He started with her teeth because he was sick of the expensive foods she’d eat: crusty breads, chewy steaks, stubborn fruits bitten off their pits and stems. When he first told her, she was outraged and not at all compliant. But he knew her better even than she knew herself. She would come around, and she did. She was in pain for weeks but never complained. They ate soup three times a day and saved about fifty dollars a month.
Then it was her hair, which wasn’t such a big deal because there’s no pain in getting rid of a person’s hair. To her, though, it was a big deal. She had a wide, meaty face, and used to hate the people who complimented her hair. Ugly women always get compliments on their hair, she would say. Which was true, but hers really used to be something. Heavy and permanently glossed, fiery black. It was only in the last few years that it had started to go gray at the roots and front—its heaviness pulling it down so much that her scalp, white from never seeing the light of day, began to show. Now, she spent hours soaking and treating it, and many dollars on the products that soaked and treated. When he took out the scissors, she cried and shook her head. But once he started cutting, he noticed something, and she probably did too: the weight was gone. She held onto him that whole night, as though she feared, in her new lightness, that she might float away.
It got easier after that. When he suggested that it was time for her eyes to go, she didn’t argue. Looking at everything around them only reminded her of what she wasn’t—what she didn’t have. When he plugged her ears, she stopped hearing what people said as she walked by. And when he took away her legs, she ceased to walk altogether.
By the time her mouth was forever closed—when she not only didn’t say “no” but couldn’t—he wondered, briefly, if he had gone too far. It was then that he remembered her teeth. Once, at the dentist, they told her that she was brushing too hard. The dentist pulled up her lip and showed them how her gums were worn down. They both gasped at the exposed root of her tooth, and he saw that beneath her gums and skin, she was no more than a skeleton. Everyone was. They didn’t need to be reminded of that every single day for the rest of their lives. He convinced her using money, but she stuck with him because she, too, preferred a life without fear.
With eyes and ears gone, arms and legs sliced off, teeth and fingers plucked away, she spent a lot of time alone with her thoughts. She didn’t care about saving money, nor did she prefer a life without fear. Her body never frightened her the way it terrified him. What she wanted—what she worried about awake and dreamed about when she managed to fall asleep—was him. That was all. She couldn’t see his face or hear his voice, but the air changed whenever he walked into her room. She felt it, knew he was hers, and that was much more than enough. It was perfect.
Claire Stamler-Goody is a writer, scientist, and photographer living in Chicago. Her previous work has appeared in TIMBER Journal, Birds Piled Loosely, and Linden Avenue Lit. She can be found on Twitter @cstamlergoody.
The floor of my Honda is maps stretched wide, the radio all static as I pass rusted mailboxes, farmland, orchards. Leaves are flushing orange—soon much of this scenery will break and fall. The plummet of fruits from boughs, the thick perfume of ripeness.
I heard recently about a woman allergic to all varieties of fruit, her body resistant to its own well-being. Inspired by this small memory of a misfortune not my own, I pull over at a farm-stand heaped with harvest, plunk down a dollar, and push a succession of molasses-dark plums to my mouth. The skin splits against my teeth, my lips skim over to pitted centers. My plan to ration a few for later dissolves as juice skids down my forearms, splashes into the dust at my feet.
An hour later, steering wheel sticky, I pull up to the lakeside resort I’ve booked for the night. Its waters are coffee-dark and swilled with algae, yet I swim anyway to kill the heat. The dirty water veins down my spine and breasts and drapes into my mouth. My hands sear on the rungs of the metal ladder as I pull myself onto the dock, lake water inside all my most intimate places, leaking free.
As I settle onto my stomach to sunbathe in the evening glow, a man appears on the empty sand, his children toddling behind him in their bathing suits and water wings. I hold his stare, his smile, consider the plums burning in the swelter of my car—one for each of his children. But then I remember there’s nothing left, I ate until my chin dripped and my hands emptied. That sensation which surged through me. How it feels like enough.
Jessica Lampard is a graduate of the University of Victoria’s creative writing program. She worked as a technical writer before turning her attention to literary fiction. She has since won second place in Geist’s 13th annual Postcard Story Contest, and one of her short stories is forthcoming in EVENT. She currently lives in Victoria, BC.
Gloria Mastroantonio’s hair, like long coils of blood sausage, clung netted to the back of her head. Tucci, she said, was a bastard for opening that dive next door. Go-go girls in cages dangling from rafters. Streetwalkers with skirts up to their asses. The projects puking tizzones into the avenue. Drinking, doping, carousing all night. In the morning, sidewalks treacherous with smashed quarts of Colt 45. She’d give them Black Power. Time to stick the For Sale sign in the yard and poor-mouth out to the suburbs like the rest of the greenhorns.
She glanced at her husband, Alfred, for approval. An embarrassed man with a clipped licorice mustache, he worked in the hardware store his father had opened after emigrating from Manfredonia, in Puglia, a hobnail in the boot heel of Italy. Alfred said nothing. He sucked biscotti and sipped coffee dosed with anisette.
Above the mantel floated The Blue Boy, an oil by Thomas Gainsborough, in its heavy ornate frame. An effeminate, long-haired eighteenth century boy in blue frilly brocade waistcoat, puttees, shoes with bows, a plumed hat depended from his right hand, left arm crooked at his hip. A black forelock clawed his brow like a grackle feather.
Gloria and Alfred knew nothing about the painting—nor how it came to be mounted in their dining room. As if Blue Boy had slipped in, climbed the wall and hung himself on a nail. They never mentioned it, as if it were invisible, like a child they had whelped, then forgotten.
Upstairs, the Mastroantonios’ only child, Louis Rocco, had been sketching as he listened to his mother’s nattering, his father’s distant silence. He barely breathed, mesmerized by his photographic drawing of a penis, the scrotum nesting in its black Rorschach of hair. Like his father’s, biding from the cliff of his spongy, white belly, spigoting grey water as he breached from his bath. How mortifying that he had issued from between Gloria and Alfred’s legs. His sudden laughter broke loud enough to startle them. They smelled sulfur from the match head and smoke coming from the bathroom as Louis Rocco attempted to burn away his mortal sin.
Gloria reached him just as he flushed the drawing, still guttering flame, down the toilet.
“What was that?” she asked repeatedly. When he refused to answer, she slapped him, her hand imprinted on his cheek.
Alfred watched without saying a word. The boy moved his eyes from mother to father, then looked nowhere.
“Are you retarded?” Gloria screamed. “Some kind of retard?”
Louis Rocco had seen Blue Boy around the neighborhood, setting off red rolls of caps with a broken brick. He smelled of gunpowder and perfume. Older boys peed in Iron City beer bottles and told Blue Boy it was beer. They called him faggot.
Louis Rocco knew the subject of The Blue Boy was thought to be Jonathan Buttall, the son of a hardware merchant. He also knew that underneath the painting lay another that Gainesborough had never finished.
Joseph Bathanti is former Poet Laureate of North Carolina and recipient of the 2016 North Carolina Award in Literature. He is the author of ten books of poetry, including Concertina, winner of the 2014 Roanoke Chowan Prize. A new novel, The Life of the World to Come, was released in late 2014. His new volume of poems, The 13th Sunday after Pentecost, was released by LSU Press in 2016. Bathanti teaches at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC.
THE DAY AFTER BRAHMA OPENED ONE EYE
by Nicole Burney
We knew without speaking
your left eye open just a crack
caught between moans and a gasp.
I toss in your arms
an aggrieved hiccup cradled
beneath goose down and duvet
we are left with simple devastations
and I teeter from lush investment.
Wake up! Brahma
tell me stories
the way your mother taught you
in windswept ghazals.
In the somber months
I’ll show you how certain clouds
bear a striking resemblance to Moby Dick.
Let’s clean house and wrestle hosannas out of thin air
you make breakfast
I’ll change the linens
there’s just enough cinematography between us
so pack your oil paints and trumpet
I’ll bring Baldwin and a hammer.
Nicole Burney is a native of New Jersey. She’s drawn to explore language, estrangement, and the myriad ways poetry allows one to reconnect. She joined the Somerset Poetry Group around 2015, in order to commune with other Jersey poets and conquer stage fright. She also works as a literacy volunteer for non-native English speakers. She’s appeared or will appear in The Rumpus, Cold Creek Review, Glass Poetry, and Obsidian Literature & Arts.
The hair the doctors cut to clear
from underneath the stitches,
long and light,
marbled my black shirt.
As with solar flares
storming, I was learning and losing
hot shapes rapidly,
cultivating the worry
sparking my scalp, my nape, my spine,
and on around,
a long caress,
to my right breast,
to my mons pubis.
With the second excision
eyes leaking on the plastic pillow I knew
or came to know
this was my
another few years two moles might
morph and halo,
fizzle out. Brilliant and
Julia Leverone adjunct lectures at UT Dallas in Spanish and creative writing. Her second chapbook, “Little Escape,” won the 2016 Claudia Emerson Poetry Chapbook Prize from JMWW; her book of translations, Fuel and Fire: Selected Poems of Francisco Urondo, is forthcoming from Diálogos Press. Her poems have been placed in Cimarron Review, Salamander, Posit, the Cortland Review, and other literary venues. Julia is the editor of Sakura Review.
……What would a God expect, anticipate. And what,
besides endurance or equation, what, besides sentence,
metaphor, should God, wearing a first name
and welcoming cheered brothers, make of an occasion
and address, of conditions say, the debris
of sentiment, a God, three marveling equal parts, while
we, memorably at home, embrace in ourselves
the need for understanding, another April out of doors,
to see how these geese persist, below the leafless
short limbs the geese will soon abandon, huddling, until
green’s fulfilled, and the robins, believing something’s
up, shriek from, fly off, from the ivy where they’re nesting,
shaken, we think, by two below, by the chiminea glow
and porch tunes, or by this sense of something up, besides
the first good week of spring, as if it were always, only
a matter of sense, of mutual, incontrovertible affirming,
to taste on the tongue, spun wildly, the pitch
and pillow talk of the Creation, to find, in warmth-raised
fogs, the blue and bright to clear off morning cautions,
positioning the phrase and signature, with gratitude
to bear, and a word, beyond all words amazement’s
ever meant, like some cross-species correcting
and delight, or these patches, say, we think
must keep the barns up through …….hard seasons.
Robert Lietz’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Agni, Antioch Review, Carolina Quarterly, Colorado Review, Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Poetry, and Shenandoah. Eight collections have been published, including Running in Place, At Park and East Division, The Lindbergh Half-century (L’Epervier Press,) Storm Service, and After Business in the West (Basal Books.) His poems have appeared in several webzines. Additionally, he spends a good deal of time taking, post-processing, and printing photographs, examining the relationship between the image-making and the poems he is exploring.
A rose means many things, and only some of it is love. Desdemona means innocence. Sir Galahad, humility. Give Dainty Bess to show appreciation. Silver Shadow for admiration. You Only Live Once for gratitude. Eleanor is the lavender of love at first sight. So too is the plum of Night Owls. The Middlesbrough Football Club is the cultivar for desire and enthusiastic passion. Its particular shade of orange is as ridiculous as a riot. Red as Satchmo, red as Happy Christmas, red as City of Leeds. Red means enduring passion. From the beginning a rose meant there was an old poet who thought himself unreasonably clever and was obsessed with the virginity of much younger women. From the same, but less quoted beginning, roses meant fire.
Before roses meant fire, Dorothea, according to this and that lying storyteller of a medieval historian, was taken before a judge and tortured for the witchcraft of refusing to marry a powerful man. And then tortured for the witchcraft of returning from the tub of boiling oil unharmed. And subsequently for surviving unmarked for nine days in a deep prison without food or drink. For saying she was fed on the succor of God’s angels. For being fairer and brighter to look upon than ever before. For the descent of a multitude of angels and the sound of the demon fiends in the air wailing, “O Dorothy why dost thou destroy us and torment us so sore?” She was hanged on the gibbet. And rent with hooks of iron. On and on it went, graphic and strangely erotic, as the martyrologia always are. What more proof could a judge possibly need? It is helpful to remember her crime was never that she displayed too little of her power. Near the end of her trial, which was also the beginning of her punishment, she gave a very long speech about faith in God that only a priest could love. The judge asked, “How long wilt thou drag us along with thy witchcraft?” She answered, “I am ready to suffer for my lord, my spouse, in whose gardeyne full delicious I have gaderd rosis and apples.” Then she bowed her head, and the man cut it off.
She bowed her head, and the man cut it off, but not before Theophilus, a notary of Rome, mocked her by asking for roses and apples from her spouse’s garden even though it was midwinter. Further along her path to the place of execution, a child with star-filled eyes came to her carrying a basket with three roses and three apples. She sent the boy to find Theophilus. To convert him and save his soul and set him on his own path to glorious martyrdom, the fifteenth-century account claims. But you could also say she was trolling him. In any event, by this miracle the city of Caesarea in Cappadocia, which is in present-day Turkey, was converted and saved. A reassuring story Christians told themselves about a faraway place to which their soldiers set forth on crusades even as heretics at home began to burn in ever greater numbers. In this way it reminds me very much of our war, our president, our police beating batons against their shields as they chant through body armor and face masks, “Whose streets? Our streets.” It reminds me of every headline in the paper every morning of this year or that one. For preaching of Dorothy’s miracle in the streets, Theophilus was cut into small pieces and fed to the birds. For reasons that are unclear to me, considering she was decapitated, not burned, Dorothy was named a special protectress against fire, lightening, and thundering. For reasons that are unclear to me, the Church has decreed we take comfort in this tale. That we conclude there is nothing to fear on God’s green earth, everything is coming up roses.
Everything is coming up roses, Sir John Mandeville said, in another fifteenth-century collection of marvelous and chiefly untrue accounts of far travels. In Bethlehem, he wrote, a woman was sentenced to burn for consorting with demons. She professed her innocence with the fervency of a Desdemona in full bloom. She prayed to the lord as if she were offering a bouquet of Eleanors. When she entered her pyre, the branches that had been licking flames became boughs laden red with Happy Christmas, the branches not yet ignited became boughs of blossoms as white as the Sir Galahad. “And those were the first roses and rosers that any man saw, and thus was the mayden saved through the grace of God.” I love thinking of how those tongues of flame fell down sweet and lovely and harmless. I love thinking of how a mob could never be the same after seeing something like that. What could a crowd become after witnessing such a gentle miracle but a participatory democracy with socialist economic policies? Who could be anything other than patient with the eccentricities and shortcomings of their neighbors when their eyes and hearts had been so touched by divine mercy?
Who could be anything other when their hearts had been so touched? I am quite impatient these days with shortcomings and everything else, so I will pull the Band-Aid quickly. The Voyages of Sir John Mandeville, like the Martyrologium of the Catholic Church, are propaganda, sometimes for a crusade, sometimes for an inquisition, the colonization of a continent or the enslavement of a people. By Mandeville’s account, the place of this miracle is a great lake of rose bushes that stretch as far as the eye can see. Many crusaders clipped huge blossoms of the damask as their horses waded through. At the edge of the field you will find “the place where our Lord was born, that is full well dight of marble, and full richly painted with gold, silver, azure…” What a satisfying tale this is, some will say—God turned even that humble stable into a pile of money. The roses too are nothing more than a very old version of the prosperity gospel sermons that promise the world is already as God wishes it to be. If you are prosperous, the stories assure, it is not for you to worry. Because the Lord will know you by how your roses all turned into dollars that turned into that particular way of dressing and speaking and casting up or down your eyes that seems as holy as providence itself, and which turned then into additional roses. It is worth noting that Roman emperors all used rose water as a form of currency; sometimes it was as precious as gold, sometime more. But don’t despair, history is not all lies—the part about the fire is real.
The part about the fire is as real as the Persian legend told here and there throughout the archives: the rose is red because the nightingale so dearly loved a white rose. He embraced it with ardor. Thorns pierced the bird’s breast. The blood of his broken heart turned the white petals to a deep crimson. In another tale the foam that dripped from Aphrodite as she emerged from the sea turned into white roses. the tears she shed over the body of her beloved Adonis turned them red. In the Gulistan Saadi tells the story of a wise man who became “immersed in the ocean of divine presence.” When he returned to himself, a friend asked, “From the flower garden where thou wast, what miraculous gift has thou brought for us?” He answered that he meant to fill his lap with rose trees, but, “When I arrived there the fragrance of the roses so intoxicated me that the skirt of my robe slipped from my hand.” This is a reflection on the unreal world to which our souls have, it is said, determined to fly. Perhaps this is why roses that have been cultivated so hard look like they are trying to prove something. People point to them in stained glass windows and mystic poetry as sign posts toward a life more real than this one. But have you ever seen a rosebush withering away of witches’ broom? It is one of the ways I know I am entirely and really here.
One of the ways I know I am entirely and really here is to walk in the fall woods among the bare and fragile trees. Witches’ broom, the common name for a deformity in a woody plant, is a disease that changes the natural structure so that a mass of shoots grows from a single point. After the leaves fall, you might see some poor tree looking over-nested or, if it is very far gone, its crown looks like a heart pin-cushioned by arrows. In roses the foliage becomes distorted and frazzled. The leaves become so red they are almost purple. They refuse to open any farther than a tight rosette and become excessively thorny. A fungus carried from one bush to the next by wooly mites, the only solution is to tear out and destroy diseased plants. I have little interest in roses. They are ugly and too precious. I just like the way a dying girl flipped off an asshole and it got called a miracle. And then that asshole had a change of heart. I like the way people could imagine themselves making a mistake and God saving them from it, though that part worries me too. The wild rose of the Teutons symbolized battle, death, the underworld. Their adolescent soldiers charged into the fight garlanded with roses. They called the battlefields where they fell rose gardens.
Where they fell there were rose gardens. Rose—Hebrew for first blood spilled on the earth. Rose—Greek for the blood of Xerxes. Rose—Christian for Mary the Mother, for virtuous suffering and virtuous joy, for virgins devoted to God. Rose—French for prostitute. Rose—Roman for decadence. Rose—English for a certain kind of power and the exchange of sweet secrets. I have never been given roses by a man who wasn’t making me uncomfortable with how hard he was, it seemed, trying to earn, or maybe even buy, me. Rose—nineteenth-century apothecary for headache, hysteria, and other female complaints. In the Gulistan, the mole on her face is something else. Her face is something else. The ecstatic sensations between you and me are something else. The love of God, maybe, or knowledge of God, or union with God. If it has to be something other than what it is, I wish it were also something other than a rose.
I wish it were also something other than a rose. A popular opinion is that roses mean beauty. A popular opinion is that the pursuit of beauty will lead us to justice. Beauty means many things, of which truth and justice are the most rare. Roses, of any color, are the symbol of people telling themselves what they want to hear and then giving a bouquet of it to someone else, with a note on the card that says in fine calligraphy, “Believe me when I say…” Because language itself is impossible. It is nothing but signs and symbols for ideas that hover just beyond this reality. We drag the words in. Sometimes we drag in rose, crown, thorn, fire. Sometimes we try but fail in any meaningful way to drag in the bigger words, love, beauty, justice. This is the failure I believe in. Aphrodite emerged from the sea because that was where Ouranos’s testicles fell when his sun Chronos cut them off with a sickle. That we think anything means at all requires first a belief that the universe is organized enough for meaning to transmit from silence into words. Whether it is or isn’t or does or doesn’t is something else that every bloom of these roses means.
Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of the essay collection Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past(Ohio State University Press, 2017), as well as two poetry collections, The End of Pink (BOA, 2016) and Rag & Bone (Elixir, 2011). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, and American Antiquarian Society, she is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as the director of Pleiades Press. Recent essays appear in or are forthcoming from Brevity, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Paris Review, The Journal, and Tupelo Quarterly.
They were the only friends I had. All of them had palms that changed colors when they stroked my hair, picked up an iron pot or peeled yucca. I remember one of them with more love than the rest—her palms turned purple when she showed me her lifelines. She was never able to show me her life, though. She would turn her hands up and the bright point of an amethyst’s reflection would lacquer her palms. At one point, I think there were five.
They would sometimes disappear. I found Father chasing after one on the black and white checkered marble living floors. She had her arms up over her face and ears like chicken feathers and Father laughed excitedly. I might have heard her laughing, too, but she was only a couple of years older than me back then. She had once carried me with her left arm and pushed my little brother in his shady lace umbrella stroller with her right and somehow also tugged on Cookie. Back then we would run into more stray dogs than Cookies on our way to the grocery store—she was a moppy mutt, but she was of the lucky kind, the kind that got pushed and pulled around and only choked a little and always fed at night. One of them must have been hungrier than the dogs because she sold my mother’s favorite pup to the man at the grocery store. I remember asking where Cookie was going and she told me she was getting a haircut. This was before she told me urine was the best moisturizer. I was getting old enough to wonder. I was getting old enough when she sliced the wet part of my little brother’s diaper with her nails and urine leaked out onto her cuspate hands. She splashed her face then splashed my own. She splashed my little brother’s vitamins on her face at least a couple of times a day.
The day I got sick, the one with the purple palms was the only one home. I don’t know where everyone else was, but it’s as if they knew I was coming and needed help. I had grown a belly for the white mane, the mangy toes, the infectious secrets inside me.
The Doctor says that in the morning, if I look up closely, if I tilt my head and look up closely at the sky, I can see that we pretend like something tangible is there, but no, it has never been true. The Doctor doesn’t know everything but he knows about the Nurses.
Balustrade, balustrade, balustrade, haught, haught, haught, I spin down the chandeliers and ching-ching the pugs are dead. What a scene. The sink in the downstairs bathroom is full of bloody chicken feathers like pillows because my bladder does not shut. Yesterday I was happier throwing doll heads into the empty pool. I kept thinking tachycardia was a gift every time I reached for one of their cigarette butts. Today I grow tired of waiting and wish my body would rot. Immediately upon wishing, I slip off the same marble stair eighty-eight times. I repent by spinning in circles for as long as I think it takes to tumble down magnetism and blow round the wooden wheels of my bicycle. I sit on rat shit while they peel potatoes and chug rum over boiling iron skillets. I’m sorry and claw skin off my wrists until my bones show and one of the Nurses comes for me. I run away from her. I run up and down the chimney and dismantle the roof then return to the bathroom where one by one I spoon out the wall’s mosaics. I stack the magenta and green pebbles on top of my toes and make out an orange star ahead, across the walls, on the other side of myself. I hear one of them still running behind me, dragging her collard cat nails inside wood, so I jump through the hole I made in the wall towards the orange gleam.
I sit in the room I carved inside the walls of my house. I never knew my organs could feel like parasites on my shoulders. The room is pitch-purple with dim orange fog emanating from that star I cannot touch faraway. I sit and count the toes on my feet when I see her. I feel the skin of a dead animal under me. One of the room’s walls is cut in half by a tunnel as thick as two apples side by side. A little girl walks through it. She is my mother as a little girl, tired and alone, I scream “Hello!” to see if she can hear me. She keeps walking to the miniature furniture at one end of the tunnel. She sits on a red rocking chair next to a record stand with a white wedding cake. I have not eaten for two days. I’m so hungry I reach for the cake, my vision fogged down by the fumes of my saliva. I cannot touch my baby mother or rocking chair or cake. Now I hear the Nurses’ bones crunching through the exposed bathroom wall towards me.
I have not eaten for two days because of the pain. Because I think I suffer from the sawdust and dust-lag of time. Every pit of my body releases a pound of dirt, nostrils, ears, mouth, urethra, and asshole, except the blood that gushes from in between and down my legs. One of the Nurses plugs the blood with a dirty cleaning rag hanging over her shoulder. She and the other four Nurses stand around me inside the purple-pitch room with my little mother. All five nurses wear white dresses and white caps; hold hay brooms with their right hands and yellow dusters with their left. My mother’s mouth looks like a creamy vagina crease. There is no more cake on the record table. I’m still hungry.
I sleep in my mother’s childhood bed and bedroom. I collect the petals of the bougainvillea that fall in through midnight’s cut on the ceiling. These flowers bloom and give birth before falling on the bed, their placentas scatter underneath me and drown my mother’s sheets with crimson trails that unearth the floor. My mother’s stench emanates from the floor; her regurgitated cells are pushed away on wheelbarrows. I wish to peel the dead skin off her bedroom walls, the smell of mildew, potatoes and cream.
I sleep in my mother’s old nightgown. I sleep all sanctimonious and clean with blondness rustling my skin. I wait for the Nurses to take me away in wheelbarrows, for their spiky hooves to puncture my skin and form freckles underneath where my arms hang. Trabecula, trabecula, trabecula, caught, caught, caught my mother’s sheets are dusty and kind. Night’s fumes sift through them and fly over my belly, wrap under my chin and enter my mouth. The Nurses think they’re helping me.
The Nurses come inside to slap the wet mattress. One untethers the sheets and dunks them in a cast iron pot of boiling water. Another wrestles a broomstick down and across with her triceps, sweeping the hay of head hairs unmeshed on my mother’s floor. I crawl off my mother’s bed holding onto one of their palms, but they leave me at the sound of the pugs eating a dead songbird by the empty pool outside.
I walk over to eat shattered window glass. I’m hungry. The shards get lost in the roof of my mouth; they tap and sink into my tongue. I spit out bloody crystal bubbles onto my mother’s nightstand and see a trail of ants cutting the wood in half, patterning solemnly, one by one with whiplashed saline shoulders. I follow them outside my mother’s room, down the marble winding stairwell and across the dining hall into the kitchen. I march with the ants underneath the kitchen stove. They feast on yucca and potatoes browned in feces. Two red palms pull and press down on my ears like curved tongs. The Nurse with the red palms twists and turns the vertebrae linking my head to my spinal cord; she opens a bottle of Pepsi cola and fills my hand with crunchy ice cubes. The cubes burn my hands but the Nurse piles the ice cubes even higher every time I shake them off. I carry a tower of snow on the skinny hand my mother made me—when one diamond falls the others reorganize. I run back underneath the stove. The Nurses are grilling dead trout with the ardor of lemons. Sour oil and hot water ignite and fall onto my ankles.
Underneath the stove with the ants I find a baby doll with loose glass eyelids. Her name is Aura and I pretend she’s small enough for me to hold. I pretend I can run my fingers over the end hairs of her arms. I sniff the space between her legs, stick my nose into plastic covered in pillowed cotton and do not smell yeast or rancid metal. She’s young. Cream, fish, cheese, powdered milk, and yolk sing a sad ballad of dead kings. Aura belongs to the smuggling ants crimping pieces with four limbs and two antennae like snake tongues. They have their own dinner table. Aura is the center of their castle, a mountain of oily grime and dead human skin. I feel at home here until the Nurses shrink and come after me. They throw poisonous missiles and cook ant brains with carbon monoxide. One Nurse takes a bird’s nest out of her dress pocket, another takes an Easter basket out of her hair, they both pick off the dead ants, collect them in mason jars to season the fish.
I find a room as small as a closet full of hay brooms and feather dusters. Underneath leftover bleach and rags drenched in vinegar, I find steps only big enough for my small feet to climb. Up one by one, one by one, until I face an unlocked door as small as the space from one thigh to another. The room behind the door has walls moistened with chunky butter—it helps me slide right in with somersaults, ricochet, ricochet, ricochet, womb, womb, womb, ting-ting a dinner party. No one turns their heads when I plop into the ballroom attic. I look back to where I come from; I look back to how I got here and see the passage was a slide dressed in greasy-horse-liver flesh. My body is still clean; I wear a light pink dress and tutu, glass slippers and white socks with ankle ruffles. I bow to the men in tuxedos and women in tight black silk gowns holding champagne glasses. One of the men talks to me; he’s holding a pug like a skull. My chest grows cherries, red bulbs popping into blossom, I pick one off to taste and the man slaps my hand away. The slap smells like loneliness and salty water, it appears in fingerprints on my hand. The man looks at his pug, pinches the tip of its ear, and says “suffer” (says ‘tis nobler). The pug gyrates its head and snaps into his own fur with his jaw. Dog bites spread like wildfires stampeding through the man’s chest. The pug hops on my shoulder like a parrot, I hear the tuxedo man’s heart, I hear live heart flesh beating, pumping human blood inside the pug’s stomach.
Originally from Cali, Colombia, Verónica Jordán-Sardi immigrated to the United States with her immediate family as a young teen fleeing sociopolitical unrest. She holds a B.A. in English Literature and French from the University of Florida, an M.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from California College of the Arts. Her work can be found in Columbia Journal, Litro Mag, and Comparative Literature Commons. Verónica currently lives in New York where she teaches writing and reading in English as a second language at the City University of New York.
It was one of those days, those clear May days, where the clouds are short brush strokes of white, the sky is that one shade of blue, and the water is so clear the world above and below becomes one on the surface. We were walking by the river and we saw ourselves in the water, laughing and living. We saw ourselves, and we stopped and waved and yearned. We wished to be them—what made them better than us?
We knelt closer to them as they knelt closer to us. We should stop, one of us said. She was blonde and pretty and smart and always right. She was so pretty and right, and that made us jealous, so we kissed ourselves and it was cool and wet, and we kissed and kissed, tongue and all, until we became our reflections.
We looked up at her. Why did you stop? we asked. We lamented her betrayal. Join us, join us, join us, we crooned, but she ran. Then we were trapped beneath the surface, left only to eat sunshine and what park-goers would toss in—McDonald’s wrappers, Granny Smith cores, lost affections. We came to crave it; it was delicious.
She came back the next week. She threw in Ritz crackers and her pity, and we so voraciously ate them. Come in, join us, we said. Please, just a little closer, we pleaded. She left, and we wept to mend our broken hearts.
That was last year. We still wait, but there’s only one of us now. The others left long ago to other rivers, streams, brooks, lakes in search of lovers or hope or hopeful lovers. They left, but we remain because we love her, but she doesn’t come. She never comes and the river dries up day by day, threatening to end us.
Today she comes, though. Down the path we see her. We run to her, but we see someone else in her hand, in her heart, so we turn away. It’s been a year. Come out, please, she says. She is kneeling at the bank. You will die, she says, tracing the receding waterline with a finger.
We shake our heads. Join us, we say. We’ll be beautiful together. She’s blonde and smart and still right and so pretty, so pretty we hate her. She stands and leaves, and we try to reach out to feel every inch of her, to caress her with our lips, to smell her happiness again. We try so hard, but we cannot. Beneath the surface we call out for her, but she’ll never come to this river again, and we cry and cry and cry. We cry so much we refill the dying river, rejuvenating it with our sorrow, giving it life with what in us has died.
It’s just one of those days, those clear May days.
Youssef Helmi is a junior at Florida State University where he studies Creative Writing, Political Science, and Arabic. His flash piece “More” was featured in Issue 17 of Cleaver Magazine. When not writing, he enjoys playing NBA 2K, watching Studio Ghibli movies, and musing over the musical merits of death metal.
It was midnight or a little after when the octopuses emerged from the ocean. They were doing it all along the beachfront. Suction-cupping their way away from water. Their bodies like a curtain’s hem, fluttering in the foreign air.
We picked them from the sand and watched them deflate and reinflate. Their eyes were opal. We felt them slip and slither through our palms; they were each only about five inches in diameter. You could fold them into your pocket like a handkerchief.
On the third night, there were hundreds. A gang of octopuses. We counted as many as we could and we checked for signs of injury. They were perfectly healthy, though. No reason for their mass suicide. I gave you a tissue to wipe your eyes, but you were inconsolable. And angry. I don’t know why you were angry. We’d driven all the way from Caernarfon; you staring at the castles as they slipped by, concealed mostly by hills and woods; me watching the road.
“We could save them,” you said, shining your torch into the void.
“We can’t save them all,” I said.
“We can try.”
You plucked a small one from the sand and ran with it down to the beach, holding it like a precious piece of silk. At the water’s edge, you threw it into the shallows and watched it bob in the waves.
Each undulation brought it closer to shore.
“They just come back,” I said, and you stared at me hard.
In the car, we listened to the radio. I ate a cheese sandwich, and you ate nothing.
“It’s not senescence,” I said. “They’re healthy, young even.”
In your lap, the little octopus wriggled its tentacles, one eye fixed and cloudy. Open. Completely open.
Jonathan Cardew’s stories appear or are forthcoming in Wigleaf, Cream City Review, Passages North, Superstition Review, JMWW, People Holding, and Atticus Review, among others. He is the fiction editor for Connotation Press and contributing books reviewer for Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine. He recently won the Best Small Fictions Micro Fiction Contest. Originally from the UK, he lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Back when play carried less grief,
our darkness ruined only a half-acre
or so of the light. The rest was all
tire swings & spring-bound horses.
Leaping over cracks in concrete to
save your mother’s spine. Weapon-
ized branches shaken loose by past
storms. Cowboys & Indians. Soldier
& Other. Then the world.
Do you remember when we cut eyes
into paper & wore yesterday’s news
over our faces? How it took hours
to wash all that ink from our eyes.
How you would play one animal &
I would not-so-much-pretend to be
another. Mask, you called it. Then I
would ask which one?
There was a time we found stars in
our bodies. As I chased you across
the sky’s absences. Rising: cresting:
falling, like any semi-permanent, lit
thing. Grass stain. Sprained heaven.
& me saying night contains so many
eternities we never know which will
John Sibley Williams is the editor of two Northwest poetry anthologies and the author of nine collections, including Disinheritance and Controlled Hallucinations. An eleven-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Vallum Award for Poetry. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, Poet Lore, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, and various anthologies.
After the Washing of the Feet, an old woman gets up.
She reaches into a basket. Takes out a couple of snakes.
The sound of rattlesnakes? Pennies nickels dimes poured
from a Mason jar, if loose change was as unpredictable as
an Old Testament God or a job in a mine where generations
exhaust hope. She drapes a snake over each palm and thumb,
welcomes a show of fangs. The pleats of her skirt are starched
and each reptile, in turn, starts to rub against the crenellations.
Pleats may spark trust. But then the gospel of one-note hissing
isn’t music; though neither is the slamming of the screen door,
the loud exit of an unbeliever from Hemphill. Lose the snakes,
the congregant is my grandmother’s sister or might as well be.
Her hair is pulled up in a too-tight bun—now she motions me
onstage. I get up and go outside. In waist-high grasses tonight
in the hills are nations of snakes. Especially in mid-August.
But I should be halfway to Fleming-Neon before anything
venomous stirs in the wet dark washing my feet as I run.
Granny said it needed to arrive without delay, her train for glory.
I’m sure I know what she meant now. And I had some idea then.
At 7, though, I hadn’t ridden a train yet. Let alone one to Glory.
She watched Billy Graham Crusades. And made me watch, too.
Glory sounded like it was a town in her east-Kentucky girlhood.
Maybe it showed up, out of nowhere, like the preacher on TV.
I didn’t know how she existed, forever crying and raising her
hands toward the ceiling or longed-for Heaven. Calling out.
The way she did it, her brand of worship, if it had been washing
on a galvanized washboard then she would have rawed her hands.
I didn’t imagine this applied to my life. I hadn’t earned damnation.
I brought her the last unopened can of peaches from the kitchen—
Glory Foods produced peaches and I thought it would be funny.
I handed her those and she went back through what she’d said
about Glory. She got the joke—because she waved the can.
Said the opener and spoon would be the last word on that.
Roy Bentley is the recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, and fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the Ohio Arts Council. Books include Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama, 1986), Any One Man (Bottom Dog, 1992), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine Press, 2006), Starlight Taxi (Lynx House Press, 2013); as well as Walking with Eve in the Loved City, a finalist for the Miller Williams Prize and due out from the University of Arkansas Press.
Her doctor said he’d sign us up, you know, for the trial. That either she’d get the real drug or the fake one, and we wouldn’t know which, of course. But fifty-fifty, you got to think that’s a pretty good shot and all. I said that to her in the car afterwards. “Pretty good shot,” I said. “I think we’ve got it.”
Frankie nodded, more to herself than to me, I thought. Sort of nodded to herself like she needed that affirmation. I nodded, too, more for her than for me. Fifty-fifty, I thought. That’s a pretty good shot. I mean, those doctors might even be giving all them patients the real drug, not the fake one, that is. I mean, was it even legal to give a fake drug when a real one could work?
I said that to her, too. I said, “You know, it’s hard to imagine they’d even give someone that fake stuff when the real stuff’s right there.”
She nodded again. I thought maybe I should stop talking. Maybe this wasn’t helping. I turned my attention back to the road and drummed my thumbs against the wheel as I drove.
“I mean, fifty-fifty,” I said. “That’s a darn good shot, I’d say.”
“You already did, Jack. I mean, really, just for right now, could you?”
“Yeah, yeah of course,” I said, and I put the radio on and just kept my eyes on the road.
Yeah, I thought, fifty-fifty. That ain’t bad chances. I’d had worse chances than that before. Like when I was nine. About sixty-forty then, I’d say. Was out hunting with my dad in the marshes behind our house, shotgun slung over my back, when I slipped in a bit of mud. Fell face forward is what I did. Fell face forward and didn’t catch myself ‘til my arms were a few inches deep in the water, and right about two yards in front of me, staring right back at me, was one of those moccasins, all stretched out and sunning itself on a rock there between the reeds. Was too scared to move. Could hear my dad calling for me somewhere to my left, but I knew I didn’t have much time when he started to open his jaws at me, showing me the white of his mouth. May have been more like eighty-twenty odds, now I’m thinking of it, but in one motion I swung my shotgun forward and blew the damn snake’s head off.
“You know,” I said. “I almost died hunting with my dad once.”
“Water moccasin, right?”
I nodded. I suppose I told that one a lot. I got a lot of nods for that one, a lot of glass raises, a few “oh Lords” and “by Gods.” For sure, though, it was a good one.
“I think Dr. Riley was hinting at us though, don’t you?” I said.
“Hinting at us?”
“I think I saw him wink.”
Frankie turned to look out the window. “I don’t remember that.”
I shrugged. “No, I think he did. You think he was trying to tell us something?”
“He doesn’t know who gets the real stuff either, Jack.”
“Well, he says he doesn’t, but he might—”
“Jack really, would you?”
“Sorry, hon, sorry. I don’t mean to.”
“I know you’re worried,” she said, and she reached over and touched my knee. “Just not so much, okay?”
I nodded and patted her hand. She rubbed her hand on my knee, then started going a bit up the inside of my thigh. I patted her hand on my thigh.
“Don’t worry, Jack,” she said. “Our chances are good, aren’t they?”
“Real good,” I said, but suddenly I thought our chances weren’t so good. I smiled at her anyways and I patted her hand again, and she told me to pull off onto the side of the road.
“Pull off?” I said. “Just right here?”
“Just right there is fine. Right there.”
I slowed the car and drifted us off onto the gravel that separated the road from some guy’s farm. Frankie moved her hand further up my thigh, and I started to squirm. We didn’t normally do things like this. Like pulling off the road.
“What’s up, Frankie?” I said, looking over at her, and she looked back at me the same as usual. But she had her hand pretty far up my thigh now, which was not the same as usual, and I wondered if she’d started to think our chances weren’t so good anymore either. “You didn’t take something, did you?” I said.
I shook my head, and I pulled the keys from the ignition.
I glanced at her over the top of my morning paper. She was breathing heavy and gripping the arms of her chair. Staring a bit too intently, I thought, at the floor by my feet. I looked down at the floor by my feet, folding the paper over to see.
“What’s that, hon?” I said.
Frankie glanced up at me. “What’s that, Jack?”
“I said, ‘what’s that?’ What ya’ looking at there, hon?”
“Oh, nothing. Just was thinking, I guess, is all.”
“But you’re feeling okay?”
“Well, I was thinking just now that I think I got it.”
“Well, I thought so, too, didn’t I? I’m sure I did, but what is it you’re thinking you got?”
“The real stuff,” Frankie said, tapping her arm now, tapping the soft spot on her inner elbow where the drug went in. “The real stuff,” she said again. “I can feel it, you know? Can feel it in me.”
“Does it work that fast?”
“I don’t know. I think it can.”
“’Cause it’s only been a few days. I just wonder—?”
“I just really feel it though, Jack.”
“That’s amazing, hon.” I put the paper down on the couch cushion beside me, leaned back with my arm over the back of the couch, and I smiled at her. She smiled back at me but still clutched the arms of her chair. I wished she would let go of the chair. It’d make me feel better. Like she wasn’t in pain or something.
I got up and I knelt down on the floor in front of her. “Hold me,” I said.
“Oh, it’s fine,” she said, and she let go of the chair then and waved me away. “Don’t worry about me. You’ve got too much to worry about with work. Can’t have you worrying that much, alright?”
“That’s right,” I said. “Good thinking, hon.”
Gina started to cry. But I was still kneeling and thinking about fifty-fifty. Frankie nodded towards the baby’s room.
“You going or should I?”
“Just don’t want to leave you.”
“What did I just say, Jack? I said, ‘don’t worry,’ didn’t I?”
I stood up and went to go check on Gina, picked her up out of her crib, and took her back to her mom. I knelt down again, right in front of Frankie’s chair, bouncing Gina in my arms, and I kissed our girl’s forehead. She was still crying.
“Someone wanted to see you,” I said.
“Jack, not now.”
“Just take her.”
Gina started screaming even as I bounced her.
“No, really. Not now, okay?”
I stopped bouncing her and held her against my chest. I pressed my lips into the thin wisps of her hair and tried to get her to stop wailing.
“Come on now, Gina,” I said. “What about mommy? Want to see mommy?”
“Please, Jack. I don’t want her right now.”
I looked up. “Oh, okay. Yeah. For sure.” I stood back up and put her on my shoulder. “Yeah, let me just go see if she needs to be changed then, okay?”
Frankie nodded, rubbing her arm now. “But I can feel it, Jack, really. We got the real stuff.”
Frankie started to get worse, but the doctor said that wasn’t unusual, even for those on the real stuff. He made her fill out a sheet, and I watched her mark off her pain on a scale from one to ten for every part of her body. Nausea, she said. Even my arms feel nauseous. But the doctor said that wasn’t unusual either. Even on the real stuff, others were getting worse, so we weren’t alone. On the real stuff, people’s arms felt nauseous. Isn’t that comforting? That’s what he said.
“Isn’t that comforting?” Dr. Riley said.
Frankie shifted in her seat. “Uh, what’s that?” she said. “Which part?”
“Part of what?”
“What’s comforting?” she said.
“Oh, that, you know, you’re not alone. A lot of the other patients are presenting with these symptoms, in fact.”
Frankie nodded. “Oh, that is good,” she said.
“Yes, I thought so. Real good,” Dr. Riley said. “So I wouldn’t worry too much. No good to worry.”
Dr. Riley started to shuffle some papers on his desk then, and I leaned forward onto his desk.
“But, you know, I was thinking though,” I said. “Is there anything you could give her? Prescribe to her, I mean?”
Dr. Riley turned his head on its side.
“She’s been feeling awful sick, you know, and I know you said lots of others are feeling the same way and all, and that’s great, really, but anything you could prescribe? That’d definitely be appreciated is all.”
Dr. Riley nodded with his head still on its side.
“And I mean, like you said, lots of other people, and so probably you get asked this too much, but—” I leaned forward more, like Frankie couldn’t hear me if I did. “She’s been getting pissy sometimes. Not wanting to hold our daughter and all.”
“That’s normal,” the doctor said.
“Well, hey look,” Frankie said, leaning forward onto the desk now, too, so that we were really crowding each other out. “It’s not like that. You can’t put it like that, Jack. It’s just—are you thinking I’ll be able to get back to work soon?”
“Hard to say,” Dr. Riley said, and he rolled back from the desk in his chair to give us some space there. “It’s different for everyone.”
“It’s just, with the treatment and all, we kinda need the money again,” she said.
“Fran, you can’t tell him a thing like that. You’re up for it when you’re up for it. That’s what he’s saying.”
“He hasn’t said anything yet, Jack. You’ve gotta let him talk.”
“He just said—didn’t you just say?—Fran, he just said.”
“I know what he said.”
“Well, it’s hard to say,” the doctor said.
“What is?” Frankie asked.
“When you might be up for going back to work.”
“It’s just too hard to say, hon.”
“I got it, Jack.” Frankie looked at me, and she touched my arm, squeezed my arm for a second, and leaned back off the desk.
“And what about Gina, Fran?” I said.
“Don’t you remember us talking? We talked about it, Jack. Hannah ‘cross the street will take her three days a week, she said. She’s already lookin’ after the Bennett kid.”
Frankie turned from me.
“Very normal concerns,” Dr. Riley said.
“Well, that’s good,” I said.
“Very normal,” Dr. Riley said again. “And remember, you call my office anytime and someone will answer. Might be me, but it might not be me. Very qualified people around here, though.”
“That’s good,” I said again.
Frankie stared at the pictures on Dr. Riley’s desk.
“Are those your kids?” she asked.
He picked up one of the frames and looked at it. “Yes,” he said. “They are.”
“Beautiful children,” she said.
I could hear her coughing behind the bathroom door. I knocked. “Fran, you okay?” I said, and I tried the door, but she’d locked it.
“I’m fine, Jack. No worries.”
“Could you open the door for me, hon?”
“Really, I’m fine. Just give me a moment, would you?”
“Yeah sure,” I said, and I leaned against the wall by the door. I stared at the row of photos that hung on the wall across from me. Black and whites of our wedding, of our parents, of Gina. So many faces on the wall, I thought. So many lives on the wall.
I tried the door again. “You sure you’re okay?”
“I can’t move, Jack.”
“What do you mean, Fran? What do you mean, you can’t move?” I turned and started to shake the knob.
“I just feel so sick. I don’t want to move. I can’t feel my body. I want to die.”
“Fran,” I said. “Frankie.”
She didn’t say anything. I just heard her coughing, but coughing like she were choking really.
I tried to break open the door, but I have to admit, I’m not the strongest man ever. Not even close, really. Tried slamming my shoulder into the door as they do in the movies, but the door just rattled a bit and Frankie just gave a little shriek is all.
It sounded like she was vomiting.
“I think that’s blood, Jack.”
I slammed my shoulder into the door again, tried putting my foot into it, but that didn’t work any better. Put my shoulder into it again.
“Please, Frankie,” I said. “Please just try and open the door.”
I could hear her palms slapping the floor. Then I heard the lock turn, and I opened it, and she was sitting up against the side of the tub. There was blood on her chin, dribbling from the corner of her mouth. There was blood in the toilet too, spattered against the sides.
“I’m sweating,” she said. “I feel wet.”
“You want me to put you in the bath?” I said.
“I don’t think I can move.”
I put the water on and stopped up the drain.
“Come on,” I said, lifting her from under the arms. She sort of got herself to her feet. Or at least, I got her to sit up on the side of the tub and slide over its edge, and she slipped into the few inches of water with her clothes still on. I watched her clothes turn dark.
“Fuck this,” I said.
Fran looked at me. “Don’t say that, Jack.”
“No, I’m saying it. I’m saying, ‘Fuck it’ alright? Alright, Fran? I said—no—I’m saying. Listen to me, alright? Fuck this goddamn fucking—”
“Would you stop that?”
“Frankie,” I said.
She looked down at the water.
“Jack,” she said.
“What?” I said.
“Jack, you look at me!”
I breathed. I stared at the toilet because I couldn’t look at her, but there was blood in the toilet and I couldn’t look at that either. I slammed the seat closed, and Frankie covered her ears.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She didn’t say anything. She put her arms back down in the water.
“You good?” I said.
“I’m fine. Water feels nice. Thanks.”
I couldn’t help it. I had to ask. “Are you still sure you got the real stuff?”
“What does it matter?” she said, and she closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the tile. “What would it matter?”
I guess it didn’t, but at the same time, it did. I wanted to know who to be mad with. God or those damn doctors. Those damn trials. But maybe that didn’t even matter. I shook my head and grabbed her hand, shook it in the water.
Gina’d been crying since I tried putting my foot in the door, and Frankie nodded towards her room.
“Would you, Jack?”
“What? Are you kidding me? She’ll stop on her own. I’m right here.”
“No, it’s okay, Jack. Go on, then.”
I got up to go, but I looked at her, and I couldn’t let myself leave her like that. There was still blood on her chin, and I bent over. I dipped my thumb in the water and went to wipe the blood from her mouth, but I think maybe she thought she might throw up again because as my hand got close her face, she pushed it away.
“No, please,” she said.
“Okay, then,” I said. “I’ll go get Gina.”
“Frances?” I said.
“What is it, Jack?”
“You want me to call Dr. Riley?”
“He’s got too much going on, Jack. He hasn’t got time for—”
“Hasn’t got the time? It’s his damn trial, isn’t it?”
“What’s he gonna say? Is he gonna say something?”
I shook my head. She was probably right, I thought. What was he going to say?
“I’m just angry is all,” I said.
“Don’t be angry, Jack.”
I nodded, and I went and I sat with Gina, holding her in my lap. I watched the sky out over the back lawn, and I held her ‘til she stopped crying. Held her right up against me so I could feel her nose against my collarbone. The sky went dark, and the trees turned to black against it. Street lamps flickered on. The neighbor let the dog out to pee. I rocked our baby and held up her little hands with just a finger. So tiny. And I thought I’d call Dr. Riley. So what if he said something? I needed to hear someone say something, anything. Just something to tell me this was normal.
I sat down with Gina against me, listening to the dial tone. A nurse picked up and transferred me to his cell. I thought I’d ask him how normal blood in the toilet was. I did.
“Dr. Riley speaking.”
I said, “Dr. Riley, how normal is blood in the toilet?”
“Oh, not too uncommon,” he said. “Already had a few calls earlier in the week about this.”
“Oh, that’s good,” I said.
“I’m actually on my way out of the office as we speak.”
“Could you tell us?” I asked him, sorry to cut him off. “You think you could tell us now if we had the real drugs?”
“I’m sorry, real sorry, but I really don’t know myself. You remember when we started this and I said some things about scientific integrity? What that means is that I can’t even know, but if I did know, for sure I’d tell you, but unfortunately, it’s not possible. Just not possible, I have to say.”
“But this is normal? People who get the drug, the real one, they have these symptoms?”
He didn’t answer.
“Because she feels it. She can feel the drug. We feel it, I mean. We both do. We’ve got the real stuff, almost certain of that. Just want to make sure there hasn’t been some other kind of complication is all.”
“That’s good,” Dr. Riley said. “Hope is the best medicine, you know?”
“That’s what I always say. Well, I mean, I think it at least, or at least, I’ll start saying it is what I mean. You know, I think my dad used to say that.”
“That’s good,” the doctor said. “I think you’re doing good. It really sounds like everything’s going well.”
“That’s good to hear,” I said. “You know, I almost died hunting with my dad? I swear, ninety-ten odds I had, and I beat it.”
“That’s good. You’ve got something on your side it seems.”
“That’s what I’m thinking. Something on our side. Could use that, right?”
“Is that all, Mr. Rayner?”
Gina started to cry again, and I bounced her on my leg.
“I suppose so,” I said. “You did say this is normal, right? Probably nothing, right?”
“Many people are having the same problem,” he said. “It’s very common.”
“That’s good to hear, real good. I’ll go tell her now, I suppose.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Dr. Riley said. “Have a good night,” he said, and I heard the line click.
I put the phone down feeling better, and Gina had stopped crying, so that was good. I set her back down in her crib and went back to the bathroom. Frankie was still in the tub, drawing shapes with her finger in the surface of the water.
“Doctor says this is completely normal,” I said.
“Says a lot of people had been complaining about these same symptoms earlier in the week.”
“For sure. He says it’s very common. I think those were his exact words in fact.”
“Very common for who? For those with the fake drug?”
“No, hon,” I said, and I knelt down on the bathroom rug and leaned over the edge of the tub. “No, he said he thought you got the real one. You’re doing better than most of the other patients he’s talked to. Says you’re doing real well actually if this is the worst you’ve got to deal with. Says this is nothing. Says toughen up is what he says.”
“Toughen up? I thought I was dying. Thought I couldn’t move.”
“Not toughen up. Not sure he said ‘toughen up’ exactly. But he said not to worry.”
I patted her hand and sat with her there on the bathroom floor while she closed her eyes and drew some more shapes in the water.
Avery Bufkin is an emerging writer from Atlanta, currently residing in Athens, GA. They’re an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, studying economics and English.
A weapon – an assemblage
that knifes through this lattice
of unspoken tales;
this assurance that no one
would force open
the book shut-close
This was how
I was supposed
to witness the doggerels
these cobblestones write.
This was the lesson
I was meant
Luminosity is a chewed bone,
a machine-gun. I
into a keening beginning
of this future
A hole in the seam
of my shirt
an un-ironed wrinkle
in faded silk,
I am dragging
the weight of a broken
mosque, the barely
of a minor pogrom,
the torn pages
of an epic
that spans continents.
When I bump
against a lamp-post,
I stop. Stop
to see my face
in someone else’s spittle.
To suffer from the redundancy
of those who came late: no
last notes from comrades who left,
no immaculately plotted atlas
for comrades yet to come – nothing
I write, say, sculpt or mould
would be seriously annihilating,
disassembling or an original treatise
on how to form secret alliances.
The sound of a thumb
tapping the ash off
the ends of a cigarette. A
cup of coffee, shared
between three. An account
of an exemplary birth – inside
the overflowing ashtray – this is how
I steel myself for a strife
that can be held
between human hands – a porcelain
bowl, a ceramic jug,
the picture on the wall. A flap
of the sparrow’s wings,
a tossed salt-shaker
on the cafe floor – a dialect
that is yet to exist
has just been pushed
into the half-lit
walls of the century-old
coffee house. A remembrance
of how men, who
could not agree on anything
save and except a palaver
beyond cauterized beginnings
are made to account
for the legend. A girl
they had all avoided
an intimate acquaintance
with, extinguishes the brick-home
with a swat of her fingers,
her limbs stretching
beyond the walls
of her father’s house. A
is what she needs
to spread herself.
The girl is not the city – I
make her walk
the city, tracing
every single etch left
on the withering tree-branches
by the car-honks.
Nandini Dhar is the author of the book Historians of Redundant Moments (Agape Editions, 2017). Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in New England Review, Memorious, New South, Best New Poets 2016 and elsewhere. Nandini hails from Kolkata, India, and after living in the US for 15 years, she has recently gone back to her home country, where she works as an Associate Professor of Literary Studies at OP Jindal Global University.
In rural upstate New York, kids start driving young. Fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds are driving tractors between fields before they start high school. A few years later, their trucks are flying into parking lots with friends piled in their truck beds, searing black streaks of tire rubber onto the asphalt.
Long car rides have become the space that strings my life together, like the acclimation chamber before scuba divers plunge into the deep—a trip to the grocery store is ten minutes, the mall forty-five. In the village where I live, there aren’t many stores: a farming equipment warehouse, a tiny, undersupplied liquor store, a “general store” that as far as I can tell now sells mostly used DVDs. If you want to go anywhere else, you have to drive.
We didn’t have driver’s ed, but we did have agriculture class. Every week, my ag teacher, Mrs. Schwartz, would take the seventh grade class into the field behind the faculty parking lot and teach us how to drive the school’s tractor. It was stick shift, and she would lean over to make sure you were in the right gear, her breath close and hot on your earlobe. The rest of the class stood to the side and watched as you attempted to navigate around the shrubbery.
I hated Mrs. Schwartz. She made me stay after class for what she called “remedial woodshop” and would stand a few feet away from me, telling me to move my fingers closer to the saw blade as she ate cold Velveeta off a spoon. When she taught the others to drive, I hid behind a tree and never learned.
My father whipped the Subaru around a sharp curve, sending a throw pillow and half a box of markers careening into my lap. My brother proffered the container so I could scoop them back in. I was diving for a stray pen that had rolled under the passenger seat—blueberry scented—when my mother began. “Something happened while you were at camp,” she said, taking a deep breath.
I looked up from the chase at her tone. My father, at the wheel, was impassive as he accelerated onto the highway. Three suitcases and a laundry bag shifted uneasily as he rode the bumper of the blue Prius in front of us. We were close enough to read the sticker in the window that said “Coexist.” Despite his resemblance to an aging university president, my father has always driven like an extra in a rap video. It was worse on the drive home from summer camp, when three weeks’ worth of hastily packed luggage lurched in the trunk every time we rounded a corner.
My mother turned slightly, her seatbelt locking her in so she could only half face us. “Your grandfather is dead.” Next to me, my brother looked sucker-punched, but I was already staring out the window, counting telephone poles to hold back tears.
“You need to pull forward farther when you’re making a left turn.” My mother, frowning, watches critically as I pull into the intersection. The rhythmic clicking of the directional mixes strangely with the beat of the country song on the radio. The song disintegrates into static as we drive out of town boundaries. “No, farther.”
“Mom!” My voice is too loud, my palms sweaty on the steering wheel. “I know what I’m doing, okay? Just relax.”
She clutches her handbag to her chest, her heels pumping an imaginary brake every few seconds as we inch forward. We have been driving together, a couple of hours every week, for months now. Her feet keep moving, but the black cavern under the passenger seat leaves her helpless.
When I was little, my mother told me stories about her first car. It was powder blue, and used. She got it on her sixteenth birthday. The next winter, she skidded on ice and rolled it into a snow bank. My grandfather could never get the dent out of the roof.
Freshman and sophomore years of high school, my brother drove me to school every morning. My parents had given him a hand-me-down Saab convertible, which looked cool in the student parking lot because it was black and had a soft top. The car barely ran.
When I was five or six, my father used to take us for drives in the Saab on cool weekend evenings. My brother and I huddled in the back seat, a blanket slung over us to block the freezing wind, and watched the trees and fences and gas station signs rush by faster than was strictly legal. At night, the moon moved with the car as if tied to the bumper with string.
Now, the steering column had some kind of leaking problem and my brother could barely keep from burning out on hills. We got so many tardy slips that our parents got a letter home.
At the funeral, my mother read a poem about workmen and told stories about how my grandfather used to fix cars. She was asked to speak because she was the least likely of her sisters to cry.
It was hard to imagine my grandfather as a workman. His spindly, shaking arms couldn’t hold the weight of a toolbox; his rheumy eyes couldn’t adjust to the black underside of a car. The endless loop of chemo and remission had gone on for ten years. To me, his youngest grandchild, he’d always been made of medicinal smells and oxygen hiss.
On the drive home, tears leaked silently out of the corners of my eyes. Through the windshield, the green mountains of my mother’s childhood rose in the distance, pricked with pine trees.
In the passenger seat, the proctor is printing off some kind of receipt. It looks long, which means the list of my mistakes is longer than it should be. He looks over at me. My hands are shaking, and my dress is crumpled from the pressure of my legs clenching against the brake.
“So technically, I should fail you.” My breath comes out in a gasp. “But I’m going to knock off this point here, and you’re passing. Be careful, and work on your parallel parking, alright?”
He hands me the receipt that will serve as my license until the new one comes in the mail. I take it, and as I step out of the car I watch as it is flecked with raindrops. My mother is waiting for me on the sidewalk. The license in my hand is suddenly useless: the moment I earned it, I was no longer covered under my mother’s insurance. She must drive me home.
As the car bleeds onto the highway, windshield wipers furiously beating away raindrops, my mother looks perfectly at ease. I’m hemmed into the passenger seat once again, and her feet have power over the pedals. One last time, she pulls forward into the intersection, farther, farther, and executes a perfect left turn onto the road home.
Charlotte Bausch is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, studying English with minors in French and art history. She grew up half in New York, half in New Jersey, with a brief but alarmingly cheese hat–filled stint in Wisconsin. She currently lives with her two best friends in a tiny, yellow apartment in Philadelphia. “Driving Lessons” is her first published piece.
at park’s edge a storm appeared returning from its tour of Vienna, and the car sped away
in dust devils, leaving me behind with existing treaties to dream some heroic stand while
rumors of air raids rose like smoke above the city and buildings burst into flame for the
greater good, pianos power-diving our forgotten empire-ah, but then you were
transporting war overland to bellow the truth with a loud stick, suddenly awakened to
the lesser evil of Fascism, Kosovo full of pilots to be transported as you reviewed policies
which were undoubtedly correct, columns illuminated as they marched toward the
terrible hole where we expected the Bolshelviks who arrived with grim mouths, pausing
on their way to winter and shuttling refugees continuously-but let’s drink to confusion,
merging with the ideal music of the leaves, and therefore and so on and meanwhile the
storm passes over us and pedals on toward Warsaw
Mary Crow has published three collections of poems, three chapbooks, and five books of translation. Her most recent book of poems is Addicted to the Horizon. She spent January 2011 in Egypt at a residency in El Gouna; her experiences flying into the spring uprising resulted in a new poetry manuscript, As the Real Keeps Slipping.
The Torn Hat operates as a lunch counter from 10 am to 2 pm. The wood is petrified and glossy, like the Legion Hall’s. Walter arrives. The special is a ham sandwich, a pickle, a glass of beer with a refill for two dollars and fifty cents. The butter is in an open dish. Walter is a man’s man. He will talk about the Yankees, the traffic, Gordon Parks’s film. He delivers bread. Walter’s got a route. He saved five men in Korea. They are not close but they are best friends. His wife—he loves her—tried to throw away his fighting knife once, was tired of seeing it at the dinner table. He made her dig it out at the curb. He threw away his Purple Hearts. Those he let go. He likes to smear a little butter on the rim of his glass and keep his head down.
A.E. Weisgerber (@aeweisgerber) is Poetry Out Loud’s 2017 Frost Place Scholar, and a 2014 Kent State University Reynolds Journalism Fellow. Her prose appears inSmokeLong Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Structo UK, and the Zoetrope Cafe Story Machine. Her flash has been shortlisted by the Wigleaf Top 50 and Best Small Fictions. Her latest project is a prayer book. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons. More at anneweisgerber.com.
I go grocery shopping for Mom. Her face bandaged, she remains in the car and hands over the list. She has done it to herself and yet, being seen in public is not an option. She tells me to only buy grapefruits if they’re less than a dollar a pound. I buy them anyway. I take the scold.
For dinner, my uncle makes spaghetti. The noodles are slimy. The sauce gritty and laced with unholy amounts of oregano. The herb coats my tongue like grass, sticks to the roof of my mouth, and I gag. I think of the grapefruits and yearn for a sweet suck of pulp. Across from me sits my mother. I cannot look up from my plate. Face her face. The small wounds around her eyes tight and red. Our noses are no longer the same. I wonder if it’s the one thing she can do to get away from me. I twirl a forkful of spaghetti and my stomach double-flips. I imagine I am eating her stitches. Choking each one down with my glass of warm milk.
Jules Archer lives and burns in Arizona. She is the author of the flash fiction chapbook All The Ghosts We’ve Always Had (Thirty West Publishing House, 2018). Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, kill author, Pank, The Butter, Maudlin House, and elsewhere. She likes to smell old books, drink red wine, and read true crime tales. Follow her on Twitter @julesjustwrite.
The lucky streak ran out when the air rifle went off.
I felt the little ragged hole in my shirt. It didn’t feel like anything at all. Too small to be significant. Johnny let the air rifle swing to his side, the ends of his teeth glittering. Kali fell off the stump she was sitting on. They were all waiting for me to do something. I heard blood in my ears. Maybe they’d thought I’d keel over and die, I’m thinking.
So I did. I pressed my beer to my belly and squeezed. Beer frothed up in a fountain as I writhed in the dirt.
Even Johnny smiled a little.
“Don’t scare me like that,” Kali said, righting the stump.
I threw the crushed can into the black river. The wind grabbed the can and carried it far past the jutting, broken pylons.
I still felt like I could beat up a thunderstorm. Me, Kali, and Johnny were celebrating under the highway. Doug was there too, but that goes without saying—he’d follow Johnny into hell, further. We were living it up because my great aunt died. She left me a pile of money. I was sure it was a typo in the will. See, my name was only one letter away from Rocko, her toy poodle.
The can landed in the black water without a sound or a ripple. Johnny cocked the rifle. There was a sharp metal sound as the bullet struck the can where it floated.
“You know I didn’t mean to,” Johnny said, holding out the rifle. “If it’ll make you feel better, you can put one in me.”
I looked down the business end of the barrel. Then I pushed it toward the dirt. When I lifted up my shirt, there was a small red hole under my last rib.
“You ought to go to the hospital,” Kali said.
“He’s fine,” Johnny said. Kali and Johnny were back together, which meant they were always arguing.
“Yeah, fine. See?” Doug said, tossing me another can. He acted like he was always licking the third rail, but it was the medicine he stole from his night-shift at the hospice.
“Shut up, Doug,” Johnny said.
I missed the beer and it rolled behind a twisted old oak tree. An oil truck snorkeled over the bridge, moving toward the squat white tanks on the opposite bank, the dead trees bound to leaning telephone poles.
When I leaned for the beer, a spike of pain arced across my side. Kali was already there. Her touch was icy, electric. I felt a cold hook curl around the base of my spine.
“I can’t feel it anywhere,” Kali said. “I think he needs to see a doctor.”
I felt the wound myself, and my hand came away with a tiny ruby of blood. I felt acid in my throat.
“I can’t afford it,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“I could sneak you into the hospice,” Doug said. “That is, if you don’t think you’re gonna make it. It’s garbage for the living. But pretty swanky if you’re not.”
“What about your aunt? I thought you were loaded now,” Kali asked.
I looked away.
“I’m not set for life. I think it’ll cover dog surgery. Not people surgery though,” I said.
Mostly I didn’t want to leave. Under the overpass, I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. We were talking about everything, all the old jokes and stories. I wanted this afternoon to last forever. We hadn’t had an afternoon like this since high school. Over us and everything, the light was gold and red and pink and purple. There was a massive cloud in the sky, hanging like a city over the towers of the real city below. A ship, toy-sized, swayed near the river mouth, and I wondered who was on it, where they were going.
But my side twanged. I wasn’t sure if the ache was growing because I was thinking on it, or if there was actually something wrong inside me. It seemed insane, like a bad dream’s backward logic, that something could pierce me, change me, that the outside world could get in. I looked at the red film of blood between my fingers. It didn’t, couldn’t, seem real.
“Just give me another, I don’t know, two ccs of PBR and a fistful of purples,” I said, trying to sound clinical.
Doug snapped to action. Drugs were something he could latch onto.
“This is the last of them,” Doug said, upending the amber bottle. “It’s not much.”
A truck shattered across the bridge, rattling the overpass’s steel plates and startling a phalanx of pigeons. Johnny took aim. I gasped as pain wracked my gut. I sat down hard. I felt like I’d eaten something rotten.
“I’m taking you to the hospital,” Kali said. “You’re white as a ghost.”
A pigeon pirouetted and began to fall toward the river.
“Fuck,” I breathed as Kali’s old car sprang over a pothole.
I pressed against my stomach, but couldn’t staunch the ache blossoming somewhere deep inside me. I tried not to think about it.
On the overpass, the city stabbed upward like something clawed out of the ground. Kali gripped the wheel tight, threading the car though gaps between eighteen-wheelers. We rushed past low houses and graffitied billboards. The blare of car horns was constant. Each crack in the road tied another knot in my stomach.
Doug was playing with the dials, but there was only static.
“This is boring,” he said, as traffic tightened. Ahead was a sea of red lights. “Tell me something, Johnny.”
Johnny collected stories how some people collected little pieces of glass from the beach.
“This guy I knew was worried that every day the sun was getting closer,” Johnny said.
“Did you meet him at Walpole State?” Doug asked.
Johnny nodded. Kali shook her head, but I could see her grinning in the rearview. Johnny liked to say he spent time on the inside, that he had his second degree from the state penitentiary. But he’d done less than a day for vandalizing his old boss’s car.
“Every day he took a measurement of the sky. If you listened to him, the sun was inching closer a few miles a day. He tried to warn people, but nobody listened. He stared at it every day, daring it to come closer. And each day it did. He ended up holding up the Sunglass Hut, trying to clean them out so he could face down the sun.”
“It needs a real ending. It’s not a story if you don’t learn something,” Kali said, finding space between space and advancing through traffic.
She was always so in the world. She moved through it like water, making it seem easy.
“I wasn’t finished,” Johnny said quietly. “Now that he’s in prison, the state fixed his eyes, but they got the connections wrong. So everything he sees is its opposite.”
Doug laughed and bounced in his seat until Kali told him to quit it or we’d rock off the highway. My heart was jackhammering in my throat. I took a deep breath and it came out in a rattle.
“The point is that sometimes you don’t even know what to worry about, and what you were worried about wasn’t what you should have been worrying about all along,” Johnny said.
“A simpler way to say that is sometimes things work themselves out,” Kali said.
“Yeah, like a hedgehog,” Doug said.
“What the fuck, Doug?” Kali said.
“Like when you get stung by a hedgehog. The needle will work all the way through you and come out, no problem. You just gotta leave it alone,” Doug said. “I saw it on the Discovery channel.”
A silence fell over the car, broken only by muted car horns. The road stretched and curved over the river, toward the fist of glass buildings that was the downtown. It was broken in a few places by old stone clock towers. The sun was going down, lighting the windows of the city a brilliant orange. The taillights of the cars on the overpass ran together like a watercolor. All the colors made the world seem aflame. I wiped a tear from my eyes. I had a feeling like I was landing in a plane after a long journey, landing in a place I knew but couldn’t remember.
Kali’s eyes filled the mirror. “Does it still hurt?”
“No,” I said, but it did. It hadn’t hurt until I started thinking about it again.
Deflated people draped themselves over the wooden chairs and tables of the waiting room. A man, thin as paper, muttered as he paced the edges of the room. In the corner, a TV showed clips of disasters between pharmaceutical commercials, a double feature.
I watched the lines and letters dance across the white page in front of me. Doug’s purples had kicked in, and then some. The letters lifted off the page, hovered, and cascaded off in a waterfall. I tried to gather them up, but they darted away from me, and my side screamed.
I pinned down one of the lines and wrote my name. Then I crossed it out and wrote my great aunt’s dog’s name instead. A loud noise shot through the low quiet of the waiting room. It was Johnny versus a vending machine, round one, fight. A coke rolled out. K.O.
The ghostly outline of a cop stirred behind a gouged and scratched acrylic glass window, then was still.
Johnny cracked the can and sat down. When he put his feet up, Kali pushed them off her lap, continued reading a sheaf of pamphlets: Coping With Cancer, Treating Tuberculosis, Seeing Past Seasonal Affective Disorder. I didn’t know where Doug was. Probably hunting up some more purples.
A man limped into the waiting room. He was missing an arm. Slender little rivulets of blood fell from his shirt and filled up his shoes. Footprints on the white tile led up to the counter. He was handed a clipboard with a pen attached to it. He furrowed a brow at the forms.
I started to shake with laughter, but then Kali was putting me on my feet and moving me toward a swinging door. A nurse there was calling for my great aunt’s dog.
“He’s dead,” I said.
“Is he—” the nurse asked.
“He’ll be alright,” Kali said, steering me past the nurse.
“I’m only supposed to let family in, and even then, only one at a time,” the nurse said in a nasal drone.
“I’m family,” Kali said.
We clicked down the hall. There were closed doors and open ones. Beige machines trailing cords and tubes stood guard, alongside empty plastic chairs. There were stretchers by the wall runners, under bright antiseptic lights. Some had people on them, crumpled up like paper, others had blankets drawn over.
In the room, the nurse felt around the wound and the ache sounded from fathoms below. Her face kept changing. There was a sharp pain in my arm. Kali told me to relax, that it was going to be alright. Machines and tubes and articulated lights orbited around me. I felt processed, like I was moving through conveyors on a factory floor. I felt I was in a bad dream. I desperately needed to wake up and find myself at home in bed, my parents, still together, talking in low voices over the burble of the coffeemaker downstairs.
I cried out, and everything was still. It was night. Kali was there, and she moved over the bed. I tried to get up, but couldn’t move. I was paralyzed.
“It’s alright,” Kali said. “You started thrashing when they made you drink a solution to see inside your chest. So they sedated you. I don’t think it agreed with whatever Doug fed you.”
Kali leaned over me, touched the side of my face, then loosened the leather belts securing me to the bed. It seemed not quite heaven, but something close to it. I felt groggy, like part of me was still asleep. My body seemed to belong to someone else, a kind of inverted phantom limb feeling.
“The doctor wanted to keep you overnight for observation. She said there was a chance the bullet could fall into a vein and stop your heart. But if you’re still here in the morning, you’ll probably be OK,” Kali said. “They showed me the scan they took while you were under. You could see the path of the thing, bouncing off your rib, cutting through you, lodging in your liver. They didn’t know what to do with you. They’re used to treating real bullets.”
I shivered. The joke didn’t seem that funny anymore, hearing about the parts of you that you don’t ever think about. I had a splitting headache. I peeled back the sheets and there was a small gauze pad taped to my side. I felt exposed, somehow, open to the world and all its points and barbs.
“So it’s in there still?”
“A part of you,” she said.
I felt like furniture, like the bullet had made me a part of the world of objects and things, pulling me down from where we hovered above it all.
“At least you’ll have a story of your own now,” Kali said.
That’s when the door banged off the wall. It was Johnny, wild-eyed and trailing laces.
“We have to go, now,” Johnny said. “Doug got caught in the medicine cabinet and made a break for it. They’re coming for us.”
I started to rise, but felt suddenly tired, more tired than I’d been in my entire life. I fell back to the hospital bed.
“We need to move,” Johnny said. His mouth was a thin, cruel slash.
“Give me a second,” I said. The bed felt soft, safe. I wanted to sink into it, become it.
Johnny strode to the bed and punched a button. The bed began to elevate, slowly.
“I should have shot you in the head, maybe it would have knocked some sense into you.”
I looked at Kali but she looked at the floor.
“You meant to shoot me?” I said.
“You were going on and on about your great aunt. No offense, but she’s not our great aunt. And she’s not so great. Look, I gave you something to remember me by.”
I was thinking about afternoons and clouds and rivers, shattered days, wasted lives.
“I’ll kill you,” I said.
But I got tangled up in the cords and blankets and the paper gown. The pins and needles I was standing on collapsed underneath me.
“There’s no time for this,” Johnny said, dancing away. “We have to move.”
The freight elevator, a loading dock, through a maze of cardboard boxes and blue barrels, to the back alley, exhaust breathing from grates in the road, cold in my paper gown. Kali swung her old car up to the curb and we piled in, lit out. Under overpasses and elevated railways, we found Doug wandering Chinatown, staring at all the lights, pulling him in as he screamed, don’t take me, leaving the lights behind as we hugged the service road by the port, no sidewalks here, just rusted fences and warehouses and trucks blasting by, the cranes square against the dark gray of dawn.
We caught our breath at a construction site near the water.
The arc sodiums cast a lunar glow. Doug was a silhouette atop the dark crane arm. I was curled in the bucket of a backhoe. Around us were piles of dirt, the holes they were dug from. The construction equipment was still, as if we had interrupted the work when we came upon it all, the machinery flexing its chrome and pistons. There were complicated blocky mounds of bricks like ziggurats. In the far corner of the lot there was the last remaining wall of a building. The wall stood quiet and still, like it’d been there for a thousand years.
I wanted to remain until the workers returned and reanimated the machines, buried me under it all. I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t want to think or feel or hurt anymore.
Johnny kicked a rock into a hole. It fell for a long time before bouncing around the foundation. I didn’t feel like pushing him into it anymore. I just felt punctured, like someone had let all the air out of me.
“You gonna be alright?” Kali said.
“I’ll land on my feet,” I said.
“Like a hedgehog,” Doug whispered.
“Shut up, Doug,” I said.
“You’ll be alright. Look at how things have worked out for you so far. You did nothing for twenty-five years and a pile of money landed on your lap,” Johnny said.
“It’s not that much. I talked it up a little. But if I only eat gas station food it’ll last me a few months,” I said. “When I waste away and die I’ll haunt you for putting a hole in me.”
“All I’m saying is that it wouldn’t be much of a change from when you were living,” Johnny said.
I got to my feet, but it was hard to seem imposing, half-naked in my paper gown. Kali looked at Johnny, who looked back at her.
Kali’s clear voice cut through the crisp early morning air.
“He’s right, Rocky. All you do is mope around town, talking about how it all used to be. Dredging up memories. It’s like you can’t see yourself in the future. Do you think nothing’s changed? We’re not kids anymore.”
“Sometimes you remind me of my residents,” Doug said. “Stuck in the past.”
“Shut up, Doug,” I said.
“Hey, that was a compliment. I like them.”
A gull landed on the dark arm of an excavator. I looked at it and it looked at me. Its eyes were cruel, its beak flecked with red. I took a few steps toward the water and found a large pit between me and the rusted fence. I looked into the pit and it was dark.
“We’ve got plans. Or at least the foundation of them. My cousin works at a prison down in Texas,” Kali said. “He said he could get Johnny a job. There’s a night school down there, too.”
The gull turned and beat the air with heavy wings, lumbering aloft and away. In the pit, there was standing water and a swollen, dead thing. There were discarded clothes without any color anymore.
“What about us?” I said. “What about Doug?”
Doug’s silhouette stirred against the lightening sky.
“I told you. I’m going to night school to get my RN in the fall,” Doug said. “Nothing lasts forever, Rocky. It’s like that hedgehog. It’ll work itself out.”
The horizon was going gray. Across the water, the smoke stacks were obscured by gauzy white clouds and a formation of birds vectored overhead. I wanted to hold it all in, hold everything in place. But it kept escaping me. It kept slipping through my fingers. The sun was just over the horizon, and it kept coming up.
Thomas Barnes lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he works as a copywriter. His writing recently appeared in the Southwest Review. You can find him on Twitter @thmsbrns.
Schools were opening in less than a week. The five-year-old boy in front of me had autism. He couldn’t speak. His eyes flitted like hummingbirds over the hundreds of colorful toys and books in the classroom. The boy’s father, Mr. Nassar, sat stiffly on a tiny chair next to his son. He had come to register the child for regular kindergarten.
I had been pushing the schools to integrate more students with special needs. The principal had called me to talk about this child. Students with the most serious of disabilities were sometimes bussed over the bridge into Montreal to attend a distant, specialized school. Mr. Nassar knew this.
The small scrubbed tables and blank walls in the kindergarten room awaited September’s finger-painting masterpieces. The boy sat with his head and shoulder pressed against his father’s arm, staying connected to what was physically familiar. I watched the five-year-old with the darting eyes observing his surroundings, a child sitting still, able to comply with what his papa was asking of him. I saw a child who belonged in kindergarten.
“He’s eligible for a special education program,” said the principal. “Can you tell us why you want him to attend kindergarten?”
Mr. Nassar folded his hands, one gripping the other in his lap, and spoke in a measured voice. “My son is very smart. I was teacher in my country. I teach him many things and he learn. He write all his letters. He write his name. Please, you give him chance in your school.” He opened his bag and pulled out sheets of unlined paper filled with oversized, wobbly letters. The evidence of his son’s school readiness was as shaky as the faint ABC’s on the page. I think Mr. Nassar knew this.
He laid out his arguments with all the quiet logic he could muster. His other children came to this school. He wanted his son here, too. The school had mainstreamed other students with learning problems. “You have other special children here who get extra help.”
But never a child like this—never a child who couldn’t talk. This boy would be challenging to integrate. The teachers were nervous about him joining their classes. The principal wanted reassurance about extra support. I was concerned about pushing my agenda too fast. Yet didn’t worthwhile change always come with questions and doubts? Wasn’t it usually difficult? Pros and cons twisted through my head.
Like his father, the boy was lanky, almost the height of a grade two child. This alone made him stand out. He was calm and still at the moment, but the room did not yet contain eighteen noisy, whirling five-year-old explorers. The sensory stimulation of a busy classroom would initially be overwhelming for this child. Did Mr. Nassar know this?
“I’m sure you realize your son won’t be able to do all of the same activities as the other children,” said the principal. “He’ll need lots of help to be part of the class.”
Mr. Nassar looked at us with tired eyes. He was fighting for his son to have a place in this room, a place in this normal children’s world. I wondered how many closed doors he had already encountered. He tried another tactic: “It make no sense to send little children to city. Special school is too far. Bridge is very dangerous in winter. My son can learn. He come here and you help him. I help him every day.” What Mr. Nassar didn’t know yet was how close I was to saying yes.
I snuck a look at the principal, a forty-year-old woman new to the job, fired up with all the enthusiasm and idealism of a novice. I had worked at convincing her to integrate more students, and she had worked at convincing her teachers to be on board. An ally—I loved her already. Seeing the child was all I needed. The principal glanced at me for confirmation, and I nodded.
“Okay, Mr. Nassar,” she said. “Your son can start next week. But we’ll need to do this in small steps.”
He placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I will bring him and pick him up. I do whatever you ask. I help him every day.”
We called in the kindergarten teachers and discussed details: the teacher’s aide who would help his son; speech therapy schedules; and a gradual increase of hours of attendance over the first couple of weeks, a strategy to help the child acclimate to his new environment. All the bits and pieces needed for a good start. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Nassar sagged with relief. “Thank you, Mis’Zey. Thank you. Thank you.” His child was just beginning kindergarten. His biggest battles had not even begun.
Three weeks later, I returned to the school for an afternoon meeting about another student. I spotted Mr. Nassar waiting to pick up his son. I’d heard integration was going smoothly so far, and the child was using pictograms to communicate.
Mr. Nassar walked over. “My son is very happy at school. I have present for you. It is custom of my country. You tell me where your office is and I drop off.” He pulled out a pen and scrap of paper from his pocket and waited.
I imagined this man’s life—his private anguish at the impenetrable bubble surrounding his child; his hours of struggle as he worked at prompting a few words from his son; and his probable moments of despair at the child’s silence. I pictured him coaxing and coaxing those wobbly letters onto scraps of paper. I imagined his optimism as he saw tiny glimmers of rote learning in those penciled scratches on the page.
“Thank you very much for thinking of me, Mr. Nassar, but I can’t accept a gift. It’s all part of my job. I’m just glad to hear that everything is going well.”
Two days later, the school board receptionist called up to my office. “There’s a gentleman here asking for you, a Mr. Naz-ser. He says he has a large item that he wants to give you in person. What would you like me to tell him?”
The half-completed memo on my screen would have to wait. “Thanks, Susan. Ask him to have a seat. I’ll be down in a couple of minutes to speak to him.”
There in the lobby stood Mr. Nassar. Faded khaki pants and a short-sleeve shirt hung on his slim frame. He held an oblong, brass planter about three-feet wide, with a small dent near the rim. A bas-relief pastoral scene was pressed into the metal: trees, men on horses, a fox, and several hounds. Not the ornamental ceramic dish or colorful embroidered cloth I expected. An English-style fox hunt on a huge brass planter, the inside slightly tarnished with wear.
“It is for you. You like, Mis’Zey?” Mr. Nassar’s eyes searched my face.
He stood and waited—a man who lived in subsidized housing with his wife and four children, one of whom had a serious disability. He waited, bearing his gratitude with both hands. I looked at the second-hand brass planter, embossed with someone else’s story. “It’s just lovely, Mr. Nassar. Thank you very much.” I took the planter from him, and he smiled.
Such a large gift for a mere gatekeeper. I carried the planter back upstairs to my office, past the shiny plaque on the door that said Coordinator of Complementary Services, and I placed it on the floor.
When his son was in grade four, Mr. Nassar asked me to bus the child to the faraway special school across the bridge. At age ten, his son had made good progress in many ways. He had learned to read basic words and follow classroom routines alongside his peers. His classmates accepted him and had grown comfortable with his idiosyncrasies. But the child was still dependent on individual assistance throughout the day. He was still a boy with autism who couldn’t speak.
“Hello, Mrs. Zey,” Mr. Nassar said over the phone. “I thank you for everything the school has done for my son. But I went to visit the special school in the city. They have many children like him there, many autistic children. I think he should go there. I filled out the application and he’s been accepted. I’m asking the school board to sign for the bus.”
The call took me by surprise. The support surrounding this boy had been successful. I still believed the child belonged in the community school. I pointed out to Mr. Nassar how well his son was doing on his individual goals, and how everyone at the school was committed to accommodating his son’s special needs. I couldn’t convince him.
“Yes, the teachers work very hard with him,” he said. “I have tried to help him too. But he still cannot talk. I have to spend more time with my other children. His sisters are in bigger grades now. They have lots of homework. My son will get what he needs in the special school. I have a new job, and I work in the city. I get home late, very late. Please, I need you to send my son to the special school.” His voice rose on a note of desperation.
“Let me think about your request, Mr. Nassar.” I swallowed my disappointment. “I’ll call you back later today. Tomorrow at the latest.”
I phoned the principal. “The grade four teachers are upset,” she told me. “They heard about the application for outside placement. They want him to stay.”
Her school team had come a long way. A little patch of progress on the long road to inclusive education. I knew the local school could help this child move forward and that the special school in Montreal did not offer a magic fix for the boy’s learning gaps. However, I could never know what challenges Mr. Nassar and his family lived with every day. Or what they might live with for years to come.
I had the option of refusing to sign the papers for the transfer across the bridge. Special transportation meant another hit to my budget. Sitting in my high-backed office chair, I swiveled back and forth, yearning for the certainty of easy questions and easy answers. I looked down at the pile of unread file folders on my desk. Several of them held reports from autism diagnostic clinics, each report a glimpse at a single child, each report changing the life of one family, each report demanding a decision.
I gazed at the four potted ferns nestled inside the oblong brass planter outside my office door. What I knew was never enough and never the whole picture. Mr. Nassar was waiting for my call. With a growing sense of calm, I stretched out my hand and picked up the phone.
“Hello, Mr. Nassar.”
Karen Zey is a Canadian educator and writer from la belle ville de Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity Blog, Cold Creek Review, Crack the Spine, Drunk Monkeys, Hippocampus, Proximity‘s True, and other places. Karen’s CNF piece, “Tough Talk,” was nominated by Prick of the Spindle in 2015 for a Pushcart Prize. In this piece, names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the subjects.
“I’ll do it, Love,” my newly retired husband, Weldon, said when I mentioned our book collection needed cleaning. It took him two years to finish the job. I knew the books were getting dirty again, but I held my tongue—I didn’t want to dust them.
When we moved into our Seattle condo in 1996, we added bookshelves. Our new home had a perfect place—a tall wall in our living room, fourteen feet high. We ordered 2,548 linear feet of custom-built bookshelves made of sturdy oak covered in black laminate, with a metal rail near the top for a sliding library ladder. We filled every inch with books, and it looks terrific. The wall glows with colorful covers, and the room feels warmer. I love watching people enter this room for the first time. It’s a surprise, all those books.
Initially, I hired our building’s janitor, Jim, to dust the books every six months. He did a fine job at first, but after a few years he began slacking off, doing sloppy work. After Jim jumbled our books’ order—mixed fiction with nonfiction and ignored our alphabetic system—I decided not to hire him again.
But my books got quite dusty. Every time I pulled one out, I had to blow across the top to get rid of the accumulation. I felt overwhelmed just thinking of the task, and when I mentioned my dilemma to Weldon, he offered to take it on. Relieved, I checked Cheryl Mendelson’s 906-page book, Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. She recommends vacuuming, so we bought a small Oreck with a shoulder strap Weldon could sling over his back while climbing the library ladder.
Now that he’s retired, Weldon spends a lot of time on the Internet, and he discovered Collectorz, an online book-inventory system. We can access the collection on our computers and even pull up the list on our cell phones while book shopping. This is a useful feature since we have returned more than one book after discovering it was already on our shelves. Weldon prizes efficiency and was elated when he realized he could computerize our inventory and dust books in one effort.
Weldon enters the ISBN with a small scanner. Once the program finds the number an image of the cover and all pertinent information appear on his computer screen. After he’d entered about a thousand books into the system, a third of our collection, he excitedly forwarded the list to our children. No response.
My love of books blossomed early through trips with my mother at the public library in Minerva, Ohio. The facility was housed in a small space on the second floor of city hall and seemed vast to my five-year-old eyes. Mommy had a serious look on her face as we climbed the stairs, and before we opened the library door, she would lean down and say, “Remember, if you need to tell me something, whisper. No running, and handle the books carefully.”
I grew to know my village library well. The space had its own comforting aroma. The oak bookcases released scents of timber and beeswax; calfskin-bound books suggested tobacco; hardbacks with their protective covers firmly affixed evoked the interior of Grandma’s wardrobe. I delight in the smell of books.
When I toured George Washington’s Mount Vernon, my favorite room was the library. It held a modest collection, but as I walked into the room with glass-fronted bookcases, a familiar fragrance drifted into my nostrils—the essence of aged books. I could see Washington walking into his library, taking pleasure in the books’ presence. Did he love their smell too? My nose has tuned out my own books’ redolence. I wonder, do my books give off the same soothing scent to my visitors as Mount Vernon’s gave to me?
My parents couldn’t afford to buy me books, but I did possess four precious ones—Mother Westwind Stories, Heidi, and two Nancy Drew mysteries—and I read them over and over. But in one of my periodic explorations of our attic—filled with odds and ends from the Elliott family, who’d built and lived in the farmhouse for decades before we moved in—I found two boxes of books under the eaves. Hardback books with colorful modern covers. Different from the old books I’d already uncovered in the attic, with their tissue-thin paper and pages sometimes bound out of order, that had belonged to two spinster schoolteachers who’d lived with the Elliotts.
Uncovering these modern books was like finding a treasure chest of sparkling rubies. I pulled them out of the brown cardboard box—The Good Earth, My Sister Eileen, The Yearling, Rebecca, So Red the Rose, Saratoga Trunk, Mama’s Bank Account, Mrs. Miniver—popular novels of the thirties. I couldn’t believe my find. And I was old enough to read many of them. I ran down to the kitchen. “Mommy! I found two boxes of books in the attic. Where did they come from?” She looked up from rolling out her pie dough and said, “They’re mine. Before I married, I belonged to Book-of-the-Month Club.” I’d never seen her sit down with a book, and I suddenly realized, as a farm wife and mother of four, she was too busy to read. This insight surprised and saddened me. How could she give up a wonderful pastime like reading? I vowed I would always take time for books.
I first set foot in a bookstore as a freshman at The Ohio State University. I could hardly believe the riches at the Student Book Exchange on High Street in Columbus. They stocked much more than textbooks. I had a little extra spending money from my part-time job as a telephone operator, and I started growing my personal library by buying the classics—Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, The Age of Innocence, Wuthering Heights, The Prince, Emma, Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby. I bought a book every week. Possession was important to me. My roommates didn’t understand why I was reading books not assigned for class, but I was in heaven.
I continued to buy books while in college and throughout my first marriage even though my husband complained that I read too much and it gave me ideas. This was the sixties—the women’s lib movement was underway, and some men were uneasy with changes afoot. We divorced.
A year later, I met Weldon. We shared a love of books and began to collect them as a couple. Not rare, old books, but fat, absorbing novels, political histories, probing biographies, well-written mysteries, colorful cookbooks. When we combined households forty-two years ago, we discovered we owned many identical books. I took that as a good omen for our marriage, although, as we gave away the duplicates, I had a niggling thought. What if this doesn’t work out? Will I get my books back?
When we traveled, we always sought out bookstores. Powell’s in Portland; Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara; and Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle. We moved to Seattle in 1996, not because of Elliott Bay Bookstore, although that was a plus, and bought a condo downtown, near the Pike Place Market. We were thrilled to find MCoy Books two blocks from our home. Imagine: a country girl who revered books, and, as an adult, had to drive twenty miles from her suburban Columbus, Ohio, home to buy a book, now lived around the corner from such a bookstore.
We visited MCoy several times a week to browse, buy books, have an espresso, and talk politics with the owner, Michael Coy. When my book, Financial Basics: A Money-Management Guide for Students, was published, he created a big window display for it. I was so proud.
The office building that housed MCoy Books was sold as the Seattle real-estate market skyrocketed, and when Michael’s lease came up for renewal, the rent increase was so significant that he couldn’t sustain the business. He closed his doors near the end of 2008. We mourned the loss. Walking by that empty storefront was like passing a mausoleum holding the bones of dear ones. We not only lost our beloved MCoy; six other neighborhood bookstores closed too. We rode the bus to Elliott Bay and University of Washington bookstores, but it wasn’t the same.
The upshot of this loss in our lives? We bought Kindles. We’d resisted for years, even though our friends raved about theirs. We loved the physicality of books, the cover art, the heft, the pages to turn; we couldn’t imagine anything better. But in 2014, we succumbed and joined the ranks of 32 percent of Americans who own an e-reader.
I can hardly believe how much I adore my Kindle. I read in bed in the middle of the night without disturbing Weldon. I borrow e-books from the Seattle Public Library and download them from home. If a compelling book review appears, I instantly acquire the volume online.
When I read John Banville or Hilary Mantel or Lauren Groff, writers with extensive lexicons, I highlight unfamiliar words with my finger and learn their definitions. Thick, heavy books are easily managed. I wouldn’t have read Robert Caro’s 736-page The Passage of Power or Donna Tartt’s 755-page The Goldfinch while in bed. Their heft would have tired my arms, and since I do a lot of my reading there, it would have taken forever to finish them. When I travel, I don’t have to pack multiple books to assuage my fear of running out of something to read. My reader is always nearby, loaded with books. In a pinch, I can even read from my electronic library with my iPhone.
There are drawbacks. Charts, family trees, and photographs are difficult to make out. Footnotes are elusive. I have to tap the screen to read them, and I often miss the notation. I can’t easily leaf back to check a character’s background or reread a scene. Somehow, in a book I knew the relative location and could quickly find what I was looking for.
I gave up one of my greatest pleasures—browsing in bookstores—because I felt guilty using their displays and staff recommendations knowing I would buy it from Amazon for my Kindle. I realize many bookstores sell e-books through Kobo, but they only load on my iPhone, and I don’t enjoy reading on the smaller screen.
I can’t loan or borrow e-books the way I shared hardbacks. I wish the cover appeared automatically when I turn on the reader. I miss the cover artwork. I worry about the effect on the publishing industry and the small part I’m playing in this ongoing saga. Will Amazon become a monopoly? How would that influence quality and pricing and writers and readers? What is Jeff Bezos’s master plan?
I still have my living-room wall of books. I will always have them. They please me and reassure the child in me who owned few and used the lending library and county bookmobile. But I must confess that Weldon and I are beginning to duplicate our paper books on our Kindles. We’re at an age where we’re rereading favorites and we’re reluctant to open the physical book—we want the ease of an e-reader. We’ve spent decades acquiring books, and I’d be bereft if I lost them, and yet, I don’t want to read them. It’s as though I have a foot in each world, and I’m not going to budge.
Sometimes, I think of our children emptying our home after we’ve died. I can hear them asking what that unusual smell is. I can see them groaning at the sight of our collection. I can imagine them wondering why we had so many, whether we actually read them all, why we spent so much money on them, questioning whether there’s a market for books or whether they’ll have to dump them. So in the spirit of preparing them for our demise, I decided to discuss our books with them before we’re gone. Here’s the gist of what they said: You said you’re doing all your reading on your Kindles. Why not just sell the books? Or give them to the public library?
“But the wall,” I say. “What would I do with the wall?”
Susan Knox is an essayist, short story writer, and the author of Financial Basics: A Money-Management Guide for Students published by Ohio State University Press. Her stories and essays have appeared in Blue Lyra Review, CALYX, Forge, The MacGuffin, Zone 3, and elsewhere. In 2014, her essay, “Autumn Life” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She and her husband live in Seattle.
It’s what your arms did when you fell on them, your bones osteoporotic from the decades you haven’t spent taking care of yourself. You like to say that you get more than enough calcium from all the cheese you eat, but it’s childish logic for a mother to offer. We both know why this happened. We knew the inevitability of this catastrophe, we just didn’t know how it would manifest itself.
It was your brain, in a fog of cigarettes, a bottle of two-buck Chuck, and antidepressants. You were wandering through the fog when you decided that it was the perfect time to remove the cobwebs from the pergola that Grandpa built back when you were small. You stood on one of the rickety patio chairs, whose cushions were threadbare and stiff. The chair wobbled under your feet, which were unsteady even when you were sober—I know the extent of your clumsiness because I inherited it. You were wearing those sandals with the wedge heels, the ones your sister left behind when she died in 2007. They were fraying and old, and should have been thrown out months ago, but you couldn’t bear to part with them. While swinging your broom at the offending cobwebs, you lost your balance and fell.
It’s how your arms looked in the x-rays. The doctors struggled to figure out how to manage your pain, how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, because your tolerance for narcotic painkillers was so high—taking three Dilaudid a day will do that. They ultimately decided on nerve blocks, or “epidurals for your arms.” They would leave you unable to move your arms for twenty-four hours.
It’s how I felt in the waiting room, sitting alone and wondering how I would possibly be able to care for you while you healed. You wouldn’t be able to shower, or brush your hair, or dress yourself without help. I’m the only one left after years of missed phone calls, unanswered texts, unpaid bills, abandoned commitments. How much more could I take, before I couldn’t anymore?
A splinter lives under my skin and it digs a little deeper every time I tell you that I love you, but I still do.
Susan G. Bouchard is an emerging writer and recent alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied Creative Writing. Her nonfiction pieces have appeared in publications such as Vice and The Pennsylvania Gazette. She lives in Southern California with her family.
Jake pulled up in a red Toyota truck. It looked brand new. He rolled down the window and grinned. His teeth looked like they had been bleached, and his dark hair was a little longer at the top, short on the sides.
I walked to the passenger door, climbed inside. He set his hand on my shoulder and squeezed, his smile still huge, but I laughed and shrugged so his hand fell away. I adjusted the seat, sitting as far back as Jake and rolled down the window. The only way to keep things normal was to pretend like nothing had changed, and he caught on, ripping down the dirt road so fast we didn’t have time to think about anything but the speed.
We used to smoke pot after working at Toman’s Construction on the overgrown hiking trails at the Lackawanna State Park. Now, we were going camping there, and Jake hadn’t mentioned marijuana once on the car ride, how he didn’t just want to smoke, but needed to. So I asked him as we parked the truck, unloaded our camping gear and cooler full of beer.
“You still smoke?”
I shook my head. He looked away, pretending to study the pine trees that towered around the parking lot. “I got a job with Cabot. Did I tell you that?”
“No,” I said.
He shrugged. “They do drug tests every few months.”
“The money good?”
I thought of Toman’s Construction. We got paid just over minimum wage. Jake was twenty-four then, already married. Cindy’s income allowed them to buy a shitty house that always needed work. At least they weren’t renting an apartment like I had, scrounging up the money every month and wondering why I went through the trouble when it was only myself I was trying to please.
Jake ignored my question and put his arm around me. I almost dropped the tent bag from the sudden weight.
“You look skinny,” he said. “I thought they worked out a lot there. Guys come out looking big and scary.”
“Not me I guess.”
He laughed, his arm falling from my shoulder. “I’m just kidding, Tommy. You look the same. You look great.”
We both knew it wasn’t true. My hair was gone, a buzz cut that made me look like a twelve-year-old. I had lost almost twenty pounds. There was no natural muscle, no padding on my bones anymore. We stayed quiet as we walked through the manmade trails and passed a family with one of those portable trailers that made you wonder what was the point of camping. A little boy stood outside hitting the mobile home with a stick. The sound of the wood hitting those plastic panels made me want to ask Jake for a ride home. I couldn’t be here in the woods, my first week in an old life. The pines shaded us from the sun when I had wanted to feel it beating on my face, burning, rolling down my back. I wanted to be alone, sitting on my mother’s porch until I figured out where to go next.
But then I heard the high-pitched, wonderful giggles. I lifted my head and saw them off to the left, tucked away in one of the smaller campsites. They were the most beautiful girls I had ever seen and they couldn’t hide even if they tried. One of them held a flimsy tent pole in the air and watched it wobble above her head. Her hips swayed back and forth. The other two girls saw us. They were both blondes, maybe twins, and held a deflated green tent in their arms.
Jake nudged me. “You have to set the tent on the ground, ladies.”
The brunette with the wavy hair and thick hips leaned the pole against a tree and seemed to be looking right at me. “A little help?”
The temptation felt like oil. It soaked my body, leaving it slick and desperate. I started walking. My steps turned faster. My feet zigzagged, tangling, until I reached their site and tripped over a camping chair. I caught myself before my nose smashed into the ground. My wrists throbbed. The tent bag was still around my arm, and I could feel the stakes and poles pressing against my side.
As my face hovered above the dirt, the tiny pine needles and pebbles, I realized the sad truth of it all. The earth wasn’t mine anymore. I didn’t know how to move, how to belong here.
I managed to stand, and Jake stood beside me, already laughing. So were the girls. The brunette had her hand over her mouth, muffling the sound. She stepped closer and I unraveled more. I bounced on my toes and pictured running my hands along her curvy edges.
“Are you all right?”
“Tommy really wants to help set up the tent. He’s a professional,” Jake said.
She laughed again and held out her hand. “I’m Stephanie.”
Our palms met, both sweaty. “Tommy.”
“I know,” Stephanie said as she wiped her hand down her jean shorts. “I think you can manage the tent.”
I mostly stayed quiet as we set up the tent, still shaky from my fall, not answering when the other two girls introduced themselves as Erin and Hannah. It felt good with Jake beside me while we worked on the same project, though. I twisted the stakes into the ground, and he used a rock as a hammer, securing what I had started. My shirt was damp when we finished. His fancy hair was flatter on the top than before. The odor locked under our clothing seeped out. A musty smell I hoped the girls thought only came from Jake. Later, Stephanie invited us back to their campsite and when we returned, the sun had sunk. The sky was the darkest, most wonderful blue I had ever seen. The fire they had going was big with flames jumping and twisting and shooting out little orange flecks. Everything looked perfect. And I felt better. Jake had given me a pep talk back at our campsite. He told me my fall was cute. It would probably work to my advantage.
“Which one of you was a Boy Scout?” I said now, opening my first beer and looking at Erin.
She stood in front of the fire with a Bud Light in her hand. Her hair was piled on top of her head, golden strands falling around her face. She and Hannah no longer seemed like twins. Her eyes were blue, her nose small and pointed. Hannah had the same dark eyes as Jake and round cheeks as if she hadn’t lost all of her baby fat.
Erin brushed the strands of hair away from her face and glared at me. “Why Boy Scouts? Women aren’t capable of building fires?”
“Aw,” Jake said. “Tommy’s just impressed.”
I chose a chair by Hannah and ignored Erin. “What should we play? Truth or Dare?”
The girls stared at me.
“Aren’t you a little old for that game?” Erin said. “What are you guys, like thirty?”
“Not yet,” Jake said and set his hand on my shoulder as he walked past me. “But I don’t think people play that anymore. Sorry, Tommy.”
He sat beside Erin and cracked his beer open.
I shrugged. I wondered how old the girls were and remembered them standing in the sunlight before. Their tank tops were tight. Their breasts the perfect shape from where we stood on the path. I had tried not to stare when we got closer, after I had tripped. Now they wore big sweatshirts and tight blue jeans. They seemed off limits, but looked eager as they drank their beer, like it would vanish if they didn’t gulp it down.
“Fine,” Erin said. “I dare Tommy to twerk in front of the fire.”
Jake spit up his beer. It dripped down his chin until he wiped it away with his thumb.
“Nice try,” Erin said.
My face went hot, and I studied the silver mountains printed on my can, waiting for them to stop watching me.
“Look at him,” Hannah said. “He has no idea!”
When I lifted my head, Stephanie looked at me from across the fire, a little curious, a little unsure. “You really don’t know?”
I shook my head, watching Jake who was shaking his too, staring at the ground and twisting his feet into the dirt.
“Only because I’m drunk,” Stephanie said and strutted across to where I sat. I leaned back in my chair and held my beer to my chest. Stephanie turned around, her ass right in my face, pausing there before she bent her knees and rested her hands on her thick thighs. Slowly, gracefully, she started shaking just her butt cheeks. Her rhythm grew quicker and her ass jiggled so fast I didn’t know where to look. Up and down. Right and left. It circled and vibrated and bounced. There were so many movements all at the same time and the word made such perfect sense. Twerking. Twerking. I wondered if I was supposed to reach out, touch it, grab one of the lumps and try to stop it or maybe just settle my palm there and feel it pulse.
Hannah and Erin were laughing so hard their cans of beer tipped. Jake was staring, silent, probably as much in awe as I was. Stephanie eventually stopped before her ass fell off her body. She spun around, grinning, but I couldn’t give her the same in return. Nothing on my body worked. She lowered her face to mine. Her warm beer breath covered my nose.
“That is twerking,” she whispered.
Stephanie peeled off her sweatshirt. She wore the same white top as before, and the skin from her neck to her chest glistened, a dampness that made her seem immortal. Part of me wanted to thank her, to ask, possibly, for a little bit more. For her to bend down again and let me draw swirls on her chest with her sweat.
“I just have to ask,” Erin said. “Do you live under a rock?”
I watched Stephanie walk back to her chair, something in my chest that was loose when she shook her ass in my face, was now tight and uncomfortable.
“Hello,” Hannah said, tipping her chair to the side and waving her hand in my face. “Are you Amish or something?”
“Tommy is just a little behind the times,” Jake said. “Doesn’t go on the internet a lot.”
I looked at Jake; his eyebrows were raised.
“I just got out of prison,” I said.
“What?” Erin and Hannah said at the same time.
“I said I just got out of prison.”
Stephanie swallowed, set her beer on the ground. “For what?”
Jake hung his head and said my name in the sort of voice used on a two-year-old.
“A bunch of different stuff.”
“Yeah, like what?” Erin said.
“Little things kept adding up until I stole a car.” I nodded toward Jake. “We planned to take his grandmother’s car out west and start over. But it fell through. She called the cops and Jake and I were at the Shell off 81. I was waiting in the car, Jake was inside. Cops came and there I was, sitting pretty.”
Hannah let out a breath. “At least you didn’t kill anyone.”
Stephanie picked up her beer again. She started twisting the tab until it popped off.
“That’s so shitty,” she said.
I thought about how we were different men then. We worked like dogs at Toman’s and knew it was the best we would probably ever get. There were little things that kept us excited and hopeful. When Jake married Cindy before their relationship turned to shit. When I started practicing guitar again, writing my own songs, and had a band for about a week. But those bits of happiness always wore off. Everything did. Except for our friendship.
Going west was the best plan we ever had, but I didn’t have a car, and Jake had to sell his if we wanted enough money to make it there. In his grandmother’s car for those first ten minutes, one in the morning, the rest of the world seeming dead, right before we stopped for gas, I had felt a little sorry for Mrs. Butler, old, alone, and car-less, but I dreamed of the cool, dry air I would be breathing. I dreamed of Colorado water too, running down the big mountains. I wondered if the tap water would taste different than Pennsylvania’s. Maybe fresher.
“I have to say,” Erin said now, “this makes so much sense.”
“Erin!” Stephanie shouted. “That’s not nice!”
“Sorry,” Erin said, rolling her eyes. “But I have one more question. Do you know who’s running for President?”
I glanced at Jake. “Dude,” he said. “Have you seriously not turned on the TV?”
“Let’s just keep playing Truth or Dare,” Stephanie said.
Hannah pointed at me while looking at Stephanie. “I dare you to kiss the convict.”
I tried to settle my legs that instantly began to bounce, tried to tighten the muscles that had been stabbed awake.
The last woman I had kissed was Kara Robinson. We were at Cleary’s on a Saturday and she’d heard I had started a band so she followed me around all night, asking me to sing her a song. I never did, but I didn’t want her to stop begging. I cocked my head to the side, telling her maybe, if she got lucky. We stood at the end of the bar during last call. The lights turned brighter and Kara grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me in. She tasted like popcorn and cigarettes and just about ate off my lips.
I imagined kissing Stephanie now and it happening differently. Our lips would go together, not moving, but just staying like that until I had gotten enough.
Stephanie smirked but shook her head. “I don’t kiss people I barely know.”
“I dare you to go skinny dipping in the lake, then,” Hannah said.
Stephanie smiled. A compromise. “Fine.”
We stood and headed toward the lake that sat behind the campsites. I thought of her pale body falling like a smooth stone into the lake, the kind Jake and I used to find and skip. Running over the water, the stones were miracles until they fell through the surface.
There was a wide wooden dock that ran over the water. It had a ladder on the end and Stephanie went right to the edge, held onto the ladder’s metal sides and dipped her foot in.
“It’s cold,” she said.
“Too bad. Get in there,” Hannah said and pulled out a beer from her sweatshirt pocket.
Jake stood to my left. I could feel him looking at the side of my face. I didn’t want to look away from Stephanie, but I turned my head toward him. His lips were locked together, his eyes small, squinty.
“I’m sorry,” he said, not looking away.
Behind him, the moonlight highlighted the lake. The water was just thin layers of silk, the clumps of lily pads at the edge like hidden jewels. I knew it then, that we wouldn’t see the girls again. We had such different lives, coming together for those hours only because they needed our help. I didn’t know what would happen to me after tonight, how the world would treat me, if I would belong in Jake’s, or he in mine.
“I know,” I told him.
Stephanie pushed her underwear down now, standing at the edge of the dock, and bounced a little, her backside lifting and falling. When she reached behind her back and undid her bra, the lace falling on the dock, I wondered if she was cold, if goosebumps had covered her skin. Finally, she bent her knees. Her calf muscles flexed and she jumped in.
Hannah and Erin shrieked as water hit their legs. They jumped back, but I moved to the edge, watched her long brown hair follow her head underwater. The ripples of water calmed. Her head didn’t surface right away, and in those twenty seconds, that droplet of fear shook me.
I jumped into the water with my New Balance sneakers, my old Levi jeans that were too big, a Hanes t-shirt I had found shoved under my bed that morning. I was convinced she couldn’t hold her breath that long or maybe she’d hit her head on a rock. Suddenly, that night wouldn’t be the only night we would ever share. Stephanie would be eternally grateful after I saved her. I would have a purpose. One so big, I would always be wanted.
When my head surfaced, so did Stephanie. I wrapped my arms around her. Her slippery skin soft, magical.
“What!” she yelled, laughter pouring from her throat between breaths of air.
I loosened my hold, but she put her arms around me too. “You weren’t coming up. I was scared.”
I moved us to shore with her thighs wrapped around my waist. Her chin rested on my shoulder, her breath a quiet lullaby in my ear. When I carried her out of the lake, I felt the warmth of her naked body through my clothes more than I had in the water, and I couldn’t help smiling in the dark as her curves fit so perfectly in my arms.
The best part wasn’t being that close to a real woman. The best part: Stephanie never let on that she didn’t need me then and never really would.
Sarah Walker is a writer living in Boston, Massachusetts, originally from Scranton, Pennsylvania. She studied writing and film at Bridgewater State University. Her work has appeared in The Bridge, Burrow Press Review, Dirty Chia, and others. She is currently a Dennis Lehane Fiction Fellow at the Solstice MFA Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College.
Hours before the British surrendered, Japanese soldiers entered the school being used as a hospital at the front lines. They bayoneted wounded soldiers incapable of hiding, gang-raped the nurses, and mutilated every single person inside. Carcasses were left out like empty shells on the field.
The Japanese slept in fortresses built in Kowloon, in between villages like ours surrounding the border. They spared no one in their march through China. Is that why you came back?
From the jetty, I spotted your grey silhouette above the shallow tide. The sun had set. Black-faced spoonbills had flown off. Wind blew ripples into the water, peppering what was clear with little black dents that lined the smooth, blue surface. Cool air reminded me of the first time we met. The crickets stopped hissing and the crabs and mollusks had retreated back into their shells. You dove and fed from the seabed, hidden in the dark of the mangrove forest.
Do you remember that time you got caught in our nets? Our men tried hacking the ropes with dull knives and our women splashed water on all of you to stop the bleating.
I was a boy then, too weak to throw you off our boat, too scared to try. The low tide that year hurt us too. The oysters weren’t plump enough to sell; their flesh a third of the size of what they once were. Remember when my father cried out, “There’s a boy in here! One of the dugongs has eaten a boy!” Our men crowded around to see your pale face. I can recall those eyes even when I dream: forlorn, deep-set murky eyes like typhoon clouds so pregnant with water even sunlight could not penetrate through. We thought you were dead but then you opened your mouth and whistled a sound so shrill, we dropped everything to cover our ears. Your shell leapt back into the water, dragging nets and knives, but not the rest of your herd.
We buried them in the sand. Since then, our harvest started later and later every year. Some of us blamed the metal, some blamed the polluted water swept in from the Mainland, some of us blamed you. Larvae eventually settled on wooden posts planted across the tidal flat. We waited for our oysters to blossom but raked only barnacles. I thought if dugongs held little lives inside, why couldn’t oysters hold onto their worlds?
I heard drunken Japanese nearby, and knew they were coming. If they didn’t come now, they’d come tomorrow. I couldn’t imagine living beyond them—just like I couldn’t imagine our oysters dying, or your body in a dugong. My brother had gone to bed, right before my parents made love in their room. I left our front door open. Wading waist-deep into the tide, I brought my face down to hear you underwater holding my breath. At what point will we forgive ourselves for leaving? At what point do we join barnacles on their posts or hide in giant dugongs lost at sea?
Ploi Pirapokin’s work is featured in Tor.com, Apogee Journal, the Bellingham Review, Fiction International, HYPHENMagazine,and more. She has received grants and fellowships from the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Creative Capacity Fund, the Headlands Center for the Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, Kundiman, and others. She holds an MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State University.
My father turned into the driveway a little too fast, just like he always did. The Studebaker’s engine growled and the spring shocks squealed as my mother held her breath and closed her eyes, and my brother and I bounced in the back seat, almost hitting our heads on the roof. It was a Sunday night, March 13, 1946, and we were returning home from church. It was a fine spring evening.
I remember the sermon that evening being especially fiery, even for Preacher Bonds. It had been a hell and brimstone, apocalyptic, God fearing sermon, and I had been particularly caught up while mother cried, father slept, and Jim, my younger brother, fidgeted.
Preacher Bonds was as charismatic a Southern Baptist preacher as ever lived. Southern Baptists work from the premise that a good Christian is a scared Christian, and they have plenty of good material from which to work. Few denominations can wring fear from the Bible as well as the Southern Baptists. I know what you’re thinking, but I don’t count the Catholics. They’ve had so many more years of practice that, for them, rule by fear is a centuries-old art form.
Anyway, Preacher Bonds stayed pretty much in Revelations that night, and his voice was still ringing in my ears as the Studebaker coughed and died in the driveway, and we piled out into the late dusk of evening.
Jim looked up at the sky and pointed. “Look at the size of the moon tonight,” he said. I turned and looked up at the moon as it hung just over our neighbor’s roof. “And the color,” Jim said. “Look at the color.” It was red, blood red.
“And the stars shall fall from the sky,” said Father as he reached down and scooped Jim up in his burly arms, “and the moon shall turn blood red,” he bellowed in his deepest voice. “Isn’t that what Preacher Bonds said about the start of the end times?”
Jim’s eyes got about as big as the moon.
“Bill,” mother said to father in her disapproving voice.
Father paid no heed to mother. “Yes, I believe he did,” he said, putting Jim back on the ground. He turned in a way that he didn’t have to look at Mother and walked into the house.
Mother put her hand on my shoulder and softly said, “Go on, into the house with both of you.”
I look back at that time and wonder why I didn’t notice the change as it was beginning. She was pale, my mother, and try as I might to remember now, I can’t recall when the life had gone from her voice, but it was already gone on that night. I was only ten, Jim only six, but looking back I wonder how I could have missed it, not seen it coming. Then, I spend an hour watching my own children at play in their backyard, and I realize children have no yesterdays or tomorrows, only todays. It isn’t until adulthood that we try and string all those days together and look at the whole.
That night, after mother tucked us in, we lay in bed, quiet, but wide awake.
“Bent?” Jim said.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Is this it? Is this the end of the world, or was Dad kidding?”
“Don’t know. Dad reads the paper and says the world has gone crazy, and with what Preacher Bonds said about the end times, it could be.”
“Have you ever seen the moon red like that?” Jim asked. We couldn’t see the moon from our beds, but we could remember what it looked like out by the car, and its light came rustling in through the curtains.
“Can’t say I ever remember it being red,” I said with all the wisdom and experience of my one decade of life.
“What should we do? I can’t go to sleep. If this is the end of the world, I don’t want to sleep through it.”
I knew where Jim was leading the conversation. Three summers ago, Father had built a treehouse in the live oak on the east side of the house. Jim hadn’t been allowed to climb it until this spring because he had been too small. It was still a new and secret place for him. We had sneaked out there at night a time or two before, but it was always a gamble because the live oak was on our parents’ side of the house, just a few yards away from their window, which stayed open to catch the breeze during the spring and summer. We had to be really quiet, and being quiet did not come naturally to Jim.
“I don’t know, Jim. If this is Judgment Day, it might not be a good idea to be caught someplace where we’re not supposed to be.”
Jim didn’t say anything, but after about twenty minutes my imagination began to run away with me as well. If the world was coming to an end, I wanted to be a witness.
“OK,” I said, “let’s go out to the treehouse, but…”
“We have to be really quiet,” Jim finished my sentence for me. “I know. I’m six, not stupid.”
Ours was a two-story, craftsman style house with a wraparound porch that sat on the southwest corner of Race and Karnes Streets. Because our house was a corner lot with a bigger yard, all the neighborhood kids came to our house to play. I really enjoyed the big yard until I grew strong enough to push a lawnmower.
All we had to do to get to the treehouse was climb out our window to the first story eave that encircled the house. Our bedroom was at the southwest corner at the back of the house. Once on the roof, we would crawl down the backyard side, around the corner, and up the Karnes Street east side until about three feet from our parents’ window, which was on the northeast corner of the house. There was a branch from the live oak strong enough and close enough for us to climb out and over into the treehouse. I don’t know if I truly believed that night was the end of the world, but I do know I believed that if Mother had ever caught us on that ledge, it would have been the end of the world for us, or at least for me. Jim, being younger, might only have been maimed.
As we rounded the corner and started down Karnes Street, I was quite surprised to find the light still on in our parents’ room. I almost decided to turn back. I thought better of it because Jim was a few feet ahead of me, and he was afraid of heights. He was totally focused on not falling off the eave. I was afraid to say anything or to grab him suddenly for fear he might cry out. I decided to forge ahead, and we crawled into the treehouse with only one small scare. Once, Jim slipped a bit on the limb and rattled the branches regaining his balance. He was a pretty brave kid, and although there was a scream in his eyes, not a sound passed his lips.
The treehouse had a ledge on the Karnes Street side that the roof didn’t cover, so we stretched out side-by-side on our backs and looked up through the branches at the stars and waited.
They looked as secure in the heavens as ever, and none fell as we watched.
Lying in the stillness, I could hear my parents’ mumbled voices drifting out through their open window. I could only catch a stray phrase or two every few minutes, and for a long time, I didn’t even pay attention. But after what must have been at least thirty minutes, I realized they were still up and talking. I began to wonder. It had to have been past midnight, and Mother and Father didn’t usually stay up past ten, eleven at the most, even on a Saturday night, let alone a Sunday night.
“Jim,” I whispered, “what do you suppose they’re talking about this late.” Jim didn’t say a word, and when I turned and looked at him, he was sound asleep. He lay there on his back with his mouth open, inhaling and exhaling the shallow, quick breaths of childhood.
I slowly sat up, peeped over the two-by-four railing, and looked into my parents’ window. A thin wind briefly brushed back the curtain, and I saw my mother sitting on the bed, holding her hands in her lap. I think she looked scared, but that could be a detail that slipped into my memory over the many years since. As I sat there looking over the railing, my father passed back and forth by the window. Sometimes it appeared as if he was carrying things, maybe clothes, but I could not tell for sure. I could not make out their conversation. I sat and strained to listen and hoped for another small gust of wind to provide a glimpse of their discussion.
Father did most of the talking. Mother only said a few words now and then. After a while, Father stopped pacing. I couldn’t see him any longer, so I assumed he sat down in the overstuffed chair in the corner, out of sight from the window.
They talked about me and Jim for a long time. Every once in a while I’d hear “the boys” mentioned or one of our names spoken. Mother kept talking about church and Preacher Bonds, but I didn’t have to hear father to know how he felt about them. He never was much of a churchgoer.
That night seemed as if it passed in an hour. I sat in the treehouse knowing what was happening in my parents’ room was important but not thinking to guess what it might be. My pajamas began to get damp and sticky as the morning dew began to form.
I had fallen asleep, my head resting on my hands on the rail, when I was startled to consciousness by the light turning out in my parents’ room. I raised up and was momentarily relieved, thinking they had finally gone to bed. I stretched out on my stomach and looked over the side of the treehouse toward Race Street. I was going to lie there a few minutes to loosen some of the kinks out of my neck and back. After I was sure Mother and Father were asleep, I’d wake Jim and we’d crawl back to our own beds.
The sound of our front door opening perked my head back up. I heard the front door close, followed by footsteps across our porch and down the walk. A man carrying a suitcase walked east on Race headed toward Karnes. The man crossed Karnes and kept on walking until he disappeared into the orange glow of the rising sun.
The full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by the gale; the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Rev. ch.6 12-14
Mark A. Nobles is a Fort Worth-based writer and filmmaker. His work has appeared in Sleeping Panther Review, Crimson Streets, and other publications. He has produced and/or directed three feature documentaries and several short, experimental films. He can be found on Facebook @FlyinShoesFilms.
WHAT MATTERS IS OUR HANDS after Charlottesville: anti-racism protesters by Mars Hu
It’s not that your mother was afraid herself, or of your teeth,
or of everything you curl your body towards. Your mother is
shivering the way mothers do when their daughters become
something on the living room floor, the thought of red wine
spilt over the heart. She wanted everything you are not: a body
clean, mouthless, palms too soft to spiral into a fist. In the streets,
you raise the whole of your anatomy. Eyes, wrists, you magnify.
These are lines beyond the tapered spill of your voice, which now
arch to stone. And what happens to a solid when reacted in gas?
The streets and a white film, chemical reaction for violence.
Or your body, two reactants colliding within itself. It is difficult to
know the universal language for resist, for 3 dead and 34 injured.
We learn to count with these bodies. Your teacher used to say that
this is the hardest type of puzzle to number, the one where new items
appear every hour or so. It’s true, the falling body becomes creation.
Before your arms became a reminder of existence, you numbered
apple seeds on a coloring page, the hollow cores not any different
from what now litters the asphalt.
Mars Hu is the Editor-In-Chief of Venus Mag and author of the chapbook Ocean’s Children (Platypus Press, December 2016). Her work is forthcoming or has been published in Red Paint Hill, Eunoia Review, Cadaverine, Track Four, and more.
Image credit: Mark Dixon on Flickr in Charlottesville, VA
wear my feelings but also
read them: top them on a pizza
pour them in a sinkhole
drink them from a fountain
bake them into Pennsylvania and
here we go for a regional beverage
tour in the car: birch beer
: teaberry ice cream milkshake
black cherry wishniak
a year of new soup every day
we like a lot of it
we drink that milkshake twice
a waitress has gender trouble
and ways to ask if we’re pals
will we share the check
do neither of us want a meat side
when we swap our plates
she says “I saw that” and smiles
when she’s sure we’re together
she’ll only hold her eye with me
it’s normal—someone jokingly proposes
a bill to offset the expense of having kids
as recompense for transfolks’ unsafe lives
we keep after that indemnified baby
find 10,000 places we’re scared to pee
win a bad puppy at a goldfish toss
hold onto our fair vouchers
and he’ll grow up to be a boy
join our neighbors organization
or sit on a municipal board :
in a meeting see accident footage
: an ATV plowing into a hedge
by a public gazebo
see photos of the park a year before
with grandmas in it: a ceremony
naming the hedge for a woman who shares
“Flora,” Andrew’s grandma’s name
Flora losing an object that belongs to us
you reclaiming it and football dancing
in her garage—blowing out like candles
the slights that appear then disappear
: assembling boxes of donuts
donated to queer prom—breathing
on vegetables with our hippo breath
serving grey vegetables at a library meeting
opening a catering company to do
institutional brunch: closing
at three each day to go bowling
planting salad mix and waiting out
its 55 days to full development
clearing our time to teach the puppy
to rise his baby wings up for the sky
Davy Knittle’s poems and reviews have appeared recently in Fence, The Recluse, Columbia Poetry Review and Jacket2. He lives in Philadelphia where he curates the City Planning Poetics series at the Kelly Writers House.
THE MORNING AFTER ANOTHER COMING-OF-AGE FILM
by Daryl Sznyter
I dream of a man cutting into my stomach
and you’re observing it like a student, mentally
drawing the next incision. I try to sit up but then
you’re walking away. I reach for you and you
tell me I’m probably just hungry. I reach through
the hole in my stomach and realize it’s empty.
I remember feeling grateful upon waking. I wake
you up to ask you how you lost your virginity,
recalling how in the movie, the bad boy character
tells the girl he just deflowered she would have a lot
of unspecial sex. Yours sounded magical, even from
the start. I somehow felt less special upon hearing this.
Like the character in the movie, I can’t remember
names. I remember one name and try to look him up.
The news says he’s been missing since last December,
almost a year ago today. You ask me how many, but I
can’t remember that either. In your silence, I doze again,
counting them on my teeth. In my dreams, my teeth are falling.
Daryl Sznyter is a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and content writer from Northeast Pennsylvania. She received her MFA in Poetry from The New School. Her work has appeared in Phoebe, Gravel, The American Journal of Poetry, Poet Lore, WomenArts Quarterly, Bop Dead City, and elsewhere. Her first full-length collection of poems, Synonyms for (Other) Bodies, is forthcoming from New York Quarterly Books in March 2018.
Dawn: eight neighborhood
bullies congregate spoiling to tweak a perfect day.
They stalk tinfoil glints in the gutter & dangle dead moles.
Arise & go to Innisfree, wattles & daubs!
Poetical lovers there surround one another & bristle
like bees busybodying thistles. How, here,
come we to sip, from mother’s exquisitest
china pattern, our chipped tea? Trivial effronteries
scrimping a latest grisly luncheon along?
But the day advances pleasantly. Children
scatter to hopscotch back & forth & from pebbles
to butterscotch. Giddy moment: I myself
recompile my list of lost lists as if it dipped
to the breeze & whispered all of its
nothings & negligence along my collarbones.
The bullies rumble & puff. They’ve busted
everything to bits. Actually we ran home
wailing hours ago. The perfect day
stretches itself out, slackens, curls up, doubles over
& over the bullies, snuggles & licks their scabby
elbows & moon faces to glisten.
Martha Zweig’s latest collection, Get Lost, winner of the 2014 Rousseau Prize for Literature, is forthcoming from The National Poetry Review Press. Previous collections include: Monkey Lightning, Tupelo Press 2010; Vinegar Bone (1999) and What Kind (2003), both from Wesleyan University Press, and Powers, 1976, a chapbook from the Vermont Arts Council. She has received a Whiting Award, Hopwood Awards, Pushcart and Best-of-the-Net nominations, and has published most recently in Slice; Spillway, Innisfree and Superstition Review.
The walking stick:
an unlikely mast
a bit long-in-the-tooth.
red doors beckon
from the North Pole.
They’re out there,
and so very conflicted.
Frozen in time:
the dark freeway
where nature checks
its pretty head for gypsy moths.
What happens when
there is a reckless leap?
Go ahead, say it:
loyalty is dirt
—meantime, tomatoes are rotting.
dementia is brewing
in the railing spindles.
dreams go to die
where mountains mingle
with the sky.
Bitterly they mourn
the cold, hard cliffs they climb.
ice frustrates the grieving.
It bears repeating:
in the hands of principals
despite bouts of loneliness.
It’s happening way too often.
Look it up:
cages cry during
hushed conversations of astronauts.
Think about it:
a dark December day
has telltale crumbs on its bones.
It hurts to watch
the wind blow
through a novelist’s eyes.
There’s something about paper
that never even sees
the fissure widen.
Cliff Saunders has been writing and publishing poems for more than forty years. He is the author of several chapbooks, including Mapping the Asphalt Meadows (Slipstream Publications) and This Candescent World (Runaway Spoon Press). His poems have appeared recently in Serving House Journal, Five 2 One, The Big Windows Review, Rumble Fish Quarterly, and Snow Jewel. He lives in Myrtle Beach, where he works as a freelance writer.
When you reach the top, do not ring the bell. Keep climbing. Don’t stop until you have broken through the roof. The air will be cool when you take your first gasp of breath on the other side. You will notice you have not broken through the shingles of the roof. Instead, you’ll find yourself in clean-shaven grass. In front of you, there will be a golf ball tee. Place your chin on the tee and let go of the rope. Let your muscles relax as your body dangles in the gym. The students below will form a line to take their turn at ringing the bell of your body. When someone has finally climbed high enough to reach the tip of your toes, you can do one of two things: 1) Measure the tenderness of their touch; if it is delicate, let them climb the stillness of your anatomy; they will cling to you as long as you remain still. 2) If their first grasp is tight around the ankles, kick and thrust your body, violently, until they have lost their grip; until they have fallen 20 ft. onto the hard, waxed floor; until your shoes fly off your feet; until your head slides off the tee. Let your body slip back down into the hands of the students in the gymnasium below. Before they cheer your name, before they plead to take photos with you, in your barefoot landing, you will hear what I have been meaning to tell you: Always ask others to remove their shoes before letting them step on the welcome mat of your body.
You aren’t seventeen anymore. Look into your black coffee. Your skin is white enough to create a reflection, and your face forms new creases that you must introduce yourself to. Every day you wake up singing the same song, and every day that song becomes a year older on the Billboard list. Think about your childhood and realize you don’t remember the excruciating detail, only the vague relation to a seven-year-old girl who memorized every country’s name on a world map. You can’t recall the names of these countries, and you can’t remember your first kiss. You can, however, remember two nights ago at the bar when a bearded man bought you a beer. You remember how bitter it tasted. Get up. Walk to your car in twelve strides and drive to your friend’s house. She will be there making a tomato basil stew with one hand and throwing a seventy-two-inch vase with the other. Stare at the curve of the vase. Stare at the curve of your waist to your hip. See how smooth the vase is. See the hillsides of your stomach. When she focuses two eyes on the stew, walk over to the wheel and knock over the vase. As she screams, apologize, not to her, but to your body: a soft, broken apology.
Taylor Lorenzo is a graduate student at Missouri State University and currently serves as a Poetry Editor for Fields Magazine and an Assistant Fiction Editor for Moon City Review. Her work has appeared in The Cossack Review, Wu-Wei Fashion Mag, and Metatron’s online journal.
Frances had skipped two periods before she realized what was going on. “I’m lucky,” she bragged to Sarah over milkshakes at the corner store. “I haven’t had my period in eight weeks, no tampons for me, I beat the system.” Sarah’s mouth dropped, and that’s when Frances became aware of the extent of her self-deceit. Now, she sits cross-legged on the floor in Jack’s bedroom shuffling a deck of cards while Jack moves laundry from the washer to the dryer in the basement, his parents in the city at a hospital benefit.
She remembers decorating the basement in her own home two years earlier for her sixteenth birthday party. Her mother had been in one of her moods, so her father had picked up Sarah and taken the two of them to CVS to buy twenty-seven feet of multi-colored streamers and a bag of medium-sized balloons. “I think we should make a giant stethoscope,” Frances said to Sarah while climbing an old step-ladder, “like the one my grandmother has.” “Why not a heart?” Sarah replied. She remembers thinking Sarah lacked ambition.
Still in Jack’s bedroom, Frances puts down the cards and lies on her back on the floor. Spreading her fingers so her palms press into the wood, she can hear Jack banging around the basement and wonders whether or not he uses fabric softener. She knows fabric softener contains toxic chemicals like ethanol and camphor that deteriorate a person’s neuropathways, and others that cause pancreatic cancer or fatal edema, and she berates herself for knowing this but not putting two and two together about her missing periods.
She thinks again about that night two years earlier, about trying to make that stethoscope, wrapping her fingers around the streamers, twisting them into lines and curves, then asking Sarah for her opinion. “It looks like a glazed doughnut,” Sarah said. Later, at the party, Jack gave Frances a present wrapped in old newspaper. She had invited him because he offered unusual anecdotes about medical breakthroughs in Mr. Elwise’s Biology class. “Did Elwise ever get back to you about that monkey neurogenesis study?” she asked when he handed her the present, the overhead lights making his nose look slightly larger than it was. “Nah, he’s useless,” Jack replied. After ripping open the newspaper and finding a used copy of Gray’s Anatomy like the one her grandmother had on the bookshelf in her living room, Frances felt her stomach flutter. That night, right before the ambulance came, she kissed Jack for the first time while Sarah cheered them on from the corner.
“Hey,” Jack says, laundry basket in his arms, Frances lying on his bedroom floor. “What are you thinking about?”
“Do you use fabric softener?”
“Of course not, fabric softener contains neurotoxins,” Jack replies. He watches while Frances sits cross-legged again and while she picks up the deck of cards. “You wanna play Strip Poker?” he asks.
“Then what?” He sits next to her on the floor, his hand resting casually on her bare knee.
“I thought maybe we could tell fortunes,” Frances says. “Sarah taught me last week.”
“Sure, and then we can drive to the beach.”
Frances pushes his hand off her knee, but she misses him when he crosses the room to open a window. She finds the four Queens and turns them face-up on the floor. “Okay,” she says, “now you have to ask a question.”
“How bad will traffic be on the bridge?”
“It has to be a yes/no question.”
“Will traffic be bad on the bridge?”
She’s impressed that he doesn’t miss a beat, that he can rephrase his question so expertly. She wants to tell him this but instead asks him to concentrate and to choose a card from the deck, so he chooses the Three of Diamonds, and she places his card above the matching Queen of Diamonds. “Diamonds mean maybe,” she explains. “Traffic might be bad, might not.”
“That’s playing it kind of safe, don’t you think?”
“My turn,” Frances says. She squeezes her eyes tight until small tears begin to form, then chooses a card. It’s the Nine of Diamonds.
The night of her party, two years earlier, her father collapsed while making homemade popcorn over the stove. Frances heard the crash, then her mother’s screams. She rushed upstairs and saw her father lying stiff on the floor. She flung herself across his torso and felt her mother pulling her shoulders, trying to get her off him, but she knew blood wasn’t moving through his body, which meant no oxygen was getting to his heart, which meant his heart’s cells were dying rapidly and she didn’t know what kind of monkey tests had been done to shed light on the regeneration of a left ventricle.
She places the Nine of Diamonds above Jack’s Three of Diamonds and remembers thinking months after the funeral that her father would never have a conversation with Jack, would never know that Jack’s nose in fact was lovely, would never know that two days after the party, when she was sick with grief, Jack had quizzed her on the cellular make-up of bone marrow, would never know that she didn’t mind when Jack found out she used to think Gray’s Anatomy had been named after the television drama and not the other way around, would never know that Jack had figured out the streamers at her party were supposed to look like a stethoscope and not like a glazed doughnut or unambitious heart.
“No fair,” Jack says. “You need to ask your question out loud, that’s what I did.” His hand rests on her knee again.
“Well? What did you ask?”
“Give me a minute,” Frances says and breathes more heavily than she would like. “Will you and I have a baby?”
Jack squeezes her knee and sort of lies on top of her. “I hope so, Frannie girl,” he whispers while shifting his weight, “I hope so.”
“No,” Frances says, “I meant will we have a baby now.”
“Well, in seven months,” she says with finality.
Years ago, Frances’s parents took her and Sarah to the beach. They drove over the bridge, then parked the old station wagon in Field Three and carried chairs and a cooler up wooden stairs and over dunes to a spot near the lifeguard. Her parents spread a blanket over the sand and Frances watched while her mother touched the back of her father’s neck and whispered something in his ear. “What’s up?” Frances asked, but her mother took out a magazine and leaned into her chair. Later, Frances watched while her mother offered her father a sandwich. “Can I have one?” she asked, but her mother closed the cooler and looked to the waves. In the silence following her proclamation in Jack’s bedroom, Frances wonders if her mother wished that day that Frances would get sucked into those waves, or discreetly swallow enough neurotoxin to reduce her brain-energy metabolism, or do anything to disappear so her mother could make popcorn alone with her father every night before climbing into their great big bed.
“A baby in seven months,” Jack repeats. “Teeth are forming right now, an inner ear, even sex organs.” He pauses, then moves his hand to her belly. “May I?”
“You’re being awfully formal,” Frances says, but she lets his fingers make small circles on the skin under her t-shirt.
“What now?” Jack asks.
“What do you mean?”
His fingers linger on her belly and he slides closer so her head can rest against his shoulder. “My grandmother left me her ring,” he says. “Frannie girl, that ring is yours.”
Earlier that week, when Frances was doing her own laundry, her mother and grandmother were making grilled-cheese sandwiches upstairs in the kitchen. “I miss him,” she heard her mother say. “You need to take care of Frances,” her grandmother replied. “You always think of her, never of me,” her mother said. Frances opened a new box of fabric softener and thought about putting a sheet in with her mother’s underwear. Instead, she closed the box and hid it behind some old pipes.
“That ring is yours,” Jack repeats. She holds his hand and looks into his eyes, which remind her of her father’s eyes, brown like dirt overturned to dig a hole deep enough for a coffin. She remembers that shortly after she watched that coffin go into the ground, her grandmother pushed her stethoscope across the kitchen table. “It’s yours now,” she said to Frances, “I was alone, but I used this every day in my practice, it kept me company.” Frances remembers thinking her grandmother wasn’t alone, not really, because she had Frances’s mother, just like Frances’s mother wasn’t alone because she had Frances.
“Your eyes are like dirt,” she says to Jack, then regrets it, but he smiles.
“Freshly-turned dirt,” he says, “earthworms expanding and contracting their bodies to burrow and make things grow.”
Frances wonders how she got so lucky, how she found someone who understands her so well. “Yes,” she says.
“Yes to earthworms?”
“Yes to the ring.”
Later that afternoon Sarah braids her hair. “You really said yes?” Sarah asks while placing her hands firmly on Frances’ scalp. “What about college? What about med school? Why didn’t you use the cards, do more fortunes, don’t you think that would have been wise?”
“I’m serious. Diamonds mean maybe, Hearts mean yes, Spades mean no, Clubs mean probably, you just match your cards, they make the decision for you, it’s easy, you can’t go wrong.”
“I said yes.”
“Did you mean it?”
Frances looks down at her hands. “I don’t know,” she says. A year after her father died, she overhead her mother talking on the phone with her grandmother. “It’s hard for me, it’s hard for all women,” she heard her mother say. “Not you, you became a doctor, you beat the system, but—” Her mother stopped talking, and Frances wondered what system she might have meant, or what she might have realized that shut her up. Later that night, Frances decided to beat the system herself. She took off Jack’s jeans for the first time, let him take off her underwear, told him she loved him and that she wanted to experience penetrative sexual intercourse.
“I think I meant yes,” Frances continues while Sarah still braids her hair, “but I don’t know.”
“Why not?” Sarah asks.
“What if I’m like my grandma?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if I become a doctor and stop loving Jack, or care so much about being a doctor that I don’t pay attention to it? Or if I’m like my mom and love my husband but don’t ever really love it?”
Sarah’s eyes get all misty. “That’s a baby, Frannie,” she says, “not an it.”
“It’s a fetus, maybe even an embryo, but not a baby, and I can get an abortion.” Sarah pulls hard on Frances’s newly-braided hair and Frances welcomes the pain.
The next day, she sits at her grandmother’s kitchen table and looks out the window while her grandmother boils water. She watches a squirrel circle up a black locust and thinks about the locust’s trunk, wide and sturdy, almost threatening with its weight. By the time her grandmother brews two cups of chamomile, Frances is kneeling outside on the patio studying a pile of dirt. “Frannie,” her grandmother says, “what’s wrong?”
“It’s these earthworms,” Frances says through tears, the black locust looming over her head. “I think they’re copulating.”
“No, look, they’re lined up with their backs against each other, facing different directions, that means they’re copulating,” Frances continues. “Did you know earthworms are hermaphrodites? Did you know they have both male and female sex organs?”
“I know, Frannie.”
“And they make this thing called a slime tube, kind of like mucous, and they each ejaculate into the slime tube, sending sperm into the other earthworm’s sperm receptacle?”
“Frannie, what’s wrong?” Frannie leans back into her heels and starts making small noises. Her grandmother puts down the tea cups and kneels beside her, holding Frances’s damp face and rubbing her cool fingers into the back of Frances’s shoulder. “What is it?”
“Why did you have mom?”
“Is she at you again?”
“No, I want to know why you had her, you didn’t want her, you know you didn’t want her, that she would get in your way, but you had her anyway, why?”
Her grandmother pulls back and brushes some of Frances’s hair from her face. “Frannie, I did want your mother, I love your mother, what’s this all about?”
“Do you remember when I was younger and used to work with you?” Frances says. “You used to let me take your patients’ blood pressure, you taught me how to find their pulses and how to hold the stethoscope over their arteries, the same stethoscope you gave me after Dad died?”
“I’d listen until I could hear the first pulse beat and then listen until I couldn’t hear anything at all, that’s how I read their systolic and their diastolic pressures, how I read the way their blood moved through their bodies, everything was so precise, everything was so clear.”
“That’s when I realized, even though I didn’t have the words,” Frances says, then looks again at the black locust, and at the maple just beyond, its branches fanning out from its trunk.
“That I wanted to be a doctor, like you.” Her grandmother rises and carries a steaming cup of chamomile to where Frances still sits huddled on the patio. “Why can’t we be like earthworms?” Frances says. “Why can’t we share slime tubes so everyone has eggs and everyone’s eggs get fertilized?”
That night, Frances and Sarah make popcorn over the stove. Sarah rambles on about the Ten of Clubs she drew after asking if some boy in their U.S. History class last year would break her heart, about how thin the card was, its paper face already bent with time, while Frances thinks about her father and his heart, cracked open like paper, like a broken kernel of corn. “It’s not fair,” Frances whispers.
“No kidding it’s not fair, why can’t boys step up? I don’t mean Jack, he’s one in a million, I mean normal boys, boys who don’t know how many bones are in their feet.”
While Frances melts butter for the popcorn, she wonders if her mother only had room to love her father, and if her grandmother only had room to love her work, and if traits like the capacity to love a child have a genetic component. She puts the popcorn bowl on the coffee table and goes into the bathroom to throw up.
In the morning, she notices the veins in her breasts and that she has gained two pounds. She takes out a deck of cards and pulls a Six of Spades which means abortion is no longer an option, which means she needs a new idea. Her grandmother’s car isn’t in the driveway when she arrives, so she sneaks around back. In the yard, she touches the black locust as if listening for that first pulse, that first marker of systolic pressure, but she keeps her eyes focused on the maple and its outstretched branches.
Getting to the first branch is easy. From there, she holds onto the trunk with one hand and feels for the next branch with the other, then pulls her body up again, then again, then again, until she’s sixteen-and-a-half feet from the ground, three times her body height. She makes sure soft grass is below before pressing her back into the trunk. Eyes closed, she pretends she’s an earthworm sending sperm into her mate’s receptacle, sending her uterus into her mate’s receptacle, sending her embryo, her fetus, her baby into her mate’s receptacle. She imagines the dirt and the slime and the release. Then, positioning her body so she doesn’t land on her neck or head, she jumps.
When Jack finds her, ten minutes after she texts him, she’s lying on her side in the grass, unable to move. “The cards didn’t work so I needed to figure out another way to beat the system,” she says, “and I might have killed our baby.” Jack moves to cradle her in his arms. “No,” she says, “lie next to me, but behind me, and face the other direction.”
“Like earthworms?” he asks. “When they copulate?”
Her back pressed against his back, she takes his hand and pulls it around to her slightly swelled belly while the locust, tall and forbidding, reaches for the sky.
Maria Brandt has published plays, fiction, and nonfiction in several literary magazines, including InDigest, Rock & Sling, Arts & Letters, Prime Number Magazine, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, VIDA, and upstreet. Most recently, her collection New York Plays was produced by Out of Pocket Productions and published by Heartland Plays, and her novella All the Words won the Grassic Short Novel Prize. Maria teaches Creative Writing at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY and is a founding member of Straw Mat Writers. She lives just outside Highland Park with her son William.
MISVENERATION OF THE SAINT OF LOST THINGS
by Nikki Stavile
Toni is a German shepherd. She shares my father’s name. She’s choking on Italian leather shoes and I take her out on the front porch. The utilities man brandishes the shutoff notice. He mistakes the red Fiat X-19 for my father’s girlfriend. The prospective tenant mistakes me for my father’s secretary. In the house, there is a flaming oven, which I mistake for a family argument. My baby sister totters from the half-baked rum cheesecake. I mistake her for my father’s ex. My father mistakes my middle sister for a lesbian. He mistakes me for a Christian. He presents me with a low-cut striped blouse. He anoints my forehead with olive oil. We go to church and press junk jewelry rosaries into one another’s palms. We mistake our father for Our Father Who Art in Heaven. We pray to the Jesus who has taken his hair. He is asleep. He believes he is in a Bond movie. He narrates his adventures and we follow him down the corridor, into the hospital’s catacombs. My father wakes up and mistakes himself for his younger self, because that is easier to do than admit he is dying. He mistakes me for his first crush. We share the same name. We place the garlic bread host in the center of the surgical ward. It wheezes underneath my palms as I cut. My father tells me to mistake it for my mother-in-law. I do not have a mother-in-law. I suggest flowers for the table. We three sisters pull up my mother’s rose bushes and stake one another in the back. We find the crosses are good for our postures. My father informs me that he was mistaken about dying, this time. He had mistaken himself for his father. They share the same name. I leave to start a pilgrimage. I go into the Roman churches. My father’s desperation seeps onto the one-euro candles. He instructs me to never steal from the Church. I exit through the confessional. I mistake every person in the street for my father. The men with their black-winged leather jackets. The women with their sunglasses reflecting heaven.
Nikki Stavile is a second year MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Hollins University. She deals with the dilemma of writing a lot of words and running a lot of miles on a near-daily basis. Nikki’s work has been published in or is forthcoming in Scoundrel Time and Artemis Journal. She resides in Roanoke, Virginia, with her partner and an abundance of Legend of Zelda video games, in a house depressingly devoid of cats.
For three nights we watched Vietnam
documentaries, mom slipping …………….into the TV, the TV blooming …………….the blossom of ’68
back at her. What an age
it is: Detroit shoveling
the ashes, her brother
on night patrol, The Supremes …………….descending in their shimmery …………….chitons through the radio
and settling over the year.
Watching her watch herself
is a marionette of severance,
the soft screen playing back
her life as if it happened
to a bystander, the narrator …………….rifling her pockets. It must …………….be an agony watching
vacancy grow arms
and legs until it walks
beside you covetous
and swallowing what your eyes
can’t fix in place. We drove by …………….her childhood home, a wet wreck …………….on a block of wrecks stripped
for copper. Her brother
lives in Dearborn now,
his life inside that year
shot through with holes, which is
to say he came back whole as anyone …………….could hope. Diana …………….will leave and Florence
will die; the bricks collapse
into disordered piles,
and my uncle beyond
the sight of everyone except
the news. All I can do is watch …………….as this fond emissary …………….shows me what it loved
and never know what kept
its shape or what they held
in the cleft of that year,
as Detroit’s east side emptied
itself of song and the air split …………….against itself. If they saw …………….three bright angels hold the sky
aloft for one slow beat, heard
them singing Set me free,
singing Keep me holding on.
Matt Muth is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Pacifica Literary Review. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, RHINO, Rattle, Nashville Review and The Adirondack Review. He teaches writing at a technical college for video game designers in Redmond WA, lives in Seattle, and is a solid beer-league hockey player.
Cars backed up to where the geraniums
manned the empty lifeboats in the square,
we went to see the grounded whale.
The shale bit through our sneakers.
Maggie up on your shoulders,
the sunset spilling its grenadine
above the crowd, voyeurs, to see
a leviathan who trolled the harbor
for a week before he trussed his bulk
upon the Wellfleet beach, still
now, only for an occasional flap of tail.
The eyes in the massive snout begged
go away, welcoming the fog and chill.
Ashamed, we retreated to the parking lot
where Maggie from her car seat said,
“This is where the monsters cut their feet.”
Calliope Come Back
Unlock this tongue, any ransom.
The fireworks are set for your return.
I expect Vesuvius or at least a wave
from the presidential car, sparklers
around your neck and toes, cinnamon
in your crocodile mouth, on three hours
sleep, nine cats wide, eleven hounds long.
Lee Sennish’s poems have been published or are forthcoming in decomP, Kestrel, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Alembic, Scholastic Magazine, The Blue Door Quarterly, and The Forum. Her chapbook, I Choose Fire, was a finalist for the Slapering Hol Press Sanger-Stewart Chapbook Contest. She received an M.A. in literature from Hunter College, where she was advised by Jean Valentine. She currently takes courses at the Hudson Valley Writer’s Center and lives in Cottage Valley, N.Y.
The sky is a permanent state of dawn, or dusk, if you will, and I
have been having a hard time breathing. This, the inability to
breathe, I mean, began long before the sky turned grey. Some
are calling this a cataclysm. I use the sky too much in poems, just
like I use Benadryl too much in real life. My poems reflect the
sky the way my dreams reflect Benadryl. It was only a matter of
time before it turned the other way round.
There is a tree spread out like a canopy, beneath which is a stone
bench. In the rain, you can sit here without getting wet. I mean,
if the storm is external. In case of internal storms, get wet. From
my canopied stone bench, I can see the window to my college
room last year and the entrance to my college room this year.
One is an entrance I never used, the other is an entrance I
should use more often. I cannot decide which is which.
When I left my room for a week, I came back to find I had left
the lights on, and there were hundreds of light insects lying dead
on the floor. I am sure there is a language with words for blood
that is not blood, and souls which are not human. Once I find
that language, I will return, hundred weeks from now, having
learnt that language’s words for apology.
Imagine a ship, a huge ship, a cargo ship, a passenger ship, a ship
carrying whatever you value. Imagine a dark, stormy night,
the kind where in stories, whatever you value will drown, only
because you valued it too much. Imagine seeing a lighthouse.
Imagine nearly reaching the shore. The lighthouse is burning.
You were in the middle of the sky. This was before it turned
grey, before you came to the room with the dead insects, a little
after you were told how high you will be and what to do when
you crash, a little after you read a yellow message in your Inbox
saying, ‘Something’s not right’. It was too early for the sky to be
anything but pink and new and an amniotic sac of a lot of hope.
It is too late for the sky to be anything but grey and old and torn
apart in wisps. The sky keeps confusing between itself and you. If you
are in the middle of the sky, does that mean the sky is in
the middle of you?
Stuti Pachisia is an undergraduate student of literature in English at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi. In the past, she has reported and written about politics, conservation and education. She hopes to someday teach and write poetry.