It must be the stillness of a morning sky, the repose of grass in a field beyond a fence, or maybe the kitchen floor where my father is forever dying of a heart attack when I am five, fat doves singing outside the windows of our rental house in rural Ohio. It seems possible to remember the half-life of light on a leaf outside my childhood bedroom window in dead summer, to construct an impression from the mud of the river or the black clothes of the mourners, to dream an open maw of earth. My memories of my father are as imprecise as footprints filling with snow, though I do recall, a few months later, a bulldog coming toward me—after we were evicted from the rental home—on the porch of my grandfather’s house, the creature lunging, then hovering above me. In my vision the beast snares me with his great teeth pressed against my neck, though years later my mother claims the dog was simply exuberant with friendliness and knocked me down. But if I close my eyes, I feel the animal heat of breath against my skin, the sharpness of teeth. Or maybe, it sometimes seems, memories transform to living organisms, evolving or devolving, breathing and letting go, asserting whatever volition they can. I am eleven when my mother’s live-in boyfriend begins locking our German shepherd in the basement, which is a sign, we know, that he plans to beat one of us, or maybe both. The basement, as I remember it, is small and low-slung, with bare cement and a naked light bulb, cobwebs having their conversations with the hot or cold air breathing through the vents. I remember blood oozing from my mother’s nose, the swollen baptism of an eye, the dustiness of memory growing more opaque yet powerful with decades, as though the past becomes a dust devil swirling its magic in August, rising from the dry earth to make itself into a living being. We are homeless, then, residing in my mother’s car, the cold winter air a judgment. Once my mother is given a frozen turkey at a food pantry, and we bring it back to the Ford, uncertain how to cook it. I remember how heavy the turkey feels when I hold it in my lap, and I recall—digging deep into memory—building a fire from sticks and discarded newspapers and whatever dry wood we can find at the roadside. And then a skinny man with a white beard and a voice like a rabid dog is stopping his motorcycle by the bar ditch and stealing the turkey from us before we have even found a way to place it above the flames. Blood trails its offering down my mother’s forearm after the man lunges at her with a box cutter. And now, rising in my vision, is the man racing off on his motorcycle with our turkey clutched like a sleeping infant in one arm.
Doug Ramspeck is the author of five poetry collections. His most recent book, Original Bodies (2014), was selected for the Michael Waters Poetry Prize and is published by Southern Indiana Review Press. Individual poems have appeared in journals that include The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and The Georgia Review. Stories have appeared in Iowa Review, Green Mountains Review, Gargoyle, and others.
Wear your golden earrings
like snakes eating.
Put on your
purple eye shadow.
have mostly withdrawn,
green of the vipers fallen off.
A few stray villages at night
palm-sized and ready,
but you’re the robin
in the morning
unaware of the innards
of their dark bedrooms.
With you here, mothers
shield their children.
You, fishbone. You, caught in God’s throat.
Samuel Hovda was born and raised in rural Minnesota. He now attends the MA program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Cleaver Magazine, Contrary Magazine, Noble / Gas Qtrly, and elsewhere. You can find him at SamuelHovda.com and on Twitter @SamuelHovda.
EPISTLE TO THE COPS ON A WINTRY NIGHT
by Cal Freeman
Dear historical ambling
in that souped-up Ford, dear steel
gaze hidden behind tinted glass,
keeping these hours, everything
is a question of before
or after dawn. Your briefs spell out
blank descriptions of men
whose retreating shadows have been glimpsed
at the scenes of nearly-executed crimes;
not sour breath, red-eyed, and wandering,
but black male on foot, possibly armed,
suspicious. Before dawn,
those hours between bar
and liquor store, when the nerves pull taut
and the birds start with their racket,
crepuscular hours no do-gooder is awake to bless
when the dreams of the civic mind
grow skittish with wild imaginings.
Post-dawn but not quite day and not
fully-decomposed on the garage floor,
the bones of poisoned mice:
of this, I am among the guilty.
“I held a mouse skeleton to my eye
like a monocle while snow
kept blanketing the warren that slopes
toward the frozen river
in shades not exactly white
and subnivean snow fleas
and vagrants eluded your shrill light”
is a sort of alibi.
The habits of this body
are not illegal; the real thefts
were not committed in the streets.
My boot prints in the white
are not illegal. You can follow
their tracks from creek to storefront
until the next squall buries them.
Cal Freeman was born and raised in Detroit. His writing has appeared in many journals including Birmingham Poetry Review, Rattle, Ninth Letter, and Drunken Boat. He is the recipient of the Howard P. Walsh Award for Literature and The Devine Poetry Fellowship (judged by Terrance Hayes). He has also been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in poetry and creative nonfiction. His first book of poems, Brother of Leaving, has just been published by Antonin Artaud Publications.
This girl, she’s one of those people you hear about nowadays, living her life for the second time around. She’s a slack-faced, dream-eyed sister, born—twice now—at the end of a gravel road outside town, a stone’s throw from the slaughterhouse. She abides with a skittish mother and two large black boxer dogs, and she knows that one of the three will die suffering from a snakebite, hopes she can stop it when the time comes, but she doesn’t know when it’s supposed go down, or if it’s still supposed to go down at all. The girl is Birdy. Birdy Brightlane. Sunny name for such a sad body.
But I don’t judge her, it’s part of the job not to judge her. You’d be sad too, is what I tell myself, after fifteen years at the institution, and besides, these are often sad people, the ones on their second time around. The agency–they call my visits “conversations” to make them sound less clinical—list them on the paperwork informal-like—Convo #1, Convo #2—but Birdy knows what they are.When I come to see her, we sit together on the mossy deck off the back of her mother’s house, and we drink strong coffee and I offer her cigarettes, but she declines. She knows I am not her friend.
I used to smoke, she says.
When was this? I ask.
Sometime—she pauses to think a minute. Sometime a while ago. I must have smoked. I remember it.
I can see in her big mooneyes that she’s drifting off, and sometimes I try to net her in with questions (Birdy, why don’t you stay here, in the now?). But there she goes, which is to say, she’s dreaming about what it was like the first time around, when she didn’t end up here with her mother, at the end of the gravel road outside town, a stone’s throw from the slaughterhouse.
She remembers a long drive, she and the man in the fire. She drives; he lights her cigarettes. A cigarette slips, drops down between her thighs. She curses, pulls over, and then, as she’s rubbing spit on the burn, they see the peppery cloud bourgeoning from an overpass, spilling out into the twilight—a colony of Mexican free-tailed bats. Tadarida brasiliensis, she tells me. In college, she wrote a paper about the way their migration patterns affected peach crops. That time? No, both times. Both times she wrote a paper on bats and peach trees, but that time, the first time, she and the man in the fire sat on the hood of the car and watched until they could no longer see, could only hear the tinny week week week and the beating of batwings in the darkness. Birdy tells me that’s when he said he wanted to marry her, his words all warm and honeyed. That’s happenstance (or is it happiness?): a dropped cigarette and some bats and a confession of love.
Birdy and people like her, they’re a phenomenon that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Physicists have said their piece, a big dump of Scandinavian names popping up on your newsfeed, airy blond whitecoats with the noble brains required for the paradoxes of time and probability. They wonder if folks like Birdy are proof of the oscillating universe, the Big Bang that starts it off, the Bounce that revs it back up again, over and over. They’ve given silly names to what Birdy’s experiencing: the quantum foam memory sequence, anachronistic recollection, kairotic displacement disorder. From the Greek, kairos, Birdy tells me, (she minored in Classics, both times), meaning “the supreme moment.” From where I stand, in the muck, among laypeople, it’s hard to know whether Birdy is holding on to a lifelong delusion, or if she is actually visualizing the existence of an alternative world, where things turned out better. I have tested her before (even though I’m told not to, that’s not my job). I ask about presidents, Superbowl winners, natural disasters—What’s in store for us, Birdy? What’ll happen in the future? But Birdy looks at me like she doesn’t understand the question.
How would I know those things, she says.
But don’t you remember?
She shakes her head. Her lips are dry, skin flaking like a sugar glaze.
And let’s think about the snakebite a minute. You can’t remember if it’s, if it’s the dog or—or your mother that dies.
Birdy’s face crumples with guilt. At the kitchen window, the curtains flutter: her mother, watching us. She seems like a very careful woman, not unkind, though I have the sense that she’s afraid of her daughter.
I’ve tried, Birdy says. I mean, I’ve tried to remember where I was, the first time, when I heard about it. I was with him. I must’ve been with him, with the children. I guess—you know—that’s why I took part in the experiment, because I wanted to remember—more.
I know she is ashamed of her obsession with the man in the fire. It’s a quality almost universal to her kind, as if memory were a pane of shattered glass. Certain shards, particular ones, they shine their light in your eyes. Because as a teenager, she did remember getting the scholarship for State (though she wonders now if she applied for it only because she knew she had gotten it before). She remembered a series of unexciting boyfriends, which she avoided, a lewd professor, whose class she took with caution, an internship in Savannah, which moved her out of her mother’s house. She bought the car she remembered buying from before, an ancient junker that would break down the following summer (it did), when she’d find herself stranded at a backcountry crossroads on the hottest day of the year (it was). Here, by happenstance, she remembered hitching a ride back home with the man in in the fire.
And all this happened the way you remembered it? I ask.
Up to the point, Birdy says, where the man wasn’t there.
We sip our coffee in sync. The face of Birdy’s mother is a ghost in the window.
When’d all this start, the memories? I ask.
Birdy sits for a minute, working a loose thread on the edge of her sleeve. I’ll show you, she says, and she disappears into the shadows of the house, returns with a stack of old journals from her high school years. They are filled with drawings, cartoonish renderings of the man in the fire and their children, two girls, one tanned, one fair, their house with the wrap-around porch, backyard view of the Yadkin, a tuxedo cat named Sadie or Sasha, she can’t recall now, and a peach tree. Prunus persica, she tells me. It has always been a peach tree. She talks about how at night (both times) the slaughterhouse stench used to lie on her like a blanket, pig shit and blood, and her body (this time) would ache with hope and joy at the road ahead, and she would think, she would KNOW (this time): I’m meant for more than all this.
Birdy’s always been a troubled sleeper. The weight of time keeps her awake. She tells me she thought about suicide during her stay at the institution, that she figured her life as a trial run. Maybe the gods, whoever they are (and she’s sure they’re getting a good long laugh at all this), would send her back around again to get it right.
But that’s enough to make a body ill, isn’t it. I end up driving home from Birdy’s to my cheap, tiny apartment in Corporate Village, all those thoughts flitting like wasps in my head: maybe the Hindus got it right with reincarnation, except for the part about how no other lump of meat would dare have a sister like you, that nothing that exists prior to your birth or following your death. Just poor sad you, as you, as you, over and over again on the dented-up disc of time.
I think Birdy was okay until the experiment. After a year, they suspended her internship program because of funding problems (which happened last time), and toward the end (this time) she had a pitiful fling with some fool who gave her an infection, spent time in the hospital, whittled down her savings in copays. Then she found herself picking through a meager pile of shit jobs, clerks and lab assistants—women always end up languishing in those positions, and it was nothing she could live on in a city that expensive, not alone. This was when she heard about the experiment, how they were testing people like her.
You’ve heard of them maybe, Drs. Møller and Gasana. Swedish physicist, Rwandan bioneurologist, respectively. They chained up their subjects to some-other monstrous machine, wanted to hone and develop those spiderweb threads to the past, the future, to universes beyond. After all, if a girl’s living her life over again, does it not stand to reason that she is living her life for the tenth or hundredth or millionth time? Would it not make sense that she’d remember other lives too? They thought they’d help them too, pull them out of the pits these people find themselves in, where they question what they did wrong or fail to avoid a catastrophe they knew was coming.
And when they hooked Birdy up, Drs. Møller and Gasana, it did for her what it did for all the others—improvements at first, renewed clarity and breadth of all the childhoods lost, relationships failed, opportunities taken, cataclysms avoided, the complicated tendrils of cause and effect, choice and happenstance, a dropped cigarette, some bats, a confession of love. But further deepening, further prying, and they start to cling, these subjects. They couldn’t let go of what obsessed them most. They clung to it like crazy. And some say that gamma rays from the equipment did that, or maybe it was the chemical cocktails they used to track their neural pathways, or the mere terrifying act of Møller and Gasana unraveling the brain by threads. The multiverse—think about it—the multiverse is huge, after all. Can we ever consider our place in it, honestly, without going a little bit insane?
Anyway, Birdy came out of all that swinging, a spiraling tornado of anguish and hope. She decided then that she’d find him, the man in the fire.
I can’t blame her. The man’s handsome. I’ve seen pictures. And when I come home from a job that pays too little to an apartment that’s too small and too dirty, I wonder where I could go if I weren’t alone. Find someone you like who’s paid well, snatch him up quick, even now, mothers spell that out to their daughters—Birdy’s mother did, mine did. But the thing is, I like being alone. I don’t care for most men, for most everybody. So it does, I admit that, it does frustrate me to see Birdy still obsessing.
She has the peach tree tattooed on her ribs, wormed with fibrous wrinkles (in truth, Birdy has been more than a girl for a long time now). She remembers (last time) that he gave her the tree as an anniversary gift, at their place on the Yadkin, that they planted it together along the side of the house and collected its first fruits by the end of the summer. When she found him, she did find him, he had married someone else (this time), a woman who resembled Birdy in her face and in her gestures, and the house was as she remembered it, and the lawn was as she remembered it, and the tree—the peach tree—was planted along the side of the house as it always had been, half-withered in the heat of a summer drought.
But how—I say. How did he—
I don’t know, she tells me. I don’t know. I always thought he got it special, for me. That’s what I assumed. Wouldn’t you assume that too?
I have no answer, so I light up a cigarette. She puts her chin in her hands.
His wife didn’t take care of it, she says. She didn’t know how. The tree was drying up, it was dying. But I swear, I don’t even remember lighting the match.
She does remember the wind that night, how it pulled the flames beyond her reach, how the burning tree nested its sparks like seeds on the roof of the house, their place on the Yadkin, the man and his wife inside.
I feel for her, I do. But a body could spend years and years feeling sorry for Birdy and never really know her, never understand. I didn’t realize it then, when I started driving out here, though I realize it now—when her mind gets its death-grip on the home from before, and the man, and the children, it’s endurance, it’s survival. It’s the kind of survival with collateral damage—we’ve all seen that now—but survival nonetheless. Birdy would rather destroy everything than let herself vanish in the void of time.
It’s better now, I think, though I doubt any of that’s my doing. Now that she lives with her mother, Birdy wants to take up gardening, and I say, That’s good, that’s good. Gardening is good. Very therapeutic.
Yes, she says. I know. I took it up the first time, at the house on Yadkin.
After our chat on the porch, I gather up my paperwork and follow her out into the yard through the overgrown grass, through the smell of the slaughterhouse, thickening like soured milk in the heat of the afternoon. Birdy is filled with plans.
This will be a raised bed here, she says, waving her hand over a square of tilled earth. I had tomatoes and squash. Okra. Sunflowers. I’d drop them off on my neighbors’ porches in baskets, and I’d cook for my children on weekends.
She smiles. She is here in the garden. She is there, in the other garden. The grass itches my calves, and my eyes are darting all around for snakes. But I smile too.
And there, at that sunny spot, that’ll be a rose garden, she says. I didn’t have roses then, but my mother loves them, so I’ll have them this time. And all that brush down there, that I’ll clear out.
On the porch, her mother is watching us, a stone pillar, and while Birdy is lost in thought, considering the underbrush in the tree line, I wave—it’s all right, it’s all right, don’t fret about us—and Mrs. Brightlane nods and waves back.
Maybe, Birdy is saying. Maybe this time I won’t pull out all the honeysuckle vine. I’ll let it alone. It’ll be better, once I get things going. It’ll be even better.
Jen Julian’s essays and short stories have appeared in Press 53’s Open Awards Anthology for 2010 and 2013, Four Way Review, New Delta Review, North Carolina Literary Review, and The AntigonishReview,among other places. She also has work up and coming in New South, Tahoma LiteraryReview,and The Chattahoochee Review. Currently, she is a PhD candidate in Fiction at the University of Missouri, Columbia, though she calls rural North Carolina her home.
He is deaf from the whining scream of the chainsaw, and is sweating under a thinning November sun. There must have been some way to avoid this hellhole in the Middle East. When he had seen the pictures on the screen last night, something had knotted in his belly. But here, at least, this morning, the work felt good, the bright, interior heart of the tree exposed like this. Fuck politics. There were wormholes. Some people liked them in their furniture. Antique. He was fifty-nine years old. And lately it felt old. Antique. Christ, what he wouldn’t give for a beer and a chance to get laid by that girl at Tommy’s. She was a bright thing. He’d vote the bastards out of office if any other bastards would do any better. The white house down below had rung the cops once about his chain-sawing on Sunday. Fuck the neighbors and their Sunday. Fuck the neighbors and their lament about the old elm. Fuck everyone. What was it his son had said in that poem. “Fuck was a strong word, an Anglo-Saxon word, a good word that gets the job done.” He was sharp, that boy of his, despite his politics. Funny how the kid could be so sharp and dumb all at once. How anyone could believe in those sissy Liberal assholes, but worse, he began to think, how could anyone believe in anything at all? Maybe all he needed was to introduce his son to Sheila down there at Tommy’s. Maybe that was all anyone ever really needed. It was worth a try. One more cut and he’d have the hour in and enough firewood for a month. It felt good. But, Jesus, those little kids. That was what bugged him. Little kids, parts of their bodies just strewn across the ground like windblown trash. And our boys did this? Something was fucked—big time.
II. The Innocent
The iron gate opens into a field of snowmen lively with sticks and carrots and their button-eyes of coal. No one asks who put them there, so eager are we to mingle, to get acquainted. A crow older than the far mountains calls to us in his misery. It was not his choice to stay behind here where color holds for him no advantage. The sun has been told to stay away by this army of cold warriors whose stolidity brooks no compromise. It obeys according to the terms of a treaty made when the old was new and far away. We walk further into this stage set for a December pageant of badly dressed and skinny children, orphans and waifs from Basra and Tirkut, Tamil Nadu, Aceh, Kobane, Bethlehem, children whose lives are to be cut short—of this we are reminded in this white garden beyond the black gate. Perhaps it is the cold. Adam lived in other forests besides Eden. Somewhere beyond the Tigris it is snowing even now. And on a beach somewhere in Turkey that little boy . . .
Marc Harshman is the Poet Laureate of West Virginia. He is the author of a full-length poetry collection, Green-Silver and Silent, out from Bottom Dog in 2012, and four chapbooks including Rose of Sharon, Mad River. His periodical publications include The Georgia Review, The Progressive, The Bitter Oleander, Emerson Review, Salamander, 14 Hills, and Gargoyle. Harshman’s poems have been anthologized by Kent State University, the University of Iowa, University of Georgia, and the University of Arizona. He is also the author of twelve children’s books including The Storm, a Smithsonian Notable Book.
“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.” – John 4:29
I got no rabbits’ feet on today. But the sledders don’t know. Cuz I got my jacket on. There’s the whistle, and there goes Kinkly. Kinkly and the other racers. Right down the hill, right? Thoom. Kinkly’s the fastest. Those rabbits’ feet? They might be real. And Kinkly and the other Rabbits got them on. I got seventeen at home, but they might be real.
I’m all kinds of wrong. Like Bucket, right?
The Rabbits got rabbits’ feet. All these different colors. Yesterday Gushy turned around and said they’re real. But I don’t know how they got those colors. Gushy says they use dye. Gushy’s only got one thumb.
There’s red stuff in the snow. It says, “Gushy is fog.” That’s just silly.
Red’s one of the colors I got. My rabbits’ feet, right? So’s yellow, and orange. I got six reds, but they’re not on now.
Gushy’s standing on the bench up here. He’s holding his sled. Way over his head. That sled says something. Big letters: “HOO.org.” I ask him.
“It’s Help Our Oceans.” He points down at the road. “I want the people in cars to see.”
He’s missing a thumb, and he’s got a silver jacket on, and a silver hat. Shiny.
I say, “It says you’re fog. In the snow over there?”
“You need a better straw.”
I got a coffee straw. It’s Dad’s. My dad’s thermal’s shiny and silver like Gushy. Dad puts coffee in his thermal for work, right?
Capper’s over there. He’s got this tail thing. And ketchup. That’s just silly. And he’s got a magazine or something. He’s showing it to some Fire Skulls and some Clogs.
Kinkly’s at the bottom. He’s first again. Thoom. He’s on the Rabbits, and he’s got red and yellow and orange rabbits’ feet. I’ve got those, but I don’t got any on today.
Gushy holds his sled. HOO.org. He says, “Sammy, you got those rabbits feet on?”
“I got red and yellow and orange. At home.”
“It’s warm. You can take off your jacket.”
“And a whole bunch of other colors. Like the Rabbits.” Today four teams race. You got your Rabbits—Rabbits are the fastest—and you got your Fire Skulls. And you got your Clogs and your Sandstorms. Kinkly’s on the Rabbits.
Gushy keeps holding up the sled and he says maybe I should take off my jacket. But I don’t got any rabbits’ feet on and look at all those rabbits’ feet on the Rabbits. I turn around and pick up a bottle cap. “This is your dad, right?”
“No, Sammy. That’s not my dad.”
A football bangs into Gushy’s sled. He almost drops it, but he keeps it up. A couple Sandstorms and Fire Skulls got a football and they’re throwing it.
Capper’s here and he’s got some ketchup and that tail thing. He talks through it. “Thumbs up, Gushy.”
I ask Capper what is that thing. He makes a suck sound. “It’s a vacuum cleaner hose, cuz you suck. And your mom’s muffin . . .”
Gushy said they might be real. Those rabbits’ feet?
Capper says, “What’s with all the silver? He looks like a fuckin’ bullet.”
I say he looks like Dad’s thermal, right?
“Ah thermal. Blah blah blah thermal. What the fuck is thermal?”
“You put coffee in there, right? That’s just silly.”
“No a bullet. I said a fuckin’ bullet.” Capper whips the hose. Gushy blocks it. With his sled.
I turn around and sing that song Kinkly sings: “Come on, come on in the rain/Come on and dance in the rain.”
One of those Sandstorms laughs. “That’s not how it goes, Plugs. You need to get them earplugs fixed.”
I got gloves. Just like Kinkly’s Shroudex gloves. I turned around and drew the snake on there and thoom. They look just like Shroudex.
Capper puts the hose around me. “What’s with all them kissy sounds. You a kissy fag like Gushy or something?”
Here comes Kinkly. He sings, “Within me somethin’s due to sink.” You got to make it down there in ten seconds to be a Rabbit. I made it down in 29 seconds. Kinkly let me use his sled once and I got rabbits feet at home, right?
Capper turns around and takes out that magazine. He’s got ketchup, and there’s ladies in there. They got no clothes on. “That looks like your mom, Plugs. She got a muffin? A nice muffin like that?”
I got this feeling and I’m all kinds of wrong. I sing one of Kinkly’s songs. “I hear the streams of the sasasa calling me.”
Capper takes one of the Clogs kids’ pop bottles. “Sa sa sa blah blah your brain all dried up? It’s ‘sands of the Sahara,’ dummy.” He throws the bottle. He throws it at a real rabbit and it turns around and it runs away.
I tell Kinkly his rabbits’ feet are real. “Nah, they’re not real. You got yours on?”
Gushy says, “They’re real, Sammy.”
Kinkly touches his rabbits’ feet. “Ah caulk it, Gushy.” Kinkly tells me just leave my jacket on.
Capper looks at the magazine and holds the ketchup by his thing and squirts it. That’s just silly.
I tell Gushy my straw’s a coffee straw.
Kinkly talks to Capper, and they turn around and look at Gushy. Capper shows me that magazine. There’s a naked lady. He says, “Who’s that?”
Capper’s on the Fire Skulls. He points at Gushy.
I say, “That’s his mom, right?”
They all laugh. Gushy doesn’t laugh. He holds up that sled.
Capper laughs and holds the hose thing by his thing. “Hey Gushy, I got some pictures of your ma here. Want to buy some pictures of your mom? Nice and cheap.”
Gushy told me they might be real. Real rabbits’ feet. I said no way and he turned around and said yeah they’re probably real. I said I never seen a blue rabbit. He says that’s dye, this stuff to make it have color.
I got my suspenders on. Under my jacket. But I’m not wearing my rabbits’ feet on my suspenders today. I got seventeen of them, right? But I’m not wearing any.
The whistle blows. Kinkly and some others jump onto their sleds. There they go. Thoom.
Capper and another Fire Skull hold that hose. They run at Gushy and knock him over. Right off the bench. That’s not . . . I got orange and green and red and blue. I even got blue, right? And red like Kinkly. Blue’s like water, right?
Gushy’s back up on the bench. And he’s holding up that sled. HOO.org.
Kinkly’s winning. Kinkly’s got goggles.
One time he let me go down and thoom. That was so fast, right? It was too fast and I went right into the red bushes with thorns down there and I turned around and got a scratch on my face. I got down there in 29 seconds. Those Rabbits? They make it down there in ten seconds. That’s just silly.
Capper throws the football. Real hard. Right at Gushy, but he misses. “Bullet. Fucking bullet boy.”
I tell him Gushy looks like Dad’s thermal. He talks into the hose. “Blah blah blah thermal. Plugs goes to a special school. A special school for geniuses. Why you smiling, Plugs? You’re always smiling.”
“Kinkly won. He won again.”
Capper takes out this white thing. Like a little pillow? “You know what a period is, Plugs?”
Kinkly’s down there first. Thoom. “A dot thing, right?” They laugh.
Gushy says, “Thermos, Sammy? You mean thermos?”
“Yuh thermos. What the fuck is thermos? Blah blah blah thermos.” Capper shows that white period thing. “You guys got this in your head.” The Rabbits are the fastest team. They can turn around and make it down that hill so fast. Thoom.
Gushy says it’s warm. He asks me to take off my jacket.
“I’m all kinds of wrong.”
“What else does Bucket say?”
“Somebody put something in my water.”
“Doesn’t he say that when he helps somebody?”
Capper talks all funny. “Wellstead High, I watch Wellstead High.” He talks through the hose. “Ah Bucket. I’m sick of Bucket. Fuck it Bucket.”
Sometimes Bucket wears red and yellow and orange, right? And all kinds of colors like that? And sometimes he doesn’t.
Capper squirts ketchup on that white thing. “Maybe I need to add a little more red to them cheeks, smiley boy.”
I got six red rabbits’ feet, but they’re at home.
Kinkly’s back up, and he’s singing. “Come in, come out of the rain/Come in, and take away your pain.”
Capper puts the hose by my ear. “Why you smiling? Huh, Plugs? Why you always smiling?” He puts his thumb on my straw. “Hey Kinkly, I’m gonna make kissy sucky smiley boy’s cheeks all red. Like his straw.”
“No, no. Not him.” Kinkly squeezes his lips and points at Gushy. Kinkly’s got Shroudex gloves. Mine look just like that. Thoom.
Capper gets up on that bench. He rubs that white thing all over Gushy’s face. Gushy holds up the sled. There’s ketchup all over Gushy’s face, and you got to be fast to be a Rabbit. Cuz those guys, they’re just thoom, right?
Capper puts the period thing in Gushy’s mouth. Gushy spits it out. And he holds up the sled.
Kinkly says, “Something’s not right with your face, Gushy. You stick out like a sore thumb.”
They all laugh. Gushy’s face is all red and that’s not . . . and he’s still holding up that sled. HOO.org. I got six red rabbits’ feet. I’m all kinds of wrong.
A kid with the Clogs grabs my glove. “Them aren’t Shroudex, Plugs. You drew that snake. That snake’s fake. Plugs.”
He’s the one who put a sock in my mouth when it was hot out. “The Clogs are good, right?”
“Clogs? Clog? We’re not the Clogs, dumb shit.”
One time that Clog and Capper put a sock in my mouth. And they put their thumbs in mud and put it on my face. But Kinkly came and he said no and they stopped, right?
“Clogs blah blah Clogs.” Capper bounces the football on my head. “Ain’t you seen ‘River to Dovitam?’ Or your muffin mom won’t let you? It’s the Glogs. The bad guys. The Glogs.”
Gushy says, “The Glogs lose.”
The whistle blows. There goes a whole bunch of them. They run to their sleds. You got your Rabbits and Sandstorms they run and the Fire Skulls and the C-Glogs and there’s Kinkly. They jump on their sleds. Thoom.
There’s a yell. Gushy’s on the ground. He’s got his face in the snow and he makes a hurt sound. That’s not . . .
Capper yells, “Touchdown” and there’s the football by Gushy.
There goes Kinkly. He’s fast, right? He’s the fastest. Gushy’s holding his eye. Kinkly can turn around and make it down that hill so fast. Thoom. Gushy’s got ketchup all over his face. Kinkly’s got red, and he’s got yellow and orange.
I asked my mom if my rabbits’ feet were real. She turned around and said, “I don’t know. But look it. They’re pretty.” Right?
Gushy’s lying there and making a noise like it hurts. That’s not good. His eye’s all puffy, and I spit out the straw.
If you get down there in ten seconds, you get to be on the Rabbits and you get a rabbit’s foot. From Kinkly. I got all mine at Appleton’s. In the gumball machine in the front.
“Bucket . . . Bucket fuck it.” Capper’s got his foot on Gushy’s sled. He’s bending it. “Oops. Oh oh I can’t stop oh oh. Why can’t I . . .” The sled cracks. Capper throws the two pieces. They laugh.
Gushy gets up. His face is all red, and his eye’s puffy. He gets the two sled pieces.
Kinkly’s first. He’s all the way down there. He’s down there by those thorns.
Gushy gets up on the bench. He holds up the two pieces. HOO.org.
It is warm. I take off my gloves.
Douglas J. Ogurek’s fiction appears in Bards and Sages Quarterly, British Fantasy Society Journal, The Literary Review, Gone Lawn, The Milo Review, Morpheus Tales, Schlock Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, and several anthologies. Ogurek is the communications manager of a Chicago-based architecture firm and has written over one hundred articles about facility planning and design. He also reviews films at Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. More at www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.
We had forgotten the dank
peppered across route
for a full mile. This one’s fur
is patching the highway
like fresh moss, its rib cage
in the median.
This is different than
bodies of armadillos.
yolks made us queasy,
but this one
In the distance
we can hear
the birds stir
In the distance we
the other meat, its
fearful hoof clicks,
Erin Jones is an MFA candidate at the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in Subtropics, Boxcar Poetry Review, Natural Bridge, Tar River Poetry, and The Lyric.
He spots her from afar because of the turquoise dress that contrasts with her tanned skin. She is walking along the colonial streets of Phuket town, her sandaled feet treading on tiles embossed with traditional Chinese designs. As a matter of fact, so is he, but at that moment he forgets where he is. He is overcome by a peculiar floating sensation and forgets that his feet are grounded safely on earth.
Newton postulated the theory of forces to explain gravity, and Leibniz criticized it as action at a distance—a mere miracle, utter nonsense. The distance between a falling object and the center of gravity is of small importance: the falling speed is the same. She is about sixty meters away from him, approaching closer every second, and he is falling swiftly.
He reads philosophy and his mind is jumbled with ideas—he gets a notion that gravity is love itself, a force enacted at a distance without physical contact between two objects. Why did Leibniz make it sound like a bad idea, he couldn’t for his life remember when she lifts her eyes and looks at him. Eye contact and gravity, both compelling forces that draw one object to a throbbing epicenter of a great lovin’ tsunami.
If so, who needs touch?
She sees something that she likes and allows him to follow her at a safe distance. Down they walk, like the sun and Earth connected by an invisible thread, both rotating gently on an axis. She is at Soi Romanee now.
Romanee—romance? Wordplay, mouthplay, thoughtplay. Association by emotion.
She smiles and walks away. The distance between them stretches to breaking point. As she turns the corner, he feels a physical jolt, like how Newton might have felt when the apple fell on his head, changing his life—and that of the world—forever.
Consider Scenario A: He stops her. They would head to a coffee shop together, sip coffees, and talk about everything. Or maybe they would talk about nothing and exchange looks for hours. He would buy another plane ticket back home with the remaining cash he had and she would go home with him, their hands clasped the whole time in flight, thinking of how this was too good to be true, almost anticipating an accident. For one knows to be wary when jigsaw pieces seem to fall into place. It is an intrinsic mechanism, he believes, built into humans to save us from arrogance, a reminder of our fragility—perhaps the reason why we seek unhappiness deep down even while we howl for happiness.
Consider Scenario B: An earthquake opens up the ground under both their feet and they fall into a deep yawning cavern, but survive and live the rest of their lives in isolation, far away from everyone else but close to the center of gravity of the Earth.
Scenario C is one of inaction at a distance.
If A, then not-B. If B, then not-A. Let’s not talk about C, the most probable possibility, the reason why most of us live in a limbo.
But both A and B can happen together, simultaneously, in alternate universes. This seemingly endless permutation of possibilities has to be exhausted eventually, but he understands that he is limited in his human capabilities to fathom all of them.
The past, present, and future. When you say the present, it is already the past. When you think about the future, it is in the present. Nothing exists but the past. Nothing exists except in the past. Things gone even before it has started, is starting.
She turns and smiles, slowly shakes her head. He understands that action at a distance. The force of feelings is meant to be felt, not seen. She is gone and in his head at the same time. Consider that scenario. That’s the only one.
Chua Yini is a writer, scriptwriter, and researcher from Singapore. She graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a major in Journalism and minor in Philosophy. Her literary prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro Magazine (New York), Cadaverine Magazine, Eastlit Journal, Star 82 Review, and Sinister Wisdom Journal. She is a co-editor of Junoesq Literary Journal.
THE VERY DIVERTING HISTORY OF MAYA by Grace Singh Smith
Now the day has dawned and the lamp that lit my dark corner is out. A summons has come and I am ready for my journey.—Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali.
It was Fate, Maya thought. Fate who got her married to someone she did not quite love, but maybe, she would learn to love. In the beginning, she woke up feeling as though he was her baby, this engineer husband her parents had carefully selected. She remembers the ad they placed in the city’s best newspaper, The Shillong Times. The classified had described her as “wheatish in complexion” and “respectful of traditional values.” These, and other important details like: caste (Kayastha); languages spoken (Bengali, Hindi and English); height, weight, body type (average); and the occupations of her parents. Her father was “ex-Army” and her mother was “homemaker.” And she was also a Capricorn.
According to the pundit, Fate aligned her with the perfect match—Rajeev Majumdar—and the events that followed became in her memory like the pages of a book turned fast. All the rituals flowed into one another until she could no longer distinguish what had happened when. Did she fast all day after she ate doi first? Did she get smeared in turmeric paste next, eating bits of rasgullas and kaju barfis from many unknown hands that thrust themselves into her face, one quickly taking the place of another? So many rituals, so many people, so many days, so many people, so many rituals, so many days…
When she was a girl and wore red nylon ribbons in her hair, Maa and Dadi said to her every night: Fate will take you where you will be, child, and there is nothing you can do to fight her, so be good. And Maya had always wondered, why be good if Fate was going to take you wherever she wanted to? Why could she not find out where the other road leads…wherever Fate doesn’t take you?
This Fate occupied Maya’s daydreams as a child when she looked at the hammered silver bangles on her wrists and the payals that embraced her ankles and announced her steps, and she thought: Who am I? Who is this Fate, who has so much power over me?
Sometimes she thought of Fate as a kind-faced, wrinkled dadi, a grandmother whose lap was soft. On monsoon nights, when the rain pounded nonstop in a thum-thum cadence, her hands found comforting dark places in her body under the covers, and she felt freed by the blood that rushed to her brain and the warmth of her thoughts. Then, she was seized by a hatred for this Fate. One such night, it came to her that this other, who had now been created in her mind would help her defeat Fate. “Anti-Fate”—aha—that’s what she would call the other, she remembers thinking as she sat at her study desk, doodling in her no.7 exercise book where she should have been writing an analysis of “The Diverting History of John Gilpin.”
That afternoon, she looked into the mirror and instead of seeing her chai-colored face, she saw someone else who actually smiled at her. Anti-Fate.
So, on dark monsoon nights, she began to think of Fate as a Rakshashi—a demoness—whom she would defeat. She sang softly to herself, cheerful and cheerless tunes; and she told the Rakshashi, you cannot win, because I have Anti-Fate, down here, inside, me.
She remembered this on Phul Sojja night when she was sitting covered in flower-shaped ornaments on a bed covered with marigolds, waiting for Engineer Majumdar to appear and find her waiting, sitting with her legs tucked under and her eyes down, silent. When she heard the door open, she saw the face of Anti-Fate appear on the bed sheet. Does he think he is a Bollywood star, how slowly he approaches, Maya thought. Then, she heard the bed gasp under his weight. When he reached under the pallu of her sari to grab her face, there she was, again. Anti-Fate, right beside the head of the Engineer, making him look like the demon king Ravana. She winked at Maya, and Maya smiled at her.
“What a smile, my love,” said the Engineer as he pulled the pallu down and slowly began to unwind her sari, next undoing the blouse’s front hooks. In the night that followed, she did not feel anything, though her sari was removed from her body and she was overcome by the smell of Old Spice, sweat, and the marigolds all around and under her. She also could not stop thinking of the lines from that poem by William Cowper whose sixty-three stanzas she had been forced to memorize.
He soon replied, I do admire Of womankind but one, And you are she, my dearest dear, Therefore it shall be done.
After the marigolds had been crushed and he had fallen asleep breathing like a well-fed dog, she wept with tears that would not cease.
Anti-Fate, you lied to me, where are you?
Because after Phul Sojja, when she winked at her from behind the henna-streaked hair of Engineer Majumdar, Anti-Fate did not appear—not even on the day when the Engineer hit her. He had apologized, of course, but in the corner of the kitchen, his mother smiled without even bothering to hide her face behind her pallu. Maya had put too many mustard seeds in the Ilish Shidho curry and he had asked her why. Her answer had been that she was not aware that he did not like too many mustard seeds and that she did not know she would be his chef.
“Because you are BA English major, too good to serve your husband? Nonsense this is.” These were his words as he threw his plate at the wall. The stainless steel plate had fallen CLANGCLANGCLANG on the cement floor while his mother invoked the name of Maa Kali. But Maya had seen her smile, before “Maa Kali”, and Maya knew then that Fate, that kind dadi who was meant to protect Maya in her soft lap, had left her. And Anti-Fate was gone too.
Six weeks went by and Maya now knew how many mustard seeds the Lecturer wanted in his Ilish Shidho, and she no longer looked for Anti-Fate.
One night, when the puja had been completed and the Engineer had eaten his five-course meal, Maya was called into the drawing room. She drew the pallu over her head, knowing that the Engineer’s mother would be present, and then she walked down the hallway that led from their bedroom to the drawing room. As she walked past her mother-in-law’s bedroom, she saw a reflection in the mirror that faced the door, the mirror with seashells hanging in strings over it. It was the face of Anti-Fate looking straight at her, smiling.
She sat on the varnished cane chair, facing the Engineer and his mother. They sat on the cane love seat with the red brocade cushions that had been brought as part of her wedding dowry.
Last night he had suckled her like a baby.
“Do you know that your family wants to renegotiate your dowry? After we have accepted you into our family?” asked the mother.
Maya looked down at her hands that were still decorated with mehendi, now faded beige instead of orange, and she stuck her feet out and then back under her sari.
Don’t cry, I am right here.
These words were whispered into her right ear through her pallu and she leaned her head towards it. Words were spoken: of sums promised to the Engineer and his mother now being reduced, honor, promises being broken, her family not holding up their end of a bargain. And what a reasonable bargain it was—an Engineer. And she, only BA English major, passed with no distinction.
She looked at their mouths and saw that it was time to tell them.
“Fate—Maa, Rajeev,” said Maya, “Fate decides where we go and no fighting it.”
“What strange things you speak.” said the Engineer’s mother, spitting out betelnut juice into a cup in a swift stream. It looked like blood, and in her mind’s eye, Maya began to see the beginning of many things to come: before, after. That night, the Engineer suckled her again like a baby, but this time he beat her after he made love to her. Maya did not scream once because she saw her.
Right above the bed, reflecting in the Oscar ceiling fan’s brass orb, was the face of Anti-Fate, and her eyes looked into Maya’s.
The next morning, when Maya went to pick out which sari she should wear, she decided that the bridal red would be the most suitable. Anti-Fate agreed, smiling down on her.
The gold letters on the wedding invitation had invited guests cordially to pay the family of Rajeev Majumdar the honor of their presence on the auspicious occasion of his nuptials to tie the knot with Maya Das, the daughter of Bijoy and Anupa Das. The card had also been red with two gold hands meeting in a “Namaste” at the top.
It will not take long, Anti-Fate whispered, her words reaching Maya as clear as the ululating she woke up to each morning.
The sari’s pallu—its end—was quite perfect for this auspicious occasion. It even had a peacock in gold thread with its chest puffed out when she laid it out on the bed to make tiny pleats.
S like the shankha they blew at weddings, round, round, round, one knot here, loose right there, over her, beneath her right ear. Now Maya offered up the pallu to Anti-Fate, and she could feel Anti-Fate’s warm breath of approval as she approached the Oscar fan to tie the knot. They looked beautiful in red. Then, Maya stood up on the bed where there had been crushed marigolds and sweat that smelled like Old Spice only six weeks ago.
She bowed her head to Fate, left the bed, and became one with Anti-Fate.
Grace Singh Smith was born and raised in northeast India where she worked as a teacher, TV anchor, and journalist. She now lives in Santa Monica, California, where she works at Santa Monica College by day and writes fiction by night. Her short stories have appeared in the Santa Monica Review. She is an MFA candidate at Bennington College and is working on her first novel.
The snow tongue has no country, and no voice.
It only knows the tread of boots and barefeet
and the dirt-tough paws of animals
and the urging on of wind.
She sleeps, and in the night wakes …………..to dreams of nails tearing at her throat— …………..wolves’, their slashings as keen …………..as their lightless voices—
and finds she has torn her nightgown apart
as those stolen too soon from the lightful world
(or so she has been reading tonight
her books’ gentle faces still open
beneath her hands).
This riding is full
of that kind of story— …………..the men who scraped lichen from the sides of rocks …………..admiring the miserly veins of their colorless reaching, the efficiency …………..or their bare and unbroken life
…………..and the men who looked out at the slope and glisten of an ice heave …………..and could see only the curve of a woman’s neck
…………..and the men who found themselves eyeing she-bears—the stock …………..in their hands already fingered …………..tallow-smooth …………..as they searched for the glistening …………..bunch-petals, pinkening …………..under tobacco-yellow fur.
…………..I have seen a bear well-skinned—
wrote one, an Englishman
who elsewhere spoke longingly of the warm, wreathy heft
of his cows’ breath
and wondered at the survival
of a valuable, brindle-headed
bull— …………..and I know how strongly it resembles a man.
…………..The same must be true for its mate.
And, too, there are stories in these books
of men brokenstrided and stumblesome
as the trunks of drunken black firs
of men whose bones rose to meet the air
and could not be persuaded to return to their humbler workings
and of the men who were put away
wrapped bunting-tight, and rested
in the backs of caves
fingers cleft so a book
could be forced between them—
or, failing that, any words that could be found:
a page from Wacousta or Marmion
or the words of a man who could best pass as Godly
a man whose voice had been best smoothed by money, say
or at least a man whose cheek was still free
from the satiny scarring of a she-bear’s
…………..He was from Michigan, they say. …………..He talked about that once.
And they will summon a state’s worth of eulogy from
the stray sentences they still remember: a mother’s plates, a school
a cherry, a won smoker, a pretty girl’s
And wind and snow will do the finest undertaker’s work
and the man will wake as air—tamed
as only immurement can tame it—
slinks around his neck and between his bent fingers
and softens the pages of Jeremiah, the first words of Wacousta— …………..we are about to introduce our readers to scenes with which the European …………..is little familiarised—
and breathes its way into each fibrous pore
and warms to life his knotted dreams of
cherries, smokers, pretty girls
He knows his name again, but little else.
He knows a man’s strength can make metal bend and saws jig and jigs fast enough
He knows how to win a smoker.
He tries doing the same to the ice.
And perhaps, when he finds that ice did not fear him—that it does not understand
the pressures of his hands, or hear the language
of his desperation—he begins to tear at what might yield
clawing his once-plundered clothing apart
proving himself master of leather and eider
and, when left with nothing more to sunder
proving that his flesh cannot yet master itself.
Or, as a machinist from Mississauga wrote, …………..We do not know why they rend themselves this way …………..but privately I wonder if they seek to catch …………..the heat that rises from within them …………..the proof of a foundry motion, still at work.
She holds her throat fast, and fears herself voiceless
until she feels the thunder of calving
the vibration of the frost heave rising beneath her
and begins to sense the rhythms of this life.
Sarah Marshall grew up in Oregon and taught writing for several years at Portland State University, where she developed many courses around her obsessions, including a class called “The Idea of North.” She writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction on topics including insects, invasive species, pet stores, vigilantism, vampires, crime, and Florida. Most recently, her work has appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015. She is currently pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
whisper: you’re my Jurassic juice
when you suck my
neck and that will be the word
and the word will be With God
and on the third date
we will with hesitant hands
like just-pubescent lesbians, hands
stained of bleeding polish, juiceboxes
sucked dry, save the date,
my invitation, my
the words birthday party, the words hope you’ll come, translated through hand
in hair, eyes to God’s
kingdom and heaven-sent nectar
On the third date
presunrise and pre-carbon-dated
light fall and swell the word
(hopeful you meant it) my
sense dulled by improper forging, lubrication
dripping through cracks in the warriors’ hall, fists
clenching drinks, where toasts to Valhalla and prayers to God
Above and God Below and Gods
as versatile as army knives woo + crush + date
+ shag + marry + I’d like a glass of juice
while we’re keeping our words
as personal use, as picking at hangnails, as quivering handjobs
as fingers on clits, as my favorite touch, as my
favorite flick, as my
best sensation, as my comfort inn, as god
is my witness, as I wish for handsome
and handmaiden kingdoms and evergreen landscapes and trees laden with figs
and waiting for words
that are never arriving. whisper: I am arriving
and like first soprano hitting her note
you, my last master, drip honey in praise
Susannah Betts is a writer, artist and graduate student living in Rochester, N.Y. She grew up in Bowie, Md. and graduated from Wesleyan University with a BA in physics in 2015. She likes disrupting the gender binary and the stigma surrounding female and non-binary sexual pleasure in her work. She currently serves as the fiction editor of the online intersectional feminist literary magazine The Fem and has been published in some various places that you can find listed here: susannah-one-summer.tumblr.com/published.
My food was stones from
a stone tree spoon-fed to me
stones in my mouth slurring
my speech so I couldn’t say
love you couldn’t say daddy
only stones I wonder
if my father was also fed stones
during a snowstorm in February
I wonder what he thought
as he smoked stone cigarettes
before seeing me for the first time
the only time I wonder how I felt
newborn in my father’s stone
hands marble-carved from winter
Alex Vidiani is an MFA student at the University of Maryland, College Park. In his spare time, he enjoys wingtips, café-hopping, and marathons of Mad Men. If you buy him a drink he will be your friend forever. His work has been published in Juked and The Summerset Review.
She handed me a gift. It had heft and permanence and was wrapped tight in a way I could never recreate and so I opened it with proper reverence. It was a second edition of Huck Finn, but I already owned a first edition. And she knew that. I had only brought it out at every party we threw for the first three years of our marriage. She’d promised me the gift of a lifetime and I’d gotten my hopes up. Again. She told me to open it, still beaming, still excited, still blind to my disappointment. There, scrawled on the flyleaf in blotchy ink, was Twain’s signature. I looked at her in shock. It was extraordinary. She was extraordinary. Well past midnight, after she’d fallen asleep, I compared the autograph to authentic images I found online. I hated to do it, but I had to be sure.
Adam Shafer is a journalist by training and an advertiser by trade. His writing has appeared in numerous publications including Carve magazine’s 2013 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest and New Millennium Writing’s 2015 fiction contest. In 2014, he was honored with the Nancy D. Hargrove Prize for Fiction from The Jabberwock Review. He lives in Chicago with a woman and a dog. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjshafer.
Before I went to art school, before I decided to become a painter, before my work and classes carried me far away into the world of fine art, all I really wanted to do was draw. I drew the way a lot of teenagers do–carefully, self-consciously, and often. I drew unaware of the complications of critical analysis, ego, sophisticated processes, and expensive materials that would soon converge in the realm of my higher education.
When I was a student at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, drawing nice pictures soon became the farthest thing from my mind. In that four-year whirlwind of studio classes, I roved quite far from simple drawing. I studied glassblowing, ceramics, on-loom weaving, and figure modeling. As a painting major, I took drawing classes, but they were secondary to my painting classes. After graduation, I went home to my parents’ house in east Tennessee, where I listened to the drone of cicadas in the evenings and slept until noon. For the first time in four years, my life slowed to a walking pace. I made a couple of paintings; I carried a small watercolor kit with me as a way of keeping in habit. And I was doing something I hadn’t done in a long time: I was looking. Looking at things that I didn’t get to look at during the years I was living in North Philadelphia: Trees. Grass. Flowers. Mountains. Rivers. The ground at my feet, even.
“Katsura Tree,” pen and ink, 9”x12”, 2015 – Click to enlarge.
Had I ever really looked at the ground? Had I tried to separate pebble from milkweed with only my eyes? Or looked into the matrix of blades and buds, clustered and sprouting, snaking in ribbons, spurting from muscular stalks? What about the trees? Had I ever examined every leaf? Had I watched the entire narrative curl of a single branch into its stems?
One of my drawing professors in college once told us, in a dramatic moment of frustration, that she hated student drawings of trees. “Please,please, no more trees!” she sighed, rolling her eyes. I was perplexed. No trees? Should we just omit them? Draw only buildings? The ground?
And yet, I understood her point. Trees are hard to see. And even harder to see well. I could suddenly imagine legions of students mass-producing the same childhood version of the classic crayon-book tree, a generic shorthand of cylindrical trunks and cartoon foliage. It made more sense for us students to invest our senses in the moment, in the perceived spaces around us, without getting caught up in trees we’d learned by heart.
“White Pine,” pen and ink, 6”x9”, 2015 – Click to enlarge
But I’m not a student anymore. Last August, I moved back to Philadelphia and, being without a painting studio, I picked up my drawing pen and dipped it in ink. I wanted to draw something from life. I wanted to draw something in front of me, something present. I looked out across the front porch and saw a small arched ash tree. This was what I wanted to draw.
Trees and plants have been my subjects ever since. With pen-and-ink I can capture gesture, immediacy, and fluidity with precision. India ink, which can be diluted with water, allows the full tonal range of graphite, but without the option to erase. I find that this restriction stimulates my attentiveness. While I do draw trees and plants out of admiration for their singularity and form, I consider my tree drawings exercises in bearing witness, not pretty pictures. In art, plants are often relegated to background status; wrongly so, in my opinion. Drawing them intimately helps me appreciate the savage power and poetry of vegetal life.
When you begin drawing a tree or a garden, you become locked into its convolutions, and an endless, groping attempt to understand the living network of light and shadow. It’s a task I will never completely master—and that’s what I like about it.
Laurel Hooker is an artist living and working in Philadelphia. She received her BFA in painting from Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Brought up exploring the mountain wilderness outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, the natural world remains a central source of inspiration for her work. Her additional enthusiasms include all things musical, ethical, and edible. Further images of her work can be found at www.laurelhooker.com
Late on the fourth of July, my friends arrived home to find it had caught on fire, everything blackened and damp from fire hoses, their two dogs and cat perished amid the scorched remnants of their house. Early the next day a mutual friend called me. We don’t know what to do, Anna told me over the phone, about the bodies.
She’d called me specifically because I’d worked in the veterinary industry for years. Everyone had heard about the time I had to decapitate a cat we feared might have rabies. She assumed, I think, that I’d be one who might know what to do. But I’d never dealt with a situation like this either. When I called an emergency vet I was told they would charge at least two-hundred dollars an animal for disposal: an impossible immediate expenditure for our community of still-struggling ex-college students.
I’ll go get them, I told her, and keep them until tomorrow, a Monday when the regular clinics would be open again and we could dispose of the bodies at a more reasonable price. No one else, wants to, you know, Anna said. What she meant was no one wanted to look at broken and burned bodies of pets we knew. No one wanted to house those bodies, dead pets in the garage. I asked if we knew anyone with a deep freezer, but no one wanted to share their space for food with corpses.
Years ago when I had to decapitate the cat I learned a bruising lesson about practicality and death. We needed to send its head to the veterinary school at Texas A & M for rabies testing; it seemed awfully inhumane to cut off an animal’s head off, wrap it in plastic and put it in a cooler, but that’s the way things are done.
The clinic I was working in was new and didn’t have all the equipment we needed. A scalpel, no matter how sharp, would most likely only cut through skin and muscle, not bone. I was sent to the grocery store for gloves, heavy yellow ones used for washing dishes, and I also bought a large cleaver. In the clinic, we hacked at the spinal column, and when the head finally came loose, I thought its neck looked like a Christmas ham and afterwards was so sick with the imagery that I dry-heaved in the bathroom while other employees packed the head for shipping. We wrapped its body in paper towels and plastic Kroger bags and put it in the top section of our refrigerator next to microwave our meals; we didn’t have the money to buy a deep freezer then, either.
I think it’s common, when shedding our skins, to not even know it’s happened until afterward. When Anna called me, I thought about how in the days following the decapitation I pulled my food from the freezer—meatloaf and mashed potatoes, rigatoni, lasagna—right out from beside the cat’s body, and I ate it in the break room during lunch. The animal had become a thing, reduced to an inquiry, just as ear mites under a microscope are so foreign they can’t possibly be alive, just as a preserved dog’s heart, erupting with heartworms, never belonged to someone’s pet.
My friend’s brother did the dirty work at the burned house—dislodged the pets’ bodies and brought them to my home in boxes where we stacked them in the garage. They’re… charred… you know, he said, and I replied I suspected as much. I felt the need to explain to him why I didn’t mind keeping them when no one else would. I felt like I had to explain to him that the business of pets dying was something I was used to and that someone had to be detached. But I didn’t say anything because he fidgeted with his keys, looking over his shoulder at his car. It was clear that I was the only one who felt the need to say more.
Overnight I was awakened by my dog whining at the bedroom door: he needed to go outside. It was still dark and I refused to look at the clock. I lay on the sofa next to the backdoor and waited for him to paw the glass, signaling that he wanted to come in. With my eyes closed and my head on the sofa cushion I smelled something vaguely revolting, a smell like steamed broccoli left in a pot on the stove too many days after cooking. When I awoke the next morning, I realized the smell was from the dead pets, the odor in the garage sucked up into the attic and distributed around the house via the air-conditioner. At first I was disgusted. Then I was annoyed. I turned off the AC and spent the morning with my the ceiling fans turned to high-speed, irritated that the temperature was rising—summer in Texas—and that moving air was not the same as cold air.
Anna had arranged for cremation, and when a man from the service came, he said he was sorry for my loss. I explained what had happened—it wasn’t my loss exactly—and together we opened the garage to remove the boxes. In the frank language of death and with my “I used to work in veterinary clinics” preface his initial somberness dissipated. I haven’t seen them, I said, my hand on top of the smallest box, for the cat, and I don’t know how much is left. I think they were charred pretty bad. If there’s fur left, the black dog is Buffalo. I’m sorry the boxes aren’t labeled.
I didn’t have to over-explain or pretend with the man who shared this private world. This was his business, our business, the business of death and pragmatism. It was the business of moving bodies and signing paperwork and being unmoved.
At one of my first hospitals I watched one of our clients, a massive ex-rodeo champion, curse God with a cracked voice and tears on his cheeks when we discovered his cat had a tumor in his brain. Once, a mother made her nine-year-old son stay in the room while we put down their cat; he couldn’t look and faced the wall while his pet spasmed in my hands and when the boy began to cry the mother didn’t even touch him. For a long time I would cry with these patients, and sometimes I would cry even after they left, holed up in the back room with the deep freezer and checking my reflection in a compact to see when my puffy face looked normal again. I have assisted in the euthanasia of eighty-six animals, but somewhere along the line—Lord knows I wish I could remember when exactly—I stopped crying.
I can’t imagine anyone ever enjoying pulling plastic around the body, that final frozen nothingness look of an animal’s face before the bag is tied off in a harsh knot; but that’s the way it is. Dogs and cats went into heavy black plastic bags and were placed in a deep freezer, methodically almost. The pet ceased to be a pet. It became a thing: an it. Even the language we used in the clinic was a reduction when the names of pets were replaced with the words “pick-up” and “body”.
Let me be clear. I am used to and now comfortable with the act of putting an animal to sleep. I am also comfortable disposing of bodies. It isn’t either of these that bothers me now. It’s knowing that something in my understanding and actions towards animals and people shifts right after death.
It wasn’t until the man had taken out the smallest box with the cat to his truck, after we dropped the mourning language, that I realized what it was about my interactions with death that disturbed me. It was knowing, finally, that empathy had become a stranger to me: only sympathy remained, and then when the business of bodies occurred, that too disintegrated into strict efficiency, leaving me without the ability to feel anything. And with my friends’ pets in the garage,the empathy-to-sympathy-to-business process had also now become about me, not them, some malformed narcissism that comes—and this is how I rationalize it—when one starts to feel inconvenienced by death.
And while I filled out paperwork, carbon-copied onto duplicates against the garage door, it clicked again. It’s also some form of guilt, I suppose, that I don’t hold on and that I’m not affected the way I think I should be. Guilt that I couldn’t cry for my friends who treated their pets like children and guilt too for regretting, wishing on and off for a few hours, that I didn’t take the bodies into my garage, the stench of them heavy in my nose and the back of my throat. And later as I received texts from friends thanking me for what I’d done, I felt more guilt for knowing it didn’t mean as much to me as it did to them. Perhaps utility is its own form of giving, but it’s not the form I want. I want to remember what it feels like to still possess this small node of compassion and to feel, without guilt, that I haven’t lost an essential quality of my humanity.
When the man was leaving there was a brief awkwardness. I was not the owner of these pets, and the way I spoke had aligned me like him. What were we to say to each other in a business where one of us was supposed to be grieving, but neither was? He was about to say I’m sorry again, I could tell by the way he nodded, returning to a more formal posturing, the smile sliding from his face, holding his hand out to shake mine, but in the end he didn’t say anything. I went inside my house to my dog, sitting by the window, his ears perked with interest at the man getting in the truck, and I sat next to him while we watched it drive away.
Gwendolyn Edward is a Pushcart-nominated writer of non-fiction, poetry, and fiction. Her work has been accepted by Crab Orchard Review, Fourth River, Bourbon Penn, Crack the Spine, and others. She holds a MA in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas where she worked with American Literary Review, and she is currently pursuing a MFA at Bennington. She works with Fifth Wednesday Journal as an assistant non-fiction editor and also teaches creative writing.
Inside the dream you wander shoeless
in supermarket aisles. Loneliness
opens its stone lid, invites you in. Even as they fly
birds trust in landings. In the right
tilt of rays you can become the silver thread
pinned to the eave,
the spider’s wide swoop over
hayloft in honeyed light. Things
spiral inward and outward
at the same time — lines
drawn on your fingertips
before you were born
— the scrawl of maps survivors carry.
Carla Drysdale is a Canadian poet who resides in France. Her first book of poems, Little Venus, was published by Tightrope and her chapbook, Inheritance, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her poems have been published in Zoetic Press’s Alphanumeric, PRISM International, Scapegoat Review, Literary Mama, The Same, LIT, the Literary Review of Canada, Canadian Literature, The Fiddlehead, Global City Review,andothers. She was awarded PRISM’s Earle Birney poetry prize in 2014, and she was recently nominated by Zoetic Press for BlazeVOX‘s Bettering American Poetry anthology. Her poem “New Year’s Eve” was set to music by composer David del Tredici, and she has collaborated with artist Ken Dubin. La Porte Peinte has links to Carla’s work.
My daughters had wandered too far ahead when the storm came up suddenly in the mountains, so I ran through the rain to find them. Thunder rattled off the sides of the saddles and rolled down through the draws like the announcement of some end. The girls were tiny things then, no more than five and eight, and each sharp crack sounded as loud as the last hour of the earth. I ran past clefts not deep enough to be called caves where crowds huddled out of the rain, and I must have looked wild as the wind still in the tops of the trees as I came out of the curtain and stood scanning the small knots safe beneath the dripping rock, then disappeared again into the downpour. The mountain stream had grown as fierce as the uncertain future and wide as the world our children walk around in. The air stood stacked with ozone and if there is a greater fear for a father than the loss of a child, it can only be the loss of two, so I kept going along the mud-slick trail, up the wet stones carved into steps, crossing the seething stream on footbridges no larger than Legos, higher and higher into the hills until finally finding them standing in the storm beneath an overhang where water fell on their heads clear as comfort. They stretched out their arms, mouths wide as mountains, their laughter loud even over the deluge.
Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Glimmer Train, Ecotone, North American Review,and Brevity, among others. He teaches writing and literature at Elon University.
It had been ten years since I’d been to Belgrade and the first things I noticed were the billboards. The blasted-out skeletons of iron had been rebuilt, painted, and were skinned in colorful faces smiling down on the grey skyline. They seemed so oddly out of place, as if they had landed straight out from the sky.
I’d spent my childhood in the city, but I’d gone abroad and hadn’t been back since just after the war. The airport hadn’t reopened, so I had flown into Frankfurt, rented a car, then driven 120 mph in the slow lane of the Autobahn through the deep tunnels of the Viennese Alps. The highway linking Belgrade to Zagreb was empty, and the deep impressions of tank treads were still visible on the shoulder.
On that trip I had been shown the ruins of Avala, the tower on the hill overlooking the city where I had gone as a child to see the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was just a wet tangle of cables and rubble all along the slope of the hill, as if someone had pushed it too hard and it had fallen, exhausted, on its side.
But now, ten years later, it had been rebuilt, more beautiful than before, and everywhere that had once been rubble was now so new that I couldn’t recognize the turn-off to my aunt’s house, and I almost missed it.
I was meeting my sestra there, who had agreed to take me through the city and show me what had changed. As we drove back across the Danube she pointed out a hotel down by the water. It was yellow and gold, framed by old oaks in the traditional style of old Europe. Do you know what that is? I looked at the exit that led down to it and marveled at the change. That’s where that old decrepit factory used to be.
That’s it, she replied, and I didn’t understand. It’s the same building – they renovated it and converted it into a hotel. We had already zipped past it, but I looked over my shoulder and kept repeating the same thing. It was the same building? That’s what it looked like? It was the same building?
We drove straight down Bulevar despota Stefana toward the National Theater, and Maja leaned forward and pointed out the new buildings through the front of the windshield, on the left, on the right, until we pulled off the main street and found a side street to park on. Downtown had always been beautiful, the nineteenth-century buildings covered in carved balustrades and winking cherubs over windows, but now the cracked plaster had been filled in, the soot removed, and inside the glass fronts of the newly pastel buildings were clothes and purses from European brands, and it all felt new, as if the long haze of socialist concrete had never been there at all.
I stopped often, taking photos of this place I half-recognized, when I saw something I had never seen in Belgrade: a man with a map. It was a tourist. I asked him in English if he needed directions, showed him where we were on his map and where he needed to go, and he smiled and thanked me so I couldn’t tell if he was more surprised to find me there or I him.
He wanted to go see the oldest part of the city, Dorćol, where we were headed. This had been the heart of the city during Turkish occupation and had all of the oldest buildings, but I only remembered it from late nights at cafes, drinking in bars that spilled out onto the streets and then eating palacinke from street vendors on the way home.
As we walked through Studentski park and between the university buildings, the city that I recognized from my childhood began to reappear along the small streets. Concrete apartment buildings, gray and stained with water runoff, sat above shuttered shop windows scrawled over with spray-painted nationalist graffiti. Old trees burst through the sidewalk, trash collecting in their roots, and everywhere little babas with black kerchiefs wrapped around their heads hurried along, carrying groceries from the market.
We stopped at Čukur česma, the fountain commemorating the start of Belgrade’s revolt of Turkish occupation. In 1862, Turkish soldiers killed a young Serbian boy at that spot, and the outrage led to outbreaks of violence culminating in the complete withdrawal of Turks from Serbia.
But Serbian Muslims were expelled too, and where there had once been over 200 mosques in Belgrade, there was only one left. I had asked Maja to take me to see it. All those years and I had never even known it was there, a remnant of some other Belgrade that was just as foreign to me as the sand-blasted downtown that I had just walked through.
The white minaret wasn’t immediately visible, and if my sestra hadn’t been there to point it out I would have missed it entirely. The mosque sat at an angle to the street, hidden between the folds of the other buildings, still following the layout of some long-forgotten neighborhood.
During the war, the mosque had been burned in anti-Muslim violence in retaliation for attacks on Serbs in Kosovo. But as I gazed up at the building there was no trace of this left, only the subtle gradations of the yellow stone broken by the pointed arches of the low windows.
There’s been a mosque in that place since 1575, destroyed and rebuilt again over hundreds of years. My ten years away had been just a moment, only a heartbeat, in the life of the city.
Sara Alaica is a citizen of the world and a nomad. She grew up in Canada and in the Balkans and has lived in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Between traveling the seven continents, she earned her BA in literature from Carleton University and an MA in literature from the University of Toronto. She currently works at Columbia University in New York City. She blogs at www.alittleroad.com
Image credit: “Dorcal, Belgrade” by Chris JL on Flickr
My paintings are about felt moments, both the visible ones as well as the ones that we aren’t able to see. For years, I used to create work about feelings of disconnect and loss. When I’d leave the studio, those feelings and the difficult emotions surrounding them would become amplified. But today, both my life and my work are focused on love and connection, what I see as the root of intimacy.
Such moments exist as I go through my day. I find myself constantly witnessing how people connect. Living and working in New York is a source of inspiration, as I can absorb these intimate interactions openly, on the streets. I’m attracted to the physical and metaphysical energy that’s going on between individuals — the touch between a couple, the closeness between a mother and child. By capturing these private moments, my paintings seek to bring together the mind, body, and soul through the physical substance of paint.
Couple (JT5), 2014 Oil on Canvas 60 x 60″
I naturally express myself through touch, and the very tactile quality of paint allows me to express myself. Each brushstroke is a way of recording the dialogue between bodies and minds during moments of closeness. For me, the greatest quality of oil paint is that it allows me to explore these expressions of intimacy. The nature of the body and the often elusive nature of love is no longer hidden from view. It is given texture: sometimes rough, often sensual, at times gentle, but always present. The touch of paint to the canvas is also a presence that I can share with viewers of my work.
Couple (AJ6), 2015 Oil on Board 30 x 20″
There is an inherent vulnerability I experience while revealing the relationships between people, and the painting process allows my own emotions to come through. I allow myself to feel the beauty and weight of my sitters, and whether I feel bonds of love or fear and loss, I pass it along through my work.
This said, it is all very transitory. When I start a painting, I ask, how does this feel and what is the importance of the moment? I usually focus on certain areas in the painting while allowing other areas to “fall away,” not fully rendered. In that way the painting when complete feels similar to the way intimate moments have been experienced. It becomes essentially a stand-in for multiple sensations that would otherwise be lost to time.
Couple (JT1), 2013 Oil on Canvas 40 x 28″
These transient, hidden flashes of physical human contact hold meaning in the creases, crevices, overlaps, folds and weight of connecting bodies. Each stroke of the brush is, for me, a way of grasping and holding this.
The paintings: Mother Child (KA2), 2014, oil on canvas, 60 x 60″ Couple (JT5), 2014, oil on canvas, 60 x 60″ Couple (AJ6), 2015, oil on board, 30 x 20″ Couple (JT1), 2013, oil on canvas, 40 x 28″
Michelle Doll’s paintings capture quiet, intimate moments hinged on personal connections between her subjects, as well as their interactions with the world around them. Doll’s recent works are imbued with femininity and introspection, and explore the themes of love, desire and connection. She earned her B.F.A. from Kent State University and M.F.A. from New York Academy of Art where she graduated cum laude on both. Her work has been exhibited and featured worldwide at galleries in New York, St. Barth’s, San Francisco, Chicago, Basel, London, and Olso. She is represented by Lyons Wier Gallery in New York City and Galleri Ramfjord in Oslo, Norway. Michelle currently lives and works in Hoboken, New Jersey.
I’m a speckled sparrow.
My short wings are narrow,
My beak blunt for cracking seeds.
All I do is feed
But never get enough.
City life is tough
And winter’s hard. I should migrate
Except it’s far. And now it’s late.
I’ll have to stand in snow
And watch the flakes blow
Across the vacant lot.
What things seem they’re not.
Someone is dreaming me.
The trash and cars and bird are he.
I’m someone who’ll wake.
The snow and lot are fake.
They represent a mood.
A dreamed thing needs no food.
The snow falls like feathers, like down.
I’ll wear them for a crown.
Then I’ll be king.
If I wanted to I’d sing.
I don’t think I will.
He likes it white and still.
The boy lowered his orange papier-mâché beak and his feathers cut from newsprint fell over the cutout eyes. He raised both brown wings, acknowledging the scattered, light applause, then hopped off the stage on clawed feet, past a stunned-looking Mrs. Waverly, his fifth-grade teacher, who had emerged onto the boards.
“Peter,” she called, “Peter, come back!” as parents and grandparents began to murmur and Mrs. Waverly stepped toward the bunched curtain. Principal Harvey stood from his front-row seat and hurried up the three stairs to backstage.
Robert Hamilton turned to his wife, Helen, who stared straight ahead at the empty platform, at its proscenium arch hung with white and red holiday bells, flanked on either side by three silver leaping reindeer, who appeared to have slipped their harness to escape Santa’s stinging whip.
“My God,” a woman behind the Hamiltons announced. “What on God’s green earth was that?”
“I’m not surprised,” answered a low voice beside her. “It’s what you get, not letting the kids pray at school.”
“You knew about this?” Robert asked Helen.
Her gaze focused on the trail of silver tinsel fallen from the previous actor portraying a skipping spruce, decked with blinking lights and ornaments.
“I only helped with the costume.”
“‘Someone is dreaming me’? ‘He likes it white and still’?”
“He said it was a secret, not even Mrs. Waverly knew. But I think she did–”
“His teacher put this on? Without our consent?”
Helen shook her head, lowering her voice:
“I found a folded paper in his room, a jingle about Santa Claus. Peter’s name was at the top. I recognized Mrs. Waverly’s handwriting.”
“So he deceived you and his teacher, in front of the whole school, staff, student body, and attending parents?”
“It’s not my fault,” Helen said. “You leave books around the house.”
“Are you kidding? That was straight out of Abraxas and the Gnostics. Talk about a holiday showstopper.”
“Last week I caught him reading No Exit.”
The stage had remained bare and all around the Hamiltons there was the growing hum of confused and disturbed conversation. A local minister stared at Robert, then turned back to his wife, his lips at her ear.
Now she and several gray-haired women and men turned in unison, until the microphones shrieked with feedback.
Mrs. Waverly appeared again, Principal Harvey at her side, and the room went still.
“Personally, and on behalf of Ronald Reagan Grammar, our principal, Mr. Harvey, and our entire faculty and staff, I wish to apologize for the presentation you’ve just seen and heard. It was my responsibility to prepare each of the children, and I’m afraid I’m to blame for not being more alert.”
Her head bent to the side and in her green dress with holly berries and leaves pinned at her breast, she lifted a hand to her brow.
“I’m afraid I was taken off-guard, as surprised as no doubt many of you—”
Mr. Harvey touched her shoulder as she went silent and he stepped forward.
“All of this was a mistake. Rules were broken, a deception has taken place, and we at the school are as mortified as all of you. Especially at this time of year. Disciplinary steps will be taken with the child involved and with his parents, I promise you.”
He spread his arms with open hands, then brought them together in a silent clap.
“Now let’s get on with our wonderful pageant!”
Immediately, “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” blared from the speakers and boys and girls dressed as forest elves danced in circles, holding little hammers, big plastic scissors, bright wrapping paper, and spools of ribbon.
“Let’s get out, before they start a pyre of Yule logs.”
“I can’t believe it.” Helen sat frozen in her chair. “I simple can’t—”
“Someone put him up to it.” Robert was on his feet and reaching for her arm, asking, “Your dad been around, Mr. Nietzsche Jr.?”
“You’re blocking our view,” a man said. “Go home or sit down!”
It was Clint Evans, the mechanic, who had worked on the Honda.
“Please,” Helen whispered, “not now,” and like convicted parents of the anti-Christ they edged past familiar townspeople dressed in their holiday best, people Helen knew from Cub Scouts and Pee Wee baseball, and from the PTA and grocery store.
“You’re always busy at the college,” Helen said.
“Is that her husband?” someone asked.
At the aisle, fifty faces watched them endure the long walk to the lobby, as if Robert’s tweed jacket and Helen’s cashmere parka were emblazoned with scarlet letters. At their backs they felt loud whispers aimed at them like snowballs concealing stones.
At last outside the auditorium’s swinging doors, Helen said, “God!”, then suddenly, as an afterthought, “Peter!”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know— There must be another entrance. I can’t—”
Robert stepped to the lobby’s arched window and then stood still, silent, against the grey light.
“What’s wrong? Robert?”
His wing and breast feathers dark, sodden as the sky, his clawed feet black as soot—only his lowered bill a vivid orange—the sparrow stood alone in the field of December snow.
Nels Hanson grew up on a small farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California and has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and Pushcart nominations in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Poems have appeared in Word Riot, Oklahoma Review, Pacific Review, and other magazines and have received a 2014 Pushcart nomination, Sharkpack Poetry Review’s 2014 Prospero Prize, and 2015 and 2016 Best of the Net nominations.
Here is a girl with a mirror. She is separating
her eyelashes with a safety pin. Her mother always said
that 1 out of 10 girls go blind looking at the moon,
and 1 out of 5, pierced by a needle. So, in the end,
how many girls lose their sight? I was never any good
at math. I don’t understand how lines are infinite,
how hair inches forever from roots, always growing back,
never ending or starting. I once flipped stones in my yard
to find what lay beneath. Worms and roly pollies,
white in the rare sun. Pearly scales writhing their bodies
into perfect segments—line segments, just as bad as lines.
They make the needle that salutes, barely pricking the skin
of my eyelid, the handle of the mirror casting light
into my gaze. The cabinet shelves in the hallway
where my mother placed wedding photos just
out of reach, stairs she still climbs each night
to my father’s bedroom. The bars of the heating vent
next to my bed where I could hear everything. Did they
ever love each other? If 1 man and 1 woman lived
divided in separate bedrooms, how can they love each other
without loving each other? Segmented, segments, the one eyelash
that keeps me awake. I could sleep if I could only find it.
Michelle Lin is the author of A House Made of Water (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Adrienne, Quaint Magazine, The Journal, Aster(ix), Phoebe, North American Review, TYPO, Apogee,and more. She has served as an editor for the journals Mosaic, Hot Metal Bridge,and B. E. Quarterly and currently serves as Poetry Reader for Twelfth House Journal. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, LEAPS summer program, and Young Writer’s Institute. She works for Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach in the San Francisco Bay Area.
She appears in my dreams as a tornado. The settings vary. A dusty plain. The downtown of a major metropolis. My backyard. Although I never see her face, I know who she is. I feel the wind in my hair. I feel the danger and thrill of her nearness. I feel so close to death I know I am alive. And always when I wake up I am disturbed by how still the air is.
I’ve seen Alice Maravicious—Alice Marvelous is her nickname—do scratch spins, lay-back spins, Biellman spins—the figure-skating equivalent of tornados—at the end of Learn-to-Skate sessions, for which I signed up my daughter, having failed to interest her in bowling and basketball. Alice’s spins are designed to show the young skaters she instructs what they, too, could do one day. During the actual lessons, Alice and her assistants skate between four- and six- and eight-year-olds, preventing them—and sometimes failing to prevent them—from falling. Some of the children fall so often Alice allows them to use walkers like old people would. They shuffle around the ice like miniature residents of a retirement home.
At Learn to Skate, Alice doesn’t wear the sleek, glittering dress she used in competitions. (Photos of her on-ice triumphs, including a fourth-place finish in the U.S. nationals, decorate the lobby of the Sherman Ice Arena.) She wears a Russian overcoat, like Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago. She could be in Red Square in winter. Often I imagine myself meeting her in a world apart from the heavy world I inhabit. She is twenty-five years old and I have more gray in my hair than black. I am old enough to be—I hate to consider the math and hope my calculations are off—her father. But in these worlds I envision, I am ageless.
I am married to my second wife. Ten years of wedded bliss. Or less-than-bliss-but-better-than-loneliness. Or better-than-I-deserve. Or come-to-think-of-it-downright-good-maybe-even-great. We have a beautiful daughter and a beautiful house. Even our dogs, a pair of golden retrievers who might have stepped out of a hunting calendar, are beautiful. My wife and I both have good jobs. We have good friends. We buy good wine and watch good movies and have good, albeit infrequent, sex.
I cannot be having a mid-life crisis. I had my mid-life crises toward the end of my first marriage, manifested in a new car, a new career, and—the marriage killer—a new woman. I am supposed to have arrived at serenity. At Learn-to-Skate sessions, I should be checking my email and index funds. I should be gabbing to other parents about football and 401Ks and global warming. Hell, I should be comfortable and contented enough, as I sit under the warm air tumbling from the box heaters above the bleachers, to, every so often, close my eyes and drift into tornado-free sleep.
I am not supposed to sit like a rapt pilgrim at a holy shrine, studying Alice’s movements as if each spin were a hieroglyph or a piece of scripture.
Sometimes I wonder if my dreams are about heaven. Alice’s swirling presence might suggest the obliteration of my sins and the chance, in the beyond, for a clean slate and a glorious afterlife. Sometimes, however, I worry my dreams represent my incapacity, my impotence. She is the life force I no longer have—and now fear in others.
I used to see a psychologist. But in his absence—he and I parted ways after I remarried, when I thought my dark days were over—I share my dreams only with good people gone from my life who live on in my head: my third-grade teacher, who assigned me the seat in front of her desk and shared her lunch with me; my uncle Joe, who drank too much but listened to whatever I told him; my first girlfriend, whom I dumped because I was young and stupid. Sometimes they tell me my dreams have no meaning but are only the random videos the YouTube of my mind plays. Sometimes they joke with me, say The Wizard of Oz must have stamped itself on my subconscious. Sometimes, most times, they simply smile at me, as if they haven’t heard what I’ve told them or as if they, too, don’t understand—or understand and don’t wish to share what they know.
Sometimes I imagine telling Alice about my dreams. I imagine her revealing she has the same dreams, except in them she is swirling around a still point. “You,” she says in this happy fantasy, “are the still point.” In her dreams, I am what cannot be moved, the counterpoint to her tornado, as strong in my stillness as she is in her whirlwind. “Yin and yang,” she says. “Thesis and antithesis. The unstoppable force and the immovable object.”
To the real Alice, I say little beyond, “My daughter’s learning a lot from you.” And: “She isn’t falling down half as much as she used to.” And (joking): “A few more weeks and she’ll be ready for the Olympics.”
Do I want Alice to fall in love with me? Do I want to sleep with her? Of course not. Of course not.
Of course. Of course.
But more—or less—I don’t know—I want her to explain her presence in my dreams. No, to assure me my dreams are good omens. No, to sweep away my loneliness and leave me satisfied with my own company. No, I want. . .
Perhaps the tornado is my confusion.
The days disappear.
At the end of the penultimate Learn-to-Skate session, fortified only by the drinks I’ve imagined myself drinking, I decide to tell Alice about my dreams. I will make fun of them. I will say, “Maybe I’m obsessed with major weather events. Tonight I’ll probably find myself in a flood.” I know—of course I know—that there is something strange and inappropriate about what I am about to tell her. But if I don’t tell her, I might never stop dreaming of her.
Maybe I am hoping she will reveal to me something I could never have suspected.
When the last Learn-to-Skate student steps off the ice, Alice follows. I catch her in the near corner of the rink. I stutter, lie, tell her I want to discuss my daughter’s progress. (My daughter, meanwhile, has slipped into the lobby to warm her hands by the gas fire.) My words tangle, collide—they swirl like the tornadoes I’ve dreamed of. Alice waits, a patient smile on her face.
A moment passes. Alice looks at me questioningly, as if for permission to excuse herself. Now I tell her—do I? do I actually say this?—I tell her I love her. But I don’t mean it in the way she thinks I mean it. I mean it in the way one might say “Help” when one isn’t in any immediate danger but feels the presence of something foreboding approaching on the horizon or in the way one might say “Lightning” and not be referring to what blazes across a thunderous sky but to a horse one dreamed of owning in childhood, black save a white zigzag across its forehead, a horse capable of bearing its rider past every danger.
Or perhaps I mean it as a surrender, an acknowledgment of language’s inability to describe what I don’t understand. Perhaps “I hate you” would have been equally as inaccurate. But, no: “I love you.”
“I’m glad you love what I’ve taught your daughter,” Alice replies. Has she misunderstood what I’ve said? No, she is offering me a passage back to respectability. There is such grace in her gesture, I bow. She blinks twice, as if to dismiss the entire scene, and slips into the lobby. For a long time, I stand in the cold rink, listening to the hockey players who have stormed the ice like soldiers into a vulnerable city.
The final Learn-to-Skate session will culminate in a show dubbed “A Festival on Ice.” All of the Learn-to-Skate students, including twin six-year-old boys who wear hockey helmets and like to smash each other against the boards, are to perform brief routines to their favorite songs. The Learn-to-Skate instructors, Alice’s four teenage assistants, are to perform as well. So, too, is Alice.
The Festival on Ice is to be held three weeks before Christmas, two weeks before Hanukah, some time before or after Kwanza and Ramadan and Diwali. Alice asks the four fathers who regularly bring their daughters to lessons—“the gentlemen,” she calls us, perhaps because she doesn’t remember our names—if on the night of the festival we will string holiday lights around the rink. She asks the mothers if they will run the bake sale. One mother balks, deciding on her role: bouncer.
The day of the festival is bone cold, its skies filled with full gray clouds. Working with the efficiency of an elite bridge-blowing unit, the three other fathers and I hang our lights in thirty-seven minutes.
My wife joins me a minute before the show starts. She explains her tardiness: a meeting at work, bad traffic, etc. . . etc. . . This is the third time in the past two weeks she has shown up at the last minute to an event. I might be suspicious and suspect an affair. I might even desire such a scenario; it would serve as an easy explanation for my unease. But I know my wife isn’t having an affair. She simply works too hard; she always has. I must search elsewhere for the source of my disquiet.
The first twenty-nine routines preceding Alice’s are filler, white noise, droning previews. In my mind, I cross out each performance as it occurs, even my daughter’s. I am counting down to Alice’s performance. Twelve skaters to go. . . eight. . . six. . . three.
When the oldest of Alice’s assistants leaves the ice after her program, the lights dim and a hush falls over the arena. Or perhaps the hush is in my heart. In the window at the far end of the rink, snowflakes light up in the darkness like white fireflies. Alice skates to the center of the ice and holds a pose. The lights slowly come up, showing her in a white blouse and black poodle skirt, her hair in a pair of ponytails. She has put twin suns of rouge on her cheeks and her nose is red from the cold. Her white skates seem disproportionally large on her feet. If I were capable of thinking it, I might think she looks like a clown.
No, I am the clown: a man who is too old to be so adrift, so baffled by life. Disgusted, I excuse myself. “Bathroom?” my wife asks. I nod as Alice’s music—not “Send in the Clowns,” but something playful and light, like a breeze or a whistle—begins.
I don’t need the bathroom, but I go anyway. I stare into the mirror above the rust-stained sink. I see a middle-age man who thinks his dream of a tornado is some kind of portent or promise. But it’s only the swirling dust of his mind.
I return to the rink, stand alone against the Plexiglas at the far end as Alice finishes her program. As she curls into her final spin, the flag below the scoreboard shudders, snaps. The Plexiglas trembles, threatens to shatter. From the crowd come cries of astonishment and awe. I close my eyes. The entire building shakes. My dream, I realize with satisfaction, but also with fear, was prophecy. Some kind of end of days is upon us. But when I open my eyes, the rink is still, the applause diminishing to silence. I have imagined everything. The crowd files into the night.
Minutes later, my wife finds me. “Coming?” she asks.
I remind her about my duty to the lights.
“Right,” she says.
With the same efficiency as before, the three other fathers and I remove the lights from around the rink. My fellow fathers are, I realize from their banter, good friends. As our task concludes, they mention grabbing a beer at Don’s Underground and ask if I would like to join them. I decline, tell them I’ll finish up our job. I watch them march out of the arena and into the snow-filled night. I stow the boxes of lights in the giant cupboard at the west end of the rink. After I lock the cupboard, I gaze out at the empty ice.
I’ve failed to understand something. Or I’ve failed to realize there is nothing to understand. I laugh like someone pretending to laugh.
I step outside into snow. The falling flakes are as large as hands. In the distance, at the end of the parking lot, I see a woman in a black coat crouched beside her car. The snow in her hair makes her seem ancient, a witch, a crone, but I hear her softly crying like a child. I plow toward her; there must be half a foot of snow on the ground. When I am within a few feet of her, she looks up.
“I’ve lost my keys,” Alice Marvelous says, sniffling and swiping her ungloved hand across her nose.
As if a curtain has been opened in front of me, I see her not as a mystical life force, a tornado capable of sweeping aside all my problems and bearing me up and over my limitations and into a land of rebirth more glorious than Oz—no, I see her as everything she has been and is and will be, from an infant to a beautiful figure skater and a kind teacher to a white-haired woman. Perceiving her like this, I see myself in a similar way, as someone who, although living in a middle-aged body, carries everything I’ve once been and am and will be within me—in my soul, in my psyche, in my memories and presentiments, even in my body—and I realize, in the kind of epiphany too obvious to celebrate, that I am the tornado, that we all are, everything past and present and future whirling in one concentrated force, mortal but freer from time than we think as we move across life’s landscape.
Like the good father—the good husband, the good son (Alice’s snow-white hair makes me feel youthful by comparison)—I was and am, I kneel in the snow and stick my bare hand under her car’s left rear tire. It isn’t long before I touch her keys. After standing, I hand them to her without ceremony. She throws her arms around me, a quick embrace, perhaps a pardon for my words of the week before. “Thank you, thank you!”
She thanks me again before she opens her car door, slips in, starts the engine. She waves as she drives off.
I should feel blessed or absolved. I should, at least, feel relieved to be at the end of a mystery. But even as I pull in a deep, satisfied breath, the snow swirls around me, clouding my eyes. I wave my hands but nothing comes clear.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of six books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, Truth Poker: Stories, won the 2014 Autumn House Press Fiction Competition. To learn more about him, visit his website: www.markbrazaitis.com
It was spring in Minnesota, and the winter newborn babies were entering the outdoor world for the first time. There were many in the park behind the senior center that day. Mothers cooed as they bent over each other’s jogging strollers, their cropped yoga pants stretching over the mounds of their well-squatted buttocks.
Christine watched from one of the few benches facing the playground. She turned her head away from the taut mothers and inspected the babies instead, the curled-up little beings in the strollers. They were shaped like commas, but she knew they were much more than mere pauses.
One was parked facing Christine. The single front wheel of the stroller was pushed against her bench, and the mother, facing the other way, leaned her back on the handle of the stroller and laughed with the group that huddled there. Her hair shone golden and strawberry, waving left to right, as she shook her head at the incredulity of some joke.
The infant was belted, physically restrained, but its mind was scheming, wielding its power from behind glassy blue eyes on an egg-white bed. Its stare was unsettling, but at least this infant was not Christine’s affliction. She was free of binding belts and babies. She smiled, lifted her face to the sky and reached her arms out on either side, palms flat on the bench.
“I hope she isn’t bothering you?” the mother said, twisting at her tiny waist to face her baby who was staring steadily at Christine. “She seems mesmerized by you.”
“And who wouldn’t be?” Christine said, still in her fanned peacock position. The mother laughed with her friends at the wit.
Christine had had friends too. And husbands. She returned the baby’s glare. She had had it all until she had paused. She paused for a comma or two, and the world transformed, leaving her behind, incomplete and unable to compete. Sitting on the bench behind the senior center, Christine filled her cheeks with air again, unconsciously attempting to reverse the dents on her face, attempting time travel.
It was a few minutes before she realized the baby was smiling, or laughing, at her with its smooth, plump lips. Glancing to her left and then right, Christine casually deflated her balloon face and readjusted her weight on the three-slatted bench. As she lifted her left leg over her right knee, she kicked forward, jabbing the side of the stroller with the toe of her sensible shoe. The baby was unmoved, but the mother whipped around, her hair a shiny, ironed mane, her mouth slightly open and eyes large on her lineless oval face.
“Oh dear. Did I do that?” Christine said.
Seeing the baby quiet and content, the mother replied with a smile, “It’s nothing. I just got startled.” Then after a moment more of observation, she turned her perky breasts back to her friends.
The baby seemed to have enjoyed the sudden rocking. It stared at Christine with mocking anticipation, and Christine obliged. She waved a backhand at the air in front of her. “Mosquitoes already?” she said to the mother’s back. She continued to swat at nothing, moving her hand closer and closer to the baby’s bare legs, a pair of parentheses lying on the stroller. In a single movement, Christine leaned forward, slapped the baby’s thigh with the back of her hand and returned to her original position. It was too gentle. The baby did not even blink. It just continued to stare up towards Christine, towards the sky.
Christine looked down at her hands. She tilted her right hand, the one that wore the biggest solitaire, and watched the princess cut toss light as brilliantly as it did on its first day. The landscape around it had changed though. A small a mountain range of untethered skin had risen on the back of her hand. She made a fist, stretching the skin, but some hills and valleys remained. She waved at the mosquitoes again, this time with her fist. Her ring reached the baby first, and the platinum prongs left a quick, diagonal scratch right above the baby’s chunky knee. The blood was held just under the skin. The baby’s lower lip fluttered outward, and tears filled up on either side of its nose. But like the blood, they did not spill.
The baby’s hands opened wide and closed tight, maybe as a panic reflex. It tucked its fingers inside its palm, and its knuckle dimples stretched out and disappeared, leaving behind smooth plumpness on the back of its hand.
Christine suddenly felt intense fatigue and stood up to leave. She leaned a bit on the stroller to do so. Her hand slipped onto the baby’s clenched fist, and her fingers pinched the back of its hand. She held the flesh between her forefinger and thumb and squeezed until her own fingers tingled with the pressure. She watched as the creamy peach color turned into a deep red cherry with a tall wrinkle of raised skin in the center. Christine released the hot skin and turned towards the senior center just as the baby let out its scream.
Nigar Alam was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but grew up in Italy, Kenya, Turkey, and several other countries. She hopes to bring all these experiences together in her writing. She is an educator and currently lives in Minnesota with her husband and two children. Her flash fiction can be found in the Atticus Review.
Belle Fleur was there on opening night thirty years ago. She doubts anyone remembers the skinny girl in the ill-fitting wig—a replacement for one of the hoochie coochie dancers who missed the train in Cincinnati.
“You can do it, Mavie,” her mother had said, already slipping her into the gypsy costume. “You’ve seen their act a thousand times.” Her parents were The Fire-Eating Royales. That night, Mavie adopted the stage name she’d been crafting her whole life, Belle Fleur, and posed with a dozen dancers while Mr. Waller mumbled his speech. Nobody booed, since he owned The Burlesque and paid for the acts that had arrived by train that afternoon. Belle and The Lovely Sisters and The Brothers Grimelda carried trunks two blocks to the theater. Mr. Peels, the chimpanzee wearing a suit, tipped his bowler hat to women and children as he’d been taught. Kids and drunks followed him all the way to the theater where the marquee read “Suitable for the Entire Family!” The hoochie coochies would have to clean up their act.
Directly across the street was the hotel still under construction, but they likely wouldn’t have taken in the performers anyway. Not the right clientele, they’d been told in town after town. After setting up the stage and unpacking costumes in the basement dressing rooms, the thirty-odd performers settled in the boardinghouse run by Mama T, with a backyard, thankfully, for the dancing pony and jump-roping dogs, but not for Mr. Peels, who refused to sleep outdoors.
Opening night, before the theater doors opened, the performers scattered like ants around the rococo-style house, caressing the orange drapes and seats, ogling the gold-rimmed balcony and gas wall sconces. The manager shooed them backstage when carriages arrived with the Waller family and other notables who lived in that stretch of stately homes Belle had walked by earlier with the knife thrower’s kids.
From the stage, Belle saw those fine ladies on the front row with their ascotted husbands, all of them decorated with more diamonds than Belle had ever seen, sparkling more brightly than the pounds of fake stuff the performers wore. Even Belle understood this crude display was a sign of new wealth.
Though the performers had been told it would be an integrated audience, she was surprised to see negroes sitting on the main floor right next to white folks, not just tucked in the balcony or peering in from the lobby. This didn’t bother most of the Northern performers, however, a mixed lot themselves: Jews, Germans, Irish, and Italians all sharing the same train car and toilets.
After the first dance number Mr. Waller bumbled on stage as skittish as Butter, the elephant that had been banned from the show. Waller talked to his feet, fidgeting in his ill-fitting tux, applauding the theater’s craftsmanship and promising only the best entertainment for his hard-working townsfolk. And then he finally did speak up. “I know you’ve all been anxiously awaiting the name of my new hotel, which will open this spring. Only one name will do: The Dorinda, offering the grandest accommodations for miles, suitable for statesmen and queens.”
Mr. Waller bowed to his wife, Dorinda, perched in the front-most box seat. “Now your name will forever be linked with opulence!”
Mrs. Waller leaned forward; the only things glistening on her were tears.
Thirty years later Belle was back in the theater—even if it was showing its age, but so was Belle. Last fall she’d been so thoroughly booed in Peoria for her botched dancing that she’d been reduced to getting spritzed in the face with seltzer and playing baseball with a goat.
Tonight there was only a smattering of men in the audience drinking bathtub gin from flasks. Belle kept missing her cues. Several men hooted: “Bring on the fan dancer! We want the fan dancer!”
But Chéri wasn’t for three more acts and at that moment was in the dressing room tending the baby.
Belle rushed offstage and downstairs to collect the infant who, like Waller’s hotel so many years ago, still had no name. The baby lay sleeping in an open trunk.
Chéri rouged her cheeks and fluffed her ostrich feathers. “Do I look all right?”
“You look just like—” Chéri blustered off before Belle finished. “—Irene Castle before she cut her hair.”
Belle changed into street clothes and scooped up the two-month-old whose lips pursed as it dream-suckled. The thought made Belle’s milk seep, a sensation she never thought she’d experience again, especially this late in life. She clamped the baby tighter to her chest and went into the hall, pressing herself against the wall to make way for an usher carrying a laundry basket, hidden bottles clanking beneath the sheets. He darted into the tunnel that had been gouged out a few years before to sneak liquor under Front Street to the hotel. Without forethought Belle followed him, her shoulders scraping the whitewashed walls, electric light bulbs dangling sporadically to guide the way.
The tunnel ended at a stone stairwell. Belle ascended and found herself in The Dorinda’s kitchen. Chefs piled silver-domed plates onto trays for waiters to serve to diners. Someone hollered: “Baked Alaska for the mayor!”
The baby cooed and a black dishwasher looked up, unperturbed, as if he were used to Madonna with Child rising from the pits. He nodded to a plate beside him loaded with scraps. Belle scooped up bread and a pork chop with a napkin and tucked it into her purse.
Belle followed a waiter into the dining room. The maître d’ spotted her and headed her way. She went in the opposite direction, but he expertly navigated around tables to reach her. Before he opened his mouth Belle said: “I just wanted the mayor to meet his new baby.” The maître d’ swiveled to the table where sat the mayor and his stout wife.
“Absolutely not,” sputtered the maître d’, whisking her and the baby through the main doors.
The lobby’s orange and gold décor matched The Burlesque’s with the grandest chandelier Belle had ever seen. If the mayor really were the baby’s father, Belle would be eating flaming desserts and wearing a beaded gown. But the father was a Baltimore wharfie who’d disappeared with Belle’s pocket watch. She skirted the lobby, peeking in the Gentlemen’s Club where men drank tea and smoked cigars, and the Ladies’ Parlor where women sipped tea and gossiped. One wall by the front door was crowded with autographed photos of Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, John Barrymore, entertainers famous enough to earn a room in The Dorinda. A sinking in Belle’s chest at what she had already seen coming.
Just that afternoon she had tried to quiet the baby by walking it around the theater. She paused at the Wurlitzer organ that had been installed several years prior and signaled vaudeville’s death, even here in Wallers Ferry, by moving pictures.
In The Dorinda, Belle faced a stairwell that begged to be ascended, but there was also an elevator car descending inside an ornate shaft. It hummed down, the uniformed operator opening the accordion gate and letting out two men who tucked coins in his hand.
Belle stood before the car, debating, until the operator, Jeb, one of Mama T’s boarders, leaned out. “Like a ride?”
Belle entered and watched Jeb work the levers with more skill than she thought he was capable of, felt the jolt as they made their way to the top floor.
Jeb opened the door, graciously not extending his tip hand. “Have a look around.”
Belle read suite names as she passed, each with engraved illustrations on the metal plates: Blood Fruit, Sleeping Bear Rocks, Ferryboat, little works of art, much nicer than the hand-painted numbers at Mama T’s.
A young couple exited one of the suites and Belle froze, embarrassed to be caught with the baby. They probably assumed she was the nanny. Or grandmother. The man bowed and forgot to lock the door. When they were out of sight Belle slipped inside and bolted the latch, awed by the high ceiling rimmed with crown molding, the dangling chandelier, gleaming parquet floor, separate dressing rooms for the man and woman. A basket filled with fresh blood fruit and caviar and familiar blue bottles, except now the labels read: Sparkling Juice—the factory having been converted during Prohibition.
Belle laid the baby on the bed and rifled through the woman’s dresses and jewelry. The pearl ring fit perfectly and she felt entitled to it. She also bundled a mink stole inside a kimono and set it by the door. She’d always wanted a fur. The baby cried and Belle sat in the chair by the front window to feed it, not the least bit afraid the couple might return. This was her town, a place she’d visited every year for three decades. This was her room. To prove it she gouged a B in the wooden arm of the chair with a diaper pin. The streetcar clanged and Belle looked below at Front Street where couples promenaded beneath streetlamps as if they were in Boston or New York.
“The Great White Way.”
The theater manager was already taking down the poster for the vaudeville that would leave by the midnight train, just hours away. He unrolled the newest poster and even from this height Belle could see it was for The Gold Rush. A crowd gathered around the poster, their excitement already predicting the movie’s success. The Dorinda would certainly accommodate Chaplin. Belle switched the baby to her other breast. “I should have gone into pictures.”
A whistle sounded and Belle felt the kathunkathunk-kathunkathunk as the train passed. She would miss Wallers Ferry even if it was harsher now that old Mr. Waller was dead. Last year, she and several of the performers had taken the streetcar to pay their respects.
The cemetery was on an acre of land surrounded by blood fruit trees. The Wallers’ obelisk was the most prominent, Mrs. Waller buried years before her husband, and now they rested side by side. After laying flowers on Waller’s stone the performers walked to the farthest corner to place a bunch of bananas on the grave of Mr. Peels, who had died in his sleep in Wallers Ferry two years before at the ripe age of forty-five.
The baby mewled and Belle looked down at it. She had thought she was beyond fertility, but several months earlier her body had begun blooming the way it had twenty years ago. Back then her parents were still working and it was her mother who noticed even before Belle. They were in the basement dressing room at The Burlesque. “You’re carrying,” Mother had said so matter-of-factly when Belle’s costume no longer fit. They left her there with Mama T who later delivered the thing. A month afterward Belle was at the train station to meet her family just passing through. Mother wanted to see the baby boy whom the boarders called Little Man.
Belle had waited on a bench inside the station letting him suck on a slice of blood fruit to keep him quiet. Beside her was a family speaking Russian, the mother handing peppermint sticks to her children. By her feet was her valise, wide open, filled with clothes and something wrapped in linen. Belle wondered what it was, if the woman had brought it in steerage across the Atlantic. Something valuable that they could sell to begin their new lives.
A whistle had sounded. The train carrying Belle’s family approached. She moved faster than she thought possible so that no one would see her reach in and grab that linen-wrapped treasure. She was on her feet before the family noticed, dashing to the door, then outside where the train was slowing down. She raced along the platform looking in windows until she spotted The Daring Palenkas and Teacup Lil. Belle hugged the thing to her and jumped on board, her mother heading her way, but Belle said, “Go back to your seat!”
When they were safely nestled Mother looked at the bundle in Belle’s hand, her face a puzzle as Belle unwrapped it to expose, not a baby, but a matryoshka doll. A couple of vaudeville kids leaned over their seatbacks. “What is it?” Belle picked the thing up and opened it to find another doll inside, and another, and another, all the way down to a baby no bigger than a lima bean.
Mother held the littlest one in her hand. “Where’s your baby?”
Belle looked out onto the platform and into the station, but she could not see the family.
“It died.” She wondered if at that moment the mother was looking inside her valise to find Little Man surrounded by three blood fruit that might keep him quiet.
Mother’s head dropped. She looked at all the nesting dolls on her daughter’s lap. “Maybe it’s for the best.”
The train lurched forward and as Belle reassembled the dolls her mouth opened but no sound came out.
Belle often wondered what happened to Little Man. If he spoke only Russian. If he learned his father’s trade. If they even kept him or turned him over to the station agent. Maybe Little Man was still living in Wallers Ferry, and every time Belle came to town she looked into the faces of little boys, then bigger boys, big ones, men, wondering if it was him. Or if the Russians had taken him, but he ran away time after time, always heading to Wallers Ferry for reasons he couldn’t explain. I belong here. Maybe he even loved vaudeville. She already knew he loved blood fruit.
And now here was a daughter asleep in Belle’s arms. She could leave her here with this couple just beginning their lives. Tuck her in an open drawer and surround her with blood fruit in this town where her half-brother perhaps lived. Belle could board the midnight train with just her trunk, which still held those nesting dolls. The baby died, she would say if anyone asked. Or maybe she would board a different train bound for San Francisco, a city she’d always dreamed of visiting. Maybe open her own boarding house with the nest egg she’d accumulated. She’d make a good Mama T.
Ten minutes later Belle darted out onto the street, bundle clutched to her chest. She walked briskly to Mama T’s intending to hide in her room and rub the mink across her cheek, but Jeb sat in the parlor playing his Jew’s harp. He stopped when he saw her. “I beat you home.” He eyed the loot in her arms, but didn’t say a word. Belle started to leave when one of the salesmen playing checkers said: “King me.” Mrs. Oswald imbibed in her nightly sherry. Mama T mended linens in a rocker by the fire, hands so gnarled from arthritis she could barely hold the needle. She lifted one of the sheets. “Why don’t you help me with these, dear?”
Belle considered the request. She’d helped Mama T with a thousand chores. Mama T had helped Belle with her own labor. Tonight there was more than just sheet mending in Mama T’s request.
“I’m awful tired,” Mama T said.
The parlor was more familiar to Belle than the thousands of train cars she’d ridden in over the years. And it would never go anywhere, ever, nor would this town where she had carved her initial as if to claim it as her own.
“Let me set this down.” Belle carried the bundle to the divan and unwrapped the kimono that held the mink.
Mama T reached out to touch it. “Gift from an admirer?”
“Yes.” Belle felt the fur too, then caressed the baby she’d nestled inside.
“You’ll spoil that child,” said Mama T, a woman who had acted more like a mother to Belle than her own.
If Mama T could act, maybe Belle could too. Who needed moving pictures? She could pretend to be a good mother, could dote and fawn, and maybe in a few years she would be one. And tomorrow, she would walk to Harbinger’s, buy three blood fruit, and line them on the wall in the back alley behind the boarding house where her son was born, a gift for Little Man in case he walked by.
West Virginia native Marie Manilla is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Mississippi Review, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. Her novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), won the Weatherford Award. Shrapnel (River City Publishing, 2012), received the Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Still Life with Plums: Short Stories (West Virginia University Press, 2010) was a finalist for both the Weatherford Award and Foreword Reviews’ Book of the Year. Learn more at www.mariemanilla.com.
The light was green but a woman was standing outside her car in the middle of the slow lane with her emergency blinkers on. She was surrounded by what looked like geese. Geese are everywhere in Minnesota. Geese aren’t interesting. Grace glanced left and saw too many vehicles hurtling towards her. She had to stop. After stopping, she realized what the animals really were, what this woman was doing with them.
Wild flapping of arms, shooing and yelling and exhorting, she was trying to get three wild turkeys to cross the road.
If this were a silent movie (and, stuck inside her car, it was), Grace would’ve said the woman communicated a fallen, flawed brand of earnestness, that her desperation was the trumped-up, righteous desperation of the undesperate. She looked like an enraged and foolish general.
Forced to wait, Grace focused on the birds. Having not seen wild turkeys since the winter she spent house-sitting for her uncle, Grace thought about her Maine winter and how she didn’t find the silence, solitude, or peace she thought she would have. Did they exist? She didn’t know, but she could still remember that flock and the magic when it appeared: fifteen big, plump, proud, beautiful birds that had tromped through snow and wood in search of the cracked corn Grace’s uncle had told her not to forget to scatter.
Grace watched them through a picture window. Some, after feeding, flew into the branches of the king pines where they perched like bleak-plumaged buddhas before moving on to wherever they moved on to. They were unspoiled, marvelous, natural. And they made Grace feel old, the wild turkeys did, though she was only twenty-seven at the time. More precisely, looking at beings that made the words “rare,” “endangered,” and “extinct” pop into her head, they made her feel that her youth was over, or that it should’ve been.
She did not, however, romanticize the birds completely. She saw their aggression, their territoriality, their hierarchies, and the silly orders they seemed to take from some invisible commander. But she forgave them because they existed, because they didn’t know better, because they were special, and because they came, each day, her wild gift, never failing to make her feel both happy and sad. She appreciated that. She would appreciate that today.
Shot back to today by a blaring car horn behind her, Grace, seeing the road and the woman and the birds in front of her, thought about Thanksgiving and the slaughter. Forty million of these birds, she had read, were killed and consumed a few weeks prior. If a feeling had bubbled up through that article’s words and statistics, it was pride and a sense of accomplishment.
The three wild turkeys eventually crossed the road. They crossed, Grace thought, with dignity, when they felt like it.
The woman scampered back to her car. She wore a long, turquoise coat and an enormous purple scarf and a pink winter hat the word “gaudy” could only begin to approach. She was like Willy Wonka or that technicolor Joseph, and she gave Grace a shy but satisfied little hand wave and a what-can-you-do smile, but there wasn’t a trace of embarrassment or shame on her. She had done her good deed; her actions befit the season.
As the woman pulled off, Grace wondered what the turkeys made of the zealous, colorful, vertical animal who—joining them in the road for an unfathomable and urgent reason—had gesticulated wildly and continuously and tried to communicate with them in an unintelligible tongue while mechanical monsters choked, belched, and screamed all around her.
The woman drove the speed limit, so Grace was able to pass her before swinging into the liquor store’s parking lot. Grace gave her the usual glare of curiosity and loathing she gave to other vehicular idiots when she did, but the woman was too busy singing to notice.
Later, on National Public Radio, Grace heard that one of the cameras on Highway 169 spotted a two hundred pound cougar crossing the road. This had been the night before, in Champlin, a growing suburb of Minneapolis.
She wasn’t afraid. Didn’t fear for the local dogs or children, just thought about a world full of wild things, crossing our roads. She liked the image but shook it off as quickly as it had come and mixed herself another strong drink.
She sat down with it and didn’t think about her sons playing video games in their bedrooms, nor her husband tinkering on his motorcycle in the garage, nor Linus, their spoiled schnauzer, dozing away somewhere warm and marshalling his forces for yet another meal campaign. She didn’t think about her extended family, either, about to descend on them like old-timey marauders. She thought about none of that, only this: Man kills. Man would always kill. Man would kill every last one of them.
That cougar, for instance, was being actively hunted by serious men with sporting hearts and sophisticated weaponry, and those turkeys that woman “saved” out on Highway 55 today? Those turkeys stood even less of a chance.
Grace’s husband had apparently been in the kitchen long enough to retrieve, decapitate, and start to dispatch one of the recently purchased Christmas beers. He had a bemused look on his handsome face.
“What?” she asked.
“I asked you a question.”
“Ask me again,” she said.
He was smiling mischievously as if he knew he were going to get laid tonight, which he was. When Grace felt sad, confused, angry, and small, she needed his contact more than ever.
“I’ve tried three times,” he said. “A man has his limits, you know, his dignity.”
“Come on,” she said, “play nice.”
He picked up a set of keys that had been lying on the counter. With two dark, grease-stained fingertips daintily pinching their ring, he jingle-dangled them through the air.
“These mine?” he asked.
She looked at him, surprised by the banality of the question, the effeminacy of the gesture.
“Does it matter?”
“I need to get a canister out of the shed,” he said, “and I was wondering if these keys were mine or not.” He frowned at the keys and gulped his beer.
“These keys,” he said again, for no apparent reason.
Grace looked at them more carefully. She squinted and thought about the not one but two turkeys she had served to her family over the recent holiday, the smiles on everyone’s faces, the satisfying gluttony.
“No,” she said, “those are mine.”
“Hmm, I wonder where mine are.”
“No clue,” she said, “but those keys there are mine.”
Her husband grunted in a curious, I’ll-be-damned kind of way and looked at the keys again.
“I can’t tell them apart,” he said, suddenly slipping a finger through the ring and twirling the keys before snapping them into his fist. “I think it’s a sign, I think we should be paying attention here—I mean—how and when did we accumulate so many friggin’ locks?”
Grace sipped her drink, pictured blood rivers, blood oceans, corpse mountains, certainty—every last one of them—death and murder and extermination. Nothing left but black void gone nothingness.
Her husband, still bemused but looking ready to march forward, finished his beer in one last, greedy gulp and shoved the keys down deep into his pocket.
“It’s damned interesting, though,” he said, “how you can, how you’re so sure of yourself over there.”
“They’re fucking mine, okay? What part of mine don’t you understand?”
Her husband, not a novice with women or wives, grinned, but Grace didn’t see this grin because she had shut her eyes and shook her head, trying to shake off the images and the words, thinking: Wait, we can do better, we can do this differently. Geese are interesting. Geese matter. Do you understand? What I’m trying to say? I can do better. I can do this differently. I can make the difference.
But when she opened her eyes, all that remained was the reassuring, irresistible cocktail.
My fellow Americans: …………………………….if you listen long enough …………..to anyone, you’ll hear something worth remembering. It’s
Monday. We are committed …………………………………to each other, we …………share. We’re all in this together.
Place your faith in me, flakes ………………………….of sky streaming white and horizontal. The weather’s ………..wavy, worth mentioning.
I am energized and snowy ……………………………….enough to speak for you, I am looking …………….out of a glass door that sneaks
in toe-biting cold. I haven’t ………………………………..seen any flakes hit the ground but like a slow wham …………snow keeps coming, becoming trustworthy.
Last Friday, before the snow, at his cherished watering hole, ……………………………….Brandon steered his domicile, his body, …………..toward my booth; he spoke of piloting
what I think he thinks …………………………….of as a container down a road void …………….of street lights and there were stars, he said, he hadn’t seen
since he was a child. I like to see where I am going, so my thoughts ……………………………….on that are at best conflicted. The snow’s ……………hightailing it, a million kamikazes pulsing sideways past
cars slinking ………………………………….on the road outside my apartment like a funeral progression, ………….lights on in the daytime, 15 MPH, careful.
The President echoes through the dirty hallway of my warm apartment complex. ………………………………It’s snowing and I’m not doing anything ………….just watching. My fellow Americans,
it’s snowing here. I suppose some of you ………………………………..have never seen snow. My fellow Americans, ………..have you ever tried to end a sentence with
“my fellow Americans?” It feels wrong, doesn’t it, ………………………………..my fellow Americans? Snow begins a whirly chunk of sky, ………………..never the same, building something that won’t stick around.
Franklin K.R. Cline’s poems have been featured in Banango Street, Matter, Word Riot, and elsewhere. He is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, a PhD student in English-Creative Writing at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin, the nonfiction editor of cream city review, and a member of Woodland Pattern’s Board of Directors. He lives in Milwaukee with three cats and his wife, Rachel Kincaid.
AND BLOOD ON THE TRACKS IN THE TAPE PLAYER by Roy Bentley
Recall any moonlit part of an hour by a road’s edge:
the snow on the limbs of scrub pine, the silent falling
through night air beside miles of two-lane blacktop.
There is no equivalent to wanting someone that much.
If you think about it, the cop who stood in deep snow
to tap at the window was anything but rude, though
he did flashlight you. Turns out, it takes a uniform
to bring Original Sin into a space scented with sex.
And he did turn away as you wriggled into clothes.
In those days, the mat of beer cans was nothing.
And you got a warning and felt lucky to be young
in Ohio where the police knew your name, hers,
and followed in a cruiser to where you dropped her,
your Firebird or Ford Torino idling for a long kiss
in the driveway of a house with the porchlight on.
Roy Bentley has received fellowships from the NEA, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Ohio Arts Council. Poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Pleiades, Blackbird, North American Review, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere. Books include Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama), Any One Man (Bottom Dog), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine), and Starlight Taxi (Lynx House). He has taught creative writing and composition at universities and colleges throughout the Midwest and in Florida. These days, he teaches for Georgian Court University in New Jersey and lives near the Jersey Shore.
I don’t know why I remember walking down the stairwell that day. It was a practical staircase and extremely boring, not the type that stays in your mind years after. Gray walls, with only the slight confetti of shredded posters to add any color, covered with words imploring us to check out various clubs or work opportunities. Some sign stubs were completely gone, leaving the remaining paper looking like a spent shotgun shell; others had hardly been touched, looking like a primed firework that was later discovered to be a dud. The students in their white and blue Polos, with matching khaki pants or plaid skirts, having only backpacks to supply a sense of individuality, came and went as they always did. That afternoon however, there was an obstacle in our path, a roadblock. I only had two minutes to get to my next class. Who was this outsider who did not understand the system? Who was this nonconformist who did not follow the protocol? It wasn’t until I was very close that I could see through the huddled bodies that it was a freshman on his hands and knees. He was dressed like us, but he wasn’t walking like us. I craned my neck to see his problem, what was causing him to inconvenience us so. Everywhere brilliantly bright green and yellow highlighters, vigilant red pens accompanied by the dull black and blue scribes of our time scattered and cascaded down the hard cold steps. A single glue stick bounded down, bouncing on each judgmental step. It was presumably not found again. All the while a set of pale frantic hands reached out, desperate to grab the remains. I wondered if his frenzy was because he needed the supplies to finish an assignment, or perhaps he was desperate not to lose any because his mother had bought them for him and they allayed his homesickness throughout the day. Most likely he just wanted to get out of everyone’s way as fast as he possibly could. The reason it was taking him so long was because coming out from the blue and white crowd were red Air Jordan’s, white and black Adidas, brown Sperry’s, and even soft gray Uggs, all kicking out, attempting to knock the supplies around. Unlike my predecessors, I did not give his supplies a kick with a grunt and a laugh, but I didn’t help him either. I continued on, slithering around the gray walls like a cold product on the descending factory belt, in this conformist institution we called school. We did not help people back then, for if we did, we would become them (God forbid).
I don’t know why I remember that night, but sometimes when I find myself sitting on a bench or lying awake, I will hear Sinatra’s ballad slowly creeping back into my consciousness. It was my senior year Homecoming dance, but I don’t remember much from the dance, or really even much from the after-party. What stuck with me is something a friend—no, an acquaintance, said to no one particular during the late hours of the night.
I was slouching on a brown couch in my basement after all of the pomp and circumstance had ended, still wearing my white shirt and black pants, but with my silver tie ripped off and my tweed suit jacket slung somewhere on the warm gold carpet in a crumpled mess. Off in the corner, an old crackling record player spun Sinatra’s “Only the Lonely” over and over. I was looking into my clear smooth glass, listening to the frosted ice jingle in the crisp apple ale. Next to me was Scarlett, in her black dress that was much too tight, wearing her Queen’s tiara that looked cheap and disappointing in the low lighting of my basement. I knew that she loved me, but I didn’t love her like that; we didn’t even go to the dance together.
However, that night she sat next to me, wrapped in a dull blue blanket I had grabbed for her, sipping warm cocoa I had made for her, and she seemed content. I, on the other hand, felt profoundly empty. To my left, Henry, the only other person in the room, with all the articles of his suit still on, was covered in brown crumbs. He took turns between aggressively sipping his ale and sighing deeply. He spoke up for the first time in the entire night. “I don’t know about you guys, but I am utterly depressed.”
“No?” I jokingly gasped. Next to me, Scarlett stood up from her spot and sleepily shifted over to Henry, wrapping him in the blanket, too, and rested her head on his bony shoulder.
“Sometimes I feel like the world around me just stops,” he said, “and I’m just standing there watching everyone live and laugh, and I realize I don’t fit in at all. Do you guys ever have that?”
I finished my ale and stood up, trying to swallow down a lump deep within my throat. I didn’t say it then, but I knew exactly how he felt.
I don’t know why I remember reading that particular afternoon; it was as uneventful as any other Saturday. I had woken up early in the morning, when the dew becomes a sizzling steam as the sun kisses the evergreen grass. As I worked on fertilizing the ten acres of dry soil, the sun’s gentle embrace became one of a deathly smother. I had with me only one canteen and had drunk up the life-giving water hastily, but I still had half an acre ahead of me. Not far off, but under the weeping willow, my brother, too young for the summer chores, was playing on my aged mandolin. Its brown coating was peeling away, revealing the lines and circles that tell its maple tale. After locking up the broadcast spreader, I walked over to the dark shady patch where my brother sat. I joined him and picked up my copy of Cold Mountain, and for a while I just stared at the dreamy blue Carolina Mountains on the cover. I thought about how it was odd that you could feel the sweet whispers of the wind here in the shade, but it was nowhere to be found out in the sun when you needed it. “Here—Mom brought this out for you,” my brother said, interrupting my train of thought to hand me a jar of almost painfully cold homemade applesauce. I was only able to sit there and enjoy the taste of the applesauce and the feel of the wind and the view of the book cover and the sound of my brother’s spirituals for a short amount of time before I returned to fertilizing and landscaping.
It is those short tiny moments that I find myself daydreaming of as I roam about in Iowa, far away from home.
Robert W. Henway is a student at the University of Iowa working on a degree in English and Creative Writing. Originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, his passions reside in literature and music. He hopes to pursue a career in writing.
Think terrorism, my appetizer word, and watch the slide-show of interminable woes.
For balanced main course, I’d serve you poor
then sad, and oh—there’s got to be
a drink—think blood. Your plate is full
of images you love? Still, my steward’s training
says I must serve dessert. So, think Africa; and
I say: dream America. I guess I’ll pack my plates away, and leave you, as all men must be,
alone to your purging now.
Teniola Tonadeis currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Philosophy at the University of Lagos, where he is also a Graduate Assistant. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in many places, including Gargoyle,Word Riot, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Elsewhere Lit-mag and More Than a Number: Poems and Prose for Baga, an anthology that addresses the menace of terrorism in Nigeria. He is co-founder and managing editor of the multi-purpose website Afrikana.ng. He believes that axiology—the assignment of values to things and causes—is the first, unrecognized human discipline.
We have full run of the parlor We chatter
amongst ourselves about the humidity, how
it pulls at our seams. We want to swoop down
for a peek through Norman’s peephole
while he is up the hill, switching in. and out
of his floral dress and grey wig. But our plaques
are heavy……….under our talons. The light ……….from his windows— going on and off,……….on
and off— winks in our glass eyes.
We have all felt a knife………. between our feathers:
the girls at the bottom of the lake and us on……….our mounts,
heads cocked and beaks……….full of sawdust.
Norman says we are not like other beasts.
He means we are not like his mother,……….that in death
our mouths have not pulled back into a permanent,
gruesome smile………..Are we like these girls then? ……….Preening and perching and wandering helplessly
into traps?……….Yes and no………..We were shot out of the sky,
died of old age, fell to the earth like pieces……….of metal. ……….We wish the swamp would stop singing
with their bodies,……….that someone would toss
us from their cupped hands into the air. ……….What use now:……….our
iridescence,……….our sharp eyes,……….our quick, hollow bones?
There was a boy who fed us. We brought him presents: heart-shaped ……….pendants,………. bits of curled bone,………. green aquarium glass,………. a filigreed septum
ring, bits of blue plastic, screws, smallest pearl buttons.
There was a girl who hunted us. In our bathing, or our swinging
down to clutch at mice—……….she stopped us, like turning
off a lamp………..We live in her second……….home, we live in her son.
Emily Anne Hopkins received her BA in creative writing from Albion College and is currently a poetry candidate in the University of Pittsburgh’s MFA program. There, she reads for Hot Metal Bridge and teaches creative writing. She was recently awarded the Academy of American Poets Graduate Poetry Award, judged by Jessica Helen Lopez.
The “y” on my forehead from
the radiator. The early cooking accident
with the knife.
The shadow from the spark on
my hand when I was six.
It turned white and melted my skin.
The odd dent on my thigh from the time
I tried to impress a girl and fell
off a fence.
The teen wounds I made myself–
tiny white scissors scars;
the popped zits, faded to a soft brown.
And the big marks–the surgeries–
my belly a long road,
and the port pushing the skin of my left chest
like a short stack of quarters
like I may need them for the jukebox.
Eliza Callard is a Philadelphian by birth and choice. A product of the Philly public schools and Skidmore College, she enjoys urban hiking, and spends much of her time trying to read all the poems. She’s been published in Hobart, Stoneboat, The Sacred Cow, Front Porch Review, and Thirteen Ways. Her website is www.elizacallard.com. Her poem “Pills” appeared in Issue No. 10 of Cleaver. “Nature Poem” appears in issue 11.
Vanessa’s loneliness beckoned her to the white room, where the ceiling vanished into a mist so fine that it melted into six suns and the sediments were of pink marble with flecks of orange and white. So white. Not everyone could make it there. Only those pure-hearted, lonely few who still believed in magic could ever find the door, the white-hot keyhole, and they remained in life like the unicorns, all but extinct. She had found it in her fifteenth year, when she had looked into a mirror and for the first time understood what it meant for a smile to not touch the eyes. Her key was a metal spoon, stolen from the kitchen of her dreary first life, and a bag of white powder was the sacred artifact that opened her eyes to the magic.
She escaped the monotony of the real world by pushing on the golden frame of the door and budging her way inside. The warmth crawling up her cheeks was instant and alleviated the sorrow knotted in the pit of her belly like thorny vines. Visiting the white room was riding a horse, playing the game she couldn’t afford, making love, having everything she was not to have at once.
She did it for herself. Her parents didn’t warn her about the secret world stashed in the walls of the white room because she hid it like all the sweet things that she had to hide, and they boasted about their perfect daughter as though she were invisible among them. Going to church and listening to the preacher in his cold polished suit did nothing to convince Vanessa that she should not visit the white room, breathe the white air, and warm herself with white. She listened each Sunday, her roaming soul more apathetic to the starch in the preacher’s voice. Her eyes sagged with a lost grace, and her face blanched white as her sin. No one noticed her change. She was surrounded by the blind.
She was only herself when she was in the white room, and as her arms withered and her heart began to lust, she became the white room and the white room became her. Her bruises melted into a great violet lake. Her frayed hair grew into a brown field, awave on a velvet breeze. Her heart became the fire in the torch light, the warmth in the spoon. In the white room she only knew love. The walls crawled with love, and nothing else could pierce the silence, until the day her father broke down the door.
She didn’t care. His wail of Vanessa! flooded her field of daydreams, and she didn’t care. He fought his way through a tundra of translucent pearl to find her, Vanessa, his only daughter, and he picked her up by the shoulder and battered her over the tide of his arms. She resisted like a caught fairy, the magic of her sopping wings ruined, shouting that he didn’t know and couldn’t know and never would. What she was going through did not belong to him, and yet here she was, helpless against his ruby veined hands. He couldn’t see the magic of her world washing away, the magic his presence was abolishing, but he could see the white.
Erin Victoria Bradley lives in southern Illinois and is soon to graduate Southern Illinois University at Carbondale with a B.A. in English. This is her first professional publication. She is currently at work on her debut novel and a scattering of short stories.
A ribcage of snow with a beating heart, a west wind moving the cold front over us. The churches kept their candles burning. We stood outside licking at the air in our rain coats, rubber boots—our dogs trouncing in the blizzard. It began light and ended heavy. 4 inches, 6 inches, a foot by next morning. The days were overcast—thunder rattled a glass off a counter. We began to stay inside. Our lights hidden in the heaps of snow. We talked about death. Where could we bury anyone now? The electricity had gone out. 3 days. 4 days. A week. The whole town a field of white. The telephone lines seemed at ground level. We dug upwards, trying to reach some air. We were some type of animal, we realized it now. We saw it in our eyes. To kill or die.
Then: the flood.
When the snow began to melt, we couldn’t keep the water out. Knee deep in rain water, we walked through our houses gathering food, gathering dry clothes, tools, matches, coal. In two days, the water had gone. It was the heat that scared us. We could feel our skin again. It was a birth none of us could speak of. We emerged from a frozen womb, kicking at the sun as if it could feel us too.
Larry Eby is the author of two books of poetry, Flight of August,winner of the 2014 Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press, and Machinist in the Snow,ELJ Publications 2015. His work can be found in Forklift, Passages North, Fourteen Hills, Thrush Poetry Journal, and others. He is the editor in chief of Orange Monkey Publishing, a poetry press in California.
I am at the orthodontist, getting photos taken of my mouth to be placed inside my file by the new dental assistant. My mouth widens, a pink chasm. She smothers a soft gasp, stifles it in her throat, but I hear it anyway.
“You have no molars below,” she says. “How do you chew?”
I look at her, wary. “I don’t know,” I say, “I just do.”
“So, you’re Caribbean?” She asks me during another appointment, with a smile that is too excited to see me, that I know cannot be real. Her teeth are impeccable, clean, pretty. I am convinced I’m the kind of patient about whom serious briefings are held before any appointment. She will already know the inside of my mouth well, its secrets and its deficiencies.
I’m not interested in any ol’ talk. I want to recline in the chair and stare quietly at the big lights overhead. I want to find a way out of appointments and money and teeth fixing and anxiety. I want to know why the tooth fairy only services children and doesn’t grant wishes. Isn’t that what fairies are supposed to do? I also want to tell her that I don’t want to explain about the Caribbean, I’d rather not talk now but of course, I don’t.
“Yes,” I say.
“But you sound so British.” She says this like a compliment. A congratulatory tone drips from the statement, resonates within the brilliant room. The American ear can be so strange; I’m sure I don’t sound British.
“Thank-you,” I say. I chuckle feebly, as fake as the wide curve opened across her face. Pleased as puss, she moves towards my mouth with a shiny band remover in tow.
People can make a lot of assumptions about you when you’re an adult still in braces. A guy hitting on me once included this observation: “I know you got good credit. You know how I know? You got on braces!” People also love to try to get you to ‘smile and show all your teeth’—men especially. Like Bartleby, I’d also prefer not to.
I started tracking my dreams a few years ago after someone gave me a dream dictionary for my birthday; however, I don’t usually dream of teeth. I do not. This is not something that I do. A friend, on the other hand, has a recurring nightmare about her teeth, painlessly cracking and falling away from the gum as soon as she tries to eat anything. She tells me that this terrifies her and awakens a shrill fear in her gut each time, but in reality, her teeth are glorious, straight and pristine white.
But my teeth are never far from my mind. When I smile, talk, eat, drink, wake up in the morning, exist. Teeth are reminders of the money I don’t have but couldn’t afford not to spend. They are harbingers of work still left to do.My teeth are errant children with no “broughtupsy,” corralled and being told what to do. The last time I felt a predictive twinge deep in my gum, I healed it by holding a piece of amethyst geode against my jaw. Damn, teeth, how are you both incorrigible and abatable at the same time? Every single time I knock them against a glass, I’m surprised they don’t break or chip. My front teeth are the real MVPs.
I can remember when I was a little girl and my front teeth fell out. At home, when this happens, people might call you a “no-teet’ ganga” (a kind of term of endearment)—not to be confused with the West Indian batsman or an aberration of the transcendent herb. They were little, smooth milk teeth, slightly rippled at the top edges and bloody. I rinsed them proudly in cool water from the tap, watched them emerge, clean like a baptism. It was the last time that I held any of my teeth inside of my hand. My hand, a small oyster, encasing what’s within. I still recall my excitement over the money under my pillow the next morning. Small change really: a few shillings, some red dollars, but I was ecstatic.
Later, I will have whole rows of teeth in my jaw, above and below, that never rupture the gum. A whole row becoming doubled into two like a great white shark. I can see them, some only vaguely, others more pronounced, in shapes and shadows in the x-rays. They are translucent renderings in shades of grey and black. “Supernumerary teeth” they are called. They reminded me of headstones, jostled around on an expanse of ground, a few even lying sideways. My body never gave them the cue to come down—or up, as it were—my body doesn’t send out these kinds of cues on time. My body is on “colored people time,” incessantly. Late, sometimes sheepish and embarrassed, sometimes indignant: “But at least I reach!”
“So, this is what we’re working with” is the kind of preamble oral specialists will often give. X-rays are always grandly displayed with an epic resignation before me. Dr. S was the only one who didn’t give me the sense that he was feeling sorry for me. Or he hid it well behind his glasses. He was a stout, white American man, confident in his expertise. Thick silver hair speckled his temples and the nape of his neck as he pointed out all the extraneous teeth, telling me that they would need to be removed. We will tackle one set now, and the other later, he assured me. His smile was kind. He was clearly up to the challenge. I felt sad seeing them wasted, like people who never got the chance to realize their full potential.
When my orthodontist attaches a chain to my engulfed canine (one of two) that has never seen the light or chewed food—I wonder if one day I could just will it out if I tried hard. This business of adult tooth emergence is a long, arduous process. Each month, the orthodontist tweaks the pressure on the chain, coercing, applying more pressure, pulling, and easing the tooth from the depths of the gum. It is almost like giving birth to an inanimate object; watching it painstakingly excavated, white sliver by white sliver. And if I attempted to will the tooth down, would my body even listen to me?
There are few things I want to discuss less with a lover than my teeth or certain other aspects of my body.
“So how long yuh have to wear yuh braces for again?” He asked me. Instantaneously, the question tired me. My teeth act of their own accord, my body does what it wants, when it wants. And it often pays me no mind. I fight with tooth-gravity and it fights me right back. Like my slightly off-kilter spine, my body and all its skeletal extremities are filled with obstinacy.
“Who knows anymore, yes. Whenever my orthodontist ready, I guess.” Flickering under his brown eyes, I looked away. We moved around each other like pieces on a chessboard. We calculated space and implication and consequence. I wondered and I wondered, why does he even need to know this? But I didn’t ask. I carve a space out for that question, like so many things, inside of my chest and pack it tight in there with the rest.
The first time he kissed me, I wouldn’t let the soft muscle of his mouth enter my own. Pressing my tongue forcibly against his own, I blocked his way. He would always tell me (not just about his tongue but on many things in general): nobody have tuh tell me nutten twice, yuh know. Once is good enough. There were several times when I longed for him to charge into my mouth, bowling over my insecurities, my worries, my fears. I wanted to be soul-kissed past boundaries. But he never did. We kissed like our mouths held hidden unknowns, or a black hole that we were afraid we wouldn’t return from.
The last time I went to see my then-boyfriend, inexplicably I woke up with an unrelenting yearning for soca parang although it was mid-June. His house felt like a cave might, on the inside, all closed off from the gleaming light outside. Its innards were hidden (or protected, depending on one’s perspective) from the street outside. Smells languished in the far corners, the kinds trapped by too much closed-up air conditioning and not enough outside air: food, incense, sensi and the faint base notes of cologne.
The tucka, tucka, tucka rhythms of the claves accompanied the shak-shak, box-bass, violin and cuatro, all following behind the sweet refrain of Madame Jeffrey oi, wake up is Christmas morning as it rang out clearly inside the house. I shuffled through the kitchen to the beat, doing a cross between a chip, a slow two-step and the occasional rock-back; easy drop on the beat to the floor, picked up some runaway napkins, cleaned the sideboard, washed dishes, and made myself some lemongrass tea before he returned from his “errands.”
His brother showed up and nonchalantly wondered out loud about when I would leave. The brother was always bemused around me, like I was a flitting aedes aegypti needing ushering through any opening. I stayed in defiance and stretched the day as long as I could, watching the man I drove to see pulverize ginger root inside his punch. I enjoyed watching him bustle around the kitchen, sizzling chopped onions, seasoning, and soy crumbles. I knew few young men then who were truly at ease and capable in the cooking arena. All the while we saw each other, he never once let me cook him a pot. I doh eat from woman just so; I might find mehself driving to see you all hours of the day and night and don’t even know why, he explained; his voice was light, but real fear bubbled inside his irises. Up close, I “Eskimo-kissed” him, watched the tiny holes sprinkled across his nose like the pores of dried orange peel as the bristle of his facial hair swept my chin.
Small flecks of him could be found embedded in the tight spaces between my teeth, like chicken, which he does not eat. No deadas, only life. He knew me well in so many ways, then. And if I were a soucouyant, he would know where I hid my skin. He would have protected this knowledge, I’m sure, from heavy-handed, salt-wielding folks. Or else, doom me to a fiery existence himself, as a heaping ember mass dying out under a rising morning sun. Yes, I would have trusted him with my skin, but I don’t know if I should have. Turns out, I am that kind of girl after all, still loving the hell out of love without a whole lot to show for it.
During the unfolding day, we sat around his small wooden table after eating. I had a clear view through the open blinds by the sliding glass door and out into his small garden in the backyard. The tomatoes, peppers, and other plants wilted pitifully, barely clinging to the soil. A long Florida winter and not enough rain had left them in this condition. My feet were propped up on an empty chair as we talked around the things we really needed to say to each other. Invariably, during the course of our conversation, and before I picked myself up and drove back to my city, he said something to make me smile big and laugh. Unselfconsciously and with no protective restraint from the palm of my hand, joy erupted freely. My teeth, from behind their wired cage, gleamed like a supernova against the darkest sky, or so I believed.
Soyini Ayanna Forde grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. She has work forthcoming and in Moko, Black Girl Dangerous, Apogee Journal, SX Salon, The Caribbean Writer, Tongues of the Ocean, The Guidebook, St. Somewhere Journal, and Black Renaissance Noire. Her poetry chapbook Taste of Hibiscus was published by Dancing Girl Press. She is very interested in West Indian identity, diasporic connections, and what she can learn from the resilience of strong women. She blogs about race, her love life, and West Indian culture at www.soyluv.wordpress.com.
Image credit: Henry Gray () Anatomy of the Human Body
In my deathwish days when I was young
I reaped the bitter from the field
and ate the poison pokeweed raw.
What did I know of boiling and washing
of throwing the bad soup out?
In my deathwish days, I never had enough
of wretchedness. A bird in the pokeberries
I drank the toxic wine and warbled
my bitter thoughts. Oh, I had lived a life
of deferment: of little I never had enough.
Then early one morning, sick of it all
I caught the wild perfume of the honeysuckle.
I heard the chorus of its delicate tongues.
I drew the stamens through the butter
and moon. I sucked the clear sweet drops.
I left my house. Dawn came up.
Lynn Levin’s newest books are the poetry collection Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky, 2013), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry, and Birds on the Kiswar Tree (2Leaf Press, 2014), a translation from the Spanish of a collection of poems by the Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales. She is co-author of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in education/academic books. Her poems, essays, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Cleaver, The Hopkins Review,Rattle, Young Adult Review Network, and other places. She teaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her story “The Birthday Present” appears in Issue 4 of Cleaver and her flash piece “The Ask Sandwich” in Cleaver’s .5 Preview Issue.
When the junk collector paused to adjust the hitch to his donkey last week, scattering old papers and dusty bits of plumbing among the potholes, he told Abd el-Majid that snow was on the way.
Rami, the Sa’idi who sold fruit from a wooden cart at the corner of Saad Zaghloul street, denied that it could ever happen.
“It’s a conspiracy, like everything else,” he said.
But then, it did.
Abd el-Majid was standing in the doorway to the Noor Mosque, waiting for the landlady to let down her blue plastic basket from the balcony. As he scraped the coins from the bottom to fetch her the daily papers, he felt something wet slide onto his cheek.
Snow. Gray. Not white. Fragile, dandruff-like particles. The flakes flickered silently in and out of the flame tree branches overhead.
Abd el-Majid settled down on his haunches in the doorway. All around him, others were staring at the mercurial substance. Women ducked and laughed, adjusting their hijabs in wonder. Children and grown men stuck their tongues out, trying to catch an aging snowflake, but they were always a little too late.
He wondered what his brother would have thought of it. Ahmed would have likely been just as confounded as everyone else, but a slow smile would have crept across his face. He loved change of all kinds.
As the flakes continued to fall, cars lined up on Abd el-Majid’s usually quiet side street to avoid the ongoing protests in Maydan el-Gelaa. A taxi driver hailed him and asked what his news was.
“Thanks be to God, everything’s well,” he replied, looking at the line of vehicles, their engines steaming in the cold. They discussed the snow a little. The unexpected bite in the air.
“This weather is hard, very hard,” the driver said, his eyes sympathetic. “God be with you.”
For a few days, Abd el-Majid observed that people drifted away from their incessant arguments about politics and turned instead to the topic of the weather.
Construction workers restoring the old Mauritanian embassy down the street smiled more, even as they adjusted their scarves and pulled the folds of their gallabiyas around their bodies to protect against the wind. A group of boisterous young men showed Abd el-Majid pictures of a snow-covered Sphinx and pyramids on their Blackberries, while he was taking his nightly tea at the ahuwa, or coffee shop, up the street.
It was too cold to play checkers, so the few men who came to the ahuwa every night to escape their homes contented themselves with talking and flicking cigarettes. Most tried not to move much, and stayed nestled in their black coats.
“This is the first time we’ve seen snow in over a hundred years,” the owner roared, pacing in and out of the plastic chairs and slapping some of the clientele on the back. Abd el-Majid cringed.
“I always said the president would leave when hell froze over,” the large man shouted again, laughing. “Maybe we’ll see some real change now.”
Abd el-Majid carefully put down his cup. Again, he thought of his brother. With one finger, he slowly wiped the black specks of tea leaf, like a hundred tiny insects, off the rim of the glass cup.
The change in weather actually changed very little, he discovered, but it did make his job more difficult. Abd el-Majid worked for an old, widowed Christian lady who rarely left her apartment. Madame was tiny and fragile-looking, and constantly complained of chill. She collected fabrics, and chiming clocks, and long curved kitchen knives with wooden handles. Though she was in her eighties, Madame often flirted shamelessly with her younger tenants.
After the first snow, Madame summoned Abd el-Majid to her apartment.
“The stairs want a good washing, and you’re three days late,” she said. The snow had created more mud, and the stairs were indeed covered in small twigs and clumps of dirt. “What will the foreigners think?”
Madame rented only to foreigners; she thought Egyptians too messy and too demanding. Abd el-Majid sighed and retreated to his living quarters to find his mop and bucket.
Abd el-Majid inhabited a sparse room in the inner sanctum of the building next to the first-floor mosque. The cement-block walls were painted a mint green, and a solitary light bulb hung overhead. When Abd el-Majid lay down and gingerly removed his plastic sandals he could almost fit, lying lengthwise. He and his brother had shared this space once. Now that Ahmed was gone, Abd el-Majid kept his belongings scattered around the closet-room—a plate, a few clothes, a tea kettle. They kept him company in the dark.
As the snow continued, the wind picked up and blew some of the browning leaves from the flame trees into the mosque. Abd el-Majid was slowly picking them up, one by one, when Hussein, the doorman from next door, hailed him from the street.
“Want some?” He asked Abd el-Majid, holding out a silver aluminum take-out container. Hussein’s residents had thrown a party and had given him the left over food – mahshi, some pieces of baladi bread, a few greasy slabs of chicken and rice.
Abd el-Majid abandoned his task and took the container, which was bent in half from the weight of the food, and settled down on a chair in the dirt. He tore the chicken off the bone—it was still hot—and slowly stuffed it in his mouth with a handful of rice. He savored the taste—a pleasing, salty mash.
Hussein was a good man, but too political. He always wanted to talk about the failed revolution. Abd el-Majid tried to avoid these discussions, as they left him feeling torn and used-up inside. He mentioned the snow, in an attempt to head him off.
“Snow, revolution. It comes, it goes. What trace does it leave behind?” Hussein replied, stuffing another handful of bread and rice in his mouth.
Mostly, however, Hussein talked about his feelings, which he expressed with a terrifying force. He was in love with one of his tenants, the daughter of the owners of the villa. “Love is like drowning,” Hussein told Abd el-Majid solemnly as they sat in their plastic chairs between the buildings. “It’s nothing more than a slow death.”
“And what if she loves you back?”
“It doesn’t matter. It won’t work. But I can’t breathe sometimes,” he said, shifting his chair until the legs twisted and almost broke underneath him. “She has beautiful hands, you know. Beautiful brown hands.”
Hussein stared at the pile of trash across the street, near the old, broken-down Uzbekhistan embassy. A stray dog was picking its way through the trash.
“Love is a sickness. I’m tired of it,” Hussein concluded, wryly pulling on his cigarette.
Abd el-Majid thought him stupid, but didn’t say much. To fall in love with someone because of their hands! He finished his chicken, wiped the bottom of the aluminum container clean with a bit of bread, and returned to the mosque, where he resumed picking up the fallen leaves, one by one.
As the snow continued, he felt himself growing thinner, losing substance. With all of the talk of the snow, he had thought of it as an achievement in itself, or as sustenance of a sort. But it was nothing but dreams and a few particles of ice.
To pass the time, Abd el-Majid thought of Luxor where it was still warm. After Ahmed and the incident at the protests, he had gone home to upper Egypt, where his older sister lived with her three children. He found, as he always did, that he missed the country: the long expanses of green, the sound of the Nile kissing the muddy banks at night. Sometimes, crouched over his teakettle in his small room off the side of the mosque, Abd el-Majid closed his eyes and pictured the palm branches against the white winter sky. The air was better there. It was not like the air in Cairo, which tasted like it had lingered in the lungs of a hundred thousand other people before it reached yours.
Abd el-Majid and his brother had left the fertile, green swathes of earth to come to Cairo for work years ago, like so many others. They had found jobs as boabs, or doormen, for a time. Then, in the summer, the coup happened. Later, the catastrophe in the squares.
Madame was giddy with excitement over the change in government. The news anchors on every channel had taken to lauding the military and calling all protesters terrorists. “I wish they had killed all of them. All of them,” she told him, from the folds of her soft sofa chair, underneath her layers of blankets. He recalled with shame how he said nothing, and handed her the morning papers—Al-Ahram, Al-Watan, Al-Masry Al-Youm. She wanted nothing to do with the more left-leaning El-Shurouk but he bought it anyway sometimes and slipped it into the pile. He didn’t really know why.
Neither he nor Ahmed had wanted to get involved, at least in the beginning. Abd el-Majid’s brother hadn’t been in the squares on that day when the catastrophe happened, but he had known people—friends from the mosque. One had died, from bullet wounds to the neck and head.
One day, when the weather was sweltering in August and the mosquitoes were relentless in their spawning, Ahmed gathered his clothes and went to protest at Mohamed Mahmoud. Abd el-Majid watched him go.
He had no reason to do this, Abd el-Majid remembered saying in an attempt to dissuade him. They hadn’t come from the village for this. They had come to work and save money. They had come so that they could live on the surface of the city for a while, and find the resources to return, buy some land, and begin to really live.
Abd el-Majid had a very strong sense that wherever he might be, life continued as it always had inside his village. This place was the only place where the real events of life were shaken out. Reality was there, etched into the palm bark and the slabs of wood his family had used to build their home, and the hoof marks of the water buffalos in the sooty Nile mud, which took on the consistency and color of tar in fall and winter.
Cairo in winter was only a cold dream, an alternate world where nothing really mattered. One’s dreams were played out as if on a checkerboard, or a soccer field. It wasn’t real, far away from the eyes of his village. None of it mattered.
He remembered how Ahmed had looked at him.
“They killed our brothers. What would you have me do?” Ahmed asked him. It wasn’t really a question. Angry, he left for the protest.
That was the same day that new tenants arrived, and Abd el-Majid stayed behind. The foreigners finally arrived in the afternoon, two tiny women from somewhere far away, with silver-plated baubles on their wrists and in their ears. One’s hair was short and yellow and bright like plastic.
“Welcome,” Abd el-Majid said, holding the door open as they climbed out of the taxi. He helped them with their leather bags, trudging up the newly-washed stairs of the building. Madame watched approvingly from behind her black door gate.
At the fourth floor, the one with yellow hair smiled and took her bag back. He waited, beaming, willing himself to exude warmth and hospitality. Eventually, without a recognizable word of thanks, she shut the door. The sound echoed throughout the cold building.
These two women, he concluded, understood nothing. Certainly not the concept of baksheesh, or tips. From that moment on he disdained the foreigners, not because they didn’t understand him, but because they didn’t try.
Later in the day, Ahmed returned, his eyes wide and glassy. That night, the ahuwa was full of angry words and people ranting about the protesters. Ahmed ignored them and drank steel cup after steel cup of tap water in between sips of tea. He interrupted the waiter only once to ask for more mint, so that he could mix it in with the black flakes at the bottom of the cup. The green, fragile roots folded into the black liquid and disappeared beneath the surface.
“I’m going back tomorrow,” Ahmed told him in a low voice. “I’m going back every day until I die.”
Abd el-Majid didn’t believe him, but he decided to go as well, the next day—after fetching the morning papers, after washing the stairs again, and after sweeping the leaves from the mosque entrance. He was bored, more than anything else. He wanted to see something.
In the square, the crowd gathered its strength slowly like a storm. When it reached its peak, the voices around him were impossible to separate or understand. Hundreds of people, all chanting bits of poetry and familiar protest songs and hurling insults at the military. Rumors flew, half whispered or screamed, that the circling planes were going to drop poison gas. Others said that they would be bound and burned. Abd el-Majid stood his ground with Ahmed, believing in his brother, who was riveted to his spot, despite the swaying layers of limbs around them.
And then someone threw a Molotov at the advancing phalynx of police. Deep inside him somewhere, Abd el-Majid understood that that black mess was made up of individuals, but it resembled nothing more than a moving wall. The dark, faceless nature of the wall sparked panic in his heart. The protesters surged forward, and a foaming silver missile – a tear gas canister—launched itself from the wall and struck Ahmed in the forehead.
Abd el-Majid’s brother immediately fell backwards, but his descent was slow, as if the air itself was resisting fate. There was nowhere for his body to go, really, with so many people pressing up against each other. Abd el-Majid watched him fall as if he were under water, as if they were young and diving into the muddy Nile again before the canal was built. His brother’s body fell so slowly.
Don’t leave, Ahmed told him without words, with his bloodied, still eyes, as some men Abd el-Majid didn’t know hoisted his brother up on their shoulders. Don’t leave it like this.
But it was all for nothing, Abd el-Majid screamed in his head. What was it for? He remembered grabbing the tear gas canister that lay, forlorn, in a pothole on the street. He tried to break it but could do nothing; it sustained only a small dent from contact with his brother’s skull.
That night, Abd el-Majid was crazy. He jumped up on a table at the ahuwa, while the fat owner stared at him stupidly. He shouted openly and publicly to all of the clientele— the wealthy businessmen, the vegetable sellers, the felucca operators with their wan, flat faces—that he would go back to the square and stay there all day, every day, just as Ahmed would have done. He would stay there till he died, he swore.
Most of the patrons listened quietly. Angry rants were hardly uncommon in those days. He noticed Hussein, the other boab, staring at him from one of the tables on the street.
“Come down, habibi,” Hussein urged, with a shocked look on his face. Abd el-Majid ignored him.
Abd el-Majid returned the next day, but the square was blocked off. There was no gathering storm of protesters, only the police. The army. Ponderous tanks and smug, vacant stares. Disdainful glances from passers-by.
For a time, he attended secret political meetings and tried to feel something, but his grief dominated his thoughts. They weren’t bad men, these protesters, he remembered thinking. They had wives and children and jobs behind pharmacy counters and in banks. But they disappeared, one by one, taken away in night raids by the armed forces, and finally, there was nowhere to put his memories, or his anger. It stayed inside of him for a time. Then, with the tiny, gray flakes of snow that clung to the leaves of the flame tree, it dissipated. All that was left was air.
The day after the first snow in a hundred years was Friday, and Friday always meant prayers, then tea and the rustling of papers at the ahuwa. Abd el-Majid didn’t know how to read, but he liked to watch the people scanning their newspapers in between quiet, small sips of tea.
“What’s the news?” He asked a fellow who was sitting by himself.
The man replied without taking his eyes off the papers in front of him that Ahmed Fouad Negm, the revolutionary poet, had died. “Everyone is talking about it,” the man said, waving the long, elephant-like trunk of his shisha pipe.
Abd el-Majid settled back into his plastic chair and thought for a moment. He didn’t care much for the old poet, in fact. He was only an old, lewd man with many wives. He had produced a few good lines, though. But his timing was impeccable, he thought. The old man had died just in time to miss the cold.
Alexia Underwood was born in Kuwait and grew up between the U.S. and the Middle East. She holds two Masters from the University of California, Berkeley in journalism and international and area studies with a focus on Arabic literature. Her chapter on Egyptian literature after the 2011 revolution is forthcoming in an anthology from AUC press, and her nonfiction writing has been published in VICE, Bloomberg Businessweek, and various other publications.
The glass surface of the round banquet table buzzed. Outside, antigovernment demonstrations jammed the streets of Bangkok. Plastic whistle blasts and the call and response of a hundred megaphones echoed through the humid capital. Sounds of contention burrowed upwards through levels of concrete. The protests hummed between Nahm’s ears.
Nahm sat with Jason’s family in a private dining room on the fourth floor of the Iron Wok Chef. The entrance to the secluded dining area featured a tall red archway ornamented by carvings of spiraling dragons. A wall of windows opened out to a small balcony. Behind a short karaoke stage decorated with blinking Christmas lights, panels of full-length mirrors attempted to give a greater sense of space. But the mirrors reflected the opposite wall and a mural of a foggy Lushan mountain range, trapping dinner guests between dark summits and stirring Nahm’s anxiety.
To calm herself, Nahm narrowed her concentration on specific parts of the meal. She tried to identify the various flavors in the shark fin soup. She attempted to calculate the cost of each ingredient passing between her lips. Nahm had developed habits like this selling mango and sticky rice with her mother in front of the headquarters of Kaidee Inter Auto Parts Co., Ltd. During those long hours she would stare down at one of the cracks in the grimy sidewalk and count the number of expensive shoes that passed over, or she’d look up at the tangled thicket of telephone wires running above her head and imagine where each line finished and began.
Every year Jason had pleaded for Nahm to attend the family’s Chinese New Year dinner, and she always declined, saying she didn’t want to go anywhere she wasn’t welcome. But tonight she had finally conceded, and Jason hoped to make the evening enjoyable if possible.
Jason leaned over to whisper, “This is not as nice a restaurant as the one we had last year, but it is okay.”
The rotating tray at the center of the tabletop squeaked, some of the silverware had soap spots, Jason’s chair had one shorter leg, and the karaoke machine only played folk songs. Thankfully, the deep-fried soft-shell crab flippers served with plum sauce were delicious, and Nahm said she liked the lychee fruit salad.
Jason’s father enjoyed the glass noodles with baked shrimp and ordered a second plate for the table. Jason didn’t ask where his father had been for the last three months. No one ever asked.
Tonight, like most family occasions, Jason’s parents avoided looking across the table and into the face of their spouse. With a fork and spoon Jason’s mother moved the food on her plate in circles. She ate very little and hardly spoke except to discuss her favorite television drama with Jason’s aunt. They fumed about the villain of the series: an ungrateful son betraying the mother who sacrificed so much for him. Jason caught the sisters glancing at Nahm as they discussed the character.
Nahm ran her fingers across the bottom hem of her dress and brushed something invisible off her lap. She had to take a little from her savings to buy the outfit, but she liked the way the garment’s lines appeared to evenly distribute the weight she had gained from the pregnancy.
Jason’s aunt didn’t ask about the baby.
Neither did Jason’s grinning uncle.
During a break between courses, away from the table in the short hall leading to the bathrooms, Jason pulled his smartphone from his shirt pocket. He showed pictures from the hospital to his cousin and her black husband. The husband gave Jason a congratulatory clap on the back the same way Westerners do in movies. He called Jason lucky.
In the women’s restroom, Jason’s cousin told Nahm the newborn—underweight and the color of vanilla milk—resembled baby pictures of Jason’s younger sister, Ivy. Nahm mentioned that Ivy had promised to visit the hospital but no one had seen her since a week before the delivery. Nahm filled Ivy’s absence at the dinner table between Jason and the family accountant.
Outside, the protesters started to chant: No to vote. No to vote. No to vote.
Returning to the banquet table, Jason imagined one of the voices belonged to his sister. Beyond the walls of the Iron Wok Chef, Ivy stood alongside thousands shouting for the establishment of a People’s Council and the end of party elections. She had invited Jason to join the cause. When he admitted he didn’t fully understand the fight, Ivy smiled and said, “Good people have an obligation to stand against the tyranny of the majority.” Jason didn’t ask Ivy how she distinguished bad people from the good. He didn’t tell her how tired he was of feeling obligated to beliefs that were not his own.
The public dissonance rose above the white noise of the restaurant air conditioners. Only Jason’s cousin and her husband turned their heads to the balcony. Twice, a loud pop and boom slapped the windows of the building like thunder. Each time, after a few static seconds, the family continued eating, quieter than before.
As servers brought toothpicks to the table, the family accountant downed his third glass of scotch, stood, and waddled to the apron of the small karaoke stage. He sang “Ai Piah Cia Eh Yia” two times, stopping often to raise the volume of the speakers over the exclamations of demonstrators.
Jason remembered how his grandmother used to sing the same song while working around the house. Her dry feet resembled crinkled paper and made soft scratches against the bare floors. The gentle shuffling joined her chorus, “Life is like the tide of the sea / We rise and fall by turn.”
Jason wondered what family gatherings might be like if his grandmother were still living. Would she approve of his cousin’s African-American husband? Would his grandmother try to look past Nahm’s race and economic status to find likenesses?
The accountant’s song reminded Nahm of stories Jason told about his grandparents migrating from China to escape the famine. Nahm wondered what Jason’s grandparents had envisioned for their descendants in Thailand. Wasn’t assimilation with the Siamese a part of their dream? Couldn’t they have predicted their children’s children blending and mixing with other nationalities, cultures, and classes?
Outside, the chants condensed: No to Vote. No Vote. No Vote.
Jason and Nahm had been together for more than five years. Ivy had introduced them, inadvertently. At least four times a week Ivy stopped at Nahm’s cart to buy mango and sticky rice before entering Kaidee Inter Auto Parts. Ivy always spoke to Nahm and eventually the pair became friends. Sometimes, Ivy would come outside of her family’s office building just to talk or rant about the government, the lack of accountability, and failing democracy. Nahm didn’t have an interest in politics. No matter who stood in charge it never seemed to improve the quality of life for her parents. Nahm would listen, annoyed but appreciative of Ivy’s sincerity.
One late afternoon, Ivy called the family’s office at Kaidee. Sick in bed, she asked Jason to bring her mango from the canopied cart downstairs from his office.
Outside the building near the revolving doors, Nahm seemed preoccupied with the telephone wires above. She bagged the rice, fruit slices, sugar and chili powder, and bound them with a rubber band without looking down from the nests of thick black cables. Jason asked what she saw and she replied openly, “I’m thinking about the messages going over my head. I’m trying to imagine the senders and receivers.” Then she looked Jason in the eyes and held out her hand, “Thirty baht.”
Although Jason passed her every day to enter work at his parents’ company, he would later admit he never noticed Nahm until he visited the cart for Ivy. Jason abhorred sweet foods, but he began stopping to buy mango regularly. Eventually Nahm started to notice how often he visited her cart, and how long he stayed to chat. She confronted him. She asked if he would ever court someone whose family made little money.
“If I like them,” he said, “yes.”
She asked him why.
Jason squinted, thinking. He remembered a Chinese New Year dinner with his family when he was younger. He recalled the way his mother never let her gaze linger past the center of the tabletop and how she didn’t allow herself to stare at the empty place setting where her husband should be.
“I don’t ever want to settle with someone I can’t look in the eyes,” he said.
She frowned, and he asked if he could meet her when she wasn’t working.
Nahm said yes, but added, “I’m not interested in becoming a mistress.”
No Vote. No Vote. No Vote. No Vote.
Nahm was a mother now, and she had hoped to finally receive acceptance from Jason’s mother and father, not because she needed their validation but because she wanted her daughter to know two sets of grandparents. Nahm had hoped things might be different if the child did not have a dark complexion. She had found traditional approaches online that assured her baby would be born fair-skinned. Everyday for nine weeks she boiled saffron strands in milk and added a little sugar. She stained the corners of her mouth orange eating a hundred carrots and pomegranates. Even Nahm’s father had recommended a chemical supplement he overheard two passengers debating in the back of his tuk-tuk.
Jason’s parents still hadn’t visited their grandchild in the hospital.
They never spoke of the baby.
No Vote. No Vote.
The family accountant finished. He returned to the table and everyone clapped politely. Jason and Nahm rose from their seats.
Jason apologized for having to leave early but did not offer a reason for departing. Later, he would call his cousin to explain—Nahm had to return to the hospital for the baby’s feeding. On the phone, Jason would invite his cousin and his uncle—her father—to come see the baby.
They would come because they wanted to.
Nahm and Jason glimpsed themselves in the mirrors behind the karaoke platform. They looked bigger. Standing, their reflection became a part of the mountain mural; their heads among the painted peaks seemed to rise from grey crags.
Nahm pressed her palms together. She gave seven small bows, one for each person still seated at the table. Then it was Jason’s turn to bend in reverence, but he didn’t. Jason’s aunt glared disapprovingly. The family accountant fiddled nervously with the band on his wristwatch.
No Vote. No Vote. No Vote. No.
Before telling his parents about his relationship with Nahm, Jason had asked his uncle how he thought they might react.
“My sister will not be pleased and neither will your father,” his uncle said. “Maybe if this girl was at least half Chinese or high-society Thai.”
His uncle asked what they shared in common.
Jason explained that he and Nahm both wanted the same thing: a life in which the only responsibilities are to those they serve willingly.
“We both want a choice in what governs us.”
Jason reached for Nahm’s hand.
Nahm clasped her fingers with his.
Jason nodded in the direction of his uncle and cousin, and they nodded back in recognition. His cousin’s husband waved farewell.
Jason and Nahm strode away from the table. Before disappearing beyond the crimson archway, Nahm smiled at the fake snarling dragons scowling down at her.
Outside, in the heat, Ivy and the sweating crowds raised their voices louder.
Jason’s father and mother ignored the growing discord. They pretended to be too interested in the remains on their plates to notice the cries for more and their son saying goodbye.
Donald Quist is a writer and editor living in Bangkok, Thailand. His work appears or is forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Pithead Chapel, Knee-Jerk, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Adroit Journal, Apeiron Review, Numéro Cinq, Slag Glass City, Awst Press, Publishers Weekly, J Journal, The Rumpus, and North American Review. He serves as Fiction Editor for Atlas and Alice. He earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find him online at iamdonaldquist.com.
PINTO LOS FLORES PARA QUE NO MUEREN
by Lena Popkin For Frida Kahlo
Revolution coincides with your birthday. You open fire, unbound.
Born of discontent, la casa azul leaves you no hope
but you find yourself longing for its pain.
Frozen disfigured limbs still look for love,
and he wants to give it. You search desperately for passion,
but none could be found among wilted flowers.
Splintered metal, your broken body lies in a field of wildflowers.
Blood pools freely; finally a part of you no longer bound
by the confines of your skin. Screams echo around you and you smile, hearing only passion.
In thirty-five parts, they try to stitch together your dying hope,
empty promises hang like bloody limbs on the canvas, no more love
left in your paintbrushes. No more pain.
You drink dreams in shot glasses, thrown back quick, pills for your pain.
Immobilized like you: broken stems and tired petals. You are fascinated by flowers;
kaleidoscope of colors and temporary love.
Your bed becomes your confidant, that most intimate lover to whom you are bound.
Consolation comes in the strangest of forms. Drips of hope
storm your bloodstream with liquid passion.
You can’t imagine a world without this passion
building inside you as you writhe in pain.
It can only be a miracle the way they bloom towards cloudy skies, beckoning hope
in the prospect of the sun. Your brushes only show you what you already know: flowers
braided through your ribs, wrap roots around your organs, broken beating heart, bound.
They call it hope, but arching petals no longer make you crave disjointed love.
You believe in versatility, especially concerning love.
Sweet sun shines in the face of your passion.
You don’t want to be bound.
Love is a thing of joy, yet you find pain
in even the purest of forms, another contribution to your wilting-flower
heart. It continues trying to bloom, watered with hope.
You want to live without needing hope, sin la esperanza.
No need for such petty indulgences when life gives unrelenting love.
The love it gives to the trees and the birds and the flowers,
to grow and to live in their full passion;
Unhindered by New York night and haze filled afternoons, fluorescent pain.
To exist unbound.
In bed after bed you lie, your skin bound, forcing hope
through your pores. Pain doesn’t hold your attention anymore- you’ve fallen in love
with something new. Passion is the tip of a needle, blooming flowers in your bloodstream.
Lena Popkin attends Central High School in Philadelphia. She has worked on the staff of the Mirror, a literary magazine, and has attended the Bard College summer Workshop. She is the recipient of an award from Philadelphia Young Playwrights, and her work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
….Another retired year and scrappy light’s chronology,
with suppertimes the neighbors ask you in or ask
themselves to, where swings and slides and rim-strung nets
imply a peace made casually, speeding
a fox through his to do, an owl to hers, so that Mercy
may be the faces that remind,
or, inches away, a new year’s mandevilla, its post-wrapped
tendrils and scarlet repeating puckers
climbing, repositioning, as the light decides, and
as the faces, reabsorbed, might seem
to us dissolving, as indecisive, say, if misremembered
frequencies, assuming themselves,
as wasps fly in, and set up under eaves, endorsing
the receptive atmosphere, and
as distractions come, prolifically, like
small minds obsessing, in
….Would you be quickened less than he by this consent,
exploring the CRT the neighbors leave
in shin-high grasses there, where the village paving ends
and thoughts begin, smoke out, or, wished away,
a thought’s dismissed, too much for the nineties ends of May
and mowing a village needs to see to,
or for these jewel-bright feeders we’ve put out, for birds
to find their ways to, as the breeze-brought heat
breaks up, with time to be tugging thistles out, from rows
between spared rows we’ve put our hopes on, with
tomorrow’s seventies, fuel to be bought, and flats, and all
that guessing where, the together work
we mean to get to when time’s right, imagining ahead, and
the mid / late season plenty for our taking, if weeks
ahead cooperate, and breezes some, new tools, machinery,
like a foreknowing, pre-visual say, according
to the habit or homage, the introductions a new season’s
organized, and these doves, intent on neighbor woods
and otherwise, plying with light through complicating
branches, through these thoughts doves concentrate,
as the cloud-cool shade lets on, and, to the left
and right, the leafy spreads, suspended above …….the natural trail under them.
….Your book, this afternoon, I had never read, read well,
I’m sure of it, though through maybe, and
what you’ve read of me, quit well before well done I’d guarantee,
with dangers to master or respect, seems no more true
if all at once indelicate, even as the winds play mindlessly, among
the purple, pale-pink potted petals at the front,
and, like the simplest sentences, these lilies the winds were always
fussing over, fussing at, so that “the sentence
outdoes the scandalabra,” you could joke, to prove you were not
as claimed, stamped prodigy, stamped crazed,
in the halls patrolled by knotted cords and breast plates, drumming
armies up, with parts in the deep and dank modalities
you authored, in comments you’ve given up for good, unspoiled
by our research, like the rents a landlord credited at moving,
or beams nobody ever counted on, refractions announcing hours,
as unguarded still, where no one’s established garrisons
or set camps up at pre-decided distances, with every permission
sold, forever at stake, or generously extended, when
the stylings cry out, the stylings scream like that from walls
and whispered / whistled crosses, leaving your senses
ratcheted, the smoke and dust of a dry season
settling over rails and raised gates, as afternoons
turn suppertimes, in the meanest ……..village kitchens.
Robert Lietz has published eight collections of poems. His work has appeared in journals in the U.S., Canada, France, Sweden and U.K. He spends a good deal of time taking, post-processing, and printing photographs and exploring the relationship between image-making and poetry.
It is just past Thanksgiving, and they’ve already begun playing Christmas carols at the theme restaurant where Eleanor waits tables. The music streams from the speakers on the ceiling, like a curse from God, until her head feels stuffed with jingle bells and sleigh bells and holiday bells. She is so bloated with pre-Christmas spirit that she feels sick, as if she’s eaten an entire plate of Santa-shaped cookies with an inch of frosting on the top. And yet somehow, the show must go on!
She has been living on her own in the Windy City for just under three months, lives in a shitty garden apartment with a leaky ceiling, and has auditioned for zero plays. She can’t seem to find the time, what with all the old AMC movie-watching she must do and the waitressing and homeless people to dodge and all.
Table two would like more ketchup in a white salad dressing cup, please. Table three would like several free refills of Diet Coke, some with lemon and some with lime. Table five would like a new husband and in the meantime, will take her unhappiness out on Eleanor by sending back her calamari, first as not warm enough and then saying the plate burned her fingers. Table six explodes with rowdy German tourists who will not tip, and table seven is the angry wheelchair guy, a regular who purposefully juts his chair out into the middle of the aisle, making it difficult to maneuver around him, especially if you’re carrying a heavy tray of food filled with super-fun holiday appetizers with sprigs of holly, as if he hopes to be doused by chili con carne. He also wants his food prepared in a very particular way and explains that if it’s not—if, for instance, the carrots interact with a peanut in any way—he will keel over and need an EpiPen stuck in his neck, which may spoil the lunch of the other patrons. However, he is also fiercely handsome with a square jaw and chiseled features of a 1940s movie actor of some kind.
Lately, she feels a defiant buzzing in her chest, as if when she opens her mouth she will release a long string of bees into the air, buzzing in the key of G. So when the wheelchair guy asks her out, she trills, “Yes, of course I would love to go out with you! How about after work?” Why not, she’s off at 4 p.m. and what does she have to look forward to except for numerous glasses of cheap wine and the newspaper crossword puzzles from the break room where half of the clues have already been filled in (often incorrectly) by the line cooks. Why not go out with a strange, angry, crippled man instead?
“I’m busy tonight,” he says. She stops, confused. Is she mishearing things? “Tomorrow is better.”
He cracks his knuckles. He wears fingerless leather bicyclist gloves, white with Velcro at the wrists.
His wheelchair looks expensive; possibly the Bentley of chairs with a black backpack on the chrome handlebars. He has the body of a gymnast—powerful arms and a muscular torso. But his legs. What must they look like?
“What’s your name?” she asks, feeling suddenly awkward and giant standing above him.
“Tiny Tim,” he answers quickly, unsmiling. She freezes. He says, “Colin. It’s an easy joke.” Oh, good, he can laugh at himself (even though he’s not, in fact, laughing). That takes some of the pressure off. She still feels cautious and makes a note in her order book to pinpoint the phrases she should banish, Sorry, I’m running late. Gotta run! Quit walking all over me!
They make plans for later and he dismisses her with a nod, leaving behind an eight percent tip.
On the way home from work in the freezing Chicago rain, she finds herself thrilled to have something new to focus on aside from her own failures in life, which she can easily list from A to Z. Did he become paralyzed while trying to save a passel of mewling kittens in a burning building and become trapped or pinned under a fallen beam? Was it too many drinks at an Irish pub and he ran into a car of singing church choir kids, spending months in recovery, crying to his mother, “I don’t want to live! Why couldn’t it have been me?” Or maybe it was a debilitating illness, some weird throwback disease that’s usually 100 percent curable if caught soon enough. No way to ask politely, that’s for sure.
At the wine shop, she drops three quarters into the March of Dimes plastic canister at the checkout. She is such a good, good person.
She skips up the steps of her apartment. If the date goes well, how will she invite him back to her apartment with the three stairs leading to the front door? She imagines heroically throwing him over her shoulder and carrying him. His legs will be thin and small, like those on a Raggedy Andy doll. He will be light, lighter than expected and easy to carry around.
They go to see a movie full of shootouts, high-speed chases, and bad Santas. As he does in the restaurant, he positions his wheelchair in the aisle, so people have to detour around him. Someone knocks into him. “Watch it, asshole,” he hisses. Heads turn. His level of anger is awe-inspiring—it’s like seeing a low-burning fire suddenly doused with gasoline—an explosion of flame and heat.
The guy who has bumped him—a burly, testosterone-puffy man in a Chicago Bears jacket defers and moves away. “Sorry, man.”
After the movie, he takes her back to his place. His bed, which does not (thank God) turn out to have hospital side rails, is a queen-size mattress low to the ground made up with tangled white sheets. She feels her heart thumping in her ears. She is not sure what to expect—hasn’t figured out how to ask him what he can and cannot do.
“It works,” he tells her. “I might be crippled, but my cock isn’t.”
She laughs too high and loud, a laugh like a cartoon schoolgirl.
It’s not good. It’s awkward and embarrassing and she doesn’t know where to look. His kisses are dry and formal, his hands inside her panties within the first thirty seconds. He touches her breasts like a doctor would, weighing them. “Your breasts are uneven,” he says. “This one’s bigger.” When she tries to maneuver to a more comfortable position, he says no, there is only one way for him. She has to be on top. She obliges; self-conscious of her deformed, different-sized boobs. Now she is the freak. His eyes remain shut. “You move,” he directs. “You have to move if this is going to work.”
She moves and it hurts but she keeps at it, feeling vaguely charitable and not at all turned on, which makes it even more uncomfortable. It takes a long, long, long, long time and when she tries to vary her approach, his hands clutch at her hips, strong hands, and set her back to his rhythm. She imagines herself as Rosie the Riveter, doing her part for the boys over there, over there. He crows, startling her, and she realizes it’s over. “You can get off now.”
They lay in the dark on their backs. She waits for him to say something like…what? Thanks?Good job? Even a high-five would be better than silence.
She is about to ask him what he might rate that experience when she hears his heavy breath turn into soft teakettle snores. Oh, well. A line pops into her head from her first college play. She was cast as Laura, the sad little lame girl who could never find a suitor. Typecasting, she had thought, at the time. Still thinks. “I was not expecting any gentleman callers,” she whispers.
She is trying to find her center; doesn’t want to feel like she’s constantly on emotional tiptoes, liable to fly off in any direction like a ballerina at moment’s notice—anger, despair, hope! She must grow up, plant her feet firmly on the ground, establish roots, and become like an oak tree.
“Be here now,” her movement teacher, Liesel, instructs. Liesel wears her hair in a long thick braid down her back, so long, it almost touches the ground. The braid looks strong enough to climb. And yet Liesel never steps on it while they’re doing the nonsense movement exercises that involve them bending and rippling like trees. She reads a long passage from Thich Nhat Hanh about staying in the present moment, in a soft, seamless voice. Outside of class, Liesel speaks with a slight stutter, every word thought about carefully before she articulates it and many of her sentences coming out twice in a row, as if she doubts she got it right the first time.
Leisel has a large, encephalitic-like head and tiny thin arms. Strangely, she also has a soft big round bottom that seems to help keep her more grounded. She has no trouble moving like a birch or an oak or a palm tree in a hurricane. Her bottom-heavy body defies gravity again and again while Eleanor’s arms refuse to allow her fingers to graze the floor when they hang over like unstrung marionettes.
She should try harder. She should recognize how fortunate she is to have all of her limbs in working order. She should be running races, vaulting beams, grateful for the use of her legs, the way she doesn’t have to think before moving, it just happens.
Leisel finishes her passage and closes her book. Her eyes rest on Eleanor when she says. “And now, stop.” They freeze in space and Eleanor tries, really tries, not to imagine how stupid she looks, frozen with jazz hands meant to represent bare winter branches.
She calls her long-distance best gay friend Joseph to tell him about Colin. They met at her ninth grade audition for Annie. At first, Eleanor convinced herself she was in love with him—he could tap dance, he did great imitations of Mickey Rooney as well as Shirley Temple, and he made her laugh until she peed her pants. As soon as he realized she thought he was boyfriend material, he said, “Oh, Dorothy, we have to work on your instincts.” He always called her Dorothy, and wanted her to call him Lillian, like the Gish sisters. And yet despite this affection he had to say the words to her, “I love boys. All boys. I love you, but not like that.” And she was heartbroken for a day and then she got the part of one of the main orphans and felt better about herself.
Now, she explains to Joseph that she needs his advice. He already knows it has to do with love because it always has to do with love.
Joseph is slightly hard of hearing. She tries not to think of it as an affectation. When she mentions that she’s dating a guy in a wheelchair, he exclaims, “With no hair?! Like, none?” She speaks louder, saying no, he’s disabled. “On cable? What is he, a weatherman?” Their conversations flow much better in person. She confesses to Joseph that she feels guilty because of, you know, her non-disabilities. Also, she explains, he’s not even that nice and the sex is bad.
“What?” he yells. “Do you like him or are you dating him because you feel like you should? Are you that lonely?” Yes, she says. He makes a tsk-ing noise. “You need to change your internal monologue. Your interior voice is a Jewish mother going, ‘What’re you complaining for? At least you have your legs!’ Get out more, for God’s sake.”
Colin invites her to a cocktail party thrown by his ex-girlfriend, Chelsea, at her penthouse on the Magnificent Mile. Who lives like this? With real furniture purchased from real stores and not stuff that they’ve found next to the garbage on their way to work?
Chelsea is beautiful with a medley of springy red ringlets like a girl from a fairy tale book. After a few drinks, Eleanor finds herself shivering on the patio alone with the ex, sharing a cigarette. Chelsea stares at Eleanor with slanted almond eyes and says, “I bet you think he just became a dick, right? That his accident changed him from this sensitive, sweet guy into an angry one, right? Is that what you think?”
Eleanor says yes, actually, yes, that has occurred to her.
“Did he tell you he has MS? Or that he was shot down in Iraq?”
“I didn’t know he was in Iraq,” Eleanor imagines him—a war hero!
“He wasn’t. Those are just the stories he tells. It was a car accident. His fault. Many dead.” Chelsea takes a delicate sip of her martini. “He was always a prick. If anything, he’s nicer now.” She smiles at Eleanor, revealing a row of tiny, straight white teeth like those you’d find in a baby doll. She exhales a long streak of cigarette smoke and they both watch as it unwinds in the cold air above their heads.
Some nights, after work finishes and she drops into her futon at 1 a.m., she spends the rest of her night chasing the orders down in her dreams, with everything larger and more cartoonish than in real life. The cooks move in slow motion, the customers scream about their orders with rivers of color spilling out of their mouths, the floor is littered with banana peels and ice puddles. On those nights, it’s like she is working a double shift; no matter what, she can’t seem to escape the stress of waiting tables.
She is in the service industry, after all. This means that she is meant to remain cheerful, use a bright voice and say “I’m sorry” five hundred times a day, even when she is really sorry zero of those times.
“I’m sorry your chimichanga isn’t hot enough,” she says to a frowning man in a business suit that is bursting at the seams. What she would like to say is, “I hope you eat these fried beans and your stomach explodes.”
That’s one of the things she admires about Colin–he just doesn’t seem to give a shit what people think of him. He says whatever he wants and people are so taken aback that they seldom respond to his rudeness. Plus, how big of a dick do you have to be to get into a screaming match with a man whose legs don’t work?
He rages at everyone while Eleanor watches, in equal parts amazed and embarrassed. The foreign clerk at the CVS who isn’t able to get the Trojans fast enough gets called an obese Slav, the guy in the aisle of the bus who doesn’t move out of the way fast enough is rammed in the shins, the hostess with the Southern accent who doesn’t understand that he wants to sit by the window is told she suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. He lashes out at anyone he perceives as thwarting him and then shakes it off like a Labrador does water. She realizes that she’s waiting for him to do the same to her, but he never even raises his voice. He’s unfailingly polite to her, says please and thank you, makes a killer cappuccino with the perfect snowball of foam on top, and lets her sleep in on his giant bed, swaddled in 500 thread count sheets. Meanwhile, she waits for him to decide she’s a waste of time.
The holiday gift looms on the horizon—this big weighty thing; they’ve been dating for one month, what’s the anniversary symbol for that? “Grass,” Joseph tells her over the phone. “I believe you’re supposed to get each other something made of grass. Or corn husks, I forget which.”
“That’s three months,” she counters.
“What I Did for Love” plays on her iPod as she steps on the Howard Red Line on her way to find the perfect Christmas gift for Colin. She feels like shouting it to the people waiting on the platform, come on, people, sing it with me, “Can’t forget! Won’t regret! What I did for love.” This compilation of old songs comes from her high school musical theater days, and she has a whole bevy of them to choose from. It turns out that it’s actually true that musicals cheer a person up. Who could feel blue after hearing “A Bushel and Peck” from Guys and Dolls? She thinks about mentioning this to Colin but stops herself, wondering if he might have something negative to say about people who can execute high kicks.
It will ever be thus, she realizes. She will always be checking her thoughts against his possible reaction and imagining disaster before it strikes.
She browses the bins at the Brown Elephant—a hipster-type Goodwill store that tries very hard not to look like a Salvation Army by putting retro clothes on one rack and hanging up funky ugly paintings of kittens on the walls.
The furniture can be found in the back of the store by the non-handicapped accessible restroom. Eleanor’s entire living space has been built from cast-off pieces from this store and whatever she had left over from college, furniture that is more than slightly distressed—bookshelves with bowed sides from water damage, a coffee table with a bum leg held steady by a wad of napkins, a TV stand made of an upside down packaging crate with Bombay, India stenciled on the side. Though the dishes and other items are arranged nicely, they’re still mismatched pieces given up by people who have died or divorced or moved on in some way.
They have a giant plastic toilet seat for old people or the disabled. Should she jokingly buy him a hemorrhoid chair? A puffy toilet seat? A stained suede jacket? Something kitschy? She picks up a shepherdess figure with a chip on her finger and no sheep in sight. The shepherdess has dark hair and a row of daisies around her head; she looks like a hopeful, slightly deranged Snow White, with one of her cornflower blue eyes half chipped off, which gives her a winking, jaunty look. Would he have a sense of humor about it? She thinks not. She will buy it anyway.
The girl at the register wears kitty-cat eyeglasses and has her lip pierced right in the center with a giant hoop. She rings up the purchase while still talking to the girl next to her, a similarly pierced and outfitted woman wearing a peppermint striped cap. “And like, this guy goes, ‘I don’t think I should have to pay full price for something that’s used’…I’m like, ‘Uh, it’s a dollar forty nine and you are in a thrift store…doucehbag.’ “You get what you pay for,” Eleanor chimes in, handing over a crumpled five dollar bill. They both look at her and say nothing. More friends she won’t be having. They are not her type, she decides. She must find some people who are.
Maybe there will be a miraculous moment where she’ll convince him to try standing, and he will resist, but she will keep encouraging him and he will get so angry that he stands up, still holding onto the handles of the chair, sweat pouring down his face, and then he does, he is able to stand, for just one second. That victory would give him confidence to try it again until the moment when he’s standing on his own and she says, “Try to walk to me,” with her arms out to him, and he does, like a baby fawn, on wobbling legs, one foot in front of the other!
She does not share these fantasies with Colin. They evaporate the first time she sees his naked legs. They are thin and pale with no muscular definition, and she sees that she may not be able to save him after all.
Before Colin, a long line of waiters paraded through her garden apartment, one after the other, wearing their black work pants slightly stained with mozzarella sauce and smelling like french fries. They all had aspirations to be something greater—they were artists or musicians or poets or actors or comedians—and the road to greatness in the arts started first with the blooming onion and grew from there. She needs to find her niche, her one true dream, beyond being able to afford something more than ramen noodles for dinner and to have more than two dollars in her savings account. A balance large enough that she was actually earning interest.
The shift manager, a tall, thin guy with bright blue eyes and a prominent Adam’s apple, claps his hands in the break room to get their attention. “All right, people, now we’ve had some complaints among the customers that our attitude isn’t right. We need to remember that we’re out there to make people happy. If they want extra special sauce, we give them extra special sauce, with a smile. Ladies, if they’re a little flirtatious, flirt back—you’ll get a better tip.”
As Eleanor listens, she replaces the word waitress with “call girl.” It’s really not that different. They get violated in similar ways, humiliated, degraded, made to feel like they don’t matter, the one difference is that the risk of pregnancy is lower. As is the pay. When Rob asks if anyone has any questions, she raises her hand, “If the guy wants to feel us up, should we charge extra or is that on the house?”
“On the house!” Rob says, only half-joking.
Her day is again filled with unhappy tourists as “Feed the World” plays on seemingly incessant loop from overhead. She tells one group of five guys that they must be in the wrong place; Hooters is across the road. They think she is hilarious. They leave her a two dollar tip on a eighty dollar tab. When Colin texts to tell her that he’s going to be late, she texts back, “Me too.”
After her shift, she goes to the bar and tells Mikey, the bartender she has not managed to seduce, to line up three shots. “How about just one to start,” he suggests. He has a two-year-old daughter named Maggie after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Like her, he is a lapsed actor who still likes to keep ties to the theater community.
Rob, the manager, breezes over. “You know, it’s against policy to be up here. We don’t want our customers to see the staff drinking.”
She waves her black book in the air. “You know how much I pulled in tonight? Fifty bucks. And from that fifty bucks, I had to tip out $25. All my customers have gone home to torture their dogs. None of them are left. I’m having a drink.”
Rob stares back at her, blinks. He’s not in love with his job either. He has to pretend to care about all of this shit when all he wants to do is practice music with his garage band, The Losers of Solomon.
He turns to Mikey. “Make sure it’s on the house.”
When Colin texts again that he’s going to be even later than he thought, she tries to imagine who he’s with and realizes it doesn’t matter. She pictures him meeting a buxom waitress from Ed Debevic’s—the place where the wait staff is paid to be rude to you. Or someone from TGI Fridays who sang him “Happy Birthday.” It could be his thing. Maybe he goes around to restaurants picking up vulnerable waitresses with self-esteem issues.
And so she will have a couple of drinks, flirt with Mikey, who will flirt back even though he’s clearly not interested, and that will be that. Maybe on the way home, she’ll be gang-raped by a bunch of teens. Probably not. Most likely, everything will be just fine. No musical theater ending with a kiss under an elm with a perfect half-moon hanging in the sky.
She walks the two miles home, weaving only slightly, the music from her iPod now from Gypsy. How did that musical end? Mass suicide?
She notices a scrawny man approaching with a ski cap pulled down over his eyes. It’s racist to just assume he wants to hurt her, and anyway, she can’t even tell if he’s black or white or Hispanic or Arabic or what. The tips of her fingers tingle as she wraps her hands around the keys in her jacket and straightens her spine. Be here now.
In this moment, something is happening.
A light snow has started, and the snowflakes swirl around the man in the streetlight as if he were a sparkling apparition from ghosts of Christmas passed. She quickens her pace to brush by him, but he bumps into her, his hands fumbling at her coat pocket. She twists away, jabbing at him with her keys. He comes at her again, this time grabbing her arm. She wears a thin raincoat of slippery acrylic and manages to wiggle away. He rushes at her once more, grabs her jacket, and pulls her toward the alleyway by the sleeve of her coat.
“Get away from me, motherfucker!” she screams. She pushes him as hard as she can and he slips on a wet patch of snow, his arms pinwheeling backward for balance. She kicks out, connects with his stomach, and down he goes on his back. She hasn’t thought far enough ahead, doesn’t have mace to blind him, and this is the part where she should just run away. Instead she stands over him, screaming in a voice she doesn’t recognize. “You want me to kick you, you dumb shit? You don’t touch people like that! You stay away from me!” She moves as if to kick. He flinches and puts his hands up to his face.
“I’m sorry, hey, I’m sorry,” he crawls backwards away from her, leaving wet lines in the snow. “My mistake.”
“Good,” she says, buzzing with anger. “You stop that now.” She walks away, furious and singing inside.
When she gets home, she unwraps the figurine from the newspaper. It remains in once piece, wasn’t broken in the struggle. She sets the milkmaid on her wobbly mantel.
It wasn’t for him after all. She wanted it for herself. That much seems clear to her now.
Aimee LaBrie teaches and works at Rider University. Her short story collection, Wonderful Girl, was awarded the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction and published by the University of North Texas Press in 2007. Her second collection of stories, A Good Thing, recently placed as a finalist in the BOA Short Fiction Contest. Her short stories have been published in Pleiades, Minnesota Review,Iron Horse Literary Review, Permafrost, and other literary journals. In 2012, she won first place in Zoetrope’s All-Story Fiction contest. You can read her blog at www.butcallmebetsy.blogspot.com.
A border between ecosystems is called an ecotone. It is a space where separate ecologies enmesh in a fade-in and a fade-out, and microclimates mingle. Wind and fur and legs can alter or transfer energy there and like a yin and a yang traces of each thrive in the other.
My stroll home intuits scads of these.
An apple falls from the canopy, brushing leaves down its way. When it arrives with a final thud against the ground, I’m roused from a sleep where I dreamt of a proper bed.
A sluice carved in stone carries spring water to slip and break on pebbles. Oxygen’s forced into the pond. Foam to the surface. Bubbles pop and humidity rises.
A car horn carries from a distance.
When woods are only stressed, even in a thousand places, the whole always seems to stand. A boar tore away bark. Mushrooms ate the dead wood behind it. Enter insects to eat the living wood beneath it all. Then returned the boar to eat it all and perform the miracle of wood into meat.
Electric humming swells from down the path.
Underfoot, kudzu grows out of horizons of soil. Roots through humus, dirt, and rock.
What seems a clearing is a ribbon of clearcut forest. Utility poles of Bolivian wood rising from the absence. While beneath the cords birds chirrup and make their way swift from tree line to tree line and the hair on my skin lifts on the slight breeze blown between the two woods. It will all lead back to town.
A peep in my pocket hints at a dark service returned to my phone. Invisible division distinct as a waterfall.
Where kids call their dogs off, unkempt grasses will push into the yard. For now, lawns, preserved in death by amber herbicide, are painted with water a living green.
Sparrows live in the attic of a human house. A magpie scratches at the tiles to get at their eggs. A falcon calls in the distance. It’s all barely audible over the sound of pool jets running.
Then, in silence is the present. Where tomorrow calls and yesterday lingers in neurons.
Silence is broken by a wheeze that trails down stairs.
There, a family around a deathbed starts to sing. While in the very moment, they can’t distinguish life from death.
Diego Reymondez is a dizzy mess who passed out in New York and woke up in Spain. Since regaining consciousness, he’s planted a food forest and now must spend his days making rocket stoves, keeping his brother from dying on intergalactic travels, taking care of animals, and generally learning how to nature. Eventually he gets around to writing.
At home, we covered up. Mine was a house full of brothers.
A closed bathroom door meant it was occupied. Occasionally I’d find the upstairs bathroom door ajar and push in, only to catch my father shaving. He always shaved nude. The long mirror over the two sinks was shrouded in steam except for the watery oval he cleared in front of his face. His bicep—round as Popeye’s—flexed as he swept the razor downward to reveal a stripe of skin. Like a drop of water that knows to leap off a griddle, I pulled the door shut.
Such squeamishness had disappeared by my father’s last year.
One afternoon, I heard a heavy thump while he was showering and ran into the bathroom. I opened the glass door to see him struggling like a beetle on its back.
“Are you hurt?” I asked.
“No, but I can’t get up.”
He’d fallen before, but on the thick carpet of his bedroom. I learned then that he didn’t have enough strength in his stomach muscles to roll over, much less to sit up. Fortunately, his leather belt made a good handle; I hauled up on it while he strained to get to his hands and knees. Then I coached him to reach forward and lean on a low chair before pivoting his bottom around to the seat. Those Popeye biceps were his salvation.
As he lay on the floor of the shower, his wet skin shone like alabaster. He sucked in his breath, hiked his knee to his chest and swung it to the side. Air exploded from his lungs. He panted, then tried again.
I grabbed a towel and covered him. I wasn’t embarrassed by his nudity. I was just afraid he’d be cold. He looked at me. I had the feeling he was wondering how he—we—would get out of this mess.
I tried to explain that he had to get onto his knees, but I knew he couldn’t hear me without his hearing aids. He did his best to cooperate as I gestured instructions. I rolled him onto his side and bent his legs into a 45 degree angle. He tried to right himself. The towel slipped and I lost my grip. He rolled back onto the tile. When I threw the towel aside, he didn’t flinch.
Let’s try this again, I said. I knew I couldn’t lift his 212 pounds of mostly dead weight without injuring at least one of us. Twice more I positioned his legs and locked my arms around him. I remember noticing how hard his belly was, swollen with fluid. Just at the point of giving up, we somehow jockeyed him onto his hands and knees. He grabbed the back of the shower chair, then paused to recover before shifting the other forearm onto the seat. When he finally maneuvered himself into a seated position, I swaddled him with a bath sheet.
“It’s not easy being me,” he said.
As far as I was concerned, the 45-minute wrestling match proved my father’s days of independent showering were over. He disagreed.
“You have a choice,” I said. “You can shower here with my assistance or with help back at The Hacienda.” The Hacienda was what he called the senior living community where he maintained an apartment. He never remembered its real name.
I had used the same strategy on my children—offering limited options as an illusion of choice.
I reminded him that a serious fall in the shower could mean the end of our walks. Walking with me made life worth living. Every day, when we left the confines of the house, his eyes stretched to the horizon, appraising the sky, appreciating the season. He gave in.
The first time I stood sentry outside the shower, I watched through the thick glass: he wet down, shut off the water, spun the soap in the washcloth, scrubbed from head to toe, privates last, turned the water back on, rinsed off, and then repeated the entire process. It was after I handed him the towel that I discovered how he’d been upsetting his balance. He straddled the towel, grasped it with one hand in front and the other in back, and see-sawed it back and forth. Once upon a time, his routine had kept him fit for duty on Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima. Now, it was setting him up for a fall.
From that point on, I entered the shower as soon as he turned off the water, wrapped one towel around his waist and draped another around his shoulders. He grabbed the safety bar by the door and stepped gingerly onto the white pile bathmat, reaching for the handle of his walker. While he rested on its seat, I rubbed lotion into his back, arms and legs.
I saw it all then, the edema that swelled his ankles, the puddle of his feet, the scabs on his calves, the trail of brown moles, the bruises that bloomed purple, the white scar on his sternum, his pale buttocks, and still, those Popeye biceps. Once upon a time, I remembered, they’d held me high above the surf off Barber’s Point. He’d been the one to keep me safe.
Betsy Campbell Stone is an emerging writer from Sacramento, CA. She retired from her career as a healthcare strategy and marketing executive to care for her father, Henry, then eighty-nine. Over his final seven years of life, she returned to writing. While pursuing her M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction at Bennington College, she supports nonprofits in their missions to end hunger, aid caregivers, and promote comfort at the end of life.