The day a little gloomy, sky
not exactly low but grackles
higher than they ought to be,
their oily, boat-wake tails
dragging worn-out clouds.
And that finch song, isn’t it garbled,
its sweetness curdled by smog?
A fall of less color—too much
rain or not enough. Maple
leaves are lacy, a fretwork of veins
stripped by an insect eating against
the cold, so tiny it’s forgettable, except
in the absence it trails, in the peek-a-boo
of rooflines where leaf-bowers were.
The chimneys ooze a tobacconist’s
plume that dulls the flare of stop light,
the garish vest of the crossing guard.
A fishtail’s what you get when
you brake too hard a little late,
a fillip below the heart that sends
its queasy current to the gut. Isn’t this
the anniversary of one of your mistakes?
J. C. Todd, a Pew Fellow, is the 2016 recipient of the Rita Dove Poetry Prize, fellowships to Ucross and Ragdale, and a residency at Humboldt University in Berlin. Other fellowships include the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Leeway Foundation. She is the author of What Space This Body (Wind, 2008), and has collaborated with MaryAnn L. Miller on an artist book, FUBAR (Lucia Press, 2016). Poems have appeared in APR, Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and most recently in Beloit Poetry Journal, Ekphrasis, and Thrush. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Bryn Mawr College.
For eighteen years Eddie’s bullet was like some forgotten organ—the spleen, maybe. His cousin Denny had his spleen removed a few years ago, and the same thing: it was all right until it wasn’t, until one doctor felt a distended lump beneath cool fingers and then a flurry of signatures and warnings about lungs that may or may not collapse. Eddie is thankful that his bullet stayed under the skin, innocuous and clandestine, like a roll of undeveloped film. He never even told his ex-girlfriend; he just said he had a shoulder injury. She was still careful with it, though, as if it were something sacred, and he found himself doing the same. Over the years, the bullet’s importance swelled until it was no longer a foreign object lodged in him, but a tangible memory of its own.
And now that Eddie’s in jail it seems like the bullet is the only thing he has left, especially since Sam hasn’t called or written or visited since the trial. So, because he is afraid, he blinds his body to all the signs the doctors told him about. The pain, the tenderness—they tint his world with a dim red light, the source just out of sight. Besides, the pain isn’t so bad, not nearly as bad as the sore hope that Sam will visit. Today is Eddie’s birthday, and if she doesn’t visit today, he knows she never will. He wants nothing more than a lopsided chocolate cake and Sam’s voice to fill his hollowed-out ears.
He was only learning to speak in sentences when it happened, but he knew how to forgive. He knows now that Sam doesn’t, will carry what happened with her like her own bullet. Once, he asked her about it, and she said her memories were silent, like flipping through a set of photographs: the patterned linoleum squares under her knees, the dark metal of the gun, an impossible amount of blood, her hand against the car window. Now, eighteen years later, he made a mistake too, but she can’t accept that he isn’t the boy she built and painted gold.
Part II: Sam
This morning I take E’s kitten to the vet because her heart is beating too fast, like tiny cannonballs pelting my fingers. Besides, if she died, E would never forgive me and probably stop loaning me Bob Dylan CDs. The day I moved in, she brought over a green-bean casserole, which I thought was something people only did in movies, and introduced herself as E. Just the letter E. I couldn’t believe it at first because I can’t picture living my life with a letter as a name. It just isn’t right—a person deserves a full name. So, because of the casserole and the Bob Dylan and the nightly eleven p.m. check-ins (just to make sure I get home from work safe, because she saw a story on TV once about a waitress who was abducted by two dinner customers), I have to keep the kitten alive.
The vet doesn’t know me, but now he knows that I am slightly crazy, because the kitten is fine. It is my heart that is beating too fast. I haven’t done a project today, and it’s catching up with me. I go home and set the kitten up in the kitchen with a plate of milk and open the box that came this morning. I just couldn’t look at it because I knew if I were to put together the shelves inside it I would have to use Eddie’s screwdriver, and I can’t look at Eddie’s screwdriver right now. I’ve already organized the plates (large to small, plain to fancy) and my closet (red through violet, although I don’t have any violet clothes) and changed the locks on my door because E read an article online about how you should change your locks once a week. So the shelves are the only project I can do, and now, because of them, my mind pushes forward the fact that it’s Eddie’s birthday and leaves no room for anything else.
Inside my drawer of random crap I find a cheap birthday card with a hamster on it because Eddie doesn’t deserve balloons or a cake or a sister. Doesn’t he know I’m supposed to be the screw-up? I call Stella to ask if she’s going to visit Eddie, but she’s ten feet off the ground and staring at the ceiling fan. (“It’s like watching TV,” she says.) I put together the shelves, but they collapse when I’m done because I have left out the screws.
I turn on the TV, but it has a green tint, which makes everything look foreign. Green Oprah, green zebras eating a carcass, green, tight-faced newscasters. I look for something to eat and find only half a box of dusty soda crackers. Then I decide that the painfully white refrigerator looks too bare, so I print out a photo of three blond children and tape it up. For some reason, my brain has worked out while I wasn’t paying attention that E will be home by one, which leaves two hours until visiting hours are over. Maybe I should just drop off the card and leave. Besides, if I visited, I would be late for the dinner shift at the restaurant. And I still have things to do. I could call the mustached man older than my father who wrote his phone number on a napkin and slipped it in with the tip last night. Unfortunately, I have a rule that I don’t go out with customers who tip less than fifteen percent.
I hear E unlocking her triple-locked door and realize that I don’t know where the kitten is. I run through the apartment, squeaking the toy mouse E gave me. E knocks on the door.
“Hey, Sam, are you there?”
“Just a minute!” I yell to drown out the low hum of panic rolling across the apartment and through the crack under the door. Did I read somewhere that cats like to sleep in high places? Or was it low places? I can’t remember. I’m opening and shutting all the kitchen cupboards, slams mingling into a frantic music. Nested in the cupboard under the sink is the kitten, looking dead. I place one finger on her soft, white belly. No, her tiny heart is still beating. As I hand her over to E, I am relieved to no longer be responsible for a living thing. But once E and the kitten are gone, I’ll be alone with Eddie, and I don’t think I’m strong enough to forget for two more hours that it’s my little brother’s birthday.
Part III: Eddie
On Eddie’s bed is a letter. It’s been there for three hours, but instead of tearing it open like he thought he would, he buries himself in Steinbeck. It’s far easier to worry about Lennie and George than that letter, and whatever unknowable things lie inside it. When he finally picks it up, he sees that the address is written in languid script, which is wrong. Sam writes in short, urgent strokes. The letter is not from Sam, but Stella.
Stella has always been halfway out of Eddie’s life, one foot out the door. She’s always been the baby, only a few years younger but seemingly a lifetime apart from him and Sam. The last time he saw her she had dyed her hair from blond to raven black, which infuriated Sam. He has only something like a rough pencil sketch of her life: a rotating series of boyfriends that move in and out like actors on a stage, a rotating series of desk jobs she hates, and the drugs, which are why she can’t keep a job or a boyfriend.
She seems lost; her sentences zigzag across the page. She’s going out of her mind, she says. Her supplier overdosed, she went over to see why he wasn’t answering her calls, and he was lying there, eyes flung open like he had seen God. And she somehow got this idea from her friend that, because Eddie is in jail, he can “help her out.” She’s visiting next week.
He tears up the page until each piece contains nothing more than a single letter. He’ll write her back later, tell her not to come, but now he needs a minute to respond to the absence of a different letter, which feels like staring into the sun. He returns to Steinbeck.
At the bell, he walks to the laundry room through a thick haze, almost missing the door. A man about his age is already inside, throwing pairs of khaki pants into the machine. Eddie recognizes him from the courtyard, where he was doing jump shots at the basketball hoop this morning. He doesn’t give an indication that he wants to talk, and Eddie doesn’t want to pollute the crisp silence with words. They load pants into the rows of washing machines, then the dryers. Eddie finds himself staring at the machines, hypnotized by their collective rhythm until it becomes a vulgarity, like fifty ticking clocks in a room. Their swishes echo in his ears, synchronized with his breath. He sees himself from above, a red light radiating from his shoulder like in those aspirin commercials—
Then Eddie is on the floor, the man kneeling beside him.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” he says. If the officers find out, they’ll send him to the doctor, and he’ll lose his bullet.
“Are you dying?” the man asks.
Eddie sits up on the floor, his back against the nearest machine. He pulls up his sleeve to the top of his shoulder. “God, I hope not.”
One side of the man’s mouth quirks up for a second until he notices Eddie’s shoulder, swollen purple like a ripe plum.
“That’s a bullet wound,” he says, then lifts up his shirt to reveal a small crater a few inches from his belly button.
“Yeah. I don’t blame the guy, though. I did break in. I didn’t realize so many people keep guns in their houses.” He shrugs the wound away like a cut or a bruise, as though he didn’t once have a piece of metal embedded in his stomach.
“Mine was an accident,” Eddie says, then, “eighteen years ago.”
“Oh,” he says, “then what’re you in for?”
“I stole a car. Well, it was my girlfriend’s—ex-girlfriend’s—idea, and we were going to return it.” It sounds so moronic now, in front of this stranger. He feels an inexplicable urge to defend himself to this man, to show him he may not be the golden Eddie, but he’s not this Eddie either. “I’m really not the joyrider type.”
The man nods. “I wasn’t the larceny type, either.” He stares at Eddie’s shoulder again. “You know, you should really get that thing checked out. It looks pretty bad.”
“I know. I just—it’s a part of me now, you know?” Eddie wishes he could pour out the jumbled contents of his mind like Sam’s old coin collection.
The man’s eyes are blank. “Not really. I wanted that thing out of me as soon as possible. I kind of wish they had let me keep it, though.”
“The bullet?” Eddie’s throat constricts.
“Yeah. Doctor told me it was evidence.” Eddie doesn’t reply, just grinds his feet into the gray linoleum and pushes himself up, letting the machines once again overtake the silence.
Part IV: Sam
“One forty-three p.m. Sam departing for jail. Estimated time of return is?”
“I don’t know. Visiting hours are over at three,” I say. I’ve already started out the door twice, but never made it past the stairs.
“Estimated time of return unknown; no later than three thirty,” she says into her tape recorder. Lately E has been chronicling all of our comings and goings. (“Police can use these things,” she says.)
I’m outside the jail, which is red brick and not as scary-looking as I thought, but is sadder-looking. I should’ve visited earlier. I am a terrible sister, worse than that girl in the news who tried to sell her brother. The thought of Eddie alone in there hurts me so much that I almost turn right back around again. The basketball hoop outside doesn’t even have a net, which for some reason bothers me very much, and I know that the sky here is the same as the one above my building, but it doesn’t seem like it.
The visitor waiting area is full of different people with the same expression. When Eddie comes out I have to pinch myself because he’s not my Eddie, he’s another Eddie, blurry and out of focus, faded and drained of color like an old photograph. I grab his hand because my throat is too tight to speak.
“Sam.” Is he happy to see me? I can’t tell. I search his eyes.
“Happy birthday,” I say, and hand him the hamster card, which now seems ridiculously inappropriate.
“Stella wrote me,” he says, but what he means is: You didn’t. “She thinks I can get her drugs or something.” He smiles, which I take as an invitation to hug him, but when I do he cries out, clutching his shoulder. That is when I notice that it is purple and swollen and all wrong.
“Oh, my God, Eddie.” I search his eyes again, which look afraid, which look the same way they looked eighteen years ago.
I can see him gearing up to tell a lie, but he can’t lie to me, not his sister, not the one who caused this.
“It’s nothing.” I want to scream, and shake him, and make him whole again, make him my Eddie again without that hunk of metal inside him.
“You need to have it taken out. Now.”
He tells me he passed out this morning, but that the pain isn’t so bad, not now that I’m here, and that he can’t get his bullet taken out. His bullet, he says. I need the bullet out as much as he needs it in, but since it is in his body the bullet is more his than mine. And I can see that he won’t change his mind.
“You’re being selfish,” I say.
“No, you are. You just want me to get it taken out so you can forget it ever happened.”
Oh, God, my baby brother is going to kill himself. Who is this man in front of me, who steals cars and thinks he is invincible? He is going to die eighteen years after I almost killed him. I dump out the contents of my bag and line them up: hand sanitizer, three safety pins, two buttons, a bottle of aspirin, my little black notebook, cinnamon Altoids, a pen I stole from the Marriott. By the time I look up, Eddie is gone.
Part V: Eddie (Four months later)
Eddie finishes tying his shoes, the same dirt-caked ones from the day he arrived at the jail. He fingers the envelope in his pocket, feels for the hard metal inside. When the doctor first showed him the bullet, he could hardly believe how small it was, barely bigger than a quarter. He wants to show it to Sam, wants her to see how small it is, how small it was this whole time. In the distance he sees flashing car headlights. He steps out into an alien world, no longer tinted red, but bright white, so bright it blinds him.
Julia Gourary is a student and writer from New York City, currently a freshman at Yale University. Her poetry and prose have been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She was named a 2017 National YoungArts Finalist in Short Story and a finalist for the 2017 Adroit Prize for Prose. This is her first published piece.
YOU’RE ALWAYS IN MY HAIR
by E. Kristin Anderson
I’ve seen the future and it will be
puffy-eyed. We’ll rise like an army
of teeth, you and me seeded in sick earth
to grow into what might be: strange,
beautiful shunned in this apartment
third from the sun.
I miss you like magnolia wet at my feet,
lavender far beyond the reach of waves.
There’s the exit flashing red (always
in our way, in our way)—you, somehow
new power in lids behind fleshy dark.
My heart beats so hard the bed shakes,
the night turns.
We speak in tongues that are also vipers
and from our guts grow swarms of birds.
Mountains grew so high, and we
wore hats to protect the truth—felted,
woven, wide brims, coy grins. Once
this life was the sum of its parts;
the details have melted to muscle
I find thanks in raspberries straight from the bush
stems attached, someone’s skin left on the branch.
How do you measure controversy?
In shouts or in ripples? They find a bullet
in my pocket, a tube of lipstick. I find
that paradise is a condition. I feel a little less
on the bus wearing black sweating violet
into my elbows.
Imagine what silence looks like.
Imagine what silence looks like.
E. Kristin Anderson is a poet, Prince fan, Starbucks connoisseur, and glitter enthusiast living in Austin, Texas. She is the co-editor of Dear Teen Me, and her next anthology, Hysteria: Writing the Female Body, is forthcoming from Sable Books. She is currently working on Come as You Are, an anthology of writing on 90s pop culture. Kristin is the author of seven chapbooks of poetry including A Guide for the Practical Abductee (Red Bird Chapbooks), Pray, Pray, Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the Middle of the Night (Porkbelly Press), Fire in the Sky (Grey Book Press), She Witnesses (dancing girl press), and We’re Doing Witchcraft (Hermeneutic Chaos Press). Kristin is an editor and designer at Red Paint Hill and was formerly a poetry editor at Found Poetry Review. Once upon a time she worked at The New Yorker. Find her online at EKristinAnderson.com and on Twitter @ek_anderson.
. The mood of the river is to glitter
which also is a way to deflect,
if I had to name its surface,
I’d say it was the color of a sweaty disco tank.
Color is how we comprehend the length of light
and what constitutes darkness is not without controversy;
water swallows all of the spectrum
except blue, which is what it reflects.
But this river has a motion like that woman at the airport
who wanded me in a long ago security drill
then bent close, sniffed my perfume
and said Opium, man that takes me back
and I won’t say she exactly did the Hustle
but I won’t say she was exactly still.
Merridawn Duckler is a poet and playwright from Portland, Oregon. Recently, her poetry has appeared in The Offing, Unbroken Journal, Free State Review, Crab Creek Review, Literary Orphan, Dunes Review,and others. She was runner-up in the Arizona Poetry Center Contest, judged by Farid Matuk, and a finalist at Center for Book Arts, Tupelo Press, and the Sozoplo Fiction Fellowship. Her fellowships and awards include [email protected], NEA, Yaddo, Squaw Valley, SLS in St. Petersburg, Russia, Southampton Writers Conference, and Wigleaf Top 50 in micro-fiction, among others. She is an editor at Narrative and the international philosophy journal Evental Aesthetics.
BLACK CHAMELEON, ORANGE DOG, YELLOW LIGHTNING by Max Sheppard
Ghosts ruined our party. We were a mess
when the lampshade began to shake.
I was so drunk on whiskey and salt and
the fluids of your body. A faux-Greek
vase on the table. Dead yellow roses.
A staple of our culture is to intuit
words before they are spoken. I raise
my body from the crouching position and
look through a small telescope to see
your deepest space. From a distance
your skin looks like darkness. From a
distance your skin is changing red then
indigo then quartz. The clouds of gas
spiral out of control. I am a spaceship
sending out several signals
to beacon for help. I kick the table. Did you know that Jack Daniel died of a toe infection? I didn’t. You look at the
ceiling. I seal my lips because I don’t know
what to say. We go to an imaginary grave
where we put flowers. I don’t remember.
Tornadoes don’t become dangerous until
they learn to walk. I learned to walk when
I was 16 years old, learned about
alchemy then god then redoubts where
soldiers bit the dust as they say. I don’t
mean to say it like a metaphor. Did you notice the sun changed colors last year?
Me neither. I lay outside during
the summer and drank several beers
until I could see fire everywhere. If you
drink beer fast enough you can see time
slipping away faster than a fast dog,
like a greyhound or some other one I can’t
remember the name of. A redoubt is
a defensive structure. Redoubts were
used during the colonial era of Europe.
Redoubt means place of retreat. If you
hide for long enough people will
stop looking for you. My secret place
is not called a redoubt but a deep freeze.
My lungs are filled with different
kinds of dust. Heat the wax. Dip the hand.
Cool the hand. Dip the wax. Heat the hand.
Cool the wax. If you put your hand into
a hole that’s lined with spikes then what
do you expect? I go outside most days.
Some days not. Some days I nod off
all day until I nod off permanently for sleep.
My life looks like a mess from a distance.
If you see me with a cloud around my head
just know that I am full of foreign substance.
Tomorrow, I will get on a plane and
go to a place where all the buildings
are tall as mountains and will
be so unsure of myself. It’s okay. You don’t have to know what you want. No one says. Will you be my redoubt? I say. My place
of retreat. When I go inside you, can I hide
from all the heat, hide from this goddamn
sun? Be my deep freeze. Put your body
on my throat. On my lungs. On my fingers.
Let me clench you close, like the words
I tongue for meaning. Be spelled between
my lips. Be flown into an electrical storm.
Be inside the basement. A cold duct will
take you down, down, down.
Max Sheppardis a BFA painting graduate from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and he can’t help but confuse himself further by writing poems as well. He once had a dream about becoming an outline inside of a giant coat. His pastimes include lying on the floor, and watching three-hour Japanese dramas. He currently lives in Milwaukee with his dog, cat, and fiancée Sarah, who are all generously tolerant of his constant sociopolitical ramblings.
We let our socks sear on hot concrete. Twelve laps around the pool, then we jump in. We splash dead frogs onto each other and croak with towels around our bony shoulders, shaking like biology class skeletons. We put our pruned palms together, trying to align the ridges against one another. Connected by skin, we smile.
We hold onto the edge of the diving board to see who can last the longest. We shout about the infinite depths of the water and then we fall in. Who’s to say which of us lets go first? It doesn’t matter, we just fall and fall. Eight feet under, ten, twelve feet under, until our feet hit the bottom.
The bottom feels slimy on the balls of our feet. We want up. Away from the giant squids and the Moby Dicks; back up to the finite.
We dry out in grass. A bridge of ants connects our big toes. We squirm but don’t get up. We let the grass itch us like crazy. We think it feels good to dry in the sun—to itch together and let the ants climb over us. Don’t ever get up, we say, because here we have everything in the world, even if everything is only the heat in the air, the itch, the ants, our pruned palms, our wet skin drying, our flat skeletons. Here we look up to the spinning Milky Way. Here we grow long-armed and hairy.
And even when we leave, we still come back. We come back in those times we’re alone—thinking about fire ants and callused fingers, diving boards and slimy pool bottoms. We’re right there. Sometimes we call from across the world, Let’s really go back, we can, you know? We whisper to each other over the receiver. We hear our hesitation over a line that becomes hissy and breaks up. And what scares us is not that we won’t go back; it’s that we’ll forget how to find where it was. We’ll find it wasn’t really everything.
Alex Eaker is pursuing his MFA at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC. The city has stolen him away from his hometown in Connecticut, and may never return him. This is his first published story.
I…..found…..you.. ..bloated…..and …..glowing….. on …..the….. bed
you…..unscrewed….. my….. nipples….. to …..a …..Janet …..Jackson …..track …..until
a…..pile…..of…..warm …..jewels …..poured….. into …..your …..cupped …..palm
you …..thought….. I….. was …..a …..girl
I …..didn’t….. know….. what …..to …..think
in….. that….. picture….. you …..keep
my….. chest….. is….. a …..ripple …..in….. the….. lake….. of….. my …..shirt
I …..am …..a …..human….. animal …..covered …..in …..red …..marks….. of …..shame
on …..the …..beach …..everyone …..is….. in …..their …..bodies
july …..is….. on …..fire
I …..am …..leaving
so …..many …..important …..people …..behind….. me
I…..release….. you …..from …..forgiveness
I …..watch …..your …..name…..light….. up …..blue
on…..the….. box …..in….. my …..pocket …..you …..know
how …..a …..person …..can …..be …..changed
it’s…..not….. the….. same …..as …..changing
mud howard is a non-binary trans poet from the states. mud is co-editor of the blackout queer zine project pnk prl & a youth fellow for Transfaith. they write about queer intimacy, interior worlds and the cosmic joke of the gender binary. they are currently enrolled in a Creative Writing MA, but for now you can find more of their work at www.mudhoward.com.
I made it to the moon and nothing changed.
If I had something urgent to say nothing changed.
If I made it beyond the moon, lost in so much distance,
Space out of space out space, nothing changed.
Perhaps a fiercer loneliness.
If I didn’t have something urgent to say nothing changed.
Not the daily or weekly drive to the grocery store,
The mall, just to stay a target, a moving target,
Just to stay in the game.
You on that other coast, that dark side of the moon
That none us, caught on this paltry side
In this fusion of light and shattered star glitter,
Can see, and imagine, and almost always get it wrong.
Midnight, blood silver and cold.
The needle a possum crawling under your skin.
Still a need to say the something of nothing.
The odometer has turned insane, the body is rusting out,
And I could be talking about a car.
To drive, no driven. You always thought
The stratosphere was not the limit. Now you know
Shedding the scales of gravity, coins were taped
Over your eyes before you lifted off to walk among craters.
Walter Bargen has published nineteen books of poetry. His recent books include Days Like This Are Necessary: New & Selected Poems (2009) and Trouble Behind Glass Doors (2013). Too Quick for the Living will be published in November 2017. He has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the William Rockhill Nelson Award, and served as the first poet laureate of Missouri (2008-2009). More at www.walterbargen.com
STILL LIFE WITH CARBURETOR
by Christopher David Rosales
Inside the Piggly-Wiggly, picking out beans, P-Nut suppressed the headache brought on by the bruise on the back of his neck. He’d gotten the bruise from the can of beans that his wife chucked at him. It bounced off of him and clattered into the sewer. So he walked away to fetch them the dinner of the can of beans. Was it the same can of beans that she would then chuck at him? He was losing track. But he knew this: Van Camp’s was the right kind. Hormel was not the right kind. The red stamp and the dent said so. The register blinked .79. So, 79 cents was the cost of magic beans.
He walked along the tracks running through the town, the sign above and behind him burnt out to read iggly-iggly. The tracks beneath his brogans had once brought the Coca-Cola shipments into the factory that had employed him and his father before. The factory shut down some time ago. Not all the town was so ramshackle as this part. Some parts of town were still sweet-smelling and clean, with families living on plots of land and white-haired couples driving refurbished classic cars. This was the part of town with slouched couches on crushed porches, weeds growing through the gaps in the floorboards.
He remembered the last time his day had gone differently. She chucked the can of beans at the back of his neck as he walked off. And his coworker Bobby drove by shouting, then pulled the rumbling Ford from ’76 into a cloud of its own dust. P-Nut caught up with Bobby leaning through the driver-side window, smiling around a Pall Mall above the half-pint of Skol in his chest pocket. Bobby was on his way to work and asked if P-Nut might pick up a shift on account of Cecil was sick with the flu.
P-Nut said yes and all night long he checked the seals the machines put on the boxes. He bought a Payday candy bar from the vending machine for dinner. It was sticky, salty sweet. He put the boxes on pallets with half the Payday sticking out of his mouth. With the forklift he swung the pallets around to grace the truck. Finally, and this was his favorite part, he tugged on the truck’s gate handle and leapt down through the air, letting his momentum achieve the resounding crash that would signal to the driver it was time to pull the truck away, out over the tracks, onto State Route 149, through fields and past churches. He mapped it, that route, on the back of an unused Coca-Cola label spread on his knee while he used the toilet. He liked the music of that route. Three-nineteen, four-oh-four, seventy-five, twenty-four, fifty-seven, sixty-four, then seventy all the way west.
But today was the day the can of beans would be chucked at the back of his neck and leave a bruise in the shape of a plum pit, the shape of his journey home, before the can clattered into the sewer. He would then need to go to the store and buy the can of beans that would be chucked at the back of his neck and leave a bruise in the shape of a plum pit, the shape of his journey home, before the can clattered into the sewer. Not that it had to be a bad day. If he could just hold on for one more trip he knew he would get one more trip. And if he could just hold on for that one trip, he knew he would get one trip more.
Christopher David Rosales is the author of a novel, Silence the Bird, Silence the Keeper (Mixer Publishing, 2015), which won the McNamara Creative Arts Grant. Previously he won the Center of the American West’s award for fiction three years in a row. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Denver and incoming faculty at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Rosales’ second novel, Gods on the Lam, is available from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing.
All the fruits bursting
with prophecies without
an easy way through the
branches of apricot tree.
Outside, the snow crowded
to drown the lives. My hands
a wet door that could never
hope for the faith of miracles.
Yet, my lips quickened into
prayer, the tongue dipped on
on the satin roof of the mouth.
The owls leaned into the
solid flesh of the sky,
carved a new daylight
so we could yarn the day
with eggs, leaves and
browning fruits. My
mother knew where my
shoulder tilted, so she
could separate hers from
mine. The magic of being
a firstborn is cold and
carries three false words.
A lone body frightens death.
Sometimes, there’s something
wrong with the ground. Then,
the only way we sit still is by
falling through unconditionally.
Shinjini Bhattacharjee’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bitter Oleander, Cimarron Review, Superstition Review, Gargoyle, A-Minor, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. She is the author of two chapbooks: ‘There is No Way to Alter the Gravity for a Doll’ (dancing girl press, 2016) and ‘In My Landscape, I Am Not Real’ (Glass Lyre Press, 2018), and serves as the founding editor of Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal and Press. Read more at her website www.shinjinibhattacharjee.com.
When I lift the lid of the compost bin
heat swells toward me, the first layer:
clippings from grass mown as soon
as the rain dries. Farley said, If you cut hay
still green it’ll set the barn on fire. When it
breaks down it’ll heat up and combust.
At the bottom, red worm slivers weave
intricacies in watermelon rind, husk
from garlic, peach pits. Discarded, our
native peaches are half eaten, below
the grapevine, too hard even for bears
who leave prints only Farley can read.
When I lift the lid of the cold frame, I
watch for snakes, but no one swirls
under chard’s pink and yellow stems,
the cover of splayed collards, or linked
to peppery watercress. Last week Farley
combed the bank for a stick he cut to a fork,
pinned it over the copperhead, but it swirled
itself into mulch, and Farley twirled it up
like a marshmallow blistering from fire,
pulled clippers from his back pocket,
snipped its head, whose jaws kept
opening like a Venus Flytrap’s mouth.
It’ll keep moving til dark, he told us. Only good snake is a dead snake.
Mandela was in prison; Free Mandela
was a chant we heard in our heads,
and I’d gone into prison with a poet friend,
Etheridge, to give a workshop, ended up
writing letters to one of the men. My
husband says, years later, What was
he in for? At the time, it seemed within
reason he’d sliced his wife’s boyfriend.
In the end we find out who, among our
friends, would call the cops, turn us in.
Tina Barr’s poems have been recently published or are forthcoming in Atlanta Review, American Book Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Gettysburg Review, Louisiana Literature, New Orleans Review, Texas Review, Zone 3, and others. Her books include Kaleidoscope (Iris Press) and The Gathering Eye (Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize). She co-edits The Shining Rock Poetry Anthology & Book Review. Read more at www.shiningrockpoetry.com.
The orange sticky note is hard to miss—the corner peels off, pricks me as I pluck it from the headboard of my bed. Your handwriting is large and round. I hope your interview goes well tomorrow. Remember to be yourself! I toss it into the garbage and get ready for bed. The next morning, I pause in front of the mirror and dig the note out of the bin before shoving it into the pocket of my dress pants.
My mother is dying.
The last thing you wrote.
I was myself.
I was lucky enough to live in LA for one week. I learned how to hail a taxi and dance on the beach. I dipped my toes into the cool Pacific as the sun sank below the horizon and watched a sea lion chasing fish off a lighted pier in the middle of the night. When I return home, I tell you LA wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. You’ve never been to the West Coast, and you never will.
What you’d place in a time capsule.
Three feet below the ground, you will not feel the earth as it presses down from above. Beside you, the peel of a Halo, the only brand of clementine you would ever buy; chapstick I stole from your dresser; a playbill for The Secret Garden; the last book you borrowed from me, The Golden Compass; and all the pens that have run out of ink in my attempts to write about you.
Victoria-Lynn Bell is a student attending Central Connecticut State University. She is editor-in-chief of The Helix, an undergraduate literary and art magazine. When she’s not climbing mountains or swallowing saltwater, she can be found with a good book and a purring cat.
a sky reproduced in pixels. or oil acrylic. to match what then is believed seen. how our seeing displaces the thing itself. how our need to document interrupts the flutter of a heart suddenly awakened to a new love. that this kiss takes on more than what it is or might have promised. the same way your front teeth overlap. or your cheeks turn red when laughing bright loudly. that a white canvas opens immediately to comparisons. of a snow covered plain. or the smooth opening of your pale stomach.
Gary Lundy is a queer living in Missoula, Montana. His poetry has appeared most recently in Panoplyzine, Transcending Shadows Review, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, Beautiful Losers, and Vallum. His book Heartbreak Elopes into a Kind of Forgiving was released in July 2016 by Is A Rose Press. Each summer Gary is one of the instructors of the mandolin building class at Rocky Grass Academy, in Lyons, Colorado.
Sylvia works stain into peeled orangewood counters while the sunset peeks in muted veil through kitchen window milk glass. The month of flowering is nearly finished, and this barren woman has a wedding to attend. Too stressed by her own state of affairs, she daren’t dream herself into any others—she for(goes/gets) the gift.
Her body had been a pebble to him, or perhaps he’d thought himself a colossus; still, it felt bizarre to shake his hand now that the fountains were dry and the roses over. She stirred the silence so her mind could quit its usual habitations: “I’m sorry, I bought you a wine rack but didn’t bring it”—he for(gives/feits) the absence.
At home the leaves in the garden are already yellow to the heavens. She walks among them and lets the sun ruin her for a blank hour like a shored trout. Upstairs she undresses, thinks about scars. An old gown soiled with memories sits out of stasis in the dim wardrobe. She pulls it down and wraps it ’round herself like a fever, then walks for(ward/lorn) to a small spot in front of the mirror, a black-hole woman, a vase for paradise.
Drew Knapp is a writer living in Washington, DC. He has previously published work in decomP, Hobart, The Citron Review, and others and received two Pushcart Prize nominations. His first book, monologue pastiche, is forthcoming. He can be reached via Twitter @ggzuzwan.
The last time I saw my ex-wife, we were sitting next to each other on a faded picnic blanket in a field of daisies and late-spring grass so bright that I could feel my corneas crisping. She looked great, as always. She was wearing a pair of black cutoff shorts that she’d made herself, cuffed high enough to show the mermaid tattoo looping down onto her upper thigh. She was hot, the hot mom. A hot mess.
Attraction isn’t a tragedy; she wasn’t a tragic figure to me, at that moment. Her shirt showed both bra straps and more tattoos, decorating her upper arms and all I could think was, I used to fuck this woman and everyone who sees us together assumes I probably still am, even though I was over a decade older, and that made my body feel full of blood and I was proud of how hot she was, taking credit for it kind of. It must have been apparent that I had something going on that would attract this super hot woman to me. Sex was everywhere that spring, bees and little white flowers each with a golden nipple in its center.
“Hang on,” she said, glancing at her phone. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I said. I looked over at another mother, one my age, with a long lumpy ass and black yoga pants. That was my dating pool now. At the rehab I owned, women like that were the majority of my clients. Lumpy, sad, and drunk. I watched as one of the woman’s two sons took off his shoe and threw it at her. “I’m gonna punch you in the face!” he screamed.
“What a little shit,” Boo said.
“I’m so glad our kid isn’t an asshole,” I said.
“Must be a recessive gene, huh?”
A hundred feet away, Jim ran across the soccer field, tailing the ball. He was nine. Lanky, like me. He had Boo’s sweetness, her weird compassion that made her too tender with strangers, and my body. My build and my eyes. Maybe my brain would grow between his ears someday: in time.
“Is that coffee?”
Brown slush in a mason jar. She swirled its contents, and her bangles clinked softly on her wrist. I knew they were real gold; I’d bought them for her. “I made it at home. I freeze the coffee and milk in an ice cube tray. It doesn’t get diluted.”
If things between us had been one degree different, I would have asked for a taste. But no. I looked at the jar and the soft, blurry quality of her face. I knew that look: there was a correlation.
“Why do you care if it gets watered down?”
She just rolled her eyes. She was my second wife, a rebound that turned serious. We stuck around each other, mostly because of Jim but also because our marriage covered some hard years. We were horrible to each other a lot of the time, but I think we both had the feeling that we grew up together. That special bond. I’m sure wardens feel the same way about their inmates.
Five years after the divorce, I liked how we were easy with one another. It helped that I was working on Wife Number Three, a less hot version of Boo who had a great personality and liked kids. Specifically, my kid. I hoped to get it right this time, and finally get into a marriage that didn’t have claw marks all over it.
“He’s not much of a player,” she said. “Look at him. He’s not even paying attention.”
The ball sailed past Jim. “He’s nine. This isn’t the World Cup.”
“You signed him up for this. If he has a meltdown in the car on the way home—you know how sensitive he is.”
No, you’re sensitive, I thought. “The point is to give him a chance to socialize. It’s fine.”
A few days before, Jim presented each of us with an elaborately drawn letter. Mine had big curly script and was decorated with crude likenesses of Jim’s favorite Pokemon characters. “I Wish you were Still Together,” the note said. I folded it twice and put it in my pocket. He must’ve been looking at the wedding pictures I kept packed away in the study.
“He’ll end up like the other little bastards,” Boo said. “Picking up their habits. Our baby. What if he ends up normal?”
“No danger of that.”
She drank deeply from the jar. A drop of coffee lingered on the corner of her mouth. When the small, pink bud of her tongue edged out to lick it away, I felt my skin tighten around me. She was still the focal point of my entire world. I fantasized about her, even when I was with other women. Of course we’d gotten married for the wrong reasons—but I couldn’t tell anyone that. I didn’t love Boo the way I loved my first wife, but unlike the first one I found myself unable to stop loving her. Boo wasn’t normal and in her presence I wasn’t, either. Our connection was the thing that, at last, made me feel like someone special.
“What’s in the coffee, Boo?”
“Can I try?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said. “Mine.” She tilted her head back and I watched her throat contort as she swallowed the rest of it. Beyond her, Jim ran across the field, one of a dozen brightly colored jerseys. The whistle blast that hit my ears like a slap. Boo set the empty jar down and grinned at me. She’d looked at me like that the first time I met her, all those years ago, when neither of us had any idea what we were in for.
At the time, I was bartending at O’Brien’s while I finished up my last few credits in my psychology program. The money was good, and I was bored but paying my rent. I talked to a lot of drunks. But behold, one night there was Boo. I knew she was different, right away.
She wore flowers in her hair. She came in with a few friends, propped herself up in the corner booth. As my shift went on, her companions departed one by one and left her alone. I went over with a pint glass of club soda and a damp rag. The petals of her daisy crown caught the red lights of the bar’s neon.
“You all right over here?” I asked, swiping at the napkin dispenser. She eyed me, shrugged.
“Bars are boring places. Look around you.” I gestured with the rag. “You’re young, you’ll figure it out.”
“I’m not a baby,” she said. She took the club soda. “I’m not even supposed to be here, it was someone else’s idea.”
Behind me, someone kicked the jukebox. The recording of Lou Reed had a glitch in it and kept skipping around. In the back, a basket of frozen potatoes hit the hot oil. She was in the wrong place, for sure. The daisies. Her round face reminded me of Bridget Bardot. She had a sweet, lopsided smile. I took her hand when she offered me a crumpled dollar bill.
“I’ll come back,” she said.
“Don’t,” I replied, and closed her fingers over the money. When I touched her, I felt the ground shift under me, as though the moon had leaned down to look at us through the window. She was something else.
The next time I saw her was two years later, at the rehab. My receptionist buzzed her into my office. No flower crown this time, though she still had a freshness to her. She wore a dark blue skirt suit and tiny, leaf-shaped diamond studs. She set her sleek travel case down next to her chair.
“You look expensive,” I said.
“Do I know you?” she asked.
“I’m not slinging drinks anymore,” I said. “I remember you.”
“I wish I could say the same. I thought I knew every rehab director in my region.”
She was repping a new antidepressant that was supposed to be a perfect fit for people just sobering up; it paired effortlessly with Anabuse and the other beta-blockers. I took the glossy pamphlets and business card she offered me and noticed how her perfectly manicured fingers lingered near mine on the desk. Pharma sales was borderline prostitution—the companies sent young, sexy girls around to take you to dinner while they repeated into your willing ears the benefits of the latest non-generic wonder drug, the pill that was going to change your entire practice. I was against it in principle, but who didn’t like pretty women? I was working eighty hours that week at the center and needed a break. So we had sushi. I sat next to her in the booth, pressed my thigh against hers. It didn’t have to go any further, and she seemed relieved when all I wanted to do after dinner was walk her to her car. After a couple of weeks, I gave her a call.
“I’m not interested in the drug,” I said.
“That’s a line,” she answered, but I could hear the smile in her voice.
“I just want you to know that, the next time we see each other, you won’t have to give me the corporate lap dance. I’m not interested in what you’re selling. In fact, I’d like to buy you dinner.”
“I bet you would,” she said. “You know? I don’t think I’ve ever been to a dive like O’Brien’s. A girl like me.”
“There’s only one girl like you,” I told her. “You’re unforgettable.”
“You’re really laying it on.”
“I’m not usually like this. Honestly.”
I didn’t mind it when she laughed at me. Back then, it meant that she thought I was funny.
It’s not like I woke up the next morning with her hair in my mouth, the cells that would become Jim incubating inside her. No. We saw each other frequently, though, and I liked her. I told her all the the time that she was too young for me, and she responded with Freud jokes. She was the only person in my life who teased me—I liked it. It was a relief to have someone around who didn’t take me as seriously as I took myself. I loved who I was when I was with her, loosened up, never worried about the future. And, back then, I trusted her, though she never made a move to introduce me to her family or her friends.
Although there was the question of her pain.
The pain was mysterious, a third party in our relationship. In the beginning, she gave the impression that it was intermittent. Sometimes it was there, and sometimes not. Once she moved in, I realized that the pain was chronic, ambient, and all-demanding, like a colicky child. She tried everything for it, every over the counter remedy, hot baths, red wine. Herbal supplements. Edibles. She started to go crazy, trying things that didn’t work. When I suggested that pain that wouldn’t submit to normal treatments might be psychosomatic, she accused me of being unsympathetic.
“You can’t tell me what I feel,” she said. She turned away from me in bed when the pain was strong. I had every reason to want to help her. “I should just go back to San Diego. I miss surfing. Being close to the water.”
But she was in pain, so she stayed.
The morphine, I admit, was my idea. I brought her sheets of little white pills from the clinic, marked as “samples/training” in our inventory, in case of an audit. Boo responded to the morphine. In fact, it was the only thing that worked, so she took it all the time. When she ran low on her supply, I brought her more. Then, she was sweet and funny again and when I drove her around, she put her arm around my shoulders and played with my hair, stroking down over my nape and touching my collar. Life with Boo made my worries fade. One night, as she was falling asleep in my arms, her body going soft and malleable, I asked her to marry me. I am sure she told me yes.
If I had any idea that the drugs would be a problem; if I’d known what she was mixing the morphine with; if I had known about the stashes of empty bottles and bubble packs she kept around my house; if she had been less careful about cleaning up after herself, then perhaps our relationship wouldn’t have gone as far. Or maybe that’s a lie. The idea of life without Boo was too horrible to consider. I wanted more of her, always. Sometimes, holding her, I had the crazy urge to bite her face, or eat her, because she was so delicious and trusting and I wanted every part of her so close to me that we were one flesh. When I told her this, she laughed and let me gently sink my teeth into her cheek.
“You want me inside you?” she said. “That’s a reversal.”
I didn’t realize the extent of her problem, until she got sloppy about covering her tracks. One day, I came home from work and found her in the tub, soaking. When I went in to kiss her, she lifted her chin obediently. I noticed that the water was cold.
“How long have you been in here?” I asked.
She smirked, shrugged. Her pupils were huge. I put my hand on her shoulder. Her skin was the chilled texture of a cadaver. I had the feeling that I could have sunk my fingers into her and torn out a handful and that she would simply have watched me do it, smiling her lovely half tilted, empty smile. And there was a suggestive trace of powder on the sink. And an empty champagne flute, submerged between her feet.
“Boo,” I said. “What else are you taking?”
“Go away,” she said, her voice lazy. “I’m not ready to talk to you.”
She only screamed once: when I lifted her out of the water, a high stabbing note. If I hadn’t seen the evidence, I might have believed I was hurting her. I laid her on the bed and wrapped her in a quilt. She started to shiver. She wouldn’t answer questions about substance, dose, intervals. She rolled over and tried to go to sleep.
“If you pass out, I can promise that you’ll wake up in the clinic,” I said.
“You’d like that, hmm?”
“I don’t want you to die, Boo. What did you take?”
“Mind your own business.”
“I could take you there now. Thirty day detox. Is that what you want?”
“I hate you,” she sighed, and closed her eyes.
“Boo, you’re my everything. You bitch.” I shook her by the shoulder. “You can’t do this to me.”
“I’m in pain. Leave me alone.”
I let her sleep while I went through her belongings. I searched the car I’d bought her. I went through her pockets and her purse. Everything I found was problematic. She was still taking the morphine I gave her. Mismatched baggies suggested that she was also scoring from at least two dealers, and her texts implied that she was fucking one or both of them. I also found slips for uncollected prescriptions for benzos and more painkillers, tucked into a book she always carried around. The pad of paper, with the doctor’s name at the top of each page and his signature pre-scribbled at the bottom, was in her lingerie drawer. Was I furious? I don’t remember. I collected all of it. This was the girl I loved. Sick.
“Why are you always at work? I get lonely when you’re gone,” she said when I woke her. She was drooling, tongue too big for her mouth. “Do you love me?”
“I’m trying to save your life,” I said.
“Why won’t you just let me be dead?”
I took a week off from work and detoxed her at home; my first vacation since I started the center. My assistant director handled operations, I stayed on top of my email, and as far as I know, nobody asked any questions. I flushed the baggies and wiped surfaces clean of powders. I bagged her empty bottles and left them in the alley behind the drug store. I put her cell phone in the dishwasher and ran it, twice. I read her emails. She was in deeper than I expected. Plenty to work with. After the first three days—she’d gotten most of the vomiting and shaking over with—Boo sat up and asked for food. I made her a grilled cheese and we discussed her options.
“I don’t feel safe with you,” I said. “You’ve lied. You can’t do this again.”
“You’ll die. Or you won’t, and I’ll find you and check you in.”
“My hero.” Her tone was dry as a new dollar bill.
“Please, Boo. Let me take care of you—keep you safe. Nobody will know about this except us.”
“You’re insane. I want to take a bath. I don’t want to eat this.”
I stared. She had vomited less than an hour before, but I wanted her. My first wife was in Africa now, sourcing coffee beans for her line of artisanal cold brews. Leni was my age, collecting sun damage and stories that made her interesting at cocktail parties. Boo, in comparison, was a child—complicated, but not yet complex. She was wild and whole and I desired her with a thirst that bewildered me.
“Here’s how it’s going to work. From now on, I’ll make the rules,” I told her. “You eat when I tell you to eat. You may have a bath when I say so. Is that clear?”
“I want to go home.”
“If you don’t want your family knowing about the two dealers you were fucking, or the dope you were trading your pussy for, you’ll stay where you are and do everything I tell you.”
“Who made you God?” But she couldn’t look me in the eye.
“Eat your sandwich. Today is the happiest day of your life, Boo.”
She ate. And she said, every day, that today was the happiest day of her life. When she was folding my shirts, or doing yoga in the living room, or when she swam in the pool out back while I watched her from the upstairs window, or when she burned the lasagna and the fire department came, or when she was up all night with the baby—happy. We had no secrets, so how could this have been a lie? She was so grateful I’d saved her, she said. She could never repay me. She worked so hard at being my wife that she didn’t have time to miss her friends, her privacy, or her phone. She didn’t miss the drugs. She never went out, unless I was with her. She let me decide what was best.
For a while, it worked. Our home was beautiful with her in it, and she communicated joy to me. Her ring was massive, a solid band of heavy diamonds. I decorated her, rewarded her, protected her. I needed her to be happy and so she was. She did everything she was told to do, and because I told her to, she put a smile on her face while she did it. Neither of us will ever forget how completely I owned her, or how easily she adapted to it. She was at her best during those years. I know it: I made her that way.
The ref’s whistle broke my concentration. They were going into the second half. Jim moved to the other side of the field and took a knee.
“How’s your new girl?” she asked. “Is she as good as I was? Enjoying her cage?”
“What’s her name again? Sloane? Logan?”
I reached for the jar; she slapped my hand away. In a professional setting, I would note her reaction as unearned. The potential for escalation hinted at a deeper instability. Really, I would have loved to choke her.
“Logan’s Run? I’m almost too old for that, they euthanize you at thirty-five.”
“You’re only thirty-two.”
“And you’re pushing fifty. Don’t sweat it, Hank: you’re only as old as your youngest wife.”
She said that when we were married, too.
“You’re not dying.”
“Suicide on the installment plan. That’s what I’ve got going on. I’ve been trying to kill myself since I met you.”
I blinked. That explained my nostalgia. She was in the same condition as when we met. I could feel that she needed me, and it pulled me in. No wonder we were getting along better.
“Our kid just face-planted in the goalie box,” I said.
Jim came up with a mouthful of turf. He immediately scanned the row of parents, pausing when he came to our blanket. I could tell that he was deciding whether or not to cry. Last year, it wouldn’t have been a choice. Now he was almost ten. He was hardening into the man he’d eventually be. His eyes went to Boo.
“My baby,” she muttered. “He doesn’t know I’m not sober, Hank, so give me a minute before you go sounding off any alarms.”
“You’re drinking enough that you need to quit?”
“One thing at a time.”
“How many things: other things?”
She turned to look at me. All I saw were her bare arms and long legs and the dots in her eyes, the dots of daisies that stuck to her like tears.
“Why, are you going to check me into Serenity Manor? Take a trip down memory lane?” Her tone was acid.
“If you’re going to drink, that’s your problem, but it means Jim can’t go home with you today. It isn’t safe. I can take him in my car.”
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
“Go home. Sleep it off.”
“You think you know everything.”
“I don’t, but at least I’m not wasted at a kid’s soccer game.”
“Which girlfriend are you on now?”
“Game’s over.” I got up, waiting for her to follow. After a minute, she did. Her body rose smoothly, legs unfolding like long hydraulic pistons. She was a surfer when I met her, more at home in the water. When we lived together, she’d swim laps until she was exhausted and come in with her hair smelling like chlorine. She missed the ocean, she told me. The pool wasn’t the same. I imagined her paddling out on her surfboard, her head as slick as a seal. Getting smaller, getting away from me.
“Go fuck yourself, Hank.” She said it casually, as though reminding me where I had left my keys.
“I’m not fighting about this. Jim can stay the night. You honestly shouldn’t be driving.”
“How about you suck my dick.”
“Deal with yourself, Boo,” I said. Her eyes met mine, hard and green and flint.
“You can’t take him.”
“We could all ride down to the police station so you can get breathalyzed? Would you like that? How long ago did you relapse?”
“You’re crazy,” she spat, and then Jim was coming towards us with the dirt smeared across his face and all smiles and a juice box in one hand.
“Bjorn’s dad brought grapes!” he said.
Boo took his hand. “That’s so great,” she said, voice suddenly warm for him. “I watched you play.”
“You can walk us to the car,” I told her. I folded the blanket and tucked it under my arm. I was ready to grab him, and getting them both out of sight would make it easier for me. We went down to the parking lot with Jim between us. The sun was higher now, and the trees and flowers were painfully bright. The next step would be to act quickly, before things really went sideways. Boo was walking loose and sassy. A string hung from the hem of her cut-offs and tickled against the back of her leg, making a shape like a black vein. Still sexy. Up to the last minute, she was a fox.
In my defense, I didn’t know that this would be the last time I saw her. If I’d had any inkling, I might have done or said something different. If we’d stayed together, none of this would have happened—that’s what I tell Jim, who is pure-hearted and enough like his mother to believe me. I don’t know how much of that day he retains, or what he’ll recall later, when it’s his turn to sit on the therapist’s couch. Will he repeat the bitter words his parents exchanged, or tell how Boo’s hands were so unexpectedly strong when she refused to release him to me? No doubt, he remembers the horrible sensation of being pulled on in two different directions, his arms stretching, the sense that we might have torn him in half if we had been any angrier at each other.
Maybe he’ll tell his therapist about how suddenly our voices were cut off when I slammed his car door and sealed him into the backseat, where his mother couldn’t get him. He must remember how she pounded on the window, screaming his name, and then ran after us as I drove away, followed us all the way through the parking lot, losing her purse and dropping the jar, which shattered.
I felt a wave rising in me as Boo got smaller and smaller until she exactly fit in the silver rectangle of the rearview mirror. I could see all of her at once, every graceful, vindictive inch, as she ran and it was suddenly quiet in my head, the silence that comes after a reel of film runs to its last few frames, the sound of spring ending and taking all the sunshine with it. I tapped the brake and turned to look at my son, whose wide eyes recorded every minute, who looked so much like Boo that I knew I’d never, ever escape her.
“You’ll be safe now, sweetie,” I said, and pressed—quite hard—on the gas pedal.
Claire Rudy Foster’s short story collection, I’ve Never Done This Before, was published to warm acclaim in 2016. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Vestal Review, and other journals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She’s a Sterling Room Writer, and teaches writing workshops to people in recovery in Portland, Oregon. Claire is also a frequent contributor to Cleaver. Her stories, essays, and book reviews can be found on her contributor’s page.
It is August when her boyfriend, the pornographer, takes her to the beach with her two boys, one pale like her, the other dark. They bring beer and bologna sandwiches in a crinkled grocery bag, lay stolen motel towels out across the sand. The boys dart off into the surf, shrieking, laughing, ignoring the Pacific chill.
She lies face-up on her towel, a slight, yellowed rectangle. She wears a bleached sarong to cover the bruises on her thighs and her one-piece, the white one that matches her oversized sunglasses. They completely cover her eyes. Her youngest son says she looks glamorous, but he’s only nine and knows nothing.
Up the beach, another family has unfolded chairs and planted an umbrella. They spread out towels—large, striped rectangles, the kind advertised in that year’s Bullocks Wilshire catalog. There are two children: a small boy and a baby girl. The children’s hair is uniformly blond. The parents both wear wedding bands.
They sit upright, this catalog family, helping their daughter sift sand while their son wanders away carrying a candy-bright shovel in one hand, a matching bucket in the other. He wades into the ocean and out again, then settles onto a gray slab of beach halfway between the two families, near where the two brothers play. The dark brother squats beside this catalog boy and thrusts his hand into the coarse sand, carving out a moat, then walls, a malformed tower. The pale brother stands above them both. His shadow hovers atop the sandcastle.
From their antipodes, the adults watch on—the catalog parents in the shade of their catalog umbrella and she on her back, pretending to sleep. Her boyfriend strips off his shirt and sits beside her, back hunched, his burgeoning belly sagging over his swim trunks. His is a sparrow chest, an undignified frame.
The pale son’s chest is broad and athletic, wound tight in a coiled exergy. Beneath his shadow the younger boys’ castle gains another tower, this one with finger-width crenellations. The waves crash louder and louder. It’s almost high tide.
Her dark son nudges the catalog boy and points at her, and the newfound friend follows the gesture, stands and shields his eyes. She doesn’t move, hopes they think she’s sleeping. Her son is still pointing when his older brother shoves him down—into the sand, into the sandcastle—and strikes him over and over with his pale fists. It only lasts a moment. The wind and surf bury all sounds of violence.
Now her boyfriend is up, bounding across the sand, peeling the brothers apart. They crumple beneath him like seventy-weight paper.
The catalog boy watches in silence. His parents shout and wave. Come away from there, they say with their flapping arms, their panicked mouths. But his eyes flit from the boyfriend to the brothers to the broken castle, its walls now slumped into the shallow moat. He looks as if he might bawl. He has his parents’ sissy looks.
The dark brother wipes a sting of blood from his nose and returns to the water. He’s no crybaby. His older brother sits in the sand. He’s folded up amid the castle ruins, small again, brooding again, not even watching as the catalog boy retreats to his family, to their American blondness, to their designer towels and matching umbrella, now closed, now being carried away.
Her boyfriend returns to his motel towel and says, “I don’t get that kid of yours. Goes nuts on his brother just because he tells that little boy that you’re a movie star. The kid’s a basket case.”
“Don’t talk about him like that,” she says. Her words swallowed by the ocean. She dares not speak louder.
The pale brother wipes an arm across his eyes, still tear-streaked from getting slapped. He glowers down the beach, not at her boyfriend, but at her, his gaze so intense and knowing that she has to turn away. Beyond him, the catalog family crests the grass-strewn dunes, then disappears on the other side.
Joshua Jones is a writer and animator residing in Maryland. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, The Tishman Review, Juked, and others. Find him on Twitter @jnjoneswriter.
A burning witch on midsummer eve smells like campfire, like tobacco, like men standing in a circle as they smile and sing. She is only an effigy, a cartoon, with her green skin painted onto her plywood face, her body a sack of coarse black fabric scraps stitched together and overstuffed with hay. She rides a broom and has a long warty nose that was carved by hand. The time it took to give her two warts instead of one.
Bless this land, they sing. Their voices are warm and robust, the kind of singing only a day’s worth of drinking can provide. The entire town has turned out to thank the patron saint, to bless the bounty of summer. There is white fish and roast pork, greens and berries and cucumbers, fresh bread, beer and wine. Table after table laden with food. There is enough for everyone, and this alone is reason to celebrate.
“We make these fires to keep evil away,” a man tells me. “It is a very old tradition tied to the harvest.” It’s true that a bonfire has been lit on this night annually for centuries. But only since his grandfather’s generation have they burned the figure of a witch. Aside from those they burned for real, centuries before. I do not say any of this.
Someone passes a bottle of wine. I raise it to my lips, drink, swallow, and hand it on.
Next to me, holding the man’s hand, is a girl. She is no more than four years old, her cheeks glowing from the radiating warmth of the fire. Her eyes are wet, one hand raised to cover her mouth. She moves her hand and pulls on one of her buttery curls until it is completely straight, taut in her tiny fingertips. When she lets go, it springs back into a ringlet, resilient and strong.
On my tongue is the acidic, toasty aftertaste of the wine. I am reminded that the process of fermentation is the systematic work of turning sweet into sour.
Kristin Bonilla is a fiction writer from northern California. Her work has appeared in NPR: Three Minute Fiction, NANO Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly, online at Gulf Coast Magazine, and others. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and currently lives in Houston. Follow her on Twitter @kbonilla.
It started gradually. First, little Michael was wrinkling his nose in a way he never had. Then four-year-old Jessamyn across the street sprouted whiskers from her cheeks that were long, fine, and nearly transparent. Elisa developed a light coating of tiny hairs that were thicker than body hairs ought to be and that turned gray within a few days. Paul was the first one to grow a tail. His tail was long, pink, and hairless, and at first he delighted in it, and used it to tap other boys on the shoulder when they weren’t looking. Then he realized it was not coming off, and he wailed in his mother’s arms. His mother, for her part, tried not to cringe as his tail wrapped around her leg.
Soon all the children had fur and tails. Their ears had grown bigger, rounder, and thinner. Their noses had lengthened. The adults tried their best to continue on. They kissed their children between their beady black eyes and helped them to put on their backpacks and board the bus for school. Many of the children began walking on all fours, which greatly disturbed the adults. It wasn’t all bad—the children were not nearly as picky about eating, and in fact, seemed to think nothing of nibbling out of the garbage or off of the sidewalk.
When the children began to shrink, it became difficult to tell them apart from, well, rats, and from each other. Parents took to calling for their children, looking vaguely forward, and hoping the bulky little forms that hurtled toward them were their own.
Finally, the adults held a meeting. They tucked their children into bed, or at least, they said goodnight and shut the bedroom doors, for most of the children were nocturnal now, and declined to stay in bed at night. Then they all met in the town hall.
Was it something in the water? Was it genetically-modified vegetables? A sickness? A curse?
They didn’t know. Their children could no longer speak. They didn’t play normally. They were not affectionate and sometimes bit the hands, arms, and legs of those who fed them.
A vote was taken, and the town decided to ask for help. They were just putting together a Craigslist ad when a man wearing a tattered cape and a cap with a feather in it came strolling up to the podium like he owned the place.
“My name is Peter,” he said earnestly, “and I’ve heard of problems like this. There are towns in Europe that have precisely the same epidemic.”
“What do we do?” Michael’s father wanted to know.
“Why haven’t we heard about this?” Jessamyn’s mother asked.
“Understandably, these towns have kept this quiet. They don’t want judgment, and what could people do? Who would believe them, and even if they were believed, what course of action could be taken?”
The crowd murmured in uneasy agreement.
“My friends,” Peter said, “I will solve this problem for you. When I play my pipes”—here he held up gleaming silver pipes—“the rats will follow me. I will take them far from here and you need never be troubled by them again.”
No one had ever used the “R” word to talk about the children up until this point. Many had thought it, but no one had actually said it. There was an uncomfortable silence before Peter resumed:
“You can start your lives over. Clean up the feces. Buy new carpets. Bear new children and buy them toys that have not been gnawed. These will be your true children, and all of this will be like a nightmare you barely remember.”
“Can’t you fix them—the—the rats?” Elisa’s grandmother asked.
“There’s nothing to fix,” Peter said. “They are just that: rats. They are perfectly fine rats, but they are rats.”
“Where will you take them?” Paul’s stepfather wanted to know.
“I’ll take them to Eden Farms,” Peter said. “There they will be housed with other rats from the towns I mentioned earlier, to live out their days comfortably, able to gnaw whatever they please and scuttle around wherever they like.”
Then Peter took a seat. There was some heated debate. Some stormed out of the meeting, went home, herded their rat-children into their cars, and drove out of town. The majority voted to take Peter up on his offer.
“Excellent,” Peter said. “There’s only the payment to be discussed.”
Peter took his money from the treasurer, and the townspeople followed him outside, where he put the silver pipes to his lips.
“Right now?” someone asked in horror.
He began to play. The melody started off happily with little runs up and down, but then it shifted into a steady, persistent rhythm with a repetitive phrase. Rats climbed out of windows and through cracks in the walls. They formed a teeming mass of gray-brown fur and twitching pink tails. They crowded round the piper, who began to skip and dance as he played, and he skipped and danced his way beyond the hills at the edge of town, with the rats following. The adults watched until the last rat was out of sight, then they shuffled back to their homes in a daze.
The next day, the town was silent. And the next. And the next. Then people began to do as the piper had suggested. They fixed up their homes. They packed away all the pictures of the children they’d had, who now felt mostly like characters in storybooks they’d read long ago. They dared to bear new children.
Some townspeople refused to move on properly. There was a contingent who got together to find Eden Farms. There was no trace on the Internet. No one had been there. Nevertheless, they packed up their belongings, bought an RV, and went in search.
Then Debbie Johannsen came back to visit her mother. She’d been one of the ones who left with her rat-child, Dylan. Debbie came back, and in the backseat of the car was Dylan—furless, whiskerless, human.
People stared at Debbie and Dylan. She stopped the town dead in its tracks. It probably didn’t help that she looked a bit superior—that she stuck her nose in the air.
A crowd gathered outside Debbie’s mother’s house. Though this was not the age for them, the crowd had torches and pitchforks. They demanded that Debbie and Dylan come outside, then chased them out of town and over the hills, throwing rocks and shouting.
Afterward, people said that it hadn’t really been Debbie and Dylan. People said that it was a similar child, that there was a striking resemblance, but that was all.
The townspeople checked their new children each morning for fur, elongated teeth, and tails.
Winston Martin thought he could see the beginnings of whiskers on his infant daughter. Chantelle Martin said he was crazy, and clutched the baby protectively, but when she slept, Winston took the child out and laid her on the hill where they’d last seen the piper.
When the police found the cold, human body the next morning, they brought Winston to the station but were unsure how to proceed.
“She had whiskers,” Winston insisted.
Julie Nguyen trapped two rats down by the docks and brought them to her house. She trained them to sit in a purse and carried them everywhere around town.
“They’re my children,” she said. “It’s my Tori and Freddy. They came right to me, back from Eden Farms.”
Eventually, many of the parents trapped rats down by the docks and brought them back home. They fed them good food, trained them to do tricks, and called them by almost-forgotten names, but the rats never became children.
As the years passed, the pain became too large, and it took up more and more space in the town, so people started to move away.
Now there is no town in that spot. There are boarded-up shops and businesses, and the highway passes close by. There is a gas station right off the exit, and sometimes travelers filling up catch a glimpse of falling-down houses. More than likely, if they’re looking long enough, they also see the rapid progress of a gray furry form across the road.
Emily Livingstone is a high school English teacher and writer living in New England with her husband, daughter, and German Shepherd. Her work has been published in The Molotov Cocktail, Chiron Review, Gravel,and others. She also writes at emilylivingstone.wordpress.com.
Image credit: Illustration by Kate Greenaway, from The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning (1910). Source: Wikipedia
I can’t remember how to breathe so the nurse hands me a brown paper bag along with the white jumpsuit and matching cap. Sixty seconds before that they wheeled my wife away, her belly bulging under the white blankets, in her belly, our baby choking. Sixty seconds before that, the room a flurry of nurses and someone saying, “We have to take the baby,” like there’s a place where they take babies and never bring them back. Sixty seconds before that the baby’s heart rate crashing and the pulsing alarm. Sixty seconds before that joking that I hope the baby gets born fast so I don’t miss the golf on TV later. That was four minutes ago. Four minutes ago everything was normal. Four minutes ago I assumed everything would happen as it did when my son was born. But this is different. This time I’m hyperventilating, thinking I may never see my wife again, thinking our baby girl might die, the nurse smiling, patting me on the back, saying how they always seem to forget the dads in these situations. It’s not funny, but she tries to be. Nothing about this is funny. My baby girl is choking. And this is real. And she could die. And we don’t know which way to spell her name. And I can’t remember how to breathe.
The baby won’t eat. She spent her whole first day of life throwing up breast milk and bottle milk, and she’s not the right color so they’ve put her in a little plastic box of blue light with four holes, two on each side, so that we can reach in and touch her. She doesn’t move much. She seems so tired. She just lies there really still on her back, her eyes covered with a little baby sleep mask to keep out the blue light. I can see her tiny belly going up and down. My wife hasn’t come to the nursery yet. They cut the baby out and she is in pain, but I don’t think that pain is what’s keeping her away. I know better than to try to understand.
The baby won’t eat. They’ve put a tube up her nose and down her throat so she gets nourishment. I sit here for long stretches of time talking to her while she lies in her little blue box. I talk to her about her mom, her big brother, and her grandparents, and the only house on the left where I grew up with her aunt and uncle, and our big St. Bernard dogs, and the tall spruce and Osage and apple and maple trees and the woods and green fields. I tell her about how in winter on a clear day you can hike up the southern hill all the way to the top to where the trees clear just at the crest and look out over the open field down toward the valley, and if you time it just right, you can watch the lowering sun turn the snow and the brown seed heads in the field to a hundred different shades of orange and gold before it finally settles behind the hills and is gone.
I am watching my wife hold the baby. It was awkward for the nurse, the tangle of tubes and wires, lifting her up out of the little blue box. In the rocking chair my wife gives a speech to the baby about how she has to be strong because that is what all the women in her family do. I know for a fact that this is true. I’ve seen it. No matter what, they took care of everything. While their men went off to mine coal or to fight in wars or to mold steel, the women held it all together with their hands and their wills, always, and never complained. They’re strong. They don’t give in, ever.
I am holding on to my big sister and can’t let go. I can’t breathe again and I haven’t slept. They told us they are taking the baby again. She’s been losing weight, even with the tube shoved up her nose and down her throat, and they’re all too stupid here to be able to help her. I don’t want to be here, so I keep holding on to my sister. I want to go back to when I was five and she was ten and it was summer and the trees were so green and we rode bikes and made up stupid songs and names and she dressed me up to play a flower girl in her pretend wedding. Or when she dressed me up as Horton the Elephant and tried to tape big construction paper cut-out ears and a trunk on my head. But we’re not there and then. We’re here and now, and this is happening.
I know to go north, but I’m not paying attention to the road. At each bump my wife winces in the passenger seat because it was only four days ago when they cut her open. We don’t talk. We have no idea what to say. In mid-March everything is dormant and dark. I’m tired of everything being dead and brown and gray, the color of ash or closed up factories or the smoke from the stacks along the river. Even the trees are gray and dark, ticking past like seconds on a clock, only faster than seconds. Somewhere ahead of us the baby is in her little blue box in the back of an emergency medical transport. I don’t know how fast I’m going but I know I’m on Highway 22 moving in the general direction of Pittsburgh.
From a high room with a big window and a Giraffe intensive care unit in the middle, another flurry of nurses, and one says, “We need your permission,” and I think, what am I supposed to say? I can’t talk or think. “Sir, we need your permission,” she says, and I say, “What will happen?” and she says, “The baby will die,” so we say, “Yes, yes,” and in the background they’re trying to find a vein for the IV, but there are hardly any places left for needles, and the baby is screaming louder now than she has in all her four days and eleven hours. And there’s pain and confusion but everyone seems calm with urgency. And I’m watching all of this from the corner of the room and can’t do anything about any of it, thinking that every minute people either end up dying or keep on not dying.
Everyone is gone, just me and my new baby girl, and night coming on and the quiet calm in the room, except for the click click of the machine pushing in more blood every so often. Through the raindrops on the huge window by the ledge where I’m sitting, I see Pittsburgh all spread out below, the sky growing darker, and the city lights lighting up until backed by the full black sky. From way up here on the whatever floor, the city fully lit now in tiny lights, everything looks all held together in webs of bridges and rivers and traffic pulsing through, lights reflecting in the water. When the traffic files in at intersections, and the signals turn red to green, all the lights start moving, floating across the bridges over the rivers that mirror the city, this way toward my window high above, little perfect pairs of diamonds, gliding over the water, brighter and closer and brighter and closer, until they’re almost blinding, until I’m almost not even thinking, until I’m not even trying to remember how to breathe.
William Scott Hanna is an assistant professor of literature and writing at West Liberty University near Wheeling, WV, and a lifelong resident of the Upper Ohio Valley. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel, Heartwood Literary Magazine, and Still: The Journal.
she plunged below the line of the ocean and
saw lava exploding into the emptiness she saw
sea become land when we came to this place
there were myths and shadows and people and
we joined them becoming lava exploding
into steps that a man could climb
upon and journey to nowhere we saw one day
a white sail on the sea and ghosts
disembarking on the sand they said this
land is not finished yet this land of many
gods and of feathered kings is not finished
yet we were not finished being born we
laid our heads upon the grass and we dreamt
that we were back in the land of mu we
remembered that we were the ancestors just
as much as the ancestors were ourselves we
remembered that one day we would be peasants
and that the ocean would pull us back into
the crag and say we are not finished yet we
remembered that when you cry into the ocean
the tears are like sharks’ teeth we remembered that we
used the stars to sail from home and then to
return home again we forgot the names of our
gods and our ancestors they had no meaning to us
anymore we learned that there are twenty
nickels in a dollar and that trousers must
be buttoned up in front but one day we would have
things called zippers that cut into time like cutting
into black hair with sharks’ teeth we became
lava exploding into the past and sweet
potato roots digging into the earth but there is no
escape we remembered that if you dig into the sand with
your fingernails you might dig deep enough to find
the double-hulled canoes that carried us here
like sharks’ teeth we took lava steps
to see the ancestors fall into the crag
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 Hydroquinone in Cleaver’s Issue 17. Hear Sean’s poem and more virtual poetry from Cleaver on our SoundCloud podcast, On The Edge.
Most people think electric eels are eels when they’re, in fact, knife fish. They’re solitary, shallow, made with enough electrolytes to kill a man.
“They can kill a man, but not themselves. Sometimes, they wish that they could.”
Cadence was always saying I never listened to her, when the truth was, I heard everything.
I listened while she rambled about the oceanology books she’d brought home from the library, her actual courses festering in her backpack. She’d cook me ramen or sprawl out on the floor with her sketchbooks, drawing herself into more contained circles. Indie music would flow through the apartment while she told me about the nine things I didn’t want to know that lurked at the bottom of the ocean. If I spoke, she snapped at me for breaking her concentration. Then, moments later, she would turn to me and say, “Hey Ezekiel, did you know electric eels can’t feel their own shock?”
She called out of work. Stopped talking to her friends and didn’t set foot on campus, not even on the days she had yoga or art. I even took up extra shifts at the library to make sure she could still afford her medication. It was hot. But she didn’t want to go to the pool.
Cadence buried herself in long sleeves and a sour attitude, the smile I fell in love with unable to twitch itself to life. She couldn’t tell me what was wrong, because she insisted it was nothing.
Those days she walked around blinded. Mostly.
Half asleep, body curled up against my thigh, her eyes were still zoned and unfocused. Her hand pulsed as I pulled it into mine.
This was the first time we’d spoken in days, since she stormed out of my apartment after a fight. Before I could think, I’d asked her why she was wearing a sweater in June.
That same sweater that stalked out in a rage was still curled around her knuckles today. As I brushed back her hair, my fingers caught in its tangles.
Her lids flew open. She watched my thumb stroke her knuckles.
“Morning, baby. You feeling any better?”
“Hm,” she choked out in response. It was the only noise she’d made in eighteen hours.
I looked over to the window, where I’d left the blinds open. The clouds strained against the sky that built them, like they were fighting to dissolve the skin holding them in place. Stroking her hair onto my leg, I turned her head to see.
She grunted and turned away from me.
“Just thought it was pretty.”
I reached out to rub her back, but she sensed my movement and pulled away farther. Standing up, I faced the door. “Whatever, I was just trying to help.”
“Heh,” she said. “You call that helping?”
An untrained ear might not have noticed, but the crack in her voice jabbed in my gut. I leaned over the bed and tried to pull her to me. Her shoulders shook as she made her body rigid.
“Cadence, whatever it is, you can tell me. I promise, I’m not going to judge.”
She sniffled and shivered, even in the heat. “Everyone says that.”
“But I really mean it.”
“No.” She sat up, twisting her torso to face me. “Everyone says that they’re not going to judge. But if I don’t immediately feel better, I turn into a burden.” She clenched her hand against her mouth. “And you can’t wait around forever until I get better.”
I’d been with her for a year. I never expected better. The bed leaned as I sat back down and reached for her hand.
She let me take it and brought her knees to her chest. “I started hurting myself again.”
My breath stopped as I did nothing but watch her cry.
“I’m sorry, I know—I know—you said that I could talk to you if I was depressed, but I didn’t even mean to start again, and I was scared you’d be mad…”
She trailed off as I pushed the sleeve up her arm. Gashes and pus-filled burns inched their way around her skin.
I felt stupid as I asked her, “Didn’t it hurt?”
Pulling away, she chuckled. “It hurt like hell.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I said.
A finger traced her unmarked vein. “I don’t know.”
The image of her singeing herself and muffled screams vanished as I pulled her into my lap. I stroked the inside of her arm, felt every knife and flame against my own.
Before I could stop it, my face was wet with tears, and the most harrowing thoughts filled my head. Of sharp knives searching for peace along her skin, trying to pour the pain from her body, taking her wired soul and buoyant mind. Even with the image of her fresh cuts circling my psyche, I realized she wasn’t trying to hurt herself. She was draining the synapses that popped in her head, sending electrical storms through every physical system that was cognizant enough to feel her hurt.
“They can kill the man,” she always said. “But never themselves.”
Even with my hold and reassurance, Cadence was gone.
Anna Keeler is a poet and fiction writer living in Winter Park, Florida. She is the assistant editor for The Chaotic Review, and was the 2016 recipient of the Arden Goettling Academy of American Poets Prize. Her work has been published or is upcoming on Poets.org, The Writing Disorder, Sick Lit Magazine, The Yellow Chair Review, Peacock Journal, and others.
Its shadow is helpless here
festering the way your fingers
lean over the watermarks
not yet covered with paper
though left in the open
this wall could heal, the butterflies
gently circling down
and under the painted leaves
the empty branches and wings
—you thin this paste
as if one arm works the other
till what you turn in
unfolds toward painful corners
and days without a sea
making room for you.
Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The BPoems published by Poets Wear Prada (2016). For more information, including free e-books and his essay, “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities,” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com. Read more poetry by Simon in Cleaver’s Issue 14.
We took seats in the back of the planetarium. I glanced over at you, my face warm with anticipation. You leaned back and looked up. When the lights went out, would you cover my knee with your hand as a deep, slow voice described which stars we were seeing? Would I rest my head on your shoulder, at peace with the world and the universe, as Orion moved West, poised to shoot?
You kept your distance. We examined placards in Space Command. The fifty million year old meteorite, the gravity well. I asked if you were happier without me and you said you’d been lifting weights.
We came to the giant, papier-mâché heart. “Remember when we tried to have sex in here?” you said. We’d finished a late-night showing of Star Wars in the museum’s IMAX theater, and rather than leave, we’d taken our own after-hours tour. We’d made it as far as the right atrium when a construction worker had found us and sent us away. The exhibit had been under repair. “We were so close,” you said. “That woulda been legendary.”
We wound our way through the maze of the giant heart, which was crowded with children on a Saturday. You led the way, took the pace of the kids, which was slower than our natural pace. At one point you turned, trapping me too close to you, your mouth inches from mine. My own heart hammered, and I stepped back.
In the giant brain, I hid from you. The brain exhibit didn’t exist when we were kids. It was new to me that October, my favorite part of the museum. Made from translucent strands of plastic and ethereal LED lights wound around clear disks, the perfect size to perch on. You stood at the bottom and I climbed. I pulled myself to the top and ran down. I invented a jumping game with two brothers I met, under-five aspiring construction workers with neon vests. A security guard asked me to please control my sons, as we were intimidating the other children.
I returned to you. “I have to go,” I said. “I’m meeting someone at three.”
“I guess I’ll stay here,” you said. “Look at more stuff.”
We exited through Optical Illusions.
“I heard you broke a glass in the garbage disposal at Cameron and Emily’s new place,” I said. “It’s weird ’cause we got together at the same time as them, and now they moved in together and we broke up.”
“I mean, we were never gonna live together,” you said. “We weren’t on that trajectory.” I thought about you asking me—eight times? Nine? to move in with you, my soft rebuttals.
Our breakup was a surprise. In August, I had taken a red-eye home from a week-long vacation. I got a cab from the airport and then biked to your place straightaway. You hadn’t left for work yet. You made us eggs for breakfast. I gave you a blowjob in the kitchen. You left and I fell asleep in your bed.
You came home and didn’t kiss me hello. “What do you want for dinner?” I said. “I was thinking we could go for a picnic.”
You crossed to the fridge, pulled out several mini Twix bars. “Candy,” you said. “I want candy for dinner.” You smiled at me.
“No thanks,” I said. “I want to do something.”
We went up to your roof, arranged ourselves on waterlogged deck chairs. You had a clear view of the PECO building, which projects the time all day in dull neon. I sat facing you, looked out on the spires of the Baptist church across the street. I told you several long stories about my vacation, but stopped when I realized you weren’t talking. You stuck your tongue out at me like you were gagging. Clouds rolled overhead. I felt gently disconnected from the world, the product of too little sleep and all night traveling.
“I want to break up,” you said, and your voice cracked.
“What?” I laughed.
“I’m sorry,” you said. “I thought about this a lot when you went away. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
“Is this a dream?” I said. “I’ve had this dream before.” Could I win a race downstairs to your knife drawer? How badly would a leap from your roof injure me? Would broken bones postpone this feeling to another day?
“How long have you known?” I said.
“I decided yesterday.” You slipped a tiny candy bar into your mouth.
“How the fuck can you eat candy at a time like this?” I said. Mid-chew, you looked up at me. “I’m leaving.”
“Wait,” you said. “Stop.” You grabbed me, half-hug, half-restraint.
“What!” I said. “What do you want me here for?” You looked over my shoulder. Several over-forty women were watching us from a neighboring roof. They could hear every word I said.
Since the day we met we’d slept together, wrapped up like a shell around an egg, four nights a week. Two months before I left for vacation you’d moved to a new apartment, away from a roommate who hadn’t liked me, and we’d started spending every night together. I had a key to your place.
I sat back down.
“This feels wrong,” you said. “Us being together. And I was really happy with you for a while. But, I mean, we’re so different. We always said we weren’t forever.”
“You always said that,” I said. “I said I was happy. And I mean, are we really that different?”
“We’re from different neighborhoods, we’re different kinds of liberals. We think differently, we talk differently. We’re not even the same kind of feminist.” You have a spreadsheet to keep track of every girl you’ve fucked. The rows list women’s names and the columns bear different sexual acts. At the end of each row, there are “comments.”
“Yeah, but I mean, we both like going to concerts, biking, walking dogs. We do a lot of cool stuff together.”
“And that was good for a while,” you said. “I just feel like something’s wrong. I’m happy when I’m with you, but when you leave, when I’m alone, I feel—not good.”
“But I’ve been worried about that, too,” I said. “I keep telling you how I’m worried you haven’t been seeing your friends enough. And you don’t like your job, and so now it’s like, you’re gonna give up the one thing that you do like? How’s that gonna work?”
In your kitchen, I cried so loudly you came in to check on me. “I’m not breaking your stuff,” I said. “If that’s why you’re in here.” You looked at me. You went in the other room. I followed. I sat on the couch next to you.
“Legs,” you said. Nobody calls me that anymore. “I’m sorry to do this to you.” Your eyes were sad. I put my hand on your knee, my head on your shoulder. You put your arm around my waist.
“I know you don’t mean to hurt me,” I said. “You’re a nice baby.” We stayed on the couch like that for a long time.
You asked for your key back when I left. “Goodbye,” you called, and I didn’t say anything, and the door closed.
I haven’t seen you in the six months since we stood outside of that slanted-wall room in Optical Illusions, made to trick museum-goers into thinking the floor is crooked. You were wearing a yellow t-shirt, so handsome it was painful for me to look. We haven’t run into one another since then, which is odd because you chose your apartment specifically for its proximity to mine.
You want to rewrite the past. Every time I saw you, I realized, as I biked away from the Franklin Institute, you might try to change a different memory, starting with how serious we’d been, negating our favorite things about one another, what we’d done together. I wouldn’t have you back, that was clear, but did being friends with you mean the slow erasure of the love we’d had, your desperate attempt to ease the pain of the loss of me?
We texted sometimes, still, after that.
“How are you feeling?” I’d say.
“The same,” you’d say. “Fine.”
We texted about how much we could dead-lift nowadays, our weight training regimens. A poet and an engineer fall in love, what had we been expecting? Numbers, at least, could not be misconstrued. When we broke up I said I would call you when I could bench 185. In January I exchanged lifting weights for swimming laps.
In April I saw your stepdad walking your dog in the park. She hugged me, twice, her paws on my chest, crying, dog hair everywhere. It was the first of many seventy-degree spring days, global warming or urban canyon effect, or the start of an early summer. Summers for us had meant outdoor parties at the drum circle in Fairmount Park, bring-your-own-forty. Saturdays at the Italian market, searching out the freshest fruit. I wonder if you still do those things, now that you work in an office. I wonder if you ever wander up to your roof deck for a joint or glimpse of dim city stars and think of me.
Allegra Armstrong is a Philadelphia-based writer. Her work has previously appeared in Steel Toe Review, Underground Pool, and The Same. You can find her at the public library, the rock gym, or biking fast through traffic. She reads original poetry aloud at armstrongallegra.bandcamp.com.
JEROME IN THE WILDERNESS ……………………..by an unknown painter by Martha McCollough
In a God’s-eye
view all the edges …are sharp
Tiny but distinct
picnics on a ledge
with his apocryphal lion
on him in particular
does he wonder
if God might prefer him …….unwashed
in stained starving rags
as he has recommended
to the Roman matrons …….some now (presumably) …….in heaven but no
he’s wearing rose silk
he’s brought along his tall crucifix,
a skull, the egg-shaped
stones he likes
the elegant apparatus
of his project
his hat’s a red bright
circle on the grass
from a stony spindle
tumble to the horizon
so much to see
edge of every leaf
punctuating the wilderness
and in a corner
crossing a narrow bridge
kneeling half out
of his robe
holds up a stone
ready to hit himself and
to go on hitting
until God pays
Martha McCollough is a writer and video artist living in Chelsea, Massachusetts. She has an MFA in Painting from Pratt Institute. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Baffler, Cream City Review, Crab Creek Review, and Salamander, among others. Her videopoems have appeared in Triquarterly, Datableed, and Atticus Review.
Image credit: Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, Portugal. Via Wikipedia
but nowadays your garbled barbles never tasted better. no matter how much your bog moss makes love to the gutter, you still wonder what’s next once you ditch the catfish trap house, with all its iridescent claws a-clash. not everybody can handle a bottom feeder’s garbage trundle, but me? i’m of another puddle. the ones who’d rather eat their demons than leave them to their own diseases. the ones who never lost that most primeval thanatoxic fever. with one foot on the cantilever and the other streaming dirty needles, i pull myself up from the river by my peaty skin and shingles, dripping maladapted tadpoles and the urge to binge on roadside litter, because under every dumpster baby is a mother too tired to keep treading water, and a smoke signal for all the subaqueous fathers who taught her what the thunder said was not for her to ponder, who fed her ageless algae to the alligators just to watch her botched face flounder
Dylan Krieger is a transistor radio picking up alien frequencies in south Louisiana. She lives in the back of a little brick house with a feline reincarnation of Catherine the Great, sings harmonies incessantly to every song she hears, and sunlights as a trade mag editor. She is the author of Giving Godhead (Delete Press, 2017) and dreamland trash (Saint Julian Press, forthcoming). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Seneca Review, Midwest Review, Quarterly West, Phoebe, So and So, Tenderloin, Coup d’Etat, and Maintenant,among others. Find more of her work at www.dylankrieger.com.
The girls never kissed the boys. The boys that walked down the hallway in packs, smelling of Cheetos and drugstore cologne. The girls never went to school dances, out to movies or late night pizza. They never wore jewelry. Never a spot of makeup, their skin fresh like new snow. If their mama caught them trying on her church heels they were beaten. They never showered with the other girls in gym class but snuck glimpses of their breasts. How their nipples were large and not pink like their own. They wore plain dresses in forgettable colors: beige, olive, navy. Their hair pulled back into a bun. Tight. Uncomplicated. The girls sang in the church choir, cooked suppers for the nursing home folks, babysat Pastor Daniel’s kids. Their papa expected them home before the 5 o’clock news and to have their homework done by the weather forecast. One Friday their parents left them overnight. The girls loosened their hair and snuck out the window, scampering down the hill to the abandoned house. A bottle of Boone’s Farm sloshed in one girl’s pocket, in another a pack of stale cigarettes. The girls never noticed Charlie Crick—the man who lived down the alley—following close behind, his breath smelling like the gin mill, his face red and burning. He found the girls inside the empty living room of old Doc Murphy’s house. They were passing the bottle of Boone’s between them, taking swigs and puffing on a half-lit cigarette. He told each girl to get undressed and not to look as he took them, one by one. The girls never opened their eyes but they knew. Some of them bled and some of them didn’t.
Hillary Leftwich resides in Denver with her son. She is co-host for At the Inkwell, a NYC-based reading series and organizes/hosts other reading/fundraiser events around Denver. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming inCreative Coping Mechanism (CCM)“A Shadow Map” Anthology,Hobart, Matter Press, Smokelong Quarterly’s “Why Flash Fiction?” Series, The Review Review,and others.
It started out as a joke in the warehouse. You could buy and build anything you needed for your home at IKEA, at least that was the corporate strategy behind all the useless knick-knacks that made it hard to pack the boxes. It was only a matter of time before they started doing people, they said. What good was your dream kitchen without a dream family to sit around on the INGOLF chairs you’d built yourself and praise your cooking? Surely IKEA could produce a model that was more durable, less flammable than your ordinary family, less likely to be annoyed when you let the jam spill over the side of the jar and then stuck it back in the fridge so that globs of fruit smeared all over the shelf.
It wasn’t long after the higher-ups recalled the LATTJO bat cape. Annika, Gudmund, and Martin had finished their meatball lunch in the warehouse, and they were bored. They were tired of the meatballs, too, but that was what was provided by the company, and none of them ever remembered to bring sandwiches from their home kitchens, furnished at IKEA.
None of the usual amusements seemed like any fun. Going through the boxes and pulling out one screw from every shipment or scratching the fronts of wardrobes or shuffling some of the small items between boxes—all of these normally delightful activities seemed dull today. There were only a few orders to pack up, but if they did that, then people would start to expect their furniture to arrive quickly, and all would be lost.
“Let’s make the IKEA man,” Annika said, wiping cream sauce from the corner of her mouth with the hard edge of one of the cardboard boxes. “The one we always talk about.”
They rifled through the shipments, taking a piece of medium-density fiberboard here, a nail there, until they thought they’d ruined enough orders to get started on their man. If he was to be a true IKEA man, he had to be easily assemblable. “No complicated joints,” said Martin. “Just the obvious parts to make it clear he’s a human.”
This began a complicated philosophical argument about what it meant to be a man, but when the dust had cleared, they had a round piece of fiberboard for a face, a tapered pine body to which they could attach all the other pieces, and a few ambivalent limbs of acacia and beech. They routed down the parts of him that had to meet the other parts of him, added pilot holes, and assembled the screws. He was perfect. They felt like God himself.
Gudmund said, “Let’s send him to the person who got the most boring order.”
“I have a MALM bedframe here,” Annika shouted.
“This one’s a BILLY bookcase and a NYFORS floor lamp,” Martin said, clawing at one of the boxes.
“Good God!” said Gudmund. “That’s the winner. Replace the NYFORS with our man.”
And once they’d packed off their man to his new home, they went back to work, singing and banging things off the pallet jacks happily.
It wasn’t easy to tell what the thing in the box was, but it didn’t take a genius to distinguish it from a floor lamp. Rasmus startled himself by continuing to build what was so clearly not his NYFORS lamp, but after the first moment of cardboard scraping away from cardboard when his stomach curled in on itself in anger (having already waited for his shipment two weeks longer than he’d been promised), he became very curious about this unusual assemblage that had contaminated his order.
When the IKEA man was whole, Rasmus stepped back and stared at him for longer than it’d taken to build. It was so clearly a man, even though Rasmus wasn’t sure if he’d made the legs the arms and the arms the legs. Or one and one. And he hadn’t had a man in his apartment in a long time. A few women, certainly, in and out after he cooked a breakfast of rye toast and boiled eggs, which he sliced in his bright yellow SLÄT egg slicer, or even sometimes women who came and went for months at a time, forcing him to add more variety to his breakfast menu, but men never made their way up the spiral metal staircase.
He worked from home, and he’d never been so good at male friendship. And that was all right. The women provided companionship without invasion, and his mother was always up for a visit when he wanted to get out of the city. He refused to believe that there was anything pitiable about a man without any real friends when he had permanent love in Fjällbacka and temporary love here when he wanted it, too.
But the IKEA man invaded before Rasmus could guard against it. He sat across from Rasmus at breakfast, and he sat by the gas fire at night, while Rasmus read on the ÅDUM rug. Rasmus set up the man with his legs outstretched, working his pine bottom into the macaroni tufts of the high, off-white pile. When the IKEA man lost his butt-hold on the carpet and his fiberboard head tilted into Rasmus’s lap, Rasmus felt a swift, sick swoop through his guts and put his arm around him. Rasmus didn’t consciously carry him from the LANDSKRONA armchair in the bedroom—where he’d set him up with a book of Bo Carpelan poetry the evening before—to the bathroom—where he let him examine himself in the GODMORGON mirror while Rasmus shaved. It just happened. Rasmus even forgot to buy a new NYFORS lamp or to get a refund.
Annika, Gudmund, and Martin spread the word that they had taken the work of God into their and IKEA’s hands. They couldn’t tell their supervisors, so it wasn’t something you could order officially, but people came round the back of the warehouse, shuffling their feet, looking embarrassed, and finally asking for the IKEA man.
Annika, Gudmund, and Martin refined their model. They added hands and feet and even a spiky fringe of medium-density fiberboard for hair. Then on the next one, they made more complicated joints, so the wooden limbs could bend at the knee and the elbow. Soon there was a sizable population of IKEA men across town, and it was common to hear phrases like, “Hold your fork properly, the way the IKEA man is doing,” or “I swear, one more night like that and I’m throwing that boy out and buying a second IKEA man.”
They had five models now, and Rasmus ordered all of them, but none were any match for his first. He disassembled the new ones quickly, but didn’t return them. His IKEA man might want company at some point when he, Rasmus, left the city. Except Rasmus never left the city anymore. His mother kept calling to invite him to Fjällbacka for Easter, and he knew he should go, but somehow he didn’t want to this spring.
“You can move Hjalmar,” Rasmus told a woman, who was looking like she wanted the IKEA man’s JOKKMOKK chair at the JOKKMOKK breakfast table, and he realized that he had named the IKEA man a long time ago, although he’d never given it breath. He congratulated himself on what a perfect name Hjalmar was.
He never saw that woman again. In fact, he became unsatisfied with female companionship altogether. He started sleeping with men, but again, it wasn’t what he wanted. And in the end, Rasmus decided that he was a truly lucky creature, because he wanted just exactly what he had: an IKEA man.
R.M. Fradkin studied fiction writing with Bret Johnston and Amy Hempel and has previously been published by Cherry Tree, Theaker’s Quarterly, and Bradburyesque Quarterly. Recently, she had residencies at Art Farm in Nebraska, Hypatia-in-the-Woods in Washington, and the International Writers and Translators’ Center of Rhodes, and was Writer-in-Residence at the Anchorage Museum, where she finished her first novel. She is also currently affiliate editor at Alaska Quarterly Review.
DEFT PERCEPTION Works of Porcelain and Paper, Plausibility and Pause by Hannah Thompsett
[click on images to enlarge]
Deft Perception: installation view
We all accumulate knowledge of our world through experience. Unconsciously, we learn to trust our perceptions as truth. But when this truth is challenged, our trust falters. We’re suddenly aware of the malleability and subjectivity of each of our constructed realities, our beliefs and expectations.
To explore and test the boundaries of that trust, I created Deft Perception: Allusions of Reality, a body of work in porcelain, paper, and photographs. When is something easily perceivable or believable? When do we need to take a second look to reassure or reevaluate our expectation of truth? To address these questions, I decided to slow down the process of visual perception by using constructed objects in spatially arranged situations. As an artist, I want us to consider the delicacy and individuality of our assumed truths and to become newly conscious of how the world of exterior phenomena informs and reassures — even as it contradicts and challenges — our perceived realities.
◊ ◊ ◊
I have been working in ceramics since my days as an undergrad. I began working with paper several years later and photography another year after that. Eventually I took up the process of folding paper forms, translating them into ceramic, and recording their arrangements with photography. I was interested in how information could be transferred through different materials and dimensions: from a flat drawing to a dimensional paper form to a ceramic object to a record. How does information change through these transformations and what roles do material and form play in translating and expressing that information? These questions and processes have all led to my thinking about perception (specifically visual perception) and are the impetus for my current practice.
Sheets of paper or porcelain memories?
When we step into Deft Perception, one of the first things we may realize is that the sheets of “paper” leaning against the wall are actually made of thin sheets of colored porcelain. They began as folded or crumpled pieces of paper, which I directionally sprayed with various white, grey, and black liquid porcelains called “slips”. These shades of slips recorded the paper’s peaks, valleys, creases, and puckers as a tonal image. At this point, the porcelained paper was very wet and pliable, so I could smooth it out and, when dry, fire it in a kiln. This burned away the paper and yielded a thin, flat, rigid panel depicting the original paper’s topography. The resulting porcelain object was no longer paper, but a representation of paper, a memory of paper.
Images or objects? Paper or porcelain?
What’s revealed in the slow, meticulous process of constructing these porcelain panels is a striking tension between two kinds of information: the representation of crinkled paper as an image and the materiality of the flat porcelain object. The panels allude to paper through their representation of paper’s surface, their rectangular format, and their thin, white edges. But though the panels reference paper, they are never mistaken for paper because the materiality of the porcelain is so prominent. And because I set the panels on the floor, leaned them against the wall, and stacked them against each other, their stiffness and physicality as objects is even more clearly emphasized. Moreover, because I used a different range of grey scales to create each of the panels, they’re distinguished even further as individual objects while being drawn farther away from the allusion to paper. It is this give and take, between image and object, that gives us pause and asks us to question what information is more important or truthful, if any, in forming our perceptions.
These kinds of tensions and contradictions exist in all representational images, often without our realizing it. Out of habit, and without consciously thinking about it, we recognize familiar situations in images and automatically transgress our own spatial and temporal reality to enter into their constructed realities. However, it is not possible to completely ignore our own real place in time and space, and so there is a paradox whenever we view pictorial representations: we simultaneously recognize, believe, and accept two separate situations or realities. Trompe l’oeil and illusion are attempts to eliminate this paradox through deception, but I enjoy the sense of this paradox, and I employ allusion instead of illusion where allusion is suggestive, but not deceptive.¹
Which is real? Which is a photo? Are they all objects?
To further complicate things, the framed images hanging on the wall in Deft Perception are actually enlarged photographs of the ceramic panels. At first, they appear as crumpled paper or images of crumpled paper. However, they are actually images of the ceramic record of the original piece of paper. By translating perceived information again, this time though photography, another layer of material information is added. Displaying the photos closely with the ceramic panels, it’s easy to compare the two. We see their similarities as images, but also recognize the difference between the materiality of the panels and the photographs as objects.
On closer inspection, we see that the photographs are enlargements of the ceramic panels, emphasizing the texture of the sprayed slip particles. This dotted texture is reminiscent of pixelated information, an artifact of digital photography, but the “pixelation” here is actually an artifact of the ceramic process, not the photography process. This pixelation is often interrupted by flaws in the ceramic surface that happen during the firing, such as ruptures and cracks. Ultimately, the photographs simultaneously depict both paper and ceramic as subjects.
Light and shadow: real or fake?
But how truthful are these photographs? Even as they record the flat surface of the panels, the light and shadow depicted are fake. Instead of actual light and shadow, the photographs capture a flatly lit representation of light and shadow. This information becomes evident because of the presence of the ceramic panels nearby. Comparing the photographs and the panels slows down the process of perception and allows time for the viewer to consider the many levels of information presented.
I am still a novice in photography, but as I utilize it, I enjoy what it contributes conceptually to the work through its process and history. At its dawning, photography was regarded as a mechanical reproduction of reality, capturing visual phenomenon with truthful, objective authority. It has since become clear, though, that this process is distinctly separate from actual visual perception for many reasons. Authorship, disengagement from time, staging, framing, and manipulation of process are a few examples of why this implied veracity cannot be assumed. However, as a medium, photography is primed to explore both the notion of truth and that of representation.²
A ceramic pyramid stands against repeated photos of ceramic pyramids. Which is more “believable”? “Objective”?
To interrogate those notions in Deft Perception, I installed two large ceramic pyramids and a field of smaller ceramic pyramids within the space as a break from allusion and representation. These physical solids, pure in form and mass, provide a visual and haptic experience bound to the present. They engage the entire space and emphasize the materiality of the other objects. The wallpaper, on the other hand, is a photographic representation of the pyramids from a separate viewpoint, digitally repeated to create an abstract pattern. The three-dimensional objects and their two-dimensional translation create a kind of easy fiction, or uneasy friction, an opportunity to compare the experience of perceiving both.
Our accumulation of knowledge through experience is constant; we continuously perceive our surroundings and build expectations and beliefs that inform our future encounters. Our mentally archived stores of knowledge are constantly in flux, distinctive to each individual. The process is automatic, and we are unaware of it until our trusted beliefs or expectations are challenged. My aim is to slow down the process of perception — visually and spatially — to draw attention to it, while gathering moments to consider, and consider again, our personal truths.
A field of ceramic pyramids, gathering moments of light.
¹Jonas F. Soltis, Seeing, Knowing, and Believing: a Study of the Language of Visual Perception (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company Inc, 1966), 137-138.
²Lyle Rexer, The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography. (New York: Aperature, 2009), 195.
Hannah Thompsett received her MFA in ceramics from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in 2016. She received her BFA in ceramics from The State University of New York at New Paltz in 2011. During her time between degrees, she was an artist-in-residence at the Flower City Arts Center. She is currently a Ceramic Art Technician at Alfred University and continues her studio practice in Alfred and Wellsville, NY.
List of Works:
1. Deft Perception: Allusions of Reality, digital prints, ceramic, wallpaper, 2016, installation view
2. Arrangement 3 (five panels), ceramic, 2016, 64” x 32” x 4”
3. Arrangement 7 (three panels), ceramic, 2016, 32” x 33” x 2”
4. Deft Perception: Allusions of Reality, digital prints, ceramic, 2016, installation view
5. Photograph 3, digital print and wooden frame, 2016, with frame: 28” x 42” x 2”
6. Detail of White Pyramid, ceramic, 2016, 24” x 24” x 36”
7. Field of Pyramids, ceramic and wood, 2016, 58” x 58” x 14”
THE DIRT BENEATH HER PLANTS by Tara Isabel Zambrano
Have you tried Amma’s ghosht tarkari and ghee parathas? Oh, you must. Succulent lamb chops served in earthenware while Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle croon through an old radio. She runs a dhaba, a roadside food stall not far from the Yamuna Expressway. Next time you are on your way to see the Taj Mahal, you should try her food. The cauliflower and carrot sabzi is sold out an hour after she makes it. Potatoes, carrots, onions, and cauliflowers grow in her backyard. She doesn’t bother with tomatoes because they require a moist soil throughout the year and water is a scarcity in and around Delhi.
When you arrive, greet her with your hands folded, your head bowed. Amma is always smiling, most of her teeth missing or brown. She’ll point to an iron tube well and ask you to wash your hands and feet while she decides your menu. It could be naan or tandoori roti, with lamb or vegetables. Don’t talk back or argue. Just accept, and you won’t be disappointed. Her dhaba is a tin roof shack, except the walls are not made of bricks but bones. It’s constructed on a piece of land that was a crematory during the time Mughals ruled India. Amma claims she makes use of whatever mother earth provides.
Amma’s daughter-in-law Prema sells bangles and bindis. She’s in her early thirties, with olive skin and dark eyes, her thin wrist covered with bracelets, an orange teeka between her bushy brows. Wears white every day since her husband died in the 1993 Kargil War. She serves food and cleans the tables while Amma sits cross-legged, chewing paan and stirring the lamb gravy, flipping parathas on the stove with her bare hands as if they aren’t coated in skin but iron.
You may be asked to sit on a charpai, a woven cot, next to an old banyan that faces the highway. If you trace the branches of the banyan, you’ll see a figure. Some say the ghost is Amma’s husband, now accompanied by her son. Don’t worry, they don’t bother anyone. They only keep an eye on their women.
Once the food is served, you’ll find an extraordinary appetite in you. As if all you’ve lived so far was to witness this craving. But don’t overeat. It’ll make you sick and nothing will ever cure you. The trick is to stop before you realize you are full.
Oh, and don’t forget to leave a few rupees in the gullak, the tip jar next to Amma’s cushion. It’s for the soldiers, she’ll say. And buy a few colored bangles from Prema, even if you’ve no use for them. She might invite you to see the garden, and past the back door you’ll see a line of urns filled with ash. Prema will lift her fingers to your lips and whisper, it’s the human ash that makes the food delicious. If you appear shocked, she’ll laugh and say, the whole earth is a graveyard, and we’re feeding off it.
When you leave, don’t look back. Even when Amma calls you by your name. Jingle those bangles you bought. Pray for the dead and walk away. There’s nothing you can do now. You’ve consumed her food, you’re connected to her. And the craving you feel right now will bring you back to her dhaba time and again. Until someday you decide to stay and end up as dirt beneath her plants.
Tara Isabel Zambrano moved from India to the United States two decades ago. Her work has recently appeared in Storm Cellar, Lunch Ticket, Moon City Review, Parcel, and others. She lives in Texas and is an electrical engineer by profession.
I left a bouquet of fake flowers taped to Water Wheel Stand’s door in memory of Sharon and those long fall afternoons when I lugged pumpkins from the refrigerator truck to the trailer for customers, the afternoon when I was hyper and jabbering about the current rewrite of my book and how she turned to me and said, “Sara, you need a boyfriend,” the summer Saturdays of handing boxes of plums, pears, tomatoes, and green beans out of the truck to open for the morning, the fall evenings my brother would pick me up from work and help us close.
Melanie left a message on the answering machine on a Tuesday in January. Mom played it after we returned home. Melanie’s message said Sharon had gone to the hospital last night from a heart attack but did not make it. I ran up the stairs grabbing the sunset yarn half-afghan from the corner of my bed—a gift from Sharon on a fall day when I did not work. She had asked my brother and me to come to the stand. She had something for us. She gave me her crocheted work saying, “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but you are a plain Jane and I wanted you to have something bright to catch the eye of your knight in shining armor.” A few months later, it was not a sunset for her, but a candle going out suddenly and quickly.
At her memorial service, there were flowers in the front of the funeral home. Her ashes were in a metallic purple urn. There was a poster board covered in pictures. I heard about Sharon in the context of her family, her bell collection, and her care for others. I sat with the others who worked at the stand. Jackie was next to me. In October, during the Open Gate Farm Tour, we had run the stand. The familiar faces did not ease the emptiness.
“Hi, Sara, it’s Sharon. Mike said no work today. We’re not going to open up today because of the rain. If you have any questions, just give me a call. If not, thanks for working this summer. Bye.” The voicemail left on my turned-off cell. I did not hear her message until after she died. I played her final goodbye again and again just to hear her voice.
Sharon—with her hummingbird tattoos sitting in her chair looking out the large front opening holding a diet iced tea and a cigarette. She kept a book on the end of the cash register table—a popular romance with the gorgeous girl and the shirtless guy. She sassed the regular customers, crocheted every kid who worked with her a half-afghan. She teased me relentlessly but taught me to smile when helping every customer, how to run the cash register, and was the one who told me, “You have this one,” when two teens pulled up and the boy was covered in light blue paint.
Sara K. Bennett is attending Cedarville University for a degree in English and creative writing. Her passion is creative writing and telling stories, especially stories with a realistic feel in either fiction or nonfiction. She loves spending time outside, working on writing projects, reading a good novel, and embroidering.
I imagine he woke up Monday, wearily shaved his cheeks and chin in his bathroom, then stared at his hair in the mirror. Tuesday, the same. Wednesday, with frustration. By Friday, disgust.
Sunday, he stood at my bedroom door with a pair of scissors and a pair of pursed lips, unwilling to verbally admit his defeat. “You swear you’ve cut hair before?”
I nodded, surprised he’d held out as long as he had.
Four months earlier, Christmas Day, my father woke up with shingles in his right cranial nerve five. We assumed a rash and a fever, perhaps the flu; he was eighty and his illnesses had begun to crash with no warning, so we had become accustomed to waiting them out. Three days later, the rash was gone, but post-herpetic neuralgia replaced it, giving way to severe nerve damage. The number five nerve extends like a hand with five fingers, if you place the palm at the ear. One finger wraps around the chin, one below the nose. One on the right cheek, one toward the right eye and eyebrow, and the thumb, running north from the ear. On nerve activity scans, all five lit up in red, which my father joked made perfect sense because it felt like they were on fire.
And that was really all he said—avoiding further discussion, he left me fuzzy on the details of his illness for most of my adolescence. I did know that he refused medication to lessen the pain, choosing hours of stony silence spent on the couch with the lights off over opiates. In later years, he’s mentioned to me that the few times he took them, he could barely keep himself awake, and for the first time truly felt old. But to a fifteen-year-old, this refusal, and the diagnosis, seemed inane—as I tiptoed through to the kitchen, I couldn’t understand why nothing was being done; no procedures, no operations, no solutions. “Incurable” made little sense to a girl who had barely had the flu. Yet here my father sat in silence for the third week, his forehead in his hands, because waiting was the adopted treatment. Petulant, teenage me was ill-equipped to partake in this stakeout, so if I wasn’t sequestered in my room with television, I was avoiding the dark living room by spending weekends at my boyfriend’s house.
The detail I was clear about was the status of his hair, which he talked about with a remarkable constancy. His standing monthly hair trim went neglected, and the fringe around the base of his skull quickly grew unkempt. He’d grumble at dinner: “I look like an old man.” “I have a mullet.” “I feel like the back of my neck is wearing a blanket.”
In the early months of recovery, he’d wince if any part of his head was touched, bobbing and weaving in a self-protective two-step whenever my mother or I came near him. We stopped hugging in the mornings before I left for school. My mother, frazzled, stopped calling to find out where I was every day at five. On the nights I did come home, I quickly noted that we no longer ate vegetables (because my father hated them) and that instead my mom made pasta and put in extra meatballs because it was his favorite. Uncharacteristically, I chose not to complain.
I’d hesitate before entering the house, attempting to prepare what to say. In the way that teenagers so often do, I lacked the vocabulary to ask him about how he was hurting or what I could do, regularly scrambling for language that felt appropriate. While I had overheard murmurs of these conversations between my mother and him, emulation seemed impossible, and the strain I caught in my mother’s exhausted whisper was frightening. Scuttling in the house and mumbling a barely audible “hey” as I passed, I’d sheepishly remain hidden until dinner.
There, across the table from me, hunched over the parmesan, he didn’t look much like himself. After months of wordless observation, my gaze alit on his shoulder-length hair, and I found something to say. Between bites of rigatoni and meatballs, I volunteered.
“Let me cut your hair.”
“Have you ever?”
We’re a family of vanity, so what began as tepid acceptance soon turned into a ritual. My father would peek his head into my door in the early afternoon once every third Sunday, after I had finally hoisted myself out of bed. Working up the nerve to state his intent, he’d feign nonchalance as he made his way around my room. He’d walk to the window and pull down the blinds a bit, causing the previously settled specks of dust to sparkle when they caught the redirected shafts of sunlight. He’d organize books and wipe rings of condensation off my desk. In the haze of a recently-woken adolescent, I’d continue watching Law & Order on my computer as though zombified. This round of cat and mouse would go on until he finally broke:
“Do you have fifteen minutes?”
I’d exhale, responding that I didn’t. He’d nod, and turn to leave, when I’d get up to grab the scissors. “Where are you going?”
“You just said—”
“Not if you’re too busy,” but his fingers, brushed with arthritis and refusing to bend easily, were already toying with the inch or so of hair he felt was too shaggy. Not that there was even much to fuss with: the majority of his head was bald, hair only running from ear to ear, wrapped, as we joked, like a fur head-warmer. He once had thick, black hair that hung long and curly at his shoulders. A denim designer for Sears Roebuck in the seventies, he’d chosen his hair over promotions, leaving to start his own business when his boss pushed him to cut it. Though that hair left him long before I was born, I’d grown up surrounded by photographs on the walls, paying homage to his curls.
When my dad talks about his youth, he talks about his dog, King, whom he swears was half wolf. He tells endless stories about his childhood in Depression-era Brooklyn, where a pickle was five cents and his mother smoked a pack of cigarettes every day. He talks about the girl he tried to marry at eighteen, for whom he hitchhiked from Durham, North Carolina back to Brooklyn only to find her engaged to someone else. And he talks about his hair. For all of these vignettes, I nestle beside him on our living room couch and doze, while he watches the news and resumes his stories during the commercials— in part to me, in part to himself. As a young child, I used to bury my face in his stomach at the same time, listening as much to his voice as to the gurgles in his belly; the two together in harmony sounded satisfyingly alive and reassuring to me, and I delighted in his warmth.
It took just under two years for his nerve scans to move from red to yellow, and then to a sustainable, even ignorable, green. I went to college, and he returned to his barber.
But I can still easily feel the heartbeat in the veins beneath the silk of my father’s scalp, as though my hands are only centimeters away. I remember wondering if the pulsing lined up with the pain of the frazzled nerves, then chastising myself for creating a visible reality for an invisible occurrence. How physically tangible can the synapses of one’s nerves be anyway, or for that matter how real? I didn’t want to ask, probably because I really didn’t want to know.
The muscle memory returns, too: I can still feel the strain in my mouth, tense as I wielded the scissors and refused mistake, and feel how the the rest of my body poised like a statue as I moved the blades around the nape of his neck. I’d take barely an inch off of his baby-fine hair and watch it flutter, like feathers, down into the sink. In this real-life game of Operation, I knew intrinsically the repercussions of allowing the blades to even brush his skin.
He went from asking to demanding; I went from offering to submitting with caustic, adolescent sarcasm. We verbally scuffled every time he would scrutinize to make sure the ends were even. We brought in rulers, occasionally took photos on my cellphone to pour over and dissect how even the cut was in the back, and inevitably fifteen minutes turned into an hour.
“I don’t want to look lopsided, Sara, I’m not some crazy old man.”
“Why would I make you look crazy? Jesus, trust me for, like, one second.”
“Jesus doesn’t know you from a hole in the wall. I would trust you if it wasn’t already lopsided.” Touché.
“I think it’s your head that’s lopsided,” and our eyes would meet in the bathroom mirror. Me standing behind him with tufts of hair in one hand, big gray craft scissors in the other. Him seated below me and obstinately repressing a grin.
I’d hold my breath and raise the scissors once more, knowing the hair was not even, but also that my confidence was wavering and that my fingers begged for a break. Yet, as I navigated the globe of his mostly bald scalp, he never flinched. Lost in his desire for the hair to be perfect, he’d forget the fiery nerves and the fear of being touched. Perhaps even the shingles altogether.
The truth—I hadn’t cut hair before. Somehow the blades never so much as grazed him.
Sara Schuster is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. She writes short stories and personal narratives focusing on memory, health, and bodies (especially her own). Her most recent work is a thesis on recovering from anorexia. Other published pieces can be found in the Penn Gazette.
WHILE TRYING TO DECIDE WHETHER OR NOT TO MOVE TO A REMOTE AREA OF MICHIGAN, I ATTEMPT TO CONVINCE YOU TO BUY A TINY KNOCKDOWN HOUSE UNDERNEATH THE EL by Krys Malcolm Belc
We’ve had these fights before, the ones in which the decision we make means a lot more than the thing we buy or don’t buy. Take our car, for example. We almost divorced deciding whether to buy a car to fit five or six; in the dealership while our older boys climbed into and out of fresh trunks, you drummed your hands on your pregnant belly and stared into backseats that couldn’t handle any more of us. When we took our shiny, new five-seater home, it spent its days on our corner, where we could watch it from our living room window, minding it through the hum of Philadelphia life as it stood resolutely through all of Kensington’s comings and goings.
Walking under the El in the thick of summer, I find reasons to go out of my way to look at the house I want to buy: the plastic chairs outside, the cracked stoop, the discolored brick—discolored in a way that looks intentional, like artfully faded jeans. This house–my house—is blocks from the Palestinian ice cream place, the one with the elaborate stone fountain placed strangely in its side yard beside picnic tables. A fence goes up around my house near the end of summer, when someone buys its neighbor and decides to fix their shared, fractured sidewalk. I lace my fingers through the wire and try to peer in. When the El rattles by overhead, everything underneath vibrates: the coins on the sidewalk, the soles of my sneakers, my house’s aged shutters. I send you a link, again. You call my house a knockdown. And who willingly buys a house right under the train, anyway?
We do not buy the house. We move to Michigan. Google tells me there is a bus station 4.3 miles from our house here; a bus is not the same as a train. I do not have an entire day to drive six hours to Chicago to stand under El tracks. Nothing in this town has a broken beauty like the house underneath the El did. I miss the train screeching, the smell of baklava and ice cream, the graffiti and the thunderous noise of Front Street. I want you to know that months after I last walked away I still think about it: the crumbling brown brick, the smell of old things—old carpets, old paint, old owners—that wafted out when I ran by again and again. Feeling the booming train along my hands, down through each finger. The overgrown empty lot next door: beautiful, in its way. A life that could have been. A thousand miles away on a Monday night I look out our kitchen window into the small-town black and see sirens. I pull you outside. Our neighbor’s work van has been smashed by a reckless driver who is standing beside the wreckage of his little car. Our neighbor stares at us as if we are from another universe. I don’t understand how you didn’t hear that, he says. I felt my whole house shake.
Krys Malcolm Belc is a transgender writer and proud former Philadelphia public school teacher who recently relocated to snowy Marquette, Michigan, where he is a first year MFA candidate in the creative writing program at Northern Michigan University. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in 45th Parallel, The Monarch Review, and Reservoir.
My bag disappeared
with my passport, my keys
a little vial containing
a sliver of bone.
I was stalked by an ordinary man.
My bag reappeared on a table
like at an airport.
Stained. Light as air.
All that remained was a plastic comb
and some pennies.
I got separated from my daughter.
I had to sit across from a man
making super-small talk,
trying to keep me there
as long as possible.
It wasn’t my trauma it was somebody else’s.
I couldn’t have my bag back
even though it was only a limp husk.
An official person went upstairs
and threw it overboard.
This happened. There was a splash.
Valerie Fox is the author of several books, including The Rorschach Factory (Straw Gate Books), The Glass Book (Texture Press), and Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets, co-written with Lynn Levin (Texture Press). Insomniatic, a chapbook, is forthcoming from PS Books. Fox has published many poems and stories co-written with Arlene Ang, and has also published Bundles of Letters Including A, V and Epsilon, which is a compilation with Ang. Fox has published work in Painted Bride Quarterly, Philadelphia Stories, Ping Pong, Hanging Loose, Apiary, Juked, Cordite Poetry Review, qarrtsiluni, Mockingheart Review, Sentence, and other journals.