I held the handset of the house phone to my ear, the dull tone providing a soundtrack for what was sure to be the most humiliating conversation of my life.
From the sitting room, the three-foot oil painting of Shirley and Laverne hovered like consequence itself. Posed with pink and blue ring pillows in their mouths on the day of their wedding, the great white poodle and hyperactive Yorkie were the only children my ex-boyfriend’s mother and stepfather shared.
My ex and his family were spending Christmas in California, an event I hadn’t been invited to because my ex had fallen in love. With someone else. I’m sure if my ex’s mom knew I’d recently put myself in the category of mentally ill, she wouldn’t have asked me to watch her precious dogs. But there I was, day three, daily check-in number four of feeding and watering the defecating animals. As much as I despised their slobbering mouths and out-of-control affection, their routine kept my mind off other things.
Hours before, when I had pulled into the driveway of the lakeside McMansion, I parked the car and thought about my situation. As a member of the mentally ill, how was I supposed to act? I stared at the roof. That summer—when I was still the rational one—I’d talked my ex out of jumping from the eves after he’d eaten too many mushrooms. But temporary insanity from a peer-approved drug binge is not a mental illness. I was a label. A lonely one.
I was, thanks to the Tegretol, also a slob. I pinched my new love handles and walked to the door. The glass panels trembled in time with Shirley’s cartoonish poodle silhouette, which shadow boxed the door to the beat of Laverne’s piercing yelps. Was there a fire? A robbery? How were dogs I saw three hours before so out-of-control? Panicked, I turned the key and stepped inside.
Shirley’s mighty claws slammed me to the ground. I sniffed for smoke but got a nose of foul dog tongues instead. Their butts rattling like fishing boat engines, I fought their dopey-eyed affection. Without warning, Shirley jumped from me, knocked over a table, bounded up the stairs and leapt from the second floor landing. This was not love.
Belly jiggling, I jogged down the hallway. When I reached the kitchen, Laverne rolled over and laid next to the chewed remains of my pill bottle. Shirley, who was taller and more intelligent, must have smelled the sickly cherry scent of the pills, grabbed the bottle from the counter and convinced her less intelligent, sharper toothed companion to chew through the bottle.
With Shirley riding my back, I ran to the phone and dialed an emergency vet operator named Sue.
“And what are the patients’ names?” Sue asked.
“Patients? You mean the dogs?” Shirley snotted on my hand. I wiped it on an afghan.
“Yes. Their names, please.”
“Does that matter? They’re out of their heads!”
“Of course it matters.”
“Laverne and Shirley.”
“OK. Get a container of salt, lock Laverne and Shirley in a bathroom and throw it down their mouths. It will initiate the gag reflex.”
With Sue on the phone, crushed bottle in my hand, I lured the dogs into the upstairs bathroom. I slammed and locked the door. Laverne jumped from the toilet to the tub catching paws and head in the shower curtain. Shirley scratched my arms with long black toenails, which had been painted vixen red in the spirit of Christmas.
Untangling Laverne from the now ripped shower curtain, I mounted her like a mini pony, opened her trashcan of a mouth and dumped salt down her throat. When she gagged, I let go, mounted Shirley and did the same.
“OK girls. Puke for me.”
Shirley slammed me onto the toilet. Her tongue ravaged my face as if I’d given her a lifetime’s supply of bacon bits rather than a half-gallon drum of salt. I shoved Shirley to the floor. Behind her stood Laverne. A statue. Brown eyes begging freedom from a frozen body. The closer I got to Laverne, the more rapid the movement of those dilated moons.
“Sue!” I yelled into the handset. “The little one is as stiff as a corpse!”
“Hyper but fine. What do I do?”
“Get Laverne here immediately. We’ll prep the ICU.”
Laverne’s pleading eyes reflected the streetlights of the empty streets. At stoplights, I released Laverne’s paw and patted her head as if affection could somehow fix the situation.
As I accelerated after a stoplight, a cloud billowed in the horizon of my rearview mirror and then disappeared as the car’s engine screamed. Shirley had chewed her way through her seatbelt and thrown the car in neutral.
“Goddamn it, Shirley!” I yelled. “Can’t you see Laverne is in trouble?”
I smacked Shirley’s jugular with my forearm and braced my arm on the side of the passenger’s seat creating a barrier between Shirley and the car’s control panel. For the rest of the drive, I moved my arm with Shirley’s face and paws as she desperately tried to sit shotgun.
Technicians greeted us at the emergency room door, pushing me out of the way as they loaded Laverne on the doggie stretcher. Shirley was leashed and placed in custody.
I was led to a room where, after staring at the clock for an hour, wondering how in Christ’s name I would explain this one, an officer delivered Sue and instructed me to tell my story. Sue listened, filling in cold hard facts when needed.
“Please read and sign this statement,” said the officer. “Laverne and Shirley’s parents will need it for insurance purposes.”
I reddened as I read the statement. The pets had better insurance than me.
“Will you sign it?”
“It says here that the pills in question are used to treat the mentally ill.”
I tugged the neck of my Pub Crawl 2010 sweatshirt. “That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?”
The officer looked at Sue. “For bipolar disorder?”
I coughed. “I’m hardly bi-polar. Depressed, possibly but not whacko.” I drew a crazy circle around my ear. “You know how it is.”
A look of pity passed between the officer and Sue just as I imagined it would when I would call my ex’s family at 2 a.m. to explain Laverne was in critical condition because she’d eaten pills meant to help a crazy ex-girlfriend deal with life.
When I explained what happened to the family—the dogs ate pills, got sick—my ex-boyfriend’s sister abandoned the drama of her eating disorder to mourn dogs she hadn’t seen in three years. His mother sobbed. My ex created a silent wall between himself and my insanity.
“So they may not make it…through the night?” Asked his mother.
“Shirley is fine, but a little hyper. They have Laverne on an IV. Her stomach has been pumped.” I twisted my hands. They were dry. Cold.
“What kind of pills did they eat?” asked his step-father. “You said you were on some medication?”
I swallowed, wishing the dogs had devoured me rather than the salt. I pictured the normal family I was no longer a part of sitting around a phone console in the middle of some garish duvet, fingers twisting Kleenex, fists rubbing eyes, wondering what happened to the dogs they loved and the woman they thought their son would marry.
I back peddled. “Technically, the pills help with depressive mood conditions such as bipolar disorder….”
“You’re bipolar?” His step-father asked. The sniffles stopped. I pictured my ex-boyfriend excusing himself to the restroom, the pool, the bar.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize the dogs would smell those pills. I should have brought them home or put them in the microwave.” I winced. The microwave?
The step-father sighed. “We’ll catch the first flight home.”
The next day, I met the stepfather and the mother at the hospital. The sister was too upset to see the dogs. My ex, presumably, was too distraught to see me.
My ex’s mother stroked the top of Laverne’s head as she lay in a cot recovering. His stepfather sat next to her, the 90-pound poodle in his lap. He rubbed Shirley’s ears, pressed his nose against hers and stuck out his tongue, which she licked. Ferociously.
After an awkward greeting, the stepfather untangled himself from Shirley and walked me into the hallway.
“I can’t say we’re not disappointed.” He said.
I didn’t know if he was talking about the ordeal or the diagnosis, so I said nothing.
He put his hand on my shoulder. His hand and his face, which was close to mine, smelled of dog. “But we wish you the best.”
He offered his hand and a complicated pity delivered by soft eyes. I took the hand and rubbed my clean skin against his, which was undoubtedly covered in butt juice and snot.
When he wasn’t looking, I wiped my hands on my pants. This is what it would be like. Someone would hand me the discomfort, the bile—the snot—my new label aroused. I would accept it and get rid of it when they weren’t looking in whatever way I saw fit. This was mental illness.
Ivy Hughes is a full time freelance writer. She writes for several newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including Success, Entrepreneur, the Boston Globe, Interval World, and Litro. She grew up in Colorado, but recently moved to London, England where she lives with her husband.
Cullen Bailey Burns lives in Minneapolis and Sturgeon Lake, Minnesota. Her second book of poems, Slip, was published by New Issues Press this fall. Her first book, Paper Boat, was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award. Her poems have appeared widely, recently in The Ampersand Review, The Adirondack Review, 32 Magazine and many others. At her place up north she keeps bees and excells at growing root crops.
The man in the fur coat paused in the electric blue of the porch light.
He sniffed the air, as if trying to read some presence in the atmosphere and the ice particles. A blinding wind came shrieking from the city, flaring his coat behind him. The fringe brushed against the two trashcans, skittering the nearest lid into the snow. The man in the fur coat cursed and hunkered down to pick up the lid. But when he had righted himself and the wind had died, he stood very still and looked across the dark yard, to where I stood in my solus rex in the shadows of his greenhouse.
The man very carefully set the trash bag in the snow. Then he very slowly chose a large rock from the ground. He walked along the perimeter of his backyard with very exaggerated steps, laying heel down before crunching toes into the garden snow. The night oxygen converted into poisonous, clear nitrogen in my lungs. I picked up a rock, too.
The man flashed a flashlight on me.
“Mielkore pardonpetas!” he shouted, dropping his rock into the snow. When I didn’t say anything, he pointed a finger at me.
“Mipensisvinestisŝtelistokato,” he said.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I don’t understand you.”
The man cocked his head at me, the ears of his fur trapper’s hat flopping stupidly. In the uneasy light, I could see the thick salt-and-pepper beard covering his face, his large brown eyes, and nothing else. I hid the rock hand behind my back.
“I can speak English,” he said. “I said that I am afraid I startled you.”
“It’s alright,” I said. “I guess we’re both guilty.”
“But I did not mean to scare you. I thought you were a… vervloekt… how do you say. A thief cat. A raccoon.”
The damn wind came again, inflating the man’s coat. He only wore sweatpants and an old thermal shirt under it.
“This fucking wind,” he said, hugging the folds of his coat around him. I wanted to do the same with my threadbare peacoat, but couldn’t because of the rock in my hand.
“He has been eating my wife’s vegetables,” the man said after awhile. “The raccoon. He has been breaking into the greenhouse and eating all of her vegetables. I promised to murder the beast.”
“I am not a raccoon,” I said.
“You are not the raccoon,” he verified.
The man wedged his hands into his coat and under his armpits and looked off past the line of his wooden fence.
“You are not the raccoon,” he decided, looking back on me, “but the question remains: who are you?”
I looked away, as the man had before, gazing past the fence to the lights of the city burning on the horizon and promising warmth and love and a million plaintive regrets.
“I’m just a guy in your yard,” I eventually said. “But I wasn’t stealing your vegetables.”
“It is very cold out. You should come inside and share a glass of brandy with me. My wife cannot drink anymore, you see, and there is nothing sadder than drinking alone.”
I looked down at the duct-taped ruins of my shoes, wiggling my toes inside them. They had lost all feeling.
“Sure,” I said.
I followed him to the house. Halfway across the yard, he turned around and held out his hand, saying, “Where have my manners gone? My name is Leopold.”
I looked at his hand for a few moments, then finally took it.
“Finn,” I said.
He turned his back to me and I dropped the rock in the snow.
Inside the dark kitchen we kicked off our boots. The house was bathwater warm and I was glad to be inside it. The ceiling belled over us, close to our heads, oak-beamed like the inner chamber of a pirate ship. Leopold motioned for me to follow him down an unlit hall, then down a honeycomb of further hallways, until we eventually came to a sort of study, lit very dimly by a fireplace in one far corner.
“Please,” Leopold said. “Sit.”
He motioned to two leather chairs in the center of the room. I chose the closest one and sank into it like it was quicksand. Leopold added a quantity of wood to the fire, stoking the flames with a mottled poker. The room smelled like Christmas Eve. As the flames bloomed and illuminated the room, I looked about the space. Mahogany bookcases spanned the walls, filled with dark leatherbound books. Framed black-and-white portraits filled the walls above the bookcases. Nothing looked younger than a hundred years old.
Leopold took off his trapper’s hat and rubbed the gray stubble on his head.
“There,” he said. “That’s better.”
He shuffled over to a glass-case cabinet and retrieved a honey-colored bottle. He chose two tumblers and filled them nearly to the brim. He stoppered the bottle, handed me a drink, and sat down.
“I like your house,” I said.
“Thank you, Finn. The credit, I’m afraid, is all due to my wife. She has put a lot of work into this home.” He winked. “This room though, is all mine.”
I thought that was an incredibly sad sentiment, but only asked, “Where is your wife?”
“She is sleeping, although she very well may join us later. In these final days of her pregnancy, her sleep is fitful just.”
“I don’t know what I would do if I was going to be a father,” I said into my glass. Then looked up and said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“No need to apologize. Of course I’ve had the same thoughts. Worse even. I suppose every man, when confronted with paternal obligations, is plagued with these thoughts. It must be our nature. However, I must admit that it all seems so much worse now, somehow heightened, considering the current state of the world.”
“If I had any sense, I’d go south,” I said. “Maybe even head west, back across the ocean.”
“And what would you do there?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Then why would you go there?”
“Because it’s elsewhere.”
“Once,” he said, “I ran away from my life, towards something I thought I wanted.
But when I had that I ran too. The only thing I learned was to stop running.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know anything.”
“I am curious though. If salvation is to be found in some terra nova, someplace out there way past the horizon…why are you still here?”
“Because I can’t stop the expansion of the universe,” I said.
“You speak in riddles,” Leopold said distastefully. He held his glass up to the firelight and thought for a while. “I myself wandered the continent once, back when I was young. It was a difficult time for me. I was unbelievably penniless. I thought that the love I had to give was not worth the money it was printed on. It was comforting to wander, to be out of place, isolated, not able to understand anything that was said or asked of me. Yet now…”
“You seem like you are doing well for yourself.”
“It’s strange how one’s life plays out. Once I was alone. Miserable. Now I have a family. A home. I think of the young man I once was and I feel incredible sympathy and fondness for that man, but I can no longer see his face. Where his face should be there is only a shadow, a certain dimness. He is a ghost to me.”
“How do you stop that?” I asked. “How do you not become a ghost to yourself?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Every moment is a decision. And those decisions are doorways within a labyrinth. Each door leads one deeper and deeper into what becomes, eventually, a life.”
“So life is disappearing?”
Leopold chuckled. “We all disappear eventually.”
“What is that?”
“But what does it mean?”
I drank half of my drink in one swallow and looked off at Leopold’s books, suddenly feeling very sad.
“Live unknown,” I translated.
“Live unknown,” he repeated to himself. “When I was your age, I would have thought that a very ugly sentiment. The youth movements of my day had tremendous battles, philosophical street riots. We were overcome with dreams. We thought there would be a new day, a new world for young men such as yourself. If I had heard you say live unknown then, I would have called you a nihilist to your face. Now…”
“A man can change nothing in this world,” I said. “So what’s the point in intending to transform anything? I don’t trust movements. The only freedom to be had is at the margins, where you have to carve it out with your fingernails.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Don’t you miss anything at all?”
I watched the firelight flicker across the surface of my drink like wild horses driving into the Aegean, and I said to him, “I don’t miss anything.”
“That’s a very American answer.”
“What do you know about America?”
“I took a steamer ship to New York City once,” he said. “I saw the statue in the harbor, the sword she held above her head.”
“I don’t miss that place,” I said.
“Then let me ask you again. What do you miss?”
“Miss is the wrong word.”
“Tell me the correct one.”
“Desiderium,” I said. “It means a yearning, specifically for a thing one once had but has no longer.”
“And what do you no longer have?”
“So it’s a girl. Who was she?”
I looked off into a corner of the room and suddenly felt like laughing, but didn’t because I feared how it would come out.
“She was a different person depending on the time of day,” I eventually said.
“They are that way,” he said, raising his glass. “To girls.”
“To girls,” I said, clinking drinks with him.
After we drank, he looked into his glass and said, “Desideridum. To yearn for something one no longer has. Like whiskey.”
He studied me, then set his empty glass on the floor.
“You set a boy on a path,” he said. “And the boy thinks the path is the world. But his path is not the only path. There are many paths to be walked, so many paths that they spiral out like the branches of a tree, that they overlay one another like parallel universes. This is not the only world. There are worlds of only pain. Or cruelty. Regret. Friendship. Love. It is, my friend, only a matter of perspective.”
“Death is not perspective,” I repeated.
“What is it then?”
“I’ve been trying to figure that out,” I said. “When I was a boy, my father took me to the funeral of some distant uncle in New Orleans. My father had a falling out with this uncle many years before I was born, due to some obscure thing neither could admit was trivial. But my father still felt some kind of filial duty to attend the man’s burial. Have you ever seen a funeral in New Orleans?”
“Do they not just bury the dead?”
I took a final sip of whiskey, the ice kissing my lips.
“No, they don’t,” I said. “This dead man, my dead uncle, was a jazz trumpeter and they held a parade for him from the funeral home. We were followed by a big brass band, trumpets and trombones and saxophones and drums. All the musicians were dressed like train conductors in old time photos, with those hats and white gloves. They started off playing some spiritual tune, but the more we walked the faster and more upbeat it all got. Every time I looked back, they got crazier and crazier, jumping around, dancing, throwing parasols around, all playing to their own inner tune, but tied together somehow. That night I had a dream that I had died and a New Orleans funeral was being held for me. Yet, somehow, I was in the band too, playing a little toy ukulele. It was spring and there was wisteria in the air. A man in a tuxedo and tophat followed behind me on a black carriage drawn by a white horse. And when I looked back at him, he held out a dark red flower to me, and I knew that flower was death. But I also knew that it would not matter if I touched the flower, because I was already dead and I would not die any more, I was already in a world determined by funerals.”
The logs crackled in the fireplace. We looked down at our socks.
Creaking sounds came from right outside the doorway, from stairs that I had not previously noticed. A very beautiful, very pregnant girl entered the room in a white nightgown, her long blonde tied in a French braid down her back.
Both Leopold and I stood up.
“Sweetheart,” Leopold said.
“I thought I heard you speaking with someone,” she said. “I wanted to say hello.”
Leopold turned to me.
“Finn, this is my wife, Esmeralda.” He winked at me and said, “She is from Iceland.”
“I knew a woman from Iceland once,” I said.
“I hope you treated her nice,” she said.
“I tried to, Esmeralda. But in the end, I don’t think I treated her very nice at all.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that, Finn.”
Esmeralda’s nightgown ballooned out at the stomach and covered her feet so that as she moved about the room it appeared that she was floating above the ground.
“Why don’t you sit down,” she said to me. She turned to Leopold and said, “You too.”
We did as we were told.
“I was just having this dream,” she said. “Only, it was more like a dream inside of a dream.”
She smiled to herself.
“There was this little boy,” she explained. “A very strange little boy. The two of us were sitting under a tree having a conversation, or at least trying to because the little boy kept hiccupping and interrupting me. He was very excited because he only had three dreams left.”
“What does that mean?” Leopold asked.
“I didn’t know what he meant either. When I asked, the boy sighed, like it was all so obvious. He explained it like this: at the end of every dream the dreamer visits the dream castle in their mind. There, they put their dream into its own unique drawer, where it stays forever. But the castle is not an infinite castle. Within the dream castle, there are only a certain amount of drawers. And, the boy proudly said, he had dreamed so many dreams that in his dream castle there were only three empty dream drawers left, and once the boy filled them the castle would be complete, and he would then dream day and night, night and day, forever and ever.”
Esmeralda was near Leopold by now. She leaned down to kiss him on the cheek and then the lips.
“I really just wanted to say hello,” she said. “I should go back to sleep now.”
She glided across the carpet to where I was sunk into my chair.
“Icelandic kisses,” she whispered in my ear, then kissed me lightly on the cheek.
The kiss traveled along the free nerve endings of my cheek, waking up a diamond-shaped diameter of thermoreceptors. Then the kiss traveled through my muscle tissue into my spine, up into my pariental lobe, then all-overish down my body.
Then she was gone.
Leopold and I were left with our silence and the dying fireplace.
“I should be off to bed myself,” he said.
“I’ll be going,” I said.
“Don’t be absurd.”
Before I could object, he had found a pillow and an armload of blankets, arranging them for me on the floor. I tried declining his offer, but he wouldn’t hear anything of it. However, after I laid down under the blankets, Leopold stopped at the lightswitch, looked at me very curiously, and asked, “What were you doing in my garden?”
“Stealing your vegetables, of course.”
He smiled. Just a little one. Then he turned off the lights.
I laid in the darkness and watched the snowfall slowly shadow itself on the ceiling. Above my head was the portrait of a man who was the spitting image of Leopold, although younger than Leopold, and dead in his frame for at least a hundred years. I waited an hour before I refolded the blankets, stacking them neatly in one corner of the room. In the morning, Leopold would wake up and find them there. Perhaps he would wonder about me. Not for an incredible amount of time, but perhaps just for a little while, wondering why I had left, where I had gone.
Perhaps he would think of me the same way I thought about Emma. How, from time to time, I would imagine her lying about on certain Sunday mornings, somewhere, eating chocolates and madeleines, listening to analogue tape reels, letting something strange and weird stir to life inside her heart.
Before I left, I went to Leopold’s bookcase and pulled a book at random off the shelf. It was an antiquated pocket dictionary. I opened it at random and found a word.
Shane Joaquin Jimenez lives and teaches in Portland, OR. He holds an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University. He is the author of Rue the Day and It Can Be That Way Still. His writing has appeared in Denver Quarterly, The Greensboro Review, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere.
Peter LaBerge is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. His recent work appears in such publications as The Louisville Review, DIAGRAM, The Newport Review, BOXCAR Poetry Review, and Hanging Loose. In the past, he has been named a two-time Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Gold Medalist for Poetry and a Foyle Young Poet of the Year, among others. He grew up in Connecticut, and currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief of The Adroit Journal. Author photo by William Sulit
“Yup.” I lunged too aggressively for the volume control and my seatbelt tensed and slapped me back into my seat. The second verse of “Livin’ On A Prayer” blasted from the speakers.
He reached for the dial and turned it down slowly, eyes still on the road.
“What did she tell you?”
I shrugged and clenched my teeth. “Not much.”
“They’re only a few minutes away from each other, we’ll all be close by.”
I had been playing 80s music in the car since I got to boarding school the year before—before that, actually, after I had visited for a night in ninth grade and all of the girls on Hall II played it from their laptops as they got dressed for a dance or geared up for a field hockey game. By now I knew all the lyrics too, but Bon Jovi’s hopeful words and electronic guitar solos suddenly sounded idealistic and whiny. It made me angry. I skipped to the next song, the next, the next—they were all annoying. I switched to the radio.
“I think you’ll like the new house. You’ll have to share a room with Molly, at least for now, but you can pick out your new wallpaper and everything.” I felt him glancing at me, but I kept my eyes on the dashboard, focused on finding a station. “I know you were sick of that floral one your mom picked out when you were eight.”
“I like that wallpaper.” I found a station playing some angry girl song—Pink or Gwen Stefani or something. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it was angsty.
“I think you will have your own at your mom’s though.”
I hated how he had started saying “your mom.” He had always referred to her as “Mommy” when he was talking to my siblings or me, then “Mom” as we got older. But over the past two years he had started saying “your mom,” the way any stranger might refer to her. My mother still referred to him as “Daddy.”
“So we haven’t figured out the exact schedule yet, but Molly and Jack will go back and forth between the houses every few days—your mom and I will split the week. But it will be flexible, of course, whatever works for you guys. When do you come home next?”
“Sometime,” I said through my teeth. But I meant never. Now that they were selling the beach house too, the one thing left from before they separated, there was no home to return to whatsoever.
“It won’t be that different from the way it is now, Sea. It’s just finally… official.”
The car slowed as we pulled into the line for the ferry. My father lowered his window to hand a ticket to the attendant. Icy air poured into the car.
“It’s gonna be a rough one,” said the bearded man. He rubbed two dirty ski gloves together after punching a hole in the ticket. “I suggest you stay in the car tonight. The wind might blow that one overboard.” He nodded towards me.
“It will be an adventure,” my father replied, looking over at me. “We’ll be okay, she’s a brave one.”
I reached into a bag at my feet and pulled out my aviators, even though the sky was gray and on the verge of dusk. It would be dark by the time the ferry arrived in New London an hour and a half later. I put the sunglasses on deliberately as the car inched towards the ferry.
“Looks like it finally might snow,” my father offered. His hands held the steering wheel casually. They looked pale and in need of hand cream. “Although you’ve had snow at school for months, haven’t you. Maybe we’ll just have to come visit you to go sledding! I’m sure Molly and Jack would love that.”
I stared straight ahead through the streaked windshield at a black Volvo station wagon in line ahead of us. Stickers on the window boasted PROUD YALE MOM and ANDOVER FOOTBALL. I squinted, trying to figure out if I knew the shaggy-haired boy in the car. I hoped I didn’t.
“You excited to get back to school? I can’t believe it’s already been two weeks.” My father’s voice was annoyingly bright.
“Has it only been two weeks,” I said into my scarf. The bearded, gloved man beckoned us towards him and my father eased the car onto the boat. We moved forward towards the Volvo until one of the gloves gave a thumbs up. My father put the car in park. One of the gloves knocked on my window and I pushed the button to roll it down. I shrunk towards the center console as the biting air again cut through my fleece.
“You folks can keep the car on ‘til we get moving, but then you’ll have to shut it off. I know it’s cold.” His lips disappeared between his rusty mustache and beard as he pressed them together tightly. He shrugged. “Policy.”
“Got it, thanks,” my father said loudly. The weathered face disappeared as I rolled up the window.
“We might have a blanket in the back,” my father said, opening his door carefully so as not to scrape the car next to him. He returned from the trunk with a few sandy towels.
“No blanket but these might help a bit,” he said, handing me a faded red and white striped towel.
“Thanks,” I said, shoving the towel by my feet next to the bag. He tossed the others into the back seat. Some leftover grains of sand hit the leather with a hiss. An old Sugar Ray song came on.
“Remember this song?” my father asked, turning up the volume. I noticed I had started singing quietly, out of habit. I stopped.
“Who sings this again?”
“What ever happened to that guy?”
“Don’t know.” I tried to shrug, and noticed my shoulders were already tensed towards my ears. I lowered them.
A foghorn let out a low, loud bellow and the boat began to move slowly. The bearded man walked up and down the aisles, miming an exaggerated key turn as he peeked into each car. My father nodded and mouthed “Okay,” and cut off Sugar Ray mid-verse. The car grew cold almost immediately.
“Want to go upstairs before it gets too choppy? It might be warmer up there.”
“Maybe they have hot chocolate. Want me to go see?”
“Okay, I’ll be right back.”
I looked away as he got out of the car. My window was just inches from the car next to me. A dark haired man sat in the driver’s seat. He was turned around towards the backseat. I could only see the back of his head, but I assumed he was making funny faces based on the giggles coming from two little girls strapped into car seats behind him. I leaned forward so I could see around the father. A woman in a puffy black coat typed furiously on a Blackberry. Her blonde hair hung loose by her face, hiding what I pictured were furrowed eyebrows and piercing eyes. But when she lifted her head, I was surprised by how relaxed her freckled face looked. She turned towards her husband, and her eyes landed on me. I sat back quickly but she gave me a brief smile before turning towards her laughing girls in the back. She reached back and gave one a tickle. Her husband pulled her head towards him and gave her a kiss on the side of her forehead. The action was so seamless, even though they were twisted around in their seats: he must have done that all the time.
“Success!” I reared around as my father slid into his seat, balancing two hot chocolates against his chest with one hand.
“Thanks,” I said, reaching for one of the paper cups. I held the cup between my hands before opening it, thankful for the warmth.
“No marshmallows, but at least it’s something,” my dad said, peeling open a section of plastic lid and blowing into the cup. “Careful, it’s hot!”
We sat in silence for a few minutes as we drank our hot chocolates. I turned towards my window again, but I could no longer see into the other cars—it had gotten dark.
“It’s starting to get a little rocky,” said my father as a few drops of hot chocolate escaped from the opening in the lid and onto his scarf. He brushed them off with a frown. I could feel the duffle bags shifting in the trunk as the boat moved over some waves.
“You don’t say,” I said, surprising even myself with my caustic tone. Silence hung thick in the dark car.
“We’re all going to be okay, you know.” My father turned towards me, but I kept my eyes facing forward. It was now completely dark, but my sunglasses were still on.
“I’m fine.” This time, my voice sounded so bitter it scared me.
“It’s better for all of us, for all of you. It doesn’t mean we don’t love each other—your mom and me, I mean. And we both love you and Molly and Jack so much. It’s just been a tough period, and your mom and I—”
I had already slammed the door and was walking stiffly between the cars, then jogging, then running. I heard another door slam, assumed it was my father. Icy, salt air whipped strands of hair across my face. I brushed past the bearded man and heard him call “Where you goin’?” from behind me. I lunged up the steel stairs two at a time, until my boot slipped and I came to a halt as my chin hit the cold metal. I reached for the banister to pull myself up, but my body felt overwhelmingly heavy. I let myself collapse against the hard stairs. I lifted my face a few inches off the stair, touched the bottom of my chin. Sea spray and tears soaked my cheeks. I buried my face in my arms on the stair.
“Are you okay?” My father’s voice pierced through the loud wind as he bolted up the stairs.
“No, I’m not okay,” I said into my arms. “Leave me alone, I want to be alone.”
But I let him help me to my feet and down the stairs. We moved slowly back towards the car, and I fell heavily into my seat. My father wrapped a towel around me. He walked around the car and got back into his seat.
“We’re all going to be okay,” he said, starting the car.
Emma Greenberg grew up in New York City and the East End of Long Island. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. She is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, The Last Magazine, and Policy Mic. “The Ferry” is an excerpt from her upcoming novel about a teenage girl at a New England boarding school. She currently lives between Philadelphia and New York.
a couple of breaks of sunshine over
the next couple hours, what little sun
shine there is left. a view that outranks
me : two baseball fields, two bridges, the dome
(golden) of a church I can’t identify.
a ludicrous little halo. a noun
formal or technical. moxibustion
vertex frank footling complete. (she turns) she
turns (she turned) her own version. like ploughing
a field like a furrow like verse or versus
(preposition) against or toward furrow
like a harrow (what a harrow is for)
verso (on the turned) like the turn in a sonnet.
sleep with arms around my children, as if—
II. 1 – 3. Kenneth Goldsmith, The Weather. 6 – 7. Mina Loy, “Parturition.” 14. Julie Carr, 100 Notes on Violence.
both nuns & mothers worship images.
under a spire at the piano.
thistles, birds’ nests to the left of the church.
boys build a ringfort & say carry me.
I ordered in the Starbucks demotic.
he mows the lawn into a labyrinth.
he mows the lawn into a striped outfield. xxx see also : hexenmilch each of us carries
around a set of shibboleths with totemic
reverence meanwhile we trample blithely on spells xxx & hexes we have never heard of
a rückenfigur, himself, the two boys
triangulate, after dinner baseball—
children playing against mud, against sand
XV. 1. William Butler Yeats, “Among School Children” 8 – 11. “hex,” OED etym. (Word Study 1968) 14. Laura Walker, Swarm Lure.
Author’s Note: x y z && is a sonnet sequence that uses quotation as a frame. As a general rule, the sonnets use quotation in the first & last lines or sentences, though this does vary. x y z && is the third sonnet sequence I’ve written using this general frame— one after the birth of each of my children (the others are ‘spaltklang : is good broken music’ in Table Alphabetical of Hard Words & ‘oyer’ in L&O). The Roman numerals with the citations indicate the sonnet’s place in the sequence. x y z && is forthcoming as a chapbook from Ahsahta Press later this year.
Photo credit: Karen Rile
Pattie McCarthy is the author of six books: two forthcoming, nulls (Horse Less Press) & Quiet Book (Apogee Press), as well as Marybones, Table Alphabetical of Hard Words, Verso, & bk of (h)rs (all from Apogee). She has three chapbooks forthcoming in the next year: scenes from the lives of my parents (Bloof Books), x y z && (Ahsahta Press), and fifteen genre scenes (eth press). A former Pew Fellow in the Arts, McCarthy teaches at Temple University.
YOU ARE BUT A PILGRIM VENTURING TO A STRANGE AND HONEST LAND by Jared Yates Sexton
On the cab ride in the driver turned and said, Did you know Hope and Despair are sister and brother and you their distant cousin? We were driving over a bridge. The snow was falling and people were trudging down the walk holding newspapers over their heads.
I’m sorry, I said. I had been watching the people. What did you say?
I said, he said, that Hope and Despair are sister and brother and you their distant cousin.
For some reason I thought over my family tree to see if there was any truth. I was an only child though, the offspring of two miserably matched people who would’ve still hated one another had they been alive. The only glimpse of hope in my whole lineage was a cousin who had scored well on his Naval test and was chained to the belly of a submarine in the Pacific.
I’m not sure I understand, I said.
It’s an easy mistake, the driver said. He was still turned around, his head framed by the glass separating us, his hands busy with the wheel. Most think they’re abstract concepts. States of mind. Tricks of brain chemistry. But I’m here to tell you, he said, that they are very real and they are very concerned with you.
From his glove box he pulled a laminated flyer no bigger than a bookmark. I took it with hesitation and studied the print. The first sentence said DID YOU KNOW HOPE AND DESPAIR ARE SISTER AND BROTHER AND YOU THEIR DISTANT COUSIN? There was a picture at the top of two people tugging a rope. There was a woman and a man and they looked like hieroglyphic people who had been locked in eternal struggle.
Those are your cousins, the driver said. The pretty one is Hope. The ugly one Despair.
I looked at hope and her snake-like locks of dark hair. Despair had a nest of scars racing down his sharp-angled cheek.
What you didn’t know, the driver said, still paying no attention to the road or the crowd of cars he was weaving through, was that you had been locked in a constant family feud. Fought over by a universe as petty and emotional as yourself.
On the back of the laminated flyer was a phone number. Below that a question – WOULD YOU LIKE TO JOIN THE FAMILY?
What’s The Family? I said.
The Family, the driver said, is our humble attempt to understand the greater struggle. To find our kin. To commiserate among the likeminded and the frightened.
We were at the airport. The cab had parked itself at the curb leading into the main terminal. The driver was still there with his head poking through the divider. He was smiling, but not. He was grimacing, but not. I said, I don’t have any money.
That’s fine, he said.
I said, It’s a very strange time in my life.
That’s fine, he said.
I said, I’m sorry, but I have a plane to catch.
Catch your plane, he said.
After scrabbling out of the cab I collected my own bag from the trunk and carried it into the terminal. It was midday and throngs of people choked the space. Everywhere there was someone. They were pushing past one another, holding each other close, screaming into their phones, buying flowers by the ticket stand. I found myself at the counter. I slammed my information on the desk and demanded my boarding pass.
I’m in a hurry, I said.
That’s fine, the ticket officer said. She had straight black hair and a crooked tooth in front.
It’s a very strange time in my life, I said.
Isn’t it for everyone? she said and typed at her keys.
I have to get back to my wife, I said.
She had called the night before from Atlanta and said that the city had begun vibrating. She said she opened up the window to our loft and leaned out and listened. She said it sounded to her like all of the city, all of the towering buildings and beeping cars and hustling people and clanging restaurants, had whispered to her to jump, to fly out of the window and onto the pavement below. But I didn’t tell the ticket officer that.
You’re in seat 24F, the ticket officer said and handed me my pass.
Wonderful, I said. Thank you, I said.
Listen, she said. Did you know Hope and Despair are sister and brother and you their distant cousin?
What? I said.
Listen, she said and started again.
I have to go, I said.
Security next and I begged my way to the front. Some of the people in line were happy to let me through and others grumbled and yelled and spat. I shoved my shoes and belt and bag through the x-ray machine and walked through the gate. The alarm went off though and a man with security pulled me and my goods to the side.
We need to check you further, he said.
I’m running late for my flight, I said.
That’s fine, he said. This will only take a moment.
He waved a wand over my chest and arms and down the back of my legs and then the front. Sir, he said, do you have any metal implants?
Implants? I said.
Pins, he said. Needles. Artificial joints or valves?
No, I said. Nothing of the like.
Good, he said. He touched a button on the wand. You know, he said, the struggle continues whether you are aware of it or not.
The struggle? I said.
Hope is the oldest sibling, he said. She was born in a meadow on a sunlit day. Her mother and father stroked her hair while she cooed and squirmed. Despair came a month later in the midst of a flood that destroyed an entire civilization. The mother was aloft on a makeshift raft and pushed him into the world as all of the bloated animals and peoples bobbed by. She died as he breathed his first breath.
I looked at the man from security.
Why are you telling me this? I asked him.
Because, he said, it’s nearly time.
I left my shoes and belt and bag and ran barefooted across the floor and to my gate. All around me I could hear people talking to each other and into their machines. Their conversations were vastly different, their tones changing and growing as they continued. I reached my gate and found a phone near the boarding area. I dialed the numbers to my home and my darling wife answered.
It’s getting worse, she said as she picked up the phone.
What is? I said. What’s getting worse?
The sound, she said. Outside. You should hear it.
I don’t want to hear it, I said. I’m already hearing enough. Honey, I said. Are you all right? It’s been a strange day.
I’m fine, she said. I’m better than I’ve ever been. You should hear it though, you really should.
No, I said. Honey, something’s happening.
I have to go, she said. I want to listen some more. I’m going to the window.
Don’t, I said. Stay away from the window. I’m boarding the plane. Now. I’ll be home before you know it. Don’t go to the window, I said, but she was gone.
The flight boarded. I waited my turn in line and settled into seat 24F. I felt that I had broken into a sweat and soaked through my shirt and pants. My breath, which had been ragged since the incident in the cab, slowed and returned to normal. I closed my eyes and envisioned my wife, my beautiful wife, as she had been before I’d left Atlanta. She’d laid next to me. I’d looked at her and she at me.
We are so lucky, I had said.
We are, she said. The luckiest.
None luckier, I said.
But then, as I was remembering, the memory changed and my darling wife raised herself from the bed and walked to the window opposite us. She opened it and pointed to something out in the distance. She turned to me, in the memory, and said, You need to listen.
The plane lifted into the air. No one spoke. The captain never came over the address system. There was silence except for the hiss of air through the vents. Things moved faster. It felt as if we were flying at speeds unimaginable. I turned to the person next to me, the person in 24E, an old woman wearing a sweater with a squirrel on the front. I said, Is something wrong?
Of course something’s wrong, she said. There’s always something wrong.
The plane’s trajectory increased until we were nearly end over end. No one stirred except for me. No one moved except for me. I looked out the window and saw the ground growing farther and farther away and the pressure in my ears built until I thought the drums might burst. My god, I screamed, my god enough.
As if on cue the plane slowly leveled out and we were parallel to the ground again. The other passengers turned in their seats and looked at me. I expected them to be angry but they seemed serene in a way I’d never seen before. Then, in unison, they unbuckled their seatbelts and stood hunched over by their seats. The flight attendants joined them and crowded the aisles. Behind them, the pilot and first officer. All of their faces were different but somehow the same. And then, in a moment, a subtle ripple ran across them as if across the surface of a pond.
Did you know, they said together in perfect coordination, that Hope and Despair are sister and brother and you their distant cousin?
Their stare was so intense I had to look away. Out the window I could see that the landscape was changing somehow. It was warping. Transforming.
What you have seen for so long, they said, is a distraction. Life hidden by a powerless daydream.
I watched a cornfield below rise like a wave and then flatten out like the last breath of a tide. I turned back to the other passengers and realized I was surrounded.
It’s time to wake up, they said, their voices still in lockstep, their eyes unblinking. It’s time to see the true nature of reality.
The level of the plane changed again and I could feel the force of descent. The pilots were still standing there, their hands lifeless at their sides. I felt the shape of something in my pocket and I found the laminated flyer the driver had given me in the cab. My eyes were drawn to a line at the bottom – YOU ARE BUT A PILGRIM VENTURING TO A STRANGE AND HONEST LAND.
I looked outside. The world glowed now with the tint of a mad and dying sun. Where there had once been Atlanta, with its skyscrapers shouldering up from the concrete, was now a city with glorious temples and glass spires surrounding a smoking cavity of a pit full of rotting and decaying flesh. There were people dancing and making love in the streets and there were people flaying one another.
Welcome home, they said in one voice. Welcome, welcome, welcome. Image credit: blu-news.org on Flickr
Jared Yates Sexton is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University and currently serves as Managing Editor of the literary magazine BULL. His work has appeared in publications around the world and has been nominated for a pair of Pushcarts and The Million Writer’s Award. He was also a finalist for The New American Fiction Prize. His first book, An End To All Things, is available from Atticus Books.
Marie Nunalee lives in Asheville, NC. She will be in indefinite space 2014, and can be found in various other publications, including theNewerYork, The Metric, Epigraph, Eunoia Review, Deadbeats, and Digital Americana. She writes at swordfishsermons.tumblr.com
Peace Rose: Just before Germany invaded France, a French horticulturist sent cuttings of his newest rose to friends in Italy, Turkey, Germany, and the U.S. to protect it. It is said that it was sent to the U.S. on the last plane available before the invasion. Because the cultivators couldn’t communicate during the war, each country gave the rose a different name. In France it was called ‘Madame A. Meilland’ in honor of the breeder’s mother, in Italy ‘Gioia,’ in Germany ‘Gloria Dei,’ and in the U.S. ‘Peace.’
“Can’t I have peace at my own table?”
Our mother’s war cry. The very mention of peace sets our teeth on edge, steels us, her adult children, into contention. My father glares at us, grits his teeth and shakes his head in frustration.
“Listen to your mother.”
But it’s always too late. Raised voices escalate to accusations to shouts to crashing plates to slammed doors to hysterical crying to uneasy sleep. The morning brings resentment disguised as remorse. Then five months or even a year later we get together again and let past grievances erupt at the dinner table. It seems that peace has become impossible. Our history, shared but not agreed upon, stands in the way.
World peace is a different matter. It’s something all of us agree to wanting. Mac, when he was twelve, bought a candle at a fair and set it on top of the television next to his marksman trophy from summer camp and a basket of dried flowers. It was shaped like a peace symbol in lurid pink and blue wax. “We won’t light this until the war’s over,” he solemnly announced. For years, we kept our passive vigil. The candle’s colors faded, covered in a layer of dust. We imagined the end of war as an event worth celebrating, commemorating. We had all seen the pictures of V-J Day, of women kissing soldiers, of crowds rejoicing in the streets.
The war, our war, didn’t end in celebration. It simply petered out. Fighting against the war, flouting authority, had been exhilarating. The war’s end couldn’t match the excitement of protest. My family finally did light the candle, though. The lights in the living room were out; the television, for once, was silent. The flame shone behind a translucent wall of wax. We ate dinner by the flickering lavender light, and watched as the peace symbol collapsed, melting into a shapeless heap. Afterwards, Mac, Elizabeth, and I played distractedly with the hot drippings, molding them into fantasy creatures, spreading the wax in thin sheets of color over our hands and arms. “Stop that,” my mother scolded. But we were too engrossed in the candle’s warm oozing to pay attention.
“No one is ever going to criticize me in this house again,” my mother announced after Grandmother died. Grandmother’s house would become her house, her haven. Still, we continued, unconsciously, to follow Grandmother’s rituals and habits, as if she were somehow embodied in the house, as if the walls and books and rugs and furniture bid us dress for dinner and dine at seven sharp with candles on the table. At Christmas, the family had always recited together the story of shepherds huddled on the hill dazzled by an angel’s glad tidings of a great joy, the verse that ends with the famous Christmas sentiment: “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” When we finished Grandmother would light the Christmas candle and ask for a wish for the good of the house.
“What do you wish for?” Mac once asked me. “I never know. I always wish that the house won’t burn down.” He laughed, “Me too.” Then Elizabeth piped in, her little voice somber, “I wished that the house will always stay in the family.”
The Christmas after Grandmother died, we rushed to prepare dinner and wrap presents and decorate the pine bough over the fireplace, then met in the library, beginning our ceremony breathless and uncomposed. We finished our verse too quickly and looked at each other, awkward for a moment, waiting for Grandmother to appear, to take her part. Father handed the matches to Mother who lit the candle and invoked the wish. Then, to my surprise, she turned to me and asked me to fill the rest of Grandmother’s role, to read the closing passage from John.
I opened the book and read the familiar words: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
Author’s Note: On a street where I once lived an unknown neighbor grew roses in his front yard. In winter, they all looked alike, thorny brown branches without blossoms. I wouldn’t even have noticed them if it weren’t for the hand-lettered placards that gave each rose its name.
“Eclipse. Peace. King’s Ransom. Arlene Francis.”
Those were the names of the front row of roses. Every time I walked past I would read that list, until those roses’ names linked like a poem in my mind. And then, reciting that accidental poem each time I walked by, those names started sparking memories. So I walked, read, recited, and remembered.
And then I wrote.
This vignette is one of four inspired by the names of those roses.
Ann de Forest’s short stories have appeared in The Journal, Hotel Amerika, Timber Creek Review, PIF—and the debut issue of Cleaver. Fascinated by lists and other found text, she’s written a story inspired by the pictures in the margins in the dictionary and a family memoir suggested by the names of roses (excerpted here). Her first published poem, an erasure poem “blacked-out” from a newspaper obituary of Margaret Thatcher, is forthcoming in The Found Poetry Review.
The medium is biological, human cells crafted in a sterile environment to simulate body parts: an ear, a finger, a foot. Clyde Averill has become renowned for his work, the first bio-artist to achieve such astonishing, lifelike effects. After exhibitions in Italy, France, and China, in the Ukraine, in Moscow, he has come to Los Angeles and from here will go to San Francisco, Denver, and finally New York. In each city, in each gallery, he exhibits different works, and at the end of each showing he unseals the glass in which the apparent body parts are displayed and allows attendees to touch them; the shock of it always sends a murmur through the crowd, the tactile sensation indistinguishable from touching a fingertip to the lobe of a lover’s ear, a beloved child’s flesh. The finale never alters; cells not previously exposed to bacteria are ravaged by microscopic hordes that rush upon them from the intruding hands, and the ears, fingers, feet decompose and crumble before astonished eyes, eaten alive.
Even those who’ve read about the spectacle, or who have seen it before in another gallery, are appalled and fascinated. So it will be tonight when the thirty invitees to Averill’s showing at the Lovington Gallery on 4th and Flower are treated to the artist’s disturbing final flourish. I have no doubt of this; I have seen it many times myself and am never less than repulsed. Yet the horror of it is also somehow exciting at, perhaps—if you will allow me this—the cellular level. Something resonates, primally, in one’s own tissues as these tissues made by man decay and die.
Yes. They die. And yes, they live. I am sure of this. Averill himself convinced me; the logic of it is inescapable. The cells he uses are living cells; they bond and respond to his direction, as cells respond to the prodding of scientists in labs. He is not their creator, no more than a technician who inserts sperm into an egg creates either sperm or egg, but he is the maker of their destinies, the shaper of what it is they will become. As perhaps, that technician shapes the child that may be born of the reproductive combination he has facilitated; but Averill’s control is more complete. He himself carves the contours of the ear, etches the whorls and spirals of the finger’s tip, determines if the foot will have the expected number of toes, and how long or short each toe will be. Some Averill feet have been lovely forms, softly contoured and smooth-skinned, each of their five toes “a song of delight made flesh,” as one appreciation in the art press opined. Others, crafted for divergent effect, had eight or ten or—the maximum so far—even twelve gnarled and nail-less toes bunched together at their extremity, conjuring unexpectedly our species’ origins in the sea, the crowd of digits like barnacles or small pale crabs that have affixed themselves permanently, parasitically, to an unconsulted host. At times an exhibit consisted exclusively of such ugliness, or its opposite. Just as often, the artist offered an approximate balance of the two.
There would be no announcement of an exhibition’s content before it opened. Averill’s audience was kept always in a state of uncertainty, the precise nature of what they would see/are seeing/have seen never a settled question. Yes, I have been convinced that his sculptures are alive and, because he shapes them from human cells, human; but this being so, is their inevitable destruction a moral crime or simple biological process? Are the people who touch Averill’s creations in the wrong—perhaps sinning—if they know beforehand what their touch will do?
Reviewers pondered these questions, and more. Having known Averill and his art longer than they, having been invited to touch and witness the decay of a living sculpture two years before the first public showing, I asked these questions first. And when I asked them of Averill himself in his studio one day, after we’d returned from the first exhibition, he stared at me with his laughing blue eyes and said it wasn’t his job to answer questions. I nodded and said, I see. It’s your job to raise them, then. And he said, No. I make art, and it may be that art raises questions.
I looked into the glass cylinder on the pedestal before me, at the warmly pink, perfectly formed ear that would become colorless sludge in less than a minute if I were to touch it and said, I don’t know where the limits are. Averill responded with a smile, You’re phrasing a question as a statement.
I raised my hand to touch the glass, leaned in closer to the ear inside and whispered. Perhaps one day Averill will create a mouth and I will have an answer.
Henry Marchand’s fiction has appeared in The King’s English, Paradigm, The Seattle Review, Rosebud, The Laurel Review, Penduline Press, and elsewhere. He has published essays and commentary in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Common Dreams News Center, and The International Herald-Tribune. A New Jersey native and longtime resident of northeast Ohio, he now lives with his wife Lisa on the Central Coast of California, where he teaches creative writing at Monterey Peninsula College.
In a dress with sequins the color of champagne, her legs like bone, she crouched on the beach and dug her hand under the packed wet sand. The New Year had been mostly Manhattans and whiskey-gingers and drunk finance hotshots from Murray Hill and Stuy-Town trying to buy girls out. The salt-cold wind blew grit down the face of the dunes. She drew her knees to her chest and drank vodka.
People were getting engaged. But still she clung to her brick building in Morningside, to the holes in the walls where the electrical wiring had been gutted, to the hall light that was burnt out, to the bathtub where she’d bathed in two inches of water boiled in a pot on the stove, flopping around on her stomach like a beached whale to wash the suds off.
She remembered being seventeen. As denim shorts and bare thighs on the scorched hood of a Volkswagen, and joints rolled on hot leather seats. Somebody slept on a blue and yellow beach towel at Sauvie’s. Somebody lay underneath her with his hands under the strings of her bikini, the 24-year-old drummer from the Satyricon. Somebody had gotten high with her outside the aquarium in Newport, and they had looked at the tide pools under Haystack Rock. But she hadn’t seen those people in a long time.
When the vodka was gone she looked through the bottom of the bottle like a telescope, magnified the sequins on her dress, peered at the water shifting up and down and the black circle of the Ferris wheel against the thin sky. A Russian in a wool coat crunched across the ice-rimed pier. The lights from Manhattan were ghosts. After the party she had ridden the D train to the end of the line, to Coney Island.
Here nobody would take her to see the tide pools. Here the beach was frozen, drained; and here nobody stopped at just kissing, or smoked her out, because here it was every individual person for themselves, even married couples, even sisters, even mothers and daughters, and here to be alone was inherent, even admirable, and here every action and reaction was just one inch closer to an unspoken impossible goal of more, more, more, more, more.
She lay on the beach until she was sober and the sun had risen. The waves crashed in on the first morning of the New Year. Was there anywhere else to go? Eventually she stood, pitched the bottle into the Atlantic, and turned for the train that would take her back. Image credit: Helen Chi on Flickr
Kristen Sharp grew up in Portland, OR and lives in New York City. She is a recent graduate of Fordham University, where she completed a B.A. in Spanish Language and Literature and spent a year living in Spain. In 2012 she received the Bernice Kilduff White and John J. White Prize in Creative Writing from Fordham. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in Fordham’s literary magazine, The Ampersand, and newspaper, The Observer. She is currently working on a novel and planning a voyage to Southeast Asia.
The next morning at Paige’s, too many mamas were there. I didn’t know why they’d stayed. It made me feel like Mama was anti-social, which she was. But more than that, it made me feel—even though I’d lived in Greenville all my life—like I still didn’t know the rules.
“What are we going to do with you?” Mrs. Grovenor was picking up a side of my hair and letting it fall. “What about layers? Those are the same shirts you’ve worn all summer, darling. Has your body changed? It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I started packing it to my hips when I was sixteen—overnight. Just, boom. I swear, the next morning nothing fit. I mean, nothing. Have you asked your mama to take you to Jackson?”
Jackson? For a second I thought she was talking about Dr. Dana, my secret. Of course, it wasn’t a secret. Secrets around here were things that everybody knew, only they didn’t talk about in front of your face. Mrs. Grovenor meant the mall.
“I took Missy to Ridgeway last weekend, girl, they have some fun things. Ann Taylor Loft is much younger than Ann Taylor.” Mrs. Grovenor’s eyes were pools of blue and they blinked constantly. Now she was talking directly over my head to somebody else’s mama. That was how short I was. I couldn’t keep the mamas straight. This summer they had the same blunt haircuts.
There were no boundaries in this world. People could talk about your body in public then move onto something else.
Jade had a black eye. I didn’t notice it until I’d followed her into the kitchen. She hovered over the donuts just to smell them, and when she turned around the hair draped over her eye came off. “Oh my God!” I screamed in Paige’s mama’s stainless steel kitchen. It was purple and pink and puffy and black all at once.
“Shut up, Rebecca.” Jade’s voice was low and angry but secretly pleased. “That girl last night? The one with the hair?” Her hands fluttered above her shoulders. “Let’s say I met her boyfriend and didn’t know he was taken.”
“How far was it took?” I asked her.
She wrinkled her brow. “Anyway, she has an arm. I’ve never been in a fight in my life. Seriously. When the lights came on he wasn’t even cute.” She flipped her bangs back, then remembered and arranged them over her eye. “What’d you do? Hear from the cousins?”
What did I do? I got dropped off like a third grader. I hated myself because I could not hate her more. “Beauty rest,” I said, then snorted.
“Rebecca ARNOLD,” a grownup voice said behind me. “I have a solution for you.” Mrs. McJunkin laid her hand on my shoulder. “Shondra put on some weight this summer and we got a book that has helped her. Is your mama here? I am so sorry about your grandmamma, sweetie, all of us are just bereft.”
Jade had walked off and Mrs. McJunkin and I stood in front of the kitchen table full of donuts that nobody was eating. One of her earrings swung back and forth like a wrecking ball. She waited for me to say something, but she had thrown so many topics at me I didn’t know where to start. “Thank you. What’s the book called?”
“WHERE’S OUR GIRL?” Another mama came into the kitchen. All mamas shouted things when they walked in rooms. I didn’t know whose mama this one was. She was dressed entirely in white with a thin red patent leather belt synching her itty bitty waist.
“She is resting,” Mrs. McJunkin said. Her smile was full of meaning.
“How are they?” the mama asked.
“Perfect,” Mrs. McJunkin said. “I may need to let out her top. I’m just going to guess today.”
From the living room Paige’s mama clapped her hands for our attention, measuring tape draped over one arm.
“How was it?” Mama asked when she picked me up. She hadn’t come in. She’d pulled up in front of the house and waited. I’d watched her watch the mamas make their way across the lawn, their manicured hands on their daughters’ backs.
“Apparently Amber Lynn got implants.”
“Breast implants?” Mama turned to me in anger, like it’d been my idea.
“No, calf implants. Yes. Boobs. Ginormous boobs. Boobs that set the world on fire.”
We were driving through the neighborhood, not turning where we usually would. Trees passed us on both sides. This was a pretty street. Somebody’d rolled somebody’s front yard. Toilet paper streamed from the trees then clumped in the grass, moist from that morning’s dew. School hadn’t even started and there were already pranks. “I think her mama has them too. Mrs. McJunkin? Have you noticed hers?” I turned to Mama and she was staring straight ahead. “What’s wrong?”
“I cannot believe this town,” she said. “I cannot believe it.”
“This town? You are from this town. What’s so hard to believe?”
“That a mother would take her sixteen-year-old daughter to get elective surgery. Sexualized elective surgery. Tell me, Rebecca, who are breast implants for?”
“She’s seventeen, I think. A senior. What do you mean who are they for? The people who get them.”
“Girls get them, but they’re for boys,” Mama said. “Do you see the problem with that?”
This always happened. When I agreed with Mama, I still wanted to give the impression that I didn’t. “Are you saying you disapprove of Mrs. McJunkin’s parental practices? Don’t you think we have a right to modify our bodies? Maybe it’s only a taboo here.” I was trying to remember Jade’s argument. I did not have my own ideas. I did a bad job of copying other people’s.
“I’m taking you to Mama’s. You haven’t seen your grandmother in weeks.”
When we pulled in front of my grandmother’s apartment, her front door opened and my aunt Alma walked out in cutoffs with legs like a man. She was what I was afraid I looked like. Her black hair hung in pink rollers. She had a cardboard box under one arm and leaned to the side with it, walking to her truck. I got out of the car and she gave my shoulder a squeeze with her free hand. “We the same size,” she told me in her thick deep smoker’s voice. “We gotta stick together.” Her eyebrows were penciled on right above the bones, thin brown shiny lines you could rub off with your finger. She went around to the flatbed and hefted the box over the side.
Mama’s door slammed. “Hello Alma,” she said.
Alma nodded. “She getting worse.”
“I just saw her. She looked great,” Mama said. She walked to the front door then turned around. “You leaving?”
“Gotta go,” Alma said. “See you, Rebecca.” She hoisted herself into her truck and it cranked loud as a Harley. We watched her back out and turn the corner. I followed Mama to the door. It was locked and she was knocking.
“Did you see what she had in that box?” Mama asked me. I hadn’t. She knocked again.
“Maybe she’s not here,” I said. “Her car’s not. She’s not here. How come Alma has a key and you don’t?” She kept knocking and shaking the doorknob. “Mama, she’s not here,” I said again. “Stop.”
She backed away and the screen door slammed shut. There was sweat above her upper lip. She took off her burgundy sunglasses and rubbed her eyes. I stared at her and waited until she said something.
“See that man?” She pointed to the apartment next door. “See? He’s in the window staring at us. Does it every time. Wave to him. Go on, wave.”
For a minute I thought he was masturbating. He stood in front of the sheer liner, then whipped the curtain in front of himself. Mama stood there staring with her hands on her hips. “This town,” she said, then walked to her car. Image credit: Karen Rile
Anne Dyer Stuart won New South journal’s 2012 prose prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction Southeast, Pembroke Magazine, Poet Lore, The Louisville Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Sakura Review, Midway Journal, r.kv.r.y., Third Coast, Best of the Web, storySouth, and elsewhere. She teaches at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania.
I’ve forgotten the language of cities, of travel. I insert the room key upside down, stumble over a couch in the lobby, ride the wrong subway line, walk South instead of North. New York hems me in, surrounds me on all sides until I’m drowning in cigarette smoke, screaming horns, the kind of humidity that settles on skin and won’t wash off. The horizon is harder than the soft green sweep of home—stone and steel, mirrored windows that catch the sky and won’t let go. I’ve forgotten how to speak the language of strangeness. Years ago I drove up into the Himalayas at midnight, drank Georgian Cognac in Russia, photographed children in Peshawar. I ordered room service at Hotel de L’Opera and bunked on an old ship in Stockholm. I stood in Red Square in below-zero temperatures, allowed myself to be carried along by crowds at Rawal Pindi’s bazaar. I was never fluent, never fearless, but I understood the dialect of unfamiliar experiences.
Today rain pummels my daughter and I before we can reach the shelter of yet another Starbucks. A tour group clad in clear plastic ponchos marches past, raggedly determined. The sun returns to blast us with its heat but West 34th St. shines clean in late afternoon light. Rush hour surges forward and back, a rip tide that threatens to take us under, until we step into an old church and a pocket of silence opens. My daughter lights a candle for the dead. Outside, shadows bathe the street in echoes and the Brooklyn Bridge looms, its cables weaving twilight into an architect’s gothic dream. A man in a business suit cuts us off, but the woman behind the gelato counter gives us “Smiles” for the price of “Winks” to make up for it. Carved stones whisper their names. Skyscrapers step back and offer us a view. Someone’s husband hurries back with napkins for a woman crying on a park bench. My daughter and I find the right subway line, the maid turns the upside-down room key, the couch in the lobby opens its green velvet arms for us. Old words flicker in and out of darkness. Image credit: Guian Bolisay on Flickr
Lori Lamothe‘s poetry and prose has appeared or is forthcoming in biostories, Bitter Oleander, Canary, Daily Dose of Lit, Fogged Clarity, Notre Dame Review, Seattle Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Third Coast, and other magazines. She is a graduate of Cornell University and teaches in New England.
Eras apply dust victorious
harden over masonry.
Accomplishments in architecture
and death; lives of sleep
and food and shit removal.
Dust sweeps off the table
water in a flask, a bag of emmer.
Thirsty soil drinks from the trenches
cut down from the rivers.
Orchards absorb more sun more wind
where the crust has awaited this
shovel and pick.
Wednesday Night in the Juke
The man in the pinstriped suit pumps
the bellows on his accordion, pumps
out the zydeco, stomps his foot
on a bandstand by himself. My round,
red, pinhole eyes follow the only dancer,
curly, polished-copper hair on forehead,
sheared up the back of her neck; crimson
Lucille-Ball lips parted and gasping. Her
canary shift flutters like a sail in a headwind,
her torso the mast, her arms the yards.
Her long legs sweep through the smoke-
stained air. Carmine-painted toenails peek
out from stilt-high-heeled sandals. A man
at a table forks his steaming Dover sole
with lemon zest and almond slivers. He
slices off a piece and offers it to me.
Jesse Minkert lives in Seattle. He has written plays for theater and radio, short stories, novels, and poems. Wood Works Press published a letterpress collection of his microstories, Shortness of Breath & Other Symptoms, in 2008. His work appears in Randomly Accessed Poetics, Subprimal Poetry Art, Limestone,Confrontation, Paper Nautilus, Mount Hope, Naugatuck River Review, Floating Bridge Review, Harpur Palate, and Raven Chronicles. In the summer Minkert works with visually impaired school kids to produce radio plays and PSAs dealing with their experience.
PORTRAITS OF AGE by Donna Festa Interviewed by Anastasiya Shekhtman
Where does your fascination with faces come from? When I was a young girl, I went with my mother on a regular basis to visit her sisters. She was the youngest of nine children. The three youngest sisters—my mother Betty, Cassie, and Tucker—were the core of the group, but others would join in on different occasions. You never knew who was going to be at the kitchen table when you arrived.
These visits were either at my Aunt Tucker’s house (Sylvia was her birth name, but, due to her resemblance to the actress Sophie Tucker, she is still called Tucker at 90 years old), or my Aunt Helen’s house, the oldest sibling, in South Jersey. Aunt Tucker always had a homemade cake, and most always a pot of pasta sauce slowly simmered on the stove all day, filling the house with an incredible aroma. Aunt Helen had a homemade pie to serve with the tea, and a cat curled up on her large, soft chest. When I wasn’t shamelessly throwing myself at Alvin or Sam, the dogs, I listened to the conversations about my aunts’ lives and studied their faces.
The personality of each aunt seemed quite apparent at first glance. Helen was serene in her beauty and kindness. Though her life had been quite difficult, she was such a good person that her inner beauty radiated despite the sadness in her eyes. Thelma was quite the opposite of Helen. There was a coldness about her that seemed to set in her mouth, eyes, and tongue. The absolute worst of these visits were when Uncle Raymond, Aunt Helen’s ex-husband, was present. I feared him terribly and panicked at the sight of him at the table. He wore mean all over his face.
I’ve always been extremely intuitive and hyper sensitive to my surroundings. As a cripplingly shy child, I sat quietly, observed, and felt deeply. I never stopped.
What do your portraits suggest about age? When middle age hit, I was faced with the effects of aging. As always, painting is how I coped. Aging is a privilege, but we sure go through so much on the way to old age. All the troubles, difficulties, and heartaches take a toll on us, both mentally and physically. Often, a face will be so painfully sad or burdened that my heart sinks at first glance. People carry so much with them. I once heard a quote that I’ll never forget (though, regrettably, I do forget who said it). In his interview on PBS, an author said, “Be kind. Everyone is carrying a heavy burden.”
That is what I felt when I saw the men and women at work in the South Jersey glass factories, where I earned my tuition money. They worked hard in difficult conditions. It showed on their faces.
Would you consider your portraits critical or sympathetic? On occasion, I am critical in my portraiture, as in “The Gossips.” But mostly I aim for empathy. Having struggled with major depression since age eight, I often feel things too deeply. At times, it seems that I can feel the pain of the whole world, which becomes overwhelming and unbearable. While I’m focused on the feelings I read from each person I paint, it’s impossible not to project my own emotions onto them. I’ve been asked why so many of the people in my portraits look sad. That comes from me.
What aspect of painting people appeals most to you? My love of paint was immediate the first time I used it. In kindergarten, my wonderful teacher gave us all a large sheet of paper and tempera paint. We were allowed to paint on the floor. I was next to my best friend, Tim. It was one of the happiest days of my life. The paper was slick and smooth, and the paint was thick and fluid. I fell completely in love with the feel of the paint gliding across the paper. I couldn’t stop myself from completely over-painting my picture. I knew then that I wanted that to be my life.
Now my medium is oil paint, but I still must have a slick surface to work on. I prepare my panels to be as smooth as possible, a continuation of my happy kindergarten painting experience. The language of the paint is as important to me as the subject matter itself. I’m completely drawn to loose, fast, thick paint strokes. My work is never loose enough for me, so I keep working on that.
You feature both strangers and acquaintances in your work. How does your level of relation to the subjects affect their portrayal? Whether I am painting a stranger or an acquaintance, my approach is the same. What do they tell me about themselves that I hope to capture? What are they thinking? What is it that weighs on them? I know the answer to some of these questions when painting someone I know, but have to guess with someone I see at random whose face interests me so much that I have to paint it.
1. Frank, 2013, oil on panel, 6 x 6 inches Frank Smith was a self-proclaimed preacher from a small town in southern New Jersey. He and his sister were close with my mother’s family.
2. Black Suit, 2013, oil in panel, 6 x 6 inches
3. Woman with a Pink Hat, 2012, oil on panel, 6 x 6 inches My husband and I lived across the street from a church in West Grove, Pennsylvania. We saw many members of the congregation come and go each Sunday including the Woman in Pink Hat.
4. Liquor, 2009, oil on panel, 5 x 8 inches Liquor was my Uncle Jim’s nickname. He both enjoyed it and made it during Prohibition and after. He was severely abused by his father, a veteran of World War II who fought on the front lines, and my mother’s oldest brother.
5. Woman with Oxygen Tube, 2012, oil on panel, 6 x 6 inches I saw this woman at a family function from across the room during the social time of the event.
6. Woman in Wheel Chair, 2011, oil on panel, 5 x 7 inches The day I saw the Mummies of the World exhibit at the Franklin Institute this particular woman caught my eye.
7. Woman With Thinning Hair, 2012, oil on panel, 6 x 6 inches Many of the people in my paintings I’ve seen while waiting for my prescriptions at the drug store, including this woman.
8. Black Tie, White Shirt, 2013, oil on panel, 6 x 6 inches Another man from a family function.
Donna Festa has paintings and drawings in both public and private collections, including the State Museum of Pennsylvania. She has exhibited in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Miami. Her work has been published in Fresh Paint Magazine, October, 2013, INPA, vol. 1 , 2011, INPA, vol. 2, 2012, and New American Paintings, Mid-Atlantic Region vol. 51, 2004. Donna is a graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she earned a four year certificate in painting; the University of the Arts, also in Philadelphia, where she received a BFA in painting and teacher certification; and the University of Hartford in Hartford, Connecticut, where she received an MFA in painting. Her studio is in her home in Bangor, Maine.
Anastasiya Shekhtman is a senior Communication Design major at the University of Pennsylvania, minoring in Russian and Creative Writing. Displaced from Ukraine at the age of four, Anastasiya is currently chasing childhood images, sorting the real from the imagined, only to blur them again in her work. Until recently, Anastasiya lived in a love triangle between writing and design. Then she found her heart in the overlap. Her website is www.anastasiyashekhtman.com.
Christine Hamm has a PhD in American Poetics and is a former poetry editor for Ping*Pong. She won the MiPoesias First Annual Chapbook Competition with her manuscript Children Having Trouble with Meat. Her poetry has been published in Orbis, Pebble Lake Review, Lodestar Quarterly, Poetry Midwest, Rattle, Dark Sky, and many others. She has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize, and she teaches English at CUNY. Echo Park, her third book of poems, came out from Blazevox in the fall of 2011. Christine was a runner-up to the Poet Laureate of Queens.
A woman glances at her watch, one hand resting
on the grip of a wheelchair, wherein is ensconced her mother.
Both wear khaki sunhats and sea-foam green respiratory masks,
coral shirts. Squawks and wing beats thunder
among the buildings. The daughter shuttles her ward
between the range-of-motion machines
at the playground, settles her
in front of a symmetrical set of yellow wheels.
The mother lifts her arms to their handles. A toddler waddles
up, her pink pants ballooned with newness
and diaper. She squats, taps a foot on the platform
of the hip-rotator, glances over her shoulder at her parents.
The mother in the wheelchair swings her arms
in two mild, mirrored smiles. A family
squabbles over a soccer ball. Laughter rattles
tiles and concrete. The daughter
consults the time, peels her mother away
from the park. A graying man bats a birdie
with a girl. I watch. A mosquito drinks my blood
through my nylons. I wave it off.
A quiver and a
buzz: his spine
The pieces spin, which
pulls his grin increasingly
wide. Chalk sifts
from that seam, bellows into a
the parlor cloud
into which he
Wind from the mountains rushes through nothing’s lavender,
flaps nothing’s jean jacket. Several dwindling chins tilt back.
Several palms whistle parables which dissipate before the second
splits. Instants quicken. Who the fuck am I? Anyone
who glances inward in this climate suffuses, stuns at
the nothing; how dilate the still water, how rough
the silence of am. Wind from the mountains disrupts
nothing’s plans, dances the black coffee up to the mug’s lip. Nothing happens.
Nothing comes. Wind from the mountains rushes through a ribcage. Nothing
is reflected in nothing’s blood. The heart and lungs
persist in rhythmic contradictions. Several sets of hands clamor
for what?–press together, wring, smatter. Nothing happens.
Wind from the mountains shuffles gutter papers. Nobody’s lips
drip smoke. Nothing skids to a stop, keeps going.
Jessica Morey-Collins is a California expat currently writing literary curriculum for an SAT prep school in Taipei, Taiwan. Her poems can be found or are forthcoming in the North American Review, Metazen, ILK, The Buddhist Poetry Review, Vinyl Poetry, and elsewhere. She has been fortunate to have her poetry choreographed by Los Angeles’ Jam Today Dance Theatre, and to regularly (though remotely) work with the talented writers of Inland Empire’s literary community, PoetrIE.
WHEN SANTA CAME TO CHERRY HILL, NEW JERSEY by DC Lambert
You could hear the sirens blocks away, and if you didn’t know, you’d think it was a real emergency. Santa Claus had trouble keeping balance, so the fire truck took it very slowly as it crept around Cherry Hill’s subdivisions and rows of fifty-year-old colonials in need of new roofs, furnaces, windows; they could not be replaced, just now, in this economy. Perched on the truck, Santa waved and weaved past illuminated inflatable reindeer and whirling pink snowflakes projected onto garages, and families ran outside to catch a glimpse, shivering a bit in the brittle winter afternoon. This was probably the last year Local 2663 would sponsor Santa. It was time to cut the nonsense. It was time to trim the waste.
People waved at each other, too, as befit the season of joy.
“How yez doin’?” “Good, ‘n you?”
They had to put Michele’s Pop-Pop in a nursing home. It was an hour away. God bless him, he cried; he cried, but what could they do? He kept falling, he’d break his hip one of these days, it was a disaster waiting to happen. The kids didn’t know yet. Well, he’d be happy there. The divorced lady down the street, the one with the trampoline out back? She filed for bankruptcy. She was doing good. Not too bad. Marty’s son couldn’t find a job, but he was doing a lot of handyman work. He was very handy. Some teacher over at the high school won the lottery, the real, actual lottery! $40 million. She walked into school and she was like, I’m outta here. Did she deserve it? People wanted to know.
Not that they wanted to know too much. You just couldn’t stand outside and ignore your neighbors. Also, you had to be cheerful. If you didn’t feel up to a charade, you sent your children out and you stayed inside. But then everyone would know you were hiding inside; rumors would fly, the usual suspects.
The house on the pathway, for instance, the one with the brown siding that needed work. That house. The car was in the driveway.
A boy was out alone, kicking hard at a snowbank so it sprayed like icy diamonds.
Bram, his name was, short for Abraham. His parents, long ago, had fallen in love with the name. They couldn’t remember why, now. They couldn’t trace the line that must connect their past selves naming him “Bram” with their present selves. And each time they said, “Bram,” Bram would hear the hesitation, the bafflement, and believed he was the cause. Which he was, to some extent. His mother had a memory of saying to her play group (she had gone to play groups, then): “Like Bram Stoker!” Now she couldn’t remember who Bram Stoker was. An actor? Why had it mattered to her? What had made her take it upon herself to call her son something so outlandish, so full of such foolish, pretentious hope?
Bram’s mother had swallowed her pills with vodka again, and his father was weeping in the basement, and Bram needed to stay outside as long as possible. He slid along the icy sidewalks after the fire truck.
“Merry Christmas, Santa!” he said, over and over, trying to believe in his own happiness.
At first the firefighters waved back, shouted “Merry Christmas,” and “Hey kiddo!” But soon they couldn’t meet his eye—not out of discomfort or irritation or shame on the boy’s behalf, but merely because they were weary of the spectacle. Image credit: Steven Depolo on Flickr
DC Lambert is a public school teacher serving an inner city school district and the author of War on Excellence: Our Giant Secret Education Bureaucracy and Me, a nonfiction narrative about the secrets behind the closed doors of our rapidly changing 21st century schools. She earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College Program for Writers. Her award-winning writing has appeared in such magazines as Stand, ACM, Columbia, and Connections, and her academic book, Point of View in Mrs Dalloway: Rooms, Corridors and Houses, was recently published by Edwin Mellen Press. Read more here.
He sets up the Christmas tree in the family room, untangles the lights and strings them around the tree in lazy loops from top to bottom, drapes a few strands of tinsel at the ends of prominent branches. He gets a good hot fire going in the fireplace. Later his wife will come home from work and they’ll have dinner and then put the star on top of the tree. The star is not really a star but an angel from his wife’s childhood. It’s large, about ten inches high, with sheer wings like an insect’s wings and overlarge blue eyes that the man considers overly sentimental. Perhaps it’s not an angel at all but a fairy, like Tinkerbell. Whatever it is, there is something annoyingly Disneyesque about it.
He opens the slider and goes out to see how the tree would look to someone passing by; he closes the slider behind him so as not to let the heat escape. It occurs to him that he is more interested in how someone passing by might see the tree than with how he himself sees the tree. He has no interest in any of this, if he is honest with himself, but he does it for his wife. He doesn’t really like the angel, but that of course is part of it: it’s for his wife anyway, what does he care what they put on top of the tree since on his own he’d never put up a Christmas tree to begin with. They’re dirty, they’re a fire hazard, and one year the house became infested with fleas that could only have been carried in on the Christmas tree.
While he stands looking into his own house as if he is someone passing by, he thinks about the possibility of being locked out. He would have to stand here in his sweater until his wife gets home, within the hour, or he’d have to go and bother one of the neighbors, none of whom he is particularly crazy about. He likes the way the lighted tree looks through the slider, how the partially frozen glass diffuses the colored lights, how the slider frames the tree as if it is a scene in a Christmas card, how inviting his glass of scotch looks on the side table next to his reading chair. Someone passing by would undoubtedly think of this tableau as picturesque, might stop briefly to look into the family room of another family, the cozily arranged furniture, the Christmas tree, the cat which is just now coming closer to inspect the tree and to bat amiably at a low-hanging strand of tinsel.
They would not be able to see the angel from the wife’s childhood, the doe eyes and the stalky eyelashes, the gossamer wings that have grown slack over time, and soiled (there is something vaguely louche about them), the paint blistered on one cheekbone, the silky crevice within the body of the ornament where the angel is fitted to the top of the tree a nest for mice, for black beetles, for other things.
The end of the story is that the man really has locked himself out, that he really does have to wait without a coat for his wife, or go to the neighbors, that this predicament really does heighten, for a short while, the sensation of looking into his own home as if into somebody else’s life, that it is a pleasant sensation, that he does not go to the neighbors, that the wife arrives all too soon with the customary Christmas Eve Chinese take-out, that during dinner they get into another one of their low-grade arguments, that the angel from the wife’s childhood remains in the cardboard box, swaddled in excelsior among the other ornaments, that as he continues to drink and the argument escalates it gets tossed along with the other ornaments into the fire, that the man will regret this action above all others for years to come, that he will tell this story at meetings with the inevitable refrain that he wants his life back more than anything in this world. He always knows he is crossing the line into sentimentality when he observes that the Christmas angel has performed a paradoxically graceful function, that it has risen victoriously from the ashes, or permitted him such a resurrection.
He does not believe that but would like to, which is why he must tell the story, year in, year out, over and over again.
Anthony Wallace is a Senior Lecturer in the Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University, where he is also Co-director of “Arts Now,” a curriculum-based initiative to support the arts at BU. Tony has published poetry and fiction in literary journals including CutBank, Another Chicago Magazine, the Atlanta Review, River Styx, Sou’wester, 5-Trope, the Republic of Letters, and Florida Review. His short story “The Old Priest” won a Pushcart Prize and was published last fall in Pushcart 2013. His short story collection The Old Priest is the winner of the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published in September by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
IN THE ABSENCE OF CULINARY MENTORS by Kaori Fujimoto
When I was growing up in the suburbs of Tokyo, every evening at five my mother donned her white apron and set about preparing dinner. The fluorescent lights on the ceiling and over the sink illuminated the whole kitchen, which was dismally dark during the daytime, and they attracted little geckos that flattened themselves on the outside of the widows. I would hear a clack-clack of the kitchen knife on the wooden cutting board and then, in twenty or thirty minutes, my heart would sink as I detected the usual smells of fish or vegetables seasoned with soy sauce, sugar, and sake—conventional Japanese dishes I never found appetizing. She also made Western dishes, like a beef stew, potato gratin, and spaghetti Napolitana, because my father loved these rich foods and so did I; I felt exhilarated whenever the aroma of gravy or white sauce wafted into the living room. Sometimes I hovered behind Mom to help, but she would nudge me out of the kitchen and do everything herself. She didn’t have the patience to teach me how to peel potatoes or cut up onions when she could finish the task in a minute or two. By the time I entered junior high school, I had completely lost interest in helping her in the kitchen.
On one rare occasion—I think I was in high school—Mom called me into her culinary territory. On the countertop were the cutting board and a white plastic bowl brimming with entangled raw seaweed.
“Watch this,” she said, and pulled a long strip out of the glistening black-green mass, placed it on the cutting board, and tore off with a kitchen knife the string edging the algae. Then she said, “You’d better know how to do this so you won’t embarrass yourself when cooking for your future husband’s family.”
She kept slashing the seaweed for a soup she seasoned with soy sauce. Standing by her side, I imagined my future self as the wife of my mom’s imaginary son-in-law. I saw only a murky picture that felt as dreary as our poorly lit home kitchen, questions whirling in my head: Am I supposed to slice seaweed, along with anything else that doesn’t interest me, because I have to?
For the first time I became clear about what I didn’t want to do with my life. I certainly wouldn’t cook food I didn’t find delectable just to please in-laws, let alone devote all my time to housework as Mom had done for my dad’s family, her dedication taken for granted. Before I was born, she had nursed her bed-ridden parents-in-law, taking care of all household chores, while also raising my older siblings. Every now and then she would grumble about how tough her married life had been, but she maintained that she was proud of having gritted her teeth against the desire to divorce because, coming from a single-parent household herself, she was determined not to have her children grow up in a divorced family.
Trying as it must have been, this way of life was her choice. And, after all the rough years, she and my dad became a pretty good couple. So, that evening, in front of the algae-covered cutting board, she tried to teach me a tiny part of what a good wife should know, perhaps hoping I would begin to prepare for the future that she believed I too would have. How futile the lesson seemed, after all those years of keeping me out of the kitchen. At that moment I determined not to learn cooking from Mom, and that I would, in the future, cook whatever I wanted in my own kitchen.
My grandmother was born in 1912 to wealthy merchant parents who made her learn dressmaking as a household skill, and that skill later became her livelihood after her two divorces. My mother emphasized how difficult it had been growing up without her, though I’m more inclined to imagine the difficulties an independent divorcee must have faced at that time in Japan. That, of course, didn’t occur to me when I was a little girl.
Grandma’s tiny one-story house was only a fifteen-minute walk from our home. Whenever my mom opened the small wooden door, Grandma—who wore kimonos as her regular clothes—would teeter out of the living room, her back stooped, her wispy gray hair pulled back in a bun. She smiled when she saw me, creases and wrinkles gathering around her eyes. During the summer, the TV was always on, playing the National High School Baseball Tournament. She would serve us iced coffee with lots of milk, and then sit on the tatami mat, watching the game and listening to my mother at the same time, while I drifted out onto the small veranda to read a book. Grandma, worried that I might be bored, would sometimes tell me to come into the room only to be told by my mom that I was all right, that I liked to be alone. I would keep reading, sipping the milk flavored with a little coffee and diluted by melting ice.
Much later, I realized that both baseball and iced coffee were quite unusual for a woman of her generation. As was the fact that she ran her fingers over lettered names on home appliances, like TOSHIBA, to teach me how to read the Roman alphabet. So I wasn’t too surprised to also learn from my uncle that Grandma in her younger days had played hanafuda, a type of gambling using Japanese playing cards.
When I was in kindergarten, my mother was hospitalized for a minor surgery, and so my father left me in the care of Grandma. Since I was only six, in my innocence I assumed Grandma could make all foods that Mom made for our family, including non-Japanese dishes. But when I asked her to make me an egg sandwich, she served me two thick slices of toast with a thin omelette and strawberry jam spread between them, instead of thin slivers of crustless bread stuffed with crushed boiled eggs and mayonnaise. Grandma had never laid eyes on the egg sandwich that I believed was universal.
Undaunted, I still had the nerve to ask her to cook spaghetti and meat sauce for dinner, my childhood favorite, and didn’t back off when she mumbled, “I don’t know how to make such a Western dish.”
I think she asked me how the food looked, otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to cook up the reddish orange sauce with ground meat that she made for me, which looked totally different from my mom’s tomato-colored sauce that would dress a chunk of ground meat nestled in tangled spaghetti. As I timidly took a bite of the pasta soaked in the thin orange sauce, however, a pleasant sweet-and-sour flavor spread through my mouth. The taste of well-seasoned ground meat, onions, and shiitake mushroom rolled across my tongue, prompting me to devour the whole plate and ask for another serving.
To invent the reddish sauce I presumably described for her, Grandma must have used ketchup instead of canned tomatoes or tomato sauce. To make the ketchup look more like sauce, she likely added water and starch along with soy sauce, sugar, sake, and rice vinegar. The product of Grandma’s foray into Western cooking had such an addictive effect that, until she passed away when I was fourteen, I would beg her to cook the spaghetti and meat sauce every time I visited her.
A few years after her funeral, at which I cried my heart out, I made that high school promise to myself to keep traditional food out of my own kitchen someday. When I finally began to cook for myself, I hadn’t thought about her meat sauce in years, but I stocked soy sauce, sake, and rice vinegar on my seasoning shelves. I use these traditional Japanese flavorings to invent my own stews, sauces, and salad dressings, hoping to create by accident a taste as fantastic as Grandma’s eclectic concoction, though I never attempted to revive the fruit of her culinary adventure, preferring instead to keep that taste as a fond memory.
My mom has never talked about the food that her mother made during the few years they lived together before she married my dad in her late twenties. She only said that she had learned all the basics of cooking from television after marriage. I’ve never asked her if she learned any recipes from Grandma, assuming she had not. And I’ve never asked because, although I know she couldn’t entirely forgive her mother for refusing to stay married once she’d had children, I also know she still grieves.
I haven’t asked my mother for any recipes either, because conventional Japanese dishes still don’t appeal to me, and because I switched to a nearly-meat-free diet after I left my parents’ home almost twenty years ago. At first, whenever she came over and I served her Thai curry with tofu or enchiladas filled with sliced onions and green peppers, she would say I’d better learn how to cook standard Japanese dishes, like fish broiled with salt or pork stewed in soy sauce and sugar. Now, having seen me preserve my autonomy all these years, she no longer says anything about what I cook. When she visits, she asks me to have sushi—her favorite food in the world—delivered for dinner, or she volunteers to eat anything I have in my fridge. So I phone the sushi restaurant, or microwave risotto and stewed vegetables in Ziploc containers. I fail to tell her again and again that I wouldn’t mind her using my kitchen, and that, while she is here, I’m willing to eat anything she cooked for our family when she kept me out of her kitchen.
Born and raised in the suburbs of Tokyo, Kaori Fujimoto studied creative writing at colleges in Georgia and Hawaii. She was a fellow of the 2012 Paris American Academy Creative Writing Workshop. Her essay has appeared on the Brevity blog, and another of her essays is forthcoming in Talking Writing. She currently works as a freelance translator in Tokyo.
we thought we were men. We were all married for a year and a half or so. Our wives played cello or bass and read two books a year. We left our doctoral programs and played competitive video games. We spent most of our time looking at Wikipedia and watching anime. Sometimes we’d wander down Broadway at five thirty in the morning. Those were the days, I think, when we were still wondering sometimes about the informational content of the Brownian motion of the water molecules in the steam from the vent on the east corner of Twenty-Third Street―how many ones and zeros? Water there, water not. Writhing water writing Ulysses, are you searching for lost time? How many slices of pi? Three or one or four or one and five? How many monkeys have you written, typewriter Hamlets? Who will read the steam, scoop it up whole, save it in a jar? That library of clouds, filled with all the books we’d never write.
Sated with despair, we’d peer into the window-fronts where mannequins modeled lingerie. Don’t you remember? They were wearing vinyl corsets shiny as deathwatch beetles. They were headless armless legless. Torsos like eleven year old girls. Or else they were just arms, just legs scuttling over our retinas in garter belts, in crotchless fishnets, in purple lace fingerless gloves. We’d sit alone in bars and smoke and eat and strike up conversations with serial killers who were reading new translations of Beowulf. They’d invite us over to their apartments to watch documentaries about Henry Darger or Joseph Cornell and then maybe some blood play for beginners or light domination, but we had trains to catch back then and anyway we really wanted to fuck a co-worker or maybe a Starbucks barista who was much too young or much too blonde or much too smart or some combination thereof: chimeras of sexual unsuitability. Remember how our hearts were melting like lead, my dear Bellerophons, my fellow tinsel soldiers. On smoke breaks we’d light the co-worker or barista’s Parliaments, mutter something about postsecularism, thrust our left hands into our coat pockets. Remember how loose our rings became in winter? How easily they slid on, slid off?
But we were forty to fifty pounds overweight. We’d fuck our wives, them on top, straining, looking like they were trying to reach something with their teeth, something dangling just out of reach, just beyond the tips of their tongues, and we’d feel close to nothing, far from everything. You were there. Do you need me to say this? We’d picture black waves rippling over our bellies, we’d imagine the tits of the strippers who dry humped us at our various bachelor parties, we’d smell the ghosts of baby powder and cigarettes and hair-metal sweat: guns and anthrax poison rose, deaf row chili leopard skid, pour wet sugar on your slippery prom pie cherry kid, sweet, sweet, sweet child of wine under the bridge—How soft your skin is, the strippers whispered, as they licked our earlobes. Do you want another song, baby.
Afterwards we’d eat salt bagels the size of pizzas smothered with smoked fish shredded with sour cream and cream cheese and scallions. Sturgeons glided behind our eyelids, silent and whiskered, hungry for a hundred million years. Their ganoid scales, their Caspian eyes. Salt and still as fading inland seas.
We’d scrape out the insides of the ribcages of rotisserie chickens and chew the bones for flavor. We smoked and we smoked. We told everybody we’d already quit. We eyed tall brunettes on New Jersey Transit cars. We wished our wives stronger chins, we wished them cheekbones, we wished them cruel eyes. We sat on benches and sipped venti chai lattes and scribbled furious sad things in twenty dollar notebooks. We’ve lost all our notebooks. We ghost wrote English papers for community college students, had frantic AIM sessions where our clients said their professors were suspicious, what did we mean “Fortinbras is Hamlet’s specular double,” HELP? We fact-checked children’s books, we relied on the internet, we smiled when we didn’t feel like smiling, we tried to buy drugs from kids we met at raves. We’d arrange meetings in bodegas on Fourteenth street and they’d hand us pills that never worked and nothing ever seemed to work. At night we’d listen to the girls downstairs fuck, we’d breathe in the incense filtering upstairs, we took Neurontin, we took Vicodin, we smoked pot till we fucked our wives and called them goddess, goddess, panting, and she pushed me off, she pushed you off, they pushed us off, a Weltgeist of disgust on their faces, a universal parliament of disappointed women, a choir of broken safety pin voices, go jerk off on your own fucking time asshole, and so we got up, all of us, paisley still swirling in our nostrils and green green vines curling through our ears; we got up and wiped off our cocks and sat in the bathroom and held our heads between our hands. We were twenty-five or twenty-six and there were fruitfly corpses stuck to our ceilings there were needles in our carpets there were sharp things in our skin and all we wanted was something to break but what?
Those smear days drear days blear days fever daze grey maze hack plays clichés clichés clichés excised revised closed eyes. Lies and lies and lies. Nothing I am telling you is true. Everything was uglier than I could write it. You remember. Correct me if I’m wrong. Back then we believed that we were made for something different, something special, something better.
Sam Cha recently completed his MFA in poetry at UMass Boston, where he was the 2011 and 2012 recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize. He’s a poetry editor for Radius. His work (poems, essays, fiction, translations) can be found at Amethyst Arsenic, anderbo, apt, ASIA, Banipal, The Bakery, decomP, Gravel, Memorious, Paper Scissors, Printer’s Devil Review, and shufPoetry. Also, in two anthologies: Knocking at the Door: Poems About Approaching the Other, and The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing. He lives and writes in Cambridge, MA.
It was Lemon Tuesday and so far it had not lived up to expectations. His gran had made pancakes, smaller and fatter than any his mum ever made, and while he was eating, his mum had come home and talked quietly on her mobile in the hall, before coming into the kitchen and speaking to his gran using words he didn’t understand. He fiddled with the metal ball chain around his neck and felt the four corners of the cross with the tips of his fingers, before thumbing the raised ridge of Christ’s body. He knew that if he asked what they were talking about she would say in her most serious tone that it was an adult conversation, so he continued to cut perfect isosceles triangles out of his pancakes and decided that when he was a grown-up he would remember what it was like to be a child.
It was Lemon Tuesday because he had a plastic lemon in the fridge, which he squeezed on the pancakes his mum always made. He had called it that since he was little, and when he started school, the other days of the week began to take on different colours:
The boy finished his last triangle and tried to listen in on their conversation. He knew that his grandad was ill because he had stopped smoking and they had been to see him in hospital every other evening for the past three weeks, even though he was usually asleep when they got there. The lights were too bright in the ward and the grey-green plastic furniture made the boy feel unwell, but he usually didn’t say anything and would just hold his hands behind his back and look at the swirls in the tiled floor.
That evening he didn’t have to go to the hospital because he was going to Steven’s house. He knew that his mum didn’t like Steven’s mum because she always wore bright lipstick, but he liked going round there because he could play on the Nintendo Wii. His mum said that he could go, as soon as he had washed up and said goodbye to Gran.
At the sink he noticed his shoelaces were undone. The boy was one of the last in his class to learn how to tie his laces. He hated wearing velcro shoes because they made him feel like a little kid and his feet were too narrow so he could never get them tight enough. He bent down to tie his laces and remembered what his grandad had told him, talking himself through it as he went: left over right, tuck, pull, back together, loop right, left over, tuck, loop left, tuck and pull tight. He remembered his grandad’s hard, wrinkled skin and the way his hands had magically looped the first time he had shown him. His grandad had told him that he couldn’t tie his own laces until he was nine and had said: “Everyone in their own time”. He went to say goodbye to Gran and she finished off his laces for him. She gave him a little smile and he couldn’t tell if she was about to cry or not because her eyes often looked as if they had too much liquid in them.
He left the house, got on his BMX, and turned out of the estate, past the sharp bend in the road, which led across a bridge and up the hill. He tried to think of nothing but he kept seeing the words his mum had said. They were all black and in capital letters:
TUMER LIMPH CARSERNOMER
They hung over him as he pedalled up the hill. At night-time, the area beyond the bridge was flat blackness, but in the daytime there were fields, electricity pylons and a farm with chickens in the yard. He wasn’t allowed on the roads yet so he joined the footpath which ran through some fields,alongside the busy road. There were some bike tracks in the mud already so he didn’t feel too guilty about cycling on the farmer’s land. It began to rain and soon it was so heavy it was as though his glasses had grey filters in them.
The ground was uneven but it seemed to level out as the hollows filled up with rain. His anorak was wet to his skin like a shower curtain clinging to his arm, which was one of his most hated feelings. He was cycling up the hill against the wind when he spotted the strange bundle on the road—a blurred grey blob 200 meters ahead. It started to become clearer as he pedalled on and he thought it could have been a rat, or a big furry slipper. The rain pelted down on his face and he kept pedalling until he got to the fence. He jumped off his bike and was about to lift it over the stile when he saw through the fence that the lump of grey fur was a squirrel. He climbed onto the bottom rung and peered over. Although the squirrel was mostly grey, its coat had specks of auburn that perfectly matched his own hair and its dull black eyes looked like they should have been intense.
He knew the squirrel was injured but he couldn’t see any blood. He dropped his bike and hopped over the fence. He looked down at the creature and the damp soil soaked into the boy’s trousers as the rain got heavier; the huge raindrops felt like coins hitting the back of his head. He looked both ways and couldn’t see any traffic in either direction. The boy hadn’t seen any cars since he’d left the house but he knew one would probably come past soon. He stamped his foot right next to its head and shouted:
“Get off the road!”
Nothing. He had read that you could tell from an animal’s eyes when it was in pain and he could see now that it was true. He thought that its leg could have been broken. Then he remembered the silver cross. He pulled the chain over his head and started dangling it over the squirrel’s body, backwards and forwards, then side to side, back and forth, back and forth. He hoped to will it into movement, and thought that the hypnotic swing would stir something inside the creature. He locked the creature’s eye and he continued swinging back and forth, back and forth, and side to side. The squirrel blinked a few times then its lid closed.
Just over nine miles away, the man’s arm came down to rest. The cannula around his head had irritated his skin for hours and he had been trying to make himself comfortable by readjusting it, moving his pillows and then altering the angle of his bed. Still not comfortable, at least he could now see the TV without straining his neck. The humourless TV presenter was introducing a piece on obese pets and was stroking a particularly mournful Basset Hound that weighed six-and-a-half stones. The man would have gladly watched the programme for the rest of the evening if he didn’t have to be seen by them all later, if he didn’t have to repeat the doctor’s words for the third or fourth time, if he didn’t have to listen to their endless interpretations and look at their poor, loving eyes. If he didn’t have to look at that boy.
With the cross now in his fist, the boy jumped and landed with both feet this time, shouting over and over again. As he screamed and thudded he thought of what his mum would have seen if she had stood watching from afar: a funny little boy shouting and screaming over nothing. Staring at the squirrel’s dull eye, he screamed and shouted and thudded and clapped his hands to scare it off the road. It gave the faintest twitch then remained completely still. He thought about picking it up but he knew that you weren’t supposed to move people if they had been in accidents because it could hurt them even more and decided it must be the same for animals. He also thought there could be insects in its hair that would bite his skin. He was ashamed of that thought and decided that it would be best not to touch the squirrel because it would hurt it to move it. There in the rain he stood staring, shouting at the ground and to the sky until his clothes were soaked through. The squirrel did not move, did not blink. He lay the cross down in the mud next to the creature’s head.
When the boy had shouted out everything he had, he whispered “I’m sorry,” grabbed his bike from over the fence and pedalled hard and angrily away, filled with rage for God’s forgotten few. Image credit: Troy Tolley on Flickr
Jo Beckett-King edits Oblong, a flash fiction zine based in London. She works as a French translator and is currently enjoying an extended trip to the US. Her fiction has appeared in The Metric, 4’33” Magazine, Scissors and Spackle, and elsewhere.
There’s a secret 1950s housewife in me
that loves amphetamines. Do you love it too?
The zip zap? The blue boogers? Is that the right word?
I found dark lipstick in my room and wore it
when I met Kerouac’s ghost. He said I looked
like a wound. Belly out, clammy skin. You would know,
I thought. Let’s vote on it. Let’s settle this now.
He put his arm out like a wing. Feathers came first,
before the idea of flight. If I had been able
to fall asleep I would have woken up. I woke up Chris
and we looked at his painting. Stripes of seaweed.
Jellyfish. My whole jaw hurt. In a painting
nothing changes no matter how many times
you look at it unless you reach up to the wall and turn
it one way and step back all over again. Kerouac said,
today is my birthday, but no one remembered.
Chris was asleep again. I lay between the two.
I listened for a long time to his breathing. Two days later
when I could sleep he said that he felt electricity
running through me, just lying there.
Those hours passed when I listened to his breathing
and Kerouac’s ghost and my own teeth rubbing
against each other, bits of lace curtains coming apart
and weaving themselves back together again again again.
Monica Wendel is the author of No Apocalypse (Georgetown Review Press, 2013) and the chapbooks Pioneer (Thrush Press, forthcoming) and Call it a Window (Midwest Writing Center, 2012). She has been awarded residencies by the Vermont Studio Center and the Jack Kerouac Project of Orlando, Florida, but otherwise she lives in Brooklyn and teaches at St. Thomas Aquinas College.
The family was crowded around the small white gazebo in the middle of the yard. There was a map, too, pasted on the corkboard floating high on the gazebo’s walls, confining the chaotic compound in abstract squares and rectangles.
Ruth didn’t touch the peanut brittle, the haphazard compensation present from her middle child, the feminist from Philadelphia, who’d brought her two kids. The conversation was a facsimile of previous email exchanges that she’d intercepted from her late husband’s computer, carrying the buzzwords of a telltale worrywart: college search, apnea, bullying. Whenever Ruth tried to make her way in and say the words she wanted so desperately for them to hear—state’s coming to get me. I don’t belong here, Russ is having an affair—they all looked away, like she was some kind of contagion that would spoil their perfectly planned afternoon.
And then she stared at the tin box with its pastel Victorian design, remembering the gray barn. She wanted to open it, everyone could tell. Her fingers trembled and then returned to her sides, where they dangled limply over the top of her sweater. Pea green, just like old Mama had worn, before Papa took out the Colt and watched the medulla splatter all over the ugly rooster wallpaper. Learn to forget.
There was nothing romantic about a deficiency of acetylcholine, yet Menia Memory Care seemed to think so. The facility’s neat little white huts were adorned with wreaths to reflect the incoming seasons: pastels for Easter, cornhusks for autumn, wilted Arizona Poinsettia for the dismal Christmas holiday. Pinned to the front wall was a crowded list of tedious rituals christened with new and exciting names, like Pet Therapy, which entailed stroking an aging golden retriever whose slobber was somehow more charming than the stark Phoenix landscape; Painting Memories, where the disengaged residents drew streaks of gray that eventually formed barns and farms of their youths and faces without names. Or the kiss of death, the dreaded Pie Social, the reprisal of the family dinners people only attended out of compulsion. Today that kiss of death would plant a peck on Ruth’s cheek, and she could already feel her resentful adolescent grandchildren crossing their cutoff jeans-legs bitterly, and impoverished artist children doling out advice about finances, and shrieking babies who would muddy their tracksuits in the grass. And none of them would ever touch the strawberry pie sitting lonely at the table in the middle of the gazebo.
Depression-era kids, the caretakers would mumble with a sigh as they spooned up spilled blueberry filling from the plastic tablecloth. They learn to never forget, to keep what they have, to use it all up before it’s gone. Image credit: Justin Marty on Flickr
Catherine Mosier-Mills is a senior at Radnor High School. In her spare time, she plays piano, edits the school paper, and leads the Model United Nations team. Her work has been published in Apiary and Philadelphia Stories Junior, and recognized in the 2013 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. She was recently named a 2014 National YoungArts Foundation Finalist in Fiction.
For this, I use my grandfather’s axe. Pull it carefully from behind the dead cat’s carrier in the garage, where it rests dusty and dull, subdued by seasons more or less come and gone. More because fifteen winters is a long time for a dormant blade—idle through fifteen springs and summers followed by fifteen hopeful falls glimmering with red-gold readiness. Less because it is only my bony fingers that inexpertly grip the heavy wooden handle ready to hack the camellias crowding the far corner of my backyard.
Mine is a small job. I have hated these trees for years. Still—some warning would have been nice. A short note typed by my sensible grandmother, attached by thick garden twine to the long handled axe, stating: to clear is not to clean. Maybe then my breath would not have stuttered when two lops revealed a fibrous system pink and raw as my own. Fleshy and hot. Intricate. Purposeful. Ambivalent but alive. Gleaming in the exposure of harsh afternoon light: the tender wreckage of life hidden beneath tough bark.
There are some things people will never tell you.
For instance, had my grandfather told me the first mark is always the most accurate I would have known that although the second and third hit close, it is only the consistent swinging that breaks the branches and brings the tree down. Had he said: you have to keep at it. You have to hoist and heave. Cleave. Gear yourself to twist and pull, break and shake. Press your full weight against the trunk and kick a little. Scratch more than the surface. It hurts.
Then there is the digging. Because if you are clearing, you have to get it all. Hew, chop, lop; exhume, hollow, stop. Lift the roots, clinging firm to life in the dirt—eager as fingers to keep hold. Relieve the circular center from its tangled tributaries. It doesn’t want to leave.
The heart is the hardest part. It knows.
Knows even before I find the nest—hidden in the cluster of shady branches in the next downed tree. Knows I have no way to test its working or abandoned status: far flung families flown elsewhere or diligent mother out collecting threads, pulling dolls’ hair from the wispy wind? I carry the nest down to show my daughters. The youngest one wants to touch—she still sees everything with her hands first: the soft, downy interior; the knitted twigs; the eggless center.
This is one way to start over: so that when all that is left is a pile of branches (roots, leaves, waterless flowers dried dead)—when all that is left is a clearing: ready and open—I can assume the gratified pose my grandfather must have held: leaning (sorry as hell) over the dirty axe. Image credit: The Adventures of Kristin & Ada on Flickr
Lisa Piazza lives in Oakland, California with her two daughters and two cats. She teaches writing to young people in the Bay Area. Her fiction has appeared in Brain, Child, Switchback, Prime Number Magazine, and LiteraryMama, among others. Her flash piece “Everyone Means So Well” appears in Issue 13 of Cleaver.
I was exhausted. It was an hour since we parked the car down the mountain and came up the slope. I had spent all my life in Tehran, but I had never been in Tochal, which was one of the city’s tourist attractions. And interestingly, this time, I was there with someone who was from elsewhere in the world. Her name was Francesca. She was an Italian girl, from somewhere near Naples, a student of Eastern studies in Naples. She had been to Iran several times, once as a tourist, and again as an intern at the Italian embassy. She was here now to take a course at the Dehkhoda institute to improve her Persian. Maybe it’s not right to say, “to improve”. She could say “hello” and “goodbye” in Persian and she might be able to learn “How are you?” and “Fine, thanks” this time. She had been in Tehran for a few days when she called me, and said: can we go to: “Tochal?” And I answered: “Tochal?”
A few days after that conversation, we were in Tochal, on the side of a mountain. We went and sat at an outdoor cafe. The waiter brought a tray of tea to our table. He said while smiling: “You are very welcome! Your lady is a foreigner, right?”
He had seen us speaking Italian. I pulled on my tea: “Thanks, yes, but she is not my lady.”
He said: “Oh where is she from?”
I said: “Italy.”
He said: “You did the best man. The best women in the world are Italian.” He laughed. “Like Anna Maria Rosa in the Rescue Group TV series.”
I had no clue if this TV series really existed, or if he made it up in a second. When he left, Francesca asked me: “What did he say? Tell me. What did he say?”
I said: “Nothing, just a welcome and then he asked where you were from.”
She said: “And he knew an Italian girl too?”
I laughed: “No, three Italian girls, Anna, Maria and Rosa.”
Francesca took a sugar cube and submerged it in her tea. She then put the sugar in her mouth and drank. She was holding the cube in the corner of her mouth, exactly in the style of downtown dudes.
We had Tehran in front of us, Tehran in smog with tall towers, different buildings. It seemed kind of desirable from afar. I was looking at apartments and thinking of my landlord who had increased the rent. We had to move. Perhaps in the middle of all this smog, our next home was not visible from this spot on the mountain.
Francesca said: “I love Tehran! It’s the most beautiful city of the world.”
I said: “Where in Tehran is beautiful?”
She said: “It’s so beautiful. The smell of smog makes me drunk and boys taunt me on the street. Every time I leave, I soon miss it.”
In the cafe, the radio was on, and somebody was talking about the value of proprieties in Manhattan.
I said: “But I prefer New York.”
She said: “New York City? Have you ever been?”
I shook my head, to say no.
She said: “Tehran and New York are different, just like the earth and moon are different.”
I said: “Have you ever been there?”
She said: “No. But I can imagine. When I was a child, we once went to California. I mean my family and me. There was nothing there. Nothing. It was like another planet. The people were drinking Coca Cola even at breakfast. Do you believe me?”
We had finished our tea and I gestured to the waiter that we wanted another. I was exhausted, and didn’t want to start climbing this soon.
Francesca said: “But you should come here more often. Your belly is getting bigger and bigger!”
I said: “I’m in a relationship now. I don’t need to be fancy anymore. You should care about yourself, as you are already looking like a housewife.”
Francesca hit my hand. We laughed.
Then she said: “Can I say something to you?”
I nodded, to say sure.
She said: “Last time that I came to Iran, I had a relationship with someone.”
I said: “It’s good! Who is this boy?”
She said: “He is not actually a boy. He is forty-five.”
I said: “For real?”
She said: “He works at the embassy.”
I said: “Is he Italian?”
She said: “Yea, he doesn’t live here. He is back in Italy for a commission. But he’ll be back next week.”
I tried to show myself interested and I said: “Listen, if he is a good guy, age doesn’t matter. I’m done, but if I could date now, I’d try an older one… Only if she was rich.”
She laughed as the waiter served us fresh tea. I noticed him peeking at Francesca.
She continued: “When you are somewhere like Tehran, you need support. You need someone who supports you or you will be so alone.”
I said: “I was saying that New York is much better. Or Tokyo, I made a mistake by studying Italian.”
She said: “What are you saying?”
She hit my hand harder.
As we finished our tea, I motioned to the waiter to bring our bill and he replied with an understanding nod. The cafe was getting crowded and he was busy with a group of girls and boys who were ordering.
I looked at the top of the mountain. I said: “Drop it! I’m too tired to climb.”
She said: “Should I call him?”
I said: “Ah sure. Why not?”
She said: “There is a problem. He is married. His daughter will be attending Sapienza. She might be the classmate of your cousin, Babak.”
I smiled. The waiter came, put the bill on the table, and he said while looking me: “Good for you! Get one in the sack for me too.” Image credit: Mohammadreza Mirzaei, Untitled, Tehran, 2013
Mohammadreza Mirzaei is an Iranian photographer, writer, and translator based in Philadelphia. His recent book What I don’t haveis published in Italy by Edizioni del bradipo. He is the translator of “La Grammatica di Dio”; short stories by Stefano Benni from the Italian to the Persian. (Herfeh-Honarmand Publications, 2012, Tehran) As a photographer, Mirzaei has participated in numerous solo and group exhibition around the world including The 16th Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography and the Fotográfica Bogotá 2011. Mohammadreza Mirzaei has a BA in Italian Literature from Azad University of Tehran and is an MFA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.
Tricia the three-toed sloth started to slipper my hand into her undergrowth.
“Wow,” I clickered, “I’m in love with this rainforest.”
Then she maffled her tongue down some other toucan’s throat. How a heart emflampers under such circumstances!
“O,” I lunkered, “The bananarama is cancelled, it’s over.”
I clambered up the stairs, my beak petricuckolded, clorping like a gaunt gibbous moon against each step on my sweltering accent to smither canopy. Just then an ocelot corrustickered my eye, slimmering over her tree-house-porch card table and trucing me hence with her manicured claws. I wallifer-fluttered, with all the agility of a milk frog whose leg’s been snippered by a plurching boa, to this ocelot’s treetop abode. She enfolded me. How a heart carditisizes under such circumstances!
“I’ve been at solitaire for too long, kid,” she volupurred, “Let’s get to know us better, what do you say?”
She crisply whurfed me in to a game of gin. We whiled the rainy season talking about grandmothers, our first bicycles, grub worms, plumage fashion and fur coats, horticulture, the lingering despondence of our previously stulfilcensed hearts, and our mutual distaste for gum fwaffter-plapquenmoppupfgurters.
After that, aloft in spirit and luck, I knorbt down on bended knorb and queried, “Vicenza, will you sollilify me?”
Vicenza’s repart was to fang the old cards in half and grinnel-smirk—a mouth of clubs, diamonds in her incisors, queens, kings, and twos peeking like bits of shining filling from the corners of her mouth.
“I’ll swindle a new deck,” I billet-douxed, “For the two of us.” Image credit: Todd Fong on Flickr
Sean Lyon received his B.F.A. in Writing and Literature from Emerson College in Boston. His poem, “Electrical Fire” is housed online at The Furnace Review. “How a Heart” is his first published work of fiction. A native Texan, Sean teaches, writes, and lives in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.
EXILED FROM TRUTH: NINE ALLEGORIES
by Dmitry Borshch Interviewed by Anastasiya Shekhtman
What made you decide on ink as a medium? Precision of the ink line. I love precise lines and was able to show that even in my first independent works. They were abstract, probably influenced by Russian Constructivism, De Stijl, and Soviet Nonconformists, many of whom were abstractionists. I saw their work at various apartment exhibitions in Dnepropetrovsk and Moscow that I participated in.
The compelling mood of the images, a certain wintry bleakness, is evocative of Soviet Russia. What role, if any, does your national background play in your work? Dnepropetrovsk was certainly bleak, Soviet Moscow even bleaker and wintrier. My background plays every role in these pictures. Although I call myself an American or Russian-American artist, they are neither Russian nor American. If one calls them Soviet Nonconformist pictures, I would accept the label. USSR is no more but my art still lives there, “nonconforming” to the state’s cultural dictates and proscriptions.
Some of your work is quite political. All artmaking is political. “Koch—Mayor of the City of New York” and “Doctor Kissinger,” also called “In seine Hand die Macht gegeben,” are explicitly so. They belong to a series called Iconography. Inspired by prints after Anthony van Dyck’s drawings which collectively bear the same name, it includes portraits of living artists, writers, politicians, distinguished soldiers.
What is the concept behind the title? “Exiled from Truth: Nine Allegories” is the title of a series of allegorical pictures, possibly more than nine; the series continues to develop. They are united by color, style, and technique, so I view them as a homogeneous collection of drawings. Allegory, drawn or written, is a product of that mind which regards truth as existing-in-absence: it does exist yet is absent from our view. Allegories like mine would not be needed if truth were openly present.
What motivated you to make these works? I distinguish between narrow and broad motivations, which may not always interact. The latter type of motivation is a desire to speak as an artist. Silence, especially artistic, is painful. The former involves being challenged by narrower, often technical problems—arranging successfully a group or one-figure portrait, succeeding as a landscapist, still-life painter.
Why do you label them narrow or broad? I view expression of one’s artistic feeling as broader, more significant than technique.
What moves you as an artist? I find moving whatever helps me to begin or finish a picture. It may cease to move me tomorrow, be totally unmoving to someone else today, but I am always willing to be moved by anything that contributes to the picture-making effort.
Please name an event or thing or person that moved you to paint. So many events, persons! I conceived “Bush-Maliki News Conference. Baghdad, December 2008” after seeing that video of the shoe incident with Muntadhar al-Zaidi.
What are your inspirations, and what are not? I call nothing uninspiring, although it may be that today. On another day, inspiration will begin emanating from a source that I never felt could inspire.
Blue applied to flat, decorative imagery is reminiscent of domestic objects, particularly plates and cups. Is this a reference you intended? No. Blue harmonizes with the very white paper I like to draw on better than other colors. But “Odalisque in Red Satin Pantaloons (after Matisse)” and some prints of mine are red. I have drawn with black ink on yellowish paper too.
Why is “Odalisque” red and white? I tried to connect this picture not only with Odalisque à la culotte de satin rouge, Matisses lithograph, but also his famous painting L’Atelier Rouge, both in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Hopefully, the red I chose for this drawing will be seen as harmonious with the paper’s white.
Can you tell us a little about the meaning of the text in “Wildbirds?” The text in “Wildbirds Among Branches” is Matthew 6:26, “Behold the fowls of the air, for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” or “See how the birds of the air never sow, or reap, or gather grain into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them; have you not an excellence beyond theirs?” From King James and Knox Bibles respectively. When this drawing was made, for about one year, I considered it my style to attach written statements to drawings. Now I avoid this but may return to the practice, having always loved calligraphy.
Describe “The Making of Brothers.” This drawing is an allegorical interpretation of the ceremony of adelphopoiesis, which I translate as “the making of brothers,” hence the drawing’s name. I started drawing it in ’98 simply as a ceremonial double portrait with a reptile; two Polish youngsters posed for this as yet unnamed ceremony during one afternoon. Unsure of the ceremony’s name and purpose, I left the drawing unfinished for about five months. When something reminded me of adelphopoiesis, which I read about in the book called “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe,” ’95, I rushed to finish the drawing. It was finished in January of last year and is about 42 by 37 inches. The reptile, which could be a crocodile or an alligator, symbolizes homoerotic yearning.
Was this double portrait commissioned? How did it come about? Two thoughts led me to draw “The Making of Brothers,” which was not commissioned. Firstly, I saw a yellowish 1950’s photograph on eBay of a preteen girl riding a wooden crocodile. It reminded me of my being photographed by somebody in Yevpatoria on a similar photographer’s prop when I was four or five. Such reminders are valuable because they allow one to personalize a found image. Secondly, I was challenged by some technical difficulties: the youngsters were sketched at different scales, one sketch was nearly twice as large as the other. If I can organize them into a coherent portrait, I thought, my abilities as a portraitist would be strengthened.
How do you find a subject or theme to draw? Good, timely themes for a picture are found everywhere—internet, newspapers, food bills. I make written notes regarding a possible theme on the back of those bills, and usually accompany them with a little sketch. After a period, which could last weeks or months, I go over what was sketched and all the writing. Whatever excites me the most then is developed into a fuller work.
Which of your pictures would you like to work on some more? I continuously work on all of them, improving lines and background stippling.
Editor’s note: These images by Dmitry Borshch have also appeared, in earlier versions, in Superstition Review, Flyway, Pank, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Rabbit Catastrophe Review, and others. Regarding his practice of publishing revised artwork, he states,“Periodically I edit them, correcting lines and background stippling, then photograph each new state of a drawing. States that have been published I do not submit for publication again. There are five states of Wildbirds and Daughters, and four of Brothers, each with small but important differences.”
THE DRAWINGS (click to view in high resolution)
1. The Making of Brothers, 2010, ink on paper, 37 x 42 inches
2. Daughters of the Dust, also called The Undertaker”s Pale Children, 2010, ink on paper, 26 x 21 inches
3. Wildbirds Among Branches, 2008, ink on paper, 15 x 20 inches
4. Betrothal of the Virgins, 2009, ink on paper, 25 x 20 inches
5. Blue Architects, 2009, ink on paper, 22 x 28 inches
6. The Budding Patriarch, 2009, ink on paper, 33 x 33 inches
7. Odalisque in Red Satin Pantaloons (after Matisse), 2011, ink on paper, 28 x 10 inches
8. Koch – Mayor of the City of New York, 2011, ink on paper, 50 x 27 inches
Ed Koch posed for this portrait in May of 2011 at his law office, Bryan Cave LLP.
9. Doctor Kissinger, also called In seine Hand die Macht gegeben, 2012, ink on paper, 32 x 17 inches
Henry Kissinger posed for this portrait in November of 2011.
10. Bush-Maliki News Conference. Baghdad, December 2008, 2009, ink on paper, 42 x 26 inches
Dmitry Borshch was born in Dnepropetrovsk, studied in Moscow, and now lives in New York. His paintings have been exhibited at the National Arts Club (New York), Brecht Forum (New York), ISE Cultural Foundation (New York), and the State Russian Museum (Saint Petersburg).
Anastasiya Shekhtman is a senior Communication Design major at the University of Pennsylvania, minoring in Russian and Creative Writing. Displaced from Ukraine at the age of four, Anastasiya is currently chasing childhood images, sorting the real from the imagined, only to blur them again in her work. Until recently, Anastasiya lived in a love triangle between writing and design. Then she found her heart in the overlap. Her website is www.anastasiyashekhtman.com.
FIVE PAINTINGS by Tish Ingersoll Interviewed by Anastasiya Shekhtman
How do you begin a painting? I often start a painting using a level and making several horizontal lines, varying distances apart. Then, using black acrylic, I use gestural lines to overlap them. Finally, I add color. I often use memories of places I have walked or otherwise experienced. The painting and content emerges over a long period of not painting.
The transformation of paint, a loose substance, into rigid lines and geometric shapes in your paintings is particularly intriguing. How does the form of your work play into the content? For twenty years, I worked as a lead artist for the Mural Arts Program. When creating a muraI, I use a grid to work up my concept for the wall, using a 1″ to 1′ ratio. About nine years ago, I decided to use a grid for my studio work. Rather than make me more rigid, it served as a freeing experience. I began reading about the history of grids and discovered that ancient Polynesian fishermen used a grid construction of sticks to navigate the waters; I liked the idea of this moveable grid. As I often depict layers of water, this was so exciting to discover. The grid is a never ending source of inspiration for me. It leads me to a more abstract way of painting that I really like.
In a palette primarily dominated by blues and similarly cool hues, the color red creates a jarring effect. What role does color play in your paintings? I use color as a vehicle to loosely represent some aspects of landscape. Most of the time, the blue is sky or water, but it takes on a life of its own as the painting progresses. I often use red to catch and guide the viewer’s eye. Other times, I think of the changing color of a leaf, or a lily pad dying on a pond. In many of these pieces, I limited my color palette to simplify the experience, and focused on creating an illusion of space.
You speak about the canvas as an entry point into more meaningful spaces. Please tell us about the philosophical concerns you explore in this series. My philosophy concerns the process of making lines, color, and form, and seeing where they lead me. In Triangulation, I was not at all sure where I was headed. Then, it became clear that the layered horizon lines, vanishing points, and planes of colors functioned as levels of water, reflections, and floating shapes; the process built itself. In this way, I discover meaning that goes beyond the personal, which is how my work sometimes starts out. I like removing myself. Sometimes, I feel I should go further and further into the picture plane, and hopefully will in the future.
1. Triangulation, 2013, acrylic on paper, 26 x 26 inches
2. Currents, 2011, oil on mylar, 24 x 24 inches Painting with oil and acrylic on mylar for the first time, I loved the way the paint worked on the surface. I think this piece has a real translucence that I can achieve because of the mylar. There is an illusion of space that seems very immediate.
3. Mapping, 2012, acrylic on paper, 26 x 26 inches I used blue tape to mask areas, repeating the process of adding and removing tape to create spaces that did not receive the paint. When the painting was finished, I felt like it had led me to a new place, the way a map would.
4. Crossroads andCairns, 2012,acrylic on paper, 26 x 26 inches In Maine, where I spent every summer since I was five, I have hiked the same trails many times over. Some years, one trail is my favorite. The next year, I find a new favorite. Cairns are the markers on the trails. My work has always represented some aspect of my life in Maine—on the trails or mountains, on the water, or walking around a pond. When I removed the tape I use, I discovered a cross in the middle, with all the direction lines and vanishing points crisscrossing.
5. Sounds of Fog, 2013, acrylic on paper, 12 x 12 inches
Tish Ingersoll’s paintings have been featured in solo and group exhibitions in museums and galleries, including the Woodmere Art Museum, the Paley Museum, the LG Tripp Gallery, the JMS Gallery, and the Nexus Gallery in Philadelphia; the Allegheny Museum of Art in Pennsylvania; the Ganser Gallery of Millersville University in Pennsylvania; and the State Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; the Art Space Gallery in Richmond, Virginia; and the Ethel Blum Gallery of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. In New York City, her work has been exhibited at the Krasdale Gallery, the Viridian Gallery, the Prince Street Gallery, and the Phoenix Gallery. She is the recipient of many awards and fellowships and was a lead muralist for the renowned Philadelphia Mural Arts program, 1992-2003. Tish resides in Philadelphia. Photo credit: Jack Ramsdale
Anastasiya Shekhtman is a senior Communication Design major at the University of Pennsylvania, minoring in Russian and Creative Writing. Displaced from Ukraine at the age of four, Anastasiya is currently chasing childhood images, sorting the real from the imagined, only to blur them again in her work. Until recently, Anastasiya lived in a love triangle between writing and design. Then she found her heart in the overlap. Her website is www.anastasiyashekhtman.com.
If God looked for Yvonne would he find her? If God looked down, past stars and satellites, through storm clouds thick and grey as dryer lint, would he see Yvonne in a stolen van, Yvonne in a darkened shopping plaza with Ma’s Diner and A-1 Hardware, Crafts Basket and Pets Plus?
Yvonne is down on options, down on her luck. Listening to the sighs and snores of her dog asleep in the back seat, the beat of rain on the roof. Her world the smell of wet dog. Her face in the mirror, hair wild, curling in the damp. Everything about her seems high-contrast, vampirish. Face white, except for that bruise her cover-up won’t cover. Tired eyes. White eyeliner is the trick for that, Teena had taught her. No white eyeliner in Yvonne’s make-up bag. No black, either. Almost out of tricks. She pats more cover-up on her eyelids, feels the oils in the makeup separate.
Always something red and raw to show through.
Yvonne likes to think that in this whole world not one person knows where she is right now. A parking lot, a strip mall, two hours out of Little Rock, the exit she took when she started losing time, twitching awake as she drifted across lanes. A sign said Clarksville and that made her think of housecleaning with her grandmother, the radio set to the oldies station because music made work better, songs about last trains to Clarksville and midnight trains to Georgia, songs that made escape seem possible. Maybe she’s in Clarksville now, 4 a.m., windows cracked, sweat trickling down her neck, diverting around her breasts like some creek that’s been dammed. She shifts her bra straps, remembering Teena’s other tip about always making sure nothing’s popping out on one side that’s not popping on the other. This was important, the power of symmetrical cleavage.
If God looks for Yvonne will he find her?
Teena’s hands steady while Yvonne’s shook, Yvonne holding the flashlight while Teena changed license plates in the dark. Lucky I never turned these in, Teena said, throwing Wayne’s plates into the graveyard of lost lipsticks and crushed pop cans under the seat of her junked car.
Teena sent her on her way with a cocoa tin full of tip money, two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a 12-pack of Diet Coke. You should of poured gasoline on the bed and torched the bastard, Teena said. Like Farrah Fawcett in that movie.
The diner opens at five. Yvonne feels she knows this diner. She likes to think that someone won’t show up to work this morning and she’ll put on an apron and get hired, just like that. In the movie of her life this would happen.
She checks the cocoa tin, where a little Dutch boy holds hands with a little Dutch girl. She’s still got half a country to cross. Yvonne tears a sheet off her Word-a-Day desk calendar. Today’s word is xerophagy: a restricted diet, as of bread and water. She has enough for toast and coffee. A cold nose nudges against her armpit; she looks down into the broad and worried face of the dog.
And maybe bacon.
Yvonne finger-combs her hair, changes her mind, pulls it back in a messy ponytail. What would Teena do? She needs advice but there’s no one to give it, no one except the dog. She can’t ask the dog if she looks all right. She always looks all right to the dog. She’d like to live in a world run by dogs. Image credit: Helen Kulpa
Kathryn Kulpa is the author of the story collection Pleasant Drugs, a winner of the Mid-List Press First Series Award in short fiction. Her short stories and flash fiction have also been published in Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, the Six-Word Memoir anthology series and in Camroc Press Review, Literary Orphans, Monkeybicycle, Superstition Review, Metazen, Florida Review, and other journals.
All the votive candles stood arranged in a circle before Blue Santa. First, Mirta lit the four red and four blue ones. Her favorite candle holders were made from yellow glass colored dark as old cheese. She placed two in front of the dolls with the sap-green insect heads, and two in front of the wooden Santa that she had painted blue the day after the collapse of the Towers.
Mama came into the dimly lit room, luckily not noticing the mess of books and clothes on the floor. If only she would notice the dolls and say how pretty they were.
“Mirta! What are you doing? Just like it’s a statue of the Blessed Virgin, you’re lighting candles in front of that Santa. I don’t know why you painted it that nasty blue—”
Best not to talk about Blue Santa, which Mama had never liked, even when she bought him in that town in Mexico. “Elena, what lovely stockings you’re wearing today. What color are they?” Mama liked to be called by her first name.
Mama smiled and looked down at her legs. “I think the woman in the store called them lilac.”
Mirta pushed strands of her brown hair away from her cheeks, thinking of her mouse Toastie’s whiskers.
Mama said, “Papa and I have a special Christmas gift for you.”
Mirta tried to hide the anticipation in her voice. “You do?”
“We have tickets for The Nutcracker. Isn’t that wonderful?”
What a strange time for Mama to be happy. A frown soured Mirta’s face. “I’ve seen it so many times.”
“Honey, I thought the Nutcracker was your favorite ballet. I would have loved it if I could have seen it when I was ten.”
Mama probably wanted to add, ‘You’re spoiled,’ Mirta thought.
“I do like it,” Mirta answered, the truth lowering her voice with embarrassment. “It’s just the story’s always the same.”
Musical visions of the Sugar Plum Fairy floated in the air, courtesy of the CD player in the living-dining room. “Listen to that,” Mama said, “Papa just turned on the stereo system. Isn’t it beautiful? What are your favorite parts?”
Mama always wanted to share her happiness. What a strange time to be happy, after all the terrible things that happened in the city this year. But Mirta played along and said, “Well, I love the growing Christmas tree, how it gets bigger and bigger…”
“Yes, isn’t it something? It still thrills me. What else do you like?”
“The dance of all those snow flakes in the forest of the Christmas trees. The lights are almost as blue as my Santa.” Though not as sad, Mirta thought, glancing over at the wooden figure, her treasure from Mexico, which she had painted two shades of blue: the face and hands a pastel, and the rest of him a darker, blueberry blue.
Mama said nothing, ignored the mention of the blue Santa. They hadn’t argued about him since last week, when Mama wouldn’t let Mirta place Blue Santa under the Christmas tree. Mirta had felt angry, and that’s when she started plans for the altar of votive lights.
“But my favorite part of all,” Mirta continued, “is when the mice battle the toy soldiers. The music is so swirly there. Only…well, the mice never win.” She pictured the Mouse King, stiff as a fallen log, carried out by the defeated mice after his death.
“Why would you want the mice to win?” Mama asked. “They’re the bad ones, trying to take over little Clara’s room, her house, everything.”
“I don’t care. It’s unfair they always lose.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“If she just had a cat like Rongo that would solve the problem, right Mama?”
“What a thought.” But Mama couldn’t conceal the smile gleaming in her large dark eyes. “Anyway, we’ll eat lunch early Wednesday, so we can be at the theater early.”
“I’m going out to make drinks for Papa. Do you want to join us? I’ll ask Nanny to make your favorite punch.”
“Thanks Mama, but I’ll just finish up in here first. Call me when dinner’s ready, ok?”
“All right.” Mama started to stride away, her satin blouse trailing perfume, her head held high as usual.
“Oh, and Mama?”
“Can I bring Blue Santa to the ballet with me? Please, pretty please?”
“Mirta! Why would you want to bring that…thing? He’s too big for your little red bag.”
“He can fit into the pocket of my coat. Maybe he’ll make something different happen. That’s why I’m lighting candles to him. Don’t forget, Santa’s as powerful as Saddam Hussein.”
“Saddam Hussein! Where did you hear about him?”
“Beth mentioned him. Her teacher talked about Saddam in class.”
“I don’t know what they’re teaching you in school anymore.”
“It’s all right. I like my teachers. They’re good.”
Mama walked away, her heels clattering on the wood floor. “I hope so,” she said softly.
Mirta arranged all the lit candles on the shelf to form a semi-circle in front of the Santa before she said her evening prayer. She felt so sad, and remembered painting Santa blue the day after the Towers fell down. “Make something special happen at the ballet. Something different…pretty please? If you do, I’ll buy you your own chocolate bar. In fact, we can share it…” Did the Blue Santa nod? Mirta hoped so. “See, Toastie,” she said to the mouse sleeping in his cage in the corner. “Blue Santa will come through again.” Unlike most mice, Toastie wasn’t nice to look at, for he had red face patches, raw from nervous clawing. The vet couldn’t help, and now even Papa called Toastie “Scarface.” How horrible. Mirta would never bring Toastie into class again, no matter what. All the kids made fun of him.
The day of the matinee was only a few days before Christmas. The streets, full of rain and fog, felt clammy. Papa would say the bad weather had been caused by global warming. Blue Santa weighed down her pocket, and reminded Mirta of his power. He’d performed miracles before, such as the time Toastie the mouse left his cage and ran across Rongo’s front paws without being eaten. That day Blue Santa had cast some sort of spell on Rongo, so he wouldn’t notice Toastie. At the time Mama said Rongo was too old a cat to pounce on Toastie. But no wonder: Mama didn’t believe much in such things.
Inside the theater, in her seat, the chatter of the screeching violins led Mirta away from thinking about Blue Santa. She would never confess it to Mama, but being at Lincoln Center and seeing the ballet was exciting.
Mama took her hand. Poor Mama. She would be content with the usual story. But tonight it would change, because Mirta rubbed Blue Santa’s head.
Mirta looked around the auditorium for her friend Beth, though she didn’t see her. Beth had sent an e-mail saying she’d be at the same performance.
The curtains, already opened, revealed the cozy parlor. Why didn’t everyone call their living room a “parlor”? Parlor sounded much nicer than “living room.”
Despite not wanting to, leaning against Mama’s shoulder, Mirta became sleepy. But after the first gun shot in the battle of the mice and the toy soldiers Mirta was jolted awake. The gun shot reminded her of those terrible things she’d seen three months earlier on TV about the Twin Towers. How horrible guns were. Just like terrorists, they killed people.
In the ballet, she watched the same old story. The Nutcracker, gnarled and short as any dwarf, though he wore a scarlet jacket with brass buttons bigger than thimbles, would soon defeat the Mouse King. Then he’d turn into a boy-prince and lead Clara to the waltzing Snowflakes in the Enchanted Forest. If only the mice could somehow win and stay alive, the way Toastie had when he ran across the cat’s paws.
The battle proceeded with some losses for the toy soldiers and some rodent deaths, when all at once the tide turned. The mice were cleaning up, mopping the floor with the expiring toy soldiers, who they pulled offstage by their long locks of hair, probably wet from stage sweat. After all, the toy soldiers were played by girls; lucky Beth had been one last year.
Nudging Mama’s elbow Mirta whispered, “Look! The mice are winning.”
At first Mama didn’t seem to notice the difference. “Calm down. It’s only a fairy tale.” This was the most incredible moment ever, and Mama didn’t get it.
But throughout the theater dozens of other kids understood. Squeals of fear burst out all over, above the silky-smooth violin melodies. Mirta sat on the edge of her seat, her knees twitching. Thankfully, she’d visited the Ladies’ room before the ballet started. She took Blue Santa out of her pocket. To think his power had really worked. Just like Papa said, no one would have an ordinary Christmas this year.
The seven-headed mouse king seemed bigger, almost like the Christmas tree had grown earlier in the scene to throbbing strings and low brass braying in the orchestra pit. The rumbling noises sounded unruly, as menacing as the reptile cage at the Central Park Zoo. Next the other mice, the lieutenants and foot soldiers, marched forward. Their fat padded stomachs contracted and they stood taller. The rodents, with teeth pointy as dentist’s drills and yellowed as tea stains, picked up the remaining toy soldiers. Some wounded soldiers limped off stage, dropping their silver stage swords, crying and clearly defeated. But others, not so lucky, were already grasped by the rodent paws. Mirta thought the new version of the ballet was even more frightening than Jurassic Park. The mice warriors twirled their small victims around their heads, holding the children by the feet. The mice wouldn’t throw the limp kids out into the orchestra, would they? Suddenly things looked bad on stage, too horrible to watch. Silently, Mirta prayed to Blue Santa to stop the mice.
Mirta wondered if the police would come, or if most police still worked down at Ground Zero. She’d seen them day after day on TV. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to show up. The orchestra played on raggedly. The deeper instruments, the trombones and horns, blared on, if partly drowned out by people talking in the audience.
Mirta saw that the woman conductor seemed to have a long, twitching snout, rather than a nose. A bunch of prickly, toothpick whiskers sprouted from her upper lip. She glared right and left at the chatty audience members, and she loudly urged on the frenzied orchestra.
Mama leaned over, a frown on her face. “We should leave,” she said. “You look upset.”
“Oh no,” Mirta said, her chin firm. “I don’t want to leave. Not now. The ballet is good today, Mama.” Blue Santa’s magic would work. Mirta’s praying to him would stop the battle.
On stage the fight continued, the mice now piling up the toy soldier bodies stage center, right before the gigantic Christmas tree. The plot had definitely changed from the original one everyone knew. The victorious mice dragged large gold cages from underneath the boughs of the tree. A sweaty fear scented the air as the mice pushed the children, clearly no longer pretending to be toy soldiers, into tall cages.
“Blue Santa,” Mirta urgently whispered. “You have to stop this.”
The Nutcracker-Prince, his contorted mask askew, lay wounded on the stage. Things looked disastrous, and it hadn’t been wise to wish for the mice to take over.
Suddenly the tide turned and the mice were pushed back. The wounded soldiers rose and more of the toy soldiers rushed in from the wings, while kids cheered in the audience. They regrouped as the Nutcracker Prince stood up, a circle of stars lighting his forehead. Blue Santa saved him, Mirta thought. This time the bad ones wouldn’t win.
Mirta blinked, and the scene changed to the huge forest of Christmas trees. The snowflake ballerinas danced on their toes as the air in the theater, showering cold all over. In her head, Mirta saw again the fierce Mouse King, mean as Rongo, advancing on the Prince, and all the candles blazing on the stage from the first scene to the last, each one magical.
Then the curtain came down and the music stopped.
“Mama,” Mirta said, pulling on a sleeve.
“I liked the ballet today. It seemed so different. Thank you for taking me.”
Mama smiled, as they stood, to walk up the aisle.
R. Daniel Evans was a founding co-editor in 1976, along with Louise Simons, of Philadelphia’s long-running literary magazine, The Painted Bride Quarterly. During the seven years that they edited the magazine, they published stories, poetry and essays on music, by many authors including Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Gregory Corso, Lynn Lonnider, and Meredith Monk. During that period Dan published poems in many magazines and anthologies, including Hanging Loose, Hellcoal Annual, America, Gay Sunshine, and over 40 others. Dan’s stories have appeared in magazines such as Peregine, Art Mag, Of Leather and Lace, and Pangolin Papers, which nominated one of his stories for a Pushcart Prize.
Having sliced mosquitoes
From the air all week, he sits with mail
Neglected like the quiet granite
Of New Hampshire. The enormity of moths
is felt here. Thinking of the letters.
That even in this loneliness there
is body to be held. Remembering the time spent
with another, like practicing how to use the right hand
to undress secrets, nervous until the curves
become the angry smiles of highway waitresses.
We tear through each other so quickly
the language of stillness has lost itself. A solitary
motion of the wrist, a quick release,
splatter on the neck from the biting.
Zach Fishel was born in Central Pennsylvania, but resides in the Berkshire Mountains working as an outdoor educator. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals and has earned two Pushcart nominations. He is the author of two chapbooks, available exclusively through NightBallet Press, and his first full-length will appear in April 2014 from Red Paint Hill Publishing.
Homes awash in moonlight, in streetlight, the whole neighborhood hunched and hiding, watching the sky. All of the children are adrift, huddled in bushes, running under branches well past their usual bedtimes. It is a strange phenomenon, but one that goes unquestioned. In the morning, the grown-ups confess that they thought they saw a UFO, a strange streak that grew then slipped away too quickly for logic. For the next night, for the rest of the weekend, a vigil, lawn chairs clustered, poised to catch a second glimpse. The pleasures of these evenings were many—playing late in the dark yard, the low rumble of the men’s voices mooring us close enough for safety, even television allowed when it got late enough for pajamas and later still when their eyes would spot something moving—usually a plane—before they would laugh and finally retire, carrying us to bed.
But what a delight it must have been, a mystery in their blur of days, an unknown possibility swelling into the cracks of what they had long believed, duty slipping its course for a brief time. Our parents could not prove what they had or had not seen, could not break open the night to see what exists beyond the stars—but the way they searched! It let them taste a wonder they had lost, that worship of maybe that a child knows best. Time fell away—chores and jobs and deadlines, all they knew of living—something for a moment escaped. It didn’t last long, this infatuation—they had appointments to keep with the fickle, close-minded world. They had shovels and rakes and brooms to wield, deals to make, specs to learn, children (who leaned on their broad, muscled shoulders) to feed. Sometimes, in the dark, they still stand at the window, sending silent messages to the stars. Image credit: DragonRal on Flickr
Donna Vorreyer is a Chicago-area writer who spends her days teaching middle school, trying to convince teenagers that words matter. Her work has appeared in many journals including Rhino, Linebreak, Cider Press Review, Stirring, Sweet, wicked alice, and Weave. Her fifth chapbook, We Build Houses of Our Bodies, is forthcoming this year from Dancing Girl Press; in addition, her first full-length poetry collection, AHouse of Many Windows, was recently released by Sundress Publications. She also serves as a poetry editor for Mixed Fruit magazine. Visit her online at www.donnavorreyer.com
The day of his wife’s forty-fifth birthday party, Norbie Bernbaum let Jerry Rosen talk him into an afternoon at the Dirty Martini, a strip club on the edge of downtown where Hot Pantz, Double Dee, and The Bride seduced the clientele to one degree or another. Rosen had been there a couple of times, mostly during weekdays, and he made the place sound so irresistible—the women were just like showgirls—that Norbie was panting to go.
“But what about Donna’s party?” Norbie groaned as Schpilkes, the family dog, came by and leaned against him.
“Just tell her you’re going out to buy her a gift,” advised Rosen. “You’ll be back in time for brisket with the in-laws. I promise.”
Norbie hadn’t bought Donna a birthday present, so this sounded like a plan. He hurriedly splashed on a bit of cologne, brushed his teeth, and scooped his keys off the top of the bureau, which was slightly dusty and decked with family photos. He nearly tripped on a toy police car that his son, Eddie, had left in the upstairs hall. Latin rap pulsed from his teenage daughter Annette’s room. Through the slightly open door, Norbie saw her working her hips to some kind of chipotle-flavored belly dance and cringed. He had to pick up Rosen in twenty minutes.
An accountant in a medium-sized firm, Norbie was in good health and not bad looking: he had a full head of onyx hair and a slight cleft in his chin that could look playful and charming when he was feeling merry. But he had not felt merry in some time. Instead, a blue mold of boredom and resentment had crept over him. He began to wonder what accountancy meant in the big picture and what the big picture was anyway. The idea that he was squandering a third of his life on other people’s numbers poked at him like a constant elbow. As for his marriage, he was bored and resentful of it too. The easy passion he and Donna once felt for each other had subsided with the years and petty disgruntlements of matrimony. Norbie sometimes wondered if this was a normal part of the passage or if he and Donna were just stringing each other along. The problem was that nothing much could gain traction in his soul. He felt like a man dangling and reaching out for something, but he didn’t know what.
As Norbie sought relief from his funk, ideas of purpose would stir in his mind. He should coach Eddie’s Little League team, learn Spanish, take up guitar, engage in a wild affair, maybe even try harder to appreciate what he had. But he only dreamed of these things. He didn’t act on them – neither the good things nor the bad ones. The idea of the affair he dismissed as too real, too intense, too risky. Sooner or later, each notion dissolved like the morning fog, and hard daylight only made him see the big boulder of his life more clearly.
Eventually, he figured that he should simply try to have more fun. And convinced that his opportunities for fun were speeding away from him like a Porsche down the highway, Norbie jumped whenever Jerry Rosen called with a new adventure. So grateful was Norbie for these invitations that he tried not to mind that Rosen was always a few dollars short for beer or greens fees, that he usually had Norbie chauffeur, or that Rosen kept him waiting as he finished his shower, went through his mail, or yakked on the phone with his girlfriends, some of whom were married. Compared to Norbie’s life, Rosen’s life seemed so various and full.
Donna Bernbaum, Norbie’s wife of sixteen years, worked as a part-time paralegal in a small suburban law practice. A devoted mother and a loyal spouse, Donna also cultured her hurts like pearls, and Norbie’s small abuses—no-showing for dinner without bothering to call, playfully putting her down in front of the neighbors, opting for outings with Rosen over dates with her—supplied the grit that started the pearls. Now on her birthday, Norbie avoided eye contact with Donna as he strode toward his red Toyota Camry. He aimed his electronic key at the car like a ray gun.
It was a fruitful May, the air heavily peppered with pollen, and Donna had a bad case of hay fever. Before she could utter a word, a sneeze tornadoed through her body. Recovering, she arraigned her husband, “You’re off with that Rosen, Norbie. I know it.” She fixed him with a narrow look. Behind her sharpness, Norbie sensed the fluttering flags of insecurity and fear.
Ever since Rosen had entered their lives, Donna had felt herself weirdly in competition with him for Norbie’s love and attention. This Saturday, his flight on her birthday made her feel even more sidelined and insulted. Not that a man wasn’t entitled to his free time. And her birthday party was hours away. When, however, her tormented nostrils caught the scent of cologne, a new anxiety pricked her. She hadn’t known Norbie to cheat, but under Rosen’s tutelage anything was possible.
“And what’s that smell? Where are you going on a Saturday afternoon that you have to wear cologne?”
Schpilkes trotted up to Norbie for good sniff. The dog’s tail accelerated to a quick tick-tock. He looked expectantly at his master.
Norbie made no reply, but lobbed a you-must-be-paranoid look at Donna and made the loco sign so she could see it. He knew that being a little mean would make Donna shut up. He slid into his car and started the engine. Today, it was easier for him not to feel so annoyed or judged by her. After all, he would soon be in the bosom of topless dancers.
“We have to be at my sister’s by six. It is my birthday,” she said, fighting suspicion and another oncoming sneeze.
“Terrific. Thanks for the reminder,” snapped Norbie. “If I have to spend time with your family, the least you can do is let me have a little fun first.”
A wounded expression whitewashed Donna’s face. A pearl began to form over the sting of Norbie’s remark.
“Maybe I’m just going out to get you a present. Unless you rather I didn’t,” he said glancing at his watch. What would Rosen think if he had to call and cancel just because he caved to his wife’s nagging?
“You play in the dirt, you get dirty,” warned Donna in just the sort of schoolmarmish tone that made Norbie jump into the fraternal arms of Rosen. As he backed down the driveway, he saw her brandishing a Kleenex. He definitely did not like the way she said “dirty.” It was as if she knew where he was headed.
The thought of Donna’s birthday party circled him like a turkey vulture. He could barely tolerate Donna’s family, a bunch of self-righteous socialists always hammering away with their politics and justice causes. If it wasn’t the whales, it was the handicapped or the undocumented immigrants or people with AIDS. He needed an antidote to all that suffocating goodness, and he was now more glad than ever that Rosen had talked him into a visit to the strip joint.
Donna ducked into the house and told the kids she was off to the health club for a quick lift. For the last several months, whenever she felt Norbie was saying no to her and yes to Rosen, she went to the health club to weight train. She could now curl fifteen-pound dumbbells and bench press forty pounds, yet she lacked the power to cut Norbie’s ties to Rosen. The fellows’ friendship burgeoned. Almost every day begat another pearl.
It would be a busy Saturday. After the gym, she had to run Annette to dance class and Eddie to his ball game. And there was Norbie out and about who-knows-where, no help at all with errands—and on her birthday no less. Of course he was going with that Rosen. It was scrawled all over his face like a signature on a bad check.
Donna Bernbaum detested Jerry Rosen. He was a know-it-all, a schnorrer, and he dripped enticements into Norbie’s brain the way a bad factory leaked dioxin into a stream. A half-hearted salesman of uncertain skill, Rosen had, at various times, peddled ad space in magazines, vacation time shares, radon detection systems, and mortgages. Now he was selling hot tubs. He mostly lived off his wives when he had them and his girlfriends when he was single. Donna couldn’t stand the way Rosen used women and the way he collected male followers like Norbie, guys who mistook the cheesy glow of Rosen’s sporting company for a kind of glamour. She hated Rosen’s stupid satanic-looking Vandyke. She hated the way his cigars stunk up their good car, his cocky self-confidence, and, if she had only known him better, she surely would have hated him more. Just hearing Norbie on the cell with that Rosen made her skin crawl like a roach in a diner. What skeeved her especially was that peculiarly light and eager tone her husband used only with Rosen. It was a voice he never used with her.
While Donna militantly believed in protest, she worried that today she had antagonized Norbie too much. It was something about the sight of him backing down the driveway and speeding off down the street. She stood for a moment in front of their house as she watched Norbie disappear. A pang of anxiety went through her. She polished her newest pearl.
Jerry Rosen kept Norbie Bernbaum waiting as he finished watching a golf tournament on TV. Norbie understood that Rosen was a tacky playboy, and he therefore secretly considered himself morally superior to his friend. Rosen, for his part, liked Norbie well enough, but saw him as a watch to unwind, a pal to fill his loneliness, and, should he sell him a hot tub, a customer from whom he could profit.
Rosen seemed to be endowed with great bravado and self-esteem, yet inwardly he was not a happy man. On some level he knew he was self-centered, of little help to those around him, and below par on the job. He sought to blot out this sense of lack with pleasures and entertainments—women, golf, cards, dining out, shopping, movie going—and endless hours of chitchat: gossip, trivia, and advice he foisted on his listeners. Yet after all of this, there was still the lack.
The golf match crept by slowly, and Norbie grew increasingly antsy. It was already after two in the afternoon. He instinctively felt a little bad at having treated Donna poorly, but he tried to delete those feelings. Then there was the matter of the birthday present. Norbie usually just bought Donna a card and maybe flowers, but now he was committed to buying her an actual gift. But what? A nightgown? A handbag? He hadn’t a clue what she’d like.
“Hold your horses, bubbeleh,” Rosen soothed as he pared his fingernails. “Those gorgeous gals aren’t going anywhere.”
The Dirty Martini was a low, flat building that might have once been a factory or a grocery store. An easel-style marquee in front said, “Philadelphia’s Bachelor Party Headquarters. Congratulations, Brad.” Another sign in the parking lot said “Police and Dirty Martini Parking.” Although it was early afternoon, all the parking spaces were filled. Cops or no cops, it was a dodgy neighborhood, so Norbie didn’t want to park the red Camry on the street.
“Here’s a space,” said Rosen pointing to a spot designated for disabled parking.
“Are you crazy?” replied Norbie. “It says a minimum fifty dollar fine, plus towing at the owner’s expense.”
Rosen minced his lips and rolled his eyes heavenward. “Listen, do you really think some gimp in a van is coming to the Dirty Martini? They have to put a handicapped space there. It’s a federal law or something. Just park for crying out loud. You don’t have all day.” Then he looked at Norbie meaningfully and added, “Well, if it will make you feel better, limp in and if anyone asks say you twisted your ankle.”
So Norbie did as Rosen instructed, parked in the handicapped space, and made his way into the club half jumping, half limping. Like Hopalong Cassidy on his way to the bordello. He felt very foolish.
Two plaster statues of female nudes pillared the entrance to the club. In the parking lot, a number of men lingered talking on their cell phones. Inside, a huge bouncer, who looked like a body builder, had Norbie and Rosen pass through a metal detector. Rosen sauntered through. Norbie kept up his limping act. By the metal detector were signs that warned against cameras and touching the girls. Norbie was surprised at all the security. It made him kind of nervous. He heard raucous laughter coming from a curtained-off room. Peeking in, he saw several girls in fishnets and black leather bustiers wheeling in a big box that was iced like a cake. He felt sure that a girl would pop out of that cake.
“Craaazy, craaazy,” yearned a female voice over the sound system in the cavernous main room, which smelled faintly of a moist mustiness. One wall of the club was mirrored. The other was hung with a number of flat-screen TVs tuned, audio off, to a baseball game. The patrons were mostly middle-aged white men. Some were seated on shell-shaped cushioned chairs; others perched on barstools along the polished runway, a black stretch bordered in red lights that rolled out through the center of the room like a long tongue. There was a brass pole in the middle of the walk. Overhead pulsing spotlights splashed the strippers in red, green, blue, and yellow.
The Dirty Martini was like something Norbie had seen in a movie or a TV show, only it was better and real. The door to a deeper, darker, nastier side of sex opened to him, and he felt big, elevated, male. There to be served by juicy little teases who sometimes acted submissive and sometimes acted like they were begging for it.
The two friends settled into bar stools along the catwalk and ordered beers. The DJ played mostly sultry R&B and announced girl after girl. There seemed to be an endless stream of dancers of all races, skin tones, breast sizes, and hair colors. Each came in with her gauzy wrap and five-inch Lucite heels. The Lucite high heels were definitely a very big item. Then inch by inch, each girl unpeeled her wrap until she wore nothing but a thong or a G-string, see-through pasties, and those skyscraper Lucite heels. Then the slow grind. And the embrace of the pole.
Hot Pantz, a very fit black girl in a leopard thong, thrust herself up against the brass pole. Norbie wished he were that pole. Then Hot Pantz climbed the pole and suspended herself upside down. Her legs were like boa constrictors. She had amazing abs. She did all sorts of acrobatic moves. Just like Cirque du Soleil, mused Norbie. Then she slid down the pole and began to stalk catlike on all fours. One man put a bill in her thong. She purred like Eartha Kitt.
From the corner of his eye, he saw a patron leave the club with one of the girls.
A tall blonde with huge breasts came on and slowly gyrated to “Nasty Girl.” “That’s Double Dee,” Rosen whispered. Double Dee did a backbend, lowered herself to the catwalk floor, then knees bent she pumped her beautiful and shapely legs open and closed like a giant butterfly. Shaved, fit, and incredibly tight was all Norbie could think. The kind of girl you can’t get at home. His heart was pounding, and a big erection took root in his pants. He watched as she went down on all fours and crawled up to a patron who lovingly tucked bills in her little pink thong. She smiled at Norbie. He wanted to be a bill in her thong. He took a dollar from his wallet, and she held her side string open for him. His fingers grazed her hip, which was warm and round and smooth. He was mesmerized, lost in a hormonal haze.
“Hey, give me a bill,” Rosen broke in, rubbing his fingers together. Norbie hesitated but, reluctant to seem a poor sport, he handed Rosen a single. “Gimme a five, at least. They like bigger bills,” wheedled Rosen who proceeded to insert Norbie’s five-spot into Double Dee’s thong. Double Dee swung her silky golden tresses and worked the two cupcakes of her ass.
“And now, gentlemen,” announced the velvety voiced DJ as organ tones of the “Wedding March” began, “Here comes the Bride.”
The Bride, petite and virginal, began to step demurely down the runway. She wore a white G-string, a white garter, and a snowy shawl over her small breasts. Dangling from her arm was a white beaded drawstring pouch, the kind brides carry to collect wedding checks. A hush drifted over the crowd, but this was soon disturbed by some rustling at the back of the room.
A grizzled male voice ripped through the sultry atmosphere. “Lawbreaking prick!” The man’s tone spiraled louder with mounting indignation. “Lawbreaking prick!”
The “Wedding March” kept playing, but the DJ fell silent and The Bride froze. The yelling was coming from a guy in a wheelchair. “Whose red Camry is that?” he raged. “You’re in a disabled zone. You’re gonna pay for this, asshole! Management, too.”
Working the hand controls on his wheelchair, the disabled man, a guy in his mid thirties with stringy hair, motored deeper into the club. Fear dug its red polished nails into Norbie’s chest. The huge bouncer lumbered into the room.
A contingent of strippers, now in halter tops and miniskirts (how plain they seemed off the stage!), filtered through the crowd to comfort the disabled guy. Their kindness caused him to lose his tough edge. His voice began to break. “I just wanted to see you girls dance. And some bastard with a working prick…”
Two cops came up to the man in the wheelchair. One took out a notepad and began to take a report.
“Bubbeleh, looks like you’re up shit’s creek,” said Rosen as he took a pull at his beer.
“You’re the one who told me park there,” retorted Norbie lamely.
Having run a license plate check, one cop began to bellow, “Norbert Bernbaum! Is there a Norbert Bernbaum here! Red Toyota Camry!” Norbie was frantic with shame; fine beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. He hopelessly prayed for deliverance. Trembling, he looked at his watch. It was after five o’clock. The party. The present. And he was about to get a citation in a strip club.
The limping excuse did not work with the cops. Then the strippers gathered around Norbie and started to yell at him. “Don’t you have any respect for those less fortunate than yourself?” scolded Hot Pantz. “Shame on you.”
“And I thought you were a nice guy!” hissed Double Dee curling her collagen-plumped lips.
The Bride glared at him and smacked him with her white drawstring purse. “Go back to your wife, you dick!” she shrieked.
The cops assessed him a seventy-five dollar fine, twenty-five more than the minimum. When the bouncer escorted Norbie and Rosen to the door, Norbie saw that his red Camry was being hauled away on a tow truck. It would cost a hundred and fifty dollars to get it out of impoundment, and he’d have to pay for a taxi to the lot, too. He fumbled with his cell phone and was finally able to call a cab. There were six missed calls from Donna and one bitter voice message. “If you don’t think enough of me to get home in time for my birthday party, then I think that is pretty disgusting. But I understand your priorities. And don’t bother coming to my sister’s.”
The ride to the impoundment lot was a long tour of the city’s rundown riverfront streets. The lot, no surprise, was attended by some unsavory types and a couple of pit bulls. Nothing like the sweet-tempered Schpilkes. Forced to pay with his credit card, Norbie knew he’d need to intercept the statement before Donna could see it and interrogate him. Not that he’d have to account to her. She wasn’t his mother. And if Donna did see the statement with the impoundment charge, he prayed she would not use her paralegal skills to get to the root of the story. The parking fine, he’d pay with cash.
The drive back to Rosen’s place was bleak. Norbie imagined Donna’s family at dinner, drinking wine, talking politics, talking about him. “Shit happens,” offered Rosen seeking to break the silence and minimize the situation. “All you wanted to do was be happy and have a little fun. Is that such a crime? You’ll buy the wife a nice gift, that’s all. And you’ll say you screwed up. You’ll say you went to a sports bar and lost track of the time.”
Norbie made no reply. Shame was on him like a red rash, and a sick stomach ache churned in his gut. Over and over he saw those censorious whores and the paraplegic man with stringy hair and a life that was so much harder than everyone else’s. If only he had refused Rosen’s idea and looked harder for a parking spot. That fucking Rosen! And fuck me, fumed Norbie. Fuck me!
“I really think you should help me out with the cost of the fine and the towing,” Norbie said to Rosen.
“I don’t make bank like you, my friend. From each according to his ability, you know what they say,” declared Rosen. He blew a smoke ring with his cigar, a big fat zero in the air. “But I’ll see what I can do. Here,” he said and handed Norbie a ten dollar bill. Minus the five bucks for the thong money, Norbie calculated that his companion had really chipped in a measly five.
Down and depressed, partly angry, partly worried, feeling not at all like a birthday girl, Donna fed Schpilkes his dinner and drove with Eddie and Annette to her sister’s. In the car, the children were very quiet.
When they arrived at her sister’s house, Donna preemptively announced that Norbie would not be coming, and after that no one said a word about his absence. At least being with her side of the family was a comfort. Over eggplant salad, they talked about movies, and as dinner progressed they moved on to Iraq and Afghanistan and the miracles orthopedists were working on injured soldiers. As her mom and dad and her sister sang “Happy Birthday,” Donna felt weirdly girlish and unmarried. When she blew out the candles on the pink and white cake, she could barely muster her traditional wish: that lightning would strike Jerry Rosen. The pearls of her hurt hung heavily around her neck.
No longer in a hurry to get home, Norbie drove to a McDonald’s and ordered a vanilla milkshake hoping it would settle his stomach. Amidst the loud primary colors of the McDonald’s, he imagined being yelled at by Donna. He drove to a Walgreens and browsed through the gift items—big candles, jars of potpourri, Whitman’s Samplers—and ended up buying a bubble bath and dusting powder set, a humorous birthday card, and a festive gift bag for the presentation. He planned on using that excuse about the sports bar.
Schpilkes wagged his tail energetically when Norbie came home and nosed his master’s pant legs, curious about the unfamiliar odors. When the family arrived home, Eddie bounded up to his dad, hugged him, and asked him where he’d been. Annette was sullen. Donna, her face drawn and colorless, barely looked at her husband.
“Happy birthday,” Norbie said, attempting cheer, and tried to kiss Donna, who backed away from him. He apologized, offered the sports bar alibi, then handed her the gift bag. He half expected her to clobber him with it à la The Bride, but she merely mumbled thanks and placed the gift bag on the dining room table without peeking inside. There was no yelling. Donna’s eerie politeness troubled Norbie’s waters; a rant or at least a quick curse would have helped him justify his escapade.
“It must have been a very exciting game,” said Donna dryly. She wondered how much of Norbie’s story she should believe. She had always seen sharply through falseness and remarked on it quickly, but now that falseness seemed so close upon her she found herself looking for ways to justify Norbie’s version of events.
That night, they slept restlessly in their double bed, a shadowy wall between them. Some day this turned out to be, thought Donna, inhaling the new atmosphere of mistrust. Yet angry as she was with Norbie, she was glad that he had returned, comforted that he had not abandoned her, relieved that he had not been in a car accident. Then she detected the fading whisper of Norbie’s cologne. She opened her eyes in the darkness. Cologne? A sports bar? She twitched her nose for the scent of another woman. Finding none, she drifted for a while on a current of bitter thoughts, then fell asleep.
On his side of the bed, Norbie tossed and turned. What is wrong with me, he thought, that I cannot be happy with what I have? Why do I want more? And what do I want more of? Visions of Hot Pantz, Double Dee, and The Bride swam up to him like evil spirits. What a dumb shit he’d been. What rotten luck to be caught by the disabled guy, a man frozen from the waist down, who nevertheless had the power to cause him such anguish.
Norbie reached out to Donna’s slumbering form, hoping that she would not wake and shake him off. She was warm, and she was there, and down the hall the children slept, and below Schpilkes snoozed, his simple canine mind at peace.
If Donna had known about Norbie’s afternoon at the Dirty Martini, she would have been more appalled…and then less. She would have approved grimly of Norbie’s comeuppance by the feisty man in the wheelchair. She would have reasoned that at least Norbie didn’t buy a lap dance or contract with a girl for sex. As for the business about the bill in the thong, well that was practically expected of him as a red-blooded patron, no worse than a woman slipping a dollar into a Chippendale’s mankini. But Donna knew none of this, thought none of this. What turned the bad key over and over in her mind was the simple fact that on her birthday her husband had preferred Rosen over her. Why couldn’t someone just shake some virtue into that man?
A week passed of work and chores and not much talk between them. Donna could not bring herself to use the bubble bath and dusting powder, but she wasn’t the type to throw good items in the trash. Unsure of what to do, Donna left the birthday present on the dining room table. At first it glared at her from its brightly colored gift bag, then it seemed to turn into something funky like an overlooked bag of groceries. After a week it practically ossified into a cast. Eventually, she decided to donate it to a women’s shelter.
A gauzy mist overcast the sky as Donna drove to the shelter office (the actual location of the safe house was kept confidential). In the haze, the sun looked moonlike and opalescent. The route took her down some unfamiliar roads, and after a while Donna came upon a white wooden lawn sign planted in some landscaping. The sign read: “7-Day Spa—Massage and Reflexology.”
A treatment would feel good, she thought. A way to do something nice for herself. So she pulled into the parking lot and entered the spa, which looked a lot like a suburban insurance or real estate office. The place was very plain and seemed deserted. Not a receptionist or client in sight. How did they stay in business? Then with a frown, Donna wondered if this could be a happy endings parlor.
After a moment, a woman emerged from a back room and showed Donna a menu of services. She settled on a half-hour deep tissue massage. The masseuse, Rose, was plain-looking and her long mane was grasped in a pink hair claw. She had Donna strip down to her panties and lie face down on the table, which was covered with a white sheet. Rose smoothed massage oil over Donna’s back. Her hands were warm, meaty, assertive. Flute and harp music trickled from a portable CD player. This was meant to make the clients zone out, but the plinking and the blowing just irritated Donna. An aromatherapy machine cloyed the air with a heavy vanilla scent. She sneezed a few times.
At first Rose’s hands fluttered over Donna’s back like butterflies. Not bad, thought Donna. She could get into this. But it had been a while since she’d had touch, so the niceness also made her feel a little sad. Then Rose began to dig. “You work out?” she asked feeling Donna’s body tone. “Lots of tension,” she said. “Lots of knots.” But instead of easing away the tension, the treatment hurt. Was it supposed to feel this way? Perhaps she should ask Rose to stop or go a little lighter. But then she figured that this was what a deep-tissue massage was, so she toughed it out, paid the bill, and, minding her manners, gave Rose a tip. Her back was so sore she had to take a couple of Advil, and she ached all the way to the women’s shelter office. How she regretted that massage. What a stupid thing it turned out to be.
“Of course, our clients would be delighted to have these things. The children will love the bubble bath,” said the receptionist at the shelter office, a friendly but cautious woman who took the toiletries, gift bag and all, and didn’t ask any questions about the provenance. Donna immediately began to feel better. The receptionist offered a tax receipt, which Donna declined. No sense in letting Norbie know that she had visited a women’s shelter, much less donated the birthday present to it.
As Donna drove home, a sense of lightness came over her. The haze had evaporated, and the sun was as yellow as the middle of a daisy. The Advil must have been working because her back didn’t hurt as much, and she felt satisfied by her secret deed. In fact, she found its secretness especially pleasing.
When Norbie returned home that evening, he was glad to see the bubble bath and dusting powder gone from the dining room table. He assumed that his wife had come to her senses and had made good use of the gift. Image credit: Thomas Hawk on Flickr
Lynn Levin teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Her poetry, prose, and translations have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Ploughshares, Hopkins Review, and Cleaver. She is the author of four collections of poems, most recently Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013), and with Valerie Fox co-author of the craft-of-poetry textbook Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013). She lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
It was July, winter in La Serena, Chile, and Lily sat in a pretty little plaza, her feet resting on the battered train case that her mother had bought at Sears long ago. Hard shell Samsonite. Part of a set for the family trip to Hawai’i. “Don’t pack it too full,” her mother had said. “You’ll break the mirror.” In all her travels with Adam she had never used the case; it seemed too old fashioned and clunky. But she was glad she had it on this trip. It provided a place to sit or put up her feet. The rest of the luggage was arranged around her—the rolling duffle, the cargo bag, the camera backpack. All within reach. “In case someone tries to rip us off.” Adam shook his head, smiled, “I’d like to see someone try to run with one of those bags.”
It was a clear, cool day, and it was pleasant to be able to rest, to sit in the sunlight. People crossed through the square. Not tourists. They walked quickly, and their hard soled shoes tapped against the concrete. Only another woman and child shared the tree lined plaza with Lily. The little boy was just learning to walk; he had a stiff gait and was still unsure how to use his knees. He moved through a flock of pigeons that barely parted. The woman was small, sat round shouldered with her hands in her lap. She wore an ugly maroon quilted coat and stubby brown shoes. She was dark haired and plain, and she watched the boy without expression. “Not the mother,” Lily guessed.
“Let’s park you on a bench, and I’ll find us a hotel,” Adam had said. He had used this strategy last summer in Italy. “It’s faster if I don’t have to haul the luggage.” That was true. And it was also true, Lily knew, that Adam liked being on his own. A little adventure. He’d come back with stories about his encounters. “The guy on the desk used to live in Seattle, worked in a record store selling CDs.” Adam imitated the man, clasped his hands as if in prayer. “Oh my god. Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley.”
And the truth, too, was that Lily enjoyed this waiting. She liked to think Adam was off having his adventure, that he would come back and tell her about it, and until then she was able to sit alone and watch. Not something she would admit to any of her acquaintances. “I hate passive women!” Bethany, a coworker, said after a team meeting. And then the woman had looked at Lily. “Next time say something. Anything.” “Like what?” Lily hadn’t meant to be facetious, but Bethany threw up her arms and stomped down the hallway.
There was a gentle flutter of wings, and Lily turned to see that the toddler had lost his balance. His feet were still on the sidewalk, but he was bent over, his palms flat against the pavement. He tumbled, managed to land on his rear. A padded thump as his bottom hit. “Ooof,” he said. He raised his hands in loose fists and began that familiar weak baby flail. He gurgled and giggled, and Lily laughed and sought to catch the other woman’s eye, but the woman remained expressionless. Lily shrugged, turned away, a little annoyed with what she thought was the woman’s rebuff.
They had come to South America because Lily wanted to see Ichigualasto and the fossils from the Triassic, and then they had crossed the Chile-Argentine border to La Serena because somewhere she had read about the observatories. They had travelled by bus over the Andes, the only Americans aboard, and had smiled in childish delight at the subtitled Schwarzenegger video and the unexpected meal service. “Even a place mat,” Adam smiled and made a production out of setting the tray before her. In the dark they crossed the border, and everyone had to get off and go through a customs check point. The officials carried rifles and attempted no English, in fact said not a word. They pointed and gestured, and Adam and Lily eventually mimicked another traveler, a European Lily thought, who had placed his bag on a table, opened it, and then waited. The building was dimly lit and cold with giant doors like an airplane hangar. Lily could make out the silhouette of the mountains, darker than the night sky. Later she learned they had stopped near a ski resort, but at night all of it had seemed deserted and gloomy.
The sun was just above the rooftops now, and the slight breeze was chilly. The guide books described the winter climate as Mediterranean, and Lily had thought of Southern California. But even at the lower elevations it was colder than Lily had expected or planned for, and now she drew her jacket closer, ducked her chin inside the padded collar. For a moment she thought of stacking their luggage around her on the bench, building a fort to block the breeze. When she was a child she liked to tuck herself into close tiny places—her grandmother’s closet, the imaginary cave behind her bed, her own fanciful tents.
She was aware first of the sound of their footsteps. Lily turned to her left and saw two men running towards her. A man in a thin green nylon jacket was being chased by a policeman. The other pedestrians slowed to watch the chase; they stepped to the edge of the wide sidewalk like spectators at a marathon. “No,” the policeman called out. “No.” He wore a long wool coat and an official-looking cap like a doorman. But his shoes didn’t seem to fit; he ran as though he were slipping. The flock of pigeons exploded up from the sidewalk as the first man ran past. Lily leaned forward slightly—a reflex—as if to reach for the little boy. Surrounded by flapping wings the baby raised his arms and squealed in delight. The woman had made no move to collect the boy, and Lily sat back, suddenly embarrassed, afraid the woman might have seen her clumsy gesture. The officer passed, his steps a loud slapping sound against the concrete. Lily saw that he was very young; his cheeks and nose were pink from the exertion. He was losing ground. He probably wouldn’t catch the other man. Several of the pedestrians were smiling, and Lily thought they were laughing at the young policeman. The two men crossed the street, oddly still running down the sidewalk as though following a course, then turned at the next corner and disappeared.
There was a murmur and some soft laughter and then the people in the plaza continued on their way. The woman across from her was now standing, holding onto the hand of the little boy. The child tried to take a step, but lost his balance, and the woman pulled up on the child’s arm to keep him on his feet. The boy giggled, and the woman squatted, picked him up. Again Lily watched the woman, hoped to catch her eye. She was ready to express a friendliness, something benign, even timid. For some reason she hoped for that contact. But without a glance the woman turned, began walking away from the bench, and in doing so passed so close Lily drew her feet from the train case and tucked them beneath the bench. The woman did not look at Lily but in profile she was scowling. The hateful expression startled Lily and she quickly looked away, stared down at the sidewalk. The long shadows of the woman and child moved away in the same direction as the two runners.
Later when Adam returned it was dusk, and as he gathered up their luggage he chattered on about his adventure. He had found a place not too far away, and the clerk had told him the room would be warm, and they would not be uncomfortable. He had even stumbled upon a Chinese restaurant that was close to the hotel.
“You were gone so long,” Lily said. “I’m cold.”
“Oh,” Adam shrugged. “Sorry. Sometimes it takes a while.”
“I’ve been waiting a long time.” Lily drew a breath, tried to control her temper. She didn’t understand why she was so angry.
“You okay? Honestly, I thought you’d be okay with the wait. You said you wanted to.”
She picked up the camera bag and the train case and started down the sidewalk with Adam. “How much longer?”
“It’s not too far.”
“No.” The case slipped from her hand and clattered to the sidewalk. She thought maybe she had broken the mirror; her face flushed with anger, and she felt like crying. “How much longer?”
Barbara Nishimoto was born in Chicago, and grew up along with her two sisters in the western suburbs. She is a Sansei and has spent most of her working life as a teacher in such locations as the Alaskan bush and the Marshall Islands. She now lives in Nashville with her husband and their dog, Koji. Her stories appear are are forthcoming in Discover Nikkei and Streetlight Magazine.
I was ready to die, so I jumped off the highest bridge in town, the river a dark frozen mass ready to accept my mangled mess of skin and insides. I detached from my descending body and watched it fall lifelessly while I drifted through the air with the winter breeze and the stars and those snowflakes that instantly melt when they land on you.
I saw or imagined my mom’s house from the sky, about six miles from the bridge. Her house had been empty since I left nearly four years ago. Well, that’s not true. She lived there. I drove by occasionally but I don’t know why. Well, that’s not true either. I did know why. I wanted to make sure she still existed.
Did she know I still existed? One time I drove by and she was unloading groceries or something from her trunk. I didn’t shout or stop or honk though. I didn’t want her to be disappointed. Or I didn’t want her to know she could have been right to worry about me.
She was right, and she’d be real disappointed if she found this out. She may have to answer the standard your-son-committed-suicide questions. He had issues, she’d say, issues that pulled him away from me forever, but I never thought he would resort to this. Others would talk about how pathetic I was, saying shit like I wasn’t cut out for real life. They’d say I lived out the typical emo-fantasy, just another waste of life. Hopefully not mom. I was convinced she’d defend me no matter how long it had been since our last conversation.
But I’m not as dead as I was expecting to be. I was violently sucked back into my body and felt my leg crumble, bones shattering like a glass hitting the floor. I felt cold and wet and such agonizing pain. But I wasn’t dead.
I woke up in a reclined bed with itchy sheets, lights way too bright. Rain played a drum-roll on the world while some stupid actor confessed his love to a busty broad on the box television mounted high up in the corner. The walls and most of the floor tiles were white and made the lights feel brighter, but there were some rogue black tiles too. There was a window to my right without much of a view from my angle and a red vinyl chair in the corner that probably made funny noises when visitors sat on it.
The doctor came in, some high and mighty prick with hipster glasses and a Middle Eastern accent and skin tone. He had his stupid hair with a stupid part along the side of his scalp and I hated him immediately. He regurgitated a laundry list of what the hell was wrong with me but in that sophisticated doctor talk. I only made out some of the key words: hypothermia, shock, fibula, tibia, open fracture, six to twelve months. My leg was a miracle wrapped in a phenomenon being held together by rods and screws. I lifted my paper gown and looked at the cast and imagined what my leg would look like with sharp bones piercing through my flesh. It seemed pretty cool, although I probably would’ve vomited in real life.
“We’d like to keep you here for a while,” the prick said, looking at his stupid clipboard. “The length of your stay will depend on your progress.”
“Who knows I’m here?”
“The police will want to talk to you,” he replied. “But for now, let the drugs do their job.”
And they did. Colors turned to nothing and I dove right in. It wasn’t the kind of nothing you saw while staring at the inside of your eyelid. But empty nothing. No thoughts. Just gray. Like a dirty blizzard.
Eventually I go somewhere. When, I don’t know. Where, a church. One of those massive contemporary ones that looked more like a concert hall. There was a young band—teenagers I guess—rocking out on some holy shit. I was far from stage, but one of the lead singers, some young brunette, had curves nice enough to be noticed from a distance, and all I wanted was to taste her body. Her voice was killer though, and the band sounded pretty decent; change the lyrics and I probably would’ve downloaded the album. My left foot tapped along with the thick thud of the bass pedal as the song told me to lift my hands and let Him take me under His guidance. My hands stayed in my pockets, my foot continued its rhythm.
I would only go to church for my mom’s sake, never really bought into the whole “I am powerless and must give up every ounce of control I might have and give it to some dude that supposedly exists” thing. I still went with her, though. She constantly worried about me and my friends being teenagers and smoking drugs and fucking chicks without protection and leaving for days without a phone call and dropping out of school. Typical stuff. She worried too much, but that wasn’t true either.
Mom and I sat in the upper deck, and I was staring at the top of some kid’s head in the row in front of us, his black hair slimy and slick with goop. He wasn’t standing like everyone else. Instead, he was rocking back and forth in his chair. I wasn’t sure if he was epileptic or some shit and it made me really uncomfortable. I glanced over to mom to back up my discomfort, but her eyes were closed and her hands were raised up towards the sky with her palms open. Her face was red and wet with tears.
I looked back down and saw his hands moving quickly, but with some semblance of order, as if the movements were choreographed. On each side of the stage the song lyrics scrolled down large screens and then the obvious dawned on me: dude was fucking deaf. He was signing the lyrics, singing with his hands. How could he hear it? He must’ve felt it; the bass pounded through my chest too. Was he feeling Him? I wanted to know. Eventually, I stopped caring; I wasn’t feeling it. Him. Whatever. I wanted Her. The singer.
Hours or days later, I told the police everything. Although it wasn’t much. I wanted to die for no good reason and failed miserably. They told me a driver called the police from the bridge and E.M.T.s were already parked and prepared at the river bank.
“Who knows I’m here?”
“We left a message with your mother,” the officer with a bushy moustache said. “Anyone else? Friends? Priest? Boss?”
“Thanks,” I replied.
I drifted back to sleep and felt my mother with me. She sat in the vinyl chair and it made noises I never heard and she cried into her hands for a time too long to measure. She screamed and smashed her fist against the wall and yelled in my face and broke the small rolling table next to my bed. She also touched me softly as only a mom can. She dragged her wrinkled hand along my face and kissed my forehead with her cracked, chapped lips. I swear I could feel the salt from her tears rolling down my face.
When I woke up, she wasn’t there. But damn it I knew she had been. I had a new table wheeled in that afternoon and there were imprints on the vinyl.
She’ll be back, I thought. She wasn’t like me and I needed to tell her that.
A couple days later I woke up and the thin curtain on my left was pulled out. The lights behind it were bright and presented the silhouette of a fat man, although it could’ve been a woman. But then I heard a grunt and it cemented his fate as a “he.” He remained still for hours, and I watched him do nothing for the entire first afternoon. Although he did do something. He moaned and cried as if his organs were in a tightening vice grip.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He continued his moaning and crying.
Fuck you, I thought. Just trying to help. Although what could I have done? I couldn’t even reach the damn curtain to pull it back and see him. I envisioned him looking like a blob, just a pile of glub without a neck. He made me sick.
Maybe I made him sick. Maybe he wanted a glimpse of my silhouette in order to make similar assumptions. Of course, with the lighting, mine wasn’t visible, which is probably why he wouldn’t answer me. Why would he accept help from someone he couldn’t see?
If he could see, what would my silhouette have looked like? Probably like nothing, my thin build resembling bedding or pillows, not a man. It was hard to be sure. There’s only so much he could have seen with the curtain closed.
Brian Druckenmiller earned his Master of Arts in Writing from Coastal Carolina University where he now teaches English composition courses, and plans on earning his terminal degree in creative writing sometime in the not-so-distant future. He currently has a short story in Fiction Vortex online, and many others in slush piles across the country.
Romeo sent this text to Juliette: “Goodnight Julie.” She didn’t respond. It was their first night not sleeping together in two years. He didn’t know what she was thinking.
The next morning, he had to return to the suburb where they lived to get the rest of his stuff. They agreed he would call before he left, and he did so beside the stairs leading down to the subway. The call went to Juliette’s voice mail.
Romeo took two trains. When he got outside at the appallingly familiar bus depot, he tried to call again, and again the call went to voice mail. He became worried, decided he didn’t want to wait for the bus, so he started walking toward the home they had made together. On the bridge, about a mile from their apartment, he stopped and sent another text: “Here. Walking. See u soon.”
As he walked past everything they had known, past the florists and cafés and supermarkets and banks and pharmacies and bakeries, past the travel agency and the post office and the magazine stand and the car wash and the Portuguese butcher and the Chinese restaurant, The Rising Sun, where they had eaten countless times, past the Pakistani convenience store where he always bought the Sri Lankan beer they liked, one thought consumed him: Suicide. He thought of Juliette, dead in their apartment, having taken her life, the sadness and pain of their separation, the longevity and darkness of night, having been too much for her.
He walked faster.
It would be perfect, her knowing he had to return, him still having keys, the scene he would find, the destruction and revenge and love. He thought of his grandmother, her coming home one day to the house where she lived with her father, her calling out for him and getting no response, her walking up the stairs and seeing the light in the bathroom and her saying “Pop?” one last time, her hesitant opening of door, then red and gun and nightmare. His great grandfather, he too knew of discovery, had planned it for maximum effect, an incomparably harsh and selfish act, but one full of the deepest intimacy and love imaginable.
Romeo was closer, turning, passing the houses he knew so well, passing the bus stop and crossing the crosswalk, hearing and then seeing the children on the playground of the school across from where he and Juliette had lived. From the street, he glanced up into their windows, saw the drawn shades. He opened the gates. In the courtyard, he glanced up again, thought of serenades, poetry, of beginnings and endings, death, and then he was opening the door to the building, taking the stairs two at a time, his heart racing, her name and every memory’s trace ready to be cried out in a sound he could scarcely conceive himself making, though he was prepared—he knew how he felt, what he was capable of—and he didn’t knock, just put the key in and turned it and opened the door and there was Juliette, alive and beautiful, seated at her desk, surfing the Internet with a bud in each ear, his bags neatly stacked beside their bed.
Image credit: Francesco Hayez (1791–1882), “The Marriage of Romeo and Juliet” (1830)
Kevin Tosca’s stories have appeared in Fleeting, Litro, Bartleby Snopes, The Bicycle Review, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and elsewhere. He lives in France where he is a trapeze artist with a troupe from the 20th arrondissement of Paris. Find him and his published work at www.kevintosca.com and on Facebook.
Sawtooth sky reins in its pomegranates
and the carnival shuts down.
We duck behind the House of Horrors
for in-touch, downright, face-to-face clarity.
The ground’s a popcorn mess,
stepped over and on,
near a chain link fence to keep out
what inevitably wants in:
a man with a cartoon axe,
then a lady with a halo for a head,
unflanked but expectant,
a mouth that is not a door
but a chant, and in the distance
a radio broadcasts
what’s red-blooded and American—
no secret society, no wind,
no whole or scene or parts,
just what’s left after premature E,
not the E in evacuate or in escape,
the carnage an unnamable E—
for now it’s all straps
and buckles and snaps,
what’s bluesy and small-town true.
Over our shoulders the Tilt-A-Whirl,
quiet now, the Zipper stuck in midair,
Lucky Cups, the Shooting Gallery,
Skee-Ball and Clown Splash,
a row of open mouths in mid-vowel,
all evacuated, and of course
the Flying Elephants
that go nowhere really,
the whole world standing by,
the exact vanishing point obscure,
what little we knew.
Poem Ending with Six Words from a Women’s Room Stall
Out there a litany—
angry gods, indigestible,
on an endless loop,
the insistence of each story
a bone held to a chest,
barbed wire against a cheek,
backspun and pervasive,
by the seasonal drink:
lemon zest and grains
of paradise, rare pepper
and thirteenth-century spice
poured into talk aligned
like portable bruises, barstools
a seating chart,
numbered but not exact.
In here a lament—
the sobering light,
industrial hand soap,
towel on an endless loop
to say clearly what’s up:
we are not the first
but only the latest,
the science of obscurity
with techno piped in,
happily siloed among fields
where salt rushes to find
its way back to ocean,
an underwater dance,
angular in nature, not glass.
It would be faster
to stroke the blade
of a hacksaw.
It would be more pleasant
to drive to the river’s edge.
It would be easier
to dig for gods
in the backyard
where shells once grew feathers
among limestone and ash.
But we have swallowed our tongues de rigueur, as is the custom,
and here, in the garment district,
it’s a never-ending mirror,
a box where I may linger,
illusioned and lost.
Teresa Leo is the author of two books of poetry, Bloom in Reverse (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014) and The Halo Rule (Elixir Press, 2008), winner of the Elixir Press Editors’ Prize. Her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, Women’s Review of Books, New Orleans Review, Barrow Street, The Florida Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, the Leeway Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, as well as the Richard Peterson Poetry Prize from Crab Orchard Review. She works at the University of Pennsylvania.