Katherine’s father wanted to get out of the city. “We can hike and star gaze,” he said. “I want to show Katherine the whales.” So, early in the morning they packed the car and locked up their townhouse. Katherine climbed into the back seat, and her mother tucked her stuffed dog into the seatbelt with her. As they started down the driveway, her father stopped the car, “Where’s that photo album? The one with Phillip?”
“In the attic with your parents’ things. You’re not going back for it?”
“I’ll just be a minute.”
He returned with a large brown photo album. Katherine’s mother moved to the driver’s seat, “I’ll take the first shift,” and her father settled in the passenger seat with the album on his lap.
They headed north over roads that thinned from six lanes to four. “Goodbye, Massachusetts. Hello, New Hampshire,” they said together. Katherine’s parents talked about the cabin. Would there be cleaning supplies or should they stop in Portland and buy a mop and Lysol? Katherine’s mother sang to Simon and Garfunkel. Her father flipped through the pages of the photo album. He reminisced about Phillip—their seed-spitting contests and the time they knocked down the bees’ nest in the wood shed. He turned to Katherine to tell her about the time, when Phillip was seven and Katherine’s father five, Phillip got the ladder from the shed and the two of them climbed the red maple tree along the path to Jackson Ridge so they could peer into the nest of the barred owl. “He had no fear,” Katherine’s father said, wiping his hand across his eyes. Between stories he’d fall silent. Katherine gazed into the passing woods of jack pines and aspen and saw Phillip riding between the trees like a cowboy on the back of a whale.
Her father took over driving in Maine as the roads turned to twisty, two-lane ribbons weaving through corridors of tall trees. Her mother handed the photo album over the seat to Katherine. She flipped through the plastic-covered pages.
In one photo, Phillip stood by himself on the cabin porch wearing a black cape that hung down to the top of red rubber boots. A black mask pushed his curly hair out over his forehead and his eyes watched Katherine through almond-shaped holes. His mouth was hard and serious. In a black-gloved hand he gripped the hilt of a sword, shiny with tin foil.
As Katherine’s father got taller, Phillip disappeared from the pictures.
“I don’t know why we’re going back to the cabin,” Katherine’s mother said, after Katherine had closed her eyes and rested her head on her stuffed dog. “He wasn’t much older than Katherine when it happened. It’ll just scare her.”
But Katherine wasn’t afraid. She had the idea that Phillip remained, stopped in time, in the cabin high up in the Maine woods, and she yearned to see him.
They pulled the car up the short gravel drive and climbed out, taking deep breaths of sharp mountain air. Afternoon sun blinked through the leaves of the cherry tree by the front porch. Her father picked some of the red fruit and handed one to Katherine. She was not surprised to see Phillip sitting on the top step, spitting cherry pits toward the pine martin box. He had vanished by the time they brought up the suitcases. Katherine’s father stopped to test the porch railing and examine a small hole in the floor boards. Then he opened the creaky screen and unlocked the front door.
Katherine helped carry groceries and bedding from the car. She watched for Phillip around every corner of the small cabin.
“Let’s go see the whales,” Katherine’s father said, after all the bags were in and the car was locked.
“Don’t let her go past the boulder,” her mother said.
While her mother stocked the pantry, Katherine and her father walked the overgrown path that led to Jackson Ridge. Her father held back branches and warned her to watch for roots. They listened for the hollow tap-tap of the pileated woodpecker. When they emerged at the bayberry bushes that marked the beginning of the grassy ridge, the sound of the ocean chased away the quiet of the woods. Gulls screeched and soared overhead like paper on a breeze.
Katherine’s father pointed past the boulder toward the edge of the cliff and beyond to the cold, black water. “Over there,” he said. He squatted next to her and wrapped his arm around her waist. “Straight ahead but way out. You have to be patient.”
Katherine stood unmoving, goldenrod and timothy scraping her bare legs and the wind whipping through her hair. There was a flash of red by the boulder. Red boots. The ones Phillip wore in the photo that showed him standing by the front door of the cabin where her mother was now putting cereal boxes and Pop-Tarts on the shelves. It was that Phillip, frowning, armed, and proud, that she saw. It was that Phillip who ran past the protective boulder to the edge of the cliff, heedless of danger. It was that Phillip who defiantly held up the tin foil sword against the sky. Katherine stiffened as the wind grabbed hold of his cape, ballooned it out behind him, and lifted him off the ground.
“There they are!” Katherine’s father said at the sight of the finback whales rising and falling far out in the inky blackness of the sea. He took his arm away from her waist to raise his binoculars. “Glorious.”
Katherine wiped her face with the backs of her hands where the cool wind had brought tears oozing down her cheeks. Her father held the binoculars to her eyes and pointed her toward the whales, helping her focus until she could see the water droplets in their misty spray. Too close. She handed the binoculars back.
“They used to come every summer when I was little,” he said. “Grandma would bundle us up and bring us out to see them.”
Katherine raised herself to her toes and lifted her arms. Phillip, again standing solidly at the edge of the cliff, did the same. Together they flew over the waves, carried by the wind, Phillip’s cape spread out, his red boots kicking. Katherine watched the solid ground fall away; beneath her only ocean, white waves stitching across the surface. The finback whales spouted and dove in the water below. She gasped.
She brought Phillip back to the edge of the cliff where he stood, his back to her, cape flowing, sword raised. One minute planted firmly; his mother—Katherine’s grandmother—seeing him, yelling, “Come back! Get away from the edge!” The next minute, gone. Katherine closed her eyes and shivered.
Her father lowered the binoculars and took off his jacket. He wrapped it around her and took her hand. They tramped back through the woods, leaving Phillip behind with the whales.
Lisa J. Sharon’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Painted Bride Quarterly, The Belt, and Kestrel, among others. She received an Honorable Mention for her short story submission to the 2015 San Miguel Writer’s Conference Fiction Contest and she was a semi-finalist for the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction.
CREAM FLAVORED & CHERRY SCENTED by Chelsea M. Harris
She told you she was driving to the bridal store to shop for dresses with the girls she used to babysit before you were born since she knew she’d never see you all wrapped up in a marshmallow mess surrounded by floor-length mirrors, asking questions like How does my ass look? and Do you think he’ll love it?, your cheeks glowing in rose-colored blooms, eyes done up in sugar-coated sparkle, pupils wide, sipping down those strawberry cosmos, fifteen dollars a whack because you’re at a fancy place with silk curtains and shimmery walls dripping in white, dripping in the things you ask your daddy for because that’s a man’s job and why’s he even living if not to pay for you to marry one under a string of Jell-O lights, your twinkle toes strapped into nine-inch heels, a thread of crusted diamonds kissing your chest, and who’s to say you even love this guy with the charcoal mustache, with the beady smile, telling you one night when you’re twisting underneath him that he’s done a whole lot of fucking, a whole lot of banging pounding knocking nailing boinking shagging, telling you he’s dipped his wick, he’s done the nasty, he’s hit a home run so many times he lost count, that smile sharper than the knitting needle you used in the locker room bathroom stall, you running your trembling fingers over muddy inner thighs, thick cherry slime swallowing them, you didn’t think it would feel like this, I love Bobby and Fuck You are etched into the metal door in front of you and you can’t remember who Bobby is and if he fucked you, and this whole time there’s eyeballs bouncing between your legs like pinballs, itsy bitsy teeny weeny fingernails earlobes pinky toes nostrils creamed corn cuticles swimming through hoops of blood in the toilet bowl, everything smothered in red, girls parading in from the court with their sour sherbet skin, with their orange lemon raspberry lime lips, all of them glistening bright and brilliant, saying things like I wish my thighs were smaller, Are we going out tonight? Yeah I gave him a BJ, all of them peeling through basketball practice, through cafeteria slop acne scars high school parties bus rides popped cherries locker combinations English class all while you hover over a porcelain bowl ripping ruby froth from your loins, and you think they must be right when they call you a Slutbag whore because you’ve slept with Alex John David Mark Michael and Ricky, and you still can’t figure out which one of them made you skip Home Ec to empty out your insides, which one you banged on the football bus at an away game in your brother’s bedroom outside the memorial hospital when your mom was getting her tubes tied because she didn’t want another one of you, you waiting in the Toyota with your knees spread door to door, and who would ever know, who would say Hey you slutty little whore you Floozy tramp you Dick sucking skank you Easy bitch when you made it to your thirties, you wiping nugget slime off your forearms at the drive-thru window while mom’s out gawking at frosted gowns, thinking McChicken McDouble McFlurry McGangbang, men in their burnt red Chevys, women with their razzled lips, all of them saying Hurry up you fat twat, all of them saying You stupid cunt, You high school dropout give me my fucking Big Mac already, you in the bathtub touching yourself until your fingers drowned, you in the ice cream aisle at Walmart buying yourself two gallons of peppermint stick because it’s Christmas eve and you don’t have a boyfriend, a fiancé, a husband baby mother father brother sister, all you’ve got is this milk velvet gut spilling out nothing
Chelsea M. Harris received the Follet Graduate Merit Award to attend Columbia College Chicago and pursue an M.F.A. from the Department of Creative Writing. Chelsea was named to Glimmer Train’s top 25 list for their Very Short Fiction Award and has had work published in Cigale Literary Magazine, Wonderlust Literary Zine, The Antarctican Zine, and on Thought Catalog. She currently resides in Chicago with her cat, Winston.
NOW IN ELSEWHERE A Now for MENAM: A Calendar That Curates Time by Orkan Telhan
The Middle East. North Africa. The Mediterranean. Asia Minor and the Levant. These refer to inexact geographies. It is hard to tell where each begins and ends. As names, they may take on different meanings when they refer to people, languages, belief systems, and politics, all of which constantly negotiate their identities with respect to one another. As places, they may bring together a series of disjointed lands unified as an imaginary cultural construct, yet whose presence lives everywhere, whose lands have produced many diasporas around the globe. Today, someone from Little Syria, New York, uses the same recipe for hummus that a grandmother uses in Syria. And it tastes different; taste belongs neither here nor there, and changes every moment.
Installation view from CULTURUNNERS RV, Armory Show 2015, New York. Click for higher resolution image.
It is often an oriental gaze that renders these uneasy, tenuous connections. This is a gaze that comes both from the desire to belong to a place and the fear of its possibility. Thus the Middle East, North Africa, or the Mediterranean always exist as mediated elsewheres where only others can belong. Or where we belong as others.
Making sense of all of this today is an art. Is opinion really in the eyes of the beholder? What is there to look at when our interpretation will always be skewed by what is selectively mediated for us? Where or whom do we belong if opinions are already others’?
“A Now for MENAM” is an artwork that responds to these questions. It reflects on our habits of looking and making meaning out of what is thrown at us by media. It proposes a different kind of interface—perhaps a less complacent window or mirror—that tries to present the other in its fluidity; with enough room for fact and fiction.
The artwork is designed as a real-time calendar that brings together different moments from history to curate a “now”—a minute-long media excerpt collected from online sources that broadcast content from or about the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean (MENAM). Its algorithm queries different sites and brings together texts, videos, facts and historical trivia that are related to contemporary issues based on the current month. For instance, in March 2015, we see news about the upcoming anniversary of the Armenian genocide, the current death toll of immigrants crossing the Mediterranean, and watch an excerpt from Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour—the only film by the French writer who now rests in a Spanish cemetery, in Laresh, Morocco.
Almanach du Levant (The Levant Almanac)
By design, the calendar’s format references two predecessors: Almanach du Levant (The Levant Almanac) and the Saatli Maarif Takvimi (Educational Calendar with Time).
Almanach was published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the Ottomans to address the needs of the minorities living in the Levant region, which we today identify as the area that spans Cyprus, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. It featured the current dates in Turkish, Greek, French, Bulgarian, Armenian, and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) with respect to the specifics of the timekeeping practices used in these geographies.
Saatli Maarif Takvimi (Educational Calendar with Time)
Saatli Maarif Takvimi also dates back to the early 1900s but is still in use today in Turkey. It features both the Gregorian and the Hijri calendar, which is mainly used to indicate the daily prayer times for Muslims based on moon cycles. In addition to timekeeping, the educational calendar also includes daily items such as weather predictions, recipes, suggested names for newborns, jokes and trivia about past events that happened on that day. It works like a serial publication written by an anonymous author who tells you what you need to know for the day.
As a mobile application, “A Now for MENAM” runs in real time yet pays homage to these printed formats, both in form and content. The layout is broken down into sections that organize the information in quadrants. Every minute we see content based on a new topic related to one of the countries in the region—immigrants in Libya, austerity measures in Greece, the banning of Berber names for Moroccan babies. A video feature on the topic appears on the upper right corner of the page, matched with a looping gif animation, which counters both its speed and message with humor or satire. On the lower left, we see a visualization of facts or real-time information, such as stock exchange tickers or real-time widgets reporting on currencies and markets of MENAM, while on the lower right there is a Twitter feed where everyone can contribute to the current topic with a selection of hash tags.
A Now for MENAM, detail. Click for higher resolution image.
“A Now for MENAM” curates a running critique on issues related to current times. The four-quadrant format presents multiple perspectives on the same topic by showing adversarial opinions in the same frame, with information collected from different outlets such as personal blogs, mainstream media, and scientific journals. In the age of social media, this calendar does not presume to feature the “right” point of view; rather, it tells a story from the perspective of different tellers. As with any narrative, the result is always subjective and incomplete. Every minute-long “now” is a possibility negotiated between an algorithmic selection and a series of curatorial decisions programmed by the artist.
The calendar can be accessed anywhere in the world, 24/7. However, it is primarily designed to be a travel companion—a temporal navigator—that will find its place next to the GPS in our cars. Currently commissioned by the CULTURUNNERS Project and the Armory Show 2015, the calendar will travel across the United States and visit different cities inside an RV. During the calendar’s trip, its algorithm will detect the current location of the RV and pull its content accordingly, from sites and sources created by those who identify with MENAM in the visited places.
Like all narratives, the cultural constructs we call the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean will always unfold in fragmented ways. The “Now” calendar, as a work of art comprising a series of curated moments, will never render a clear coherent image of the land or the other but rather help us reimagine a different MENAM every time we look at it.
Orkan Telhan is an interdisciplinary artist, designer, and researcher whose investigations focus on the design of interrogative objects, interfaces, and media, engaging with critical issues in social, cultural, and environmental responsibility. Telhan is Assistant Professor of Fine Arts–Emerging Design Practices at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. He was part of the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Laboratory and the Mobile Experience Lab at the MIT Design Laboratory. Telhan’s individual and collaborative work has been exhibited in venues including the 13th Istanbul Biennial, 1st Istanbul Design Biennial, Ars Electronica, ISEA, LABoral, Archilab, Architectural Association, the Architectural League of New York, MIT Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York.
College kid this time. Loud, heard him soon as they got out of the car, warbling like someone too comfortable with his own voice. Badly fucked up or bad at faking: had to be a college kid. Blue-collar guys handle their booze and don’t have to be loud to prove a point, and professional types bug out when they see our shithole. She even brought a black guy back once, the only one who introduced himself, cooked us eggs before he left.
Must’ve gone to the dives near the college, had her pick of beer-soaked frat boys blue-balled from staring at tight Mormon asses all day. Knew it was going to be one of those nights, fucking knew it, but I’d stopped taking Tylenol PM the month before, giving my liver a well-earned retirement, and had to spend each night wrestling my thoughts and gripping the mattress so I wouldn’t get up and do something stupid. Should’ve put more shit up in the room to distract me, lava lamp or aquarium or those squirmy little sea monkeys. Shit, probably should’ve moved rooms in the first place—hate and hurt seeped into the walls—moved rooms, moved houses, moved cities. But time gives a fuckall about your plans.
Her voice soft as they came inside, making his louder in response. She shushed him and made him take off his shoes, a ridiculous request given the state of our carpet, but it’s the one rule left over from her mother she still observes, we both do, paying some kind of sick tribute to that bitch. The kid blared on, trying to tell jokes, exclamation marks in his inflection. She didn’t laugh, she never laughed, but he couldn’t take a hint. I could almost make out words but used the pillow to cover my head, smother the world.
Some of those dives hadn’t caught up with the new regulations, still served near-beer. Would’ve taken her about thirty to get a buzz off three point two. But she was buzzed, more than buzzed; she was so quiet. The nights she came home sober, she’d crank music, bang around the kitchen. Only quiet when she was ripped. Inherited the drunk guilties from me, soaked it up all those nights I crept in late and she’d peer out of her bedroom door and I’d nod and she’d crawl into my lap and we’d fall asleep watching infomercials for get-rich-quick seminars. Must’ve inhaled something in my boozy breath, infected her cells with whatever shit used to drive me and now drove her.
But the college kid was still loud, and I was tired. I was always tired. I wasn’t going back to sleep so I played the game I always did when she brought them back; I thought about my own nights, the nights I must’ve kept her awake when she had tests or dances or other life-altering teenage shit the next day. Turned my alarm clock around every night so I wouldn’t check it, every hour I could associate with a different drink, a different drug, a different fight.
Booked for assault at 11:11, officer told me to make a wish
Midnight shots of Beam at Grainey’s for a buck twenty til the bottle was gone Tootskis at two whenever Tino was in town Give her the bottle at 4am, grab one for myself
The SCRRCHSSHHHH of a staticky radio ripped me back. She switched it off, reprimanded him, voice so quiet and stern it scared me how much it sounded like her mom. Despite everything, she didn’t want to wake me.
Actually, bullshit. She knew I’d still be awake, had to, I’d stormed out and kicked up shit for much less. For show then, this voice, this attempt at placation. She knew I’d hear it, maybe stall me a little. Kid ate it up, got more aggressive, wanted to know where a fucking drink was, where her fucking bedroom was, what’s that fucking smell.
Pivotal moment now, whether she took him to her room. Right next to mine, and the walls so fucking thin. I knew the score, known it since she was fourteen and I gave some skate punk a felonious black eye, but it never got easier. Hearing. Knowing. Got worse after the bitch left and it was almost every weekend. I’d stay out all night to avoid it. Wanted to yell at her what the fuck was she doing, but what right did I have? I’d wake up scrambled and wait until I’d hear the front door slam and we wouldn’t talk to each other for days. That’s when I knew she was grown, the first morning she didn’t avoid me, didn’t stay in the bathroom an hour, instead looked me in the eyes and asked about breakfast. Few years ago but could’ve been lifetimes. Time, fuckall, that thing again.
It flew like a brick through our plywood walls, jolting me up. Could’ve been a punchline to one of his self-aggrandizing jokes.
She broke pretense and opened full-bore, curses and screaming and the thwack only a curled fist makes and I was up and out.
Everything froze, like someone had pushed pause on one of those white-trash family dramas on the women’s channel. And he was a college kid, wearing the block ‘U’ t-shirt to prove it, but not like I pictured, not at all, not some water-polo frat rat, but someone more marginal and menacing. He wore glasses over a ratty face, and had a divot out the side of his hair like someone took a razor to him while sleeping, or an operation, or chemo, or some other stupid shit he deserved. He was punching the stereo, not her, already ripped through the speaker mesh and dented the cone. His look went from surprise to something like embarrassment. I wasn’t a bruiser anymore but I had scars and ink and a fat old-man’s gut that looked like it’d be hard to throw around.
He thought a second, eyed the glass mug on the table, eyed me. This wasn’t the first time he’d been tangled up in a shitpile of this sort, and I looked for something within reach that could be weaponized.
She watched, hair back in a ponytail, that athletic look, but the weathered face and boozy loll that aged her a decade. As if she needed more shit, there was adult-onset acne, went to a doctor a few times but what’s the fucking point, she’d asked when we talked about getting her cream or something. What’s the fucking point, there’ll always be something.
College kid was looking at her, thinking the same thing. He shook his head. It wasn’t worth it. She wasn’t worth it. He stood up, made a joke about incest, and backed to the door. It’d be a story he’d tell his buddies, met some slut at the bar and went back to her place, almost got into a brawl with her crazy fucking dad. Fucked up their speakers though.
“Skank.” Tossed over his shoulder as he walked out.
I went after him, I don’t know, to push him in the back or something, suckerpunch his ass to next week. Show her she was worth it, fuck that guy, she’s my daughter and she’s worth the effort and the acne cream and every goddamn drop of blood that’d be spilled from his ratty snout.
But she pulled me back. His lowered pickup peeled out, then stalled halfway down the street. I slammed the door as his engine gasped back to life.
Silent as she looked at me, a look that on a more put-together woman would’ve been called “knowing,” and if she’d had a cigarette she would’ve lit up. I made her promise not to keep any in the house, no smokes or booze or pills, nothing, like we’re fucking Mormons ourselves. We were through with the drama, the dish-throwing, the curses and blames and shitty, sorry muck we dragged each other through for years. Sometimes she woke me up, sometimes she didn’t, and we both dealt with the consequences like the adults we pretended to be.
She helped me toss the speaker into the trash outside. It was cold, and I still wasn’t wearing a shirt, but the night was as clear as I’d ever seen it, like somebody had pulled back a scummy shower curtain that’d been blurring the sky. I’d spent most of my adult life awake during the night, ignoring the sky, trying to blot it out, and yet here it was the whole time, waiting for me.
She stood next to me, followed my gaze up to the crescent moon giving us a half-cocked grin. “That’s where you found me. Remember? I was the girl on the moon.”
I wanted to tell her I knew what she was talking about, but we’d both know I’d be lying.
“When I was little you told me you found me on the moon, playing with the stars. But I was lonely, so you took me home so we could play together.”
More than anything, I wanted to say something here, something witty and important. Something a real dad would say.
But she knew me those years, remembered me during that time better than I did, so she knew not to expect anything. Even gave me an awkward sideways hug before she went inside.
No use trying, so I stayed up, watching informercials, swear to god they’re the same ones we’d watched all those years ago.
I went into her room later. Trespassed, I know, but she’d woken me up, and it was my fucking house. Passed out, teeth clenched into a skeleton grin, so motionless that I held my hand over her flat chest to make sure it still rose.
A full bottle on her nightstand caught light seeping from the hallway. I wasn’t surprised she’d snuck beer in. I was surprised by how cold it was—wasn’t from the fridge, and she’d been out for hours. But it was perfect mass-produced domestic beer temperature, bottle sweating like in the commercials, announcer telling me how it’s the perfect thirst-quenching blend of taste and body. Years building the rickety structure inside but it’d only take one sip to knock it down. I didn’t want to care anymore.
She rustled and sighed and I set the bottle down, catching the label. Hadn’t seen High Life in years—should’ve recognized the tapered bottle. Favorite beer, not just because it was cheap. I loved the label.
Fucking idiot. Of course. A pretty girl sitting on a crescent moon in a field of stars. The fairy tale I told her, the only thing my hole-punched mind could concoct on all those nights I couldn’t remember, all those nights I’d lost, and she’d held onto it like folklore.
Felt like I should do something more there. Wake her up, apologize, find her stash and pour every drop down the drain, a sudsy swirl that would carry us with it, out the drain and through the pipes and into the ocean, where we could float away to an island and start again.
But I’d done enough for one night. I set the beer next to her and stepped out of the room, leaving the door open a crack in case she woke up and wanted to come join me.
Originally from Boise, Idaho, Andy Bailey teaches English in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and dog. He’s a Pushcart Prize nominee, and his work has been published in Juked, Tupelo Quarterly, Buffalo Almanack, Stymie, B-Boyish, and Underground Voices, among others. His attempt at a website can be found at www.memyselfandrew.com.
A word is flung into the dark from the sidewalk behind me, but I don’t recognize the voice it belongs to. What did he say? Tighten my scarf around my neck, hold my umbrella a little lower, glance left to scan the approaching expanse of parking lot for other students leaving campus. Night classes out, parking spaces vacant. Streetlights punctuate the November darkness. I step off the sidewalk into the lot. My steps quicken.
“Slut!” The word, clear and hard, snaps against my ears. I sidestep a sheet of ice. Fingers involuntarily fumble in my coat pocket. Is he talking to me? I meant to sew up the hole in my jacket, the one that sucks change, lighter, and keys deep into the lining. Too late now. My fingers can’t make sense of the mess. Slow down to feel out my keys. Mom’s voice in my head: You should already have them out, dear.
“SLUT! HEY, SLUT!” The voice, closer. Coming from the right but from how far back, I’m not sure. Never been good at depth perception. It’s near enough that I forget about finding my keys. Why did I leave work early? Only had ten minutes left. Head down, I march towards my old Buick at the far end of the empty lot. Rain, lashing below the umbrella, blinds me. My hair works free from its slack bun. Sharp, wet strands slap at my face. Tears gather at the corner of my left eye. I think of my boyfriend. Wish Drew would’ve answered my fucking call. Pull my phone from my slacks and try again. Voicemail.
Do I look like a slut? Overworked, overweight graduate student in a too-tight jacket, brown bangs plastered down, one-shoulder messenger bag warping my frame. Does he want me to answer? Just ignore him. Get to the car, get to the car, get to the car. Thoughts sync with the rhythm of my rain boots.
Who does he think he is? Finally work my keys out of the black hole of my jacket, but I’m not unlocking my car. I hold them in between each finger, makeshift brass knuckles. I don’t know what to do now. Squinting through the icy rain, I search for the voice. Don’t know what I expect to see. I thought maybe there would be two or more of them, one showing off, but it’s just him. He’s wearing a gray hoodie, “Class of 2014” in block white on the back. The canvas strap of a Jansport hangs low off his shoulder. He’s walking up the sidewalk to campus, past the parking lot entrance now, away from the late-night coffee shop a couple blocks down. Sometimes I sip a dark roast and read for class there, the atmosphere humming with caffeine and anxiety of early morning tests. I’ll be teaching boys like him in a few months, new duty as a grad assistant. I don’t even know him. He bends to pick up a discarded Coke can. The water beads catch the light of the street lamp as it clangs into a metal garbage bin.
I turn and walk the remaining fifty feet of the parking lot to my car. Stab the unlock button on my key fob, throw my bag and umbrella into the back, fall into the driver’s seat. Think about turning right out of the parking lot instead of left, back towards campus. Wonder if my car would get damaged if I ran it up on the sidewalk. These half-formed thoughts evaporate out the window with a curl of smoke from my cigarette. What could I possibly say to him? Nothing I’ve learned would teach him anything. A question I don’t ask: Why me? I already know that answer.
A college reader, colored with Post-its and scrawled notes, is on the floorboard of my car. From my rearview, the yellow corner of a legal pad labeled “Assignment Prompts?” pokes out of my messenger bag. The start of my teaching career, edging nearer to reality, has been on my mind the last few weeks. New clothes, straight pages of unopened textbooks, heads full of summer. A room of faces, closer than ever, waiting for answers.
Hannah Allen, raised among the honeysuckle and hollers of Wolf Creek, Kentucky, is a graduate student of English at Western Kentucky University. Her work has appeared in Zest, on crumpled sheets of paper at the bottom of her backpack, and in frantic emails to her creative writing group members. Hannah, her fiancé, and their cat live outside of Nashville, Tennessee.
When I was young and living in San Francisco’s Sunset District with a roommate, I had a job selling underwear at Neiman Marcus. If I were to speak of this job with more reverence I would say that I sold “intimate apparel.” But “underwear” is more honest and also closer to “undercover,” because that’s what I was, an incognito undergraduate philosophy major, covered up by a lot of expensive underwear. I had to be a good salesperson to an occasional businessman who came in to grope La Perla panties (at $130 apiece). These men would ask, in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, “Where is the nearest restroom?” And I would say, “Straight and then left, next to the children’s department.”
One late night I was working alone and had to close the register. I was putting bras back on their hangers. When I looked up, I saw a very attractive woman who dared to examine underwear a few minutes before the store had to close.
She was a rare beauty, likely in her mid-40s, her body alert, her movements self-aware, like an actress or dancer. She was wearing simple dark slacks and a tan-colored, v-neck sweater and had the polished look of wealth that signals unattainable dignity. Her jet-black hair was long and wavy, her lips full, and her dark eyes calm. Her make-up was heavy, but tasteful. A wholesome beauty—it was as if she were created from a single cloth, showing no seams. She looked a bit like the Italian actress Monica Bellucci, who had had recently appeared in the movie The Matrix. To meet Monica on my night shift amidst underwear seemed itself akin to a trip into some kind of Matrix.
Monica had a question for me: “Do you have a burgundy La Perla bra in ‘34D’ and panties in ‘small’?” Her voice was deep, lacking in hesitation, or maybe it was the flatness of her heavy Russian accent, like a big book that falls on the floor, a blunt sound. At the time, my own Russian accent was strong, but as if full of apologies, not like a book on the floor at all.
I said, in our native tongue, “I speak Russian. I will check the size in our stockroom.”
For a moment she looked offended. I imagined she wanted to be left alone, among strangers who speak a foreign language, living their foreign lives. Another Russian, even a complete stranger, is always an invader. Chances were, a co-patriot could picture her life more or less accurately and, therefore, mercilessly. I hastily retreated into the stockroom and then emerged with “34D” and “small.”
Monica Bellucci was at the register, her wallet open and ready for the credit-card transaction. She eyed me quickly, then stretched out her manicured hand to say: “I’m Alina.” Then: “How old are you?”
I told her my name and that I was nineteen. Cold sweat was gathering on my forehead and I didn’t know why. I thought: Is she a bitch or a goddess? I wrapped her purchase in white tissue paper and was already putting it inside a small red shopping bag when I heard: “You have something about you.” When I looked up, I saw her assessing glance. It was a lazy assessment, costing her no effort at all, but I took it gladly. This “something,” I wondered, is it something she wants or something I want? Should I ask her to clarify? She clarified: “I’m here for a few days. I flew alone from Moscow, through New York. My husband is unfaithful to me—I ran away. Would you like to have dinner with me tonight? I will pay, of course.”
We walked together along Geary Street, the air suffocating us with summer exhaust fumes. Alina did not look around much and did not talk much either. She took me to Kuleto’s, a fancy place on Powell Street, between Geary and O’Farrell, “to start with drinks.” Lemon-drop martinis, that’s what she wanted. I was not yet twenty-one, I reminded her, so a Shirley Temple would do for me. It was not a cool move, but legal. We were shown to a small table not far from the window and I ordered Bloomsdale Spinach Salad and Filet Mignon. With a martini in hand, Alina seemed relaxed. I noticed that men nearby were looking in the direction of our table and pretending that they were not looking. Some of them were with women, maybe even their wives.
“Don’t look at them,” Alina dropped sharply.
I was defensive: “I’m not looking.” I felt stupid, not in control.
“Oh,” was all she let out and looked at me with those eyes, calm eyes, like a calculator. And I thought to myself: What am I doing here? Me, a member of the feminist philosophy group where my friend Jenny recently argued that to shave legs is to submit to the patriarchal framework. I recalled a line from a poem by Mayakovsky: here you are, a woman thickly powdered/looking like an oyster from the shell of your stuff. And so it seemed that Alina, with her captivating eyes, her delicate everything, wanted me to be a student of female-oyster science.
I decided to treat this dinner as a strict anthropological investigation of a species distinct from my tribe. But this powdered woman, who likely thought feminists to be unadorned man-haters, held my attention in a way that defied rational explanation. I felt physically sucked into her evening. Or was it a whole world-view? What else could have explained my sudden onset of embarrassment about my mostly make-up-free face? As if reading my thoughts, Alina reached into her bag, pulled out a lipstick and applied it to my lips, painting the territory rather expertly.
“Good shade for you,” she said. She also said that I reminded her a little of Monica Vitti, an Italian actress from the 60s film L’Avventura. Doing justice to the Italian-Monica clan held its undeniable attraction. The pull of patriarchal values, I said to myself. How low I’m sinking.
She asked about my life, and I told her the essentials: when I left Russia, why I majored in philosophy, and how I started working at Neiman Marcus. I tried not to reveal too much, and left out the part about my year-long leave of absence from college. I sensed how far away she was, listening, but from some other place, a tall tower, perhaps, like Rapunsel’s. She could be planning her seduction moves on unsuspecting men, I thought to myself. The waiter brought our salads and I started puncturing thick spinach leaves. Alina’s salad remained untouched. Does she count calories in salads? She seemed the type.
She got up to use the restroom and was gone for a very long time. Sitting all alone I thought how ridiculous I must appear: lonely, at this exclusive place, with that bright lipstick I never wear, spinach stabbed on my fork, the fork in mid-air. The waiting went on and on and I began to fear that Alina was gone for good. Would she return to pay the bill? I thought of the food we ordered, plus the drinks, plus the tip, and did a mental calculation: $150 at least. My maxed-out Visa could not cover it.
Outside the window a group of drunken young people was obstructing the sidewalk. Three young guys from the group stood apart howling like wolves, their girlfriends bent in half from hysterical laughter. Tourists walked around them trying not to notice. When I looked up, Alina was suddenly back. She sat down, picking up her drink with that manicured hand. Her soft, open presence lulled me into forgiveness and renewed submissiveness.
“I want to tell you something about men,” she said. “Any man can be tamed if he has the right woman next to him. You are at the right age to absorb this lesson. Most women are clueless and they waste their opportunities. Many women don’t even know how to walk like women or how to wear high heels by the time they reach the age of thirty! The body of a woman, every part of it, is like ammunition, but if you don’t know how to use it, it just hangs there, sad and limp.
“My dear girl,” Alina went on, “femininity is an art, a game, and a science. Men started wars for women, killed each other for women they desired. Those women knew what they were doing. Believe me, attraction is the glue that binds people. The real woman is aware of what she projects from every angle. She is her own choreographer. It is a feminine dance, you understand, and it goes on even when you are by yourself, even when you get up from your bed alone at night, or reach into your bag here in this restaurant. Surround yourself by many men and make them compete for you and then choose.”
She was rambling; the martini was doing its job. I was sure this bag of feminine-charm tricks was a mere quick glossary, and that the meatier lessons, or even a glimpse of chapter titles, would not be revealed that night. This was a disappointing realization.
There was a lot to say, but I said this: “To live this way, just to be desired by men?”
“No, to be desired generally, but mainly to feel connection with people, with many people at a deeper level. It is the only way to know a person, to feel the stuff he is made of. And to be generally desirable is the only way to get to know a lot of people intimately.”
“You mean having sex with many?”
“No, sex with a few and a deep connection with the rest.” She then said: “To be drawn into another person is bolshoe schastie.” A big happiness. The way she said it made me think of Bolshoi Ballet, the Big Ballet, happiness like a grand Russian institution, world famous for its success with the most Platonic of art forms.
“Can I ask you to do something for me?” she said with a tone hitting a different note, as if music had been changed abruptly from Tchaikovsky to a pop song by Spice Girls. “Could you stay with me tonight? I have a room at the Westin St. Francis, just up the street. Windsor Suite. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip stayed there some time ago. You will like the view—the city at your feet.”
I didn’t know what to say. What must be said in a situation like this?
“It is nothing improper,” she explained, sensing my shock. “I get scared at night and can’t sleep. I need to have someone nearby, someone I like.”
I was not sure how to proceed, so I asked about her husband, whether he is often unfaithful to her.
She looked straight at me, somewhat deflated, but willing to pay this price.
“Vadim, my third husband, is a businessman, an oil dealer, a very successful one. We met five years ago. He has been unfaithful from the beginning, but he will never leave me. Not that I want him to. He often brings home a girl or several girls, just for the night. Sometimes he comes home with his male friends and asks me to sleep with them, ‘to share’ me. I have been with many men my husband knows.”
I was listening, but her storyline was so indigestible I was having a hard time catching every word.
“Why do you stay with your husband?” I asked. The obligatory question.
“He is not a bad man. Some things are hard to explain. Vadim gives me freedom. And I don’t think he can do without me. I choose to stay. But I can’t sleep. Not alone in a big, foreign city. Stay with me tonight. What is one night in your long life?”
“OK,” I said hesitantly. I said it as if to myself and wondered whether I was now entering my experimental phase, since I was willing to go to hotel rooms with older women. I tried to picture my room at that moment: my bed still unmade, clothes scattered all over the floor and, in the kitchen, my roommate making tea and talking on the phone with her long-distance boyfriend in Boston.
I knew that if I returned to that room I would continue thinking about Alina, mulling over events of the evening, unable to sleep or read or call my friends. I was certain I couldn’t tell anyone about Alina, her hotel room or not. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do next because the important thing has already happened. Going to her hotel room was like that—it was that thing that happened next, after the important element.
“Why do you not have a man?” she asked. She said a “man” as opposed to a “boyfriend.” She meant: someone not a boy, a mature person, a masculine type. I was glad she thought me worthy of a “man.”
“I need to fall in love to be with a man.”
“Not always. Sometimes you can be kind. Or just reckless. Don’t be so hard on others.”
“And if you have no desire?”
“Then find it. Many people are desirable and not only those who desire you.”
She paid the bill and we walked into the cool air. The Westin St. Francis was only a block away. Not talking. Each with our own thoughts, listening to the city’s silence, a muffled sound, like a noise suppressed by force. The elevator took us to the thirty-first floor, to the Windsor Suite. I entered an extraordinarily large space with big windows and tasteful furniture in dark wood with light blue upholstery. I saw tidiness, the absence of a presence, as if all of it had been purchased and assembled earlier that day. Alina asked me to feel at home and then retreated into the bathroom for “a quick shower.”
When she returned her hair was up in a bun and she was wearing a long, light blue silk robe. As she walked, the material of her robe ran after her in a spiral motion. Her steps were small and bird-like. How modest she is, it hit me then. It was a modesty that left me free with my own ideas about her. She didn’t ask me to think of her in a certain way. She didn’t mind my judgments. I’m not modest, I realized, even when I didn’t wear make-up, even when I walked down the street in my boyish jeans thinking about philosophy, not looking at anyone, minding my own business. Even then I wanted people to see me in a certain light: a smart girl, a feminist, a girl going somewhere. Let them see me for only a fleeting moment, but I wanted their description of me to match my own.
It was my turn to take a shower in Alina’s luxurious, white bathroom where Prince Phillip did his intimate ablutions. My shampoo had a sweet coconut smell. When I was done Alina came in with a long silk robe in light pink.
“I bought this robe in Tokyo,” she said, “the softest silk you can find anywhere. It will suit you. Keep it. Think of me when you wear it.”
When I put it on and turned to look at the back in the mirror I saw the delicate image of a peacock, green feathers drawn in quick lines. The touch of luxury—for, at the time, this robe was the most luxurious piece of clothing my body had ever known—was intoxicating, like a physical surge of self-respect.
We were together on her bed, me in my peacock robe, Alina in hers. I recall sliding under the sheets as if trying not to touch the material. Who was in this bed last night? Another Russian woman? Did Alina find one in every city she visited? Alina’s perfume and arms enveloped me and she gently caressed my hair. Everybody has a presence when they are in bed, even when alone, I thought lying there, and that presence is like a confession, a slippage of the mind’s material through the material of the body.
Alina’s bed presence was surprisingly innocent and giving. She was lying still and holding me and that was it, but I felt—I could find no other way to put it—that she gave away her body generously. Gave freely to anyone. I thought her initially a Dostoevskian Nastasja Filipovna from my favorite novel, The Idiot. (I liked to mentally catalogue Russians I met into Dostoevskian types.) Nastasja, the tragic femme fatale, who threw one hundred thousand rubles into the fireplace during a birthday party, and then asked a specific person to fetch it from the fire with bare hands so that the guests could see his soul in action. No, the woman lying next to me was not Nastasja. She was Lizaveta from Crime and Punishment. Not the whole Lizaveta, but Lizaveta as far as Alina’s “soul in action” was concerned. Lizaveta, the meek, hard-working, younger sister of the pawn-broker and Raskolnikov’s accidental victim.
It had always puzzled me that many men lusted after Lizaveta, in spite of her unremarkable looks, her meekness, and poverty. She must not have smelled very nice either. But Lizaveta gave herself away readily to any man who wanted her, and she was often wanted, and admired, loved, needed. I hadn’t understood Lizaveta then, but nested in Alina’s arms, it suddenly dawned on me that Alina was Lizaveta, a person living in her body with generosity towards other bodies. This generosity was both innocent and knowing, non-judgmental and intuiting the terms and terminology of other bodies. She hugged me tighter. Was this the “chaste embrace” I had heard about? How did this come to her? To others like her? Did I ever have it? Would I ever?
“Those men, your husband’s friends who come to you, what are they like?” I asked.
“They are good people, darling, mostly gentle. It is just desire for them. It lives for only a little while.”
I wanted to believe these men were mostly gentle. Or gentle next to her. It seemed entirely plausible somehow.
“Were any of them in love with you? How could they not be?”
She was silent. I sensed her sadness and blankness, but it was very abstract, as if there was no door into that space, not for me.
“At Neiman Marcus you said to me ‘you have something.’ What did you mean?”
“The way you looked at me—with the defiance and boredom of a young girl.”
I closed my eyes and fell into a deep cave of sleep. I had a vivid dream. I was in a movie theater watching a film made with technology that awakens all of our senses. On the screen I watched and felt the most primitive one-celled organisms bumping into each other in endless waves of orgasms. I was watching this film and thinking: Life evolved from orgasms.
I woke up to soft sunlight and Alina sitting on our bed, dressed in jeans and a white linen blouse. Her face was radiant and a little shiny from face cream. She was nursing a cup of coffee in a black mug. We ordered room service breakfast—scrambled eggs and French toast with jam—and asked polite questions about quality of sleep and quality of weather. My shift at work started at 9:00 a.m. sharp. I could see Neiman Marcus from a window in the living room, right across Union Square. A very short walk back to my life.
I didn’t want to return to work in clothes I wore the night before, so Alina found a dress for me. I put my hands up, obediently, like a girl, while she slipped the dress over my head. It was slightly big on me—I was slimmer than Alina—but it worked. A handsome, light blue dress: simply cut, heavy linen, knee-length. We found a wide light belt to go with it—the dress looked more my size when I was belted at the waist.
She pulled out her big make-up case and got to work on my face. It took a long time and she followed a strict procedure: concealer, foundation, eye-shadow, little angled brushes, big brushes, a brush for every stroke and color. I was to look down when she applied mascara. I briefly glanced at myself in the mirror just for basic information and decided to really look later. That make-up session was Alina’s drawing of me on my face and I wanted to know how she saw me.
She disappeared into the bedroom and came back with a sizable Louis Vuitton bag and some clothes over her arm. Three dresses, a polka-dot top, two light-weight sweaters, my pink robe with the peacock. She packed the bag, my bag now, with my gifts and I thought: Is she preparing me for an escape, or perhaps an elopement?
Old bag across my chest, Louis Vuitton in hand, I was ready to depart. Alina walked me to the door and we did the Russian-style, double-cheek kiss. She said, “How lovely you look. Don’t be late for work.” These words sounded domestic, what the wife says to the husband on TV.
I marched across Union Square, past the front door of Neiman Marcus to the “employees only” entrance. I then turned around and started walking in the opposite direction, to Kuleto’s. Not seeing much, I just walked, fast and uncharacteristically purposeful. It was too early for Kuleto’s to be open, so I stood at the window looking at the table where I had sat the night before with Alina. Our chairs were turned legs up, perched on the table. It took me a moment to recognize myself in the window’s reflection behind Alina’s clever, cat-eye make-up that would be washed away tonight. I felt certain that I would never see her again, would never feel her gentle presence, would not know how to be gentle myself.
Svetlana Beggs is a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, and holds an M.A. in Philosophy. Her poems will appear in forthcoming issues of Columbia Poetry Review and Pleiades, and her flash story was in a recent issue of Bartleby Snopes. Her philosophy essay about friendship and conflict was selected for a collection of essays, Friends and Foes. She lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter.
WHAT I WAS THINKING OF DURING THE FUNERAL SERVICE,
by Gregory Djanikian for Wendy Glenn
Of course, death, how it wore
its outsize black hat to slice the day.
The mysterious abyss
of the body failing again,
falling into another body.
Not so much of resurrection
though it was spoken of, the oxen kneeling
in the straw, the stone rolled away.
The first death that had no likeness. The earth that hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood.
After which the history of departures
required a history of common prayer.
The husband, the daughter, the long river
they would soon be walking beside.
All the pressed white shirts, the cowhide boots
and blue jeans, the colors of mourning.
Amazing grace. Most merciful Father.
So many words delivered to replace
the touch of the body,
here, touch wife, touch mother.
Every noise the emblem of something
in motion. The ceiling fans whirring.
The tick, tick, tick, of the sun
beating down on the metal roof.
Gregory Djanikian has published six collections of poetry with Carnegie Mellon University Press, the latest of which is Dear Gravity (2014). His poems have appeared in many journals including American Poetry Review, The American Scholar, Boulevard, The Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Pleiades, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, The Southern Review, Shenandoah, and TriQuarterly, and he has been featured on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He directs the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Every day, I consume many colors—white and blue, pink,
translucent as a pale winter sun. Some I could crush
to a powder, some I could puncture and watch thick
red ooze smear my hands. Fat in the middle, round
like a flat earth, capsules you could shake like maracas.
I have ingested the weight equivalent of an adult male gorilla
or an anoa, from Indonesia (similar to the water buffalo).
I have swallowed one for every resident of
Copenhagen or the South American country of Suriname.
When I was six, my parents brought me
into the living room (dominated by a burnt orange rug),
and told me about “allowance.” When all the yapping
was done, they handed me a “dime,” slim and small, and so
I took it. Metallic, yes, but with a human hand tang. Right
down the hatch, pressing the back of my tongue flat,
following it with a drink in the kitchen.
It makes sense, therefore, that when he died, choking on
the same disease, I dreamt of swallowing him. He was a sparrow
being tossed like a football until I intervened and caught him.
His tiny bullet body, the heart fluttering to stillness,
the feathery heat in my hand turning to cold, and so I ate him.
No chewing, just opened my throat and down he went, until he
reached my chest and lodged, a pill that requires
more water than I can ever drink.
Eliza Callard was born, raised, and now lives in Philadelphia. Forty years of managing—and occasionally mismanaging—her cystic fibrosis have given her an unusual perspective on loss and endurance. She’s put in time as a reporter, a slush-pile reader, and a copy editor. A product of the Philly public schools and Skidmore College, she enjoys family time, hiking and camping, and playing the piano. She’s been published in Hobart, and her website is elizacallard.com.
Like his father, whenever he voiced a new idea a steam-engine-run train emerged from his mouth. It was possible to spot the idea coming, as his throat would glow and the area around him rumbled slightly. Specialists assured him there was no cause for alarm; it was a mysterious nuisance, but hereditary, and besides, the trains were quite small.
School discussion posed some difficulty as well. Fortunately, it was a well-documented condition, and so accommodation could be made; each room was equipped with a circular track, and he was given extra time to articulate particularly in-depth ideas, which could lead to additional cars, or a tiny, overly-energetic conductor, repeatedly pulling the train’s whistle. Some ideas were like that.
It could get overwhelming: all those ideas: all those trains to maintain, or to find bearing down on him in the night. The trains kept irregular schedules, returning the next day, or much larger, years later. His father insisted that one day the trains would take him someplace, though he was vague on the exact details of the location.
Ori Fienberg, a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, publishes exclusively flash fiction and prose poetry regularly in venues such as Boaat, Diagram, Pank, Mid American Review, and Subtropics. He telecommutes to work for the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, while living with his fiancée and dog in Evanston, Illinois.
The dogs and I walk to the neighborhood park and there are four cars in the parking lot; usually there are none. My first thought: Damn it, they’ve all killed themselves.
That’s what happens when there’s been a week filled with suicide.
Years ago, I remember walking to this park with my teenaged daughter. We noticed a car that appeared to be empty, yet moving. Curious, we peered through the window. The dogs started barking. The dogs were smarter than us. Embarrassed because they were classmates, my daughter took off running.
It had been too long for me, and yet never happened for she. Screw the words. This is one of those times when the universal bark of a dog says it all.
Today I take a long look at the parked cars. Not one car has a hose hooked to the window. No blood marks on the windshield. I don’t know why they are just sitting alone in their cars, not outside enjoying the park.
At least they are alive.
After finishing our walk through the neighborhood on the other side of the park, I notice the cars are still there. I check out the cars one more time, relieved to not see any dead bodies. Oddly enough, they all seem to be alone. No shaking cars. No hoses. No blood. Just four people sitting in their cars.
I never asked how my former student killed himself. I know that my colleague shot herself in the head in a parking lot. Does the knowing how do more than create a vivid final image? I rarely try to think of how other people looked that final moment when I learn that they are now dead.
A few months ago, after one of my dogs died, I dreaded walking through the neighborhood and enduring everyone asking about my dog, then telling me their dead dog stories. Oddly enough, at work, I was the one who said we need to talk about suicide, have it mentioned in the obituaries, curse and fear depression the same way we do cancer.
Later that day, a friend was crying in her office at the university. She told me an eighteen-year-old student just told her about his cousin killing herself. Says his preacher told him she’d never get to heaven.
“Fuck that self-righteous preacher. Who wants to go to his heaven?” My friend regretted that her door was open and I curse so loudly.
My friend’s fourteen-year-old sister killed herself several years ago. She was searching the web trying to find resources for her student, searching the web remembering her sister picking up the gun, and not her phone.
Google search for Suicide: 1-800-273-TALK
In this world of The Walking Dead, surely people realize they mean talk before you’re dead.
I remember searching madly for help after a friend parked his truck out in the desert, drank a lot of booze, took pills, hooked up the hose, and was found by hikers the next morning. I ended up calling the suicide hotline just to talk to someone. I had no known intentions of killing myself, but I blamed myself for not preventing his suicide.
The woman who answered the phone knew what to say: He would’ve done it anyhow.
I could only hope that was true because the guilt was immobilizing me.
Heading home from the park with the dogs, I see a former student doing lawn work. The first thing he yells out is: “Man, isn’t that crazy about the librarian?” Yeah. Crazy. He didn’t know about the first suicide of the week. I tell him. Of course I tell him. As soon as the words leave my mouth, I put myself on my infamous (only to me) Asshole List.
“Fuck,” he sighs. “Why’d he do it?”
Then he tells me of another classmate who recently killed himself. “Wild, isn’t it?” he says.
Fucking wild crazy shit.
I e-mailed another friend who was also a classmate of the first suicide of the week. He writes back: Goddammit. This fucking world and what it does to people.
I’ve been listening to Van Morrison, my absolute go-to music for despair. Suck up that wine in the dark. When someone dies, I wallow in grief for all the other dead.
Drunk, I write pathetic poems that start with foolish lines: There is a certain element of finality in being dead.
There’s not much value in being a drunken martyr or a shitty poet.
Tired of all this wild fucking crazy death, the dogs and I head home where I shovel shitloads of mulch into the wheelbarrow, haul it to the front lawn, and start working on the garden. The first crocus emerged today. I fill the wheelbarrow with the leaves covering the garden, haul them to compost pile. Fill up wheelbarrow with mulch. Dump it on the garden. Fill wheelbarrow with leaves. Repeat. Easier using my hands to dig the mulch from the pile and to gather up the leaves. The pile of mulch is almost depleted. I think about the dead dogs and cats buried beneath this compost pile and wonder if that’s why the dogs are becoming so interested in the hole I’ve been digging. Enough wheelbarrowing for the day.
Soon they will be laid to rest.
As a teen, about a month after my mother died, I’d wake up certain she’d be alive. She had a good long rest from her cancer and it was time to return. She’d been lying down for a long time. Enough of that wretched resting.
I suspect this is when my optimism shifted to cynicism.
Patience is a virtue. Those virtuous saints annoy the hell out of me.
Unlike the optimists waiting for heaven, I wait for unexpected snow, first plunges into a lakes, and being surprised by the taste of something as simple and ancient as apple cider vinegar. It’s these simple moments that shift the cynicism back to optimism.
Curses to that long overrated perpetual fucking crazy eternal rest.
Diane Payne is the author of Burning Tulips (Red Hen Press) and Freedom’s Just Another Word (Sweatshoppe Publishers). Most recently, she’s had work published in Story South, Lascaux Review, Flyover County Review, Rathalla Review, Lunch Ticket, Split Lip, Switchback, and Literary Orphans.
What happened to my signed first edition of Auden?
Stolen, I suspect, though I lack any evidence.
An abomination—even medieval monks
formulated byzantine book-thievery curses: For such a sin, let book worms and mites ingurgitate
broth brewed fresh from his hell-incinerated ashes.
But I am not full of vengeance and I wish no pain
on fellow bibliophiles, only that their hands do
quake and tremble, so that words squirm beyond discernment
when they read, that they become their own antonyms, that
sentences invert to palindromes, so star becomes rats, straw becomes warts, and so that my book in their hands
is transformed into an altogether different book.
Leonard Kress has published poetry and fiction in Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, Crab Orchard Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, and others. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex, Living in the Candy Store, and Braids & Other Sestinas. He teaches philosophy, religion, and creative writing at Owens College in Ohio.
I never realized how impoverished the soil is, how exhaustive the journey, for vineyard grapevines—how much they are forced to withstand to simply sustain themselves. Bob, our vineyard tour guide, explained in a hushed, deferential tone how large pieces of shale and rock are intentionally buried right underneath the roots of the grapevine so that they have no choice but to strain and stretch to painful lengths in order to reach the meager sources of water deep underground. The soil itself is as nutritionless as gravel.
“This is what must occur so that the grapes remain small and tight. If they were to be fed in abundance, watered with the generosity given to other crops, they would swell and dilute in flavor, intensity, and depth.” Bob wagged his finger, “If you want to make great wine, the grapes must suffer.” He presented these facts with the utmost respect.
My brother and I had traveled to Northern California for a week-long holiday. We planned for a few nights in the Mission District of San Francisco before driving up to Napa Valley. We were able to stay at a close family friend’s house while in the city. Our friend’s mom was an on-call nurse who was about to start a twelve-hour shift at midnight that very evening, and although we arrived around ten o’clock with very little notice, an enormous Vietnamese feast of jasmine rice, stir-fried pork, steamed bok choy, and tofu awaited us.
Somehow the topic of her degenerative joint disease came up—something I had never known about during the fifteen-year-long friendship I had with her younger daughter. The disease had progressed at a rapid pace. Her hands were noticeably swollen at the joints when she held them up to the light, fingers spread, palms facing her. Daily, habitual gestures like opening jars, standing inside the bus, going up and down the stairs, and gardening shot keen branches of acid-fire throughout her body. On top of this, as a nurse she ran around lifting, twisting, bending, and carrying equipment and patients. When people accidentally knocked into her, the pain could be nearly unbearable. With gaze straight ahead, she detailed all the chiropractors, physical therapists, and medications she went through year after year that had failed her.
In Napa Valley, my brother and I decided to take a tour at one of the more popular vineyards off Route 29. Shielding our eyes from the sun, we surveyed the endless rows of grapevines that lined the hills of the property. Before the tour, I squatted down next to a grapevine and studied its complexion. The vine looked like a biblical-era vestige, with thick, jagged lines that snaked across the surface as though something sinister had taken its time clawing at it. The bark of this gnarled and somber gargoyle matched the hue of weeks-old roadkill. Only after completing the tour did I understand why the grapevines indeed looked so tortured. The grapes were tightly fisted creatures, wincing in their clusters, barely holding on to life. So this is what is required to make great wine, I thought.
I recalled that the night of our arrival at her home, while we were eating, my friend’s mom took it upon herself to cut up a toddler-sized jackfruit for us to enjoy. We offered to help, but she refused. As she began slicing the unwieldy and gargantuan fruit, she continued to describe her destructive disease, the way in which the pain penetrated ever deeper, year after year, into her being with such insidious, insatiable intent. All of her siblings had inherited the disease. At the end of her life, her mother was wheelchair-bound with her hands curled tight and rigid from osteoarthritis. Throughout these accounts, my brother and I could look at nothing else but her slow, sure hand working the massive fruit with the small, sharp blade. She was so resolute in its execution. The disease would not rob her of her willful movement, her ability to work and cook and slice fruit for her daughter’s closest friends. The vine that constituted her body was going down a path of anguish similar to the grapevine, and yet, just like Bob our tour guide had stressed, that desolation led to such richness. Would my friend’s mom be as beautifully willful and enduring if her soil had not contained that inherited, joint-destroying poison?
It may sound like a terrible question that somehow twists the malice and randomness of such illnesses into justified foundations of good character, but every mother I know is embedded in the same graveled soil; their roots parallel each other in their arduous histories. It seems the mother’s will is fortified because of the strength it takes to sustain a living, not only for herself, but for all the others (husband, children, in-laws), and also because of what it takes to perform all the associated work (housekeeping, cooking, laundering, childrearing). A mother’s weathered skin and knobby hands, her eyes of tempered glass and furrowed brow, all evidence this. Next to the mothers I know, I feel soft as pudding.
On my mother’s fiftieth birthday, she refused to get out of bed. My father couldn’t pry a response out of her. He called and asked me if I would come over and speak to her. I arrived and went up to the bedroom, glancing back at my father looking worried and helpless at the kitchen table. Upstairs, my mom turned her face away from me and pulled the blanket tighter around her neck.
“Are you hungry? I can make you something.”
“No, no Mom. Don’t worry about me. How are you? What’s wrong? Do you feel sick?”
“No, no I’m fine. Be careful, there are scissors there, right next to your hand. I was
sewing last night. I forgot to put them away, so be careful. Are you sure you’re not hungry?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Why aren’t you getting out of bed? Dad’s worried.”
“Oh, no, I’m okay. Don’t worry. Go on now. Don’t stay up here. I’ll be down in a minute.”
This conversation continued to loop like this; she did not address herself once. Just like my father, I was at a loss. This woman who birthed me, whose wrists and forearms hurt so much from years of cleaning, washing, laundering, and caretaking that she had to wear a brace to continue cleaning, washing, laundering, and caretaking, refused to let us know how and what had conquered her agency that morning. Something had finally torn through her root. Something I prayed was not irreparable.
“Mom, I love you. Please get up.”
“I love you too. Don’t forget to go to service today.”
She spoke no more. I went downstairs and didn’t know what to say to my dad. I just told him to check on her periodically.
To this day I don’t know why she was so unresponsive. I speculate that a small, dusty window cracked open and the regret (or waning sense of fulfillment or youth) she had buried like wreckage from another time sent up a high keening through that opening and back into her consciousness. She always wanted to be a doctor after immigrating to the U.S. (she became a federal government worker instead). She also wanted for her father (who died when I was a year old) to see my brother and me all grown up. Maybe she had reflected back on her wifehood, and all the ways the horizon, glittering with passions and ambitions now long forgotten in specificity, remained just as far after all these years. And one day she woke up and found herself fifty. Or maybe it was something else entirely. At times her gaze will stay fixed at a point in the space past our heads during dinner and you know that she has flown off to some other place—somewhere we will never be privy to. I imagine many mothers (and fathers) looking past their family’s heads during dinner, experiencing the same out-of-body flight.
Maybe my mom’s birthday morning paralysis and temporary departures are part and parcel of adulthood. One must choose a road and stick to it, and dig both heels in whenever the wind blows harder against the walk—being aware that at times the gale will inevitably bowl the body over. A rooted sensibility becomes necessary, especially if you decide to have a family, in order to keep you from flitting from tree to tree until the life you built, the one committed to, is lost.
I worry through the night about the root which constitutes me; I hear it groaning in the wind. My mom and my friend’s mom, whose roots were cast hard as iron in their scant environments, still falter and bend and crack from the decisions they had to make and the cards that were dealt them. When facing hardship, will my roots hold steadfast or will I snap in half, unable to come together again? Will I wake up paralyzed at fifty… or earlier?
I’m still here, so something essential in my constitution is maintaining itself. I am afraid of exploring what that might be in full clarity and consciousness (if it could even be identified and named). Why would anyone want to dig to the root in order to inspect it? You can’t kill what you don’t discover. Imagining the grimacing bunches of grapes and barren soil, the underground shale and the deformed and lacerated trunk, is enough. The imagining is enough. The root is holding itself together; whatever is enabling its persevering nature is working, and the less detail I know of its makeup, the better.
Helen Park received a B.A. in English from Wesleyan University and is currently working on several pieces about family and gender and a memoir about her father’s journey from North to South Korea. Her creative nonfiction appears in BlazeVOX, Sleet Magazine, and Inertia Magazine. She has also published a poem in the Asian-American female anthology, Yellow as Turmeric, Fragrant as Cloves (Deep Bowl Press, 2008).
There is always someone
Whose job it should be
To advise you, even if you don’t want to know:
No girl dreams of being proposed to
With a ring from the Shoah
Look to your mother
She cares so much it hurts
If you don’t want to have to describe
To your lover how
You want to be loved
Read old letters grandma
Never sent from Germany
Because she couldn’t
Write—But somehow planned
To go to Hotel Shangri-La
Wearing a magen david, the family
Tallit and wrapping tefillin
Despite her gender
It is insane, not sweet
To recite “America” by Allen Ginsberg
Then. There the head cannot know
Where the protractor has disappeared
Please bring your oldest
Calculator to help me answer
Michelle Taransky teaches Critical and Creative writing at Penn where she was awarded the 2014-15 Beltran Family Teaching Award. Taransky is the author of the poetry collections Sorry Was in the Woods (Omnidawn 2013) and Barn Burned, Then (Omnidawn 2009), winner of the 2008 Omnidawn Poetry Prize selected by Marjorie Welish.
1. You want me to hit you with a stick, but all I’ve got is a guitar pick. (Lou Reed)
The gorilla, conscience of the world, sits and broods and ignores the humans pressed against the glass.
3. The old is dying, the new cannot be born. In this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms. (Gramsci)
A splintered pick. Is it wood or some unfathomable synthetic? That’s the same question I ask about life. Are we God’s joke? Can I play guitar after my gall bladder surgery?
The gorilla stuffs hay in his mouth. A little while later he lights himself on fire, using a pile of hay as accelerant. Where did he get a match? What cruelly sympathetic zookeeper conspired with him, or at least aided and abetted him?
My dentist told me I had acid erosion. The foods you think are good for you, aren’t, he said. They strip the enamel from your teeth. They ruin your smile. Even if you’re happy, you won’t want to smile.
We’re exhausted by the Axis of Evil, by its mobile geometry, the angles that won’t stay put on the page,
St. Francis preached to birds and small animals. He never preached to gorillas. There were no gorillas in Assisi.
its shifting players and faces.
Every chord I strum brings fresh pain, pain of finger and soul. I cannot focus on your pain. I have too much of my own.
11. Look, my dentist said, I’ve been watching you since you were a kid and I gave you lollipops. You’ve always made the wrong decisions and you’re still doing it. This girlfriend you have—you think she’s good for you, but she isn’t. You think she’ll make you smile, but she won’t.
Pope Francis reads the article about the gorilla who immolated himself. He ponders this unprecedented event. He reminds himself that he is the representative of God on Earth.
13. Even if you want to smile, you can’t, because your teeth have been eaten away by acid erosion. The food you think is good for you, isn’t.
Every strum reminds me that my fingers are full of splinters, my body full of heroin, my soul full of sadomasochism.
15. Your career choice, too. You think “helping other people” will be gratifying, but it won’t. You think you can lift them up, but they’ll just drag you down. You think helping them will help you forget your problems with your girlfriend, but it won’t. You’ll drag each other down into misery and despair. Neither of you will have anything to smile about.
These are my prison notebooks, my homage to Gramsci, the hunchback, the communist, whose illness never let him grow over five feet. The grapes on the arbor dangled well above him.
17. You want me to hit you with a stick.
Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over eight hundred of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for work published in 2012, 2013, and 2014. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition. He lives in Denver.
The real estate agent pulled at the hem of her skirt. In the shop she had thought it too short but her lack of inhibition after a couple of lunchtime drinks swayed her decision.
—I like your skirt, said the girl wanting a one-bedroom flat.
—Oh, thank you, said the agent. —I got it at Reddy Teddy. You don’t think it’s too short?
—No, not at all.
—You need to be careful in this job. You don’t want to seem too available.
—I’m sure you don’t.
—The flat isn’t far. Beaumont Avenue. Do you know it?
—No, I don’t.
—It’s very nice. Edwardian. Quiet. It leads onto Baron’s Court Road, close to West Ken tube.
The two women left the agency and walked down Fulham Broadway. The agent, Marilyn, had recently divorced after fourteen years of childless marriage. She didn’t want another relationship. Her client, Jane, had just returned from Spain where she had been teaching English, and she was looking for a place of her own as she was staying with plastic friends at the moment and her life was overcrowded.
As they walked to her car, Marilyn asked, —How long were you in Spain?
—About eight years.
—A long time. What brought you back?
—I got fed up with the job. It’s very limiting, teaching English. There’s only so far you can go, and I wanted to do something different.
—Any idea what?
—My degree is in media studies. I’d like to get into journalism.
—Difficult, I’d imagine.
—Yes, I suppose so.
As they neared her car, Marilyn turned to cross the street and bumped into Jane. Jane apologised and Marilyn said, —No, it’s my fault. I should look where I’m going. It’s just across here.
Jane had felt Marilyn’s hip against hers. A metallic hip; hard and cold. She had known a metal woman in Seville, cold and inflexible, with a clockwork heart and a computerised brain. And even though she knew deep down that not all metals were like that, the memory stirred whenever she met anyone metallic.
In the car, as she strapped herself in, she wanted to touch Marilyn’s arm, to tap it with her knuckle to see if it went donk like The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. She turned to look at the backseat and brought her arm round to tap Marilyn’s shoulder as if by accident, but as she twisted round, Marilyn moved her arm to steer out of the parking space.
—All right? asked Marilyn, wondering why her client was looking in the backseat.
—Oh, yes, said Jane, —I thought I saw someone I knew.
—You know this part of town?
—Not really, I’ve always lived in Islington. Fulham is new to me.
—It used to be very run-down, but recently it’s become quite trendy.
—And pushed the prices up.
—Which must be good for you?
Marilyn braked suddenly when an old man stepped into the road. And Jane thought she heard a clunk as Marilyn was forced forward against the seatbelt. Was it Marilyn, or the seatbelt? The old man looked at the car as if he owned the road and cars had no right to be there.
Marilyn rubbed her shoulder. —Sorry about that. Stupid old coot.
—You hurt your shoulder?
—It does that. A couple of years ago I was carrying a heavy case and when I tried to put it in the car I pulled a tendon or something. Ever since then it gives me an occasional twinge, just to remind me.
—I use homoeopathic arnica, which helps a lot, but whenever there’s a knock or a strain it hurts. Here we are.
The house was Edwardian, four-storeys in grey brick, originally red, but made grey from the grime in the city atmosphere.
As she led the way up the stairs, Marilyn was aware of Jane looking up her skirt; not looking up the stairs to see where she was going, she was definitely looking up her skirt. But instead of being affronted, as she would have been had it been a man, Marilyn was mildly excited and resisted any impulse to pull at the hem of her skirt.
Jane was an attractive girl and Marilyn had always wondered what it would be like to kiss a girl, or more.
The flat was on the top floor. It had a large living room, a smaller but adequate double bedroom with just enough room for a bed, wardrobe and a chest of drawers. In the tiny kitchen, with a tiny window overlooking a roof and a gutter, Jane deliberately bumped against Marilyn and Marilyn bumped against the counter. There was a definite metallic clunk. —Sorry about that, said Jane.
—It’s a very tiny kitchen, said Marilyn.
Could it have been a saucepan? There was nothing metal on the counter. What went clunk?
The living room had an ugly couch and an uglier cupboard and coffee table. The furniture was unpleasant, but not to the extent that it would drive Jane away. No, the reason Jane disliked the flat was not the dowdy furniture, nor the tiny kitchen, but because the bathroom had no bath. How could you call it a bathroom if it had no bath?
—I couldn’t live somewhere without a bath, said Jane.
—I know what you mean. A bath is so relaxing. A shower is never the same, is it?
—There’s another one-bed nearby, said Marilyn. —I feel certain it has a bath rather than just a shower. Would you like to go and see it? It’s very close.
As Marilyn stepped down the stairs, Jane had the mad idea of pushing her to see if, when she fell, she came apart and rattled down the stairs with rivets and aluminium limbs bouncing down.
—Careful on the stairs, said Marilyn. —They are very steep. Built before the days of building regulations.
Outside, the sun came from a blue sky and warmed the Earth and Marilyn and Jane.
They walked through a small park. Lollipop trees swayed, trying to look bigger than their worth. Children played on the swings and giggled.
—Do you have children? asked Jane.
—No, replied Marilyn, abruptly.
—Oh, I’m sorry.
—No, I’m glad. He was a monster. Clay. Hollow. Had no empathy or understanding of the desires and wishes of others.
—I know what you mean.
—That’s the house.
It overlooked the park, and had a grand façade with a portico. The flat was in a roof conversion, and Marilyn once again enjoyed the feeling that Jane was looking up her skirt as they climbed the stairs.
Jane liked the flat as soon as she stepped in. Somebody happy had been living here. The living room was not large but, as she would be living alone, more space was unnecessary, and a small room would be easier to heat in cold weather. The bathroom had a bath as all bathrooms should, and the grand kitchen could easily be home to two people, should Jane ever find herself in a relationship with someone who could cook. But it was the bedroom that decided it; she loved the sloping ceiling and the dormer window that filled the room with light. When she looked out over the garden she fell in love with the mature cherry tree and, in the garden next door, a beautiful maple. She turned to Marilyn. —I’ll take it, she said, smiling.
—It’s a lovely flat, said Marilyn. —And not too expensive for this area.
As they descended the stairs, Jane realised her desire to see Marilyn tumble and break apart had dissipated.
They left the house with Jane feeling all the worries of the past weeks melting away.
Marilyn pointed out the nearby tube and shops and, while they walked back through the park, Jane imagined herself as a teacher, sitting on a park bench on a summer’s evening, marking homework.
In the car, she asked Marilyn, —Do you live around here?
—Hammersmith. Not far.
—So what’s it like driving people around to see flats?
—If I can find something for a client, it’s satisfying, but some clients have so many stipulations about what they want; you can spend ages finding something suitable, and they’re still not happy.
Back in the office, Marilyn printed a contract and slid it across the desk for Jane to read. It was busy today and Richard, Marilyn’s co-worker, was taking a young couple to see a house. He waved as he left and she smiled.
—That seems okay, said Jane, unable to read the small print, and not really understanding much of what she’d read.
—Sign here, and here, and here, said Marilyn, putting crosses to guide her client, and she gave Jane a pen.
Then she saw Jane’s hand. —You’ve got woodworm.
—Oh, it’s old. I’ve been treated.
—We’re not allowed to rent to wood.
—The landlords don’t want it.
—Isn’t that illegal?
—Yes, but proving your material is the reason for being turned down for accommodation is almost impossible.
—It’s so unfair.
—I loved that flat.
—I know. But I know for a fact the owner of that property won’t have wooden tenants.
—He’s terrified of woodworm.
—But the furniture’s rubbish.
—It’s not the furniture. It’s the beams and floorboards. The house is very old.
—But that’s ridiculous. Jane started to cry and her tears soaked into her face and revealed a scrolly walnut grain. —I’m living with flat pack and plastic people. I need somewhere of my own. I thought this would be the answer. Why do they do this? We’re being pushed out of everywhere. Plastic is taking over.
Marilyn handed her a tissue. —I know. I’m scared myself.
Jane looked into Marilyn’s cold eyes. —Are you metal?
Marilyn nodded, returning Jane’s look. —There are so few of us left. If we’re discovered, they melt us down to make cars or computers.
Jane took Marilyn’s hand. It was hard and cold. —I’m sorry. I’m sorry I blamed you. It’s not your fault. It’s the way of the world, how it is, and where it’s heading.
—Take my advice, said Marilyn. —Go back to Spain. Where nature still has a place, where wood and metal are still accepted, and revered.
—Yes, said Jane, and she let go of Marilyn’s hand, and wiped her tears with the tissue, revealing more of her scrolly walnut grain. —I’d better go, she said, —I shouldn’t keep you from your job.
—Take care, said Marilyn, and watched her leave and cross the street without looking back.
She went into the office and checked her makeup to make sure nothing shined through. When she returned to the showroom, there were three people, a man, woman, and child.
—Hello, said the man, and all three beamed bright plastic smiles. —I’m a marketing executive and this is my wife and daughter. We’re looking for a modern three-bedroom apartment, penthouse or loft, open plan, with dimmable windows, underfloor heating, air comfort cooling, en-suite bathrooms, terrace, private garden, and in-house gym. It will be a short let–eight months–so we would like it furnished, preferably repro Biedermeier, leather, of course.
—Blue, if possible, added the wife with her perfect white teeth glinting.
—Smartphone automated, with concierge and 24/7 security.
—And elegantly decorated, said the wife. —Not white.
—And private parking.
—And close to schools.
The man looked hopeful. Marilyn tugged at the hem of her skirt.
—Of course, she said. —We have an apartment in King’s Road I think will be ideal. And she clicked a remote at a screen on the wall to show them the apartment she had in mind.
Samantha Memi is the author of the chapbook Kate Moss & Other Heroines, and the story collection All in letters bound in string. She lives in London.
My father’s hair is a tuft of wolf fur; his clothes and body a grimy rag wrapped around a charred bone; his arms, a stick tied crosswise to the bone with sinew. My mother is a dirt-stuffed sock topped with a tangle of red string, in a dress cut from an old skirt. My younger sister Edna is a shard of bark with a face drawn on it, in charcoal. My older sister Joy is an empty doll’s smock, because she is dead.
Edna hums to herself as she pieces together the last figurine from twigs and twine, packing the head with muddy cotton for a scraggly beard: me. The likeness is striking. We are too thin and dry and knobby, my effigy and I, and neither of us can move our legs.
I almost order Edna to throw her playmates in the fire and find us some food. But if I open my mouth, the words might snap the weak thread that holds her mind to the living world, and I will lose her forever. So I sit on the dirt floor of the cabin, in my stiff cocoon of blankets, and watch as she transforms our family stories into a puppet-play, voicing each of us in turn.
Our parents settled in this valley long before we were born, and built a cabin beside the wide, cold creek at its bottom. My father collected berries and shot animals with an old revolver. My mother tended the garden and three children, once we came along. Their earthly possessions amounted to a cast-iron skillet and a kettle, a skinning knife, two knitting needles, and an onionskin Bible. My mother taught us how to read from the book, and to write words on a board with bits of chalk. Eventually my father ran out of bullets for the pistol, but we still used the grip to beat rabbits and marmots to death, after we snared their legs in traps. Every few weeks my father carved a spear from a long branch and disappeared into the woods above the cabin, returning with armfuls of bloody venison. He made a fire by the creek and pushed the burning coals into a shallow pit, skewered the flesh on the spear and let it sizzle in the heat. We sat on boulders by the water and tore into that crackling feast, joking and laughing as the juices dripped down our chins. My mother used to tell us that everything outside our valley was poison, and how lucky we were to live here alone.
Then my father broke his ankle.
For the rest of his life, he walked with a slow limp. He told me to hunt, but I lacked his stealth in the woods: deer heard my footsteps from a distance, and ran. So we lived off animals caught in the traps, and whatever we grew in the garden. Our bodies thinned, our muscles like rope on bone. Winter arrived too early that year, the ice choking our peppers and beans in their beds. We chewed on boiled roots to kill our hunger. When the kettle rusted apart, and the skinning knife broke at the handle, my mother cried out that the Lord had abandoned us. That was before Joy curled on the floor of the cabin, moaning whenever one of us touched her. By the next morning she was dead and stiff, and my mother never spoke another word again.
We used too much of our dwindling strength to bury Joy in the garden, chopping at the frozen ground with shards from the kettle. My father disappeared into a grove of pines near the house, where we could see his fire at night, and hear him yelling at ghosts, blaming them for something called Nam. In the cabin we were too weak to move much. I found myself sucking at the flap of skin beneath my thumb, imagining how it would taste if I bit down and chewed. By then I could no longer stand upright. Edna dug up some acorns in the dooryard, smashed them to pieces with the revolver, and chewed them to a warm pulp she shoved in our mouths, massaging our throats so we swallowed the hard bits of shell. Every night I bent my head to a chink in the cabin wall, watching for the gray flicker of wolves at the edge of the woods, and drooled at the thought of sinking my teeth into their meat. My father went silent. Edna tore apart his doll and tossed the pieces into the fireplace, saying the beasts had eaten his flesh. If I could walk, I might have fought them for a scrap of him. The hunger had swallowed my revulsion, along with my hope, but I swear I never thought of attacking Edna or my mother. I swear. We were maybe a day away from death when your helicopter descended from the sky.
Nick Kolakowski’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, Carrier Pigeon and Shotgun Honey, among other publications. He’s also the author of How to Become an Intellectual, a book of comedic nonfiction that covers (and sometimes, lovingly skewers) everything from ancient Greek tragedies to Albert Einstein. He lives and writes in New York City.
Standing on the balcony on the twenty-seventh floor of a high-rise on Collins Avenue, the Nut King surveys his domain. The creamy-green Atlantic stretches flat to the horizon where it’s wedged against the cerulean sky so bright and hard—like the taffy you have to slap on the table to break—that the Nut King turns away, slides open the tall glass doors, and steps into the artificial air-conditioned coolness.
“Seen my sunglasses?”
Tracy shrugs. She’s applying the last coat of tangerine polish to her toenails, and if she glances at him or gets up to walk around to look for them she’s certain to smear the third coat over the second to create a mottled mess more volcanic than smooth.
The Nut King shuffles over in his white bathrobe and slippers and plants a distracted kiss on the top of her head. His head sports a fuzzy ring of grey-turning-to-white hair around his balding pate, and his wire-rimmed reading glasses are pushed up on his forehead like an extra set of eyes. Otherwise he’s in decent shape for a man his age. At least he can get it up.
“Coming on the boat today?”
Tracy’s mouth contorts sideways, a cross between a pucker and a frown.
“I should go to the studio.”
“It’s Sunday! You can paint tomorrow. C’mon, I’m making Bloodys,” he says, padding into the kitchen. She hears the crunch-crunch of the ice machine, the musical plink-plink as the cubes drop into a glass.
Truth be told, Tracy hates the ocean. Or, actually, she loves the ocean when she’s next to it, lounging on a towel, or in it, swimming with long crisp strokes, but she doesn’t enjoy being on it—in a boat of any size—and certainly not with the Nut King on his small fishing craft as he revs the engine and hurtles full throttle over the wakes of larger vessels, whooping like a six year old. Which is pretty much what he is, a boy trapped in the body of a man.
Still, the thought of not going to the studio has a certain appeal. She’s at a dead end with painting these days. Inspiration has gone out with the tide, leaving her grouchy, staring at blank canvases as she dodges her gallery dealer’s calls. She twists the top back on the polish and admires her toes, ten perfect surfaces as smooth as tumbled garnets.
The Nut King hands her a cocktail in a tall jelly jar glass, a stalk of celery sprouting above the rim.
“Don’t spill that shit, sweetheart.”
Is he talking about the nail polish or the drink? Maybe both. He’s the only straight man Tracy knows who keeps a spotless house, the only person at all she knows who keeps Windex and a cloth on hand for impromptu scrubbing. Maybe his neatness fixation comes from a yearlong stint at a small nut company in Somerville, Massachusetts, where, just out of college and eager to avoid the family business—health insurance providers based in seven major American cities—he took over an aging nut roasting company and polished it back to viability. “Who doesn’t love nuts,” he likes to say. Bulging bags of pistachios, cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, and sugary-salty peanuts—accompanied by a bottle of Dom Perignon—are his gifts of choice to everyone from his brother to Miguel the doorman. Tracy finds his quirky gift-giving habits amusing and endearing.
“Cheers.” Tracy lifts her glass, careful not to drip on the cool marble floor where she sits. The walls and furniture around her are white, and tables and doors are glass and steel. The only color in the apartment, other than her gleaming toes and a lapis table, are the paintings that cover the walls and stack in corners, including her own large canvas, “Saint Jose tames the Wild Cats of Wynwood,” hung in a place of honor above the faux fireplace. He bought the painting at her last one-woman show, three months ago, shortly before asking her for a date. She eyes the other paintings and wonders how many involved sexual conquest.
Tracy rises and waddles, toes splayed, to the balcony. She slides the door open without spilling her cocktail, and steps out into the blast of humidity and heat that is June in Miami. A handful of ant-sized people lay scattered across the beach, lolling before the day gets too hot. She swigs the cool liquid, flushing as the zing of horseradish and the heavy-handed vodka invade her circulatory system. Squinting at the expanse of faded brown sand where no one is moving, she thinks of Ak-Mak crackers dotted with sesame seeds and toasted poppy bagels. She could paint this scene. Mix some Prussian blue with phthalo turquoise and add a smidge of titanium white. But, shit, she’s out of turquoise now, isn’t she? Used the last squeeze for the dress of the matron in her “Museum Series” painting, a series she now hates. She steps back inside.
“Okay. I’ll go boating.”
“Yay! Yay!” says the Nut King, turning from his desk where spreadsheets and numbers fill the wide computer screen as stock prices scroll in an endless ribbon below.
“But no speeding. And no smoking pot.”
“I mean it. Promise me.”
“I promise,” he says, his blue eyes sparkling like the water she loves so much.
Flap-flap. Flap-flap. Tracy’s flip-flops slap the dock as she walks to where the Nut-King is hosing down the Miss Pecan Sandy, christened for his toxic ex-wife, a name, he explains, he’s too lazy to change. She’s wearing her one-piece Speedo under denim cutoffs. He’s sporting checkered shorts, a pink Izod shirt, Sperry top-siders—no socks—and a Tag Heuer watch the size of a lime. Everything about him is slightly tattered and askew, a look the uber-rich acquire that says they couldn’t care less about wealth and status. They are that fucking rich. Tracy’s income last year, from adjunct teaching and painting sales, is most likely less than what the Nut King spent on the ruby earrings he bought for his daughter last week. She realizes she’s dancing on the edge of this privileged world, allowed access as a bohemian curiosity perhaps, a performing monkey in the one-percent’s zoo. She doesn’t really care. She’s not here for the money. She simply likes this guy, at least so far. And after Baby-Carrot Man, the Poet, the Long-Limbed Mandolin Player, and Asshat Bill, anyone is an improvement.
“Hand me that,” says the Nut King. He takes her mesh bag, bulging with sunscreen, a towel, a sketchbook, pens, a swim cap and goggles, and stashes it near his cooler filled with who-knows-what beverages, ice, and snacks.
“Ahoy! Captain Sparky!”
Tracy turns and sees a couple she doesn’t recognize: a man, late-forties, wearing swim trunks and a tee, and a tall, stunning woman in a flowery sundress who could be a body double for Penelope Cruz. They carry plastic supermarket bags bulging with chips and beer, and Tracy realizes they aren’t heading to board their own vessel; they are arriving to hop on the Mz. P.S., as she calls the dinghy. She shoots the Nut-King a seething look that says, “Who-what-the-fuck?” but he only offers a sheepish grin, and steps around her.
“Liam! What’s the stoooory?”
The Nut King thumps Liam’s back, and wraps his arm about his neck in a chokehold. The men tussle and shout, breaking apart with curses of testosterone-fueled endearment. Asshat! Dipshit! Double-dipshit!
“Liam’s my old roommate from New York, the TV producer I told you about,” says the Nut King.
Tracy’s never heard him mention this guy, but she smiles.
“And who’s this beauty? Liam, you dog, you’ve been holding out on me.”
“This is Claudia,” says Liam. He pronounces it the Latin way, Cloud-ee-ah.
Claudia-Penelope removes her sunglasses, revealing large burnt sienna colored eyes with mascara-manicured lashes.
“Thanks for the invite! I’ve been waiting all week.”
“All week?” says Tracy, raising her eyebrows and glancing sideways at the Nut King.
“The weather’s been miserable in New York. It won’t stop raining.” Claudia-Penelope says this in a way that makes the weather sound almost sexy—meeezerable—slightly rolling her r’s while slipping her sunglasses back on. Tracy notices she’s holding a large striped sunhat, one that will blow off the minute they careen across the bay. She hopes the Nut King will behave himself on this excursion, if only for the sake of this well-manicured woman. And herself, of course.
“And you must be Tracy,” says Liam. “I’ve heard so much about you. Can’t wait to see your paintings.”
Tracy extends her hand for Liam to shake but he snags her in a quick bear hug.
“Let’s get going,” says the Nut King, hopping on and holding out his arm to help them board.
There’s not much room on the tiny vessel. The Nut King stands behind the wheel. Liam and Claudia-Penelope perch on a bench in front.
“You might want to sit here,” Tracy offers the woman a seat in the back, where the wind and spray are less severe.
“I’m fine. Thanks,” she says, waving Tracy off with a flick of her wrist.
The Nut King eases the boat from its berth and putt-putts along the canal, the glass towers of Collins Avenue on one side, stucco McMansions on the other, heading at a steady but manageable speed into the wide Intracoastal Waterway that separates the island and the mainland—as locals refer to Miami Beach and Miami—before turning south, navigating toward the calm, glistening waters of Biscayne Bay. The air feels cooler out here, the bright sky is clear, the oppressive humidity of the day tempered by a steady breeze. A perfect day for a cruise. Tracy relaxes, happy she turned down a day in her cramped, stuffy studio for some time in the great outdoors. Why live in South Florida if you can’t enjoy its beauty? She brushes her hand along the Nut King’s thigh.
“Ready for a smoke?” Liam extracts a long, fat cylinder from a pack of Marlboros, a hand-rolled, filterless stick Tracy guesses doesn’t hold tobacco.
“A-riiight,” says the Nut King. He slows the boat to a rocking stop, reaching into the cooler to pop open and distribute cans of Pilsner Urqell. Tracy waves him off, grabbing a bottle of water.
Liam lights up, and the pungent, skunky smell of Cannabis Sativa drifts through the salty air. Claudia-Penelope takes the joint, inhales, and passes it to Tracy.
“Tracy doesn’t do pot,” says the Nut King. Intercepting the stoogie, he sucks the end, holding the smoke in his lungs until he can hold no longer.
“Hang on!” shouts the Nut King, passing the joint back to Liam. He pushes the throttle up and they accelerate at a rate that tips their faces toward the sky. Tracy grips the side of her seat as they careen across the wake of a larger boat, slamming down so hard between each swell it’s like someone’s slapping her head from above. She swivels to glare at the Nut King, shouting—“you promised!”—but her words are swallowed by the motor and the wind. Claudia-Penelope’s hat flies off, spinning like a Frisbee to the distant shore, though she doesn’t seem to notice or care.
“Ey-yiiii! Faster! Faster!” shouts Claudia-Penelope. Her plump red-lipsticked lips open wide as she laughs. She’s clutching Liam around the waist, though he still manages to toke between the battering thumps and salt water-soaking spray.
“Faster! Go, go, go!”
Tracy closes her eyes, wondering why these people are having so much fun in a situation she likens to a circle of hell. She’d like to shoot them all and then swim to shore. She’s glad she doesn’t own a gun.
Ahead, lights blink along the side of the Venetian Causeway drawbridge at Rivo Alto Island in syncopation with mechanical warning bells—clank, clank, clank—indicating the steel span is closing. The Mz. P.S. is a tiny vessel, an insect on the sea, and can zip unimpeded beneath the structure, open or closed, though Tracy always ducks her head reflexively, just as she does in most low-ceiling parking garages.
Hurtling forward at ever-faster speed, Tracy wishes she were somewhere else, anywhere else, perhaps painting in the quiet of her studio, when a horn assaults her ears, one large blast from a larger ship, some kind of streamlined yacht with mean black windows and a fuck you attitude that is racing straight at them, gambling to beat the closing bridge.
“Watch out!” Tracy shouts, tugging the Nut King’s shirt and pointing.
The Nut-King swigs his beer, throwing the empty can overboard like a gauntlet into the sea. His cheeks are flushed with wind and booze and machismo, and Tracy can see him calculating how to thread the needle between the approaching ship and the concrete pilings. The horn sounds again, louder, more insistent, the match accepted, the fight on. The bridge continues its downward path, dropping inches every second, threatening to crush the yacht’s radar system, a shiny dome sitting like a pompous crown on a multi-tiered slice of cake.
Tracy punches the Nut King’s shoulder, an action he mistakes as encouragement as he glances at her for the briefest moment, eyes ablaze like some evangelical preacher on a Jesus high, before pressing the throttle up to its limit. Claudia-Penelope shrieks in ecstasy—Saint Theresa on Biscayne Bay—hurtling taunts in Spanish at the larger ship while offering her outstretched middle finger with its polished nail in greeting. Liam takes one last drag on the dwindling joint, holding it elegantly between thumb and middle finger before flicking it into the wind. Clearly, Tracy thinks, I’m the only sane person on this boat. She lunges to control the throttle but is blocked by the Nut King’s steely grip.
“What the fuck!”
He elbows her away and she slips, landing on the deck that is shuddering forward toward what can only be their imminent demise. In a panicked attempt to derail their momentum, Tracy opens her mouth—wide—and chomps on the Nut King’s sculpted calve. She hears his screams above the now-incessant bellowing horn as he attempts to shake her loose, kicking about wildly, but she doesn’t loose her grip, a pit bull warrior queen. The more he thrashes, the deeper her incisors and cuspids sink into his pampered flesh. How far before she reaches bone? Tracy doesn’t know and she doesn’t care. She is trying to save his skinny-assed life—all their lives—and so she holds tight, resisting the urge to gag, until she feels the boat slow, his hands now gripping her hair and pulling hard. She spots the looming hull of the yacht, its angry inhabitants spewing venom from the deck as they sweep past with seconds to spare before the bridge moans shut.
Tracy opens her mouth, falling sideways, and struggles to stand as their vessel rocks wildly in the larger boat’s wake. A second swell crests the dipping bow and tepid bay water sloshes over their feet, lifting the cooler for the briefest moment before depositing it three feet closer to the stern. The Nut King’s face is puffed and aflame, a range of changing hues from vermillion to violet to magenta.
“You’re welcome,” she says.
“What the fuck? You bit me!”
“I saved us!”
“Are you out of your mind?” The Nut King raises his hands and slaps them on his head, as if holding in his brains from exploding.
“We were gonna crash—”
“You flaming cunt! There was plenty of time—”
“What did you call me?” Tracy shouts though the Nut King is no longer listening, his eyes shifting from anger to alarm as the boat swivels in the fast moving current, drifting so close to the pilings she can see how they were cast, their barnacle-crusted surfaces pockmarked with rock and gravel, unyielding sentinels that will surely crack open the Mz. Pecan Sandy.
“Start the engine!” shouts Liam, but the Nut King is already trying, snapping the throttle into neutral and turning the key repeatedly to start the stalled motor—on and off and on—to a rising chorus of “Fucks!” The engine coughs and spurts but doesn’t catch. Claudia-Penelope is wailing, “You ee-diots! Malparidos, guevones!”
Tracy looks up at the azure sky where seagulls ride invisible currents in wide indifferent swoops and realizes she is done with this man, this boat, these ridiculous people—done, done, done—and she sighs, knowing it’s time to return to the constancy of her studio, the smell of linseed oil and paint, wood scraps and leftover Chinese takeout. She imagines the sky as a canvas, and conjures an image of a brand new painting, an ant’s eye view of a glorious blue dome interrupted by small winged creatures, specks of movement that could be atoms or stars, the random nature of the sublime that hovers eternally above manmade wreckage.
Stumbling across the deck, she untangles her mesh bag from the cooler’s handle and extracts her swim cap, stretching it over her hair and ears, diminishing the cacophony of curses. Shrugging off her shorts, she snaps the goggles over her cap, testing to make sure they’re tight, and steps on the bow. Watching, waiting for the swirling waters to spin them round again, away from the soon-to-be kiss of the rigid pilings toward the softness of the welcoming, glimmering bay. Tracy curves her arms above her head, bends her knees, inhales, and leaps.
Necee Regis is a frequent contributor to the travel, food, and magazine sections of The Boston Globe and has also been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, American Way Magazine, The Robb Report, Modern Farmer, The Globe and Mail, and the literary magazine, Tin House. In fiction, excerpts from her unpublished novel, Glitterbox, appeared in Gulf Stream: New Voices From Miami, and Hacks: 10 Years On Grub Street. When not traveling, she divides her time between Boston (summer) and Miami Beach (winter) where she is working on a final draft of yet another novel. For stories, photos, and her oyster blog, visit her website: www.necee.com
Tito Angelini was asleep beside his wife, Francesca, when a loud banging, accompanied by a claw-like shaking on his arm, intruded on his dreams.
“What, what?” he muttered, floundering into consciousness as he freed his arm from his wife’s grip and blinked into what appeared to be floodlights beaming into their second floor bedroom.
“Wake up! There’s someone at the door,” Francesca hissed as Tito groped for the clock, knocking it to the floor, but not before he caught a glimpse of the time, 2:15 a.m.
He stumbled out of bed and grabbed his robe.
“Who is it?” he yelled, descending the stairs as quickly as he was able. When he reached the vestibule he peered through the frosted, oval window of the front door, but could only make out shifting shadows behind the glass.
“This is the Dunmore Fire Department,” a voice replied. “We’re evacuating the street.”
Tito cracked open the door to find three fire fighters haloed in the pulsing red lights of their trucks. UGI Utility vehicles lined the road, and from his narrow front porch Tito could see water gushing down Merrion Street.
“There’ve been reports of a gas odor,” one of the firefighters explained, his cheeks ruddy in the raw March air. “Buses are bringing residents to the Community Center.”
“Didn’t they just replace the pipes last September?” Tito asked. “They dug up the entire street—”
“We think a water main break might have caused a leak. Either way, sir, it’s not safe for you to remain.”
Tito peered down the road, clumps of people already congregating behind a blue wooden police barricade on the corner of Nutley Ave. It looked as though his street was the only one that was cordoned off, and he thought with distaste of having to call his son, Anthony, who lived two streets over. Thea lived a half hour away in Colcannon with her husband and kids, but she had to get up to go to work in the morning.
“Sir? We’ll need you to be out as quickly as possible. Ten, fifteen minutes tops.”
“Right,” Tito nodded. “Thank you.”
As the yellow reflector bands on their uniforms bobbed away down the street, Tito pulled his bathrobe closed and wondered if anyone he knew was out with the utilities tonight. For years it had been he who had been called when there was a downed power line or a blown out transformer. On a night like tonight the poles would be slick with condensation, the metal climber hooks biting cold on his bare hands. Turning into the house, he vacillated between calling Anthony or having to spend the rest of the night beneath the hanging fluorescent fixtures in the Community Center.
“Fran!” he called. “We gotta get dressed. There’s some kind of gas leak. The crews are out and we have to evacuate.”
Francesca stood on the landing in a pale blue nightdress, her hair flattened on one side. “A gas leak? Didn’t they just replace the pipes?”
“Those cast iron pipes lasted for almost a hundred years with no complaints.” Tito paused halfway up the stairs, giving his stiff knees a chance to rest. “Now that they’ve replaced them with plastic, people are calling and complaining that they’re smelling mercaptan.”
“That rotten egg odor.” Tito sniffed the air nervously. “Do you smell anything?”
Francesca flared her nostrils. “Maybe.”
“Come on, we gotta go.”
Tito followed his wife into their room, where the soft mound of bedding gave him an almost irresistible urge to go back to sleep. Instead he picked up the phone and dialed Anthony’s number. It rang and rang, until finally someone picked up, loud music playing in the background.
“Anthony,” Tito yelled, “turn down the music!”
…get back to you. There was a click, and Tito realized with chagrin that he had been talking to Anthony’s machine.
“Anthony, it’s Dad. Mom and I have to evacuate. Something about a gas leak. Where are you? It’s two thirty in the morning. If you get this, call me.” He hung up, picturing Anthony driving around in his souped-up Audi with his arm around some half-dressed girl.
That’s what they wear these days, Fran would shrug, as if, now that Thea was raised and settled, it didn’t concern her. The same way it didn’t seem to bother her that Anthony was twenty-five years old, and neither Tito nor Fran had any idea what he actually did for a living. With his gadgets and made-up job—something in “marketing”—Tito sometimes felt as though Anthony was living in a virtual-reality world. Unless it was Tito who had missed the memo. Maybe, he thought as he pulled socks, jeans and a flannel shirt from his bureau, the message had came through on a device he didn’t own or didn’t know how to use.
You’ve got to get serious about your life, Tito had said the last time he’d had a sit-down talk with his son. You’re too old to be hanging around the clubs all night.
Are you talking about Buskers, that dive? Anthony had scoffed. If I want to go to a club, Dad, I’ll drive to Philly or New York.
I guess Flanigan’s, that dive, was always good enough for me, Tito thought as he tried to hook his sock over his toe. He glanced at Fran, not wanting her to see that he was having difficulty, but she was buttoning her blouse. Matter of fact, he sighed, he wouldn’t mind a mug of Guinness right about now, chalky with an edge of bitter, meeting up with the guys from Local 537 before heading home to Fran and the kids. He was usually one of the first to leave; at least he tried to do the right thing.
“Are you coming?” Fran touched his shoulder. Her overnight bag, the one she used when she went to stay with Thea and the grandkids, lay open on the bed. After Thea, Fran had thought she couldn’t have any more children, but then along came Anthony. A time-of-life baby, the doctor had called him, and Anthony had been having the time of his life ever since.
With a final tug on his sock, Tito recalled one of the first times his boss, Joe Franconi, had stepped into the break room where Tito had been filling out paperwork.
Your wife’s on the line. Joe had watched Tito a bit too carefully, as if he could suss out whatever family embarrassment it was that would call Tito to the phone in the middle of his shift.
A half hour later Tito had been down at Dunmore Elementary, clomping into the principal’s office, where Fran jumped up when she saw Tito, and Anthony was sitting contritely on a molded plastic chair, his feet not quite reaching the ground.
“So, Anthony,” Principal McLaren had said, “would you like to tell your father why you’re here?” Beneath the sternness Tito could sense a flicker of indulgence sparking around the edges of the principal’s voice. It was a response, Tito had come to recognize, that seemed to trail after Anthony, a kind of photoelectric effect he had on people, and not only his mother.
“I put a frog in Louisa Delray’s desk,” Anthony mumbled.
Delray . . . Tito looked to Fran, who raised an eyebrow. So this must be Joe Delray’s daughter, Tito thought, the same Joe Delray whom Tito had gone to school with thirty years ago, and whose picture was in the local paper with his arm around the mayor. Joe Delray owned some kind of internet company before “online” was more or less the place where people lived. Even back then the company made Delray enough money to be building a brand new house up in Clarks Summit. Tito, meanwhile, had been going on three years without a cost-of-living raise.
“So no more frogs, okay?” Principal McLaren said as Anthony scooted off the chair. When he nodded, that quick dip of the cowlick, Anthony looked exactly like Fran. He even had the same smile, something Tito wished he could grab a hold of and keep, but it was moving too fast.
Eight years later Anthony’s date to the prom had been Louisa Delray.
Fran, meanwhile, was zipping up her carry case, and Tito was about to ask if he could throw a few things in as well, but he dumped his bowling ball on the bed instead and used the case to pack a change of clothes, his toothbrush, and shaver. On the way out the door he grabbed the cell phone that Anthony had given him at Christmas. He pressed the button on the side as multi-colored pixels bobbed across the screen. Frowning, he slipped it into his pocket.
“Double tap the message icon,” Anthony had said on Christmas morning as he talked about 3G versus 4G, SIM cards, data plans, and Wi-Fi.
Tito rapped the screen twice. Nothing happened.
“You have to tap it fast, like this.” Anthony took the palm-sized device and demonstrated, his thumbs scrabbling like mice over the minuscule keys that were really just pictures of minuscule keys.
When he held out the phone for his father to try, Tito’s fingers, which could install a conduit or thread a wire through the tiniest of openings, thumped clumsily over the glass. Anthony laughed, and Tito threw the phone on the couch.
“Dad,” Anthony said. “I wasn’t laughing at you.”
“Like hell you weren’t.”
“It’s just—come on. It’s kind of funny, that’s all. Lighten up.”
“What did you say?”
“Oh Christ. Here we go again.” Anthony reached for the remote.
“Maybe in my twenties I thought I had all the answers, too. But at least I knew what it meant to work.”
“Whoa.” Anthony held up his hands. “Knew what it meant to work, Dad? Where do you think I got the money to buy you the latest model phone?”
“I’m talking about union wages, not some marketing nonsense. I was nineteen when I joined Local 537, and by the time I was your age I’d already been promoted from Lineman to Supervisor. There were so many cave-ins from abandoned mines that the entire block south of Wiley, including all twelve homes on the street, collapsed in ’71, taking the electric lines down with them.”
“That’s great, Dad. Very impressive. I believe you’ve told me this story before.” Anthony unmuted the TV, and Tito felt blood rushing to his head, dots floating in his peripheral vision like pixels on a screen that was about to go black. He reached out to grab the remote from Anthony’s hand, but then the remote was on the coffee table and Anthony had stood up.
“Even if I wanted a union job, Dad, assuming I could get a union job, what do you think they’re paying the new hires these days? And there sure as hell wouldn’t be a pension waiting for me when I retired. You got out just in time.”
The problem, Tito thought as he juggled Fran’s suitcase in one hand and clutched the bannister with the other, was that Anthony made Tito feel stupid.
It’s nothing personal, Joe Franconi had said when he’d pulled Tito into his office before Thanksgiving. It’s about the numbers. He’d shrugged. I’d think you’d want to retire, Tito; you’ll still get your pension.
Three months later Tito had sat on the couch, sixty-five years old and surrounded by staticky pieces of silver tinsel, staring at a phone he had no idea how to use after having alienated his son who, even if Tito’s suspicions were correct, and Anthony did in fact wax his eyebrows, was still the one person who might have helped Tito learn.
So no, he’d thought, scrolling through the muted TV channels, he was not going to admit that he did not find the cell phone “intuitive.”
He locked the front door, the night air bracing and fresh. Francesca was wearing the knit hat that Thea had given her for Christmas, and as the generator lights cast shadows over her face she looked twenty years old. When was the last time, Tito wondered, that they had been out so late at night? It was almost festive with the flares and people milling around. He put his arm around Fran’s shoulder.
“Do you think we should call Thea?” she asked.
“No. She and Walter have to get up early for work.”
“Anthony will probably call back.”
“You’re too hard on him, Tito.”
“Why doesn’t anyone ever say he’s too hard on me?” Tito lowered his voice when he saw his neighbor shepherding all seven of her homeschooled children out onto their porch a few feet away.
“Hello Mrs. O’Kelley,” Francesca called across the alley. “Heading to the Community Center?”
“We’ll be staying with church friends,” Mrs. O’Kelley replied, the glassy eyes of her children reflecting the light like the gaze of raccoons.
“You don’t see those kids dry-cleaning their jeans,” Tito muttered.
“What are you talking about?”
“Our son, Anthony!”
“Tito Angelini, I believe you might be jealous.”
“Like hell I am.” The O’Kelleys stopped to gape at him. “What are you staring at?” he barked.
They turned in unison and continued towards their mini-van with the Come to Jesus, Come to Life! bumper sticker plastered on the back.
“I don’t understand you,” Francesca continued. “Aren’t you happy that Anthony is doing well?”
“Maybe, but neither of us has any real idea what he does. When you wire a circuit box you can at least point at it and see that it’s there. How well can Anthony be doing when he barely works?”
“You always say that, Tito, but things are different today. Anthony deals with people who work half way around the globe, in a different time zone.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I asked. Come on,” she said, starting down the porch steps. “Stop being so cranky.”
The slabs of the sidewalk were uneven and buckled by tree roots, and as Tito maneuvered over a particularly rough spot, a tinny melody emanated from his pocket. He pulled out the phone to see a lit-up photo of Anthony in a backwards Phillies hat, and he jabbed at the photo.
“Swipe it!” Francesca drew frantic zigzag motions in the air, but the instant Tito dragged his finger across the screen, the ringing stopped.
“Was that Anthony? Call him back.”
Tito stared at the screen, but it gave him no indication of what random series of pokes or prods would make the device function like an actual phone.
“Give me that,” Francesca sighed. After a few deft maneuvers she lifted the phone to her ear. “Anthony? You got our message? That’s okay. I’m sorry we woke you—yes, we’re going to the bus. Tito?” She turned to him. “Anthony’s on his way. Should we go back to the house, or wait—?”
Tito pointed towards the barricade. “Tell him we’ll meet him there—the corner of Merrion and Nutley.”
“Dad said we’ll meet you—” Before she could finish her sentence, though, an enormous, hollow boom reverberated through the air. Tito was thrown to the ground, and as the loose gravel embedded itself into his palm, he saw the cell phone skitter across the pavement, the Martucci’s blue spruce illuminated in an instant of garish, unnatural daylight. Tito scrambled onto his hands and knees, but then buckled and grabbed his elbow as an asphyxiating pain shot from the palm of his hand up his arm.
“Fran? Fran!” he groped towards her as a second blast shook the ground and a roaring filled the air. He looked up to see billows of gray smoke pouring from the O’Kelley’s home, his own porch just a few yards away. For an incongruous moment the smoke reminded Tito of the fur of the Connelly’s poodle.
“I’m right here.” Tito tried to help her up, but he only had the use of one hand, the pain in his wrist making him grimace whenever he moved it the wrong way. He could feel the heat from the fire against his cheek, while people ran in different directions, some of them, he realized, climbing over the blockade towards them. One figure in particular, with a loping, easy stride, looked familiar, a backwards baseball cap on his head as he emerged from the shadows.
“Ma!” Anthony cried. “Dad. Thank God—” He bent to help Francesca to her feet.
“Is this yours?” He nodded to Tito’s bowling bag. Pulling the luggage with one hand, he supported his mother’s elbow with the other. As they made their way towards the blockade, Tito recognized Anthony’s shiny, silver car pulled askew to the curb, the door open where he must have left it when the blast occurred.
“The phone.” Tito turned back to a street filled with blown-out debris, firemen aiming their hoses at flames that gusted through a dirty orange sky.
“Forget it,” Anthony said. “It’s not important.”
Tito, though, started to retrace his steps, searching through the broken glass littering the road.
“Hold on, Ma.” Anthony crunched over to Tito and put his arm around his father’s shoulders. “Dad. We have to go.”
Disoriented, Tito dragged his attention away from the mute, glittering asphalt, as if a giant screen had broken, and Tito had no idea how to fix it. He turned to his son as soot drifted over them like a curse, or a benediction, Anthony’s strong, young body braced against Tito’s own.
Tania Moore’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Madison Review,The Flexible Persona, St. Sebastian Review, Quiddity, Kestrel, The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture, About Place Journal: A Retrospective of the Civil Rights Movement, among others, and she has been anthologized in Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers;Crack the Spine; and Siblings: Our First Macrocosm. Having earned her MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts, she teaches creative writing at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx and lives along the mighty Hudson River. Find out more at www.taniamoore.me.
THE ENERGIZER BUNNY LEADS A MARCH ON WASHINGTON
by Kamden Hilliard
its about rhythm…. which is always about noise
because theres no better beacon
for all the revolution’s bodies
and because cable cant handle bass
it damn sure wont be televised
whats a hihat if you cant feel it rattle?
the tipsy thirst of rhythm? its about
reaching that soul…. and flirting it open
because if you havent been scalped
with sadness by a Four Page Letter
or welded to anger by Brenda’s Got a Baby
consider your“self” sterilized kook
consider yourself an island
rotting shipwreck in a sea of synonyms
or just the worst kind of white
after all the myriad violations ive studied
or swallowed…. the worst still seems to be
not getting bloody to the beat not stirring
not knowing when to raise
and when to raze.
Kamden Hilliard is a poet/essayist running through Hawaii, New York, and Hong Kong with his woes. A recipient of fellowships from Callaloo and The Davidson Institute for Talent Development, Kamden is trying so hard. In the past he’s been an editor of The Adroit Journal, Dark Phrases, and The Sarah Lawrence Review. Rumor has it, he’s a contributor for Elite Daily and recipient of the 2015 Stanley and Evelyn Lipkin Prize for Poetry. His work has appeared in (or will drift into) Juked, Two Bridges Review, Bodega, The Atlas Review, Jellyfish, and other lovely places. If Kamden wasn’t writing, he’d be very sad—or a scientist.
CONTROLLED BURN, WAKULLA SPRINGS, FLORIDA
by Brenda Butka
Cypress knees gather on the riverbank
like penitents. Rags of moss
banner overhead, anoint
bulrushes and pickerelweed.
Wings spread to preach, the anhinga sits,
skinny, untidy on his branch.
His hot blue eye pinions passersby,
bream shuddering in the shadows.
A double handful of alligators,
still cute in their orange-striped
baby suits, tumble slowly
in the sand.
The blonde’s flesh-colored bikini
tilts back and forth on her towel,
shifting under the erratic sun,
as she puts lotion on, pointing
first one pink toe, then the other
at the baby manatee and her mother ,
majestic dirigibles cruising
the mottled water.
We consider the mammoth’s bones
(reassembled in Tallahassee) ,
Tarzan looping through the air
(we have all seen him flying there),
an antique dining room for millionaires
(a leisure class we contemplate
with regret and sorrow, apologize
with potato chips and dirty plates).
Blowtorched, the forest floor in flames,
a tiny, lively hell, crackles benedictions
as we drive away. A great blue heron
drags its bony knees along the sky.
Brenda Butka practices medicine and poetry in Nashville, Tennessee, where she and her husband have just lost their home of 35 years, the farmhouse at Sulphur Creek Farm, to fire. She does write on subjects other than flames, and her poems have been published recently in The Threepenny Review, Florida Review, Cortland Review, Slant, 2nd & Church, Alimentum, Red Wolf, and in medical journals such as Chest, JAMA, and Annals of Internal Medicine, and others.
About once a month—not often enough, but still—her mother had taken a damp towel to the phone receiver. She pressed the threadbare cotton into the grooves of the earpiece, erasing the nights of sticky sweet teenage grease.
Long after the girl was gone, there were still signs of her all over the room: the scuffs on the rungs of the stool next to the phone; the flakes of chipped nail polish; the linoleum, sloshed with juice from dishwasher-faded plastic cups, where she’d sat in the dark because it felt more private. Footprints on the cabinet doors under the sink from soles propped against them while splayed across the floor on her back, feeling the cool tile. A weak cord that had been unspooled and rewrapped around fingertips a thousand times.
Theirs was the only house they knew without a cordless phone. Instead, a tether.
When her father finally left, the girl watched her mother take the bottles of liquor from the cabinet beneath the sink and pour them down the drain, one by one. A few years later, when the girl’s own marriage caved in on her, she drove the six hours straight home and spent most of three whole days on the kitchen floor, pressed against the dishwasher, waiting for it to gently whir and pulse against her back. Every few hours, her mother handed the girl a new bag of frozen vegetables to hold against her face.
She hadn’t been back to that kitchen, that house, since she ran off with that boy and changed her name and swore up and down that she knew what she was doing. But this was still her territory. She gingerly covered her stinging eye and glared at the cracks and stains that made her embarrassed to be there. But her silence was her mea culpa, the frozen vegetables her mother’s olive branch. The ringing didn’t stop, in her ears, on the wall.
After a while, her mother just unplugged the phone.
Lisa Rowan is a writer and editor living in Washington, D.C. She’s also the co-host of Pop Fashion, a weekly podcast that discusses fashion, culture, and creativity.
The Ojibwa call it Animikii. The Tlingit call it Shangukeidí. The Kwakwaka’wakw call it Kwankwanxwalige’, for the way it makes thunder (kʷənxʷa) lightweight (kʷəs) by pounding (ləka). No matter the tribe, its description is the same: a bird so large it creates thunder when it beats its wings. Dîné myth claims that thunderbirds live on a floating mountain Tse-an’-iska’ (“A Tall Rock Standing”). They named the thunderbird Tse-nah-ale after the fashion in which they carry men to the top of the mountain and let them fall against it: tse (“rock”) + nah (“guide”) + ajei (“heart”). The hero Nayenezgami (“slayer of alien gods”) killed the thunderbird that preyed in their lands with an arrow made of lightning. As the bird fell off its mountain, smaller birds, what we now call bald eagles, flew from its wound.
Cryptozoologists were quick to connect these myths to reports of a massive bird: a wingspan up to 5.5 meters, indigenous to the more remote forests of North America, commonly encountered during storms. The most compelling and widely circulated hypothesis is that thunderbirds are the nearly extinct descendants of Teratornis (Greek, “monster bird”) merriami, thus explaining recurring reports of young children snatched from sandboxes. Fossilized “thunderbird” skeletons found in La Brea and Woodburn often circumscribe the skeletons of lesser animals, juvenile primates being most common.
In my only encounter with a thunderbird, I was the object of such predation. I spent my childhood summers up at my family’s Sierra Nevada country house, mostly unattended while my parents hosted cocktail parties. I passed the time playing make-believe with the many pinecones and pillbugs that littered the property. During a particularly long, rainy afternoon, a great crescent shadow appeared overhead and chased me into the safety of the house’s mud room. When I was sure the bird was gone, I inched out of the doorway armed with a ski pole to discover a feather as big as my arm stuck in the sap of a tree stump. I took the feather straight to my secret hideout beneath the staircase where I kept all such treasures in a cigar box: baseball cards, invisible ink, flint arrowheads, contraband candy, a butterfly knife, a photograph of a camp girlfriend never kissed and later, tear-outs from an old Playboy, quartz and pyrite stolen from Truckee Trinkets, and finally Cannabis, sativa (Latin, “sown”) and indica (Latin, “Indian”) both.
The only other time I got close to a thunderbird was in Klukwan, Alaska, population 139 on the days Shakey wasn’t off in Sitka or Juneau, dealing smoked salmon to gourmet export companies. I was there for a summer community service trip, a punishment of sorts, for drinking half of my parent’s liquor cabinet and lying about it. Among my many jobs—babysitting kids just old enough to not need babysitting; renetting the rustbitten basketball hoops; cutting down the summer brush, vertiginous weeds like great willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium) and skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), all so bears couldn’t sneak up on the 40 or so houses that comprised the town—my favorite was fishing. If I managed to wake up at sunrise, around 4 in the morning at that latitude, I could go out on the water with Shakey and help him pull in barbell-anchored nets that glittered with salmon, their eyes alive and dumb, continually surprised. He showed me how to kill them: either a hook through the skull or a baseball bat to the same. His was a hammerheaded aluminum bat, the same used for T-ball. I was surprised by how easy it was, to kill, but even this surprise was expected somehow. There are long histories to these motions.
Shakey kept hootch in a military-style canteen that he sipped from throughout the day, always patting the equator of his gut afterwards. By day three, I was allowed to have a sip when he did. He showed me his own treasures: the wallet full of photographs. Kids with bowl cuts and missing baby teeth, no one I’d seen among the 139. I asked if he’d ever seen a thunderbird and he shrugged. The next day after unloading the day’s haul into the smokehouse, he extracted an iodine-colored bottle from his backpack. Thunderbird, “The American Classic,” 375 mL, 17.5% ABV, bottled in Modesto, CA, not so far from my home. Its $1.99 label was half scratched off. Thunderbird is a blind, fighting drunk I’ll come to know well in the basements of old frat houses where others like me put on their facepaint and tell stories about the mythic beasts they’ve slain. ‘No,’ I said, taking the bottle anyway. ‘I meant the bird. The monster.’ I flapped my arms in a gesture that was sadly helpful. Shakey nodded and later that night he took me to the place where he and his brothers gathered. From my readings I knew it to be a widden, a special Native American landfill, the oldest of which sometimes contain fossils. I could almost make out bone beneath cigarette butts, candy wrappers, a pen knife, and the remains of countless Thunderbirds, once intact but since smashed onto the heap by Shakey and the town’s other alcoholics, now congregating around my unopened bottle just like the vultures I make them into.
After Nayenezgami killed Tse-nah-ale he found the creature’s children, roosting in a nest thatched from dead saguaros. He commanded that they sit before him and he prepared a smoke from the herbs he kept in his headdress. He puffed smoke on his fingers and drew the residues over the birds in a cross. He told them to forget their father and that his spirit would not enter them again. “The tribe called Dîné shall use your feathers. In case of famine we will eat you for meat. Whatever you say will have a double meaning: it can be taken for a lie or for the truth.”
Older now, I see why Nayenezgami killed his thunderbird with lightning. When 18th century Russian explorer Yevgeni Namag moored his boat on the shore of what he would later name Baranof Island, he didn’t expect one and then two rowboats of his well-armed men to disappear into the island’s tall coniferous forests. Instead of muskets the men on the third rowboat carried jugs of vodka and thereafter Namag found safe passage up and down the Alaskan coast. His logbook describes the natives who greeted him as red-faced men, as if this were their morphology, something to be taxonomized. But he, like all alien gods, couldn’t see it was he who was alien. It was he who made their faces red, who sent them tumbling from their perches, generations of lesser beings born from their wounds. This is the double meaning of the cryptid. We are animals both sacred and profane. A god is as easily a monster.
I am in my hideout now. I prepare a smoke and rummage through my old cigar box, its treasures intact, but changed. My thunderbird feather, once so massive, is now as small as my index finger. Hidden, it has been allowed to be special, a fetish, but revealed to the world, it loses its magic. I dip the feather in ink, no longer invisible, and bring it to the knotty pine I can only see with the flame of my Bic. There I write this, my double meaning. Should scholars later find this writing, they will mistake it for a faithful record of events, a logbook or a confession, and they will be content to know what they know. Others will recognize it as myth, but will be drunk on the wisdom this promises. And here I am: alien and red-faced, still telling stories of an animal I search for in the wilderness. Hearing thunder in the beating of a single feather.
Nick Greer is currently pursuing an MFA Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. His writing has appeared in Anamesa. He is the recipient of a Tin House Scholarship and an Academy of American Poets Prize. This summer he will be a research intern at Microsoft’s Studio 99.
The display flashed “Great workout!” and a sense of dread dug its claws deep in my belly. I stepped off the treadmill feeling like I was still moving, my heart doing that flutter thing again. I waited for the sensation to pass. It always passed, I told myself. Always. Hadn’t the doctor said staying active would help improve my mood? If it was supposed to help, I wondered, then why did I feel like I’d just been punched in the gut?
The bathroom stall was dark, but not so dark that I couldn’t see the contrast of red on white. A single drop of blood stained my underwear. It was a mistake to run. I should have kept it to a brisk walk. Or better yet, I should have done something else on my lunch break.
The nurse on the other end of the line sounded distracted. “How much blood is there?”
Was she joking? Was there any good amount of blood for someone in my condition?
“Uh, a couple drops, but I’m not supposed to be bleeding, right?” I said.
She assured me that some spotting was normal, common even, but I should come in anyway, “just in case.”
My husband met me in the doctor’s office waiting room. When the nurse called my name he squeezed my hand. “Don’t worry, everything is going to be fine,” he said.
Everything was not fine. The ultrasound confirmed we had lost the baby. My first thought was, “What have I done?” Was it the run, the stress? Our son, Owen, had been so easy. No sooner were we home from our honeymoon than I was pregnant. But that was four years ago.
The cause of the miscarriage, my doctor informed us, was most likely a chance chromosomal or genetic abnormality or, less likely, a hormonal imbalance or problem with my uterus. She recommended I undergo testing to rule out the latter two. I did, and both results were normal.
When I became pregnant again a few months later, my doctor prescribed baby aspirin to protect against a rare blood-clotting disorder.
“Will it help?” I asked hopefully.
“Probably not, but it can’t hurt,” she said.
I stopped running on the treadmill and started doing yoga. I tried to be optimistic. Lots of women have miscarriages, I reasoned. I’m not special. It was all going well, until my ten-week ultrasound appointment. Lying on the table, my swollen belly covered in gel, the look on the sonographer’s face said it all.
I stopped doing yoga. I stopped doing anything that required physical exertion. There was no medical reason for this; it just felt like the right thing to do.
After waiting the requisite three months, we started trying again. By then, I could recognize the signs that I’d conceived within days of the event. I’d be sitting at my desk and all of a sudden I’d have a craving for a cheeseburger (I’m a vegetarian) and I’d know something had changed. Seven months—they felt like years—after our second miscarriage, I was pregnant again. And again, we braced ourselves for the worst.
My doctor had me take all the usual precautions: the baby aspirin, the vitamins. She also had me come in for weekly blood tests. When I was eight weeks along, one of those tests revealed my hormone levels were going in the wrong direction, and poof, another pregnancy was gone.
In the days following the surgery to remove my third pregnancy, the guilt set in. I passed my recovery time by quietly speculating on all the things I’d done wrong: I caught a bad cold. I was exposed to paint fumes in my dentist’s newly remodeled waiting room. I took Tylenol, twice. I petted my cat after she used the litter box. I stopped short in traffic. I drank a cappuccino. I toasted the New Year with a sip of champagne. I worried too much. I cried too often.
We didn’t talk about the miscarriages. We joined a support group, where we listened, most of the time in disbelief, to other people’s stories. One couple talked about how they had a funeral for a baby they lost at nine weeks. A funeral! I wanted to ask them what they put in the casket.
The midwife who facilitated the group, who had birthed hundreds of babies but never had any of her own, suggested we name our unborn babies. I had a problem with the fact that she kept referring to them as babies. Sure, they had the potential to be babies, but my little guys—or maybe they were girls?—more closely resembled sea monkeys than babies. Why would we name sea monkeys?
We tried to avoid the subject of babies at dinner parties. This was no easy task. Whenever you have one child, people always want to know when you planned on having another. Unsolicited advice was common. People liked to suggest alternative treatments they’d read about online like acupuncture or meditation. Although family and friends meant well, they often said things like “you can always try again” and “at least you have Owen.” My sister-in-law, who has four kids, suggested we get a puppy.
One evening at dinner, my husband announced he wanted to stop trying. “Maybe God is trying to tell us something,” he said.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like maybe we should quit while we’re ahead,” he said.
I pretended not to hear him. That night, I dreamed I had a baby, a girl. She had almond-shaped eyes and a dimple on her left cheek. She looked healthy. In a hospital bed I cradled her in my arms and sang to her softly until a nurse came to take her away.
A year later, I fell pregnant again.
My husband, despite his fears, was overjoyed. I was more wary. On the outside, I wore a brave face, but inside, I was holding my breath. I held it through the hospital visits and the blood tests. I held it despite all the assurances my pregnancy was progressing normally. I even held it through the ultrasounds that showed ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes.
It wasn’t until I heard my daughter cry for the first time that I exhaled.
Gwen has been a part of our lives for almost a year now, and I still sneak into the nursery every night to check on her. How easily reality can tilt and slip in those dark hours when no one else is awake.
I know I should be filled with joy at her existence. Yet her presence in my life does not feel permanent, cemented. I watch her as she sleeps in her crib, so peaceful, so unaware of the world around her and how hard we fought to bring her into it. I examine the dimple on her left cheek and think again about her genes and chromosomes. Please God, let them be strong enough to sustain her. Please let her be different from the rest, let her live.
Her eyelids twitch and I wonder if she ever dreams, like I do, of the ones who came before her, the ones who weren’t as strong as she. As I rock in the chair next to her crib, slowly, as if on waves, I contemplate this—until finally, listening to the sound of her breath, sleep comes to take me away.
Tina Mortimer is an essayist and short story writer from Stratford, Connecticut. Her work has appeared in Minnesota Parent, Long Story Short, and The Connecticut Journal, among other publications. She lives with her husband and two young children in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.
We were speaking about the earthquake.
Some were in high school then, others on a farm,
one driving, a few forgot.
A big tv swung from a classroom wall.
Waves in the tulip fields, yellow and magenta,
we followed the trough and crest as one of us
rolled his hand above a plate of corn.
We have no tornados or hurricanes.
A blizzard’s an insult.
We have floods and fill sandbags—
for earthquakes, drills.
Warned of tsunami, we alone are ready.
I asked if I might tell my dream
and began before objections,
though someone groaned.
“It’s short, nothing happens,” I reassured
and swept my hands with speed to show the cloud
arose in mist above church spires,
Crusaders’ lances on the march.
I saw the mountain peaks revolve about the city
where an insect in a helmet
raised a puff of motorcycle exhaust.
It oozed to a stately cloud
genied from the shining spout of a cylinder
a rich purple—the whole contraption like a zeppelin,
it spun toward me, lonely soul on the dusty path.
Swift across summer air it swam, cloud in tow.
I turned to run back down the mountain,
but felt its metal heat, and I woke up,
and everyone laughed—because we wake
before danger kills us, or it really was
that dream where nothing happens,
or has the mumbling eccentric at the end of the table
finally shut up? And all through dessert
I couldn’t say another word.
Michael Daley, born and raised in Dorchester, Massachusetts, took vows and prepared for the priesthood. Upon leaving religious life at 21, he was wild in the streets, protesting wars and seeking a life of experience. His work has appeared in APR, Hudson Review, Seattle Review, North American Review, and Writers Almanac, as well as current or recent issues of Rhino, Gargoyle, Spillway and elsewhere. His books include The Straits, To Curve, Moonlight in the Redemptive Forest, and a recent translation of Alter Mundus by Lucia Gazzino.
Coe says that she reads palms, and we’re sitting over dumplings at a restaurant in Chinatown. Immediately I turn to her like a child, my fingers stretched out wide. She says that she can tell from the way that someone holds her hands if they really want their stories told. Most people, she says, shy away in fear. And those that don’t, those who open their hands to her, she says, would spend the night with her, and all she’d have to do is ask. But me, it’s not that I want to love her, or even for her to love me. Me, with my palms held open towards her, I want for her to give me to myself.
Sara Siegel is a writer and artist living in Somerville, MA. Her previously published works include “Settling” in Vantage Point literary journal, “Home” in Toasted Cheese, and in Wild Violet, “each time” as well as “Young”, the companion piece to “Home.” Two of her short films have been screened at The Cell Theatre Company in NYC and are available at www.everythingaltersme.blogspot.com. Sara can currently be seen on stage in Boston as part of the sketch comedy group Mister Bismuth.
As the water spilled through the spout overhead, she replayed the idea again and again. A constant rush of thought, unbroken and hot. Don’t worry. You got away with it. She imagined scattering herself across the bottom of the tub, letting the soap residue wet the jet-lagged parts she’d become, turn them soft. Let them slip down the drain, flood the pipes. But she could only breathe steam and listen to the whirr of the vent. Everything was being recycled right then. Time and life and fear and air.
She was there, staring at the shadowed, tiled walls and she was already gone, waking up in a world without herself.
Megan Magers is a creative writer and book reviewer in the Los Angeles area, working on her debut novel. Her fiction has also appeared in Monkeybicycle. Find her on Twitter at @megmagers and on Instagram at @meganmagers.
A line of parents was already waiting in the assembly room by the time school let out for the day. Diane made her way through the rows of gurneys staffed by workers from the local blood bank, past the PTA volunteers wearing matching T-shirts that said, “What’s your type?”
The posters publicizing the blood drive were all over campus. Since the accident two weeks prior Thomas’s face had been everywhere, his blond hair hanging shaggily across one eye as he smiled for the camera. He was in her daughter Leila’s fifth-grade class. They’d gone to school together since kindergarten and had played on the same soccer team during first grade, the two of them standing next to each other in their team photo. How quickly he’d become the poster child for every parent’s nightmare, Diane thought.
The information had seeped in from multiple sources, each update adding a new terrible layer of specificity, hard-edged details glinting like shards of glass. A crossing-guard out sick that day; a car that came around the corner too fast. Thomas, already halfway across the street, unable to move out of the way in time. He’d been thrown onto the hood by the impact and lacerated his spleen. At his mother’s request, the PTA had quickly organized today’s drive to support the blood bank that had been his lifeline at the hospital.
A few days earlier Diane had run into Carrie, the PTA president, at the supermarket. Their relationship had never really progressed past the hello stage; in the concentric rings of popularity among the mothers at the school, Carrie orbited near the center, Diane, on an outer ring.
“Hi, Diane!” Carrie said, turning back from unloading her cart. She was wearing turquoise cropped pants and a flowered cardigan. “How are you? I don’t know if you heard—I’m putting together a meal sign-up sheet for Thomas’s family. Let me know if you’re interested.”
“Yes, definitely,” Diane said. Of course Carrie, polished and efficient, would be at the center of the coordination efforts. Diane was suddenly aware of how unkempt she must look in her faded jeans and flip-flops. “Have you heard anything about how Thomas is doing?” she asked.
“His mom said he’s doing pretty well, considering. They were really worried about the internal injuries.” Carrie paused, smoothing her hair back behind her ear. “It turns out he has one of the rarer blood types—he just about depleted the supply at the hospital.” She sighed. “When she asked if we could host a blood drive at school, I told her we’d make it happen.”
Diane nodded sympathetically. Carrie and the other PTA moms had been doing a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes. She felt a small flush of inadequacy; her own plan to donate blood suddenly seemed a paltry contribution. “I’ll be there,” she replied.
Diane stood in the doorway, surveying the school assembly room. It looked like a Red Cross shelter furnished with rows of gurneys rather than cots. Carrie was walking down one of the rows, heading away from her, writing on a clipboard. Along the walls, children in black-and-white class pictures from years past smiled down on them.
Underneath a row of photos from the 1970s, the PTA had set up a snack table with crackers, cookies, and juice. Diane recognized Sherry, the room parent from Leila’s class, who was arranging juice boxes on the table. She looked up and gave Diane an enthusiastic wave. “Glad you could make it!” she called. Diane smiled reflexively and waved back. It was unsettling, this incongruous cheerfulness. When she’d first heard about the accident, she’d immediately pictured Leila suffering the same horrific injuries, sprawled across a car hood, limp and unconscious. It had been enough to make her weak-kneed. She was awed by Thomas’s mother, her ability to channel her anguish into something positive, requesting a blood drive even as she kept vigil with Thomas in the ICU. Diane doubted she’d have the same presence of mind if she were in her position. She had a vision of herself keeling over in panic and pain, keening like a trapped wild creature.
Up on the stage, a few parents were helping organize the kids who were waiting while their parents donated blood. They’d transformed the space into an arts-and-crafts area, with three long tables and two dozen chairs, along with piles of colored markers and construction paper for making get-well cards. Even from across the room Diane could hear the kids, loud and unconcerned, exuberant in their innocence. Leila was there with a couple of kids from her class but didn’t appear to be interacting with them. It was as if she’d been dropped into their midst, her slumped shoulders accentuating her aloneness while the activity and conversation flowed around her.
When Leila was younger, she’d always insisted on colorful barrettes and ponytail holders. She’d given those up a few years ago; now, her dark hair hung heavily around her face like a barrier against the rest of the world. Diane knew better than to get up and check on her. She thought about the argument they’d had that morning and sighed.
By the time Leila had finally gotten dressed and come downstairs for breakfast it was already 7:30 a.m. She seemed to move with an exaggerated slowness, scowling at every reminder to hurry up, until Diane wanted to gather up her folders and finish packing Leila’s backpack herself. Finally, she’d hunted down Leila’s high-tops and brought them into the kitchen, where Leila was still eating her cereal.
“I’m not a baby!” Leila said angrily when Diane deposited them next to her.
Diane walked over to the counter to refill her coffee cup. She knew without looking that Leila was glaring at her. “Don’t forget you still need to brush your teeth,” Diane said. “We’re leaving in three minutes, and if you’re not ready, I’m going to have to wake you earlier tomorrow.” She turned toward the doorway, glancing quickly over at Leila. As she started down the hall she nearly tripped over the cat, which lay stretched out on the linoleum, engrossed in its morning grooming ritual.
Leila looked up and gave Diane a dirty look. Her bowl was still half-full, her juice glass untouched. “Stop ruining my life,” she muttered.
“Three minutes!” Diane called back.
In the car on the way to school, she tried to bridge the silence. “I heard you have a special assembly coming up. Is that this week?” She tried to catch Leila’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, but she was turned toward the window, chin resting in her hand. She didn’t reply. Diane gave a small sigh and decided not to push it.
Every morning now was the same. Diane felt the familiar regret. What hadn’t they argued about lately? Even topics that seemed safe, like what to buy at the grocery store, quickly led to conflict.
On Monday, Diane had asked if there was anything Leila wanted to add to the shopping list.
“I hate the bread you always buy,” she said.
Ignoring the tone, Diane asked again if there was anything she wanted. She waited for Leila to answer, watching as she slowly unknotted her iPhone cord.
With the cord untangled, Leila put in her ear buds. “Get whatever you want. You always do anyway.”
“Then don’t complain that there’s nothing to eat,” Diane retorted.
As a toddler Leila had been talkative and happy, easily amused by the world. Her exuberance had been infectious, and Diane, who’d never had the urge to hold someone else’s baby, became enthralled by her, marveling at how her own natural reserve melted away in the brightness of Leila’s personality.
Becoming parents hadn’t been enough, ultimately, to keep her marriage to Dennis together, but they’d stayed cordial after the divorce. Leila saw her father regularly, spending alternate weekends with him. Dennis had noticed the changes in her too, the emergence of a warier, more self-conscious version of her preadolescent self. Yet when Diane tried to talk to him about it, he seemed flummoxed. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a preteen girl—isn’t that more your area?” Remembering the conversation, Diane felt a flash of resentment. It didn’t seem fair that he could so easily delegate it all to her, as if simply being female made it easier to weather Leila’s growing storms.
The girls in Leila’s fifth-grade class seemed on a faster track to adolescence than the boys; last year, they’d all started wearing training bras or stretchy camisoles. A couple of them had even gotten their periods already. Leila hadn’t yet, and thank goodness for that, Diane thought, although she knew Leila’s hormone levels were stealthily building towards it. Diane felt helpless against the rising tide. She tried to remind herself that Leila still loved her, still needed her, even when she vibrated with moodiness.
Diane gathered up her paperwork and walked to the next station. The blood-bank worker there wore scrubs and running shoes, as if he’d jogged over, and a large button that said, “Remember—it takes all types!” Diane extended her right hand and waited for him to prick her ring finger and analyze her blood. Iron-rich, he pronounced, but too thick: had she had a lot of coffee today? He handed her a bottle of water and instructed her to drink it before proceeding to the next station.
As she stood to make way for the next donor, Diane thought again of the cruel arbitrariness of the accident. Despite the oddly festive atmosphere today, she knew the other parents must feel it too. They’d organized prayer vigils; they’d dropped off dinners at the family’s house. Casseroles and cannelloni and comforting pots of soup: food left as offerings.
How quickly tragedy could infiltrate a tidy life. At night, Diane conjured up new horrors that could befall Leila: car accidents, stranger abductions, random violence. The possibilities massed at the edge of her consciousness. Even when she was pregnant she’d worried about all the things that could go wrong, the abnormalities and deformities described explicitly in her pregnancy books. Reading about possible complications, she’d marveled that anyone managed to give birth to a healthy baby. There was simply too much danger in the world. As a parent, you had to push it into the background to avoid being overwhelmed. Having Leila had permanently branded Diane, marking her with a panicked sense of responsibility.
At the next station, Diane recounted her personal health history in response to the list of questions. No tattoos in the last year, no recreational drug injections, no sex for money since 1977. “And none before then either,” she added, briefly amused, grateful for the small diversion.
At last she lay on the gurney, immobilized for fifteen minutes as the red tube snaked to the collection pouch below. It would siphon one pint—enough to refill her now-empty water bottle. With each beat of her heart, her blood pulsed through the tubing. All the dozen gurneys were occupied by similarly-tethered parents. She recognized some of the moms from Leila’s class and several dads too. It seemed strangely intimate, lying side by side, all of them drawn here by a need to do something, anything, to help Thomas’s parents bear their burden.
Looking over toward the stage she saw that Leila was standing apart from the other kids, facing the sea of gurneys. She looked like she was about to cry. She was staring at Diane with a feral intensity, noting the blood draining from her right arm into the quickly filling pouch. Diane thought she could see in Leila’s pained expression a kind of anguish at seeing her prone and hooked up to tubing, as if she’d been injured and needed care. Leila had pulled her sweatshirt hood up over her head, as if the charcoal fleece might provide a barrier against the world.
Diane had a vision of her at age four, similarly hooded as Tigger in a black-and-orange striped hooded jacket and matching fleece pants. The jacket had zipped up the front and had ears sewn onto the hood. It was Halloween, and Diane had used an old eyeliner pencil to draw a black nose and whiskers on Leila. Even afterwards, there were many days when she’d worn the jacket, her hood with its fleecy ears eliciting smiles at the grocery store or on other errands around town. Leila, as she used to be, bouncy and exuberant.
Diane thought of sharing this memory with her, bringing it up casually on the car ride home, but even as she considered it she knew it would go wrong. Leila would respond with stony silence, leaving them both resentful. Marooned, yet again, on opposite sides of the gulf that now separated them.
Up on the stage Leila seemed smaller somehow, her shoulders hunched in protectively. Diane thought she could sense the warring impulses within her: her craving for independence, her simple, fundamental need for her mother.
“How are you feeling? Any lightheadedness?” the blood-bank worker asked. Diane’s view was blocked as he stood over her.
“No—I’m fine,” she said. She looked around him to see Leila still standing there. Diane ached for the pain of her transformation, the angry retreat of her difficult journey through adolescence. Underneath her prickliness she was still so vulnerable.
Her guard was nearly always up now. It was only occasionally, when Diane would come to Leila’s bedroom to say goodnight and find her already in a state of near-sleep, that she was willing to accept her touch. Leila’s body would be taut, but slowly, she would let herself relax as Diane traced the knots of her spine, the sharp wings of her shoulder blades gradually flattening as Diane smoothed away the tension Leila kept hidden away. Diane knew better than to speak at these moments, grateful for their quiet communion.
The blood-bank worker came over again. “All done—you did great,” he said, cradling her outstretched arm. “I’m going to unhook you now.” Diane felt a small tug as he withdrew the needle before wrapping the area with several layers of stretchy bandage. “You’ll need to leave this in place for a few hours.”
The woman on the gurney next to her had her feet in the air and a cold compress on her forehead. An apparent fainting risk. Slowly Diane sat up, then stood, the worker still nearby and alert for any signs of unsteadiness. Diane glanced at Leila again, wanting her to see that she was OK.
But Leila was no longer facing her. Diane watched as she put on her backpack and leaned forward to shrug it into place. She yanked at the base of her sweatshirt hood to loosen it from the straps, then jerked her head forward to free her hair. Even from where she stood, Diane could sense her irritation. It was the emotion Leila fell back on most often to vent the roiling awkwardness below.
At the snack table, Diane accepted a cup of juice and took a sip. Apple, Leila’s favorite when she was young, although Diane couldn’t remember the last time they’d had any in the house. She sat quietly as the two volunteers at the table discussed the upcoming PTA fundraiser. Carrie came over and whispered something to the volunteer handing out cookies and they both laughed. Diane closed her eyes to try to block it all out: the happy volunteers, the rows of gurneys, the children’s faces in the photos lining the room.
Leila’s needs had once been so straightforward: a hug and a band-aid for a skinned knee, a cup of juice for crankiness. Now there were no simple fixes. Diane felt her own sadness well up for not being able to ease her pain. She wanted to throw her arms around her daughter’s stiff shoulders, to surround her with warmth and strength. This was her role, she realized: to try, to continue to try. She held onto her paper cup as if it were an offering, wishing it could somehow hold all of her fierce love that even right now was threatening to spill over.
Lisa Lynne Lewis is a contributing writer for Literary Mama and has also been published on Prime Number Magazine and in Better Homes and Gardens and Redbook. She has an MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. She lives in Southern California with her family.
There but for the grace of
a gallon of vodka go I:
rolling river roulette.
A hailstorm hitting the muzzles
of voiceless mothers watching
sons disappear. A cloud
of quiver hovering over
every bottle in the aisle
that follows me
to the checkout
Dylan Weir is a Chicago poet completing his M.A. in English at DePaul University. A semifinalist for the 2014 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award, his poetry appears in After Hours,Mobius, H_NMG_N, Literary Orphans, The Legendary, Chicago Literati, Red Paint Hill, and others. Dylan’s a poetry reader for Gigantic Sequins, and on the staff of Anthropoid.
Toby wondered why flies always died on their backs, or so it seemed. He had not conducted a scientific analysis or even done research on the suspect Internet. He was fully prepared to admit he’d made up the entire premise, simply because he’d observed a dead fly upon coming out of his bedroom, though he was pretty sure he’d come across other dead flies in this position. He had no idea, really, if the fly had died on that spot or elsewhere, say, the windowsill, where so many did, no doubt yearning. A stray breeze might have wafted it to the floor. A sneeze. Another fly tired of looking at the corpse. He felt fairly certain the fly had not been there when he went to bed last night, but he would not have sworn an oath.
Could a coroner determine when the fly had died or if it had been a natural death? And what was a natural death for a fly, old age? Malnutrition? Did flies that inadvertently found their way inside have shorter lives than those who remained in the wild? Toby could certainly understand why someone might choose the fly as a compelling subject to explore. There were so many questions to be answered. He supposed, as in all fields of study, one question led to another and soon one might be inquiring about the pill bug or beetles. Should one become a generalist or a specialist and which was more rewarding, more intellectually challenging, which garnered more respect?
Toby found a crumpled tissue in his pocket, where there was almost sure to be such, gently lifted the fly which appeared to have entered the state of rigor mortis, and placed it in the waste can. If a house fly never entered a house, was it still a house fly? He was not unaware that he was a lucky man, able to spend his time contemplating this sort of issue.
She received an award. I did not receive an award. I wanted one, needed one, in fact because I was in dire financial straits, too weak to swim, no boat in sight. Perhaps I did not try hard enough for the award. Perhaps I sabotaged myself, afraid of success. This realization floated into the periphery of my circular musings without my being under the care of a therapist. I had friends who were therapists. It was as close as I wanted to get. She (award recipient) is not bad but I wouldn’t say she was worthy of an award. What do I know? Clearly not much about the ways of the world. Even so, I use adverbs sparingly. I am mostly well-intentioned other than harboring gruesome revenge fantasies involving bosses from the past. I would use the award wisely. I would be generous. This might also be true of her but I’ll bet anything I need it more. In fact, I’ll bet $5.
3. Pretty Please
There are many things and they are everywhere and more and more things are piling up, entering the picture, being purchased and moved from one room to another and then to the dump. The dump is a place for things, broken or useful, there is no discrimination. Most things are not a kind of food but seem so in the way of needing, though perhaps most things are more a kind of hunger. Wanting things, more things, better and fancier, faster and edgier, tricky things, even stupid things; for the moment they don’t seem stupid but glittering. And the children are almost buried in things and they make tunnels in things and crawl through them and push them under the bed and there is always another thing they want that is just up the road at the store and could they have it, pretty please, it will make them the happiest child ever, so that the father and mother will also be happy and the family will be inside their nest of things, complete.
Mercedes Lawry has published short fiction in several journals including Gravel, Garbanzo, and Newer York. She’s published poetry in journals such as Poetry, Nimrod, and Prairie Schooner and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. Additionally, she’s published stories and poems for children. She lives in Seattle. Her flash pieces “Puzzling” and “Breathing Room” appear in Cleaver‘s Issue No. 3. “The Acolytes,””Liar,” and “Box” appear in Issue 6.
She didn’t know how to tell her aging mother how they were doing it, James and his friends from the team. They were in the living room, snickering in their jerseys, going to that boy’s funeral—digitally. She was in the kitchen at a table with her mother and she knew she wouldn’t be able to convey to her the quadratic equation of the crash trajectory of a car in chrome and plastic, nor would she ace the quiz on tree ecology about the way the chemical composition of bark repels beer swilling at 75 mph per square newtons of peer pressure per square Hyundai. At that rate, every pine is a Puritan, mad at machines and men and sometimes even cherubic goalies who whisper their prayers into push-ups every night and dream of one day visiting the Pacific Ocean. She didn’t know how to tell her mother why the boys had gone quiet in the other room, so that all you could hear was the periodic static of the waves, and how it probably started, the funeral they were at on the computer, the one they couldn’t afford to fly to in person. It had been her idea to line them up in the living room, adjusting the angle of the screen and arranging the shorter ones as sardines on knees, while taller ones wearing jerseys over clip-on ties stood ten-hut in the back. Her mother asked for the seventh time, Who died? It was then that she saw more than tragedy in it, glimpsing a place she could start from: here, with her mother, where she didn’t have to consider the high school junior from the team James looked up to. The boy who dreamed of an ocean he’d never see. For her mother, she’d give a better story. The person who died was a very wicked man. He’s the one who did all the bad things. He wore the hood and swung the blade. It was him who bullied and stalked and left suspicious black bags. He had that flu, leaked those files, wired their drones, gave her the pills. And he was dead and no riddance had ever been better. But she only told her aging mother again that it was the boy from James’s team. Her mother shook her head No. Hair strands from the white nest on her head came loose as the older woman turreted her head, No. Organ music. A march came from the living room. Her mother hadn’t looked so clear-eyed in years, as the boys’ faint sniffling took a few panicky turns back to laughter before breaking into a house of unrestrained crying. Her mother began telling her, just before that happened, about a gaudily baubled wreath painted white that had been tied to a tree outside the old house. How she hated it, she said. Glittery little bows everywhere. Who could stand it?
Michael Chaney is an academic, an artist, a writer, and a dog walker. He lives in Vermont and works in New Hampshire and the transgressions only start there. Others pyrne in the gyres they got over at places like SmokeLong Quarterly, The Adroit Journal, JMWW, and The Citron Review. Get even abstruser with him at michaelalexanderchaney.com
They had reason to be in California at the same time, and loved the Central Valley, on the way to Yosemite, and us.
“Yes, they are!”
“At the same time?”
“Yeah,” we said, on the phone. “You can come. We’re ready for you.”
We got excited about a nice meal in the backyard, a barbecue—with me in a chef’s apron I hadn’t used, a silly one, and a Weber, still virginal, fired up and hot. We tidied up the house, and bought plenty of cheeses and crackers, and fluffed up the beds in the separate rooms—two true pals, they wouldn’t pad down the hall to a cracked-open door showing light inside, asking for a spare toothbrush or something, ah ha—and stocked decaf for one, and tea for the other.
“Boy, it’s almost time.”
“We’ll be ready.” I swept the patio. Jackie set the table, casually, you know, with just the right amount of finickiness and flair, and adjusted the hanging plants that garlanded the patio roof—gave them a good spray of water and whapped the cobwebs off.
And I turned around and my old friend, my grad school pal Sharon Dolin stood in front of me.
“Sharon’s here,” Jackie said.
“It’s been so long! You’re older, more mature.” Sharon observed me critically, pointer finger on her chin.
Then she broke into laughter. “You’re the same!”
And Cory Brown made a grand entrance after a delay, ceremoniously, freshly charged, coming through the side gate with a hoot and holler, “Hey there,” dropping his bag on the patio and ready to dig in.
“Boy, oh, boy! What a spread!”
I plopped a piece of meat on everybody’s plate, scurrying around the table with a pair of silver tongs held high and a larger plate offered with a fine selection of barbecue chicken, ribs, and beef to pick from.
“I want that one!” Sharon said.
“You got that one!” I said.
And Cory said: “Just give me all you got, boy. One of each.”
“You got it, my man. Poet. Damn poet.”
Jackie picked a teeny bit of chicken and one fat rib. Potato salad got loaded onto the plates, arms outstretched, and the rest followed, all of us busy, busy serving ourselves at the table, eyeing the bowled food, talking, pointing, “I want some of that!” making sure not to spill.
“Oh no! I already got something on my blouse!”
“It’s all right, Sharon. It doesn’t show, really,” Jackie said.
“But I like this blouse!”
“So does my chicken!”
“You’re the poet, señor,” the damn poet said. “Let’s eat.”
“But first a toast,” Sharon said. She lifted a glass of wine. “To a good meal, a good conversation, a good visit! And friendship, fellowship!”
“I’ll second that,” I said. “Amen.”
“Oh, yeah. She’s at Rutgers now? I thought she was at University of Chicago.”
“That’s right. She might be there. I might be thinking of somebody else.”
“I never liked her,” Cory said.
“Now, now,” I said. “We’re three thousand miles away from that place. Let it be.”
“Don’t start singing The Beatles, Steve. Does he still do that, Jackie?”’
“Don’t ask her, Sharon. Ask me. You goddamn feminists! Just cutting us out of the game!”
“Oh, eat your chicken and shut up,” Sharon said, cheerily.
“I still sing The Beatles. In the shower. Only when I’m drunk, though.”
Sharon closed her eyes and nodded heavily. “When I find myself in times of trouble…”
“Desist, Sharon! You weren’t in such great shape that night, either.”
“This chicken is good!” She twirled a drumstick in her hand.
We spoke out of the sides of our mouths, asking after old friends and foes. We relived grad school, pleasantly, without bile, over it.
And when Garrison Keillor got too obnoxious on that damn Prairie Home Companion radio show, I got up to do something about it. I slid open the screen door to the house rather dramatically, and disappeared inside. I turned the damn thing off.
I came back out, relieved.
“I really don’t like Garrison Keillor,” I said. “His unctuous voice. Maybe it’s just me. I’m sure it’s just me.”
“It’s just you,” Sharon said. “I’ll help clean up, Jackie.”
“Not yet,” Jackie said. “Let’s just sit out here for a bit. It’s nice when it gets cooler.”
“Sounds good,” Cory said. “I could use a rest.”
“You’ve been resting for seven years, boy, since I met you, you damn poet, you.”
“Amen to that, amigo. You are right. I am a poet, a goddamn poet, a very rested one.”
“At least the poet speaks the truth.”
“I do exactly what I’m supposed to do.”
“Oh, brother,” Sharon said. Her eyebrows scrunched up, and she shook her head quizzically. “Where am I?”
“California,” I said. “The Golden Land.”
“Cory, are you still writing poetry?” Sharon asked.
“Yes. I just wanted to make sure. So many have stopped. Dan, and Marla.”
“They got married.”
“They stopped!” Sharon expressed astonishment again, aggrieved, and froze at the table. She made a good portrait of despair.
“They’re having a baby,” Cory said. “That’s a kind of poetry.”
“They stopped before that,” Sharon said. “They’re done.” She remained frozen. She spoke the words automatically.
“Don’t be so harsh,” Cory said.
“I can’t help it,” Sharon said. “I’m driven! I’m from Brooklyn!”
“Take me out to the ballgame…”
“Don’t bring up the Dodgers,” Sharon said. “Don’t talk about baseball. Please, no baseball here.” She cut the subject short with a quick chop of her hand.
“We’re talking about life,” Jackie said. She sat serenely next to her. She carried a baby inside. Nobody knew it.
“I know,” Sharon said. “I’m not anti-life. I want a baby, too, a child. I just don’t understand. Poetry!” She stood up and faced the cosmos bravely, chest out, fists at her sides, enraged.
She did Sylvia Plath justice. “Goddamn it, I’m going to write poetry till I die!” She gritted her teeth, saw the folly of her stance and re-sat herself in good humor, chuckling.
“I hope that the gods heard me, at least.”
“They did,” I said. “Believe me, they did.” She lifted a glass of wine to me.
She did write poetry past the time of childbearing. She endured a bad marriage with it. She earned a great name in the world of poetry. She raised a lovely, lovely child in Manhattan, single, tough, hungry. Cory deepened as a poet and made his own mark. He indulged his philosophical mind in the creation of complex, abstract essays with a social issue at heart. He won an award for his early poetry, and appeared in the right magazines later. But he suffered terribly in his life, lonely and guilty for the shabby treatment of a woman (or two). He left a trail of hurt.
Who could know any of this? Not me. I nursed my glass of wine. I got up to clear a space for a pie coming out later.
“Want to play Scrabble?” Cory said.
“I do,” I said, sweeping crumbs into my palm with a napkin.
“I don’t know,” Sharon said. “Last time we played, you cheated.”
“I did not,” Cory said.
“You made up words that don’t exist!”
Cory looked baffled.
“You did! Out there on the lake in grad school.”
“Oh, that was fun. You just don’t have as large a vocabulary as me.”
“Who wants tea?” Jackie said. She got up from the table. She smiled at everybody. Over the wooden fence in the backyard, a pale moon appeared in the bluish gray sky.
“I’ll take some.” Sharon smiled affably.
“Me, too,” Cory said.
I asked what kind.
“What kind you got?”
“Just about every tea under the sun, boy.”
“Decaf?” Sharon asked. “Herbal?”
“Sure. All that stuff.”
“I’ll take something good,” Cory said. “Whatever you got. Herbal.”
“How about you, Sharon?”
“Something good, too. Peppermint? You got Peppermint?”
“We do,” Jackie said, struggling at the screen door with a handful of stuff.
“Let me help you!” Sharon sprang up.
Cory beat her to the door and opened it. “After you!”
“You still want to play Scrabble?” I asked.
We all stood on the patio now. We all pondered the big question.
“Sure! What are friends for?” Sharon said. “To beat at Scrabble!”
“And cheat.” Cory stood off to the side, staring at the moon grown a little bigger, a little fuller, the sky darker and bluer.
“Damn poet,” I said. “You just like to stand in nature, don’t you, and make up words?”
“I do,” he said.
Jackie and Sharon disappeared inside. I carried in my own load of dirty dishes and silverware.
And Cory, the poet, whistled in the dusk.
Later in the full darkness of a pleasant evening with only a soft Japanese lantern hanging over the board, we said little, intent, eyes aglow, lips tight, finding the right words to put it all together.
Stephen D. Gutierrez published The Mexican Man in His Backyard in 2014. His other books are Elements and Live from Fresno y Los, which won the Nilon Award (FC2) and an American Book Award, respectively. A fiction writer as well as an essayist, he has published his nonfiction in Fourth Genre,River Teeth, Under the Sun, Santa Monica Review, ZYZZYVA, Third Coast, elimae, Red Savina Review, The East Bay Review and Alaska Quarterly Review. He has a piece forthcoming in Fourth Genre, and is a current Best of the Net Nominee. He teaches at Cal State East Bay.
BLACK WINGS FLAPPING by Shmu’el Bashevis Ben’yamin
I had the ingredients of becoming a perfect milksop, but it didn’t happen. Every day I carried to school an orange ball bigger than my head, and at lunch watched long-legged teenagers with patchy facial hair and funny white boots borrow the ball to put it through a bent rim. The ball was named after my uncle Wilson. I had found it buried under the yellow flowers of a California pepper tree. My hands itched all day after scrubbing it with laundry detergent, and my feet hurt when I kicked it against my aunt’s garage door.
The young men multiplied faster than tree rabbits. They started as two-on-two, then three-on-three. After a few more days, they played a full court press of five-on-five, hooped back and forth while other children picket-fenced the sidelines, waiting to be picked. Girls perched on top of an aluminum bleacher. They had wavy canary feathers for hair. They hardly paid attention and did not cheer. I sat on the bottom row and absorbed their singsongs without looking at them.
I didn’t speak much. I was immersed in ESL classes, where Spanish became the lingua franca. That went on for several months before I realized that The Jetsons on television sounded foreign in English. I did well in Spanish and mathematics. Everything else I failed that term.
I don’t remember the exact day, but for hours the sun’s sulfur carbonized our heads. No one really wanted to play except me. Sweat had already covered my body and dripped from my forehead before I even touched the ball. On the court, I flew like a black-billed magpie among white storks, stealing the ball from Michael, dribbling between the legs of David, the tallest stork, lobbing it over Daniel, swish and score. I lost two kilos that day from being in the outdoor incubator, but it didn’t matter—we were the champs.
We queued in front of a fountain to scoop water and splash our body. I stood last. The water hadn’t cooled. We spread our drenched shirts on top of the monkey bars to be dried. They spoke. I listened. “Dis…Dat…Der” were the only words I recognized, plus the familiar biblical names. Thank God for that. I could have been playing with Jehoash, son of Jehoahaz, son of Jehu, and Jeroboan, son of Nebat.
“Let’s see who has the biggest shoes,” David dared. Converse, Adidas, Puma, white leather vamps and black overlays, tongues and ankle straps, lined side by side, heel to heel. They sized me up and laughed. It was a contagious laughter that rippled in a minute-long wave. My shoe wouldn’t have fit David’s toes.
My mother had bought the pair at a Goodwill store one hot summer day when we first moved to my uncle’s house in Los Angeles. I was almost eleven. My father and older brother joined us two years later when my brother completed his compulsory military service. They never saw my shoes. Red and yellow with black wings glued on the side saddles, they were the best shoes I’d ever owned. My mom convinced me that they belonged to Robin, the sidekick to Batman. To make it official, she’d stitched a capital R on the vamp.
I didn’t get to shoot again until weeks later during another heat wave. The storks had transformed into cranes that late fall. My mother attributed it to them eating burgers and fries. “Look at their parents,” she commented one day when she picked me up from school. “They look like tractors. That’s not healthy. Do you want to be like that?” I kept quiet and snuck my first Whopper that week.
David remembered my play and invited me to court. The wings on my Robin shoes were half peeled, flapping like a tiny bat. My toes bulged at the seams. My T-shirt stretched. Our sweat splattered and instantly evaporated. The callus on my toe bled, but was camouflaged by my black polyester socks. We won again.
David ordered another showing of shoes after that game. We lined up as before. The boys laughed again, pointing their fingers at me. They wore the latest Nike, with a red man stretched like a letter X holding a wart. I was not taken by the wave anymore. I pulled away and sat on a field of sallow crabgrass, knees drawn to my chest, arms around them, chin resting on the knees.
Another person immediately leaped from the bleacher and took my spot. Her bleached head reached their chests; her scrawny legs shimmered like the Mediterranean Sea in the morning light. She flashed a pair of glossy sneakers with thick pink laces, and an open-mouth alligator plastered on the sides.
“These are La Coste,” she gushed. The article didn’t match the word, and it was neither Spanish el costo nor French le coût. She probably spoke Latin. The boys shrugged and strolled to the cafeteria. David rolled the ball to me but it curved back into the court. I watched it stop near the free-throw line.
The girl grabbed the ball and sat on it next to me. She removed the letter L from the eyelet and tied it to my lace. It was a dainty white L, made of jute. She spoke rapidly. “My mom’s remodeling the kitchen. I found extra strips of linoleum and carved out the L with an X-Acto knife.” I didn’t grasp any of it. I remained silent.
“Look,” she pointed. “L and R.” I nodded. A half-smile broke out on my face.
For the next three months the L drummed off the R with every step. I sprung six inches that winter into a wary black stork, and she became a flaming flamenco. It rained for the first time. My toes poked out and got wet. The R had converted to a P before my mom replaced the shoes with a pair of soccer cleats. They were brand new from K-Mart. The orange ball had tanned like a cherry; the bumps on its leather had faded. I wore the L on a necklace, under my shirt close to my heart, hidden from my mom.
Shmu’el Bashevis Ben’yamin moved to Southern California at the age of ten where he unwittingly learned Spanish before English. It turned out that because of his mother’s Semitic tongue, he knew more Ethiopian than English. During his scientific studies in his twenties, he began to publish arrhythmic poems, under various pen names, in Sparrowgrass Poetry Forum, Poetry.com and Eber & Wein. His short story, When Emily Left, was selected as one of the five finalists of Warren Adler’s Divorce Short Story Contest in March, 2012. He currently resides near Pasadena.
A MID SUMMER SOIRÉE A Visual Narrative
by Emily Steinberg Introduction by Tahneer Oksman
First sort through Emily Steinberg’s A Mid Summer Soirée in quick succession. Then go back and read it slowly. This appealingly energetic set of captioned images is a storyboard of sorts. Each slide displays a beguiling creature or character, and sometimes a pair, pictured just above a crisply worded sentence encased in a neat, if bourgeois, font. We are presented with a simple trajectory: the individuals, spotlighted in medias res, are about to attend, or are attending, a party. These experiences do not clearly build on each other: “He’d been out of circulation a while.” “They argued just before arriving.” “She rooted through her closet and was dismayed.” Trying to fill in the narrative gaps is part of the pleasure of the journey, as is, on the contrary, moving past those gaps in favor of experiencing the piece’s seductive rhythm.
The artworks—some fashioned in delicate colors, some in black-and-white—are offset by clean white backgrounds. Many of the images are clearly collages, intricately inked cut-ups of crossword puzzles, newspaper articles, and cartoons. “I’m interested in the idea of chance, and what happens when you don’t control the situation,” Steinberg explained about the piece’s composition.
Viewing A Mid Summer Soirée, one is cast into a framework in which whimsy and fantasy meet a morning coffee-and-newspaper ritual. To transform daily minutiae into otherworldly events, to dive into the looking glass: therein lies the delight of this piece.
—Tahneer Oksman, June 2015
Emily Steinberg, a painter and graphic novelist, earned her M.F.A. and B.F.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and has shown her work widely in New York and Philadelphia. Most recently, she exhibited in a solo show at SFA Gallery, Frenchtown, NJ, and at the Woodmere Museum in Philadelphia. Her graphic novel memoir, Graphic Therapy, can be read online at Smith Magazine. Her short comic, Blogging Towards Oblivion, was included in The Moment (Harper/Collins 2012). Her visual narratives Broken Eggs (2014) and The Modernist Cabin (2013) have been published in Cleaver. She currently teaches painting, graphic novel, and the History of Comics at Penn State Abington. She lives in Philadelphia. .
Tahneer Oksman is the Graphic Narrative Reviews Editor for Cleaver Magazine. Her book, “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs, will be published in February 2016 by Columbia University Press. She is Assistant Professor and Director of the Academic Writing Program at Marymount Manhattan College.
A beautiful mother crossed in front of my carriage, pursuing a chatty little girl up the cereal aisle. Familiarity and dread washed over me. Thirty years ago I’d talked to her almost nightly on the phone. The dread accompanied a swelling lack of clarity about why she’d disappeared. Aging in your hometown, if you’d disrespected innocence, could be hazardous.
I had been drifting toward the section for dented items beside the deli, but not to save a buck on a mangled can of green beans. Once the sell-by date comes up, fresh bakery goods, reduced to half-price, end up there. Poof! Natural expiration becomes illusion. Sub rolls and Scali bread get picked over fast, so you have to be aggressive. Sometimes I’ll even a do a little civilized hand bumping with a rich old woman from the East Side.
No one was there to fight. I sacrificed easy pickings for Carla when I called out her name. She stopped. I had to identify myself. Maybe she hadn’t forgiven. Maybe time had ravaged me. After a fleeting, terrible expression of blankness, she gave me a sincere hug, but it was slack, bland. I felt insubstantial. I said I’d quit drinking. Over twenty years ago I’d called her a whore. She wasn’t. I was a drunk. Now we made small talk about employment, dead and sick parents, her husband. We didn’t say: once you mattered; you felt necessary; you were not a diversion on the way to real. Carla pushed her cart after the laughing, spontaneous girl. What you love gets away so quickly. I followed. One of us started the goodbyes. I turned around.
Carla had written on the back of the striking, wallet-sized graduation photo she’d given me that I could always count on her for a talk. We drank together then, at parties, for a while—until she was gone. Everyone dispersed to colleges, careers, new families. I went to bars after work I hated. Strangers were loud, laughing, and relentless. Carla appeared in an Irish place with a man, greeted me, sat away from me. Other men approached her. I watched from the bar, drinking, stewing over always. I was separated, dismissed. I got angry. I found myself at her table, yelling at her as her old beauty somehow went rancid. A coworker dragged me outside. Carla tried to follow, shocked but unafraid. She kept faith in me. I felt as if I’d been possessed.
Back at the reduced food, nothing decent was left. I took a number at the deli. A crowd had developed, immersed in examining and selecting slabs of meat. I hadn’t told Carla that I’d gotten courageous enough to leave. For three years I was gone, but couldn’t stand it. If you can’t kill your own food, claim your own land, you’re stuck inside the same traps, sober or high. I needed familiar limits, geography and stores I could sleepwalk through. But they became alien. I felt alien.
Reacquainted lovers in movies never seem worn, even if they’ve sinned. Rugged Bogart in his white tux, passionate Bergman and her unfathomable eyes, long after Paris, looked the same in Hollywood’s collapsible Morocco. The passing of real years had only dignified Carla’s radiating, soft attraction, but I was too thin, weary in the eyes. I was nothing anyone would be glad to meet again. My energy was gone; shame wasn’t. And friends, fused by more than superficial beauty, needed energy more than lovers. Things could secretly spoil underneath the skin. You were lucky to be warned by a panicked, malicious insult.
Dispirited and detached among more strangers, I felt my mouth water from the scent of the rotisserie chickens cooking nearby. A tank of lobsters was beside me. A laughing boy, too young for a complex heart, poked at the glass as mortified crustaceans crawled all over each other. After bars closed, I’d almost always say to a drinking buddy: Let’s go to Canada. Canada was heaven on earth. I never went. I knew I really wanted to go back in time, not north.
Five more numbers—then I could run away again, for about four days, until my organic bananas turned black. I’d already forgotten Carla’s kid’s name. I strained with a weird desperation to retain her electric bearing. All I got were fresh outlines and familiar ash. Maybe magic could turn them into more.
John E. Keats’ essays and stories have appeared in Midway Journal, Extract(s), Under the Sun, River Teeth, Relief, and Roux. He has an M.A. in English from Boston College. He lives in Massachusetts, reads a lot, and tweets a little @JohnEKeats.
It’s a good beard. Stop yanking it
like a strapless dress.
See what I did there? Fit
the last puzzle piece
and voilá, Starry Night!
You aren’t half as weird
as you’d like. In the morning,
you’ll drive me home,
sit in the coffee shop, wonder
what made you do it.
I made you, stupid.
Take the room with the small bed,
red bedspread, floor full of splinters.
Try hiding under the mattress,
weight on your chest like
a broad woman. See what I did there—
gotta stop thinking about me.
Autumn McClintock lives in Philadelphia and works at the public library. Her poems have recently appeared in B O D Y, The Carolina Quarterly, Drunken Boat, RHINO, THRUSH, and others. Her essay, “Responsible for Death” appears in the 2013 anthology The Poet’s Sourcebook, published by Autumn House Press (no relation). She is a staff reader for Ploughshares.
“Synesthesia and You” has been selected for republication by plain china, a national literary anthology that showcases the best undergraduate writing from across the country.
SYNESTHESIA AND YOU by Charnell Peters
I hang from the last brick of August, and cold is tolling. I don’t hear you, but I remember your summer breath, and you still feel like the softest blue behind my eyes.
The months we spent together sit catty-corner: June and July. July, bent in half, turns to face the other side of black space. Black hums, like the night under the chalk moon when we sweated and swatted at ants. I felt you for the first time, your blue warmth and dimpled back. June woke with us, orange and fiery on our skin.
We used to hike for miles, tripping over bulging roots, their viola singing. We held hands when we could but had better balance if our arms steadied just our own bodies. September slants a pointed edge at my chest. Rain throbs. I see your voice ripple in the humming black of sleep. Sweating, I look down to find your blue has traced all of the lines in my hands. I look like a river. I know I can’t cross.
Charnell Peters lives in Indiana and studies professional writing at Taylor University. She has done freelance writing for The Secret Place and The Christian Communicator and was a contributing author for Fire Bible For Kids Devotional. Along with numerous radio scripts for WBCL and Power 104.9 WTSX, her work has also appeared in Ruminate Magazine.
Image credit: from “Chromesthesia” by Madeline Rile Smith, altered sheet music (Romanze for Viola in F Major, Op. 85., Max Bruch)
When he first hears the baby is coming, that she is pregnant and already showing, he leaves second shift at the hospital early and drives up the road thirty miles to Greeley’s bar, where no one knows him, and if they do it’s probably too dark in there to see him. He downs two whiskey sours, takes the beer to a table for sipping. He sees through the plate glass a blue light blinking anonymously—he can’t see the neon sign itself. Up and down Highway 101 headlights blur in the drizzle.
He’s going to be a father, an “actually the real-father” as in “you know so-and-so is actually the real father.” A real-father says yes when asked if he has kids, because, dammit, he does. He’s heard lots of back-and-forth about who gets to call himself daddy later, when the kid is growing up, but he knows, and no one can take it from him.
Would she ask for money? He hasn’t much. She might think it isn’t worth it, because she always hates to ask for anything, even what she’s entitled to. He’ll send some. Then again that might start something he’ll be sorry for later.
He knows a few of these real-fathers, so he can see what’s coming pretty good. How when the baby’s born, he’ll buy a stuffed panda bear and leave it on the step; how now and then he’ll get mad and demand to visit his child (when he’s been drinking); how if he can’t he’ll get into a fight with the mother. How you have to make an effort to show you’d like to step up, but not enough to raise hopes that you ever can. How after a while, he’ll quit his job and move away.
He leans forward, resting his forehead on the glass. The drizzle has stopped. He watches how the headlights get brighter and brighter as they get closer, and he tracks them one at a time, how just when a pair gets so close, it zips by and is gone forever.
Agatha Hinman is originally from rural Mendocino County in Northern California and now lives in Oakland, California. She graduated from San Francisco State University with a B.A. in English in the 1960s. She works with a health research team, editing research manuscripts for submission to science journals, and has co-authored several science articles. Her creative writing moves back and forth between short fiction and a novel, and reflects the mix of her country childhood and urban Oakland.
It was 1994, and she told you that you wouldn’t be ready until at least 1998, the Millennium if you were lucky. “The lyrics are way over your head. It’s not baby stuff,” said your sister, fourteen, cap turned backwards, still three months away from smoking her first joint, wearing a new sports bra under her faded denim overalls. She snatched the cassette tape from your hand, but you found it later in her drawer, tucked underneath the flannel shirt that Tommy Milner had given her, and you put it into the stereo, and you listened, enraptured but also frightened, haunted, frankly, by that quiet breath at the beginning of the track, by the guitar strings fighting against a vast and vacant space, by that bit about the kitchen chair; you couldn’t understand (your sister was right) and yet you listened a second time and a third, feeling something tugging at you, practically knocking you in the kidney, not knowing then that it was this:
The next time you hear this song you will be thirty years old, driving your daughter home from elementary school, divorce papers in the center console. “Sea otters don’t hold hands because they love each other,” she’ll say. “They’re just afraid to float away.”
Liz Breen is a Boston-based writer of screenplays, short fiction and flash. After spending time on such reputable productions as Antiques Roadshow, CONAN, and WordGirl, Liz currently serves as a writer and producer for the television show Phantom Gourmet. She is also an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her fiction has appeared in Catch & Release.
Excerpts from BOOK OF NO LEDGE by Nance Van Winckel
The Book of No Ledge
As usual, it starts with love. I had my heart set on the door-to-door encyclopedia salesboy. Maybe eighteen or nineteen, he said he was working his way through college. He winked a turquoise eye at me and asked if I was the “lady of the house.”
Well, I wasn’t. I was thirteen-going-on-seventeen and vaguely trying to flirt. My mother came out on the porch to see who I was talking to, and NO, she said, we don’t need any books. She smiled, though, and wished him luck in school.
I followed him down the walk and told him to come back tomorrow after I’d had a chance to work on my mother. Sure, he shrugged, why not.
I could really use those encyclopedias for my school projects, I told my mother later. And so could Sally (my sister). My dad was suddenly behind it. His family had been a bit more bookish than my mother’s.
When the cute guy returned the next day, he was all business. I watched as he showed my parents the full set. The pages were silky. Thirteen volumes and an Index. As I passed Volume N (with the information about how the nose worked!) back to him, he caught my eye and gave me an appreciative nod. My tween-size heart felt too large for my chest.
Of course once the check was written the boy evaporated back into summer’s humid mist, never to be seen again. But I could walk by and caress the books and in so doing call him again into my mind, which I did for years. For years I dipped into those encyclopedias. The knowledge of the world was inside. I perused. I skimmed.
Much to everyone’s surprise, most of all mine, I did indeed use them. With friendly and helpful manners and the smoothest, most confident voice of The World, an all-knowing authority, almost godlike, stepped forth from the text. Dinosaurs. The sad and short lives of the poets I was just beginning to read. The ALL I needed to know about the states to which my family would move in the coming years: Illinois, Wisconsin, Washington, and the states in which we’d previously lived: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, Connecticut.
Every page offered a surprise! Every page featured Mr. Explainer giving me the lowdown with a winking turquoise eye, a nod, or sometimes a shrug because I was getting older and the books had begun to have a bit of a musty smell and he was beginning to feel unsure I still loved him as I had, especially when I turned into a much older woman and had these nice sharp scissors and even X-Acto blades, and Oh, you’re not sure that the white man helped the tribal people as well as I’ve so carefully outlined? No, dear, the solar flares aren’t scary. Please don’t fret. And please point that glue stick elsewhere. Surely you won’t chop away that whole paragraph about the wonderful westward expansion and put some little poem in its place. A poem is not a fact, dear. Wait! We’ve been together for almost half a century! How could you! You know I loved you first. You know I loved you best!
—Nance Van Winckel, June 2015
Nance Van Winckel’s newest books are Ever Yrs., a novel in the form of a scrapbook, and Pacific Walkers, her sixth collection of poems. Book of No Ledge is forthcoming in 2016 from Pleiades Press. The recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner, she has new poems in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Field, Poetry Northwest, and Gettysburg Review. She is on the M.F.A. faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts. More of her visual photo-collage work may be viewed at: photoemsbynancevanwinckel.zenfolio.com.
One day, you’ll wonder if you were even here. The moment will come back to you in snatches—that abandoned pair of shoes, ominous like a bleached-out goat skull in the desert; the line of heavens meeting earth, as viewed from the bottom; the vista from the top looking down, just before you all hurl yourselves into the bowl. It’s something you can never again duplicate. You wouldn’t even know where to begin, nor would it ever occur to you to try. But the three travelers standing one dune over? It will occur to them. The photo that one of them just snapped will live on for many years to come, and you’ll never know it existed in the first place. You’ll go home again and resume your ongoing soccer match with the computer; you’ll hop on your bike to ride down the street to your best friend’s house seventy gazillion times, and you’ll start school again and see that girl two rows in front of you and wonder how her hair smells, but these three strangers—they’ll still be staring at the image of you, frozen in a run, for a long time yet. Shaggy hair pressed against your head, mouth wide open, one arm forward, one arm back, legs kicking up poofs of sand: that’s you, and these strangers will study you and they’ll talk about you and they’ll try to figure out why they can’t look away.
Pull back and study the entire scene for a moment. Sand is everywhere, rising and falling and undulating all over the place. It is a character in the cast: from a distance, smooth and solid; up close, pocked and wavy and pliant—an impossibly massive mound of desert that’s been poured from a god-sized bucket onto this straw-yellow, moss-green valley floor. Footprints peter away and blend into others, the owners long gone, and at first push in their wake, these impressions become defeating, humbling. Tiny, black specks on distant peaks prove that this land can be traversed but it might take all day.
The sky, well, it’s a huge canvas of clouds: gray and white and silver and yes, even blue. Blue clouds. It’s a blue you can hardly believe, though, and to describe it you’d have to invent things you’ve never seen before: a piece of candy, cool and crystallized, crumbling and dissolving on your tongue with its floral sweetness and something else, something like anise that you can’t quite put your finger on; or a tail, long and shimmering, almost certainly that of a mermaid, the scales surfacing in the first rays of the day, glistening, remaining poised for the flash of a second, before submerging again, back to those mythical depths. Those are the colors of the blue clouds.
Then on cue, the sun ducks from view, casting a great shadow over everything, turning it all a dirty gray. Moments later when it peeks back out from hiding, the ground is again the white, flapping promise of sheets hung to dry.
Don’t look back. Look forward; look to the side but don’t look back. Over there, that slope in particular is a torso as viewed from the side, right where the shoulder blades end and the two great latissimus dorsi continue their downward plunge—not that you know the name of those muscles. You don’t think of the human anatomy when you look in that direction. Have you even started to think about the human anatomy—ever at all? You’re twelve; it’s hard to know what you’re thinking about.
“Oh, this kid again. Love him.”
“Me, too. I wonder where he is now.”
The travelers are contemplating you again. They never seem to tire of it. The first time was over dinner that same night after they saw you. They didn’t drive long from the park. Just across the valley and over the mountains they went, finding two rooms in a rustic lodge. Then they walked across the road to a small place with a counter bar, where they sat on stools, the only customers in that tiny town. They ordered meatball sandwiches and bottles of microbrew, and the light overhead created a glare on the camera’s display screen, so they couldn’t quite see at that moment what a fantastic image they had. It will, in fact, be their favorite one from the entire, long trip they’ll take together. They will see so many places, so many things, so many people, yet you will be the best—you, poised at the lip of the precipice; you, just before the plunge; you, a few strokes of color on a wash of gold; you, unaware you’re being watched.
“He’s not in his body yet; you know what I mean?”
“Yeah. It’s splendid how he occupies it.”
“ ‘Splendid.’ Listen to you.”
“Well, it is! Look at him. He can’t feel a thing. He’s just going for it.”
And you are. Your clothes fit you perfectly. Don’t get used to that. There will come a time when you’ll be conscious of the cotton pull against your butt, into your belly, across your chest. You’ll realize in a crushing instant that there is extra flesh behind your knees; you’ll feel those folds hanging just a little behind the joint. It’ll happen on a day when you’re just standing there doing nothing after an entire day of sitting there doing nothing—sitting in traffic, sitting at your desk, sitting at lunch, sitting in front of the evening news.
“He’s got on white shorts, too. Pretty ballsy.”
That’s the male traveler talking to his female companions. Of the three wanderers, he’s the most jealous of you and so his tone is reverent. He’s trying hard to remember himself at your age but he cannot, and so he’s unsure of everything except the fact that he was never as cool as you. He doesn’t know, of course, that just this morning, you fought hard for your right to eat a cinnamon roll for breakfast and that you lost, and that it started the day off all wrong, so that you didn’t even want to come here. You sulked in the backseat and you stared out the window and you watched a dust storm racing towards your family’s car, wishing all the while that it would swallow everyone whole, your dad in particular. Oh, and last week, it was football: you were in a real funk about it, because you’ve been wanting to join the team this fall but you dare not even ask; you already know the answer will be no. The answer is always no. Adults, they don’t remember what it feels like to possess so much raw strength—coursing through your veins, throbbing from your tissue, snapping from your tendons. You don’t even know yet that you have hip bones, because they quietly do their work. Swish, swish, swish. There’s no creaking, no cracking, no grinding; there is only your hand in front of your face and the knowledge of what you must do with that hand, except no one will let you and you don’t have the voice to explain this. You are strewn into pieces of something that have not quite figured out how to work together. If you hesitate, it’s because you don’t know better and so you’re yelling underwater—or at least that’s what it feels like. No one hears you; they just hear the animal noises you’re making: the sarcasm you haven’t figured out how to wield; the forethought you haven’t put into use; the limits you haven’t learned to set.
That’s not where you are in this freeze-frame, however. You’ve bounced back; you are the essence of yourself: nothing but you, racing forward, rushing down. That is what has captivated the attention of these three people. If you knew they were still looking at you, you’d think it was creepy but it’s not; it’s one more thing that adults do which you don’t yet understand. A lot will happen before you do understand it. That girl two rows in front of you in school? First, she’ll send you soaring. Your mom will ask what happened to your appetite. Your teachers will snap their fingers in front of your glazed, staring eyes, five pages behind the rest of the class. Your friends will punch you in the shoulder and say “Earth to dodo brain,” or whatever your name is. You’ll smile more than you ever have in your life and it will partly be due to this odd sensation in your gut—a feeling you can only describe as that moment when a roller coaster pitches over the first hill. Even your dad’s jokes will make you laugh sometimes, and when your brother does his usual spiteful shit and your mom makes him apologize, you’ll just shrug and say, “It’s okay. I know he didn’t mean it.”
All the while, running through your head so quickly you won’t even be fully aware of it will be a reel of snapshots of her: laughing with friends across the lunch table; piling her hair atop her head at the beginning of seventh period social studies, when the room always gets inexplicably hot and stuffy; stooping for a drink of water from the fountain; picking up a book that’s just flown out of her locker at break; dribbling the basketball in PE—shooting, missing, shrugging. When you see flowers growing beside the sidewalk on your way home, you’ll have a sudden urge to pick them, though you won’t know what you want to do with them. When your best friend down the street asks if you want to go to the movies this weekend, you’ll feel a surge of impatience with him and you’ll say that only babies go to the movies. This will confuse you both.
Come Friday morning, you will arrive at school having barely slept. Your eyes will feel dry in the sockets; your mouth will have a skunky taste but you will be bolstered by the resolve to finally ask her out. You won’t have told anyone you’re going to do this; no one even knows you like her and so there you are, all alone, heaving open one of the heavy steel double doors, traipsing into the bright, fluorescent corridor filled with milling, chatting bodies. You’ll blink; you’ll look around; you’ll see her. What happens next does not matter as much as what happened in getting you to that point—the conclusions you reached without consulting anyone else; the decisions you made all on your own; the knowledge, whether you knew what to call it or not, that you had listened to your heart and no one else.
And yet, what happens next is actually very important. The girl likes someone else; she doesn’t like you. Already, the seed has been planted that that’s what you get for listening to your heart: a big fat nothing. As expected, you will not be allowed to play football, either. Then there will be the parties to which you don’t get invited, the zits that blemish your smooth cheeks, the grades you don’t make, the colleges that don’t accept you, the interviews you don’t get, the trips that don’t live up to the brochures, and all the other girls who like boys who aren’t you. Every one of those disappointments will make you pull in a little. That left leg which you’re throwing forward so confidently? It will straighten out and draw back about a fraction of a millimeter each time until eventually it becomes an inch, two inches, three inches inward. The wild bend of your elbows? Well, just look at your dad behind you and you can see what will happen: one arm will drop and flail a little, thinking it’s helpful while actually being totally useless; the other will squeeze against your ribs—prissy, scared. And that unabashed gape of your mouth? Forget it. You’ll make that face a few more times at most and then a bug will fly into your throat and you’ll adopt the dropped chin-jut of your brother—neck like a brake cord; teeth like a shield; lips sneered in cool conveyance of the fact that this fun is temporary, a mere show.
Whose idea was it anyhow, racing to the bottom of the dune at top speed? It was your dad’s idea. Don’t forget that in your arrogant youth. And your mom: see how she’s just going along with it? The funny twist of her waist; the awkward square-dance posture of her arms; her exaggerated high step—those are all methods to slow herself down before she’s even gotten started. She doesn’t want to do this thing but she is; she’s doing it. Don’t forget that, either.
“He looks like a good dad.” One of the girl travelers is speaking. She’s squinting at your dad in his baggy, knee-length shorts and his wrap-around sunglasses. “Don’t you think he looks like a good dad?”
The other girl nods but she’s looking at your mom—your mom, the trooper; your mom, the good sport; your mom, in her hip newsboy cap; your mom, of two boys. “My mom would never do that.”
“Your mom’s like eighty-five.”
“I mean back in the day. Growing up. She’d still be in the parking lot, sitting in the car, maybe smoking.”
She’ll bring it up again when they’re much farther down the road—somewhere in the South and sitting at a shiny bar in a port city, the wispy fog of fall pressing itself against the black windows behind them; a nightcap, amber brown and sugar thick, loosely clasped in each of their hands; the photo of you again placed in front of them, its presence a compulsive habit by that point. She won’t be speaking to her two companions; none of them will be speaking, in fact, because they’ll be exhausted from all the driving that day and they’ll also be getting a little tired of each other, and they might also be a tiny bit drunk, as well. She’ll be staring at the four of you all together on that dune—her gaze hard, almost angry. Then she’ll swallow and say: “I hope he knows how lucky he is. I hope he’s not a spoiled little fuck.”
The other two companions will smile faintly but they won’t say anything, because they won’t be in the mood to talk about you right now; they won’t be in the mood to talk at all. No one seems to appreciate silence these days; everyone seems to need to fill every space with words—captions and feelings and jokes and memories. Some moments should just be allowed to wash over you, however, and that moment in the bar will be one of them. She’ll seem to agree, because she won’t say any more; she’ll be caught up in the image again. She’ll look at the two by-standers to your left in the background, also appearing to be watching you. She’ll then move her gaze across the entire sweep of the landscape around you—the backs and the bellies and the buttocks, an orgy of body parts at rest, cradling you, supporting you, allowing you. Above it all, that sky: roiling clouds, bulges of rain, silver strokes of sun.
But her gaze will always come back to you. As the rule of thirds goes, you’re straddling the intersection of the first vertical line and the bottom horizontal one, and the light, it’s glinting from your rear calf all the way up to your shoulder—an aura across your back.
She’ll forget the group’s unspoken vow of silence then and blurt: “Look at how he’s stomping his own shadow.”
The two friends will be intrigued enough to straighten in their seats and lean in to look more closely—not that it’s a hard thing to see. In fact, it’s the first thing someone else might have noticed.
“You’re right. I’ve never noticed that before but he’s stomping his own shadow.”
“Or chasing it.”
This will make them study the image harder.
“Chasing it. Yeah, he’s chasing his own shadow.”
All four of you are stomping and chasing your own shadows, actually, but it’s your shadow that these three comrades want to see you pursue, because it’s your shadow of which you must be wary. It’s not your friend, this shadow of yours, though you’re not wrong to think that it is—always with you, never straying, never talking back, patiently following you most of the time. But it’s taller than you and it’s thinner than you and it doesn’t have to do so many of the things that you have to do: make decisions, make mistakes, face consequences, feel pain, cause pain, apologize. One day your shadow will make you angry. You’ll whirl on it and yell at it as if it’s a lost dog: “Go home!” But it won’t leave; it will merely face you at that point—taunting, judging, challenging.
The day in the dunes is different, though. Then the shadow is under your feet and you’re driving it away, even though you don’t know that. You never will. You’ll never consciously remember this detail from this moment. You’ll remember the sand; you’ll remember the sky; you’ll remember your mom and your dad and your brother, and you’ll remember beating them all to the bottom of the hill, but you will not remember the most important part of that moment. It’s documented in the photograph, however, and maybe that’s enough—the fact that it happened at all. Not only that it happened but that it’s still alive, preserved like a hair on a pillow from a person long gone. Frozen in time, it’s proof of you. You: at the top. You: on the starting line. You: uninhibited, unencumbered, unfazed. You: in perfect form.
In the sixth grade, M. Goerig won first place for a short story she wrote. One might say she’s been wandering the world ever since, looking for that elusive muse. Work has also been published in Airplane Reading, Fugue, and Snapping Twig.
I crouch in the desiccated garden at the side of our house, my knees stiff. The withered tomato plants still have a few small orange orbs clinging to them, but the rest of last year’s plants are stubbly and brown. I’ve finally gotten around to pulling out the tomato cages to return to the shed, and now I wonder whether I’ll plant tomatoes again this spring. Newspaper headlines herald more drought in California. Salmon may not spawn this year. Riverbeds are parched and cracked. We talk about water use and precipitation levels and runoff from the Sierras. We check the weather predictions, hope each day for rain. Unsettled, I survey my dormant garden and hunger for something I can feel but not name.
I remember riding a bike in the rain in northern New Jersey, many years ago, when I was a teenager. I was miles from home, pedaling with great effort up a long, steep hill, soaked and chilled by the sudden deluge, happy. Trees lined the road, intensely green, their trunks wet and dark. Sheets of water cascaded from the heavens and rushed in turbulent rivers down the stone-lined gutters at the sides of the road. Lightning flashed in the darkening sky. I exulted in every straining muscle as I pushed on the pedals, laboring to make the ascent. When I reached the top, I stood, hands on the handlebars supporting my upper body, feet on the pedals engaging the foot brakes. For a long moment I took in the freezing rain, the gusts of wind that buffeted the tops of the trees, the freshness of the air, the far off rumble of thunder, the flashes of light in the sky. Then I coasted down the long hill, still standing, triumphant, alone.
Mine wasn’t a carefree adolescence. At home my parents were always fighting. Angry and authoritarian, my father ran the household with grim efficiency, while my mother spent her days in bed, complaining of allergies and fatigue and myriad ailments. At school the popular girls reigned, cheerleaders with bangle bracelets and coordinating Villager outfits who scorned outsiders like me. I was bookish, uncomfortable in my skin, socially awkward, unbearably restless. I wore black turtlenecks from the thrift store, listened to the Doors for hours in my room, read Hermann Hesse and Jack Kerouac and Mao Tse-tung. I made solitary trips into Manhattan, where I roamed the streets of Soho and the Village, lingering in bookstores and cafés. I thought my life would never begin. In the late 1960s the world was in ferment, and I wanted to be anywhere but a New Jersey suburb.
In late middle age, I’m a far happier person than that girl was. My life is not without anxieties. I fear the drought of old age, illness, declining creative powers. I also feel joy as the first buds appear on the fruit trees in February and then burst into bloom in the California sun. I contemplate another vegetable garden, next year if not this one. My husband and grown son and I share oranges from the tree in our backyard after dinner, sitting under the halo of light at our kitchen table. I lick the juice off my fingers, sticky and sweet, as the room fills with their fragrance.
I wouldn’t want to be that girl on the bicycle again. But I remember her fierce ecstasy. The sheets of rain pelting her upturned face. The shocking cold. The brilliant flashes of light. Her utter solitude.
Never again would I be so alone, so ravenous, so filled with rapture.
Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. Her flash prose has appeared in Sweet,elimae, Monkeybicycle, Vestal Review, The Rumpus, Literary Orphans, Café Irreal, Corium, and elsewhere. Her essays have earned Pushcart nominations from Southern Humanities Review and South Loop Review, and a Notable Essay citation in Best American Essays 2013. Find her online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.
My dad always jokes that I can walk into a bar filled with ninety-nine decent men and one scumbag, and I’ll walk straight up to the scumbag. Call it my one magic power. If there’s a loser in the room, I will find him. And even worse, I’ll probably fall madly in love with him.
Most of my ex-boyfriends have been reduced to anecdotes over the years. Bitter stories told over too many beers at closing time. Like my very first boyfriend—now universally known as the “two-stroker.” Because two strokes into losing our virginity to each other, he had a vision of Christ. And, of course, immediately dumped my Jewish ass. Mid-coitus. Then there’s my physically abusive upstairs neighbor who still likes to flush his toilet when I’m taking a shower. As well as the homeless guy who spent all my money. There’s the gambler who started dating my best friend one week after I got out of the hospital. And the the one who told me he wanted to marry me when we were seventeen. But supposedly he pulled a knife on his mother and got shipped off to a behavioral detention center halfway across the country. Oh. And then there’s my most recent ex. I guess the fact that he had once murdered a man wasn’t enough of a warning sign.
Whenever my friends or family start shaking their heads, I tend to shrug my shoulders in retaliation. “What can I say? I suffer from l’appel du vide. You know, the call of the void? That inexplicable urge to jump off a cliff or jerk your steeling wheel to the left?” I usually try to be holding a glass of whiskey when I say this. And maybe wearing all black. “It’s just a bad case of existential angst. Or writer’s block. I’m bored, so I throw a stone into a pond and look for ripples.” Because really, why else would an attractive, intelligent girl waste her time on such losers?
All I know is when Vinny walked through my front door, I felt my heart shoot up to my mouth, so for a second, the size of my face must have doubled. Maybe it was only because I was still hungover and had forgotten to turn on the light switch, but his body almost blended in with the darkness. Like the slightly darker bruise of the new moon on a black sky. By the time he was past my threshold, I managed to recognize two shoulders. A torso. A slight spike at the top of his hair. But even two hours later, when we were sitting on my back porch with a bottle of shitty white wine, parts of him were still obscured. Like some child had hastily drawn him in with crayon. There was a moment when I almost reached out to touch him. But the thought of my arm going straight through his flesh made me stop. Of course it wasn’t that he was actually missing anything. His skin was as rosy as mine. From what I could tell, he had as many limbs as anyone else. It was just the way he carried his body. Like it was something he could fling off at any moment. Like he didn’t really need it. And the drunker we got, the more I wanted to throw off my own. To feel whatever it was inside me rush out like water.
Although I had exchanged pleasantries with Vinny whenever he came into my coffee shop, I didn’t really know him. I simply thought he was handsome. And eventually, I invited him over for a drink. Even now, I’m still not entirely sure why he decided to tell me his life story that first day we hung out alone. Maybe it was the three bottles of wine. Or the aria from Carmen that I put on the record player. All I know is that at some point, he confessed to his former drug habit. He told me about the time he took too much oxycontin and felt his soul leave his body. He told me about the gun he used to carry in his pocket whenever he picked up a stash. He even mentioned the time a man put a gun to his temple. But by that point, Vinny had been clean for over a year and no longer carried a weapon. So he killed the man with his hands.
And yet, for some reason, none of this frightened me. Like I knew it should have. How could I be frightened when his eyes were suddenly boring into me? Locking me to him? So for that one moment, I couldn’t have lost this world if I tried.
The next time I saw him, he made me dinner. He was a cook at one of the best Michelin-Star restaurants in the world. When I brought the first forkful of beef to my mouth, I still wasn’t sure if was eating my own heart. And later, when he kissed me, I thought perhaps I was sucking on his. Something finally solid. And surprisingly soft.
I saw him pretty often after that. He cooked me several more dinners. Once, he brought me a copy of Othello that he picked up at a used bookstore. Another time, he left me flowers outside my front door. We went to art galleries and looked at the scribbled drawings of men caught on fire and faces cut up into hundreds of little squares. We’d sit on the pier at the beach and watch the clouds of newly hatched fish pulled apart by the waves. We’d fall asleep in my bed listening to old records. On one of the few hot nights of the summer, we pushed my bed right up to the window. When we turned the fan on, the white gauze curtains billowed over us. A cloud of some new thing born into this world, undulating back and forth on a wave.
He read the short stories I wrote and taped the pictures I drew on his refrigerator. He introduced to me to his two best friends. He even said he wanted to introduce me to his mother. So how could I be prepared for the moment, a few months later at my birthday party, when he told me how he never really wanted me?
Of course, it was a little more complicated than that. He had started shooting up again. For a week, he disappeared completely. When he finally showed up at my door, his arms were punctured with tens of tiny red holes. Like some rabid insect had burrowed in and out of his flesh. Over and over again. His head tilted precariously to the side, as if at any moment it might fall off his neck. And this time, when he looked at me, he looked through me. So suddenly, it was like I was the one without a body.
He didn’t offer up much of an explanation. He just sat there, letting the breeze blow his shoulders back and forth. At one point, I brought my lips to the spot right below his elbows. As if I could cover the evidence with my mouth. Or maybe I only wanted to taste the worst of him. The way some people like whiskey for the burn.
Eventually, he stood up to leave. He kissed me one last time. As softly as that first night over dinner. And then he left.
I tried calling him a few times after that, just to see how he was doing. But his voice was always empty. As if he sat there, deflating each word with the prick of a needle. Not that he said much. From that point on, he had nothing to say. The man I knew was gone. And even though I don’t want to call him a loser, I know what my parents would say. I should have seen the warning signs. All the lampposts bright enough to attract a moth. Hell’s little lanterns.
A few months ago I was back at my parents’ house, burrowing through my old closet for any books I might want to bring back to my new apartment. I stumbled upon a tape recorder and a collection of tapes. Out of mild curiosity, I put one in. Suddenly, there was my ten-year-old voice speaking to my future self. This calm, gentle apparition told me that if I was still alive, she hoped I was okay. She told me I was beautiful. And special. And most importantly, that she loved me. To never ever forget how much she loved me. And that she would always be there, somewhere inside me, taking care of me. I took out the tape and moved some other boxes around. Behind them were the knives. They were dumped haphazardly in an old shoebox, like any other inconsequential thing. Some still brown with old blood.
I try not to think about her too much: That carved up little girl. But it’s not always easy. It’s not so much that she’s inside me. It’s more like I drag her around like a rag doll. A lifeless thing that’s awkward and inconvenient. Wherever I walk, I hear those cloth feet scraping the pavement behind me. A gentle reminder. A docile corpse.
Right now I am sitting on my back porch, drinking alone again. I take one bottle of antidepressants and stack it on top of another. So they form a tower. Nothing exactly visible from outer space. Or even an airplane. But still, something to knock over. If I choose to reach out my arm.
The phone rings and startles me out of my thoughts. It’s only my father. He asks me about the new guy I’m seeing. And if he’s a nice man…
When we hang up, I look behind me. She is still there, patiently waiting. I smile at her and hold out my hand to cover the white fossilized line protruding from her wrist. When she closes her eyes, I try to find the right words. The ones you might record onto a tape, if you wanted to remember those kind of things. “You can go away,” I offer. “I’m fine.”
When she doesn’t budge, I try to make a joke. “How many losers does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
She opens her eyes and stares. “Before or after you’ve smashed it?”
Jessi Terson’s work has appeared in Rosebud Magazine, The Awakenings Review, and Anthem Journal. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence college with an M.F.A. in poetry. She lives in Chicago, Illinois. When she’s not working at The Kitchen Sink, a local coffee shop, she’s writing about all of the losers she’s dated.
A girl goes into the woods
and for what reason
disappears behind branches
and is never heard from again.
She could have gone shopping
or had lunch with her mother
but instead has gone into
woods, alone, without the lover,
and not for leaves or flowers.
It was a clear bright day
very much like today.
It was today. Now you might
imagine I’m that girl.
It seems there are reasons. But
first consider: I don’t live
very near those trees and my
head is already wild with branches
Lyn Lifshin has published over 130 books and chapbooks including three from Black Sparrow Press: Cold Comfort, Before It’s Light, and Another Woman Who Looks Like Me. NYQ Books published A Girl Goes into The Woods. Also just out: For the Roses, poems after Joni Mitchell, and Hitchcock Hotel from Danse Macabre, Secretariat: The Red Freak, The Miracle, Femme Eterna, and Moving Through Stained Glass: the Maple Poems. Forthcoming: Degas Little Dancer. Her poem “The Affair” appears in Issue No. 13 of Cleaver.