using the bathroom independently or using the bathroom at all—let alone whatever you worried about when they sprouted facial hair or breasts—seemed impossibly far in the future. Naptime loomed menacingly enough.
As I stood amongst those younger parents, I almost wished to be preoccupied by small-kid concerns again. These days, the fabric of my parenting feels very creased and worn, palpably frayed. I do not feel wise or capable with teenage concerns. Much as I struggle to get the smallest one to sleep, the real hardship is to wake the eldest for school. Recorded your-child-was-tardy calls come nightly. I’m deep in now, too. I’m lost. The stakes—blackheads, homework, extracurricular activities, girlfriend, and tardiness—feel so high. I know they felt high when the concerns were diapers and nighttime wakeups and the ability to finesse the flip of the winter jacket over their heads. To nag a high school student about homework is as mind numbing as it was to follow a toddler around and around, if the toddler was cuter and light enough to pick up.
Those younger parents in clusters around the gym didn’t know about my two boys who stand taller than I do or my demon nine year-old skier. I didn’t wear a badge that announced myself as longtime mom rather than an old mom with one newer child. For a little while I wondered whether I appeared to be a last-gasp mom. Those mothers sometimes land in the younger people’s territory with babies and look like refugees, astounded by the crumbs and afraid to let their treasured child risk a fall.
I doubt I appear to be a stranger in a strange land, though, because I tend not to hover over my gal or stop her from much at all. In fact, I don’t always exactly pay attention to her. I often realize I’ve failed to remember the mechanics of early childhood. On a short plane trip this past winter I escorted my daughter to the bathroom four times. It dawned on me that when you travel with a small child, you should put an extra set of clothing and a plastic bag in your carry-on. I’d forgotten.
On the way home, I dutifully tucked the back-up clothing into the backpack. Then, I accompanied her on five trips to the bathroom in two-and-a-half hours, because the tiny bathroom, the loud flush and the vibrations while we walked made for such adventure and fun. I love when we are together and I can follow her lead, because I don’t always follow her lead; more often, in whatever way, we care for her around the others’ needs.
Her giant personality has taken root without such encompassing attentions. Through her I am reminded that much as I want to, I can’t do everything for my children; I can’t make their lives wonderful. I have to trust that my work—to love them up, to hold them accountable, to support them in how hard that is, to love them up some more—is what I have to give and that it is enough. Deep in as I am, I see glimmers of this. They care about the world around them and know how to cook. They are generally kind and sometimes clean. Surrounded by younger parents and their younger families came the reminder of how incredibly grateful I am for my older children and for this youngest and for myself, too—the oldest parent in the room.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Brain Child Magazine, and Salon. She keeps a personal blog, Standing in the Shadows, at the site of the news publication the Valley Advocate, and a tumblr, Refractions. She is a sometimes contributor to Momfilter. Follow her on twitter– @standshadows.
My parents never owned their own video camera—in the 1990s, it was the sort of luxury item (like a snow blower) that could be borrowed from a relative or neighbor when needed. With my Uncle Joe’s bulky camcorder hoisted on his shoulder, my dad would record birthdays, vacations, and Christmases. The camera was a heavy machine, much too big for John and me to ever play with; it was obsolete even by 1990, when handheld camcorders became the tool of choice for doting parents. Nevertheless, my dad ignored his bad back on those special occasions and accumulated hours of footage of us running through the sprinklers in our backyard and ripping wrapping paper off presents. The impulse to document stopped around 1997—by that time, I was 8 years old and John was 11. Maybe we weren’t cute enough to immortalize on moving film anymore. More likely, life just got too busy—who could remember to borrow a camera in the endless cycle of dance recitals, baseball games, First Holy Communions, and trips to the beach?
About the time that my dad stopped recording our major life events, I started watching our home videos. Back then, when I was eight or nine, the videos showed me what my life had been like in the time before my first memories. I would sit pretzel-style on our crimson carpet, gaze up at the wood-paneled television, and realize that my cousin Kim used to try to open all my birthday presents when I was a toddler. Mostly, I thought the videos were funny: the short-shorts Uncle Tom wore in 1990 were funny; the way Uncle David always said, “The Jets are Number 1!” to the camera was funny. John would watch the videos with me and point out what a weird little sister I used to be. His favorite example: on Christmas morning, 1992, when I am three, Dad tries to wake me up to get me to open presents. I refuse and hide my face in my Beauty and the Beast pillow, crying: “Stop, stop, stop, stop! Let me get some rest, you!”
When I think of my childhood now, I can recall that Christmas in detail because I have relived it again and again. I know I got a Playskool dollhouse that year—it was pink and white, and it came with a mommy, a daddy, a brother and a baby girl, just like in our real house. But, I can’t really remember for certain what life had been like for me when I was three years old. Did I nap everyday? What did Mom and I do together when we had the house to ourselves every afternoon? Dad never videotaped the regular days—the Sunday morning French toast breakfasts (no crusts for me), the nightly father-son pitching practice in the backyard. I know these things happened, but I can’t see them clearly.
A few Christmases ago, I transferred some of our home videos to DVD., I transferred some of our home videos to DVD. No one has a working VCR these days, and I hadn’t been able to watch the old tapes for at least five years. Now, at 23, when I watch the tapes on my laptop, I notice more. I hear my mom’s strong New York accent—something that never hit my ear as out-of-the-ordinary as a child; something I don’t hear when I think of her voice now. I catch the softness, sweetness of her tone when she talks to John or me or our cousins. I see the quick glances between my mom and dad—they didn’t need to talk to each other to communicate a message. I see my nanny’s curved spine, my dad’s walk. And I notice just how much I used to cling to my mom. Even I got older—4, 5, 6—I didn’t stop sitting in her lap or reaching up my arms at her, asking to be picked up.
I notice these things because I had forgotten about them. Or, maybe not forgotten—maybe the memories were all there, buried underneath; maybe I just needed to hear the voices again to recalibrate my inner movie—the one that plays when I’m alone or when I can’t sleep.
strong>My favorite home video is the one of my first birthday. August 4, 1990: a bright, hot day. Mom dressed me in a frilly white jumper with neon pink trim. My cousins are all wearing bathing suits, battling with Super Soakers on our back lawn. My Uncle Joe videotaped that day, so my dad makes some rare appearances at the edges of the frame. He gets ready to cut the Carvel ice cream cake, saying, “Watch your fingers!” to my cousins, whose hands are all in the icing. He grills the burgers and hot dogs; he talks to his brothers-in-law about the Yankees. Dad has on a short-sleeved button-down shirt, khaki shorts, and striped tube socks—the sort of thing he always wore at home in the summer. He’s wearing something on a black cord around his neck—maybe it’s his NYPD badge in a leather case, maybe he was on call for work that day. Was he stressed out about the office on my first birthday—about the reports he hadn’t tapped out on his automatic typewriter? Maybe it’s not that at all. Maybe it’s just the cord for his clunky Nikon film camera.
My mom gives her baby girl the most attention. She carries me around the backyard on her hip, showing me off to my aunts and uncles. At 12 months, I couldn’t walk by myself yet, but I could toddle around if mom held my hands. When it’s time for presents, my mom reads each card out loud and carefully tears the wrapping paper from each present, making sure everyone knows who gave what gift. She holds up each set of Osh Kosh overalls, each stuffed animal, each picture book, while I balance on my Great Aunt Lena’s thighs and play with a Mylar balloon. Mom had permed hair that year, and she’s wearing what looks like denim culottes.
My parents barely interact at all on film. There were easily three dozen people at that party; I hardly recognize most of them because I haven’t seen them in over a decade. My mom’s cousins came with their kids; neighbors and friends brought me gifts. Dad tries to talk to each of his in-laws; Mom is busy filling water balloons and making sure there’s enough iced tea. I can’t hear them talking to each other at all over the din of screaming kids and adults making endless small talk. I could watch this video and decide that my parents had a distanced relationship in 1990—that they were cool and pragmatic in their conversations.
But videotape, like still-film, lies by omission. I may perceive more when I watch this video now, but I can’t see what’s not there—like the whispers my mom and dad might have shared in the kitchen, away from the camera. All my memories of my parents tell me that they were never affectionate in public. That was private. They were very composed.
My videos are immutable. I can change the tape, but I can’t create new frames—I can’t see what might have happened, what could have been. Where the tapes stop, the fuzzy memories flood. They are imperfect: snippets of conversations, the glance of my dad’s smile, my mom’s soft hair. I can’t fast forward, but when I close my eyes, I can pause.
Kristen Martin is currently living in Italy, where she is a Fulbright Research Fellow studying food culture and the Italian discourse surrounding gastronomy. In the fall of 2013, she will begin an MFA in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia University. She holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and is originally from Long Island. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in VICE magazine, Philadelphia magazine, Obit-mag.com, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and Filament.
Shorthand we just called it “Bluebird,” but technically the role was Princess Florina. Hers is the tale of a maiden who wanted to learn to fly, and about the prince, disguised as the blue bird who taught her. For the celebration of Aurora’s wedding in the third act of Sleeping Beauty, the Bluebird story, compressed, became entertainment for both onstage wedding guests and audience members. Bluebird was a common choice to teach young dancers advanced enough learn some repertoire. Reminded of many famous dancers who made their soloist debuts as Princess Florina, when given the role in a showcase, I thought of it as a sign of things to come.
My costume, royal blue with feathers on the platter tutu as well as a feathered headpiece, did make me feel a bit like a delicate bird. Wanting to stroke the feathers with my fingers, I learned restraint by not mussing my costume, resisting the urge to pet and caress. In a platter tutu, I felt like a real dancer. Platter tutus signified a rite of passage, at least for me, and still, when I see young dancers in platter tutus, I feel a little nostalgia for my royal blue beginnings. As a very young girl I’d had a Barbie doll that came in a platter tutu and with crown permanently attached to her head, which I adored until I realized Barbie dolls are made so that they have no turnout, and ballet is based on turning out by rotating from the hips. Barbie’s leg only swung back to front. Barbie could never have been a dancer, not for real, but in my tutu, I thought perhaps I was a dancer.
The bodice of my costume had a long series of hooks, and when one of the backstage dressers helped clasp them, it made me think of what it must have been like to wear a corset. Made with stiff boning, the bodice restricted my middle, binding me in and making it hard to breathe. And yet I liked that about it, believing because it was unforgiving it made my dancing somehow better, pain and beauty intertwined into a mythically-enhanced concoction.
Costuming aside, Florina challenged me in other ways. Although I excelled at petit allegro in my technique classes, which was needed for the part, Princess Florina was not the kind of role I’d expected to get. Lighthearted, a quality I would not use to describe either my technique or my personality, the motivation behind the steps was that of flight, learning to fly. Florina, the little flora, a tiny and fresh and lovely princess. In my naive early days of performing, I felt challenged to be the role I was given—weather a mouse or a party girl in The Nutcracker, or simply a part of the Waltz of the Hours, I didn’t just want to dance my roles. I want to become them. Because I didn’t see myself as a Princess Florina, I found it tough to be her. My other early roles were icy, winter-infused parts, Snowflake and Winter Fairy, and I cultivated the persona. Florina challenged my very sense of self, and I struggled.
Choreography can be a map, and the steps in the Florina variation helped me—as if tripping forward in bourrées and flittering échappés, light and nearly flickering piqué fouetté, the bourrées again. What message could I find hidden in the architecture of the steps themselves? What you do became who you were to become. For me, a princess, regal, mimicking a bird, airy with flight. The steps aimed to reconcile the two in my body, if it was up to the task.
The full tale of Florina, not entirely depicted as part of the celebration of Aurora’s wedding, goes something like this. A king has a daughter in a first marriage—Florina—who, during her father’s second marriage gets locked in a tower by her stepmother, who had an ugly daughter she wanted married off. Fearing Florina would capture the hearts of suitors, off went Florina, standard fare for this kind of story. Pretty girls are always getting locked up for the mere offense of being attractive. A prince, enamored with Florina and disguised as Bluebird, comes to her window in her tower prison. Of course, Florina can’t tell he’s a prince.
Can we ever tell who are the princes?
The Bluebird visits Florina in captivity, bringing her presents, and she, growing fond of him, caresses his wings and feathers. The queen, Florina’s stepmother, finds out about the Bluebird visits, and closes the window to Florina’s chamber, keeping Bluebird out, but Florina sings out for him.
In the Sleeping Beauty version, the choreography imitates Florina’s call to Bluebird. The ending pose of the variation, on one knee, hand behind the ear, the dancer poses indicating the call and response. The trick was making it look effortless, piqué arabesque, and then the gentle kneel, soft swish of arms to the listening pose. Delicate, I struggled with the pose in rehearsal. My arms beckoned, “Get here, bird,” instead of the gentle “Where are you? Please come to me.”
My coach, a former soloist with the Hamburg Ballet, kept correcting me with an incantation of “Soft, soft, soft. Don’t plunk down.”
In order to free Florina, Bluebird teaches her to fly, so they can travel aloft, destined for those places where fairy tale characters live happily ever after. To say I thought about this learning the pas de deux, the variation, or the coda for Florina would be a lie. But the effect was there, embedded in the steps. What I didn’t know or understand was sometimes gifted to me in the dance itself.
The coda, the flight: my partner danced, arms replicating flight, and I entered in the upstage corner as he rotated through multiple pirouettes. Light piqué turns from the corner, single, double, single double. Chaînés in canon, first him, then me, graceful instruction. It wasn’t unlike actual birds, which alight on a perch, hop or take flight, only to perch again. Each step chosen interpreted the weightless, skittering movements of actual birds, but with the elegance intrinsic to ballet. Harder to accomplish, too, since they also were bound and confined by the demands of ballet technique. Still only a teenager and apprentice dancer, performing pieces from the ballets felt complicated in a way I couldn’t quite explain at the time. The birds did what they did naturally; for me, Florina’s movements contained within a joie de vivre I found alien. Who trapped in a tower would be so happy? Could the idea of flight insight such sense of joy? Still, I took on Florina for what it was, and loved the role simply because it was difficult.
Later, I would understand the obstacles of Princess Florina in a different way. Lightheartedness seemed so elusive, and even now, I’m not sure exactly. To be lighthearted means to cast away cares and worries, and I have never been and still do not shed these easily.
In my royal and feathered tutu, the light around me took on a bluish tinge, and I became something other than myself. It’s the release that created the performance high. Unlike any other feeling I have known, it was as if for that moment I slipped underneath someone else’s skin. There, I could be fresh and lovely, the likeness of Florina.
Words will never capture performance adequately. Of the sensations I most remember there was the heat of the stage’s lights on my skin, compared to the cool dampness of the backstage. Also, the look and feel of my costumes, which have always stayed more vivid in my memories and imagination than any pirouette or jump or extension of my leg. What I did was gone the moment I did it. Performing disappears as it happens, a vapor, a curl of smoke, a waking dream. And even if I emerged out of this blue-hazed memory more like Florina trapped in her tower than Florina in flight, I had ahead of me the task of trying to commit memory to words, a fairy tale itself, daring to dream again of my own past.
Renée K. Nicholson lives in Morgantown, WV, splitting her artistic pursuits between writing and dance. She is an American Ballet Theatre certified teacher and earned her MFA in Creative Writing at West Virginia University. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers, The Superstition Review, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. Renée was the 2011 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State-Altoona. Her website is www.reneenicholson.com.
This needs narrative–
Who left, and why,
And who came back–
The house completely covered in vines,
Or vines in the shape of a house.
I once lived
Where creeper pried apart floorboard
Where I sat with my baby in the bath
And a flying squirrel
Burst out from a hole in the wall
Covered by a travel poster
Of–of all things–the Alps,
Leaping like a circus performer
Through a ring of paper.
Don’t sleep here, or you’ll dream
Of abandoning the human in habitation,
Like that night hitchhiking
When I wouldn’t camp in the decrepit house
And you agreed,
Afraid of the fair-haired tinkers
Or the unseen
Miriam Sagan is the author of twenty-five books, including the poetry collections Map of the Lost(University of New Mexico Press) and Seven Places in American (Sherman Asher, 2012). She founded and directs the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College. In 2010, she won the Santa Fe Mayor’s award for Excellence in the Arts. For more information, see her blog, Miriam’s Well:www.miriamswell.wordpress.com.
I have always made art including drawings and works on paper. This selection is from 1972 to 2013 and is a good sample of the themes, images and mediums that have always interested me for over forty-three years as an artist. My training was in commercial art. I began working in the advertising field in 1966 upon completing a two year course at New York City Community College, as it was then known. This training was outdated. In any event, I had little trouble in finding jobs. However, these jobs depended on skills that I really didn’t have, and my heart was not really in the ad game.
I want my art to go through slow constant changes, but at the same time I want vast abrupt changes. Nature does the same. Since 1969, I have been making small scale sculptures and miniature environments that have been boxed, floored and walled.
Within these small spaces a wide range of images have been constant and consistent. Houses, mountains, trees, bodies of water and land masses. My work over the years has changed, as I’m always experimenting with my language.
Nature frightens. No slow early autumn walks in the country for me. Nature is a mother with a knife, ready to pounce on us without warning.
Mountains collapse, rivers reclaim, skies open up and caves swallow. But there is also a beauty in this destruction. Keeping myself far away from all things that are natural is what I have a sweet tooth for. The landscapes of my mind reach out for other minds in beautiful acts of aggression.
“Head.” 2012. Collage, paint and ink on paper. 9 1/2″ x 12 1/2″
“Box.” 2012. Collage, ink and paint on paper. 9 1/2″ x 12 1/2″
“The Couple.” 2013. Ink, paint and collage on notebook paper. 9 3/4″ x 7 1/2″
“Brick wall with burnt trees and houses.” 1972. Crayon on notebook paper. 9 3/4″ x 7 1/2″
“Man with two heads.” 2012. Collage, paint and ink on notebook paper. 9 3/4″ x 7 1/2″
Abstract. 1977 paint, collage on notebook paper 9 3/4″ x 7 1/2″
Ira Joel Haber was born and lives in Brooklyn New York. He is a sculptor, painter, book dealer, photographer, and teacher. His work has been seen in numerous group shows both in USA and Europe and he has had nine-one man shows including several retrospectives of his sculpture. His work is in the collections of The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York University, The Guggenheim Museum, The Hirshhorn Museum, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and his paintings, drawings, and collages have been published in many online and print magazines. He has received three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, two Pollock-Krasner grants, the Adolph Gottlieb Foundation grant and, in 2010, he received a grant from Artists’ Fellowship Inc. Currently he teaches art at the United Federation of Teachers Retiree Program in Brooklyn.
A conversation between a writer wife and her artist husband, in a quest to understand
Important Subject: A chicken
BK: You spend hours in your garage studio (among the ghosts of a skinny car, in the shadow of night visitors, within walls yellowed by old fuels) fiddling with electronic pencils and twinned screens, and you come up with … a chicken? Why a chicken? How did your chicken begin?
WS: It began with a sphere about the size of a golf ball. I’m sure electrons are involved but what is really being manipulated are vertices. This chicken was really a way to test 3D printing technology (color and all). No lofty idea—just that as someone who works with 3D “art,” I wasn’t going to leave that stone unturned.
BK: And I thought I had married into lofty. Didn’t you promise me lofty? Okay, then. You began to pull and poke at this thing, began to manipulate these vertices. The computer can’t resist you. There isn’t any tactile feel to this material, no smell, nothing that gets your hands dirty. Do you still consider this art? Because, at the very least, I married into art. Didn’t I?
WS: That part feels more like a craft than an art to me. I am usually making images that will exist in two-dimensional space (printed or on a computer screen). What I like about the process is the flexibility of constructing something in virtual space and then “walking” in or around the object to determine which view will work best for my purposes. I don’t have to capture the decisive moment right away. I can capture the whole moment and then decide later.
BK: I married a craftsman? Now you tell me? You married a writer, by the way. And she’s never changed her professional tune. In any case: You painted your chicken, you hollowed it out—all virtually, of course. What, precisely, were you hoping for as you worked? How did you know you were done? I know it wasn’t when I called you for dinner, because you showed up late. Repeatedly.
WS: It was done when I felt it made a big enough contribution to the cultivation of the human spirit.
BK: As you do. Every day. What does this new art replace, in terms of traditional, tactile craft?
WS: You can now turn very intricate and complex geometry into a precise physical object, something that would be very difficult to do by hand. You can, for example, make an object based on a mathematical equation (like a gyroid). With this process there are fewer limits on producing what you can imagine.
BK: You make me afraid, very afraid. I have had encounters with your imagination.
BK: Then answer this: What can never be replaced in terms of traditional, tactile craft?
WS: Nothing can replace the story that hands leave on an object.
BK: Such a nice sentiment. You make me fall in love all over again. (With you, in case you were wondering.) How does this 3D stuff compare to the actual pottery work you have begun to do—in a real studio, with real people, real dust, real kilns?
WS: They are completely separate things for me. When I work with 3D software I need to have a clear path to where I’m going with it. I need to know what I’m trying to make in order to figure out how to do it. With pottery I’m still part of my own audience; I don’t really know what it will be or how it will turn out, even though there is a certain amount of preconception in pottery. Things like gravity, the properties of the material, tools, dexterity etc. all play equal parts along with the brain.
BK: How does this change what is possible for artists? Because you are, also, still an artist. Right?
WS: I think it opens up another door for those who are in the business of making things. 3D printing has been around for a while but it has recently become more available and affordable to everyone. I’ve seen 3D printed jewelry in galleries and there are also people studying how to use similar technology in large-scale products (such as architectural components). The use of 3D software in general is just another tool in the shed. Creative types will always find ways of putting it to good use—either as a way of making images and/or physical objects.
William Sulit, a photographer and an award-winning illustrator, received his master’s degree in architecture from Yale University. Today he is the design partner in the boutique marketing communications firm, Fusion Communications. His photography and illustrations have appeared in Ghosts in the Garden (authored by Beth Kephart) and Zenobia: The Curious Book of Business (authored by Beth Kephart and Matthew Emmens) and will be featured in the forthcoming Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, a novel of 1871 Philadelphia written by Beth Kephart (Temple University Press/New City Community Press).
Beth Kephart, an award-winning writer of fifteen books, is the strategic writing partner in Fusion Communications. She teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, writes essays and reviews for a number of national publications, and blogs daily atwww.beth-kephart.blogspot.com. Her most recent novel, Small Damages, was named the year’s most lyrical young adult novel by The Atlantic Wire.
they could have lived in clouds
but so missed houses that they actually built some
they missed roads
though in life, roads hadn’t really appealed to them
in a nostalgic, industrious phase
they assembled a touristy street
where stores sold the bright t-shirts of before
covered with puns and jokes about being half-alive
many people re-found their spouses
but many more lived with newly-found strangers
in a light-weight honeymoon of sweet boredom
no one was religious
it was a beach town
they easily conjured an ocean
but they used all their natural resources
partly from building the things they drove instead of cars
a group of environmentalists formed
but they were no fun to have over at parties
and there were so many parties
Rachel B. Glaser
Rachel B. Glaser is the author of the poetry collection Moods (Factory Hollow Press, 2013) and the story collection Pee On Water (Publishing Genius Press, 2010). She paints basketball players and lives in Northampton, MA.
Joe saw your number at Silk City
while going crazy in the men’s room.
Joe saw your number
on the sin wall
and understood the irritating itch
on his bearish toes to be his own cross,
his own three alarm fire.
Joe TIVO-ed Casablanca
and became immune to commas.
Joe’s been paralyzed by the syntax of youth,
by his sumo for frankfurters.
Joe is a concave bibliographer, a nor’easter
cult diva who uses tabula rasa
as an ultimatum and asks
“Where you at?”
Joe loves women. Joe loves a woman
the way two broken machines
love each other in a landfill.
Kevin Varrone’s most recent publication is Eephus (Little Red Leaves Textile Series, 2012). His current project, box score: an autobiography, is forthcoming as a set of literary baseball cards from Little Red Leaves Textile Series (2013) and as an iPhone/iPad app (2013). His previous publications include Passyunk Lost (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010), id est (Instance Press, 2007), and the chapbooks g-point Almanac: 6.21-9.21 (ixnay press, 2000) and the philadelphia improvements (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). He lives outside Philadelphia.
for the first thirteen days of August. I’m swimming
in lemons, squeezed within an inch of their lives, waterlogged, pressed to the bottom by
ice. My lips curl around the straw, suck down the pits
in waves of cool, the air conditioner dies its slow death: a whine, a rattle, a sputter. I let
it rest an hour then make it come again
in electric waves, burning my thighs with the laptop, stuffing newspapers underneath,
scrolling through emails as word after word drips humidity
in the chatter of children who have questions and answers and dissertations on cloud
formations. They lie on their backs and watch them run across the sky. They won’t pull
their hair into buns. They want it hanging down
rather than bound, the window boxes are watered and green but the flowers are
withered and frail. There are no new buds
in green tomatoes. They won’t turn. They won’t soften. They won’t fall. They insist that
hard is best, that sour relish improves with a steady diet
in sand up to my ankles, jellyfish rule our corner of the sea, and there isn’t enough
vinegar at the snack shack to relieve the sting
in flutterless curtains. There is no breeze. All shades are drawn, but the fever sneaks in,
lives in the couch, the sheets, the pencil box. It’s sticking to the walls like spaghetti
during the tornado watch, heat lightning and flash floods – it’s all extreme. Gale force
winds won’t bend to the road
in the night of you. There is no other way to be but naked and splayed, trembling
through the sweaty little deaths, waiting for the big strike.
Marybeth Rua-Larsen lives on the south coast of Massachusetts, half-way between Boston and Cape Cod (but closest to Providence, RI), and teaches composition at Bristol Community College. Her poems, essays, flash fiction and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming inThe Raintown Review, Angle, Crannog, The Poetry Bus, Free Inquiry and The Nervous Breakdown. She is a book reviewer for NYQ Reviews and won in the Poetry category for the 2011 Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Competition in Galway, Ireland.
Time says have to, time says go to a green place, a space,
a peace beyond the outskirts of earshot and streetlight
mind of barnacle-bearded whale rears, geysers
shattered water, sounds a mile past the din of fish
silence where warmth has never been. Infinitesimal
in that crush, that loneliness, those lightless
ancient canyons, whale hums a half-hour, utter tone
that travels shelf to shelf, reef to isle to continent
and every whale, oceans apart, judders a little.
Beyond the suburbs, where Orion glistens, all
sings and oceans of night reverberate: what is in me,
what is heavy, holds its breath, dive when the deep calls.
John Timpane is the Media Editor/Writer of the Philadelphia Inquirer. His work has appeared in Sequoia, Vocabula Review, Apiary Mixtape, ONandOnScreen, Painted Bride Quarterly, Per Contra, Wild River Review, and elsewhere. Books include (with Nancy H. Packer) Writing Worth Reading (NY: St. Martin, 1994);It Could Be Verse (Berkeley: Ten Speed, 1995); (with Maureen Watts and the Poetry Center of San Francisco State University) Poetry for Dummies (NY: Hungry Minds, 2000); and (with Roland Reisley) Usonia, N.Y.: Building a Community with Frank Lloyd Wright (NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000); and a poetry book, Burning Bush(Ontario, Canada: Judith Fitzgerald/ Cranberry Tree, 2010).
A desk melts into the tile floor, the windows cracked and browning. A forest of homes
caught fire to dry cold, lightning struck Joshua tree,
build the fire, son build the fire, son chilled wind is a devil’s claw.
No one is clean out here. Among burning pines, ashen snow mixed in the bottle
earth is. Crows nest atop streetlamps, cawing
at the last frozen hand stuck to the curb’s edge.
No is loud out here. Echoing off windows,
breaks the icicles from the eaves. A fire in the distance counts victims.
Billowing endless clouds smoke. dried up forest burning, burning the last hovels from the branch-elbows. Magazine Pen Dressings
in the ignited sedan, a body down the path with a broken leg. There are ghosts somewhere inside these mounds of leaves. A cabin is not vacant. Occupied with the still and settled dust. Jiggle the knob crank the door. A candle burns atop the stove a fleshy smell. There’s someone here breathing- in the rest of the air.
There’s a camp in the woods where the breathers gather. Their chests pulse together fueling the fire dead heaped and wrapped. They eat
from a fresh harvest of asparagus and spend the night breeding in sleeping bags, tents with tears in the flap. These pleasures
locked in the town-fire, the plunder of those who strip brass from the pipes. The cold creeps
life from inside their wombs. A boy scrapes a maple with his knife to the frozen syrup underneath.
Larry Eby is the author of two books of poetry, Flight of August, winner of the 2014 Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press, and Machinist in the Snow, ELJ Publications 2015. His work can be found in Forklift, Passages North, Fourteen Hills, Thrush Poetry Journal, and others. He is the editor in chief of Orange Monkey Publishing, a poetry press in California.
This series of images were all taken at the Michael Allcroft Antiques shop in Disley, Cheshire. I was born on the Cheshire-Derbyshire border and have lived there all my life. I love to take photographs in museums and in cities, but as I am not often able to travel alone long distances, I have to look for subjects a lot closer to home.
The red lion sign is a favourite of mine and makes me think of all the old pubs and of the social life they used to generate in local towns and villages near to me. Only across from the road from Michael Allcroft’s, lies an abandoned pub which will now probably face its future as living accommodation as apposed to a busy hive in the community. Here is a photo of the sign in the Michael Allcroft catalogue.
The luminous chairs are a wonderful vibrant contrast. The blue tinge and the vicious red match together well. The white running over the red and the almost flour like covering to the blue makes me want something this vibrant in my home if I were to furnish my surroundings.
The floral patterns on the furniture close up in black and white are to my memory part of a big screen. I enjoy textures heavily as can be seen in my work and they are very important to create depth.
I love the kitsch of the old tennis racket with the photograph on it , the warm hues I feel compliment the smile of the vintage black and white portrait.
Antique, boutique, and thrift shops have proven invaluable for my catalogue of work. I have created many, many images from objects in my own neighbourhood, whether they be at the bottom of the road five minutes away or already in my garden. My three most-exhibited images were all taken within half a minute’s walk of each other at my home:
Eleanor Leonne Bennettis a 16-year-old, international award-winning artist. Her photography has been exhibited globally in London, Paris, Indonesia, Los Angeles, Florida, Washington, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Spain, Germany, Japan, Australia, and many other locations. She has been selected for theCIWEM Environmental Photographer of the year Exhibition. She was also the only person from the UK to have her work displayed in the National Geographic and Airbus run See The Bigger Picture global exhibition tour with the United Nations International Year Of Biodiversity 2010.
We slung harsh words like stones:
we spat at the white-haired boy
and called him freak.
We couldn’t see his long hair glowing like an opal in the dark waves of children flowing through the schoolyard. Someone should have led him to a safer place, a shady forest where it’s damp even in July. His forked white body might have rooted there, like the colorless and waxy plants that feed from trees and the rich litter of the forest floor. Perhaps he would have grown tall, sending hooded blooms into the dappled light. His opaque and fragile stalks would glow, would grow back, summer after summer, refusing to take root anywhere that’s bright and hard and noisy.
Deborah Burnham has lived in the Powelton area of Philadelphia forever. She walks to work in the English department at Penn where she teaches creative writing and literature, and advises students. She writes long repetitive sequences of poems, then slices and dices.
by Kelly McQuain
At dusk, they come haunting to slake their hunger:
doe and fawn threading autumn brush. Down hillside,
through hollow, they search for fallen apples—rotten spoils
of the abandoned orchard Mom’s lived by since Dad passed on.
The deer move like wood smoke through charcoal shadow;
I’m penciled in against trees, watching roadside, unsure why
a lover once told me he liked me more than raspberry jam
and that—while he loved raspberry jam—he didn’t love me.
The truth? I didn’t love him either and liked him less
at such clumsy carelessness. So I held my tongue
about his small cock and left with what grace I could muster.
Words are awkward sticky things that sway
from sugar to sour once loosened from tongue.
Do I forgive him because we were young?
Desire reversed doesn’t chase need away.
In June, among roadside rock, new blackberries will muster.
Wild strawberries too, budded brambles inviting tongue.
Mom will wash Ball jars before the briar’s best
get eaten by deer teaching next year’s young. She’ll mail me
preserves, knowing—there’s nothing I like more than blackberry jam.
But right now, evening drowns in grays and browns. Shadows
swallow me alongside apple, poplar and pine. I’m not sure why
I visit Mom’s house more rarely now that Dad is gone.
It feels bruised—an apple fallen and spoiled
beneath the tread of whitetail hooves. Tonight, I prod hillside.
I stay a little longer. I let ache of wanting awaken hunger.
Kelly McQuain’s writing has appeared in The Pinch, Bloom, Mead, Painted Bride Quarterly, Icarus, The Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly and Kansas Quarterly/Arkansas Review, as well as such anthologies as Best American Erotica, Men on Men and Skin & Ink. He has twice held fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and was twice named a finalist for a Pew Fellowship. A native of West Virginia, he now works as a writing professor in Philadelphia. His book reviews and essays on city life appear in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Learn more at www.KellyMcQuain.wordpress.com.
I stayed up ’til 1:00 AM a few weeks ago, and where was the party? At my desk, with everything but the keyboard covered in postage stamps. Polish stamps, Poczta Polska, all issued between 1928 and 1969. Musty old stamps honoring tanks and trade union congresses, marking six-year plans and newspaper tricentennials and the 1000-year anniversary of the country itself. Clumps of stamps memorializing uprisings in Silesia, the recovery of territories, and planes, lots of planes, carrying mail or flying over cities. New steelworks, new electric plants, well-muscled and barefoot coal miners, studious children, Curie and Kopernik and korfball, Chopin and Paderewski, Stalin and Hitler, zoo animals and butterflies. Not one stamp memorialized or honored or even acknowledged Catholicism.
I found them all in the basement of a house my stepson bought in a short sale. The stamps had moldered away for 30 unweatherproofed years, and in carting them home before the junk haulers came, my plan was to stumble upon a rarity, sell it on eBay, and become rich. Or at least get the driveway resurfaced. A toe—no, a toenail—dipped into the world of Philately indicated that my mound of Perf Lt Cancel Hinged Non-Overprint Singles were unlikely to yield much, if anything at all.In fact, not a stamp sold. The only expenditure was time I spent Googling, amassing fragments of world history and a working knowledge of who had hosted the Olympics over that 41-year span.
After fruitless relistings and price cuts, I’ve given up dreams of fortune, but the stamps (now carefully separated by theme into plastic sandwich bags) still clutter my office. I’m having trouble parting with them, just as the glimpses they gave into their collector’s life, long gone, and a world even longer gone, have lodged inextinguishable embers into my brain.
Lise Funderburg‘s latest book, Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home, is a contemplation of life, death, and barbecue, and it was chosen by Drexel University for its 2012 Freshman Writing Program Summer Read. Lise’s work has been published in The New York Times, TIME, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, MORE, Chattahoochee Review, Oprah Magazine, and Prevention. She teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, and the Paris American Academy.
Sometimes it is an outrage. When Mila considers the chances and possibilities in this world, the fine lines and gaping canyons between what is good or not, the distances between blessed and cursed, she is outraged enough to spit!
“I have had a hard life, no doubt,” she mutters inwardly on her way to catch water from the well. “I’ve had a life that makes others wonder how I have managed, still, to have an open heart and love. I am flawed and far from perfect but I BELIEVE!”
Mila believed in goodness and love and light, even after the days of Noe and all the hurtful ways and words. She believed she was blessed and graced with rare and tiny magics.
“A fact,” she whispers into the darkness, “a fact is that flowers make me happy. A true and honest joy in this world so full of those anxious to grind any bit of beauty straight to dust. This happiness is a miracle.”
“Who needs millions? Let me lay down on a blanket in the grass, let the sun shine, let the dog come in and snuggle me, let me hold a child or a grandmother’s velvet hand. Give me coffee!”
Once, while swimming naked in the inlet, a manatee gently licked her foot and swished slowly away—she was wealthy!
At times she thought her heart would burst in gratitude.
Piss on all of you who think the goal is everywhere but love and your own stupefyingly gorgeous souls. You are poor fools destined to die as you live: empty into eternity.
This is as close as Mila comes to prayer. Once said, she can kiss the ground and begin her day.
After studying English at Bucknell University, Angel Hogan traveled cross country with a Chow-Pit puppy in a diaper, and spent time at her mom’s home in the Yucatan. She is a storytelling champ with First Person Arts, a teaching artist with Artwell, and the co-founder/co-host of the Work Steady Story Salon. She has been featured on WRTI’s Creatively Speaking, WXPN’s Live at Kelly Writers House, and has performed as part of the Black Women’s Arts Festival, Painted Bride Quarterly, Literary Death Match and the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Her publications include Anthology Philly, Apiary, Forgotten Philadelphia, Quay Journal and SenSexuala: A Most Unique Anthology(forthcoming). See more at: www.angelhogan.com.
My friend was on the subway in New York when he noticed a man get on, walk down the aisle, and take his place two rows forward of where he sat. This new passenger was our old friend. Neither of us had seen him in twenty years, and now there was a sighting — a proof that he existed, that he had climbed out from under whatever the world had heaped upon him. But my friend, the one who was on the train first, said nothing to this other friend. He couldn’t really explain it when I asked him, but said there was nothing of his old flash and bravado as he shambled down the aisle. Was he homeless, I asked? Was he drunk? Was he broken in some dramatic way — a missing arm, a tattoo from radiation therapy visible above the collar? No, he said, it was nothing like that. He seemed like us. The way we are now. And then my friend had to hang up, because the show that we were waiting to watch in separate living rooms, in separate cities, was about to begin at last.
Charles Rafferty has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and from the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism. A poetry collection,The Unleashable Dog, is forthcoming from Steel Toe Books. A collection of short stories, Saturday Night at Magellan’s, is forthcoming from Fomite Press. Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College.
A little girl sits alone in her room at night, reading. The lights are on. The curtains are open. She feels safe inside her room, inside her book. She knows what lies outside in the dark. She doesn’t even have to look. Just below her window, a hedgerow of purple-berried bushes. If she eats the berries, she will get sick and probably die, says her mother. The bluejays eat them though. Sometimes the little girl watches them, so greedy they drop most of their harvest on the ground. The sidewalk is stained with splatters of red juice. Beyond the bushes and the sidewalk is the street. Across the street, a street lamp glows.
When she looks up from her reading, she does not see the bushes, the spattered sidewalk, the street, the lamp, the neighbors’ houses. She sees herself, her body bright and transparent over the night’s silhouettes. It is time for bed. She undresses in front of the window and stops to stare at her naked reflection. Her body stares back with its own face: two dark nipples for eyes, a belly button nose, the smiling V of her crotch, a mouth. The walls of her room blur behind her in the glass, floating but still secure. She has no sense of danger. She does not believe there might be eyes out there feeding on her innocence and delight.
Her mother knows. She rushes into the room to yank the curtains shut. “People can see you,” she says. Metal grinds against metal.
The really old stories, the fairy tales, start with a mother’s craving. She is expecting her firstborn. Her belly swells with potential. She strains from the weight of her own unknown, much-wished-for creation.
Except now, suddenly, she wants something else. Something forbidden, inaccessible, problematic. She makes her husband scale the garden wall to steal the lettuce growing on the other side. She is overwhelmed by her appetite. And that is her undoing.
By the time the baby is born, the mother sees her desire as a blunder, not to be repeated. She hides her daughter in the tower. Or keeps her son simple-minded, always close to her side. Or orders all the spinning wheels in the kingdom burned.
After, she comes to hate the innocence of children’s questions, that constant, gnawing curiosity. She already knows what lies over the garden wall. She still aches for the harsh taste of that alluring green, but she’s worked to hide her pangs. She can’t imagine she ever succumbed so readily. She always rushes now, busy closing, shutting, locking up, locking in.
It’s not the eyes that gaze in that scare her, despite what she says. It’s the girl’s eyes. They absorb the darkness so easily and eagerly. They look before they see. They want before they know.
Ann de Forest’s short stories have been published in The Journal, Hotel Amerika, Timber Creek Review, and PIF as well as performed onstage at InterAct Theatre’s “Writing Aloud” series. As a journalist and design critic, she has contributed to the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as the late lamented ID, Navigator, and Attaché magazines. She is currently writing a time travel trilogy for middle grade readers, teaching creative writing to kids ages 8-13 and adults over 70, and exploring her fascination with waning technologies in her blog.
My parents thought it hilarious when I sent them giddy kisses from behind the glass at JFK. I saw them standing there, gesturing with their hands lifting off their mouths into the air in my direction. I mistakenly thought they were sending me farewell and bon voyage kisses, and I sailed my kisses back to them. My parents saw it as slapstick. They kissed and laughed and waved their arms. They would tell me later how they were trying to remind me to pick up the carton of cigarettes we’d purchased together at duty free for our Israeli cousin, Marta. On both sides of the glass our gestures grew larger and more rapid fire as they mimed the smoking of cigarettes and I broadcast kisses. We had terrible reception. Last week, I brought my son to the island airport in Toronto for a school trip to New York. After all these years, what’s a mother to do? We said our farewells. I’m mostly on board with his desire to make his way as independently as possible. I left him at the ferry and walked back toward the car. I stopped to watch as the ferry carried my son from the landing to the airport. I thought I saw him standing at the rail, a teenager in a cool black jacket holding a video camera. We were separated by the water and by his camera lens. I waved; I sent him a kiss. There it was, caught by my son on film.
Michelle Fost is a writer living in Toronto. Her fiction has appeared in The Painted Bride Quarterly and Geist Magazine. Her book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Boston Phoenix Literary Section. She works as a writing instructor at the Victoria College Writing Centre at the University of Toronto. The grandchild of German Jews who escaped Germany in 1934, she is working on a novel that explores what it means to be at once firmly rooted in and separated from a place and a past.
On the crowded subway platform a space had cleared around the couple. For reasons no passerby could ascertain, the expensively-dressed young man and woman—Wall Street by the cut of the suits, the fabric, the accessories—were slapping each other. Fewer of us were passing by anymore: we had stopped to watch.
Clearly the guy was holding something back, like this was all a kind of game—though his clenched jaw told the captive crowd he was having no fun, taking more care to parry his partner’s blows than to land his own. By contrast the woman was swatting hard, dead serious from the first instant I saw her, more furious now that blood was trickling from the man’s lopsidedly big upper lip. Had the ring on her finger caught him there? The gold band sent out a ruby spray as it caught him again.
Before it landed a third time, the man grabbed his companion by the wrist and licked a crimson ribbon from her fingers. Did I hear a gasp? The woman appeared winded. Yet her shock (if shock it was) immobilized her but a moment. When she slapped him with her free hand, wildly, he slapped her with his. After this hitch in the rhythm of the match, it resumed unabated.
The crack of flesh hitting flesh arced back and forth across the resonant subterranean space, above the muffled grunts of the couple, above the contained buzz of the crowd. “Shouldn’t someone call the cops?” yelled someone after a while, a cry that provided no appreciable release from increasingly unsustainable communal tension. Instead the train came and we all, even the couple, pushed aboard. In the car there was not enough space for a decent swing.
For our enhanced protection we strung concertina wire across the window frames. There was little we could do now but wait.
I’d tried (I swear to God) to get a license to carry a plain, unenhanced handgun into Sodom City, but the City (just as I prophesied it would) turned me down. Loath to violate Caesar’s law (even when Caesar’s law is unjust), I declined to exercise my rights and left all my serious arms back at home.
We started out early Sunday. After Church my wedded wife and I packed up the pick-up and drove out to the flea market, the one that sprung up at the abandoned strip mall just before the Christmas before the Christmas before last. It’s the best place I know to find fireworks—the kind that can take your hands right off if you’re not professional about it. We bought us as many as we could fit in our bags. As we drove into the City, I was wishing we could’ve fit more.
Now that we’d secured all the entrances and exits to the old State Hospital, Janie and I unloaded our stuff, said a prayer and settled in for the siege: they’d be coming to get us soon. To kill the time, I filled the water pistol I won at the Legion picnic last Independence Day, aimed at a mirror above a sink in the empty emergency room and let loose. By the time I was done, my own mother wouldn’t know me. Then I handed the gun to Janie.
Jim Eigo is a writer living in New York City. His fiction has appeared in Likely Stories and Best American Gay Fiction #3, and periodicals such as The Chicago Reviewand Cream City Review. You can read his recent flash fiction in The Legendary #26, riverbabble 19, Word Gumbo 2,Polluto 8, SPLIT Quarterly 5 and Wordland 1. His first published art work appears in a limited edition book from Intima Press, The Poetics of Space. His work as an AIDS activist is profiled in the documentary, How to Survive a Plague, which just received an Oscar nomination.
Two men were standing in the belly of the bus. The one with a cane—old, but not too old—approached the younger.
“Should I take you there?” said the older man.
The younger, middle-aged man had a couple of bags at his feet: groceries. He looked at them, and then he looked up, unsurprised by the older man’s question.
“Where’s there?” he asked.
“Your house,” said the older man.
The younger man paused again. He was neither flustered nor annoyed. “But I know the way to my house,” he said.
“Is that all that matters to you?” asked the older man.
The younger man looked thoughtful, as if he were considering the older man’s question, but he did not respond, and the older man shuffled back to the railing he had been holding onto before he approached the younger man.
A few minutes later, both men got off at the same stop, but it was obvious they were strangers.
The streets were hot, and on these hot streets were people, and some of these people were burning, their bodies and heads engulfed in flame. The ones not burning were sweating, but all of them were hugging themselves and stomping around as if it were the dead of winter—all were, in fact, dressed for this winter—wrapped in ridiculous layers when all Zeus wanted was naked. He wanted pond, lake, swimming pool, breeze, shade, air conditioning—some kind of shelter—but everywhere he went was the hot and the heat and the sweat of the people and the people passing out and burning and dying and all of them complaining about how cold they were.
Zeus, as he was starting to doubt his sanity, finally reached out and touched one of them, and he realized they were cold, cold like the frozen, cold like the dead. Nobody was lying, and yet somebody was wrong.
We followed the river. It was spring and we found the park and a shady spot on its grass. We unfolded our blanket and put our shoes on the edges as your son stared at us, waiting for one of us to entertain him. He gave up. He chased butterflies instead, running in and out of the shadows of the trees.
I had brought along a book of poems, but I kept it closed, watching you, watching your son.
You unpacked our lunch. I heard birds and children. I felt wind. You asked if I were ready to eat.
Not just yet, I said, falling deeper in love with the idea of you and the day and the magic of the day—a day like that.
Your son soon tired of the crafty butterflies, so I put together the inexpensive kite you had bought, and I stood up, and I started running, and I ran faster, and it felt so good to run like that, and with your son chasing me, laughing, screaming, reaching his hands toward the sky as if he could catch it, falling behind.
The kite snapped.
I stopped and turned around. You weren’t watching, and I loved the idea of you even more for that, but I needed to keep running, up and over the hill and past the river, past your city and your state and your love and never return, not ever again, not like that.
Kevin Tosca’s stories have been recently published inMidwestern Gothic, The Legendary, The Linnet’s Wings, The Subterranean Quarterly, Thrice Fiction and elsewhere. He lives in France. Read more atwww.kevintosca.com.
The streets smell like fried dough and there’s the carnival sound of an outdoor mic, a tinny crackle that makes him think of Little League games and awards day at summer camp. It sounds like the end of summer. The locals are celebrating something, the patron saint of clam cakes. They’re selling raffle tickets, but he’s not buying chances. The sky is dark blue, but he’s not watching the sky. The café door is open, inviting him to a darker world of scratched wooden floors and mismatched tables and hard metal chairs: the world of Latte Girl, whose sweet smile is only for the locals, whose cups she graces with sailboats and dragonflies and long-eared dogs, while his foam never holds more than an indifferent swirl. There’s a line—there’s always a line—but he doesn’t mind. He likes to watch her tamp and pull; he likes that everything is done by hand on one old espresso machine; he likes that they are her hands, small and plump, still childish, with chipped black polish on her short fingernails. As often as he tries to touch those hands, she pulls back. Leaves the change on the counter, slides the coffee card across. But today it’s the end of August, his coffee card is full, and when she punches his last hole Latte Girl will know he’s no tourist; he’s here for the long haul.
Kathryn Kulpa was born in Providence, Rhode Island, like H. P. Lovecraft. She is a fiction writer, writing teacher, and editor of Newport Review. Her short story collection Pleasant Drugs received the Mid-List Press First Series Award for short fiction, and her stories have appeared in Thumbnail, Monkeybicycle, Northville Review, Metazen, Florida Review and other journals.
The same way we didn’t know, way back when, that mom and dad couldn’t stand their “friends, ” so we didn’t know that Gary’s sister wasn’t interested in either of us, which starts to explain why she kept mixing up our names last Saturday night in the busted stretch limo that cut through the grey-blue soup of Pacific Avenue, with the winding path of a rocket about to be decommissioned, after she pulled us into the back of it where she was already singing along with the radio and pounding the ceiling that snowed bits of dried-out upholstery on our heads and where her skirt kept flying up—though, yes, you were right, there were three other guys in that limo with us; it wasn’t in the cards; and weighing it all out now, we did do the right thing to leave and drive the forty-five minutes from Atlantic City back to mom and dad’s though it was late and I’d been drinking, because in the end I don’t think it would be healthy for us anymore to have a girl come between us, and this way you got to sleep in your bed and I in mine, in the mildewy room where years and years ago you and I passed that same dollar back and forth, selling each other all of the fundraiser candy bars.
Maxime McKenna‘s fiction has appeared in Philadelphia Stories, Apiary, Cartographer: a Literary Review, and First Stop Fiction. He has contributed essays to Full Stop and TheMillions, among others, and lives in Philadelphia, where he works at the Kelly Writers House.
She found me digging up worms in my backyard. Just plopped down beside me and started wriggling herself when I found one in the freshly turned soil. Later, her mother was angry about the worm dirt on her dress, but she came back the next day.
“My name is Mara,” she said this time. What a pretty name on her lips, she smiled just a little on the “ar” and I saw her dimples. Her lips were pink like a worm.
“This one’s name is Cara-Beth,” she said, pointing. She named each worm we found: Mariel, Nathaniel, Courtney. She wouldn’t touch them, but demanded I house each in a plastic cup, which we then placed in the shade.
Digging them up, they dry up.
When one died, she would say, “Poor Cara-Beth” and hand me the emptied cup, ready for the next worm.
If you cut off the head of a worm, it doesn’t hurt it, my teacher explained. Each end just keeps squirming away. When I told Mara, she squealed with delight. She said we had to try it. She dared me and double-dog-dared me, and still I held my twig over the wriggling body, preparing maybe, maybe just hearing her tell me to do it, wanting her to tell me again to do it.
“This way we’ll have two!” she cried. She pulled at her shoelaces fiercely. “Make one bigger and one smaller, so one can be the baby! The mommy is Melanie and the baby will be Veronica.”
I touched the worm with the twig. I pushed lightly and it bent just a bit, and the curve around the point was too shiny and slimy and vortexed. I dropped the twig. The sun shone on the curved skin, if it even was skin, that smooth and hilly hard jello.
Rachel R. Taube is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and former Editor-in-Chief of the Penn Review literary magazine. She currently works in Acquisitions at Penn Press, studies English at UPenn’s Master of Liberal Arts Program, and is a teaching assistant for a Penn creative writing class.
I FIRST HEARD ABOUT LIFEBOAT THEORY WHEN TINA TOOK ECONOMICS. She stayed up late arguing with Daddy about it. The way she told it, this guy—Garrett Hardin—used it to explain why rich countries couldn’t bail out the poor ones. He said rich nations was like lifeboats full of rich people, with the poor people in other lifeboats. As the poor fell out of their overcrowded lifeboats, they tried to get into the richer lifeboats. Hardin said that created something called a moral dilemma, which is when the people in the rich lifeboats gotta figure out what to do about the people in the water.
Daddy said Hardin’s fulla shit, that he don’t see what Lifeboat Theory has got to do with real life. And I thought it was over then, ‘cause most times when Daddy says something’s fulla shit, it is and that’s that. But then one night we saw a lady on the news that was arrested for keeping 105 cats in her trailer. She was crying that them cats would have died if she hadn’t took them in. The camera crew walked through her house showing litter boxes overflowing everywhere. There was dishes of cat food with flies buzzing round them and them upside-down popbottle-things that keep water fresh—right up on her kitchen table! The police used a pole to catch some of them cats ‘cause they had turned mean. That lady’s whole bed was covered in yacked-up hairballs. There wasn’t one thing in that trailer that didn’t have so much cat hair on it, you half expected it to meow.
When the news was over, Daddy turned his mouth down and asked how somebody could live like that. Tina said, “Maybe she ain’t got a choice” and Daddy said, “We all got a choice.” Tina said, “Not according to Hardin” and Daddy said, “Not that lifeboat shit again.”
I felt bad for that lady, though. I’m sure that lady didn’t wake up one morning and think “Maybe I’ll get me 105 cats.” I figure it’s like somebody who collects things, like figurines or stamps. She might start with just one, real pretty stamp, clipping it careful off the envelope and putting it away in an old shoe box. Then people notices she likes stamps, so they start giving her theirs. Before she hardly knows it, her whole shoe box is brimful of stamps. And she still wants more. That cat lady probably started with just one real cute cat—now she got 105.
Momma’s like that lady, collecting things. Only she collects children. Daddy says it’s on account of her big heart. All of the church ladies call her an angel, but Momma just looks down when they say that. I think she knows it is an addiction, just like cigarettes or booze or cats.
Momma loves all of us kids. Even though she don’t have time for hugs, or homework, or brushing our hair real pretty, like other mommas do. Some days she don’t even brush her own hair. It’s those days I feel sorriest for her. Her big heart might tell her to take all of us in, but it don’t pump near enough blood to take care of ten children. I’ve snuck back downstairs some nights and watched her staring round the kitchen at all of them dishes, looking like she just don’t have the energy left to get herself to bed, let alone do the cleaning up. I’ve tried to help her but it’s always the same: Momma shoos me up to bed. “I’ll just leave them ‘til morning,” she says. But I know in the morning that kitchen’ll be all shiny and reeking pine cleaner. And all of our bowls will be lined up on the table, full of oatmeal.
One night when Tina and me was setting the table I asked her about that lifeboat thing. That’s how I said it: “What about that lifeboat thing?” So she wouldn’t get suspicious about why I was so interested. Her eyes got all squinty and she looked at me real hard, probably trying to see if I was fixing to pick a fight. I just kept putting forks next to all the plates, like it didn’t really matter none if she told me or not.
After a few minutes she asked what I would do if I was floating in a lifeboat with plenty of food and water and I saw a bunch of people drowning in the water. “I’d pull them in my boat,” I said. I knew that was the right answer ‘cause that’s what they said in church, but Tina just looked real sad then. I asked her why that was so bad and she asked me what I would do when the boat filled up and we ran out of food and water. “You’d die right along with the people you tried to save,” she told me.
After that I used to sit in church surrounded by all my brothers and sisters, all of us dressed in our scuffed-up shoes and patched-up hand-me-downs, sandwiched between Momma and Daddy, and watch them white-pressed church ladies holding hands with their one or two natural-born children—all hair braids and shiny shoes—and think about what Tina had said. I watched them ladies nod when Pastor read the parable of judgment in Matthew 25:34-45:
‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?
And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee?’
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
“Amen,” they’d all said.
Momma did not say “Amen.”
Instead she’d squeezed the two hands she held—Jack and Rachel, on account of they was the littlest—and let just one tear roll out of her squeezed shut eyes. I’d watched that silver tear float over the soft down on Momma’s cheek and cling to the cliff of her jaw. It paused there, pregnant with the weight of all our lives, and the lives of the children Momma still wanted to rescue—babies orphaned by tsunamis, discarded China dolls, them twins whose parents died in that house fire. I’d known then in my heart if Momma was in charge of our lifeboat, we’d all drown.
We’re a big family and I loved all of my brothers and sisters—the cousins and the fosters—but Tina, she was my one true sister, and I lost her last spring.
I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of running water. Tina was standing at the sink, wearing the top to one of Momma’s purple nighties over her favorite pair of black jeans, a box of L’OREAL # 3 on the sink next to her. I sat on the toilet watching her scrub the blondeness out of her hair. When she was done, I followed her into her room and watched her pack Momma’s laundry bag full of tattered jeans and holey underwear. She dug her old cowboy boots out from under her bed, the ones with the low heels and leather fringe, and threw them in the bag. Then she stopped still and looked at me real hard.
“What size’re you?” she asked.
She reached into the bag and pulled them back out. “These here are 6 ½’s. They’re too small for me,” she said. The boots clumped on the floor at my feet.
She slammed her door real hard on the way out of her room and dragged that heavy bag down the stairs all the way to the kitchen. She hauled a chair across the floor, its legs scraping so loud Jack fell out of bed upstairs and padded into the kitchen, all wide-eyed and scared. The two of us watched Tina stand on that chair and feel along the top shelf behind where Momma kept the sugar bowl. She pulled out Momma’s coffee can, ripped the lid off, and dumped it upside down, right there—the coins Momma had scrounged away for Christmas spilling all over the counter. Tina smoothed the piles, sifting through the slippery silver with her too-thin fingers for the meat of a folded bill, but there wasn’t none to be had. I thought she’d grab up all of them coins and take them with her, but she didn’t. She just stared down at them for a minute, then turned and walked out of the back door, her laundry bag dragging in the dirt behind her.
Me and Jack followed her around the side of the house. We stood with the trash next to the curb, my one natural sister and my foster brother, waiting for only Tina knew what. The trashman’s big green truck rumbled up next to us and he hopped down, scooping up them cans like they was nothing and dumping them in his big front basket. He banged the empties back down, ignoring us like it wasn’t nothing to see three kids standing by the curb before the sun even woke up. Just more garbage.
When a car jerked up to the curb Tina finally turned and looked at me. I seen in her eyes she wasn’t coming back, but I seen more, too. She was leaving for us, ’cause she thought one less mouth to feed would really mean one less mouth to feed. I wanted to tell her that her seat would fill right back up, Momma would yank some other kid out of the water, but the girl driving the car leaned over, all purple hair and sparkly earrings, and kicked the passenger door wide open, hollering for Tina to get in. And she did.
After Tina’d been gone awhile Momma took in another baby. His God-given name was Michael, but he was Mickey D to us, on account of he liked McDonald’s French fries and would holler ‘til you shared yours. After he came, I began a list. In black I wrote down our natural family: Momma, Daddy, Tina, and me. Then I crossed Tina’s name off. No sense counting her—they’d found that purple-haired girl in a ditch near Tucson. They ain’t never found Tina. Momma said she’d be back, but I knew the truth: Tina was already in the water.
I snuck two of the colored pens from Daddy’s desk and used the green one to write the names of the cousins Momma took in after Daddy’s sister killed herself. We called the other kids “fosters,” but it wasn’t legal or anything. The ladies at the church just knew who needed help and that Momma couldn’t say no. I wrote them in red, starting with the oldest and going down to the littlest: Gabby, Cecil, Aleesha, Casey, Caleb, Jack, Rachel, and Mickey D. Then I drew a circle round Mickey D.
I tried to think like Mr. Hardin. I stood next to the crib looking down on Mickey D, sucking his two middle fingers, probably dreaming they was French fries. I pictured us all on a crowded lifeboat; Mickey D clinging to Momma’s leg. He was dragging Momma into the water, it was up to me to save her.
I didn’t know it would be so hard. He kicked and hit at the pillow, his breath coming in deep, hard-fought puffs. It took a long time, and I kept expecting Momma or Dillon to come down the hall, but they didn’t. When I took the pillow off, Mickey D looked peaceful, like he was still sleeping, but his puckered fingers lay forgotten next to his little dead face.
I kept expecting someone to ask me about Mickey D, but they never did. They just kept saying how sad it was that he died. After the whole summer passed, I decided they wasn’t never gonna ask, and I waited to be alone with Rachel. When school started back up, my chance finally came.
Momma was walking us bigger kids to the bus stop, but I lagged behind. She hollered back over her shoulder at me to mind that Rachel didn’t follow, but I held out the sucker I’d stashed in my jacket pocket and called Rachel out of the house, real quiet. I waited by the road ‘til she was almost to me, then dashed across. ‘Course she followed me.
For a moment, I was God in size 6 ½ cowboy boots, holding the red lollipop of our family’s salvation in my fist, and I watched as Rachel flew up and up and then… down in a crumpled heap. I watched the van driver—a young woman—scramble out and scoop up my foster sister and race to the side of the road. I watched Momma running, a wail of denial rising in her throat. I stood trying to swallow my own scream like it was the white body of Christ, while Momma tried to straighten the angle of Rachel’s neck. Rachel stared at me, her mouth working.
“She’s trying to tell us something,” Momma said.
But I knew the truth: Her mouth was trying to eat that bright red lollipop I still held in my hand.
Momma watched us all real close after that. Gabby and Cecil kept saying CPS was never gonna let Momma keep all the fosters. But the lady from the church told Momma that the good Lord worked in mysterious ways. When Momma asked about another baby, the lady cleared her throat and said they’d have to wait on that. Before we could get another baby, Jack drowned in the pond down behind Pastor’s house.
Momma told the police he must have got out after we was all asleep. It would have been declared an accident, except Sheriff Blum found another set of footprints in the mud by the pond. It didn’t take long to match them up. In our county there wasn’t too many low-heeled cowboy boots size 6 ½.
My room at the Betty Gainer Juvie Center is bigger than my room at home, and I got it all to myself. I sit on the bed and listen to the air conditioning echo off the yellow concrete walls like the ocean. I sit and wait for my lawyer. I keep telling her that if I hadn’t done it Momma would have gone in the water. She tells me to keep quiet and smile at the psychiatrist, the social worker, the judge. She sneaks in them Double Stuf cookies that I like, and on court days brings me fancy dresses with shiny shoes, dark as the rubber patches on lifeboats.
Katherine Higgs-Coulthard is a freelance writer and novelist whose work has appeared in WOW: Women on Writing Ezine and Jack and Jill. As founder and director of Michiana Writers’ Center she leads workshops for writers of all ages, Katherine is a member of the National Writing Project and provides school visits and teacher inservices. Visit her website at www.writewithkathy.com.
Getting kicked out of my house wasn’t a surprise. It happened to my ancestors, my parents, and to me several times. I lost count pretty quick. The landlord left minutes before Javier came back from his latest job search. He saw me standing in the middle of the street with everything I could carry from our former place.
“Kicked out again,” I said when he pulled the truck up to me.
“But we asked the landlord for two more weeks,” he said.
“It’s been two weeks,” I reminded him. Javier helped me into the truck. He gave me a kiss on my cheek and we went to grab some food.
We split a Navajo taco from Joe and Aggie’s Café. Our stomachs were still grumbling when we were back in the truck, but we learned to deal with it by making out.
“Maybe we should go to my mom’s,” Javier suggested. I told him no way. We had been at his mom’s several times in the last year and she was bound to figure something out.
Mrs. Bluehorse was a sweet woman who lived doors down from my childhood home. My mom was killed in a hate crime when I was four. When I was 15, my dad died of brain cancer and since there wasn’t anyone in my family with extra room, the Bluehorses took me in. Even though Javier and I were neighbors for years, we never spoke to each other until I moved into his house. At first, we were just friends. One evening, I went to Javier’s football game and instead of hanging out with his buddies after the game, he took me to an isolated spot in the field and kissed me. On that night, I noticed how cute he was.
“Emmy, we can’t sleep in the truck again. I don’t want another fine for exposure.”
“That was your fault; you’re the one who had your big butt against the window.”
“Leave me and my butt alone,” Javier frowned. I reached one arm over and hugged him while we were at a red light. I was glad there weren’t any landlords who could take him away from me.
At sunset, we had no idea where we would park for the night. There were several cops circulating Holbrook. Javier had indecent exposure on his record. I had soliciting on mine since I tried to sell some of our things in a parking lot. We stole bread and milk from the grocery store a few days before, but we hadn’t been caught, yet.
“We gotta go to my mom’s, Emmy,” Javier said.
“She’s probably got someone staying there, I don’t want us to be a burden.”
“Mama would never turn us away. We shoulda gone there a long time ago.”
“Why don’t we try the Wigwam Motel?” I said. Javier sighed and slowly turned our truck around and went to West Hopi Drive. We had $100 in cash left, which we needed to stretch for a while. But I already had a plan to help us out.
“My husband and I are visiting Holbrook for the weekend,” I told the receptionist. “We’re from the Navajo Nation. It’s our wedding night. It’s a Navajo tradition to sleep in a wigwam on your honeymoon, but all of the ones on our reservation were taken.”
“What a shame,” the receptionist said. “We got one wigwam left and since it’s your honeymoon, I’ll give you a discount. Payment is due at checkout time.”
“Thank you sir, you’re very kind,” I said. He handed over our keys and we went to our wigwam at the end of the row.
“Wedding night?” Javier shouted when we were inside. “We’ve been married for six years! And we’re Navajos, we don’t have wigwams! I still dunno how we’re gonna be here anyway, this place costs 30 bucks a night!” I didn’t know either. If we ran off without paying, that could put us in jail. But at least we’d have somewhere to stay.
Javier took a hot shower and I lounged on the bed, figuring out how we’d pay for the room until we got back on our feet. Javier and I weren’t a Navajo version of Bonnie and Clyde – we were only people who stumbled upon hard times. We used to own a souvenir shop in Seligman, right on Route 66, next to the Snow Cap Drive-In. It was doing great for the first two years until another shop opened. I admit it was better than ours. Soon after, we became nomads like our ancestors.
“So did you come up with a plan?” Javier asked when he stepped out of the bathroom. He waved his long hair around, getting several drops on my face.
“Nothing legal,” I said as I dried my cheeks with a pillow. “Have you ever thought about exotic dancing?”
“Nah,” he said. “I got achy knees.” He began shaking his hips, shoulders, and butt. He was a horrible dancer, but I would still put a dollar in his underwear.
Javier climbed in next to me and watched a rerun of The Honeymooners. He let out his big laugh over and over while I came up with more ideas.
“We need someone to rob us,” I finally said. “That way we can skip out paying for the room without getting arrested.”
“Yeah, but we don’t have anything to steal,” Javier said. He was right. The only things of value we had were our wedding rings and they weren’t even worth much.
A little after 10, neither of us could sleep. Our stomachs were performing a symphony and this time, our making out trick wasn’t working.
“Wanna split a plate again?” he asked as he placed final kisses on my lips.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m too hungry to keep doing this.”
So we went to an all-night diner up the street from the motel. We ordered waters and an appetizer plate of fried mozzarella sticks. Javier let me have the last one. He always let me have the last of anything.
“Emmy, I can’t pay the bill,” Javier said. “I forgot my wallet at the wigwam.”
“I’ll be right back,” I said. I snuck away to the bathroom and placed my wallet inside a toilet tank. The only thing I kept was my license, which I hid in my shoe.
“Honey, aren’t you gonna pay the bill?” I said when I returned to our table.
“But I left –”
“Follow my lead,” I told him.
“Where’s your wallet, babe?”
“I can’t find my wallet, honey,” Javier said in a louder voice.
“I can’t find mine either! We’ve been robbed!” I shouted.
“If we get arrested for this stunt, I’ll kill you,” he whispered.
“No you won’t, I’ll kill you first,” I whispered back.
Within minutes, the manager was at our table. He called the police for us and when they came, all they did was file a case number and wish us good luck.
“Okay, we got off easy tonight, but we can’t keep living like this,”
Javier said when we were back at our wigwam. “What if the motel doesn’t care about us getting robbed? Then what do we do? Rob the motel so we can pay them with their own money?” I wasn’t sure how to answer him, so I hugged his soft body.
Javier dozed off a little after two in the morning. No matter how much I tried, I just couldn’t fall asleep. I thought about my wallet inside the toilet tank of the diner. Then I thought about how the grocery store hadn’t noticed the missing milk and bread either. Around 4am, Javier woke up. He said he had a nightmare, which was unusual for him. I caressed his hair, asking him what happened in his dream.
“The receptionist knew we faked getting robbed and I took off in the truck but never got caught by the cops,” Javier said.
“How is that a nightmare?”
“I left you behind,” he said.
“You dummy, how could you leave your own wife behind?”
“You’re really short. Sometimes I don’t even notice when you’re next to me.”
“Maybe because you’re really chubby,” I said. Javier winked at me and I gently shoved him. He took hold of me and then covered our bodies with the blankets.
The sun was drooping in the sky when we woke up. I snuggled with Javier for a few minutes and then went to take a shower. When I re-emerged in a towel, I saw the receptionist standing in the center of the room.
“Did you hear what happened last night?” the receptionist asked.
“Cardinals won 27 to 24!” Javier cheered. I let out a sigh of relief.
“Some nutcase broke into the cars,” the receptionist said. “And last night at the diner up the street, a couple was pickpocketed.”
“That was us,” I told him. I was so nervous, I almost dropped my towel.
“It’s a damn shame. The cops shut the motel down to investigate. I can’t charge anyone for the night and I don’t want to if everyone staying here just got robbed.” Javier shook hands with the receptionist and soon had him out the door.
“Emmy, did you go around breaking into the cars?” he asked.
“No, did you?” I said.
“No, I guess we got lucky again,” Javier said. We looked at each other and before I could blink, we were packing up our things in a frenzy. By 8:30 in the morning, we were out of the wigwam.
“What if they took my corn nuts?” Javier said as we ran to the truck.
“What if they took our stuff?” I said. We had leftover souvenirs from our shop, clothes, housewares, and blankets woven by Mrs. Bluehorse.
“Nobody would steal any of that crap,” Javier shook his head. “Now corn nuts – that’s something I’d steal if I were a thief.”
When we got to the truck, we found everything intact. We were relieved and bummed because it was a cruel reminder that we had nothing worth taking. We climbed inside and took off towards the Navajo Nation at full speed. Halfway to the reservation, Javier stopped to get gas and snacks and I stayed in the truck with mist in my eyes. He came back with a bag of dried fruit for me. I chewed on the sweet bits and hid my red eyes from him for the rest of the trip.
“What’s wrong, baby?” Javier asked when we were in the Bluehorse driveway.
“I can’t go in there,” I told him with sniffles in between. “I came here when I was a girl, I shouldn’t come here as a woman, it’s too embarrassing.”
“It’ll be like old times. Before your dad died, you were my dorky neighbor. If you hadn’t moved in with us, I would’ve never known you.”
“Are you sure your parents will be okay with me living here again?”
“They wanted you here the second they found out you were an orphan,” he said. He dried my tears with his palm and carried me out of the truck. Javier rang the doorbell and Mrs. Bluehorse appeared with her hair half-braided and welcomed us inside with her famous smile. She was short and plump in her body and face, just like my mom was.
“You should’ve told me you were coming, I would’ve put more food in the oven,” she said. Mrs. Bluehorse hugged us tightly and took us to the kitchen.
“So how’s everything?” she asked. “Am I gonna be a grandma soon?”
“We’re broke, Mama,” Javier said. I glared at him, but he didn’t hold back.
“Broke? But you got that nice souvenir shop in Seligman!”
“It closed,” I confessed to her.
“We’ve been working odd jobs since then. Things have gotten pretty bad and we slept in a wigwam last night.”
Mrs. Bluehorse didn’t know we were living in Holbrook. She thought I meant we spent the night in an actual wigwam. Her eyes opened wide and then she dropped backwards onto the floor. Mr. Bluehorse walked in from the backyard with a grass cutter in his hand, confused by everything that was going on.
“Jennifer, why are you pretending to be a rug?” Mr. Bluehorse asked.
“I’m okay now, Paul,” Mrs. Bluehorse panted. I helped her up and rubbed the sweat from her forehead with my hand.
“Paul, the kids told me that they’s broke and they had to sleep in a wigwam last night,” Mrs. Bluehorse said. Javier stared at me from across the room. I wanted to clarify what I meant, but then I thought we would seem like liars about our financial situation, which was the last thing I wanted us to be in front of the Bluehorses.
“Javi, Emmy, what the hell were you doing in a wigwam when you coulda come over here?” Mr. Bluehorse said. “And we’re Navajos, we don’t have wigwams.”
“Mama, Dad, it’s really not what you’re thinking,” Javier answered.
“No need to explain, Javi, you and Emmy are welcome in this house. I ain’t letting you kids sleep on dirt,” Mrs. Bluehorse said. “Paul, go get some more food from the store, they must be starving to death.”
“Maybe Emmy is, but Javi’s still as chubby as me,” Mr. Bluehorse said.
“Paulie, go already,” Mrs. Bluehorse said. She pushed her husband towards the door and then ran back into the kitchen.
Before dinner, Javier and I sat outside on the porch, figuring out when we could move. Temporary jobs helped us in the past for a while, but we wanted permanency.
“Maybe we can find jobs here,” I said. On reservations, unemployment is high, higher than most places. The possibility of both of us finding jobs was slim.
“Sure,” Javier nodded. “There’s an adult club being built around here. If I get my knees together, I can start dancing.” He got up from his chair and did the worst dance I’ve ever seen in my life, but I slipped an imaginary dollar in his underwear.
“If your parents were still here,” Javier said when he sat back down next to me. “They wouldn’t believe how beautiful you grew up to be. Has anyone ever told you that you’re beautiful?” He said those same lines to me on my 16th birthday. He didn’t have any money to buy me a gift, so he asked me to be his girlfriend instead.
“Yeah,” I said. “My parents did. And you too.” Javier winked at my answer and kissed my forehead.
When dinner was served, Mrs. Bluehorse’s hair was still half-braided. Mr. Bluehorse still had grass bits on his shirt from doing the yard work.
“Javi, your mom told me your shop went under,” Mr. Bluehorse said.
“How’s that possible? It was a great shop. You are too old to be this irresponsible with money. You got Emmy to take care of and soon, you’ll have a kid.”
“Dad, these things happen,” Javier shrugged.
“Paulie, don’t be so rough on the kids,” Mrs. Bluehorse said and patted her husband’s shoulders. She left the room for a few minutes and returned with chocolate cake for dessert, just like on my very first night in Bluehorse house.
“If you want seconds, you let me know,” she said to me. “You’re my daughter and I make sure my kids are well fed. How do you think Javi got so chubby?”
“Mama!” Javier said. She hugged him and called him her baby. Then she turned around and did the same to me. Mr. Bluehorse got up from his chair, brushed the grass bits off his shirt, and hugged me as well.
Javier and I took the old sofa bed in the living room for the night. Since the Bluehorses were known for opening their house to anyone in need, tons of people had slept on that thing and the coils were poking out. I turned to my left side and found my nose an inch away from a sharp coil tip so I leapt over, landing on top of Javier.
“Emmy, for God’s sake, my parents are in the next room,” he gasped.
“I’m not trying to do anything, you bozo,” I whispered.
“So I was looking in the classifieds,” Javier said in my ear.
“There’s a couple of teller jobs open at a bank here on the rez.”
“That’s a horrible job, we don’t know how to handle money,” I said.
“This will be over before you know it,” Javier assured me. “We’ve been kinda successful. Actually, I take it back, we haven’t been successful at all.”
“We’ve stayed together for this long,” I said. “That’s one thing to be proud of.” Javier shook his head at my response. I cuddled with him until we dozed off.
The next morning, we went to the bank to apply for the teller jobs. The manager said she’d give us a call, which we took as ‘get lost.’ During the drive home, Javier held my hand and kissed it whenever we hit a red light.
“Do you think we’ll ever have our own home again?” I asked him.
“Yeah, but not for a long time,” he said. “My folks don’t mind us staying with them. But Mama and Dad do want a grandkid. I guess we owe them a favor.”
“Then let’s make one,” I said and squeezed his arm.
“What if I get another fine for exposure?” he said with a chuckle.
“We only got 80 bucks left; I don’t wanna give it to the cops.”
“Yeah, but it’d be worth it,” I said.
“Anything’s worth it if it’s with you.”
Javier pulled the truck over and made room in the backseat. I flung myself over to him, hugging his large body and gazing into his face. Even if all our money was gone within the next hour, I knew I wouldn’t mind sleeping in an actual wigwam with him.
Darlene Campos is an undergraduate at the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. Her work has been selected for publication by A Celebration of Young Poets, The Four-Cornered Universe, The Collegiate Scholar, The Aletheia,Linguistic Erosion, Prism Review, Houston & Nomadic Voices, The Writing Disorder, and Red Fez. She has been invited to hold readings of her short fiction by Avant Garden and Bacchus, both located in Houston’s midtown district. She currently works as a writer for The Daily Cougar newspaper and Kesta Happening DC magazine and is a fiction judge for Yeah Write Review.
I knew him then. He was clear-eyed and steady, sawing and sanding the wood for the pews with confidence. He played football up at the high school but he didn’t think it made him god’s gift to teenage girls. He just liked the feeling of his muscles working like a machine and the mathematics of the plays, like chess at high speed. I knew these things because he told me, and I was so pleased he would talk honestly to his father that I didn’t think to ask who taught him chess. I only ever knew checkers.
The church was a simple structure, just posts and beams holding up a roof, no walls. The pews were more like benches. Our house was on the side of the road, and on the other side there was a field where my father had once pastured his dairy cows. The cows died of old age decades ago and the wire fence rusted away. I had stood in this field and thought about what would give comfort to people like me who weren’t proud of their faithlessness, whose own mistrustful brains had locked us out of the kingdom. I wanted simplicity, purity, a place to go be still. After we erected the church, I nailed a plank of wood to a tree on the side of the road, and on it I painted an arrow pointing towards the structure and the word ATHEISTS.
When I told my wife Deb she’d need to run the store all week, she handled it with grace, although I knew inside she was laughing at me. It wasn’t the first scheme of mine she’d put up with. We ran a little mini mart and gas station down by the interstate, making a living off of people on their way to somewhere else, and she was better at the books and the ordering and such anyway. I was always too distractable.
So my son and I drove the hour north into the city. We had a box full of fliers to hand out on the streets, and they showed a map I’d drawn to the field and the words ATHEISTS, AGNOSTICS, AND DOUBTERS! SO YOU WORSHIP NOTHING? LET US WORSHIP NOTHING TOGETHER. SUNDAYS 11 AM.
I’d gotten him to look up addresses of places atheists might congregate: college buildings, bars with foreign beer, radical bookstores. One particular street corner had them all, so that’s where we stood. I held out the little squares of paper to the fast-walking pedestrians. “Church for atheists,” I said, again and again.
The first to stop was a man about my own age with little wire spectacles and a fine wool coat. “Hey buddy,” he said. “I don’t need to be converted. This is offensive, you know.”
“I’m not trying to convert you,” I explained. The speech I’d been reciting in my mind all morning bubbled up and rushed out; the man even took a step back on the sidewalk like the wave might hit him. “I’m a non-believer too, friend. But I remember my days of believing, don’t you? Taking your neighbor’s hand in fellowship, grape juice communion, picnics with deviled eggs, late-summer gleaning for the hungry, pulling out those red hymnals and singing together. Don’t you remember feeling whole and complete then? We can still have that, even without Jesus or Mohammed or whoever. We can still sing in joy and beat our chests in grief –“
He walked away before I finished, holding up a palm as a signal not to follow. I guess some people don’t have any days of believing to remember, or else they are proud.
“I don’t know about this,” my son said. “I think he felt like you were preaching at him. Maybe we should just be quiet and let them come to us.”
I agreed to try his method, so we stood in silence, the maps in our hands quaking in the wind. People passing by barely glanced at us, and when they did they tried to hide it.
A young woman stopped in front of my son, smiled at him, and took the piece of paper. That was the moment it registered to me how his shoulders had broadened over the last year, how if he were a stranger I would think of him as a young man, not a boy.
“So what if I’m not religious but I’m really spiritual?” asked the young woman. Or maybe she was young enough to be called a girl. I wasn’t sure. She wore a tank top and tight stretchy sort of pants that came to her knees, and she had a rolled-up mat strapped to her back.
“Um,” said my son, darting his eyes back to me. “Spiritual how?”
She cocked her head to the side, ponytail wagging. “Well, I grew up Episcopalian, and I definitely think Jesus was really wise. But I’m a little bit Buddhist now, too. Like I meditate and stuff.” Her eyes flickered over to me like she’d just noticed I was there.
“No,” I said, and reached out to pluck the flier from her hands. “See, we’re doing the opposite of that. You gave up the structure and the rules but you kept the believing. We want the structure and the rules, the comfort, without any believing.” I wanted to say, and we will not stitch together scraps of Buddhism and paganism and Hippie Jesus to make ourselves an ill-fitting garment, but I didn’t.
She furrowed her brow and walked away. My son watched her go.
“We didn’t need her,” I said. “And let me do the talking.”
It took a while but a couple stopped to chat with us, punk looking types, and I was surprised at how interested they were. My speech bubbled up again, and it went on, and I was telling them all about how badly I had wanted to believe but one day when I was about my son’s age, I just couldn’t do it anymore. It didn’t make any sense. “The music,” I told them, “that was the only time I could almost get it back. That organ playing, and all the voices – as I fall on my knees with my face to the setting sun, oh Lord have mercy on me…” I realized I had actually started to sing and that I was indeed sinking to my knees out on that filthy sidewalk.
The couple laughed kindly and applauded. “So are you going to come on Sunday?” my son asked them.
They looked at each other and their eyebrows went up. “Oh,” said the man. “This is really…for real?”
“Yes,” I said, standing, brushing the grit from my jeans.
“Oh,” said the man. “Well, cool. Good luck.” They walked off, whispering to each other.
After that my son and I were quiet for a while. Then he said, “Let me take some of them. I’ll put them in coffee shops and stuff. People will just find them.” I nodded, sensing he was embarrassed by me. In that moment I didn’t feel great, either.
The first week no one came which I knew was a likely outcome but disappointed me anyway. “Maybe eleven is too early,” my son suggested, lifting the kitchen curtain to peer at the field. “Most atheists probably sleep late.” Deb snorted. But I thought it was worth a try, so I revised the flier: SUNDAYS AT NOON. He took them into the city – said it was probably better if I didn’t come.
No one came the next week either. We discussed what other revisions might be made to our plan. It occurred to me that it’s easy for atheists to pretend to be believers, and that there are many situations that might make it seem desirable: to please family or in-laws, for example, or to get elected to public office. I couldn’t think of many situations where a believer would want to be mistaken for an atheist – atheists might be afraid of being identified as such.
My son suggested that free food or drink might be an enticement. I agreed with him. I brought home a bulk bag of ground coffee and two airpots from the mini mart. That week he built a table for the coffee pots, and I added words to the sign so that it read: FREE COFFEE FOR ATHEISTS, and under that, BELIEVERS WELCOME.
We dispensed with the starting time. Instead I tried my best to put fresh coffee out a few times a day, when I wasn’t down the road at the store. My son helped out when he got home from football practice. Beside the coffee pots, we put a dozen paper cups, a jar of sugar, a shaker of Coffee Mate, some plastic stirrers, and a little wicker basket marked DONATIONS.
It went on more or less the same for a few months. “You think this coffee is free for us?” Deb asked. So I marked up the prices 30 cents a cup at the shop. Wouldn’t make a bit of difference to the people passing through.
I knew neither of them thought anyone would ever come, but I didn’t mind. My wife and I were married in the local Methodist church, of course, but after that we never went any more. I wouldn’t have stopped her if she wanted to go, but she always said, “I doubt God cares whether I pray there or at home. And if I don’t have to see goddamn Linda Prickett every week for the rest of my life that’s just fine.”
My son went to church from time to time with his friends growing up. Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic – he got a taste of everything. Most Sundays he just slept in. My father would have come for me with the belt if I told him I just didn’t feel like going to worship. I let that boy have all the freedom I never had.
Whether or not he believed anyone would show up, he kept putting out the fliers on the weekends. He had turned 16 and gotten his license, so I let him take the truck into the city. He’d be gone for hours. I’m not dumb, I knew he was probably getting up to something else too. Probably converting to Christian Science or some such just to spite me. But like I said, I thought it was important for him to be independent. Make his own choices.
It was in April that I found the crane. I went out at seven to put fresh coffee for the morning, and some coins glinted from the basket. Beside them sat a little folded paper crane. I counted the stack of paper cups and instead of 12, there were only 11.
I didn’t want to lecture my family about lacking faith, for obvious reasons, but I couldn’t help bragging a little. “We made 87 cents last night,” I told them over dinner.
“Probably just someone lost, looking for the highway,” my son said.
“That’s fine with me,” I said. He turned away and set his fork down.
“Not going to eat your chicken?” Deb asked him. I noticed as she pointed to his plate that he’d polished off his green beans and potatoes and dinner roll, but left the chicken breast untouched.
“I told you, Mom, I’m a vegetarian,” he said, standing to push in his chair.
“Since when?” I asked him, but he walked off to his room so I directed the question at his mother instead.
She sighed. “This morning.”
There were no more cranes, but I felt purposeful and serene. I went into the shop less and less. One evening, I found a twenty in the donation basket, about half the sugar gone, and 9 cups in the stack. “See,” I told Deb. “We’re starting to make back a little of the bottom line.”
Someone must have written us up somewhere, then, because before long I was having to buy new paper cups once a month. Twelve visitors a month might not be a congregation but I considered it a success. I never saw them. Most often the basket would have a little money in the morning or in the afternoon, meaning they came overnight or when I was checking in at the store midday.
The first time I was approaching the clearing with fresh coffee and saw a car parked on the side of the road, I hesitated. It was my chance to go up and shake hands, to be together with my own kind. But I felt reluctant – what if they didn’t like me? What if I ruined it for them? I didn’t want to be a preacher or a leader. I just wanted this place to exist. So I decided to remain invisible, tending my shelter unseen. It seemed better that way. I went back home until the car disappeared.
The crane-maker must have returned, because a few more folded paper birds appeared on the benches. Then someone – the same person or not, I don’t know – tacked up a few snowflakes on the posts, the kind children cut out from folded paper. Little trinkets appeared on the table, plastic jewelry and quarter-machine toys. Someone wove a garland from the field grass and draped it from the roof beams. I often sat there myself, hands folded in my lap and a cup of sugary coffee beside me, listening to the garlands and the snowflakes rustle, letting the sunset fill up my tired chest.
One dusk I walked up with a fresh pot, checking for cars on the side of the road as I normally did. There weren’t any so I didn’t expect anyone to be there. But as I approached, I saw a woman in the clearing. She sat on the front pew with her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. A mess of reddish brown hair covered her face and neck. I couldn’t tell how old she was or what she looked like. She was too far away to hear, but I suspected from her shuddering back that she was crying. I went back to the house.
My son had come home and he was sitting on our front steps, gazing out in what seemed like boredom at the sky. “There’s a woman,” I said.
“Where?” he said, which seemed to me like a purposefully dumb question. His face used to be so open to me. Every emotion would spell itself out in his eyes. Now I couldn’t read any of his thoughts. I wondered if someone had taught him how to keep his face still and blank like that.
“Our church,” I said. “No car. I wonder how she came.”
He frowned at me. “Didn’t you ask her?”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t want to disturb her. She looked like she was crying.”
He stood up from the couch. “What if she needs help or something?”
“That’s not what we’re here for,” I told him.
“But what if she’s in trouble, or her husband beats her up, or she’s homeless?” he asked.
“Well then, she’s found a peaceful place for the moment. But I don’t run a homeless shelter.”
He stood and grabbed the coffee pot from my hand, pushing past my shoulder and marching to the clearing, muttering something about me being a hypocrite. I went inside. At least he was interested.
I helped my wife get dinner on the table. We sat there eating quietly, his plate of vegetables getting cold.
“He’s not going to be able to keep up on the field unless he gets some protein,” I said.
She arched an eyebrow. “You know he quit the team,” she said.
This was news to me. “What? When?”
“Last month. He didn’t want me to tell you. Thought you’d be mad.”
“I don’t give a damn about football,” I said. “And it seems like he’s been trying to make me mad.” I chewed my food for a minute.
“Then where’s he been going after school if he hasn’t been at practice?”
“Working,” she said. “Bagging groceries up at the supermarket. Saving up to buy himself his own car.”
I thought about the city, and his changing face. “Well, when were you planning on telling me this?”
She set her mouth in a line. “You been a little distracted lately. Thought I’d wait until you noticed.”
I heard the door swing open from the hallway and stood to go to it. I wanted to tell him he could quit football if he wanted. I didn’t care. I just wanted him to tell me about it.
He was with the woman, who stood behind him in the doorway, almost hiding slightly. Earlier, when I couldn’t see her well, I had imagined she might be beautiful, young. The mind tends to fill in a face that way. But now I saw her face was ravaged, rough, with the sucked-in cheeks that meant missing teeth. Her eyebrows were plucked to thin straight lines over small eyes. She was bony, hollow chested, clutching a cigarette. I still couldn’t tell her age – I had a strong suspicion she was years younger than her face looked. Junkie, I thought. Prostitute.
“This is Misty,” he said, which just about confirmed all my suspicions. “Can she come for dinner?” The tilt of his chin told me this was a challenge.
“I want to talk to you a minute first,” I said, putting my hand on his elbow and pulling him through the door. Misty stayed where she was, just outside, eyes down, seemingly unfazed.
“Look now,” I whispered. “Get your mother to make her up a plate if you want. Take some food from the pantry, too. Give her the money from the donation basket–“ if she hasn’t taken it already, I thought.
“Give her a ride wherever she needs to go, where there’s people can help her.”
“No,” he said, his face set hard again, all of a sudden like I was looking back at my father when he was a young man. “Let her in.”
“I know you’re testing me,” I said. “But this is still my house. And out there –“ I pointed in the direction of the shelter, “and in here are not the same thing.”
“They’re supposed to be,” he said, looking disgusted enough to spit.
“Says who? Jesus? Mohammed? Buddha? You don’t believe any of that any more than I do. I built that place so that people like us –“
“People like you,” he interrupted. “No, not even people like you. Just you. Just so you could feel better.” He turned and walked out the door, slamming it behind him. I heard the engine turn over and it wasn’t the first time I questioned my decision to let him have the spare key to the truck. I walked to the kitchen window and watched the backs of their heads drive away.
By eleven he still wasn’t back and Deb convinced me to just go to bed, that it would blow over my morning and if it didn’t, well, the cops would make us wait that long to go looking for him anyway.
It felt like the very same moment I feel asleep, but it must have been hours later, that the scent of wood smoke woke me. As soon as I smelled it, I felt like it had all been foretold. I stood looking out the window in my boxers and undershirt, watching the flames rise from the field, silhouetting the truck and the figure of the young man that stood between our house and the fire.
I knew I’d have to call the fire department in a second or risk the conflagration getting truly out of hand, and I knew that I would tell the police when they came that it had been some kind of freak accident. A lit cigarette maybe, or some kind of campfire gone awry. I would not tell them I had seen my son there, and that I could not tell whether his back was to me or to the flames. I would keep my promise to let him worship however he chose. If this was how he meant to do it, I would let him.
Michelle E. Crouch
Michelle E. Crouch, a co-founder of APIARY Magazine, has been published in Indiana Review,Treehouse Magazine, and The Rumpus. She currently lives in Wilmington, NC. Her website is mcrouch.com.
Janine stood watching the swing of the burnt-out light bulb that hung in the unfinished laundry room of her empty little house, the pull-chain that released volts into the socket clinking against the bulb’s brittle glass with each sideways motion. In her left hand, she held a new sixty-watt light bulb, one which could replace the one still hanging, and solve all the problems she’d been having lately with her laundry: when she accidentally dropped a single red shirt in with all her whites, which dyed her work blouses, socks and white dress pants a dull pink; or when she folded clothes together because she could not see that she held both a pair of jeans and a t-shirt in the dark warmth just in front of the dryer, and then searched for half an hour before unfolding and refolding everything in her drawers; or, more recently, when she pulled from her pants pocket the piece of paper, now sopping and illegible, on which she had written the time of a job interview with a research facility looking for people with B.S.’s in Physics, and realized that she perhaps shouldn’t have screamed at the district manager and then walked out of the bank before her shift was done just earlier that same day.
Janene knew that these events could be avoided and that all the effects – the frantic shopping trips just before running to the office, tags still hanging off her clothes; the time spent redoing chores; the stress of trying to explain to a very skeptical and probing graduate assistant that yes, she was responsible and a good candidate for the job, she simply wanted to double-check the appointment date – all of these could be eliminated, or at least lessened, if she would just change the bulb. But every time she reached up toward the rocking socket with her right hand, a blue flame would ignite in her chest and illuminate her stomach, lungs, esophagus, heart, while images of Davis changing that same light bulb would project in her mind – that one day, as the plaid button-up shirt she loved lifted above the jeans that had worn spots on the pockets from his wallet, keys, cell phone. She had been leaning in the doorway, studying the image of his thick knuckles and splayed fingertips in the curved surface of the glass. He had turned and smiled at her when he was done, greyed bulb in his hand, and had kissed her forehead before turning to the bin to throw the old light bulb away. Janene had stepped into the room and watched him leave as she turned the picture of him changing the light bulb over and over in her mind, imagining the tiny packets of light – the “potons,” as her Laotian professor used to say – immersing Davis from the new light bulb, flooding down his arms, over his clothes and the slight paunch of his belly, right down to that patch of luminous skin over his hipbone. Davis had moved out a week later, and Janene as yet hadn’t cried once – not even to her mother over the phone – because, she said, when you expect something for long enough, its arrival should come as no surprise. When, two months after he left, the light bulb he had replaced burned out, Janene had shrugged in the sudden darkness, folded the shirt she was holding in half, and mumbled, “Things come, things go.”
Three long months after that shrug, Janene scuffed her foot on the carpet and shifted the light bulb in her sweaty left hand so that she held the metal threads rather than the slick glass. She closed her eyes and huffed, ashamed even in solitude of her desire to wait, of the temptation to never replace the bulb, despite the consequences. Janene reached up again – this time quickly, as if she could race the reflection and not be faced with the image of Davis, that crescent glimpse of his waist as his solid arm lifted – and even as she told herself it would be the last time she would go through this, the back of her mind wandered to the delicate cardboard box the new light bulb had come in, sitting daintily in the bottom of a fresh trash bag, and how easy it would be to retrieve, even in darkness.
Austin Eichelberger is a native Virginian who completed his MA in Fiction in May 2009. His creative work has been presented at several conferences, and has been published in numerous print and online journals and anthologies, most notably in Eclectic Flash, Diverse Voices Quarterly, and theUniversity of Chester’s Flash Fiction Magazine. Since graduating, he has taught various English and writing classes at several universities, served as a co-curatorial assistant on the art-book show “Somewhere Far From Habit,” and is co-founding editor of the new online literary and art journal SPACES. He currently lives in New Mexico.
HOLLIE THOUGHT OF THIS AS A CONTRACT. She and Dana had promised each other they’d be the type of people who remembered things could always be worse.
They toasted the tragic.
“To James Dean!”
“To Princess Di!”
Still, it was a bummer when their favorite restaurant didn’t have a wheelchair ramp.
“Well,” he said. “Let’s go somewhere with a ramp.”
“Let’s go somewhere expensive with a ramp,” she said.
She was proud of her husband, his tough mouth. If anyone stared at him, Dana glanced up and unholstered his thickest Philly accent: “You shoulda seen the other guy.”
It was like the old joke about the grimy Schulkyll River, Hollie told people: if you fall in, don’t bother getting out. The car that hit her husband’s amid the Schulkyll Expressway’s slick March traffic had plummeted into the water below. The ‘other guy’ never bothered getting out until the cops dragged the river, and him. Dana was still half here. Half full, they remembered to remind each other.
There were, after all, a lot of ‘other guys.’ They knew this for a fact since they had started skimming the obituaries for what kinds of things were killing people under forty these days. Accidents had held the number one spot for weeks. And not just car accidents, but tales of the strange – those things that should be so rare – such as a head hit against a freezer door. The out-of-the-blue tear jerker had aged, like mild cheese, into a single click of the tongue.
Just last week Dana had wheeled into the living room where Hollie lay tented under the unfolding hands of the Sunday paper.
“Jon Lennon is dead,” he announced.
She smirked. “Oh really?”
“My friend from when we were kids, Jon Lennon. His mom just called. He died.”
“You had a friend named John Lennon?”
“Yeah. J-O-N, Jonathan Lennon. We sat next to each other all through elementary school: Lennon, Lennox.”
Hollie stood up and walked over to rub his shoulder. (He hadn’t gotten too close; they were keeping his blackening wheels off this rug.) She liked to massage his shoulders. It made her thankful for arm muscles. With these he could still do his very favorite things, like cooking and giving bad drivers the finger. He wouldn’t be driving anymore, of course, but maybe someday he’d find himself in a swarm of less-nimble wheelchair riders, so he could flip them the bird. He’d need that. If worse came to worse, he could always flick off his dad; that was a back-up plan that could always be counted on.
“Ono, oh no!” she said to make him laugh.
In a rush, Hollie felt a strong urge to go to the bathroom. But she couldn’t just walk away from him like that, Dana unable to follow her to the toilet as he used to, continuing their conversation over the staccato tinkling. The corners of the narrow hallway would halt him again and again. (In the weeks when he was first adjusting to the chair, she’d have to wait for him to go to bed and then hunch along the hall with paint and paintbrush, touching up the walls he’d scraped — like filling in missing syllables. She was his reliable Igor. His Quasimodo with a can.) So she held it, her eyes burning a little, and kept rubbing circles into his shoulder.
They didn’t want to be conventional – not conventional grievers anyway. No therapy, no sitting on park benches watching healthy couples run by in matching jogging suits while tears dropped from their mournful eyes. They didn’t want to be the type of people who yearned. They could live without. They would decidedly not yearn.
Doctor’s orders, after all. “I’m not telling you anything will be fixed and working again. But for your own sake, remember that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Having completed his stock parting advice to those for whom he couldn’t do anything else, the doctor had smiled and slipped out of the room with a nod. The combination of majesty and singsong lilt in his Indian accent reverberated in Hollie’s ears. She could be sweet as honey, definitely. But did they really want flies? She looked at Dana. What else was there to do but nod at each other and agree to agree with whatever the doctors told them?
They decided laughter was the sweetest medicine. Laughter and a good oldie. “Teen Angel.” “Leader of the Pack.” “Last Kiss.” They would sing all the time. Over breakfast, they decided how many songs should be sung by lunch. In between they told knock-knock jokes.
They fed their minds. Foreign films, classic books, even thoroughly covering the business section of the paper. They fed their bodies. Dana prepared his homemade salad dressings and signature sauces. Hollie told him he was still a genius of the culinary senses.
They didn’t use the insurance money for a new car. What good was living in Center City, that nucleus, if you were always driving away from it? They could slide right out of their ground floor apartment and see everything Philadelphia had to offer without even a flight of stairs (and to think they’d originally wanted a second-floor apartment!), or a car, or a special van electronically lowering its gate to meet them. They did things around the city they’d never done before. It felt good to sidle off the sidewalk and onto cobblestone, into the past, with its places taken care of for centuries. As the wheelchair bumped along in front of her, Hollie figured this was OK: it was good for Dana to feel the ground, where he was going. One of the reasons they’d chosen this chair was for its durability on the uneven streets; they’d also been looking for maneuverability, for around the apartment. And, what they hadn’t thought of on their own: portability, weight. “This is the model I always recommend when the wife will be doing all the carrying,” the salesman had said. She’d since referred to the salesman as a pimp, helping to round out a threesome with the perfect companion for them both.
They noticed those sights they had passed each day, and now they let themselves be sucked in as tourists: Independence Hall, Independence Mall, the looming skeletal remains of Benjamin Franklin’s house that just dared lightning. They sensed they were fulfilling an American duty by collecting any available pamphlets. They hoarded copies of “We The People” in eighteenth-century script, the ss and fs so comfortable filling in for each other.
“When in the course of human events . . .” Dana had taken to beginning whenever he needed a break from sight-seeing to have his catheter bag emptied.
Hollie insisted they spend more time with their lesbian friends. Audrey and Gayle always joked that they were making things work without the requisite parts.
“You’d be surprised how many things aren’t so necessary,” Audrey often laughed.
Gayle was a biologist, Audrey a lawyer. They didn’t just make things work – they made them work splendidly. They had completely, independently renovated an old West Philadelphia row house into a work of art. Corinne, their daughter, was a violin prodigy, a spelling bee whiz, a tennis star. Audrey and Gayle were the ones Hollie and Dana had called for ideas when they needed to make the apartment as wheelchair-friendly as possible. Dana-fying the apartment, Corinne had called it.
“I can’t talk – I’m up to my armpits in papier-mâché.” Gayle’s voice sounded far away; Hollie could tell she was cradling the phone between her shoulder and her chin. “Tuesday is Big Boom Day in the fourth grade.”
Hollie’s leave of absence from her job at an elementary school – she was a speech therapist – had made her forget about all those special events crammed into the last few weeks before summer vacation. “Big Boom Day?” she asked, twisting the phone cord around her wrist and thinking of Gayle’s sleek portable.
“All the kids make model volcanos, and they set them off all at once.”
“How? I’d think the schools would be avoiding explosives.”
“Apparently all you need is a little vinegar and baking soda to make things happen,” Gayle said.
Something popped in the background, and Corinne’s disappointed, yet hopeful voice sang out in response: “Ooh, sooo close!” Hollie pictured their butcher-block kitchen set up as a laboratory. Cluttered with their familial effort. She looked around her own spotless kitchen; she’d stayed up the night before, using a special marker to fill in the scratches the chair had made on the lower cabinets and cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom till it gleamed, before curling into her side of the bed a little after two a.m.
She could hear Audrey’s voice in the background. “Is that Hollie and Dana? Tell them to go to the Mutter Museum.”
“You should go to the Mutter Museum,” Gayle said to Hollie.
“That medical oddity place? You’ve been there?”
“Yup,” Gayle replied, the sound of successful, potent fizzling and Corinne’s rejoicing (“We did it!”) rising behind her voice. “It’ll make you feel so normal.”
They made themselves as normal as possible. They got in line at the Mutter Museum. Hollie couldn’t imagine it was always this crowded. The ticket, information, and souvenir desk was perched right in front of the door so that, except for the first two or three people, everyone was standing just outside of the mansion-like building, brushing flies from their personal space. Hollie had thought the museum would be deserted on Memorial Day weekend, but she guessed this crowd made sense for a place that made battlefield death look regal in its lack of pus. As they neared the front of the line, Hollie saw the way the bland-looking ticket seller eyed all the patrons. Looking for what was wrong with them, she thought, what had brought them here. What hidden secrets had they come to compare against the freaks of the world? There was nothing visible, though, only what the woman could imagine as she collected money and bestowed badges of entry. When their turn came, the woman looked at Dana, checked her glance, quickly cleared her throat, and nodded them in. “Second door on your left.”
They made their way through the grand central hallway to the cherry-stained door. “This feels like being asked into a parlor for tea,” Hollie said, tentatively crossing the wooden threshold into the museum.
“I don’t think they’ll have Chai.” Dana’s eyes scanned the photo-covered walls from red carpet to textured ceiling. “And that’s all I drink.”
They decided to divide and conquer. Dana stayed on the main floor within the mazes of the old diseases that had been stamped out. All those forgotten pox and colored fevers.
Down the stairs, the gallery opened up into one room, glass cases filled with jars lining the walls. An aquarium of formaldehyde. Or, Hollie thought, the jars looked like portholes — the entire building adrift, like a ship turned away from harbor — so she would look into the glass for signs of life.
Information on Siamese Twins made this place famous. Upstairs was an exhibit of drawings and photographs with shocking captions about P.T. Barnum’s lucrative schemes.
But here, beneath the stairs, were actual conjoined twins. Of course they didn’t look real, the bright white, clay-like skin of their scalps threaded through, suspended from a thin rod in honey-colored fluid. But they were real, down to the scrunched shut eyelids of all newborns. And surrounding them, even more balloons of infant forms were poised afloat in their aquariums. Forceps injuries, stillborns, other descriptions Hollie didn’t want to think very much about. The card propped in front of each jar told the story. What astounded her was that, well, that each one had found its way here. And that each one had been ‘donated’ by the doctor, not the parents.
And yet Hollie knew the parents had somehow signed off on these jars. Walking away, the father helping the mother so soon after a difficult birth, muttering that the left twin would have liked horses, the right one candy. Because, Hollie had noticed, the left one’s legs were slightly bowed, the right one’s hand curled a bit upward as if asking to receive. She knew how carefully voices proceeded when they were needing to convince, how they faltered when resisting belief; these parents would certainly mumble while the doctors would speak meticulously. Inside the wordless glass, the two (or was it one?) specimens pressed together into one, wide chest, face to face, lies passing from one to the other —
She scurried up the stairs to grip the handles of Dana’s chair as if it were a stroller careening down a hill. She found him engrossed in the epidemic nook — a colony of sufferers, an injured gang — and pushed him back out onto Chestnut Street and into the sea of the noisy city.
“What’d you take me out here for?” he snapped, groping for control of the wheels. “You know, there’s something almost friendly about contagiousness.”
“You know what else,” Hollie used her best DJ voice.“There’s nothing quite as contagious as a snappy tune.”
The Platters were always a favorite of his: a band taking its name from the essential trappings of elegant food presentation. “The Great Pretender”: that was a good one. So she took him back to 1956, making her voice drippy with melancholy through every verse.
Dana wrapped his hands around the wheels and pushed on ahead of her, the handles jerking out of her fists. Hollie hurried along behind him as if on a tether, as if she were the entire back-up group to his solo. And she kept singing – they would be nostalgic for bobby socks, not communities of death, like normal people.
When Dana’s father had come home to the hospital after the accident, he’d started punching his son. Actually punching him. Not hard, but still.
“Come on there, tough guy. Like Rocky. Be like Rocky.”
Dana had put on a smirk and thrown his arms up in the air, protectively around his face, halfheartedly flinging them back at his father’s.
“Yo, Adrienne,” Ralph said in a Stallone-like slur, glancing back at Hollie. “Look at this champ. He’ll be up and fighting in no time.” She watched as her father-in-law lowered his aim, fists knocking bluntly against Dana’s legs. Dana stopped boxing back and looked at her.
Hollie wasn’t sure what else to do but, behind his back, give her father-in-law the finger. Above Ralph’s head, Dana smiled at her, fists still coming at him.
Since the hospital, Ralph had only been to visit once, but he hadn’t ever come to visit all that often before the accident either; he rarely stepped a foot outside South Philly. Today, being a national holiday and all, he made an exception — though not without a grudge. Ralph was the kind of Philadelphian who waxed horrorstricken when he met someone who’d never tasted a cheesesteak. He was also the kind of Philadelphian Hollie always wanted to grab by the throat, not to strangle, but to learn the strange flexings that produced the accent. Ralph said ‘wuder’ to describe what he drank and ‘byoo-dee-ful’ to describe . . . he didn’t say ‘byoo-dee-ful’ all that often, actually. Sometimes, maybe, she did want to strangle him, too.
“Ya know how your mother would act around you, if she was still around?” Ralph pointed his finger as he spoke. “She’d cry all night over a bottle of red wine, I promise you. Now what the hell good does that do? You and me, we’re gonna be men about all this. What d’ya say we drink a few six packs?”
Ralph’s complaints about his ex-wife were usually of the red wine versus beer variety. He still complained about the name she’d chosen for their only son. Apparently, when Ralph had objected to ‘Dana,’ she had found new inspiration in her favorite Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue.” Ralph had put his foot down at ‘Dana.’ Ralph was always bringing up his ex-wife; before she had become his late ex-wife, he always wanted to know exactly what she was up to, and he always wanted to comment on how she’d have been better off staying put than running off to do whatever the hell it was she was doing. Dana’s mother, on the other hand, had only mentioned her ex when expressing gratitude that she didn’t have to put up with him anymore. “Not that I wish him harm,” she’d say, “but phew!” Hollie had never known whether to laugh as her mother-in-law swept arm across forehead and flung pretend sweat onto the floor.
As Ralph finished his speech, he looked at Hollie. She knew that was her cue to invent an errand — or play dumb and Ralph would make her unwelcomeness clear. Once when Dana had missed out on a promotion, his dad had suggested an outing to a strip club. Hollie hadn’t been invited, but she rarely was. Ralph would never trust her prim New England birthplace: that part of Connecticut that hadn’t even absorbed a splash of Brooklyn into its voices. He often looked at her as if she were somehow boyish and inept, like she didn’t quite cut it, couldn’t quite satisfy her man, wasn’t all there. She was Lady MacBeth to him, just begging to be unsexed so she could plunge a dagger into a man’s chest with as much gusto as she could muster.
Dana looked at her apologetically as his dad got up to meander through the kitchen. Ralph picked up each plastic utensil, each pot holder, and looked at it as if it had been the undoing of his son’s manhood: had the accident not happened, a paring knife probably would’ve slipped and severed some nerves anyway. A cook of all things after a long line of plumbers, housepainters, and a healthy smattering of veterans. Though Hollie figured a vet’s wheelchair might be a badge of masculinity in Ralph’s eyes.
She shrugged. “OK. I’ll call Audrey, or Gayle, or Audrey and Gayle.”
“That’s how I fell for the Leader of the Six Pack,” Dana replied with a smile.
“Eureka!” Ralph exclaimed, yanking a six pack from their fridge. He winked at Hollie: she had finally done something right.
She took a cab west from Center City across the bridge, over the Schulkyll and the tracks to Thirtieth Street Station, to meet Gayle on campus. Officially the university was closed for the day, taking twenty-four hours off from its burdens, but Gayle had insisted a small-to-medium-sized emergency at the lab shouldn’t be left for the morning. She had overcome the crisis with a single bound, and now she could recline with Hollie on The Button, an oversized modern art piece, gazing across the green at the gothic architecture of the administrative halls. During the year this sculpture was a popular spot. The cracked-button design created the perfect slope for professors’ kids to use the white plastic surface as a slide. And you never knew when you’d be startled by the heads of neighborhood kids who had ducked underneath to pop up through the buttonholes. Gayle had heard from student workers in her lab that “Under The Button” was rated the number one place on campus to do it. But right now it was summer session, and The Fourth, leaving the campus’s paths thinly populated.
Hollie crossed her feet. “God, this thing is comfortable. And so, so ugly.”
“But it’s Corinne’s favorite story. Ben Franklin was looking out here for a place to put his university, his button popped off, he found it, and – voila! – that would be the center of campus.”
“That’s Corinne’s favorite story? I would have pegged her for a sci-fi fanatic.”
“Nah, she’s more into history, material culture. Pots and pans, just the facts, like Audrey. She just humors me by letting me teach her what’s in each petri dish at the lab.”
“But I taught her her diphthongs.” Hollie toyed with her top button to test its potential for tearing off and sprouting an institution.
“Yes, the diphthongs are yours.” Gayle started to get up and straighten her skirt. “Well? Home for dinner?”
“Depends.” Hollie didn’t budge.
“Can I pop off my father-in-law somewhere in West Philly?”
Gayle laughed. “At least you got out of the house for a little while. I remember when Corinne was a baby, we never went anywhere unless a relative came to visit.”
True, Hollie hadn’t been anywhere without Dana much since her life had been, well, Dana-fied.
And – also like a new mother – she had suddenly become the kind of woman who wore her hair very short, the time spent on her appearance now a dispensable part of her day. Her locks spun out in short spurts as if her head were fizzling.
Gayle began her walk home, just to the west of campus, and Hollie headed back east, swerving slightly north toward Chestnut Street. Over the bridge again, on foot this time, down into the twenties.
She wasn’t sure it would be open on the Fourth of July, but of course it was, the faithful gatekeeper letting all pilgrims come and rest their eyes on people who’ve got it worse. Hollie handed over her dollars, hoping the woman wouldn’t recognize her the next time she came, or the next. She crossed the hall to the glossy wooden door, the rolled-out red carpet. Tea time again. The place had a nineteenth-century-ness about it. Victorian politeness dwelled here: the politeness of a shrunken head collection kept in immaculate order by tuxedoed domestic servants.
She’d named the conjoined twins Richie and Buddy. The plumper boy hanging all by himself in the next jar was, of course, the slightly less big Big Bopper. Their jars shone when infused with the tragedy of rock ‘n roll. Their names in lights. Anyone and anything needed someone to come visiting.
Counting the zigzags of the cross stitch (almost fully camouflaged, yet still there) that had been threaded through their scalps to keep the boys suspended, Hollie thought of the smiling kids who pushed their heads through the holes of The Button, their baseball caps like thimbles. The pit between these two threadings held the strange pairings of her mind: the difference between birthdays and mortuaries, the difference between the tastes of the t in ‘paralytic’ and the t in ‘death.’
As she came out of the building, a handful of shirtless men with their chests painted red, white, and blue, stumbled drunkenly by, almost running her over. “Happy birthday, America!” one screamed, grabbing Hollie’s shoulders and planting a sloppy kiss over her nose and upper lip before continuing his rampage toward the debris of the Broad Street parade.
When Hollie got home, she found the men on the small balcony: empty beer cans, Dana fast asleep, Ralph kicking at the wobbly table leg.
“Oh, hey,” Ralph said when he saw her. She stepped outside and started collecting the cans into an orderly bunch. “So you teach the sign language, right?”
“No,” she said, not looking up. “I’m a speech therapist.” She’d corrected him a million times, but it wasn’t worth bickering over. She remembered what the doctor said: honey.
“Yeah, that’s it. You know, that could work out, I think. You teach little punks to talk and Dana shuts ’em up with his food.” He laughed, and she almost did, too.
But when Hollie looked up to smile at him, his eyes were elsewhere. He had turned toward Dana, intent on gently swatting the mosquitoes from his son’s legs.
Hollie let the cans be and sat down to watch the sun complete its setting. As the sky darkened, the first fireworks bloomed above, launched from the art museum’s famous Rocky steps that everyone had to run up once, just once. Her father-in-law kept his vigil well into the dusk.
Weeks later, in the thickness of a very late August, it was too muggy for the balcony. Traditionally, when held captive by heat waves or blizzards, they’d put on The Beatles and twist and shout till they dropped. Now they opted for ice cream. The fragile architecture of the perfect sundae brought out their best teamwork skills. The counters were too high for Dana, so they did all their food preparation at the table now. Dana’s chair had flip-back armrests they’d paid extra for so he’d be able to sit this close to a tabletop. They were a nuisance in restaurants, getting in the waiter’s way. “But I’m a cook, not a waiter,” he’d said, snapping both armrests back in one, quick motion. “Draw!” Hollie had replied.
“Can you believe there are people in the world who never let themselves indulge like this, ever?” Dana asked, licking chocolate fudge from his fingertips.
“Savages,” said Hollie. She concentrated on drawing a scalloped edge of whipped cream around her bowl. “Even fancy-schmancy gourmet cooks want ice cream.” She felt relaxed, ready to fill herself up with sugar.
“Wanna watch my video?” Dana asked.
Hollie jumped up to get it. She always wanted to watch his video. They had made it about a year back as a mock-pitch for the food network, but Dana insisted that if he ever really did try out, this was exactly how he would do it.
The cardboard sign appeared first: “For the Love of Lasagna: Cooking and Romance with Chef Dana Lennox.”
“Chivalry is all senses,” the video Dana began, his voice flirting with a Spanish accent. “As is cooking. People think they know that romance and food are all about the senses: taste, smell, even hearing since you have to be attuned to the right level of sizzle.” Hollie had zoomed in with the camera as Dana winked. “But do you know what the world’s finest chefs know? Touch is as important to cooking as it is to courting. Only through touch can the promise of smell and taste be consummated.” Like a matador, he waved a red napkin. “On today’s show we will talk about –” He raised his palm and paused. “The Weight of The Dough in The Hand.”
“I look like I’m asking for money,” Dana said, letting his spoon clang into his empty bowl. “Spare a sixpence, guvnuh?”
Hollie giggled. “You’re kind of a cross between Don Juan and a street urchin.”
Dana returned her giggle, and she looked up to see him grasp the table and lift himself halfway out of the chair. “God bless us, every one,” he squeaked, grabbing the ice cream scooper and thumping it along the formica like a crutch.
Hollie cackled, shaking her head at him. He could make her laugh forever with his dumbest jokes. Yet he never thought of himself as a Funny Person. He responded to her laughter with a bewildered look, like when she’d agreed to marry him. “Really?”
Really, although acquaintances they ran into at the grocery store told them they were dealing with all of this like champs, she couldn’t help noticing the increased frequency of those bewildered looks. When she wasn’t there, she knew, there was nothing for him to promise. She wondered if this was when the hands came out of their oven mitts to search for some territory of response. Recently Dana had learned to haul himself in and out of bed without her help, and she had wanted to give him a gold star for it. He deserved it for taking care of himself this way. But soon, except maybe to help with the catheter, she’d have no reason ever to touch him.
He used to tell her that chefs were people born with their nerves abnormally close to the surface. Now he was framed in with metal edges. All of the armor trapping the inner knight. He was bionic. Yes, it could be worse, but knocked right off his feet (how romantic it sounded!), food and love weren’t at hand-level anymore. Like recipe books removed to the highest shelf, they were out of reach.
He could probably land a show on the food network now. Angle he could pitch to the execs: representing the ‘less active’ viewers. She watched him kneading on the TV screen — as if he were behind glass and in a jar. Floating like the last pickle.
But looking back at her.
“Maybe I should’ve scripted this part; it’s too rambling,” he said. “Do you have a specific script you tell your students?”
She did. She said the same thing to all the stuttering or silent children who’d been sent from their sunny classrooms to the private chamber of her office. It was a script that stayed with her, the way basil stayed under Dana’s fingernails for days. But scripts were starting to feel too silly, unstable: The Beatles melting into humps of ice cream under their bangs. Dana looked at her expectantly. The phone rang, and Hollie walked across the room to get it.
“It’s the doctor,” she told Dana, turning her back on him and replacing the mouthpiece against her chin.
She had taken Dana in the day before when he had a low-grade fever, and he’d had a culture taken to test for a urinary tract infection. Of course Dana hadn’t felt any other symptoms – urgency, burning.
But these infections were quite common with catheters, the doctor told her now. “Which is why we emphasize hand-washing. On the part of the caregivers.”
Hollie bit down on her lower lip till she tasted the first saltiness of blood. Behind her Dana had turned the TV off and the stereo on. She heard clanging and turned to watch her husband trying to swivel his chair around the small kitchen in time to the music. Knocking over everything in sight. She could barely hear the doctor saying he’d call the pharmacy with the antibiotic prescription – and to be sure she washed her hands.
“It was an infection,” she said, hanging up the phone. Dana didn’t respond, continuing to jerk back and forth in the debris, his face coiled into the unseemly smile of a rock star destroying a hotel room. She maneuvered around him to get to the sink. Ralph would really think she was Lady MacBeth now; she’d have to start washing her hands two dozen times a day, with industrial-strength antibacterial soap. She stuck her hands under the faucet, scrubbing fiercely, and kicking away the things Dana had made fall to the floor.
“Do you really have to knock every damn thing onto the floor?” She yelled over the rush of the water and the boom of the music, still rubbing her hands together. “I just cleaned up in here!” There was a box of tissue at her feet, and she kicked it clear across the kitchen.
She turned around, holding one hand in the other, to face the angry slits of Dana’s eyes. But he wasn’t glaring at her culpable hands; his eyes were aimed at her legs.
They had received an invitation from Marla, one of the teachers at Hollie’s school, who had an annual back-to-school barbecue for the teachers and their families. It had been an honor for Hollie to be invited her first year and each one since. The other class pop-ins and specialists – like ‘Gym Gal’ and ‘Music Man’ – forever straddled the A and B lists of the classroom teachers. Hollie suspected her acceptance had been triggered by her voluntary attendance at PTA meetings; all the teachers thought it just darling of her to show up. She wouldn’t ever have full teacher status in their eyes, she knew, but still each year they had gone to the barbecue, she and her husband, to get back into the swing of things as autumn hit: she to coaching tongue muscles, he to heavier soups. Seeing her colleagues would remind her how close the first day of school really was and how she better get cracking at re-covering her bulletin boards with construction paper whose color hadn’t been warped by the sun. This year Hollie wondered what might have been done in her absence since the rainy March day that had been her last of the school year. In many ways the months since had felt like the non-reality of a stretch of snow days that had lasted and lasted, the way she’d wished they would when she was a kid. But the whiteout was now subsiding. Back to work. This was normal now.
The humidity was brutal in Marla’s backyard as they sat and listened to the stories of the summer. All teachers and their families apparently did the same things: public pools, day camps for the kids, rounds of golf – only sometimes real rather than mini – and voyages out for Italian ices. One in ten had ventured to the zoo or even the shore. Conversation turned, as it always would, to the children.
Finishing her handful of baby carrots, the fifth grade math teacher began to gush. “I was tucking Jeremy into bed the other night, and he said he was sure he loved me, so I asked him, ‘How do you know?’ You’ll never believe what he said! He said, ‘Because you’re sitting on my leg, and I don’t mind.’”
Hollie thought about the last time she’d put Dana to sleep — before he’d mastered getting in and out of bed by himself. (The last time she’d felt him against her, since he couldn’t register her weight as love even if she planted herself squarely on his leg for a month straight.) She’d sit on the edge of the bed, they’d wrap their arms around each other. He’d lift, she’d pull, and they’d end up sprawled on the bed, him on top of her. She knew better than to hesitate under the weight of his body, his breath on her neck, making her eager for him; she’d quickly place her hands on the back of his neck, like how she’d been taught with newborns, and use all her weight to roll him over and off her. Maybe he’d kiss her, hard but swift. This was enough. Everything that mattered to her was neck-up anyway: teaching people to set their vocal cords and will a sound, looking up and out. She was sure Dana thought this way, too; his business also resided in the cave of the mouth. It was the blossoming of taste that was essential to him, not how it all might collect below. She’d get up and help him undress, her fingers those of a disinterested nurse. And he’d fall asleep, the thin tube of the catheter snaking out of his shorts.
Hollie felt an ache in her gut and figured she must be hungry. She caught Dana’s eye and nodded toward the sliding screen door. Excusing themselves to refill on cold drinks, they sifted through the heat into the climate-controlled house with whispers at their backs.
“I’ll be OK in here,” Dana told her once over the ridge of the threshold, his voice gruff, asocial. The way they’d been speaking to each other in the days since his infection. She should go mingle.
She found herself in the kitchen with a congregation of women. She would be helpful, she decided, beginning to deposit lipstick-smeared cups into the top rack of the dishwasher. Marla quickly nudged her aside. “Excuse me, Hol. I just want to show all of you this nifty feature up here: the extra flip down rack. See?”
Hollie stepped back and almost onto the youngest of Marla’s gaggle of daughters, who was pouring juice for herself.
“Oh, Jessie!” One of the other women said and stepped in to do the pouring. “My youngest does the same thing. Juice everywhere.”
The women started buzzing about ground cereal in their carpet and stains in their tablecloths that would remain until the next ice age. As they talked, Hollie saw a commercial for a dream kitchen materialize before her eyes: one woman cutting vegetables, another loading the dishwasher, another pouring freshly-brewed iced tea into midget glasses. Lots of wives taking care of everything. She backed away from the conversation, word by word left out, and found herself edged to the den where the men were watching football.
There wasn’t any conversation in this room but for a few comments directed toward the TV about great or miserable plays. She knew a little about sports; she took a seat on the large ottoman and watched intently, making herself interested.
Dana had somehow reeled out of the male orbit, into the kitchen. She could hear his voice among the women, talking about the amazing dip recipe he’d discovered. The women were oohing and aahing over it: it was something they’d like, their husbands would gobble up, their kids would even try. Hollie tried to think of something funny she could say to mock his dip and reenter the kitchen world. But any tickertape of words that passed through her head came off spiteful. Unappetizing. She made herself search for the score among the graphics on the TV and made herself really care, too, which team acquired each plot of land, like in a Monopoly game to the death.
God bless us, every one. It was the Disney version that was in her head: a miniature Mickey Mouse with a teetering crutch and a sickeningly sweet voice. But Christmas was four months away, she had never been carolling in all her life, and she wasn’t even a mother who’d been subjected to animation till her blood was streaming technicolor. People didn’t realize the brute strength of a well-spoken cliché, like the word ‘Christmas’ itself. When she was young the other kids used to gather around her and sing, “Deck the halls with boughs of holly!” She had hated that.
Dana’s cooking tips continued to leak out into the sports room, his voice sounding knowledgeable and worldly. Almost fatherly in its advisory tone about low-fat cooking. Hollie allowed herself to look back at the kitchen and saw Marla making her (Hollie’s) husband comfortable around her (Marla’s) island. He sat in the center of the standing female ring, appearing so casual he could have been in his old boxer shorts. She thought of past nights when he couldn’t sleep, stubbornly grumbling there was no way he would do to his kid what his parents had done. No, sir, his son would be named Frank, Bud, Jack. Something guttural with hard consonants. “Out of the kitchen, onto the football field,” he’d cracked.
One of the women started complaining about not having a waist since delivering her last child and rolled up the side of her shirt to prove it. All of the women commiserated, hooking their hands around their waists to show how the indentation was less than it used to be. And Dana was there, joking with them and – did she see it correctly? – flirting! Pinching them in the sides while they squealed with delight.
Hollie had always held the idea of a child as something inside of her she wasn’t quite ready for, like an icicle latched on to one of her ribs. She had figured that someday she’d just warm it up, break it off, and toss it on the table.
She would never be the kind of woman who lost her waist.
“You know what they say: God bless us, every one.” Did she say that out loud? The men may have glanced at her uncomfortably but were back in the world of the game. One man next to her, more fragile than the others with his thick glasses and marginalized ottoman seat, responded.
“We just rented that cartoon for the kids. They loved it – even in this August heat.”
“You know,” Hollie replied. “That’s a Dickens novel.”
“Really?” Hollie couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not.
“Have you seen the new security measures they’re putting in for the Liberty Bell?” The man in the glasses had apparently lost all interest in the game. “You know what they say: if it’s already broke, don’t fix it! It’s not as if it’s not already cracked, right?”
“Well, you know what else they say,” she said, picking up a drink someone had left on the floor. “If life gives you a cracked monument, make lemonade!” She swung the glass into the air.
“They say that?” he asked.
Through the archway to the kitchen, Dana was toasting her, with bravado: a pretend glass in an empty hand. To Yoko.
The man next to her raised his torso, revealed an impassioned need to speak of removing history’s cracks with his solemn fist of a face. “I mean, who wants a cracked national monument? Fill it in! Solder it up! We’re a melting pot, for pete’s sake!” His voice was almost booming, and the other men rolled their eyes, grumbled, and turned up the volume on the TV. But four-eyes never faltered. “Indivisible!” he declared. “Remember indivisible?”
And Hollie was still listening: he was in his element now. She would give him an A for enunciation. He could heal the Liberty Bell with that enunciation. This was all what she taught: you could change everything with a slight nuance of the tongue and teeth, the right geometry of the mouth. Enter the conversation of the world by the bridge of your larynx.
She unfolded herself from the sinking cushions of the ottoman and excused herself.
Wasn’t this all part of the script? What she told her students, gently urging them to open their mouths? They talked about it. When kids came to her, closed as oysters, this was how she loosened the jaws and coaxed out something glistening and new.
She first urged her students to tell jokes – a jiggling of the tongue hinge. But if that didn’t work, it was time to tackle that dark secret everyone has one of, that ballad in the gut — something that had to come out.
This was how she fixed things. Or tried to. Even when the cords had been damaged, she’d try to make them talk about that. Pouring soothing, if futile, honey into the throat.
She went back into the kitchen and stood in front of Dana, slowly grazing his Adam’s apple with her thumb. She felt his neck muscles start to contract in anticipation of forming words and she nodded, her chin rising as if carolling with all her might at each and every threshold. Refrains, those old pals.
Just like to a student, she told herself. And she began. “Chin up. Deep breath in. Slowly now. Each tickle of a vibration counts. No one can hear you but me.”
Rebecca Entel is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Cornell College. Her stories have appeared in Madison Review, Leaf Garden, Joyland Magazine, Eunoia Review, Medulla Review, Unsaid Magazine, Connotation Press, and The Examined Life Journal. She lives in Iowa City.
Elmer was in the kitchen fixing himself two eggs over easy when he heard shouting outside. He turned the burner down, went to the window. Out near his mailbox, where the children gathered to board the yellow bus, two girls argued.
Elmer waited. He tried to decipher the voices and gauge the threat. It sounded like one of the girls said you bitch. At first the spat seemed normal, natural. But when the girl in the pink dress struck the girl in the blue dress over the head with a tin lunch pal, Elmer’d seen enough.
He stepped out onto the cool concrete, barefooted. “You girls end it right now,” he said. “Or I’ll come down there.”
The girls had dropped their lunches, and each now clutched a fistful of hair. With locked bodies they jerked, cussed. Then they both fell to the grass and wrestled, arms twisted, before the one in pink got on top, continued slapping and pulling hair. Behind the girls a group of children, ranging from first to ninth grade, crowded around; the mob coalesced, blocking the fight from view.
Elmer hustled to reach the children as fast as he could. He had a bad back from years of block laying. When he finally got there he pushed his way ringside. A little blood dripped from the bottom girl’s nose, and the girl in pink still straddled her, kicking ass.
“Come on, break it up,” Elmer said, and he placed a hand on each girl’s shoulder, pried them apart.
Then Yolanda, the neighbor across the street, stepped out her door with a sheet wrapped around her.
“Ellie,” she said, “don’t take that shit from her. If she’s still picking at you, you better finish that little bitch.”
Ellie, the sufferer through the ordeal, managed to stand at the sound of her mother’s voice. She wiped the blood from her face with an arm, then latched onto the girl’s hair, dragging her to the ground.
Now, Elmer had a problem. The children pushed, roared, cussed; foam formed around their tender mouths like wolves in drought. “Move back, step back,” Elmer said, and extended his arms to corral the children. The two girls still rolled in dirt, trading blows with clenched fists.
Before Elmer could separate them again, Yolanda hustled across the street to the huddle, silk sheet still draped around her. She pushed to the front.
“That’s it, Ellie. Come on, girl. Hit her good goddammit.”
“What you want to do that for?” Elmer asked. “They’re kids.”
Yolanda gripped the sheet above her breasts, ignored him, continued yelling. One of the middle school boys, with a dog collar around his neck and orange hair, went to his knees. He scooted under Yolanda, stuck his head beneath the sheet.
Elmer leaned down, took ahold of each girl’s arm, and started to lift them. Then he felt a sharp pain in his lower back, an explosion of numbing sensations that branched into his arms, his neck, his checks.
“You touch my daughter again you bastard and you’ll find yourself on the sex list,” Yolanda said.
Now the school bus rumbled up the block and a few of the other neighbors had stepped out onto their porches to see what the commotion was about. Three houses down from the melee, Carol Varney stuck her head out the door of her colonial wearing an apron, presumably looking for her daughter.
Meanwhile, the children rooted and Yolanda coached. At times the girls traded places on top, though both were losing energy, momentum, and their movements, their blows, became slower, less forceful over time.
Elmer flinched whenever a body crawled over him or a shoe landed beside his face. He felt paralyzed from the waist down. Through the tangle of legs, he could see the girls, weak and beaten. Then Carol pushed her way into the group.
“That’s enough. You kids know better. Debra, stop, get up.”
“Oh, so now Mrs. Riches needs to throw her dollar in,” Yolanda said.
“Throw what?” Carol asked.
“You heard me, bitch,” Yolanda said, and grabbed her, hit her in the eye.
Carol went down, and Yolanda pounced. During the sucker punch Yolanda’s sheet fell off. She was bare-breasted and the children turned their attention to her, to them, in pure hysteria; the orange-haired boy had resorted to shoving first and second graders out the way to capture it on his phone.
“Somebody help me,” Elmer said.
The mothers and daughters, in their separate snarls, proceeded to fight.
“C’mon, dammit,” Elmer said, and tried pushing himself up but couldn’t.
The bus slowed to a stop alongside the ruckus, hit the lights. Elmer watched as the innards of the bus ignited—the motionless shadows of children finally awakened—into a shove fest. Before the woman driver, who also substituted as the school’s wrestling coach, could get the door open, the children all wedged to one side, rocking the bus. The bus windows clunked and miniature arms and faces emerged through parted glass.
The bus driver unlatched her safety belt and stood. “Everyone remain in their seats and no looking by golly.”
Elmer said, “Hey, driver,” and waved to get her attention.
She must’ve failed to see him because she grabbed the sheet, threw it over Yolanda, then lifted her in a bear hug. Yolanda kicked. The bus driver whispered into Yolanda’s ear, and Yolanda quit thrashing. Carol remained on the ground, unresponsive. The bus driver then shooed the kids onto the bus, returned and lifted Carol and carried her on.
“Hey, dammit, hey, what about me?” Elmer asked.
Yolanda nodded and the driver nodded back before the bus doors closed.
As it rolled on, Elmer yelled but nobody came. He rubbed his belly and counted the cinder blocks that held his place, a foundation of stone and blood he’d once set alone; though all he could do now was wait for someone to stop and help carry him home.
Keith Rebec resides in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He’s a graduate student, working on an MA in Writing, at Northern Michigan University. His work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, apt, Underground Voices, and Split Lip Magazine, among others. He co-edits a literary magazine called Pithead Chapel and you can learn more about him atwww.keithrebec.com.