After I call Barney, I take a bath. I have my hair in a topknot, so it won’t get wet. But it’s been cold all day, and the hot water feels so good that screw it, I pull out the ponytail holder and submerge. It’s not like he hasn’t seen my hair wet 500 times before. It’s not like a date where you need to look your best.
I’m shaving my leg when I hear the front door, hear Barney call, “Hello?”
“I’m in the bath,” I call out. “There’s wine in the fridge.”
I dry off, considering wardrobe. Jeans again seems pointless, so I put on my bathrobe. It’s one of those spa bathrobes, white and fluffy; Barney gave it to me for my thirtieth birthday.
Upstairs Barney’s uncorked wine, and he looks at me up and down, his expression a mixture of pleasure and unhappiness. I’ve known him nearly half my life, but that doesn’t mean I can read him. Or, rather, I read Barney perfectly in some ways—I know what he’s feeling—but the origins for those feelings are obscure. Is he pleased because I’m naked under the bathrobe? Because I’m wearing his gift? Is he sad for those same reasons? Who the hell knows? I used to make myself crazy, trying to figure him out.
“Where’s Laura?” he says.
“At a sleepover, of course.”
“Yes,” he says. “But which kid?”
He makes a face, and for once I know why. Barney thinks Gretchen’s rude.
I say, “You got to give that girl another chance. So what if she doesn’t say ‘Thank you’?”
“It’s not that. She’s so hot and cold with Laura. One week she’s giving her a BFF locket, the next week she tells her she smells like grass.”
“Like marijuana grass?”
“I think like grass grass.”
I laugh, and he says, “It’s not funny. It really hurt Laura’s feelings.”
“Personally, I love the smell of grass,” I say. “Pour me some wine?” He does, and I see it’s not the open wine from the fridge, but some nicer bottle he brought. There’s a frog on the label, its legs splayed. I think of punching dissection pins through the webbed toes of my frog in ninth grade Biology.
“I can never keep track if Gretchen is her friend or her mortal enemy.” Barney hands me a glass of wine, and we clink glasses.
“Well, we’re hardly in a position to judge, are we?” I say.
Sad eyes, again, but why? I would have thought that would make him laugh.
I’ve given Barney my keys and taken back keys so many times in the last fifteen years I’ve lost track, starting with my first apartment after college. I put that key in a light blue jewelry box, tied it with a curly ribbon. (Barney never could learn how to curl a ribbon with scissors; I always had to do that part of wrapping for him, even for presents to me). When we broke up because he was being a dick about proposing, I took my key back. When we split for real ten years later, I reclaimed it again. Those were the bad days, fighting about who got to keep the house.
The official reason he has the key now is so he can drop off Laura when I’m at work.
“You two are so civil,” Gretchen’s mom Molly said to me. The other fifth grade parents admire us. When Barney was dating Shireen, I always made sure to hug her. When I sent out an Evite for Laura’s slumber party, I included both our names. We did Christmas morning together; then Barney took Laura on a hike, and I saw a movie by myself and tried to feel grateful that I was not shivering, with damp socks, listening to Barney saying, “Just a little farther.” We’re the most civilized exes in the world.
“Why do you only call when she’s on sleepovers?” Barney says.
“Come on, Barn. Things are good. We don’t want to confuse Laura.”
“But it’s okay to confuse me?”
“We’re adults,” I say. “We understand that the human condition is confusing.”
He shakes his head, but unbelts my spa robe, and I link my hands around his warm, meaty neck. When we go into my bedroom that used to be our bedroom, I think how much louder we are now that we’re not married, and how much more we have to say when we’re fucking. Though never “I love you,” because we’re adults.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and was published in March 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals. She is fiction editor of Pithead Chapel. More at kimmagowan.com.
Martha screams and runs to the bank of the cow pond when she sees her four-year-old boy walk into the murky water. His head is submerged by the time she arrives and her husband, running from the horses, peels off his shirt and dives in. She screams her son’s name for what feels like hours to the sky doming endless Oklahoma plains.
But he emerges on the other side. The crown of his head breaks the surface and his muddy legs carry him up the bank. Her husband’s head bobs up in the pond. Martha stops screaming. “He walked on water,” she says to the floating head. She thinks her son can save her.
Martha realizes that, if she had to call an ambulance, it would have taken a long time to arrive. Fairview was an hour—a trip no longer made for the movies, not since motherhood. The miracle (and accident) happened so close, though, right here.
She was doing nothing before. Watching the barn cat pull long leaves of grass through its teeth. Transfixed for a moment, and her boy had taken off.
It seems to go back to normal so quickly, but she knows it’s not normal. Her son is turned away from her and she’s staring at him as she makes his food—toast, eggs from the chickens. She feels far away across the wood-walled kitchen, he doesn’t call her “momma” and she wants to close the distance at once.
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” she says.
Her husband is out with the horses.
The boy looks up with still-damp hair and eyes wide as cows’ and says nothing.
She scatters feed around the chicken coop and her mind is on heaven. Here is the hand, she thinks, reaching down, and all she has to do is grab it, hold tight and be pulled up and out. But she couldn’t call the priest for him to come help her, couldn’t explain it. The chickens bob and jerk at the meal from her hand.
At dinner Martha sits at the table across from her son. Her husband finishes his food and slides his plate forward. He leaves and the emptiness gains weight. She feels the dark humid silence pushing in around her tight, the smell of animals and dust and rotten water broken only by the beacon of the blue eyes across the table.
Her son puts down his fork. He pushes out from the table, his feet pad the wooden floor. His plate clinks into the sink.
As the boy walks back past, Martha dives to her knees and grabs him. “Tell me,” she says, holding him as his limbs push against her, “please tell me what to do. With you here, I know I’ll be okay.” But he breaks his arms out of her grab and then the rest of his body, and he runs outside to the animals.
David Nolan is studying English/Creative Writing at Emory University, where he enjoys basketball, rock climbing, and playing music. He was born in Ecuador and raised in Vermont, and his flash has previously been featured online by New Orleans Review.
She took the partial denture from her mouth and passed it to the boy. He’d lost two teeth in the scrum to leave the boat and even though the gum had healed it was hard for him to eat. He stared at it like it was a thing alien. She nudged his hand and, smiling, gestured with her own what to do. She was not an old woman, and so he wondered how she’d lost the teeth herself. He saw in her eyes tenderness and the knowledge of being hungry.
Gingerly he held the denture up and, afraid it would feel as if she had spat in his mouth, placed it under his tongue. It was heavy and thick, a lump of plastic, but it hooked at the back of this teeth and when he bit down it felt almost as if they were his teeth, even though could hear the plastic clicking. He reached out, took a piece of chicken and ripped the skin off. He bit into the soft, greasy flesh, but it didn’t feel like biting; it felt like he was ripping up chicken with a mouth guard in, and when he tried to chew, the plastic bounced up and pushed his tongue into the back of this mouth making him gag. He hooked his finger into the back of the plate and gagged some more. He fished it out.
She took the plate back, washed it in the water in her glass and slipped it back into her mouth, then she took a piece of chicken from the dish, bit down gently to tear the flesh from the bone and, using her tongue, pushed it to the back of her teeth. She chewed slowly, not bringing the denture into play at all, then swallowed. She ate and tasted every piece, tasted the sweet pink juice, the fruity meat, the creamy grease. She worked her way down to the bone and then cracked the brittle thing with her grinding teeth. She sucked the good marrow from the middle. She wiped her hands and, with delicacy, drank the cold, strong tea in her tea glass.
She offered the boy to try the teeth once more. He took them with a kind of gratitude he hadn’t felt for a long while, washed them in his own water glass and held them up to his face. He saw, then, that the plate wasn’t made of plastic but of polished bone, shaped and oiled until it was smooth, and the teeth were really teeth. Not human, he could tell that now, but close enough to look human. He put the teeth back in. She smiled and nodded, urging him in the quiet, gentle way she had.
The chicken was cold now, and it slipped between his fingers, but he licked the jelly from his palms and took a bite. As he chewed, not bringing the plate into play at all, he saw in her resemblance. Not that the woman had his eyes or the cut of his jaw, but that she was related somehow, through the loss of her teeth, the pain of filling her mouth with a dead thing’s bones, the learning of how to make them fit, how to bite and eat, and when, when to recognize the need.
Jacqueline Gabbitas is a UK-based poet and fiction writer. Her poetry collections include Mid Lands (Hearing Eye), Earthworks and Small Grass (Stonewood Press) and her fiction includes the novel Dark Peak, writing as JG Parker (Stonewood Press). Her poetry and short fiction has been published in various magazines including Poetry Review, The Forward Prize Anthology, New Fairytale Magazine and Magma, and has also been broadcast on BBC Radio 3. She is a Hawthornden Fellow and co-editor of Brittle Star literary magazine in the UK.
It was a cold afternoon in Florida. December is often occupied by a pain-in-the-ass wind, but today the air was relatively humbled. This was after I’d just finished EMT school and was nearly fifty years old, the alcoholism under control again. My partner was a child, a teen who wouldn’t let me listen to the radio, insisting that he play some sort of robot music on his telephone. He was hyperactive with sleep deprivation. We were on a twelve-hour shift. The cows off to our left weren’t eating grass, weren’t walking, weren’t sleeping, were just standing there with a sort of monstrous close-to-suicidal depression. My partner looked at them and penetrated the sky with a horrific fake moo. On the ground nearby was a corpse. We were waiting for the coroner. In EMT school, they teach you in the first week the patients that we are supposed to spend absolutely no time on: the decapitated, the decomposing, the incinerated, those with rigor mortis or dependent lividity, and those who—according to my instructor—“are just freaking obviously dead.” This patient was one of those. I won’t explain why, because I’ve learned that people have weaker stomachs than you might think. And this isn’t about the patient, because the patient was no longer a patient. He was simply a corpse.
This was about the cows.
You see, my partner—at least in this moment—seemed to be addicted to them. He couldn’t stop focusing on them. I have a feeling it was his way of handling the silver of death. It seemed to line our veins now. I could feel death brushing against my skin. In reaction, some people faint. It’s called syncope. Medicine always has an alternate word in case you don’t want patients to know what you’re talking about. Scientists quickly turn a cow into a Bos taurus. Clouds become cirrus. My partner approached the fence and I could tell he wanted to jump it.
I motioned for him to go ahead.
I know that if I needed to get away from the asymmetry of violence, I wouldn’t want anyone trying to keep me around. It would be best if he went to wherever he needed to go. I had four more hours to go with him and I didn’t want what was upcoming. It’d either be a deep chat where he’d tell me about some fibrous fear of his or else maybe a valley of silence where he’d eventually explode at me for hitting a pothole that wasn’t there. I wanted him running around with cows, expending adrenaline, coming back tired and muddy. Coroners always take their time. There’s no need to rush to the dead. We could be here forever, paid to wait.
He climbed the fence and headed away from the cows, keeping a distance. I watched, in case a bull should be hiding somewhere. I hoped so. I could treat any wounds he might suffer. He looked like my brother who’d committed suicide. Not really. But a bit. At this distance. My brother had chopped off his own hand while drunk and bled to death. Months before, his fiancée had just faded from his life. He’d almost totally stopped speaking. She was warm-blooded, a woman who seemed to be a parade when she’d walk into a room. She was out of his league. Twenty-thousand leagues. I’d never warned him. I just sat back and watched it happen.
Having decided something, my partner headed straight for the cows. In his dark blue uniform, he appeared to be a shadow in motion.
The vehicle was upside-down, the front windshield gone.
The blood near my feet was everywhere. Pooled and splattered and flecked. A combination of velocity and arterial anger and slow capillary ooze, multi-colored based on oxygenated or deoxygenated or how much sun it had been baked under. There was a body part in the distance. I couldn’t tell what it was. Instead, I looked into the sun, allowing it to damage my retinas, letting it tan my eyes, the partial blindness that seemed to shake everything out of my head if only for a little bit, that made fake ghosts appear that felt as if they were entering deep into my mind, again.
Ron Riekki’s books include And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017, Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (2016 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal Great Lakes Best Regional Fiction and finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award), The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book awarded by the Library of Michigan and finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, Midwest Book Award, Foreword Book of the Year, and Next Generation Indie Book Award), and U.P.: a novel. His fiction has been published in The Threepenny Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Wigleaf, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Akashic Books, Juked, New Ohio Review, Puerto del Sol, and many other literary journals.
Bloody Mary was neither skull nor naked bone. ………….Sister of blood and flesh
they said your name 3 times, ………….walked backward up the stairs,
followed you to the weed choked creek ………….where the bluegills suck the air,
taught you to mine for clay, ………….to mold bowl after bowl,
to mouth the word ashtray.
Now with a spool of yarn twisted ………….around your slim fingers
you want one to weave her fingers ………….into your cradle.
Mary, you are just a plain girl, ………….a hollow grin, sloping shoulders
hair hanging in matted nests. ………….It’s been so long since you first lived,
a fish jumping out of the still creek.
Mary Lou Buschi’s collections of poetry include Awful Baby (2015), Tight Wire, chapbook (2016), Ukiyo-e, chapbook (2014), and The Spell of Coming (or Going), chapbook (2013). Mary Lou’s poems have appeared in many journals such as Radar, Willow Springs, Thrush, Dream Pop, and Field, among others.
“You’re not listening,” I said. I patted the curls on her head. “In school they will tell you zero is the lowest number. Then later they will say zero isn’t the lowest, that there are negative numbers. So you can keep adding bigger and bigger numbers, as much as you want, and it can go on forever.”
“What’s the highest number?” she asked. “It’s a thousand, isn’t it?”
“No, it isn’t,” I said. But by this time she had left the room. “Let me work,” I said, even though she wasn’t there.
Rain came down outside and it beaded up on the window. It was hard to concentrate. I had about a thousand emails to respond to. Or none.
When my wife got back that evening, she came in as she usually does, through the back door and into the kitchen, making a racket. She was obviously tired from work but I liked her there, a little wet from the rain, her skin giving off some heat, and I liked the way her sweat and her hair were fragrant.
She set down her things. Her black laptop stuck out of her bag. It made a thud when she let it slide from her hand.
“Did you finish the project?” I asked her.
“Too much to do in one day,” she said. “You?”
I walked to give her a kiss. I could taste the rain on her. It has a taste even though it’s just water. Maybe it’s what clouds taste like.
“I’ll never be finished,” I said.
My daughter walked in. It looked as though she had been out in the rain somehow. I’m not one to lose track of things and she can’t get the front door open so I was mystified.
“How did you get out there?” I asked.
“Out where?” she asked. “I’m wet because I went in the shower.”
“What?” my wife asked.
“I know I can’t count all the raindrops because they’re everywhere. But I thought I could count them in one place if I stood. Because I wanted to find the highest number,” my daughter said.
“The highest number?” my wife asked.
“Don’t ask,” I said. “Let’s dry you off.” I opened a drawer in the kitchen to find a towel.
The drawer was empty.
“Hold on,” I said. I ran to the laundry room downstairs. The towels were all dirty.
“Don’t worry about it,” my wife yelled.
When I got back upstairs the back door was still open. The two of them were outside as the rain kept falling and they were inventing a jumping, twirling dance right in it. I thought I could hear them counting, the numbers going and going, as if they were letting the highest number they could think of fall on them.
Joshua Wetjen is a high school English teacher living in Minneapolis and working in St. Paul. When not working or chasing his two children, he likes to practice jazz guitar and sample new restaurants with his wife. His work has appeared in Right Hand Pointing and is forthcoming in Opossum.
In the photo half my face is showing but the focal point is a streak of silver white. I dye my hair dark but last year when I began growing out my pixie haircut, I let my temples keep their natural color. I had cut my hair short when my daughter was a toddler and I couldn’t stand a thick knot at my nape. But time was passing. My hair was growing. I was about to go for a run and when I tied my hair back I liked the look of it, the distinguished white and gray streaks.
I posted the photo before I went running. After I looked to see who had liked the post. There were several comments but it wasn’t the photo that caught their attention. It was the caption:
the august temples
One person wrote, eminent! followed by a series of emojis. My friends from back when I played bass and sang said it sounded like a band name. I said we should start it. The August Temples, three grizzled emo dads and one mom, the bass player. It would have to be a four-piece because all of us came of age when indie rock was two guitars-drums-bass. Only occasionally keys. The guys would wear bowling shirts and I’d wear a tight ringer tee. The gear would be pulled from storage, or the corners of living rooms. (How long has it been since my bass amp was used with anything but headphones?) We’d write anxious loud songs about toddlers, a ballad about a kid crying his way through the first day of kindergarten called “The Kissing Hand.” The van would have a muffler pipe patched with a tomato paste can. But at some point a conflict would arise: we’d realize we wanted to give up our families for each other. I imagine The August Temples in the practice space, with one responsibility: give a song a color and a shape.
Jennifer Solheim is a French scholar, fiction writer, and erstwhile punk bassist. She is the author of The Performance of Listening in Postcolonial Francophone Culture (Liverpool University Press, 2018). Her fiction and essays have been published at Confrontation, Monkeybicycle, The Pinch, and Poets & Writers, among others. She is also a Contributing Editor at Fiction Writers Review. More about her work at www.jennifersolheim.com.
The thing about being the murdered actress is you set the plot in motion.
Your picture will be in the tabloids, your parted mouth, your half-closed eyes. She was so beautiful, people will say. So young. You’ll be loved, desperately. Photos of you cut out of magazines, pasted on bedroom walls; your name tattooed onto forearms, upper thighs. I’ll never forget her.
They’ll write a biopic about you. A man will. A man who knew you, tangentially, when you were still alive. A man who remembers, tangentially, the sound of your laughter, the tap of your footstep. He’ll write you the way he remembers you, the way the people do. He’ll write you larger than life.
In your death, you will be larger than life. Like a face on a movie screen.
The tabloids will announce the production of the biopic. They’ll look for the perfect girl. Starlets will line up for auditions in red lipstick, spike heels. They’ll all have their hair styled like yours. They’ll have watched your films as research, research, even your earliest films, where you didn’t have any lines, filled in the background, stood, sat, walked, smiled, looked pretty.
What’s my motivation, you used to ask your directors.
Be sexy, they said. Be soda pop and apple pie.
That’s what they’ll tell the starlets in line, twisting in their heeled shoes, rubbing the backs of their necks.
Be soda pop, the starlets will agree, think of bubbles, think of fizz, think of the snap of aluminum coming undone.
There will be a girl on the stage. The girl on the stage will be speaking lines from your most famous movie. The girl on the stage will be inhabiting you to the smallest of her gestures.
She’s the one, the whisper will go down through the line of starlets, she’s the one.
The producers will be nodding, the director. She’s the one, yes, nodding, thinking how well they knew you, how well everyone did.
The girl on the stage will finish speaking her lines, your lines. The girl on the stage will feel their eyes on her. The girl on the stage will feel like you, feel loved, feel like you. Will bow, say: How was I?
When the girl from the stage is cast in your biopic, the tabloids will begin to call her by your name. Her own name will be gone. Our new girl, they will call her, our new beloved one. The girl with your name will look in the mirror sometimes, see your face.
Is this me? she’ll say.
The girl with your name will film your death scene first.
We have to see if you can handle it, the producers will say. The rest will be cake.
Easy as pie, the producers will say.
The girl with your name will never understand why the producers always talk food, soda pop, apple pie.
Are they so hungry, she’ll say to the makeup artist in your voice.
The producers will have the death scene shot again and again, watch the daily rushes, shake their heads.
It needs to be more real, they’ll say.
We need to believe it, they’ll say.
The director will ask for different angles, for less lighting, more lighting. The director will kneel beside the girl with your name, playing dead on the concrete floor, sheer black teddy, restrain her shivering body.
Every actress wants to play a death scene, the director will say.
He’ll grab the girl with your name by her thin wrist. It will be like grabbing you. He never touched you, not when you were alive. He’ll think it would have been like touching her now. He’ll pull her off the concrete floor by that one wrist and the girl with your name will think how it is, the difference between the two of them, his hand, her wrist, will think is this how she felt, will think, yes, this is how she felt.
The girl with your name will film the death scene. She’ll knock it out of the park, the producers will say, you knocked it out of the park, shake her hand, linger with their touch. The girl with your name will be magnificent, the girl with your name will smile, smile, smile. The tabloids will say how she is you now, how she is just like you.
Cathy Ulrich has picked up most of her movie lingo from reading books on silent films. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, including stories from the “Murdered Ladies” series in Cotton Xenomorph, Bad Pony, and Crab Fat Magazine. Her story Your Mother Sings When She’s Alone appeared in Issue 9 of Cleaver.
On July 20, 2015, an article appeared in TheNew Yorker detailing the specific ways in which my hometown will be wiped off the face of the earth.
The article, entitled “The Really Big One,” described an earthquake that is due to devastate the Pacific Northwest within the next fifty years. Everything west of Interstate 5 will disappear, including my own city of Eugene as well as most of the major population hubs in Oregon. The piece was well-researched, visceral, and packed the hard-facts punch of any other apocalyptic warning: Billions will die. Cities will burn. Don’t bother with the hazmat suits.
I called my mom later that day and told her about the article. She asked me what she was supposed to do about it.
“You can always tell Dad not to bother building the guest house,” I said. “Apparently the ground’s gonna liquefy somehow.”
“We’ll need another structure out there, then,” she said, “since neither your father or your brother can swim.”
I reminded her that I couldn’t, either.
What most people don’t realize about Oregon is that east of the Cascades, the trees are replaced by desert. We’ve set our cities in the trees, but desolation is second nature to us, always just across the mountains. Maybe that’s why we didn’t panic when the rest of the country told us we were doomed. We are used to living with ghosts. It wasn’t until I left home that I learned how Oregon has the most ghost towns of any state. Most of them are old mining towns that were abandoned after the gold dried up. Some of them just suffered from regional isolation to the point where nobody realized they were empty: the town of Millican, whose last known resident was murdered in the eighties, was completely deserted for twelve years until the land transferred hands and people had reason to set foot there again.
After the Really Big One, I imagine that the ghosts will outnumber the people. Massless spirits will drift from the cactus to the evergreens. The rest of the country will ask why we didn’t leave, and they will not get an answer, except perhaps that we would rather die here than live wondering if we could have stayed, and that when wind blows through a ghost town, it sounds like singing.
According to the article, the destruction of my home will start with a violent shaking of the earth that would last around four minutes. The evergreens, deemed our state tree on the sole basis that there are more of them than there are people, will bend, break, and flatten, laying themselves against the sloping hills that line the Willamette Valley. My barn will collapse with yelling animals inside—when goats scream, they sound like children. Then the electric grid will go down, plunging the region into darkness as buildings collapse and shatter, flames bursting out of heat-trapped combustions and consuming the timber towns whole.
During earthquake drills in elementary school, they always told us to hide under our desks, or better, to stand in a doorway so that the structure wouldn’t collapse. This got harder and harder as we got older, trying to fold our unruly limbs and budding hips under single desks. I remember being caught on my way back from the bathroom one day when the alarms went off, bracing myself against the doorframe from the imaginary tremors, watching my gangly and awkward classmates tuck into themselves. We were always worried that someone would see our underwear peak over the waistbands of our jeans, worried that nonexistent glass would stick into the tracks of our shoes. We were not worried about earthquakes. Those were for California, for the heat we imagined could pucker the sidewalks. In high school, the end of the world comes every day.
Next, the water will rise, one hundred–foot waves swallowing the coastlines. Towns with names that taste like sand will be swept out with the tide—Seaside, Yachats, Coquille, Bandon. Tiny beachside shacks on stilts and cramped souvenir shops will crumble into the sea, snow globes and saltwater taffy washed out to shore. The campground where my friends and I went the summer after graduation will be marked by a few water taps in the sand, memories of rushing topless into the surf hushed in favor of memorial.
Here is what I imagine will be left: a polished bronze plaque in Yachats that my school erected when I was fifteen in memory of two drowned boys. The plaque reads, “The Ocean Is A Treacherous Wonder.” After the flood, their deaths would be two in millions.
Before the boys died, I had no concept that disaster could happen close to me. Even now, I wonder if my lack of real fear is an indication that I just cannot comprehend destruction.
I’m told that when tall waves come, they look like skyline.
In the article in The New Yorker, the author invites you to simulate with your hands the fault lines under the earth, to push your fingers together and watch the ground buckle into mountains and floods. You are invited to reduce the wildest, darkest part of the country into knucklebones. You are kindly invited to simulate disaster.
When I was sixteen, a friend and I earned volunteer hours training EMTs with imaginary emergencies. We pretended to be victims of an earthquake, letting professional makeup artists bloody up our faces and spare t-shirts so hapless trainees could take our vitals and ask us questions: can you hear me, can you see me, what is your name, can you let go of your friend’s hand.
The first time, they dripped syrupy blood all over my face and assigned me dead, telling my friend she was supposed to hold me. They told us to make it harder on the trainees by speaking another language, if we knew one. I tried not to blink and listened to her plead with the trainees while my fellow volunteers wailed enthusiastically around us.
“Je ne comprends pas, je ne comprends pas. Mon amie, j’ai lui appellée et elle n’est pas répondue. Aidons-nous, aidons-nous.” Help us, help us.
The earthquake will only be an estimated four minutes, but the repercussions will ricochet across the region for centuries. Chances are that I will not be at home when it hits, but that I will fly back when I can, surveying the desolation from above. It will be up to me to imagine what took place during those four minutes, although by then I will have pictured them over and over already, and there will be news footage to help me along. Chances are, I will no longer be able to claim the event as something that happened to me, but something that happened to my home, as if they were separate things. This is why I think the Richter scale is logarithmic instead of linear: you can’t trace the steps of a disaster, only calculate the harm done by the end.
According to my boyfriend, we should all just leave.
“Now I know not to move to the Pacific Northwest,” he said when I told him.
“Even if you got a job? Even if you really wanted to?”
“I mean, maybe,” he said, looking uncomfortable. “I could never quite relax.”
My East Coast friends had mostly the same reaction—get out, get moving, get gone. What they don’t realize is that growing up in the West, we knew this was a possibility long before The New Yorker told us it was. We’ve put our roots deep anyway, hoping maybe that when the storm comes, we can just redouble our grip. My friend from California likens it to global warming—“We knew it was going to happen. It doesn’t mean we’re going to do anything about it. It doesn’t mean we’re going to stop living just because we might die.”
Sahalie Angell Martin is a recent graduate of Emerson College, where she earned a BFA. in writing. Her work has been published in multiple Emerson-based literary magazines, the underground, and Oregon Poetic Voices. Her collection of short stories, Venetian Blue and Other Obscene Colors, was published by Wilde Press in 2016. A native of Oregon, she currently lives in Boston and can be found online at sahalieangellmartin.com and @sahalieangell.
I walked in my grandfather’s garden while my sisters took their turns saying goodbye. The peony bushes, now barren, were my grandmother’s favorite and, for her, he had always tended them. She had long forgotten who we were, but just that morning had told my sisters and I how much she missed peonies in the springtime. I walked past her still staring at the empty bushes through the window when I came inside to take my turn.
The rented hospital bed was made up as comfortably as it could be. In it, my grandfather looked wilted and fragile. Barren. My mother, holding his veiny hand, looked up at me in tears. She shook her head and I knew I had missed my turn.
We told my grandmother for the first time. A few moments later, the information gone, she asked if we were crying because there were no peonies blooming.
Lynn Oseguera is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. She enjoys comedy, science fiction, and all forms of art. After graduating, she aspires to work in entertainment, specifically screenwriting. “Barren” is dedicated to her supportive late grandfather.
First thing that morning, a woman told Henry his crew must not cut her tree’s branches. She looked as though she wouldn’t survive if he cut the thinnest twig from the huge willow oaks in front of her house. Fully dressed and made up before eight a.m., she clutched the notice that his crew had hung on her door knob a few days before. She argued for the integrity of the tree as though he had suggested cutting the arms off her grandchildren. A branch as large as a trunk had shot over the power lines. He gave her his supervisor’s phone number. Her hands shook as she dialed the number on her flip phone, murmuring, “murder, murder, murder.” They moved their trucks to the next house—on this road, almost all the properties had tree limbs extending over the wires.
There, a woman came across the lawn in her pajamas and a loose sweater, her arms crossed like a shelf under her breasts so he wouldn’t see them shaky and unsupported. I’ll be damned, if this isn’t the day from hell. He knew what she would say: “you can’t cut our tree” and “it will fall over backward if you take off the front” and “it has never knocked out power,” and he would have to give her his boss’s number and hold off cutting, screwing up the work flow all down the road.
But she smiled, looked right in his eyes as though he were her equal and not the angel of death, and said, “I just wondered if you might cut one of our dead limbs, too,” and she pointed, so they walked together and she showed him where a major limb jutted out, silver and leafless, on the other side of the massive trunk. “My husband wanted me to ask.”
“That one will come down anyway—it’s on the lateral—it’s got to go.”
“My husband wants it down—I hadn’t noticed it was dead, disguised by all the living branches.” She looked embarrassed to ask this favor.
He didn’t tell her that they didn’t strictly need to cut it. Instead, he said, “You’ve got tomatoes just rottening on the vine.” He’d seen them when he’d been placing flags for the fall zone, just before she came from her carport. Orangey globes that he hadn’t seen often enough that summer, what with working seven-day weeks cleaning up one disaster after another. When he got back to North Carolina after cleaning up from Irma, his mother’s tomato vines had dried up.
“Do you want some? It’s crazy how they came so late this year. I can’t keep up.”
“Wouldn’t mind one for my sandwich.”
“You should take a couple,” she said, walking away toward the house.
He took a closer look at the tomatoes. Some had black mold spots and thin skin covering rot, others needed a few days on a windowsill before they’d be ready, and he wanted one for his sandwich today. It wouldn’t do to let the fruit roll around on the floorboard of the truck. Someone would step on them, and it would be a mess. Was that her watching from the window? Maybe he shouldn’t take any. It’s not like he was doing any big favor, getting that limb down.
He had to go and set up another zone on the main road, and when he came back, she walked outside again, now with a bra under her sweater, with three tomatoes in a plastic grocery bag. “I had some on the counter that are just perfect. We’re not eating them fast enough.” This woman could not stop apologizing for her good fortune, for this life where she had a husband and a garden and no bigger worry than getting down a dead limb.
The bucket truck was anchored at the base of her tree. He pointed to a fungus way up the trunk, and asked her, did she know what that meant?
She said she had no idea.
“It will kill the tree, because it’s inside it already. The water came down that dead limb and into the opening and started a sickness.”
She looked stricken, as though he’d told her that her child was dying.
“How long?” she asked.
“It’ll take a lot of years, maybe ten,” he said.
She seemed to relax a little. Then she showed him where the roots were rotting—did that have to do with the fungus?
“When you see mushrooms sprouting around the trunk, it’s a sign of rot.”
“There have been mushrooms all along these roots!” she said. “It’s where the chipmunks make their homes.”
“Ma’am, I can tell you about chipmunks.” He shook his head.
“We’ve got so many, we’ve been trapping them and taking them to the park.”
“I trap them, and I feed them to my black snakes.”
Her face said she didn’t think worse of him, in fact she looked as though she wanted to know more, but the limbing man up in the bucket had started his saw, and they had to get out from under the tree and the wires. Here was a woman who didn’t know when she was in danger.
“Ma’am we’ve got to get out from under the tree when he’s cutting.”
She followed him to the driveway.
The wood chips flew in the air like a thousand moths as she stood by him in the driveway near a telephone pole. He had his safety glasses on, never took them off all day, but she had nothing and was covering her eyes with her hands like a visor. Some limbs bounced softly onto the wires and balanced there, while others fell to the ground.
“Would black snakes climb this tree?” she asked.
“They would eat them squirrel babies out of their nests.” He told her about black snakes and how he liked to catch the five-footers and keep them, and she seemed interested, so he told her about the dozen deer he skinned last winter, the fifty-odd rabbits he’d shot, and even more squirrels—all of which he ate—and the catfish he’d caught in the Yadkin River as long as her arm, which was good eating, too.
He cut glances at her rounded belly, her hair, both colored and gray, all the while tracking the man who whirred the bucket up and down and lopped off branches.
“It’s my son up there.” He surprised himself, telling her this. “He’s twenty-five. I raised him since he was five, both Mama and Daddy to him. I broke down and cried when he moved out at eighteen. Couldn’t stand for him to go.”
A large limb fell and hung on the wires, seeming as light as a row of perched birds.
“Looks like he came back.”
They watched another limb fall.
She said something about how it wasn’t as hot as it had been, and he said he liked it best when the temperatures were in the thirties. Those times in the winter or late fall when he skinned deer outdoors and left some of the parts on a table at night for raccoons and red-tailed hawks to get. He didn’t hire a butcher service the way other hunters did. He liked being outside, cutting the meat by the open fire, canning it at a table built for that purpose.
The bucket arm was at full extension.
“What about those?” She pointed over his son’s head.
“That’s canopy. We won’t get that cut—no way to do it.”
He didn’t want to leave the woman’s side, but he had to do his job. With his picker, he plucked the newly fallen branches off the wires. He wanted to tell her about learning to hunt with his father, who showed him how to load and point a rifle and how to track animals, and then sent him out in the woods telling him to bring back squirrels and rabbits for supper, counting on him to do it. He wanted to sit at her table, and tell her about his hunting, and eat his sandwich with her, away from the men.
She yelled out from the driveway, “Don’t forget to get some green tomatoes. Take all you want.” She was gone into the house.
He wanted a dozen green tomatoes for canning, and he took them. He left her a few, even though she’d waste them. He’d kill a deer that weekend and dice the green tomatoes for chow chow.
All that week, while they cut limbs throughout her neighborhood, he noticed when her car was in her carport, and when it was gone, but he didn’t see her again, even when he directed his chipping crew to dump two loads of woodchips in her garden where she’d agreed they could dump them. Don’t cover the tomatoes, she’d said.
The next time this job came up would be ten years from now, and by that time he’d be out on disability or retired. He had to accept it—women like her were not for him.
When cold weather came, Henry enjoyed a stretch of good hunting, then a hard freeze came followed by an ice storm, and, to top it off, a heavy snow brought down limbs and power lines all around the city. His crew used spotlights to make quick work of dozens of fallen trees and limbs, and, despite the snow and the dark, he recognized her place when they were sent to her neighbor’s house, the neighbor who’d first complained the day he worked on that road last summer. As a result, his boss had told them to go easy on her pin oak. Now the limbs they’d left for aesthetic reasons had knocked out power down the street, which would put his boss’s job in danger. He hoped his boss wouldn’t get sacked. There was nothing he could do about a woman like that.
This time, he was in the bucket while his son warmed up in the truck, and a third man watched from below.
While he considered the best path for the large limb’s fall, a light came on in the woman’s carport, and he saw two figures come out. It had to be the woman and her husband. They’d left their warm bed or their fire or their generator to watch him work, and there was no way she could know that he was the man she’d given tomatoes. She’d see him now as one of thosetree men. He cut the the trunk-like branch—more than a foot around—and it landed on the sodden snow.
The couple had disappeared when he looked back their way. He lowered his bucket and climbed out.
In the truck, his son poured hot coffee from a thermos and extended the cup. “Isn’t that the house where the lady gave you tomatoes?”
“Whatever garden she had is gone under this mess,” he said.
“She had some green ones that you canned up.”
“That sounds right,” he said. A jar of the chow chow was in his fridge. He savored it with his venison. “She wasted her garden. Some people.”
Laura Moretz is a writer with fiction published in r.kv.r.y quarterly literary journal, Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, Stoneboat, and forthcoming in The Forge. Two of her stories have been nominated for Pushcart prizes. She has won the Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Prize and is an assistant editor for Boulevard and The Review Review.
A HISTORY OF WASHINGTON, D.C. IN NINE SCENES by Nick Kolakowski
My Dear Elizabeth,
This is beautiful country. The hills are a verdant green & the river Potomack bountiful with fish & amenable to navigation & it seems agreeable that the Capitol of our new nation should find itself erected on this spot. Yet the ferryman conveying me across the muddy waters displayed a surly nature worthy of Charon. When I informed him of my intent to survey the boundaries of the federal district, he snorted & spat & declared the area a fetid swamp unfit for Civilized Man. Losing four fingers to a cannonball in our most recent War—so he informed me—seems to have put him off the idea of Governments in general.
Once ashore I found a buzzing legislature of insects awaiting me with each one a hellion anxious to sip my blood. The humid air & my exertions &c. produced sweat copious enough to soak my jacket & fill my boots. Only the thought of my generous fee compelled me to continue my measurements & recordings. A few hours’ journey to the north placed me at the base of a rocky slope, prodigious in height—at the base of it a humble cabin filled with a quantity of miserable wretches. Their Patriarch boasted a white beard worthy of Moses & the blackest eyes mine own have ever seen. I am here to survey land for the Capitol, I informed him. He looked at me queerly, as if I were taking amusement at his expense, & told me he would refuse to part with his tiny farm for less than many times its pitiable worth. The irascibility of the inhabitants here!
They say the Capitol is the only building in Washington worthy of notice. Now it is ablaze. The Library of Congress, with all its wondrous knowledge, is likewise on fire. The inferno flickers golden on the bayonets of the British marching up Pennsylvania Avenue toward this house, intent on setting yet another icon of our fair Republic to the torch.
Mister Madison has fled already; my husband is always quick on his feet, let us say. John Susé, our door-keeper, and Magraw the gardener enter our living quarters, their eyes wide with panic. Susé says I must leave with all due haste, the British are only a square or two away.
Our silver & some furnishings & other goods already await in the carts downstairs. The rest of this wood & stone & plaster & cloth can burn—it will not kill the Dream. But as we pass through the house I see the portrait of Washington—dear George—on the wall in its heavy and ornate frame, and the thought of the British defiling it fires me with rage.
“Take that down,” I tell Susé, pointing at the portrait.
“But Madame,” he protests. “That frame is heavy, and nailed securely to the wall. We would need to find a ladder, and we have not time.”
“Magraw,” I say, and gesture toward the large blade strapped to the man’s belt. “If we cannot remove the frame from the wall, we will remove the painting from the frame.”
Susé begs me to stop, but Magraw hands over the polished steel without a word. I push a chair against the wall beside the painting. “My apologies, George,” I say, standing on the seat, raising the knife above my head. “But it is better this way, trust me.”
Washington is surely the capitol of Hell. It is crowded and it stinks; the mosquitoes and flies outnumber the two-legged citizens; the quarters for rent are in desperate need of amenities and class. I love it so. At Willard’s Hotel my shoes crunch over bits of paper and cigar ends and chunks of glass, all of it discarded without thought by the crowds of men anxious for a word with the senators and congressmen staying in the rooms above. Everyone crowds the bar and drinks to sweaty excess and spits chewing tobacco everywhere, uncaring if the latter should splatter a neighbor; and when a legislator appears they tear after him with the hunger of lions after a fat bit of prey, anxious for a word, a signature, a promise, a position. From the Generals wanting more troops to the small boys needling you for coins, this is a city of desperate wants. A canny man like me could make a fortune here.
But nothing compares to the great frenzy and huzzah that greets our President as he traverses the parlor with his small entourage, doing his best to offer each vulture a pleasant word and handshake. Lincoln, despite his ungainly bearing and reedy voice, carries within him an unmistakable gravitas I only hope is commensurate with the enormous tasks that face our dear nation. I want to buy him a drink, and do my best to elbow through the crowd, but he is already away to his suite. Our sweet Lord protect him.
The Caverns is a tiny space beneath the humble Davis drugstore on 11th, but it looms large in our imagination. It is the place to go in the very early hours, when the whole town sleeps except for us true jazz aficionados, the ones who can’t hear a clattering typewriter without snapping their fingers in time to the keys, and who file into this cave and take their seats and light cigarettes and sip their sneaky liquor and wait for the musicians to step beneath the hot lights (quiet down; listen close) and launch their trumpets or drums into rhythm, erecting that frame of notes on which the other players begin to weave their sound, crafting a force so powerful it shakes apart your outer armor and lifts your soul straight from your body, making you forget the injustices and depravities of the world looming overhead—for a little while, at least.
They’re burning this whole sucker down, man.
Typical weekend: Deon Richardson, 23; Jeremy Smith, 19; Richard Sanders, 27. Richardson a headshot from point-blank range, .38-caliber; Smith shot through the throat from across the street, 9mm; three shots to Sanders’ torso from the other end of the room, .45-caliber—and should I even bother to mention what this trio of upstanding citizens did for a living? Slung minor rock. That makes them bad, yeah, but they didn’t deserve to die.
I was a rookie cop the day MLK was assassinated in 1968. Don’t ask me what it takes to fire teargas at your friends and neighbors. For a long time I thought those riots were the worst thing I’d ever live through. Then came crack, and the sons of those friends and neighbors started killing each other like they were soldiers in a war. I don’t think these troubles will last forever. I read a lot of history and things always come full circle, you know? The neighborhoods will come back. They have to come back. Even if they return in a form nobody wants, anything’s better than this slaughter.
One night my uncle and I are eating at El Tamarindo, that Mexican place off U Street. We have a table with a view of the intersection, and we’re digging into our chili nachos when a cop cruiser pulls over this purple hoop-dee with a couple kids inside. Three minutes later those kids are sitting on the curb, hands cuffed behind their backs, the tears streaming down their faces red and blue in the cruiser lights. The cops are talking to each other but we can’t hear anything through the glass.
“You know that white building around the corner there,” my uncle says, pointing at the wall over my shoulder.
“You mean that big one?”
He nods. “Twenty years back, I knew this guy dealt coke out of there, in broad daylight. Nobody touched him.”
“It’s becoming a different kind of neighborhood now,” I say.
He nods again, staring at the cops shoving those kids into the back of the cruiser. “Yes,” he says, “it is.”
“I gotta go,” I say, and stand, and kiss him on the cheek before heading into the night. I live in one of the new condos along U Street, the Madison, which is a steel-and-glass cube with a Thai restaurant on the first floor. Everyone in this building, we’re the first ones to live in it. I was attracted to the symmetry of its design, the cleanliness of its lines, which seemed like some kind of reward after the messiness and stress of my first few years as a lobbyist.
I toss my coat on the couch and walk over to the window and think about my old-school uncle. I’m his favorite niece, but sometimes I worry that he sees me as just another yuppie strip-mining the city he loves. I stare out the window at the street below, packed with crowds filtering out of the bars, and feel something shift in my chest. Maybe I’ll look for another place to live. An actual house, one of those small but cute ones along T or S, with a yard: a place where you can set down real roots.
Email from Baghdad:
You won’t believe how hot it is here. We all stink. You pull off your body armor and there’s this film of gray dead skin all over your body. The wind scrapes your eyes raw. This whole affair is best summed up by a soldier’s experience in the portable crappers. It’s an oven in those things during sunup, but your nose is numb to the odor of rot. There are three things I miss most about home. You can guess the first two. The third on the list is a Ben’s half-smoke with a milkshake. I wasn’t into that place much before I left, but now I think about it once a day at least. For some reason it’s my brain’s symbol for home.
In the back of a new bar off 13th Street I find myself trapped between a coworker nearly comatose after slamming down five microbrew lagers and a loud dude who keeps insisting he’ll never buy a bottle of wine that costs less than a hundred fifty dollars, and I want more than anything the ability to vomit on command, because that would offer me the fastest possible escape from this Halloween party at which maybe three people, tops, have actually shown up in costume.
“Yeah, okay, but what about ordinary table wines?” I ask the loud guy, even as the angry part of me rails at the polite part for continuing this conversation. “If you’re paying that much for something to go with a plate of pasta, isn’t that just idiotic?”
He starts to yell—or yell louder, in any case—and storms away, his elbow swiping a half-full beer off the bar and onto the floor. Bits of glass and micro-brew spatter my legs. The bartender laughs and hands over a couple of paper napkins to soak up the damage. He’s an older dude with a graying beard and 8-ball eyes, tough-looking in a wiry sort of way.
“I saw that coming,” he yells over the music.
“Yeah, right.” I daub at my pants. “Sometimes I hate this place.”
He offers a wide and totally insincere smile. “This place? It just opened.”
“I know. I meant this whole stretch of town here, the clubs and whatnot. Sometimes it’s just annoying as all hell.”
The bartender’s smile wavers a bit. He stares at me, ignoring the increasingly frantic patrons waving their fives and twenties in his direction. “How long you lived in the District?” he asks.
He shakes his head and laughs again. “Whatever. You can’t see the layers yet.”
“Wait, what’s that even mean?”
But he’s already turned away. I head outside, pausing on the sidewalk so a man in a black suit with a Trump mask can scurry past, pursued by figures in ghoul makeup. They’re headed down the avenue toward Capitol Hill, where they can join all the other interns and staffers and politicos who live in their own little world down there. As I start walking in the other direction, I pass an old brick wall on which someone has scrawled a slogan in bright green paint: “RESIST.” When I think about that bartender, that word strikes me as a good motto for this town.
Frequent contributor Nick Kolakowski’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, 7×7.la, Carrier Pigeon, and Shotgun Honey, among other publications. He’s also the author of How to Become an Intellectual, a book of comedic nonfiction, and Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me, a short-story collection. His flash fiction “The Great Wave Carries You Forward” appeared in Issue 5, and “Little Orestes” appeared in Issue No. 8. His story “The Valley” appeared in Issue No. 10 of Cleaver. His poem “Illuminati Dance” appeared in Issue 15. He lives and writes in New York City.
This is what you do when you are out of diapers: you go to the store. You go to the store because your husband is out of town and can’t stop by on his way home from work. You go to the store despite the news warnings, despite the way the air has sunken into a disquieting yellow. You go to the store because last night the baby cried for two hours, kept you up from one to three, before you finally pulled him into your bed and placed him on your husband’s side, nestled him in a pillow that wouldn’t let him roll over. You go to the store because maybe someone will talk to you; maybe someone will wonder how you are doing while they hand over your change, and you will be able to smile and laugh and roll your eyes because, Well, you know how newborns are.
The diapers are on aisle seven. The baby is strapped to your chest, unaware of the trouble he is causing. He starts to cry, and you pull the pacifier up from its clip, stuff it into his mouth.
It is at this moment of soothing that the power goes out. You don’t think much of it, because this is what motherhood has done to you. Your threshold for emergencies has greatly increased, as has your lack of concern for the privacy of your own body and your definition of what it means to have a functioning brain. You are more anxious about the reaction of the baby tethered to you, but he doesn’t seem to notice the darkness.
But you hear murmurs from another aisle. Someone shouts out a command you don’t understand, and before you can turn around, before you can wonder what you are supposed to do, you hear the cloud-train coming. It shakes the ground. It vibrates your overtired head with its ferocious rumble. Only when things start crashing does it all register. Only then do you crouch down and hold the plastic pack of diapers over your head, over both of you.
You start to cry because you are so helpless. You cry the same way you had cried on the floor of the bathroom after throwing up for an hour in the second month of pregnancy. I’m trying so hard, you had whispered. I’m trying so hard to protect you.
It is all you can do to cradle the silent baby against you as debris flies. Something hits your hand, the hand that is over your baby’s head, something sharp and vicious. But you don’t move. You gather the entirety of your being over him. And then it stops before it even seems to have begun. The sound fades away. Things stop torpedoing through the air. And all you can do is sit amidst the wreckage on the floor, crying, your spine leaning against the metal shelf, your hands across his back to make sure he is still breathing.
Eventually there is dim light; the sky outside is gathering sun again. There are voices, flashlights, people searching. Another woman sees you and rushes towards you, wants to know how you are doing.
“I’m here,” you say to her. “I’m fine. We’re both fine.” And you reach up your bloodied hand to wave, indicating your survival.
Erin Blue Burke is a writer from Huntsville, Alabama where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has previously appeared in Hypertrophic Literary.
[A BLOCKED VALVE FACILITATES PRAYER. A BLOCKED AIRWAY INSPIRES A]
by Levi Andalou
A blocked valve facilitates prayer. A blocked airway inspires a
sudden reinvestment in the communicative powers of miming. A
blocked pathway introduces the stern demands of an omnipotent
being. Palms should be dry, mouth wet, or is it the other way
around? Like the soldier the child imagines himself becoming,
waving off water, ampules, plasma. Lying on the motel bed, I
there succumb to exposure. Exposed to the onionskin leaves of the
deathbed edition, the white spaces between words running
together into currents that flow unchecked over the falls of broken
lines. Does sadness collect in the bloodstream like mercury, a
shimmering thing? A crack between door and jamb mobilizes
love. You assure me it is nothing to worry about, nothing at all.
Levi Andalou’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Minnesota Review, Lake Effect, Spillway, BOMB, Virga Magazine, Sugar House Review, DIAGRAM, F(r)iction, Sonora Review, Phoebe, Ruminate, Pembroke Magazine, and Tampa Review. He is a finalist for the 2018 Greg Grummer Poetry Award. The Poetry Editor of Black Warrior Review has said of his work: “These poems and their linguistic turns reinvigorate the prose poem.” The Poetry Editor of Washington Square Review called his work “hypnagogic, surreal, and surprisingly incantatory, given its prose form.” He graduated from Brown University, where he studied with C.D. Wright, Michael S. Harper, and Ange Mlinko. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can read more of his work or contact him at LeviAndalou.com.
“When you initiate the force field,” the Head Agent instructs, “you lock yourself in an impenetrable membrane. It will keep danger out. But it will also keep you in.”
Barrier off, the device declares.
I engage Search: Force field, noun. Popular Articles. The invention of the force field (neochrome). The invention of the force field (electromagnetic). History of force field usage in Post-Contemporary warfare. [New in TECH] ‘Defense Fields’ for Civilian Homes in Final Stages of Development.
The Head Agent claps her hands. I exit Search. “Field practice with the neochrome next week. Dismissed.”
We salute in unison.
“What happens if you walk through a force field?” M-2 asks at my left. I turn to examine him. Raised eyebrows, slightly open mouth. Inquisitive. He is one of the preliminary cadets to join the M garrison and is much older than I. He was modeled after a lab specialist who died in one of the first base attacks.
“Did you not use Search?” I ask.
M-2 blinks. “I will use Search. Engage Search. Search. Searching. ‘What happens if you walk through a force field?’”
“All right, M-2, you’re coming with me,” says a female voice. I turn to examine the woman and she smiles at me—friendly—as she pats M-2 on the shoulder. Her name tag reads TS-43, Tech Specialist. Underneath it is ‘Afua’ in large letters. It is an alias. Some of the scientists still keep them. I do not understand why. A second designation is inconsequential.
TS-43 takes M-2. The rest of us march back to the East Wing to power down for the night.
“Turn to your partners. Say hello,” the Head Agent instructs. Her voice intones humor. Every M Agent and U Agent turns to face their partner.
“Nice to meet you,” Agent U-16 says. A friendly smile. She extends a hand. I shake it.
“Likewise, Agent,” I reply.
“How formal,” she laughs. I tilt my head to express confusion.
Her eyebrows raise. Shock (negative)? Surprise (neutral)? They are difficult to differentiate. She is still smiling. She shakes her head. “Never mind.”
The Head Agent claps for our attention. “Each pair must use their force field device to move through the simulations. Remember what I said—you trap something out, you trap yourself in. Treat this seriously! If either one of you is compromised, both have failed. Understood?”
“Yes, Agent,” we chorus.
“Let’s ace this thing, huh?” Agent U-16 whispers. I tilt my head to express confusion.
She touches her hair. “Oh, sorry, I forgot. It means–”
“Let’s ace this thing,” I repeat. It feels strange in my mouth. “A colloquial phrase meaning, ‘Let us succeed.’”
She is surprised (positive). “Yeah. Yeah?”
“Yes.” I test the mechanism to return her smile. I think it works because she slaps me on the back. Her eyes are wide. Pleased.
Together, we ace the thing.
“Let’s head to lunch,” Agent U-16 says, wiping the sweat on her neck. She smiles, as usual.
“Sounds good,” I say, smiling back. It’s a new term she has taught me. Within the past two months, it has become one of the top 10 most commonly used phrases in my Colloquial Dictionary.
I do not—or don’t—need food to function. Sitting with our partners while they eat is what the Social Specialists call ‘bonding time.’ It’s supposed to improve our teamwork. Bonding time equates to more communication, which calibrates my recognition software.
I understand my partner with 70.34% accuracy when we converse. She is distinctly difficult to read.
The lunch on her tray is the same as yesterday’s. Chicken breast. Peas and carrots. A pear. I calculate nutritional value.
“Are you looking forward to the mission?” I ask. Small talk, the specialists told us. Prompt the conversation.
She looks up from inspecting her food. “What? Looking forward?”
“Yes. Are you eager to embark on–”
“I heard you,” she says, frowning. Concerned (negative)? Displeased? She is trying to read my face. “No, not really.”
I frown as well. “Why not?”
“Because,” she frowns, deeper. But does not continue. “…It’s nothing. Don’t ask me things I can’t answer.”
I nod. “Understood.”
“No, wait, that’s not…” She pushes her tray away. She pushes back her hair. “You know, I don’t like telling you what to do. Well, I don’t know if you know, but… it’s okay for you to ask questions, is what I mean. You don’t have to stop talking when I tell you to.”
“Understood,” I say. “I do not have questions at the moment. Correction, I don’t. I don’t have questions at the moment.”
Her facial features relax. “All right then.”
I notice a produce sticker stuck on the pear in her tray. It is not to be consumed. She has not noticed. I reach over and peel it off.
When I return from the trash chute, she is looking at me. Intention unclear.
I try what the specialists taught us: “I apologize. I have overstepped a social boundary.”
“What? No, you haven’t.” She blinks, before shaking her head. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just thinking too much.”
“…The mission.” She smiles. It’s a little different than usual. I catalogue it. “To be honest, I’m a little anxious. But I’m always anxious, so it’s nothing new.”
“Nothing new. Don’t worry, Agent,” I say. I reach for her hand, a motion I learned from the Contemporary films. “We are here to protect you.”
“We? What do you mean we?” Emotion recognition failure, my software notifies, before attempting to calibrate again. I dismiss the error.
“We. The M garrison,” I say.
“The M garrison.” Her face is still and smooth.
“That is correct.”
“Oh,” she says. “I see.”
“Yes,” I say. I dismiss the error again.
She finishes her lunch. I note the contents of the meal in her dietary records. When she leaves the cafeteria, I follow behind, sending an email to the physician to coordinate a routine check-up
We are walking—strolling, the Agent tells me—along a pathway in the central garden. The dome ceiling is high, its peak close to 9.51 meters tall. My measurements seem to interest her.
She raises her arms as she walks the line between concrete and gravel. Her face is warmer than usual, pleased. Her steps are fast, slow, fast. “Do you ever think about your parents?”
She is not interested in my measurements. I note my mistake.
“I don’t have parents.”
“You could. The woman you were modeled after, or the engineers who made you. Those could be parents.”
“Those could be parents,” I repeat. “You use it as an analogy.”
Her eyes wander over the scenery. “Sure. But it’s a literal thing, too. Not all parents are biological.”
“Yes. The verb, to parent, can also mean, to act as a mother or father. Understood.”
“Close enough.” She returns to the middle of the concrete path and drops her arms. “So who were you modeled after?”
“A Tech Specialist. Her civilian name was Mara.”
“Her civilian name? You should know your history better than I do. There was no distinction between civilian and soldier back then. That started during the war.”
“I suppose you are correct.”
She stops in front of some yellow-rimmed leaves. Image Search yields Sansevieria trifasciata, a plant native to West Africa. This one has grown flower stalks, though they have not yet bloomed.
I point at the buds. “That is rare,” I tell her, according to the internet.
“Yeah, it is.” She pauses. “I only know this because my dad had a real green thumb.”
“Green thumb. Someone who has an exceptional aptitude for gardening.”
“Yeah. Well, before he passed he was sick all the time and he couldn’t go outside much, but that was because he had to give up gardening after we moved to the city, so he was devastated, and he started collecting all these house plants…” Her shoulders shifted up and she inhaled. “Our snake plant was a flowering one, too. He didn’t care for it though, since it didn’t take much effort to grow. He loved a challenge.”
I attempt to sort the information.
“Sorry,” she says, turning around. She waves her hands in placation. “I asked about your parents, but I babbled on about mine instead.”
“Not a problem.” I sift my database for the appropriate phrase. “It is a pleasure to hear about your father.”
She snorts. “You can stop using that on me. I’d rather you be socially inept than spout that automated bullshit.” She claps a hand over her mouth.
As her ears turn pink, I step forward. “Are you all right, Agent? Your body temperature is higher than normal.”
“I’m fine.” She rubs her forehead. “God, I’m sorry. Forget I said that. I’m a mess.”
“I will not mention it. Why are you a mess? Is it because of the mission?”
“The mission? Oh,” she laughs. “Uh. Yeah. Sure.
The afternoon alarm rings. She doesn’t seem to notice it.
“That’s our cue,” I say. She’d taught me that last week.
She hears me. “Huh? Oh, right.” Eyebrows slightly angled, corners of her mouth turned down. Worried. Pupils restless. Distracted. “Good job remembering that,” she says. “Sometimes I think you remember things a little too well.”
I tilt my head. “Confirmation—does that have a negative connotation?”
“No,” she sighs. She walks ahead, leading the way. She no longer gestures or asks for me to follow her anymore—she knows I will.
She scans her ID at the entrance leading to the North Wing training facilities. There is a sign taped on the door: BROKEN LIGHTS. I scan the back of my hand. The door closes behind us.
Her voice is quiet, but it echoes in the dark tunnel. “I didn’t mean ‘too well’ as a negative. Remembering, I think, is never a bad thing. More of us should remember that.”
The tunnel gets darker. I activate my night vision. She is walking, slowly, but steadily, her hand on the wall. In front of me, she glows. Almost like a—
“What was that?”
“What was what?”
“I thought I heard you say something.”
“I’m not sure.” I check my activity log and find nothing unusual. I run a quick system diagnostic. Nothing. I make a note to visit the tech ward.
“It was probably my imagination. Be careful where you step.”
I wake up on my back, facing a gray ceiling.
As I recalibrate my location, I review my activity log and conduct a surface security scan. I learn I am in the tech ward. I had experienced an unidentifiable malfunction during training. In my secondary camera, there is a recording of two tech specialists, transporting me on a wheelchair.
I run diagnostics. No errors.
I turn. My partner is sitting in one of the plastic chairs. She waves. I wave back.
“You froze during the drill. Do you remember what happened?”
“I remember. Are you all right, Agent?”
“I’m fine. It was just a drill after all.” She stands, dusting off her clean pants. “I’ll get going then. The TS in charge went out for lunch. He said you’re good to go.”
I pull up the weekly calendar. “You have field training at this time. Why are you here?”
She smiles. “The mission is tomorrow. What would I need training for?”
My joints are slightly under-greased. It is difficult to move. I manage to get off the examination table, while my partner watches me. She has assisted me in the past. Today, she does not.
“Training is important. Training prepares you for the fight.”
“The war prepared me to fight.” Her voice is shaking. “I don’t need someone to tell me not to die. You think out there, you’ll have someone blowing whistles for you? You think everyone has time to prepare?”
“I apologize. I have overstepped a social boundary.”
She pulls at her hair, fingers twisting into her ponytail. She is angry and I don’t know how to fix it.
She grabs my shoulders and shakes. “It’s not your fault!” Her voice is hoarse, as if she has not used it in a long time. “It’s not your goddamn fault.”
She cries. It is my first time seeing real tears. In the middle, her arms wrap around me in what is called a hug, and when she is done she finds me a tissue to wipe the wetness off my breastplate.
Barrier on, the device declares.
Through the force field, we watch the explosion light up the horizon. Skyscrapers around our building crumble. The sound rumbles through my core. The heat comes after.
I fold my arms over the roof railing. My partner is doing the same a few feet away.
“I’m going to miss coffee,” she says.
I flex my gloved hands. They are burning. I run a quick diagnostic, but nothing is detected.
“Is that your favorite drink?” I ask.
“Oh yeah, you haven’t had coffee before, huh?”
“I have not.”
“If you get the chance one day, I recommend it.”
“I will remember.”
She laughs. Her approaching footsteps are in iambic pentameter: drag… tap, drag… tap. Search suggestion: William Shakespeare’s most famous works. I dismiss the screen.
“You shouldn’t move,” I say. A boom again, from somewhere in the city. “Excess movement will strain your injury.”
She looks down at her thigh. The fabric covering it is red and wet. “This?” She shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter. I can’t feel it anyway.”
Her wound is too deep for her not to feel it. But somehow, I know she is telling the truth.
A call rings in from Agent U-50 on the core dispatch team. I accept and request affirmation. “Agent M-8. ‘Down the river.’”
“’Up the bend,’” he answers.
“Affirmative.” They have not been compromised. Through the joint video feed, I see what he sees. In his hands is a black suitcase. Perhaps its contents could end the war. “We have the Grail. On our way.” The call ends.
My partner is pulling at the ripped slash in her uniform pants. The fire and smoke outside the neochrome makes the blood on her leather gloves look like it’s shining.
“They have the Grail, Agent,” I say.
“Finally.” The building beneath our feet shakes. She looks out over the city. “Hey. Can I tell you a secret?”
Her breathing is uneven. “My civilian name, from before—it’s Gwen.”
“Gwen,” I repeat. “You are not supposed to tell me this, Agent. Protocol has been breached.”
“Our conversation in the garden.” She grips the railing. “Do you remember it?”
“My parents gave me that name, but they’re dead. There is no one else to remember them, but me. And there is no one to remember me. Do you understand?”
The core team crashes through the rooftop entrance. Agent U-50 runs straight for the aircraft on standby with the Grail.
“Call me Gwen,” she says.
Two others come through the door, one injured. The last hesitates. He looks in our direction. He waves his arms.
“Understood,” I say. “Gwen. You should get into the aircraft.”
She does not move. “Look at that. They want you to pull the switch. They’re going to leave you behind.”
“You must go, Agent. The craft can only carry five people.” I approach the force field device and set the timer to 30 seconds. I place a finger on the power switch.
“No,” she says. She limps over to kneel beside me and removes her helmet. Her face is wet. Her eyes are losing focus.
Someone pulls the last core Agent inside the craft and slams the door shut, just as Gwen pushes my hand into the switch.
Barrier off in 30, the device declares. The aircraft begins to rise up to the peak of the force field.
“Gwen. I will call them–”
“I won’t get on.”
“You will die.”
She smiles. She pulls off my helmet.
“No,” she says. “I will live.”
The aircraft sways in the sky, hovering just under the force field, the peak close to 22.4 meters tall.
She leans in. “Do you want to live?”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“You can start with a name.”
“Any name,” she says. “Mara.”
“Mara,” I repeat.
“Mara. Nice to meet you.”
She holds out her hand.
I shake it.
“Gwen. Nice to meet you.”
“All right, then. Let’s ace this thing.”
It is approximately four hours into the truck ride when my system begins to overheat. We are too close together—the Agents are sitting with their weapons and bags between their knees. Occasionally, a shaft of light comes through the curtain from the gap in the partition, and we all turn our faces towards it.
I bend forward. My system can’t cool because there is no air. I can’t ascertain the temperature. I am an old model. It is too hot for my sensors to detect much detail.
“We almost there, you think?”
“We should arrive after sunset.”
My partner nods. He did not pay attention to the Captain’s announcement. “Right,” he says. “I guess we’ll know when the sun sets.”
A few of the Agents look in our direction.
My partner leans in again. “Hey.” Although it is dark, his eyes glitter, black. “Did you pick a name for yourself? Everyone here uses names.” When I don’t reply, he scratches at his neck. “You know what a name is, right?”
“I am aware of what a name is.”
His mouth twitches. “Well, okay. Sorry.”
The truck soon stops. We hear orders being shouted outside. Crunching footsteps and slamming doors. The luggage being pulled off the ridged roof of the car.
The back door swings open. The U Agents blink at the sudden light. A few M Agents wake their sleeping partners.
“Single file,” the Sergeant orders.
We secure our belongings and form a line. The U Agents stand behind their M partners. In my rear camera, I can see my partner looking around, curious, his hands swinging at his sides.
Hedges of burnt foliage line the road. The gravel beneath our feet is dusted with ash. We march until we reach a towering gate.
“Welcome to the A.H. United Forces,” a guard says. He’s wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a 1990s American cartoon character on the front. He has no visible firearms. “The main entrance is straight that way. Watch your step, we’ve been fixing the sidewalk.”
“What the hell,” my partner says as we pass through, “it’s not even dark yet.”
It isn’t. The sky is gray and pink, ridged with clouds, and though the sun is dim, it is up. Only the footsteps of the platoon and the guard’s voice can be heard. Everything else is still.
“This used to be a hospital wing,” the Sergeant says, turning on the ceiling lights. They flicker on, one by one.
The room has three rows of bunk beds. There is a large bookshelf. There is also a stripped bathroom area in the corner, where dried taps jut from the tiles. I engage Search. It was likely used by surgeons during the war.
“One through sixty in line, settle in,” the Sergeant says. “You’ll be staying here indefinitely. The rest of you, follow me.”
The Sergeant leads us down a hallway of rooms. “The rest of you have been partnered with an Agent, so you will be staying with them here. Peacemaking operations will begin soon. You must refine your social skills.”
“Find your assigned quarters. Dismissed.”
We salute in unison.
I find my designation on the third door from the end of the hall. I knock.
“Come in,” my partner says.
I go in. “Hello, Agent.” The room is narrow. I catalogue a bunk bed, two drawers, a closet, and a desk. There is a window facing the training fields. Further away is the perimeter wall, and then tops of the trees in the forest on the other side.
My partner is lying down on the bottom bunk. He does not look up from his book. “You can put your stuff on top.”
The sun is setting. I stand at the window to observe. The sky turns many different colors, before turning into a dark blue.
It is my first time seeing real stars. I catalogue 20 constellations, 2 military satellites, the glow of Mercury.
“I know you don’t get why it’s creepy to stand there for an hour, but I’m telling you now that it is.”
I turn to face my partner. He is reading a different book now. I notice the light is on. I recalibrate my sensors.
“I apologize. Is it not socially acceptable?”
He puts his book over his face. “Honestly, I don’t care. But you probably shouldn’t do that in public.”
I climb the bunk and sit. From up here, only the grass is visible through the window.
“Why did you do it?”
I incline my head in the direction of my partner’s voice. “Do what?”
“Kill that Agent.”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
His face appears over the edge of the bunk. He stares up at me. “You haven’t heard the gossip? There was a droid that went crazy and killed its partner.” He smiles. Intention unclear. “My uncle was a Lieutenant at your base. He was there, at her funeral.”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
He whistles. “They weren’t playing around when they wiped your hard drive.” I sense him adjusting his position on the bed. Cotton fabric is pulled over cotton fabric. “I don’t care whether you killed her or not,” he yawns. “Now I know what they do to traitors.”
He sleeps. I engage Search, keywords: droid, crazy, kill, partner. There are no results.
When I power on, my partner is halfway though the door, tossing a peach into the air with one hand. He catches it and takes a bite.
“Thought you were dead,” he says.
I climb down to the floor. “Are you returning from the cafeteria?”
With the peach in his mouth, he sits on his bed and bends down to change into his. “Mrrgh.” I assume it is an affirmative.
“Agent, we are supposed to eat together. Bonding time is crucial for the improvement of our teamwork.”
“You were charging or whatever. What was I supposed to do?”
“You are supposed to ask me to wake up.”
He rolls his eyes. “Of course, silly me.”
The afternoon alarm rings. He throws the peach. I catch it.
“Don’t get your wires all twisted. I’m usually too busy shoving food into my mouth for any bonding to happen anyway.”
The door slams behind him.
Conventionally rude behavior, I note. I move to the window. It is evening, still light. Slightly windy. As I observe the landscape, I review my activity log and draft a plan for readjusting my methods of communication with Agent U-197.
As I complete bullet point five, my hand senses something wet. I look down. The peach is leaking juice between my fingers. The skin and flesh had been bitten through completely to the pit.
“The skin of a peach is edible,” I say.
“Sure,” she says, “but at what cost?”
“The skin is not toxic. You will not be harmed.”
She takes the peach out of my hand and stabs a hole into it with her pocketknife.
“Eating it would cost me my enjoyment, not my life.” With the knife in one hand and peach in the other, I watch her open the window. Outside, the moon is bright.
“Tonight is a Blue Moon.”
She laughs, short. “You know everything, don’t you?”
As she skins the peach the breeze blows her hair sideways and onto her shoulder, where it stays for the rest of the night.
Gloria Yuen is a part-time wandering spirit who recently graduated with honors in English and a minor in Fine Arts from the University of Pennsylvania, probably with the help of witchcraft. In addition to creative writing, she dabbles in illustration, sentimentality, and most things creepy. Reach her on Instagram @zygoim.
THOSE STRIKING SHADES
I :: THE MAGICIAN.
by Cait Weiss Orcutt
various yellows, golden-rods, butter-fat, chrysanthemum wax-wings ..sprung from thin etchings of faith, is it just random— ….the rabbit/sleeve disguised: the magician’s headband
white as an Olympic ………..jogger’s, woolen shawl red as the gore in a dog-fighting ring? You imagine:
…………………his chalice, flowers of ice-white,
sketched with a heavy hand, a double-candle; what is not …………………………………………………………………………….burnt here: ..sword, wand, coin? The black market table, ten fat blooms, ….pigeon’s blood, rubies, garnets, Reagan Red,
conservative, strong, remember: magic is never ……..democratic.
Sword, wand, a bundle all alike and bedazzled, even the most natural ..items appear so from our tampering, gold tempered ……….to hold a form—the most valuable is too
vulnerable—so here is the alchemist: he is a ……………………………………………………………..lightning ………rod, he holds the wand carefully, he has a button ……………….under his desk
and can lock you in there, under his spell: you don’t walk ……………….……………………………………………….alone anywhere …..while he holds power like that. There’s another ……………….magic, one of transformation, the pursued
are granted—turned into yellow star-grass, yellow flag, ……………a mural of plants, silent but living. Is this salvation or censure? ……………….…………Magic is brilliant
in its refusal to clarify exactly whose side it’s …………………………………………………………..on. We’re taking notes.
But why trouble the infinite mystery ……….of masculine divinity. The flora’s so beautiful here.
Cait Weiss Orcutt’s work has appeared in Boston Review, Chautauqua, FIELD, and more. Her poems were nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets 2016, and her manuscript VALLEYSPEAK (Zone 3, 2017) won Zone 3 Press’ First Book Award, judged by Douglas Kearney. Cait has an MFA from Ohio State University and is currently getting her Ph.D. in Poetry from the University of Houston. She teaches creative writing at UH, Grackle and Grackle, Inprint, WITS, the Salvation Army, the Menil Collection, and the JCC. She is the recipient of an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor/MD Anderson Foundation Fellowship.
In the first motion, I wrapped everything in newspaper,
emptied glass stones from the bottoms of fishbowls,
recycled the recyclables, bandaged my raw hands,
cut up ancient credit cards and plastic valuables,
braided the sheet rags, the scarves, the silk slips.
In the first motion, I was brave, I think. I was a maker.
In the first motion, I swept out the bottle shards, clapped,
cried into the soup pot. I clenched both fists.
In the first motion, I was all the things you might call
memorable, like what we put into expensive coffins.
Like what we cast in marble or frame or bleed for.
In the first motion, I shaped myself a key and used it.
In the first motion I made a few too many lists. I chewed
and I swallowed. I watered the garden. In the first motion,
I wept. In the first motion, I already said that. In the first
motion, I fell on shoelaces and down stairs. I seeped
into everyone. I stopped saying “we.” I stopped saying.
Understand? In the first motion, I moved and
I shook. I put on my shoes. I tied them. I left.
Elaine Cannell is a poet and PhD student in literary studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her poetry has previously appeared in After Hours: a journal of Chicago writing and art and 30 N. These days, most of Elaine’s writing is done in Madison coffee shops.
When the seabird completed its third circle, the only cloud in the sky parted in two just as you said it would, and once the topmost layer of sand, thin like a vapor, blew across the beach and into the sea as an enormous wave collapsed on the shore, there you stood, like you’d been swimming under the wave all along, your trunks glistening black as you stepped forward, above me, your hair dripping cold sea on my sun-warmed skin, the two of us alone on the beach, pretending we’d been there together since morning, you swimming while I bathed in the sun, and our embrace and my tears that followed, were simply acts of impulse between us, then switching to laughter because for the first time that day, sea water crept its way to my bathing suit the only way it ever would, that is, through your wet body, clasping me, speaking no words because all words had already been spoken between us during a lifetime, all words except the questions I have today, like why you allowed the ocean to keep you in the first place or the reason you only visit when the sky is edged with ochre and why the sky is so rarely edged with color, and what makes my eyes ache even when closed, as if an interrogation lamp beats on my lids night and day, a throb that disappears when you step to me in the sand, transforming it from ache to that radiant orb within which we float, but never long enough, and why all those afternoons when they insisted I take a nap, they found me instead wandering the grounds in my nightgown, soaked with brine when there is no ocean near, or why it’s getting harder for me to walk every day, why I couldn’t get up by myself the other morning when I fell to the ground, why of late the bed feels like a bed under me and not tantalizing sand, and most of all, the reason you haven’t come to me since I gave the flecked double seashells to our granddaughter when she visited last month and marveled how they were still intact and connected, saying of their joining ridge, it looks like a smile, after she vowed to me the same vow I made to you, because I wouldn’t let her leave with the shells until she swore she’d never pry apart the two halves.
Do you suppose seven-year-olds can’t keep a promise?
Hedia Anvar is a New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles by way of Iran. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, anthologies and online publications. In addition to starving artist jokes, Hedia writes about her severe case of “chronic dichotomy” at gunmetalgeisha.com. Connect with her on Twitter: @Ravnah and Instagram: @HediaAnvar .
In 1944, at the age of five, I invented the magnifying glass. The end of a Coke bottle, when held up to the sun, could make anything burn and vanish. First, bits of paper—cellophane from my dad’s Chesterfield packs, and my bubble gum wraps—then live things like slugs, worms, the hind end of ants. Once I torched a whole village, many casualties, dead ants smelling like burnt tires. I needed to hurt something that couldn’t hurt me back.
That “something” was my family, what psychiatrists might characterize as a “three-person emotional system.” As the fourth person, I was the outsider. This dynamic played out every night at dinner: a formal affair, the table set with silver serving dishes, candles in the center, Maddy, our maid, serving each of us in our place, my mother in a fresh cotton dress, my father in his lawyer suit and tie. It pained me how each evening she dressed for him, and how he, not I, was the center of her attention.
My sister, Barbie, took the air out of the room. Three years older than me, she monopolized the conversation, while I was the silent observer. When I did have something to say, she regularly interrupted or ridiculed me.
I didn’t like green vegetables or legumes then, especially lima beans. My parents would insist I try a few. I refused, and finally, in desperation, they urged me to try just one. At that point Barbie challenged me. “If you eat that bean, Billy, you’ll throw up.”
Of course I did.
Barbie often taunted me; she could be physically cruel. I reported those incidents to my parents, but the only thing they did was tell her not to do them again. I felt disregarded and unappreciated at times, but I kept my anger bottled up inside.
Often in the late afternoon, I skated around the block, clockwise then counter-clockwise, my legs thrusting, the wheels pounding the sidewalk in a satisfying rhythm. An opportunity to get away from home, suck in some air and clear the muck of Mom and Dad and Barbie. Sometimes I stumbled on the uneven spacing between the pavers, causing my skates, though tightened with a church key, to fly off and I would fall and scuff a knee or strafe a hand. If either of my best friends, Jimmy Strawberry or Ray Hurley, saw me, they would call out, “Are you okay?” I just waved, got up and skated on, my legs pumping faster, gliding from slab to slab. I became a runaway freight train, sailing over cracks, the wind blowing in my ears until the anger inside me spilled out and I shouted: “Why can’t my family pay more attention to me?”
We lived on Brighton Road in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a quiet, shady street of single-family homes with spacious front and back yards, well manicured by hired yardmen. I knew one of them by name—Mr. Kovaleski, the old gardener who came each week to the Powells’ property, two doors away from our house, to cut the grass, trim the hedges, and tend the big garden out back. He was a fixture on Brighton, part of the scenery.
In time, I took a serious interest in our yard. I cut the grass and enjoyed digging out dandelions and other weeds in our lawn. My father even called me his “yardman” and raised my allowance. One day, I was cutting through backyards along the fence line on the way to Jimmy’s house, when I came across Mr. Kovaleski at work in the Powells’ garden. I hid behind a bushy thicket and watched as Mr. Kovaleski, puffing on his pipe, his arms and upper body twisting rhythmically, swung a long-handled scythe in graceful arcs across a large mound of tall weeds. I stood there, entranced by the swish of the scythe cutting through the weeds, the slow, soft way they lay down in neat piles. He paused and took what looked like a small flat stone and began to sharpen the blade. Then I moved on to Jimmy’s. I don’t think he saw me.
Not long after that, I overheard one of the older boys on Brighton refer to Mr. Kovaleski as a “dumb Polack,” because his English was so poor. I felt pained by this slur and told the boy it was a cruel thing to say. I didn’t realize it then, but I admired Mr. Kovaleski. Although he was skilled in a way I had not yet become, we both were yardmen.
One morning at the beginning of the summer of 1946, I woke up feeling confused. When I recalled for my mother the weird conversations I had had with strangers in the night, she promptly took my temperature. It registered a hundred-and-four. Within minutes she telephoned the family doctor, then, surprisingly, canceled her plans for the day—an appointment with the hairdresser and a luncheon with friends—so she could stay home with me.
The doctor ordered x-rays and that afternoon a medical crew came to our house and set up a tripod and camera in my bedroom, and took pictures of my chest. Polio was the big scare then. Air-conditioned movie houses were suspect vectors for spreading the dreaded disease. A girl in my second-grade class had to wear a brace to support her withered leg, and because I had been to a Saturday matinee at the Colony Theater the week before to see a Hopalong Cassidy film with Jimmy and Ray, my mother feared the worst: WasBilly to be reduced to wearing a shoe lift the rest of his life?
“Billy doesn’t have polio, Mrs. Hengst,” the doctor told her the next day as they stood at my bedside. “He has viral pneumonia. This strain of pneumonia can cause a heart murmur. I want him in bed for thirty days. No strenuous activities for a while after that.”
I was stunned. I had been looking forward to day camp. Now those plans had to be canceled. I wasn’t looking forward to spending a month in bed because I was afraid the only people I would see or talk to each day would be my family. As well, I wouldn’t be cutting our grass for a while or digging up weeds.
As it turned out, my sentence to bed rest wasn’t so bad. I felt like royalty. My meals were brought to me on a tray by Maddy. My mother poked her head in the door every morning, although as soon as it was clear that I was out of the woods, she resumed her busy schedule of committee meetings and luncheons. My father looked in on me before going to his law office and again at the end of the day. Within a week of my confinement, Barbie confided, “We miss you, Billy. It’s not the same without you at the dinner table. I think they’re worried about you. Dad’s been pretty quiet.”
I was surprised they missed me, but I didn’t miss those meals. I’d found better things to do while in bed, such as listening to radio shows like The Breakfast Club and Arthur Godfrey in the morning, and soap operas like Our Gal Sunday and Portia Faces Life in the afternoon. I also kept up with the Cleveland Indians’ baseball games and looked forward to the night games, my bedroom dark except for the glow from the radio tubes. The coverage of the out-of-town games was especially suspenseful as I lay in bed in the darkness and listened to the sound of a Teletype machine clicking in the background. Then came a long pause and dead silence. Eventually, a live announcer came on the air to report the outcome for each batter. The suspense waiting for the announcer’s voice was equal to the suspense of The Shadow radio show. I usually fell asleep before the game was over. One of my parents must have come in during the night because when I woke up the following morning, the radio was always turned off.
Soon I created my own imaginary team and called it “Wooster,” after the small city in Ohio. I entered it in the American League and filled the roster with make-believe names, Wizzenberry for Strawberry, Harley for Hurley, and famous people’s names, like Larry Truthman for Harry Truman. Some names just flew out of my head, like Sam Shazaam. I kept records of batting averages and my team’s place in the standings, making sure Wooster remained in the pennant race with the Yankees, Red Sox and Indians. I wrote everything down on one of my father’s yellow pads of legal-sized paper. He even set up the family Underwood typewriter on a card table by my bed and taught me how to hunt and peck.
Sometimes Jimmy and Ray stopped by to bring me the latest neighborhood gossip, standing below my second-floor window and calling up to me. They even brought me comic books, Archie, Batman, Little Orphan Annie. Gene Autry was my favorite. But their visits ended in July when the Strawberry and Hurley families went off to Canada on summer vacations. Without those visits, it seemed as if time had stopped, with the outside world going on without me.
Often though, I just lay in bed and stared out the window, hoping to catch glimpse of Mr. Kovaleski through the canopy of leafy tree branches. But only once did I see him cutting the grass in the Powells’ front yard. Maddy told me he lived in the Polish part of Cleveland near the steel mills, and was a “widower.” I had to ask my parents what the word meant. They said it referred to a man whose wife had died. The only things I knew about his life were what Maddy told me.
By the end of July, the doctor pronounced me fit to leave my bed, free to move about inside the house and outside in the yard as long as I stayed close to home for a few more weeks.
At first, I lay low in our sylvan backyard, sitting under the big elm tree, my back pressed against the soft gray bark and read a comic book, a stick of Blackjack dissolving in my mouth. At breakfast one morning, my father said a big storm was coming. As I sat under the elm, the clouds began to build and thunder rolled like heavy furniture in the sky. The wind picked up. I could feel it along my spine. A robin bobbed for worms. I scooped up a handful of seed wings that had fallen to the ground. More helicoptered down with the wind. I wondered if it might become one of those isolated tornadoes I’d heard about but never seen. I saw myself lifted up and carried to some far place away from my family.
I soon began to advance the fortunes of my Wooster team by playing “one-a-cat” in the backyard; I had played the game before on the vacant lot on our street with the boys in the neighborhood, but now I had to do everything myself. Baseball in one hand, my thirty-four-ounce, Ted Williams’ Louisville Slugger in the other, with each swing of the bat I sprayed balls to every corner of the yard, then ran to retrieve them, all the while imagining I was running the bases. Past the delphinium and phlox was a single, beyond the hollyhocks a double. The rose bed was a sure out. Every shrub, every flowerbed had a designation. Center field loomed far off in a wasteland of junipers, where the ball usually got lost for an inside-the-park home run. Another homer if I whacked the ball over the privet hedge. Sometimes I struck out just to keep the score down. It all depended on what the game called for.
By mid-August I was allowed to venture further. One hot afternoon I put on my skates and took to the sidewalk, hoping to find Jimmy or Ray home. The older boys were at overnight camps. Even Barbie was gone, off at a four-week camp. I had the street all to myself.
I skated by the Powells’ house. Mr. Kovaleski’s black Ford coupe was parked at the curb. I expected to see him at work, but he was lying on his back on the front lawn under the small Japanese maple tree, clutching the bottom branch with one hand. His other hand was outstretched, holding a milk bottle half filled with water. He was wearing his bib overalls. I figured he was tired from the heat and just resting.
I skated on down to the Hurleys at the other end of Brighton and glided up their driveway. They were the first family on Brighton to blacktop their driveway. I loved how easy the smooth surface felt on my skate wheels. Our driveway was still gravel with ruts. There was no sign of Ray or his family. Their lawn in back was overgrown and apples had fallen off the old apple tree. I could smell them rotting in the grass. I coasted around the turn-around part of the driveway and headed back to our house.
Mr. Kovaleski was still lying on his back when I reached the Powells’ house. He no longer was holding on to the tree.
“Hello, are you okay?” I called.
There was no response. I called again. He just lay there, one hand on his chest and the other outstretched on the lawn, the bottle now on its side, the water gone.
Something seemed wrong. I took off my skates and walked closer. His face was flushed and sweaty. His eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving. The sleeves of his denim shirt were rolled up to his elbows, the shirt wet under the arms. I was afraid to call again for fear he wouldn’t wake up, or if he did I wouldn’t know what to do. I felt helpless and scared. I thought he was dead. I’d never seen a dead person before.
I ran to the Powells’ front door and rang the bell. “Your gardener’s lying on the ground. He isn’t moving,” I told Mrs. Powell when she answered.
She looked past me. “Oh my God! Mr. Kovaleski. Is he breathing?”
I felt ashamed I didn’t know.
Mrs. Powell rushed past me. She knelt beside him and put her hand on his chest. “He is breathing, but very slowly. We better get an ambulance. Would you stay here with him while I call for one?”
I felt I had something important to do while I stood watch. A fly landed on his forehead. I hoped it would wake him up, and he would open his eyes, but he didn’t move. Mrs. Powell returned and announced the ambulance would be along shortly. Her voice was reassuring, her take-charge attitude too. She told me it was all right if I wanted to go home. I gathered up my skates and took one last look. He still hadn’t moved. I didn’t want to leave him. I wanted to stay until the ambulance came, but Mrs. Powell said I should go. He’d be safe with her.
That evening at dinner, my mother said, “Mrs. Powell called. She said their gardener died on the way to the hospital. She said to thank you for finding him.”
“What happened, son?” my father asked.
I described how I had found him and thought he was just resting. I said I felt bad because I’d left him lying there and skated down to Ray’s. I was sure if I had stopped, I might have saved him.
“There probably wasn’t much you could have done, dear,” my mother said.
When addressing me, she routinely called me “dear.” But that evening I really heard the affection in her voice. I realized she cared for me and understood what I had been through that afternoon.
“He was pretty old,” she continued, “and his heart just stopped. You did your best.”
I still wasn’t sure I had.
The following morning I walked over to the Powells’ house. The old Ford was still parked at the curb. The driver’s side window was rolled down. I climbed up on the running board and looked in. The front seat had a hole in the upholstery. The stuffing was sticking out. An old sweater, silver thermos, a wood-handled trowel and a few other hand tools were on the passenger side. Still curious, I opened the door and climbed in behind the steering wheel. I pressed my nose in the sweater. The smell of tobacco and sweat gave me a funny feeling, as if I had crossed a line. A faded black-and-white snapshot of a woman was pasted on the dashboard. I wondered if she had been Mr. Kovaleski’s wife. I wanted to know more, so I opened the glove compartment, but only found a tin of pipe tobacco and some road maps. Seeing the photograph and a tobacco tin made me feel sad. Soon I left the car. Within days it was gone.
Barbie returned from camp a few days later. She was definitely nicer to me. Eventually, my friends came back from their camps and vacations, and soon it was Labor Day and school began.
I wish I could say that I continued to play backyard baseball, to finish my Wooster story. It seems like a good way to honor the summer and the memory of Mr. Kovaleski. I imagine slamming baseballs every which way, running the bases over the brown carpet of fallen leaves, fast as Mercury, Wooster tying the Yankees for first place in the league. In the playoff game, at the bottom of the ninth, Sam Shazaam leads off with a double. Then the Polish slugger Kovaleski is up. Kovaleski hits a home run to clinch the pennant. When he crosses home plate, the Wooster players lift him on to their shoulders for everyone to see and celebrate.
Wooster goes on to crush the Cardinals in the World Series. The next day I hold a ticker-tape parade in the backyard.
William Hengst lives in Philadelphia. He earned both a Masters and PhD in city planning at the University of Pennsylvania a long time ago. Following a twenty-five-year career in this field, he worked as a free-lance reporter and gardener. He also served for ten years as the editor of the Friends of the Wissahickon’s newsletter. More recently he turned to writing short stories and poetry, and has two published books of poems: Yard Man (Finishing Line Press, 2010) and RunAway Freight (Kelsay Books, 2016). His website is www.yardman333.com.Death in August is his first published piece of creative non-fiction.
On the night the hunter shot the moose, they asked me to hold the lantern. Three men struggled to hold the body so the hunter could make the cut, and I cast gold light over them as he sawed along the ribs of the bull. There was no smell but male sweat and the crush of dead leaves under the tarp around us. Death hadn’t been there long enough to diffuse its odor into the night.
The hunter was a friend of a friend and had called for help when he shot the bull. I almost stayed behind, unsure what the sight of a dead moose would surface in me. I went anyway. The pickup was parked in a brushy area off a gravel road deep in national forest land. The hunter stood over his kill. His dad sat on the bed of the truck, rifle in hand in case the wolves, which could be heard rustling in the weeds, got too brave. When the wind blew, I imagined the breath of a wolf on my neck.
The hunter had won the lottery for a limited number of licenses to hunt moose in northern Minnesota. Two years later the hunt would be suspended. The species was disappearing, the reason unclear. In the following years, moose would be chased down by helicopters, darted by scientists, strung with radio collars. Their corpses would be plundered in the search for understanding. A parasite called brainworm was taking up residence in their brains, making them sick, making them easier prey to wolves. It was a story that began early last century when white-tailed deer began to trickle north after the forest was clearcut for lumber. Deer spread brainworm into territory where only moose and caribou used to roam. Deer evolved to survive hosting the parasite, while moose did not. The winters grew warmer; the wolves recovered. The moose population declined by two-thirds.
But I didn’t know all that then. I grew up looking for moose down every gravel road, both praying and dreading I would see one. Walking where moose lurk between the trees was my first experience feeling at the mercy of a wild animal. Because moose aren’t just big deer. They are rare and strange: ungainly, massive, fearsome. When threatened, they will charge humans, even cars. In the small region where they still exist in this state, they are celebrities, gracing logos and business names. For the original inhabitants of the area, the Ojibwe, they are subsistence and tradition and almost gone. For the hunter, that night, they were the quarry of his life. He called the bull my moose, like they had always been destined for each other.
When they handed me the lantern, I lit up the intestines, the matted coat, a hoof the size of a frying pan. My breath did not tangle in my throat, my stomach did not roil. What I saw reminded me of many stories. It was the story of when I was a child and a robin laid smooth cerulean eggs in the birdhouse in our backyard. How, driven by the fantasy of raising a bird as my own, I reached high above my head into the nest, my chubby hand fishing around, surprised to find the eggs were hot and alive. Of how I was too clumsy to hold on and, after one fell, the horror that the contents of that egg were nothing like those that came from our fridge but blood and beak and brain stringy in the grass.
The story of my parents driving through Yellowstone in the dark, when Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” came on the radio, when my brothers and sister and I were just possibilities inside them. How before the song, they were just driving through the night, but the song made them afraid, as if any terrible creature could lurch out from the ditches, from their own hearts. And the story of how, years later, my father joined the other men in the family, dressed in blaze orange and propped in a deer stand somewhere in the woods. How he watched the deer walk by his perch, how the rifle stayed idle by his side. Of how, when he returned empty-handed, he talked about the beavers in the pond nearby, how amazed he was at their hurried little lives. How content he was just to watch them, not driven by hunger or fear.
I saw how the history of us was entangled with the history of the moose. How the forest was logged for lumber that floors my parents’ century-old farmhouse. How the Ojibwe ceded the land bursting with that virgin pine, driven by a lack created by the government that lusted after what the land could offer. How one day my family would purchase a plot of that land, now aspen regrowth and invasive species crowding an open field. How we cut into those woods to map and name the wildness in ways we could understand. How I would return to the boreal forest there, over and over, to live in awe of something, to notice the questions it brought up in me, to learn not to demand answers.
The men held the moose’s body at an angle while the hunter sawed through bone with a handsaw, the sound dull and wet. The head was already severed, lying nearby with its tongue out, staring at me. Months later, I’d eat a steak cut from his loin, soak it in butter, sprinkle it with herbs. But there surrounded by the bull’s body parts with those cussing men, something about the animal still seemed alive. I watched the flanks as if I might catch him taking a breath.
Emily Wick lives and works on the edge of a protected wilderness in the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota. Her poems and essays have appeared in Split Rock Review, Broad!, Buzzfeed Ideas, and elsewhere. Beyond writing, she enjoys hiking, cross-country skiing, reading, and weaving.
The world, I never thought, was worth its wake
In my image alone, kicking storms about itself
Like me, a bright desert whore in plain, my face
Alift like plated offerings to a sky on neckless horizon
Gleaming hot and dry, a pillar of salt. Even beneath the sun
I pray for everything in context of myself
And all my questions are answers to opening rain
Dropped in the sand to no one who wanted it.
Natalie Kawam is a poet and writer. In May, 2016, she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize, and published with the Academy the following September. Natalie’s poetry has also appeared in the Crab Orchard Review. Her work explores elements of the human condition, including the nature of one’s personal evolution. She is an undergraduate student at Barnard College of Columbia University, and currently composing her first chapbook.
In the silver heart of everything
there is a constant quivering.
We think the sky is boneless
only because it hides them well.
The ocean sharpens her teeth
against the shore. The land ponders
the infinitesimal weight
of life on his skin. If you have
ever been awake at the rare hour
neither late nor early, & heard your
own thoughts as threshold sounds
no louder or softer than the tumbling
orbits of oxygen molecules navigating
a nitrogen sea, then perhaps you
saw the quick wedge of yellow
headlight waxing & then waning
through the slit in your curtains,
& you understood tacitly that a universe
had just passed, a weary universe
sipping gas station coffee & trying
not to get hypnotized by the strobing
white meridian lines, each of them
one of Zeno’s infinite series of midpoints
in the expanse between ‘here’ & ‘home.’
Jonathan Louis Duckworth received his MFA from Florida International University. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction appears in New Ohio Review, Fourteen Hills, Meridian, Tupelo Quarterly, Jabberwock Review, Superstition Review, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere.
When it happens we are prepared. The way we know it’s a real apocalypse: the portents of headless voles on our pillows. We divine it in the depths of carpet vomit, in the bones of small birds they bring us. The glorious future in the spilled water bowl.
If it wasn’t meant to happen, then why the adorable begging eyes, containing within them the tantalizing fullness of our futures, round and perfect, like globes of sweet fruit that grow huge and pop on the vine? Why the delicate rasp of tongue, the ephemeral curl of tail? Their fur, too, that velvet smoothness we are forever petting for the drugged feeling it awakens in us. Cats are better than caffeine and sugar, chemically, they are better than mimosas or wholesome friendship or anything we used to love. They rearrange and better us inside, ideal parasites. They are just so cute.
We worship them for thousands of hours in the new age of re-playable video. Cats are the only internet species that can still reproduce, you know. Every breath is a prayer to cats. They multiply for us. Every gulp and sidelong glance and every sharp grin and brittle high gasp of laughter, for the cats. Replay. Grasp at their esoteric beauty, grasp to cuddle at your chest their indomitable domestic cuteness. At some point we realize this hunger is not emotional. Replay will not satisfy. We knew then, we had to eat them.
Everyone eats their own cat first—no one wants to be rude—but then we prowl the neighborhoods. We snatch cats from alleyways, dumpsters, window sills, and pet stores, we catch them in the act, eating birds, or meeting lady cats for drinks, or licking their tight little assholes. We sleuth out every cat, and pet and baby and worship and devour each beautiful singular one. Some of our more desperate number paw at video screens and moan for the pixel cats tucked away inside. We pity them and treat them like children playing pretend, which is charming for us to pretend. We move on, we hunger for sweet sweet pussycats, we hound them all down.
The animal shelters close within the week. PETA eats more cats than the rest of us combined, because they’ve been waiting so long. They’ve earned it.
We miss the cats we eat, but we can feel them growing inside us, batting around the gallbladder, scraping claws down their ribbed cage, mewing in the hollow emptiness of the stomach, calling to each other in the acid dark. No cat escapes, though sometimes we can feel them clawing their way up the esophagus, adorable but doomed cat reflux. We spit up hairballs, like they used to.
We are coming down to the last cats.
People with allergies crowd the hospitals, their puffy eyes glued to screens that feature cats frolicking, on repeat all day forever. The search weakens us. We suffer existential and gastrointestinal angst. When we eat the last cat we are sad, but is has to be done. We eat slow, we savor our victory and lick each other clean.
For a while, satisfaction. The glorious feeling of fullness, of cuteness squeezed and eaten. We talk among ourselves like pregnant ladies, expecting contentment from our secret appetites. But then the hunger comes back. There are more cute things out there. Not as cute as cats, sure, but have you seen bunny videos? Yes. Puppies, too, are mouthwatering at this point, we have noticed. Our quick eyes discover the nature channel, we regroup to plan.
Those of us with ambition hunt the lions. It is even better than eating cats. Power drips down our chins as we die of our hunting wounds.
Those of us left have lesser hungers. Curious eaters, we set rabbit snares, we pick the spines from toads. Popping rolling eyes between our teeth, choking on the slick defenses of small red fishes, we die of weird poisons.
Those of us left, we sickly, we delicate, can only dream of the hunger then wake with unyielding shame. We wish for pretty fur of our own, we wish to hide our teeth. We do not hunt—we whistle and lick our fingers. We of sneaking hunger, sly coward hunger, we go to the dogs.
Mariah Gese is an MFA candidate in fiction at Indiana University. She is from a historic village known for making wooden toys, so as you can imagine, she mostly writes horror. When not writing small, weird fictions, she is at work on a novel about classic cars and murder.
The winter when Lucy was nine and her brother Nick was twelve, he taught her to play chess. They bent over the crosshatched board on the living room floor in front of the fireplace, blonde heads nearly touching, all through Christmas break and into the new year. Wool socks and hot cocoa and Bing Crosby late into the night, the Douglas fir in the corner shimmering with tinsel.
They played dozens of games and Lucy never won. Not once. She couldn’t keep track of the rules or remember all the functions the pieces were meant to serve. It was like trying to parse out a confusing ensemble of actors in a stage play.
Bishops move diagonally, rooks horizontally or vertically. Pawns are strongest together. Knights can jump over other pieces. Don’t forget to castle. Promote your pawns. Don’t be careless with your pieces. Keep your queen close to the center of the board. Protect your king.
Lucy always forgot that last part, too distracted with strategizing about bishops and rooks and pawns to guard the stately white piece sitting exposed on her side of the board. Nick would laugh and scold her as he snatched her vulnerable king, calling checkmate again and again.
You gotta protect your king, Luce. That’s the whole game.
Cal gets handsy in the elevator up to Lucy’s seventh floor apartment. He slips his arm in under her open coat, threading it around her waist and grabbing at the curve of her hip. It’s faintly possessive in a way that makes Lucy feel warm and lightheaded.
They have been dating for a month and Cal has never been anything but a devout gentleman. Courteous and deferential. You pick the movie. Whatever restaurant you like. I should get you home, it’s a weeknight.
Most of the men Lucy dates are not like this. They send texts telling her to meet them at overcrowded, standing room-only bars, where they shout questions at her over the din and slosh their drinks around in their glasses. She is hardly ever asked to dinner. When she is, these other men treat the paid tab like an IOU—a promissory note to be cashed in later, when they are drunk and hoping to grope her on the dirty street outside her apartment building.
Lucy has never been to a bar with Cal. They go to tiny restaurants tucked away down side streets, where he rushes to open the door and pull out her chair. He only drinks a little, mostly wine, and never more than her. He puts his napkin on his lap while he eats, drinks an espresso for dessert, and pays the check without a hungry, expectant look in his eyes.
When he walks her back to her apartment at the end of their nights together, he kisses her like he’s going off to war: slowly and carefully, but not without feeling. As if he wants to make it last. He is like an endangered species rarely encountered in the wild, one that should be studied from a safe distance behind a pair of binoculars. His chivalry makes her exhilarated and wary at the same time.
It also makes her ravenous. Lucy leaves all of the other men she dates standing frustrated on the front steps of her building, half-pleading and half-demanding to be brought inside. But not Cal. She has tried for weeks to convince him to cross the threshold of the building’s lobby with her. There are things she wants from him: to touch the flat, brown mole on the right side of his neck above his collarbone, and to kiss him until she can taste the bitterness of that habitual cup of post-dinner coffee on her tongue. She wants her hair mussed in his hands, their dress shoes kicked off at the door, his dark-rimmed glasses on her nightstand. She wants him to stop being such a gentleman.
Tonight, she might get exactly that. The house wine at the Italian restaurant where they had dinner was surprisingly high quality, bright and spicy with licorice. Lucy ordered three of the generous glasses and Cal followed her lead. She didn’t have to talk him into coming into the lobby at all; he trailed close behind her, flushed and laughing, like an overeager schoolboy.
The elevator jostles and lurches from one floor to the next. Cal’s hand travels from her hip to a spot thrillingly low on her back. She smiles.
“You’re coming in?”
“Is that an invitation?”
“Then I’m coming in.”
They step off the elevator and walk a crooked line down the hallway of doors, floating through the blissful state of tipsiness that has left them more than buzzed, not quite drunk. Sober enough to appreciate the high of their mild insobriety. Lucy hangs lightly onto Cal’s arm for balance.
“Did I tell you that I like this dress?” Cal says, and Lucy wonders if the dress has helped embolden him, picking up where the effects of the wine left off. It’s a ripe shade of indigo, with a deep neckline and lace sleeves. She loves this dress; it’s been too long since she’s worn it.
“Not yet,” she says.
“I like this dress.”
He stops walking and holds her firmly in place, kissing her outside apartment 713, where a retired woman with three dachshunds lives. They bark every morning at 6:10, like canine roosters crowing at the dawn. Lucy can hear them now scrabbling on the other side of the door, their toenails scratching at the wood.
She unbuttons Cal’s coat and loosens his tie. He kisses her again, sloppier this time, freed from his self-imposed restraint. One of his hands, still cold from outside, settles gently on the left side of her neck, his fingertips beneath her ear. The dogs whimper woefully; a voice inside the apartment makes a feeble attempt at shushing them. Multiple televisions up and down the hallway are turned up too loudly. The seventh floor smells like a Friday night: Chinese takeout and hairspray and package store beer.
“What number are you?”
“Seven-seventeen,” she says. “To the left.”
Cal takes her by the hand and pulls her away from her neighbor’s door. They round the corner leading to Lucy’s apartment and nearly trip over a man dozing on the balding carpet in front of her door. He wears an oversized tweed coat and mismatched canvas high-tops. His hair, ashy blond and curled around the earlobes, signals familiarity to Lucy. She knows this hair. She knows this man who has propped himself up outside her apartment, awaiting her inevitable return.
The winter when Lucy was fifteen and Nick was eighteen, he came home from his first semester of college and slept for three days straight. From Sunday to Tuesday, he barely ate and didn’t shower. Her parents told her he had the flu, but Lucy heard them arguing in their bedroom on Tuesday night, hissing at each other behind the closed door.
I told you Pennsylvania was too far. We can’t keep an eye on him there.
He’s eighteen, Louise. We shouldn’t have to keep an eye on him.
He almost flunked out. He’s hanging by a thread already.
It’s his choice. We can’t make him stop.
There has to be something we can do. We’re his parents.
He doesn’t need his parents. He needs to grow up.
The next morning, Lucy snuck into Nick’s bedroom. His suitcases were still unpacked from school, standing upright outside the closet door. She sat down on the bed next to him. Heat radiated from his skin. He opened his eyes.
Are you okay? She asked.
I’m fine, he said. I have the flu.
No, you don’t, she said.
Nick smiled, his dry lips splitting open into miniature cracks. Do me a favor?
Bring me some water.
Lucy filled up a glass in the kitchen and carried it back upstairs. She lay down on the bed next to Nick, on top of the flannel comforter. She wished he had come home for Thanksgiving. She hadn’t seen him in almost four months.
Luce, he said, staring at the ceiling. Did you miss me?
Yes, she said. I missed you.
“Excuse me,” Cal says, stooping down to rouse the man from sleep. Lucy puts her hand on his arm.
“It’s okay, Cal,” she says. “Nick? Nick.”
Nick startles awake at her voice and jumps to his feet. He sways a little, steadies himself on the door.
“Hey, Luce.” His voice is raw but his smile is broad and gleaming: a Cheshire Cat grin of misdirection, deceptive and winsome in equal parts.
“What are you doing here?”
He reeks sourly of cigarettes and stale breath and dried sweat, like the alcove under the subway stairs where homeless men sleep at night. Lucy keeps singles in her purse to hand out to them when she leaves work. She knows most of them by name now. Benny with the long twisted braid, Roger with the prickly red beard, George with the eyeglasses missing one lens. They could all be somebody’s brother.
“I’m back in town. I wanted to see you.”
Nick is filthy, the fine lines of his hands and face etched in grime, his hair oily and flat against his head. Despite his appearance, he manages to make it sound like he’s simply been on vacation, crossing the country on an extended holiday.
“Where have you been?”
Nick shrugs in his usual unaffected way. Around. Who cares? Beside her, Cal clears his throat. Nick shifts his attention away from Lucy, looking at Cal with polite bemusement.
“Hello. Who are you?”
“This is Cal,” Lucy says, before Cal can answer. “Cal, this is my brother, Nick.”
Cal blinks in confusion, then thrusts his hand forward to shake Nick’s. Lucy thinks of the elevator and that same hand on the small of her back, wandering respectfully down toward the top of her right buttock. She swallows the growing lump in her throat.
“I didn’t know Lucy had a brother,” Cal says.
“I didn’t know Lucy had a Cal,” Nick says. He is jovial, wanting to play the part of quick-witted older brother. He is unaware of what he has interrupted, oblivious to the smudged lipstick around Lucy’s mouth or Cal’s disheveled coat and tie.
“Where have you been?” Lucy repeats.
“I got a ride out to Ohio, stayed with some friends. I’ve been making my way back to the city for a few weeks.”
“Ohio? Who do you know in Ohio?”
Nick smiles again, but it’s tightly wound. Strained. She doesn’t normally ask so many questions.
“I’m sober, Luce. If that’s what you’re asking.”
“It’s not.” Lucy lifts her chin and levels her shoulders. “I’m asking who you know in Ohio.”
“Rugby guys,” he says without hesitation, matching her confidence. “From Penn State.”
Lucy stares at him. She knows he is lying—about the rugby guys, about the state of his sobriety—but she can’t determine how far to push him. The wine is still making her brain cloudy and muddled. If she digs down into the wrong hole too quickly or too deeply, Nick will never tell her anything again.
Her doubt gives him time to collect himself. He watches her coolly, waiting for her to decide. But she has lost the upper hand—the element of surprise. Bishops move diagonally, rooks horizontally or vertically. Or is it the other way around? It doesn’t matter: whatever questions she asks now, he will be ready to answer.
“I didn’t know where you were,” she says finally, quietly. “It’s been almost three months.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Nick scratches at his neck, tugging the collar of his coat away from his skin. The tweed is faded and thinned down to the lining. It has the dated and ill-fitting look of a shelter donation. There can’t be much padding inside. She wonders if he has been warm enough at night. March in the city is always remarkably cold, obstinately refusing to give way to spring.
“I thought you’d be happy to see me.”
“I am,” Lucy says. “But I’ve been asking around. No one knew where you were. I started checking the shelters, different ones all the time.”
“Is that where you go on your lunch break every day?” Cal asks suddenly, inserting himself into Lucy’s eyeline.
Lucy forgot Cal was standing next to her. It was only moments ago that she could think of literally nothing but him: his mouth moving against hers, his crisp dress shirt wrinkling in her fingers, his combed black hair falling out of place. Now Nick has been at her door for five minutes, and she has already forgotten about Cal.
It isn’t intentional, this slight—it never is. It’s a reflex, an involuntary reaction, like yanking a hand away from a hot stove. Still, her guilt forms a small, fiery coal deep in her belly. She never sees it coming. She never learns.
You gotta protect your king, Luce.
The winter that Lucy was nineteen and Nick was twenty-two, she was supposed to go home for Christmas with her college boyfriend, a political science major from Tampa, Florida. Kevin Thompson. He had a crew cut and played on the lacrosse team and could talk about Marxism in a way that didn’t make her brain sear with boredom. They began dating freshman year. It was the first time Lucy had ever been in love, and it was easy, uncomplicated, satisfying. They had planned to drive down to Disney World after the holiday and ride Space Mountain until they were sick.
The week before the semester ended, her parents called to tell her that Nick had admitted himself to Capstone Rehabilitation Center. There were family therapy sessions scheduled twice a week for the next eight weeks. Nick, they said, had asked if she could be there.
I have to go home, she told Kevin. For my brother.
You don’t have to, he said. We made plans.
Nick needs me.
Nick always needs you. That doesn’t mean you have to go.
Yes it does, she said.
After finals she gave Kevin his Christmas present—a collector’s edition of Machiavelli’s The Prince—and flew home to Albany, New York. She spent her break shuttling back and forth from her parents’ house to the rehab center, sitting in an overly warm room for family therapy, wondering who this man was that claimed to be her brother.
Nick was antagonistic and argumentative. Non-compliant—that was the term the therapist used. He looked fatigued, underfed, damaged: nails chewed down to stubs, scratches up and down his forearms, one foot constantly bouncing on the floor. He claimed the other patients attacked him at night. He missed morning meeting every day, oversleeping through two alarms. His caseworker said he was losing weight, two or three pounds at a time.
Lucy asked Nick, over and over, when no one else was listening: Are you okay? Are you okay? He answered, over and over, so everyone could hear: I’m fine. I’m fine.
After each session, she crawled into bed and sobbed. She always missed Nick when he went away, drifting into binges and benders, fading into oblivion. For days or weeks or months, she would check the street outside, check her phone, check her email. Waiting for him to turn up somewhere, in some form. Wearing strange clothes, needing a shower, unbothered by his own absence. Hey, Luce. I’m back.
But this time was different. Lucy missed Nick in a way that felt long-lasting. Permanent. This time, she missed someone who might not be coming back: a boy hunched over a chess board, his head almost touching hers.
Some time after Christmas, Kevin broke up with her over the phone. He was at Disney World with his parents and sister, calling from the hotel bathroom after they had all gone to sleep. Keeping his voice low so he wouldn’t wake them.
You should be here. I rode Space Mountain without you. Do you even care about us?
In the dim hallway outside her door, Lucy wants to kiss Cal again, but knows the version of her night that ends with him undressed, sleeping soundly in her bed, has slipped away from her. The elevator ride feels like hours ago.
“I don’t check the shelters every day,” she says to him. “But most days, yes.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m sorry.” She means it, but she doesn’t elaborate. He will believe her or he won’t. It doesn’t matter what more she says.
“Lucy’s a good sister,” Nick offers, too loudly, as if this explains everything. “But she worries too much.”
“I think I worry the right amount,” Lucy says. She wants to know where he has been sleeping at night. What he has been doing during the day. What he has been drinking, and how much, and when. But he won’t answer these questions, not in any way that really tells her anything, so she doesn’t ask them. Her head hurts now, and the warmth is beginning to drain from her face.
No one speaks, the three of them forming a silent, irregular triangle in the middle of the hallway. Lucy can hear the dachshunds still whining around the corner in 713, the competing voices of television news broadcasters and home shopping presenters coming from other apartments.
She turns to Cal. “I was going to tell you. That I had a brother.”
“Okay,” he says. He has a strange look on his face, not angry or distant or even disappointed. Wistful, maybe. Wondering.
The hot coal in her stomach swells. She looks away from him, down at the dingy carpet and the well-worn spot outside her door where she has stood locking and unlocking her apartment day after day, juggling mail and shopping bags and umbrellas and disposable coffee cups.
She can’t count the number of times she has come home to find her brother waiting for her in this spot, but it still surprises her every time it happens. He is gifted at going missing and then turning up unannounced, behaving as if no time has passed. Like he was there all along but simply made himself invisible. Disappearing and reappearing. Smiling. Telling lies.
“Luce,” Nick says. “I need a place to stay. Just for a little while.”
“Yeah.” Lucy’s chest aches from holding her breath. She exhales. “Of course.”
Cal touches Lucy’s shoulder delicately. “I should go,” he says. The feeling of his hand—limp and polite, devoid of any desire—makes her queasy.
He smiles kindly. “You need some privacy. I can call you tomorrow.” He bends down to kiss her cheek and Lucy blinks away an unwelcome surge of tears.
“Sure,” she says.
Cal gives Lucy’s elbow a gentle squeeze, angling in close to her body. His tie dangles crookedly around his neck, his opened collar revealing the small, inviting mole that she still has not had the chance to touch.
“I’ll call. Tomorrow.” His mouth hovers around her ear for a moment longer than it should. He holds her elbow purposefully between his fingers. He waits for Lucy to nod in understanding, and then he lets go.
The winter that Lucy was 23 and Nick was 26, she had just moved into her apartment in the city. She was dressing to go out when someone knocked on her door. Nick stood in the hallway, a threadbare beanie on his head, his pants and shoes covered in dirty snow.
It took her some time to accept that it was him. Six months earlier, he slipped away from a family barbecue in Albany without a word. Her parents and aunts and cousins all asking Lucy where Nick went. Why would he leave? Where would he be going? Did he say anything to you? As if Lucy was his keeper. As if she could have made him stay.
What are you doing here? She asked.
I wanted to see you, he said, grinning—yellow teeth emerging from an overgrown beard.
How did you find me? I tried to call you.
I lost my phone. Mom gave me your address. Can I come in?
Six months. No calls or texts or messages. It had been blissful; it had been frightening. Lucy could have tried harder to get him her new address. She still wasn’t sure why she didn’t. Not that it mattered—he found her anyway. He always did.
I was about to go out, she said.
Oh. Nick looked at her blankly, not seeing her heels, her red lipstick, her indigo dress with the lace sleeves. He was shivering, his clothes soaked through to the inner layer of his undershirt. Please, Luce? Just for tonight.
I missed you, he said. Didn’t you miss me?
Lucy let him in. She ran some hot water in the bathtub, microwaved a can of soup, took out the extra pair of clothes she kept for him—wherever she was living—in the bottom drawer of her dresser. She texted her date for the night and canceled.
Family emergency. I’m sorry. Maybe another time?
Lucy listens to Cal walk the narrow hallway back to the elevators. Nick is talking to her about being hungry and recovering from bronchitis and losing his wallet on a Greyhound bus, but she doesn’t really hear him. She is letting herself believe—for one long, indulgent moment—that Cal will call tomorrow like he said he would. That he is still a gentleman.
Nick stands anxiously in front of her, pointing to the apartment door. “Are you going to open it up?”
She rifles through her pocketbook for her keys. Nick picks at a dirty fingernail, scraping away something black from the cuticle before biting off a hangnail with his teeth.
“He was nice.”
“What?” Lucy asks.
“That guy. Cal? He was nice.”
Lucy slides her key into the lock. “Yes. He was.”
She pushes open the door to the darkened apartment. Down the hall, the elevator begins its clanging descent to the first floor. Lucy turns to invite Nick inside, half-expecting him to be gone.
Sarah Bradley is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher from Connecticut. Her nonfiction essays on life as a homeschooling mother of three boys have been featured at The Washington Post, Real Simple, The Writer, Romper, Today’s Parent, and Mom.me, among others. Her fiction has appeared in The Lost Country, The Forge Literary Magazine, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and Haunted Waters Press. She is currently writing her first novel. You can find Sarah documenting her attempts at finding a mother/writer balance on Instagram.
There is a ceremonial volley over a grave
I climb on the branch of an olive tree
to peep at the field where unarmed men
face the firing squad, their prayers clamped
inside their mouth. from over the fence
I chose my favorite prisoners
because they walk like my father or how audible
their laughter drills through the walls during football.
in their eyes are solitons that move around a circle
I have prayed for the same man the past six months
the longest I have keep God glued to understand
the tongue I was born with.
& at his burial service, the only prayer
that I could afford
is for my own sole
I need a shoe that does not smell of dead things
climate has changed, we would need to bury our faces in water
and what if all the dead fish melts and turns
the oceans and seas into oil or blood
what beauty is an island without the water surrounding it?
when a whale washed up, we greeted it with machetes
because this could be
the sign of our answered prayers
for another prisoner marked for erasure.
the prisoners wear cardigan under the sun
to protect them from ripening. I chose another prisoner
after the last execution, I don’t see his legs touch the ground,
I won’t have to mourn him; he looks dead in his blue shirt.
Hussain Ahmed is a Nigerian writer and environmentalist. His poems are featured or forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Nashville Review, Hobart, Gigantic Sequins, and elsewhere.
A week after the classes ended, the community service started.
Seven of us stood in a small lot outside of a small zoo. It was the kind of place single dads with child support payments take their kids because it’s close and cheap.
It was only October, but the blades of grass that had managed to make it through the gravel of the parking lot were encased in frost. We all stood with our hands stuffed in our pockets, continually shifting, hoping to generate some warmth.
I never did learn their names, but there was the Girl in Black, Gray Beard, Yoga Pants, Grandma, Dude, and the Mess. I resented them all just like I had to come to resent everyone involved in the process.
I wasn’t an asshole; I just shouldn’t have been there. They were the type of people to take fuck-ups and turn them into badges of honor, a good anecdote, a reason to toast and raise a middle finger to the world. That wasn’t me. I had no underlying issue, no history of self-destruction. They were a sad collection, and I didn’t need the degrading reinforcement that they did.
Carl was in charge. He pulled up in a pickup with the zoo’s logo on the door. He was wearing a baseball cap with “8 Point” written across the top and a picture of a buck below. His face was fighting to decide if it wanted a beard or just mutton chops. Either way, he looked like an idiot. He gave us his good-old-boy speech about being through the ringer once or twice himself, about how he wasn’t there to judge us, just there to make sure we did our work.
He led us slowly through the zoo. We passed some haggard looking otters on a cement island covered in chipping paint, three wolves that slunk just enough to prove they were alive, a sleeping capybara, and two small monkeys in a wire cube.
We stopped by a muddy square of earth next to a small corral with two donkeys inside. The patch was dotted with the stubby remains of thick, wooden posts. It was hard to tell what had once been there—whatever had rested on top of the posts was long gone—but Carl told us to dig up what remained. He handed out some shovels, and then he left us to it.
The rest of them paired off, but I worked alone, jabbing the tip of my shovel into the hard earth around one of the stumps.
I needed a story for the day, something to tell my parents when I got to their house that night. Maybe hiking, maybe watching football with Scott. Something simple and believable, like the other lies I had already told them.
I could hear Dude talking to the Girl in Black. They were the youngest ones in the group. She looked like she could have been in high school with her black sweat pants, cheap black fleece, and faux-fur lined boots. He just looked like a douchebag with a headband, the kind of guy who fails out of college his fist semester because he discovered alcohol enemas and Adderall.
“So we’re slamming some beers and watching a movie,” he told her, “and we call to order pizzas. They tell us they don’t have a delivery guy for the night, and I’m like, whatever. I’ll grab the pies, you know?”
“Pizza is the best drunk food,” the Girl in Black said.
“I know. I know. So my buddy tells me to take his car, which is this little silver piece of shit. I get in, and I think I’m in reverse, but I’m in drive, and I totally hit one of those cement things at the front of the spots. I hear this huge scrape, but I’m not worried, cause the car’s already a piece of shit.”
The Girl in Black laughed.
“So I finally get out of the parking lot, but his steering is all off, and I think one of the tires was low too. It felt like the wind was pushing the car around or something. And then I realized I was about to miss my exit, so I cut over real fast across those ridges on the highway. Problem was I didn’t realize there was this dip next to the ridges, and the car just totally went up on its side. It was absolutely nuts. The passenger side landed on the ground, so I’m just like hanging from the seat belt. I finally get it undone, and then the cops were there. And then, you know, all of that went down.”
The Girl in Black laughed again.
“That’s crazy,” she said. “I can’t believe you didn’t get all fucked up.”
“Couple scratches, nothing major.”
I stabbed the shovel harder. I wanted to break the head off of it, to tear the post from the dirt with my bare hands. These people were disasters.
For our half hour lunch break, I drove to a Wawa and ate a sandwich in my car. When I got back, I found the group waiting by the bison enclosure. The Mess, the Girl in Black, and Gray Beard were smoking cigarettes. Behind them, three matted bison sniffed at the dirt.
The Mess was staring at me. She was a scrawny, middle-aged woman with bulging eyes and frizzy, red hair. She was wearing a pink, puffy coat that was stained in several places. Even her gaze seemed filthy. I felt myself fighting off a chill.
“You didn’t lose your license?” she asked.
“You’re driving. The court didn’t take your license?”
“Jesus fucking Christ almighty,” she said. “The god damned lawyer tells me there’s no way to avoid losing it, but this guy manages it.”
She looked back at the bison.
“I knew that motherfucker was screwing me,” she said. “I just didn’t know how fucking hard until now. Fucker’s leaving me bowlegged. Can’t keep the license no matter what, he says. Bullshit.”
“I lost mine,” the Girl in Black said.
“Me too,” Gray Beard added before dropping his cigarette to the ground.
The Mess turned back to me. Up close I could see some ruptured blood vessels in one of her eyes. I wondered how far someone had to sink before their face became the witch mask hers had become.
“So what makes you so special? Your dad a cop or something?” she said.
“I have no idea,” I answered.
I was grinding my teeth, unsure how much longer I could hold back. I wanted to share all the terrible insults accumulating in my mind.
“Ah, don’t worry,” she said before stopping to let out a violent burst of coughing. “I’m just bustin your balls. This whole thing’s been nothing but one person after another taking a shit on me.”
When I went to my parents’ house for dinner, I went with the hiking story. They didn’t notice the blisters on my hands from the shovel, and when they asked what was new, I told them about work.
We shared a bottle of wine over dinner, and I realized that in two more weeks, the lies could stop.
The following Sunday, Carl was wearing the same clothes as the week before. He was grinning the way adults do when they want to convince kids they’re cool.
He led us all to a sodden, rutted patch of dirt and weeds. We had to clean it out and smooth the ground. The goal was to expand the petting zoo into the patch and give the kids more space for the Halloween festivities the following weekend.
After Carl pulled some tools from the back of his pickup, he drove off.
The Girl in Black lifted a rake and mumbled, “That guy looks like he’s been fucking something in the petting zoo.”
Dude and Yoga Pants both laughed.
“I’ve been saying that,” the Mess said. “Somebody should be giving that son of a bitch a piss test. Find out what he’s on. Driving around here like he’s in charge. Wouldn’t be surprised if he’s sticking it to a sheep or two.”
No one responded. I wanted to point this out to her.
There was a faint smell of wet hay and manure. We pulled weeds, hacked at stubborn roots, and dropped large stones into a bucket. I could hear Gray Beard and Yoga Pants talking about their kids.
“He’s seven now,” Gray Beard said. “Pretty much does nothing but video games.”
I wondered if his wife had considered divorce. I wondered if his son could sense the aura of failure that surrounded his dad.
“Mine’s in that ‘why this?’ ‘why that?’ phase,” Yoga Pants said. “It’s like, give mommy a minute to herself please.”
She was wearing too much eye liner for manual labor, and her manicured nails and designer ski jacket screamed suburban housewife.
They were dismal parents, the type that never realize they’ve crossed the line into adulthood and need to adopt new responsibilities, new axioms.
I dropped three rocks into the bucket and then the Mess started.
“God damned janitor’s job,” she said to the dirt. “I’m gonna need to get hammered after this. Am I right?”
“Hell yes,” the Girl in Black responded. “This is nasty. This place smells like shit.”
The Mess put down the rake she had been using.
“Someone tell me if you see his truck coming,” she said. “I need to get a taste real quick.”
She removed a small plastic bottle of rot-gut liquor from her coat. She took two big gulps and let some dribble down her chin. Then she wiped her lips with the back of her hand and turned to Grandma, a woman whose face seemed incapable of expression.
“How about you?” the Mess asked. “Need a little pick-me-up?”
“I don’t drink,” Grandma replied, her eyes focused on the weed she was hacking at with a hoe.
“Come on honey,” the Mess said. “We all know that’s a lie. We’re all here for the same reason, and drinkin played a big god damned role in that.”
“I don’t drink now,” Grandma said. “And I won’t drink ever again. It’s not worth it. We give it everything and it gives us back nothing, leaves us with less than what we started with.”
“Gone all AA on us, huh?” the Mess said. “It’s given me plenty of good times. Probably never would’ve gotten laid without it. But, alright, that’s fine. How bout you?”
She held the bottle out to the Girl in Black.
“Nah, I’m good,” she said.
“Oh, come on!” the Mess said. “Last week you didn’t have no problem. Don’t let the wet blanket over here sway you. I know you. I know after this you’ll go out with your girlfriends and get all nice and liquored up, dance your asses off, smoke some weed. So why not just kick things off now?”
The Girl in Black bent down to grab a half-desiccated leaf, and the Mess moved on to me.
“What about you, Mister Special Case?” she said. “Even if you get caught you probably won’t get in trouble.”
“No thanks,” I said.
“Enjoy standing up there on your pedestal, huh?” she said.
My body felt like a series of clamps had been applied, everything begging to explode. This was a woman who didn’t even understand basic hygiene, a woman whose life was a guide to all the ways humans can destroy themselves.
“Probably got mommy and daddy footin the bills too,” she added.
I spun to face her. “You’re—”
She turned to Yoga Pants without even noticing me.
“What’s that, honey?” the Mess said. “You thirsty?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Yoga Pants responded. “Out here drinking, like you’re begging to get more hours. Some people just don’t learn.”
“Some people, huh,” the Mess said. “Why don’t you go ahead and tell me what that means. You calling me stupid? You calling me trash?”
Yoga Pants didn’t respond. She just scraped at some twigs with a rake. The Mess stared at her back.
“You’re the one letting them tell you what to do, sweetheart,” she said. “Just bowing down, asking for forgiveness. Well fuck that. I do what I want. Wanna know what I did wrong? Had a little fun, like I do every weekend. That’s what I did wrong. And now I gotta go to these classes where they preach self-control and they bring up friends and family and society? That’s bullshit cause I ain’t got nobody to hurt. There’s just me, and I’m just having a good time with my life. These little trips to the zoo, they’re nothing but interruptions. They ain’t gonna change shit. No fucking way.”
Everyone continued to work in the dirt. The Mess stared at Yoga Pants. I was still rattled, still ready to finish my sentence and the rest that I had lined up behind it. But before I could, Dude grabbed the bottle from the Mess and took a drink.
“This was a good call,” he said. “Today sucks.”
It was snowing on my last day at the zoo. My parents had invited me to lunch, but I told them I had a date. I told them her name was Sadie, that she was a nurse.
Carl’s truck pulled up in front of us, some Kenny Chesney song playing in the cab.
“Shit,” he said. “You people really drew the short straw.”
He climbed down from the truck and clapped his gloved hands together, explaining that we needed to shovel paths before all the kids showed up at eleven for the Halloween events.
Carl placed me, the Girl in Black, and the Mess by the zoo entrance. I wanted to object, to tell him that I’d be forced to violence if I had to spend any more time near that horrid, skeletal woman. But I kept my mouth shut.
The Girl in Black was wearing sweatpants again, and the cuffs were already soaked from the snow. She wasn’t wearing a hat and her hair was covered in clumps of half-melted flakes, her ears already bright red.
The Mess could barely push her shovel forward, and her body swayed slowly. Something was off, but I didn’t care. It was keeping her quiet, and that was all that mattered.
Carl watched us for a few minutes before giving a thumbs-up and hopping into his truck.
“Thank, Jesus,” the Mess mumbled. “I need to sit down.
There was a bench nearby, but she slumped to the ground.
“Slacking off already?” the Girl in Black asked.
“Sweetheart, if you knew how badly my head was pounding, you’d find me a bed in a dark room. I can’t handle this shit today. I’ve got the granddaddy of all motherfucking hangovers. Last night…whoa, last night.
“Besides, Junior here looks like a strong guy. I’m sure you two’ll have no trouble getting this done without some old lady getting in the way.”
I gripped the handle of my shovel tightly. I wanted to throw it at her.
But it was my last day. I’d never have to see that zoo again, the pathetic state of it, its overall sense of lack. I’d never have to see the Mess again. I’d be gone soon, back to my life, a life so distant from hers. I just needed to shovel, to let the hours work themselves out.
After twenty minutes, the Mess moved to the bench. Once her ass hit the wooden slats, her body jerked forward and she vomited onto the snow. She started to moan, a small bit of puke still dangling from her mouth.
“Gross,” the Girl in Black said quietly.
The Mess giggled in response.
When the zoo opened, I watched the kids charge in dressed as superheroes and pirates, princesses and vampires. Their costumes brought bright bursts of color to the muted zoo, and the cold didn’t seem to bother them.
The Mess stared at their tiny forms, her mouth half open, and I watched the kids avoid her as they went in search of animals and candy.
“You three,” Carl called. “I need you over with the bison. Some little brats threw a bunch of candy and trash at them. Whole area’s a mess now. Just hop over the fence and pick everything up.”
“You want us to climb in there with those things?” the Mess said. “No way. I ain’t no bull fighter.”
I pictured her impaled on a horn, the annoying noises she’d let out.
“They won’t do shit,” Carl said. “They’re big and dumb and slow. Just get the trash out. My boss is throwing a fit.”
The bison area was a bog thanks to the already melting snow. The three animals were near its center, snorting with drooped heads, uninterested in the world.
The fence was made from wooden posts and chicken wire and came up to my stomach. The Girl in Black and I had no trouble climbing over it, but the Mess got stuck with one leg on either side of the top post before falling into the paddock.
“Fuck this place and that pig fucker,” she said. One arm of her coat was covered in mud, and she had a difficult time getting back on her feet. It seemed appropriate.
The Girl in Black walked toward the bison. I started to pick up an empty juice box and some fun-size candy wrappers by the fence. The Mess stood staring at the animals, her face more disgusted than usual.
“Un, uh,” she said. “Community service don’t mean facing down no beasts. One of those things falls on me, I’m dead.”
I wondered if I could make that happen.
I felt soggy and weighed down. The gloves I had on had already been soaked through, and my fingers were numbing, becoming harder to flex as I scooped up trash.
I turned towards the fence and found my Aunt Bridget looking back at me. Next to her were my cousins Anna and Gabe. Anna was dressed as a doctor. Gabe, as Iron Man.
“Hi,” I said, an unwelcome awareness forcing me to stand up straight.
They were confused and did an inadequate job of hiding it. I made a fist around the trash in my hand.
“What’re you doing?” my aunt asked.
The Mess started to cough and spit up on the mud. My cousins eyed her with the kind of disgust reserved for medical oddities.
“Ah, shit,” she said.
She let out a small laugh and grabbed onto the fence for support.
“I’m doing some volunteer work,” I said. “My job sends around this email with places that need help.”
I turned my gaze to my little cousins.
“I thought the zoo sounded fun.”
I tried to smile.
“Bad day for it,” my aunt responded.
She was talking to me, but she kept her eyes on the Mess.
Anna grabbed her mom’s sleeve.
“I wanna see the otters,” she said.
“I want candy,” Gabe added.
“Okay, okay,” my aunt said. “Well, stay warm!”
“Thanks,” I said.
I watched them walking away. My aunt turned and looked back at me, the confusion still there. I knew she’d call my mom before she even left the zoo.
An unpleasant tingling made the rounds of my body, like my nerve endings were flickering and burning out. I tried to think of the story I’d tell, of the next set of lies. Volunteer work as a date? The Girl in Black as Sadie? Maybe it wasn’t all lost.
“Volunteer work, huh?” the Mess said.
She started to laugh.
“What? Are you too good for us?” she said. “Are you ashamed of being a criminal? Of being buddied up with your old pal here? Nothing fancy about you now.”
I whipped my body around.
“Shut the fuck up!” I said as I stepped towards her.
The Girl in Black turned to look at me, and a trio of children and two accompanying adults gave me their appalled attention as they hurried past. Even one of the bison tilted its head in my direction.
The Mess was silent for a second, and then she started to laugh again.
“Face it, Fancy Pants,” she said. “You’re in here with us now.”
I wanted to grab her, to hurt her somehow, to let her know I was nothing like her, that I was nothing like the people in the courtrooms, and the classrooms, and the counseling sessions. I didn’t care if Carl saw. I didn’t care if it meant serving more hours. I just needed to show her.
But then another group of kids walked by. They were shouting and swinging bags of candy. Their parents walked with cheery expressions despite the weather. All of them glanced at the bison paddock where we stood cold and wet and muddy. We held their interest for a moment, and then they moved on, making a clear distinction between what was on one side of the fence and what was on the other.
I turned away from the Mess slowly, my body burning in a new way. I grabbed another candy wrapper from the ground, and she started to laugh again.
Matt Whelihan is an assistant professor of English at Wilmington University. His work has appeared in publications such as Slice, Midwestern Gothic, and River River, and he has stories forthcoming in New Plains Review and Drunk Monkeys. In 2017, he received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers contest. He lives in the Philadelphia area.
You will score 135 points in your next high school basketball game. January 26, 1960, is the night it will happen. Hello, hoops history. Guinness Book of World Records, here you come. Your name is Danny Heater, and your record, 135 points, will last. But this does not come as a straight victory. It does not come without problems. And which problem is worse: that your mother missed the game or that you didn’t even get to enjoy your record? Your world record, the one that congeals and permanently attaches itself to you. It’s basketball. It’s a game. But your record makes you proud and embarrassed. It makes you happy and sad.
Burnsville, West Virginia. Your hometown. Population 700. There are fewer than eighty-five boys in your school, and the high school, junior high, and grade school all operate under the same roof. The Bruins’ basketball gym where you play home games is small, twenty feet shorter than a regulation gym. There is no scoreboard in it. You broke your wrists once running into the wall in the tiny gym. You are rangy and tall by comparison when gangling alongside the rows of lockers. Your spiked-up, blond flat top adds an inch or so to your height. You dribble your basketball in the hallways between classes. You are shy, but you smile the best you can at your fellow students.
On January 25, 1960, the night before you set the record, you are practicing your hook shot on your do-it-yourself goal outside your house. Swish. Boom. Two. The weather is typical for the dead of West Virginia winter. Irregular platy scales of the bark of the hardwood trees sheen with frost; trees’ branches bow with snow. But you are outside practicing your hook shots anyway, one after another. Someone alerts Coach Stalnaker, your coach, what you’re doing. Coach Stalnaker drives over and tells you out his car window, don’t be out shooting hook shots in eight inches of snow. He was worried about his skinny superstar.
The next night, in the historic 135-point-run, you will drain six hook shots—three right and three left. These hooks will be 12 of your 135 points.
Before the home game against Widen High School on January 26, your dad, John Curry Heater, an out-of-work coal miner, is sick. You were with your dad the day the doctor told him he had a spot on his lung and his lung might go down. He worked his whole life in the coal mine until this past year.
Your mom, Beaulah, is your biggest fan. She keeps a scrapbook on you and cuts out the parts of articles that she doesn’t like. She never misses one of your basketball games before or since, but she misses this one. On this night, she knows the home game against the Widen team will be a blowout. She is right about that. “They probably won’t even need to put you in,” she says before you go to your game. With your dad being sick, she stays home with him.
Your sister is at a nearby hangout at tip-off. They put you in the game, all right. You are going to be in the papers. “Hotter than your last name Heater,” the Charleston Daily Mail will imply, a couple of days down the road.
In the locker room right before the warm-up, Coach Stalnaker tells you and your teammates Luther and Harold and Charlie and Donnie the game plan. The reason for the plan is to get you publicity, maybe even to get you a scholarship, because the Jerry West–famous WVU Mountaineers basketball program has not even given you a look see. And you are the poorest kid on the team, and a scholarship is your only chance at college. This will make them notice.
You and the other boys listen, lined up and matching in your Bruins uniforms. Tight orange jerseys and short shorts trimmed in black. Tube socks à la Jerry West reach your knees. The game plan is this: feed the ball to Danny (that’s you) every time. “I’ll never ask you boys to do this again,” says coach.
You could go for the state scoring record of seventy-four points in a game. Maybe you can break it. You don’t want to do it, but your teammates and the coach want you to. You say no. “No, no,” you say. Pick someone else, you say. You ask every guy on the team, “Will you get mad?”
“Go for it,” they say. They had to convince you to do it.
The first couple minutes of the first quarter, you don’t even shoot.
“Shoot, shoot,” say the guys.
“Time out,” calls your coach, forming a “T” with his hands. So you go back out there after the timeout, and you shoot. You shoot again and again. The basket slurps the ball. Up climbs the score, and your points total by unmarqueed ones and twos in the scoreboard-less gym. For a moment, the other team (Widen—whose school is smaller than your own) can’t even get the ball in-bounds because you steal it over and over and score rapid layups, bang-bang-bang at almost automatic rifle–like pace.
At halftime, some fans go up to the score table to ask how many points you have. You have fifty-five. The state record is seventy-four. Someone gets your sister from the hangout, and she comes to the game. Early in the second half, you break the state record. Coach calls a timeout to pull you off the wood rectangle where tonight, you could do no wrong. Your teammates say leave you in to go for the national record of 120. You do.
The other team’s cheerleaders included, the spectators shout out your points total each time you ace another basket in the no-scoreboard gym. “100! 105!” You score 120 and points above; points above as useful as swords in a gunfight.
Burnsville 173 to Widen 43 is the final score. Your stats: 135 points, 32 rebounds, and 7 assists.
The fans swarm the court after the game. Your sister hugs you.
“Congratulations,” the fans say. “Congratulations,” say players from Widen. You shake hands. You go to a local hangout with the gang and have Cokes. Your 135 points goes into the Guinness Book. “Danny Heater,” the book heralds. You top Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points scored in an NBA game in 1962, and your record holds for points scored in a high school basketball game for over fifty years and counting. You are it, the record holder. 135 points—that is you.
You go home and tell your mom that night, but she already knows. The coach calls in the score to the newspaper. “Goddammit,” the sports editor tells the coach. He didn’t believe him. Danny Heater’s enduring superlative crystallizes into national news. It will make its way to the Jerry West–famous program and to the ear of a Virginia state senator.
The day after the record, on January 27, 1960, you have a game against Tanner High. You jump ball but come down hard on your ankle. You roll it. You play ten minutes and get twenty-one.
Thursday the twenty-eighth, this is the sports headline: “Plan for Heater Worked. Wanted Publicity for Scholarship.” The story starts this way, and it doesn’t get better: “Is it justifiable to beat a hapless, outmanned high school basketball team by 130 points with the expressed intention of obtaining a college scholarship for the star of the winning team?” Your mom might as well cut out the whole article.
The next week, the scout comes, the one from the Jerry West–famous WVU. Your ankle hurts. You can’t jump on it. You don’t play well. The scout says, “Good shot you got there, son,” to you after the game. “Boy was slow,” he tells your coach, and no scholarship offer materializes.
You hadn’t wanted to do it. It was not your idea. They had to talk you into it. You’re a good kid, at least your coach and English teacher say so. Even Coach Stover, from the opposing Widen High, says you’re a good kid, too. “One of the best around these parts,” he tells the Charleston Daily Mail. “It was pretty difficult to take, though,” he says.
Thirty years later, the Washington Post says of the night, “on the other side of things, it didn’t feel like high school history, it felt like raw, open slaughter.” That’s another part for your mom’s scissors.
So no WVU basketball fame comes your way, but a college opportunity does. The retired Virginia senator who hears about you arranges for you to get a chance. He gets you a grant to attend the University of Richmond and play basketball. But your college stint didn’t begin until second semester. Another January day in West Virginia, your cousin Jake drives your family to the Greyhound station. Your mother crying, you leave. You are crying, too. You do this, in fact, for the next eight hours of the trip to Richmond.
The team was already set when you got there to the Richmond Spiders basketball team, and they gave you a uniform three sizes too big. You get in a few games and score a little bit.
But you are backward and homesick and lonely. They make fun of your accent. You don’t know your way around campus. You don’t last at the college chance.
Years after the record you’re a family man, and you work for an airline at Washington Reagan. You get up at 3:45 every morning to get to your job by 5:30. You work overtime to buy your kids’ birthday presents. Your daughter writes an essay about you called “Dad.” In it, she portrays you as strong and unbreakable and generous. Your son says that you’re the best father. It hurts that you can’t afford their college.
You run into coach Stalnaker at Reagan. You take him to the VIP lounge and treat him like a king. “He never wanted to show off,” says Coach Stalnaker all these years down the road, explaining your finesse with the basketball and ways you could have shown off if you’d wanted to.
And you don’t like to talk about it, the record, your 135 points, that night in the gym with no scoreboard. That night when you shot and shot. You worked hard at those hook shots, just as you work hard every day at your job. “He goes out of his way to help people,” says your boss at Washington Reagan. Your boss admits you make his shifts easier. “I’m grateful for him,” he says.
Good kid, hard worker, good dad, not a show-off. These are the things that time will tell about you. You should get to feel heroic about your high achieving score, your world record. It’s basketball. It’s a game. A guy like you deserves heroic.
Your teenage granddaughters play basketball. They like your record. They delight in it; they’re proud. And that helps because family is everything to you. They get to be proud even if you are proud and embarrassed. Even if you are happy and sad.
Zekana Shuff has an MD and an MFA. She lives and works as a physician in beautiful West Virginia with her husband, their two kids, their dog, and their cat. Her medical writing has appeared in various medical journals. She has lectured on art at a national medical conference and at her MFA. program. Her poetry and prose have appeared in a handful of literary journals in print and online, including in this summer’s edition of Storyscape.
The church retreat is the last bit of bullshit before we get confirmed. We are at a bunch of crappy cabins on the dumpy shores of Lake Erie. They call it a holy camp, gave it a fancy name too: Camp Gold Field. They got the field part right, but I don’t know where they got the gold. Everything here is barren and gray. Last night there was a thunderstorm, but today the sky is defeated and a blanket of grey snow clouds have replaced the horizon. The seasons are theatrical in these parts—especially during April.
We are in our cabin and Pastor Rich tells us to sit. We squat on the floor in a semi-circle, boys and girls together. He hands out sheets of paper with questions of faith, predestination, and Calvinism. “Write down your answers then we will discuss them as a group,” he says.
Pastor Rich stands in the corner spinning a basketball on his finger. He’s pretending he’s not listening. Some of us on the retreat play hoops for the Freshman Team at school, so he brings out the basketball every so often to try to connect with us. He once told us he played college ball, and we sort of believe him because he is 6’11. But he also looks like a dork and kind of talks with a girly soft voice so we sort of don’t. Just because you are tall doesn’t make you good at basketball. Sometimes I wonder what Pastor Rich would have become if he had not become a pastor.
Maybe it’s because we’re cooped up in this cabin. Maybe it’s the turbulent change of the seasons. Or maybe it’s just because Pastor Rich tells us that everything around us is supposed to be transforming and we are fighting it. But a mean streak has gripped us, taken hold, and it’s been creeping into our blood since the thunderstorms rolled through last night, leaving the icy landscape behind today.
To my right, Terri whispers in Carson’s ear. His eyes light up, as does his smile. She turns to my best friend Keith, whispers to him, and then moves in toward me. Her breath tickles my ear and gives me goosebumps.
“We’re gonna mess with SteveBo,” she says.
“How?” I ask.
“I’m gonna give him a boner.” For Terri, this isn’t out of the realm of possibility. She’s been giving guys boners since the day we hit puberty. She gave me one once while we made out on the school bus on the way to a field trip at the zoo, and she gave Keith one during the same trip on the ride home.
Terri’s the type of girl who gets bored quickly, the type of pretty girl who can have anything she wants, so she’s moved from me to Keith and on to a series of older guys. Last year she went to the Senior Prom as an eighth grader, and I’d heard that all the upper classmen asked her for a dance. She probably gave them boners too.
Now she is dating Carson, and rumor has it that not only has she given him a boner, but a blowjob, too. I heard it happened on the team bus back from a basketball game last season. Cheerleaders are supposed to sit at the front of the bus, but I guess she snuck to the back once the cabin lights turned off. Carson is only a freshman like us, but he plays on the varsity team. Everyone says he is going to be a star, and ever since Terri grew breasts she’s been a star too. She wouldn’t waste time with a freshman unless he had potential.
“SteveBo, can you help me with this worksheet?” Terri slides next to him, brushing her leg against his.
We watch him squirm.
“I think we’re supposed to work on this alone. We’ll discuss it together when we finish.”
“But I need your help now.” She shows him a cute little pout. Her tiny hand moves toward his leg, her slim fingers sidling nearer and nearer, then comes to rest on his thigh. She leans close to his pimply face and whispers something in his ear. It sends a shiver though all of us.
Like a well-tended garden, a bulge slowly begins to grow from his pants. Nervous giggles sprout from around the circle, then Carson turns to SteveBo and says, “These are really hard questions, don’t ya think, Pinocchio?” He flashes a smirk like a little kid who just found a pack of matches.
“I’m sure you got some long answers,” Carson continues. We snicker.
SteveBo’s face is red now. I’m worried it might pop if it gets any redder. There’s no stuffing our demons back in. We’re like snowballs rushing downhill and gaining such incredible momentum that we can’t be stopped. We watch SteveBo twist in his seat like a dying fish—the cords in his neck standing out like ropes and the dark vein in his temple pulsing like a fuse. We revel in his agony so completely that Pastor Rich steps in and tells us to cut it out.
Later, Pastor Rich tells us that we’re going for a walk. He says he has something important to show us. All year during conformation classes, Pastor Rich had been yapping about how believing in God is the ultimate transformation. He makes a big deal of it, but, fact is, I don’t feel too much different. For years I thought I had faith. I believed God was watching down on me and controlling my destiny. I believed I mattered. But lately that has changed.
Pastor Rich leads us up a hill. To our right cliffs slope steeply downward toward the brownish waters of Lake Erie. SteveBo is ahead of the rest of us, walking stride in stride with Pastor Rich. They talk enthusiastically, probably about the nature of God, or Original Sin, or the Second Coming of Christ. I can’t understand how people can talk about that stuff all day without getting bored. I get this feeling Pastor Rich was a lot like SteveBo back in the day. Maybe that’s the reason why SteveBo wants to be a pastor, too.
As we walk the path narrows and snakes closer to the cliffs. Beside a large boulder is the wet remains of a fire pit. From the state of the decomposing logs, it had probably burned months ago, maybe even a year. Beside the pit are crumpled beer cans and a used condom. Its neon green color stands out in the mud.
“Someone has been fucking up here,” Keith laughs. I laugh too, but there is something about the crusting condom that makes me feel uncomfortable. I look ahead at Terri walking next to Carson—a strange thought crosses my mind: I wonder if you are supposed to wear a condom when you get a blowjob?
The path crests into a clearing. Old mossy stones protrude from the wet ground and it takes a moment to realize we are in an old cemetery. Weeds sprout high between the headstones. Stillness hangs over the clearing; even the birds have stopped chirping.
“Look around this cemetery,” Pastor Rich says. “All these souls are resting with God. I want you to find a headstone that marks the soul of a child.”
We wander around slowly. Most of us don’t really feel like looking at these stupid graves. Thinking about all these dead people sort of makes me feel sick to my stomach. From across the cemetery SteveBo waves frantically. He is standing next to a small headstone near the path. “Over here, Pastor Rich! I found a grave!”
Pastor Rich walks over and kneels next to the headstone. He runs his fingers across the name and dates. He bows his head and says a little prayer. Then he calls us over to join him.
“Fortuitous,” he says. “This boy was only fifteen. The same age as Brian Caulder when he died.”
Brian Caulder was in the confirmation class last year. He croaked last summer in a car wreck. From what I heard, he was in the car with his sister when it happened. She didn’t look as she pulled out of their driveway and bam! Next thing you know he’s dead. I read in the paper that he died instantly. Now that’s a crazy thought; one second you’re alive and the next second you’re dead. Milliseconds really.
“I want you all to listen as I read you something,” Pastor Rich says. He pulls a folded paper from his faded black overcoat. “This is the Affirmation of Faith written by the late Brian Caulder, just a month before he died.”
He reads about Brian’s love for God, his love of life. It said how thankful he was that God had granted him wonderful parents and a great sister. It talked about the grace of God, and how He had a plan for all of us. It ended with this bit about forgiving those who’ve committed sins against you. There was such joy in Brian’s affirmation, and I can’t help but be upset that God had taken that away. I can’t get myself to believe that the plan of God involved killing him in a car wreck.
I look around our group. The girls are wiping tears, and us boys sniffling and staring at the ground, pretending we aren’t crying too.
“How does this make you feel?” Pastor Rich asks. “It is important to talk about death and faith and the places where the two meet.”
For a long time nobody says anything. Finally, SteveBo speaks: “Brian’s words were transforming.”
The group nods. I nod too, but part of me wonders if this is really transformation or maybe it’s just sadness. Perhaps sadness and transformation is the same thing.
“The good thing is that we don’t have to be sad,” Pastor Rich says. His voice takes on a tone like when he is behind the pulpit. He tells us that Brian is celebrating eternal glory with God in Heaven. Heaven, he says, is like the best day you’ve ever had on earth then increasing it by infinity. That sounds great and all, but I can’t help but wonder that even if your best day was increased by infinity it would probably get boring after a while.
Then Pastor Rich tells us that at church next week we will walk through the pews with little baskets and ask for an offering to pay for a new youth center in the church’s basement. He wants to name it after Brian—a place for the kids to hang out and have fun. It sort of strikes me as unfair that we’ll be served big screen TVs, video games, and pool tables as his family is stuck here in Hell on earth.
Everyone’s still sniffling with wet eyes—everyone except for Terri. Her face is dry and eyes clear. For a moment a little smirk crosses her face. It is like she knows something we don’t.
On the walk back down from the cemetery, the wind picks up from off the lake and whips through our bodies with its bone chilling fingers. It’s almost as if death is reaching out and grabbing for our souls. I can’t stop thinking about Brian. I keep thinking about what he did the day he died. Did he wake up like it was just another day? Did he kiss his mom before he left? Did God leave him a message telling him this was his last day and to make the most of it? I hope it was like that. I hope it meant something.
I imagine his body buried under the earth, decomposing and meaningless. I didn’t really even know him other than passing him in the halls at school and sometimes he’d show up at the playground and we’d play pick-up basketball on the same team. I’d seen him at church too, but the funny thing is, after the accident his family stopped coming. I guess it’s hard to believe in something after part of you dies.
SteveBo is walking alone well in front of the pack. My conscious is gnawing at me like a fat rat so I let it be my guide and I speed up my pace. As I approach, I realize that I don’t know what I am planning to say. SteveBo is looking forward, but I can sense him tightening up in my presence. He probably thinks I’m coming to make fun of him. In the silence that lingers between us I think I can hear the lake lashing against the cliffs.
“We were just joking around earlier,” I say. “You know, like how we joke around with everyone.” Saying that makes me feel better, like I sucked the venom out of everything, and making up for what we’d done by doing a good deed—God’s deed.
“This place sucks,” SteveBo says. He picks at a pimple on his forehead.
“I’m with you, SteveBo,” I say. “It really sucks.” I pause for a moment then begin to speak, this time my voice is lower, almost a whisper. “If they start making fun of you again, I’ll tell them to cut it out.”
Back at the cabin, Pastor Rich has us sit in a circle again. This time he hands out blank pieces of notebook paper. We groan knowing that we will be asked to write.
“We’ve thought about death today,” Pastor Rich says. “We’ve also thought about eternal life. Now I want you to think about your own soul. On those blank pieces of paper I want you to write your own obituaries. If you died tomorrow, what would people write about you? Would your soul be allowed to spend eternal bliss in Heaven?”
I try to write, but nothing of substance comes from it. I’m still thinking about Brian, so I start writing about him instead. I’m hoping he is in Heaven so I ask God to be good to him up there. I ask God to tell him that I enjoyed the times we played basketball together and end it by asking Him to comfort Brian’s family. I lift my head and see that the only other person still writing is SteveBo. Everyone else is goofing off, and Carson has that predatory look in his eyes like he’s about ready to mess with someone. I immediately drop my pencil so the person he chooses won’t be me.
“Let me see what you wrote,” Terri whispers. She tugs at my paper.
“No,” I say and pull it away.
“I’ll show you what I wrote,” she says. The same smirk I saw up at the cemetery returns to her face.
“Okay,” I say. She slides her obituary toward me. I pick it up and see a single sentence: Terri died and went to Hell. I look at her and she winks. “Now let me see yours,” she says.
“No.” I crumple my paper into a little ball and stuff it in my back pocket. Everyone around me starts laughing, and at first, I think they’re laughing at me. Then I realize it’s directed at SteveBo—Carson is up to something. He’s crawled behind SteveBo and is trying to get a look at what he wrote. “What do you got there, SteveBo? Writing a story about Pinocchio? Don’t forget the part where his nose gets stiff and grows.”
Explosions of laughter ensue. Keith cackles so hard that he rolls on the ground, tears streaming from his eyes.
In a way, I think the reason we make fun of SteveBo is to make sure he’s like us: a real boy. Real boys don’t pray all the time. We spear him with our words to make sure there are real guts inside, and maybe, if we twist and probe deep enough, we’ll be able to find some sin and coax it out.
I watch Keith and the other kids, and I see the way they watch Carson with awe. There is a huge smile on Carson’s face, and I can feel him molding us as if we were clay in his hands. I look at SteveBo and blurt out: “My favorite movie is Toy Story. The best character is Woody!”
Our laughter becomes unmatched—a hideous sitcom laugh track. We laugh so hard it shakes our chests and we can’t breathe. SteveBo puts his head down and closes his eyes. Maybe he’s praying that we suffocate. Part of me wishes we all will. SteveBo opens his eyes and stares at his paper, face redder than a stop sign.
“I’m disappointed in all of you.” Pastor Rich steps in, but it’s too late to take control. There is no passion in his eyes, no rapture. Our power trumps his.
“I’m saddened, and God is saddened,” he continues. “That you would berate one of your brothers on his walk with Jesus.”
“We were just talking about our favorite movies.” Carson grins. Beside him Keith is still laughing in fits of hysteria.
“Yeah,” I say. “Since when can’t we talk about movies?”
“I wasn’t born yesterday,” Pastor Rich tries to sound stern, but his flat Midwestern way of talking is beginning to break. “My heart is mourning because we’ve traveled so far on our walk with Jesus and we are still so sinful. I’m going to ask you all to go to your bunks. Pray. Ask God if you are ready to be part of the church. I’m going outside to start the fire for dinner, and when I return you better all be praying.” He stands with his arms crossed and watches us march off toward our bunks, girls in one room, boys adjacent. “Pray,” he repeats.
I suppose I should feel guilty about being sent to our bunks, but strangely I don’t. Something happened on that walk through the cemetery and writing those phony obituaries. All the talk about death that makes me feel alive. I’ve thought about dead Brian all day and have made the decision that I will refuse to go to my grave without knowing anything more than church, faith, and invisible shit.
SteveBo is the only person in the room praying and we let him. He has already sacrificed this life for the one in the next realm. I refuse to sacrifice myself too; I’ll take in what sin has to offer and I will meet the world on its terms.
Carson pulls out a bottle of stolen liquor from his backpack. He takes a gulp then asks if any of us want a sip. I am the first to say yes. Then Keith and some of the others say they will have some too. Carson stands on a chair and pours the liquor right into our mouths. For a moment he reminds me of Pastor Rich; the way he stands above the church congregation at the altar. There is a harsh burning sensation, like the liquid is scrubbing my guts and cleaning me out.
SteveBo sits in the corner, eyes closed, hands linked piously in front of him, head bowed slightly forward, talking to God and telling Him of our sins. But even God can’t do anything to stop us. For the moment, His wrath is postponed.
T.C. Jones is the managing editor at Gulf Stream Magazine and a contributing editor at Burrow Press. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, Pacifica Literary Review, The Atticus Review, The Monarch Review, Straylight Magazine, Dos Passos Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and others. He is based in Philadelphia.
[IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE BANJO –THIS CHAIR]
by Simon Perchik
It has nothing to do with the banjo—this chair
aches for wheels that will rust, wobble
the way riverbeds grow into something else
—where there was a mouth, there’s now wet dirt
and with a single gulp the Earth is drained
by a compass that points to where it’s from
and you are eased room to room
as an endless sob drying in your throat
—you sing along till side by side
each wheel becomes that afternoon
that folded one hand over the other
as if for the last time.
Simon Perchik, [It has nothing to do with the banjo](Poetry) is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge,Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The Osiris Poems published by box of chalk, 2017. For more information, including free e-books, his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com. His poems [ITS SHADOW IS HELPLESS HERE] and [THERE IS SKIN EVEN THE SKY] appear in past issues of Cleaver.
I was driving smooth along I-205 in the brand new GS F Lexus because I needed a car, not a bike, according to my parents, and Brad’s asking me, “Jeremy Lin? Like the basketball player?” because maybe Brad was wondering if I was the point guard for the Brooklyn Nets, but he didn’t want to be racist in case I wasn’t and he was also trying to sell me this car and silent rides weren’t good for a sale. I explained that while my name was Jeremy Lin, I was in fact, not the point guard for the Brooklyn Nets who went to Harvard without a scholarship and averaged twenty-six points per game. I didn’t even hit six feet. I knew all this because I knew everything there was to know about him (as I assumed most people would if they shared their name with a celebrity). I’d lived in his shadow for the past six years he rose to fame.
Brad asked me what I did for a living and I knew what he was thinking—what was a guy dressed in gray sweats, camo shirt, and flip flops doing in the Lexus market? “The Toyota dealership is across the street,” he had told me, pointing with his pen when I first arrived.
“No, no,” I’d said. “I’m in the right place.” I tapped the window for the GS F I wanted to drive, leaving fingerprint smudges on the glass. “I’ve got a need for speed.”
Truth was, Brad was right. I couldn’t afford this car. I wouldn’t be able to afford this car in ten lifetimes—I was a high school teacher by day and biology grad student by evening. I slept around five hours a night and still lived with my parents even though I was twenty-five. My routine was this: wake up, teach school, learn school, sleep, repeat. The check my parents wrote me was for five thousand dollars.
“This will cover a chunk of a decent used car,” my mom had said, handing me the piece of paper. “Get a good one.” My parents didn’t have the kind of money to be writing checks with more than two zeroes. I’d tossed it into my class’s recycling bin—torn up into snowy shreds.
The turn for exit 8 was coming up, towards Tracy Blvd. We’d been driving for just over ten minutes. Brad nodded at the exit ramp ahead. “You can turn here.”
I merged into the right lane towards the ramp. The car turned, cutting through the road smooth like water. It made my Buell Blast motorcycle seem like its engine was constructed from a popcorn machine. I imagined returning to the Lexus dealership with Brad, his eyebrows raised at me as if asking So? I thought about the students I would return to tomorrow—their stubborn frowns, their sagging eyelids when I map out carbohydrate molecular compounds on the chalkboard, and at the last second, I steered left. The Lexus glided past the ramp sign, leaving the exit receding behind us.
Brad looked at me and I knew he was wondering if I was testing him, if I was trying to provoke him in some way. I wasn’t. I’d felt a rush, swerving past that exit, and I wondered if that was something NBA Jeremy Lin would do.
“It’s okay,” Brad said, but it felt like he was talking mostly to himself. “You can take exit 9 coming up in half a mile. Just, please stay in the right lane.” He rapped sharp knuckles against his window, indicating the upcoming slope curving away from the highway.
At the last second, I blew past that exit, too.
“Sir,” Brad said, turning towards me. He rattled off on how the Lexus dealership closed in a few hours and how he had other serious clients to attend to, but I wasn’t listening. I had a full tank. I had 467 horsepower. I could potentially outdrive the cops. I wouldn’t make it, but I could. I thought of all the places we could go: Death Valley, Los Angeles, Black Rock Desert—places I’d never been.
The other Jeremy Lin didn’t get recruited to Harvard right off the bat. There were reservations. They said at first he seemed more like a Division III player, if anything. I wondered if he always knew he’d be a breakout star in the NBA—if he had any plans for his economics major if basketball didn’t work out. Would he have been a stockbroker? A data analyst? Some kind of accountant?
I thought about the papers I still had to write, about the lab samples I hadn’t collected yet, about how slow the clock hands tick in the back of the community college classroom I attended, and the long years of school I still needed to endure before I could call myself a Geneticist. I imagined my parents’ faces when I returned from the dealership empty-handed, disappointed and unimpressed yet again at how unremarkable their only child turned out.
I glanced over at Brad, both hands on the wheel. “What kind of music do you listen to?”
“Rock?” he asked, like he was furious and suspicious if I’d been listening to him this whole time.
I turned on the radio. The intro to The Strokes’ “Someday” reverberated from the speakers. I rolled down the windows and after transitioning to the left lane, my foot descended, slowly at first, and then with all its weight onto the gas pedal.
Christina is a competitive eater wannabe with work featured in Hobart, The Adroit Journal, Word Riot, Jelly Bucket, and elsewhere. She writes and spams at christinaashleysun.wordpress.com.
A Civil War cannonball dug from a field
near Petersburg now props open the door.
He shows me in. The room was purpose-built
to house his large collection. In matched pairs,
bullets are bedded like lovers and displayed
by battle, Antietam through Yellow Tavern.
After closing the door, he cradles the ball
on his lap and strokes it like a hefty kitten.
No explanation why it didn’t explode,
or won’t someday. Should ammunition purr?
Arrayed on felt in a jeweler’s cabinet,
tribes of hand-axes and arrowheads pitch camp
in labeled drawers. Photos document
each find in situ. No talk of lives cut short
or burials disturbed, just specimens
we handle with white gloves, butlers to a past
that still commands our hushed obedience.
The vein in his temple bulges with pulsing code
of sudden death. Just ask these artifacts.
William Wells, a college professor in Ohio, has published four full-length volumes of poetry, most recently Odd Lots, Scraps & Second-hand, Like New, which won the 2016 Grayson Poetry Prize and was published by Grayson Books. His previous collection, Unsettled Accounts won the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize and was published by Ohio Univ./Swallow Press.
A guy comes into the drugstore and goes to the snack aisle. Early twenties, longish hair, patchy beard like he never learned to shave properly. He glances at me so I look away quick, busy myself with straightening the packs of Life Savers on the counter. I’m not watching him because he’s attractive or anything. He isn’t. He’s skinny and stoop-shouldered. I’m watching him because of how his eyes dart around and because he keeps fidgeting with a buckle on his canvas backpack.
Our only other customer is a middle-aged lady who came in right after the guy. She’s chewing gum and looking at a magazine. When I check the snack aisle again it’s empty, but I can still see the guy in the surveillance mirror, which is long and runs across the back of the store under the ceiling. In the mirror, I watch him take a box off the shelf—aspirin or antacids maybe—and put it back. He looks over his shoulder, glances at the mirror, fiddles with the buckle again. What’s he doing? If he’s a shoplifter, he’s pretty terrible at it.
Mr. Parr comes back from the bank and stops to see if I need change for the register. I tell him I’m all set. He points at the display behind the counter where we keep the pipe cleaners and filter tips and such. You’ve got some empty spots there, Donna. Let’s get those filled in. I’ll take care of it, Mr. Parr, I say, my eyes still on the mirror.
Now if that were David, he would have waltzed in here, taken what he wanted, and waltzed right out again. Not that he never got caught, but when he did he’d be all friendly and innocent and oh man, did I really walk out with that? My mom always said David could talk his way out of anything. It wasn’t an act either. David was really a nice guy, but also he was restless. People who used to know our dad usually let him go, but they’d talk to him first, tell him it was time to get serious and grow up. Not everyone in town let him off so easy though. He ended up at the police station a few times, but no one ever threw the book at him. Maybe they should have. The Army doesn’t take criminals. What’s worse? Having a brother who did time or not having a brother anymore at all?
This stringy-haired guy is probably one of the unlucky ones who got his head screwed up in ‘Nam. Whether the Army straightened David out or he ended up a vacant-eyed unfortunate like those you see wandering around we don’t know. Personally, I consider him dead. How often do you hear about a guy who’s MIA showing up alive? Once in a blue moon, that’s how often. Sometimes somebody’s remains are identified, but then they’re only definitely dead instead of probably dead. This is all my own private opinion not to be shared with my mother. She’s convinced he’s in a camp in the jungle over there. She writes to the government every month begging them to keep searching. I urge you, she writes. I entreat you. One time I heard my uncle telling her it was time to stop writing, to move on. Sometimes living is hard work, Ellen, he told her. It’s heavy lifting. Other people talk to her too, but it doesn’t do any good. I get so fed up with her, sitting at home acting like her own life is over. I even told her once that if David was alive he would have talked his way out of that camp by now. Isn’t that what she always said? She just looked at me and said in that slow way she talks now, he doesn’t speak the language.
Mr. Parr heads toward the back with the bank pouch. On the way he gives our stoop-shouldered friend the once-over, like he does with anybody who’s grooming is less than excellent, and goes into the office. The bell over the door jingles and Jerry from the lube joint comes in for a pack of Camels. Jerry likes to talk. Today he’s got a story about a guy who brought in a Firebird and Jerry and Raoul found a pair of pantyhose in the glove box. Jerry waggles his eyebrows at me, so I say, so, maybe his wife keeps a spare pair. It’s not hard to get a run in a pair of pantyhose. Jerry shakes his head. Nope, these were all bunched up. Definitely some hanky-panky going on in that Firebird. Like what, I say, and regret it when Jerry grins at me and says, like, you know.
Jerry’s got to be close to thirty and shouldn’t be grinning at me like that. If David was here he would tell Jerry to get lost, maybe even pop him one, like he did the boy who ditched me at the Sweetheart Dance freshman year. But David isn’t here, and Jerry’s visits are about the only thing that keep me from dying of boredom at work. So I ask if there was any other evidence, like a barrette on the floor. Jerry laughs and says, who wears barrettes with pantyhose? I’m about to say my mom does, but I know what Jerry’s mind will do with that. He’ll have my mom steaming up those car windows, even though she’s barely left the house since we got the telegram. So I say, what were you doing going through the guy’s glove box when all he wanted was an oil change? Jerry laughs again and knocks twice on the counter, like he always does by way of saying so long.
Jerry walks away and I nearly jump out of my skin because the guy is right there behind him. He’s fingering the buckle on his backpack and I wonder if he’s about to stick us up. I glance at the woman in the magazine aisle. She blows a big pink bubble and lets it pop, probably getting flecks of spit all over a magazine she has no intention of buying. She’ll be no help if he pulls a gun. I ring up his deodorant and pack of crackers. He pays with a five and puts the change in his pocket and stands there jingling the coins. And that makes me think maybe he doesn’t have a gun but that he wants something else. Then he starts fiddling with that buckle again. I’m telling you, I’m starting to sweat now. I manage to ask if I can do anything else for him. He licks his lips and leans forward. I have something, he says. And then he says it again: I—I have something.
I shouldn’t, but I look into his face. I think, what is it? What does he have? His eyes are worried and angry and sad all at once. Lost-looking, and I wonder, was he over there? Did he know David? Maybe he has a message I can pass on to my mom, a yes or no that will let her get on with her life. He’s going to tell me how he and David were together, bullets raining, and David died a brave death. Or there’s a camp, and he—
The magazine lady comes over and stands next to him. Come on, Phil, she says. Time to get you back. Wait, I say, what’s going on? He lives in that group home on Fulton, she tells me. I ask if she works there and she shrugs and says it’s a living.
I watch through the big glass window as they walk down the block and out of sight. I’m still staring out the window, thinking about David, thinking about how it would feel to finally know, when Mr. Parr comes out of the back.
I hear him plunk a box on the counter, probably full of after-shave or enemas. Wake up, girlie, he says. I swear, you get moony-eyed over every Army-surplus hippie who comes in here. I stare out the window, dreaming, a little longer before I tell myself it’s time to get back to work.
Jennifer Turnquist has a BA in psychology that she never put to any professional use. After several years working in a neurophysiology laboratory, homeschooling her children, and attempting various entrepreneurial enterprises, she discovered that she really likes to write. Ten years later, she’s still at it. She lives in the Twin Cities with her family.
It’s inevitable—they order wine for the table and the topic turns to death. Three drinks in and they’re all tipsy and tender. Ladies’ night out isn’t supposed to be about death. It’s about looking and acting alive—youth and vibrancy signaled by rouge on the cheeks, pink on the mouth.
“Sometimes I’ll have a really good cry,” Lynn says. “After work, on the car ride home. But sometimes it’s like once I’ve started I’ll never stop. Last week, I had to pull over to the side of the road to throw up.” She tops up her glass of chardonnay. “Sixty isn’t so bad though. It isn’t as bad as—”
“It isn’t forty-six,” Ashley says.
Lynn raises her glass to Ashley’s. “No, it is not.”
“My cousin’s husband dropped dead at twenty-eight!” Margo says. She likes winning, even if the game is grief. “I mean, of course we’ve been unlucky, but can you imagine? Twenty-eight years old!”
But Ashley thinks this may be better. Margo’s cousin is young enough to start over. Not so far away from independence, from living alone. One goes into a shared home with certain expectations, one never imagines—
Ashley always loved scrambled eggs but could never make them properly. Either she wound up with something like pale yellow soup or they were too dry, bits of egg congealing in clumps.
Stephen was good at scrambled eggs. Every Sunday morning he’d cook them for her with bacon and toast and she’d marvel at the smooth, creamy mound on her plate. She never thought to watch or ask him how he did it; she just loaded the eggs with pepper and dug in. The eggs are not the thing she misses most, but they are the thing she misses most often.
She feels something like sob in her throat. She needs water. And more bread.
The entrees come and they eat, slowing the alcohol absorption occurring in their bodies. They perk up a little and turn to lighter topics. Margo talks about her hair, which she switches from blonde to brown with the changing seasons. “What about red?” she asks. Margo and Ashley talk about the right shade of red: auburn, or strawberry, or scarlet. Lynn reminds them that she’s never changed her hairstyle because David liked it long, a fact that Ashley finds odd and sad most of the time and beautiful after three glasses of wine.
“This was nice,” they say at the end of the evening. They say this every time though it is never nice. It is painful and necessary, like the massages Ashley has on her legs once a week to combat arthritis. After, she feels bruised. Even the smallest steps hurt. But she is moving and motion is what matters.
Erin Pienaar lives in London, Ontario, where she completed her MA in English Literature. Her work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, The Danforth Review, Bird’s Thumb, Matrix Magazine, and The Forge Literary Magazine. She is currently working on a novel.