I was doing grunt work at the stable, filling water buckets, dropping bales of hay from the loft, cleaning grungy tack, and shoveling manure.
Kate and I—lone teens among the adults who rode at the small barn—cleaned stalls while horses were turned out to run around the ring, bucking, snorting and galloping, rolling in the August dust. She’d attack one stall, I another, our shared wheelbarrow in the aisle, both of us sweating, smelly, proud to be trusted with real work of horse care.
A few months before, my father had finally bought me a horse, and the stable manager invited me to work after school in exchange for lower board. Kate, two years younger, had been around horses since she was a toddler and showed me what to do.
First, use the heavy blunt end shovel to remove big piles of manure from the stall. Next, sift stray pieces of manure and wet hay with the pitchfork, the one with a dozen closely-spaced tines, then rake the leftover shavings. On a second pass, load a wheelbarrow with fresh wood shavings, roll that into the stall, dump and spread.
Perhaps it was raining that day. Or maybe Firestarter, a rangy Thoroughbred, was recovering from an injury—ex racers were prone to that. Perhaps Melanie, his owner, asked that he be kept inside so he’d be sparkplug fresh when she arrived; she liked spunk.
Whatever the reason, I was cleaning Firestarter’s stall with him in it. I’d done this before, with my own placid horse, and others, though not the fidgety, leggy Firestarter. Kate and I were quiet, diligent, eager to get chores done before I’d climb on Poco, and she’d straddle Speckles, the pony she’d outgrown.
I headed into Firestarter’s stall, eyes on the left corner where his manure tended to accumulate. But instead of holding the shovel straight up and down, as I’d been taught to do every time when passing a horse, I held it in the extended position.
I simultaneously saw and heard it hit Firestarter’s cannon bone, hard, inches below the knee on his elegant brown leg. The shovel vibrated in my hands. How would I explain a broken leg? To Melanie? The stable manager? My parents? I watched, afraid that majestic, lovely animal would collapse. For a small second, his leg merely imperceptibly shivered, flinched. I jerked the shovel away, lunged backward into the aisle. Firestarter only inched his leg back. Kate worked on, unaware; shovels hit the wall and floor all the time. Horses shifted.
I stood trembling, waiting for Firestarter to kick me or lift his foot in pain the way horses did when they’d stepped on a nail or sharp stone. Firestarter only eyed me.
“I’m taking him out, he’s antsy,” I told Kate, who only said, “Yeah, I know.”
I tossed a halter on Firestarter, walked him down the aisle, turned and led him back to where I could secure him in crossties. He clopped on evenly, fine and solid, not just then but for days, weeks.
I hadn’t broken his leg. Yet I’d made a terrible mistake, potentially harmful to a horse, to someone else’s horse. In the moments and days after, nausea and guilt alternated with something else. A horse-crazy girl who wanted only to ride, caught a glimmer of the kind of responsible horseperson she wanted to become, and that image winked, beckoned.
Eight years later, at a horse show in Lake Placid, someone—as the story goes—a drunk groom, possibly acting on a poker bet or maybe just mishandling a gun–shot the cannon bone of the best junior hunter on the circuit, an animal worth about $50,000. When I heard about it, two hours after the elegant bay gelding was put down, four hours after someone heard the crack in the dark and the horse’s shrill, pained whinny and called the night patrol, I was riding the fifth horse my father had bought me, warming up in the dewy dawn. Police were swarming, and everyone was talking about the hideous cruelty, the horse’s sobbing young rider. I had to dismount; my hands were shaking, my breeches soaked with sweat. Then, and again when I heard the news, ten years after, about Nancy Kerrigan, I was immediately back in the stable, a shovel in my hand, a horse’s leg at the other end, a sickly swirl in my head.
I never told anyone what I had done. What I hadn’t done.
Lisa Romeo’s work has been nominated for Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in the New York Times, O-The Oprah Magazine, Inside Jersey, Babble, Under the Sun, Hippocampus, Word Riot, Sweet, Sport Literate, and in anthologies such as Feed Me! and Why We Ride. She is a founding faculty member of Bay Path University’s MFA program and the creative nonfiction editor of Compose. A former equestrian journalist and PR specialist, Lisa lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons. Connect on Twitter @LisaRomeo or via LisaRomeoWrites.
The nightgown in the painting crosses genres: detective and farce. It has a partial body—breasts—but not a face. You could say it’s peekaboo. You could say it’s diaphanous. Either way, it reminds Georgette of how her husband uses recurring motifs to create a story, or at least a semi-story, for a story full of holes is a story full of mystery, a mystery like lace.
How came Georgette to place herself here: married to Magritte and doting on their dear Pomeranian, Loulou? This question is without a clear beginning, middle, or end, like the short Surrealist films that Mag likes to make with their Surrealist friends.
All the branching decisions that Georgette has made to get to this point make her picture herself like a parade of bathing beauties in a Mack Sennett movie: identical-seeming at first, but really not quite. Spectacularly costumed. Women’s clothing has so much more variety than men’s. A tie points and points to the crotch of the man wearing it, and they may all dress the same, but they are not interchangeable.
Why did she wind up with a painter at all? As she watches Magritte follow Loulou, holding the leash as they promenade down the street, she is glad that she did, and that it was not just any painter, but with her particular and peculiar and beloved René.
The filmstrip of her younger life—studying Modernism at university, working in an art shop—hops by her eyes at twenty-four frames per second. There she is, an ingénue still using her maiden name: Georgette Berger. And there’s her first romantic lead, the German artist Stefan Rowden, known—if he was known at all—for something he called abstract pornographic oil paintings. Had she remained involved with—or worse yet, married—him, as he’d wanted her to, then everything after would have been miscast.
All these years later, Magritte still stands as the perfect man for the role of husband. And Loulou their perfect powderpuff, their fellow lover of cinema. She watches them stroll through the afternoon sun on their way to a matinee. Georgette likes to go to the movies, but only at night, and it’s all right with her to have the apartment to herself like this sometimes.
Before they stroll around the corner and out of sight, Loulou poops, small brown pellets, sober and ordinary. Mag stoops to scoop them. They regard each other kindly, Loulou looking up like a ferocious toy. Were Georgette to title this like a film, she’d call it A Ferocious Joy.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. Co-editor with Eric Plattner of The Selected Writings of René Magritte, from Alma Books (UK) and University of Minnesota Press (US) in 2016, she is also the author of seven books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including, most recently, the novel O, Democracy! (2014) and Robinson Alone (2012). Her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2017.
Image credit: Homage to Mack Sennett by René Magritte, 1937. Oil on canvas. Collection of the City of Louviere (La Louviere, Belgium).
ON PETER ADAMYAN’S “BLACKFACE BARBIE MINSTREL SHOW”
by Tracy Jones
Want to say “nigger” without taking the chance of getting beat the fuck up? Are you a white liberal tired of white guilt? Feeling a little transracial? Does everything about you seem black, but your skin? Do you sketch self-portraits using a brown crayon, instead of peach? Find yourself tweeting #blacklivesmatter, but still getting bussed to the #alllivesmatter side of town? What about that blackface frat party you always wanted to throw? Want to get shot for no reason? Can’t take advantage of affirmative action when applying for college? Is your blackness too hip to be down with that wigger shit?
Try Equality Snake Oil, established in 1776, rub it in your skin and let the oppression begin. Act now. Diminish your white privilege and enhance your simulated black experience. Enjoy the benefits of getting disproportionately arrested, shot, killed, and expelled from school. E.S.O. won’t crack, smudge, or run; guaranteed to give you that golden brown YOLO glow.
Warning: If you feel a burning sensation or develop what looks like permanent skin damage, please continue to use E.S.O. as instructed to get that full Nubian complexion. The screams and cries you hear when applying E.S.O. are the shackled remnants of slaves getting buried alive in the pores of your skin. Please do not mistake it for your soul hacking at its roots to dislodge itself from you. E.S.O. may turn you into a black caricature modeled after your white superiority complex. E.S.O. will not give you full lips, corn rolls, chiseled muscles, an afro or a fat ass. It will not anoint you Queen of the Nile or give you black beauty that will be copied, bleached, and become pop culture. E.S.O. will not make you tougher, jump higher, run faster, or anything else that is likely a result of big, strong slaves forced to procreate with each other to make bigger, stronger slaves. Take caution, E.S.O. will dehumanize you.
Side effects include low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, or bouts of psychotic rage. Your blackness will be cut open, dissected and doubted. Your new history will be reduced to a sentence or paragraph. Your new ancestors will not be credited for birthing civilization. Their inventions and cultural contributions that are the backbone of American ingenuity will be whitewashed. E.S.O. may also cause you to be paranoid when driving, shopping, or jogging. If cops demand permission to enter your residence without a warrant, you may be at risk of getting shot and killed for failing to give up your rights to an unlawful home invasion. If you are standing in a crowd full of actual black people, you may be at risk of getting shot in the head. Keep in mind, said situations will give your rap career the boost and authenticity it deserves. If you are not sure that E.S.O. is right for you, please consult your social media friends and followers.
I’ve been living in Japan for five years. My Japanese wife, Haruki, and I decided to start our married life here, so I could get to know her within the context of her own culture. For the first two years, I was like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in the movie They Live without those x-ray sunglasses, and the aliens still fled in horror at the sight of me. Somewhere beyond the fourth wall I could hear a faint Bob Dylan singing, “because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?”
Culture shock had me like, “Don’t tase me bro!” Consumers hugged the block waiting in line to eat this exquisite food called pancakes. They crowded the sidewalks looking at menus, waiting to be seated, all for the sweet seductive taste of an intriguing snack called caramel popcorn. Purple-and blue-haired old ladies wearing kimonos shuffled down the streets. Young adult men carted leather purses and had spiked hair that rivaled Dragon Ball Z characters. Girls with long, curly blonde hair were human dolls wearing Alice In Wonderland-dresses,detailed with embroidered red roses and ribbons with matching umbrellas, decorated stockings, and glossy platform shoes. People bowed everywhere, bobbing their heads, bending their hips as if to praise each other like Olympian Gods or benevolent members of a holy covenant. Above the red-dotted land of the rising sun, a giant omnipresent eye floats through the sky, but it can’t see beyond Japan’s shores. The eye doesn’t blink or sleep. It’s overworked and wary. It’s been conditioned to laugh, obey, gawk, stare, and smile. Through the eyes of the homogenous people below it follows me.
As I would wait in line at the grocery store, locals’ mannerisms twitched and turned. The anxiety could’ve materialized into rain. A middle-aged woman in front of me did a 180 to confront me. She had a brown mole the size of a pinky fingerprint below her right nostril. The peach hairs on her cheeks broke through the makeup layers masking her face. I could smell her breath as an aftertaste of her shampoo. I didn’t know if she was afraid of turning her back to a potential boogieman prone to savagery, she wanted to fuck, or she wanted me carried away with a hand strapped across my mouth. A gap formed in the line as it moved forward while she froze. When she realized that it was her turn she gasped, swinging around to rush towards the cashier. She folded her shoulders and fumbled through her purse, discarding the spectacle that stood behind her.
To keep my paper bag of marbles from getting wet, I filtered my reality through a self-imposed veil of willful ignorance, becoming less interested in Japan’s language and culture. Video-calling family and friends, writing assignments for Hi-Fructose Magazine, and watching The Daily Show with John Stewart was my transportable version of America. They were triggers of the familiar that virtualized home. It served me well at first. Haruki and her family had lived in the States for five years while she was in elementary and middle school. She’s been to Russia, China, and the Caribbean. Unlike me, she’s well-traveled. She went to Manhattanville College as an exchange student, where we met. Before we had a daughter, my wife and I took the idea of America’s diversity, my parents’ creed of “love knows no color,” Japan’s civility and their religion of patience, and turned our apartment into an embassy. We engaged in continuous, stop-start, at times gridlocked, at times successful negotiations, deciphering cultural differences from marital conflicts, while forging our twin values, and syncing our paths of emotional rhythm. “Forever and ever,” Haruki likes to say. “Forever ever?” I ask.
Our multi-national consulate divided itself from a nation that believes its DNA to be separate from the rest of Asia, or unique, if not at one time superior, as they believed during their alliance with Hitler. The walls of our embassy laminated their own micro cracks to soundproof our xenophobic neighbors from hearing me make my wife laugh by dancing to Kelela and Run The Jewels. The second I stepped outside I was a black unicorn that could, though probably wouldn’t, gouge out an eye when I bowed. On numerous occasions people told me that I looked like Bob Sapp. Who the hell is that? My wife wasn’t surprised when I told her.
“I’m glad we don’t have TV,” Haruki said. “You’d see blackface almost every day.” My eyes lit up like “What do you mean?” I meant, like “What the fuck?” When I searched Sapp online, his massive physique and big perspiring bald dome had nothing on my growing beer belly, chicken legs, and egg-shaped head, “Duck this dude out (-Wiki),” I rapped out loud, oh, we all look a-like. He’s a black American and former professional mixed martial artist that went from kicking people in the mouth to holding a banana like a monkey in Japanese advertisements. On TV he’s a jigaboo-acting modern minstrel who speaks strange Japanese, eats raw meat, bugs his eyes out and spears the air with his tongue, while a split screen shows Japanese hosts laughing at him. When the locals think of black people, he must be one of the first to pop into their heads, along with the other mixed martial artist turned jigaboo, Bobby Ologun.
“You go to Japan, they don’t have problems with certain folks being discriminated against because mostly everybody is Japanese,” President Obama joked when talking to a Chicago crowd about immigration. At my edge of the Western media echo chamber, the staying power of the blackface children’s book Little Black Sambohas crystallized it into a lauded classic. Japanese actor Koichi Yamadera donned blackface and twisted a head off a cat to do a rendition of “What A Wonderful World” as a tribute to Jazz great Louis Armstrong. During the first year of the first black President of the United States, a blackface “Barack” and “Michelle Obama” appeared on a Japanese variety show. “Barack Obama” is a magician saying, “Yes we can” after doing a magic trick. The clapping crowd and pundits laugh, mouths open, putting their whole bobbing heads into it. When artist Peter Adamyan showed me a collection of his work to pick from, thinking about that scene prompted me to choose Blackface Barbie Minstrel Show, a contemporary take on the face of a horrible past that, through the brush of America’s ruling class, has tried to paint itself another.It’s difficult to say whether the painting is selling snake oil, or is recruiting for the military rolled into a white-appropriated show.
Cue the twinkling suburban dream-girl music and Bob Sagat voiceover: Whoopi Goldberg is Transracial-Barbie’s token black friend and moral advisor, giving ol’ Barb street cred. “Go-on girl,” she says to Barb about escaping complacency to find true love. Meanwhile, Ken is just a simple Klansmen terrorizing coloreds at night, daydreaming of raping black girls like a real live slave owner. Barbie is a brown-toasted hot-blooded doll, twerking to pay tuition. Find out what happens when fate collides the lives of these star-crossed lovers.
Barbie and Ken’s passionate unconventional love divides dinner tables and unites multiracial bedfellows. Barb’s girl-next-door swagger and Katy Perry persona catapults Blackface Barb into primetime’s most talked about and watched TV program. This year’s Halloween saw the number of young white adults wearing blackface Barbie costumes surpass those wearing costumes that look like Orange Is The New Black character, Crazy Eyes, and like the latest unarmed black male shot dead by policemen who feared their lives were in danger. From TV, Barbie’s show gets pushed out of online’s viral womb and Barb-mania is born. The show’s makeup artist gets interviewed on daily talk shows, giving tips on how to fake black features. Mattel Toys releases Minstrel Barbie, which comes with a burnt cork and red lipstick to color Barb’s face. The new doll echoes Mattel’s past releases, including Oreo Barbie, Bull-fighting Spanish Barbie, and the wrestling action figure, Junkyard Dog, inspired by the once-real-life wrestler, a shirtless black man brandishing a chain around his neck. After rigorous animal testing, The Barbie Minstrel Show execs go for the jugular, releasing E.S.O., “when ya got that glow, ya powerful,” a blackface skin cream that paints your face a color not found in the natural world.
It’s the first painting I’ve ever owned; my luck that Adamyan was purging his old work to make room for the new. As a thank you, he shipped it to me from California, not long after I interviewed and wrote a feature about him. I was geeked to get a big package in the mail from home, let alone art. Unwrapping it, I was taken aback by the painting’s detail, which I couldn’t get from its computer image. The thin acrylic layers accentuate the contorted muscles in the characters’ faces as if they’re posing for a 3D movie poster. Mounted on my wall, they look alive, though cellophane-coated, suspended in an emotional state, motivated by the cattle prods stabbing at them from behind, “C’mon, smile, Goddamnit.” The Equality Snake Oilbottle is dyed-water, the sheen of tar sand. Uncle Sam’s grimace “wants you” to help him invade other countries and oversee war-torn regions from a drone’s eye point of view. The red and white Mattel logo behind him is a bursting bomb from an airstrike. All unintended casualties are considered enemy combatants. Framed by a red, white and blue heart, Ken and Barb are Donald Trump supporters, embracing each other for the camera, reppin’ that redneck love. Whoopi flashes her brown gleaming eyes from behind her Hollywood shades, juxtaposed with the light reflecting off each bead of her ever-looping necklace, resembling something a first-world reader would see in a National Geographic.
One benefit of our not owning a TV is that it helps preserve my faith in the progressiveness of Japan’s worldview.Adamyan’s Minstrel Show hangs above my desk as a theoretical substitute for Japanese television, but if it were an actual idiot box broadcasting a local infomercial selling a race-altering ointment, it’d probably go something like…
Want to get down black, but not be black, keeping your distinctive DNA intact? Spending hours practicing your dance routine, but wait, that public school brainwashing that made you a tool won’t let your inner robot bust a move? Got no junk in your trunk? Can’t jiggle that conservative figure? Can’t copy that sassy-sexy attitude that black girls radiate on YouTube? Want a black girl servant and a sister sex slave mistress? What about touring Japan, donning blackface, singing Motown tunes, and making money actin’ a coon? Trying to get over your fear of sitting next to that foreigner on the subway? Feeling nostalgic about the mid-90’s when you used to get your skin burnt at Blacky’s tanning Salon? Wasn’t it A Different World when you were a Ganguro girl? Are you an aspiring B-Styler, looking to live that Black Lifestyle? Ever wish you could turn into a blackface gorilla and wake your kids up on reality TV? Want to look like your favorite rapper? Is Beyoncé the true face of your character? Introducing Equality Snake Oil, invented in the Edo Period, during Japan’s most famously historical pop cultural boom. One slap of E.S.O. on your face will make you look like you’re a part of the black race. E.S.O. is perfect for taking advantage of all the good things black culture has to offer, without ever having to deal with actual black people.
Warning: E.S.O. will remain on your skin until removed with paint thinner, bug repellant, or hand sanitizer. E.S.O. will make you appear to be an exotic animal possessing bizarre homo sapien-like behavior. Please notify your co-workers, classmates, and family members that you are using E.S.O. for fear of them suspecting that you have skin cancer, or that you have turned into a monster. Strangers may assume you bleed green, and that you are scary, subhuman, and stupid, but above all, they will assume you are cool. You will not, however, be a “soul brother.” E.S.O. will not give you swagger, an afro, dreadlocks, or an onion butt. E.S.O. won’t help you rap, play basketball, or ollie higher on your skateboard.
Side effects include, but are not limited to, suffering from an acute anxiety that dwarfs the usual discomfort you get when trying to read the air in normal social situations. People may keep asking you where you’re from, prompting you to say “planet Earth.” You will be stared at, objectified and marginalized. You will be compared to a talking ape. People seeking free English lessons who have a fetish for foreigners will want to take a picture with you. Every person you encounter will ask you “Why are you in Japan?” “Are you married?” “Is your wife Japanese?” “How did you meet your wife?” “How long have you been in Japan?” “What do you do?” “Where do you live?” and “What’s your email?” Keep in mind, they will not tell you anything about themselves. As soon as said questions are neatly answered to their liking, they will walk away. They will compliment you on how well you use chopsticks. And if you speak some level of Japanese, they will say, “You speak good Japanese,” which is tantamount to white Americans telling African Americans, “You speak so well.”
If you are not sure that E.S.O. is right for you, just watch everyone else and do the same thing. If you’re still not sure, you’re not Japanese. Call now while supplies last.
Before I came here, I was told that Japan is “The black man’s paradise.” We out here, but it’s 99% Japanese. Living that one-percent-life had me spending the first three years wondering whether I was madhouse-bound. Japan almost turnt me out like Ramsay Snow did Reek. Tokyo’s architecture could be remixed palm trees built by Majesticons as offerings, trying to get right with their Infesticonian brethren. The ancient wooden temples scattered throughout this island are cowrie shells and sand dollars. The boardwalks are surreal woodblock prints by Japan’s original masters that still influence the world. Humanity is the ocean, swirling its colors until they bleed into each other, eating away at those presumptuous spaces that numb empathy and denounce cultural differences. Beautiful women stroll to the beat of the folding waves. The eye in the sky is the almighty sun, bringing light to the coldest of shivering hearts blinded by darkness. Here, God is more prone to stab me with a hand-thrown thunderbolt, than a cop’s bullet is to put me down. Still, even in paradise, the same rule applies in Japan as it does in America: White is right, but if you’re black get back.
Tracy Jones is an aging skateboarder, born-again human, wanna-be photographer, recovering mind reader, and a self-published author of two books of poetry: I Think Therefore I Am and still breathing…. Winner of The Bill Gates Millennium Scholarship, he graduated from SUNY Purchase College with a BA in Creative Writing. As a freelance writer, he’s written for Mugshot, Hi-Fructose, Alarm Press, Dig In, Intouch, Tokyo Art Beat, Metro Pop, Under Pressure, and Stark Life Magazine. Originally from Orlando, Florida, he lives in Tokyo with his wife and daughter.
We all had our money on the metalhead. The fight was supposed to take place in the usual spot, three miles from town in a clearing in the woods beside an abandoned shack and a seasonal creek that happened to be dry that time of year. The other kid, a redheaded pipsqueak about my size, was mouthing off beyond what anyone predicted, and the metalhead, whom everyone kind of feared because of his long hair and self-inflicted scars and tattoos and silent teeth-gritting lack of interest in all of our classes, the other students, the football program, and just about everything else our fourteen-year-old minds cared about—even girls!—this metalhead, whose name I’ve forgotten, was predicted to mop the floor with the redheaded kid in seconds. But it didn’t happen that way. They got started by ripping off their shirts, and the redhead balled his fists and began to box the metalhead kid in the face like a training exercise. The metalhead kid kept his fists down at his waist, silently sneering, face open and available, as the redhead seemed to take a lifetime of frustrations out on him, one punch at a time, as though each jab was punctuating a bad memory with a finality only the redhead understood. Everyone winced, moaned, as the beating carried on, and I felt bad for the metalhead kid, whose name I’ve forgotten.
I twisted this memory into some kind of lesson when I explained to my son how different his childhood was from mine. I sat in a chair beside his bed where he lay, covers beneath his chin, a once nightly ritual that was fading. Perhaps I wanted it to fade.
The lamp was low but I could see his face was full of concern and anticipation. I watched shadows on the adjacent wall flutter from wind-rustled curtains. The quiet after the story left room for thought. I didn’t know if I wanted him to admire his old man for the lawlessness I treaded through, or take comfort in his own plush security.
What he said was this: “Where were the teachers? And the parents?”
After all, he was only six.
“This was our secret spot,” I said, wondering if kids even had their own places these days. Certainly my son didn’t. I would know. Though I had a place at six, at five, probably at three. Tiny spaces: a closet, the shed, a corner in the yard, and later, much more obscure and distant places when I could drive.
But I didn’t want to encourage him to find such places, and obviously I didn’t want him to witness violence first hand. My wife and I monitored his screen time, disallowed certain video games. We were doing our best to protect him from the world, and still I told him this story, dangled it before him like a bloody pork chop before a kenneled dog.
“That sounds bad,” he said, his six-year-old mind a strongbox of conformity and life lessons handed down by my wife and me, his school, his whole world—all sources of information pointing to safety. This was the answer I wanted. This was what we’d taught him. And yet I told him the story. I persisted.
“It wasn’t bad,” I said, still giving lessons. “It’s just a memory.”
He said nothing.
Thinking of the redhead, I said to my son, “But never underestimate the power of bad memories.”
Jason Christian was born and raised in Oklahoma. His work has appeared in Atticus Review, Burningword Literary Journal, The Collagist, Oklahoma Review, This Land Press, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. He was recently accepted as an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University and will begin this fall.
When she first came to Epping after dropping out of art school in Boston, Davi loved the way everything in the farmhouse was old and falling apart, swollen in August, when she arrived, and then splintering all through the winter. Beth gave Davi one of her dead husband’s orange hunting hats to sleep in, and Beth slept in a camo skullcap. The kitchen was so cold November through March, Beth wore cotton gloves in the morning when she sat at the Formica table drinking instant coffee. For the first few months after she moved in, Davi sketched the kitchen almost every day, usually more than once. The light was so nice in there. Beth liked the sketches and stuck them to the fridge with magnets from the dentist. Davi was over it now, mostly, and the sketches were a little moldy from the moist air seeping out of the freezer.
Last night Beth went around opening the windows and now the whole house smells like defrosting mud. All day it’s been warm and wet, just a constant misting over the hay fields out back, but it’s getting dark and cold. Davi is washing dishes in the kitchen and watching Beth through the window as she sends off the women from Birch Waters. They came by while Davi was out running errands. When she walked into the kitchen they were talking about how to celebrate the new moon. They said maybe it would help with Beth’s chickens—they hadn’t been laying for months—and the women from Birch Waters hoped their couple of cows would let down more milk. Davi soaps down the tea plates and mismatched mugs in one side of the cast iron sink, stacks of ceramic rising in slippery towers to the lip, where some of the porcelain that used to line the whole thing still spots the metal.
It’s the first week of April and everyone is dressed too light for the weather, even if it is warmer than usual. Davi’s fraying Oxford shirt—Old Navy boys size XXL—is open to the third button, which she has replaced with a small safety pin. She’s getting goosebumps on her arms from where the water splashes up, wets her rolled-up sleeves, scalding and then too cool against her skin as the breeze sets in. She squirts dish soap into the cake pan and leaves it to soak on the counter.
Outside, the women from Birch Waters—there are four of them—are idling in an old green Jeep Cherokee. The whole bottom half of the truck is rusted nearly all the way through. In March, Jess, the youngest one by at least forty-five years, the only one of these women who drives, tied a bungee cord around the tail pipe to keep it from hitting the larger rocks when the rain washed out the road to the farm. And there are about half dirt roads back here. Dirt roads and newly paved culs-de-sacs. The tar on the culs-de-sac is still soft and oil-black.
The three older women are buckled into the bench seat under a fleece blanket printed with howling wolves. Jess is in the driver’s seat, smoking out the window. Davi walks up next to Beth. Jess’s black hair is buzzed short and she’s got one heavy boot braced against the dashboard behind the steering wheel, her knee cocked halfway out the window. The truck is already covered in dirt, so it doesn’t really matter that she’s stamping mud all over the broken vent. Jess is wearing tan cut-off overalls and one nipple keeps nudging out.
Beth is a little stooped, and her hair, so white and piled on the top of her head, only reaches Davi’s collarbone. “You ladies know my grand-niece, Davina, don’t you?”
The women in the back nod, rolling down the window to smile and say hello and not officially, no, but wasn’t it so nice to meet her now. Jess smiles and leans over the passenger side and says, “Nice to meet you, Davey. I’m Jess.”
Davi is not staring at Jess’s chest, but she is not not looking. “Nice to meet you too, Jess.”
Davi knows who Jess is. Whenever she goes down to Birch Waters in the evening to pick up eggs or, less often, a whole plucked bird, Jess is the one who works the cashbox. Beth told Davi when she first moved in and started doing chores around the house that there didn’t used to be anyone manning the box at all. Or, she supposed, the better term would be womanning the cashbox; the only man on the property was the bedridden brother of one of the founding women who had since passed. Nobody remembered his full name, but they called him Bud. Not like an old-boy Buddy, more like someone’s subdued retriever. They’d dropped the honor system when the kids from the new developments started riding their BMX bikes down to steal blueberries and the pint bottles of milk that the women flavored with the thin leftover strawberry jam. After the stealing, now that someone has to woman the stand, Davi sees Jess almost every week. Most times they don’t really talk because even though she knows Jess isn’t much older than seventeen, Davi still feels like she’s laughing at her.
Beth wraps her shawl around her shoulders a little tighter. “Well, I guess you ladies better get home.”
Jess nods. “Thanks for having us, Ms. Claire.”
“You’re welcome any time, you know that.” Beth leans her head over to the backseat window and reaches a hand in to pat one of the women on the shoulder. “Take care, Muriel. Honey and lemon tea.” She looks at Jess. “Don’t let her forget.”
Jess salutes her, stubs out her cigarette, and releases the handbrake. Three pairs of hands wave out the windows as the Jeep rattles down the driveway.
It is raining now, but Davi still has her window open. Her room is on the third floor, and she can hear the water hitting the leaves of the tulip tree just outside. Beth’s husband grew up in the house, and there are stories about the boys tying bedsheets between bedposts and the trunk to shimmy out at night. The tree is leaning a little toward the house, and, when Davi’s mother helped her move in, she threatened to call the DPW to get it removed if Beth didn’t get it taken care of. She put her fist on her hip and told Beth that she had not brought Davi here to die in some freak lightning tree accident. The house was enough of a deathtrap as it was.
Downstairs, Beth is reading aloud to herself. Sometimes Davi goes down to listen to her, sitting in the rocking chair while Beth’s tucked into her bed. Davi can hear her reading through the floorboards—the insulation is so bad—or else Beth also has her window open. She’s reading Proust, one of her husband’s old books from school. Davi has never read Proust, though she lied about it when Beth asked. Davi was, after all, the first woman of the family to go to college. “A scholar,” Beth said. Davi didn’t correct her.
Davi still has trouble sleeping in the big house, and listening to her great aunt read in the dark helps, sometimes. She also likes to think of it as some enduring romance, this reading aloud, as if she used to read aloud to Francis and this was a way of talking to him. But it isn’t, not really. Everyone in the family thought Francis had probably been gay. Davi’s mother and aunt had told her about it last Thanksgiving, drunk and looking for someone to tell secrets to.
“He had a lover after the war. Moved to New York for him.” They thought maybe that was the reason he was in the mental hospital and not because his unit had been part of the liberation of Dachau. “I mean they used shock treatment, can you imagine?”
Still, though, they agreed it was sad that Aunt Beth had never known real love.
Davi can’t hear any of what Beth is reading, just her voice, and it’s not really helping her sleep. She nudges her socks off and tries to concentrate on the sound of the chickens rustling in the coop outside, probably vying for the best roost, trying to nestle in for the night, their heads, plucked raw by the rooster, burrowing into each other’s wings.
On Wednesday, Beth refuses to go to her doctor’s appointment, and Davi decides it’s not worth fighting.
“What’s the point?” Beth asks. “There’s nothing they can tell me I don’t already know.” She is making a thermos of instant coffee for Davi to take over to Birch Waters as a thank you for Jess. She’d come by last night to fiddle with the kitchen sink when the water started pouring out of the cabinet where the pipes are. It was the kind of work Davi had moved in to help with in the first place, that and persuading Beth to go to her appointments in Manchester.
“Fine. As long as you don’t tell Mom.”
Beth sits down at the table and refills her teal pillbox. “My secret’s safe with me, honey.” She’s taken the kettle off but left the burner on, and Davi waits to turn it off until Beth is leaning over to crank open the window. There are still patches of gray snow beneath the gutter. “Look,” Beth says. “Crocuses.”
The stand at Birch Waters is empty, has been all day. Davi walks around to the first greenhouse. Squatting behind a pallet of black seeding trays furry with sprouts, Jess rocks slightly to the pop songs thumping in and out on the portable radio.
“Well, good morning, Davey,” Jess says.
Jess gets up and fiddles with the coat hanger taped to the nub of the antenna. “How’s that sink doing?”
“It’s better, yeah. Thank you for coming out, you really didn’t need to do that. I called the plumber this morning—he should be out here by the end of the week to take a look.”
“Not a problem. You don’t want black mold. That shit will fuck with your system.”
“Yeah, well, thanks again.”
Jess grins and lights a cigarette. “I’m really not supposed to smoke in here.”
Davi hopes she didn’t make a face. She didn’t mean to make a face. Though it does seem like a fire hazard.
“Stacey thinks it’ll make the lettuce taste like cigarettes.” Jess ties the tomato twine holding her workpants up a little tighter. “But between you and me, fuck that tyrant.” She walks toward Davi, looking her up and down as she pauses in the doorway. “Tobacco lettuce? Are you fucking kidding me? People would eat that shit up.”
Davi only needs half a dozen eggs. The hens at Beth’s have finally started laying.
Jess cuts a cardboard carton in half. “You’re gonna lose those birds to the coyotes all over again if you don’t fix that coop,” she says.
Davi says she thinks it was a fisher cat, actually.
“Well, anyway, you’ve got to make them feel secure. Anxious birds don’t lay.”
When Jess comes back from the small walk-in with a bunch of chives and bag of potatoes, she’s covered in goosebumps. She leans over the card table with the cashbox. “I would be more than happy to come by and help you with that coop.” Her stained white sports bra is worn thin under her open flannel shirt. Jess is making a lot of eye contact, and Davi is trying not to look at Jess’s stomach. Jess fingers the ends of the chives in a way that makes Davi uncomfortable.
“That’s fine. How much for all of this?” Davi asks.
Jess says not to worry about it. “You’re feeding us this weekend anyway. I’m sure the old ladies wouldn’t want for me to take your money.”
“Thanks.” Jess helps her carry the potatoes out to the car. “Do you need any help before I head out? Beth isn’t going to her appointment, and she wanted me to ask.”
Jess shrugs. “I could use help with the old man if you’re up for it, but you really don’t have to.”
“Yeah, of course.”
This is the first time Davi has been inside the Birch Waters House. It’s quiet and mostly empty, cleaner than she’d thought it would be. Two women in their sixties are watching cooking TV in bathrobes on the couch in the living room.
Beth has never answered Davi directly when she’s asked about Birch Waters. From what she can tell, it is a kind of commune, but never with more than ten women at a time. Davi asks Jess about it while Jess makes Cream of Wheat for Bud. “It’s not a cult or anything. It started as a kind of haven for women,” she says. “A bunch of housewives running away from their asshole husbands in the fifties.” She mixes raisins into the mush.
Jess says that except for when her father claimed his custodial rights for four years when she was ten—“bastard”—she was raised at Birch Waters. Her mother wasn’t in the picture, still isn’t, but left her here before she went to go find herself in New Mexico. “I don’t really give a shit,” Jess says. “You’ve got to make your own family, right?”
They carry the tray of pill bottles, tea, and Cream of Wheat up to the second floor. The old man reminds Davi exactly of a corpse. His head is propped up against pillows, and his stubbled chins sag down his neck. Jess talks to him as she sets up the tray. How was his morning? Did he need more blankets or a book? Bud doesn’t say anything but smiles wide at Davi, who is perched on the broken armchair in the corner. There’s a pile of gardening magazines by his bedside, but it doesn’t look like he could hold one up if he wanted to. Jess has buttoned her shirt over her bra, and she looks lost in the oversized clothing. She fluffs the pillows and asks Bud if he wants her to help him with the Cream of Wheat. He shakes his head, says no in a voice that is almost not a voice.
Davi and Jess stand by the window looking at the photographs on the wall while Bud eats his breakfast spoonful by excruciating spoonful. The pictures are all framed wedding portraits. There are big water stains across the ceiling, and someone has plastered over a spot in the wallpaper where the water must have leaked through.
When he’s finished the mush and downed the medication, Davi helps Jess dress Bud in clean clothes. His skin is dry, and purple in the creases. Davi lifts Bud under the arms and Jess inches the fresh long johns over his naked hips. Davi wonders how Jess does this on her own.
In the kitchen, while Jess washes the dishes, Davi asks if Bud shouldn’t be in some sort of care facility.
Jess scrubs at the scum lining the bowl. “Who would pay for it?”
Davi doesn’t remember the thermos of coffee until she is already at the end of the driveway. She turns the car around and pulls up close to the greenhouse, leaving the car running.
Jess is squatting on a milk crate behind the cashbox. She smiles, a cigarette hanging from her left hand. “Back for more?”
Davi swings the thermos onto the card table. “Beth wanted me to give this to you. It’s probably cold now, though.”
Jess opens the thermos and pours a few ounces into the cap. She takes a sip and grimaces. “Mmm, battery acid. Want some?”
Davi shakes her head. “I’m all set, thanks.”
“Tell Beth thank you for me.”
Davi says she will and turns back to the car.
“See you Sunday, Davey!”
Davi climbs into the driver’s seat and sticks her head out the window. “It’s Davi.”
Jess smirks. “Isn’t that what I said?”
On Sunday, Beth and Davi start baking at seven a.m. Beth puts on the classical radio station and sways a little as she moves around the kitchen. It’s warm out, bright sunshine. The backyard is drying from the week’s rain, and it’s fresh and breezy in the kitchen. Beth is cutting chives and cheddar cheese into the scone batter. Davi is sketching the bowl of blue potatoes because her great aunt asked her to.
Beth says that, before Davi moved in, the kids from the university agriculture program used to come by with chickens or ducks. “They were so nosey,” she says. “After Francis passed they wanted to get some kind of inspector out here, probably to get the house condemned. What did they care, anyway? Leave old ladies alone.”
Davi asks if anyone ever has been out here. Beth says no. “I used to have a whole flock,” Beth says. “Francis liked the ducks the best, you know.” Though, she says, really he didn’t like living out here much. “He needed it, I think.”
Beth says Francis used to go out hunting all day with Bud but hardly ever brought anything back. She thinks Francis liked to watch the deer.
Davi folds up a sketch of Beth and tucks it into the back pocket of her jeans. “Is that how you met everyone from Birch Waters?”
“Oh no,” Beth says. She slides a sheet of scones into the oven and walks out of the kitchen. “Can you imagine?” she calls from the stairs. “Two shell-shocked old men wandering around with guns? I don’t know what we were thinking.”
Before the women arrive, Beth has Davi move the rug from her room and to the back porch. The roof over the porch fell through in October, and Davi spent the following weeks cleaning out asbestos shingles and rusted nails. The heavy back door hangs from one hinge, settled into the rotten floorboards where Davi shoved it in the winter so she could shovel a path from the kitchen to the back steps. The porch is clean now, even if the floor does sag gently in the middle. Davi shuffles the kitchen table out, too, and the wicker rocking chairs that crowded the living room all winter. Beth lays a cloth over the table. It’s white with tiny red strawberries embroidered all over. They sit out there while they wait for the other women. Beth is wearing her purple dress, the one with the ceramic buttons shaped like pansies, and a string of fake pearls. She reads her book, and Davi watches a deer pick her way through the ruins of the vegetable patch on the edge of the woods. When Jess pulls up the driveway, honking the horn in a little song, the three older women scooting out of the backseat, Beth is snoring softly in her chair.
The women bring strawberry-flavored milk, butter, and thick cream out to the porch and set them down next to the scones and the chipped teapot. Davi sets up the plastic folding chairs from the kitchen. The other women, Margaret, Muriel, and Stacey, are all younger than Beth, but not by much. Muriel has brought some dried sage from last summer. It’s a little dusty, but she says she thinks it should still work. Stacey wants to burn it at the moonrise, though Beth isn’t sure she’ll make it that late.
Davi goes with Jess to grab the rest of the milk and eggs from the Jeep, and when they come back, Margaret, Muriel, and Stacey are all naked except for their polyester socks. There is something in the way they hold themselves, very upright, but in a relaxed way, that makes their nudity feel natural and less surprising. They glow more now because the afternoon sunlight is touching them directly, but it does seem to come from the skin itself. Their shoulders and thighs are solid or else sinewy under loose skin. Stacey is in the middle of telling the others about her new organic pesticides that a friend from California sent her last week. Both of Stacey’s nipples are pierced. Beth is still in her purple dress and her ankles are crossed beneath her. She doesn’t look at her when Davi places the milk on the table, but says, “Thank you, Davina.” It is the same tone she uses when Davi agrees to sketch something for her, “Thank you, Davina,” as if she’s done something truly beautiful.
Jess is sitting on the kitchen counter. “Are you going to join in?”
Davi closes the back door. Pointing behind her she mouths: “What. Was. That.”
“What, you didn’t know?” Jess asks.
“Didn’t know what? That Dear Aunt Beth was part of a nudist colony? Some kind of geriatric nudist séance group? No, I did not know that.”
“It’s not a nudist colony, Davina, calm your tits. And Beth isn’t even part of Birch Waters,” Jess says. “It’s just”—she holds an invisible teacup up to her lips, her pinky sticking out in perfect form—“tea time.” She jumps down and dusts off her pants. There is flour covering her entire ass. “Honestly, you should try it sometime.” She points to the sketch of the potatoes stuck to the fridge. “Did you do this?”
“Yeah,” Davi says.
“The artist! What is it, apples?” Jess asks, leaning in close. She is wearing the same overalls as last week and is just as naked.
“Potatoes,” Davi says, turning away. And then, “Beth wanted me to draw them.”
Jess goes out onto the porch when a game of Hearts begins, taking off her overalls and then stepping back into them when she comes in to use the bathroom. Davi is watching the women, just in glimpses, while she gets a start on the dishes.
It’s a glass plate that cuts her. It slips and breaks into large, neat pieces in the bottom of the sink. It’s the cleaning up that’s dangerous. A larger shard slices across Davi’s palm when she goes to pick it up. Her hand bleeds all over. Davi wraps her hand in a wad of paper towels before sticking her head out the back door to say that she’s going upstairs to patch herself up.
“Do you need some help?” Jess asks, rising from where she has been sitting cross-legged on the rug. She is already thin and looks thinner with the light from the window and the open roof lighting her up. She bends over to pull on her pants. “Here, I’ll help.”
Upstairs, Davi sits on the edge of the claw foot tub while Jess pours hydrogen peroxide over her palm. It hisses when it hits her skin and then again as it dribbles down the drain.
“You know, I used to want to be a nurse,” Jess says, holding Davi’s thumb back so that the cut stays open. It’s deep but clean.
Davi winces as Jess dabs at her hand with toilet paper. “So domestic.”
There aren’t any big bandages left in the house, so Davi makes a fist around a square of white gauze and jogs up to her room for some scotch tape to hold it in place. Jess follows her up.
Davi wraps the tape around her hand until all the gauze is covered. It’s a little too tight but it will have to work, at least until the bleeding has stopped.
Jess sits cross-legged on the bed. It’s getting dark out, and Davi can hear Beth singing along to some kind of chant with the Birch Waters women. The spring peepers are going off about it.
“So why’d you leave school?” Jess asks, shifting back on her left arm.
“I don’t know. Because I’m good at quitting.”
“Huh.” Jess leans over and points to the drawings taped to the sloping ceiling. “Are all of these yours?”
Davi leans against the wall. There’s nowhere else to sit except for the bed. “What do you mean?”
Jess laughs, unbuckling the straps of her overalls. She stands up and lets them slide down around her ankles before falling back onto the bed, naked. “C’mon, Davey,” she says, and stretches one leg out and touches her neck like a statue pose. “Draw me like one of your fruit bowls.”
“Screw you, Jess.”
Jess rolls her eyes.
Davi is sweating under her arms and behind her knees. Jess is staring at her. “Okay,” Davi says. She gathers her pencils and leans back on the door, the sketchpad balanced across her knees.
“How’s the light?”
Davi sketches the muscles moving in Jess’s forearm and the ropes of tendons on her neck. “It’s perfect.”
“Are you sure?” Jess leans back and shoves the curtain to one side of the open window, letting the last light in. “I want you to really see me.” She lies down again, propped up on one elbow. “So you get the picture right.”
Jess’s upper thighs are lined with straight pale tracks. Davi asks her to turn a little, and the lines are there across her hip, too, and down above both ankles. Davi never noticed them before. Davi sketches the scars in until she has the pattern right. Muriel must have started burning the sage, because the smoke is drifting up outside the window in hazy columns. The smell of it fills the room.
Outside, the women are singing, but it’s familiar folk songs now. Davi opens her hand, adjusting the bandage to cover the crease between her thumb and forefinger. Jess stretches, arching her back before folding her legs beneath herself.
Davi sits up straighter and places the pad of paper on the floor between her feet. The wind carries the smoke in, and it is woody and cool. When she looks up, Jess is still staring at her.
Meg Pendoley was born and raised in Amesbury, Massachusetts, a small town on the border of New Hampshire, where she spent her summers working on a vegetable farm. She now lives and works in Philadelphia. This is her first publication.
THE STIGMA OF BEAUTY, THE STAIN OF GLASS
by Judith Schaechter
[click any image to enlarge]
I am fairly certain that many people experience my pieces kind of like this: Judith Schaechter is an artist who makes images in stained glass of anguished women set against highly decorative backgrounds. People often see my works all at once as a group — presented in a show or reproduced in an article — but to me, each piece is vastly different and each one arose over long periods of time. But yeah, I get it: anguished women and lush, decorative backgrounds.
I started working in glass when I was a painting student at the Rhode Island School of Design. I took a stained glass elective course and was hooked. Looking back, I think that had a lot to do with time and tedium. I was in the habit of painting fast and furiously, with a lot of anxiety about the blank canvas. It was easy enough to cover that up, but I would later gesso over the parts that weren’t working and found that ultimately I was looking again at a blank canvas. With glass, on the other hand, it takes a long time to bring about a transformation. It can take days to make the glass do anything, and I found that during that time I would achieve what psychologists call “transference.” In other words, I’d grow deeply attached to the work.
Glass is a magical medium. I am using that word specifically because it alludes to the sort of Vegas-y glitz that has led some people to disrespect it as a medium and to distrust it as a serious contender for art making. Glass is one of the few materials that looks good before you touch it, and that’s dangerous because anything you do to it risks ruining it, as opposed, say, to clay, upon which anything is a vast improvement. But glass can be far more than merely superficial.
Abbot Suger (the 12th century monk who designed the Basilica of Saint-Denis) cited the spiritual promise of stained glass when he said: “stained glass is enlightenment embodied.” And how true that can feel when inside a cathedral (even if you are not religious!) But the flip side is that stained glass is particularly guilty of disillusionment; it promises so very much that when it falls short, it is extra disappointing. Stained glass suffered as a medium when demand for it decreased during the Protestant Reformation, and it suffered further as art became more and more separate from the Church. When I started working in glass, my first thought was that no one had done anything new with it in centuries, with the exception of Tiffany (whom I happen to dislike). I liked the challenge of working with a risky material and I particularly liked its neglected history.
As it turned out, the distorted, anguished figures and decorative backgrounds that looked like a pantomime of teenaged angst when I did them in oil paint, looked a lot more authentic in stained glass. Perhaps they needed real illumination to make them seem as though they were burning inside.
And so, glass it was.
Today I’m often asked, “Why do you do those things you do?” Understandably, that’s what people want to know from artists, and if we could make sense of that in words, we’d be very lucky indeed, because part of the reality is that if we could say it, we wouldn’t need to make it.
It helps to narrow it down some to two questions: why does it look the way it does, and how do you choose a subject.
I doodle a lot and I would go so far as to say I don’t have “ideas” per se. In order to launch a project, I need to literally draw it out of me. Inspiration is something that resides in me like a swamp monster in murky depths. I don’t see things in my head first and then draw them. I draw in order to see them. And so I doodle — and I see flowers, animals, female faces. Why? I honestly have no idea, and can only give a tautological response: because they interest me.
I can, however, say a few words about the significance of realism in my work. First off, perceptual realism (“realistic” realism) is not of interest to me. My flowers and faces don’t exist in nature. I have an urge to distort and reinvent — one reality is plenty in my life! — and I am attracted to other art forms of distorted realism, such as Gothic art, much Asian art, and some modern art, such as Expressionism.
As for the female faces, I think sometimes I am engaged in doll play, in that they can take on any role in a sort of proxy of selfhood. They are not self-portraits. In fact, one of my main concerns is that I want my pieces to be eternal and universal so that anyone can empathize with them. It bothers me, though, that casual observers see them as depressing. I am fascinated with the nuances of human expression and try very hard to create faces that express several emotions at once, preferably conflicting ones. So they are never just in agony, but agony tinged with ecstasy; grief offset by hope; rage tempered by serenity.
Now, about those backgrounds: they take a long time to make, longer than the figures. There is this thing in the two-dimensional arts known as the “figure-ground dilemma” — the question of what to do in the background after you’ve made a figure. Distinguishing this second dimension from the first lies at the crux of what makes us human: the ability to recognize and utilize symbolic abstractions. This is critical because one cannot help but empathize with the figure, and so its location becomes a reflection of where you are. As it was once explained to me, art is a “You Are Here” map. I hesitate to say anything mystical, or deeply philosophical (since I feel both foolish and unqualified to do so) but here goes. One of the ways art is significant beyond mere entertainment is that it contextualizes our existence in the cosmic sense. One sees an image, and one is able to echolocate off it. It’s not communication so much as telepathy.
My backgrounds perhaps act as a foil for the ambivalent figure. Or maybe they’re projections of their possible psychological state, a hallucination, a dream, or even a visual representation of their speech if they could talk. However you want to see it, I consider my backgrounds to be an extension of the figure.
Some artists are content to paint a blank area around a figure. Most are content to depict a realistic space around a figure. But I have always found it to be more challenging and rewarding to place the figure in an undetermined, abstract space.
I believe that beauty is a Good Thing, and my works usually involve plenty of bright colors, contrasts, and patterns — abstract signifiers of beauty. But since questions around beauty have been a bugaboo in art for most of the 20th century, beauty can also be a confusing thing. Is it good for us like spinach or is it good like candy? Is it morally good, or sensually good? Mind-good or body-good? In the end, I think asking this question misses the point that beauty can be both — or, as the Abbot of Saint-Denis put it, “enlightenment embodied.”
Judith Schaechter has lived and worked in Philadelphia since graduating in 1983 with a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design Glass Program. She has exhibited widely, including New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, The Hague, and Vaxjo, Sweden. She is the recipient of many grants, including the Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in Crafts , The Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, The Joan Mitchell Award, two Pennsylvania Council on the Arts awards, The Pew Fellowship in the Arts, and a Leeway Foundation grant. More at www.judithschaechter.com and judithschaechterglass.blogspot.com. Visit her work at Claire Oliver Gallery in New York.
1. Cold Genius, 35″ x 43″, 2009
2. Three-Tiered Cosmos, 30″ x 40″, 2015
3. Feral Child, 25″ x 42″, 2012
4. Horse Accident, 33″ x 45″, 2015
5. Our Ladies, 22″ x 25″, 2012
6. Waiting Room, 22″ x 32″, 2014
7. Lockdown, 21″ x 31″, 2010
8. The Sin Eater, 25″ x 46″, 2009
9. The Battle of Carnival and Lent, 56″ x 56″, 2011
10. Odalisque, 24″ x 33″, 2015
11. Harpy, 37″ x 33″, 2013
12. An Invocation, 26″ x 34″, 2009
13. The Birth of Eve, 57″ x 31″, 2013
14. New Ghost, 32″ x 19″, 2014
15. Anchoress, 35″ x 25″, 2015
16. Acedia, 44″ x 27″, 2013
ANGELS HAVE CORDONED OFF SECTIONS OF MOUNT SINAI
by John Harvey
Say nothing of this to the doctors of Geneva,
to the folks who rock back and forth
on front porches down in Key West,
or the old woman dreaming of Palestine,
but we hear talk from voices in dark places,
in hiding places, in confusing clouds
how the Lord wants to hang a cow’s
udder in the sky, replace the moon with nipples
spilling the black milk of night. We’re not sure
what he’s up to, but we aren’t going to have it,
and talk is of excommunicating him, or at least
driving him into retirement, let the relic sit
on his bed admiring polished red shoes.
This has happened before, remember
when those new architects arrived, told us
we knew nothing of perspective and color.
They drew up sea above, sky below, swim
overhead, fly underground. And in the middle,
a large pink fountain with a round base, crescent-
shapes scattered around, and spiky, claw-like
appendages. Said this was a new fashion
for a new world. We gave them wood, fire
and stake to burn on. The smoke could be seen
for miles. Remember his younger days,
unknown city on the Baltic Sea, French
governess, how he wanted to bury a baby
in the sky, but his parents wouldn’t hear of it,
so he went down to the sea and set his baby
out in the water and said swim. Of course,
the baby had no idea what was going on,
but it was shaped like a balloon with balloon-like
skin, so it floated away as he watched,
and just as the Lord sighed and called for his navy
to sail out and pick up his baby, a swordfish
swam by and popped the crying balloon —
multi-colored shreds sinking to the bottom.
Remember how he cried, remember
how we offered no consolation, how we
told him this is what comes of dreamers
buried in sleep, of leaving behind nail,
stone and rope just because you can
imagine many-voiced trumpets, fine linen
bright and pure, a world free of every
limitation, beyond every denial.
John Harvey directs the Center for Creative Work at The Honors College at the University of Houston. His poems have appeared most recently in Ghost Ocean Magazine, Red Ochre Lit, 2River View, and Weave Magazine. He is the resident playwright for Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company. His most recent play Rome premiered in 2014.
On playing an old Jackson guitar leftover from somebody’s pain in the storage room of a nuthatch and playing the opening notes to a song I didn’t yet know and… by Harley Lethalm
…which was written in ward D4-B at Butler Hospital, Providence, Rhode Island, Feb.–April ’12. My arms had been fettered to cloth, disclosing the ruined pink arm, the flesh, the lyrics I had angled in brutality and soft grief. They ran like calloused deer tracks across my arms, lengthwise and horizontal to God. The bandage only gave me a looser image, so that all there would confront me, and my arm would be turned over for inspection. Soon I removed the white press and when I laid out my arm on that table, exposed, nude—as upset looking as the first pet you cherished, suffering that last peculiar vise of agony, it was something of a shocking sentiment. I had laid out the first Joker’s card in our game of confessional, imagistic Poker. I felt chaste.
But all things elsewhere were scrutinized, disrupted. A bell, non-sonorous, grievous, clicked to a tempo of 6s each morning; the orderlies waddled in to bite our sleep; it was indecorous and murderous and scarcely a time of liturgy, and though I played with the poem a bit, the other residents refused holistically to shut off the television, which rang on and on and onward toward no conclusion—it was just as everything else and what appealed to them was the sureness of the weather, the sureness of impolite politics, the sureness of a child having been found mangled and molested in Pawtucket, deader than he meant to be, probably; but so long as it all kept coming in through the wires—that sureness that the world was their fault, not ours. We had had no say, we who were given medicine to keep from seeing mechanized lobsters, ghosts, the casual epiphany.
My rooming-mate, Gregory D., who had already been there months prior to my commitment, left bed only to speckle the lid of the toilet with urine; I do not mean to say that he merely peed in some sure poetic way—no, I mean that it was as though his instrument were programmed to address everywhere but the auspices of that chosen fluoride toilet-water, so it got a little fussy when I went in one morning, or every morning, to be more precise, to find him locked in a sort of very compelling confusion; he was lain horizontally out, jangling his penis—which was inexplicably swollen—and refining the walls with tipsy dives and come-hither motions, wagging it lengthways and sideways, elsewhere and everywhere: as a line of piss splintered a track up the wall, it was nearly holy.
He was illustrious and chancy and…graphically exciting where all else was a small immaterial dollop of gray. Speaking with him, you knew that the man could not help but detest Christmas, for it was ten or eleven years since his sister had suicided under the supposed invigilation of Mynheer S. Claus; ’tis the season, sure as shit, la la la.
Her name was Cassandra, and she had hanged herself with a thatch of strung-together Christmas cord at the age of fourteen years old.
Three days later, as Greg lay beside me talking to a sparrow that was perched just outside the windowpane, or that he only hallucinated, it came to me that I had known Cassandra well throughout my formative years; that she had lived on a farm of many hundreds of acres, and that she would spent days fishing for Technicolor trout at Wyoming pond—a pond I went to, too, as a youth. It all came on to me, and I could not understand then why my arm was not a squirrel’s tail.
More orderlies to check for campaigns of suicide at nine p.m. And every fifteen minutes after. Fewer Cassandras.
Gregory expectorated onto the floor, which was not oak-paneled, and I related to him, my eyes torn into slights of sobs, that I had known his sister. We had been friends, even, and though I can’t be sure that we had kissed (just once) while the trout failed us and the world had begun to fail us, too, on a simple day in July sometime ten years before, I’d like to think that we did.
He only expectorated, and I could not determine the arrangement of the room from Adam, and Cassandra had been gone for a while now, nailed down to the humming of limpid Christmastime shoppers in the Providence Place Mall every December.
Gregory and I kept in touch through telephone for almost a year after his release from the psychiatric hospital. He had been living in a tree fort the last time I talked to him, which was sighted near the lonesome aborning stretches of his family’s acreage. He suicided eleven months ago as of this writing, but the tree fort is still there. Before he hanged himself, he left a message on my telephone, saying simply, “You know my sister better than anyone else alive. I’m out of beer. You should come find me sometime. Bring beer.”
Why did you have to go and make that first sentence True, Gregory?
When I went to the farm, his mother told me that Gregory had left and that maybe it was best I not bring the beer up into that tree fort.
Later that night I drank the beer and thought of my friend Gregory, who was a nice fellow, and Cassandra, who was rather pretty as much as she could have been at fourteen, and together they will stay with me, at least while I’m here. Or wherever I am.
So I suppose this album is (now) dedicated to Gregory and Cassandra D., who leapt like trout toward Death, sagacity, the vowel E constrained by the consonant L. Wherever the both of you are, know I carry your deaths in my chest not as a jester, whose trade is gracious because at the close of day he sloughs the facade; he sloughs the laughter of the crowd; he sloughs the bulbous nose and the make-up enjoined on him by the great clerical enterprise of Silliness.
I am not given to that sort of graciousness. I am condemned to live out the deaths of others, because I have failed to be courteous to the lilac tree. And often I go still to a particular pond in Wyoming, where a little girl once cast out her fishing-rod like a verse of aluminum poetry, where it went cartwheeling, draftily, into the water, where the trout would nibble inscriptions at the surface, or lick little ripples only to please her. And she, the little girl—let’s call her Cassandra—would laugh because she was living and above the sadness of everything and all that mattered was the trout and the worm; she was the Master flowering the lady waters with her phrases of Margarita, and the trout bargained with her; and the heaving lilacs cranked up-up-up, bright into the Sun which did not occur too hotly for Cassandra, then, as it touched along the boroughs of the pink sky like a sloppy poppy halo.
And maybe she aproned up a bouquet of chestnuts and laughing, laughing, laughing, looked where she was going, easy-easy, not wanting to snarl her bare feet. Not wanting the barbs of thorned foliages to eat at her spotless skin.
And that little girl lay out her chestnuts like dotted envoys, confiding them importantly to her older brother, Gregory, who listened, maybe, as she prised excitedly the flakes of chestnut like they were something so special as Halloween candies. And he thanked her, maybe, and she wisped away into her bedroom, where she wrote the day’s epistolary number, and maybe the diary is still there, in that house that sits in that acreage in Richmond, Rhode Island. And maybe the entries grew shorter as the author grew less certain, as the world felt larger and the handfuls of chestnuts did not any longer seem to fit in her hands in her child’s ideology; like they were worth not as much or anything at all.
And maybe if you were to look into that diary today, Oct. 23, 2014, you would recognize a certain faultiness in the writing. Certain misspelled words. Certain days passed by with no writing. The language of the diarist, you find, has grown sadder. And it seems that she does not write much at all now. And the last entry is dated maybe just a little before Christmas, 2004.
Here she writes plaintively, hurried—small pores of blood, the paper shaking through the burn of December—all of it so god dammed obvious. But not having it, you press for explanations. But you turn the page and there is nothing. A white more urgent and vaster than Death. A poetry of collapse. Sixty-three pages of it, maybe.
And goodbye, Gregory, whose agony was so profound that he had thought to invent a tree-house in the wood, but discovered at the end that sorrow trespasses any fortress, no matter the layout of your defenses; Carthage is gone, as sorrow drags its hands along the parapets of the heart, striking not always, but just when it seems you’ve been going steadily on with it all.
And the cigarette bites your lip, the way an old flame once did at fifteen years old. And you go a little while more. “Invenias etiam disiecti membra poetae.”
Such things come to me as I tread through the Summers now, looking at the worrisome chestnuts that no beautiful girl-child of my Past will ever again gather up together in a flimsy brooch, which she has doctored out of the ends of her tiny lilac-patterned shirt. Or her brother, hanging in the drying sheets of Time; beer-stained slacks; beer-stained luck—and I walk on, a low fir branch swats me uselessly. I suckle on a beer and throw it to the lousy fen.
Let it have it. Remember it for poetry. Sometime later, I go home. A squat little farmstead winces in the quiet eve, more than anything great or beautiful, Lydian horses batting the dirt without thought; shelves of corn like prayers on the flop; the grazing ground of saintly udders. And then the clobbered little fort in the scarps of trees. I pass through and don’t notice any of this.
Harley M. Lethalm lives in Connecticut “between Job’s great linear suffrage, between Eskimaux, friends, friends of Denver nighttime Real Stars and watered-down umbrellas, years of torn yellow wallpaper.” His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bacon Review, Fatso Spider Epistle, Clockwise Cat, Brickplight, The Radvocate, The Circle Review, Artifact Nouveau. His first book, The Kidders of Escalope, is due in March 2017.
In my mouth………… a heart beats
fly wings around my chest, …………………..spill fruit juice
down my chin.………. I feel the impossibility
of previous months spent thinking
I could grow alone, ………………………….unhinged from a lover,
my image knocking dumbly about
in a glass of tap water
by my bedside.…… I’ve tried to be a head
in the sepals of sleep, …………………………….remaining closed
at the end of a leaf node —
But today a new lover leaves my apartment
in the morning, and I dive
……………………………..headfirst into the pit
of a drupe, my burrowing tongue
trying to reenter her origin. I carry
her idea in me, cored desire. ……………………………..My stomach fills
like a ponderous drop of sugared water,
mango in my right hand ……………………………………….the rain
gathered at the point of a leaf — ………………………………………waiting for it
to reach its critical mass — inevitable
drip, my consciousness
a seed stuck with toothpicks, hovering
half-submerged in a glass. Alone
………I grow a peeling mask,
contrived, unaware ……………………………I’m drowning
in my own liquids. I thought I could grow
desire in an empty home, the sun
enough to sprout leaves ………………………………from bone marrow,
but I only see a bare balcony, a smaller man
looking out. I offer myself ………………………………….to my lover, again
in my bedroom, because what I let open ……………………………..somehow opens wider
than the limits of the bloom, panicles
…………branched like veins of her inner thigh
and wrists, these thousands …………of ways leading back to the heart.
Lucian Mattison is an Argentinian American poet. His full-length collection, Peregrine Nation, won the 2014 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize from The Broadkill River Press. He is the winner of the 2016 Puerto Del Sol Poetry Prize and his poems appear in Four Way Review, Hobart, Muzzle, Nashville Review, and elsewhere online and in print. His fiction appears in Fiddleblack and is forthcoming in Nano Fiction and Per Contra. He works at The George Washington University and is an associate editor for Big Lucks. To read more visit Lucianmattison.com
My grandmother braids her hair with salt,
forgives my brother for every broken-legged deer
he coaxes out of the brush.
We draw their hot red flanks into our mouths
for every new meal we can afford,
antlers hanging beneath the chipped mantle
like sullen ghosts.
Years later he will graduate
to bringing women home for feasting,
their bodies smeared into want
on the basement floor.
Grenadine and rum until neither of them
can tilt without swelling,
my grandmother floors above,
oblivious to the way longing
sounds so much like grief.
Meggie Royer is a writer and photographer from the Midwest who is currently majoring in Psychology at Macalester College. Her poems have previously appeared in Words Dance Magazine, The Harpoon Review, Melancholy Hyperbole, and more. She has won national medals for her poetry and a writing portfolio in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and was the Macalester Honorable Mention recipient of the 2015 Academy of American Poets Student Poetry Prize. Her poem “Sugar” appears in Cleaver’s Issue No. 13.
Halfway through my seventh decade I realize I have gained in modesty, at least in the sense of exposing skin. It is partly because I have a clearer vision of my nerd body’s attractiveness. My face is a thing of no great beauty. My dear Cheryl refers, affectionately I believe, to my toothpick legs, and my cardiologist told us that my sunken chest added risk to the standard rib-cracking heart valve replacement procedure. There is little danger that the sight of my body will be inciting lust in the general public. But, mostly, I keep it well-covered because I’m a contrarian crank playing Canute to our post-modest times, in which a twerking Miley Cyrus thrives.
Cheryl and I take our customary late-summer vacation in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. It is of course ludicrous that I pine for the discreet at a beach. Any rear-guard pro-modesty defiance that I could mount is doomed to ignominious failure. Liberal expanses of fish-belly skin that hasn’t seen the light of day for many a long Canadian winter are commonplace here. In our brave new age of no shame, things better left hidden and private are routinely foisted on the casual observer. I recoil, and my mood turns bilious.
I’m walking home uphill from the beach, navigating a short crowded stretch of the main thoroughfare between the sand and the non-maritime world, a tacky interface that seems to have expanded over the years we’ve been coming here. It provides for beach-goers’ basic needs: cash-dispensing machines, purveyors of tattoos, cheesy souvenirs, deep-fried Oreos, and electronic gaming. Signs on streetlight poles warn that you can be arrested for drinking in public. Oxygen molecules fight for their lives in a miasma of fryolator grease, cigarette smoke, and nasal French. My sneaker sticks to a discarded wad of gum.
Yet for all the wretched excess and the asymptotic approach to nakedness, the throng exhibits no joie de vivre, no laughter, not a half-smile. A father snarks at his boy, “Don’t be a whine-ass.” Pained expressions mingle with vacant masks, as if everyone is here under duress, the lucky ones under sedation. The closest thing to genuine pleasure is the screaming as the nearby roller coaster slams down the first hill into its turn. People variously trim and densely-muscled or bulbous and flabby, shirtless in low-rider shorts, or tricked out in gossamer bikinis in the one place where beachwear is unquestionably appropriate—none of them can flaunt it with verve and joy.
This crass narrow strip is what one manifestation of a poisonous culture feels like. When virtually nothing is beyond the pale, experience is cheapened to worthlessness, and it shows. There’s plenty of surliness, but we’re short on vivacity, innocence, a sense that we’re alive in the midst of something extraordinary. I fear that innocence and wonder, once bludgeoned to death, are beyond resurrection. These people have only the vaguest awareness of what they’ve lost. They are jaded. At best they are complacent sheep, and even proximity to the sea’s majesty can’t save them.
Ray Scanlon is “a Massachusetts boy. He feels lucky to be above ground, lucky to have grandchildren. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. Not averse to litotes.” Twitter: @oldmanscanlon. On the web: read.oldmanscanlon.com
Unknown to the stewardess,
the stroke victim imagining
his fingers in 12-F. Knuckles
corralling a pencil, legs to
annotate a lap. Nerve endings
like eraser strands stowed
under a magazine’s staple.
If a celebrity crossword passes
the International Dateline, does
its star power last a day less?
Unknown to the mortician,
the hearse’s serpentine belt
tended by the mechanic, his
aorta like so many lug nuts
chiseling the antifreeze after
it hardens into waves coating
a postcard above the hinterland
of a hubcap. Some businesses
frame their first dollar, others
revel in their grease.
Unknown to the acrobat,
the tent sweeper’s ratio of bristles
to debris. Crescents the way
a unicyclist pendulums
across spilled popcorn,
flattens it into a calling card
of buttered while the chainsaw
juggler syncopates his wrist.
The kernel on which a stopgap sweats,
dexterity simmered with each hum.
Unknown to the street vendor,
the puppeteer’s storefront of felt
trickling onto a figure tagged Bootlegger – speakeasy ankles,
vagabond abdomen –
box edges mildewed by
a pipe that joins his neighbor,
the Chamber of Commerce,
to marionettes mid-physique.
The jester’s dimples laden with mold.
Knowledge, no clarity of ion or oat,
no cursive to fray the turbulence,
least of all a steering column
opposite the mechanic’s vena cava
while a carnival fetters its detritus
because every performance –
wire, placemat or otherwise –
is how we settle the salvo.
Insular the avenue where
I’m comfortable most unknown.
Jon Riccio studied viola performance at Oberlin College and the Cleveland Institute of Music. His poems have appeared in Bird’s Thumb, Hawai’i Review, Redivider, Blast Furnace, The Writing Disorder, and Stone Highway Review, among others. Originally from the Midwest, he makes his home in Tucson, where he received his MFA from the University of Arizona.
Your hand brushes the film from the window, believes it can make a place to see through.
Your breath changes all that.
You sing alone, to yourself. They (in the front seat) won’t say much. They believe they
are used to you.
Sing as quietly as you can all the songs about leaving. Remember that the ones who leave
When the car stops and you are allowed to get ice-cream, lop off the top part without
them knowing. Don’t tell them your teeth hurt.
Mostly, hold on. You are almost there. Years will pass, but you are almost there—
Constance Campana’s work has appeared in Brown Journal of the Arts, Three Rivers Poetry Journal, 491 Magazine, Dogwood, Clerestory,SNReview, and several other small press magazines. Besides poetry, she is currently writing personal essays that examine family myths and the detailed events that determine identity. She grew up in Kentucky but, after receiving her MFA from Brown University, stayed in Rhode Island and recently moved to Massachusetts where she teaches writing at Wheaton College in Norton, MA.
My girlfriend Jackie and I came across the memorial in a cemetery near our house in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was a slanted stone slab low to the ground with two plaques on it. The smaller described a 1956 midair collision over the Grand Canyon between a TWA Constellation and a United Airlines DC-7 that killed 128 people. The larger listed the names of the sixty-six who were buried there: three Maags, four Kites, two Crewses, and so on. My eye found the groups of matching surnames, and my mind turned them into stories.
It seemed odd that this sunny patch of grass, tucked away in the aspens, looking more appropriate for lawn chairs and bocce, would be a memorial to decompression and falling and terror.
Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash on 3 February 1959. The sole Valenzuela to die in the crash, his trio is rounded out by Buddy Holly and J. P. Richardson. Valens was seventeen. For my generation, he was revived in the 1987 movie La Bamba.
I turned seven in 1987. The low-budget movie Dirty Dancing became an unexpected hit on its August release, turning little-known actor Patrick Swayze into a star. Michael Jackson cemented his status as the biggest phenomenon in the universe and the idol of Crocker Farm Elementary School with the release of Bad, the first album ever to send five singles to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Some afternoons, before the busses arrived to take us home, Mrs. Kidd turned on the TV, and we watched music videos of Jackson hopping turnstiles in his leather and buckles.
The present is infallible when you’re seven. Michael Jackson and Patrick Swayze are as eternal as the sun and moon. The 1970s are as insubstantial as Atlantis.
I saw La Bamba on VHS in Kyle Stanek’s basement. The movie had swears in it, which made me nervous because Mom didn’t let me watch movies with swears. Kyle’s mom lingered in the basement, glancing at the TV as the actors volleyed the F-word back and forth. I feared she’d halt our entertainment, as my mom would have, but she didn’t.
Patrick Swayze died on Bells Beach, Australia, in 1991. This was as the outlaw hero Bhodi in Point Break. A fifty-year storm, he called it: wind and lashing rain, and waves as tall as houses. This is where his friend and surfing protégé, undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah, finally tracked him down.
“Just let me catch one wave,” Swayze pleaded.
Utah un-cuffed him, and he paddled out into the awesome surf. Utah’s team thought they’d get him when he came back in, but Utah knew better.
The monstrous wave Swayze was riding crashed shut on him, and he was gone.
This ending was right. Swayze was too awesome to go out any other way.
I spent the summer of 2005 in Friendsville, Maryland. It was during that summer that I first began to discover gray hairs in my beard. Also during that summer, Michael Jackson was found not guilty after being accused for a second time of child molestation. Concerts and monuments continued to memorialize Ritchie Valens, now dead forty-seven years. My friend Nate would come over to my house, and we’d watch Point Break. Neither of us surfed, but he was the best kayaker I knew—Bhodi, to my Johnny Utah. He once told me he wanted me to die in my kayak. He meant it in a good way. He wanted to die in his kayak.
“He died doing what he loved,” Nate would whisper at the movie’s finale, as though it were the ultimate expression of some principle.
One summer, while working in Zion National Park, Jackie tried to hike to an old airplane crash site. After an hour of climbing up the sand and scree, she found her path blocked by a rock wall. Tiny bits of metal from the wreckage above littered the ground. Jackie took two of the larger pieces, about the size of DVD cases, home with her.
Jackie doesn’t like flying in airplanes. She imagines the time it would take to plummet to the ground, knowing what will happen yet unable to do anything about it.
In the Grand Canyon tragedy, the DC-7’s left wing and propeller struck the Constellation’s fuselage. The DC-7 was damaged beyond its ability to stay airborne, and it spiraled to the ground below. The Constellation’s tail section separated from the rest of the airplane, decompressing the interior and blasting debris into the open sky. The collision was at an altitude of 21,000 feet—about four miles. A person sucked from the Constellation would have taken about two minutes to fall to the ground, varying based on body position.
Terminal velocity in a spread-eagle position is about 120 mph. It’s faster in a streamlined position. In the movies, this is how Johnny Utah is able to catch up with Patrick Swayze in midair after jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. In real life, it’s how casualties of the Grand Canyon collision might have chosen to end the terror faster, or to prolong being alive.
Whether rushed or prolonged, there was still the inescapable sensation of falling, and the certainty of lethal impact.
Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer on 14 September 2009. I’d shaved off my beard by then. It was an easy way to forget the gray hairs. I stubbornly believed I’d be with Jackie forever. I’d soon see the memorial with her, and hear the story of how she found her airplane part. It felt improbable that we wouldn’t be together forever.
I learned of Swayze’s illness while standing in lines at the City Market in Buena Vista, Colorado. As I’d wait with my snow peas and mushrooms and bok choy, the tabloid covers would show me what Bhodi and Johnny Castle looked like dying of cancer.
Swayze’s death was interrupted by Michael Jackson’s. One day, instead of Swayze, there was Michael Jackson on all the covers. He wasn’t waxy, as he had been for the previous decade. He was the awesome image I remembered from 1987. A few months later, Swayze finished dying, and he too was returned to his 1987 glory.
Newspaper headlines and lists of names on monuments are similar in that they invite us to believe we know the unknowable.
In some cases, there’s irrefutable evidence that a crime was committed. There’s a dead body, or the money’s missing. In other cases, the only evidence is a verbal disagreement about what happened in the past. But what do we know?
We know that Michael Jackson had sleepovers with pubescent boys, and we know that we consider it inappropriate for men in their thirties to have sleepovers with pubescent boys, and we know why. We also know that Jordan Chandler, Jackson’s 1993 accuser, accused Jackson only after being browbeaten and fed hallucinogenic drugs by his father, and we know that Chandler inaccurately described Jackson’s penis as circumcised. We know that when a guy’s been accused of something twice we ought to take the allegation seriously, but we also know that the precedent of a $20 million settlement will invite more allegations whether they’re true or not.
We can arrange these details to make our own stories. I like the arrangement that does as much as possible to preserve the 1987 Michael Jackson. But nobody will ever know what happened behind closed doors. Possibly not even Jordan Chandler.
The thoughts of the 128 people who boarded two airplanes at Los Angeles International Airport shortly after 9 in the morning on 30 June 1956 are also lost. All that remains is a placid blue sky, and a block of cut stone by some grass in a cemetery in Flagstaff. We’ll never know what they thought as the DC-7’s wing split the Constellation open like a can of soup, and as they all fell to the ground at varying speeds.
A memorial is a reflection, not a portal. Here are some names, it says. You fill in the rest. Whether I memorialize outlaw heroes, FBI agents, molested children, or would-have-been Kings of Pop is up to your whim.
In the early morning of 16 August 1960, as part of an Air Force experiment, Captain Joseph Kittinger departed from Tularosa, New Mexico, by helium balloon, wearing a pressurized suit. An hour and forty-three minutes later, from an altitude of 102,800 feet, the upper stratosphere, he jumped out.
Where the air is thinner, terminal velocity is faster. Kittinger reached a freefell speed of 614 mph before deploying his parachute. His descent took 13 minutes and 45 seconds. For more than fifty years, it was the record for the highest, longest, and fastest jump.
Jackie discarded one of the airplane pieces when she left Zion. She took the other back to her parents’ house and put it in a cabinet in her bedroom that displayed trinkets she liked. But somewhere along the way, maybe when her parents remodeled their house, the airplane part was thrown away, or it was put in a box somewhere, never to be seen again.
I asked her why she’d kept it in the first place. She said she wanted a memento of a time and a place and an experience, and the feelings that went with it. She wanted to anchor those memories to something physical and enduring.
Joseph Kittinger is now eighty-seven years old. Ritchie Valens would be seventy-four, Michael Jackson fifty-seven, and Patrick Swayze sixty-three. Jordan Chandler and I are both thirty-five. Bit by bit, the past is falling out from underneath us. Kittinger’s record has been broken. Another album has matched Bad’s five number-one singles. I haven’t spoken to Jackie in years.
I wonder if Jordan finds gray hairs in his beard. I wonder what he thinks when he thinks of Michael Jackson. I wonder whether he wishes he could buy back his anonymity. I wonder, if he could have a single moment from his life to keep forever, which one he’d pick.
There’s a picture of Michael Jackson and Jordan Chandler together, prior to Chandler’s allegations. Chandler is in the foreground, looking directly at the camera. He’s a beautiful kid. His expression is hard to read. It might be awed, smug, even bored. He’s wearing an orange button-up shirt with a stylish brown jacket over it, and a hat that looks straight out of the “Smooth Criminal” video. Jackson is slightly left of center, behind Chandler’s right shoulder. He already looks a bit ghoulish. I hadn’t remembered him looking that way until years later. In his arms, only partly in the photo, is a young girl. He’s wearing sunglasses and a black button-up shirt, and smiling just a little.
This picture lets us look back at a moment when Jackson and Chandler were only the King of Pop and an excited fan. The moment is still there. We can still see it. But with each passing year its significance evaporates more from our collective memory. The generations that experienced it are being replaced by ones that didn’t. We have the technology to record words, images, sounds—we can preserve all of these things indefinitely. But their meaning is constantly being lost.
Peter Tiernan has an MFA in fiction from Boise State University and an MA in creative nonfiction from Northern Arizona University. He was born in Maine and now lives in Idaho, where he works outdoors and spends his free time “writing, floating down rivers, and pondering the meaning of it all.”
It’s all about thresholds.
When I walked up Shirley Creek trail
I knew some of my friends
to have done some wrong things right.
Blowing up gaslights
on suburban cul-de-sacs
with M-80s is not, once you
have the idea, difficult.
Jamming the gear shift,
both hands into Park,
and hugging your arms very tightly
around you as you throw
your body out the door, once
you have the intention,
is not any more difficult
than hugging something special good-bye.
When they jumped, they pulled out
all the air behind them.
Are you being held hostage?
Is your life under immediate threat?
Look for a soft spot.
Above the wedding ceremony
we watched one day a performance
by expert jumpers.
The car they jumped out of
sounded like an airplane,
and their jumps, so ecstatic,
do you think? Or accomplished?
They turned into smoke,
they turned into trails, they wrote out vows
the wind erased, we saw wreaths
of chrysanthemums over bannisters
falling over the gilded meadow
as you, looking up, momentarily
beside yourself, beside
the glass-sharp blade of the creek
where it hums its work on the pavement
beneath you, let’s face it, you
probably already know how.
Let’s go inside. This is hard.
It’s about thresholds.
The second-easiest thing,
after being born, you’ll do
in this world. There might be
a time it will be less dangerous
than to remain in the car.
Are you married?
When I walked up Shirley Creek trail,
the woods were so dry.
Dog shit tied up in throw-away bags
on the sides of the path.
Sky through the trees a really big car.
The jump is most of you, like DNA.
Grafitti—Christ! 55 years old!
How to spell it? Two Fs! One T!—
cut into the bark of a stupefied tree,
an aspen jumping across Shirley Creek trail,
that I jump as I read:
LAMAS… ISA… TILLEY… LENA
This tree will be here a thousand years,
where will you be?
My feet, step by step,
pass the afternoon beneath them.
This was where Li in city shoes
skidded into bushes and,
feathers, this is where, Edgar said, a feather
is a prayer, so you can’t just leave them,
all the ones you’ve taken,
you have to put them back.
This is where I thought,
when these woods go up,
they’re going to burn
like a motherfucker, where
cinders will rain, terrible American cars,
the fire jumping out their doors.
When I walked up Shirley Creek trail
I saw on the sky—all H’s, capital A’s,
And I, I, I, letters forming, and
I thought here of Rashida M.,
in this stand of huge trees, Rashida,
editor of the college newspaper
back home, this summer, she’s going
to Jerusalem, and here, where I
thought of her, and said out loud
I hope you come back, I read
on the exposed trunk
of a whitened old spruce
shorn to its last threads of bark,
where ants and termites
had tunneled, the hieratic
paths of their urges, zodiacal subway
route maps such as in Greenwich Village,
a place I have never been
that might as well
for all I can say about it
be in Europe.
A bear? Something like that.
Startled up ahead, crashing
the poison oak. I was about
to turn around anyway, the canyon
filling with sound. Hikers, bellowing
its mall-like reaches. Hello, help.
Wind. A ruckus of fire.
A trouble in the creek.
Ted Lardner has published three chapbooks: Passing By a Home Place (Leaping Mountain, 1987), Tornado (Kent State, 2004), and We Practice For It, which was selected by Mark Doty as the winner of the Sunken Garden Poetry Award and published by Tupelo Press in 2014. His poems and nonfiction have appeared in Watershed Review, One, Blue Fifth Review, Gone Lawn, 5am, Arsenic Lobster, and other journals. He lives and teaches writing in Ohio.
she’s planning a comeback.
she’s snorting Ajax for the camera.
she’s landing a role on “I Spy.”
she’s writing her number on a napkin and
handing it to me at King Eddy’s Saloon.
June Fairchild isn’t dead
she’s just been voted Mardi Gras Girl at Aviation High.
she’s acting in a movie with Roger Vadim.
she’s gyrating at Gazarri’s, doing the Watusi with Sam The Sham.
she’s mainlining heroin in a cardboard box.
June Fairchild isn’t dead
I saw her tying one on at King Eddy’s Saloon.
she’s making “Drive, He Said,” with Jack Nicholson.
she’s selling the Daily News in front of the courthouse.
she’s snorting Ajax for the camera.
June Fairchild isn’t dead
she’s relapsing in front of the Alexandria Hotel.
she’s working as a taxi dancer, making $200 a shift.
I saw her vamping with Hefner, frugging on YouTube.
she’s naming Danny Hutton’s band 3 Dog Night.
June Fairchild isn’t dead
she’s living at the Roslyn SRO on Main.
she’s giving up her daughter to her ex.
she’s snorting Ajax for the camera.
she’s planning a comeback, needs new headshots.
June Fairchild isn’t dead
she’s Up In Smoke, getting clean.
she’s sitting by the phone.
she’s falling asleep in Laurel Canyon with a lit cigarette in her hand,
waiting for me to call.
Former Gazarri’s dancer/starlet June Fairchild, a self-proclaimed “angel in a snake pit,” died of liver cancer on Feb. 17, 2015. She was 68 years old. Alexis Rhone Fancher writes, “I really did meet June and she wrote her number on the napkin. I’m a professional photographer. She had seen samples of my work and asked me to photograph her. Sadly, she passed away before we could get together.”
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s poem “when I turned fourteen, my mother’s sister took me to lunch and said:” was chosen by Edward Hirsch for inclusion in The Best American Poetry of 2016. She is the author of How I Lost My Virginity To Michael Cohen and other heart stab poems (Sybaritic Press, 2014) and State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies (KYSO Flash Press, 2015). Find her poems in Rattle, The MacGuffin, Menacing Hedge, Blotterature, Slipstream, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles, Chiron Review, Hobart, and elsewhere. Alexis is the poetry editor of Cultural Weekly. Find her at alexisrhonefancher.com
I find myself suddenly and deeply involved in the comedy world. It started with my ex-girlfriend, who is a comedian. She was one of those comics who did jokes that involved her body. I liked the way she moved on stage, like she wasn’t afraid of people staring. She had this one bit where she did this sort of booty shake. Kind of like a “twerk,” but more side-to-side, not up and down. It made me think about asses in a whole new way that I liked.
I’ve never been an ass guy. I believe in my heart that you can tell a whole lot about a person from her legs. Or his legs. I don’t discriminate when looking at people’s legs, necessarily. You can tell how much weight they’ve put on themselves, in like a deep way, not just physical weight, more like the intangible weight of a lifetime or something. It usually sounds better in my head.
In any case, I’m at a show right now, and one of my buddies is performing. He’s got legs like an ox. His jeans can hardly hide his girthy calves. The sheer mass of them holds power over the audience. He does a lot of frat boy jokes. Like stuff about bars and women and women in bars. He’s a self-deprecator, as most comedians are. Some people say it’s to hide their real emotions. I think anyone who wants that kind of abuse probably thinks he really is a piece of shit. They all drink and smoke before they go on stage. It’s a badge of honor. They either joke about how they’re alcoholics or how they used to be, but now they’re taking it easy and only smoking crack.
“How’s everybody doing tonight?” he says.
It’s a light crowd. They’re all a little drunk and wishing they weren’t at a comedy show that someone on Forty-Fourth Street told them to go to. They call them barkers. That’s what my buddy on stage does when he’s not doing sets. They’re the same guys who were club promoters in college, and drug dealers in high school, and mistakes at birth.
“You ever notice how when a guy sits in a bar he’s always got his dick pointed in the direction of the hottest girl?” he says. The audience chuckles, a low rumble. Ice clinks side to side in their glasses. “A guy’s penis is like a compass, and it’s always pointing due hot.”
It’s a bit of an older crowd. Tourists, mid-forties, shirts that say New York on them or still have the tags. The exact kind of mindless shitwads who are walking through Times Square with their heads in the sky and their wallets open, renting bikes and eating at Bubba Gump Shrimp because it’s a name they recognize.
“Like if Magellan was lost, and he found one of these guys he could just look at his cock and say, well there’s a hot girl that way, it must be California.”
The crowd seems to like that one. A couple of women in the first row cackle and drunkenly poke each other mouthing the word: C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A, as if they’re part of something. As if this comedian has made a connection with them by naming their state. It’s a cheap trick. He probably heard them talking about it before the show. Not that I blame him. It’s a tough thing to get people to laugh with you.
The air in the comedy club smells like spilled beer and tampons. I think about how my ex would sometimes look at me when she was up on stage because she knew I liked it, and I would make her keep on her dress when we fucked because it felt more like a performance that way.
I make a little circle with my index finger to the waitress. Another round of whisky before the show is over.
I’m watching my friend’s lips move on stage, but I’m thinking of Alaska. Alaska has these long blue stretches of ice where you think the world might just about end. The ex and I went on a cruise over there on a Danish ship with a bunch of retirees. We mostly drank and had sex and waited for the few hours when they’d let us off the boat like some kind of experiment.
She wasn’t that tall, but she had these long legs. She’d always shine them up before dinner like she was going on a talk show, and then I’d sit across from her and look her in the eyes, but the only thing I could think about was what was under the white tablecloth.
“What’d you think?” my friend comes up to me after the show, massaging my shoulders awkwardly from behind.
“I think you landed a few. The crowd was a real Floyd Mayweather.”
“Yeah, it was kind of a B set, but you gotta just keep pluggin’.” He curls his large body in front of me, motioning that we should go to another bar. There’s nothing comics like less than waiting around to hear other comics. I roll the rest of the whisky down my throat, stopping the ice with my front teeth. I have very sensitive teeth, people always say to me.
We move to the next bar. An Irish pub where the comedians like to hang out because the drinks are cheap and sometimes the owner blows them in her office if she’s had enough coke. She’s a frumpy, tall woman with teeth that don’t match her head. The place does all right, mostly because no one wants to pick a new spot. The Wild Boar, it’s called.
Comedians travel in very dude-heavy crowds. It’s rare to find them with more than a couple women, usually comedians as well, and they’re all trying to fuck the same two girls.
We have some whiskeys. The bartender knows us and buys us a shot of anti-freeze. I can taste the cinnamon in my dreams. I’m listening. Everyone is trying to be the planet, and I’m like Saturn’s rings. The booze makes them aggressive like chimpanzees who’ve been berated for months and then let loose.
After a while, my friend motions that he wants a cigarette, and I follow him out because it’s loud, and I can use some air.
“So how’s tricks?” I ask, as he lights his cigarette.
He takes a very long drag, releases it into the air in a thick trail. “I’ve been thinking about killing myself.”
“Pills or bathtub?”
“I don’t buy into the whole razor thing. Give me a bottle of Jameson and some downers, and let me enjoy the last ride.”
“I think I’d like to be shot out of a cannon onto city hall and splattered into some kind of political statement.”
He takes another drag. The cherry burns bright orange and then dulls. “You always were more of an activist.”
I think about Alaska and how the trees and the sky and the ice all became a singular thing. I think about what it would be like to live and fuck and die in a wild land. There is something about the smell of smoke and stale beer that makes me think back to a time when I was happier.
“Ready, Freddy?” he asks, tossing the last bit of his cigarette burning to the curb.
We head back in. He runs into someone. I continue to the bar.
“Look at this guy.” It’s a voice I recognize. I squint and see it’s my ex. She’s surrounded by men, and she’s drinking whiskey. I like that she’s drinking the same drink I left her with. It’s like a calling card. I recall the deep blue of the Alaskan ocean and how if you died out there nobody would know. One time at six a.m. she woke me up and told me we should look for whales, and we did, and I never knew how important that was until this moment.
“How are you?” I say.
She looks around, and her expression is pointless. She’s miserable. I can tell, but she’s trying to give the impression she’s lived a blessed life.
“Livin’ the dream,” she says.
I’m feeling the whisky, and seeing her again gives me a funny feeling like a cold hand on my belly. “Miss me?”
“Not a bit.”
It doesn’t matter that she’s lying. We lied our way through two years, so it feels like history. One day they’ll study us in textbooks and doodle in our margins. I think about the time we picked out glass on an Alaskan beach and saved it and brought it home. It was smooth and dark and felt like something that had existed a very long time ago.
The whiskey burns in my stomach. I forgot to eat. Or maybe I didn’t forget. “I’ve been thinking about you.”
“What for?” she says, trying to get another drink from the bartender. She leans her cleavage over the wet bar.
“We were smart to get divorced,” she says. “We never really had a chance.”
My buddy comes over. He’s surprised to see my ex. “How’s tricks?” he says.
“What, are you two married?” she says.
“How come you always show up when we’re about to have fun?” says my friend.
“I’m always here, your huge floppy tits are just blocking your view.”
The bartender places a drink at her pink fingertips. It’s clear with a lime.
“I should probably go,” I say delicately.
“Oh, fuck you. You don’t even know what you want,” she says, gulping her drink. “You’re like if I put a high schooler in a time capsule and just let him loose in New York City in 1962. That’s what you’re like.”
“That’s not even an insult,” says my friend. “High schoolers fuck like six times a day.”
“Yeah, so does the pope,” she says.
My friend motions to me that he wants to smoke again. He smokes the way they did in old fifties films. He shuffles his large thighs, and I follow him outside. The cool air hits my sweaty forehead. It feels good.
He takes a prolonged drag. He exhales. He looks out at the cars on the street. There’s a little bit of rain making that soft whooshing sound. “I realized about a week ago—all this shit you think you’ll forget or get over, it’s all forever.”
I take a breath, breathing in the smoke. I welcome it. “You’re my hero, man.”
He inhales. The smoke drifts around us like chalky clouds. I wonder if this is what heaven looks like, dim, the sweet sound of water on tar, hardly visible.
Matthew Di Paoli received his BA at Boston College, where he won the Dever Fellowship and the Cardinal Cushing Award for Creative Writing. He has also been nominated for the 2015 and 2016 Pushcart Prize and won the Prism Review Short Story Contest. Matthew earned his MFA in Fiction at Columbia University. He has been published in Post Road, Qu,The Great American Literary Magazine,Neon, The Soundings Review, and Gigantic, among others. He is the author of a novel, Killstanbul,from El Balazo Press and teaches writing and literature at Monroe College.
Katrine used to be fun, but ever since she got sober she’s as boring as the rest of them. Now it’s, “My sponsor this, my sponsor that.” Now family get-togethers are that much more of a fork in my eye.
Before she became the queen of AA, Katrine and I used to hang out on Squirrel Beach, watching the kids splash around the lake. We drank the fancy seven-dollar microbrews that Seth, Katrine’s husband and my obnoxious brother, bought at Whole Foods, and we made fun of all the ways my parents’ house sucked. Starting with: weren’t beaches supposed to be sandy, actually pleasurable to lie on? Not all rocks, so that even when we brought Mom’s soft, fluffy towels—the ones that were absolutely not for the beach, so we had to sneak them down—it was like lying on piles of acorns. Or the skulls of invertebrates. That was Katrine’s theory, that it was called Squirrel Beach because it was some ceremonial, small beast burial ground. She used to make me laugh, Katrine.
Even when we were talking about serious shit. Like the fact that she had fallen for the new teacher at her school. Katrine taught math and science, Victor taught humanities. I forecasted the whole thing. We sat on the beach, watching Katrine’s Ronny push around my Claire, haul Claire by the elbow and try to get her to swim to the buoy, and Katrine went on and on about the new teacher. The fact that she was telling me such boring shit was what made me pay attention. Victor brought his own coffee because he didn’t like the coffee they stocked in the faculty lounge. She thought that was interesting. Or worth telling, for some reason: that it signified something exceptional about him, some way he rose above the crowd.
Honestly, I thought he sounded pretentious, and kind of like Seth with his precious microbrews. I wondered what it said about Katrine, that she fell for such particular guys. Maybe it made her feel good about herself, that someone choosy would pick her.
Anyway, I saw the whole thing coming, from coffee snob onset. Katrine and I lay on our stomachs, Katrine wearing her giant, Scarlett O’Hara hat, and talked. I felt a little bad for Seth, but l looked forward to those Saturdays too, to finding out what happened next. When Katrine told me about Victor giving her a blue coffee mug with a gold fleur de lys, I said, “You know he wants to sleep with you.” She shook her head and laughed. They were just friends, she said, and besides, he was married.
I could have said, “So are you,” but I didn’t.
Katrine reminded me of my friend Claire Pederowsky from when I was sixteen. We spent that summer lying on a beach talking about boys, the summer Claire, the prettiest girl in my class, lost her virginity to this boy Scott. I heard every contour of that romance too: the way he kissed the hollow of her neck; the way the tip of his penis reminded Claire of the silky cap of a mushroom. We were close that summer, though not once school started again. But that summer I watched Claire braid and rebraid her hair and listened to her talk.
You expect twenty-nine to feel different from sixteen, but it doesn’t, really. I was intrigued and envious just like back then (because you try being a single mother and having any kind of sex life!). Every weekend I heard another chapter: from Victor making her coffee, to buying Katrine her own blue mug, to drinks after work, to first kiss, to the hotel room where Victor made her come twice. Katrine alternated between giddiness and suffering, just like Claire.
Well, Katrine’s suffering was worse. She fell hard for Victor, and it was clear to me there was no future there. She asked, “Should I leave Seth?” I looked at her beautiful, bloodshot eyes, and I thought about what a dick Seth had been when we were kids.
When Seth found out, Katrine lost it. I heard this part from Seth, not Katrine: how she wrung her hands like someone praying, how she kept saying, “What can I do, what can I do?”
And according to Seth, what followed was like a job negotiation, the kind you have when you’re ready to quit, so you ask for the moon to see what they will give you.
“Quit drinking,” he told her.
But then Seth looked off to the distance—we were sitting on Squirrel Beach again, me and Seth. My ass was hurting, because we were on some ratty towel that might as well have been a dishcloth. Seth wouldn’t sneak out Mom’s fluffy towels; he followed her rules. After a pause, Seth staring at the steel-colored lake, he explained that this never would have happened without Katrine drinking. She never would have kissed Victor if she hadn’t kicked back two Jack Daniels. He didn’t mention me at all—he never asked me if I knew, or why I didn’t tell him. But he looked down at my hand, at the can I was holding. I knew he was picturing me and Katrine on the beach, lying on our stomachs, whispering. Our heads together, her wearing that wide-brimmed hat.
So, that was a year ago. Katrine got her sobriety chip last week. I saw her show it to my sister Melissa. Melissa said, “Good for you.”
Now I’m the only one on Squirrel Beach drinking, and it’s cans of Miller Lite. Seth doesn’t bring fancy beer, because he’s supporting Katrine. Everyone is supporting Katrine.
And Katrine keeps her distance from me. I don’t know if it’s because of the can in my hand, or because I heard every chapter of her story and never told her to stop. Sometimes it’s just me on Squirrel Beach, watching Claire paddle around with Ronny. I see how long-legged Claire is getting; she’s eight now. I watch her swim farther and farther out. All I had ever wanted was someone who would always love me.
Yesterday Melissa sat next to me, watching the kids. Her two are at sleepaway camp. I said to her what I’d been thinking: “Missy, no one warns you how hard it is to be a single parent.”
She said, “I tried, Liz. I tried to warn you.”
But she didn’t tell me to call her “Melissa,” which is what she has said since she went to college and reinvented herself.
Then she tapped my beer can and said, “Maybe you should let up on that.” But she said it gently, not in her bitchy, superior way. We watched the kids swim toward the buoy, their arms white scissor blades shearing the water.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the English Department at Mills College. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in Arroyo Literary Review, Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Breakwater Review, Broad!, Corium Magazine, Fiction Southeast, 580 Split,The Gettysburg Review, Gravel, Hobart, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, JMWW, Parcel, River City, Sixfold,SNReview, Squalorly, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Word Riot. She is working on a novel and a short story collection.
do not worry about the bruised dreams
of the night-cafe. ………………………. place them into glass jars.
look to the coal weeds, the crushed chestnuts,
the shapes gorged with distances.
what you thought for hands: sheaves of lavender.
the seashells turning into roses.
do not worry about your words breaking like dry reeds.
………………………….remember the woman carrying firewood.
the crow who flew into the kitchen.
to remember is to walk in a room of mirrors.
time is the languidness of blossoms,
the sleep of white dahlias.
look to the security guard feeding the pigeons.
the red water of autumn. the sky …………………………………………….. pulling its heavy yarns.
Triin Paja is an Estonian living in a small village in rural Estonia. She writes in various fields, cities, dreams, and countries, sometimes in English, sometimes in Estonian. Her poetry has appeared in BOAAT, Tinderbox, Gloom Cupboard, Otis Nebula, and elsewhere.
“Quasar” has been nominated for the Rhysling award of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (sfpoetry.com). The Rhysling is awarded to the best long and short speculative poems first published in the previous calendar year. (Speculative literature is science fiction, fantasy, or supernatural horror.)
The slick silver thread of highway
pulls taut over the Keystone State.
Nothing is as I imagined it,
says Mother to the oil field
churning with the polished quiet
of cash for longer than a mile,
eyes greener in the copper
industrial light. It is 1999.
My father has built a wall
inside her, rust on roses,
a wheel’s fever. The child
kicks like a miniature Samson,
swims the darkening length.
Matthew Gellman’s poems are featured or forthcoming in Thrush, H.O.W. Journal, Lambda Literary, Poetry Quarterly, DIALOGIST, Two Peach, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a scholarship from the NYS Summer Writer’s Institute. He lives in New York and is currently an MFA candidate at Columbia University.
Hannah made a cherry pie, and it relaxed her. Only when she was carrying the pie from her house to the neighbor’s, still warm in its tin, did she think it might be inappropriate for a barbecue. She should have brought a six-pack of beer, or some cheese and crackers, because a barbecue probably did not even make it to dessert. In any case, it was too late. Amy had come to her front door to let in a couple of people and spotted Hannah walking up the drive.
Hannah felt overdressed too. She was. She always was, now wearing a white sundress with pumps—Amy wore jeans and flip-flops.
“Oh, you weren’t supposed to bring anything,” Amy said, dragging her into a one-armed hug, her other hand holding a glass of wine.
Hannah wanted to turn around and throw the pie in the trash, but Amy was pulling back the dish towel covering.
“Wow! Did you make that?”
“Yes. I did,” Hannah said, quietly.
It was a sudden, awful realization—Amy had only invited her to be polite. A neighbor will invite the street just so there aren’t noise complaints, so they don’t have to avoid anyone’s eye while walking the dog.
“Amy. Would you mind if I sat down for a moment?”
“Come in!” Amy said.
She pressed Hannah into an armchair in the front room. There was no one else there—they were all out the back. Hannah heard them—the disembodied voices and laughter, above the music that was a bit loud. The pie sat on top of the television cabinet where Amy had left it.
Amy returned with a glass of water. “Can I get you something else? Some crackers?”
Hannah smiled. “No. I’ll be fine.”
She felt Amy hovering above her temporarily. Amy had a party to host, after all.
“I’ll be fine,” Hannah repeated and then, excited at the prospect, which she tried to conceal, “maybe I should just go home.”
“No, no. You can’t do that,” Amy said. “Give yourself a few minutes. I’ll be back.”
Hannah took a sip of water. The pie remained on the television cabinet. What was she going to do with the blessed thing? Go into the party, carrying it yet again, the forgotten or rejected pie. I’m still here, and so is the pie. Or she could go home, sneak away, taking the pie with her, and eat a piece all by herself or eat the whole thing with a spoon, the noise of the party happily next door. It was inconceivable to leave the pie there so that someone tomorrow night, watching the game, found it cold and congealed above the television.
Hannah felt old. She was only forty. She could not fathom when or how she became a person who wore a dress and pumps rather than jeans and flip-flops like everyone else, made a pie to bring to a barbecue, and, having barely crossed the threshold, sat in a darkening front room, sipping water, working out how to leave with her pie.
She blamed her marriage, her divorce, her lack of children. There was nothing tethering her to this suburban street in Portage Park, to the house she and her husband, Mark, shared until last year, when he finally gave up and left. She didn’t have to stay in Chicago, or even in Illinois. She could work anywhere—online realty marketing, which she did from home. Yet she was still here—very much here, at a wretched barbecue that she should have avoided.
The doorbell rang and someone called “Hello!” cheerfully through the front screen door. Amy’s flip-flops slapped hard against her heels as she walked down the hallway, past the entrance to the front room, which she undoubtedly did not plan to reenter for a while. The noise of greetings and kisses at the door was intolerable.
Hannah heard an intake of breath in the dark behind her.
“Jesus. God,” he said. “I didn’t know anyone was in here,”
She turned in her armchair toward the voice and said, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just planning on leaving.”
“Don’t leave. Not on my account.”
The voice was familiar, slightly older, gentle.
“Dr. Winter, is that you?” she said.
“Hannah,” she said. “It’s Hannah Steeple now.”
“Ah,” he said. “Do you mind if I—” He began to move around the room in the dark. “If I find a lamp?”
He switched on a lamp above the piano in the corner. The light was dim, but still she felt her eyes adjust to the comparative brightness. He stayed near the piano. He was wearing a suit and tie, and she thought, bless you, Dr. Winter, you look even more uncomfortable than me.
“I’m terribly sorry for speaking like that,” he said. “I got a shock.”
“That’s fine, Dr. Winter.”
“Charlie,” he said.
She could not remember if she had known his first name.
“And I’m sorry for calling you by your married name,” he said.
“That’s okay. I don’t expect you to keep up with that sort of thing. In fact, I haven’t been to your office since,” she said. “Since the divorce.”
“No. I haven’t seen you in a while.”
Hannah didn’t know whether he remembered all of it—the fertility tests for her and Mark, the referral to a specialist, and Mark swallowing down tears, his jaw grinding, accusatory, over and over, for an entire appointment. There was something in Charlie’s voice, a softening, or an inflection, that made her think he remembered very well.
“I hope you have been okay,” he said.
She smiled, close-lipped. “These things take a while to adjust to, don’t they?”
“They certainly do, Hannah.”
He was always a kind doctor, but he seemed even more so now, as if he embodied kindness.
Charlie pulled out the piano stool and sat on it, facing away from the piano. His legs were stretched in front of him, crossed at the ankle. His arms were crossed too. His dark gray suit looked expensive, Italian. He studied the toes of his black shoes.
“I didn’t know that you knew Amy and Kurt,” she said.
Charlie smiled over at her, and she realized he was probably not permitted to even say whether Amy and Kurt were patients of his.
“I shouldn’t come to these things,” he said, as if reading her thoughts.
His wife had died from cancer a few years ago and Hannah imagined him sitting in an empty kitchen with the tap dripping into a shiny clean sink at nine o’clock on a Saturday night.
“I shouldn’t have come either,” Hannah said.
“Why is that?”
“I hate parties.”
Charlie laughed. “Me too. I guess that’s why we’re sitting here rather than on the back deck.” He stopped. “Why are you here, actually? In the front room, I mean.”
She cleared her throat. “I needed to sit for a moment.”
He smiled, gently. “Are you feeling better?”
He may have remembered the mental health survey he took her through in his office, ranking from one to ten various criteria—Do you feel hopeless? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you feel that there is no point to living?Do you feel worthless? Where “ten” was all the time and “one” was not at all. He had spoken to her carefully afterwards in precisely the way she craved, and she was terrified that she had lied, exaggerated. Why wasn’t that a question? Do you think you have made this all up?
“At least you have been out there. To the party,” Hannah said. “I only made it to the front room.”
“I’ve been doing this for longer than you,” he said. “Going to parties alone.”
“I don’t know how you bear it.”
Charlie raised his eyebrows. “Look at me,” he said, gesturing to his suit. “I don’t even try.”
“You look smart.”
“Exactly,” he said and, seeming to remember himself, he smiled. “Thank you. Thank you, Hannah.”
There was a moment of silence before he took a breath and said, “Have you eaten?”
“There’s a place close by. A coffee shop, really. They have some good meals.”
She considered it for two seconds. “I would like that.”
They did not try to find Amy or Kurt, and she guessed this broke some private etiquette of his. Not for her. On their way out, she collected the pie from the top of the television cabinet. It was thrilling, as if she had stolen a precious thing.
Melissa Goode is an Australian writer living in the Blue Mountains, just outside of Sydney. Her work has appeared in Best Australian Short Stories, The Fiction Desk, Crannóg, Halfway Down the Stairs, Pithead Chapel, and Mulberry Fork Review, and she has been a featured writer in Bang!. One of her short stories has been made into a film by the production company Jungleboys. She is currently writing her first novel, What Have We Become, which was selected by Random House for a publishing fellowship with Varuna, the National Writers House in Australia.
Torcida Se me puso ella fractal esta mañana, fractal, la cara toda triángulos & rombos & retorcida que se rompía. Pero ya que los mansos vamos a heredar la tierra quemada, esquivé sus reproches, grandes e infinitos como trenes carboneros…y yo, imbécil de mí, voy y me monto en uno, a lo errabundo, por discutir, porque son tan jodidamente largos y lentos, y me muero alto y claro en dos segundos. Ya incluso la cocina se sentía diferente, más lenta, como si estuviera bajo el agua. Y entonces miro al reloj y son las seis. La tía Rosa solía decir que una pareja es igualita que las dos manecillas de un reloj: por siempre separándose y rejuntándose otra vez, así que al mediodía hay amor lleno y a las seis, que es como una espada, sólo queda el odio.
Askew She went fractal on me this morning, fractal, her face all triangles & rhombi & contorted brittle. But since we the meek shall inherit the scorched earth, I rope-a-doped her reproaches, big and infinite like coal trains…and then, stupid, I go and fetch a hobo-ride in one of them, for argument’s sake, because they’re so freakin’ long and slow, and I die out aloud in two seconds. Even the kitchen felt different by then, slower, as if somewhat underwater. Then, I look at the clock, and it’s six. Auntie Rosa used to say that a couple is just like the two hands of a clock: forever falling apart and then coming together again, so at midday there is full love and at six, which is like a sword, there’s only the odium.
Daniel Aristi studied French literature as an undergrad at the French Lycée of San Sebastian. A native of Spain, he now lives and writes in Switzerland with his wife and two children. His work has been published in many journals, including Meat for Tea, and is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review and Fiction Southeast, among others. His story “Tempus Fugit” from SAND was listed among The Best Small Fictions. He can be contacted at [email protected]
No one really expected the world to end like this. For one thing, it took too damn long. People want bad things to happen like a pulled-off Band-Aid rather than the slow pushing of a knife. Instead, this is how it happened: gravity just plum up and left. Everything not tied down or deeply rooted floated away. Cars, umbrellas, little squirrels, everything. Big lakes seemed to erupt like geysers, and their poor fish flapped and flailed in an atmosphere growing thinner and thinner and waited, with increasingly cloudy brains, for the splash that never came. People held their beloved family pets on leashes like balloons, and children cupped their goldfish in upside-down hands until they could figure out how to refill empty bowls. Some people seemed relieved, though, to no longer be burdened with the daily decision to live or not. They just let go, and that was that. Others held on white-knuckle tight, pulling and floating their way into hardware stores for ropes and chains and bungees to tie themselves down. Some people seemed to have been expecting something like this. Writers and poets acted like it was the surprise ending they had been waiting for—the only thing that made sense. Young businessmen clutched their computer bags and their iPhones and called their business partners to see what this might mean for stock prices. Old men hooked their slippered feet onto roof gutters, wrapped their wives in crocheted afghan bear hugs, pointed their toes down, and soared up into the clouds whispering happy memories mouth to ear all the way into the great unknown. Parents made impossible promises to their children, saying the only things they could think of like, “It’s okay,” and “It’ll all be over soon.” Everyone else remained stock-still shocked until they withered away and their bone dust rained into the sky. And when the earth had finally sloughed off all of its itching, unnatural skin, it shone a bright virgin green and blue in black space.
Evan Anderson is a writer, marketer, and designer with degrees in biology and chemistry. Not that that last bit is relevant, but it’s sometimes at least idiosyncratic enough to be interesting at parties and whatnot. Evan has published fiction in Gone Lawn and Cease, Cows. He lives and writes in a bowl of a city, surrounded by swamps and brimming with stories and music.
From a beach towel radio, a Bee Gees’ song
resonates along the shore, its echoes pressing
on the margins of the summer that contains it,
and a single season swells to half a lifetime.
My hair is blond as straw, the water
lapping my shins as I shuffle across
the corrugated sand, looking through
the billowing mirror for crabs and starfish.
Ripples tighten as they reach the shore,
each wave cresting quicker, rising lower
as the tide recedes. But back toward
the deeper water, that summer stretches
endlessly, blending into the horizon.
Kevin Casey has contributed poems to recent editions of Green Hills Literary Lantern, Kentucky Review,decomP, and other publications. His new chapbook The wind considers everything— was recently published by Flutter Press. Another chapbook, from Red Dashboard, is due out later this year.
LEE THE BAPTIST (These ceremonial daggers read ‘Tandem Triumphans’) by Ushshi Rahman
thanks for putting up
with my meat cleaver tendencies — hooligan saviour
better pray for your kin, where the black cake soil
of lament frosting has taken you.
you will fall from this chair
brown belt darkened
what shall happen
latticed lace envelops the sinews of your cranium
left side reads “Going nowhere”
right side reads “fast”
someone might demand my cutout flowers destroyed.
i’ve walked this room in embroidered loops
bathing in this choke
tender as the seafoam gathered upon the rocks
gaping mouths of children rising
squirt all trash in mounds.
Mahaal’deeb, I pray, darling
these Manta Ray sins of mine
never harmed you.
let them know I am glad to go.
Ushshi Rahman is a Bangladeshi poet who currently resides in New York City where she exists at the intersection of styling words and garments. She attended The New School, and her work appears or is forthcoming in DuKool Magazine (as the poetry contest winner), 12th Street Journal, and Caravel Journal.
It is rarely what we imagine or expect, but always something burrowing beyond sight, hidden in the crevices or dreaming itself from the flurried wings of crows, my mother in the backyard setting down the tin plates of meat scraps or peanuts, the birds a frenzy of commotion. And here, beside us, is cousin Whitney, twelve that summer, while my brother and I are eight and nine, and everything about her is simply wrong. Slow and stuttering speech. A staccato way of walking. Fingers touching even simple words she can barely read.
We are forced to play Monopoly with her, Go Fish, to let her join us at Simpson’s Roller Rink and the multiplex, forced to take her with us down to the river, where we swim while she watches, calling out what is indecipherable. What we know in our hearts is that she is not more than a few feet from where, the previous summer, we saw three baby water moccasins swimming with their sulfur-yellow tails, and where, sometimes, a full-grown snake will display for us the moon-white of its mouth in the San Marcos River. Another time, in the yard overlooking the current, a few feet from where she waits, we watched a red-tailed hawk swooping down to lift in its talons one of the baby kittens recently born in the horse barn. This is the way the world works. There are consolations of moonlight, of fireflies in dead summer, of squirrels my brother and I shoot with our father’s .22, watching them twitch their way into stillness. That Whitney was in a car accident in Dallas at age ten means nothing to us, nor that her mother is currently serving three months for check kiting. What matters is the primitive and perfect throb of hatred, how we attempt again and again to lure the girl into the moving current—she says she cannot swim—how we envision her being drawn away, her spastic arms waving.
Yet when we actually kill her we are stunned. We are throwing a football in the thickened heat, ignoring her pleas to join us, removing her from the universe of our thoughts. But finally my brother—in a moment of weakness—spirals one her way, causing her to duck. Suddenly, without warning, she is on the ground, a catfish dragged from the river, thrashing, laboring to free herself from the burdens and constraints of the body. Surely she is disappearing, is like one of those squirrels we poke with a stick to make certain it is gone. We stand in wonder while she shudders, envisioning our world returned to us. Then Mother—dropping her tin plates for the crows—is rushing out the back door to Whitney’s side, telling us that we should run inside to retrieve the seizure medication, assuring us our cousin will be fine. But all we are thinking about is the vision of those dead squirrels thrown with limp bodies into the erasure of the river and carried off.
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.
Canned laughter sounded from the television, but no one was smiling in the kitchen where I faced my mother, our dog’s metal chain cold against my palm. She was close to six feet tall, and I was only eight, but I narrowed my eyes and glared at her. “I can hit you,” I said. “I can kick you all I want.”
She looked at me, her green irises bisected by the deep lines etched in the bifocal lens she wore. “Go ahead,” she said.
I whipped the chain forward as I sprung up in my shiny Mary Jane shoes. It was a clumsy attempt; I barely grazed her shoulder. I swung again. And again, stopping only when the chain connected with my mother’s glasses. I didn’t break them, but they hung askew on her shocked face.
Earlier that morning, when I didn’t have time to finish my strawberry milk before leaving for school, my mother covered the top of my glass with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator. After school, I reached for the glass, but condensation made it slip through my hand, and it crashed to the floor of the kitchen where my mother was preparing dinner. Beneath my feet bloomed milk and glass.
The shattering shards cut through something unseen in my mother, and her mood suddenly shifted from its previous cheerfulness. The shadow across her face appeared, a shadow I had seen before. She was upset, I knew, but she’d never say so.
“Sorry,” I said, repeating my apology over and over, but she ignored me, yanking me out of the way to grab a broom and dustpan, the scrape of my mistake crunchy and sharp in my ears. There was the familiar shove of the garbage can, the slam of cupboards, the bang of the broom handle against the wall. This was my mother’s Morse code: violent gestures, often after the smallest provocation, even, yes, spilled milk. She never said what was on her mind, what was troubling her, a silence that forced me to become proficient in deciphering her unspoken messages. Waiting for this mother to appear, I was often on edge around her, anticipating the physical reaction she triggered: the adrenaline of fight or flight pumping through my body, turning my stomach to acid.
Until this moment in the kitchen, I had always chosen flight. When I saw the familiar shadow cross my mother’s face, I’d crawl under the dining room table, hide in the bathroom, or run upstairs to my room. I wasn’t concerned for my physical safety, but afraid of how the atmosphere changed during these episodes. Something radioactive and dangerous emanated from her, and it frightened me.
Moments after our mother-daughter showdown, my sister Rebecca returned home from school, where she was studying to be a dental hygienist. She had temporarily moved back home while finishing up her coursework, which meant that in our two bedroom apartment, my twenty-five-year-old sister and I were roommates. I was obsessively fastidious and couldn’t stand anything unmade, unclean, or out of place. But upon her arrival, my sister staked her dingy gray flag of slovenliness in our communal space, turning my once-organized room into a hovel heaped with crusted dishes, candy wrappers, and dirty clothes. I couldn’t wait for her to move out, but today I was grateful she was here.
“Why are your glasses lopsided?” Rebecca asked our mother as she tossed her binder onto the kitchen counter.
Our mother brushed past her, taking the metal chain out of my hand. She leashed our dog, Max, and closed the door behind her with such violence that the apartment convulsed the way it did when the San Andreas fault line periodically bucked under our Bay Area home.
“Hello to you, too,” Rebecca mumbled, untwisting the plastic tie on a bag of bread.
With my mother gone, I climbed up into my father’s brown leather La-Z-Boy chair and picked up one of the many art books he kept stacked beside his seat. I chose one on the masters of surrealism and quickly lost myself in the dreamy, topsy-turvy visions of melting clocks, horses molded from clouds, and curved stairways rising up from the epicenter of a chaotic sea. This book showed me a world full of strange, illogical images and happenings; a place where a daughter hitting her mother might make sense. Mentally, I began to assemble our confrontation in the kitchen as a surrealist painting. I imagined my mother as a giant piñata covered in stripes of pastel tissue paper, suspended above me. I swung at her with the metal chain. Without much effort, domestic detritus spilled out onto the linoleum floor. A bottle of Emeralde perfume, Fire and Ice Revlon red lipstick, a Pink Lady cocktail, Oil of Olay face lotion, a pair of saddle Oxfords, and a brown curly wig she sometimes wore to dinner parties. None of these items satisfied me, so I kept swinging in my mind, not because I actually wanted to hurt my mother, but because I wanted to get at something else, something elusive, something she kept locked inside, and the only way I believed I could get to it was to crack her wide open.
Rebecca flopped down on the couch beside me. “Why is Mom so mad?” she asked, biting into her peanut-butter-slathered toast.
I shrugged, keeping my gaze on the book open in front of me.
“Gretchen Lee,” my sister prodded in a singsong tone. “What did you do?”
I ignored her and escaped back into my surrealist world, where such questioning would be turned upside down. Where the equally compelling queries would be: Why did my mother make me so mad? What had she done to me?
Later that night, I woke to the sound of a heavy metal lullaby drifting out from my parents’ room. My mother always slept with some kind of music on. Tonight it was KISS’s Destroyer album.
I kicked my comforter off and fumbled my way in the dark down the short hallway that connected my room to my parents’. Dad, a dispatcher for a trucking company, was working the night shift. Mom lay on the right side of the bed, her back to me. Through the open window shone a streetlight, creating a soft yellow halo around her. Careful not to disrupt the waterbed, I sat down gently on the opposite side, listening to the music.
When the singer lamented about hearing the woman who loves him calling for him to come home, but not being able to do what she asked, I remembered being age four, crouched behind a bush in our apartment complex. I was tracking my mother through my green shield of foliage as her calls for me went unanswered and she became more frantic. I was safe, but she didn’t know that. I kept quiet, watching her suffer. I held the power to stop her misery, but something in me refused her the relief.
I held the power now. I could have woken my mother up. I could have told her that I felt bad, that I didn’t mean it. Instead, I peeled the bedding back and slipped quietly under the covers and into the empty space beside her.
My back to my mother, I fell asleep.
Gretchen Clark grew up in the Bay Area. She holds a BA in English and teaches creative nonfiction online at writers.com. Her work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Ray’s Road Review, Word Riot, Literary Mama, Switchback, Tiny Lights, and 94 Creations, among others. Her essay “Pink Chrysanthemum” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
a hall three fourths full of echo (generally, many wrung bells)
a denture amid other fruits of maya; several identities
the word ‘tender,’ bled out, kept
quiet—other such by products
a flyover while you are in the bathroom (laughing alone)
howl of heaven when I
nothing ventured; some whens, whenevers
a tiny line of light through minor chords
a vagina flown through with ghosts—
time lapsed, lapsing
the transmigration of the soul’s sloppy suitcase
a door hinged on obsidian; that one time I whispered
several two-day travels, 108 beads long (times plenty)
staunch consequences, among other rots
the sea heaves gruff some years—gives a good haul,
a hall three fourths full of echo
Somewhere, cloud missives,
buckshot echoes devouring a hillside
in knock-kneed devotion. Elder rain
a voice, which tells each of us: ache,
fill vast jars with the pulp of it, and
seal them with whatever tools you find. We tried
to obey, though muffled by order,
though every scenic outlook was
already gone—we tipped our throats
to night showers and tried to lick back
stars the city had obliterated,
to resurrect anything at all
by taste, their glittering signs
LETTERS I DON’T SEND #4
And to the crows I must apologize.
No one told you of your rottenness
in a language so familiar, succubus,
you are the devil’s attendant so that you
grow to hear it in the stone corners
and every man’s voice thereafter
and you understand your nature
as prescribed. You are not the raven
we make you, quite sociable and
forming strong bonds, you are more
than a dart or a pin in night’s blanket.
But let her exile have companionship
in the remaining stars, the saguaro
and its breathing skin, the field
itself, what better friends
for the wicked than the shrewd,
the nimble, the flock, black patent
where their feathers press tight
against her mantle, against her
soft throat, black gleam
of dear black eyes.
Kenzie Allen is a descendant of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, and she is a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in Boston Review, The Iowa Review, Apogee, SOFTBLOW, Drunken Boat, and other venues, and she is the managing editor of the Anthropoid collective. She was born in West Texas and currently lives in Norway.
[A brother is a cistern and a bucket with a rope]
by Harmony Button
A brother is a cistern and a bucket with a rope. The care with which
the rope is tied is not the same as knitting, but knitting is also a kind
of love. There are many, many boots. Years of knowing and
not-knowing but at least being present result in some impenetrable
surface. Waves on waves, water in the tank. During winters, we all
knock the pipes, which is to say, we suffer. Which is to say, we’re
human. Which is to say, we have each other in a contract of always.
Cisterns function not by choice, but function. They are, as ropes
and buckets also. The simplicity of this arrangement makes for
sensible decisions and some excellent breakfast. The simplicity
of breakfast is to wake from sleeping, then to eat. In real life,
tea is not as strong as coffee, even though it is. People will say so.
Justice and deserving leave old tracks in dirt. Loose tea sticks in
teeth, an injustice in the craw. Who gives drinks to river mouths?
Underground, a buried source. Hand on hand to surface.
Harmony Button’s work has been included in Best American Notable Essays of 2015, she has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and she was awarded the Larry Levis Prize (Academy of American Poets). Her work has appeared in journals such as Colorado Review,Chicago Quarterly, Southwestern American Lit, Cobalt, Rock & Sling, Bayou,and Drafthorse. Find out more at www.harmonybutton.com. Her poem “Nativity” appeared in Issue No. 8 of Cleaver.
A CRICKET IN WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK by John Timpane
It is, it is, it is — it’s you, cool as the night, scraping toothy wing on
wing. Yeah, man. Your it is is far from my it was, in this town
I never knew I’d know. Yo, first violinist of Washington Square,
slave picnic site, burial ground a shout from Independence Hall. It is, it is — it is fall, it is here, it is you and I and your it is I never saw coming. It is always past me before I know. Thanks
for that. It is, it is, it is — yeah, man, no it was for you. For me
plenty. It is, it is. I hear you. Is makes it a miracle; it makes is a
mystery. You, in is, in act, rub wings with God. Me, too, only I
don’t know. Fine, it is, far from it was; will be even
further. It is what it is. Hey — MC of it is, of
desire, time, and fact of the matter, apart from, yoked with
the stars, of whom we are, and they of us – you
have no idea you’re in these words. I walk to violins
of was and will be, and you can’t hear them,
fiddler in the rough. I am, I am, I am in
your it is, it is, it is in my ears. We are, we are, we are.
John Timpane is the media editor/writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. His work has appeared in Sequoia, The Fox Chase Review, Apiary, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Philadelphia Review of Books, The Rathalla Review, Per Contra, Vocabula Review, and elsewhere. Among his books is a chapbook, Burning Bush (Judith Fitzgerald/Cranberry Tree, 2010). His poem “In a Dry Month” appears in Issue No. 1 of Cleaver. He is the spouse of Maria-Christina Keller. They live in New Jersey.
We should take a shot
of cognac, a walk. Some
days I believe desire
is its own penance. Some
days, I know if I would have
done that, it would have come
out looking like a bird. Some
times I bite the pill in half
that calms me. Sometimes
the biting makes me calm.
I am a tornado in its own eye.
Sometimes I think the world
waking upsets twilight and
sometimes it feels more like
the sky’s a giant sequoia seed
cracking from the moon’s heat.
Nice alliteration, you say.
But if it be syntax inverted
that you love, let me
be that wrangling, that
reverse sentence full—
your boots on still jeans
my hands reach slide
listen let us be denim
its working to the floor
the sound of.
Christian Anton Gerard’s first poetry book is Wilmot Here, Collect For Stella (WordTech, CW Books, 2014). He’s received Pushcart Prize nominations, scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and an Academy of American Poets Prize. Some of his recent poems appear in storySouth, Post Road, Diode,Pank, Orion, Smartish Pace, B-O-D-Y,The Rumpus, and The Journal. Gerard holds a PhD in English from the University of Tennessee, and he currently lives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he’s an Assistant Professor of English, Rhetoric, and Writing at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. Find Christian on the web at www.christianantongerard.com
The man across the desk was handsome in the way that young men could be without actually being attractive. That was one of the things Melissa had started to appreciate when she passed fifty; she could recognize the beauty of younger men without desiring them. So yes, the man was handsome. But tired-looking; he needed to shave. He leaned forward across the desk and smiled weakly at her.
“Melissa—it’s Melissa right? Great. I’m here with my two kids and we’re visiting my mother. We’re looking for things to do that’ll get us out of the house.”
Behind him, Melissa could see his daughters. They were sitting together on a bench, watching a movie on some device, their blond heads pressed together in an effort to see more of the screen. It had the odd effect of making them look conjoined. Above them, a sign read The Land of Enchantment! Tourism Agency is Here to Help. Melissa often wondered who had been in charge of the capitalization of the letters, but in her twelve years’ working at The Land of Enchantment! she had never asked.
“Well, if you’re interested in nature, we’ve got Bosque National Park, Dripping Springs, and, of course, White Sands National Monument.” As she spoke, Melissa pointed to the sign that hung above her desk that listed The Land of Enchantment! travel deals. “We can do a triple pass for all three, or—”
One of the girls had come up behind her father and was pulling on his arm, trying to get his attention. Unsure if she should continue, Melissa put on her best sales face and waited.
“No, I don’t think that’s quite what we’re looking for. My girls aren’t big nature lovers these days. What is it, honey?”
The girl leaned in close to her father’s ear and whispered something, her eyes glued to Melissa’s face. The self-consciousness Melissa always experienced around children was taking hold—that need to make them happy, to make them like her. She smiled and tried to look sympathetic, trustworthy even, but the girl turned away. She was probably six or seven, five years younger than Evan would have been.
“Okay, then tell her I said she needs to let you hold the iPad for half the time.” The man turned back to Melissa. “Sorry,” he said. “What were you saying?”
“I was just going to suggest some museums. The Farm and Ranch Museum is very popular.” The girl was still staring at Melissa. She wore much the same expression of thinly veiled impatience as her father.
“We’re really looking for something fun. You know, for the kids?”
Melissa smiled again, her cheeks burning. Did kids not enjoy museums?
She pulled a brochure from her desk drawer and slid it across the countertop. The Land of Enchantment! wasn’t thrilled about directing their clients toward the Indian reservations because they received no share of the profits from the attractions, but Melissa didn’t see what else she could offer this family.
“Here’s some information about the Apache Indian Reservation, there’s a casino resort there, it’s called Land of the Water Spirit. You can book a room, there’s a restaurant, a pool, TVs.”
The girl shrieked and ran off to tell her sister the good news.
“Cute kids,” Melissa said.
“Yeah. They’re a piece of work. You have any of your own?”
He glanced at her with what was almost curiosity, then looked away.
“Well, have a good day.”
Through the blinds of her window, Melissa watched as the family walked toward their car, the younger girl holding onto the man’s forearm, the older girl trailing behind. The man said something that made them both laugh.
It took Melissa a moment to realize that her manager, George, had walked past the other three information desks that lined the back wall of the room and had parked himself directly in front of her.
“Oh, hi, George.”
“How’d that go?”
“Land of the Water Spirit, they didn’t want the parks pass.”
George frowned. “Melissa. You’ve really got to start pushing the parks. They’re talking about taking down our billboard outside Dripping Springs if we don’t start selling more passes. ”
George sighed. He was the kind of man who would never feel comfortable reprimanding someone almost twenty years older than himself. He probably didn’t even care if the Land of Enchantment! billboard was removed from the Dripping Springs property. Like the rest of his employees, he harbored a hidden resentment toward the Land of Enchantment! advertisements that demonstrated exactly how happy one should look when visiting New Mexico for two days.
“Look, Melissa, today’s almost done. Why don’t you cut out a few minutes early? Get some rest, because tomorrow you’re really going to have to push the parks pass, and I’m going to hold you to that.” Melissa nodded and began to pack up her things.
“It’ll be fine,” George said.
“The parks. It’ll be fine. I don’t want to stress you out.”
“Oh,” Melissa said. “Thanks, George.”
Charlie was watching TV when she got home.
“Hey, hun!” he called when he heard the door open. “Did you grab us dinner?”
“Yeah, tacos from the food court.” Melissa put her bags down on the kitchen table. She could hear the muffled voices of the newscasters in the other room, comparing weather forecasts to statistics from the previous year. It was only the beginning of June, but temperatures were already consistently over one hundred degrees. The voices sounded close by, and Melissa shut her eyes, imagining for a moment that her house was filled with people all talking about the weather. The thought made her lips curve upward in what was almost a smile.
She walked into the living room and kissed the top of Charlie’s head. Gray peppered his temples, which, combined with the fact that he was always reading architecture magazines, had earned him the name of “the professor” at his construction company. He looked up at Melissa as she turned to walk back into the kitchen.
“Hey!” he said. “Get back here.” He patted the couch next to him. “I need time with my girl. Don’t go running away just yet.” He waved her over, and she wondered, not for the first time, what deep well he pulled his happiness from every day.
Melissa sat down, and Charlie dragged her legs across his lap. She tried to ignore the blue veins that pulsed up her legs as he massaged her calves.
“How was work?” he asked.
In the time that it took Melissa to decide if she had had any clients today worth telling him about, an ad break ended, and the newscasters reappeared on the screen. Images of helicopters kicking up clouds of white dust appeared in little boxes by their heads. Melissa motioned for Charlie to raise the volume.
“White Sands National Monument is a popular destination for tourists from around the globe. However, these great sand dunes can be extremely dangerous in the summer heat.” The camera zoomed in on a large sign on the wall of the visitors center instructing people to carry at least one gallon of water per person on hikes in the area.
“Late last night, the Otero County Sheriff issued an AMBER Alert in response to the disappearance of eleven-year-old Jackie Marshall, who was last seen on a class field trip at three p.m. that same day, half a mile from the visitors center. When the child was not recovered within the hour by park personnel, a search and rescue team was deployed to find the missing child. Her body was found at seven this morning, over a mile and a half from the visitors center. Officials say the cause of death was dehydration.”
Melissa muted the television.
“God, that’s awful.” Charlie said. “Do you think they’ll close the park?”
Melissa shrugged. She felt very suddenly that she wanted to be alone. She got up from the couch and busied herself in the kitchen. Tears burned behind her eyes. She listened and could still hear Charlie in the other room, the television volume turned up again. She dabbed at her eyes with a corner of her shirt. She had to pull herself together. She was crying over a child in a news story; what was wrong with her?
Charlie had come up behind her and was washing his hands in the sink. He reached around Melissa for a kitchen towel, and she turned to meet his body, sliding her arms under his and pressing her face into his chest. For a moment, she felt that same urge that she remembered from before their marriage, the feeling of needing him to be a part of her, needing him to fill up all the cracks that she saw in herself.
“I love you,” she whispered into his chest.
He chuckled at her sudden affection and pinched her butt before grabbing the towel behind her and sitting down at the table. He left Melissa standing alone, two empty plates in her hands and a profound sadness lodged in her chest that felt very much like heartbreak.
At work the next day, Melissa found a memo from George on her desk. Big energy today for Friday and the weekend crowd. White Sands open & running normally. Push the parks!!
Melissa sat down at her desk. The first customers were already trickling in, thumbing through postcards on the wire stand near the doorway.
The morning passed uneventfully. Melissa sold three park passes and one family pass and gave out only two fliers for Land of the Water Spirit. She took her lunch break at noon and walked next door to the food court. She eased off her shoes under the table and rolled her ankles, listening to her voice mailbox as she ate. There was one message; it was from her sister in Albuquerque asking if she had seen the news of the little girl’s death at White Sands.
“So terrible,” her sister said, her voice coming through the phone tinny and foreign. “What kind of teacher lets that happen? The mother should have seen it coming. It’s just terrible.” Melissa’s sister had three boys whom she was always driving to and from football practice. Her schedule was color-coded for each child, and Melissa had once heard her sister call one of her children by their color instead of their name.
Maybe the mother couldn’t control what happened, Melissa wanted to say into the phone. Maybe it wasn’t her fault.
Toward the end of the day, a woman with short gray hair walked into the office. She was wearing hiking boots and khaki shorts, and her skin was glowing with a new tan. Turquoise dangled from her ears. She looked around the room and made her way over to Melissa’s desk. She sat down in the client chair, and Melissa noticed that her eyes were startlingly green. The woman was beautiful.
“Hi, I’m Nancy,” the woman said, extending her hand. “Can you help me figure out where the best place is around here to go hiking?”
“Yes, well, I hope so.” Melissa shook the woman’s hand. She was suddenly aware of how drab she must look in her collared shirt, her thin hair pulled back into a bun and a Land of Enchantment! pin glinting on her breast pocket.
“How long are you in town for?”
“Well, that depends.” Nancy seemed to be counting in her head. “As few days as one and as many as forever.” She laughed at herself, the creases around her eyes folding in familiar lines. Seeing Melissa’s confusion, Nancy pointed out the window to her car. A dusty blue Subaru with Arizona plates sat in the lot outside, the trunk stuffed full of belongings.
“I’m on the road,” she said, clearly thrilled at the sound of her own words. “I mean, haven’t you ever just wanted to get up and go? My youngest kid moved out, and I didn’t want to wait a second longer. There are just so many beautiful places that I haven’t seen. But you know that, you’re the one who gets to talk about them all day. Sorry, I’m rambling, I’m just excited. What’ve you got for me?”
Melissa smiled politely, feeling like she had missed some key part of the story. She looked down at the map spread out on the desk between them and traced the sprawling lines with a finger, repeating the phrases that she had read in guidebooks. When she pointed to the section of the map that marked White Sands National Park, Nancy stopped her.
“I was just reading this morning about what happened to the girl. It’s so sad.” Her voice had dropped to a whisper, as if news of the child’s death were a secret known only to the two of them. “Do you know what happened?”
“No, I don’t.”
“I just keep imagining how that poor mother must feel, don’t you? The girl was on a school field trip.”
Melissa swallowed. The hollow feeling from the day before was expanding in her chest and rising toward her neck. She knew she had to respond, that it was her turn to say something, that if she didn’t, Nancy would notice her silence. Then she would leave without buying anything, which would disappoint George. Or worse, she would stay, and she would need an explanation from Melissa that Melissa didn’t have.
Melissa took a breath and tried to force words past the emptiness in her throat. But nothing happened. She was stuck.
“So which is your favorite place?” Nancy asked. She was looking down at the map and hadn’t noticed Melissa’s abrupt quiet. Melissa’s panic melted back into her rib cage. She had never actually been on the trails; Charlie didn’t understand the point of hiking, and Melissa never wanted to go alone. She pointed to a different part of the map.
“It’s on the Indian reservation, right behind the casino, actually. It’s this path here. Really more of a walk than a hike but it leads to this beautiful lake, here, Oculto Lake. It’s very quiet, very peaceful. Not many people know about it.”
“That sounds lovely,” Nancy said, and smiled. She bought two of the maps that Melissa recommended to her and was just about to get up and leave when she turned.
“You didn’t tell me your name.”
“Melissa. Thank you for your help.” Nancy looked at her, as if she were considering saying something else. Then she was gone.
Minutes after Nancy left, Melissa realized that she had forgotten to tell her which direction to turn out of the parking lot. And so she pressed her face to the window, searching for the trail of dust that would identify Nancy’s car as it raced off toward the mountains.
That night, Melissa went home and made love to Charlie. He held her like he was afraid she might come apart, pressing his palms into her lower back and burying his face in her neck. She let him pull at her body, closing her eyes and remembering the still surface of Oculto Lake, imagining the water sliding over them both in a cool sheet.
She hadn’t been to the lake in twelve years. The last time she was there, the day was hot. Melissa remembered that she and Charlie had stopped every few minutes for water, so Melissa could rest against the boulders on the side of the path. She had been released from the hospital a week before, where she was recovering from the birth of their son, Evan. Melissa remembered thinking how strange it was that her body had taken so long to recover from the delivery, as if her womb were mourning the departure of her child before it could return to its usual state.
Besides the walk, though, Melissa remembered little from the day except the numbers. She was forty-four. Charlie was forty-seven. Evan had come seven weeks early, and he had been five days old when he died, cocooned in the bed of tubes that were supposed to keep him alive. The jar that held his ashes was only a few pounds. Shaking his ashes out onto the water had taken six seconds. That last number stuck in her mind more densely than the others. Six seconds and he was gone.
She remembered wanting to quantify her grief, too, to point to a number and say, here, I loved you this much, I tried this hard, I did every single thing I could to save you. But she couldn’t. She could only say I love you, I tried, I’m sorry. Over and over, hoping that he could hear her, praying that he would believe her if he did. I love you, I tried, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I love you, I tried.
So she drifted into sleep, into wakefulness, into sleep. In the weeks after Evan’s death, Charlie wandered around the house, banging on pots and turning the TV up too loud to make up for Melissa’s silence. Before Evan, he had always said that he couldn’t believe he was going to be a father. In a strange way, Evan’s death must have confirmed his expectations, and he was able to retreat back into the person he had been nine months earlier.
It wasn’t long before people stopped calling, and everyone, including Charlie, stopped saying Evan’s name. Continuing to grieve didn’t seem sanitary; the requisite time had passed.
When Charlie at last rolled off her and into sleep, Melissa lay still on her back, tears sliding silently down her cheeks and into her ears. The memory of the lake pressed down on her, heavy on her chest. She closed her eyes and dreamed of a little girl sleeping in the top of an hourglass. The white sand was shifting under her, falling in a steady stream into the chamber below, and the girl slept on, sinking lower and lower under the sand. Melissa wanted to call out to her, to shatter the glass and scoop her up before it was too late. But before she could move, the girl was falling, twirling in a layer of fine white crystals, and it was morning.
The next afternoon, Melissa packed a bag and told Charlie that she was going to visit her sister in Albuquerque. He offered to join her, but Melissa reminded him how much he hated long drives, and he agreed to let her go alone, content to spend a day reading about other people’s houses.
Melissa drove out of town, watching the landscape grow greener and more mountainous. Soon, the harsh reds and yellows of the land were replaced by darker, richer earth, and cacti grew into stunted spruce trees and cottonwoods.
Because it was a Saturday, the one-lane highway that stretched out to the east was busy, and Melissa could feel the traffic pick up when she crossed stretches of open land and slow when she drove through the towns that clustered along the road. She found herself peering into these tiny towns, which were all somehow the same: the single traffic light blinking a steady yellow, children kicking a soccer ball on a plot of land, a graying diner with teenagers smoking on the porch.
Melissa followed the voice of her GPS off the highway and onto a smaller side road. When she saw the wooden sign for Land of the Water Spirit strung out above a huge iron gate, she swung her car around and pulled into the nearest motel. The woman at the front desk looked at her suspiciously.
“Yes, just a single bed.”
“You know you have to pay if another person stays in the room.”
“There won’t be another person.”
“I’m just saying, if there is, you have to pay. Most people don’t gamble alone.”
“I’m not here to gamble.”
“Whatever you say.”
The room was small and sparsely furnished, but it had a bathroom and seemed clean enough. Melissa unpacked her bag, pulling on the shorts and sneakers and repacking the water bottle, the flashlight, the whistle. She sat on the edge of the bed and ate the sandwich she had made earlier in the day. She waited for it to get dark, listening as she did to the rhythm of conversation next door.
The trail to Oculto Lake had become more popular with tourists in the past few years, and Melissa knew that if she were going to have the courage to make this pilgrimage, she couldn’t risk seeing other people. She would have to do it at night, alone.
The sun had set. Melissa swung on her backpack and left the motel. She shivered as she walked past a series of tourist shops. Their windows displayed twirling dreamcatchers and plastic bows and arrows. Inside one of the shops, Melissa could see a little girl stroking the feathers of a pink headdress with her fingertips. Melissa crossed the street, thankful for the cover of darkness.
The gate of Land of the Water Spirit was a few hundred feet away from the tourist shops, and unlit. Melissa switched on her flashlight as she approached. Her heart sank when she came level with the sign. In the time that she had sat in the motel room, someone had barred the entrance to the resort. A young man in a dark uniform sat in a booth next to the gate. He came out when he saw Melissa’s light. Melissa felt her resolve drain away with his approach. She knew she would have to make a case for herself, and the thought made her nervous. What was she really doing here after all?
“Can I help you, ma’am?” he asked.
“Yes. I want to get through.”
“Can I ask why?”
“There’s a hike that I wanted to do. To Oculto Lake.”
“You know it’s dark out, right?”
“Yes, I wanted to go at night.”
“I like hiking at night.” The man looked more closely at her. He took in her sneakers and shorts. Melissa stood stiffly.
“Could be dangerous. I mean, it’s one thing for a guy to go running around the woods at night, but—”
“I know. Can I get through?” The impatience in her voice surprised her. The man snapped back to attention.
“Gates are closed for tonight, ma’am. Unless you have a visitor’s pass, but I’m assuming you don’t.” Melissa shook her head. She missed Charlie. He always knew what to say in these situations. The man walked back toward his booth.
“What time do the gates open in the morning?” Melissa called out after him.
“Seven,” he said over his shoulder. He put in a pair of headphones and sat in the booth, waiting for Melissa to leave. She stood there for a moment, gauging the size of the bars. She could probably slip through, but what would be the point? The security guard would catch her; she would just make a fool of herself. She could wait until the morning.
Melissa walked back toward the motel. She stopped at the window of one of the tourist shops. Her reflection swam among undulating layers of beads. She looked, even to herself, like a ghost.
As she stood there, a young woman appeared in the reflection next to her. Melissa turned, surprised. The young woman was wearing traditional Apache Indian dress; her body was draped in a fringed buckskin tunic, and her hair was parted down the middle in two long braids. Turquoise hung from her ears and was looped around her neck. She had picked the dark nail polish off her fingers until only jagged crescents remained.
“Have you ever gone on a spirit journey? No? Come with me. It’s only twenty bucks.” She walked away without smiling or waiting for Melissa to respond. Not wanting to be rude, Melissa followed her, jogging a little to catch up. Ahead, Melissa could see a teepee erected on a plot of land next to her motel. It had a raven printed on the canvas, and a sign leaned against the entrance that read:
Mescalero Apache Teepee
Pictures in Traditional Garb…………….$10
Spirit Journey Experience………….……$20
The woman was standing by the entrance, waiting. Embarrassed, Melissa approached her.
“Hi, thank you for the offer but I don’t think I’m interested in the spirit experience, I’m sorry. I’m just staying at the motel.”
The woman ignored her. “It’s only twenty bucks. Come.” She disappeared inside. Melissa considered, for a moment, the irony of her succumbing to a tourist trap. Then, she ducked her head and followed the woman into the tent.
The inside of the teepee was much larger than Melissa had expected. Beaded trinkets and wooden instruments littered the floor. A lamp hung from the open hole at the top of the teepee, and it swung when Melissa entered, giving the impression that everything inside was in motion.
The young woman sat on the far side of the teepee, on a bed of what looked like real fur. Melissa crouched near the door, not sure if she was supposed to take off her shoes.
“Sit down,” the woman said, motioning that Melissa should imitate her position. Melissa closed the tent flap and sat, her legs crossed, hands in her lap. Her knee cracked, and Melissa gave a nervous laugh. The woman hit play on an old boombox, and an echoey flute track filled the space.
The woman poured water from an electric tea kettle into a mug, which had a faded Land of the Water Spirit logo on the side. She handed it to Melissa.
“You’re not going to drink?” Melissa asked. The woman shook her head. “What is it?”
“Jungle tea, it’s the Spirit Journey Experience.” Melissa peered into her cup. It was a milky white color, and there were a few leaves floating at the surface. Realizing that the woman was watching her closely, she drank the whole thing, gagging slightly. It tasted like burnt, sour wine.
She put the mug back down between them and waited for the woman to begin the Experience. Her shadow loomed big on the back wall of the tent, and she busied herself arranging the instruments around her body, not looking at Melissa. Melissa watched her. She thought she recognized the woman’s features from the images of smiling Indians on the Land of the Water Spirit brochure, but it could’ve been a trick of the light or of her imagination.
The flute music seemed to be getting louder, swelling, and Melissa felt lightheaded. She wondered if she could lie down.
“Close your eyes.” The woman’s command surprised Melissa in its abruptness, and she obeyed, swaying in the sudden dark.
“Breathe deeply,” she said. “You have to let yourself come out of your body.”
Melissa tried to relax. Her whole body felt like it was filling up. The woman turned a rain stick, and Melissa shivered involuntarily.
“Now tell me,” the woman said, “what you are doing here.”
Melissa considered telling the woman that she hadn’t wanted to come into the tent, that the woman had practically forced her to enter, but she felt that would be rude.
“I’m trying to get to Oculto Lake, behind the casino.” She wondered if that was an acceptable answer. “But there was a security guard who wouldn’t let me through the gate. It’s okay though, I’ll probably just try again tomorrow.”
The woman didn’t say anything, but she turned the rain stick again. There was a fog settling in Melissa’s head. It made her thoughts slower, or maybe they were just lasting longer. It was hard to tell what the difference between those two things was. She had a sense that things were twisted and not where they were usually. She touched her feet to make sure they hadn’t disappeared.
“Tell me,” the woman said again, “what you are doing here.”
“I don’t…I was going to the lake.” The words sounded strange to Melissa, and she laughed out loud, and then quieted, afraid of the sound of her own voice. A distant thought was forming in her mind.
“It was my child. On the news. She was at the park, and she died, I saw it.”
The woman breathed in, sharply. Melissa opened her eyes. Everything was fuzzy and bright, like headlights in the rain. The woman was paying attention to her now, looking at her more closely.
It didn’t matter that Melissa had lied. It made her smile, feeling this woman’s sympathy wash over her. Here, at last, was someone who realized Melissa’s pain, understood how real, how fresh it all was. Charlie, her sister, they couldn’t understand. But this woman was different. This must be the Experience. Melissa closed her eyes again.
“I heard the news of your child, and I mourn for your loss. You are very wise to come to such a spiritual place. This land has an energy that most people don’t understand. The lake,” the woman’s voice sounded far away, “is special. It can heal you. Now, rise up. Rise up.” She began to chant, words or sounds that Melissa had never heard before. The rhythm made Melissa dizzier, but not entirely uncomfortable. A feeling of bright white was racing through her veins, making her heart beat faster. It was like she was swimming in the air above her body. She had never felt so light.
Melissa realized, then, that she was falling into the sky, air rushing past her and the earth receding away. For a moment, she panicked, tried to open her eyes, and saw the woman squinting at her from across the tent, then she was past it all, above the teepee, the tourist shops, the gate of the resort, flying on a great mass of undulating colors. She saw the lake below her, gray and hard-looking, and then she fell deep into it. She felt her heart beating too fast, and that scared her, but then it slowed, and everything around her was cool and dark and quiet.
She sat cross-legged under the water, her hair splayed out around her like a fan. She watched little fish swim up at the surface, lit from above and leaving little trails of silver behind them.
And then silver started reaching toward her, pulling her up like a magnet, and she was rising again, this time to the surface of the water, and then she broke free from it, and breathed, finally, the fresh air.
Floating in the center of the lake, Melissa watched herself fling the ashes into the wind. She counted the six seconds, again and again, as the ashes piled up on the shore and melted into the water, and the numbers became confused, and backwards. Eventually, the water became thick with it, and she felt herself being pulled underwater, again her arms pinned to her sides, her movements sluggish. In a panic she looked up at the sky and realized she was seated by the shore, Charlie next to her, a young girl on her other side. Melissa recognized the girl from her dream. They looked out over the water together.
“It’s okay,” her son said.
“What?” she asked. She hadn’t heard him.
“It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“Oh,” she said. Charlie pulled her legs across his lap, and she leaned into his chest. “I’m glad.”
Melissa awoke on top of the covers in her motel bed. Her head throbbed, and she rolled over, realizing immediately that she was going to be sick. She stumbled into the bathroom and vomited in the toilet. Tears welled in her eyes. She pulled herself up and hunched over the sink, breathing heavily, waiting for the nausea to pass.
She looked at herself in the mirror. The light was harsh, and the lines on her face were more pronounced than she remembered. Somehow, the time had passed without her noticing.
She washed out her mouth in the sink and stood. Charlie was waiting. It was time to go home.
Kea Edwards is a recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in creative writing and gender, sexuality & women’s studies. While at Penn, she received recognition for her poetry and creative nonfiction. “Enchantment!” is her first fiction publication and is the title story for her thesis, a short story collection set in the area where her grandfather lives in New Mexico.
“Our wine may be bitter, but it’s our wine.”—Jose Martí
I will tell you the first part of this story backwards, because that’s how I remember it. Starting with the fight. The chocolate is always an after-thought.
He was standing in front of the apartment door when I got home with groceries. My fiancé, Francis, was not yet home from work. The door to our apartment in Switzerland was at the end of a narrow hallway. Two could barely pass. Francis had said not to let his brother in when he wasn’t there. Francis had left the number to call the institution to come get him. His brother wasn’t supposed to get out, but every couple weeks he did. Francis had said his brother had killed their mother, but then he took it back. It was probably really the cancer. He repeated, probably. He’d left his brother alone with their mother and he’d pushed her, breaking her ribs. She never left the hospital. Francis’ brother was standing at the end of the very narrow hallway when I got home.
It’s difficult to remember exactly what happened. I tried to get into the apartment, he blocked my way, said he wanted to be let inside. I explained I couldn’t let him in. But the next part gets fuzzy. I’m not sure what—if anything—triggered the first blow.
I fought back. I’d never really been in a fight before, never taken or delivered a punch to the face before. After a few minutes, we were both breathing heavily from the exertion and apples from the grocery bag were rolling down the hall. I thought that he was more winded than I was. I thought I had gained on him the few seconds I needed to get the key in the lock and get inside. But just as I turned the handle, my back to him, he brought a backpack full of books down on my head. I stumbled across the threshold as he tried to push his way in. I pushed back, punched him one more time, and managed to shut and lock the door. He kicked the rest of the groceries down the hall, the raw meat unwrapping from its packaging, leaving a trail of blood.
Francis took me to the hospital. Un coup du lapin, they said. A rabbit punch. I had to wear a cervical collar until my spinal cord was no longer swollen.
A few weeks before the beating, his brother had also escaped from the institution where he was put after probably killing his mother. That visit had been more amicable. Francis called the institution and they said they would be there in thirty minutes. While waiting, I made his brother a hot chocolate, because it was cold outside and because it was his favorite drink. We didn’t have any premixed packets, so I heated milk and added cocoa powder, but I forgot to put in sugar. His brother took the first sip and made a face.
“Oh, let me add some sugar,” I said.
“No, no,” he protested, “this is chocolat de la maison.” House specialty. By which he meant it was my unique way of making it. As if hot chocolate were a jazz standard and this was my rendition. What an easy-going guy, I had thought. He drank the whole bitter cup.
I’m not suggesting that the beating he gave me a few weeks afterwards was revenge for forgetting sugar in his hot chocolate. When I made him the hot chocolate, Francis’ brother went with it, relinquishing control over the outcome. When I denied him entry into the apartment, he tried physically to change the situation to get what he wanted. What was the difference between those two scenarios? Years later, I’m still trying to understand. Not for Francis—my engagement to him ended long ago—but to know what’s right. To know when to accept with gratitude something that falls short of my expectations, and when to fight or walk away because it’s not what I want.
Justin was supposed to call me. He’d given me three available times and I’d picked one. But no call came at the agreed upon time. I tried calling him. No luck. A half an hour later he posted a picture to Facebook—he was out at a bar playing pool. The next morning I got an apology email. He was sorry. It just slipped his mind. There was so much going on. He’d forgotten to tell me this, but his friend Jeremy was moving in while he renovated the house he’d bought after leaving his wife. Justin was busy preparing to move him in.
The next week I got a package in the mail from Justin. Some items he’d canned—chili, tomatillo salsa. I wrote an email thanking him, but I suggested in a pretty snarky fashion that it might have been better if he just hadn’t been so absent-minded about calling when he said he would; then he wouldn’t have had to send a gift in the guise of apology. At the time, I just assumed that the canned goods had been sent to me because he had to make pantry space for Jeremy.
Justin and I would continue to be best friends for another two years and he would never give me another meaningful homemade gift again. When our friendship was falling apart, I told him that I regretted I hadn’t been more grateful about the canned goods he’d sent as clearly that was some threshold for us in terms of being kind.
“Oh Lynn,” he said, “I forgave you for that long ago. I just learned not to expect you to be grateful for anything I did.”
Rabbit punch—a blow I had not seen coming. A totally unfair judgment, but the kind that is invented by a person who doesn’t call when he says he will and doesn’t like being told when he’s been remiss. Justin had a history of this: he would lead women on with promises he couldn’t keep, and when they expected him to follow through, he would find reasons to label them crazy.
For four years I fought to try to mold that relationship into something that wasn’t painful to me. For four years I kept asking him for something sweeter. But I finally reached my limit when I realized that this was his pattern, and it had little to do with me. Justin wasn’t capable of being anything other than a toxic presence in my life, like he was inevitably in the lives of so many other women. Including his wife, who’d had to turn to someone outside their marriage in order to feel loved. I cut all ties with Justin, but the four years I held on caused serious damage to my self-esteem.
I’ve often wondered how things would have been different if I’d just been grateful for the non-friendship he gave me, just accepted his “house specialty” friendship. If I’d just stayed silent about how far he fell below my expectations of respectful behavior, how far he fell below even his own stated intentions.
Okla had been trying to date me since we first met in person at the Associated Writing Programs Conference in April. Because I’d experienced such peace in my life after ending things with Justin, I was on high alert for red flags, unwilling to get involved in anything that brought any drama back into my life.
Okla finally convinced me to spend the weekend with him after hours of passionate email conversation about literature and writing. There was some talk of sex, too.
“I’m very good at oral sex,” Okla wrote to me. “Like, incredibly good at it.”
“Words, words, words,” I wrote back.
“I will show you,” he promised.
It was like he wanted me to pat him on the back for having performed oral sex on other women in the past, ones who had seemed to enjoy it. Not all women liked the same things sexually. To assume they did was to erase any individual differences that made them people. And Okla wasn’t asking me what I wanted in terms of oral sex. He wasn’t asking me what I liked or didn’t like. This wasn’t about me at all. He was asking that I fawn over his ego. Proud of his “house specialty” oral sex, he was suggesting that I would have to accept it whether or not it was what I wanted.
I was prepared not to accept it. I went to visit him that weekend fully prepared to voice what I wanted. To the left, Okla. More gently. We never even got there, despite his promise to “show me” with more than words how skilled he was.
The first night I was exhausted from the drive and we fell asleep after talking. The second night, we were making out and he asked me for oral sex. I obliged, thinking it was my turn next. But after I was done, he rolled over and went to sleep.
Rabbit punch—an unexpected blow. So to speak.
I lay there in the dark listening to his snoring for a long time, wondering what it all meant. Then I got up and took my computer to his living room, where I began this essay.
When I got home, there was an email from him saying he’d had a great time and that he knew he owed me an orgasm. I never spoke to him again.
My birthday is in a few weeks. And I’d like to think I’m making some kind of progress, not just ex-ing out days on the calendar.
The therapist I’m seeing talks about expectations as if they were a yard stick. When she does, she always gestures with her hand.
“Here were your expectations of Justin and Okla,” she says, reaching her hand high up into the air of her office, “and here was what they were capable of.” She drops her hand as close to the tapestried floor as she can. “That’s a big difference.”
I nod silently from the couch.
“You have to meet people where they are,” she concludes for me.
“I’d like to know how to do that,” I say.
Just this past week, I went on two first dates in the span of three days. The first guy brought me flowers. We had a very pleasant chat over dinner. But he texted me seven times on my drive home, while he was also driving. The next morning, I woke to a barrage of long, flowery text messages about the “pools of my eyes” and the “cinnamon waterfall of my hair.” He tried calling me later that day. When I didn’t answer, he left a long voicemail. Then he texted immediately afterward to ask when he could talk to me on the phone. The next morning I let him know that there wouldn’t be a second date. I could see my therapist’s arm with her hand extended—this time, my expectations had been low on the yard stick, and his behavior had been over the top. I’d only needed a few hours to see the disconnect.
I met William later that afternoon. There were no flowers, but there was lots of laughter. Text messages afterward were sparse but meaningful. We chatted off and on, going for a couple of days with no contact, and then we met for a second date, where we spent three hours telling our life stories over tapas and a bottle of wine. William says he wants to see me again, but he seems in no hurry to schedule anything. For now, I’m granting him this distance, accepting what he has to offer. That could change if the relationship develops. The yardstick my therapist talked about is actually a moving target. But I feel like I’m figuring out something important about how to tell when a man means me emotional or psychic harm and when he is simply doing his best, even if that falls a little below the expectations I initially brought to the relationship.
Lynn Marie Houston holds a PhD in English from Arizona State University. Her writing has appeared in Word Riot, Squalorly, Full Grown People, Bluestem, and other journals, as well as in her collection of poetry, The Clever Dream of Man(Aldrich Press), which won 1st place in the 2015 Connecticut State Press’ literary awards. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Southern Connecticut State University and runs Five Oaks Press.
The air is glass. Leave the window open wide,
and I’ll tell you how the daylight is its own
kind of prayer. I’ll tell you the secrets
you mutter in sleep. You dream of rain,
and morning is breaking. You dream
of my hands, and your river heart is rising.
The brown water at my ankles, my knees,
my groin. The green waters at my chest
dragging me under. My bones on the riverbed,
my bones on the sea floor, how the sun torn
waves brought the light crashing through.
We could cross these oceans in an afternoon
if you’ll just let me sit beside you, mapping
your veins onto the book of my hours.
This taste of salt, that nearing shore,
the shadows of gulls that rise above this bed.
You wanted a prayer? Sure enough: Hail Mary full of grace. Hail Mary full of birds. Our Father who art water and light. I was not ready
for this: the body known, the room gone white,
and I’m trying to remember how it feels to begin.
How would you describe it? the chair
by the window? an unchartered deep? rain,
and a rising river? We may be monsters,
but we have been brave, we have had the darkness
ripped from our eyes. My albatross,
my open sky, don’t be afraid to wake up.
Born and raised in Atlanta, GA, Robert E. Heald graduated from Colorado College in 2014 and is currently an MFA candidate in the Helen Zell program for poetry at the University of Michigan. His work was chosen as a finalist in River Styx’s International Poetry Contest and has appeared or is forthcoming in Bird’s Thumb and Assaracus.
For a butter knife it was sharp. My grandmother must have had it for a long time. Its blade was truncated by a fracture, rust collecting at the end of its one-inch length, at the site of the break. I was never sure if she kept it because of some sentimental attachment or a deep-seated sense of Soviet scarcity made more acute by the still fresh memories of the deprivations of the Great War, which was only two decades behind her. I was attached to my distorted reflection looking back at me from its heavy silver handle.
She used it for everything: to butter bread, to peel and slice apples, to shred the beef she boiled for my grandfather as he lay ravaged by a stroke, immobile, mute on the bed in the living room that smelled of coarse lye soap. She fed him tiny bites from her own hands, and he swallowed compliantly. Unable to coordinate chewing, sometimes he choked, and she would jump out of her chair to slap him between his shoulder blades, a ritual my mother still performs when my children swallow carelessly, despite my insistence that a) it’s an ineffective way to treat choking, and b) you only need to worry if they cannot cough. But she never accepted some of these newfangled medical ideas. Or inaction.
The knife seemed never to leave my grandmother’s hands. She would sit in the kitchen talking with my mother, slicing a block of doktorskaya*, lining buttered bread with the thin rectangular pieces of meat, and berating my mother for marrying a rag of a man who could not stand up to his own mother. My eyes would follow the sun’s reflection from the handle as she deftly moved the knife around the plate, until the grown-ups noticed and shooed me out of the kitchen, so they could continue their grown-up conversations.
She would have brought it with her when we emigrated in 1976, if it hadn’t disappeared one day, five years earlier, when I was nine. Or maybe I just stopped noticing it after that gathering at our communal flat.
People poured in on a weeknight. Unusual, I thought. Then there were the looks, men and women towering over me, glancing at each other as they slid their thumbs down my cheek or held my chin briefly, making searching eye contact, walking away sighing. There were whispers and vodka and sliced salami with pickle wedges, and deviled eggs and potato salad, and pickled herring, all on a starched and ironed table cloth, all prepared by my mother in the dead of night after work and before I suspected anything. I stood there, frozen, knowing that I wasn’t supposed to know, knowing what they all knew, but still having the option to lie to myself because no one had actually told me.
What happened to that knife? Did she bury it with my grandfather? Did she fling it out the window, outraged that he could just give up like that, leave her? When he got sick, she made him her life. Now he was dead. Who needed a knife?
I ask my mother why they didn’t tell me. She says it was a mistake and looks away. I smile a tipsy smile, because I cannot ask this question sober. And we just sit there, she and I, in my kitchen, with the silverware glistening between us in its steel tub on the tabletop.
The silence will not last long. I can count on her to break it.
*A type of bologna more regularly available in the Soviet food stores of the Brezhnev era than any other deli meat.
Marya Zilberberg came to the US at fourteen from what was then the Soviet Union. She now lives in Western Massachusetts, where she splits her time between numbers and words, the latter mostly in English. By day she studies the spread of superbugs and ponders conundra in evidence-based medicine. By night, she gives in to her creative impulses. She is the author of the book Between the Lines: Finding the Truth in Medical Literature. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Six Hens, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Vox Poetica, The Blue Hour, and Boston Poetry Magazine, among others. She blogs at Arkadia.
By the ninth year we believed it might never end and gave up trying to win it because trying to win a war is the surest way to make it go on; that is, when you try to win a war it’s only the war that wins. This was the sum of the wisdom we had achieved in nearly a decade; in fact, it was the solitary thing we had achieved in all those years of fighting and suffering. Now that we were pushing thirty we couldn’t bear that the war would go on and on, not just for another decade but for the rest of our lives. Nevertheless, simply laying down our arms and surrendering would be futile because of the swarms of gung-ho seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, weaned on tales of glory and revenge, who wouldn’t think of giving up, at least not for another nine more years. As for ourselves, our generation, we reckoned that it wasn’t the enemy that needed to be defeated but the war itself. It had already ruined everything it touched, from dairy farms to post-adolescence, from stone bridges to summer romances, from highway overpasses to bedside manners, from the pride of old men to the breasts of pubescent girls. So, by and by, we came up with a plan, desperate yet not inelegant. A dozen of us decided to organize a theater festival, as we announced, right on the front lines (of which there really weren’t any), right in the middle of the battlefield (though there really was no field). Our great production would stretch from the trenches to the rear echelons, from the barracks all the way to the field kitchens and mobile hospitals. We persuaded ourselves that in this way we might bamboozle the war into thinking it wasn’t a real war at all but only make-pretend. Our theatrics would confuse the generals, baffle the colonels, mystify the majors, deceive even the sergeants (who are always the most difficult to fool). We would make them believe they were not combatants at all but directors, stagehands, managers, grips, prop men, script girls, even, in the case of the elderly and august field marshal who headed the General Staff, a playwright. When the last scene of the final act was played, we would invite the international press and hand out awards. Critics from all the papers and television networks, bored with repeating patently false government communiqués, would be eager for the novelty of the business, and also frightened of missing something so unheard-of, so avant–garde, that they would flock to our vast theater. We would work the artillery barrages into the script, and the nighttime bombings as well. The streams of refugees would serve as extras in our epic production. We would take pains that even the smallest skirmish was properly lit, that there would be plenty of applause for heroes who acted persuasively heroic and no less for cowards capable of acting convincingly craven. If the cowards should turn out to be the more persuasive, then the cowards would receive the acting award and not the heroes. And soon, the war would forget its intention to be endless; it would be gobbled up by the glory of art as, under our high-school microscopes, we’d watched a paramecium ingest some morsel that became a piece of satisfied paramecium paddling purposefully through its little world. In this way, so we thought, the war too would gradually cease to be itself and become the subject of our vast theater-piece complete with its rising action, its recognition, reversal, and climax, with its rapidly falling action concluding in a most delicious dénouement where each enmity and conflict would be unknotted and made smooth, when all the terrible energies of our sanguinary youth would at last come to rest. The audience of millions would feel this approaching closure like a train rumbling toward the platform and this rumbling, this muted expectancy would be satisfied even if one didn’t particularly care for the play (it’s true that most people don’t like most plays) because everyone would know that soon they would be permitted to rise from their narrow seats (there is never enough leg room for those who have legs), released and granted all the time they wanted to mull over the faults of the drama in a café, then to make their way home, climb between clean sheets, and forget all about it.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, and Heiberg’s Twitch; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction.
There is skin even the sky
seeps through—both arms
weighted down though you
are flying through dirt
and under this faucet
hear it clouding over
already hillside and grass
—you listen for water
broken apart by the handfuls
making room, falling behind
in streams not yet the gravel
covering your forehead
as if this water itself
was still in pain, chased
and the soap too heavy.
[EXCEPT FOR THE NEW SUIT]
Except for the new suit
the boy in the photograph
is starting to wave again
though you dust its frame
half sweetened wood, half
no longer exhausted
drawing sap and the rag damp
from brooding—you spray
then wipe, ready this wall
the way each small stone
is rinsed side to side as the river
that carries off one shore
the other each year heavier
holding you from behind
screeching across, wet with saliva
with nothing in writing
or a button you can open
for its scent and mist.
Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, The Nation, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press. For more information, including free e-books and his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities,” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com. Read more poetry by Simon in Issue 18.