TWO FLASH PIECES by Fabio Morábito translated from the Spanish by Curtis Bauer
In Honor Of Dictation
My friend BR gives me the manuscript of his novel because he wants to know what I think. I read it and we make plans to meet in a café to talk. The novel is mediocre, like almost everything BR writes. I give him my critique, which essentially rests on one problem: he tries to maintain too much control. As if he were afraid that the story he’s telling wasn’t enough for a novel, he stretches out his descriptions and rambles on. While the reader gets bored, he accumulates pages. So much digression soaks up what little juice there is in the story and, when something finally happens, it’s hardly noticeable. I say all this to BR politely and with as much tact as possible, citing the parts of the book where I find this defect most obvious. He writes down everything I say and barely raises his eyes to look at me. His diligence is touching, but soon enough I’m annoyed. Because he doesn’t look at me, I feel like I’m talking to myself, as if BR were my secretary and I his boss dictating some business letter to him. “Stop taking notes,” I say so he’ll look me in the eyes, but after a pause, he starts taking notes again, like a student. Then I realize that his punctilious method of jotting down my critiques is his way of circumventing them. By putting them in writing he can stop listening to me. He doesn’t hear me, he doesn’t want to hear me, and there’s no better way to disguise his disinterest than by transcribing what I say. As soon as he realized I hadn’t liked his novel he ceased paying attention and hid behind his notes. Come to think of it, he does the same thing with me that he does with his novels: he flees by means of some feverish annotation. It’s not that he is controlling anything, but that he’s simply not writing. When he has a story at its most critical stage, it’s as much his fear of not being able to write it, by which he subtly moves away from it through digressions, as it is that he moves away from me, making my words into some cold dictation. Because he only knows how to write from dictation, his head lowered, accumulating phrases that become pure words, words that become pure signs, signs that become strokes, strokes that become nothing. He only cares about pages.
Mi amigo BR me entrega el manuscrito de su novela porque desea saber mi opinión. Lo leo y nos citamos en un café para hablar. La novela es mediocre, como casi todo lo que escribe BR. Le hago mi crítica, que estriba esencialmente en un problema: se administra demasiado. Como si temiera que la historia que está contando no le alcanzará para una novela, alarga las descripciones y divaga. Mientras el lector se aburre, él acumula páginas. Tanta digresión se come el poco jugo que hay en la historia y, cuando por fin sucede algo, apenas se nota. Le digo todo esto a BR con los debidos modales y la menor crudeza posible, citando las partes del libro donde encuentro este defecto más patente. Él apunta todo lo que digo y apenas levanta los ojos para mirarme. Su aplicación me conmueve, pero muy pronto me exaspera. Al faltarme su mirada siento que estoy hablando solo, como si BR fuera mi secretaria y yo su jefe, que le dicta una carta de negocios. «Deja de apuntar», le digo para que me mire a los ojos, pero él después de una pausa vuelve a tomar nota como un alumno. Entonces me doy cuenta de que su forma de anotar puntillosamente mis críticas es una manera de eludirlas. Al ponerlas por escrito puede dejar de oírme. No me oye, no me quiere oír, y nada mejor para disimular su desinterés que transcribir lo que digo. Tan pronto como comprendió que su novela no me había gustado, dejó de prestarme atención y se escondió detrás de sus apuntes. Pensándolo bien, hace conmigo lo mismo que hace con sus novelas: se da a la fuga por medio de una anotación febril. No es que se administre, sino que de plano no escribe. Cuando tiene una historia en puño, es tanto su miedo a no poder escribirla, que la aparta sutilmente a base de digresiones, como me aparta a mí, convirtiendo mis palabras en un frío dictado. Porque él sólo sabe escribir bajo dictado, la cabeza gacha, acumulando frases que se vuelven puras palabras, palabras que se vuelven puros signos, signos que se vuelven trazos, trazos que se vuelven nada. Sólo le importan las páginas.
Books are made of phrases, obviously, they are like bricks in construction, and just as it’s difficult to notice the beauty of a brick, sentences, when we read, pass by relatively unnoticed, washed away by the flow of speech, as they should. To dwell too long on a sentence shows a lack of experience; what matters in a book is the assemblage, the verbal edifice, not its components. And yet there is a rather vague habit of underlining books. The underlined belies the edifice and enhances the brick, the humble block compressed between a thousand identical blocks; it is a sort of rescue operation, as if each underlining were saying: save this phrase from the clutches of the book, release this jewel from the swamp that surrounds it. It is widely acknowledged that whoever begins to underline cannot stop; underlinings multiply, a plague takes over the book, another book appears in its interior, an autonomous republic. The underliner thinks: if I underlined that phrase, how I am not going to underline this one, and this other one, and also that one? The underliner becomes a second author of the book, extracting from this one the book he would have wanted to write, he becomes involved in an open argument with the book he’s reading, submitting it to a relentless poaching of underlineable phrases. One day I had to ask for one of my books in a university library to verify some information. I discovered that the copy was liberally underlined. The thing pleased me, of course, since underlinings are evidence of diligent and passionate reading. Very soon, however, I was overcome with an ambiguous feeling that became frankly annoying. I didn’t agree with what was underlined. My anonymous reader had overlooked passages that seemed to me quite remarkable and highlighted instead lines that were merely functional, inert. I found myself in conflict with my own book, mentally tracing my own underlinings, pulling from my own book another book, one that I would have liked to write and that, I only then realized, I had half-finished.
Los libros están hechos de frases, obvio, que son como los ladrillos de la construcción, y del mismo modo que es difícil reparar en la hermosura de un ladrillo, las frases, cuando leemos, pasan relativamente inadvertidas, arrastradas por el flujo del discurso, como debe ser. El detenerse demasiado en una frase es signo de inmadurez; lo que importa en un libro es el conjunto, el edificio verbal, no sus componentes. Y sin embargo es costumbre bastante difusa subrayar libros. El subrayado desmiente el edificio y realza el ladrillo, el humilde tabique comprimido entre mil tabiques idénticos; es una suerte de operación de rescate, como si cada subrayado dijera: salven esta frase de las garras del libro, liberen esta joya del pantano que la rodea. Es bien sabido que, quien empieza a subrayar, no puede detenerse; los subrayados se multiplican, una plaga se apodera del libro, surge otro libro en su interior, una república autónoma. El subrayador piensa: si subrayé aquella frase, ¿cómo no voy a subrayar ésta, y esta otra, y también aquélla? El subrayador se vuelve un segundo autor del libro, extrae de éste el libro que él hubiera querido escribir, entra en franca controversia con el libro que lee, al que somete a una implacable cacería de frases subrayables. Un día tuve que pedir un libro mío en una biblioteca universitaria para verificar un dato. Descubrí que el ejemplar estaba profusamente subrayado. La cosa me halagó, por supuesto, pues los subrayados son la evidencia de una lectura acuciosa y apasionada. Muy pronto, sin embargo, me invadió una sensación ambigua que se tornó francamente fastidiosa. No estaba de acuerdo con los subrayados. Mi anónimo lector había pasado por alto pasajes que me parecían muy remarcables y resaltado en cambio líneas meramente operativas, inertes. Me hallé en pugna con mi propio libro, trazando mentalmente mis propios subrayados, sacándole a mi libro otro libro, aquel que hubiera querido escribir y que, sólo ahora me daba cuenta, había escrito a medias.
Fabio Morábito was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1955 to Italian parents. He moved to Milan when he was five, and when he was fifteen moved to Mexico City, where he currently lives and works at the Autonomous University of Mexico. Morábito is the author of four poetry collections; two novels, including Caja de herramientas (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1989), which was translated into English by Geoff Hargreaves and published by Xenox Books in 1996; five books of short stories; and three books of essays, including El idioma materno (Sexto Piso, 2014). He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes, the Premio White Raven, and the Premio Antonin Artaud. Morábito is also a prolific translator, and has translated the complete works of Eugenio Montale and Aminto de Torquato Tasso into Spanish. Though much of Morábito’s work has been translated into French, German, Italian, and Portuguese, relatively little has been translated into English.
Curtis Bauer is the author of two poetry collections, most recently The Real Cause for Your Absence. He is also a translator of poetry and prose from the Spanish. His publications include the full-length poetry collections Image of Absence, by Jeannette Clariond, by Jeannette L. Clariond, Eros Is More, by Juan Antonio González Iglesias, and From Behind What Landscape, by Luis Muñoz. He is the publisher and editor of Q Avenue Press Chapbooks, and the Translations Editor for From the Fishouse and Waxwing Journal. He teaches Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
Moira’s son is snuggling against his grandfather on the couch. That’s all. Just resting on the old man’s shoulder, his forehead against his frayed collar. Michael looks tired, sweaty. There’s color high in his cheeks, as if he’s just come in from play. The sliding glass door is slightly open, and she can hear her father singing to him, something low, soft, painfully familiar. His knee moves up and down in steady cadence with the song. Eyes closed, they seem lost in each other’s comfort. She tries to swallow, but it tastes like acid, so she spits into the grass.
She turns and walks back to the front of the house, nails pressed into her palms, and lets herself into Bridget’s kitchen. She keeps her voice down, her tone nearly reasonable. “I thought I told you I didn’t want him near the boys.”
Her sister turns off the faucet and dries her hands on a towel. “What’s the problem? Michael’s crazy about him.” Their father is blind, has been for years, but Moira wonders if Bridget picked the towel to please him, because it’s covered with shamrocks. She’s been inclined to come to his defense lately, reminiscing about how he used to make them laugh, tell scary stories, play make-believe. He’d be the grumpy store proprietor, claiming to be out of every item they asked him for.
Moira drops her shoulder bag onto a kitchen chair with a sudden thud. “That’s nonsense. He’s something different, that’s all. The stories, the odd expressions. Where’s Sean?”
“I’m telling you he hangs on his every word.”
“Yeah, because he’s a walking encyclopedia of baseball trivia.” She spots Michael’s schoolbooks on the counter and crosses the room to gather them up. “Where is Sean?”
“Upstairs with Cathy. Doing homework.”
When her father moved in with her a few months ago, she tried taking walks with him, telling him about her scholarships, her first teaching job. She wanted to connect. That was the plan. He answered in nods and grunts, offered nothing in return but tired stories about drinking with his brothers and getting thrown out of taverns for brawling. In the yard one afternoon, when the boys were washing the dog, she put her arm around him, an impulsive gesture that made her chest tighten. She’d just finished telling him about how hard it was to adjust when she was away at Boston College, until she found cover with a small circle of friends, fellow misfits. She thought he’d understand. He’d talked many times about how alone he felt when he arrived in New York as a boy, his mother still in Derry. His uncle rarely spoke to him. He showed him the cot he’d sleep on and went off to work. But her father only laughed at her confessions, in a way that made her feel exposed. “You were one of those hippie types, I bet.” He was almost growling. “Peace and love and all the rest of the easy answers.”
“Is it really so bad if Michael likes him?” Bridget is blocking Moira’s way, standing close to her. She tucks a strand of her sister’s hair behind her ear, the way she did when they were girls, when she was left in charge while their mother worked. “Isn’t that what you wanted to begin with?”
Moira steps away from her. The tension in her jaw spreads down her neck, tightening her muscles, because what she wanted can’t be spoken, can’t be acknowledged without admitting what a fool she was to think she’d get it. After the blow-up with Sean, she told her father to leave. As she helped him pack, she thought he’d try to explain, persuade her to let him stay. But he didn’t. He was as sullen as a teenager.
“How often is he here?” Moira says, but her throat is constricted, the words too soft, and Bridget can’t hear her. She has to say it again.
“Peter drops him off on Tuesdays and Fridays.” Her sister glances at the wall clock, a bit too nonchalantly, and returns to the vegetables on the counter. “He’ll be here any minute to collect him.”
Moira slides open the zipper on the backpack, finds the harsh sound satisfying. “You knew I wouldn’t want this.”
“He doesn’t bother with Sean,” Bridget insists, as if that’s the only problem. “He keeps his distance.”
“I don’t want him near either one of them. He went after Sean with no warning.”
Bridget gives her a look, lips pursed in a smirk. She doesn’t believe her, and Moira wonders if their father has offered some other version of what happened. “Michael has a right to a grandfather,” she says, fussing with utensils in a drawer.
Moira glances at the vegetables lined up neatly on the cutting board and wants to knock them to the floor. Order. That’s what matters to Bridget, the control she couldn’t have when they were children. “He’s managed without him all his life. We don’t need him now.”
Bridget finds the knife she wants, comes down hard on a carrot. “Maybe you’ve managed. But I see Michael every day here after school. I can see what he needs, especially now, with everything the boys are going through.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Moira’s sure Bridget doesn’t want to say the words. She takes longer than needed to select the next carrot. “The way things are since Ken left. That’s all I mean. It’s a rough time.” She turns to look at her. “You’ve said so yourself.”
“Yes, it’s a rough time. And it’ll only get rougher if Sean winds up needing stitches again.” Moira feels warm in her jacket, wants to take it off, but she has to get out of here, get her boys away from him, away from a place where they have to pretend her father can be anything but monstrous. “Michael doesn’t need him in his life.”
Bridget puts the knife down. “How do you know that?”
The question makes Moira want to laugh. “He has nothing to offer anyone.”
“Really? Or just nothing to offer you?”
She searches Bridget’s face, looking for traces of spite, of some secret satisfaction that Moira’s foolish father-daughter reconciliation had to be aborted. The resentment can surface unexpectedly. The burdens of a household with one parent fell largely on Bridget. Dishes had to be washed, floors swept, stale bread made to last another meal. She had no time to pine for a father’s attention. “Michael is my son,” Moira tells her. “I’ll decide what he needs. I’ll make some other arrangements for the boys while I’m at work.”
“Be reasonable.” Bridget wipes her hands on her apron, lowers her voice, starting over. “You don’t have to do that. He’s harmless.” She puts a hand on Moira’s forearm. “I’m sure what happened to Sean was an accident.”
Moira finds the gesture insulting, as if she has no right to distrust their father, no right to feel cheated. She jerks her arm away and pulls Michael’s backpack onto her shoulder, calls him into the kitchen. But the boy doesn’t come.
“Michael,” she calls again.
His answer reaches them after a beat or two, a stubborn whine. “Mom, can’t we just stay a little longer?”
“We’re leaving now, Michael,” she says more firmly.
He finally appears in the doorway, and Moira is reminded again of how much he looks like her brother Conor, but it’s a surface resemblance, with none of the wounds beneath. At ten, Conor was already a shadow child, accustomed to danger. “Can’t Uncle Peter drive me home later, when he comes to pick up Grandpa?”
She hates what she hears in his voice, the ignorance of the danger he’s in. “I thought you wanted to shop for your baseball glove tonight?”
“Can’t we do that tomorrow? It doesn’t matter, does it?”
“It does matter,” she says, reaching her hand out for him to come along.
But he stays put. “Why?”
She wants him to stop whining, stop wanting what isn’t his. “I’m not discussing this, Michael.” She dangles his backpack in front of him, careful not to look into his eyes, afraid of what he might suspect.
The old man’s side does not touch hers, but he holds her elbow as if he’s leading her down the street. His cane taps the sidewalk in front of them, carving an uneven pendulum, a metronome gone awry. Moira’s high-heeled steps are firm, precise; her father shuffles cautiously, as if fearing he’s near danger. The late morning traffic is steady, purposeful, reminding her that she hasn’t much time. If she doesn’t get back to the parking garage soon, she’ll never reach Bridgeport in time for her meeting.
The street is crowded, and they capture more than an occasional glance, this oddly matched pair. She imagines how they must look: a woman tall, withdrawn, unwilling to acknowledge the passersby; an old man even taller, white-haired, with a creased face, deadened eyes. The sun makes mirrors of the storefronts, and here and there, without warning, she catches a glimpse of the way they look together, too close, huddled like conspirators. She tries to separate herself from him, at least a bit, but he squeezes her elbow each time, without affection, just control.
“The doctor wants me back at the end of next week.” Her father says this as if she’s interested. She’s not. She’s here only because there was no one else to take him for his checkup. Bridget pleaded with her, so she agreed. But she made it clear he’d have to take the bus back to Peter’s house.
“Fine,” she tells him. “Bridget will figure something out.” And whatever the solution, it won’t include her, because she’s sorry she ever agreed to this. But it will be over soon, she tells herself. All of it. The bus stop isn’t far. And she’s found someone to watch the boys after school. She’s sure Bridget is still letting him visit because Michael slips and says Grandpa this, or Grandpa that, then clams up as if he’s been told to keep it secret.
A silence follows that she suspects he wants her to fill, perhaps with an offer to take him to the next doctor’s appointment or with questions about his blood pressure medicine. She gives him nothing.
“Can’t you take me?” he says finally, his tone laced with annoyance that he has to ask. She knows he’s oblivious to how she feels about him. He’s preoccupied with his ailments and his memories, nearly all of which he has invented. He’s hinted that he knows Moira is having trouble getting Ken to agree to the terms for custody, and she’s sure he gets his information from her sister Kate, whose heart is so big and so wounded she’s capable of forgiving anything.
“No. I’ll be in Atlanta.” He’s walking so slowly. She’ll have barely enough time to get to the meeting.
“Atlanta, is it?” She’s sure he wants her to hear the insult in this, because his notions of what a woman should be doing do not include work with responsibility and rank. She’s no different in his mind from all the other liberated types who don’t know how to be mothers or wives anymore. She doesn’t answer him. “Weren’t you in Houston last week?”
“Why?” she says. She doesn’t want his questions. She wants him to be quiet until she can be rid of him.
“I don’t know. The boy seems like he’s driftin’ is all.”
“Who? Michael?” She stops without warning, and her father, startled, goes slightly off balance.
“For Chrissake, watch what you’re doin’.” He makes a big deal of adjusting his cane. “Michael’s got troubles for sure,” he says. “But it’s Sean I’m talkin’ about.”
“Sean is not drifting. Sean is fine.” Her voice is even, revealing none of the worry that dogs her. “And how would you know anyway?”
“Michael. He talks to me.”
If he’d slapped her it would have been less painful. Michael has been sullen lately, not talking as much, which is so unlike him. She imagines him with her father, telling him about his day in school, about the tough batters he faced in his last game, all the things he always saves for her, rewards that don’t belong to her father. He hasn’t earned them.
“I don’t want you talking to him. Do you understand me?” She sees the hint of a grin on his face. He knows he’s getting to her.
“No, I don’t understand you,” he says. “They miss their father.” That edge is in his voice, the one that slips in when he’s determined to be right about something.
“I don’t want to hear this.” She begins walking again, takes his arm this time.
“Fine. I’ll mind my business. But if you know what’s good for ya, you’ll stay closer to home.” There’s that tone again. When Moira was a kid, her mother would challenge it, answer him as if his beliefs were plucked from old wives’ tales. Moira was always afraid to contradict him, and she’s afraid because she knows there’s truth in what he’s saying about Sean and Michael. She sees the hypocrisy of his offering advice on parenting, but she can’t help wondering what she may be doing wrong. She tries to shake it off, but she finds herself slipping back into the maze of doubt and reproach that confuses any attempt to understand why her marriage ended.
The air seems much warmer now, and she wishes she hadn’t worn a linen suit. She wants to focus on the key points in the proposal she’ll present today, but it’s no use. The smell of him disgusts her. She takes shallow breaths to escape it—his cigarette breath, his Old Spice, the stale aroma of drink—but she can’t. She feels small, trapped, the way she did that night in the tiny bedroom they’d rehearse in.
Bridget always wanted to put on shows for their mom, pull her out of her moods. So she made them learn old songs from Judy Garland movies, the kind their mother liked. A thin, faded blanket hung across the corner of the room, tucked into the tops of the windows on each side, creating a triangle of secret space backstage. Drenched in Kate’s perfume, Bridget was dancing in their mother’s high-heeled shoes before the curtain—a long, slim umbrella, her cane. Moira directed the lamplight with the shade, keeping Bridget within its circle. Conor stood in the doorway, laughing, inattentive at his post as lookout. He didn’t see their father coming.
His entrance was sudden, insulting. Bridget and Moira scurried to another corner of the room, but Conor was in his path. The anger was grotesque: blind eyes wide open, impotently searching, lips spread in a frightening semblance of a smile, the shimmering tip of his tongue protruding between his teeth. Moira didn’t wonder where the anger came from. She knew their very presence was the cause. He reached down for Conor, picked him up by the back of his shirt and smashed his face. He bled but didn’t cry out; only a pathetic whimper came, a useless defense. The room filled with the smell of his urine.
Her father let go of him, still cursing, shouting incoherent threats. His arms sliced space before him as he staggered toward the stage, his huge bulk entering the abandoned spotlight. The curtain brushed his shoulder and he tore it down, kicked aside their props and toys until the magical space was once again the dismal corner of their bedroom. Only then did Conor cry out at what he saw. It was a foolish thing to do, because his anger was only half-spent, and he turned toward the sound of his son’s cries.
Her father says her name, and Moira halts, jerks her arm from his, afraid he might guess what she’s thinking, remember she’s the enemy. He wants to know why she’s stopped walking. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I got distracted.” She takes his arm again, more firmly this time. The cars weave frantically up the avenue, stopping regularly in impatient obedience at the light. On cue, they lurch forward noisily. Moira and her father reach the corner, where they will part. She lets go of his arm.
“Can I cross now?” he asks. And perhaps she doesn’t see the truck turning when she tells him yes, because it’s over in an instant: the old man stepping off the curb, the shocking sound of the metal against his body, the rusting gray pick-up truck screeching to a stop, the people circling. He lies like some discarded scarecrow, limbs spread in unnatural directions, his cane many yards away.
Before Moira can make sense of what’s happened, a crowd has gathered and she’s another silent onlooker. The driver’s big round belly shakes as he runs toward her father from the cab of his truck. A dirty, flimsy T-shirt can’t reach to meet his pants. His pale face is splotched red, and when he comes closer, she can see that he’s trembling. “Oh, my God; oh, my God,” he says, his voice a thin, pained whine. He speaks to everyone and no one. The man can’t stand still; he steps away then hurries back to his victim’s side, unable to look very long at the old man’s body. Her father’s face is placid, shows no pain, and she thinks of how he looked when he’d fall asleep in his chair, dulled by drink.
People are taking out phones, dialing for help. Their voices mix, and their concern confuses her, seems misplaced. They look so worried, their hands loose at their sides, jackets and pocketbooks left swinging near to the ground, as if nothing else matters now, nothing more than this old man in the street. An officer has appeared. He’s wearing short sleeves, and he reminds Moira of a patrol boy because he’s so slim, too blond for a grownup. He’s on one knee, gently wiping away the blood that trickles from the side of her father’s brow. He presses his finger against his neck, just underneath the jaw. The driver hurries over to kneel beside them, looking desperate for some sign of hope in the officer’s face. The cop glances at the driver, nods. “It’s a strong pulse,” he says, then barks orders for an ambulance into his phone.
The crowd seems to exhale, exchanging glances of relief.
The driver touches the calloused fingers of her father’s hand where it lies twisted, far from his side. He strokes his palm once diffidently, the way a child makes contact with a large animal.
“Does anyone know this man’s name?” the officer asks the crowd. No one answers him, and the spectators grow restless, heads turning this way and that, as if anxious. The air feels charged with suspicion, and the policeman shakes his head, slaps his notebook against his thigh, losing patience.
A heavyset woman in a black scarf knotted at the nape of her neck shifts her grocery bag from one hip to the other. “Weren’t you standing with him on the sidewalk?” she asks Moira.
She looks at the woman, feeling barely awake, not sure what’s expected of her.
“His name,” says the officer. “Do you know his name?”
They clearly want her to speak, to explain. But how can she explain any of this? How can they possibly understand? “Donnegan. Pete Donnegan,” she blurts out, hoping that will be enough. What more can she say about him anyway?
“You know him then?” says the officer, stepping toward her.
She can’t answer, because in truth she doesn’t. She’s never understood anything about him.
“Does he have family here? Friends?”
Moira doesn’t know what to say. Words like these have meaning to people. But the meanings don’t fit here. She feels no attachment to the man lying in the street. But the officer wants information, facts. She has to give him what he wants. “Family . . . yes . . . family. I’m . . . I’m his daughter.”
“Oh, my God, I’m sorry,” says the driver, in tears now. “I’m so sorry.”
She turns to the driver, sad for him. He seems like such a good man, a man in pain from the harm he’s done. And the irony of it, the injustice, the idea that her father has managed to hurt yet another innocent person makes her feel even more ashamed that she ever belonged to him. “Don’t be. Don’t be sorry,” she says.
The people who hear her exchange glances, whisper to each other, as if trying to convince themselves that she doesn’t mean what she’s saying, even when she says it again.
“Don’t be sorry about him.” Someone gasps this time, and the driver tells her he doesn’t understand. Moira tries to imagine what he sees when he looks at this old man. She turns toward her father, lying there broken, tries to see him as a victim this time, as someone who deserved better than what life gave him, but she feels no sympathy, no sorrow, only the dread of how Michael will look at her when she tells him, how his voice will sound when he asks her how this could have happened.
Mary Ann McGuigan’s short stories have appeared in North American Review, The Sun, Prime Number, Grist, Into the Void, and other journals, and they’ve been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. Her short story collection, Pieces, is now available from Bottom Dog Press. Her novels, one a finalist for the National Book Award, are ranked as best books for teens by the Junior Library Guild, the New York Public Library, and the Paterson Prize. You can find her at www.maryannmcguigan.com and on Facebook.
I wear my love for foxgloves
on my digits, nibble on each
to slow the fibrillations.
I eat their purple freckled ends
till nausea overtakes me
with the halo I see each person in.
My father had purple freckles, too,
and any time a heart at work exploded
he’d come home with pink shoes.
Kelsey Ann Kerr has a great interest in loss: holes both metaphorical and physical of the heart, holes in life left by the loss of parents, cauterized by love. She teaches writing composition at the University of Maryland and American University and holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Maryland. Her work can be found, or is forthcoming, in Slippery Elm Literary Journal, Stirring: A Literary Collection, New Delta Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Mezzo Cammin, and The Sewanee Review, and The Atlanta Review, among others. Her poetry also has been nominated for Best of the Net 2017.
Image credit: Foxglove (Fingerhut) by Albert Renger-Patzsch, 1922, Wikipedia
Oh, it will never happen here, the nurse says. If she is concerned, she is too nice to show it.
Everyone is so nice here. The nurses, the lawyer who helps us with the paperwork, the people from the refugee center who bring us clothes; even the doctor, the surgeon who amputated all of our fingers, except for one of my thumbs, is a really nice man.
But when I tell Felix how nice Canadians are, he shrugs and shakes his head. Maybe it’s because he’s got no thumbs left; maybe it’s because he also lost two toes. Felix was an athlete, a big football player back home in Ghana. Still, I guess he’ll miss his fingers more than I will.
If I could, I would give you my thumb, I say.
You’re such a nice man, you should be Canadian, he answers, and we both laugh.
True, the reason we got all of our fingers amputated is that even once we made it to the Canadian side, we had to wait three hours before someone stopped for us. Three hours is a long time when you’ve been outside for seven hours already, walking through frozen fields with snow up to your knees, in sub-zero temperatures. The prairie people say that the wind that night was as high as twenty-five miles an hour. All I know is that it stung like a thousand invisible glass shards, piercing any exposed skin.
The doctor said that it was during those last three hours that the damage from frostbite became permanent. When frostbite goes from stage three to stage four, the doctor explained, the tissues beneath the skin become frozen, too. Muscles, joints, tendons. Like a deep freeze, and when he said that I remembered how my hands looked in the morning light, once we finally made it across the border. Like two pieces of chicken breast in the freezer, hard as a rock, shiny and slippery. Felix’s fingers were so numb, when he tried to use his phone to see if we had any service, he dropped it and it shattered into pieces, like an ice cube.
It was the morning of December 25, which is why, everyone says, there wasn’t much traffic on the road. The few cars that drove by us, they had places to be, families to meet.
But it was nice that this one person, that truck driver, finally stopped, I tell Felix. I mean, it was really nice, considering that the doctors say that if he hadn’t, we probably would have died, you and I.
I don’t say, you for sure. When he got into the truck, Felix began shaking and lost consciousness. All the way to the hospital, I kept telling him, be strong, we’re going to make it. But the truck driver looked really scared. He drove us directly to the emergency entrance. Once there, we were taken to the burn unit, because it turns out that frostbite is just like a burn, but deep inside your body.
Freezing takes long enough that the pain sneaks up on you, slowly. Thawing is different. You have to warm the injured tissues as fast as possible, but without burning the skin. They gave us lots of painkillers. The doctors were trying to be nice about it, but there is no nice way to thaw human flesh. The pain was unbearable.
Let’s hope the tissues survive, the doctors said.
One week later, our fingers turned darker. The skin hard, like tree bark. That’s when we knew we would lose some of them. We just didn’t know how many.
Meanwhile, our claims are being processed, and our chances are excellent, the lawyer told us. She is a nice lady, working for free for people like us.
You’ve got to admit, this is a nice country, I keep telling Felix. Come on, I say. It’s nicer.
Felix is sitting with his elbows on the cafeteria table, his forearms up, and where his hands should have been, there are now two balls of white gauze, round and big as boxing gloves.
Listen, Felix says, it’s not like people weren’t nice, south of the border. Some were. They let us in, they gave us a case number, a photo ID, even a permit to work on the oil fields. When we began to worry, people said, Don’t worry, it will never happen here.
He doesn’t say: And then it did. He doesn’t have to. He takes his mug with the maple leaf to his lips, holds it between his two fingerless mittens, and blows on the hot coffee.
Don’t burn yourself, I say. I know, it’s not funny, but we both smile anyway.
Sylvie Bertrand writes short stories and is working on her first novel. She was nominated for the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, was a finalist for the 2017 Glimmer Train’s Very Short Story contest, and received a 2018 Pushcart Special Mention. She has an MA in Anthropology from Princeton University. She teaches at the Writers Studio and is currently the assistant fiction editor for Epiphany, a literary journal.
THE COLLECTED DRAFTS OF JESSICA’S CHRISTMAS CARD TO HER EX-HUSBAND by Grace Coberly
I suppose I should tell you that I didn’t buy the apartment. Randi the realtor called (remember her, with the forehead?) and said the owners were still undecided, but I had visited by myself the week before, and it didn’t feel right anymore. I guess it was too big for just me and Pammy. Too many rooms, too many spiderwebby corners. They ended up selling it to that Polish couple, I think. For now, I’m living with my dad, who says
Pammy misses you. She only eats the big chunks when I put her bowl out, not that good digestive stuff the vet recommended. I’m worried about her. God, am I already becoming a crazy cat lady?
Remember our first Christmas tree? We were so excited we bought it in mid-November, and all the needles had fallen off by the time we unpacked the ornaments.
I was just thinking about our first Christmas tree.
I was thinking
I almost bought the apartment. I really did. I visited six times in five days, and I dragged Randi with me every time (remember her, with the forehead?). I was going to use your closet for storage and keep both sinks upstairs. I could always use another sink. And I keep dreaming about the plumbing there. I’m staying in my old room at my dad’s house, and the cold water faucet in the bathroom still doesn’t work, so the water is always steaming hot. I have to brush my teeth in the bathtub. I feel like an animal.
Great news! Layla from the Tribune invited me back for an interview. I feel like this could be good for me, you know? I’ve been cashiering at Macy’s, but all the perfume is really starting to get to my head. I need a real job.
I was going through boxes the other day, and I found some of your old Christmas ornaments. (The tiny convertible, the bird from your mom, the blue Santa, Captain Kirk, and part of your snowglobe collection.) I also took the glass giraffe we found at that antique shop in Beulah, but I think it was in one of the boxes I threw out when I moved
How would you feel about paying child support for Pammy? She’s not our daughter, but she eats like a teenager, and she has some sort of infection on her foot.
I ran into your brother last Thursday in the home improvement section of Target. He told me you’re thinking of moving to Minneapolis. Why the fresh start? Running away from something?
Go ahead and move. Maybe in Minneapolis you’ll meet a woman who isn’t so “high-strung” and “self-absorbed.” Maybe she won’t forget to buy paper towels, and she won’t put pepper in your mashed potatoes, and she won’t cry on the night of your wedding because she had to do the father-daughter dance with a family friend. You’d love someone like that, wouldn’t you?
I wish to God I had bought that stupid apartment. It was perfect, and I let it go because of you. Because you wanted a front porch and I wanted a big bay window and you like laminate and I like hardwood and nothing was ever good enough for you. Because you were selfish and you couldn’t love me enough to hang around. So fucking selfish. I should’ve bought it. Fuck the Polish couple. Fuck Randi and her forehead. Fuck my dad. Fuck you
My dad says I deserved it.
I suppose I should tell you that I didn’t buy the apartment. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, but after all that happened, I just couldn’t see myself living there. I guess it was too empty without you. I’m going back for an interview at the Tribune next week, though, so things are good with me.
I heard you’re thinking about moving to Minneapolis. That’s so exciting! Make sure you find a great realtor like Randi (remember her, with the forehead?) who knows everything there is to know about laminate flooring. I’m sure that’ll be a dealbreaker for you.
I know it’s been a crazy year, but I’m doing okay, and I hope you are, too. This is good for both of us. We should grab lunch sometime soon to catch up. Anyway, I have some of your Christmas ornaments that I want to return before I forget about them.
Dad and Pammy say hello. And please do stop by—you’re welcome here anytime. Have a wonderful Christmas.
Grace Coberly grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Her work has appeared in COUNTERCLOCK, Border Crossing, and Iceview Magazine. An alum of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and the Adroit Mentorship Program, she was also the first-place winner of the LSSU High School Short Story Prize and a fiction finalist in the Young Authors Writing Competition at Columbia College, both in 2017. She is a freshman at Haverford College.
PEETY (WASHINGTON, DC, 1959)
by David Satten-López
It’s moonlit and muggy out as Peety Alfaro walks to work. Under the yellow streetlights, he pauses to wipe the condensation off his glasses. Once done, he affixes his large and thick lenses back onto his face and takes a deep breath. Exhaling, he tugs rapidly at his white tee to cool off. Then he nods hard and continues walking, shoulders back and head up.
A homeless man, slouched on a nearby park bench to his left, calls out to him in Spanish. Peety keeps steady and walks on by. In the bushes on either side of him, he can hear the scattering of rats. One scurries across the illuminated sidewalk in front of him. Peety maintains. As he makes his way down the numbers, he whistles “Take the A Train.”
From his puckered lips come the notes of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. For Peety, this is his tune too, but, more importantly, it is the tune of the Voice of America Jazz Hour. Before he left Perú, Peety would wake up at odd hours, clutching his radio, to listen to the Voice of America Jazz Hour with Willis Conover. The jazz waves and slow-spoken English filled the small one-bedroom home that he and his mother lived in. The low lights of dying embers in the corner and the fresh smell of dirt floors mixed with the smell of potato soup.
The radio building is long, with tall, column-shaped windows. It is here that Peety works as a janitor, and it is nights like these, Saturday nights, which are his favorite shifts. For it is on Saturday nights that Peety feels like he is finally a part of the music he so loves. For it is on Saturday nights that the jazz hour is recorded and Willis Conover is in the building.
Peety’s excitement is especially for tonight though, for this is a rare Saturday, in which Duke Ellington is here. No doubt, Ellington is already here—two extra guards and his black limousine are already outside the building.
Peety enters the grey and granite building, displaying his ID card, looking for more traces of Ellington. As he walks across the tiled floor, his boots squeak. He shows his ID once more and goes toward the locker room to put on his work clothes—blue jeans and a dark blue button-down. He affixes his nametag to his work shirt in the stuffy room and then heads to the storage closet for cleaning supplies and his radio.
From the far west side of the building, he can hear the low vibrations of “Take the A Train.” The show is just beginning. He flicks on his Sanyo transistor radio and dials it in. The accumulated vibrations bring an onrush of memories: simmering potato stew, dirt floors, kicked up dust, Peety’s mother by a crackling fire, and the sensation of radio waves close to his chest; then, the onrush slips into his first days in America.
He had been sitting upright on a mattress on the floor as he flicked on his radio to only fuzz. He watched his four other roommates, lying asleep on their mattresses, trying not to wake them. Peety stayed up all night listening to the fuzz, subtly shifting the dial. It wasn’t until four more nights of failed attempts that Peety learned: “by order of the Smith-Mundt Act of nineteen forty-eight, information produced by the Voice of America for audiences outside the United States shall not be disseminated within the United States.”
It is only now, close to the original transmitter, on Saturday nights, with his short wave radio, that Peety can catch the show.
Suited up and equipped, Peety hits the second floor. He begins by cleaning the bathrooms, then moves on to the staff break room, works on the offices and, lastly, cleans the recording studios. He always leaves the studio with the upright piano for last. This studio is small, with worn, carpet-like walls. Inside is a mixer, two standing microphones, and the piano.
Peety looks both ways down the hall and then opens the door to this studio. In a hurry, he brings his custodian cart into the room and eases the door to a soft close. He keeps the lights off and finds the piano bench in the dark. He sits down and lays his fingers lightly on the keys as he’s done countless times before. From a small column-shaped window in the door, the fluorescent hallway light seeps in. He breathes in, reverent, knowing the scarcity of this space. Peety breathes out and begins to play “All Blues” by Miles Davis.
His fingers play a soft tremolo that slowly builds into the image of his mother. It’s her large hands that he accentuates first—their cracked and dry palms, varicose veins, and the brown dirt under her nails. Next are her tan and muddied, calf-high work boots, then her long skirt that ends just at the boots and her long-sleeved white blouse. Finally, with grace notes, he outlines the small black derby hat she wore to work. The slow sonorous melody begins as the dust slowly churns, kicked up from the dirt floors around her. As Peety moves his hand to arpeggiate the chord, his mother begins rummaging swiftly, like a ghost, around a small bedroom. The bedroom has two twin-size beds in it covered in thin white sheets. The notes sound off in a flurry, and his mother begins to pile belongings into a small blue suitcase on the bed: clothes, a blanket, a bowl, and a radio. Incoming, a large smash of a chord from his left hand and a few right hand notes sound off until another ringing chord lands. Peety twists his face into a tight smile and rushes into the piano solo. The flurry of improvised notes seems before him and just out of reach, crashing along, causing a tender wreckage. Pulling his head back, the melody begins again. Calmer and out of breath, Peety brings the song back to its soft beginning.
Peety checks the time on his wristwatch and leaves the piano in a hurry, grabbing his cart. He takes the elevator to the third floor and begins the routine again: bathrooms, break room, offices, and studios. As he walks by the hallways on the third floor, heading toward the next office to clean, he turns the radio volume down, and then off. Through the old walls of the studio, he can hear the show leaking into the hallway. He stalls, brimming with nerves and pride, crouched over, sweeping the floor. He recognizes the familiar voice of Conover—clear, deep, slow, and warm. Peety patiently follows the voice to a studio door. His broom scratches the tile just outside the door. Closer now, he can even hear the laughter of another voice—Duke Ellington—on the other side. The jazz tune begins winding down, hitting home one last time before it finally runs to the end of the vinyl grooves. The voices quiet down, and Conover speaks into the microphone, closing out the show. Ellington says, “Good night,” and the show ends with the theme song, “Take the A Train,” once more.
Peety looks at the door, then at his watch, before finally returning his focus to his job. He turns around, heading to the next office.
Once Peety is done cleaning, he returns to that upright piano. Same as before, the soft tremolo of “All Blues” begins again—this time a little more forcefully. The image of his mother comes out from the piano. This time the lines on her face are deeper, her skirt is frayed, and her sleeves are rolled up. The melody kicks in, and the smell of the dirt and dust return to him in another rush. He plays double notes this time before moving into an arpeggio, and his mother coughs twice into a handkerchief before packing his bag. Now comes the chord, softer this time, and Peety begins improvising the solo. This time it’s slow and muted—it’s the wind chimes out in front of his old house, or the distant bell of the schoolhouse getting out, or the light from an open window illuminating the shifting dust. The melody kicks back in one last time, and Peety keeps it steady.
Chk, chk, the doorknob rattles. Then the door swings open. “Hey you, what are you doing in here? You guys should’ve been done in here a while ago.” A man is outlined in the doorway, leaving his front in shadow. The man wears glasses, a khaki button-down, and a badge.
Peety doesn’t speak. His mouth opens, but only the sound of parting lips comes.
The guard squints briefly. “Peety! Man, Goddammit. I’ve told you already. You hear?”
Peety’s eyes are wide, his fingers heavy on the white keys, his foot still pressing the pedal.
The guard exhales heavily. “Oh, forget it, I’m closing up. You best get a move on, and I’m serious this time, okay, don’t let me catch you in here again.” He turns around, leaving the light off, his shoes smacking down the hall. The door shuts loudly behind him.
Peety gets up, pushing the bench behind him in a squeak. He flicks on the light, grabs his cart, and opens the door onto the hallway, heading back to the storage closet and locker rooms.
Outside, it’s raining lightly. A ways away, under the yellow streetlights, under an umbrella, walking away from him, Peety sees two men. One is a white man in a crisp suit, loafers, and slicked back hair, opening the door to a black limousine. Stepping into the limousine is a black man in a light-colored suit, derby shoes, and a wide-brimmed hat. The white man follows him in, laughing a faint but familiar laugh. He closes the door behind him, and the two men become lost behind the tinted glass. The limousine rolls away from the curb, fading out of sight. Peety heads in the same direction, on his way home.
David Satten-López is a student of New Historicism and Gorgias; he likes cooking and taking walks on the beach. He hates Enlightenment humanism; he loves cats. His favorite writers are Baldwin, Cervantes, Carver, and Cisneros; Césaire, Wynter, Hartman, and Moten; M. NourbeSe Philip, Springsteen, Brandy, and Badu. A formative moment for his writing was listening to Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s “Triptych.” Follow him on Twitter @pocospeed.
Dritan wondered whether he made the right decision in telling them to go ahead, so sure that he would catch up. Had he been sure, though? He began to feel the numbness set in his hands, in his wrists, in his shoulders and back, though it wasn’t long before he felt his muscles begin to burn and cramp, giving him no choice but to stop kicking. His ears filled with the sounds of the others splashing onwards, though now the splashing came from all around him as the tides and waves pulled them apart.
They had begun the journey quietly, stealthily, and close together. But by the end of the first hour, their bodies felt ragged and heavy, and so they let their legs fall down where they may, just as long as they continued to propel them forward. Somewhere beyond the hidden horizon, beyond where their broken bodies existed, laid the invisible border between Albanian and Greek waters. All they had to do was keep pushing with the hope that kismet would string them along to safety. Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop; the thought echoed in each head. Somewhere beyond the tide and choppy waves was water they could lie on their backs in and gently drift to safety. Somewhere off the coast of Corfu they would be reborn.
At first Dritan could see his friends’ heads bobbing up and down in the water, but he soon lost sight of them. He heard splashing though he wondered after some time if it was still them that he was hearing, or if it was the waves mimicking the sound of camaraderie, mocking him.
He blamed himself for letting them get so far ahead. That’s alright, he thought. I’ll catch up in no time. He looked around and suddenly realized how small he felt—how small he was—in the vast blackness between sea and night sky. No one knew he was there; no one but the three far ahead of him, spread to all sides of the compass. And they must think he was still close behind, not one having the energy to stop and look back to find him missing.
He closed his eyes. Only for a minute. He couldn’t feel his arms anymore. He licked his lips. Salt. So much salt. His tongue tingled and went numb, rejecting the tired taste of it. He thought about how much food his mother could make with all the salt the sea had to offer. He thought about how, in small doses, it turned dull food into something satiable, but in large doses—as large as the sea was wide—it dried your body from the inside-out and you would eventually begin to wither; to break apart and deconstruct in the water. He licked his lips again and realized for the first time how hungry he was.
The pain dulled and came back in waves, sharper than the previous jolts. In waves—ha! As if the Ionian itself was jabbing his sides to test his strength. He gave way to the pain, letting it move from his ribs, to his abdomen, to his chest. Maybe if he kept his eyes closed and stayed still a moment, it would pass. He just needed a quick rest.
As he often did at times that produced moments of either extreme pleasure or extreme pain, Dritan thought of his late brother Jusuf. As Dritan’s chin and nose dipped beneath the surface, he thought of their childhood games at the beach, of pretend drownings and rescues with Jusuf’s arms clamped around Dritan’s body flailing underwater. Their father had taught them early to love the water instead of fear it.
With his head sinking farther into the water and his mind lazily sliding backwards, Dritan remembered his favorite story, the one of his birth, a story his mother shared frequently when he was a child.
“You’re the best swimmer because you came from the water,” she’d say. Dritan had heard the story so many times he half-believed he remembered the experience itself, in utero. Of how his mother had chased after Jusuf and of how she’d danced her way across the hot beach pebbles to get to the shore, her feet bursting with the subtle lingering sizzles of the afternoon sun.
She was massively pregnant with Dritan and claimed he knew whenever they were in the water because he’d kick every time a wave wrapped itself longingly around her legs. Her contractions began while she was wading into the fizzing sea; she’d later tell him it was as if the sea sensed and longed for him as much as he himself sensed and longed for the sea.
So even at his most critical moment, when fear would perhaps have been the most appropriate and undeniable emotion, Dritan forced his legs to move beneath him until the tops of his nostrils stung with the urgent inhalation of bitingly cold air. His eyelashes dripped cold saltwater as if it was flowing from inside of him, as if he was born from it. Remembering that he indeed had been, he kicked harder with whatever energy he could drag out from deep inside, beneath the aching in his chest.
They undressed in the dark—quietly, shyly at first, and then methodically. The sea that beckoned them in the daylight sat wide before them now in the midnight light, as black as the universe. Each of the four friends avoided staring at it for too long, for fear of quickly throwing their clothes back on and making the long, lonely trip back home.
Dritan shivered as his sweater came off and then his undershirt.
“Goddamn, it’s cold,” muttered Erdi.
“Not if you think about how hot these rocks are in the summer,” said Luisa.
“Almost as hot as the iron when your finger is practically touching it,” added Dhurata. “I burned my finger that way once as a kid.”
“Or how hot your skin feels when you’re sunburned and you start to peel,” said Dritan with a smirk.
One by one, they threw in tokens of memories to build a small fire until Luisa finally pulled out the jar of grease she had been slowly collecting and saving from the mechanic’s shop where her uncle worked. Never done deliberately, her uncle would dole out random facts his niece would later apply to some relevant life event. It was from him that Luisa had learned how grease helped the skin maintain its elasticity, preventing it from shriveling after too much time in the saltwater.
“Someone help me with my shoulders,” she whispered. They lathered their bodies until they glistened. In the distance, they looked like a delicate dance of ghosts—arms reaching high, hands gliding over each other until four shadows came together to make one indistinguishable shape against the clear autumn night, and then broke apart again.
“Your turn, Dritan.” Luisa handed him the jar. “We saved the most for you since you don’t have an inner tube.” They had each taken apart their bikes and sliced open the tires to pull out the inner tubes to use as flotation devices. Dritan was the only one who’d decided at the last minute not to break the bike apart so that his mother could instead use it for errands and chores. At his core, though, he knew it’d had nothing to do with his mother. He couldn’t pull apart the bike that had belonged to his father. He grabbed the jar from Luisa and started blackening his arms and shoulders with grease.
“That’s okay. This will do just fine.” He flashed his teeth, which were barely noticeable in the dead of night. “I’m a faster swimmer than all of you anyway. All I have to do is keep moving.”
After each body had been greased, three of the four friends pulled out their inner tubes and pulled them over their heads. Luisa took out a ball of yarn from her bag and started weaving it around her shoulders, looping it over and around the inner tube until she had created a tight web of knots to keep the tube in place around her body. She chewed at the yarn until she felt a tear, yanked it loose, and threw the ball over to Erdi.
They each took their turn with the yarn, circling it around their bodies like an orbiting planet losing its course and spinning into oblivion, until suddenly, as fast as it had appeared from Luisa’s bag, it vanished. After much silent, synchronized movement, they stilled. Their eyes moved away from each other towards the gaping uncertainty that stretched before them.
As if on cue, their hands searched each other’s out and, once found, clasped them tightly. Wading into the water, their breath moved up from their bellies to their chests, lodging in their throats. The only sound they could make were hisses as they slowly exhaled and let the cold water swallow their youthful, unscarred bodies. And out into the Ionian they went, fading like flickering candle flames.
When Dritan showed up, they were still waiting for Agim. Agim was the last member of the group they waited on, but since they had all arrived early, they waited. In the distance a dog howled and howled until it finally forfeited to hunger and collapsed—a pile of tired old bones. They stood around quietly in the building’s shadow. The only sounds to echo were a throat being cleared or a quick kick of a stone pat pat patting down the road. If they caught each other’s eyes, they flashed a quick smile, and although each pair glowed mischievously in the darkness, anticipating the greatest adventure any of them would be sure to go on, the smiles would stop short just before reaching their eyes. Dritan grew uneasy after thirty minutes had passed and Agim had still not shown up. The sun would be rising before long and the first bus heading south would soon arrive.
“Where is that bastard? We can’t wait around forever,” said Luisa.
“What do we do?” Dhurata asked with an exasperated sigh.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” said Erdi. He was a brusque man who tried to control his language and mannerisms in front of the women in his life. This moment, however, slipped by without acknowledgment from his friends.
“No, wait.” Dritan felt on edge and was ready to move, but he couldn’t imagine leaving a member of their group behind. “Just ten more minutes. Something could be holding him up.”
“Do you know what would happen if the wrong person caught us just standing here right now?” Dhurata hissed.
“Just ten more minutes. If he’s not here by then, we can leave.”
“We’ve planned this for too long to have him ruin everything and land our heads on Enver’s dinner plate,” Erdi said through gritted teeth. Each enunciated syllable felt like a precise measurement. In the quiet of private homes, behind drawn curtains, vulgar jokes were often whispered by adults about how the great dictator, Enver Hoxha, fed off his citizens’ flesh, blood, and spirits.
It wasn’t the image Dritan would see of Enver in newspapers or on posters. Xhaxhi Enver, or Uncle Enver, as the propagandists often referred to him, was illustrated as a serene and happy family man, always eager to be around his people—his subjects. As Dritan grew older, he learned, as many others did while at home and after dark, that Enver Hoxha was a wolf in sheep’s clothes and the entirety of Albania was a flock of sheep that had gone astray.
Dritan thought of his mother’s muted anger at the loss of her husband all those years ago. She was the first person he’d heard utter those words, Enver eats the flesh of his people, and it was the first time everything outside his home suddenly felt like a lie.
“We’ll be fine,” Dritan managed to say. The brisk winds picked up and made the group huddle closer together. Deep inside the circle, they unburdened their minds and relieved themselves of any thoughts that might anchor them down once out in the water. The fear of being stopped; the fear of freezing; the fear of drowning; the fear of being intercepted and returned. They all agreed that death by sea would be a far more desirable way to go. Dritan noticed that the one fear no one had the strength to vocalize was the fear that Agim had betrayed them.
He walked through the front door to the smell of fasule cooking, a rich cannellini bean soup topped with a drizzle of olive oil. It was a favorite dish of Dritan’s. He instinctively made his way towards the kitchen at the first smell of the soup, but his mind suddenly went on high alert: did his mother suspect his plans? Did she have any idea that he would be leaving?
“Bir i mamit, is that you?”
“I’m home,” Dritan responded.
“Are you ready to eat? Or we can wait.”
“No, I’m hungry. Let’s eat now.”
The everyday normalcy in her tone set his mind at ease, though his heart thumped against his chest when he sat down at the table and found it set for a feast. Two bowls filled to the brim with fasule, two small porcelain bowls with olives, an onion sliced in half, and thick slices of his mother’s bread sat in the middle of the table. Outside, the clouds rolled in from the mountains, threatening rain. This was, in Dritan’s opinion, the perfect autumn meal.
He chewed slowly while his mind reeled with the realization that this would be the last meal he would share with his mother at this table. He watched her—studied her mannerisms and the way she hummed under her breath between bites. She seemed happy. Or at the very least, content. Dritan’s chest tightened at the thought of her sadness expanding outwards from her insides until it filled every room in the house.
“You’re quiet today,” she said, blowing on her spoon to cool off the steaming broth. “What are you thinking about?”
“Oh, nothing.” He took bites of his mother’s bread and filled his mouth with a memory already caught in the past. “Nothing worth worrying about.”
Dritan heard her bedroom door close not long after he had already gone to bed and heard her open and close drawers, followed by the door to her heavy wooden armoire squeaking open and then closed—with a dull thud, as it did every night. The armoire had been a wedding gift to his parents, handed down from his father’s grandparents. He knew it was meant for Jusuf when he married, but now it would be his. If only he’d stay.
If only he’d survive.
Soon there was silence on both sides of the wall. He felt a different kind of uncertainty than the night he’d doused his spirit in blood and avenged Jusuf’s death. It was the night that slipped into his consciousness each day; the night that paved the road to his self-exile. That night he’d been drunk with fear and doubt; tonight he was high on excitement and anticipation. The damning naiveté of youth was never before so present, nor so disregarded.
He debated leaving a note for his mother, but quickly decided against it. She had asked him earlier that evening if he was going out that night to meet friends and he had said no, offering instead, to stay in with her. She had seemed pleased, if not a little confused as to his sudden desire to spend an uneventful evening at home with her.
The night felt long and Dritan managed to find sleep before waking up for the last time in his bed. The house was shrouded in silence and the creaking of the mattress felt amplified to his ears as he shifted and got up to get dressed. He rubbed his eyes and ran his hands over his head, hard, to shake out the last bit of sleep from his mind and each individual strand of hair.
He looked at his bed before walking out—he had always been a messy sleeper, tossing and turning until his sheets and blankets had knotted up and were hanging over the sides, like tendrils escaped from a dream world. He walked over to his bed and pulled the sheets back; he shook them out and threw them over his bed, tucking the corners in tightly, followed by the blanket. He smoothed out any remaining lumps and wrinkles and finally made his way to the door. Taking a quick look back, Dritan thought how it looked like he had never slept there that night. And then he walked out.
The house felt larger at night when the darkness made the hallway seem endless and doorways disappeared into blind mystery. He stopped at his mother’s door for a brief moment and pressed his ear against it. There was, of course, nothing. She was fast asleep on the other side and, though his body felt ablaze from his toes to the crown of his head, he slowly turned the knob and pushed the door open a sliver. She had left the curtains open, which he thought unusual, and some moonlight managed to stream in crookedly.
Dritan saw her dark shape in bed, peacefully unaware, and suddenly he felt glad. His lips curved up into a quick smile before pulling the door back gently into place. He shuffled his feet, feeling his way down the hall and through the living room. The eyes of his relatives in the photographs hanging on the walls followed him until he reached the front door and walked out, closing the door behind him without so much as turning his head. Had he done so, he would’ve seen the note his mother had written and stuck on the door.
Bir i mamit—my dear son—be careful.
Nikoletta Gjoni emigrated from Albania in 1990 at the age of three and was raised in the suburbs of Washington D.C. She studied English Literature at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). As an undergraduate, she was one of 33 students selected to undertake university-funded research in Albania, where she focused on the censorship of news and literature under the Communist regime of the 1950s-1980s. After graduating, Gjoni worked in broadcast news for several years before leaving to focus on her writing and to pursue work in the nonprofit sector. She has recently completed a debut collection of linked short stories about people living in Communist Albania, spanning the 1970s through to the present day. Towards Avalon is her first published story and has been nominated for a PEN/Robert J. Dau prize.
Text from King, Stephen. Salem’s Lot. New York: Random House, 1975. Print. pages: 65-91
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens lives in Midwest and is the author of three full length poetry collections: Your Best Asset is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016), The Messenger is Already Dead (Stalking Horse Press, March 2017), and We’re Going to Need a Higher Fence, tied for first place in the 2017 Lit Fest Book Competition. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook She Came Out From Under the Bed (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro) was published Dancing Girl Press. Recent work can be seen at Prelude, Kestrel, Yalobusha Review, decomp, and Inter/rupture. More at her website.
In the ground, the real ……………………………….never of a boy
How a couple recovers ……………………………….I do not know
Agony of mother, father
Two weeks from his due
How do you explain ……………………………….to two young daughters
Curly hair of the family ……………………………….beaming the arrival
A little brother, theirs—
Now mourners with ……………………………….offerings at a small stone ……………………………….in the grass with a name
The first anniversary
Canopy of hand-sized ……………………………….leaves lending the light ……………………………….its gates to a shimmer
To a sting of tears fought ……………………………….off with balloons for the ……………………………….sky
And with the kicks ……………………………….she now feels within
Paul Siegell is the author of the forthcoming Take Out Delivery (Spuyten Duyvil, 2018), as well as wild life rifle fire, jambandbootleg and Poemergency Room. He is a senior editor at Painted Bride Quarterly and has contributed to American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Rattle, and many other fine journals. His poetry appeared previous in Cleaver’s Issue 13. Kindly find more of his work—and concrete poetry t-shirts—at [email protected] eYeLeVeL, his website, and @paulsiegell.
………………We gave ourselves matching haircuts ………but only temple rye cures. Temper ………your dog but only scaremongering
ignites crows. Shared the phobia collar ………but only in shifts. See but only gavels. ………An iris’ pillory but only a shaker of gifts.
But only our handsome freckles
divvied among avenue skin.
Truth is but only. ………We took the subway ………but only to watch. It is Monday but only in a rainforest
of scalpels. Only but a slight nick. We climb our desks ………but only to grab bananas and hide.
Matthew Schmidt is working on a PhD in English at the University of Southern Mississippi. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in 3:AM, CALAMITY, Hobart, Territory, and elsewhere. He is an associate poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.
On the Mason jar, she pasted a product label so as not to create any bubbles beneath it. The jar was made of extra-thick brown glass that distorted vision like coke-bottom spectacles. The label thus enabled the public to quickly pick the one they wanted. She was proud of her job. She put the jar back on the conveyor belt.
Nine other women, each in a white plastic coverall with a hood, stood alternately on both sides of the line, labeling. A procession of jars came rolling down the belt at random under a row of incandescent lamps hanging low from the ceiling.
She was in charge of audacious jars. She hesitated on her first day.
“How can I tell which one is audacious?”
“You just have to look at them,” the Chief said.
So she kept an eye on jars that had an air of audaciousness—the jars that aroused a sense of intimidation in her gut—and labeled those. No one raised objections or complaints about her work, which gave her great confidence. The women before and after her were responsible for jars that were optimistic and persistent, respectively.
Each Mason jar barely fit in her hand and its weight put a burden on her wrist. Through the thick dark-colored glass the substance looked like either boysenberry jam or a lump of dead bugs. She never knew or cared what it was filled with. Her allegiance had given her a Crown status among followers of the President. She was employed for his priority project and that was enough for her.
She held up the next jar and saw something unusual about it. Under the metal lid embossed with the emblem of a baby hawk, a crack was running straight down to the bottom like a white hair. The gap was very thin but gave a glimpse of the material within. An iridescent fluid was swirling around, shining like a glitter ball at a party packed with people. She could have cracked open the jar to probe inside. Alternatively, she could have smashed it on the floor, exposing the contents, mixed with a thousand shards of glass. The Chief would have rushed in, blowing his silver whistle, and a slight commotion would have ensued, but she was not a timid person. Nonetheless, she pulled out one of the labels from the stack at hand. The large square label was framed by a double black line with a slogan “We Are the No. 1 Brand!” above the category name at the center. She covered the surface with the label so that the fissure was forgotten. She placed the audacious jar back on the rubber belt that kept clattering on rollers. Each Mason jar perfectly fit into one of the classifications assigned to the factory workers and none was left behind without being properly labeled.
Yuki Yoshiura currently lives, translates, and writes in Tokyo. She grew up in Japan, attended an American Studies MA in New York City, and tends to wander around the world, real and imaginary. This is her first published fiction.
“But Martin was born in Lancashire,” I said to the man seated across from me the afternoon of the arrest.
The man, whose black hair was slicked neatly back, offered me a cigarette.
I declined. “Martin’s not German, much less a German spy.”
The man placed a cigarette between his lips and lit it with the flick of a silver lighter. He inhaled deeply and then exhaled, the smoke blue-grey in the dimly-lit room.
“Mrs. Ridley,” he said. “We have ample evidence of your husband’s activities in support of the Third Reich.”
“Madam, I assure you, everything is in order.”
“Martin teaches Medieval Literature at Oxford. He spends his time grading papers, not spying.”
The man tapped his cigarette over the black ashtray at the center of the table. Ash dropped soundlessly.
“Has Martin ever been to Germany?”
I blinked. “Of course. Before the war. For research.”
“And he speaks German?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Then how does he conduct his research?”
“He reads. He can read all the variants of Medieval German. But that’s not the same thing as being able to speak modern German. It doesn’t make him a spy. It makes him a scholar.”
The man exhaled smoke. It drifted lazily up toward the ceiling, captured by the pale light of the single bare bulb that illuminated the room.
“Sir, if I could speak with your superior, we could clear this matter up quite quickly.”
He ignored me. “How long have you been married?”
“Three years in March.”
“How long did you know each other before you were married?”
“That’s not long.”
The man leaned forward. “I’m not here to make you feel uncomfortable, Mrs. Ridley. Quite the opposite. It is often difficult for the spouses to accept reality.”
“The reality that they have been living their lives as normal, and all the while the person buttering their toast on the other side of the kitchen table is working for Hitler.”
“Martin doesn’t work for Hitler.”
“A common response.” The man tapped his ash again.
“Perhaps your superior—”
“I am the superior in this case, Mrs. Ridley.”
“Well, then, perhaps I could have your name.”
“You may call me Mr. Brown.”
“Mr. Brown, there has been some horrible mistake—”
“When was the last time your husband visited Germany?”
“I told you, before the war.”
“1938, I think.”
“During the school holidays,” I said. “July or August.”
“And you didn’t travel with him?”
“No. It was a research trip. He planned to be in libraries the entire time. I would have been bored.”
“Did he say you would be bored, or did you decide you would be bored?”
“I don’t recall. And I resent the implication—”
“What was he working on?”
“He specializes in lyric poetry. There was a poem about Saint George he was hoping to re-translate.”
“Das Georgslied. Or the Song of Saint George. Written in Old High German. 1000 A.D.”
“Yes, that sounds right.”
“Saint George. Patron saint of England.”
Mr. Brown crushed his cigarette in the ashtray. The filter collapsed like an accordion. “Do you know what a book cipher is, Mrs. Ridley?”
“No, I can’t say that I do.”
Mr. Brown’s thin lips twitched upward in what I imagined passed for a smile in his world. “A book cipher,” he said, “is a way of sending coded messages using a preexisting text as the code-book.” The lips twitched again. “And your husband’s German handler seems to have a sense of humor. Or at least a sense of irony.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Song of Saint George. Meant as a poke in the eye to Churchill, I’d imagine.”
“It’s just a poem.”
“Not in your husband’s hands.” Mr. Brown opened the blue folder beside him. “Twelve coded messages. All sent from the postbox outside the Knight’s Inn pub in Oxford. All in your husband’s handwriting.”
He passed me a sheet of paper. The writing was unmistakably Martin’s—the curl at the end of the f, the little tail on the t. But the writing was incomprehensible. Letters, but also numbers.
“Nonsense, right?” Mr. Brown said.
I nodded, still staring at the mess of letters and numbers. Martin’s mess of letters and numbers.
“It’s nonsense,” Mr. Brown said, “until you use the Song of Saint George to decipher the code. Then it tells you how many bombers flew east from RAF Abingdon on each evening last week, and how many came back.”
My chest tightened.
“How close do you live to Abingdon?”
“We live just down the road. On Boar’s Hill. Martin…”
“Martin…walks the dog to Abingdon every evening. He says he likes to watch the planes…”
Mr. Brown picked up the sheet of paper and slid it back into the folder. “He does like to watch the planes, Mrs. Ridley. Quite a lot.”
Kate Spitzmiller writes historical fiction from a woman’s perspective. She is a flash fiction award-winner, with two pieces published in the anthology Approaching Footsteps. Her flash piece “Brigida” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her debut novel, Companion of the Ash, is set for release in 2018 by Spider Road Press. She lives in Massachusetts where she tutors junior-level hockey players as her day job. You can visit her blog at www.katespitzmiller.com.
Sunlight sealed behind
cirrus behemoths, I am
deep in left field. Suited
up in stripes, I wait for
something to come my
way. One cloud becomes
a prickly pear. I’m grateful
for my hat. Leafless trees
are as cold and unforgiving
as bagged sandwiches. In
the Galapagos and Manhattan
there can’t be enough space
for this kind of game. I pray
for hail, any early victory.
I’ve seen clowns from
both sides now. I’ve gone
far too long for a touch up.
Make up! There is snow
down south and my roots
are showing. Lipstick marks
on the teeth are a sign of a nervous breakdown, they
tell the young girls about
divorcees, in pantomime
and mummed tones. Screw
ball purification at once!
Lay it on thick. Busk them
blooming muses hither and
yon. Be a dear and pour
me a drink. Grace comes
in the morning; remarries in
Connecticut. What a hoot.
Maura Way is the author of Another Bungalow (Press 53).Her poems have also appeared in numerous journals and magazines including The Chattahoochee Review, DIAGRAM, Verse, Drunken Boat, Beloit Poetry Journal, and The Potomac. Originally from Washington, D.C, Maura is a schoolteacher in Greensboro, North Carolina. You can also find her at mauraway.com and @anotherbungalow.
I don’t know what was wrong with the person who did this, but I met my wife when this was a drugstore, years before the chaos you see here. Harney’s
Nissan, going a hundred, slammed
a Mazda; pieces of cars
flew into the windows of Town
Hardware, slid and banged three
other cars. Crows are the village
bird, but Tyler Harney flew. Inside
the Mazda, a local track coach broke
his spine, his pelvis, his brain
leaked. He’ll never run again,
like Secretariat, whose laminitis,
tissues that bond the hoof wall
to the coffin bone, sank it into
the bottom bone, the pedal.
When he ran the Belmont,
George Plimpton said the co-eds,
lining the finish, cried. His heart
twice the size of normal, huge
on the autopsy table. Thirty-one
lengths ahead, the horse was more than life allows. In mitigation
for tanks, Panzers, still embedded
in Normandy’s forests, the problem
of evil, a Luna moth settles
at the top of my walking stick,
at the cabin door, tiny pomegranate
eyes its regalia, big as a hand,
the green of a moon not yet seen.
Tina Barr’s third full-length book, Green Target, won the 2017 Barrow Street Press Book Prize, judged by Patricia Spears Jones, and is forthcoming in Fall, 2018. Her poem “Green” appeared in Cleaver’s Issue 18; “Pot of Gold” appeared in Issue 13.
Like fresh snow covering over a messy urban landscape, there’s a kind of concealing but also unifying quality to the fourteen central images of Emily Steinberg’s “Berlin Story.” Following a four-panel introduction, in which our narrator introduces herself as having grown up an anxious, fearful depressive, lost in the grip of, among other things, the “images of death, murder and gratuitous Nazi sadism” shown to her in Hebrew school, we are presented with still portrayals of an uninhabited, idyllic setting.
Each drawing, contained in an unframed rectangle, presents its viewers with a narrowed angle, or point of view, proximate to or regarding the famous Wannsee Villa, a mansion located in the suburbs of Berlin. The drawings are in black and white, cramped with details composed from demarcated lines, some of them even slightly wobbly marks. From four cherubs adorning the villa’s rooftops to two tree trunks gracefully tilting somewhere in the vicinity of the house grounds, we glimpse this locale as either a deliberately or unintentionally naive visitor might; this is a structure embodying decadence and wealth, good taste and fine craftsmanship. Here is a sculpture to admire, swaddled in a bouquet of well-groomed foliage. Here is a fine urn, hefty, ornamented, inviting contemplation. We walk its grounds, invited to by our guide. We revel in its beauty.
Still, none of this history seems teachable, transmittable. Steinberg’s sequence reveals how, despite all efforts to the contrary, despite all inclinations to conceal, the horror nonetheless lives on.
The handwritten dispatches, scrawled sometimes beneath and sometimes beside these postcard pictures, interrupt our reverie. “On Tuesday, 20 January 1942 at noon, Reinhard Heydrich, S.S., unveiled the extermination policy for Europe’s Jewish population, euphemistically known as the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, to leaders of the Nazi Party, over a pleasant lunch.”
What’s startling is that with these words, the images don’t suddenly transform; no visible traces of that exchange, or its consequences, are apparent in the pictures here, even in the intimate and exhaustively rendered tiny lines, the single- and cross-hatches of our once-depressive guide, who has “never completely” let go of those horrifying images presented to her in her youth, part of her Jewish heritage. The words tell us not only, or simply, of the terribleness, but instead fill us in on details presumably meant to help us picture what is, in fact, impossible to conjure up. Thirteen men, officials, ranging from thirty-two to fifty-two years old, gathered for a ninety-minute meeting dedicated, in part, to discussing the eradication of Jews. A thirty-six year-old Adolph Eichmann was charged with taking minutes. “There is no record of what was served for lunch that day,” another narrative accompaniment tells us. “The waiters served cognac, butlers and adjutants gave out liquor.” Ultimately, neither images nor words, here or elsewhere, can fully convey to us what took place, can help us imagine what is unimaginable.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the conference, the Wannsee Villa was finally made into an educational and memorial site. Another quarter of a century has now passed. Still, none of this history seems teachable, transmittable. Steinberg’s sequence reveals how, despite all efforts to the contrary, despite all inclinations to conceal, the horror nonetheless lives on.
—Tahneer Oksman, December 2017
Emily Steinberg, a painter and graphic novelist, has shown her work widely in New York and Philadelphia. Most recently, images from her visual narrative Broken Eggs were featured in an exhibit titled Sick! Kranksein Im Comic: Reclaiming Illness Through Comics at the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité in Berlin, Germany. She is also a founding member of Fieldwork International, an improvisational diaristic collaboration between herself, Damon Herd and Sarah Lightman. Her graphic novel memoir, Graphic Therapy, was published serially in Smith Magazine. Her short comic, Blogging Towards Oblivion, was included in The Moment (Harper/Collins.) Her visual narratives A Mid Summer Soirée,Broken Eggs, and The Modernist Cabin appear in previous issues of Cleaver. She currently teaches painting, drawing, graphic novel, and the History of Comics at Penn State Abington. She earned her M.F.A. and B.F.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and lives just outside Philadelphia.
Tahneer Oksman is a writer, teacher, and scholar based in Brooklyn, NY. Her criticism on women, visual culture, and memoir, as well as some personal essays, have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Comics Journal, the Forward, Public Books, The Guardian, and Lilith. An Assistant Professor of Academic Writing at Marymount Manhattan College, her first scholarly monograph is “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs (Columbia University Press, 2016). She is currently working on a book exploring memoirs of absence, loss, and grief. (Author portrait by Liana Finck.)
On the eve …..of never forgetting…..I still
want to run away…..from you together….. or
not run….. but bite or register….. bionic judgment
always there….. to be crushed by….. unblinking
jacked….. and futuristic….. Some trees are easier
to climb than others….. Ailanthus for example
with a ladder leaned up against it….. or a poplar
that’s been used to make a staircase….. From up
here….. the subjective experience….. is but a fading
metonymy….. and now….. to me at least it’s gone
Under entropy….. even better entropy….. impatient
for flow charts….. with a wicked jaw….. already
I am not….. permitted to believe….. my own ideas
but nod….. a little….. as I say them….. so others
concur….. and say it back….. tainted with the real
The real lyrics….. are always somewhere….. under
the words….. the way the night gets….. out of the past
or pushed around….. by the mere concept….. of
morning….. And the scary thoughts….. you flee from
you mostly flee…..as A kind of professional courtesy
towards oblivion….. and reciprocity for….. old
sayings like….. you have to send a letter….. to get one
especially….. if you send the letter….. to yourself
PROTOCOL AND DEVIANCE
Uncontrolled weeping….. is awesome and….. I am
ready….. for that song….. through the wall
that means….. the neighbors….. are having sex
Syllogisms are reassuring….. just as drinking
buddies….. later become peeing buddies
The world is too much….. in our face….. but
our face is turned from it….. We are the Scorsese
of inwardly-directed charm….. An hourlong supercut
of lecherous sea lions….. failing to deal the seal
is always available….. to get self-esteem ahead
in the kissing booth….. with the missing tooth
and cranberry muffintop ….. of our misdeeds
Ambient fingernail soundtrack….. for a sprint
past….. the Brideshead Revisited….. of our
not my problems….. and a sequel….. on mute
we can….. totally fail.…. to stretch to after
I’m told….. time has neighborhoods….. just like cities
or classic rock albums….. and they are euphemisms
for toxic byproducts….. of this way of life….. that
we can’t eradicate….. for our way….. is actually
the byproduct of the poison….. yet we sleep well
in a neighborhood past bad….. where every night
another dolphin’s….. trapped in my dreamcatcher
I have only….. this one….. floral technique with
which….. to enter tomorrow….. and love you anew
despite the updates ….. I break myself….. An alarm
mistakenly set….. for Saturday….. Perversion of
imperfect worship….. as the result….. of being
nuts….. rather than its cause….. Though origins
come first….. they’re all out when we step in
Brendan Lorber is a writer and editor. His first book If this is paradise why are we still driving? (Subpress) was released in Fall 2017. He’s the author of several chapbooks, most recently Unfixed Elegy and Other Poems (Butterlamb). Since 1995 he has published and edited Lungfull! Magazine, an annual anthology of contemporary literature that prints the rough drafts of contributors’ work in addition to the final versions in order to reveal the creative process. He lives atop the tallest hill in Brooklyn, New York, in a little castle across the street from a five-hundred-acre necropolis.
Adonis was a painting. Or rather, he was a boy, but his limbs and lips looked as though they were made of artistry and creamy filaments of paint. It is no wonder, then, that Venus loved him. She kept him pillowed in her lap, far from the wars and deaths of heroes, and whispered him stories, her warm breath traveling across his lips. On days she was forced to leave him, Adonis made love to the forest instead, exploring it slowly, deliberately. On one of these days of absences and longing, a wild boar came across Adonis and gutted the canvas of his torso from stomach to collarbone. When Venus returned and found his broken body, she discovered the shape of heartbreak. Distraught, she made the spray of his blood bubble into hard teardrop seeds. And so, nourished by the blood of the most beautiful man to have ever been loved, the pomegranate blossomed into existence.
Knifing through flesh with crimson juice flecking your wrist, drowning the poor thing in a bucket of water, or beating the side of the fruit like you’re knocking on your ex-girlfriend’s door—these are the recommended methods of peeling a pomegranate.
Once you see their skin cracking and splitting, seeds like blood vessels pouring onto the table, bursting under the hard crescent of nail, the red dripping slowly in a glorious massacre, you’ll understand why the French decided to name a weapon of war after them. Grenade.
In a sea of sparkling white, newlywed Armenian brides hurl the crimson fruit at their feet, each bouncing seed that bursts forth representing the promise of a bouncing baby to come.
The right way to peel a pomegranate? Pull apart the top gently, like you’re parting a curtain. This is the polite way to ask the most of it.
My roommate, Faustine, lacks the patience for the mess of pomegranates— for the way I litter our kitchen with bits of white flesh and errant drops of juice. Rogue seeds I have neglected to pick up have permanently stained our kitchen tile.
There is none of this mess if you buy just the seeds, neatly packaged and peeled, at Trader Joe’s for an alarming price. These seeds taste like flavored water.
In 1764, barrels stuffed with pomegranates were sent to famed Philadelphia botanist John Bartram who had had no success in growing them in the North where the sun was less friendly. I am sure that these pomegranates also tasted like flavored water, perhaps with some added notes of cedar and old wine.
According to American Garden, Thomas Jefferson had great success in planting pomegranates at Monticello. This is of course a lie. It is unlikely that Thomas Jefferson ever tucked a sapling into the soil. Rather, his grove was built off of the bodies of his slaves—a new kind of blood once again nourishing the pomegranate tree.
Although pomegranates bleed easily, their flesh does not often bruise. Instead, it is difficult to discern how damaged a particular pomegranate is until you find clusters of lavender sludge rotting inside.
Faustine can metabolize poems into tears. She cries frequently, openly, honestly. She has only seen me cry three times, always as a sleep-deprived river of tears. Thankfully, she can read my emotions without a map of salt water etched onto my face. Once, as I was mid-panic attack, she pulled a chair up next to me and began methodically peeling a pomegranate, talking to me and plinking seed after seed into a metal bowl until I could breathe again. She cleaned up the mess and I ate seeds until my tongue burned with sugar.
The first time I tasted a pomegranate, it was on the cracked concrete steps of my high school. The fruit was a gift from some girl named Elizabeth in my French class. We sat together on the steps with the pomegranate broken between us, slowly fishing out seeds from the white rind. By the time the pomegranate was done, our fingers were a sticky magenta color and we were best friends.
It tasted like my darkest shade of lipstick, a promise.
There was a summer I spent in India where I had nothing to eat for weeks on end but tomato curry. On weekend trips to the market, I soothed my irate stomach with vanilla ice cream and fruit—mangoes oozing juice and split beaded pomegranates. These pomegranates tasted like rain and a red chair on a blue tiled porch.
Is it any wonder that Persephone gave half her life to Death for a small mouthful?
When I got home that first day and peeled off my fishnet tights, the parts of my legs that the juice had painted looked like they had grown pink-tinged scales. I felt part mermaid.
It is impossible to preserve the color of stained fingers and legs in cloth, because if you use the pomegranate to dye wool or silk, the fabric will turn a deep mustard color.
Hera, neglected by her husband, scorned by the people of Greece, and ridiculed for her extreme jealousy, clutched pomegranates to her like lifelines. In some statues, she (maddened? empowered? obsessed with the fruit?) goes so far as to wear the top of the pomegranate, the calyx, on her head. Later, men of power who knew nothing of neglect would copy the pointed style in gold and call it a crown.
Ancient reliefs from Baghdad depict men of status showing off their wealth by holding bouquets of pomegranates. So forget flowers, they perish. Bring me bouquets of pomegranates, let the ruby juice stain my lips, drip down my chin. Kiss it off of me.
No wonder some scholars consider this the forbidden fruit. Can you imagine—Eve slipping bead after bead of garnet juice in between Adam’s lips until they were cast from paradise?
It is still a dream of mine to get drunk on pomegranate wine (is this sinning too?)
I came close to this once. Somewhere in the depths of summer-hazed memories my fingers, adorned with chipped nail polish, clutched at a green glass bottle of pomegranate sparkling cider. Elizabeth and I sat knee to knee on a tattered beach towel, our picnic spread before us. We washed bite after bite of sticky cinnamon rolls down our throat with the bubbling, syrupy concoction. We’d forgotten cups, so instead we passed the neck of the bottle back and forth, our icing covered lips glossing the rim. We did this until we were tipsy on our own laughter. We lay on the ground, the grass etching faint pink marks on the backs of our calves, until the sky turned a violent shade of rose.
Rachel Nevada Wood is a senior studying Classical Languages and Gender Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and as such is a strong supporter of the Oklahoma City Thunder, fried pickles, and the word “y’all.” She currently lives with her best friend and two succulents in West Philadelphia. “Pomegranate” is her first published piece.
If I could be anywhere ………..in the Fall
it would be Korea
walking rubberized pavement ………..to the top of Namsan Tower
surprised by snow in October
kimchi stew because ………..I never remember
a flask or boxed soju
like all the ahjussis come ………..equipped with
Sir it’s only Monday morning
how are you already reeking ………..The scent of ginkgos follows me
I know it’s a kind of courtship
If I were ………..a halfway competent
I would write ………..the mountains are aflame
and the sun has lent
the ginkgo leaf its shine ………..Not satisfied
the same tree
waits for night ………..to steal the inky darkness
for its bark
Soleil David was born and raised in the Philippines. She is a 2017 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow and a Graduate Scholars Fellow at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she is pursuing her MFA in poetry. Her poetry and prose have been published in Our Own Voice, The Philippine Daily Inquirer, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Santa Ana River Review, The Margins and Day One.
He taught me how to bend their arms
so they stayed. To solder them
solid with lead and resin, perfect
alchemical drops. Each striped
in mathematical candy—purple
for seven, green for five—it took
a simple decoder. But how
to speak to me, his daughter
striped in a thrift-store skirt
and punk shoes, this was more
like the keening barrel rolls
of his cropdusting days.
He showed me the logs,
brown old books with his pencil
scratch: take-off, touch-and-go, spins, loops, spins. Then back
to the workbench to assemble
more boards, the great dumb
heads of capacitors looming
over the little resistors,
all of them holding on.
Amy Miller’s full-length poetry collection The Trouble with New England Girls won the Louis Award and will be published by Concrete Wolf Press in 2018. Her writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Willow Springs, and ZYZZYVA, and her chapbooks include I Am on a River and Cannot Answer (BOAAT Press) and Rough House (White Knuckle Press). Her poem “Mountain Guide” appeared in Issue 16 of Cleaver. She won the Cultural Center of Cape Cod National Poetry Competition, judged by Tony Hoagland, and has been a finalist for the Pablo Neruda Prize and 49th Parallel Award. She lives in Oregon. More information at her website.
We must begin with a burgeoning sky. The storm that had flown out to sea flew back again into our small village in between the white and black mountains that looked over the land’s end. Our village that lay low was continually crushed by the sea’s thrashings, and that in turn gave us a dull, abused humor. We didn’t dare say “Enough, already!” for we were humble, and in the small wooden church we would say our prayers and give thanks for the rain, even though it came at the price of the wind bringing salt upon our homes and dead men upon our shores. Not one of us would say, “If only the storm would bring dead fish that we could eat instead of dead men and dead wood upon our shores, that would be something!” We would rather look plaintively out the window of the church thinking on the wisdom of Father Joe’s phrasings, or out our soft and moldy kitchen windowsill, and say to our husband or wife or sister or brother, “Looks like God is testing us again. Let’s pray that we will triumph, though Lord knows what we deserve.” And the other of us would respond with a thin and raspy, “That is the truth, right there.” That is how things were then.
Father Joe taught us much about this kind of humility. Our story would be nothing without a little explaining about Father Joe, who came to us circa 1917, during the period of the great frost. We had had no religion before, merely what they call community. We were good people. But when Father Joe came upon our shores, when we were dying every day from the lack of food, he filled our minds with stories we had never dared dream of. We had no need of dreaming before he came. We listened for hours and hours about some man in some Eastern clime who had been sacrificed, and who was the son of a great God. Father Joe told us of the travails he had taken to arrive at our little village, the miles of seas he had had to cross, and he always told us that what he did to get to us was nothing compared to our daily sacrifices. We took him in, set him up in a house, and built him a church for him to tell us these things. Though he stood up high near the altar, he seemed to hold us up on a pedestal and worship us as if we were some rare species. He told us many times the story of how he had heard about us when he was in battle. An anthropologist fighting alongside him had told him of this rare godless village in the north that he had visited once (we remember this anthropologist with his curious questions), and he wished to see our land once more before he died. Later that day that man was killed, which Father Joe took for a sign (Father Joe often spoke of signs and fate—words that didn’t exist in our language until he came upon our shore). When seeing his friend killed, Father Joe ran as fast as he could to a petrol station, found a way to safe territory, and quit the idea altogether of being a soldier. His mission became to find us and teach us the ways of God. Two long years it took him to arrive here, but this delay he took as a divine challenge.
We digress. So on this day of big, brashy thunder and frightful lightning, the sea brought hundreds not tens of men, and ships, so many ships broken to pieces! The salt was beyond all order! The front of Old Father Joe’s house that faced the sea (sitting atop the promontory as his example of his enduring faith in God) was as white as God’s beard.
After the skies had gone grey and the bruised clouds swept themselves off toward the horizon, we came out of our salty shacks, clutching our long sweaters with arms crossed. We were making our way down to the shore to begin gathering the bodies. We had done this so many times before, so our faces were not quick to show surprise, but when the first row of us reached the sandy beach, some of us stopped.
More of us came up from behind, and more, and more, so that after a little while a good number of us were just trying to get a look at the shore. Our shining blue eyes were all turned toward the horizon, toward the source of our latest burden. A last light flickered over the line at the end of the earth. Not one of us said a word.
We had to do our jobs, didn’t we? That was why we were put on this earth. So first one, then two, three, ten, then all forty of us started the mournful labor of piling the bodies up to where the waves couldn’t take them back. As we worked, we sang our prayers in bare whispers to the lost travelers:
Oh, sunken ones, your journey is come. Let us unburden you, and lift you from your bride. The salt is in your bones, your eyes the weeds do hide, But we see you, sailor, we bless you and for our own fates abide.
We prayed this way until sunset, when finally all of the bodies had been brought up high on the shore. We took the water-seeped wood, as we were used to do, and carried it to Branches’ Farm, where all wet wood went to dry. Then we carried back to shore piles and piles of dried wood. This went on right through supper—for no one ever ate until this task was done. There on the sand our men lay the wood from old shipwrecks and piled the bodies to make the pyre. As the flames reached higher, our women closed their scarves around their bodies and made their way back to their homes to start the very late supper. Father Joe took this time to look out over us while enjoying his dinner of salt bread and water. We would sometimes look up to see his candle in the window momentarily lighting up his shadowy face and take comfort.
While we men supervised the fire, we chatted about the storm, now that the danger was over. As we said, we were a people not to be surprised too readily, so when Old Smithson and Johnson came up from the long reach of the shore carrying a heavy trunk between them, several of us ran to help them carry it to a spot high up on the shore without asking questions. The men put the trunk down and we all gathered round it, some bending down and some just standing cross-armed and slightly bewildered. Finally Old Father Joe, who had by this time joined us at the pyre, looked at Smithson and said, “Go get your hammer, Smithson. We might as well figure out what God has in store for us now.”
Smithson, who was truly getting old then, walked but did not run to his shop and brought back his hammer. Under the star-ridden sky, we watched as Father Joe pounded and pounded the gold lock of the weathered trunk. Our women looked up from their sinks and stoves at the banging that sounded like a broken church bell out of rhythm. They all wiped their hands on their towels, turned down the flames on the stove, and headed back to the shore.
All forty of us had gathered there now, with hopeful yet anxious eyes, waiting for the moment when the sturdy lock would break. Within a few minutes, the wood splintered and this is when Father Joe halted and addressed us as if we were in church.
“Good people of this cherished land, of which there is much bounty, please let us not forget ourselves and hold too much promise in this bestowal from God. Let us honor the sailors who rest here tonight, their souls on their journey home. Let us remain, above all, who we are, humble creatures of the Lord of Light.”
With three tries Father Joe broke the seal. At first it was too dark for any of us to see. Old Johnson brought over a torch lit by the burning embers of the pyre.
As we all took in the familiar stench of flesh and salt coming from the pyre, Father Joe slowly lowered the flame down into the shadows of the trunk’s interior. There were mounds and mounds of round objects that glowed orange in the light. Were they made of gold, you may wonder? Were they strange jewels from afar? No, they were, as it was ascertained by Father Joe who lifted one up and shone the light on it, oranges. Simple and delicious oranges that were far from rotten. Now, in any other community, this would be a disappointment. But for us humble folk, it was both an enchantment and a deep problem. For we had never set our eyes on an orange. The treasure might as well have been gold. And under Father Joe’s guidance, we wondered, who would dare eat them? Wasn’t it folly to do so? Father Joe would have to decide this one for us.
“Good people! We have been blessed as well as cursed! Those of you who do not know what this is, it is an orange, a fruit that is sweet and fibrous. I think before it is decided what to do with them, we need to count them first and foremost, to see the level of our treasure. But do not fail to see the sorrow in this gift! I hesitate to let this fine fruit enter into our lives, for we may be tempted further by this joy and only want more of what we cannot have. Be warned!”
Father Joe asked Old Roman and Old Johnson to bring the trunk to the church, where the oranges could properly be counted. We all followed, while dinners still simmered on stoves, and watched Father Joe lay a thick black cloth on the table in the center of the altar. The oranges were taken out one by one, preciously, and counted.
There were forty oranges.
In our hearts, we were hoping that Father Joe would be kind and just, and give each one of us one orange and so be left with none for himself. This would have been the right thing to do. He was the one, you remember, whose house faced the calamitous sea, as a sign of his faith. Well, would his faith extend to sacrificing the taste of a sweet orange?
“People of this God-loving village, I am afraid we do have trouble. We are forty-one and there are only forty oranges. Because I do love this village, however, I am more than willing to forego my pleasure of eating an orange for the higher pleasure of seeing you enjoy them. But heed my earlier warning! Let not this fruit spoil your spirit. For as these oranges will soon mold and turn to dust, so will your spirit if you let pleasure ruin your spiritual appetite.”
We flocked to the oranges like scavengers, shamelessly smiling now, for what we had hoped had come true. Much bustling was made, scarves thrown over shoulders, elbows high up in the air, each grabbing an orange for himself or herself, whether old or young. Our mothers were kind to hand an orange to their child, because in that flurrying and scrambling, one would think that selfishness had gone amok.
While this frenzy was proceeding, Father Joe said, just under his breath, “My Father who art in Heaven” and every one of us stopped what we were doing. We were sensitive to the sound of the Father.
“I know there are some of you who are far better than this. May I only remind you of the rotting fruit of your souls. Good night.” And with that Father Joe walked solemnly down the aisle of the church, his shoes pounding the wooden floor, and the large, heavy door shut behind him like a stone.
We all stood there, quiet, until one of us (it was Old Johnson) walked over and put his orange back. And then another, and another, and another of us, until all of the oranges were piled ceremoniously upon the altar. Suddenly Old Rachel, who was always a little panicky, remembered the grub on the stove and shouted, “The grub!” and with that all of our women rushed back to the grub on their stoves, fearful of a fire burning up what little we had. The men and children trailed behind, our heads bowed.
The next day at service, the oranges remained on the altar while the Father spoke of humility and suffering and the salt of the sea and the sailors on their journey home, through our blessed guidance. In this dark church made of wood, those oranges burned as bright as the candles, and not one us didn’t sneak a look. Father Joe used the oranges well in his sermon, speaking of them as temptations of the pure spirit. And he did not neglect to tell us how proud he was of us, when he entered the church at dawn, to see the glorious pile of oranges there where they belonged.
For the next few days, the fervor with which old Father Joe spoke increased, for he was bounding with praise at our sacrifice, and was convinced that we had reached the pinnacle of our spirits, and pleased God beyond belief. It was a triumphant time for this village, he said, so much so that perhaps God would bless us with more storms so that we might come to realize the true beauty of our sacrificing souls.
This proved too much. Granted, some of us were indeed pleased with ourselves and felt that we would surely be raised to Heaven when the day came. But the promise of those oranges held a power over us. The more Father Joe spoke of our people’s strength and virtue and holiness, the brighter those oranges shone. Soon everything fell away in our people’s vision, all the greys and browns and blacks inside the church looked paltry when compared to the joyous color of the bountiful fruit.
The desire in our people rose to such a level that one night, it was spread about in whispers among the townspeople that Old Johnson and Smithson, the ones who had found the trunk, were to sneak into the church after midnight and take the oranges and hide them in Smithson’s cellar so that we could all finally enjoy them before they went rotten. In the morning when Father Joe would discover them gone, we would simply say that we had put the oranges back in the trunk and sent the bestowed gift out to sea, from whence it came.
But the night did not go according to plan. Johnson and Smithson had smoothly retrieved the trunk and placed all of the oranges in it but when they stepped outside of the church, they were astonished to see every last one of us—save for Father Joe, of course—there in front of the church to receive our own orange. It was a risk, we knew, but we were willing to lose our souls for the sweet taste that Father Joe had described. Johnson and Smithson were very upset and told all of us to go behind the church, out of view from Father Joe’s house, so that they could hand out the oranges in shadow.
Meanwhile, old Father Joe, the story goes, must have been thinking as he lay there in bed that if he took one orange, just one, then no one would know. As some of us tell it, he put on his warm wool robe and his slippers so no one would hear him walking (this was false though, the road was a pebbly one). He went out his back porch and headed for the church. By the light of the moon, he must have seen our shadows and heard the strange sucking sounds.
At this, he ran behind the church and saw all of us, so many of us, sitting on the grass, the light of the moon behind us, sucking away at the oranges, their tough skins tossed aside on the ground.
Oh, and were we ever enjoying those oranges! In between the sucking sounds were lots of quiet exclamations and the children, the children! They were dancing about, putting a slice in their mouths and smiling! Old Christina was the first one who saw the tall shadowy figure of Old Joe approach. “Hush!” she whispered. But it was too late. Father Joe stood before our huddled figures in the night of both light and dark and crossed his arms. He didn’t say a word for a few minutes. He was waiting for his power to be felt. “I would like to know . . .” he growled, barely able to contain himself. “I would like to know who is responsible for his soul here behind this church. How dare . . .” Father Joe started to say but his words were quickly interrupted by Johnson and Smithson, who had in one movement picked up his screaming, shrieking body, and pushed him into the trunk. Before it was closed we all—men, women, and children—picked up the scattered orange peels and threw them in with the Father. Smithson and Johnson sat on the trunk while Christina fetched some rope from her shed. The two men bundled up the trunk and carried it aloft all the way to the river that flowed ever to the sea, with all of us following behind and around and ahead. The journey was so long that we had to take turns carrying the burden, but it was no matter, for we smiled like we had never smiled before, the taste in our mouths was sweet, and a light moved us forward, the moon glinting in our deep blue eyes. We sang to our glory, and to our old Father Joe, who gave us this Heaven. Oh, sunken one, your journey is come.
Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bitter Oleander, SmokeLong Quarterly, Tin House, Essay Daily, and Mulberry Fork Review. She is currently writing an essay about Jules Romains’s novel The Death of a Nobody and is at work on a short story collection. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. You can find her at cherylpappas.net and @fabulistpappas.
When coarse human events become necessary,
people dissolve, a gloom powers profit, the claws
of paper and paper’s God hold sleuths to be prevalent,
that all men are prequel, and cowed by certain
alien fights. Knife liberty and hirsute happiness
secure fleece rights. Governments are prostituted,
driving their powers and the discontent of the governed.
Any storm of cover meant these end: flight
of the steeple, falter and a polish to parachute
a true glove ornament. Lay its foundation on
such prince piles: organs, eyes—sing its powers.
Such a storm shall seem to effect their safety.
Prudes in deed will delight governments changed
for sleight causes that all mankind suffer.
While evils stuff their gable to knight themselves,
buy a polishing foam to hitch your new costume.
The long reign of obtuse user patience and pure suing
invariably the same objects. Even since a denizen
traduces them, wonder will solute despotism.
Yet there, right there: beauty, to show off, clutch,
wonderment too, but denied through guards,
other torture, poverty. Touch was thin, patient,
utterance of trees fall and freeze: sand, such is now,
the necessity which entertains them. Few psalters
dare form verse. Stems of cover invent the history
of the present. Sting of hate written, its hysteria,
repeated, in furies, and loose relations, all having
in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny.
Oh, for these states. Few approve this. Pet
rats flee. Slums fitted to a grand, dead world.
Michael T. Young’s fifth collection, Turpentine, will be published by Terrapin Books in 2018. His other collections include, The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, Living in the Counterpoint, and Transcriptions of Daylight. He received the Jean Pedrick Award and a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, Little Patuxent Review, and Lunch Ticket. He lives with his wife, children, and cats in Jersey City, New Jersey.
There is a word in a foreign language for the art of hiding, a three-syllable birdcall kept in chest pockets like a secret. In the rectangle of the rearview mirror his eyes shine like hot coals and he has no face. In mine, he looks for a fire, but I do not give anything away. I tell myself I’m too good to educate him. I’m not too good. All of my bones are here careening through these streets suspended between his four fast doors and he knows it. Just like he knows how bad we are, how helpless and weak. But not to worry, he’s not angry at me—it’s only natural. “You’re not good at it,” he explains. I sit on my fingers. He wants me to humor him, say yes, yes please and thank you, wants me to accept and say, no, we’re not dangerous, yes, we will partake, yes to you and everything you say, a resounding yes to all the shit born in the void of your mind and thrown at me from inside your mouth. Yes, see me as nothing, by all means. You’d only be right. Me and the other walking lips, the dismembered breasts, the plastic faces with words and fists shoved in them, we fall short of humanity. If we are lucky, alone at times or among the enlightened ones, we can lift the veil of silence and let ourselves be a little larger than nothing. A little more than a pitiful head of hair to be trampled by another, a little more than a piece of something harmed and hindered, squandered and frayed. All the driver gives away now is a pair of black eyes, but of me he sees all. He sizes me up, runs his eyes along the sides of my face, along my arms crossed over my insides. Does he think I could lurch and dig my nails into his eyes? Does he believe I could lace my frail fingers around his neck and scream until he begged for mercy or veered us off the course of safety? Does the buried root of him know who here burns the brightest? Who can make danger?
“You’re right, they shouldn’t,” I say.
Marie Baleo is a French writer born in 1990. Her work was nominated for a Best of the Net award in 2017 and has appeared or is forthcoming in Tahoma Literary Review, Litro Magazine, Maudlin House, Split Lip Magazine, Cease, Cows, Gone Lawn, The Penn Review, Jersey Devil Press, The Nottingham Review, Five 2 One Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Five on the Fifth, Spilled Milk, and elsewhere. She is currently on the masthead of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. Marie grew up in Norway and Lebanon and received a B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis and an M.A. from Sciences Po Paris.
Back in 1962, German was still a popular graduate major at Stanford. The world was different then. That entire summer, Mary Lois and I turned out to be the only two grad students who’d stayed in town. We saw more of each other than I might have wished.
She was attractive, but when she spoke German, she betrayed a thick Kansas accent. When she voiced her throaty “My golly!” I didn’t know if she was being serious or silly.
She’d started inviting me over to her place in the evenings and plying me with Guinness. I loved Guinness, but as a student on a budget I felt it would be extravagant to ever actually buy any. Mary Lois suspected this and kept several six-packs at the ready; she would lean in, reaching over to hand me one bottle after another. Today she had been writing a make-up paper on Der grüne Heinrich, a voluminous, Swiss coming-of-age novel. The Green Henry. Turgid works like this were causing me to doubt my choice of major. Where had I gone wrong? Where would German lead me? Was I going in any direction that would benefit my life?
“‘Green Henry’ sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?” Mary Lois asked. “It doesn’t translate well at all!” She just kept talking as I kept sinking—first, into the Guinness, and then into her bed. “My golly,” she said with her Kansas accent as she deftly undid the metal buttons of my Levi’s. She didn’t realize words weren’t called for. I was fearful about performing, but her touch proved firm.
When I’d visited Helsinki—I extended my stay—there was an abundance of sensual young Finns. Finnish guys. It was easy to run into them. But sometimes we discovered we didn’t have a common language. Eye contact took the place of words—on the street, in a record store, at the Sibelius Monument—turning around, whirling around, gaze meeting gaze, Hei, mitä kuuluu!, Puhutko suomea? What? Suddenly language didn’t matter. Sometimes we’d spend the night together because he lived in a suburb and the buses back into the city didn’t run late. He might even make me breakfast—that wonderful dark sourdough Finnish rye bread with marmalade. We’d sit smiling like mimes, drinking strong coffee.
As we sat there naked in the bright morning sun of a Finnish-modern kitchen, arousal was quick. We might have another go at what we had been doing the night before. But as Mary Lois took me in hand—this was My Very First Time with a Girl—she made it seem . . . obscene. She shouldn’t be doing this; it was unnatural. And then she took me into her mouth, primly. It was all wrong. She was like an actor in the Brecht theater, well-versed in the Verfremdungseffekt—the “alienation effect.” One played one’s role, but from a great distance. Acting in quotation marks.
Still, she brought me to a climax. I lay back, my eyes closed, feeling ashamed. This shouldn’t have happened. We had a common language—two, in fact—but no words to say.
Eric Wilson’s fiction will appear in the spring 2018 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. New England Review has published two of his essays, one of which found its way into the Pushcart Prize Anthology, Vol. XLI, 2017. Other work has appeared in Massachusetts Review, Epoch, Carolina Quarterly, Witness, Boundary 2, The German Quarterly, and The O. Henry Prize Stories anthology. After a Fulbright year in Berlin, he earned a Stanford Ph.D. in German Literature. He has taught German at UCLA and Pomona College and fiction writing at UCLA Extension.
i could blame it on the culture of america, korea, science, but i boil it down to being the first korean word i learned, yeppuda yeppuda rolling off the tongues of halmonis and imos and echoing around the room like a bullet: beautiful beautiful. they flap sun-spotted hands to my sister’s and my hair, our flat stomachs, our long legs, and the only word i could understand was yeppuda. i begin to think of it as a science, as a fact, a ledgehold in the vast canyon of earth and universe. sun is yellow. clouds are white. i am beautiful. yeppuda, yeppuda.
it takes a little time but i discover tragedy backwards, and suddenly i’m a victim of a crime i didn’t even know existed and i can’t stop thinking about my mother crying into the golden light of a therapist’s office. (no matter how hard i try the image sticks in my chest and stays there, makes a home against my heart.) it’s an awareness i didn’t ask for, and now i’ve lost my fingers, my collarbone, my hipbone. i avoid mirrors. i let my body bloat & stagnate, burrowing deep inside what is now spoiled flesh. yeppuda begins to skip over me at dinner. my sister keeps her flat stomach and grows into her long legs and i begin hating her.
she practices smiling and her reflection glows and she cultivates makeup brushes for fingers. i throw my makeup in a box and hide it away. the shame of being unbeautiful takes root somewhere in me and sprouts until everything i am transforms into a devotion for hiding. i become a study in survival and i see strangers behind every door in my house and sometimes it feels mysterious and painless and thrilling. other nights i lock my doors and sleep on my face and i can barely breathe.
i am asked to winter formal and called beautiful for the first time in years and it just feels dirty and transactional, like he’s trying to take something from me, like him being the one to call me beautiful means that now some part of me belongs to him, is beholden to him. no. i’m done with losing my bones.
i take jazz for p.e. and the walls are covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors. i refuse to look in any of them. instead i watch the dancers in my class unfold their arms and legs like paper origami and try to pretend i am born of the same airy yeppuda, attach myself to rhythm and cadence and beat. they give their skin away in little slivers against their navels, their shoulders, and i begin to hate them too because the dull pain inside me is too airless and solid. we have changing rooms. i change in the bathroom.
an eighth grade boy asks my sister to kiss him, asks her if she ever thinks about him, tells her she’s the most beautiful girl he knows. she tells him no. now he laughs at her in the halls and tells her he’s never met anyone so desperate. when she comes home crying, i’m torn between telling her it is her fault she is beautiful and punching the boy in the face.
all the beautiful girls in my dance class who gave away their skin eventually hand off their bones too. sometimes their boyfriends don’t know when no means no and all i can do is write and write and write, stab my fingers into the keys, and i want to talk to them to tell them it gets better but it’s not something you talk about and i’m not sure how much of it would be a lie. maybe it would be simpler to tell them it’s better to be ugly.
and then one of my friends begins to tell me gently i am beautiful. i have been brushing off compliments for forever now, not letting any of them catch my shoulders or twist my tongue. i think i laugh in his face. but over the next few weeks, without pointing at my hair or my legs, he just reminds me: hey you know you’re really pretty right?
i say thank you and he says why are you thanking me?
he says it until i respond with i know.
and it shouldn’t mean that much but it does; beauty with nothing but me attached to it, and not even beauty but just prettiness, the cool breeze of a smile and the comfort of falling onto familiarity. it’s just something in his simplicity, in the factual way it was, like the sky is blue. grass is green. and you can just be pretty.
Ollie Dupuy is a junior at Orange County School of the Arts in Southern California, where she studies creative writing and is an editor for Inkblot Literary Magazine. She enjoys history (America’s, the world’s, yours) and opportunities to overdress. Her work has appeared in Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review and gravel.
Some still see the shadow of the earth’s other moon,
a ghost satellite over a ghost tide
before one light was absorbed into the other.
No silhouette hides in the rushes,
I saw a woman walking in Paris once.
She wore your hat and your old expression.
Those were the days of sitting in the Swedish cafe,
strangers huddled in opposite corners,
raising their glasses to each other without knowing it,
an oblivious toast to the unnoticed world.
Gypsies handed roses to tourists on the steps,
their muteness abandoned once they piled into the BMW.
In other languages we are completely different people.
Our versions drift past each other, unable to speak.
In panels of glass only words are backwards.
The rest is readable, but we miss the difference—
if today is the original or another dim copy,
the same songs playing from the car windows in the street,
the stand-ins still shadows of the people they resemble.
Who will be the body thrown over the cliff?
In the mountains of Spain, I saw a two-headed dog,
but a lover told me it was probably just two animals fucking.
No living body is completely symmetrical.
One breast hangs a little lower than the other,
one hand is more dexterous, one braid lays too long.
One eye gazes further into the distance.
Two girls with the same name cross each other on the path,
skipping aimlessly over the rocks in opposite directions.
“Hello,” she says.
“Hello,” says the other.
They stand on the hill, taking turns looking through a pair of binoculars,
staring to the point of seeing nothing at all.
At first the picture comes in pieces:
the giraffes and the elephants, the inexhaustible sea sponge.
I’ll climb the boy mulberry tree,
and you climb the girl
and when we descend, our mouths will be bloody,
a nectar not found in the stand-alone cactus.
Across the ocean,
we both have the same thought.
We play the same note on our old pianos,
but the sound caught on the air is different.
This only is clear:
there are contrary people inside your one face.
Kyra Simone is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlas Review, Black Clock,The Brooklyn Rail, Conjunctions, Little Star, Prelude, Vestiges, and The Wrong Quarterly, among other journals. She is a member of the editorial collective at Ugly Duckling Presse.
I discovered a near-limitless capacity for patience on my parents’ back porch, hiding out, eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and reading Richie Rich comics. I was skipping school, biding my time until the end of the afternoon when I could pretend to come home. That first morning, I had slunk down behind an old green aluminum chair and sat in an upright fetal position, knees to chest, arms swaddling legs. I counted the boards on the floor, twenty-five. The rails along the side, forty-eight, and 360 holes in between the crisscross side rail, 250 yellow leaves on the porch, 423 reds, five points in this yellow leaf, eight in that red leaf. I counted my fingers and my toes and every letter in the alphabet, and then, when that was done, I made up a new game. I spelled out every letter:, A, AY, B, BEE, C, SEA. I spelled my name: Ay, En, Gee, El, Eye, Cue, You, Eee. I spelled out whole sentences. “Angie is skipping school today.” “School sucks.” It wasn’t long before I was bored.
I had sprained an ankle a week earlier playing with my sister, Gina. The doctor had prescribed a few days’ rest, which turned into a week out of school. Then, the night before I was supposed to go back, I asked Dad for a letter that would explain my absence. He never gave it to me; he was too drunk to remember. When I left the house the next morning, my anxiety over not having the letter grew with each hesitant step I took.
My feet skipped between the yellows and reds of mid-October leaves—should I even go to school? I could just stay home one more day, ask Dad again for a letter that night, and everything would be okay. But what would I tell him? I could say I tripped and fell, hurt my leg again, or maybe I could say I was feeling kind of feverish and came home sick. He would never believe that.
By the time I walked through the school’s entrance, the homeroom bell was already ringing. I should have picked up my pace, but my family had moved to the neighborhood recently, and I felt like a stranger still. I stopped in a corner, the gray of my shirt blending into the gray of the wall until I was just a silhouette of myself—a thin line of lead-gray traced upon bricks. I imagined that moment when you open the classroom door and all the third graders turned toward you wondering where you’ve been and why you’re late and why you never talk to anyone and why your clothes are ripped and you smell like cigarettes. Then, I snuck into the bathroom and parked myself inside a stall.
Twenty minutes later, when the bell rang again, I retraced my steps out of the building and into daylight. I might have been okay if I had just gone into my class, said I didn’t have a note, and sat down. Or maybe I didn’t even need a note. Maybe no one had noticed my absence. But it was too late; I had passed the moment of turning back.
In the daylight I was free. There was none of Dad’s late-night staggering up the stairs or Mom’s paranoid mania. There was only me, full and flesh and whole. I was substance and skin against the backdrop of the city’s swoosh of cars, white cement sidewalk and bark of oak.
I walked to the park and sat on the swing, kicked leaves, traced my name in the sand, Ang, Angie, Angelique, all the ways I knew myself. Then I left. I knew I was too young and it was too early in the day to be seen in the park. Dad always joked about truant officers. I couldn’t be sure if they were real, so I tried to force my flesh back into that silhouette, dark against the shadows of the city.
I fantasized about where I might go. Maybe I could grow wings and fly to California, sun myself on a private beach like a movie star, one knee up, one down, my long hair splayed on a towel. Or I could drive a fancy Jeep into the Colorado mountains, the way grown-up women did in the movies. I’d sit at the bar of a ski lodge, finger the lip of a sherry glass, pick it up so the ice would clink when I pressed it against my lips. I was so caught up in my dream I hadn’t realized my body took me where it knew to go.
I had unintentionally traced my steps back home. We lived in a duplex. My mother wouldn’t see me come around to the back. She would have been half-lying, half-sitting on the couch, dipping her toast into her coffee and alternating drags of her Raleigh cigarette with bites of toast—crumbs rolling down her chest to the cigarette-burned couch and onto the floor. She’d watch game shows until the afternoon when she would take her evening dose of Thorazine and sleep until dinner. She would never go out the back door to the yard. So I chanced it, steeled myself against the shadows and found a spot behind that green chair on the back porch.
By the time I had finished counting and spelling, it was after lunch and I was hungry. I realized I still had the dollar Dad had given me for the cafeteria, so I left the porch and walked to the corner store. Wilson Farms only had four short aisles, but they were filled with possibilities. I scanned the shelves deciding what combination of food I could get, a soda and a candy bar or a Twinkie and milk. Then I saw the toy section. There were water guns, three for a dollar, blue, yellow, and red. There were toy caps, none of which I could buy with the money I had. I considered a plastic handheld maze game. I could pass time for hours rolling that little silver ball along winding turns and broken gaps and dead ends just to get through the labyrinth. But I didn’t have enough money to buy that and food, too. I found the comic book section. Richie Rich was only thirty cents. I picked it up and grabbed a double Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup on the way to the checkout.
Back on the porch, I made a fresh start. Only two more hours until school ended and I could pretend to walk home. If I was deliberate, I could fill my time reading Richie Rich and eating the Reese’s, one hour per cup. I took one of the peanut butter rounds out of the package and held it between my thumb and forefinger, softening the cold chocolate, making it pliable, and testing my own patience. I moved my fingers around the center, being careful not to touch the hard outer ridge. Finally, it cracked in my hand and a perfect little circle of soft peanut butter and chocolate came out of the center, leaving the ridged circle intact. I ate it slowly, deliberately around the edges, savoring every taste of peanut butter, imagining each tiny little morsel of chocolate pass through my teeth and land on my tongue. I forced myself not to chew it but instead let it melt until it dissolved. When that was finished, I nibbled the outside circle, one ridge at a time. That took up the better part of an hour. I still had the second piece to go.
While I ate, I read Richie Rich from the top left corner to the bottom right corner of each page. I slowed my pace, stopped time so that the reading and the eating would last until school ended. One small bite corresponded to one small detail. Methodically, I studied every mark on every page until it was memorized. The way both c’s in Richie Rich’s name were made to look like cents symbols. The way the i’s were dotted with diamonds. I wanted the i in Angelique to be dotted with a diamond. I wanted my S to be crossed with two lines so it could become a dollar sign.
Near the Harvey Comics logo, in the top left corner of the cover, there was always a miniature image of Richie Rich. He stood near a money vault or held up a bank over his head Superman style or wore wings made of dollars. I loved the sensory opulence of it all. I imagined myself with cash wings rising above the back porch and the shadows, above the cigarette-burned carpets and hand-me-down clothes, beyond Mom’s paranoid rages and Dad’s late-night binges. I slowed my imaginings—dreamed up one image at a time until I saw myself floating in Wonder Woman pose over a world of extravagance and luxury that looked nothing like the one I had come from.
When that first day ended and I pretended to come home, no one knew that I had skipped. I could keep doing it. The next day, I went straight to Wilson Farms for another comic book and some peanut butter cups. Some days I took the long way home, other days it was too cold and rainy to sit outside. One wet morning, I peeked in the living room window and saw Mom sleeping, so I creaked open the front door. If I could get upstairs without her seeing me, I could wait out the day in the warmth of my room. Mom was sleeping on the couch, cigarette smoke hanging in the air and Bob Barker chatting with a new contestant on The Price is Right.
I closed the door and pretended I was a ninja warrior on a secret mission. One step, my right toe touched the floor, then the ball of my foot, one joint at a time until my heel was flat. I tested the next step for noise, then more weight and the whole of my left foot. Then, my right toe touched the first stair. I counted seconds between movements, one one thousand, two one thousand. I breathed in, three one thousand, four one thousand. I took another step, five one thousand, six one thousand. I was all stealth. My chest expanded, seven one thousand. I was a silhouette rising, eight one thousand, nine one thousand. Then I breathed out. Let the air go, made myself invisible. I counted the number of floorboards as I moved; five on this step, seven on that step.
All along I watched my mother’s eyes. I listened to her breathing. I spelled the letters of her name in my head: Sea, Ay, Are, Oh, El, Eee. I breathed in. I spelled diamond: Dee, Eye, Ay, Em, Oh, En, Dee. I breathed out. On the top landing, I turned the corner and reached my room, where I forced my flesh into a corner of my closet and opened the Richie Rich. I could wait all day in that spot, my patience had become superhuman.
One day I came home from a fake day of classes and Dad was home early, waiting for me on the couch.
“Where’ve you been, Angie?” His Boston accent still thick after 40 years in New York. He took a long drag of his cigarette.
“The school called and said you haven’t been there in at least two weeks.”
“I was afraid.”
He put his cigarette out and opened the jar of Noxzema. The shirt of his blue lot man’s uniform hung loose and wrinkled at the waist. The dark cracks in his calloused hands were caked black even after washing. He rubbed the Noxzema on his hands. Mom was in the kitchen getting dinner ready.
“You were supposed to give me a note.”
“You skipped school because you didn’t have a note? I’ll give you a note, and then you will march your ass right into the principal’s office tomorrow morning.” He pointed his arthritic finger up the stairs, and I sulked off to my room.
Upstairs, I took off my shoes and sat on the bed. Beyond my window, the wind had picked up the leaves and made them spiral. I pulled the blankets up and took out an old issue of Richie Rich from my nightstand. On the cover, Richie was in bed wrapped in a green quilt, a fluffy white pillow leaned against a headboard of gold. From his bedroom window, the morning sun’s rays angled down onto his face. The robot arm of his alarm clock tapped him gently on his shoulder to wake him, the words singing from the radio, “Good morning, Richie.”
I traced my finger over each image on the front page, starting in the top left corner and moving to the book’s title. I stopped at the diamonds over each “i,” pretending I could feel the smooth sides, the edges and lines as I turned each diamond over in my fingers. I touched the swirls on the bed’s headboard, wishing I had a crayon to fill in the outline of empty spaces with another color—silver maybe. I traced the lines of the angled rays of the yellow sun above the alarm clock and out the window. Then I imagined myself sliding out of the window on the sunrays and counting the trees as I flew above them with dollar wings, two pine trees in the back yard, two maples in front. Four honey locusts on the street and on and on into the sun.
Angelique Stevens’ nonfiction can be found in The Chattahoochee Review, Cleaver (Issue 8, Issue 11, and in Life as Activism), Shark Reef, and a number of anthologies. Her essay “Exposure” won silver in the Solas Award for Best Women’s Travel Writing 2013, and her experimental essay “Spiral” was published in the anthology Friend Follow, Text, which was nominated by Foreward Review for Best Anthology of the Year. She teaches creative writing and genocide literature in upstate New York, and she is a founding member of Straw Mat Writers, with whom she coauthored the collaborative plays FourPlay for the 2014 and Shitty Lives for the 2015 First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festivals. She holds an MFA from Bennington College, and she finds her inspiration in wandering—being in places that push the boundaries of comfort, experience, knowledge, and hunger. She is currently writing a travel memoir about her trip to South Sudan and her experiences growing up in New York State.
My teenage daughter flies into the kitchen at this Sunday morning blasphemy and then freezes, as if the knife is meant for her. I freeze too, shocked by a surge of envy. I miss being her. Miss flirting with waves instead of the undertow.
When I drop the knife and the bloody bagel, she grabs the phone.
“No, don’t come home,” I tell my husband. He’s been waiting for us to walk into St. Matthew’s sanctuary to listen to him sing Awesome God and Wade in the Water. “It’s not that bad.”
That’s my new mantra, and whenever I say it, I see it, like it’s the title of a book: It’s Not as Bad as It Looks. But when he waffles, torn between faith (or at least the Lutheran Church) and family, the invisible tide heaves, threatening to spill my irreverent thoughts onto the shores of our endangered family: Get your fucking ass home, now!
Later, at Urgent Care, the doctor treats my thumb with Dermabond adhesive. Giddy to be in someone else’s hands, I brag about all the things we fix at home with Super Glue: belts, sandals, sunglasses, bras. I want him to think I’m funny, and brave—I survive knives! And bankruptcies! I’ve survived, so far, myself.
But the doctor doesn’t laugh or even smile, just says, “Then this should work just fine,” as he presses my wound closed and waits for the glue to hold.
Lorri McDole’s short fiction and nonfiction pieces have been published inThe Writer,Sweet: A Literary Confection,The Offing,Eclectica,New Madrid,Epiphany, andBrain, Child, as well as in several anthologies that include the forthcoming Flash Nonfiction Funny. Her essay “Storms of the Circus World,” which was a finalist for theTalking WritingPrize for Personal Essay, was nominated for a 2017 Best of the Net Award. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family.
Before the puppet show, Melissa and I split
a stolen Valium. As the children gathered,
a dreamy feeling descended on the eighth
grade me, benevolence for all I saw—the cheap
hand puppets, a mouse, and giraffe who
became Jonah and the whale. I put my mouse
into the mouth of Melissa’s giraffe while God
waited for Jonah to get himself right. He’d
run from Ninevah only to suffer. Brother
Buddy complimented us on our performance,
telling me that longsuffering was my fruit
of the spirit. I didn’t sound good, even medicated
against harm and boredom. I didn’t know then
that you didn’t have to be swallowed whole,
that you could swallow the whale and not
know you were trapped by what was inside you.
Michelle Brooks has published a collection of poetry, Make Yourself Small (Backwaters Press), and a novella, Dead Girl, Live Boy, (Storylandia Press). A native Texan, she has spent much of her adult life in Detroit. She has recently completed a poetry collection, Flamethrower.
He was a little boy, and the sudden, spectacular storm frightened him. Kenny had seen storms before, but none like this. Lightning forked wickedly outside the trembling window, and thunder boomed inside his head, his chest. Torrents of rain lashed the house.
His Uncle Blake found him cowering beneath the kitchen table. Without a word, he seized Kenny’s arm and scooped him up. Blake carried him out the back door and onto the lanai where all that separated them from the storm was a thin porous metal screen.
He put the boy down but held his wrist, held him in check.
The scene reminded Kenny of a war movie he’d watched on TV, only this was worse. The harsh lights that blanched the sky were more dazzling; the thunderclaps were almost painfully loud and concussive. Not just falling, the rain was being spewed, downward and crossways. Since the screen offered scant protection, the boy and his uncle were soon soaked.
Wearing one of his habitual white undershirts, his ample belly a sort of cushion against the world, Blake spoke to his nephew in a full-lunged shout to overcome the ambient noise.
“It’s nature, Kenny,” Blake roared. “It’s beautiful and it’s awful. But you’ve gotta look it square in the eye. That’s how a man does it. Sooner or later,” he said, “it’s gonna get you regardless.”
Half a century later, Ken lay in a hospital bed. Several tubes, either supplying or retrieving fluids, were attached to his body. Beside him, a softly beeping monitor displayed information about his respiration, heartbeat, and blood pressure.
He’d been in the hospital for a while, so he’d had plenty of time to remember and reflect. Ghosts from the past—and a couple from the future—drifted gauzily before his mind’s eye.
Ken wondered whatever had become of his Uncle Blake. He thought that Blake had died, but he couldn’t be sure. The family had broken apart, its members dispersing like the seeds of a dandelion. If Blake had died, he wondered, had he been buried in something better than a shabby white undershirt?
So many others, too, had vanished from his life. His parents, his brother, two wives, various friends . . . a playful and loyal pit bull named Sugarplum.
The nurses all marveled at Ken’s carefree attitude; he joked and chuckled when perhaps other patients wouldn’t. He’d come in as a kidney patient but was now a heart patient. The ol’ ticker, it seemed, was ticking in an erratic way that might just kill him. So next day they’d do a PET scan to see if a defibrillator could help matters. There was no guarantee.
“A PET scan!” he cackled. “You think I’m a dog? A pit bull?”
Alone, Ken peered out his window at the darkening, rumbling sky. A storm was brewing. He hoped to God it would be a good one, a wild one.
One with loud fireworks and a vicious, pounding rain.
Greg Jenkins is the author of four books, including his recent novel A Face in the Sky, and dozens of short stories. His work has appeared in such journals as Prairie Schooner, Prism International, Chicago Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, and Mensa Bulletin. He has also had a number of plays produced.
by Lise Funderburg’s Id
as told to Lise Funderburg
Holiday party season is once again upon us—a time of dough-forward cookie trays and ornamental cabbages, of feigned interest and conversational quicksand. This year, why not ride the crest of incivility that has taken our nation by storm? Say what you mean. Say whatever you feel like, then get the hell out of Dodge. Examples follow:
“I thought you were more attractive from across the room.”
“It sure is noisy in here. I think it’s the sound of other people having fun.”
“Fish sauce is the ultimate umami, you say? Bye, I say.”
“I can’t hear you, and I don’t want to.”
“How do you know LA is ‘where it’s at for young artists’ when you are neither?”
“That person knows people, so I’m heading there. You stay here.”
“Was there a point to that?”
“What I’m getting from your airless and yet flatulent rant of the last eight minutes is that you, more than anyone, saw the current political situation coming. Now see me going.”
“When I said, ‘I don’t follow sports,’ I thought it implied baseball. My bad.”
“That woman blocking the food table is showing people YouTube cat videos on her phone. I think it would be better for both of us if you joined them.”
“I desperately need to refill my drink, and I will neither offer to refill yours nor rejoin you afterward.”
“Have you heard of tongue scrapers? They’re great for halitosis.”
“I’ve never put ‘home renovation’ and ‘Shakespearean’ together. I suggest you don’t, either.”
“If I understand you correctly, you’re saying jack shit about diddly squat.”
“That’s enough about your comics collection, don’t you think?”
“Oh, look! It’s my accountant! Want to meet him?”
Lise Funderburg’s id is based in Philadelphia and has done little or nothing of note, except to get Lise Funderburg in trouble from time to time.
A teaspoon of salt. It is flaky and the flakes overrun the tiny spoon and the recipe calls for kosher but the only thing in my cupboard is the fancy kind from France bought at the organic grocery store. Already I’m doing it wrong.
On my counter, in various-sized bowls:
• 1/4 cup flour
• Carrots (2)—julienned
• Onion—small, diced
• Sweet potatoes (2)—large dice
• 1 cup chickpeas
• 1 tbs paprika
• a few strands of saffron, sitting delicately in a white ramekin. The strands are small and fine like microorganisms; they are potent despite their size. If I look through a microscope, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are actually alive.
A prepared chef is a good chef, my mother used to say, her words filling her mouth, thick and spicy-sweet, like the apricots in the tagines she made on Sundays. She’s been dead for three months and I hate cooking. But for my father’s seventieth, I’m giving it a try. He misses my mother. She cooked a lot. I don’t.
A few hours later, he is first to arrive. I seat him in the lounge chair that used to be his—leather, the color of the yolk on an over-boiled egg. When they upgraded to the beach condo, my mother said they had no use for it and replaced it with the stabby discomfort of wicker. I think he still mourns.
I don’t have turmeric. The food will not have the golden hue that says: this flavor will be so deep it will evoke Marrakesh or Fez, or even the urban every-city-ness of Casablanca, where my mother and father met. Instead, I’m sure it will say: welcome to Fridays, can I take your order? So, nostalgic in its own way, but not what I’m going for.
Len and Paula, and the single brother, Joseph, finally arrive. They come together, disgorging from a country-sized vehicle. It’s Len’s and he said they needed it for all their children, but they never had kids.
“Oh my God,” Paula, my sister-in-law, says. “We were just watching SVU in the car.”
“Oh my God,” I repeat, unsure of what God has to do with it.
“I could watch that show for hours,” Paula says. “In fact,” here she giggles like a confessing teenager. “We sat around the corner for the past twenty minutes cuz we just had to finish the episode.”
“How can we help?” Joseph asks, coming in behind Paula.
“Cut this onion,” I say. And it isn’t two chops later that he is crying. Makes two of us.
I had already set the table, and I have no need for any more chopped onion.
“What is this?” Len asks.
“Assigned seating,” I say. There’s grumbling, and I see Paula move her name card.
I put out the food. Cured meats in crenelated folds; cheese: brie, goat, manchego; crudité; eggplant and tomato salad; store-bought bourekas; the stew; and some homemade burnt khobz.
“What, no couscous?” Joseph says smiling.
“Well, petite soeur, trying to be Mom?” Len asks and instantly puts his napkin to his mouth as if trying to catch his words. Too late. There is silence. Loud sips of water. Folding and refolding of napkins. I’m thinking about a response and instead find myself thinking of a joke my mother used to tell, something involving an elephant and a jar of jelly beans—I can’t recall the details and now I’m craving licorice jelly beans.
A film is forming over the stew. The carrots on the veggie tray are sweating. Paula fidgets. My father, who has moved the non-condo worthy chair over to the table, despite its size, heaves a loaded breath through his nose. It causes the flame on the candles to flicker. This house could burn down, I think.
“Dig in,” I finally say. They do. Paula whispers that the stew is bland. Len says it’s just like mom made. I go back to the kitchen. Bring out the pepper grinder and salt. I only eat the prosciutto and bresaola, shoving piece after piece of thin saltiness onto my tongue. I scrape charred flakes from the khobz onto the white lace tablecloth—a wedding gift to my parents, now a worn hand-me-down of mine—another beach-condo casualty. I look over to see my father tracing the lace design with his fingers.
No one gives a toast and I forgot to make dessert. No one sings happy birthday, though everyone mutters it to my father as they leave.
Later, we load the egg-yolk chair into my pick-up. I drive my father home. Install the chair in front of the TV.
“Happy Birthday,” I say as I kiss him on the cheek—a brush of my lips on his leathery cheekbone, almost his eye.
“I hope there are leftovers,” my father says—a kindness. I hold up the containers filled with food. He nods and picks up the remote, reaches for the lever to recline the seat.
In the kitchen, I hear the TV go on—the news. The endless, hopeless news. As he settles in, I make him some tea and put the leftovers in his fridge, enough for the week, maybe more.
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website,www.jenniferflisscreative.com
Call to me at the bottom of the stairs and wrap me in your breathless summering. Confession: my lips are their own puppetry until they’re not. Marionette me: I slashed my voice in the orchestrated light, beams of birdshadow pinned up for dissection on the wall. You were the window. So it seems the same knobby brown knees are embellished on a stranger’s body, appearing like the twin brother of a great dead lover from a childhood storybook, a wax figure that breathes underwater. So it seems holy repetition requires no funeral. Neither does piercing my own side, like the deer who lies down to be devoured and calls it love. I am not calling you a wolf, but. Carelessness sneaks up quiet and beastly and has sorry teeth. And leaves no footprints in its path, hidden ashes littering tall grass.
Erin Slaughter holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Kentucky University. She has been a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Contest, and was nominated for a Best of the Net Award and a Pushcart Prize. You can find her writing in River Teeth, Bellingham Review, Sundog Lit, Tishman Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks: Elegy for the Body (Slash Pine Press, 2017), and the forthcoming GIRLFIRE (dancing girl press, 2018), and is editor and co-founder of literary journal The Hunger. She lives and teaches writing in Nashville.
Geometrically speaking, lines
are illusion because lines have no width.
Yet we know the end from the beginning.
Velocity differs from speed
in that the latter lacks direction. At five
hundred miles per hour, a jet never
reaches the horizon.
The lieutenant says his mission
was accomplished. ………………………..So praise him
on the customary occasions. Any
hesitation ……………is a clip of bullets
or an orchard of flowering plums. Until
a lingering haze evaporates
from the hillside wild, until an assenting
heaven arcs stars. And still,
the canvas assembles its light—
the moths are drawn.
INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM BACKGROUND
The moon is gravity’s drudge,
over the horizon. ………………………One face
is on fire; the other
sees only stars.
A solar flare spills its cargo
of particles over the tundra, searing
Earth’s thin skin of gas. ……………………………….The green
blossom of oxygen
sits quietly in your lungs.
A few atoms of atmosphere drag
the space station down three hundred
feet a day. …………….Its fate
is flaming debris.
At forty thousand feet, the brain
goes black in thirty seconds.
the jet, I can’t hear
the sound of the jet.
If the cat is sawn
in half, ………..it is still both
alive and dead. Among
a million species,
the human race amounts
to a rounding error.
The last sentence is from New Scientist, May 2015
C. John Graham’s poetry has appeared in The Laurel Review, Blue Mesa Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, and other publications. His manuscript, Degrees of Freedom, was a finalist in the 2011 Subito Press and 2014 Slope Editions contests. He lives in Santa Fe and retired as the safety manager for Los Alamos National Laboratory’s particle accelerator facility. He is building a small airplane, serves as a search-and-rescue pilot for Civil Air Patrol, and continues a lifelong spiritual inquiry.
My favorite thing
Is his belief that I might Leave the world unseen
I once left
An imaginary toucan
In a little statue alcove
At my grandmother’s
I procured him one summer
At camp where we sat
In this velvet room
Like a puppet theater
Asked a genie for a present
We couldn’t see
Then I kept him
At grandmother’s because
She let me watch TV
Bought me animal balloons
Some were jet like my bird
Not like cereal or fruit
Sometimes I brought
My toucan things too a watch
Hairpins some green-
Bright coins glass
Then grandmother fell
One day and threw
Her hands in his alcove home
Glass stems the leaves
On her robe flew up
Out scattered his feathers
Petals pumpkin seeds
I watched it all
Happen the whole thing
Injured bleeding my bird
Took wing though I reached
For his lacquer-sharp beak
Part of me
Wants to go back and see
If I could still
Climb up there hug
My knees if the alcove
Is still empty without yellow
Orange green without
Her floral silk sleeve the hand
Reaching toward me
It is icy
Like Keats I cannot see what flowers
Which cup shattered
At my feet
Part of me doesn’t want
To talk about grandmother
I want only
To talk about Keats now
Anemic bright showy
His lips crimson split
So Romantic and easy
My childhood wasn’t
Happy but should be
Or have been
I mean Was it a vision a waking Dream
At night I am standing
On a beach
With the ghost of Keats
There’s a toucan on every
Branch of each tree
Immortal bird Thou wast not born For death
Says Keats as he hands
Me a coconut drink
Its beaded bubbles wink
There’s a hot pink straw
In my purple-stained mouth Musk-rose and violet my
Lips my head start ringing
Too first pale white
Mag Gabbert is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at Texas Tech University, and she previously received an MFA from The University of California at Riverside. Her essays and poems have been published or are forthcoming in journals including 32 Poems, The Rattling Wall, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, LIT Magazine, Sugar House Review, and Sonora Review, among other venues. Mag also serves as an associate editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. For more information, please visit maggabbert.com.