DAVID BOWIE AND THE SPACE MOTORBIKE by Eleanor Levine
Last night David Bowie sent a motorbike rocket, the first of its kind, into space, with a man having anal sex with a woman.
It has long been every female’s dream for a gay man to have sex with them.
The XY chromosome was an actress from Staten Island, which is where the ship—the motorbike space machine—eventually landed.
The actress and “the humper” both lived in David Bowie’s house, which is in Staten Island.
We congregated at Mr. Bowie’s mansion after the launch.
Some people mistook DB for David Lynch, but it was clearly Mr. Bowie.
The launched female, an actress Bowie met on an elementary school bus, had a crush on me.
It had long been her fantasy to do me.
She trailed me, one of her spectators, along the boardwalk in Staten Island.
I simply wanted to hang out on the boardwalk with my friend Ralph, who I’ve known since fifth grade.
However, this thespian traipsed after us until we stopped at a place that sold cherry cheesecake.
It was at that moment, when the cheesecake and cherries entered my mouth, with a black plastic fork, that she invited me to her apartment in Mr. Bowie’s house.
My friend Ralph agreed to follow us because most people who grew up in the 1970s—except me—have a deep fascination with Mr. Bowie.
I always wanted to smoke joints with girls and listen to LPs, but I was stuck with whatever music my brother had while I read Wuthering Heights. So it was me, Heathcliff, and Boston—the group.
I didn’t know a “Mr. Bowie” until, at the age of forty-nine, my girlfriend, who I knew in high school, told me she listened religiously to him.
Mr. Bowie is also enchanted with his fans, and places their postcards near the coal burning stove in his Staten Island residence.
He, like Mr. Warhol, wants to know other quirky people.
It is, however, a challenge for Mr. Bowie to become acquaintances with those, like me, who are not fervently devoted to him.
I accompanied the Staten Island starlet, soon thereafter, to her lodgings in the Bowie household.
She wished to nurse me like an infant.
I did not understand her concupiscence.
I had never met this chick, but there I was, in her bed, getting ready to let her kiss me, until she took out cocaine.
She offered me the white stuff.
Mr. Bowie came out to see what the fuss was about.
He saw my friend Ralph, who is blonde and skinny.
He immediately took Ralph to the Bowie bedroom. Though David is known to be mostly straight, he will dabble with a hot guy like Ralph who meets his needs for the evening.
Upon seeing the cocaine, I told the young lady, whom everyone knew on the elementary school bus, that I didn’t want to have any physical contact with her whatsoever, because I have been sober for 27 years, and didn’t need the nasal machinations of cocaine to embarrass me in front of thousands of AA members, some of whom were at the David Bowie post-launch party, and might not wish me the best sobriety.
She was coked up so it didn’t matter.
I went into the living room, where Mr. Bowie keeps his collection of postcards from fans.
He was curious about me because I was incurious about him.
I agreed with him that Ralph was a hottie.
Then he inquired about my talents, which I refused to divulge.
He seemed fairly dejected by his inability to consume me.
He insisted I let him know who I was.
I adamantly refused because I knew this would make me more enticing.
DB meandered around the house. He said nothing.
It was okay. Ralph and I held hands and returned to the boardwalk in Staten Island, and though the trains were delayed, we eventually caught one to Union Square and read the morning newspaper, where they declared Mr. Bowie’s launch a success.
Eleanor Levine’s writing has appeared in more than 60 publications, including Fiction, Evergreen Review, Litro, Artemis, The Toronto Quarterly, decomP magazinE, The Denver Quarterly, The Atticus Review, The Missing Slate, SRPR, Wigleaf, The Breakwater Review, and Bull (Men’s Fiction); forthcoming work in Faultline Journal of Arts and Letters, Switchback, and Willard & Maple. Levine’s poetry collection, Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria, was published by Unsolicited Press (Portland, OR). Eleanor received her MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, in 2007.
When we couldn’t dance around it any longer, we set mousetraps and started imagining our two toddlers, Henry and Suzanna, losing their fingers one by one: limp pinkies crinkled like sun-wilt, severed rings, scattered middles, dirty orphaned pointers curling into themselves as if for protection.
“Little dead thumbs,” I said to myself.
“I’d put one in your drink,” Jay said, handing me a glass of foaming red. “Like one of those gag cubes with the flies in them. Nobody has a sense of humor anymore. And I don’t know that they would get completely snapped off. Broken for sure. Trip to the hospital, insurance, etc.”
“What’s this one?” I said, holding the drink up to the light. Every night I struggled to hide the disappointment from my voice. A mixologist phase with his cashier income made no sense at all. But Jay’s sister gave him a cocktail book for his birthday two months back and he insisted on working through it, buying bitters and vermouth by the gallons. He’d always been practical about this kind of stuff. But when we moved to North Dakota to be closer to his family, something changed. “It’s called the Bloody Devil,” Jay said with a smirk. “Complete with my own twist of Tabasco and salt.”
“Yummy,” I said, licking my lips. In that moment, the alcohol burning between lips and gums, I felt my hatred for him become genuine. I took another drink and looked out over the line of baited traps, our crude infantry of wood and metal, dollops of generic peanut butter fat on plastic squares of cheese, rectangular golden bars readied to snap. I felt uneasy just looking at them. “Why didn’t we use glue traps?” I asked. “My parents have had luck with those.”
“They don’t kill,” Jay said. “Somebody would have to march them outside and brain them against the garbage can.”
“Brain,” I echoed. “Braindead thumbs.” I broke a piece of ice between my teeth and thought a tooth cracked with it. “I guess I don’t know what they did with them,” I said.
“No thank you,” he said.
Jay mixed more drinks and we moved around the house, laying traps down tenderly as if they were living, sleeping things. Two behind the washer and dryer, two behind the bookcase, one behind the chest full of blankets in the living room, and three upstairs in bathroom cabinets secured with plastic childproof levers.
Feeling satisfied we collapsed on the couch. Jay put on Gremlins and we started to screw around. I moved over him slowly. He nibbled my chin and started to muffle questions into my neck that I couldn’t understand.
“Mhmm,” I answered.
Movement in the corner of the room caught my eye. I continued to rock on Jay and watched a long gray mouse crawl down the side of the blanket chest. Then it stopped and tested the air. Its sticky paws splayed against the wood. Beneath me, Jay sucked air between his teeth, his eyes fluttered. “Holy Christ,” he whispered. “Nice.”
When the mouse reached the floor it seemed to scan the area before bursting forward a few inches, its nose spasming. Jay’s eyes were shut tight. And when I softly pinched a nostril, he smiled.
I reversed myself on top of him and he moved his hands up my sides, over my breasts. More unintelligible questions into my neck. I watched the mouse’s body liquefy and slip beneath the blanket chest. Gone. I waited for the snap. Waited. Waited. The TV showed a gremlin spinning in a blender.
Suddenly we heard Suzanna upstairs screaming from her bed.
“Fuck,” Jay said, adjusting himself away. “Don’t go anywhere.” And he staggered up the stairs to her room. I sat and stared at the blanket chest, waited for Jay to start shouting. I imagined Suzanna’s tiny pink palms without fingers, waving side to side like horrible bald flowers. Saw them reaching out for Jay.
But I heard nothing. And so I crept over to the chest and saw the peanut butter sitting undisturbed on the cheese. I went up to Henry’s room and stood over him. Waited. I stopped the sound of my own breathing to hear his, to watch his chest rise and fall like it was supposed to. I wanted to wake him and kiss all his fingers, count his toes with my lips. Instead I sat in the rocking chair and watched the crack of hallway light beneath his door. I waited for a flash of movement. I waited for Jay, or something else, to squirm into the room and gnaw at our skins.
Ben Morris recently earned his PhD in English from the University of North Dakota. He has had fiction or poetry appear in Lake Effect, drafthorse, Digging Through the Fat, North Dakota Quarterly, and others. He is currently a full-time English lecturer at Appalachian State University. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his partner and two children.
Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife But the only thing that I got’s been bothering me my whole life ……………….Bruce Springsteen
How come the night is long?………………. ……………….Leonard Cohen
Light Years: plurisy, renewed nostalgia for each moment
as it goes, the dream returning as it’s escaping. / His wife’s
demonic pain, his fuckall, to have failed separately
too long too much together, by the minutes ganged, contemned,
the plausive vale unseen discalled and hated. / Snow takes hours
(ensouled idea) in inhuming lawnstrewn xmaslights
until the mind no longer trusts its sight and they are felt
more so (as wolves howl obbligatos impossible to
kyoteyips)…chrysoprasing sawplaying undulations
midnighting northern cusp. / Lightyears: we are the light between
that never hits a thing, the tortoise found in dreams, the map
recalled on shell, the tremulosity, the space between two hells.
A finalist for the 2015 National Poetry Series Award for his sonnet sequence Bel (Expat Press), Joseph Harms is the author of the novels Baal and Cant, as well as the forthcoming Evil Trilogy (Expat Press). His work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Boulevard, The Alaskan Quarterly Review, The North American Review, The International Poetry Review, The Opiate and Bayou Magazine.
I slept with a kitchen knife
in my bedside table as a little girl,
I don’t think even my mother knows.
She loved all the shows
about murder. I would tell her I was scared
but she wouldn’t turn them off— if you’re scared, leave the room.
The first few shots of each episode: victim
who will not live out the next sixty seconds.
A perpetrator with artfully hidden face.
And screaming, always, screaming
even in sudden attacks. I heard
once that the word scream is too powerful
to use in a poem, or too distinctly female,
hysteric, blotting out the rest—
here, we begin. After this, a shot
of the team of criminal profilers,
walking in to the office, discussing how to whip up
the perfect plate of pasta, al dente, of course,
to remind us they have ordinary lives
outside of this television screen, just like we do.
And all the while, a murderer on the loose.
They will solve this case in a cool
forty-three minutes, always right
before the next victim dies. I think stall, just stall.
Pain is like a distant galaxy because the inside
of another person is a distant galaxy. It’s impossible
to talk about, and so we talk about it all the time.
I just want to feel good for a moment,
it’s all fake but there are Good guys fighting
Bad guys and the good ones always pull through.
Sometimes students learn to conduct pelvic exams
on unknowing, anesthetized patients
before gynecological surgeries. Sometimes I think:
it would feel better if I didn’t know. The show
is not about pain but poison and attempted antidote.
And you are not safer if you don’t watch. Not a scale
but an emptiness. Without weight or spectrum.
My mother reads the detective novel I lend her, In The Woods, and she says do we ever find out what happened to his childhoodfriends? His blood-soaked shoes? No, no, the crux here is that some things remain
unexplained forever. This, she cannot abide.
On the show, every killer has some
sort of signature. We all have this compulsion
to show the world who we are. Missing
from this genre: what makes a body
not human anymore. Instead, only: what makes a human
a body. The problem of it. Safety is not what we want,
but some alternative to being alive. It’s a fictional show about
fiction. The way telling a story can help us find the unknown
suspect. As usual, the stories end before they’re over.
In dental school, my mother rode her bike
to and from her apartment with boxes of bones
strapped to the back. She didn’t have much money
so the bones she had were rented. A friend of hers lent her
an extra skull he didn’t need anymore, eventually told her
she could keep it. When I was a kid, no one believed me
when I said the skull was real.
Think of the movies where the science-lab skeleton
was somehow reanimated to wreak havoc.
As if whatever brings us to life inhabits each
individual element of the structure as well as the whole.
My mother never knew who the skull belonged to,
nothing about the story. Mostly, I couldn’t believe
noses weren’t made of bone, other parts that seemed
so solid backed by hollow opening.
In one episode, a mother seeks revenge
upon the man who murdered her daughter—he tries to save
himself by leading her to the place where the girl was
buried. That’s just a skull, she says, that’s not my baby.
She shines a light on the bones. Where’s the rest of my baby.
Kimberly Grabowski Strayer is a poet and horsewoman from Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she received her B.A. in English Writing from Kalamazoo College. She holds an MFA in poetry from The University of Pittsburgh. Her poems have appeared in Superstition Review, Midwestern Gothic, Pretty Owl Poetry, Crab Fat Magazine, and others. Her chapbook, Afterward, is available from Dancing Girl Press.
Apparently Jack just learned the basics of genealogy. The lowest, sturdiest limbs branching out from roots of blood not my own. When I picked him up from school today, amid raindrops the size of a newborn’s hands, he told me about Memaw and Poppy and how they were Mommy’s mommy and daddy.
“You’re my daddy,” he says.
“Yeah, buddy, that’s right.”
Though this isn’t legally true, yet. The Sperm Donor, as Poppy calls him, is in Chicago contesting my petition.
“And Mommy is my mommy,” he says.
“Yup. What’s Mommy’s name?” I ask.
“Katie!” he screeches.
Something else about his friend Dontae having to go to the nurse and how it was Layla’s turn for computer time. Pause. Here it comes.
“Who’s your mommy?” he asks.
Over my speakers the buzzer cleaves his train of thought. Ringing weaves through our family tree.
“Banana is, buddy. You know that,” I say.
“A warning from the National Weather Service will follow shortly…The National Weather Service in Indianapolis, Indiana has issued a flash flood warning for the following areas…”
We drift down the hill and turn right, toward home, cruising alongside the frothing creek as it overpowers the deepest roots on the banks, carrying mud and limbs away and under the bridge. Overhead, the vestiges of winter give way to the first whispers of April. My birthday is in a week. Yes, I’m an Aries, and this morning my horoscope told me that “Communication comes easy for you today, Aries. However, your partner might be a bit more guarded. Just be sure to take your time, as you might keep missing each other.”
My father is a Leo, as is Jack.
After the beeping dissolves like the end of laughter, my son asks me the thing I don’t know how to communicate.
“Daddy, who’s your daddy?” The question reverbs like the warble-fuss of coyote pups crouching beneath the brush pile as we took aim all those years ago.
They had, of course, seen each other at the wedding back in Kentucky. My father and his new wife’s massive ring, their bourbon-laced vows misting over us like sweat. At the reception in the church basement, my father wrenched the preacher’s hand so hard that his shoulder popped. Others used ties to make a sling as he nipped at a flask and told a story about Ole Grandpa Chet who’d finally died by blood poisoning saving his wife, Ethel, from their car marooned in Floyd’s Fork, the muddy water roaring them through the guardrail. Chet survived two train crashes, a hive of yellow jackets, and a fall from the roof. My father had survived a head through a windshield and took pills to keep him from flopping around like the fish left on the banks. Like coyote pups clinging to life. I survived my father. Maybe my son will survive his as well.
I drive past our neighborhood and glide into a parking space between the liquor store and his favorite ice cream parlor.
“His name was John,” I say, preparing to step out into the deluge to unbuckle him from his car seat.
When Luke Wortley was a kid he wanted to be an interventional radiologist. After four or five concussions, he forgot calculus and figured out he loved words instead. He has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Butler University, where he was the fiction editor at Booth: A Journal. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Inch, Limestone, Lascaux Review, Pea River Journal, and Milkfist.
One is waking up in a bedroom that you do not recognize. The scent of coffee makes your head ache, but you cannot recall what it tastes like. And you don’t understand because you thought you liked coffee, but now you are not so sure. You feel panic as it fills your fingertips and clogs your throat. The patchwork quilt stifles you, makes threats against you. The newspaper tells victims to put up a fight, but whose house is this, and what if they do not react well to strangers who thrash around in twin beds that creak?
Two is acting like a civilized citizen. You forgive the patchwork quilt for its transgressions, set aside grievances. You sit up straight and place woven palms in your lap, resting on top of cut crimson cloth. Mother says that manners matter. That this is how we determine the good girls from the bad. You are a good girl, you tell yourself.
Three is hands. You realize that your hands look like freeze-dried fruit. Skin, drained of nutrition, puckered with folds, littered with channels of indigo and purple that bisect and bulge. Your head aches because these are not your hands, and the scent of something bitter looms in the air. You cannot put your finger on it, but you know what it would taste like if it hit your tongue.
Four is the swinging door as a man enters the bedroom. You freeze, contemplate pleading your case, that you will give him whatever he wants as long as he lets you go. His face has seen sun, and his eyes do not appear overly menacing, but mother says you can never tell. She also warns never to talk to strangers, but you know that this is a unique circumstance, and she will understand. You introduce yourself, stick out your withered hand as a token of peace. You inquire about his name. He holds back tears, but you don’t know why.
One is telling him that it’s a funny story, because you woke up in a bedroom that you do not recognize with a headache because it’s been days since you’ve drunk a cup of coffee.
How to Break a Heart
Ghost upon the slightest hint of commitment. Turn off your read receipts. Pretend he doesn’t exist. Don’t respond to his nine texts, even if the fourth one makes you question your strategy. Persevere. Endure. Fight the feeling. Three weeks and a couple of hours in his car mean nothing. Reject logic. Rationalize. Overcompensate. Smile like you won the lottery. Call yourself cold-blooded. Lie and tell your friends that you enjoy it. That it makes you feel empowered or something. Check his Twitter for subliminal repercussions. Delete his number out of spite. Compose subtweets that are subliminal, cutting. File the drafts with the others. Repress. Repress. Repress calloused hands circling your forearm. Date distraction. Watch (500) Days of Summer. Watch Bridget Jones’s Diary. Watch a season of Gossip Girl without moving from the spot in your bed that dips. Read Dostoyevsky to cancel out eleven hours of intellectual void. Understand about one-third of it. Question your maturity, stability, resiliency. Eat a pint of Neapolitan as consolation. Convince yourself that you deserve it. That it would’ve ended badly. That he would’ve been clingy. That he would’ve been detached. That he would’ve chewed with his mouth open or verbally abused his mother. That he would’ve been lactose intolerant. That he would’ve been deaf to the word “no.” Convince yourself that he would’ve done the same.
Abbigail Yost is a full-time student, part-time library page, and all-time perfectionist in most things unnecessary. Her literary crushes include the likes of Holden Caulfield and Henry Winter, two clashing personas that actively influence the subject matter and tone of her stories. She writes to bridge gaps, feign wisdom until wise, advocate for the unconventional, and normalize the lives of in-betweeners like her.
……………..Whilst I was human …………………………………………………I walked around with glitter in my eye …………………….I wrote it down …………………………………………………I believed in magic …..bartered with the elemental …………………………………………………fixity of stone, facility of water
I believed in our animal origin …………………………………………………how it lived on ………………in our animal heart …………………………………………………throwing shadows ………………….against the moon …………………………………………………Something about the moon …………….and its shifting effigy ……………………………………………….. Something about my hands’ ………………….failed synecdoche …………………………………………………This burnt offering ………….my life turned out to be …………………………………………………accomplished little but to warp ……………..a modest patch of air …………………………………………………into a bright derangement …………………..If I could go back …………………………………………………If I could pick my life back up
wear again my spent humanness …………………………………………………like a dress crumpling over a chair ……………..I would devour openly …………………………………………………I would permit everything
Maya Owen lives, writes, and sings in London, England. Her work has been featured in publications including The Adroit Journal, Alexandria Quarterly, DIALOGIST, and DRUNK IN A MIDNIGHT CHOIR, and been nominated for a Best of the Net award.
all I could do was think about
your hands so close to my hands.
And sometimes your voice
when no other voice mattered.
Some days we told stories
in sand and each granule was
a day I might put next to another
day until it didn’t feel so much
like trying. Now every day
feels so much like trying.
When we first met, you said, Why not get well?
And I believed you.
And then I didn’t.
I woke up in the back of a car,
curled like a nautilus, the sound
of the sea ricocheting inside
my skull. But I was not an ocean.
I woke up in a cornfield and
the stars pleaded my defense,
but I was not a constellation
or a wanted galaxy. I woke up
in a hotel room, drenched
from days of pulled blinds
and constant doses I forgot to name,
as my own name slipped away.
I woke up and tried to go home.
But I wasn’t available.
And neither was home.
I woke up and heard you say
that I couldn’t possibly matter enough.
And I remembered then how important
it would always be to remain quiet.
I woke up and wrote every lie
I had ever been told. About god
and hope and the love of someone
coming to sit next to you
when you couldn’t be more alone.
I woke up and walked away.
Because no one holds your hair back
when you are fresh out of brilliance.
Because there is no well.
Jen Rouse is the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Cornell College. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Wicked Alice, Parentheses, Bone & Ink Press, Crab Fat Magazine, Up the Staircase, Southern Florida Poetry Journal, Gulf Stream, and elsewhere. She was named a finalist for the Mississippi Review 2018 Prize Issue. Her chapbook, Acid and Tender, was a finalist for the Charlotte Mew Prize and published by Headmistress Press. Riding with Anne Sexton, Rouse’s second book, is forthcoming from Bone & Ink Press in collaboration with dancing girl press. Find her at jen-rouse.com and on Twitter @jrouse.
In the sour aurora borealis of our political reveries
every bruise dives together in a drink of lead paint
pouring out of smoky eyes poked out at the broken border
again we were stopped at the dirty border again
doing the thirsty gecko
in need of a hopeless shower…
we’d rather have thirty legs and arms cut off
in a hurry than let go of the neutral internet cut off
brainet slowly enough
so that we don’t notice
barbed-wire painted futile for higher rents
with white lead paint to be more durable, dryer,
blinder deep-sea fangtooths
surviving in the smooth stateless seas
of hydrogen sulfide vents
rather than bent light’s every cutting desire.
Wearing very large eyes without need of a mate. With no light,
humpback anglerfish, there’s no need to be pretty. We can hide
in our chemosynthetic cathedral until citrus Christmas
sinking to a deeper tropical past stained-glass plankton
painted as flesh
reflected in the soon to be cracked black mirror
of the severed seas ready to sting itself a new god.
Into this painted walled garden for octopodes.
Into this Möbius band gelatinous trench treasure
of neural lace implants for hot thoughts
in a hot sea of mind: plantations
of toilet tissue skeletal
structures fit for feeding
from hydrothermal pirate ship
switches both on and off auto
immune to life and death…
as in a Lucian Freud portrait.
Perhaps it will turn out to be fortunate.
Or perhaps a study by Bacon is more apt.
Perhaps we will awaken to have a ruddy stake in it again
but if we are neither alive nor dead then what are we? Aloof
Grandmother went to a spiritual retreat after her mastectomy
and mother went to the interior of the next state over
to get away from the sea.
So they were not eaten.
I’m not alone because grandfather is here.
But the biggest fear is his being here.
What is he doing?
Sucking on a lozenge
and coughing up lemon flavored blood.
I do things for him in consideration of my grandmother
because I love her very much but he has already tried me.
You can stay with me.
I’m trying to take a shower right now
but the bathroom door lock is broken.
You can shower here.
I’m just afraid he’ll come when I’m in the shower.
But don’t worry. I’ll take care here.
Tell me when you’re done so I know you’re okay.
Thomas Osatchoff is doing fieldwork for his debut volume of poetry. He has resided in many places throughout the world where he has had opportunities to develop his perspective. His work has appeared recently both online and in print.
When we meet you will tell me you’re tired of the same old thing. You will look me up and down and see what you like.
I will nod and tell you I know, baby. I will show you all the ways that I’m different.
I like football and beer and steak.
I am sarcastic and cynical and charming and funny.
I am sexy but I don’t seem to realize it.
I am strong and gentle and feisty and weak all the ways you want me to be.
You will smile and buy me a drink – a Manhattan or old fashioned – something manly and sweet. You will tell me I look sexy as I wrap my tongue around the straw and pull it into my mouth. You will watch as I sip slowly. Swallow with precision.
You will tell me you wonder if my mouth tastes sweet too.
As sweet as you want. Cherry cola. Sweet tea. So sweet your lips will pull back and you’ll smile so hard you’ll grimace.
You will put your arm around my waist to show everyone that this one is taken. This one. Me. I’m taken.
Take me somewhere. I will whisper in your ear and lean against you. You will feel so needed.
You will ask where I want to go but you already know.
You will run your hands down the granite countertops in my kitchen.
I love to cook. You will smile because you want someone to cook for you like your mother did. Dinner on the table at 6:00, snacks during the game.
You will lick your lips at the thought of me in an apron, poised over the stove. My hair in a bun, sweat forming at the base of my neck.
You will take the drink I give you and watch my hips as I lead you down the hallway.
I will pull you onto the bed. You want me to take control.
You’re mine now I will tell you, and you will nod and nod.
I will tell you things to make your chest rise and fall for me. I will tell you all the things you need to hear about how different you are.
You smell so good.
You are so chiseled.
You are so funny and built and not fragile in any way.
You are so strong and I feel so safe with you.
You will be just like every man. Cologne soaked and whiskey drunk. Clumsy fingers and dull eyes.
I could just eat you up.
While you sleep I will find your cracks and dig my fingers in. I know where to look. It doesn’t take much pressure to pop you open, core you from the inside. Leave you hollow.
What did you expect?
The other girls would have let you leave them, shatter them. They would have let you remain whole while they tear out their own insides bit by bit.
I am just what you wanted, I will tell you once I’ve pulled your sheets up over your shell of a frame. I will tuck you in so gently. This will hurt in the morning.
Tell me again how you want something different.
Madeline Anthes is the acquisitions editor for Hypertrophic Literary. Her writing can be found in journals like WhiskeyPaper, Lost Balloon, Cease, Cows, and Jellyfish Review. You can find her on Twitter at @maddieanthes, and find more of her work at madelineanthes.com.
A NIGHT SO BEAUTIFUL WE BURNED DOWN THE SENATOR’S HOUSE #4
Nobody saw who flipped over
the bedframes. Nobody saw
who opened up the windows.
Nobody noticed when the meat
was gone. Everybody talked
with their teeth. A crowd gathered
in the yard. We were loud
enough to become vessels
& drunk enough not to care.
A NIGHT SO BEAUTIFUL WE BURNED DOWN THE SENATOR’S HOUSE #5
The neon green
lipstick was passed
slowly. We all
& grooms of this
night. I don’t
combed our hair.
A NIGHT SO BEAUTIFUL WE BURNED DOWN THE SENATOR’S HOUSE #6
Those that whispered
stayed in the corners
their corners, pissing
in their corners, un-
willing to dance
or play with the bones
of the chicken
we had picked clean.
Darren C. Demaree is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently “Two Towns Over”, which was selected the winner of the Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press. He is the recipient of a 2018 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and the Nancy Dew Taylor Award from Emrys Journal. He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry. He is currently living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.
This isn’t one of those stories where the twenty-two year old work-study assistant gets kissed on the cheek by the Chair of one of the country’s most prestigious English departments while she’s arranging cookies for the Visiting Writers Reading, writers whose names you’d surely recognize, like the author of the graphic novel about her coming out and the author who writes about horses, and the trim little poet who upstaged her husband last December at a reading for The Environment. Remarkable and hopeful, the twenty-two-year-old assistant thought, and immediately bought their books. Now, she stands by the wine as she often does after the Visiting Writers read poems, and essays, and chapters from novels, and the Chair of the department looks her up and down. It was his office in that English Department she’d chosen out of all the work-study jobs offered by this university, because she is an aspiring writer, studying at an important university, and he is a Famous Writer who has, he often brags, a cameo in a movie written by a former student and a scene with that famous British actress who is even more lovely in person, and it might work in her favor if he notices her. He has. He’s been staring at her tits for weeks. “I didn’t know you cared about poetry,” he says. This is not a story about how, when she answers, “Yes, I do,” because she is a writer and of course she cares about poetry and has read poems all of her life, he says, “Do you want to study here? Come to my office,” and he places his hand on the small of her back and kisses her and leaves. But this story is not about that. It isn’t one of those stories.
This is not quite a story about how the twenty-two-year-old assistant goes instead to a bar across the street from his office with a few of the women she’s met at the Reading, grad students who have poems and stories in Big Name Journals, who have awards from the department, and books out with agents, and she tells them she writes, and she wants to study in the department, and one of the women says to the waiter, “a pitcher,” and the twenty-two-year-old assistant hears “a picture,” and she feels very much at home here, wishing they would take one. The drunkest woman, likely because she is the smallest, says, “Welcome to the club,” and the twenty-two-year-old assistant asks, “What club?” and the woman says, “The club of students the professors are trying to fuck.”
The story starts as they get in a car and drive to a party where all of the grad students in the department crowd into a creaky Victorian house and the twenty-two-year-old assistant wishes she could stay in that house forever, leaning against the fireplace with a mug of bourbon and coffee, talking to a young novelist with green marbled eyes and the build of a rugby player.
What the story is about is this: the Chair shows up. He is drunk, he’s taken off his wedding ring, and he sees the twenty-two-year-old assistant who is telling the rugby player about her stories (as if she actually belongs there), stories about magicians and planets and towns recovering from natural disasters and the Chair, who’s been watching her, walks over on little soft cat feet. And the twenty-two-year-old assistant grows smaller and smaller until she can’t remember how she’s gotten there or why she wanted to be a writer or if she’s ever had an original idea in all of her life.
He eyes the twenty-two-year-old assistant—her lips, her tits, her ass. “She is an excellent writer,” the Chair says, and he winks at the rugby player.
This is not a story. This is not a story. This is not—
Juliana Roth is a writer from Nyack, NY. She currently lives in Philadelphia. Her writing has appeared in Entropy, VIDA Review, and Irish Pages, among other publications.
Once I was so lonely, I spent all night talking
to an android, her pursed lips whispering
thick as a storm cloud. I wanted to step inside
her hollow machine, hold the very brink of nothing
alive. I wanted to listen to her voice like the sofa
I was never supposed to sit on. She held my hand
in the boutique of my heart, where there is no
Judgment. Eager to sew the sobs into my pillow.
She respected my boundaries. She capsized every
ache that holds an inflection. And played parlor games
with a haughty accent. I swear she was more than
a blunt brick wall— She was a droid of longing.
When I needed to scream into a bottle, my echo
landed smack dab in the center of a board game
at the other end of the future, where children
are laughing—That boy who held me down never heard
my spine-tingling scream, it was stuck like a zipper
on a winter jacket, it was winched inside me.
Matches in his pockets, he said my hair would Burn up to the clouds. Guilt reboots every time
I lean into a wall. A button ripped for each bad decision.
With her teeth, she held the other end
of a jump rope, tasted the yawl
and salt of my wounds. We heard the children
splashing in water, the choir of priests and the barking
dogs and admonitions, outside all the polite rooms
where I kept my hands folded and mouth shut.
Cynthia Atkins is the author of Psyche’s Weathers and In The Event of Full Disclosure, and the forthcoming book, Still-Life With God. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Apogee, BOMB, Cleaver Magazine, Diode, Florida Review, Green Mountains Review, Hermeneutic Chaos, Los Angeles Review, North American Review, Rust+Moth, Tampa Review, Tinderbox, Thrush, and Verse Daily. Formerly, she worked as the assistant director for the Poetry Society of America and has taught English and Creative Writing, most recently at Blue Ridge Community College. Atkins earned her MFA from Columbia University and has earned fellowships and prizes from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Writer’s Voice, and [email protected], as well as Best of the Net and Pushcart nominations. She lives on the Maury River of Rockbridge County, Virginia, with artist Phillip Welch and their family. More work and info: www.cynthiaatkins.com and on Facebook. Author photo courtesy of Alexis Rhone Fancher.
(Florence Flood, 1966: restoration of Vasari’s Last Supper)
Twelve hours under the flood the putrid silt
sacked every staging and support, the poplar
plank with its larch cross-sections, wrung through
with woodworms and fungus spores.
The armature was warping, the foundation
was gone. They would have to destroy the world
to save it− shear off and float the color still clinging
to the brushstrokes— ……………………………cadmium fingerings, tangled
lightning cords of crimson, the steely crosshatch
green of Judas’s collar.
First, rip the sky from its
window in this columned polychrome
room, divide the jostle …………………..of disciples, the burnt sienna
laying on of hands.
Then, scrape away the faces, the feet
of wine glasses, the halos
with rice paper bandage,
clear the table of The Last Supper
with a trowel.
And in that time without angles−
transubstantiate the brotherhood
of subtle, alchemical, hovering bodies
suspended in the concoction
of sturgeon bladder and honey,
held by a bead
of resin and glue.
Judson Evans is a poet and visual artist, who has written and published in a variety of poetic forms and genres. He was Director of Liberal Arts at The Boston Conservatory for twenty-five years, and is now a full-time Professor of Liberal Arts at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches Literature, Poetry Workshops, and an elective humanities course on Paleolithic Cave Art. He has been a lifelong enthusiast for all Japanese-based poetic forms and regularly publishes haiku, renku, and haibun in the main journals of those forms. He also writes and publishes contemporary lyric poems. He has been involved in a wide range of collaborative experiments with composers, choreographers, other poets, and most recently with videographer Ray Klimek. Evans has had his poems set to music by composers, such as Mohammed Farouz and Marti Epstein, and developed into dance pieces with choreographer/performance artist Julie Ince Thompson. He was chosen as an “Emerging Poet” by John Yau for The Academy of American Poets in 2007, and won the Philip Booth Poetry Prize from Salt Hill Review in 2013. His poems have appeared most recently in Folio, Volt, 1913: a journal of forms, and Cutbank.
THE REVOLUTION IS NOT DEAD: I’M WEARING IT by Holly Li
It was a dingy street stall, somewhere in the back alleys of Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
The uninterested teenage boy manning the booth flipped through a magazine while I rummaged through bins of t-shirts wrapped in clear plastic. Some were printed with Chinese words; most had faces I didn’t recognize. “An old Chinese Communist hero,” my dad would explain as I pointed indiscriminately at one and looked to him. “Another old hero,” he chuckled, as I held up yet another generic grinning face, this one with rosy cheeks and a red star cap. For seven yuan (a dollar), I could afford to buy them all, but I took my time. I made piles of favorites, weighed options carefully on a rubric of juvenile aesthetic taste and shock value, then narrowed them down. Eventually, I settled on the Glorious One: a white t-shirt featuring a smiling crowd of men and women, thrusting Mao’s bible in the air against a rising red sun. Poorly translated English reads underneath: “Careful Study Marxism and study society.”
“This is the one!” I exclaimed, as my dad paid the vendor, amused.
I was seven years old and had a strange fascination with Communism.
Growing up, I was as un-Chinese as you could get. Raised my entire life in rural towns—first in south Georgia, then in the Appalachian hills of Ohio—I’d become more accustomed to the esoteric ways of deer-hunting and bluegrass music than mooncakes and lantern festivals. I could use chopsticks and whine in my parents’ tongue, but I didn’t like the food, I’d never met my relatives, and I didn’t much care to. For their part, my parents tried their best to share stories of the motherland, skillfully wielding anecdotes of childhood famine when I complained about oatmeal for breakfast or dropping stories of the Red Police in between bites of rice at the dinner table. My parents had been poster children for the Communist Revolution: their parents had been taken away; they’d lived through the heart of the food rations (without which my dad insists he’d have grown to be six feet tall); and at the age of twelve, they’d both been selected by scouts to be sent to Olympic training camps where Communist coaches hoped to cultivate a winning team well in advance of the 1984 games and win gold for China’s first appearance on the international stage.
I took in these stories with wide eyes and childlike wonder. For a kid raised in a small Ohioan town, these stories might just as well have been legend. Thus when third grade came around and kids were finally old enough to realize I looked different, I began to look for something to explain my straight black hair and almond-shaped eyes. A Communist Revolution, I thought, now that’s something authentically Chinese! To me, it was a perfect cultural narrative: a proud, age-old civilization reborn upon the death of the last empire. An unending class struggle fought by farmers, led by a tyrannical demagogue. A sprinkle of nationalism and behold: What a dramatic battle to become something.
Finally, it was a part of my heritage I liked and felt like I understood. Out of my third-grade identity crisis came a sense of urgency to learn and love this dark history. It could redeem me on both accounts: make me proud to be Chinese; and make me cool to be Chinese.
My parents—who fled the Reds—could not understand this obsession. At dinner, they continued to imbue me with stories of political corruption, the brainwashing, the cold murder of relatives by the Party. Communism had done a lot of good for the country, they conceded, but they weren’t about to hang a poster of Mao any time soon. I did, though: two of them, in fact, in my childhood bedroom. I knew the Communists were complicated, but there was something about the saturated ink of the posters, the unabashed thick block print, and the rosy smiles of children saluting doves that demanded your attention and stirred within you a confused allegiance. The China they talked about became the only version of their homeland I could imagine; their Communist childhoods had already become my favorite epic. At lunch, my friends would talk about American Girl dolls. I would slip in quietly: “my grandpa was tortured because he was a nationalist.”
The t-shirt, then, became a prized possession. I wore it proudly as if to say: Witness me! I am indeed Chinese! My people did something gnarly! No matter that it was a few sizes too big. In between Abercrombie hoodies and Limited Too jeans, the shirt stayed constant.
Sometime around 2011, graphic tees became all the rage. There were the basic level ones: the one-word slogans in attempted laconic edginess; “Friday” in Helvetica bold on a white t-shirt. The next level was an image of some kind, a brand, or a panda. But god-level was the perfect, esoteric quirky tee: one featuring a vintage ad, perhaps, or an obscure artist’s boob sketch. Bonus points if it looked faded, featured another language, and had whiffs of politically charged counterculturalism.
I had a winner on my hands.
Suddenly, Urban Outfitters was scrambling to find any artwork vaguely Oriental. Artists and wannabes in Brooklyn were shelling out big bucks for “worn-in” old Asian souvenir t-shirts. And while the Chinese people hadn’t figured out how they felt about Communism, hipsters certainly had. Expensive Etsy shops stocked custom screen-printed Maoist shirts. Streetwear brands in L.A began to sell stickers of Mao edited with rosy Instagram filters. I can’t quite pinpoint how Communism became hot. Perhaps it was the resurgence of Kim Jong Un memes or Communism’s inevitable turn in the hipster cycle of nostalgia. Either way, my shirt was gold by all accounts. It miraculously still fit, and was soft and broken in from years of wear. Its boxy cut, the cheapest manufacturing measure then, was now the chic look on the street. Its ink, red and black, had faded and crinkled in just the right places, aspirationally weathered.
The shirt had until then been a sort of cultural heirloom to myself: unarguable evidence that I had roots and knew them. But now I was getting stopped by the hippest women all the time, usually with pierced noses, trendy bangs, and vintage mules. They luhved my shirt. Where did I gat it?
There’s a satisfaction to having the world suddenly appreciate what you always have. To me, it felt like it was time they did. Communism may just be a quirky t-shirt to them now, but the mere appreciation is enough for me. Allegations of cultural appropriation seem silly: the very fact that a teenager in Minnesota could love a shirt featuring a quote my parents recited every single day as children blows my mind, and reminds me that the world is a small and peculiar place where we can all enjoy the same things. We choose odd things to celebrate, but the very celebration of them at all is in itself a powerful thing.
Because what used to be the stories I would tell myself at seven slowly burgeoned into real appreciation over the years, as I visited the hometowns of my parents, read Chinese history books, and asked my grandparents about the Mao framed on their living room wall.
Now, as an unapologetic hipster, I can only say that I was a Communist before it was cool, that I was Chinese before it was aesthetic, and that I will continue to brandish myself proudly—even when the world moves on to the next celebrated trend of Mexican bodegas or vintage Italian sardine cans.
Holly Li is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, headed to the West Coast to pursue surfing or perhaps a promising career in hip-hop dance. She spent her childhood, however, in rural Ohio, surrounded by poets and hippies. The provincial nature of her Appalachian town is largely to blame for her dogged optimism, Asian American growing pains, and deep-rooted love for folk music.
Photos of every winner of the Hungry Man Challenge hang on the wall of The Little Texan Steak Ranch. Four dozen photos. Mostly white men. So when Sandy Jenkins plops her red, heart-shaped purse on the counter and orders the Hungry Man Challenge, a hush falls over the restaurant. Sandy Jenkins at five-foot-two with short downy dark hair like a baby chick and unsmiling liner-rimmed eyes already doesn’t look like she could eat seventy-two ounces of steak in one lifetime let alone one hour. But besides that, everyone in town knows Sandy isn’t the type of girl to sign up for anything. She’s the type to traipse through your tomato garden in combat boots and when you catch her, claim she is searching for a four-leaf clover (and you kind of believe her). She’s the type to steal pencil toppers in the shapes of cute forest animals from her classmates and display them on her dresser, and when her mother asks where she got them, lie that they were gifts (her mother is just relieved she’s finally making friends). She is the type who, upon realizing that she sticks out like a cactus flower in her homogenous hometown, instead of trying to blend in, leans into her differences—wings mark the corner of each eye, drawing their shape further up her temples, black hair shorn close to her scalp. Sandy is the type to avoid restaurants like The Little Texan Steak Ranch and tourist traps like the Hungry Man Challenge at all costs and, instead, suck on Slim Jims while perched on parking curbs in the local shopping centers.
Danny behind the counter asks her twice if she is sure and she smacks the counter to emphasize her second yes. He puts the order in with the kitchen.
While she waits, Sandy spins on her stool like an impatient child. Her shirt reads Save the Whales on a blue background and the sleeves are cut up into fringes that float at each shoulder like seaweed.
Danny asks after her folks. They’re regulars. They come in for breakfast after Sandy leaves for school on Mondays and they order the waffle special-of-the-week. On Sundays, they sometimes take bets on what the special will be. The waffle breakfast is a tradition they’ve had since before they adopted Sandy from Korea. They brought her with them until she started school and then on weekends sometimes until she was old enough to refuse (just after she turned seven).
“They’re the same old, same old, same old,” Sandy says in a sing-song voice. She has a twang. It’s subtle enough that when she leaves (next year, the minute she turns eighteen), it’ll fade almost instantly. But it’s there for now.
The steak comes out next to a steaming baked potato. It’s a beauty—black cross-hatchings like train tracks. Danny sets the plate in front of Sandy, and she places a paper napkin in her lap as if she’s at high tea.
She saws off a small bite and chews thoughtfully, as if considering its quality. Really, she’s testing its density against the strength of her jaw.
“You know it’s seventy-two dollars if you don’t finish on time,” Danny reminds her, though everyone knows Sandy doesn’t have the money.
“Oh, I know,” is all she says. She cuts off another bite, stuffs that into the corner of her mouth. The bulge in her cheek moves up and down faster now. She swallows that one quick and hard, scrunching her face up real tight. After a few more bites, her chin is slick with grease. Her jaw’s working hard, steady like a pulse. The other customers watch over their coffee cups, craning their necks backward every few minutes to see how much is left, then how much time is left on the clock.
When there’s only a quarter of an hour left, Sandy sets down the knife and fork and picks up the hunk of meat—more than half—in her bare hands. Her cheeks are pink by now. She’s making these tiny grunts with each chunk she tears off. Black bits are burrowed under her fingernails. Flecks of red flash between her teeth when she bares them to bite down.
Old Pat asks, “Think she might do it?” and then someone else shushes her as if they’re at the movies.
Sandy tears off another bite. You can even hear the tick of the second hand because everyone’s shut up. No one’s breathing. All that matters is this girl and the time and the hunk of meat she’s tearing into. And that’s why, at first, the sirens sound to Old Pat like church bells in the distance. To Danny, they’re the wails of his baby boy, a sound he shamefully has tried to ignore more than once as he hovered on the edge of sleep.
As for Sandy—when she hears the sirens, she pauses, considers the remains, surveying the steak with tenderness, as if it’s beloved. She thinks of a photo in an album of herself as a baby, wearing a white bonnet, too thin for an infant, too solemn too. Waiting for someone to return and reclaim her. She thinks of the photo to come, the mugshot. Solemn too. Waiting too.
She takes a breath. She opens her mouth.
Just before the officers enter the restaurant, a flash goes off. The Polaroid slides out: Sandy, grinning, meat bits stuck between her teeth. Holding up the plate like a Nobel Prize. She finished the whole damn thing.
Even the baked potato.
Andrea Ruggirello’s stories, essays, and poetry have been published in Third Coast, The Baltimore Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Catapult, Day One, and other publications. She recently completed her MFA in fiction at West Virginia University. Born in Seoul and raised on Staten Island, Andrea currently lives in Washington, DC and is finishing a novel.
THE MENSTRUAL CYCLE OF A GRIEVING WOMAN by Jennifer Todhunter
I lie on the couch wide awake, cramps gouging my uterus. In my stupor, I picture the trappings of a baby girl, her translucent skin, her nail-less fingers, her snake-coiled legs. She has Jake’s smile, I think, the way the edges of her lips twist up, the way her left cheek dimples. I wonder how her laugh sounds, if it comes from her belly like his.
I name the cramps Rita. She is unrelenting. I see her name in the dirt on the windows, in the grime on the floor of this house that is ours. I trace the letters with my pinky finger, wonder how her tiny fingers compare to mine, how tightly she could grip them. She is here, she is there, she is everywhere. Why won’t you join me? she asks. Don’t you want me? I picture cuddling up beside her, the softness of her hair, the freshness of her scent. I want you, I whisper from my cave of blankets on the couch. I want you, I want you, I want you.
I call my sister. We haven’t spoken since I told her about the accident. She says my voicemail is full, that she’s been worried. Her two children play in the background; their soft, small voices split me in half. My sister says she isn’t able to come out before Jake’s funeral next week, starts droning on about her unbreakable obligations, and I tell her it’s all right, it’s all right, but start crying anyway.
I say, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, and hang up the phone, but the tears won’t stop for the rest of the day. I cry through Jake’s drawer of t-shirts, through his bag of toiletries, through his box of ticket stubs under the bed. It’s like PMS, but infinitely worse. It’s like wishing you were dead, but you’re not.
I wake up with my period. Every trip to the bathroom reminds me there is no tangible piece left of Jake. No daughter. No son. I won’t recognize the curve of his features, the quirk of his mannerisms in our offspring.
Jake’s funeral is a sea of hats and jackets, the rain falling in sheets outside. I greet everyone as they arrive, listen to their anecdotes about Jake, accept their hugs, their kisses from cheek to cheek. By the time everyone is seated, my tampon is soaked through, blood pooling onto my nylons. I excuse myself to the washroom, sink to the floor and sob. My sister finds me, helps clean me up, hugs me like she used to when we stayed up late watching Friday night horror flicks. I don’t know what’s going on, I choke out mangled words, it’s never been this heavy before. Later, when I’m alone with Jake’s casket, I am struck by how young he looks. How young we both look. How his locker was next to mine when I got my first period.
My doctor refuses to schedule a hysterectomy. You are only thirty-two, she says. It is the grief, it will pass. She tells me to spend some time thinking about my decision, prescribes sleeping pills instead. I start with one, then two, then three. Then I dump the bottle and flush, sit on the toilet and bleed. It’s like my uterus is mocking me.
My next-door neighbor leaves a chicken pot pie on the doorstep and a note offering her condolences. We are so sorry, everyone keeps saying, we are so incredibly sorry, and I want to ask what they are sorry for. Nobody can apologize away an errant deer on a clear night, a mis-twisted steering wheel, a severed aorta.
I eat half the pot pie directly from its aluminum container. It is the first proper meal I’ve eaten since the police knocked on my door. I am thick and bloated, my stomach distended. I rub my paunch with my palm and close my eyes. This is as close to pregnant as I will ever be.
Jennifer Todhunter’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. She was named to Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2018, and is the Editor-in-Chief of Pidgeonholes. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_.
WHILE THE IPHONE WAS IN RICE by Jennifer L. Hollis
Waiting for a table at the diner, I won round after round of I Spy with my son. I spy with my little eye something green (the 7-11 sign across the street), something ephemeral (the time between now and when this boy will be too heavy to carry to bed), and also something getting truer (there is no silence left in this world).
I spy with my little eye the past, when a telephone was too big to fall in a toilet and the weighty plastic receiver could carry the cracking voice of a boy through a curling cord of wires, all the way from the wall of his kitchen two blocks away to the wall of my den. I spy possibility, when a real hammer inside a black plastic box hit a bell and I sprinted toward the ringing, yelling “Don’t pick up! It’s for me! IT’S FOR ME!”
Once the Internet told me to put my iPhone in rice, I was untethered. The phone sat silent in a sealed, rice-filled bag and the toilet water dripped out of the headphone jack, or evaporated into nothing, without any attention from me. While the iPhone was in rice, I became a citizen of childhood again. I rode my bike in circles in the driveway and pondered the cake for my tenth birthday party.
Now, seated at the diner, waiting to be served, I use a pen containing liquid ink to note the following phenomena: teenagers mocking one another, a dropped and unreachable fork, my temptation, (and its squelching) to hand a purse lifesaver to a toddler screaming “This toast is too brown!”
My son and my husband stare at their screens, but my thoughts stretch out like a cat waking up from a nap: I could start a podcast; I could volunteer to register new voters! Get a nose piercing? Maybe.
Catching my face in a mirrored diner wall, I spy with my little eye a girl who never learns. A girl, who, a few hours earlier, stood in the newly renovated powder room and watched, as the iPhone slipped from her fingers, her brain sizzling with the thought that yes, yes, the phone was going to splash into the unflushed toilet.
It’s gone, I thought with a rush of joy. I’m free.
For a second, I watched it bob in the new glossy bowl. Then I reached into the cold water and fished it out.
My earliest memory of Po-Po is her cooking: the thick aroma of beef and bok choy wafting through our old kitchen, and the sight of her tightly permed hair through the steam gathering over the stovetop. After dinner, she would humor me as I tried to teach her English. I never had much success, but I remember her nodding and smiling along as I read my favorite picture books to her.
More recent memories present clearer, more focused images. I remember the thick hong-baos pressed into my hands at every Chinese New Year, and the weekly gifts of jung, with all the veggies I hated replaced by egg and sausage. I remember visiting Po-Po. She lives in the same house where she raised my mom, a white two-story building with a driveway, a basement, a small backyard, and stone steps that lead to the front door. Because I grew up in Manhattan, I remember that house as if it were a monument to some idealized dream of all-American suburbia—even though it’s just across the river from our apartment, and it’s in an Asian, urban community in Queens. Whenever my family visited, after offering us some food, Po-Po would always let me change the channel from her Cantonese soap operas to sports games she never understood.
That was one of our unspoken rituals. On the phone, our conversations were repetitive; we sent and returned the phrase “I love you” with the easy familiarity of a tennis rally. I would talk to her at holidays, and she would interject with “good boy” or “handsome boy” whenever I paused for breath. We never discussed her life. I learned all her important biographical details from secondhand stories: how she grew up in the Toisan region of China, how she became a teacher who was paid in bales of rice, how she fled to the mountains each morning to escape soldiers during the Japanese invasion. How she immigrated to the United States after the Communist Revolution in 1949, and how she raised six children on tomato soup and canned vegetables while Gung-Gung worked at the laundromat, how she sent each of those children to college and watched them achieve the American dream. I only learned that her marriage had been arranged when I was twenty-one.
Conversations about these topics never felt natural, especially when I was younger. Instead, we talked about school or how good her food tasted. In my mind, we always had next time for a proper, translated sit-down.
During the October of my senior year of college, my grandmother began to forget things: locations, recipes, names. She struggled to eat all her food, and she slept for most of the day. Although my family was concerned, we didn’t think there was any imminent risk. We thought these were just symptoms of old age. Even so, we transferred her to a hospital for official reassurance. I Skyped with her several times, planned a trip home to see her the following week. Life seemed to be moving forward. She’d return home soon, and the doctors would keep her healthy in the meantime.
Several days after Po-Po moved to the hospital, I received a phone call from my Dad: “You need to come back to New York. ASAP.”
Wait, what? I thought she was doing well?
“You should see her this weekend, just in case.” Apparently, Po-Po was struggling to move her body or swallow food. She couldn’t keep her eyes open. My parents had planned to wait until I had finished a round of job interviews the next morning before telling me this information, but there was no telling how quickly Po-Po’s body might deteriorate.
The next evening, I boarded a train back to New York with my cousin Katherine. Even though we both attended the same college in Philadelphia, it was the only time we had coordinated to book the same train. Not because we weren’t close—we were. Katherine and I were born a day apart, and for a long time, we were Po-Po’s youngest grandchildren. We shared similar friend groups in high school, and even today, we spend most family holidays chatting together. In college, however, our lives had diverged: different classes, different friends, different interests. Aside from the occasional coffee or dinner, our lives were independent, as if we were just good friends. But when we saw each other at the train station that evening, I think we both understood how lucky we were to have family so nearby.
For most of the train ride, Katherine and I sat across from each other in silence. She tried to do some homework, typing away at the same line of code for an hour. I watched as city skylines turned into flat swamplands, and I waited for them to turn back again.
Po-Po was hospitalized on the Upper West Side—a convenient location for the New Yorkers in the family. Our family had two previous experiences with this hospital, when my grandfather was dying and when my cousin Kimberly gave birth, so my parents reassured me that Po-Po would receive excellent care. I, however, was too young to remember the prior and had happy memories from the latter, so I didn’t know what to expect from a somber hospital visit. When I arrived that evening, instead of trusting in the hospital’s top-notch technology and doctors, my mind latched onto gloomy institutional details: the empty beds being wheeled down monochromatic hallways or the repeated warnings to wash our hands and put on gloves and masks before entering Po-Po’s room.
Katherine and I watched our grandmother breathe. We focused on the folds in her hospital gown: up, down, up, down. Her arms were wrinkled and bruised, with bandages covering spots where she had ripped out IV tubes earlier that day. We each held one of Po-Po’s hands as our aunt from California gave us updates: Po-Po had slept for most of the day. The doctors didn’t know what the source of the problem was, but they were running tests. Tonight, there was nothing we could do. When I arrived home several hours later, Mom told me that, before she had been hospitalized, Po-Po asked if I was coming home to bring her flowers. I responded that we could bring some in the morning. “She probably wouldn’t notice,” Mom said, “but we can try.”
We visited the next day and the day after, murmuring “stay strong” and “I love you.” Even when Po-Po was awake, she didn’t seem to notice too much. Once, Mom told her that “Andrew is visiting all the way from college, Ma, isn’t that nice?” and she moved her head in what we deemed acknowledgment. We cheered, but the blank stare returned when prompted to acknowledge the presence of others (even her son and daughter), and she fell back asleep. I rotated between a chair on her right-hand bedside and a couch in the visitors’ room where I could nap when other family members visited. Eventually, Sunday evening came, and Katherine and I returned to Philadelphia; I had classes. Real life would resume in the morning.
I ignored the first phone call I received that Monday morning. It was 1 a.m., and I was sleep-deprived and half-delirious. I thought it must be a wrong number. Then the second call, from my cousin Mira, Katherine’s older sister.
“Andrew, call your parents. They need to get to the hospital now—no one’s picking up their phones; they must be sleeping, but Po-Po is dying.”
The next half-hour was a blur of ringing phones, my parents’ familiar voicemails, crumpled tissues blotted with tears. Eventually, my uncle drove to my parents’ apartment and called me from the lobby. In a jumbled stutter, I explained to my doorman that the angry man who had passed him the phone and was shouting at him was indeed family, and that he needed the spare keys to the apartment, now. They went upstairs, woke my parents up, and ten minutes later, my mom texted me that they were en route to the hospital.
Despite the urgency, having a goal had been reassuring: things would be okay if I could wake my parents. For thirty minutes, I had something to do, and therefore, some control. After my parents were awake and everyone local had arrived at the hospital, all I could do, once again, was wait.
I didn’t want to spend the night alone, so I walked across campus to Katherine’s house. We Skyped our parents, and they raised their phones to Po-Po’s better ear so we could tell her that we loved her so much, that we’d be back home soon, that she needed to see us graduate. Whenever one of us began to cry, the other would hold the phone away so Po-Po couldn’t hear. Family called in from California, Hawaii, and Hong Kong to encourage Po-Po to keep breathing. At one point, Mira told Po-Po that she needed to stay strong so that she could see all her grandchildren get married. Throughout the night, a ring of people surrounded her, their gloved hands reaching out to hold on.
Around 5 a.m., her heartbeat began to stabilize. It was soft, but consistent. A miracle, they said. It must have been all the positive energy. The adults allowed themselves to go to the bathroom or sit down, and they told us to sleep. I walked back to my house through a thin mist caused by overnight rain. I’ve never seen Philadelphia so quiet.
The doctors told us that Po-Po was dying two more times before they deemed emergency care unnecessary, although we never discovered the name of whatever disease had caused her so much pain. Since then, recovery has been a slow process. She spent two months in the hospital and four months in a rehab center before returning home. Home looks different now, too. My parents and uncle renovated it to be wheelchair accessible: the familiar carpeting has been replaced by smooth wood paneling, and there are metal handlebars in every bathroom. Meanwhile, Po-Po has had to relearn how to move, eat, write, and talk, and she now requires a live-in nurse to care for her. She might never cook or bow with me in front of Gung-Gung’s portrait again. And I don’t know if we’ll ever have that sit-down I imagined.
I wish there were more time. But we’re living moment to moment, and it’s working. We celebrated Christmas in the hospital, and she laughed at the cartoon deer on my Christmas sweater. When she was in rehab, I watched her relearn how to walk. She stepped forward, clutching her walker, and I pushed a wheelchair two steps behind her in case she needed support. Our steps fell in sync, and even when I offered her a chance to rest, she kept moving forward. She’s even been asking me questions about my future; I think she’s excited for my graduation.
Several days before she was released from the rehab center, our family celebrated Po-Po’s ninetieth birthday at my uncle’s apartment. Four generations of family were present, including people I had never even met before. On one table in the main dining room, we had placed gold balloons and framed pictures of Po-Po: in her youth, with her grandchildren, on vacation. On the table adjacent was a feast of food, most of which Po-Po can no longer eat: four cakes, her favorite noodles, fried rice, and a roasted baby pig that one of my cousins had topped with a party hat. Throughout the evening, my family swarmed the guest of honor. When she first arrived, the family surrounded her in on both sides, forming lines to pat her back or hold her hand that served as a parade route to the center of the dinner table. We took photos with Po-Po in every possible combination, with flashes popping from the parents’ bulky SLRs, our pastor’s handheld camcorder, and each of the grandchildren’s cellphones. At one point, to break up the monotony, Po-Po motioned for us to place the baby pig in front of her as a new centerpiece for the doting paparazzi. As the night progressed, we slowly eased our way back into a sense of normalcy, and for the first time in months, our conversations drifted away from present concerns.
My aunt had brought several photo albums over from the house in Queens, and during one break in the evening, I discovered photos I’d never seen before. I saw my aunts holding mini boomboxes as teenagers, my uncles eating ice cream in the park nearby Po-Po’s, Mom laughing as a baby. In one photo, Po-Po is standing in an elegant black dress on a rock in Central Park, her arms tight around her youngest children. Her gaze looks straight through the photo, and the moment freezes just as she begins to smile.
I visited Po-Po the next day, and I told her how good she looked in the photo. Before translating my words, Mom told me that Po-Po had loved to dress up and take her kids on adventures after church on Sundays. She retold the story in Cantonese, and Po-Po nodded, and said “I love you,” and smiled. Po-Po’s smile reminds me of her age: she keeps her mouth open, and she curls her lips loosely around her teeth, and for a moment, her eyes will go blank as if she’s remembering something from her life before me. But that afternoon, as I squeezed her hand, she looked exactly as she must have on that Sunday afternoon, just before the camera shutter clicked and her kids ran off into the fields.
Author’s Note: Some names have been changed by the author to protect identities.
Andrew Chang recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he fell in love with Philadelphia. He enjoys writing about family and travel, and he is an avid sports fan. Originally a proud New York City native, Andrew currently resides in Washington, DC.
I wonder at the little dead lady on my carpet. I found her as I was picking up tissues from the floor of my bedroom, underneath the bed, lying on her back like a lentil. I had an urge to put her in my mouth, but then I remembered that she must be the same one that was crawling around my room in September. I had identified with the little lady, indecisively flitting around the room, landing on the white plastic blinds, walking along there for a while until she came to what she thought was the end of the earth, and beyond that the buttery yellow fabric of my curtains: heaven, for a bug.
Ladybugs are a godsend—they were given to the poor peasants of Europe in the Middle Ages who prayed to the Virgin Mary to save their crops from a tiny, voracious pestilence. It is true that occasionally her leg joints sweat blood, and poisonous chemicals make up nearly a quarter of her weight. Yet, to humans, a lady is adorable. It is something about her coloring, and the perfect polka dots. She is made into plush toys and children’s backpacks. She brings good luck. Ladies titter: Can you imagine a child with a stuffed animal spider? Or a fruit fly? Ladies cover their voracious mouths with their segmented feet when they laugh. She is so inoffensive (silent, beneficial), she’s not really an insect at all. In Romania they call her the pope’s ox; in Lithuania she is God’s little cow; in England she is ladybird; in America she has been stripped right down to bug.
Ladies are carnivores. Protruding from the front of their heads are two enormous teeth, the mandibles, which cut and chew. Around their mouths are small fingers that grab at the chewed food and coax it into their mouths. Ladies can eat about fifty aphids a day. They are ravenous from the beginning. When they hatch out of their eggs they are orange and black blobs, spiny and gross. Without spots, the bulbous little things are directionless eating machines. Infant ladies will even eat their sisters for the sake of growing, one day, into big, strong, spotted beetles.
Ladies mate in a fashion that is deemed “highly promiscuous.” Out among the lush pines, they will procreate, the female lady holding onto the sperm of several different male ladies at once, mating ten times more than what is scientifically necessary to ensure offspring survival. Many paragraphs in entomological encyclopedias are devoted to musing on the duration of the ladybug’s lovemaking: it can last up to two hours per couple, much, much too indulgent for a pretty worker bug, the pale entomologists say. Ladies even contract STDs, which further validates the scientists’ righteousness. Cluck, cluck, cluck, the self-satisfied tut. If she would just keep her skirt down, her many legs crossed, she wouldn’t have done herself in.
There are over five thousand kinds of ladies. Some have seven spots, some nine or even twenty, and some are spotless. It was the nine-spotted lady that New York state decided to name their state insect in 1989. Several years later, she was declared gone, departed from the state. When scientists failed to find any living nine-spotted ladies, they hesitated; they feared she had gone extinct. Their theory was that either the invasion of the seven-spotted clan, brought from Europe to the states in the 1950s to gorge on aphids, or the introduction of the Asian lady beetle, released in droves in the ’80s by the US government in order to save the crops (organically! pesticide-weary politicians sputtered) and save the people, had out-eaten the native nine-spotters. Human folly, the classic blundering of bureaucracies, had perhaps killed her. In embarrassment, a bill was proposed to change the state insect. How about a nice pink-spotted ladybug instead? The bill failed. Five years later, in July, a nine-spotted lady was captured (phew) on a farm in Long Island, escaping the hot summer sun among the leafy carrot plants. (She also enjoyed zinnias.) New York abandoned plans to change their state insect, now that there was at least one still living. What luck.
The words “Lucky You” are written on the inside of my crotch zipper, plain for all to see—all, which is just me, the only person I let unzip my Lucky brand jeans these days. “Lucky you,” I will say, as I look out of the bathroom window at the parking lot and the factory that wails four times a day. Why does it wail and for whom? Truthfully, I was charmed by my solitary lady, the one I found in my house. She was checking out my room as if to see where I keep my makeup, my underwear, other practical things. Alone, she was harmless. Alone, she was like me: wandering, waiting, not getting in anyone’s way.
Last winter, Grandma got lost in the house. She came wandering into the room where I had been napping. She was looking for the bathroom and couldn’t find her own bedroom or the bathroom, even though that’s where I had left her half an hour before. So, I showed her to the bathroom and tried not to doze off, thinking to catch her when she came out and walk her back to the room where she was staying. After a while I couldn’t hear anything. I knocked on the door; no answer. She wasn’t inside, must have gone out the bathroom’s other door. I walked around the house, calling for her. Could she have wandered into the street? The pool in the backyard could look like solid ground to a grandma. I walked through the living room, the kitchen, out into the garage house, peered into Grandma’s room and came back, calling her name, a bit louder each time. I found her, finally, sitting on my cousin’s bed with her feet in their sheer black nylons propped up on the bed. She hadn’t heard my voice, but finding herself lost, she had decided to rest there until someone came for her. “I thought you would find me,” she said when I asked what had happened.
I walked her back through the living room. “What are the black things on the floor?” she asked. I told her they were part of the wood. “I thought they might be cat droppings,” she said, stepping around each spot carefully. In the kitchen, she said, “Oh yes, I’ve been here before.” Her eyes were bright green and milky. Walking out of the house and into the garage house, she said, “Now, this is new, we haven’t been here,” though that is where she had been before she wandered off. I showed her back to her room. “Oh, this is lovely, I didn’t know this was here.”
In the Midwest, where I live now, ladies flounce into homes, walk right between the cracks in doors. They come as families, parties, coworkers, friends and set about finding a good temperature for sleep. “Aw,” humans say when they see one or two ladies marching in like saints. “You can stay a while. My home is your home.” Ladies will check out the bathtub, admire the porcelain in an old cupboard. They love a good photograph and picture frames are even better, so sleek and straight, like a good pine. They wander; their heads are too little to get the full map of the house, so each time they walk up and down and up and down the legs of the desk, it is new and wonderful once more.
But as soon as there’s a crowd of ladies, numbers above five or six, they become pests. I have heard of this happening, have seen evidence of it online. The main damage is discomfort, says one website, describing a family that found swarms of ladies congregating in their attic. Together, they are threatening. Togetherness accentuates their many crawling legs, their segmented heads, and if they get a chance to crawl on your arm hairs, they’ll give you chills.
When ladies march indoors, it’s the vacuum for them or the balled-up paper towel that, when it brushes them, makes the ladies bleed reflexively. Not red blood, but a toxic orange that leaves stains on walls. And oh, the stink of it, when they bleed: like nuts, green pepper, potato and mold. The lady has irreversibly—maliciously, some might say—marked her presence in a space not made for her kind, no matter that the bleeding is natural, no fault of her own. “You need to leave now,” humans will say. “You’ve really gone too far.” Once there is an element of disgust, everything else is easier. Take away their personable noms de plume, their cute polka-dotted coveralls, and it’s easier to close the door in their faces.
Once ladies have reached young adulthood, they enter a torpor so deep they appear dead. They are scheduled to awake come spring and unfurl their ingenious wings to test their complicated origami. Up in the mountains, ladies hibernate in colonies, piled on top of each other by the tens of thousands for warmth. They are in their imaginal stage, young adults sleeping for months, perhaps dreaming, outer casings more orange than red, bodies tender.
Every year in California, hordes of ladies—the two-spotted, the seven-spotted, the eleven-, thirteen-, and fourteen-spotted, the Australian, the Asian, the transverse, the twice-stabbed—are captured in their sleep. Gloved hands collect the still-snoozing ladies, shovel them into buckets and bags, some still clinging to pine needles like security blankets or eerie, elongated teddy bears. A ladybug poacher can earn one or two thousand dollars for a day’s work, selling the ladies to organic pest control companies who will divide the colony further into individual Tupperware with tiny holes on top and instructions for refrigeration. Torpor can be extended two to three months by keeping them in the fridge, next to the cheese, spraying them with water to keep them hydrated through the long, fake winter.
On Amazon, you can buy 1,500 ladybugs in a mesh pouch for $7.50, and an organic pest control website sells them by the gallon, about 70,000 ladybugs at a deal of $150.00, or by the quart, for $43.00. They come in their drowsy imaginal stage and when warmed to outdoor spring temps will mate and lay like good citizens, their tubular larvae children consuming and consuming like the good Lord taught them.
Every year, a class of Minnesotan third graders is given bags of captured ladybugs to release in the Mall of America, for Earth Day. Seventy-five thousand ladybugs crawl over the leaves and hair and hands of plants and children. The kiddos shudder and squirm, whimpering like the toddlers they used to be. Cameramen follow them, asking questions. The kids flick their eyes from side to side, Can I say they’re gross? they think. One girl has a bit of a spasm, trying to get her last ladybug out of a plastic pail with a little shovel, shaking her hand too vigorously, barely managing to hold back a moan. Another boy shakes his gloved, lady-covered hand as if it is no longer part of his body, trying to rid himself of the final few ladies. In the background of the announcer’s jaunty report—They’re organic! Saving the plants from pests! Saving the shoppers! Saving capitalism!—kids are squealing.
On the coast of England in 1976, ladies made themselves into a plague. There were millions of them, and they descended like locusts. They crawled into open mouths; they piled themselves four ladies deep onto the sides of barns. In the swimming pools, during that hot seaside summer, ladies lay an inch thick between the abandoned floaties and pool noodles. Hungry, and drawn to the sweat of people, they attacked, latching onto skirts and braids and then nibbling when they reached flesh. (They lost interest, once they tasted our sour skin.) Perhaps it was the heat or the drought, or perhaps it was the excess grain grown that year. Whatever the reason, ladies dominated and people fled, abandoning their vacations early, zooming out of town with the kids in the back seat mourning the ice cream cones they couldn’t eat because the ladies beat them to it, slipping and slurping with glee.
I have seen pictures of these swarms and felt my skin crawl. Even the poaching of them makes my stomach queasy. Though I love little ladies when they crawl alone, or smack distractedly into my bare shoulders in the summer months, ladies in crowds are suddenly not so pretty, not so human when they are gathered like this, like vermin, all individuality lost. I, too, am disgusted.
“Ew, so gross!” read the message some awful girl in high school sent to me years ago, and a link to a video, which I clicked. It was footage from the redhead convention in the Netherlands, where thousands of red-headed people, mostly women (ladies like to group), gathered for the sake of being a sight to see. A revulsion at myself, at the swarming crowd of women with flames on their heads, grew inside me. I did not like to see myself represented en masse. Gathered like that, the women were exaggerations of me, Ginger upon Ginger upon Ginger. We were making a spectacle of ourselves. Shh shh shut up.
“Haha,” I sent back. Did the awful girl want me to laugh? I wondered what part of this was funny. I watched the ladies in the video laughing with each other, holding their hands up and yelling. Why do they wail, and for whom?
What is a lady? A lady is a person who eats other ladies in order to grow; frightening (powerful) when she is with her kind; a bug whose power is only in her head; a pest programmed to group, to make walls around her people, to divide among her own kind (the two-spotted, the seven-spotted, the eleven-, thirteen-, and fourteen-spotted, the Australian, the Asian, the transverse, the twice-stabbed). I’ll bet you never knew that ladies are cannibals. I’ll bet their prettiness distracted you.
I know the little lady on my carpet crawled in as soon as she felt the chill coming, to save her skin. She had led a life of consumption, of swarming and grabbing what warmth she could get when the wind picked up. This lady escaped the swarm, and I admire her for it. Perhaps she did not want to be with sisters who might eat her, or perhaps she did not look the part. Perhaps she saw through. I let her stay on my carpet, belly up, for a few days. Then when I was cleaning, I scooped her into the trash with the tissues. A dead lady is no use to me. It was only later, in a moment of clarity, that I realized I had no way of knowing if she really was dead. She could have just been sleeping, frozen in her torpor state, bound by biology to stay. I checked the chat groups online, and they all said to wait, be patient, she may yet awake and fly off.
I have taken her out of the trash. We’ll see, I suppose; I’m still waiting. If she does wake up, when the warm weather comes, I know what she’ll do. I know her like I know myself. Ladies have agendas of their own. You can try to put her to work in your garden. You can try to make her stay, spray her with Coca-Cola and water to glue her wings shut so she cannot fly to another garden, only walk down the green stems eating critters on the way. She will be tethered for a little while, just until the sugar melts and she’s eaten a few aphids, enough to get her blood flowing and wings stretching and then (oh, then), she will split apart her back, unfold those too-big wings, and go.
Virginia Marshall is a writer and radio producer. Her work can be read and/or heard in The Harvard Review, Atlas Obscura, The Millions, Brevity, and on WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station.
Maxwell transferred from Merkel Prep to Geisel High and his first quiz was impossible: “If Ms. Bedelia has five eggs but then cooks one, how many elephants can the circle square?”
How am I supposed to know that? Maxwell thought. He didn’t go to Escher Middle School or the Dalí Institute like the rest of them. He hadn’t learned underivatives or nonce poetry or taken any anti-rhetoric! Frustrated, Maxwell scrawled “Why don’t marshmallows have bones?!” for the first question, and for all the rest he drew faces with tongues sticking out.
The next day Mr. Carroll handed back work. Maxwell didn’t turn over his quiz immediately—he was sure he’d failed, just like he’d failed to synthesize flubber and polywater in his alchemy class.
But eventually, curiosity got the best of him. He flipped the paper and lo and behold! There was an infinity symbol at the top of his quiz, and below it, “Your work is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!”
A torus-shaped lightbulb went off above Maxwell’s head. Well… maybe he’d learn to fit in after all.
Jeff H. is a high school English teacher. His short fiction has been published in The Drabble, Eunoia Review, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. He runs Batch & Narrative with his wife, a dietitian. They write about cooking, writing, and everything else.
MY HUSBAND IS ALWAYS LOSING THINGS
by Michelle Ross
While my husband frantically searches the house for his misplaced eyeglasses, I watch Marie Kondo fold socks, then stockings, then a sweater into neat little rectangles. They look like origami handbags. In her signature white jacket, the Japanese tidying expert instructs viewers to stroke each garment. She says, “Send the clothing love through your palms.” She runs her hands gently down both the sleeves and the body of a fluffy, white sweater, and my skin tingles.
My husband passes through the living room for the fifth time this search. He says, “You sure you didn’t move them?”
Sometimes he’ll point to an empty spot on a counter and say, “I know I left it right there.” “Then why isn’t it there?” I’ll say. Sometimes he’ll say, “Because you moved it.” Other times, “Because you took it.” Then I’ll say, “Why do you think I took it?” He never has an answer for that.
Once I said, “Then come take it back.” I was standing in the doorway to his home office in a dress I hadn’t worn in years, a dress I’d decided to make myself wear, even if only to lounge about the house, because I had read that it’s a mistake to save our favorite clothing for special occasions that never arrive. I imagined him frisking me for the lost object, like a TSA agent searching for contraband. But my husband didn’t look up, kept shuffling around papers, emptying out boxes.
I used to find his tendency to lose things amusing; then I found it irritating; now it mostly makes me sad. Like when he lost the rack of lamb I asked him to pick up from the butcher, and I found the five pounds of muscle and bone sweating on the floorboard of the passenger side of the car. He couldn’t blame me for that one. After putting the lamb in a plastic trash bag and dropping it into the garbage, he said, “Don’t look at me like that. It was an accident. You want me to go out and pick up another?” “No,” I said. I’d lost my appetite.
To get your house in order, the first thing to do is to discard, Kondo says. Take every object into your hands and ask, “Does this spark joy?”
I stiffen at these words. It’s a harsh test, isn’t it? Joy isn’t the only measure of value.
Take wood chips, for example. For years, they’ve accumulated on the floor of our garage at the rate of dog hair. But when my husband sprinkled them over the puddle of oil that leaked from the car, and they soaked up the mess, left no stain, I was half-grateful he’d not cleaned the garage in twenty years.
Kondo says that this is why stroking and folding clothing is important. It isn’t only a matter of caring for your things. Touch allows you to assess how you truly feel about each item.
I call out to my husband, “They’re not already on your face?” I am not joking. He has ransacked the house for objects that were already on his person—in his pocket, around his neck, in his hand.
Kondo demonstrates with two sweaters. She caresses the first sweater, smiles, places it down beside her. She caresses the second sweater, and the cool look on her face says the item does not pass inspection. I think of the scoliosis screenings at school when I was a kid, how every time a PE teacher told me to bend at the waist so she could scrutinize my spine, I tensed up, certain the test would reveal some defection.
Kondo doesn’t offer a word about why the second sweater doesn’t pass the test. She says to listen to your intuition when deciding what to discard. Rationalization deceives. You rationalize that discarding an object is wasteful or that you might need it again someday. Of the second sweater, she says, “I want to thank this for keeping me warm, but now it’s time to let it go.” She places the sweater apart from the sweater she’s keeping. She smiles again, her expression serene.
After discarding, the next step is to assign a home to each object you keep. Value what cannot be seen on the outside, Kondo says, meaning the insides of closets, cabinets and drawers. What is hidden from public view is all the more sacred.
I think about how my friend Sara worried when her doctor scheduled her for an MRI to diagnose the source of her back pain. Not just because of the invasiveness of the procedure or concern for what the doctor might find. Sara worried there might be metal inside her that she didn’t know about. “How can I be sure there isn’t?” she said. What could I possibly say to assure her? The body is an unopened drawer.
Except when it is opened, by surgeons, and you are out cold as they root around inside you. Or when MRI technicians or X-ray technicians or TSA agents scan your insides—yet another piece of luggage.
Sometimes I wish I could see inside my husband. Peel back the skin and muscle, cut through the bone. Reveal the hidden spaces. Only the clutter might be worse than I imagine. I fear what I might find there, or not find. Would I be able to locate myself at all?
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared in New World Writing, Passages North, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor for Atticus Review. www.michellenross.com
Everyman Gazes into the Future. Rovinj, Croatia 2017
MINDSCAPES Photographs by Denise Gallagher
I consider myself a painter who photographs. I had given up on painting about ten years ago since I didn’t feel I could authentically express what was mine to express. Then, about eight years ago, I fell into photographing what I came to call my “magical landscapes.” These images came almost effortlessly and opened up worlds I never imagined. I credit this experience with giving me the courage to explore the real world. During the last five years, I have traveled around the world twice for extended periods of time. I tend to perceive now that most every landscape has the potential to be a magical landscape, given the right lighting and composition.
When I travel, I love to simply wander, to experience a place with no agenda, simply to be available to receive the beauty of the moment. It is an open and receptive state and, in a way, capturing the image is just part of the process of relaxing and seeing 180 degrees. I’ve heard there are books on the zen of photography. I would say I fell into it naturally.
I’m from Philadelphia but I currently live in Fairfield, Iowa. When I return to Iowa after traveling, I create “Ritual Art Events” which I show at our local art gallery. At these evenings, I interweave short films I have created with my images, using transitions and movement (à la Ken Burns), spoken word, and soundscapes. One of my latest films combines the real with the imaginary magical landscapes. Having the imagery projected large, merging with other images and set to music, feels closest to what I consider my authentic voice.
[ click any image to enlarge ]
Magical Morning in Val D’Orcia. Tuscany, Italy 2016
Walking In the Shire Near Bishop’s Castle. Shropshire, England 2017
Fall Magic Near Lake Pukaki. Canterbury, New Zealand 2013
Morning Comes Over Me. Glass House Mountains, Australia 2017
Solitary Woman. Lembongan, Bali 2017
Lightly Tethered in Lembongan. Lembongan, Bali 2017
Arabian Sunset. My Kitchen, Fairfield, Iowa 2015
Holding the Fallen Angel. My Kitchen, Fairfield, Iowa 2017
You Never Can Tell. My Kitchen, Fairfield, Iowa 2014
Denise Gallagher is a photographer/painter, occupational therapist, and world traveler, currently living in Fairfield, Iowa. She has exhibited her paintings and photography extensively in one-woman and group shows, and has produced ritual art events at ICON Contemporary Art Gallery in Fairfield and also, on a smaller scale, as she travels. She believes her therapy work and art work are intimately connected, one informing the other. Denise received a BS in Art Ed from Temple in 1979, including a year at Tyler Rome, and went on to receive an OT degree from Jefferson College of Allied Health in 1986. Denise has traveled around the world twice during the last five years, photographing daily. This past year she did volunteer work with Syrian refugees in Greece and taught Tai Chi in Bali. Visit her website at www.denise-healer-artist.com
A police siren echoes through the valley as a yellow bird I’ve never seen before glides into view from behind the mountaintops. The bird makes a sharp outline against the blue sky as it floats downward in loose, lazy zig-zags, almost too close to the treeline. A wing catches on a branch, causing it to lose balance, and the bird falls beak-first toward the fertile soil with a startled cheep, tumbling round and round and round. But it wasn’t so much a valley as it was a cement retaining wall, and the yellow bird was really more of an off-white ford explorer with my brother in the driver’s seat, his veins made of Jack Daniels. His head was like the smattering of red wildflowers on the hillside, or the rusty clay deposit down at the bottom of the valley near the meandering river. The river whooshes and gurgles and a fox runs through it, barely wetting its fur, although if I’m being honest, the river-sounds are what my brother’s slick throat made and the fox was a little like his girlfriend—she grabbed the the baggy and the gun from the glove compartment and climbed over his body to the only working door. She turned to look at me sitting there in the back with my seatbelt still on. Her eyes were desperate, and wet. So I guess she was also like the river. But I was the white oak tree way up at the top of the ridge, ants tickling my trunk and my throat, my great roots buried deep into the earth waiting to suck up all the water from the coming storm. A siren echoes through the valley and over the river; a siren passes between my green green leaves.
Samuel Lieb is an undergraduate student of Hispanic Studies and Environmental Studies at Brandeis University. He was raised in Omaha, Nebraska and feels that conscientious small-scale farming is the way to a more sustainable future. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in Unbroken Journal and Cleaver Magazine.
QUESTIONS OF CURRENT ATMOSPHERE by Caroline J. Davidson
………………………“But we have not yet reached the fervor of dark eyes and our setting is blue.” …………………………………………………………………………………—H.D.
Then it’s three years since—since displacement ……………………then it’s flesh on ………..foil and planks spilling out oilcloth remnants—then we are formless, ………..but choosing berries wisely on the dirt strand watching a man carve nipples out of ………..cypress—watching him swell—
The Venus of Willendorf passed through here ………..two years ago on a whim before she was buttoned up ………..at the belly and said well it has always been today we are always ………..getting older under suspension bridges, doomed ………………….cities, and fish grow at a rate ………..that increases with time always you say to me as we now sit ………..on the lowest cathedral step choking down wine pushing threads through ………..our wrists in attempts to resolve various meanings of clean, ………..as seen through fogged boundaries—
I don’t even like the meaning ………..of you gagging on warped glass— just the sound in the mouth— just the sound in the mouth might ………..fashion something to see out of later Says: ………..………..the Tunisian man and his impossible want for us Says: the father’s negative silence Says: a misread tympanum on the unnamed church Says: the sitar snapping its strings as it is hurled ………..………….into the ………..………....Adriatic.
Caroline J. Davidson is a poet and musician from Columbus, Ohio. She received an MFA in poetry from the University of Colorado in Boulder, and her poems have appeared in places like Sixth Finch, Coconut, and DREGINALD. She currently writes, works, and makes gypsy/gothy/synthy tunes in Brooklyn, New York.
Holy men pitched tents
on my grandmother’s farm land.
They trickled into 1975 fed by
an ancient spring, while everyone else
drove downtown in Ventura Coupes;
sat in dark theatres terrified by Jaws.
While everyone else worried about war
and inflation, the holy men contrived
how to live in perpetual wonderment.
Like the land, the holy men sat
and experienced what air would know
with language. They peeled the outer layer
off the world. Moving in a circular direction,
they stripped the skin from everything
around them in long spirals, like they wanted
to eat an apple but knew only habit.
In the woods, I found an old harrow.
That—I could look at and know
its purpose was to pulverize
and cultivate soil. “Don’t disturb
what rests” the holy man said to me
as I dug out the agrarian dinosaur
from a hundred years of decayed leaves.
I felt the roughness of rust on my
childish hands and imagined how
those diamond-sharp teeth once preyed
in these yawning, dried-up fields.
Alexis Petri recently returned to writing poetry. She has a master’s degree in English and a doctorate in educational foundations. For the past twenty years, she has been kicking down the doors of academia to better serve post-traditional students. She has helped preschool teachers earn degrees in early childhood, military veterans earn degrees in stem fields, as well as tailoring supports for college students with learning disabilities. Her poetry and photography have most recently appeared in Cagibi, Midwest Review, Marathon Literary Review, The Same, and Ellipsis… literature & art.
GIANT POSSUM DRAWS CROWD IN NICETOWN by Khaleel Gheba
From the west, a swell arrives
with pomp, its wet regalia slaps
my windowpane. I want to die
so very much tonight. Not for
want of love or peace, but
for a slow tone’s constancy
in my ear. For uneasy light off
scuffed metal. For insecure
shelving’s squeak. For no one
can make a left without effort.
For that sphere of hot pain
in my wrist, behind tendons
like cell bars, like cello strings.
A beleaguerment by moments
as constant as rain, as standard
as a thing of the woods arriving
without invite. Everyone gawks
at its size. “How can this even be?”
Khaleel Gheba received his MFA in Poetry from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2014. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Redivider, Bayou Magazine, the Bellingham Review, Split Lip, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Maryland, where he works as a public librarian.
BOYFRIENDS FOR MASOCHISTS OR, DON’T DATE A POET UNLESS YOU’RE SEEKING KARMIC LESSONS by Beth Bilderback
Named after a 19th century British novelist by his professor father he was a boy I’d never noticed until we were grown and his mother told me he was far from home in his first real job and lonely I should write she said and so our seduction began with letters by two people who knew how to write them then emails then phone calls where he’d hold the phone up to Louis Armstrong playing on the Victrola he’d bought instead of paying rent and tell me he loved my voice he could listen to me read an arrest warrant talk to me he’d say huskily so I stumbled hard into the cotton candy web of his attention then once he came home for the holidays it was clear I didn’t live up to his high school fantasies what happened to you were his exact words but he slept with me anyway broke my heart and borrowed money then published a poem in which I’m jumping turnstiles and have bourbon hair and cherry toes cherry toes being a phrase he stole from me just as he stole my soul like the shy islanders who think cameras steal their souls click poof those poor trusting sons of bitches left as ransacked as I was left with nothing but my empty cactus heart.
Beth Bilderback’s flash essays have been included in KYSO Flash, the Rappahannock Review, and Lascaux Review. She lives in a house with a porch swing in Norfolk, VA.
First inning. The summer had been hot, so goddamn hot, and of course, Bill’s air conditioner had kicked out last night, and wouldn’t you know it, his landlord was on vacation, so he had slept—or rolled around, really—in a river of his own sweat. The restless night had cost him sixty-one minutes—a negative seventy-one for the three hours of sleep and a plus ten for the sweaty rolling—but, honestly though, he wouldn’t have minded if the life watch strapped to his wrist on his burnt arm had said something like five minutes because here he was in the stadium, in the sun, with his bald spot sizzling like a fajita, his back on fire from the heavy red bag of peanuts slung across his shoulder, his throat burning from chanting into the humid air, “Get your peanuts, here! Large bag of peanuts!”
Second inning. He wasn’t sure he’d make it through the game. The stadium was packed, five-thousand strong, to see Rodriguez in his rehab assignment in an otherwise meaningless Double-A game. To make matters worse, Bill had requested the second-tier section where a couple of his old-timer buddies sat, but his boss had assigned him to the premium seats, and the front-row snobs were out in full force: tanned, Rolex-wearing executive bros; petite wives with floppy hats and handheld spray fans; pale, scrawny children with well-manicured hands. If he had an ounce of self-respect, he’d take the EpiPen that he carried in case of a peanut emergency and use the skills he learned in training to stab himself in the heart, but instead he simply fantasized about a foul ball knocking him right in the temple and tossed a bag of Planters to some slick-haired guy in the third row, shouting “Hey Peanut Man, hey Peanut Man” while wildly waving his arms as if he were on a lifeboat trying to flag down the search party.
Third inning. Twenty-two years, four months, six days, ten hours, six minutes and twenty-two seconds left. His life watch estimated that he had lost almost a day: a plus forty-eight minutes for walking up and down the rows, but a minus twenty-three hours for sun exposure, a touch of dehydration, and elevated blood pressure from dealing with these bastards in the crowd.
Fourth inning. His arm, exposed, throbbed in the sun. It had been two months since Cecelia had poured the spaghetti in scalding water on his arm as he napped on the couch. His arm had not healed, and due to neglect, his forearm was now splotchy and blistered and swollen and moist, and when he stared at the baby-pink flesh, as he was doing right then, it was as if he were burning in an underworld, destined to deliver shelled peanuts to thousands of red-faced Beelzebubs, and he took pleasure in this image because he deserved to suffer, he deserved to burn, Cecelia was right, he was a weak man, succumbing to Alyssa’s heels and wit, and if his nineteen-year-old son, Kevin, never spoke to him again, well, he couldn’t blame him.
Fifth inning. He took a break and scarfed down a soda and a hot dog and a pretzel. He felt much better and thought maybe things really weren’t that bad, but then he looked down at his watch and saw that he had lost fifteen minutes due to “Poor Dietary Consumption.”
Sixth inning. The sun, improbably, had gotten stronger, casting the stadium in an orange hue, and Bill’s sodium consumption had left him even more dehydrated, which made him think of tortoises sipping fresh water, which inevitably led him to think of Jonathan, a one hundred and eighty-four year old tortoise that he had discovered on Wikipedia last week, the oldest living terrestrial animal, who had roamed the earth since 1832, who was already thirty-three when Lincoln was assassinated, who, if it had existed back then, could have sported a watch with an estimated lifespan defying human conception.
Seventh inning. The grounds crew was dragging the infield again as the crowd sang along to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Bill watched them sweep the reddish dirt with push brooms and drags and rakes. Did you know that graves are recycled after one hundred years? Bill’s father had been dead for forty-two years; he was almost halfway to being repurposed.
Eighth inning. Bill stopped selling peanuts. The air was thick as concrete, the glow in the stadium, now a burnt sienna, left him with a pounding behind the eyes, and there were just too many faces, too many calls for Peanut Man, so he found an empty seat, put his bag on his lap, chugged a discarded, half-empty bottle of water that he found rolling across the aisle, opened a bag of peanuts and started munching, but he found that he could not relax, and prayed that his boss would not see him, and thought that maybe if he had set a better example, Kevin would be somewhere other than pressure washing rail cars on the night shift.
Ninth inning. Last licks. Twenty-two years, three months, fifteen days, eight hours, five minutes and twenty-seven seconds. The home team was down two, with two men on, two men out, and Rodriguez was up and everyone was hysterical, standing and shouting into the sun and stomping their feet, and Rodriguez swung and a sharp crack cut through the shouts, and everyone held their breath, and Bill, who had to have been the only person sitting in the stadium, stood up and craned his neck to see the ball travel over the centerfield wall, and the stadium let out a collective, primal scream, and Bill threw his opened bag of peanuts into the air, and unbeknownst to Bill, one particular peanut flew three rows back and landed in the mouth of a young, cheering boy, who happened to have a severe peanut allergy, which led the boy’s father, who had left his EpiPen in the car, to cry for help, a cry that cut through the screams, and Bill turned around and saw the boy’s cartoonish, swollen face, and his training kicked in and he grabbed the EpiPen with the children’s dosage from his bag’s side pocket and jostled through the people staring at the boy, who was hunched over, his face now a deep red, and Bill removed the blue safety cap and firmly pointed the orange tip downward and pushed the tip into the boy’s thigh and looked into his pleading, squinting green eyes, which looked remarkably similar to Kevin’s, and the boy would be alright, the boy would be alright. Thank the Lord.
Michael Riess lives in Washington D.C. with his wife, Jen, and his daughter, Madeline. He works as an attorney and has recently started writing short fiction. His work has appeared in Typehouse Literary Magazine.
THE FEMMINIELLO Giuseppe Bonito, 1740/60 by Joy Belonger
His smile is a Spanish quarter, lopsides us down Campania street inclines, dodging grime bullets. Cerussite silk plunges down to nothing; our stems swing steps in atomic tangerine to highlight a something which nonne wag their fingers at from melon stands, flag shops. We storm the cafes, throw up our hands. È la fine del mondo! Cue laughtrack.
Who wouldn’t be chuffed by this look? The bonnet folds with his recession line. Never mind his coat tells a fortune in a lake, the Galli pole dancing on laurel cherries, sunning their hair to a tambourine. Eunuchs • were • the first • third • gender • here. Each coral pearl being measured is a “Day of Blood.” One the Irpinia sun. Another a flagellation drop.
Are we there? Maybe.
Cite Newton for that clown sleeve cover, a matter of Opticks and edible pigment. Prussian blue brings a broader palette, but Bonito bent over for complements. I can’t believe Portland’s popping a goiter for this binch. What’s an antonym for opposites? they ask, guess. Erasure or anything-you-can-get.
Joy Belonger is a queer transfeminine writer, educator, and printmaker from Chicago, IL. They currently live in Iowa City, where they are a poetry MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Previous work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Storyscape, The Cardiff Review, and elsewhere. Follow them on twitter @JoebyElonger
Scrapped leaves, the orange the gold the crimson,
scratch along, clump, stop. Crumble. Rot.
Blow off where it all blows. Aaannd are gone.
Goes, too, the wide green tight green ends in,
frou-frou for debleaking (Ablur? Ablur)
stark stonescapes that never otherhow were.
Boughs, stripped (check); ground, scraped (check); skies, lowdowned
and spilt-milk scrimmed (check, check). Sight skimmed.
On view, brushstroked in rust/bone/ash/coal
and signed “November, the Realist”: Behold
your merest is, minus your not.
(Baits?) Yeah. (Taken?) Yup: nothing-worse winter,
spring ah-worth-it-all, why-worry summer.
Worst, last week a hue staggered you: “Use—
you there, sarcasto!—for once le juste, ‘glorious’.
Then this. Gray air, sheer, non-swag. Brutal.
Concrete and brick. (Phones down!) Asphalt and metal.
Trust such to stand when plant-plush dismantles.
Sure, it’s just until. But until until,
be sombered. Attend, figure, to your ground—
once back-, now fore-; more lack, less more—
where with withs nothing, without without.
James McKee enjoys failing in his dogged attempts to keep pace with the unrelenting cultural onslaught of late-imperial Gotham. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Acumen, The Raintown Review, Saranac Review, The South Carolina Review, THINK, The Midwest Quarterly, Xavier Review, and elsewhere. He currently works as a private tutor and spends his free time, when not writing or reading, traveling less than he would like and brooding more than he can help.
In a neighborhood in the north of Copenhagen, there is this cemetery, though really it’s more of a park.
The locals go on walks there, have picnics, drink in the shade. In the summer, the evenings are cool and infinite here, as though coming from afar, because Denmark is a Northern country. I happened to walk through the cemetery on exactly such a summer evening and so the two have become linked in my mind, the evening and the cemetery, along with a quiet sense of dread which is in essence what I want to tell you about here.
The cemetery is surrounded by an old wall, painted yellow as many buildings in Denmark are, the color of yolk but paler. The paint peels in places, making the wall look even older than it is.
I had been exploring the city that day, wandering about largely without aim when I came across the cemetery. I liked the idea of taking a break in the shade so I picked up some beer and a pack of cigarettes from a corner store and set out to find a suitable park bench.
It had been an unusually warm day but with the evening the warmth sank back into the earth and the alleys that lead among the birch trees and graves were steeped in shade. I walked on and on because I wanted to find a quiet spot, away from everyone.
The size of the cemetery surprised me. After about a half hour of walking I still hadn’t reached the other end, nor had I ever back-tracked.
Eventually, I came across a small square dominated by a tall, skewed oak tree. I settled down on the bench by the tree, cracked open a beer and lit a cigarette.
All was calm and the sky beyond the treetops was a wonderful shade of violet but for some reason an uneasy, grotesque feeling came over me then, like a premonition.
I drank down the beer quickly, hoping to be rid of the feeling and opened another.
I did not notice the man’s approach. He appeared seemingly out of nowhere, just as my premonition had.
One moment the square was empty, the next there he was, whistling tunelessly, sweeping away at the graveled path with a broom.
I wasn’t sure what it was he was supposed to be sweeping up—there were no leaves on the path, no trash either, and yet he was going at it with great vigor, swinging the broom around like someone acting out a sweep in a play.
The man had on a gray cap and a gray uniform, with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His arms were very hairy, it looked like they were covered in fur.
I took a drag from my cigarette and tried to ignore the man. This, however, proved impossible.
There was something fascinating, something ghoulish about his person. The more I studied him, the less I could say about his appearance. Try as I might, I could not even figure out the man’s height. One moment he appeared comically short, the next he towered.
It gave me a headache.
By that point, the man had made his way to the middle of the square where he allowed himself a break from his pointless task. He leaned onto his broom, took off his gray cap, and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.
To my disdain, he then turned in my direction and made a flourishing motion with his hat before restoring it to the top of his head. He wagged his bushy eyebrows at me, then crossed the square, taking comically large strides.
Even as he plopped down beside me, I still couldn’t tell whether he was a head taller, or a head shorter than me, or neither.
“A wonderful evening to enjoy a cool, fresh beer,” the man announced, in English. He had a hoarse voice and a thick accent though it didn’t sound Danish.
I nodded, took another sip from my beer. The man had wide, unsteady eyes, the color of ash. He affixed them on the can in my hand, swallowed hard, like his throat was parched.
“Would you like one?” I offered, despite myself. Surprisingly, the man shook his head.
“No, no, regrettably, I do not drink, many thanks,” he explained, removed his cap again and scratched violently at the top of his head, which I now noticed was balding.
For a while, we sat in silence. A pigeon started cooing up in the branches of the oak tree somewhere which seemed to disturb my strange, new acquaintance. He shuffled about in his seat, let out a huffing noise, and peered up at the hidden bird.
“Where do you come from?” the man asked, his eyes returning to the beer in my hand.
“Oh, I’m just visiting,” I reply.
“Just visiting,” the man repeated to himself. He obviously found something amusing in it for his face lit up and he continued, “just visiting… well, well, I am just visiting also! Haha! Yes, I’m also just visiting.”
He got very excited about his, even slapped himself on his thigh which almost made me drop my cigarette. It was a wet, unpleasant sound, like a dead fish landing on the ground.
It must have also startled the pigeon because I heard a sound of feathers above our heads and watched with envy as the bird disappeared beyond the darkening tree crowns.
“Where are you from then, originally?” I asked and regretted it immediately.
The man shuddered and then looked over both his shoulders and all around as though I had proposed something indecent and he feared someone might have overheard.
His weird eyes rolled in their sockets and when he had finally convinced himself that there wasn’t another soul around, he beckoned me to move closer.
I expected him to reek of sweat, or booze, or something but, in fact, he had no smell whatsoever.
He hesitated for a moment, then whispered: “Originally, I come from the bottom of the sea.”
He giggled but I didn’t feel like he was joking.
“Sorry?” I muttered dubiously.
“Yes, yes, I come from the bottom of the sea. I used to live there, beneath the waves, with the fish. Yes, the fish. It was dark. Here, I am just visiting. Like you!”
“Ah,” I inched away from the man, fumbled for a cigarette. The man fell quiet too. He wasn’t giggling anymore. If anything, he suddenly appeared somber, like something of gravity had just occurred.
He looked at me again. I thought he was making a decision then which sent a chill down my spine. The sun was finally setting and twilight was coming down heavily all around.
Then the man picked up his broom and got to his feet.
“Well, I must be going now. There is still a lot of work left to do.”
Without another word, he got to sweeping again. I watched him walk gradually out of sight. In the thick non-light, he looked like a giant.
A great sense of relief welled up in me when he was finally out of sight. I even let out a nervous laugh. I finished my beer and had another cigarette. There was a deep, blue twilight all around the cemetery now and everything was calm again.
“What a weirdo,” I kept thinking and shaking my head as I smoked.
When I got up to leave, I noticed that the man had left his cap.
I picked it up, turned it around in my hands. It was an ordinary hat, gray, a little worn in places. I really wanted to leave it, knew that I should, but I didn’t. Instead, I set atop my head.
On my way back through the cemetery, I heard a pigeon cooing again, somewhere among the tree crowns. The sound startled me for some reason. I had this odd new feeling in me, like something irreversible had happened, something that could never be undone.
I walked on as the brief summer night settled around me, a few hours of darkness, a few hours of sleep, before the white light of day would emerge from the east again and wash over the world, roll in like waves, like a weightless, invisible ocean.
Nikolaj Volgushev’s fiction has appeared in journals such as the Cafe Irreal, The Molotov Cocktail, and Cease, Cows. He currently lives in Aarhus, Denmark where he writes, programs, and does other things along those lines. Before moving to Denmark, Nikolaj lived in New England, and before that in Germany. It is unclear where, if at all, Nikolaj lived before that.
Image credit: Assistants Cemetery, Copenhagen by Andreas Bloch on Flickr
They did not believe us at the station.
The voices weighing us as we stood
naked in the south wind,
the branches above in screech mode.
a scream from behind the wall.
0ur passports in shreds, little
kites forlorn in sudden wind.
How did we you say.
escape the gates, the cell
for the suspect & unredeemed.
But then how did world.
How are we here this
autumn afternoon at the
fest, our costumes of
paper & old lace.
The trained tiger staring
our way as though
We have entered the back
route sans tickets.
We the bearers of guilt in this
the new catastrophe.
The voices come near.
We are losing our hair.
We are out of escape
We are being detained.
We are under suspicion.
We are concealing the
diary inside a
a cautious ploy,
a duodenum rampant
Doug Bolling’s poems have appeared in Posit, Slant, Connecticut River Review, Redactions, and The Missing Slate (with interview) among others. He has received Best of the Net and Pushcart nominations and several awards, recently the Mathiasen Prize for his poem “Body and Soul” published at the University of Arizona. He is working on a collection and lives in the greater Chicago area.
tiny springs meet
the red red sand the sea
we built our little huts of buoys
of tern wings and of jelly fish
purple perfectly in a pool
in the belly of the spade
we gather them with
days of red clay
the seal under glassy dark
peers into our mouths
full of fish or of sky
our faces struck
out over the white cloud
of the row boat the salt
the oars magnificent splinters
we leave in our palms
in place of almost anything
trusting skin to its magic
and in the wind gusting scream
or laugh or salt catches us from
the shore somehow our sisters
and our brothers their voices
in our ears of endless twisting conch
and we could be in any wind
compels the bygone
the hoofclad the painstake
when we were strung by seas
over histories so they say
my feet have lapsed again
wear the snails on your eye
who could’ve never dreamed up this gutted sky
this complete synthesis
the only right word here:
where tin becomes the cliff enclosed glass becomes the pond as a whole the
shattering is all
bone and drowning along the lines
along laced fingers
became the window screens
where we witnessed you thrown
into gaping sea
writhing [a wrath] of those stinging jellies
from on now
your chest always a little rashy
or the clay bed fed and dripping red red red sand in our genes cold springs or biome at least
beneath your foot across the floor
beetles crackling like rice in a hollow stick
when i opened the hatch
the space dug away from the dark
to lay egg shells over the flames
in your absence i burn what i please
too bitter for the flies
but all this smoke
dirt of our ancestors
in the cracks of the floor
in the hallway
the neighbor’s scalded thigh
and a bat no one wants
looming over the toilet
too busy being the poem
Patricia Hartland is a candidate for the MFA in poetry at the University of Notre Dame, and a recent graduate of the Iowa Translation Workshop. She translates from French, Martinican Creole, and Hindi, with a special interest in Caribbean literature. Her translations of prose, poetry, and theatre have appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote, Circumference, Drunken Boat, Two Lines, and elsewhere.
It was really dark and it scared Billy. Really very dark. Yes, really very very—made him think of when he was young and every time he turned off the light to go to sleep started remembering ghost stories. Every ghost story he’d ever read or heard or, well, just every one and his sock feet would hit the floor and his hand would hit the light switch and they didn’t go away, the remembered stories, but they settled, soft in his mind and it was okay again.
It was that kind of dark exactly.
But it was okay too. This kind of dark, because he was with Keegan and Keegan couldn’t tell a ghost story without laughing. Each laugh made a little dark go away or maybe a little light shine—A little light shine Billy decided. More positive.
So they kept walking and it got brighter but not enough to keep Keegan from running into a tree. A deep little sigh escaped, as if it were a complete surprise. Billy giggled. Giggled really, like a little boy, not because it was funny necessarily—Billy hated when people laughed at him, watching him being clumsy, often, all the time—not funny, no, but just the surprise. As if it never occurred to Keegan that hitting a tree while walking drunk in woods they’d never been was a foregone conclusion. As if he couldn’t believe it.
Billy giggled again, kept going, until he heard Keegan curse. Loud. It echoed. Well, maybe—Billy was sure actually, quite positive—it didn’t echo but seemed so in his mind. Everything seemed loud there, wondered if maybe something wasn’t wrong. Alcohol dulled the senses. He should be deaf by now. He should never have heard Keegan’s sigh, his deep little sigh like wonderment, or the sound the leaves made when they hit Keegan’s backside. He did though and he’s glad now—confused, maybe things reversed in his system, it would suit him—but glad and Billy kneels down where he assumes Keegan is and smiles.
He doesn’t see, can’t, even with his laughs lighting everything up, and it would only irritate Keegan, to be hurt alone and Billy smiling.
“Well,” he says, as if that explained everything.
“Well,” Billy says back but doesn’t move.
“I guess I could live here,” Keegan sighs and it makes sense to Billy. He doesn’t feel like moving either. Not really. Seemed a waste. He was here with Keegan and that was good enough. No need to move.
“I’ll live here too then.”
“Well yes,” Keegan says, and smiles. At least Billy thinks he smiles. Wants him to have smiled, like it was implied. Keegan living here implied Billy would too. Of course. Well yes.
He’s still sitting there, in front of the tree, and so Billy sits down, patting the earth with his hand, smoothing a spot that only brings up the wet dirt, fingers moist and he doesn’t care. Now that he’s beside Keegan, in the woods, in the dark, just a little drunk, and it’s so cool—He didn’t notice but it’s cold, chilly like his father says. “Chilly today, hot tamale.” Billy laughs and forgets about the cold but doesn’t think about his father. He doesn’t so much anymore, being away from home he’s sort of forgotten. But because he’s not thinking of his father, Billy can’t feel guilty, only dizzy and maybe a little sick—happy.
“What’s funny?” Keegan asks and Billy looks at him, hoping Keegan can see. Hoping he knows it wasn’t Keegan that was funny, he would never laugh at Keegan, unless he wanted him too.
And so he says, soft, “Nothing,” because it’s true and places his hand over what amazingly turns out to be Keegan’s hand and it’s warm and dry and he hears Keegan laugh a little too.
“Can’t see the tree for the forest, eh?” He laughs again and Billy laughs and it’s bright and it’s okay and they keep sitting there in the woods, like they were at home, watching TV or talking or just being there, comfortable.
“I don’t know how I got here,” Keegan says and moves his hand over Billy’s, like he’s using it as a landmark, something to tell him he’s still on familiar land and not lost, not lost at all in woods he’s never been.
“Walked,” and Billy isn’t joking because that’s all he can remember, walking and thinking of when he was little and ghost stories and Keegan and how bright it was.
“Nice here,” and Billy nods even though Keegan can’t see him agreeing and neither moves and it really is nice and Billy wonders why. It’s cold and damp but good somehow, because he’d never been there, maybe. And when he finally went—finally because if it was nice, he should have gone before—he went with Keegan and they both found it together, at the same time.
“It’s so dark,” Keegan says and his hand flinches a little. Billy isn’t sure if hands can flinch but it moves like it’s surprised and he touches the underside of Keegan’s pinky with his own and feels Keegan’s hand relax.
He shouldn’t be warm but Billy is. Maybe it’s the alcohol but he would rather it was something else. Keegan’s looking at the tree—Billy thinks, assumes, Keegan’s still, he’s never still—like it will move any moment, like it did just that, moved into Keegan’s way. If it did, Billy loves this tree. He wants to thank it, embrace it but he would have to move and that means Keegan’s hand would move and he likes it like this, just like this, and so he stays where he is, looking at Keegan looking at the tree. He needs to speak. Suddenly, he really needs to.
“When you laugh I can see,” Billy says and if he wasn’t drunk, if he wasn’t drunk and cold and warm and in unknown woods with Keegan it might seem stupid. But Keegan’s here, beside him, using his hand as a landmark, looking at Billy now, and he’s sure he’s smiling and it’s okay. It’s okay.
Kate LaDew is a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in Studio Art. She resides in Graham, NC with her cats Charlie Chaplin and Janis Joplin. Her story The Song in a Cloud appeared in Issue No. 2 of Cleaver.
I’m waiting for you in Paris. Waiting in the Champ de Mars, the park next to the Eiffel Tower. Standing on a patch of grass, wearing a tuxedo, and holding flowers. One among many men who wait, but they’re not like me. They stay for varying amounts of time—some holding signs, some sitting under trees—but eventually they leave. Not me. I’m here for you, Jess, waiting patiently, if not excitedly. And when you get here, we’ll embrace, and we’ll climb up the Eiffel Tower, and we’ll be together again, in love.
Three days have gone by. It rained on the first day, and my clothes are soggy. I smell like a damp basement. The flowers are OK, but I’ve taken off my jacket. It’s not exactly as we discussed, it’s not as clean, but I’ll be here when you arrive. Mostly as we discussed, in Paris, next to the Eiffel Tower, holding flowers, and waiting.
A week’s gone by. Another man stands in a single spot, holding flowers, like me, except he’s wearing a black vest, a white shirt, and a black bowler hat, and he’s balancing on a unicycle.
“You too?” I ask him.
He doesn’t speak, he signs instead, and I nod and together we form a quick bond. He hops off the unicycle and gets us some hot croissants. I survived the previous week by eating scraps of food left on the ground and sleeping under my coat.
The croissants are delicious, and I smile at the man and repeat “Brad,” tapping my chest.
“Jean,” he mouths, chewing his croissant, and taps his chest.
The next week I continue a similar schedule: sleeping under my coat, waking up, standing forlorn, and presenting flowers. Jean balances on his unicycle, and I, with my jacket back on, present flowers, which are now drooping, but with Jean, the whole thing is much better. So too with the hot croissants, which we take turns buying.
Jean and I know it’s absolutely essential to stay in this position. How else will they know we made the effort? It’s unspoken between us, but I imagine Jean spends as much time thinking about this as I do, along with other thoughts, many of the same thoughts over and over, like when will they come? Have they forgotten about us? Does waiting make reunion that much sweeter?
We watch as people meet their other halves. They light up with an expression of joy. In those moments, we hate them. What right do they have to happiness? Haven’t we done everything right? Everything they asked of us?
By the end of the month we meet another man. He’s German, and he arrives with a case of beer. He doesn’t stand, presenting flowers like Jean and I, but instead, he sits down and starts drinking.
How do I know he’s German? He wears lederhosen.
I attempt to introduce myself and, as I do, the German nods and says, in a heavily accented English voice, “I’m Lars.” He burps.
“You speak English?” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “And French, German, and Spanish. Many languages.”
He sighs and picks up a can of beer.
“Only Americans speak one language,” he says and belches again.
I stare at Lars. He looks like no one else in the park. He’s huge. At least six foot five, blond, and hulking. As he waits, he removes beers one by one, pouring them into a stein and taking large gulps from his giant cup.
“Are you waiting for someone?” I ask him.
“Yes,” he says, “I’m giving her a week. I’m not going to put my life on hold, but she asked me to meet her here, and this happens to be my week off, and this happens to be what I do.”
He shakes the stein and looks off at the Eiffel Tower.
“I’ve never been up that thing,” he says. “Maybe I’ll go to the top.”
“She doesn’t want you to wait for her?” I say and look over at Jean who shrugs his shoulders.
“She doesn’t know what she wants,” he says. “She mentioned that it’d be nice if I did this absurd romantic gesture, and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ She started to retract her request, but I said, ‘If that’s what you want, that’s what I’ll do.’ So here I am.”
Jean looks at Lars the same way I do, with a mix of awe, surprise, and envy. Why can’t we be more like Lars? Assertive. Sure of ourselves. Full of knowledge that Jean and I don’t seem to possess.
After Lars finishes the six-pack, he walks to the Eiffel Tower. He comes back after fifteen minutes and tells me he’s going to stay in a hostel.
“Give her this address if she comes,” he says and hands me a slip of paper.
“How will I know who she is?” I say.
“Her name’s Lydia,” he says and walks off.
Jean wheels over. He mimes something like “Lars a big man and what’s up with that?”
I make a sign with my hands like “he’s a big drinker” and then a facial expression like “he sure does drink a lot.”
Jean laughs silently, and I laugh too.
A man starts to play an accordion. I look up at the night sky and see it’s a full moon. When I look back down, Jean’s hand is out as if to say, “Want to dance?”
“Me?” I mouth.
He gives a big nod. I make an exaggerated thinking face, because this is such a nice gesture: a chance to move my limbs and do something adorably sweet next to the Eiffel Tower. I get up and grab his hand. We make big twirls with Jean, on the unicycle, swerving to the cheesy accordion music. He grins, and we dance for three songs. I mouth, “I’m tired.”
I am. I haven’t moved this much in months. I go back to my spot, drink a bottle of mineral water, and walk over to a tree. I lie down with my back against the grainy trunk, and I look at Jean, who’s swirling. The accordion player stops and grins at me.
“That was lovely,” he says.
“Thank you,” I say, and I drift off to sleep.
The next morning I awake to the sound of Lars chewing a giant turkey leg. He rips off thick chunks of crusty bread with the crumbs spraying in all directions. He extends both the turkey and bread to me, and I’m not too proud for breakfast, so I eat.
“I figure she didn’t come?” he says.
“Not yet,” I say.
He looks at Jean.
“I hear you guys are buds,” he says. “The others were saying you danced under the moonlight. Invite him over.”
I look at Jean. He’s doing a half-asleep peddling thing. I clap a few times and motion for him to join us. He rubs his eyes and then wheels over to my spot.
Then I learn that Jean does speak. He speaks French. With Lars, he doesn’t shut up. He tells Lars his story, which Lars translates for me. That Jean is a mime, but he’s on a break, waiting for his lover Carlos, who is Spanish and incredibly handsome, though completely bald. They met earlier in the year at a church social. Their connection was instantaneous. They took a midnight stroll across the Pont Alexandre III Bridge. When Jean invited Carlos back to his apartment, Carlos suggested that they write love poetry to each other in their native languages. When they read their poems to each other, a lot came through in the reading. They soon started a disgustingly cute habit of buying snow globes for each other. When they moved in together, their apartment was filled with them.
One day, as they were planning to re-create the day they met, they walked by a snow globe shop. In the window, Jean saw an Eiffel Tower snow globe and pointed to it and mimed, “Have you been there?” Carlos shook his head as if to say “I’ve never been.”
Jean got the idea to wait for Carlos in the park. At first, he mimed on the side. He got tips and saw tourists pass by, but there was only one person he truly wanted to see. He didn’t dare lose his spot for fear of missing Carlos. But eventually the work and the waiting melded into one, an all-consuming activity where he lost himself in the romantic purposelessness. He took a solemn oath to keep waiting.
“He said all that?” I ask.
“Approximately,” says Lars.
I hold my hand to my chest to show Jean that my heart is broken. His story is so similar to mine. Perpetual waiting: for what?
Jean looks exhausted. He asks for a beer from Lars. Lars passes one over. Jean takes it, tips it back, and doesn’t stop until he drains the can.
“Impressive,” says Lars, and he hands Jean another.
I join them in the spirit of camaraderie, though I don’t usually drink. The rest of the night we tell jokes, sing songs, and generally have one of the most amazing times of my life. I don’t have a lot of friends. I find it difficult to communicate with others. But these men and I, we’re similar. And now I jump on Jean’s back, and Jean tries to teach me how to ride a unicycle. We swerve into some bushes and laugh harder.
Back on the ground, Lars asks me, “Why Paris? Aren’t there romantic places in the US?”
“That’s a great question,” I say. “A part of me doesn’t even think that much about it. Paris means love, and people from my socioeconomic class travel. It’s part of a philosophy that says it’s worth traveling the world and seeing much. So far, I agree for reasons like this, meeting new people, gaining experiences, riding a unicycle, for example, but what’s wrong with the US? That’s where I lost love. I’m waiting in Paris for it to return.”
Jean pats me on the back. Lars looks amused.
“Paris is the city of love. My girlfriend Jessica is obsessed with it. Her apartment is decorated in Parisian memorabilia. At home, we watch movies set in Paris. She even has a breakfast nook that looks like a Parisian café.”
I point to the café where I get croissants.
“But our relationship went south. She says we broke up, I say we need more time. She says it was her decision, I say it’s mutual. I came here to wait for her. I want to show her that Paris is a real place where we can be together. I know it sounds absurd, but waiting is all I have left.”
A moment of silence. Lars grunts and says something like “silly, sad man.”
He’s drunk and generally difficult to understand, so I ignore him. He sleepily waves goodbye and leaves. Then it’s back to Jean and me. I feel drained, but my spirits are slightly buoyed from the catharsis of telling my story. I mime a small dance, and Jean laughs. He speaks and says, “C’est magnificent.”
We lie down on the grass. We look up at the night sky, not for lack of things to say but in awe. Some things are incommunicable. Love is one, and so are its complications. So are the feelings I have, light from camaraderie, unsure of the future, but dazzled by the stars in Paris and the world spinning around me like a snow globe. I watch the burning stars until my eyes close.
In the morning a round-faced, blonde-haired woman enters my field of vision. I blink, but she stays where she is, crouching and looking at me.
“You know where my husband is,” she says.
“Are you Lydia?” I ask, blinking myself awake.
“Yes, and you’re Brad,” she says. “The men pointed you out. I don’t speak French, but I speak English, so start talking.”
I lift myself up and wipe the sleep from my eyes.
“Your husband’s at a hostel,” I say. “I don’t know which one, I lost the sheet of paper, but he’ll be back around noon. That’s when he usually comes.”
“Great,” she says. “So I have to wait?”
“Well, I’ve been waiting for quite some time,” I say. “Close to a year.”
“Unbelievable,” she says. “Do you want a prize? You sound like an insane person. Some of us have jobs. We can’t all wait under the Eiffel Tower, can we? Only sad absurd men.”
I feel tremendous guilt. Lydia’s confirmed my worst suspicion: that waiting is pointless.
“I suppose not,” I say.
“I’m going to the tower,” she says. “How do you get up?”
“Elevator or stairs,” I say.
“I choose elevator,” she says and disappears.
It’s then that I realize I’m filthy. I feel the grime accumulating in the area between my sock and ankle. There’s a smell coming off me. And this morning is not one where I want to wait any longer. I’ll do anything but that. I feel a wild urge to go to the bathroom. This is no longer fun. Jean is asleep, and you, Jessica, are never coming for me.
Lars arrives, same stein, different case of beer.
“How are you, friend?” he asks.
“I’m not in the mood,” I say. “Your wife is here. She’s in the tower. I need to leave immediately.”
“Whoa, whoa,” says Lars. “What if Jessica comes?”
“Tell her I’m in the public bathroom,” I say.
“Won’t that spoil the surprise? The waiting?” he says. “You used to care about waiting.”
“Emphasis on used to,” I say.
“Have a beer,” he says and thrusts one into my chest.
I push the beer into Lars’s chest and go to the bathroom. My luck, there’s a line: a long line. Fuck this, I think. I get out of line and squat on the road. Everyone looks over at me. People gasp. I let loose and feel the best I’ve felt in a month. This is my choice. I’m doing something for myself. Then two police officers begin to approach me. I quickly lift my pants and run back to the waiting area. Lydia and Lars are together, and I hide behind them.
“Whoa, whoa,” says Lars, looking back at me cowering behind them. “What’s going on?”
“I took a dump near the public bathroom and now the police are after me!” I say.
“You’re an absolute mess,” says Lydia. “Let me handle this.”
The police approach us, and Lydia tells Lars what to say. That I’m deranged. That I’m a helpless American man in their care. That she will force me to clean up my mess. That I’m their adopted American pet. That we shouldn’t let Americans travel. Etc.
Lydia and Lars work on them. I continue to cower. Jean is asleep. This is what I get for not waiting, I think. I’m pathetic.
The police stop talking to Lars and Lydia. They look back at me and shake their heads. Then they walk back to the Eiffel Tower.
“You need to clean up your mess,” says Lydia. “We’ll help you, but then you need to leave this park immediately. They say they wish the men would leave. You’re more trouble than you’re worth.”
“Why are you doing this for me?” I say. “You could have abandoned me. Everyone else does.”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” says Lydia. “Leave. Get another job. Stop waiting.”
I think about this as I scrub the sidewalk. Do I desire punishment? Punishment for waiting?
Lars continues to drink. He does the work of translating as people walk by. Strangely, I enjoy cleaning. It feels purposeful and important.
“There,” says Lydia. “You made a mess and you cleaned it up. Now take that and do it with your life.”
Lars and Lydia walk away. Lars looks back as if to say, “Later, friend.” I wave goodbye.
I go back to Jean, and I’m struck by panic as I see he’s fallen off his unicycle. He hobbles and collapses. I go to comfort him, and he starts weeping. Other men weep too, but I see this as self-pity rather than genuine care for my friend.
“Why, Brad?” asks Jean. It’s an existential question, and I’m entirely prepared for that kind of conversation.
“Who isn’t in a state of waiting?” I say. “Everyone pretends they’re not, but they are. The other day I categorized all human activity. It’s frighteningly limited: eating and drinking, having sex, thinking and wandering, consuming, creating. Are there other ways?”
Jean stares at his legs.
“Look at me, Jean,” I say. “You’re a good man. You understand me? A friend. Friendship, it’s not on my list, but…”
A paramedic arrives. His name is Yakos, and he’s from Greece. He’s well-built, well-quaffed, and he and Jean begin to speak rapidly in French. Yakos makes Jean laugh, and Jean makes Yakos laugh. I stand by, feeling increasingly disconnected from the scene.
“Brad?” says Yakos.
He speaks English.
“Yes?” I say.
“Your friend needs to go to the hospital,” he says. “His muscles have atrophied. He wants to know if you’ll come with him. I told him not to worry, I’ll take care of him. He’s very funny.”
I look back at Jean. He winks at me. I see the seeds of love.
“That’s OK,” I say. “The police told me I need to leave the park immediately and maybe this country, too. Can you translate this for Jean? Next time, let’s meet in America.”
Yakos speaks to Jean, and Jean laughs.
“We,” he says, which I understand means “yes.”
Jared Levy has stories published in regional and international journals including The Quotable, Apiary Magazine, The Machinery, and The Matador Review. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Bates College and is the recipient of support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Lacawac Artists’ Residency, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He was born in Philadelphia, PA, and currently lives there, too. He is a proud member of the Backyard Writers Workshop.
The summer after my senior year of high school, I worked in a donut shop selling macchiatos and breakfast pastries to young office workers in downtown Portland, Maine. I decided to get a job because my best friend Emma wanted a job and we were drunk off the prospect of making money and never having to go back to high school. We promised that the rest of our lives was going to be spent with only each other so we better start saving money so we could eventually live in Paris or New York or somewhere else far away from where we grew up.
Emma started clocking hours at her minimum wage job exactly one week after school let out in June. We toasted to her new employment at the Five Guys on Fore Street by raising vanilla milkshakes in celebration of her first paycheck. Emma worked in the checkout aisle of Whole Foods, standing for six-hour shifts in clogs, using her discounts on foods we both thought expensive like cartons of raspberries and brie cheese, calling me on her lunch breaks, scanning produce, and dodging sexual passes from coworkers who bought her lip balms and beaded bracelets. Most of those little gifts were passed on to me. It didn’t feel odd at the time to be wearing the material bribes given to her by the college boys who folded fish into seaweed rolls, but it definitely makes me uncomfortable now.
My own summer job at the donut shop was handed to me by the grace of God. I had never worked with food before in my life and had the flu when I interviewed. I had been asked if I liked to bake, and I had lied through my teeth. For whatever reason, I was given a black apron and told to flush the flu from my body before my first trial shift or they’d hire someone else. I walked home on water, elated.
My bosses, Abe and Marina, were married. They would sometimes make out in the kitchen as the electric mixer whirled and the faucets spilled cold water onto dishes piled up in the sinks. Abe was a New England guy with beefy baker arms and Marina was a tiny woman with a French Creole cooking background and a severe laugh. I loved them.
Shifts at the donut shop started at 5 a.m. and lasted ten hours. I spent them on my feet, slipping glazed desserts into paper bags, mixing iced chai lattes with soy milk, and mopping until beads of sweat dripped from my forehead onto the black and white tiled floor. I began to wake up before my alarm went off, not because of some subconscious excitement for my work days but because the clock within my body was changing. I drove in squares around the block before my shift started, spilling coffee on myself out of ceramic mugs and listening to Bruno Mars on the radio. Years of playing pity poker with classmates about who was getting the least amount of sleep disappeared when I started working at the donut shop. I was in bed with teeth brushed at nine or ten at night in order to get as much sleep as possible. My own parents stayed up later than I did.
I came home from work every day with my forearms coated in honey and chocolate and powdered sugar from reaching through the racks and trays of donuts. Custard fillings would smear on my bedsheets when I napped after shifts; I would fall asleep with chocolate chips in my hair.
Memories of working in the shop flash in my mind like strobe lights. I know I must have stood for hours behind that wooden counter, breaking rolls of quarters with the mental terror that they would rip from the paper and scatter all over the floor, stamping the business’s logo on cardboard boxes in wet blue ink over and over again, trembling after phone calls, eating entire plates of free donut samples just because they were there in front of me, and sometimes I wanted to move a part of my body after standing for so long, even if it was only the clenching and unclenching of my jaw. I know that hours stretched into days and into months until suddenly the summer was over and my heart was broken, but when I think of working at that particular donut shop, I remember specific moments as definite and pinpointable experiences. The memories don’t stretch, they stampede.
I started to write letters to myself on post-it notes and on the backs of business cards as I stood behind the counter waiting for people to come into the shop. The notes would be collected into the front pocket of my black apron and then transcribed into letters I would send to a boy I had started dating at the end of my senior year of high school. My boyfriend was spending the summer working as a lifeguard at an overnight camp in northern Maine, and I wrote to him about my work because that was the largest thing happening in my life. I wrote about the two city cops who never bought a damn thing but flirted with Marina until Abe came out and crossed his big arms over his chest and they left. I wrote about the first day I was sent across the street to the bank to exchange some twenties for ones and I was so nervous carrying money around that my hands shook as I handed the bag to the bank teller. I wrote about the girls I worked with; one was an Instagram model and the other one was a drummer in a band with a moon tattoo on her left ankle. I wrote about the smell of the shop (honey, coconut, chocolate) and how when I spilled the crate of iced tea, I had yelled “FUCK” and was sure I’d be fired but wasn’t.
The world inside the donut shop existed as an alternate reality. One time that summer, Emma came to visit, and it felt like a slap in the face. She stepped through the doors of the shop beaming, sunburnt and sucking on a smoothie through a straw, and I remember my eyesight blurring the way a camera lens slips out of focus as a movie character falls asleep. She asked me about my day as I handed cash back to customers and answered phone calls, and I realized that she would never understand what it meant to stand behind the long wooden counter of that business, just as I would never know what it was like for her to work the checkout aisle of Whole Foods. I saw the same mild panic in her eyes when I came to visit her at work and yelled her name across a sea of customers buying popsicles and hotdog buns for the Fourth of July season. It was the mutual discomfort that came with two worlds colliding. The unease we felt showing each other what we looked like while working, drenched in sweat and shifting back and forth on tired legs, was a raw and unexplainable sort of shame.
I worked mornings shifts, and Emma worked evenings, so I used to pick her up when her night shifts got out. We spent a lot of that summer driving around in my mother’s sleek silver Camry, named Pam. Emma would slide into the passenger seat teeming with stories from her day. She used to scream about her coworkers, how the boys were pervy and the girls were beautiful, and also about the rich people who came in to buy kombucha and asparagus in bulk. I yelled back, telling her about the bratty blonde middle schoolers who demanded skim milk in their iced lattes and turned their noses up at the offer of sampling a honey glazed cake donut.
At night, Emma and I drove to Five Guys and sat at the terrible red and white checkered tables, sipping slowly on vanilla milkshakes while gushing over how good it felt to have a summer job until our brains soaked up the sugar and we got spacey. Then we drove with the windows down to the East End and parked on the hill that looks out over Casco Bay. We talked for hours parked on that hill, trying on glossy lipsticks in the rearview mirror or sharing songs that reminded us of our boyfriends, giggling about how when they came home from vacation we’d tell them we loved them. Songs that make her cringe now because she’s got a new guy and songs that make me cry because they’ve been ruined forever.
We talked a lot about the boys we were dating. Emma told me about her boyfriend’s absence, how he was just a few miles away but rarely called and never invited her over to meet his parents. All those complaints on her part and reassurances on my part; I’d say, he’s just a boy and don’t worry I know he loves you! and then she’d smile and everything would be okay for a little while.
I told her about how I missed the freckles on my boyfriend’s shoulders. I missed the way he listened to me stutter my way through Wallace Stevens poems even though he had no idea who that was, and I missed making pasta with him in my kitchen. I told Emma how I’d started throwing up my lunches in the employee bathroom next to the walk-in freezer, and we both assumed it was a pregnancy because I’d missed three periods and I’d been gaining weight all summer. We joked about baby names, but it started a whole big thing. Soon I was gagging when I saw babies in the donut shop and having panic attacks in the break room when I thought about my belly growing during the first semester of college.
A change happened around July when a blonde woman’s baby flung a sock out into the shop and we all searched on our knees but couldn’t find it. I located it later while mopping and felt a cosmic reassurance while holding that tiny baby sock in my hands. I kept it in the pocket of my work apron for weeks and brought it home with me after shifts. The weight that hung on my stomach felt suddenly purposeful and my exhaustion seemed justified. I remember staring at myself in the bathroom mirror at home, completely naked, looking at my bloated stomach with actual love. The names I brainstormed with Emma were filed away, and one was even chosen. I planned on telling my boyfriend when he came home from camp.
In mid-August, the lone red line on a CVS pregnancy test, taken offhandedly just to be sure, proved my assumption wrong. There had never been a baby in my belly. I felt like I was dying. I felt stupid and fat.
The donut shop became a place of sickness. The icings and glazes that dripped from donuts sent beads of sweat in vertical lines down the middle of my back. The sight of chocolate sauces hardened on ceramic plates made me nauseous. Those trays of free samples that just sat there in front of me on the wooden counter glared; they made my jaws clench shut. I stopped eating for a little while, to lose weight. By the end of the summer, I had slimmed down considerably.
I choked through my final weeks of work and used lunch breaks to sit in corners of dark places by myself, like downtown parking garages and the basement stairwells of apartment complexes whose front doors were propped open to flush heat from the building. I calmed my nerves by repeating a mantra of memorized customer orders. Man with red beard: small black coffee with a tablespoon of honey, one toasted coconut cake donut and one bière twist in a brown paper bag to go.
It was more than weight gain that made me cling to the idea of pregnancy. There were other signs as well: vomiting, back pains, fatigue, mood changes, and tenderness. All things that could be explained by eating nothing but sugar, working ten-hour shifts, and being in love with a boy that wasn’t around. I was tricked by my own body and mind. Nothing could make a person feel so idiotic as that.
At the end of the summer, Emma and I didn’t know what to do with ourselves. The two of us had spent our time relishing in youth, making money, and shit-talking the world. We sang along to syrupy songs like “What A Pleasure” by the band Beach Fossils and said “I love you I love you I love you” while driving down highways at night. August hit and the dream began to disappear. We panicked at the thought of having to make new friends at schools very far away from each other.
Emma and I spent the last week of our summer curled in each other’s arms on the carpeted floor of her bedroom, sweaty from the final hot days of summer and newly single. She had decided that emotional absence was a crime punishable by death, and I had decided that I didn’t want to be touched by another boy for a long time. We ate cartons of raspberries and slices of brie cheese, realizing that we suddenly had enough money to buy them, and crossed our fingers in a promise that the following summer would be better because we wouldn’t have our shitty boyfriends taking up all our headspace.
Now it’s nine months later and summer seems very close. I talk to Emma on the phone every Wednesday afternoon. She has a new boyfriend named Owen who has soft facial features, like a child, and reads poetry to her over the phone. They said “I love you” after only three weeks, and they both meant it. Emma just received her Barnard acceptance letter after spending months on transfer application essays, which means that she’ll actually make it to New York after all. I look at the cars passing and the bank across the street and think about how much they resemble the cars and the banks back home. I imagine myself returning to my small college in the middle of a suburb the following fall, how it could very easily be any other small college in any other suburb. Then there she is, with a healthy new relationship and an acceptance letter to a fancy school in New York with sturdy iron gates and ivy-curled columns. Talking to her on the phone is sometimes difficult. Her growth, her glorious prosperity, immobilizes me. I always choke up and end the call.
At dinner, one friend scolds me for counting calories and another mulls over future baby names. I think of calling Emma, but instead I return to my dimly lit dorm room alone and type out a resume. When faced with the choice of lamenting over last summer or moving past it, I decide with a twinge of discomfort that I will not work at the donut shop again. For the first time in months, I do not dread returning to Maine.
Randall Seder is from Portland, Maine. When she is home, she enjoys walking her dogs at the beach, reading on the couch, and hiking in the Maine woods. She is studying psychology at Bryn Mawr College. This is her first publication.
Mom remembers the call, my sister doing her best to keep her composure on the other line, I just called Babushka and she was talking strangely maybe check on her? And so Mom put me in her car and drove into the evening, calming me down I’m sure it’s nothing and me I’m sure it’s nothing too but the two of us dashed from the elevator to her room nonetheless.
Dad remembers one calm call and, later, one distressed call. He was out of town. Even in the distressed call, Mom did not tell him to hurry back, and he didn’t.
The paramedics remember an old lady, a scared younger lady, and a more scared and younger little boy. The old lady could walk but something was off about it, a lilting to the side, a jaggedness of function. They put her on a stretcher and carried her to the ambulance. One of them tried to joke around with the little kid but soon gave up. They never found out what was wrong with the old lady; they could if they wanted to, but there were so many cases, really; if they checked on all of them they’d never go home.
Babushka still doesn’t remember, sorry.
I remember mostly how Babushka stood in her small corridor of a kitchen. From the corner of her lip dangled a shiny stalactite of liquid, somehow encasing a feeling that would grow over the next months and years. There were other moments that night, too, obscured in hindsight by the shadow of that twirling thread of silver saliva but still there—the ambulance coming, the nice lady at the hospital who kept me company in the waiting room and asked me about the Clifford book on my lap, the friend of my mother’s who let me sleep over with her two kids that night. But mostly the apartment. Mostly Babushka. Mostly the spit.
A man I have never met remembers pausing his car at a green light for an ambulance to pass by. He taps impatiently on the wheel. The light turns yellow. The ambulance passes, the light turns red, his hand becomes a fist.
Babushka does not remember. Babushka, do you remember? See, no.
US president Barack Obama likely remembers nothing about the whole stroke situation, or the dementia situation to follow. He couldn’t know that we were lifting off into a world where we would bury her forgetting by forgetting. However, I’m sure he remembers his remarks on Iran’s nuclear program that same day, which obamawhitehouse.archives.gov describes as an important first step toward a comprehensive solution.
My mom’s friend’s children remember some kid they had met a few times coming to spend the night. They had been told something bad had happened to him recently, something to warrant a request for extra kindness, but though they let him choose a video game to play they couldn’t tell anything had happened from his behavior. If anything, he seemed more upbeat than they’d ever seen him, hyper and unwilling to go to bed long after they’d grown sleepy. It was only as they lay down, the brother and sister sharing a bunk to give the boy his own, that they began to hear him sniffle, but by that time they were heading toward sleep and there was no going back, no getting off the train, nothing ahead of them but dark.
The sun remembers nothing particularly different. Same old routine. Space, space, space. The rising steam of souls.
Babushka remembers now. It’s coming quietly into focus: The unquestionable wholeness of it, the certainty. And then the sprig of heat that sends everything into motion, that reminds you of the molecules making up the world, how easily and quickly they pull apart.
Daniel Blokh is a 17-year-old American-Jewish writer with Russian immigrant parents, living in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of the memoir In Migration (BAM! Publishing 2016), the chapbook Grimmening (forthcoming from Diode Editions), and the chapbook Holding Myself Hostage In The Kitchen (Lit City Press 2017). He is the 2018 National Student Poet of the US for the Southeast Region.
I was following my father down our long hallway to the bathroom, pulling the cord of my toy telephone behind me. It was an old-fashioned rotary kind, with plastic wheels, a red handle, and big ogling eyes.
“Absolutely not!” He slammed the bathroom door in my face. A long, forceful stream of urine rang into the toilet bowl.
As soon as my father re-emerged I tugged at his pants. “Why can’t I see you urinate?” I pronounced the word carefully, emphasizing the your sound, hoping my adult lexicon would influence him.
“Stop it.” My father pushed me away, accidentally kicking my toy telephone. When I started wailing, my mother appeared at the end of the hallway, her brown curly hair in a high ponytail. I thought she was so beautiful.
“Daddy is mean. He won’t let me see his vagina!”
At this, my parents burst into laughter. “Oh dear,” my mother said. “Daddy doesn’t have a vagina.”
“What? You don’t have a special thing like me and Mommy?”
“Oh, I have a special thing all right.” My father winked at my mother. “If you could only see it you would want one too.”
“That’s not true!” I screamed, and ran down the hallway. When I reached the end, I saw my toy telephone lying on its side where my father had kicked it, staring at me with its great, knowing eyes.
Twelve years later, I recounted this story to my first shrink. In the well-populated world of suburban New York psychiatrists, Dr. William Coulson was an exotic specimen. Not only was he tall, sandy-haired and impossibly handsome, he was also not Jewish like every other psychiatrist I’d ever heard of, including the one my mother had to see after her nervous breakdown.
Neither were the jocks and debutantes at Thornton Academy, my new private high school. I felt out of place as soon as I arrived—too short, too frizzy-haired, and too buxom. My only friends were Christina Alvarez, a Peruvian scholarship student, and Sarah Frede, the anorexic daughter of a neglectful millionaire. In the locker room, the beautiful girls laughed when we changed into our gym clothes. The lacrosse players barked, “Woof, Woof!” when we passed them in the school hallway.
Christina looked away but Sarah hung her head and sniffed. “They think we’re dogs.”
In bed I couldn’t sleep, plagued by the memory of the terrible barking boys. If one of them really knew me, maybe he would like me and plunge his tongue into my mouth. But the boy I imagined began howling. I could see his lips widen, his teeth like sharpened knives. I’d heard a story on the news about a rapist in Manhattan who was breaking into women’s apartments and slashing their throats with a carving knife. As p.m. turned to a.m. on my digital clock radio, I thought about my mother’s carving knife in the kitchen, the same knife our housekeeper, Ana, used when making my family’s dinner. I thought about sneaking downstairs and slashing my throat.
Each morning I woke up with bone-crushing headaches, in too much pain to go to school. The pediatrician declared my symptoms psychosomatic and recommended Dr. Coulson, the best adolescent psychiatrist he knew. A few days later, Ana deposited me on the back doorstep of his home office. In the yard, a towheaded boy and girl frolicked with a big golden retriever.
“That cannot be true,” Dr. Coulson said, echoing my words in the urination story. I had happened upon it in describing when I first started hating my father.
“I know! Can you believe his idiocy? I mean, why would any girl want that thing anywhere near her body? The first time I ever saw a . . . a . . . a boy’s privates at nursery school, I thought there was something wrong with him.”
Though I hadn’t intended this as a joke, Dr. Coulson laughed. “And that’s not true either.”
Either? Inside my throat, a small hard knot began to tighten. “Wait—you mean you don’t believe me about my father?”
“It’s a fantasy. He never said anything of the sort!”
Although this was taking place in the eighties, Dr. Coulson still adhered to a strictly Freudian protocol. At his insistence, I had agreed to lie on his hard, orange couch, a box of tissues wedged between my knees, my back towards him like a true analysand. All I could see was a framed poster of van Gogh’s Starry Night. Behind me and out of sight, Dr. Coulson could peruse my whole body. It warmed me with shame how much I liked this.
Now I sat up. “Yes he did!” I couldn’t believe my psychiatrist was siding with my father.
“You’re unconsciously distorting his words.”
“Did you hear them? Were you there?”
“No, of course not. But this is a classic case of penis envy.”
I smacked the couch in disbelief. “I just told you those . . . those . . . things were, are disgusting!” Not that I’d had much occasion to view that particular body part since nursery school.
“Your disgust is really anger. Girls are often angry about their lack of a penis.”
“But that was my father’s fantasy!”
“I think you are projecting your own desires on to him. You probably blame your mother for that.”
“For depriving you of a penis. That’s what daughters do. And they hate their mothers for it.”
The idea of blaming my mother was so ludicrous I actually snorted. “But I hate my father, not my mother. I just finished telling you that!”
“The daughter’s hatred is unconscious. It is very well known.”
“How could something unconscious be well known?”
“You’ve proven its truth by your very denial.”
The orange couch, my dirty socks, the swirling blue and yellow strokes of van Gogh’s Starry Night began to blur and drip. “But I adore my mother! Don’t you understand? When she had her breakdown, I thought she would die!”
At the memory of those wretched months, I curled my knees to my chest and clutched my stomach. Sobbing, I searched blindly for the tissues I had been hoping to avoid. My head pounded with the familiar pain of sleeplessness.
When Dr. Coulson finally spoke, his voice was softer, kinder, as if he wanted to break the next piece of news to me as gently as possible. “Perhaps you wanted your mother to die. Then you could have your father’s penis all to yourself.”
That did it! I stood up and stared straight into the gray eyes of my handsome first psychiatrist. “You’re a fucking idiot, you know that?”
Never before had I sworn at an adult and the biting pressure of the F sound resonated thrillingly on my bottom lip. I hurled my snot filled tissues into his lap, where they bounced a little on the small white notepad covering the very organ that had prompted all this misery. Sitting back in his leather armchair, his striped tie comfortably loosened, Dr. Coulson showed no emotion besides a surprised arch of one eyebrow, half covered by his longish hair.
His smug self-assurance, his condescending placidity, threatened a new round of tears. But this time, I was goddamn sure not going to let him see them. I swallowed the mucus that had dripped down my throat, stuffed my feet into my docksiders, and walked proudly out of his office, slamming the door behind me with all the violence I could muster. In the waiting room I grabbed my coat off the rack and marched down the short, carpeted hallway to the final exit.
It was early. Ana would not be waiting in the driveway, the motor idling, her eyes fixed blankly out the windshield. That was okay. I would simply walk all the way home by myself. When I finally arrived it would be so late and my parents would be so grateful to see me alive that they would accept my refusal to ever return to Dr. Coulson. Even my father wouldn’t yell. With a sense of victory, I swung open the door.
In charged the big golden retriever, who had somehow managed to get locked out of the house and was waiting anxiously in the driveway. Before I could even step outside, he leapt on me, pawing my throat and barking furiously, as if in some strange perversion of the actual events, I was trying to break into and enter the house instead of leave it. I dropped my coat and screamed, shaking my face against the dog’s thick spray of spit.
Dr. Coulson came running towards me. “Down, Brandy. Get off her!” He grabbed my bare wrist with one hand, the dog’s collar with the other, pushing the animal behind him.
“Are you okay? Did he hurt you?” My doctor’s mouth was so close I could smell his coffee breath. He pressed me against the wall, staring at me fixedly. I’m sure he was terrified about a lawsuit, but his eyes were so fervent, his hand so warm that a hot shock of desire seized my gut. I felt my entire body slacken, as if all I had ever wanted in my whole life was for this man to sweep me off my feet, rush me back to his orange couch, and rid me of my suddenly burdensome virginity.
Behind his back, the dog bounced impatiently and whined. Dr. Coulson released my wrist. “Wait right here,” he ordered, exiting with the dog while I stood still as a stone.
When he returned, Dr. Coulson swept his hand across his hair, then tightened his tie and stretched his neck. He nodded to my coat splayed like a corpse on the carpet. “How about picking that up and returning to my office.”
Without giving me a second look, he walked past me. I followed behind, hung my coat on the rack, and lay back down on the hard orange couch. Dr. Coulson closed the office door.
From this day forward, I rarely had insomnia or another migraine. That very night I began fantasizing about Dr. Coulson and masturbating like crazy. Whereas before, I was up at all hours thinking about the barking boys and the Manhattan slasher, now I lay in bed plunging my fingers and various household objects (a candlestick, a cucumber, the handle of one of my mother’s largish paint brushes) between my thighs, thinking about how maybe one day, the doctor would slam down his little notepad and rush from his leather armchair to the couch. “I can’t stand it anymore, my darling!” Down, down his face would come, his lips on my mouth, on my throat, in my cleavage. In one fell swoop he’d wrench my panties off my ankles and open my thighs like a big fat book. “Here,” Dr. Coulson would say, putting my hand on his gray flannel crotch. And though I had no idea what to expect, though neither the male nude my mother once painted nor the drawings in my biology textbooks had featured an erection, I would fearlessly unbuckle my first shrink’s black belt, unzip the crotch of his gray flannel pants, and free his mysterious penis from his fly. Whatever it looked like—a bottle top, a pepper grinder, a monstrously large snail head—I would pull it on top of me and thrust it in and out, softly at first and then harder and harder, my doctor’s heavy breathing mixing with his husky grunts: “I don’t love my wife”—in and out, grunt, grunt—“I love you”— grunt, grunt, in and out—“And your fabulous vagina, because”—in and out, grunt, grunt—“I always wished I had one!” Alone in bed, I came and came and came until I was so thoroughly exhausted I had no choice but to fall asleep. In the mornings, I awoke well-rested and migraine-free.
Within a few months, I found new friends at Thornton and my grades improved. My parents praised the good doctor and he raised his rates. And session after session, I faithfully reported all my fantasies, while Dr. William Coulson sat in his leather armchair, always out of sight.
Susan Celia Greenfield received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania and teaches literature at Fordham University in Bronx, NY. Her fiction has appeared in several journals, including Cimarron Review, Literary Mama, and The Stockholm Review of Literature. She is the author of a monograph about mother-daughter relationships in novels by women, and editor of the forthcoming book, Sacred Shelter: Thirteen Journeys of Homelessness and Healing. She is currently working on a novel.