Jail Break Time passes, and little by little everything that we have spoken in falsehood becomes true.
— Marcel Proust
• Al walks under an onyx set of moons whose one good eye blinks like the cherry top called to that last day in his old life. Yesterday, the warden warned the leaky faucet would not be tolerated, and so it became the last domino to topple—and how true they all fell. Al draws on his jeans under a mirror ofclouds. It was time to set his watch, the cheap Timex from Aunt Alice, set it to a more auspicious hour—perhaps Twelfth Night off Dame Street in a drawing room where they were dancing in quadrilles and pansy skirts. Or to an hour of privacy where the fairy tale poet still searches vodka in the closed garage that tilts to Africa. Himself, he will make do and go his own way, hoarding every second like chocolate and fresh air. The ghosts of a million regrets follow him through the prairie’s parking lot. He will find a hole in a wall and erect a door, a few windows open to the birds. Relieved of all the undeserved responsibilities he’s carried, he’ll sing each word of his silence with patience. He’s clever enough to be wary of freedom and trusts only the grunge music of adolescent basements where sex blossoms and a single toad watches from the ledge. Every lie he ever told draws close to be excised lovingly with memory and ink. He is counting the scars, and dividing with forbearance the good luck from the bad. Figures he’s due.
She Didn’t Think of Herself as Religious
One evening she observed Truth standing off in a corner by the tall Chinese urn upon which was worked a pattern of leaping salmon, watched him stand there smug and translucent, mostly unnoticed. The kitten circled and circled that urn, mesmerized by the predictable, yet elusive fish. An “unexpected quandary” her father is saying, and she has no idea to whom he is speaking, nor what he might mean. Her father is corpulent like Edward the Seventh, though without the mistresses, and to blame beer, burgers, and fries seems unfair unless America counts for more than she heretofore believed. But it is true. America is so busy being imperial—very much like the good king in his later days—that it doesn’t take time to consider this evening’s metaphors loosed by a boy on his bike whose name was Andrew and who’d stopped earlier to ask about a kitten. This was a definition of “quandary,” as well as “unexpected.” To have anchoring words redefined by someone who was not even part of the family—how does this happen? And yet this boy clearly knew this feline creature, seemed to care, was disappointed when we were too busy to conduct a proper search. He was so intent, a real soldier of devotion, and now what if he’s gone missing, too? It’s a rough neighborhood between here and there, and if he gets lost, what chance is there of any one innocent ever finding their way home? Someone tell me, tell us, tell someone.
You were just over there a moment ago, so silent and aloof. Behind the “quandary,” wasn’t it? And what is that? Is it a “quandary” of salmon, or will you call them a school? We need teaching. Remember that urn? A question and a number. Fifty-four comes to mind, and the other is beggared so she must leave them to it, shift the urn, face it away from the clouds where the others will soon be eating from her hand. It is she, isn’t it, who holds the metaphor, trumps every time? The kitten is mewing at the door, the urn leaning towards ambivalence, truth putting on its sunglasses, ready to slip away, slippery as a fish in the silken waters of China. Herself, she has a ticket for Roanoke, a kitty box under her arms, and the boy’s hand in hers. Salvation has less to do with truth than belief. Watch those salmon lift their wings, see the poor, first in line, at the only door that matters, and not “unexpected.”
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 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, 2016. He is the poet laureate of West Virginia.
Hear Marc’s piece and more virtual poetry from Cleaver on our SoundCloud podcast On The Edge.
The high-pitched animal cries of your boy come hurtling to you drunk at the breakfast table from the backyard, and until you finally hear “Dad! Dad! Dad!” it’s only by that terminal “Dad!” when anything registers—those cries and yelps and weight of the sliding glass door as you wrench it open into the sharp February bluster that spreads against your arms and face, snow falling in the crushed heels of the shoes slid on like slippers before crossing your uneven deck. There he is, your boy, standing on a cheap, green, plastic, piece-of-shit chair holding his puppy’s leash untethered in a red glove. Profiled against the warped wooden fence that spreads like bad teeth at places along its base, he is small, and he’s half-leaning into the neighbor’s yard over the top, his jeans dark from playing in the yard. On toe-point, he’s reaching over, looking at a situation you only later—by how cold the world feels on your knees, how it falls out beneath you—will begin to figure; he’s pointing into that other yard, his arms marshmallow thick in his blue winter coat saying again without looking back, “Dad! Dad! Dad!” because he knows you are there, trusts for some reason that you will always be, and you make an effort to talk except what comes out isn’t helpful or coherent because, face it, you’re ripped and don’t know what to say anyway, but you know what to do, goddamnit, which is scale that six-foot wooden fence now, Dad, right now.
The deep snow pushes up the bottom of your grey sweatpants on the other side of the fence and you’re focused on its cold grip around your ankles—not a single thought flying to those shadows on the x-ray your doctor handed you or the dot dot dots of the Sign Here’s on the papers your almost-ex brought with her last night. No, you’re thinking: the neighbor’s yard is just as sad as mine. Ditto his two-bedroom apartment. Then you see the blood in the snow. Lord, there’s plenty. But, for a moment, you allow yourself some hope. All this couldn’t be from your boy’s dog. Because it was so small. And barely old enough to be spayed let alone grown enough to have so much to lose. It was like the night before, when your wife dropped your boy off with his sleeping bag, when she was surprised to see a puppy, how she hurled arm-crossed accusations like, That’s a sad bid for affection, and, Shouldn’t he be bigger by now? like it’s your damn fault your boy’s nine and hasn’t sprouted into an awkward birthright of long limbs and voice shifts. Like it has nothing to do with the woman he’ll end up living twelve out of every fourteen calendar days with until he’s eighteen, or you’re dead.
“There,” your boy calls, “the bush!” which you should’ve figured, because of the blood, and because your neighbor’s fifty-pound fawn-colored mutt’s barking at the large, ugly-brown bush beside a warped deck just as shitty as yours, the dog’s entire backside wagging, and, between deep woofs, puppy-high wines; those cries that threaten to swing the world beneath you open, whoosh, like a trapdoor. An old dog, you’ve seen the neighbor kids, six and seven years old, hold onto its leash when a squirrel cuts across the yard, that dog lunging, rearing up on its legs against its collar. It looks back at you, making that happy dog face, almost smiling, jowls smeared lipstick red, and it paws at the cherry-dark snow.
“Dad!” you hear as if from on high, as if to warn you, but you never listen, do you? Until it’s too late not to. So you start talking low and calm with your hands out in front, moving toward the dog. Then you’re cursing, a growl and an uncommon anger rising into your throat. And you’re pointing. At your chest. Then grabbing the dog’s collar in a fist. And kicking wildly again and again and it’s pulling and twisting and yelping and you’re holding it off the ground by the collar and it’s making this crushed-throat hoarse-noised gasp and you hear:
But that isn’t your boy calling, no. It’s those neighbor kids on their deck yelling back into their house through the open dog-nose-smeared sliding glass door, a door you might have had. And you let go. Exhale. Feel a little bad, but also alive, even when you hard-cough in the cold air and spit what comes up.
Their dog hurries, with a limp, toward the kids, tail tucked, favoring one leg, choking, wheezing. When your tall, rail-thin neighbor finally comes out he says, What’s all this? as if he means anything by that in his Old Navy sweater, his flannel pajama pants and fur-lined Crocs, and his two kids are trying to explain. One’s trying to talk but out of breath while the other one cries; heart-wrenching stuff, should be, but their dog’s fine—he’ll live—and your neighbor says, Just what the hell is going on?
Grow up, you want to say when you kick the red snow. You wave open-palmed at all of it like the last act in a magic show before the curtain drops. Ta-da, you gesture, get fucked. You pound on that shadow in your lung and you kick the snow again. This time, your crushed-heeled shoe goes reeling onto the deck, and he cocks his blonde blockhead at it.
“Dad,” your boy says, and you ignore the sounds from the deck, and you ignore your bare foot in the snow to get down on your knees by that bush to find what you came for, saying stuff you never even said to your boy—not when he fell off his bike and skinned his arm up to the elbow, when she said right in front of him, Full custody if I can—those It’s okay’s and It’ll be fine’s. You get ahold of the puppy’s collar and, slowly, try to rescue it, to do the thing right. But, as you pull, it leaves a pink paintbrush-streak in the snow. There are flecks of mulch and dirt stuck to the red, slick parts that steam in the cold. You can see tiny bones and, for some reason, for a million reasons, you look over your shoulder and—whoosh—there he is, your boy, gape-mouthed, watching.
Last night, before he got into his sleeping bag because you only have the one small bed now, he watched the puppy sleeping, watched it kick and twitch and breathe, and he asked if dogs dream which you didn’t know how to answer. You wanted to say Yes and wanted it to be true.
Down in the bloody snow you pull off your shirt, a shiver riding your ribs, and scoop up your boy’s puppy and wrap him inside.
From his deck, your neighbor says something about the police and you’re saying a choice thing or two about him and his mutt even though you get it—what he must say and do, as Dad. But, no, you won’t shut up and you won’t hold on just a minute, and already you’re at the fence handing the swaddled pup to your boy. You climb the fence, which seems taller this time, the dry wood scraping like teeth across your chest and gut.
Inside, he asks, holding that small dog in his arms, “Is everything going to be okay, Dad?” and, for the life of you, you don’t know what the hell to say because you know how this ends. Choking from the cold, sobering air, you lead him by the scruff of the neck through the apartment with a limp from your one numb foot to grab your keys, and the coat with the cigarettes, and you are all three in the car going ten over the speed limit, fifteen. And your boy, he’s older, getting older by the mile, and before long he’s too old to hug and tall enough for his mother and his voice is breaking while you—you’re a shadow sliding down a road snaked with snow still trying to say It’ll be okay like you mean it.
Brandon Timm is a recent fiction graduate of Southern Illinois University’s MFA program. He currently resides in his home state of Ohio, where he holds a position at a logistics company. His work has been published in ZONE 3 and online at The Carolina Quarterly. He owes much to those family members, friends, and teachers who have supported him, and this is a small, printed thank you to all those who have rooted for him.
along the pathway through live oak
and cedar trees…..ant trails lead
to dead cicadas and worms
I look for lichen-covered twigs
and a piece of prickly pear
to dry and paint on canvas
are you a woman
hard to picture after all the years
of otherwise…..but if it’s true
I’ll buy it
Dear Victims of Orlando
this mountain is for you…..my darlings
golden tops and red rock to ease your way
up from Orlando to the next station
use crevices to climb where fragments hide
today the gastro doc removed a five-peso coin
from Hannah’s stomach…..I cry for the child
who has anxiety…..I cry because I am a grandmother
and grandmothers cry frequently…..whether tears come or not
Dear God (Woman) I wake realizing the dark side
of mother lives in me and it’s been there more of late
someone saw another coral snake nearby
a rattler once crossed the neighbor’s walkway
fire ants bite my leg…..the car’s gas tank is empty
(Mike asks if I know what causes that)
in the morning we find tiny remains of
some animal on the back door mat
Len carries the mess to the trash can….cleans
with Clorox…..washes the mat with rain
snout-nosed butterflies linger on their way south
the woman asks…..what are those bugs
will they harm anything…..God (also Woman)
must be saying….just watch their drab beauty
Hannah Finds a Lime in Our Yard
where no lime trees grow…..we toss
it between her fit-running form and
our out-of-date shapes…..we take
Mexican Sage plants out
stems hide…..last year’s
leaves…..take them out
put in flagstones line
with variegated liriope for
Hannah to play pirates…..jump
from stone to stone…..hide treasure
amid drought-resistant plants
home to lizards…..scolding wrens
hummingbirds and large pots
for dropping …..leaves
stones….pieces of grass
to make her caldron brew
under the Chinese Pistache
covering grass…..God (as Woman)
I may falter…..after seventy years
of bargaining with you…..to live
a little longer…..to see Mike
get permanent teeth ……………………….to
look out the window at the stones
leading to Star Jasmine
where the dog barks ……………………….on the other side
Marcia Roberts, originally from South Dakota, has lived many places, including Madrid, Spain; Washington, D.C.; and San Francisco. She now resides in San Antonio, TX, with her husband Len about five houses away from her granddaughter Hannah. Marcia holds a master’s degree in English and Spanish, and she studied Poetics at New College of California. Her chapbooks include Open Eye (Skanky Possum Press), Autumn’s Slant and In the Bird’s Breath (Effing Press), and What She Knows (BlazeVox Books).
Hear Marcia’s poem and more virtual poetry from Cleaver on our SoundCloud podcast On The Edge.
Cici squints at Agatha’s toes, bunched together like an Indy 500 pile-up of smashed, shiny speed-racers. “And that’s why you wear socks in bed,” she says, leaning against the short kitchen counter as she points a slice of toast dripping with butter and honey at her wife’s feet. “It’s good you’re getting them looked at.”
Being urged to take care of herself is one of the benefits of marriage, Agatha reflects. She likes someone watching out for her, though she wishes that someone would use a plate when eating toast, but that’s also a benefit of marriage, the gift of being challenged by petty habits. “I’m glad we’re legal.” She dives in for a buttery smooch.
Both women bear the names of Christian martyrs, although, in fact, Agatha was named after her grandmother’s best friend, who stayed in Sweden when her grandmother moved to New York, while Cecilia’s is a family name going back to some long-ago relatives, “cotton pickers on Satan’s plantations.” Both women are feminists. “Ya think?” is what Cici would say should anyone inquire.
So today is podiatrist day. Agatha leaves work early and happily, work being a pharmaceutical ad agency where she edits and fact-checks. She is not the medical profession’s greatest booster, but she knows podiatrists are mild-mannered specialists and not Guantanamo interrogators the CIA disavows. But she’s jittery. Her feet have been aching for months, the very feet she walks upon. That’s the thing—what if she’s grounded or benched?
Dr. Logan agrees that something’s amiss. Ag strains to hear what she doesn’t want to hear as he offers prognosis and options, the first option being to return every few weeks for the rest of her life so he can hygienically razor skin from her toes. This is not such a great choice, considering the longevity that is part of her family legacy. Does she want to be in the proximity of a razor-wielding podiatrist every few weeks for the next half of her presumed eighty years of life?
His second and recommended option is “the procedure,” in which he’ll carefully break a few of her bones and set them in a sort of cast so the bones reassert their natural shape. It’s just a toe or two, Ag argues with herself, noting how untroubled the doctor is by his suggestions. So what if it’s broken and she has to recuperate for weeks? Weeks! In bed and on the couch!
Leaving the office with a slick brochure in-hand and a few sympathetic words from the receptionist, Ag is soon on Bleecker in the Village, leaning against a large restaurant window and wiggling a pebble from her shoe.
“Lady!” A goon of a chef flaps his mildly white apron at her. “You wanna wash our windows?”
There is a third option. There’s always another option, she reckons as she hobbles on, not quite alert to direction. This third option involves calling Cici and crying. It is a good option, which she realizes into being as she limps west, away from the heavier foot traffic of Seventh Avenue toward Hudson Street. It may be January, but the day is sunny, and that church, Saint Someone’s, has a little garden in which she can sit. Saint who? She can’t recall the saint’s name.
Cici Ebenezer answers on the first ring. Ebenezer means “stone of truth,” as she has boasted more than once with a pride Ag finds reassuring. Her wife is solid and truthful. Sometimes her honesty is a byproduct of stubbornness, and she refuses to tell the graceful lie, but among your friends, not to mention wife (they’re coming on their five-year anniversary), honesty is much-desired. Ag sees herself as more of a wimp. She’s not wrong.
No sooner does Cici say, “Hello, honey,” then Ag breaks down, sobbing not how but that her life is over.
“No, it’s not, baby, it’s not over.”
“What about Mrs. Heimlich?” Who lives on the first floor of their building. “She’s never been the same!”
“She was run over a cab.”
“Her foot was!”
“It was a maneuver, ta dah dah.” Heimlich maneuver jokes never get old.
Five teenagers cross Hudson Street, the lowering sun outlining them. They are Black, though none as Black as Cici. Their loss. “Ma’am.”
Agatha nods. They walk on, joking with each other. “You got too many left feet,” one of the kids goads the other. Everywhere, feet.
Something nags at Ag. “What’s a chiropodist?”
“Say what?” Cici’s closed her office door. Agatha hears a keyboard click and knows Google is being Googled. Google-izing-in-action. The Google-ization of the globe. “Aha.” She imagines Cici’s triumphant expression when she scores big in Scrabble. “A chiropodist is the same as a podiatrist, only British.”
“So Ebenezer Scrooge would have seen a chiropodist?”
“If he’d been willing to cough up the co-pay.”
The kindly receptionist slipped Ag two Advil, which, on top of the two she found in her purse have finally kicked in. Still on the phone, she decides not to go to the church garden—it’s Saint Luke, she forgot about Luke, a fairly prominent participant in the religion’s beginnings, and heads south a few more blocks to Leroy Street, where she turns right, with the subway entrance at Houston and Seventh in mind. It’s a happy block with tall trees and a branch library next to a playground. Here and there tree roots have busted through the sidewalk.
“I’m on Leroy,” Ag says. A gull heading back to the river, or the High Line, or New Jersey—what does she know of gulls’ travel itineraries?—calls loudly. Keow, keow.
“You’re on Leroy? Hope you’re wearing protection.”
“Ha ha ha.” Ag removes her knitted cap for a good scratch. Her hair springs free like children when the school bell rings.
“Ag, your feet ache, yeah, but you’re not getting them bound. Kathy Bates isn’t about to hobble you.”
“The doc is trying to find a fix for you. You’ve been hurting.”
Agatha wants to whine but checks herself. Settles on the middle concrete step leading to a red brick apartment house. Her butt feels the cold. Her appointment had been scheduled for 2:30 p.m., and the doctor, the chiropodist diluted to an American podiatrist, was running late, so she didn’t see him until closer to 3:30 p.m. Now it’s nearing 5 p.m. and distinctly chilly—the nip of winter air is insufficiently warmed by the exploding climate. And she’s hungry.
“We’ll stay home. I’m up for take-out.” Ag is envisioning Cici envisioning the feel of Ag’s soft round body and Cici’s lean frame against each other, in motion, both knowable and mysterious in bed, with a mostly eaten carton of rice next to a pillow. “And getting cozy.” She is not one for sweet talk on the phone, but Ag surmises her meaning. “Thai food sound good? Spring rolls, those curry puffs, maybe duck. Hey, that how-to I told you about is finally out of my hands. Celebration time is here.”
They met at the School of Visual Arts, where Cici teaches one class a year. She designs book covers for one of the big publishing companies and has won a few industry awards. Agatha was looking at a friend’s daughter’s show in the gallery.
It is dusk. As Ag winds her scarf around her neck, she notices, sauntering along Seventh to Hudson, the same group of high school kids she saw on Bleecker. She observes the teens’ various stances and general air. They are having a good time in the slightly loud way dumbass teenagers have a good time. She remembers giggling through Southern California malls with other girls when she was in junior high. They would dab perfume on each other until the sales lady hinted they could leave, then race up the down escalator. One time she stumbled in her rubber zories and was administered first aid by a guard. Her feet have always been out for her.
As the kids pass by, the shortest trips on a tree root, which had powered through the sidewalk years back. “Fuck that shit.”
He is laughed at by his friends, one of whom is considerably taller than he is. The two of them are directly in front of Ag. “Apologize to the lady.” The taller teenager nods to her.
The kid who tripped glares, then shrugs. “Sorry.” He struggles against his sweet smile.
She waves her hand, no problem.
“My brother is learning manners.” The oldest kid is being an oldest. Maybe a little too much so, Ag thinks. She is a veteran of older siblings, the having of.
But whatever. “Continuing education, I’m a believer.”
Another of the kids invites her to join them. “We could party.”
“Yeah, right.” She is secretly pleased.
They walk on, and she’s back on the sidewalk, slowly squeezing her toes into her splendidly pointy shoes and rubbing her cold butt. Hot soup would be good. She texts Cici to add Thai coconut soup to the order.
Noises from down the street reach her. A bar fight? she wonders, not convinced. Henrietta Hudson, the dyke bar nearby, is pretty easygoing and certainly so in the afternoon. She hears a specific sound like a large snap. The cloud of gentle neurosis that’s shrouded her is replaced by straight-out fear. Suddenly there are sirens. She hurries the best she can back down Leroy to Hudson. In the streetlights on the corner, she sees a body, inert on the sidewalk.
The oldest of the teenagers, the tall one, is shouting, “Why’d you do that?” Cops are milling and showing their muscle. Some women from Henrietta Hudson are standing as close as they are allowed and have apparently caught whatever happened on their cell phones.
“What’s all this about?” Ag doesn’t need an answer.
It is the shortest teenager, the one who apologized to her, who is down.
He’s dead on arrival, the kid, Victor Soto. Ag and Cici learn this when they watch the reports of the shooting on the news. The phone videos taken by the dykes from Henrietta’s have been leaked. There is nothing new to this particular story. A white policeman; a rookie; a quote/unquote misunderstanding; a split-second decision—well, not really a decision, because a decision requires consideration. More a nasty-as-hell impulse on the cop’s part. And that’s that for the teenager, the goofy kid.
“The Daily News website says Bratton is backing the cop, the lying fuckhead.” They ate all the dishes they ordered, but without their usual gusto. Cici phones her brother. Then her cousin. After each call, she reports their reactions to Ag. Each one asks what Agatha saw and if she will be a witness, and Cici tells them that a beat cop wrote down Ag’s story and her details. “Ag got their details, too. The beat cop’s badge number.”
It’s been a few hours since Agatha abandoned the high heels, and her feet have stopped throbbing. Her feet—not throbbing. Just like that, a + b – c = y, with y as absence of pain. The equation says, “Here I am, lady. You can just stop wearing those pointy shoes.” That’s it, and of course the podiatrist didn’t mention that possibility—no money in it for him. If she doesn’t wear pointy shoes, her toes won’t look like they are wishing for good luck like fingers crossing. Her two feet and ten toes will be out of harm’s trap. Open-toed shoes and square-toed boots are her salvation. Her aha moment. Like supper, there’s no gusto.
The next night she and Cici join a rally against police malfeasance, also known as bullshit, also known as murder, at Union Square. A week later, she testifies to the teenagers’ politeness immediately prior to the shooting. “And sweetness,” she tells the grand jury. “He was sweet.” Sweet Victor Soto.
A few weekends later, she carts all her pointy shoes to the Goodwill and follows through on her plan by buying sensible footwear. Her toes untangle. Dr. Logan fades into old memory. Victor Soto does not return to life. The body sometimes heals, but once it’s gone, it’s gone. None of the murdered ever return to life, including the martyrs, like Saint Victor, who kept on being who he was, in his case a believer, a silly believer. Emperor Maximianhad him killed.
Sarah Sarai’s short stories have been published in Gravel, Connotations, Fairy Tale Review, South Dakota Review, New Madrid, The Antigonish Review, Wilderness House, Devil’s Lake, Tampa Review and many other journals. Her MFA in fiction is from Sarah Lawrence College. She is also a poet, with many poems out and about. She was born in New York State, grew up in California, and now lives in New York City.
She found it under her bedside table curled like a sleeping black snake. She stared at it for a second, then grabbed it and ran back down the stairs, thinking maybe this would save them. But when she flung open the door, he was already gone, and then it was just her squinting into the bright sunlight, holding an old belt in her hands like a sad wish.
It was an argument like any other, except that at the end of this one they were through. Suddenly he was walking out the door, and she was closing it behind him. Now she got in bed, bringing the belt under the covers with her.
Time had made the leather soft; a few threads poked out of the embroidered zig-zag that ran the length of it. The silver buckle was tarnished now. It was “handcrafted on our old ranch,” he’d told her three times. A family heirloom, passed down for five generations. And she could tell it had been beautiful once, that the black had been supple and shaded, the buckle with the engraved M in the upper left corner gleaming. She imagined his great-great-grandfather sticking his thumbs in it like a cowboy in an old Western, gold dust swirling around his feet.
He would call her, she knew now. He would want it back.
She lay in bed, running her finger over the engraving. She’d unbuckled this belt night after night. Pulled the length of it through the loops, sometimes slowly, sometimes in a rush. When he was angry, she rushed. When he was angry, he liked to use it. The last time she took it off she accidentally dropped it and the metal buckle clanged against the hardwood floor.
“Careful,” he warned her. “I’m going to give that to my kid one day.”
She got up, pulled on a sweater, threaded the belt through her jean shorts. In the mirror she stuck her thumbs in it and slouched. It was lighter than she’d expected, lighter than it had felt against her skin. She imagined generations of sunburned men passing this to each other like a relic, something tough, something beautiful. Something earned. Even in her palm it had felt heavy, maybe with memory. It looked good slung low on her hips.
She was already at the river when her phone rang. Send to voicemail. She pulled the belt off and threw it into the muddied water. She’d envisioned a long, soaring arc, the belt unfolding in the air to its full length and plunging in the middle of the river gracefully, quietly, like a black snake. In reality it jolted a few feet above the water and splashed in. She would take that. That was good, too.
Nadia Laher is a writer living in New Orleans. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette. Her story “Zumba Fever” appeared in Cleaver Issue No. 9.
Facebook has had one of those circulating memes, the ones that ask you to make lists that somehow make you feel nostalgic for a life you’re not sure you ever really had. The latest: list ten albums that influenced you as a teenager. Then: list ten albums that influenced you before you were a teenager. I do not make a list. Instead, I read your list, the choices that betrayed your rebellion or geekiness or prescient cool factor. I want to make my own list, but your list is better. I want to make my own list, but my throat catches as I hum songs I once took great pains to forget, songs that betray a disjointed yet emotionally accurate soundtrack.
1) At my grandparents’ house, I watch the Lawrence Welk show right before bed. Singers belt out “Good Night, Sleep Tight” for their final number. I am usually in my pajamas and afterwards my grandfather will tuck me in. He will touch me. He will make sure it feels good. I cannot remember him without remembering those singers dressed in bright yellow, swaying side to side, as if life will always be this grand.
2-4) In the ’70s, my mother is an amalgamation of outlaw country music songs. I sing about stolen kisses and illicit love every time she plays Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “I’m Not Lisa” by Jessi Coulter, and “Angel of the Morning,” by Merrilee Rush. I don’t understand that my mother listens to them while thinking of the other men she has in her life. I am often sad and can’t understand why.
5) Kenneth Copeland’s He is Jehovah signals my mother’s conversion to charismatic Christianity. She listens to sermons about faith, prosperity, and demons. She likes knowing about prosperity and how to make money, but demons are more interesting. She wants my thoughts to be pure. My thoughts are anything but pure. She wants to enroll me in a special Christian school, that is somehow more special than the Christian school I’m already attending. In 1982, she leaves my father and takes me to Denton, Texas, to be with her lover.
6) “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie is played on repeat in our small apartment. My mother’s reality starts breaking down as she begins to accuse me of being in the occult. She looks to Jim for strength. I begin to understand he is her endless love. I am the assassin no longer allowed to hug her.
7) After a few months, I am sent back to my father, where I have access to a record player and cassette tapes. Rock and roll is a musical gateway into a world of sex and drug use, so I am caught between Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence and the evangelical crooning of Keith Green, Sandi Patti, Petra, and Carman. I don big stereo headphones to drown out my stepmother’s accusations that I am trying to destroy the family and listen to stories about Jesus and Heaven. I will step into any world just to escape my own.
8-10) By fourteen, I am sent to a Christian boarding school in order to preserve the family peace. Rock music is a vehicle for corruption and dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire so only approved music (indicated by a yellow sticker) can be played. My two years here are a strange mix of Amy Grant’s Straight Ahead, Howard Jones’ Dream intoAction, and U2’s The Unforgettable Fire. I memorize songs that blare from the car radio when allowed home. When staying at friends’ houses I devour MTV videos, entranced by and envious of the men who are allowed to wear more makeup than I am.
It’s not until I leave my house at seventeen that I begin a journey towards creating my own musical collections. I learn rudimentary dance skills at college, which become more fluid once I begin to frequent the Denver clubs at twenty-three. I sing along to Sisters of Mercy, Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, and Peter Murphy; my white t-shirt lit up by black light. It’s during this time that I discover Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes, an album that embodies my brokenness and ferocity, my desire to move beyond mere survival. It is a beginning, the signal of a new life no longer flanked by the chorus of other people’s pain.
Nancy Hightower has published short fiction and poetry in journals such as Word Riot, Sundog Lit, Flapperhouse,Cheap Pop, Gargoyle, and Prick of the Spindle. Her first collection of poetry, The Acolyte, was published in 2015 by Port Yonder Press, and she reviewed science fiction and fantasy for The Washington Post from 2014-2016. She is currently working on a book about digital fictions with DJ Spooky and teaches at Hunter College.
LITHUANIAN SCHOOL COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS by Louis Wenzlow
“The destruction of the very young starts in grade school…”
―Thomas Bernhard, Correction
“The destruction of the very young starts in Lithuanian school…”
―Liudutis Venclovas, Untitled Poem
There was something about my smile the other kids didn’t like. Maybe it was the fear in it, the false bravado. Who knows what sets the wolf pack off?
These days, I sit in my castle without really caring what anyone else thinks. I drink lattes in the morning, expensive scotches late into the evening. Sometimes there’s a needle to thread. I have a family and friends who like to drink with me.
Almost anything is preferable to those Saturdays in the seventies at the Lithuanian Youth Center in Marquette Park, Chicago. Waking to the smell of Cream of Wheat, already knowing it’s the worst day of my life, just like last Saturday and all the future Saturdays to come: the dreary hour-long car ride past the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture; the ridicule of second-wave pedagogues fiercely determined to preserve our identity through the Soviet occupation; the prayers, the petitions, those letters to congressmen exploiting the self-immolation of Romas Kalanta; the so-called friends who hang you upside down from the third story stairwell until you shit your pants if you smile the wrong way.
They say things get better when you’re older, but that’s only until something worse happens. This is the lesson I would teach the next generation of Lithuanian children if the administrators ever made the mistake of inviting me to perform the sixthgrade commencement address.
I would stand at the lectern in my Burberry trench coat and, gazing down from the stage of the gothic assembly hall, I would offer the graduates and their doting parents the unvarnished truth. For those of you who are happy now, I’d tell them, you will always be happy. But for those who are unhappy, for those who were bullied and mocked and domineered, for those who are depressed, you will always be depressed. And all of your future accomplishments, the occasional victories, landing the first job, spouse, child, etcetera, the joys of drugs and alcohol, will be nothing compared to the disappointments, the rejections, the forever truth of the forever worst Saturday forever.
And then when the first families start getting up and streaming out, when they finally realize how crazy this speaker is—the so-called great Lithuanian poet, this Liudutis Venclovas—I would step from the lectern and open my trench coat, so they could see all of me, all of the sagging skin, the moles, the rash that just won’t go away, the object itself, not merely its ugly projection, the entire truth of the great Lithuanian poet, the entire unvarnished and depressing truth. And I would smile broadly as I watched them, frenzied now, both running away from me and toward me, the big Lithuanian men rushing toward me to close me down, to knock me off my imaginary tightrope, to hang me one last time from the third story stairwell.
Yes, that’s exactly what I’d do, I say to myself, from the safety of my brown leather club chair, which I purchased at Anthropologie for over $8,000. It’s a beautiful chair—made from the finest Italian leather—and it’s facing what one of my friends has called the Taj Mahal of whisky collections, a bar that even the Ayatollah would bow to, this friend has said, as he’s guzzled down my fifteen-, twenty-, and even twenty-five-plus-year-old single malts.
My favorites are the old Auchentochans and Highland Parks, but I also particularly like the Yamazaki 18, which I consider to be a testament to the Japanese capability to assimilate and transcend. What the Japanese did for the auto industry, they also did for single malt whisky. The Nikka Yoichi 25 is another very good one. Those Japanese are amazing! They take what is already good and make it even better, unlike the Lithuanians, who drink beer and Russian vodka.
As for me, I refuse (refuse!) to have a single bottle of vodka in my Taj Mahal of bars. There are many whiskies, a few gins and rums, several cognacs and armagnacs and calvados, and even a superb aged tequila, but not a drop of vodka. Go elsewhere for vodka, I say to the plebeians who ask for it. Go to Russia. Go to Poland. Fly to Lithuania for the vodka.
When someone comes to one of our parties with a bottle of vodka, I make a big show of opening it and then pouring it down the drain. Forgive me, I say. We must not pollute the Taj Mahal of bars with what is essentially boiled potatoes.
Vodka killed the so-called spirit of Lithuania. Lithuania gained its independence in 1990 but then lost its spirit by drinking Russian vodka. That’s why I drink only very old whiskies, like this Auchentochan 31, this amber ambrosia, the “water of life,” one of only ten whiskies in the world that exhibits the quality generally reserved for ancient cognacs—rancio, the pleasure for which I paid several thousand dollars.
One thing I’ll say about having the finer things in life, you pay for it, and not just with dollars and cents. You pay for it and keep paying for it. What little pleasure there is gets further diminished with every new luxury experience, with every new sip, even of the Auchentochan 31, which used to taste quite special, I imagine, but that now tastes like turpentine. Yes, with every new sip, the Auchentochan 31 tastes more and more like turpentine. There remains a hint of the old rancio, but the rest is very expensive turpentine.
That’s what Romas Kalanta would have learned had he, in 1972, on the square off of Freedom Alley in Kaunas Lithuania, reconsidered pouring gas over his head and setting himself on fire for the sake of Lithuanian independence. Lithuania may or may not be independent now, without the spark of Romas Kalanta—what the teachers called the spark of independence that was the great Romas Kalanta—but Romas Kalanta would probably be alive, rather than a spark, and then a fire, and then a symbol: alive to learn about this principle of diminishing returns, the spiral of worst Saturdays, expense after increasing expense, luxury after luxury, until everything is turpentine. No more rancio for you, alternate universe Romas Kalanta.
But instead he poured the gas, lit the match, and became the bonfire of independence, the perfect Lithuanian youth, performed what our teachers, and quite possibly even our parents, then secretly wanted from each one of us—the children at the Lithuanian Youth Center in Marquette Park, Chicago—to eschew the temptations of American materialism and devote ourselves fully and completely to the cause of our Tėvynė, which means fatherland. Not simply to write those letters to our congressmen, but to actually set ourselves on fire for the sake of the Lithuanian Identity. Deep down, I’m convinced it’s what they wanted, what they were guiding us toward: a flaming pyramid, a fierce pyre of sixth graders.
And I cannot deny that I considered it, considered following in his footsteps, especially on those Saturdays when the Lithuanian School bullies attacked me, hung me upside down from that pathetic third story stairwell. After cleaning myself up and wiping the tears away, I would look in the bathroom mirror and imagine the flames, the glory of those flames. For Romas Kalanta was my hero. The other kids worshiped OJ Simpson and Mick Jagger, but I—in step with the teachers and my parents—found American culture to be immoral and depressing. I worshiped the great Romas Kalanta.
I remember one time in particular. After returning home from Saturday school, I grabbed some poster board and scrawled on it the single word LAISVĖ, which means freedom. Then I walked into the kitchen and took the Diamond matches we used to light the defective left front burner of our stove. I rushed out the kitchen door into the attached garage and found the gas can we used for the lawnmower. I walked past our Chevy Impala station wagon through the open garage door to the center of our driveway, placed my poster on the cement ground, and then doused myself with gasoline.
I’m not sure what I was thinking or feeling. I somehow knew it was important not to think or feel much of anything in order to accomplish something like this, in order to follow my hero into his flaming glory. But when I opened the matchbook, removed a match, and tried to strike it, nothing happened. The wet of the gasoline prevented the initial spark. Had the match ignited, I wouldn’t be here to consider these issues, to relay these important thoughts to the next generation’s sixth graders, but it didn’t. There wasn’t even a faint sizzle or a tiny whiff of sulfur. Nothing (nothing!) happened.
And then I started thinking and feeling again. In particular I started thinking about the pain I would feel, the pain that Romas Kalanta must have felt, and I wondered if it was really worth it, whether this gesture would really make any difference, in the grand scheme of things, whether it would really contribute to the onset of a great new age of Lithuanian independence, which suddenly seemed quite unlikely, and just like that, my motivation was lost. I threw the matches on the ground, grabbed the poster board, and rushed back toward the garage.
To this day, I keep wondering if it would have made any difference, whether anything makes any difference. In the grand scheme of things, how much did it matter that even Romas Kalanta gave up his life to showcase the plight of occupied Lithuania? What impact did it really have on the eventual liberation—nearly eighteen years later—of the Lithuanian people, on those big Lithuanian men, drinking their beer and their Russian vodka, a nation of big Lithuanian men forever chasing me to wipe that silly smirk off my mug, with or without Romas Kalanta, with or without the spark of independence that was the great Romas Kalanta?
“Here’s to you!” I say, lifting my precious Auchentochan 31 high above my head in the general direction of Marquette Park, Chicago. “Here’s to all you sixth graders.”
The wife is asleep. The estranged kids have long since moved away, scattered about the country to their own lives of loud or quiet desperation. I am of course not a great Lithuanian poet. I am just a small, pathetic clown, sitting naked late at night in front of his fortune of fancy booze, my rash reflected in the backdrop mirror, the terminal rash, the inoperable forever truth of that forever worst Saturday terminal rash…
…that Saturday, after I failed to light myself on fire, as I rushed back toward the garage, I thought I noticed a flutter at the kitchen window, as if the drapes had moved. Yes, I’m sure there was a flutter. Someone had been watching me, my mother or father perhaps, watching their only son very nearly follow in the footsteps of his hero. How proud they must have been, until the match failed to ignite and I lost my resolve.
They are both long dead now, but they lived for more than forty years after that, with me wondering but never asking. All that time I’ve been wondering, was it my mother or was it my father, or was it perhaps both of them, who stood watching me through the window, their only son, so proud at first for his great sacrifice, his almost great sacrifice, and then so disappointed, so very ashamed, as he abandoned his Lithuanian Identity, abandoned the cause of Lithuanian independence, and instead implicitly (at first implicitly and then quite consciously) selected the dedicated pursuit of materialism: the right schools, the best firms, the trophy wife, the spoiled kids, expense after increasing expense, luxury after meaningless luxury, extreme after ignoble American extreme, rather than setting himself on fire, rather than firmly and boldly striking the Diamond match head and displaying the great poetry and courage of self-immolation.
This is what my parents were thinking, I am convinced, either one or perhaps both of them, yes, very likely both of them, as they stood watching me through the kitchen window, and then for the rest of my life, even as they continued to go through the so-called motions, to pack my lunches, attend my basketball games, to scrape and claw to pay for my college education, to dote on their grandchildren, etcetera, etcetera, until they passed away and were buried in Saint Casimir Lithuanian Cemetery on 111th Street on the south side of Chicago, where I still go to visit their graves at least once every year, and where—according to my doctors—I will be joining them sometime between six and eighteen months from now.
But that Saturday, when I walked back in the house, clutching my poster board and stinking to high heaven of petroleum, when I walked through the kitchen and into the living room, they were nowhere to be seen, until I looked out the living room window and saw my father pulling weeds in the backyard, and then heard the bang of the washing machine door, indicating that my mother was in the basement. How quickly they had run out of the kitchen in order to pretend they hadn’t seen me! As soon as I had dropped the matches and turned back toward the house, they must have glanced at each other, conspired on a plan, and then sprinted away to their respective hiding places, the backyard and the basement, running off to do their chores, starting the pretense that would last for over forty years. At least one but very likely both of them, almost surely both of them, as will be proved definitively (definitively!) between six and eighteen months from now, after my commencement, after my ashes are buried in the family plot, when I finally stand naked (not just physically but fully and completely, spiritually) in front of my creator, with my father on his right side and my mother on his left, and perhaps even my childhood hero, Romas Kalanta, slightly behind them and off to the side, when everything will be revealed, all of our sins and blemishes will be fully and completely revealed, the entire truth will be revealed. I can’t wait to see the look on their faces. What will they say when I ask them? Was it just one or was it both of you, surely it was both of you, standing there, watching me, that Saturday afternoon, behind those imaginary drapes?
Louis Wenzlow’s short canards and poetry have appeared in Cease Cows, Eclectica, The Forge Literary Magazine, International Poetry Review, The Molotov Cocktail, and other places. He is a Lithuanian American who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and now lives with his wife and daughter in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
Midnight ticks in a quiet lab around
one sleepy dork who, suddenly sits up,
hearing two black holes larger
than Manhattan as they merge to one
unimaginably extreme black nothing
which happened before dinosaurs
emitted their first roar, though
the sound barely finds
him at him lonely post, where he
has strained for years to hear the ping
of spacetime, which he imagines
as the chime of God’s champagne
glass when He rested on the seventh
day. That far away, that long
ago, it was—like the murmur from
time’s beginning—the letter delivered
last week to me. Inexplicable, the return
address: Great Meadows Correctional Facility,
so carefully hand-printed by a stranger
Anthony Burton I.D. # 72A9123
who asked me nothing but to recognize
Jeanne Murray Walker is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently, Helping the Morning: New and Selected Poems (WordFarm Press). Her poetry and essays have appeared in several hundred journals, including Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, Christian Century, The American Poetry Review, The Hudson Review, Image, Best American Poetry, and the 100 year anniversary volume of Poetry magazine, The Open Door: 100 Years, 100 Poems. Jeanne, who is the recipient of a number of fellowships as well as 16 nominations for The Pushcart Prize, serves as a mentor in the Seattle Pacific University low residency MFA Program.
We pulled off at the fruit stand halfway between the hospital and the funeral home.
“The peaches are in season,” Father said to Mother in the passenger seat.
“It was just like he was sleeping,” my aunt said to herself in the back, her eyes never leaving the rear window.
With the exception of my aunt, we got out of the car. Mother leaned on the passenger door. Father examined the stacks of wicker baskets piled on the makeshift plywood table.
“How much for a bundle?”
“Three even.” The man was older than Father. His clean-shaven face opposed the gruff voice of a harried life.
“Plucked rightly this morning.” The day’s labor still remained under his fingernails. “Ripe for the picking.”
Father pulled a five from his wallet and pocketed the change, and with the peaches we piled back into the car. Mother cradled the wicker basket in her lap, cosseting the fruit as Mother Earth had done.
“Would you care for a peach? They’re ripe,” Mother asked my aunt.
“It was just like he was sleeping,” my aunt said, not turning from the window and the blur of passing greenery. Mother reached back anyway and placed a peach in my aunt’s limp palm. Her fingers naturally curled to the pressure.
“It’s good for you,” Mother said towards the windshield, solemn yet tender.
My aunt pulled her stare into the car, eyeing the fruit like it was dredging a memory she was indifferent to remembering. She rolled it over in her hand, taking in the curve like it made no difference it was round. She put it to her nose to paint the picture clearer and left it there, breathing in the peach. “It was just like he was sleeping,” she whispered to the fruit.
“What was that?” Mother asked.
My aunt kept silent, and the peach kept her secret.
She nibbled the fuzz without tarnishing the flesh, like a kiss on the forehead, leaving the fruit on the rim of her lips. She breathed in through her nose, timid, frail, uncertain if she should be taking a second nibble, then a third, the skin of the peach conceding to yellow flesh underneath. The nibbles became passionate, lunging deeper into the fruit, my aunt showing no concern for the position of the fruit to her mouth, gorging the sides, the top, the bottom, rotating it feverishly in her hand, juices dribbling from her chin down to her elbow. The bulbous mass of flesh devoured, her teeth scraped the fibers from the crannies of the pit before she popped the seed into her mouth, her cheeks sinking in, sucking all that remained.
And with the peach gone, my aunt sat there, stunned by the possession.
Her head slumped as she spit the pip into her hand with the timidness of a guilty child, and she returned her focus to the window. We couldn’t see the tears, not even in the reflection underscored by the frantic passing of trees, but we could hear the stifled sobs, the jerkiness of sniffles and deep swallows, as her fingers clenched the pit, burying it into her palm.
“Another?” Mother asked.
My aunt’s knuckles turned white. Her sob gasped for air. Mother didn’t beg the question.
We turned into the vacant parking lot of Whitehall’s Mortuary and Crematory, and Father circled like he couldn’t find a spot, as if parking yielded my uncle’s passing into reality. Father pulled through a middle space, reversed, straightened, pulled forward, and reversed again. “Good as any,” he said.
Before he could cut off the engine, my aunt was out of the car, sprinting before her feet hit the pavement, taking off away from the funeral parlor and crematorium towards the highway.
Mother said Father’s name, inflecting he should do something.
“What?” Father removed the key from the ignition.
We stood by the car and watched my aunt fling herself on the manicured bank separating the lot from the drag of main road. She began digging, flinging handfuls of bright grass and soil.
Mother repeated Father’s name.
“Right,” he said.
He went over to my aunt on the earth and stoically watched over her before kneeling next to her. He also began to dig. We followed suit.
Our hole wasn’t wide, our hands rhythmically removing scoops of rich earth, burrowing deep like the dirt under our nails.
And when my aunt stopped digging, we stopped.
And we sat there around our hole awaking from a collective daze as the grass soiled stains on our knees.
My aunt took the peach pit hidden in plain sight from next to her, and caressed her thumb across its rippled exterior before dropping it in the hole. With less vigor, we gathered the clumps of wet soil flung around us and replaced the blanket of earth like a ritual. Quietly, one by one, we got up to wait by the car, leaving my aunt to tuck in the plot.
As the sun peaked and pulled our shadows together, my aunt rejoined us to make the arrangements for my uncle’s cremation. Yet none of us washed the dirt from our hands.
Donald Ryan has had work appear in The Topaz Review and The Bicycle Review andreceived an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train. He also did editorial work for the forthcoming Tributaries: A Savannah Writers Anthology. Mostrecently,he’s picked up a job managing a kitchen in Buford, Georgia.
Black skin tastes better when
the wheat has already been
threshed; just a kiss. I watched her “paint
her face” from the field through the
window. Death bruises like a
tornado; the land is new. We had
only just arrived when the
tornado came and tore everything
up. Watch the eye sweep him up into
the vortex; he is your husband.
these documents, they are
your slave papers. But there
isn’t any slavery anymore.
Ditch behind the house; they
the ditch so deep they might as well
have made for China where the widows
grieve just as they do here: by hitching
up their bloomers and getting a field
hand to remind them what desperation
tastes like. He needn’t be black;
everyone tastes the same in the dark. Give
him a pair of rough hands, feeling heart,
tornado-scarred soles like lips.
Sean Flood is a writer and poet. His work has appeared in The Bombay Review and Black Ink. Favorite hobbies of his include playing old Nintendo games and daydreaming. Read his poem Aloha in Cleaver’s Issue 18.
Hear Sean’spoem and more virtual poetry from Cleaver on our SoundCloud podcast On The Edge.
I flick brother’s ear; ……..say you could hide something
in here. Stonefruit maybe,
or the yolks we collect ……..from Narragansett. Our skin
yellow-like, hair both brush
and nest, we argue sweetly. Remark ……..at the showy hyacinth, their stalks.
Say: brother, this is the mark
on your earlobe cut by your first ……..haircut. The mercury in bluefin
tuna. A serrated wave.
But the water only tastes ……..like pomegranates here,
and it is never stonefruit season.
Katy Kim is a student. Her work is forthcoming or published in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Hermeneutic Chaos, The Blueshift Journal, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and has been featured on Verse Daily, among others. Her chapbook, Melon / Echelon is forthcoming from Hermeneutic Chaos Press this year.
BROTHERS, BOYS, AND WHAT CAN I DO By Shannon Cothran
The gym floor is hard, and my butt bones are pinching my rear. I shift my weight. There are a hundred kids around me in the gym sitting criss-cross-applesauce, the way our teachers demand we sit. Why do they care how we sit? I stretch my legs out in front of me, hoping my teacher won’t see. I am caught by 5B’s teacher, Miss Stugart, and refold them.
A man in thick, gold-rimmed glasses with floppy gray hair and a tracksuit—the kind my gym teacher wears everyday—starts talking into a megaphone. I forget about my aches as he explains how we can fight back against someone who is trying to hurt us. Oh yes, he’s saying, a kid can fight back against even a big, strong man. He tells us how we can insert our thumbs into an attacker’s eye sockets in just the right way to pop them out. He tells us to make ourselves puke all over the mean man. He tells us to kick or knee or elbow or punch the man’s groin or throat.
When the presentation is over, I untangle my sleeping legs, gingerly putting weight on them, and they shake under me on the way back to the trailer outside the school that is my 5th-grade classroom. My legs are covered in bruises from falling all the time. I’m incredibly clumsy. My mom lovingly calls them chicken legs because they are unnaturally white, skinny, and bony. But it doesn’t matter how skinny and little I am anymore. I know how to pop someone’s eyeballs out.
That afternoon at home, I am straddling my little brother, his arms pinned under the strength of my thighs, and I am spitting in his face while he screams. I let the spit drip slowly from my mouth onto his face, a long string of it, so he can see it coming. My mom sees it coming too and pulls me off him, sending me to my room. I get talked at for an hour by her and then another hour by my dad. You’re almost five years older than he is, they say. Someday, he’s going to be bigger than you, they say. What will you do then?
I cannot imagine a time when my little brother will be bigger than me. Plus, if he’s going to be that big, then I will be faster, I reason. And there’s always my eyeball-popping power.
My 7th-grade health teacher is talking to us about sex. I’m surrounded by pimple-faced thirteen-year-old boys who are sniggering at every mention of genitalia. My friends and I are too mature for that.
The teacher plays a movie. In it, a hot guy, a football player, is getting pumped up during a pep talk by his coach. It’s the homecoming game. He wins the game; he goes to the dance with his equally hot girlfriend, who has huge, teased bangs and even huge-er shoulder pads in her dress. They go back to his dad’s boat with a cabin in the hull, and he has sex with her even while she says no.
The class is silent. I feel something inside I’ve never felt before. I don’t know what it is, then, but later I will learn it’s the melting of my invincibility.
My brother is begging me. “Come on, Shannon!” he pleads. “Come outside and play with me!” I feel a twinge of guilt. I love my brother Ethan; his ten-year-old face is always open and honest. Since his birth, I have been his primary playmate. Although I still spend time with him every day, at fourteen-going-on-fifteen, I have outgrown our imagination games. I no longer want to fight the Snow Queen in the backyard. I shake my head no. “Argh!” he cries, water welling in his eyes. We are on summer break and live out in the country—he has no other friends nearby. Without me, he sees the long hours of the day stretching out in front of him with nothing to do. “I hate you! I want to punch you so bad!” I look at him, half daring him to hit me and half afraid he will. He gives me one last dirty look before turning away, headed for the basement and his Nintendo.
Matt is so gorgeous. We meet at a church dance. I check him out as he walks past me. When he catches me, I decide not to hide it, and instead look at him like, “What? You’re cute. I can look if I want.” We exchange numbers. My parents let us go on a double date since I am sixteen now, and my best friend Jess takes one for the team and goes with Matt’s much-less-attractive friend, Joe. We come up with a crazy idea for the date: an egg-and-tomato fight in the city park.
In the grocery store, the cold air from the dairy case makes my legs erupt in goosebumps, and I wonder, if he touches my legs later, will they feel pokey instead of nice and soft? At checkout, we decide, laughing, to have the boys pay for the tomatoes and the girls for the eggs.
It’s dusk at the park, and we divide ammo and hide before attempting to stealthily attack. I get Matt in the back with two tomatoes. “Cheap shot!” he yells, chasing me.
He catches me in less than fifteen seconds. As he tackles me—the star midfielder of the girls’ soccer team—I remember how, when I was thirteen, I ran a boy down.
He had gotten the ball at midfield, and since my team was in the wrong place, I caught up to him from his team’s defensive position and kept him from scoring. He was the best striker on their team, and my dad was going nuts—red in the face, full of pride for his girl, yelling gleefully from the sidelines, “Get him, get him, YEAH!”
Matt is a video game junkie, not an athlete. Yet that night in the park, catching up to me is easy for him; tackling me even easier. We are both laughing, and I love his hands on my waist, the weight of him over my hips, but then—then I can’t get him off. I bend my legs, twist, and lift my hips, but nothing happens. My laughter becomes high-pitched. I’m scared, but he isn’t letting up. He breaks a dozen eggs into my hair, holding my arms down with one hand while I lie immobilized on the grass in August on my first date.
I had often imagined scenarios where I was kidnapped, and in my mind I always managed to escape, despite the brute strength of the man who took me. I could outwit him, outrun him, outmaneuver him, uneyeball him. But here, in real life, I am powerless.
When Matt has exhausted his ammo, he stands and bends to help me up. The yolks glop down my hair and onto my bare upper arms. We stand there awkwardly. Maybe he knows something is wrong. I definitely know something is wrong—something has shifted. Or perhaps something is as it always had been, but I hadn’t known that truth until now.
Somehow we end up in the fountain at the park with Jess and her date. We rinse off the eggs and tomatoes and go home.
At seventeen, I have a sexy boyfriend, Kris. We park his car in shadowed areas around town to make out. He is sensitive to my comfort level; his hands move slowly across my back, making sure I accept his advances. I feel safe with him. His masculine smell draws me in; it is intoxicating.
I am still unsettled about my powerlessness against Matt. How could I have won against that boy in the park last year, I ask Kris from his passenger seat. If Matt had wanted to hurt me, it would’ve been so easy. I couldn’t do anything, I tell him. It’s all about balance and not power, my all-knowing, sixteen-year-old, pothead boyfriend tells me. If you had just twisted your hips the right way, you could have beat him.
I don’t contradict him even though I know he is wrong.
At college, I can’t decide on a major. You can do anything you set your mind to, my mom tells me. I read articles about women balancing motherhood with careers in male-dominated fields. I hear there are no women in the engineering major, but there should be, and that my school doesn’t have enough female mathematicians. I feel like I should step up for women, but math is my worst subject.
I take a self-defense class one Saturday morning. Our instructor Daniel is short, square, blond, and muscled. He talks for the first hour, and he says to stay safe, the most important part is making good decisions. He tells us some statistics: one in five women are raped, most have long hair—we think it’s because it’s easy to grab onto, he explains. Rapists can pick rape victims out of their high school yearbook photos years before they were raped—we know there’s something that rapists sense in their victims before they choose them, we just don’t know what, he says.
Am I carrying this thing inside me—something only rapists can sense? Something that makes me rape-able?
He teaches us how to walk down streets like we own them, how to project confidence and toughness, to park our cars correctly, to never be alone in the dark, to listen to our gut and walk or run the other way if we feel an “animal-like sixth sense telling us something is not right.” He dons a red padded suit, and I learn how to hit and where. I pound on Daniel’s protected weak spots.
I go to the movies that night feeling like every man there is a potential threat I can now take down. My date and I watch Charlie’s Angels, and Drew Barrymore beats up all the men who cross her.
The next morning I fling off the too-hot blankets and sit up to drink some water. I am wearing shorts, and I notice my legs, still white but no longer so skinny, still bruised but now from others’ soccer cleats. Across from me is a print of my brother’s new wrestling picture; all the members of the high school team get them taken for the yearbook. He has big, broad shoulders, he wins matches, he’s practically balding already. He doesn’t need me to play with him anymore. He likes to joke that he got into wrestling so no one else could ever sit on him and spit in his face. What I did to him was awful, but it’s OK now, just a funny old family story.
My legs and his picture and my guilt and my memories merge, and I realize the only reason my gigantic little brother doesn’t hurt me isn’t because he can’t catch me or because I could overpower him with a few tricks I learned on a Saturday morning—it’s because he chooses not to.
Shannon Cothran is a professional food writer who prefers New England’s clam chowder and ice cream to New Orleans’ gumbo and snowballs.
—You’re on deck, right? We all are. We each have to take our turn at bat.
—Them things carry rabies.
—Take our hacks and swing for the fences. Knock the cover off the ball. Go yard.
—I gotta tell you, Dwight, I ain’t entirely sure I—
—Greatest country on earth.
—That’s why we gotta take a good cut.
—What’s that got to do—
—Rip it or smoke it, lace it or rope it.
—Well, what can I say, Dwight? I’ll give it my best shot.
—Hit it on the screws.
—That old college try.
—At least put the ball in play, Jimbo.
—That can-do attitude goes a long way.
—Filet shot or Texas Leaguer, blooper or tapper or dying quail.
—Quail season ain’t till November, Dwight.
—Get you a single, a two-bagger, a three-bagger.
—Take me out to the ballgame.
—Start the merry-go-round running.
—Take me out to the crowd.
—Knock one out the park, Jimbo.
—I don’t care if I never get back.
—Sumbitches is throwing groove heaters.
—Hold up a sec, Dwight. You mean like grenades or sumpin?
—Right in your wheelhouse, too.
—Attacking hearth and home. No respect for private property nor women and children neither.
—Bases are juiced, Jimbo. Get you a grand tamale.
—Well, why in hell not? The whole enchilada, too. Plus, my piece of the Frito pie.
—But we gotta keep on the ball.
—As in crystal ball? As in Magic 8-Ball?
—They’ll throw us a curve. It’ll be hit or miss. We don’t want to whiff.
—Would they do that? Could they?
—They’re already doing it.
—Don’t seem right.
—We’re in the Big Leagues, Jimbo. Sumbitches play hardball. Gotta bring your A game.
—Only one I got, Dwight. Now how ’bout another beer?
—This ain’t no time for concessions.
—They got cotton candy, right? If we’re talking ’bout what I think. Peanuts and popcorn and Crackerjacks.
—I done already told you, concessions is out.
—Hot dogs, Dwight, grilled up just the way you like and drowning in mustard.
—You gonna drop the ball, Jimbo?
—You gonna foul out?
—Nosiree, Bob! Not if I have my druthers, anyway.
—Cuz this ain’t no game.
—Why, of course it is, Dwight!
—Do you see a smile on my face?
—Well, now that you mention it.
—Am I giggling and laughing and carrying on like some little ole schoolgirl with her dollies?
—Come to think of it, no. Why is that?
—Listen up and listen good, Jimbo. Them sumbitches got live arms.
—You ain’t serious?
—They’re gonna throw gas and pound the zone.
—That don’t sound good.
—They want us to roll over, Jimbo.
—They want to ring us up.
—We didn’t even buy nothing!
—But they ain’t gonna come right down Main Street to do it.
—Sumbitches ain’t welcome in the first place. We’ll be waiting outside Andy’s Gun & Ammo, armed to the teeth, trigger fingers itchy, Tim McGraw blaring in the background.
—They’ll paint the corner, come in high and tight, then pull the string and watch us swing out of our shoes. Next comes all that nasty backdoor stuff.
—That’s why we gotta cover our bases.
—Best idea I heard all day.
—We want to be world champions, don’t we?
—I don’t see why not, Dwight. Kinda our birthright, when you look at it. It’s just that, the thing is, ain’t but Americans playing the game in the first place.
—That’s a filthy lie.
—Alright, they got a team up in Canada, but I ain’t sure there’s any actual Eskimos on it.
—What about them Japanese, Jimbo?
—That’s a whole other story. Got their own league and everything. We want any of their boys, we gotta recruit them special, go through all kinda fancy rigmarole and pay through the nose.
—What about them Dominicans and Mexicans and Venezuelans? Hell, there’s even a bunch of goddamn Cubans, and they live under a repressive commie regime. Remember that botched Bay of Pigs invasion? Remember that missile crisis? We’re talking international stage here, Jimbo.
—I hate to say it, Dwight, but you know well as I do that ain’t nothing but honest-to-goodness global capitalist exploitation.
—Hell you say?
—Them backwaters ain’t nothing but a source of cheap labor.
—Talk about outta left field.
—Ain’t nothing new.
—You done lost it, Jimbo.
—Same ole, same ole.
—Trash you’re talking’s off-base and a hundred percent un-American.
—And the rockets’ red glare.
—Now that’s more like it.
—Buncha bombs in the air.
—Hallelujah, amen! It’s good to be alive.
—Last I checked, Dwight, the future ain’t what she used to be.
—You said it, Jimbo. That’s why I gotta know sumpin right off the bat.
—Them things carry rabies.
—I’ll go to bat for you.
—Will you go to bat for me?
—Rules of the game ain’t exactly no breeze, but I’m pretty sure—
—Quit your hemming and hawing, Jimbo, and give it to me straight. Will you take one for the team?
—I’ll play ball, if that’s what you’re asking.
—Or maybe you’re out of your league?
—A swing and a miss!
—I’m just saying, Jimbo. We all gotta be able to execute the sacrifice.
—I got that can-do attitude.
—Cuz they’re stealing bases left and right.
—Second and third and home. First, even.
—You can’t steal first, Dwight.
—Tell that to the other side.
—They’re even stealing signs, Jimbo.
—Now that ain’t right. Gonna lead to all kinda mayhem on the highways and byways of this great nation.
—Not street signs, you dumb—
—And I, for one, can’t even tolerate a door-ding on my ole F-150, much less a bent bumper or crumpled fender. Somebody’s gonna pay, and it ain’t gonna be me.
—Signals, Jimbo. Signs. Our private, confidential communiqués about what’s happening when, where, and how.
—Funny thing is, last I heard, we’re stealing our own signs.
—We broke our own codes, Dwight.
—Lip-reading and eavesdropping.
—Spying on our own self, Dwight.
—Don’t believe everything you read, buddy boy. It’s bush league psyche-out stuff. They’re trying to get into our heads and hearts and turn us against friends and neighbors and family. We look in the mirror, nobody there but some goddamn traitor giving us the evil eye.
—Whole thing’s like déjà vu all over again.
—But don’t be fooled, Jimbo. We’re the heavy hitters ’round these here parts.
—We ain’t gonna get caught looking.
—Not on your life!
—We got ducks on the pond.
—Like shooting fish in a barrel.
—We’ll punch one right up the gut, Jimbo.
—An at ’em ball.
—A diamond cutter.
—Or blast one to right-center, Dwight.
—A long shot.
—And the rockets’ red glare.
—Buncha bombs in the air.
—That’s why you should always root for the home team, Dwight.
—If we don’t win, it’s a shame.
—A goddamn sham, is what it is.
—What we’re talking bout, Jimbo, ain’t nothing short of the flaming future of the entire free world.
—It’s America’s pastime.
—And I’ll tell you sumpin else.
—You ain’t got to, Dwight, cuz I already know.
—It ain’t over till it’s over.
J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.
I can hold
for three minutes flat
in the superstore aisle
in my head or
at the counter
like it’s underwater
in my lungs and
that make me drowsy
the manager keeps
and I’m like
can’t you see
I’m trying to
in aisle five
but I’m too
to even grab
a lemon squeezer
from the middle shelf
Elizabeth Morton is a New Zealand writer. She has been published in Poetry NZ, PRISM international, Cordite, JAAM, Shot Glass Journal, Takahe Magazine, Landfall, Atlas, Flash Frontier, Gravel, SmokeLong Quarterly, the Sunday Star Times, Literary Orphans, and in Island Magazine, among others. Her prose is in The Best Small Fictions 2016. Her debut poetry collection is to be published with Mākaro Press this year. In her free time she pens bad rap songs, and collects obscure words in supermarket bags.
Hear Elizabeth’spoem and more virtual poetry from Cleaver on our SoundCloud podcast On The Edge.
DESCRIBE TO ME YOUR INITIAL REACTION WHEN YOU GOT HERE
by Kristen Brida
When I first showed up the halo of my silhouette
dissolved like a jolly rancher
I began to put my mouth on every darkling
tried to eat away as much of it as I thought I could
After a couple of missing molars
I smeared my hand across my face
In a state of self-devour
I wore my bloodied ghost like a surgeon’s mask
I put a lighter against my skin & watched
the black-blue throb against my dead stuff
then I wore the shadows
on the walls like a Chanel shawl
& a halo of skulls floated above me
I cracked one open & lilac juice flooded out
I soaked my hands in them
its electric punch dripped through me
Kristen Brida’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Whiskey Island, Bone Bouquet, REALITY BEACH, and elsewhere. She is the editor-in-chief of the intersectional feminist journal, So to Speak. She is an MFA candidate at George Mason University. She tweets @kissthebrida.
Hear Kristen’spoem and more virtual poetry from Cleaver on our SoundCloud podcast On The Edge.
HOUSEKEEPING IN SEVEN CIGARETTES by Rachel Oestreich
Margo is eight years old, and she doesn’t care about the New Mexican heat, or the drought, or that it is dry and her lips are cracked and her skin is slick with sweat. Her hair sticks to her forehead and neck in thick, twine-like clumps. Her father smells like he always does: motor oil and cigarettes.
Her mother brings home a dog when she’s supposed to bring home milk. The black fluff-ball almost looks like a porcupine; it runs around the living room and chases shards of gravel her father tosses, the ones gathered from the driveway. He sits on the couch. Margo sits next to him, silently wishing her father will let them keep the dog, certain he was too obstinate to let it be so.
Above them, the ceiling fan whirs and kicks up the dust mites, then scatters them in the same place.
Margo’s father says, “I told you we weren’t getting a dog.”
Her mother replies, “His name’s Gerald.”
“Stupid name,” her father says. He’s smiling, though, eyes crinkling along the lines of his wrinkles. And Margo has hope.
Margo takes a pebble from her father’s hand and throws it near the kitchen. Her father throws a bigger one toward the door. The dog chases Margo’s, nails clicking and scrabbling on the tile.
Her father chuckles; Margo likes that sound. She likes when her mother comes around the back of the couch and puts her arms around him, likes that they look like a family. “You can take him back to old Bax up the road if you want,” her mother says.
Her father pauses for a good long minute, rolls the gravel around his palm, makes the pieces clink together. Gerald wanders back to them with a rock in his mouth. Drops it at her father’s feet.
Her father grunts, his version of a chuckle, and pulls a cigarette from the box he keeps in his pocket—Margo’s never seen him without it. His lighter click, click, clicks and finally sparks. “We still need milk,” he says. He holds the flame to the end of his cigarette. “Get something cheap for the mutt, too.”
By the time she’s ten, her father is a pack-a-day kind of man, and Margo’s old enough to hate that habit. Sunlight cuts through streaked windows, highlights the color of the walls: an ugly shade of yellow stained an uglier shade of mustard.
She sits at the dining table, taps the black stump of her eraser against the wood surface, stares at the fractions she’s supposed to subtract. “Mom,” she says. “I need help.”
Her mother stands from her end of the table, book in her hand, thumb between the pages. She pulls her chair to Margo’s side, takes a pencil of her own—eraser pink and whole because she isn’t the kind who needs to erase things—and presses lead to page. “Like this, baby girl.”
Margo’s mother drops the pencil, pulls her thumb from her book and lets it close. “Yes, Vince?”
Margo’s father shuffles down the hallway, eyes bloodshot. Worked all night at the auto shop again. Not like they need the money, that’s what Margo’s mother always says; he just likes the work, and when his bosses ask him to stay he doesn’t say no, not because he’s spineless, Margo’s mother says, but because he likes the work, likes accomplishing something. A day-old beard shadows his leathery face. He holds up his cigarette box. “I’m out, Patty. Mind?”
Margo wants her mother to say yes, that she does mind. But her mother doesn’t; she’s not like that. She stands, dress swishing, searching for her black sandals. “You and those damn cigarettes, Vince,” she says. Laughing, amused. Like they’re endearing, those cigarettes.
Gerald lumbers around the kitchen, finally stops next to Margo and ignores her father when he calls his name. Margo considers it a small victory; Gerald always sits by her.
Twenty minutes later, Margo’s mother returns from the gas station, the stench of diesel clinging to her skin, still a better scent than her expired perfume. She kisses Margo’s father on his forehead. Hands over a crinkling, plastic-wrapped carton of Camels.
“Still need help with those fractions, baby girl?”
Margo erases her most recent answer; she’s about to tear through the paper, she’s erased so often. “No, Mom,” she lies. “I figured it out.”
Gerald settles his head on his paws. His tail thumps against hardwood floor, throws up the dust mites. No matter how many times Margo and her mother sweep, they can’t get rid of them.
When Margo is twelve years old, she doesn’t understand why her mother wants to put up a birdhouse. They don’t get any of the jays or swallows that she keeps talking about, just the carrion that go after the rabbit carcasses the coyotes leave behind.
Margo sits in the rocking chair on the porch. Her father’s leveling the birdhouse against the porch support, extra nails between his lips, a hammer in his hand. Behind him, her mother stands a few feet back in the driveway and tells him the house is crooked.
Margo rocks back. Gerald sits next to her. Ninety-eight degrees, no clouds. Margo squints at the glare of the sun and straightens the chair.
Her mother claps. “Right there, Vince.” Wide smile on peach lips; oblivious to sunburn, to the dust stains on her dress.
One whack with the hammer. Another.
Her mother coughs a few times, but the birdhouse is up. Painted an ugly shade of yellow that matches the inside of the house, because it’s the only color of paint they had in the garage.
“What d’you think, Margo?” her mother asks.
A mile out, something big circles over the road. Crow or raven, maybe a vulture. On the ground, Margo’s father lights a cigarette. Her mother coughs again as the wind tosses grit into all their eyes and makes them sting and water.
Smoke curls from her father’s lips.
Margo says, “I think nothing’s going to come live here.”
She doesn’t say: not if they could live somewhere else.
She’s only thirteen years old, and the house feels heavy, like the broken promise of a monsoon rain. Middle of October, still hot. The ceiling fan wheezes on its tiny motor, an ancient contraption ready to die any day now.
Margo’s mother was young, but she’d wheezed. Again and again. “Can’t breathe,” she’d said, or tried to say. Undiagnosed asthma. She suffocated right there on the living room floor at the beginning of September.
Margo hopes her father blames himself.
Desert dust creeps into the crevices of the house, molds into the cracks in the grout between the tile. Won’t leave, or can’t. Blows in when Margo opens a window. Hugs the curtains.
Two packs of cigarettes a day now. All her father ever does anymore is go to work and smoke, and nearly burns the house down when he falls asleep on the couch with a lit cigarette between his fingers.
Margo sits at the dining table, her mother’s sandals on her feet. She runs a knife through a peach and twists the fruit’s flesh around the pit. Even the juice that dribbles onto her plate is murky, like mud.
She stands and opens a window, tries to wave in some fresh air. Gerald follows her into the kitchen and sits at her side; she kicks a stray clump of gravel that’d made it through the back door. The dog trots after it and returns the rocks at her feet. Cheaper than tennis balls.
A whistle from the couch. Gerald’s ears prick up, acknowledging the sound, but he doesn’t move.
“Gerald,” her father calls.
The dog looks his way. Doesn’t move.
The form on the couch rolls over. “Goddamn mutt.”
Margo smiles and scratches Gerald’s ears. “Good boy.”
Margo’s fifteen, and her father steps out for some sharp winter air, but when he steps back in he’s pulling another cigarette from his pocket. Finds his lighter between the couch cushions.
“What’re you working on, Margo?” His voice scratches at her ears, a stray cat eager to be welcomed from the cold.
She stares at her pre-calculus textbook. Refuses to look up. He’s ruined, since her mother died. He blames himself and Margo knows it, and she’s glad until she meets his eyes and sees their nothingness. He’d tried pulling himself together, but now he’s dried up like an ear of corn, a husk shriveled under the sun and all the kernels gone because the damn birds pecked them all out. Nothing left.
Margo doesn’t look him in the eyes, not if she can help it. All she ever sees in them is her mother.
He sits down with her at the table sometimes, tries to help her with homework he doesn’t know how to do, gives up and just sits there. The silence makes them both uncomfortable. He’ll feed Gerald dinner scraps; a bribe to pretend he’s got someone.
Margo still hasn’t answered him; she’s forgotten the question already and she wants him to go away.
“I’m on my last box,” her father says. “I’m going to the station for more.”
There’s a question. A would you go, instead? Or maybe a would you come with me? He’s lonely, but so is she. The answer is no. She erases a few numbers and rewrites them. Peels from her eraser fall to the floor. “I’m busy, Daddy,” she says. “Drive safe.”
After the front door closes, she stands from the table and locks it.
She’s just turned sixteen, and Margo’s really good at convincing herself that she still blames her father. That she hates him.
But her mother was the one who bought more cigarettes.
The birdhouse on the porch decays. Her father won’t let her pull it down.
She sweeps the house three times a day and dusts twice. Keeps the dirt on the outside where it belongs. Locks the front door whenever her father leaves, but then he starts taking his house key with him and what’s the point after that? Gets in either way.
Margo is eighteen years old, and she’s been waiting because last week her father went out for a new carton of cigarettes, and he hasn’t been back since. She’s pretty sure he won’t come back. Maybe he’s dead. Or just gone. To spite him, she cleans out his bedroom and finds one box of cigarettes left, seven still inside.
One at a time, she tosses them over the railing; the aged glow of the porch light barely illuminates them. The empty birdhouse hangs at an angle; it’s always been empty. Margo’s rocking chair groans, a tired sound; it wobbles on the deck, unsteady. When she inhales, she just barely smells the sweetness of pine: the porch and chair are both rotten and peeling and falling apart. The arm of her chair scrapes against the railing like they’re old friends, and it shaves a few splinters from both with a snap.
The last cigarette is in her hand. She puts it in her mouth, paper gritty against her tongue. She wonders what it’s like, smoking, suffocating. Tempting. Just light one.
What she should do is throw it away and rid herself of it for good.
At her feet, Gerald sighs.
Her father wouldn’t miss it. He’s not coming back, probably.
A mile away, the laughter of a pack of coyotes.
The lighter click, click, clicks impatiently when her finger slips trying to spark a flame. Before she even lights it, it leaves a bad taste in the space between her teeth.
Margo holds the cigarette to her lips and fills her mouth with the acrid smoke she’s always hated. She swallows it.
And puts the cigarette to her lips again.
Rachel Oestreich is a Fiction M.F.A. candidate at New Mexico State University, where she received her B.A. in English in 2015. She reads for The Indianola Review,works with the literary magazine Puerto del Sol, and teaches as an Instructor of Record at NMSU.
Leafing out, the trees blur in green mist,
celandine poppies bright fingerprints
at their feet. The persistent creek has hollowed dips,
roundels, arches into the limestone floor.
Waterleaf, twinleaf, spring beauties wander beside
blueeyed Mary, larkspur.
The trout lilies are mostly gone,
Jacobs-ladder has not yet arrived,
seersucker sedge returning, green fists
knocking along the slopes.
The pickup truck is stuck,
mud to the hubs,
at the bottom of the hill, and the guys
turn up late, raucous,
bat away the big dog, shuck
their dirty boots at the door, rattle the refrigerator for a beer.
No one wants to leave this talk
about tractors, drag chains, Buddha in Texas,
exactly when that shotgun was fired into the air,
the first hummingbird of the year, that time
the symphony conductor, a glorious specimen himself,
called you a bon vivant, how to identify
wakerobins, their three purple hands
folded, as in prayer–
not in belief, not in supplication–
simply a statement of
how things are.
Brenda Butka practices pulmonary medicine and poetry in Nashville, Tennessee, where she and her husband share a small organic farm with a couple of farmers and their cows, goats, chickens, a resident great blue heron and whoever happens to drop in.
I remember when the doctor first told me
the red-with-yellow-frosting sores on my legs
were something called impetigo, all I heard
was tiger, and I thought maybe I was morphing
into a tiger or that I would soon have tiger
superpowers or, at the very least, that I shared
the same awesome disease that tigers get. So
you’ll understand my disappointment when after
two weeks of my mother dabbing at scabs
with a vinegar-and-water solution, I was back
to just being me again, no closer to being able
to chase down a buffalo and lift it proudly
in my jaws by the throat. My life has been
a constant search for super powers, a search
thwarted at every turn by the twin villains,
Mediocrity Man and Doctor Indolence.
Shortly after my disappointing recovery
from impetigo and the concurrent discovery
that none of the ooze I produced was radioactive,
I had that dream we’ve all had where I was told
the secret to flying (a particular way of crooking
one’s elbows and achieving liftoff speed),
and then went out into the long open rows
in the orchard to try it out, without success—
still flightless to this day, grounded—but that
was also the first time I went up to my bedroom
after, with my scraped knees, with red stripes
on my face from the lashing of peach and apple
tree branches, and wrote something on my wide-
ruled notepad about what life was and wasn’t,
about what it might have been like to fly.
C. Wade Bentley teaches and writes in Salt Lake City. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as Cimarron Review, Best New Poets, Rattle, Antiphon Review, Pembroke Magazine, and Poetry Northwest. A full-length collection of his poems, What Is Mine, was published by Aldrich Press in January of 2015. You may visit wadebentley.weebly.com for complete information about his publications and awards.
And that spring a man beat his
then ran off with her jewelry
and SUV. Judge set bail
at $77,000, said man cannot
ever contact her (in critical
condition). Week earlier
I had moved home, back in with
my own grandma. At 29,
hadn’t lived in Florida
for nearly six years. I heard
of this senior attack on
the six o’clock news.
From our dinner table,
my family—Mom, little
brother, step dad, grandma—
watched: Invasive man
eating Nile crocodiles
had been found in a FL swamp.
More aggressive than American
Alligators. “They didn’t swim
from Africa,” a herpetologist
said. “But we don’t know how
they got into the wild.”
We ate burgers, an inside
picnic: Dishes of potato
salad, baked beans. Another
picture of the grandson flashed
on the screen. I always get
nervous when I find a violent
man attractive. “We’ll
obviously follow this story
every step of the way,”
an anchor assured. “You’ll get
updates as the case develops.”
it’s a record high. Nearby sea
choppy. There’s a strong east wind.
Tyler Gillespie is the palest Floridian you’ll ever meet. His poems appear in Apogee Journal, Columbia Poetry Review, PANK, Juked, Exposition Review, Hobart, and Prelude, among other places. Find him at TylerMTG.com.
Hear Tyler’spoem and more virtual poetry from Cleaver on our SoundCloud podcast On The Edge.
Morning makes itself bluer by the minute. Colder, too, as the temperature falls. In my friend’s apartment, we sit in her breakfast nook while the bay window lets in light. Steam rises from white plates, broccoli omelets and the scent of garlic and salt. My friend lists places in the tourist district we’ll visit today, leads me to an expansive map stretched across a wall. The Czech Republic’s outline etched in black. All the country’s borders linked and locked by land; the Vltava a thin, persistent reminder of thirst twisting through. She points to Malá Strana, the John Lennon Wall where people paint a layered collage of lyrics on brick. The window reminds me how cold it is outside: the snow and sudden wind. I don’t know if I can give up this warmth, hands wrapped around a cup of coffee. Her finger traces an itinerary and then there it is: a small town sloping into Slovakia’s northern border. Jalubí. A word I’ve never seen before but recognize the way snow knows the ground and feels it must either stick or melt, the way the bridge knows the river though they’ve never touched. My family has been searching for a farm in Jalobee for years, a town remembered as a misspelling. Here it is now, known and navigable. My friend slips small tubes of paint into her purse, asks if I’d like any particular color. Green, I say. Green, please.
Emily Paige Wilson’s poetry has been nominated for Best New Poets, Best of the Net, and a Pushcart Prize. Her manuscript was a finalist for the 2016 Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press. Her work can be found in The Adroit Journal, The Boiler Journal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, PANK, and Thrush, among others. She lives in Wilmington, NC, where she received her MFA from UNCW, and works as an English adjunct. She rules her life like a fine skylark and is working on her crow pose.
If I opened my eyes
from this pretended sleep,
I wouldn’t be salting
the driveway before dawn,
though the snow stopped
and the air’s no longer freezing.
The trees would speak their silent
part. Swallows would arc
through the brightening sky.
And we would not be as we are.
It’s late, and I’m fighting
to stay awake, meaning
all I do is unfinished, meaning
the night is long and dreaming
is as slippery as a fish, meaning
those trees aren’t silent at all.
I only need listen
to their deep body ache. Meaning
only in sleep can I hold
Peter Grandbois is the author of seven books. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in over seventy journals, including, The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Prairie Schooner, and have been shortlisted for both Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize. His plays have been performed in St. Louis, Columbus, Los Angeles, and New York. He is a senior editor at Boulevard magazine, fiction co-editor at Phantom Drift, and teaches at Denison University in Ohio.
Hear Peter’spoem and more virtual poetry from Cleaver on our SoundCloud podcast On The Edge.
that you check the earth on which you stand—
Ye are actually pretty rich
My friends, we have a job
Step aside Mother Earth
Vote or the dark happens
If it still happens, is this foreshadowing?
Do presidential candidates cry when traveling?
Politics is unfit for love
Ye are holding the world:
Given the light, a scramble to live
Ye are so connected
Ye are a child’s eyes
Ye are just a food
Only time will tell
I feel like being a beacon
Ye are online
Madeleine Wattenbarger lives, eats, & writes poems on her phone during crowded metro rides in Mexico City. Her writing has been published in Apiary, Ghost Town and on the Philadelphia Inquirer arts blog, among other places. She is originally from Philadelphia.
Well, it should come as no shock to you, I’m sure, that on more than one occasion I have been told I am a difficult woman.
If you’d been around longer, you would have found pretty quick that that’d be the truth, honey. You would have been embarrassed of me, like your little brothers, but maybe a little proud too, because us girls have to stick together.
But, just so you believe me, let me give you an example:
After I was told that my second husband, Peter, had died, I slapped the nurse who offered to call in a goddamn grief counselor. My heart could have burst wide open with rage. As I walked out of the hospital, real quick before security could reach me, my hand was all raw and stinging with something a bit like triumph.
It was only later that the shame caught up, which is the way it usually goes with me.
Look how I lie here, my lips cracked and thin, my face worn like paper. See how they’ve taken from my goddamn body until there was nothing left. I always knew it would have been different with you, honey. Daughters are different than sons, they don’t require the same vengeance. They are just a piece of a mother’s soul, alive and in the flesh and wandering out in the world.
When he was twenty-three and just graduated from college, your one brother Jeremy sent me an envelope from the other side of the country addressed to: Ms. Francine (Franny) Krause Waley née Roth. Inside was a detailed listing of his therapy bills.
What I really found funny was what he had written, in big block letters, just under the seal: Charges for damages within. Pound of flesh will do.
Let’s speak of happier things.
Your littlest brother Derick has become a priest, and it is one of my gravest disappointments. Oy vey iz mir, my poor mother should be rolling over in her grave.
He was only nineteen when he joined the seminary. I cried out, “But you’re not even Catholic! You had a bris, for Chrissakes. Don’t you remember?”
He did not, in fact, remember. He was only eight days old at the time, but that, I told him, wasn’t the point.
They don’t know about you, not even Jeremy. You both share the same father, but there is only Jeremy in those photographs with Krause, back when we lived in Philadelphia, his chubby cheeks and that serious look always on his face. There are no pictures of you. I don’t think I could have endured it if there were.
Sometimes I want to tell your brothers, “But wait! It’s true! In fact, I did have a daughter. Ha ha, your old Ma has one more surprise left for you nudniks!”
But I will not tell them. I cannot.
And here is this goddamned crocheted blanket the nurse put over me that is so itchy against my skin I could scream.
You were there and then you were gone just as suddenly, not even a day old, and that was the beginning of the end between me and your father. Don’t blame yourself. Things happen.
And it’s true, we had enough left in the old tank to make Jeremy just a year and a half after you left us.
I met your father when I was eighteen, waitressing at a diner in Newark, just after high school. Krause was the boyfriend of another waitress, Charlene, who I used to goof around with on slow shifts, blowing spit balls with straws and sticking wads of chewing gum underneath the counters, all things we’d have to clean up ourselves sooner or later. We were silly girls, but Charlene always grabbed money out of the tip jar when she thought no one was looking, so I didn’t feel too guilty about stealing your father away from her.
Everyone called your father by his last name, pronounced like “Cross.” He was raised pretty strict, Shabbos every week and kept kosher, so I’m sure he didn’t appreciate that reference.
He didn’t appreciate a lot about me.
It’s too warm in here, don’t you think they could open a goddamn window every once in a while?
I’m thirsty, but the nurse in this godforsaken facility has only left me some lukewarm water, and I can see little tiny particles floating around in it like the glass was not fully cleaned, and so I would rather wither and dry up than drink that.
I dreamed of Paris, a place all white and fresh, sunlight streaming in through the walls, a little balcony, the whole town smelling like fresh bread.
Your father never took me there. To be fair, I had never told him I wanted to go, but.
I am a bitter old woman. Shouldn’t I be sorry, at this point? You’d think.
When he would come home, I’d be so angry, holding a crying baby Jeremy, his diaper wet and his face so very pink, and I would say, “You don’t appreciate me.”
Honey, I can’t lie that your father had many faults. I once listed them all on a scrap of paper.
Let me rummage around here in my bedside table, I’m sure I still have it.
No matter. I remember them all. They include:
His late-night returns where he came to our bedroom with his eyes shifting anywhere but toward my face,
His continued refusal to put down the toilet seat after he was finished, as if he were raised in a barn,
His skill at making the tears burn as they spilled from my eyes,
His tendency to look around at me and at his son as if we were people he did not quite recognize,
His habit of chewing with his goddamned mouth open so that a person could feel absolutely nauseated just from the sound alone.
But, sure, I loved him, the kind of fierce love you only have for the first person to kiss your kneecaps or to tuck you into bed after a long bout with the flu.
We never got the chance with you. That first birth, I left the maternity ward with my arms empty except for the white blanket I had planned on wrapping you in, but when Jeremy first came home from the hospital after he was born, your father and I used to sneak into his bedroom together just to make sure his tiny chest was still rising and falling, to hear his breath mix out in the air with the breath coming from both our own mouths, creating such a song of our little family.
I slapped Krause once, but he didn’t even move. I remember feeling my own anger running through my body like snake venom, and I wished I could slice open my veins and infect him with it, but I doubted he would look at me even then.
He didn’t even protest when I told him I was taking Jeremy and moving to Hoboken.
This room is too goddamned white, hasn’t anybody around here ever heard of a color, for Chrissakes?
Jeremy never asked me about his father. You would have been different. I knew from the instant I looked into your dark, curious eyes.
I think you would have liked your little brother Derick. When he was eight, he asked me once why his brother had a different last name. I feel bad now, but my in-laws were coming to town for Thanksgiving, and I’d been busy figuring out how to stuff a turkey for the first time. So goddamned slimy.
Anyway, I told him that it was because Jeremy had been dropped off at our doorstep by another family when he was a baby. “There was a note that said they’d be coming along in a few years to take him back,” I told him. “He’s what, thirteen, it’ll probably be any day now. So get your goodbyes in, buddy boy.”
But listen to me, even now, all these years later, cackling away.
Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who finds me funny. When I met Peter, after he accidentally crashed his shopping cart into mine at the grocery store, he apologized so profusely that I was absolutely forced to reach down into my cart, grab the nearest roast chicken I had picked up for dinner, and say, “No harm, no fowl, sir.”
When he smiled, I knew it wasn’t because he found me funny.
The light is falling in through the window blinds real bright. Burns my eyes ’till they’re all wet and runny.
I would have loved to have heard you laugh.
Peter told me he loved me every morning and then got mortally offended if I was too groggy to say it back. I loved him, but every once in a while, I just wanted my goddamn sleep.
Peter was a little older than me, but he was kind to both boys, had clean fingernails. He bought me velvet dresses just because.
I never told him about Paris. Only you.
Peter’s parents had a cabin in the Poconos, and we used to visit it every summer. Once, while Peter and the boys were out on the lake, I took the car and drove to the Five and Dime and bought some bright yellow sandals with pink buckles and hair dye, platinum blonde.
I so dreamed of driving until I slipped off the edge of every goddamn thing.
Instead, I wrapped the box of hair dye in a plastic bag and slipped it under the driver’s seat, and drove back to the cabin. And when I got back, those little assholes made fun of me for wearing those ugly sandals. I got so mad I refused to cook them dinner.
Look at me, still seething, grinding my teeth until my jaw aches.
I was thirty-three when Peter died. Heart attack. Thirty-three and all alone with two little boys.
Things have not turned out like I expected when I was a child.
I wonder sometimes what you would have thought of my mother. It was like she had been tamed for her whole life. I was determined not to be tamed.
Once, when I was a girl, I cut my own hair with my mother’s sewing scissors because I had seen a pretty woman with a bob in a magazine. It didn’t turn out very well at all, and I tried to hide the evidence, but my father found all the bits of hair I’d stuffed between the couch cushions. After he whipped me, he wouldn’t let my mother fix my hair, instead made me live out my days with a lopsided cut until my hair grew long enough to pull up.
You know what Derick says? Forgiveness is bliss. “It makes you feel free, Mommy,” he says. He calls this place every night. Sometimes I think he calls just to make sure I’m still alive.
Just like his father with that mishegas. I can’t tell you how irritating it is.
He says to me, “Forgiveness is a gift that holds more than you could ever imagine.”
Doesn’t he sound like a goddamn fortune cookie?
You know, Derick paid for this place, but I don’t like my nurse, she smells like smoke, and I once bit her on the arm when she tried to give me a bath, then pretended like I was having an episode so she wouldn’t sue.
Once, Jeremy wrote and asked why I never hugged him when he cried as a child. I wrote back, joked that it was because he was always so slobbery and I didn’t want to get my blouses wet.
He didn’t respond.
I think of you, how you left this world just hours after you left my body. Shouldn’t I have kept you inside, where you were safe and kicking against me like the beating of a heart? I was so young. I only held your little body for a moment before they took you away. You felt so warm.
But what, I should tell your brother the truth? The truth that I had been afraid? Afraid to hug him, to hold him close to my heart, to feel him too firmly? No, I could never tell him any of this, not a single word. Wouldn’t I rather die first.
I am still considering putting it in my will that the next correspondence my first son will receive from my estate will be my obituary, but I don’t want to be dramatic.
And I can remember Jeremy coming home crying because the kids in junior high made fun of his crooked teeth since he needed braces so badly but there was no money for it, and so I wrote to Krause, mailed the letter to that little goddamn row house in Philadelphia we used to share, but it was eventually returned to sender, addressee unknown, and when little Jeremy bugged me about braces again, I finally told him to just deal with it because his weird teeth gave him character.
I’m not a terrible mother.
I taught Derick how to drive a car, even though my own license was suspended for too many parking tickets. And the only thing I said to Jeremy the time I picked him up from the police station after he got caught shoplifting was, “Next time pick me up a new tube of lipstick, will ya?”
You never got to resent me, got to blame me, like your brothers. You forever know me as your mother, your home. To you, I am only a nice, safe, warm thing.
I could have been someone important, right, honey? Even now, don’t I sound like I’m smart? I read a lot. I should have gone to college, should have done more than just take care of other people.
Two husbands was plenty.
I was at the emergency room reception desk for a time and saw all sorts of horrible stuff. I’d tell the boys over dinner about the man with his left eyeball hanging loose, the woman with the bone sticking straight from her arm, the little girl with the burns on the side of her face.
And wouldn’t Jeremy just eat up my stories, the only time he didn’t seem to absolutely hate me, and we would both just laugh at Derick, who would cover his ears with his chubby hands.
And then I got moved to the geriatric ward, which I found even more horrible than the ER. All those old people, moldy in their own skin, wasting away to nothing but beige slippers and wiry white hair.
Pot, meet kettle, etc.
When the time came, I wanted to throw myself off the bow of a ship, hang myself from a sycamore tree, wander into the highway during rush hour. My end had to be different than all those others, mine had to mean something more.
Here I am, honey, lying on this bed, and the air has grown cold. It stings that my end is going to be like all the others.
Honey, I would have told you the story my mother used to whisper in my ear before I went to sleep as a child. She used to tell me about a little girl who loved a little boy who was a prince. Since she was poor, this prince never gave her the time of day. It was only until she intercepted a poisoned cherry meant for him that he noticed her at all, and by then, she was dead. The prince cried and threw a parade in the girl’s honor and then vowed never to marry.
Honey, I would have told you this story, but I would have let the goddamn prince swallow that cherry, every last deadly gulp, and I would have told you about the girl watching as his face turned blue and still, and I would have told you about the grim satisfaction she felt in that moment when she realized that she needed to let love go in order to live.
You never got to know what it was like to grow gray, to grow bent and crinkly. You never got to be anything. I would have taught you how to be a woman, honey, how to suck in your gut and paint on a happy face, how to hold life in your very cells, how to gnaw at the bone of your pain until you could swallow it in pieces, until it became something you could endure. I would have taught you how to be a better woman than me. No one would have ever called you difficult or even thought the goddamn word with you around.
Gotenu, but I made sure there was no shiva for you. I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting on the floor, tearing up cloth until my fingers bled, receiving all those visitors who would look at me with such goddamn pity in their eyes. Later, your father gave you a name so that we could find you in the world to come, but I didn’t want to know it, I told him I would kill him in his sleep if he told me what it was, and I meant it, and to this day, I still do.
There you are. I can feel your small weight next to me on the bed, and it’s like we haven’t spent a moment apart. Your eyes are so dark and beautiful. It’s a wonder that I even created you.
And goddamn it all, my life was more than that! More than just my sons, my husbands, more than being a mother and a wife! I had dreams, hopes, pictures in my mind that no one could imagine. Why this, even now at the end, why all these men who had made up my life? Sure, I had loved them all, but honey, does that have to consume everything I ever was, my whole entire being? Shouldn’t I have been more than just who I was to them?
Who turned off the light? Stop that now. I’m wide awake.
Taylor Kobran holds an MFA from Hollins University. Her work has been published in the Nottingham Review, Lunch Ticket, Emerge Literary Journal, the City Quill, and the Ilanot Review. She enjoys spending time with her dog and alphabetizing her overflowing bookcase. She lives in New Jersey.
When it became clear my grandmother could no longer live alone, I was the one who took the initiative to find a place for her, and I wanted it to be near me. She refused to go to the only facility in Albany, where she lived, because there was a patient there she intensely disliked, and she loathed the idea of going to Florida, near her two sons, so we found a “life-care” facility in a pretty, rural area outside Philadelphia. My sister, also nearby, handles our grandmother’s affairs while I visit and occasionally deal with the staff. This division of labor falls to each of us naturally, and I’m happy with my share.
My grandmother was only forty-seven when I was born, but because she was my grandmother, I always thought of her as old. It was only thirty years later that I began to observe that there are degrees of old. Her shoulders got smaller suddenly, her bones collapsing together. She developed an uncertainty in her step that I realized was a fear of falling (although she never stopped wearing her low-heeled pumps). To me she had always been proud and fearless, but with this new vulnerability of hers I started to assume a larger role. The shift was gradual, but my awareness of it cataclysmic. The love had always flowed unconditionally toward me. Now it was flowing the other way. It frightened me to realize that I was going to lose her. Returning that love I’d always had from her took on a special urgency, and I was grateful to be able to do it.
She enriched my life in so many ways: her frequent “rescues” from my unhappy family to her little cabin on the lake with its rag rug and bright yellow upright piano (the cabin was her trysting place—divorced before I was born, she and her lover, my “Uncle Tom,” met there for years); her constant and patient encouragement of my music (she taught voice and sang professionally); the summer orchestra concerts in Saratoga; the contented moments fishing in her little rowboat (we always tossed the sunnies back to be caught another day); the time we coasted her big old Pontiac with the amber Indian head on the hood all the way down the hill when it was out of gas (“Wheee!” we shouted.); her daily calls to me when I was in the hospital, alone in New York; her always knowing when something was disturbing me, even when I didn’t know myself; her sneakily arranging for me to take singing lessons with a colleague from Temple University. Once, when we were floating on a Thames barge through the English countryside, I looked up to see my grandmother, an unopened book in her lap, absorbed in her thoughts with a look of such serenity on her face it jerked my heart.
Every time I walk up to the door of the medical center, her new “home,” I feel all the ambivalence of someone about to visit a relative in prison. Even though it’s now called a “medical center,” everyone knows it’s really a nursing home, and we all know that nursing homes are places where people go to die. My grandmother lives on the top floor, the fifth floor (the last stop on the way to Heaven), where the patients are prisoners in more ways than one. Few eyes are turned to Heaven on the top floor, few souls prepared for death, because, in needing the greatest “medical and behavioral supervision,” most are, to one degree or another, losing their minds.
Coming off the elevator I see patients strapped into their chairs watching (and understanding nothing of) television. A gentleman in a wheelchair is facing the wall screaming unintelligibly. Near the nursing station a patient tries to engage me in nonsense conversation. Another simply grabs hold of my clothes, so fiercely that I wonder if, to these benighted souls, outsiders represent some desperate hope of escape. I feel pity, revulsion, a desire to escape this twentieth-century Bedlam myself. But for my grandmother I come. I come for myself, too, even though she’s not sure who I am. Recently, she looked up at me from her pillow and said, “There’s always been something special between us two,” even though she can’t remember my name. Her extraordinary smile, a palpable thing like a stone bridge, was ever an invitation for my soul to cross over and give hers a hug. Nobody else in my life ever had a smile like that.
I am visiting the medical center today for a quarterly meeting of the staff to review her “case.” In these meetings, I ask, and they answer, a series of questions about my grandmother’s health, her mental deterioration, her physical needs, her participation (or not) in social or recreational programs. Four staff members and I are assembled in the “reality orientation room,” where patients come every morning to hear what day it is, where they are, who they are, what holidays are coming up, what activities are planned. All this information is spelled out neatly in large block letters on the blackboard, reminding me of a first grade school room. There are no decorations in the room whatsoever. A few plastic chairs and tables have been pulled into a rough circle for our meeting. It is a sunny winter day outside the window.
The charge nurse is just beginning to answer my first question when the fire alarm sounds. As one, the staff members rush out of the room. I sit there alone, irritated by the repeated honking of the alarm, wishing I could have a cigarette. I look out the window at the sun glare on the snow, which is still three or four inches deep, and I think that it is not a good day to take my grandmother anywhere. Even though she is having her hair done so we can go out to lunch, and even though the sun is warm, there are too many patches of ice on which an old woman could slip and break a bone.
Suddenly, a strident male voice sounds through the closed hall door: “Evacuate the building! Everyone evacuate the building!”
For the first time, it occurs to me there might really be a fire. I slip on my jacket and hat and pick up my purse, just as a male patient shuffles with agonizing slowness through the door from the recreation room. I say, “We must leave the building,” and my heart sinks as I realize he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. The charge nurse returns and, taking the old fellow by the arm, directs us both to the fire exit.
In the hall, all is pandemonium. Even the ambulatory patients are incapable of making it to the fire exit on their own. The staff is operating on adrenaline and rote training. At the exit, I hold the door open for the wheelchairs and aides guiding the patients on foot. One grand dame holds up traffic by asking me what I’m laughing about. There is a twinkle in her beautiful gray eyes. Perhaps she sees a joke and wants to share it. Perhaps there really is a smile on my face. Someone from behind gently pushes her forward. Feeling a little useless where I am, I ask one of the aides what I can do to help.
“Check the bathrooms!” she gasps. I prop open the exit door and methodically check the ten rooms along the hall. Emerging from the last one, I see an aide trying to get an ambulatory man into a wheelchair so he can be moved faster. Meanwhile, other patients are simply milling about unaccompanied. I grab the back of the wheelchair: “I’ll take him,” I say. She gives me a relieved look and dashes off to help someone else. My passenger is tall and unshaven and wearing a baseball cap and flannel shirt. I tell him to keep his feet up so they won’t trip under the wheels of the chair. I have to keep reminding him of this. Even at this sedate speed, he could break an ankle.
There is a bottleneck around the exit. The walled terrace outside the door is still covered with snow, except for a narrow path that has been cleared around the edge. The snow makes it impossible to maneuver the wheelchairs, and there is no more space to stack people up. Fortunately, the building is set into the side of a hill, and an aide forces open the gate at the other end of the terrace and begins guiding people down the muddy slope toward the fourth-floor terrace and paved walkway beyond.
It is a bizarre collection of people out here. Some are naked, or only half dressed. Not one has a coat, gloves, or hat. In the sun, the temperature might be as high as forty degrees; even so, these frail beings will not survive out here for long. Someone comes through the door with an armload of rolled cotton blankets. I busy myself wrapping blankets around shoulders, legs, bare feet. One woman keeps up a shrill animal complaint that her blankets are wet. She’s sitting half naked in her wheelchair, a pile of soiled linen on the ground beside her. From her contorted shape I can see she is incapable of moving; I try to snake a blanket behind her bare buttocks and wrap it around her hips. Finally, I spread a blanket over the knees of the old gentleman I had wheeled down the hall. He says, “Thank you,” and I marvel at his lucidity.
The fire companies are arriving, adding their shrill sirens to the insistent honking of the building alarm. A nurse comes scrambling up the hill and breathlessly asks one of the fifth-floor aides if there is any oxygen up here. The aide shakes her head. “But I’ve got to have oxygen. Some of my patients won’t last long without it!” I tell her I have just seen one of the fire company ambulances come down the road. Surely they will have tanks. She races back down the hill.
Slowly the fifth-floor situation is brought under control. Someone does a headcount. Someone else checks names against a logbook. One by one, patients are being maneuvered off the terrace and down the hill to get farther away from the building. One of the female patients is screaming as two aides try to walk her through the muddy snow. There is still no sign of smoke or flame, but there is a rumor that a small fire in the kitchen tripped the alarm. I pray that it will be brought under control quickly before anybody catches a chill.
Finally, a breathing space. I decide to find my grandmother, who had been in the beauty salon on the fourth floor. She is standing with her back to me a little way down the hill from the fourth-floor terrace, holding herself perfectly erect, a cotton blanket draped over her head and shoulders like the Virgin Mary. I come up behind her and put my arm around her and give her a big kiss on the cheek. Her head is covered with curlers. She gives me that joyful smile and says to no one in particular, “Oh, my loving sister is here!” I whisper, “Granddaughter,” into her ear so she won’t feel embarrassed if anyone nearby has heard her.
People say she has outlived her life. Not as long as that smile is still there for me. Its shadow is on her face now, as I hug her against the cold on the snowy grounds of the medical center. If she doesn’t know exactly who I am, she knows I love her, and she knows she loves me.
Organic brain dysfunction syndrome, clogged carotid arteries, not enough oxygen to the cells. The fire in her mind is being damped out, along with the light in her eyes. Even her oldest memories are failing her now. Words fail her; sometimes they come out like nonsense syllables. The woman who stood up in front of audiences and sang Schubert Lieder in a clear, controlled contralto now can’t remember a song.
Even though I’ve got two blankets wrapped around her and my hat stretched over her curlers, she tells me that her bottom is cold. I learn later that she is finally incontinent and that she won’t wear her diapers. “She’s a lady,” the charge nurse says, which is her way of telling me that what shreds of dignity remain to my grandmother will not abide the wearing of diapers. She doesn’t resist having them put on; she simply takes them off when backs are turned. So, standing out here in the bright early March sun, my grandmother is without any underwear.
But we are giggling together now over the whole predicament. There is always confusion inherent in moving large numbers of people around, and when those people are physically or mentally disabled, it can be mayhem. When the obvious danger has passed, the whole scene takes on the quality of the ridiculous. Together we look back up the hill at all the old people milling around in the snow. My grandmother utters a rare complete sentence: “I would say they look foolish if I didn’t try so hard not to look like a fool myself.” I laugh and hug her tighter.
Philadelphia native Sandra Shaw Homer lives in Costa Rica, where for years she wrote a regular column, “Local Color,” for the The Tico Times. Her writing has appeared in several print, online literary, and travel journals, as well as her own blog, writingfromtheheart.net. Her first travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific, received excellent Kirkus and Publishers Weekly reviews. A brief inspirational memoir, The Magnificent Dr. Wao, was published as a Kindle Book, and a second travel memoir, Journey to the Joie de Vivre was released in 2016.
And then he won and we kept drinking about it, what else to do but keep drinking about it, and no one knew whether to stay or not, it was worse too because the alcohol wasn’t doing anything, and all I wanted was to be with Jean, but she was somewhere else, with someone else, so I had to go home alone, but first I bought groceries at the place that stays open all night, discount tuna salad, spelt bagels, cream cheese, and then walked south, not quite trusting the reality, a nameless void ahead of me, and my apartment was dead, it was dead quiet, and I hadn’t done dishes earlier, which is the most depressing thing, and I unpacked my groceries, and put a bagel in the toaster, and then had to clean a knife to smear on the cream cheese, and sponge a plate for the bagel to sit on, and after preparing my meal I lay in bed with it, and watched his acceptance speech, at which point Nick texted me, saying “Oh my god,” and I responded, “Oh my god,” and Donald said, “Sorry to keep ya waiting folks,” but his coolness inspired—I hate to say it—the most awful reverence in me, and I could not take my eyes away from the screen, wearing my t-shirt Jean used to wear to sleep, our Howl tattoos underneath, and I felt the most unbearable loneliness, thinking that I’d have to get used to this, thinking that Donald’s son was Damien, the demon child, although it’s possible that he’s a very nice boy who happens to be wrapped up in this, like we’re all wrapped up in this, bagels with cream cheese will never be the same for me, I slept, obviously, terribly, and when I woke up there was no light outside, and I didn’t know what to do, so I packed my whiskey in a bag (note to self: take seriously your drinking problem), and walked south toward Time Square, wearing my Beats headphones, pop music, Spotify, dancing in forward motion like I do sometimes, and when I got to Time Square there was a man wearing Donald Trump’s face, and Donald Trump’s suit, and this man boogied with an old white lady, I hated her, and wondered what his motives were, but felt awe-inspired, and was compelled to start filming them, and it was a perfect video, starting with Donald and the old white lady, and there was an old black man there, whacking bucket drums, I shot him too, I circled slowly around the entire scene, and I captured the perfect moment, Donald throwing up two peace signs while behind him was the “Forever” part of the Forever 21 store, and to the left of that was a huge, sparkling Disney sign, and below on the street a hole billowed wraiths of smoke, and it was all literally a metaphor, and I twirled around capturing the tourists who were Instagramming our president, then whirled back around, and zoomed in as he posed with a smug brat who yelled, “Make America great again!” and I’m venting now, something horrible happened: the video collapsed, my phone had no space, what I captured was gone, and I thought for a second what if I just lost the most iconic Day After Footage, but quickly realized I had not, I had done nothing meaningful, and as I walked away I saw what you imagine every carnie ever looks like pull off Donald’s face, and he smoked a cigarette—show’s over, folks—I walked south, it was about time to crack open the whiskey (noon), and my lips kissed glass beneath a brown paper bag and I felt, for seconds, wonderful, but my mood turned, I was so sad, I kept walking against the bile, the black sun, Beats back on, and in the 30s everything seemed typical, a normal day in my city, but at Union Square it got bleak again, the protesters had their signs, I observed them, then picked up a sign, then flip-flopped my thoughts, deciding it was time to go home, which I did, and kept drinking there, in my book-littered echo room, and ate discount tuna salad, then showered, but the stream was either too hot or too cold, the head made shifts all on its own, plus the pressure sucked, so I got out, called my friends, none picked up, very frustrating, I kept drinking whiskey, and had a few beers, opened Facebook, and clicked on a link to Twitter’s Day One of Trump feed, where I saw heartbreaking things, and almost cried, but I didn’t cry, it was something like the week my father died, who had Donald’s body type, and Donald’s fat hands, but wasn’t all that bad, and I knew, just fucking knew I would not sleep that night, but I did sleep for a couple hours before shooting straight up in bed, during the Hour of the Wolf, my body shaking, aching, grieving Jean, but she was somewhere else, in someone else’s bed, outside a car drove by, shadows danced, a ripple on the sheets, her long slender legs, and there were sirens too, but they sounded different now, ominous, portentous, and then morning came, it was such a sunny day, a beautiful day, but it was not healing time, there was mourning to be done, and I walked to Columbia, because I’m a student there, and saw one Red Hat bobbing, she had a triumphant look, as she posed in a selfie on the steps, behind her were well-meaning protestors, and I thought of They Live and whispered, “They’re among us,” which was silly and made me laugh, but my laughter had a blunt edge, it didn’t sit well, and as I walked deeper into campus I saw a black man wearing a cardboard sign that said, “This is Amerikkka,” and yes, it was, I wanted to embrace him, but I was wearing a Slipknot t-shirt, and have lots of tattoos, so when he saw me staring, with what I thought were empathetic eyes, I think he got the wrong idea, and more sadness hit me, how deep are these divides, but the feeling subsided, because he pulled out a cigarette and said, “Got a light?” and I lit the Spirit before going inside, where I had class with Tin House Rob, and we all sat down, and there was a Trump Supporter in the room, jacket on, a few people tried to glare, but weariness took hold, like what’s even the point, and Tin House Rob asked, “Why do we write?” and you won’t believe it, but the Trump Supporter said, “What do you mean we?” and it was a shocking moment, it said everything, but then Tin House Rob said, “Um, I mean the people in this room right now,” and that was the perfect response, I told the class I write to learn about things, to understand, and I think that went over well, in any case I needed a drink, and after class I wandered south, incapable of reading words, ended up at a bar, where I drank all night, with Shathan and Bill, and I hate to say it but we were three white men, belligerent, bouncing around, in what may have seemed like celebration, we may have looked like the enemy, I felt trapped in my skin, I felt shame and hopelessness, but then my mood took a one-eighty turn, I wanted to be radical, I was ready to fight and die, for my country—for my black, Muslim, Mexican, gay, lesbian, and transgender brothers and sisters—who I love so much, whose lives are more meaningful than mine, I would die, the night became a cave, my vision strangled, darkness on all sides, until I passed out and slept like I was dead, and had the most amazing dreams, I’ll spare the details though, and in the morning I was refreshed, yet slightly concerned, where had my hangovers gone? must be a sign, I decided to write and wrote a spiteful piece, full of anger and hate, that sneered and spit, it was, in some ways, the literary self-death of me, and I smoked seven cigarettes, one after the other, on the stoop, and drank a huge glass of whiskey to sober up, and then Jean showed up, unexpectedly, inevitably, my dark-haired Jean, we looked into each other’s eyes, saw everything, and my apartment was full of life, I kissed her mouth hard, but softly kissed her neck, we lay entwined, one perfect being, and made love, for a long time, I’m home in her, I pulled Jean’s hair and smacked her ass, she scratched my back and begged me to take the condom off, “I want you to come inside me, take the fucking condom off,” in this time of death, we wanted to make life, I took the condom off, we made life, then lay in bed, laughing about something, I don’t remember what, but it was a perfect moment, I felt whole again, happy, alive, and didn’t even notice that I did it but I was already drinking another huge glass of whiskey and Jean didn’t judge me—or did she?—at least she never says anything, the sun had set, night again, and Jean left, back to him, my apartment was dead, darkness, no dark hair, and I had to get used to the silence, the cold too, it was cold like a tomb, or like my apartment’s always cold, and I just sat there for a while, heart racing, palpitating, becoming unhinged, and I worried for myself, but distantly, because I didn’t care, there were so many bigger things, that’s what I told myself, but I could not sit still, so I stood, paced, reread my spiteful piece, it was full of hate and made me high, I called my friends, they were down to drink, we went to the bar, it was a scene, and though the music was low, I still danced, like I was insane, and shouted, “Why isn’t anybody else dancing? Huh?” and Nina said, “Maybe that’s a sign,” and I laughed so hard, what a great dig, but I didn’t stop, never do when I’m on a roll, and I talked to friends, we all laughed, needed too, and I kept drinking, just didn’t stop, and then there was daylight, another beautiful day, but actually only from inside, it was secretly cold and that chill got into hands and the November wind whipped like ugh, but I kept walking south until I was downtown, where I met a friend and drank, even though I wanted to read, but there was no turning back, so we went bar bopping and ended up at The Library, on Houston and A, where I know the bartenders but they never give me free drinks, but it was two-for-one until eight o’clock, drink up, we did, then Jamie the Anarchist arrived, and he was charged, he told me about the protests, and I was feeling risqué so said the protests looked weak, and he said they weren’t weak, he said we needed to start now, we needed the country to know and I said okay, that’s true, I never know about these things, but I ventured that what I wanted to protest were the hate crimes, and he said that was good, we went to another bar, Sluski joined—an old friend, the only person I’ve ever punched in the face—and he would not say who he voted for, which meant he was a Trump Supporter, and things got a little sticky later, when he showed us a meme that featured a black man’s penis, which was the butt of some joke, and immediately Jamie the Anarchist and I went off on Sleuce, screaming, literally screaming on the sidewalk, “That man’s penis is not funny! You cannot make a joke about that man’s penis! You making a joke about his penis is racist, it’s not harmless, it’s violent, lives are literally at stake,” and Sloozer said something so stupid, he said, “You guys, I don’t see race, that’s on you, I just see a big ol”—we stopped him there, because I didn’t want to lose a friend, and we changed the subject, marched south, together, in the full moonshine, and went into another bar, where we bought many beers, and cheered to many things—everlasting friendship, fighting for something right, the death of postmodernism and rise of meaningful life—then Sleazy said, “To beating the pussy up!” and nobody cheered, but he was willing to listen, and changed his cheers, “To really good sex!” and okay, we all cheered, he was still our friend, we hit the streets, walked further south, headed to one last bar, the bar was a scene, there were so many people dancing there, I dove in, it was depraved, it was a bacchanal, I don’t know if it was good, I was under a disco ball, chugging Lone Stars, and it feels weird that I picked that beer, but I drank up and danced, froth clogging my nostrils, alcohol spilling all over my mouth, neck, and chest, and that’s when the song came on, it didn’t seem real, it was a hip-hop song, mostly bass and drums, the chorus was “Fuck Donald Trump! Fuck Donald Trump!” we all sang along, wearing stank faces while screaming along, middle fingers in the air, we danced, against all that had happened and all that would come, we danced, together, American, a single organism, nowhere, everywhere, between venting and nihilism, joy and despair, bizarre and obvious, “Fuck Donald Trump!” we sang, “Fuck Donald Trump!” underneath the shimmering disco ball, which was a world on fire, that stole our image, fucked it, flung it back at us, and it was one of the most upsetting and gratifying moments of my life,
Kyle Kouri is an MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University. He also makes visual art. His most recent exhibition, “Long After You’re Gone,” opened at 7 Dunham Gallery in April 2015. His fiction has appeared on horrorsleazetrash.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @kylekouri. He writes in the Chocolate Lab at Columbia with Nathan Fetherolf.
Original illustration by @bleedingpiss on Instagram
when I frown
into this mirror
a depth takes
inside there is a little white man
pages used unused
these are records
of me fighting gravity
like that one time
I did not kneel before
should I find a floor that will not reflect
how my teeth have shattered against it for centuries
like that one time
should I lay a drape over my upright head
the white in my eye has grown very yellow anyway
but the shadow of the obelisk is bent this way
I could grab that neck
twist it so
all the white drips
into my lap
like the sweat
on my bare brown back
away from the mirror
there is no white here
Jeevika Verma has always fought the odds to unapologetically tell the truth and ask a lot of questions. Her work aims to create conversations surrounding power, art, culture and identity. Originally from India, she recently graduated from the University of Washington and is currently a poet and writer based in Seattle, WA.
Hear Jeevika’spoem and more virtual poetry from Cleaver on our SoundCloud podcast On The Edge.
Today I walk past boys and their mothers. I’m parallel to them as they disobey traffic laws and take risks. I remember my mother telling me to ‘look both ways’ while I watch their heads remain constant and straight. This boy has a clear path; it’s safe even if he takes some risks. I’m eating a croissant and it’s burnt. If you burn a croissant even just a little bit it tastes salty. My boy left the taste of salt on my tongue and I guess he is a man. I’ve known the taste of true salt longer than I’d like to admit. I’ve known the taste longer than I’ll say. I watch boys defy the law, the written law and the laws of physics. I have seen their bodies suspend and twist in ways my body will never move. I feel inflexible. Sometimes when I bleed my leg goes numb, just one, but the leg is variable. Sometimes when I panic I can’t feel my nose. I convinced myself I had cancer once and I suppose I have some type of cancer and some lack of fear toward the notion, as I push my body toward some type of recklessness, the feminine type that knows boundaries. The feminist type, I suppose, would not admit to having these limits, like the limit of a man who is larger than you not only in size but in lack of limitation, in his freeness to do whatever he pleases no matter the mark he may leave. No matter how the salt might sting. The man who knows that years later you will still taste it — he started as a boy and I’m walking parallel to him and his mother as they cross the street with a big red hand that has just stopped blinking. As she teaches him that it is okay sometimes to disregard the rules and keep going.
Elizabeth Schmidt is a third generation Montanan. She graduated from the University of Montana with a B.A. in Creative Writing in 2015 and will be completing her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College in May. After Sarah Lawrence, she plans on continuing her education. When she is not at school, she binges on movies and TV; lately it’s anything with Billy Bob Thornton. This is her first publication.
March in Seattle roared like a lion, that is if a lion sneezed pink cherry blossoms and pelted your face with ice pellets the size of golf balls. It wasn’t global warming, it was spring. At least it felt like spring.
Merrin had watched the Groundhog discover his shadow on television last month, so she was pretty certain that spring had sprung as she dashed from her car into the safe haven of Safeway in the middle of an unexpected hailstorm. The damn cat had shredded her last roll of toilet paper and she was in dire need of a Diet Coke. Merrin’s plan had been to give up Diet Coke for Lent, but that had lasted exactly twenty-seven minutes. She could have given up something else, but she didn’t have the heart or the willpower.
After procuring double-strength toilet paper and caffeine, Merrin wandered the brightly lit aisles of the grocery store, piling bags of Easter candy into the plastic shopping basket as the storm ravaged outside. Forget cherry blossoms and rain, she thought. The real sign of spring isCadbury eggs. She added a carrot-shaped bag of what looked like jelly beans and several foiled eggs to her stash and headed to the self-checkout where nobody would judge her for her candy consumption.
It wasn’t until she rung up the last bag of pastel treats that Merrin realized her wallet was missing from her purse. It was probably still hiding in the center console of her Toyota but the thought of dashing back out into the cold rain and wind and then back to the store was not something she had any desire to do. Instead Merrin fumbled around the pockets of her jeans for spare bills or loose change. In her back pocket she found a crumpled dollar bill and a dime.
Merrin had to decide between what she wanted and what she needed and with a heavy heart she grabbed her lone item and abandoned the rest of groceries before ringing up at a different self-checkout machine, all the while ignoring the store clerk’s scowl. Merrin didn’t wait until she was outside of Safeway to unpeel the foil wrapper off of the crème-filled egg. Time stopped as she stepped back out under a heavy gray sky. Merrin lifted her face to the rain as chocolate and fondant filling melted on her tongue and the wind dusted her hair with the confetti of pink cherry blossoms.
Danielle Dreger is a librarian and writer in Seattle. Her flash fiction has appeared in Pinch Jounral200 CCs, and Dime Show Review She is a current contributor to Preemie Babies 101. Her YA novel, Secret Heart, was published in 2016. She is repped by Danielle Chiotti of Upstart Crow Literary. She can be reached at danielledreger.com.
ESSAY ON TAKING TOO MUCH ADVIL P.M. by Preston Eagan
someone else’s car / a big dude dragging me up a flight of stairs / seeing my brother / we’re in his dorm / I don’t acknowledge him, because of the amethyst in the corner / loving its purple color / trying to eat it but failing because it’s a stone/ barricading myself in his dorm room/ the big dude breaks down the door / drags me out / kiss him on the cheek/ slaps me in response / hours later / I’m on my knees / my mouth dry / the house before me / I hope is mine/ I crawl to its doorstep / it doesn’t look happy to see me / God says it isn’t haunted / I’m that dummy who still has peachfuzz / I’m disoriented so / This town will murder me / this town will be my coffin / my arm through the window
Preston Eagan is studying journalism and business at the University of Alabama. He writes columns for the Crimson White.
The taxi had finally arrived. The driver watched Eulália Dias as she descended from her front porch one heavy step at a time. He got out of the cab to open the back door for her, smiled an apology for being late, and asked where she was headed.
“I go to St. Helen’s Church on Dundas, you know where it is? But I need to sit in the front seat because of my legs. Please, you have to hurry. I’m going to be late for my granddaughter’s First Communion.”
“What time you need to be there?”
“No problem. We have time to get there. From Euclid and Queen to Dundas and Lansdowne is not too far.”
Once the driver saw that Eulália had finally managed to latch her seat belt, he was off.
“You Catholic?” he asked.
“Oh, yes. All my life, before I come to Canada.”
“In my country, India, we have many Catholics.”
“You Catholic, too?”
“No, my family is Hindu. We come to Canada ten years ago. I have three sons and one daughter. They all go to university. I have degree in accounting from my country but can’t get a job in my field, so I drive taxi, two shifts a day. You have to work hard in Canada.”
“Oh, sure. I work hard when I come to Canada, too. I worked in a factory, you know? I get up five o’clock in the morning. Now I miss it so much.”
“Where are you from?”
“Azores. You know Azores? Very beautiful. They say my island, São Miguel, is a green island, but Canada is green, too. When I first come to Toronto, I am young, I can walk everywhere, but now I can’t walk very much.”
“How many children do you have?”
“I have three daughters and two sons. Eight grandchildren. All beautiful, healthy.”
“Why do you have to take taxi to your granddaughter’s First Communion? One of your children should have picked you up. It’s a special day.”
“They all live too far away. Ana, in Oakville. Lita in Mississauga, and the youngest one, Fátima, in Woodbridge. Matthew lives in Montreal. He works at McGill University. John lives on Dufferin Street, close to the church. He’s the father of my granddaughter making her First Communion. Meghan, she so nice and beautiful, tall and skinny. I don’t think she eats enough. But they all too busy to come and get me.”
“Children today can be so ungrateful.”
“Oh, yes, but I am used to it. Thanks be to God that I can stay in my house after my husband died. Three years now and, believe me, I still don’t get used to him gone. He was my life. After he die, my children all so nice to me, they all say, Mom, we come get you on the weekends. But then I see that they don’t mean it. Maybe once, maybe two times, somebody come to get me, but now only Christmas and Easter.”
“That’s terrible. In my culture we expect our children to be respectful and obedient, and to take care of their parents when we are old. Maybe in your culture is different?”
“No, no, when I was young, everybody respected their elders. Now, all my friends tell me the same thing about their own children. It’s the busy life and nobody has time for the old people.”
Eulália looked at her watch in a panic.
“Is already getting late. Oh, paciência, I am going to miss the First Communion.”
“We’re now at Sheridan. Just a few more blocks. There it is, see? I told you I would get you there on time. You must not cry now, be happy. You will be with your family for the celebration and then you have lots to eat back at the house.”
The driver held Eulália Dias by the arm and walked her to the front door of the church.
“Thank you so much, and God bless you.”
“You’re welcome, Mama. You enjoy yourself.”
Eulália pushed the heavy doors open. Organ music spilled outside, as did the chatter of the congregation. She walked up the aisle trying to find a seat.
Ai, meu Deus. She would never see her granddaughter in her First Communion dress. She had to find her family, but all the benches were so full of people. A kind soul made room for her to sit down. And just in time. She didn’t think she could walk any more. It was a big church, beautiful, but not as nice as her St. Mary’s.
Ah, all the little girls going up for their First Communion. She wondered which one was Meghan. They were wearing such plain dresses and no veils. When Eulália made her own First Communion, she’d worn a beautiful long white dress, and on her head a silk tiara with little pearls sewn around it. Queridos tempos, those were happy days.
Such a long line up to get to the altar. Eulália hoped she’d see her granddaughter on her way back from her own Communion. And there she was. Eulália waved at her but Meghan didn’t see her. Why was she talking to that little girl beside her? In Eulália’s day, they would be sitting still and praying. Oh, and there was Ana, and Lita, and their kids.
“Ana, give me a kiss. Kevin, Michael, come give avó a beijinho, just one little kiss.”
“We didn’t see you, Mom. Where are you sitting?”
“I come a few minutes late but I had to sit in the back. Now I can stay here with you. Can’t you make room for me to sit down? No? Then I’ll go sit behind you with Lita and the girls. I’m not making a fuss. I just want to sit with my granddaughters. Melinda, Jessica, come give grandmother a kiss.”
Mass was coming to the end. Eulália thanked God for it. She wondered where John and his wife were. Then she spotted them, way up by the altar, always talking to strangers.
“Lita, who are they talking to over there?”
“I don’t know, Mom, maybe some friends of theirs. I’m sorry that we could not drive you. Maybe Ana can drive you back. They have plenty of space in their big car.”
“I come by taxi. Otherwise I would miss the First Communion. Meghan looks so nice, I hope she comes over to see me.”
“The children are taking a group photograph. She’ll be along soon.”
“John, parabéns, congratulations, on Meghan’s First Communion. Bend over and give your mother a kiss. I have a special present to give Meghan but I want to give it to her alone. See? It’s my gold chain that I’ve had since I was a little girl.”
“Thanks, Mãe, she’ll love it.”
“I want to have my picture taken with her, too.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll take one outside before we head out to the restaurant. Who is going to drive you there? You could come with us. We have room in our car.”
“That’s OK, I’m going with Ana. Where’s your brother, Matthew?”
“His plane got delayed so he will meet us at the restaurant.”
“Oh, quepena, how sad that he missed his niece’s First Communion.”
“Ok, Mãe, I gotta go. Sandra is calling me. I’ll see you outside.”
Eulália waved to Sandra. As Eulália’s daughter-in-law, Sandra’s duty was to come over and greet Eulália, but she was too busy talking to her friends.
Eulália looked around and hoped there was a washroom in this church.
“Fátima, I almost didn’t see you. Where are the kids?”
“Hi, Mom, we arrived late. Trevor took the kids outside. They weren’t behaving themselves. How did you get here today, taxi? Who’s driving you back to the restaurant? Oh, Ana, that’s good. You need the washroom? Yes, there’s one at the front of the church.”
“People are already leaving the church. I better hurry up.”
“Don’t worry, take your time. I’m sure Ana will wait for you.”
Eulália walked alone to the bathroom near the vestibule, and held on to the benches for support.
Her children were always nas pressas, always hurrying, with no time for anything.
Eulália found the bathroom too small to move around in. It had a very low toilet. Eulália was grateful for her tall toilet at home, with a handrail for support.
Suddenly it became very quiet, and Eulália tried to hurry up. If only there had been a handle to help her get up from the seat. Meu Deus, my God, she could not get up. Those legs of hers were good for nothing. LITA, ANA, FÁTIMA! Not even one of her daughters was close enough to hear her.
Oh, if only God could help her get up. She finally managed to stand up and felt relieved.
Hello? hello? She sensed that everyone had already left.
Why was the church so dark? She heard voices outside. What were they all laughing about while she was stuck inside alone? Oh, if only she could walk faster. She tried a heavy door and found it locked! She saw the Blessed Sacrament altar by the side door and felt for certain that this must be the way out. Please, dear God, she prayed, help me get out of this church. She sent up a prayer of thanks when the door opened. She had panicked when she had thought that she would never get out. But where did everyone go? Parece impossível! She could not believe they had all left her behind. They would be sorry when they didn’t see her at the restaurant.
Eulália was relieved to see a bench nearby and a little garden shrine with a statue of Our Lady of Fátima.
Ai, Querida Mãe. Even she, the Heavenly Mother, had been abandoned by her Son on the Cross. Eulália sat down to pray the Rosary until someone would come back to get her. She could not wait to see Meghan’s face when she gave her the gold chain.
I lose the trail, or it eludes
me. Led astray, the bent-down saplings
keep their flex, may even rise.
Death rises from the older dead in branches.
The blown-down spruce, still green, begin
their shriveling. Their bride-white snow
has fled. Look alive, some cheery
voice might say. The spruce comply, for now,
unlike the ash leaves, last year’s fall,
colored sawdust and cinder, papering
the sucking mud. We’re all ground up,
huddled under another blow-down
where the wind marshalled its strength,
and then let go without a target.
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.
A door you thought locked,
not. How riddles work.
Sometimes the truth’s warped
I mean wrapped in humor,
& often the simplest unnerves
the hurt the most. I relapsed.
I meant to call.
In Delacroix’s oil-on-canvas,
Tiger Growling at a Snake, both creatures’
mouths gape. Both predators’
tails curlicue. Golden, the ground
as if drought-ravished
& the verdure’s urgent bristles
more umbrage than leaf.
The grimalkin’s ears point
backwards, toward the mountain.
The faux light, a look
in the eye, when you said Never
before walking out
into the afternoon.
Both bodies hunched.
Wound. Tongues curled,
teeth flashing, sour breaths
clashing, the cat pits
its throaty gnarr
against the asp’s rasping.
Only one survives. If you cut
open the tree
the serpent chokes
& count the rings—
but no, it’s impossible
to enter into the inevitable
carnage of the painting.
I lied. No one survives.
Have you ever awoken in a dew-soaked field
disoriented & unable to decipher
in which direction the sky moves?
At first I believed
Then my legs coagulated, my arms
reattached, I blinked
spiders from my eyes.
Oscillating background cycle
of radiation—you’d be surprised
what summersaults through
the starry abyss, carried on waves:
cogs, paint chips, a lipstick-
sized capsule containing Gene
a single glove.
I hungered. Thirsted.
Where was it I was headed?
If I squinted, trees
frayed into fractals.
Swarm of proboscis
& wings, mosquitoes
drew welts as I walked
toward the yellow halo
of the Waffle House.
Toward the end
of its life the sun
will swell into a red
floating terror digesting
all matter. Body of
pulsation. Body of
pulsation. I drank the coffee,
answered Need a lift? with a stare & a nod.
What could be more
fantastic, more farfetched
than this—our orrery
existence? The cab stank
of cigarettes & midnights
the pine tree air freshener
dangling from the rearview.
As above so below—
who said that,
did they mean this living?
At its core, a mouth. Inside
the mouth, another mouth.
What happened before
this is still a mystery.
Flower Conroy is the author of three chapbooks: Facts About Snakes & Hearts, winner of Heavy Feather Press’ Chapbook Contest; The Awful Suicidal Swans; and Escape to Nowhere. She is the winner of Radar Poetry’s first annual Coniston Prize and the Tennessee Williams Exhibit Poetry Contest, as well as a scholarship recipient of Bread Loaf, Squaw Valley, Napa Valley and the Key West Literary Seminar. Her poetry has appeared/is forthcoming in American Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, Gargoyle and others.
Image: “Tiger Growling at a Snake” by Eugène Delacroix (1862), Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Jessica unzipped the frog’s belly with a pair of sharp scissors. As its skin slipped away, revealing the jewels buried inside—heart, lungs, kidney, stomach—she tried to ignore the uneasy feeling in her own stomach, her heart’s reluctant sprint.
When her biology teacher announced they would be dissecting frogs at the end of the year, Jessica protested the practice along with a few other girls. Her teacher, however, was not moved.
“This is how science works,” he said. “Learning isn’t always easy.”
“Dissection is barbaric,” the girls replied. “We shouldn’t have to kill to learn.”
“Knowledge,” their teacher replied, “comes at a cost.”
Some of the girls cried, but secretly Jessica felt the teacher was right. She had only wanted to be part of a protest, to stand up for something and maybe get out of biology class—the frog was an innocent bystander. Her parents, who lived on a nice street and enjoyed the idea of civil disobedience, supported her at first. By the time it was clear the girls would not win their fight, her parents were resigned to Jessica’s fate. “No sense in risking your grades for a frog,” her father said. Which is how Jessica ended up in front of a dead animal, taking it apart piece by piece. Her curiosity outweighed her morals.
As the students worked the teacher moved around the classroom, cajoling and complimenting them in turn. He was a young man with dark hair and blue eyes, popular with the girls and their mothers. Jessica watched him discreetly, hoping he would come to her table, hoping he would stay far away. She was fourteen years old, and she’d never even been kissed. Sex was still an invisible power, like gravity, magnetic fields, electrons. She knew it was real, had studied it in books, but couldn’t grasp the mechanics. And yet, when her teacher’s smile stretched from one side of the classroom to the other, Jessica imagined. She felt a pang in her liver, as if her body could sense some latent danger and wanted to cleanse itself.
Meanwhile, Jessica discovered she was a natural surgeon. While other students struggled, puncturing organs and tearing apart cells, her frog was splayed out neatly on its tray, its insides a quiet spectacle. “Excellent work,” the teacher said, and Jessica jumped. She didn’t hear him come up behind her, even though he was now so close she could feel his breath on the back of her neck. His arm snaked forward, pointed at various parts, identifying them even though they were clearly labeled.
“Ah,” he said. “Ovaries. Your frog is a female—lucky girl.” His free hand brushed against the small of her back, lingered along the whisper of skin where her shirt rode up.
Jessica stared at the frog’s ovaries, the mess of jellied eggs gleaming in the classroom’s fluorescent light, then lifted her eyes to meet her teacher’s. He smiled and she felt herself begin to unzip.
Christine Hennessey’s writing has appeared in Necessary Fiction, The Boiler, Bodega, Prime Number, and LIT, among others. She’s been awarded fellowships to Aspen Summer Words and the Vermont Studio Center, has an MFA from UNC Wilmington, and works at a digital marketing agency where she basically tweets for a living. She is, as always, at work on a novel.
He’s in his bed, crying. Except for the blond tresses of the moonlight billowing through the open window, darkness reigns — in the corners, on the bookshelves, and in his heart. His pillow is soaked, heavy with tears spilling down the sides of his bed, covering the floor, slipping beneath the door out into the hall, into the street, a veritable deluge.
He blinks and the moon shimmers on the edge of his eyelashes. Two moon-like eyes stare into one eye-like moon.
He reaches out the window. His hot, wet hand touches the moon and pulls it gently inside, emptying the night. He holds the moon against his chest. What to do? He decides to swallow it. There — the moon and the man become one once again. The shiny sphere settles in his head and, sometimes, when I look into his eyes, I can see it glow, just like it did way up in the pitch-black sky.
Nina Sabolik’s fiction and essays have appeared in Litro and on the World Literature Today blog. She has master’s degrees in Creative Writing and Comparative Literature from Arizona State University and holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Skopje, Macedonia. She is working on a novel.
The old man woke up when the 5:15 train thundered past his one-room house. The walls trembled. Dust dislodged from the wooden roof and rained down on him. His bones rattled for a while after the train had given a final desolate hoot and moved on in its journey.
He picked up the faded jacket that had once been his son’s and slipped his arms into its welcoming sleeves. The child’s jacket fit him well now, a once large man gone to seed. He reached out for the walking stick leaning against his bed, also his son’s, and limped over to the side of the house which contained the kitchen.
He set about making himself a cup of tea, putting the kettle on the stove and looking through the grimy window at the morning mist outside. The railway track was just about visible, the rusted spine of a giant creature that snaked its way through the town and beyond. He raised his head from the broken landscape and watched the sun fighting its way past the morning clouds.
When he lowered his gaze, he saw that a woman had walked into his line of vision. The cold breeze whipped her gray hair around. She had a ratty cardigan wrapped around her and wore thin bathroom slippers on her bleeding feet. Her face was as grimy as his window, with thin strips of skin showing through where the tears had made their way down to her trembling chin. She spotted his house and stumbled over the uneven terrain in her bid to reach it. When she was closer, he noticed a sheet of paper clutched in her hand, words scribbled on it in an illegible hand.
He sighed to himself, emptying the fresh mug of tea down the drain and walking to the door to open it. The woman stood there, her eyes wild, brandishing the paper under his nose. My husband, she gasped, before the tears returned.
Wait here, he told her.
He went back to the sink and bent down with a groan to rummage through the small storage space below it. He straightened up after finding a box of garbage bags. Unpeeling one black bag from the roll, he retraced his steps to the door. The woman was standing where he left her, gulping the sharp air, the paper in her hand a crumpled ball, the ink staining her fingers.
Take this, he told her, giving her the bag. She took it without asking anything but after a long hard look at it, her face crumbled again.
Let’s go. It is best to reach them before the police do. Salvage what you can.
He led the way, she followed. They reached the tracks and continued walking beside them, his walking stick planting itself into the soft ground with each step. Above them, the sun won its battle against the clouds, rising up in the bleached sky.
Ajay Patri is a lawyer and writer from Bangalore, India. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Eunoia Review, Storgy Magazine, Spelk, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, and Every Day Fiction, among others. He is currently working on his first book.
Barycenter (or barycentre; from the Ancient Greek βαρύς heavy + κέντρον centre): the center of mass of two or more bodies that are orbiting each other, or the point around which they both orbit.
Things your new doctor says I am not to ask you in the middle of a dissociative event:
Where are we?
What’s my name?
What’s your name?
How old are you?
What is my name?
Look at me
Look at me
Look at me
Last night I found you huddled in the corner of our bedroom, wide awake and shaking. This was similar but not identical to that time one year ago when I broke down the bathroom door with a hammer to find you curled in a C-shape on the tile, the way you perhaps had slept in your mother’s womb. Both times, you said you were sorry. You had lain surrounded by the glass of a shattered fifth of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, and twenty-seven acetaminophen 500mg/diphenhydramine-hydrochloride 25mg pills, which I scooped into the sink to count and subtract from the number on the packaging (100) to estimate the intake (seventy-three, or 36,500 mg, with an error margin of five to ten pills that I might have missed laying under your still, silenced body). It’s not the diphenhydramine-hydrochloride that will kill you. It’s the acetaminophen, and it’s slow. I didn’t know that part until later. People on internet forums say they’d rather burn to death than die from acetaminophen poisoning. Sometimes teenagers overdose on Tylenol PM and wake up the next morning—feeling heavy and nauseous but sickeningly, gloriously alive—and then three days later, right in the middle of doing homework or playing video games or something, they collapse. It snakes its way through the blood to shut down your liver. The Emergency Medical Technician told me all this with one eyebrow raised, his shiny black work shoes behind your curled body on the floor, as if I was hiding the real number from him, as if he was daring me, as if he would wait forever until I got just the right number, counting the blue pills two by two in the sink.
I’ve never told anyone this, but you’d tried to kill yourself in the five-dollar tie-dyed Rastafarian cat T-shirt that I’d put in your Christmas stocking that year as a gag gift. It was hysterical, can’t you see? It was so unbearably funny how you wore that red-yellow-green shirt with an orange kitten with black dreadlocks and a fat blunt stuffed in its mouth your first week in the psych ward. After seven days the receptionist kindly told me I could drop off one change of clothes for you, so I went to Walmart and bought another: this one tie-dyed blue and purple behind a grey cat whose sunglasses reflected the entire galaxy, all the stars and planets, captured for one brief and beautiful moment in static, swirling motion.
I brought you, too, a notebook with Franz Wright’s “Written with a Baseball-Bat Sized Pencil” taped to the cover. You know that poem. You read The Beforelife to me on our first night together, so late the sun was almost rising, our flushed, drunken legs thrown over your futon and each other. Remember, it starts: “You can meet them all here, these people who aren’t coming back?” And it ends: “And who knows, you might be one of them yourself by now, stranger things have happened—”? I asked you to write down all the interesting characters I was so sure you’d meet there, but you just shook your head and told me, “You know, it’s not like that. It’s not actually all that fun here.” I thought you’d misunderstood, but looking back, I’m sure it was me who had not been listening all along.
Definitions I never thought I’d know before you, and can now recite like prayer, in full diagnostic language:
DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA (also known as Psychogenic Amnesia): the inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature. The most common of all dissociative disorders, frequently seen in hospital emergency rooms.
DISSOCIATIVE FUGUE (AKA PSYCHOGENIC FUGUE): a sudden, unexpected travel away from home, accompanied by an inability to recall one’s past and confusion about personal identity. Individuals in a Dissociative Fugue state appear normal to others.
DEPERSONALIZATION DISORDER: a persistent or recurrent feeling of being detached from one’s own mental processes or body, as if watching one’s life from outside one’s body, similar to watching a movie.
DISSOCIATIVE IDENTITY DISORDER (PREVIOUSLY MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER): the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of one’s behavior. These dissociated states are not fully-formed personalities, but rather fragments of identity that remember different aspects of autobiographical information. There is usually a host personality who identifies with the client’s real name and is not aware of the presence of other alters.
DISSOCIATIVE DISORDER NOT OTHERWISE SPECIFIED (DDNOS): dissociative presentations that do not meet the full criteria for any other dissociative disorder, occurring independently or concurrent with other illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or schizophrenia.
In the early days I read these to you like a test: A, B, C, or D? None of the above? All of the above? I even switched the order around periodically, to avoid test-taker and/or proctor bias.
The morning after you forget my name for the first time, I sit in the dark and watch television and try not to smoke cigarettes in our new apartment with its shitty paint job and toxic new-carpet smell. I try not to think about how alone we are together, 350 miles from Columbus, in a city where our health insurance doesn’t work. I try not to think about how we are here because of me, my insistence that a fresh start in the mountain air—rolling thick and real in sweet, cold clouds—might heal us, when what I’d really wanted was escape. Escape from the white bathroom tiles and its door that didn’t lock, not anymore, and the pencils you’d brought home that I tried to give away, which kept turning back up on my classroom floor, even weeks later. On the television, Detective Rossi and the Criminal Minds gang are hunting a serial killer who, like Ed Gein (and you), cared for a mother paralyzed by multiple strokes until her death. Like Ed Gein (but not like you), the killer has begun hunting women to dress up in coats made from their skin. I feel like I am wearing someone else’s skin. “What will we do?” the stoic supervisory special agent Hotchner asks, voice faltering in an uncharacteristic moment of humanity and weakness. “We will attack it with analysis and diligence,” Detective Rossi says, grim but admirable, determined. You are still asleep in the next room. I think about how to attack this, this faceless monster wearing your face, with analysis and diligence.
Around midnight I had come into the bedroom to find you wide awake, staring out the uncovered window. You had ripped the blinds right off the wall, probably from trying to draw them closed too fast, probably because you thought someone was watching you from the darkness, and now you sat cross-legged on the floor, spine strangely and precisely erect, with all the white panels fanning out around you. You were rocking side to side, hands clenching and unclenching, fingernails curling in to scrape the tender flesh of your palms. I gave you my hands to hold, do you remember? You were repeating the names of people long gone, but you were not gone, not yet, and I tried to remind you. I gave you both my hands to hold, which meant I had to crawl down onto the stiff carpet with you, let you warp my knuckles in your grip. Do you remember how we used to press our hands together, how I laughed at your short, stocky fingers ending exactly where my brittle, narrow ones did? Things I did not ask you: who I was, who you were, what would happen to us. Things you told me: Karen, Anne, James, Bricker. The names of people you had known in another life, people dead and buried, whom you wanted to save, desperately, as I wanted to save you now. I held both your hands and repeated their names back to you, one of which was your mother’s, and wondered if this—this separation from myself, watching my thumbs rhythmically stroke your knuckles while fear scaled the bones of my ribcage, clamoring up toward my mouth—was really any different from what was happening inside your head.
Things you have said after I’ve asked you my name:
3206 (your mother’s hospital room)
Dr. Bakker (your mother’s doctor)
You didn’t mean to (what you’d say after your mother threw things at you)
I’m sorry (directed at me)
I’m sorry (directed at your mother)
I’m sorry (directed at yourself)
Please don’t die (perhaps directed at me, or your mother, or one of the severed limbs you were trained to save on a Navy hospital ship, four years and 6,800 miles away)
The truth is, I do not know what it means to write down a trauma that is not my own but is so intrusive that it feels like it might be. I do not know what it would mean to forget who that ache belongs to. I want to write down what it means to live with—to love—someone who wants to give me everything, but at any moment can take away anything I’ve ever wanted, at least for an hour or two at a time, once a month or so, depending on the weather, environmental factors, various dosages. I wonder if, in this very act of recording, I am dissecting, dissociating these memories. I am making the like unlike and the unlike alike; I am seeing all at once the blue of your pills and the dusty pink of our Ohio sunrise and red of the pencils from the suicide ward in my students’ little hands—I am seeing all of these at once, and sometimes I feel so overwhelmingly present, as if everything I write only exists because I have made it so, and then sometimes I don’t see myself in it, not at all, not even a little.
Sydney Tammarine is (depending on the day) a Spanish teacher, translator, and writer currently pursuing her MFA at Hollins University. She once convinced a frozen yogurt company to run a coupon series she wrote all about yeti feet. Her work has appeared in Quiz & Quill and The Missing Slate, and her most recent book of literary translations, Diez Odas para Diez Grabados,is forthcoming in Santiago, Chile, from Taller 99.
I live in the middle of a really small pool in the middle of a really big room below a really circular hole in the really high ceiling. When the sun shines through the hole, the animals come and watch. When the moon shines, they go away. I don’t know where they come from, but every morning when I wake up, they’re there. I’m not sure if they’re the same ones every day. They’re animals; they all look the same to me.
Every day the animals crowd around the edge to watch me—they never touch the water. Some are dogs, a few are geese. I sometimes see a giraffe’s tall neck protruding from the crowd, and my favorites are the turtles riding on the heads of gophers. I see elephants, a moose, and there are always cats—some are fat and some are skinny.
Every morning they bring me food to eat, and every night they bring me a new mattress to sleep on. When the sun shines, they bring different things and watch to see what I do. One day they brought me three balls, and I taught myself to juggle. Some leaned in closer to watch, some left and were replaced by others, and some clapped—the crocodiles always clap for me.
Another time, they brought me a girl—they just threw her in the water. I didn’t know what to do with her, so I stared. After a few hours, I asked her her name. “Amy,” she said. I asked her where she was from. She shrugged her shoulders. I asked her if she had her own pool like I did. “No,” she said. I asked if she liked my pool. She shrugged her shoulders. The crocodiles clapped every time one of us finished a sentence. Amy wasn’t as good at treading water as I was because an hour later she drowned; the crocodiles clapped and some geese honked.
Today the animals brought me a kayak. A hippopotamus put it in the water and I climbed in. A bear handed me a paddle, and a gopher threw me a life vest. For some time I sat in the boat. I started rowing one way, but, two rows in, I hit the edge of the pool. I looked up at the animals and saw the crocodiles clapping. I looked into their eyes. “More,” they seemed to say. I rowed the other way until I hit the other end—more clapping. I looked at their eyes again. “More.” I rowed and hit the other end again. “More.” I rowed again. “More.”
The sun was starting to dip when a walrus threw a gun into the kayak. I picked it up and looked at them; they looked back at me. I set it down and started rowing. I heard some growls from the animals, so I looked into their eyes. “No,” they seemed to say. I rowed the other way until I hit the end. “No.” I rowed again. “No.”
It was getting dark. I could see the moon reflected in my pool, and most of the animals were gone—they hadn’t brought me a new mattress. There were a few still lingering: a toucan, two leopards, a few anteaters, and a crocodile. After some grunts, caws, and growls, all but one left. The crocodile remained.
I picked up the gun and looked at the crocodile. The moon was shining; he wasn’t supposed to be watching. For a while longer I fingered the gun before closing my eyes. I put the gun in my mouth, and I heard the crocodile clap.
I felt bad—who would the animals watch tomorrow?
Youssef Helmi is currently a sophomore studying Creative Writing at Florida State University. Although he hasn’t been published before, his mother once hung one of his stories on the fridge, and he thinks that’s a close second. When not writing, Youssef enjoys lifting weights, watching Wes Anderson movies, and musing over the musical merits of death metal.