I saw it happen before I heard it. My phone dropped from my grip, pulling my earbuds out and to the ground with it. A cellist played in my head. My breath hot, fogging and unfogging my glasses. I licked my chapped lips before doubling over to retch onto my rubber boots.
It had been snowing that morning. What some called awhiteout. Each step to work was a near-silent crunch. Unable to make anything out in front of me, I was one of the only employees going in because of how much had accumulated overnight. I would have been paid if I had stayed home, but I didn’t believe in taking unearned money. Working kept me busy, anyway. Keeping my mind occupied was the only way I could avoid unraveling since the accident.
Two sets of headlights came into view in front of me. A Jeep, at a stop sign, spun out. A snowplow, coming on perpendicular, didn’t slow down. Didn’t know to slow down. The Jeep’s brakes couldn’t hold up on the ice. The plow couldn’t see them coming. It was out of their control and now someone was dead. I had never witnessed a car get crushed into something so small and unrecognizable. There was smoke and a sizzling. The driver of the plow got out and ran, in slow motion, to his vehicle’s victim. He tried prying, what might or might not have been the door, open but there was no point in optimism for the surely distorted body. The man ran toward me. TheChariots of Firetheme song played, which made me chuckle. His murmuring’s volume increased as he grew nearer. I couldn’t hear him over that song, over my heartbeat—my temples pulsing. Vomit lodged in-between my teeth. I spat onto the ground.
“Call 911! Call 911!” He shrieked, too close to my face, before running back.
My eyebrows drew closer. I looked down at my empty hand, then my gaze fell to the ground. It was covered in the snow that kept falling. The snow that didn’t let up, even after it had pocketed a life. I ungloved my right hand, but my screen was too saturated to dial.
My wife, two winters earlier, died in a car accident on a day not unlike this one. As the Jeep morphed into its new, fatal shape, before my eyes, I finally felt released. My grief transformed into a sadness for whoever loved this individual as much as I loved her. I hoped it had been as instantaneous for her as it was for them. I hoped neither felt the pain that losing them unearthed. Approaching ambulance sirens overpowered the man’s sobs. I set my phone back down and tossed my glasses onto the ground, too. Red flashing lights came around the corner. Red flashing lights that I never called. I laid down and let the white everything consume my vision until my eyes couldn’t stand it anymore.
PARCHMENT, ABSORPTION, & SPLINTERED PALMS After Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhone” (1888)
Every night I was intermittently woken up by a flashlight peeking into the small window in my door. A confirmation of my staying put. Double checking my pulse without having to hold my wrist. I’d been there for years. Set schedule. Second hand desk that you can’t brush up against without getting splinters. The walls and floor, off white. My bed sheets are pale blue. My smock, pale blue. Most of the time, I wish I could be pale blue, too. My mind winning marathons, winning trauma responses. This is my box of unhealthy coping mechanisms. This is the box where they’ll bury my empty body. Pins in my mouth, in my eyes. Maybe ashes to be spread, spilled, swallowed. I am a pacing nothing. At night, the internal hum dimmed. Everything outside of my body grew quieter at night, too. The river outside continued flowing—still reflecting, still evolving. From my encased window high above humanity, I had an even better view of the moon than the people who sat on park benches, who walked their dogs, who knifed open champagne on their anchored sailboats. I preferred moon slivers to full moons. I liked when the water balanced out and I could see every glowing bit of the above resting on its surface. I’d often stay up all night trying to replicate it on canvas. Trying to capture it in my hand. Trying to tuck it away—to save it for when I couldn’t see out. When the sun rises, I can still feel the constellation aftermath on my skin; yes, I am made of stars. My bones are these window bars. This is my rib cage. I am encased. Some people like to watch the sun rise and set; I prefer the in between. Yes, I am an in between. When your mind doesn’t fit the mold, it is the ever-changing phases of the night sky that show me I’ll be okay. Their flashlights walked me outside. Their fingers on my pulsing wrists. I soak up the night. I put it on paper. I save it for later.
Savannah Slone is a queer writer, editor, and English professor who currently dwells in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Paper Darts, The Indianapolis Review, Glass: A Poetry Journal, Hobart Pulp, and elsewhere. She is the Editor-in Chief of Homology Lit. Savannah is the author of An Exhalation of Dead Things (CLASH Books, 2021), Hearing the Underwater (Finishing Line Press, 2019), and This Body is My Own (Ghost City Press, 2019). She enjoys reading, knitting, hiking, and discussing intersectional feminism. You can read more of her work at www.savannahslonewriter.com.
WELCOME TO MY GALLERY OF GENUINE LOOK-ALIKES
by Anne McGouran
That grating drone is the wind off Nottawasaga Bay whipping along Main Street. The Freshii outlet just duct-taped their front window and HappyHooka Bait & Tackle closed one hour early. As I struggle to stay vertical, a Gandalf lookalike falls into step beside me. We walk abreast for several blocks and I stare at hisperfectly shaped cigarette ash. He turns into the Molly Bloom Pub where he’ll trot out his magic-cigarette-ash bar trick for all theold vets and rooming house drifters.
In the Arboretum, aman whosleeps rough near the meditative labyrinth is examining the Trembling Aspen’s memorial plaque. Arms around itspale white trunk, he’s a dead ringer for the epic-bearded cigarette ash guy. Homeless people make me nervous, sad and guilty but I try to make conversation. “Hey man, did you knowthat the aspen has hands down the most restless foliage of any tree? My tree atlas says its leaves pivot in the slightest breeze. No kidding.”
Easter egg huntson the windy Plains of Abraham, sugar shack excursions for boiled maple sap rolled in fresh snow… I always pictured my mother’s Quebec City childhood as a kind of lost paradise. The year after she died, I retraced my mother’s childhood haunts. Still standing were J. A. MoisanGeneral Store (now an ultra-hip foodie haunt) and Le Capitole recital hall (now a Beaux-Arts theatre with a “Who has not looked for calm in a song?” frieze above the loge seating). I lingered in front of her old house on Saint-Gabriel: a three-story Georgian, the green shutters gone, half-moon fanlight miraculously intact.
Eighty-three-year-old cousin Annette wasmy mother’s last surviving relative. During our brief visit, I was struck by her resemblance to Madame Hermine, the flirtatiouslandlady in Children of Paradise…the same tight curls and chain of office necklace. Annette’sidea of haute cuisine was a 7-Up and a “Super-Club” sandwich at Snack Bar St-Jean. After dinner, sheexecuted a soft-shoe on the rain-slicked cobblestones while warbling“Je cherche un homme bon caractère. S’ilestgalant et beau, envoyez le moi. Expérience, pas nécessaire.”(I’m looking for a man of good character. If he’s gallant and handsome send me to me. No experience necessary.)Annette stopped hiccuping after fennel tea and a shot of Harvey’s Bristol Cream thenstared off into the distance.“After Sunday Mass we’d walk down toBasse-Ville for tartelettes à la crème de citronandboules au rhum.The baker’s twine cut into my fingers when I carried that big cake box up the hill… a white box with blue letters that said ‘PatisserieKerhulu. ’”
Quebec’s Charlevoix region is notorious for its hilly terrain. While we were admiring the north shore’s panoramic views, our Dodge Caravan’s back axle began braking and revving as if possessed. “Cripes!” my husband said. “I know you had your heart set on whale watching but we’d better head back… stick to the concession roads.”
We made a last-ditch stop in the village of Les Éboulementsoverlooking the St Lawrence River. Inside a dovegrey, shotgun-style barn, an elaborate diorama overflowed its papier-mâchébackdrop. Hand-painted terracotta figurines, tiny country chapels and cedar-roofed shacks arranged in tiers. A replica 19th century village of millers, bakers, lamplighters, town criers, knife sharpeners,aioli makers—all daydreaming, pontificating and haggling.
A pale, freckled girl named Adéloniewrapped our purchases in butcher paper and twine and affixed a label: “Les Santons de Charlevoix.” When I asked if the santonniermodeled his figurines after real people she half-shrugged, half-winked. Later that afternoon in Quebec City, a mechanic replaced our car’s universal joint and threw in complimentary maple sugar candies.
Twenty-eight santonspopulate our front room bookcase: abearded peddler with a samples case; a midwife balancing swaddling clothes in an olivewood cradle; avillage fool in a rucked-up nightshirt. The baker woman carrying a pannier full of bread and cakes bears an uncanny resemblance to cousin Annette who died twenty years ago. The same sultry-avariciousvibe.
Anne McGouran’s stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in The Account, CutBank, The Smart Set, Mslexia, Switchgrass Review, Gargoyle, Queen’s Quarterly (cited in Best Canadian Essays 2019). She lives in Collingwood, Ontario where she has developed a fascination with ice huts and orchard ladders.
I’ve seen two angels and both were named Reginald.
The spirits appeared as a consequence of my life’s work: dentistry. I came by the profession naturally, as my father was a blacksmith in a small Missouri town. Before heading west, people needed help with their teeth as much as they needed wagon axles. And Pa was no butcher. As a child, time and time again, I witnessed his God’s gift withpliers.
“Nice‘n slick,” he’d mutterfrom the side of his mouth, one hand gripping a customer’s jaw, his other hand wielding the steel tool. I’d have both palms on the customer’s sweaty forehead, pinning the head back against the high-backed chair. Pa’s knuckles would whiten and I’d close my eyes tight. Seconds later, I’d hear the pebbly sound of a tooth hitting the concrete floor, and the rattle of the plierslanding on the workbench. I’d tilt thehead to let the blood stream down the chin.
I’d asked once, “What happens if thebleedingwon’t stop?”
“They become angels,” Pa said. “Most of them.”
I was about twelve when I saw the first angel, Reginald Cooper. He had a widehead, a sandpaper voice, and eyes darker than a rabbit’s. When he sat back in the chair, he spit a stubby cigarto the floor. I tried to avoid touching the wart on his sweaty temple.
“I want it done quick,” Reginald said.
But it must have been a sticky one because Pa wrestled with that tooth for a while. Reginald fainted dead away after eleven minutes.His head felt damp and heavy. I heldhim until Pa grabbed my shoulder and said, “Leave him be, now.”
Mrs. Cooper showed up and so did the undertaker. Mrs. Coopergavea few coins to the undertaker and a few more to Pa, even though Reginald had already paid. Pa flipped me a silver three-cent piece. That evening, I walked into town and stopped in front of the undertaker’s. Slowly, above the building, Mr. Cooper himself appeared, hisoutstretched arms shimmering,his whole body floating straight up to the stars. It was late and I’d had no dinner, but still, I saw what I saw. The next month, Mrs. Cooper married my father.
I must have turned the three-cent coin over in my pocket a thousand times, but I never spent it.
Five years later, I secured a position with the Army, Union side, assisting a doctor. Afterwards, despite my considerable skills and experience, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery rejected my application. I reckoned I could set up a shopanyway and make a success of it. I settled in Chicago, and found that I didn’t mind a big city where I could blend in like a drop in a river. My trade card said: “Painless, perfect, prompt tooth extractions! Always reasonably priced! Patients treated like angels!”
When I first started, I employed a strong lad who held down my patients. The patients were mostly stockyard workers, women from factories, and prisoners in chains. I took advantage of scientific advancements, experimenting with laughing gas (never worked well), ether, oil of cloves and a cocaine solution injected directly into the gum. Such products made it easier to work alone. I bought a drill operated by a foot treadle. I imported the finest gold leaf to push into cavities after extracting rot. I acquired a reclining chair, the latest design, a pump-type hydraulic.
My customers became wealthier. Some fathers, on the occasion of a daughter’s 18th birthday or wedding day, would pay to have all of her teeth removedand replaced with beautiful false teeth that would never give her trouble. I gave them exactly what they wanted.
I regularly advertised in the Tribune—Enjoy gentle dental surgery by polite professional!
Other dentists fill their offices with carnivore taxidermy, scientific diagrams of blood vessels and nerves, and even human skulls. Not me. I have oak-framed pictures of Apollonia, the patron saint of dentists, and keep fresh-cut flowers in painted porcelain vases. Vials and instruments stay locked in a cabinet until my patient is in the chair. I do keep a variety of books on the shelves, to lend my office a scholarly look, including my favorite text, Skinner’s Treatise on Human Teeth. The metalwork is all matching bronze—the handles on drawers, the gaslight sconces on the walls, and the lock on the door.
Last spring, a new Reginald—Reginald Dupree—opened a dentistry across the street. His advertisements claimed that he graduated third in his class from the University of Michigan’s dental school. One day, Reginald Dupreevisited my office, a hand to his cheek. No warts on him; his young skin would feelsmooth to touch.
“Can’t do it myself,” he said.
“I’ll treat you like an angel.” I smiled. “Now?”
“Ha! Too many customers today.” Reginaldpatted a gold watch into his vest pocket. “I’ll set an appointment for tomorrow at two.”
Before leaving, Reginald tapped the doorknob a few times, and turned back to me. He tilted his head and smiled, likean adult might if he sees a child do something wrong. “You practice without the proper education, madam.”
I didn’t answer.
“There’ll be laws soon. And no exceptions.”Reginald put on his hat. The ring on his pinkie flashed. “But perhaps I could use you in my office. We’ll see.”
That evening, I walked along the lake. I enjoyed theweight of my wool suit against the night cool, and the way a copper nodded politely as he passed. I rubbed my thumb against the old three-center, looked at the stars, andthought about throwing the coin into the water. Pa was no butcher, I decided; nor was I. It was just that, now and then, you meet someone who’s better off an angel.
Marilee Dahlman grew up in the Midwest and studied English at the University of Minnesota. She spent ten years studying and practicing law in New York. She currently lives in Washington, D.C. When not writing or working, she enjoys movies, art museums, and getting outside on the hiking trails or her bike. Her other short stories have recently appeared in The Colored Lens, Five on the Fifth, Metaphorosis, and The Saturday Evening Post.
Image Credit: “Historic Dentistry” by Clive Varley on CCSearch
The fire writhes, manic in a straightjacket. I too feel an appetite for all things.
I managed to open a bottle of beer with two rocks—modern man and the fire in his belly.
The beer rebels and foams, a harmless volcano.
It knows its criminal, this beer.
Night approaches. All the usual: purple, orange, blue. And then everything at once. Big black nothing, Conor Oberst sings.
Started the fire too early. Tent poles, broken but taped. A lopsided pyramid, instead of one forgiving arc. I zip up my sarcophagus.
The embers have a forcefield of heat that outdoes the light. If I wish to write, I will be burned.
I’m not far off the highway. Every truck frightens me.
I knew it would be cold. But knowing something means very little.
The embers in the sky could outlast those of my fire. I might burnwriting this. I’m on the last page. Imagine, all these words burning. The fire would go a little longer. A few minutes. Nothing more. Hours, months of writing, gobbled up by my most faithful reader.
Nothing is buried here. Everything is beaten, skinned, feasted upon. Tread lightly.
The first bone I found was clean of fur and meat. A crow nearby cawed and flew off into the buttermilk sky, wings beating in my ear.
The sun shrugged over the first mountain, and then the next. Turn back.
I gathered wood and came back with bones empty of marrow.
Tufts of animal fur flitted through camp like dandelion wings. What beast?
The sight of trash set me at ease. Mountain Dew bottles, candy wrappers, the many plastics of this world. These were things I knew.
I am a forensic scientist trained by Hollywood horror. Images from that buttered darkness (dull chainsaws, slashed tires, beards dribbled with chewing tobacco) visit me here in this boneyard once known as a picnic site.
Solitude. I wish I didn’t write that word. I have nothing to say about it other than I’ve had a lot of it.
Those with many rings write history. Elms write poetry. Wet wood, the kind that blows smoke, writes headlines.
Best known for tragedies, fire has authored the end of cities. Remember Chicago, the cow, the water tower.
Leave a mark like a fire would. Which is to say, no signature but itself. Recognizable to all, but only legible to the fire department.
The final burn. Let the sleeping pills settle. Throw on a free newspaper from the gas station and watch it bloom into black. Watch fire ants race over its petals and fly into the wordless night.
They say democracy dies in darkness, but lots of things live there too.
If you listen close, the fire says all kinds of things. Sometimes it says Rice Krispies in a bowl of milk. Sometimes car wheels on a gravel road. What would the fire say if I burned my notebook? Would it hiss or sigh or die? Or would it simply burn.
Connor Goodwin is a writer and critic from Lincoln, Nebraska. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, Poets & Writers, Los Angeles Review of Books, BOMB, X-R-A-Y, Back Patio Press, and elsewhere. He is working on a novel. Follow @condorgoodwing.
THE GREATEST LANDSCAPE HE HAD EVER SEEN
by César Valdebenito translated by Toshiya Kamei
In the summer midday, he was seated on a blanket in his underwear, with his boots on. His horse was five or six meters away while his gaunt dog Toby was asleep. He had turned on the radio and was listening to the news, but twenty minutes later he got bored. About fifty meters away his flock of sheep wandered. Robust, peaceful, and healthy, they kept grazing. He grabbed his rifle, which he had brought back from Pueblo Seco, Mexico a few years earlier. He had always wanted to try it, but he had never found the time or the opportunity. He was one of the best shooters, if not the best in that mountain range and had always wanted to know how good he was. What had stopped him? He had no answers. So he took aim at the nearest tree. The shot sounded and the leaves shook. The dog woke up and the horse jumped. Then, with great deliberation, he aimed toward his herd. He gunned down a sheep with the first shot. The horse trotted away. With amazingquickness, he aimed at the horse. For a moment he followed it with the crosshairs and, seconds later, knocked it down with another shot. The horse kicked and lay there. He kept aiming at the flock and knocking down sheep. Each time one fell, he lowered his rifle and gazed into the landscape. He felt the warm air as the sun scorched the earth. He felt drops of sweat forming on his forehead. He continued firing for three or four hours. After that, the flock had been halved. The dog watched the sheep raise their heads and then continue to graze. As the dog observed, sometimes they collapsed or disappeared behind the horizon. “See, Toby? I’m very good, aren’t I?” said the young man. Then his cousin arrived on horseback. He came full gallop. He stopped about thirty meters away and shouted at him what the fuck he was doing. “You’re nuts! You’ve gone totally nuts! Bernardo!” shouted the cousin. But the young man aimed at him, fired, and gunned down the horse he was riding. The cousin ran out and got lost in the plain. In the middle of the afternoon, gunshots were heard throughout the region. The young man had already been surrounded by PDI agents andpublic security officers. But still, from time to time, he loaded the rifle and aimed at a sheep. The last image he would ever see was his dog looking at those sheep and the sheep looking at him. In the end he would think this was the greatest landscape he had ever seen in his life.
Born in 1975 in Concepción, Chile, César Valdebenito is a poet, writer, and essayist. His books include the novels La vida nunca se acaba (2017) and Una escena apocalíptica (2016), as well as the short story collections El bindú o la musa de la noche (2017) and Pequeñas historias para mentes neuróticas (2018).
Toshiya Kamei holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Arkansas. His translations have appeared in venues such as Abyss & Apex, Cosmic Roots & Eldritch, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Helios Quarterly Magazine, and Samovar.
the birds don’t circle the ways they do here…….collected in one
large cloud……a blanket of ‘of’ …….there’s no following
in backwards time…no picking back up or undoing…..the glass
hardens almost immediate…the soft bubble at the tip smoothed
to hard nub….the sound of liquid in yr straw….….a suck bitten
between handful of teeth…. it thinks of things which need
splitting…..division….via money…….via labor….…. via you’re
too stupid…………look….how pretty….….i’ve become..in yr
absence……..look how you’re faking just look….you’ve peed
yrself all over N –– J ––– Transit,….you’ve lost….yr flip flops in
old bridge & now we’re getting kicked off the train b/c, well,
b/c i’ve sworn off swearing sworn off being a woman yelling
instead i’ll be a reliquary….….so how about……..you give me yr
xbox?……yes, it was me….yr bungled up boyfriend….…come to
sew all the patches on yr clothes …………………………………………………& come to split the field in two
Alice Hall is poet living and working in Buffalo, NY, where she is pursuing a PhD in the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo. Previously, she taught poetry and writing in Portland, Oregon. Her poems are published or forthcoming in Prelude, Dream Pop, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbook One Million Nude Women (Industrial Lunch.)
I’m a spotter. I’m good at spotting people, what their weaknesses are.
I look for what feels familiar, it’s that simple. It’s that easy.
I see you, gentle men and women. I see you.
You may smile smile smile. Always smile smile smile.
But all the time I’m waiting. Waiting for you to slip.
I’m thinking about power. Always thinking about power.
The First Mark
“Come with us, we’ll show you,” I say to the short man.
“I don’t trust you, I don’t know you,” he says, pulling slightly away from me.“Why should I go with you?”
“Sounds like a Wookie,” I say to Joe.
“Sometimes,” I sayto the short man, going right up to him, “sometimes you just have to get out.”
Victims aren’t always helpless. Does that sound like an oxymoron?
Is it strange, that I’m asking?
The world is made up of those who control and those who are controlled by. That’s just the way it is. No use, as they say, wishing for the moon.
Perhaps you think I sound manipulative? Cold?
All I’m saying is: Don’t get a wife. Don’t, don’t, don’t.
Or you bury yourself. In a tomb bigger than Arundel’s.
The Second Mark
As to how the situation with Molly developed.
She was a toad. She had big, gelatinous eyes. Why was she squatting in my life, what cause did I give her ever? Tears always spilling from her eyes, towards what end?
She called me a brute. Oh la-di-day, oh la-di-day.
“Molly,” I said, “Is there someone you love? More than yourself, I mean? Because six days a week I toil. Driving that cab around.”
“You make me sick, Molly,” I said. “The way you’re always making things all out of proportion. And are you a pauper? Do we live like paupers?”
Molly crying and rubbing her eyes. She going: “Why do Dorothy and the others get to live like queens? Up-lane, in the big houses that always smell sweet, like roses? And we ourselves smell like tinned meat.”
“You seemed to like it once, Molly,” I said. “Ten years ago, you’d no complaints. You seemed to like it, remember? I would tickle your bare feet – Good God! Unspeakable! I must have been mad. And if I were brave enough – Stuff your cooking and your cleaning! And the three wee nippers, good Lord! The way the lot of you eat – ! Has you starved? Has any of you? What dreams I had once, Molly. That’s the stuff.”
You’re a toad, Molly Molly Molly. And again I said Molly Molly Molly. You go hop hop hop, hop hop hop, giving me the stink-eye. Hunkers hard like a cow’s, but no milk in your udders. Lips cold as snow.
Now, only the Lord knows. Only the Lord knows why.
Being a victim is like having a smell. When some people drink a lot, their skin begins to smell like corned beef. It has nothing to do with cleanliness. The smell comes from somewhere deep inside.
And this particular smell, the smell of a victim, is a lure.
But oh that’s all water under the bridge now.
I’m as jointed armour now, true as a knight’s steel.
Bees sting and ducks swim. Sniffing out marks –that’s what I’m good at.
That’s what I do.
Marianne Villanueva was born and raised in the Philippines and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has published three collections of short fiction:Ginseng and Other Tales From Manila, Mayor of the Roses, and The Lost Language. Her novella, Jenalyn, was a 2014 finalist for the UK’s Saboteur Award. She has also collaborated on a full-length opera with the New York composer Drew Hemenger. Marife, the opera, received its world premiere in New Hampshire in 2015. She has just completed her first novel.
O secretive sunrise of an armadillo,
won’t you please uncurl for me? Of all
the fruits I know you alone must live.
Fiery armadillo dredged through blood
& yolk, I have been watching you for hours,
waiting for you to emerge from yourself
& shuffle across the kitchen counter, sniffing
at the knives. I set out a plum for you, bowl
of dead spiders. I haven’t the faintest as to
what you like to eat. The encyclopedias
keep your secrets well, but I am persistent,
little Jupiter. I will witness the unwitnessed.
Your unfolded golden splendor. Treasurous
armadillo, shall I place you in a bedroom
with another of your kind—scattered petals,
incense burning, Al Green playing low? Shall
I leave you to it & peek through the keyhole?
No. My eyes would never survive it; the sacred
savagery of your love—a pair of burning gods
divulging to the dark the unspeakable
violence of sugar.
At the burger joint your friend thinks it is funny
to snatch, while you are not looking, the fries
one by one off your plate, & stuff them, grinning
into his mouth. Even after you’ve explained to him
that it’s as if he’s reaching over & eating your beloved’s
hands, how she is all you have: a wife of piping gold
to stave off an encroaching dark. Though you gesture,
half-joking, with your edgeless knife. Though you growl
like a goblin Pagliacci he whips his hand, again & again,
eight, nine, ten times—until you hunch, ogre-ish, over
the fries as though communion were possible only here,
upon this bed of chipped linoleum. But what does he
care, munching the beloved—until something begins
moving within him, & he grimaces & leaps & rushes to
the bathroom, where, bending over the toilet bowl he
stares at what he’s vomited out: nailed, knuckled, & pale:
a mass of wriggling fingers…
The server brings
the Sprite & before
she is halfway turned
from your table
the Sprite & request
another & within
seconds it too
is gone so she brings
another, then two,
then pitcher & you
do, you drink it straight
from the pitcher
like a mug
of coffee, jug of wine,
a vessel in which
have been melted,
& yes, of course,
you marry the Sprite,
you walk the aisle,
speak the vows,
lift the veil,
smash the glass,
& lick your love
off the floor…
So simple to be both lovers at ………….the same time one
munching a sleeve of Oreos…………. as the other begs him to stop
one shoving Oreos into his mouth…………. the other floating up
into space one gasping through crumbs…………. the other bellowing
but one’s head is a sugar swamp…………. so the other isn’t heard
while hauled through sleeves of stars…………. entreating the first
to take a break breathe…………………….. but one does not rest
one advances like an ocean……. …… pulling catastrophe
into insatiable tide………………… ….. as the other goes
finally silent ………….…………………………………swallowed up
in the hungry hush ………….………….…………. the plump dark ………….………….………….………….………….………….………….picking its teeth
Jeremy Radin is a poet and actor. His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Ploughshares, The Colorado Review, The Journal, Muzzle, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. He is the author of Slow Dance with Sasquatch (Write Bloody, 2012) and Dear Sal (Not A Cult, 2017). He lives in Los Angeles where he once sat next to Carly Rae Jepsen in a restaurant.
COAXING LIFE FROM DEAD MAN’S FINGERS
by Keygan Sands
Branching tendrils like spongy green fingers cling to surf-pummeled rock, doing their endless work of collecting sunlight filtered through silvery cloud. The air chokes and refreshes, rot and salt-scent both thick and invigorating. I pluck the seaweed fronds, Codium fragile or “dead man’s fingers,” from their nest amidst skin-slicing barnacles and mussels: they falter to human hands where endless pounding water could not break their holds.
Within the seaweed are tiny beings: pale, semi-translucent, grazing sea slugs. A plume of rubbery filaments—cerata—crest their backs, each one brilliant green with a thick web of dendritic veins. Their bodies taper, are topped with two independent eyestalks—rhinophores—that cast about gracefully and shrink at my touch. They feed upon the skin of the seaweed, ripping into the flesh, sucking from them chloroplasts. They are sacoglossans: sapsuckers.
Much later—I have migrated from rocky shoreline to sterile, clean-lined lab room—I separate the slugs from their food. I hold them with utmost care in a pair of metal forceps: squishy saclike body oozing between cold, hard prongs. The largest of them could stretch out comfortably to full length inside an eighth teaspoon. I place the slug in a glass vial which goes into a plastic box of water; the vial must be in a controlled environment. Tubes snake from the plastic into a steel box the size of a mini-fridge that calculates somewhere in its dark maze of innards how to keep the water bath at a constant temperature of 4℃. Another device connected to a thin probe impaling the vial’s cap measures dissolved air within the slug’s tiny, artificial environment. Just like that, I control a world.
Being an animal, the slug respires. I cover the vialin aluminum foil, blocking all light. Oxygen decreases predictably as the sacoglossan uses up what there is; it’s a neat line being birthed in blue on my computer screen: oxygen concentration as a percent of atmospheric pressure. After the designated period of darkness, precisely timed at half an hour, I proclaimthat there be light, and remove the foil without jostling. The slug clings to the glass, muscular foot flexing to progress its pinprick bulk, film of mucus left in its wake. The light, warm and piercing from a lamp suspended above, casts a halo glow upon the sacoglossan’s semi-clear skin, and green becomes gold. Amazingly, over the next thirty minutes,the little line of oxygen rises on the graph.
Some sacoglossan slugsdon’t kill and digest the chloroplasts from algae they consume. The organelles, fragile sacs of green pigment and photosynthesizing apparatus, make their miraculous way through gastrovascular systems and into the cerata in the slug’s back. There, the chloroplasts continue to coax sugar from light, life from sunshine.
Are the chloroplasts, then, alive? They survive, somehow, the vicious rending of the slug’s toothy, tongue-like radula tearing through algal flesh, the passage through the squirming digestive tract, and entrapment in a foreign body. Some varieties of these fed-upon seaweeds have incantations imbedded in their genetic coding that toughen their chloroplasts and enable them to function independently. Are they merely functioning, or truly living?
A well-known hypothesis: in the long-ago depths of evolutionary time, chloroplasts were once independent organisms—single-celled, photosynthesizing bacteria—that, upon being engulfed by another cell, did not break down, but traded nourishment for protection. They were incorporated into algae and, eventually, plants ever since. It seems to be happening again: perpetual innovation of the animal kingdom. Kleptoplasty: the stealing of plastids.
There is still ambiguity. Do the chloroplasts camouflage the slugs, or feed them? The answer might depend on species. Mine, Placida dendritica, remains a mystery.
I return my specimen to its tank. The seaweedis slowly decaying. A webwork of emerald slime floats like mist—I need to refresh the water—but the slugs, tiny pale specks, feed on. Even as the algae dies, the chloroplasts live. Mortality is a spectrum sometimes.
Keygan Sands is a candidate in the Creative Writing and Environment MFA program at Iowa State University. Her work explores the confluence between science, nonhuman environments, and society. Her writing appears in Cold Mountain Review and the climate fiction anthology Nothing Is As It Was. She presented literary research at the Fantasy and Myth Anthropocene International Conference in Brno, Czech Republic. Her visual art was featured in the “Welcome to Iowa: Letters to Carp and Other Immigrants” exhibit at the Signal Poetry Festival in Ames, Iowa.
Meg’s first husband was a kind man. They’d been good friends before they started dating. On long walks Meg would complain to Louis about her boyfriend of the time. At some point she realized that Louis was in love with her; however, she wasn’t attracted to him. But she liked Louis so much, and she feared that he would find a girlfriend, whereupon his devotion to her would inevitably slip away. So Meg overcame her lack of attraction. She did this partly by imagining Louis as an art object. Things about him that were repellent, like his concave chest or almost hairless legs, became appealing when she imagined him as composed of marble or aluminum.
For several years they were very happy. There was a skylight above their bedroom that opened on a hinge. Sometimes a wild peacock would land on the roof, and they would feed it Crackling Oat Bran through the skylight.
Louis was extremely neat, and did virtually all the cleaning. Before his family members would come to visit, he would scrub, sweep, and mop, and send Meg out to buy fresh flowers. Once Meg’s sister Evelyn, over for dinner, rinsed dishes and stacked them in their dishwasher, and Louis promptly restacked all the dishes. This offended Evelyn (though she was very fond of Louis). She asked Meg if she found her husband overly controlling. Meg shook her head in confusion; she couldn’t understand why anyone would object to having a husband do all the cleaning.
Louis had faults, though it took a long time for Meg to perceive them as such. He drank too much. His kindness trumped honesty. He would lie to people, including Meg, to avoid hurting their feelings. And eventually, though its source was mysterious to them both, he stopped being attracted to Meg. Her attraction to him had been of the talked-into variety, responding to his own rather than independently reaching toward him. So they stopped having sex altogether, and finally split up, though their break-up was painful and protracted, since Louis was such a kind man.
Meg’s second husband, Nicholas, was an honest man, though Meg sometimes felt that he used honesty as a club to bash people. Nicholas was messy, and Meg did nearly all of the housework. Sometimes she would pass a flower stand and think of how Louis would send her away from the house when he was on a cleaning frenzy and have her select fresh flowers.
As she approached middle age Meg thickened—that’s how she saw the twenty-five pounds she’d put on, as a thickening, a wrapping of fleshy layers around her body, like plaster of paris around the chicken-wire webbing of a sculpture. She knew the best way to lose weight was to quit drinking, but this prospect filled Meg with despair.
Occasionally Nicholas would stack the dishwasher, and when he did, Meg would restack it, because he left too much space between the plates. Nonetheless she resented the gender dynamics of doing the lion’s share of the housework. One day she told their daughter, “Vicky, make sure when you get married that you marry a tidy man or woman, because the tidier person in a couple by default does ninety percent of the cleaning.”
Vicky laughed, thinking Meg was kidding—Meg would often make light, snippy complaints about her husband to her children in this semi-abstracted way.
But Meg stopped her dish stacking, horrified.
She realized that she had become, in her second marriage, tidy, passive aggressive, hard-drinking, and duplicitous, that she now prized kindness over honesty. Even though she had deliberately married an honest man, she resented and blamed Nicholas for his candor. Meg had become, in essence, Louis, as if she needed to fill his vacancy with her own self. Thus her second marriageperfectly reproduced her first.
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 (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, 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. www.kimmagowan.com
I come in the back door from outside, where the cicadas whine as I take out the trash. This is the dirtiest place I’ve ever lived, my first home with my first husband who I am still not convinced will be my last, but some invisible thread binds us. We say this love will last forever.
In the kitchen, there is a dingy curtain covering what is below the sink. A dirt floor I cannot clean unless I dig it up entirely.
This is New Orleans, I’m told. Which is supposed to mean I should expect something less than I’m accustomed to. The Big Easy.
I walk the hallway toward the bedroom, past what we have chosen to call the office. It houses my treadmill, where I spend hours running, the only thing that quells my anxiety.
The bedroom is dark. A cool space. Interior. A mascara smudge stains one of our white pillow shams. The mark is from a day I lay crying. A time when things got to be too much, and I stabbed the truck key into my skull, bleeding a trail home from the church.
There is a mysterious dark matter that collects on the bedspread during the day. We sweep it off with our palms, reading the texture of the bedding with our hands before we climb in, silent. To sleep.
One night we awaken there, clinging to one another, afraid the house will capsize at the sound of thunder rolling in off the Gulf.
I trail my hands along the dusty window frame as I enter the living room. The couch sags under a slipcover concealing where the dog ground her teeth into the cushions, liberating a cloud of filler beneath the loose fabric.
There is a two–inch space between the bottom of the front door and the floor. When I stand outside at dusk, looking in from the street, a pool of lamplight floods through the gap likea warm puddleon the front porch. This is where the bugs get in.
Anna Oberg lives and works in the Colorado Rockies. She is a professional photographer, specializing in terrain and creative headshots. When she’s not hiking around Rocky Mountain National Park with her camera, she writes from home. This is her first publication.
THE CREATURE CRAWLIN’
Notes on Fatherhood in 2019
a Visual Narrative by Trevor Alixopulos
Trevor Alixopulos’ visual narrative presents a thoughtful and visceral glimpse of new-parenthood through a male lens. In this piece, he questions the very nature of existence and what it means to be human. Who is this new being? How is the parent’s life now different? As he moves through time and space, Alixopulos gives us his own take on generational shift.
Trevor Alixopulos is a cartoonist, writer and editor. His graphic novel, The Hot Breath of War (Sparkplug Comic Books), was nominated for Outstanding Graphic Novel in the Ignatz Awards and featured on tcj.com‘s “Top 100 Comics of the Decade.” His nonfiction comics essays have appeared on popula.com, where he was also a designer and editor. His various comics and illustration venues and clients include Los Angeles Review of Books, Kaiser Permanente, Fantagraphics Books, Turner Broadcasting, Seven Stories Press, Playboy, East Bay Express, North Bay Bohemian, and Scout Books. He lives in California.
It perhaps reveals some essential psychological fact that I experience the good things in life, falling in love, having a baby, as isolating experiences Baby: bah Father: bah
(Of course I am not alone in this, I have a partner, a family) Father: are you real? Mother: he doesn’t seem real
But in the past 11 months of fatherhood, while bringing much that is new, also revealed much that was always there, for good or ill. Into the light are dragged loneliness, inexplicable rage, and hidden resources, the good and bad alike
A rock is thrown into my subconscious, and the mind gropes in what comes up for relevant memories. My dad taking me with him in the pre-dawn to deliver papers, to the burger king he worked at, on his tractor mowing yards. Memories are distortions though, we recall the unusual, discard the typical , assign normalcy to what remains.
My father’s wisdom is lost to direct inquiry, it can only be inferred.
My paternal name, Αλεξόπουλος, means “son of the protector.” There is more to fatherhood than love and protection. With this little boy, I wonder what it would be like to raise a child in a world you knew. To set them on paths you walked, schools you attended, subway lines you rode. Perhaps the ceaseless change devalues fathers.
A child heightens the temporal vertigo of aging. The minutes fly by in a panic. He changes. We live a thousand lifetimes before the big long now of adulthood. He is not the same boy I left in the morning, when I return in the evening.
A baby is a little spaceman from beyond. A vulnerable stranger to a hostile world that is not theirs.
You get older and you become more like the world, it becomes more like you. Hip and strong, everything’s pointed at you. Every caprice, trend, draft notice.
Then some time in adulthood the world moves past you. You aren’t so much of this world anymore. You have one foot back in the beyond. Hard to say what of any value gets passed on.
These musings are likely artifacts of that mopey nature of mine, besides being drawn from a deep well of unwisdom. The parties are fixed, he’s teaching me teaching him. Baby: AAAAHHH Father: He’s like a cult leader, breaking down our personalities to indoctrinate us (Day 10 of sleeping on the living room floor in order to “sleep train” him)
It’s been interesting to observe myself in this pressurized state. Having a child sort of exposes how much of your self-involvement was situational and how much was truly hard wired. Baby: zsha Father: Why is it I only ever have one good pair of pants
Not to imply that taking care of another has to be an unselfish act. At some point, living compounds too fast for us to process. Grief and loss surrounds, pulses and gathers in the dark beyond the hearth. We feel like refugees in our own lives, we take refuge beyond our selves. Father: Jeez this is like the 10th article about “saudade” I’ve seen shared, people are fucked up!
I remember, a couple of years ago when my dad got sick. I quit my job, went on unemployment, spent most of the year driving up and down the state to check on him. I was alone on the highway. At the time it seemed hard.
Life is a series of ordeals, each more difficult than the last. Even so, we miss them when they go.
Another 5K, another easy win. With about half a mile to go, Shanna knew she had first female. Time to overtake some guys. This one, for instance, with the long hair and the Union Jack shorts. She surged past him, already eyeing the next target: the red-haired geek in the Hash House Harriers shirt, no idea what his name was, they’d raced each other before but they’d never spoken. She passed him at the finish line.
Once she could walk again, Shanna handed in her timing chip and picked up a banana. The harrier ambled past her, and they acknowledged each other with a nod.
People crowded the lawn next to the finish. A band shredded through Walking on Sunshine, and the Children’s School sold pancakes. Pink ribbons and healthy living information were on display everywhere.
Shanna walked to the curb to watch the other runners coming in. She hated the moments between the finish and the podium, when the adrenaline drained away and the soreness set in. Her desire to win embarrassed her as soon as it was satisfied. Once she’d made the mistake of looking at the finish photo provided by the race organizers as part of the registration swag; she’d looked like a boiling, contorting lizard.
As if on cue, Meghan arrived. Perfectly decked out in pink-and-black running gear, she shot out of a group of walkers and strode towards the line in photogenic agony, raising her fists to show that she had Overcome. As soon as she’d passed the photographer huddled on the ground, she dropped her arms.
Shanna hadn’t expected her. Sure, a few weeks ago, Meghan had announced that she had taken up running, too, that she had to find out what kept Shanna pounding the pavement for hours each week without going nuts, but she hadn’t mentioned wanting to run a race, let alone this one. Yet here she was, pointing a finger at Shanna with a gesture between threat and favor. You. Don’t move.
Once she was next to Shanna, Meghan said, “Man, this was brutal. So brutal.”
Shanna wondered whether she should tell Meghan that she had won the race.
“Where’s that husband of mine?” Meghan said.
“I haven’t seen him.”
“Typical.” Meghan put her foot on the curb and leaned forward. The sight of her legs and butt contained in shining black fabric made Shanna think of a scorpion.
“I had an idea for us,” Meghan said. “A friend of mine can get us entries for the Chicago Marathon. He works for a charity, I forget which.” Before Shanna could say anything, Meghan continued. “I know I’m slow. But I’ll work so hard. And besides, it’s about doing this together, right?”
Shanna felt lonely at times, but never during running. On the contrary, running was the one thing she wanted to keep for herself. She could try to explain, but it was hopeless.
“What do you say?” The question was a ritual. “You and me?”
Shanna and Meghan had met as teenagers. Shanna had been the new girl in class, and Meghan knew everything about bras, boys, and beyond. Every once in a while, Meghan singled out a girl to make fun of. Not often, not excessively, but there was always a moment when Meghan stood with her hands on her hips, a bunch of people behind her, and the victim scrunched up her face trying not to cry. When Meghan asked her to hang out after school, Shanna was terrified and expected Meghan to drop her quickly. Instead, Meghan kept her.
With Meghan as a friend, Shanna didn’t need to talk to anyone: Meghan spoke for both of them. Her voice was deep and clear. You wanted to listen to her.
A few weeks into their friendship, Meghan would sometimes close her eyes as if she were asleep, and become smaller than before, more fragile. It happened after parties, when they sat in the back seat of Meghan’s car, music playing softly on the radio, or when they lay next to the pool and toasted on hot stones, screams and the smell of chlorine, hot dogs and sunscreen all around them. When Meghan opened her eyes again, she’d whisper: “Hey. You and me.” The words were Shanna’s treasure. They proved how important she was—more important than anyone could guess.
Meghan spent her first post-grad year volunteering and shopping around a children’s book about gay marriage. She herself married an older man named Kyle, who played the cello for the Pittsburgh Symphony. They quickly had a son, Leo. Shanna moved into a one-bedroom rental with a view of the Giant Eagle parking lot and worked as a research assistant for the Psychology Department. The part of her job she hated most was cold-calling potential research participants; she memorized a script to work through her list as efficiently as possible, and not a few people became irritated with her droning voice. Some thought she was mocking them. Her strong point was data analysis, and the professor she worked for regularly asked her to talk him through the statistics she’d used so I can sell it to the funding agencies; she’d been co-author on quite a few papers. The professor kept encouraging her to apply to graduate school, but the thought of teaching classes or presenting at conferences was too intimidating. “As you wish,” the professor said. “Remain our secret as long as you want.”
Shanna became a runner by accident. One evening, after a whole day inside, she put on sweatpants, a fleece sweater, and an old pair of sneakers and started to jog around the block, not expecting to last longer than half an hour. She came home long after dark.
As a girl she used to dream of having her pack: friends that accepted her without words, recognized her like a long-lost sibling. She found them in books about running: The Lonely Breed, Young Men in a Hurry,The Perfect Mile – grainy black-and-white pictures showing young men running on grass tracks and in Scandinavian forests and in the dunes at Portsea. She was running, too, on the hills in the park and on the public track. Over the months, her hard training sessions started to feel easy. She shed the cocoon of her daytime self and became a new person – but only in her mind. The fewer people she met while running, the easier it was to imagine she was in the grainy black-and-white world of her books, so she made it a habit to run early in the morning or late at night.
Only at the races did she briefly show her face, her body, and—most intimate of all—her speed. With each race, she moved up in the local hierarchy, until she was one of the fast girls. At first she competed in baggy clothes, but eventually she switched to “professional” running sets she would never dare put on anywhere else. During a race she spat and groaned and fought to beat as many others as possible, as if she were in one of the legendary races she read about at night instead of a harmless footrace for weekend warriors.
It was as if Meghan had leapt from behind a black-and-white tree in one of the pictures in Shanna’s books, shouting, “Hey! Did you forget about me?”
The Chicago Marathon was in October, which left them about five months to get ready. Their first official training run took place on a hot and humid Tuesday. Meghan planted her feet with rhythmic concentration. Shanna ran as slowly as she could.
At the picnic area, Meghan splashed water on the back of her neck, sliding her fingers inside her shirt.
“How are Kyle and Leo?” Shanna asked.
“Don’t get me started.”
“All right,” Meghan said. “I might as well fill you in. Kyle moved out.”
“Oh my God. What happened?”
“It’s been building for a while. He hasn’t been sleeping, and he’s been saying really strange things. He’s in Boston now. His mother knows a psychiatrist there.” She wiped her hands on her thighs. “He said he needs to get away from me—as if I’m some kind of monster.”
“That sounds scary. Is there anything I can do?”
“You already are. Being out here makes me feel so much better.”
As spring turned into summer, Meghan and Shanna built mileage. Their long runs became their short runs. Kyle was crying every time they talked on the phone, Meghan said, and they’d talked about divorce and dropped it. Kyle was so incoherent it was hard to tell what he wanted. Leo took it the hardest: he was only two and half years old and kept asking for Daddy.
“Wait,” Meghan said. “Side stitch.”
“Put your hand there.” Shanna tapped a spot above her own belly button. “Maybe move your hand around a bit so your muscles can warm up. ” She demonstrated.
Shanna put her hand on Meghan’s belly. “Here. Try to breathe into my hand.”
“You’re my savior,” Meghan said. She moved into the touch, and Shanna felt her warmth through the wet nylon.
“You and me,” Meghan said. “Once more.”
Shanna pushed back against Meghan’s weight.
September brought cold rain, muddy trails, and the return of Kyle.
“He’s stable,” Meghan said, and left it at that. She and Shanna were meeting for coffee to discuss the charity that sponsored their marathon: the American ALS Foundation.
“How does it work?” Shanna asked.
“They bought race entries and sold them to runners like us, who agree to run in their name—wearing t-shirts and stuff. There will be a bunch of us in Chicago. Team ALS. Most importantly, they hope we’ll tell our friends that we’re running the marathon, and inspire them enough to make a donation.”
“Why should they?”
“It works, you’ll see. We can post our training runs and share pictures on social media. What do you think?”
“It sounds fake. I thought we were going to train and try to run a good time. I didn’t know we need an audience.”
Meghan looked up in surprise. “It’s a charity, you know? Don’t be such a bitch.”
With Kyle back in town, Meghan started to skip training. Kyle needed a ride to therapy, the mortgage person had promised to call, she needed to search for jobs to apply for.
When the time came for their most important workout—a twenty-mile long run—Shanna arrived at Meghan’s house to find her sitting on the porch in black jeans and a sequin top, smoking a menthol cigarette as she sometimes did after a really bad day. “Look, I’m not feeling it tonight. Join me for drinks, okay? Tanya is coming too. Remember her? From Pitt.”
“We can’t run a marathon if we don’t train.”
“I don’t have time for this. The sitter’s with Leo, Kyle’s with his mom, and I’m partying tonight. Join me or don’t.” Meghan brushed past Shanna and started walking towards her car.
“You call this inspiring?” Shanna called. She hadn’t meant to.
Meghan turned around. “Cute. I know you have nothing better to do on a Friday night than run loops in the park. And you know what? You’re damn lucky. My family’s on the brink. We’ll have to sell the house, my kid is biting his friends, and I’m married to someone I don’t know anymore. And I will not run twenty miles tonight. End of story.”
Shanna stood still, aware of her tight clothes and the sweat drying on her skin. Up and down the street, windows were lit; people could probably hear every word.
Meghan flexed the fingers of her right hand, then got her keys from her purse and opened the car door. “Are you coming?”
“No,” Shanna said.
Instead of doing the 20-miler on her own, Shanna entered a small marathon one state over. She was one of fifty participants. The course went out and back along a riverbank, and the field strung out quickly. Very far ahead of her, she saw two men reach the turnaround point marked by an orange cone, and start back. When they passed, they raised their hands in greeting. A thin layer of ice covered the water, and her cheeks felt hot and fresh in the cold. Afterwards, they ate chili in the boathouse to warm up. One of the two men who had greeted her pulled up the chair next to her. He was young, with a full beard.
“You’re a hell of a runner,” he said. “What was your time?”
“Three oh six.”
“Nice. Ever thought about trying to break three?”
“Not yet.” She glanced out the window, at the pebble trail along the water. She didn’t want to talk, but she loved the young man, and all the runners here, for their tacit agreement that they were not crazy doing this.
It took them hours to get their race numbers at the marathon expo because Meghan had forgotten her confirmation letter and got into an argument with the volunteers. When they finally got to their hotel room, Shanna wanted to lie down and sleep off her headache, but Meghan had scheduled dinner with the rest of Team ALS and insisted Shanna couldn’t leave her to go alone.
They ate burgers and pasta at an American food place. Meghan talked non-stop. Her eyes were bloodshot; she’d put on clumps of mascara, the way she used to as a teenager.
“Just think about what we’re going to do tomorrow,” she said. “Twenty-six point two grueling miles!”
Everyone except Shanna acted disgusted. Weren’t they all so crazy?
The woman next to Meghan was drawing the course in the air with her finger. “And here’s the wall. Right here. It’s us versus the distance.”
“I’ll drink to that,” her husband said, and they all raised their glasses of alcohol-free beer.
Back in the hotel room, Shanna and Meghan picked everything they needed for the race the next morning from their suitcase: their gels and drinks, socks and shoes, numbers and pins. They were both dressed for bed in drawstring pants and tank tops.
Meghan spread her race day outfit on the desk, on top of tourism folders and a laminated room service menu. On top of her race number she had written GO MEG. Below it, she had written STRENGTH.
“I’ll bonk so hard tomorrow,” she said. “It’s going to be embarrassing.”
Shanna put a hand on Meghan’s back and started to massage her shoulders. The muscles felt like caramel; they promised softness to someone with patience. Shanna circled her thumbs, and Meghan sighed.
“I was such an asshole the last couple of weeks,” Meghan said. “I was, like, an evil puppet.”
“You’ve got every excuse.”
“Tomorrow’s going to be hell.”
“We’ll do this together.” Shanna was still kneading Meghan’s shoulders, settling into the rhythm. “I’ve run a marathon before.”
“After you bailed on our twenty-miler.”
Meghan closed her eyes. “How did you do?”
“It was okay.” She slid her arms down Meghan’s side. “You would have liked it.”
“I would’ve spoiled it. One more beer, and then to bed?”
Shanna got a real beer from the mini bar, and they sat down on Meghan’s bed, knees up, backs against the pillows. All the lights were out, except the spots above the night tables.
“You know what?” Meghan passed Shanna the bottle. “ALS is giving me the creeps.”
“I know,” Shanna said. “Me too.” She drank and passed the bottle back.
“You know something else? I started running because someone told me they saw you run at like five in the morning. I was jealous. To have something like this all for yourself.” She turned to look at Shanna. “And now look at us. We’re here together.” She put down the empty beer bottle on the night table, and Shanna laid her hand on Meghan’s belly. Breathe here, right here. Slowly, she moved her hand down. When her fingertips reached and lifted the elastic of her pajamas, Meghan slid down on the bed so she lay flat on her back, and pushed down her pants. “That’s better.” She reached for Shanna’s hand again, leading her between her legs.
Shanna closed her eyes and felt the pubic hair shaved down to a precise triangle, the smooth, cold skin around it, the warm slipperiness further down, the lips so different from her own. She heard Meghan’s moan like a soft breath in her sleep, the hiss of her heels against the linen, a croak inside her throat. Shanna moved only her fingers, mere twitches in exactly the right place.
Meghan rammed her elbow into Shanna’s ribs and sat up.
“What?” Shanna whispered.
Meghan started to rub her crotch in a way that made Shanna think of scraping ice off a car window. After she had finished with a series of dry, efficient screams, she lay back again, sprawled out and kneading her breasts.
“Okay,” she said, “you want me to return the favor?”
Shanna palpated the sore spot where Meghan’s elbow had struck her. “No,” she managed.
Shanna got up and lay down in the other bed. Within minutes, Meghan slept.
The next morning, they stood next to each other in front of the bathroom mirror in their matching red ALS running tops.
Meghan waved at Shanna in the mirror. “Are you ready to rock this?”
They brushed their teeth, looking at each other. They spat out the foam and rinsed.
“Last night hit the spot,” Meghan said. “I slept like a baby. You’ve got a real talent.”
Shanna saw and felt the familiar blush spread on her neck and forehead, but forced herself to speak anyway. “Why did you push me away?”
Meghan put her toothbrush into the plastic cup. “Fine. Be that way.”
“You and me, right?”
Meghan leaned on her hands and looked at her reflection. “I always felt responsible for you. You never had anyone else.”
“You’re not responsible for me.”
“At least I’m watching the time,” Meghan said. “We’re late for the start.”
Thousands of people were looking for their corral, and it took them a long time to find theirs. Each charity had a different color: red for ALS, purple for cancer, gold for Parkinson’s. The start shot had already gone off, but it took another half hour before Shanna and Meghan crossed the starting line, bumping elbows and feet with strangers. The runners around them were chugging Gatorade and taking photos of each other with their cell phones. Some stopped to hug friends and family along the course. Discarded paper cups stuck to their shoes. At seven miles, the course freed up a little. Meghan was limping.
“Do you want to take a break?” Shanna said.
“Do I look like a quitter?”
One of the spectators heard her and shouted, “You’re a hero!” Meghan pushed out her chest and pointed at the ALS logo, pressing more cheers from the crowd. And so another slow mile crept by, and another. Shanna’s legs hurt from being reined in. At mile ten, she screamed at herself: Just run! Every time she sped up for sheer pain relief, the familiar voice called her back: “Hey! Wait!”
Between miles ten and eleven, Meghan’s limp got worse. When they passed an aid station, the medics trained their eyes on her like vultures. “Are you all right, ma’am?” Meghan gritted her teeth and pushed on. Once the aid station was out of sight, she stopped. “I can’t do it. It’s too much.”
“Where’s the pain exactly?”
“Let’s sit down. Over there, on the curb.”
Meghan took off her shoe. Her sock was drenched in blood. Shanna took a band-aid and gauze from her pocket. “Just look away for a sec.” She squeezed open the blister. Meghan groaned, and Shanna cleaned the blister with water from her bottle, dried it with gauze, and covered it with the band-aid. “If you have some painkillers, take them.” Meghan pulled a strip of pills from the back pocket of her shorts and took two with the rest of Shanna’s water. “How do you know how to do this stuff?”
“From my long runs.”
Meghan moved her jaw. Mascara was drying on her cheeks. “What was your time in the other marathon?”
“A little over three hours.”
Meghan put her shoe back on and tied the laces with great accuracy. “Hey!” she called to everyone close enough to hear. “Being fast isn’t important, right?”
“No!” someone shouted back. “It’s not!”
She pointed her thumb at Shanna. “My friend here just told me she’s faster than I am!”
Shanna looked down at the asphalt. She felt the spectators’ laughter like slaps to the face.
“But we’re all winners!” Meghan yelled. “No matter how fast, no matter how slow!”
“Right! Go Meg!”
“That’s all I’m saying.”
They started jogging again. To Shanna, it felt like running in place. She was sick of the toy-train speed of this run, and of Meghan. She thought about the swish of turning the pages, of the burned smell rising from her books, of veined necks and thighs and the snap of finish tapes in the fifties. Of sucking frost from her tongue during her solo marathon, and of crunching the pebbles under her toes with each step, as if she could push herself forward forever.
“Try walk-breaks,” she said to Meghan. “That’s your best chance to finish.” Then she took off.
At first, the spectators booed her for leaving her friend behind. This changed as soon as Meghan was out of sight.
“Way to move!”
“Get it, girl!”
The sun was high and she started to sweat, but she didn’t care. She was one of the fast girls, and if she was empty where the night before she had opened up and closed around another person, she preferred it—the lighter she was, the faster she could run. And she ran as fast as she could, because it felt good.
Stefani Nellen’s short stories are published or forthcoming in Guernica, AGNI, Glimmer Train, Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, PRISM International and Web Conjunctions, among others, and have won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, the Montana Prize in Fiction (judged by Alexandra Kleeman), and placed as the runner-up for the Wabash Prize (judged by Adam Johnson). She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is also a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, where she had the opportunity to work with Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link, among others. A psychologist by training and originally from Germany, she now lives in the Netherlands with her family. She’s at work on two novels and a collection of short stories.
A SATURDAY MORNING EMAIL TO MY FRIEND:
FIRST DAY OF MY VACATION, NOT WITH YOU
by Mary Senter
It’s raining? Just as well Ididn’t godown for the fiesta. I can get crappy weather here. But … I can’t get you. I miss you. I shouldn’t, I know, but I do. I want to see you again. That week I spent with you was among the best weeks of my life. Even though we didn’t do anything super exciting or have any grand adventures, like my typical vacations, I enjoyed just being beside you and holding you in my arms. Even though I cried buckets on my walks—like I did the trip before, when I saw you for the first time in twenty years—I also laughed and smiled and sang. I was happy.
I’ve tried to find a word to describe how I felt, but I don’t think a word exists in the English language that properly conveys the emotion. I’ve tried words like content, safe, comforted, loved, serene, protected, calm, energized, hopeful, joyous, peaceful, blissful, whole, but none of those words alone is quite right. Even together, they don’t portray the particular feeling. I’m not sure I could even describe it. Maybe I don’t need to. Maybe you felt it, too, I don’t know. Odd that being in a person’s company could make me feel such things. I don’t understand it.
I can’t describe with a word how I felt, but I’ll try to describe it this way: It was like … It was like carrying a heavy load for a very long time, alone, over treacherous terrain and often in torturous weather conditions, through tribulations and strife, hunger and pain, fighting thieves and scoundrels along the way, and thinking all the while that you’re doing just fine. But then, you come to a refuge, where someone welcomes you, and knows what you’ve been through without asking. They invite you into a place that is new to you, yet feels very much like home. The person removes your pack, rubs the pain out of your shoulders, runs you a hot bath, and prepares a delicious, nourishing meal, accompanied by a cool, clean glass of water.They sit with you and let you tell them your troubles and joys while you sip wine after dinner. They lead you to a cozy, warm bed, tuck you into the down comforter, stoke the fire, and bar the door against the elements and anything else that could hurt you. As you close your eyes and listen to the crackle of the fire, you let out a deep sigh as you realize how bone-weary you have become, carrying that load on that long journey; and you think, briefly, ofhow much farther you have yet to carry it. But for that evening, it all falls away, and you have not a single worry in the world.
That’s the feeling I had with you.
Mary Senter writes in a cabin in the woods on the shores of Puget Sound. She earned certificates in literary fiction writing from the University of Washington and an M.A. in strategic communication from WSU. Her work can be found in Chaleur, SHARK REEF, Claudius Speaks, Six Hens, FewerThan500, Red Fez, and others. Visit her at www.marysenter.com.
Sometimes when I set up for the afterschool program in the multipurpose room, I see Miles skateboarding down the sidewalk, cutting class. Miles is in my fifth period writing elective but mostly he’s not there. Mostly he’s off somewhere in his red hoodie.
Sometimes I look out the second story window of Mr. Creasman’s room, where I teach my writing class, at L.A.’s looming maw, the chattering raspado carts, the gathering haze. I imagine Miles in his red hoodie, at the LACMA, stealing a Picasso or Cezanne’s Still Life With Cherries, or getting a burger at Tommy’s on Rampart where all menu items come with chili, unless otherwise noted.
I envy Miles’s freedom and yet every day I set out in the late morning toward the great grey chasm beyond Pasadena, sharing the Gold Line with the others not pulling their weight full-time, those who fail to produce. We careen above the Arroyo Seco as the skyline grows bigger in the graph paper of the train windows. When the train breaks down or someone kills themself on the tracks, I cross the city in buses, waiting at street corners in the wake of fumes. Once, at Union Station, I saw a woman on the Red Line platform with her eyeball hanging out by the optic nerve. On sixth street I saw a man steaming along on a skateboard, waving a sword.
Sometimes, setting up the afterschool program in the multipurpose room, I fart and listen for an echo.
When I see Miles skateboarding down the sidewalk, it’s like I have to tell him something urgently, knowing all the while that if I knew what I had to tell him, everything would be different.
One day, cutting class, Miles found a naked man in the alley behind the school and poked him with a stick. Another kid filmed with his iPhone. The man woke up and began muttering things beyond language, low growls, hoots.
After I lock up at night I usually see Miles sitting on the curb by 7-11, sometimes with a girl. Miles is bad at skateboarding. His face is all cut up from falling.
One time I didn’t know what to do so I drove up Mount Wilson. I got up above the smog. I found a trailhead with train tracks from when you could ride all the way to some resort. The tracks led into a tunnel and when I came to the other side I expected a miracle, some gleaming ruin with banquet halls and martini glasses, but it was just more of the same—gravel, train tracks, little wisps of trees and the long way back down.
Matt Greene teaches writing in Appalachia. “Larchmont Charter Middle” is from a linked series of prose pieces, some of which have appeared in or are forthcoming from the Cincinnati Review, Spillway, Split Lip, and Wigleaf. Other recent work has appeared in Moss and Santa Monica Review and is forthcoming from CutBank, Conjunctions Online, and DIAGRAM.
You stand on the balcony of this ancient castle looking down at the American President’s wife, eyes transfixed by the pearls in three rows against her neck like teeth sucked from the ocean. White gloves from fingertip to elbow separate her, mark her celebrity and off-limits. Your status from the arranged marriage affords you this glimpse, but it’s like a bird looking down at a lioness.
Here, in India, the other young women chitter. And why not, you want to ask, but you’ve promised your husband that you won’t make any more scenes. This word he spits just beforesaying good night, his sturdy door locking hollowly behind you. Now, from the walls centuries old but as strong as ever, keeping out the poor and pestilent, you raise your hand, desperate to reach across time and space. Months you awaited her arrival, fantasies of sharing meals, of grasping her skin around her elbows, whispering your condolences about her Earth-returned child, asking her to grant her mercies upon your own swollen stomach. There is no time to think of ways to get closer. No way to land at her feet, so you wave at her back.
When the news of her husband’s assassination makes it to your country, you sit in the closet, legs crossed, and scream. I know, I know. The pink dress, so feminine, its lines so sharp, but soiled with blood and loss. You no longer wish to be her, and yet you continue to ask for pearls, because the desire for elegance never leaves your mind, because all other escapes are forbidden. You think, but do not utter your wish to drape them over your child, a talisman, surely, for though her husband is dead, Mrs. Kennedy lives, broken-mouthed, and rotting with grief.
Your due date comes and you hold the bloodless infant in your arms, dabbing endlessly at the forehead that will never wrinkle at the surprise of your touch. You ask for pearls and you are rebuked with a solemn shake of the head. You demand white gloves and your husband acquiesces under your silent grief. For days he makes promises while you wait for the cloth to arrive, inspecting every thread before sending it off to the tailor. How you hate yourself for not having the skill to sew them yourself.
And still you pray for Mrs. Kennedy, twinning her eternity with that of your child’s as if braiding their hair together. You pray without hope, rote ritual creating a stupor that numbs. You blow softly down the length of your child’s body, guiding her spirit out to the balcony where it might mingle with the wind. Again, you think of those pearls, wondering what it would feel like to run them through your hands. If spirits could nestle into objects, you think this would make a fine palace for your child to spend her eternal days.
Tommy Dean lives in Indiana with his wife and two children. He is the author of the flash fiction chapbook Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. He is the Flash Fiction Section Editor at Craft Literary. He has been previously published in BULL Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Lascaux Review, New World Writing, Pithead Chapel, and New Flash FictionReview. His story “You’ve Stopped” was chosen by Dan Chaon to be included in Best Microfiction 2019. It will also be included in Best Small Fiction 2019. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.
A man died in Ward G two nights before my father. The man’s name was Trevor. I know because on my first morning at the hospital a doctor wearing purple Nike running shoes squatted by his bed and asked, Do you remember your name? He did. Trevor, he said. Trevor and my father did not know each other, yet their lives converged at the end. Their last days were spent in the same atmosphere of sound and light and air. Now, when I think back to those last days with my father, I think of Trevor too.
Trevor was alone when he died. I keep going back to that, how he died without anyone being there to touch him or speak to him. I could have gone to him and I did not. At the time, my father took up all my inside space.
Afterwards I could not get my head around what Trevor had done. The doctors behaved as if he had performed a simple and explicable trick, as if he had turned off the lights, for instance, or walked out the door. They acted as if his disappearance were temporary and he would reappear whenever he chose. But I could not get my head around it. I wanted to know how it was done. I wanted to say, He was here a moment ago. Where is he now?
Earlier that night, a woman had tried to feed him Sprite through a straw. She arrived late, after Trevor’s usual visitors, and stood looking at him with the can in her hand. He lay on his back with his eyes open. The sheet hung from his puffed belly and his arms lay stiff as branches at his sides. He was breathing badly. The woman put one hand flat on the bed and bent over him, coaxing him to have a sip of Sprite. He would not look at her. When she pressed the straw to his lips he turned his head away and said, Not thirsty. He spoke in a clear small voice, like a child. The woman straightened, setting the soft-drink on the bedside table. She left the room and returned a few minutes later with a nurse.
What’s wrong with him? she said. He wasn’t like this yesterday.
The nurse gazed down at him.
Please do something, said the woman. Why is he breathing like this? I tried giving him a drink and he wouldn’t have any.
The nurse picked up Trevor’s wrist. She pressed two fingers to his pulse and watched his face. After a time she laid his arm on the sheet as she had found it.
I don’t know, she said. I’m not sure what’s wrong.
But he shouldn’t be breathing like this, the woman insisted. It’s not normal. Please do something.
I’ll call the doctor, said the nurse. The doctor will look at him now-now.
I’m telling you, said the woman, this is not normal. He should not be breathing like this.
The nurse nodded.
I’ll call the doctor, she said, and left the ward.
The woman leaned and held her hand flat against Trevor’s forehead. She watched him closely. He panted.
This is not normal, she said to herself. No, this is not normal.
The woman left at seven thirty. Before leaving she kissed him on the cheek.
The doctor’s coming soon, she said. You keep very well. I’m going to leave this in case you get thirsty in the night, okay? She raised the Sprite can for him to see and then replaced it on the bedside table. I’ll be here first thing in the morning, she said.
I never saw her again. Sometimes I wonder about her. I wonder who she was to Trevor and how she took his death and whether, when she thinks of him now, she remembers us four, me and my three siblings, crowded around my father’s bed on the other side of the room. As for me, I remember her. I can’t forget how she spent her last half hour with Trevor trying to feed him Sprite through a straw.
Trevor became restless after she left. Something in the arrangement of his body bothered him. He rolled his head from side to side on the pillow. He fiddled the hemline of the sheet with his thumbs, holding it tight against his chest, and pressed his shoulder blades into the mattress. He parted his legs under the sheet as if he were preparing for a birth. Then he stopped shaking his head and began looking around. His eyes were dark and unusually large, and he looked at things with the keen regard of a man taking a final reckoning of his world. He looked at the ceiling and IV stand and the nurses passing along the corridor. He looked at the can of Sprite on his bedside table. He looked at me.
The last thing he did was push off his sheet. It must have depleted the last of his energy but he did it. But for his nappy, he was naked. His belly, lumpy with deposits of fat, bulged out of him as though stuffed with rags, and his limbs were thin and brittle-looking. He was by this time very still. He seemed an ugly and misshapen doll tossed aside by some long-ago child, who had become bored of him or found some newer plaything, and now lay waiting to be retrieved. Minutes before his death he became fretful again and began feeling his bare skin with his fingertips. He felt his throat and collarbones and chest, as if he knew there was something unusual inside him and wanted to identify it, or as if he were craving the sensation of touch. When I looked up again the nurses had drawn his curtains.
If I had spoken to him just beforehand, perhaps he would have told me what it was like. Perhaps he would have said what he was waiting for or what he was thinking about. But I did not go and speak to him. Now I can only imagine what he would have said, but even that is useless. In my visions of myself speaking to him he only ever looks at me and smiles, his fingers working here and there over the surface of his skin.
There was a small commotion at Trevor’s bedside after his death. The doctor in Nikes had been standing at the foot of my father’s bed, looking through his file and answering our questions, when one of the nurses touched her forearm. She glanced up at him and the nurse gestured come. The doctor looked at us and said, Excuse me a moment, and followed the nurse to Trevor’s bed. They disappeared behind the turquoise curtains. There was a brief silence and then the doctor said, How long has he been like this? I did not hear the reply. The doctor emerged from behind the curtains and went into a storage room that opened off the corridor. She pulled out a machine on wheels, reversing from the narrow room, and turned it about and parked it on the far side of Trevor’s bed.
I was in a camping chair facing the corridor. My brother sat opposite me. My sisters stood at the foot of the bed massaging Nivea cream into my father’s legs. His skin was dry and papery, discoloured by fretworks of shattered veins below the surface. When the doctor brought in the machine, my sister glanced up and made a sound with her tongue.
A resuscitator, she said. The last thing we need.
What? I said.
I too had seen it, but I had thought it was an X-ray machine.
A resuscitator, she said again.
She took hold of my father’s hand and put her head down against his thigh.
I could hear them working on Trevor behind the curtains. There came a low murmur of voices and the indistinct sounds of objects bumped against one another and then the steady pneumatic hiss of the resuscitator. When the doctor spoke again, her voice was clear and calm.
Yes, ward G, I need your help now.
The sound of the resuscitator continued, puffing on and on in the silence of the ward. At last a male doctor came in at a jog and stopped at the foot of Trevor’s bed. The doctor in Nikes came out from behind the curtains shaking her head. He stood looking at her with his hands on his hips, breathing heavily. It was a good healthy sound. Not like Trevor’s gasps or my father’s laboured breaths, rattled with phlegm.
No, she said.
Too late, he said.
Ja, too late. There was a pause and then she said, I told you I wouldn’t need the resuscitator. She laughed again. She was exhilarated, full of adrenaline.
My brother glanced over his shoulder and then looked at us.
That man just died, he said.
My sister nodded and looked at my dad. She held his hand and squeezed it.
What? I asked. What did you say?
Later that night, I said to my sister, Did you see how that doctor laughed? She actually laughed.
It’s a defence mechanism, she said. Sometimes people do that.
It was after midnight when they removed Trevor’s body. By then, everyone was asleep except me and my brother. We were taking it in shifts and my sisters had gone home to get some sleep.
Two nurses came in with a morgue cart and bodybag. They wore white latex gloves. I watched them disappear behind the curtains and listened to the sounds they made. I heard the shiver of wheels and takkies scuffing the vinyl floors and whispering and the rustling of the plastic bodybag. I gathered these sounds, examining them. I seemed to see the nurses moving around the bed murmuring directions to one another as they transferred the body to the bag on the steel cart. Then there came the low resonant whine of a zipper pulled home and I knew they were done. The nurses came out. They opened the curtains and stripped the bed and emptied the dustbin. One of the nurses noticed the Sprite. He took the can to the sink and poured out the contents and threw it away. Then they left with the cart. On it lay Trevor, unborn in his plastic womb.
After Trevor’s death, I felt spared. I felt relieved that it was he who had died and not my father. It was not a noble emotion but it is what I felt. Rising, I lay my forehead on my father’s chest where his breath was. For the first time I understood that he was gathering himself to go and I wanted to feel his breath. I wanted to feel the texture of its movement inside him. Dear father, I wanted to say, we are here. Soon you will be elsewhere and then you can do as you please, but for now let us be here.
My father lived another day and a night. He died on the morning of the 25th of March 2019 while the sun was coming up. My sister was with him. She said he looked at her and his eyes were very blue and clear. He knew what he was doing and was calm about it. My two other siblings and I arrived a few minutes after he died. New sunlight was quickening and shimmering on the white wall behind him. He glowed.
My dear father. We are here.
Kharys Ateh Laue is a South African writer whose short fiction has appeared in Brittle Paper, New Contrast, Itch, and Pif Magazine. In 2017, her short story ‘Plums’ was longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize. Her academic work, which focuses on the depiction of race, gender, and animals in South African fiction, has been published in Scrutiny2 and the Journal of Literary Studies. She currently lives in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
I want an easy swing, that parabolic arc over grass, weeds, garter snakes, grubs, snapping turtles, beer cans, rotten logs. My legs out, my head and chest back. My arms taut. My thighs and ass pressed against the ball of rope: extending joy. I want that stomach lurch and gravity unease; blood shivers. I’ll land and wave to the one who pushed me, and I’ll climb back up the hill or out of the water toward that woman I’ve dreamt of so often. My REM time melts into her: strange visions of roads illuminating before us as we ride our bicycles in the dark. Is she dead, too?
We drink cheap wine stolen from Safeway and that woman—she has many names—will scratch her initials on my skin with a rock. Not deep, but enough to see later, before I rub myself to sleep. I’m seventy-nine. Can I admit to that rubbing? Older people who seek pleasure might have their hands tied to the arms of wheelchairs. So they rock back and forth. Maybe they drool. Maybe they moan. We don’t ask why. No one’s told me what’s appropriate now. I’ve been to more funerals than strip joints. I can’t ask my doctor. The only one who’s touched me recently was the nurse, but she stopped those friendly pats once I asked too many times to touch her hair extensions. I try to be friendly and culturally relevant, but I’m off the game. Can’t call anyone a turkey. They wouldn’t know what I meant.
To be a lover of the dead ones.
My last stripper friend died or stopped answering emails. (I should check—we do that now, in our seventies.) I’d wanted to co-write an advice book with her. Her thoughts on “basic dick.” How her vagina is hers. How she walks to demonstrate her dominance. The stripper mystique. No one will rub her velvet dress in a disco without her permission. I let strangers touch me. It’s how I was raised.
That swing: that cleaving from ordinary burdens. I present to clouds, to dirt clods, to the sun that I once believed saw me: spidery veins and rubbered skin. My crooked teeth. My barking laughter. My white roots showing through drugstore black. Something unseemly about the old. The flesh museum.
My age spots. My creaks. My slowness. My brain works like spongy brakes. I need more time for things to make sense, to remember the right word. Climate change is a useful topic with younger people. They want to talk to me, now that Roger’s dead. I took the gazelle rug to Goodwill after one made a fuss in an interview. The ivory-handled cheese knives went, too.
I sit across from Teddy, a man I’ve hired to go through my dead husband’s correspondence. We are in a booth, and the vinyl sticks to the back of my legs. I’m wearing a skirt that’s too short. We got so many clothes in the mail from groupies. I was too cheap to throw them out, but I did donate a lot to Goodwill. It’s embarrassing, what women send. Those stained thongs? The thing about aging: I lost weight. I can fit into the miniskirts, the fringed vests, the rayon jumpers. Most still have a faint scent. Roger always came home with some new odor. The suitcase reeked.
I hired Teddy because he’s handsome, but he’s off. I’m not into perfection. I like off-brand. Always choose the drummer, never the singer. That’s my motto and it’s served me well. Look at me now: I’m financially solvent. Penicillin solved the road romance and tour disease crises, or I insisted that Roger wear condoms. God, who cares now what he did or didn’t do. His ashes are on the bathroom shelf by his dentures.
Teddy, across from me, tells a story while driving French fries through catsup. He offers me a French fry. I shake my head no and sip my herbal tea. It’s about that childhood reckoning. He found maggots in a Hostess Ding Dong at the back of the cabinet, and at first he believed they were Rice Krispies. “I thought,” he says, “the world isn’t what it seems.”
Alex Behr’s writing has appeared in Tin House, The Rumpus, Salon, and elsewhere. Her debut story collection, Planet Grim, was published by 7.13 Books.
/ counting one one thousand two one thousand three one thousand four; / and, then, standing, the woman says: / what’s the line? / and the first time i made love and the first time i made love and the first time i / bus plunges from bridge and eight die / in the paper that day / and one one thousand and two one thousand and three / and, standing, the woman says: / and removing things, fiddling with buttons clanking and the loud roar of zippers / you don’t need all these let’s get more comfortable / and then later telling friends, the first time i made love i / but who knew love could feel so like anger / a guttural punch / on the day of the murder / and, standing, the woman says: / mother and father can’t come home no more but will be home soon no more / one one thousand and two one thousand / and let’s play games and you be the patient / and i, the nurse, / on the day of the murder, fire in his fists / and, standing, the woman says, the first time i made love i made i made made made made no more / stop no more / mother and father can’t come home / and mom are you there mom / mom is not coming home / but mom, well versed in your lies, doesn’t believe your stories / bus plunges into river below / in the paper that day / the day of the murder / no one / no more / bus plunges into river below and eight die / six one thousand seven one thousand eight / made you bleed / ripped you in two / buckling under his weight / no more no more / count one one thousand two one thousand three / until he lets you breathe / and lungs fill with breath / and then out again / the day of the murder / when she had it coming / and, standing, the girl says: the first time i / quit telling lies! / mom wants you to quit telling lies / and i and i and i / no more no more no more / and crawled out like eggs split cleanly open / and bus plunges into river below and eight die
Jude Vivien Dexter (they/them) is a poet living in Charleston, SC. They like to write poems about things, in that order.
BRINGING DEAD FRIENDS INTO CONVERSATION
by Corey Miller
I think about how I’m always depressed, which makes me more depressed, and I wonder if it’s becausemy friends (all three of them) have died and now I have to attempt to talk with someone who won’t be able to replace them but maybe could hold a candle next to them like that scene in Star Wars where the dead mentors are watching over Luke and that sister he kissed before knowing it was his sister (but we won’t talk about it) and that they’re there guiding me into this conversation with a stranger at a bar that may think I’m hitting on them when all I really want is someone to vent to and help me feel less lonely and maybe they’d help me perceive some purpose on this planet at this specific time in the universe and that I could do something meaningful with my life like how I wanted to become a scientist who studied molecular biology (before I settled for data entry) so I could create things to change the world instead of standing awkwardly near people drinking beer hoping that they’ll ask me absorbing questions so I don’t have to make the first move like: Hey, you look familiar, did we go to college together? or Hey, you look like such a fun and interesting and smart person, would you like to join my trivia team every Tuesday night? and I’d be swept away by all of these new people on a team that banded together as the family I never had (not that I don’t appreciate my grandmother who raised me, but I wish she’d remember who I am when I visit the nursing home) and our team would go on to win some national trivia team competitionand travel and we’d room together and none of us would feel the sadness that I’ve sat through in the past because we’d accept each other for who we are and wear helmets but this guy realizes I’ve been standing behind him staring without a beer even and everyone is looking at me like I shouldn’t be here and that I’m weird for bringing my ghost friends to hover over me wherever I go, so I go and I don’t know if I ever can go back to this bar again(another space off-limits) but maybe I’ll try chat rooms, for now.
Corey Miller lives with his wife in a tiny house they built near Cleveland. He is an award-winning brewmaster who enjoys a good lager. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in X-R-A-Y, Barren, Bending Genres, Writers Resist, Hobart, Gravel, and Cease Cows. When not working or writing, Corey likes to take the dogs for adventures. Twitter: @IronBrewer
and my mother doesn’t know. But I know, and it shivers me like stone February to see this ghost that’s not at all like my father, who is lonely and clean-shaven. This ghost doesn’t give a hoot that my mother is asleep, but I’m not so sure she’d stop it, because if sleeping in separate rooms is any indication, my father hasn’t touched her in years. And that started around the time he lost his job and moved himself a sock at a time, a shirt at a time until he was gone. And now they are both sexless, but at least my mother has sleep. Not like it used to be with her walking the floorboards, tango or foxtrot or whatever the hell. I live in the room under hers and when she stopped moving I went up there, and that’s when I saw the ghost, his white ghosty sex hand trailing up her nightgown and she’d moan and shift, and she really seemed to like it, big smile crossing her sleepy face, and that’s when I came to realize that a ghost can be a better lover than a real-life lover, and it just might change how I think about dating and marriage, which, to tell you the truth is kind of a dead thing anyway.
Francine Witte’s latest publications are a full-length poetry collection, Theory of Flesh from Kelsay Books and the Blue Light Press First Prize Winner, Dressed All Wrong for This. Her flash fiction has appeared in numerous journals, anthologized in the most recent New Micro (W.W. Norton) and her novella-in-flash, The Way of the Wind, has just been published by Ad Hoc Fiction. She lives in New York City.
A HISTORY OF ANYWAY Intermedia
by Nance Van Winckel
Sad lad of the far north, you with no means and no true lassie, with no way home and no home anyway, you voyage on.
And yes, as per usual, just when the key to all seems within reach, the dreaded forever descends.
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Nance Van Winckel is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Our Foreigner, winner of the Pacific Coast Poetry Series Prize (Beyond Baroque Press, 2017), Book of No Ledge (Pleiades Press Visual Poetry Series, 2016), and Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2014). She’s also published five books of fiction, including Ever Yrs, a novel in the form of a scrapbook (Twisted Road Publications, 2014), and Boneland: Linked Stories (U. of Oklahoma Press, 2013). She teaches in the MFA programs at Eastern Washington University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. Read more at her website.
[TW: This piece includes sexual assault scenes that may be triggering for some readers.]
Many times she had imagined, graphically and in slow motion, the bullet penetrating the pale, soft flesh of his temple; she knew intimately the faint indent, how it was edged with a line of graying strands slicked back with a dab of Brill cream, the shadowy crater of a chicken pox scar between the hairline and the eyebrow. She saw the skin parting and gently enveloping the smooth, hot tip of the metal missile, as if the bullet were melting its way in, as if the flesh itself welcomed the intrusion. This was the extent of her fantasy. She had never imagined the bullet exiting, or the blood. There was so much blood.
She went to the kitchen for a bucket and some Mr. Clean; took a sponge from the sink, a yellow one with a green scrubbie side, and a roll of paper towels. When she returned to the den she set the bucket down on the floor and began to sponge the blood—and other matter, she noticed—from the wood-paneled wall behind his chair. She worked carefully and methodically, but not with any thought as to “covering her tracks” or destroying evidence. She had no intention of hiding, it was just that she could not bear the mess. She wanted the room, the “scene,” to look clean and well-kept when it was examined. She sponged the entire wall, where sticky flecks of blood glistened as high as she could reach, and down to the floor where it had seeped into the crack between the molding and the patterned carpet. It had a particular gamey odor that wasn’t entirely dispelled by the industrial tang of the cleaning fluid. She almost liked that smell; it reminded her of hunting trips she had gone on when she was small, tramping through cold woods in gray morning light, her hands warmed by the ham and egg sandwiches packed in foil which she was charged with carrying.
She had to change the soapy water in the bucket three times before the wall was clean. She used Windex and paper towels to wipe down the pinkish spray that by now had dried onto the computer screen and keyboard. She winced as her touch on the keys produced an electric crackle and an image came into focus. She spread her hand so that the paper towel hid this image from her view. She could do nothing about his clothes or the blood soaking into the papers on the desk where his head now rested. It created a slowly changing pattern as it oozed and dried across the pages. She did not want to disturb the position of his body. There was a satisfying irony in the way his left arm seemed to point at the hinged picture frame (all the family members in separate frozen moments), his right arm palm up in his lap, head directly face down on the blotter. Not a sleeping pose, not restful, but the grace of arrested motion, a dance collapsed. She felt that the mess was acceptably contained in that small area, limited to his person and what might be considered his personal space. This was, after all, a deliberate act, rich with intent, not some out-of-control crime of passion. This was justice, this was necessity.
It had never occurred to Frank that he could be aroused by the product of his own seed. True, he had felt repulsed by his wife’s body, hard and bloated like a badly upholstered sofa, but he thought that was a man’s natural reaction to pregnancy, and did not seem connected to what came later for him. When, as a young father, he noticed his reaction to the innocent touch of his small children he assured himself that this too was natural. For a long time he did not acknowledge that he moved around them in ways that resulted in their contact with his genitals; carrying them at a particular angle, holding them on his lap just so. When his son Tom was five, six, seven, he was entranced by the way the boy’s small penis evoked the shape of his own member; he could remember touching himself secretly when he was that size, thinking he must be the only person who could feel this because no one had ever spoken of such a thing to him. The two-fold thrill of touching Tom—feeling himself and the boy respond at the same time—was a pleasure he could not bring himself to forego.
As Tom grew older and more like him in size, more adult in his physique, the excitement diminished for Frank. His daughter Karen was beginning to appear less childlike at this time, too, but her maturing body had the opposite effect on him. She was not becoming womanly in the way that his wife Louise was womanly. Instead Karen had a spring-like newness, everything budding and blossoming at once. Her breasts were small and delicately formed, not heavy and pulpy like his wife’s; her limbs were smooth and ropy from outdoor play. Slowly Frank’s desire veered away from Tom and he sought time alone with Karen. At first he only touched her, held her against him for what he knew to be too long, and then secluded himself in the bath or bedroom to relieve his tension. He imagined over and over again the pale almost hairless triangle beneath her bathing suit bottom, and her slim legs parting like a cheerleader’s V.
The anticipation he created with this fantasy eventually became unbearable to him. Finally one night, fetching Karen from a late babysitting engagement, he consummated his need for her in just the way his imagination had detailed so many times. She had been asleep when he picked her up and he had suggested she lie down in the back seat of the Taurus on the way home. She didn’t question his pulling off the road or his clambering in on top of her. He avoided looking at her frightened face, pressed his mouth against her neck instead, feeling his own hot breath create a wet patch on her shirt collar. He drove the rest of the way home in red-faced silence, grateful for the solid seatback between himself and his daughter.
After the first time with Karen he could hardly bring himself to caress his wife. Louise was not unaccommodating, but he found her body grotesque in comparison with Karen’s. He developed the habit of staying up late to watch the news and Louise went to bed uncomplainingly without him. Nightly he would enter Karen’s room and, in the muffled dark beneath her flowered duvet, whisper hoarsely his love for her until he spent himself there.
Frank declined to examine this behavior in depth. He was sure he was a normal man with normal needs and desires. Just as no one had ever spoken to him as a child about the pleasure of touching himself, he assumed now that other men gave in to this uncontrollable urge and simply didn’t discuss it. Now that it had become part of his routine, he was able to set aside his thoughts of Karen during the day; it was a part of his life that simply didn’t touch on the rest.
When Karen started high school, he forbade her to date; she was allowed out only with groups, and kept to a strict curfew. Louise concurred unquestioningly with this. For Karen’s safety, it was understood. During these years Karen’s body changed, became hardened to him, and when at last she left for college, Frank had steeled himself to the loss. By this time he had outfitted the den with a home computer, and was finding his consolation online. Here in the privacy of his home office, while Louise assumed he was paying bills and poring over sports scores, he was able to find hundreds upon hundreds of pictures of boys and girls like his children had once been—gentle, delicate-looking children whose bodies appeared soft and compliant. He gazed with unstinted longing at their tender private parts, imagined their small hands running over his flesh, and was content to massage himself to climax this way rather than resort to relations with Louise.
For several years Frank looked no further than his computer screen for fulfillment of his sexual desires, and the period of his nightly conjugations with Karen faded into a blurry, unreal memory. It was easy to pretend it had never happened since he was certain that he shared the secret with Karen only. Karen herself never alluded to it, although relations between them were always distant and a little formal. He was not close with Tom, either, although no real animosity ever surfaced, and he had truly forgotten the extent of his earliest preoccupations with his son. Occasionally it occurred to him that this was not the sort of father he had set out to be, aloof and forbidding, but he did not really feel that he could have done anything differently.
When grandchildren came into his life, Frank allowed himself to be carried away by the same sense of fatefulness, of life’s inevitable course. At first when Tom and Karen visited with their own young families, he stayed out of the way, allowing Louise to sponge up the milky pleasure of having babies in the house again. But as they grew into toddlers and older, he felt the children sought him out. Louise’s attention was not enough for them, or it was different. They asked him for things—candy and pencils and piggy-back rides. They bumped into him, they snaked their slightly sticky fingers into his sweaty palm with no hesitation, they hugged him, pressing their faces to his corduroy-covered thighs, causing him to swell inside his briefs. It was like a rerun of his early parenting years and when the first cloud of guilt had passed he began to feel rejuvenated by these new stimulations. Clearly this was not something he controlled, this reaction of his, he was just wired this way. He allowed his anxiety to dissolve into enjoyment but at the same time he was careful in the presence of family and noticed that he was not often left alone with the children.
Louise had given him a digital camera for Christmas and it occurred to him that he could take pictures of his grandchildren and look at them whenever he chose. Frank became the family chronicler, taking pictures at every gathering and on even the smallest occasions. Many of these photos he sent out to Karen and Tom but there were some he kept to himself as well. Since everyone was so accustomed to seeing him with a camera, no one noticed his attention to particular details as he documented the children on film. He had countless images of his grandchildren at the beach, in the bath, getting ready for bed—images that fed his desire and held him nearly captive at his computer, with one hand pressed into his lap.
Lying in bed he thought he heard a sound like a firecracker, but it was muted by the comforter he had pulled up over his head. He wedged himself further into the corner where the mattress met the wall and tried to silence his own breathing so he could hear what was happening downstairs, or if anyone was coming up. His sister was snoring lightly in the bed next to him, making little “puh” sounds when she exhaled. He had trouble falling sleep with her in the room. At home he had his own room, and he would always be alone when his father came in late at night. Last night his grandpa had come instead, and he had been nervous that his sister would wake up. He thought he understood that this night-time thing was something grown-up men did just with boys—at first he thought it was only his dad, but now he knew that grandpas did it, too. He also knew it was supposed to be a secret; probably because girls spoil everything, that’s what his dad would say, only half-joking.
He couldn’t make out any people sounds from the rest of the house, so he carefully eased the blanket down just past his ears and turned his head toward the door. A line of light shone along the bottom; not all the grown-ups had gone to bed. He couldn’t distinguish between their footsteps here because all the floors were carpeted, so he didn’t know who was still up. Everyone stayed up later when they visited at his grandparents’ house, he had noticed. He did hear a door close and someone moving about in the kitchen, which was directly below him.
At home he knew all the night sounds: the creak of every stair, the squeak of the floorboards by the bathroom, the furnace going on and the steam tapping in the radiators. Here everything was different and the unfamiliar noises made him anxious—the metallic knocking of the blinds against the window frame from the wind outside, the humming and clunking that he now knew was the refrigerator making ice. A lot of things were making him anxious, not just the noises, but the worst was that he really didn’t want his grandfather to come in again. It was different with his dad, he knew what to expect, but his grandfather was shaky and smelled of old man sweat, and it scared him. Also his father wouldn’t come in unless he was alone, but his grandpa clearly didn’t know the rules.
He shifted his head to look at his sister and watched her lips puffing rhythmically in and out for a while. He decided if he heard someone coming, he would reach over and pinch her to wake her up. She would cry and his grandpa would not touch him. Once he had this plan firmly in mind he felt better and relaxed his grip on the edge of the blanket. He waited a long time and finally someone was coming up the stairs. He tensed his whole body, ready to lurch forward, his fingers clenched to grab at his sister’s flesh; but the footfalls went past his door and there was a soft click as the hall light went out. Still he waited, lying flat on his stomach, watching the door, until it had been quiet for a long time. At last he felt sure his grandpa wasn’t coming. He pulled the blanket back over his head and began the slow drift into sleep.
Theo Greenblatt’s prose, both fiction and nonfiction, appears in The Normal School Online, Tikkun, Salt Hill Journal, Harvard Review, and numerous other venues. She is a past winner of The London Magazine Short Story Competition. Her collection Rescue and Other Relationships was a finalist in the recent Autumn House Press Full-Length Fiction Contest.
Theo teaches writing to aspiring officer candidates at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, RI.