I did not know anything about whales until I became one. In the first trimester of my pregnancy, I transitioned, changing into a creature that was part meat and part ocean. My pregnant body was flush with proteins, ions, and nutrients for the first time since my childhood. Like a whale’s, my body produced massive amounts of progesterone, a hormone that blasted through me like tropical waves. My twenty-three-year-old heart refilled my capillaries, deadened from heavy drinking and drug use. When I looked in the mirror, I saw that I was actually glowing, the way pregnancy is said to imbue a halo around you while you’re gestating. My cheeks were pink all the time, as though I was permanently post-coital. I sweated more. My body felt like it was filling out, as though my cells were plumping up like pillows of sweet ricotta-filled ravioli immersed in hot water. I floated, swollen, into the next phase of my life.
At the time, I was working in a bakery. I woke up every morning at three to go turn on the ovens and start rolling out pie dough. I could barely stand at the counter, and prepping food, baking, and buttering sandwiches made me dry heave. My hands had become awkward flippers, and the smell of cinnamon stuck to me like a barnacle. I measured sour cream, streusel, crystallized ginger, and berries while my body expanded, making room for my son.
Weighing a whale is nauseating business. No scale on earth is big enough. Weighing a whale requires transgression; it makes the assumption that the human question “how big is it?” is more important than the sanctity of the whale, which carries the answer to that question in its very name. How big is the whale? Very.
Long ago, the only way to guess one’s size was to wait until it washed up, dead, on a beach. Whoever found its bloated, gaseous carcass cut it into pieces and loaded them individually onto a balance. Chunks of whale were dragged by horses or loaded onto trucks and heaved onto weighted platforms that were quickly stained with whatever chemicals leak from a corpse that has been preserved in salt water and then roasted in the sun. The stink and blood must have been unimaginable. Yet, whoever was doing the measuring must have been willing to breathe it. Some days, I sagged against the pastry counter, struggling to breathe. I was out of my element. My own body was too oppressive on land. It was only getting worse.
In most mammals, blood content more than doubles in the first weeks of pregnancy, increasing from twenty percent to 100 percent. In the beginning, each vein blossoms with plasma and grows luscious as the placenta forms against the budding embryo. Plasma is what you sell to pay your rent at the end of the month; back then, I didn’t know that there was more than one part to my blood. Platelets and blood cells and plasma rushed through me and into the miniscule veins that connected me to the growing dot that would one day be my son.
At least I wasn’t doing it alone, in the beginning. I didn’t wear my plain silver wedding band in the kitchen but left it at home so it wouldn’t be ruined. If I said that I was married, nobody believed me. I was too young, too surly, and too wild. Nothing about me suggested I could be a wife or mother. I wasn’t feminine in that way; what I was, was sexy.
I lost my job in the first month of the pregnancy because of my morning sickness. When he fired me, my boss said, “That’s what you get.”
“What did I do?” I asked.
He looked at my chest and trailed his eyes down my front, “You did it.”
I thought pregnancy protected mothers from the awfulness of men. Naive, I believed that marriage was an exchange: you chose one man’s bad behavior, and it absolved you of having to deal with any of the others. Wedding rings, too, were supposed to repel negative attention. They signaled respectability. I’m not available. I blushed when my boss pointed out my condition. Desire was always the blood in the water. When his eyes lodged in my cleavage, I knew what he was seeing: a barely-legal sexpot who was playing at being an adult. He stuffed a few bills into a plain white envelope. Taking it, I felt as though he had paid me for a trick. I put the money in my purse, conscious of the way my shirt buttons stretched over my new, expanding body.
Fuck you, I thought, though I didn’t say it.
Fucking was how I got into this mess.
Pregnancy is the only period when the mother and child are the same. One body. One conjoined system of nerves and veins. The baby moves, and the mother senses its vibration. The mother eats, breathes, sleeps, and rides the waves of hormonal change, and the baby responds to it. They are linked in every way. There was a brief window in my life between when I stopped being part of the “we” of my family and entered the “we” of my marriage and then straight into the “we” of my pregnancy. I was rarely myself; I was always part of some other family, chosen or biological. I didn’t question this or even notice it. I simply accepted it as natural. The whale who lives does not wonder, why me? Wondering is for people; we are born to second-guess ourselves. So many facts we know about whales are the outcomes of fantastical theories. We cut them, thinking we will find their secrets inside. In fact, we’ve learned most about whales by studying them without interfering. Because we watched, we learned the position of the calf inside its mother, tailfirst, the way they are born backwards so they will be saved from drowning. The mother’s body goes to great lengths to deliver them, healthy, into the sea.
I called my mother to tell her about the baby, like I was supposed to. I didn’t mention the lost job or the morning sickness that engulfed me in waves of bile.
“Mom, I have good news,” I said, “I’m going to be a mother.”
The longest pause in the world, so long I thought my phone had dropped the call.
“Are you still there?”
“I went and sat down,” she said. Her voice was flat and bleak.
“I guess we can skip the champagne,” I joked weakly. She didn’t laugh. Within two weeks, she and my father came to visit us in Portland, Oregon. On their second day in town, they took Matthew and me to lunch. I was more than a little green around the gills and exhausted, too sick to eat. Matt and I fought constantly, but we put things on hold in front of my parents. I picked at my food, we managed to sit side-by-side in the restaurant’s plastic booth without touching, and then we walked home.
Matt and my father stayed out on the sidewalk while my mother, under some pretext, went upstairs with me. I slumped on the carcass of the linen-upholstered loveseat that was a gift from our decadent San Francisco cousins. The unmade Murphy bed was still pulled out from the wall with my grandmother’s double wedding ring quilt on it, covering a wad of stale sheets and wool blankets. Matt’s school papers and our tabby’s kitty litter mingled on the floor. Folded laundry covered our only chair. The trash hadn’t been taken out. The apartment was less than 400 square feet, but I couldn’t muster the energy to care about cleaning. I was too tired to do more than limp from the bed to the bathroom.
I was struggling out of my coat when my mother leaned toward me from her seat on the bed. Her hands were clasped together, and her face looked earnest. I couldn’t follow what she was saying. My stomach hurt. I wanted her to leave so I could go back to sleep. She told me that it wasn’t too late for me to change my mind, and that I had so many good things going for me. My education, my future, all that they’d worked to give me, these gifts would work in my favor. I listened, trying to understand what she meant, when suddenly, Matt burst in like a fist and slammed himself into the seat next to me. To my surprise, he took my hand. On the day I told him I was pregnant, he’d thrown our mattress at me because I had slept with another man weeks before our wedding, lied about it, and then all of a sudden I was pregnant. I was an animal to him, not a person. We hadn’t stopped fighting since my positive test; he refused to touch me. Facing off with my mother, though, he was suddenly protective. His hand enfolded my fingers and for a moment, I felt safe because I thought that he might love me again.
“I think you should go,” he said to my mother.
Her mouth snapped shut. She frowned, then said, “We are having a private conversation. It’s between Claire and me.”
“No, it’s between all of us. I think you should leave before any of us say things that can’t be unsaid,” he told her.
She was angry when she stood up and gathered her purse. She gave me a rough kiss and a squeeze on the shoulder and left in a huff. As soon as the door closed, Matt let go of my hand and got up. My sense of security evaporated. He went into the kitchen and ran some water into the kettle. It was almost time for him to go to work, or else school: I can’t remember; he was always leaving for one or the other.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“Your dad and I were standing on the sidewalk, and I asked him what you two were talking about inside, and he said, ‘Susy is going to tell Claire to get an abortion.’”
“She didn’t say that.”
“She was about to. You saw her face. If I hadn’t come in and said something, she would have talked you into it.”
“I could never,” I said. But I’d broken a lot of promises to Matt by then, and we both knew my word was worthless. “Thank you for what you did,” I said.
“I didn’t do it for you.”
“I know,” I told him. “I’m still grateful, though.”
He didn’t love me, but he loved me. He didn’t want to stay with me, but he stayed. He didn’t want to be married, but he married me. I was his second wife, younger than the first one; gangly, blonde, clueless, and wise. I would have killed myself to have this baby, and my rift with my parents was the result of putting my own desires first for a change. I could not continue being their child at the expense of having my own. When they asked me to pick up the ax or chainsaw or stick of dynamite and carve into my own flesh, cut myself into manageable pieces, I could not do it. I would have lost my power; the corpse of a whale is the husk of a planet that used to be like ours. In pieces, it ceases to be the muscle that churns the waves and dives into darkness holding its breath.
I didn’t call home for a while after my parents’ visit. I let myself drift out on the waves of my pregnancy. I was lonely and in pain, and I swam in circles, reorienting myself around the possibilities represented by my son.
My pregnancy made me feel massive and invincible; I would never give it up. Having experienced a love of this size, how could I cut it out, slice it into inferior proportions, and rob myself of its wholeness? From the first moment of my transformation, I accepted the consequences and dove in without hesitation. By the end of the first trimester, I was fully cetacean. I was a whale, not a woman.
If you’d put me on a scale, you would see that my body was more than simply meat and bones. For the first time, I contained potential. Anyone who has seen a real whale, swimming in the ocean or maybe as a distance flume that spouts up a few miles off the coast, knows that whales are more than meat; they are incarnations. Although I was alone and scared, I was finally connected to an inland sea. It made me lighter, somehow. With an ecosystem of water and air inside me, I was growing to be more than myself.
I felt my son rocking inside me and, beneath my fear, I sensed a certain kind of peace. There were people, and there were whales; both of us relied on the unpredictable balance of luck to keep us alive, still moving, and making babies. I cradled my body and the growing fetus inside it and sang in the soft moans that whales sing deep in the sea—as though that would raise the dead or change the tide, as though wishing was enough to make it so.
Claire Rudy Foster is an award-winning queer, nonbinary trans author from Portland, Oregon. Foster’s critically acclaimed short story collection Shine of the Ever was an O: The Oprah Magazine pick for 2019. Their essays, fiction, reporting, book reviews, and other writing appear in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Allure, on NPR, and many other places. Foster is Senior Features Editor at The Rumpus. They still believe in the power of well-written sentences.
THE MOMENT I KNEW I LOVED _________
by Sydney Steward
My Grandmother I look up from my phone, scouting the street signs for a match—Madison Avenue. I turn left, quickly glance across the road for oncoming traffic, and press on. The air is cold; it’s late January. My feet ache against the concrete, but nothing can stop me. A happy panic propels me forward. This is the day we have been waiting for. The hospital sign begins to peek into sight. Once I arrive at the lobby, I pause to unzip my coat. I ask the receptionist for directions to her room. The hallways feel familiar: high ceilings, bright lights, a chemical shine along the tiles. After navigating a maze of elevators and corridors, I spot my mother through the glass window, and she motions me over. Surrounded by my entire family, there she sits. Tubes and drains and cords dangle from nearly every orifice. She looks up and flashes her gummy smile.
“Sydney, I knew you’d make it! Your Meme got a new kidney.”
Bubble Tea I walk into the foyer of the dining hall. On the right I see a mysterious brown canister positioned on top of a table. A dining hall staff member sits nearby with a ladle in hand. I walk over to her and inquire about the contents of the dispenser. She explains that today is “Cultural Appreciation” day and the item on the menu is bubble tea. She further explains the drink, adding new words to my adolescent vocabulary—boba, milk tea, tapioca, Taiwan. Who knew an entire culture could be captured in one cup! “Can I try it?” She scoops clear boba from a bowl and plops it into a cup. She presses the handle on the canister, and a tan liquid rushes from the faucet. Handing me the concoction, she invites me to choose a straw. I grab a white one, noting its diameter and wondering Why is it so big? I insert the straw and take a sip. The textures collide on my tongue—the squishy boba floats along the smooth river of milk tea. I am chewing and somehow swallowing all at the same time. It’s so confusing, but so sweet.
I think about bubble tea for the rest of the day.
My Mother We bob our heads. We flail our arms. We scream together, “It’s over…” She turns the key in the ignition, and the radio abruptly cuts off. Reality rushes in. I.S. 211 is nowhere in sight. I look out the window and spot a street sign reading East 84th Street. We are parked in our usual spot across the street from our new apartment. Salena sits next to me, her L.L. Bean backpack tucked behind her legs. My mother reaches to the back seat to grab her purse and discovers the puzzled look on our faces. “What’s wrong?” My sister and I share a glance. Speaking for the both of us, I ask, “Can we finish the song before we go in the house?” She smiles. She slides the key back into the grooves, and the engine rumbles. The dashboard lights up, the CD icon blinking. My mother twists the volume dial to 28. My sister curls her fingers to strum the notes on her imaginary guitar. I hold my sticks and bang every drum, from the snare to the cymbal. My mother grabs the microphone to take the solo. The song picks up exactly where it left off:
“It’s over…Leave it!”
Muriel The alarm jolts me from my sleep, snatching me from my dream. I tap the ‘stop’ button on my phone screen and lie back in bed. I consider the tasks for the day and feel them flood my mind, one by one. The long to-do list sits on my chest, holding me hostage in bed. I organize a makeshift schedule. I release a long sigh and decide to do my best. I swing my legs out of bed and stand up. Salena is still asleep, so I slowly open our bedroom door and slide through the doorway without a squeak. The sun fills the living room, leaving bright splotches on the floor in the shape of the window pane. I walk up to the window sill and pick up a white ceramic pot. I peek over the edge and see nothing but dirt. I begin to return the pot to the ledge but stop midway; a speck of green catches my eye. I lift the pot closer and count three sprouts poking through the soil.
Salena Broom in one hand and Lysol in the other, I am armed and ready to fight. Salena stands behind me cowering in fear. I crack open our bedroom door and spot the flying blob blending into the curtain. We consider the possibilities. Is it a squirrel? A bird? A flying cockroach? We choose the final theory. The roach crawls across the dreamcatcher hanging above my bed. Salena yells, “Well, go in there! Kill it!” Fear swells in my gut; I know she is waiting. My sweaty palms clutch my weapons tighter as I advance into the battlefield. With hesitation, I swing…and miss. Dodging the attack, the insect flies across the room and lands on my sister’s One Direction poster. Salena bolts to the adjacent room and I follow, finding her at the top of the bunk bed. Before I can close the door behind me, the unrelenting enemy enters the room and zips into Salena’s face. She screams. Her features crinkle as tears slide down her reddened cheeks. I have failed. I am powerless.
I am enraged.
Peter It is 2:28 AM. I lie back in my bed, his oversized t-shirt hanging off me. I softly gaze across the room, my eyes outlining his back. He is in front of my wooden desk, sitting in a chair way too small for him. Sam Smith floats in the air. Rather than shy away from the challenge, Peter belts the words. His falsetto croak follows along, shamelessly struggling to keep up. I remember that these memories are fleeting. I open my phone camera, the flash obnoxiously illuminating his dark brown skin. Without missing a beat, he looks over his shoulder, his glossy eyes meeting mine. My lips curl up into a smile. He turns back to face the desk.
“Everyone prays in the end!”
Erykah Badu The room is noisy—hundreds of people having hundreds of conversations. I scroll through Instagram, mindlessly liking the images on my screen. I toss a couple of stale popcorn kernels into my mouth. I check the time; she’s two hours late. Still, I am patiently waiting. The yellow house lights dim. Tiny white dots speckle the theater, the audience eager to record this moment. I toss my phone into my bag and slide to the edge of my seat. Fully engaged, I take it all in. Blue smoke rolls across the stage. Strobe lights beam in a circle as the retro instrumental begins. My heart claws at my ribcage. From stage left, I see her. Grey sweatpants with a matching top, black heels, and a fur coat. Her brown hair hangs from her beanie. The crowd roars as she waltzes to center stage and declares, “But you caint use my phone!” The beat drops, pulling me out of my chair.
My heart shatters my chest. My soul transcends.
Big Macs I am standing in line with my father and Salena at the McDonald’s on Rockaway Parkway, the one down the street from the house. I scan the colorful menu. The options are endless: burgers, fries, chicken sandwiches, McFlurry. I tell him what I want—what I always want—a Big Mac. Before we make it to the register, a tall, slender man with shades, a Kangol, and a brown suit walks through the doors. My father smiles, knowing the surprise in store. I run up to him and shout, “Hi Uncle Unique!” He squats down to embrace me. “Hey Sydney!” I wrap my arms behind his neck as he lifts me up in a hug. Before I know it, he puts me back down and says, “Whoa….niece…you should lay off the Big Macs…”
I promise myself that I will never eat a Big Mac again.
Dubois It is 11:32 PM. I can still hear my mother’s voice from our conversation. She’s ignoring me, doesn’t look at me…I expect that we’ll move out of the house in the next couple of weeks…this is why you can’t trust anyone. *click* I pause the painful replay and check into the present. I am sitting on his bed, back against the wall, facing the TV. My eyes are sore, and my cheeks are warm. The tears dried hours ago, but a tightness lingers in my chest. Dubois is lying flat, arms propped behind his head, watching me through the dark. I am silent. He is listening. He reaches for the remote control and clicks YouTube. 8 Hours of Deep Space NASA Footage. Planets, stars, and galaxies pan across the screen in slow motion. Enraptured by the universe, I barely notice the tugging on my sleeve. “Come closer.” These college dormitory beds are not built to fit both of us, but he always makes room for me. I crawl across the tiny mattress and sit on his lap. He asks, “Do you want to listen to Spotify?” I nod my head. He presses the power button on his Bluetooth speaker, and it quietly pings as it pairs with his iPhone. After a quick scroll through his library, he selects a playlist entitled Contemporary R&B. The first song on the queue: “Get You” by Daniel Caesar and Kali Uchis. It’s a love song, one of my favorites. I sing the beginning line with my eyes closed. The melody lifts me, sending me to a new plane. I am existing in a space beyond my body, a dimension where love is forever and divorces don’t exist and life is a little kinder. My voice tethers me to reality. Kali Uchis starts the final verse, and I drift back to Earth. I open my eyes and remember that I am not alone. I look down. Dubois is smiling up at me. I smile back and sing the last line (to him):
“Boy, you’ll lead me to paradise.”
Being a Black Woman The main avenue of the richest, whitest neighborhood in Brooklyn is packed with black and brown bodies. Colorful signs of all sizes bounce in the air. Black Lives Matter. Fuck the Cops. Breonna Taylor. The humid air leaves sweat on the back of my neck as I march forward with my black sisters at the front of the crowd. The men stand at the back. This march is for us. A band plays drums and tambourines. We clap our hands to the beat and dance down the street. A short woman with long black braids shouts into a bullhorn: “Fire, Fire, Gentrifier!” We repeat her words in response. Our voices rise and reach the ears of the tenants in the brownstones above. I look to the sidewalk and watch as our audience watches us. A black man rolls down the window of his car and raises a fist in the air. A white clerk leans on his storefront, grimacing. I smile under my face mask and think, “The revolution is coming.” The crowd turns down a residential side street and the woman changes the chant. As I scream in response, she turns to me and asks, “Do you want to lead?” My heart flutters with excitement as she hands the bullhorn to me. I take a deep breath and yell with all the fire in my soul:
“Black women don’t owe you shit!”
Hot Baths (and myself) The steam in the bathroom is thick. I flip the light switch, sending me into comfortable darkness. I slide out of my flip flops and approach the tub. Balancing on my left side, I dip my right foot into the water. My skin tingles. I keep my foot suspended as such, waiting for my nerve endings to quiet down. I plunge further, hitting the bottom of the tub and following up with my left foot. I am standing here, alone, in the dark. Thinking. I squat and sit, porcelain against my skin. The water sloshes up and over the rim. My body is throbbing. I do not flinch. Now, I feel it all.
I pull my knees to my chest and hold myself.
Sydney Steward is a senior at the School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania. Outside the hospital, she has many creative pursuits—writing being one of them. For her, writing is healing; it is an art of self-preservation. Although poetry is her usual mode of expression, creative nonfiction has recently piqued her interest. The two genres inform each other, making each piece even more intentional, vulnerable, and experimental. For questions or inquiries, reach her at [email protected].
CHRIST (OR MAYBE JOHN LENNON) IN A PRISON WAITING ROOM
by Maya Savin Miller
In small town Georgia, the prison plays Christmas music over the waiting room speakers on the Fourth of July. My mother hands my brother and me two dollar bills for the vending machine. We buy Snickers bars and then lay down on the floor to watch the moths clicking in the light fixture slowly grow still. I will tell my father about the ramen we cooked in the motel coffee pot the night before. He will say something like: sounds like a feast to me or I wish I could have been there. We will talk about small things for the next three hours—my father’s voice muffled and tinny, wrung through the broken speaker at the bottom of the plastic phone. I will tell him about the crabs I am going to catch with a chicken leg and some twine—how the man who owns the dock said he would boil them for me. My father will say he remembers the Fourth of July last year: You kids frying in the sun like eggs on the pavement. The dogs making messes of their water bowls—the way their fur smelled like Fritos and coconut shampoo. Later that night, the air still so thick I could swallow it whole, I will listen to John Lennon sing Happy Xmas (War Is Over) as fireworks light up the bluff.
My savta, rendered mute long before I was born, could not speak in words other than “time to change the batteries,” but she could sing. I remember my mother’s voice in my ear the first time we went to speak with Judge Kelley: Don’t tell them we’re Jewish. Dad can come home sooner if they think we celebrate Christmas. At a time in my life when everything felt confusing and unpredictable, when the lines that had previously defined my existence became increasingly blurred, this rule made survival seem easy. And so I started listening to Christmas music when I was angry, when I was afraid, when I felt powerless, when nothing else made sense. My savta, trapped in a sentence, found her way out through song—and I intended to do the same. During the time of my father’s incarceration, I used up all of the remaining space on my hand-me-down iPod downloading Christmas music.
I do not remember the day my father returned home from jail, but I remember the day before. I sat across from my childhood best friend, thighs sticking to the linoleum-covered booth, as she told me that she was planning to become a famous singer when she grew up, and so we couldn’t be friends anymore once my dad got home. She had heard that associating with criminals could hurt her career, and she wasn’t willing to take any chances. When the waitress came to take our order, I asked if the peppermint pancakes were any good. She responded, “I don’t know. I don’t eat at this shithole.” Once the waitress was gone, I asked if we could still be friends for the rest of the day. And then, for no reason, we both started to laugh—we fell apart like that, cracking up in the back booth of the Waffle House. I asked my mother to pick me up from the restaurant. I remember her humming from the front seat of the car on the ride home, her voice punctuating the song playing softly over the stereo. Like my savta, she listens to Yiddish music when she’s afraid. Like my savta, she never admits when she’s afraid. That night, I found I Want to Come Home for Christmas by Marvin Gaye and emailed my best friend the link.
A year later, I found my iPod resting in the top drawer of my dresser next to a photo of my dad, my brother, and me. It was wrapped up in a sock, the way someone might wrap up a knife. The battery had begun to ooze, leaving the iPod frosted over with sulfuric acid residue. The specific model had been discontinued in 2007, and it took about a month for the replacement batteries to arrive in the mail. But when I finally changed the batteries and when the small screen flickered on, I could not bring myself to press play. Just like the music, my reliance on this iPod, loaded with Christmas music, with proof that we were not Jewish, with reasons why my father should be allowed to return home, had been seasonal.
Maya Savin Miller is a highschooler from Los Angeles, currently living in the mountains of Colorado. Her prose and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Cargoes, Up North Lit, Hadassah, Battering Ram Journal, Bluefire, Skipping Stones, Polyphony Lit, and the Sierra Nevada Review. Her writing has been recognized by Princeton University, Hollins University, Columbia College, Rider College, Library of Congress, and Blank Theatre, among others. She was a 2020 finalist for Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate, and her short story, “Trudie’s Goose,” has been adapted into a film by Israeli filmmaker Liran Kapel.
In a minivan borrowed from Connie’s sister, Connie and Lori were on their way to the town of Locke. Connie drove, keeping her eyes straight ahead. So far there had been no road signs for Locke. On the first leg of the trip, Connie had jabbed at the radio buttons, changing the stations—music, talk, static, music—then, somewhere around Antioch, she seemed to reach a detente with the ominous murmur of NPR. Lori’s hearing was not the best, but she hesitated to ask Connie to turn up the volume. The two-lane road crossed back and forth over the river, over drawbridges and through the Sacramento delta sloughs. The morning turned sunny, the sky above them was a giant, blue bowl tinged gray at the horizons with the dissipating fog, and although there was a considerable amount of traffic, they were making good time.
This trip was Connie’s idea, Locke being the location of one of her favorite restaurants “in the world.” Lori had been to Locke once, years earlier, with her husband, Frank, before he ran off with his coworker. Now Lori was single again at sixty years old, and she had a roommate, Connie, all within six months.
Something rather surprising had transpired between Connie and Lori the night before. Somehow they kissed. Lori had learned that Connie was gay several weeks after they’d become roommates. Now Lori wondered if she might be gay, although this morning she wondered if it was just a phase she was going to go through, like the time she thought she could paint portraits or learn scuba diving.
If she was gay, Lori thought this trip might be their first official public appearance as a couple, though Locke was hardly more than a ghost town. If Lori remembered right, most of the buildings lining the two or three short streets were sagging and boarded up. There were a few art galleries, an antique shop, and Connie’s ultimate destination. “The restaurant is all the way in the back of a bar,” Connie had told Lori when she suggested the road trip. “It’s a hoot. There’s no menus or anything, the waitress just comes up to you and asks, ‘How do you want your steak?’”
In the days leading up to the weekend, the whole adventure had seemed like the kind of thing two women who were new friends and roommates might do together. There was a lot of planning for the three-hour trip, which began with the BART train from San Francisco to the suburbs to pick up the minivan from Connie’s little sister. Connie’s sister seemed to assume that Lori and Connie were in a relationship. Lori had lived her entire life without someone thinking she was gay, and now it was as though the kiss the night before had left a mark on her for everyone to see. As the sister handed the keys over, she requested that only Connie drive the minivan, “for insurance reasons,” and that they be careful not to leave any personal items in the van when they brought it back, “because of the children.” Lori wondered if the sister thought that she and Connie would be returning from the day trip with the back seats full of vibrators and strap-on dildos and pornography.
Lori tried to catch Connie’s eye and smile, but it seemed that Connie was in one of her moods. Sometimes Connie needed lots of quiet and coffee in the morning.
Connie’s sister stood in the driveway watching as they backed out, her arms folded across her chest. She wore such a thin dress. Lori didn’t know any women who wore dresses on a Saturday except her mother, God rest her soul. Thinking about her mother made Lori feel a tight inward cringe. Her mother would have been appalled if Lori turned out to be gay. Her mother would roll over in her grave except, of course, her mother had been cremated. What would be the cremated equivalent of rolling over in her grave? Lori imagined her mother’s ashes, far-flung into the ocean, quivering at the notion that she might have a gay daughter. Not in my family, those ashes would say. Or maybe her ashes had been consumed by a fish, then eaten by a bigger fish, then pulled out of the sea and were right now being eaten by a stranger dining in a restaurant. She could see some heavyset man forking a bite of fish with her mother buried in it into his mouth, and then the essence of her mother was assimilated into his bloodstream. Was that bit of her mother flipping over as well?
They passed a front yard where someone had built a ten-foot-tall Christmas tree made entirely of green wine bottles, stacked and glinting in the sun. It must have taken years to erect what was now a permanent holiday decoration. The whole thing looked like a lot of work—the assembling, the maintenance, the drinking.
“Will you look at that,” Lori said, turning her head as they zoomed past. Connie grunted. Frank, Lori’s ex-husband, had not been a morning person either. Perhaps she and Connie could landscape their own yard with recycling, though Lori wasn’t creative that way. She was a paint-by-numbers kind of person—not capable of designing anything but pretty good at following directions to recreate what someone else had dreamed up. They could make something out of Amazon boxes. Robots, maybe. They could erect cardboard robots all over the front lawn like snowmen.
Lori was pretty sure the neighbors would have something to say about that. Lori and Connie lived in the house that Lori once shared with her husband and where she had raised her daughter. She’d have to pay the high school boy she employed more to mow around robots.
They turned a corner and came upon a stop sign flashing red, warning bells ringing, a gate, and beyond that another drawbridge, this one as if the erector-set structure of the bridge had simply turned ninety degrees. A boat glided past, two tan women in bikinis and sunglasses preening on the bow. A suave fellow guiding the boat past the bridge pulled on a horn and the women squealed. Lori quickly looked at her lap. Was Connie watching those girls? If Lori turned out to be gay, would she start to ogle girls like her husband used to? Did lesbians ogle?
Lori had so many questions. She hoped Connie would snap out of her mood soon.
The bridge clanged back into place, the gate rattled to the right, and Connie eased the van forward. The tires slid queasily over the grates in the road.
The kiss. Or, more accurately stated, the make-out session. Lori tried to work through the details of how they’d gone from sitting on the couch talking about the last episode of Dancing with the Stars to what happened. There was wine, of course, a tepid red, but there was always wine on Friday nights. It was their private happy hour, a tradition they’d started soon after Connie had moved in. Was everything going to be different now? Lori liked having Connie as a roommate. She reminded Lori of those Renaissance paintings of Joan of Arc, steely-eyed and determined. Tall. The kind of woman who could pull off carrying a broadsword into a room but with a softness around the eyes. Lori had never really known anyone who was gay.
She didn’t want to stay in the house alone, but she couldn’t bring herself to sell. She had moved into her daughter’s old room, packed her married life into the master bedroom, and locked the door. She went in there every month or so to dust and vacuum or sometimes to just sit on the bed. The room was crowded with artifacts of her previous life—the wedding pictures where she and her husband looked like shocked children, the collection of owl figurines she’d received for birthdays and Christmas and Mother’s Day year after year. So many owl figurines. Her nicest dresses, hanging in the closet, collected a gray film on the shoulders. Her daughter’s stuffed animals and carefully folded baby clothes filled the bureau drawers.
Her daughter. Lori would have to come out to her daughter. There was an excruciating thought. Her daughter, who knew everything at twenty-five, who already thought her mother was a silly woman. Well, this would confirm it. Then her daughter would tell her father, even though Lori would swear her to secrecy, and her ex-husband would tell his new girlfriend. Lori felt another cringe.
What happened? The wine had made Lori weepy, Connie had laid a hand on Lori’s knee, Lori put her head on Connie’s shoulder, then somehow their lips connected and there was that first, tentative kiss, which Lori responded to with more enthusiasm than either of them expected. A lot more enthusiasm. She’d opened her mouth for God’s sake. Was this how it started? She knew people didn’t choose to be gay. Had something been lying in wait inside her all these years, a sleeping beauty waiting for another princess’s kiss?
“Finally,” Connie said, pointing to a sign. “Locke, four miles.”
The river had been playing hide-and-seek all morning, opening up in full view in front of them, a glittering brown jewel, before disappearing behind levees. Near the water, the air smelled like rotting garbage and mud, but now, as they moved away from the river, there was the smell of mown fields. Brilliant green stalks of a tall crop flew past in a blur on the right.
Connie eased the minivan down a one-way street and parallel parked effortlessly. Her lesbian superpower. Perhaps now Lori would be able to parallel park as well.
They clomped down the narrow street over the old, wooden sidewalks, Lori following a few feet behind Connie. Just like when she was married, she thought. Connie’s broad shoulders could be interchangeable with Lori’s ex-husband’s. Lori wondered if she and Connie would ever be the kind of couple to hold hands in public, oblivious to other people’s stares.
Of course first they needed to discuss if the kiss last night was the beginning of something.
In the back of her mind, Lori unpacked an incident from middle school, a memory shoved in a shoebox along with the embarrassing crush she’d had on her elderly art teacher and the too-short, blue gym romper with her last name written in black marker across her back. Buried under everything was that time she and Del Buchanan had stepped into a closet for “Seven Minutes of Heaven” during her first boy/girl party. As soon as the door had closed, Del shoved one hand down the front of her jeans and the other up under her shirt. Lori liked Del. He was a funny-looking boy with a lazy eye, a blonde Afro, and Birkenstocks. The popular kids at school called him Garfunkel and let him hang around with their crowd sometimes, like a court jester. He was a visiting celebrity to Lori’s crowd of gawky adolescents. At the party, when someone yanked the door back open after only thirty seconds, Del’s hands were still in the vicinity of where they had started, and Lori emerged, clothes askew, blinking into the light. Del draped his arm around her shoulders the rest of the night, as if he was claiming ownership, and then never acknowledged her existence again after that. The rumor around school was he had called their half-minute of heaven in the closet a “mercy grope.”
Perhaps the kiss last night had been some sort of charity on Connie’s part.
Now Connie pushed through a pair of Wild West saloon doors. The bar was just as Connie had described—the yeasty smell of mildew and despair hit Lori as soon as she stepped inside. A neon jukebox glowed and blinked in the corner. Hundreds of blackened dollar bills and several pairs of what looked like dingy panties were stuck to the ceiling. How did they get up there? Two pale men at the bar, bent larvae-like over their drinks, didn’t look up as she stood there blinking.
In the back, meagerly lit by a wan fluorescent light, were half a dozen picnic tables, the kind where the benches attached to the tables with metal clamps. Were the owners worried that customers would walk out with the benches? The red-and-white checked tablecloths that Connie had rhapsodized about were just thin sheets of patterned plastic stapled to the tables. A kitchen area was partially visible behind a half wall in the back of the room. All the tables were occupied with tourists in shorts and visors, middle-aged gray men, and brightly dressed grandmothers. High up on the walls were the mounted heads of every antlered animal Lori had ever seen: deer, various types of antelope, a moose, a rabbit. A thin woman carrying a line of plates on one tattooed arm swooped past them, saying, “Sit anywhere.”
“Isn’t this great?” Connie said, the most animated she’d been all morning.
They had to share a table with another couple. Connie and Lori sat at the far end, twisting awkwardly to get their legs under. Their tablemates were silent—the man sawing at his steak, the woman watching him with a hostage-like expression. The plastic tablecloth was grimy. The knife protruding from the peanut butter jar looked sticky.
They ordered their steaks. The waitress returned instantly with two slabs of T-bones that barely fit on the plates, a stack of plain white bread, and two Budweisers. No glasses.
Lori’s ex would be in heaven here. This was the kind of place he would have been thrilled to go to. When they were married, Lori always did what Frank wanted to do. Now he was off trying to please someone else. Her daughter had told her that the new girlfriend made him go to the ballet. A ballet! This was the same man who refused to go to a movie with her if he thought the title was too “girly.” Now he was going to ballets, and she was here, surrounded by dusty dead animals, drinking beer from a bottle.
She had spent her entire life going with the flow, like a cork bobbing along in a stream. She could trace each step along the path that brought her here, bouncing from one thing to another, buffeted along by what other people wanted. Here she was at twelve years old, pulling weeds in the front yard for a penny apiece, when the neighbor, Dr. March, drove by. He lowered his car window to ask if she was available on Saturday nights to babysit his two boys. After high school graduation she morphed into Dr. March’s receptionist at his general practice. Soon there was this patient, her future husband, staring at her each time he came in for his yearly physical. Their brief courtship, their wedding, her father giving her away in the church like he was passing the baton in a relay race, her mother nodding her approval—in retrospect it all seemed like someone else’s idea that she followed along without thinking. Even her daughter just fell into her life, just like that; they hadn’t even been trying and Lori was pregnant. Frank said one child was enough, though she thought two would be better, but Frank got a vasectomy. When Dr. March retired, he handed her over to the doctor who took over his practice, Frank fell in love with someone else, and she was now, perhaps, a lesbian.
Lori had no control over her own life.
Lori looked up at Connie, who was diligently cutting her steak into bite-size pieces. Connie’s lips were pursed with concentration. The desire that had swept through Lori last night seemed as if it had happened to someone else. How much was a person expected to just accept in life? Because this was too much. She would not now be gay.
Connie, as if aware Lori was about to speak, stopped working on her steak and set her knife, then her fork down beside her plate. She glanced over at the other couple and said, sighing, “You’re not eating.”
This is going to break her heart, Lori thought.
Connie sighed again. “Look,” she began, “I’m really sorry about last night. Things got a little out of hand. I’ve got be honest. I’m just not into you that way.”
Lori blinked several times.
“Oh God,” Connie said, glancing over at their tablemates, who were listening intently while trying to look as if they weren’t. The man’s face was horizontal with his plate and just inches above it, like he was trying to read the fine print on a contract. The woman stared pointedly at a handwritten sign on the wall that said No Outside Food, but she had reached up and tucked a strand of hair around her left ear. Connie said, “Don’t look at me like that. I’ve been through this too many times to fall for it again.”
Fall for what? And how was Lori looking at her? “I…I don’t know what—” she began.
“If you want to ‘experiment,’ you’re going to have to find someone else. I’m not going to be your lesbian Sherpa,” Connie hissed, leaning forward, “I’m way too old for that shit.”
Why, Connie was angry. Had she waited all morning until they were in a restaurant full of people? Had Connie thought she would fall apart? Afraid Lori would make a scene?
“I really like you. I do,” Connie continued, “but I do not appreciate you coming on to me like that.”
Lori started, “No, now wait a sec…” but for the life of her she couldn’t find the next word to say. All at once she felt old and tired and incurably stupid.
“I’ve got to pee,” Connie said, standing up. “Pull yourself together. It’s a long trip back.”
Connie lifted her legs out from under the table and over the bench, then headed toward the restrooms without looking back.
Lori opened her bag, pulled out a compact, and checked her face. The mirror only showed the small, round center of herself—a sliver of forehead, her graying eyebrows, two faded blue eyes in their pouches of wrinkles, the bridge of her nose. She looked shocked, like she’d just lived through something life-changing. Now that all the excitement was over, the couple who had been listening pulled themselves up out of the scaffolding of the picnic table.
The waitress came over and looked pointedly at Connie’s plate.
“Is your girlfriend finished?” she asked.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Lori answered.
The wistfulness in her own voice startled her. It was as if she’d lost her future, even though she wasn’t even sure it was a future she wanted. She felt tears well up and then spill over onto her cheeks. She was crying.
“Aw, honey,” the waitress said, sitting down backward at the end of the bench and curling her tattooed arm around Lori’s neck.
Her touch made Lori cry harder. She sobbed in a sort of gasping, gulping way.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay. You’re going to be okay,” the waitress said.
That kiss. The thing was no one had ever kissed Lori that way. It was the kind of kiss the characters experience at the end of every girly movie. It was so kind and sensual and slow, the way she had always thought a kiss should be but never was. It was a kiss that hadn’t asked anything of her but simply gave, touching all the womanly parts of her, reaching in and pulling at her shrunken ovaries and her useless uterus and her still gorgeous breasts that hadn’t seen the light of day in forever. That kiss had touched her heart. Her soul.
Lori dropped her head and let her body slump against the waitress. Her nose burrowed into the crook of the woman’s elbow—she smelled of kitchen grease and antiseptic soap. It felt so good to be held like this. The waitress patted Lori’s back once, twice, then settled on rubbing up and down with an open palm. Lori thought she could sit like that forever, just waiting for someone to tell her what to do next.
L.L. Babb lives in Forestville, CA with her husband, two cats, and a Doodle named Punky. She has been a teacher for the Writers Studio San Francisco and online since 2008. Her work has appeared in West Marin Review, The MacGuffin, Rosebud, and many other literary journals. She was voted first in the Sixfold fiction Winter 2019 competition. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.
HEAVY BREATHING IN NIGHT: Paintings by Morgan Motes
Morgan Motes’ work is a visual representation of the feeling of being alone in nature. It is an expressionistic attempt to return to a sublime and nuanced world often left out of our technologically mediated lives. His method is conversational and meditative, letting paint speak for itself, leading to compositions that are as organic and living as they are fragmented and foreign. His paintings are abstract, without temporal beginning or ending, and present a moment in its full affective force. Landscapes are not landscapes, but heavy breathing in night.
[ click images to enlarge ]
Ring Park / Acrylic on canvas / 2019 / 30×36
A few years ago, I spent a day hunting shark teeth in Gainesville, Florida’s Ring Park. It was very strange to un-bury shark teeth from a creek, miles away from any beach, from when Florida was underwater. The place felt ancient, I wanted to explore it with paint.
Black Water Sound / Acrylic on canvas / 2019 / 28×30
I was standing in the woods at night hearing the world undress.
Nocturne: Noontootla Creek / Acrylic on canvas / 2019 / 24×36
Noontootla Creek is a place I frequently camp at in north Georgia, I feel a kind of connection to it. My interest in this spot, in the way it makes me feel when I’m there, is what made me initially explore landscape painting.
Black Water Feeling / Acrylic and oil on canvas / 2019 / 30×30
A kind of chest of ground, imagining a heartbeat beneath a pond. This is what it feels like to be calmly held by earth.
Black Water / Acrylic on canvas / 2019 / 20×24
My initial study of water, thinking about the retention pond my apartment lives with.
Black Water In Weather / Acrylic and oil on canvas / 2020 / 36×36
A process piece, painted over and over again until it was nearly fully black, and then carved and washed away with turpentine, until a composition revealed. Then touched up to feel more water-like.
Self-Portrait In the Retention Pond / Acrylic and oil on canvas / 2019 / 24×36
If I see myself in the retention pond, then I am the retention pond, at least for that moment. This piece is about the inseparation of us and what’s outside of us, like becoming nature, the world itself. Also, retention ponds are cool and are not loved enough.
Motes was born in 1997, in the small town Palatka, Florida. He previously attended Florida School of the Arts in 2018, and is working on his BA in painting, drawing and printmaking, with a minor in creative writing, at the University of North Florida. Motes has shown his work in numerous juried group shows and in multiple solo shows in small galleries throughout Florida. Motes’s paintings have appeared in The Talon Review, and TheFine Print Magazine’s “Prairie” collection. His poems have appeared in West Trade Review. Learn more on his blog www.morganmotes.com/blog
I stand at the kitchen table, poking at a lump of raw bread dough.
“I don’t understand why it’s not rising,” I say.
My roommate wants to be helpful. “Sometimes it’s the temperature of the room,” she says. “It likes a dark, warm environment. Maybe put it in a cupboard for a while.”
Working with yeast is a negotiation; the yeast is in negotiation with the temperature and humidity in your home, and with the other ingredients you mix with it. My recipe tells me to combine the ingredients—salt, yeast, flour, water—and leave them alone for a minimum of twelve hours, preferably eighteen. Actually, the phrase used is “let dough rest,” as if the dough is feeling tired. I’m tired too, but I have a restless need to act in response to crisis. It’s difficult to come to terms with the idea that some things should be left alone.
I spend a lot of time in my room. I also like a warm, dark environment. I feel sick at the thought of the need that must exist outside my door, invisible to me for now, but terribly real. I think about all the people who don’t have health care and all the people who won’t make rent this month. Wanting to feel anything other than powerless, I’ve joined a mutual aid network that formed in my neighborhood. Nothing makes me feel useless and inadequate like organizing does, but nothing else I do feels as necessary. We create a Slack to organize communication, but I turn off notifications. So far, my contribution to the conversation has been suggesting we have another Zoom Meeting.
I text my mother and ask her what to do if my bread isn’t rising. I ask her if it’s possible there’s something wrong with the yeast. She responds:
ok so put a little water in small cup with a little sugar and heat a little so it feels warm on wrist
then put a little yeast in and see if it looks active after 5 min or so
if it does you should be able to use it in your bread
I try it and the yeast sinks to the bottom of the cup. After five minutes, it’s doing nothing. I explain this to my family over our weekly group Zoom chat. I tell them how the yeast came in foil packets, but I dumped it all into a plastic container because I thought it would be easier to have it all in one place. Who needs all that foil? I didn’t realize the airtight seal of the foil packet was keeping it alive.
I want to believe that something is happening that I can’t see, that there are invisible, elemental processes working on our behalf, even if it feels like nothing else is. I want to go to sleep and wake to find that the lump of matter on my kitchen table has doubled in size.
When my friend Ali left New York for a farm in Massachusetts, she gave me an aloe plant and a snake plant, promising me they were impossible to kill. The snake plant was dead within two weeks, but the aloe held on. It has an amazing ability to turn brown and shriveled and still somehow be alive. About six months ago, I realized there were at least four separate aloe plants in the pot, and I separated them into two pots with two plants each. I used new pots and a potting mix just for succulents. I watered every two weeks. The plants turned bright green and plump, and I felt very competent.
But the aloe slowly turned brown again. I suspect this is not another one of its fake deaths. This is the real thing. It’s eerie and wrong that it’s dying in the spring when it’s supposed to be coming to life.
Like everyone in New York, I hear sirens all day long. The Q58 bus is running limited service and no longer stops outside my window. It used to be that every morning at seven I would hear the gate on the first floor go up, and I would know that the coffee shop below me was open for the day. The gate has been pulled down for weeks, with a handwritten sign taped to it: GOOD LUCK OUT THERE! WASH YOUR HANDS AND COME SEE US APRIL 1 TBD. There are long passages of time, or maybe it’s just twenty minutes, when all I hear is birds, calling to one another from branch to branch.
The mutual aid network comes together in a matter of weeks. Systems and procedures are thrown up like scaffolding. Maybe we’ll come up with something better later, we say, and I feel excited to be involved in the creation of something new and urgent.
There is a new sound: the police will drive around the corner and make threatening announcements over a loudspeaker. “You are ordered to disperse. Stand six feet apart in order to maintain social distancing.” Then: “You, on the corner, in the red jacket.” I look out the window as the man in the red jacket hurries away. I’ve heard the police fine and arrest people for failing to properly observe social distancing, but I haven’t witnessed this myself. There’s only so much I can see from one window.
It’s hard to do anything that requires careful thought. My brain, like this city, has been reduced to all but essential functions. I can follow recipes; I take on some back end administrative work for the mutual aid network, keeping track of donations in a spreadsheet. I shower, eat breakfast, wash up, read emails, and decide not to answer them. I feel shame at not being able to rise to the moment.
Think about yeast or any simple organism: it doesn’t have a brain, but it knows what to do. I imagine it working in the dark and in silence, slow but determined, eyeless but endlessly sure of itself.
Here are some things I love about bread: the way it tastes; the way it smells; the sloppiness of dough; the way it comes together from so few ingredients it might as well be made of nothing; the way dough rises; the way it resists rising; the fact that it’s alive.
Our kitchen, like our living room, has bright orange walls. When I moved into this apartment almost seven years ago, I couldn’t get over the orange, which felt absurd but also a little oppressive. The kitchen’s walls are smooth, but the living room walls have a stucco texture. Any attempt at decorating is doomed to lose a battle to the death with orange stucco.
There’s one window in the kitchen, right above our building’s front door. The window’s always been a little broken; it never completely closes, and it lets in cold air in the winter. Sometimes it escapes the frame and I have to pound on it with my fist to get it back into its proper place. In the morning, the kitchen fills with light, and the orange walls glow, warm and beautiful.
Every third loaf refuses to rise, and the exact cause of this failure is still mysterious. If social media is to be believed, overconfident stay-at-home workers have collectively decided that making homemade bread is an easy, fun way to pass the time. I should have known better: this is work. It’s skilled labor, demanding skills I don’t actually possess, but I turned to it as if it could provide a kind of comforting escapism or an easy sense of accomplishment. There is no easy sense of accomplishment.
It can take eighteen hours for yeast to transform sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol, forming pockets of air inside the dough. I could spend the entire time waiting quietly at the kitchen table. But I fuss about the dough. I tend to it like a household pet. I can’t help lifting the tea towel to peer into the bowl, as if this precious thing might be lost, as if left to itself it might grow legs, maybe fur, and crawl away forever. There is, of course, no detectable change.
Louise Barry has been a visual artist, a curator, an administrator, a podcast producer, an organizer, an amateur baker, and a writer. She grew up in Northwest Pennsylvania, spent most of her adulthood in New York, and currently lives in Philadelphia.
Kevin rolled his ankle on August 25th and never stopped talking about it. The steep hill, the bearings, the cross street of killer cars, the way he caught air before landing on the compost heap placed-there-by-God so he didn’t snap his spine. He remembered I was the oldest but squinted at everyone else, like peering through an algae-covered aquarium.
It took two Christmases before we could listen without glancing at each other, grateful he didn’t catch the looks between siblings, nephews, nieces, and a brother-in-law who stopped skating. We tried to focus on his eyes, his bushy eyebrows, the scar like a question mark where his hair refused to grow. We embraced his omissions and errors, listening over and over, until the recall was as comforting as a fireside chat and the passing of mashed potatoes, his grip firm on an inverted bowl as he dumped peas into the potatoes. Time dropping through gaps and pauses in his sentences, erasing the bone-shattering way he landed… the tubes in his nose and throat… questions of responsiveness… retention… speech.
His story had a soft landing. No ICU. No parents pacing the lobby or leaving in separate cars. No mention of a third and final divorce. No reference to Mom moving to New England or Dad back in rehab, on a road trip, then another and another, then telling us not to call. No mention of Angie making a spectacle of herself at the hospital, then wiping her face, texting, and digging in her backpack for keys when Kevin didn’t wake up on time. She didn’t say anything before leaving. I guess we do that to people.
Kevin thinks Angie is on vacation with her family. We do not correct him. He’s going to propose when she gets back. He just needs a diamond and some help with his speech. He writes things down, then crumples it up and says he’ll just wing it. We don’t correct him. He is most happy when he talks about her. And the hill. And how he caught air. And how he wishes she had been there to see it.
Darlene Eliot was born in Canada and grew up in Southern California. After working as a social worker, a teacher, and an acquisitions library clerk, she began writing short fiction about life in suburbia. Darlene currently lives in Northern California with someone she adores and loves watching the weather change hourly as she writes her short stories.
Nine months into the global pandemic that has taken more than 200,000 lives in the US, it was finally my turn to go to the doctor. However, despite the ever-present fear and paranoia that turns every cough into COVID-19, the virus wasn’t my main concern: it was eczema, those dry, cracked, red, itchy patches I’d suffered for years. Flare-up after flare-up on the backs of my knees, the crevices between fingers, my elbows, and nearly everywhere else, with only weak, over-the-counter ointments providing scant relief.
Insured at last and thirty-five, I figured now might be a good time to establish a regular relationship with a doctor.
It was early September in Chicago, and the summer was still holding firm. But as a Midwesterner, I knew that could change at any hour. My wife, pregnant with our first child, drove me to the appointment and decided to stay in the car to limit her exposure to the omnipresent virus. My wait was short; I went through all the pre-doctor foreplay with the nurse: temperature check, height, weight, blood pressure, etc. The doctor arrived, sixtyish, with long, blonde-white hair, blue eye shadow, a studded bracelet, and a relaxed demeanor. We talked about what brought me in today.
A little embarrassed, I told her about my microscopically small annoyance amidst the global health crisis, and we went through my health history. I spoke about my depression, alcoholism, and allergies but assured her that I’m sober now and doing alright with my mental health, all things considered. Discussing all this was no small feat—my alcoholism and depression are still hard for me to talk about, but I thought it was important to be open and honest with this person who might play a large role in my health for years to come.
The doctor listened closely and eventually wrote a prescription for my eczema, then exited to grab some paperwork. She returned with a copy of my visit summary and a question. Pointing to the printout, with the information that the nurse had gathered, which we hadn’t discussed, the doctor asked, “Has your blood pressure been a concern before?”
The topic of my blood pressure had indeed come up every so often over the years, but I had routinely dismissed it. So much so that it hadn’t even occurred to me to bring it up in my earlier attempt to be open and honest with this doctor whom I was vetting to be my primary care physician. I’m not overweight, don’t smoke, don’t eat red meat, don’t drink anymore, and I run marathons. Aside from the stress stemming from having a child on the way, a presidential election with fascism on the ticket, the mishandled pandemic, and myriad stresses associated with being a Black man in America, I felt as healthy as ever.
The doctor began to lecture me on the overriding strength of genetics with these things. When she didn’t bring up the well-known prevalence of heart problems among Black men, I did.
She then shared an unnerving story about a popular marathoner who dropped dead due to a family history of high blood pressure. She continued, informing me that taking an individual reading isn’t always an accurate representation of the overall state of one’s blood pressure. Many things can affect any one reading: proximity to eating, my morning coffee, the stress of a doctor’s office, and so on. She recommended I keep an eye on it, perhaps make the occasional trip get it checked for free at one of the blood pressure monitors in front of pharmacies I usually see children playing with. Better yet, I could purchase an in-home blood pressure monitor. If in a few weeks I didn’t see the numbers trending down, we would have to look at some medications that could help.
While I’d suppressed and even written off the potentially grave dangers of high blood pressure, I had not been able to ignore the noisy flare-ups of my eczema: dry, itchy, annoying cracked skin. I’d chosen to address the easy problem while ignoring the grave issue of my blood pressure and heart health, which could ultimately lead to my untimely death.
This is precisely how white America has chosen to address our country’s central problem: race.
White America acknowledges the individual instances, the “flare-ups,” usually from an officer(s)’ murdering Black people for anything and nothing, like in 2020, 2016, 1992, 1968, 1919, 1859, 1831, 1739, 1619. George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, all lynched. For “possibly” passing a fake bill, for sleeping, and for jogging. Those are the names we’ve all learned nationally this year, but every city has their own list of names that are known more regionally. In my home city Chicago, it’s most recently Marcellis Stinnette, Laquan McDonald, Bettie Jones, Rekia Boyd, and many, many more stretching to Emmett Till and beyond.
In the pursuit of our incarceration, our murder, this past summer, our country has seen “flare-ups” in Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta, Kenosha, Portland, Chicago, and more, which may result in a review of “this” officer or “that” department. Flare-up after flare-up, this country, sick to the core, chooses only to address the most immediate and “annoying” problems while not addressing systemic and institutionalized racism, a disease that may eventually kill it.
The “flare-up’s,” in response to these racist murders, many of which have gone or will go unpunished, have resulted in hundreds of thousands protesting in the streets across the world, statues falling, looting, a few buildings set aflame, pitched battles between protestors and law enforcement, and as drastic as these reactions may seem, they remain disproportionate in response to the crimes against Black Americans.
For this, white America is lucky. One simply has to ask, what is the proportionate response to hundreds of years of slavery, murder, a prison-industrial-complex with us in its crosshairs, and the looting of billions of dollars in Black wealth?
This country only addresses the issues that are on the nightly news or those that break through algorithms to the top of our social media feeds, which both love to chase blood spilled and buildings burning. They need excitement; they want entertainment. While eruptions titillate, they can also distract and obscure the underlying issues that caused them. When the drama fades, the majority of white America will continue on as they had before, their outrage never having the sustaining force to create change as the only changes against systems of oppression in this country have ever been driven by those most oppressed.
Walking back to the car, juggling thoughts of my long-term mortality with the immediacy of COVID-19 and police violence, there isn’t much relief in getting this damn prescription for my eczema. In the car with my pregnant wife, I vent to her about my blood pressure, how I’m not sure what more I could do to manage it. We can all eat less salt, but when balanced against the major lifestyle changes I’ve made, this doesn’t feel like it would do very much.
In this case, as well as our country’s history of racism, the answer is less what I can do as an individual but rather as a part of a collective. As I must work with a doctor, pharmacist, and a network of supportive family and friends to take care of my health, those truly concerned with the state of racism in our country must find like-minded individuals to work with. It is only as a collective that people in this country can fight against the myriad forces determined to maintain the status quo, whether they be our local/federal government, workplaces, and complicit corporations.
As for me, I’m addressing the individual flare-ups of my eczema along with monitoring and treating the much bigger issue of my heart health with the urgency and action it demands. This country is running out of time to do likewise with race.
James Stewart III is a Black writer from Chicago. He earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MA from North Central College. He is currently finishing a novel about a multiracial working class family’s daily struggles and the costs they pay for loving each other. He also co-curates the text-based performance series “The Guild Complex presents Exhibit B” and is a managing editor of the magazine Critics’ Union. Stewart’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in 580 Split, Pangyrus, Another Chicago Magazine, and Cowboy Jamboree.
If there was a fly on the wall right now, my eyes would be following it. As there isn’t, I resign myself to banging my feet against the chair leg and watching my pencil roll across the table before I reach out and stop it with a finger.
Then again—roll, and then stop.
And again—roll, and then stop.
I like it.
I look at my dad. There’s a map of the Korean Peninsula. Goguryeo, Silla, Baekjae. It all seems like a long, long time ago.
I rest my hand in my chin, pencil sitting still in front of me now as I listen to him lecture about some kings or emperors.
“Oh,” I say, sitting up when I remember something. “Is this when the guy in the historical drama put on a blindfold and then shot a bunch of arrows and he threw them into the ground and it looked really cool and then he got them all really accurate?”
My sister snickers. My dad smiles. He looks stressed.
“Kind of, yes. Now pay attention, there were a lot of kings. When I was in fourth grade, we had to memorize all of them—”
I wish there were a fly on the wall.
We don’t get past the 6th century before the at-home Korean History lessons stop.
I sit on the couch, leaning forward until I’m almost falling into the television screen. The boar that rolls up in front of my eyes is gross and terrifying as it chases the protagonist through the woods. Some words are spoken, and letters flash across the bottom of the screen, too fast to follow.
“Mommy!” I shout, turning back to look at her where she’s standing in the kitchen. “Hurry up and read the subtitles for me!”
With a sigh, she wipes her hands on a towel. “Jisoo, you read the subtitles for your sister for a little bit while I finish up.”
“No, I can’t read that fast,” she complains, sitting back on the couch. “Just read it yourself.”
“But I can’t read Korean,” I whine. The characters are saying things to each other, but my eyes can only drink in the greens of the painted grass and the blues of the sky for clues.
The colors are nice, though, and the boy is cute.
I like it.
“There’s a curse, and he has to go do stuff.”
Eventually, my mom comes and reads the subtitles for me through the rest of the whole movie. I still miss the first ten minutes.
It doesn’t stop me from claiming it as my favorite movie.
It’s always hot in Korea. But maybe that’s because we only ever visit in the summer. I don’t like visiting my mom’s family because Masan Grandpa (Grandpa who lives in Masan, my mother’s hometown) always pinches my nose really hard and I can feel my boogers crush against the sensitive skin inside and then he shakes it and says some stuff I can’t really understand and it smells like cigarette smoke.
And Masan Grandma isn’t a very good cook.
I like visiting Busan Grandma (Grandma who lives in Busan, my dad’s hometown). She smokes, too, but she never pinches my nose and doesn’t smell very bad. She cooks really well, and she has a cat, sometimes, and if I walk down to the corner store with somebody older than me I can get one of the ice cream cones where you rip the paper as you unwrap it, layer by layer, and the radio will always be playing that pop song that gets stuck in my head but I can never remember.
Sometimes, there are comic books.
I like it.
Busan Grandpa doesn’t exist. Sometimes I wonder if he ever has. Usually, I forget that he’s supposed to.
This year when we visit Busan Grandma, she isn’t at her apartment.
This is nice, because it means I can keep Teddy Bear all to myself. My sister got a bear, and I got a bear, but for some reason, Busan Grandma kept my bear but not my sister’s, which so totally isn’t fair. I forget about Teddy Bear every time until we visit again, but when I do remember it’s not very fair. Busan Grandma says it keeps her company and reminds her of me, but I don’t need that, I just want my bear, and it’s dumb that she keeps mine instead of my sister’s when she could keep my sister’s instead.
We visit Busan Grandma in a hospital, and she comes out in a wheelchair and gives me and my sister each a brand new bill (and it’s new, new, because apparently the government only decided to start printing the 50,000 won note in June this year, which makes my dad mad because she shouldn’t have been going to the bank when she should be in the hospital). It’s bright yellow and has a picture of an old lady on it, who looks a lot like Busan Grandma.
Maybe it is Busan Grandma. I don’t get a chance to find out, because it disappears into my mom’s wallet.
My sister and I are wearing matching dresses, and there’s a bench in front of the hospital. We take turns jumping off the bench, holding our hands in front of us as the skirt flies up and we pretend, for a second in the middle of our fall, that we are Marylin Monroe.
I like it.
Busan Grandma watches, with a smile, before she has to go back inside.
Inside the hospital elevator, there is no button for the fourth floor.
This, my sister tells me, is the equivalent of not putting thirteen in hotels.
“Four means death, in Korean,” she explains. She always acts like she’s smarter than me, just because she’s older.
I mean, I didn’t know, but it’s still annoying of her.
There are some things happening, and I don’t really know what it is or if I remember it all, but later my sister will tell me that she saw our dad crying, for maybe the first and only time in our entire lives, but I didn’t, but it doesn’t matter because that would have been lame or weird or something because our dad never cries.
There is a warm drink, though, that I think I remember but maybe I don’t. It is creamy and smooth, made from powder that’s sweet and savory.
I like it.
It comes out of a vending machine, warm, and I’ve never had warm drinks from vending machines before. Korea holds a lot of firsts.
Busan Grandma dies.
She was sick. She had cancer. Don’t smoke cigarettes.
I think, maybe, this means I get to keep Teddy Bear. For real this time, without forgetting it again and leaving it behind at Busan Grandma’s house.
That will be nice.
I like it.
I wonder what will happen to her cat.
The funeral is… I don’t really know. I think, mostly, that I am tired. It is my first funeral. Another first.
There are many faces. Most, I don’t recognize.
The eternal question, “Where did you get so tan?”
“America.” The sun is bright and hot in America. There’s less pollution to hide the sun’s rays.
“You look like a country bumpkin.” Followed by the ever-persistent pinching and patting.
“Daddy’s an orphan now,” my sister tells me as we eat. That’s not very nice. But orphans are always the main characters in books—like Harry Potter. And Batman.
Somebody, a Masan Aunt, maybe, offers me some cider. It’s just Sprite, but Korean and sweeter. Sah ee dah.
I like it.
“Can I have some more?”
She says yes. I sip it, slowly to make it last. It’s gone too fast anyway.
I think I fall asleep against the floor mats. I don’t ever remember falling asleep, though. Ever.
Sometime between being awake and falling asleep, I realize that I don’t feel sad or want to cry. I wonder if I should feel sad. I wonder if I would feel sad if I became an orphan, too.
One time, when Busan Grandma visited us in America and became just Grandma for a while, we went out for a walk.
There were lots of lakes around my neighborhood, and lots of geese living in those lakes.
Grandma carried me on her back, running through the sidewalk covered in goose poop as we both yelled, so that I wouldn’t get any goose poop on my shoes.
I must have been very small, for somebody as old as her to carry me.
It was nice of her.
I liked it.
Jinna Han is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying Mathematical Economics with minors in Classical Studies and Actuarial Mathematics. Originally from Charlottesville, Virginia, she enjoys writing and playing music in her free time.
Today I stole a violin and sold it for drugs. It belonged to a blond-haired kid no older than fifteen. I took it after he walked out of church and started masturbating to a manga in the woods. Later, as I pushed off in the Value King bathroom down the street, I thanked God for anime tits. When I came down, I wondered why he made me.
This morning my parents kicked me out of the house for the fourth time in a year. They said it was for good this time, but they always say that. When I talked to Father Patrick about it, he changed the subject to rehab and NA. But I still have my dad’s iPad I stole and the shoelaces from his new running shoes, and I can’t let good shit go to waste.
Last night I slept in the grass behind the church rectory. Father Patrick lets me do this sometimes as long as Monsignor Hoffman doesn’t see. Under a glinting powder of summer stars, I fought the sick and cursed and cried. I shat in God’s bushes and pissed on his grass. And yet, in the morning, the gold sun bathed me in warmth and light.
Steve Gergley is a writer and runner based in Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, A-Minor, After the Pause, Barren Magazine, Maudlin House, Pithead Chapel, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. His fiction can be found here.
“Abstinence,” my health teacher says. “It’s the only guaranteed way to avoid STDs and pregnancy.” My mother never gives me the talk; my father’s girlfriend slides a book to me about changing bodies. Mine has already developed; I have the biggest tits in town.
“Sweet,” I think. I am eighteen, pre-rape. A boy picks me up in his convertible Mustang, newly-cut hair combed back, and I feel all 1950s. He comes to the door; doesn’t honk like the others. He brings me softly pink roses and packs a picnic of turkey sandwiches and merlot, and we eat under the stars, surrounded by people and music. We are at the Hollywood Bowl and I feel spoiled. It takes him over four dates just to kiss me. He is too nice for me.
“None of your business,” my boyfriend who doesn’t call me his girlfriend says. I ask him if he’s sleeping with Olivia. He’s the first guy who’s seen my naked body. The only man I’ve slept with; the second guy I’ve kissed. I am naive enough to say things like, “Well he looks Black but he’s actually Puerto Rican.” He’s old enough to drink.
“Rape,” I don’t say. I am sitting in a therapist’s home-slash-office, a few minutes down the street from where this non-assault occurred. I tell her something weird happened but I don’t really know what. She asks me to describe it. I cry. I answer her questions: He went to my high school, a few years above me. Read about my new apartment on a Myspace post. Invited himself over and I said okay. I pushed his hips off me, I didn’t want it, I didn’t know him, I might have whispered no, it might have only been in my head. I cry more. She calls it an unwanted sexual encounter, not that four-letter word though. Phew. I’m not part of the statistics. I don’t tell another human for over a decade.
“Slut,” people think. The men I’ve slept with, the ease of acquiring them, the places I’ve done it.
“Boring,” I say when I am in my twenties and sleeping with frat boys. Their fat tongues are grimy with beer and they don’t know what to do with themselves, or with me. I am blonde and thin and pretty enough to be acceptable and considered fuckable. I am practice.
“Harassment,” the lawyer in China calls my most recent assault. I’ve searched for a long time to find a lawyer who speaks English, who would take my case, who knows something about sexual assault. “We can send him a letter to tell him to stop bothering you.” I describe again the event of waking up with my male coworker’s hands all over my own body in my own bed; I tell her it is not harassment. I’ve lived on this Chinese island for less than three months. I’d planned to stay for two years to teach English at this school, but I leave in the middle of the night back to California after my principal tells me perhaps it was all a misinterpretation. Most important, though, is to keep a lid on all of this.
“I love you,” he says. It’s the first time a boy says this to me. It’s during sex so I can’t really count it. He says it over and over, rhythmically, so it cannot count. But he says it again on our way back from getting groceries. He pulls the car into the driveway, leans over to kiss me. He’s slow to get out; I worry about the defrosting fish. He whispers it in my ear and bolts out of the car, slams the door shut. “What!” I am giddy and grin dopily. I am beaming. I am floating. I am all the cliches and love songs and rom-coms. I want to dance in the streets. A boy loves me. My boyfriend loves me.
“Not a big deal,” most people say. Take it as a compliment that men holler at my body, that it’s just boys being boys, this is just how things are. These men aren’t actually doing anything. The professor who emails me to say that he is in the mood for a warm bath and half of a juicy peach. The hot dog vender who scrutinizes my womanhood: How old am I? Am I married? Do I have any children? Am I a virgin? The Uber driver who tells me how sexy I am, why am I going home alone when he knows a place where I can keep the party going. The police officer who takes the report about my stolen purse and texts me later that night to tell me what a fine ass I have. The masseuse who breathes into my ear how lucky my students are to have such a hot teacher. The coworker who presses his dick against my back when I’m trying to ring in an order. The boyfriend who quietly masturbates next to me when he thinks I’m sleeping. There’s nothing anyone can do, so whatever, smile smile smile, it’s fine. It could be a lot worse. It’s not a big deal.
“Un-fucking-believable,” I breathe out. My new coworker is the best lay I’ve ever, ever had and he knows it. Four years younger than me, he’s wholesome in an unsettling way, from Georgia, a teacher but training to be a doctor; studies bodies. He gives me such intense pleasure I feel empty of something yet filled with everything.
“Romantic,” I think. I meet a pilot at a bar in Greece. I was finishing a pizza and washing it down with a tourist-blue cocktail, when another loud drink was placed in front of me. The bartender nods to the man across from me. He winks. I feel beautiful. He holds my hand as we walk along the beach. We swim in moonlight and saltwater. In the morning, he rents a car for us to drive along the coast, visit as many beaches as we can. We dance in the sea, marinate in the sun, make out with urgency, and do it again at the next beach. He feeds me, massages me, buys me a Grecian blue ring, and we say goodbye. This sustains me for a while.
“Grandkids!” my mother says. I am the youngest of her four children in their 30s; none of us are married or have turned her into a grandmother.
“Wherever you go, there you are. There they are,” I realize. These assaults and flickers of misogyny and degradation: is it me? Is it men? The Bedouin man who shows me and my friend his tent, his village, who grabs my ass, grabs her tits, when we are in Jordan. We tell each other later that night, laughing nervously: It happened to you too! The frat boy who roofies me in Berkeley. But I was lucky that time; my boyfriend took me back home after I blacked out. The boy in Texas who can’t use condoms because he’s allergic, and, well, we are already here. The Venezuelan in New York who dances with me all night, who discreetly slips off the condom, comes inside of me, laughs and says he is so fucking drunk, man. Wasted. Ha. Ha. Ha.
I am the soft fruit they pick at over and over until one day there will be nothing left but my rotted core.
Christina Berke is a graduate student, teacher, and a Libra. Previous work appears in Literary Orphans and Ed Surge. In her spare time, she looks at dog adoption websites and adds air-purifying plants to several online shopping carts. Follow her sporadic tweets @christinaberke.
The police cruiser appeared as the dusty orange of dusk settled. The car’s lights and sirens remained off because it wasn’t an emergency. Rumors swept across the town. Katie had run away. She was abducted. She hurt herself.
Two days passed. No one saw Katie. She vanished over an eight-block area, disappearing between a pharmacy and her front door.
A week passed. Her mother navigated the house alone, abandoned years before by the man who called himself Katie’s father. Her mother taped pictures of Katie on telephone poles, storefront windows, and coffee house billboards. The refrain became familiar: Missing 14-year-old female, 5’2”, 105 pounds, short blonde hair. As if everyone didn’t already know. As if everyone didn’t catch their breath when they glimpsed chin-length blond hair. Katie’s mom wandered the empty town at night, a single beam of light from a slowly dimming flashlight that became a fixture in alleys, backyards, and parking lots. Seeing her searchlight, people called the police to report a burglar. After a few days, no one said anything. Then, nobody even noticed.
Two months passed. Her mother preserved Katie’s room. Katie’s laptop was open and her shoes nestled, laces tied, in pockets that hung on the back of the closet door. The bed was unmade, the sheets holding Katie’s scent. Her mother cleaned the room every day so the time capsule would be unchanged, the passage of time unmarked. People left casseroles and plates of sandwiches covered in Saran Wrap on her doorstep. The food piled up like a memorial coated in shimmering plastic waiting to be removed for the unveiling.
Four months passed. The doorstep was empty. Her mother lined each room and hallway with full-length mirrors. They captured every cob-webbed corner, nook, and cranny. In case Katie was tucked away in a special hiding place, waiting to shout “surprise!” In case they had forgotten to look under a bed or behind a couch or in a closet. She angled the mirrors towards the sky because maybe Katie had learned to climb walls and ceilings, perched there, waiting to be found.
Six months passed. Katie’s mother barricaded herself in the house. She kept the lights off because the darkness made the line between reality and hope a little fainter. She roamed the halls like a night watchman looking for an intruder. She whipped her head around without warning, attempting to catch her unsuspecting daughter’s face checking in on the mortal world from behind the glass. Katie’s mother gazed at herself in the reflective glass, tracing the bones of her face, trying to draw her daughter’s smile, her laugh.
Two years passed. Katie’s mother died on a Tuesday night. The police cruiser parked outside the house at dusk, its lights and sirens off because it wasn’t an emergency, the damage already done. Rumors prattled on loose tongues. She swallowed a handful of pills. She starved herself. She lost the will to live.
Katie’s mother left a handwritten note. She asked to be buried with a mirror peering down at her body so that Katie could see she was at peace.
The officer crumpled the note and tossed it into a trashcan filled with shards of broken glass. As it settled in between pieces of glass, the paper crackled, a faint whisper, a soft exhale.
Neal J. Suit is a recovering lawyer. He has short stories published or forthcoming in Five on the Fifth, Literally Stories, Mystery Weekly, Cleaver, Bandit Fiction, Blue Lake Review, and (mac)ro(mic), among others. He can be reached on Twitter @SuitNeal.
Before I learned that wounded birds are rarely rehabilitated in treehouses, I studied acoustics in a small yellow farmhouse. It started out elementary, like any other subject. A man’s loud voice: this is anger. Mother’s soft voice ducking beneath: this is fear.
With plenty of practice, I advanced quickly. By the second grade, I could distinguish, in a fraction of a second, which thumps and bumps meant bruises, and which were harmless. I learned not just amplitude but pitch and tone. When his voice hit a certain frequency, I knew it was time to hide in my room. From my flimsy shelter I drilled in the dark: the crisp echo of cowboy boots across an empty living room…the scuffle of soles.
After eight years, Mother decided I was ready for advanced acoustics and moved us in with a man who walked on rubber soles and whispered through walls. When test times came, I performed beyond anyone’s expectation. I had a sense of sound like an owl, which, by the way, can hear the heartbeat of a mouse beneath feet of snow.
There was no snow that Christmas morning, but I heard a mother, my mother, being choked behind a bedroom door. From three rooms away I was the only one to hear it through the wrapping paper and video games and attempts at joy. He couldn’t trick me with his carpet-padding and flesh-muffling. His bone-bending. Suffocation. Strangulation. My education had been long and thorough.
One date night, I heard his van pull in the driveway too soon. I listened for the sound of its doors closing but nothing. For too long, nothing. When the engine revved, I knew I would have to save her again. I walked outside and pulled at the passenger door. Mother’s new dress was torn. Shadows formed beneath the skin of her smooth, brown cheeks. He sat on top of her, fist cocked, hair wild.
“Get out of here, you little bitch!” he finally roared.
And I did. I went inside and dialed three numbers on a landline, then listened as hard as I ever had. I heard them coming all the way from the highway.
Not long after that, class ended. But the practicing never did. Sometimes, on our dinner dates, my husband complains that I’m distracted again. And I remind him…about the owls…about the snow.
B. Bilby Garton is a senior in the Creative Writing Program at Central Washington University. She lives in a small farmhouse on a native salmon stream with her husband and a cat named Mouse. She has been published in Brevity and has a piece forthcoming in Bending Genres. Reach her at [email protected].
Cars are backed up two blocks in line to pull into a big-box store. It’s still cold in the suburbs of Chicago and a frenzied mob of people rushes into the store in puffy coats to fill their carts with non-perishables: 12-packs of toilet paper, tubes of Clorox wipes, bags of rice, arms full of assorted canned vegetables. An argument breaks out between two people staking claim to the last box of tissues. A woman berates a worker in the chemical aisle because all of the disinfectants have disappeared from the shelves.
I work as an automotive technician in this big-box store, a one-stop-shop for everything essential: frozen hamburger, fish oil capsules, adult diapers, flat-tire repair. In late March, I clock-in five minutes late, as usual, and strip bare in the dank dressing room that smells of oil and used socks. I ease the crisp polyester pants of my automotive uniform over my knees. The uniform is oversized, made for a man’s body. It swallows my curves, broadens my shoulders, makes me look stronger than I really am. When I walk into the auto shop, the manager tells me that our department is closed indefinitely. Climbing in and out of other people’s cars is unsanitary and has become dangerous. The manager spreads the auto technicians across departments to help with a store-wide effort to disinfect the shelves. He hands me a towel and a spray bottle of a bleach-water solution. Start scrubbing.
Thirty-five workers crowd into a small break room, shoulder touching shoulder, nerves frayed, tired feet. The city is shutting down. The store manager tells us that we will receive a letter indicating that we are essential. We are to carry this letter with us at all times and to report to work unless we are sick. This is not business as usual. We are not to take ibuprofen and work through chills or a sore throat. If we are sick, we must stay home for 14 days without pay. Unless we test positive. We will get paid time off if we test positive. We are essential. Families need their groceries and the company needs our sacrifice. I look over at Lee while the managers start praising each other for their sacrifices. Her brow is furrowed and she is playing with the rings on her fingers, twisting and removing them, rubbing them between her hands. Our eyes meet and she leans over and whispers. I have COPD. Does that mean that I could die if I get it? I take her hands in mine and squeeze them. Feeling the warmth of her well-rubbed rings, I realize that my fingers are freezing. Two managers lead a company cheer at the front of the room and insist that our mouths do the chanting.
The cleaning only lasts for two weeks. We scrub floors and clean behind shelves, scrub oil-caked banisters, disinfect cash register keys. And then, we are finished. We are passed from one department to the next, completing menial tasks. I work in nine-hour shifts moving merchandise forward on shelves. Management says that items look more attractive to customers if they are neatly stacked, perfectly flush with the outermost edge of the shelves. Under the stark glare of fluorescent lights, I declutter hanging displays of Gorilla Glue in hardware, straighten out boxes of light bulbs: 60-watt incandescent, 40-watt incandescent, 60-watt LED…
Cashiers start rationing the plastic gloves that management places near the registers. The front-end supervisor warns against wastefulness, insists the cashiers share a single box of gloves per shift. Lee tells me that she has been quietly hoarding gloves. She hides them in her coat pockets, shoves wads into her purse when no one is looking. She is worried about getting sick, but she can’t afford time off without pay. She starts wearing a mask that her niece sewed her from the cloth of a pillow case. One day, a supervisor scolds her for violating the dress code. He orders her to remove her mask. You are scaring the customers.
In the break room, I sit with John from maintenance who is complaining that his knees are hurting him again. On television, we watch nurses weeping into masks, goggled men in plastic suits carrying stretchers, bare-chested patients who are unconscious, some gurgling, some hooked to tubes. John mutes the volume with the remote and cuts into his microwaved Salisbury steak. I just can’t with this shit today. It’s too damn much. I want to ask him how he’s coping with all this. Does he miss the little things, like going to the diner across the street after late shifts, drinking his coffee slow with a plate of steak and eggs? Does the stench of disinfectant linger on his clothes, does it follow him home? Does he wake in the night, like me, with nightmares of the dead, with his chest burning? I start to ask but I stop myself, realizing that John has a distant look on his face, like he’s there but not there. His hands are moving, but his mind is somewhere else, a quiet defiance that helps him survive long shifts on his knees scrubbing toilets and wiping up dust. Later he tells me that his father is trapped in a nursing home in a neighboring suburb. Forty patients tested positive, and the whole building is on lockdown. They won’t let the patients leave their rooms, and family visitations are banned. John fears that the loneliness might kill his father. Every Sunday, he holds his son on his shoulders in the yard outside the nursing home. John swears that through the tint of the thick paned windows, he can see the life fading from his father’s eyes.
I wake up one Saturday with a raw throat, shaking with chills. I wrap my face in a scarf and drive to Urgent Care. I take deep breaths in and out while the doctor listens to my lungs. She checks my throat for strep but refuses to give me a Covid test. I plead with her. I am worried about exposing my coworkers. What if I’m spreading it to people in the aisles? She tells me that because of a shortage of tests, they are only testing patients who can’t breathe. She sends me home with a note to quarantine, and I stay home for 14 days without pay. I lie in bed thinking about what I would do if I had children to feed.
After I return to work in late April, the company starts implementing new safety measures. Neon green arrows are taped to the floor to direct the flow of foot traffic. Plastic shields are installed in front of cash registers. All workers are now required to wear masks. Before clocking in, we stand in line and wait for a manager to hold a scanner to our foreheads to take our temperatures. Every day, she repeats the same questions to each person in line: Do you have a sore throat, fever, unexplained cough? Have you lost your sense of taste or smell? Have you tested positive for Covid-19? Sometimes she abbreviates: Any symptoms? Tested positive? Sometimes, only: Yes or no? The company hires a wave of new temporary workers, and they cut everyone’s hours. The store is so short-staffed, we can barely keep the shelves stocked. One day all but four chairs in the break room disappear and one of the microwaves is missing. We stand in line to warm our food, hover in corners to eat, sit on the floor to rest our feet.
Management calls a group of us to the backroom to unload the truck that comes daily with more merchandise. I see John, hear him cursing to himself after he is ordered to abandon his cleaning to unload the truck. He climbs into the pitch-black truck bed and starts pulling down boxes, loading them onto a conveyor belt. The rest of us wait for the boxes to float down the line so we can shove them onto pallets to take out to the aisles. It’s summer and the backroom is sweltering. We’re all sweating and struggling to breathe under our masks. When John pulls down his mask to catch his breath, I see a manager bolting from across the room towards the truck. John, pull that damn mask up! If I see that mask down below your nose one more time, you’re outta here. John pauses and looks him hard in the face. Without a word, he pulls his mask up slow.
In mid-summer, I get a call from an old friend. Except to go on walks and pick up groceries through a curbside service, she hasn’t left the house in months. She works from home for her nonprofit job, stares at a screen eight hours a day. She tells me she is going stir-crazy. She misses museums and getting lost in crowds. She started pacing the house for exercise, and she’s been baking a new batch of cookies every three days. Stress baking, she calls it. When she comes home from picking up groceries, she strips off all her clothes and leaves them in a pile by the door. She sanitizes door handles. I can’t help but laugh in shock when I hear this, realizing for the first time that there are people who’ve actually been experiencing the last four months from the confines of their own homes.
The crowds at the store never die down. We work through them. We push past hordes of frantic hands to pull items forward on shelves: boxes of tea, bottles of salad dressing, cans of condensed milk. The green arrows directing foot traffic are peeling off the floor and some of the plastic shields by the registers have fallen down. The managers stopped putting out gloves for the cashiers. Lee doesn’t wear her rings anymore. She complains that her hands are dry and cracking from the sanitizer. There’s a tired look on her face all the time now, and the wrinkles around her eyes are more pronounced. She tells me that she could deal with the exhaustion if she could just see her grandbaby every now and then. Her daughter thinks that her job is a hazard and won’t bring the baby over because she’s afraid Lee will get sick and spread it.
Sometimes I put on my old automotive uniform when I need to feel stronger. Greg, who was just hired to work in hardware, compliments me on how I wear it. He asks me if I miss working on cars. I tell him that I don’t miss the smell of oil that lingered in my hair, nor the stinging cuts that always marked my fingers. But I yearn for the satisfaction of physical labor—the feeling that my work is useful and the joy of going to sleep with aching muscles. I tell him there is a hidden strength that I conjured in myself after months of climbing beneath cars, working beside men who intrinsically expected my failure. How one day, with my right arm extended into the bowels of a truck, my hand feeling around blindly for an oil filter, I heard bones in my back cracking. I stretched further in and grabbed hold of the filter. Oil dripping down my armpit, I could feel my spine straighten after a lifetime of slouching.
Later, Greg and I stand beside each other and pretend to work, moving extension cords and surge protectors around on the shelves. He tells me he plays the piano. He taught himself on a cheap keyboard, saved up for ten years to get the real thing, with marble keys and red wood. Music, he tells me, is the only way I know how to get lost completely. He likes to play in the early hours of the morning, while his kids are asleep and the apartment is dark and still. He pulls out his phone and shows me a video of himself playing Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor in low light. Eyes closed, he sways back and forth, his fingers falling heavy, pounding on keys.
As the months drag on, monotonous hours blend into one another and I can no longer distinguish the days of the week. The store manager tapes motivational quotes to the break room doors, hoping to boost morale. Hauling a heavy cart stacked with boxes, I pass John in one of the grocery aisles. He is sweeping up glass from a bottle of orange juice that was left broken on the floor. He tells me that his hours were cut again and he’s struggling to pay his bills. One day, I’m not gonna stand for this anymore. One day, I swear, I’m gonna lay down this broom and walk out for good.
Beneath the rumble of crowds and the beeping cash registers, a faint murmur is rising. I tell John that sometimes, when I close my eyes and listen, I can hear it. Drowning hands stretching toward shore. Backs bent but chins lifting. A clamor of voices.
Samantha Campagna is a writer and educator born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She has degrees from Columbia College Chicago and North Carolina State University and has worked as a waitress, a public school instructional aide, a flight attendant, a retail cashier, and an automotive technician. She currently resides in Christiansburg, Virginia, and is working on a short story collection.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR COHABITATING WITH AN AGING PARENT by Susan Hamlin
Number of people required:
One still-independent ninety-year-old mother
One more-than-middle-aged child
10 x 12-foot guest room that used to be your brother’s bedroom (yours is now “the computer room”).
6 x 8-foot guest bathroom that used to be yours and now has meticulously arranged, starched cotton hand towels that you are not allowed to use.
One twin bed of the pair inherited from your grandmother’s front bedroom.
Half a closet with hangers foraged from other closets in the house all full to the brim with parent’s seasonally color-coordinated warm-up suits.
A couple of drawers cleared out of a dresser that normally holds Christmas wreaths, centerpieces, and the sixty-year-old green and red felt elves whose heads won’t stay on anymore.
A 6 x 13-inch space on bathroom counter to arrange your toiletries since cupboard space is occupied by backstock of abovementioned not-to-be-used towels. Electric candle, perfume bottle collection, and other knick-knacks must not be moved.
One shelf, high up, in kitchen cupboard for your tea and other “weird stuff” i.e. flaxseed, raw honey, etc. Same for fridge—one tiny corner for yogurt, kombucha, and crème fraîche.
One end of dining room table for use as an office.
Step 1: Adapt to daily schedule
6:30 a.m.: Bring in newspaper off damp lawn. Turn on heater.
7:15 a.m.: Do not insist on making fresh coffee because “decaf instant warmed up in the microwave is just fine.” Plus, French press that you bought takes up space on the counter.
9 a.m.: By this time newspaper has been read cover to cover, including the funnies, obituaries, and bridge problem, which must be solved on Saturdays. Parent will still be in her bathrobe.
12 p.m.: Eat lunch whether you’re hungry or not, otherwise you will hear “Have you eaten anything yet?” over and over until you do.
5:30 p.m.: Cocktail hour (do not be late). A moment in the day to be savored.
6 p.m.: Prepare dinner, which is always appreciated and described as “gourmet.” Parent will make salad and sit at kitchen table to keep you company.
6:30 p.m.: Watch local news, suppressing comments about newsworthiness of lost puppies. Then watch “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” back-to-back. You will be beating contestants in no time.
8 p.m.: Load dishwasher only after pre-washing every plate, glass and utensil. Follow strict stacking rules that are shouted from the family room each night.
8:15-9:30 p.m.: Watch Netflix. Do not argue about how it works.
Step 2: Get involved
Her friends Listen to stories about them, even about ones you don’t know. Become invested in their children, the children of their children, their jobs, their health, their marriages and their divorces (a word spoken in a hushed tone, along with “gay” and “lesbian”).
Drive them to their bridge games. Help set up card table and folding chairs when it’s parent’s turn to be hostess. Then get out of the way. Use free time to get work done, uninterrupted.
Don’t take it personally when she tells them “It’s so nice to have someone in the house,” as if you could be anyone and she’s just happy to have anybody’s company.
Never answer landline when she’s not home. It might be one of the friends you do not know, but awkwardly, they know everything about you (except that you’re a Democrat and how many times you’ve been divorced).
When lunching at their homes (an excuse to get their good china out), reminisce about times spent with them when you were growing up. With the hope that their hearing aids are turned up, ask after their children, most of whom you haven’t seen in forty years. Some, however, are your lifelong friends. This makes everyone happy, even you. Avoid expressing political opinions.
Make Appointments Insist (she procrastinates). Don’t talk to repairmen or doctors as if she were not there. Allow her to be charming while you take notes and ask occasional questions.
Step 3: Navigate the family
Your cousins Talk about family taco recipe and whether it should still include American cheese like grandmother used or if it’s acceptable to switch to cheddar. Also discuss how the naval base has been turned into a park and shopping center (both subjects may elicit strong viewpoints but are always safer than talking politics).
Your brother Go for early morning walks along the beach with him and his dogs, Duke and Mason. Wait until he’s in a good mood to ask for help around your mother’s house.
Step 4: Dress to go out
Try to remember which outfit your parent said you looked pretty in so you can wear it when you see her friends. If, when you wear something else, you notice a disapproving look on her face, do not say, “What? Mom, I’ve been dressing myself for fifty years.” You will not win this one.
Step 5: Visit your father’s grave
Enjoy view of harbor and listen to sea lions barking. Talk about how he loved to dance and how gently he teased the grandkids. Do not come here on overcast days.
Step 6: Find time for yourself
Go to yoga class. This helps with Patience requirement.
Repot patio plants that have grown into a jungle. Plant an herb garden. It will come in handy when fixing “gourmet” meals.
Invite old friends over for cocktail hour. They adore your parent, who was their Brownie leader and went to school with their parents, as well as their aunts and uncles.
Step 7: Learn from her
The skill of shopping for specials. Never pay more than ninety-nine cents per pound for tomatoes.
How to make coq au vin (even though you’ve lived in France, hers is the best you’ve ever tasted).
What the neighborhood was like before. Drive past the house where she was born and check to make sure that the Torrey pine tree her father planted in their front yard when she was five has not been cut down. Try to imagine that the hipster bar on the corner of Newport Avenue used to be the soda shop where she worked after school.
How not to take things too seriously. Laugh about the taillight you broke backing out of the garage and the dead car battery in the grocery store parking lot.
Step 8: Don’t take any of this time for granted.
Originally from California, Susan Hamlin has lived in Paris since 1989. She studied dance at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her BFA, and earned her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. After working in New York as a choreographer and in several art foundations, Susan moved to France where she has been teaching dance history at Sarah Lawrence College, Paris for the past twenty-eight years. Her written work has appeared in the New York Times Travel Section, several travel blogs, and the online art magazine Critical Read. Her short story, Portrait of the Artist’s Family at an Exhibition, appeared in the anthology Where We Started, edited by AM2 Bruxelles in 2019.
Truckers’ wives warned me it was a lonely life, unless I was willing to travel with you. When we go truckin’ together in my mind, I see so much life out the truck windows as the towns and cities unfold along the highway. I’m with you as you drive into the night sundown and as you drive into the morning dawn. No atlas could ever tell the way roads are carved into the maps of memory.
When I see your truck rolling out of the driveway, I wonder about the crates in back. How many people will eat from the boxes of cereal you’ve driven from X to Y? How much of your life has been devoted to trucking bread from a factory to a restaurant where teenagers slap together chicken sandwiches before shoving them into paper bags?
When you call me, you say keep on truckin’ babe. Lord I feel alive. I love it that you can feel me here, on this day, at home. And since we’re not truckin’ together, I don’t worry about how it would look to see the two of us truckin’ in the same box, because we’d seem… pitiful, I guess. Needy. Don’t you think?
But okay, and then occasionally I DO imagine us trucking next to each other’s arms, me doing my thing and you doing your thing but next to each other when we do it. Smarty pants kids watching us the way they do, and what all of that would mean, what all of that would say about us. And maybe that’s it, until I met you, I was truckin’ into the grave. It was bad, I tell you, being so still. It was very hard to bear, hard to breathe.
Since I’ve known you, babe, I’ve been trucking with you every night, and when the lights are low, I’m going there with you. We don’t use words, don’t say it in words, can only hear each other with headphones smashing the deafness from our ears.
Baby, keep on keep on!
And the day is old, but the night is young and the food so bland it’s not even bad anymore, because bad is an actual thing. The world is ticking here behind my eardrums, truckin’ me less angry, truckin’ me into your lonely truck. Truckin’ me the way you do and only you can do, with me.
No, I say to stillness, deafness. You can’t stop a feelin’ when it comes. Everything in life is truckin’, unless you’ve given up.
You eat, sleep, and live in a box on wheels. I eat, sleep, and live in a box on land.
Someone has to truck the bread, the sliced pickles, the mayonnaise, the chicken, the napkins, the paper bags, the ketchup packets, and the fries. People don’t like big trucks taking up the highway in caravans, but no one likes to see grocery stores with empty shelves. Nothing happens without you. Without truckin’. Because you need to come home, keep truckin’, babe, I whisper, though my heart is breaking.
Meg Pokrass is the author of seven flash fiction collections. Her work has recently appeared in Electric Literature and Washington Square Review. She is the two-time winner of San Francisco’s Blue Light Book Award, and serves as series co-editor of Best Microfiction.
Aimee Parkison is the author of five books. Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman won FC2’s Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. Parkison is Professor of English at Oklahoma State University and serves on FC2’s Board of Directors. More information about Parkison and her writing can be found at www.aimeeparkison.com
Maureen could clearly remember the day in December the two young professors moved in across the street and how much more she respected them back then. It was a shame that Mrs. Graham had passed, really, but Maureen liked the idea of two yuppies coming into that stuffy, gray house, sprucing it up a little bit, and bringing some fresh energy to the neighborhood. And professors, no less! With any luck, they’d be the first step in turning Manasquan into a kind of cultural center along the Jersey Shore where intellectuals and artists lived and worked, anything that would warrant it being bolded on maps. Each box they pulled from their U-Haul held that dream.
When she first met the professors, they had been so warm and kind, so cute behind their nearly matching pairs of glasses, that Maureen, for the first time in her life, considered greeting her new neighbors with a pie. She decided that a pie would be too kitschy, but she held the idea of her neighbors’ potential close to her heart like a locket. For good reason, too, because in a matter of weeks the couple had painted over Mrs. Graham’s gray with a tasteful, beachy yellow that promised to melt the winter that surrounded it.
“You better watch it,” Maureen’s friend and neighbor Donna told her on their routine evening walk. “The professors are looking to upstage you.”
Maureen laughed because “nicest house on the block” was not a title she was willing to part with easily. Every angle of her house and yard was carefully designed and consistently kept. She resembled her yard and vice versa. They were both lean, neat, and smooth, and she spent plenty of time and money to keep them that way. If the professors wanted to tire themselves out in competition, have at it. It would only help her property values to have something pretty to look at across the street.
But after the paint dried and winter died for spring, it became clearer that surface level touchups were enough for them, and they were content to neglect the harder maintenance needed for decent curb appeal. Their grass grew long and thick like a sheepdog’s hair. It hurt Maureen to look at it. In the evenings, she’d stand by her bay window and chew on her upper lip in a confused scowl until Donna knocked on her door promptly at eight o’clock.
“Can you believe what they’re doing?” Maureen would start.
“You mean what they’re not doing? Ugh! I don’t know how you could let your house get to that point,” Donna said. “It’s laziness like that that I can’t stand.”
“It’s a lack of pride is what it is. These kids don’t have that. They don’t know what it means to work for something and be proud of it. They could at least hire someone to cut the grass.”
Maureen peered over her shoulder to bring the yard back into view, as if to remind her of what she was criticizing. Even from down the block, she could see the sharp property lines where the neighbors on either side kept their grass short and tidy.
“You know what I think?” Donna said with a click of her tongue. “I think one of their parents bought that house for them. I doubt two professors could afford a house like that at their age. They don’t want to care about that house because it’s not theirs. They’re not paying someone to cut the grass because they can’t afford it.”
“I’d like to believe that,” Maureen said, thinking. “I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
“That’s what makes the most sense to me.”
And for days Maureen tried to see if it made sense to her too. Her husband, Irv, seemed indifferent towards a yard he could choose not to look at, so he was little help. Maureen was paranoid that a crumbling house across the street would reflect poorly on her, her house’s curb appeal, and the entire street’s reputation. Perhaps the professors really were just too poor to hire a lawn service, a thought that made Maureen sympathetic, though still dissatisfied.
“There’s no shame in being poor, but there’s shame in being dirty,” her mother always told her.
She couldn’t otherwise justify why the couple would jeopardize the neighborhood like this.
But, as much as she wanted to believe this, she couldn’t without proof. She sat by her window with a magazine spread over her lap but paid almost no attention to it. She nibbled the manicure off her fingers as she waited for one of the professors to show themselves. Professor Klein came out to get the mail, and Maureen decided she ought to do the same.
Klein was tall and handsome, even if a bit lanky, with wavy brown hair verging on curly. To Maureen, he looked like a bookish dweeb, like the kind she used to tease back in high school who never grew a harder shell. If he weren’t a professor, Maureen had a difficult time picturing him surviving as anything else. He didn’t look like he could handle being a lawyer, like Irv, or a manager or a doctor.
With mail in hand, Maureen waved at Klein and invited herself to his side of the street. As they exchanged pleasantries, she swept her foot across the grass and watched it unfurl in waves.
“You know,” she started, “I can give you the number for the lawn service I use. They do wonderful work, and they’re very reasonable.”
“I appreciate it,” Klein said with a clean smile, “and I can see that they do great for your house. But I think Renée and I are fine taking care of our lawn on our own.”
“Are you sure? I know I could get them to give you a free consultation.”
“For now, quite sure, but if we ever change our mind, I’ll give you a knock.”
Maureen feigned a smirk. Klein gave her a little salute with the envelopes in his hand and retreated back into his house. On the way back inside, Maureen knelt down to pull a weed that had sprouted in the gully between her grass and the sidewalk and threw it in the garbage.
“Take care of it themselves!” she scoffed at Donna on their evening walk. “That’s what they think they’re doing? Are they blind? You would think that professors would have more of their wits about them than that.”
“It’s just selfish,” Donna said, and Maureen was relieved that someone agreed with her disgust.
“Do they have any idea what this will do to our street? No one will want to live here anymore, and everyone’s property values will go down. We have a community we have to think about. We have to think and care about our neighbors.”
“This is exactly what happened to my sister Sue,” said Donna. “They had one bunch of slobs move in next door, and the next thing you know the neighborhood is trashed!”
Maureen shook her head and bit her lip.
“Ah! You know what I heard? The wife is pregnant now.”
“Renée? Who told you that?” said Maureen.
“The Myers, next door to them, they told me. Now, I don’t know how they know, but I saw her yesterday and I swear she had that glow to her. And she’s a little rounder around the waist too.”
“Well that shouldn’t be hard to notice. She’s a twig, that one. I can hardly imagine her ballooning like that on those little toothpick legs.”
But Maureen could imagine beyond that, all the way to them having a toddler running through grass that towered over its head, getting knotted and tripped up in it, falling, crying, blowing on dandelions, growing more weeds, cuts, scrapes, bruises, bug bites, rashes, hay fever, Lyme disease…
“Well they better get their act together,” Maureen said, “because if they’re not responsible enough to take care of their lawn, they’re not responsible enough to take care of a child.”
The summer went on hot and swampy. There was regular rain followed by relentless heat, keeping it humid almost all the time. That and the salty breeze from the ocean made the days unpleasant and the nights only marginally better. But it was a great time to grow. Maureen hired her lawn service to heavily fertilize her grass and trim it once a week on Thursdays—perfect for the weekends. She ordered some tropical flowers to place in pots across her property. They would only last the year, of course, but Maureen liked to have nice things while she could.
All around the town, people seemed to be pursuing similar goals. Every day the overlapping hum of lawnmowers, sprinklers, and cicadas sounded like a single species. Everyone was doing their part to beautify the neighborhood. That is, everyone except the professors. Their lawn was growing wicked and wild, with tall grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and seedlings popping up irregularly. Looking at it, Maureen winced and bunched her brow, making her worry about the wrinkles this eyesore would cost her. So selfish, those professors.
The good news was that Renée really was pregnant, or at least she had started to look it and wasn’t intent on hiding it. The bad news, as Maureen saw it, was that with a baby on the way, it looked even less likely that the professors would spare precious time and energy fixing their jungle. Circumstances stacked as they were, Maureen had to work to avoid becoming hopeless. If she couldn’t stand looking at their yard, she couldn’t stand being quiet either. She’d annoy them, yes, but such matters were worth losing friends over, not that she and the professors were all that close anyway. There would be no love lost there.
She resumed her perch at her window, taking aim at the professors’ door. Their car pulled up, an outdated Civic, and Maureen went to get the mail. Renée and Klein almost made it to their door before Maureen got to their side of the street.
“Hello, hello!” Maureen called out to them. They spun around to face her. “I just wanted to extend my congratulations.”
She reached a hand towards Renée’s stomach. Renée rubbed her baby bump defensively.
“Thank you,” she said. “She’ll be our first.”
“When I was pregnant with my first, back when I was a bit younger than you are, I remember all I craved was olives, and I could never keep them down.” Maureen went on, burdening them with uncomfortable details until she could see them backstepping towards the door. “Before you go—I don’t want to hold you all day—I wanted to ask you about your lawn.”
“What about it?” said Klein.
“Well… some the neighbors, myself included, have noticed that it’s become a bit… overgrown. We want to know what your plans are for it.”
“This is the plan,” Klein said as he waved over his grass. Maureen blinked at him.
“What plan? Let it grow until you can’t walk on it anymore? It’s, it’s unsightly.”
“We want a natural yard,” he said. “We’re ecologists. Well, Renée is a bit more of an agronomist.” He tucked her under his arm, and they smiled at each other, as if to keep Maureen out of their joke. “Fertilizer runoff throws ecosystems out of balance, and we don’t want to contribute to that, especially here with the reservoirs and ocean nearby. It’s all very delicate.”
Maureen bit her lip again, unsure of how to deal with a kind of lunacy she’d never encountered before. “But can’t you at least trim it? The neighbors…”
“We’ve been busy,” Renée told her as she drew a circle around her stomach. “We’ve been focusing on making the backyard nice, since that’s where we like to spend our time.”
Frustrated, Maureen let them go, but she wasn’t sure if she told them goodbye. She paced around her home, biting her lip, biting her nails, and sneaking glances at the fresh meadow across the street. Irv got home around six, and she couldn’t wait until her walk with Donna.
“Is that so?” Irv said after she explained. “I never thought Manasquan would attract a breed of hippies.”
“I don’t know how you can be wedded to an idea like that when it actively hurts the people around you. I can appreciate science, but what happened to common courtesy?”
“Common courtesy and common sense are both going to die out with us,” Irv said, and Maureen agreed.
“Isn’t there something we can do? Can we report them to the town?”
“Outside of an HOA, there’s not much recourse. It’s their God-given right to let their yard go to shit.”
“What if it’s a safety concern? I’m sure they’re attracting all kinds of ticks and pests. You have to know some loophole that can get them to cut their grass.”
He said he’d look into it. Maureen made him dinner but was too distracted to make it properly and overboiled the pasta. Donna came, like clockwork.
Donna widened her mouth in a silent gasp as round as the pearls in her earrings. “Are they really that concerned? We all care about the environment, sure. I recycle. I don’t litter. But how can you do something like that?”
“Of course we have to care about our planet. We know that better than anyone. We’re next to the ocean. If it rises like they say it will, we’ll lose our homes!” Maureen donned concern, but behind that concern she had a fantasy that the ocean would rise right up to her backyard—beachfront property at last.
“There’s no reasoning with these people,” Donna said. “We have to try our best to ignore them.”
Maureen couldn’t let it go. Looking at that tall grass made her sweat, which was unusual for her. She tried putting herself in their shoes, imagining what it was like to care so much about the environment that you’d voluntarily live in filth, but her empathy couldn’t stretch that far. The environment to her wasn’t there in Manasquan but in mountains and forests so far removed from those suburbs. As long as she lived there, she couldn’t let their little experiment go on.
In a bin in the garage, Maureen dug out a Super Soaker that she gave to her grandkids when they came over. She filled it half up with bleach and topped it off with water. I’d rather see dirt piles out there than what they have now, she thought. Unusable dirt they’d have to at least cover with rocks, something more reasonable. Maureen put on a pair of black joggers and a black sweater. She looked like a cat burglar, a bad caricature of what a villain should look like. She wondered if she was stooping too low, but she quickly swatted that idea out of her mind. Nothing, nothing could be more important than her own sanity. She didn’t work hard until retirement for a couple of professors to ruin her peace.
Once it was good and dark, Maureen snuck out with her chemical weapon, crept across the street, and unloaded on a twisted column of grass. In the half moon’s scant light, Maureen could hardly see where she was shooting. Crickets drowned out the sloshing sound in her water gun, but she still worried that she would get noticed. She vastly underestimated how much she’d need, but she figured that whatever she sprayed would serve as a fine trial run. If she successfully stomped down a patch of the yard, she could come back, work bit by bit, and kill off the nuisance slowly.
She washed her hands, changed clothes, and climbed back into bed next to Irv. She threw an arm over him and slept well, and by morning she felt light in a way she hadn’t in weeks. It was Sunday, so no mail, but she could still wander around her front lawn plucking weeds, not that there were many left after all the Roundup, in order to get closer to her handiwork across the street. She could see a couple splashes of grass that had been drained white, but not quite the mass destruction she’d hoped for. Instead, there was a patchwork of stains that, hopefully, presaged death, and were luckily mild enough that they could be chalked up to a minor drought or the sheer volume of plants choking each other in a struggle for space.
What was more apparent was the steely smell of bleach that reached down her nose and nipped at her lungs. But even so, she could only smell it when she got close.
Convinced that her plan still held promise, Maureen set out to replicate it. She swapped the water gun for a plain bucket, reasoning that the bucket would give her the coverage she needed and would be easier for her to spill out and retreat. She also didn’t like the idea of her grandkids playing with a toy laced with bleach, so she washed it and put it back in its place. She stopped paying close attention to the bleach dosage, figuring that the water would evaporate and the bleach would accumulate until the soil was too poisonous for anything to grow.
She carried on like this, dumping bleach in their yard at night and sleeping soundly right after. The sore on her lip was finally healing. Neither Irv nor Donna, and especially not the professors, knew what she was doing, and she planned to keep it that way. The less they all knew the better. Still, it was hard for anyone to dodge the smell of bleach that suddenly began haunting the street like an industrial ghost.
“What is that?” Donna asked her each night.
“Chlorine? I bet the Myers are messing around with the chemicals in their pool.”
Donna accepted that answer at the time. When the smell sharpened, Maureen got her to believe that it was someone’s fertilizer. When the smell became a stench, Donna was told that it was emanating straight from the professors’ lawn, which was an easy sell because it became strong enough to pinpoint the origin. Conveniently, a good percentage of their lawn had died, turned brown, and began decaying into a juicy sludge that at least looked like it stunk.
It was working perfectly. The professors’ lawn was withering away, and in the process, it had become the disgusting onus of the street, leaving them no choice but to be ashamed of it. It was only icing that the whole dying thing provided a neat cover for Maureen. Now, whenever she saw the professors, she noticed embarrassed grief caked on their faces. She felt bad for them, truly, but some lessons have to be taught brutally, and Maureen thought it was incumbent upon the professors to learn how to properly take care of things, especially with a baby on the way. She hated seeing that shame inhabit them, but she mostly hoped that they’d change, work themselves out of it.
Maureen and Klein crossed paths at their mailboxes again, and this time Klein came to her side.
He conceded, asking Maureen if she could put him in touch with her lawn service, please.
“Really?” Maureen acted surprised. “I thought you were opposed to that.”
“I was. We were, but everything in our yard is dying.” He looked worried, maybe even close to crying, but he swallowed it. “I feel like I’m losing it. Every day I walk out my door and I swear I smell bleach, but bleach doesn’t just appear.” He ran his fingers through his hair and tugged on it.
“Bleach? I’ve smelt it too, but I assumed it was all the fertilizers people spray around all mixing together. Pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, you know.”
“I can’t quite place it. I’ve been around plenty of dead plants, and I know it’s not them.” He paused. He bit his lip, for once. “Renée can smell everything right now. Her nose has gotten so sensitive lately. She completely believes that it’s bleach. She says she gets a migraine every time she leaves the house. I can’t disagree with her, but I don’t know how to help her either.”
He trailed off. Maureen held his arm and flashed him an assuring, winning smile. “I’ll get you the number.”
By early August, once everything in the professors’ lawn was dead or dying, the bleach smell too was subsiding as a heatwave scorched the soil dry. This was the best Maureen could ask for. Her lawn service was scheduled to clean out the debris and lay down sod in a week or so. But before that could happen, a nor’easter tore up the coast, shaking houses and laying down thick piles of rain. The next morning, the bleach was rehydrated, reinvigorated, and ready again to accost the street’s noses. Even from her porch, as Maureen stirred sugar into her morning coffee, the fumes mingled with her drink and turned each sip sour. Yet, she remained in good spirits because the gray-brown mess across the street would be gone shortly.
The professors emerged, as they always did on weekdays, around eight-thirty. Maureen had been seeing less and less of Renée, but she saw that she was coming along and had started waddling slightly in an effort to balance her stomach with the rest of her frame. Klein was dutifully by her side, arm in arm, helping relieve the pressure on her swollen feet. Then, once she got a good whiff of her yard, her veneer of calm cracked and caved inward as her face drained of all color. She folded at the waist and vomited before her feet. Klein held and straightened her, but she lurched forward again and further emptied bile from her stomach. He wrapped her arm over his shoulders, carried her to the passenger seat, and sped off.
Maureen watched it all unfold from her porch. After the first vomit, she stood up as if she were offering herself for service, but she was only searching for a better view. She sat down when they left, and it took her a few minutes to crave her coffee again. What a shame, she thought. All that big, nasty yard to throw up on and she chose her walkway. Left in the sun, that’ll bake in and leave a stain.
When Donna knocked on Maureen’s door two nights later, she had already pieced a story together from her threads of gossip.
“You didn’t get this from me,” she said, lowering herself to a whisper, “but I heard that they took her to the hospital, and she had a miscarriage.” She hissed slightly on the final s.
Maureen looked surprised, but news fell on her softly as if she’d known it all along. “No, no, she couldn’t have. She’s more than three months along; that’s unheard of.”
“I couldn’t believe it either. It’s rare, horribly rare, but it can happen under stress. At first I thought it was an abortion, because you know how these kids play fast and loose with those things, but I heard her say so many times that they were excited.”
“You’re assuming that the baby is gone,” Maureen leveled at her, “but we can’t be sure of that, unless you have her ultrasounds.”
“I’m just talking. You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to. I heard this from the Myers, and you know they’re closer to them than we are. They haven’t led me wrong yet.”
Whether it was true or false was inconsequential to Maureen, nothing but another nagging loose end that came to mind whenever she thought of the professors. More crucial to her peace of mind was when the rotten plants would be trashed and the sod would be laid down. After the storm, the bleach must have leached across to the neighbors’ properties, because their grass too was getting that yellow tinge. The sooner that all got fixed the better, but Maureen hoped that the innocent bystanders would understand the collateral damage. It was horrible, really, that their yard had to go through that, but Maureen was confident that it would look so much nicer in the end.
Anticipating that, she spent the off hours of her days leering out her window sipping tea—she had switched to tea, it was lighter than coffee without all the cream and sugar. The professors’ comings and goings became less common, but Maureen always took notice. Their faces were difficult to parse, mostly because they now looked down more often than up, and they moved slowly, like the air around them was heavier than normal. Sighting after sighting, it became clear that Renée’s stomach was deflating rather than bulging. Maureen had been lucky that all three of her children came to her easily, so she had to imagine what a heartbreak like that felt like, and when she concentrated on it she could almost feel it, but the recreation was never as strong. The thought made her sad, and she didn’t want to let it go any further than that.
But it did lift her spirits to see truckloads of sod roll up to cover the barren landscape that had become the professors’ yard. She celebrated the sight by applauding to herself excitedly with tiny claps right in front of her face. Klein and Renée were outside overseeing the process, still looking down, but Maureen couldn’t blame them this time. It was beautiful. For the first time since Mrs. Graham had died, the lawns across the street flowed from one to the next. The street was respectable again, and Maureen was sure that everyone’s property values would benefit from being a part of such a presentable neighborhood.
Maureen didn’t bother to get the mail as an excuse to invite herself over this time. She had a vested interest in seeing how much they liked their new lawn.
“What did I tell you?” she said to the couple. “My guys do the best work.”
Renée broke her gaze to face her. Her mouth smiled but her eyes didn’t. “We’ll have to find a proper way to thank you. It looks so much… neater than it did before.”
“It looks marvelous,” Maureen said, getting carried away with her own satisfaction.
“It’s neat, but it’s plain,” Klein said. “We still want to have a natural yard one day, but we’ll plan it better next time. Do it right.”
“There’s always next year to try again,” Maureen said.
Maureen spat a goodbye at them and turned back to her porch. They’re already planning on ruining it again, she thought. They can’t think straight. I know they’re grieving but even in grief people should appreciate the silver linings when they come, and they got one served straight to them, and they want to throw it away. Ungrateful. They suffered a tragedy, I know, but life’s full of them. Lord knows I’ve had mine, Irv has had his, and Donna hers too. They’re too young to understand that that’s what life has in store from them, so it’s best to learn how to move on and try not to be so bitter about it. I’ll give them a year or two. That should give them enough experience to teach them how to stay in line and fit in around here.
Dylan Cook is a student at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies English, with a concentration in creative writing, and biology. He often reads and writes, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected].
As she clocks in, Jillian looks up from the computer to find a wrinkled envelope dangling in her face. Her chest tightens.
“Thank god you’re here,” Sonya says, waiting for her to take it. “Everyone’s calling out.”
Jillian grabs the letter, slips it in her apron pocket.
“Not me,” she says, out of breath. She and her dad are nowhere near the estimate the mold people gave them, and the latest bloom inflames her airways. “What are my tables?”
While Sonya checks the floor plan, Jillian answers the phone ringing at the counter. The man on the other end starts placing an order for pick-up, but his kids can’t make up their minds. You want Denny’s before the apocalypse or not? he shouts. She hears rumblings about getting Chili’s instead. As the debate drags on, Sonya glares at her.
“Can I help you?” Jillian asks the man, as forceful as she can muster. “Sir, can I help you?”
Sonya takes the phone and hangs up on him. “Some people can’t be helped.”
Jillian’s first table is a young couple with a daughter. “I’m incredibly strict with myself,” the man says, ordering his coffee. “I don’t drink milk, I don’t smoke, I don’t gamble. No sugar, no booze. My life is purity.”
“So no milk?”
“No, just a little milk.”
The woman seated across from him insists on ordering now, though she can’t decide what she wants. She flips back and forth between the regular and seasonal menus, desperate to solve the puzzle of her desire. Waiting, Jillian’s eyes land on the envelope poking out of her apron. Inscribed in large cursive where the return address goes: Hades. Her mom always puts something weird there.
Jillian last wrote her to ask for money, something she never did before, and she’s been regretting it ever since. Though she’d claimed it was for college applications, her mom no doubt knew it was for the house. Jillian remembers the chill that rose up in her as the letter slid down the rusty blue hatch, out of reach.
The next table is packed with teens, all arguing about the big news on TV. “I swear to god,” a boy says to a girl, “If you don’t eat a French fry before the end of the world, I will lose all respect for you.”
“I’ve maintained a state of ketosis since I was fifteen,” the girl says, ordering the Cobb salad.
The other servers, huddled around a monitor, invite Jillian to watch security footage of the big family who’d dined and dashed that morning. Embarrassed by her heavy breathing, she declines, instead spending her first moment of peace leaning back against the wall that the cameras don’t reach. She keeps a hand on the inhaler in her pocket, though she rarely needs it here. It’s the house that’s trying to kill her. Hoarding her tips for months, she’d almost saved up a quarter of the mold people’s estimate when the lights went out, and it took every dollar they had to turn them back on. Her dad was supposed to cover the electric, but their court drama controls his attention.
Jillian agreed to stay with him after the divorce, to help him fight her mom for the house, but she never dreamt they’d still be in the thick of it now, eight years later. Even as Jillian left for work this afternoon, her dad sat in his chair at the kitchen table, hunched over the latest pages of real estate law she’d printed out for him. He had the little TV on, yes, but he only half-listened to it.
“It’s the same reason people lose in court,” he said of the news—of the experts who insisted that the sun had just belched, and that a magnetic wave could hit the Earth as soon as tonight. “First whiff of danger, they panic.”
Jillian stared into the little box, wondering if she could trust a thing with so many faces. As she unbolted the door to leave, her dad took a loud, wheezy breath.
“There’s still only two kinds of problems in the world,” he said. “The kind you can solve and the kind you can’t.” He says this constantly. “Still stupid to panic over either—imagine if I’d thrown in the towel after that first subpoena? Where would we be now?”
In a moment of bravery, she pulls the letter out of her apron. Then, just as she’s about to open it, Sonya catches her standing idle. “Your side work is salad bar,” she reminds her.
‘Salad bar’ is usually her favorite. A reprieve from all the problems that can’t be solved with knives. She tries to focus on the head of iceberg lettuce that she chops—to feel the little shot of Zen this usually instills. That sweet, earthy smell.
But the letter won’t loosen its grip on her.
I get it, her mom will start. Your father is easier company. He never made you clean your room or mind your weight, because who is he to judge? If I got to pick my authority figure, I’d probably go with the dim one too. While her mom tutors Latin and writes letters to the editor, her dad watches daytime TV and collects disability. What she doesn’t say upfront, her mom will weave into the riddles that pepper all her letters. I just want you to ask yourself, peanut: what is it that always digs but never leaves a hole? She posed that one years ago. Jillian still has no idea, and it still upsets her. Even Google doesn’t seem to know the answer.
All the wall-mounted TVs show the same footage of sun spots churning. Solar Flare and Coronal Mass Ejection appear in the chyrons. She hears a scientist on some debate show arguing with a skeptic. “It won’t just be a few black-outs,” the scientist says. The world will fall into complete darkness.”
“Even if that’s true,” the skeptic says, “That’s why we have these things called generators, flashlights…”
“You don’t understand…”
So many different messages coming out. Dueling authorities who make her feel small. Jillian coughs into her elbow, feels her throat tensing up.
While serving desserts, her eyes are drawn to the little girl in the young couple’s booth. She’s reaching over the divider for an abandoned chicken nugget when she catches Jillian’s glance and responds by waving at her like an old friend she hasn’t seen in years. As Jillian waves back, charmed, a sundae slides off her tray. She can feel Sonya sneering at her before it even hits the floor. Before the thud of glass on tile, the flight of vanilla globs.
Bending down to clean it up, she hears a cook ring the bell. Then the teens start yelling for their check. White rivulets snake under a booth, towards the feet of an old woman in sandals, and as Jillian tries to intercept them with a napkin, she coughs on the woman’s toes. She hears Sonya yelling at her, telling her to let Antonio get it, but her whole body tenses up now. Between violent coughs, she sees the tips of her fingers turning blue.
She can’t breathe. She can hear her dad telling her that this is solvable, but that does nothing to stop the sense of drowning. The fact of drowning. Lying down on one arm, she finds the floor surprisingly rough. It’s craggy, like the bottom of a trench. She feels her shirt riding up like a plumber’s, hears her mom scolding her to pull it back down.
Working hard isn’t enough, the letter will say. We all need some scrutiny to keep us on the right track. If she’d moved out with her mom, Jillian thinks, she wouldn’t have wasted all these years feeding her tips to a money pit. She might have a degree by now, a desk in some office. By this hour, she might even be home for the night, sipping a mug of herbal tea, instead of dying on the floor of a Denny’s.
By the time she inhales that first paint-thinner tasting, Albuterol-laced puff, she’s nearly accepted her fate. It seems like a fair price for her incompetence—but her throat loosens anyway. Her terror ebbs. Another puff and she’s rejoined the world of the breathing.
Jillian crawls out from under the table. Then, as she stands up in the aisle, clutching an empty chair for support, a deafening snap. Everything goes black, inside and out. Every single light is gone.
High-pitched shrieks top the explosion of reactions. Someone very close begins to cackle. As people pack up and dash, bumping into Jillian on either side, Sonya pleads for order. She pleads for Jillian, specifically, “I need you now, Jillian! Now!”
But Jillian’s retightening trachea tells her to run from her boss’s voice. Mindful of her footing, she feels her way to the fire exit, out the building, past the dumpster in back—to the edge of the woods, where the air is luscious. Dizzy, she feels out the old lawn chair that Sonya uses for smoke breaks. It’s cushier than she expected.
She hears the yelling and honking on the other side of the building, suddenly-dead cars sliding into each other. Though her phone was fully charged, it stays dark when she tries tapping it to life. It’s just like they said it would be, all those grim-faced experts: complete darkness. She looks up for stars, wondering if they’ll shine brighter, but it’s too murky to tell. It’s been overcast all day, she recalls.
Admiring the dark blanket of clouds, all those churning shades of black, she imagines the version of herself who’d left with her mom after the divorce. Who bore the brunt of that scrutiny for the last eight years. So what if that Jillian has a desk in an office? In a stone-age economy, she doubts that will count for much.
She should probably feel terrified, but it’s a wave of relief that comes over her now. Fresh air always made her feel like a new creature, an animal with skills to hone. With her inhaler now the relic of a dead age, she can’t rationalize sleeping in the house another night.
How faintly she heard the drip as a child, when a pipe started leaking behind the wall of family photos. She would push her ear up against it to listen. Years later, when her dad turned off The X-Files, she could hear it resounding all the way from the couch. Drip—drip. Still, you couldn’t hear it outside the TV room, and her mom never joined them in there. Her mom called it the “boob tube,” a phrase that made Jillian feel dirty, like they were watching porn. But she liked soaking in the blue light. Her dad’s Marlboros helped conceal the musk when it seeped through the wall. She knew it had to be bad, whatever was reaching into her nose. The fingers of something vast and malignant. But to involve her mom still seemed more dangerous.
With no light to read by, she rips open the letter anyway. Maybe she just wants to feel it in her hands, this powerless sheet of paper. Sheets of paper. All these words she can feel but will never read, because she’s ripping them up. At the moment, she hardly cares if civilization rebounds in a month, or ten years, or never. She’s spent her life caught in the middle of a war she hates, between the scrutinous and the dim, and she’s found the cover to go MIA.
Mike Nees lives and works in Atlantic City where he is a case manager for people living with HIV. His fiction has appeared in Typehouse Literary Magazine, matchbook, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. He hosts Atlantic City’s Story Slam series, more on which can be found at https://www.storyslamac.com/.
Someone likens your body to soured-meat,
Flies swarming the thighs, a hint of cinnamon
Brushes just underneath your nose.
ELISA, has confirmed the inevitable.
O you enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay.
II. Treatment Plan
Someone says take this ad infinitum. One by one,
Opal, green pills sitting at the bottom of a valley.
Nothing violet or green ever growing.
Stribild was approved by the US FDA in August 2012
For human bodies.
A cocktail of Vitekta, Tybost, Viread, and Emtriva.
Someone mentioned they smelled a thing dying
In the apartment you lived in. You checked each
And every corner – he put a flashlight
in your throat. Says It’s you. You prepare
an ofrenda with only cinnamon sticks.
Immunocompromised. Death in the white-
Blood of my body.
Death likes to tap at the sole of your foot.
It smells of cinnamon just to confuse you.
You smell meat running its course.
One by one, opal, green pills sprawling at the
Bottom of a translucent lake. Little by little,
The color rushing back into your body.
Antiretroviral treatment –
The ceasefire of replication.
VI. Being Whole After a Diagnosis
You drowned so many times just to get here.
A hint of cinnamon brushes just under your nose.
O the scent of living too.
Anthony Aguero is a queer writer in Los Angeles, CA. His work has appeared, or will appear, in The Bangalore Review, 2River View, The Acentos Review, The Temz Review, Rhino Poetry, Cathexis Northwest Press, 14 Poems, Redivider Journal, Maudlin House, and others.
SOMETHING’S GOTTA CHANGE
a Visual Narrative
by Michael Green
Michael Green is a physician and artist who lives and rides his bicycle throughout Central Pennsylvania. He is a founding Board Member of the Graphic Medicine International Collective, an organization devoted to the intersection of the medium of comics and the discourse of health care, and is co-author of the Graphic Medicine Manifesto from Penn State University Press. He is a Professor of Humanities and Medicine at Penn State College of Medicine, where he teaches a course on comics and medicine for medical students, and has published several landmark articles on the use of comics in medical education.
Something’s Gotta Change…
When I awoke this morning, my iPhone was dead and all my favorite apps crashed. No email, no text, no nothing. Half asleep, my mind started to race.
Was this a massive Russian hack to sabotage the election? Was this the start of the long-predicted apocalypse? What does it all mean?
I headed to the kitchen to settle myself with a bowl of Cheerios.
Then borrowed my wife’s phone to contact tech support. This does not go as planned.
“I would like to be connected to customer service.”
“Connect me to a human!!!”
The apocalypse will have to wait, because the next thing I know, my 23-year-old daughter informs me she’s moving to Philly, and would I drive the truck with her stuff? I’m concerned that relocating during a pandemic is not a great idea, but I concede and head to U-Haul.
But when I arrive, I have a sudden rush of questions; do I need a 10’ or 15’ truck? Do these things have rearview mirrors? How do they handle on the highway?
I grew up in a large metro area and have always enjoyed driving. But having lived rurally for a while, I’m feeling anxious about city driving.
So I reserve the smaller truck and head to my next mission.
At the local Staples, they’re selling a noxious product and I need to protect the public from this potential hazard.
I don’t really care about the $2.00 refund, but when the store manager turns his back on me and walks away, I’m infuriated.
Speech bubble: “This smells bad.”
Speech bubble: “I can’t restock an open bottle”
Still fuming, I return home to Zoom with my colleagues. We want to increase diversity, but how are we going to do this? Remembering our bylaws proves difficult.
Speech bubble: “we need to increase diversity”
Thought bubble: “this isn’t going to be easy”
At lunch, I decide to take a break to clear my head.
Thought bubble: “I keep trying to do the right thing, but it’s such a struggle.”
I head to Amish country for a bike ride. This has been my go-to way to relax during the pandemic. It’s a beautiful day—not too hot, no bugs—it couldn’t be nicer outside.
The next thing I know, I’m fantasizing about giving up the modern world and embracing the ways of the Amish. I’m tired of all the battles and I wonder if I’d be happier living a simpler, more grounded life, savoring the soil and smell of manure.
Maybe I’ll build that dream workshop.
Thought bubble: “is it too late to start over?”
Or finally master that chocolate chip cookie recipe.
I’m feeling calm and alive. The wildflowers are in bloom and I’m enjoying the solitude.
Then BAM! I’m clobbered with the unsubtle reminder that many of my neighbors don’t see the world as I do, as they fly the flag of my mortal enemy.
This hits me hard. I’m tired of fighting battle after battle and I’m feeling worn down and depleted.
Then I recall a bit of unsolicited advice I recently received from my dermatologist. Examining my moles, he said: “to have a successful career, you need to have fun and love what you do.”
That night, the door so waterlogged with rain
it stuck for hours, hinges flush with the frame,
a mouth against spine.
In the woods that year, several syringes
we could never place, some long-ago nectar
unraveling like thread.
It was body memory, the feeling
of pushing the plunger,
neurons pulsing into every bell tone.
We filled them with marigolds instead,
gold punched into sharpness;
that night, they clattered against the door
like hail. Knowing we couldn’t let them in
was easier than knowing we could.
Meggie Royer is a Midwestern writer, domestic violence advocate, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Persephone’s Daughters, a literary and arts journal for abuse survivors. She has won numerous awards for her work and has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. She thinks there is nothing better in this world than a finished poem.
Just because you’re parasailing doesn’t mean this call’s not coming from inside your house. As mirror neurons turn, I’m casting demons and fly fishing with them. In each multi-facet is a hidden hook. It’s possible that Satan is deceiving me. With Gertrude Stein I beg to differ then along with Gertrude Stein I beg to differ. What is not yet yellow is a yellow cat. What will they think of next? A palace for each personage and vice versa. Veni, vici, vidi, says restroom graffiti and, The joke is in your hand why are you looking here? Nor filler nor refrain, this content will not stop but is it pheasant under glass?
In a past century, Heikki Huotari attended a one-room school and spent summers on a forest fire lookout tower. He’s a retired math professor and has published poems in numerous literary journals, including Crazyhorse, Pleiades, the American Journal of Poetry, and in three collections. A fourth collection is in press.
my teacher helped
me pull the pink
downy breast feathers
to clear the skin
and make an incision
She put the scalpel
into my hand
smaller than the body
pinned to the black wax tray
I cut to reveal
porous bones, tiny intestines,
This would never
A teacher today
Though plenty of robins
are still found dead on sidewalks
Night before last
I didn’t hear
the screech owl
whose cry had
kept me awake
When I awoke
you came to mind out in
the smoke-choked west
are falling from the skies
of the migratory flyways
I texted but you still haven’t replied
in the early hours
I again lay listening
for the descending whine
and long trill
Amy Beth Sisson is sheltering in a small town outside of Philly. Her day job is in software development. She tells programmers what business people want and tells business people why they can’t quite have it. She completed UPenn’s online Modern Poetry course, ModPo, this summer. Her fiction has appeared in Enchanted Conversation and Sweet Tree Review. Her non-fiction for children has appeared in Highlight’s High Five and Fun for Kidz magazines.
White clouds, so many white clouds
pause above August’s green cornfields–
an armada of triremes, sails cast in marble,
cross empty skies armies dreamed
held destinies that might outlive them,
mortal sons clad in fathers’ bronze,
the taste of blood and glory drying in their mouths,
all to die for a face whose singular beauty
was fictitious. But the clouds pass.
I never cared much for histories of war.
Honor and bravery I cajoled, things best
left to veteran halls and empty cinemas,
dive bars nursing the pings of automatic gunfire
locked behind a whisky cabinet. Two miles east
bone-white barns crease under bronze rot, husks
abandoned by molting cicadas whose cries
fill the air hissing lost prayers: please
don’t leave me alone, not here.
The Cubs are playing on the radio tonight.
Announcers remember their green years,
the injuries, the trivia, take casual shots
at each other amid the banter. Oh,
what I would give up to see those uniforms
one more time. The signal bleeds out, Christian
radio, then white noise, and I am left
with the scent of diesel and soybeans. I take the exit
pointing to the place where truckers sleep.
Peter Wear grew up in Minnesota and majored in English at Kenyon College. He currently resides in Chicago, where he works in marketing. His favorite job was sifting through donations at a thrift store, where he collected many useless things.
The river before anything else, the glazed sun emerging
gently from evening. You, brightly looking towards what
I hope is me or, some future tense self where I’m dangling
slightly less from crisp edges. I’m all in-tuned, harmonic.
Your beaded breath on my neck in the morning, not like
beautiful but your stale mouth close to my ear. Quick
horizon made from our bodies lying close & the damned
buildings spiked up from the concrete. I see us in our
dizzy haze, walking close, shaking our bodies in each
others’ directions, seeing my parents, eating food from
a plate we share on the veranda, our bungalow. I want a
river to run through me, make a beard of your bramble,
something to put my hairs through in the wet evening.
Are you constant in your shaking? The riverbed is small,
something growing away from each of us, riverlets or,
more accurately, estuaries, gliding simply towards the sea.
travis tate is a queer, black playwright, poet and performer from Austin, Texas. Their poetry has appeared in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Underblong, Mr. Ma’am, apt, and Cosmonaut Avenue among other journals. Maiden, their debut poetry collection, is out on V.A. Press. They earned an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. You can find more about them at travisltate.com.