WE ARE ALL MIGRATING TOGETHER Painted Bus Routes and Immigrant Roots
Mural Arts in Philadelphia by Shira Walinsky
Introduction by Raymond Rorke
Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love and home of the famous LOVE statue by Robert Indiana, is taking love to new places.
If you happen to be in Philly, chances are you’ll catch sight of the 47 Bus. You can’t miss its bright blocks of color or its bold, emphatic message: WE ARE ALL MIGRATING TOGETHER.
This “mural on wheels” is the brainchild of Shira Walinsky, mural artist, and filmmaker Laura Deutch. It runs daily from South Philadelphia’s Whitman Plaza, on through Center City, and all the way up to 5th and Godfrey in North Philadelphia, connecting several multilingual, multiethnic neighborhoods and commercial corridors. Riding the bus through this cross-sectional slice of the city you’ll inevitably hear a cross-cultural variety of languages spoken, while being wrapped in a welcoming collage that represents the patchwork of diverse people whose lives intersect every day. The back of the bus reads “We Are All Migrating Together”—words from the mouth of one of its drivers—and along the way you’ll see murals by and about refugee groups who have recently settled in Philadelphia—the Karen and Chin of Burma, the Bhutanese, the Nepalese.
The bus’s first stop, 8th and Snyder, is the site of Southeast by Southeast, a public arts space and social services community center originally founded as a six-month, pop-up storefront in 2011 by Shira Walinsky, artist Miriam Singer, and social worker Melissa Fogg under the Mural Arts Program with funding by the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services.
Five years later, Southeast by Southeast is still going strong, a space for immigrant and refugee families to learn from one another, gain access to important social services, and lend their voices to highly visible public art projects. There, with the help of many volunteers and artists within the refugee community, Southeast by Southeast hosts regular ESL classes, citizenship classes, and grandparents’ groups. Monthly workshops draw from refugee skills and talents and include Burmese food night, Bollywood vs. Breakdance events, weaving and sewing demos, and more.
And there’s more ahead. Along the 47 Bus route you’ll find that Shira has created a number of murals in collaboration with refugee groups to mark their collective stories of identity and migration.
The 47 Bus Route and Mural Locations [click to enlarge]
MURALS ALONG THE WAY
Namaste (7th and Shunk) depicts a monastery in Bhutan. This mural was originally for the owners of Namaste Grocery.
El Chilito Loco (8th and Jackson) appears at the restaurant El Chilito Loco. Shira worked with the restaurant owner to create a mural using iconography from the Mayan number system and the Aztec calendar.
From the Mountains to the City (7th and Emily) tells the story of leaving home, being forced to flee, and moving into the city. Most of the Karen, Chin, Burmese, and Bhutanese refugee groups who have settled in South Philadelphia have come from very rural areas or refugee camps.
Farming Up the Mountain (8th and Emily) tells the story of farming in a rural area and here in South Philadelphia. Most of the recent immigrants in South Philadelphia were farmers in their home countries. This mural is next door to the Growing Home Gardens, a refugee garden project by the Nationalities Service Center. The colors come from Karen and Nepali textiles.
Storefront (7th and Dudley) is the site of the original Southeast by Southeast location. This mural is evocative of textiles by the Karen people of southern and southeastern Myanmar (Burma).
Language Lab (7th and Moore) celebrates the over thirty languages spoken in South Philadelphia. If you are waiting for the 47 Bus you can learn a word in another language!
* * *
Poem About American Identity by Teenage Refugee
But all these projects and programs go beyond public perceptions of ethnic, immigrant minorities. There’s also the private joy and insight that comes from getting to know a refugee personally.
There are many inspiring community members, but working with Ma Kay Saw has been really inspiring. Ma Kay Saw is a refugee from Burma. She grew up in Eastern Mountain Burma and is part of the Karen ethnic group. The Karen and other ethnic groups such as the Chin have been oppressed and engaged in civil war with the Burmese government for many years.
Ma Kay Saw had a 4th grade education, and worked helping her father farm in Burma. She also learned to weave. Each ethnic group in Burma has its own weaving traditions, and Karen weaving has beautiful, richly saturated colors.
Ma Kay Saw and her family fled from Burma, escaped through the jungle, and made it to a refugee camp in Thailand.
She arrived in the U.S. in 2011 with her husband and five children. She came with no English. She has been coming to the Southeast by Southeast community center since 2012 for ESL and women’s group activities. She has learned English and knows the 100 citizenship questions and is preparing to take the test.
Ma Kay Saw
A goal of the Southeast by Southeast community center has been to identify artists in the refugee community and find frameworks for their work. When I first saw Ma Kay weaving and making Karen clothing I was blown away by the complex patterns and rich color. I asked her if she would be able to do a weaving demo. At the time, a translator was needed to help present the demo, and she was somewhat hesitant, but in subsequent years she has led many demos and sales with confidence. Today, Ma Kay feels happy to connect people with Karen identity and traditions.
I am glad to be in a space where traditional and indigenous artists are given a framework and space for their work. I am inspired each time I see Ma Kay Saw and see her weaving—to see a resilience, an ability to learn, and to continue traditions from home.
* * *
Philadelphia, one of our nation’s forty sanctuary cities, has long been known as “a city of neighborhoods,” and South Philadelphia has long been a welcoming neighborhood for immigrants—the Irish of the 1840s, the Italians of the early 1900s, the Eastern European Jews of the 1920s, the Vietnamese and Cambodians of the 1970s, the Mexicans of the 1990s. Today, it’s the Burmese and Bhutanese who are arriving and settling in, and the annual Philadelphia New Year’s Day Mummers Parade, largely made up of South Philadelphians, is just around the corner.
We are all in this together, migrating together. Happy New Year.
—Raymond Rorke, December 2016
Postscript: It turns out that the Southeast by Southeast Brigade—Burmese, Sham, Chin, and Nepali dancers from the refugee community in South Philadelphia—got to strut their stuff in their very first Mummer’s Parade this year! Young members gave out Lao-style sukwon/mut khaen blessings, while elder women showed off their dancing skills. “We were such a small group compared to the others we marched with, but everyone was very nice to us, and we heard from so many folks about the diversity, inclusivity, and culture we brought to the parade,” says Catzie Vilayphonh, a South Philly native who grew up watching the Mummers. “I think this may be the beginning of some great New Year traditions!” —RR
Shira Walinsky lives and works in Philadelphia. As a painter, printmaker, muralist, and educator, she is focused on expanding the possibilities of partnerships between artists and communities. Shira received her MFA in painting from the University of Pennsylvania, and has completed eighteen murals in Philadelphia under the Mural Arts Program. In addition she created a series of seven lunch trucks focusing on identity, immigration, and work. She is currently co-teaching at the University of Pennsylvania with Jane Golden, Director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. While pursuing interdisciplinary work both in teaching and her own work, Shira is interested in the cultures and subcultures of the city. How do personal stories fit into larger issues of the city? How has immigration continued to change the narratives and the face of the city? Shira’s work with people in local communities helps transform public spaces, and each project is a new hybrid with new sets of challenges for artists and communities to grow from. Visit www.shirawalinsky.net
Raymond Rorke is an ardent fan of Cleaver Magazine. As a longtime writer and designer who has lived through the evolution of hand-set type into hand-coded webpages, he is fond of tinkering with words—and what goes into making them sing. Check out his ceramics portfolio here.
FOR JOSEPH, AT THE BIRTH OF HIS GRANDSON
by Cris Harris
Light blasts in my skull
And I wake in salt spray, the boom
Swinging away, sheets, tiller, mainsail
And jib, swinging. My brother
In the waves, knocked overboard
The boom swinging, the sunlight.
……………….Or the time with the fire
In the grass, spreading like math (despite
Cups of rose-hip tea and nervous urine
And the bucket fetched from the well at a run)
Until smoldering salal smoked down
The cliff face, the madrone burning
and my brother appeared
By the shore, called for the bucket
And saved me, throwing salt water
To hiss on the rocks. The waves
Gently rolling pebbles behind him.
And the cherry tree, let’s not forget
The neighbor’s cherry tree
Heavy with fruit and summer rain
A young tree, untrimmed, all height
Like we were, all promise and pressure
and we climbed to the top
Of its leader. Our mouths sweet with cherries, we rocked
And swung in widening arcs ……………….The trunk cracked at the graft
We came down, a fall like no other
Pile of leaves and branches
All around. At first, I couldn’t find him
Then we ran, heads ringing,
guilty and laughing, limping
And quick anyway.
We were fond of electricity and sharp edges
Gasoline and black powder, the match
The wire, the spark, the clinch, the uppercut, the scars.
We dove deep holding weights in dark water
Clambered up rooftops, blindfolded
Trusted the luck of our bodies that the weather would hold
That the brakes wouldn’t fail, the rope swing was solid
The ice thick enough, ……………….The pulse of the sea
A problem to ignore, the sunlight on waves
A joy we could solve.
Cris Harris spends the school year teaching writing and experiential education at an independent high school outside of Cleveland. He devotes his summers to growing vegetables and fixing up a century old barn in rural Ohio. His poems and essays have appeared recently in The Flexible Persona, Alice Blue Review, Proximity, Skylark Review, New South, Rogue Agent, and The Gambler.
Any interested parties herein? I sought to execute a release, they ended up executing me.
The conscious pain and suffering, while extreme, lasted approximately 30 years. Yes,
I sought to execute a release. Just the good air and the silent situation. All necessary releases.
I left New York behind, the only decent discovery zone for games and diversity.
Every economy devolves into paperclip and rubber band mercantilism. I tried to seek a remedy.
Searching for a successor in interest, no one came except the years, twenty-nine insulations
and counting. Call me a qualified success, hereby doing business as the Nardo Trust.
Figure the damages that got through. Give me the gross, it’s only fitting
Disbursements go first to Counsel then they go round again to satisfy the Counsel’s fee. Take
the net and split your two remaining cents, it’s all the difference I have left.
Your rounding errors leave me square. I do like some serious artists still. Your favorite
Beach Boy is a con. Or perhaps he’s just the creationist version, A Billionaire Dinosaur Done
This super awkward dominance? Plutocrats, into your hands I command my spirit. The corpse is wrapped with characters. Redirect yourselves to the Billy Sheers theory. I do believe
I’ve had enough. Today’s mildly interesting, they say I’m not under disability, or else a corporation or association. Gentlemen, what have we here? The wrongful death of my trust.
Ben Nardolilli currently lives in New York City. His work has appeared in Perigee Magazine, Red Fez, Danse Macabre, The 22 Magazine, Quail Bell Magazine, Elimae, fwriction, Inwood Indiana, Pear Noir, The Minetta Review, and Yes Poetry. He blogs at mirrorsponge.blogspot.com and is looking to publish a novel.
Get cozy. You pull me
under starlit covers, coax
the past from my throat.
The blue-veined suburbs.
Winters gathered like sticks.
My father, when he was there.
Face-first mornings pressed
to the blacktop, the boyish
crackle of skin on ice. And
in the window, a comet
falling, clearing a path
through the trees.
Matthew Gellman’s poems are featured or forthcoming in Thrush, H.O.W. Journal, Lambda Literary, Poetry Quarterly, DIALOGIST, Two Peach, and elsewhere. His poem “Trip” appeared in Issue No. 14 of Cleaver. “Cause” appeared in Issue No. 15. 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.
Candelabrum Lighting for your soul in purgatory, for deep nights at the end of the dock, for grave-tenders on vacation, for the silencing of aspersions. Discounts for camping without a lantern, for al fresco dinners at the café of never mind, for attending the flatbed truck parade, for packing a canyon with parabolas. Call for a second lighting tomorrow, for delivery of your complimentary rope ladder, for the flame annuity option, for your name on this grain of pollen. Twelve tapers included.
Other floral borders I have known Roses embroidered on scalloped edges of aprons and baby blankets and necklines of ball gowns of debutantes. Daisies tattooed in circlets around ankles of girls running barefoot on beaches. Tulips printed by hand above chair rails in dining rooms by decorators using templates on sale from Home Depot. Sunflowers crayoned in green along bottoms of love notes. Violets painted on lips of teacups saved only for visitors. Lilacs of frost burned onto north windows in bedrooms of invalids. Grape ivy carved in dark granite of gravestones standing silent in snow.
Also known as leaves The vernal feathers of my disposition. Flags of many nations. Rain tympani. Pirates of light. Contentious essays submitted for an ungraded course in economics. Some machinery we couldn’t invent. Breathers and tremblers. Random tongues for wind. Salad for caterpillars. The soon-to-be-fallen. The soon-to-rise-again.
Bull’s-eye The preacher said that love was more important than skill. That the world will bow down before technique but never give itself in answer, never yield a future in return. No, that the new must be loved into existence. We had just been singing, and now we were listening, and as he went on I began to argue with him in my head, wishing his idea to be true, feeling that it must be true, fearing that it was not true. I measured his words against everything. My hands hurt, so I must already have been desperate for a long time. Outside the chapel windows, a Saturday afternoon in May. Sunlight pressed on each leaf with exactly the right amount of weight. What else had I expected? My gift? What I thought I was hanging onto. What was already in flight.
If you want to see a tall bull-thistle in bloom I can take you right now. It’s standing about ten feet in from the edge of the meadow off Allin’s Cove, down at the end of Third Street, surrounded by an entourage of weed sycophants and miscellaneous grasses overshadowed by its weird magnetic unapproachable royalty. This is not the kind you can eat. It’s okay to confess that you find it irresistible, that it’s pulling at you, that you feel a bit like Briar Rose as you put out your hand as if. The iron in your blood is already jumping. Go on. Touch it.
Repentance One day, after a fearsome battle, the king sent his knights away and fell asleep on the riverbank. His head upon a pillow of moss, he dreamed of a kingdom hidden inside this one, a world aflame but not consumed, skyborne yet bound to earth. He had never heard birdsong so sweet. He set his shield down and a sapling sprang up. He unstrapped his sword and it dissolved into a cloud of butterflies. Because this is a medieval story, in the distance a maiden came riding a black colt. Her robes were golden. The colt’s mane was blood red. An oracle sounded from within his own head: Because we know we are not alone. He woke to darkness and walked through the forest, following campfires all the way home, thinking, Whatever happens next is going to be good.
Absolution Wait until rain stops. Go out directly and walk around until you find ideal leafy tree. Stand underneath. Reach up and take hold of lowest branch. Shake. Repeat as needed.
Karen Donovan is the author of Fugitive Red, which won the Juniper Prize for Poetry. Her new book of poems, Your Enzymes Are Calling the Ancients, won the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award from Persea Books and was published in 2016. These 7 small essays are from a collection called “Aard-vark to Axolotl,” written in collaboration with the engravings in her grandfather’s 1925 Webster’s New International Dictionary. Other essays from the collection have appeared in Diagram, Sweet, Web Conjunctions, Conduit, and Smokelong Quarterly. She co-edited the prose journal ¶: A Magazine of Paragraphs and works in Providence as a writer.
Early one Sunday morning Dean and I stumble past the First Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, the only church in town old enough to have God’s own handprint cemented in the walkway. We’ve been up a while, still not quite ready to pass out. It’s the corkscrew tail end of hour six or seven where synchronous waves start desynchronizing. The afterglow before the crash. Our general consensus is what the hell, so we sway on over through the courtyard where crocus buds pepper juniper hedges and murky stained glass islands float on seas of dried blood brick. A sign says welcome. The door creaks as it swings.
The last thing I see before going inside, carved into the arch in vaguely medieval script, are these words: A riddle: How are we desperate and empty half of the day, but content and satisfied the other half?
We stand in the warm, orange entryway, facing a cherry wood box on a pedestal where a laminated index card suggests we please insert our tithes and offerings through the tiny slit. I see no lids or doors. How do they get the money out? Once upon a time gift-giving was a ritual of reciprocity. A way to spice up commerce with warm, fuzzy feelings. Giving a gift was investing in favors. Maybe this is why the church hordes wealth, as a kindness, to prevent burdening poor souls with the weight of obligation.
We pay our dollar and sit in the back. I should mention we’re the only customers. The room is empty other than the priest. A church without a congregation.
“It’s a ghost town,” Dean whispers.
He’s a little on the young side, the priest. He’s buried his face in liturgy. He expounds his message in mutters, monotone, and monotempo. Reads his minutes like the chairman of a board meeting. It isn’t exactly a sermon—at least not any kind of sermon I’ve heard before.
Not that my past experiences were exactly fire and brimstone—I mean, that at least would’ve been something. The congregation where I grew up tore each other down with a battery of teeth, grinding knives in backs, eye-plucking beaks, and first stones cast. Insinuated gossip and passive aggressive witch hunts. Like the entire social scene was a sort of passion play to demonstrate how bad hell could get if they ever brought in some real talent.
It’s the same in all religions, I guess. Except for Buddhism. Buddhism’s just a conspiracy to keep us all breathing.
The priest drones on for twenty more minutes about some mysterious council. Finally closes his ledger and asks us to open our hymnals to some page.
I flip through: God is Pretty Okay I Guess,All You Christians Make Some Sounds, How Much Does the Lord Weigh (In Ounces), Boilerplate of Grace. I raise my hand. I’m ignored. The priest begins to sing, barely above a whisper. I get up and walk to the back of the church and browse the pamphlets and bulletin boards. Events scheduled for every day, with plenty of volunteer signatures to go around. Maybe that’s where everyone is. As if life doesn’t have enough mysteries. Where do all the socks go? Will I die inhaling or exhaling?
I sit back down next to Dean and the priest decides to step off stage and come say hi. He doesn’t stop singing until he’s inside pantsing distance. We get a sampler plate from the catalog of looks priests are required to master before graduating from priest school.
“I don’t know the songs,” I say.
“You can still sing.”
He tells us God delights in spontaneous bursts of creation, while to understand a thing is to be one step removed—a vessel for knowledge rather than an outpouring of the creative multiplicity of all which needs not be known.
“Tell us something we want to hear,” Dean says.
“Dogs will lick up the blood of tyrants, the wicked, and those who abuse the poor.”
“Did you just make that up?” I ask.
“It is wise to build a wall, but foolish to repair one,” the priest says.
Then he asks us why we’ve come.
“We just walked in,” Dean says. “We paid our dollar.”
“Ours is a cosmos of fluctuating currency,” the priest says, smiling. “The best way to love God is to love people, not by subscribing to any of the big box brand soul scrubbers.”
“Is that why no one’s here?” I say.
“You’re here,” he says.
Have you ever been so high you feel sober?
“Everyone who walks through these doors shall be raptured by sermon’s end,” the priest says.
“No repeat customers?”
“We know we’re doing our job right when we put ourselves out of business.”
Now open the gates and enter heaven. In with joy, out with obligation.
“But first,” he says. “Did you solve the riddle?”
I look over my shoulder. The words on the arch. How are we desperate and empty half of the day, but content and satisfied the other half? I feel the walls jiggle and hum until they melt away.
I want to tell you the answer, but first I have to take a deep breath and hold it for as long as I possibly can.
Josh Wagner is currently on the move, trying to live in a different country every three months. He’s written four novels (including Shapes the Sunlight Takes, Smashing Laptops, and Deadwind Sea), the collaborative novella Mystery Mark, three graphic novels (notably the award-winning Fiction Clemens), a collection of plays titled Bleached Bones, and a book of shorts called Nothing in Mind. His work has been published by Cafe Irreal, Not One of Us, Medulla Review, Lovecraft eZine, Asymmetrical Press, and Image Comics. More at www.joshwagner.org
Image credits: Painting: “Home Seekers” by Maja Ruznic. Headshot photo by Rocío Briceño.
THE MAESTRO by Amin Matalqa
illustrated by Orlando Saverino-Loeb and Meredith Leich
William, who was a cockroach, had a deep love for the music of Beethoven. Born and raised behind the walls of the Cincinnati Concert Hall, he grew up nurturing a passion for the romantics, much like his forefathers, with an affinity for the operas of Wagner and Puccini. To say that music ran in his blood, while biologically inaccurate, would be an understatement. It traced back to his great grandfather Wilhelm the first, who was an immigrant from Germany famous for boasting to the uncultured Cincinnati roaches about life behind the walls of the Berlin Opera House (legend had it that he once sat on Herbert Von Karajan’s shoe while the maestro conducted Brahms’ Requiem), and to his grandfather, who was taking a stroll to contemplate the thematic development of his first symphony when he was stepped on by none other than Leonard Bernstein. When he was still alive, William’s father longed for the day the family would return to the motherland and hear the acoustics of the famous venues there, but he died while scouting the route to the airport (he was captured and swallowed by a drunk man over a $20 bet).
William’s realization that he was destined to become a great maestro dawned upon him when he first heard the 1957 recording of Arturo Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s Eroica, the magnificent 3rd Symphony. He could feel the divine power of music under the baton of the Italian maestro and from that moment on, he knew he had what it takes. He owed the world proof that under his guidance the Cincinnati Symphony could become as great as Berlin, Vienna or the New York Philharmonic. All he had to do was inject a fraction of Toscanini’s passion to inspire them. He had to think of a way to take over as conductor, because though the local musicians were promising, their leader, in William’s humble but impassioned opinion, was an aloof hack who waved his baton with the stiffness of a rusty Soviet metronome and kept the cold expressionless face of an English countryside butler. He knew nothing of the spiritual suffering necessary to convey true musical euphoria. William, on the other hand, had torment burning in his neopterin DNA.
His mother always reminded him that he could be special if he committed his life to nurturing his gift. His antennae were unusually long for a roach his size, and his natural ability to conduct precise rhythm with the right antenna and emotional dynamics with the left was a skill that brought attention (sometimes too much of it) from the ladies. However, let there be no question, his motivation was always driven by his sheer love of music and loyalty to Cincinnati.
When William divulged his mission to his pregnant sister, Ursulla (whom he also mated with), she had to sit down and take a deep breath through the spiracles in her sides (because cockroaches don’t have lungs). William was about to embark on a quest that would forever define him either as a courageous hero or a suicidal fool. No cockroach had ever conducted an orchestra of humans and survived. Ursulla waved her antennae hysterically screaming, “Are you out of your mind?” She begged and pleaded, trying to stop him, but William refused to listen. He was willing to die for his dream.
His mission was simple: first, lock the conductor in his back room while the orchestra awaits his arrival; second, rush down to the stage and take his place at the podium before the musicians get impatient or suspicious of a mutiny; and third, tap his antenna loud enough to demand everyone’s attention, then give the downbeat with undeniable authority, leaving the orchestra with no choice but to begin playing under his direction. If he could get these three steps out of the way, then he could focus on leading them to play from their hearts instead of their intellect.
They were to perform Mahler’s 9th that night, and he had spent countless hours studying the score, memorizing it, note for note, measure by measure, while listening to the defender of mediocrity butcher it in the rehearsals. William would get frustrated by the lethargic interpretation diffusing any build up of tension or angst from the strings. He would stand at the side of the stage calling out, “Faster, faster!” or “Schnell,” in case anyone spoke German, but his attempts were futile from that far away. Ursulla would walk up and find him screaming and banging his head against the walls. She would beg him to calm down, to which he would reply that if he didn’t care so much he wouldn’t be so upset, and what’s the point of life if a roach didn’t care about something with all his heart?
William was musically prepared to take over, but he was aware that if his coup were to succeed, he would face one major challenge: an orchestra of middle-aged humans didn’t have strong enough vision to spot a little cockroach his size. He wasn’t so worried about the strings in the front, but the horns in the back, they could pose a big problem. How terrible would Mahler’s 9th be with improper dynamics from the horns? William felt a shortness of breath as his anxiety returned.
One of the fundamental lessons his mother had instilled in him when he was little (before she was poisoned by a lethal combo of Cypermethrin and Acephate) was to conquer his fear by turning it into fire to fuel him. “Roaches,” she said, “have the tendency to become brooding creatures who submit to their fears. Always running away from this and that, they spend most of their lives so afraid that they get nothing done.” William promised he would never live that way, so on that fateful day, he took a deep breath, munched down on some cardboard, and set forth on his quest as Ursulla bade him farewell with proud tears filling her compound eyes.
The clock indicated quarter till eight and the crowds were taking their seats around the concert hall as William snuck through pipes and under doors, finding his way to the green room where the conductor was sitting facing the mirror. His body was still, almost lifeless, and his eyes were closed. He was meditating. William scoffed at the crooked posture in the man’s back when he felt his curiosity, like a gravitational force, pull him closer towards the conductor. He climbed the dresser and crawled halfway up the mirror, feeling the brightness of light bulbs engulf him with warmth. He was up to the man’s eye line, so close he could smell his pungent body odor, which made him tingle with pleasure. All his hatred, jealousy and resentment evaporated in the magnitude of this moment. In their place, admiration was born. Here he was, a simple cockroach, standing on the reflection of the maestro’s face, leader of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
The conductor opened his eyes and William froze, fighting every instinct begging him to run for his life. He held his stance, naked and exposed, yet without fear. The maestro then did the unexpected: he slowly leaned forward and looked at William. Was he admiring our hero? Did he recognize the uniqueness of his antennae? Perhaps it was the roach’s courage that demanded respect. Could this be the moment? Had William finally taken that small step towards a life-long friendship, that giant leap on behalf of his entire species, a species that had been cruelly misunderstood by the human race for thousands of years? William then waved his right antenna, as if to say, “Well hello, human,” making the maestro smile. Oh, if only Ursulla were there to witness this moment of first contact between these two unlikely beings.
But the moment was all too brief. Whap! The conductor slammed his shoe onto the mirror, barely missing William by a hair. The betrayal! The mirror shattered and William fell onto the ground. Whap! Another attempt. The conductor was trying to murder him. But why? The fool! They were this close to striking a friendship and changing the interspecies dynamic for their respective peoples. William zipped his way across the floor, zigzagging to survive two more violent swats, until he found refuge under a door. He rested in a safe dark corner for a moment, made a quick prayer, then bolted out into the hallway where members of the orchestra were rushing to get on stage.
His mission had failed, but cockroaches never had a reputation for good planning. He had to come up with something new, a plan B, and he had to do it quickly.
By the time the orchestra was settled on stage and the instruments were getting tuned, the hideous conductor stepped out of the room. William hid in a corner and waited for him to pass, at which point he marched close behind where he could stay out of sight. He followed him all the way to the stage where he could hear the chatter in the crowds die down like rain after a storm. The lights had dimmed down and the concert was about to commence.
The orchestra waited in silence and William felt a sudden need to pee, which he did. The maestro then took to the stage and William followed him as the crowds burst into roaring applause. The heat of the spotlight washed over our heroic roach. It was a moment of glory. They were applauding as if they knew what he had gone through to get here. As if they understood how he had risked his life and challenged his own instincts to overcome his inherent fear. This was a reward for his courage, but he knew not to let it get to his head. It was a distraction and he couldn’t allow vanity to cloud his vision again. He had one objective in mind and nothing less. He was here to conduct and infuse his passion into the Cincinnati Symphony. He had to convey the beauty of Mahler’s 9th, a symphony portraying the inevitability of death.
He let the applause die down before walking onto the podium, then took a little bow and turned to face the orchestra. Unlike the human hack at the helm, William didn’t need to read the score because he had the entire 9th memorized. He stood behind the lazy stiff and tapped his antennae to the ground, calling for the orchestra’s attention. He could feel their eyes collectively stare at him, perhaps with bewilderment, but there was no time for vanity. The symphony was awaiting its birth under his baton. He raised his antennae and gave the downbeat.
Magic happened. The harp, the horns, the strings, like waves of a morning’s calm ocean, carried each note into the air, and William closed his eyes to feel the sensations growing inside him. The strings swirled around the escalating horns, then forces brewed with tension in a series of crescendos building towards a collision course. Wave after wave hit him like sonic flashes transcending time and space. It was as if Mahler’s ghost was standing before him, perhaps even taking possession of his body. Oh, if only his forefathers could see him in the glory of this moment as he simmered in the bliss of music. Suddenly, while continuing to conduct, never missing a beat, his wings triggered and spread open for the first time in his life. On their own, they started flapping rapidly, lifting him up into the air. William took flight and hovered up to the maestro’s head. The view from above was majestic. He no longer had to stare at the orchestra’s shoes anymore. The music had completely taken over him while his antennae conducted with the spiritual force of Toscanini, Bernstein, and Karajan combined.
He could feel their eyes staring at him. The playing continued. The timpani declared his arrival.
When the trumpets made their announcement, he looked to the side of the stage and found Ursulla staring at him in disbelief. She was proud and in tears. William smiled to her as his antennae waved up and down in perfect meter, feeding the orchestra’s swelling dynamics. That was also when he flew into the maestro’s face and accidentally got sucked into the vortex of his mouth. The music paused as William struggled to run across the surface of the man’s flapping tongue. He was drenched in saliva when the conductor spit him out and struck him with one swift blow. William crashed onto the ground and barely blinked when a massive shoe descended and crushed him.
The music returned. The French horns mourned as our hero accepted his demise. But there was one last breath left in him. Ursulla was crying as she ran to the love of her life and held his broken legs and torso. William could hear the solo violin play its gentle melody when he gave Ursulla his last dying words: “Tell the others, show them, find the videotape.” And he died as the end of the first movement came to a close.
Video cameras had recorded the concert, and the next day, upon the broadcast of the incident on the news, the entire population of Cincinnati Concert Hall roaches gathered to watch William heroically conduct Mahler’s 9th from the air then sacrifice his life for the one thing he loved. They collectively agreed, though William was gone, his interpretation of the 9th was the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s finest performance to date.
William became a legend to all roaches. A symbol of seeking one’s bliss and living without fear. And cockroaches flew in from all around the state to pay their respects.
The next week, the management of the Cincinnati Concert Hall spent $1,376.32 (after the $100 coupon) of their annual budget to have the entire building fumigated.
Born in Jordan, raised in Ohio, Amin Matalqa is a writer/director whose feature films include the Sundance-winning Jordanian Oscar entry, Captain Abu Raed; Walt Disney Studios’ soccer drama, The United; the romantic comedy, Strangely In Love based on Dostoevsky’s White Nights; and the upcoming adventure, The Rendezvous, starring Stana Katic (Castle) and Raza Jaffrey (Code Black) which premiers in the fall. Amin lives in Los Angeles and has an MFA in Film Directing from the American Film Institute. Next up: his debut book of short stories: Heroes & Idiots: Vol 1.
Orlando Saverino-Loeb is a Philadelphia-born artist. He graduates with a fine arts degree in painting and drawing and a minor in Italian from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in December 2016. He specializes in painting, using acrylic paint with an assortment of other mediums. His thesis exhibition at the Stella Elkins Tyler Gallery was entitled Individualized Pareidolia. He is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Italy and has lived there for two summers studying art and Italian. He began his college career at the University of Cincinnati to study industrial design for one year before transferring to Tyler. He has shown his work at Infusion lounge in Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Art Collective. You can follow his work on Instagram @orlandosaverinoart. Orlando is a Cleaver Emerging Artist. .
Meredith Leich is a videomaker, painter, drawer, and writer, who works with video installation, 3D animation, watercolor, music, and text.Born and raised in Boston, she has made her home in Berlin, Brooklyn, Jaffa, San Francisco, and now Chicago, making and teaching art.You can see her work at meredithleich.com and vimeo.com/outmoded.
For twenty-three years you’re free. Then you go to prison.
You arrive in an orange jail jumpsuit, thin and see-through as a dryer sheet. You sit in a cage until a correctional officer calls you out. State your full name. Any aliases? How tall are you? Yeah you wish, how tall are you really? How much you weigh? Hair color? Eyes? Any scars? Any tattoos? Where? Of what? What size shoe you wear? Pants? Shirt? Get back in the cage.
When you’re called out again it’s to have your head shaved. You walk into a cubicle and sit on a beat up metal stool while an inmate shears you with barbershop clippers. You’re told it’s to prevent lice, but you know it’s just another step in taking away your identity, your individuality, your sense of self.
You wait in line with the other new arrivals for the shower. You’re handed a set of prison-issue clothes in approximately your size and a bar of tiny motel soap. You think about the old “don’t drop the soap” joke. You can’t help it.
Out of the shower, you put on your new clothes. Your orange jumpsuit has been taken away to be burned. There is no longer a single thing touching your body that came before these walls. You’ve been here all of twenty minutes and everything about your real life has been scrubbed away. They’d scrub off your birthmark if it was in the budget.
You’re assigned an ID number and told to memorize it immediately. From now on it is more important than your name. You go back to the holding cell full of all the other new guys. Everyone’s head shaved; everyone dressed identically. You joke with each other, try to keep the mood light. It looks good, hell you were losing your hair anyway, you’re better off. You’re all going to be here for a good long while.
Time passes. Your only sister gets engaged, says she wants to wait until you get out to have the wedding, but it’s too long to wait and you feel bad and tell her to do it without you, that her starting her new life is more important than you being there to see it. You miss the wedding.
Your aunt dies of pancreatic cancer, your grandmother of old age. Both times your dad breaks the news in the visiting room and you spend the rest of those five-hour visits crying into your hands, trying not to disturb other people’s time with their loved ones, their checkers games played on frayed squares of cardboard. The visiting room guards give your dad weird looks. What’s wrong with him? Your dad is too choked up to answer. He just shakes his head.
Your friends move, start careers, get married, graduate from law school. Some of them write to you but most of them don’t. You want to be angry about this but can hardly blame them. You settle for just feeling depressed and alone, which seems like the reasonable middle ground. A few friends get landlines so you can talk to them on the phone. It’s on these calls that you realize you have increasingly less to say to anyone: no exciting news or updates to give, no energy for the witty banter. You realize you don’t have much in common with the people on the other end, and you worry they will realize this too. The calls taper off.
You’re woken up for count at five o’clock every morning. You’re woken up for urine tests. You’re woken up for property searches. You’re woken up because the guards think it’s funny. You aren’t sleeping that well to begin with, given the metal slab covered with a two-inch pad that acts as your bed. Strange, you think, to never do anything yet still be tired all the time.
You lose touch with reality. Your mind closes in on itself. It races, triggers panic attacks in the hours after dark. You dream that Taylor Swift is in your cell with you. She has a cold and asks for medicine. You tell her you’re sorry, you don’t have any—the stuff that actually works isn’t even allowed in here. For several days, you are fixated on this dream. You don’t understand. You don’t even like her music. You worry you’re losing your mind.
You’re moved to a different prison, then moved again. You bloat your stomach like a horse being saddled when the guards shackle you up. That way the chain around your waist isn’t too tight when you eat the bologna sandwich thrown at you on the transit bus.
You watch people get beaten. You watch people get stabbed. You watch people lose hope. This is the scariest to watch, by far.
You’re released. You get out. This is the hard part. This is the transition you’re not sure you can make. You sublet an apartment from someone who doesn’t bother to run a background check. You’re grateful for this because no one else will rent to you. You call a few friends, but it’s been too long. No one knows what to say anymore. Your friendship has become a burden, a chore, a charity undertaking.
You apply for jobs. You don’t get them. Eventually you find one, just enough to get by on. They don’t ask, so you don’t say. You were at the top of your class in college, grad school scholarships to choose from. Now you’re in your twenties making eleven dollars an hour, and you feel lucky to have that. Because you are lucky. Still breathing. Free.
People tell you about Breaking Bad, about Game of Thrones. They tell you about Spotify and Snapchat and the Boston Marathon bombing and everything else you missed. You make an attempt to get caught up but it overwhelms you. You decide you’re too far behind to bother. You don’t watch the shows, don’t download the apps, know nothing about the big news events from those years. You’re happier for it.
You go to the grocery store and are overwhelmed by the selection. You look in your closet and feel embarrassed by the waste. You can’t believe there was ever a time when you thought these things would make you feel better, would fill the hole where your self-esteem should be. Years spent with two pairs of green pants, three white undershirts, two green button-ups, one pair of boots burned that out of you. You fill trash bags to donate.
Your niece is born. You love her and do your best to help with her. You pray she won’t grow up thinking you’re a loser. You watch your parents get older and worry that they already do. There was a time when they were proud of you. Now they defend you to their neighbors, their friends, perhaps hoping you might still find your way through the dark.
You become a Buddhist. You become vegan. You become active. You work. You write—sometimes in the second person. You think it would be fun to volunteer with animals, to generate some positive energy in your life, but the places you apply won’t accept felons. When you lock eyes with a stranger on the street, you smile.
You keep shaving your head because you’re used to it now. You’re sleeping better. You dream about the past, about people and things you no longer have in your life. You dream about Taylor Swift again. She laughs at you, acts like she’s never seen you before. You shrug. The dream doesn’t stick with you.
It’s not that you aren’t grateful, because you are. You’ve finally learned the bumper stickers are right: that every day truly is a blessing, that nothing is promised. But you’re in mourning, confused, lost. You just got out last year so you try to be patient, tell yourself it will come in time. For now you recognize nothing, least of all yourself.
You don’t want to be here anymore; you still want what you’ve always wanted. You just want to go home.
Michael Fischer was released from state prison in 2015 and is currently earning an MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College. He is an editor of the school’s literary journal, Sierra Nevada Review, and a Moth Chicago StorySlam winner. His work is forthcoming in Hotel Amerika, Hippocampus, Vagabond City, and the 2016 TulipTree Review anthology. Michael is a Cleaver Emerging Artist.
Think of the frost That will crack our bones eventually. –Tom Hennen, “Love for Other Things”
I will, and I will
Walk into the morning
Light falling like snow: a flurry:
Life. Cold is and I am.
Tell me something other.
I will walk away, leaving:
Everything I am.
They say (they and I,
I say and lie) when one is
Inhaled by avalanche
The bright fire of life is
Stoked in wind and
A great black night.
It is night,
Now; I am alive.
The frost will do: crack,
Cry: a sky of bones
Ready to alight on my lying.
I am thinking of the morning
Light, but it is far and
My bones are alive,
Flying for now, for tonight.
Matthew Burns teaches writing and literature in upstate New York. His poem “Rhubarb” won a James Hearst Poetry Prize from North American Review; other poems have received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations and have appeared or are forthcoming in Posit, ellipsis…, The Raleigh Review, Camas, Spoon River Poetry Review, Quiddity, LimeHawk, and others. He also serves as a poetry editor for Heron Tree.
What He Saw What Phi Dees saw that morning may have disturbed him. At least he has not forgotten and has noted the way the memory prowls unfettered in his mind. What happened would seem to be a simple matter; indeed, natural. A neighborhood cat down low in the grass, inching toward the feeder, leaping through the air to bite a finch off its perch. No skirmish or even sound of a ruffle. There and then not. And the cat turning to look back in his direction.
But what he saw was this: a view of himself, looking up from his reading, observing too quietly the silent scene. Even waiting for its denouement, not unlike when he once watched someone fall slowly down a flight of stairs.
When the Moon was New When the moon was new Phi walked through the woods. Leaves were yet to turn, the canopy intact. In the late afternoon, though, the air had begun to cool. Had you been with him, you might have thought of a long-sleeved shirt, perhaps a light sweater. But his arms were bare, and he wore a cap as he moved over the soft path. A fallen limb, here; cobbler’s pegs, there. He noticed.
He may have had a destination in mind. At the pond, he shared the bank with a family fishing. As they cast their lines, so he tossed scraps of rye bread from a baggie. He lobbed them into the water watching the slight ripple of rings and waited for them to sink like sins sent to the depths of the sea.
Karl Plank’s recent work has appeared in Notre Dame Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, New Madrid, Zone 3, Limestone, Spiritus, and other publications. He is a past winner of the Thomas Carter Prize (Shenandoah, 1993) and a Pushcart nominee. Since 1982, he has taught at Davidson College, where he is the J.W. Cannon Professor of Religion.
A red-stemmed vase of lightning lifts the sky toward heaven’s permanent farrago of space and time: heavy, religious, worth thinking about, we agree. God might rest easier tonight blessed by our toast, a toast raised above the fold, the mad superciliousness of the headlines, the narcosis of the many. Lincoln, you would’ve reminded me, lives on in the few. We do well, I might have replied, to thank the weather for this breeze, and that bottleneck guitar climbing those angelic blues might be the ultimate apotheosis, yet another reason to go on living as if this day might last forever. Lilacs and a shot of bourbon, neat. When last outside the dooryard they bloomed, you had been alive. I loved those evenings when you and I would sit on the back porch and watch the thunderclouds roll up, and their spidering lightning boom and flash the darkness into daylight. Still do. Love, that is, this, and eating popcorn, and trying to discern the path the little lizards took when we’d disturb the blanket of ivy climbing the lattice there below the verandah. Why not such contemplations when we’d nothing better to do than entertain ourselves, as if we were the old folks at home trying out resurrection in the sundries of the ordinary: snakeskin, chrysalis, thunder, ash. In the beginning there was only a word, words, words like these to gather our stories. Even now, even here. Even you . . .
Begging For Our Lives
Andrea: Unhappy the land that has no heroes! Galileo: No, unhappy the land that needs heroes. —Leben des Galilei, Brecht
The green blade trimmed the paper of all its edges, and thereafter the hills took shape as if creation were this cloudless Bastille Day. Innocent enough. But there had stood on the shoulders of a squadron of ants this carapace wanting a name. It might have been one of us. Still, it didn’t come in time, the name, yours, or his, or even mine. We were too slow in assembling the ransom, and when the stakes tipped toward the ritual flames, we abandoned charity and reason. Besides, what good would a name have done anyone at that point? It had all been spent, our reserve of indulgences, and the crowds needed to cheer that swift flash of life, and so, shining like steel, the modest afternoon averted its eyes as we revealed what kind of species we really were. It could have been us them and they could have been, and, in fact, were sure to become, us—centuries hurrying probabilities onward as fast as light. Of course, it was nothing, we swore. Just untie these ropes, unbind our feet, forget us. We are not so grand as to require defeat give us its flagrant words. There is little enough of us as it is. Look, we can begin tomorrow. Give us crayons and scissors. Bleu, blanc et rouge. Give liberty its toss of the dice. You see, it’s OK. Forget our names. Mark our souls vanquished. It’s OK. Really, it is . . .
Marc Harshman’s second full-length collection, BELIEVE WHAT YOU CAN, is out from West Virginia University. Periodical publications include The Georgia Review, Emerson Review, Salamander, and Poetry Salzburg Review. His poems have been anthologized by Kent State University, the University of Iowa, University of Georgia, and the University of Arizona. His thirteen children’s books include The Storm, a Smithsonian Notable Book. He was an invited reader at the 2016 Greenwich Book Festival in London. His monthly show for West Virginia Public Radio, The Poetry Break, began airing in January. He is the poet laureate of West Virginia.
He liked to watch me change.
I slipped a bra strap over my left shoulder.
The room darkened.
As if I could maintain myself.
I dream of living under a bluer star,
a sky more deviant with color.
I’m not a pet owner.
If I carry a leash, it’s attached
to a collar around my neck.
I own a neck, and I own the slack
in the leash (lease).
I wander around in my car,
in my city, my city-state.
Because the naked eye adjusts
to changes in light, it’s not easy
to see how dark the city is (was)
but you can see the road’s shoulders
and muscular jaw.
Forget the steel honeycomb of pipe,
soon-to-be smoke stacks, piled
and tied down to the back
of a Mack truck.
I went to the dog park
by accident. I guess I thought
it was a people park; there
were people there, too,
holding their leashes.
We stood around and watched
the animals, their joy
protected by a double gate,
running wild (unleashed),
running uninhibited through the
chasing the scent of wet fur,
which was everywhere (nowhere).
Now would be
an inappropriate time to zoom.
Justin Jannise received his MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has appeared in North American Review, The Yale Review, and Zocalo Public Square, among other places. He lives in Houston.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 18th, 2015
by Kimberly Ann Southwick
the glass of water he breaks
after our only night out this week,
a slow drown for him at the bar,
almost ruins a roll of postage stamps
when he comes home and falls down.
i am holding his eyeglasses.
i’m not even sure how
and you move away from him, from us.
ziggy comes over to me
so that i will scratch behind his ears—
he is the other dog, he is not our dog, you are
the sadness we feel is selfish.
i keep saying, she doesn’t want us
to be sad. i want to talk about
your spirit your soul your heart of hearts
like these things make sense, like
i even believe in them—
i like to imagine that the best dogs
are reincarnated into the best humans.
i don’t touch my stomach.
it’s the year of the goat.
i tuck my horns away.
four days of medicine
means going back for four more.
eight is a special number in chinese culture.
we never knew your birthday. let us celebrate
the life-death binary every new moon
in your name, in the name of the year
of the goat, in the name
of the power of eight.
my dad says hope on the phone,
he says when i go on the phone, he says
you never know and bring her by
one more time to me on the phone.
desi says she’ll be over for a hug
on saturday. geoff and i, we
try not to say too much
about it, really, at all.
Mercury shrinks to the bottom of the gauge,
and you follow the stone wall to a gap
too narrow for more than one, past
a granite foundation pit, an abandoned orchard,
and down through a dark hemlock stand
to the ice choking the headwaters.
You imagine the gurgle of strangled water,
the unbreathable gap between ice
and slush, and you’re grateful for spaces
between stones in the wall, where your breath,
which has now left you for good,
collects with the fresh snow.
Michele Leavitt, a poet and essayist, is also a high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, and former trial attorney. In 2016, her essays appeared in Narratively, Guernica, and Catapult. Poems appear most recently in North American Review, concis, and Hermeneutic Chaos. She’s the author of the Kindle Singles memoir, Walk Away.
I threw my sandwich wrapper out in a trash can. On
the side of the trash can was the word LIMITLESS.
I threw out my sandwich wrapper,
I threw out my clothes and toiletries from my
I threw out my suitcase, I took my clothes off and
pressed them through the rim of that trash can.
A family of seven walked by and then they walked
away a family of three.
I threw out the airplane,
and then threw out my useless ticket.
I threw out the airport terminal, including the free
charge stations and vendor booths,
I threw away the highway that leads here along with
Mike (on his way to work, which I also threw
away) and his car which got me here.
An announcement came through on the intercom
and I pushed that into the trash also.
I went through my phone book throwing all my
contacts away. I felt a little sad about it
but then I also threw that away.
I also threw away any regret before it stopped me
from testing the limits of the moil of this impressive
and miserable trash can.
Matthew Mogavero is from Florida. He has a B.A. in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Florida in Tampa. His work appears in PANK and The Four Cornered Universe.
You could say that the fundamental difference between them was that she was a glass half-fuller and he was a glass half-emptier. Or that she drank water, and he drank.
At the beginning, this spelled equilibrium. She buoyed him, he set her feet on the ground, and they walked around like that, looking forward. Over time, though, the level in the glass became a contest that was important to win.
She tried to be cheerful. He became heavy. She could feel him at night in bed beside her, weighing a sinkhole in the mattress, and she could feel herself growing lighter and lighter. In this way, the distance between them became very great.
He despaired. Of course she slipped sometimes, as one slips when there is a great deal of mud, but she couldn’t wallow. There was no truth in mud, and besides, it was dirty. He took the satisfaction he could in draining his glass and setting it down empty. The person he had to walk away from in the end was the person he found at the bottom. Alone, she floated, though eventually she drifted back to earth. Taking stock, she found that the level in the glass had lowered, but that it was no longer a question of halves, and the glass could be said to be full.
Olivia Parkes is a British-American writer and painter based in Berlin. Her work has been published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, the New Haven Review, Stand Magazine, Gone Lawn, and Blue Five Notebook. She was awarded second prize in the Exposition Review‘s Flash 405 “Metamorphosis” contest in 2016. Olivia is a Cleaver Emerging Artist.
Magnolia to aloe, silver-sheened river, and shallow.
We are minor in the composition but figure prominently.
Often now I think of the past as a large country
of crumpled maps, fragments
arranged under my feet. Hasn’t it always been
a question of which trees, which injuries
to include, where to place them? To be human is to hoard.
We keep the hours to curate them:
Imagine a place, now mute its colors. Rip out
the forms that marked you and reshape yourself
around them. Call the curved lines memory.
Of course I want to say love changed us
though I’ve collected you, winged, heavy-limbed
as I would anything else: Virginia’s blue hours,
pine underbrush, the suggestion of a face.
The paste is still setting. Please, don’t touch.
Elisabeth Lloyd Burkhalter graduated from the University of Virginia’s Area Program in Poetry Writing and moved to Paris, where she organized conferences in the wood construction industry. Her poetry has appeared in the The Mississippi Review and The Collagist. She now works as an apprentice to a tailor and writes in Bandjoun, Cameroon. Elisabeth is a Cleaver Emerging Artist.
from SHE WALKED NEXT DOOR & HER HOUSE EXPLODED
by Kathryn Ionata
you know that photo
stuck into the side of a frame in the den
you know, the photo of Katie & Jamie on the stairs
well, we found it halfway down the block, black-edged but whole.
must have blown out with the force of the explosion
like a balloon out of a kid’s hand
& maybe two weeks later
you find a mound of popped rubber and string
with a boot print on top
Kathryn Ionata is the author of the poetry chapbook Yield Signs Don’t Exist (PS Books, 2016). Her writing has appeared in The Toast, The Best of Philadelphia Stories, Hawai’i Review, Wisconsin Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Aries, and elsewhere. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and was a runner-up for the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry. She teaches writing at Temple University and The College of New Jersey.
They are cutting down all the trees for Christmas.
Pine and spruce lay bundled on warehouse floors,
and I drink cognac in the corners of silent rooms,
red oriental rugs bursting with flowers and leaves,
warm feet wrapped in wool,
my body a river where the man capsized,
my body that I gave away,
all of it.
Cradled in me were three babies:
one a riverbank where the father crawls,
one the mica embedded in stone,
one was never born,
and it is Christmas,
fields of stumps and birth of son
on the frozen ground
and trees we unwrap and climb with eyes
and cover with tinsel and lights.
I never meant to make land fallow.
I believed in kind fathers.
I believed sons were gods
and my daughter would give birth to me.
I pulled them both out of me.
I cut their cords and heard them cry.
They grew in moonlight.
My son lost his boat.
My daughter glinted in stone and rose.
The unborn one reached high from seed and water,
and I hung on her a bulb.
It was silver.
It was mine.
Kika Dorsey is a poet and professor living in Boulder, Colorado. She wakes up at sunrise every morning and crafts poetry out of dreams, myths, her body, and her travels. Her poems have been published in The Denver Quarterly, The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Indiana Voice Journal, The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, KYSO Flash,The Columbia Review, among numerous other journals and books. She has published two books, Beside Herself (Flutter Press, 2010), followed by her full-length collection, Rust (Word Tech Editions, 2016). Currently, she is a professor of English at Front Range Community College and the poetry editor of Plains Paradox. She lives with her husband, two children, and a mischievous dog and cat. When not writing or teaching, she taxis her teenagers to activities, swims miles in pools, and runs and hikes in the open space of Colorado’s mountains and plains.
This morning, out my window, a strange amber film over the sky. The usually crowded streets now mostly empty, only a few people hurrying down the sidewalk, heads bent in medical masks. In the distance, the temple on the hill just a faint shimmer.
Something on the wind.
Nuclear fallout? Had North Korea finally dropped the bomb? I check my phone. Like always, no messages. I look out the window again. Clay-tiled rooftops, a cat slinking under a parked car, a row of cherry blossom trees, the petals scattered along the sidewalk—everything in sepia, like a photograph from a hundred years ago.
And then I remember: Asian Dust. My boss at the English academy warned me about it, told me to stay inside when it blew through. It comes from the deserts of China and Mongolia, he said. Every spring it swirls east over the continent, turning the skies yellow and causing a respiratory nuisance. Koreans have written about it for thousands of years. Hwangsa, they call it: “yellow dust.”
It’s not like I had any exciting Sunday plans anyway. I close the blinds and make my way back to bed, kicking over a few empty bottles from the night before. I’d been up late reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and drinking soju—cheap Korean liquor. As I crawl back under the covers, I check the clock: already past eleven. Might as well sleep a few more hours. Let the dust bury the city.
But before I can fall asleep again, my downstairs neighbor starts sobbing. This has become a regular event over the past few weeks. Long, choking sobs—the sounds of true anguish. I’ve never seen her or even heard her speak, but from her crying I would guess she was middle-aged. I know nothing else about her. This building is new but hastily and cheaply built, and the walls and floors are thin. I hear every toilet flush, argument, and intimate moment of the young couple living next to me, but from the floor below, only sobbing.
It is a strange thing, in Korea, for a woman to live alone. The Korean women teaching at my academy are in their late twenties or early thirties, and those who are unmarried still live with their parents. They told me that especially in Jinju, a conservative city on the southern tip of the peninsula, a woman living alone would be eyed with suspicion or scorn. Has she abandoned her family? Why hasn’t she found a husband? What failure or shortcoming has led to this?
I only wonder why she has to cry so loudly. How can someone muster such emotion before noon? I lie there, head throbbing from the soju, and jam a pillow over each ear. But I can’t fall asleep. I pick up my book, read a few paragraphs, and set it back down. I can’t concentrate. Usually I would crank up some music or put on my headphones and play a computer game, but today with this headache I don’t need any loud sounds or eyestrain. I need some peace.
I get up and wander around my apartment. It’s a small studio, so I don’t have far to wander. I think about making breakfast, but I’m not hungry. Instead I sit at my computer and click around online for a few minutes. The whole world at my fingertips and nothing interesting. Eventually I go to the window again, open the blinds, and stare out at the empty streets, nothing moving, the city frozen in amber. My neighbor still weeping.
I realize, suddenly, that if I stay in my room and listen to this crying woman, the whole arc of my life will be decided. I’ll live out my years in one studio apartment after another, always sleeping on a single bed, always drinking cheap liquor, never with any new messages on my phone, never finding anything interesting online, and always, always listening to a neighbor sobbing through the walls.
I’ll go for a walk, I decide. It’s just a little dust. I put on a pair of jeans, grab a hat, and climb down the four flights of stairs in my apartment building.
The dust isn’t so bad. I like the empty streets, the feeling of modest adventure. It reminds me of my dusty prairie hometown, where I roamed the dirt roads swinging a stick like a sword and dug up my backyard looking for arrowheads. Even then I knew I would someday travel to strange and beautiful places, see things no one else in my town would ever see. And now here I am on the other side of the planet, in Jinju, South Korea, thinking of my childhood, hung-over and walking alone in a cloud of sand.
But unlike a sandstorm, yellow dust doesn’t swirl in your face, catch in your hair, crunch between your teeth. You experience hwangsa as a hazy sky, itching eyes, a scratch in your throat. You don’t see the dust until it’s built up along the edges of walls, or thinly coating a windshield. So I make my way without too much discomfort through the narrow, winding streets to Jinju’s river, the Namgang.
The Namgang, dark with silt, flowing haphazardly northeast to join with the Nakdong, and then south again to the sea. I stand on a bridge and look out across it. On the north bank stands Jinju Castle, a 900-year-old fortress where thousands of men have fought and died. Built from mud, destroyed by sea marauders, rebuilt from stone, destroyed by the Japanese, and now built again with a museum and 3-D theater. On the south bank of the river lies a bamboo forest. I’m standing there on the bridge, trying to decide which way to go, when I meet Na Na-Ra.
I don’t recognize her at first—just a wave of black hair above a white medical mask coming toward me on the bridge. But her eyes grow big when she sees me, and she rushes over.
“Michael Teacher!” she says. She lowers her mask and I recognize her then, her sleepy eyes and thick eyebrows, her small chubby nose.
“Na Na-Ra!” I say.
Na Na-Ra used to be a teacher at my English academy. We worked together for a month after I came to Korea, before she was fired for coming to work late every day. She used an English name—Tanya—for the students, but I preferred to use her full Korean name, family name first.
“Where are you going?” she says. “It’s yellow dust today.” She gestures with two hands at the sky.
“I’m just walking. Where are you going?”
“Over there,” she says, motioning vaguely to the south. “Where’s your mask?”
“I don’t have one.”
“You should take care. The yellow dust will kill you.” This is not true.
“You should give me your mask,” I joke, reaching out for it.
“No!” She slaps my hand away and cinches the mask tightly over her mouth and nose. “Walk with me, Michael Teacher. Just over there.”
We walk together down the bridge. When a car rolls past us, she presses her shoulder against me to move out of its way, and I’m filled with a sudden desire and loneliness. It’s been a long time since a girl has pressed her body against mine.
“Are you still at Avalon?” she says, referring to my English academy.
“Yeah. Everyone misses you.” This is also not true. Na Na-Ra was a less than diligent worker, and often the tasks she neglected would fall to the other teachers. Despite having only known her a month, I probably missed her the most. She never seemed to take the job too seriously, and her laziness amused me.
“Ha! What a shit place.” Na Na-Ra spent most of her time in the office watching pirated American movies on her computer, and she’d picked up some colorful language.
“It’s not so bad. I don’t know why you could never come to work on time.”
“I like to stay up late.”
“Classes start at 2 PM.”
“My house is far away. I have to take the bus. Have you eaten?”
“Of course! You should eat more. You look very terrible. So skinny.” Na Na-Ra is much skinnier than I am, but a certain heft is expected of Americans here.
“I’m fine,” I say. “Anyway, what are you doing these days? Did you find a new job?”
“I’m tutoring two middle school girls. They’re so dumb. Mostly I’m watching TV and sleeping.”
We leave the bridge and start walking through a riverside park. Usually it would be bustling with children and couples, but today it’s quiet. We pass a collection of outdoor exercise equipment where in better weather older Korean men and women, ahjussis and ajummas, engage in public fitness routines. The path leads east into the bamboo forest.
Na Na-Ra looks at me and smiles—her eyes scrunch above her mask.
“Michael Teacher, do you really like Korea?”
I start to answer with a quick affirmative, but something stops me. Maybe it’s my loneliness, or the strange feeling of closeness two people develop when walking together in inclement weather, but I suddenly feel the urge to open myself up to this young woman, this person I know so little about, with whom I’ve only exchanged a few office pleasantries almost a year ago.
“It’s the same as anywhere, I guess. You know, this is the fifth country I’ve lived in. Did I tell you that?”
She shakes her head.
“I was born in America, of course, went to school there. I studied abroad in Germany for a year during college, and then after I graduated I taught English in Taiwan for a year, then the same thing in Malaysia, and now here I am in Korea.”
“Wow, you’ve seen so much of the world.”
“That’s just where I’ve lived. I’ve also traveled to a dozen other countries. And everywhere I’ve been it’s the same thing. Just trade a cathedral for a temple for a mosque, eat some meat and vegetables here, some rice and noodles there. Hey, here’s a very important old building. And there’s another one over there and another one and another one until they’ve lost all meaning. The only thing that changes is me, and not in a good way.”
We’re approaching the edge of the bamboo forest now. It’s hard to read Na Na-Ra’s expression behind her mask. “What do you mean?” she says.
“It’s hard to explain. But it feels like each place I go takes something from me. Like I’ve left the best parts of myself in all these different countries. I feel like I’ve become fractured somehow.”
The bamboo forest is about a hundred yards long, twenty yards wide. We walk through it on a path made from wooden planks. In a few places, the path breaks off to areas with benches overlooking the river. Tied near the tops of some of the trees, small speakers play artificial bird sounds. The forest is empty except for the two of us.
“For example,” I continue, “in the past, people told me I was funny. I’m not funny anymore. I don’t make people laugh. I lost that somewhere. And I used to be into philosophy and poetry. It was so important to me. Now it all just seems ridiculous.”
I begin coughing. Dust in my throat. Na Na-Ra grabs my arm. “Are you okay?” she says. “Here, let’s take a rest.” She pulls me over to one of the benches. We sit down next to each other. On the other side of the river, Jinju Castle sits in the haze.
“And the worst thing,” I say, “is that I can’t make deep connections with the people I meet because of the language barrier. So I meet new people all the time but I’m always lonely. I’d have to study for twenty years to have this conversation with you in Korean. Your English is good, but even if you understand the words, I don’t think you can really understand what I’m feeling. Our worldview is tied to our native language.”
“I almost understand,” she says. “My English is shit, I know. Good enough to teach kids, but my vocab is small. But I understand you.”
I look over at her on the bench. Dark eyes, smooth black hair, a few bumps on her forehead underneath her makeup. Her leg, so thin in a tight pair of jeans, is almost touching mine. I want to put my arm around her. But I don’t. It would feel, somehow, like a betrayal of trust. So I just sit beside her and look out at the river.
After a while, she says, “So you don’t like to travel. Why not stay in America?”
“I guess I’m looking for a spark of some kind,” I say. “I always wanted to have a great adventure. But now I’m not sure if great adventures really exist.”
“So what’s your dream?” she asks.
“My dream?” I laugh. “I guess my dream is to live a life that has some sort of greater meaning, that leaves an impression on the world. But I don’t think it’s possible. There was this English poet, John Keats. He was pretty famous. When he died, on his tombstone he left the words: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ Do you know what that means?”
“Written water? He loved nature, maybe?”
“Think about it this way: if you took your finger and wrote your name in the Namgang, what would happen to it?”
“A fish would eat your finger.”
“Maybe. And your name would disappear. That’s what’s happening to me. I feel like I’m going through my life just writing my name in water.”
Na Na-Ra shifts on the seat beside me. She seems agitated.
“Michael Teacher,” she says, “you lived in five countries. You saw so many places. I lived with my parents in Jinju all my life. I wanted to go to Canada to study English, but my father didn’t want it. So what can I do? I have to stay in Jinju. There’s no good job for me, but my family is here. Soon my father will introduce me to a man and I’ll marry. You’re sad about your life, but I envy you. Really I envy you.”
She stands up and walks over to the rail separating the forest walkway from the river far below. For a minute we’re both quiet. We listen to the sound of the river and the bird songs from the speakers.
Finally, she says, “Michael Teacher, come here.”
I join her at the rail. It’s thick, made of wood, and Na Na-Ra runs a finger along it and holds it up for me to see.
“Yellow dust. Hwangsa.”
I nod. “Hwangsa.”
“Michael Teacher, let’s write our names in the dust.”
“It’s better than water.”
“I guess it is.” I reach down, but she grabs my hand.
“Wait! You have to write it in Korean.”
“Why? I’m not Korean.”
“But you live in Korea. Just write it!”
“Okay. But I forget how. I’ve never really learned the letters.”
“Here,” she says, guiding my finger. “I’ll show you.”
We write our names in the dust. Hers looks like this: 나나라. And mine looks like this: 마이클.
After we’re finished she lets go of my hand and we stand there, side by side, and look out across the Namgang. Then we walk back to the path and make our way to the end of the bamboo forest.
Out on the sidewalk, Na Na-Ra says, “I have to take a bus. Wait with me.”
I stand next to her at the bus stop. We’re the only ones waiting. A bus goes by, but it’s not hers. All the seats are empty. After it’s gone, Na Na-Ra looks up at me and narrows her eyes, like she’s studying my face intently.
“What is it?” I say.
She makes a noncommittal sound, then laughs, shakes her head, and looks away.
A few minutes pass. I want to say something meaningful but can’t think of what it might be. Later, I know, I’ll run this moment through my mind a thousand times, thinking of all the perfect words, but for now I just stand beside Na Na-Ra and wait for the bus.
It pulls up a few minutes later, brakes hissing.
“I’ll go on this one,” Na Na-Ra says through her mask.
“Try to eat more.”
“Try to learn Korean.”
“Goodbye, Michael Teacher.” She waves at me, even though I’m standing right in front of her, so I wave back.
“Goodbye, Na Na-Ra.”
And then she climbs on the bus and it takes her away.
I walk back through the bamboo forest and the riverside park, cross the bridge, make my way through the narrow, winding streets, and start up the stairs to my apartment.
But I stop in the hallway. I head back outside and into the convenience store across the street. Nothing in any aisle looks appealing, but I grab a box of green tea and a bag of shrimp chips.
Back in my apartment building, I stop outside my downstairs neighbor’s door.
I can’t hear anything from inside. She’s either stopped sobbing, or she’s gone out, like I did, into the dust.
What’s my plan? She’s never met me before and will have no idea who I am. I don’t know the word for “neighbor.” I stand there holding the tea and the chips, a little sweaty, eyes watery from the dust. Will I just thrust the food at her and run away?
I knock again. Was that a shuffling sound? I can’t be sure. In any case, she doesn’t answer. I knock one last time and then set the snacks at the foot of the door.
Up in my room, I start coughing again, harder now. I pour a glass of water and stand by the window drinking it and listening downstairs for the sound of the door. Outside: empty streets, clay-tiled rooftops, a hazy yellow sky.
Robert Hinderliter’s fiction has appeared in Fourteen Hills, SmokeLong Quarterly, Night Train, decomP, and other places. He grew up in Kansas and is now an Assistant Professor in the English Literature Department of Chosun University in Gwangju, South Korea. He lived in Jinju for a year.
Fractious was the Word of the Day, peeled off the doorstop-sized calendar block and stuck to the refrigerator door with a magnetized map of the London Underground, a relic of LBB. LBB—Life Before Benny—was Anna and Keith’s term for a time when their living room wasn’t littered with plastic toys and bits of food. Only eighteen months ago Anna had posted a photo of their freezer, filled with tubes of breast milk, on Instagram. “Our life now,” she’d written. “LBB is in a galaxy far far away.” They’d laughed, but Anna had thumped the next bottle on the shelf with a little more force than necessary.
Keith peered at the definition (“quarrelsome, especially referring to children”) while reheating his morning coffee in the microwave. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. Benny was normally an easygoing kid, but fractious was definitely the word of this day. The calendar paper curled slightly at the edges, and when Keith peered at it more closely, he realized that it had been on the refrigerator for more than a week. Anna usually changed it every day. She’d brought the calendar home last New Year’s Eve. “We really know how to have a good time,” she’d said with that weaponized mocking tone she specialized in, ceremoniously removing their old calendar, which had “PARTY!” scrawled across the page for the previous December 31. Keith had sipped his beer, mute.
Fragmented, thought Keith as Benny bumped into Keith’s knee and tugged on every bit of corduroy pant his little fist could hold. Fractal. Fraction. His mind always wandered around similar-sounding words; Anna called this habit “literary pretension masking inattention.”
Benny wasn’t exactly nonverbal, but his word-set was akin to a small box of crayons. Malkmalkmalk, he repeated like an infantile Energizer Bunny. Why can’t he say “milk”? wondered Keith as he grabbed a sippy cup in one hand and the carton of organic, locally sourced, obscenely expensive milk in the other. Anna required the best, and this was a lactaid Ferrari.
Malk! Benny’s irritation escalated, syllable by syllable. A bright line of liquid dripped from his nose, and as he pounded on Keith’s knee with toddler persistence, some snot rubbed off on Keith’s slacks. “My last clean pair,” Keith said aloud and somewhat bitterly. “What will I wear to work tomorrow?”
This last question was almost rhetorical. Keith hadn’t seen the inside of his office—or much of the outside of his house, for that matter—since last Saturday. Keith worked in one of those tech offices where everyone was supposed to “play” until “serendipity” occurred. Serendipity, the company claimed, led to killer apps. Thus far it had led only to (a) Anna’s meeting Keith and (b) Benny. Keith rubbed the mucous stain on his pants with a damp sponge, inadvertently adding cereal flakes to the dampness.
Malkmalkmalkmalk. A tribal chant of an almost two-year-old. Keith shook the carton, which was nearly empty. He patted Benny’s head (MALKMALKMALKMALK) and rooted around in the back. Surely they had some ultra-pasteurized stuff that lasted forever—yes, there it was. “You’re not giving him that!” Anna had said, shocked, when he’d placed it in the shopping cart.
“Anna, not everything has to be perf—” Keith’s reply stalled as Anna turned into tinder waiting for a spark. “In case of an emergency,” he stammered.
Which was now here. Fragrant? Keith mused as he fumbled with the sippy cup lid, simultaneously bending from his six-foot height to Benny’s two-foot reach. The kid was shrieking now.
And abruptly Keith had had enough. IT’S “MILK.” NOT “MALK.” MILK! Keith slammed the sippy cup into Benny’s chubby hand.
A drop of milk splashed on Benny’s curving cheek. One hovered above his eye, trembling but not falling.
Time slowed. Benny’s too-big eyes stared at his father. Both were motionless and utterly quiet, as they’d been when Anna had paused in the doorway one week ago, suitcase in hand, defiance at war with regret on her face.
Fracture, they both thought, one of them without words.
Edging back from the abyss, Keith squatted in front of his son. He pried the sippy cup from Benny’s clenched fist. He pulled the Word of the Day off the refrigerator and folded the cheap paper into a square, tenderly blotting milk from Benny’s cheek and brow.
Keith offered the sippy cup to his child again. “Malk,” he whispered. “Here’s your malk, Benny.”
The author of many nonfiction books, Geraldine Woods has been writing short stories since she was seven years old, when she submitted her first effort to the children’s column of a local newspaper. She blogs on language at www.grammarianinthecity.com. A lifelong resident of New York City, Woods loves her family, the Yankees, and Jane Austen.
Winter beforelight. …Lamp by lamp the house of night
shuts. Dawn enlarges;
a father turns off the lights, …loves each room for lives it holds.
On the railing of …the bridge across the creek, wind
and sunfire scour, sculpt
snow into equidistant …amygdaloid ivories.
Footprints in the snow: …in each footprint lies a leaf,
in each leaf the light.
First fell the light, then snow, then …the footstep, then leaf, then light.
Morning frost remains …only where shadows fall. Let
the sun rise enough
to warm, let my shadow with- …draw, let your frost disappear.
False spring: the pond thaws …at the edges, leaving a
pond-shaped heart of ice.
The chapped corners of my mouth …attest to advancing age.
In the fremitus/ …crepitus asthma-winter,
this flensing wind, truth-
fullness, writing writing wri- …ting writing all the damn times.
Blazing in the night, …fiery feather cirrus,
sword dividing the
winter sky, ice-auroras …inflamed by backlighting moon.
Hard light without heat. …Heat without light is harder,
consumption in the
midst of nothing, leaving …the one who burns in darkness.
for Rocky, our golden Lab:
With his heat—as he …snuffles, fails to recall, nos-
es into ever-
y damn thing—the snow cradled …between Rocky’s shoulders melts.
Snowfall muffles the world …of hunters and hunted. Starved
hawks faint, fall from pines.
In silence’s enclosure
owls moan, kings of loneliness.
On a wind-ripped night …bells at a railroad crossing
swinge back and forth:
what passes in darkness, what …sounds long after there is need.
Where fireflies glowed, stars …remain, but they are frost. Are
these the firefly souls?
When frost is what I am, will …you remember me as fire?
After snowfall the field …is a book of quest and flight,
trots, treads … ellipses,
signatures of the dragged tail.
A new snowfall: erasure.
John Timpane is the Books and Fine Arts Editor/Writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philly.com. 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 and his poem “A Cricket in Washington Square Park” appears in Issue 14. He is the spouse of Maria-Christina Keller. They live in New Jersey.
Recently, I ruined someone’s moment of mundane joy. The hallways of my campus building were bare—students were taking exams, or locked away in the library and various study nooks they’d marked as their territory, or sprawled on the campus greens. The end of the semester was nigh; my step had a lilt.
As I walked down the hall, a faculty member from another department—I know him by sight but not by name—exited the men’s room, tossed his black umbrella in the air, and caught it with a jaunty swing of his arm. Then we saw each other, and his fluid movement calcified into the gait of a person too conscious of his awkward stride. He glanced away, then back at me, and finally fixed his eyes on some pretend middle distance until we passed one another.
I wanted to tell him I understood. I know that small, unprofound pleasure of tossing objects into the air and catching them: umbrellas, pens, my water bottle. When I’m cooking and I need a spatula, I’ll pull it from the cylinder and toss it into the air, then catch it and step to the stove. Ease extends through the arm, and gravity becomes a toy. I move without being watched.
Of course, I couldn’t say a word to him. How do you face a stranger and say, “Yes, what a pleasure to toss and catch your umbrella”?
Maybe I could have asked him if he’d seen Singin’ in the Rain. I dislike musicals as a category, but I love Gene Kelly’s 1952 film version. The performers embody manic activity at its highest pitch. Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” is one of cinema’s great one-man scenic performances, and, in the title song, Kelly incarnates thoughtless physical joy. After he drops off Debbie Reynolds at her door after a date, he dances with boyish bliss in the rain. Throughout the song, his character, Don Lockwood, is utterly unselfconscious, smiling at strangers as if they’re figures of his own imagining, treating his umbrella as a partner. He’s soaked, he’s joyous, he’s free from all propriety—until he’s stomping puddles in the street and a police officer walks up. The social norm of the law brings his mind back to watching eyes. Lockwood steps back onto the sidewalk, shakes his legs as if to dry them, and walks off into the end of the number, handing his umbrella to a soaked stranger as a gesture of his citizenship.
Of course, that unselfconscious joy is rehearsed; he’s not Don Lockwood but Gene Kelly, knowing innumerable eyes will watch him move, and yet his body still achieves a freedom. Kelly has practiced those moves and sloughed off the inelegance that comes with being watched. The mind has ceded authority to muscle memory.
But even Gene Kelly resisted being Gene Kelly. When he was eight, his mother enrolled him and his brother in dance class, but they quit because they were bullied. He only restarted dance classes at fifteen, when he was athletic enough to defend himself. In college, he studied economics; he even began law school. When he filmed the famous scene in the rain, the water shrank his wool suit, and he had a fever of 103 degrees.
Our routes to grace are never straightforward.
In tenth grade, I had to learn to juggle. I took a mime class—yes, mime, at a public Arts Magnet—and Arkansas Power & Light hired us to entertain them at a conference. (I assume we were cheap.) At a downtown Little Rock hotel, we juggled and mimed for bored professionals frequenting the bar. By that night, I could toss a ball behind my back without dropping maybe three times out of ten, so all I really remember beyond dropping my juggling balls is one specific moment: a woman hustling away from a drunken coworker who kept trying to hand her a key to his hotel room, as graceless as Gene Kelly was graceful.
Over time, I learned to juggle well enough, because juggling three balls is actually easy once you remove the invisible fourth ball: your own fear of dropping. I haven’t juggled in several years, though. I haven’t had an occasion. I turned thirty-seven recently—not that old, but roughly middle-aged, and the birthday coincided with a back injury, weight gain, and the late removal of two wisdom teeth. My back went out as I was reaching to put away a stack of clean plates, so midlife feels like a diagnosis. With that injury came a growth, a small, hard mound that feels like a pebble. When the doctor touched it, he said, “Oh, you have a back mouse!” The back mouse—yes, that is a colloquial term doctors use for it—is an episacral lipoma, a herniation that has filled with fatty tissue. That has meant countless times reaching around to feel if it’s still there or if it has changed, so I embody the pose of old age.
I worry my last days of unadulterated joy—thoughtless, in-the-moment joy—are behind me. I know that’s not true, but knowing and feeling are an awkward, estranged pair of siblings. I used to be able to slip gravity briefly, a flame flickering at the top of hot wax, but now I’m starting to feel like the burnt wick of a nubby candle.
Yes, that’s melodrama. But the back mouse, skin tags, widow’s peaks, white hairs, moles sprawling like maps of white flight: they add up. I see and feel them, and I build a straw nostalgia for what were largely unhappy days. In high school, for some reason I no longer know—I wanted attention? I liked to perform?—I did one hundred bell kicks in a row for a dollar. I never took dance, but I’d discovered the bell kick, that joyous mid-air heel click. I was already six-foot-four, and I knew watching the incongruity of a gangly white dude doing bell kicks was its own kind of pleasure. So, before first-period trigonometry, where I was the only senior in a class of juniors, where I had no friends, I asked if anyone would pony up for a show. Joe, who at sixteen had a full beard and never got carded, pulled out a single. When forced to dance for some reason, I wore the straitjacket of everyone’s imagined eyes on me. But I did the bell kicks, got my dollar, and sweated through the start of trig.
In those days, when friends talked about what they hoped to do in life, I joked that I would die at the age of thirty-seven. I don’t believe in magic or superstition, but my high-school joke has me spooked now that I’ve reached that age. In the days before my wisdom-teeth removal this year, I feared I’d die on the operating table. When my back went out and I had to start physical therapy, I feared my youth was at an end. From here on out, just maintenance. No more grace.
I’m indulging in this melodrama for a reason: I want to send a message to some future self of mine. Whether he’s forty or fifty or eighty, I want him to laugh at my melodrama and to reckon with it. More importantly, I want to tell him something: thirty-seven feels like a turning point. Not just into the melodrama of midlife, but into a closing. Aging isn’t just the body conceding to gravity; as life moves forward, we pull ourselves into the past. I see this conservatism of so many white men in midlife—not just in politics, but in life as well. The few things we know calcify, and we see those calcifications as wisdom. We mistake the gravity that leashes us for another kind of gravity—gravitas. Straw nostalgia hardens into a philosophy. The way things were becomes the way things should be; we reimagine the rusted age—the anxiety, the segregation, the violence—as the golden age. The past becomes a superstition.
It’s easier to rehearse prayers than to believe them. But rehearsing can bring a faith. I’m not a religious or faithful person, but I know that wallowing in the melodrama of aging adds a pull to the grave. It’s that fourth ball, the fear of dropping. I don’t think I can escape that fear, so I’m going to keep rehearsing my secular prayer until it’s true. To my future self—and to my present self as well—flicker against the gravitational pull of the false past. Stay in the gravity of the present. Become the Gene Kelly of tossing any object into the air until you’re no longer yourself, or Gene Kelly, or even Don Lockwood: you’re nothing but kinesis, gravity and its release, all in the same moment.
Charles Green’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction International, The Southeast Review, and the New England Review, among other venues. He lives in Cortland, New York, with his wife and cats, and he teaches writing at Cornell University.
I don’t know whether I’m awake or sleeping,
but I know the past is the prison we break into,
a penitentiary of what was before it was nothing.
I’m watching Donald O’Connor wall-walk sets.
The backlot-lumber complains. One minute,
there’s the choreography of a canary-colored
couch defying gravity—the first dance number
with Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds
and Gene Kelly flying around in Technicolor—
the next minute, I’m behind an exaggerated door
marked AGENT, boldly opening closing opening
the wood-and-canvas portal in syncopated time.
Like a man who has broken into a strange house
to see if the owner is coming, returning home,
to discover him in his best silk suit and loading
a preferred firearm into a thrift-store knapsack.
On the movie-set stairs, everything is motion.
That’s me at a prop-table with Cyd Charisse:
I’m flipping a silver coin and watching her
as she spins into Gene’s arms. I’m the guy
who offers her diamonds and leads her off.
The knapsack is secreted away somewhere
nearby, just in case. And that’s me, in drag:
the coat-check girl in the fish-net stockings
who hands Gene Kelly a skimmer and cane.
The big number is where he sings about luck
and finding True Love as a movie beat-cop
in a hat of light tells him to keep moving.
I’m the cop, the light, the special-effects
downpour tapping at that blue umbrella.
Roy Bentley has won six Ohio Arts Council fellowships, a fellowship from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and Cleaver among other journals. He is the author of Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama), Any One Man (Bottom Dog Books), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine Press), and Starlight Taxi (Lynx House Press) which won the 2012 Blue Lynx Poetry Prize. These days, he makes his home in Pataskala, Ohio.
PHASE THREE OF BAZ LUHRMANN’S RED CURTAIN TRILOGY by Kelly R. Samuels
We may have found ourselves situated in Phase Three of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain
Trilogy—that kind of progression. From happy ending to two lovers dying for love to one woman dying, coughing up what appears to be blood but is actually a mix of red food coloring, corn syrup and water. It doesn’t make us happy, this.
We wonder how old Luhrmann is, if age is a factor in outlook. How can it not be?
And can this outlook be explained in understandable, succinct terms? Is it pessimism, the opposite of optimism, the death of hope? Hope is so Hallmark. And were we ever really optimists? Even way back in college people labeled us pessimistic. And we were. Although we preferred the word “realist,” given what life was. Our mother used to say, “Life isn’t fair and then you die.”
We could discuss how hearing that assertion repeatedly through our formative years
could have a negative effect, but perhaps by story’s end, we won’t have to. We’ll just understand. As we do that morning when we think: “We may have found ourselves situated in Phase Three of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy.”
Strictly Ballroom was released in 1992. Romeo + Juliet in 1996. Moulin Rouge! in 2001.
A span of nine years, although the first was first a play, so the span is greater. If one is to assume that the films reflect Luhrmann’s outlook on life and love, then there is this:
Phase One: Love isn’t—at least for both people—a thunderbolt, but in pretty quick turn around, it ends well. Boy and girl end up in love and together. Alive.
Phase Two (cribbed from Shakespeare): Love is instantaneous and worth dying for. Boy and girl end up together. Dead, side by side.
Phase Three: Love isn’t—at least for both people—a thunderbolt, but transitions to deep love and then ends in death. Of just the girl. The boy carries on, stamping out his words on an Underwood.
When we were twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and would hole up in our bedroom reading
anything we could get our hands on, we devoured romance novels. Harlequin and Silhouette. Those novels always landed squarely in Phase One, even the one where the ruggedly handsome man was literally blinded by something or other. Later when we read Jane Eyre we started to see that people are always ripping off ideas from others, but that’s perhaps a different story. So, despite our parents’ divorce and our mother’s remarriage to a man who sometimes threw fits at the dinner table and stormed out to the garage to construct something of wood, we thought that love prevailed in the end.
Later, when we were seventeen and had fallen in love with he of the El Camino and was
told by him that he liked driving around with us, hanging out together at his house, but we didn’t whet his sexual appetite, we caught a glimpse of Phase Three. Maybe more than a glimpse. We felt like a piece of us kind of just shriveled up and died. There was a death and it was only ours. But it didn’t last. Because we were willing to fall in love again and contemplate death without the loved one, who also felt the same. Phase Two. Naturally, we didn’t die, but the feeling was there. That intensity, certainty. It resembled that Millay sonnet, that coy little number with its couplet that is a game changer.
But now we wonder. Having caught a glimpse of Phase Three when we were seventeen
and having seen it again sometimes briefly and sometimes for longer periods of time, we wonder if we haven’t entered it completely now, smack dab in the middle of middle age. You might have all that “Come What May,” yada yada, the word love and/or its variants appearing 143 times, yada yada, but Satine dies and Ewan McGregor gets to go off on his international motorcycle tour. They do not end up together. Alive or dead.
We read on IMDB that in the scene where all the men throw their hats up into the air,
the hats were suspended by fishing wire. It’s that kind of let down. Like when on the very first night we could actually cook dinner in our new house, our husband poured only himself a glass of wine and got to it, busily humming at the stove. We stood just outside of the kitchen and watched him for a minute or two, realizing it didn’t matter if we were there or not. He just kept hammering away at his typewriter.
And it isn’t just love. It’s life, too. Like when we sat in the car, waiting for our
daughter to come out of the house and she did, standing on the stoop, arms outstretched, smiling and taking a moment to bellow a tune, and we thought, “I remember being like that…” As if everything was going to turn out all right. We can recall it, but we can’t access it. We’re well into Phase Three.
We haven’t seen any of Luhrmann’s films after Moulin Rouge! We heard that Australia was pretty bad. We could visit Wikipedia and get the gist, but why bother? Luhrmann is done with his Red Curtain Trilogy that becomes more frenetic with every film. Never mind The Great Gatsby. We’ve read that novel about a hundred times. We know how that story goes.
Kelly R. Samuels diligently works as an adjunct English instructor near what some term the “west coast of Wisconsin.” She writes both fiction and poetry. Her work has most recently appeared in PoetsArtists’s JuJuBes, online at apt, and in Off the Coast. Kelly is a Cleaver Emerging Artist.
Here’s the way the rain works: it comes down every day for a whole third of the year. June, July, August, September, there isn’t a single day without rain. Sometimes it’s just a loud, violent storm that swoops in, does its bit, and moves on, but as often as not it lingers. Like a cat you’re trying to shoo out the door: it yawns, it scratches, it stretches out its claws, it licks itself. In other words, it takes its time.
Mushrooms sprout in patches of grass, as pale and bulbous as the bellies of toads. Puddles form, then don’t go away. Streets flood. In the malecón the rain water gushes and eddies like river rapids. Drunks fall in and are drowned, washed downstream and beached, eventually, like flotsam on one side of the concrete riverbed. It happens every season, like a human sacrifice in reverse: an offering to make the rain stop.
After a while all the rain starts to make some people a little crazy. That might sound like an excuse, but it isn’t. I’ve been affected by it from the time I was a little girl, the rain-craziness. Every summer, I’d feel myself dragged along by powerful forces, like a werewolf at the full moon. My illness manifested itself así: restlessness, difficulty concentrating, sour stomach, an increasing sense of desperation, and, finally, an overpowering desire to punish someone.
It had better stop raining soon, my grandmother would say grimly, or this child’s going to commit an atrocity.
In those years, my atrocities were generally directed at Brown Bear, whom I used to seek out with shouts of ¡Oso Pardo! ¡Vente, cabrón! after which he would cower under my grandmother’s bed till I dragged him out by the tail. You leave that dog in peace, my grandmother would call, but by then it would be too late.
Do you not want the Wise Men to bring you any presents? They surely won’t unless you behave yourself, my Aunt Lili would observe, her small gray eyes fixed dolefully on me from behind her glasses, but my grandmother didn’t waste her time with threats. Go fetch me my hairbrush, she’d command one of my younger cousins, holding me by the wrist as I squirmed.
Afterward, when Brown Bear went to live in the rancho where he had more space to run around, the cousins themselves became my victims. Lumps sprouted on their tender flesh, bruises bloomed purple and wilted to dull yellow. Their desire to tattle was held in check by my vague but meaningful threats of retribution. Then October would come, the rains would cease, and—poof!—as if by magic, I’d be transformed back into my other self, as good-natured and docile as any child in the colonia. Así, I’d spend the other two-thirds of the year.
Still, like Dr. Jekyll at the beginning of his experiment, I secretly rejoiced in the freedom the rain provided.
When I was older and less prone to inflicting injury—at least in any of its visible forms—I devised new methods. One was to take a single piece of something away from its owner: the yellow plastic half moon from Valentina’s Perfection game, the center of the clock face from Tadeo’s 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, a pink flamingo earring of Zaira’s, the jack of hearts from the deck in the middle drawer of the curio cabinet. I collected these objects in a hollow stump at the top of the hill by the goat farm, where I visited them regularly. No one followed me—I made certain of that by doubling back and making long, circuitous rounds before beginning my trek up the scrubby, mesquite-covered hill. In any case, no one ever went near the goat farm; it stank.
I took a greater pleasure in those things than I’ve ever derived from anything else in my life: the stiffened, sun-faded puzzle piece, the corrugated, yellowish playing card, the broken Perfection piece—two pieces now: a fallen moon, dashed to bits—the blackening flamingo. They were totemistic representations of my cousins, likeel retrato de Dorian Gray; the damage I inflicted on them spared their owners. Scapegoats, I thought, not unironically, as I stood amid the stench of the goat farm.
Now that I’m older—I turned nineteen in February—my rain-craziness has taken on a new dimension, though since Sigmund Freud says that sex and aggression are essentially the same thing, maybe it isn’t as different as I think. Maybe I’ve just reverted back to the old violence of my childhood.
My cousin Lupe’s motherlessness was of a respectable kind, her mother having died of a fever two days after she was born. Not like my mother, who took a double-length city bus to theCentral one Tuesday and vanished forever. Those buses are joined together by an accordion-like section that brings to mind the flesh of a caterpillar; por eso, and for its length, and its color—in León everything’s green in tribute to yesteryear’s “green-belly” leather tanners—the bus is known as la oruga. The vehicle of my mother’s disappearance is a universal symbol of metamorphosis; not surprisingly, when I think of her now, it’s as an exquisite, kaleidoscopic butterfly. Even her name bears this out: Mari, as if short formariposa. León in the end was too small for her, too provincial, too monochromatic. She unfurled her wings and got the fuck out.
But this sanctioned, tragic motherlessness of Lupe’s is just one of many ways she’s one-upped me over the years. Another is her face. It’s a face from a painting, like nothing that’s been seen on earth for centuries, a face that doesn’t belong in the present world. Ivory-toned, oval, with a smattering of chocolate freckles that don’t just cross the bridge of her nose but dot even her forehead and chin. Full, pouty mouth, big almond-shaped eyes. It’s those eyes that give Lupe’s face its particular magic: they’re as pale green as the inside of a lime, and as powerful. Like the old man in that story by Edgar Allan Poe, Lupe’s got eyes that could drive you to contemplate murder. Eyes like that, even without a striking face around them, would get a lot of attention, but she also has a body that attracts second—and third, and fourth—glances. At least she did have. Since this pregnancy, she’s taken on a puffy look, as if she’d been left soaking in water for too long. Makes you want to hang her up in the sun, or squeeze her, to wring her out.
Another way Lupe rubs my nose in it is Juan José, her rich husband. Juanjo’s one of these choirboys, looks like he’s never been smudged, all earnestness and big white teeth. He went to the best school in the state—Miraflores, where they put the Pope up when he came to León—then got a job in a swanky law firm that happens to be his father’s. Since they married, Lupe’s been living in the lap of luxury, Colonia Campestre, Calle Estrella. Five fucking bedrooms.
At breakfast I sit in one of these rooms, on the edge of Lupe’s great big four-poster bed. It’s covered with a floral bedspread, purple pensamientos with swabs of darker purple in the centers, like little yawning faces. Yawning, or screaming. ¡Despierta, México! is on the television; three buxom women in heavy make-up are interviewing a singer wearing a cowboy hat with a pattern like a cow’s spots. He blathers on, and they make the appropriate faces—surprised, sympathetic—stopping from time to time to look at one another as if they’ve never heard anything so fascinating in all their lives. Completely nauseating, in short. Also the volume’s too loud; Lupe’s got it turned up to cover the sound of the rain.
“You can go, si quieres,” she tells me with a sideways glance as she picks at her toast.
“No, I’ll wait till you’re finished.” This is where I spend every meal, perched up on the right side of her bed, the door side. I stay close, in case she needs something. Anyway, I’ve already eaten. I always have breakfast with Juanjo before he leaves for work.
“Have you heard his music?” she asks, lifting her chin toward the television. Herlicuado has left a thin layer of froth on her upper lip; it glistens there, like sea foam.
The singer has been on the Video Rola countdown every night for weeks. The song that’s popular now is about how he can’t concentrate on his studies because he’s so lovesick; in the previous one he was breaking up with his girlfriend, wishing her luck in life.
“No,” I say. “You?”
She squints at the television set. “I don’t know. Maybe. Is he the one who sings about his daughter?”
“Yeah,” I tell her. There’s a pause, filled by a Gansito commercial and the rain and Lupe chewing, then I say, “He looks a little like Juanjo, doesn’t he?”
“You think so?” she asks, not contradicting me, though we both know he looks nothing like Juanjo.
If Lupe hadn’t had a miscarriage last time, she wouldn’t be on bedrest now. It’s also a factor that she’s carrying twins, one of whom is stronger, and more likely to survive, than the other. When I walk her to the bathroom, I imagine these babies, one bigger than the other, splattered on the white tile of the bathroom floor, their wrinkled flesh like undercooked meat against a backdrop of blood and amniotic fluid. I think Lupe must imagine them too, because she always looks afraid when I reach for her arm. Even more afraid than usual.
She tried to get rid of me, almost from the moment I first offered my services. She doesn’t know I know, but Valentina overheard my grandmother tell her mother.
“Why doesn’t she want Bety there?” my Aunt Lili asked. She was never very bright.
My grandmother didn’t answer, just closed her eyes and massaged the space between her eyebrows, outward toward each side of her head. “It can’t be helped,” she finally said. “There’s no one else.”
Men being what they are, I knew my plan would work: a hand left to rest on his arm at the breakfast table, a wistful gaze that lasts just an instant too long, right in the eyes. The vague suggestion, never put into words, that Lupe hasn’t always been kind to me. The culmination: a towel slipped off after my shower, just at the moment when Juanjo reaches the landing to the second floor. My door more open than closed, a clear view in. Shyness, embarrassment, confusion: Oh!I didn’t know you were—And my naked body etched into his mind, glowing there, indelible.
It isn’t just this, either; it’s also the tincture of hierbasI put in Juanjo’s licuado each morning. I mix in extra vanilla and honey so he can’t taste them, but they’re there, coursing through his bloodstream, working on him, daily. Three weeks already. More—three weeks and two days.
When I go back to Doña Esme, she asks me, “Are you still using the hierbas?”
She makes a snuffling sound as she rakes around in the drawer of her desk. When her hands reemerge, they’re holding a small cellophane packet of something that looks like dried lawn clippings. She undoes the staple with her thumbnail—the nail is thick and yellow, like a rooster’s claw—and empties the contents out into a little square dish. Then she takes a cigarette lighter from the front pocket of her apron and lights the clippings. They curl and blacken, quickly burning down to ashes.
Doña Esme pushes the dish away and reaches for what looks like a sugar bowl of the same ruddy clay. “Put out your tongue,” she commands, taking the lid off and dipping her thumb in. The taste is metallic, pungent, unmistakable, reminiscent of lost teeth and hangnails and childhood injuries, but different too. Goat’s blood; I’ve had it before.
I close my eyes and swallow as Doña Esme chants over me, touching her rough forefinger to my forehead, my lips, my chest. The words are low and indecipherable. They may even be her other language, the one from before the Spanish invaders brought their Christ to these lands and began to burn her people alive for His sake.
“Continua con las hierbas,” she instructs me, shaking the ashes of the burnt clippings into one corner of the dish then back into the same cellophane packaging they came in. She folds it down but doesn’t replace the staple. “Give them to him every morning, like you’ve been doing. And drink this yourself. Put it in a cup of champurrado, hot as you can stand.” She presses the packet into my hand.
“Thursday,” she says with a slow nod, her hand still on mine. “Late in the day.”
The storm is a bone-rattler, with blinding flashes and cataclysmic booms. I sit on the edge of the bed drinking the last of my champurrado, swirling it around with a spoon in the moonlight. The window’s open, and the gauzy curtains blow wildly in the damp wind. I swallow the last drink with my eyes closed, then peer into the cup. The dregs at the bottom look phallic. Or maybe the shape is of a sacrificial dagger, the type a high priest would use before kicking the bodies into a heap at the base of the pyramid because, like me, he wanted only one piece.
The air is staticky, bristling. I stand at the foot of the narrow bed, lift my arms above my head, palms together, and imagine myself as a lightning rod, concentrating all the energy into a single channel, willing it into my body. My face stares at me from the mirror: black eyes, grim, determined mouth; a pale, thin face, triangular as a cat’s. Then a smile unfurls, teeth bared.
It’s nearly midnight. Lupe was asleep hours ago; I listened at the door to her slow, even breathing, her light snores, before I came up. The two creatures inside her leave her exhausted. They’re like a parasitic alien species, living off her body, sapping her strength. She could hardly keep her eyes open, but she waited till Juanjo called. It’s soccer night; his team edged their way into the play-offs by one goal, and he’s been out celebrating. I heard both sides of the conversation, Juanjo shouting drunkenly over the noise.
I know what will happen next: he’ll come in at the garage end of the house, shower, lay out his work clothes. When I hear the bed sigh under his weight, I’ll slip into his bedroom, theirbedroom, next door, taking care to close the door behind me, though I know Lupe would never risk the wrought iron spiral staircase.
“Juanjo,” I’ll whisper to his back in the dark. “I’m scared.” Then I’ll sit down on his bed, and he’ll turn toward me, bleary-eyed and confused. “Can I stay in here for a few minutes?”
A few minutes is all it will take.
I like a man with a story behind him. Not one he tells, just one you see hints of: in his tattoos, the roughness of his hands, what all he’s learned about women before he gets to you. I like a man who’s lived, who has the smell of danger about him. Juanjo, en cambio, is as tame as the manatees they let you swim with at Splash.
It wears on him, being in the house with both Lupe and me. He stops making eye contact, starts leaving earlier for work, coming home later. He doesn’t eat breakfast anymore, just gulps down his licuado standing by the sink in his suit. But when I go into his room at night, he doesn’t send me away. Worse: he wants to do it, then he doesn’t want to have done it.
I like a man who knows how to take charge, to bend you to his will, make you want what he wants. A man who doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t vacillate. Shit or get off the pot, my great-aunt Cleotilde used to say.
Still, since Juanjo, I’ve stopped imagining Lupe’s babies dressed like saints in little boxes full of white taffeta. So that’s something.
This is the way the rain stops: all at once, just like it begins. Yesterday I checked the ten-day weather forecast to be sure, but I knew already. It’s like on December twenty-sixth, the feeling that something’s come and gone.
I don’t put the hierbasin Juanjo’s licuado today. In fact, I don’t make the licuado at all. I wake up, breathe in the still, dry air, and roll back over in bed. I can sleep late now. It’s finished.
“I’m leaving,” I announce in the evening. Juanjo’s changing the tire on the BMW; he’s got it jacked up and is loosening the lug nuts. I jump down the garage steps and kick a few times at the spare. I like the springy way my foot bounces back. “Tomorrow,” I add.
Juanjo looks up at me with all his misery stark and undisguised on his face. He’s not bad-looking like this, though a tad yellowish under the fluorescents of the garage. “I’m going to tell Lupe,” he says in a low voice, turning back to the car, “as soon as the babies come.”
“Do what you want,” I say indifferently. Tomorrow night I’ll be back to sleeping in my own bed, and if my grandmother asks—and she will—what I’m doing back there, I’ll just plead differences of opinion. There’s truth to that.
It isn’t till after the forty day post-delivery term has passed that I’m finally called in, as if before a tribunal. Lupe spent it, the cuarentena, with Juanjo’s mother in their great big mansion in the gated Brisas del Lago neighborhood. I imagine it was even a relief to her, though the señora had made some previous remarks about not having time to take care of her sons’ wives. Officious old bitch, she looks down on Lupe because we don’t come from money.
I think my cousin takes it well. She’s sitting on the sofa with one of the babies; Juanjo’s got the other one, holding it as if it might break. He paces back and forth, bouncing the baby a little with each step, though it isn’t crying. Lupe doesn’t move when I come in. She just looks stolidly into my face, then leads with, “I’d rather that no one else found out about this.” And after a pause, she adds, “please, Bety.”
I’m glad to acquiesce. I know what the role requires. It would be useless to explain: It was for you, Lupe, you and the babies, that I put Juanjo up in my stump by the goat farm. I watched him yellow and crack, broke him to pieces, for your sake, for theirs. She wouldn’t understand, and anyway, she needs me to blame. It’s the only way she can forgive Juanjo and get back to her life. And it would be a shame for that big house and all the pretty things in it to be wasted on somebody who couldn’t enjoy them.
So I play the femme fatale. Like Marilyn Monroe said, if I’m going to be a symbol of something, I’d rather it be sex than anything else. Así, when Lupe asks me, in a strained voice, “Why?” I don’t snivel or hang my head or ask for forgiveness.
I just shrug, smirk a little for good measure, and ask her right back: “Why not?”
A native of the North Carolina foothills, April Vázquez holds a BA in Literature and Language from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and an MA in the Teaching of English as a Second Language from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. April lives in León, Guanajuato, Mexico, where she reads, writes, and homeschools her daughters, Daisy, Dani, and Dahlia. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Missing Slate, Windhover, The Fieldstone Review, Eclectica, Foliate Oak, TheNew Plains Review, and others.
A LAND MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN HERE by Casey Whitworth
Two miles from the Greyhound station, Burt hiked through the pinewoods to the edge of Lena’s backyard. The trailer windows were dark. Her Chevy wasn’t in the driveway. They hadn’t talked during the last nine months of his stint in Starke, and what-ifs had been fermenting like toilet hooch in Burt’s head. But what he saw now in the morning light—Virginia creeper on the siding, bull briars in the yard—was a way to work toward absolution.
On his way to the porch Burt picked a camellia and carried it up the stairs. He knocked at the door. What if her pickup was in the shop and she was inside peeking out the blinds? He had on the same snakeskin boots and leather bomber as the day they met, like no time at all had passed. He knocked again, louder, then fished his keys from his pocket. A gentleman would wait, he thought. Her nightshift at Healthfirst would have ended by now, and she was probably already crossing Tallahassee, no clue he’d been released a month early. Through the arch window, he noticed she’d treated herself to a couch and a wall-mounted TV. He knew he should wait, but he tried the key anyway and when it slid into the lock, he leaned his head on the door and slowly turned the deadbolt.
Inside, the warmth of home began to envelop him, albeit like an ill-fitting robe. Liquor bottles and dirty dishes cluttered the kitchen counter, and there was something rancid in the trash. Not like Lena at all. She’d let things slide. But in an hour or two, he could have it all neat and clean, then they could ride to his sister’s house and pick up his son, and bring Larry home where he belonged. They could start over.
A noise made him drop the camellia. What sounded like the mewling of a scared cat grew louder and morphed into the shrieks of a baby. Burt slunk into the hallway, pinching his nose to cut the stench. The door at the end of the hall was closed. Quietly he peeked in his son’s old bedroom. Along the back wall where Larry’s model cars had been on display, a baby in a diaper was standing in a crib. When the baby noticed him, the screeching calmed to a whimper. The baby—a little boy, it looked like—had eyes as blue as Burt’s.
He braced himself on the jamb and started doing the math. Was the boy nine months old? Ten? When did they start standing up? He had no idea. If he’d been locked up a little over twelve months, then on the night he got arrested Lena would have been six months pregnant, showing. In the crib, the baby began to wail.
“No no.” Burt scooped up the baby and held it at arm’s length. Slime the color of mustard slid down the boy’s legs. “All right now,” Burt said. “Everything’s gonna be all right.” And his voice seemed to soothe the baby, who looked at him now without suspicion, only wonder and hope and love.
A dog barked outside. Through the bedroom window, Burt saw a Honda parked in front of the trailer, a fat woman in pink pajamas climbing out the driver’s door. She picked up a handful of gravel and flung it at the neighbor’s chain-link fence. But the dog wouldn’t shut up.
The woman lugged a diaper box toward the porch. Burt carried the baby to the crib, set it down, and backed off. The baby smiled at him in a way that seemed sinister. And it all started to make sense—the new furniture, the unexpected squalor. Lena had moved out of the trailer and on with her life, and the story Burt had been rehearsing—his plan to move them to Memphis once the P.O. signed the papers, and the job waiting for him at Knuckles’ garage—was no different from the lullabies other inmates had told themselves to get to sleep.
The woman unlocked the front door. Burt went to the window and scraped it up the track. The baby started screaming behind him, reaching for him through the crib bars. Burt had a crazy thought—take the boy and run. Give the little guy a better life than this one, teach him someday to ride a bike, rig a rod and reel, the sort of things Burt would have done with Larry if the boy hadn’t turned out quite so special. But no, that was crazy. He straddled the windowsill and tried to step down but lost his balance and flipped sideways over an azalea onto the ground. Dazed, he climbed to his feet with a sharp burning pain in his palm, a gash dripping blood. He lunged toward the trailer, managing to yank the window shut and duck out of sight before the woman entered the room.
Hunched in the bushes, Burt dug a bandanna from his back pocket and fashioned it into a tourniquet on his hand, pulled the knot tight with his teeth. It was only four miles to his sister’s house, to his son. He should’ve gone there first and let Lena go.
The neighbor’s dog started barking again. “Burt!” it seemed to be saying. “Burt! Burt!” It was the first time in many months that anyone—or anything—had called Burt by his given name.
The sun was high and bright by the time Burt walked down his sister’s canopied driveway. The two-story brick house came into view through the oaks. Up on the front porch, the Stars and Stripes had been taken off the flagpole and someone had flown a Jolly Roger. The outside world had begun to make no sense at all.
A Mercedes, a Lexus, and a red Audi were parked on the concrete by the garage. Well-to-do company. The last thing Burt wanted was to field twenty questions about where he’d been and why. Through the front bay window, he saw Charlotte at the kitchen sink looking out at the backyard—teased blonde hair, black dress that clung to her thin frame. There was desperation in her stillness, in her fixed gaze.
He went to the side of the garage and opened the door. There it was: the car. He peeled off the cover and stumbled away to get a better look at his mother’s final gift to him: a black ’77 Firebird Trans Am Special Edition with golden honeycomb rims and a screamin’ chicken on the hood, a replica of the car Burt Reynolds drove in Smokey and the Bandit. She’d had an obsession with the actor, with whom she’d supposedly had a fling at Florida State University in the late ’50s. Used to have his photograph hanging on the living room wall and everything. Even named her only son after him.
Burt startled at the sound of Charlotte’s voice. At the top of the stairs leading up to the kitchen, the door was cracked open. She hollered at someone to leave the dishes alone. “Go mingle with Bigfoot,” she said. “He won’t bite.”
Burt’s sister came down the stairs with a martini. She wore an eye patch, and a silver scabbard hung from her belt. On the bottom step, she noticed Burt and all the color drained from her face. Her martini glass slipped from her fingers, shattered on the concrete. “Burt?” She glanced at the Firebird. “I thought you were getting out in January.”
“Is Larry here?” he said.
“Of course,” she said. “He’s upstairs practicing his magic tricks.”
“What? He didn’t tell you? I got him a kit and outfit and everything.”
Lena appeared in the doorway. “Charlotte, what’s. . .?” When she noticed him, her voice trailed away. She looked gorgeous in her tan Stetson, suede fringe jacket, and denim skirt. “Burt?” she said. “Your hand. You’re dripping blood.”
In the hallway bathroom, Burt waited on the edge of the tub while Lena knelt on the rug by the sink searching the cabinet for the first-aid kit. She wore boots he’d never seen, brown leather with a tan python inlay, the soles already scuffed.
“You’re about the last person I expected to find over here,” he said.
“Good to see you, too.”
Laughter outside drew his eyes to the window. On the patio, a half dozen costumed men and women sat in Adirondack chairs: a tiara-ed fairy godmother; an Asian Superman with comically large pectorals and biceps; a couple dressed like Hell’s Angels; a ruddy-faced Bigfoot, mask propped on his furry knee. Standing among them was Charlotte’s husband, Ed. A short man with a big paunch, Ed wore a tricorn hat, a frilly white blouse, and a black topcoat. A scabbard like Charlotte’s hung from his belt. Captain of the costume party.
Lena settled on the stool beside him and opened a white lunchbox on her lap. “Let’s take a look at that hand.” She guided his wrist over the tub. He leaned forward and discreetly sniffed her lavender-scented hair, which curled over her shoulder in a long blonde braid. Her fingers worked a pair of scissors through the blood-soaked bandanna.
“D’you come here with somebody?” he said. “I didn’t see the Chevy out front.”
“It broke down,” she said, “a while ago. But, for the record, I’m capable of driving myself anywhere I need to go.” She peeled off the bandanna and sucked air through her teeth. “How’d you do this?”
“Babysittin’,” he said.
She looked at him and rolled her eyes in that way he used to love. “Long as you didn’t cut it on metal.” She uncapped the hydrogen peroxide, poured it over his gashed palm, and though the pink foam burned like hell, he didn’t flinch. This was the closest he’d been to a woman in over a year, and his stomach was all twisted from it.
“I could’ve got the truck running,” he said.
Lena smiled but didn’t raise her eyes. She patted his hand dry with a gauze pad, then laid a fresh one over his palm and began wrapping medical tape around his hand. He wanted to tell her that in his heart it felt like not a day had passed, even though out here everyone had moved on, things had changed. Somehow he still felt like a prisoner.
“There.” Lena cut the tape. “Be careful with it now. Give it time to heal.”
While she repacked the first-aid kit, Burt tugged a folded piece of paper from his jacket pocket. “D’you know Larry wrote me letters? This here’s the last one he sent. Two weeks before they told me I was getting out early.”
She furrowed her brow and took the piece of paper, inspected the row of dots and dashes. He told her they’d communicated like that, in Morse code. She read aloud Burt’s handwritten translation at the bottom. “Open Sesame.”
“I would’ve wrote you, too,” he said, “but you would’ve never got them. Would you? You never did think to tell me you’d moved. I had to go inside to find out.”
“You what? You’re lucky you didn’t get yourself shot.”
“The key still worked,” Burt said. “How’s I supposed to know you sold the trailer?”
“I rented it,” she said, “to Mrs. Henderson. She’s a tech at—oh God. Your fingerprints. You didn’t take anything, did you?”
“Of course not. I did find some baby all alone, but that lady, she didn’t have a clue I was there.” As soon as Burt said it, a chill settled over him. The camellia, he’d dropped it by the front door. “You could’ve wrote to tell me.”
Lena took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I tried to write you, Burt. I did. But the longer I put it off . . .”
Burt clutched her wrist and she looked at his lips, into his eyes. He kissed her hard, the way he’d pictured it in his bunk when the cellblock was quiet and still, and for a moment her lips opened to his, but when his hand cupped her breast she bristled and shoved him away.
“You’re crazy,” she said.
He took her hand and went down on one knee. “Marry me,” he said. “Come with me and Larry to Memphis.”
And she seemed to consider it until someone knocked at the bathroom door. “Burt, I need to talk to you.” It was Ed. The doorknob jiggled, and Lena blinked a few times and looked that way.
“Lena,” Burt whispered. “We’ll get in the Firebird and drive away.” She had this faraway glint in her eyes that made him feel like he was holding onto someone who’d already left the room. “Lena.”
The doorknob jiggled again. Lena pulled her hand away and left Burt kneeling on the tile. She went to the door and drew it open and stormed past Ed into the living room. Burt called her name, but she opened the front door and was gone.
Ed had one hand on the hilt of his plastic sword. “Burt,” he said. “A phone call would’ve been nice.” Behind him, Charlotte got up from the sofa and followed Lena onto the front porch.
Burt watched through the front window as Charlotte escorted Lena down the stairs and across the yard. It had been stupid to kiss her like that. To propose in a damn bathroom. The women vanished from view, and Burt noticed something in the corner of the room, shaped like an armoire and covered with blankets.
“What’s that?” he said, though he had a guess.
He crossed the room and drew the blankets off. It was the cage he’d built for his mother’s sugar gliders. Bandit was hunched in the bottom corner, his bushy gray tail curled around him. Burt searched for Snowman, the albino with bright red eyes, in the hanging tiki hut. The two sugar gliders used to scamper all through his mother’s house, leaping from chair to table, climbing the drapes.
“Look,” Ed said. “We’ve got company in from out of town. And you know how Charlotte gets. Look. If it were up to me, you could hang out.”
Burt made a contemplative noise. His brother-in-law was a terrible liar. He traced his finger down the cage’s plastic netting, and the sugar glider raised its head to squint with glassy black eyes. Burt knew he should just go upstairs and knock on Larry’s door. Tell him to pack his bags. But something kept Burt from doing it, some anxiousness about seeing the boy face-to-face again after all this time.
“I’ll get you a hotel room,” Ed said, “until things get figured out.”
The front door swung open and Charlotte filled up the doorway, red-faced. “Now wait just a minute,” she said. “Lena says you’re trying to take Larry to Memphis?”
“That’s right,” Burt said.
“He’s in a good school now,” she said. “Just made the honor roll. Isn’t that right, Ed?”
Ed nodded. “You should be proud of him.”
“He’s finally in a good place,” said Charlotte. “He’s right where he belongs.”
Burt felt a sharp pain in his bandaged hand and realized he’d clenched his fists. Ed took off the tricorn hat and ran a hand through his thinning hair, yammering on about what Burt should do to get his life back together—and though there was goodness in Ed’s intentions, in his crestfallen expression, he had no right. He had no idea how volatile a man could become once he’d lost everything. Burt looked down at the blood dripping from his fingertips onto the hardwood floor.
“Are you even listening?” said Ed.
“I can’t thank you enough,” Burt said, “both of you, for looking after my boy.”
He went past them to the stairwell, climbed two steps at a time until he stood outside his son’s door. Breathing hard, he raised his hand to knock. But there were voices in Larry’s bedroom: one that was muffled, another that belonged to a man. Burt eased open the door. Across the room, Larry sat cross-legged in the glow of a TV. He had on a black cape and top hat. On the screen, a man in an identical outfit was performing a card trick, and Larry was mimicking everything the man said.
Burt stood there with an ache in his throat. The boy looked so much bigger. On bookcases against the wall were sixty or seventy model cars, separated by color and manufacturer. His son had saved them all. Camaros, Chevelles, Barracudas. More on the windowsill, on the nightstand. Their final kitchen-table project was on display all by itself on the desk: the miniature replica of Burt’s ’77 Firebird.
“Son,” Burt said. “I’m home.”
Larry clambered to his feet and stared toward the doorway. He wore a black suit, dress shirt, and skinny black tie. A foot taller now and he had dirt-colored flecks of hair above his lip. The boy blinked a few times like he didn’t recognize his own father.
“I know. It sure is easier in letters.” Burt nodded at the magician on the TV. “So you’ve been learning tricks then?”
Larry opened his mouth to say something, but music started blaring outside. Burt stepped to the window and watched Lena’s Audi recede through the woods. Larry dragged a Hope chest toward the door.
“Hold up,” Burt said. “Lemme help.” He took ahold of the other handle, and the boy looked at him with nervous wonder. “What’s all this? You putting on a magic show or what?” The boy nodded. “Well, even Houdini needs an assistant.”
Downstairs, Burt and Larry lugged the chest toward the French doors that opened onto the backyard. Through the kitchen archway, Burt could see Charlotte and Ed whisper-arguing by the fridge. Ed turned and glared at Burt, but before he could say anything Larry had opened the door and started down the stairs.
A hush came over Ed’s guests as Burt and Larry crossed to the back of the patio and hefted the chest onto the table. Larry brushed past Burt on his way back toward the house, and as he was climbing the stairs, the door swung open and out came Ed.
“Y’all,” Ed said, jostling past Larry, “this is Burt. Larry’s dad.” Superman, the Hell’s Angels, Bigfoot, and the fairy godmother greeted Burt with nods or toasts. “Unfortunately,” Ed said, and clapped Burt on the shoulder, “he’s only popping in to say hi. Isn’t that right?”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Larry announced in the doorway, his voice an eerie imitation of the magician on the DVD. “Prepare to be amazed!”
Burt shrugged Ed’s hand away. “Might as well stay for the magic,” he said. “If that’s all right.” He looked from one guest to another, then watched his son cross the patio. “Time’s about all I got left.”
“I need a volunteer,” said Larry. He fanned a deck of cards across the table. “Anyone? Anyone?”
Burt stepped forward, but Bigfoot beat him to the deck. The man took off one of his paws and selected a card, which he held up for everyone to see. “The king of clubs,” he said, then did as Larry asked and returned it to the deck.
Larry scooped up the cards and began shuffling with surprising dexterity. “When I count to three,” he said, “the chosen card will be magically transported into the audience. One . . .”
Charlotte sidled up next to Burt. “I’m sorry about Ed,” she whispered. “If it were up to me, you could stay as long as you want.” Out in the daylight her makeup seemed garish, the green eyeshadow, bright red lipstick. Burt thanked her, though he knew Ed had said the same.
“Sir?” Larry called out. The boy was staring at him. “Would you please check the side pocket of your jacket?”
Burt patted at his pocket, stuck his hand inside, and froze when his fingers settled on something thin and hard. And as he drew out the playing card, Burt remembered the moment Larry brushed past him, the transfer. “It’s the king of clubs,” he said, and raised it in the air. “What in the world.”
While everyone around him clapped and hollered, Burt examined the card once more. Larry had penciled a row of dots and dashes above the king’s crown, something he hadn’t been able to say out loud.
Larry had started in on a ball-and-cup trick. Burt glanced at the Hell’s Angels, Superman, and the fairy godmother, all of them admiring his son’s performance. Charlotte was shaking her head with joyful disbelief. He felt a sense of pride he hadn’t known in a long time, but with it came a startling realization: his son had done well without him, better than Burt could’ve hoped or expected, and something about that scared him.
Burt stuck the card in his back pocket and felt his keys. He had a crazy thought—what if he and Larry left right now, piled into the Firebird and started driving? What if they swung by Lena’s, convinced her to come with them somehow? Some sort of magic. Burt could almost see it now: the three of them traveling west on I-10, past beachfront motels in Pensacola, veering north into Alabama, not stopping for supper in Montgomery but driving on through cotton fields and pastures, past tractors and silos and cows, on through the trash-strewn streets of Birmingham and into the moonlit night. Maybe by sunrise they’d see a sign, a road sign for Memphis, and the story he’d been telling himself all along would seem true.
“And now for the grand finale!” Gripping the brim of his top hat, Larry displayed his free hand to the crowd. Then he snatched at the air, drew back his curled fist, and slowly unfurled his fingers to reveal a white egg. He removed his top hat, set it upside down on the table, cracked the egg on the table’s edge and emptied the shell into the hat. Then, carefully, Larry settled the hat atop his head and posed with his arms outstretched. Burt’s heart was pounding. He couldn’t say why. After a long breathless pause, Larry whipped off the top hat and there was the gray and black sugar glider clutching his hair.
“Oh no no.” Charlotte hurried to one end of the table. “Don’t move, Larry. I’ll get him.”
But the sugar glider hopped to Larry’s shoulder and clambered down his arm. Charlotte lunged at him, but Bandit leapt to the ground and scurried off through the grass. She crept toward him, and the sugar glider climbed quickly up the live oak.
“For God’s sake, Ed,” Charlotte said. “Help me.”
The crowd wandered into the yard to peer up into the tree. Bandit was perched on a high branch, cocking his head from side to side, gazing out at a landscape he’d only glimpsed through windowpanes, the world in technicolor.
Burt locked eyes with his son. Larry’s coy smile felt like their little secret, as if they both hoped Bandit would climb higher and higher through the treetops to a land more beautiful and wild. And Burt tried to think up some way to communicate exactly what they needed to do, some way to write out the dots and dashes necessary to say it would all be fine in the end if they only got in the Firebird and drove. But the boy was all right now—better, in fact, than he’d ever been. And the more Burt thought about it, the more the trip felt like running away the way he’d always done, and the more Memphis seemed like a locale in a dream, some place you only talked about until somebody handed you a map and said, “Draw me an X.”
Casey Whitworth is an MFA candidate in fiction at Florida State University and the assistant programs manager of The Southeast Review. Recently, he won the Blue River Editors’ Award for Fiction, the Green Briar Review 2016 Fiction Prize, and the Sixfold short story contest. He lives with his wife in Tallahassee and is currently at work on a novel. Join him on Twitter @CaseyWhitworth_
I sat on the sidewalk; smoked cigarettes. I never put fewer than two in my mouth because I figure the time combined is worth more than the time separate. You can’t tax two things like you tax one thing. The sidewalk was black and gray with powder brown cracks. The ground was opening up and I thought it would swallow me up, but I didn’t want the world to think I was scared of it so I just sat still and took drags as they came to me.
“Hit the road jack and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more.” I sang through the smoke screen. Ray Charles played along between my ears. The sidewalk was cold and broken. I felt the damp earth against my ass; small veins soaking into my pants.
Two cops in blue stood over me and I asked them, “Did my mother send you?” They told me they didn’t know who I was or who my mother was. I stood up and one of them smacked his nightstick against my knee. I told him I was trying to stand. He said I should stay seated.
“Wanna cig? I think I can manage to bum one or two,” I said. The first cop was winding up to hit me again, but the second one stopped him. They talked amongst themselves for a second, then the first shrugged and the two of them sat down on either side of me. I passed one a cigarette and then the other. They lit their own and got comfortable.
“I was trying to look up at the stars, but I think someone must’ve stolen them, because I’m not seeing any. You two ought to try catching ‘em; should be easy to find them. Look for someone bright—bright future, bright complexion—and arrest them. Something new for the two of you,” I said.
“We arrested a couple of white boys up on Third Street,” one said.
“I don’t remember if those two were white or brown. They might’ve been brown. I’m not sure it really matters. They didn’t steal anything. They were just a couple of rats is all,” the other said.
“I don’t think you found them yet. I think you need to go off looking for ‘em. Take a smoke break then head back out on the beat and pick up a couple of star-stealers—star-killers—whatever they are. It’s not right.”
“You don’t know the job. Leave it to us.”
“Right, right, right,” I nodded, “You two ever see a mom walking around here? Doesn’t have to be mine; was though. You’d know her off the first sight. She’d be walking around with roof shingles and maybe a couple of hammers on her.”
“We saw a couple of guys working in construction today, no women though.” The officer took a long drag of the cigarette. I flipped open the pack and pulled out two more for myself and lit them.
“There was one woman over there,” the other said. “She wasn’t wearing a hard hat, but she was there. I don’t know. She might have been one of the suits for the company or the building complex.”
I checked my watch and said, “Too bad, too bad. I’ve been looking around for her, not finding her. Thought she might’ve sent the two of you over to apologize. Too bad.”
“If she’s gone missing, we can have you walk over to the station with us and fill out some paperwork. I don’t know how much it’ll do for you, but it’s worth a shot.”
“Good to hear that.” I stood up, “Not sure that I’m gonna take you up on the paperwork, but I’ll head down to the station with the two of you either way.”
“Why’s that,” the officer asked.
“Both you two have been sitting here for a little too long, taking a break from work, smoking on the ground. I’m taking the both of you in for loitering; making a citizen’s arrest, if I can.” I waved my hand and the two of them stood up—flicking their cigarette butts into the street. “Can I borrow those cuffs,” I said to the first one. He nodded and took them off of his belt. I clipped them onto his hands then did the same to the other one, “Where’s the station?” The latter officer took the lead.
Five blocks down the street, I followed behind the two of them, swinging their nightsticks on either side of me. They spent the walk muttering and murmuring to one another. I’d slap a baton against one’s arm and they’d stop for a couple seconds, then they’d get back to it.
We got to the police station and I wasn’t impressed. The walls were some boring type of beige and the doors were Plexiglas holding metal bars. It didn’t say ‘police’ in big letters anywhere which was a shame because I thought it ought to. When we were standing at the top of the steps—in front of the entryway—the two cops stopped and told me they’d cover the rest of the process, which was good of them. I’m not much for paperwork. They walked in and I watched for a moment as the other officers took them by the cuffs and pulled the two of them into the jail area.
Then I was at a downtown bus station and things felt a little different. The platform was decrepit and empty except for a woman with a stroller and an old man reading a pocket book. The woman had a pocket-book, it wasn’t his. I smiled and gestured to the latter and then walked up to the geezer. He was coughing and sniffling every thirty seconds or so.
“You ever seen a Warhol?” I asked.
He looked up and squinted, “I think everyone has by now.”
“Well if we take the six down Oak then we can be at the art gallery by ten. I think they’ve got Rothkos too. Like Rothko? Lovely colors, when he puts them together.”
“I don’t know if I have the time to look at art right now.”
“It’s all nonsense.” The number six bus pulled up beside us and I ushered him quickly. He tucked his pocket book into his coat. We sat down beside one another. “What’s your name?”
“Henry,” he said.
“Right. I figured you’d be a Henry. It’s a strong, plain name. Sturdy. Who do you like to look at? If it isn’t Warhol or Rothko.”
“When I was young my mother showed me a lot of Picasso paintings and I thought they were all very lovely things. I remember the one with the man playing the guitar always made me so deeply sad and fulfilled. It was very powerful.”
I nodded and then leaned back against the rigid seat. Looking around the bus, I noticed it was more populated than the station’d been. A couple of hooded kids sat in a pack near the back. They were all in black and stick slim. Out front of the bus was another woman with another stroller across from a couple holding hands. They looked like a couple of well-off visitors from uptown—maybe came down for a date night, maybe not. The old man continued to sniffle on and on. I leaned over and gave him a bit of his coat, he obliged and used it as a handkerchief. Out the window, we passed a couple of dancers that were slowly and melodically moving along the sidewalk. Henry pointed at them, tapping his fingers against the glass. The bus stopped and I pulled him out quickly.
The art gallery was closed, which was expected. The easy bit about that was that the owners never bothered locking it. The logic was present. If you put a close sign, people make assumptions. Most people did, but my reading skills aren’t what they used to be, so I stepped in. Henry had a little trouble at first, but I told him to close his eyes and guided him to the door. It helped him when the words weren’t there anymore.
I flicked on the lights and grabbed a couple of pamphlets for the two of us. We walked through the gallery, setting on the wood floor between long white halls filled end to end with canvas—some blank, some not. In a side room, I spotted a Rothko. It was swelled in deep blue.
“I don’t get it,” Henry said. I didn’t either. Paintings are always nonsense to me. No one was around though, so I figured I could use the moment to try and get a grasp of things. I gave Henry my cigarettes and walked up to the painting and rotated it around.
“Do ya get it now?” I asked.
Henry shook his head no. I rotated it some more. I asked again and he shook his head again. We went on until it was back where it started. I nabbed my cigarettes back from the old man and said: “I don’t know about you—I do—but I think I have a pretty good idea of how it all works now. He’s sad upright, apathetic on his side, and happy when he’s wrong side down. I think the painting’s relatable. He might’ve intended it that way.”
Henry nodded, “I don’t think I understand art very well. Maybe I just don’t understand Rothko.”
“You get it or you don’t, Henry.”
“I know, I know,” he said. I picked up the painting and set it on the floor. We sat on either side of it and twiddled our thumbs and got comfortable with the thing. I played with the unlit cigarette while Henry took deep breaths and looked at the wooden framing under the canvas.
“You feeling acquainted and all?” I asked.
“I don’t think I’d feel acquainted with it even if we slept together.”
“You’re a traditional man, Henry.”
“I don’t know whether or not you mean that in a good way.”
“I think the statement is neutral on its own. The way you say it is important here.”
“How did you say it?”
“I said it neutrally. Didn’t put any gusto behind it; no bravado there.”
“What does that mean?”
I ran my hands through my hair and checked my watch, “Do you feel acquainted yet? I’m getting a bit bored and I don’t feel like sticking around. The place is turning to trash.” Henry looked at me quizzically, then he didn’t.
“I don’t know what that means. I won’t be comfortable with it; it’s never going to happen,” Henry shook his head. I grabbed the canvas and set it closer to the wall, then I took the switchblade out of my back pocket and cut along the wood frame. Henry’s eyes got wide; I gave him the painting.
“Take it home and introduce yourself. Get initiated and all that. You two should be good together, just take the time to see how things go. I’ll call you in the morning about it.”
Henry reluctantly took the painting and tucked it under his coat. We stood up and went out the front door. I made sure the sign still said ‘closed’ across—just in case anyone thought of breaking in and robbing the place.
I walked him to the train and then we split off from one another. It was early morning and time was turning around. I walked around a couple of the blocks that were posted up in downtown until I ran into one of those mechanical psychics; the wires were all frayed out of the side panels and the paint was freshly chipping.
I asked her: “Where can I find a couple of soup cans around here?”
She said: “If you’re looking for romance, the grocery store is around the corner and the cinema is two blocks south.”
I could see we weren’t on the same page, so I kicked the side panels and walked away. She tried screaming at me, but the wires were getting a little heated so she had to calm down instead. When I passed the grocery store I laughed in its face and kept moving. The doors were sliding opened and closed without justification. Around the corner, I took a break outside a closed down Nickelodeon and sat down on the sidewalk. It wasn’t wet or cracked; the cement slabs felt fresh—still sinking into the mud and tar. My phone rang and I ignored it.
“I feel uninspired,” I said. A young woman in a trench coat sat down next to me. I glanced at her through the side of my eye. I said: “I feel uninspired.” She nodded and took an exaggerated breath.
“Have you tried futzing with your pencils and pens,” she said.
I felt around my pockets; they were empty and I pulled them out to show her, but when I did she just shook her head and exaggerated her breath again. “What’s the next step?”
She felt around her own pockets and pulled out a lighter. I handed her mouth a cigarette and then gave one to myself. She lit her own and I lit my own. “I think step two is to bum out a cig and then step three is to bum the rest of the pack. God loves a kind man, I’ve been told.”
“How old are you?” I handed over my pack.
“Something like twenty or thirty. It varies from day to day.”
“Ever been older than your parents?”
“Some days I am, some days I’m not. It varies.”
“Is there a step three?”
“Got a phone call lately?”
“Not one that I’ve answered.”
“You should answer it. Might be god or jesus or some other icon.” The woman’s phone rang and she pulled it out quickly. It tucked itself away under her hair and she nodded along to the cadence of the other voices. Then she hung up and put her phone away, “That was someone, they told me you’re too far gone. You’ve got some wrinkles on your face. Tired people are useless people; they aren’t real.”
She stood up. I tried to ask for another cigarette, but she left instead. My watch wasn’t working so I sat still for another hour or so and tried to sleep. It worked for a little bit, then a businessman came by and stumbled over my feet. He called me a twat and I thought he wanted me to get breakfast, so I walked back to the mechanical psychic and asked: “Where should I get breakfast?”
She said: “Some relationships take time and you shouldn’t rush them.”
There was a donut shop a couple minutes north. I stumbled around brownstones until I was in front of it. All of the outside walls were paneled in chalkboard—covered in colored words. I walked in and the inside was the same deal. It was walls covered in sidewalk graffiti, a couple of tables, and a counter lined with glass shelves and donuts. I walked up to the clerk.
“Do you guys serve breakfast?” I asked.
“We’re a donut shop, sir,” he said.
“Do you have anything heavier than breakfast?”
The clerk thought to himself for a moment and then ducked under the counter. He shuffled through the drawers—I could see the top corners from in front. Then he stood up with a tray of donuts. “These are the dinner donuts I’ve been working on. I don’t have the right paperwork to sell them all this early.” He set the tray on top of the counter.
“List ‘em off for me, willya?”
“Right,” the clerk waved his hand over the tray, “we have chicken, imitation crab, ratatouille, crème brulée, chocolate glazed, scallop, 8 oz. New York strip, and spaghetto.”
“Spaghetti?” I said.
“Spaghetto. It’s singular. The filling on this one is a single spaghetto running in a ring around the middle. It’s genius. The topping is marinara and the sprinkles are very tiny sausages.” He turned the tray appropriately so the spaghetto donut was on full display. I looked closely at it.
“I think I’ll have the chocolate glazed. It feels like the realest out of them.”
“It’s the best seller on the dinner menu. I’ve been polling customers.”
“Can I get it for breakfast?”
“I’m sorry, it’s the only one that’s not available for breakfast,” he said.
“I’ll take the ratatouille then.”
“That’s just a display donut, it’s made of plastic. But believe me, the real one will look exactly like that. Would you like to reserve it?”
“No, I think I’ll just take a different donut.” I pointed to the crème brulée and he shook his head. I sighed and said: “Which of these are display donuts?” He waved his hand over all of them except the chocolate glazed and the spaghetto. “We usually don’t prepare the dinner donuts until three o’clock.”
“The chocolate glazed isn’t available for breakfast?” He shook his head no. “I’ll have the spaghetto then, I guess.” The clerk smiled and put the donut in a bag and rang up the register.
“Five dollars,” he said.
I thought it was a bit excessive so I nabbed the donut and flipped the tray. He bent over to clean up the mess and I walked out the door. There was a bit of chalk on the sidewalk, I tripped over it and splattered the donut. When I stood up, the bag was soaked in marinara. I was a bit upset so I threw the thing against the chalkboard and wrote ‘fresh Italian hell’ on the wall. I think Dante’d be proud of me; we’d get along and understand each other.
My phone rang and the number was a lone ‘2’ so I answered it.
“Rothko and I spent the night together and we made love and I think that I now understand him.”
I smiled, “Henry, you’re a traditional man. Not a real one, but still a tangible one.”
“It’s like we’ve never met.”
“Call me an invitation to the wedding, Henry.”
“You’re an invitation to the wedding.”
“I’ll see you in the summer.” I hung up the phone and wandered down downtown. It was late enough at night and early enough in the morning that I thought I ought to be in a smoky club somewhere. Stories made it the place to be. I know one around here, but I was a little out of orientation: the mechanical psychic was a couple minutes one way and she wasn’t by the club, she was by the cinema. The cinema was opposite the theaters and so going north put me here and east of here was the Buddhist type clubs. I turned the corner and sauntered down the block. Then I was at the nightclub.
I walked in and everything was smoky. The music was stuck in soft, smooth jazz. No one was dancing so I grabbed a table to myself. The waiters swung by and I caught one by the sleeve and ordered a couple of gins. He obliged and grabbed me the bartender. They offered me the bottle and cups so I took both. A woman walked up to the stage—behind the microphone stand.
She took a deep breath and said: “I’m scared of the movies, they’ve been stealing my soul since I was up all night with the Downey Prince. What a shame, what a shame, what a shame. I thought I’d be on Bleecker Street but it closed before I was born. So I invited the prince back to my place but he said that it was nothing: a greaser’s palace. I didn’t know what that meant, so I panicked and took his shirt. I told him I’d mail it back; he said to use priority mail; I put it on a plane—economy class. I sent a love letter to him with 34 x’s and a lonely o. He said I should make a movie and I told him I’d steal a camera if I could. ‘Do you read the Times?’ he asked. ‘I think I might be running out.’”
The lot of us in the seats were snapping; the woman bowed slightly then pulled out a piece of paper and looked it over. She read it to the microphone: “I talked to god on the phone and he told me I wasn’t real. I told him I have wrinkles, so it can’t be the case.”
Another round of snapping. I took a couple swigs of my gin and then checked the time. It was early enough to sleep, so I got comfortable in my chair and watched the lady go on and on. Pretended I was taking pictures each time I blinked until her face disappeared altogether.
Next morning, I woke up alone outside the club, slouched down under the door with my wrist tied to the push-bar. The woman from the night before sat next me cross-legged, fiddling with an empty pack, tapping her foot against the concrete.
“When did you start working here?” she asked.
“I’m not sure whether or not I do.”
“Are you a poet?”
I shrugged, started patting myself down. Found a pack in my left sock and a lighter in my right, which I brought up to my chest, managing to push two bent cigarettes into my mouth. I lit them and took a long drag; the pack dropped on the ground next to me.
The woman grabbed it and darted away. I wanted to chase after her, but my hand was still chained to the door, so I thought I oughta sit around for a bit longer, enjoy the drags, maybe wait for another set of cops to come around and get the day going again.
In the meantime, I sang along by myself, occasionally looking up pant-legs of the people who walked past giving me smug looks, “Hit the road jack and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more—”
Michael Corrao is a student at the University of Minnesota studying English and Film. When he isn’t writing, he enjoys spending time with friends and watching old movies. His work can be found in publications such as Thrice, Eureka, Potluck, Century, and Ivory Tower. Michael is a Cleaver Emerging Artist.
Samuel Parker lay in his bed, the sheet pulled up to cover his lower face, leaving only the top of his head and his eyes visible. I approached his bedside, pulled the curtain around us and greeted him with a breezy, “Good morning, Mr. Parker. I’m Dr. Walsh.” His eyes, a moment ago relaxed, almost sleepy, widened with a look of streetwise suspicion.
“You here to do something on me?” he asked. “Are you one of them new interns? “
“Yes, to both questions,” I answered bravely, sensing that he could see straight into my muddled brain.
“How are you today?” I asked.
“Right now I’m good,” he said. “But it depends on what you’re planning to do next.”
“Well,” I said. “The veins in your arms and hands are clotted off because of your drug use, so we need to put a catheter into the big vein in your neck. Then we can draw out blood when we need to, plus give you intravenous fluids and medicines.”
“You mean the jugular vein?”
“Why, yes,” I responded, and looked at him more closely.
“How many of these have you done before?” he asked, his eyes probing mine like searchlights.
Damn, I’m caught, I thought. So I varnished the truth. “Two,” I said. “And they’ve both been successful.”
“On the first stick?” he replied.
What is it with this guy? Why is he asking all these questions?
“Yes,” I dissembled, remembering that I’d needed help on both occasions.
“So may I explain what I’m going to do?” I asked.
“Go ahead, man.”
My mind went blank, then rallied and explained to him the details of external jugular vein access, at the same time rehearsing them to myself. Place the head and neck lower than the body, locate the vein in the neck, clean the skin, inject novocaine, turn his head away, puncture the vein a short distance above the collarbone, and insert the catheter.
By this time I was sweating as if I’d been in a steam bath. My hands felt weak, ineffectual. “Everything okay, doc? You sure you’ve done this? Because I can help you,” he said. “I’ve made this stick a few times myself.”
“What?” I said, and God help me, a sense of relief welled up.
“Sure,” he said. “So I turn my head to the left to give you a better look. Then I bear down and you stick in the needle. Simple. Just go high enough that you don’t puncture my lung. We’re like a team, man. I should’ve been a doctor.”
“Thanks, doc,” he said when we were finished. “This will last awhile, won’t it?”
“Yes, “ I said. “If we take care of it.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take good care of it.”
Later that day, Mr. Parker quietly left the hospital and returned to the streets of the city. I never saw him again.
Jack Wills was born prematurely and raised, also prematurely, in a small town in central Pennsylvania. A retired physician, his passions are writing, music, his wonderful family, and staying alive to see what happens next.
For weeks the slush had been drying off the sidewalks, leaving trails of salty white mist, and still I hadn’t seen Tiny—not since Christmas when he tried to kiss me and said he’d teach me to cut white people hair. During warmer months, Tiny hustled past the social services building most mornings around nine. “There he goes,” somebody would say. We would stop tapping on our keyboards, lean a chair beyond the cubicle wall, and stretch the coiled phone cord to watch him go. Tiny was somewhere in his nineties and barely taller than the corner mailbox. He zipped by, en route to his barbershop, his gait just as steady as any of ours. Most people on my caseload were shut inside their houses forevermore and inched around their kitchens one step at a time. Tiny was my only employed client, although I wasn’t sure how officially employed—I didn’t ask, I didn’t want to know. He always wore a fedora, a necktie cinched tight into his collar, a long cardigan draped off his hunched bony shoulders. Tiny was always impeccably groomed and appropriately dressed for the weather, engaged daily in cardiovascular activity. I nearly finished my functional assessment just watching him haul ass.
Sometimes Tiny veered across the street toward our doors and tapped on the glass, waving at the receptionist until she put down her book and walked over to push open the door, even though she had already buzzed him in. “Misses,” he would shout, “I’d like to see my caseworker please,” holding his fedora in his hands, his smile wide and toothy, the bite of ancient cologne permeating the air. Our agency was a wide teal-carpeted room with tall white walls. The desks were squished together inside cubicles, but the arrangement did nothing to muffle the racket of two people politely yelling at each other about the overdue energy bill that couldn’t be paid. Protective services squeezed into one corner, the public guardians into another, and case management huddled throughout the rest of the building. Together we all watched over the older citizens of Pittsburgh.
Whenever Tiny dropped in for an unscheduled visit, which irritated me to no end, making me late for meetings at some senior housing high-rise across town, we stood in the lobby shouting back and forth. “Bring me the letter so I can take a look,” I would quietly holler. “Let’s call and ask.” Everyone knew Tiny, and everyone knew he was mine. “Oh, your little fella came in this morning,” someone would say in the break room.
Most people who lived in Pittsburgh were born there, and when I told people I had moved there from across the country, uniformly they raised an eyebrow raise and said, “Why would you move here?” The culture, the history, the adorable row houses, I might have said, although really, to leave my alcoholism behind in the desert furnished a tangible sense of moving on.
Once I learned Pittsburgh’s resources and systems, I worked the shit out of that case management job. Biannually my manager marked me a point short of a perfect score during employee reviews—because she never gave out perfect scores, she said. My home visits were completed early, my documentation thorough. My billing far surpassed the monthly goal. I let interns follow me around. My job was my amends to the universe, it was how I lived with myself. I owed the public a thousand times for each and every drunken foul and fuck-up.
Right after I quit drinking, a combination of newfound commitment to self-care, state-imposed restrictions, and insurance policies suspicious of alcoholics endowed me with a vacation from social services. “I need a break from humans,” I would say when collating papers with the other temps in the air-conditioning while the cacti endured the sunlight outside the windows. Spreadsheets and adding machines were plenty to manage then.
Sobriety introduced all kinds of sharp and shiny feelings, though, and there was only so much data entry I could tolerate while refraining from eye-rolling and open insubordination. Clocking in even a minute late three times within twelve months was grounds for dismissal, and two firings in a row would look terrible on a resumé. Meanwhile, children across the city were chronically starved or forced by Mom’s boyfriend into horrible sex acts, and endured things more horrendous than most could imagine. I just couldn’t find the greater meaning in entering addresses into a spreadsheet for money solicitation purposes. After stringing together fourteen consecutive months without drinking, I sold my furniture and left Arizona. Case managing older adults in Pittsburgh rather than abused children in Phoenix better suited my sensibilities anyway. Plus, an astonishing amount of work could be accomplished when well-rested. But I missed the fifty sober queers I had left behind in Arizona. In all the history of my life, I finally found somewhere to belong. Then I left them all.
Tiny lived in a wooden box on the edge of a hill. His house matched the others stacked together across the rolling hills and pewter valleys. Pittsburgh skies were overcast most days, and the neighborhoods reflected a resident slick wet gray. White paint flaked off Tiny’s siding, and the front stoop leaned hard, lopsided, under the front door, where a screen flapped in the wind. Fluorescent green moss streaked the shingles and gutters dangled overhead. Someone had tagged the side of his house with nonsensical letters. Strand board had been nailed over a window. Deer vanished into crowded trees across the street as car tires grumbled over the road, plaid with bricks and potholes that rocked cars like boats. That hill was a bitch to climb whenever it snowed. It seemed, as Tiny said, that the city plowed the black neighborhoods last. When our agency dispatched us to deliver survival kits of high-sodium foods and batteries and blankets to our most at-risk folks, the roads near our office had been cleared long before Tiny’s hills.
Tiny had paid off his house in the seventies, before I was even born, but he owed a decade’s worth of property taxes and so was ineligible for county-funded home repair. The county offered no concession, not even after someone broke into Tiny’s house and carried his copper pipes away into the night while he snored peacefully in bed.
“Can’t we tell the county it’s an emergency?” I said, sitting in my manager’s office. “The man has no indoor plumbing in a house that’s otherwise good enough.”
“First see if he’s sitting on any assets, cash stuffed into a mattress, you know the drill.”
“How could someone steal his pipes?” I said, “He’s a little old man.”
She sighed. “Sounds like someone was really desperate,” my manager said, “I’m sure nobody wants to steal copper plumbing to get whatever it is they need.”
I wanted her to be mad with me, and here she was humanizing Tiny’s pipe thief. Heat spilled over me in her office, something like shame—it felt familiar. I remembered despair, dark and cloudy and toxic, smoldering inside my guts, gritty in my fingernails and exhaled through my breath, how I had once evolved into something inhuman. Maybe in my alcoholism I didn’t find myself stealing an old man’s copper pipes, maybe because I was lucky enough to find a way out first.
I reported this epiphany to my AA group during my turn to speak, that maybe I’m not terribly different from the pipe thief, that maybe what I feel is survivor’s guilt. The meeting that night was populated mostly by the young women from the halfway house down the street. When I looked up at their faces after speaking, most of the participants stared at the floor chewing gum or picked at scabs on their arm. I was glad I said it anyway.
For Christmas we selected ten of our loneliest seniors from our caseloads and wrote wish lists, no durable medical equipment allowed. Do-gooders in the community picked cardboard ornaments off a Christmas tree containing vague demographics with gift suggestions and then bought presents. Our agency let us wear jeans on gift-delivery days, Santa hats and Steelers gear encouraged, and we crowded into each other’s cars to distribute gifts. I didn’t say much, but we laughed because my coworkers were funny. We sprinkled salty sand up slick porches and handed over wrapped packages containing hideous floral potholders or Steelers beach towels. A sort of tinkling danced in my stomach, and maybe that feeling was called delight.
For Tiny, I asked for wool socks and warm gloves. He rode the bus during snowy months, but I worried about him, wading down his hill through the snow. I watched for him whenever I drove around town, marching his ass across the city—as Tiny said—to cut hair because Social Security paid out jack shit.
Tiny’s gifts weren’t delivered on time—whoever delivered them didn’t read my note to just find him down at his barbershop. I delivered his gift myself mid-January.
“Whooee!” he said, wrapping his new scarf around his neck, “I thank you very much Misses, what a beauty.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “Someone from the community bought you the gifts. I’m just delivering them.”
We stood in his barbershop, and the neon orange coils of his space heaters baked our legs. Tiny’s barbershop was four pale yellow walls on the top floor of an old brick building with creaky steps sure to buckle under my weight. Bass thumping from passing cars rattled his windows and the square mirror leaning against the wall. A black barber chair with gold foam puffing out on the corners squatted before the mirror.
It had taken me a while to find his barbershop—his shop unlisted in the phone book, not even a sign on the building. I got the address from his physician, “my main man,” as Tiny called him.
Tiny’s barbershop was in an old African American neighborhood, and by old I mean the free blacks lived there in the 1800s, during the era of slavery. When Tiny was a kid in the twenties, the area syncopated and grooved with jazz culture. Come the fifties, social forces displaced hundreds of businesses and thousands of residents, leaving poverty and drug crimes and structural decay in its wake. Trash littered yards, and weeds grew from the cracks of sidewalks. Buildings with busted out windows perished in rows. Along Tiny’s block, older women sat on the bus bench, and men leaned against buildings and parked cars. I felt self-conscious and white, like an invader of space and community. White social workers haven’t necessarily been the good guys throughout history. Sometimes the old men barked at the kids to clear a path on the sidewalk and let me, the white lady, through, and I was never sure how to respond—this white lady could step into the road to pass just as easily but wanted to acknowledge and accept their chivalry.
Tiny, with his scarf draped around his neck, stepped toward me and swooped his face toward mine, lips puckered. As I ducked away, I nearly tipped over backward.
“Whoa whoa stop,” I said. “Please step back.”
“Ah baby, why not?” he said, “I thought maybe you and me could, you know, hang out.” He straightened his frizzy mustard-colored cardigan and winked.
I explained the ethics of appropriate professional relationships—I didn’t even mention our sixty-year age difference, nor that I’m a lesbian. The first time Tiny and I met, we stood in his driveway and Tiny kept calling me “Young Man”—I assume he didn’t catch my name, which at the time was “Heather.” The supervisor training me watched me talk to him, and I was unsure whether to correct him or just roll with it.
“I apologize if me giving you the scarf was confusing,” I said. “It’s a gift from an anonymous family.”
I offered to set him up with a senior companion if he needed company—which wasn’t a dating service, but rather a group of seniors who were paid a small sum to hang out with folks. The companion service appealed to me—not the friend-for-hire part, but beating hearts filling empty chairs, empty space left behind by some loved someone.
“Oh no, I don’t need that crap,” he said. “Last thing I need is some old person complaining about they sugars.”
“Let me know if you change your mind.”
“Hey, you too, baby,” he said as he flung the end of the scarf over his shoulder. “Come back soon. I’ll teach you how to cut white people hair.”
By April the snow had melted, and the muck had receded. Birds chirped, little green buds unfolded on trees. Still I hadn’t seen Tiny since the attempted kiss. Knowing he was hard-of-hearing, I pounded on his front door longer and louder each week. His curtains were pinched shut. He hadn’t been at his shop, either, whenever I dropped in. His emergency contacts—three of his customers— hadn’t returned my calls. Tiny’s main man, his physician, hadn’t heard from him in years, but Tiny didn’t need pills and hadn’t been sick since the eighties.
In May, the city left a notice on Tiny’s front door, imploring him to do something about the thicket of weeds. When my car hobbled up the brick hill the next morning, the notice was still tacked to his door. My stomach felt punched. Maybe this was worry, or it was dread. The notice flapped in the wind along with the screen all week.
The risk in asking the cops to kick open his door for a welfare check was that, regardless of whether your client turned out to be alive or dead, the busted-up door was now your problem.
“Try calling the morgues,” my manager said. “See if he’s there before you break down his door.”
“That sounds awful.” I wanted to bury my face and cry at her desk, but I thought about kittens so that I wouldn’t. I hadn’t been sleeping well, and I usually weep whenever I’m tired.
Tiny was a pain in my ass, showing up whenever he pleased, loud-talking in the lobby, asking me to call the water company. Maybe this urge to cry was called sadness, and maybe it’s human to feel sad when people might be dead.
I’d never called a morgue before. I had been monitoring the obituaries online, typing in his name. Usually every month or two, someone on my caseload turned up dead. Sometimes we found the obituary or a family member called us to cancel the cleaning girl. I stored sympathy cards for bereft families in my desk, and wrote little notes about the departed.
None of the morgues had seen anybody by that name. One suggested I try the county medical examiner.
“Ah yes,” said the detective after I gave Tiny’s real name and birthday. “We have his body, haven’t been able to track down next of kin. You all have any names?”
My chest felt heavy and empty. Grief. Maybe heartbreak. He was found in the street, said the detective, cause of death something about his heart, maybe, I’m fairly certain, but I couldn’t listen, couldn’t grab onto his words to store them and review later. I gave the name of the ex-wife, the numbers for the three customers listed as emergency contacts. I didn’t know of assets that might pay for cremation. He had cashed in his life insurance policies to replace his pipes.
A man lived on the earth for ninety-some years, leaving behind the case managers who once stopped what they were doing to watch him zip down the sidewalk. Maybe the old men and the kids clogging the sidewalks honored him in some way without notifying the newspapers. I called Tiny’s main man, the physician, to relay the news. The receptionist thanked me. She would close his file.
Slipping off the earth without funereal fanfare seemed tragic for a whole human life. There was nowhere to send flowers, no bereft to receive my sympathy card with some bullshit sunset on the cover. I waited to close his file until my manager invited me to do so. (Tiny was inflating my caseload number.) I finished the paperwork, canceled his case management service in the computer system. His file would be reviewed by the quality assurance team. Then his papers pulled from the folder and shredded. A white label would be peeled off and then slapped over his name. A new name would be written on the white label with a marker. What was left of Tiny was a human body with a stopped heart, waiting to be claimed. A barber chair with a mirror and scissors. A box on a hill with plastic pipes, an overgrown yard, and back taxes. A white lady, sixty years younger with a habit of wandering toward the window around nine, feeling the sting of clean-burning sadness, sadness unsullied by alcohol, for the loss of him.
Sam Brighton is currently working on a collection of personal essays. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Exposition Review and Memoryhouse. She regularly contributes health and wellness essays filled with exclamation points and enthusiasm to a regional newsletter for people living with multiple sclerosis. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she works as a nurse. Sam is a Cleaver Emerging Artist.
The day of the funeral I’m on the treadmill at the senior center.
A guy named Gordon I haven’t seen in a while stops next to me and points. I shake my head, What? He points again. So: I guess my limp is noticeable. I took a minor tumble on some stairs, more sprawl than fall. I’d rather not go into it right now. I’m listening to Ray Charles sing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” on my headset and watching Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan on one of the four TVs hung on the wall. But Gordon stands there, smiling. I pause the Ray, pop out an earbud.
“You hurt?” he says.
“Not much.” I dial down the speed and nod hello. “Where you been?”
“On a yacht,” he says. “What happened?”
Gordon is a junior senior. His hair is all white. He’s retired, not yet sixty, and reminds me of the Pillsbury Doughboy. The two years I’ve worked out at the senior center, I’ll see him three days a week every week for a stretch. Then he’ll be gone for weeks at a time. He is swift on the elliptical, then swiftly done and gone upstairs for coffee and networking. I glance back at the TV. It’s confetti time on Kelly and Michael. Three days a week I watch the silent confetti drop that happens on the show. It’s goofy, and everyone in the studio loves it. I guess I do too.
I tell him I took a little fall down some stairs. There’s a pause. I’m still walking; he’s standing by. “So,” I say. “A yacht.”
“There’s no such thing as a little fall,” he says.
“Not this time,” he says. “Up in the north channel. With Don.” Don is one of the senior seniors. He says he’s too old for exercise equipment. He wears big shoes and sleds a few laps around the tiny indoor track before stopping for a long coffee. He does a couple cruises a year. Gordon must be first mate.
“Every afternoon,” he says, “cocktail hour on the flying bridge, some cool jazz. It was sweet.”
“Must be some yacht.”
He considers his answer, smiles, and says, “Not that big.”
I start to say there’s no such thing as a small yacht, but think otherwise. I kind of want to get back to Ray Charles. I point to the TV and ask what he thinks of Kelly Ripa’s hair. It’s new, a Frenchy-looking bob. I don’t think she likes it. She touches it a lot.
Gordon glances at the TV, then back at me, like, Are you joking?
Later that morning I squeeze in a trip to Home Depot, looking for lightbulbs and super glue.
A few days ago my wife called to me from the basement. She said the stairway lights were out, one at the top, one at the bottom. That stairway goes down three steps to a landing, then makes a right turn to go down the rest of the way, thirteen steps in all, carpeted. I stood on a toppish step; she was downstairs. We flipped switches and talked. It was definitely dark. It turned out I didn’t know what step I was on. When I went to set my foot on the landing, it wasn’t quite there, and all of a sudden I went down in a pile; twisted and stretched muscle, bone, and fat.
“I’m okay,” I said to my wife. It was a tentative assessment, kind of a lie. It hurt like hell.
“Are you sure?”
“Probably,” I told her. I just didn’t feel like moving yet.
Falls run in the family. In his old age my father stepped off a ladder and crashed onto the cement floor in the garage. He limped for a month. When she was seventy my mother-in-law misjudged a stair-step in our house, fell, and broke her ankle. One night my father-in-law woke up, walked the length of his house in the dark to the bathroom, the one he used over by the garage, the one next to the door to the basement. He opened the wrong door and stepped into the dark stairway. There was no landing to abbreviate his fall. He tumbled straight down all thirteen stairs. Somehow, he was not hurt.
Thirteen. That should tell us something.
For some time now whenever I carry a case of wine to the basement, I imagine myself slipping and falling. You put carpet on stairs, you’re tempting fate. In this imagined fall my arms fly up, I launch the case of wine into the air, bottles fly and fall, breaking and spilling. When I roll into the glassy, winey mess at the bottom of the stairs, I cut my throat. Cheers.
In the aisles of Home Depot I decide to look for the long lasting bulbs. Bulb technology, it turns out, is taking giant, if confusing, steps forward. Really, it’s a stampede. There’s incandescent, halogen, fluorescent, compact fluorescent, and LED. Check for lumens, Watts, Kelvin value, soft light, hard light, dimmables, warm-up time. Then there’s savings per year, calculated to the penny, and year life. It’s kind of like shopping for French wine. The light steward I eventually talk to holds out a package of bulbs, recommends LED.
“How long will they last?” I ask.
He looks at me and smiles. “You’ll probably never have to buy bulbs again.” It’s an innocent remark. In my lifetime, he means. He sees something in my facial expression, intimations of my imminent demise, and offers a sheepish apology.
On the way to the funeral my wife says, “They’re not supposed to die before us.”
No, they’re not.
He was fifty. He was big. He had a mountain-man beard and a soft voice, he had light in his eyes and a smile that made you want to love him. At the funeral we stand in the church vestibule for half an hour, a visitation that begins in soft murmuring and mournful glances, and by the end rises to a din of conversation and laughter so loud the funeral director can’t hush us up and herd us into the church. There’s a balm in that din, an affirmation. But still, the man is gone.
We file in, find seats in pews, and wait. Whoever made this church understood light. The floor and walls and ceiling are all white. There’s stained glass, but it’s stained glass lite. The afternoon sunlight pouring in has a kind of echo. Maybe it helps. While we wait, the pianist plays in minor keys, slowly, a lot of sostenuto. Maybe that helps too. I remark to my wife: Above the altar, the wheel chandelier hanging from the ceiling. When she looks, I whisper, A little lower, it could be a pot rack. She wags a finger: Keep quiet. Way off to the left, behind the organ, is a huge set of drums, worthy of Ginger Baker, and a pile of amplifiers, for playing God rock. The horror.
Then the pianist shifts to a major key. We stand.
Then come the family, the casket; words.
Outside afterward, we stand facing the hearse, arguably the worst time. One church bell begins to toll. I hope they’re doing it on purpose. “If a clod be washed away by the sea,” I think. We are the less.
Lying in bed that night I find my wife’s hand and remember: super glue. It’s for a ceramic lemon that she bought in Sicily and that I broke a few weeks ago. I plan to fix it. Two or three pieces, clean breakage. It will be almost good as new. We lie there, drifting toward sleep. Drifting, I think about lemons and glue, and carpet on a well-lit stairway, about my limp to wellness on the treadmill, and a yacht anchored in the north channel, floating in the dark, a couple staterooms lit by a few tiny lights, and people having drinks, feeling lucky.
Rick Bailey writes about family, food, travel, current events, what he reads and what he remembers. The University of Nebraska Press will publish a collection of his essays, American English, Italian Chocolate in summer 2017. He and his wife divide their time between Michigan and the Republic of San Marino.
We are called watchers, though last I heard we were petitioning for a name change. It’s not so much that watcher is an inaccurate title. But it’d be like calling composers listeners or chefs tasters or sculptors touchers—not quite wrong, but certainly a lazy way of going about it.
And I don’t think it’s unfair to say that God has gotten lazier these days. He used to be fairly active, for a god, and while we watchers didn’t always appreciate His activities, we’ve since grown nostalgic for the days when high water levels followed higher tempers, or when He rained fire from the sky and turned that woman to salt, or that one time He got all those people to paint their doors with lamb blood, just for the hell of it.
We miss cool God. Now all He does is sit in His recliner and watch Seinfeld reruns and send the angels out for teriyaki chicken and orange soda. Gabriel says he’ll sneak our petition into God’s fortune cookie if we stop watching the angel break room for one hour next week, and I think we’ll take him up on it, once we get enough signatures.
My assignment is an eighty-seven year old human named Amelia Maria Hummel. It was my duty to see her birth, and it will be my duty to see her death. And then I will be assigned to someone new—perhaps a bumblebee, or a penguin, or an oak tree. I’m saving my veto for the off chance that I’m assigned to a horse. When Amelia turned seven her adoptive parents, Markus and Katrina Hummel, drove for three hours so she could ride horses at the state fair, and it took her nearly eleven years more to shut up about them.
Currently, Amelia is drying a navy blue coffee cup with a green and white striped dish rag. She has been at it for over seven minutes, and her hands are beginning to ache. The text on the cup’s side is too faded to read, but I can tell you that it used to say Nova Metallurgy, Inc. The cup didn’t always belong to her, but I suppose it does now.
Four years ago Amelia’s husband, Edward O’Hara, said his last comprehensible word.
Three years, fifty-one weeks, and six days later, Edward’s watcher was reassigned to a newborn mealworm in a San Diego pet supermarket. As far as I know, the mealworm is a happy change of pace. It certainly would have been for Amelia.
My previous assignments include three modestly successful men; sixteen slaves; two members of royal houses, one of whom was assassinated; hundreds of rodents; nearly a thousand now-extinct types of fish; thousands upon thousands of insects; and over six billion nematodes. Of every animal currently living on Earth, four out of five is a nematode.
Specializing in nematode watching is considered highly respectable in some circles. It is seen as a kind of community service. Somebody, as they say, has to do it.
Three blinks of His eye ago, Markus and Katrina Hummel moved the family cross-country in an attempt to save their failing marriage. Amelia was eleven years old. She told the children at her new elementary school that she was twelve, but this was a lie. She had just that month received her first birthday easel, and thus I’m sure of it: she was eleven.
The Hummels’ new home boasted many improvements over their previous residence, none of which involved Katrina Hummel’s sex drive or Markus Hummel’s workload. These improvements were primarily noticeable to a young girl of eleven, who claimed she was twelve, whose every move I watched.
Amelia preferred the new house’s smell, for one. She shouted it as she ran through the place, touching every wall, exploring every room: “Florida smells better than Ohio!” By this she meant that the Hummels’ new Floridian home, which had been cleaned of nearly three-quarters of the dead rats in its attic before it was put on the market, smelled better than the Hummels’ old Ohioan home, which had the faint but persistent odor of cat piss, even nine years after the family’s last cat had been hit by a car. She did not mean that one state as a whole smelled better than the other state as a whole, though it certainly did.
Amelia also preferred her new bedroom, which had slanted walls so that she could touch the ceiling on her tiptoes, a previously impossible feat; the new backyard, a wide slice of uncut grass that scratched pleasantly at her ankles; and the small, round window in her private bathroom, through which she first saw their new neighbors’ eldest son, Steven McCormick—his pimpled face, narrow shoulders, and a whole lot else besides.
We are to report anything extremely out of the ordinary to Gabriel, who in turn decides if it’s important enough for Him to look into. The last time Gabriel decided that something actually was important enough, it took Him nearly twelve years to get out of His recliner, by which point six million people had already died and begun filling out the necessary paperwork to enter the afterlife.
More recently, a watcher decided that he’d skip the middle man and report directly to God Himself. When the watcher burst into His room, God was wearing fuzzy pink bunny slippers and a spotless white bathrobe. He was holding a tube of modeling glue just beneath His nose, which He fumbled with before pocketing.
“Oh,” He said, eye twitching, “you’re not Gabriel at all.”
God then proceeded to pretend the watcher didn’t exist, plugging His ears to the watcher’s claims that He needed to step in, that He couldn’t stand by as these people did these things in His name, and going so far as to marathon three full seasons of Seinfeld before the universe caught up with His imagination and the watcher ceased to be.
“This is the pinnacle of comedy,” said God, taking another sniff.
The backs of Amelia’s hands are well-wrinkled, veins popping and pulling at excess skin, but her palms are surprisingly smooth, the result of consistent moisturizer usage. The trick is that the moisturizer was almost all intended for her face—an acne problem that persisted for nearly two decades—but through the process of spreading it, her palms and fingers absorbed enough moisturizer to permanently smooth a dozen palms. When she finally puts down the coffee cup, it is these hands that wring out the dish towel, these hands that lock the door behind her, these hands that squeeze the wheel of Edward’s Mustang as she swings out on the street.
There is talk of a walk-out alongside the petition. A strike, with hopes of encouraging the name change. I am considering participating, but then where would that leave Amelia? Of course, I can’t expect the rest of the watchers to wait for her to die before I walk out, or else they’d want to wait for their assignments to die too. It’s only fair. The issue is that some of the other watchers are currently watching hydra, creatures Amelia learned about in a Marine Biology class before she dropped out of the university entirely. These moving tubes and tendrils don’t actually die of old age—her professor called it biological immortality. Then we’re not waiting for 80 human years, or 150 tortoise ones, or a blue whale’s 200. We’re talking every goddamn hydra on Earth dying out, solely from predation, before we can do this thing.
When Amelia was twelve—actually twelve, not eleven-twelve—she was walking home from the school bus stop, and Steven McCormick fell into pace beside her, rather than hanging back with the other fourteen year old boys, who were discussing the optimal way to kill a man if disallowed tools. So far, sharpened fingernails were winning, though surprise strangulation was putting up quite a fight.
“Hey, you okay?” said Steven.
Steven was referring to the fact that Amelia’s nose had been wet and red and puffed up all day, and that she’d been wiping repeatedly at her eyes the whole bus ride.
“Allergies,” said Amelia.
Amelia was referring to the fact that she was allergic to the great outdoors, which was a damn shame, because otherwise she tended to prefer being outside. But less so, I suppose, in spring. Also, her father had just moved back to Ohio, returning to work for the contractor he’d left behind on the first move. He had promised her he would rent a condo in the nearby town, would come down the last week of every month, so long as she would stay with him while he was there. Her mother refused to talk to her about these conditions without a lawyer present.
“I want to show you something,” said Steven. “It’ll make you feel better.”
It was only visible, he claimed, in his bedroom, and only with the door locked. His was the first she had ever seen in person. It was hot and fat and noticeably short, compared to the diagrams she’d seen in Health. When she pushed down on its head—she thought it impolite to decline the invitation—it sprung back and spat up on her skirt. It did not make her feel better.
They usually don’t.
Occasionally a watcher will attempt to quit, usually citing empathetic insanity—what the humans have taken to calling PTSD—as the catalyst for their inability to perform any further. Gabriel usually talks them out of it. On the instances that he can’t, the watcher is forcibly assigned to the nematode watching department, the species least likely to result in further harm. Maybe in a thousand years the watcher will be allowed to return to an interesting species. We are not employees. Quitting is not in the handbook.
Amelia is speeding, which seems ill advised considering she hasn’t had a license for nearly fifty years. She runs several stop signs on the way out of her neighborhood, knocks over a mailbox, and only just dodges a train while swerving around the track guards. Miraculously, she pulls into a parking lot without being pulled over, though her parking job is similarly criminal. As she walks into the art supplies shop, a teenager with a backseat full of ink and nibs and Bristol board backs into Edward’s Mustang, takes a quick glance at the damage, and pulls away.
Inside the store, hers is the face of a child before the world has corrupted it, when things are still flawless and fresh and worthwhile. Despite the wrinkles surrounding them, her eyes are switching rapidly about, focusing on one section, the next. Then, like a river overcoming a dam, she flows through the store, filling one cart and another, grabbing every watercolor imaginable, every oil, every acrylic. She buys them all with Edward’s old Nova Metallurgy, Inc credit card—for business transactions only.
As watchers, we were created with incredible abilities. These abilities include: controlling the urge to blink, discerning the assignment’s voice in large, noisy crowds, and experiencing every single thing the assignment is experiencing simultaneously. In order to optimize a collective omniscience—and optimize we must, as is the watcher way—it is necessary for a watcher to be tuned in, so to speak, to their assignment’s world at all times.
Then again, we watchers are not exactly forced to experience everything. We are free, at least partially, to make a choice—to pass over. I passed over Amelia’s first time painting, for instance, and her first panic attack, and the birth of her sole child, an eight pound, six ounce boy who would have been named Phillip, had he survived. It’s not that awe or terror or emptiness are experiences that I like to shield myself from, though they certainly are. It’s that some things in life, I’ve found, are best experienced alone. Necessarily so, even.
Amelia met Edward her sophomore year of college, while she was still studying to become a marine biologist and he a metallurgist. Her dorm room walls were covered in various paintings of eels and dolphins and seahorses, the last of which had replaced her fascination with the larger land model. When she first invited Edward into her room, he knocked one down—an abstract oil swirl, the mere suggestion of a seahorse, but a seahorse nonetheless. The frame broke on impact, the canvas speared on a wayward heel.
“Sorry,” he said, before crawling into bed.
She felt as if her comforter was swallowing her whole, starting with her chest and moving to her hips, under his weight. She breathed in his cologne, an over-applied musk of something like pine, one of her allergens. When he kissed her neck she shuddered, and this only served to send her deeper, until she had been reduced to a single arm, slapping once, twice, three times at his back, before sinking away too.
Despite himself, he would have made an excellent father.
The walkout is scheduled for next week, at the exact hour Gabriel wants us to avoid the angel break room. We will meet in God’s room and tell Him that we are walking out, as otherwise we’re afraid He won’t notice. And then we will close our eyes and ears and minds until He finally makes a change. We will be blind and deaf and dumb to the world, and the world will undoubtedly languish in its loss, for as long as it takes for Him to do something about it. And then we will return, and everything will be exactly as it should be.
Amelia is standing on a chair in the center of her carpeted living room, her tools bundled in her hands. Her clothes are strewn across a plastic-covered couch, her bra hung from the ceiling fan. She begins with a deep, true purple, of royal variety, a few short dashes for each finger before she runs them through her hair, winding between over-permed curls. She paints her palms teal and smacks the fan, the chair, her cheeks. She traces the veins on the back of her hands with a lemon yellow and follows them up the arm until they disappear just behind her elbow, which she caps off with two bright red targets. Her kneecaps get a similar treatment, but she leaves the veins in her calves as they are, uneasy with their distance.
As she readies the chair, the rope, she traces watercolor through her eyebrows, lime green for the left, traffic-cone orange for the right, and her lips receives a smear of light violet, bubbling with each breath. On her stomach, she lays a backdrop of deep blue oil, plants a few strands of green, adds flurries of eggshell white breaking around her breasts, and sprawls out a vibrant swirl of pink, a swirl to end all swirls, building out from her center until the line is rearing back and neighing, its large, black eye staring directly into mine.
If her child, the boy who would have been named Phillip, had survived, his favorite color would have been the orange-pink of an unwilling evening sun falling between clouds. His favorite food would have been mush peas, at first, then corn flakes, then onion rings. He would have grown up to be an Olympic pole-vaulter, sustain an injury at nineteen that would stunt his career, and be nursed back to good health by the combined efforts of his mother and a lovely young nurse, whom he would later marry. They would have two beautiful boys together and, after the boys had left the nest, would adopt a newborn girl, whose single mother would pass during childbirth. They would dote over all three children, but especially that little girl. They would dote over her to the point of insanity, the point of deification, the point of leaving her unprepared for a cold, uncertain, misinformed world.
But as we know, Phillip’s umbilical cord wrapped around his neck a full five times in utero. Amelia’s doctor wouldn’t detect his asphyxiation until the trace of the baby’s heartbeat had long faded, his magnificent clock halted forever.
The walkout was initiated just seconds after Amelia drew her last breath. When I left her, her mouth was a circle of choking pain, but the swirl remained on her stomach, in her eyes.
Over twenty quintillion watchers gathered around His door. And we watched. And we waited. Then, as if a single body, we entered. But before we could say anything, God had stood from his recliner. He was wearing a torn Nirvana T-shirt and gray sweatpants, and His fingers were coated in cheese dust, though we could tell He’d been expecting us. Then and there, as if it were the simplest question in the world, He asked what we’d prefer to be named.
But we had no idea. Not a single watcher among us had a clue. Neither, He said, did He. He asked if there was anything else. If, perhaps, we’d like the ability to act. If we wanted, He said, we could be allowed to interfere, as much as we wanted. We could fix the watched.
But no one wanted that.
When I return to Earth, I will be assigned to a newborn girl, whose single mother will pass during childbirth. On the girl’s stomach, I will feel a magnificent swirl of pink, building from her center. In her chest, I will hear a magnificent clock, ticking in absolute rebellion. And through her eyes, I will see the most magnificent things—waiting, waiting to be found.
Alexander Cendrowski is a lemonade, cartooning, and ocean enthusiast pursuing his MFA in fiction at the University of South Florida. His favorite animal is the octopus, and his favorite color is none of your business. His fiction has recently appeared in Word Riot, Perversion Magazine, and Crack the Spine. He enjoys being harassed on Twitter @CendrowskiAlex. Alex is a Cleaver Emerging Artist.
Unhappy small towns are all alike—claustrophobic, gossipy, dying. —Timothy Egan
I have lived and worked in such a small town as this. Quiet, nondescript streets link manicured lawns and well-kept homes; neighbors guard their privacy as they intrude on the lives around them, paying close attention to the comings and goings of others, particularly those of relative newcomers. It is a strange mixture of the private and public, with odd boundaries that seem fluid—simultaneously hiding and displaying glimpses of interior narratives, opinions, rumors and expected codes of behavior.
[click any image to enlarge]
My town is a place that echoes David Lynch’s fictional Lumberton and “things that are hidden within a small town… and things that are hidden within people.” Some of those hidden things were revealed during the renovation of the house my wife and I live in—one of the neighborhood’s knock-off mid-century modern homes. Stripped bare, uncovered surfaces inside the structure tell fragments of distant family histories, many of which are highly private; others merely reflect the mundane public face of the neighborhood.
This series of paintings and drawings chronicles the process of fitting into—or not fitting into—a closed community, as well as the discoveries of long ago buried personal stories and events. The works are done on site, from life. As a result, the surrounding environments become integral to the process of making and thinking.
Often, unanticipated moments help shape formal and conceptual directions. Many of these decisions find a place in the final image, but just as many move from a central focus to a periphery status, which may or may not appear in a later image. In this and other ways, working from life is central to the images’ fluidity and flexibility around visual and conceptual possibilities.
Cliff’s Japanese Maple and Sonja’s Crabapple Tree (2013)
Mark making is also a central focus of this body of work. Marks are used directly with little, if any, rendering or modeling. Uninflected, each mark carries as much information as possible, combining with other marks to construct a greater complexity of form, space and light.
Such a process requires a high degree of focus: shape, line, mass, color, gesture, and spatial relationships are all considered and combined simultaneously. A dichotomy exists between this process of close observation and the final images, which often appear to have a strong graphic quality, as if the images came together in a single pass, or through a paint-by-number template. The ability of the paintings to flip back and forth across the boundary or edge between a flat surface and the illusion of depth, as well as abstraction and figuration, echoes the often permeable boundary between the past and present as well as the private and the public.
Other elements in the work refer to these dichotomies simultaneously. Windows, although not included in every image, play an important role throughout most of the series. Clearly, they function both as pathways into and out of the private and public. Windows rarely appear unobstructed—they are usually coupled with an element that responds to or blocks the outward view. This response or blocking corresponds to a conscious sense of community and the decision to actively engage or resist exchanges and communication with the neighborhood.
For Newtown (2012)
Semi-opaque plastic drop cloths function in both roles. Originally, the thin plastic tarps were used to isolate parts of the renovation within the structure, but they soon began to play a greater role in an evolving narrative or context.
In the piece Color Test, Mailbox and Elmo’s Stairs (2013) the drop cloth alludes to the flowing curtain that appears at the start of Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet.
These thin sheets of plastic refer as well as to tragic private and public events: in For Newtown (2012), the drop cloth, while still evident in the upper right corner, has been pulled back to reveal a holiday tree hung upside down in a stairwell with a large window that looks out onto the neighborhood. This watercolor was completed at the time of the Newtown shootings and responds to that horror with a communal view (both from the inside and outside) using a well-known symbol frequently tied to the concept of peace. By setting this object on its head (and literally hanging it), many of its collective associations are subverted.
Thom Sawyer lives and works in New Mexico and Washington State. He received an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania and a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University. His work has been exhibited in solo and group venues including the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), The Contemporary Austin (Austin, Texas), the Creative Arts Workshop (New Haven, Connecticut), the Sierra Arts Foundation (Reno, Nevada), the Washington Street Art Center (Somerville, Massachusetts), C. Grimaldis Gallery (Baltimore, Maryland), ARC Gallery (Chicago, Illinois), the Indianapolis Art Center (Indianapolis, Indiana) and Rogue Community College (Grants Pass, Oregon). His most recent show, titled 36 Views of Baylor Canyon, took place at the Branigan Cultural Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Sawyer began his series Spring Street in 2012. Between 2010 and 2012 in southern New Mexico, he completed 36 Views of Baylor Canyon, a series of color pencil drawings focused on the intersection, or collision, between a private, domestic world and a larger, more far reaching global view. Since 2003 he has continued work on another series, Julia’s Garden, which examines aspects of love, language and the landscape.
More images and information may be found at his website: thomsawyer.net
Mildred and Helen, 2013, color pencil, 18 x 24 inches
Alice’s Closet, 2012, watercolor, 26 x 20 inches
New Mexico (Bed) (For Julia), 2015, watercolor, 20 x 26 inches
Color Test, Mailbox and Elmo’s Stairs, 2013, watercolor, 20 x 26 inches
Dropcloth, 2014, color pencil, 18 x 24 inches
Elmo’s Rathole, 2013 and 2015, watercolor, 20 x 26 inches
Crazy Muriel’s, watercolor, 20 x 26 inches
Vent, 2013, color pencil, 18 x 24 inches
Boomerang, 2015, watercolor, 26 x 20 inches
2 x 4 (For Uncle E.), 2013, color pencil, 24 x 18 inches
Intercom (For Aunt J.), 2013 and 2015, watercolor, 26 x 20 inches
Cliff’s Japanese Maple and Sonja’s Crabapple Tree, 2013, color pencil, 24 x 18 inches Pink Dresses, 2013, color pencil, 24 x 18 inches
For Newtown, 2012, watercolor, 26 x 20 inches
mother i have strayed here too
long. a winter mist rising at five
o’clock and outside’s dim. outside’s
lust. ………(Mother I wish to tell you I love a girl and I love her naked)
in ten years’ time or twenty
snow will fall from the sky and
i will find within me strength to stay
the night.………(Oh, if you could See her shoulder blades, the curve Of her neck when she leans in to Kiss me) i will do this
with a single palm only, held up
to block out the light, and it will
be like child’s play, like magic
spells learned from that dusty book
my grandmother left behind
between leaflets of puritan
prayers.………(When my mouth is On her body I feel nothing but Strength) we too were here,
the book says. we too wept.
i dream sometimes mother of
a canadian farmhouse, and inside
a girl, who became a woman, who
also wept.………(Mother I trust Her heart the way I trust my own Body, these blind-fingertipped days) logs burn and days
disappear and in the evenings
a child wraps tiny fists around
her nipple, biting.………(I cannot Remember what it is to feel anything Other than this tree-felling love, The act of my own heart’s beating, Inexplicable to me as God.)………in
nine years’ time the kittens will all
be mothers of their own, feeding
and no longer fed, and you and i
will know each other’s faith once
more.………(Mother I love without Understanding, without proof and In the face of doubt)………if i could,
i would kiss this girl’s neck
so soft, tongued yet toothless, unless
she spoke, wanting to feel the bite
of a winter not meant to last, frost
unfriendly toward any wishing
for survival.………(I stay still In my love, and the hummingbird Hum of my heartbeat at long last Is steady)
Erin McIntosh is a writer and actress currently living in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared and is forthcoming in various journals including Two Serious Ladies, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Hobart, Bone Bouquet, Lavender Review, Vagabond City Lit and Vending Machine Press. Visit her at www.erinmcintoshofficial.com.
She led us knee-deep into mud.
Horses squealed and thrashed
as the earth dragged them under.
Mire sucked at our boots
while she shouted, stout
on her John Henry mule.
We pulled them hoof by hoof up
from the trembling cold.
She led us over a cliff, plunging,
down the scattering track.
Rocks tumbled, smashed off
splintered trunks below. Some of us
said lost. She thought she saw
a mustang over the sixteenth
ridge. The water hole’s moved. Hours dark we wandered
into camp behind her. Coffee
and grit, eggshells drowned
to settle. Buckets of grain
and a rope corral. At the fire
she sang goodnight, goodnight
to a scratched flask. We leaned
close, sparks and smoke
twisting up over her hat,
the stars on their infinite trail
quietly heading west.
Amy Miller’s poetry has appeared in Bellingham Review, Nimrod, Rattle, Tinderbox, Willow Springs, and ZYZZYVA. She won the Cultural Center of Cape Cod National Poetry Competition, judged by Tony Hoagland, and has been a finalist for the Pablo Neruda Prize and the 49th Parallel Award. Recent chapbooks are Rough House (White Knuckle Press) and I Am on a River and Cannot Answer (BOAAT Press). She works as the publications manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and blogs at writers-island.blogspot.com. Horses broke her heart long ago, but she keeps returning to them.