Regardless of which creative field you look at, there is always talk about process. This postmodern world has rendered form and content inextricable in many ways, so when I look at work, it is always the same question that comes to mind: how does the form inform the content? Are there traces of the process in the work the artist presents?
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Much of the writing that I love does not humor such inquisition. Even lines related through a colloquial voice are likely to have been subjected to meticulous editing, were crafted in the grand scheme of the piece. Without access to the revision process of admired work, I often find my own attempts to write plagued—paralyzed, even—by self doubt. This project began very much like every other attempt, which is to say, by an overwhelming of imagery and inspiration from the world, and the unsuccessful attempt to wrestle it into the screen.
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In order to contain some of the ideas and connections speeding through my mind (which came and went at a much quicker pace than the “official” writing), I began to collect these shorthand notes in a document. In the first submission for class critique, my professor commented on the lyrical interest of the notation. Encouraged in taking a more organic approach to writing, I proceeded to generate both texts simultaneously, that of the short story, and its primal fragments. It wasn’t long before I took to the concept of presenting a finished product in conjunction with the process that transpired to put it there. Seeing behind the curtain is something I always desire, so enabling this experience for the reader felt only natural.
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What happened next validated my trust in this approach. I noticed that the notation moved much quicker than the short story, which developed from a more painstaking trial. The notation came about impulsively, in rapid spurts of inspiration. Instantaneous transcription of the thoughts preserved not only their energy, but the honesty in their expression. Where the story concealed its relation to me, distorted the truth in its transformation to fiction, the notation shrieked with the concerns and hurts I was scared to voice, or declare important enough to be read by others.
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Soon, I had spreads filled with “notes”, while the short story remained untouched. The most unexpected consequence of writing in this way was also the most poignant. The moment of revelation for me while writing doubled as the climax of the story. The texts’ trajectory—the rising action, climax, resolution (likewise reflected in the pacing of its visual design), is essentially a documentation of my own trajectory while writing. Giving the notes a voice forced me to listen to the emotional aftermath of revisiting my birth country, and recognize that perhaps my raw story was more important to tell than one seamlessly crafted.
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In the end, though the notes pushed the short story from visibility, the information they relayed served to develop the fiction, flat though it was on its own. The short story likewise provided context for the notation. The seemingly disparate parallel narratives formed a unified whole, a fossilized process.
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.
I remember everything but in an order I cannot control.
It was suicide season. I was 14 and I couldn’t believe
my mother’s thrift, like she had missed a few zeros.
It was in a room where everyone was known for something.
The doctor was wearing a goddamn double-breasted suit.
Later, I walked far away while pondering
What do I have to do to live to 15?
I passed that neighbor who was always doing something
ugly with his land. He asked me a question and when
I quoted Proust he asked, Who is that? A family friend?
Now the neighbor’s fighting the hose. I keep counting
his trucks, thinking I am missing one.
What if, for today, I touch everyone I see?
I’m not afraid to hit someone if they need it.
Patricia Colleen Murphy teaches at Arizona State University where she is the founding editor of Superstition Review. Her writing has appeared in many magazines including Calyx, The Massachusetts Review, New Orleans Review, Seattle Review, Cimarron Review, Kalliope, Quarterly West, American Poetry Review, Green Mountains Review, Indiana Review, and The Iowa Review. Her poems have received awards from The Madison Review, The Bellevue Literary Review,Gulf Coast, and others. She runs LitMagLunch.com where she writes reviews of Lunches and Literary Magazines.
It has been seven days since we’ve run out of meat and vegetables in the freezer and most of the cans and boxes and jars in the pantry. My husband reminds me that we have not run out of money. He says this as he leans against our stainless steel refrigerator that matches the stainless steel stove and the stainless steel dishwasher and the stainless steel built-in microwave. Of course I know he’s right; I also know we probably never will. No, we will always have too much, and the people on the charity websites will never have enough, and frankly if I have to spend another afternoon hauling reluctant children and unforgiving paper-or-plastic bags I might just lose it once and for all. I’m not sure I can ever go to the supermarket again.
Instead I do my food shopping through the aisles of my crowded brain. I push the cart with the wobbling front wheel, and the metallic saliva glaze of its handle coats my palms. The refrigerated stink of raw fish hangs overhead. I push down the plastic child seat even when my daughter isn’t with me, so that a jar of tomato sauce sails through a leg hole and splatters at my feet.
Those shoes still smell like last week’s spaghetti night; I know I should just throw them out already. Which sucks, because I really liked those shoes.
The smallest one doesn’t talk much. She grunts and pulls her knees up under the tray of her highchair and scowls at her brothers. Her small feet are plump and dimpled, so how hungry can she be. Compared to those poor children in Myanmar, or Sierra Leone, I mean really. Some of them never even develop the strength to walk.
She begins to whine.
“Talk,” I say. “Use words.” She is two and she has to learn. Last month, her pediatrician raised her eyebrows and wrote down the name of a speech therapist.
“Hung-ee,” she says.
“Hungry,” I correct. I unstick the half-chewed piece of wheat bread from her tray. The crust has started to go stale, but the center is soft. “Bread. Eat.”
“No,” she says. She is shaking her head and her black curls bounce. She points to the kitchen stove. “Hung-ee.”
The boys, all three, kick their feet underneath the table and smile and eat. They know how to make the best of things. The middle one leans over to kiss my hand and transfers a small arc of crumbs.
“I don’t know what you want,” I say to my daughter, who has begun smacking her palms flat-clap-loud against her tray. I look at my husband. He is twisting the metal tie of the bread bag around his pinkie, forming a perfect spiral, half a strand of DNA. “Tell Daddy what you want. Go on.”
He doesn’t look up. “I think she wishes she had something else to eat, Leah.”
“I’ll go to the supermarket tomorrow,” I say. “I promise.”
We chew in silence for a little while longer and then the oldest one says, “But you always say that.”
I have noticed that my children say always quite a lot. I mean, consider their exaggeration. Perhaps one’s perspective is distorted to scale. This would certainly explain how my husband keeps so calm. He is six foot four and three hundred pounds, give or take. The man is downright unflappable.
Day twelve. The refrigerator is almost empty now, except for his beer. There’s only our Brita pitcher, a quart of milk, lemon juice, an abandoned pork chop, ricotta with blue-green spots, the remaining unsalted butter from the peach pie I baked over the summer. I don’t think I have replaced the box of baking soda since we moved in here. The refrigerator always smells the same.
I look at the clock. He’s going to be home any minute. I should run to the corner store to pick up a few cups of ramen at least. But the smallest is still in a T-shirt and diaper. Her hair is a mess. My hair is a mess. I am wearing a stained bathrobe that was new and perfect last Christmas and I have no idea where this day went.
When we spoke on the phone earlier today, he was almost angry. “Just pick up a few things,” he said. “Not a whole big trip. Just a few things. We need to eat a real meal tonight, Leah.”
I considered it and cried.
He softened and shushed me and cooed from his cubicle. “Just a few things. Chicken, maybe. Some broccoli.”
I suggested that he go instead.
He hung up, but not before he cursed quietly, then apologized, then said, “Honestly, I don’t have time for this. I love you. Goodbye.”
When he gets home, dinner is still not dinner—but oddly nobody, not even him, not even the smallest, complains this time. My husband is all white shirt and loosened tie and weary forehead. My big boys smell like playground sweat. I want to gather them all into my arms. I want to copy and paste this day into tomorrow. Even the sound of them chewing, usually so abrasive, is bearable tonight.
“Mommy,” the smallest one chirps, holding up her toast, the unsalted butter dripping down her wrist. “Ook. Eat.”
She is getting so much better at talking.
My husband says, “I see you vacuumed,” his eyes scanning the portion of the floor that is still crumbless. He smiles, and I do too. “Thank you for doing that.”
We finish our meal in silence. I lay down on the couch and rest my eyes while my husband puts the children to bed, and when he comes downstairs we finish the beer together and make love on that same crumbless part of the floor.
Day twenty. I promised.
After the older two left for school, I awoke to the smell of urine. The smaller two both wet their beds. There were great, seeping stains on their sheets, and I found them each resting in their own waste, wriggling, whining, their cheeks chapped and wet with it. I stripped their bodies and their beds and herded them naked into the bathroom. How they thrashed and soaked the floor today, rendered the bathmat dripping, a stray magazine warped. The smallest one still won’t let me rinse her hair without an angry, drowning protest. She jumps to her feet and gasps for air and rubs the soap into her eyes as if this does not happen almost every day, as if her hair has not been washed and rinsed almost seven hundred times and counting.
Every time, I tell her, “Put your head back and close your eyes.” The boy complies and I point to him and say, “See? What a big boy your brother is. Aren’t you a big girl?” She just stares up at me with red-rimmed eyes.
Today, I wrapped her in her old pink hooded towel and hugged her baby soap body to my chest. The boy stayed behind and splashed as I dressed her. He drained the tub to a mere puddle and laid flat on his back so that the water was just over his ears, and he shouted out over and again, unaware of how loud his voice carried above his personal sea. “Look at me, Mommy. I’m swimming!”
When he quieted I felt relief before anything else. I listened for the next splash to signal he was still among the living. I just needed five more minutes to do the smallest’s hair. She reached up to take the comb from my hand, and I wrestled it away and rapped her head with it. I worked the comb through the wet tangles that remained, doing my best to grab the hair at the root to avoid pulling against her scalp. She whimpered. I shushed.
“Oh stop,” I said. “I’m not hurting you. I’m almost done.”
Almost was not soon enough. The boy decided to get out of the tub on his own, and in so doing managed to sidestep the bathmat. There was the terrible thud of bone against ceramic, and then the pause, and then the wail.
I am still holding him on my lap now, nearly six hours later. He would not leave my embrace all day. His bottom lip is half bitten through, and as he dozes through his naptime hours I apply the bag of ice in careful intervals. The smallest one has refused to sleep at all. In her mad unreason she is impatient with the television, with her bowl of ancient cheese crackers, with her toys. Her dolls are all undressed, their skirts and barrettes and panties scattered across the living room floor, their hair mashed with yellow crumbs and drool.
I think I might have really gone today.
“Man cannot live on bread alone,” my oldest says on the first day of the second month. He is standing beside me in the kitchen, smiling and absently pinching the fat that hugs my hips just above the waistline of my jeans. He must have overheard this from my husband’s joking a few days earlier, and though I want to laugh I am overpowered by a tic of superiority.
“That doesn’t mean we need peanut butter and jelly on it, and then we’ll be fine,” I retort. “That’s from the Bible. You shouldn’t joke about the Bible.”
“I’m sorry, Mom,” he says. His smile disappears and he looks down at his socks, inside of which he is rubbing his big and second toes together. I want to hug him, but my arms won’t move.
“Man cannot live on bread alone,” I say, “but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
He nods his head, then stills. He asks, “Is the Lord saying anything now?”
There is a gaunt young woman from Haiti on the Internet. She is a girl, really, and there are all sorts of pictures of her and of the other people from her village. One is of her crying amidst a huddle of women and the story reads that her ten-month-old son is dead. He was the width of a small branch, and he withered away. In a full-length portrait, I see that she has twin newborns tied to her midsection with a large swath of fabric. Her four-year-old son is the size of my smallest, half of what he should be.
The white people from the charity are bringing metal bowls of water and mixing grains with it, and a group of mothers spoon indistinct mush into the children’s mouths. One of the bowls of water is tipped to the children’s lips. As they drink some of the water escapes and runs down their faces, making streams in their desert cheeks. In another picture the girl has knelt beside her four-year-old and the two stare into the camera. Neither of them smile, but the mother’s eyes are speaking. They are writing books that nobody will read.
I fold my laptop closed.
The corner store has a small shelf of groceries. Very few items among them are perishable. Nothing is ever on sale, but it is only one block from our house and it is small and warm and everything I want to buy I can carry with my hands. The children cannot get lost; I don’t even have to watch them. They walk to the newsstand and turn the pages of the magazines and Mr. Raj doesn’t mind at all. He gives them pretzel rods from a jar he keeps on the counter. I don’t know if he sells the pretzel rods or eats them or what and frankly I don’t care. They like Mr. Raj and they keep quiet, savoring the salt crystals and catching up on news about Kim Kardashian while I buy my expensive bread.
The girl from Haiti is with me. I don’t think anyone else sees her, but she is standing right beside me. She is nursing one of her twins inside the wrap and watching as I pick over the varieties. Potato. Wheat. Wonder. I look over at the suckling baby and I remember when it was so easy to feed my children, and for a moment I am jealous. When my oldest was just a baby, I could sit in peace and be drained and filled all at once. Everything was simpler then; so much more time and energy. The baby could poop through three layers of clothing and onto his car seat in the middle of church, and we’d laugh about it for days. If we ate toast for dinner, it was silly and romantic. We shopped for our food with baskets, not monstrous metal carts. The baby drank from me and grew fatter every day. Hunger never crossed our minds.
The girl from Haiti interrupts my reverie and places a loaf of bread in my hands. I tuck it underneath my arm and we approach the children at the newsstand. The smallest one has fished out a women’s magazine and is holding it up for me; on the cover is a chocolate cake, frosted and garnished with berries, surrounded by Christmas ornaments and glitter. The large print reads, “Eat, Drink, and Be Skinny.”
“Hung-ee,” she says. I can see that she has licked the cover, and she screams when I take the magazine from her. The boy chimes in and their voices swirl around a single carrying note. I do not have the patience for this today. I give Mr. Raj the money for the bread and the milk and the magazine. The girl from Haiti smiles and shakes her head at my wailing children. I am too embarrassed to respond. She begins to walk home with us, but when she stops to burp one of the fussing twins we leave her lagging behind.
I reason with myself: if she will come with me, I’ll go. She is here now, nursing the twins on the couch, and I sit in the recliner. Her four-year-old plays the quiet game better than any of my children ever have. I don’t want to tell her this, but in my dream last night her baby visited me, not one of the twins but the twig baby, the dead baby. But he is not a twig anymore. This is the part I almost say out loud: that he is fat and happy with all the other babies in heaven. He is not hungry anymore, nor is he alone. There are so very many of them.
My husband calls and asks what I am doing and I tell him, “nothing,” because really what can I say. He sighs and murmurs and hangs up the phone. He has stopped asking the other question. He eats like a king at work, imports the remnants in greasy brown bags for the children, and maybe he thinks I don’t know this. I can smell his lunchtime haunts in his hair at night.
The girl from Haiti has turned the twins onto their stomachs, one atop each of her thighs. She is patting their backs and singing to them in Creole. The four-year-old sits beside her. They look up when my smallest comes toddling into the room, carrying pages from her magazine. She has taken to sleeping with them. She places a crumpled, glossy rendition of a roasted turkey on the couch beside our visitors. I think she sees the four-year-old, too, because she smiles at him and points to the magazine meal and says, “Eat.” He looks at the turkey and then up at his mother.
“Okay, I’ll go,” I blurt out. “I promise I’ll go, but only if you come with us.” Before she can answer, I jump up from the recliner. I take the stairs two at a time. I can’t look at her face; I call out over my shoulder instead. “I just have to go wake the boy from his nap first. I’ll be right back.”
I snap down the cart’s plastic child seat and ease the smallest into it. The girl from Haiti walks beside us, her boy and mine in between. The children are quiet as we browse. In the produce aisle I hand them each an apple; I know we shouldn’t, but we let them eat. They mash the crisp, white flesh into their mouths. My daughter holds hers out to me.
“Apple,” she says, I think, or maybe she said, “Happy.” She is holding out the fruit and waiting.
I lean forward to take a bite. The taste is a jolt, a brilliant red-green tang. I steal a second, and a third, and then she pulls the apple away.
As the children’s teeth approach the cores, I reach into my bag for a baby wipe to clean their hands and faces. I notice that someone has uncrumpled the pages from the magazine and tucked them into a zippered pocket. Turkey and stuffing, candied yams and green bean casserole. Even the chocolate cake from the cover.
I look at the girl from Haiti. She nods.
Our pace quickens. Up and down each aisle, it quickens. She walks with her arms open wide. I push the cart.
Together we buy all of it, every single ingredient from every single recipe. We toss the bags and jars and packages against the clanging metal, and the children clap and squeal. We cannot stop when we have enough for dinner. We work frantically, until we have emptied every shelf and every freezer and every bin. The girl from Haiti finally smiles, and I smile too. We look around at our handiwork, at the empty store, at the brilliant shining nothing. The abundance that surrounds us has found its way out. We have done our jobs and set it free. Not even the cart can contain us.
Rachel Estrada Ryan is a writer and graphic designer. Her freelance consulting firm, Both is Better LLC (www.bothisbetter.com), serves authors, nonprofits, the health care sector, and businesses large and small. Over the past decade, she’s written more than forty essays and articles for local, corporate, and national newsstand publications. This is her first published piece of fiction. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and lives in New York with her husband and three children (and one more on the way).
A bridge cuts a straight line across the sky, connecting one wooded area of Richmond, Virginia, to another. Imagine a bridge and you’ll see a parabola, the structure’s midsection arching high in the air as though the water below were molten lava. The imaginary people traveling from one side to another are lofted as high as possible, lest they be burned alive or, more realistically, drowned dead. The bridge in Richmond isn’t like that. It has the distinct and exclusive purpose of transporting trains, whose multiple cars and shifting cargo call for complete flatness, a slope of zero. The Richmond bridge, classified as a railway bridge, has no rise in the spot equidistant from the shores of the James River below, as the six kids currently huddled at its center could tell you.
There are exactly three reasons for someone to walk across that bridge: to get to the rope swing at its center, to laugh in the face of danger, and to pass the time. Those reasons were more than enough to fill a decade-old Geo with six teenagers, three boys and three girls, dead set on leaving the suburban heart of Richmond behind and watching shopping centers and highways give way to thickets and dirt roads. As they stepped onto the bridge’s forbidden tracks to a chorus of “Do it!” and giggles, they were certain they were making something of their Saturday and of themselves. But now, the jerky movements of their winter wear-covered bodies make it clear that they’re struggling against some unseen force. Perhaps that’s to be expected; all teenagers are.
One kid, a girl, stands behind the others. She glares urgently through a curtain of black hair. “Squeeze in!” she yells, but though a train is coming—they can hear the faint, then steady, chugging over the sounds of birds and rushing water—her friends won’t let her carve out a space for herself.
“Liz. Stop fucking screaming!”
“Guys, come on. Squeeze in!” Liz takes a frantic look down. Her graying shoelaces are shaking. The train is close.
“Liz, shut up. Someone’s going to hear us,” Jackie says, blinking her blonde eyelashes boredly. She’d only come along for the ride and then sauntered along the tracks, toeing the tiny cracks between the bridge’s metal slabs all the way to the center, because Jackie knew that everyone wanted Jackie there.
Then they heard the train, and cramming into the shoulder—a tiny lip the size of a crow’s nest cut in half, offering just enough room for two people to stand comfortably—was Jackie’s idea. She’s the first one in. “Guys,” she says, facing the forest of auburn leaves beyond the water. “We better not get caught. We’ll be in so much fucking trouble.” Feeling something pressed against her backside, she turns and scowls back at Mike. He’s the second one in.
Liz looks down. Half a foot to her right: the tracks. Tied to a beam twenty feet ahead: the rope swing, hanging loose and lonely like a strand of hair. The plan is for Jake to swing from it, sailing his skinny body into the freezing river one hundred feet below. That’s what all the punk kids do on the weekends.
Liz is punk in some ways, in how she looks out hard and unsmiling through black bangs, and in the hardcore metal shows where she thrashes around on Friday nights. “Where are you going?” her father had asked last Friday, pulling his glasses down to his mustache. “The Camel!” she’d shouted back, slamming the door, thinking she shouldn’t have slammed it so hard but at least she’d communicated this time. On other nights it’s sneaking out, buying weed, locking her bedroom door and playing Dead Kennedys so loud the house shakes. These are punk things to do.
But she isn’t about to swing into the James River. The river’s where she’d gotten caught in the rapids last summer and had to be pulled to shore by an older boy with back acne and skintight cutoff jeans. He placed her on the shore of James River while all the punk kids watched. She hiccuped dirty water and felt the rocks piercing between the straps of her bathing suit and looked up. From her angle, the bridge looked as arched as an angry cat. “You good?” the boy said through a fog, his scowl replaced by concern. Liz took a deep inhale and closed her eyes. “Yo, girl, you good?” She smiled in the sun.
Jackie clutches a beam and sighs extra-audibly. Mike watches as Jackie lifts a wrist to her beestung lips, bites a loose thread on her corduroy jacket, and tears it free. He shifts behind her but doesn’t blink.
Suddenly she grabs the beam again. The bridge is shaking.
Liz whips back. The train is fifty yards away, a sideways skyscraper hurtling toward her. Terror—not the goose-pimply embarrassment of being called on in Spanish class when she’s zoned out, not the fear of failing her driver’s ed exam that needles her everyday—overcomes her. She can’t breathe. She screams. She takes another frantic look down at the tracks. She could reach out and touch them, can imagine their jagged rust against her cracking fingertips. The train, extending a few feet beyond the tracks, will mow her down like a bug on a windshield. And she wouldn’t be any less deserving than a bug. What’s she done so far? Why shouldn’t she get hit by a train? But she shouldn’t get hit by a train. Her family would miss her, a lot. And she has big plans: becoming a great artist, moving the hell out of Virginia, starting a band, getting a boyfriend. Let’s say she doesn’t get hit by this train. Let’s say she squeezes in somehow, gets a second chance. She could be a good kid who steers clear of danger and of dangerous people. She won’t push into the world’s seedy pockets. She won’t disobey her parents, she won’t disappoint herself. She swears she could do that. She will do that, she wills herself to do that.
Liz tries to squeeze herself between Brandon’s and Melissa’s puffy coats, but there is no space to squeeze into. She shouts at them to please push forward. There is no forward to push into, they shout back.
“Stop screaming!” Jackie screams.
Liz holds tight around Melissa’s waist. She stops screaming and holds her breath.
“I’m always almost dying,” Liz says years later, her eyes peeking out from behind near-black bangs. “The train, the river, a couple car accidents. I’ve almost died”—she pauses, thinking—”five times.
“But you know what’s funny about the train?” She looks down at the salad she’s eating—a kale salad because this is California, where Liz now works as an artist—and stabs a few pieces of lettuce with her fork. “My dad was a conductor. He was an Amtrak conductor for twenty-five years.”
She chews, swallows. Then she pulls her bangs aside to make eye contact and make this point, this fifteen-year-old’s point now in its own sixteenth year, absolutely clear: “If I’d died that way, he would’ve killed me.”
The wind slaps Liz’s face and sends her hair flying. She doesn’t look back at the train. The people inside the train, occupied by magazines or thoughts of what’s in store for them in Washington, D.C., don’t look out at her. Inside the train it’s quiet, save for the soft murmurs of conversation and noise leaked from headphones. Outside the train the screech registers for the six huddled kids—the last one in propelled into the mass of bodies, safe—as all the noise in the world.
Then silence. The hopscotching of Liz’s shoelaces calms to a tremor, then stillness.
Jake reaches into his coat, no longer planning to remove it for a swing into the lake, and pulls out a joint. The flame shakes in his hand, creating a jumpy halo of gas, then finds the paper and the weed. He hands it to Liz. As she inhales, her hard eyes pin down his smirking ones. His chattering teeth split his usually closed-lipped grin into a grimace.
The six of them, three boys and three girls, walk briskly back down the tracks and breathe white clouds into the electric air. Then they pile into Jen’s car and drive back to their neighborhoods, one by one. The work of carving a space for themselves in the world will continue from their bedrooms, with the doors shut and the weed floating out the windows and Dead Kennedys shaking the whole house and setting them free.
Mary van Ogtrop’s prose and poetry have appeared in the Haverford Review and The Spur Journal. Her current work investigates the boundaries of nonfiction through experiments with fact-based storytelling. A Delaware native, Mary currently lives in San Francisco, where she works at music service Rdio as a senior copywriter while pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of San Francisco.
Image credit: Railway Bridge over the James River by rvaphotodude on Flickr
“VULNERARY” AND AN ART WITCH
by Laura Mecklenburger
“Porcelain Armor” (detail) Dimensions visible: about 10” x 12” x 2” Unglazed porcelain, hand dyed wool yarn, bookbinder’s thread. 2013.
When I try to describe my artwork to others, I often say that I make ritual objects and installation art. But I didn’t set out to make installation art from the beginning, and I certainly didn’t expect, when I decided to make art my career, that it was going to explicitly include magic and ritual. I still blush when I tell people I am an initiated witch. I am faintly surprised at myself that I have made such an intimate part of my life so public. But the path I took to reach this work has felt inevitable and rewarding. As my favorite author, Neil Gaiman, told the graduating class at the University of the Arts here in Philadelphia, “The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside . . . [is] the moment you may be starting to get it right.”
I didn’t plan this either, but after spending two years building a portfolio on my own in Philadelphia, I spent four years in graduate school for fine art, in three different ceramics programs. While making art nearly all day every day for that long, with little privacy, losing sleep, and arguing for my work in critiques and on paper, I realized that my art had to be personally fulfilling, as well as “good,” to give me the energy and courage to continue. Art school can help distill your work into a clear and focused voice, and research and experience can teach you what it takes to “make it” in the art world, but I knew that neither the quality of my art nor the success of a career could make me happy by themselves. One can be famous and brilliant and still miserable.
“Vulnerary” Dimensions: variable. Terracotta with india ink, porcelain, black stoneware, steel, linen, spices, quinoa, mixed media. 2013 Edwin W. Zoller Gallery, Penn State Photo credit: Negar Fadaei
“Vulnerary” Photo credit: Negar Fadaei
I believe (and positive psychology research backs me up) that one of the main keys to happiness in life is to find something that comes naturally to you, and then offer it to others who need or want it, and I don’t just mean for its market value. It could be heart surgery, office management, baking really good cupcakes, or union organizing. It doesn’t matter how much it pays, or how much society rewards it, or whether you’re performing in stadiums or raising a single child, as long as you feel like you’re offering something from your deepest self that others need. Okay; easier said than done. “I am making art” is far too vague. What kind of art comes from my deepest self and is rewarding in this way? If art is my life, what kind of a life do I want? It took me years to ask these questions honestly, and to begin to answer them.
I fell in love with art as a very young child, and it is in my childhood that I began to find answers. I’ve always found some of my deepest satisfaction in making things as gifts for those I care about, especially if it was something they were going to use. Also, I’ve always admired artists—including songwriters, authors, and filmmakers—who created and wrote things that deeply resonated with others. I craved art that makes you feel less alone, that works as protective armor or pulls the floor out from under you, art that feels like it has colors you’ve never seen before. Art that opens a door and makes life bigger or richer or stranger, somehow. And often, when my favorite artists make this world-deepening art, it starts to form a community around them, or it is in response to a close community, and community and artist become a kind of symbiotic system. This is something else that positive psychology research considers a vital way to happiness. Even if I’m going to spend much of my time alone in the studio (which I love to do), I want to be connected and reaching out, as well.
“Transition Cradle” Dimensions: 35” x 37” x 10” Salt-fired porcelain, stoneware, thread, wood, sea urchin spines, shells, rose petals, cloves, surgical gauze. 2012.
“Transition Cradle” (detail)
Graduate school was a lonely experience for me. True, I had incredible new friends and mentors, and the school communities were vibrant. However, the work and stress made it difficult for me to keep in touch with family and older friends, and the competition and internal turmoil sometimes made me feel isolated and alienated among people who didn’t yet know me well. I had to move too often. I felt uprooted. At the same time, a few of my dearest friends and my family, far away, were going through extremely rough times—with rape, suicide attempts, and cancer—and I felt helpless to support them. I wasn’t able to be home as long as I wished, with my grieving family, as we dealt with the death of my grandfather. I watched the Occupy movement unfold online, wishing desperately that my own personal goals weren’t keeping me from participating on the street. I worried for my friends who were Occupying as activists and medics, some of them transwomen and people of color who were especially vulnerable to police attack or harassment. I felt a fierce tenderness and empathy for the struggles going on around me, and fury at the structures that caused them.
“Conversion in the First Matter” Dimensions: about 7’ x 5’ x 5’ Stoneware, polymer clay, bronze, steel, watercolor on cloth and paper, sea salt, quartz and magnetite crystals. 2012.
“Conversation in the First Matter” (detail)
In response, I started making my art more and more about relationships and community. I made an alchemy-inspired piece to help people going through difficult personal transformations, based on an imagined ritual using the human digestive system. I built shrines dedicated to the protection of loved ones and vulnerable communities, especially relating to queer and trans issues and survivors of assault, using the forms of butterfly chrysalises and insect larvae. I made porcelain armor to shield people from emotional attack. I made ceramic and mixed media amulets and ritual vessels designed for specific people I knew. Finally, I turned the gallery into a temple with a shrine dedicated to everything that viewers/participants wanted to protect and nurture, and defense against harm. I called the shrine “Vulnerary,” an old medical term meaning anything that soothes and aids in healing, such as aloe vera.
“Vulnerary” was a culmination of nearly everything I learned in graduate school and in Philadelphia. In several ways, it was a blueprint for how I want my work to continue. “Vulnerary” was a ten foot long, four foot tall, over 700-pound terracotta shrine in the form of weathered, rotting tree roots. It had realistic wood-like detail and a glowing, deep reddish tone created by washes of india ink over the bare orange clay. I spent three weeks barefoot, coil-building its facade in my studio with coils of clay the size of small pythons. Hidden in crevices, among the roots, and hanging from protrusions were small amulets, talismans, and garlands that I hand made out of porcelain, spices, and other media. These represented specific hopes, dreams, things to be protected, and protective charms. Multiple sharpened steel spikes emerged from the top with papers impaled on them representing things that people wanted to defeat. Japanese incense burned from the shrine’s sides, ritual vessels held mysterious contents, and a vast sweep of black linen cloth stretched down the back of the shrine and across the room. There was a pillowy, white cushion underneath the shrine for people to kneel upon, edged in piles of cloves and cinnamon. I surrounded the walls with an incantation I had composed and hand written, I worked all night drawing patterns of energies across most of the gallery floor in dry brown quinoa with my bare hands, and I invited people to bring in their own offerings to leave on the shrine during the opening and every day. At the opening, I led a dedication ritual, singing and blessing the shrine with a coven of witches and with the help of a trance-inducing performance by a professional tuba player, my amazing friend Sean Kennedy. The warmly lit gallery became a temple.
I have been forming my own visual and sensory vocabulary to communicate my own experience and practice of magic. The plant and animal sources I use in reality or in image—like real seed pods and bones, or ceramic garlic cloves and hand-sculpted maggots—I research thoroughly. I use them with layers of meaning: scientific, cultural, metaphorical, personal. Certain categories have become fixations of mine. For instance, I know a bit too much about fungi and lichens of all kinds, the life cycles and dwellings of insects, herbal medicine, and the morphology of bones. I also have become particularly focused on religions and magical systems that give me useful frameworks, for instance Shinto, Yoruba, alchemy, and the Judaism with which I was raised. I do my best never to appropriate imagery from others’ beliefs, but instead to honor them. And I try to make sure that my work still has plenty to offer a non-believer.
“Nigredo” Dimensions of installation variable. Ceramic roots: 25”w x 19”h x 15” Unglazed stoneware, polymer clay (not pictured), drawings, found objects. 2011.
This work is never just metaphysical and personal, it is political. By making and promoting ritual art I want to work towards society’s acceptance of the open expression of beliefs and promote respect for traditional and unique craft and art made by every class and gender. I believe that valuing world cultures in art can also influence how we interact with those societies, for instance by respecting intellectual property rights when pharmaceutical companies use indigenous knowledge or by helping to preserve native languages and traditions. If we cling to words like “primitive” and “superstition” and think of people who live in the present as some kind of remnant of the past, we disrespect and dehumanize people and discount efforts to strengthen their communities and rights. This includes every community from the San, to the Hopi, to the Hoodoo root workers, to the traditional Irish, to the Tibetan monks. No one should be seen as backwards for learning and sharing non-Western wisdom. A vision of the world’s future must be an inclusive vision, in art as in everything.
When I made the transition from thinking about my art as metaphorical to actively practicing magic and ritual with it, I felt the way I feel when I’ve lost my voice for a long time and finally get it back. I wrote to my graduate committee that in discarding the framework of surrealism, “My artwork just woke up.” And as I researched to support the validity of what I was doing, I discovered that I was echoing most of art history. Most of the history of art, including its present reality in many parts of the world, is art in the service of religion, magic, and the spiritual world, but contemporary “ritual art” is often marginalized in today’s art world. I am in awe of those artists who are already well-known for making contemporary ritual art, artists like Lucas Samaras, Pedro Reyes, Huang Yong Ping (especially his “House of Oracles” and “Pharmacy” series), installation artist Renee Stout, and Ana Mendieta. The research I did to combat the resistance to my work over the years in graduate school became a passion of mine, itself, and I would love to teach a class in ritual art, history, and critical theory. My oral thesis defense was so long and full of quotes that my graduate committee gently cut me off in the middle, told me I’d said enough, and suggested that my defense was already a course curriculum. I delivered a much shorter version in a lecture about the relevance of contemporary ritual art at the National Conference on Education in the Ceramic Arts (NCECA), and I got an overwhelmingly positive response.
“Wishing Lines” Dimensions: variable. Velvet upholstery trim, construction paper, ribbon, tissue paper, cloves. 2014. at Get Lucid Activist Dance Party Photo credit: TCD Photography:
After graduating with my MFA from Penn State University, I felt that, far more than kilns or residencies, I needed community. So, I moved back to West Philadelphia and devoted myself to my neighborhood, a community full of magic and queer pride and DIY spirit, and genuine, unconditional affection. I have especially fallen in love with my “Faemily,” the Philadelphia Radical Faeries. My recent art is solely in non-ceramic materials such as yarn, paper, spices, and beads; in particular, I’m crafting custom wands for friends and ritual jewelry. I just had the wonderful opportunity this January to do an installation at a fundraising art event, the monthly Get Lucid Activist Dance Party. I called it the “Wishing Lines,” and really, it is a simplified and more colorful version of some of the ideas behind “Vulnerary.” Participants wrote their wishes and hopes for others on colored paper tags and hung them on the gold-edged “Lines,” creating a jewel-toned haven of sacred space on the margin of the party. It was an amazing experience with over 200 people participating. I felt that I had tested the waters for the potential of future large interventions, and received a resounding “yes!”
My current work represents the loving, ecstatic, and welcoming community I have found here in Philadelphia. Now that I have begun to make a place for myself, I want to give back with all of the experience and skill I have. I recently organized and led an amulet-making workshop in my own neighborhood, similar to one I’d led in the midst of “Vulnerary.” It went so well that I have decided to do more of these. Also, I’ve met so many amazing artists here whose interests intersect with mine, and I hope to collaborate. And finally, I feel that I need to go back to ceramics soon; some things just work better in clay. I want to make ritual vessels for healing tea and herbal medicine, for instance, and also to make some objects that survive outdoors. I miss the potter’s wheel and the sensuousness of carving porcelain. Clay has even become part of my magical practice, and I will probably never stray too far away from it now.
Photo credit: Judith Mecklenburger
I might be seen as following multiple paths, but to me, these paths are all facets of the same identity. I am a fine artist, and also a local witch who wants to serve her community, and an academic theorist, and a teacher. I could be none of these things in the same way without the others. I loved teaching ceramics classes when I was a grad student at Penn State, and now that I have amassed all of this technical and scholarly treasure, I’m not just going to sit on it silently forever. However, I won’t go back to academia until I feel like I have more to offer than theory and technique. I want to bring my real experience of this witchy, connected, city life to students, too. I want to hold nothing back.
Laura Mecklenburger is a recent MFA graduate in Ceramics at Penn State University, living in Philadelphia. Her ritual-based installations and objects consist of mixed media and works on paper as well as clay, and sometimes involve performance. Mecklenburger has taught introductory Ceramics at Penn State and with the Claymobile outreach program at the Clay Studio, and she has presented on the topic of ritual in art at the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA). Mecklenburger received her BA at Swarthmore College, and went on to study at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Tyler School of Art before arriving at Penn State. She hopes to build an integrated art practice that truly serves the community.
THE GREAT WAVE CARRIES YOU FORWARD by Nick Kolakowski
Marie’s husband Zachary passed away in early March, followed two weeks later by the dog. Marie would never confess this to anyone, but she missed the dog a little more than Zack. At least the mutt could stick to one bed.
Marie would never confess this, either, but a deserted house can be pretty enjoyable. She took down Zack’s framed Bullitt poster from its prime spot in the living room and, with the help of an online art class, painted a giant wave crashing onto a skiff of Japanese fishermen. None of her friends knew it was a copy of “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” the famous Hokusai woodcut from the Edo era—they just assumed the pummeling whitewater was a metaphor for depression, a cry for help, and reacted accordingly. Her life filled with dinner parties; bone-crushing hugs arrived at random and often startling moments; her phone blinked and hummed with text messages of love and cheery quotes from dead philosophers.
Marie had only wanted a little more color in that part of the house, but she accepted the attention with slightly befuddled grace.
As summer draped its moist blanket over the city, her friends finally downshifted to a more normal gear: phone calls once a week, movie nights twice a month. The house was quiet once more, and she spent her evenings reading books that had sat dusty and unopened on her shelves since college: underlined and dog-eared texts about samurai and geishas, the Floating World and red battlefields. She had never seen Japan, despite majoring in its art. There were so many things she hadn’t experienced, come to think of it: deserts and Great Plains and the cities heavy atop them, the cold Pacific pummeling the California coast.
One night Zack appeared in her dreams, in the lacquered red armor of the shōgun, to apologize for his petty life. Before it was all over, he said, I never realized the small things don’t matter. Don’t make that same mistake. And by the way, what you did to my poster was sacrilege.
That was Zack, always needing the last word. The next morning Marie had the car nearly packed with luggage when her friend Joan pulled into the driveway. Joan made the expected sounds of surprise and concern as she circled the overstuffed sedan: “Where are you going?”
“West,” Marie said, tossing a backpack full of snacks onto the passenger seat.
“Okay, but where west?”
“California, maybe sell the car there, fly to Tokyo,” she said, casual as announcing she was headed to the corner store for some milk. “Beyond that, not the faintest clue.”
Joan was theatrically aghast. “But why, Marie?”
“Because why not.” An empty life is a canvas for starting again, Marie thought. It’s a melancholy gift you’ve given me, Zack, but I’ll take it.
Nick Kolakowski’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, Carrier Pigeon, and Shotgun Honey, among other publications. He’s also the author of How to Become an Intellectual, a book of comedic nonfiction that covers (and sometimes, lovingly skewers) everything from ancient Greek tragedies to Albert Einstein. He lives and writes in New York City.
Image: The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai, c. 1829-32
He was drunk and I’m sure it helped
when I took the iron
from the stove: a loud red, a cruel star.
I held the iron like a relic
of some religion we’ve all long forgot
but is still always burning always
holy, always the shackle and the wrist.
I didn’t ask if he was ready because
that’s how it goes. The iron bit into his calf,
greedy to share.
After, he laughed he displayed his leg
like a king, like a city limit sign.
Not like the night, last of last summer, when I collected
photographs, old shirts and notebook paper
into a bantam fire and made goodbye
Zachary Lundgren received his MFA in poetry from the University of South Florida and his BA in English from the University of Colorado at Boulder and grew up in northern Virginia. He has had poetry published in several literary journals and magazines including The Louisville Review, The Portland Review, Barnstorm Journal, The Adirondack Review, and the University of Colorado Honors Journal. He was nominated for the 2012 AWP Intro Journals Award and was awarded the Estelle J. Zbar Poetry Prize in 2012.
No one told me that Carlos’s gallery exhibition was that night until after I’d wrangled the Burmese python from under the porch and I was drenched through with rain and covered with dead leaves and muck. Storm clouds hung low in the sky as I slammed shut the sliding door on the back of my truck and nodded to the woman on the porch. Her husband had been the proud owner of the exotic snake and a ten-month-old Pit Bull; now he was just the proud owner of an exotic snake. Former owner, at least. The snake was tan with brown hexagons—its body thick like one long muscle, the head a small diamond with tiny black eyes. It had taken me forty-five minutes to drag and tug and wrestle it from the hole in the latticework where it had crawled with a full belly to hide, and it had sapped me of all my energy. Before climbing into the cab, I double-checked the back door to make sure that it wouldn’t fly open and dump the two-hundred pound reptile somewhere on Old Route 209 as I drove toward the Snake Farm, a small reptile zoo on the outskirts of Lakeville. I could feel the cold rain blowing sheets through my wet shirt as my cell phone rang in my pocket.
“Are you on your way home?” my wife, Rhoda, asked.
“Just about,” I said. “You won’t believe what I pulled out from under this lady’s porch.”
“Great. Don’t forget we have Carlos’s exhibit in a couple hours,” she said. “And for God’s sake, let’s try not to be the last couple through the door.”
I arched my back, felt something pop. My feet were muddy from slogging around half-bent beneath the porch for nearly an hour. I wanted to channel my inner Ralph Kramden, hit Rhoda with my best shot, something witty and mean, something about her aging like her mother, but I couldn’t think of anything clever.
“I’ve got to make a trip to the Farm,” I said.
“Rhoda,” I said, leaning against the side of the truck cab. “I just crammed a ten-foot snake into the back of my truck. What would you have me do? Leave it there overnight?”
“Allen, you know I hate unhappy surprises,” Rhoda said.
“How’s this for an unhappy surprise: would you want to start your morning off tomorrow yanking on the business end of an angry constrictor? It won’t take me long.”
“Your clothes are laid out on the bed,” she said, and she must have clicked shut her cell phone before I finished because the dial done cut me off.
“Yes, mother,” I said, scraping my boots against the running boards and climbing into the cab.
I muscled the big white truck around in the driveway and wheeled out onto Spruce Street. I could feel the weight in back, and as I pulled up to a stoplight, I heard something slide across the floor. It was a soft brushing noise, like sandpaper, and I imagined the python back there, curled up, skimming up to the cab and then back toward the rear door every time I accelerated. The truck was old and the alignment was perpetually off, but now with a full load the steering was so heavy and awkward that my forearms were beginning to burn as I snaked down Ninth Street and accelerated toward the exit ramp like a freight train. I blew through two intersections and felt the springs dip. I could feel the mud seeping down into my work boots. But I didn’t stop. I had less than an hour to get to the Farm, get the snake unloaded, and get home to change.
Every November, The Lakeville Mountain Gallery Exhibition was held in the ballroom of the Best Western downtown. It was a black tie event, invitation only—the kind of soiree that invariably made me look and feel like a jackass—but we went anyway. Rhoda had a permanent spot on the guest list, and she was kind enough to make me her plus-one. The event itself was usually a bore, lots of asymmetrical faces and bleeding clocks, but the wine was half decent. Carlos always stood on the opposite side of Rhoda. He’d whisper in her ear all night long, and sometimes they kicked off their shoes and danced slow and tipsy to the Muzak. During those impromptu foxtrots and mambos, I’d customarily stand with the rest of the onlookers and introduce myself as Rhoda’s first husband, but no one ever laughed. Not even when I explained that Rhoda’s never been married before. Usually people shook their heads, or else looked the other way as Carlos dipped Rhoda and spun her vigorously around the room. In moments like those, it must be painfully clear that I am the best she can do.
When the light changed, I hung a sharp right onto the highway, tires licking the pavement. There was a dull thump, and I heard the snake smack the metal wall of the truck. The old truck shimmied like a rollercoaster car, and I sawed the wheel, leaning forward and practically willing her up to speed, until I heard the pop and felt the tire go. I cursed under my breath, checked my rearview mirror, and flipped on the flashers. I could probably make it to the next exit. It was getting dark.
I let the truck coast down the exit ramp toward downtown and through the intersection at the bottom of Main. I brought it to rest at the first gravel lot I could find. The low stucco building was inconspicuous; a red neon sign proclaimed “BAR.” Across the street, catty-corner from the lot, I could see the fancy hotel where, in a little under an hour, my wife and her friends would drink expensive hooch and peruse even pricier art. I pulled my collar high and stepped out into the wet air and surveyed the damage. The rim was pretty bent up, and I imagined a slow leak, unnoticed, had drained the tire of most of its air before the blowout. I had a full-sized spare and a jack, but I caught myself halfway to the door. There was no way I was going to wrestle a thirty-pound tire out of the back with that snake in there. I could see the headlines in The Morning Record: Animal Control Officer Killed By Burmese Python; Snake Wrangler Strangled In His Own Truck.
I knew had to call Rhoda.
The bar was warm and dry. It smelled like old cigarettes and stale beer. The jukebox was cranking out that Harry Chapin song about bananas. The secretary at the Snake Farm had gone home for the night, so I called the emergency beeper number not knowing how long it would take to get a response. As I leaned against the doorway with my hand cupped to my ear, I tried to figure out how to explain this mess to my wife. I felt lucky when her voicemail picked up.
“Listen, babe,” I said. “Ran into some car trouble. I’m right across the street from the exhibition, but I still have the snake in the back. I’ll be over as soon as I can get things squared away. Be good.” Then I sat down at the empty bar to wait. The warm wooden interior glowed softly in the light from hanging lanterns, and I sat alone at the end of the bar, stinking like a wet mutt, surveying the dozen or so beers on tap. My back hurt. My socks squished in my boots.
“What can I get you?” the bartender called, glancing away from the election coverage playing on the corner television. He was lean and pale, his head shaved to the scalp.
“Just water,” I said, and then when he narrowed his eyes at me, “Okay, a whisky sour then.”
The bartender left his post under the television and snatched a bottle of Jack Daniels from the shelf as he walked toward me. The drink was tart and cool. It stung the inside of my mouth a little, but I was tired and it tasted fine.
Before long I was knocking those puppies down like Prohibition was making a comeback. I hadn’t eaten anything all day, and it didn’t take much to get me space brained. Midway through my third whisky, I could feel the barstool starting to float.
“Pal, you’ve been here less than an hour,” the bartender said when I motioned him over for another. At some point, he’d introduced himself as Donnie. “Maybe you’d like to actually taste what you’re drinking?”
“Maybe you’d like to taste what I’m drinking,” I said, cocking my head.
“Good one,” Donnie said, glancing back at the television.
I ran my finger around the top of my glass, trying to make it sing. “I think my life is cheating on me,” I said. “My wife, I meant. Both really. She’s the life of my love.”
Donnie sighed and leaned down on the bar. “Wow,” he said. “Wife and life. That’s some bad luck.”
“Women try their luck; men risk theirs,” I said. “When a woman marries again it’s because she detested her first husband. Oscar Wilde said that.” It had been my dad’s favorite quote, one he recited often.
“Oscar Wilde? I think I saw him in concert once,” Donnie said, wiping out the inside of a glass. “Big O and the Wildemen—that was back before his solo career.”
“Right,” I said, nodding and taking another gulp. Then, for lack of anything profound to say, I added, “Women—they’re from a whole different planet. Or something.”
“That’s deep,” Donnie said. “I haven’t heard anyone say that in almost twenty minutes.”
I belched and glanced down at my wavering reflection in the yellow liquid. “I can almost see the bottom,” I said, swirling the ice around in my glass. “It makes me dejectable.”
“Listen, pal,” Donnie replied. “I’m not one of those I’ll-dispense-some-prophetic-bullshit-wisdom-if-you-get-drunk-enough bartenders, okay?”
I let my chin fall, and I shook my head. I felt like a petulant child. “I’m supposed to meet my wife at an art exhibit,” I said, and I could feel my chin beginning to vibrate above my collar. “If I’m not careful, they’ll start calling me her first husband.”
Donnie blinked a couple times. “That’s some motto for a happy marriage,” he said.
Outside, the rain had stopped, and I could see dozens of Yuengling caps glittering in the gravel. The branches of the huge oak trees behind the bar were silver in the evening sky. By now Rhoda would be leaning in against Carlos’s side, staring at something that looked like a squashed bug, saying something like, “Clearly, What’s-His-Name has gotten himself perished. No doubt eaten by a serpent. Let us toast his memory with our heartiest wine and then pasodoble the night away.”
I waited for traffic to slow. Then I crossed the street.
The hotel lobby was warm and bright, and I managed to stagger back to the ballroom without any of the staff hassling me. From the doorway, the room seemed to tilt a little. I could see all of the display easels set up, the waiters in their maroon monkey suits whisking trays of cheese and champagne around the room. Carlos was the center of attention. He wore all black, and he kept petting his goatee as though he were afraid it might get pissed and run off. A small crowd had gathered, and he gestured emphatically at a few of the paintings on display behind him. I saw one of Rhoda’s artist friends, Tess, nodding pensively while he spoke. And, of course, I saw my wife. She stood by his side in a plunging black gown that stretched almost to the floor. She lightly brushed his arm, and every so often she would throw her head back and laugh at something he said. When her eyes settled on me in the doorway, a look of abject horror spread across her face. Even from across the room, I could see her redden. I looked down at my splotched pants legs, my muddy boots. I’d left a dark wet stain on the burgundy carpet.
“What are you trying to do to me, Allen?” Rhoda said, clacking briskly across the room and grabbing me by the arm. “First, you’re late, and then you show up looking like . . . this?”
“Surprise,” I said, swaying a little, remembering then just how much she hated unhappy surprises. “Didn’t you get my message?”
“Have you been drinking?” she said, sniffing me. “No, I don’t even want to know. Just get out of here before anyone recognizes you.” She pushed me back out of the doorway, but Carlos had all ready come over, and he was now standing behind her.
“Good to see you, Allen,” he said, holding his hand out. I could tell he didn’t mean it, and when I didn’t shake his hand, he stroked his chin hair some more and glanced back into the ballroom. “Listen, friend, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” he said. “I mean, until you get changed around, of course.”
Rhoda stiffened, and her jaw muscles fluttered. “You’re so stupid,” she hissed, punching me in the chest. “I can’t believe you’d do this to me.”
The room was hot, and I felt like I might yack any second. I’d known this wasn’t a good idea even before I left the bar, but now it was really starting to sink in: I had screwed up. Big time. And yet, I didn’t feel bad about it. Carlos was a fraud. A fraud that spent far too much time touching my wife. And Rhoda—why, at that point, I couldn’t have told you why we’d even married in the first place.
“I’ll go home,” I said, finally, crossing my arms over my chest. “If you help me put the spare on my truck.”
“I’ll find someone to help you,” Carlos said.
“No,” I said, leaning in close. “I want you to help me.”
Carlos looked down at Rhoda, and then back at me. “Fine,” he said, turning to grab his coat. “If that’s what it’ll take.”
The temperature had dropped a little, and the cold air felt good on my face as we trekked across the street to where my truck sat, still parked in the bar parking lot.
“A classy place to break down,” Carlos said, wiping his rimless glasses with a handkerchief. I knew what he thought of me.
I stopped and pressed my hand hard against the side of the truck, letting my forehead rest against the cool sheet metal. I heard something move inside. My brain was starting to clear up. Tonight, it was going to be ugly when Rhoda got home.
I felt my cell phone buzz in my pocket, and when I looked down, I saw it was one of the other Animal Control experts from the Snake Farm answering my page. I didn’t want to pick up. The thought of returning to that glorified petting zoo with its filthy displays and lethargic animals nauseated me. I didn’t want to go back to work, I didn’t want to go back home, and I definitely didn’t want to climb into the back of the truck with that snake.
“Are you going to vomit?” Carlos asked.
I shook my head. “I was just thinking about Rhoda,” I stammered.
Carlos cleared his throat and put his hands on his hips. “Well, certainly she’s not happy,” he said. “It’s pretty bad when you are too drunk to change your own tire.”
“You try changing a tire with a Bungalese Constrictor in the back,” I said, pointing at him and nodding as though I were a man who had it all figured out. “You’re in for an unhappy surprise.”
Carlos paused for a second and squinted at me. “What in hell are you talking about?” he said. He walked around to the rear of the truck. “Let’s get this over with so I can get back to my patrons.” He grabbed the door latch and nodded. He smiled politely. “Someday,” he said. “I may even look back at this and laugh.”
“Me too,” I said, waiting for him to make the next move.
Behind us, I could hear the deep bass of some live band playing inside the bar, and across the way, I could see the bright Best Western canopy and a single woman with the bottom of her dress bunched up in her hand, half running and half tottering through the wet Main Street intersection in high heels. I knew it was Rhoda; she’d finally checked her voicemail and heard my message about the flat tire and the man-eating snake. And though I had no way of knowing if she was running for me or for Carlos, I had to admit she looked beautiful that way, urgent and frightened and just a little messy.
Jason Kapcala lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, where he runs a series of community writing workshops for adult students. His writing has been published in Blueline, Santa Clara Review, The Summerset Review, and The Good Men Project Magazine. He is currently shopping a novel and working on his next book about a small-time rock band from a ghost town in central Pennsylvania. His website is www.jasonkapcala.weebly.com.
No, you can just watch me and then afterwards we’ll go to sleep and that’ll be the end of it, she said.
You mean that we’ll go to sleep like it never happened.
It never did, she said.
In the glow of the single desklamp, yellow glow, onionskin, he watched her shed her black cardigan like a snake in the darkness, revealing first the shadowy bones of her shoulder blades—very thin and on the verge of falling out of her back like two ice shelves. Then it was the middle of the back, almost all spine and the shadows played on her disks as if they were small mountain ridges in a diorama. There were two moles he had never seen before and a scar, pink-shaded, about three inches long that lay diagonally across the bottom of her left blade. He had waited forever for this. Well, not entirely forever, he thought, because by forever something else would have occupied his mind. As she revealed her arms to him, he saw where the elbows attached the two pieces of each of her arms and, as bad as it was to imagine, he couldn’t dissociate the way they looked from the bones of the cheap and thin raw chicken wings he marinated at the restaurant on Wednesday nights. He felt bad for thinking this and then replaced this feeling for the proud and stupid other one about how she was the most beautiful girl he or any of his friends had ever seen and even just watching her undress was like a second sort of sex to him. Now, she finished peeling off the cardigan and when she breathed, it appeared as if she had inhaled a demon that moved around in her, and exhaling, she gave it back to the universe and, inhaling, she had it again. To him, she seemed to have so much power that she was able to do this easily, willfully, many times.
The pipes rattled in the walls as she turned to look at him, her tanned breasts sighing in the shadows and her flat, almost muscular stomach revealed another unknown dark mole.
She lived at the edge of the woods in a small Pennsylvania town so that even with the windows open there was no human noise and you could see the stars behind her dark figure, resting on the wooden balcony in silence.
Well? she said, standing naked now, half in shadow, half in the yellow light and completely out of his mind like she never had been before.
He wanted to say the thing about how it was enough for him to watch her, like a second sort of sex. He also wanted to say that he had waited forever to see her like this, that she was the most beautiful girl he or any of his friends had ever seen, but nothing came out of his mouth and he wasn’t thankful either because he knew she was sick and he had recently gotten into the habit of only wanting things he could fix—like her bad relationship with a Greek boy who hit her, and her terrible upbringing in New Jersey. But now that she faced him, he could just barely see the demon moving in and out of her eyes—burning and burning like the reflection of those stars on the plants hanging off her balcony and he knew that this was the end of it, that it never happened, that it never did and he smiled secretly to himself but she caught it and moved toward him thinking he was inviting her to bed with it.
He lay up against the pillow and felt her blonde hair hang across his chest as she placed her head on his stomach. He didn’t know what else to do except to stroke her hair and hope she went to sleep as fast as possible and that she wouldn’t try anything. Holding her, he felt as if he were holding a string of pipes, breathing and sighing beneath him. He stared at his feet and her feet and at the perfect pattern on the sheets, the perfect veins of the plants, the equal, even, perfect burn of the stars and thought that maybe it was about time he stopped using that word.
Royee Zvi Atadgy currently resides in Philadelphia after returning from a three-month stint as a farmer in Israel. He works as a part-time oyster shucker and lives with his cat Bubbles in the Northern Liberties section. In his spare time, he walks around the city aimlessly looking at the architecture. Previous publications include short stories in The Brasilia Review, Hemingway’s Playpen, Nib Magazine, and Daedalus Literary Magazine.
Because I could not stop for Death He kindly stopped for me.
—So why are you working at Hospice?
Death is my thing. I’ve read all the books on it, most of them disappointing. Julian Barnes’ Nothing to be Frightened Of, for example. All he talks about is his fear of death, and he quotes philosophers on death.
—You are not here just to give massages.
No. I want to find out what it’s like to die.
—So you ask the dying what they are feeling?
—And—what have you discovered?
If the person was nervous in life, he’s nervous about death. If he was calm and accepting, he goes “gentle into that good night.” The fighters for life were fighters in life. Of course, they eventually lose. And maybe they did in life too.
—And some may just want to die—too much pain. So, which one are you?
Probably a fighter. I’m certainly not nervous, and people tell me I’m not calm either. I keep my life full, with exercise, reading and working with my husband.
—And does this place affect you when you get home?
No, in fact my husband and I have a laugh about the “deaders,” as we call them and their various reactions to what’s happening to them. How can they be surprised? What good’s a fuss?
—Ah—why are you fascinated? Are you ill?
Not’s far as I know. Whenever I go to the doctor, I ask him, What’ll I die of? It’s like this oak tree right against my house. I’ve been living with that lethal weapon all my life. One good lightning strike, and it will explode. (pause) I read about this doctor who did test after test on his bowel movements. It took years, but he found out the ailment he had. I wish I could do that— it’s because I’ve been healthy all my life that death doesn’t bother me. It interests me.
—(whisper) Could you ask about my situation? No—(louder) I read Julian Barnes’ book. From what I remember, it is as good as possible on the subject.
He wasted a lot of time on how he and his mother—I think it was—were deciding how they’d like to die. That’s an insane waste of time.
—But you are a planner—
Yep, already planned the funeral—all the music and the poetry, a memorial, not a funeral since I’m not religious. Then I’d want a balloon ride for my ashes and a private mausoleum—yep, I’m able to pay for that.
—So are you rich? Famous?
Yep, lots of money, and aim to be famous.
—And in the meantime?
No need to change my life. I’ve filled all the hours, ever since I needed to figure out what to do with free time, like weekends.
My patient died last night. No, no, don’t tell me more.
You say she was smiling. Impossible—she of the ruptured stomach?
Olive Mullet, pictured on right, is a retired English professor who taught composition and humanities for twenty-five years at Ferris State University in Michigan. She is currently a book reviewer for NewPages.com. Her work has appeared in Red Cedar Review,Sliverofstone, Dark Matter, The Cossack Review, Cigale Literary Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal, and others.
A few weeks ago my father woke up almost totally deaf.
He already had a significant deficit. For years he has worn hearing aids. One for each ear, they are a microphone, amplifier, and loudspeaker all in one small plastic device the color of ear wax. He pokes at them with his index finger to dial the volume up and down. He changes their batteries with the same ethic of care that he rotates the tires on his car. More often than not, through most of a conversation, they feedback and squeal like a miniature PA system. A sound anyone in the room can hear. He does not.
This deafness, I suspect, is in his genes. His mother was similarly deaf. But while my father has always been open about hearing loss, my grandmother was more of a covert deaf person. When you spoke to her and she inevitably did not hear what you said, she would act like she had heard at least some of it.
It’s been warm for October, don’t you think?
The what? she would say.
The morning my father woke mostly deaf, he sent out an email distress signal. I can’t hear. Later he called me on his cell phone. We tried to talk. “I can’t hear anything, son,” he said. I heard in his voice a tone I’d never heard before, a combination of perplexity, fear, and grief.
That day he drove himself to his ear doctor, reassuring me, and himself, that it was a matter of routine maintenance. “I get clogged up,” he said. “I’ll just have him rinse out some of the crud. He did it once before.”
Late that afternoon he called again.
“It’s not crud,” he said.
WHAT DID THE DOCTOR SAY?
“I don’t know what he said. I couldn’t hear him. But he’s going to operate on my ears in two weeks.”
WHAT FOR? TO DO WHAT?
“Operate in the office.”
“I just can’t hear you, son,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
A few days later, I drive the ninety minutes north to his house to pick him up. We’re going to see the doctor, this time with a pair of functioning ears, to find out what’s wrong and what the doctor proposes to do about it. In person, I discover, my father’s hearing is even worse than it is on the phone. On the kitchen table are scraps of paper where Jackie, his helping lady, has written notes to him. I thawed a meatloaf for you. The oven cleaning will be done by 3:00. You may smell something.
I write him a note too. No procedure today. Conference with the doctor.
“Let’s take my car,” he yells.
When I turn the key in the ignition, the radio comes on in a blast, at full volume. It’s so loud I duck. He doesn’t notice when I turn it off. He puts on his giant black old-guy wrap-around sunglasses, fastens his seatbelt, and we make the silent ride across the river, through town, down the five-lane road, toward Saginaw. I tell him it’s cold, just to make conversation.
“What?” he yells.
Four inches from his left ear, I holler my meteorological observation.
He nods. “Just past the Catholic church on State Street,” he yells. “On the left.”
Years ago my wife and I visited an ear, nose, and throat doctor for a thyroid condition she had. His diagnosis was that her thyroid was sick, that it would continue to be sick for three months, that she could take steroids or aspirin for pain (she chose aspirin), and that eventually, with no active doctoring on his part, her thyroid would start to feel better, which it did. Twice when we went for appointments, the same little girl was there to have her cleft palate worked on. And both times, from the interior of the office, came her blood-curdling screams, sounds so awful, so harrowing, I would have been grateful to be made temporarily deaf.
At the office on State Street I drop my father off at the front door and go park the car. He checks in and takes a seat. While we wait our turn to see the doctor, he offers a number of conversation starters.
“Alfreda called today,” he yells. “She talked to Jackie.”
Next to the door, a woman and her daughter chat quietly while they wait. The little girl looks pleased to have been taken out of school. Whatever’s wrong with them, it’s not their hearing. Sitting a few seats over from us is another father and son team.
“The physical therapist comes Friday,” my father yells a few minutes later. “Boy she gives me a workout.”
The receptionist, hearing this, starts to giggle. I nod and smile at her, then gesture for him to keep his voice down just a little. He holds up a finger, indicating he understands, then closes his eyes and puts his head back. It’s March, and the office’s Christmas decorations are still up. From the sound system in the ceiling comes Christian rock, barely audible. There’s a lot of traffic noise as cars swish past the office. It’s the traffic that causes me to remember: he can’t hear. I wonder if it’s conventional to have music in an office for people with hearing problems.
On a clipboard I borrow from the receptionist, I write a few notes for him.
The doctor may want to put tubes in your ears.
“Floyd had tubes put it,” he yells. There’s no stopping him.
Did it help? I write.
”It’s hard to get a straight answer from him,” he yells in reply. He closes his eyes again, pondering Floyd’s or his situation. Just then the other father and son are called for their appointment. The son stands and waits as his father, like mine, lifts his whole body out of the chair, pauses, straightens it out, and with the help of a cane pushes himself mostly upright and achieves equilibrium. He waits a second or two, making sure he’s steady, then takes a step.
Our turn comes. The doctor shakes my hand when he comes in the examining room. He has a thick bristly mustache. He is burly and prematurely gray and diffident, almost ill at ease. He’s assisted by a thin woman between fifty and seventy with lots of suntan make-up and hair that looks like a wig. Her gaze that follows the doctor is nothing if not adoring. Wearing a white shirt with a bad tie, and baggy black stay-press pants, he seems like a hesitant Wilford Brimley. He looks in my father’s ears, asks how he feels in a soft voice–he better than anyone knows shouting is futile–and explains what he thinks we should do. My father gives him a look that’s more blank than encouraging.
“He doesn’t read lips very well,” the doctor says, turning to me.
“You have a mustache,” I say. He smiles, taking it as a joke, which is not how I intended it.
The doctor shows me a graph that charts my father’s hearing loss. He’s just lost more than half of what little he had left, probably, the doctor says, because of an infection. He wants to make a little incision in each ear drum, drain off the fluid, put in some tubes.
“‘Time or tubes’ is what we say.” He lets that sink in.
“Will he get his hearing back?” I ask.
“Not all of it,” he says. “Not what he’d lost before.”
I point at the graph. “But this?”
He says he thinks the tubes should help. We shake on it, his assistant schedules the procedure, goes over the details with me, while my father looks on. I’ll explain everything in an email, I write on the clipboard.
In the car, on the way back to his house, he yells over at me, “Did you have to take a none-of-your-business day to come with me to the doctor?” I tell him it’s okay. What are those days for, anyway? He shakes his head. It kills him just a little to accept so much help. The doctor, he shouts, is a portly chap. He smiles, holds out his hands to outline the doctor’s girth. A few miles down the road he breaks the silence again. Tomorrow, he says, he’s going to work on his garden tractor, get it ready for summer.
Time or tubes. I’ll explain that in an email or maybe on one of Jackie’s scraps of paper.
This car, he says, has a nice quiet ride. He looks across the dash, toward what happens next, toward home, obviously pleased with this little witticism. I think: tell me another one, dad. I’m all ears.
Rick Bailey’s essays have appeared in The Writer’s Workshop Review, Journal of Microliterature, Ragazine.cc, Defenestration, and Drunk Monkeys among other publications. He grew up in a one-stoplight town in the Michigan farm belt, then moved to the Detroit area, where he teaches writing at Henry Ford Community College.
Nobody took Rhiannon there, and nobody took her home. She managed the whole thing by herself. When she woke up, it was dark outside. A light was on in the living room, and she could see it through the open doorway. She lay in bed with her eyes closed, trying to decide if it had really happened or if she had dreamed some version of it and it hadn’t happened yet. She hoped it had happened and that it was finally over, and at the same time she hoped it hadn’t yet happened, something that was still out there, a possibility among other possibilities. She lay quietly in the place between happening and not happening, between what had been and what might yet be.
In the doctor’s office she’d waited longer than she’d expected to. She read a couple of magazine articles. One piece was about ants finding their way home. If the ant’s legs were extended, the ant would go past its home: the ant would walk farther than it needed to. If the ant’s legs were shortened, it would stop before it reached its home. She couldn’t remember how they lengthened or shortened the ants’ legs in the experiments. To lengthen them they could attach tiny stilts, perhaps, but to shorten them—
Then there was another article about Portuguese men-o-war. They were a type of jellyfish. She remembered laughing at the idea that the plural of man-o-war is men-o-war. It seemed ridiculous to her, but she couldn’t figure out why. She pictured the school of jellyfish like a gang of men rocking back and forth even as they marched forward with cudgels in their hands. She laughed now, still with her eyes shut, thinking of it.
In a while she got out of bed and walked toward the living room. She was unsteady on her feet, but she was thirsty. She went from the living room to the kitchen and drank water out of the plastic gallon jug in the refrigerator. Only then did she realize she was still wearing her raincoat. She unbuttoned it. Underneath the raincoat she was wearing a long white t-shirt and below that a pair of striped blue stockings.
She shrugged the raincoat off at the shoulders and let it drop to the floor. On the counter was a canvas supermarket tote that contained a large bottle of Orangina, a bag of Ranch-flavored Doritos, and a fresh copy of People magazine. She took the things out of the tote and lined them up on the countertop. In the sink was a dish partially covered in water, and on top of the dish an empty drinking glass. A long strand of blond hair lay across the wet plate. She dumped some of the Doritos into a terra cotta salad bowl her mother had given her, poured warm Orangina into the glass that had been in the sink, and placed the bowl and the glass along with the magazine on a wooden bed tray. She took the tray back into the bedroom where she lay quietly, enjoying the snack and watching the six o’clock news with the sound turned off.
She still didn’t know if it had happened or if it was still in the future, something that was going to happen but which hadn’t happened yet. She might have been in the doctor’s office just to schedule the appointment and have a preliminary checkup. She might have a card in the pocket of her raincoat or in her wallet that gave the date and time of the procedure. It might still be out there, a possibility among others.
She changed the channel and another program silently appeared. The show in progress, she found out by scrolling the remote to the viewer’s guide, was a documentary called “The Witch of Hunan.” It was on the History Channel. But the program seemed to be almost over and she couldn’t figure out what it was about. The viewer’s guide had given the title but no description. On the screen was a small brown mummy, or what looked like a mummy, ceremoniously arranged in an open pit. Then there was some footage of a woman in an elaborate costume, a pointy black hat with arcane symbols on it, loose clothing that billowed up and undulated as the woman twirled round and round a roaring bonfire, a stick in her hand that looked like a magic wand. She recited something Rhiannon couldn’t hear and the people huddled by the fire sat listening, mesmerized. The woman in the pointy hat must be the Witch of Hunan.
Rhiannon took the remote from the night table and turned up the sound, a row of green dots moving across the bottom of the TV screen, but it was too late to hear what the witch had to say. The witch started screaming and waving her magic wand, the History Channel blared some fake-sounding Chinese music, and all the people fled as the bonfire seemed to engulf the screen. The credits began to roll over a final shot of the mummy in her burial pit: gourd-like shoes curled up at the toes; brown, leathery face pulled tight beneath the pointy black hat; swaddled in the witch’s loose-fitting robe a mummy so small it might have been a cat, a tiny blue cap on its head, a tiny blue stone over each tiny eye.
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.
Sometimes when I’m writing, he’s over my shoulder. He seizes my hand and slashes the Latinate adjectives on my page while I wince and moan. He tugs at one of my curls every time I craft optimistic characters. When I really anger him, his hot fist squeezes my shoulder. Then he prods my side.
“What are you doing? Get at this.”
All I have to do is flutter my eyelashes at him, and he releases his grip. He always did have an Achilles heel for women. My youthful face, however, is useless when he sees that I have concocted an eighteen-word sentence. He grabs the entire mass of my hair so hard that my neck bends at an unholy angle. He holds my head below his.
“Would you like to omit some words there?”
Hating, hating, hating him, I pare my sentence to a fragment.
He sees that tears totter in my eyes. Deleting lovely words is death to me. “But don’t you want an In Our Time?” he says.
I nod and sniff as he dabs my eyes with his smudged handkerchief.
“I want my own In Our Time.”
Composed of short stories marked by vignettes, In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway was the catalyst for my writing. Before I read Hemingway’s little chapbook in Honors English III, I wrote elaborate pieces of short fiction: a little girl forgetting her name, best friends in the midst of adolescence, and an honors student who loves to bake. Although these stories filled up the pages nicely, the characters were spacey and the narrator removed, like snow the day after Christmas. They weren’t stories that I could see future high school students discussing; they were the kind of stories that would be published in some obtuse journal gathering dust in a public library.
While reading In Our Time, I savored every detail of Nick Adams’s life and dissected each deceptively random vignette. It was as if Hemingway was flirting with me: each detail was a come-hither wink, but he never lingered long enough for me to smile at him.
My witty banter with Hemingway began one day in English class. Mrs. Smith had “A Cape Cod Evening” by Edward Hopper on the projector. “Now”, she said, folding her jewel-studded fingers, “I want you to write what you think is happening in this painting, like a story. Five minutes!”
Graphite smoke streamed from my pencil tip, creating memories in characters that I had just met and their deepest desires and foibles but my character could only express them in terms of clean and dirty also don’t forget the dog and there are sailors out there, yes, that’s what she’s looking at, but what if-
I finally took a breath. I emerged from my imagination with a wonderful story, and it didn’t even fill the page! A reader could chip away at my glorious, faceted story for hours.
“This,” Mrs. Smith said, “is called the iceberg effect. Hemingway writes like this, like he’s writing from a painting . . .”
Here is when I love Hemingway: I love it when he’s peeking over my shoulder deleting details so that my stories are ekphrastic. My best work ignores character names and lets you fill in the gaps. He pats me on the back when I write like this; it’s the greatest gesture of love he can give.
After writing a la In Our Time for a couple of months, I noticed a theme. My heroines were girls dressed in white, with furrowed brows. At least one character berated this girl for her innate beauty, like she should hide it so that no one should feel ugly.
This is the core of my In Our Time, but Hemingway doesn’t really understand.
“There’re not that many pretty girls. Give her some freckles.” He takes a swig of rum.
“Freckles are supposed to be ugly?”
“Well, isn’t your little book all about being perfect?”
“It is not! It must be over your head if that’s what you think.”
“Please, this is all over your head.”
I stand, arms akimbo. “Beauty isn’t all moisturizer and hairpins. Do you know I have been mortified because kids tease me about what I wear? That I’ve been told I’m participating in the over-sexualization of women just by wearing an Ann Taylor dress? I’m no Bardot, but I know that first impressions actually do mean something, and I always make an effort. Is that vanity? You can’t make a pretty girl ugly with words; you can make her feel ugly, but that will never change the fact. But my book isn’t for the beautiful people. It’s for the people who think that they can please every minority, for those who believe in cultural relativism, and for the atheists who don’t know that Aristotle already proved the existence of God with logic. Those people can’t make the majority a minority, and they certainly can’t tell me not to wear lip gloss to school.”
Hemingway leans back on his heels. “You’re so cute when you get passionate about these things.”
“I hate you right now,” I say, dismissing him with an eye roll.
We’re quiet for a moment, and I sit again. I write: “The hem of her dress flew as her knees popped up and down, revealing her sun-seeped thighs . . .” and his nostrils flare. His hand rises to slap my cheek, but I intercept it.
Shannon Viola has been published in the 2006 edition of Anthology of Short Stories by Young Americans, Teen Ink, and Calliope, and she recently won the 2013 Mayborn National History Writing Contest. Shannon has attended the New England Young Writers Conference at Bread Loaf, and she runs a local writing group in her hometown.
There’s a chicken place on Ridge Avenue called “Wings to Go.” I occasionally wait for a bus across the street, and that sign always seemed to me a little too poetic for a wing place. It makes me think of my mother. Not because of anything having to do with chicken or food, but because I often wished I could give her wings.
I wanted to see her fly away from the stuffy room in the nursing home where she lived for seven years until her death at 92—fly through the plastic window blinds and away from the hospital bed and the carpeted hallway that inexorably became her whole world. She needed to take flight, but her heart was like a tap root—long and strong, growing straight down into the earth. Her body hung on to be fed and bathed and laid down again, long after her mind had left the room.
On my mantelpiece is an old photograph of my mom sitting outside an office building in New York City, where she lived and worked when she was in her twenties. She’s wearing a tailored suit and a fox-tail stole around her shoulders, and she’s holding her hat in her hand. She’s smiling, happy and hopeful, ready to go. Her wide face looks outward. Her long adult life was ahead of her then—the seven kids, take away two, the tiny four-bedroom Colonial she never liked, the too much work, the not enough money, the husband who drank himself into the ground and left her holding the bag.
On the back of that photograph, in her impeccable Catholic-school handwriting, she wrote: “In front of 37 Wall Street. 1945. Flattering, huh! My nose took a good picture, as usual, and I’ve lost weight, honestly!” I imagine she sent the photo to my father before he came home from the war. Did her note reflect her characteristic self-deprecation, or was it an answer to some real or imagined criticism of his? They were married in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1947. My mother was 26, a little older than the average bride by the standards of the day.
I’ve often wondered what she felt that day. Was she happy or resigned, hopeful or anxious? As she walked down the aisle, did she feel her life was just beginning, or did she hear the doors of possibility closing softly around her with each step? She realized pretty early on, I suspect, that her marriage was a mistake, but her wings were clipped; she had no easy escape. So she made the best of things.
My mother was fun-loving and social. In her younger days she loved to sing and dance to big-band music. She was her high-school class’s valedictorian, but of the four children in her family, only her brother went to college. In those days Irish Catholic girls were expected to marry and have babies, and not to accomplish much more than that.
She rarely traveled far, but she did have adventures. In 1953, when my father, who worked for the Texas California Oil Company, was assigned to a two-year posting in Sumatra, Indonesia, he flew there first and my mother followed later. She flew by prop plane over five days, with their four young children in tow, my sister only a few months old. A few months into their stay, my mom made a treacherous journey to Jakarta—at one point changing boats on the water—to seek medical help for her first daughter, Terry, who, it would turn out, had leukemia, prompting my parents’ early return to the States, where Terry died before her fourth birthday.
Years ago my mother gave me a bracelet from that time in Indonesia. It’s black enamel on silver, made of seven rectangular sections pieced together. I used to play with it as a kid, setting it on end and opening and closing the metal clasp as if it were the door to a little house. Etched in each section is a figure—a Buddha, a warrior, an elephant, and three female figures—a mermaid, a dancer, and a creature that is half bird-half woman, its feet firmly planted on the ground. My mother told me that one of my father’s co-workers in Sumatra gave it to her. She said he felt sorry for her because she was often alone with the children. My father, I’m guessing, spent his evenings drinking with his buddies.
Back home in New Jersey, she defended us as best she could from my father’s rages. I remember one argument they had in front of my uncle and his family. I can’t say what prompted it, but I remember my mom yelling at my aunt that my father “doesn’t even know what school the kids go to.” My horrified aunt responded with something to the effect of, “a wife should not criticize her husband.” I can only imagine my mother’s response.
When my father left the house, she worked two jobs to support us. Her status as a breadwinner and her outspokenness made her something of an outlier among my aunts and uncles, who all had traditional marriages, with the husbands working and the wives at home with the children. My mom may not have chosen the working life, but she took pride in being seen as competent and resourceful, and her sweet nature and quick wit earned her many friends.
One day, not long before she died, I was sitting by her bed holding her hand. Her eyes were open but she didn’t see me. Her breath stopped and started. Her skin was like paper, and brittle strands of her hair fell down over her eyes. Her eyes moved back and forth and she spoke now and then, but the words made no sense to me. She was remembering something from some long-ago day, or perhaps imagining an adventure she had hoped for but never experienced.
She once told me she had a fantasy of driving across America in a convertible car with two dogs as companions. I can picture it—her hair tied back with a scarf, the dogs leaning out of the car, their ears flapping out like wings, flying.
Jane Carroll is a writer and editor for a nonprofit organization. She studied art at Stockton College and received a master of liberal arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has been published on Literary Mama. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.
Two feuding gardens are thought to be responsible for the most recent blooming. According to the rain, in late summer, a band of tiger lilies recruited a pack of peonies, and those peonies, comely as they seem, have been holding stamens against the backs of wandering clouds. I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t really notice when things blossom on the other side of town. In my tidy neighborhood, I tend to my little potted plants and sing them well, hardly ever forgetting to water them. Nights, I wipe their leaves with a soft, clean towel. It’s true what they say about talking to them: my baby gets bigger and bigger, flush and blush; the window crowds with her brush. I had thought my street so safe, my safe street, I might have called it, even though it is a city street and not even country roads are safe, what with their rocky turns and sandy hooks. Neighbors say they heard the blooming but decided it was just a truck. Me: I sat on the corner seeking solace from the concrete and stuffing petals into the little prayer pockets of my mouth.
Nicole Callihan writes poems, stories, and essays. Her work has appeared in, among others, The L Magazine, Cream City Review, Forklift, Ohio, and Painted Bride Quarterly. Her books include the 2012 nonfiction Henry River Mill Village, a documentation of the rise and fall of a tiny mill village turned ghost town in North Carolina,which she co-wrote with Ruby Young Keller, as well as SuperLoop, a collection of poems published by Sock Monkey Press in early 2014. Read Anna Strong’s review of SuperLoophere.
“Language is not the signifier nor the signified. It is the significance.”
The only constant is the height of buildings. I hate the way you find things like that and I’ve just now realized it’s the smoke that’s making that taste of oranges in my mouth.
A yellow cat bolts through a black street. I am drunk and swinging through concrete paths, my legs twisting and stumbling, pivoting and sliding.
Billboards sneak into my field of vision.
“For tough cleaning, toughen up with Husky brand paper towels.”
“No more pests with Nomopest bug spray.”
“Feel the fragrance. Be the woman. Rise. Rise, by Vaudlin.”
The night is long and I hate the names of streets.
“Washington St. Mulligan St. Perricone St. Franklin St. Jefferson St. East St. Hawke St. Levi St. 15019 Levi St. 15021 Levi St. 15023 Levi St. 15025 Levi St.”
My house is simple, affordable, and gray. I remember to smell the coriander that I’m growing on my porch. My welcome mat is damp and tattered.
Two weeks before he left, he wrote a poem about my breasts. What a piece of shit. Tits don’t go in books and that bastard will never be published anyway. I sit on the couch avoiding the hole in the fabric where soft cotton or whatever that white stuff is pours out. I pick up the book on the table next to me, one of the books he was reading, titled “Woman” and obviously you can already tell it’s written by a man who is just gonna blab about women who have hurt him even though he loved them so much. It’s the kinda shit John loved to read. I open to a random page:
“The woman is lost,
anger passed down for generations
through brown hair.
She bends like clay
to his touch.”
Of course, well of course she bends like clay and yeah of course the women in her family fuck her up and make her lost and angry, well of course, cause that’s what men write. Men writers. Fuck the crowd of ‘em. I’m too drunk to read anyways, so I slip into my room and without changing fall onto my bed.
Oh god, I should never have gone to Jeremy’s place last night. I was such a mess, saying things I never would say or never should say. I just remember stumbling and I really couldn’t tell you where. My head was in such bad places last night and now just hurts.
The only dishes that are clean are the fine china so I fix myself toast and jam on a ring of swirling blue and I slowly eat. I pick up a book next to me and read from it as brown crumbs slip through my lips.
“Stories erupt. Stories burp. Sentences drip from the ceiling and coat the floor in mixed letters and phrases. A kiln will bend glass. Dear Roma, nobody’s books will give you the day and the water doesn’t move so near you now. You should have them climb out of sewers instead of being pulled from pages. The spine is bending in a kiln. Dissolve that mess of anecdotes you graze off the page, like a cow in a field of grass, and find it again in the air.”
I’ve always thought those books were a way of putting too much pink in the eye, but I’ve been reading this one for a few weeks now. Sunlight hits the window wrong. John left me because he did not have a single clue what he was doing. John left because he doesn’t want to understand the way he is. Or am I just losing myself here?
I see the book he left on the table by the couch. “Woman.” What a title for one of John’s books, that’s the kind of stuff he loves. If it talked about me in there he would close it quick and abandon it. On finishing eating, I place the plate in the sink over a stack of many others covered in dried food. I couldn’t tell you what I was eating four days ago; now it’s just brown chunks. Think, Marianne: what did you eat that could have become brown chunks? Chicken Kiev was Tuesday. Lasagna was Wednesday. John left Thursday. Yeah, it must have been lasagna.
I pick up “Woman” and read from a random page. A prose poem: it’s always hard to find those and really pay attention. And when you do, you inevitably have the question in your mind “well, there weren’t any line breaks or anything, so what’s actually making it poetry?” and god if I could tell you. I’ve never had a knack for classifications.
“She doesn’t remember the way we were in the garden. She doesn’t remember the way I kissed her golden hair and the way the sunligh—”
Jesus, this is awful. Never talk about the sunlight and gold; never. Maybe a different page. There’s got to be a reason he reads this. Another prose poem:
“Devilish walks nowhere and again no-one. I don’t have time for the slip of the thumb or the nailhead. You hit the nail right on the. She doesn’t take a dip of day or slip into old patterns. My lover is really there, but hardly happening.”
I gave the thing too many chances. What trash. Masculinist romanticism. I’ll take it to the church tomorrow for donation.
On Saturdays, I usually take time to go to the gym and go to a museum or something after. I’m getting tired of art, though. Every time I go, I walk so fast through the rooms only reading names of artists and so all the paintings blur together.
“Paul Gauguin. Edgar Degas. Paul Cézanne. Claude Monet.”
So, instead, I decide to just start walking. I get far, even past Jeremy’s house. John always hated the way Jeremy put his laces into his shoes instead of tying them. John and I would probably be arguing now about whose friend Jeremy was first, each giving the other the blame. John left me because he had someone else. John left me because he thought I was too much. John left me because he hated himself. John wouldn’t care if the dishes piled out the windows. If I have a purpose here, it is one of opening.
I am no more today than I was yesterday, but that’s all really getting muddled. He never moved while he was in the house. His friends always commented that he was the quietest sleeper.
Walking farther, I find a crumpled paper on the sidewalk and it reminds me of the note I saw last night. Language is a signified or something? Give it a day and it will come back to me. I pick up the small ball of crushed paper and open it slowly. Frantic scribbles, again. People don’t have time anymore, or at least that’s what everyone keeps saying.
You forgot to pick up the kids again from school. I feel like I’ve said that a thousand times. They waited two hours for you. Do you know what it felt like to get home after work and not find them there? Not find you there? Realizing you had gone again to do the stupid shit you do. They were crying when I picked them up. You can’t explain how a father goes wrong to six year olds. I can’t give you any more chances.
I wonder how the vowels do that. I wonder why the consonants do that to them. “Sentences drip” was it? God, no one has got a clue why I’m walking around this way. If someone could define the word “there” and I mean really tell me what that means and how you can describe “there” I’d be more grateful than I’ve ever been. See that? “not find them there? Not find you there?” If we were translating into, hell, I don’t know, Chinese, that “there” probably couldn’t fit. Allí, là. John hated the way the stairs creaked in e’s and a’s when he walked to get water late at night.
We used to walk down old streets by the river and moss would rub against my heels. I would listen to him spout old nonsense for hours. John left me because he ran out of things to say.
I eventually make my way back home and pick up the first book I see on my shelves, “The Occurrences of Jacques Ponteau.” It’s a book I read at some point in my childhood, one of those adventure books kids read, and I haven’t looked at it in years.
“What was obscure in Jacques eyes was not how he felt about Marie, but what he was going to do next. She stared at him not with fear, but anticipation. Swiftly, he pulls out his blade and places it against her throat. “But Jacques, why?” His only answer is the forgetfulness in his face.”
I pick out another, “The Sewer,”
“When I was just 5 years old, my brother fell into an open manhole. It went so deep it was black inside. My family, so large in number, was relieved by the loss. When I was twenty, I passed by that sewer again and, out of cruel chance, it was open. I peered inside and found a note in a bottle with my name on it. ‘Brother, I am in a world like no other’ it said.”
It’s all places to walk out to. John left a black tie on the chair. He could have at least cleaned up after himself. Even the note he left was messy, everything messy, that’s how he always was and I could never tell you different. When we fought, he said things he didn’t believe and I can’t decide if that was because he went wild with anger or because he believed nothing.
That’s what is painted on the side of the church; I remember that. I stare at that engraving every Sunday. I remember that. I leave my house again, without a place to go.
“Levi St. Hawke St. East St. Jefferson St. Franklin St. Perricone St. Mulligan St. Washington St. Carrion St. Standing St. 15th St. 14th St. 13th St. 12th St. 11th St. 10th”
What feels like miles and probably is. If I have an agenda, it is one of searching. John is filled with selfishness. Fuck men writers, fuck the lot of ‘em. He wrote a poem about my breasts. Fuck the lot of ‘em.
I walk along the old street by the river the way we used to do. A plane writes along the sky.
“952-555-6809 A NIGHT OF FREE DRINKS AND DANCING. $12 AT THE DOOR”
A poster beside me reads,
“Want to learn a new language? ¿Quiere usted aprender español? Your wait is over! Spanish lessons $20 an hour, twice weekly.”
A red dog sleeps by the water. It’s become night faster than I could have noticed. Woolf said something about wires and electrics, so did Kesey. This is a wired city. Or, to be more specific, the body is stuffed with words and without legs. We put stories on walls and paper to keep them in one place. It is all places to walk out to. Alone, and feeling filled with copper. The brick wall says,
“This will not be televised”
in bending, sprayed letters. John wanted to get in contact with things I have no place in. John left because a red dog sleeps by the water.
I walk further along the river and reach an empty park. Someone has left a small brown book on a bench, ants crawling on the ridges of its pages. I sit and open the book. The words inside are handwritten and it seems like a diary.
“‘Afterwards, showers.’ There you’ve got the same sounds inside of each one and I didn’t make that, Grenier did. What it does to hear that sound again and, to be more specific, to ponder moving sound in such a way. I didn’t want to tell you of the way those sounds come out at us, but nobody was there to tell me otherwise. It’s not that I’m obsessed or crazy, I only think those stories have control of us.
I couldn’t believe how he was then and how he treated me. He couldn’t have loved me a day of his life and so I’ve set myself to writing it instead. If he wouldn’t make a minute for the curve of my hips, then look at the way the letters move.”
Setting the book down again, I look out onto the water. With the way the air sits, I can hear my fingers moving.
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague is a fiction and poetry writer currently residing in Philadelphia where he studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His work has been published in Apiary and the Daily Pennsylvanian, and in his collection JOGS, a poetic rewriting of the 1977 book The Joy of Gay Sex.
The funeral was flowerless. Every early spring bloom had been expropriated by the KGB for their boss. Scarcely forty people dared show up. Charged with counter-revolutionary bourgeois tendencies, tormented and shunned by the Composers Union, his wife and sons held hostage in Siberia, he composed wretched anthems to power plants and worse, Zdravitsa. It was a case of write our der’mo or die. Nevertheless, masterworks of “anti-democratic formalism” continued to pour forth. His meager stipend was cut; he very nearly starved. Given another decade and he might have sluiced out all that filth with a flood of new symphonies, freshets of ballets; but the tyrant outlived him. A stroke felled him and then, only fifty minutes later, with surpassing irony, the other.
I like to imagine all those grief-stricken Muscovites in the grainy newsreels, ten deep on the ugly sidewalks, shedding their Russian tears for Sergei Prokofiev, only pretending to weep for Comrade Stalin. What could the secret police do, even if they were not deceived? They too would have feared for their jobs, their families, their lives. More purges or more liberty—either could spell ruin for them. Besides, some of those cunning thugs must also have loved Romeo and Juliet, been moved by the mighty Fifth Symphony or, at least, had children delighted by Peter and the Wolf. I’m told all Russians revered their high culture in those bleak days, the way only a people who murder their artists can. They say you could accost anybody on the Nevsky Prospekt and demand fifty lines of Pushkin without being once disappointed.
A dispute breaks out. He brought us through the war, cries a babushka. He watched over everything, knew how many shoelaces to make, how many tanks. He was our father, our son, strictand vigilant. Whatever will we do now? A bony man in an old greatcoat retorts: Spare us your vigilant monsters. Listen. He went abroad yet returned. He experimented, composed whatever he wished; he could be by turns acerbic, savage, lyrical. He might have made a good life for himself in Paris, turned into Serge; yet he came back, back to us. And not just for our birches and mushrooms.
Today, we listen rapt to the energetic Third Piano Concerto, marvel at the clever ClassicalSymphony, buy tickets for the latest incarnation of Cinderella. And, as we relish the buoyant Flute Sonata, composed just months before the bloody tide was turned at Stalingrad, we forget what lies on history’s dust heap.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of OurNeighborhood, and a book of essays, Professors at Play. His novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction. His most recent book is a short novel, Losses.
I’m with Teddy and Elliot, sitting on the floor amidst a pile of Legos and a stack of books, and I find my eyes wandering up to the shelf. My fingers get a little twitchy. I find a reason to stand up. “Hold on, honey. Mommy just needs to check something.” I slide my finger across my touchscreen, unlocking the phone. The familiar blue banner appears, and I swipe my finger upward, my eyes scanning the Newsfeed. Pictures of other people’s kids, other people’s dinners, other people’s yards covered with snow. Justin Bieber got arrested; Derek Jeter is retiring; there’s an interesting article on parenting in The Atlantic; a good op-ed on writing in the Times. The kids play happily together—they’ve just entered this magic phase of chasing each other giggling in circles with rarely any fighting—while I stand leaning against the kitchen counter, my eyes glancing up and around every few seconds.
“Mommy, what are you looking at?” Teddy asks me.
“Nothing,” I sigh, clicking the phone back to sleep. “I’m all done.”
I have a problem with my phone. More specifically, I have a problem with the Facebook app on my phone. I can’t seem to leave it alone. I made a New Year’s resolution to place my phone on a high shelf when I am at home and not otherwise using it as a phone. I rarely use it as a phone, in fact, and so it should hardly come off that shelf at all.
Things have gotten a bit better in the last couple of months as a result, but not much. I feel guilty about all of this, but not because I’ve been ignoring the kids. I’m a firm believer that kids need to be ignored, so they can learn to entertain themselves. (I read about it in some parenting article that someone once posted on Facebook, that everyone liked and shared and commented on.)
I feel guilty because the phone tricks me into thinking I am alone when I am not, because it takes my mind out of the room in a way that dicing an onion for dinner or folding tiny socks does not. I feel guilty because I enjoy it. The sub-text of course is that I don’t enjoy the time I could be spending with my children, or at least not as much. This is sometimes true, and so I feel guilty for that, too.
Checking Facebook on my phone makes me a terrible mother because it means there’s something I’d rather be doing than building a Lego tower with my children. There’s more, of course. I’m also a terrible mother because I’m teaching my children that this kind of behavior is acceptable. Looking at your phone, I am telling them, is like scratching your elbow or running your fingers through your hair—just a little tic, barely perceptible to those around you. It doesn’t matter at all.
It does matter, of course. My children are too young to recognize how rude I’m being, but that doesn’t make the behavior any better. I teach them to eat with their silverware and wipe their mouths and say please and thank you and so I should also be teaching them not to interrupt live conversations with furtive or not so furtive glances down at their phones.
There we are: two strikes against me. The phone goes back on the shelf and I go back to the Legos with promises to do better, try harder.
Lots of people quit Facebook, or take “vacations,” announcing to their friends and family that they will be “going dark” for a while. Maybe they have the same problems I do: checking at inappropriate times, blocking out their real lives in favor of virtual ones. Though my own Facebook checking is a source of guilt for me, I have no interest in taking a vacation. I’m not sure I could survive it.
I work from home, with the help of a part-time nanny. She leaves in the early afternoon, and then I’m on my own with the kids until my husband gets home from work. My work, as a freelance writer and editor and on-line writing instructor, is done almost entirely via e-mail. There are many days when I don’t leave my house or talk to another adult outside of my own family. On those days, Facebook feels like my only link to the outside world.
It’s a tenuous link, but it has value for me. There’s a practicality to my interactions on the site. I’ve received product recommendations, potty training advice, recipe ideas, and links to articles that have had a real-time effect on my parenting choices. I would know a lot less, or have to spend a lot more time finding the information I needed, were it not for Facebook.
But it’s more than that, too. When I post, for example, an intentionally hilarious comment about my husband and I ending every evening prone on the living room floor, our children using our bodies like playground equipment, what I really mean to say is, “My God, I am tired. Are you all this tired too? Are we all in this together, or am I somehow doing this wrong?” The “likes” and comments may not actually give me an answer, but they do make me feel that I’m not alone. When I post a video of Teddy and Elliot playing musical instruments together while wearing fireman hats, I am not just bragging about how adorable my children are. (I am, of course, a little bit bragging about how adorable my children are.) Beyond that, though, I am looking for witnesses to our lives that are otherwise lived largely behind closed doors. Without Facebook, hardly anyone would ever see my children. Hardly anyone would ever see me.
Four and a half years ago, my brand new husband and I set off from Brooklyn with only what we could fit in the back of our station wagon. We were heading west, to Portland. We’d never been to the city before, and knew only one or two people there, but we’d heard great things and were ready for an adventure. We expected we’d return to the East Coast—to our roots, our families, our friends—after a year or two. The move was to be our last big lark, before we settled down for good.
We didn’t expect to fall in love with the city, but we did, and so we find ourselves still here, with two young children, saving to buy our first house. As a result of our decision to move across the country, we are very much on our own when it comes to raising our kids. Our situation is certainly not unique. Most of our friends—those we’ve known since high school or college and those we’ve met since we moved—live and are raising their kids away from their parents and extended families. Everyone has heard the cliché that raising kids takes a village. My husband and I, and other couples like us, have needed to build a new village.
I suppose it’s not surprising that in our digital age we would turn to the internet to do this. My Facebook friends, many of whom are people I haven’t seen in “real life” since grad school or college or high school or even junior high, are my village. This village includes the friends we’ve made since we arrived in Portland, many of them parents with children very close in age to my own. These friends have helped us when we’ve needed a babysitter, when we moved, when I went into labor one month early and in the middle of the night. They are in many ways like family, and we’re very grateful to have them. But even they we see much more frequently on Facebook than in real life. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether the friendships we have would feel as solid as they do were they not fortified by the daily glimpses into each other’s lives afforded to us by Facebook.
Facebook, then, has been a way for me to reach out for community during what would otherwise be an incredibly lonely time in my life: cooped up in my house, alone with my work and my kids. But it’s not without its pitfalls. It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing my real life to the edited versions that other mothers present on Facebook, even as I know I am doing the same myself, posting jokes instead of just admitting simply how tired I am, how beat up by motherhood I very often feel.
And of course Facebook is not nearly as private as we would like to think. A friend of mine venting about the trials of dealing with her two-year-old caught the attention of a radio DJ, who tagged her post, made it public, and labeled her a “terrible” mother. She received hundreds of hateful comments in response, and had to threaten a lawsuit before the harassment stopped. She thought she was reaching out to her village; she didn’t realize just how inclusive it was.
Finally, there is the guilt. If I could schedule play dates every afternoon for my kids and sit at the edge of the playground, providing the bare minimum of supervision while chatting with the other mothers, I would not feel guilty. Even if there were no other kids for Teddy and Elliot to play with, if I simply invited another adult over to my house to sit and talk while the children entertained themselves, I would not feel guilty. (I would feel like a genius, actually.) When I check Facebook, though, looking for a similar kind of connection, I feel guilty. It’s a habit I just want to break, a lesson I want to avoid.
I’m not sure what to make of this ambivalence. Something tells me that it means something, though, that if my Facebook village were a real community rather than a projection of what I need it to be, I would not feel so conflicted about my time on the site. Maybe, then, Facebook has merely tricked me into believing that we are not really doing this alone.
Or maybe not. A few weeks ago a snowstorm in Portland virtually shut the city down. My husband, trying to commute home on public transportation, ended up stuck in the airport. He and I both agreed that it would not be a good idea for me to try to come pick him up with two small children in the car, knowing we could get stuck in traffic for hours. Alone with the kids, watching the snow come down in the field behind our apartment, I was at my wit’s end, not with worry—he was safe, I knew, and so were we. Instead I just felt very alone. I posted about his misadventures on Facebook, concealing my feelings behind many exclamation points. Within an hour, a friend of ours in Portland who had seen the post was on his way to pick Jamie up. He was home before bath time.
We put the kids to bed together, just like we always do, Jamie supervising the bath while I tidy the bedroom, choose Elliot’s bedtime story, pick out their clothes for the following day. When the kids are rosy and fragrant and still slightly damp, their pajamas clinging to their skin, their hair combed back, Jamie takes Teddy into the other room for his stories while I carry Elliot over to Teddy’s toddler bed for hers. I hold her on my lap, the board book in front of us both, my phone tucked under my thigh where she won’t see it.
After the book, we nurse. She’s almost ready to wean, I know, and I am mostly relieved; I’m ready to have my body back. But I will miss it, too, the warmth of her head on my arm, her particular habit of clutching at me as she sucks. I hold the back of her head with my left hand; with my right I find my phone. She closes her eyes. The lights are off and our noise machine shushes in the background. I revel in the quiet after another long day, and I open my Facebook app.
Melissa Duclos received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and now works as a freelance writer and editor and writing instructor. She is a regular contributor to the online magazine BookTrib, where she writes book reviews and lifestyle articles. Her fiction has appeared in Scéal literary journal. Her first novel, Besotted, is a work of literary fiction set in Shanghai, for which she is seeking representation. She lives in Portland, OR, with her husband, two children, and Yorkshire Terrier, Saunders.
Philadelphia from Belmont, hand-tinted engraving, 1873 ON THE ROMANCE OF PARKLAND by J.C. Todd
Upstream, a shadow crosses the oxbow
of a river whose flood plains are silted
by paternal names of grant-holders.
Their slaves tilled the alluvial bottom
land, turning up flints and the bones
of Lenape. So much loss in the torrents
of plunder and order thought to be gain.
No wonder the broad plateau that sweeps
in folds to the river has gone fallow—
such sorrow breaks plow shaft and blade.
Better to carpet over the turmoils
that clear cut one people’s woodlands to plant
another’s prison farm, another’s estate.
Better to leave it a meadow of clovers
and broadleaves obscuring the blood-rusted
soil. To proclaim it parkland, to name it
Fairmount as if the elevation were
destined to display your picnic aspic,
as if the rhizome undernet were meant
to cushion your lavender cakes.
J. C. Todd is the author of What Space This Body (Wind Publications, 2008). Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, The American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Big Bridge, Wild River Review, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Leeway Foundation, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Baltic Center for Writers and Translators (Sweden), and the Artist House at Schloss Wiepersdorf (Germany). Todd teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Bryn Mawr College and the MFA Program at Rosemont. She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
Take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror because it’s got a frame like a photograph and you need the practice. Move around and play with angles until you find the most flattering position. Now practice snapping into picture position. Repeat until it’s automatic. Practice makes perfect. Smile perfectly.
The next day you sign up for a photo class with Abby. Pick up your rented cameras and practice your photo smile as Abby points the lens towards you. Click. You look pretty, she says.
Make it your profile picture. You’re on the right track.
As the professor drones on about camera settings, begin laying groundwork for network popularity by scrolling through your newsfeed and liking pictures and statuses accordingly. Watch as your name appears across the newsfeed as you click, think of footsteps in the sand, think of I came, I saw, I liked, think of a like for a like. Someone has liked your comments. It’s Tara, a girl from your IR recitation last semester. You click her name and scroll through her recent pictures. She looks fun outside of class. You’ve almost made it through a year of photos when Abby says it’s time to go.
Over the next couple of days be sure to sign up for Instagram. Abby will complain about spending all her money as you drag her from trendy cafés to dimly lit sushi bars searching for the best food and drink to picture and post. Order eel for the shock value. Take a picture and filter. Ask Abby about a caption. Try not to seem disappointed when she says she doesn’t care and asks if you’ve heard anything she’s been saying. The eel tastes salty and slippery going down your throat. Offer some to Abby. Post the picture and share it with Facebook.
Act surprised when Tara comments that you’re at her favorite restaurant even though you knew that. You had found the place from one of her Instagram hashtags.
One day, while walking to Photo class you see Tara. She tells you about a party tonight and says she’ll invite you.
Receive Facebook invite and click attending.
Use the money you’ve been saving for a perfect new outfit. Go to party in perfect outfit and take pictures with Tara and friends. Learn to strike picture your pose as soon as you see a flash going off. The picture of you and Tara gets a lot of likes.
You begin to go to more and more parties with Tara. Start bringing your camera from photo class and watch as new friends fling themselves in front of you smiling waiting for the flash. Upload the albums on Facebook with clever titles and tag all the people you recognize.
Abby invites you to movies but realize that those kind of nights out are not really popular to document on social media so instead invite her out to get eel again. Be understanding when she says she still doesn’t like eel that she’ll just see you in photo class.
One morning, you wake yourself up snapping into your best picture pose as the first flash on sunlight cuts through your shades. Blame it on a stress-induced dream. You forgot to do your photo project on ‘Change’ so you turn in some pictures of your new friends posing at a party. Call it ‘Day to Night.’ Decide to call your Facebook album the same thing.
Abby says she never sees you anymore. Try not to act confused as you remind her about the personal snap chat you sent that morning.
Ask your mom for more money because living in a city is expensive. She gives you more because she’s never lived in a city and you spend half of it on concert tickets. The other half you use to buy more makeup because your eyes look tired all the time now. Notice your hair is no longer shiny. Switch shampoos.
Go to concert and spend the entire time on elevated surfaces or on the shoulders of your new guy friends so you are more visible to the cameras around you. Spend the next week checking Facebook waiting for the photos to go up.
See Abby on the way to the library. You haven’t seen her for two weeks because you were so tired from the concert you skipped photo. She says it looks like you had a really fun weekend. Say you did but you have to run because you have so much work to do.
Study in the library. Feel overwhelmed by all the work you have to do and feel down because you asked your mom to go to Thailand to ride elephants for winter break and she asked if you were crazy. Decide to start a twitter so you can tweet about all the Netflix you’ll be watching confined to your home. Put your books down and start a twitter. Start following people.
Your photography teacher says your black and white shots from the concert don’t capture depth. Tell him you’re better with color. He sighs and says you’ll do poorly in the class if your final project isn’t better.
For your final project decide to do a self-portrait. You need a new profile picture, anyways.
Call Tara and friends to come help with your project. They ask if you’re taking pictures of them. You say no. They say they’re busy.
Text Abby about it. She doesn’t respond. She’s never been good with phones.
You decide to create the most popular profile picture of all time. Camera in hand, borrow the neighbor’s puppy. Get in a bathing suit. Go out to the snowy graveyard. Set up your tripod and cue the timer
Run through snow barefoot towing the puppy on a leash. Throw rose petals in the air at sunset.
In the photo lab, reduce the redness of mild frostbite—thin your thighs and fluff the puppy. Saturate the colors to make the petals look more exotic. Clarify the inscriptions on the tombs and erase your footsteps. Send it to your teacher in an email with the subject, Final.
Wait for when Facebook has the most traffic to post your profile picture.
Your teacher will give you a C in the class. He says the picture has no expression. Asks why you erased the shadows and why you are in a bathing suit and if your feet were cold in the snow. He’ll also ask for his camera back.
As you wait to post your new profile picture, Abby comes up on your newsfeed. It’s a picture of her head bent down her hair covering her face above a coffee mug. You can’t see if she’s smiling but you think she is. You think about calling her but don’t really know what to say. So you just like the picture.
It’s time. Post it.
Now wait. Wait. Refresh.
Brennan Cusack grew up in Santa Barbara, California. She graduated from Cate School in 2011 and is currently a junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying English with a concentration in Creative Writing. She recently arrived back from a semester abroad in Turkey.
JACKSON LISTENS TO THE BIRDS for Jackson born 2/5/07 by Kathy Lou Schultz
Memphis is a huff of spring
grandiose pink blossoms about to pop
a rainstorm lurking in the palpable air
It’s you and me rounding the corners of Midtown
lush and nowhere to go, a soliloquy of hands
It’s the season of no conclusions
of orioles, blue jays, and doves
fighting sleep his eyelids close and open
close and open, sheltered in the trilling air
Jackson listens to the birds
Kathy Lou Schultz is the author of four collections of poems, most recently Biting Midge: Works in Prose (Belladona) and Some Vague Wife (Atelos). Her monograph, The Afro-Modernist Epic and Literary History: Tolson, Hughes, Baraka, is part of the Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics Series from Palgrave. Schultz’s articles have appeared in a wide variety of scholarly journals including Contemporary Literature, Journal of Modern Literature, and Jacket2. She is Associate Professor of English at the University of Memphis, where she directs the English Honors Program and teaches courses in African American and Afro-Diasporic literature, poetry and poetics, and modernism.
A SAD, LOGICAL CAPITULATION (after D. H. Lawrence) by Justin Nicholes
The day a welding rod shimmied down Zou’s collar and combusted his shirt into singed tendrils, the same day my stomach caught traction in the scoop of his lower back and I knew I was in love, also the same day the building gave way, all of us died.
It’s how these things happen, I guess. During our lives our bodies ricochet along until all we stumble into, all that’s rolled our ways, amasses into these blurred mirrors (I’m getting at corporeality here; I’m getting at ghosts). The building’s integrity flagged, and we all lurched ground-ward in common cataclysm.
It sure did surprise us. I mean, we built this place. Just that morning we’d been gawking at Zou’s computer at an image he’d found. It was what the building would finally look like. Twilight purpled on the Dell’s loose-hinged screen. The sky smoked with purple-bellied clouds in the Dream-Weaver image. Living space in the building would sell for eighty-eight thousand Chinese yuan per square meter. Zou turned, his face cracked in tragic reflection (the last cast of beauty he’d manage). If we, workers from unit 414, stopped eating, in ten years each of us could afford closet space.
Provided we were alive, I said, and ventured a hand to Zou’s hip.
We’re not alive, though. Now we drift through beams. Our handprints beat into climaxing clarity then fade. We have bodies that seem whole, but that are invisible. This is no metaphor.
Those of us who are dead worked long enough to raise the thirtieth floor. Beams glitter, almost blinding in the sun. A river runs beyond that. I could shoot my arms out, open them in front of me like an imitation of God, pierce through air and form a kind of slide-beam, an escalator angling from this skeleton. Down below, white hats surround the spot where we landed. They are looking up but cannot locate me. I’ve taken my white hat off. It’s rough around the rim. The smell of tar should be stinging my nose. We slathered it over joints for water resistance. We knew it would rust over time.
We once smoked Hongmei cigarettes. Smoking’s something off limits when dead. Eating steaming spicy soup, then smoking these cigs, would singe your lungs like inhaling chili peppers. The Hongmeis went for five yuan from street vendors. A red rose with a couple leaves and a thorny stem arced on the cover (a more affordable dream than luxury condos). I offered Zou one that morning. When he refused, I knew he’d really quit. I never smoked myself. Just kept that pack for him. He might’ve noticed that I traced the peck of his fingers that smooshed the filter in no casual, coworker way. He bit the tips. You always knew which butts were Zou’s by the four little incisor indentations, two on top, two on the bottom. I had a half pack at the time of the structural break.
My hand is trembling now. From this height, the wind roars.
The wide-hipped girl who operates the elevator—she’s the one to blame here.
She reads romance novels, almost all day. They’re printed on cheap paper and strung together with thread. The books are pirated, and we couldn’t stop thinking about her being interested in sex. She’s young, sure, and her face is smooth and bronze. Her hair is always in a ponytail.
Her name is Meimei, and she made it hard for Zou to sleep. After a day on the upper levels, after being lowered from the cocoon of bamboo scaffolding and debris-catching netting, I could smell her when she opened the elevator doors—all shampoo and laundry-detergent clean. When she looked up at us from the ground, we must’ve seemed like insects at work inside some bandage. Last night Zou left the encampment. His cot lay empty. I watched and watched but he never came back. I thought he’d left, escaped back to family and (God help him) work that pays.
Below me now, on the ground, the concrete workers mix. No point stopping over a few dead men. Yellow hats have arrived. They have probably parked their BMWs a block down and walked, which is why it’s taken so long. Last year, when the Production Office stalled on paychecks, we squatted around one manager’s car. Yellow hats point with hoarse, smokers’ voices. They’ll want to know why work paused. We’re dead, someone should say.
The intercom crackles beside me. “Hello? Hello?” They ask who is up here though they damn well know.
Meimei must be one hundred and fifty pounds. Plump arms make her hands seem delicate. I studied those hands. What was I missing? I watched and wondered why the answer wouldn’t come to me. Such a simple image had to be hiding intent.
Just minutes before the starting whistle, Zou showed up. Zou and Meimei didn’t look at each other.
He had his gloves in his hands, though, both of them, and slapped them on her hip. A small amount of dust exploded and Meimei’s face flushed. When the elevator gate closed, her eyes trailed him until beams broke her line of sight. The elevator’s pulley engine geysered steam and hissed. Zou stared off over the city, gazing through smog toward the last traces of blurred stars.
“What’d you do that for?” I finally asked.
The elevator gate screeched opened. One gate gave way to the crisscrossing of beams we’d welded, the other to the cityscape. His arms pin-wheeling, I didn’t have time to say I was sorry.
The voice through the intercom is a woman’s now.
It doesn’t matter. We’re dead down there. We fell, and there’s nothing Production or Meimei or Zou’s parents can say to bring that back.
Justin Nicholes received an MFA from Wichita State and is the author of the novels River Dragon Sky (2012) and Ash Dogs (2008). His stories have appeared in The Saint Ann’s Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Summerset Review, Stickman Review, Sassafras, Outside In, The Medulla Review, and elsewhere. He’s the chief editor of The Pavilion and teaches English composition in China.
DEGENERATIVE DISEASES OF THE BRAIN
by Juniper Green
When I walk into her room Mrs. Goldberg does not recognize me. Every morning I help her out of bed, clean her up, and dress her. Every morning we meet for the first time. Some days she is thankful for my help. She calls me love, sweetheart, darling. Some days she curses me under her breath, scratches my arm when I try to steady her and cries out for a husband long deceased to come and chase the stranger out of their house.
“Did she give you any grief today,” Sam says as we meet by the bin in the hall.
“Nope,” I throw away a dirty nappy. “Sweet as a kitten.”
“That kitten has claws,” he lifts his forearm.
Three thin scars protrude from the skin. They’re smooth and translucent, catching the light as Sam flexes his arm. I want to reach out and touch them but Sam moves his arm away as he stuffs dirty sheets into the hamper next to the bin.
“Are you almost done with her?” he says.
“Almost, I’ve just got to get her down to breakfast.”
“Just put her on the settee,” Sam points to a worn sofa by the elevator. “I’ll get Suneeta to take her downstairs.”
“Thanks,” I smile a weak smile.
Looking forward to an extended coffee break, my shoulders straighten a little.
“You can help me on the two,” Sam says as he goes back into the room he’s been cleaning.
Of course, I think, and my shoulders slump back down.
After I have placed Mrs. Goldberg on the sofa where she will wait for Suneeta, however long it takes, I head over to the part of the house where Sam is helping the residents out of bed, waiting for me to come and join him.
“Sam?” I call through the corridor.
I cringe at the echo of my own voice. Most of the residents are still asleep and in room B12 Mr. Hauser is dying.
I take a step.
I don’t believe this. I shake my head but can’t fight the smile spreading on my lips.
I take another step, eavesdropping on doors that harbor snoring residents.
Another step, I push my ear up against a likely door. I snicker, I bet he’s in there.
I grin and rip open the door to room A17.
“Got whom?” says Mr. Powell, the resident of A17.
He is standing in the open door to the bathroom with Sam behind him washing a bedsore on his buttock. Before Mr. Powell can fetch his glasses I shut the door. My cheeks are burning, Sam again.
“Since you’re taking care of Mr. Powell, I’m going to get started on Mrs. Wolff across the hall.”
I walk off to B14, and this time I knock before I enter.
When I get down to the breakfast room with Mrs. Callander on my arm, most residents are seated. The more agile ones move around the room, making small talk about sleeping patterns and the current night nurse, giving shoulders a rub here and there. As I sit Mrs. Callander down I spot Sam at the far end of the room. I try to put my annoyance at him disappearing with Mr. Powell and leaving me on my own to get the rest of the residents ready into a single gesture. He smiles at me like a cheeky schoolboy and walks over. I have a feeling once he’s standing in front of me I won’t get a word out.
“Good morning Mrs. Callander,” Sam bends down to peer into her eyes.
Mrs. Callander smiles and blushes a little.
“Well, good morning to you, too.”
“Did you get another visit from your Johnny last night?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Callander chuckles. “He came through the window. We talked all night.”
I have to bite back a grin.
“I’m sure it was a lovely night,” Sam says.
“Oh, it was. Whenever my Johnny comes to visit it is very lovely.”
As I walk over to the kitchen counter to fetch Mrs. Callander’s breakfast, my stomach aches with the effort to hold back a laugh. I let out a choked thanks as I take the breakfast tray from the kitchen aid.
“Sam flirting with the old ladies again?” the aid says.
“They’re talking about her Johnny.”
“Hell, you make it to eighty and the president comes for a visit,” the aid mumbles and goes back into the kitchen.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. When I walk back to the table, the bubbles in my throat have settled.
“Here you go, Mrs. Callander,” I put down her tray. “Enjoy your meal.”
“Thank you dear.”
Sam winks at her before he follows me through the room.
He wiggles his eyebrows.
“Is Jenny here yet?”
“Dunno. Why don’t we get Suneeta to watch ’em?”
“Suneeta is not your personal slave, you know.”
“She’s not? I thought that’s why they sent those candy stripers in the first place.”
I bite my tongue before I say the things I can’t take back. He shrugs and grins but then he turns away. I look at my feet.
“There’s Jenny,” Sam says.
I look around the room but all I can see are residents chewing on stages of mushed breakfast.
“Over there,” Sam points across the room. “Hey Jenny.”
And then I see her too, straightening Mrs. Cowan’s wig, waving a distracted hand at Sam.
“Let’s get out of here before she comes over to talk to us.”
Sam grabs me by the elbow. As he drags me from the room, I spot Mr. Coleman, who is feeding his wife a slice of honey-buttered toast, and I think, Sam’s right, I need a break.
Outside I am rubbing at the goose bumps on my arms while Sam lights our cigarettes. The morning sun just isn’t enough when I’m standing here in a T-shirt.
“Here you go,” Sam hands me one of the cigarettes.
The filter is soggy with his spit but I don’t say anything.
“Such a nice morning,” Sam says. “They should build a conservatory, so the residents can eat outside.”
I look at Sam and raise an eyebrow.
“The board might take you up on that if you pitch it right.”
“You think so?”
“Sure,” I laugh. “If you build it yourself that is.”
Sam snorts and takes a drag from his cigarette.
“You’re a DIY-man?”
“No, but I’m a builder,” and that surprises me.
We stand there for a moment without saying anything until I can’t hold it in anymore.
“You are a builder? I thought you were a nurse.”
“Both,” he looks at me as if he can’t believe that I can’t believe that. “I used to lay brick.”
“Huh,” I exhale, the smoke stings my eyes. “Who would have thought?”
And as I look across the half-empty parking lot I can’t help but imagine Sam’s lean frame in a hard-hat, sweating the working man’s sweat, and when he touches my arm, I jump.
“Relax,” he says. “Where did you just go?”
“Just thinking about what to put in my notes after the shift,” I stare at his yellow fingers on my skin.
“Long time until then,” he sighs.
“Look there’s Mr. Coleman,” I hope Sam is distracted enough to move his hand away. “Good morning, Mr. Coleman.”
Mr. Coleman lifts a hand from the handles of his wife’s wheelchair and waves.
“I hope he’s put sunscreen on her,” Sam says and waves, and I hope that too.
I watch them as he wheels her off into the garden.
“So you fancy a lift after work?” Sam says, and I wish he hadn’t.
Mr. Coleman is gone and there is nothing to distract him with. I nod and when he smiles and leans in, his chest brushing my shoulder, I regret that I did. The heat radiating off him makes me go back to daydreaming about hard-hats and bricks and all these things I don’t know about him.
Since Jenny is in a mood, I am feeding Mrs. Coleman at lunch. Sam is on bathroom-duty. Mr. Coleman has gone home for the day, I wonder if she knows. I crush the potatoes and vegetables before I navigate the mush into Mrs. Coleman’s toothless mouth, gaping at me like a wet, pink cave.
“You know you don’t have to do that,” Sam nods to the mush on the plate, as he returns Mrs. Callander to her seat. “She’s never had dentures.”
“So?” I try not to look at him.
Jenny is watching us from the door.
“Here it comes, Mrs. Coleman,” I smile at her. “Open up wide.”
“Her gums are so callous. She could chew steak.”
I doubt that but I don’t argue. Mrs. Coleman chews and smiles, humming like a small, wrinkled refrigerator.
“Someone likes her meals,” Sam says in that exaggerated voice he uses with the residents.
Mrs. Coleman doesn’t look at him. She doesn’t look at me either. She looks at the spoon before it goes into her mouth.
“If only you were that content,” I say.
“Maybe when I’m old and have no more teeth,” Sam grins. “For now I’ll have to settle on being young and restless.”
I shake my head and concentrate on shoveling more lunch goo into Mrs. Coleman’s gaping mouth. Sam watches me, until Mrs. Callander starts tugging at his sleeve.
“Excuse me young man. But would you mind fetching the nurse?”
“Mrs. Callander. I am the nurse.”
“Oh, well then would you mind accompanying me to the bathroom.”
Sam bends down and puts an arm on her sleeve.
“Mrs. Callander, we just went. Five minutes ago.”
Mrs. Callander studies Sam’s face, pursing her lips but he just smiles at her.
“Did we? Well then I guess it can wait a while.”
I am mesmerized by Sam’s patience, which he appears to have reserved for the residents only. As he strokes Mrs. Callander’s arm, smiling at her, I feel acid bubbling up my throat. I can’t wait for my shift to end and for Sam to quit his job and return to working in construction and then I wave Suneeta over before I end up smothering Mrs. Coleman in her mashed potatoes.
After lunch I scribble down some notes for the late shift, an eye on the door of the break room. Sam is still helping residents go to the bathroom, since Mrs. Callander ended up soiling herself.
I can see him entering the break room as I round the corner, heading for the exit. I should change before I leave but that would take another ten minutes. Time I don’t have if I want to catch the bus and I want to catch the bus because if I don’t I’ll end up catching a ride with Sam and as much as I want to, I have a feeling I shouldn’t. So I run across the street where the bus is approaching my stop and as I get on I see Sam exit the building. he’s looking around, looking at me, turning a gesture into a question. And I want to turn back, get off the bus, walk over but there’s a line behind me pushing me forward, so I just shrug at him, pay my fare, and find a seat.
Juniper Green is a writer at the very beginning of her career. After long periods of aimless wandering she has settled in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she is working on her portfolio as well as editing her first novel. Previously her work has appeared online in Foliate Oak and The Dying Goose.
The milk was white and it squirted out from under his hands. He pulled and pulled the cow’s udders one at a time to a rhythmic beat and I watched it fall down in spurts after each pull. I didn’t know that. I just didn’t know that. I was mesmerized by Appachan’s hands as he pulled and pulled and out it dropped and when it hit it made a metallic clink until the bottom started filling then it sounded like liquid hitting liquid.
I didn’t want to come here. I didn’t want to leave home without my father. I told him I didn’t want to go but he told me I had to. He told me we didn’t have family here and that we had no one to help my mother once the baby came so we had to go. He told me I’d get to see all of Kerala and I’d get to see my grandparents and their farm. I told him I didn’t want to go but he gave me a look like I had no choice and that he wasn’t going to be happy if I didn’t go. I asked why he couldn’t come and he told me he had work and that he would come later, after the baby was born, and then he would bring us all back to the States. I told him I still didn’t want to go to India.
It took a long time to get here. I was on a plane, and then a car, and then a bus that said Pathanamthitta in faded black letters with a bunch of other letters I didn’t understand. Now, I was here watching Appachan as he sat crouched down on a stool, pulling and pulling. I wanted my mother but they kept me away from her and warned me that she needed her rest. At nights, I would sleep in the same room but on a separate bed. It was the only time besides meals that I got to see her. Most nights, I could hear her tossing and turning on the old flat mattress and I knew she wasn’t comfortable. I just couldn’t sleep with all the rustling she made. We were lucky to have a room with a ceiling fan, but it rotated so slowly that all it did was move around the thick humid air hanging in the room. I remembered one night I saw small beads of moonlit sweat flow down from my mother’s face and pool around her eyes before falling and disappearing into the pillow. I missed her and I wanted to touch her but I was afraid. I didn’t understand why this needed to happen. Doesn’t she have me?
During the day, Appachan would keep me busy with his daily chores around the farm. His house sat near the middle of a large sloped hill about a mile from the main road. At the bottom of the hill was a long river where I saw people fishing. The smell of wet smoke mixed with jasmine floated in the air and the sound of sharp chirps leapt from the trees. All along the round hill was a bulging thicket of assorted greenery so much that I could barely see the neighboring houses. But there was something beyond what I could see, beyond what was visible.
“Bobby!” shouted Appachan. “What are you doing? Pay attention.”
His voice knocked me and I focused back on his hands pulling. He scolded the cow when it moved.
“Look, this is where milk comes from,” he said. He pulled and it came out in a spurt and fell into a metal pail.
I smiled and nodded. He pulled and pulled, working his hands under the cow.
“Are you ready to be a big brother?” he said.
“I don’t know. I guess.”
“You have to help take care of baby. You’re a big boy. Very important to help your mummy.” The cow flinched and he moved his hands over her side to calm her down. He continued to pull.
“Good,” he said. “Our family grows. God’s blessing on us.”
I nodded. The milk rose halfway in the pail.
My appachan began to tell me how a cow gives milk. He explained that after a mother cow gives birth, the calf is allowed to spend a week with the mother so it can feed and grow. After a good week, the calf is separated and given different food. This allowed him the chance to milk the mother cow so the family could use the milk.
“That’s enough. Let’s take this inside.”
I walked behind him and watched the pail of milk sway back and forth in his hand. Does the calf ever get to rejoin his mother again?
After a few days, my mother went to the hospital in Kollam. It was a women’s hospital and men were not allowed to go there unless you were a doctor. I was too scared to stay with my grandparents without her so I was allowed to sleep overnight with her in the hospital. Stephen Uncle was also allowed to stay overnight, but only to watch over me. The nurses took every opportunity to remind us of our wrong and their grace.
“This is a women’s hospital. You are not allowed here.”
At night, I slept with my uncle on a floor mat near my mother’s bed. His arm around me felt warm, but I wished for my mother’s instead. She slept only a few feet away, but I knew she loved me.
During the day, Stephen Uncle took me to the local markets and we stopped in a tea shop. I walked in and the aroma lifted me off the ground. I smelled a patch of sweet milk boiling with tea and then some baked coconut treats. I floated to the table and Stephen Uncle ordered two deep fried plantains.
“You’ll see,” he said. “You’ll really like them. They have the best.”
A man walked by with a plate of what smelled like buttery soft flatbread with spicy chicken curry.
“How come food back home doesn’t taste as good? As good as here?”
“I thought yours was better until your daddy told me. He said the food here is fresher. In America, food sits in a store for a very long time. Ah, here it is.”
The hot fried plantains arrived as if by magic in front of me. The outer batter was deep fried to a golden brown with crispier edges of dark brown where the sugar burned. I peeled some off, exposing steam and sweet soft plantain inside. I blew on it and took a bite. I let it sit in my mouth and I swirled it around with my tongue.
“You like it? Yes.”
I smiled and chewed.
“Can I take one banana tree back home? My mummy can make this for me.”
“No. Not possible. Too cold where you live to grow banana tree. And, once it bears bananas, you need to cut it down.”
“What? I don’t want to cut it down. I want to grow it for more bananas.”
“Banana tree bears fruit once, then dies. New ones grow from the ground. The old one must be cut down so the new ones have rich soil. Otherwise, the old tree uses soil as it dies. Old life must stop so that new life can begin.”
“It is the nature of things.”
We returned to the hospital and there was a crowd of nurses in my mother’s room. My ammachi saw me and motioned for me to come toward her. I entered the room and looked at my mother who was sleeping on a bed in the corner. Ammachi leaned forward and held her hand gently against my back.
“Do you want to see her? You are big brother now.”
I inched toward the nurses and one by one they moved away. Then I saw her. She was the smallest person I had ever seen.
“She’s going to eat all your food and grow bigger than you,” Ammachi teased.
Her tiny chest moved up and down with every tiny breath she took. In all her newness, my old world was cut from me, never to be returned to again. My sister was the rift that pushed our family apart and then the force that pulled it back together anew. The end of something good and the beginning of another. The nature of things.
B. A. Varghese graduated from Polytechnic University in New York in 1993 and has been working in the Information Technology field ever since. Inspired to explore his artistic side, he is currently working toward a degree in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida. His works have appeared in Apalachee Review, Rose Red Review, The Camel Saloon, Foliate Oak, and other literary journals. More at www.bavarghese.com.
If it’s a fever you want, then I’m frenzied.
What are you but an ice ax ear ache,
an ice cleat hike down my throat,
the churned Weddell Sea in my paunch. Hell,
you’re the whole Antarctic. I ahoy you
through blown globs of molten glass
pincered and pounded with thin sparks bounced off
withered in the cold before they can blink.
I want you with the knife violent drive of having
to piss and the diffuse warm pleasure after.
I need you beyond aspirin, beyond rashness.
Before I pass out, before I disappear
like krill in baleen, before I feed this fever
to you, examine me. Tell me it’s hopeless,
say hmmm like you mean it and look away.
Kim Suttell lives in New York City where she doesn’t make a living writing poems, but who does? She has had work published in Right Hand Pointing, Penny Ante Feud, Geist, The Cortland Review, and other journals. Please visit them at page48.weebly.com.
Composite image formed from 9,900 source images from Flickr, all tagged “Antarctica” Credit: Jim Bumgardner on Flickr
The main reason I drove four hours to be here was to sign a document giving me access to mom and dad’s security deposit box. Mom called it personal housekeeping. She said, you never know, Miles. What if something happens to your father and me? Somebody’s got to care for our affairs, and we all know your sister—. Well, you know what I’m saying, she said.
When we got to the bank, they couldn’t find the form we needed. The person who prepared it was on her way, but it would be thirty minutes. Mom suggested we go pick daffodils behind the old elementary school while we waited. I said we should forget the bank and flowers and go home and eat lunch. I told her I wanted to get an early start back to Richmond. But Mom said it was too important I sign the form. The school was right up the street and wouldn’t take long. Then she started in on how tall these daffodils were. They come right up to your knees, she said. Best daffodils in town and only a short walk away. Fine, I said. Let’s pick daffodils.
The sun warmed our backs as we walked through town, and Mom started telling me about Melanie’s latest mess. Her ex-girlfriend was pissed off because she stopped paying rent on the apartment they shared in D.C. Mom said the ex had called the house four times asking for the money, and that Melanie was hiding with another ex somewhere in Baltimore. Your sister sometimes, mom said. I just don’t know what we’re going to—. Well, you know what I’m saying, she said. It was her favorite way to end a Melanie story.
I hadn’t thought about Halifax Elementary since mom retired three years ago. For thirty years, she taught second grade at Halifax, and it was where I spent kindergarten through third grade. It was a grand old school. Three stories tall, with round, white columns across the front, and the whole building was dressed in dark, red brick. Mom’s last year teaching was the last year Halifax was used for a school. She said they couldn’t have kids going to schools with stairs in them anymore. They built a new, flat one across town, and Mom packed thirty years of teaching up in big brown boxes. They tried using it for administrative offices, but it didn’t take. Mom said it’s been empty for two years now.
Standing in front of the school I saw the toll the vacancy had taken. Dirty, white streaks ran down the brick façade, and the paint was peeling off the columns. The large boxwoods that framed the sidewalks were so tall they’d need a bucket truck to prune them back. They looked more like trees than shrubs. The place was just a mess. An absolute mess. But when I looked at mom, I saw something different. Expecting to see sadness or anger, she was smiling. It was like she was looking at something totally different. She still saw dozens of smiling, chirping little kids walking in straight lines with their backpacks and lunch boxes. She saw teachers huddled by the door, smiling and waving at the arriving children, telling stories about what this kid did or that kid said. She was unfazed by what the school had become.
There was one particular spot behind the school where the best of the best grew, Mom said. If we were lucky, they’d still be there, but we weren’t the only people in town that knew of them. We walked around the side of the school, avoiding the tall weeds growing up through the sidewalk and stepping over old twigs and limbs that had blown down from recent storms. It was funny. Somewhere between the bank and the school I got excited for the daffodils. I don’t know if it was all the decay and debris or something else, but I wanted to find these flowers. I wanted to find one thing that was still beautiful.
What we found was a long thick patch of green leaves and short, cut stalks. A couple daffodils were wilted and fallen over, casualties of the mass picking. There wasn’t one pickable flower. Not one. I was certain this would upset mom but again, she only smiled. And I knew that smile. It was the same one she had when she was teaching, the way she’d look at her students when they gave her a hug or said hello. Well, they sure got some beautiful flowers, she said. Looking at the size of these stalks and leaves, she said they were probably the tallest and fullest ones yet. I said nothing. I didn’t know what to say. The school was a wreck, mom’s cherished flowers were robbed, and we were waiting on a form that gave me access to my parents’ personal items in the event they died. Mom looked up at her old school, then turned and looked at me and smiled again. She asked if I had my phone on me. Why, I asked. She picked up one of the wilted daffodils, fluffed its yellow petals, and straightened its stalk. Then she walked over to the school’s brick wall and asked me take a picture of her holding the flower.
Daniel W. Thompson is an urban planner living in Richmond, VA, with his wife and daughter. His recent stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Literary Orphans, and Jersey Devil Press.
He’d done it again. Little puddles of sticky green glop all over the floor, specked with shards from the small glass bottle that’d held the apple purée. His fist clutched the plastic spoon as more pale green glop dribbled off his chin and onto the high chair.
Ying had left him for less than a minute to attend to her dinner, which had been threatening to boil over onto the stove. When the bottle shattered on the tiled floor she moved quickly, striding across the small expanse from kitchenette to living room and lifting him clean off the chair and into his cradle, away from the glass. Her movements were smooth, instinctive. He gurgled, his expression untroubled, and using the spoon as a catapult he feebly flicked more purée onto the floor.
As she looked over the mess a familiar warmth began to collect in her insides, wisps of something that was not yet—this was the second time this week she had forgotten to sleeve the bottle and both times he had knocked it off the table. She picked her way carefully back to the kitchenette where the pot still rattled on the stove, the water hissing on the flame. This time she managed to get the clattering to ease before a new sound broke in the close air of the flat: a shrill wail, a sure sign that he was hungry again. At mealtimes she would struggle to feed him while he pushed food out of his mouth with his tongue or smeared it on his chair, and only as she was close to giving up would he grow hungry and shriek his insistence on being fed. She removed a fresh portion of purée from the fridge, placed it in a bottle and warmed that in a container of hot water. It was easier to prepare his meals in batches, steaming the fruit and vegetables—or boiling when she didn’t have time—and then puréeing by hand, storing the food in the freezer where it would be good for a couple of days.
The crying continued as she crossed to the living room and tried to right the mess with paper towels and a wet dishcloth. The impact of the bottle on the floor had flung bits of glass under the furniture and it would take too long to gather the pieces together; they would have to wait until after he was fed. He was rigid in his cradle where she had left him, barely a year old and bawling like only an infant could, the shrill sound seemingly one with rather than coming from him, shining into the hollows between her ears and the crevices of the small flat. Ying felt her teeth slowly go on edge.
When the last of the purée was off the floor she returned to the kitchenette. The broth simmered quietly, tendrils of steam uncoiling lazily upwards in the enclosed, stagnant air. A pigeon sat on the ledge just beyond the closed windows, its head cocked at an angle, by all appearances a permanent feature of the windowscape. As Ying dabbed some of the fresh purée on her tongue to see if it was ready, she heard the spoon clatter onto the floor and his wailing double in volume. There was something strange about the way he was howling: it was different, urgent somehow. Quickly she swirled the contents of the bottle to even the mixture out, and in four strides she was by his side. Bits of glass lay strewn around the high chair; his cradle would have to do. His face was pale from all the crying and his fists motioned uselessly in the air. She shushed him loudly, spooned some purée from the bottle and pushed it into his mouth. His lips hung open, non-complying, and the purée trickled out onto his chin. The cries continued. Ying clicked her tongue, the warmth in her insides close to blooming. He had to be hungry by now. She swirled the contents of the bottle again and took another taste before offering him a second spoonful. His eyes squeezed shut and he continued to wail. This time the purée dribbled onto the cradle bedding.
As if from a distance, Ying watched one hand pass the spoon to the other and arc cleanly back across his cheek in a fluid motion, connecting with a tight thwack. Her insides were alive and the expression felt uncommonly good. In response his cries crescendoed, his skin flowering a multi-petalled crimson where the back of her hand had landed. She tried again with another spoonful of purée, but this time his head jerked away so that she couldn’t even get it in his mouth. His vacant gaze was fixed intently on the windowsill upon which the pigeon still perched, patient. Buoyed by another surge of emotion, her hands left the bottle and the spoon and fell roughly about his shoulders, shaking him fiercely, her voice jagged in a half-scream, desperate for the wailing to stop.
His tiny weight shifted under her strength and out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed a squirming yellow-and-black spot on the beige of the bedding—a small wasp had been caught under his thigh and was just wriggling free. With the blood rushing to her head she lifted his leg a little and saw with a shock that the back of his thigh was puffy and discoloured. He was whimpering quietly now, and when he lifted his eyes to hers again, she saw a look on his face that had the quality of a realisation, as if her actions in those moments had upset something precious, something deeply personal that had barely begun to take shape. And while that was the last time he would taste her wrath as he shed his youth over slow decades, emerging a man no different from others in appearance—able-bodied, good-natured, kind, yet something seemed to have been taken from him that day that he was not to find again, some capacity to give all of himself over to another, a quality of abandon that made him seem more than, or perhaps not quite, flesh and blood. Decades later in the long afternoons she would spend awaiting his return from work, their roles by then wholly reversed, her mind would often return to the events of that day, her thoughts circling the past like a songbird over its cage, already but not yet free.
By grace alone, Jamie Lin lives, teaches, reads and writes in Singapore. His work can be found both in print and online in Flash Magazine (UK), Relief, and QLRS. A chapter in a nonfiction anthology Altogether Elsewhere is forthcoming from Math Paper Press in 2014.
Once a year I backpack my ischemic-stroked brain and body into the Grand Canyon. To test. Observe. See what lost physical move I can do again. Metamorphosize. Twelfth trip: like the Earth, I have the partial wisdom of ongoing trial and error. Experience. First morning. Booted, poised at the rim’s crumbling edge. Plant hiking poles. Step down forward. Start reverse.
Vertical fault line: twelve years ago I twisted my neck, dissected the right vertebral artery running through my brainstem. My neurologist: Another millimeter or two and we would not be having this discussion. The artery clotted. Three days later two clots released. Lodged in my cerebellum: center of balance, muscle control, proprioception. Vision stroked into nystagmus. Movement stroked into stillness. Isostasy. Ahead: layers, conglomerate rubble. Layers. Rubble. Primordial Earth. Mighty Colorado River flowing all away.
Re-learn to see. Balance. Walk. My path did not follow that order.
Order went like this: stand, fall. Stand, wobble, fall. Stand, wobble, fall. Stand. Wobble. Catch. Step. Stop. Rest. Step. Step a minute. Rest. Step, stepped, steeped. Sediments: layers laid down. Layers. More oceans. More sediments. Layered. Then faulted: skewed strata, offset layers. Step down through millennia of tectonics. Rest. Always rest. I began to see the terrain. The work of compression. The work of sudden release. How do we calculate the cost-benefit ratio of an earthquake? How do we navigate fracture and rubble?
Plant hiking pole. Step. Plant. Step over, around rocks of the dry tawny Toroweap. Right eye continually beats. Switchback. Vertigo through the layers, rockslides, leaning spires. Cliffed out. Oh yes, the world makes its paces. Switchback. Toroweap thick in the western Canyon: deep seas. Fatiguing. Last switchback. Grateful feet on the Esplanade. Vertigo on the wavey flats. Such is the way I see.
Such is the way I move: joyful stride, glide, sashay through what Spanish and other taking men called wasteland. Good-for-nothing land. Good-for-many-things land. Good: the Hualapai and Havasupai knew better: here rock pictographs look out: mirrors of the vast space. Good: Clarence Dutton saw better: his thoughts akin to I will re-imagine how man sees the Earth. Now I know this Earth through his eyes. Good: Now I re-imagine myself. Here, too, are told tales of hiking guides falling off cliffs.
Rain moves in. Weeping, I traverse eroded, scarped, cliffed, rolling wet Esplanade. Tinaja: rain pooled in the sepia rock. Sandstone overhangs. Salty sea bones. Here will be first night camp. Memory falls. Recalls. ICU days. Blood pressure spike. Spike. Spike. Spike. Sweet taste of nasal oxygen. Sweet, sweet Canyon air.
Rain moves out. Beam of sunlight pours through a split in the clouds. Torches a distant mesa down Canyon. After sunset, wind moves in. Roars across the Esplanade. Rocks trees. Tents. Moves one. Consuelo in it. Rain moves in: more tinaja for return hike out: up to this morning’s rim. Six inches of snow on this morning’s rim (we hear five days later). By definition: creeks and River will be silt laden.
Second morning. Rehab: how do I explain twisted neck-dissected artery-ischemic stroke to knee replacement? How do I explain Inner Canyon? I point a finger. Say I know something about layers. Form warping form. Scarping: the River undermines soft layers. Trickling power of springs. Powerfully, dried blood trickles, too. Years later we hike changed landscapes.
Re-definition: in rehab I felt my way into what I could do. Stiff. Unbalanced. Wobbly. Uncertain: never lost. Felt. Feeling. Worked stone legs into tools. At camp, Will finds a piece of worked stone. Working tool. Rock wheat among rock chaff. Working tools: hips, legs, feet.
Hit the trail ahead. Clattered clatter wobbly walls splitting. Rockslide. We who hike through a fault in the ocean-silted Redwall limestone see different. We who hike past faulted-tumbled blocks of Redwall know the underlying rock is gray. Know the aircraft carrier-sized blocks in Surprise Valley avalanched down. Down. Avalanche: re-routed the Colorado River. How do we calculate the cost-benefit ratio of an avalanche? How do calculate blood’s clot and cascade melt? Blood: eighty-three percent water. Strolling, we easily move southeast across the valley. Hottest place in the Canyon. The trail a faint scar across an immensity. Surprise: King Rattlesnake rattles his warning. Slithers and slips through a pass between limestone boulders: No-man’s land.
Vista (one of the infinite): Thunder Springs pours from fracture joints in Muav limestone. Falls, falls, falls. Oasis lined falls and tumbling river: watercress, cottonwoods. Away, away, away from oasis margins: Mormon tea, sage, prickly pear, barrel cacti. Limestone ledge. Below: thundered Thunder River flows into brown Tapeats Creek. Strange confluence: river into creek. Strange the names given things. Beautiful the strange ways we test ourselves.
Down river to creek: cottonwood canyon. Old, old roots. Knarled roots absorbing river waters. Overhead: crumbing rock: boulder-slabbed creek: cold, cold pools to wade: refresh in. Here will be two-night camp: let me offer alms: sprig of grass, drops of sweat, blue heron feather. At night: scorpion. UV blue in headlamp light. Scorpion-eating pallid bat. Cottonwood rustle; this an autumn wind. Rehab continues: summer, autumn, winter, spring, summer.
I do not do foot races. Forced marches. You go with me, we do down days. Third day: rest, read, stretch, meditate. Observe, write. Let the working muscles and veins remove lactic acid. Let bloody pricks of desert bricklebrush and proffered prickly pear heal. Let memory heal: IV scars in my wrists continue the long, slow fade. : Rest, read, stretch, meditate. Observe, write. Observe, write. Observe, write.
Night: shadowed side canyon walls open to black sky. Milky Way stretched through Sagittarius. Jupiter bright in the east. Silent satellite in circumpolar orbit blinking. Blinking. In a blink it disappears. Lost among the stars. Absent moon: pack rat scurry through leaf litter. Scurry. Rustle. Scurry. Rustle. Lift my head for no known reason: headlamp beam grazes silent flying great-horned owl.
Fourth morning: hit the trail ahead. Behind: camp robber raven flap flap flap. Swift Tapeats Creek cleared during the night. We cross. Guide rope for safety. Cold water. Pack’s perched high on the shoulders. Noor last—carries the rope with him. Go deep. Deep into the Inner Canyon. Tapeats drops. Drops. Deeper. Down we move through, over slick Hakatai shale. Through the Great Unconformity: a quarter of Earth’s history missing. Missing. Five days in ICU: what did I miss? What memories have I concocted? I know this: ahead, confluence of creek and River. Debris fan rapid.
We follow a contour line. Cliff edge. Every step, focused. Step. Stepped. Steep: a kicked pebble freefalls. Focus: two hundred feet below, cottonwood bole wedged between rock walls twenty feet above creek bottom. Flash flood. Freefall: pay attention to the rubble-covered trail below boots. Freefall: pay attention to what is now. Freefall: pay attention to what comes next:
Angostura: two-definition word: aromatic bitter bark used as flavoring, as a tonic and to reduce fever; a narrow way, tight squeeze, narrowest of ravines, tight stretch of water. My neurologist: your artery has this kink, this constriction. Constriction-finding-a-path: Tapeats Creek digs itself deeper into Earth. Down through the sedimentary layers. Down we flow towards the Colorado River. The River! The River! The River! By definition: flowing things find a path to the vastness.
Switchback. The path is switchbacked. Rock-strewn, gravel-crunch slippery switchback. We descend into primordial Earth. Switchback. Step, wobbly step. Plant pole. What once was. Switchback. Step, wobbly step. Remnants of the clash of continents: oceanic Wyomingland subducting, crashing into and under volcanic Yavapai Arc. Switchback. Step, wobbly step. Plant pole: forty pounds on the back. Step. Stepped. Steep. Last switchback. Lean, lean, lean on the hiking poles. Rock rising, rock descending. Old, old Earth. Heated. Squeezed. Folded. Fractured. Heated. Squeezed. Folded. Fractured. Long before Rodina, Pangea.. They rest far above a splitting forever lodged in thought: River-severed buried two-billion-year old schist and granite grace our handholds. River level: Primordial Earth released. Released. To movement. To flow. To another becoming.
Michael G. Smith is an early-retired chemist. His poetry has been published in many literary journals and anthologies, including Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Cider Press Review, the Kerf, Nimrod, the New Mexico Poetry Review, the Santa Fe Literary Review, Sulphur River Literary Review, and Superstition Review. He has had writing residencies at Jentel (Banner, WY) and with the Spring Creek Project (Oregon State University) at Shotpouch Cabin and the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. His website is michaelgsmithpoetry.com.
MIRABEL RIVER GIRL, CHAMPION SPELLER by Shannon Sweetnam
I was twelve when my Daddy got a long iridescent motorcycle, his first to my unemphatic, unpathwayed, what-I-recall. I wandered the shop façade near the cow-bell laden door, while he strode around back to cast a final gaze at his newly purchased ride. I perused the store in white leather sandals, ambulating back and forth among the sharp smells of steel and sawdust, amongst the stink of after-shave, rubber, and gasoline, under the reverberation of bleak fluorescent lights. I yearned for something to read. When Daddy returned, I laid hands upon his new manual and parked myself outside Jim’s Hardware atop a cooler, foraging for spelling bee clinchers: crankshaft, flywheel, cam chain, hydraulic steering damper. I was to be a world champion speller; I was to win the national spelling bee in the great capital of our country that very spring. Daddy predicted it and I prayed upon it. I would soon be a part of the history of this great nation. The cow-bell clanked obstreperously (the world with which I won the regional bee) and Daddy descended upon me and set me behind him on his new hog. We were homeward bound.
When not shuffling through the delicate pages of the American Heritage Dictionary, I rode with Daddy on his new bike, the child in a swarming sway of age, leading his posse deep into the country along Dog River, under the bright Alabama sky. I’d sneak stones in my pocket, paw them up from underneath the porch and aim them for the river as we sped beside its churning tawny waters.
I was twelve that spring Daddy bought his new motorcycle, the same age and season in which he would be struck by lightning, besieged through the phone line with such pernicious force that he suffered cardio-pulmonary injuries and electrocardiographic alterations. After this, his mind embarked. Daddy stowed the milk in the cupboard after dribbling it over the cat food he mistook for cereal. He attempted phone calls with the TV remote. We scrambled to rise early and feed ourselves. Mama hid the keys to all forms of transportation in the neighbor’s garage while Daddy spent time recovering on the front porch, poring over the dictionary in order to grill me for the bee that, despite his trauma, we remained destined to win.
We had built our house atop the shallow, brackish Dog River, which snaked its way through our front yard on its way to its tidal estuary near Hollinger’s Island, which connects the estuary to the northern reaches of the Gulf of Mexico: the grand Riviere Du Chien, which Daddy had not once had the fortitude to enter. Though I am aqueous, I am not aquatic, he announced, making me spell both. It’s the aqueous part that acts as a conductor of electricity, he explained. Electricity needs a conduit. (Pause for the spelling of conduit.) A conduit is something that transfers electricity. I do not swim. I do not tube. I do not float. I do not engage in landless activities.
Daddy being hit by lightening changed everything, the event preceded by ominous signs. The morning woke with swollen gray pupils. My ruckled senses unfolded. My sister Misty and I regarded each other, sensing the stillness preceding a great storm. Everything was stopped, looming, hindered, except the small stream of blood that poured from between my legs and bled into the cotton sheets.
No one’d warned me about menstruation. It was a word we hadn’t practiced. I didn’t know the blood would be so . . . effusive! Daddy threw me a rag towel to sit on and presented me a new set of words to memorize. Then he scrambled to hunt for the remote to call the drug store for a delivery of tampons.
Mama was a traveling saleslady. It wasn’t her fault she was perpetually absent. Nobody else I knew had a mama like that. Other kids’ mamas stayed home. Daddy took the milk out of the pantry and set it on the table for me and Misty, along with a box of cat food and some plastic forks. Meanwhile, I stuffed my underwear with toilet paper, put on an old short set, and headed outside with a tube of Neosporin to clean the wound on Less Yellow, my nebulous, wandersome feline! Each night, while Misty and I lay together in syrupy-headed slumber, his muffled muroooowls swung through the wind—awoo—caught on the end of the bullfrog’s watery croaks, which together initiated dreams of the church choir’s accordion solos reverberating through the wooden floors and up through our leather dress shoes and our lace-trimmed Sunday socks.
The storming had started in earnest the night before Daddy was hit. The eve of the precedent was mad, and the sordid air hung about in spastic fits. Misty and I were deep in our bed. Daddy was deep in his bed. Mama was tucked into her bed in a Holiday Inn somewhere in Mississippi. The windows were secured against the boreal winds, but the air slammed and jammed to the fremitus of the clicking, kissing, static in the fat-mooned eve. And I knew something was coming, something big and as far away as God Himself.
By mid-afternoon, the stillness was ending and all the things in the universe tingled up. Less Yellow returned from his wanderings, fluffed his tail and shed like a dried up Christmas tree beside me on the porch where I sat looking at the river and watching the road beyond, waiting for Misty’s yellow bus to come galloping to a halt. Together we sat on the porch steps, throwing rocks hard across the lawn so they’d reach the river.
It wasn’t long before the thunder and long corvine screams embroidered the sky and frightened all the infants in the universe. Misty and I sat together on the porch, crowded in concentration and fear while heavy dark colors fell from the viscid sky.
I could feel it coming. Misty could feel it coming. Our cat-yawn companion clawing up the screen door could feel it coming. I could feel the whole world of my space feel it coming. And Daddy was set for the stage, pencil-fisted on his orange work phone. Oh odious, spastic sky! It was late in the afternoon and I could feel it coming . . .
Inside, hooked to the screen, Less Yellow peeled back his ears and opened his green eyes wide toward the heavens. He sensed the danger the way only felines can. That was when the zipper finally pulled, the engine cranked, the serpent roared, and the lightening raced down upon us.
It was the END. We all knew it was. Less Yellow shivered like a baby chickadee and Misty turned violet and limp in my arms, forgetting to aspire. I did not know what to do, so shocked and confused I was from the copious air. My red hair tangled itself like snakes around my head and the river itself seemed to beckon us in as the water spit an angry mist into the trees. I spelled words from my Greek roots list: euphemism, euthanasia, paradigm, hyperbole, and told myself not to go in. I thought of the upcoming state bee, and the national, which had been timed to allow us all a glance at the cherry trees blooming in their long rows on Washington’s indelible and wondrous Mall. I would stand beneath the canopy of the most resplendent tree in my polished white sandals, facing the Lincoln Memorial. The blossoms would sway upon their branches and Misty would elevate my trophy toward the kingdom come, shouting exuberantly: Mirabel, Mirabel, Mirabel, river girl, champion speller!
Shannon Sweetnam is a Chicago-based fiction writer whose work has appeared most recently in terrain.org, Crab Orchard Review, and Georgetown Review. She was a finalist for both the 2012 and 2013 SLS Summer Literary Seminars, finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Orlando Prize for Short Fiction, finalist for the 2013 David Nathan Meyerson Fiction Prize, semi-finalist for the 2012 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, winner of the 2010 Jack Dyer Fiction Prize, and recipient of an Illinois Arts Council grant. She currently works as a writer at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines.
Every time I leave home I begin a new life.
I am a boy again, sometimes a girl.
My memories are so discrete that they talk to each other,
gather in rooms, develop friendships without knowing.
My wives and husbands are the victims of love.
My children all disappear into the crowded river of years.
I like to think I was once an artist,
once a musician, a technician, a gambler, a fool.
In the end, I can only recover who I am,
after the sun warms my many faces,
there is nothing left but the moist earth, the call
of exotic birds, and then I rise from a dozen graves.
George Moore is the author of two new collections, The Hermits of Dingle (FutureCycle Press, 2013), and Children’s Drawings of the Universe (Salmon Poetry, 2014). He splits his time between Colorado, where he teaches at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and Nova Scotia, where he and his wife, Canadian poet Tammy Armstrong, are fixing up a cottage on the southern coast. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, North American Review, and internationally for a number of years.
“He was never a nice man,” she confessed, rolling her stockings slightly below her knees. “Nobody liked him much, not even me.” Through the screen door, I can see my great-grandfather swinging an axe at a scrawny pine, ducking invisible branches as he works. No one can tell him to stand up straight, he’s not tall enough to hit his head. No one call tell him we don’t need any firewood, it’s July.
The air up here is heavier than the whole mountain, blackberries on the bush shriveled and abandoned by the birds. He gathers what’s left. “Don’t you eat any,” he warns, teeth stained purple with juice. “There isn’t enough.” When the lake dries up, he makes a list of possible suspects: me in my bathing suit; pipe tobacco sneaking into the well again; the fat water bug squashed beneath his fishing boot.
Sometimes, the crumpled form on the side of the road turns out to be a cardboard box or an abandoned tire. Sometimes, it doesn’t. The animal lying there might have been someone’s dinner. Someone’s mother. It might have been someone’s pet. Try not to think about this as you zip down the highway, fifteen miles over the speed limit, fiddling with the radio. This is what death looks like: blurry and frozen and over before you can crane your neck to determine what it used to be.
Lauren Hall’s work has appeared in NANO Fiction, The Conium Review, Eunoia Review, Apiary, and Fiction Writers Review. She received the 2012 William Carlos Williams Prize for Poetry at the University of Pennsylvania. Lauren lives and writes in Boston, where it is probably still snowing.
He was hot, too hot, walking on the sunny side of the hard stone streets through tourist stickiness of dripped gelato. He felt as wilted as the reddish-pink blooms that drooped out of the doorway, and he could smell the roach poison they must use here, wafting up from small dark gaps at the base of the buildings. He avoided the pigeons, suspected they were diseased, though he could hear their burbling as they waddled on the dirty streets.
It had been churches today, and each of the dim, frescoed interiors had been a calm relief from the crowds and the heat. But the religious art had oppressed him. In the last church he had stared at an awkward painting of Mary Magdalene, blonde hair covering her entire body, ending with sharp points like the tongues of flame. And there had been another Crucifixion, the blood dripping down the underside of Christ’s arm in attenuated strings of red and piling up like viscous thread at the stones of his feet.
He began now to cross the street in the hot sunlight, hoping the shaded side would be cooler. He heard a Vespa behind him, and turned to see if he needed to hurry across to the narrow sidewalk and huddle against the stone wall. But the Vespa, and its helmeted rider, turned into a small side street.
When he turned again to look up the street, his eyes caught the blinding sunlight, and in the moment it took for his sight to readjust, he saw something coming at him in the blue wedge of sky visible above the street. It was a pigeon, flying down toward him from the rooftops above, its beak a clear centered point, its wings outstretched so they appeared to meet the buildings on both sides. It’s that image, he thought, the image of the Holy Spirit that I had thought so artificial. He continued to look, unblinking in the middle of the street, as the bird kept coming at him in a swift glide, until the bird turned to the side to land on the blackened stone of the street. It had been a hot dog bun it was after, he saw now, as the pigeon began to peck at the gritty bun.
In the cool of the shadow now, he continued his walk up the street. The image had been in a painting of the Pentecost, the apostles below with red tongues of flame on their heads. The dove had been above, in a circle of incised gold. It was the same straight-on image, the centered beak, the wings outspread. In the church, he had thought, who has ever seen a pigeon like that? But now he knew they had taken it from life. Five hundred years ago, walking the stone streets of Florence, they must have seen it too, coming right at them, something they could paint as the Holy Spirit, in the form of an everyday sight, a hungry pigeon flying from the cool air of the rooftops for a piece of broken bread.
Thompson Mayes is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Masters program in writing and wrote “Pigeon” while studying in Florence, Italy. Currently living in Rome, Tom is the recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts Rome Prize in Historic Preservation from the American Academy in Rome, where he is writing about why old places matter.
Image credit: Chris Beach on Flickr Author’s photo by Catie Newell.
June had been eating a creamsicle on the front porch when she saw them. It was the third week of July and the entire house was sweating, drops of condensation sliding down bookshelves and chair legs. Her father was having his annual boys’ weekend with some college buddies, and her mother was at an artist’s retreat in Vermont, working on her new series of collages. June was left to babysit Lily, whose tyrannical seven-year old behavior she’d only expected the heat to magnify. Instead she had become drowsily acquiescent, content to sit in the shade of the porch as long as she had a constant supply of chocolate milk and coloring books.
June laid on her belly on the shadowed porch, coloring mermaids and dripping creamsicle syrup onto the page. “No mermaid has brown hair,” Lily said, leaning over with turquoise stub in hand. “It has to be realistic.”
If Lily hadn’t intervened she probably wouldn’t have seen anything. She wouldn’t have looked up from Coral Casey and her sea critter pals. She wouldn’t have glanced at the maroon Lawson Shrub Service truck speeding down the road. She wouldn’t have bit her lip at the sight of Tim Lawson in the front, his arm wrapped around a woman in the passenger seat. She wouldn’t have glimpsed the unmistakable head of her mother, hair too long for a woman her age and streaked with the fuchsia hue favored by teenage experimenters.
“Lily, time to go inside.”
Lily didn’t look up from her coloring book. “No way, too hot in there.”
“I’m not asking you,” June said, trying out an authority she didn’t feel she had. “I’m telling you.”
Lily kept coloring and June knocked the crayon out of her hand. The instant she did, she regretted it—Lily’s bean-bag size fist opened in shock and trembled. Lily swept the crayons into their box and closed her coloring book. “You don’t have to act like Dad,” she said.
Lucy was reaching up to open the sunroof when she saw them. Side by side on the porch, postures mirroring each other—lying on the deck with chests lifted, bare feet pointed skyward. “We shouldn’t have come this way,” she said, shaking off Tim’s sweaty arm.
“You still paranoid about the girls? No one’s going to be outside in this heat, Luce.” He patted her on the back, looped his arm around her shoulder again. She rolled her shoulder backwards but he just gripped it tighter.
“We’re fucked. I just saw them. June saw us. From the porch.”
“Jesus, they want heatstroke?” Tim rolled his window down further, stuck his left hand out and wiggled it in the humid wind.
“We don’t have AC. It broke a week ago and Mike keeps saying he’s going to fix it, of course he doesn’t, God forbid he makes any sort of contribution to the family.” Lucy ran a hand through her hair—her fingers came out netted with blonde and pink strands. She pulled them off and tossed them out the window.
Tim flicked his aviators up onto his head and turned to Lucy, his eyes locking with hers. “Lucy baby, what’s that rule we made? No family talk, especially no Mike talk, remember?” He stared at her until she nodded. “Good. And June couldn’t have seen us, I flew past your house—nothing like 50 in a 20 zone!” He pulled into his driveway and stamped the brakes, tires squealing like a dog with a crushed paw. “And no AC! Man, you’re a sadistic one, leaving those girls alone in hell heat.”
He grinned at her and she had to bite her lip to keep from spitting on him. “Don’t talk to me like that,” she said, trying to remember how to defend herself. “I am not.” She could hear the uncertainty in her own voice.
He kicked open his door and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead before leaping onto the driveway. “Don’t worry, babe. That’s why I love you.”
June ran the Jacuzzi in her parents’ bathroom with cold water. Lily sat on the tile in her pony print bathing suit, swimming two mermaid Barbies through the air.
“Isn’t this better than coloring mermaids? Now you can be a real mermaid!” June said, squeezing a fish-shaped container of bubble bath that her mom used to use for her tubs. Lily didn’t respond—she’d been alternating between the silent treatment and screeched demands since they’d gone inside.
The Jacuzzi began to froth with bubbles and June turned off the stream of water, then knelt beside her sister. “You want to get in, Lil?”
Lily shook her head and dive-bombed one of the Barbies towards the seashell shaped bath mat. June could feel a tear of sweat drip from the corner of her forehead and dipped a hand into the cold water. “C’mon Lil, you’ll feel better if you’re in the tub.”
Lily clicked the heads of her Barbies together. “No.”
June gripped the side of the tub, her knuckles turning the same white as the tile. “You’re the one who wanted to play Mermaids, Lily.” She slapped the foamy skin of the water. “It’ll be refreshing.”
Lily shrugged, one of the frilly straps of her suit slumping towards her elbow. “Why don’t you go in?”
June rolled her eyes but swished her hand through the cool bathwater. “If I go in will you go in?”
Lily turned her back and slapped the plastic bodies of the two Barbies against each other. “Maybe.”
June stood up and dipped one foot into the bubbles. “I’m going in, Lily.” Lily ignored her. June didn’t bother taking off her clothes but slid into the tub with her tank top and shorts on, the wet denim clinging to her skin like strands of hair during a rainstorm. She rested her arms on the sides of the tub and blew a cluster of foam away from her face. “It’s so nice, Lil, come join me!” She patted the bubbles and shook fistfuls towards Lily. “You want to play?”
Lily pretended not to hear her and slammed her Barbies into the ground, grinding their faces into the grout between the tiles.
“Lily,” June said, trying to sound like their mother. “Lily.”
Lily started humming to herself and swinging the dolls by their tiny arched feet.
“Goddamn, Lily, listen!” June snatched the Barbies from Lily’s hands and thrust them beneath the cap of coconut-scented bubbles. Lily jumped up in surprise, lurching for her dolls, and June noticed that her face was a splotchy pink, her breath sputtering out in fast, unfinished bursts. Just as her hand was about to reach into the tub Lily’s legs folded beneath her, body spreading onto the bath mat and hair wrapping around her eyes and forehead.
June sprang out of the tub, water falling from her like a storm shower, a sudsy stream pouring over the bathroom as she lifted Lily from the floor and ran to the bedroom. The bathwater weighting her clothes was tugging the material towards the floor, fat drops splashing onto the carpet and Lily’s still body. She placed Lily on the bed as gently as she could in her panic and picked up the phone, dialing 911 while she clawed at the buttons of her shorts. The waistband was heavy and choking against the rapid rise and fall of her stomach, and the denim finally dropped to the ground in a soggy pile. She peeled off the sticky tank top with one arm as the phone rang, then threw the thin shirt against the wall, where it slowly slid to the ground, a streak of water trailing it like the residue of a snail’s path.
“My sister—“ she panted, not crying only because she couldn’t remember how. “Help—I don’t know what to do.”
“Why don’t we take a shower?” Tim asked, grasping Lucy’s wrist and leading her upstairs. She hated climbing the carpeted steps with bare feet, dodging the stiff, yellowed socks and multicolored stains.
His bedroom was the same as always: shades drawn, bed pretending to be made with the comforter smoothed over wrinkled sheets. There was the same laundry basket of unfolded clothes that had been there last week. She dropped her purse on the bed and turned the dial up on the AC unit jammed into the window, which coughed in response.
Tim stood in the doorway, watching her. “Shower’s that-a-way,” he said, hooking a thumb down the hall.
Lucy sat down on top of the bed and undid her sandals. “I know. Can we just lie down for a bit? This heat is getting to me.”
He sucked in his breath and gave a little whistle. “Lucy, are you here to fuck me or not? The whole point is that I’m not your husband.” He turned and kicked the doorframe. “I’ll be in the bathroom if you care to join me.”
Lucy took deep breaths to avoid getting emotional. You deserve this, she told herself, You wanted this.
She remembered the first time she’d caught Tim looking at her, when she was planting tulips and he was mowing their lawn. She’d invited him in for a glass of lemonade and he’d told her she had pretty red hair. That was it. And it was enough. That weekend Mike had said he was on a golfing trip, which meant that he was with Jessica, a junior executive at his firm. She’d liked Jessica when she’d met her at the company Christmas party last year. She had excellent taste in shoes.
She remembered the first time she’d caught Mike looking at her, too. At the studio in college, where he was working on a sketch for the Intro to Drawing class he was taking to fulfill a requirement. She was finishing a self-portrait she’d been painting and could see him glancing at her out of the corner of her eye. As she was about to leave he came up to her: Sucks that you won’t be able to get an A for that piece, he’d said. Why? He shrugged. There’s no way you can do justice on canvas to your beauty. Later he’d tell her it had taken him two hours of watching her paint to come up with that.
“Luce, you coming?” came the voice from the hallway.
She closed her eyes and pulled her shirt off over her head, lobbing it at the wall. “Coming.”
Lily wasn’t sweating. She was dry, too dry, like the scorched leaves of the aloe plant in their kitchen. June stood over her in her damp bra and underwear, the wet ends of her hair sending droplets rolling down her chest and ribcage. She pressed one moist hand to Lily’s chest and used the other to hold her tiny beanbag-size hand, stroking it like she’d seen her mother do on the night Lucy had appendicitis.
Her mother. She picked up the phone and dialed her mother’s number, but it went to voicemail. She called it again, her sweaty fingers slipping on the keypad, the buzzing dull in her ears.
She dropped the phone to the ground and returned her hand to Lucy’s chest. She counted the rise and fall of her chest: updownupdown.
Lucy stepped into the bathroom as she heard her phone ringing. Tim had his hand under the spray of the shower, testing the temperature. “Finally.” He grabbed her and pulled her to him.
“Hold on, my phone.” She twisted away from him.
“Just ignore it, Jesus.” She paused in the doorframe. “It’s nothing,” he said. “You’re in Vermont creating or whatever, remember? Who would be calling you?”
She looked down at her bare feet. “What if it’s the girls?”
He stepped towards her and tipped her chin up to his. “All the more reason not to pick up.”
She could feel a bead of sweat racing down her shoulder blade. It reminded her of the day of her mother’s funeral, when it was so hot two of her aunts had fainted and she had sweated through her black shift so badly that she’d had to throw it away afterwards. June had been three at the time, and watched the speeches, the sobbing, and the handholding with a solemnity Lucy hadn’t expected. Back at the house afterwards, left-over finger sandwiches wrapped in the fridge and an open bottle of wine on the table, June had climbed onto Lucy’s lap. She wrapped her little legs around Lucy’s waist and placed her chubby fingers on Lucy’s shoulders. “Don’t worry, Mommy,” she said, eyes wide and unblinking. “I’ll never leave you.” It was the first time Lucy had cried all day. She was usually pretty good at keeping it together.
“So?” Tim drummed his fingers against the glass door of the shower.
“You’re right,” Lucy said, pressing her fingers to her temples and closing her eyes. “It’s nothing.”
Alina Grabowski is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and creative writing. Her writing has been recognized by the YoungArts Foundation and the Scholastic Writing Awards, and she was a Presidential Scholar in the Arts semifinalist in 2012. She recently participated in ICA Philadelphia’s 7 Writers program celebrating the museum’s 50th anniversary.
I am salt and champagne. Salt and dirt and stars. Two-sided story, double-edged knife. Dinosaur bones and tambourines.
I have walked into town by myself at dawn and seen my face reflected in the windows. I have danced down the aisles of the grocery store and blown kisses to the pharmacist with the one blue eye. I used to count tiles from the produce section to the checkout line, because I thought that if I didn’t, my sister would die. In school, I learn this is some kind of misfiring, and am warned that it could come back any minute, but for now I breathe carefully and wash the idea down the bathroom sink. I am on the brink of a brilliant war. Each morning, I move in spheres. I contain mirror neurons and sunshine. Porch lights and beer cans. July.
Miss Irene lives next door with her ghosts. She reads Time and The Harvard Review and washes her car on the lawn. I know a boy named Max who moved here from Louisiana last December. He has fiddler crabs tattooed on his left arm, and rough breath that makes me suspect he speaks harshly. One day he says Miss Irene has a mind like the light in his garage. It burns so bright some days that it shivers, then drops into darkness for weeks. I loved Max so much when he said this. I told him. He might have kissed me then, but I am defiant and cruel, and I stared straight ahead. Her house is painted white on one side, blue on the other.
But I am not as foolish as I once was. I will not try to save you because I am not salvageable either. The only things I will take with me from childhood are pink lemonade, laughter, and dogs at night. Nothing else. Not the man in the pawn shop with hungry eyes. Not the test with the 33%, a number that looked like clipped wings. I am lightweight.
In eighth grade, I have a friend named Kate. We sit on the curb after school with mayflies in our hair and sweat in the back of our knees, and talk about Tyler and Peter and Kevin, who can’t move the right way. His arms are twisted sideways, and he is in pain when he walks. Sometimes, Kate gets so quiet I forget she is beside me. One of the boys she loves has a telescope that he lets us try on his rooftop in November and there. No. To the left. There! I see Saturn suspended, a yellow jawbreaker with dust haloes. The idea of it hums in me, even when I realize that Kate has gone downstairs, with this boy she is so sure she loves, and I am alone again, spinning in moons and stars.
But I have to remember that the world is irrational. Full of jazz clubs and drugstores and forgiveness. 3 A.M.s and airports and reunions, so who am I to worry about whether or not it laughs at my restlessness, or decide if it desperately needs me?
Max moves when he is twenty-four. He goes back to Louisiana for no good reason. There is no U-haul or pickup with a mattress in the back, just a taxi in his driveway at 4 A.M. and a bedroll by the mailbox.
Will I be brave when I am older? Will I become a woman who can lay down all her secrets before 8 A.M., and decades before the world is ready to receive them? Will I ever know what to say? In my wrists, there will be moth’s wings. In my mouth, a darkness I will pull out like a tablecloth, and from my throat, silver doves instead of this silence.
And I will not be sorry. I will not swim in the shadow of my tallest mistakes. I will collect mysteries and begin counting the steps to my house in senseless self defense before I am reminded that this is only mechanics. Dear simple thing. Dear strange impulse. A striped cat on the balcony should be proof of safety. A man jogging under the dogwood trees might wink as he passes your car. I want this world unburied. I am right now on the brink of a brilliant war.
And did you know that even in this body you have learned to hate, you contain a vicious kindness? You can see it there, suspended, by the tiny bones in your ear. A yellow planet.
And any day now, I will move to a city that smells like jasmine and exhaust. At night, it is a constellation, and stretches into images of hunters and dancing girls. But it won’t tell me which one I am.
And in the evening, I will stand very still by the window. I, too, am full of hidden staircases that other people built. Who will I tell this to? Which friends do I still need to meet? In this air, a nightingale sings. In this room, the walls breathe. This house is orange on one side, and burning on the other. A boy I knew named Max was orange to the bone. I like thinking that the person I was when I knew him lives on inside him, somewhere, every time he sees a girl dance through a grocery store. Maybe, by now, his own daughter. His wife? Miss Irene is reading Time on her lawn.
And I am still salt and cement. Salt and dirt and morning glories. Semi-automatic, I have become suspicious. Most of the facts I have learned are incomplete. I am full of facts like these. Five percent water, ninety five percent gentle lies. I will leave none of them behind, but long after I have left this apartment, rumors of disasters and small discoveries will stay hitched to the cobwebs by the TV cabinet.
In truth, I have been so lonely. I have lost so much time to untamed thinking. But look at this satellite skimming the trees. This lightning bug in the bushes. I am better. I am undone. I am caught in the middle of a brilliant war. The sky outside this conversation. Clouds lipsticked gold like the ceilings of Italian cathedrals. A plane sweeping up and over the field, the window, the roof, the radio in the kitchen, the glasses clinking. I am here, for now, and in the lifting shadow, the rush of sudden light, the small room expands like a lung.
Molly McGinnis is a freshman at American University in Washington, D.C. She is the recipient of two national American Voices Medals through the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and has been published in The Sierra Nevada Review, The Adroit Journal, and American Literary Magazine. In her next life, she would like to be Aubrey Plaza or Hillary Clinton, even though that’s a little unrealistic.
An organ pipe mud dauber is building a nest in the ornamental tin-roofed wren house Cheryl hung by the door. I hear her stridulating at her masonry work, and see her carry a small ball of mud into the bird house, a first for me, even though I’ve casually watched her predecessors for years. Our paths are bound, by simple proximity, to intersect before long. One day she emerges just as I step outside, rockets up, appraises me, hovers motionless at point-blank range. I freeze. She stares me in the eye. I gain a more mature understanding of “in your face.” Iridescent steely blue-black, she—an insect—has goddamn presence. Even though I outweigh her by roughly 343,000 to one, I’m the one who backs down. I inch my hand up to make the Vulcan “live long and prosper” sign and will my body to slide backward several centimeters. Appeased, she resumes her business. I breathe.
My wishes for her prosperity are sincere—anybody who feeds spiders to her young is OK with me. Sad to say, I see her only a couple more times. Though I easily could have missed her first appearance, her tenure seems too short. These wasps are supposed to be quick workers, but I still fear she may not have died in her sleep. Web sources say she abandons the nest when egg-laying is done, but are mute on her subsequent life. Does she die immediately? Live until the first frost, pollinating flowers and sipping nectar? Some weeks later I spot another of her species ravaging a stand of goldenrod. This one’s eating, I think, and she’s probably still laying eggs. My chance observation suggests that my girl, her work uncompleted, met her nemesis in a bird, a car’s windshield, or even a nasty microbe. Come spring, I’ll watch the wren house for her children, and tell them how I met their mother.
Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Has grandchildren. Extraordinarily lucky. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. Not averse to litotes. His work has been published recently in Prime Number Magazine, Camroc Press Review, and Stymie. On Twitter: @oldmanscanlon. On the web: http://read.oldmanscanlon.com/.
I labeled all the dancers’ body parts and told them how to use them. I prepared resonant music, a prescription for feet that kaleidoscoped from room to room. I described what I wanted, a mouth yanked upward, ankles and hands telling a phantom story, heads grouped into archipelagoes. I was the one going nowhere. I theorized, discussed, directed their bodies, which leaned against one another’s shoulders.
“Arm?” one asked.
“If you want one.”
There was a movement of undressing and tiptoeing toward the unlocked door.
They floated and spun, lifting themselves. The floor parked itself beneath them. Air congealed, then became inflamed by their motions. They rightfully absconded with my best advice.
I helped strangers, reassembling them. At night boxes sheltered the dancers’ animal parts. Morning light combed their human hair. I knew what to hold and what to let go, correcting their articulated shadows. I positioned and positioned. The dancers borrowed pieces of my body, fingers flaring, toes waving goodbye without restraint. Their faces reflected nothing.
“A leg isn’t just a leg.”
I pointed to another, pouring past me as though she had survived something she had already forgotten. They understood suffering.
Laurie Blauner is the author of six books of poetry, a novella, and three novels, most recently The Bohemians from Black Heron Press. She has received several grants and awards, including an NEA and 4culture. Her work has appeared in The MississippiReview, New World Writing, Your Impossible Voice, The Nation, The New Republic, Superstition Review, and many other magazines.