I looked up from my mother’s crumbling copy of Journey to the End of the Night, which I had pilfered during my last visit home. I was so shocked to hear that someone actually recognized what I was reading that I stammered at first, unhinged my jaw as if to say something, anything, in response to his question, thought, pulled my head back, and finally furrowed my brow and said “no.”
“Yes you are. You’re reading Celine. That man—that guy, he was the most…anti-Semitic of them all. All the French people at that time. The non-Jews, they were against us, and he was the worst”—woist—“of all. The worst! How could you read him, and in public, too?”
We were on the D train between Grand Street and Broadway-Lafayette. After we had both gotten on the train at Atlantic, he through the second door and I through the front, I resumed reading and had re-entangled myself in this most intensely difficult novel. After the usual scrum at Grand Street I saw the curl flop from off the top left corner of the page.
I hadn’t been prepared for this. Who knew who Celine was anyway, except for Francophiles and the French people they wished they were? Wasn’t he a footnote of the French catastrophe of those years? And I’m Jewish—real Jewish, on my mom’s side. Who the fuck asks me—and I know I look Jewish, too—who the fuck asks me if I’m Jewish? It’s obvious.
“I, well, it’s great literature. Scholars of…”
“Great literature! Great lit…” His head darted to the other end of the car, then back to me, then back again, then back to me. His mouth was agape, and he was panting with disbelief. “Great what? The man hated the Jews! There’s no great literature in that. There’s no art in anti-Semitism. You…” He huffed a few more times, and the women around us had taken notice. Even the Chinese ladies who had gotten on at Grand Street seemed to recognize the word “anti-Semite,” or maybe they figured that anti-Semitism was the only plausible explanation behind a Hasidic man’s outburst on a subway train.
He had now squared his body toward me, though he was still holding on to the bar above his head. He traced my vertical measurements with his head, stared a moment, then turned around and bellowed “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please? Attention! This man”—pointing at me—“hates the Jews! He is an anti-Semite!” He put a long pause between the two parts of that last word.
“I’m not,” I managed. “I’m, my mother, we’re Jewish. I am Jewish, I don’t hate the Jews.” I realized that sentence didn’t come out correctly.
Everyone on the train was watching. An older black man wearing a pork-pie hat, a trio of Japanese tourists, a suit, a short Central American with a ponytail: everyone was watching this play out.
“This man”—again motioning to me—“this man reads literature by an anti-Semite! This man reads French literature from the time of Vichy, from the country who, that sold out their Jews, and he’s—”
I tried to interject, but he continued.
“—reading the worst of them. On the train”—sweeping motions toward me—“in public, to make everyone see that he’s an anti-Semite. No! A self-loathing Jew. The worst kind!”
By now he was pointing madly at me and his eyeballs were as revealed as those of a patient who is about to have his pupils dilated.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…the worst Jew in the world! The worst! You’re a bad Jew to be reading that anti-Semite. What’s he saying? Huh? He talking about killing us yet? Huh? You thinking about killing us yet? Yeah?”
“I don’t want to kill anyone, man!” I had now raised my voice to match the intensity of his, and my increase in decibel level was met by an increase in his eye size. He looked like a madman, and I opened my mouth to let him know as much, but nothing escaped.
I fought back more words for a few seconds. Now he looked almost defeated, as though he had reached the peak of his intensity and had no choice but to descend the summit. His stare grew less menacing, his mien now less of a bomb and more of a disappointed father. Shaking his head with tightly pursed lips, the man swiveled toward the door and waited for the 47th-50th street stop. Aided by the blackness of the tunnel, I could see him mumbling words to himself, and I wondered at the scale of his derision.
Did he really think that I hated him, hated myself, hated Jews in general, because I was reading a novel?
I couldn’t resist watching him bumble into the crowd at his stop. The train had emptied out. I could now continue my journey in quiet, in the company of at least one ardent anti-Semite, constrained to paper perhaps, but whose life still haunts some of those whom he hated.
Robert Pulwer is an education professional who lives in New York City. A graduate of Tulane University, he is a former NYC Teaching Fellow and a 2012 Fulbright ETA to South Africa. When he has time, he likes to tap the rubber practice pads in his room and wish they were a real drumset.
In the back, a Formica table waits
on off-white industrial tile. We clock-
out, pull paperclips from our throats:
purple ones, yellow ones, metallic, pink.
Our mouths never seem satisfied.
We cough them up enough in jagged
convulsions for our fingers to work
out like loose teeth. Our ritual piles
every example of unbent paperclips
on the Formica table in the back.
Such is our breaks. We want the pile
to grow so large it spills off the table
but this requires more paperclips
than the amount we have managed
to expel from our bodies already.
We need new mouths to mine,
to set in the approximate motion
of vomiting—a bolus that turns
into a swarm, a wave, a knocking,
a riot, a fist, a slow boil, a bulge,
a fit of lightning strikes vying
to collapse this table in the back
with ritual, to stab this giant
with a spear made of filed rebar.
Brian Clifton can be found in PANK!, burntdistrict, Juked, and The Laurel Review. He lives in Kansas City Missouri and edits an online magazine, Bear Review.
“I found four thermometers, but they’re all rectal,” Dad shouted over the phone.
“Rectal?” I asked, as I licked buttercream frosting off my fingers. “What do you mean rectal?”
“Hold on.” There was a long pause. I could tell he was waiting for me to repeat my question. Our son was thirteen. Our daughter was twenty. We hadn’t had a rectal thermometer in the house in over a decade. I was not going to repeat my question.
Jim and I were in Toronto for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. We’d come to attend the annual TIFF Film Festival. The plan was to watch a lot of movies, balk at how skinny the actresses were at the premieres, eat five-pound lobsters at the oldest restaurant in the city, get drunk on Canadian beer, and, when the occasion presented itself, gorge ourselves at the bakeries. The rule on bakeries was—you passed one on the sidewalk, you went in. On the way to a film? You went in on your way back. If it was closed, you wrote down the address, high-tailed it to the nearest bar, and returned the next morning. This was how it was going down.
But now the 13-year-old had a fever back in Chicago.
“I can’t find the junior Tylenol either,” Dad barked.
“Zack doesn’t take junior Tylenol, Dad. He’s a hundred and thirty pounds. He gets the regular stuff,” I explained, looking up as a bakery staff member slipped a new tray of macarons into the display case. Before I could even poke him, Jim was on it. His chair screeched against the tile floor as he bolted back in line.
“Hold on,” Dad repeated.
I sidled up next to Jim, phone stuck to my ear, my head cocked. “Anal thermometers,” I whispered. He didn’t question me any further. Because he knew.
I could smell the macarons through the glass display case. They weren’t all the same. There was a mind-numbing variety of wafers and filling – chocolate, pistachio, cream, butterscotch, rose….
“All you’ve got in your medicine cabinet is acetaminophen and something called Calcium,” shouted Dad.
“Acetaminophen is Tylenol,” I explained. I don’t know what happened after that. I mean I think I blacked out from happiness. Or something. When I came to, I was in a dark theater with my pants unbuttoned. Robert Redford stared back at me from the screen. The credits rolled. I checked my phone once we were back outside. I had 136 text messages from Dad. So I did what any self-respecting adult would do – I read the last one, which ended with a winking face emoticon. I was pretty sure everything had turned out O.K.
“Macarons,” I said, as we walked in the dimming light down King Street.
“Macarons,” Jim answered. We didn’t even have to look at each other. We just knew.
Shannon Sweetnam is a Chicago-based fiction writer whose work has appeared most recently interrain.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. Her story “Mirabel River Girl, Champion Speller” appeared in Issue 5 of Cleaver.
Five years ago, the eastern part of this state was submerged—a Midwestern Katrina. Waters from a snowy winter mixed with an especially rainy spring and ran down our rivers, the Mississippi, the Iowa, the Cedar, and others. The soil was saturated and the river banks gave way under the weight of the deluge. Some built arks. We were safe, standing at the peak of Mount Ararat with a pair of binoculars, watching the flood waters rise and raze crops, cities, continents.
The breadth of anxiety from such experiences is not to be understated. To illustrate, when the unsinkable Titanic sank, among the seven hundred or so survivors was stewardess Annie Robinson, forty years old at the time with a grown daughter. Annie returned home from the Titanic disaster to—believe it or not—take a position aboard yet another ship, the Lapland. (Some well-meaning idiot probably told Annie, “Get back up on that horse or you’ll be forever afraid of riding.”)
Two years later she took a short trip aboard the Devonian to visit her daughter in Boston but it happened to be foggy at sea that day. The captain blew the ship’s whistle again and again as a warning because this is what captains do, and Annie, likely reliving those horrible moments on the Titanic, jumped overboard, not to waiting lifeboats and helpful crew assisting rescue efforts but to the bowels of the cold Atlantic where awakened out of her painful reverie she may have called out in vain to be brought back to safety. Annie Robinson: “‘presumed drowned’ between 42º35N 67º15W and 42º25N 69º30W.” Her bones still lie entombed off the eastern seaboard. R.I.P.
Rain is forecast to some degree for the next week. Neighbors’ hay is high but cannot be cut. Some have tried. Most have failed.
The grass and alfalfa won’t dry when the nights are cool, like now, and if baled while damp are in danger of composting and smoldering, flaming up. Barns have been destroyed this way; we’ve seen smoking bales in the middle of pastures. Horses have gotten sick and died because of moldy fodder. Hay must be dry to bale and the rain must stop before the grasses can be cut. And once again we learn that nature cannot be controlled, only attended upon.
A dragon glides across the midday sky, its tail straight, unspiked. Several smaller dragons follow and a very large one lags behind. Humbaba has favored Iowa! The first dragon soon converges with the universe and is no more, the smaller ones meld to white, and the large one breaks in three, to propagate the fantasy, no doubt. They storm across this scenescape, this muted Xanadu of celestial pleasures. Dragon clouds are not for the faint of imagination.
According to legend, dragons, sea monsters, have troubled ships for centuries. Stories are told of sightings and sinkings from centuries back. The idea of dragons is a perpetual one, pre-dating paper. See a dragon, scratch it on a cave wall. Watch it traverse the sky in clouds of glory.
Sweat bees are annoying little creatures that especially enjoy damp overcast days and exposed body parts. One lights on my knee and flicks its tail. They land and linger, land and linger, then at the slightest movement from the host, strike. The result is a small raised papule which turns into a mosquito-bite-like itchy painful reddening. I feel no mercy and do the unthinkable: swat, flick, smile.
The near-constant rain fills the reservoirs emptied by drought two summers ago. Rivers are rising again; I dust off the binoculars’ lenses. The lush valley below is green and grown and overgrown. Where go the boats? Wild multiflora rosebushes glob the hillside with dark patches, and too-mature grasses head out in brown. Yellow dock, Canadian thistles’ purple flowers, and white clover rainbow this verdancy.
I decide to make a trip for coffee, and the rain begins again. It’s a hard, driving rain where the clouds skip along the earth, blown by wind and furious. The foot-high stalks of corn flail about like so much spaghetti in boiling water, and I give a nod to Providence for the depth of trees’ roots, holding them down, when letting them fly in weather like this would be much more picturesque.
The world is covered in mist and flow. Bugs and dirt and ease wash to land, down, down, to land. The rain is like a million pebbles on my windshield, the wipers a team of woodcutters chopping in sync, whack, whack, whack, whack. A moderate-sized tree branch stretches halfway across the road so I swerve, but this is not unusual. Often it’s drifting snow or road kill or even an occasional darting pocket gopher, squirrel, or mob of deer which keeps us on our toes here at the juncture of Nowhere and Some Place.
The deciduous trees sway at their tops. The evergreens and the dead, leafless ones stand erect, immoveable, it seems. The higher grasses have been subdued by it all, and have lain down in their green pastures. This is called wind damage, but some of it will recover when the sun finally reappears and the living once again stretches toward the light.
Clouds bring good, and some joy, but also the occasional dragon, a sinking or two, or worse. So what do we do? We swat, flick, and smile. We get back up on that horse and ride it out, for this is all we know, and most of the time it serves us well enough, in Iowa.
Chila Woychik lives in Iowa with her husband, several head of sheep, and chickens that lay green eggs. When not working the homestead, she edits at a small literary press, Port Yonder. Her latest published pieces appeared in or are forthcoming in The Mayo Review, The Milo Review, Prick of the Spindle, and others. Her website is www.chilawoychik.com.
THIRTEEN MUSINGS AROUND MY CREATIVE PROCESS by Anthony Cuneo
I’m a big fan of uncertainty. I wish to God that the Nazis had been less certain that Jews were vermin. Not knowing you’re doing it right is a good thing. It makes you stop and think.
Finding, not executing; searching, not knowing.
I don’t know many artists who talk about their “art;” the preferred term is “work.” I’m guilty of this myself. “Work” demands respect, and suggests what you’re doing is serious. But the truth is, when I paint, I’m playing just as much as I’m working. I’m experimenting. I’m trying this, or that. I’m asking questions. And, a lot of the time, I’m not sure I’ve got the right answers.
So I have mixed feelings about describing what I do as “work.” It (sort of) fits, but it also has a slightly bitter, puritanical aftertaste. There’s an implication that, if it’s not work, it’s a waste of time. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, after all. We need to get over that. Making art is really hard, but it’s also deeply satisfying; I like slopping paint around. It’s the reason I wanted to be an artist as a kid, and I think it’s still a fine reason to paint. Art is one of the most natural things in the world, fundamentally useless, but hugely pleasurable and very important.
For myself only, because there are so many different, valid ways to go about making art, I have no interest in expressing a concept I think I already fully understand. If I know the answer, there’s no reason to make art about the question.
Like a chronic, low-level case of malaria, the constant ache of dissatisfaction with the results you get when you paint is part of what keeps you creating. You’re never finished because you’ve never really got it right, or complete. And if you ever did get it right you’d probably stop working. There’s that word again.
VII “I have to change to stay the same.” —Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning, Woman V, 1952-53
Images carry meaning. It’s probably impossible to convey that meaning in words. If it weren’t, painters would be poets, and use language instead of images. But there is a part of our brain that looks for patterns, sees structures, and judges relationships; that is attuned to the textures of the physical world; and that resonates to the language of the visual. When you draw something, a large part of the struggle is just in trying to comprehend exactly what it is you’re seeing. You have to get it into your head before you can get it onto paper. And I’d say that, if you can’t draw a thing then you don’t really understand it.
There’s a page from one of Leonardo’s sketchbooks that shows a fetus in a womb. It’s an image I think about a lot. The hunger for understanding is palpable, and the page is beautifully rendered. Even the letters sing. But there’s something awesome (in the old sense of the word) and a little awful about the page, as well: truth and beauty, in complex, charged tension. Does the very truthfulness of something, no matter how distasteful it seems, make it beautiful? Can something be truly beautiful if it’s false?
Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of the foetus in the womb, c. 1510-13
I don’t know if the universe is fundamentally ordered or random, but, standing in front of an Italian Renaissance crucifixion (which is, let’s remember, an image about torture and brutal execution), with its balanced and orderly composition, its clear and lucid colors, and its beautifully idealized human forms, I can test the proposition that there is structure to existence. I can try how that idea tastes. I can roll it around in my mind. I can test it against my own experience. Sometimes, when I paint, I feel like I’m trying out different propositions about the nature of reality, or, at least, my experience of it.
Used to be, I was sure that rationality was the path to truth. I still think it’s of fundamental importance (yeah, evolution is established science, and believing doesn’t make something true, no matter how much you want it). But life has surprised me, repeatedly, with the surprising insight that emotion can be just as critical in finding truth. In fact, I doubt now that we can know the most important truths about ourselves without it.
An art that only wants to be about what’s pretty (not even beautiful) is thin soup. What is the point of art if it can’t help us deal with loss and grief, with anger, or with mystery?
Have you ever noticed how maxims seem to contradict each other? If “a stitch in time saves nine” how can it also be that “haste makes waste”? Try playing this game: think of an old saw; then try to think of another one that, basically, says exactly the opposite. In nearly every case there’s a matched saying, a black for a white, a fast for a slow. Why is that? I think it might be that, even though there is probably an ultimate truth out there somewhere, we just don’t have the perspective to get it. We’re like the blind men encountering an elephant for the first time, and, feeling different parts of the animal, conclude that an elephant is like a snake, or a tree, or a sword. Understood another way, there’s wisdom in the idea that for every thing, there is a season: a time to sow, a time to reap. That complex, charged tension between apparent opposites—chaos and order, emotion and intellect, creation and decay, high and low—is the text of my current painting; also, how the impulse for beauty wrestles with the desire for truth.
Anthony Cuneo was born in Chicago, and grew up there, and in the New York area. He received an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1981, and has an extensive exhibition record. He taught at both the collegiate and secondary levels, serving as Department Chair at Montclair Kimberley Academy for many years. He was a finalist for the Princeton University Excellence in Secondary Teaching award in 2002. He was represented by Amos Eno Gallery in Brooklyn, one of the oldest non-profit art spaces in New York City, where he also served on the Board of Trustees. Tony, as he was known to all, died on August 5, 2019. See more of his work at www.anthonycuneo.com.
1. Unwanted Literature, #14, oil and alkyd on archival panel, 12″ x 12″, 2010
2. Fresh Stuff, #2, oil and alkyd on archival panel, 12″ x 12″, 2011
3. Fresh Stuff, #3, oil and alkyd on archival panel, 12″ x 12″, 2011
4. Fresh Stuff, #4, oil and alkyd on archival panel, 12″ x 12″, 2011
5. Fresh Stuff, #5, oil and alkyd on archival panel, 12″ x 12″, 2012
6. A Drawing a Day, #42, marker, gouache, oil pastel, colored pencil, and graphite on paper, 4″ x 8″, 2014
I always end up back at the apartment on 12th street. We moved in on a dim Saturday morning. Remember how you found that kinked key in the cabinet beneath the sink? A key someone before us had bent? You fell ill with interest in the house’s previous owners. In how they got in and got out, in where the key fit. You tried all the locks. You searched in the cobwebbed cellar while I soaped the kitchen floors. I’ll bet this was with a hammer, you said when you came out, holding the key with two fingers, a loop of red thread drooping from the hole at the top. Then you tracked dirt onto my clean floor. Or someone with a strong hand, you continued, your shoe prints bleeding into the suds. Or, I said, waving you off the floor, it wasn’t in the lock when it was bent—it was alone. I sponged the places where your shoes had been. The water in my bucket turned sour. So you agree, you asked from the creaking door frame, that there’s something to the key? I got impatient with you then: Sure, I yelled, it’s that we’ve inherited a broken key that doesn’t fit anywhere, that won’t open a thing. Right, you said, turning it in your palm, but why us?
Alicia L. Gleason is a graduate of George Mason University’s MFA program, where she studied fiction. She writes short stories, flash fiction, and is at work on her first novel. When she’s not writing fiction, Alicia teaches first year writing at George Washington University. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Indian summer a shroud of humidity that hangs in the form of crystalline vapor
over the striped field. Flaming sun falling backside, burning from a ridge of
distant pine. Its ruby trajectory caught in a canvas of heaped-up clouds, firey
arms sweeping the diorama of altocumulous folding and unfolding in the cinematic
light. I survey Nathan’s practice under such brilliance, my helmet-headed son
shirking my exhortations, my words of encouragement met dead-on-arrival
by his hard eyes from the fringe of the huddle. Coach’s whistle again: the snap’s on two boys on two! Halfback in motion, trotting through a cadence of hard counts
knowing ultimately ( barring disaster of timing, the center’s untimely flinch or transfer
of ball ) the pigskin is meant for him, a play designed to use his gifted speed.
I raise my nose from review, from my sister-in-law’s disturbing texts: ur brother showing up to Mac’s practices drunk again! Hounding me 4 $, home cooked meals…
all this after I left 18 months ago! Finally the execution coach has been looking for
as the ball exchanges hands three times before crossing the line of scrimmage.
Then her texted follow up: fuk’d in the head… needs ur help! problems with gait and sleeping limbs. still he continues 2 drink! From the narrow street cars pop and chirp,
security sounded from the sidewalk, from the lime-green grass recently seeded behind
the end zone where a straggle of parents wait in silence. It’s an end-around, the only play
I ever scored on in middle school. I remember the clandestine nature of the huddle,
the nervous apprehension when Danny Webber called “my play.” My first thought
not to score, but not to fail, fumble the ball under coach’s hawking eye. But this boy’s
work seems effortless, a pallid face of ease and determination as he bounds downfield,
switches the tuck of the ball from inside to outside arm as he scoots across the hash
marks, gallops with a strange fluidity. Steel screech, authoritative blasts calling for
an end to the play, an end to practice as a string of boys pat-down congratulations
on his oversized pads. A squadron of geese arrow overhead. The musky scent of fall
rises from the wooded lots. The last dregs of daylight granular on the horizon,
kaleidoscopic, an almost manufactured swirl—topaz and aubergine, apricot and claret,
brassy golds drowning in the sea-green above the boy who scored as he comes
jogging up: Sinatra-eyed poseur, smug kid who has torn the helmet off his sweat-
drenched locks, eyeing me quizzically, approaching my joy-stretched face, maybe
surprised that I’m surprised, that it’s him, my son, who can spirit through the world
like this, feign and cut, slither through a hole before he barrels into daylight.
Tony Tracyis the author of two poetry collections: The Christening and Without Notice.His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The North American Review, Poetry East, Rattle, Southern Indiana Review, Owen WisterReview, Tar River Poetry as well as various other magazines and journals. He lives in Urbandale, Iowa with his wife and two sons.
BROKEN EGGS A Visual Narrative by Emily Steinberg Introduction by Tahneer Oksman
To read Emily Steinberg’s autobiographical visual narrative, Broken Eggs, a set of sixty-seven images accompanied by sprawling text and recounting her struggles with infertility, is to witness a series of concurrent, sometimes even conflicting, emotional transformations. From the first, our narrator appears engaging, intimate, and raw. She sits on the ground, her hands wrapped around her knees and her brow furrowed, delivering a back-story for the whirlwind series of events that follows. [Image #1] She spent her twenties as an artist [Image #3] and her thirties unsuccessfully looking for love, while other life events—depression, anxiety, her mother’s dementia— got in the way as well. [Image #4] This is how she finds herself “on the cusp of forty,” [Image #5] just married, trying to have a baby, and suddenly encountering the possibility that what seemed like such an inevitable life course might no longer be a possibility.
Steinberg’s narrator figures prominently throughout almost all of the pages, but particular visual details often shift. In one image, depicting herself undergoing interuterine insemination, her midriff and thighs widen, as though her body is stretching itself to accommodate this new surreality. [Image #23] In another image, she draws herself shrinking as she transforms into a rodent: “I became a fertility guinea pig,” [Image #17] the text reads, and the last two words are repeated, like a directionless echo, in thin capital letters. These serial, shuffling portrayals are at times accompanied by smudges of color: some mark a short-lived, fiery optimism, while others more ominously seem to cage the narrator in the space of her recollections. Over the course of what seems like an otherwise straightforward, self-explanatory narrative—the text is colloquial and confessional, sprinkled with expletives and interjections—we sink into the story. The sequence of events might sound somewhat familiar—expensive drugs, repeated trips to the doctor’s office, probes, statistics, frowning attendants [Image #37]—but the individual depicted on these pages is dynamic, a substantial and vigorous presence. [Image #46] Her experience touches us, even transforms us, as we witness her unraveling.
While authentic portrayals of the daily ins and outs of motherhood (from the mother’s point of view) in comics are still somewhat rare—Nicole Chaison’s The Passion of the Hausfrau springs to mind, as do Lauren Weinstein’s online comics and some of Aline Kominsky Crumb’s works—it seems even harder to find honest depictions related to motherhood and loss. Phoebe Potts’s graphic memoir, Good Eggs, addresses, like Steinberg’s, the painful experience of infertility, and Diane Noomin has drawn about her struggles with miscarriages. Nicola Streeten’s Billy, Me & You recounts the death of the author’s two year old son, Billy, and her subsequent attempts to cope with the unimaginable loss. These texts are brave and powerful, in terms of their searing honesty and the way each explores the graphic aesthetic somewhat differently in order to best tell the story. But they are also significant because they actively, and graphically, dispute a culture that favors only particular kinds of depictions—of the satisfaction and ease of family life, of fertility, of positivity in the face of grief and loss, of closure. As Steinberg’s narrative ends, we know the fragile shell of hopefulness and inexperience has been irreparably broken, replaced permanently by a gaping, if artful, exposure.
—Tahneer Oksman, September 2014
Emily Steinberg, a painter and graphic novelist, earned her BFA and MFA from the University of Pennsylvania and has shown her work widely in New York and Philadelphia. Most recently, she has shown work at SFA Gallery, Frenchtown, NJ and at The Woodmere Museum of Art in Philadelphia. Her graphic novel memoir, Graphic Therapy, can be read online at Smith Magazine. Her short comic, Blogging Towards Oblivion, was included in The Moment (Harper/Collins, 2012). Her illustrated story The Modernist Cabin was published in Cleaver in June 2013. She currently teaches painting, graphic novel, and the History of Comics at Penn State Abington. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, photographer Paul Rider, and her puppy, Gus.
Tahneer Oksman is the Graphic Narrative Reviews Editor for Cleaver Magazine. Her book on Jewish identity in contemporary women’s graphic memoirs is forthcoming from Columbia University Press. She is Assistant Professor and Director of the Academic Writing Program at Marymount Manhattan College.
John Henry made circles with his bare feet on the carpet. The overhead light was on a fader, which was set low and gave the room an almost hazy affect. Against one wall was a purple couch, its frayed and shredded fabric covered with overlapping blankets and old bedsheets. Against the opposite wall was the television, which was off. The classical music station was playing some minor baroque drivel; it was set on this station because the jazz station, with its squeaks and honks, bothered John Henry’s cat, Felix, who was currently transfixed by the concentric undulations of John Henry’s taunting foot and the disembodied violins. His eyes were like black saucers, with only a faint hint of silver, a mere suggestion of an iris. “Have you eaten all my drugs again?” John Henry said in the high-pitched, playful voice he used for Felix when his girlfriend was not visiting; no other cats had heard this particular voice, though they had each received their own unique inflection. “Are you tripping balls, murder pants? Are you tripping balls?”
The cat, crouched behind the legs of a dining-room chair, eyed him, then returned his face to John Henry’s feet.
You’d better put on a pair of socks.
“What?” John Henry blurted, and, setting his foot flat on the carpet, removed his eyes from Felix. He was alone in his apartment.
I don’t need to put on a pair of socks—you need to put on a pair of socks. Asshole.
John Henry wiggled his toes. Felix wiggled his butt, probably without intention, but rather as a by-product of the transubstantiation of the toes into prey—such is the capacity for metaphor in the animal kingdom—although who knows what a cat thinks. Or whether thought is an accurate word for their mental processes. John Henry imagined that if he were to inhabit Felix’s consciousness—that was the word he chose, for the sake of convenience—he would go insane in less than a minute. The sudden and inexplicable animation of a cotton mite into a moth, the swell of hot air out of the guttural underbelly of the firmament, and the feeling of being followed, constantly, by some furry double, like a shadow materialized, would be enough to lose higher consciousness in a twitch. He could not explain it, but Felix experienced metempsychosis. A ray of sunlight, a ball of cotton, a wiggling neutered claw all happened upon their true reality—that of flies, moths, and mice. And liquid’s yielding texture as crumbling earth, as melting sands. There was no filter between one and the other. “Reality” is only a word that is put in quotes, as should be “soul” and “god,” because it is experienced by higher consciousness as detached from itself, like a live video playback. Cats probably don’t use quotation marks, but, again, who knows. Thought may not be an accurate word, but if it isn’t for them then it likely isn’t for us, and John Henry wouldn’t presume to know the reality of his own consciousness any more than Felix’s.
A phalanx of metallic tubes, several centimeters wide, through which circulated enough wind to durate pitch; followed by an infantry of vibrations muffled by hair, like screaming bits of smoke uncoiled from cords of firewood; then hammers, whittled, shaped, fur-wrapped, beat on sheets of metal and wrappings of dry skin; in between each outburst an equal, opposite, awful restraint, like a surly and self-righteous vowel in the consonant midst of the alphabet. John Henry only listened to the classical music station when his girlfriend was visiting, except now, when the music, like her, was enough to lure Felix out from the back room for long enough to register a purr and to animate a burlap-wrapped ball of cotton. Her handmade mice were exquisite—hand-cut strips of burlap wrapped around cotton balls, strapped with button eyes, pipe-cleaner tails, laundry lint noses, and seam mouths. As no mice were visible, however, Felix remained for John Henry’s elliptical feet, and for the music.
You are the protector of souls, John Henry, and I am the eater of souls; do you dare defy me, you mongrel cretin bastard?
John Henry tucked his bare feet beneath his legs Buddha-style, and held his gut with his palms, as if to keep his organs from spilling onto the floor. Strings, brass, woodwinds, and drums crawled through the speakers like spiders in the room’s dark corners. A lamp on the couch’s end table burned a 40-watt bulb, though it was designed for 60. Bouncing off the wall was a face, the residue of a 40-watt shadow, that might have grown, doubled, tripled in size, a piece of angry machinery, a broken spoke, a lonely troll in the spirit kingdom, that might have eaten his own shadow into a physical impossibility, had Felix not jumped into his lap at just the moment he was to unfurl his legs and relax. His heels on the coffee table, cranium in his palms…
“Felix, what is it? I’ll give you anything you want, just tell me.” Felix podged John Henry’s lap, one paw then the other, for so long he forgot he had even spoken. When he finally lay down he moved his leg so his head would fit in the nook of his knee. A choir of shaking bones, a chord of ribs, a chorus of white keys blaring through his crotch into the couch. He tried to speak but not through language because he did not have language, so he vibrated through the bones of the sofa, like the departed across the river Styx, in order to ask for one of the mice from the stocking. John Henry’s socks were by the dining room chair, he had checked them already. Strings, tails, whatever, gathered near their entrances. It was possible that John Henry had given him his gift already, and he’d just forgotten. But was it really his responsibility? Felix was in his lap, looking up at him like a child whose mother had relinquished him to the saints, clearly—anxious for something, but—what responsibility did he have toward the creature? Especially if he did not believe in his omnipotence? Did he even believe in omnipotence? The concept of omnipotence could not be beyond cats, who clearly recognized agency behind scurries, thrusts, and the glares of other predators. “I don’t know what you think, or if you can even think at all,” John Henry said, as if Felix hadn’t been present for the last five minutes. “You haven’t been present when I’ve needed you the most. Indeed, you haven’t been present at all.” Felix looked at the wall because it had turned into a spider web. “I can’t help you anymore, Felix. Not with where you’re going. Not with where you’ve been, or are now, and neither with the questions you had before nor the answers you need notarized now and will need stamped forever. Felix, I can’t help you,” he said, and he realized he was crying only because of the salty slug trails he felt crawling down his nose. “I can’t help you anymore, and I’m sorry.”
Your cat has no idea what you’re saying.
The tables were turned. Felix looked up at him, something on his mind, or whatever you call it, but John Henry had no idea what it was. In that moment, their look contained within a tenth of a second, John Henry thought he was Santa Claus, and that his brother Joshua was still alive, and was asking to not have to go to hell when he died. Then it clipped off, like cotton mites, dandelion skeletons, off in the wind. Felix bit his toe, his head crouched and ears flat, and jumped down from the couch before John Henry had a chance to react. A slight residual yowl left the room bereft; a thrift-store painting of a vase John Henry’s girlfriend had bought, “for decoration,” sloughed up on the opposite wall; the beaded gray fuzz of carpet underneath his punctured toenail; the tremulous murmurings of an Austrian, an uncharacteristically equivocating breath between tirades, newly holding forth on the radio, were all the sensations the room allowed in his absence. John Henry wiped his cheeks dry with the back of his hand, for he wanted to forget that they’d been wet altogether, when he’d already forgotten why he had cried and what he’d said. “Felix!” he called, high-pitched, all throat, nearly militaristic. He wiped blood off his big toe with his thumb and wiped it on the couch. Blood blended well with the purple couch in the low light. John Henry looked up and winced. The lights were on faders and needed to be turned even lower.
Caleb Murray is from Montana and currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works as a kitchen manager. He is a graduate of Linfield College. He is at work on his first novel, Cup of Oblivion.
You are so far south I keep
looking down at my thumb.
Written on the wrinkled skin
just below the joint
the neon blue veins fan out
flashing the name Utopia.
It’s easy to be distracted
by billboards for yet
another upscale, out-of-town
subdivision. Dressed in
suits of nails and wearing
panama hats, their thumbs live
curled in mansions below
pink palms. Even
in this unsellable story
death is grasped, but think it’s
so far off and south with you,
it would take an extra lifetime
so that I don’t have time
to reconsider. Instead its door
will come knocking.
In the book I’m thumbing through,
I skip a couple of pages
to the longing of birds
Walter Bargen has published eighteen books of poetry. His most recent books are: Days Like This Are Necessary: New & Selected Poems (2009), Endearing Ruins/Liebenswerte Ruinen (2012), Trouble Behind Glass Doors (2013), Quixotic (2014), and Gone West (2014). He was appointed the first poet laureate of Missouri (2008-2009). Read more at www.walterbargen.com
WHEN I SLEEP, I DREAM OF TSUNAMIS by Luke Stromberg
I’m walking down Main Street when a blue
and strangely beautiful tidal wave rises
in the distance, reaching high over roof tops.
It’s the sound of wind, of water
that I hear first,
and I cannot move,
awed by this watery hand
that seems to come from nowhere
as its shadow falls over an afternoon scene:
a meter-maid writing a ticket;
two teenagers smoking cigarettes
in front of a convenience store;
my dead uncle walking his dog.
They all seem to notice at once,
look up, break into a panic.
Cars shriek to a halt, try to turn around.
The hand comes down
on top of them.
Water crashes over buildings,
crushing them to pieces.
A torrent rushes toward me,
taking everything with it:
cars, telephone poles, debris,
what used to be people—
I run, my legs heavy
with the thought
of what’s behind me,
the roar like an army,
a herd of beasts,
and I’m swept up by it all,
I’ve never been, lying
in a puddle
on a deserted street.
Old bicycles, women’s clothing, church pews,
shattered bits of wood
scattered all around me—
but not one person
when I get up, inexplicably dry,
that I can stand,
breathe, that my mouth and lungs
haven’t filled with water
and look around,
the sun glorious.
Luke Stromberg has also published work in Rotary Dial, Victorian Violet Journal, Tower Journal, Shot Glass Journal, Lucid Rhythms, Philadelphia Stories, Think Journal, Mid-America Poetry Review, on Ernest Hilbert’s blog E-Verse Radio, and in other venues. His poem “Memorial Day” appears in Issue No. 2 of Cleaver. His work has also been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer on multiple occasions. He lives in Upper Darby, PA, and works as an adjunct English instructor at Eastern University and West Chester University.
Image Credit: “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” 神奈川沖浪裏, 1823 by Katsushika Hokusai on Wikipedia.
A single blade of grass. Long and thin, streaked like the drag of paint left behind by a brush. A singular shade of green, like the color of nothing except itself. Among others it is just a pinpoint in a larger plane, which we see the way a child draws grass, scribbled shape colored in with the nub of a crayon. But up close. Up close, near the nose so that your eyes draw inward and cross, that blade is one entity. Albeit picked and soon to be sun-withered, it is whole.
Marilyn lies beneath her husband’s green army blanket. Her arms hug her sides so that her body, beneath the wool, looks straight and stalky. Her feet are small, two doll feet barely rising from the flatness of her chest and legs, and the blanket covers them and hangs off of the cot like pie crust not yet crimped. The chest rises and falls with effort, almost mechanical in its singular purpose, emitting only the whisper of stale air through her partially parted lips.
The room is covered in light blue paint, so that when Marilyn wakes, she thinks for a moment that she floats through the cloudless beyond of the sky. She has already died, and risen above the city. The window is not a window to the real night sky but the other way around, the early polka dot moon peering in the glass panes to glimpse the expanse of Marilyn’s walls.
The clatter of pans brings her back to herself, and the pressure of her weight and the bones of her shoulders digging into the hospital cot ground her. They bought it for her, she remembers, and when she returned from the hospital there it was, in place of the four poster. They placed her in the open mouth of the sheets and left her there, alone, with only the problem of gravity to solve. That and the mystery of her missing bedside table, the set of drawers where she kept her nighties and silk stockings, the mirror above the dresser. Do they fear this will draw her to suicide, the simple slice of a sliver of glass right to the vein? Or that she will stumble, clutching at air, until she falls onto whatever sharp corner has been left in her path?
How could the decorations be dangerous when she lies pinned down to this cot, unable to change for dinner or do her hair the way she likes it, in the loose bun pinned at the nape of her neck? She is subjected to the torture of her children’s clumsy fingers rambling through her scalp and pulling the hair too tightly into the braids of a little girl, one on either side of her face. The little ones are better at braiding, but pull at the hair afterward like a cat’s tail.
Occasionally, one of the children brings her something to eat and feeds it to her like a bird. Something warm, like pudding, that slides down her throat in a wash of cocoa powder and milk, or cold, like pieces of frozen fruit. She is their doll, as lifeless and false skinned.
The seasons do not move here in this sky room, except for the changing of hot and cold. Of sweet mango or warm apple pie.
Penelope lies splayed out on the grass, her backpack on one side and her book, A Wrinkle in Time, split open on the other. She does not read; she waits. Spring tickles her eyelids and the skin on her exposed forearms, the little bouts of warm breezes and seed pods carried on their waves. She rolls her jeans up and removes her shoes, the socks with white polka dots too, so that her toes can massage the moist earth beneath the grass. Soon she has weeded herself into the dirt; when the boy finally comes, she is surprised to find herself still able to detach.
Bobby pleads with her to reconsider their breakup. Penelope has already forgotten the many nights in the back seat of Bobby’s Toyota—the pressure of the car door on her back, the steamy air, the unbearable heat that, even with her hair pinned back, sent beads of sweat into the crevices of her back. The tears, when she told him she did not want a boyfriend anymore. This summer she will spend a week at camp, and does not want to be tied down.
Now he seems so far away from her, as though he floats over her like a balloon, or maybe it is Penelope that floats.
She imagines returning to her book. Penelope likes the character of Meg, who, unlike Penelope, manages to be wearisome yet wise. Penelope is never wearisome; she is the perfect student, ballerina, and daughter, three unrelated and yet similar things. All three require great discipline, and quiet submission. On the inside, however, Penelope yearns to fold into the fabric of time like butter into batter, to go back or forward or anywhere but outside her school, where Bobby grasps at her arm.
After shaking him off, Penelope returns her socks and shoes to her feet. Then she stands and moves toward the parking lot, where her mother waits, reading a magazine about home décor or perhaps filling in a crossword puzzle.
If she had not turned to take one last look at Bobby, she would not have seen the bird behind him. But she does turn, and there it is, dead and rotted and covered in flies. The bones like teeth in a black mouth. Suddenly she knows she must not let him see the bird, that one look at the bird would be too much for poor Bobby to handle. He is fragile, easily consumed. And there is something about this raven, this large-beaked bearer of death, which sends a chill up the girl’s spine.
“Come,” she tells him. He wipes his snot on his bare arm and follows her to her car.
Richard cannot bear the scent of newly cut grass, the chocking grip of allergenic pollen. As he passes Bobby, the boy from down the street who cares for Richard’s yard, he brings his shirt up to cover his face, creating a polyester screen. Is the boy purposely whacking away at his petunias? Richard wants to call out, but ends up clutching at his throat and running for the door. Damn his asthmatic lungs, the constriction of his chest and the accompanying wheeze. The feeling of drowning, again and again, in air. If he could, he would cleanse the air like a pool hand with his skimmer net, until the whole world was a sterile, scentless known.
He arrives home early, before Molly, and relishes the quiet calmness of the house. Richard takes time removing his tie; he kicks off his loafers at the stairs and pads through the living room to the kitchen. At the sight of the red voicemail light he remembers that Molly will be at her brother’s tonight, tending to her mother while the older sibling and his even older wife take a night off, which in turn gives Richard a night off—no arguments, no waving of thermometers and plastic sample containers.
Still in his work trousers, Richard treks to the gas station across the street. At the refrigerated beverages he pauses and considers; he likes to feel spontaneous, though he always picks Pennsylvania’s pride. A worn ten dollar bill slides one way across the counter, and the six-pack, now bagged, slides the other way. Richard walks back down Main Street carrying the beer like a child, balanced on one hip.
By the time that Molly gets home, six empty beer bottles lie at the bottom of the recycling can Richard carts out to the curb every Tuesday. On her walk to the door she finds a bouquet of beheaded petunias piled on the step, and pauses to gather them in her arms. Only the hanging planters remain unscathed, their pink and purple faces turned away now that the sun has disappeared. Inside, Molly divides the petunias into three vases: one in the dining room, one in the kitchen, and one in the bedroom where she leads her inebriated husband by his belt loops. On the way, Richard steadies her when she trips on a careless pair of leather loafers.
Penelope should be sleeping, but after her parents’ bedroom light goes off, she creeps down the hallway to her grandmother’s bedroom. Though the Marilyn lying in the hospital cot looks nothing like the Marilyn who used to feed freshly bakes cookies off the pan to her only grandchild, Penelope still feels connected to her, like she might just bolt up in bed and ask when the next episode of Jeopardy starts.
The girl brings her book. Sometimes she reads to Marilyn, if her grandmother’s green eyes wander along the surfaces of the walls; other times Penelope reads silently while Marilyn sleeps. Tonight Marilyn dozes with her eyes closed and her mouth open, propped up against the pillows like a queen. Occasionally she calls for her husband, or for her daughter, Molly, though only Penelope is there to place her palm in the wandering hand.
Penelope has grown accustomed to Marilyn’s strange breathing, the raspy struggle to inhale and exhale. The girl imagines the cancer like a stain on her clothes, embedded in the very threads in her grandmother’s own faded fabric.
Only when the breath stops does Penelope glance up from the page, so quickly that the words seem to superimpose themselves on the walls. Then she closes her book and tucks it under the hand that has taken on weight like a sponge its water, a book that for Penelope has come to an early end.
Through squinted eyes, things that once had distinct shape blur until they are only splotches of color. Spills of green and blue. In one room, Marilyn closes her eyes; in another, her daughter opens them, sensing the change. From this distance, despite the folding in of one stalk and the start of another, the shade of the grass still looks the same.
Kelly Ann Jacobson is a fiction writer and poet who lives in Falls Church, Virginia. Kelly is the author of the literary fiction novel Cairo in White and the young adult trilogy The Zaniyah Trilogy, as well as the editor of the book of essays Answers I’ll Accept. Her work, including her published poems, fiction, and nonfiction, can be found at www.kellyannjacobson.com.
I’m alone in a projector booth,
dressed in denim and sweat, prying open
tin canisters, reels of nitrate film.
Tonight’s a double feature, and I’ve been left
holding the bag again. Two years on the job
and my cut is still lower than the take-home
boarded out to cigarette hussies trotting the cool
auditorium, where aisles are carpeted
and chairs are wooden. There is no anxiety,
no perspiration, no fear of burning
for those dames on the job.
I’m like the tail gunner of a B-52.
Everything is metal: the walls, the workbench,
my stool. They say it’s for my protection,
that it’s fireproof, but I’m not made of metal.
And there’s hope for everybody in this theater
tonight, our weekly drawing for fruit baskets.
My only hope: that I don’t burn to death.
After pasting together the cartoons and newsreels,
I mount the spool to the projector and start the film.
With my sweat rag around my neck, I sit on my stool
hot enough to boil a crab and watch the commercials:
a Remington shaving a garden-variety peach,
Lucky Strikes dancing at a barnyard honkytonk.
In this heat, with eyes and nose
fighting parched nitrate, I think of Dad,
his bag of ham salad and apples leaving
for the cigar factory each morning at five.
When he comes home at suppertime,
he kisses Mom, gives me the keys to the Jeep,
and before I leave for the theater, asks me,
has school been doing you any good?
J. Scott Bugher is a poet from Indianapolis. His work can be found in The Baltimore Review, Hobart, Atticus Review and elsewhere. He is the editor of Split Lip Magazine and can be found at www.jscottbugher.com.
“If animals could speak, the dog would be a blundering outspoken fellow; but the cat would have the rare grace of never saying a word too much.”—Mark Twain
Mark Twain never met my cat.
Five seconds with Albany, watching him throw his body against our kitchen cabinets early in the morning (and again in the afternoon, and at bedtime) for six ounces of “classic beef” or a scoop of prescription urinary health dry food, or watching him raise his leg to lick his crotch and then forget what he’s doing, or him leaping on a tiny table that would never support his girth to try to press his face into a cactus, is easily enough to dispel the idea that a cat has any kind of dignity at all.
And it’s not just Albany. You can watch my friend’s cat Walker slide across a wood floor to play fetch with tiny foam balls, or my mom’s cats Egon and Janine spoon, pressing their back paws awkwardly into each other’s face. My childhood cats, Strip-ed Tiger and Super, would attack our toes under our blankets as we tried to sleep. Even my dad’s dearly departed Jessica Rabbit the Cat, the most aloof of felines, would drool in his mouth to wake him up in the morning.
A quick Google search would do it, too (if only Twain had been able to Google): Tumblrs dedicated to embarrassing cat behavior, and hundreds of YouTube videos of cats falling—off perches, during poorly-timed leaps, and into the toilets that they, like dogs, drink from.
The idea that cats have dignity is a lie we tell ourselves to explain why our cats don’t bother to lift their heads when we walk into a room. It’s what we say when we’re feeling down and call our kittens, only to have them slink past us on the way to the litter box.
I love my cat Albany despite his distance—just as I’ve loved my cats before him: Egg, Kitty, and the aforementioned toe-destroyers Super and Strip-ed Tiger. Loving cats is an exercise in human devotion. Cat, we love you, and we love you even if you are an asshole. Even if cats are opportunistic, emotional manipulators who make sure we feed them every day, yet would eat our corpses if we had the misfortune of dying in their presence, cats are our test of unconditional love.
Throughout the winter and spring of last year, I painted cats. I requested photos—most cat owners have a million—and whipped out watercolors to capture the cats as their cat parents see them. It was partly a selfish study. Cats come in a million colors and shapes, so painting them makes for an excellent daily exercise.
But I also just wanted to celebrate the particular weirdness of the cats—and the love of their owners.
Alli Katz is an artist, Etch A Sketcher, cartoonist, and a channeler of Ernest Hemingway. A graduate of Oberlin College, she now lives in Philadelphia, and has written for Philadelphia City Paper, The Observer, and Grid Magazine. She’s the Program Coordinator at Kelly Writers House, and posts comics and drawings at lookhowhappyiam.com. Alli is working on her fourth first novel.
1. Rufus, gouache, colored pencil, and ink on paper, 6″ x 6″, 2014
2. Rosie & Oink, gouache, colored pencil, and ink on paper, 6″ x 6″, 2014
3. James & Elvin, gouache, colored pencil, and ink on paper, 6″ x 6″, 2014
4. Lola Mae, gouache, colored pencil, and ink on paper, 6″ x 6″, 2014
5. Riley, gouache, colored pencil, and ink on paper, 6″ x 6″, 2014
6. Olivia, gouache, colored pencil, and ink on paper, 6″ x 6″, 2014
7. Walker, gouache, colored pencil, and ink on paper, 6″ x 6″, 2014
8. Wild Bill, gouache, colored pencil, and ink on paper, 6″ x 6″, 2014
9. Bearmonkey, gouache, colored pencil, and ink on paper, 6″ x 6″, 2014
10. Cobra Commander, gouache, colored pencil, and ink on paper, 6″ x 6″, 2014
Each night my father dipped two fingers into meat and sauce and then passed that wet present down to Django’s drooling mouth. It was no secret. I saw. My mother saw. My father wasn’t trying to hide anything.
And this didn’t just happen at dinner, it happened whenever my father ate or snacked. If three slices of cheese were to go on a sandwich, one more went to Django. If my father grabbed a handful of peanuts, Django got his share. If there were an orange to eat, Django got a segment. If there were ice cream at the end of the day, Django licked the bowl. The only food my father didn’t give Django was salad, but that’s not because my father hadn’t tried. Django just didn’t like it, which became Django lore, the one thing Django wouldn’t deign to touch: lettuce.
All this food was given to Django in addition to his two regular meals, one in the morning, fed to him by my mother, and one at night, fed to Django by my father. My father wouldn’t miss this six o’clock ritual. He loved the frenzy the sound of the dry food sprinkling into Django’s dish caused, how the buzz of the mechanical can opener spiked the fever. My father prolonged the moment, spooning half the contents of the Alpo can out slower than it needed to be spooned, giving the mix a few extra turns though every morsel had been moistened, waiting before picking the dish off the counter, using his strength to box Django away when he bent down. “It’s his pleasure,” my father liked to say.
I didn’t feed Django, not, that is, like my father fed him. When asked, or when my parents were away, I would give him his regular meals and make sure he had enough water to drink. That was it, and my not feeding Django, my not giving him scraps from my plate or from the table or ever sharing anything I ate or snacked on with him, became lore too—“He ain’t gonna give you nuttin’,” my father would amusedly inform his dog who never gave up hope, who would, in-between deposits from my father, accost me and stare at me with those big, pleading eyes—though I had no doubt that Django loved me, and that I loved him.
Django had been living on the outskirts of one of the construction sites my father supervised. He was a mutt—part beagle, part pit bull, the vet later said (more lore fuel)—and he was friendly and handsome: white (though gray from dirt and outdoor living at the time) with a black patch over one eye. The men cut out the straps from an old hardhat and gave him water. Some, irregularly, tossed him food. Was Django underweight in that vagabond period? His ribs were showing and the number of days and nights he went hungry were incalculable, so yes, he no doubt was, but over the next few years he graduated from his thirties to his forties to his fifties and on into his sixties. By the end of things, he tempted seventy pounds.
At that stage, he could still chase a tennis ball, but only a couple of times: all gratuitous running was over. He could still be considered strong, but not wiry. When his energy came, it came in bursts. He napped and slept a lot. But his food pleasure never waned.
I don’t know who else brought up the weight issue. I know the vet (a man—I’m not making this up—named Dr. Katz) did. He would mildly admonish my mother (my father never went) and talk about diets and weight loss and the complications associated with obesity, not so different than with humans, things like ambulatory trouble and joint trouble and heart trouble and cancers.
But nothing changed. Home and happy, Django would be lovingly scolded: “Dr. Katz says you’re too fat!” and then be patted on the head and fed in the same manner by both my parents, my mother having picked up the habit from my father. “He’s living the good life now,” my father liked to say.
Django died the summer after I graduated from high school. Or: My parents gave Dr. Katz permission to give Django a lethal injection the summer after I graduated from high school. At the end, Django’s breathing was awful to hear. At the very end, he could barely wag his tail when he heard the sounds of the dry food and the can opener, and it was when my father saw food being left in his dog’s bowl and Django not making it to the dinner table that he accepted the inevitable.
The five of us—me, my mother and father, Django and Dr. Katz—were in that small white room together. My mother cried, and then, so did my father. It was the first and only time I ever saw tears come out of my father’s eyes.
Django had lived with us for eight full years, and he had lived at least a couple before that. Many dog lives are much shorter, and harder, and this one’s brought us all a lot of joy and comfort and memories, but I couldn’t help but think that that life could have gone on longer, that there were more memories to make, that this death was preventable, that Django had been murdered.
That is not something you accuse your parents of doing, not when the feeding was, for them, a form of love, so I got myself ready: I was going north to college, leaving home for the first time.
One day, just before I left, my mother and father visited a shelter and chose a new member of the family, another mutt named Sandro. Sandro had been shot multiple times by pellet guns; he had been deliberately burned. He was big, a natural sixty-pounder with an enormous head, one black-patched eye, and black spots dotting his otherwise white-haired body.
My father was proud. My mother seemed hesitantly happy, making it no secret she would have liked a smaller, more manageable—perhaps less masculine—dog. I was simply surprised. There hadn’t been any talk of getting another dog, not with me at least, and I guess I hadn’t given it much thought, but I wouldn’t have bet they’d replace Django so quickly, not that replacement is the best word for what went on, though it does do necessary work.
On those last few days and nights in my parents’ home, that brief time before I left for college and the start of my so-called real education, I watched how my father and my mother fed Sandro. Nothing had changed. Nothing had been learned. And why would it? Nothing, from my parents’ perspective, was wrong.
What could ever, I hear them saying, be wrong with pleasure and the good life? What can possibly be wrong with love?
Kevin Tosca’s stories have been published in Spork, Full of Crow, Bartleby Snopes, Vine Leaves Literary Journal and elsewhere. A frequent contributor to Cleaver, his short-short story “Romeo and Juliet” appeared in Issue 4 and his flash pieces “The 104”, “Tibet” and “Like That” appeared in Issue 1. He lives in Paris. He and his work can be found at www.kevintosca.com and on Facebook. Like him. He’d like that.
He said “lemon”
over and over.
Lemon. Lemon. Lemon.
Until the word was just a can
of creamed lemon.
The radio played
a marathon of lemon songs.
All over the city
a million plastic boxes
———-until each radio
a can of creamed radio.
And what of those cans? ———-Losing their edges ———-and hollow cores ———-as they proliferate?
The edges? ———-The creams?
———-Undone. ———-Becoming dreams and juice.
By eight o’clock ———-his yellow bathrobe ———-and gym socks
———-were no longer ———-his yellow bathrobe ———-and gym socks.
Glen Armstrong holds an MFA in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and teaches writing at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. He also edits a poetry journal called Cruel Garters.
embedded in salt
on a plate
black as your
like your love,
cooling rapidly as lava.
It reminds me
A dance and book critic, Merilyn Jackson regularly writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Broad Street Review, national and international dance magazines on the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European literature, culture and politics. The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts awarded her food-driven novel-in-progress, Solitary Host, a $5,000 Literature Fellowship and a chapter of the novel, “A Sow of Violence,” appeared in the Massachusetts Review. In 2012 she attended Colgate’s Summer Program with Peter Balakian and Sarah Lawrence Poetry Seminar with Tom Lux. Her poetry has been published in Exquisite Corpse, Poiesis Review 6 and Poetry Nook.
Desire not the night, for that is when people will be destroyed. Or perhaps: to drag people away from their homes. Or maybe: when people vanish in their place.
(Job 36:20), variations
The speed was a natural solution to Professor Flowers’s death. The only thing left to do after we had laid it out on the table and crushed it up and all was talk—and it turned out we could do that for hours. It was a beautifully orchestrated display, a symphony of run-on conversation and exuberant denial. We talked shit about the neighborhood, and what it was like to extort your parents for thousands upon thousands of dollars a year in the guise of receiving an education. We wondered if we were doing the right thing. We understood each other even when we didn’t.
“It’s so messy in here,” she said.
“I don’t really like cleaning,” I said.
“I didn’t say that because I disliked it.”
More long, thin, white streaks appeared on the table. Insufflatio in the Latin, she told me. Up and away.
“Your eyes are so big right now,” I said.
“Really? Yours are too.”
“Well, it’s bright in here.”
“Do something about it. That lamp is just—violent.”
I had gone to the wall and turned the light off. A thought had occurred to me in the darkness. I turned the light back on, grabbed the orange shawl she had hung on my chair and laid it on the sconce. The transformation was instant. A warm, red glow covered the entire room. We were silent. It could only have been a moment, but it seemed to be hours, like in a dream. I sat still and watched her.
She leaned back, completely at peace, as if she had come to an irreversible understanding. Then a muscle jerked somewhere near her mouth and she was back.
Her neat little finger reached to pick up what was left of the speed and then disappeared into her mouth. Her eyes lit up. Then she brought her hand down to her chest, and with that same finger extended, as if by reflex, made the sign of the cross.
“You’re so pious,” I laughed.
She pointed at me and intoned. “And are you among the believers?”
I crossed myself. “Lapsed,” I said.
“All the better,” she said, “so was He.”
She pointed out that God and Christ were the same; any forsaking of his son was a forsaking of Him. We did some more of the stuff. The taste of it dripped into my throat and I gulped to clear it. She kneaded the side of her nose with her finger.
“So God was a suicide,” I said. “Why?”
“So we’d be free,” she said, “and I think St. Paul said it best—sapientiam sapientum perdam—to ‘destroy the wisdom of the wise.’”
“Destroy the wisdom of the wise,” I intoned.
“Yes,” I said, kissing her.
In the red light, we are all beautiful. Blemishes, stains, pockmarks, bruises, sickness, death, all fade away under its soft glow. It must have been visible from the road, because not long after that, some people showed up at the apartment. A blond man uncorked a bottle of wine and everyone cheered. Drinks were poured, cigarettes were lit, and everyone had a lovely time, drinking and carousing in its amiable light. Given the right ambience, even strangers can be friends. And I didn’t spare a single second to think about the old man.
Sometimes I close my eyes and try to remember the way she appeared the night she first showed me her hair loosed from that messy blonde bun. If I could just recall exactly how she lay down, how she reached back and let her hair fall, and how exactly it splayed over my pillows, maybe I could open my eyes and find every little thing restored to how it was. We all think like this from time to time.
One day she came in and told me that she had been lying in bed in the dark when she noticed something strange in her vision, something the Professor had once told her about. It had something to do with prolonged exposure to darkness. Astronauts, prisoners, truck drivers, devout practitioners of meditative techniques: all types of people had reported seeing these spontaneous shows of varicolored lights, often without discernible form but occasionally resolving into human forms. Apparently, it’s caused by sensory deprivation coinciding with the arbitrary misfiring of neurons in the retina.
Anyway, stare into the sun on a cloudless day, squint tight, and the play of the light through your eyelashes can do something pretty similar. That night, with her by my side, I squinted into the red light until my eyes ached from the strain and begged for closure. Then I saw it.
I was walking through a hallway in a large hotel, carefully checking the number on each door. I found the one I was looking for and a soft nudge got it open. There was a woman lying naked in my bed. Around her was a crowd of observers, each one angling around the others to try and get a better view. The woman was very beautiful, but there was a look of sadness on her face, and she ignored them.
I came into the room, hung my coat and kicked off my shoes. What is going on in here? I asked. The crowd ignored me. I looked to her but she ignored me too. I wanted to scream. But under the red light, I always find it difficult to assess blame. There was a burst of white light. “No flash photography,” I think I said, but the damage was done. She was putting her clothes back on. The crowd was muttering something under its collective breath. She walked toward the door but turned to me as she passed and whispered into my ear. “We tell lies at night,” she said, “because that way, they vanish.” The people started putting on their coats. When they were gone I got into bed and pulled the covers over my head.
I woke up next to her and thought I was safe. She was still asleep. I glued my eyes to the high lumen fluorescent overhead and lay perfectly still so as not to wake her. After staring for a few minutes, I noticed a single fly stuck dead inside the dome of the fixture.
She woke up anyway, yawned, and asked if I could grab her something to eat while she went back to sleep for a while. Since I’m already “up.” It took me a few moments to respond because I was busy with the fantasy of being there, in bed, with her. She groaned when she realized I was not going anywhere, and we started to talk. Lying there together under the red light, I had no trouble mishearing when she said things like:
“Just to be clear. This all doesn’t mean we can keep doing this.”
Not like this, I agreed.
“Right. Not like this.”
But maybe some other way?
She closed her eyes and I followed her into sleep.
When I awoke she was already out of bed, sitting at my desk and checking her e-mail. Our times were always out of joint. She turned around as I climbed out of the covers and looked at me in a state of nervous agitation. Father sent me an e-mail, she said. Father does not like the things I am doing with my life, she said. Father thinks I am sick. Father thinks I have spent my life following in the footsteps of the lost. There are verses that support this: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit?” I got out of bed and read it out loud off the computer, looking up at her and laughing into the hard-boiled light of day at what I thought were the funny parts. She does not find it funny when I offered to help her draft a reply.
“You shouldn’t take stuff like this so seriously,” I said.
“How can I not take this seriously?”
“It’s just scripture.”
“Well, that stuff about St. Paul. Destroying the wisdom of the wise.”
“What about it?”
“I guess we must interpret that differently.”
“How do you?”
“As an attack on little-minded people who claim to be wise.”
She didn’t say anything right away and I knew I had hit the wrong note.
“Are you saying my father is little-minded?”
“No, no,” I said, “I’m just trying to say that, well, we need to do what’s right rather than let others tell us what is right.”
“And how exactly,” she said, “are we supposed to always know just what’s right?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I guess you just do.”
She moved across the room, toward the door.
“You just do?”
“I just mean, I don’t see any theologians around here.”
“Well you,” she said, “know nothing of the Torah.”
I followed her and put my hand on hers, tried to kiss her.
“Fuck off,” she said, and opened the door.
“I feel miserable. I need to go see the doctor.”
I reached for her again but she had already slammed the door closed behind her. After she left, I got back into bed and stared at the ceiling again. A chill ran through me as I realized that I had missed something. There wasn’t just one dead fly: there were dozens, maybe hundreds. They had a proper cemetery up there, all to their own. It still eludes me how exactly it is that flies make their way into those domes which look so airtight.
She came by the next afternoon and told me that she had been to the doctor. I just wondered which one. She said she was sick. I put my hand on her shoulder and told her nothing was wrong, that it was all going to be okay. Sometimes—rarely—you tell a lie so blatant you can’t even believe it yourself.
“But the doctor told me I was sick.”
“You’re not a doctor.”
I know that, I say, and squeeze her shoulder a little tighter.
“Why are you touching me?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said, pulling away.
“You always put your hands on me to say that everything’s going to be fine.”
“But it doesn’t matter whether or not you touch me.”
“Because the truth is that we’re both sick and you’re just denying it.”
“I thought things were going really well,” I said.
“Well, frankly, I do not know how you got that impression.”
A few days later, the crowds came back for more. Emily was nowhere to be seen. A man wearing his black sunglasses inside pulled a dartboard out of his duffel bag and a game began. The darts, as if defective, flew wobbly and uncertain: my plaster walls sprouted deep track marks from drunken blunders. Someone, in a bout of curiosity, pulled the orange shawl from the sconce and threw it across their shoulders. The crowd erupted in a disdainful shout and the shawl was replaced.
A few more days went by. Emily was still avoiding me. I didn’t know how to convince her I was right—and her doctor and father were wrong—so I decided to stop trying. I went to the mailroom to invite her out on a little adventure and she was already standing there by her box, as if she had been waiting for me.
“I’m going to leave,” she said. “I’m just picking up what’s left.”
“Because I’m sick.”
“No you’re not.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Then how is it?”
“I can’t be here.”
“What does that mean? Here with me.”
“That’s not what I mean. I just can’t be here.”
“We’re the only ones here though, so you wanting to leave here basically really just means that you want to leave me.”
“I don’t think you’ll ever understand.”
“It’s not you. It’s who you are sometimes.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
She touched my face.
“You looked so beautiful under that red light.”
“So did you,” I said.
She smiled, weakly. She had expected this. There was a resoluteness to that gesture, an ultimatum embedded inside it, but at the same time I could see that she had given up on something: maybe she just didn’t see the purpose in fighting anymore.
“Will you come with me somewhere?” I asked. “One last time?”
We reached the car as dusk fell and drove until the road became dirt and the truck began to jostle. She groaned loudly, and I just hoped that we were going the right way. Then it came up on the left: a clearing in the woods that Flowers had told me about. He said that at night people saw things here, that they had visions. That kids liked to come out here at night and scare each other silly. I was about to stop when I noticed another car already parked on the side of the road.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Park,” she said.
I turned the car around and parked on the opposite side of the street. She said we were going to get out and cross the street but that we had to do it as quietly as possible. She led me through the woods, treading lightly through the underbrush, until we reached the edge of the clearing. Once there, she took a deep breath, let it out, and screamed. She turned around.
“If I don’t put the fear of God in them, who will?” she said.
I thought one way to clear up the ruins of our language would be to simply fall silent, the way we had done together under the red light, the way we did after she screamed into that clearing. But somehow even in silence there seems to be a speaker and a listener, one who imposes the silence and one who merely obeys or observes. So the possibility is still open for storytelling. One just has to squint one’s ears, so to speak, and allow the story to be pulled out of the silence. Then, like a slide, one can follow it down.
Anyway, the last party. I struck up a conversation with this tall, dark-haired girl. She looked out of place and I guess that’s the kind of thing I sympathize with. It turned out she didn’t go to our school and had just come to visit a hometown boy she had been dating for a few months. When she arrived at his room, she found it was locked. She knocked for a few minutes until he came to the door, disheveled and confused. Not about to calmly accept what was going on, she pushed in past him. Then she saw that the window by his bed was wide open, the curtains softly swaying in the breeze. And the air was thick with it.
“I love the red light,” she said breathlessly, leaning over the coffee table.
“Me too,” I said, leaning over after her. We were a real community of believers.
Emily was with someone else that night. I knew this because someone had gone to her window, noticed a crack in the blinds and looked through it.
I jolted myself out of bed and ran down the stairs to her room. I pulled at the doorknob—locked—and banged on the door until my fists started to scream. It was futile. Someone noticed what I was doing and wanted to know what was wrong, why I had made my fingers bleed. It was the new girl. After I explained, I asked if she wanted to come back to my room and talk. She asked, dazed, if mine was the room with the red light. I said yes, it was, and we went up the stairs.
After we had sex I asked her if she knew the story of Job. She didn’t. Job had lost everything that he held dear in life, I told her. Job’s friends came over, saw him despondent, and tried to justify his misfortune for him. They tried to tell him that his suffering must have been some kind of punishment for his sins, that he should repent and pray for mercy. Job argues with his friends, says he is a righteous man, and cannot believe God would be so cruel to such a righteous man. “Whence, then, cometh wisdom? And where is the place of understanding?” Someone named Elihu chimes in. “If you do sin,” he asks, “how does that affect Him? Your wickedness only affects humans like yourself, your righteousness only other people.” That’s when God appears. He tells Job he’s right, and that everything his friends said was wrong. That there is no meaning in catastrophe.
“You knew Arthur Flowers, didn’t you?” the dark-haired girl asked.
Desire not the night, when people vanish in their place.
I woke up with a headache in the middle of the night. I left the new girl in my bed and went downstairs to try and explain, apologize, make things right. I told myself to tell her that I understood that she didn’t feel well. I did not. But that was what I should have said to her long ago: “I understand everything, that is what makes us special. We understand each other. These trials are nothing.”
The door to her room was ajar. I nudged it open slowly. There were no posters, no clothes, no sheets on the bed, just one thing. It was an old, thin hardcover from which the jacket had been long ago removed. The initials A. F. carved into the front. The title page reading The Red Light. The inscription reading For E. No sign of her at all.
The room was terribly cold. Someone had left the window open.
Jan-Erik Asplund lives in Brooklyn. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Potomac, The Bad Version and The Silo.
When I was eight my father told me
Mikey our pet turtle ran away from
home. I dusted the aquarium for
fingerprints. Made reward posters
out of construction paper and outlined
Mikey’s smile with jungle green crayon.
I interviewed all three of my sisters
and checked under each of their beds.
A week later I found Mikey in the
backyard. His body was a murder
scene on fresh cut grass. An explosion
of pink and purple organs from an
unknown violence. A shell
split into tiny fruit bowls soaked
in fresh blood. Flies paraded
on a face I could no longer identify.
I buried my first body under the
lemon tree with a beach shovel.
I hosed down the rest of the carcass and
watched a piece of intestine slide down
a single blade of grass. My father came outside
with whiskey on his breath. He smiled
and said what kind of an animal runs away
from a home that gives you everything?
Karla Cordero is a writer, performer, and educator. She is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at San Diego State University. Cordero is a contributing writer for Poetry International and cofounder and editor for Spit Journal, an online literary review for performance poetry. Her work is published and forthcoming in Cease, Cows, The California Journal of Women Writers, and theNewerYork Press.
(1) ..the quality or condition of being tortuous;….twistedness, ..crookedness,
sinuosity; an instance of this — (2)…figuratively mental … .. .. … … or moral
crookedness — (3)..an instance of this; or something……………. ……………that
exemplifies it, a twisted or crooked object,…. ….. … …..a twist, turn, winding:
tortuosity — what………. …. ….. …….can be examined in the fundus of the eye
through an opthalmoscope —…………….only place on the human body where
microcirculation can be directly observed .— .hemorrhages, exudates, cotton
wool spots, blood vessel abnormalities:. pulsations and, the aforementioned,
tortuosity ………… …… …………fourteen years old — first complete physical —
pressed firmly cheek-to-cheek — told me….. …. .. …. to look away to the side
away from the light — … .. … … .. ..did not want him to remove his face — his
wet breath — sensed …. …. …. ……. his lips ajar — balls — on one knee — arm
wrapped my waist —… . .. .. ..my arm wrapped his shoulders — no glove — to
pull him tighter
Dan Encarnacion earned an MFA in Writing at the California College of Arts and lives in Portland, Oregon. Dan has been recently published in Word Riot, Eleven Eleven, Upstairs At Duroc, and/or, The Blue Mesa Review, Assaracus, Blackbox Manifold, and has work forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review and Whiskey Island. He was the featured artist for Reconnaissance Magazine’s 2013 issue and is included in the anthology Reduce: A Collection of Writings from Educe Journal 2012 (Educe Press).
If the needle swung from side to side, it would be a girl. If the needle swung in circles, a boy. Lailah’s three sisters lay her laughing in Ben’s arms as her mother dangled the needle above her belly. Each woman willing the azimuth of the needle like an ancient geographic divination.
No one agreed on the gender of the needle and thread. Lailah’s mother saw a boy. The youngest sister swore it barely moved. The sister who had sworn off men blamed Lailah for the cryptic emanations of her body. Her mother, laughing her head off, mapped out Lailah’s body as the tree of life—naming ten parts of her body from head to toe which formed the ten Sephirot where God was broken into male and female. Lailah and Ben were silent in their pose. They had both distinctly traced the needle as it swung to the left, then swung to the right.
The women passed around the black and white sonogram of the baby. Seven more days until the eleventh week, and Lailah and Ben Amora would know if the baby would be male or female. The women warned Ben from the doorway. Whatever Lailah doesn’t eat will be missing in her child. Everything edible that she sees she has to bite, sip, lick. If she gets ugly, she’s having a girl.
Looming in front of the washroom mirror, Ben faced his own broken face. His features would be ugly in a girl. He was afraid to inflict a daughter with his hooded boxer’s eyes. Working as a cutman now at the ring, he thought of how many times he’d seen faces opened up, re-arranged, lopsided. One eye swollen shut with blood. Top lip opened wide. One cheek bigger than the other. The very idea of human features themselves, engorged or stretched by the spasms of happiness or misery, seemed grotesque. The clumsy orbit of shamefaced eyes. The stupidity of a lonely man’s nose. The little arch in the center of the top lip—the Cupid’s bow—the instrument of the god of sexual love. The two philtral columns between the nostrils and the upper lip, where Ben wore a small stitched scar after failing the ten count, was sunken, according to legends told to mystic children, by the finger of an angel of conception to make babies forget the miracle of birth. The features of man and woman are purely vestigial, he thought. Remnants of a divine history—part god and part baboon.
Dead drunk by ten, he succumbed to an exaggeration of his fusiform visual sense—deciphering faces where there were none. Baby girls’ faces in nighttime foetal clouds with their sonogram silhouettes seen from his third floor apartment balcony. Faces in the memory of a pattern on a woman’s dress who was sent to him after he lost the fight. Faces in the entoptic phenomena of the eye—seeing two blue girl’s eyes when he closed his own eyes, face down on the kitchen table.
Waking up as the husband of a pregnant wife, still seeing double from the dregs of the hours before, he picked up the needle and red thread which had been left untouched on the table. All domestic objects were really veiled ciphers for the most mortal of life’s happenings. To Ben, the bottle of bourbon, the pack of smokes, a needle and thread, petroleum jelly, cotton swabs, retained all of their original magical savagery.
Ben looked over to see his naked pregnant wife asleep in the bed of their one room apartment. He thought of Lailah’s body as the perfect cipher. For ten weeks her body had not moved involuntarily. The gesticulations of her body—her heartbeat, the blinking of her eyelids, were all tiny revelatory acts of the baby inside his wife. Careful not to wake her, he took hold of her palm. He was a man who knew about hands. Ben took her pulse. He bent over her to count her heartbeats per minute. Lailah’s sisters had instructed him that evening that even one beat over one hundred forty heartbeats was a girl. He tried to sleep off the booze.
Lying there with his hands on his wife’s torso as if scrying her bare belly, now iridescent from the light of the street, there opened a lesion of jealousy between Ben and Lailah. He remembered times he had come home too late in the night to be a man. He knew she felt he was losing his handsome boxer’s face. That he began to fear other men. That he had lied to her when he said he was not bothered that she was older than him, at the five years it took to conceive—each one secretly blaming the other.
Ben knew that Lailah began to see him as the bearer of weaknesses. His bad shoulder. His fear of water. His scarred lip that burned in the cold. She saw him as Ben “Animal” Amora, the man that had lost his job two times in as many years after giving up fighting following that knockout in the tenth, who had to take the job as a cutman at the ring where he was once an animal god. Fixing busted up eyes and flattened noses and smashed mouths of men transformed into wounded beasts. She had left behind a wealthy home to come live in this apartment, in this cold, shitty place. Ben was terrified that she would begin to revile him, as his blood unfurled in her unborn baby, for the possibility that his faults were being repeated unstoppably in the child. That even his cicatrix lip was a feature that could be passed on to the baby. Every scar that the cutman had collected was as much a part of him as his grandmother’s hairline, his dead mother’s eyes.
Waking up now, she climbed on top of him the way she had done since her belly started to swell, and undid his buckle. Ben became attentive to his feminine nails holding her thighs. He felt the usual blush of his cheeks. Lailah, too, was also suddenly aware of what she saw as her failures as a woman—the growth of hair on her legs, her small breasts moving up and down. Ben couldn’t help thinking up names of fruit for cock and birds for cunt.
During the last two burdensome years seeing him weak, she became more attracted to him for what she saw as a rise in her own beauty through the elaboration of femininity she showed in the face of his lack of masculinity. But secretly, she half-knew that he too was attracted to her because of her boyish looks, her smoker’s voice, her square shoulders. In seven days, the revelation of the baby’s gender would be, in fact, a testament to their own identity, their success or failure as a man or a woman. Both of them, separately, were measuring their own divinity in the creation of the child and their own desire to pull apart the spherical androgynous creature that they had become in Lailah’s belly. To unveil it, undisputedly, as male or female.
Afterwards, Lailah pretended to scoop out his eye, placing it in her belly. I want the baby to have your eyes. She mimicked pulling off his eyebrows and putting them in her belly. I want the baby to have your eyebrows. Lailah removed his ears, his forehead, his hair. Leaving his lips. Moving behind him she draped her long black hair to curtain his face. You look like a girl. They didn’t look so different, Ben thought. Years of contorting their faces alongside each other as they made love or as Lailah watched Ben get hit in the kidneys, in the gut, in the face. Their mimicked convulsions were what reshaped them. They lay down back to back as they had begun to do after making love.
Less than seven days before learning if his own child would be a boy or a girl, Ben dreamed that he was not a man. In the ring he let another man explode his nose, dislocate his jaw, close up his right eye, scar his lip. No one but Ben knew why he kept dropping his hands. But tonight, Ben “Animal” Amora rose after the ten count and fixed himself up with his cutman’s tools—his enswell, his cotton balls, his petroleum jelly. With his implements, he added two new blue feminine eyes, a new jaw, perfect lips. The cutman made himself into two. Into some ancient spherical person with back to back bodies of a woman and man, whose androgynous strength could challenge any man who tried to pull them apart.
Examining the scar on his dreaming face, where ten stitches had once closed up his lip, Lailah put a finger to his Cupid’s bow and imagined for a guilty instant, the way all lovers secretly imagine at the moment of their greatest love, what it would be like if Ben died.
Marc Labriola writes stories and poems and is involved with the world of theatre. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto. He has taught literature in Canada and in Italy and has taught English as a second language to students the world over. He lives in Toronto, Canada.
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE LADY WHO ALWAYS REQUESTS TWO NAPKINS AT MY RESTAURANT
by Melanie Sevcenko
Dear Miss or Mrs.,
First off, although my hostess shift covers only the lunch crowd on a Monday through Friday basis, I am well aware that every day when you leave us at 1:30pm—after you request two cloth napkins, and after you swallow three bites of Today’s Special—that you will be back in five hours for dinner. And sometimes, forty-five minutes later, when you remember the dessert you ordered while you sit in the parking lot and reapply your lipstick to your muttering lips in the rearview mirror, until they come together to blurt “Dessert!” and you will come back inside to join us. And because I never see you when evening falls, and because I’d rather not discuss your potential thievery with my co-workers, I am left only to wonder if you request two napkins for the latter meal as well.
You see, I notice things. Every day you ask for two napkins at lunch—either from me or a waiter—and after you’ve left—when I come to pick up your poked meal, I am only able to find one napkin. The second has vanished. I’m growing suspicious, I admit, as I think you might be jacking the second napkin, thereby expanding your collection by twos daily—one from lunch and one from dinner. I imagine a cupboard at your home that is latched shut to keep from busting open and cascading down upon you a wash of white cloths, each and every one of similar dimension, folded with the elegance of a paper swan or the precision of an airplane. Then I remember that you probably don’t know how to refold these perfect squares of dense fabric in quite the same fashion as you receive them from us at the café. Then I figure as a symptom of your obsession with our establishment you might be sewing a giant quilt out of these starched materials to wrap yourself up like a mummy. Because, lets face it, you do look the part. And I do hope this napkin-stitched mummy-wrap would keep out the cold, because you always have a frigid demeanor about you, like a rogue straw that got detached from a nearby bird’s nest and blew in with a gust of icy wind, straight through the restaurant doors.
But then I remember that it hasn’t been icy for a fucking day since I moved to Texas. In fact, it’s been a steady 93 degrees. And yet I still imagine your closet stocked with only heavy wool shrouds, because that’s all you ever wear when you come in everyday and request to be seated at the same table in the center of the restaurant—with two napkins. But when I think of you at your closet I think of you naked, or semi-naked, and I wonder how that is possible. Some people don’t ever seem to be naked under their clothing… just another layer of wool.
If you are in fact darning this patchwork blanket of white dinner napkins, I suggest you wear it to the restaurant one of these days; it might serve as the perfect layer of insulation when our air-conditioning proves to shatter you. I promise we won’t haul you off to the cops on account of your theft and your blatant tendency to pill pop at our place of business. See, we’ve caught onto your daily ritual: a table for one, two napkins, Today’s Special, a glass of complementary wine that you have implemented into our menu (because it’s so hard to say no to people who only speak in broken whispers) and a trip to the bathroom with a fist full of meds. I think that’s also where the napkin stealing goes down. I notice how you take one to the bathroom, where you stuff it inside your pleather tote bag to swill around the dark depths with God’s knows what else — pills, lipstick-blotted Kleenex, a steak knife, Isotoner gloves. A few moments later I spy you re-seating yourself, no napkin in your crinkled hand.
A waiter at our restaurant told me that you once requested a table for two, for you and your dog. They made you sit on the patio. I wonder if your dog looks like you. I have no doubt that he/she is as fashion savvy as you, seeing as how all your accessories come together so nicely—the knee high leather boots, the wooly tights, the woven skirts, the cashmere sweaters, the wool scarf. I’m inclined to tell you now that, although I never get to say this to you at the café because I am usually too busy wishing nervously that you would stop winking at me through your Anne Bancroft makeup—I think your sense of fashion is pretty impressive for someone your age. And I think that time you dropped your overcoat to the ground in front of a waiter and whipped off your sweater and threw it over the balcony and then reached for your spit-through white undershirt before he ran back inside, horrified, was really unnecessary. Your outfit truly belonged on you, as a sausage casing keeps the delicate flesh intact, rather than strewn across the parking lot pavement.
Just so you know, we still have your sweater at the café, with a paper sign that says, ‘That Lady’ Scotch-taped to it. So whenever you want it back, just ask. In exchange we’d like our napkins back. Thank you.
Melanie Sevcenko is a journalist and poet. She has reported for BBC, Al Jazeera, CBC, Toronto Star, Monocle, Pacific Standard and Global Post, amongst others. Her poetry and short fiction has been published in several literary publications, including: apt, newleaf, The Fourth River, Sojourn, BlazeVOX, and Nexus. Her new poetry chapbook, We Slept in Body Bags, Just in Case, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2014.
He presses the deck of cards into her hands and says: Shuffle. As you shuffle, think about all the cards in the deck. Concentrate on a single card, but don’t choose one, just hand the deck back to me when you have the image clear in your mind.
She does as he says. Her mind settles on the three of spades. She returns the deck to him. He takes it in one flat, outstretched palm and rests his other hand over the top card. He concentrates for a moment, eyes closed, then fans all the cards and, without hesitation, chooses one at random. He holds up the card. It is the three of spades. Is this the one, he asks. She nods, but it is clear she’s not impressed.
Nice trick, she says, but I can do better.
Prove it, he says. She smiles.
She leans forward a little and reaches out with one small hand. Her delicate, tapered fingers reach into his ear and pull out not a coin, but a hyena, which they hold by the scruff of the neck. She tickles it under its chin and sets it on the table between them. The hyena turns, knocking over their beer bottles. It leaps into the air and bursts through the window. It launches itself into the sky, where it eats three stars in the Big Dipper. Orion looses an arrow at the hyena and hits. The hyena explodes; a rainbow of confetti falls lazily toward the earth.
He turns his eyes from the sky and stares at her in wonder. That, he says, is a magic trick. He looks sheepishly at his deck of cards.
Cold night air streams through the broken window. In the sky, the constellations are scavenging for stardust to replace the three stars missing from the Big Dipper. Somewhere in Africa, a hyena wonders where its mother has gone.
Circus is a jack of many trades. When he is not writing fiction, he works as a bartender, bookbinder, and adjunct college lecturer. He has a doctorate in geography and is currently living in Kingston, NY with his partner and a small menagerie of pets. An inveterate agitator for guerrilla art, he regularly reads his work at open mic events.
The alleyway was paved with humped dark stones like so many dead or hibernating turtles. On either side of these stones, walls leprous with peeling plaster inclined inwards towards a sliver of grey sky. The man walked ahead trundling his suitcase, the woman followed dragging a matching one. Their wheels made a thunderous noise on the stones.
‘Wait for me,’ the woman called. Her face was red.
The man kept walking.
‘Will you stop?’ she called more loudly. ‘Are you deaf or what?’
The man stopped but didn’t turn round.
‘That’s it!’ she said when she came up to him. ‘I’m not going another step!’ She wiped her sweating face with the back of her hand and said without looking at him, ‘I hate you. Why don’t you ever listen to me? If you’d listened to me we would have got off the vaporetto at the right stop.’
He turned round to face her. ‘We did get off at the right stop,’ he said. ‘According to the map it’s only a couple of laneways from here.’
‘No, it’s not! I saw the map. You’re not the only one who can read maps you know.’
The woman perched her anorak-covered behind on the black suitcase, which teetered on its metal wheels. ‘My feet hurt,’ she said. She sounded as if she was about to cry.
‘It’s not that far,’ the man said. He pulled a map from his pocket and unfolded it. ‘See. We’re about…um…about here.’ He stabbed his finger at the middle of the sheet.
She looked away and stared at the peeling walls.
They were alone in the alleyway. Where it joined up with the next one another wall rose up, fitted like a jigsaw piece under a flat section of grey sky.
‘I don’t believe you,’ she said, still staring at the crumbling plaster. ‘And I don’t care what you say, I’m not going another step.’
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘You can’t stay here.’ He was having difficulty refolding the map. When he couldn’t get it to go into the right creases, he swore at it and shoved it in his pocket.
‘I told you, my feet hurt,’ the woman said. ‘Much you care about that.’
When he said nothing she tightened her lips. ‘Where are we anyway?’ she demanded, casting glances up and down the alleyway. ‘There’s no street name that I can see so how come you know where we are, Mister Smartypants?’
‘Let’s go,’ he said and began walking again. The rattle of his suitcase on the cobblestones echoed against the walls.
She watched him go. When he didn’t look back she got up from the suitcase, pulled up the handle and followed him. The man turned the corner, his bag bumping on the dark stones. The woman reached the corner and saw that the new alleyway was no different from the last one. She stopped walking, but when the man was about to turn the next corner she followed him with dragging steps.
The man and woman continued in this way for five more alleyways until they came to a large open square surrounded by grey stone buildings. The man kept walking but the woman pulled her suitcase upright and looked around. She seemed surprised. She looked at the expanse of cloud-covered sky, then at the stones under her feet. They were not so dark as the ones in the alleyway but a lighter grey, much the same color as the sky. People were walking in twos and threes over the stones and children in their Sunday best of frilled dresses or miniature suits trotted beside them. A small boy dribbled a black and white soccer ball beside an obelisk-shaped stone fountain in the center of the square. A tall thin priest in an ankle-length black gown walked arm in arm with an old woman who also wore long black skirts.
The woman caught up with the man who had stopped and was waiting for her.
‘At least I can sit down now,’ she flung at him from the side of her mouth, not slowing her stride as she rattled her case past him. She trundled it across the square to a café on the other side. When the man arrived she was sitting at a grey metal table, frowning at the fountain. The other tables around her were unoccupied.
‘I want a coffee,’ she said.
The man pushed in the handle of his suitcase and sat down opposite her on one of the grey metal chairs.
‘Are you going to get it?’ she asked.
‘What do you want, flat white?’ he said, taking out the map again.
‘Oh, leave that thing alone. Cappuccino please. And a packet of cigarettes while you’re at it. See if they have Winfield or something similar.’
He frowned at her. ‘Don’t be stupid. You’ve given up.’
‘Too bad. I’m taking it up again.’ She shifted her gaze from the fountain to the square. The boy with the soccer ball was playing with another boy now, taking it in turns to drop-kick the ball across the cobblestones.
‘Why don’t you calm down?’ the man said. ‘I’ll get you a coffee but I’m not buying any cigarettes.’ He started to get out of his seat but she was up before him.
She stood over him. ‘Just give me the money then. I’ll get them myself if you won’t.’
The man took out his wallet and passed her some notes and she went over to the café. He sat in the metal chair, watching the people in the square as they strolled about or stopped to greet one another. The boys with the soccer ball weren’t playing anymore. They had joined two couples who stood chatting in a circle near the fountain. One of the men waved his arms about as he spoke and the other three laughed.
The woman came back, pulling open the cigarette packet as she walked. She sat down and fumbled with the lighter, then touched the flame to the cylinder in her mouth. She inhaled deeply, forcing out a long stream of smoke, and inhaled again. The man watched. Her hand trembled as she took a third drag.
‘This is all your fault,’ she said, narrowing her eyes to look at him for the first time. ‘Why can’t you be civil? Why can’t you talk to me properly? Why can’t you listen when I try to tell you I’ve found a shorter way to the hotel?’ Ash fell on the stones beside her feet as she spoke. ‘You think I’m stupid, that’s why! You think you’re so smart but you’re not.’ Her eyes glittered with unshed tears.
‘I’ll get the coffee,’ the man said. He stood up and walked over to the café. When he came back he said, ‘I know what this is about. It’s because you gave up smoking. I told you it was a bad idea to give up at the start of our trip.’ He put the cups on the table and sat down. ‘You’ve been hanging out for a smoke for weeks. That’s why you’re carrying on like this.’
The woman pulled a second cigarette from the packet. It was a Winfield packet with Italian words on it. She frowned at it and pushed it aside. ‘Is that what you think?’ she said. She lit up and began puffing again. ‘How very convenient. Nothing to do with you of course. Nothing to do with your behavior.’ She waved her free hand in the air. ‘Nothing to do with ignoring me when I try to tell you something useful that would’ve spared my feet six alleyways at least.’
She drew on the cigarette in quick sharp puffs. The man picked up his coffee and sipped. The woman reached forward and stubbed out her half-finished cigarette, grinding it into the ashtray. When her hand came away the butt was torn and tobacco fibers were mixed into the surrounding ash.
The woman bent down so that only her shoulders were showing above the table and began jerking at the laces of her shoes. When she had the shoes off she sat up and looked at her feet. The man looked too and saw they were red and swollen. He looked away.
‘You shouldn’t have bought those cigarettes,’ he told her. ‘Now you’re back to square one.’
‘Make up your mind.’ She was smiling now. ‘You just said I shouldn’t have given up, now you’re telling me I should have.’
The man picked up his cup and took another sip. ‘You shouldn’t have stopped when you did, but since you did you should have stuck to it.’
‘I see.’ She stopped smiling. ‘Whatever I do will always be wrong. Whereas you, of course, will always be right.’ She rapped the cigarette packet on the metal surface of the table. ‘In that case, conversation over.’
The man opened the map and began studying it. She watched him, her head tilted back so she was looking down her nose at him, then shifted her gaze to the square. The boys with the soccer ball were gone. Three jeans-clad young women with shoulder-length black hair were walking across the cobblestones, bending their heads together as they talked. On the far side of the square a young man came with loping strides, his arm around another girl who also had black hair and was wearing jeans. In the middle of the square, next to the fountain, he stopped and turned the girl towards him. She put up her face and he kissed her, his arms wrapped tightly around her. A little girl ran past them in a frilly pink dress, carrying two ice-creams.
The woman watched the kissing couple for some time, then closed her eyes. Her face was less red than before. She wriggled her toes and sighed.
‘I feel a bit better now,’ she said.
The man looked at her over the top of his map. ‘I think I know where we are,’ he said. ‘The hotel is only two blocks away. Want to have a look?’
She shook her head. ‘If you know where we are then let’s go.’ She bent down and began to put on her shoes.
The man folded the map, which took him a long time. She stood waiting for him, one hand gripping the handle of her suitcase. When the man finished his folding he got up from the metal chair and put his arm round the woman’s shoulders. He massaged her neck and she sighed, relaxing her grip on the handle.
‘It might not rain after all,’ she said, looking up at the sky. ‘I think it’s clearing up.’
‘You’re wrong there,’ he said. ‘It’ll pour cats and dogs.’
She turned her head to look at him.
‘On the other hand,’ he said, ‘you could be right.’
They walked away, trundling their noisy bags.
Julie Kearney is an award-winning artist and writer who lives in Brisbane, Australia. She has written a fictional autobiography of her great-grandmother titled True History of Annie Callaghan, and is published in national and international anthologies. Her stories have appeared in Griffith Review, Hecate and Idiom. Currently she is working on the second of a trilogy of historical novellas with an Indigenous theme, inspired by The Tempest, Shakespeare’s iconic depiction of the colonised and the coloniser. You can find her on www.juliekearney.com.au.
When I first started farming I thought I’d eat well, but the truth is no one eats worse than a young farmer. After a full day of pulling weeds, the last thing you want to see is another fresh vegetable. My friend Rob ate what he called “The Special,” and that was his everyday sandwich: two pieces of bread, one on top of the other. His “Special with Cheese” was two pieces of bread with a slice of cheese in between. “The Toasted Special” was two pieces of toast. Alex ate Fluffernutters all day long, and his hands were even dirtier than ours because of the sticking power of the marshmallow on his fingers. Greg ate better than any of us, but only because his girlfriend moved in with him, and she had nothing to do but cook. The smells coming out of their cabin were tempting, and it got to the point where we’d all find ways to avoid his house, even if it meant going the wrong way round the farm.
One Sunday in June, we took the delivery van into town to go shopping. We had all the vegetables we could ever want, but no meat. Greg stood for a long time in the grocery, poking steaks in the ice tray before picking the fattest, highest hanger steak he could find. I carried it on my lap the whole way back. At the farm, he plugged a hot plate into the outlet in the greenhouse, and we sat on upturned buckets by the tomatoes. We watched his cast-iron get hot, and when he threw the steak in, it flopped and seized up. We ate that steak with our fingers—Alex too, though his pieces got black with dirt—and didn’t talk much. Even the mosquitoes didn’t seem too bad that night.
Maine II. David’s Folly Farm, November.
On the day we slaughtered the pigs, I saw Matt again for the first time in four years. We had worked together in Rome, though he was from Alabama, I was from New York, and the pigs were in Maine. He’d been farming since I last saw him, and the sun had bleached his hair and browned his skin. His deep dimples were exactly how I’d remembered them. Our friend Greg shot the pigs behind the ear with the neighbor’s rifle, but one didn’t die easily, and Matt had to come running down the hill to tackle the screaming pig. In the barn, Lizzy was scraping the hair off the first kill and she thought the noise was Matt yelling, it sounded so human.
I sliced a pork chop from one of the pigs, and fried it in a cast-iron with cream and mustard. I took a fatty square of meat and fed it to Lizzy while she stirred salt into the bucket of blood to stop the clotting. She made blood sausage for dinner, and before she cooked it I dipped my finger into the blood to test the seasoning. I wasn’t sure what it would taste like, but of course it was just like when you lick a cut.
During dinner, Matt spotted a cockroach by the door and I jumped up to kill it. I slapped it with my bare hand and remembered Lizzy telling me that cockroaches live forever. They have nine lives, she’d said. Then what? I asked. Well, then they start over again at one, she said. Which is forever, she added, but it has an order.
Peter Beck is a food writer and history teacher in western Massachusetts. He has farmed in Maine, Connecticut, Virginia, and Hawaii.
Just before a) Death
We sleep upside-down,
toes at bed’s head, pajama seams chafing
our buttons tender unless we remember
to turn them inside-out and put
cold spoons under our pillows.
Walking slow in fast snow, we pass
blue houses. The houses we leave
leaven into loaves
like shoes full of gifts.
Miss Torres woke us
early just before b) Dawn
We forget our silent-movie dreams
and dance to dress our tops
and bottoms. We carry her
lilacs and open our books,
confident in our heads
and the pages that shade them.
Miss Torres woke us
early just before c) Dusk
We will not chisel our desks
with our pencils, grind
days between our molars, or lapse
into tired sedimentary naps.
Our ankles will never be pestles,
work gristle to sidewalk cement, for
Miss Torres woke us
early just before d) Dark
Patron of silence and saint of deep bridges,
of running water and listening,
she guides one finger to her lips.
Five stars round her head crown us
against the vertigo of almost falling
back into sleep. The clear
sound of her horn cheers us.
Beth Seetch is a Chicagoan living in Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Poetry Northwest, River Styx, SIC Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Three Rivers Poetry Journal and beyond. Her letterpress chapbook, Loose Mary, Bedridden, was published at Wells College Center for Book Arts (2012). She was awarded a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Literature Fellowship. An independent editor, writer, and book artist, she also collaborates with visual artists.
like an army,
x x x
EMILY AS DART AND PIVOT
Asleep, never resting
the humming lamb
of the wonder, of labor
& of cupping, springs
even in conjecture,
at the owl of fresh
desire. It is night
& there are no shadows.
Emily is waiting for me.
Darren C. Demaree is the author of As We Refer to Our Bodies (2013, 8th House), Temporary Champions (2014, Main Street Rag), and Not For Art For Prayer (2015, 8th House). He is the recipient of three Pushcart Prize nominations and a Best of the Net nomination. He is currently living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.
like a rifle, pistol
or pilot, the
beach doll hermit
told him to hold
the bracelet, the
bracelet told him
to blame the rich hotel,
the cloth heir,
the rambling hot chili.
He touched the
bridal cloth hem
and breathed in the
the label torched him
label child mother
blame cloth hider
blame child other
beamed torched hill.
Originally from Virginia, Deborah Purdy now lives in the Philadelphia area where she writes poetry and creates fiber art. She earned BA and MA degrees from Hollins University, and an MSLS from Clarion University. Her poems have appeared in Apeiron Review, The Milo Review, The Found Poetry Review, and other publications.
She was wearing a green overall and gloves, her hair was protected by a plastic cap, and a mask covered her mouth. She was in a large laboratory, looking through the lens of a microscope. All around her there were similarly dressed people—some sitting, others standing, each engaged in a different task. All of them were concentrating intently, and no one spoke.
She worked for Monsanto. The evil gene-manipulating, pesticide-and-defoliant-inventing multinational. But, weirdly enough, Magdalene was happy. Absorbed in her work, as if nothing else existed other than that experiment in genetic alchemy. Like a goddess about to create a new species, more perfect than all the others she had engineered, Magdalene the scientist took delight in her experiments. However, as is always the case in lucid dreams, the awareness of this pleasure disturbed her.
There was a project: to create a new kind of fast-growing corn that would be immune to all known diseases and would let off an odor that would repel predatory insects. This extraordinary plant would do away with the use of toxic herbicides and nitrogen fertilisers, chemicals that pollute groundwater, raise CO2 emissions, and require great amounts of watering. Such a grain would represent a miracle far greater than nature’s abilities—showing how nature represents a past of deprivation, while genetic engineering heralds a future of abundance; it would be a super-food designed to deal with population growth and put an end to famine. And only the biotechnology of Monsanto could produce this future. The Brave New Agricultural World, with only Alpha corn.
Expectations from the scientific community and from consumers were high. Newspapers speculated that this was one of the greatest discoveries of mankind; the radio said the same. On the news Cristiano Ronaldo was shown with two Swedish girls—“they like me because I’m rich and handsome,” he said. This and other information were part of the dream, like the text shown in some film scenes to set the time and place.
Other companies were trying the same feat, but it was Magdalene and her colleagues who had lifted the veil on the secrets of the genes, mapping them, decoding them, manipulating them—and coming closest to the finish line. Within Monsanto itself, Magdalene was heading the research, with the other scientists forming a team that followed her lead. They were just spare parts in a whole she controlled. As such, she closely watched the results of the latest tests, feeling that the chimera was edging closer and closer.
In truth, Magdalene, when awake, knew almost nothing about genetics and less still about the technological processes behind their manipulation. She had read stuff in the papers, browsed websites, watched documentaries, listened to layman conversations, and these scraps of information had provided the tattered rags with which she had sewn together her short, patchwork blanket of scientific knowledge. Put another way, she knew diddly-squat about the matter. But that didn’t stop her from dreaming that she was the greatest geneticist, about to invent a plant resistant to everything—pests, mice or environmentalists—and saving mankind from famine.
Even if we lose our identity, dreams enable us to reach for the stars, to walk in the clouds, to play with a magic wand that transforms frogs into genetically perfect princes. And so, radiant dreamer Magdalene was testing the magical powers of her wand; and her corn prince was almost ready.
Suddenly, the dream changed.
Proceeded by the crash of the door as they broke it down, Judas and his green militia stormed into the laboratory, shattering test tubes, pipettes, beakers, funnels, flasks, stirrers, centrifuges, microscopes, tables, chairs and computers. Everything went flying. The muscles of a choleric triumph twitched on his face and a rage yet to be quenched roared in his eyes. Eager to raze Monsanto to the ground, Judas even managed to hit his comrades with the equipment he was tossing against the wall, and to cut his hands on the glass he broke. It was in this blood-soaked form, like a beast that corners its prey after the chase, that he made his way towards Magdalene, the traitor. Holding a chair above his head, Judas was going to crush her as he would a GM crop. In Magdalene’s wide eyes, the color of terror was blue.
It was then that a door opened and Jesus appeared, stopping Judas in his tracks. He was wearing a white tunic and his hair and beard were longer than before. The serene physiognomy Magdalene knew had gained an expression of authority. He seemed taller and endowed with superhuman strength; omnipotent and omniscient. Nothing could oppose him. If she hadn’t have been terrified of Judas, she would have been intimidated by Jesus. Just as the others were.
The cold light of the laboratory had disappeared before the glow coming from Jesus’s body, forcing both intruders and scientists to cover their eyes with their hands. Only Magdalene kept her eyes open, immune to his radiance. Very slowly, everyone began to recover from the impact of the light and headed towards Jesus, with no difference between assailant and victim. Defenders of nature and its researchers walked side by side, as if they had discovered that they were heading towards the same destination.
Only Judas stood still, but he lowered his chair.
Magdalene had finally shed her fear and freed herself from anxiety. There was now an agreement between the feelings of the woman who was sleeping and the woman in the dream. Genetics and nature had become reconciled. Jesus had not only protected her from Judas’ blow, but had also freed her from the guilt of being a gene manipulator—far from being a miracle, this was no small thing.
However, when everyone was gathered around Jesus and waiting for him to offer words of wisdom, to give good advice, to explain what he was doing there, the saviour pulled up one of the few intact chairs remaining and sat down. He then crossed his legs, took out a cigarette, tapped it a couple of times against the back of his hand and began to smoke, peacefully—a behavior that irritated the scientists as it violated safety rules and disturbed the environmentalists, who suspected that it contained GM tobacco.
One puff, another puff, and nothing. Not a word. Just grey smoke, very unhealthy.
Even Magdalene started to become intrigued. A saviour appears for gene manipulators attacked by gene defenders, avoids a blood bath and astronomical damage, puts everyone in a daze, and then sits down for a smoke? It didn’t seem right. A few words were required, an explanation, a telling-off.
But Jesus rarely did what was expected of him.
He observed the bewildered men and women in front of him, waiting for the right moment to start his peacemaking speech. He was enjoying the cigarette, so he would finish smoking it. And what a shame one of those little machines couldn’t make coffee; or that there was no cognac or port wine in those test tubes. The bad thing about scientists is that they don’t know how to appreciate the good things in life. In the meantime, researchers and intruders were becoming desperate. But Jesus was now entertaining himself blowing smoke rings. It was a small punishment for those who wanted to play at gods, just as it was for those who wanted to destroy temples.
Finally he put out the butt in an intact flask, shifted his gaze from face to face, lingering on Magdalene’s, and then spoke, with Judas in his sights.
“Judge not, that ye be judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measure to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
João Cerqueira has a PhD in History of Art from the University of Oporto. He is the author of seven books: Blame it on too Much Freedom, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, Devil’s Observations, Maria Pia: Queen and Woman, José de Guimarães (published in China by the Today Art Museum), and José de Guimarães: Public Art. His works are published in Toad Suck Review, Hypertext Magazine, Danse Macabre, The Liberator Magazine, All Right Magazine, Sundayat6mag, and Literary Lunes. His website is www.joaocerqueira.com.
As you travel along the river—any river, stream, creek or body of water—what do you notice? Do you see the changing currents, the light that bounces and travels from wave to wave? Do you feel the rush of water at a rock’s edge? Can you hear water lapping at the shore? Do you sense the flow that ceases to part as it travels?
I believe that there are times when one becomes acutely aware of the act of perceiving. There are moments when a heightened sense of awareness highlights things that might otherwise go unnoticed. Trying to accurately describe this sensation, this shift in perception, is difficult. There is a certain silence in the experience, it overcomes you and narrows your focus. Like a camera the eye zooms in, crops, and brings into view specific visual aspects of life. Objects in nature can take on a presence and that presence for a short period of time heightens all the senses. I wonder if this happens to everyone, or if it is a gift or curse for the artist? When I begin to experience this shift in perception (and the moments are fleeting), I want to share the vision. These are the times when I notice what I am noticing.
My work often focuses on the things that I presume go unnoticed in the world: the tiny veins of a decaying leaf, the pattern of light bouncing off a flowing stream, the millions of cracks and slivers in a broken piece of glass. In the process of making, I attempt to expose and redefine those unnoticed fragments from life.
The movement of water has been a recurring subject in my work for quite some time. It began as an exploration of light, depth, color, and translucency. The initial works investigating water consisted of a series of small paintings on Mylar. The smooth material allowed me to manipulate the manner in which the watery pigments flowed across the surface. These three paintings, entitled Arroyo Hondo, are part of an extended group of images that focused on the depth and flow of water along the Wissahickon Creek in Philadelphia.
Click to see “Arroyo Honda” in larger resolution.
I soon realized that my attention to a form of visual awareness, along with a fascination with water, tended to be revealed through light. My interests quickly shifted from making intimate paintings to building sculpture and site-specific installation projects that could engage the viewer in a more physical manner. I first had an opportunity to create a large-scale public art piece in 2005 at THE LAND/an art site in Mountainair, New Mexico. This work, entitled Fluir, meaning “to flow,” was based on wind and water patterns from the area. Fluir consisted of four silk panels, two of which had patterns of wind and water movement burned into the silk with incense sticks.
When sunlight shone through the patterned panels, the light streaming through the burned holes created a mirrored pattern on the solid silk sheets. The patterns shifted and appeared to flow throughout the day due to the angle of the light and the direction of the wind.
I am interested in the way in which the process and concept of one work can inform and lead to another. The repetition of mark making based on the wind and water patterns for Fluir led to observations of visual similarities or analogies of pattern. As I continued to pay attention to the patterned flow of water and its interactions with light, I began to take note of analogous patterns found in nature.
“Trees are Like Water,” 2007
One such visual analogy was that of growth patterns of tress to the flow and movement of water. From this interest arose a piece entitled Trees are Like Water, a photo light box made in 2007. The images were shot along a stand of maple trees in the spring. On this particular morning the sunlight cast deep camouflage shadows of the leaves across the trunks of the trees and in circular patterns along the ground. The framed image is a photographic diptych of the same tree and its surroundings from two separate vantage points.
“Trees are Like Water,” 2007, viewer and detail
The diffusion glass, held by a movable arm, is situated in front of the image for viewing sections of the photograph. The viewer is invited to grasp the scope and readjust it to observe portions of the image. The glass scope defines the vantage point for viewing and engaging with the work. Although it appears as a focusing device, its wavy, diffused texture is actually intended to further break up and distort the image while offering the illusion of movement. Color and light revealed through the glass mirrors the phenomenon of light reflecting along the surface of water or the reflection of trees upon a flowing stream. By observing the blue-green photograph through the scope the viewer sees an image which suggests the existence of a visual analogy between forms of water and other natural elements, such as trees.
It is in the juncture between active seeing or perceiving, and the unconscious or passive glance, that I want my artwork to exist. Several recent public art projects have offered me an opportunity to continue to explore the act of seeing and perception. The project that I undertook for Art in the Open Philadelphia, in 2010, emphasized the manner in which we see, recognize, and identify visual input. It was designed to directly engage the viewer, and the format invited participants into an intimate experience of meditating on a small, defined section of the Schuylkill River. For this project, River Meditation, a simple viewing device was constructed to isolate a segment of the Schuylkill River. Audience members listened to a guided meditation and instrumental music that muffled nearby highway noise, while gazing through the viewfinder directed at the water. The concept was to create a singular area of focus in order to draw attention to the intricacies and beauty of flowing water.
“River Meditation,” 2010
The intention was to offer the work as a means for reflection and to allow the viewer to take note of something that may have gone unnoticed. The viewing area was purposely quite small, blocking out the river surroundings in order to direct the gaze. This vantage point accentuated the pattern of movement, the flow of currents, and the effect of light on the water. Surprisingly, many participants noted experiencing an abstraction of the scene that consequently altered their perception of the water.
“River Meditation,” viewer’s vantage
“River Meditation,” viewer
Churn Ripple Flow was proposed and executed for Philadelphia’s 2014 Art in the Open event. Again, it was the movement and flow patterns of the Schuylkill River that led the way for this public participation project. To begin the process, photographs were taken from different viewpoints along the river from The Waterworks to Locust Street. From these photos, drawings were made on six-foot lengths of pine boards. The patterns on each board were then edged with a router in the studio. There were three 18-foot triptychs, each representing a different flow pattern: the churning water from over the falls, ripples from wind across the water’s surface, and the gentle flowing water between Chestnut and Locust Streets.
“Churn Ripple Flow,” Art in the Open Philadelphia, 2014
During the three-day outdoor event, the public was invited to assist with carving the negative spaces of the patterned boards in order to create a series of large-scale engraved wood blocks. Over 100 participants, adults and teens, took part and lent a hand to carve the patterns. Most people worked for 15-20 minutes at a time, several stayed and worked for more than an hour. One woman, Yuvette, worked on a panel for over two hours, then returned the following day to help complete the piece. The objective of Churn Ripple Flow was for the public to intently observe the patterns, reflections, and currents on the water’s surface as they learned simple carving techniques along the river’s edge. Jody Walker, one of the first contributors, stated that “it felt like you were on the water, because your hands were moving with the pattern and in the direction of the water.” Karen Young, director of Fairmount Waterworks Interpretive Center, described the process as “very relaxing, meditative, and mindful.”
“Churn Ripple Flow,” Art in the Open Philadelphia, 2014, first day
The positive effects of the carving process were a welcome benefit, and somewhat of a surprise, for many who expressed enjoying the focused nature of the task, the peaceful sounds of mallets and chisels, and the act of slowing down—taking time to create.
Public art projects offer an opportunity to work in an alternative manner, engaging the viewer and creating alongside them. I am interested in continuing to design audience participatory works that present the concepts by which we see, perceive, notice, and experience our surroundings.
The meditative quality of the art making process and the act of seeing are areas for in-depth investigations within my work. I anticipate that the flow of water will return and ripple through my mind’s eye, as I attempt to remain aware and develop works from that which I notice.
Nancy Agati’s work addresses transformations in nature, and often speaks of time elements through physical investigations of materials. She has exhibited her work throughout Philadelphia and nationally, with solo exhibitions at Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia; Hillyer Art Space, Washington, DC; Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, Harrisburg; The Crane Arts Building, Philadelphia; Abington Art Center, Jenkintown, PA; ARC Gallery and Educational Foundation, Chicago; and others. She holds a BFA in Painting and Printmaking from Alfred University and an MFA from The University of the Arts. In 2012, she worked as an artist-in-residence at Lo Studio dei Nipoti in Calabria, Italy. Recently awarded a Tending Space Fellowship from the Hemera Foundation, Nancy has been investigating the intersection of mindfulness and meditation as it relates to the art making process. For more information visit her website: www.nancyagati.com.
1. Arroyo Hondo 1-2-3, mixed media on mylar, mounted to acrylic panel, 2″ x 10″, 2004
2. Fluir, polyester/silk organza with burned markings tracking wind and water patterns, four 5′ x 10′ fabric panels, 2005
3. Trees Are Like Water, digital photograph, light box, steel articulated arm, diffusion glass, 57″ x 18″ x 4″, 2007
4. River Meditation, canvas viewfinder isolating a section of flowing river water, audio podcast with guided meditation, 2010
5. Churn Ripple Flow, nine 6′ x 17″ carved pine panels, 2014
“Space and Time” was named a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2015
SPACE AND TIME by Amelia Fowler
Since very early childhood, I have had a recurring dream of a white room so bright it is dimensionless, boundaries of wall and ceiling bleached invisible. It is a nightmare, a preoccupation that bleeds into waking. I think it could be real, hidden under the opacity of matter. Awake, I imagine tearing away the black paper of the night sky; a wall of cold starlight stretches immense and glaring—at my feet, scraps of night. Or, I scratch at the dark paint, freeing shreds of light; outer space gathers under my fingernails like ink from a pen or blood from a scab. I feel I could even peel my body back, starting at the fingers of my right hand. What is left: white absence, a perfect silhouette cut out of my bed or bathtub, the patch of grass outside my apartment. No body, no crime. I prefer dreams of family death, faceless chasing men, crimes committed and forgotten, suicide—the white room is too stark, too static. Almost violent in its silent bright thrust.
Immensity startles me: oceans, miles of flat ice or prairie, a clear night, the size of creation. I read Philip Larkin: One shivers slightly, looking up there. It is the shiver of nakedness. No walls or ceiling to limit, to secure.
In graduate school, I learn the way I see time is called spatial sequence synesthesia. I try explaining to friends, Time is space, and all spacetime exists at once, visibly, here, I say, waving my hand in the air near my forehead. I draw diagrams. This, only much, much longer, I say, referencing my Post-It note sketches. A lover, an astrophysics major, is unimpressed. All spacetime does exist at once, he says. He has a point. From my vantage on Earth, I see stars now dead. But it is impossible to see the universe at once, in one present—the cosmos is much too large.
For me, time exists level with my head, hovering not-quite invisibly. Centuries stretch back even and solid till my birth in 1990, each year a thick tally mark against an unfurled roll of adding machine paper. Father Time could be an accountant, beard bent over calculator, punching numbers slowly and carefully with the tip of his scythe, counting the expenses of time. Before I start kindergarten, my mother begins a job as a secretary. I spend most days at her office, drawing landscapes on long sheets of adding machine paper. Endless fields of little girls and cats.
Three years old. We live in a two-story house repurposed as two apartments at the top of a hill in poor, suburban, West Side Charleston. My mother, not yet thirty, does not allow me to take apples from the next-door neighbor, who offers them, rough and green, from his tree. My father inspects fire extinguishers. During the day, I am left at home with my mother and our white tomcat; she will not return to work till I am close to four years old.
I bang pots with wooden spoons, beg my mother to let me wash my dolls’ clothes in a bucket of soapy water. My favorite doll is Penny Pop, named by my father. She is missing one button-eye—the loose thread hangs like an optic nerve. She came that way, found in a basket of stuffed animals at the Union Mission. The white cat likes me only at mealtimes; if my mother is in the next room, I let him jump on the table to nose my food. Rooms brighten and dim as clouds pass over the sun; during afternoon naps, I do not sleep, but watch the changing light of my bedroom. Up and behind our apartment, the hill plateaus into a field overgrown with weeds, teeming with black snakes.
In high school, a friend and I drive to the homes we lived in as children, the schools we once attended. I want to show her the rooms I have lived in. I am nervous; this is intimacy.
I lead her by intuition through the maze of houses, beginning at the now-closed gas station at the bottom of the hill. We find the apartment has been demolished and replaced by a large, white house with a wrap-around porch. I consider writing a letter to the family who lives there. My senior year of college, I will draft a fictional correspondence. They do not know how my past and their present converge.
I know little about my parents’ lives before my birth. I imagine my mother’s childhood as a small kitchen, my father’s as a dirt yard—images drawn from water-stained photographs kept in a box in my mother’s closet.
I look like my father: unhappy lips, fat nose, skin that does not burn, weight held in the belly. I am named for his mother. As a young child, he lived in the West Side of Charleston. Once, he fell playing on train tracks and dislodged his eyeball; he held it in his palm and ran home, where his mother, he said, Popped it back in.
I know less about my mother. She has always been beautiful, but I inherited only her neuroses. In photographs of her teenage years, she is slim and bored—long, white limbs and dark hair. Her doctor prescribes anxiety medication; the bottles sit untouched in the medicine cabinet.
1990 to 1995 graphs as a downward slope—the timeline paper accommodates the topographic shift. I see the front lawn of the apartment I live in till the summer of 1996: a sharp hill, treacherous on a tricycle. My picture of time is based in physical reality: the roll of paper, the slope. I do not know if this is common in spatial sequence synesthetes; in my research, I see diagrams of people surrounded by multicolor blocks of months. Maybe I am not describing synesthesia; perhaps I only have a need to visualize the abstract, to see years spread out before me, tangible as a deck of cards. Time is space; time takes up space. Years are small, long and wide as a thumb.
1996 begins a flatline of years, uniformity broken by extra space between elementary and middle school, middle and high, high school and college. It is not the grade level that is important, but the buildings, the spaces that contain memory.
Eight years old. Second grade, the Sunrise Museum. The planetarium is cool and gray-dim. At the center of the room, a man prepares to present the night sky. The loudest second graders sit trapped between the teacher and the sign-language interpreter; the rest of us whisper—the lighting inspires hush, and we have been directed by our teacher not to scream when the room fades to black. I wear a dress sewn by my mother on her Kenmore; I watched her pin the tissue-paper McCall pattern to the fabric, then guide the hem under the needle.
In 1905, West Virginia’s ninth governor built the Georgian mansion housing the museum and planetarium. In a few years, it will be turned into law offices, the museum relocated to an expensive, new-smelling building on the East End, but now, as the room darkens, artificial stars blink on, not one-by-one but in clusters. I see constellations invisible in the light-polluted suburbs of Charleston.
As an adult, I still associate gray coolness with planetary. If I could touch a planet, I imagine it would feel like placing my hand in front of an industrial air conditioner. When I smoke pot with the astrophysics major, I am certain I can feel that cool humidity. It’s like rain evaporating from a meadow, I tell him.
A shorter-term view of time, at a higher magnification: kindergarten through fifth grade is a blueprint of my small, one-story elementary school, each grade enclosed in its rectangular classroom. Hallways, library, nurse and principal’s offices, cafeteria. If I draw back further, I see the playground, the parking lot. Inside the box of first grade: my mother’s miscarriage, Little House in the Big Woods. Third grade: a classmate smashes locusts inside a history textbook. I can see the layout of desks in my fifth-grade classroom, the bookshelf, the mounted television, the red beta fish in his bowl, the intercom.
Twenty-two, senior year of college. I live alone in a basement apartment. Through fall and winter, I spend nights in the bathtub, the shower curtain stained green with turquoise hair dye. As the weather chills, my sadness waxes, now looming full in the December night sky. The bathtub is a watery asylum from the insomnia of my bed, the missed phone calls I should have returned by day and feel guilty about at night. My mother calls every day, but my erratic sleeping means I often do not answer. Prescription pill bottles line the floor beside the tub, all orange, filled at the same pharmacy.
A silverfish lies dead behind the base of the sink, visible only from the bathtub. It could be faking. Silverfish began to swarm the apartment for warmth when the weather turned cold. They eat starches: dust and old carpeting. I see them often. Primitive insects—scaled, armored body like a trilobite. Last month, I read Breece Pancake’s “Trilobites” for a fiction workshop and imagined silverfish. Pancake was born in South Charleston, raised in nearby Milton, and shot himself at twenty-six. While studying writing at the University of Virginia, he wrote to his mother, I’m going to come back to West Virginia when this is over… I like to think that I have left my ghost up one of those hollows…
A silverfish died inside the kitchen’s fluorescent light. It will not decompose; I can still make out the legs, the feelers. My skin dries and cracks, and I imagine myself metamorphosing into a scaled creature capable of surviving millions of years of evolution, asteroids, climate change—a point of reference in the flux of time.
The past sits to my left, the future to my right, climbing at age twenty-five and plateauing again at thirty. Thirty years old until death looks like high flatland—what I conceive of as adulthood, perhaps, or a time I cannot fathom inhabiting. My life till thirty is symmetrical, I tell a therapist. Two slopes, a valley. After that, time is a tacked-on afterthought, a tail of years. I could draw you a picture, but I cannot explain why.
The present: constant and center, certain.
This view of time must have evolved, changed over the course of my life, but I cannot separate time from the topography of West Virginia, from rooms and valleys.
Amelia Fowler is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at West Virginia University, where she writes essays about outer space and mental illness. Her favorite Galilean moon is Europa, for its subglacial ocean and terraforming promise. This is her first publication.
The bird lay shivering on the lawn, their faces reflected dark and alien in his button eye. The other eye, the one on the left side of his head, was shut, or possibly gone. A clot of blood and barbs seemed to fill its place. The woman, called Anne, scooped him awkwardly into a kitchen towel and carried him across the juniper-bordered path to the house, her daughter Anne Marie skipping merrily behind her.
Set against the hardwood kitchen floor, the bird perked up, flapped a wing and began hopping between mother and child. With only one eye visible he seemed to be winking at them, in some overlooked gesture of gratitude or appreciation.
“He’s not going to die, is he, Mommy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s keep him.”
The woman stepped back, wishing she’d left the bird to die. Blood-encrusted feathers trailed behind him, feathers as bright red as the blood on them. He made it as far as the water cooler and stood paralyzed against the metal base, his chest pulsating as if to a tune. “We shouldn’t have brought him in,” she said under her breath.
“A raccoon was going to eat him, you said so, Mommy.”
The woman shook her head. “It was a mistake.”
In the car Anne Marie asked, “What if they don’t want him?”
“They will,” her mother answered across the rearview mirror. “It’s their job to want him.” A persistent tapping came from the scissor-pierced shoebox, poised across the length of her daughter’s lap.
The Animal Rescue Center was a dilapidated one-story etched by tall dry stacks of wheat swaying delicately in the hundred-degree summer breeze. At the reception counter a girl in her twenties with a short-sleeved lab coat and a bracelet tattooed around her wrist took the shoebox from Anne Marie’s hands. The smell of the place was strangely clinical.
“Well, what do we have here?” the girl asked Anne Marie. It wasn’t really a question. Chewing perfunctorily into her gum she peered beneath the upturned lid of the box at the beak resting in shadow inside it. “Seriously injured male cardinal.” She abruptly pulled off the lid and the bird came flying out. Anne Marie’s mother gave a scream and brought a hand up to her mouth. The bird was fluttering in circles around them, chasing himself. He seemed to be flying in the direction of the one good eye, the other eye clearly missing.
The girl climbed onto a chair and plucked him right out of the air; held the bird in one hand with its throat locked in the bend of a thumb. His beak was bobbing like a fish’s out of water, producing a peculiar chirrup, a crackling sound like cicadas in the night. The girl shook her head and winced, as if to say what a shame. “What’s your friend’s name?” she asked Anne Marie.
“He doesn’t have a name.”
“We’ll need to put him to sleep.”
“Mommy?” But her mother had already taken a pen from her purse and was filling out a form. “Can’t we keep him?” No answer came.
During the ride back home Anne Marie cried herself to sleep. Her mother behind the wheel wept quietly with her.
Andrea Rothman was a postdoctoral fellow and subsequent research associate at the Rockefeller University in New York, where she studied the neurobiology of olfaction. She recently earned her MFA in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her fiction can be viewed in Ducts, FutureCycle Press, and Lablit, and her essay on writing appears in Hunger Mountain. She is at work on her first novel.
THE TIMES, THEY WERE A-CHANGIN’ West Philly Days: A Photo Essay by Stephen Perloff
When I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania as a freshman in 1966, men were required to wear jackets and neckties to dinner—and most of us wore jackets and ties to football games. The men’s dorms in The Quad were several blocks from the women’s dorms at Hill House, and you couldn’t have a woman in your room past 10 p.m., and maybe a little later on the weekend.
But there were confounding juxtapositions and experiences. Who was that strange guy with the huge head of curly hair and the button that said “Frodo Lives”? What did that mean? (Most people now don’t know that The Lord of the Rings trilogy started to become a popular phenomenon in the U. S. in the mid-1960s.)
And then there was the war in Vietnam. Back home it was hardly a topic of conversation—and, even if it were, who wouldn’t want us to fight the evil Communists? They might as well have been alien invaders as depicted in many sci-fi movies at the time. Who knew that Ho Chi Minh had once been staunchly pro-American and that the U. S. government had subverted the free and fair elections we promised the Vietnamese? Well, a lot of us soon did. Plus, far too many young American soldiers were being killed. And that could one day be us unless we resisted or went to Canada.
While the civil rights struggle had made some progress—the Voting Rights Act had just been passed in 1965—it was far from over. There had been few blacks where I grew up in Kingston, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Wilkes Barre, but as a Jew who as a child had witnessed pogroms in Russia, my father instilled in us a tolerance toward all people, especially those struggling for their own rights and for equality for themselves.
Coming to Philadelphia and Penn, I interacted with African Americans on all levels, from workers to professionals, from neighbors to students I taught as a substitute teacher in junior high and elementary schools in West Philadelphia in the fall of 1970. It seemed natural to bring a camera to school and make portraits during recess. The students were proud to pose. (But I can’t imagine it would be allowed today.) At the time, in the spirit of the era, we all seemed to be just people, with a common bond being that we all believed in fighting oppression. And there was still plenty of that in Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia.
When I first came to Penn, there were no photography classes. A year or two later I saw a sign for a photographer advertising a private class at his apartment in nearby Powelton Village where he would teach developing and printing. I signed up and took my first class with Michael A. Smith. Later, when I was in graduate school at Penn, I took Michael’s advanced critique class that met at his farm in Stockton, New Jersey. That was all the formal training I had.
As with many young photographers starting out, my vision was a bit scattershot. As my vision matured I tended to look for longer-term projects and most of those “in between” images were never printed. But as many somewhat older photographers do, I have been reconsidering my archive and have discovered that many of these early images do tell a story, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s as the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and especially the antiwar movement, radically changed American society—and as photography was beginning to be considered more widely as a fine art.
By the fall of 1967 jackets and ties were out, jeans and T-shirts were in. We still went to the football games at Penn but you were more likely to smell marijuana in the stands than to see someone with a flask. Men burned their draft cards and women burned their bras—well, some did. We sat in at College Hall and marched a million strong on Washington to protest the war in Vietnam.
These images made in West Philadelphia capture a bit of what life was like at Penn in those years and portray some of the extraordinary people, young and old, in what has been since that time a diverse and racially integrated neighborhood. While not without its problems, West Philadelphia most often shows the best of how we can live together.
Stephen Perloff is a photographer, curator, and the founder and editor of The Photo Review, a critical journal of international scope publishing since 1976. He is also the editor of The Photograph Collector, the leading source of information on the photography art market. Perloff has taught photography and the history of photography at numerous Philadelphia-area colleges and universities and his photographs are in numerous public and private collections. He received the Colin Ford Award for Curatorship from the Royal Photographic Society in 2012. You can view more photos at his website, www.perloffphoto.com.
Author photo: Judith Harold-Steinhauser
1. The Quad at Night, Snowfall, University of Pennsylvania Dorms, Philadelphia, winter 1967, archival pigment print, 12″ x 18″
2. Charles Frank, the Doggie Man, at Work at the Palestra, Philadelphia, January 1970, archival pigment print, 12″ x 18″
3. Jim Wolf Jumps Center against Julius Irving and the University of Massachusetts, January 17, 1970, at the Palestra. (Penn won 75-65. Penn players Bob Morse, Dave Wohl, and Corky Calhoun, left to right), archival pigment print, 12″ x 18″
4. Schoolboy, Philadelphia, fall 1970, archival pigment print, 12″ x 18″
5. 5000 Block Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia, spring 1971, archival pigment print, 12″ x 18″
6. Young Boy, Philadelphia, spring 1971, archival pigment print, 12″ x 18″
7. Four Plus One, Philadelphia, spring 1971, archival pigment print, 12″ x 18″
8. Tailor, Philadelphia, spring 1971, archival pigment print, 12″ x 18″
9. Peachy, Who Sold Newspapers from His Wooden Kiosk, 36th and Market Streets, Philadelphia, October 1973, archival pigment print, 12″ x 18″
10. Penn Football Team during Warmup, Franklin Field, Philadelphia, November 1973
11. The Gaze, Philadelphia, November 1973, archival pigment print, 12″ x 18″
12. Class of 1900, Penn Alumni Day, Philadelphia, May 17, 1985, archival pigment print, 12″ x 18″
1. Anti-War Teach-in, the Palestra, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, October 1969, archival pigment print, 18″ x 12″
2. Two Schoolgirls, Philadelphia, 1970, 18″ x 12″
3. C, Philadelphia, November 1973, 18″ x 12″
4. Louis Kahn, Philadelphia, February 1974, 18″ x 12″
5. Red Cap, 30th Street Station, Philadelphia, November 24, 1975, 18″ x 12″
6. Glen Torraine Family, our next door neighbors in Powelton Village, on their way to the Easter Parade, Philadelphia, April 18, 1976, 18″ x 12″
Stephen Perloff’s exhibit “West Philly Days” is on view at The Gold Standard Café, 4800 Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia, September 8–October 29, 2014.
The piercing, relentless buzz rises and falls in pitch. It starts and stops for only a moment, before resuming again near the upper corner. I have been cared for in this same room for nineteen years now, I think. It is difficult to say for certain. Most days are like any other, except for the weather, which changes almost daily here in the spring. Raindrops tap gently on the unbearably narrow window. On days such as this, I am not permitted to go into the courtyard. I try, through the aggravating buzz, to focus my eyes on the stark, white ceiling in order to again project mental images of my memory of Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc: the questions of the tonsured judges, Joan’s responses, the exact words of a simple county girl, not in armor on a field of battle, but in the simple garb of the lunatic, filmed as if lifted directly from the intricate script of medieval France.
I swear here to tell the truth as I remember it, ignoring those pictures that rely upon speculation or solely upon imagination. I first must assert that I do not believe the others in this place know or they do not care to know of the Fifteenth Century world to which I have returned so long ago. Medications, observational notes, and sleep and wake times, are all they seem to care about. In my solitude, I can feel the soft brush of the floral tapestries with scenes of the hunt of fox or boar, the arming of knights by young ladies with slender and awkwardly leaning bodies. I lie on the bed, observing the rainclouds, contemplating my clothes. I wonder that I must dress as neither a man nor a woman, often only the robe an angel would wear, I suppose. I imagine Michael descending to Earth enrobed and I doubt whether I would dress any other way if it were left to me.
I return my attention to the movie screen I have created above my head, where I notice the first fly land briefly on Mlle. Falconetti’s face, as Joan was questioned about her need for the Church. Should one who has gained her salvation by doing God’s work require the instruction of man? Once the Lord in his glory has promised to keep my soul, there is no longer reason for prayer, the mass, or confession. I hope personally for my redemption, but I know neither the day nor the hour, nor if I may already have it. It must be assumed that the fly of La passion fell rigid to the floor within days after the scene had been played if it were fortunate enough to evade the judgmental swatting of the director’s assistants; it led a life preserved by Dreyer, but the actress dismissively brushed it away, and neither could control it.
Did that second fly that landed briefly on Falconetti’s face as she lay on the cinematic bed return off-camera to drink momentarily of each theatrical tear, to nourish generations to follow as she knelt painfully on the stone floor? Perhaps maggots of the flies that visited Saint Joan, feeding on the bodies of those slain in the siege of Orleans, gave birth to flies who, tens of thousands of generations later, begat maggots feeding on the discarded scraps of Dreyer’s film crew and they, in turn, gave birth to flies who, thousands of generations later, perhaps carried on a merchant ship from France, resulted in this fly that speeds past my eyes, though those monitoring me keep the building secured so tightly that I cannot imagine how a fly would enter or where a maggot would feed.
That fly that flew both left and right before Falconetti’s face as the smoke rose before her was, perhaps, overcome and killed in the same manner as Joan, choked by smoke and singed by the rising flames, its body becoming an ember, floating through the boiling air, but I can only speculate, because the fate of flies is never certain. C’est la façon de mouches. We find them desiccated on the windowsill and wonder at their possible attempted escape, though the truth is that they have been given no more than a month to live, and I believe that they are aware of how soon they will perish. If that should be true, then to such similar loathsome creatures they are martyrs—messengers that hear the words of God and send them to our ears.
Steven Anthony George is a poet and short story writer who resides in Fairmont, West Virginia. He finds inspiration largely in historical events, visual art, and film. His work has appeared in several online and print journals and is also forthcoming in the anthology Diner Stories, to be released in late 2014. He is active in the autism community and often speaks on the topic of self-advocacy. Visit his website at www.stevenanthonygeorge.com.
Image credit: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)—Carl Theodor Dreyer, film still courtesy of AWorldofFilm.com
is instant toner
and their famous tans,
our fantasy faces, free
of talent and a free shot.
What summer looks like
when the sound is on:
bronzed, burnt, black,
and red. Just look at us
crushing our crush:
our closest friends
are as close as we get.
There’s no need to point
out anyone: Fresh.
Lusty. Full-sized. Bad.
All clamor, no fear
our every move is enterprise.
The second hand swimsuit.
That hoodie. A soda face
and a T-shirt slogan
that can’t be read—
and then nothing.
We, free, and again out
of the last frame, all
of us together.
One strip left behind;
and by now the sea shook
loose, and who knows
how many stories
have been concocted.
These pictures aren’t
that our mother
mailed to our father.
She went to the drugstore
to take those. We
were not even born.
But just look at her
looking, hair off face, just
look at the way she looks.
Thomas Devaney is the author of Calamity Jane (Furniture Press Books, 2014) and The Picture That Remains (The Print Center, 2014). Recently he was awarded a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. He teaches at Haverford College. More at www.thomasdevaney.net.
Image credit: adapted from A.Curell‘s “Photo Booth at P.T. Flaggs Baltimore Inner Harbor circa 1989”, on on Flicker
A thousand ways to make an egg, and I’m
attempting one: over-easy. But there
past the blotches on my kitchen window
gleams the hourglass
on the belly of the black widow –
she, too, is making eggs.
Her process commences
with the drape of her naked legs
against her homespun silk,
and the swell of her abdomen
silhouetted against the sunrise,
hot and full like my skillet.
Her suitor comes running like yolk.
She only eats her mate
if she is hungry — what woman isn’t?
We finish our meals together,
comrades in breakfasting for one.
Carly Eathorne recently received her BA in English from Western Washington University. In the past, her work has appeared in Inkspeak Magazine, and she received a Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest Merit Award in 2012. She is happy to call several locations in the Pacific Northwest home, and cannot think of a better place to be inspired.
She walks gingerly toward the man chopping onions, who turns but does not shake her hand. Later she will learn this was politeness; right now she thinks he is rude. He criticizes the oil she picks for her salad dressing, causing her to cry and consider quitting. In May, she saves his menu with an asparagus dish so fresh and vital they cannot help but kiss for hours behind the stock pots. In June, he finds her cleaning knives at the sink and confesses that his estranged wife has returned. She hurls a cleaver and runs, leaving the other blades to rust.
Another year, another kitchen. She is filleting sole when he walks in, his empty hands telling her everything.
Madeline Zehnder received degrees in English Literature and Music from Smith College. She lives in Cambridge, MA, where she works for a Harvard University research and policy center focused on early childhood brain development. Follow her on Twitter @MadelineZehnder for tweets and illustrations about maps, early America, and the digital humanities.
The rainwater dripped lasciviously—as rainwater in New York will do—through the sidewalk gratings and down through the mottled, cracked, brown-stained ceilings of the Grand Street subway station. He was standing near the MetroCard machines, begging. Good writers, so they say, show rather than tell. So I will show you my mother doing a double take, being struck by his youth or his voice or that mysterious thing which stops us now and then and renders us unable to walk away. I will show you the three of us going back up the subway stairs into the tepid light. I will show you us walking down the street, around the puddles and past the fish market, into a crowded little canteen that no longer exists, where noodles and tea could be had for two dollars. There are few places in this city where noodles and tea can be had for two dollars, and the very novelty of the idea seems to indicate a loss of some kind, a deficit, though of what I have yet to discern.
The other day I walked down to Grand Street in the cruel heat of an October day, meaning to sit in this place and eat in silence, to enjoy for a few moments the simultaneously boisterous and sacred atmosphere that results when a great mass of humanity is eating its daily bread all at once. I was instead greeted with a “For Sale” sign. At times that seems to be the defining story of this city—a succession of owners and identities and for sale and for rent signs, a kaleidoscope of endlessly shifting nodes. It is said to be a city of limitless possibility, but that is only because it has no specific identity to force upon you. “There is never another country,” wrote poet P.H. Liotta. “It is the imagined one we call our own.” And in certain moments, I am convinced that New York as a physical entity does not so much exist as it is imagined into being, that this city I would like to call my own is nothing but a phantom, a projection of the collective and incompatible imaginations of the millions who walk its streets. That it is impossible to define is often stated as proof of its grandness of existence, but such a definition is impossible precisely because the city itself could never be a concrete noun. It lives on, rather, as a tortured abstract, a dubious collective, a point of embarkment, of no return, of birth and arrival and final terminus.
They speak of the Immigrant Experience in America Today. I don’t pretend to know what that means, but if it exists, perhaps it can be found somewhere in that bustling canteen, $1 hot Lipton no milk please, $1 shrimp noodles and boots tracking in rainwater on the white tiles, paths soon to be erased like those traced over ocean water and across cement and tar, the invisible lines carved into the soles of feet and washed through the blood of generations, and always, always the most pressing question being, are they my shoes or do I simply walk in them? Are those your footprints or mine? If it exists, perhaps it can be found somewhere among those tables, where I, child of two continents, sit with my Jamaican mother while across from us is the man from Mexico who teaches himself Chinese, who reads in the canteen in his spare hours between his gigs in the club, and his Cantonese girlfriend, who is speaking swift Spanish right now to the young man, the boy who sits across from me and shames us all with his hunger.
The narrative, bound by the rigid rules of exigency, repeats itself. And thus it is not so much the details of plot—the muddled recollection of journeys taken in the dark, the money paid as an investment in hope, the American man who puts you on a Greyhound headed for New York—that I would like you to remember. It is the chapped and swollen hands blistering on a frigid November night. I’m not here to speak to you of politics or policies or the North/South divide. But in your empty moments, I would like you, perhaps, to hear the frequent breaks in a voice that does not know whether the journey has come to an end or just begun.
We promised to help. He didn’t come back the next day, or the day after that. The exponential possibilities of a city with over eight million people had always seemed to me like a beautiful thing, endless and seductive and full of hope. It was only after watching someone drown in this pool of humanity that it became to me a dubious gift, a conflicted and awe-inspiring thing, capable, too, of destruction. In the days following this encounter I would find myself repeating his name over and over, as if one name could account for all the others we will never know, as if through this process of naming we could manage to say this thing that cannot be said. Sometimes as I am walking through a crowd or down a silent back street I feel an indescribable strain of something in the air, laced with sorrow and shot through with silence. I know what it is now. It’s loss. This place of boundless promise is remarkable for its sheer capacity for loss. And we know, all of us, of the multitudes of the unnamed, who appear for a moment in a dream, a day, a second, and are swallowed by this trembling metropolis, lost to us or themselves or humanity forever more.
There is another city, lying invisible beneath the void. Often in a glance or a word or the space of a moment it is whispered that things cannot go on as they are. One day, perhaps, the assembly of forgotten souls will break through the concrete beneath our feet. They will rise, ascend past House and Senate and mangled bodies on railway tracks and the crack of gunshots cutting through a border night. They will say a million novenas for all those we have never known, and in the unending litany of their names, we will realize that this, perhaps, is the heartbeat we have been looking for.
Amber Officer-Narvasa is a freshman at Columbia University. When not writing, she can be found playing the violin, riding horses, or demonstrating her superior paper engineering skills. She loves street art and cupcakes, and has a special place in her heart for neurotic cats.
The temperature outside was 107, but it was hotter where I was that day in 1989, bouncing around with three friends in a dilapidated bus bound for Chihuahua, Mexico. Air-conditioning on this journey was simple: wrench the cockeyed windows up as far as they would go and pray to God the airflow wouldn’t be blocked by someone else’s sweaty body. My t-shirt was plastered to me, unable to breathe against the synthetic backrest. The years had sculpted a deep depression in the seat that had encircled my butt for the last two hours. It felt like longer.
We sped through desert unblemished by buildings, the sky and horizon merging in a cloud of dirty beige. Then we stopped at a flat structure with the sterile angles of a little green Monopoly house. Except it wasn’t that vibrant grass-green but a faded minty color, coated by a dusting of brown desert powder.
Everyone stood to exit the bus, so I unfolded my stiff limbs and shuffled up the aisle with the rest of my overheated companions. I peeled my shirt from my back, longing for a breeze that would cool me with my own sweat as we streamed across the parking lot toward this desert oasis.
It was dim inside, and as my eyes adjusted I saw that I was in a convenience store. Instantly I was of single-minded purpose: to acquire liquid. In 1989 bottled water was unavailable, and my Lonely Planet, Mexico book had forbidden me to drink from a fountain. I spied a refrigerator case of beverages and yanked open the door, eager for the blast of cold against my face. But refrigeration was only a mirage; the inside of the case was no cooler than the stifling air of the store. Still, I plunked a few pesos onto the counter and headed back to the sauna-bus holding three cans emblazoned with the word manzana.
The apple drink was thick and sweet like nectar, not the cool refreshing beverage I’d craved. But it was wet, and I guzzled two cans before pulling myself back up into the sweltering vehicle. We lumbered off, back on the road toward Chihuahua.
The round Mexican man with the short-sleeved button-down shirt smiled at me from across the aisle, and the two of us resumed our chat. Julie, Meg, Ray and I had met friendly Jorge around noon back in El Paso, before we’d walked across the border into Ciudad Juarez and caught a taxi to the bus station. Jorge had pegged us as the gringos we were and had made it his personal mission to ensure that we arrived safely in Chihuahua, his destination as well. He helped us secure the taxi in Juarez and find the right bus at the station. And now, though we had another three hours of bus ride still ahead, Jorge started in on his hotel-safety lecture.
I was the one who knew the most Spanish, so Jorge spoke to me, tailoring his vocabulary to a fledgling speaker. Though my mental translation was literal and awkward, I grasped his main points.
“The city not is very safe. Is important that you should go to the place that not is bad.”
My Lonely Planet book had said the same thing, but I wasn’t sure how to find the places that not were bad.
“How know I? That the hotel is safe and also has water that not is very bad?”
“To you I say—when it makes much heat in Chihuahua, maybe not there is water. The water stops in all the city.”
This was terrible news. We had to have water at the end of this blistering day, and Lonely Planet had trained us to view non-purified water as death juice. Now it seemed we’d be lucky to find a place with any water at all, much less water that was safe. With each mile, I became more parched and more anxious.
When we finally shuddered to a stop in Chihuahua at 9:30 pm, Jorge informed us of his decision. Before heading to his home, he would personally escort us to a hotel that met his standard of safety for the four of us naïve California twenty-somethings. His kindness was boundless, and I was grateful.
Growing up in my family of six, we never once stayed in a hotel. Hotels were fancy, with their multiple floors, elevators, and interior carpeted hallways. My family stayed in motels, in single rooms with two double beds and two roll-aways, in family-run establishments where my dad would try to bargain the owner down to $21 for the six of us. Sometimes we stopped at five different places before Dad negotiated an acceptable price.
The lodgings we saw that night in Chihuahua did not live up to my childhood imaginings of hotel elegance. Dragging ourselves through the dark streets, the air heavy and still, we followed Jorge in and out of small lobbies, watching sweat drip down the foreheads of the respective hotel managers. I listened for the words “Agua purificada? Sí!” but I never heard them.
Jorge pushed open another smeared glass door and the five of us squeezed into the wood-paneled office, where I spied a huge upside-down jug of water nestled into a ceramic dispenser. I could almost hear the water glug-glug as I filled the tall glass in my imagination, its chilled contents pulling droplets of condensation from the stagnant air.
After a brief exchange with the clerk, Jorge turned to us, not exactly jubilant but with an air of finality. “Already we arrive. Here you stay.”
“Is water purified?” I pointed toward the jug that was tinted blue, adding to the illusion of cool.
Jorge pressed his lips together, stuck out his hands palm-up, and shrugged. “Yes, says he.”
“Says he” would have to do. We shouldered our packs, and trudged up the dark, uneven staircase.
At the top, the hallway angled left, illuminated by one naked bulb suspended from the ceiling twenty feet ahead. We spoke in whispers, respecting the hotel’s other weary travelers. But we needn’t have bothered; we soon realized there were no other occupants. The doors on either side of the paneled hallway hung open in eerie testament to something we could feel more than observe. I peered in as we passed and was dismayed to see no beds, desk chairs, or other hotel-room furniture. These rooms were barren.
We’d now reached the hanging light bulb, and I peeked into the nearest room. This one was filled with a dozen or more bathroom sinks, haphazardly scattered about the floor. A solitary toilet stood upright in the center of the room, as if the centerpiece of an altar. We continued on in silence.
Past the porcelain room, the bulb cast enough light for me to see that the paneling had separated from the wall in places, as if someone had tried yanking it off piece by piece before abandoning the building. Just as I noticed that the paneling had darkened in irregular blotches, I detected the smell of burnt wood, swirled together with the pungent aroma of musty carpet and our perspiration.
There had been a fire here. A big one. Recently.
At the end of the long straightaway, the hallway jogged left again, and a splotch of red on the wall caught my eye as we turned. I stared at the hard plastic blob, perplexed, until I recognized it as a telephone that had melted into the wall. Melted.
We finally reached the one closed door at the very end of the hallway. Home. Ray leaned his backpack against the fire-scorched wall, and Jorge jammed the dull gold key into the doorknob. He twisted it, shook it, and jabbed at it. Nothing. One of us would have to go downstairs—back past the melted phone—and the bathroom graveyard and the burned paneling, and beg the manager to let us into this room.
Jorge headed down, while Julie, Meg, Ray, and I looked at the walls and each other.
I spoke first. “Do you think the water is really okay to drink?”
“The water? I’m just hoping we don’t burn up while we sleep!” Ray moved toward me and sat on his pack, so I scooted a few steps back. The powerful heat had not been kind to us; we reeked.
Meg headed back up the hallway with her camera and started snapping pictures of the phone.
“Should we keep looking for another place?” Julie voiced the obvious question, but if anyone suggested we continue the hunt, I knew I’d burst into tears.
Then Jorge was back, and grasped the doorknob with renewed vigor. With a rattle and a click, the lock turned and the fire-blackened door swung open on squeaky hinges.
We surveyed the room without entering. Threadbare mismatched spreads were draped over the two double beds, each with one pillow. A large oval-shaped stain darkened the worn carpet, and the lone chair had stuffing popping out of the ripped armrest and was missing a front leg. The bathroom door had no knob and hung halfway open as if in silent shame, exposing the badly mildewed tub with its curtain rod resting on the floor. Something little and dark scuttled across the floor and under the bed.
Jorge broke the silence, his tone flat. “Que feo.”
How ugly. Que feo.
And that’s what did it. I collapsed in surrender to a stomach-clutching fit of laughter. The understatement of Jorge’s observation, spoken as a simple matter of fact, was as hilarious to me as anything I’d ever heard. The heat, the phone, the toilet-altar, the fire, every aspect of the room itself… Que feo. We squealed, “Que feo! Que feo!” losing ourselves in giggles each time.
My friends and I brought in our packs, hugged Jorge goodbye, and then fell into bed. Ray was like a brother, so rather than share a bed with him, I took the floor, placing my head alongside the door. I figured I could sniff any smoke that might slip in underneath. That night in the dark, I felt a creature of some heft scuttle across my arm. Barely stifling my scream, I leaped up with the thought of whipping on the light and exposing the intruder. But then what? We were stuck for the rest of the night in that room with all its inhabitants. It was probably better not to know who else was keeping us company. I decided just to shake out my sleeping bag, wrap it tightly around myself, and let the darkness keep its secrets.
We saw breathtaking views on that trip: dizzying canyons, a valley blanketed in lava that stretched for miles, and sparkling turquoise waters. The spectacular beauty is shiny in my memory.
But the bus ride to Chihuahua and the night we spent in the hotel—those memories rest more warmly inside me than do the beautiful ones, maybe because the stumbles and ugliness have become all tangled up with longing. Remembering, I feel an ache for youth, when it was so automatic for me to trust strangers, to feel pure excitement at the unknown. When “fiasco” mostly meant “adventure.” When time and future felt endless.
I love old fences made of stone, the way weeds grow over the rounded rocks that have toppled out of line. I am captivated by abandoned barns, how they lean and slant and drop their flat boards one by one and yet still stand. I am drawn to ruins, to things that crumble. They make me wistful for the loveliness of what was. Brokenness, ugliness—they burrow into a deeper place than sheer, perfect beauty can.
I still seek out lovely places when I travel, and am filled with wonder when I find them. But the ugly parts—que feo. Those are the ones that stay with me long after I’ve left them behind.
Sue Granzella teaches third grade in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning work appears or is forthcoming in Hippocampus, Lowestoft Chronicle, Prick of the Spindle, Rusty Nail, MemoirsInk, Switchback, and Crunchable, among others. She loves baseball, stand-up comedy, hiking, road trips, and reading the writing of 8- and 9-year-olds.
Fresh out of college, I rented a tiny two-bedroom in the slums of San Jose. It was a cold, lonely house. In the winters, to get warm, I had to turn on both the heater and stove.
Still, it was a steal at $650 a month. “Why should I charge more? I’d just have to hand it over to Uncle Sam,” said Ron. His wrinkled face and jowls made me think he’d had enough tenants to just be straight with me.
Ron also owned the small one-bedroom in the back lot, and several other houses throughout San Jose. On the first of the month, he’d roll by for his check. I heard he was a millionaire, but he drove an old Ford truck and lived in a house badly in need of a woman’s touch, or at least some modern fixtures.
He often came by with his handyman, Gus, who was just getting into rental properties. In front of the one home he owned, Gus had used a chainsaw to carve a tree trunk into the shape of a penis. The women in the neighborhood complained that it was offensive and inappropriate considering the number of children that lived on that street. He and Ron buckled over laughing the day they cut it down, saying things like woody and castration over the sound of the saw. They told me the story, and in the same breath complained they didn’t have women in their lives. It was my first realization that the notion there’s someone for everyone wasn’t true.
II. Terms & Conditions
In Los Angeles, we live in boxes. I’ve moved frequently to different parts of the sprawling city, hoping for better feng shui, but a box is a box, no matter how you arrange the furniture.
I rented in North Hollywood, a stone’s throw from the pool. In the summer, shouts and screams invaded my living room, as people performed belly flops and bottom bombs into the crisp chlorine. I was dating a divorced man, who claimed his wife cheated on him. He was paranoid I’d do the same. After we broke up, I found a baby monitor under my couch. The batteries were long dead, but I whispered into its microphone, “We could have had something special.”
I had a one-year lease in Brentwood that turned into three years. The kitchen and bathroom were tiny. Not even a tub. Even the assigned parking was tight, causing me to scratch my car door several times on the support beam and concrete wall. One morning, I caught my boyfriend staring out the window at the neighbor girl, who was topless. Even when I walked in, he continued watching, behavior that signaled our end. But I was still unprepared for the moment I came home and found every trace of him gone.
After that, I shacked up with a man in Valencia, paying half the rent. On the outskirts of LA, I hoped for more space and possibly love. It was expansive but lonely.
It surprises me that out of all the apartments I lived in with their units bunched close together and their walls paper thin, I rarely heard people having sex. I’ve heard sneezes, coughs, even farts, and held my ear against the wall to eavesdrop on fights. But never hanky-panky.
III. Maintenance & Alterations
I own a unit now, intended as a rental. I painted the walls a neutral color. Potential residents came to see if the posted pictures on Craigslist lived up to the unit’s advertised plain-vanilla presence. I did not expect so many people to want it—and for so high a price.
I am nothing like the walls here—a blank canvas someone can easily project a future and persona upon. If this condo were a place to make my own, I’d take my brush and paint my varied palette upon it: overripe blueberries about to burst into black-and-blue bruises; toenail polish a shade of crimson red called, “Girls Who Love Cowboys” (and on whom the girls love to ride bareback and backwards); and a shade of tropical rainforest-green men want to explore, being lured by lush, unkempt territory.
After the breakup with the man in Valencia, I was forced to take up residence within the very walls I had painted an insipid beige to pimp the place out. Of course, my residence here is temporary; my future love will require more than 784 square feet. Only a five-bedroom, two-story mansion upon a hill overlooking the sea will do. I’m greedy that way.
I try to perk things up, at least superficially, and keep the slate neutral underneath. I’ve bought and hung several landscapes and portraits, except for one of a lone woman with her long face, which seemed too much like a reflection.
IV. Condition of Premises
My window faces two other apartments in our garden-style building, except there’s no garden, only a single potted palm and a patch of cement.
One of the apartments is vacant. In the evenings, the owners, a man and wife, show the place. I can tell they’re married by the way she frets over the cleaning, spray bottle and cloth in hand, and the way he readies the pens and applications on a foldout table; they do this in silence, years of experience in their roles. After they finish and pack up, they leave the lights on. Beyond the sheers, I see bamboo floors, and I imagine dancing to country western songs doing the two-step, cowboy cha cha, and electric slide unencumbered by furniture or a partner.
The other unit is occupied by a woman and her fat tomcat. She feeds him in the mornings before she leaves dressed in nurse-green scrubs. She always leaves the light on above the stove. I see the cat pacing back and forth during the day, as if looking for his owner. When she finally comes home, in a coy game of cat and mouse, he runs and hides. I hear her call, “Here Kitty, Kitty.”
Sometimes the sun gets through to our little rectangle of the world.
V. Right of Entry & Inspection
I’m a freelance writer, so I work from home, a cork bulletin board my only companion. On it, I place encouraging notes to myself. Great article. Good job on the marketing plan! You are a light in the world. Shine!
Other times, I pin pictures of friends, who think they can best me, like Mel, who seduced every boy I had a crush on in high school, and now works as a high school English teacher, and last I heard was sleeping with a married man. Every time I see her, she asks me how much money I make. Sometimes on the board, I conjure word captions coming from her mouth, “Why don’t you have some cake?” or “Potato chips won’t make you fat.” Sometimes, I stick a thumbtack through her forehead.
When friends come to visit, I hide the board behind my bookcase. They wouldn’t understand what it takes to stay motivated when you work from home alone.
VI. House & Laundry Rules
When I lived with my family, my father had wonderful sayings that I can’t shake so they move from place to place with me: Do as I say, not as I do. Buck up and be a man about it. If you want a job done right, do it yourself. If you’re going to do something, be the best or don’t bother.
Other gifts from my father: a penchant for hard liquor (tequila, whiskey, and scotch); his tendency to drink too much (and unforgivably, to drive afterward); his quick temper when inebriated, but also his ability to apologize profoundly and profusely for everything the next morning, and to swear he’ll go on the wagon.
Back then, my father provided preferential occupancy to certain foods in our refrigerator: mango pickle with li hing mui (my mouth waters just to think of it); homemade guava jam strained through a pillow case; pasteles made with green bananas and wrapped in ti leaves; lau lau with its fatty pork, beef, and salted cuttlefish; and my grandfather’s pork dinuguan, made with the pig’s belly, blood, and liver—which we called chocolate meat for its appearance.
In my refrigerator, guests overstay their welcome and mark relationships gone to ruin: shrimp, peeled and deveined; bottles of wine started but unfinished; a bunch of asparagus gone soft and limp; salmon, tilapia, and catfish, this last always the first to smell; bags of salad gone the way of green primordial soup; and a fuzzy white cucumber infected with boils filled with vegetable pus. I always put the good-for-you foods in the bottom drawer to be forgotten.
A friend of mine gave me a large slice of lasagna. At first, I thought this was an act of generosity, but when I warmed the lasagna up in the microwave, there was a slightly rotten scent, as though the ground turkey was starting to turn in its mozzarella grave. I moved the pasta to the freezer to remind me what people are capable of.
VII. Possession & Abandonment
My new boyfriend rents in Hermosa Beach. I stay with him on the weekends, a brief getaway from the city. We walk five minutes and we’re on the beach. It’s warm, beautiful, and spacious. I feel like I should leave a tip when I pack up and head home.
I like to weigh myself everyday. I rely on this ritual to tell me how much I amount to—blood and bones, flesh of flesh, meat and muscle. But he has no scale, so on the Sunday mornings when I enjoy the sand and sea, I miss my weigh-in.
Later in the evening, my boyfriend calls to catalog the items I left behind. I left them there intentionally to take up space in his home. I say, “I wish we were closer.” He says, “I call you when I feel like talking.”
I know he didn’t mean the words the way I hear them, “I don’t call because I don’t like talking to you” and “I don’t like you.” I wish I had my morning weigh-in to fall back on; it would make me feel like I amounted to something, however little.
Boyfriends are like tenants or landlords, depending on the lighting. In the moonlight, they’re like tenants wanting to occupy you; and in the morning light, they’re like landlords ready to evict you for the slightest transgression.
My father and stepmother’s home never felt like my own. The rules of their living arrangement were not written, rarely spoken, and were continually negotiated, coming down to what the tenants could and could not bear. I was a cautious guest, picking up after myself. Stepmother was the housewife with no other occupation except the forced labor of taking care of our home and family. My father, the breadwinner, expected dinner to be cooked by the time he got home, household expenses to be managed within the means of his salary, and laundry to be done just the way he liked it. Stepmother wanted a job to have her own money, her own say, but my father had the say, and in regards to her finding a job, it was always, “Later, when the kids get older.”
Trash bags accumulated under the stairs to our backyard, filled not with garbage but unpaid bills and unwashed clothes. Caked-on pans and pots found their way into the crawlspace under our house. My father never seemed to notice, was merely puzzled when his favorite work shirt or saucepan disappeared.
On Friday nights, my father brought beer and drinking buddies home. From my bedroom window, which looked out at their party in the front yard, I eavesdropped. One night, I overheard an uncle telling a joke about a newlywed couple so in love they went several nights without eating, instead running upstairs to their bedroom. In the joke, the husband came home one evening and found his wife straddling the staircase banister and sliding down. He asked what she was doing, and she replied, warming up your dinner.
My uncle laughed long and deep. Stepmother was busy bringing out sweet and salty short ribs for pupus; father, who’s never had a sense of humor, managed a quiet smile. From my room, I smiled, too, although my ten-year-old self didn’t understand. Where was the food? How long could they go on in this way?
Eventually, my father and stepmother divorced. Of all the homes I’ve shared with men, the end was always the same: Love did not last. When we went our separate ways, someone was left with the empty space where the other once resided.
But here I am again, faced with the age-old proposition: Let’s move in together. How many rooms do we need? Whose bed do we keep? It’s a time of smiles and laughter, and, of course, passionate sex. That’s how these arrangements always begin. I remember back to my uncle’s joke. I’m none the wiser. How we’re supposed to live and take up residence with one another, it’s still a mystery. And yet I’m compelled to try.
Tammy Delatorre is a writer living in Los Angeles. She was a winner in the River Styx Micro-Fiction Contest, a finalist for the Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction, and recognized in various other literary contests. Her writing has appeared in Los Angeles Times,Salon, and Many Mountains Moving. She enjoys paddleboarding, photography, and culinary delights. In previous lives, she’s worked for a Nobel-prize-winning biochemist; helped to design, build, and race a solar car that won the World Solar Challenge in Australia; and danced the hula despite being teased of stiff hips. More of her writing can be found at www.tammydelatorre.com.
He stood staring out the peephole and waiting for the girl who said she’d come. She was three days late and he didn’t have a television so he mostly stood staring out the peephole and counting the seconds. It didn’t bother him that the power had been shut off for five days or that the rent was a full week overdue. He had twelve thousand dollars in a backpack and he was waiting for the girl who said she’d come. She would bring one thousand grams of Small and they might fuck and she would leave. He was thirsty and wanted to run to the vending machine down the hall but if she was on Fast she might come and go before he got back.
So he stood staring out the peephole and waiting for the girl who said she’d come.
He started getting Small when he was thirteen because it made him feel like a little kid again. Before the cliques and FCATs and divorce and death slurped away his best chance at a childhood. Before puberty turned him into a small giant with enough personal volume for three average humans. Before he became a two-time college dropout with no future prospects but a successful drug enterprise. He met the girl two weeks ago at a New College party where nerds break bad in their dorm rooms and craft fantastic drugs like Small. The girl liked to party on Slow and then do some Fast when the Slow wore off and he fucked her with his Small dick and she said she would come in two weeks.
So he stood staring out the peephole and waiting for the girl who said she’d come.
When he was Small he imagined himself with Lilliputian dimensions and a munchkin’s helium-soaked voice. He bought an oversized chair to sit in and bought humungous lollipops. He bought a jumbo big-wheel and bought an enormous race-car bed. He got strange looks at toy stores and worried looks everywhere else. He bought an annual pass to Disney World and spent many days riding the rides and playing the games. He also sold Small to other like-minded individuals and slung grams of laced weed to parents.
He pissed in an empty bottle and stood staring out the peephole.
When he first started getting Small he took it too far too fast and overdosed. He reverted back more and more until he had to wear diapers and forgot how to walk. He went fully infantile for over a week. By the time he came to he’d learned rudimentary Spanish from Dora the Explorer. But now he had his shit together. He started dealing Small so he wouldn’t get high on his own supply. He didn’t think much about it though because he didn’t think much about anything anymore.
He mostly stood staring out the peephole unless he was too Small to reach it.
Michael Head was born and raised in Panama City, Florida. He is a graduate of Florida State University’s Creative Writing program, where he studied under Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Olen Butler. He was previously awarded Creative Writing Student of the Year 2010-2011 while at Gulf Coast State College. Michael hopes to attend graduate school for screen writing.
This is the part that gets to Shelly every time: running past the Horner’s fence with a big, bright smile on her face. It can’t be the sour pucker that she wants to display. It has to be a buoyant expression, otherwise Mingyu will talk about it in the clubhouse.
So she sprints along the freshly painted pickets (Mingyu Horner isn’t one to forgo spring improvements) and bares her teeth, chin high, shoulders back, and a proper curl to her lips. The Shih Tzu scrambles through the flowers behind the fence and leaps at the wheeling legs, yapping and clawing at the wood.
“Fuck off, Roxy,” Shelly says through her teeth. The sprinklers click on and the Belknap’s maid appears down the sidewalk, searching for the morning paper. Shelly flies past her, doesn’t even nod hello, her mind locked in on the fact that Dave’s car will be rolling by soon. She can practically hear the thump of his music, that awful heavy metal he still listens to, and the whine of the rear brakes he won’t take in to get looked at.
She leans into the next turn, bursting up Spindale Street like they taught her at Oberlin: run till you can’t think straight, then back off one gear. But only one. Too much and the pace erodes so that you won’t find it again. She imagines she is sprinting to Mingyu’s murder scene—cops and medics and white chalk outline, the whole bit. Dave will be there, peering out of the perfectly tinted Audi windows, his face wracked with grief and shame.
Shelly stumbles at the Brier Lake intersection as a dude on a bike hops the curb and blows past her the other way, a shitty look on his face as he yells something rude about her having an alleged cocaine habit, being a whore, and needing to look where the fuck she is going. This is the Walser kid, back from prep school (booted for partying) and on a rampage through the neighborhood. Mingyu got him barred from the clubhouse and the pool after catching him rifling through lockers. Nancy what’s-her-name got him blacklisted from the tennis courts because he (allegedly) stuffed a dead cat inside the Lobster practice machine.
Dave plays tennis with James Horner, who said it wasn’t a big thing and we all make mistakes and maybe we should try to be more lenient with the Walser kid when it comes to banning him from proactive activities like tennis, swimming and working out.
Shelly digs into the rise up Bowman Hill and, though her head is lowered, she can feel the old Claremont Castle staring down at her. All thirty rooms of it. Granite and iron, the high gaping windows (“arched maws,” per Dave), and the woeful willows bent around the center statue of Garland Claremont atop a muscled steed. Shelly’s face warps into a wry smile as she pumps her way around the estate. Claremont sits in federal prison due to years of tax fraud. Millions of it. His wife “entertains” a host of “tennis pros” who come and go like pigeons on the turrets—there one minute, gone the next.
The whole neighborhood is on an Old Testament whoring binge: omnisinfidelitas.
Shelly reaches the greenway trail head, which is a fence-covered foot bridge over the Durham Freeway. She pauses, counts along with her stopwatch, till she sees Dave ease into a relaxed line of RTP-bound nerds and immoralists. Then she pops in her earbuds and descends along the bridge into a canopy-covered swath of nature so green it makes her sick.
Radisson v. Marklitz, et al. is what they’ve given her at work, a six-figure payday for the firm and likely an eight-figure payout for the hotel which claims the City of Raleigh cockblocked its efforts to build a luxury high-rise near the train depot. Marklitz is the city planner who led the cockblocking. He’s also a manic depressive who Shelly knows will lose his job, kill himself, then become a martyr along the lines of John the Baptist or…who was that guy from Joy Division?
She’s trying to remember Ian Curtis just as Sambo goes by her door. He leans back, hand on the jamb, and grins in that manner he does which stops all negative thoughts. He is maybe fifty, with a mane of silver and immaculate pompadour hair, and is two uncles removed from the governor’s mansion. There’s already a fellowship at Wake Forest University Law School named after him: the Samuel J.K. Lammartine II Fellow of English Literature & Shakespearean Studies. Or, as he calls it, “the Sam-Lam sub chair.”
“How goes Radisson?” he says, smiling as his eyes dart around her walls. Every time it’s like he’s never seen her degrees and certifications. He always seems to be in awe.
“No chance we lose,” she tells him. (Ian Curtis! Love, love will tear us apart again.) “Not a question of win or lose. The question is: How much do we win?”
Sam’s eyes roll around and he laughs. He actually claps. Then he points at her:
“I knew you were my guy! First time I saw your CV, I told Kane—or maybe it was Julius—that you would kick ass here. Just totally kick ass.”
“There’s no ass too big or small to get kicked all down the courthouse hall. Isn’t that from a play or something?”
Sam makes a comic face.
“No it isn’t,” he says. “I think you made it up.”
Then he grins some more.
“No such thing as too much,” he adds. “Make sure you touch base with me the first time you hear anybody even think the word settle. Okay?”
She gives him the thumb, sideways, then jerked straight up. It’s like a ball team around here sometimes. Victory is joyous and defeat is fucking wretched. But they win way more than they lose.
“Oh, what’s the sitch with Dave?” he says, back at the doorway again. “You guys, you know…is he, you know, still…?”
She gives him the other thumb, sideways, then jerked down. She makes the YOU LOSE! videogame sound effect.
After a couple hours drafting emails for the hoped-for Radisson victory party (the invite list includes the widow Claremont), she plops into her car for the post-rush hour drive home. Twilight is in full bloom, a misty purple and gold that obscures the horror show of wires and billboards flanking the route she takes home. She listens to the radio and daydreams, those visions of Mingyu on a capsized boat or at the bottom of a well.
At home, Dave sits out back, surrounded by Tiki torches, whispering into his phone and watching her through the sliding-glass doors. He gives a tepid two-finger wave and looks away, probably telling Mingyu to steer clear of sailfish boats and open wells. She has stopped checking his outgoing calls. He claims he gets James and Mingyu’s numbers mixed up. But he never has an answer for why he’ll talk to the wife for an hour when he meant to ring the hubbie.
“Did I get any mail?” she calls through the glass. He points to the basket on the coffee table (god she loves Ikea). He has that irritated furrow, a fold in his face she never saw till he met Mingyu at the clubhouse bar (Love Forty) and came back saying there was this Chinese girl (even though she was at least thirty) who reminded him of somebody from an old Ang Lee film. Shelly didn’t quiz him, didn’t really even listen as he went on and on about this stunning, graceful Asian girl (married, a daughter, early thirties) who’d played on the women’s pro tour when she was just sixteen.
Shelly stops when the powder-blue envelope appears. Her fingers tremble as she tears the gold seal on the back and removes the registration card. She’s been accepted to the Montana Blue Sky Writer’s Retreat. In fact, her application was the best in years, the Texan, Bobby Short, tells her in the space at the bottom of her acceptance card. Just fill out the registration (a formality) and get it back to the Blue Sky Ranch within two weeks. She looks out at Dave, who cradles his phone between his cheek and shoulder so he can dig at something on the bottom of his foot. Finish off Radisson, have the victory bash, tell Sam she needs a break, drop poison tablets in Mingyu’s water bottle (haha!), and then head for Blue Sky. Easy peasy.
Lemon squeezy. It’s racist, but there’s a name for Mingyu. She wants to offer it to Dave, tell him it’s okay to fuck James Horner’s wife, so long as James never finds out. Horner is a big guy, a software programmer, but he works out and played lacrosse in college. Or maybe he rowed. Either way, the guy is huge compared to Dave.
“Something’s wrong with my foot,” he says as she comes out to check her tea roses. It cost a hundred bucks to get a guy to come spray them with organic something or other. The guy guaranteed it would keep the mites away, or else her money back. Sure.
“You should soak it in salt or whatnot,” she says, seeing that the bushes are strong, enjoying the humid summer.
“I don’t know,” he says, frowning. That furrow. Like a disappointed father. “I hear Mingyu does a homeopathic thing for feet, for athlete’s foot or whatever this is. Some kind of tennis secret, you know?”
Shelly stands behind him as he digs at the flaky soles of his feet.
“Lemon squeezy,” she says.
“Get her to squeeze lemons on your feet.”
What an idiot. She lies in bed (her side, nearest the master bath), has some wine, and uses her laptop to research Blue Sky and Bobby Short, et al. She’s written a memoir that traces her mother’s rise and fall in the literary world—a 1960s confessional poet with pieces in The New Yorker, followed by accusations of plagiarism, a descent into alcoholism, the divorce, four years institutionalized (the entire Carter Administration), and finally the breast cancer that ate her away till she was nothing but a cobweb in a Fripp Island bedroom.
Shelly writes angrily about ugly truths and feels she has to get this me-and-mother memoir into print because a scathing account of adultery in a miserable and childless marriage is forthcoming. And also she has a lazy, clichéd notion that maybe, just maybe, she’ll come across some cowboy poet at the dude ranch (is that just a TV term?) and, you know, things will happen.
There’s got to be somebody somewhere who will be her lemon squeezy.
Dave wowed her because he fucked her with arrogance—not with hostility or aggression nor a lusty bravura, just a confidence in his abilities. And he was so calm in the face of adversity, a stoic captain in the Ahab sense. When her mother died and the funeral home in Savannah tried to say the burial insurance was lapsed, Dave swooped in and smacked them across the face with the policy, saying honor it or face the wrath of the federal government. Some kind of Medicare issue, but he was a goddamned genius and the funeral went on, though Shelly was wrecked and the family turnout sparse. He was all that she needed: stability, confidence, and a fair share of good looks.
He still works in insurance, but he no longer fights for the little guys. He’s what Sam calls a douche. Along the lines of, “That douchebag at First Rock National Coverage is going to make us file a tort.” Or even specifically: “Dave is a fucking douche, Shelly.”
It’s something she’s watched before, when her father crept away over the course of a year.
There were times when Shelly thought she could actually hear her mother’s heart breaking. Like a creaky wall in an antebellum house that yawns during storms. Only worse. It was like watching a ghost being made. Piece by dreadful piece. Having seen this, Shelly doesn’t fear divorce or estrangement or loneliness or any of that shit that brought her poet-mom down. She’s put up walls, kinda like an old fucking castle on a hill that uses ramparts and hedges and murder stories to keep trespassers away.
All the fucking immoralists. Shelly hates them all. Soup to nuts, stem to stern—a gigantic waste of her time. A bag of dicks and all that shit.
She realizes she’s had one glass of wine too many about the time Dave pops his head in the room and asks her who is she talking to? Is she Skyping?
She goes back to her screens and reads about the workshops at Blue Sky. Daylong musings over core characters’ motives (why did she kill that little whore bitch?) and possibly delving into magical realism during the evening sessions with some Guillermo dude. There’s a reading by an Oglala Lakota poet who lost a hand at Wounded Knee. (Give him your card, no statute of limitations on malicious wounding.)
Nightly jam sessions are scheduled and everybody is encouraged to bring an instrument of his or her choice. Shelly goes to Amazon to look at acoustic guitars. She played one years ago. Was in some indie band while at Oberlin who did forty minutes of R.E.M. covers. “Swan Swan H,” remember that? Nobody ever figured out what that song was about. She fucked a stranger one night after a shitty gig at a frat party and thinks his name was Johnny Reb. Some guy with a dick shaped like a sweet potato.
She checks a box to attend a midweek gala on Tumble Mountain, a couple hours’ drive in a well-worn Jeep, or an all-day journey atop horses with “the wolfpack,” Bobby Short’s own group of cow punchers (ex-rodeo friends and Bighorn poets) and roughnecks (rumor is that these are a retired prizefighter, maybe that guy from Bon Jovi who nobody remembers, and Matt fucking Damon). It costs $500.
Then she gets an instant message via the site, a short bio and a headshot of her bunkmate. It’s a California woman, with dyed blonde hair, about sixty, who goes by “Carol of Palo Alto.” Carol has crow’s feet, a gold charm necklace (seagulls and starfish), and large, luminous eyes that radiate a forced happiness. That’s the face Shelly sees in the mirror, only younger. The strain of a complicated relationship with a lover is written everywhere. Like a man (or maybe it’s a woman?) has wiped his crappy boots all over it, from hairline to chin, ear to ear, on his way in and out of lies about whether he still loves Carol. Poor Carol. There’ll be two of them at Blue Sky. At least two. Who knows? They could all be jilted hearts turning over stones to find that page that will cry out to a publisher.
Shelly replies through the moderator: “Love Carol! Future BFFs for sure! ♥♥”
Then one last page to RSVP to. The BRING SOMEONE ELSE’S WRITING page. Has to be the unpublished writing of somebody you’ve known personally who means something to you. DON’T JUST BRING US YOUR HUSBAND’S/WIFE’S LOVE LETTERS TO YOU! MAKE IT COUNT.
Ha! If only. Dave’s not the type. He can write a grocery list and a sorry-excuse-for-why-he’s-not-home on a Post-it, but romantic stuff? You may as well ask him to stop fucking Mingyu.
Shelly knows what she’ll bring. There’s a notebook in her closet, in a box with things from high school and corresponding summers, a journal, a nice Moleskine that her mother got in Italy during her only trip abroad. There are four or five rhyming poems in there, a couple of never-ending sonnets, and a little travel piece she wrote for her sister. It tells all about Milan and Rome and the young man (her fiancé George) who was whirling her from destination to destination, an absolute love affair with life, sex, art, and experience.
It’s the only thing her mother ever wrote that uses the word “justification” in relation to her own life. It was the happiest she ever was. Shelly will bring that. That and, sure, one of the notes Dave dropped in her nightstand dish. About a year ago. A curlicue-laden piece about his having to meet a client’s lawyer at a golf course in Raleigh, how sorry he was that this came up last minute. Happy birthday. Save some cake for me.
Sean Jackson’s latest stories have been published in Main Street Rag, The Potomac Review,Niche,Sliver of Stone, and Conte Online, among other literary magazines. He was a 2011 Million Writers Award nominee. He wrote for more than a decade for newspapers across eastern North Carolina. Jackson lives in Cary, North Carolina.