Chits came in stapled packets, five yellow slips
to a page, that ripped like postage stamps, perforated.
Three’d buy a creamsicle, or a barbershop twirl
of white vanilla shot with chocolate.
……………………………………………………..Inside the girl’s
locker room, open to sky: tuna, peanut butter.
Slatted boards laid their shadows beneath us.
Cross-legged, towel our card table, so nothing fell
…………….Sun pooled; we painted our noses
with white, thick Noxema.
………………………………………..Go Fish, bubbles drifted
up from the nose of a cartoon orange fish;
or Old Maid, we’d scream, getting her, bun, spectacles
like death, in childhood’s parlor.
tops beginning to bulge enough for training bras.
My Daddy said, You’re a man trap.
Mary’s older brother, a redhead, swam close
towards the dock; the end of the boardwalk floated.
Horseshoe crabs compassed under it, tails moving
needles. Their blood blue from copper, scientists
drained it; it clots in response to toxins.
the harbor Watson was writing The Double Helix.
We were spun in the vortex of two-piece cotton suits
like Gidget. Angus was older by a decade. Only once
did he lift me onto the low rung of ladder, sea brown,
warm; clear jellyfish the size of figs swirled.
a month lifeguards whistled us out; sharks’ fins
streamed past a red nun.
………………………………………..Mary once invited me over;
I didn’t understand Catholic meant too many children.
Her mother had something called a “nervous breakdown.”
The phrase clotted in my head; forty years later, crouched
on our dining room floor, crying I couldn’t stop.
my father turned his head towards me in bed.
In photographs, lab technicians in masks, shower caps,
fold back each carapace, stick in steel needles, crabs
strapped above glass jars into which drips sky color.
Tina Barr’s books include Green Target, winner of the Barrow Street Press Book Prize, as well as the Brockman-Campbell Award for the best book of poems published in NC in 2018, Kaleidoscope (Iris Press) and The Gathering Eye (Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize) and three chapbooks, all winners of chapbook contests. Her Fellowships include the National Endowment for the Arts, Tennessee Arts Commission, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and MacDowell Colony. She teaches in the Great Smokies CW Program at UNCA.
The yo-yo slams me in the teeth and I buckle to the ground. It makes the guys gleam to see me on my knees like this, like the women in the videos we watch who are always begging. Tyler grabs his blue jean crotch and says “Nice teats.” I am fatter than them, sure. Me and Tyler are thirteen. Ace, fifteen. About my weight, my mom doesn’t say that I’m a teenager, that I’m still growing. She says I’ll be as fat as my uncle Louis who died from stomach cancer when he was thirty-two. I was too young to remember him. Anytime I open the refrigerator—even for some ice cubes to drop down my shirt in the summer—Mom says, “It could have been all that sugar that did him in. He didn’t eat half as much as you, though.”
Where did my tooth go? I try to focus on one thing at a time, ignoring Ace’s toady laugh and Tyler saying things we’ve heard a million times before. “Big ol’ titties on Erick,” he says, lightly kicking me in the calf. “Did you see how well she took it, that yo-yo in her mouth?” His hands move from his crotch back to the yo-yo. He swings it, winds it up again. Loops and loops around his grubby middle finger. Walk the dog, around-the-world.
“Is the baby crying?” Ace asks, standing over me.
“It sthucking hurths,” I say. I manage to get up on one knee.
“It was an accident,” Tyler says, not looking at me.
“But it sure made me hard,” Ace says. He looks at Tyler for approval.
Tyler doesn’t respond, keeps working the yo-yo like a marionette doll. We’re behind the old Pizza Hut where we go to poke at condom wrappers, half-empty cans of beer, lone tufts of black hair. I half-heartedly look for the tooth, my hand mumbling over gunky bottle caps and dried balls of chewing gum.
When I find it, a shiny yellow-white fleck nestled atop a piece of potato chip bag, Tyler is rocking the baby. His face is calm, a sheet of pale dough. Paternal, almost. Maybe this is what Louis looked like. I don’t know anything about him aside from the fact that he was my uncle and he was fat like I am and he had cancer. Maybe he was like Tyler somehow. Maybe it’s good that he’s dead. I dust the tooth off and stuff it deep in the front pocket of my t-shirt.
“You do a trick,” Tyler says, throwing the yo-yo at me.
The yo-yo feels heavy in my hand, my jaw throbbing with pain. The only thing I’m able to do is make the yo-yo sleep. It purrs on the ground near the rest of my blood.
Tyler stomps it, grabs his crotch. “That one is called ‘gang bang,’” he says.
“Gang bang,” Ace says. He laughs and also grabs his crotch. They both look at me.
“Gang bang,” I say. I grab my crotch. When I pull my hand away, the splayed, bloody fingerprints look like a pitiful stain. Like a person turned upside-down and falling.
Nicole Rivas teaches writing courses in Savannah, GA, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Alabama, and is the Flash Editor at Newfound. Her chapbook of flash fiction, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, was the winner of the Rose Metal Press 12th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest. For a list of publications, visit www.nicolemrivas.com.
she scans a glossy creak
lowland like wood floors
creased with alluvial fans
playas and alkali flats
before sandy gravely
shortgrass in a quiet pool
where roasted peanuts,
a sneezing fit, or snores
stroke a pocket comb
in a chorus of saws
floating in a San
Francisco rain and river
where power sounds
Michael Rerick lives, teaches, and washes dishes in Portland, OR. Work recently appears or is forthcoming at Clade Song, COAST|noCOAST, Counter Narratives, Graviton, Mannequin Haus, Porridge, and The Wire’s Dream. He is also the author of In Ways Impossible to Fold, morefrom, The Kingdom of Blizzards, The Switch Yards, and X-Ray.
October 27, 2018 9:07 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Twenty-one-year-old Matthew clicks his tongue in time to each step he takes. Tramping on carpet, he still makes the cupboards rattle as he descends the staircase into the living room. Knowing the clicking signifies contentment, his mother turns over in her bed and allows herself fifteen more minutes of sleep.
It’s the weekend, so Matthew has gotten himself dressed. He’s put his shirt on backwards and his shoes on the wrong feet. He plonks down next to the bookcase where his picture books are lined up. He removes one book at a time, rubbing each glossy page between his thumb and forefinger, and places it next to him, building a neat tower. Matthew is humming Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, probably inspired by Goodnight Moon, one of his favorite books. Or at least that’s what his mother hypothesizes as she lies in bed half-asleep, listening to him. She can’t know for sure since Matthew is severely autistic and non-verbal.
What she does know is that this sort of repetitive activity centers him, and enables him to block out competing sounds, colors and stimuli all vying equally for his attention.
October 27, 2018 9:40 a.m., Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania
Three hundred and four miles away, David Rosenthal, fifty-four, walks through the doors of the Tree of Life Synagogue just as he’s done every other Saturday for decades. Positioning himself inside the sanctuary, he busies himself arranging prayer books and shawls for services. His older brother, Cecil, stands at the back of the sanctuary, greeting congregants. Like many who are intellectually disabled, these brothers appreciate the predictability of a Shabbat service with its routines and rituals.
October 27, 2018 9:42 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Matthew spins in circles, stomps his feet, and shrieks with delight, doing what his mother calls his “happy dance” as she makes his smoothie—frozen pineapple, banana, and mango. He has already asked his mother to tell him the “story of my day” many times this morning, fisting his right hand in a ball while leaving his left hand open and moving them in sync as if he is opening a story book. “You’re going to have a smoothie,” his mother says. “We are going to go for a walk; we will come home and eat lunch, and then you will play with your puzzles and books.”
Had his mother been shown a picture of David and Cecil Rosenthal, she would have taken note of David’s shirt, untucked from the front of his pants, and the way his eyes squint more than the average person when he smiles, as if he is using every available facial muscle to feel happiness.
Their graying hair would make her uneasy. She can’t bear to think of a time when her son will be middle-aged himself, and she too old to care for him.
As she pours Matthew’s smoothie into a glass, she remembers her dream from last night, a recurring dream in which she and Matthew are having a “normal” conversation, although all he is capable of in “real life” are approximations of words that only she and those who know him well can understand. Their conversations in these dreams are lovely, but she never remembers what they were about. Some nights she tries to force the dream, promising herself that this time she will remember the words. But it never works. She doesn’t have that kind of control.
9:54 a.m., Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania
In the neighborhood surrounding the Synagogue, people begin their Saturday morning routines. Some wearing raincoats will walk their dogs as a light mist descends. Others will anticipate the afternoon Pitt football game or prepare lists for their Saturday food shopping.
From the parking lot of the Giant Eagle grocery store, shoppers hear a booming racket piercing the stillness of the morning. What construction is so important that such loud equipment must be used this time of day? they might ask. The popping explosions become sickeningly regular and staccato. Some who know what gunfire sounds like keep track of bursts.
The first 911 call comes into dispatch. “We are being attacked,” the caller whispers.
“Get out of there and don’t let anyone else in,” the operator responds.
9:57 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Matthew’s mother flips on the radio as she puts lemon poppy seed muffins into the toaster oven. The announcer reports about a shooting spree in a synagogue in a quiet neighborhood in Pittsburgh, a neighborhood she might be surprised to know is strikingly similar to her own, with brick and stone homes constructed at the turn of the century, gracing the community like sleepy unassuming giants.
Rinsing blueberries at the sink, she raises her head and stares through the window into the half-eaten eyes of a Jack-o-Lantern. Halloween is four days away. For the first time she notices the jagged bite marks scarring its face. The squirrels seem more aggressive and hungrier than usual this season, as if they and their food source are not in alignment. She remembers a film she saw some thirty years ago called Koyaanisqatsi, a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance.” Instead of humanity growing apart from nature, as it did in the film, here in her backyard nature was growing apart from itself. She can feel herself shaping the natural world to the growing unease inside of her.
She turns on the blender, drowning out the radio. The noise is jarring, but she welcomes a reprieve from the relentless news coverage. She can’t bear to think how she might protect her son from gunfire if they were out in the world together. He wouldn’t understand. If anything, he’d be attracted to the overwhelming sensory sensation of repetitive bursts crackling through his body.
She wishes she could talk to him about the shootings, try to make sense of the insanity. Twenty-one years of living with him doesn’t erase this desire in her. If anything, it grows stronger.
Matthew spins in circles again, this time his arms outstretched like wings, bumping into her every so often. He’s laughing too, because for him there’s nothing better than the anticipation of a smoothie and muffin for breakfast on Saturday with his “Mama.” She notices that the front of his shirt has come untucked.
9:59 a.m., Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania
Bernice and Sylvan Simon, eighty-four and eighty-six respectively, sit side by side in the pews as they anticipate singing the Sh’ma, an ancient prayer that opens Saturday morning services. Sylvan’s face is all curves: the rounded chin, the bulbous nose, the arches on either side of his mouth. He has the face of a kindly neighbor who picks up windblown trash from neighbors’ lawns. Bernice delighted in singing “You Are My Sunshine“ to her kids when they were young. Hard of hearing, Bernice and Sylvan don’t take in the commotion in the hallway. They don’t see the gunman who bursts through the door of the sanctuary until he is directly in front of them and shooting. They die in the same synagogue where they wed sixty-two years ago.
Zone 5 Police Commander Jason Lando shouts into his radio, “Every available unit in the city needs to get here now.” Sirens flood the neighborhood. They whip down alleyways and ricochet off glass. Melvin Wax, eighty-seven years old, hears them as he hides in a storage room at the back of the chapel. People shopping in the nearby supermarket hear them.
10:00 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Matthew’s mother would ordinarily delight in the sound of her son singing his favorite song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” He sings like this: “Naah na nana na naaaaahna, na nana nana naaaaaaah…”
Part of her wants to join in but she can’t. She can’t muster the cheerfulness the song requires. Not when there’s been another mass shooting. Matthew lifts his eyes from the muffin crumbs he is rearranging on his plate and looks expectantly at her. He doesn’t realize she is just now remembering the words, but not the melody, to a chant she hasn’t sung in forty-five years. Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. When she went to synagogue as a child, the congregation recited the Sh’ma at the beginning and ending of every service. She wonders as she says the words out loud if Matthew realizes they are in a different language.
10:00 a.m., Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania
Rose Mallinger, ninety-seven, slowly bleeds to death on the sanctuary floor. She is one of those women who grow more beautiful in old age. In photographs the lines on her face, especially those framing her eyes and mouth, suggest a life gently lived, despite the fact that she survived the Holocaust. Her daughter Andrea Wedner, sixty-one, accompanies her to services, as she usually does each week. Though she is shot too, she will survive.
Police stationed around the perimeter of the synagogue hear Commander Lando’s voice crackle through their walkie-talkies: “We are pinned down by gunfire. The shooter is firing out the front door of the building with an automatic weapon.”
A cold drizzle falls. Shards of glass litter the sidewalk.
10:17 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Matthew’s mother thinks every Synagogue she has ever been in smells the same—a mixture of old carpet, musty prayer books, Aqua Net hairspray, coats reeking of moth balls, and the breath of old men.
10:36 a.m., Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania
Outside the sanctuary, a toppled bottle of whiskey sits on a white tablecloth, awaiting a baby naming ceremony, the whiskey steadily seeping into the carpet. A SWAT operator reports finding four bodies in the atrium.
Black polyester yarmulkes in a carved wooden receptacle nestle into one another. Men’s hats, some with feathers, still damp from the outside, rest on top of the coat rack. The eternal light suspended in front of the ark and a symbol of God’s presence, glows.
From certain angles the Tree of Life Synagogue could be mistaken for a nondescript government building. With its simple rectangular shape and cement walls, it fails to distinguish itself. But inside the sanctuary, soaring stained glass windows spread prisms of light across the pews.
Melvin Wax weeps in the darkened space where he hides. As the door swings open, he lets out a whimper and the gunman fires at him, knocking his body back onto the storage room floor. Fellow congregant Barry Werber, also hidden in the storage room, checks Melvin’s pulse. There isn’t one. The stained-glass windows remain intact.
10:42 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
A glass hummingbird ornament above the kitchen sink reflects blue and green light onto the counter. A siren wails in the distance and for a minute Matthew’s mother assumes it is responding to the killings. She feels protected in her kitchen, her son within sight of her in the next room. She tells herself not to go outside where they might be vulnerable. Then she remembers that they live in a different city six hours away. The tooth she had a root canal on ten years ago throbs.
Matthew gets up from the living floor where he is assembling puzzles and makes signs for “siren.” He rotates his fist in the air over and over again until his mother says, “Yes, I hear the siren.”
10:54 a.m., Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania
Joyce Fineberg, seventy-five, who prayed at the Tree of Life synagogue every day since her husband’s death, lies dying. A retired researcher from nearby University of Pittsburgh, she had recently joined the Board of the Synagogue to help revitalize the congregation. Her bangs and chin length hair give her a no-nonsense appearance.
Daniel Stein, seventy-one who has recently become a grandfather lies dying as well. His children often joked that he hadn’t bought a new tie in years—that he didn’t care about style. Richard Gottfried, sixty-five, a dentist who treated uninsured refugees and immigrants, lies dying too.
What are the last sounds they hear? Bullets bouncing off walls or hitting flesh? People moaning? Or maybe something more consoling like soft water droplets hitting the stained-glass windows, or starlings chirping in a nearby tree, or even retreating footsteps muffled by carpeting, a door opening, then closing, indicating an end to the mayhem.
11:02 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Matthew listens for the sound of crunching leaves as he tramples through the neighborhood on his Saturday morning walk with his mother. Unlike Pittsburgh, the day in Philadelphia is dry. Yellow leaves on oak trees blaze like flames against a gray sky. Acorns ping as they drop onto parked cars.
In preparation for Halloween, the Malinowskis decorated their windows with bloody handprints. The Sussons have strewn yellow police tape across their front door. The Agnettas staked a skeleton hand in the ground, and it reaches up, as if it were attached to somebody buried alive.
Matthew crouches down on his hands and knees to get a closer look at a giant black spider decoration on the James’ fence. Afraid to touch it, he places his mother’s hand on it to see if it moves.
11:08 a.m., Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania
Injured and bleeding, the shooter finally follows police orders. He crawls on the floor and surrenders his guns. He’s taken into custody.
11:21 a.m., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Matthew and his mother return home from their walk. He takes up his picture books again, this time lining them in a straight row on the floor.
The melody of the Sh’ma, deeply submerged all morning, unaccountably surfaces and his mother, sitting on the sofa, begins to sing. Matthew stops and listens, perhaps because this melody is unlike all the others in her repertoire with its minor key and melancholy. Then he hums with her, and for a passing moment the tiny muscles around his eyes and his forehead strain. She wonders if he experiences the sense of yearning in the music that she does.
On another day she might have sung “You Are my Sunshine.” But today she wants to be true to her emotions, wants Matthew to somehow understand her grief and know that something is different. Feeling restless, she goes to the windows and opens the Venetian blinds. Shards of light refract on the wooden floor like pieces of broken glass. Matthew touches them as if they possess some kind of life force. In a minute the sun will shift in the sky and they will be gone. But for now, she and Matthew focus on the same experience, which is what she realizes she’s been hoping for all morning.
Debra Fox’s stories and poems have appeared in bioStories, Embodied Effigies, Hyperlexia Journal, Blue Lyra Review, Heron’s Nest, Haiku Canada Review, Modern Haiku, and Frogpond. She is an attorney and founder of Story Tributes, an enterprise that preserves the stories of people’s lives. She lives on the outskirts of Philadelphia with her family.
I died Sunday, for sixty seconds, at precisely 4:44 p.m. Novel and beer in tow, I strolled over to my armchair and tottered. Nausea somehow morphed into this buttery light that bled over the edges of my vision. There were my parents. There was my childhood, my friends, and my lovers, all these thoughts tinged with forgiveness (though there was nothing to forgive). And then I was down, and then I was up, wheezing, gasping for air.
My memories of how I’d gotten to where I was (floor, apartment, city) were slow to return, as if I’d been concussed. I’d been gone for a long time—years—only to be reborn. Picking up my spilled beer and splayed-open book, I checked the time: 4:45 p.m.
“I actually died,” I told my oncologist the next day.
She prescribed a full day’s worth of scans. CT, PET, MRI, tests without acronyms. Nothing new was wrong with me. While the EKG tech gelled up electrode patches and applied them one by one to my bared chest with the feathery touch of a Jenga player, the wall clock’s minute hand shifted to forty-four after and I flatlined, spasming up a minute later, choking on the dense waft of the tech’s shea butter-scented hair product as she hovered over me, debating whether to administer CPR or fire up the defibrillator.
So-called experts had never seen anything like it. The cardiologist, who himself was centrally obese and labored audibly to breathe, said it “must be” a new type of arrhythmia even though I’d passed all the heart stress tests. The oncologist fondled her silver bracelet as she shrugged and said, “I’m deferring to the heart guy.” They recommended I wear an event monitor and hire a daytime caretaker. “Event monitor”! What a phrase! I couldn’t afford one. I was officially in remission, so I had to return to work. The company’s healthcare coverage was the only reason I wasn’t impoverished already. The doctors reluctantly cleared me.
Death was perfectly manageable. I was a marketing director at a credit card company, so at work, I blocked off my daily schedule between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. and jury-rigged my own event monitor: an alarm on my phone that gave me a two-minute death warning. Every day at 4:30 p.m, I’d go to the bathroom, sit in a stall, lean back, and try to get comfortable. Pants down (so no one would think I was just shirking work), I’d wait to die. Weekends at home, I’d sit in my armchair and make sure I wasn’t eating or drinking anything that might cause a mess, then I’d face the window, stare up at the sky, and safely pass away. At night, after rising from the dead, I’d pop half an Ambien to fall back asleep quicker.
I’d never felt like I was owed an average lifespan. I’d never had any huge goals. I wasn’t disappointed about the many things I hadn’t experienced. I’d loved and lost. I’d traveled. I’d met people I treasured and hated. We’re all just animals, imminent dirt. That we can experience love and heartbreak and hate is an existential bonus.
When I saw the yellowing light again and felt myself sinking, I tried to hold the memories of loved ones appearing in my dying flashes so I could recall them when I was reborn. First, it was my immediate family, but as the months went by, there were others:
Ed, my college roommate and childhood best friend. He lived out west and was a veep at a toy company. We only spoke to each other every year or two now. Kristen, my best friend when I studied abroad in Madrid. I’d been madly in love with her, an impossible love. She now had three kids in a small town in R—. Jennifer, a peer with whom I’d worked at a startup for five years. She was a Republican and I, a Democrat. We sat across from each other in an open floor plan and would spar about politics. I found myself thinking about her more often than I liked to admit. She lived in S— now.
I wished I were closer to them. I was alive but not the same type of alive I was when healthy. When you become seriously ill, you never rejoin the ranks of people who take health for granted. You feel one hundred percent but you know you can feel perfectly fine and have tumors eating you alive. A life-threatening illness forces both a constant awareness of mortality and estrangement of mind from body.
I wrote to the people I saw before my “death minutes.” I told them they’d made an indelible mark on me, as if I were previously a blank canvas.
“The thing I like about you, Ed, is that you were always so loyal to me,” I emailed. “I’ll forever remember what you said about me at your wedding. That you wanted to be like me. Articulate, creative, funny. I’ve never felt like I had any of those attributes.”
“Hang in there, bud,” he replied. “I know this cancer thing’s thrown you for a loop. You’re not losing hope, are you?”
To Kristen: “I loved that you hated everything. Just like me! You were so cool, so skeptical, so cynical about life. When you’re nineteen, all you have to be is cool. God, how I’d wished you had feelings for me. After a while, it fucking hurt to be so close to you and know you didn’t feel the same way I felt about you.”
“I did have feelings for you,” she replied. “Maybe not those feelings. But you were the only reason I didn’t go out of my mind with loneliness while we were abroad. I just didn’t express my feelings well back then. We were all so preoccupied with being cool.”
When I told Jennifer how much I still thought about her, ten years after we’d worked together, she refused to take the emotional bait. She didn’t write about what she’d been doing for the past decade. She only said she’d visit soon so we could “hang out.”
But she started writing me every couple of weeks with funny stories about her current boss at the bank where she worked.
I’d write back and joke about the many different ways I played the cancer card in the office. I frequently took Fridays off, pretending I had doctor’s appointments. I’d call in sick complaining of ridiculous ailments, blaming my weakened immune system—the more absurd and obscure the illness the better (UTI, hemorrhoids, shingles, hard-to-pronounce diarrheal diseases). If I sensed that some higher-up doubted my proposals, I’d cite that compared to beating cancer, any of our top initiatives were easy, and they’d be reassured by my intestinal fortitude and suddenly believe in my ability to make my proposals reality. I told Jennifer that business would take me through S—, even though that was untrue. Would she like to meet up? Yes, she would.
My oncologist informed me that after conferring with several doctors, she thought my “death minutes” could be fixed by implanting a simple pacemaker.
“What does the heart guy think?” I asked.
Her gaze dropped. “He passed away last week.”
I blurted a wow. As a seriously ill patient, you assume your doctors are masters of their own health and somehow impervious to mortality.
“What if I don’t want to do it?” I asked.
“You’re risking death daily.”
But I wasn’t ready to stop dying.
“You’re young,” she said. “You should lead a normal life.”
A normal life meant you let things pass you by. You lost touch with people. You allowed the routine to distance you from your loved ones. You forgot the feeling of genuine connection.
The oncologist’s lips parted, her breath held—for an instant, she looked dead. “I suppose we can try beta blockers or something,” she muttered. “Let me check with the heart people.”
I rented a car and drove five hours to S— because when I flew now, I almost always got sick. When I got to the hotel, my phone battery was dead and I discovered that I’d left the charger at home. Jennifer had agreed to meet for a late lunch and was already on the way from the suburbs. The surly concierge requisitioned my phone and agreed to charge it in the back. (Later, I’d find a fee of $14.99 for “Electrical Services” on my bill.)
I’d have to wrap up my reunion with Jennifer before 4:44 p.m.
We met in the hotel lobby. A decade ago, she’d worn knee-high boots and expensive blouses, and designer sunglasses, even in winter. Now she wore Birkenstocks, khakis, and a white, long-sleeved wicking shirt. Still, I could see the twenty-three-year-old I’d known.
“You look terrific,” she said, inspecting me up and down.
“Cancer works wonders!” I’d lost fifteen pounds in the past year.
“I…didn’t know what to expect.”
“You expected worse.”
“Am I terrible for thinking that?”
“Of course not,” I said. “You’re healthy.”
We went to a brunch place a short walk from the hotel. Jennifer was an animal lover. She owned a dog and a cat. She volunteered and helped raise money for animal shelters. She enjoyed her job managing technology projects at a large bank. She had a gaze that could stare even death into the ground.
And she’d been partnered with a woman for eight years.
“What about you?” she asked.
“I was with someone before the diagnosis,” I said. “Together four years. I was going to propose, but then she was offered a job in Hong Kong. I wasn’t going to go there and do nothing. So she left.”
“Do you regret it?”
“Now? No,” I said. There we were, sitting across from each other again, this time in a restaurant instead of an office. Why was I playing games, trying to woo her with my death-sparked soulfulness?
“Hong Kong would’ve been amazing,” Jennifer said. “I’d have figured out the work thing later.”
“Had it happened after the cancer,” I lied, “I’d have gone with her.” I’d recently written Mika, my ex, opining that our split was for the best because we didn’t truly love each other.
Jennifer smiled with furrowed brows. “Are you sure?”
“No,” I admitted.
“You seem like a stay-in-one-place type of guy,” she said. “You’ve never left the City. You watch the river go around you. I can’t. I get restless. I’m, like, two different people. There’s the dutiful bank employee who loves animals and the adventurer who moved to the City at nineteen with nothing but twenty dollars.”
“So, like, the Democrat and Republican in yourself.”
Jennifer laughed. “Which is which?”
“The lesser of two evils!”
Jennifer laughed, which made me laugh, which made her laugh.
Later, walking with Jennifer through the cypress groves of S—, I learned there was nothing she wouldn’t try. Ribbon dancing. Sky diving. Trapeze. The old me would’ve been intimidated by someone so up for everything, but the post-death me was emboldened. I was now like Jennifer—restless and in search of adventure too! Maybe she’d be up for cheating on her long-time partner! With a man, no less!
Storm clouds gathering, we passed the gates of the town’s famous cemetery, which looked alive, ironically, the wind its breath, the trees stretching and bending, like giants doing calisthenics. The headstones looked like a child trying to wriggle out of a sweater. I realized I had lost track of time; my death was likely imminent.
“I should go,” I blurted, interrupting Jennifer’s story about a recent trip to Bhutan.
“Is everything okay?”
“I have a work call.”
“On a Saturday?”
“Yeah, my boss is a dick,” I said, spinning around. “How do I get back to the hotel?”
Jennifer gave directions I was too agitated to absorb. I saw the yellow light. She smelled of pine needles. She said my name. I said hers. I considered asking if I could kiss her. If not in the moments before death, then when?
I thought I could see her thinking: The next time I hear about him, it’s going to be because he’s dead. She hugged me so tightly that I squeezed harder to match her force. We seemed to embrace for a long time. I worried I’d die at any moment in her arms. But then Jennifer let go. And I had done nothing. I was indeed the stay-in-one-place, watch-the-river-go-around-me guy.
“I’m glad you got back in touch,” she said, professionally, as if to erase what had just happened. “Keep me updated on your health.”
I said goodbye and bolted. Rounding the nearest corner, I died.
When I came to, my cheek was on the sidewalk, badly abraded. I tongued a salty gap in my gums. I’d lost a bicuspid. I staggered back to the hotel, spitting blood along the way. The doorman eyed me suspiciously and didn’t offer any help. The concierge returned my phone (only half-charged though I’d been gone for hours). I went to my room, cleaned myself up, checked out, bought a car charger, and drove back to the City.
Soon after I returned, I began to die for two minutes twice a day. A few weeks later, three minutes. My oncologist warned that, according to “the brain lady,” after six minutes of heart stoppage, the brain begins to die. And yet, when my deaths surpassed six minutes, I continued to rise undamaged. That’s when the doctors requested my consent to be studied. I refused, having had my fill of hospital time.
Now, after about a year, I die for a full hour daily. One down, twenty-three to go! I did make one concession to my oncologist and agreed to wear a CPAP mask during my times of death to ensure some oxygen flow to the brain, and at work, where I had blinds put up over my office window, I frequently extol to my colleagues the many virtues of afternoon meditation. I block off more and more time, telling anyone who will listen that our lives are borrowed on credit, the interest rates are variable, and we’re all headed for zero balance.
Mika returns from Hong Kong tonight to celebrate my birthday. We’ve been corresponding daily for the past year. She’d recently said recovery had changed me, that I’d been given a new life. Not new life but death, I hadn’t said.
Leland Cheuk is the author of three books of fiction, including the novels The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong and most recently, No Good Very Bad Asian, forthcoming from C&R Press in October 2019. His work has appeared in Salon, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, Literary Hub, among others. He has been awarded fellowships at The MacDowell Colony, Hawthornden Castle, Djerassi, and elsewhere. He runs the indie press 7.13 Books and lives in Brooklyn.
On Memorial Day other small towns watch parades. There’s hotdogs and fireworks and tall bearded men dressed up like Abe Lincoln with plastic top hats and that old man who might ride the streets in his vintage Mustang, decked out with streamers and his pre-teen granddaughter. The topiaries are usually draped in American flags or sprayed with blue and white paint. The toddlers run in the street while volunteer firefighters chewing tobacco throw fistfuls of Bazooka at them, almost missing their heads. Veterans march. Wives throw rice like they’re at a 1970s wedding.
Thomaston’s Memorial Day celebration is almost like that. We do the parade and the candy and the cars, the police smoke cigarettes and glare at the kids on skateboards, but at Thomaston’s parade, everyone wears white. Thomaston’s parade trickles down the center of town and builds momentum as it marches up the hill up to the cemetery with the manmade lake in the middle. Miss Columbia recites the Gettysburg Address in a boat in the pond. Girls toss daisies at her. Women cry.
Miss Columbia is the prettiest girl in the senior class. Maybe she’s sporty, involved. Each year she’s the product of a long line of Thomaston folk—the daughter of the basketball coach or the owner of the Country Grocer or the head of the Thomaston PTA. She’s blonde, usually, and her destiny is set in stone the minute her parents decide to bunker down in the town they grew up in. Voting for the event takes place in September, when the PTA picks three girls who’s names they recognize in the senior class and nominate them. It comes down to the senior class to make the decision. Sixty kids hold the fate of the most important title in all of Thomaston.
When my mother was a senior in high school, she was a Miss Columbia. There’s still pictures in the house: 80s feathered hair, a white dress with sleeves puffed up to her ears, the little brown boat. Men in curly mullets nestled between headstones, their children splashing in the water.
Her mother was a Miss Columbia too, only it was the fifties and people had big dreams: nice cars, nice wives, nice place to raise a nice family.
My senior year of high school saw me shave my head and walk the halls in Birkenstocks and Hillary 2016 t-shirts. I didn’t shave, and I wanted everyone to know. In class once, when the English teacher asked why Holden Caulfield called everyone phony, I proudly raised my arm to show off my armpits, bleached and dip-dyed blue.
“He doesn’t fit in to the adult world,” I said.
When Miss Columbia voting rolled around, I wasn’t nominated, and I didn’t care, but my mother, clinging to the window when I got home from school, wanted to hear all about it.
“So who is it?” she asked. “Did you get it?”
I gave her a look.
“Well, who was it?”
She looked concerned, panicked. As if she’d just received news that her parents were both in intensive care. She busied herself with the dishes, wiping nonstick pans and putting them in the lazy Susan beside the stove.
“I don’t know yet.”
Everyone in town could tell you who Miss Columbia is, but no one could really tell you what it is—the strange boat ride across the man-made pond filled up with dog piss and green scum, the gravediggers halting their work to catch a glimpse of thong under a flyaway skirt.
The tradition started as a welcome home celebration in mid-July in 1919, when Union veterans were still alive and the most important pillars of the community. Thomaston was at its height back then, and the fanfare of the celebration matched the commerce. The New York Times had called Thomaston the ideal place for families and businessmen alike (just two hours from the city and three hours from Boston), so the Miss Columbia celebration served as both an honoring of war heroes and a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Businesses closed their doors at noon and everyone marched together and Miss Columbia stood proud as the pure symbol of victory, white against the murky water, driving her community forward in the “best parade event” the town had ever seen.
But then the last Union soldier died, and the Great Depression rolled through the area with all the force of a crumbling building, and everything was consolidated. The armistice homecoming was kicked out in favor of a “Miss Columbia Celebration” during the annual Memorial Day Parade, and the boat ceremony was rebranded to suggest pride for Naval officers serving in World War I. Organizers added a convertible ride through town for their queen, along with a firing squad and a trumpet.
Of course, if you asked a local today what Miss Columbia stands for, they’d probably say it’s an excuse to drink Bud Light in public.
The year my mother was named Miss Columbia, she took her then boyfriend, Scott Lambert, to prom. He was a skinny white guy, with one of those wiry haircuts parted straight down the middle. In pictures he’s wearing a white tux and too much acne, cradling my mother in an awkward, sexually-charged embrace that saves almost enough room for Jesus. From the pictures, it’s clear they didn’t belong together; she didn’t belong with any of the people she took pictures with that night. She was six feet tall and played JV basketball—which meant she was still womanly enough to be desired, not muscular enough for the big leagues. All of her friends had home-done hairdos and messy eyeshadow; dorky, shy boyfriends with bad teeth.
At family parties she’ll pull out the pictures and say something like, “look how pretty I was,” then rattle off the story about dumping Scott Lambert after a quickie in the car when he sneezed, and a booger fell in her mouth.
“I said, ‘I’m better than this,” she’ll say. “I deserved better than him, so I ended it.”
Dumping Scott Lambert, to this day, remains one of her biggest achievements.
I, on the other hand, wore Dr. Martens to senior prom and brought a kid from church. There was enough room for Jesus to stretch out his legs.
Holly’s is Thomaston’s townie bar. They’ve got green felt carpets, wood paneling, a sink with rust stains in the bathroom. On Fridays and Saturdays Holly’s does karaoke, where white guys do Darius Rucker covers or “God Bless America” on an infinite loop. They sell Cheetos by the bag and fine cheese platters for $3.99, and the owner, Holly, is always sipping Absolut behind the counter, so you have to tell her how to pour a Guinness while she slurs along in agreement.
Holly’s is always open. On Christmas and Easter they open at four, but most days they start serving at noon, perfect for the old men who loiter at the sticky bar and complain about their wives and kids. Holly’s does Veteran’s specials on national holidays: red, white, and blue Jell-O shots for a dollar, which works, because every surface of the place is draped in American flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” paraphernalia.
Everything’s cheap there—the clientele, the drinks, the ladies’ night specials—so I’ve recently become a regular, but my mother, who’s worked as a fine dining waitress for the past thirty years, never dared.
“That’s where the homeless go,” she said once. “They’ve got bedbugs.”
Once I got her to go with me, drove the quarter mile downtown in her red Audi to the bad side of town near Reynold’s Bridge where the people without cars loiter.
“I can’t do this,” she said. “What if somebody sees me?”
“It’s fine, I’m here all the time.”
She gave me a look.
The bartender that night was Courtney, a girl a few years younger than me who was expelled from school for starting fights. She was pretty in that way aging actresses might be pretty, like her time had run out, except she was only eighteen.
“What can I getcha?” she said. She sounded like cigarettes.
My mother asked for a sauvignon blanc.
“What? We don’t have that.”
I asked for a Beefeater soda.
“What kind of soda, hun?”
I asked for club, but she said they didn’t have that and gave me Sierra Mist.
“I hate it here.”
“No you don’t—it’s fun. And cheap,” I said. The gin and lemon-lime combo wasn’t working, but at $3.75, I couldn’t do much better.
“Anyway, what’s that bartender doing here?”
I laughed. “Courtney?”
“Yeah. Wasn’t she a Miss Columbia?”
Maybe it was unclear to my mother, but we all belonged there. There were old men she recognized from high school sitting at plastic tables, mouths caved in where their teeth should be. The place was owned by Holly Chandler, longtime Thomaston raggie. Her family had worked in the lipstick tube manufacturing plant for years till, like everything else in town, it closed up and moved South.
There’s always a desire to escape in Thomaston, with the label “raggie” lurking overhead with the seagulls. Most people get their biggest escape at Holly’s, since they can get piss drunk on cheap Yaeger shots without worrying about getting home. My mother tried to get out once, got her degree in fine arts alongside kids who wore parachute pants and asymmetrical mullets. But she failed art history—twice. Now she paints people’s dogs on canvases in our living room, stacks them against the wall and takes pictures for everyone else to see. It’s her side hustle—she’s lucky if she gets forty bucks apiece.
I thought I was better than Thomaston at one point too, so I went away to a private liberal arts school where the girls shaved their heads and wrote communist propaganda. When I came home the second weekend into the semester, crying over the lesbians who’d called me apolitical, over the gluten-free food and the Lunar Howling Society, I decided I was a raggie too. Not even a nose ring could disguise my hometown roots.
My mother was mad at me after I brought her to Holly’s and I was mad she didn’t like it, which was immediately obvious as we drove home in tense silence, with not even the radio to mediate. I wanted her to see Thomaston for how it was and what it wasn’t and what it never would be. There weren’t any cul-de-sacs or gated communities, and most people lived in the sort of ranch-style houses she liked to point out as a place she was glad she didn’t live. Miss Columbia was the cover that people in town used to pretend they lived somewhere special, even though nobody really knew its roots. Maybe going to Holly’s was mean-spirited or selfish, but in the same way it’s mean to tell your friend she looks fat in that dress. At least it was honest.
Miss Columbia, my year, went as expected—it wasn’t me. The honor went to some girl who was head of the student council and played field hockey, and all the men in town were there to watch and lip-synch to her quiet rendition of the Gettysburg Address. Some old veterans played a march on out-of-tune trumpets. I went for the free beer someone else’s dad might offer me. But my mother, who was in the market for some new cabinets, went to the Lowe’s Memorial Day Sale instead, dreaming of the kitchen she’d always wanted.
Kathryn Fitzpatrick’s essays have been featured in Out Magazine, Gravel, Crack the Spine, and elsewhere, and were called “brutally honest and not school appropriate” by her high school principal.
DEAR FAMILY AND FRIENDS
A Visual Narrative About Depression
by William J. Doan
Depression is a wiley adversary. Those fortunate not to know what it’s like to exist in this dark realm can’t grasp its life-sucking grip. Those afflicted are told, “ You look fine,” or “You have nothing to be depressed about. Your life is good.” But to read Bill Doan’s visual narrative Dear Family and Friends, an intimate, heartfelt account of coping strategies, is to viscerally feel what it’s like to live under the leaden sky of anxiety and depression. In a series of mostly black-and-white self portraits done in ink, Doan’s visage morphs wildly in expression and mode as he writes a letter, in elegant script, explaining how one can look outwardly fine while inwardly struggling on a minute-by-minute basis with crippling depression. Doan’s letter lifts the veil on a shrouded topic that is often spoken about yet still widely misunderstood. “Dear Family and Friends” is part of the rapidly emerging genre known as Graphic and Narrative Medicine, which combines words and images to relate personal experience with illness. Doan is a professor of theatre in the College of Arts and Architecture and artist-in-residence for the College of Nursing at The Pennsylvania State University. He will serve as the Penn State Laureate for 2019-2020. I’m am so pleased to present Bill Doan’s work in my maiden voyage as Graphic Narrative Editor for Cleaver Magazine.
William J. Doan, Ph.D. is a past president of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and a Fellow in the College of Fellows of The American Theatre. In addition to articles in scholarly journals, Doan has co-authored three books and several plays. He has created solo performance projects at a variety of venues across the U.S., and abroad. His current work includes a new performance piece, Frozen In The Toilet Paper Aisle of Life, part of a larger project titled The Anxiety Project. Work from this project includes multiple short graphic narratives published in the Annals of Internal Medicine/Graphic Medicine. He is a Professor of Theatre in the College of Arts and Architecture and Artist-in-Residence for the College of Nursing at The Pennsylvania State University. Doan will serve as the Penn State Laureate for 2019-2020.
Text for Dear Family and Friends
Panel One: Dear Friends and Family. Text bubbles around the figure read from left to right: 1. It was as if I had brain worms constantly moving around in my head. Changing my mood and making me feel afraid of something all the time. 2. Fear responses. 3. Amygdala 4. Neural Circuitry. 5. Hippocampus 6. Prefrontal Cortex 7. I’m screwed 8. Where’s the off switch?
Panel Two: Seventeen million adults had a major depressive episode last year. And the numbers for children are staggering. The personal, social, economic, and ethical cost of anxiety and depression is almost impossible to imagine but is certainly real. Seventeen million adults had a major depressive episode last year and I was one of them. Text bubbles in image: 1. 17 million adults had a major depressive episode last year. 2. No shame if you were one of them.
Panel Three: Seventeen million adults had a major depressive episode last year and I was one of them. Text bubble in image: It’s one thing to think the unthinkable. It’s something very different to say it.
Panel Four: If you’re going to write about a life lived with anxiety and depression, you have to take a hard look at the past. But how do you do that without judging yourself, others, or all the social circumstances not of your own making? There’s nothing to be gained from blame. But there’s no moving forward without an honest look at the varied and complicated events that brought me to this confession.
Panel Five: There’s nothing to be gained from blame. But for me, there was no moving forward without an honest look at the varied and complicated events that brought me to this confession.
Panel Six: Sharing what it’s like to live with anxiety and depression is like undressing in front of strangers. It’s awkward, and I’m sure I’ll get tangled up, stumble, and fall into something.
Panel Seven: But how to confess, how to tell this story? I tried doing it in my head like I did as a boy in church, bless me father for I have sinned… But the fact is, hiding it was actually one of the ways I survived.
Panel Eight: Maybe I should try a letter. I sat for days in front of a blank page. I couldn’t remember the last time I wrote a letter. Dear Family and Friends.
Panel Nine: When anxious and depressed, which was most of the time, I would laugh a lot. My laughter was fake as often as it was honest. I knew that laughing and smiling were key to hiding the truth.
Panel Ten: Don’t’ misunderstand, it’s not that I didn’t feel happy, or experience joy. It’s that I figured out how to use a smile of a laugh to mask feeling anxious or depressed.
Panel Eleven: The fact is I can be surrounded by a thousand people and feel completely alone. Text inside the image from top to bottom: Ingredients of Anxiety and Depression, Luck, Evolution, Brain Stuff, Shit Happens, Brain Stuff, Gender, Trauma, Brain Stuff, Class, Childhood, DNA.
Panel Twelve: I always felt like the whole world was going one way while I went another. I laughed it off as often as I could.
Panel Thirteen: Over time I developed an advance ability to pretend everything was OK. This made it possible to show up for social events, work, whatever was required. I mastered “fake it til you make it.” Often, once I was present, I could find a way to enjoy myself for a time. But the cycle of dreading having to be somewhere, followed by regret, anger, or feeling guilty was exhausting. I just knew I had to keep moving.
Panel Fourteen: Pretending easily became lying, which became telling people what I thought they wanted to hear. I could pretend my way through almost any situation by lying to myself, convincing myself that I was the problem.
Panel Fifteen: Just push it away and keep moving. Text inside the image: series of words about being above and below the threshold of awareness, fighting feelings, blocking feelings.
Panel Sixteen: Inside I was slowly dying.
Panel Seventeen: As I got older, I grew angrier. And as I grew angrier I grew desperate to keep what I was feeling inside. Sometimes I thought my brain was on fire and I would never be able to hold back my rage. It became increasingly difficult to keep all this hidden.
Panel Eighteen: I’ve barely reached the heart of the matter in this brief letter. But it’s a start. What I know for certain is that it’s no longer possible for me to pretend I don’t live with anxiety and depression and I hope this helps you understand why I need to talk openly about it. My mental health, my well-being requires me to tell the truth. Especially to my family and friends.
When she trimmed the holly,
when she trellised each lilac,
her knuckles were starchy blue,
her skin luminescent as if
she had been torched with apricot
light. At last, for a handful
of hours each week,
she burnt, and my heart outbid
all else for her attention. To be
her shelf and shovel, her shear
and sled for just a little while; to ache
an ache that justified the rest
of her calculations—
is how her garden grew.
The garden is built like the guts of a palace evergreen and glistening
the way any beautiful thing glistens ripe with being
beautiful The garden is
the inner sanctum of a dream pink like peach flesh
lush with sewer cap lilies and
a little lake to litter with wishes There is nothing
of the World in this world On the other side
of the limestone wall is a pallet door
maybe the door to someone’s single courtyard, where a basket of shelled
peanuts sits in a pile of loose skin and someone
who has departed has
finally returned with sweets and toys
Now anyone can visit
After a fee any sweaty sack can sit and
maybe sheer proximity will make my dream reappear
as the skittish animal that animated
the dark that no matter how little money I make
I will be happy
The most famous gardens in China are
south near the sea. I wonder
whose hands mixed the lime, held the
tree before swinging the axe, whose hands
touched the tiny parcels of stone. I think
it would have been people like my family,
we want more than we can afford, we want
to participate because we want
to know we are people who can still
see the arch of light at sunset despite
the scattered pink haze, a bit
of the sky we bite, we breathe.
I found the pamphlet online, through the
library. The photos inside the pamphlet
blur the bodies of gardeners
in the gardens, except for the photos
at the end, of the garden being assembled
for the Museum and even then
no names. No wonder why resurrections
go on forever in America. I wonder
if the language of gardens is the same
language I use to ask for money, to be
a little drunk in the cemetery,
the familiar language of mercy, of
My cousin purchased an audio tour
of The Humble Administrator’s Garden
when we were there. While we strolled
between bodies, along the pavilion
and into the shade, I noticed
that she did not sweat. Not
a single dark stain on her denim dress.
She stopped to fiddl
with her device, is yours broken too? I don’t have any sound on mine and while
my little black box, strung around
my neck, sang to me, I knew the word plum and none of the rest, so
I said yes.
There are too many ways that say
this is the right way There is
always the half hour of the day
where I am overcome by the certainty of time passing
and all the leaving bundled with it I think this summer is
the last summer
we will be back which means
I must remember would give everything
to ensure that I remember
for change when you could become the changing
Dana Fang is a queer, nonbinary, Asian-American poet living in the Midwest. They are a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Their work has been published in phoebe, Black Warrior Review, Gigantic Sequins, and is forthcoming in Sonora Review.
The girl wants to go to the kids’ museum. Since her brother is sick and dad has command central on the couch, dispensing Tylenol and blankets and puke bucket and juice, that leaves me to drive her. I want to shut myself in my office and work on my novel, far from puke and clacking toys, but then she’ll say of her childhood that her mom did nothing but sit in front of her computer all the time. Aren’t her needs supposed to be bigger than mine? I take my journal and magazines along with snacks. I’ll sit on the bench and read. I’ll never be Mom of the Year, but look, my mom never played with me. She considered it her job to feed and clothe me, make me go to school, drive me to appointments, and I turned out just fine.
But the girl doesn’t want to play with the exhibits, she wants to go to the tool shop. This requires a supervising adult and a pair of plastic safety glasses that press my regular glasses into my head in a painful manner, and entails me standing around reminding her to tighten the vise and keep both hands on the saw while a background soundtrack of hammering, the instructions of other parents, and an endless loop of Disney tunes also presses into my head. There’s nothing, in this particular moment, I’d like less.
I ask her what she’s creating.
“A magical make-believe machine that can do anything you want it to,” she says.
Oh good, I can use one of those. How long will this take? There’s no place to sit, and I’m bored. I’ve finished my project, an airplane for the boy, so I ask if she’s nearly done.
“Do you know how long it takes to make a human?” she says.
In fact I do: thirty-eight weeks. Forty weeks counting from last menstrual period, which I don’t know why anyone does since the egg isn’t ripe until two weeks later and you have that narrow window to do something that can never be undone, not ever. Or thirty-seven weeks in her case, same for the boy, both my little over-achievers, pushing their way out early in great gouts of blood.
She ignores me. She’s the authority, seven years old, plastic safety glasses, pink nylon pants I bought for pajamas, the purple spangly shirt that says “Play Like a Girl.” Hair tangled in a cowlick though I brushed it three times. Dirty beat-up sneakers missing half a Velcro strap. She got dressed when I asked so I decided not to fight about what she chose. Her belly sticks out like a full moon and I’m the only one who cares about this; she’s gluing string, silk flowers, plastic hats to her piece of wood and sometimes to her finger. Other parents help their kids, sawing, measuring, offering items to nail and tape. I watch and criticize, the whiny chaperone. I don’t like it, but I don’t know how to make it stop. Stick it to the surface before it sets. That’s too much glue. Aren’t you done yet? I have to pee. You know we have a glue gun at home.
“Yeah, but we don’t have all this stuff.” She slugs another round into the glue gun, picks yards of gooey string off her hands.
Such patience she has. Creating humans. I know how I must sound to the other parents, the ones directing and guiding and gluing for their kids. This creation is her own and she wants it that way. Am I helping her become a scientist, physicist, mathematician, engineer? Am I failing to teach her female grooming habits, the lack of which will cause her no end of agony when she’s thirteen?
She drops her wood pieces and the tape breaks. She swoops in with glue. The flower eyes were my limit; now toothpick eyelashes? We can do this at home, I tell her in the modulated, low-pitched voice of the chastising parent, especially the parent being an a-hole. I know not to say it, yet I hear myself saying it: I didn’t pay to come here to do stuff we can do at home.
What is the matter with me? A dad glances our way, keys and cell phone clipped to belt, gluing the pieces he sawed for his daughter while she wanders around rifling through buckets, bored. Hashtag parenting fail. He hijacked his kid’s project, knowing how to do it better, and I’m killing hers. Both of us trying to keep things between the rails, wishing we had the blueprint for how this turns out.
She’s so focused, those eyes brown as walnuts—the same surprising shine, the intense concentration I remember in her as a baby, or at least remember from the pictures of her as a baby. The times I don’t have photos of are hazier in my mind. Still so chubby, and I worry about that, too. My head hurts and my feet hurt and all of a sudden it’s intolerable right now, standing here with the Disney songs and nothing to do but watch her start on glue stick number three.
“Fine,” she says when I set the limit at four eyes. “I’m done anyways.”
I get to pee, sit, open my journal, take a breath and let my head clear of the smell of glue. I lose sight of her, find her again, climbing the tree house, picking fruit, following a new friend into the toddler house, reading a board book to a baby doll. Then she’s in postal coat and bag, sorting mail, so serious, so intent. At the fire station she pulls on the chief’s hat and too-big jacket, hauls out the hose, puts out the fake fire. I’m watching, but she doesn’t glance over to see this; she’s off to the store to tie on an apron and ring up other kids’ groceries. Her hair’s sticking out every which way again and she makes perfect change every time.
On the bench her creation, thick with glue, stares at me with its strange flower-spiked eyes. She’ll put it on her dresser and forget about it. But she won’t forget my head in a book, nagging I didn’t come here for this. Or if I let her put toothpick eyelashes on her humans. Let her wear the pajama pants. Let her toss her imagination into the air like a weather balloon and stood beside her, watching to see where it lands.
She floats by the bench, leans silken hair to my cheek. I wrap my arms around her and rub her back and, for a moment, she lets me. She’s solid and she smells like cupcake hair spritz and that new, clear, talc-y scent of seven-year-old skin, unscarred. Then she’s off, and I can pocket one moment, one, before she’s eighteen and moves out and doesn’t have to put up with my crap any longer, when I held her, when I told her I liked the thing she made, when I was the mom she deserves. Thirty-seven weeks to create her, no idea what was coming. So much longer for her creating me.
Misty Urban is the author of two short story collections, A Lesson in Manners (Snake Nation Press, 2016) and The Necessaries (Paradisiac Publishing, 2018), and several works of medieval scholarship, including the co-edited essay collection Melusine’s Footprint (Brill, 2017). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Literary Mama, 3Elements Review, Draft: A Journal of Process, and My Caesarean (The Experiment, 2019). She lives in real life in Muscatine, Iowa, and online at mistyurban.net or femmeliterate.net, a site for literary feminism and women in/and/of books.
In one town, an apricot held in the mouth
of a rabbit like a swollen tongue.
In another, a pear clasped between the fins
of a fish. The pit of a cherry nestled
in the eye socket of a crow.
Once, my grandfather’s aneurysm
bloomed in his body like a tulip.
There are certain things that shouldn’t be,
and yet they are.
Out of place, the way the jawbone migrated
into the ear region over time.
we used to be able to taste pain
long before we could hear it.
Meggie Royer is a writer and photographer from the Midwest who is currently working in the domestic violence field in Minnesota. Her poems have previously appeared in The Harpoon Review , Melancholy Hyperbole , The Minnesota Review, and more. She runs a literary journal, Persephone’s Daughters, dedicated to empowering survivors of domestic and sexual violence and child abuse.
I want to tell about the gap between houses and the way the windows are beyond everything. Do you know anything about that? Do you know the way neighbourhoods have been pulled on a string through your consciousness, and the groups of people emerge on the fringe of an area? I am not sure you do. Sometimes the zip of your coat is a downhill highway and you turn your back, you throw your coat off, jump into the water and swim away. The shining of your long wet hair is the light of the night´s illuminated space. On the corner of the main road where the neglected house without windows used to be, a booth has been placed, where the gaps and the building’s memories are being sold to visitors. Was it really your unknown brother, or was it just you, I looked into the eyes right there?
Poul Lynggaard Damgaard, born on 24th December, 1977, is a Danish poet living in Aarhus, Denmark. Since 2012 he has been connected to the Aarhus Centre for Literature and the Hald Hovedgaard, the Danish Centre for Writers and Translators. His work appears in many Scandinavian anthologies and Danish poetry collections. He has participated in several International Poetry Festivals in Europe, and his poetry has been translated to many different languages.
Kindness Woman has been working here barely seven months and already we hate her. This hate is of a different flavor than the antagonism we feel for Faye, who takes so many damn smoke breaks over the course of a day that even her emails reek of cigarettes—emails that often include full sentences in all-caps, sentences that bend and break with her scorn like the cigarette stubs she twists and grinds into a tin coffee can behind the building.
Kindness Woman’s brand of obnoxiousness sits on the opposite end of the spectrum as Faye’s. Her emails contain rainbows—each sentence a different color and a different font. Her emails invite us to help ourselves to the cake or brownies or homemade cranberry-walnut-unicorn bread that she has baked for our enjoyment on this beautiful day. Her emails always end with the word, “Enjoy!” It’s a command. As if that isn’t enough, some days she will walk around the building hawking a platter of brownies or a jar of lollipops. She stops at every desk. She says, “A brownie to make your morning sweet?” or “A lollipop to brighten your afternoon?” The price: only your dignity and having to endure her self-satisfied grin.
Kindness Woman won’t just anonymously leave her baked goods in the kitchen, like everyone else around here who wants to kill us slowly with sugar. Kindness Woman wants credit for her kindnesses. She wants applause.
“The thing about her is she never matured from high school,” says Terry, who works in HR and maintains that HR will turn the sweetest, most extroverted person into a misanthrope, so it’s not her fault she hates the world. “She’s still on the hunt for Senior Superlatives. Cheeriest Demeanor! Most Spirited!”
“Most Likely to Fill Up Your Email With Exclamation Points!” I say. Terry and I exchange a meaningful glance. Exclamation points are to us the splinters of punctuation marks. We share a deep disdain for those rows and rows of exclamation points in Kindness Woman’s emails, stiff and spiky like the barbed hooks of a stickabur. We share a disdain, frankly, for enthusiasm. Sometimes the only words Terry and I will exchange over the course of the day are “Shoot me now.” And yet—and I am being completely sincere here—we communicate so much with those three words, depending on where emphasis is laid. “Shoot me now” means seriously, it’s my turn to moan. “Shoot me now” conveys urgency, this level of bullshit is surpassingly dire.
Now Terry says these words, and she emphasizes all three. Her use of emphasis is so extreme, it brings to mind Kindness Woman’s exclamation points, but I don’t point this out to Terry. Kindness Woman is the reason for this bloated, bloodshot “Shoot me now.” Because Kindness Woman filed a complaint to HR against Faye for being mean to her.
“There’s a form for meanness complaints?” I say.
Terry squints at me. Then she says, “And who do you think Pamela tasked with the joyous assignment of investigating this complaint?”
“What’s an investigation entail exactly?” I say. “Do you tap their phones?”
Because we’re talking in the break room, we both eye the door constantly.
“Why doesn’t anyone file a complaint against Chad?” is what Terry says.
“Hard to prove a man is consciously looking at your breasts every time he talks to you?” I say. “Could be like being cross-eyed? He could say he can’t control his eyes?”
Terry sighs. She says, “For starters, I have to talk to these women. I have to sit down at a table and have conversations with the two most intolerable women in this lunatic asylum of an office. I have to get their sides of the story. I have to take the complaint seriously.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m kind of envious. I want to be a fly on the wall. Maybe you could record your interviews? Just surreptitiously turn your phone face down? I’d love to hear Faye explain why she’s mean to Kindness Woman. What do you predict? ‘Because she’s fucking annoying?’”
Terry does not crack a smile. She folds her arms over her chest and looks at me bleakly. “Do you know why I got into HR?” she says. “I thought I could do some good in the world. I thought I could have some kind of influence on, say, diversity of hires. On practices of inclusivity. Bringing in good people and, okay, slapping the bad people, because dudes like Chad deserve to have their lives made uncomfortable. But no one utters a peep about Chad! Instead I get complaints along the lines of, ‘Faye said, Get those blondies out of my face, I do not give a shit if they have butterscotch chips.’” Terry bites her lip, then passes her hand across my forehead. “Obliviate. You didn’t hear me say that.”
Terry is always doing this, letting confidential things slip and then wiping my memory clean. I let my tongue hang out and glaze my eyes in response, performing successful memory eradication, but there is no cheering Terry up today.
“I think I’ve finally hit bottom,” she says. “I think this is the bottom of the goddamn well. The ninth circle of hell, here I am, getting chewed on by fucking Satan.”
“Here’s what I don’t get,” I say. “Isn’t this against Kindness Woman’s whole ethos? Isn’t lodging an official complaint pretty much the antithesis of kind?”
Terry looks at me pityingly. She says, “Isn’t our company motto, ‘All for one, and one for all’? Yet you remember how Pamela said to Julie when she found Julie using Isaac’s office when Isaac was on vacation, “You’re not on an office-level paygrade.” And then Julie came to me about it, me in my little cubicle five feet outside of Pamela’s office! All I could do was laugh until my face hurt. I said to her, ‘Julie, when the president of the company is also the director of HR, and your complaint is about said president, what do you expect me, who is also not office-level paygrade, to do about it?’”
Pamela enters the breakroom then, so I quickly switch the subject. I say, “Yeah, I started buying the generic sparkling waters. They taste the same but they’re nearly half the price.”
“Which flavor?” Terry says.
We try to look like we’re not monitoring Pamela out of the corners of our eyes as she slices a chunk of Kindness Woman’s latest will-you-please-be-my-friend bribe: something crumbly and weirdly white, like it might just be made entirely of sugar. That or cocaine.
“Lemon,” I say, “though the coconut is pretty good, too.”
Normally, I take pride in my ability to quickly come up with inane shit to talk about in Pamela’s presence, but right now, for some reason, I feel this sickening sadness. A lost-every-tooth-in-your-mouth kind of sadness. And that’s when I remember that I had this weird dream last night that I was excruciatingly depressed. Weird because normally I dream out-of-this-world shit, but a dream about being depressed is dreadfully of-this-world. In the dream, I was walking very slowly through a putty-colored landscape. I was on my way to buy Cascade liquid-powder combination dishwashing capsules; my shoulders were slumped. When I first woke it wasn’t immediately clear to me that I had been dreaming, or was now conscious, or what, if anything, distinguished the two states. I actually said out loud, “Wait, what?” and rolled over to my left. But of course there was no Karl lying next to me.
“Anything wrong, Grace?” Pamela says. She’s watching me narrowly with her bulbous eyes.
“I was just remembering this incredibly boring dream I had,” I said.
“Hmm. People say they have interesting dreams, and when they describe them, they’re incredibly boring. I wonder if that would make a description of an incredibly boring dream interesting? Or would it just be that much more boring?”
Pamela’s affect is so flat and deadpan that it’s impossible to distinguish between her philosophical observations and her jokes. Terry takes a gamble and laughs, and Pamela smiles graciously, so we know Terry guessed right.
“Well, I’ll leave you two to your dreams and sparkling water,” Pamela says, and departs holding aloft her powdery square of Kindness pastry.
Terry raises her eyebrows. “Now I know how to get Pamela to make a fucking fast exit. That was even speedier than when Sam starts telling stories about the latest accomplishments of her twins!” She looks at me more closely. “Hey, what’s up with you? You look like someone hit you with a hammer.”
There are a lot of things I could say at this point, but what I latch onto is what I woke up thinking, what made me so sad my reflection in the bathroom mirror shimmered and blurred. “I miss Karl.”
Terry looks at me, just looks at me, then nods. I’m pretty sure I know what Terry’s thinking but not saying—that I was the one who pushed for the separation, that I said Karl lacked the introspection to really love someone.
We hadn’t yet separated when Kindness Woman first showed up, and I told Karl about that woman’s damn emails and her peddling her treats around the office, and he said, “You sound like that Faye woman. It’s like you’re allergic to kindness. It’s like you want to be miserable.” I tried to explain to Karl that that’s the thing: it’s not kindness if you’re constantly begging for credit for your actions and if you’re pissed off when people don’t give you the thanks you believe you’ve earned. I said, “Maybe she believes she’s being kind, but that’s not kindness. It’s phoniness.” I’d talked before that point about us separating. I’d already said many times that I didn’t believe he really loved me. I’d said to him that I believed he believed he loved me, but that I didn’t feel genuinely loved because I was constantly having to ask him to be thoughtful towards me, and that on the rare occasions he was thoughtful, he made a big fuss about wanting me to praise him. When I called the Kindness Woman phony and manipulative, that was the turning point for Karl. That’s when he said, “You know what? I think you’re right. We should separate. Because you’re impossible to please.”
That’s when I thought, shit, he really doesn’t love me.
“Shoot me now,” I say.
Terry, who passed me Kleenex six months ago and said, “But Grace, isn’t the point that you didn’t really love him either?” nods again, turns her fingers into a gun, and takes aim. I’m standing there waiting for that too-slow, invisible bullet to pierce my heart when Kindness Woman enters the kitchen. She looks at me. She looks at Terry. Then she turns around and leaves, as though she couldn’t remember what it was she’d wanted.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books this July. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Smokelong Quarterly, and many other journals. Her story “Madlib” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press). Her story “Surfaces” was selected for Wigleaf‘s Top 50 2019. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. More at www.kimmagowan.com.
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 or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Pidgeonholes, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other venues. Her story “One or Two?” was selected for Wigleaf‘s Top 50 2019. She is Fiction Editor of Atticus Review. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. More at www.michellenross.com.
PSYCHOLOGY OF THE UNEXPECTED, WITH FRIENDS
by Peter Leight
When you don’t know what to expect you’re almost always expecting something, even if you’re mistaken, as when you expect somebody to come and somebody else shows up—it’s not mutually expected. Or you expect to hear from your friends and they don’t even text. It’s true, your friends have a lot of things that are happening in their lives that you’re not even aware of, it’s kind of like takeout you never ordered. You’re not sending it back, you’re not angry, after all they’re your friends, even when they’re not telling you anything, even when they’re unfriendly, as if they’re eating the takeout you never ordered. Sometimes it’s easier to think about what you don’t expect, I mean you’re not thinking about whether they’re actually your friends, even the ones you like, even the ones who are just like you—you’re not giving up on your friends. You don’t want to disappoint your friends. It is difficult to anticipate what’s unexpected—there are always times when you expect something to happen even though you’d rather expect something else, as when your friends are supposed to come and you think they’re not going to show up—you don’t need to believe your friends. You often think it’s better not to expect anything at all, even though they’re your friends, because you almost never see them anymore unless they need something from you and they’re stopping by to pick it up, they’re in a hurry to get somewhere, they never stay—honestly you never expected them to.
Peter Leight lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. He has previously published poems in the Paris Review, AGNI, Antioch Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, FIELD, and other magazines.
I could be more perceptive. Beneath me, 750 ft., my wife is thinking. I fool no one. My sweater is nice, and it keeps me warm, but at the end of the day it folds into a flowered bag and I am naked with the thoughts lonely in my mind.
My arm is asleep. All morning I shake it and wait for the blood to come. I confuse Denver with New Orleans, and then I consider the real differences. How French are any of us, anyway?
Thomas Cook is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection Light Through a Pane of Glass (Big Table, 2020). Since 2009, he has been an editor and publisher of Tammy and Tammy Chapbooks. A recent series of poems appeared online in the Quarterly West special feature Salvage/Selvage.
The white car that lives in the white of the eye
comes out of the sun
behind the line of parked cars,
the potted plant on the corner.
Always there, travels submarine.
Hides in white blood cells,
cruises arteries and veins,
slides through the body politic.
All the times it hasn’t shown
you’ve sensed its filmy existence,
so never completely a surprise
when it surfaces in peripheral vision.
The white car could be an actual car.
It could be an election,
getting lost in the woods for five days and nights,
a birth or death.
Too late to hit the gas, to swerve,
always your fault.
Tuck your head as it pulls you down,
slide through until it stops.
Alison Hicks is the author of poetry collections You Who Took the Boat Out and Kiss, a chapbook, Falling Dreams, a novella Love: A Story of Images, and co-editor of an anthology, Prompted. Her work has appeared in Eclipse, Gargoyle, Permafrost, and Poet Lore, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Green Hills Literary Lantern. Her awards include the Philadelphia City Paper Poetry Prize and two PA Council of the Arts Fellowships. She is the founder of Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio, which offers community-based writing workshops.
An animal, let’s say
my dog, has issues
with the end of the world.
She’s lined the back porch
in plastic bottles
to collect moon water
to pour in a juice glass
to drink with breakfast
to douse her children with you are
In our side garden,
lap it up like Mountain Dew.
Inside a church,
the pendulumic golden bowl
of donation passes while the soul sits
like an ephemeral burrito
in the abdomen or thorax. These
are her meditations.
Here wet heat wrinkles
the ridges of stretch marks,
a bellied tomato
vines rot at the speed
of a sleeve of ash,
stills in a woman’s
vertebra, they’re all sleeping
with their chiropractors.
This is the after.
left her high and dry as a leather saddle.
used to be of
the yellow green of tannery water,
marrow, oily eyes.
Bury a skull, any skull
and cavernous tomatoes
will walk from the fields,
red valves onto pavement.
Everyone knows how
a biscuit should sit
in the hand. Sage gravied,
say grace-full spring onions
the second largest beginnings.
the order goes
seed, bulb, biscuit
all split open the same way,
steaming, such delicately constructed
biology. We used
your mother’s recipe.
Over the phone, she and I
spoke of ham hock,
jaws, a creaminess
that could be the inner thigh
of almost spent milk,
the expiration dates.
Sophia Friis is from South Carolina and a current undergrad at Furman University for a degree in Sustainability Science. Her work appears in the Barely South Review and the Yellow Chair Review. She keeps bees.
Born in Philadelphia, Richard Kagan is a photographer and former furniture maker whose artistic career took a curiously circuitous path. He began as a self-taught street photographer while a student at Temple University. However, after leaving college to practice Buddhism under a visiting Japanese Zen Master in New York, Kagan became impassioned with the silent eloquence of handmade objects and pawned his camera to buy woodworking tools.
Following several years of apprenticeships, Kagan opened his own furniture workshop and founded the Richard Kagan Gallery—the first nationally recognized gallery for contemporary furniture artists. He taught at the Philadelphia College of Art (University of the Arts) for 10 years and exhibited furniture in museums and art institutions throughout the U.S. A back injury put an unexpected end to his woodworking career and opened the possibility to return to photography, thus bringing him back to where he began.
Beginning photography again in 1988, with academic studies and assisting other photographers, Kagan went on to have solo photography exhibitions in the United States, Great Britain, and South America. He taught photography at Drexel University in the mid-1990s. An early grant from the Arts Council of Wales enabled an extended project in the U.K. and Europe, culminating in an exhibition at the Royal National Eisteddfod. That project solidified a love of landscape photography first begun in Italy some years before.
Not surprisingly Kagan brought to photography some of the same aesthetic concerns with which he made furniture—a quest for quiet, understated, and elegant forms. His main bodies of work include Land/Spirit/Sky, landscapes photographed primarily in Europe; Iron Portraits, a series of austere yet sensuous portraits of antique tools and objects; and Blurred Time: Sacred Places In Kyoto, nighttime photographs taken on the grounds of temples and shrines in Japan (and on exhibit at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral).
[click on any image to enlarge]
EXHAUST MUFFLER No. 1 (2008) | Floating in a black space, a fallen-off and run over, rusty automobile exhaust muffler. How ordinary and how humble in its sensuous skin of iron. And, like us, how vulnerable and how precious. I picked this up on the street as a 21-year-old living in New York’s East Village. Some 40 years later I photographed it.
EXHAUST MUFFLER No. 2 (2008) | Another muffler which, after I photographed it, I realized was influenced by a single still life painting that I also discovered at 21, and which had a profound influence on everything I’ve ever done. (Dali, Basket of Bread, 1945 — the year I was born. Not to be confused with his earlier version.) So many of my photographs have been about making something so absolutely still and yet possessed of an internal icon-like energy. Stillness is a major link between the objects and the landscapes, I think.
OIL CAN WITH LONG NECK (2004) | How could I not photograph this proud, elegant, oil can?
RECUMBENT SHEARS (1992) | About 14 inches long, this rusty pair of shears, like all of the objects I photograph, are just things that are part of my life. They live on shelves or stands throughout my home and studio.
DANCING PLIERS (2005) | For 20 years, prior to my career as a photographer, I worked with hand tools on a daily basis as a furniture maker. Working with wood was an expression of reverence and sensuality and I gave it up only as the result of a back injury. The silver lining in that dark cloud was that I got to pursue an earlier love, photography. Nonetheless, I am still inspired by the gentle grace and beauty of handheld tools.
SUGAR NIPPERS (2008) | Two centuries ago, sugar nippers were used by the wealthy, for table or kitchen use, to cut small pieces of sugar from conical shaped sugar loaves.
NEAR SIENA Tuscany, Italy (1990) | A clump of Italian cypress trees amidst a farmer’s land. This was the first of my landscape images. It spawned a decade of landscape photographs throughout Europe, the U.K., and Ireland.
CHAPEL OF THE MADONNA Tuscany, Italy (2001) | I knew I wanted to photograph this little family chapel with its two cypress trees, but it took a long afternoon of searching for the perfect point of view. In the actual (print) photograph, the chapel is bright white, while the rest of the image is a warm pink — a laborious technique of chemical split toning that affects the various tones of a black and white photo differently. In Photoshop it would only take two minutes.
RETURN TO GRANADA Andalusia, Spain (2000) | I like to photograph at night, though it has its own problems. During the 8-minute exposure that produced this photo, I covered the lens with a hat when cars were approaching. Somehow, I didn’t hear this car and thought the headlights had ruined the photo, but actually it’s what made it. Drawn to this image, but not happy with what I was getting, I worked on it in the darkroom for several days. Ultimately, I eliminated a house, tree, and other extraneous information.
PARQUE DE DOÑANA Andalusia, Spain (2000) | To make this photograph, I remember standing on a rental car roof with the 2 legs of the tripod astride my own and the 3rd tripod leg precariously perched on the top rail of a chain-link fence. A strong wind threatened to throw the camera, tripod and me over the fence. Stillness is a balm for the confusion of my life.
MONTURQUE Andalusia, Spain (2000) | What a joy when after days of fruitless searching, a horse, a building, and a hole in the clouds came together for the camera’s delight!
CAMPO DE SAN JUAN La Mancha, Spain (2000) | In Spain, I followed the route of Don Quixote along the path of Cervantes’ near-mythical hero.
The photographs in the Iron Portraits series were taken with a view camera — the old-style camera with a 4 x 5″ negative. The prints were made in a traditional wet darkroom in sizes ranging from 16 x 20″ to 36 x 46″.
The photographs in the Land/Spirit/Sky series were taken with Kodak 2475 Recording Film, a special purpose film with a very grainy, soft-focus quality that at times can resemble a drawing or mezzotint. They are 8 x 10″ and were also made in a darkroom.
Photo by James Blocker.
A native of Philadelphia and a former furniture maker, Richard Kagan has been teaching, traveling, and photographing for over thirty years. When he is not in his darkroom hand crafting the fine nuances of black and white prints, or on the computer making color ones, he enjoys reading (Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), meditating (on the mysteries of importing his AOL contacts into Gmail), and his cat (Takuhatsu). “I take relatively few photographs, compared to some photographers, but I spend a lot of time making work prints and thinking about each image on the contact sheet. I look for trends, I look for what’s happening that is consistently running through the contacts as well as for new directions. And from that I discover something about how I see.” Visit Richard’s website at richardkaganphoto.com for more photos and interviews.
As of lately you said you have been strangely strange—a bit besides yourself, which you noticed when you take a walk someone constantly in your shadow, a palpable presence almost shoulder to shoulder-not disturbing, even companionable.
On the fence along the park, passion flowers trellised through a canvas of lozenges– appearing, reappearing, the old German church steeple, something of a fez with a cross on top in the course of your steps through the interstices.
Blood remembers its mechanism of cells, globules, given to you and borrowed and what you eat becomes a minute replica of its substances to rarest–in a few steps still a mark on the sidewalk—where blood splurged, crimson and oxidized as a long map between life and death out of an old man bleeding against the curb stone. A presence, you and not you, till as in a motion picture in a slow back reel you call up help, and the man before you with his pepper curly hair sits up.
You still walk feeling besides yourself, a sort of double entendre and yet you are not a puppet or a ventriloquist—tempo, time, rage time, 100% pure rag, you wonder—words on liner—tattooed water mark, a page inevitably creates margins even at the first word, a lean spine between silence and thoughts, Capital letter, the urge to start the larger size of the letter to launch word after word, afterword, foreword, beside themselves–do they respond to a pre-order, reptilian part of the brain, syntax and transgressions, you wonder “love” in a two way mirror.
Born in France, Jean-Mark Sens has lived in the American South for over twenty-five years. He is currently in Pre-Theology II, formation for Priesthood at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. His work has been published in the U.S. and Canada, and he has a collection, Appetite, with Red Hen Press. He is also working on culinary book Leafy Greens & Sundry Things.
No round, less square,
don’t forget orange grapes.
Stem-plant that table, soldier!
Christ, where’s a pinstripe umbrella
to kite a ripple in the glade of this sleep tide?
Go on then, dive a slice of those paradise knives,
but do not peel the spoon orbits off that licked brick!
I know you broke the yolk rope when I ordered
eggs unshaded on the Darkest Side of Hades.
Dummy. You niced ’em dry on inverse—
money is slicked outside amphibious.
Even the weather is up to you and
I’m looking for clock the sun
hit moonlights out of me!
Back when lightning
sold out the strike
Wanted: The Ego
Hidden from searchlights
stabbed electric through barbed
fire walls at Fort Lauderdale’s
Asylum, rain and red stoplights
smear blood across wet streets
knocking on dead room door.
Telephone rings. Flashback
flood flashing locust buzz
through static television set
screeches dark radar warning
the weatherman the Poltergeist
sees Hurricane Andrew’s eyes
“I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!”
Hissed the Sandman licking
light beneath the bedframe,
humming dead dial tones
from phones off receivers—
tornado sirens twisting
rusty red shriek sounds
scratched from the attic
off meat hooks scraping
chalk through eardrums
panged against the pane
of palpitations eating
love through the heart
of fear stalks faith
Andrew Hamilton graduated with his MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California. He received awards for creative writing at the University of Tennessee. His work has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, The Main Street Rag, San Antonio Review, Blue Fifth Review, The Rush, BlazeVOX, Glassworks, Crack the Spine, and Yes Poetry with new work forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine, Dream Pop, I-70 Review, Dead Mule Surfaces.cx, and Abstract Magazine TV. For more information, please feel free to visit his website: andrewhamiltonwrites.com
1. I caught you staring at that great Midwestern sunset sewn together with photons from the last six months
2. in the hibernation of the moment, beneath blue water towers or stunted trees, the metaphors dried so you sealed them onto flat circlets of pine ………………—forpreservation, you said
3. highways ran the length of your spine, the whole suburban vertebrae, your body down in Mokena, and the sky held onto the afternoon snow for so long it made us heretics again
4. where we picked up each others’ breaths and condensed them onto our chins
5. from my stiff beard to your perpendicular hands
6. the ritual persisted
7. uninterrupted by the new routines we made for ourselves or the contrasts against everything that came before
8. in the way your body reassembled itself like a Cubist, forming and reforming fragments in space beside mine
9. …………in the locked screen your reflection
10.………..in the locked screen a spring crown
11. ……………..in the locked screen color became slowly archived
12. ……………..in the locked screen ultra violet rays pulled at your hair
13. ……….and your breast glowed amethyst, shined brightly on a lineless …………….page stained with lavender, your voice bubbling up
14. …………………….to jump clear and purposeful into the corrugated evening
Benjamin Renne lives and teaches in the Washington, D. C. area. He reads feverishly in his time off and likes the feeling when a poem or story curls up behind his brain for a few days and just sits there, refusing to budge. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and his poetry has appeared in Ghost Proposal, SLAB, CatheXis Northwest Press, and more.
My grandson is five months old, and smiles as he orients to the burble of voices above him, the sounds we adults emit when we are making baby-talk. We coo when we are cuzzling infants and raise our voices when addressing foreigners, as if the sound and tone of our speech will cue them to what we mean. Someone should give us a talking-to, or, perhaps, a spanking.
The soft vocalizations that make us sound like Old World monkeys are the least of our offenses to the young. Baby talk, researchers say, may even aid children’s development.
What we are doing to the planet is another matter.
A June heat wave cooked mollusks in the rock beds of Bodega Bay, littering the shoreline with shells opened like the mouths of infants waiting to be breastfed. Someday, climatologist James Hansen warns, the earth’s oceans may even boil away.
Imagine the earth is an enormous pot. Solar radiation warms the pot like soup in a microwave, but the pot doesn’t boil over because some of the sun’s rays are reflected back into space in the form of invisible light, called infrared radiation. Since the Industrial Age, greenhouse gases entrapped in the upper atmosphere have significantly reduced the amount of infrared radiation reflected back into space.
It is like partially closing the pot with a lid. Infrared radiation still rises from the pot like steam, but the kettle is getting hotter and hotter.
You can throw a frog into a pot of cold water and gradually increase the temperature of the pot to the boiling point, and, contrary to popular opinion, the frog will NOT allow itself to be boiled to death. The frog will leap from the pot. That’s because frogs, like other ectotherms, use environmental cues to regulate their own body temperatures, and will respond to increases in external temperature by getting out of the heat.
Thermoregulation by changing location—seeking sun or shade or Calaveras County-jumping from a boiling pot—is a necessary survival strategy for frogs. With human beings, particularly very tiny ones, not so much.
Humans, like other endotherms, such as dogs and birds and rats, regulate body temperature metabolically. We raise body temperature through muscle contraction and reduce it by increasing blood flow to the skin. We shiver, we sweat, we pant.
These mechanisms enable us to maintain a constant core body temperature.
Unfortunately, children may not thermoregulate as efficiently as adults. The human infant is more vulnerable to cold temperatures and more prone to hypothermia than adults. Due to this vulnerability, the infant’s body compensates with extra fatty tissue and reduced sweat production, but this compensatory response may make infants more susceptible to higher temperatures. Infants and younger children also may be physiologically more vulnerable to elevated temperatures because they produce more heat in relation to their body mass, and expend more effort to cool down, shunting blood to the skin and away from the body’s core muscles.
Physiology may not matter much at all, of course. Neither frogs nor children will escape the boiling cauldron of our planet’s future. Unless you are one of the billionaires booking a flight on Elon Musk’s SpaceX, there is nowhere to leap.
In space, you cannot hear the screams of those you left behind.
Like Musk, I am a citizen of the only country to refuse to sign the Osaka joint statement on climate change, the nation that withdrew from the Paris Accord in 2017. The main aim of the accord, ratified again in Osaka, was to keep the rise in the global average temperature below 2ºC (3.6ºF) above pre-industrial levels, primarily by reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Due, in very large part, to my country’s refusal to get with the program, that goal will not be met.
As the sun sets on Bodega Bay, it almost looks like the ocean is aflame. Sunsets, the novelist Laura van den Berg once said, remind us that we are at the raw mercy of the earth.
As the sun sets on the planet’s future, our grandchildren’s mouths are like seashells, open in arrested cries.
Michael Zimecki is the author of a novel, Death Sentences. His prose has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The National Law Journal, and College English, among other publications. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his wife, Susan.
Maite and her daughter Pala arrived home only minutes ago, and already Pala’s settled in. She’s plopped in front of the TV, watching an inane show on the cartoon channel, all done telling Maite how she ate a cupcake at snack, that Lucy wasn’t playing nicely during recess. Maite hasn’t yet had a chance to change her shoes or chug a glass of water. Her feet ache like hell.
It’s quarter to six. Maite’s father should be here by now, should have beaten them home. Maite pulls back the curtains and scans the street once, twice, before acknowledging he has not arrived. She steals a moment to go into the bathroom, pull off her work shoes, and wash her swollen, sweaty feet. Hair strands and dust gather on the tiles; she hasn’t had time to clean for weeks. Sitting on the rim of the tub, she tips her chin up and shuts her eyes as she holds her feet steady under the cold stream. She pretends she is elsewhere, imagines she is smiling, then laughing open-mouthed.
Back in the front room, she peers through the window, and still her father’s car isn’t on the street. Pala has come to expect his visits. Every Friday afternoon, after Maite finishes her shift at the restaurant and picks up Pala from aftercare, he arrives at the house at 5:30 to take Pala to the neighborhood park. But it’s nearly six and he’s still not here. Maite’s throat tightens. She wants to huddle next to the window and press her face against it, watch until his car pulls up, just as she used to.
Word travels fast in their too-small town. When her father returned last fall, after many years gone, he soon learned of Pala and tracked down Maite’s number. He called and left a voicemail. He called again. She promised herself she wouldn’t pick up. She didn’t have to. When she did, he told her, “I’m different now. I wouldn’t have left you, Maite. Or I’d at least have visited. I wish I could do it all over again.”
She said nothing. Eventually he cut through her silence. “Can I meet my grandbaby?”
No, no, Maite thought. Pala. But should she deny any relationship? And if he was, as he averred, in town to stay, and if he really could be in Pala’s life…
Half a year now, every Friday. He has never been this late. Maite stands clutching the curtain—she wants to curl up, and, if his car doesn’t appear soon, hide her face in her knees. But she cannot, not in front of Pala.
Pala tugs at Maite’s pants, and Maite steps back. Pala wants to look out the window too; already she’s resting her chin on the windowsill. Maite places her hand on Pala’s head and guides her toward the kitchen, where she prepares Pala’s snack, apple slices alongside a dollop of peanut butter. Pala eats noisily, looking around the room, squirming in her chair to look at the door.
“Soon,” Maite says. “I’m sorry.”
Pala nods. She puts an apple slice flat on her plate and squishes it until a drop of juice emerges. She licks the drop off the plate, looking at Maite as she does so, but Maite doesn’t correct her behavior.
Maite notices the emptiness in her own stomach. Most days, she doesn’t eat lunch because the restaurant where she waitresses makes her pay for any food she takes, and it’s too expensive. Now, she fixes herself her own apple and peanut butter snack, the two munching in silence. Then Pala asks, “Can I watch my show?”
“I think it’s over by now.” The clock shows a quarter past six. Maite checks the voicemail, but he hasn’t left a message. She thinks, This is the time, this is when it will happen.He’s not coming for her.
“I want to make sure,” Pala says, glancing back at the front room.
“Your show ended.” Maite doesn’t want Pala checking for him again by the window, nor discovering that the cartoon channel plays endless reruns after new episodes air. “You can draw here.”
Pala scowls at Maite, but she finds her markers and paper and returns to the kitchen table without complaint. Soon she’s immersed in her artwork. Pala’s expression is strained, betraying her worry, but Maite doesn’t say anything more to her. Maite chomps into her second apple, this time without cutting it up first. She dips the skinless wound into the peanut butter, then takes another bite, gooey.
Finally, his knock. Maite opens the door, and he stoops right on the porch, stretching his arms wide. Pala leaps from the couch, and runs into his embrace.
“My sweet little bee girl,” he coos. He kisses her head only once, his eyes meeting Maite’s.
“I’m so sorry I’m late. Traffic, you know. Hi, honey.” He rises to hug Maite. She lets him, but she goes stiff, moving away from his body until he releases her.
“How was work?” he asks.
She shakes her head and turns away, toward Pala. “Well, your grandpa is here for you,” she says. “Do you want to show him your drawing?”
Pala crosses her arms behind her back, and softly says, “Later.”
“Let’s get going,” Maite’s father says to her.
“Hold on,” Maite tells him. “It’s 6:30. Maybe the park’s not a good idea anymore.”
“It’s safe. It’ll be light out all evening,” he says.
“Let me finish this apple,” Maite says. I’m almost done.”
“You don’t have to come with us. Rest. I’ve got her.”
The park is down the street. Maite’s feet still hurt, and she drags behind her father and Pala. Her father glances back once to smile at Maite, saying to Pala, “Your mother should be like me. She shouldn’t work so hard.” Maite can’t get herself to smile back.
She speeds up, walks close enough to overhear their conversation when her father turns again toward Pala, who’s chattering away, no longer, apparently, distressed at her grandfather’s lateness. He’s good at talking to Pala. He’s better at responding to her tangential conversation style—new since she turned five—than Maite.
“What did you like about school today?”
“It was Ella’s birthday.”
“Did she bring any treats for the class?”
Pala nods. “The cots in kindergarten are bad.”
“What makes you say they’re bad?”
“We have to nap every day.”
“You’ll be missing that in a few months, when you grow up and go to first grade.”
It’s early June, and near the park, cottonwood seeds float everywhere. The wind gusts and releases more from the trees. There’s a gully alongside the path, filled with a few inches of water. Some seeds have been blown by the wind into the runoff. They form clumps on the surface as they are carried away in the slow-moving water.
A seed catches in Pala’s hair.
“Snow,” Maite calls to her, but Pala doesn’t hear.
They step through the park’s gate. There are already children on the playground, and Pala studies them before reaching for her grandfather’s hand to walk over to the hill. Maite follows them to the top and finds a tree trunk to lean against. From this tree, she’ll be able to see Pala all the way down to the edge of the park, and on the playground too, if Pala leads her grandfather there.
Pala pitches forward, briefly on all fours, then sprawls on the ground.
“Are you going to roll down the hill?” Maite’s father asks.
“You roll, please,” Pala responds.
He shakes his head. “I don’t know how. You have to show me.”
She springs up. “You know! You know!”
“I don’t. Teach me how to roll down the hill.”
Pala lies at the top of the hill again, and tips into motion. Her limbs are loose, and her roll is clumsy and slow. She’s not yet halfway down when she stands and falls again, trying to roll faster. Her white leggings, new, are streaked green and brown.
Maite’s father trails Pala’s path, only a few steps behind her. Maite hopes he’s keeping an eye out for rocks that Pala could bump her head on. She wants to look out herself or take her father’s place behind Pala. If she saw any danger ahead, she’d pick Pala up, run. She could run fast, even on her work-swollen feet. She could run faster than anyone for Pala. She imagines running with Pala all the way down the hill, gaining momentum, and flying her out of the park, across the street and beyond, to the good side of town. They’d go to New York, somewhere big, a place where Pala could do anything, where she’d be unharmed.
If they left now, Pala might forget these early years, the last few months. They would have to leave soon, though—her memory is getting stronger, and she’s beginning to track patterns. She knows when Friday is coming, when Friday’s here, when to expect his car in the driveway.
Maite takes off her shoes and socks, folds the socks into a ball and places them in one shoe. She lets herself feel the soles of her feet on the bristly grass. She pulls the grass up with her toes, then gathers the blades and throws them into the air. They do not hover—they fall before the wind can catch them. The blades of grass don’t have the magic of cottonwood seeds.
Pala is tumbling down the hill again, but the hill isn’t steep enough, and she comes to a halt every few rotations. The late afternoon light, glaring, hits Pala’s hair, makes it glow. Momentarily she lies still, belly-up. Her hair has fallen in front of her face, tangled and wild. Watching, Maite holds her shins and pulls her legs close, huddles, hugs.
Pala jumps up to catch her grandfather’s hand, dragging him to his knees. He calls, “Mind yourself! Log coming through,” and waits until Pala backs away, safe, before he begins to roll. Pala takes another cautious step backward, then springs into motion and runs after him.
Maite won’t admit it to him, but she remembers her father took her to this same park, before the playground equipment had been replaced. It must have been only a few months before he left. She was twelve, and was reluctant to play, believing she was too old to be at the playground with her father. She remembers too well.
Watching Pala chase her grandfather down the hill, Maite feels a tickle on the bridge of her foot: an ant. She is momentarily fascinated by its steady crawl, how it wields its antennae like windmills. Then she reacts, shaking her foot violently to free herself from the ant. It falls to the grass, and soon disappears.
Her father has not yet led Pala back up the hill. If Maite called to Pala now, her voice would not carry. She digs her feet into the earth and pushes her back against the tree trunk. She scrapes her heels furiously, and the dirt loosens and allows her to hollow out depressions. She cannot root herself enough.
The sun has not yet neared the horizon. It’ll be light for another couple of hours, but there are fewer children on the playground. Those remaining are much older than those Maite noticed when they entered the park. She can’t see any adults among them. The teenagers cluster near the swings. Their laughs are loud and movements loose. One boy has his arm hooked around the swing’s pole and hangs back carelessly. He looks toward the hill. Pala might not be visible to him. Maite hopes he won’t lead the teenagers any closer to Pala.
Finally, Pala races her grandfather up the hill.
Maite calls to her. “Let’s go home!”
Pala glances over briefly but pretends she doesn’t hear. She bows her head as she runs, her eyes directed to the ground, serious.
Maite cries, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” She pronounces go like goo, as if she’s joking.
“We just got here. Let’s stay a little longer, Mom,” her father says. “Maite, it might be the best day of the summer. Let her play.”
Maite throws her head back to the sky, too blue, and doesn’t argue. Pala recognizes that she has more time, and she pulls her grandfather toward the teeter-totter, which is thankfully far from the other playground equipment and the teenagers. Maite’s father walks slowly, and Pala hangs on his arm, dragging him, giggling, shouting, “Faster, Papa!”
He slows down, and says, “I can’t! You’ll have to leave me behind.”
Pala’s overtaken by peals of laughter. She’s clutching his arm too tightly, refusing to release her grasp. Maite thinks, Let go, let go. One day you may not have a choice.
Maite will tell him he can’t come late for Pala. No, she will tell him it is best if he doesn’t come at all. She fears that his disappearance will repeat, that it’s inevitable.
She’ll tell him today, she promises herself. She’ll send Pala to her room to clean up her toys when they get home. Pala doesn’t clean yet, but she pretends: she will get caught up with playing and won’t try to overhear. Maite will tell him then. She’ll say it doesn’t matter that he is Pala’s only grandfather—she can’t let Pala get attached to someone who eventually won’t be there for her.
But when they arrive, Maite is slow to take off her shoes. Pala immediately leads her grandfather to the kitchen, hands him her drawing, and beams at him as he studies it. Maite can’t bring herself to interrupt their connection. She lets go of her breath, remains silent for one more moment.
“It’s beautiful,” he tells Pala. “Is it a cheetah?”
Pala shakes her head.
“A lion? An ocelot?”
It’s a housecat, Maite thinks. It’s the only thing Pala ever draws, for years now. But her father is patient with Pala, and he plays her game and keeps guessing until he gets it right. And when he does, he tries to hand the drawing back to her, but she tells him, “You can have it.”
He bends down to hug her, not apologetically as he did when he greeted her, but fully. Pala steps on his toes to hug him back. She looks toward Maite, waits for her grandfather to pick her up.
Natalie Gerich Brabson is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, and holds a BA in Hispanic Studies from Vassar College. Her fiction has been published in New World Writing and Eunoia Review. In 2017, she received the Go On Girl Book Club Unpublished Writer Award. She lives in Philadelphia, and is at work on her first novel.
The way she squints worries me, my mother tells the optometrist. In the dim room, sitting before the gentle doctor, being whispered to, One or two? Three or four? I learn a secret. My ability to see tiny things up close is superhuman. The doctor tells me so, not like she’s telling a child a complimentary fib, but like she’s embarrassed since it was the only word to use and it sounds silly.
It makes sense, though, because I’m tiny, too. At school, a boy I hate calls me “mouse”. My friend Nina says, At least a mouse is cute, and totes me around like a doll. We line up by height for all occasions, and I’m always first. During lessons, I bend as close to the page as possible, examining the shapes inside the pencil-letters, and I’m so focused I don’t hear when the teacher calls my name. Sometimes the principal doesn’t even notice me sitting in her office, I’m so small, but there’s no office to send her to for not paying attention.
My mother doesn’t believe the optometrist, but she’s too busy to make another appointment with a different one.
At home, armed with the knowledge that my up-close seeing isn’t me being a total weirdo, but a power, I search for the tiny. I realize the problem with being called a mouse is that a mouse is not small enough. I can do so much better.
The ants that march through our kitchen are okay, but even more interesting are the near-microscopic mites. The ones that look like specks of nutmeg until they start to move. I invite one of them onto my finger.
The day-after-Valentine’s-day tulip bouquet my mother bought for herself is nice, but way better is zooming in on the center of a single bloom, taking in every grain of pollen dusting each stamen’s tip. The threads of color striping along the petals are playground slides to tumble down. I reach out and smuggle a dot of pollen.
In the healthy dinner I’m forced to eat because my mother is just one woman trying her best, a fleck of quinoa is still too large. I concentrate on the mini tail whipping out and pick it apart from its seed. Why are you squinting at your finger like that? my mother asks.
Because they’ve invited me to tea, I want to say, but don’t. After dinner I run upstairs with my three new friends on my fingertip. One breath, and I join them.
We’re sitting together in downtown Crayola, surrounded by sixty-four multi-colored skyscrapers. The mite, the velvety fleck of pollen, the curly quinoa tail, and me. We don’t need teacups. We slurp directly from the single droplet before us.
When my mother enters the room, she calls and calls, but doesn’t see anything.
Taleen A. Shaleh’s writing has appeared in The Bold Italic and Cal Literature and Arts Magazine. She lives in San Francisco, where runs a research team by day, parents a spirited toddler by night, and writes when she can (you should see the notes app on her phone). You can find her on Twitter at @taleenashaleh
After the house fire, the neighborhood boys searched the rubble. A chimney teetered. Cinders smoked. Parents said it wasn’t safe. Stay away. The boys didn’t listen. Treasures might be found. A young couple had lived there. Maybe a bra had survived the fire? Maybe a blackened spoon?
Only metal eyelets were found, shoes erased by flames, metal tarnished by heat so the eyelets looked like tiny ancient coins.
The boys hid them in a hole by a tree. Later, they remembered where. Later, they didn’t.
Wicked Source of Light
Before he dies, my father asks, “What’s a six-letter word for a wicked source of light?” Outside, wind shakes power lines. Plastic bags snap on bare tangled limbs. Dad’s newspaper rustles.
“A wicked sort of life?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “A wicked source of light.”
A week later, my sister’s kids find a box in his closet, scented candles, the ones Mom used to decorate their home. Her kids line them up on the kitchen counter, rank the scents. Christmas Cookie is best. Balsam Wood and Life’s-A-Breeze are the worst.
“Don’t you want any of Dad’s things?” my sister asks.
There’s an empty bowl on the stoop outside his kitchen’s sliding door, a dish he’d leave out for strays. I think, candle.
Joshua Shaw is a philosophy professor at Penn State Erie who began writing fiction midcareer because it made him glad to be alive. His stories have appeared in Hobart, Booth, Split Lip Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Sundog Lit, and Kenyon Review Online. More information about him can be found here.
Your daddy took one look and said, “She’s beautiful—she looks just like me!” Funny, but no joke. He’d experienced mirrors, and mirror neurons, even if he’d never heard of the latter. It helps to have a handsome father because evolution makes babies look like their daddies so their daddies will know they belong to them and take care of their genes.
Don’t Try Too Hard (TTH)
Your uncle is a professional photographer, and your mother always wanted a little girl to dress up—she’d waited 15 barren married years to get one. There’s a picture of four-year-old you in a navy sailor suit with a brimmed hat. The hat makes your head itch and you pitch it out the car window after the shoot, you temperamental mo-del!
You’re a fourth grade crossing guard—they still have children do that in 1970s Iowa. You have an orange flag and you use the pole to push the walk button to let the littler kids cross. One day on the lunch patrol two boy hippies walk up. One asks your name and mentions that you have curly eyelashes. When he asks if you are “old enough” and chortles, you feel nauseated and tell your school he asked “if you were old enough—to take drugs.” Which makes no sense or just makes it worse, you don’t realize until you are just about old enough for whatever.
Quadruple whammy: glasses, braces, nose zits. Acquire a terrible, clever nickname based on your last name. Epic cuteness fail for several years.
Braces off, tanning helps heal the zits and acts as nose contouring, and you only need glasses to see. Meanwhile you’ve grown your T&A and got some nice curves.
“Hey sexless,” some guy will yell from a car, just when you thought you’d made it.
“She tries to be cute.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. You are controversial, like Sarah Jessica Parker, like Jennifer Aniston will one day be. A girl’s girl. Good company.
Take a Break
Live in an engineering dorm in college. Just saying. At the time, 90% of your dorm mates are men. It’s a numbers game.
Get married young (snag an engineer!) and don’t have kids. Work out. Don’t wear a lot of makeup.
Get divorced. Work out more. Get an expensive haircut and go all-out blonde. Discover spray tanning.
Juggle a lot of jobs to pay the rent while middle-aged randos on the street stop you to say: “Smile! It’s not that bad.” It is, though.
Settle down with an actual aesthetics professor and stop dating. He thinks you are both cute and sexy. He also thinks beauty is a real thing, and also not your thing. But it’s hardly anyone’s! Why are you crying?
Get older. Try to straddle the line between Trying Too Hard and Letting Yourself Go. Keep the long bright hair the homeless guys always comment on. You’re still getting caught trying!
A woman will try to compliment you by saying she likes you because she prefers smart girls to pretty girls. What? Can’t one be both? Why not? Better try a lot harder or else give up completely.
Some guy yells from a car, “I want to ________ you in the _______,” then: “No I don’t.” Caught trying again?
Do beach yoga as two adolescent boys lounge nearby, gazing toward you in a friendly fashion. One starts talking about his grandma—she’s so crazy and hilarious. He obviously loves her a lot. Realize why he thought of her, at the beach, with so much else to pay attention to. You…reminded…him…of her!
Make up. Make up to break up with makeup. Make up with your mirror; make up with yourself. Make up your mind. Make up your own rules. Make up for lost time.
Julie Benesh lives in Chicago with two cats and a lot of books. Her creative writing has appeared in Tin House, Florida Review, Crab Orchard Review, and other magazines and has been anthologized in Bestial Noise: A Tin House Fiction Reader. She has earned an MFA in Fiction from Warren Wilson College, an Illinois Arts Council Grant, and a Pushcart nomination. She is completing her first short story collection and is working on a book length micro-memoir manuscript. She teaches writing workshops at the Newberry Library and has a day job as a professor and management consultant.
Danielle hated her feet. She hated that the knuckle at the base of each big toe bulged out like a Ping-Pong ball. She hated that if she pressed the pad of her finger against, say, her right foot, it would leave a little oblong mark for full seconds before blood seeped back in. They were always cold, too, but sweated continuously. This was the worst part. It was the reason she wore socks in her own home. Otherwise she’d leave moist negatives of her feet on every hard surface in the house.
But now Danielle was barefoot. She was walking slowly, allowing each foot to light on each tile, one at a time, in Constance’s house. When she closed her eyes Danielle was Constance, with her white pants that boasted a runner’s lithe confidence, confidence that rendered the usual socks unnecessary. Of course, neighbor Constance was really at the gym—Monday/Wednesday/Friday—and daughter Harmony was at school and husband Dorian was working till five-thirty. She had the house for hours.
Here was Danielle—walking tile-by-tile, sitting at the kitchen island, perusing Fitness Magazine, sauntering to the fridge and pulling out a futuristic glass cylinder of sparkling Norwegian water, drinking it luxuriously, savoring the carbonation tickling down her throat. Danielle straightened a picture magnet of the pert young Harmony gripping a platinum-blue tennis racket and resting it on her shoulder—the sinews of her forearm pronounced as if she’d been perfecting her backhand only moments before the photographer had snapped the shot.
Danielle turned, screwed the metallic top back onto the water bottle, and gazed at the rich cream tile floor. In the bay window light, her damp footprints tracked from the front hall to the kitchen like soft gold islands. The tracks led to ten wiggling toes, nails colorless.
Danielle turned to the clock as Constance had probably done countless times while making dinner, waiting for Harmony and Dorian to come bursting in, poised to smile and laugh—activities catalyzed by Mother’s wonderfully aromatic food. Spaghetti and meatballs, a classic, magically infused with joy. Dorian would cup one breast while Harmony looked away, embarrassed by her parents’ carnality. He would nibble her neck in just the way to make her shiver. Danielle shivered.
Danielle’s daughter Julie had screamed the night before. She’d been standing in the center of her pink room, Danielle in the hallway looking in. Husband Bob was downstairs on the couch. In the silence right after Julie’s first shriek (“You’re such a bitch!”), Danielle thought she heard the volume on the television downstairs tick up.
Danielle made herself small. She felt apparitional in the dark hallway. Julie was standing splayfooted, hair mussed, the ceiling light above her purging the room of shadows. One side of her head was shaved.
Danielle didn’t fully understand why Julie was screaming. Mother Danielle had simply expressed concern for her daughter’s romantic possibilities with such a haircut. Dark purple tears were tracing parentheses on Julie’s face, around the “o” of her mouth. It was like some indecipherable text message.
“Why do you even care?” Julie had screamed, fists balled at her sides and torso tilted forward. Danielle thought her daughter looked cartoonish, a mannequin donning adolescent fury.
The teen curled her upper lip—experimentally, Danielle thought. “You’re going to die alone, you know.” Now the girl was aiming for cruel. “But you don’t know. You have no idea. I almost feel sorry for you.”
Be the adult, Dani, Bob had chided some years before, when Danielle had shouted at Little Julie to go to her room. Little Julie had said dinner tasted like dog shit.
The casserole wasn’t worth a fight, he’d said. Be the adult, Dani.
“Julie,” Danielle said now, arms folding, “don’t you think you’re being a little melodramatic?”
By this time, Danielle knew Constance’s home intimately. She visited twice per week, on Monday and Wednesday, since schedules seemed a bit more fluid on Friday, what with Harmony returning home early to pack for weekend tennis tournaments, and Constance of course pumiced and made-up to drive her daughter counties or states away, as needed, always smiling.
But today (Wednesday) fell in the middle of the workweek when, Danielle knew, most men of the subdivision would be preoccupied amid the routine of eat/work/sleep, and most women’s to-do’s would dwindle to kiddycare, hubbycare, and bodycare. She and Bob were no different, only he stayed late most weekdays now.
Wednesdays were Danielle’s favorite, because she felt the safest in others’ homes. Less chance of being interrupted, of having to slip out a sliding glass door in back as she’d had to do twice before—neither time a Wednesday. But today was not just any Wednesday. Today was special. Danielle could feel it.
The back stairway hair-pinned, a strip of plush carpet rolled directly down the middle of each flight, hugging the contours of each stair, attached with a line of heavy-duty construction staples under each wooden flange and at the crook of each step. Danielle knew the staples were hidden in the carpet’s abundant pile because she’d examined them closely the first time she’d explored Constance’s home.
Danielle was proud of her eye for detail. She went barefoot on these expeditions to memorize the feel of each carpet, laminate, tile. She laid her cheek to each countertop, watched how her breath stayed or dissipated from the marble, the soapstone, the quartz. Danielle could write a book on the empty homes of Court of Spruce, a book only for her.
First floors, for example, tended toward the immaculate, with untouched sitting rooms and wife-kept kitchens. The only rooms that occasionally showed some wear were those the men inhabited—shoes congregating in the corners, plates with crusted-on unidentifiables slid halfway under the couch, video game consoles in the middle of the floor with bundled cords slithering out and toward the televisions. When one visited another’s home (socially, that is), one was almost guaranteed a brief tour, including the controlled mess of the male-inhabited living room (which sometimes even boasted a live specimen before he fled upstairs).
On Wine Wednesdays, for instance, Ilana Burkins made a habit of clicking her tongue in gentle reproof at her eighth-grade twins finishing a shooting game on the TV.
“Boys,” she would say knowingly, and the other women would sigh and roll their eyes.
Boys, men, and their mess were to be displayed, within reason. Danielle knew this, because she’d often seen Ilana’s house six hours prior to Wine Wednesdays, and she knew which rooms were tidied, and which weren’t.
At first, Danielle had found first floors to be of great interest. She discovered pornography stashed in cardboard boxes and external hard drives, sometimes in plain sight. She quickly came to understand that most men on the block watched pornos, and many women were either fully aware or in denial. Bob was one of the few who seemed not to masturbate daily, and Danielle had secreted in her chest both a bud of pride at this revelation and a flowering, prurient captivation with the unfulfilled sexuality in other husbands. Like animals caged, she thought.
With time, though, Danielle tired of the performance of the kitchen, the living room, the entryway. The clearest windows into the life of each house were in the bedrooms.
The second time Danielle had visited Ilana Burkins’ house, she’d found a large, purple and elaborately textured dildo tucked snugly between the baseboard and the mattress of the master bedroom. She looked at Ilana differently for weeks.
While Ilana was out of town, though, Danielle made the discovery that Ilana Burkins wasn’t the one who utilized the tool. It had been moved, recently scrubbed with lavender soap, midway through her vacation. It had to be Husband Alex. Danielle seriously doubted that Ilana was unaware of its presence, and would smile to herself while making dinner, imagining that Alex may in fact have asked his dutiful wife to penetrate him with it. Danielle had to fight back the titters imagining it. She was certain Ilana would comply with any such requests.
The drama reached its pinnacle, though, the week Ilana and Alex celebrated their anniversary in the Caribbean, when Danielle had found the dildo missing from its usual spot. Instead it was tucked haphazardly under the bed of one of the twins. The boy must have fantasized about his vestigially pretty mother using it. The families on Court of Spruce all had such secrets that only Danielle knew.
Constance Jones’ home was the first Danielle visited. This was a year ago now, after Bob had asked whether Danielle still used her gym membership. Realizing he truly wouldn’t notice, she canceled it, leaving two hours of every weekday suddenly unoccupied. She began by reading, picking up a stack of books—mostly romances—from the library and flipping through them while cradled in the front window seat. But she couldn’t concentrate, and so found herself watching the other homes around Court of Spruce. It was like a miniature society, so slickly routined Danielle could unfocus her eyes and the day would pass in moments.
It was nothing at all that started it. Constance’s daughter, Harmony, the last to leave on Tuesday mornings, left a cup of coffee on the roof of her car—a cute European toy made life-size. It slid off the roof, smashing on the street as she raced away.
Danielle walked out to the street, gathered the porcelain shards, and gingerly carried them to Constance’s front door. She knocked, though she knew no one was home. She tried the knob, found the door unlocked. Then, without knowing why, she entered. Closing the door behind her, Danielle realized suddenly that she hadn’t taken a full breath all day, maybe all week. She inhaled the lingering essence of Constance, and discovered it to be the same Sweet Pea perfume Danielle had worn in high school. She recalled holding her wrist to a friend’s nose, the friend breathing and sighing. I like it. When had Danielle started wearing more “adult” perfume, and then just deodorant? She couldn’t remember.
Danielle started testing the doors of all her neighbors, at first bringing long-forgotten borrowed eggs or cups of sugar, then bringing nothing. Only two of the women on the block worked. One, Charlene, had a maid. The other, Breena, couldn’t keep her home clean. When she made it to Wine Wednesdays, she would half whisper her contentment to the other women, her confidence that Husband Barry fully supported her law practice. But Danielle knew Barry didn’t even delete his laptop’s history, which boasted video of busty maids after video of “lonely wives,” grinding against various cleaning and cooking tools. There were no videos, Danielle noted, of sexy lawyers.
The stay-at-home mothers like Ilana had their secrets, too, their weaknesses. Danielle would remind herself of this while staring in the mirror after the evening she hosted Wine Wednesday, where Katerina Fuchs averted her eyes from the kitchen sink, empty but still streaked with grime. How had Danielle forgotten to scrub the sink? Well, thought Danielle, how had Katerina allowed her daughter to get pregnant in college?
Yet in all her time inspecting Constance Jones’ home—two days a week for a year now—Danielle never found anything out of place. Nothing to suggest sexual kinks in Constance and Dorian’s room. No drugs or alcohol or even condoms under Harmony’s bed. Closets were in order, desks were work-only, and computers practically sparkling.
Danielle stood in the center of Constance and Dorian’s room. The carpet was beige, the walls white, the bedding brown with ornate, crème stitching. In one corner of the room a door led to the master bathroom—all marble and frosted glass. On Dorian’s side of the bed (right) lay a short stack of police novels, edges flush. Constance’s side was furnished with a vanity. A gold carousel of jewelry and a makeup bag rested on top.
Danielle felt something click inside her chest, like a clock’s hour hand locking into place. She picked up a glass bottle of Crybaby-Pink polish and hopped onto the bed like she was at a slumber party. She’d always wondered how the bottle would feel in her hand, how Crybaby-Pink would look on her toes. She’d always wanted to lie in this bed. The perfect bedspread broke pleasantly underneath her. She rested her chin on her knee as she layered thick polish in even stripes onto her toenails. She sat back against the pillowed headboard and stretched her toes, worming them in the gentle draft of the A/C.
Danielle could breathe out, reclining on Constance’s bed. This house was calming her. She could always count on that, from the first time until now. Everything was organized, proper. Everything was soft. She pulled the lump of her cell phone from her back pocket and dropped it on Dorian’s pillow. She turned toward the open closet door and began planning the outfit she would put on when her toes dried.
Lying there, Danielle fell asleep.
Last night, Mother Danielle had pulled Julie’s laptop from her backpack and sat in the living room. She decided to read some of Julie’s school assignments. Maybe there she could find some sense in the girl’s behavior. It’d only been a few months of this, of new music, new clothes, new makeup—all darker. Maybe it was just a phase. Or maybe, she thought, mousing through folders on the desktop, it wasn’t.
“Not a good idea,” said Bob, feet on the coffee table, hand on the TV remote.
It’d been a few months since Danielle had inspected her own home, let alone Julie’s laptop, but she quickly found a folder called “School.” She skimmed an essay on the Civil War, on democracy. She read the introduction of an essay on an author she’d never heard of, tried to bite her imaginary tongue, failed, thought, Well, it’s not grabbing my attention. She deleted a comma, exited without saving.
Julie’s door opened upstairs, and Danielle slid the laptop back into place, pulled her knees against her chest, and hugged them.
Danielle’s phone was vibrating beside her head, floating across the pillow as though trying to creep away unnoticed. It was an unknown number. She picked it up.
“Hello, this is Constance.”
“Hello?” A man’s voice. “I’m sorry, I’m looking for Mrs. Danielle Kimpan.”
“I’m sorry,” said Danielle, yawning the sleep from her voice. “This is she.”
The clock beside the bed said 2:20. Constance should’ve been home by now. Danielle stood, surprised by her own calm.
“Your daughter is Julie Kimpan? This is Principal Quinn.” The man covered the mouthpiece of his phone and spoke to someone on the other side. He returned. “I’m sorry to call you, but Julie’s in my office right now. A teacher found her smoking marijuana in a school bathroom. Can you come in today?”
He sounded bored. Danielle could empathize.
“I can’t,” she sat on the bedside, gazing down at her new toes. They looked nice, and for once, Danielle didn’t mind her feet. “Actually, can you call back another time?”
She hung up. After a few moments the phone vibrated again. She silenced it.
Where was Constance? Danielle wondered again at her cool, wondered if it was simply this home, so perfectly composed, that made Constance herself so perfectly composed.
Another part of Danielle nagged. Something was wrong. Then again, Constance was often late. If she met up with friends for a post-workout brunch. If she stopped at the bank or grocery.
But maybe something else had happened. Maybe, maybe Constance was in an accident. Maybe she’d gone to the hospital. Maybe she wasn’t coming home at all.
Danielle yawned again, stretched, and felt her whole body expand. Why worry? She tossed her phone back onto the bed. Who cared where Constance was? She was here.
That morning, Bob had been eating breakfast in his dress shirt and boxers, daubing flecks of egg from his plate with a too-small bit of sourdough. His fingertips were yolky. With the other hand, he scrolled through headlines on his phone, reading them aloud the same way he read signs and billboards as they drove, to fill the silence.
“South Carolina man dives off waterfall trying to save dog,” he said. “New Jersey mom strangles newborn, throws her in garbage.”
Danielle sat beside him, taking slow bites of yogurt, setting her top teeth to drag against the curve of the spoon, her tongue to hollow it out. Suddenly, she realized it’d been weeks—maybe more—since she and Bob had made love. Finishing another bite of yogurt, she scooted her chair toward Husband Bob, and slipped her feet under his thigh to warm them.
“Entitled parents are hurting their kids.” He lifted his leg, pushed her ankles with his yolky hand. “Jesus, your feet are clammy. Put on some socks.”
Danielle waited until Bob left for work, then she went to his desktop to watch porn—perhaps just to leave a single blemish on his history. When she clicked on the browser, a window was already open—an icon for an online document, connected to Bob’s work email. It was titled, “Dear Danielle.” For a moment, she couldn’t think who would’ve written it. To Julie, she was “mom,” and to Bob, she was “Dani.” Yet there it was. She hesitated a moment, then clicked it open.
Dear Danielle, We’ve been married for a long time and it has not been an unhappy marriage but not a happy one either.
Danielle cringed at the punctuation.
I think it would be best if we took some time apart. Julie says it is better to grow up with divorced parents than miserable ones, and I think we are both miserable if I am being honest.
Danielle felt her jaw pop, and realized it was locked shut. She tried to open it, failed.
Next steps might be hard but they are what we must take. We both contributed to the house but I think whoever Julie decides to stay with should keep it.
Son of a bitch. Of course Julie would pick Father Bob, because Father Bob—soon to be Bachelor Bob—let her do whatever she wanted. Fifteen years ago, they’d used Danielle’s inheritance from her dead aunt to put a down payment on this house, and now—now what?
The room began to spin. Danielle gripped the arms of her chair, felt their edges dig into her palm. She squeezed her eyes shut, lowered her forehead between her knees. She tried to breathe, found her lungs weren’t working properly, and ran outside, across the street, into safety.
Constance’s closet was organized by season and color. Across from the monochromatic tones of Dorian’s suits, Constance’s blouses (top rack) and pants (bottom rack) opened up like a box of pastels. On one end of the pants rack was a bureau with the top-drawer half open, bras carefully folded inside.
Danielle shed her clothes in a small pile and walked to the dresser. No pushup bras, she knew. Constance was pragmatic. She fished out a lacy bralette Constance didn’t wear enough and pulled it over her head, cupping her breasts into place one at a time. The underwear drawer remained, as usual, unopened. Danielle slid on a pair of white jeans, sucked in her belly, and buttoned them. She couldn’t wear them as low on her hips as Constance, but she could wear them.
For her top Danielle already knew the tunic she wanted. It matched her toes—a pink, loose fitting, button-up whose translucence whispered of the bra underneath. On Constance, the top hung loose with subtle swells at her breasts and over her bottom. But as Danielle buttoned up in front of the mirror, she thought it fit her better. The buttons at the bosom looked eager to unclasp, revealing a hint of black lace and soft flesh underneath.
Constance’s summer heels were still under the bed. When Danielle looked for them, she realized they had migrated closer to Dorian’s side over the cold months. She circled the bed, knelt, and stretched, hooking two fingers over the straps of a pair of toeless heels. Suddenly she noticed the tearable fabric under the mattress falling strangely: the faint shape of an envelope. New since last week.
Sitting on Dorian’s side of the bed, heels beside her, Danielle turned over in her hands what she’d found. Thick paper. Plain white. Written in tiny, exact print on the front: open alone. The flap looked to have been torn open hastily. She pushed it open and pulled out the card. On the white front, a glittery gold print read Happy Birthday, Daddy! Inside the card was one line, penciled by the same hand as the envelope front: 10:30 in the copy room. -Catie.
That was all.
Danielle’s throat tightened. Dorian didn’t have a second daughter. Little dark-eyed Catie—an intern, Danielle was sure—waiting in the copy room. One lamp would be on in the corner. Her highlighted hair would be teased, playing at her collarbone. A little diamond stud would be tucked in her bellybutton, under that fitted dress shirt and high-waisted pencil skirt.
Danielle snapped the card closed and strapped on her heels, a perfect fit. She stood, a little wobbly at first, and walked to the bathroom. Danielle stared in the mirror at her red-rimmed eyes. She slapped herself, just once. A sharp sting radiated on her cheek before receding into a dull warmth—a cute half-blush, she thought. Danielle turned on the faucet, cupped water, and washed her face.
After she finished, she walked to the bed and picked up the letter, sliding it back into the envelope. As she tucked it into her pocket, she noticed how sexy her heels looked. They were nude leather, and her toes poked out like a pink bouquet, like roses.
She walked down the front stairway, pulling her hair back into a tight ponytail. Someone had left the door cracked, so she closed it. Her heels clicked tile-by-tile down the front hall to the kitchen, Crybaby Pink gloss shining in the light. A glass water bottle was sweating, puddling on the counter. Dorian was always leaving the kitchen such a mess, she thought. She put the water in the fridge.
She walked to the pristine sitting room—where she’d wiped the coffee table and pounded the couches two weeks ago for spring cleaning. The curtain rings squealed on the rod as she let in the sun. Dorian would be home soon. Constance sat on the couch. She folded one leg over the other, reversed them, and set the envelope on the coffee table in front of her, in full view of the front door. She folded her hands. She waited.
David Priest is a journalist and a 2018 International Regional Magazine Association (IRMA) Gold Award recipient for Nature and Environmental Writing. His stories and essays have appeared recently in The American Literary Review, Salon, Arkansas Life, Reservoir, Transect Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in Louisville, KY with his wife, Lindsey, and two sons, Idris and Atticus. In his spare time, he can be found playing board games with his family.
Joe joined my gym when he started third grade so I pick him up after work and we bike over to Gifu Yokozeki Boxing Gym, companionable, Joe chatterboxing the whole way and throughout each session, Dada, Dada, his lungs propelling his eight-year-old voice, small, high, curious, into the ambient soundscape that includes whirring jump rope thwacks, heavy bag thuds, the quick rattling smack of the speed bag, the start and stop of the three minute timer, general shufflings and cracks and grunts, somebody yelling with every punch, somebody’s ragged panting breathing, my own. And because Yokozeki-san puts it on when Joe and I arrive there’s also the Beatles radio channel: Getting Better, I’m So Tired, Joe singing along to Strawberry Fields Forever.
Usually: warm-up stretches, jump rope, shadow boxing, mitt practice with one of the trainers, heavy bag, weights, that roller wheel thingamabob, cool-down stretches. Sixty to ninety minutes.
Joe uses a stool so he can reach the speed bag. I can hear his faltering, patient practice over the sounds of Ruito and Nozomu whaling on each other in the ring.
When you’re finished with heavy bag work you mop up your sweat with one of the yellow mops provided for that purpose. It’s customary to mop up everybody’s sweat, whether they’re finished or not, when you mop up your own. Joe sometimes forgets this.
My mother had asthma, and recently I’ve felt a tightening in my chest. Try and remember to relax with the breath. Leave the breath alone.
The unlikeables I imagine while I belabor the heavy bag: the janitor at the school where I work and his incessant hissing, the teacher who grunts all day long, various enemies and rivals from my near and distant pasts. Joe has his enemies too: mockers on the dodgeball field, unkind classmates, the fifth grade kid who kicked him in the balls.
Jogging with my father, a long time ago. Legs and lungs working. Proud to keep up with him.
Boxing is getting back to your body, staying in the body. Boxing is getting lost in your body for three minutes at a time. Boxing is running your breath down your shoulder to your fist. I forget this sometimes.
The world is full of things that will hurt my son. Leave the things alone.
The ring floor is blue, the ring ropes red, white, and blue. The neutral corners feature a smiling cartoon tiger face with the words CHINA FOOD above and SAN COCK below. Joe and I drape our hand towels over the red top rope and do two rounds of light sparring. Very light. But if he gets lazy or sloppy I’ll tap him on the forehead or belly. He needs to know.
Japanese uses one character for both breath and son.
Jason Emde is a teacher, writer, amateur boxer, Prince enthusiast, and graduate student in the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. He’s also the author of My Hand’s Tired and My Heart Aches (Kalamalka Press, 2005) and the co-author of the parodic action novel The Crunch Gang Meet the Deadly Zombie Ninjas of Japan (Amazon e-book). His work has appeared in Ariel, The Malahat Review, Anastamos, Miracle Monocle, Prometheus Dreaming, and Short Writings from Bulawayo III. He lives in Japan.
When your father tells you he secured a flight for you and your husband and children, you don’t ask questions. You race home and fill up a suitcase with photos and heirlooms. You tell your three-year-old to grab a spoon and thank god that the baby is still fed by your breast. Your husband tells you to slow down so he can remember where he put the passports and you regret ever loving him. You wish you had more time to hug your mother and father. You wish your children would stop crying. Fraught but calm, you try to memorize the shadows on the wall cast by the afternoon sun, bougainvillea tapping lightly at the windows, a tender scent woven into the furniture and the textiles and all that you will leave behind.
You push your family into the taxi and tell the driver where to go, to hurry. He nods and sweats and stomps on the accelerator. The car crunches down a rocky driveway, stirring up a cloud of red earth. You can’t see them but you know the neighbors are watching, always. And soon the commandos will come. They will knock knowing no one will answer. They will enter knowing no one will return. They will take knowing no one will stop them. No one will be there to resist them—yet their sandals will still leave skid marks.
Your husband instructs the driver to go faster, but the square is glutted with mopeds and bicycles. “Fuck this country,” your husband sputters. You hate how quickly he blames others. You stare out the window and paint a memory of this place. Mothers yank on bony child arms. Food vendors stir and grill. A lunch crowd spills into the streets, bodies lithely crouched and clustered and doing what they must to survive uncertainty. Mutts are shooed away. A legless man pulls his torso along, trailing empty trousers. Your three-year-old is hungry and asks to stop for chè. You shush him with dried mango strips as your baby roots for your breast by kissing the air.
Your family arrives to chaos. The plane is full. But how can that be. No one will listen to you. But your father made arrangements. But nothing. But wait. Your children cling to you, frightened by your forceful insistence. Your husband drops the suitcase to clutch your arm. Do something, his grip begs. Why did you choose this man to marry? An official in a crisp white shirt scurries by and you thrust your passport in his face. You announce your name, your father’s name, his job and title. You promise your father’s good word. You promise glory and status. You hold out your jewels and promise to keep your promises. You demand to speak to someone with more authority. You plead. You pray. You fall apart. The plane departs without you.
You spot the driver’s scaly elbow slung out the window, a cigarette smoldering towards his thumb. Your family files inside the idling taxi, but where can you go when there is no one to trust. “Fuck this country,” your husband whimpers while you weep. The driver nods and steers, knowing of another way. He takes you beyond the hustle of the city. Past the pastures and the paddies. Heavy with fatigue, your children sink into your flesh. They smell like sea mist, so potent that it fills your lungs and lulls you under, and under, until dusk turns the earth to rust.
Your family arrives as moonlight sweeps the water. You walk to where the shore is shallow. Your three-year-old dips his spoon into the mud and makes a little hole that can’t be seen. The dock is neither here nor there. The boat is neither big nor small. On it is a figure crouched and waiting. The driver says the captain is a kindly man who can take your family to a place, and there it should be easy to keep going—but the boat cannot accommodate your suitcase. You stare at the driver whose eyes are gleaming in the dark. You glance at your husband, whose eyes are also gleaming. Your heart racing, your eyes must be gleaming, too.
Vivien Cao is originally from Los Angeles. She previously worked in film and television, and has taught writing at several CUNY campuses. Her writing has also been published in SmokeLong Quarterly.
A mother leaves her daughter in a highchair by the window, baking in direct sun. Eventually the child shrivels up into an old, brown, decrepit woman. She expires quietly, motionless, in similar fashion.
“Rats,” sighs the mother.
Her child is unrecognizable. A dried-up peach pit in her hands.
She buries her daughter in the garden with the others, moonlight gnawing at her back, knowing the cycle of life is a hoax, and that nothing else would grow.
Her husband laughs heartily at the TV in his cold, dark room, “!”
At every birth, she checks her children for an expiration date — tucked under armpits, on the bottoms of feet, inverted in nostrils — to no avail. She discovered her own date at a young age, stamped beneath an eyelid. With each blink, a countdown. The future bulldozing towards her, heels dug firmly into the ground.
Her husband falls asleep in his armchair. She checks him for an expiration date, but finds nothing.
He is obviously far past his prime. She sniffs at his salted skin, his pale meat dripping off the bone. Fungus spores plague him in his moistest corners, yet his life force remains strong. His heart thrashes behind his ribs like a caged monkey.
What is the secret to immortality? What is it?
“Tell me,” she begs, and smacks him when he doesn’t comply. His squishy body sloshes like mud in a bag.
The mother births another child, who falls down a well.
The mother births another child, who chokes on a bug.
No offspring will survive her — is she even, then, a mother?
Her husband thaws into a puddle in his armchair, holding tight onto his secret, despite his own wife’s expiration date, which is fast approaching.
Across the hall, the mother takes shelter in the empty nursery. She nails up a blanket over each window. Shoves towels between the cracks in the door. She curls up under the crib, a pillow pressed to her head, perfectly still. Eyes shut tight, she watches her expiration date pass by into the next, then the next, then the next, endlessly forward.
If I can stay just like this, she thinks, I just might live forever.
Stephen Wack is an Atlanta-based writer. He earned an undergraduate degree in neuroscience from the University of Georgia, where he briefly interned at the college’s literary magazine, The Georgia Review. His work has previously appeared in Five:2:One Magazine, After Happy Hour Review, and is forthcoming in The Hunger and Rougarou. To get in touch: @stephen_wack / [email protected]
Back then he said he could make anyone’s confidence bloom, especially mine, and I said that if he ever could really pull this off, it would be his best gag yet. I chalked the failure up to his lack of creativity, but then I remembered that I was part of the act.
But sometimes, in the middle of the night, when he was down there, going for the standing ovations, his act became old. The way it felt to me, he stood between me and the Strong Man. “Now that’s a bit of business!” I said about the Strong Man. After that, Chuckles stopped trying to win me over every night. He rested his cherry-nose on my stomach and cried about how I had never really loved him.
“Honk if you believe in Jesus,” he’d croak, and I’d reach down, honk it twice, make him laugh.
The betrayal didn’t happen at first, not when it should’ve. And later, it wouldn’t stop. I loved Chuckles, and I didn’t want him looking up at me like that anymore, trying his best, but failing to make me sing, every time.
My final act of defiance, of course, was to actually sing my song. I’d been waiting my whole life to do it. One regular night, Chuckles doing his mediocre best, it warbled out of me like breaker waves in Maui. He stood up, as if the alarm clock he’d been waiting for, pretty much forever, had finally gone off. “It’s time,” he said, love dripping from his chin.
Meg Pokrass is the author of five flash fiction collections. Her work has been recently anthologized in two Norton Anthology readers, Best Small Fictions, 2018 and 2019, and has appeared in 350 literary magazines, both online and in print. She currently serves as Flash Challenge Editor at Mslexia Magazine, Festival Curator for Flash Fiction Festival, U. K., Co-Editor of Best Microfiction, 2019, and Founding/Managing Editor of New Flash Fiction Review.