On the terrace, huddled
against sun, ………………..the ticking air
and hissing in the grass—
at the palazzo belfry suddenly …………………………….a peregrine,
and the pigeons frozen, as only …………………..the ice shifts …………..and a lime drowns
at the edge of the world
you squint at as if distant,
held up in your hand—
rattle that glass now, …………..coward,
call for help
Ed Taylor is the author of the novel Theo, the poetry collection Idiogest, the chapbook The Rubaiyat of Hazmat, and the forthcoming chapbook Cardinal Directions (fall 2017). His prose and poetry appeared most recently in The Literary Quarterly, The Moth (UK), Southern Poetry Review, Gargoyle, The Forge, St. Petersburg Review, North American Review, New World Writing, Clackamas Literary Review, and a 2016 anthology on the theme of drought.
Just let me finish my story. Listen. I was at this party at a house on Vanderveer Street off of Hillside Ave. in Queens. I was having a great time with my friends, then near the end of the party, I had to leave because I wanted to help my mom. She had called me, you know, she’s older and needed my help, I don’t know, can’t remember, something about her house, maybe the garbage disposal or something, so anyway, I said I’d be there after the party. Well, after a while, I thought I had hung around long enough, mingled enough, so I went to the front of the house to look for my shoes, and I couldn’t find them.
Hey, you know me, I’m Malayalee. My family comes from the state of Kerala, which is along the coast of southwest India, a place some call God’s Own Country, a place where life somehow slows down to a pace far less frantic than found elsewhere in India. Back there, back where people have time to actually live how they were created to live, and age seems to wait for their bodies to catch up in a slow progression of time, back where culture and habits passed down for generations are still practiced as wisdom, there is a custom that when you enter any home, you take your shoes off to show respect, and that expression of favorable regard for your host also extends to his family and to all the people that you have come to visit that live there like aunts or uncles or like their appachans or ammachies, you know, the grandparents. I’m guessing this is the case with not just all Indians, but usually with most Asian people, this custom where you take your shoes off when you enter someone’s home, a custom still practiced even if the family is a continent away from their native land. I mean, it makes sense, you don’t want to dirty the host’s house up with all the places you stepped, you know, bringing all the things of the world that the host is trying to keep out with his house.
Again, it’s a sign of respect, so you take your shoes off, but if you really want to get a Malayalee or an Indian or any Asian mad, just keep your shoes on inside their home. For example, when your hosts open the front door and they greet you and you see all those shoes in the front entry from all the other guests, go ahead and walk right in without even acknowledging that you even notice those shoes, or better yet, look down at the shoes for a while, then walk right in, so that they know you know to take your shoes off but you refuse to, then walk all over the house, and when you’re in the middle of a great conversation, just hoist up your leg and step on that coffee table or that ottoman and lean your elbow on that hoisted knee with your drink in your hand chuckling after you tell your hearty joke, now that, that will definitely be a way not just to get your host furious at you, but to get the whole Malayalee population this side of the Atlantic mad too, because he’s going to call all of them.
I can see him with red in his eyes, and he can’t wait till you leave so he can curse you and your family, and not the kind of cursing with profanity, no, that’s vulgar and too easy. It’s the kind of cursing that takes creativity where the host wishes you grow horns on your head or that your children grow fat and lazy. He’ll probably tell his wife how disrespectful you were by walking around in your filthy shoes and tell her how you were probably raised by animals or white people. Now, I know you might think that seems a bit racist, but it’s not. It’s just a comparison of two extremes. Well, maybe. It could be the residual effect of British imperialistic occupation of India for a number of generations. I mean, the British wore their shoes everywhere. Everywhere. But I digress. Either way, the host would feel that this would be the last time he’d invite your kind. The I-don’t-take-my-shoes-off-because-I-wasn’t-raised-with-manners kind.
I didn’t want any of that, so I took my shoes off when I entered the house, and I remember setting them aside near the tiled front foyer closer to the bookshelf that sat down the hall. I didn’t just throw them anywhere, because I knew that with a custom like this, you may end up not knowing where you originally placed your shoes because they all look similar, especially men’s shoes, I couldn’t say about women shoes, I think they look different. Or you may lose sight of your shoes because someone else was looking through the pile at the front door and may have shuffled some shoes around, causing your shoes not to be at the same location. In the worst case scenario, someone may have taken your shoes by mistake, which would mean that their shoes are still here, and they’re walking around in your shoes, going home, wondering why their feet hurt or why the shoes are too loose or too tight, not smart enough to know that they picked up the wrong shoes. I know things like this can happen, and I placed my shoes slightly away from everyone else’s shoes, but not far enough to suggest that I’m special or I think I’m above everyone else, like, “Look at that guy’s shoes, who does he think he is placing his shoes so far away from everyone else and so close to our carpet?”
I know I left my shoes closer to the bookshelf, by that mahogany or what looked like mahogany bookshelf in the hall, and I know what my shoes look like, leather brown loafers, no laces, I’m too lazy for laces, sleek, clean, no prints or stitching along the sides, just plain deep brown, soft shoes, but I couldn’t find them, so I looked around, you know, in case a shuffling of shoes occurred by someone prior to me wanting to leave. Sometimes, a shuffling of shoes occurs when people come in, those people who arrived late, like it was fashionable to be late to a party, but this was an Indian party, you come really late to these kinds, and the host will think you were brought up in the poorer towns in Kerala, like your family doesn’t have education and were workers sweating in a paddy field, because Indian parties, weddings, funerals, or any functions already start late since we run on Indian time, like if something is scheduled to start at 5:00 p.m., every Indian knows that it’s going to start around 6:00 p.m., so everyone comes at 6:00 p.m. Indian Standard Time, and if you decide to come fashionably later than that, then you’re really late, and the host will wonder why you came at all.
I know what my shoes look like, and I know I left them near the bookshelf, but they weren’t there, and there wasn’t too much shuffling of shoes, I could see that each pair was together, so a major shuffling hadn’t occurred yet. It would seem I may have misplaced them, maybe I didn’t leave them near the bookshelf, the fake mahogany one, maybe I left them by the other one on the opposite side, the black one with the wood sculptures of cranes and elephants, but I don’t remember noticing those sculptures when I placed my shoes nearby, because I would have noticed them, I mean the whole bookshelf was covered with these wooden sculptures, and that would have stuck in my mind, that image and realization that this crap was in every Indian house.
I decided to look around because now I’m doubting my memory. I didn’t see them by both bookshelves, maybe I didn’t leave them by any bookshelf. I looked deeper into the large spread of shoes in the front. Maybe the host, well, Jose Uncle, actually, he’s not my real uncle, it’s another Indian custom we practice where you elevate an older acquaintance to a position in your family, you do this out of respect. The same thing with older women, they’re aunties. Maybe, it was Jose Uncle, spelled J-O-S-E, but not pronounced Jose like he was Mexican or in a way that would imply Spanish descent, but literally pronounced the way it was spelled: Jose Uncle. Well, he did sport a very thick mustache and was chubby, and his hair sat combed in a way that formed the shape of a sombrero. Probably, he saw that I moved my shoes away from everyone else, and he moved them back into the pile. It’s known to happen. Now I’m wondering if he did that and didn’t say anything, another custom of my people, not to say anything but to teach silent lessons to those younger than them.
Either way, if my shoes were moved to the pile, then they must be here. I went over the whole pile and still couldn’t find them. I decided to start from the top and move slowly down the pile to the front door, once in a while touching and picking up shoes that came somewhat close to the look of my shoes. During this whole time, I had a number of people come up to me asking what I was doing like it wasn’t obvious, like they couldn’t put two and two together to know that I was looking for my shoes, so I told them that I was looking for my shoes, and some, the more thoughtful ones, even asked what my shoes looked like, and I told them that they were dark brown, soft, no laces, but after their questions, they all seemed to continue back into the party, they went back to talking to others and not one of them looked back or helped. Not one. It was as if they just wanted to confirm that my actions of looking for my shoes actually matched to what was going through my head, the thoughts of where are my shoes, and that was enough for them. Like if I said I was looking for the dip, they would have pointed toward the kitchen and went on their merry way.
Now I became worried. Or at least it felt like worry. I scoured the front entry for my shoes, and I couldn’t find them anywhere, and no one, I mean no one, was offering any help. Everyone was busy with the party, and I felt nervous. Or was it something else creeping inside, and I just failed to figure out this feeling? Maybe I felt anxious because I was thinking that my mother was expecting me to be at her home soon, and I was not there and like most Indian mothers, well, all mothers, they worry, and I didn’t want her thinking that I was lying in a ditch somewhere, because that’s what they worry about, that we end up lying in ditches, but they don’t understand that if all the mothers worry about that, then we’re all probably in the same ditch, we’re all okay, and we can help each other out of the ditch.
Then my wife finally showed up and saw me looking around the front, thank God she was here, I had totally forgotten that she was here because I was so wrapped up in looking for my shoes. I should have known to stop after a while and ask her, because she would know exactly where they were even though I’m the one who placed them somewhere. She would know. Women are like that.
I was relieved she was here, and I told her that my mom had called and I was supposed to go there after the party and I just couldn’t find my shoes, and I looked at my wife the whole time I was talking, and at the end of my explanation, she rolled her eyes.
She rolled her eyes.
Like I was some kind of a moron or paddy field worker who couldn’t find his shoes. She asked if I looked through the pile in the front, and I could not believe she asked me that, and I told her, what the heck do you think I was doing and that I was here looking for my shoes, who knows, for the last half hour. This time she rolled her eyes and shook her head, and I couldn’t believe it. It was as if she was looking upward and shaking her head toward the sky, and all of Heaven was looking down shaking their heads, wondering how God could have slipped up and allowed such a perfect Malayalee woman to marry such a complete idiot. An idiot who couldn’t even keep track of his shoes. I asked her if she was going to help or not and she said not to worry and that we would find it. Her words comforted me, and I started looking around again, and I started picking up each pair of shoes. This time, I looked at them top and bottom, like I was going to recognize my shoes from the sole, and after a few minutes I looked over to see if my wife found them or not, and she wasn’t there in the front. She was by the kitchen talking to someone with some food, probably a samosa, in her hand, and I bet you she was looking at first but then became distracted with conversation like most women do and totally forgot or gave up on the idea of looking for my shoes.
I stood there shocked that not only did no one help, but my wife didn’t seem to want to help either. Now, I know that I made a thorough search for my shoes and couldn’t find them. I came to the conclusion that someone must have taken my shoes by accident and left theirs. I thought maybe I can take their shoes and get going, but there’s absolutely no way of knowing what shoes they left behind except that the shoes must have looked exactly like mine, but I didn’t remember seeing anything that looked exactly like my shoes. After all that, I thought my shoes were gone and there was no way I’m getting them back, so I went toward the front closet and looked around and found some old shoes which I knew must have belong to Jose Uncle. I grabbed them, which in retrospect I shouldn’t have done, but I was angry, and I walked through crowds of conversations and laughter, and finally found Jose Uncle, and asked if I could borrow his shoes, and he said no and that he needed them. He told me that he only had a few shoes and how the ones I was holding was his favorite pair. Now I noticed that he wasn’t too happy that I was walking around holding his shoes, and that is another thing you must never do at any host’s home, you don’t go rummaging through their things, it doesn’t matter if you’re Indian or whatever, it’s just bad manners, and I knew that somehow my mother was going to hear of this, and then she would rather have me be lying in a ditch somewhere than disrespect the host in such a way.
I don’t know what went through my mind to go through another person’s items, and I told Jose Uncle that I was sorry for looking through his front closet, and that I would even buy this old pair of shoes from him. He said okay, thirty-five dollars. Thirty-five dollars? For these shoes? I asked how about ten dollars and he said no, thirty-five dollars. I told him that I could buy two pairs of shoes for that much at Payless. He said that I should feel free to buy shoes from there and if I buy from him, I would PayMore. I don’t know if it’s a custom or anything, but it seems that almost all Indian uncles dispense corny jokes, almost as if in order to be privileged enough to be called an uncle, one must read the ancient manuscript of lame jokes passed from one uncle to another over generations like some secret society of Uncles of the Freemasons, the Indian Order.
Now, it was at that very moment that Thomas Uncle stepped in and placed his hand on my shoulder. His eyes were wide, and he was happy to see me, stating that he hadn’t seen me for years.
He told me how fat I had gotten.
It’s one of those things growing up Indian that when you’re greeted by an older person, they need to either comment on how skinny you’ve gotten or how fat you’ve gotten, yet that perfect middle form and weight, that fine line is almost near invisible and is impossible to attain, so attempting to fix yourself in either direction will result in again falling short the next time you meet. I smiled, talked to Thomas Uncle for a little, then turned to Jose Uncle and thanked him for his hospitality. Yet another customary thing or habit we did out of respect as a younger person, not to show our true feelings, because we were young and had not earned the right to speak one’s mind, a right that comes with age. I walked back to the front of the house and threw his shoes as hard as I could back into the closet. For a moment, I thought of taking someone else’s shoes, but I felt I couldn’t make someone else suffer and have them think that someone took their shoes by accident when I did it on purpose, no, I couldn’t make them go through what I was going through. This was it, I decided to walk to my mother’s house without my shoes. This is probably why some people keep their shoes on inside the house.
My mother raised me with good manners, and I know that when leaving a party or gathering that you should go and say bye to your friends and any new people you had met, but just imagine how strange it would be go to a party and just leave the house without telling anyone and eventually people at the party would wonder if I was still there or if I left without saying a word, yet if I decided to do such a thing it would be another infraction my mother would hear of, so I walked over saying goodbye to everyone and telling them how great of a time I had, and I said bye to Jose Uncle and auntie and then to my wife, and they all smiled and said bye and said that it was great that I was able to make it to the party. While I was walking to the front, I couldn’t help but feel that no one cared because no one asked me if I had found my shoes. They all knew I was looking for them, but no one brought the subject up. At the front foyer, I looked down on the pile of shoes, then back at the party, at all the people talking, all my friends and some family, uncles, aunties, everyone, and I opened the door and went outside.
It was cold, and the wind was blowing, but I didn’t have a jacket on, and I couldn’t remember if I had brought a jacket to the party, yet another thing like the shoes to worry about, but it didn’t matter now. I could feel how cold the cement sidewalk was under my feet, and it was unlike the carpet and its warmth by the fireplace in that house; that house filled with the aroma of chapatti and chicken curry, a smell that hung in the air and that had embraced me like a loving mother when I had entered; that house filled with friends and loved ones whose warmth was first felt through shoulders of soft wool sweaters and cotton shirts and smooth silk saris; that house filled with painstakingly created treats like chewy fried banana chips and the lentil fritters sitting in warm China bowls on the oblong plastic-covered dining room table. Out in the cold, the chills crept through my feet all the way up my spine, spreading all over my back, then penetrating as if I were being swallowed up into the darkness. Leaves whirled in the wind around me with moans and whistles. A small bird sat on a blade of grass, looking up at me. A few feet away, I looked back at that house and could see that the party was still going on, I could hear the muffled music playing, and the windows lit bright like white square eyes against the darkening slate sky. It looked warm and loving, yet I noticed that no one looked out the windows to watch me leave or to see if I was okay, which should have been the job of the host, Jose Uncle, to see me to the door and watch me leave the house, another custom, but not this time, no one watched from the house. No one cared to follow good customs, the ones revolving around love.
At that moment, while my eyes were locked on that house, a feeling crept back up inside along with the cold. It was something I couldn’t shake, a raw visceral emotion deep down. It was at that moment that all of it felt like a dream, all the memories that I had just experienced stripped into the darkness, and I stood there like a statue with tears, observing the poverty of it all. The small bird sat still, and I stayed there in my socks, shivering without a jacket, crying into the darkness, looking toward that house, yearning for its warmth, and I recognized the feeling, and I realized that it was how I had felt, how I had been feeling for the past year.
B. A. Varghese graduated from Polytechnic University (New York) with a degree in electrical engineering and is currently working in the information technology field. Inspired to explore his literary side, he has earned a BA in English from the University of South Florida. His works have appeared in Apalachee Review, Prick of the Spindle, and other literary journals. (www.bavarghese.com)
Meanwhile, in the airy labyrinth,
in a bathtub full of corn liquor,
in the red barn on a hillside.
While you were squinting in tomorrow’s sun.
When the lion purred deeply.
While you were paring your nails
and twiddling with the radio,
incident brushing against incident,
willpower crooking a finger,
intention taking a short vacation,
‘in the meantime’ on your breath,
time an old fire in an older world,
time a sniper, a deer in its crosshairs,
an arrow coursing from one moment to the next.
And meanwhile, by the river’s edge.
Beside a splash of accumulated brilliance.
Behind a page or leaf or pillar.
Where everything is or it isn’t.
Just when the robin came down
from its village of mad branches.
The same moment an ambulance passed.
About the time a voice explained,
“Right about now.”
During the storm of what and when.
During the rise and fall of the executives.
During a long ride into the outlands,
the race between hour and minute,
a word leading, an action following along behind.
Everything happening all of the time.
When there is no then to go back to,
lost among the smudged lettering
and fudged illustrations,
this now before all other nows.
Here is the beginning, where it ends.
The same sun as before, but a different planet.
Bruce McRae is a Canadian musician currently residing on Salt Spring Island, BC. He is a Pushcart nominee with over a thousand poems published internationally in magazines such as Poetry, Rattle, and the North American Review. His books are “The So-Called Sonnets” (Silenced Press), “An Unbecoming Fit Of Frenzy” (Cawing Crow Press) and “Like As If” (Pskis Porch), all available via Amazon. You can reach him by email at: [email protected]
My mother told me nothing is safe. I grew up fenced in playpens, leashed like a dog, harnessed in strollers. I was buckled and belted, handheld and sandwiched, life-vested, sunblocked, helmeted, braced, and warned. My vaccines were up to date, my laces double-knotted. She told me never go out alone. My friends weren’t friends but “buddies.” Each time I built up the courage to timidly test the limits of her invisible fence, things went wrong. I thought, maybe she was right. Or, this was a bad idea.
All of her warnings coalesced in the dark recesses of the parking garage. Cement columns and cars threw shadows that sheltered rapists, murderers, gangsters, and thieves. When I got a high school job at the mall, she gifted me pepper spray in my Christmas stocking. Never park on the same level twice, she told me. Have your mace in one hand, your key clenched in the other. Call a security guard to walk you to your car if you can, but only if the security guard is not a rapist or a Republican. She scowled at the high heels I was required to wear, said, they’ll only slow you down. Have you heard about the men hiding beneath cars that cut your Achilles while you’re unlocking the door?
At twenty-four, I started going on hikes alone. I’d been thinking about it since I first fell in love with the outdoors as a teen, and it had taken me some eight-plus years to gather the pluck. My mother tried to talk me out of it, recited statistics about mountain lion maulings, trotted out facts involving landslides, forest fires, snake bites, and hypothermia. Did you know that bears are drawn to menstruating women? she asked, then bought me a knife the size of my forearm with a compartment for waterproof matches, flint, and a space blanket. She sent emails about foraging for edible plants, gifted books about a hiker having to cut his own arm off or eat his frozen brother. She put a jingle bell on my trekking pole to scare the animals away, a rape whistle around my neck to scare the men away. I’d gone years without incident until the day I rounded a corner of trail close to the tree line and nearly tripped over a deer carcass, entrails still steaming, tufts of fur and sinew leading into the brush. I thought, maybe she was right. This was a bad idea.
I started staying closer to home; things felt safer out of the wilderness. A door-to-door vacuum salesman asked to use my bathroom one afternoon, and while my mother’s voice screamed it isn’t safe!, it also chimed in don’t be rude! and during the cranium cage fight of her maxims, the salesman flushed and walked into the kitchen, where he studied my refrigerator pictures, then said, “So, you live here all by yourself?”
The security system I purchased was top-of-the-line, monitored doors and windows, allowed me to check in on things from my phone when I wasn’t at home. It made me feel much safer, until I awoke one night, horrified at the realization that the man who installed it knew my codes, how to disarm things—he most certainly was watching the goings on of my house from his phone!
There wasn’t much yard space for the Dobermans, but I left them with a tug-of-war toy in the back to encourage exercise and keep their killer instincts sharp. I would have liked to walk them to the park in the evenings, but everyone knows that parks are full of drug dealers and delinquent teens that are housing extremely dangerous hormone levels and a deadly lack of frontal lobe development. Instead, my dogs and I ran neat circles around the perimeter of my back yard. We wore down a path.
One slow Sunday morning, I sat near my front window with a mug of coffee (reasonably cooled to a safe drinking temperature), dogs at my feet, updating my firewall and watching a few neighborhood children ride their bikes around the sidewalks and into my driveway. My mother had recently sent an email, the subject line all caps: URGENT. It explained that gang members had been using “lost” or “injured” children asking for help in order to lure women into their clutches. Outside, one of the kids was sitting beside his overturned bike, fists tight balls in his eye sockets. The little bastards. I snapped shut my curtains and put in an order for electric fencing.
It was about this time I discovered one can have groceries delivered, circumventing the germ-ridden, vagrant-filled cavities of the supermarket. Did you know you can catch foot-and-mouth disease from shopping cart handles? I always answered the door with a taser in my waistband, the Dobermans snarling behind my legs. Last time the delivery man’s finger brushed mine as he handed over the package. The website directory of registered sex offenders is surprisingly easy to navigate.
I ordered a twelve-disc self-defense DVD collection starring a former Navy SEAL for only three small payments of $24.99, kept a baseball bat leaning against the wall behind the front door, got a concealed permit, and purchased a handgun. I planted thorned hedges behind the electric fence and dug stakes beneath the windows. I sharpened my canine teeth with a nail file and fashioned a chastity belt out of scrap metal. When the Dobermans were off duty they would come to me in the hunting blind spread out in the living room, place their questioning snouts in my lap. We’re ready, I’d assure them, to live without fear.
Danielle Holmes holds an MFA from Bennington College. Her previous works have appeared in daCunha, Pilgrimage, and P.U.L.P. In 2015 she was a finalist in the Dana Awards and in 2014 was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Colorado.
“The coyotes are judging me.” ……………………………………………….Jenny Slate
The coyotes are judging me.
The coyotes are excellent judges of character
attuned to minute oscillations of will
opportunistic in their insight. They are misanthropes at heart, the coyotes,
also canids, and therefore cynics
and proceed from the assumption of not the best or the worst
as the essence of the human condition but inertia
the failure to bestir ourselves to invention
They are vitriolic, the coyotes,
caustic in their ridicule.
In fact I wonder if I am really being judged by coyotes or
whether they abandoned the subject of me long ago
as not sufficiently profound or entertaining and if it is in fact I
who continue to want to be judged by coyotes because
it is better to be in their scrutiny when one of them,
scruff-shouldered and unhurried, crosses a corporate drive
in the early morning dusk in front of me
than to be on that road .. alone.
Nina Murray is a native of the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv. She is a poet and literary translator from the Ukrainian and Russian languages. As a U.S. diplomat, she has served in Lithuania, Canada, and Russia. Her chapbook Minimize Considered is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.
so it begins [spring]……… leopards from a crowd of moss hills bloom
I don’t live there; I built my ship…………………………………..sailed jungle bound
to procreate………………………..among the mongoose sifting through……….. sand ponds …………this is where
I wait, sunburnt
my littlest, Jonie…………………might have leopard qualities
might be math-inspired ………my logic is space………my logic is more water to safety
the ruining begins [summer] by cutting………………….clusters of birds …………………………………………………………………..of paradise
their yellow red beaks, their gemstones break
between my palms………………………….I have learned nothing………..blue grows
in my garden…………………bed [winter]
I want…………………………………………………………… a tall tree breaking through …………………………………….the roof………..like the Pantheon
in Italy, once
I had the tongue of a boy in my throat…………………………………………………[fall]
a man has taken care of that
A DOZEN RAW
a delicacy is not a frozen thorn
not a leopard’s pant ………….tongue thawed
declawed…….. somewhere in Winter Park
a museum dedicated to glass…………..the fragile organ
I dropped acid on the precipice
of a eight story walk-up………………….miles from the stained installment
where your parents lived,
hours from an all male state prison
that night I sang the star spangled banner
into an etched cup.………………./ into an eye I called Venus ………….I fell and fell again North
into the lap of Antonio
into the Jennifers
and the oyster beds of Apalachicola
Jaimie Gusman is a freelance writer and poets-in-the-school teacher living in Kaʻaʻawa, HI. Jaimie has three chapbooks: Gertrude’s Attic (Vagabond Press, 2014), The Anyjar (Highway 101 Press, 2011), and One Petal Row (Tinfish Press, 2011). Recent work can also be found in the Jewish Literary Journal, Rise Up Review, The Bleeding Lion, Moss Trill,The Feminist Wire, and the anthology All We Can Hold. Her first full-length book, Anyjar will be published by Black Radish Books in Fall 2017.
EVERY DAY WITH HER (NEW YORK CITY, 1982) by Michael Backus
Speed-free for two days now and stuck waiting on the 116th Street A train southbound platform with a hard two-train hour down to my job at the Gansevoort Meatpacking District, I have this packet I got at the bodega at 113th and Broadway, this over-the-counter Ephedrine bullshit in its bright blue waterproof packaging, and this is what I’m reduced to, trying to pound two little pills to dust without splitting the plastic, using my fist against the greasy wooden subway bench, and though there are five or six other people waiting, no one is going to say anything to me, not at 3:00 a.m. at 116th Street—maybe not anytime—and finally I have it powdered but nothing to snort with, not even a single dollar bill; just a pocketful of tokens supplied by my girlfriend Kiley the way a parent might pin a child’s lunch money to his coat along with a note, I have to lean my head back and pour half down each nostril, snorting as hard as I can, and it’s worse than speed, the burning and the small sharp shards that didn’t pound cutting into my nose and soon I have another nosebleed going and the train still hasn’t come and after this there’s another switch at Columbus and another wait, then ten hours of hard work and the whole thing in reverse and it has got to be the worst but given all this, it’s still better than staying home, waking up to her and all that goes with her.
“Hey you,” I yell at a man in a suit who’s picking his nose, talking to himself in that way people do here, and his suit looks clean enough for most offices, but when he turns, he’s got a fresh gash under his eye and he’s bled all over his tie and white shirt. “You!” I say again, with no clear reason why. This is not how people act in this city, this is not me but I feel cut loose down here. Adrift. I understand what it is that drives people to write books and films set in some grubby future where the whole human race is reduced to living in the remnants of a city’s transit system. It’s the same thing that used to move me to pray every night for some overwhelming catastrophe, something close to the end of the world, because I knew that was the one place Kiley and I could be together, free from all the petty bullshit that got in the way, a new world—our world—where the only worry was survival and the only joy each other. For six months I prayed, my brain spinning, my teeth ground to stubs, until she came back but back changed somehow, like a familiar room in which all the furniture and all the pictures on the wall have been mysteriously moved a few inches to the left, just enough to put the thought in your head.
“You know what I hate about you,” she says, and I can sense her special brand of foreplay coming. “The way you look at the shit on the paper when you wipe your ass. I hate that.”
“What!” I say. “What?” In response, she buries her teeth deeper into my neck drawing blood, and I push her legs so far above her that her head and heels bang against the wall at the same time, so hard we both forget everything but the doing and the coming release. In that instant, I understand the serial killer who talks about the voices stopping for one long exquisite moment as he rips the life out of some poor creature. I think she does, too.
Michael Backus’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Digging Through the Fat, Okey Panky, One Story, Exquisite Corpse, Prime Number Magazine, Hanging Loose, The Writer, and The Sycamore Review, among others. His short story “Coney on the Moon” is slated for publication in an upcoming Redbird chapbook. Xynobooks published his novel, Double, in 2012, and he’s currently shopping a book-length memoir about tossing meat in New York City’s meatpacking district in the early ’80s. He teaches creative writing for Gotham Writer’s Workshop and Zoetrope: All-Story magazine and lives in Albuquerque, NM.
The palm trees outside the window are waiting to wed.
But the officiate is late.
They stare at each other, touching fronds, tasting of perpetual summer. At night
we hear them imagining themselves elsewhere. Unrooting. We smell the yearning.
Annie on Mulberry lane doesn’t believe us.
Well, they aren’t outside the window, exactly.
They’re out back hiding from the gators.
But they know the gators are waiting for the love moment. Gators hate sentimentality.
You never see them on Hallmark cards.
Annie knows everyone’s secrets. She doesn’t like to gossip, but
The yellow heart of recognition nods in compliance. It’s especially hungry in the morning.
Annie dyes her hair black. Rides a horse down Broadway.
There will be a musical that will undo the president. He will pronounce nothing.
All musicians know this. That the bow is tipped.
Toutes les promesses ont disparu dans les rue.
The sun’s laughing her head off.
Gators swallow the sun.
Babo Kamel’s poems have appeared in literary reviews in the US, Australia, and Canada. Some of these include Painted Bride Quarterly, Abyss & Apex, The Greensboro Review, Alligator Juniper, The Grolier Poetry Prize, Contemporary Verse 2, Rust + Moth, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, and 2River Review. She was a winner of the Charlotte Newberger Poetry Prize and is a Pushcart nominee. She has work forthcoming in Pantheon Magazine, Redactions Poetry & Poetics, Mizmor L’David Anthology, The Inflectionist Review, Lines+Stars, Origins, and dreams&nightmares.
a simple star-crack unwinding
in ropes of flat out
shaking silver. The white bird
is not raveled in thought
when it breaks open the brow
of the river with its
flung down flight. How
do I say it? I am there
for you. I am
never there for you. Not much
belief would walk your hand
straight through to my spine—
pluck at the chord
and make me see the un-me-the-non-
self—the marrow the choral
cut—Scalloping and scooping
head—I caught you
praying that autumn day
in June—we were too flat
snakes pressed into another
wet corner—we were all the head
turning of those fleurs yellow,
We stared into the eye.
Our lips— ……………………..—our
cold, cold limbs
turning to the walls cot,
the sweeping eye,
the loving frond.
Lucy Anderton is happy to be here. Her work has recently appeared in Boston Review and is forthcoming in Tin House, and her collection The Flung You was published by New Michigan Press. She is currently raising her French-American girl in a 500-year-old brothel.
The wind hesitates, the sky like to sing, so blue. Tiny Boy writes his name in dirt, slow and careful. The Locketts’ hound jitters in dream and the same old flies circle and circle. The day is Thursday and Tiny Boy will eat his dinner with Gran—pork chops, he hopes, and applesauce. She don’t make pies anymore, which is a loss to all concerned, meaning Tiny Boy and her church friend, Marla. Down the street, shirts hang on a line in the backyard of a house gone empty months ago. Bleached now, in sun streaks. Tiny Boy tries to whistle. Carter tried to teach him three or four times, but he still can’t get out but a huff. Carter’s gone now, too, like the people in the house. To jail. Two years, he told Tiny Boy, till he’s back. Tiny Boy will keep practicing till then. Carter gave him his watch to take care of and his hunting knife. Carter made him promise not to use the knife for anything, no matter what. Tiny Boy crossed his fingers and said, I promise. He knew about promises. His ma promised him she’d never leave, but she did. That’s a broken promise, Carter told him. That’s not a good thing. Tiny Boy gets up and starts to shuffle down to Gran’s. Pork chops, he thinks, I hope it’s pork chops. But if it’s not, he won’t complain, because Gran is old, and when she dies, he doesn’t know who else will feed him. Maybe Carter when he gets back. Maybe he’s learning how to make pies in that jail.
A tall blue glass sat on the windowsill holding nothing but light, if light could be caught. It was early March and colder than normal, the crocuses bravely poking up—purple, yellow, white. The woman sat in a chair at the kitchen table and looked toward the window. She studied the blue glass, then shifted her eyes outside to the bare, spindly branches of an apple tree, stark against ashy clouds. Three shriveled apples still hung by their stems. More like rotting gray fists, forgotten even by the birds. They had nothing left of a fruit—shiny, promising. The day before, she’d watched someone die—not someone threaded deep in her heart, but a good person, a gentle person. She sat as still as she could, remembering the person, giving some time to who he was, then how he was not. She hoped someone might do the same for her. When she finally stood up and moved to another room, she left the glass to catch the shadows as the sun descended. Later, when it was dark with only a slip of moon, she’d put the glass away.
Mercedes Lawry has published short fiction in several journals including Gravel, Cleaver, Garbanzo, and Blotterature, and was a semifinalist in The Best Small Fictions 2016. She’s published poetry in journals such as Poetry, Nimrod, and Prairie Schooner, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize three times. Additionally, she’s published stories and poems for children. She lives in Seattle.
What is this fat hen squawking about? Michael tries to open his right eye so he can see the nurse better, but it is sealed shut. His left is barely a slit. Through the haze of milky sleep scumming over his pupil, he makes out a whitish blob topped with frizzy orange lint.
“Fat? You’re already in enough trouble, mister.” This nurse he has never met before heard him. She walks to the wall beside the door. He fights the urge to think in case another insult slips out. What if he has hurt her feelings before having a chance to prove the opposite, and she thinks him an ogre? His head feels like it weighs thirty pounds, fifty, as he rotates it to better set his good eye on her. He senses the unmade hospital bed beside him, the television plopped onto a cart in front, and the wheelchair in which his large body rests. This room, this ward, is unfamiliar, but he tries to stay calm. The nurse rips off a length of brown paper towel from a leaden dispenser, triggering an artery centered in his brain to pulsate and deliver short punches to the surface of his face and into the boggy fluid of his stomach. His gut quivers as he tenses the muscles above his left eye to raise his brow and lower his cheek, which is like trying to prop up a fallen roof with a toothpick.
The nurse rests the rectangle of paper atop the burnished metal counter before her and opens and thuds shut each door hung off a length of cabinets. Glass vials containing pills of pastel shades, tapes, and various sharp metal instruments clink into a wicker basket hung heavily at the crook of her fleshy elbow. Her body blocks most of his view. Reaching into the basket, she pinches the bulbous glass nipple on one of the vials and extracts he knows not what to settle it atop the paper on the counter, then lifts several more items to rest before pivoting sharply on her heel. “I’m closing the curtain,” she says.
Resting along the counter, he sees what she had been setting out—an indiscriminate length of adhesive bandage, cotton swabs, tongue depressors, blunt forceps, and a small, harmless pile of aspirin resting like an attempt at a pyramid. Michael wonders if these will be administered to him in sequential order and rolls his neck so the weight of his head falls to the cool steel of his chair back, permitting gravity to do some of the work of lifting his brow for him.
The window curtain’s rings scuttle along their track. Before the curtain closes, he notices that this ward has a different view than his usual where he checks in once a week to sit in a circle with others and talk, paint graphic scenes, or write words that someone might call a poem. Instead of a lawn of dry, flat crabgrass before acre upon acre of cornstalks, the hospital’s entrance expands before him, its thin paved lane snaking down to a simple wrought iron arch flanked by a fence made of crossed, white beams of timber in a gesture closer to an estate or a horse stable than a veteran’s hospital, and beyond that, the blue-green field of timothy and alfalfa grass that rolls like the sea—Michael knows that place, too. It is the military cemetery. The tombstones are hidden, but all you have to do is take the lane leading through the field and beyond the tree line to reach them. One of the World War II vets usually serves as sentry, and none of them mind how much of your day is spent there sitting, drinking, and talking to yourself as long as you take your garbage with you and consider leaving an honorable token.
“Do you have any questions about what you are doing here?” she says.
To shield him from the sunset angling over that distant tree line, the golden blush cast upon the trees’ limbs and the fence, was kind. “No. Thank you. I can see better,” he says, raising his hand to his closed right eye, which burns and throbs. His fingertips catch the fibrous gauze wrapped like chicken wire around his head, but his eye does not seem to be set where he remembers. He lowers his fingertips. There it is. The numb edges of his body are slowly rising back to him and into soreness.
“Michael, you drove through the hospital this morning. Do you remember that?”
He clacks his tongue against the roof of his mouth in nervous agitation. Flecks of charred grit catch in the grooves of that lump of flesh and nestle within his teeth—the remnants of last night’s hamburger dinner—and his mouth is burnt and raw, clung in the syrupy after-decay of alleyway bourbon, as if used as a receptacle for cigarette butts and bottles. He gags. Sweat marshes along his hairline and swamps around his crotch. Must have been one hell of a bender.
Now, she stands before him, checking a gooey-looking dressing the color of mustard crust on his right forearm. Her eyes are splayed apart, too wide for her Tinkerbell nose. She’s a bloated, orange catfish. “Here,” she says, reaching for a water cup at the end of the counter. The straw hanging limply from the side parts his lips.
His mouth feels better, his insides, too, as the cool water slides over his body’s inner heat. He must be coming back to himself and regaining his faculties. He had kept his harsh thoughts to himself this time. “I shouldn’t have done that. That was bad.” He nods his head in order to stir the lie toward belief, but this motion is a mistake. Bells and whistles strobe behind his eyelids. “Bad. Ow.” He touches his temple.
“I bet it hurts,” she says, rising up to maintain her distance.
“It’s okay. I probably deserve it.”
“Well, you said you wanted to kill President Carter along with yourself. You can’t say that, Michael. That’s the sort of talk that gets you in trouble, and that’s why you’re going to stay here. No leaving anymore. We will be starting what is called an observation.”
He focuses on his left wrist handcuffed to the wheelchair’s arm. He lifts it up and down, clinking the metal.
“You got that?” With one hand, she rummages around at his lower back, adjusting a flimsy, synthetic pillow wadded there.
“Got it clearly. Yes, ma’am,” he says, his voice croaking. Her spongy body is close, and it smells, unlike him, good. The scent of dusty puff powder along with a hint of garden roses she sprinkles along the ridges of her skin to collect the moisture gets the pain moving over and through him all tangled up. She pulls away. He wishes to reach for her, to embed himself deep in her spongy folds and for her to say that everything is okay, there there there, at the same time that he is repulsed.
Her pen scribbles along a clipboard extracted from the foot of his bed, but she seems more intent on stating what she thinks of him in a passive, coded way that professionalism will allow. “All of us here who like you so much told them you didn’t mean it. That you’re a good boy for the most part who has been through too much. You have a right to feel a little angry, Michael. You do. But you have to be cautious. Not only could you have hurt yourself, you could have hurt someone else.”
She already knows who he is. His reputation precedes him. A freak stands out. That repulsed feeling slips further inward as if there is anywhere left to descend. He could almost puke. “Did I?”
“Thankfully, no,” she says, slicing the sheets of paper away from the teeth of the metal clip. She tucks the free sheets back at the foot of his bed but settles the hard board and its metal into her basket, which he supposes could be used as a weapon now that he thinks about it—a stiff beating over the head or a metal pin jabbed into his aorta. “You went through the greenhouse, and you know nobody’s ever in there.”
Good. Maybe he had been thinking of others. Again, he clanks his handcuffed wrist on the metal, wanting her to feel sorry for him. “I was already pretty fucked up, huh?” His arm, the chunks of tissue gone as if munched by an enormous rat, its leathery skin, reminds him that this is true. He tightens his throat and tries to swallow down the paste forming in his mouth. “I was.”
“You gave yourself a good gash today and banged up a few other parts, but you didn’t hurt yourself any more than you were, right.” Tortured kneecaps and ankles crackling, she turns toward the television. As she bends toward the controls, the tight, over-bleached fabric of her dress reveals her full form to him. Her ass is huge, lumpy, and full of cratery cellulite dips like the moon. She is a big-boned, fat fuck nurse with hair the flat orange color procured most often from a box at a pharmacy. Fucking cooz. She doesn’t give a shit about him.
He whispers “cooz” through his teeth, bubbles of spit riding on the end sounding like any other desperate bodily function.
She thunks the VHF knob through the stations, through a hell of a lot of fuzz and laughter. “What about this?” she says, turning back to him and plastering on a closed-mouth smile. The CBS seeing-eye logo behind her head dissipates to reveal a long, red velvet curtain swishing off stage. “A bit of lightheartedness might do the trick, don’t you think?” She nods vacantly.
The green guy, Kermit, claps his boneless felt hands together for tonight’s guest, the comedian Rich Little. Michael looks down at a dried splatter of spaghetti sauce, blood, or excrement streaked on the square of linoleum beside his foot. He hates this show, but he knows it. When one has nothing else, one has TV. “Leave it there. Yes, please.”
A stubby, square heel clacks in front of him, heading toward the door.
“Am I going to jail?” He checks to see how she looks at him—sorrowfully, hostilely, with a hard-edged smile that says he is receiving his just deserts.
Her frizzy head shakes at him as she throws back the door. “You’ll be eating supper in here. Billy set aside some leftovers. Lasagna with meat sauce, a buttered roll, and a side salad. He really outdid himself.” Were those the exact words typed on the hospital’s menu calendar? Saturday: the stated, Sunday: meat loaf, tater tots, green beans, and milk, Monday: chili, rice, canned peaches, and iced tea, Tuesday: the ever-multiplying weeds of guilt and tenderloin of orphan washed down with your own tears. “Goodnight, Michael.”
He returns to the television. He imagines catching his hideous reflection even though he doesn’t see anything beyond the puppets’ song and dance. He wasn’t so sure what he meant about the President, but he had wanted to kill himself. He still does.
His door clicks shut. Her heels waddle somewhat quickly down the hall. He wonders if she has locked the door, if there’s a steel bolt bracing against the lock or an armed guard with ankles crossed, seated in a metal folding chair with his holster unbuttoned, gun at the ready, to keep the maniac at bay. They see what they want. He lifts his hands to fold them in his lap, but the handcuff grips his wrist. Pulling the right arm across his chest to sit with a question in his spine, he stretches his fingers to his left hand and turns the wish over in his thoughts.
Bright, vivid colors swirl across the screen. The Muppets are participating in a dance like a grand cotillion. The lady partners wear ruffled evening dresses and bend their elbows into submission. The supposed males, which are differentiated by bolder colored fur, heavier eyebrows, and bigger noses sport tuxes and tails and grasp the ladies’ hands, leading them across the floor. Then, the guy with the flaming head of hair and the crazy caterpillar eyebrows strolls in to the ball. What’s his name again? His voice is like gravel. “Orrkrray.” Yeah, he likes this guy with the jumbled gestures and drumsticks and look of a Cro-Magnon. Michael digs his socked foot against the sticky flooring and pulls wheeling himself closer. He wants to be close enough to smell them, all those monsters with arms up their asses and flapping heads without voice boxes. This new guy taps a swirling couple on the shoulder. “Excruse me,” he says. The lady partner turns. “What’s the qruickest way ourt orf—” And she knocks him under the chin. “Heaaare!” he screams as he is catapulted clean out of the shot. “Through the ceiling,” the Muppet lady says followed by raucous laughter, hers and others not on camera. His knees crunch into the television cart, but it doesn’t budge.
Michael knows bolts hold the cart fast to the television, and bolts fasten the cart to the wall, just as bars block him from breaking the window and throwing himself out. At this close distance, he catches an even more distorted version of himself in the reflection of the glass. “Blarrrrrgh,” he says, watching as he slides halfway out of his seat, curving his spine into the wheelchair’s back and hunching his shoulders. Elbows splayed out on the armrests, his gut hangs, and his shoulders and neck droop, his face hovering above his protruding stomach. Chin resting on the stiff platform of his sternum, eyes looking from beneath heavy brows, he breathes in rasps. The posture is of a man ninety years old, a twisted cripple, but the parts of the face not wrapped in tape and gauze have few wrinkles and shine grease as if still melting in fire. Look at that pathetic creature, a topnotch monster, he thinks. He stretches his chapped lips into a crooked, toothy grin that unsettles even him. Look now, you fucks. Look at the Animal.
Several minutes pass, as he forces his eye to stay open. Saliva pools in his bottom lip, and a steady stream of air from the vent above blowing onto his eyeball acts as a fabric to wick away the moisture. The moist orb becomes sand, a clump of cat litter. His hands shake, clenching the wheelchair rests. But he ignores the twitches disturbing his upper lid and the water rimming the lower. He will hold this posture and never be himself ever again. He will be what they want him to be. He will see only what they see. Yet he has to blink. He has to. He does. The water loosened runs down his cheeks, and the rage slinks away from his limbs and up through his stomach curling into a cool wad at the back of his throat. The strength of his mind more than his brute size was what got him in trouble when he heard the boom of mislaid bombs and spread his big, strong body to cover his buddies and the pretty little dancing girls sitting on their laps. He had imagined himself a hero. Delivered to his brain at Superman speed, he saw a solemn casket draped in red, white, and blue atop rain-kissed tarmac, and his parents, against a backdrop of mournful bugle notes, bowing their heads to receive a precious medal. Where would he be by now if he would have forgotten about his timber arms and stupid blockhead, and dove under the table. He shakes his finger at his reflection. “Slipping on your own sad sack of shit now, buddy,” he says. He wipes the spittle from his face and sits up, taps the television off. “No regrets.”
Sarah Broderick grew up in the Ohio River Valley and now resides in Northern California. Holding an MA in humanities and social thought from New York University and an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University, she works as a writer, editor, and teacher, and served as Diaspora Editor for Lavil: Life, Love, and Death in Port-au-Prince, which was published in 2017 by Verso/Voice of Witness. Her fiction and nonfiction pieces have appeared in Moon City Review, Atticus Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She can be found online at perfectsentences.org, Twitter @sebroderick, and The Forge Literary Magazine.
I could be a constellation,
I have a cryptic, enticing tale
it has lions and swords
and those things,
blood and love
and choices of kings.
I am entirely
as a black opus,
as shimmer fruits,
tasting time in the forest,
the apple butter of my experience
is a ravage, is pitted, pulled from.
The language of your hair
the bristles of your eyes
the savage of the skin
in the mirror-glass-tongue of water,
the hunger in your fingers,
the lamentation in your groin,
the bleeding of your ears,
the words are softened with oil,
I am prune-like. Been in too long.
I have courage like a walking stick.
I lean, I temper, I cry,
this is the art of standing.
Penney Knightly is a survivor of sexual abuse; themes about that are often found in her work. Her poetry has appeared in Broad Magazine, Big River Review, Dead King, Ink in Thirds, Burningword Journal, and elsewhere. She lives with her family on a sailboat in the San Francisco Bay, where she writes and makes art. She tweets @penneyknightly and shares on her blog.
in Afrika there is a way you beg forgiveness
for future sins
today in a broken language
the same way you beg blessings and blessings
for memories to be left behind
for gods soon to be forced to answer and answer
prayers yet to be said
in Afrika you beg forgiveness and forgiveness
for only future sins
when pushed to burn newspapers and holy books
growing up that way without worries and worries
growing like weed in the yard
without our mother’s hands to redirect the wind and wind
blowing our father’s words towards forgiveness
of things too heavy for our desert sand to hold and hold
us tight to the smuggling luggage across the border
from Afrika to some wolf nations and wolf nations
that would not howl but instead make us howl
in Afrika there is a way you sing songs
that would never be written or sung
before sunset songs to be drawn across the sky and sky
asking us to always remember the evenings
in the days of our youth not telling us about nights and nights
that would be our lifetime companion
in Afrika there is a way you sing songs and songs
of prayer that would never be answered
but pray the prayer we must
in Afrika we looked up to people wearing the veil
kneel and wash their feet with our sour tears
as they mumbled may you be blessed and may you be blessed
was all we need to bounce off the wall
to our cleaning jobs and jobs
cleaning children arriving after us and us
teaching them the art of falling
in Afrika because yes that’s what we do and do anyone in the world cares?
Bola Opaleke is a Nigerian-Canadian poet residing in Winnipeg, MB. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in a few poetry magazines including The Nottingham Review, The Puritan, The Literary Review of Canada, Sierra Nevada Review, Poetry Quarterly, Miracle E-zine, Poetry Pacific, Drunk Monkeys, Pastiche Magazine, UK Poetry Library, and others.
The slow snow first and then the hard snow with left and right men shoveling, cars swerving, stalling, spinning out, and drip by drip the icicle daggers sharpening, waiting to descend as we women lug logs up the porch steps and the dogs slink off, shivering, tails between their legs.
—and “Good God,” a granddaddy shouts at some boy—with no earmuffs!—holding out a football, offering it to our great frigidity. A once-human hand, a bare beige hand, extending its offering.
And behind the hand, the young face watches us work in the world. Against the world. Some boy. I guess he was mine for a while.
Making It to Vast Old Age, So What
I dress my cat in a baby bonnet, then feel the infusion of his disdain for all that is insipidly human and most alive in a frilly disguise.
Through the clear yellow eyes of underworld lamps, he looks inside me for who I will be when dead. Will he want to eat me?
I untie his ribbons and lie down on my belly so he can climb upon my butt and survey the enormity of his ridiculous kingdom.
“First We Must Put On Our Brows,”
my mother says. But she waves away the pencil I hand her. She likes a black ballpoint or the mascara.
Mascara’s for lashes, I tell her.
“Lashes, brow slashes—who cares?”
I like this taupe color, I say, offering the pencil again.
She peers at its point. “That’s grey, honey.”
I’m her sixty-five-year-old daughter but am barely sixteen in her mind until she turns from the mirror and sees me. “You’re my sister, right?”
I pause, assessing her face for a good answer. Giving up, I try the pencil myself, easing my brow into a little arc of Say-what?
Forgetting her question, an old woman tugs twice at my sleeve. “Hey, could I use that thing when you’re done?”
Nance Van Winckel is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Our Foreigner, winner of the Pacific Coast Poetry Series Prize (Beyond Baroque Press, 2017), Book of No Ledge (Pleiades Press Visual Poetry Series, 2016), and Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2014). She’s also published five books of fiction, including Ever Yrs, a novel in the form of a scrapbook (Twisted Road Publications, 2014), and Boneland: Linked Stories (U. of Oklahoma Press, 2013). She teaches in the MFA programs at Eastern Washington University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. Read more at her website.
MY CHILDREN BUILD “EVERYBODY’S DREAM LAND” (“Anybody Would Like to Live Here”)
by Maya Jewell Zeller
Begin by skinning
an animal. This plastic woman
has, like, 200 acres,
and she has so many couches,
and she isn’t even going to share.
She’s rich, rich, rich.
She’s not a vegetarian. Pretend this action man
comes along.Don’t you have
a flower garden? I need to build
a larger flower garden. Okay. I have two gray pieces
and one other one, which means
I have three gray pieces.
I’m going to make a sack
with all these gray pieces.
We can put in the animal parts.
We can make such a high tower.
I think if we had more
and more we could make the highest
tower ever. With all this tinkering,
we’ll be up to the sky in no time.
Well, I’m okay if you wanna
unbuild me. Really? That’d be so
helpful. Let’s just ruin you.
Maya Jewell Zeller is the author of Rust Fish (Lost Horse Press, 2011), Yesterday, the Bees (Floating Bridge Press, 2015), and, with visual artist Carrie DeBacker, the forthcoming collaborative collection Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts (Entre Rios Books, October 2017). Maya teaches poetry and poetics for Central Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @MayaJZeller.
I never knew you were Baptist.
Nor, I suspect, did you.
Perhaps it was the funeral director
or your most recent ex
that finally got you into church.
Your waterless baptism, surprise testimony
to the suddenness of your saving.
Passing alongside your open casket,
my noncommittal shadow
must have tickled just a bit,
because in that nearly arranged smile,
I thought I saw the candle
of your face still flickering.
In your pressed Wranglers
and straw Resistol
covering those idle hands,
it looked as if the devil’s business
had finally been concluded–
with your honky-tonk soul
starched now for all eternity,
ready for a night out on the town.
And your brother’s boy, the cowboy preacher,
comparing Jesus to a rodeo clown
willing to take all the hits,
rolling around in his barrel for days,
waving off that un-rideable bull.
And the pickup trucks on the church lawn,
lined up like celestial stepping stones,
more numerous than the stars
engendering Abraham’s children.
With mourners squeezing slowly
down the narrow chute of grass
between sanctuary and Fellowship Hall,
that Dry Valhalla of antique trophy buckles
and green bean casserole,
of aproned angels and third cousins,
all waiting to pour lemonade
in paper cups
and offer their condolences.
D.G. Geis is the author of ‘Fire Sale’ (Tupelo Press/Leapfolio) and ‘Mockumentary’ (Main Street Rag). Among other places, his poetry has appeared in The Irish Times, Fjords, Skylight 47 (Ireland), A New Ulster Review (N. Ireland), Crannog Magazine (Ireland), The Moth (Ireland), Into the Void (Ireland), Poetry Scotland (Open Mouse), The Naugatuck River Review, The Tishman Review, The Kentucky Review, Ink and Letters, The Journal of Creative Geography, Solstice, The Worcester Review, Broad River Review, and Crab Creek Review. He divides his time (unequally) between Dublin, Houston, Galveston, and the Hill Country of Central Texas.
It is a relief to pass beyond
the flesh and become instead
a column of information.
Puerile, we watch pulp
mills break down the big
coastal forests with sulfite.
Tender mushrooms from
distant pastures, we grind
them into dust, a magic.
Telepathy inside the car.
Tacoma’s air of putrefaction,
old coats, this soft language
streaming down through
rainclouds into the Olds,
entering holes in the tops
of our heads. Lights of
the mills and the port
make sequins, blurring
the hills across the bay
where our houses look back
from behind cedars.
Proof of something riding
the night breeze. The old
gods can’t be heard from over
and above, but salt travels on wind
into our cotton mouths.
Stepping over a pool of beauty
bark and cultivars
with nothing to say, we
drive five miles an hour
through the Asarco tunnel
etched with lesions, listening
for sea lions. Leschi was hung
for refusing to give up this grassland.
Jenny (Seymore) Montgomery has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Barrow Street, Tar River, CALYX, Unsplendid, the New York Times, and the Cairo Times. Her poetry installations have been shown at galleries in Montana and Washington. She resides in Missoula, Montana where she owns a distillery with her husband. Her poem, “The Privative Alpha,” was a finalist for the 2017 Kay Murphy Prize for Poetry, judged by Myung Mi Kim. Her poem “Proofed” was runner-up for the 2017 Brittany Noakes Award judged by Sandra Beasley.
Before Del opened his eyes, he knew the kid was gone. That panic feeling. That guilt. That screen door slamming in the wind. It had broken into Del’s dream, and as soon as he realized what it was, he gripped the arms of the threadbare recliner and launched himself upward. His feet hit the carpet, and he was down the hall with his head spinning and vision blurry. By the light in the house, it was hard to tell whether it was morning or evening.
He had been dreaming of work, standing in the office and stacking bricks in a supply cabinet. The bricks banging into place were the sound of the screen door. When the noise stopped lining up with the motion, he knew he was dreaming. The sudden-waking adrenaline left him trembling.
The kid was not in either bedroom, not in the bathroom, not under the desk covered in unopened mail. Not back in the living room, as had happened once. Del had sprung up just like this and dashed off only to find the kid sitting in the middle of the floor, looking at him with curiosity. Del continued to check all of the low indoor places, delaying the likely conclusion while girding himself for it.
At last Del let himself go to the kitchen, across the yellow linoleum that must have been cheerful once. And there the kid was, out through the window, in the tree. Sitting on a low limb with his t-shirted back to the house, looking out across the many fenced-off yards. He didn’t climb, didn’t wiggle around on the branch. He kept his hands fixed on either side. This kind of thing drew mistrustful eyes on the playground, but now it eased Del’s panic. The kid was creative and strange and prone to long, silent bouts of thought. He could be unnaturally still.
Del braced himself for a moment over the sink like a runner catching his breath. Late day sunlight shone on the scuffed basin. The dishtowel on the hook there needed to be washed. He took one deep breath and went out, careful not to let the door creak or the latch click.
The tree stood at the other end of the ranch duplex. By all written and verbal accounts, it was a shared yard. But the neighbor, Mr. Gorham, was easily triggered when others crossed lines that only he could see. He had berated Del for imperceptible infractions for the entire eight months they’d been living there. Aside from telling Del to get better control of his kid, Mr. Gorham’s chief activities seemed to be working late and fussing with his combover. He would be home soon.
The branches were almost bare but for flickering yellow leaves at the ends, clinging in twos and threes against a shifting dark mass above. The sun sat in a sliver of clear sky between the earth and the clouds, its rays bouncing off of the gray ceiling to give the world an ominous golden glow.
At the base of the tree, Del angled his head up to look at the boy’s back, watched him breathing for a moment.
“I know you’re there,” the kid said. His sneakers hung clean and still above Del’s head.
Congested from sleep, Del croaked, “Sam.”
The kid tensed, showing the slightest contraction in his shoulders, and without looking back or down he slowly reached at a higher branch and prepared to climb.
Del cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. Come down.”
Sam, now sufficiently out of reach, turned to face him. “You were asleep.”
Del opened his mouth but offered no defense.
“You got home and fell asleep.” And he started to maneuver away again, tucking one leg and then unfolding it on the other side of the branch with the clunky grace of a small body.
“I’m sorry. Just come down.” Del raised his hand, open to hold. “Look, I’m ready,” he said. “It wasn’t that long. Right? How long was it?”
“Long.” Sam floated up another tier.
“Well, I’m ready now. It’s okay. I guess I was more tired than I thought. After work I just—I’m just so tired. But I’ve rested, and I’m ready.” Del looked around as if searching for a way to entice the kid back to earth. “We can just hang out now. There’s nothing else we have to do tonight. Come on, we’ll get whatever you want for dinner.”
Sam glanced over his shoulder. “Anything?”
The kid climbed again, settling on a branch that looked just thick enough for a squirrel. The whole treetop at that level swayed with the wind. “You don’t want to go anywhere.”
Del couldn’t argue. “I’ll make something.” He had to shout through the wind and the distance now, and it exposed the frustration in his voice.
“You always make the same things.”
“Does that matter?” Del checked himself. “Together we can figure out something new. But I can’t do it without you, so come down, or I’ll starve. You might be able to get by for a couple days on what’s left of these leaves, but I won’t make it that long.”
Sam drifted to a thicker tier of the tree. He turned away again, then fell backward and swung upside down by his knees. “I am hungry.”
Del forced a smile as he squinted to try to read Sam’s expression. In one instant of focus, he caught the kid grimacing.
“What’s the matter?”
“You look like a skeleton,” Sam said.
Del instantly looked away and rubbed his eyes hard. They were ringed in blue-black, set deep in a pallid face, the product of strained sleep, little daylight, and less exercise. Sam hadn’t let on that he’d noticed until now.
“I’m sorry,” Del said. “I don’t know what to do about that. But come on, let’s get inside.”
The kid’s swinging momentum ceased and he hung still and silent, arms folded, an inscrutable little genie.
The sun sat equidistant between the earth and the clouds. You could flip the world upside down just then and they’d be in opposite positions. Del would be at the top of the tree, and he wouldn’t come down, either.
The wind would not stop.
“Mr. Gorham’s going to be home soon,” Del said casually.
“He’s too old to climb a tree,” said Sam.
“He’s going to yell,” said Del.
“Only at you,” said Sam.
Del shoved his frustration down, like punching dirty laundry into a full hamper. “It’s a pretty nice house in there, you know. Certainly more comfortable than a tree. Warm enough for your short sleeves, too. If you want, we can drag some branches in there, a few twigs and string. Weave a little nest. I mean, that’s no problem with me. Only I wouldn’t have bought that couch if I’d known you prefer this kind of thing.”
Sam righted himself and stood on a firm branch, stretching tall and grasping a higher one, then wavering between them. Extended that way from fingertips to toes, he said, “You’re only funny when you want me to come back in the house.”
“No, I’m serious. Let’s gather some twigs. You pick your favorites while you’re up there. I’ll start weaving inside.”
“Go ahead,” Sam said, “I can watch that from here.” He pointed at the window, then let his feet slip off of their branch and he dangled there by one hand, twisting gently.
Del stepped back in defeat. He hadn’t won an argument with Sam in months, since the day of that first five a.m. alarm. Not since driving in the dark and trying to explain forced overtime. Coming home too ragged to convey how the managers of the smallest chunk of a conglomerate leaned on the staff to log more unit numbers, nakedly admitting that longer spreadsheets might save their own jobs while offering no such hope for the data entry crew. By the end of the first week, Del had a hard time holding sentences together. In the mornings, they were too groggy to talk. In the evenings, Del returned too tired to find any fun in the day and helplessly concerned with squaring away the things that needed to be done before getting to bed. They lost the whole summer that way. Del would come to at his desk and hate himself for forgetting to think about Sam. And then even that didn’t bother Del anymore. It got easier to put Sam away. When that happened, he started these stubborn disappearances. His tantrums even got quieter. Rather than responding by seeking attention, he seemed content to drift himself away.
“You’re ignoring me now,” Sam said, climbing again.
“No! I was just thinking. Waiting for you.”
“You forgot why you were out here,” Sam said, stretching for a dangerously thin limb. He stayed close to the core of the tree, but up there, with his weight, it all swayed with each gust. “Just go in!” He had to shout now. “I’m not coming down.”
Del reached up for a branch. “No. Come on now. I’m cold. We’ll cook. Put on whatever music you want. We won’t even do the dishes tonight.”
“You don’t like my music now.”
“I do. I just don’t—I just don’t react like I used to. And I think you’re too old for it now.”
Sam looked away. Treetop still shaking. He extended one arm and one leg out into the air.
“Aren’t you cold?” Del said this not because the kid shivered, but because he looked so very insubstantial.
“I was cold inside, too.”
“We’ll turn the heat up!” Del said. “I’ll make it so warm you can put shorts on.”
“We can’t afford that.”
“Whatever. Whatever it takes to get you to come down.”
Sam was performing an impossible feat of balance.
“Call some friends!” Del yelled. “Maybe get Gus over for videogames.”
“No one will come over. They’re all busy.”
“You don’t know that.”
“They’re all always busy.”
“It’s almost the weekend,” Del responded, grasping. “We can make some plans. Friday night! Friday night have everybody over.”
“I know they’re too busy. And you won’t do any of what you say.”
Sam let go. For an instant he billowed outward, like a sheet on the line. Then he came to rest, three feet above the nearest branch. When he righted himself, standing on the air, the look he gave Del showed not concern but admonition.
With wide eyes, Del said, “Don’t go. Don’t go.” He grabbed the trunk with both hands, hung his head and rattled off, “I will turn it up. I will call your friends. I will make plans for the weekend. I will get milkshakes, tacos, and fries. We’ll go to the store for whatever you want, call whoever you want. We will stay up late making up funny stories and playing videogames, sleep in the living room, go get breakfast together in the morning. We will make fun of people on TV. We will learn to play a new song…” With his face to the ground, Del continued to mutter promises until his voice became a whisper.
When next Sam spoke his voice was closer. “Can we do that tomorrow, too?”
Del didn’t look up. “Yes.”
“No,” Sam said flatly. “You don’t have time.”
“I know,” Del admitted. “But I am working on a way to find more time, to get back to normal. I am working on a way to get there.”
Sam was close enough to not have to raise his voice. “How long will it take?”
“What will it be like when we get there?”
“I don’t know,” Del said. He turned and leaned his back against the tree, facing their little house. By the time they ate and got cleaned up—he couldn’t really let himself abandon the dishes—they wouldn’t have time for any of it, even to think of how to make time for it later. And tomorrow he would regret using extra heat, and he would certainly regret staying up late. He stared into the kitchen window.
The branch immediately above Del shook. A finger tapped him on top of the head. He raised his eyes to see Sam’s hand extended downward. Del reached up and took it. And there they stayed under the swirling clouds, past sunset.
Austen Farrell is a writer and editor working in higher ed., where he does some varying combination of feature, copy, and ghostwriting. He is an advisory committee member of Write Rhode Island and an associate editor for Bryant Literary Review. He has an MA in classics, with a focus on ritual sacrifice in Greek comedy. His fiction has also appeared in A-Minor Magazine. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife and two hilarious animals.
Friend, I want to change My horse for your house, My saddle for your mirror, My knife for your blanket.
—Federico Garcia Lorca, Somnambule Ballad
There must be more of them than you suspect, here in the Midwest—maybe every tenth, every fifteenth woman you pass. Those who used to ride clinging to some guy’s leathery back, bruised and battered and passed from one biker to the next, and then reapplying makeup in the fender’s reflection. Like the one who dropped by my office last week, her second skin peeled back to reveal her trinity: Harley, Triumph, BMW. Her name was Lorca, after García Lorca, I hoped, imagining one of his dark Gypsy ballads recited at her conception.
They’re everywhere, in suburbs ringing the city, in cul-de-sacs and drives, lanes through which a chopper would never navigate. And not even a toy or scale model, passed on to a son or daughter for old time’s sake. Her hair trimmed, toned down with color, tattoos covered—shoulders, thighs, nape of the neck, small of the back, with baggy sweaters and workout sweats all year round, trying so hard to let the smashed skull and blasted kneecap heal, slits and contusions zip shut, brush burns with death. Far from the checkout line at Kroger. And don’t discount all those messengers lined up at her door, dropping off out-of-date love letters, confessing a deep and abiding love of oblivion. They almost always scare the current husband off.
You can almost make out their exalted past in each impetuous smile, affixing itself to the wrong person, the wrong sex, the wrong side of safety, for no longer than a sneeze, when bike and rider alike fail—the sound of trying to rend for good the venerable precincts of loss, the very same piercing howl the helmetless child also hears, as she flips over her handlebars onto the pavement.
My father never served in the war. Something about his organic chem degree from Columbia that qualified him for telecommunications work vital to the war effort. He never had to leave his wife or his Upper West Side apartment to crack the enemy’s DNA code. (Or was it headphones emitting alien rays?) His suspicious neighbors, suspecting a draft-dodger, were always ringing up the FBI to ask why he was exempt.
I was suspicious too, a decade later. You’d think it would’ve been enough for me in the age of Sputnik and space-bound chimps, but it wasn’t. Not compared to my friends’ fathers: one whose helmet worn through years of constant battle led to painful scalp rashes. And one whose arm withered from that hand-grenade that exploded upon launch. I pictured him yanking the pin between his teeth. And the tropical parasites, nightly drowned in shots of Seagram’s—which actually might have been one of my father’s secret projects. (Or was he involved in top-secret orders transmitted through ocean currents?)
It only mattered that he remained on the outer precincts of battle and glory. No tales of Korean or Filipino whores with razor blades (Gillette, double-edged?) placed inside their cunts to slice and shred. The blades must have dulled by the time their fathers came seeking relief from the deadly ravages of battle…or else their sons wouldn’t be here now. Slaughtering Nips and Krauts left and right. Dying to take the hill. Then easing down into hastily dug and way-too-shallow-foxholes.
Leonard Kress has published fiction and poetry in The Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, The Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, etc. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex, Thirteens, and Walk Like Bo Diddley. He teaches philosophy and religion at Owens College in Ohio and edits creative nonfiction for Artful Dodge.
WE ARE ALL HUMAN, EVEN ON THE SOUTH LAWN IN 1972 by Heather Bourbeau
Am I sweating? Goddamn Jack Kennedy, may he rest. I never cared about the faults in my face before that SOB. Thank God for Pat. Smile, shake hands, remember key points: differences, future, enemies. Smile. “Hello, hello.” Smile. Breathe. Do not bob your head. Clasp hands behind. Clear throat. “Ready?” Yes. OK. Breathe. “Mr. Vice President…” Shit, my nose itches. “As we look to the future.” Forget the fucking nose, Dick. “We must realize that the government of the People’s Republic of China…” You are announcing history. “We will have differences in the future…” This, this will be my legacy.
Heather Bourbeau’s fiction and poetry have been published in 100 Word Story, Duende, Eleven Eleven, Francis Ford Coppola Winery’s Chalkboard, Open City, and The Stockholm Review of Literature. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has worked for the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia and UNICEF Somalia. Her journalism has appeared in The Economist, the Financial Times, and Foreign Affairs. Her story Meliai appeared in issue 8 of Cleaver.
Play. It’s seven a.m. in Erie, Pennsylvania. Two young men sit at a bus stop on East Sixth Street, across from a paper mill that closed the previous year (2002). One young man, Dan Morey, is recently returned from a West Coast university, where he earned a master’s degree in English. When people ask him what he’s doing now, he tells them he’s “considering a PhD.”
Pause. This is patently untrue. Dan Morey has no intention of pursuing a PhD.
Play. The other young man goes by a variety of stage names: Grimlock, Grimes, C. Grimlock Brocklehurst. Grimlock is also a prodigal, having come home after apprenticing at the prestigious Williamstown Theater Festival.
Pause. While at Williamstown, Grimlock helped Ethan Hawke squeeze into his tights and nearly ran over Paul Newman.
Play. It’s an unseasonably warm spring in Erie. The grass lot that fronts the paper mill is greening up and beginning to grow. Grimlock, clad in chinos and a corduroy jacket, stands on the bench and croons the chorus of “Hanginaround,” a 1999 hit (#28 on the Billboard Hot 100) by Counting Crows.
Pause. Dan Morey has no idea why the song is called “Hanginaround” instead of just “Hangin’ Around.” He thinks compressedpopsongtitles are stupid.
Play. Grimlock sings:
I been hangin’ around this town on the corner
I been bummin’ around this old town so long
I been hangin’ around this town on the corner
I been bummin’ around this old town for way too long
Dan Morey chimes in with “Way, way, way, way, way too long.”
“Are you sure it’s five ‘ways’?” says Grimlock.
Pause. Dan Morey is completely sure. Counting Crows will soon play the Warner Theatre in Erie, and their songs are all over local radio. In the past month, he’s heard “Hanginaround” roughly 42,000 times.
Play. “Do you remember the video?” says Grimlock. “The singer is at a bus stop.”
“Perfect,” says Dan Morey.
Grimlock sings part of the second verse:
We spend all day getting sober
Just hiding from daylight
We just look a lot better in the blue light
“Uncomfortably familiar,” says Dan Morey.
Rewind. Play. The bars in downtown Erie have closed. Dan Morey and Grimlock are walking home along Sixth Street.
Pause. Home for Dan Morey is his parents’ house. Home for Grimlock is with his grandfather, Grampy, a cantankerous widower.
Play. Dan Morey and Grimlock stop at a random apartment building and push some buttons on the intercom. It’s three a.m. A man answers. “Come on up,” he says. “I’m just making soup.”
Upstairs, a long-haired man in boxer shorts and a Rush t-shirt pedals an exercise bike while Dan Morey stirs a pot of Campbell’s tomato soup. The apartment is in disarray, with cardboard boxes of Tupperware, plastic utensils, and cassette tapes all over the floor. It’s hard to tell if the man is moving out or moving in. Actually, it’s neither. “Been here five years,” he says, pumping away on the bike.
“Any beer?” says Grimlock.
“No way,” says the man. “I’m on the wagon. Plenty of speed, though!”
Dan Morey and Grimlock eat tomato soup out of stained coffee mugs with plastic spoons. After finishing off a bag of oyster crackers, they exit the apartment. The man says, “Come back any time, dudes!”
Fast forward. Play. “That Counting Crows song is kind of interesting,” says Dan Morey, as a garbage truck rolls by the bus stop. “It’s very bouncy. Almost jubilant.”
“It is jubilant,” says Grimlock. “There are hand claps.”
“And yet the lyrics are depressing.”
Well, I got all this time
To be waiting for what is mine
To be hating what I am
After the light has faded
“Yeah,” says Dan Morey, “and that bit about being ‘weighted by the chains that keep me.’ The inertia is palpable. It’s like he knows he should be moving on with life, but he just can’t get his ass off the couch.”
“Fun music, bummer lyrics,” says Grimlock. “It’s the ‘Margaritaville’ paradox.”
“And there’s a piano part. Similar to the one in that Len song.”
“You’re allowed to rip off that song. It’s called ‘Steal my Sunshine.’ That’s an invitation.”
“This piano just loops around and around, going nowhere.”
“Like the guy’s life,” says Grimlock.
“But does he really care? I mean, doesn’t the upbeat music suggest that he’s actually reveling in his indolence? Enjoying the glorious irresponsibility? Isn’t it all kind of fun?”
“Preaching to the choir,” says Grimlock.
Rewind. Play. Dan Morey wakes up in the basement of the random apartment building. He’s on the floor. Grimlock is face down on a couch. Dan Morey goes into the next room, where he sees washers, dryers, and laundry baskets. When he comes out, a janitor is shaking Grimlock, saying, “Hey, you, get out of here.”
“Where’s the bathroom?” says Dan Morey.
“Get out,” says the janitor. “Right now.”
Fast forward. Play. “I don’t think this bus is coming,” says Dan Morey. “Let’s walk.”
They head east, away from the paper mill and its idle smokestacks.
“Notice how much better this neighborhood smells since they shut the mill?” says Grimlock.
Pause. When the paper mill closed, 760 people lost their jobs. Erie bars were full of unemployed, complaining men. Some would become roofers or landscapers. Others got hired at the GE locomotive plant down the road, where they were soon laid off. Still others would enter government-sponsored retraining programs. These men were often heard to say, “I ain’t gonna be no goddamned male nurse, I’ll tell you that.”
Play. “A lot of environmental types are happy the mill shut down,” says Dan Morey. “But there’s always some jobless guy on the news whining about all the mouths he has to feed.”
“Gross,” says Grimlock.
“I know. It reminds me of birds regurgitating.”
“If they didn’t have all those snotty kids, they wouldn’t need to work in a stinking mill all day.”
“Bingo,” says Dan Morey.
As he walks along Sixth Street, past a sprawling housing project, Dan Morey ponders reproduction. What if the childbearing age changed? What if the burden of perpetuating the species shifted from young people, who know little of human suffering, to the elderly? If only old people (intimately familiar with tumors, incontinence, and a horrible array of lingering, debilitating, ultimately fatal illnesses) could create new life, would they? Knowing what they know?
“Look at that,” says Grimlock. “A garage sale.”
They are at the edge of Lawrence Park, an eastern suburb. The house holding the sale has a well-tended yard and looks respectable, so they enter the garage. A blonde woman says, “Hiya! You guys are up early.”
Dan Morey finds an old fedora. Grimlock tries on a pair of mirror lens cop sunglasses. He turns to Dan Morey and says, “You wanted to see me, chief?” Dan Morey stares back mutely. Grimlock whispers, “Put the hat on, dummy. We’re about to improvise.”
Pause. Grimlock’s latest acting obsession is improvisation. He talks a lot about the “Yes, and…” principle.
Play. Dan Morey puts the fedora on. Grimlock says again, “You wanted to see me, chief?”
“You’re damn right I wanted to see you!” says Dan Morey. “You know what your problem is, Brocklehurst? You’re a slacker. When I was a rookie, you think I spent all day loafing around donut shops and drooling on girlie mags? Hell no. I was out busting pimps. Running in dealers. Where’s your ambition, Brocklehurst?”
“I blame Bart Simpson, sir.”
The blonde woman laughs. Her husband comes in and takes a seat on a lawn chair.
“Bart Simpson, my ass,” says Dan Morey. “It was Ferris Bueller. Or Marty McFly. Or Maynard G. Krebs.”
“Maynard G. who, sir?”
“Krebs. The beatnik on Dobie Gillis.”
“Sorry, sir, that was before my time.”
“You disgust me, Brocklehurst. Who do you think you are? Shaggy from Scooby-Doo? The star of Reality Bites? Singles?”
Two young boys enter the garage, listening raptly.
“Maybe you want to move to Seattle, Brocklehurst. Grow a beard. Wear a beanie all day. Read graphic novels.”
“I hate graphic novels, sir. I’ll take the Archies any day.”
“Did I give you permission to speak, Brocklehurst? Who are you now? Peter Pan? Beavis and Butthead? That dreadlocked dope from Counting Crows? You think you don’t have to grow up and take orders like everyone else?”
“Shut up, Brocklehurst. I want to see twenty speeding tickets on my desk by five o’clock. If I don’t, you might as well book that flight to Seattle. Now, get out!”
Grimlock exits as the blonde woman and her family burst into applause. He re-enters to take a bow with Dan Morey.
After purchasing the hat and sunglasses, Dan Morey and Grimlock continue their walk past old row houses built for GE workers.
Pause. General Electric once employed more than fifteen thousand Erieites, Grimlock’s father and Grampy among them. That number is now less than three thousand.
Play. Dan Morey and Grimlock enter a Polish deli in Lawrence Park. They order duck’s blood soup, which neither of them can get down.
“What are we doing with our lives?” says Grimlock. “Is this our Withnail and I phase?”
“I believe you could call us flâneurs,” says Dan Morey.
“Like the Spanish dessert?”
“Flâneurs were nineteenth-century Frenchmen who just sort of wandered around the boulevards all day making clever observations. They were of the crowd, but also apart from it.”
“They declined to work, which is admirable. What’s the point, really? Is there a special place in heaven for hard workers?”
“Every hundred years, all new people,” says Grimlock.
Dan Morey and Grimlock cross the street and sit on the front steps of a bar that is not yet open.
“I been hanging around this town on the corner,” sings Grimlock.
“These days get so long and I got nothing to do,” sings Dan Morey. “I been hanging around this town way, way, way, way, way too long.”
The bartender lets Dan Morey and Grimlock in. She makes them White Russians. “The Dude abides,” says Grimlock.
Dan Morey puts some quarters in the jukebox and plays “Hanginaround” by Counting Crows.
“Great song,” says the bartender.
They all sing along:
And this girl listens to the band play
She says “Where have you been?
I’ve been lyin’ right here on the floor”
After a number of White Russians, the bartender takes Dan Morey aside. “Your friend is making googly eyes at me,” she says. “And he’s spilled two drinks. Better get him home.”
Outside, a bunch of men in Carhartt jackets are shuffling into a building. A sign on the door says “Meeting Today, eleven a.m.”
“Must be AA,” says Grimlock. “I should hit this.”
He goes inside and comes directly out. “Union assembly!” he says.
Grimlock makes his adieux to Dan Morey and cuts across the funeral home parking lot to Grampy’s house. He and Grampy drink Genesee beer and watch Turner Classic Movies.
Dan Morey goes into the woods behind the YMCA, where he runs into Psyches at the old campsite. Psyches is famous for having only worked a single day in his life. It was at Arby’s and he quit. They let him keep the nametag. Dan Morey has a beer with Psyches, then goes home to sleep.
Fast Forward. Play. Counting Crows gently rock the Warner Theatre. Dan Morey and Grimlock do not attend.
Dan Morey is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania. He’s worked as a book critic, nightlife columnist, travel correspondent, and outdoor journalist. His writing has appeared in the Chagrin River Review, Roads & Kingdoms, and McSweeney’s Quarterly. Find him at danmorey.weebly.com.
The kid rides the dad’s buggy fast and quick. It’s him and her in the buggy with the handlebar and the seat he sits in with the kid standing at his back. He’s got a rare type of osteoporosis that only affects men, see, and though it hasn’t been diagnosed, he knows this is what it is. He’s seen the weird hunched-over ladies with their reusable totes lugging veggies and fruit back and forth. Each time he sees them, he thinks, You and me both, sister. The symptoms haven’t yet showed but he knows it’s coming. He can walk just fine if he wants. The buggy is more of a preventative measure than anything else. Plus it gets his kid and him from A to B real quick. She’s in school, elementary, you know, the one where she’s gotta be there 8:30 a.m. or he gets a call. And he gets more than enough calls, that’s for sure. Plus there’s the fat perk of the sympathy looks this chair gets him, the ones he gets from other people in public who see the sad old middle-aged man in the buggy crippled by who knows what. He doesn’t put on a show to cover up his legs or anything, wearing jeans just like the rest of us, because he’s a person too. So scared, so sick, so brave. It’s a crippling disease, pre-onset osteoporosis. But you can call it pre-onset osteo for short.
Reggie Mills is steadily losing his sense of smell. His fiction appears in Buffalo Almanack, The Impressment Gang, Filling Station, and Driftwood Press and has been nominated for the Journey Prize. He lives in Toronto.
When Tommy asked his father where his mother went, his father said she “had a bird.” He didn’t know what that meant, but maybe it was because she squeaked like one, he thought. Or maybe she used to have one and she lost it.
His father paced around the kitchen preparing for dinner. He pulled out the pasta strainer and put it on the counter, but there was hardly enough room, only the corner. He peered over at Tommy. He grabbed the plates smeared with dried ketchup, pressed them together, and rolled them into the dishwasher. He glanced again at Tommy, who looked like he had a question. In fact, Tommy was trying to reach an itch in the middle of his back and was squinting his face in desperation.
“What?” said his father.
“What?” said Tommy.
“Didn’t you say you were hungry?”
“Yeah.” Just then his itch vanished and was replaced by a plate of baby carrots and a pile of white cream. “What’s that?”
“Please, just try it.”
His father returned to his labor and Tommy studied the cream. He touched it with his finger and put it to his tongue. Next he looked at the carrots. Some were wide and some were skinny and all were short. He grabbed a skinny one and tried it with the cream.
“Not bad, right?”
“What’s for dinner?”
“Spaghetti with your Daddy’s famous meat sauce.” The counter was nearly set to begin, with all miscellany cleared, leaving a metal bowl, the strainer, the chopping block, and a butcher’s knife. His father reached into the fridge for the meat. As he turned, he bumped the chopping block, which slid the knife to the edge. The knife fell. As he scrambled to catch it, it sliced through the side of his forefinger.
“What?” said Tommy.
Tommy opened the sliding glass doors and went onto the back porch. It looked to him like his father was doing some kind of dance, a stomping kind. Tommy took this moment to practice some of the tap dancing he’d learned, swinging his right foot so the heel clicked against the ground, but it didn’t make the sound. He tried again, but it didn’t make the sound again and it hurt a little bit. He looked down and saw his bare feet and remembered you needed the shoes. He hated the shoes because the woman that put them on was the teacher. If he knew how to tie the laces he wouldn’t need her help. And she was mean. But he liked swinging his foot and making the clicking sound.
His father was gone, so he went inside to look for him.
The doorbell rang. Tommy had never answered the door by himself. The doorbell rang again.
“Dad?” He looked through the blurry glass paneling that surrounded the old heavy door. He twisted the knob and, leaning his whole weight back, slowly opened it.
“Tommy!” It was Melissa, the babysitter.
“Where’s Dad?” Tommy asked.
Melissa looked surprised. “Where’s Dad?”
“I don’t know, ” Tommy said. Melissa picked him up and his face went into her yellow hair. Yellow hair smelled different from brown hair, he thought. He floated into the house.
“Daniel?” She took her phone out of her pocket and stared at it. “He should be here.” Tommy’s father quickly descended the stairs, holding in his opposite hand his finger wrapped with gauze.
“Sorry,” he said. “I cut myself.”
“Oh no,” she said.
“I’m not much in the kitchen,” he said.
“Let me help,” she said.
“Let me down,” Tommy said, and he wiggled onto the floor.
“Go outside and play with your chalk,” his father said. “We need to make dinner.”
Tommy slid open the glass doors and descended the back porch to his driveway, where the bright chalk sat in a clear box. He tried his name. The m’s were hard and took a very long time. It was all the bumps, he thought. Two, not one. One was different. The y went fast and easy, but he made it backwards.
He looked toward the kitchen. It seemed to him that they were whispering secrets. So he looked all the way around. Then he saw it. The bird feeder. On the other side of the driveway, opposite the house, was the yard. Across the half acre square of cut grass, three birds perched. Seeds and half-seeds dusted the grass below. Tommy shrunk and flattened onto his belly, never losing sight of them. He began to crawl. He remembered the game at school called Statues. When the person isn’t looking you can go, but when they look you have to stop and be still like a statue. That’s why it’s called that. If you don’t freeze, you’re out. The birds weren’t looking. He crawled slowly in the grass. Melissa and his father pressed against the glass. The birds looked and Tommy went still. The birds pecked and Tommy crawled, inching closer and closer. Her jeans soaked up his father’s blood. Now Tommy was under the bird and peered up. He grabbed the bird and someone sang out a high note. His full hand. A feather poked through the fingers. It looked at him. Then he let go. He hadn’t thought of what to do next.
Cary J. Snider is an emerging writer who lives in Boston, where he teaches English and coaches wrestling at the Roxbury Latin School. A Philadelphia native, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied philosophy, English, and education. “The Bird” is his first published work.
THE SUBMERGED MIND (Report by Turkish Naval Intelligence: Primitive Twentieth Century Code) by Michael Dennison
Category is a submarine, Soviet,
riveted together in pointless hurry
by convict labor, Lesser Class, something for
Black Sea, obsolete when it hit the water:
[Intercept] Frontal lobe Ivan drinks vodka
on his watch—bilge is backwashing into head.
Odessa Command has forgotten us—
no radio response since 1989,
Not since the order to dive too deep for sturgeon
for the Party banquet. Listen, Officer of
Language and Music starboard must be written up
for insubordination – anti-social behavior
playing those old 78s of Stalin from the ‘40s
as everybody gets naked and drunk with
the mermaids. But will they sing for me
sings Denisov, the bass from Stalingrad—
he hasn’t been loved by a woman since ‘59,
no wonder he is crazy as an eel in moonshine
but sly. Since we ran out of salt back bacon
we’ve been eating the Gulag conscripts—
worthless to the engine room anyway—
feed their fat to the generator, make drink
in the still from their blood and mucous and eyes.
Here at the bottom of the sea we guess night
from day and at the declaration of morning
from the broken periscope, smile at the fat
chug of the generator, like its real coffee, sizzling
bacon, but down here it is really always night.
Michael Dennison is a poet living currently in North Lebanon, near the city of Tripoli, teaching creative writing and British literature at the University of Balamand. Previously he taught for several years at the American University of Beirut, and before then in Pittsburgh and Baton Rouge. He has published poems in several journals including Rusted Radishes, Drunken Boat, International Poetry Review, Frank, Van Gogh’s Ear, Slab, etc., and also a book titled Hamra Noir, a selection of Beirut poems, in 2010.
As he trudged through the water-logged grasses, the weight of the canoe’s bow suddenly doubled in his hand. When he turned to look aft, his daughter knelt in the mud.
“Are you okay, Monkey?” he asked. His neoprene waders hobbled him and kept him from rushing to her.
“Why does it have to be so dark?” She shook mud from her hands as she stood.
“Well, when the sun hits the water, the temperature—”
“I know, Dad,” she said, picking back up her end of the canoe. “I know.” She jerked her head toward the lake.
He grabbed the handle on the prow of the canoe and resumed picking his way through the knotted grasses and weeds that laced the muddy trail, leading their way to the shore. He ignored the thorns that pulled at his sleeves and resisted the urge to swat the black flies from his neck. He pointed with his free hand.
“Do you see the first light there over the water?”
When she didn’t respond, he looked back again.
She nodded quickly, as if he should know she’d been nodding all along, constantly, for some few years now at least.
“Do you remember when you used to draw sunrises all the time?” he asked. “You were always running out of orange crayons.”
When he glanced back at her, she shook her head. The two of them kept walking.
“We used to buy you new ones every year for Christmas,” he called back over his shoulder. “And your birthday, too.”
The canoe pulled hard to the right, but he resisted looking. He slowed his steps, and the canoe straightened.
“Burnt sienna?” he asked the gently orange-ing sky.
“What?” He could tell from her tone that she was shrugging off vines, trying to shoulder away the flies. “I need to switch my grip,” she said.
He felt the angle of the canoe shift in his hand and waited.
“That over there looks orange-yellow to me,” he said, lifting his chin to the east. “What do you think?”
The canoe lightened again and nudged into his thigh.
“No, you’re right,” he said. “It’s definitely yellow-orange.”
The mud sucked hard against her boots as her steps interlaced with his, the sound of it a lullaby in his ears. Shoop left, shoop left, shoop right, shoop right.
He pointed. “Along there, above those bushes, that’s cornflower, don’t you think?”
Shoop left, shoop left, shoop right, shoop right.
“Cornflower,” he said and nodded to himself. “And maize.” His voice hung above the lake’s surface, flickering one level up from the water bugs, one below the mist, alongside the slow creep of morning.
“You used orange-red, sometimes,” he said. “And there was one you always ran out of first.”
Shoop left, shoop left, shoop right, shoop right.
The mud and the grass grew deeper. A mosquito dug into his temple that he pretended not to feel.
“Was it copper?” he asked.
They bent their knees as the canoe lightened and slipped forward onto the water. He held its side while she climbed in. She stuck the oar in the mud while he did the same.
“Mahogany?” he asked.
A small flock of ducks flew overhead. In another couple months, he would invite her home to hunt. The weather would be too cold. The mud still too deep. The shotgun too loud in her ears.
“Salmon,” she exhaled.
She dug through the tackle box and did not look up.
“What?” he said, at first not understanding the irony of her response, then remembering the pink-orange-yellow, the lush flesh, the not-quite-watermelon of her salmon crayon. How could he forget that he’d bought sixty-four boxes of crayons just to make her one whole box of salmon?
“I’m going to use the Panther Martin,” she said, holding out the lure. The gold spinner caught even the still-meager rays of sunlight.
In a moment, she would finish tying it with the weights that would take the lure to the just-right depth. She would flick her wrist back and then forward. She would crank the reel as she counted in her head, just as he’d taught her so many years before. Or maybe she didn’t have to count anymore.
He wanted to tell her to slow down. To have patience and let the lure swim. To not spin the reel so hard, so fast. To focus more on the feel and the flow. To watch the line, the tip of the rod. To make sure she knew if you pulled too hard, the line would break.
Instead, he watched the sun rise above the lake.
Raw umber, blue-green, green-blue, goldenrod.
Becca Borawski Jenkins holds an MFA in Cinema-Television Production from USC and has short stories appearing or forthcoming in Menacing Hedge, concis, The Forge, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Syntax & Salt. She and her husband spent the last year living off-grid in a remote part of North Idaho and now roam North America in their RV.
I grew a maple tree behind my shutter board house. It blossomed despite the stuffed weave of city streets. The first time I saw it, a single leaf had sprouted and turned its face to the sun. Those rays of light the leaf caught fed the single branch, which pushed against the cobbled patio, displacing old bricks. It is a waking giant, I thought.
Year after year, I watched the tree grow. Its branches expanded and stretched their arms wide. A shrub nearby died several years later. A fern my mother planted lost its life as well. A great shade hung over the southeastern side of the tiny back plot.
The maple sprouted, sent seeds fluttering through the wind in spring. Birds nested amidst its powerful branches. An owl once lived in a small hollow, first started by a downy woodpecker.
The fence needs mending. The tree destroyed my father’s handiwork, and I’ve been too worn out to help. The patio has streaks of mislaid stone from the maple’s great roots.
Now, I watch the tree from a bed on the second story. My daughter brings me soup. One wild branch slaps the wooden panel of the south side of the house. The flowers in my garden have long since succumbed to shade and subsequent death. As my daughter brings me soup and the tremors that live in me shake most of the liquid from the spoon, I wonder whether the tree will ever die. Will its shade grace the slab of my New England grave forever? A blessing and a curse, I think, one that I will never regret.
Christopher Rodrigues is a Brazilian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School, and his fiction and poetry explore themes of religion and modern spiritual practice.
when he beat me up he had me against a row-house screen door, blows like birds flying at my ears as if they were feeders, my hands at the sides of my head protecting my face, I don’t remember the feeling of being punched but I remember my bully’s face, filled with paternal rage as if I’d committed a mortal sin not a wrong against him, his lips sealed, his cheeks red and exploding the energy of punishment, I shouted fuck fuck to show that even in tears I was brave enough to shout a word I knew was bad,
I saw him one Friday night in tight black jeans and t-shirt with rolled up sleeves on his way to the bowling alley where the tough kids hung out, I asked him if he was afraid and he said he had his balls which were his courage and his cigarette pack stuffed in the cuff around his bicep
I dreamed I loved my bully, I was on my knees kissing the initial on his row-house screen door, I was enticing him to return to the world
my bully came down with agoraphobia, stayed in his room his sophomore college year, his row house seemed to shut down like an embarrassed face, eyes going bland and mouth hanging heavy with nothing to say
my bully said hello to me from a passing car, as if I were a dear old friend of his he hadn’t seen in years
Jack Israel is a former tax accountant turned full-time poet. His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Cream City Review, River City, Courtland Review, Recours au Poeme, Southern Poetry, and others. He is also half of the blogging team Yaakov Murchadha. He has been nominated for a Pushcart prize, and has received a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He lives in Berwyn, PA.
Bury me under feathers.
My mother wanted me to be an actress, a singer.
I paint in wings, in white, black, in plume.
You waterproof, you go thermal.
All the directions read backwards, the compass is upside down.
Don’t you get it. Look again, again. It is right here.
It is time to go home.
My father, the kitchen table, the inevitable equations.
Let me become seed, reduce me to potential, to root and blossom.
I shrink, back rounded, stomach caved.
What can’t be smothered in color.
The pencil, angry, the darker lines, the darker lines, numbers fast and hard.
Already I have everything bolted down.
How can you not know.
You draw a map behind your eyes, squeeze until the veins turn into roads.
Because, they say. We have to control you.
Three pews of the same shadow across the same faces, each of the same curve.
Like this, no, like this. Like this, no, like this. No. This. Here. Like this.
I hope you have a nice life. I mean that, I really do.
It is time to leave now.
What can burn? Who smells the smoke? Alarm, alarm.
I form myself into a doll.
What, then, if you fall asleep?
My hot feet against the cool wall.
A wish to be made of salt.
Callista Buchen is the author of the chapbooks The Bloody Planet (Black Lawrence Press) and Double-Mouthed (dancing girl press). Her work appears in Harpur Palate, Puerto del Sol, Fourteen Hills, and many other journals, and she is the winner of the Langston Hughes Award and DIAGRAM‘s essay contest. She is an assistant professor at Franklin College in Indiana.
We rolled into Bakersfield in 1968 the way the Okies did in The Grapes of Wrath—with everything we possessed packed into a creaking car and trailer, kids stacked on top of each other, and no place yet to call home.
Following a dust-devil down Highway 99, leaving my dad and his other wife at the Sacramento end of the Central Valley, my mom strangled the steering wheel of the Belvedere wagon until it and the U-Haul came to rest, hot and ticking, beneath the cement awning of the Capri Motel. Piling out, we could see the yellow arch across Union Avenue spelling out Bakersfield in bold black letters. Tall desert palms spindled the endless, empty sidewalk while sun-spotted traffic coursed by the motels and take-out shops and liquor stores. It was May and already close to one hundred degrees.
We didn’t know it yet, but Union Avenue was on its way down, sidelined by a newer, faster Highway 99 spur to the west. Not so long after we splashed in the pool and ate takeout fried chicken on the Magic Fingers-powered beds, the Capri Motel would be best known around Bakersfield for the hookers who posed in the doorways whenever a car pulled into the parched parking lot.
Mom’s new social work job—the one she’d taken the civil service exam for near the state capitol and then traveled down here alone on the Greyhound to win—would start on Monday, so we had five days to find a place big enough for a family with five kids. The oldest was Adrian, named after the college where my parents met and therefore spelled wrong for a girl; she had just turned fifteen when we got to Bakersfield, already accustomed to being a backup adult. Then there was me, age 10; twin sisters Merry and Melody, fraternally light and dark in both coloring and spirit, about to turn nine in a couple of weeks; and our golden-haired little brother Matthew, age four. Older brother Mark had enlisted in the Navy three years earlier and was out in the Pacific somewhere manning a destroyer and falling in love with bar girls he met on leave. He’d perhaps intentionally missed this period in which our parents’ marriage, always intermittently explosive, had finally flamed out like a Fourth of July gone awry.
We’d already moved three times since the fireworks started. This was the farthest we’d gotten, though, and there was something final about the set of my mother’s jaw as she read through the house for rent ads in the Bakersfield Californian over a cup of the Capri’s vending machine coffee.
My mom was great on the phone. She’d worked as a switchboard operator during college and later as a reporter and publisher, erasing any trace of the dirt-poor, awkward bookworm from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula she’d once been. Smooth and precise, her telephone voice was now deployed to reassure anxious landlords that they weren’t dealing with an almost penniless single mom with a passel of kids sweating it out in some Union Avenue dive, but instead a professional woman in orderly transition to the next phase in her career, whatever that might be in pre–women’s lib central California. “We’d be delighted to view the house this afternoon. What time would be convenient for you? Certainly, you may call back to confirm. It’s—” (quick squint at the motel phone atop the shiny floral bedspread) “—327-3577, ask for extension 211. Yes, that’s R-E-V as in Victor…”
We must have looked at half a dozen nearly identical ranch-style houses, all beige in my memory, with balding front lawns and chain-link backyards, before we pulled up in front of 321 Oleander Avenue. It was an Arts and Crafts cottage on a street of what realtors called “gracious older homes.” 321 had a double peaked roof and wraparound multi-paned windows in the front, a backyard with a pecan and an apricot tree, odd 1950s touches like a ceiling-wide plaster living room light fixture and island kitchen counter, three bedrooms, one bathroom, and no air conditioning.
Standing on the slide-like front porch banisters, we could see that there was a big park catty-corner from us with a swimming pool and tennis courts and bandshell. Down the block in the other direction, two kids rode Big Wheels round and round a circular driveway, the scrape of rubber on gravel making its own sullen rhythm. The beautiful, poisonous flowers for which the street was named glowed pink and white against their dusty green foliage at the end of our sidewalk.
The landlady with the hard blonde hair was giving Mom the lay of the land, waving her walnut-tanned arms for emphasis. This is still mostly a good area, she was saying. The elementary school over that way a few blocks is not bad, but Bakersfield High up the street? “That’s pretty mixed these days,” she said. “Being a grass widow and all, you can’t be too careful where you put your kids.”
She lit another Virginia Slim off the one burning low between her fingers. She looked at the five of us arrayed by size on the stairs, at my mom’s careful clipboard of houses to see, at our packed station wagon and U-Haul snug against the curb. She dropped the butt of her spent cigarette, mashed it under her white sandal, and brushed it into the street in one single, smooth move.
“You start work at the welfare department on Monday, huh? Jesus bless you for helping those people,” she said, pocketing my mom’s check for first, last, and security. “Just don’t expect me to come running whenever something breaks.”
Within weeks, our gray tabby cat Nicholas got run over crossing Oleander. Matt broke his collarbone hurrying down from the treehouse at daycare when he saw mom’s station wagon approaching. Merry hammered curtain rods into the old plaster walls so she could have her own space, creating a fresco of cracks and dust instead. Melody snapped her toe on the cement front steps on her birthday. All of us middle kids got lice—possibly from the beds left behind by the last tenants, possibly from our new school—and spent our evenings with foreheads on the kitchen table, our long, straight hair spread out under the bright hanging lamp while Mom and Adrian hunted nits with a fine-tooth comb and malathion.
Summer came. All day, every day, it was back and forth to the park. The big swimming pool was twenty-five cents, the wading pool was free. There was a recreation program—for underprivileged kids, I now know—complete with crafts and games, lanyards and checkers and chess on the cement tables with permanent boards tiled in. A tall rocket ship structure marked the playground: You could climb up inside to the top and see the whole park through the cage-like bars, and then ride the long slide to the sand below. A little refreshment stand sold snow cones and sodas, but we rarely had money for outside snacks. We also never wore shoes. It was a point of pride to be able to walk the blazing hot sidewalks full-footed and cross the street without sinking into the melting asphalt. By July, our soles were burned black and hard as hooves.
Adrian discovered a crowd of kids her age who hung out on the hill on the far side of the bandshell, recreating their own little Summer of Love less than five miles from where Merle Haggard was writing “Okie from Muskogee.” She’d deposit us at the pool or the rec area and then go find her cross-legged quadrant in the mass of long-haired bodies, swaying to Big Brother in a haze of pot and incense. She fell in love with a tall, muscled black kid who wanted to be Jimi Hendrix as much as his parents wanted him to be Jim Brown. We’d end the days all together on our porch, Ade and Fred, Merry and Melody and their two-by-two pals from the scruffy nearby streets, me with my sixth-grade bestie, whose size thirty-six bust was a source of wonder and envy, Matt with his golden locks now nearly down to his shoulders.
One evening after everyone had gone inside but me, two brothers from the Tara mansion down the block rolled their bikes over our grass and bump-stopped at the bottom step of the porch. Like me, they were closing in on junior high—or so I guessed. They went to the Catholic school and were rumored to have started late and been held back to reach maximum size for football. They both had crew cuts and flat blue eyes.
“Y’all are nothing but a bunch of hippies,” the younger one said. I think his name was Patrick.
“And nigger lovers,” his brother Sean added.
“Dirty, nigger-loving hippies,” Patrick nodded.
I stood up slowly on the stairs. I could see their pink scalps through their hair. Patrick had a stitches scar on the top border of his forehead.
“You all should go back where you came from,” Sean continued. “My dad says.”
I’d seen their father swerve his long white Cadillac into their circular drive most nights long after dark, his shirt sweat-stuck to his back as he swayed toward the columned porch. I would have liked to have seen him now.
Instead the door swung open behind me, and my mom walked out onto the porch. I backed up one step to close the space between us.
“How nice of you boys to come visit, but you’ll have to say goodbye now,” she said in her social worker voice. “It’s dinnertime for us and I’m sure your mom is expecting you home too.”
They shifted on their bikes.
“Or maybe I should call her to check?” my mom said.
Patrick tilted his head toward home and they began pedaling off across the lawns. Without looking back, Sean lifted his hand in a peace sign, then curved his index finger down so only the middle one remained. I wasn’t sure if my mom saw it—she was leading me back inside.
“I guess ignorance doesn’t skip a generation,” she sighed.
My mom spent her days driving the county car out to the farm towns of Shafter and Buttonwillow, Wasco and Weedpatch, checking up on families who counted on public assistance to keep the tin roofs over their heads and arroz or grits on the table. Her caseload included sixteen-year-olds about to have their second babies and grandmothers herding multiple toddlers inside whenever the crop-dusters flew over. She saw women whose black eyes were always fresh on Monday mornings but faded along with their resolve by Friday.
Once she showed up for a scheduled visit at a house near the railroad tracks in Oildale and saw no car in the dirt drive, got no answer to her knock. Just as she was writing up her Reminder! Mandatory Home Visit card to slip under the door, she saw the bedsheet over the front picture window move and a small round face appear in the corner. “Is your mommy home?” my mother asked, leaning down so the child could see her lips move. The little girl shook her head. Mom looked around the porch and saw the mailbox was stuffed with bills and fliers, two or three tossed circulars near the mat. She walked back to her white Pinto with the Kern County insignia on the door and pulled her sack lunch out of the glove compartment, then returned to the porch, the girl watching her every move. Mom slowly sat down on the concrete in her poly-blend, lime green A-line shift and pantyhose, opened the lunch bag, and pulled out the cheese sandwich and celery sticks she had packed herself early that morning. She flattened the bag on the porch beside her and laid out the food picnic style, then remembered the Snickers bar in her purse and added that too. She took the sandwich out of its flip top baggie, broke off half of a half and took a bite, grinning toward the girl whose nose was now flat against the glass. Mom chewed each bite very slowly, feeling the stucco of the porch pillar scratching the back of her neck below the chignon she wrestled her hair into for these long, boiling days in the field, watching a line of ants work their way up past her outstretched feet in their sensible tan pumps. She pitched a tiny piece of crust to the far corner of the porch to divert the ant train away from the main course.
The face in the window disappeared. The front door knob jiggled a few times, and the door inched open. My mom patted the concrete on the other side of the picnic sack and held out half the cheese sandwich. Dressed only in pajama bottoms and holding a bald Barbie, the little girl crouched down and snatched the sandwich from Mom’s hand, gulping down the white bread and orange cheese. Mom passed her the untouched half of her half, which also disappeared in a few bites. “Sorry I only have coffee,” my mom said, holding up her thermos, then noticed the girl was transfixed by the candy bar. “Let me peel that for you.” The child sank down next to Mom, sucking on the Snickers like a popsicle. Mom waited until she was finished and then used the paper towel she’d stuck in the lunch bag as a napkin to wipe the chocolate smears off the child’s face, now softening into sleep. Mom ate all the celery sticks, finished her coffee, and waited another hour by her Timex before carrying the sleeping child to the county car.
On the way to Shelter Care, she must have passed the towering, pastel-bubbled “Sun Fun Stay Play” sign marking the northern boundary of Bakersfield on Highway 99. There was another sign just like it south of the city line, cajoling travelers headed north. The city boosters had erected both with great fanfare the year we came to town. Across the bottom, the tagline read: “The Sign of a Progressive Community.”
Mickey Revenaugh is a Bakersfield-bred, Brooklyn-based writer whose work appears (or will soon) in Chautauqua,Catapult,Lunch Ticket, The Thing Itself, Louisiana Literature, and LA Review of Books, among others. She was recently named finalist for the 2017 Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction at Antioch University and the 2017 Penelope Niven Award for Nonfiction at the Center for Women Writers. Mickey has an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington, an MBA from NYU, and a BA in American Studies from Yale.
Sunlight through kitchen window,
porridge swirled with raspberry jam.
Mouths clotted red, a bluebird sings:
on this morning, how can anything
be dead? Heat, the language of the
tea kettle, and whistle, warmth.
I woke with someone else’s hands
our bedroom blue with absence –
blood on cotton,
blossom of cream on milk.
Alexandra Smyth lives in Brooklyn, NY. She is a graduate of the City College of New York MFA Creative Writing Program. She was a finalist for the 2015 Gabriela Mistral Poetry Prize, as well as a recipient of the 2014 Poets and Writers Amy Award, and the 2013 recipient of the Jerome Lowell Dejur Prize in Poetry. Her work has most recently appeared in carte blanche, Found Poetry Review, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry, among others.