Though the house is quiet
another day nearly ………….snuffed out
Shadows slipping through
a bear’s skull, ………….half-buried
Deer prints breaking
the blossoming mud ………….at the water’s edge
The cricket’s chirp
limping through ………….the undecided night
You still understand
nothing ………….of silence
to an inky paste ………….deep in the hollow
of your hands
The moon a blind eye
opening ………….inside you
A leaf falls
becomes the wind ………….before it rests
becomes a stray
a prophet sucking
the tit ………….of sky
The house lives
inside the house
Peter Grandbois is the author of thirteen books. His work has appeared in over one hundred journals. His plays have been performed in St. Louis, Columbus, Los Angeles, and New York. He is poetry editor at Boulevard and teaches at Denison University in Ohio. You can find him at www.petergrandbois.com.
I turn and see the large, inquisitive eyes of a woman behind me. I’ve been startled from my thoughts, and I am briefly confused as my eyes follow her outstretched arm, down her red sleeve, to the pointed tip of her manicured finger. My neck scarf has fallen to the floor. I bend awkwardly over my carry-on to stuff it back into my bag, deeper this time.
I smile at her, looking past her eyes at the gray-streaked red hair that hangs limply at the sides of her temple. “Thank you.”
I turn back to face the front of the lengthy security line. I listen to the voices float around me in excerpts of excited and nervous chatter. I watch the woman in front of me dig deep into her small, red bag before she finds a rattling bottle. In one fluid motion, she takes a swig of her water and a white pill. I smile at the back of her head in empathy. She must be a nervous traveler, much like my mother was.
I am visiting my Grandfather. My Dede is sick, and while I don’t enjoy the lengthy and cramped flight to Istanbul, with young babies screeching in outrage, a stiff neck and the silent fight for the center armrest, I am looking forward to seeing my family. I long for hot tea and the döner from Iskander my cousin always has waiting for me when I arrive, steaming hot and swimming in juices.
I check my phone for the time and then put it away. I feel a wave of the dusty moths scatter across my stomach, awakened from their slumber, as the security line begins to shift. I shuffle my feet forward, looking down at the speckled floor. It hasn’t changed in all these years. The interior of the airport has been transformed. The stairs leading up to security are built into a faux rock wall, water cascading over it, as if the airport is in the midst of a jungle. The ripped blue sofas from thirty years ago have been replaced with smart, gray chairs and white side tables. The walls have a nice new coat of paint on them as well. But the floor has stayed the same. I step over the cracks separating each tile, just as I did as a child. I study the spots, a faded version of what they were, a smattering of black, blue and gray. I feel my eyes steady on the tiles as I am pulled back to a time in this airport, almost twenty years ago. A time when I traveled with my parents, my brothers and my sister.
“Lale, don’t even think about it!” Anne, my mother, yells at me. Her harsh words reverberate through the hollow expanse of the airport. Even though her face is covered, her eyes are angry, a warning that I am about to cross a line. I look longingly at the moving baggage claim belt and imagine how much fun it would be to climb on it. Defiantly, I brush my palm on the moving rubber, letting the belt skim my small hands, before Baba swats my hand away.
“Listen to your Anne,” he says to me sternly, but his eyes are smiling. I am often told to listen to my mother. He pulls me warmly into his side. Rubbing his scraggly beard with his other hand, he bends his head to murmur, “You are going to give her a nervous breakdown. She hates flying, you know.”
I adore my Baba. He makes me laugh until tears come out of my eyes. I watch my older brothers, Abrahim and Ali, playing with their Gameboys. We are waiting for my sister, who is in the restroom. When Miriam emerges, I feel a stab of envy. She tucks a strand of hair that has escaped her bright orange scarf. I can’t wait until I’m old enough to wear a hijab too. Only big girls get to wear them and, according to my Anne, I’m still just her baby at eight years old.
“Let’s go!” Baba yells, and we begin walking toward the escalators to security. When we get to the top, there is a long line. Baba reminds me that this is the part where they check our bags to make sure there are no bad guys. Abrahim’s Gameboy dies and now he and Ali are fighting over the second one. Miriam is reading her book, her gaze steady and intent, seemingly unaware of the bickering between my brothers. I swing myself back and forth under the ropes that divide the lines. Anne has given up on me. She stares ahead and breathes deeply, while Baba squeezes her hand.
“Next!” the security woman barks.
She has blonde hair, and her soft, brown freckles almost completely cover the pale skin of her arms. Baba gives her our passports and boarding passes, and she studies them intently before handing them back to him.
Miriam looks at the security line and frowns. “Baba, do you think we will make our flight on time?”
Baba smiles. “Yes, cenim, this line is moving quickly. See how fast they are moving people along?”
I watch a girl at the security line next to us. She puts her bags on the conveyor belt and walks through the metal detector. I realize this is what I must do. I shift the straps of my backpack off my shoulders and get ready to put my bag on the conveyor belt. But I freeze.
Because my Baba is raising his voice.
And he never raises his voice.
“Sir, I’m asking you to step aside, please,” the security man says.
“Is this necessary? We have a flight to catch. We’re running late.”
“It’s policy,” he says.
“You have let every single person through. Why not me?” My father’s smiling eyes are no longer smiling.
“You can either step aside right now, or we can help you do that,” the man yells at my father, and he moves toward him before my father throws up his hands in exasperation.
“Fine!” Baba follows the security man, passing an officer patting his hands down the back of another young man. I wonder why he is touching him in this way. My Anne looks at another security lady in alarm.
“Where are they taking him?” her voice quivers.
“Calm down, go stand over there. You’ve been selected for a random search.” The woman points to a tall man a few feet away.
He has white gloves and a light blue shirt on. The man gestures to my Anne to come closer. “Come here, ma’am, I just gotta check your person.”
Anne shakes her head. “This is not possible, I can’t do this.”
“Come on,” the man says, and his smile disappears. He frowns. “Now.”
Anne steps hesitantly over to him. He reaches for her waist and she cringes with her hands in front of her chest to guard her body. “Is there at least a woman available?” Anne says. “I’m not comfortable with this.”
“Calm down, it will take two seconds,” the man yells at her and he plunges his hands up and down her waist. Her billowy dress outlines her petite figure as the man rubs his hands down the outsides of her legs. He moves his hands to the insides of her ankles, and he runs his hands up and starts reaching inside her scarf to check her body underneath.
My cheeks heat up and I look away because I don’t want to see this man touching my mother in this shameful way. Abrahim and Ali are staring at their shoes, eyes wide, and they don’t say anything. It would also be shameful for them to look at my mother this way. Abrahim’s hands are clenched into fists at his sides, and Ali’s Gameboy trembles in his hands. Miriam’s eyes are wide; she is looking in the direction my Baba went, and I look for him instead. Baba will stop this man. Baba will know what to do. I see that the men have taken him to a little tent next to the security line.
Just inside the opening of the tent, I see a flash of my Baba’s belly. His bare belly is very pale, like my own, and it has lots of dark, curly hairs covering it, and I can’t see a belly button. I realize he is naked, and I have never seen my father naked, and I can’t believe he is naked with all these people so close, close enough to see flashes of his belly. I feel my sister’s hand on my shoulder, pulling me gently. I look down at the ground. I study the speckled floor. Black dot. Blue dot. Black Black Blue. Gray dot. Blue dot. Black Gray Blue.
I feel myself moving forward, my gaze still steady on the dots on the floor. Miriam stops abruptly and brushes by. I peek forward as I watch her walk through a large, black door frame. She turns and gestures for me to come through. I creep toward the ominous black frame. One of the uniformed men has returned from the tent where Baba is, holding a black stick, watching me. I hesitate, Miriam’s gestures becoming more frantic.
“Gel, Lale. Come!” She tries to be gentle, but I can tell her voice is shaking, like my hands.
I see my Anne on the other side of the threshold and I know I must cross it to see my family. I walk through and jump as a harsh beep reverberates in my ears. The man with the stick comes forward, frowning, waving it before my face. I am afraid he will hit me. I cringe and crouch to the floor. He sighs with exasperation and pulls me by my arm.
“Let me,” I hear a woman’s voice say. I feel an arm gently pulling me up to standing.
She takes the stick from him and waves it over my head. It beeps again, and I duck my head down in fright. I wonder if they will take me to the tent and make me get naked too.
The woman smiles at me, and she looks really pretty and nice. She waves the stick and shakes her head as if it is the stick that is wrong. “It’s just mad at your cute hair clips. I love the purple! Is that your favorite color?”
“Yes,” I manage, nodding. That morning, I had adorned my long brown hair with metal hair clips. They are my favorite, with two large purple butterflies on them. I had coordinated them with my purple shirt. I am wondering if I am not allowed to have them.
“You’re okay. Go ahead, don’t forget your bags!” She gently guides me toward the conveyor belt. I watch our bags emerge from their dark cave, but I dare not touch them. I see that Anne is standing before a man on a bench. He has opened her bag on the table before him. He is rifling through the clothes.
Miriam grabs my hand and brings me to a bench a few feet away from Anne. I see Baba walking back from the tent, and I jump up from the bench and run to him. My arms are flung around his waist, and he presses my back gently toward him. I look up at him for reassurance, but he is frowning and quiet. The laugh and mischief are gone from his eyes.
Anne is given her bag and joins us. No one is speaking, and I decide that I shouldn’t speak either.
“Gel,” Baba beckons us. We begin to follow quietly. My Anne is pale. Abrahim and Ali have stopped fighting over the Gameboy. Ali lets his Gameboy hang limply at his side. Baba squeezes my shoulder and Miriam is holding her book to her nose, though I do not think she is reading it.
In the end, I chose not to wear a hijab. I prefer my face to vanish among the faces of the people in this line, in the grocery stores, and in the malls. I hold my purse tightly toward me, my head down, my hair framing my face in a curtain to keep them out. I watch my feet as I skip the cracks on the floor, concentrating on those speckles from all those years ago.
The TSA security agent motions for me to step forward.
I feel a surge of the flurried moths in my stomach, but push through them with my carry-on in tow. I swing my hair around to the left side of my face, the ends curling at my ribs, damp from the rain outside. I feel apprehension as he studies my passport and then glances briefly at my face.
“Have a good trip,” he absently hands me the card and begins motioning to the next person in line. I place my bag on the conveyor belt. I peel off my sweater and take off my shoes as I pile them into a bucket. Before I go through the metal detector, I run my hands through my hair to check it, a habit, all in vain because I know the little metal hair clips with the purple butterflies are no longer there.
Seyda Mannion is a writer and World Languages teacher in Syracuse, New York. She graduated with a B.A. in Modern Languages from Wells College, where she earned a writing award for her thesis: Una Guerra Poetica. She earned an MST in Education from Lemoyne College. She also self-published Send Us Forward: Thoughts of a Teacher in the Face of Intolerance. This is her first published short story. Seyda enjoys traveling abroad with her husband, Daniel, and visiting her family in Turkey. They are expecting their first child.
the world is bare bones
an orphan after rage
relinquishes her arrow.
sunflowers stormed my mouth
every night an attempt to take ownership of the sun
every tide stumbling into decimation
a collied exists as a reminder
we were born a flicker of elegance.
autumn evolved with our refusal
to compromise, a sea turned to snow,
the sea’s last poem
another battle with the sheets
every destroyer has a price to pay
for petals strewn
upon the floor.
who am i to question this state of decay?
stripped bare the world is stone
soured on the promise of gold
speaking of sunflowers
each petal a faceless instinct
a glimpse at where the dust gathers
i’ve glorified my share of silk.
where once i was a storm
i am afraid
where once i cherished chaos,
chaos became my craft.
where do i go to scream?
no longer whispers in a vase
i swear to god
silence is a virtue.
we chew love for sugar
lost in a lullaby, i repeat myself
how shall i go to war with this flesh?
if i am empty, what are you?
to become the tide,
one must break.
Evan Anders brews coffee for mass consumption in Philadelphia. His poems have appeared in Philadelphia Stories, California Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, and Chicago Quarterly Review. He is a retired stay-at-home dad who thinks Bob Dylan was best in the eighties.
my lover starts seeing
our house as a forest. my lover begins counting by the tree
its singing throbs with more than words, whisperings
of warm & summer & night. sacredness
bringing a lump in his throat.
this green, this sea does not rustle,
it’s small, like tombstones,
something constant with its leaves.
my lover would welcome conflagration.
my lover would leap into its arms. ………………………this is to say: ………………………it hasn’t always ………………………been this silent here.
the crimson glory of sunlight, the distant oil spill
sea behind that of the trees,
sap leaking like spit from his ridged & cracking ………………………tongue.
………………………now kindled, ………………………now his eyes glow. ………………………how assertively the forest ………………………leaves its mark.
now fire burns, like a prayer,
a mad moon hangs red in the sky,
just because he wanted to know how it is to blaze.
Lis Chi Siegel is currently based in Oxford, U.K., though she was born and raised in San Jose, CA. She is the co-founder and Art Director of Sine Theta Magazine, a creative arts magazine by and for the Sino diaspora.
ELEVEN MICRO-MEMOIRS FROM THE PANDEMIC
by Freesia McKee
1. To mix the kimchi, I used two precious latex gloves, so that later, I could take out my contact lenses.
2. Took a long walk by myself. At the crosswalk on Biscayne, someone in a white work van held an N95 mask out the driver’s window in the hope that sunlight would kill the virus. I finished crossing the street, then burst into tears behind my own face covering. Such a safety measure is so inadequate, and yet, this seems to be about all we can do.
3. First COVID death here in Miami-Dade County yesterday. Early this morning, I saw Dmitri walking his dog. He said that the guy who died was his workout buddy at the muscle gym they both belonged to. “He was in his 40s, completely healthy, didn’t have HIV or nothing.” I wonder what it means to escape one pandemic and succumb to another.
4. Talked with her on the phone today. She’s waiting to postpone her wedding.
5. On my walk, I saw two men helping each other cut down a large tree with a chainsaw. Not only were they not wearing masks, they weren’t wearing any kind of eye protection, either.
6. Trump said a few hours ago that he thought injecting Lysol into the body might kill the coronavirus. On a scale of “it’s worse than I thought” to “it’s better than I thought” to “I told you so,” where are you, now, in relation to the level of personal horror you experienced in late 2016?
7. At a demonstration in Wisconsin denying the science of our sad reality, one suburbanite held a sign reading, “I WANT A HAIRCUT.” I downloaded the image from the Internet onto my phone. Using my finger as a stylus, I carefully altered the text of the woman’s sign to the words I thought reflected an accurate description of her message’s trajectory: “I WANT YOU TO DIE.” I texted the photo to my partner Jade in the other room, and we both got a good laugh. During the first weeks of social distancing, my friend Will said on Google Hangouts that people in situations like the pandemic develop a gallows humor in order to cope. I responded that gallows humor was a variety of humor I would never be able to identify with.
8. My cousin in Bellingham texted that he thinks he has the virus right now, and he’s doing okay. I’m going through another cycle of anxiety, of not being able to read. I’m spending entire days online. One of the bad feelings is reaching nightfall and feeling like I have nothing to show for it. Why am I taking so long to text back my cousin?
9. Our neighbors have become an integral part of our lives. Pat dropped off six fish she caught in a canal in Northwest Dade. Jade spent several hours on the phone trying to help Mary apply for unemployment. Paula bought us milk with her grocery delivery. Jade’s been doing yardwork behind our place so the landlord doesn’t have to come too close to our apartment. Mary wears a mask. Kenny wears a mask. Marvin sometimes wears a mask. Marvin’s kids don’t wear masks. Dmitri doesn’t wear a mask. We wear masks. Outside, we all talk with each other every single day.
10. I’m planning to wake up early tomorrow. But tonight, vodka with lime and honey and salt. We’re eating curry. I have been thinking about the last normal day before we parted from each other. It was the occasion of a personal milestone, and the small room was crowded with people there to support. I remember vigorously washing my hands every hour, all day. No hugs.
11. Every morning, I walk or jog past the Arch Plaza Rehab and Nursing Center, and I think about the residents inside. Sometimes, I can see the silhouettes of residents and nursing staff through the second-story windows. I think it must be a scary feeling, to live in a place like this where the only people who can visit you are dressed like astronauts. For the first month of social distancing, I cried for the residents every single morning when I passed their building. But now, I don’t cry on my walks anymore. When I get home, I set an intention for my meditation practice, who I want to meditate for or in honor of. Only sometimes, I remember them, my inside neighbors. We will never meet.
Author’s note: I was not much of a diarist before the pandemic, but I felt that such a crisis would present some important moments to document, so I started keeping a daily journal when I began social distancing on March 13. These micro-memoirs are based on entries I made during my first three months of experiencing the pandemic, March 13 to May 30, 2020. I filled up a whole notebook during this time, 100 pages, front and back.
Freesia McKee is author of the chapbook How Distant the City (Headmistress Press). Her words have appeared in Flyway, Bone Bouquet, So to Speak, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Virga, Painted Bride Quarterly, CALYX, About Place Journal, South Dakota Review, New Mexico Review, and the Ms. Magazine Blog. Freesia’s book reviews have appeared in South Florida Poetry Journal, Tupelo Quarterly, Pleiades Book Review, Gulf Stream, and The Drunken Odyssey. Freesia was the winner of CutBank Literary Journal’s 2018 Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry, chosen by Sarah Vap. Find her online at freesiamckee.com or on Twitter at @freesiamckee.
REPARATIONS WINE LABEL
Text by J’nai Gaither
Illustrated by Phoebe Funderburg-Moore
Click on images for full-size.
Full Text of Label:
Blacks in Wine Matter
Reparations Red Wine
United Colors of America
401mL 16.19% by volume
To be acknowledged and included in this White wine industry is all people of color have ever wanted. Though wine is as global as industries come, it has never been welcoming to people of color. Even in South Africa, on the Mother Continent, most wineries are owned by White South Africans, though there has been a push to put the economic opportunities of winemaking into the hands of Black people. After 401 years, time is up. Drink and protest responsibly.
Reparations is made from Petite Sirah and Tannat, two thick-skinned black grapes that offer a hearty and savory liquid meal to the adventurous imbiber. With hints of espresso, blackberry and cocoa, Reparations gives back to the drinker what’s been stolen from them: the freedom to enjoy wine uninhibited. Aged in oak for only six months since we have already waited long enough.
Government Warning: (1) According to people of color, wine should be more accessible and less pretentious. It should not divide, and consumers and hiring managers should get used to seeing people of color in the wine space or risk losing a significant portion of the $1.2 trillion that is Black buying power. (2) Consumption of this alcoholic beverage may wake up the world to a bitter racism that has persisted in the industry for decades.
401mL Contains Anger & Indignation
J’nai Gaither is the hungriest of storytellers, always foraging for the next, excellent food and beverage story, or the most delicious of ad campaigns. When not consuming copious amounts of champagne and burgundy, she’s usually planning her next meal while listening to opera. Her work has appeared in Plate Magazine, New York Magazine’s Grub Street, Eater, Dining Out Chicago, Vinepair,From Napa With Love and other books and publications. You can see her work on Amy’s Kitchen website and packaging, as well as on current Sargento Cheese commercials. She has also been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.
Phoebe Funderburg-Moore is a Philadelphia-based illustrator, screen printer, and graphic designer. Her work is focused around self-discovery, love of nature, and observational humor. Recently Phoebe has been teaching herself animation and digital illustration. To view more of her work, visit phoebefm.com and follow along on Instagram at @phoebemakesart.
The year the rains never came, the ground dried up and cracked wide open. Dust settled on laundry hung in the yards and you appeared on my porch, hands clasped. In the fields, only the grasses survived, growing tall around our knees. There was a sense that it was all ending, but no one talked about it.
When even the grass started to turn yellow, we knew. You stood there, folding a blade of grass in half and half again, squeezing each crease. From the stoop, we watched garbage drift through the empty streets, waiting for the earth to swallow us up.
The price of boats skyrocketed. We carved one out of a tree trunk, the way the natives used to. Our blisters sang out, but our panic kept us moving. On TV, we watched aerial footage of the waves racing towards land.
When the water came, it was a wall and a bomb and a blanket; it swirled, eddied, slammed, rose up. From our tree-trunk boat, we saw things swimming that stole our breath. The water was brown and filled with bodies and we couldn’t drink it; that was how we actually died, from thirst.
At first, it was what we expected: animal milk soured right out of the teat, low-grade seizures, small figures made of straw left on our beds. But then they closed their fists: they called the bears and the wolves out of the forests; they lashed us with storms that destroyed whole cities and made each night last a year. People began to lose their minds from fear.
Near the end, we watched them congregate in the night sky, hair streaming. The air was thick with hexes that clung to our clothes. In a few days, it would all collapse: cities burned out, pastures fallow, screams on the wind, grass bloodied.
It started as a series of small fires, unrelated, that could not be put out. They ate up the roads and the fields, city blocks, and grew, rolling across nations, consuming. They met eventually in the center of the world, which we never knew beforehand was the center: a village outside Cuzco, too small for a post office.
Before the heat struck us, ash blew in on the wind. It was soft in our hair and with the horizon darkening, it almost felt like just a change of season. But the heat did come: it blackened and shrieked and nothing survived, not even the sky.
Ivy grew up and strangled walls, pulled them down. Crops rotted in their fields. Even the animals gave up and lay down in their meadows and desert holes. They left their nests half-finished and stopped their dances towards each other.
This end was slow and almost easy: a gentle decay, apathy grazing our bones like a virus. Some thought it actually was a virus, but no one had the will to find out. All the microscopes sat in vacant labs. The earth quieted.
Warm under our sheets, we thought, it won’t end like this—someone will do something. You brushed my eyelashes with your fingers and felt the length of my body and then we ran out of food, dust in the cupboards.
K.S. Lokensgard is a writer and lawyer in Washington, D.C.
You can try the gloves,
but the gloves will work
two hours tops. The grape juice
has crept inside of them.
Your hands are being braised now.
Your fingernails have become
the consistency of cake frosting.
The tips of your fingers are translucent.
By hour five you forget
the vibrating of the hopper.
The trembling of the grapes
streaming past you
in their furious march towards
the de-stemmer. You can’t
feel your spine anymore,
it has been shaken out of the back
of your shirt.
You’re still trying to pick up
each bunch, inspect it for detritus,
for Noble Rot. The ashen wad of wet death
that in small amounts, lends itself
to the exquisite. Mostly,
you find bugs. Earwigs are fine,
they don’t alter the flavor much.
But Ladybugs make wine bitter.
After hour six
the bright transition-metal stink
of mold is gone. You find a bird’s nest,
several Mantises. Paula tells you
last year she found a thumb.
This is the difference between
box wine and the bottle,
The flavor of good wine is the price of hands.
The difference between
the bottom shelf and the timeless
flavor of wealth
is that one is drinking bugs and bird’s nests
and the other is drinking
the blood of hands.
Brian S. Ellis was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, and began performing his own poetry at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of four collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Often Go Awry from University of Hell Press. He lives in Portland, Ore.
TERRA IN FLUX An Ekphrastic Collaboration
by Mark Danowsky and John Singletary
The word ekphrasis comes from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic. It is a vivid, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined. In ancient times, it referred to a description of any thing, person, or experience. The word comes from the Greek ἐκ ek and φράσις phrásis, ‘out’ and ‘speak’ respectively, and the verb ἐκφράζειν ekphrázein, “to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name”.
[tap on any image to enlarge]
Terra in Flux
The bathroom mirror breaks my face
no, my face breaks the mirror
nose, a Picasso—
all comes down to energy
In Tai Chi, you create
an imaginary ball
then pass, smooth
sculptor at the wheel
passing it, passing it
back to yourself
blurs the line
we choose to walk against
You touch yourself touching
the face of love
closeness by another name
proximity one boon companion
Tell me when it is you feel
& I’ll go cold as fate
comet without gamble
your unholy geist
The Rockefeller Center
zamboni operator down with flu
still can smooth & smooth
Faces of a masquerade
play at Janus
when lean Judas
free at least
vagrant on the rocks
Mother of God
Sister of Heartbreak
Daughter of Chaos
the beauty line
ties humanity to grace
by way of athleticism—
what it means to be perfect
between naked & nude—
that begins in innocence
& ends in Babylon
There is nothing inherently wrong with Cypress trees.
Or apocryphal texts.
The believer tells you it’s a mistake not to believe.
The nonbeliever can’t tell you anything for sure.
I fall asleep & dream about a ball of light
passed from generation to generation.
I wake & stretch—
In Tai Chi, you take an open stance. Take an imaginary ball in your hands.
Circle the sphere. It can be crystal. You can call it an orb. You cannot drop this ball.
We know pareidolia—seeing
faces in things. We make
some just so we can walk around
being another, feeling safe.
Forget the self, sun
in Elizabethan world view
the great chain of being
we inhabit the middle
above all common earthly things
below the heavens, angels, divinity
Mark Danowsky is author of the poetry collection As Falls Trees (NightBallet Press, 2018). His poems have appeared in Gargoyle, Kestrel, North Dakota Quarterly, and elsewhere. He’s managing editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal.
John Singletary is a photographer and multimedia artist based in Philadelphia, PA. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from The University of the Arts. His work has been collected by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Center for Fine Art Photography as well as other institutional and private collections. He has exhibited at the LG Tripp Gallery, The Pennsylvania State Museum, The James Oliver Gallery, Sol Mednick and The Delaware Contemporary Museum. He is also a contributing writer for The Photo Review Journal. Photo credit: Stephen Perloff.
It started off with cats, which was what my cellmate Rudy had, til his cat shrunk down to the size of a kitten, then a mouse, then disappeared altogether. Every once in a while, at night, besides the usual squeaks of the roaming guard’s boots, I’d hear squeaks of a different kind. Through the slight light at Rudy’s bunk, I could see where he lay with his head propped on one hand, the other hand cupped in front of a squinted eye. An eye he’d wink at me before putting his finger in front of his mouth and saying, “Shhhh.”
When my morning came, through the bars the guard handed me an armadillo. I guess, by the time they got down to people like me, they was all out of cats. They had already told me I shouldn’t self-punish. But for me the armadillo made a kind of sense, at least that’s what our group therapist Dr. Gronsky said, because I keep a hard outer shell. That’s why I’m supposed to write this all down, he said: to find myself a way out of myself.
An armadillo is small as a squirrel—lots of people don’t know that—and Aztecs used to call them Nahuatl, which meant turtle-rabbit. Rudy told me about that word because like all the Mexicans in here he likes to pretend he’s descended from Aztecs, though who’s to say he’s not just descended from Erik Estrada. Or was, anyway. I still don’t understand what happens to us after we leave here. Not when we leave the way he did.
My armadillo is cheap to feed—ants, grubs, roly-polies—and that’s how I spend my time in the yard. Me on my knees digging up dirt with my hands, Harriet with her little claws. I pet her leathery armor, warm like a saddle, warm from the sun falling behind the barbed-wire caging.
The idea behind the Pets for Penitents program was that by trusting us with responsibilities we were made more responsible, that by being trusted we’d accept ourselves as trustworthy.
So there we were in the yard getting beat down by the sun on our necks. I sat on top of an aluminum table with my shoes propped on the blinding bench-seat.
Across the grass, Hector walking his peacock, strutting at the end of its leash, grooming those feathers like dancers’ eyes: all-day watching, blinking—tempting, even.
Tyrone watching the weighted barbells move up and down over chest after chest, all the while on his shoulder sat that iguana, throat-breathing.
Thad watching the whites play basketball, head bobbing approval at a three point swish; Twyla, his cockatoo, perched on top of his head and bobbing her own.
We inmates was all lock-step so our pets could get their walking privileges. So they could get a treat or two. An extra fly. A biscuit. Humans’ll take care of a pet better than themselves. Most. We all thought Rudy was the only one his pet didn’t check. We all thought when his cat disappeared, Rudy took to starvation.
We all thought wrong. Thing was, he wasn’t just getting skinnier.
Rudy had been beastly, with tats scrawled across his buff shoulders and down his swollen arms. Now he stooped from five feet and a half to five, skin flabby beneath his chin and chest. His pants wouldn’t hang on his waist, so the warden finally issued him pants from the women’s ward visible out the window and across the boring Central Cali fields.
“Where’s your cat?” the warden asked, shiny shoes at the base of the bars. I watched with my pillow tucked down over my head. The warden thought of me as a problem. My armadillo, Harriet, she curled up into my tensed forearm, tensed at the thought of that word “problem.”
Rudy shrugged his now-knobby shoulders. “Must have made his escape from Alcatraz.”
That’s when the warden took Rudy’s TV time.
When the guards finally came into the cell, it got tore up from the floor up for some kind of clue. What was happening to him? He didn’t tell them shit. Rudy sat cross-legged, no bigger than a bronze Buddha for a garden, on the worn-out bed. He was down to four feet tall and one hundred pounds. They took his family photos; he just kept shrinking.
They had to stop there because prisoners were allowed by law to do three things: Crafts, Kitchen, and Crap. They thought maybe he wasn’t eating anymore, but he’d climb down off that toilet like a child and smile over his crusty mac and cheese in the dining hall. I had a deeper hunger for thinking on the past than I had for any food, and I pushed my macaroni around my plastic plate.
He sat across from me, clutching his tray topped with a plate empty of anything but a yellow smear, his denim collar and cuffs big as a Marx-bros hobo-skit. “You gonna eat that?”
At the bus tub near the dining hall exit, I dropped my tray in and looked back at Rudy eating my dinner at our empty table. Tyrone, with the slow-lidded iguana on his shoulder, nodded at my tray, took the hairnet off his bald head, and took the bus tub up in his delicate hands.
I asked him, “Is it just me, or is Rudy shrinking?”
Slow blink from Tyrone. Slow blink from iguana. Big-throated, double-chinned shrug from the both of them. “I hate to say shrinking,” Tyrone said. “Dr. Gronsky says we’re not supposed to make judgments.”
Dr. Gronsky ran our circle-time on Tuesdays. “What should we call it?”
Tyrone propped the bus tub against a hip and scratched his iguana’s chin. “How’s about self-induced reduction therapy?”
I asked, “That a thing?”
Tyrone didn’t answer, just fed a stray piece of macaroni from his fingertip to his iguana’s pink tongue.
So there was Crap, and there was Kitchen, but when it came to Crafts Rudy ran the show. All day and night he super-glued twigs and popsicle sticks, Lincoln logs and heavy paper, light bulbs from Christmas lights no bigger than a bee’s ass.
Rudy, hunched over his project, now looked more like a four-year-old building a diorama than a man of eighteen building a piece of art.
“You know by now what I did, to get locked up.” He did know. He was the only one, really. That knew what I’d done and why. “What did you do?”
“Does it really matter?” He corkscrewed his tongue against his chapped lips and squinted down at the four-inch-high door he was gluing to the doorframe. A bead of sweat dripped off his small bald head to land on the stamp-sized welcome mat at his fingers. He sounded different and said in his new small flutey voice, “Dr. Gronsky says we shouldn’t self-punish.”
It should have told me something, that to Rudy I was the one who self-punished. He just kept on gluing pieces together. Kept on shrinking, too.
That Tuesday, at circle-time, Dr. Gronsky put his grey-haired hand on my shoulder, to stop the sobbing. And he said our guilt would only disappear when we learned how to live in the moment, the way our pets did.
By the last days of Rudy’s stay, I had to leash Harriet to my metal bedpost—she could’ve blown Rudy over just breathing near him. The last time I saw him, Rudy was just big enough to open that popsicle-stick door of his little home, walk in, and, right after waving goodbye, shut the door behind him. The lights went on in the tiny windows crossed by toothpicks. I heard it again, then, the tiniest high-pitched meow, and a purr like the sound of a fly’s wings.
I petted Harriet’s armor, not much harder than a calloused hand, and I cried because I still felt hot-bellied with guilt, because I always would, even once the crying stopped. And it was a thing I had when I didn’t have many things, so I hung onto it. Then Harriet crawled stump-legged into my hand, sniffing up at me, her tiny black eyes reflecting me wide as a world. Now when I thought of Harriet I didn’t think Nahuatl, or turtle-rabbit, or even Armadillo. See, Harriet wasn’t her name when I got her.
When I blinked my burning eyes free of her gaze I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but my tears were gone. And there she was, still the size of a squirrel in my palm. Only, when I set her down on my pillow and she crawled across it onto the headline of my newspaper, I realized she was the size of a mouse. She sniffed at the date running long from her nose, and I thought, life’s a long time and a short time at the same time, isn’t it? She wobbled her artichoke back to tuck herself under my duffel-sized pillow. I took a deep breath. I laid my head back and imagined her settling in under there.
Christopher David Rosales is from Paramount, CA. His first novel, Silence the Bird, Silence the Keeper, won him the McNamara Creative Arts Grant. His second novel, Gods on the Lam (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, 2017), and his third novel, Word is Bone (Broken River Books, 2019), are available now. Word is Bone won him an International Latino Book Award, and his new short story “Fat Tuesday” is featured in the anthology of border noir titled Both Sides (Agora/Polis Books, 2020). Contact him at www.christopherrosales.com.
THE ESPERANZA PROJECT
Music by Richard Casimir
“Antumbra” (poem) by Herman Beavers
In classical music, a fermata is a pause of unspecified length printed above a note or rest. It is represented by an eyebrow above a dot, nicknamed a “birdseye” or “cyclops eye.” How long that pause should last is left to the discretion of the performer or the conductor.
In March 2020, the music world paused, subito—suddenly—leaving concert halls dark for the foreseeable future, and an entire industry stunned and unemployed. For how long, we can only guess.
And yet, by comparison, this Great Silence seems trivial: a global pandemic is killing millions. The rest struggle against police brutality, racial injustice, the rise of fascism, the precarious state of democracy.
In late June, as our American cities broke open in protests over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I received a WhatsApp message from my longtime friend, Richard Casimir, a Haitian-born violinist and composer now living in Pamplona, Spain. He’d written a string orchestra piece on the improbable (it seemed to me, in this dark time) theme of hope. Now he was enlisting performers from all over the world to record their individual parts while quarantined at home.
It would be a diverse group of musicians, including conservatory professors, international soloists, orchestral players, high school teachers—and Richard’s 14-year-old daughter, Emma, a promising young violinist. My own daughter, Caeli, who grew up to be a musician, appears on both violin and viola. The tracks would be mixed together by Richard’s nephew, Michael, a violist in the St. Louis Symphony.
Richard wanted to know: Would I help him find a poet to compose words to accompany the music? My first thought was that a poem on hope would be a nearly impossible challenge in this bleak time. I turned to one of the strongest poets I know, my colleague Herman Beavers, a scholar and artist whose poetry often evokes and centers music. Herman’s gorgeous and moving response to “Esperanza” is “Antumbra,” a two-part poem named for the part of a solar eclipse in which the ring of fire from the hidden celestial body is visible on the edges. The poem, which begins in despair, brings us forward to a moment when we can sense clarity around the edges of ruin:
in the morning’s first blush, nomads on a river whose whispers
turns the sad machine of hurt to wings, the Blessing’s pale fire blooming
“Esperanza” is a lush and seamless integration of sound that swells with purpose, and with hope, that we will one day again be together. The collaboration with “Antumbra” nudges us closer to that moment.
—Karen Rile, September 2020
ANTUMBRA by Herman Beavers
Everywhere the search
for colors to drape
across the heart, a state
of mind barely legible
against the shout of hyperbolic
clothes, the mantle of undignified
thespian privilege, a Van Gogh painting
fake & perfectly intact. This panic-
stricken tale of woe for those who
live poised on the lipstick
side of things, coveting a gift for
reinvention perhaps or the tactical
use of a day’s ration of rice. Enough
with the cars minus license plates
children banging metal pots
clustered around dead pay phones.
Struck dumb in the square-jawed
light, the sweat of blood red air,
the chameleon plies his craft,
muse for a contretemps’ pallid blue yes—
its precise, ironic surface sprawling
across scrublands of agate type, dramas
of family succession akin to
the serpent’s unconscious hatred of mettle.
Anywhere a heart hammers
where the curve’s beguiling tumble
of words makes the straight line
testament to unspeakable sadness,
we are one ache, humans holding
the moment so still, the day could
fly to pieces. If we could turn
fast enough, we might catch a
glimpse of an angel’s wingtip, the hem
of a celestial robe. Trudging behind
beauty, the velvet fist of violence
flattens into romance, leaves us caught
in the squirm of a good plot. Could
the cool flesh of a peach, cumulus
clouds rocking the sky above us,
the slow wheel of a mind
humming in the tightest
corners of the universe,
invite us to taste honey, taste
salt? What if a good year
is any that God sends, even
if the blackbird flies low to
the ground, his song lost
in shadow? So what if the
sound the rain makes, ticking
on the roof, against windows
mimics the clock face knocked
clean of numbers, houses
pelted by a panoply
of numerals tumbling all about us?
Might we relinquish looks shot through
with worry, with hubris? Caught
in the morning’s first blush,
nomads on a river whose whispers
turns the sad machine of hurt
to wings, the Blessing’s pale fire blooming,
Oh, to be loved like this.
To be loved, like this.
For Richard Casimir and Michael Casimir
A native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Richard Casimir (composer) graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, with a Masters and Professional Studies degree in Violin. He worked as a violin instructor at the Preparatory Division for Gifted Young Musicians at Temple University, and as a string teacher in Philadelphia public schools, before moving to Spain in 2006. He currently resides in Pamplona with his wife and two children and teaches violin and chamber music at a private high school, Sagrado Corazon. Richard began composing to address the technical needs of his students and ensemble groups, while encouraging the communal and citizenship aspect of their music education. To that end, he has organized several benefit concerts for charitable causes, involving his students both from Philadelphia and Pamplona. His latest composition, “Esperanza,” is an example of such a community awareness effort. He dedicates it to the victims of discrimination and intolerance, appealing to people of all cultures to recognize their shared humanity and to treat one another with compassion and dignity. Here Richard is pictured conducting the Sagrado Corazon Youth Orchestra for a benefit concert in the Parliament of Navarra, located in the city of Pamplona. That concert, entitled Music Against Inequality, was organized by Oxfam Intermon to raise public awareness in combating poverty around the world.
Herman Beavers’ most recent poems have appeared in The Langston Hughes Colloquy, MELUS, Versadelphia, Cleaver Magazine,The American Arts Quarterly, and Supplement, Vol. 2. His poems are anthologized in the volumes Obsession: Sestinas for the Twenty-First Century (University Press of New England),Remembering Gwen (Moonstone Press), Who Will Speak for America (Temple UP) and in the forthcoming volume, Show Us Your Papers (Main Street Rag Press). His chapbook, Obsidian Blues, was published in 2017 by Agape Editions as part of its Morning House Chapbook Series. His latest books are Geography and the Political Imaginary in the Novels of Toni Morrison (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), and The Vernell Poems (Moonstone Press, 2019) and the forthcoming Even in Such Light (Anaphora Literary Press, 2020). He serves on the Advisory Boards of The Furious Flower Poetry Center, Modern Fiction Studies, The Black Scholar, The Langston Hughes Review, and African American Review.
Esperanza String Orchestra:
Amaya De la Cal
Nicole Peña Comas
Txuma Del Río
Isaac Salas Luna
*Viola & Violin
Audio editor: Michael Casimir Video Editor: Kim Kelter Neu
A SACK OF POTATOES, THE TIRED FARMER, & THE MIGHTY WORLD
A Visual Narrative
by Steph Jones
Steph Jones is the Assistant Farm Manager at Pennypack Farm & Education Center, a thirteen-acre non-profit organically growing vegetable farm in Horsham, PA. She majored in Studio Art at Bates College and has been working at Pennypack since 2015. Since her first summer at the farm, she has been fascinated with the natural world around her and its wonder has greatly influenced her artwork. Steph loves how her art shows her what she knows about this world and what is important to her within it. She is a farmer, she is an artist, and she believes they are the same.
FIELD NOTES FOR THE MAGICIAN: SLEIGHT OF HAND
by Rosemary Kitchen
Mother teaches me
to read the ages of bald women hooked to IV stands
in cracked knuckles, the prominence of veins in fingers and wrists.
We whisper, like the palmists
of the Memorial Oncology Ward
Mother’s gurney vanishes
between swinging doors,
and Father practices the trick
of folding down ring
and middle fingers,
of straightening pinky, extending
thumb, cupping the symbol
for love in a trembling hand.
The Magician might call this
the Palm Proper—letting
two fingers press into root
of thumb to form a bridge
at the hollow of the hand
where anything small enough
After the diagnosis, we listen
to the tick of a wristwatch
covering its face with both hands.
On a sundial, the titanic body
of our nearest star
can be transfigured
into a hand made of shadows.
In a difficult manipulation,
the Magician’s hands
exchange a silver coin for
copper—small maneuvers of
fingers masked by larger
The surgeon’s hands exchange sharpie for
scalpel, marking all the
where it hurts, and
turning them over, like
the Magician asking Was
this your coin? and the
coin always reappearing
wherever it vanishes.
Rosemary Kitchen is a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee PhD program in English. She currently lives with her husband and stepdaughters in Knoxville, TN where she is pursuing an MS in Mental Health Counseling, as well as polishing her first manuscript, Field Notes for the Magician. Her poems have been published in journals such as Cimarron Review, Gulf Coast, and Tinderbox.
She spread her legs and the neon blue lights shifted like we were underwater. She was wearing underwear, but they were crotch-less, white elastic stretching around her hips to hold her tips. Her hair was brown. I don’t like brunettes, especially not with how short she kept it, just barely brushing her shoulders, yet I watched her with interest. She stood up and moved to a pole languidly, her steps not in sync with the beats of the music. She was in her own world, she spun around the pole, her head hung like it was out a window, letting the breeze blow through it. She shimmied down the pole and then she was seated again, in front of me, her legs splayed out, she lifted her butt once, twice, maybe she thought that it counted as dancing, and then she went back to the pole.
I wasn’t seated. I stood in the aisle, hesitating, my friends behind me, waiting for me to join them on the purple velvet couch that stretched the length of the room. A man was in front of me, seated at the dance floor, his elbows propped up, beckoning my girl over with a twenty-dollar bill. She’s my girl now, I thought. My girl was wearing socks like she was a baseball player, maybe. All the women in the joint seemed to be confused, no clear costumes or personas, a mish-mosh of colors and fabrics and skin.
My girl had movie screen nipples. Her breasts were so white they easily grabbed onto the blue light and she moved like she had alien skin, she’s a blue-skinned woman, dancing on the ocean floor. Her breasts weren’t as big as mine, but still on the larger side. It’s unfair that her tiny nipples sat perky in the center. Only women in the movies have nipples like that, no areolas, just perfect little nipples. I resisted the temptation to look down my own shirt at my own nipples that dared to be average-sized.
My girl was looking at me. It only makes sense that she was looking at me because I’d been looking at her for so long, watching her socks and her nipples and her ocean skin. I met her gaze and her expression was interested but disinterested and I did my best to look the same. I was curious about her, about the place, about what kind of women came here. I kept staring at her. I learned that if you look away too soon, it means that the gaze meant something to you. I didn’t want this gaze to mean anything.
We went to a strip club for my friend Teddy’s Dirty Thirty. I didn’t like that he called it that, I felt slimy when he said it. I didn’t like to imagine Teddy in dirty positions. In sticky situations.
I drove south with my friend Katie to Tampa. Teddy’s plan: steak dinner, casino, strip club. Katie and I were late, the GPS lied to us, we took a series of winding back roads that eventually spit us out where we needed to be an hour late.
We missed the steak dinner. Teddy called us, said we missed quite the show. Their waiter really had a voice on him, Teddy said he should audition for one of those singing shows, that singing Happy Birthday for someone’s Dirty Thirty shouldn’t be it for him.
Teddy’s roommate was with him. I didn’t like the roommate, Marvin. Now he, he was slimy. He looked like his underarms smelled toxic and he had permanent perspiration on his forehead. He had a way about him that made me uncomfortable.
Katie’s fiancé, Dylan, was coming from work so he met us at the casino. He was late too. He missed the steak dinner.
Katie and I stopped for food. She was on a diet and was counting calories, but when she realized that the pancake sandwich was only 70 calories more than the chicken one she said, “Fuck it, I’ll treat myself. What’s seventy calories anyways?”
She later threw up when we got to a casino bathroom. I heard her, she told me the pancakes were too greasy, they made her sick. I think she was just guilty.
My friend and I, we wore tight little dresses to the casino. I had never been to a casino but I’d seen plenty of movies. I did my hair up real nice, even wore some false lashes. Shoved my tattooed feet into four inch heels and pretended I was prettier than my friend when I watched her get out of the car. She was so tall and skinny, a real model type with chiseled cheekbones. I knew I was pretty, but I had to breathe through my Spanx. As we hustled out of the garage, her phone rang—her fiancé was at the bar.
We waited at the crosswalk to cross the street into the casino. A cop car pulled alongside us, the officer rolling down his window. “You ladies alright?” he asked. He gave us one long look up and down. It was less icky and more evaluating. I realized he thought we were hookers. We looked like hookers.
“Just headed into the casino,” I said, “it’s our friend’s birthday.”
“Dirty Thirty,” my friend said.
The cop stared at us and then nodded. “Alright, you girls have a good night.” He pulled away and we hustled into the building.
Whistles and eyeballs followed us into the casino. I slowly began to realize that we were still in Florida, not Las Vegas. People walked past us in t-shirts and flip flops. Women were wearing ripped jeans and tank tops. We still looked like hookers.
At the bar, Dylan gave us a long whistle, one hand wrapping around my friend’s ass, the other going over my shoulder. “How much for the night?”
I smacked him on the head and Katie told him to pay for our drinks and maybe he would get lucky.
Teddy arrived at the casino very drunk, Marvin was holding him up, one yellowed armpit next to Teddy’s head. “Let’s get playing,” Teddy said.
Dylan liked blackjack so we played blackjack. Marvin had a gambling problem, so he didn’t bring any money with him. He asked Teddy to borrow some, and Teddy handed him his wallet. The casino wasn’t very exciting. It felt kind of sad. Mindless Floridians moved like zombies from poker table to poker table, their sandals smacking against the carpeted floor, their drinks spilling over the rim of their cups, dripping down their hands, and they didn’t even flinch.
Katie and I tried the slots, seated next to old ladies wearing matching gold sequined scarves. A man walked past smelling of sunscreen and I turned my head into the scent, my eyes following him across the room. Sunscreen smelled like desire to me. Of summers sliding sunscreen under my friends’ bikini straps. But the man didn’t turn around, he didn’t feel my stare.
But I felt stares. They came from everywhere. The dealers, the guards, the men with mustaches and whiskey glasses, the women in the ripped jeans, the men watching the basketball game, daring a glance away from the screen to see my chest. One redneck man hooked his eyes into my flesh and dragged them up and down my body until I squirmed. How much? He mouthed to me. I couldn’t tell if he meant it in jest.
I grew tired of all the staring. Was I just imagining it? Was everyone really looking at me? Lingering on me? My cleavage was plenty. My heels were tall. My hair was blonde. People love to look at blondes. But was something wrong with me? Had I drunk too much? Was my makeup smeared across my face? I told Katie I wanted to use the restroom. Maybe there would be friendly women in the bathroom to share lipstick with. Katie patted Dylan’s hand, told him to wrap it up, and then followed me.
When I entered the restroom, I knew that something was wrong, I could smell a dangerously sweet smell in the air, my nose turning in disgust. I walked toward a stall door and pushed. It swung open, revealing a woman seated on a toilet, hunched over in pain, red down her chest, around her feet, splattered on the walls and floor. For a moment, I thought it was blood, for a moment, I thought she was dead. Her black dress was around her ankles. She sat in just her nude colored bra, the underwire digging into her pale flesh, turning it flush. She lifted her head and grunted at me, a string of saliva spilling from her wine-stained mouth.
“Oh!” I said, “Do you need help?” She clearly needed help.
She lifted a hand and in a whisper said, “Please, close the door.”
I entered another stall and peed real quick. I then joined Katie at the sinks. She was re-applying her lipstick.
“Katie, there is a woman in that stall—,” my voice was a hush, “we need to get help.”
“I know.” Katie smacked her lips. “I already let a security guard know.”
I risked a glimpse at my own reflection. I looked fine. Even my lipstick was fine.
We exited the bathroom and a guard was waiting outside. I pointed to the stall and thought that I might never drink red wine again.
The strip club shifted between red and blue lights. When we walked in, it was blue, everyone cast in an electric shade, like we were underwater. My hand was stamped with a glow-in-the dark kiss print and my group settled onto a long velvet couch.
I was caught in the in-between, not yet moving to the couch, not moving to the stage where women didn’t quite dance. I watched a stripper. The stripper watched me.
“Hey? You alright?” Katie’s breath was on my neck. She took my hand and we sat on the velvet couch, my back to my stripper. Katie rested a hand on Dylan’s knee and clutched my close hand.
Teddy pulled a wad of rubber band-wrapped dollar bills from his pocket. “All for tonight,” he said. I tried not to cringe. His eyes roamed around the club, searching for the woman he would pay first.
“Who do you want?” Dylan asked. A pregnant stripper walked by, wearing a velvet and lace nightie. “What’s your type?”
Teddy glanced at my chest briefly then said, “Oh, I don’t care.” We knew he did. I shook off the glance like I didn’t see it.
Marvin asked him for more money. Teddy peeled away a few bills and handed them to him. Marvin grabbed the wrist of a stripper who walked past and they moved to a more isolated part of the room.
“How much is a dance?” I asked, wondering, as I gazed at a distinguished-looking gray haired man in the corner of the club. A stripper shorter than I and skinnier than Katie was dry humping him to the beat. Her eyelashes were glued on crooked but I could see her appeal. Cheetah spots were tattooed on her thighs.
“Twenty a dance, usually,” Teddy said.
“Damn.” Katie’s face looked concentrated. “Songs are what? Around four minutes? That’s like three hundred an hour.” Her eyes met Dylan’s. “I think I need a career change.”
Dylan laughed and hugged her close.
I dared a glance toward Marvin. All I could see were his sweaty hands roaming over the woman’s breasts in the reflection of the mirrored ceiling. I tried to imagine that being me. Dancing for money. I tried to imagine the last time hands touched my breasts like that. The image of pink manicured nails flashed through my head. On my stomach, then my breasts, I sucked one into my mouth… I shook the memory away.
“Anyone want a dance?” Three strippers stood in front of us. One blonde, one redhead, and one with a long, raven-colored braid. They could’ve been Disney princesses. Teddy eyed the redhead with the double D’s and gave a hearty nod.
The redhead’s name was Lacey. Lacey strutted across the room to put a dollar in the juke box machine and changed the song. Teddy seemed happy with her breasts in his face.
“You can touch my ass too, I don’t mind!” Lacey was fun.
The other princess strippers still hovered by our group, shimmering like schooling fish.
“How about you ladies? Do you want a dance? We would love to give you a dance. A double dance!” They squealed and the blonde clapped her hands in excitement. Katie turned to Dylan to see what he thought and he shook his head uncomfortably.
The blonde brushed the back of her hand against my cheek and said, “Maybe later.” She was almost my type, not like the woman I knew was behind me, slinking up and down the pole, lazily dancing the night away. Where does she go after? Or is she always on that pole, on that floor, like a genie in a lamp, granting temporary wishes. I resisted the temptation to turn around, to look at my girl, to see if the stripper I had watched was watching me, or still moving on the stage like she was under a spell.
Teddy had a few more dances. The woman in the corner still grinded against the distinguished gentleman. Marvin appeared and asked for more money, his shirt sticking to him in sweat. Teddy gave him a few more bills, and Marvin disappeared again.
“Why do you do that?” I didn’t trust Marvin, I didn’t like him. I saw him in the mirror again and felt sick.
“He pays me back,” Teddy said. I didn’t believe him.
Dylan helped Teddy choose his next dancer and Katie and I spoke about the outfit choices of the women in the room. “I suppose men don’t care if they match,” she said.
“But women care,” I said.
“Yeah, but they’re not here for us.”
“I thought they would dance. I thought strippers danced.” I turned around then to see my girl, and there she was, spinning around the pole in a slow trance. She saw me staring. I held her gaze.
“It’s a nude strip club,” Dylan said, “they don’t have to put on a show, their clothes are already off.”
Teddy had a few more dances. His wad was slimming down. I caught Katie with her hand on Dylan’s groin. Marvin still held a stripper captive in his own corner. I wondered if the woman with the gentleman took breaks. I wondered how rich he was.
“Hi, ladies! How ‘bout a dance for y’all?” A new stripper stood in front of us. She wore a bright smile and a bright blue bra with rhinestones on it. Her skin sparkled too, she wore body glitter. “I’m gonna give you gals a dance, I sure am!” She pretended to sit down on our laps. Dylan laughed uncomfortably. “What?” the stripper said, “You don’t wanna see three ladies havin’ a good time?”
The stripper held his gaze until he conceded.
“Perfect! My name is Dixie, y’all.” A new song began and Katie and I found ourselves with a moon-white butt wiggling in our faces. Then Dixie turned and slipped off her bra. She scooted herself between us, resting her legs on us, her breasts in between our faces.
“Touch them! Go on, touch them!” She lifted my hand and put it on her right breast and put Katie’s hand on her left breast. As if on reflex, I squeezed it. My touch lingered. Dixie leaned her face in close to ours. “They’re fake.”
“No!” Katie gasped, “no way!”
“Way!” Dixie wiggled her chest and laughed. I caught Dylan, Teddy, and Marvin watching us with interest.
“I want implants,” Katie said. She gave Dixie’s breast a squeeze and whispered amazing under her breath.
“I want a reduction,” I said. I decided to give Dixie another squeeze too.
“The surgeries are so advanced now. I was even able to breastfeed.” Dixie turned to give us her backside. “Slap it!” she said. We slapped it. I felt excited. Is this how the men felt? Is this why they came here?
“Wow, you don’t look like you’ve had kids,” I said. Her body was perfect, slim and smooth. Her breasts were perfect.
“I have three!”
The song ended and Dixie gave us a hug, squeezing our heads between her breasts. “I love you girls. I love you. Have a good night, let me know if you want another dance.”
Dixie wiggled her eyebrows at Dylan and tried to saunter away. Marvin pulled her to his corner for a dance.
“What were you guys talking about?” Teddy asked.
Dylan walked Katie and me out of the club to my car. He was going to stay and make sure Teddy got home alright.
“I shouldn’t be long, he’s almost out of money. The Dirty Thirty is winding down.” Katie murmured something into Dylan’s ear and I walked away to give them some space. I could taste their tension. I felt tense. I stared up at the neon sign above the club, a giant clam shell that opened to reveal a naked mermaid inside. I let its blinking colors wash over me. It buzzed softly in the early morning.
I looked up and my stripper was in front of me. My girl. She was standing in the parking lot in her baseball socks and nothing else. She stretched a hand out toward me.
“You forgot your phone,” she said.
I walked a couple steps forward and took it. “Thank you.”
She nodded. The clam shell opened and closed.
My girl took a step even closer, our feet almost touching. I looked intently at her face. She wasn’t very beautiful and yet I wanted to run my fingers through her hair, slip off her socks, kiss her brow. I stumbled an inch closer.
“Do you need a hug?” she whispered. My brows drew together, not understanding the question, not knowing how to answer.
“Do you?” my voice was quieter than hers.
My girl, my stripper, shook her head. Her mouth curved in a funny way like she was saying yes and no at the same time but she said nothing. She wrapped me in a hug and I remember everywhere I felt her skin.
She walked back into the club and I realized I didn’t hug her back.
Shanna Merceron is a Florida writer whose work can be found in many acclaimed literary journals and magazines. Shanna holds an MFA in Fiction from Hollins University, where she wrote stories that explored the darker aspects of humanity and pushed the boundaries of the strange. She is currently at work on her first novel, and when not writing, best spends her time traveling or with her dog. You can read more of Shanna’s work via her website at linktr.ee/shannamerceron.
My freshman year of college I lifted weights and kickboxed five days a week. The kickboxing gym was four miles down Riverside and I biked there every weeknight. There wasn’t a bike lane on Riverside and cars honked. My brakes screeched.
On my way home I stopped for Taco Shack. I tried doing the drive thru once but they said I needed a car to use the speaker box so I ate inside. I was drenched and sometimes bruised from the workouts and the staff looked at me while I ate the burritos.
One of the janitors wore nipple rings that poked into his shirt. The janitor was in his late teens/early twenties. He mopped with a crook in his low back and sometimes he perked up to yell at his coworkers in a Spanglish vernacular I had trouble understanding. His shoulders were undeveloped, his arms small. I looked down on this. For myself I wanted physical greatness. Shoebox calves were my main focus. Growing up I was skinny and Dad and uncles fed me extra steak at dinner parties saying “we gotta get some meat on these bones” and when I first saw results in the bicep region, from Dad’s pull-up bar in the garage, I decided fitness would be a big part of my life.
After getting home from kickboxing I ripped my shirt off used the bong and took in my reflection before entering the lounge where my suitemates drank alcohol and played Cards Against Humanity. I looked down on their ways especially those who never set foot in the gym. They were all getting fat and no one seemed to notice but me.
One of the suitemates Arthur played guitar. Arthur had a great memory for trivial things like stats about climate change and marginalized peoples. Arthur had sex often. He had a pair of logs for calves and he had a way of breaking out in song with the guitar and whenever he began strumming, as if sans agenda, the guys in the room traded looks. The girls looked at their cards or the floor, anything but Arthur or each other.
One morning that fall, sometime in October, I went for hot breakfast at 6:30 and saw the same janitor with the conspicuous nipple rings sweeping in the college cafeteria. He picked his nose and flicked the boogers around the floor. He had razor bumps between his mouth and nose and flakes of dead skin hung from his lower lip. His phone was playing new age rap that sounded almost American but not quite. Interesting fact: you judge people by the music they listen to but also you judge music by the people you associate it with. I wished the man had headphones in. I had an important lift after the omelet. Quiet is sacred, I thought, and that’s when I started feeling hotness in my chest and eyes. I tend to avoid conflict as Anger has been known to take over. I had problems with wall punching in high school and I saw a therapist about it and the therapist said it was Dad’s fault. I enjoyed our sessions but then Dr. Carlsen died in a car wreck and after that I stopped going to therapy. Sometimes people argue with me and I forget how to carry myself because I’m upset and unable to formulate proper sentences. It’s like the production of each word is some complex equation so I end up pausing for longer than acceptable and insert curses for fear of being interrupted and before you know it I’m yelling fucking this fucking that because basically I’ve forgotten how to communicate otherwise.
“Can you turn that down please?”
“Can you turn that down?” I felt weakness in my neck and shoulders.
“Oh yeah man, yeah, my bad man,” and he turned the music down.
I continued talking. “You work at Taco Shack too, right?”
“Yeah, yeah. Taco Shack and Darlene’s.”
“You like it over there?”
“Yeah man. Good people. Free food. Pay’s alright.” He swept while talking but his form was dubious and there was no sign of a dustpan and no accumulation of Cheerios and dust and crumbs. “I got my business on the side though, so probably be outta there soon.”
“Oh, you have your own business?”
“Yeah man, yeah.” The man pulled on his nose and grabbed for his waistband.
“What does your business—What kind of business?”
“Um.” The man grimaced.
I asked Uriel the nipple-ringed Janitor why did he tell me about his business given that I was a student he knew nothing about and wasn’t that risky, and he said he knew I smoked weed cause of my tomato red eyes at Taco Shack every night and I said oh so you did recognize me and he said yes we have a nickname for you over there and I said what’s the nickname and he said stoned Rocky. I said okay good nickname but still, why. And he said he wanted to break into the college market and what better way to do that than through me. And I said why me and he said cause obviously you’re not a pussy like the rest of them, I see you coming through with them fucked up hands and black eyes and most of these college kids too scared to leave campus anyway cause they think it’s all methheads out here. He gestured toward the city. I said true, true, staring into space like someone who knows things, and we traded phone numbers.
The way it worked was I introduced Uriel to customers and he sold me weed for cheap. That and we lifted weights together. I said as a drug dealer he needs to project toughness and what better way to project toughness than by tacking on mass. He said that shit don’t matter but okay, if I can get him into the college weightroom he’ll lift some but nothing crazy, still gotta be light on his feet to run from five-oh haha. I said stronger quads and glutes will optimize your capacity for sprints and he said why you talk like that and I said my bad. I taught him how to squat bench deadlift and I wrote him a plan on Excel, heavy on the legs because you have to build a solid base, and he came in four mornings a week and never missed a day. He even changed his work schedule to optimize growth.
We smoked out of my one-hitter by the science center before and after our lifts. I had Sociology 100 on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:00 and I showed up to every class pumped and stoned. One time I came in late and locked eyes with the fat blonde wolfing down her ritual McDonalds with the supersize soft drink and I broke down laughing and the professor said please leave. Another time I came in late and shoved a bunch of chairs out of the way to reach my desk but then realized that someone had taken my seat, so I turned around and shoved the chairs again, wishing the chairs would please shut the fuck up, and that’s when I heard someone whisper behind me, as if full of wisdom and insight, “He’s so high!” After that the professor had a chat with me in the hall saying you have a D+ average. I said since when is D+ a grade and he said I’m happy to round it down for you and I said I’m sorry I’m having problems with mental health and he apologized and gave me a B- for the midterm.
My other classes were also going badly because I had no interest in academics. As mentioned, I put most of my time and energy into muscle upkeep and development. I had trouble focusing on lectures with my bulging forearms on the desk in front of me. I brought a stress ball to class and watched the triangles of muscle inflate and deflate. When the bad grades started coming in I told each professor I was having problems with mental health. The calc and stats professors asked for a note from the doctor but the religious studies professor Dawn told me depression is no joke and come over to her house tomorrow evening and I said okay. Dawn smelled like candles and she wore tapestries as dresses and usually sandals. In class she talked about sex positivity and discouraged the use of cosmetics and most shampoos. Dawn had a missing thumb from when her neighbor’s pit bull bit it off and she had this unusual habit of inhaling/whispering her one-syllable words, especially the word “yeah.” I went over to her house and she fed me asparagus and gave me sex on the ottoman. She asked could she call me Smoky and I said okay. Sexually I have a small member so intercourse is no picnic but Dawn was tolerant even though she sighed and averted her eyes post-explosion. Dawn gave me a flat C for the midterm.
On my way back from Dawn’s that night I looked at my reflection in whatever glass panes provided it. I felt less upset about my calves than usual because I had just gotten sex for the first time in seven months. The air was dry and the ridges in the sidewalk massaged the arcs of my feet. I smelled pesto sauce like Mom used to make it but then I realized the smell was pot. I had a gram waiting for me at the dorm. I would smoke it do push-ups analyze reflection and walk into the lounge shoulders breathing and maybe participate in Cards Against Humanity, depending on my reception. Although probably I would have to wear sweatpants because my calves were looking small. Either that or fire off a set of donkey calf raises in the stairwell.
As far as the weed one gram would be enough but more would be better so I called Uriel and asked could he swing by. He said he got hung up at work and why you be smoking so much I just sold you a quarter last weekend. I said my bad hombre and he said please don’t call me that and I said just playin,’ and he said why you all happy and I said I just got my nut and he said oh okay well don’t be annoying about it you’d think you never been laid and I said word? and he said aren’t you from Westchester and hung up.
He came by the dorm and we smoked and watched music videos. I fired off a set of diamond-grip push-ups and he said why you doing push-ups at 9pm and I said because discipline, plus I missed my kickboxing workout for the workout with Dawn. He said speaking of discipline what’s your GPA and I said did you or did you not graduate high school and he shook his head and looked at the ground and I said just playin’. People came by to pick up and I stared into space as money was traded for drugs.
Uriel sold better weed and cheaper weed than anyone on campus, except for this one kid Johnny, the drummer in Arthur’s band “Young Dads.” Johnny had a connect in Colorado who sent him vacuum-sealed kilos through the college mailroom. Johnny had long hair and he wore a hoop earring but only on weekend nights. Johnny came from Greenwich Connecticut and his face looked like something that might have been handsome in an alternate dimension but in this one it was pointy and hollow in all the wrong places. Johnny came by my room sometime around midnight. He introduced himself to Uriel and they talked about selling drugs. Johnny said he moved a lot of drugs and Uriel said he moved a lot of drugs and Johnny said I don’t think you move as much as I do and Uriel said okay well let me see what you have and Johnny said okay. We took the underground tunnel to Johnny’s dorm. The tunnel smelled like dryer sheets. We passed the Stench, a student who never showered and wore capes and talked to himself. When we passed him he mumbled something about blueberry pancakes.
Johnny had the poster of Johnny Cash giving the middle finger. The room smelled like hot Cheetos and dirty dishes. There were bottle caps wedged into the ceiling and empty Four Lokos on the floor and a total of three lava lamps, one on the blue-grey carpet in the center of the room. A plastic owl sat on the windowsill facing out. Something new-agey and instrumental played from the dumbbell-shaped wireless speaker. A black banana was becoming one with the desktop and there was clothing everywhere, one heap in the corner, presumably the clean pile. Johnny pulled a safe the size of a cooler out from under his bed and tweaked it open and said okay. He clicked his tongue and dumped the contents on the floor and grabbed for the stubborn bags of weed and tossed them in front of us, as if to say “there.” The countless wads of twenties skipped around and rested. Uriel swayed his head and rubbed the scruff on his cheek. He said okay that’s a lot where you get your shit from and Johnny said Colorado wanna smoke and Uriel said sure and looked at the door. When we left, about ten paces down the hall, Uriel said we’re robbing that faggot.
I toyed with the idea of saying no but then it was the day of the robbery and what kind of friend would I be if I backed out last minute. I met Uriel in the Family Dollar parking lot about two blocks from campus. The car was a light blue Honda Odyssey, a sturdy minivan with good gas mileage. I knew this because Mom had looked into buying one, a wholesome family car she had said, but then she closed on the Range Rover. The bumper sticker on the Honda Odyssey read “Jesus Wants You.” Uriel was in the passenger seat. The driver Craig was eager to share that he had been to prison twice, once for selling drugs and the other for knifing his supervisor at Quick Chek. I guess he thought of his time behind bars as a sort of accolade, which, okay, given the scenario he wasn’t totally wrong. Craig had stick and poke tattoos on his neck and part of his face. He touched his tongue to his nose before and after talking. The Teletubbies car seat rose and fell in the corner of my eye, up and down like a working muscle. A bird crashed into the windshield and Craig said yo that’s good luck and started the car.
Uriel turned to face me and said okay so you let us in your building, right, we take the tunnel and the system thinks you’re going home like any other day. Then we put on these (he handed me a beige stocking with black pineapples on it), and—if it’s open we walk in. If not we knock and move over to the side so he can’t see us through the thing. If anyone sees us with the, uh, with the socks, we bail and try again next week. Don’t say my name, don’t say shit to me. Matter a fact don’t say shit at all you let me talk I let you hit. Put those stupid muscles to use. (He slapped my shoulder, hard.) What’s your shoes?
I pulled my foot up and bumped the car seat. The car seat jingled. Uriel turned to Craig and sighed “White people.” Craig contorted his lips agreeingly even though he was whiter than me.
“You’re wearing purple Jordans.”
“Yeah. Okay. Got it.”
“Leave them in here. Take off your socks, don’t want you slipping and sliding around the carpet when you’re—(he laughed and then paused) when you’re making Jack o’ Lantern out of—(he waved the thought away). Yo—(we slapped hands). Yo, we’re about to be rich.” He reached for the door handle and retracted his hand. “Yo,” he said.
“Hit that motherfucker as soon as we walk in. Hit him in the mouth.”
I slipped off my shoes and socks and opened the door. The gravel nipped at my feet. I smelled the cafeteria food and the kerosene from the dry cleaner down the block. I saw the yellow fire hydrant by the writing center and the black tag on the side of my building that read “Gunk.” I heard the thumping bass from the frat alley behind the library, the crows yacking on the power line, the retch of a motorcycle somewhere deep in the city.
I buzzed us in. Uriel led the way down the tunnel. I noticed he only swung his left arm. The right arm seemed immune to momentum, as if the shoulder and socket had been soldered together. I would have to ask him about his rotator cuff, his posterior mobility. He wore a backpack, dark green with little pockets all over and a spiderweb sewn into the left strap. We caught a glimpse of four students in the laundry room. Three were huddled in a triangle and the fourth sat on the rumbling dryer, his nose in a hardcover. I kept seeing things—fliers, moths, hidden lightbulbs, a striped apron draped over the railing, a straggling pink jellybean at the bottom of the stairs.
Uriel turned to me and said, at full volume, “Okay put it on now.” He pulled his stocking over his head and I did mine. His was a brownish yellow. We raced up, two stairs at a time. I engaged my glutes and paid close attention to my form, careful not to buckle my knees. Johnny’s room was right off the stairwell and Uriel walked in. I followed him and he closed the door the way you close the door to the waiting room at therapy. I saw two bodies sitting Indian-style and a hookah. We stood by the door and looked at them and they looked back at us. They crept to their feet and inched away from the center of the room, and us, and each other. The hookah smelled like the watermelon-flavored toothpaste Dr. Weinburger gave me as a kid. One of the bodies, Johnny, said what do you want. Uriel said Shut the fuck up Shut the fuck up and reached into his pocket and I lunged at Johnny with a right hand, pivoting my left foot, driving the momentum up my leg and through my hip per sensei Chandler’s guidance. Nobody screamed. I grabbed Johnny by the collar and dragged him to the center of the room, knocking over the hookah, then planted my bare heel on the loose coal. I yelped. Black water spilled and soaked into a heap of clothing and the bright orange coal looked up at me like some sort of prophet. I said fuck and soccer-kicked Johnny in the ribs and heard a crunch. Johnny muffled a heave, and the body twitched confusedly. I looked over and saw Uriel pointing a Glock at the second body, Arthur, Arthur the sponge-brain whimpering please and making faces. I smelled urine and I kicked Johnny again, for the same reason you sip your drink twice as fast when you have no one to talk to at the bar.
The bag was full, packed with money and pot. We even made use of the little pockets. Secret pockets my mom used to call them. Great for skiing. Easy access on the chairlift. We took off the stockings in the tunnel. I stuffed mine in my underwear. Uriel said Craig’s out there and I said word. The same four were in the laundry room, unmoved, except the one had put his giant book on the floor, face-down as if in timeout. My heel was throbbing and I wondered if the burn would hinder my squat. I walked on the balls of my feet, engaging my calves. They say you can accelerate growth by up to 20% just by visualizing it.
The funny thing about the getaway drive is that I didn’t have anywhere to get away to. But I got in the car anyway and Craig drove, stopping at stop signs and clicking his turn signals. Uriel was digging through the bag and saying holy shit. Under his breath he said holy shit there’s damn near thirty grand in here. We drove to the Walmart and parked, and Uriel went around back and tapped on the trunk. Craig popped it open and Uriel dug out a shirt and shorts and pushed them through the window. The clothing fell into the crevasse between my seat and the door. The clothing belonged to Craig, I guess, but he didn’t object when I changed into it. I said you can keep my shit I guess and he said nothing.
Back in the passenger seat Uriel turned to me and said you have to walk and I said well okay, can you drop me a couple blocks down it’s like forty minutes from here and he said too risky. I said okay can I get my share. He picked a few wads and baggies out of the backpack and dropped them into a grocery bag under the glove compartment. The grocery bag made loud crumpling sounds. Craig looked out the window. Uriel handed me the bag over his shoulder. Walgreens. He didn’t turn his head and I stared into the bag. I opened my mouth but Uriel talked.
I got out and walked home and never saw Uriel again.
There were cop cars on campus, a cluster of them blocking the intersection between Ridgewood and College Street. The grocery bag was white and the contents were green so I walked in the shade and kept my head down. The bag weighed no more than a pound. I looked like a college student coming home with his pizza pockets and Zoloft.
Johnny was hospitalized, arrested, and expelled, in what order I’m not sure. Arthur wrote a song about the robbery. He called it “Johnny’s Song” and he played it at the campus bar. People cheered violently and you can be sure that Arthur had his pick of the litter that night. Me, I sat in the back of the bar drinking seltzer. I had an important lift in the morning. People looked at me and they would keep looking at me and they could look all they wanted. Scar or no scar, I never left my room without a pair of crew socks on, hugging the base of my stubborn calves.
Ben Austin is a writer from San Marcos, Texas. His work has appeared in Lotus-eater, The Metaworker, and elsewhere. He’s an MFA candidate in fiction at Texas State University. He lives with his cat, Mr. Behavior.
TO MAKE AND EAT TIME:
Pork Rillettes in a Pandemic
by Greg Emilio
And one day, just like that, you will make time.
You will make time to dust off the cookbooks you’ve never used. You will pick up the fat French tome and crack it open and it will smell like your grandparents’ kitchen. The papery redolence of oil, roasted chicken. The splattered windows of grease stains as holy as stained glass. Time to finger the recipes their pencils annotated. Time to make, and make do, to use what you have: time trapped in a half-forgotten bottle of Muscadet.
You will make time, because suddenly, you, and the rest of the world, will have time.
Lured by economy and the blind contingency of time and place, you will come to a recipe for rillettes. Pâté-tender pork preserved under a layer of lard. Peasant’s butter back in the day, the fat cap keeping the meat for months. (Time to seek out foods that will stand the test of time.)
After a perilous excursion to the grocery store and a trip to the butcher (by comparison paradisiacal), you will be ready to set the cure on your inch by inch chunks of pork shoulder: salt, garlic, ginger, coriander, black pepper, and white wine. Plus the unexpected warmth of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove.
And this is how you will set the cure. And this is how the beginning of time is made. And now, you must wait three days.
And on the second day, you will find time right on the edge of spring in your part of the country, cool mornings giving way to lengthening days of high fresh light.
Light ladling down over the reemerging canopies, limbs bursting diminutive green flags.
Light catching the green-gold drifts of pollen sifting down from the trees like flour from a baker’s sieve.
Your eyes will ravel and water and burn, the air perfumed with wisteria, purple evanescent blooms that will already be withering by the time you eat the rillettes.
You will pass time walking the block, jogging, getting reacquainted with your body. The neighborhood teeming with children as if it were summer. Neighbors reading on front porches. A legion of box gardens seemingly sprung up overnight. It will seem as if you’re living in a bygone time.
On this, the second day, you will institute a nightly cocktail hour with your partner. After a day’s work reading, grading, cleaning the house, you will come to savor the crawl of dusk, Negroni in hand, the person you love best in this world by your side.
You will find that by using your stockpile of time wisely, thoughtfully, you are actually making more time. Building a bank of memory to fall back on in tougher times.
(They will come.)
And on the third day, the cure thoroughly set, it will be time to finish the rillettes.
Low and slow is how time works wonders in a poor kitchen. The pork, pungent with the aura of its spices, will cook for three hours in the melted lard.
10,800 seconds at 225 degrees to make a tender miracle of the meat. Roughly shredded, spooned glistening into small mason jars, each topped with a thin layer of lard.
After waiting three days, you will crave a fast forkful. But you will wait. (What you are losing in time, you are gaining in patience.) You will let it rest.
On the third day in the Book of Genesis, God parsed out light from darkness, invented sun and moon and a ceiling of stars and set the whole thing spinning: “To serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years.” This is the day that time was made.
You will mark the dusk on your third day of rillettes in a time of pandemic with a glass of thin red wine, earthy and reasonable. The early spring air will be fragrant, full of the throb of new life, and the pulse of life coming back.
You will spread the rillettes over the face of a toasted piece of craggy bread. Top with some pickles or a thinly sliced radish.
And the clink of your glass against your lover’s glass will ring out into the deepening evening, and your teeth will tear into the crackling toast, lush and otherworldly with the richness of rillettes, and the tongue of time will catch (just for a moment) in the imponderable jaws of God.
A food writer, poet and teacher, Gregory Emilio has recent work out in Best New Poets, Gastronomica, Nashville Review, North American Review, [PANK], Permafrost, and Tupelo Quarterly, among other journals. He won Georgia Poetry Society’s 2019 George Herbert Reece Prize, White Oak Kitchen’s 2020 Prize in Southern Poetry, and earned his PhD in English from Georgia State University. He lives in Atlanta.
Nine seconds to warm the applesauce for my mother’s morning medication. To wrestle my fury, replace it with a light-hearted care. Even as a kid I shied away from her clinging hand; now her need for me is bottomless. Nine seconds to watch the red-bellied woodpecker hunch his body around the feeder, the sparrows scattering with bitter complaint. To mentally revise my steps for the most efficient diaper change—wipes here, Desitin there, the wastebasket cradled in the bars of the rolling table just so. Nine seconds to remember a time I had not taken this on. To ignore the man jogging freely past, his face mask dangling below his chin. To see the sunlight flicker as wind bends back the trailing spirea branches, setting tiny white petals adrift like snow. Then the beep of the microwave and on with the day.
Sue Mell is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and was a fellow in the 2020 BookEnds mentorship program. In addition to Cleaver Magazine, her work has appeared in Jellyfish Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Narrative Magazine, and Newtown Literary.
The drink was called Spring Breeze. Elin had three of them at brunch, but Lucy never drank in the morning, so she’d missed it. It was the third night of a weekend cruise Elin had purchased on sale months ago, and they sat outside on an ill-lit and almost empty deck as the ship charged somewhere between Miami and the Bahamas. There was a stiff wind and no moon. Instead of the desired Spring Breeze, Elin bought two bottles of Amstel Light back to the table.
“The bartender won’t make it,” she said.
“What do you mean he won’t make it?” said Lucy.
“Apparently it’s a daytime drink.” There was a pinching sensation at the crown of Elin’s head, as if she were a plush toy in a claw machine, drawn upward by those spindly metal fingers. She didn’t enjoy Amstel anymore, but it was their drink back when they both still lived in the city, before they had money or married or bore children, back when marriage and children seemed like some sort of demarcation between past and future, loneliness and worth, domesticity and the abyss. Now they were both married. Elin had a son. Lucy used to have two sons, now she had one.
Lucy squinted at the menu. “Just tell him the ingredients, not the name of the drink. See if that works,” she said.
“He already said no to me once,” said Elin.
“God, Elin, I’ll ask,” said Lucy. She carried the menu to the bar, where she leaned on her elbows, making no pretence as she read off the ingredients. The bartender shook his head, but the drinks Lucy carried back to the table were adorned with a lime wedge and a sprig of fresh basil, as well as a half-closed hibiscus plucked from the potted plant that sat at one end of the bar. Lucy had never looked her age. She dragged the flower up from the ice cubes. It slumped between her fingers.
“It’s kind of sad,” she said.
“Poor flowers. They were trying to sleep, and he picked them,” said Elin. She tucked the flower behind her ear. Lucy draped hers on the table, where it melted into a pool of water. The sky had gone dark and the water had gone dark and they’d merged and still Elin and Lucy skimmed along over unconsidered worlds and Elin worried Lucy might be bored. Elin loved cruises, but Lucy had never wanted to take one.
“I’m glad we did this,” Elin said.
Lucy lit a cigarette, cupped her hand around the flame and inhaled, brightening the ash, despite signs on both sides of the deck forbidding her. She pushed the pack toward Elin. They’d started smoking together in high school, with cigarettes stolen from Lucy’s father. Lucy had quit easily the day after her twenty-first birthday, only started again after Max died. It had taken Elin forever to quit. She would always love the bright shiver of nicotine. She tried to avoid it.
The wind licked Lucy’s hair loose and sprayed it across her face. She had that blank look, but Elin could see the teenaged Lucy stamped underneath it, the fierce Lucy, the original Lucy she had loved. Something about the way she set her chin, pushed it forward in a way that made her almost ugly, and she had no idea. Elin thought maybe she would finally find the right thing to say. Three days should have been more than enough time to work up to it. It was as if Lucy had moved away and stood on some other continent, but maybe if Elin said the perfect thing she could drag Lucy back. She could remind Lucy that she still had another child to love, or she could tell Lucy how much she loved her. She could say how she felt Max with them that night on Lucy’s porch six months ago, that night with the wide orange moon slung low over the trees, demanding awe at a time when they couldn’t muster any feeling except a dull and plodding horror. Lucy’s cheeks wet. Her lip bloody where she’d bitten it. Elin at the Speedway at one in the morning to bring cigarettes back to Lucy. The cashier, almost a boy, joking with Elin about partying on a weekday. By that point it was early Wednesday morning. Elin lighting the cigarette because Lucy’s hands shook. Lucy refusing to sleep or even to go inside. Maybe Elin should lie and say she felt Max with them right now, insist that he was still with them, right this very moment, even on the cruise, but Lucy had pushed the third chair away as soon as they sat down as if to preempt her.
“Lucy,” said Elin.
Lucy scratched at her ankle.
“Did you get any bug bites at the beach yesterday?” she said.
Elin had not. She’d stayed out of the water, under a large umbrella, drinking sun-warmed champagne while Lucy floated away on her back, dressed in a bikini so that the world could see how her stomach caved, bug-like sunglasses covering her eyes.
Elin swallowed her Amstel. The Spring Breeze was already gone. It was too easy to drink through a straw. Lucy tapped ash into the hibiscus. In the distance, a stack of lights approached them over the water.
“Another ship!” Elin stood. The apparition drew closer, an identical beast, sister-ship, all tiered and lit up like a wedding cake on fire, and Elin saw another in the distance, behind the first, a speck of light, and then the first ship passed and the next came closer, bloomed golden in the dark and passed, and then, in the distance, came another.
“There’s so many!” said Elin.
“God,” said Lucy. “They keep coming.”
Melissa Benton Barker’s recent work appears in Moon City Review, jmww, and Longleaf Review. She lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio and is currently completing her first collection of short fiction.
By the time I tell him, it’s old news and too late, but that’s why I waited to tell. I needed to know. He stalks me through the house to ask all about it. Here? he says, and I say, Yes, and wince as his fist punctuates the hallway plaster. The white dust drifts down. It settles.
WHEN I GO
The bus to Port Authority is an ocean liner rocking softly and I am on my way. I am leaving him standing on the pier. I know what I want. His longing, how he rushes after me, headlong into the swelling tide, his stumbling to his knees and sputtering in the spray—I hear his voice distantly, calling, against the splashes of his flailing, and I know I am nowhere near shore.
THEY’D HARDLY FELT IT
It takes him a moment to notice the droplets of blood, a dotted red melody splashed into the porcelain sink. Is it his? He touches his face. He imagines it cracking like pottery, forming a fine network of red. It’s faintly accusing. No. He rinses the sink. He’s shaven carelessly again, distracted. That’s all. In the mirror, he tilts his chin to the light and appraises the cut—this tiny thing, this hardly a scratch. It didn’t hurt. He touches his cheek in the mirror. You didn’t do anything wrong.
Steve Chang is from the San Gabriel Valley, California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Epiphany, Guernica, J Journal, North American Review, The Southampton Review, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. He tweets @steveXisXok.
Maybe behind your house was a rock garden where you ran when your mother shooed you away where you loved the rosebush but hated the thorns and always the bees buzzing a secret you didn’t know but still it made you cry in the cubbyhole under the stairs where you could hear in the kitchen your mother tell her mother she was done having sex she didn’t care if he was her husband and what was he going to do about it anyway and maybe the years go by in single file like the poet says and maybe at night you read her poem over and over in a book of poems the pages edged in gold and hold onto it like the rabbit’s foot you’ve outgrown hidden in a shoebox and every night he’s in your room the sweet smell of tobacco the scrape of bear paws and you wonder does she know and he says love says a secret says don’t tell says there now that wasn’t so bad and maybe when you cry at night the wallpaper blooms red roses and in your head the bees buzzing a secret too big to fit in the cubbyhole because he will find you he always finds you and he gives you books on your birthday which your mother forgets then tells you nothing she buys will fit you’ve grown as big as a house and maybe he gives you a book of best-loved poems bound in red leather you run your fingers down the pages edged in gold and maybe he is the only man who will ever love you and maybe this is what love means and even though at night you look past him find your spot on the wall like your ballet teacher taught you to keep from falling as you twirl spot twirl and maybe you’ll tell someone but you never do and the years go by in single file and when they call you come quick he hasn’t much longer maybe you sit and stare at the telephone on your desk and don’t leave work until your boss says take as much time as you need and maybe he’ll be dead by the time you get there and you stop at Bloomingdales and waste a few hours trying on black clothes until it’s too late to catch a flight and the bees buzzing you can’t sleep and ransack the basement closet find an old black blazer with mothballs in the pocket run your fingers down four buttons on each cuff how he taught you what to look for when you buy a blazer that afternoon in Brooks Brothers and how he always wore the same blue robe when he said goodnight and maybe you miss the smell of his cherry tobacco and wonder if it was you that wanted it all along and none of it was his fault which is what your mother said except when she said it never happened and maybe when you get to the hospital your mother will pick up her handbag and coat and say at last I can get some sleep and push past you and maybe there’s an empty coffee cup on a bed-tray which you carefully examine like it holds the secret meaning of life and after the morphine drip you run out of things to look at it’s the two of you and maybe his big green eyes look like the sea cove where he lifted you on his back when he was a whale and he said hold on hold on and maybe you squeeze his hand and say hold on hold on and together you watch the years go by in single file until maybe just maybe the white wall blooms red roses and bees gather above the body spilling a secret to the living and the dead.
Roberta Beary lives in the west of Ireland where she is the haibun editor for Modern Haiku. Her work has won Best Microfiction, Best Small Fictions, Best Fifty British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50) awards, and is featured in New York Times Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less. She recently collaborated on One Breath: Reluctant Engagement Project, which pairs her writing with artwork by families of people with disabilities.
My mother became a maid for a rich, white lady a few months after my father bounced. She worked cleaning the lady’s house—vacuuming, sanitizing toilets in a bathroom with heated tiles, dusting—two days a week for over a month, while my brother and I went to school. The bills, however, didn’t seem to be getting any smaller; but as luck would have it, the lady had also invested in other properties, including a one-story office building that housed a local paper company amongst others. It turned out that the contractor the lady hired to do after-hours janitorial work was under investigation and had closed their offices and laid off their employees. Unsure of what to do, the woman had asked my mother if she knew anyone who owned a janitorial service. Needing the money, my mother lied and said that she did, but that it was a very small company that consisted of only three people. What she didn’t mention was that the people were me, her, and my brother.
I was all of thirteen years old, reading peacefully on one of the twin-sized mattresses—which had been moved into the living room after my mother’s sister moved in to help pay the bills—meant for me and Elias, when my mother burst through the front door, tripping over me.
“Move tu mierda out of the way,” she said, barely catching herself.
“Where am I supposed to put it?” I asked, pretending to set my book down next to me but failing because the mattress was pressed flush against the wall on that side.
“Or here?” I asked, placing the book between the three feet of floor space that divided mine and Elias’ makeshift beds.
“Keep it up, you hijo de puta, and I’ll put you in charge of the toilets,” she said, wagging her finger at me.
“You’re my m—wait, what toilets?”
Over dinner that night, eating the same thing we’d been eating all week—black beans and queso fresco—our mother told me and Elias that she had quit her second job at the Mexican restaurant down the street where her sister worked and had gotten us all a night job at an office. I thought she meant coding or trading stock, which I don’t know how to do but was willing to learn—my first real look at corporate America where I would make bank.
“When do we start?” I asked, naively.
“Get some rest,” our mother said. “I’ll get you when it’s time.”
At 10:30 that night, the reality of the job set in as I stood over the sink of the paper company office, Lysol in one hand, scrubber in the other. I could see my brother across the hall wiping down the desks at a cubicle. Twelve years old and already cleaning up after other people to help keep the lights on.
The office building had four offices—a dentistry, the paper company, a call center, and one unused. The jobs were divided like this: I was in charge of cleaning the kitchen area in all three suites—counters, leftover dishes, trashcans, sweeping and vacuuming the carpet. Elias covered the desks in the call center and paper company—wiping them down with Pledge and bringing me mugs and plates people left at their stations, and our mother would do what was left—most of the dentistry because she didn’t trust us near the tools, bathrooms, etc.
“I miss being bored,” I called out to Elias, hands still in yellow rubber gloves. He was taking a trash bag out of its bin and replacing it with another, the way our mother taught him.
“Me, too,” he said, sighing. He sat down at the desk in front of him and kicked it, causing one of the loose drawers to slide partly open. He pulled it the rest of the way, and I could see his eyes light up because of whatever he saw inside.
“Come here,” he said, waving me over.
“What is it?” I asked, crossing the hall to him.
“Look,” he said, pointing at a family-size bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. He reached in slowly, cautiously, as if the person who sat at the station had booby-trapped the candy. He grabbed the bag and held it up to the light.
“How many are there?” I asked, taking off the gloves. The bag looked almost full.
“I don’t know,” he said.
I took the bag out of his hand and weighed it the way I’d seen in movies when someone weighs a brick of cocaine or envelope full of money and says, “It’s light.”
“Okay, let’s take one and split it,” I said, “that way they won’t notice.” I pulled one out, undid the wrapping, then used a knife from the kitchen area to cut it in half. It was delicious. We never had anything like that at our house, our mother not wanting to spend money on anything that wasn’t necessary. Even when our father was around, the only time we got candy was during Halloween, when we’d dig our hands into bowls with signs that read “Please take one,” knowing whatever we got that night would have to last us all year.
“Tomorrow,” I said, “we’ll take another one.”
Elias and I weren’t getting paid to do this work—considering that the money the woman was paying our mom and her two “employees” was the equivalent, I would later understand as an adult, to be the same as what she would pay one white person in her employment—and we didn’t get allowances, so this was our only compensation. We threw the wrapper in the trash bag, where it blended in with everything else.
The next night, after taking the recycling to the dumpster out back and making sure our mother was in the dentistry, we went back to the desk with the chocolate and took one each instead of splitting one. And once we got a taste of that sweetness, we wanted more. We reasoned that taking from only one desk would eventually get us caught, but if we took from a different one each night, no one would know. So began our search for treasure.
There were 61 stations between the two offices, and it took us only one night to look through all of them, taking a mental inventory. There were people with power bars, Oreos, mini-bags of chips, stress balls with their company logo, coupons and menus for restaurants. One person had, inexplicably, a pair of pliers, and someone else had a quarter collection that instructed the collector to place a quarter in the states’ slot only if they’d visited—it had only Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri filled in.
We spent the next two weeks doing this—picking up picture frames with family photos, pictures of dogs and cats; two people, for reasons I, to this day, do not understand, had pictures of the plants they had on their desks on their desks. There were funny calendars—my favorite had a different picture of Garfield for each day of the year saying something like, “I hate Mondays” or “Thursdays mean I eat lasagna.”
At the start of that third week of cleaning, Elias’ math teacher called our mother after speaking with his other teachers because Elias kept falling asleep at school, and I looked like the brown version of a Tim Burton character with 15-gallon bags under my eyes. They sat us all down in Mrs. Holloway’s class to ask our mom some questions, but she barely spoke English, so it was up to me to translate my own interrogation.
“Mrs. Castillo,” they began, “we’re concerned about your children’s health. They look tired. Is something going on in the house?”
“They want to know how you’d like to accept the award they’re giving us for being the best students at this school,” I said to my mother, in Spanish.
She didn’t believe me. The teacher’s faces were telling a different story.
“Tell me what they said right now,” she said.
“Well,” I said, sighing, “they want to know why Elias and I,” I said, signaling at my brother, “aren’t getting paid for working late at night.”
The look she gave me said, “If I didn’t think they’d take you away from me for beating your ass in public…” Mrs. Holloway must have noticed, because she said she was going to get our Spanish teacher.
“Why don’t you wait outside,” she told me and Elias.
I took one last glance at my mother and could tell that she was scared. She couldn’t very well let them know that we were tired because she was keeping us past midnight with a night-time job or we’d be put in foster care. She couldn’t tell them we needed the money so she made up a cleaning service, and she definitely couldn’t say she was being paid under the table; of course, at the time, I didn’t know any of this; to me, it simply looked how I imagined my mother looked when she was a child in school back home in Guatemala.
In the courtyard, my friend Guillermo sat reading an old book series he was obsessed with, titled The Keys to the Kingdom.
“I saw your mom walk into the school,” he said to me and Elias as we approached.
“Yeah. Elias here,” I said, slapping my brother in the back of the head, “couldn’t stay awake in class, and now we’re all getting deported.”
“Ow,” Elias said.
“Don’t joke about that,” Guillermo said. “They did that to my cousin, and no one has seen him since then.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “He isn’t back home?”
“My parents said they heard on the news something about concentration camps. They think he’s there.”
Kids. We got our information from our parents who got their information from the people on TV, who got their information from someone else, and so on. It’s a miracle any of the truth actually made it to us, but sometimes, like in that instant, we were talking about something important—something we didn’t truly understand—more than the adults around us.
“What are you virgins doing?” It was Fernando, Guillermo’s brother. “Y’all never gonna get any panocha reading this shit,” he said, slapping his brother’s book out of his hands. He was barely sixteen but acted like he’d been sixteen for years. He sat on the table in his faded jeans—holes at the knees—and Timberlands.
“Hola, Fernando,” my brother said, dumb as a rock.
“He’s going to lose his v-card before you two losers,” Fernando said, pointing at Elias.
Fernando did shit like that to us all of the time before he graduated to the high school across the street two years before. It had been even worse when he had an audience—the wedgies, the swirlies, the occasional dead arm just to impress some girl who would never notice him otherwise. What he didn’t understand was that sometimes it was better to go unnoticed, the way animals use camouflage to keep from getting eaten; I didn’t understand that then either.
“I already lost mine,” I said.
“Bro,” Fernando said, laughing, “You? You’ve seen a girl naked?”
“Yeah. Me and—” I blanked for a name, saying the first one that came to mind—a girl from science class. “Amy.”
“That a white girl?” Fernando asked.
“You better hope you lyin’ or that her parents don’t find out.”
“Her parents love me,” I said.
“Now I know you lyin’. Come on,” he said to Guillermo, “Mom’s waiting in the car.”
Guillermo put his book in his backpack and zipped it up, then waved and said goodbye. I watched him and Fernando—at least five inches taller than us—walk to the parking lot.
“Her parents love me,” Fernando shouted up to the sky, not looking back at us. “Ha!” he said and laughed the rest of the way to the car, his voice echoing in the courtyard.
At home that afternoon, I wished my father was still around so I could ask him to tell me about sex, what it was, how it worked, everything. The only information I’d gotten was from TV, because sex-ed had been taken out of my lesser-privileged neighborhood’s school district for being too risqué, opting for teaching abstinence instead, leaving it up to parents to give their children “the talk,” but my mother, who cursed and drank in front of us, found that talking about sex was inappropriate. She waved me off if I ever asked, saying I’d find out one day, but then got angry with me for not knowing more. That was the real double-edged sword we’d learned about at Sunday school—simultaneously wanting, like the tree of knowledge of good and evil, children to have both information and ignorance.
I turned to Camila, her sister, for help before she went to work, and she told me to do what every other kid my age was doing—look it up on the computer. I reminded her that we couldn’t afford a computer.
“Do it at school,” she’d said, but I was too embarrassed.
Then it hit me—there were computers at our night job, and we would be going there that night, even though my mother promised to make sure we got more sleep. She told us that when she was a girl in Guatemala, she and her sister got only three hours of sleep a night between the two of them, holding down school and a job, and that we would be fine. Elias and I didn’t dare argue with her, and as much as I missed getting a full night’s sleep, eating like a king—and now gaining knowledge I’d lied about having—was sort of worth it.
That night, after our mother was in the dentistry, I started wiggling the mice at people’s desks, checking if any of the computers were on.
“What are you doing?” Elias asked.
“Help me. See if any of the screens turn on,” I said.
“This one came on,” Elias said a few seconds later.
I walked over, but it asked for a password.
“Look for another one,” I said.
I moved the mouse on the computer next to that desk and the home screen came on. I sat down on the chair and opened Google. Not sure where to begin, I typed in the first thing that came to mind: boobs.
“Boobs?” Elias said.
“Shut up. It’s my first time doing this.” I clicked search and got a ton of pictures of men with hairy chests. I tried something else: naked boobs.
“Try girl boobs,” Elias said.
I typed it in to no avail, but after several more searches, it finally happened—we found a website where women posed topless. All of the models were white, and their chests looked like two ceiling lights, nothing like what I imagined Amy’s looked like. I clicked on one of the pictures to enlarge it, but then we heard our mother coming down the hallway. Elias ran to the desk where he’d left the duster and pretended to use it, while I exited out of the window and all of the pop-ups as quickly as possible.
“Almost done?” our mother called out, still walking down the hallway. “Where are you?”
“In here,” I shouted back, closing the last pop-up ad and grabbing the bag of trash by my feet. We must have looked guilty because she wanted to know what we were doing in there. I told her I was done with everything but the vacuuming and thought I’d help Elias so that we could finish quicker. She looked convinced, but more than that, she looked proud, thinking Elias and I had a good work ethic.
“We’ll get some Waffle House on the way home,” she said.
“Really?!” Elias wanted to know. We could have taken a snapshot of his face and used it as their new ad campaign he looked so happy. I understood why though—we never got to eat out, and our mother never rewarded us for doing chores, so this was unprecedented.
“Finish up,” she said.
That night, she let us eat in the car; and with yolk running down my chin, I smiled a smile that comes only from those who’ve tasted the good life, or from those who’ve had the opportunity to taste it before the plate is taken away, the food only half-eaten.
I spent the next week cleaning and vacuuming as fast as I could, then running back to that computer to do more research, this time asking about my own body. I discovered that stuff other than pee came out of my penis and that’s why my boxers were wet when I woke up, it was nothing to be ashamed of, it was natural. Of course, I also learned some misguided things—that I had more pubic hair than grownups, not knowing the people in the pictures had shaved, and that I was the only person in America with foreskin—because I was a child with no one willing to teach me otherwise.
Then, one night, I went back to the computer to find out about pregnancy and found the desk empty and the computer password-protected. I didn’t mention this to anyone but worried that I might have had something to do with it. A few weeks later, the desk was occupied again, but this time there were new family pictures, a new calendar, new plants.
It wasn’t until I had my first office job that I found out that employers can, and often do, monitor activity on employee computers. I understood then that I had gotten that person fired. I had looked up things like “penises,” “boobs,” “people get paid to have sex?”—that one was another gem from Fernando, whom I later found out heard about all of this stuff from his older sister who went to a community college and had to learn how to put on a condom and what birth control is as quickly as possible so that her peers didn’t laugh at her for not knowing. Did I end someone’s career or marriage trying to find out something that could have easily been told to me by my parents or health professionals at my school? I always hoped to write that person a letter one day apologizing, and I guess this is sort of it, even if I don’t know their name or where they live, and I don’t think they’ll ever read it.
The Waffle House night, our mother ran a stop sign in our neighborhood.
“You didn’t stop,” Elias said. “You’ll get in trouble with the police.”
Our mother smiled at us through the rearview mirror of our minivan.
“What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” she said in Spanish, none of us knowing how wrong she was, my brother and I looking ahead, watching the next stop sign get closer, wondering if our mother would stop to look both ways.
Jared Lemus is a Latinx writer whose work has appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, PANK, Prime Number Magazine, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in Kweli and Joyland. He is an MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was awarded the William S. Dietrich Fellowship and is working on his first novel and short story collection.
(Some Notes for Our Visitors)
by Susan Frith
1. Greetings. Preachers, poachers, stargazers, we don’t much care who you are. You’re here now, so go on, take a key. See if it fits any of the locks. If so, the place is yours. (We’ll come to terms later.) It might be a three-story house with a turret. It might be the cleaning closet behind this desk. As someone famous once said, every key fits a lock somewhere.
On why half the homes in this town are abandoned: We’re not sure. It was either a radon leak or pirates or something else entirely. How many people live here now is another mystery, because some of them like to hide. If you see anyone peering at you from behind a boxwood or telephone pole, don’t gawk. (Nothing shouts tourist more than gawking.)
2. Our Natural History. This town was built on shale and limestone. Bobcats and giant sloths once roamed the spot where the welcome center stands. The animal specimens on display by the restrooms are mere replicas. (We had to put away the originals because of the schoolchildren pulling out tufts of fur. And because of the maggots.) But the rocks are quite real. You may touch them.
3. Scenery. Half a mile down the road you’ll find our scenic overlook. Twelve people have died there so far this year. Not from the drop. They died of other causes, mainly heart attacks, but we feel compelled to mention this since that’s about 30 percent of our visitors. The odds aren’t good.
4. Dining. We don’t give out restaurant recommendations. There are only three restaurants in town, and if we recommend one, we’d have to recommend them all, which we don’t. (Just know this: Fettuccine with rattlesnake chunks is not as toothsome it sounds.)
5. Architecture. Our courthouse was built in 1839, in the Greek Revival style, but it’s no longer used for trials. Crafters have taken over the space. Under no circumstances should you go there unless you plan to buy something. Do not try to outrun the crafters.
Home & Garden Tours take place daily between nine and two. There is only one house on the tour, and no garden. There is no furniture in the house either, but you can stare through the windows at the family arguing inside. They come out at noon for autographs.
6. For the Children. If your kids like to break things, may we suggest a fun place on Eleventh Street where they can take sledgehammers to old TVs, china sets, and exercise machines? Only one grownup per child is allowed inside. It was two before the incident.
Our local storyteller visits the library Friday mornings at ten. She is 93 and tells the same story over and over about the time her brother pushed her down the well. There’s always a slight variation, which makes it kind of interesting.
For the more active child, our park boasts the world’s 10th Tallest Slide with a Hole in It. We hire people to catch the children, and often they do.
7. Maps and Other Resources. Feel free to take a map. Feel free to toss it out. Everything’s changed since the maps were made, and some find it frustrating to walk to a place that no longer exists. If we made another map it would quickly grow outdated. Main Street is constantly shifting due to the fault that runs beneath it, and our local river floods its banks several times a month, which necessitates moving many things around. They say eventually the entire town will be under water, but we doubt that any of us will be here then.
8. In Closing. You’ve probably left by now. If you haven’t, there’s one more place we’ll tell you about. (We don’t mention this to everyone.)
Go out back, past the toxic herb garden, the giant pyramid of rusty pipes, and the feral-pig yard. Row across the sulfur lake, taking care to avoid the serpents, and you’ll come to a yellow house with the windows open, box-fans on opposite sills. Inside you’ll find a pie cooling on a table. It is amazing. Only take one piece.
Susan Frith lives in Orlando, where she’s finishing up a novel. Her fiction has appeared in Sycamore Review, New Madrid, Zone 3, Moon City Review, Emrys Journal Online, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Instagram at @susanfrithwrites and Twitter at @SusanFrith8.
Foxley’s uptight on the glass, watching for the hard silver wink of Daddy’s Bronco. Mama said his ass was grass. He heard her on the phone tattling and when she brought it to him and he put it to his ear, Daddy said to wait in his room and to not be leaving even for the bathroom, that he was gonna get the whipping of his short life when he got home. Daddy told Foxley five o’clock couldn’t come soon enough, and that maybe, if he was lucky, boss man would let him clock out a few minutes early.
Every car that crosses the pane knots Foxley’s guts more and he tells himself that he’s making it worse. He might as well relax in the bed and be in the moment, since at the present, Daddy ain’t home yet, and his ass is fine, besides being pinched tight for dread.
Foxley on his bed’s still got eyes out the window, but here he can think better, try to tuck himself safe in the present moment. That’s what the book he found in Mama and Daddy’s off-limits dresser said to do. It had a picture on the front of a happy bald fat man sitting Indian style and holding a yellow flower. A pink sticky note on the cover with Mama’s tiny perfect handwriting said, Happy Anniversary Lou! It’s some things in here could help you simmer down some. But that book wasn’t nearly as interesting as the other one he found called 119 Satin Nights and that made him feel like he was climbing up and dropping off the Texas Cyclone. Shoot. He’d pick that book over AstroWorld any day, and he wishes now he wouldn’t have fooled so long with the blue one, since he only got a little time with the other before Mama walked in and went nuttier than a fruitcake.
Foxley can see Daddy now, rapping his door hard twice before walking through it anyway. He’ll say, “Foxley LeBlanc,” and unbuckle his belt. “This is gonna hurt me more than it’s gonna hurt you.” Yeah right. Foxley hates how Daddy stretches that belt out like a snake and then snaps it. SNAP! Like he enjoys it or something. But Foxley thinks he’ll be lucky if it’s just a regular whipping. Somehow, he thinking this might be worse. It ain’t just a rock spider-webbing the shed window, or him riding his bike over to the Seven Eleven when Mama told him not to. This is a direct violation of Daddy’s private things. Like maybe just as bad as if he was to fool with his rifles. But he can’t say for sure, since he ain’t that stupid.
Foxley hears Mama laughing and he sure hopes she ain’t tattling on him to Miss Roxanne. Ain’t nothing funny about that. Maybe Miss Roxanne gonna feel some pity for him and come steal him from his window like as to protect him from Daddy’s wrath. Wouldn’t that be ducky! Mama keeps yapping her way around the kitchen, getting supper together, and Foxley gonna ask to be excused from supper tonight and maybe for the rest of his life. He don’t know how he’ll ever look Mama in the face again after the way it screwed up at him seeing that book on his lap, like he uncovered a secret they gonna have to kill him now for knowing.
Foxley can’t get them illustrations out his head. Those big dumb peckers seemed amateurish for such a heavy book, looking like the ones his good friend, Buddy draws. But it’s the lady part, or like the lack of one that’s bugging his craw. When he tries to remember it, he sees instead the pretty red candle wax dribbled down the side of the chianti bottle Mama keeps on the dining room table. Foxley knows that ain’t right, and when he dips back into his memory fading fast, he sees that Venus flytrap snapping shut, what he saw on a PBS nature show the other night with Daddy called, Peculiar Critters. Good Lord! That what Jane Dupont got under her plaid skirt? Mama too? Foxley don’t want to know!
Foxley’s pretty sure he hears the beater going, which means Mama’s doling out measurements. He can see her in an apron dusted white, leaning over that spinning bowl, and something bigger than Foxley’s fear takes over, puts his hand on the doorknob softly to turn. Foxley’s got ninja skills of quietude, and soon, he’s peeking down the hallway to see the coast is clear. His crane stepping on the carpet into the master bedroom is a thing to be envied, something he learned from years of sneaking up on squirrels and birds across husky leaves like Daniel Boone through the woods.
The beater shuts off right as he’s coming up on the off-limits dresser, and Foxley freezes in place. He’s ready to sprint on a dime if he hears Mama’s slippers on the linoleum, but the beater whirs back to life and so Foxley makes his move. Dang, that book is heavy. His heart is drumming in his throat like a toad as he flips it open at the midway point, but it ain’t nothing but words there. His fingers are greedy to flip the page, sweaty and so clumsy that the paper tears. Comes right off in his hand. Oh Shit! Foxley realizes the beater’s not going and in a split-second ninja impulse, he crams the ripped page in his pocket and shoves the book back. He floats over the carpet like that Jesus lizard on water from the same PBS show and is soon back in his bedroom, panting behind the door. He listens for Mama, but his heart is slamming home so hard that his ears are like stuffed with rustling paper.
Now Foxley got two fronts. He glances nervous from the window to the door. That paper in his pocket, it’s burning right through the denim and branding his thigh, marking him for the after. He pulls out the piece of page, shaped like Idaho, and flips it from the boring side of writing with none of the words there being of any interest except for “gently on the tip”. The page ripped right through a cartoon of a titty. Ordinarily, that would make him laugh, but it’s the knee next to it that don’t make sense, that steals the funny right out of it. It’s frustrating to have just that little bit of Idaho in his fingers and Foxley remembers Montana. It’s a lot of room in Montana, Foxley thinking.
The clattering of Mama’s nails on the door startles Foxley almost out his skin.
“I brought you a beater,” Mama says muffled.
Foxley don’t understand. He cocks an eye out the window and still no Bronco.
“Hey, listen, Fox,” she says sweet. “I brought you a beater. Oatmeal raisin.”
Foxley thinks it could be a trick. “Just put it through the door,” he says. The beater comes through, thickly caked with dough and Foxley goes to it graceful, snatches it quicksilver from her hand and leans the door back shut.
“Listen, Fox,” Mama says. “What you know about all that?”
Foxley knows what she means, but he don’t want to say. “All what?”
“Oh, you know. The birds and the bees.”
“I don’t know no birds and bees,” Foxley snaps.
“That stuff what you saw in the book, Foxley,” Mama says. “You know what. Sex.”
Oh God, thinks Foxley. He don’t want to hear Mama say that. “I know what I need to,” he says. “Ain’t nothing to talk about.”
“Well then tell me,” says Mama, scratching at the door. “Tell me what you know.”
Foxley sure don’t want to have this conversation with Mama. Buddy told Foxley how it works. Buddy saw a video on his brother’s phone where two women ate a man’s stuffing from him like it was Friday’s Jello. But Buddy ain’t always truthful, like what he told about his brother being a Rambo for the government, on assignment in Canada. Foxley wants Mama to go away, but he got to give her something or she’ll scratch a hole right through his door.
“The man puts his thing in the woman’s navel,” says Foxley, just wanting to tell enough so she’ll leave him be. “Gently on the tip,” he adds. “I know what I know,” says Foxley, angry now that Mama’s putting him on the spot. He glows rosy hot to hear her chuckling through the door.
“Listen, Fox man,” she says. “I’ll sick your daddy off you. He been uptight all week long. Y’all need to have y’all a sitdown.”
“I don’t need nothing. I’m educated.” Foxley would rather have the whipping.
“I’ll call him off,” says Mama. “It’s some things you need to know, I guess, now. Your daddy’s on edge these days and I say you don’t need no spanking just cause you curious about nature. You know how uptight your daddy gets. You want that other beater?”
Foxley remembers the one he got already, unlicked and dripping gobs on his sneaker. “Nope,” he says. “And I don’t need no sit down neither.”
He waits for Mama to say OK, that he can just have his whipping back, but pretty soon, she’s off knocking in the kitchen again.
Foxley makes that beater shine, knowing he’ll need the nourishment on his travels. He goes to his closet and dumps the school books out his backpack. He stuffs some clothes in there but has to take some back out to fit his Buckaroo Box, what got his compass and flashlight and knife and sparkers for building fires. And he definitely ain’t leaving his basketball trophy. When Foxley’s through packing, he bends to some loose leaf. Dear Mama and Daddy, he writes. Time’s come for me to set out in the world.
Foxley can’t think what to say next. He squints up at the popcorn ceiling with his tongue tenting cheek, looking for wisdom from Lebron James slamming one home for the buzzer win, but Foxley don’t see him up there, like the constellation got scrambled back into the sundry, and Foxley guesses he might have done split for shame. Y’all been good to me, Foxley writes. Please don’t worry. I’ll send signs that I’m OK. Love Foxley Alphonsus LeBlanc.
Foxley weighs the note down with the beater and looks disappointed at scrappy Idaho. He understands it could be deadly to head out into the wild without knowing the mystery of the titty and the knee, that the wondering could dull his senses and make him vulnerable to the elements. And Foxley got to be sharp if Foxley gonna make it in the world. Plus, if he can gently separate the rest of that page from the book then Daddy might not even notice.
Foxley peeks from the door and when he hears the oven beeping at Mama’s finger punches, shoooom, Foxley Jesus lizards himself to the off-limits dresser. The book opens right to his spot. He gently persuades the torn page out and is back safe in his room before Mama can creak the oven shut.
Mission accomplished, thinks Foxley, surveying the beater and the note. He’s reaching greedy into his pocket when Daddy’s Bronco floats by the window, slowing for the driveway. For a second, Foxley don’t move, but then he spies his backpack at the window, the golden head of his trophy peeking out the top where he couldn’t zipper it shut, and he remembers what he got to do. Foxley thinks he needs to WD40 that screeching window, and he waits on the other side to slam it in cahoots with Daddy’s clamoring through the front door. Then he’s off across the front yard, squirreling his arms through the straps of his backpack.
Mister Shankle’s standing in his driveway with one of them long-armed paint rollers, knocking it against his rusted satellite dish. He throws up an arm, but Foxley ain’t got time for hidy’s. He burns it down the street without even looking over his shoulder until he can cut through the patch of woods that shortcuts to Seven Eleven. As soon as Foxley gets himself out of the open, he sits down on a log and digs out that paper. He removes it like a surgeon.
Foxley joins Montana to Idaho but sits puzzled by the sum. He’s looking at satin night #63. The titty and the knee joined to their purplish owners look like cartoons in the Buddy style. The lady’s on her back with her hands on the man’s behind, and him on all fours crouching over her, facing her feet. What they got between their legs is hidden, and the expressions on their faces are joyless, like frogs about their business. But the point of focus for Foxley, the main attraction soon enough, is Mama’s perfect tiny handwriting, captioned off in a talk bubble drawn from the lady’s mouth. “Hey Lou!” it says in blue ink exquisitely. “I see the tip of the stick! Fetch me some rope and Vaseline, and I’ll go in!”
Foxley seen some things. One time, a pink owl swooped down under the streetlight to snatch a rat from the ditch, and another time, Wendy Langois ripped a Sugar Daddy out of Kevin Brickey’s mouth with his two front teeth in it still. But he ain’t seen nothing like #63. He experiments with the two pieces of page, trying in vain for other geometries, until he tells himself that it’s best he don’t understand, like the knowing would make him just as fish-eyed vacant as the cartoon lovers.
Foxley puts the paper into his backpack and counts out the almost five dollars in change. He figures to buy various provisions to last him to the next town. Good thing he brought along that trophy to prove his moxie and guts to the world. Maybe Miss Roxanne gonna see him hobo-ing and pick him up, take him back home with her. She could keep him locked in her bathroom and feed him ice cream and pizza and play with his hair for long stretches instead of just the quick ruffle she gives when she comes over to gab with Mama. Foxley thinks about last time she come over, how he hovered outside the door and saw her and Mama trying on dresses. Miss Roxanne was just wearing her bra and she had her elbows out to pin her hair and Foxley saw she had little black patches of hair under her arms. Foxley on a roller coaster thinking about them patches. Mama told him to shoo when she’d seen him in the doorway, but he’d gone to Miss Roxanne like in a trance and asked her to pick him up. And she did it too! Only for a second, but she did, then said, “Woo you heavy,” and set him down before Mama chased him out. Maybe Miss Roxanne gonna keep Foxley hostage forever. That what Foxley hopes.
When Foxley sees them taquitos spinning behind the glass, his list of provisions goes out the window. They too hot to eat even and he tucks them safe in his backpack for later. He feels good at the Big Gulp station, mixing together his favorite kamikaze: Sprite, and Mr. Pibb. He skirts the hot dog dressing station ninja style and swipes some relish packets, liking his chances in the wild.
“Look out, world,” says Foxley through the door, blinded off the bat by Daddy’s winking Bronco. Daddy’s leaning on the wheel wearing the same froggy expression as the cartoons, like hypnotized by the business at hand. But then Foxley recognizes Daddy’s gotcha smile as he leans over to push the passenger door open.
“Fox baby,” he says when Foxley crawls up inside. “You got to quit running off.”
Daddy starts in with his never ever, don’t even think it, next time is murder speech about going anywhere near his shit again. Daddy knocks his fat ring against his buckle to make Foxley feel his warning and it tings out in the stuffy cab before Daddy finally confesses that it ain’t no whippings coming today. “Your Mama says we got to talk.” Daddy rubs his face like he plum wants to scrub it clean off. “What you know about sex then?” Daddy says into his hands.
“I’m good,” Foxley says. “You can just whip me if you want. I deserve it.”
“Yeah, you right,” Daddy says. “But I think you done outgrown whippings, maybe.” He starts rattling off about sperms and eggs and cellular divisions and Foxley, reflecting on #63, wonders is that what they getting at? Daddy stops talking when he sees Foxley’s face scrunched in thought. “Wait a minute,” Daddy says and starts worrying his face again. “I’m going backwards. You know you got the pecker, ahem. I mean the penis?” Daddy holds his arm out at a right angle from his elbow and makes a fist. “And then over here,” Daddy puts out his left hand and pinches his fingers to a point, wiggles them open like that star-nosed mole from the peculiar critters show. “And the woman, she got that.” Daddy wipes his forehead with his designated pecker before putting it back in place and waving the fingers on his lady arm at it. “The lady over here got a vagina,” he says and his voice breaks so that Foxley thinks for a second Daddy gonna have himself a heart attack by the time his story gets any steam. “Vagina’s like a flower, Fox. Just like a flower.”
Daddy rambles on and Foxley wishes he could help him tell it easier. A sweat bead tracks down Daddy’s sideburn and rides the creases of his cheek. Daddy thumps his throat to make a rain drop blop. “You know that uvula,” he’s saying. “Hangs down back of your mouth? Well, it’s like that, I guess. Except it don’t hang, not quite.”
Daddy squirms behind the wheel like a balloon artist without balloons, wrestling his hands together. Foxley tries to apply Daddy’s words to the context of #63, thinks if that’s what them cartoons are after, then they must be taking a detour to it. The way Daddy’s acting, this sex thing must be terrible.
Foxley can see why Mama’s always on Daddy about being uptight. He got to relax some. The vein in Daddy’s forehead bulges like a night crawler up through the dirt, and Foxley remembers the other day waiting for a table at Waffle House. Mama wanted to dance to the song playing and when Daddy turned her down out of shame in public, she’d twirled Foxley instead, right in front of all the waiting smiling folks, told Daddy over Foxley’s head that he got a stick up his backside.
“It feels like a giant sneeze,” Daddy’s saying. “That building up to one anyway.”
Foxley imagines them cartoon people as Mama and Daddy, and then he busts up laughing. Punch lines always finds Foxley late, and he got to give it to Mama. Nothing Buddy’s done in a while got his funny bone like Mama’s doodle. Foxley looks at Daddy’s red face, like it just been punched, and busts up all over again to think it might for true be a stick up there lodged. A big, long, pointy one too.
“Oh, for shit’s sake,” Daddy says. “It ain’t supposed to be funny, Fox! What you in a hurry for anyway? You younger than me by a long shot when I came to all this shit. You ought to be out catching frogs and reveling in your happy boyhood daydreams. It’s all downhill once you start to fooling with vaginas anyway. Jesus, what’s that smell?”
Foxley presents his taquitos to Daddy like them samplers at the Winn Dixie, relieved to hear Daddy crunching instead of talking.
“I forgot to eat lunch,” Daddy says, stuffing his mouth like them taquitos gonna scrape clean all the words been coming out of it.
Foxley don’t even care that Daddy gonna eat all his taquitos. What’s he need ‘em for now anyway? Foxley feels light as a bubble when Daddy puts the Bronco in gear and they roll out of the parking lot.
“You got all what I been telling you, Fox?” Daddy says, sucking clean his fingers. “You understand now a bit better about the human condition?”
“Yes Sir. But I don’t much care about it. I just as soon go frogging.” Foxley knows just what to say to Daddy.
“That’s good, Fox,” Daddy says, wincing and burping. “Frogging’s way better. Shit,” Daddy says and puts his hand to his chest. “Why’d I go and eat that?” Daddy pats Foxley’s knee. “If your Mama asks you anything, you just tell her we had us a talk and that you all cleared up on nature, OK?”
Closing in on the house, Foxley sees his bedroom window sliding by. He smiles to think of the blinds snapping shut, and a scared little Foxley behind them. He feels like a V.I.P being on Daddy’s end of it, and Foxley pretends he’s coming home after a long hard day at the plant to make things right. Little Foxley in there deserves a thrashing, he thinks. Little Foxley got to be smarter from now on. He got to WD40 up that window for one thing.
Mama’s fussing at the stove when him and Daddy walk inside single file. She’s wearing her polite face, like it’s nothing ever happened. “Pork chops in the oven,” she sings.
“Count me out,” Daddy says, with a hand to his throat. “I’m struggling this afternoon.”
“You told me that’s what you wanted, Lou! You asked for pork chops!”
Mama and Daddy’s words tangle up quick, and Foxley slips away down the hallway. They won’t bother him for the rest of the night. He feels giddy coming up on his bedroom door. He raps his knuckle on it, lets himself in. Foxley smiles to see his note on the dresser still, but without the beater to hold it down, since Mama don’t like her things where they don’t go.
He looks up to greet Lebron out of habit and is relieved to see his popcorn image returned. Foxley roves his room with his hands clasped behind his back, eyes cast up to check his constellations are all in place. Fat Godzilla’s there and so is the space rocket launching. Jolly Green Giant’s still on his battle turtle in the far corner, but Foxley notices that if he lets some other popcorns join in, then the Giant turns into Miss Roxanne with her arms up over her head, and them dark patches too, where the night light gives out.
It been a strange day, and Foxley’s ready to lie down and drift off into the popcorn galaxy. But first things first. Foxley cuts his eyes at the window, where Little Foxley cowers and quivers, hands already covering his butt, bottom lip shaking like an oyster.
“Fox, man,” he says, slipping off his pretend belt and snapping it. “This gonna hurt me more than it’s gonna hurt you.”
Benjamin Soileau is from south Louisiana. His fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, Opossum, Grist, Louisiana Literature, Bayou, Superstition Review, Fugue, and many other journals. He won the 2018 Rumble Fish Quarterly New Year’s Writing Contest and is a special mention in The 2020 Pushcart Prize Anthology. He is a stay-at-home father in the Pacific Northwest. Reach him at [email protected].
The girl escorts her boyfriend to Gare du Nord, where he will take a train to the coast and then a ferry back to England—this is years before the Chunnel will be built. He is her first serious boyfriend, and two nights ago they had sex for the first time. The girl is not religious or old-fashioned, but she had fetishized “going all the way” as a momentous journey, only to take with someone she loved. This is why she is twenty years old and only now, long after nearly all of her friends, has finally had sex. It’s a strange kind of fetishism, at odds with the fact that she has, over the last two and a half years, given blowjobs to seven men, including one whose name she doesn’t remember, though she does clearly recall his cleft chin, which looked like someone had begun and then abandoned cutting a cake: a knife pleat in the frosting of his face.
In a week, the girl will fly back to America, her junior year abroad officially over. England is where she met this young man, her first serious boyfriend, her first lover, and though she hopes otherwise, she knows that their relationship, this tender green shoot, will not survive the 6,000 miles of distance. They are not yet breaking up, because it seems tactless to do so, two days after they first had sex, after all those months of build-up. But she recalls the way, after they had “real” sex for the first time, her boyfriend held her briefly and then rolled away to sleep. She knows in the hollows of herself that their breakup will happen soon. That knowledge has been weighing on her for the past hour, as they left francs for their cafés au lait (this is before the introduction of the euro) and then boarded the metro and transferred at crowded, intricate, terrible Châtelet-Les Halles, with its grimy corridors of peddlers hawking purses and cheap, fringed scarves. That knowledge is fundamentally why she is sad now: not because they are saying goodbye.
It is also why she is a hundred feet away, floating above, holding an imaginary camera that films for posterity herself and her boyfriend. One thing her panning shot attempts to capture is how the other people in the Gare du Nord crowd (the girl thinks of them as “extras”) interact with her and her boyfriend (whom she thinks of as “the stars”). Do they think they are tragic or sweet incarnations of young love? Do they even notice them?
Most of the extras seem indifferent and oblivious. They look at the enormous, oxidized copper clock or their own watches or simply into empty space (this takes place long before cell phones, before everyone had something to attract and compress their gazes).
But there is a middle-aged Frenchwoman nearby who appears to be aware of the girl and her boyfriend, and watches them benevolently, with a smudged-lipstick smile, as if they are indeed sweet/cute/representative of amour jeune. As if they are like the famous black-and-white photograph by Robert Doisneau of the couple kissing outside the Hotel de Ville. It’s the girl’s favorite poster: all year it has been on her dormitory wall in Oxford. Sometimes she would open her eyes and look at it while she and her naked boyfriend fooled around (but did not yet have sex, because she would only have sex with someone she was serious about, and she was waiting for him to say “I love you”). In other words, it is no accident that the girl waited for this final romantic visit to Paris to have sex with her boyfriend. This moment kissing her boyfriend goodbye at the Gare du Nord represents the merger between the girl and her boyfriend, who with his sweeping, dark hair even resembles the man in the Doisneau photograph, and the couple outside the Hotel de Ville.
What the girl requires now is an audience, to confirm that they, like that couple, are romantic, appealing, and worth looking at, like the couples that the girl will seek out in the next few days when she wanders alone in Paris, mourning her boyfriend: the hand-holding couples that the girl will take pictures of and think, we were like that, in love.
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 stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf‘s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com
She said there are some things
you will always be, like Italian,
some skills interchangeable: folding underwear
and trussing a chicken, some days
for darkness. I remind her of her dead daughter. Her true character!
Everything is a lie and everything a truth. We
always know it. Like how we are
loved and unwanted. As a girl I drank
water out of shoes. It made sense, all of it.
Nicole Greaves teaches at The Crefeld School in Philadelphia. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and an M.Ed. in special education. Her poetry has appeared in numerous literary reviews and was awarded prizes by The Academy of American Poets and the Leeway Foundation of Philadelphia. She is a recent 2020 finalist for the Frontier Digital Chapbook Contest and was a 2015 finalist for the Coniston Prize of Radar Poetry, who also nominated her for The Best of the Net. She is a former poet laureate of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and resides minutes outside of Philadelphia with her family
A SACK OF POTATOES, THE TIRED FARMER, & THE MIGHTY WORLD
by Steph Jones
Full Text Version
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I'm hot. I'm sweaty, especially my upper lip from breathing hard with a mask on. My belly rumbles with hunger long empty from a breakfast before the sun rose. It's what farmers call "almost Almost Lunch", the time between 10:20 AM and 11:07 AM when you are past morning snack but really not close enough to lunch. I need to pick up this 40 LB. sack of potatoes, one of 15 bags in this load, out of 10 loads. That's a lot of taters. I roll my eyes thinking whose great idea it was to plant this many stinking potatoes.
Oh dear, it was mine...Back in February when anything growing sounded great. But now we have 6,000 Lbs. of potatoes to harvest. For farmers, hard work yields hard work. And the fact that we stick one half-piece of seed potato in the ground in May and return in August and dig out 8 full ones in its place is absolutely ridiculous.
So when I am tired as a farmer, I find strength as an artist. Both farmers and artists are expert observers of life. I want to know all of the world around me, understand its individuality, what makes it, well, IT. Pinpoint the small details that create the accurate sense of the whole. I throw my senses out into the world like echolocation, pinging on what surrounds me, waiting for the return...
I read the sky. I know the dense fog of summer mornings like walking through pea soup.
The first patch of blue sky opens at 8:30 AM. When you can make sailor's britches out of blue sky, it is bound to clear up. Close after, our daily UPS flight descends into Philly. I wonder if it is the same pilot. By early afternoon, low cumulus clouds stamp the sky in repetition. Big spilling cumulonimbus thunderheads rise in summer. I know dark clouds over the sweet gum tree in the west means the storm will hit us, but clouds over the black walnut or pines means a miss to the south or north.
I am an expert water navigator. I know where all the potholes are on the farm roads and how to avoid them while driving. As I bounce along in the 1985 Toyota, I read the land's slopes and channels, ghosts of summer rainstorms past. I can tell if it's only rained a little from small pits formed in the dry road dust or rained heavily as low spots gather fine silty eroded soil.
The birds are surely entertainment. As the snowbird Juncos disappear in early spring, Canada geese flocks arrive. Turkey vultures swirl lazily in azure skies. The swallows swoop and dive as fields are mowed and kick up insects. They also sit on tomato stakes and laugh as they watch you work. Goldfinch bachelors woo their ladies on the fence. The five resident crows walk behind the disc harrow as delicious snacks are unearthed as old crops are ploughed under.
I listen to tractors. I know a cold tractor will chug for a bit and start with white smoke, and black smoke means a burst of gas and power, but blue smoke means oil. I can smell when a fuel line clamp comes off and diesel is dripping, which is different than the gas leaking out of the sediment bowl on the 1941 Farmall A. I know the purr of idling and the powerful hum of 540 engine RPM. I am not an expert tractor fixer, but I am an expert manual reader. A little elbow grease and perseverance. And a call to some experts.
I am a weed identifier. Winter is chickweed's game, and wild mustard bursts in yellow in spring, often the first flush of new life. When dandelions bloom it's time to plant those potatoes. Broad leaves like galinsoga, lambs quarter, amaranth, and smartweed are barons of the summer, with foxtails and grasses vying for top spot. I know that as daylight shortens in fall, weeds that grow to 6 feet in high summer, set seeds at only a few inches tall as they know frost is quickly approaching. Better to grow short with seeds than no seeds at all.
These pings fly back to me like a boomerang coming home true. My overused August muscles still have doubt, but this time I inhale the power of life around me. I grasp the rough sack and I inhale those potatoes right up over my shoulder. Yes!
I am an artist. I am a farmer. To me, these are the same. As both I study, shape, and form life. Each requires me to see life exactly as it is in that moment and put equal weight in all details that build the whole. Our actions every day are the lines that make up the drawing of life. Each line deserves the same attention. To see truthfully is to know understandingly. To understand is to farm well. To understand is to draw well. To understand is to live well. And I'll be eating a lot of potatoes tonight.