When I was a boy, my father told me the story of Agamemnon, King of Argos, peerless butcher of the Trojan War. Agamemnon was arrogant, which Dad considered a sterling quality for a man to have, so long as he backed that shit up with mighty deeds. Dad might have earned a degree from a good college and spent his life building a library of thick books, but sometimes when he drank his speech tumbled back into that crude pit from which nobody in our family will ever escape, dug by generations of pissed-off roughnecks with vicious tongues. “Agamemnon had to fucking chop up his daughter Iphigenia on a stone altar because that divine bitch Athena wouldn’t give him any wind to sail his army to Troy,” and so on.
Dad laid out the Trojan War like this: After ten years of turning the countryside around Troy into a slaughterhouse, the Greeks finally sacked the city, grabbed the lady they’d come to “save,” and sailed home. Dad thought it was hilarious, history’s manly-man equivalent of a schoolyard fight over a girl that gets way out of hand. When he described what happened next, though, his face tightened into an angry mask:
“So Agamemnon sails home, right, where he finds his wife Clytemnestra shacked up with this other dude, Aegisthus. This was centuries before shotguns, so Agamemnon couldn’t just pull a trigger and have himself a Detroit Divorce, and I guess after a decade of fighting he wasn’t so sharp anymore because Clytemnestra stabbed him in the tub, still furious over him sacrificing her only daughter to the Gods.”
Gripping my shoulder hard enough to make the bones grate, Dad told me about Agamemnon’s son Orestes, who, finding his father dead, knifed his mother and her lover. Committing a double homicide snapped the boy’s fragile psyche like a twig, but that wasn’t the point. Dad, leaning so close I could smell his high-proof breath, delivered the moral: that avenging a dead father was the most important thing you could do, ever.
That if he fell in battle, it would become my responsibility to kill whomever had killed him. In a few years, he promised, my weapons training would begin.
Somewhere out there, the Gods were already laughing at him.
I should mention at this juncture that Dad’s longtime business involved transporting bags of white powder between various cities, against the wishes of a lot of people in uniform. So maybe I can excuse him for laying some pretty heavy stuff on a seven-year-old whose life revolved around cartoons and bacon.
As it turned out, Dad would never teach me how to wield a knife like an ancient Greek. The week I turned eleven, the cops found him on the sidewalk a couple blocks from the house. They couldn’t figure out who or what might have killed him, since the body didn’t have a mark on it. How does any Orestes avenge that? Why do I wrestle with this guilt even now?
Nick Kolakowski’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, Carrier Pigeon and Shotgun Honey, among other publications. He’s also the author of How to Become an Intellectual, a book of comedic nonfiction that covers (and sometimes, lovingly skewers) everything from ancient Greek tragedies to Albert Einstein. He lives and writes in New York City.
STARING AT THE SEA
by Julianna Foster Digital Photography
Several years ago I came across a story about a nor’easter that hit a small coastal town.
The morning after the storm, residents of the town reported having seen something they had never experienced before or since—fleeting visions, every one. Strange sightings out at sea, like clouds of smoke rising from the horizon, orbs of light, and unrecognizable objects floating on the water. Yet, as soon as they appeared, they were gone.
But was it ever really there? Or was it simply an illusion? How do you explain the fact that several people reported having seen such different, albeit similar phenomena? I couldn’t get the story out of my head. It stayed with me for days, weeks. My curiosity was piqued.
In the report, one resident tried to explain the peculiarities of what she had seen:
It was early morning, somewhere about 6:30 AM. The brunt of the storm had mostly passed overnight and the weather had calmed. But it was still raining and rather foggy. “You must know, I don’t believe everything I see. And I don’t have problems with my vision—or my mind. I saw what I saw. I can’t explain it, and I don’t need to. Mother Nature works in mysterious ways, and I don’t pretend to know, let alone understand, why things happen the way they do.”
As I read her account, I imagined myself walking on the shore, like her, staring at the sea. There was no separation between the sea and sky; it was all one tone of grey. Then, suddenly, the sea began to swell, and I saw what she saw. This was the moment when the visions formed, constructed and invented—or were they?
My work usually begins in this way, drawn from an existing narrative, story, or text that, for whatever reason, I can’t let go of. The series, Swell, started with that story of the aftermath of a nor’easter, which transformed into a retelling of events as I interpreted them to be. Swell consists of digitally manipulated images—a combination of photographs that I have taken and found. Those that I shot directly are of natural landscapes and architecture as well as hand-made, model-scale, built environments (again, of both architecture and landscape) that are lit, photographed, and digitally manipulated. Through this series, my intention is not to illustrate in a literal sense or to dictate and record the witness version of the experience, but instead to take liberties with a narrative account of an event and reconstruct the outcome, of sorts.
Julianna Foster lives in Philadelphia and teaches at The University of the Arts in the Photography Program and MFA Book Arts and Printmaking Department, where she received her MFA in 2006. Foster was an artist member of Vox Populi Gallery in Philadelphia from 2006-2013, where she had four solo exhibitions—In a Vale, FromMorning On, Kirkwood, Swell—and a three-person exhibit titled Relic. In addition to her individual ventures, she has collaborated over the years with various artists on projects that include artist multiples, artist books, and series of photographs and videos. Foster was a 2014 Artist in Residence at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. She has participated in international group exhibitions in England, Romania, Spain, and, most recently, Korea and Bulgaria, and her work is featured in private collections across the country.
His Royal Highness was a tweaker who hung around outside the convenience store where we used to go to buy booze. He always had his hands shoved wrist deep in his pockets, and there was always a twenty-four-ounce Miller High Life in a brown paper bag sitting on the newsstand next to him. His face was covered in black, some mixture of sweat and ash that stuck in his stubble, and he wiped it often—long, greasy drags across his cheeks that left them dirtier than they had been before. The management let him stay because he gave them such good business.
Every time we showed up he would get the door, and we would all shuffle in, not knowing where our eyes should go as he watched us. He never looked mean—it seemed friendly, honestly, but none of us really knew what to do, how we would respond if he said something.
His Royal Highness never got the door for anyone but us, either—I first noticed this when three sets of people came in and out while we were still in the aisle eyeing pork rinds. He didn’t even look at them.
“Will that be all, hon?” the clerk asked. She was little. She might have been part Indian.
I watched His Royal Highness lighting up through the glass.
“Yeah, sorry, that’s it.” She bagged our beers, and looked at me like she always did—like she was thinking of asking for an I.D. Just like every other time, she didn’t want to go to the trouble. His Royal Highness kicked the newsstand.
“I’ve known that boy since he was your age,” she said. My age. She must have known what that was.
That night we all got drunk off our asses by the banks of a lake, moonlight on the mud, and the roots writhing into it. I kissed a girl I’d met the night before at a party. She sat in my lap, and our wet skin couldn’t decide whether it wanted to stick or slide. The unreliable traction of her thighs eventually scooted her off me completely—she grabbed my neck on the way down and we fell back into the water while my friends threw mud at us. By and by they left for more beer. It was fun. Loads of fun.
His Royal Highness, so far as I knew, never found out about our nickname for him. When we went back to buy our beers the next week, he got the door for us, same as always, but this time I wasn’t thinking about him. I was thinking about that girl, and the sludge in my toes, and the way the world gets shiny after three beers. I was happy—I was happy enough that I just glanced at him, friendly. He looked me dead in the eye, and pulled the door handle, drawing his other hand under it, upturned to show us the way. “Your Royal Highness,” he said to me.
Charlie Keys Bohem is a high school senior living in Los Angeles, California. He has had stories published on Yellow Mama and Popcorn Fiction, walks extensively, and hopes to be the first creatively published neuropsychopharmacologist.
It was great seeing you again last weekend. I don’t think Sharon and I have had so much fun in a month of Sundays. Sorry for the cliché. Which reminds me: I’d be delighted to write the rhetoric booklet you spoke about. It would be fun to trot out all those dusty figures of speech, half of which I can’t even name. Is there still a market for that sort of thing, with all these students who just ramble on or pour out their undiluted, unfiltered feelings onto the page? Rhetoric is a bad word to them, isn’t it? Well, if the offer’s still good, I’ll send up some pages soon. A few extra bucks would help tide us over. Sharon is feeling a bit glum about my tenure situation, and who knows what will happen if I have to start over somewhere else.
But to return to happier thoughts. We had a great time during your visit. I don’t think I’ve seen Sharon so lively in a while. Let’s not wait so long before getting together again, okay?
I must say, the suit you were wearing at the restaurant was most impressive. Italian, I gather? And the silk tie. Not the Joseph Stabler of old, the guy in the torn jeans and the Talking Heads tee-shirt! Remember how we would argue about Chaucer’s use of narrators or his depiction of the faithless Criseyde—or, jumping ahead a few centuries, the proper punctuation of Dickinson’s poems! Interesting aftershave, too. I was a little surprised that Sharon recognized the brand, since I don’t use any. Polo, by Ralph Lauren, I think she said. I never grew accustomed to aftershave or cologne or all that. Still, when you’re visiting your authors or trying to sell those textbooks to all the college instructors, I suppose it’s back into the old tweed jacket. To foster the illusion that you are still one of us? Protective coloration?
So you see how eagerly I seize upon details, turning your spiffy suit into an occasion for an explication de texte! Nothing escapes my notice… not even the fact that you neatly slapped down the credit card next to the check before we could protest.
Let’s hear from you soon.
Terrence R. Stark, Ph.D.
Department of English
Benjamin Franklin University
While I’m in my office, and my student seems to have skipped his appointment, I thought I’d warm up.
Hyperbole: I feel like a million bucks today.
A common problem in students’ papers is lack of parallelism. Often, I’ll get something like “I like to swim and playing tennis,” which (to continue our hyperbole) is enough to make one scream! Ah, and there we have the impersonal, aloof, very British one. Gotta love it. Pardon me, Your Grace, but one very much needs to go to the bathroom or one’s pee will be running down one’s leg.
Some examples of parallelism:
He felt so wonderful that the sidewalk seemed to soften to his tread, the breeze swooped down to cool his forehead, and the birds chirped her name a dozen times with every step he took.
The vampire had sallow skin, scarlet lips, and piercing eyes. (This one is an example of isocolon, too, in which the structure and the length of the parallel elements are the same.)
Anastrophe, in which the natural order of words is inverted:
Breathtakingly beautiful she undoubtedly is.
Parenthesis, in which the normal syntactical flow of the sentence is interrupted:
If I were to enumerate her virtues—but am I worthy to take on such a task?—I would begin with her honesty.
Her patience (for what else can one call it when she has stuck with me through seven lean years?) continues to astonish me.
Apposition, in which one of two side‑by‑side elements serves to modify the other:
Hamilton, the laboring assistant professor, stared at the computer screen in confusion.
Georgina, his beautiful wife, teasingly trailed her long dark hair across his face.
Ellipsis, in which a word or group of words is omitted but is implied:
She pulled off her pajama top, and he his own. (Too risqué for your intended audience?)
At any rate, I’m just warming up. Give me some more details about the handbook: how long you want it, what tone. And (he adds, clearing his throat) what sort of contract you have in mind. After all, Sharon deserves that vacation on the Cape, don’t you think?
Damn, sorry I missed you! Lo Bianco mentioned he had seen you for a few moments in Kissick Hall yesterday. Down talking to old Barkin about his third edition of the essay collection? At any rate, I wish you’d had a minute to spare for a junior professor like me. I’ve dashed off a few more examples, and I’d really like a preliminary response about whether we’re on to something here. When you’re in the warren, working on those gut‑wrenching student papers, you don’t always have a sense of what’s going on. Sometimes I think the Third World War could start, and I’d still be at the office desk, tirelessly circling the dangling modifiers with my red pen! I envy your somewhat peripatetic life. At least you get to visit your authors every now and then. Which brings us around to the figures of speech booklet again: As I’ve made embarrassingly clear, I am very interested in pursuing the project. Sharon got a chuckle out of one or two of these, so I’m confident I’m on the right track—writing for the general reader who wants to learn a bit more about the words and turns of phrase we usually take for granted. I’m sure someone like old Barkin would be appalled… but he can curl up in his Main Line den and be appalled all by himself.
How about some humorous anachronistic illustrations to accompany the text? I’ve always enjoyed the 19th-century engravings that moderns like M. Ernst and D. Barthelme have used ironically.
So long for now. I’m sure Sharon sends her love.
[email protected] Terrence R. Stark, Ph.D.
Department of English
Benjamin Franklin University
Great news that you’ll be in the area next weekend. Sharon and I insist that you stay with us—at least for one of the days! That will give us a chance to try that Ethiopian restaurant everyone’s been talking about… and, if you don’t mind, to block out the proposal for the rhetorical handbook.
I gave you some examples in my second‑to‑last missive. (I might have written penultimate, but Sharon sneered at my overly academic orientation the other day, so I’m layin’ off the doggone sesquipedalians for a while!) But we were considering ellipsis, I think.
Hope is the thing with feathers, jealousy the beast that never sleeps.
She yearned for better days, and he for earlier ones.
Anyway, I suppose I’m a little drawn to a rhetorical device like ellipsis, because it doesn’t waste words. But I’ve learned—unfortunately! as a heated chat with Sharon underscored last night—that in what we euphemistically call “real life,” we academics have to beware of holding too many words back. “Why don’t you ever say what you’re thinking!” and all that. Well, sometimes it’s hard….
But let’s move on to asyndeton, one of those devices everybody recognizes but nobody can name. For example:
He wheeled toward the basket, he launched his shot, he watched the ball drop through the net.
What we’ve done is to omit the conjunctions between related clauses.
She stamped her foot, she frowned, she called him an idiot.
The opposite approach, more or less, is to insert the damn conjunctions wherever possible—that’s polysyndeton. If you’ve heard youngsters (even college students!) talk recently, you’re hearing examples of what we might call extemporaneous polysyndeton.
So I go, “Who’s been using my makeup?” and she goes, “It’s not your makeup,” and I’m like, “Oh yes it is, I bought it right at Frank’s Bargain Hut,” and she gets real huffy.
Another sort of repetition to explore in the book is the repetition of sounds. The most common sort is probably alliteration.
She accused him of spending his days in a meaningless muddle of mediocrity.
Wondering where she was, he buried his face in her silky, satiny dress, savoring her scent.
Another interesting form of repetition is anaphora, which many of us recognize from its use in the Bible (where I’m tempted to take refuge sometimes, let me tell you!) or in religiously oriented passages. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Yes, doesn’t He/She! Sometimes a little deficient on the giving side, if you ask me. Anyway, the rhetorical device involves repeating whole words or groups of words at the beginning of clauses.
He loved her because she never complained about his lack of success. He loved her because she stood by him when the rejections threatened to bury him. He loved her because she could make the bad times a little less bad.
By the way, Joe, some hints are being given out by one or two of the old‑timers in the department about this year’s tenure race. It may not be looking good for me. Still early, of course, but it’ll be hell on earth if they turn me out after these seven years. Sometimes I think my only chance is to drop everything else and push on with the study of Forster’s Italian pastoral scenes… although it’s beginning to seem that all something like that will get me is a chance to spend the rest of my career in stodgy obscurity in Podunk U. And Podunk U. is not a place Sharon wants to be, let me tell you! Especially now, when her consulting business seems to have picked up. She’s certainly spending more time than usual with clients, so I find myself watching the TV with my microwaved Chicken with Saffron Rice. Well, that gives me more time to work on the handbook. Hint, hint.
Sorry to unload on you like this, old pal. It’s certainly beginning to look like you made the right choice to get out of the damn academic race when you did and find a real job!
Well, I’m off to teach my last class of the day.
Terrence R. Stark, Ph.D.
Department of English
Benjamin Franklin University
Hey, buddy! Did you forget your little black book with all the phone numbers and addresses? I was looking forward to a nice conversation with you in some restaurant. But not a peep from you. As it turned out, though, Sharon was busier than we originally expected, so perhaps it’s for the best. I’m beginning to think she’s working too hard. Sometimes I even have a hard time getting my calls through to her.
At any rate, some more examples for the rhetoric book. (By the way, I hope I can put my fingers on all of the earlier ones I sent you, because things have been somewhat hectic and messy here recently.)
How could we forget our old friend personification (also known as prosopopoeia): Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.
Not that one can top Donne, but here’s another: Suspicion slid off its barren tree and slithered into his dreams.
And we haven’t done metaphor and simile yet, have we? (Sorry, Joe, but it’s a mess in the office.) Her words were as sharp as daggers. The sneer she turned to him was fire in his heart.
Damn. Joe, I’m sorry. Got some business to attend to. I’ll be back in touch as soon as I can.
I’m writing late at night, pen in hand. The silence in the house positively crackles. Everything is piled up on the desk, ready for when I need it: dictionaries, thesauri, handbooks, style guides. And yet I’m as still as they are. It’s very frustrating. I look out the window, see the face of the moon half-hidden by white wisps of cloud. A coy thing, isn’t she? Pock-marked and lifeless, we know, but not to our eyes, not with her decorative midnight veil.
I had a dream. No, not tonight. Another night. It spooked me, all about wandering through Kissick Hall, never finding the door to my office. And no one would answer my questions. When I do find the office, there’s somebody else’s name on the door! They’re almost like a figurative language, aren’t they, dreams? Telling us something in a vivid way, but obliquely. Not the literal way, which can be so boring.
It’s still silent. Writing by hand is so much more tactile than clickety-clacking at a computer keyboard. Moon. Tempest. Rage. Illusory. You own those words when you write them with a pen. Inkblood oozing out on the indifferent sheet.
In case you hadn’t noticed, you haven’t heard from me for a few weeks. And I hope to God you didn’t pay any attention to the chicken scratchings I think I might have sent last! I’ve been trying to straighten a few things out—the job’s a real hassle. A lot of things to consider. Anyway…
I vaguely recall that we had begun with metaphor and simile when last we “spoke.” No need for much elaboration there, but then there’s that trickier trope, synecdoche, in which the part expresses the whole. My eyes thirsted for those familiar sails on the horizon. There, sails stands in for the entire ships. Throughout the expensive restaurant, the suits were preening. And synecdoche’s cousin is metonymy, in which a related concept or defining trait is used for the original word. He has given up the sword for the pen.Mr. Aftershave helped her into her seat, smiling like a cheap Valentino.
But you know what’s really interested me recently, Joe? One of the figures of speech that I’ve always recognized but never been able to name, until now. It’s adynata, in which the writer expresses the impossibility of expressing himself adequately. A paradox? Or just a ploy? Loved by the classical writers and some of the medieval poets we used to argue about, remember? Our old friend Chaucer, he must have used it in Troilus and Criseyde, don’t you think, protesting his inability to describe their magnificent love and later the depths of T’s despair at her betrayal. But let’s try some more modern twists—I mean, after all, who among the booklet’s potential readers would know Chaucer!
There are no words sufficiently jagged to express his pain.
I suppose the cleverest writers then went on to tell you exactly what they could not or would not tell you. I have no skill to describe the massive ships of the Achaeans, taller than the tallest walls of Tiryns. I have no skill to evoke the treachery of the beautiful Criseyde. But you get the point.
As far as I can remember, we haven’t looked at one of the most popular forms of rhetoric—antithesis. A little odd, don’t you think, to overlook that? The juxtaposition of contrasting ideas. But not, I hope, in a way that suggests schizophrenia! The clown smiled, though his heart was breaking. Hold on—that’s definitely a cliché, and we should by all means avoid clichés, even if they turn out to be accurate. For all his cleverness, he blundered in his desperation to see her again.
“But Mr. Jones, I’m married!” she exclaimed indignantly, while under the table her fingers stole up his thigh.
Antithesis. I suppose it is also handy for purposes of comparison, covert or otherwise. Her gaze passed over Carl’s frayed collar before settling on Derek’s silk tie.
And speaking of ties, Joe, do you remember that year we went to the MLA convention? Tough times then, as I recall. Academic jobs were at a premium! You got drunk the night before you were to deliver your paper comparing Pandarus from Troilus and Criseyde and that scheming, matchmaking aunt in Washington Square. Do you remember how we sat up together practically the whole night? I can’t recall the name of the woman who had just dumped you, but I know I cursed her at least a hundred times that night. (Hyperbole?) Of course, those were the days before you started wearing scents like Polo, which I am quite sure have an allure no woman can resist! Where was the conference that year? One of the big D.C. midtown motels? No: hotel. They don’t hold MLA conventions in motels. Still, the ride back to the university was a lot happier, remember? Some eminent critic in the audience had actually commented favorably on your presentation, and the road to the future looked paved with gold.
But back to our glance at the Wonderful World of Rhetoric. We did metonymy, right? Antithesis, then:
With every animal thrust, he made her gasp like an angel witnessing the Mystery.
You know, Joe, much as it grieves me to say this, I’m just not sure the world is dying for another rhetoric handbook. Or maybe I’m not the one to write it. There are some other things I’ve got to do first.
How could we forget about litotes! It’s sort of the opposite of hyperbole, and I think a rhetorical form much more suited to my personality. As in:
Seeing them writhing on the bed was not the most pleasant experience.
And its more familiar relative, understatement: He wondered whether there might be cause for concern.
See you soon.
Sent from my smartphone
As a Foreign Service brat, John Shea spent his early years in Europe and probably didn’t appreciate his good fortune enough. He is an editor and writer at the University of Pennsylvania, and he may be the only person to have published stories in both Partisan Review and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Other stories have appeared in Columbia, Literal Latte, Philadelphia City Paper, The Café Irreal, Ampersand Review, and Philadelphia Stories.
“One day I awakened on a planet with people whose hands occasionally disappear…”
The future is handless.
My fingers are tied in tight knots, they’re strings; they’re cigarette butts littering the ground, and each one reminds me of some direction I’ve lost, each finger points out a path.
…resolving the tartaric acid into its two components allowed Pasteur to show that one form caused a polarized light to rotate this way, whereas the other rotated the light equally the other way; and so, she understood, a molecule from one solution mirrored a molecule from the other, as a left hand mirrors the right. But what she most keenly apprehended was that such handedness was fundamental to nearly all organic substances. And life, clearly, was a matter of fitting in; or not fitting in…the profundity of this made her cry.
Dear Pat: your report on Louis Pasteur was wonderful, and I have given you an “A-” for the assignment. To explain the “minus”: you seem to have mis- transcribed Pasteur’s first name, putting an “e” on the end, and so wrote your otherwise excellent report under the mistaken impression that “Louis” Pasteur was a “Louise.” He was not.
Meanwhile, in a parallel world
where women do science and men do nails:
“[They] should be clear and like balas rubies
tied with flesh-pink roses and pomegranate
leaves; not long, not round, not completely
square, but with a fine shape and a very slight
curve; bare, clean, well kept, so that that little
white crescent at their base is always
At the end of City Lights, the blind girl has regained her sight; and selling flowers in a shop, she encounters once again the Tramp, who sacrificed so much to help her see again. By sight, he is a stranger. Only when she takes his hands to put some money there he has refused – only when she gives her hand to his, does she discover who this stranger is; and sadly, who before he was not.
There is absolutely nowhere the movie could go after this: she could not marry him, she could not not marry him…it is the most perfect ending ever fashioned.
Put your hand out,
bring it back bloody –
the time it takes to decide …..if it’s your blood or another’s
cups conscience’s brightest moment.
…..Is the pain only pain,
is it empathy …..or is it merely the color red?
A beautiful moment!
Do we begin at the mouth or the eye,
the fingers or the toes?
Do we take shape around the face or the heart?
Do we sprout from the brain stem,
are we beanstalks growing down from the sky?
…….…the press of the bashful hand,
that moment of new touch like an open eye,
the whole body seeing
through the lens of skin,
…………….all of life
in the brace of four winds
blowing all at once, ………….pulled into the vortex that is you.
 variations on a memoir by WWII veteran Harold Russell
 Anne Carson
 Agnolo Firenzuola
Robert Lunday is the author of Mad Flights (Ashland Poetry Press, 2002). He has published poems and essays in Chicago Review, Field, Poet Lore, American Book Review, Agni Online, and New Madrid, and earned his Ph.D. in English from the University of Houston. A former Stegner and Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center fellow, he teaches for Houston Community College and lives with his wife, Yukiko, on a small horse farm in central Texas.
They rode the bus at dawn and again before bed. Some of them talked, but Luz never did. It was easier to rest her head against the trembling glass and listen: Someone’s husband came home drunk, Someone won at bingo, and Gloria’s daughter finally had the baby. Gloria reminded Luz of her mother: rotund, vivacious, and demanding. It was so unnerving to be around her; Luz wished there were an earlier route, or an alternate route she could take to keep from hearing Gloria’s voice. Luz was unable to conceive, and she dreaded the mornings when Gloria bragged about her daughter’s pregnancy, recounting every ailment from the swollen feet to the constipation. Gloria was so proud of the pregnancy you’d think she was responsible for it herself. And though Luz felt some jealousy at the news, the thought that Gloria might have to quit to help her daughter care for the infant made her smile.
Luz looked out at the houses that lined the drowsy streets. They rushed past her in a blur, awash in the pale pink of sunrise. Some were so similar, with changes so subtle, they appeared flashing at the window like a flipbook of cartoon sketches: a house growing bigger, taller, rising like a monster from the ocean.
Mulberry Avenue was the last stop before the hill. No one who rode the bus needed to be at the bottom of the hill, but the route ended there. The driver stopped and the doors opened to a city bench and a yellowed poster of the bus routes encased in plexiglass. On one side, the rainbow of routes like veins in the stratum of beige shore; on the other, the women with their tangled hair and faces easily forgotten or remembered as someone else’s.
Luz was the last to exit the bus and the slowest to climb the hill. When she reached the iron gates, she pressed a small red button inside a brass lion’s mouth and spoke her name into the intercom.
“Lucy?” begged a man’s raspy voice.
“Yes…Luz!” She took the opportunity to correct Mr. Greenwood whenever possible. He and his wife seemed determined to call her Lucy.
A loud buzz unlocked the wrought iron scrolls and they swung back dreamily like a plastic ballerina pirouetting in a music box. Luz walked through the gates and past the fountain, past the roses, past the tall limestone urns of creeping ivy and up the winding driveway. She climbed the steps leading to the front door, and paused to catch her breath.
Inside, Luz was greeted only by the faint pine scent of yesterday’s job well done. But already the staircase was littered with green plastic soldiers and crayons. It was Luz’s job to be silent, invisible, and thorough. Though there were times when returning to work and finding a house she’d left clean an unlivable mess drove her to tears, as with all things Luz had found ways to cope.
She and her younger sister had been raised by their mother, who worked as a washerwoman in their neighborhood. As a child, sometimes Luz tagged along to the laundromat, helping her mother fold clothing until the sun set. She was always saddened to see classmates’ clothing sudsing in the window of the washing machine. Luz knew she didn’t have nice things like the rest of the girls in her class, but she coped with that by begging their mother to request a catalogue to Penney’s department store. When it arrived, she and her sister lay on the bed for hours flipping through the glossy pictures. They dreamed of the day when they could wear beautiful clothing like those girls. It was then that her sister proposed a deal.
“Everything on that side is yours,” she said indicating the page on the right, “Everything on the page on my side belongs to me. If you want something from my side, you’ll have to trade me something from your side, okay?”
When they’d grown tired of trading purses for shoes and pillows and scarves, they cut out the watches and taped them around their wrists. Luz cut out a pearl necklace on the cover so meticulously around each bead that when she was done, her sister argued that the cover was her side, so Luz had stolen it. After Luz refused to hand it over, her sister demanded Luz to tell her where she would even wear the pearls. When Luz replied that she’d wear them to the laundromat, her sister scoffed and said, “You don’t wear pearls to a laundromat.”
Now Luz coped by imagining she was the lady of the manor, and everything in the house belonged to her. That was why it was so important to keep everything clean and in the right place. At first it was innocent enough. Blouses were ironed and the mail was stacked neatly into piles by size. She’d been prompted by Mrs. Greenwood to throw out the leaflets and junk mail. One day as Luz was getting ready to leave, she slipped the trash stack into the front pocket of her apron, meaning to throw it away later. When she got home, Luz realized she’d brought it with her.
It was then that she noticed the poinsettia embossed on the back of a red envelope from the orthodontist. And though she wasn’t sure why, she could not throw it away. Luz slid her finger under the seal and tore it open. Inside was a Christmas card with the image of the three wise men crossing the desert. Two were holding jeweled boxes, and the third held a vial and pointed to a golden star. Beneath the star, there was a small silhouette in the distance: Mary, in a manger, holding the baby Jesus in her arms. Inside was a printed message: A silent night, a star above, a blessed gift of hope and love. Merry Christmas! Then handwritten next to Merry Christmas was Mrs. Greenwood’s name. Luz closed the card and took it to her room where she stood it on the bedside table.
Mr. Greenwood was on his way out the door as he passed Luz hunched over the stairs and gathering crayons. Suddenly remembering something he turned to face the wall.
“Mrs. Greenwood isn’t here. She took the boys to their grandmother’s.”
Then he turned from the wall without waiting for a reply. Luz heard the front door click shut. A few seconds later, the car’s engine faded into the silence.
At around four o’clock that day, Luz ascended the stairs with a basket of laundry to Mrs. Greenwood’s dressing room. She ironed, folded, stacked, and when she was done made her way into the bedroom. She knelt at the foot of the bed and pulled Mrs. Greenwood’s high heels out from under it. She carried them into the dressing room where she dusted, polished, and lined up the stilettos and pumps by color and height on the lucite shelving. On the vanity in the dressing room, Mrs. Greenwood had a picture of herself taken at the hospital after giving birth. In the picture, Mrs. Greenwood stood by a window in her baby blue gown, the light from the sun haloed around her as she cradled the newborn in her arms. And though her hair was smooth, and her mouth pouted like a perfect pink valentine, she looked somber. Distant.
Luz reached up to where her hair was tangled into a bun and let it down so that it fell over her shoulders like Mrs. Greenwood’s. Seeing the photograph, Luz was almost happy she couldn’t have a baby and had no desire for her husband. It was hard to desire the empty fridge and the leaky pipes. So after a while, spending all day cleaning the Greenwood home wasn’t a problem; there were few other options. Luz had stopped going to middle school when her mother needed help with the bills. She started washing clothes to help, then at sixteen became a washer woman herself while her sister continued school. But that was over fifteen years ago. These days, as her mother recalled it, she had never asked Luz to be anything more than a child.
Luz gathered her hair off her shoulders and back into a bun. She looked around the dressing room one last time to make sure everything was in its right place. Having worked with the Greenwoods for over a year, Luz knew the dressing room and its contents well. New shoes were always taken out of their boxes and proudly displayed on the shelves. So when she spotted a new shoebox peeking out behind a suitcase, Luz felt curious. But as she went to pull the box from its hiding place, she heard high heels clicking across the marble floors.
Sometimes, it was difficult to stop playing lady of the manor because it was hard not to believe the Greenwood home was hers. After all, she cleaned, cooked, took out the garbage, and brought in the mail. She knew where the dustpan and vacuum bags were. She knew when the air filter was due to be replaced.
On the bus ride home, Gloria talked and talked. Listening to Gloria was like having a constant reminder of how she felt when her mother called with the news that her sister was pregnant. Luz had immediately called her sister to congratulate her, but as always there was no answer, and her call was never returned. Luz leaned back in the bus seat and saw herself in the window’s reflection: her shirt was stained where she’d dripped bleach down the front of it, her hair was plastered to the cold sweat on her forehead, and wrinkles were finding their way into the corners of her eyes. She knew it was the reason her sister never spoke to her anymore, and she hated being a source of embarrassment for her upper-middle class sibling. Luz closed her eyes and thought of the shoebox hidden in the corner of Mrs. Greenwood’s closet. She thought of what it would feel like to wear those secret shoes. Allowing herself to fantasize about that moment, Luz kept her eyes closed until the bus made its last stop two blocks from her apartment.
Luz unlocked the door and walked into the one-bedroom apartment. The rooms were dimly lit, and they smelled of rust and the dank mildew of an unfinished basement—no matter how often she cleaned. She saw her husband’s clothing was scattered in a trail leading to the bathroom. Miguel usually left his clothing this way, never bothering to consider how many hours Luz spent bent over the Greenwoods’ laundry. She dropped her keys on the kitchen counter.
“Luz?” he yelled through the bathroom door.
“Your mother called,” he said.
Luz heard the toilet flush. Her husband walked out of the bathroom drying his hands on his boxers.
“She said they’re having Christmas dinner tonight.”
Luz was collecting his clothing off the floor and putting it into a pile by the couch.
“Two days early?” she asked.
She rounded the corner into their bedroom. She looked through her closet for a clean shirt.
“Yeah, she said your sister was gonna be out of town, something about the in-laws and the kids wanting to spend it there…”
He followed her into the bedroom. Luz was taking a shirt off its hanger. She was about to ask him if he would go with her until she saw that he had picked up the Christmas card and was about to open it.
“Put that down!” she ordered. “Maybe you should pick up your own things! Every day, I walk through that door, and every day I find your filthy rags scattered all over the house!”
He put down the card and quietly walked out the room. Luz buttoned up her shirt and washed her face. She walked to the pile of laundry by the couch, stuck her hand into the pocket of her husband’s jeans, and fished out his keys. Then without saying a word, she closed the apartment door behind her.
Her mother’s house was the same house Luz grew up in, but it had changed. Her sister had had the cabinets redone, all the mismatched dishes had been replaced with fine china, and their old bedroom had been converted into an office space. Abstract paintings hung on the walls next to photos of her sister’s children. Luz hated it. She hated how her sister had stripped the house of all its memories and turned it into a picture from a home décor catalogue.
When Luz walked through the door, they were already eating.
“Luz!” her mother shouted. “Come in, come in.”
They sat in the candlelight—black-burgundy orbs on crystal stems. On one side of the table, cinnamon poached pears and figs surrounded an apricot-glazed ham. On the other, a stuffed turkey anchored by cranberries and a Dutch-chocolate trifle. Luz pulled a chair out from the table and sat next to her sister. She watched as her mother dug her fingernail into the heart of a fig. The hands once graceful with a calloused tenacity now twisted in front of her like a tree uprooted in a storm. She broke the skin and scraped out its fleshy seeds.
“I’m tired,” Luz said.
“Where’s Miguel?” her mother asked. Her glassy eyes focused on the fruit.
“It’s Christmas,” her sister argued.
“No it’s not!” the children yelled.
Luz’s nephews were surrounded by piles of crumpled wrapping paper and playing by the Christmas tree with toy cars. They rammed them into the wall and made loud crashing noises.
“It’s not Christmas,” Luz assured them, “It’s a workday, and I’m tired.”
“We haven’t opened our real presents!” Julio shouted.
“Santa took them to Grandma Laurie’s,” Tony explained to his brother.
Luz sank her head into her hands and laughed.
“I can’t believe you,” she began.
“Wait!” her sister yelped, jumping out of her seat, “I almost forgot Luz!”
Her sister pulled out a gold wrapped box from under the tree and presented it to Luz.
“I’ll open it later,” Luz said.
“Open it now,” she protested, “You might want to use it.”
“I didn’t buy you anything.”
Luz looked to her mother who was fixed on her reflection in one of the spoons by her plate.
Luz undid the bow and peeled back the golden wrapping paper. Inside was a heavy, glass-domed coffret. She lifted the lid to reveal the velvet interior containing a set of perfumed oils and soaps. Luz set it down next to her plate and stood to pour herself a glass of wine. Then walking past her sister, Luz sat on the floor next to her nephews where they’d been racing cars down the hallway.
“I’ll be the red car,” she said to Julio. “But don’t let me win.”
Luz knew her sister was making their mother happy. So when she walked into the living room and found her sister draping a pearl necklace around their mother’s neck, she ran to hug her in gratitude.
“Do you remember the Penney’s catalogue?” Luz asked.
“No,” her sister replied.
That night when Luz got home after dinner, she pulled the extra blankets out of the closet and slept on the couch.
The next morning the Greenwoods’ gate was open, and when Luz reached the front steps she saw a note on the door:
Please ask Mr. and Mrs. Humphrey to let you in.
Mr. and Mrs. Humphrey owned the property that faced the Greenwood home. It was where Gloria worked. Luz was thinking about whether or not she should leave and pretend she never saw the note when she heard Gloria calling to her from the roses.
Luz walked to meet Gloria halfway down the driveway. Gloria started talking before Luz could thank her.
“Mrs. Humphrey says she wants the keys brought back immediately,” she said, doing her best impression of a nasal American accent. Then retreating into her own thick accent she said,“Ay, you’re so lucky mija. I love it when la doña isn’t home.”
Gloria removed the key from the unlocked door and hurried down the driveway back to the other side of the street, waddling as large women sometimes do.
Luz shut the door behind her and walked up the stairs, checking to see that every room was empty. Then she walked into Mrs. Greenwood’s dressing room. Once again, Luz eyed the shoebox. She kneeled reverently and paused only a moment before lifting the lid.
Inside was a pair of black leather, pointed-toe heels with red soles. As the light grazed the surface of the leather, Luz traced it with her fingertips. She pulled the shoes carefully out of the box and set them on the floor. She removed her sneakers and peeled off her socks. Then, after dusting the lint off her feet, she slid one foot into the binding leather and then the other.
She walked proudly from room to room picking things up and putting them down as if they were her own. And when the phone rang, Luz ran into the bedroom and reached for the phone as if she expected to hear her sister’s voice on the other line calling to ask for cooking advice.
“Mrs. Greenwood, this is Patrice calling from Newhart Orthodontics.”
Luz smiled into the receiver.
“We’re calling you to confirm Leo’s appointment on Tuesday.”
“Yes, we’ll be there.” She replied coolly, catching her reflection in the large freestanding mirror by the bed.
“We’ll see you then,” the receptionist said before hanging up.
Luz walked over to the mirror and turned sideways. She looked tall, beautiful, like the type of woman you might see in a movie: walking into an elevator, smiling at men, hailing a taxi. Luz had always been admired for her figure, and never having been pregnant, she had no trouble maintaining it. She remembered how Miguel worshiped her when they’d first met. Spending his meager earnings on elaborate bouquets he would have delivered to her mother’s house. The card always read the same: Para mi Luz Divina. The card had upset Luz’s mother. She called it sacrilegious. Luz loved it. To be referred to as his divine light, as a goddess.
Luz walked back into the dressing room. She looked through all of the dresses she always dreamed of owning, but what Luz fantasized about most went underneath the dresses. She walked to the back of the dressing room and opened Mrs. Greenwood’s lingerie drawer. She ran her hands down the front of her shirt and unbuttoned it down to her navel. Luz looked at her abdomen’s skin, it was tan and taut. She remembered how one day she had walked in on Mrs. Greenwood undressing and had seen the way her stomach looked. Tiny stretch marks ran up the sides of her belly and a Cesarean scar was embedded in the crease of her pelvis.
Luz unhooked the clasp of her bra, and chose one of Mrs. Greenwood’s from the drawer. It was made of ivory Chantilly lace. She hung it from the drawer’s edge by its strap and found the matching panty. She quickly removed her clothing and slid into the lingerie. Then she walked back into the bedroom and observed herself.
She stood there a long time. Not moving, only seeing herself differently from what she’d known herself to look like. Her body smooth and glowing, her hair loose and wild. She no longer hated the way her mouth turned down at the corners when she wasn’t forcing a smile. She loved the way she looked. Her eyes brightened, her legs looked longer, and her back straightened. The bra’s cups were molded to Mrs. Greenwood’s modest chest, and the top of Luz’s breasts spilled out over the lace. She brought her hands up to where the fabric pressed into her skin. Slipping her hands under the lace, Luz pulled her breasts out by their erect nipples. She watched her reflection. She slid her hands over her waist and then down over her hips. She was breathing more heavily. She sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed her hands up and down her thighs, finally finding the heat of her body. She worked her hands between her legs. Her skin throbbed with heat. It felt like it was tightening around her. Then the bedroom door swung open.
Luz pulled her hands out of the panties and opened her mouth to speak, but no sound followed. Her heart raced as she frantically searched for any possible excuse that would justify what Mrs. Greenwood had just witnessed, but every word in Luz’s vocabulary seemed to have evaporated. Mrs. Greenwood looked confused, but then she turned to close the door behind her and locked it. She looked back at Luz who was standing and holding her arms in front of her breasts. Her eyes fell to Luz’s feet. Her face contorted as she held her hand in front of her face to shield her eyes.
“Go change,” she said, avoiding eye contact.
Luz said nothing, only walked slowly into the dressing room. She removed the shoes and pulled them to her chest. Shutting her eyes tightly, she fell to her knees and clutched the heels. Hurriedly, she began rubbing the shoes together like she was trying to start a fire with two twigs. She rubbed until the sides of the shoes scuffed and revealed the tan-animal hide stretched over the shoe’s frame. Then she carefully placed them back into the shoebox and lowered it into its hiding place. After some hesitation Luz picked the box back up and placed it on the dresser over the picture of Mrs. Greenwood and the infant.
She pulled down the panties. A dense, clear liquid connected them to her. It looked like a long silk thread. She pinched the slippery strand and tried to pull it away from the cloth, but it seemed to have woven itself into the web of the fabric. When they were off, she dressed in her own clothes, tied her hair back, and stuffed the panties into the back pocket of her jeans.
Luz walked down the winding driveway, and through the iron gates. She walked past the Humphreys’ happy that she would never see Gloria again. But when Luz arrived at the bus stop, Gloria was standing by the bench. She twirled a thin gold wedding band around her finger again and again. Luz stuck her hands into the back pockets of her jeans and felt the lace. She pulled her hands back out and crossed them in front of her.
“What are you doing here Gloria?”
“I quit,” she said. The first time for Luz, and then she cleared her throat and said it again, “I quit.” She looked down at her ring.
“I quit too,” Luz said.
Gloria turned to Luz whose hands had made their way back into her pockets.
“I’m not sure,” Luz replied, “Why did you quit?”
“Because she fired me—Mrs. Humphrey. I wanted a week to help Linda with the baby, but she said I wasn’t cleaning behind the toilets anymore. They needed someone else. Probably someone younger.”
“I quit because I hate my husband,” Luz said.
The bus tires screeched. The doors folded open. Gloria waddled up the steps. Luz followed. The women sat, for the first time, side by side.
“Doesn’t he let you work?”
“He does,” Luz assured her, “It’s not that.”
Gloria’s eyes widened and she leaned in very close, “and?” She rolled her eyes and laughed.
Luz forced a smile.
“You don’t understand. He prays for me to…” Luz heard her voice crack and took a deep breath to assure herself Gloria would not see her cry, “He prays for me to get pregnant.”
Luz looked over to Gloria who had begun cleaning the dirt out from under her fingernails.
“Maybe that’s too much to hope for,” she continued, “to be loved for more than just keeping a clean home and getting pregnant.”
“I’ll pray too,” Gloria assured her.
That night Luz wept silently in her bedroom, her back turned to her husband. She wept for the pearls. She wept for the shoes and what she’d done in Mrs. Greenwood’s home. She wept for hating Gloria. She wept when she felt her husband’s hand on her trembling shoulder, and because he never asked what was wrong, and because she never cared if he knew. But most of all she wept for the card with the golden star in the desert sky.
Luz stood. She walked through the dark, and took the card into the kitchen. She set it on the counter next to the phone. A silent night, a star above, a blessed gift of hope and love. She mouthed the words to herself, then reached for the phone and dialed her sister’s number. After a few rings, she heard her sister’s sleepy voice on the line.
“Do you remember the Penney’s catalogue?” Luz asked.
There was a short pause, “I already told you I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Well, I remember,” Luz said. “I remember, and I need you to remember.” The words like sand in her mouth. “I need you to remember because we made a deal.”
Luz waited. She hoped her sister would apologize. She hoped that at the very least, her sister would admit that she remembered. And maybe she would agree that in life, if someone you love needs help, you help. You trade. There was a long silence until Luz heard the echo of a click like the sound of a shutting door.
Emilia Rodriguez is a Chicano-Feminist writer, and a native Texan. She was raised in the Mexico-bordering city of Roma, Texas, and is a graduate of Texas State University where she is currently pursuing an MFA degree in Fiction. She lives in San Marcos, Texas with her husband, jazz bassist Lewis McMahon, and is working on a collection of short stories.
IF YOU DO NOT KNOW
by David Hallock Sanders Excerpt from BUSARA ROAD, a novel in progress
“King Solomon was a very wise man. This we all know. How do we know this? Because the Bible tells us so! Right here in ….”
Pastor Hesborne Kabaka made a small production out of opening his Bible and reading from it.
“…right here in the book of the Wisdom of Solomon. There you go—clear as can be!”
Someone in the congregation exhaled a soft laugh. The pastor shut his Bible.
“So…we know that Solomon is wise. We know there are many, many stories of his wisdom. But how did he become such a wise man? What was the source of his wisdom?”
The pastor let the question hang in the hot, humid air of the chapel. The smell of sweating bodies mixed with a scent of cow dung wafting in the open windows. Mark found the sour-sweet blend surprisingly pleasant.
He was attending his first Sunday service at the Friends Church. Mark had arrived just days before at the Kwetu Quaker Mission, a modest clutch of cinderblock-and-tin buildings high in the equatorial rainforest of western Kenya. It was just three years ago that the country had gained its independence. Only a year ago that Mark’s mother had died. Mere months since his father had accepted the job to support Quaker schools for the newly independent nation.
“A fresh beginning,” his father had called the three-year appointment. “For Kenya. For us.”
Pastor Kabaka answered his own question.
“The source of Solomon’s wisdom was the source of all wisdom…God!” The pastor shouted the name of the Almighty. “When Solomon became the king of Israel, God came to him in a dream and said, ‘What do you want from me? Would you like great wealth? Would you like great fame?’ And Solomon said, ‘No, Lord! I only ask you for wisdom. I am facing many great challenges and responsibilities. Please give me the wisdom and knowledge to rule my people well.’”
The pastor trilled his r’s like thunder.
So far, little of this Kenyan service had resembled Mark’s Quaker meeting in Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, the service was an hour of silent worship only occasionally punctuated by spoken ministry. Anyone in the meeting could speak from the silence, as long as he or she felt led by the Spirit. Some weeks, no one spoke at all. There was no music, no singing, and certainly no one standing at a pulpit waving the Bible above his head.
“Solomon’s respect and humility greatly pleased the Lord.” The pastor’s voice dropped to nearly a whisper. “How could you not love a man like that! So the Lord said, ‘I will give you what you ask for—wisdom, knowledge, and common sense. And because I like you, I will add the wealth and fame for free!’”
Mark couldn’t remember ever hearing laughter at his meeting back home.
“So now…” the pastor’s voice began to rise. “What is our Swahili word for wisdom? For understanding and common sense?”
Mark heard a cowbell outside.
“That word is Busara.” Pastor Kabaka nodded as though letting the congregation in on a secret. “And what is the name of the road that runs directly beside this house of worship?”
A few congregants whispered the word.
“Correct! Busara Road. You see? Right now, we are on the very road to wisdom and understanding. And right here…” He lifted the Bible above his head. “…we have the road map!”
The pastor removed a white handkerchief from inside his black suit coat. He carefully unfolded it and wiped his brow.
Mark was sitting toward the back of the chapel next to his father on a long wooden bench. The chapel was filled with a mix of Africans and whites. Some of the African women held babies in their arms or small children at their sides. He recognized a few grownups from the Fourth of July party his first night there, but he saw only two of his classmates—Darrel and Mathew. He wondered if the other children were all skipping church.
Mr. Mbote was seated near the front, but his daughter, Layla, wasn’t with him. Also near the front, but on the opposite side, sat a man dressed in a suit. He had a square head and looked familiar, but it wasn’t until he turned his head and Mark saw his thin mustache that Mark realized it was Mr. Okwiri, the man from the Industrial with the missing arm. Mr. Okwiri caught Mark’s eye, but Mark turned away.
Mark’s bench was just like the benches at his Quaker meeting house back in the States—long, hard, and uncomfortable. The whole chapel was similar to his Friends meeting. Simple white walls. A weathered wood floor. A small balcony at the back. Rows of windows on both sides. Benches in the middle.
But there were also a lot of differences. Instead of the benches facing each other from all four walls, they were lined up in one direction. Instead of a facing bench up at the front for the clerk and other meeting elders, a series of steps led up to a raised platform and a low brick wall decorated with flowers. Behind the wall stood a tall-backed wooden chair beside a pulpit, where Pastor Kabaka carefully folded his kerchief in fours and returned it to his pocket.
“Now!” he continued, his voice filling the chapel. “Let us say that you are living someplace in Kenya. Not here in Kwetu. Someplace far away. Let us say…Nairobi. And let us say that you want to come visit us here in Kwetu, but you have never been here before. Maybe someone in your family lives here now. You want to come visit, but you do not know the way. So what do you do? Do you go and find a map of Tanzania or Uganda to consult? No! What good would that be? Or do you go and ask directions from a friend who has never been to Kwetu? Someone who does not know the way? Of course not!
“If you want to find your way, you must consult the correct map. You must ask the correct friend to guide you.”
The pastor took a deep breath, then his voice boomed across the room:
“It is just the same with your life!”
He leaned over the pulpit and let his eyes pass slowly over the congregation. He looked deeply pleased to see everyone’s eyes on him. He nodded as though he were about to share some special secret.
“To find your way, my friends, you must trust in the wisdom of your guide.”
His voice was a whisper, but everyone could hear.
“To find your way, you must trust in the correctness of your map.”
His voice began to rise.
“And who is your guide? God is your guide! And what is your map? The Holy Bible is your map! God’s wisdom is your map! James 1:5 says, ‘If any of you lacks wisdom; let him ask of God who gives to all men generously.’ God will provide! If we desire wisdom we must ask God — humbly and deeply in faith — to grant us that wisdom!
“Let us pray.”
Mark looked around the chapel. All heads were bowed, even his father’s.
Maybe this was when they did the silent part? Mark had been told by his father that Quaker worship in Kenya had less silence than his unprogrammed meeting in Philadelphia. So far, though, there hadn’t been any silence at all.
He took a slow breath, exhaled, and let his focus soften. Back in the States, Mark had a private game he liked to play in meeting for worship. He called it, “Catch the Spirit.” It was a simple game. During the silence of worship, he tried to guess who would be the next person to stand and speak. He imagined the silence as a pool of still water, and the leading of the Spirit as a ripple in the stillness. Sometimes it was easy to guess. Somebody’s breathing changed or someone’s body shifted. But other times it was much more subtle—like an electric current in the air that circled the room until it settled on one person or another.
Today, though, all he was sensing was the sound of voices drifting in the open windows and the smell of smoke and dung from outside.
“Amen,” said Pastor Kabaka.
“Amen,” the congregation echoed.
That was it? That was the entire silent worship?
“And now,” the pastor gestured to someone in the front row. “Imani, if you please?”
An elegant woman in a long, blue dress rose from the bench. A soft chime rang from the rows of bracelets that shined brightly against the black of her skin. She stood by the pastor’s side.
“My dear wife,” said Pastor Kabaka, “may not have the wisdom of Solomon…”
The woman fluttered her hands, and her bracelets chimed like bells.
“…but the good Lord granted her a beautiful voice. Imani will now sing, ‘The Wise Man Built His House upon the Rock.’ When she has concluded, we invite any children still among us to join Teacher Salama and the others in Sunday school.”
Mark stepped tentatively through the open doorway. Imani’s hymn was still echoing in his head.
The wise man built his house upon the rock, The wise man built his house upon the rock, The wise man built his house upon the rock, And the rain come tumbling down…
The dining hall was filled with children scattered in clusters on the floor. Some sat atop the long tables lined up in a row down the middle of the room.
The rain come down And the floods come up And the wise man’s house stands firm.
Some of the children stopped what they were doing to register the arrival of Mark, Darrel, and Mathew. Mark noticed Sarah and Robin playing some kind of hand game at the far side of the dining hall. They glanced in his direction, then returned to their game.
An African boy, sitting on the floor with a book in his lap, jumped to his feet and ran to greet Mark. He was Mark’s age and Mark’s height, dressed in tan shorts and a white tee-shirt. His skin was dark, almost a bluish black, and his hair was a closely cropped nest of black curls. His eyes were wide and bright, and a smile lit up his face as though he recognized Mark.
“I’ve been waiting for you! I saved you food.”
Mark was confused. He didn’t know the boy.
“Your name is Mark,” the boy continued without waiting for a response. “My name is Radio. My father is the doctor. Do you want to play together?”
A tall woman approached from the far end of the room. She wore a long brown dress with a yellow apron. Her hair was a waterfall of black strands tied at the back.
The woman placed her hand atop Radio’s head and gave him a gentle warning glance.
“Raymond, if you please,” she said. “Give our new friend some room to breathe.”
She extended her hand to Mark.
“Welcome! I am Teacher Salama. Salama Mwendia, your Sunday school tutor. And you must be Mark. We are very pleased you have joined us. In future, you may attend the opening of chapel as you have this morning, or you may come directly here for Sunday classes. I save my Bible studies until all the children have gathered. But do not fear, it is not so serious as it sounds! We also enjoy many games and art projects, as well as refreshments. You will find that we manage to have some fun while we are learning the Lord’s lessons.”
Salama put a gentle arm around Mark’s shoulder and led him toward the waiting group.
“I believe you have already met most of the American children. And Radio has lost no time in making his presence known. But let me introduce you to the others.”
“I’ll do it!” said Radio.
Mark’s father sat on the edge of the bed, reading aloud by the light of the single lamp. His voice was accompanied by the night sounds of the jungle—the rhythmic hissing of cicadas, the rasping of frogs, the occasional chuck-chuck-chucking of some larger animal.
It had been a long day, and Mark was already tucked beneath the mosquito net and under his covers. He felt safe here in bed, as though the netting not only protected him from mosquitos, but kept all dangers at bay.
His eyes were heavy and sleep was near, but he wanted to stay awake for the end of the chapter.
“When the monkey groom was announced,” his father read, “the Jade Emperor said, ‘Come forward Monkey. I hereby proclaim you Great Sage, Equal of Heaven.’”
Tonight’s chapter had followed the latest exploits of the stone Monkey as he journeyed through the Southern Gate of Heaven. Mark’s father had started reading the Chinese folk tale to him back in the States, and Mark was happy they’d finally returned to Monkey’s adventures. Monkey had already talked his way past heaven’s Guardian Deities, gotten himself appointed keeper of heaven’s stables, and then, insulted by the lowness of his position, abandoned his post and returned to earth where he fought a series of battles with magic spirits sent to arrest him. Monkey was finally tricked into returning to heaven by the Jade Emperor’s offer of an honorary title.
Mark wished he were more like Monkey. Always ready to take risks. Always ready to rock the boat and do what he wanted. Never worried about disappointing or messing up. Never scared.
“‘The rank is a high one,’” His father intoned the Emperor’s deep voice. “‘And I hope we shall have no more nonsense.’”
Mark yawned and rolled onto his side. He blinked rapidly to keep from falling asleep. He didn’t want to miss his favorite part: the final words that closed each chapter.
His father’s body was warm next to Mark’s. A single lamp lit the book in his hands. A moth beat at the window. Sleep gently pulled and pulled as his father read.
“Monkey was begged not to allow himself to get in any way excited or start again on his pranks. But as soon as he arrived, he opened both jars of Imperial wine and invited everyone in his office to a feast.”
Mark could sense the chapter’s end was near. He studied his father’s face, its features softened by the dim light.
“The star spirit went back to his own quarters, and Monkey, left to his own devises, lived in such perfect freedom and delight as in earth or heaven have never had their like.”
Mark leaned his head back on his pillow.
“And if you do not know what happened in the end…”
He closed his eyes and let the familiar words wash over him.
“…you must listen to what is told in the next chapter.”
David Hallock Sanders has had his short fiction, plays, and novel excerpts published in journals and anthologies that include Sycamore Review, The Laurel Review, Baltimore Review, 2000 Voices, The Best of Philadelphia Stories, and others. His novel-in-progress, Busara Road, was shortlisted as a finalist for the 2013 William Faulkner–William Wisdom Prize, and he is a winner of the Third Coast national fiction competition, the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary Autobiography Project, and the Dwell/Glass House Haiku Competition.
The cows are clustered together at the crown of the hill. From where Priya stands on the shoulder of the highway they look like shadow puppets, dark, shifting silhouettes backlit by the harvest moon. They seem small enough, insubstantial enough, at this distance to be knocked over by a strong wind, or even swept away entirely.
Beside her, Amo cups his hands around his mouth and moos at them. The low vibrato of the sound makes Priya shiver, but the cows are too far away; they can’t hear him. They don’t lift their heads.
“Got to work on that, man,” Ben says, coming around the hood of his Volvo. “You sound like a dying mule.”
“At least I don’t look like one,” Amo says.
Ben flips him off.
“Come on,” Vanessa says. She’s already straddling the fence at the base of the hill, her feet dangling in the dry grass. The tops of her socks are still visible where they’re rolled up over her jeans. She made them all tuck the cuffs of their pants in. To keep ticks out, she said, though she shed her shirt in the heat of Ben’s car and is now stripped nearly bare from the waist up. She’s still wearing her bra, some complicated cross-backed, front-clasping contraption that casts off a luminous pink glow in the dark, but the long planes of her abdomen and lower back are entirely uncovered. Priya thinks ticks are probably mobile enough to reach her stomach or her arms once they start walking up the slope, where the grass is tall enough to bury them up past their knees. She tells herself that’s the reason she’s still wearing her shirt, even though it’s sweat-damp and claustrophobic and she wants to look as free and uncaring as Vanessa, sitting on the fence with her back straight and the moonlight slanting over her bird-fine shoulder blades. Because of the ticks.
“Come on,” Vanessa says again. “My mom’ll kill me if I’m not back before she wakes up.”
Amo shoves Ben’s shoulder and moves to join her. He’s shirtless, too. Priya’s fascinated by the hollowness of his stomach, the way his ribs hang over it like branches in an arbor. Ben shrugged his shirt back on before they left the car, but the buttons are undone all down the front and the sleeves are rolled up above his elbows. Priya watches them scale the fence, Amo gracefully and Ben less so, and feels grateful for the paleness of Ben’s narrow chest, the way the fabric clings to his back where he’s still sticky with sweat. For the smattering of acne across the line of Amo’s shoulders. She hates herself a little for feeling it.
Amo turns to extend a hand back through the slats, toward Priya.
“Let’s go, Patel,” he says. “Move it or lose it.”
Priya goes toward him. Before Ben’s car pulled up in front of her house earlier tonight, before Amo came through the side yard to knock on her bedroom window, she’d seen him only from a distance: slumped over a desk at the back of her second period history class; moving through the hallway ahead of her, just tall enough to stick out from the mass of other students walking between periods, to follow in a crowd; stretching at the edge of the outdoor track as she ran warm-ups and Coach yelled those same words at her. Let’s go, Patel. Move it or lose it.
Now Amo’s watching her through the fence, close enough that she can make out the uneven regrowth of stubble along the line of his jaw, darker in the spots he missed the last time he shaved. She thinks he’s saying it in solidarity. Like he’s laughing with her about Coach, who tells her to move from the legs, not the stomach and thinks her last name is Patel just because she’s Indian. She doesn’t think he’s laughing at her.
“Come on,” Vanessa says.
Priya fits her sneakered foot between the slats of the fence and presses her palms to the flat wood at the top, hoisting herself up until she’s folded over at the hips. She swings a leg up, then the other. Amo reaches out to steady her as she drops into the grass, his warm fingers curling briefly around her forearm.
Vanessa pushes off the fence and lands beside them, light and purposeful. She starts up the slope, letting her hands dangle by her sides so that her fingers can catch and part the brittle blades of dead grass. She elbows Amo in the ribs as she passes him. Priya feels the easiness, the closeness of the contact, bare arm against bare chest, even as Amo flinches away from it and Vanessa moves forward, away from them.
Amo swears at Vanessa in Spanish and releases Priya’s arm to press a hand against his side. “What was that for?” he asks.
“For being slow,” Vanessa says, not turning around.
“We haven’t even started walking yet,” he says to her back. Ben laughs as he goes by, following her. Amo goes after them, swearing again, and Priya moves with him like a dog on a leash. When she opened her window earlier, bleary-eyed, to find him standing among the wild nasturtiums that grow thick and bright at the side of her house, Amo had said, Come on, get dressed. We have to go. It should have taken more than that, but it didn’t. It doesn’t. He goes after Vanessa and Ben, so Priya goes, too.
They wade through the high grass toward the top of the hill. The walking is difficult, tiring, like trying to run in dry sand. Priya stumbles over a loose stone hidden close to the earth and cuts her hands on the grass when she catches herself. The cuts are small and thin like paper cuts; they sting like paper cuts, too.
Ben helps her up. He’s breathing loudly, and the fabric under his arms has darkened in broad crescents. His palm is slick against Priya’s as he pulls her to her feet. “Sorry,” he says. He wipes his hands on his jeans and pushes his sleeves up further on his arms.
“It’s fine,” Priya says. She can feel her shirt sticking to her back, can feel the sweat beading on her own palms.
“Come on,” Amo says beside her, hoarse and heavy. “Come on come on come on come on. Some gringo’s going to jack Ben’s hotmobile while we’re scaling fucking Kilimanjaro over here.”
“They’re welcome to it, man,” Ben says, blowing out a long, warm breath that Priya can feel against her arm.
“Yeah?” says Amo. “Then you’re in charge of carrying me home.”
They’re almost at the top of the hill now. The slope beneath their feet is evening out; the cows are close enough that Priya can make out their smooth-edged spots and the brands burned into their flanks.
“Hotmobile?” Vanessa asks. She’s outpaced them enough that Priya can’t make out her features anymore in the dark; she’s just a silhouette against the lighter sky, all curves and legs and narrow waist. “Since when is Ben’s mom car a hotmobile?”
Priya tugs at the hem of her shirt and turns to look at the cows instead.
“Since my hot ass inherited it,” Ben says.
Amo laughs. “That car is like an oven, man. Anybody’s ass would be hot if they sat in there long enough.”
The seat warmers in Ben’s Volvo are broken. And not, as Ben pointed out when Priya first climbed into the backseat, in the regrettable but survivable sense of just not working at all. Instead they automatically switch on to the highest setting when the engine starts and can’t be lowered or turned off. Priya can still feel the phantom heat radiating up through her body even now, more than twenty minutes after leaving the car.
“At least I still have a license,” Ben says.
Amo flips him off, and Ben laughs at him.
A cow has turned to look down at them, one pitchy ear pricked toward the sound of Ben’s laughter. Its eyes reflect the moonlight; they glow pale and depthless in the shadow of its face.
“Shhhh,” Vanessa says. “Christ, you guys are loud enough to start a stampede.”
Amo responds by cupping his hands around his mouth and mooing again. This time the cows all turn, their eyes fixing on his face.
“Shut up,” Vanessa says. “Seriously, you’re going to spook them.”
Amo lowers his hands and turns them palm-out, toward the cows. “We come in peace,” he says solemnly.
Vanessa shoots him a dark look, and Ben laughs again. Priya keeps watching the cows, silent.
Amo knocks his arm against her shoulder. “Aren’t you supposed to bow or something?”
“What?” Priya asks.
“Cows are holy for you, right? Hindus?” He gestures broadly.
“I’m not Hindu,” Priya says. She crosses her arms over her chest. “I mean, unless you ask my grandmother.”
“Oh.” Amo blows out a breath through his nose.
Ben laughs at him again. “You asshole,” he says.
Amo shrugs, looking at the cows again. Some of them have turned away, dipping their heads toward the grass or moving toward the opposite side of the hill. One is folded down onto its legs, asleep, with its face hidden in the grass.
“They’re so big,” Vanessa says.
“Yeah,” says Amo. “Roughly cow-sized. What were you expecting, chickens?”
“Whatever,” she says. “They just look like they’re going to be hard to push over, is all.”
“We’ll put our backs into it,” he says. He walks toward the closest cow, lifting his hands like he’s approaching someone with a gun cocked toward his chest. “Shhh,” he tells the cow. “Stay chill, okay?”
Ben goes to stand a step behind him. “Won’t it just move out of the way?” he asks.
“Not fast enough,” Amo says. “Come on, are we doing this or what?”
Priya walks toward him, not looking at him. Looking at the cow. It’s both bigger and smaller than she imagined a cow would be from up close, both slower and brighter. Its eyes are enormous and round when it looks at her in return. It smells like fertilizer and like animal, warm and alive.
Amo loops his fingers around her wrist and drags her hand forward until it’s pressed against the cow’s side. Ben steps up beside her and puts his hands on it, too. She can feel it breathing, the rise and fall of its flank against her palm; she lifts her other hand and splays her fingers over one of its spots. She wonders if the cow’s supposed to be this thin. She can feel its ribs, separate and distinct.
Vanessa draws up on her other side, shifting nervously. “It smells awful,” she says. She runs a hand through her hair, and then runs it through again.
“Like shit,” Amo says. “Literally.”
They stand at the cow’s side, hands raised against its flank in a neat line. The cow’s head is turned to look at them. Its nose is only inches from Ben’s face.
“Okay,” Amo says. “Push on three.”
“One,” he and Ben count together. “Two. Three.”
“The thing is,” says Amo as Ben drives them back toward Mill Valley, toward their sleeping houses and dark bedrooms and parents that don’t know to miss them, at least not yet, “the thing is it turns out cows are fucking enormous, and kind of impossible to tip over.”
The rest of them hum in agreement. Priya watches the hills recede out her window and hopes the sweat bleeding through her shirt doesn’t leave a dark mark on the seat. She hopes her dad hasn’t woken up to find her gone. She hopes her hands and her shoulder didn’t bruise the cow’s side, where she pushed between its ribs and tried to knock it off its feet.
From the driver’s seat Ben says, “Maybe you just need to work out more, man.”
And Amo says, “I work out with your mom every night.”
Priya watches the first streetlights come into view, and says nothing.
She sees the first trailer a month later. She’s driving home with her father from a weekend trip to San Francisco, down the same highway, slumped down in her seat with her feet propped up on the dashboard and her cheek pressed against the window. The trailer is ahead of them in the next lane, but moving slowly; they edge up closer until they’re right alongside it and Priya can see the mottled brown and white heads and flanks pressed against the latticed side of the enclosure closest to her father’s Lexus. One of the cows raises its head and meets her eyes through the dusty glass of her window.
“Dad,” Priya says. “Dad, look at the cows.”
Her father glances over her, his knuckles tightening to keep the wheel straight, before he adjusts the mirror and faces front again. He grunts an acknowledgement, something distant and noncommittal.
“Where do you think they’re taking them?” Priya asks.
“Somewhere with water,” her dad says. His mouth tightens, the way it always does when the drought comes up. “Probably out of state. I heard they were taking some of them to Texas.”
“That far?” She turns to keep the trailer in view as they start to pull ahead of it.
“We don’t have the water to grow cow food anymore,” her dad says. “We’re having trouble just growing people food.”
“Cows are people food,” Priya points out.
Her dad drums his fingers against the wheel. “They’re inefficient. We can’t prioritize them right now, not when the state’s agriculture industry is hanging on by a thread.”
The trailer is far behind them now; Priya has to twist around in her seat so she can watch it out of the rear window. Eventually they outpace it enough that it disappears from view, lost among the hills and the highway signs and the other cars, full of other people driving home.
She sees another trailer passing through town later that week. She watches footage of ranchers loading up cows on the local news. She sees Amo slip into his seat at the back of the room late for history one morning, and remembers the feeling of the cow’s ribs beneath her hands.
The Sunday after Halloween she climbs up onto the roof of her house and sits for hours with her legs propped up on the angled solar panel her dad installed when they moved in last year. From this vantage point she can see the hills, smooth and gold like the haunches of an immense lion, stretching out toward the silhouetted mountains at the horizon. She can see the still-green lawns of the golf course, shaded by clusters of evergreens. She can see Pickleweed Inlet, extending from the mudflats to the broad edge of Richardson Bay. The water is bright with reflected sunlight.
She can see a long strip of the highway, too, cutting through the grass and the trees and the hills like a long gash. She watches the cars that go by, trying to pick out cow trailers, but from this distance it’s impossible to distinguish them from produce trucks and SUVs. She watches anyway; she watches until the sun sets and the cars become nothing more than shadows in the dark, and then she just sits on the roof and looks up at the stars.
Every time a car turns onto her street she sits up, wondering if it’s Ben and Amo and Vanessa, come to take her back to the farm.
They don’t go back until December, after they’ve finished finals and started in on the driest winter break Mill Valley’s ever had, or at least the driest anyone can remember. The manager of the country club finally agrees to shut off the sprinkler system, and the grass on the golf courses begin to die. Two brothers start selling Christmas trees out of a lot off Miller Avenue. Their needles are brown at the tips, and fall from their branches when the trees are lifted or shaken or touched.
They go back because Priya asks them to. She doesn’t have to go with them; she could ask her father to drive her, or maybe call herself a cab, or find someone else with a car. But Ben is the only person she knows who can drive her into the hills and who was also there with her that night in September, his hands pressed against the cow only inches from her own. So she calls him one evening while she’s sitting at her kitchen table, and tells him they should go see if the cows are still there.
“Why?” he asks her.
She doesn’t know why. Not why she wants to go so badly, and definitely not why he would want to come with her. “I’ll bring beer,” she says.
Ben is quiet. “Okay,” he says finally. “I’ll tell Amo and Vanessa.”
This time Priya is sitting on the front steps of her house when they pull up. Amo leans across the backseat to push her door open. She hands him the six-pack she took from her father’s office, still cold from the refrigerator under his desk.
“Alright,” he says. “Patel, bringing the party.”
She climbs in. The car is cooler than she was expecting. Ben grins at her in the rearview mirror as he pulls back out into the street. “I got my baby all fixed for Christmas,” he says. “They wanted to put the seat warmers back to normal, but I told them to just take them out. I don’t think I’ll ever want to warm my seat again.”
“No kidding,” Amo says. He pulls back the tab of a can, slurping at the beer that foams up through the opening. “I like my ass room temperature.”
Vanessa stretches a hand back from where she sits in the passenger seat, and Amo hands her a beer can. Their fingers touch briefly in the exchange.
“Hey,” says Ben. “Can you wait until we get out of the car? If I get pulled over with open containers in here I’m in deep shit.”
Vanessa ignores him and pops open the can.
“Don’t get pulled over,” Amo advises, taking a long drink.
Priya watches his Adam’s apple move in the dim light. Everything about Amo seems to be sharply angled and pressing outward: his Adam’s apple, his bones, his tongue, which rolls out to wet his lip once he’s finished drinking. It’s like he might shed his skin and expose his insides at any moment, like a snake.
Amo looks over and meets her eyes, the side of his mouth crooking up to expose a flash of teeth. “What’s in the bag?” he asks her, gesturing toward the plastic Safeway bag in her lap.
She shrugs, looking out the window.
“Don’t hold out on us, now,” Amo says.
“It’s nothing,” she says. “Just some fruit and stuff.”
“For what?” Ben asks. “Snacks?”
“Fruit’s a pretty shitty snack,” Amo says.
Priya watches the streetlights disappear behind them as the car rounds a bend. “It’s not for us,” she says. “It’s for the cows.”
Headlights flash over the windshield as someone passes them, headed the other direction; by the time Priya blinks away the spots left in her eyes by the sudden brightness, the car is too far behind them for her to make out the people in it. Vanessa reaches back from the passenger seat again, and Amo hands her another beer can.
“Come on, Vanessa,” Ben says, reaching out as if to take it from her. She twists away from him. “Seriously,” he says. “One, you’re going to get my license suspended. Two, you can’t have a second beer before I’ve had one.”
“You can’t drink,” she says. “You’re driving.”
“Whatever,” Ben says. “Wait. I think we’re there.”
He pulls off onto the shoulder of the highway. Priya opens her door and looks up toward the top of the hill. It’s darker tonight, the grass lit by only a thin crescent of a moon. She thinks she can see shapes moving, cows, but she can’t be sure. They might already be gone.
The others climb out of the car, slamming their doors behind them and going to stand by the fence at the base of the hill. Priya closes her door more gently as she goes to join them. Amo takes another loud drink from his beer can, and Vanessa gestures upward with hers.
“I see them,” she says. “Look.”
Priya looks, and she hopes.
“Yeah,” says Amo. “I see something.”
Priya breathes out a long breath. “Let’s go, then,” she says. “Come on.”
She hands Amo the plastic bag and starts toward the fence, pulling herself up onto her stomach and rolling over until she can drop down into the grass at the other side. Amo passes the bag back to her through the slats and then climbs over himself, landing awkwardly beside her and steadying himself against her shoulder. Ben and Vanessa follow, one at a time.
It’s colder tonight, too. Priya wishes she’d brought a jacket. She crosses her arms over her chest, fitting her hands into her armpits. The Safeway bag hangs down from under her arm so that it knocks against her hip each time she takes a step.
They’re almost at the top of the hill before Priya sees the cow. It’s alone, its head dipped toward the grass. She’d forgotten how big it would be. Her memory rendered it small, the way distance does.
Amo cups his hands around his mouth and moos.
“You’ve been practicing,” Ben says. “Now it’s more mule giving birth than mule dying.”
The cow looks up at them, its eyes only slightly lighter than the rest of its face. The night is dark enough that everything is just shades of almost-black. In silhouette the cow looks substantial, not as thin, as hungry, as Priya thought it would.
Amo moos again.
Priya reaches into the bag and pulls out an apple, cupping it in her palm as she walks toward the cow.
“It’s not a horse,” Vanessa says. “You can’t just feed it fucking treats.” She drains the last of the beer from her can and drops it into the grass, crumpling the aluminum under the heel of her boot.
The cow just watches Priya as she gets closer, as the slope evens out beneath her feet, until she’s standing in front of it on the flat crest of the hill. It’s only when it moves forward, lowering its head toward her palm, that Priya sees the other cows behind it, clustered together down on the opposite side of the hill.
“Cool,” says Amo. “It just sucked that whole thing up.”
Priya can feel the cow’s mouth, warm and wet, against her palm, and then it’s gone, replaced by the cool night air. Softened pieces of fruit drop into the grass at her feet as the cow chews.
“Gross,” Vanessa says.
None of the cows on the other side of the hill are looking at them. A couple are asleep. The rest are gathered into a tight knot, pressed up against one another as if to share warmth.
“Do you have another apple?” Amo asks Priya, stepping close enough that she can feel the heat of his body against her back. “I want to do one.”
She nods, reaching into her bag to produce a second apple. Amo takes it from her and holds it out to the cow, but this time it just turns its head away to look back at the others.
Amo lowers his hand and takes a swig of beer. “Guess it wasn’t that hungry after all,” he says.
“Or it just wants something better than fruit,” says Ben.
“I feel you, cow,” Amo says. “Holding out for a nice steak.”
Vanessa yawns, coming up beside him to take the beer from his hand. “That’s so wrong,” she says. “Cows can’t eat steak. Steak is cows.”
“McNuggets, then,” says Amo.
“I could go for some McNuggets,” says Ben, reaching out toward Vanessa and wriggling his fingers until she hands him the nearly empty can. She turns to press her face into Amo’s neck, yawning again.
Amo hands Priya the apple. “You give it a go, Patel,” he says. He slings his arm over her shoulders. It’s warm and heavy, the sleeve of his sweatshirt rough against the exposed skin at the back of her neck. She shivers. “You’re like a cow whisperer or something.”
Priya shifts under his arm, unconsciously sucking in her stomach—an automatic response to being touched. She holds the apple out toward the cow again. But it’s already shuffling down the opposite slope, leaving her to stand there, arm outstretched, and watch as it moves slowly, steadily, away from her, back to the herd.
Standing up to her knees in the long-dead grass with Amo’s laughter shaking through her shoulders, she watches as the other cows move to make room for it, letting it press into their circle of warmth. The relief comes over her like a living thing, like a warm hand curling around her arm: relief that the cows are still here on this hill overlooking the highway; that they haven’t been driven in the night to a distant field in Texas, where the grass is still green and rain still falls. Relief that none of them have been taken. But, mostly, relief that none of them have been left alone.
Annika Neklason grew up in Santa Cruz, California. She currently resides in Philadelphia, where she is pursuing a degree in English at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the Bassini Writing Apprentice for Cleaver Magazine.
It would be Bridget’s first Christmas without alcohol, and mentioning this fact to her sponsor she was conscious of using the seasonal language of loss: “My first Christmas since the divorce,” “Our first Christmas since Rachel died.” Gratitude, or the pressure to feel grateful, compelled her to admit she’d been spared such tragedies. Trent had stayed married to her through Blendergate and the ensuing six weeks of rehab, and Selena, their daughter, would be meeting them by train from her college for Christmas dinner at Rob’s. She’d managed to keep the bakery (though one pushy counselor had cautioned her not to reenter the melee of the food industry), along with the upstairs apartment, and her hand had healed nicely, leaving just a few silvery crosshatches and numbness in her index tip. The blender was nonrefundable, but then she was only counting blessings.
Still, as she packed for Rob’s, she felt as if she were leaving herself exposed, neglecting sunscreen or a life raft or crucifix. Christmas was sure to implode on itself; she could smell the gunpowder.
“You’re projecting again,” Claire told her over coffee at the bakery. They met this way every morning at seven, an hour before she opened the store. Claire sat poised for her morning run in a tracksuit and ponytail, with a Big Book on the counter between them. “You’re creating this picture of what Christmas will look like, and you really have no idea.”
“I have quite a precedent to go on,” said Bridget, and before she could catch herself, she was on a roll. “Every Christmas since Selena was born we’ve gone to Rob’s. Rob and Trent sequester themselves on the porch and drink because they can’t stand each other sober. I hover over Vicki in the kitchen because we must allow Vicki to cook every year, even though I’m the one who went to Le Cordon Bleu and she’d julienne her fingers if you didn’t watch her the whole time. Selena sequesters herself in her room with a book, which hurts Vicki’s feelings and pisses off her kids–”
“And all the while…”
“–and all the while I’m drinking, yes. And after dinner Rob calls the spades game to order, and always it’s him and Trent against Vicki and me, some middle-school boys-versus-girls bullshit, and I bid too low or too high and everyone’s jumping down my throat, and I’m dying for a drink between hands so I don’t exactly focus on my strategy; besides, it’s just a game anyway, but then Rob rears his head and says, ‘Yeah, that’s why you’ve gotta win.’”
“Yes honey, but you can’t control them.”
“I know I can’t control them.” She wiped a hand on her apron. “That’s why it’s so overwhelming. It’s the same thing every year.”
“But is it the same thing this year?” She paused theatrically, letting Bridget anticipate the answer she knew was coming.
“This year,” Claire said, “Bridget’s not drinking.”
At ten she left the morning shift to her sous-chef and let herself in upstairs. Atop the liquor cabinet she’d cleared out and restocked with homemade jellies sat a small white box Trent must have brought in before leaving for work. A bright gold tag on the lid read: “To Bridget, Love Vicki and Rob. Merry Xmas!” Opening the lid, she returned instantly to the summer she was seventeen and the engine of her first car had overheated, the hood popped to acrid fumes, suffocating smoke. The smell was unmistakable: whiskey. Good whiskey: bourbon. There in the box, on a bed of rice paper, were two dozen homemade no-bake bourbon balls.
Her own laughter surprised her. She was actually howling. They might even hear her downstairs in the shop. What an idiot Vicki was. What a clueless, insensitive… Or maybe an asshole. She couldn’t be both, and yet Bridget wanted to hate her equally for both possibilities. She could hear herself recounting this incident at the A.A. meeting tonight, clarifying Vicki’s folly for the benefit of anyone unschooled in regional desserts. It’s not like a rum cake, she would explain. The alcohol doesn’t cook out. It doesn’t cook at all, actually, you just roll up the dough raw. Scholarly nods from some of the more domestic women in the room; grunts of tolerant disinterest from the men. And never mind sending me desserts when I run a damn bakery for a living; why she had to send me bourbon balls is beyond me.
Her projection hit a snag. Why would she be addressing this in a meeting at all? Unless–
You are encouraged to offer anything threatening your sobriety as a topic.
The powdery lumps stared back at her from the rice paper. Were they, at this very moment, threatening her sobriety? Had she just opened some insidious trap, a Trojan horse, bomb disguised as a cake? She smudged one thumb thoughtfully against a ball, as if submitting her prints at a police station. Would it be relapse, really, if she ate one? She’d made bourbon balls dozens of times before, they were a hit at parties, sweet and robust and (she prided herself on this point) daringly strong. But even with her liberal interpretation of the recipe, she estimated that you’d have to eat your way to insulin shock before acquiring a decent buzz. You metabolized more alcohol from the Sacrament than she would from a handful of Vicki’s offerings (and anyway she only took the wafers at mass these days). Could she really be blamed for eating one?
Not that Vicki’s cooking tempted her; a batch of her sister-in-law’s Oreo balls or mesquite-hard brownies she’d have left untouched and unconsidered. Honesty demanded that she account for the smell, the nostalgic burn on the tongue, made to feel safe and wholesome by the nuts and confectioner’s sugar. The smell she couldn’t help; it had rushed upon her out of the box, a Proustian trigger (already it was all reeling back to her, the bleeding fingers shaking to replace the Precision-Blade in its box–quick, think of something, anything else). But what would she do, of what was she capable, with that taste inside her again?
Beside the box, her phone suggested itself. Claire would now be finishing up her run; she wouldn’t stop to hear Bridget bellyache about a batch of potentially evil-intentioned desserts. This was too silly to bother anyone about; she could figure it out on her own. Wasn’t this new life of hers about making her own decisions, about learning when to say yes or no? Any sane person would have thrown the damn things out by now, having quickly weighed the costs and benefits. But the longer she weighed them, the more power accrued in those bourbon balls. They had grown larger and heavier than themselves. She couldn’t just chuck them in the trash. She would have to dispose of them in some special, ethical way, the way you disposed of toxic waste.
Her sous-chef wouldn’t want them, and Trent never ate sweets. For an insane moment she considered taking them with her to the meeting. Exhibit A: my sister-in-law’s relapse bait, and my gift to you all. Dig in.
The bakery donated each day’s surplus to the homeless shelter downtown, but somehow it seemed dubious to lump this batch in with their donations. Was alcoholism not a rampant problem for the homeless? Hadn’t it helped land many of them where they were now? Immediately she recoiled from this line of thought. Nice one; generalize an entire subset of the population. And anyway, if you want to see a real alcoholic–
“Look in the mirror,” she said aloud to the empty kitchen.
Blendergate had been Vicki’s doing, too; not that Bridget could conceive of blaming her for it, but it was worth noting that Vicki was ubiquitous in these moments of crisis. She’d accompanied Bridget and Trent to the culinary expo in August, the one with the open bar (a term Bridget now feared like “open-heart”). Bridget had wryly enjoyed watching Vicki ooh and aah at the stainless-steel displays of elaborate equipment she’d never have the wherewithal to use. In her enjoyment she hadn’t noticed herself getting staggering-drunk on half-glasses of chardonnay at the bar. So when, at the auction that concluded the event, Vicki started salivating over the pièce de résistance, something called the Dresner Precision-Blade Hand-Powered Blender, Bridget found herself on her feet and in the fray, shrieking bids against Trent’s protestations until, for a sum she couldn’t remember even now, the blender was theirs.
The cab ride to the apartment and the one to the hospital were separated by a timeless smudge of which she remembered only a few sharp details. Setting up the blender on the kitchen floor; Styrofoam packaging around her feet; directions in maddeningly small type in a printed manual; Vicki, not far behind her in alcohol consumption, watching attentively with her legs crossed. Trent had barged in a few times, begging her to put the blender away and go to bed, only to be appeased back into the bedroom (“I know what I’m doing,” “Le Cordon Bleu” and all that). She still couldn’t remember plugging in the blender. When the Precision-Blade slipped in its socket, doing to her hand what it had been expertly designed to do to a cucumber or banana, she had watched for a moment in detachment, her nervous system failing to verify what was happening to her even as the blender swam orange with bits of her own pureed skin. Her eventual screams had roused Trent to action (had he expected them, waited patiently for them at the door?), and in that second cab, Trent gripping the bags of frozen peas against her lacerated hand, Vicki passing her numbing shots of vodka in baffled silence, the problem had become impossible to ignore any longer.
That whole night re-formed now in her mind despite her best efforts at suppression. The scars across her hand glowed like tidemarks as she punched out a hollow thank-you text to Vicki, along with the news that she wouldn’t be making it to Christmas. She forwarded the text to Claire. Already she could hear the response. “Pride will close every door in the world to you, honey.” But was it pride, really? Or just an instinct of self-protection she’d lacked four months ago when she’d stuck her hand into a revving blender? She upended the box into the sink and flicked on the garbage disposal.
Charles Ramsay McCrory is pursuing a B.A. in English at the University of Mississippi. His work is featured or forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine, plain china, The Cossack Review, The Coachella Review, Amethyst Arsenic and other journals. He reads fiction submissions for The Adroit Journal.
Wrapped up in the rustle around us,
I missed the texture and hue in your whispers.
You were delicate and soft as silk,
but I was sired from cottons and thistles.
Though the din stayed on as your sound faded,
broad cloths of intuition came to me whole.
Since then, I emulate the patience of wool, how it listens.
Details speak up and find niches, like many hands knitting.
Thoughts float in with milkweed seeds on sheers of wind.
And in the tattered gauze of rain, I hear wandering voices.
I know where they are going, from where they have been.
John Middlebrook lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he manages a consulting firm focused on non-profit organizations. John has been writing since he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where he also served on the staff of Chicago Review. His poetry has recently appeared in journals including Grasslimb, Tuck Magazine, and the Tipton Poetry Journal. John’s home on the web is middlebrook.wordpress.com.
OF PINHOLES & PEEPSHOWS by R.C. Barajas Pinhole Photography
You can’t return to the days of Polaroids. Not really.
There are modern approximations—crafty mimicry that recalls the once ubiquitous family camera. I like the app Hipstamatic, a high-end photographic fast food that can reproduce the bygone look of analogue photography with the convenience of a cell phone. Then there are the dogged geniuses of The Impossible Project who recently reinvented the defunct self-developing film. But if you grew up during the days of the first Polaroid cameras, those instant snaps became forever entwined with your childhood. Here’s one of me with our cat, and our mother’s handwriting. Typical in our family, the photo was about the cat, not the child:
Our parents were unsentimental, and discarded the old camera when something smaller and lighter came along. But during the 1960s, theirs was the J66 Polaroid Land Camera, gargantuan by modern standards, with a 14mm f/19 lens (according to the manuals one can still find online). It was a complicated machine compared to the later iconic Polaroid cameras that spit out one photo at a time. The film came on a roll, and the user had not only to move the film through the pressure rollers to start the process, but also had to wrench the protective paper out of the camera to initiate developing. After counting to ten, you opened the camera back, peeled out the photo, and immediately preserved it with careful, even swipes of the peculiarly aromatic fixer tube that came with each roll of film. It was a ritual I reverently watched my mother perform countless times, in slack-jawed admiration. The photographic options of the J66 were streamlined to near point-and-shoot levels, the assumption being that users didn’t know their way around a camera, and didn’t care to. “Learn to hold the camera steady by pressing it against your face,” the manual suggested helpfully.
On my lap now is a family album dated 1961-1965, containing 3 x 4 inch deckled-edged pictures taken with that Polaroid camera. The instant gratification the camera provided meant that it was used often, recording seemingly mundane moments that would otherwise have been forgotten. I see not only the faces and stuff of our childhoods, but a shocking revelation that the house was once tastefully, even sparsely furnished, showing clean lines long since obscured behind lean-to bookshelves, walls over-populated with pictures, and thickets of knickknacks. Even the oak floors were visible—before the ’70s buried them in wall-to-wall. Many things haven’t budged in all this time. When the everyday is photographed and archived—and then fifty years pass—the frozen scenes acquire a gravitas they lacked at the moment.
The time is nearing, after almost sixty years, when the house will no longer be ours. I find myself compelled to photograph and archive this place that retains so much history, so many pieces of our lives in the very walls and wood. My three siblings and I ran amok here, grew up, moved out and in many times. Our parents grew old here. Grandma died in the cottage behind the house, and Dad in the living room. Our mother is old, so old she wanders in her mind and forgets that her husband died over a year ago. She fears that he won’t fit next to her in the narrow hospital bed that replaced the sagging king-sized one in their room at the top of the stairs. How do I memorialize this house, these people? It is a place where change had happened reluctantly or not at all, and now irrevocable change is looming. For now, at least, some change is held at bay: drink time is still four o’clock, and so it will be until none of us come here anymore.
And so I have taken to photographing in a manner antithetical to the lickety-split days of modern documentation. I am using pinhole cameras that I make myself. The basics of a pinhole camera are simple: There is a container (a box, or can, or other such empty enclosed space). There is a tiny hole to let in light, and something to cover it when you wish to prevent light from entering. Finally, there is the photo-sensitive surface—paper or film—placed inside the container. The Polaroid J66 took snapshots in a fraction of a second. The exposures I make must, by nature of the pinhole’s technology, sometimes take as long as forty-eight hours. Because I am looking back over extended, stretched time, it seems fitting that snapshots should give way to the long, stretched exposures afforded by a pinhole. Time, as we experience it, is fickle. I am slowing things down, and breathing in and out thousands of times as one simple latent image evolves.
I set my cameras around the house, beginning each exposure by peeling off the black tape from the pinhole. A camera watches, unmoving, spying for as long as I allow it. It sees the light and dark and begins to gather the two, pulling them in, creating tonal ranges, drawing the lines and curves of the vista within its angle of view. People can go about their business, might even stop and stare, but they pass too quickly to register. Not even a ghost of them remains—unless it is my mother, who sits in her chair for hours on end these days. Only the still and the illuminated will be laid down on the emulsion.
I do not tidy the clutter of the house or clean off the dust. Beyond clearing a space for the camera, I leave things be. The results show the inherent distortions and sometimes unpredictable occurrences of pinhole photography, a scene strewn with blinding highlights and murky shadows as the sun comes and goes and returns again outside the windows, and the lights of the inside are turned on and off in their normal course. The images are like a day’s worth of security camera footage, condensed into a single frame.
I’ll do this until I can’t anymore: choose a spot, and with a giddy sense of reverence, reveal the pinhole and walk away to go about my business. “Go ahead,” I murmur. “Do your thing.”
Russell Creger Barajas was born in Stanford, California. She attended college, skipping from UC Berkeley to College of Marin to San Francisco State like a stone across a pond. She eventually garnered a degree in art. For ten years, she worked as a goldsmith.While living in Colombia in the early ’90s, she began writing nonfiction and short stories, and has published in magazines and newspapers on a variety of topics. The uneasy intersection of art and writing is what excites her most. Russell currently lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband, three sons, and two or three dogs. Her short story “You Were Going to Tell Me” appears in Cleaver’s Issue No. 2.
He knew where to find her, amid the Spanish moss hanging from trees, along the creek the locals called a river.
He knew she sought the sensation of being at once small and large. As a girl, she would paddle under the trees and pretend the moss was her hair—long, soft, tangled, and tender. She felt protected, wonderfully alone, even when he would find and bring her home.
He knew that after the arrangements were made, the barely-used name shared and honored, the achingly small coffin lowered, she would run to hold moss, feel safe, mourn among her roots.
*In Greek mythology, the Meliai were nymphs of the ash tree.
Heather Bourbeau is a Berkeley-based writer. She was a Tupelo Press 30/30 poet, a finalist for the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize, and winner of the Pisk! Poetry Slam. Her journalism has appeared in The Economist, The Financial Times, and Foreign Affairs. Her first collection of poetry, Daily Palm Castings, profiles people in overlooked professions.
VARIATIONS ON SECOND CHILDREN by Amanda Silberling
I. On Labor
The youngest daughters come stitched into birth
like the elastic waists of their mothers’ jeans, sewing
needles improvising under the skin. In theaters
we are sequels, second acts, thrift stores selling
shades of pink our mothers are told they need.
II. On Being a Daughter
Smaller dinner portions, brother’s old
shirts, ballet shoes, blood stains
where no one can see, small talk,
mother losing baby weight, other
kinds of blood, floral print
training bra, expectation, sewing
kit, number of bathroom tiles,
Dramamine, broken dress zipper, pill
bottle, what other girls think, doctor
visit, what other boys think, discount
shopping rack, metal detector,
a new number of bathroom tiles,
your center of balance swayed.
III. On Moving Forward
The curtains have opened.
Here is the end of intermission,
the second act telling you ………to begin…………..begin.
Amanda Silberling is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, originally from South Florida. Recently, her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, The Louisville Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, SOFTBLOW, and more. Her essays have appeared in PANK and The Los Angeles Times, and she regularly writes and photographs for Rock On Philly. She is the Blog Editor at The Adroit Journal.
We stand naked
in the clearing
loving each other
beyond our bodies
our lights clinging
tight and bare
Samantha Barrow is the Director of Humanities in Medicine at the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education at The City College of New York, and she teaches in the Program of Narrative Medicine at Columbia. She is the author of GRIT and tender membrane (Plan B Press), Jelly (a chapbook, Tiger/Monkey Alliance), and Chap. Her poetry, prose, reviews and interviews have been published in The Ledge Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia City Paper, Off Our Backs, Lesbian Nation, Feminist Review, Moonstone’s Poetry Ink Anthology, Helmet Hair and two Uphook Press Anthologies: you say. say. and Hell Strung and Crooked.
You fall down a cement staircase & your skin drops away. It comes off like a suit. You fold your skin up & carry it home & hang it in the closet. Then you wrap yourself in unfinished quilt tops made up of band tees old lovers once wore. It’s as good a skin as any. For the first few months, you lie on the sofa waiting to heal. Every morning you undress the bandages & smother yourself in antibacterial petroleum jelly. Then you put the quilts back on.
After four months, you have not improved. The quilts aren’t helping anymore, so you resign to being naked & flayed. You’ve started charging entry to the closet where your skin hangs. One lottery ticket buys a glance. Two, & your houseguests can touch it. Three, & you’ll let them try it on. So far this business venture has earned you $112 dollars worth of lottery winnings, plus a modeling job as the hair girl for a shampoo company called Marvelous Locks. Less skin equals less distraction from the hair, the shampoo executives tell you. Your ads do pretty well. They bring in enough money to pay the rent & to get a glass display case for your skin. You even get asked to sign an autograph now & then.
Sometimes at night, when the flashbulbs quiet & paying visitors filter out, you take your skin out of its case & lay it out on the bed beside you. It looks like a damp, pink towel someone forgot by a poolside. How lonely it seems in its hollowness. How quickly you’ve forgotten what it feels like to wear. You stretch out beside your skin, & it feels like visiting an old friend with whom you no longer share anything in common. You talk to it about the morning traffic, about burnt coffee, about tomorrow’s weather—nothing that really matters.
GennaRose Nethercott is a poet, playwright, performer, and folklorist residing in the forests of Vermont. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rust + Moth, The Salon, Axolotl Magazine, Freeze Ray Poetry, and elsewhere. Her poem “Departures” won the 2014 Holland Park Press poetry competition, and her play-in-verse, Ghostmaker, was produced in Massachusetts and Vermont. She serves as the poetry editor at Mount Island Magazine. She knows more about shape shifters than she does about being a person.
In the autumn when the summer heat has burned to the ground, my father drives me to Elsa’s home before school. Her house is old and tall with peeling white paint. It reminds me of my mother’s flaking skin. Plump-armed vines crawl the walls and the windows fight for territory, small gaping mouths into Elsa’s house. Elsa hasn’t dressed yet and I help her with the buttons while her mother trots around naked. She is pale other than red elbows and knees from the cold weather. Their plumbing is rusty. I don’t know if the heat works. Their house is by the seaside and holds humidity year round. Its floorboards ripple from dampness and patches of black mold grow like soot in the bathroom.
I noticed it in Elsa first, as I was buttoning her school uniform, beginning at her round thighs. I was so close to her skin that I could see soft bristles on her legs. I buttoned up to her belly and then past her flat chest, the buttons closing with ample room as they closed the space between two tiny hills. I could fit my head there easily, as if resting on an ironing board. But she seemed very far away that day. I saw this in the thinness of her neck skin, her throat glowing like a fading light bulb.
I’m dying, she said, it’s happening. Her voice creaked. It reminded of a smoker’s, raspy and dry.
It’s not supposed to happen at our age, twelve, we are too young to change. In the town we see the alone men and women, their sheer-skinned bodies skimming the pavements like Jesus walking on water. But these are older men and women. You don’t die of love at our age. Who is it? I ask Elsa, my fingers fluttering over her warm throat. She feels ablaze. I finish the buttons. She gives me a stern look and says: Love requires no age.
Elsa’s mother squats in the garden picking roses. I wonder what she would think if she saw her daughter with the other dead creatures. They aren’t bothered by sand or cold. They don’t feel water and they have no eyesight. I ask Elsa if she is going blind. No, not yet. She looks up at the ceiling, there’s a faint smudge of grey mold above a bookshelf. She seems wise and I fear she’ll give me a loud, adult sigh any minute.
In this town, when you lose a love, you lose a limb. Your liver explodes, your neck turns yellow, and you begin to disappear. But you stay, walking among the living. You join the troupe, and there are songs and rituals to cope. They are less agile than us humans, their hands are clumsy, and they have no texture.
I go to my father’s shop after school where he fixes prosthetic limbs but people come for all kinds of repairs. My father is with a client so I sit in the waiting room accompanied by wooden and metal displays. One of them enters. He must be sixty years old. He smiles apologetically. My wife left me for a truck driver, he says, and I nod in acknowledgment. He leaves a trail of clutter. His chair falls over and the prosthetics are strewn on the floor like children’s toys. I’m sorry, he says. His feet toss and stamp, he leaves with a rattle of the glass door. We always clean up after them, we don’t complain.
The following day Elsa’s eyes are clear like the deep pools in the hidden coves, north of the town. Her hands are light and they breathe rather than touch when she holds me. I think it happens quicker in us, she says, because we are younger and have less life to give.
Out of the water the air bakes us, roasts us, and we are hot, so hot that we don’t want to touch one another. The boat is small and we are perched on it like birds, our legs dangling over the edge, four pairs of legs, we are four sisters. Matilda fixes lunch and hands us sandwiches dripping with mayonnaise and tomato juice. We munch on them like soldiers and drink lukewarm water from plastic bottles, though it’s hard to feel hunger when your body is fighting the heat. We are fifty kilometers from land: we have a captain and Matilda and the sea around us. She is thirty and has weak arms and legs browned with sunspots. The ozone layer is thin in this part of the world. We are zebras with zinc on our noses and upper cheeks, war paint for the sun. The water is cold when we sink in, stepping down on the metal ladder, it is marble stone cold, cold like the flat soles of our feet in the winter, and it cuts our breath and sharpens our skin. Matilda leads the clan with her slender arms swimming long strokes into the sea. Matilda knows these waters well, but we sense in the air, we know, for an instant that though she knows these waves, she owns them and guards them, there is something amiss. In the way her hair shrouds her face and in the way she splashes her twig fingers saying: come here. We are strong, swimming behind her. The captain stands, a tall Viking against the aquamarine sky. He waves at us.
We swim down and up, our thighs grazing against the coral and bleeding. This coral infests the waters like weeds. We see the fish and their colorful scales. Matilda, we don’t see. She’s to the left, to the right, no, she’s gone, we scan the horizon, the current is mighty, there’s a hand somewhere, we’ve lost her, we look under and our eyes burn from the salt. We don’t see her legs. The captain yells from the deck and we swim to the ladder, climb out one by one, solemn children. We’ve lost Matilda, we say, banging water from our ears and wiping our pruned toes against the wooden planks. The boat sails in circles but still no trace of Matilda. The sun shuts down and the sky blackens while we are now dry, salted, clothed in our bathing suits, mourning Matilda. But we knew, that morning, as we bit into our sandwiches and Matilda smiled at us crooked, teeth bleached like old bones in the sun, rubbing her weak arms with cream, limbs not made for swimming or breathing, not wings but sad things, we knew she would disappear and so we turn around with understanding and tell the captain, Return to shore!
Market day comes every five days and that is how the rhythm of the week is regulated, weeks built around food: cooking, eating, storing in voluminous pantries. The market is a dry place despite the nearby sea. Food keeps for longer, better preserved by the salt air. I weigh myself on market days to verify that I’m not losing matter, turning into another one of those. They’re not like us, Mother says, the same shape perhaps but they weigh nothing, so light that the wind could blow them away when they hide behind bushes to urinate, a moment of stolen privacy, before they go up into the grey and wet heavens. They keep Russian novels in their coat pockets to stay grounded. At night their throats glow like lanterns as they dance down the streets. Mother checks on our weight, writes it down in a small notebook before she dresses for the market. Leo used to keep a handful of polished stones under his bed to slip into his pockets if he ever felt the tightening in the soles of his feet, that odd buoyancy. I don’t want him to change, but I tell him, No Leo, don’t lie to Mother, no! He tenses and knocks his fingers on the side of his hard-boiled head. Shut it sister. Let me be, he says. I am glum. I observe my weight with scientific rigor, and retreat. My weight hardly varies. At times I weigh a little more if Mother buys steaks and potatoes at the market, the meat served with a glistening béarnaise, sprouting with shallots and tarragon.
The winds blow like trumpets outside. At night I tiptoe out, past the black TV, the whirring refrigerator, and my wheezing brother. I creep to the beach and hide behind aloe vera plants. I watch them, their bodies nimble as grasshoppers leaping into the air. Mother says: being around them contaminates our earthly, pure, pumping souls, we who are plenty heavy. But I feel extravagant, sitting there on a mound of sand, my ottoman, with this fleshy weight pulling down my body like a black cape.
And then I begin to change. There must be an illness within me. Here I am, standing on the old, rusted scale, listening to Mother whistle in the room next door. My weight is down ten kilograms. My body is identical of course, the same paunch on my belly and the closeness of my two thighs. I have to search for my ribs under the fat. I have a few months left, I calculate, and as I arm myself with stones, stealing from Leo’s collection and sliding them in my underwear, I watch my body grow lighter.
Mother remains unaware of my transformation, and how does a daughter say: look, I’m dying, soon I’ll weigh as much as your shoes, soon I’ll weigh as much as a wisp of your hair. I can feel how the ground grows harder to grasp when I glide to the market. My hands hover over the potatoes, the fish slips through my fingers. The cobblestone streets are silent when I walk them. I caress the earth. Six months go by and it’s time for the beach. Past the shrubs, down the hill to the water, I see them dancing. I weigh as much as a penny. There they are, hopping in circles. They turn when they see me approaching, and they jump higher in frenzy, their limbs quiver and they shake their arms. They invite me, saying they will show me how to work the wind currents.
There were no seats, so we stood arms touching arms and legs against legs. We filled the space until we were all perspiring and every time someone shifted or lifted an arm we caught the strong smell of anticipation. We licked our lips, sucked on rinds of oranges from our drinks, and passed messages among our neighbors. The yearly show was an attraction of some sort, mostly because by December the streets of our town had emptied, the shops were quiet and the beach gutted out. We missed the tourists and so we found ways to cheer our spirits. The large auditorium housed five hundred of our eager bodies. Its square windows were fogged and the stage took up one long wall. It was built with dark wooden slabs that shone from being freshly oiled. Resplendent. We waited. The lights flickered and dimmed. We didn’t hear them enter but we saw them, they looked just like us after all, with the same body parts, though they made no sounds. We heard the hum of wonder, the tensing of our shoulders, as the performers settled on stage like the first snow of winter. One of them, tall and thin, walked to the center, noiselessly clapped his hands and began. He took a thick canvas sheet, folded it in half and spread it out on the stage. He removed his sneakers and slid into the sheet as one does into a bed. His body, now hidden, wriggled. From under the sheet he sewed up the seam until he was tightly encased. We watched his legs kicking against the material, his chest thumping up and down with vigor, and then he stopped. Asphyxiation, a voice whispered in the crowd. They cleared the stage. A second one walked to the center. She looked like a young girl, perhaps ten or eleven, with hair tousled like feathers. She undressed until we saw her white body glinting under the stage lights, a peeled radish. Our tongues grew warm, we licked our lips, we waited. Her knees were pink and her stomach slightly rounded with a popped belly button. She pushed a ceramic bathtub to the front of the stage. We heard water sloshing up its sides. She stepped inside, her head disappeared below the edge, but there were no bubbles. We waited, she stayed under, until someone said: It was her mother who drowned her.
The show lasted two hours. There were new additions, new performers, and old timers as well. We yawned during the slow acts. One sat in his rocking chair without moving; another bent down on her knees and mimed placing her head in an oven. We applauded and wiped our sweaty brows. Our feet grew tired but we were glad to have witnessed another year. As the evening ended we filed out of the building and asked one another which ones had been our favorites, those that we would like to see again, but we did not speak of when we would also begin to perform.
Sanaë Lemoine was raised in France and Australia. She received a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania and is a graduate student in the School of Arts at Columbia. Sanaë teaches essay writing at Columbia and meets with writers in the Writing Center. You will often find Sanaë in her kitchen at work on her novel, cooking, and writing about food at www.petitriz.com.
The last time I hung out with Tike, I thought, He’s become a husk of himself, but I immediately felt guilty for seeing him this way. This thought came up while we smoked a bowl in his car—after I asked him if he remembered when we’d accidentally set a field of prairie grass on fire, a childhood memory we’d talked about several times before. But Tike couldn’t remember the fire, and I don’t think this was because of the weed. It seemed like the experience had been erased from his memory. We were both twenty, and a neurologist had recently told Tike that he had the mind of a seventy-year-old—hippocampal atrophy, which is a clinical way to say that ecstasy and cocaine had eroded his brain.
Tike was my first best friend; we’d known each other since we were four. We attended the same preschool, bonding over our shared obsession with the Ninja Turtles. Toward the end of the year, our class sang “Happy Trails” for our parents. But Tike didn’t perform with the rest of us. He didn’t like the song because it made him cry every time he sang it. Tike was a sentimental kid, and the idea of going to kindergarten at a different school—with new teachers and classmates—saddened him.
Tike always placed a lot of value on remembering the connections we make with each other, which makes his mental atrophy seem particularly tragic. The hippocampus is a warehouse for long term memories—the mainframe of identity. Tike and I didn’t hang out much throughout junior high and high school, but, when we did, he’d usually bring up something we’d done that I hadn’t thought about for a long time, recounting each experience with amazing detail. The last time I saw him and he said that he couldn’t remember our field fire, I told him the story, trying to jog his memory.
One afternoon during second grade, we ventured into the prairie behind my parents’ house, armed with a book of matches and a can of WD-40. We loved lighting things on fire—plants, newspapers, old toys, anything—amazed by our ability to destroy. Maybe Tike showed me that you can turn aerosol cans into mini-flame throwers, or maybe I showed him. Either way, we were both transfixed by that instant and terrifying whoosh of flame as we sprayed a lit match with hairspray or WD.
Once we were beyond the view of my house—our moms were drinking coffee in the dining room, which overlooked this undeveloped area—we each did the flame-thrower thing a few times, laughing hysterically as the chemical mist became a burst of flame. After a few minutes, one of us discovered how quickly and easily prairie grass burned, the yellow reeds reduced to blackened straws within seconds. As we held matches to the dry, knee-high blades, which snapped beneath our feet, they’d immediately get engulfed.
We started lighting large patches on fire; we were sent into a frenzy by the black smoke that rose from the burning grass. Suddenly, a twenty-foot-wide swath of fire roared in front of us, swallowing the small field. We tried to stomp it out but quickly realized that it was beyond our control. “Oh shit,” Tike said, his voice trembling. “What if it burns a house down?”
Luckily, the fire burned itself out within ten or so minutes. We walked back to my parents’ house, sure that our moms had seen the smoke from our conflagration, that we were about to get in so much trouble. In our minds, the fire stretched for miles, but it somehow slipped under our moms’ radar. Our fire was an early lesson on how split-second decisions can have consequences you never imagined. But Tike and I would need to fuck up a lot more before we could understand this.
As I told Tike this story, twelve years after the fire, he laughed and said, “Oh yeah, now I remember.” But he didn’t fill the story in with his own details, like he usually did when we reminisced. I got the feeling that he was just saying he remembered it.
Just before seventh grade, Tike and his family moved to Salt Lake—three hours away from our hometown in Wyoming. Even though we hadn’t been spending much time together, we both felt a loss when he moved. But Tike was easy to get along with, so he made new friends quickly.
My mom took me to Salt Lake to stay with Tike for a weekend when I was thirteen. I’d never gotten high or drunk before, but, with Tike, his older sister, and a few of her friends, I got completely twisted. After sneaking back into his parents’ house later that night, Tike and I lay in his room, giggling and trying not to wake up his mom and dad. He told me that he’d recently tried acid—twelve hours of tasting music and watching fish jump out of walls. He also told me about rolling on X and making out with hot girls.
Although I liked to do bad things, Tike did most of the good bad things—going further than kissing, skipping class, and experimenting with drugs—way before me, always having an appetite for adventure. I wouldn’t get high or drunk again for five years after this night, but Tike was about to discover how beautifully ecstasy and cocaine compliment each other, turning his neuronal sparks into fireballs of euphoria. Studies about how ecstasy can eat away at the hippocampus, an effect that increases exponentially when using coke at the same time, hadn’t surfaced yet.
When I was nineteen, I dove headfirst into a maelstrom of self-destruction—a long sequence of recklessness that included driving on interstates while twisted off my ass, popping Oxycontin after drinking a half-bottle of Grey Goose, and dosing LSD eight times in one month. But my drug experiences taught me about myself, risk, and consequence in ways that nothing else could, and, if I could go back, I’d make the same horrible decisions.
Now, ten years later, I have a seventeen-year-old cousin named Spencer, whom I love like a brother. He’s incredibly smart, but, like most kids his age, he needs to figure out who he is. Despite how much I value what I’ve learned from my biggest mistakes, I wish that Spencer didn’t have to fuck up in some life-altering way to find out what he’s made of. He plans to enlist when he turns eighteen, and he doesn’t listen when I tell him about one of my best friends, an Iraq veteran who’s been dealing with debilitating PTSD for the past fifteen years. Although it’s terrifying to imagine what might happen, I think the best I can do is hope that, unlike Tike and my veteran friend, Spencer will simply be lucky enough to emerge from his mistakes intact—that his experiences won’t consume his brain like fiery tentacles reaching across a field of prairie grass.
J.J. Anselmi holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from CSU Fresno, where he also worked as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of The Normal School. J.J.’s first book, Heavy: a memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music, is forthcoming from Rare Bird in Fall 2015. His other work has appeared or is upcoming in Trop, Under the Gum Tree, Weber: The Contemporary West, Word Riot, The Writing Disorder, and elsewhere. He’s also a regular contributor to Splicetoday. You can check out more of J.J.’s writing here: jjanselmi.com.
WE ARE ALIVE AS LONG AS THE SNOW IS DEEP by Ron Burch
You pound on the dirty living room window from outside. You want in and I leave the room. Bloodsucker, zombie, cannibal. You tell me that you will take me into the bedroom. You say you will make it worth my time. You just need a hit, a bump. I say I don’t have anything. Leave me the fuck alone but you beg. My phone rings. I get email. You seem to be everywhere even though I see your shadow blighting the soiled brown window curtains. You send me naked photos of yourself, on your knees, your face not facing the camera. You did not take the pictures. Someone’s fat thumb blurs the frame.
You shout a story through the window: remember the winter in central park. the snow fell like a landslide. it wouldn’t stop. we got tired of living in one room so we went outside and built a snow man sitting on a park bench, his arm extended along the back, his legs crossed at the knee. we built his snow dog near him, probably a wolfhound, his body so large, almost as big as the man. you slid yourself under the man’s arm as if you were under winter’s protection, the faceless man next to you, his faceless dog at your feet. this is our family you said to me.
You remember that? you say from outside the window. We have nothing else, you say. We have each other. No matter what happens, you say to me from outside, we only have each other after all these years. We have pictures to prove it. Find them, you say, find them.
No, I say, the snow has melted, the snow has vanished, and like that, you are gone as well.
Ron Burch writes and produces a TV show for DreamWorks Animation. His first novel, Bliss Inc., was published by BlazeVOX Books; Aqueous Books is publishing his flash-fiction collection Menagerie in 2015. He lives in Los Angeles. Please visit: www.ronburch.net.
Leo is lying face up on a mattress in a walk-in closet. The entrance is missing a door so a purple wool blanket, suspended from two nails, serves as a flap that keeps out the light but not the noise. It’s late and he can hear two adults down the hall in the living room. Their heated voices are not out of the ordinary; everyone in this neighborhood talks loud and fast. But tonight the tone is different. Words trail off in snorts and huffs. He hopes everything will be fine. When an abrupt thud reverberates in the walls he jumps from bed, swipes back the flap, turns a corner and runs to the living room. The adults are wrestling and the man is winning; he’s got her pinned to the carpet between the television and the coffee table. They grin like twins when they see Leo fixed and ready, his small pink hands shaped into huge red fists. Go back to bed, says the woman. In bed there is a pitch-black dream with everyone booing or weeping at undulating decibels. He can hear the women in the world on one side of the darkness, and the men on the other. As soon as the dream repels him from sleep, he staves off nausea by not moving.
When denied access to a familiar tree, something man-made will have to do. A-frame garages in his uncle’s alley line up like opposing teams. He is lying belly down on the shingled roof of a crooked garage, head above the vertex. Backyards no bigger than two-and-a-half Cadillacs are either decorated like church pews or the pits. Trash cans wait to be kicked. Garage doors will be punched by men who mean what they say. When he spots the girl from the sign shop cutting through the alley, elevation is no longer desired because he knows she never looks up. He sidles downward on the flanks of his sneakers then drops off the eaves. He’s running before he lands but intercepts her without fanfare or words. She has ancestors buried beneath the mounds in the park on his side of the river. This is all he can think about now that she’s staring at him, that is, until teenagers exit from an unseen garage and fan across the alley. Follow me, he says. She follows him through the wind-tunneled spaces of the neighborhood. Once they reach a safe distance, he stops, but she keeps running.
Paul Enea was born on Milwaukee’s East Side where he continues to reside. His work has appeared in Blue Canary Press, Verse Wisconsin, Porcupine, Brawler, and the chapbook anthology Portals and Piers.
Four in the morning and Maddie and I have nowhere to go. I said I was sleeping at her place and she said she was sleeping at my place and, well, now we’re in this diner. We’re both afraid to go home, me not wanting to wake my mom whose voice can be as shrill as hard rain and Maddie not wanting to bother her own parents, who’ve been having a hard time ever since her one brother ran off with the Krishnas and her other brother started rescuing stray dogs.
Hours back, we’d put on our platform shoes, took the F train to the city and stood in line for a rave. When the bouncer looked at my ID, which said I was sixteen, he turned us away, saying you had to be eighteen to get inside. Maddie protested, said of course we were eighteen, sir, there’s just a mistake. But he just looked us up and down with our round baby faces and our eyes that were hungry for something but too young to know what. He turned to the line, said, “Next, come on,” and we were shoved off to the side into the hot open night.
On the subway back Maddie asked me who the hell gets a fake ID that says you’re sixteen. I shrugged, not knowing what to say, except that sixteen sounded pretty old to me.
“So one time,” I begin, and Maddie’s blinking her eyes so slowly, eyes big and brown the color of horse hair, freckles clustered all over her nose. She’s looking at me, waiting.
“One time,” I say, holding down laughter in my throat. “My brother…he came home with this girl and my mom…”
But I can’t finish the story. That’s how it is with Maddie. Trying to get the sentence out is like trying to stand on the foam in the ocean. I want to do something straight and clear, but all I can do is tumble and laugh and give in.
She shakes her finger. “Let me tell you about my brother.” She tells me about the older brother who went to California to follow the Dead and came back home in a Lightning Van, which was just a van with lightning bolts painted over it. Then about the other brother, who owns a pit bull and always wears reflective sunglasses.
“Will that be all for you ladies?” the waitress asks.
“We have nowhere to go!” we tell her.
“Poor things,” she says, and drops off the check.
Tonight, we are refugees. We are orphans. We are stars sprung loose from the solar system, clinging only to each other in our hot glowing orbit.
We can’t let each other fall asleep. Then they’ll kick us out for sure.
There are plenty of stories to tell, though. Stories about our brothers, both older, both lost to us in the dark forest of late adolescence. Stories about our parents, dim suns hovering. Fantasies that are dreams that live all day long in our minds and which we’ve never revealed to anyone, until now.
“I’m afraid of heights,” Maddie says.
“I’m afraid of getting fat,” I tell her.
“I’m scared I have an addictive personality. Both my brothers are addicted to drugs.”
“I’m scared I’ll never fall in love. Both my parents are dying from loneliness.”
Just around the time the sun is coming up, the bell over the door jingles. The guys who come in are guys that we know, from back in the day when we used to hang around in the neighborhood. JayJay is a skinny Puerto Rican boy with a sharp pointed Adam’s apple and a smooth face the color of the coffee in our cups and always too much cologne and a way of looking at you that can make your thighs become butter.
Azzo is his friend, a taller, rounder, Puerto Rican kid with a soft voice and curly hair and gentle hands and the kind of guy you want to confide in and get advice from, usually advice that has to do with whether JayJay likes you. Azzo is sweet and tall and broad-shouldered and wears knitted sweaters in the wintertime and has a habit of putting his arms around girls in a protective loving way and has lots of acne.
They’re so high. That’s what we say the moment they sit down. “You are so high.”
They just laugh. Their hair and clothes smell like they’ve been rolling around in a marijuana field, and their eyes are screaming-red.
JayJay reaches across the table to pick up a menu and starts reading it, tapping his knuckles on the table. Azzo asks what we’re doing here.
“Just hanging,” we tell him, like it’s every night we stay up ‘til sunrise in the Grecian Corner diner.
“I’m hungry!” JayJay announces, his eyes big as he looks back and forth at me and Maddie, shrinking in our red leather seats, not sure which one of us he wants to eat first.
We talk about our respective nights, me and Maddie waiting on line at Nassau, being turned away in spite of our heroic feat of getting fake IDs made on West Fourth Street, then all our efforts to purse our red lips in a way that makes our cheekbones higher, our baby fat melt away.
They tell us about some party over at Luc Bustomanta’s house, how the music was bad but the weed was good, how the beer was bad but the dancing was good, how the party overall was bad but the walk there and back through the hot summer night was good and, now, since they’ve run into us, just getting better.
We don’t know what to say. How do we talk to these men, these boys with their soft hands and their red eyes and their loud pleased laughter? We want to run. We want to stay. We want to drink our coffee and be quiet and pretend they never came in and that it’s just me and Maddie and we are innocent as babies. We want to seduce them and dance with them and be the ones to make their nights ones that they will never forget.
JayJay eats a plate of waffles with whipped cream. Azzo eats oatmeal with sugar and fruit and nuts.
“Oatmeal?” JayJay says.
“I’m on a diet,” Azzo admits.
“Hey,” JayJay says. “You girls want to come back to my house?”
And what could be more perfect? We, who have been orphaned by our own incompetent plans. We, who are surely older than we are, who want nothing more from our lives than to grow out of them.
“Where do you live?” I say, but by then we’re already out on the avenue and stepping into the warm summer night.
JayJay leads us into his bedroom and doesn’t turn the light on. He’s got a bunk bed with two thin mattresses. Up on the top bunk there’s a white window curtain and if you peek through it you can see the street that leads up to the schoolyard where we all used to hang out and play handball and drink forties, before Maddie got into raves and I got into following Maddie wherever she went.
For a long time, we do nothing but sleep, the four of us like sardines lying side by side, warm and snug and safe in the darkness of the room and the night.
The first thing that wakes me is the tingling in my shins. When I open my eyes, JayJay is on top of me, his left hand around my ribs, slowly sliding upward, his right hand pressing down on my hip, pushing into the mattress. His lips are on my throat; his hair smells of coconut oil. Then his forehead is on my chin, a firm pressure. His tongue tastes of sleep, of whipped cream, of maple syrup.
I can feel his legs moving between my legs, like eels squirming up along the shore. And my eyes are flickering and I’m running my hands along his back, up and down, soothing, whispering, “Don’t stop, don’t stop.”
On the mattress below me I can hear Azzo and Maddie doing the same thing. The same swishing of the sheet. The same creaking of the mattress. The same sticky sounds of lips and saliva, boy grunts and girl hums and bodies entering bodies, skin yoking itself to skin. The same darkness wrapping itself around us like the arms of our parents, holding us safely and tenderly in the night.
Eventually, we drift back asleep and I wake to find Maddie up in the bed beside me, curled up like a baby lamb. I turn to her, caress her back, run my hands down her hair.
The boys are out of the room and daylight is spilling in. Blue and bright through the thin white window curtain. I hold Maddie like she’s my child. I kiss the top of her head like my mother always would to me and my brother.
“Are you sleepy?” I say, lips near her skull.
She nods against me.
“Me too,” I say.
“Do you think it’s too early to go back home?”
“I think it’s okay now.”
We dress and make our way into the hallway. JayJay and Azzo are in the living room talking to JayJay’s aunt. She’s got a cane stretched out before her and one leg bent, the other straight in front of her. She tells us to sit. We do. Her voice is raspy like a thousand cigarettes have been smoked and burned inside her lungs.
“Why are you dressed like that?” She points her cane to our platform shoes, our pants.
“We were going to a rave.” Maddie’s voice is soft, apologetic almost.
JayJay’s aunt bangs her cane on the floor. “You look horrible,” she says. “Ridiculous.”
Maddie and I look at each other. JayJay and Azzo look at us. We all look at the floor.
“I’m a lesbian,” says JayJay’s aunt. “And I sure wouldn’t fuck ya.”
“Well,” Maddie says. “Okay then.”
She bangs her cane on the wooden floor, many times, over and over. “Ya hear me?” She points her cane at Maddie as she lets out a loud raspy laugh. “I say, I’m a LESBIAN. And I WOULD NEVER FUCK YOU.”
I stare at Maddie, wondering what she’s thinking, what she’s going to do.
But all she says is, “I hear you,” and it’s the way she looks away from me then that tells me how alone we are, how adrift. We miss our older brothers. We miss being small. We miss believing that there is such a thing as a grown-up, and that grown-ups live on a place called land. ‘Cuz if there are no grown-ups, and there is no land, where do you return home to?
After a moment, Maddie and I push each other up, leaning against our armrests. We think it’s time to go. We stand and walk through the hallway, JayJay trailing behind us. At the door he kisses me on the lips, reaches for my waist. Then he leans over, kisses Maddie on her lips, cupping the back of her head.
“Fun running into you girls.” He smiles a sweet boyish smile.
“You too,” I say.
“We’ll have to do this again sometime,” Maddie says.
And then she and I walk, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, heads pressed close, down the front steps of JayJay’s house and slowly along the sidewalk, down toward the avenue, where, just over the lips of the buildings, on top of the houses and bridges and stores, the radiant round sun is beginning to rise. It’s a Sunday. The day is just beginning.
Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review, a website dedicated to reviews of literary magazines. She has received literature fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and The Somerville Arts Council and her fiction has won awards from Moment Magazine, Glimmer Train, Briar Cliff Review, Byline Magazine and elsewhere. Other writing has appeared in Salon, Virginia Quarterly Review online, Hobart, Quarter After Eight and other print and online publications. Find her at www.BeckyTuch.com.
“I wish my sweat smelled as good as yours,” Nellie told her grandmother when she was little. She still remembered asking, sitting on her grandmother’s lap on the porch, carving a frozen Hoodsie cup with a wooden spoon.
Her grandmother laughed. “That’s not sweat,” she said. “It’s perfume. Bergamot.”
“What’s bergamot?” She liked the way the word was unfamiliar in her mouth, a new twisting of the tongue. She whispered it when she said it—it seemed like the kind of word that held secrets.
“A bit like an orange, a bit like a lemon. We don’t have them in the U.S., really.” Nellie hadn’t realized there were things that didn’t exist here. Everything, it seemed, was contained in the world that stretched from her house to her grandparents’.
“How do you know what it’s like, then?” She stabbed her Hoodsie cup again, eating the chocolate half-moon first because she liked it less than the vanilla. Her grandmother reached a thin arm over her shoulder and hooked a finger into the ice cream, then lifted it to her mouth. Nellie could smell the musky sweet scent as her wrist glided past her.
“When your grandfather and I traveled to Turkey for our honeymoon we had bergamot marmalade with our toast. I bought the perfume there,” she said. “You can borrow it whenever you like. Especially if a boy’s involved.” She mussed Nellie’s thin hair, her fingernails pleasant against her scalp.
“Ew,” said Nellie, scooping out a taste of vanilla. “Jenna says Lisa’s front tooth fell out because Bobby kissed her on the slide. She says if it happens again her lips could melt off.”
“You know what I heard?” Her grandmother wrapped her arms tightly around Nellie, pulling Nellie’s arms to her own ribs. Nellie liked being this close to someone.
“What?” Nellie asked, taking the last bite of ice cream and tossing the plastic cup onto the pollen-dusted table beside them.
“If you tell them secrets, your heart starts melting, like a candle.”
“Does it stop?”
“I’m not sure,” her grandmother said. “I’ll let you know.”
Nellie used her grandmother’s perfume for the first time at her grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary party. It was a warm August day and everyone was outside under the tent her mother had rented, but she snuck into her grandmother’s room instead. She opened the drawer and found the perfume beside the rice paper facial blotters and spongy make-up triangles. The drawer smelled like oak and baby powder. It wasn’t until she twisted off the golden top that she smelled the familiar crushed flowers and fruit. She plugged the bottle’s open neck tightly with her fingertip as she turned it upside down, the honey colored liquid cool on her skin. She swiped it quickly over her wrists, her collarbone, her neck before returning the bottle to the drawer. Then she went to find her neighbor, Sammy Travers.
She had her first kiss with Sammy that afternoon, in the hull of the above-ground pool her grandparents hadn’t bothered to fill in years. They sat with their backs pressed to its metal frame, which stretched a few feet above their heads. They were both thirteen. The age you got kissed.
They had picked pea pods from her grandfather’s garden, but Sammy couldn’t split his because he had no nails. Nellie took the shell from him and pried it open easily, hoping he would notice the red nail polish she’d stolen from her mother. “Hold out your hands,” she said.
Sammy cupped his hands beneath hers and she plucked the peas from their boat, dropping the tiny green beads into his palms. They weren’t ripe yet, smaller than pebbles.
“You want one?” he asked, holding up a pea caught between his thumb and index finger.
“Sure,” Nellie said, and kissed him as he leaned in to hand her one. His lips were thin and flaky. The metal frame of the pool was burning her back, exposed beneath the knot of her halter-top, and she pulled away. She looked at Sammy and suddenly felt like she had to get as far away from him as possible. She felt as though something she hadn’t realized was inside of her had collapsed. She stood up and put one hand on the pool ladder, one foot on the bottom rung. Sammy was still sitting down, touching his fingertips to his lips. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“I have to pee,” she said, hoisting herself over the lip of the empty pool and scrambling down to the lawn. She ran into the woods bordering the house to avoid the tent, following them around the right side of yard, weaving between the trees and mossy rocks. She tripped over a tree root and fell to the ground, her palms grinding into the damp earth. She stayed still for a moment, listening to her own breathing, loud against the silence of the woods. Then she hoisted herself up and wiped her hands on a rock in front of her, the dirt like coffee grounds on her palms. She heard something crunching in the grass behind her and held her breath.
“Nell?” someone in the distance called. It was her grandmother’s voice.
“It’s just me.” Her grandmother’s frame came into sight, pulling her red skirt up as she stepped over roots in her black heels. “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” Nellie moved to sit on a low, rectangular rock nearby. “Just taking a break.”
“I saw you running, I thought something was wrong.” She came and sat down next to Nellie, kicking off her heels into the dirt. Nellie watched them land on a cluster of dandelions a few feet away. “Do you remember these?” her grandmother asked, holding up one of the papery helicopters that had spiraled down from the maple trees.
Nellie nodded. The red seedpods were scattered all over the rock, and reminded her of the display of insect wings at the science museum, fragile pairs torn from their host.
“Your grandfather and I used to collect these. I still do.” Nellie’s grandmother handed her one. “Open it.”
Nellie watched her grandmother split open the tip of the pod with her nail and then peeled open her own. It was sticky on the inside and her grandmother stuck the helicopter to the bridge of her nose, nodding at Nellie to do the same. “Why did you start collecting them?” Nellie asked, gluing the wings to her face. She was afraid to take her hand away for fear they would fall off.
“It was a game we used to play before we got engaged. If the seeds stuck, we were together forever. If they fell off, we weren’t going to last.”
“I guess they stuck, then,” said Nellie. There was a warm breeze and she could smell her grandmother’s perfume, which wasn’t a smell anymore but the time they threw cookie batter at each other, the time they climbed over the fence to the neighbor’s pool, the time they held each other when the hurricane rattled the house.
Her grandmother pulled the helicopter off her nose and spun it between two fingers. “We should go back,” she said, standing up. Nellie noticed that the hem of her dress was brown with dirt. “It’s my party, after all.” She held a hand out to help Nellie up. “Well, sort of.”
Nellie barely knew her grandfather. He was obligatory hugs at family gatherings, $20 checks on holidays, balloon-printed cards on her birthday.
He spent all of his time in the garden or a wooden shed next to the garden. He was there even during the winter, when it sometimes became so cold and windy at night that he would sleep there instead of venturing outside. “He’s got a space heater and some blankets,” her grandmother would say as the icy wind puffed through the cracks beneath the windows and doors.
“Can I see the shed?” Nellie asked her grandmother once when she was little.
Her grandmother laughed. “I haven’t even seen the shed.”
“What do you think he does in there?” Nellie asked.
“I know what he does,” her grandmother said. “He paints.”
“Oh,” Nellie said. “Why?”
“He wanted to be an artist,” her grandmother told her. “Once upon a time.”
“Huh.” Nellie thought about this for a moment. “What does he paint?”
“The garden, the house. And he paints little trinkets for the church fair every year. Ornaments, toy boxes.”
“What if it’s all a lie?” Nellie asked when she was older. “What if the shed is full of dead bodies? Or guns? Machetes?”
“Your grandfather is not a violent person,” her grandmother said. “Just a cold one.”
He died when Nellie was sixteen. The day of the funeral she got ready at her grandmother’s house, pulling on her dress and brushing her hair in the room that had once been her mother’s. When she went to use the bathroom her grandmother was standing at the sink, running her wrists underneath the stream of the faucet.
“What are you doing?” Nellie asked.
“Washing off my perfume,” her grandmother said. The water was so hot it was steaming, and Nellie could see that her wrists were a bright pink. “The smell is making me sick.”
Nellie hid in the bathroom during the funeral reception. She sat on the closed toilet seat eating chilled shrimp she had smuggled into her dress pockets. Neither her mother nor her grandmother cried that day, but her father couldn’t stop, and she could hear him through the bathroom walls. We didn’t even know him, we didn’t even know him, he kept saying.
“Pull yourself together,” Nellie heard her mother hiss when she slipped into the hallway and passed them near the coat closet. “He wasn’t even your father.”
Nellie drove her grandmother home afterwards. “Don’t let her stay long,” her mother told her, “Just let her pack a few things, then right back to our house.”
“Okay,” Nellie said as she parked the car. “Quick in and out? Yeah?”
But her grandmother didn’t walk towards the front steps when she opened the car door. She took a right turn and headed around the garage, saying nothing.
“Gram?” Nellie called, slamming her door shut and watching her move through the weak beam of the automatic porch light. “Where are you going?”
She followed her to the shed, stepping over the wilted strawberry bushes that surrounded it. Her grandmother was fiddling with the lock on the door, spinning the dial with shaky hands. “I don’t know it,” she said when Nellie came to stand beside her. “I don’t know it.”
“Did you try his birthday?” She nodded. “His birth year?” Another nod.
Nellie stepped in front of her and tried, her grandmother clenching her shoulder with small fingers. The lock dropped down and Nellie slid it off the door and into her pocket.
Her grandmother squeezed her shoulder. “What was it?”
“Your birthday,” Nellie said.
They pushed the door open together. The interior space was small, no larger than a walk-in closet. There was a twin mattress in one corner, covered in pillows and thick blankets, and a small space heater plugged in beside it. Directly next to the mattress was a small desk and chair, pushed tightly together. Nellie couldn’t step further inside without having one foot on the mattress.
The desk was covered in glass circles the size of a palm. Some had light blue circles rimmed with white painted on them, a bulls-eye of navy in the middle. There was a palette set to the corner covered with dry, clotted paint and thin brushes. An empty jam jar stood beside it, still filled with murky water.
“He said he was working on something new,” Nellie’s grandmother whispered.
“What are these?” Nellie asked, picking one up.
“It protects against the evil eye,” her grandmother said, leaning forward to take one. There was so little space that they had no choice but to touch elbows and ribs, and Nellie could feel her grandmother’s breath on her neck as she spoke. “We got one as a souvenir in Turkey, but he dropped it when he opened the box back home.” Her grandmother traced the circle of the eye with her finger again and again. “I said we were cursed after that.”
Nellie placed one of the eyes back on the desk. “Were you joking?”
Her grandmother held the eye up to her face and looked at it like it was something she didn’t understand. “I think so,” she said.
A week after her grandfather died, Nellie’s grandmother fell down the stairs and broke her hip. “I knew this was going to happen,” her mother said, pacing up and down the fluorescent hallway outside the hospital room. Nellie didn’t bother saying anything, because she knew her mother didn’t want to be comforted. Her father knew this, too, and made himself useful by buying Ding Dongs and Fritos from the vending machine. They ate them while they sat in the hard, floral print chairs in the hospital room and watched Nellie’s grandmother sleep. The only sounds were her snoring and the rustling of the plastic wrappers.
“I’m tired,” her mother finally said.
Nellie wanted to say Me, too but knew they were the wrong words.
Her father pulled his chair closer to her mother’s and patted his shoulder. She dipped her head to meet it, and he tipped his cheek to her forehead. They both closed their eyes.
Nellie started doing nightly checks on her grandmother when they let her leave the hospital. “But the nurse is there until eight,” Nellie said.
“It would make me feel a whole lot better,” her mother told her, pressing the car keys into Nellie’s palm.
“Why don’t you do it, then?” Nellie asked, already opening the door to the coat closet.
“Nell,” her mother sighed. “Just do this for me, please?”
Her grandmother thought something was wrong when she answered the door, leaning forward on her walker suspiciously. “Is your mother sick?” she asked as she unlocked the screen. “Your father?” Nellie shook her head twice. “Did you get kicked out?”
“Gram,” Nellie said, taking her grandmother’s arm and gently guiding her farther into the house. “Let me in, please.”
Her grandmother shuffled away from the door but wouldn’t let Nellie take any further steps into the hallway. “Are you pregnant?”
“Gram, no.” Nellie unbuttoned her coat and slung it over the banister. “Mom wanted me to check in on you.”
“What am I, a teenager at an unsupervised party? A toddler at a subpar daycare?”
“You know Mom. She worries.” Nellie found herself scanning her grandmother for new bruises, cuts, scrapes.
“God knows she gets that from her father, not me.” Her grandmother was wearing a lilac bathrobe, and she tightened the fabric belt around her waist for emphasis.
Nellie slipped past her grandmother and into the kitchen. “Come sit down, I’ll put on some tea.”
They sat on the couch with mugs of chamomile, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire playing muted on the television.
“It’s a Friday night,” her grandmother said, putting her tea down. “You’re sixteen. Go get into some trouble.”
Nellie laughed. “What kind of trouble?”
Her grandmother shrugged. “Sex, drugs, rock and roll.” She took a sip of her tea. “I broke into a mattress store once after hours with my guy. We jumped on all the beds like we were five years old.” She took another sip. “And did some other stuff, too.”
Nellie pretended she hadn’t heard that last part. “With Grandpa?”
Her grandmother laughed. “God, no! That man was scared of everything. He yelled at me when I didn’t wash fruit before eating it.”
Nellie put down her tea. “Do you miss him?” she asked quietly.
Her grandmother stared straight ahead at the television. “Now what kind of question is that?”
Nellie took her grandmother’s wrist and squeezed it. It was so thin she felt like she was touching bone. “I should get going,” Nellie said. “Do you need anything else?” Her grandmother shook her head. When Nellie leaned in to kiss her, she smelled like fabric softener and hydrogen peroxide. It was a scent she didn’t recognize.
Nellie’s grandmother recovered from her hip, but a blood clot formed in her leg six months later. When she was discharged this time, she didn’t go home. She went to Nellie’s.
She moved in during January, right before the blizzard hit. They moved the treadmill and weights out of their extra first-floor room and into the basement, then filled it with a bedframe and dresser instead.
“You know you’re in trouble when they put a baby monitor in your room,” her grandmother said, playing with the white walkie-talkie on her bedside table.
“It’s not a baby monitor,” her mother said. “It’s a safety alert system.”
Blizzard Boreas hit in early February. He brought snow packed dense as brown sugar, heavy drifts that pinned doors to their hinges and pounded roofs to their breaking point.
The power went out and Nellie and her mother lit candles while her father brought cans of baked beans and SpaghettiOs up from the basement. Her grandmother sat in her bed, wrapped in her bathrobe and two knit scarves. “What a way to go,” she kept saying.
They couldn’t leave the house for three days. When they lifted the curtain covering the sliding glass doors to their porch, all they saw was white.
Nellie sat in bed with her grandmother to keep warm while her parents sat in their bed upstairs.
“I want you to have something,” her grandmother said, putting down the peanut butter and jelly sandwich they had been sharing. Nellie took the plate and balanced it atop her blanketed knees. Her grandmother reached over to the bedside table and opened the drawer where Nellie already knew she kept her perfume. She knew because she borrowed it every time she had a date.
The amber-colored liquid sloshed inside the perfume bottle as her grandmother held it with quivering fingers. “This is my last bottle,” she told Nellie. “I bought ten of them during our honeymoon. I didn’t think I’d ever be back.” She handed the perfume to Nellie. “And I was right.”
“I can’t take this,” Nellie said, rolling her fingers over the glass ridges of the bulb.
“I’m not giving you a choice,” her grandmother said.
All of a sudden the whole house shuddered. The windows and doors clattered like they were trying to break free of something, and the bed slid forward despite its locked wheels. They’d found the brass bedframe at a local yard sale—it was an old rollaway meant for guest visits, and the stops on the wheels had begun to stop working.
“Sandwich, please,” her grandmother said. Nellie handed her the nibbled half she had been eating before, crumbs scattering over the blanket that was already stained with the morning’s oatmeal they had made in the fireplace. “Do you know why I bought that perfume?” her grandmother asked, a wet glob of jelly clinging to the corner of her lip.
“Why?” Nellie asked, still turning the perfume bottle over in her hands.
“It was one of the few things your grandfather and I both liked,” she said, wiping the jelly away with the back of her hand. “We were scared of agreeing with each other.”
Nelly brushed some crumbs off the blanket. “Why?”
“We got married so young.” Her grandmother leaned back into the pillows and looked up at the ceiling. “I think we were afraid we’d become each other instead of becoming ourselves.”
Her grandmother started forgetting things. First, the small ones: where the sugar was kept (in the drawer with the tea boxes), which type of water removed grass stains (cold), what you called the time of night after the sun set (dusk).
Nellie came home from school one day to find her grandmother on the floor in her room, swiping a hand beneath the bed skirt. “I’m looking for my glasses,” she said when Nellie asked.
Nellie laughed, dropping her backpack to the floor. “They’re on your head, Gram,” she said, bending down to tap the wire frames buried in her white curls.
Her grandmother withdrew her hand and sat up, leaning against the foot of the bed. “Ha!” she said, laughing. “God, I’m one of those old ladies now, aren’t I?” And then suddenly the laughing became crying, and she shook her head at Nellie’s extended hand, pulling the collar of her sweater up over her face to hide her wet eyes.
Nellie stood there for a moment, wringing her hands like her father when he didn’t know what to say, and then picked up her book bag and walked out of the room, closing the door behind her. She walked to the front door and sat outside on the step, where she could see her young neighbors practicing bike riding in their driveway, endless halting loops on their tricycles.
Nellie started keeping a list of what her grandmother forgot.
Apple crisp recipe
Where I go to school
How to use the washing machine
What our car looks like
The Lord’s Prayer
She found her mother crying at the kitchen table one Saturday. Her arms were folded on top of a placemat and her face was pressed to them so all Nellie could see was the back of her head. “What happened?” Nellie asked from the doorframe. Her mother never cried and seeing it made her feel anxious in a way she never had before. “Where’s Dad?”
Her mother said something that got lost in her arms and the table.
“What?” Nellie knew she should enter the room but felt like she couldn’t. Her mother didn’t make any attempt to repeat herself. “What did you say?”
After a moment her mother yanked her head up to look at Nellie. Her face was bright pink, as though it had just been splashed with hot water. “She didn’t remember my name!” She dropped her head back to the table.
Nellie slowly entered the room, stepping lightly on the wooden floor. She pulled out the chair beside her mother, which made a scraping noise that echoed through the entire house. “I’m sorry,” Nellie said, placing a hand on her mother’s spine, which felt wrong, and then moving it to her shoulder blade, which felt a bit more right.
Her mother lifted her face again, rubbing her dripping eyes with the back of her thumbs. “You know whose name she remembered?”
Nellie didn’t say anything.
“When is Nellie coming home? I have something to tell her. Where’s Nellie?” A wobbly strand of mucus hung from her nose and she made no effort to wipe it away.
“I’m sorry,” Nellie said, pulling her hand away from her mother’s shoulder.
“Don’t be sorry! I hate when people are sorry for nothing.” Her mother took a napkin from the center of the table and blew her nose.
Nellie didn’t have anything to say to this, so they sat in silence for a few minutes while her mother wiped her face with another napkin and pressed her fingertips to her closed eyes. “You know what I wish you could have seen?” her mother asked.
“She and your grandfather used to have this beautiful, tiny cabin on a lake in Maine. We went up there every weekend during the summer and went fishing and swimming.”
“That sounds nice,” Nellie said.
“My dad was a quiet man, as you know, but up there he was a chatterbox. Completely different person. You know what he told me one night when we were grilling?”
“What’d he say?”
“That he was saving up for another trip to Turkey. It was going to be a surprise for Mom’s birthday.”
“But it never happened?”
“No, he lost his job a few months later. We had to sell the cabin. He got even quieter after that.” Her mother was looking out the window, at the frost-tipped March grass.
“Still a nice gesture, though.” Nellie patted her mother on the shoulder and got up to put the kettle on.
Her mother gave a little laugh, which came out sounding choked. “My dad was good at gestures, if nothing else.”
“Kind of like Dad,” said Nellie, opening the cabinet to look for two mugs.
“I guess,” said her mother, folding one of her napkins into a tiny square. “But your father is always telling us he loves us.” She flicked the square across the table like it was a paper football. “My father was never very good with words.”
Nellie waited for the day when her grandmother wouldn’t know her name. It came in mid-May, when the peonies were speckling the border of the driveway pink and the neighbors were playing daily games of wiffle ball. “Excuse me?” her grandmother had called from her bedroom when Nellie walked past her open door. “Yes, you dear—do you know if this place has any iced tea?”
That night Nellie couldn’t sleep and knocked softly on her mother’s door before she opened it. Her father was out of town on business, and her mother looked small in the bed alone. “Do you mind?” Nellie asked from the doorframe.
Her mother didn’t try to hide the surprise on her face. “Of course not.”
Nellie climbed into the bed and pulled the blankets tightly over her shoulders, facing away from her mother. She could hear both of them breathing.
“I’m right here,” her mother said, touching her back.
Nellie turned over to look at her. “I know,” she said. She fell asleep with her head on her mother’s chest, listening to the constant thump of her heartbeat.
When June arrived her grandmother was somewhere else.
She spent her days in bed watching the television Nellie’s father had moved from the living room to her bedroom floor. She watched game shows, and knew the answers. She didn’t know the day or the current president, but she knew the Scottish word for lake, the address of the prime minister of England, the 1939 Best Picture winner.
Most of the time she was on honeymoon in Turkey. Nellie drove to a Turkish bakery an hour away to find the bergamot jam her grandmother demanded. When she brought her grandmother a plate of toast smeared with the orange jam her grandmother blinked twice, as though she didn’t trust her eyes.
“What’s this?” she asked, holding the toast so close to her face that the jam got on her nose.
“The jam you wanted,” Nellie told her.
“I had this with my husband yesterday,” her grandmother said.
“Really?” Nellie sat on the edge of the bed, careful to avoid her grandmother’s thin legs and feet.
“We never order the same thing, but everyone loves this stuff.” Her grandmother took a large bite and Nellie leaned forward, holding a paper napkin under her chin to catch the crumbs. “Do you have anyone special in your life, dear?”
Nellie laughed. “Not in the way you mean.”
“That’s a shame,” she said between bites of toast. “You wouldn’t believe how much other people teach you about yourself.”
Nellie nodded. “I can imagine.”
That night Nellie took the perfume from the drawer in her nightstand and rubbed a drop into her wrist. She held it up to her nose and tried to remember how her mix of skin and scent was different from her grandmother’s. When she fell asleep she dreamed a bergamot tree was growing in her grandfather’s garden, growing evil eyes like apples. She tried to pick one, but it was just out of reach.
Alina Grabowski grew up on the south shore of Massachusetts. She is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she has received the Phi Kappa Sigma prize for best undergraduate writing. Her story “Scorcher” appeared in Cleaver Issue No. 5.
I was born in a small town sixty miles northwest of Philadelphia, called Reading. It was an industrial city on the Schuylkill River, full of brown-brick factories and heavy gambling with lots of strip joints. It usually appeared dark with silvery smoke in the air.
Fine art and culture were not nearly as popular there as building automobiles, shooting squirrels, and drinking Old Reading Beer. However, the town was surrounded by mountains and farmlands, and this landscape was filled with cornfields, milk cows, and small herds of sheep. It all appeared to me much lighter and more colorful.
Twenty years later the town’s industry stopped, and my personal gaze turned to the river, which had sustained generations of factory workers, in the hope of illustrating their livelihoods.
My mother, Marcia Sarna, went to school in Philadelphia and went on to become an illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar until the end of WWII. My early exposure to art and design was in the home, and also inside the studio of my mother’s sculptor friend. Here we spent time rubbing 100-year-old gravestones with charcoal. This was my first experience with the creative process. As a four-and-a-half-year-old, I was taken by my father on an airplane to his job in New York City. After turning green and throwing up, I was in awe of being above the land—looking down on Berks County, Manayunk, Newark, and eventually the Statue of Liberty. At six I experienced New York City at ground level; everything I saw there remains with me to this day.
My working process involves the quality of airspace and how it can be translated into paint. While drawing the elements from above, I am aware of how we lose eye-level perspective and normal angles. These losses force me to explore space, scale, and time. In moving away from the aerial sense of perspective, but remaining above the view, I watch the air as it is contained within its predefined spatial parameters. When I am moving fast, as on a moving train, the elements seem to have a sense of urgency, a desire to catch up, within the vast stillness of the airspace.
The Inside Rex series of rock and tree debris is inspired by a random and scattered landscape along Rex Avenue, near my neighborhood in Philadelphia. In this sense, I come to terms with my environment to create a space organized by light and a surface marked by the rhythm of moving air.
Mimi Oritsky is an abstract landscape painter residing in Philadelphia, Pa. She entered the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts) in 1968, and transferred to the Maryland Institute, College of Art in 1973 where she earned her BFA degree. In 1976 she entered the Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania, earning her MFA in Painting and Printmaking. Oritsky has travelled the world and has shown extensively in museums and galleries in the United States. Her current work can be viewed at the A.I.R. and the Amos Eno Galleries in Brooklyn, New York, as well as the Chestnut Hill Gallery in Philadelphia.
My father and I sit on the steps of the house, the house I grew up in, watching snow fall and melt. A scrim of ice laces the yard with white ribbons. The street throws back diamonds under the lamp posts. I’m cold and my father loans me his sweater, the sleeves too long, the chest too wide. I can smell the acrid reek of his cigarettes on the weave. “You’ve lost weight,” he says. His voice is a beacon. I feel young again, lost in the fear that my father is leaving me, that he might not return. He stares down at his feet. He closes his eyes. His mouth is a thin line in his face. What is he not telling me?
This is love, I guess. The fear that there is more to words than what is said. I sit in the winter night and wonder about my father’s motives. He lights a cigarette and his hands tremble. “I don’t say it enough,” he says. I know now what he’s getting at. His silence breeds knowledge. It drives me to seek out that knowledge on my own. My mother brings coffee and we sit together. Lights in the house burn yellow through the windows. Cars run their lights over the pale walls. The night grows old and I wander up to bed. I’m only here for a few days, a short visit, but it’s enough. The words will overtake the silence and the silence will end in a rain of sound.
William L. Alton was born November 5, 1969 and started writing in the 80s while incarcerated in a psychiatric prison. Since then his work has appeared in Main Channel Voices, World Audience and Breadcrumb Scabs, among others. In 2010, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has published one book, Heroes of Silence. He earned both his BA and MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. You can find him at williamlalton.com.
“These tattoos provide a very positive tool in the treatment of cancer. During treatment they are necessary so the radiation therapist can precisely pinpoint the area needing treatment. After treatment they provide a history of the patient’s treatment areas to future healthcare providers.”
–John T. Gwozdz, M.D.
“The body never lies.”
–Martha Graham, American dancer and choreographer
For most of my life, I have tended to go along without giving my body much conscious thought beyond the necessities of nourishment, excretion, and libido. It’s really only when something is wrong—head congestion, leg cramp, shortness of breath due to the occasional panic attack—that I really think of my body. Even then, it’s usually to think of it as something separate from me, something impeding my efforts to focus on what I want or need to be focused on.
As I enter middle age, though, I find that I’ve been thinking about my body more frequently. I never used to have allergies, for example, but now take Claritin at least once a day in the spring. Riding a bicycle—which was, for the longest time, my preferred method of transportation—now results in more fatigue than it used to. Not too very long ago, while lying on the couch with my head in my wife’s lap while watching a movie, I suffered a back spasm that caused me to bolt upright and cross my arms in front of myself. She grabbed for the phone, thinking I was having a heart attack.
So I’ve been considering my body, and spending more time looking at it in the mornings, before getting into the shower. I used to avoid doing this—as a young man, it was bad for my self-image to acknowledge the lack of muscle tone and—at various times—either scrawniness or beer-bloated heaviness of my upper body. But if I must be an old man—and apparently, that’s my fate—I feel obligated to look at myself and honestly deal with what I see.
As a nonfiction writer I’m most struck by the way my body can be read as a narrative of illness and injury. My oldest markings appear on the right-hand side of my body, and tell the story of foolish accidents from childhood. In my right hip there is a small grayish-blue dot that used to be bigger, but hasn’t quite faded away. This is graphite from the tip of a pencil, jammed into my side while I was shooting a free-throw during a school ground basketball game. I had forgotten that the pencil was in my pocket, and when I fell forward after putting all of my strength into the shot, the pencil jabbed its way through the fabric of the shorts I was wearing and into my side. The injury must have been pretty severe—I remember going to the family doctor over it, but not the emergency room. The memory has faded as surely as the wound has healed, but there’s still that tiny dot.
There’s also the hypertrophic scar just below my right elbow, from the time I took the steepest hill in our neighborhood on my ten-speed, only to discover that the brakes didn’t work quite as well as I needed them to in order to attempt such a feat. I went careening, ass over handlebars, into my neighbors’ mailbox, knocking it down and messing up my bike’s chain in the process. Luckily, the neighbors were on vacation. To this day, I doubt they know why their mailbox mysteriously “fell down.” Though I suspected that I needed stitches for the deep cut in my arm, I just went home and put a big Band-Aid on it. I didn’t want to get into trouble for taking out the neighbor’s mailbox, after all.
The stories told by these scars seem kind of quaint, maybe even silly, in hindsight. At the time, I’m sure I thought I had experienced great pain, but that was nothing compared to the tales the scars on my left could tell you.
The first and most obvious scar would be the one on my neck, which is actually three different scars from three different lymph node biopsies. I was diagnosed with cancer—Hodgkin’s Disease—three times between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-four. These indentations that line my neck tell at least part of the story of those early adulthood years—hours spent kneeling in front of the toilet; the baseball hat that filled with my own shed hair in one afternoon; the lonely, terror-filled nights that eventually turned into exhausted mornings.
I have a smaller biopsy scar inside my right thigh, near my groin. This biopsy was done several years later, after a routine scan suggested I had a mass growing there. It turned out to be a mistake, but I have this small line there to remind me of the time that we thought my cancer had not only come back, but had moved south.
I don’t tend to notice these markings very often—they’re simply a part of that body that, as I mentioned before, I tend not to think about. I’m not sure that most people who see them even notice them—nobody has ever asked. But people do tend to ask about the dots on my chest, splitting me right down the middle, when they see me without a shirt on. This doesn’t happen too often as I get older and spend less time at swimming pools or water parks, but every girlfriend I’ve had since 2000 has, at some point, rested her head against my bare shoulder and pointed to one, asking, “What are these?” They look like freckles, only blue.
I’d always wanted a tattoo, but I’ve never been able to come up with a design that really expresses something important to me. I know that some people memorialize dead loved ones by inscribing their names on their skin. but I don’t really have a dead loved one who I can honestly say meant so much to me that it would justify such a permanent reminder. An ex-girlfriend has the name of her two kids on her leg. That seems cool, but I don’t have kids, I have cats. Getting a cat’s name tattooed on one’s body just seems ridiculous. One friend of mine—a professor of religion and very devout Christian—has the Greek words for “sin” and “grace” tattooed on his upper arm. That’s a cool tattoo—personally important, but also rather scholarly. I’d like a tattoo like that, but all that comes to mind for me and my life are quotes by essayists. “Que sais-je?” “A writer is always selling somebody out.” “As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly and unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.” But these feel more pretentious than genuinely expressive of my own personality or interests—although I must admit that the last one, written by E.B. White in “The Ring of Time,” is sort of tempting. I have a feeling it would be a good conversation starter if I could unbutton my shirt at the hotel bar at the next academic conference to display that emblazoned across my chest.
So, no artistic, intellectual, or spiritual tattoo for me. But there are the blue dots. These were administered by a medical technician with a needle in February of 2000, when I was diagnosed with cancer for the third and—so far, at least—final time. Chemotherapy—both conventional and more aggressive—had failed to destroy my malignancy, so the decision was made that I should be treated with radiation. As we all know, radiation can be very effective at curing cancers, but also effective at causing cancers as well. For this reason, doctors are careful about pointing the radiation beam directly and specifically at the malignant mass. To help calibrate their radiation machine, they draw targets on the patient’s body—for me, those targets were tiny blue dots that go down my chest. My tattoos.
These little dots are not quite as explicitly spiritual as the religion professor’s markings or as emotionally resonant as my ex-girlfriend’s kids’ names, but I have to say, they matter to me. When I do happen to notice them, or when I do have to explain them, they call to mind all sorts of important things. They remind me of my mortality, which can be depressing but also inspiring—the knowledge that we don’t have much time is an admonishment not to waste any.
More than that, though, they remind me of the absolute worst months of my life. I spent eight weeks getting treatments that caused me to vomit and the skin on my chest and back to burn and crack, seeping blood and pus. I had no family nearby at that point, and though I had many good friends who tried to help me, they were also living their lives while I—for the only time in my life—was thinking seriously about ending mine. I spent my days eating Wheat Thins and drinking Hawaiian Punch—nothing else appealed to my tumultuous stomach or inflamed throat. I sat around listening to Warren Zevon’s version of Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life Again,” which was the saddest song I knew.
Why on earth, you might ask, would I want to be reminded of such a time? Perhaps for the same reason that my friend the Christian displays his faith on his skin or my ex-girlfriend the single mom has her kids on hers: Gratitude. Appreciation. It’s been twelve years since I finished these treatments. As my health returned, I vowed to never forget, to try to be a better person. But in the decade-plus that’s transpired since then, I have largely failed in those endeavors. I still lose my temper in traffic. I still forget to clean the cat’s litter box despite promising my wife I will do it. I still have inconsiderate or selfish moments that disappoint, frustrate, and anger others. I’m not a monster, and I never was. But I can do better.
My tattoos—these blue dots down my chest that mark me as someone who has suffered, held onto his life, and promised himself that he would make that life count for something—remind me to do just that: better. Better than the self-centered person I know I can be. Better than the lazy guy who shuts his office door and screws around on Facebook when he is supposed to be writing. Better than the short-tempered professor who sometimes feels personally insulted when his students fail an assignment. Better than the husband who unintentionally breaks his promises. Better than I am. The blue dots—like the other markings on my body—ultimately remind me of my own frailty, and the need to live a life that I won’t regret, once it’s over. These markings tell the story of my life. What’s more, they remind me of the story’s moral.
William Bradley’s work appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including The Missouri Review, Brevity, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, and The Utne Reader. He was a professor at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio and the author of Fractals, a collection of essays, in which this piece appears. He died on August 28, 2017 at the age of 41.
On a narrow street in Berlin, all cobblestones, I remember turning, seeing first, the morning light on the rubble someone had swept against the curb and then, a child alone in a doorway.
“What’s that you have?” our second lieutenant called out.
The child, a little German girl with fine brown hair, looked over and in this sweet, sort of hesitant way waved.
I have a hard time, even now, believing what happened after that. The lieutenant went over to the little girl and grabbed the doll she was holding. “I asked you a question,” he said. Then he threw the doll to me.
I caught it and, without a thought in my head, tossed it like a hot potato to another soldier. It was a baby doll small enough to fit inside a hand grenade. I remember it was dressed in a baptismal gown with a lace hem. I remember its features were painted. I remember its complexion reminded me of white powder, of something solid and not solid.
The other soldier threw it to a friend of ours, who was ahead of us, and, if you can imagine, this tiny porcelain doll moved through the air like a ball, its arms at its side, not flailing at all.
Two soldiers began to pass the doll, short, oblique passes, just between them.
A part of me wanted to go after them, but it felt too late for that—they already seemed so far away—and I was more concerned about the little girl than I was about the doll, so I went over to the girl and what’s so strange, in retrospect, is I wasn’t thinking about any of this. It was just happening. I was just moving. I bent down in front of her so that I was at her level and pointed to the lieutenant and the soldiers with her doll. I told her I was sorry in Russian. I told her she shouldn’t be scared; the war would be over soon, and she would be lucky. She would forget most of it. What she would remember wouldn’t be what happened. It would be something physical, something she had kept, a Russian doll a soldier sent her in the mail, to replace one that had been lost.
Ingrid ClaireWenzler studied Creative Writing as an undergraduate at Connecticut College and is now a graduate teaching assistant and MFA candidate at the University of Arizona. She’s at work on a collection of stories unified by subjects as tenuous and various as failure, regret, nostalgia, and solicitude—what Faulkner might have called “old verities.”
How has it come to this, he would think, watching the images that flickered, MRI-slow, from the screen on his blanket-covered stomach. Regardless of how hard I try, I can’t seem to keep my shit together.
Fundamentally, he knew you couldn’t keep any kind of shit together. Everything was carbon and particles smaller than carbon and those particles were always corroding, breaking, collapsing against each other with the terrible softness of tongues. A rapid, infinite sequence of shifts that didn’t stop and were at once fragile and impenetrably brutal. If he felt a pang of irrational strength, he would try to fight the changes: he would dismantle his power cord, close the screen, his thoughts, his head, and for as long as he could, forget the events, faces, and hips that had come to define his particular disintegration.
He would stay in one place and keep staying still. He would hold his breath and try not to desire it.
Simply absorb fluids.
Keep your shit together.
He could still feel the dense and desperate oscillations, though muffled, continuing unabated, buzzing in directions he wasn’t even aware of, reminders of his task’s impossibility.
He would open his laptop and jerk off and sometimes sleep soundly.
One night during a routine meandering he watched a clip on the YouTube channel of a husband/wife team of amateur bow-hunting enthusiasts with a moderately large subscriber base. He knew the video was recent because of the date it was posted and because the foliage in the background was as barren as the few trees in his neighborhood of an almost equivalent latitude.
He assumed from the comments section that the wife had shot the large antlered mammal the pair was crouching over, then groping—“NICE buck hunnie!!! love that you guys got the whole family in on that its amazing! cant wait to get some meat in the fridge :)” The remains of a pink-shafted arrow protruded from the base of the animal’s neck. Its hide was covered in mud and fallen leaves from the ground where it had whined and twisted.
Where once it had eaten and fucked and shat and now died.
The video ended and he placed his laptop on the floor next to his bed.
He didn’t think about how the husband and wife had concluded by taking a selfie and making out while straddling the carcass. How Dana, if she hadn’t moved out last week, would probably have cried and wanted to hold the animal in her too-brittle arms. How the animal hadn’t done anything that animals shouldn’t do.
Instead, he fixated on the decaying plant matter licking the animal and the ground, an oblivious salve returning everything around it to a place beyond change.
Now that the leaves are almost gone, he thought, maybe I’ll be able to keep my shit together. One day soon, when all the leaves are gone.
Chris Vola’s recent fiction appears in Literary Orphans, Drunk Monkeys, WhiskeyPaper, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. He is the author of Monkeytown (2012), a novel, and E is for Ether, a book of poems, forthcoming later this year. He splits his summers between Manhattan and Old Saybrook, Connecticut and hibernates in the winter.
As you remember, we were taught
how to skin the flesh from an ear
so to show that all things at some point
forget human form. The details hatch from your tongue
to mine like flies; there was a basilica of mangroves,
a green hue to the sun, the odor of burnt okra. There was
the man and woman floating beyond in the water, too many
wet stones shoved into their throats. There were vines
you swore formed a cross, while others
an iron lung. But is this enough? What about
the way in which the tissue danced, the way it lurched
onto the mossy carpet as if memorizing some foreign waltz?
Have you once thought back to the moment when, by ritual
or otherwise, my scalpel kissed the wrong membrane,
gave heed to the facility of a mortal hand
to make silence? I know what I remember –
there was very little in your eyes. Perhaps this
is why they closed when the lesson
was halted, when finally, the blood we spilt
responded to god before giving itself to gravity.
John Goodhue is a graduate of Western Washington University. His poetry has been published in Spoon River Poetry Review, Knockout Magazine, Extract(s), and burntdistrict, among others. He currently resides in Seattle.
A spoon in a cup of tea.
The letters in yellow envelopes,
the way a hand pushed lines
into the soft paper.
A white shirt draped
over the chair.
An open window. The air.
The call of one blackbird.
The silence of the other.
The sounds of the piano notes
as they rest in the treetops.
The road from here to there.
Grief, that floating, lost swan.
Paige Riehl is the author of Blood Ties, a poetry chapbook published by Finishing Line Press, fall 2014. Her poetry has appeared in Meridian, South Dakota Review, Nimrod International Journal, and more. She won the 2012-2013 Loft Mentor Series in Poetry and the 2011 Literal Latte Prize for Poetry. She is the assistant poetry editor for Midway Journal. Read more at paigeriehl.com.
I was on top of a mountain, a small mountain in the Lake District, and my grandmother was alone at the inn. I was lost in fog. I was lost in the swirling fog and my grandmother was alone at the inn. She wasn’t as old as my mother is now. She used to call me Cherie. We were traveling together to all the famous places in the British Isles. I wanted to go to Scotland and the Lake District and Oxford. When we got to Oxford we had sherry in an American’s flat, a woman who knew lots of diplomats. I thought I was heartbroken. My mother sent a suitcase of clothes, flowered silk dresses and shiny shoes with high heels. I loved a man in Norway who smelled like fish and milk. I was drugged on Valium and had a hard time driving the shift car. Little did I know a boy from Germany had sent me a bottle of sweet wine and it was sitting, would sit, in Norway at my lover’s house for thirteen years. When we opened the cold bottle, it was sour. I’d never had a lover—was that what started the panic attacks—sex—?
.My grandmother was French Canadian. I used to go with her to a town in Massachusetts where she grew up. There were little wooden houses with white fences. She was the valedictorian of her eighth-grade-class. In her wedding picture she’s standing on the steps of the same inn where my mother had her wedding reception. My grandmother is wearing a large silk hat tipped over her eyes. She has narrow ankles. She looks like she knows she’s married a catch.
.The first one was, I think, in the airport in London. I was waiting for my grandmother to arrive. My parents had ordered me to leave Norway and travel to England to drive Nonnie around the countryside. I used to have a tiny notebook she kept about the trip. I think it was terrifying for her. She was almost eighty and had never done anything like this except with my grandfather. It was a great leap for her to meet me there. But I of course didn’t see it that way then. I was twenty-two and in love for the first time with a man who lived almost as far north as possible in a place called Finnmark. It was like a fairy tale for me—No, not really—it wasn’t actually like that, but flashes were. We slept on reindeer skins in huts on the high vidda where the reindeer herders followed their tiny reindeer bent with their large horns.
As I waited, I became more and more agitated. I paced back and forth near the baggage claim. I had a backpack and a climbing helmet. I wore a thin cotton dress. My heart was beating erratically and I felt my body turning to stone. I couldn’t breathe. My hands tingled. I was sure I’d caught some strange disease eating reindeer meat. I dropped on the long blue bench and pulled my legs up. My grandmother would never find me, spread out and paralyzed on the airport bench. I asked a woman near me if she could look for Nonnie and tell her I was here.
Soon Nonnie arrived and then the ambulance. And, after, we were on our way. I drove us as fast as I could toward Scotland.
Or maybe it wasn’t the first. There was that strange problem at Oxford. I moved from a flat near a park into the college for my spring term. Every time I tried to raise my arm to drink, my hand shook. I started holding my wrist with my other hand so I could get the heavy glass to my lips. I was in the dining hall, we were eating cauliflower cheese. Somewhere near me was Andy, a boy I thought I loved. Sometimes we kissed, sprawled on a dock on the edge of the Isis. There were iris thick and furled, cows in the meadow. There was my father sitting across from me in the pub. Peacocks in the trees and little birds hidden in the parks. Later, when I came home, I couldn’t speak. I went to the ocean and sat on the cold sand in the very early morning and watched the sun rise. The sand was gritty and wet. I wasn’t sure what had happened to me.
Do the tilting streets count? The smell of balled-up greasy paper. My hand on his back touching the pits in his skin. I don’t think so—it wasn’t truly a panic attack. Can’t think, though, when the next one happened. There were no more in England or Scotland. I was being brave and Nonnie was being sweet. Some days we sipped tea at a tiny table looking out long windows at the mountains. But I was a little nuts and she would die soon—wouldn’t she? A day or so after she lined her kitchen with all the shoes she couldn’t wear anymore. I loved the long roads that went along stone walls in Scotland and the sips of sherry at noon.
So when did the next one arrive? It must have been on my way to Brookfield in the car, up the curving stretch of highway on the border of Vermont. Unannounced and scary. I had lots of Pepsi at a basketball game. I was sure I couldn’t move. I was driving with Kenny.
And it happened again and again—the driving the tremble the gasping for breath and then pulling off the road. Sometimes when I looked in the mirror I thought my face had come undone—half screwed up. I thought I’d had a stroke. My body thrumming like a harp.
I had given up on Harald—I never went back to Finnmark—I started again as a waitress in a pub. I fell in love with the bartender. A large man with a red beard. Years later my son met him in a vegetable stand.
“It looked like he had stuff in his beard,” my son said.
I was just glad to get out of there before my husband saw him. We were all too close to each other, standing talking near the tomatoes. Kenny’s mother in a dark blue dress with white dots. I remember her just after her daughter died, standing in her lush gardens behind her little white house. I could smell the thick, sweet-sour smell of tomato plants in late August.
Spring that year was all flowers—the apples and pear blossoms on the hill—the delicate, pink striped spring beauties in the woods. By summer I was swimming naked in the brook, green light from the leaves reflecting on stone cliffs. I was swimming with a man my parents thought was bad news. And he did come home drunk. I locked him out on the deck and he slept in his poncho, pulled over his head like a wing. A year or so later it was all over. Just after Thanksgiving when he plucked a wild turkey clean and there was a bucket of blood and her beautiful feathers tipped in gold.
He tried to give me strawberries but it didn’t work. He had already slept with another woman.
“I do all sorts of odd jobs,” he told me when I met him at the vegetable stand.
I used to love to watch him garden, pulling the weeds with his large, wide hands.
It’s strange, isn’t it, that when Steve was sick there was no panic. Just the cold logic of each day, each day suspended on the next like a chunky necklace. He was there and then not there. A suspension of belief. I married a man I loved in early fall and he died barely a year later in spring. We sat at the table in Basalt. We ate cereal. The bowls were flowered. I walked out one night into a brittle sky blazing with stars. We were nailing a box as big as a coffin shut. I didn’t know what was wrong, all those bright cold stars in the bright cold sky. I had a drawer full of pages of words about far off places. A friend came to dinner and stayed, and there was a sink full of dishes. A meal of pesto on thin spaghetti. I climbed a mountain or didn’t. Soon, we loaded the car and an extra van and set off for the East. We were backtracking or I was backtracking. I was so cold. I had sold all my chairs, all my coats to a second hand store. I could smell winter, but we left before the snow. One day we were lost in the hills and had to turn back. We were lost in the hills one day. What does it take to erase panic—the shivers and thumping heart?
Driving. It’s interesting, it was often driving. When I moved to Philadelphia and I wasn’t driving there were other places. Classrooms, libraries, on the street. And the panic took other forms—not being able to swallow, my head exploding, difficulty riding the bus. What was that all about? After Steve’s death I drove through panic almost every morning. I drove down the highway to Springfield, past wicked hawks with their sharp beaks and slick wings, past smokestacks and fir trees and the empty ski areas, past where I was a little girl at the ski jump and a big girl at the Hartford Club. The glinting cars, the swerving highway all leading in some way to Waterbury where the hospital was, and we would sit on Steve’s bed and play Scrabble with made up words. He couldn’t spell the real ones.
I’m sitting on the wooden bench in the swamp. My child, barely five, runs behind the fence on the slope above me. All around vines drop their purple fruit, ripe, rank. Beyond me at the farm are sheep and a farmer in rubber boots walking past piles of hay and manure. I can see fences and solitary trees. I’m trying to relax in the hot October sun, and later I’ll take a short walk in the woods where sometimes I see berries and hawks and asters. I’ve driven myself here and then all I have to do is drive home over the rolling hills of pavement to the house where we live. I’ll meet my son on the other side of the fence, strap him into his car seat and drive the ten miles home. Past barns and houses, little boys on bikes and women walking briskly, pausing to stop at the crosswalks.
In the cabin. In the woods, on the edge of a field. Airplanes flying overhead. I imagine them falling out of the sky. I’m writing poems about pottery and apples. The tall firs are standing bristly and cold, the drops of rain tingling on the tips of their branches. Who’s this girl crouching in the house? Why is she so afraid? Sometimes she goes out to the frozen pond and touches the slippery banks where otters play. This is paradise but she’s frozen inside her skull. There must be something that manufactures all this. Planes just don’t fall out of the sky. Years later they do, but I don’t know that—in fact, the world is not as old as it seems to me now when my son is inching toward the age I was then. Living in a house where flies hatched one early spring against the windows. I scooped up hundreds with shiny eyes and tossed them into the cold air.
Sharon White’s book, Vanished Gardens: Finding Nature in Philadelphia, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Eve & Her Apple and Bone House. Her memoir, Field Notes, A Geography of Mourning, received the Julia Ward Howe Prize, Honorable Mention, from the Boston Authors Club. Some of her other awards include a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction, the Leeway Foundation Award for Achievement, a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship, the Calvino Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Boiling Lake, a collection of short fiction, is forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press.
DR. ZAUZE’S XYLOPHONE A Visual Narrative by Heinz Insu Fenkl
“Dr. Zauze’s Xylophone” began as a postmodern prose piece in one of the many notebooks I kept while I was doing my master’s work at the University of California, Davis, back in the early 1980s. I was inspired by Sasha Sokolov’s A School for Fools, which I had read in Professor Daniel Rancour-Laferriere’s Soviet Literature course. Sokolov’s novella is told in the enjambed voice of a narrator who might have formerly believed he was more than one person—the entire narrative is characterized by multiple layers of reality and the malleability of time and identity. It had a profound impact on me as a writer, and so it was no surprise that “Dr. Zauze,” a name that comes up in Sokolov’s story, made it into my dream world nearly a decade later.
The comic book version of “Dr. Zauze” was inspired by my study of Chester Brown’s production method on his Yummy Fur comics. While I lived in Rochester in the early 1990s, I was working with James O’Barr and John Bergin, both very talented artists with remarkable and distinct styles. I was especially struck by their collaborative thumbnail sketches, and I decided to try my own hand at drawing a short comic book story for a journal called Brain Dead, which Bergin was editing at the time. I wasn’t very proficient as an artist, so I would spend weekend mornings practicing my drawing at the glass table in the huge dining room of the Victorian my wife and I had rented on Church Street.
I used a rubber-tipped brush pen, from which I could get incredible line variation, and I began to draw with the brush tip without doing any initial pencils underneath.
When I was drawing from photos, I could do a decent job, but I found myself to be a pretty dismal failure at doing anything resembling mainstream comic book art. That’s why Chester Brown’s idiosyncratic indie style appealed to me, especially when I learned that he would work on one panel at a time and then paste the panels on larger sheets of paper to lay out his pages.
I finished around nine pages of the story, but then I got some paying freelance work adapting a movie into a comic book, and then I had no time to get back to it. “Dr. Zauze” was going to be the opening of a graphic novel about a character who lapses into a dream coma and has to make his way through a bleak dreamscape America to find his sleeping body and wake it up. I think I was going to call it Dreaming America, but those initial nine pages sat in my old portfolio until two years ago, when I used them as examples of Chester Brown’s production method for the comics course I teach at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Most of the scripting was gone—only a few word balloons had text in them, and I had largely forgotten what the fictional dialogue was supposed to be.
This fall I finally had the impetus to revisit the pages and resurrect them in their original form, not as fiction, but as a recollection of one of the many strange dreams I had had during the year I spent researching for Professor Aram Yengoyan. The Dreaming is very difficult to talk about, and I think the “Dr. Zauze” you read here will probably be the beginning of a book-length memoir about my experiences of researching dreams and practicing lucid dreaming.
Eventually, I would discover that lucid dreaming, the technology of remote viewing, and the phenomena of astral projection and near-death experience all converged in the same “place.” That would take me to a more sustained engagement with meditation practice and qigong, which I continue today. But in the meantime, I have this preliminary relic, a sort of souvenir of more naive times in the past filtered through my more current (and, I hope, more thoughtful) self.
And the xylophone? In the dreamscape, it was the distinct sound that would indicate the presence of the “Dr. Zauze” figure. Sometimes he behaved like the one in this story. Sometimes he was an archangel who threw me out of the world, and sometimes he was an old Taoist sage. The periodic refrain in my pomo novel would have been “The mellifluous madness of Doctor Zauze’s xylophone.”
Heinz Insu Fenkl is a writer, editor, translator, and folklorist. His first novel, Memories of My Ghost Brother, was a Barnes & Noble “Great New Writer” selection and a PEN/Hemingway finalist. He serves on the editorial board of AZALEA: the Journal of Korean Literature & Culture, published by Harvard’s Korea Institute, and as a consulting editor to the internet translation journal, Words Without Borders. He is best known for his deconstruction of the Starbucks logo and his translations of North Korean comics. He teaches creative writing, comics, and Asian studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
Constancy is the dust bath of the wing
is the floating current is the hidden compass
and constancy is the blood drawn
for the starving beak. Can I ask you
says constancy and replies the triplet
slept no different from you or me. Or
I found constancy in a red automobile
but constancy couldn’t get through on the line
I drove constancy right onto the sand
past the gated dunes and look constancy
hasn’t mended a fence yet. Did you know
constancy in her childhood butter wouldn’t melt
constancy carried a duckling on her shoulder.
If I asked constancy remembers the smallest door
attracts the hungriest of kin to the yard
to terrorize each wing. I haven’t made my choice
constancy could help me here to build a roost
could know someone who could help
out with this group of fowl. Constancy lies
by the barn in this heat and knows a meal
is coming knows an instinct greater than the map
knows a good deal when she sees it
constancy comes right over. If I see her
one more time like this I’ll cut wood
to fit. Give me all she has and it speaks
coldly knowing too well what you need to say
constancy knits up her doings and sits
patient for you. Says yes to the migration
knows enough to pay it out in seed money
carries you as far as you need grateful
isn’t constancy all you need.
Jesse Castaldi Keen is a writer who recently moved to rural West Texas with her husband and two young daughters. She has worked in higher education in Texas, Oregon, and Massachusetts, most recently as a career counselor and grant writer. She has published several zines and small chapbooks under a personal imprint, Persnicket Press (on hiatus) and has a prose chapbook about natural and personal histories of the Texas desert prairie forthcoming from MIEL.
Every week for the past five years, Jake has approached the front door after a slow walk from the bus stop. He gets off several stops away purposefully. The long walk to her house gives him time to decompress after a long day at work and ward off the resentment of duty that brings him here to her front door in the first place. The weekly visit, after his father died, to his aged and disabled mother, has begun to wear him down and now he shows up at her door as if in front of a trap he consciously, and dutifully steps into. He stays overnight, too, only to spare himself the exhaustion of a late night trip on the bus and then the subway and then another bus home.
Standing at the door, his eyes move to the green recycling bin and the blue garbage bin both placed directly in front of the driveway’s locked iron gate. The bins were left there by the next door neighbour, who out of kindness takes them to the curb every week and then leaves them by the gate for Jake to put them away. He rings the doorbell and while he waits for her to open the door, he peaks inside the black metal mail box and finds it empty. The door opens to reveal his mother: short and overweight from too many sweets and cakes, she is dressed in black from head to toe as she will always be dressed until the day she dies, a symbol of mourning for her dead husband. Her hair has grown too long below the shoulder, the curl from the last perm of eight months ago in need of the hairdresser’s touch. She looks haggard, worn out, and old as she gazes at her son. She saves her smile until she can figure out if he’s come in a good mood or a bad one.
As chaves! are the first words of greeting that come out of him, the keys! He waits outside the door until she turns around and gets the keys and brings them to him. He opens the locked gate and moves the bins to the inside part of the driveway and locks the gate again. Only then does he go inside the house. Before he even takes off his coat, he pours all his energy into doing any remaining chores, mumbling to himself when she hands him a dead pot of poinsettias, left over from Christmas. She lets out a small cry as he walks out to the back of the garden where he throws the old pot to decompose after the frozen winter months turn to spring. Back inside the house, he locks the screen door then locks the three locks on the inside door. He doesn’t understand why she needs to have so many locks on the doors; what if one day there’s an emergency and someone needs to break into the house to save her—if she’s fallen down and can’t get up again.
With the house locked up for the night, she sets the house alarm and he is her prisoner until she disarms it in the morning. He’s been there for a good ten minutes already and the visit hasn’t gone well. He knows this as he closes the door to the bedroom where he stays overnight.
He changes from his work clothes and puts on the pair of pants and shirt that is always there for him, along with the clean underwear for the next day. When he reappears in the corridor it’s only to see his mother waiting for him, still standing there and, as he walks close to her, she throws her arms around him, releases her pitiful cries and tears of complaint.
“What have I done,” she says, “You’ve changed, you don’t like me anymore. You don’t even greet me with a smile. All you give me now is desprezo, neglect.” She says it all in Portuguese and her son hates to have to defend himself in Portuguese. He doesn’t relate to the language of his childhood. It makes it more difficult to argue with her or to explain what he’s all about. The language stifles his ability to express himself to her. He hasn’t told her yet that he plans to stop the weekly visits. She won’t understand why he is no longer able to devote so much time to her—the shopping and the errands and the cleaning and the banking and the doctors’ appointments, all the things that his father would have done for her. But he is not his father nor does he want to be his father’s substitute.
And there she is, standing in her dark corridor, clinging to her son who doesn’t want to be
there anymore. She holds on to him, afraid of him slipping away from her. “I’ll leave right
now,” he warns her. “So, go!” she yells back but doesn’t really mean it nor does she expect him
to be good to his threat. He disentangles himself from her desperate embrace, feeling no softness or warmth toward the woman who is his mother. His heart is rigidly cold against her and he himself does not really understand how it got to be this way. He did love her before and maybe he still does but he’s so tired that he no longer feels it.
She moves into the living room where she spends all her days and evenings. The room feels like some old fashioned funeral parlor with heavy furniture where frames of photographs of his father are placed on top of every available surface. An array of santinhos has fallen out of her prayer book, fanned out on the floor in front of the sofa where she sits all day. Jake bends over to pick up the holy cards but she tells him to stop.
“You don’t know the order they’re supposed to be in. I was in such a rush to get to the door that I let them drop when I got up from the sofa. I never know if you are going to be in a good or bad mood. Eu não tenho sorte.” She says her favorite expression regarding everything that happens to her. I have no luck, is what she means. It’s a mantra that covers all the unhappiness and disappointments of her life. He ignores her command and takes his time picking up the holy cards, slow and deliberate, trying to re-establish some order out of the emotional chaos he has felt since his arrival.
She has spent the entire day cooking his meal. Lately, this has become hard for her. She can’t stand for very long and her legs are in constant discomfort and pain. But she has been doing this weekly ritual for five years now; he has been coming to see her every Tuesday night. The weekly visit has become a regular part of her routine and for him to get out of coming on any given Tuesday requires much explanation and a weighing of the validity for missing it.
She always makes elaborate home cooked meals for him: Portuguese recipes for soups like caldo verde and vegetable soups with feijão and repolho; codfish dishes like bacalhau à Gomes de Sá and galinha com arroz. She has a very sweet tooth and each meal must include a chocolate pudding or a crème caramel.
Tonight, he’s not in a hurry to eat; he’s lost his appetite. So they both sit on the sofa by the dim lamp light waiting for him to want his dinner. She’s still upset about how he neglected to greet her with a smile or a hug. “I don’t know how I can take so much desprezo,” she complains. Jake panics. No matter how much he does for her, she still feels neglected. “I don’t understand what I’ve done to deserve all this desprezo.” She doesn’t let it go. Jake sits at the other end of the sofa and with every word she utters he wishes that he could find the courage to get up and leave and go home. He can’t hear the same complaints over and over again. I live alone, nobody wants me, the least they can do is call; this has become her recent mantra.
It’s the end of January and the Presépio still needs to be put away. He goes down to the basement and retrieves the box for the crèche figurines. The nativity set was bought decades ago at Simpsons, the price tag of $29.99 still stuck to the bottom of the box. She takes each statue, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the Three Kings of the Orient, the Shepherds and their little sheep, each figure returned to its individual bubble wrap container. Jake takes each statue from her withered thin hand and sorts them into place inside the protective box. They don’t say much while they put the statues away and the lack of words allows for a breathing space between them. Her face starts to look calm. He feels sorry for her just then and he wishes that he had been kind to her when he arrived.
Jake gives in to his hunger. At the kitchen table, she places the plate of chicken with rice in front of him and watches him eat. She never eats with him. Her dinner is always around three o’clock, without exception. He eats quietly while she tells him about who phoned during the day and which doctor’s appointment is coming up, especially the one to determine when she can have her knee replacement surgery. After dinner he gets up to wash the dishes. Normally, she doesn’t let him wash the dishes but tonight she is tired, and so lets him do it. She dries the plates and cutlery sitting down.
Once everything is put away, they move back into the living room and she turns the TV on to her Portuguese shows. He doesn’t mind watching the Brazilian soap operas and the news from Portugal with her. Jake, Joaquim, was nine when the family moved to Canada but he has always remained curious about the culture and the language they left behind, so listening to the anchorman speak the language he cannot speak fluently pleases him.
After a couple of hours of watching TV he gets up from the sofa. “This is it. My brain is closed for the night, boa noite.” He bends down to give her a kiss on the cheek and a hug that she expects from him but which he gives dutifully and not with a joyful heart. He doesn’t understand why he’s changed toward her. It saddens him to feel the way he does but he can’t help it. She pulls him toward her body with a smile and a reconciled heart. “Eu gosto tanto de ti,” she whispers into his ear but hearing her say that she loves him so much only makes him feel guilty and ashamed of his behaviour.
The next morning, he sits for a few minutes in the quiet dark kitchen, the only light coming from above the stove, and has an instant Sanka and toast, which his mother prepared while he showered and shaved. “You have changed,” she says sitting across from him at the small kitchen table. “You are so distant, you don’t like me anymore.” She is brave enough to say it head on. He sips his coffee slowly, not daring to answer her. He chews the dry toast to give him time to get out of answering it. Instead, he just makes up excuses of how busy he is at work, so overworked that he won’t be able to come back next week. He tells her this, anticipating a bad reaction. She looks at him with disappointment all over her face. But she says, “Well, if you can’t, you can’t. I can get used to anything. It’s just another desprezo.” There, she has said it again, another example of abandonment. And he puts the coffee cup down on the table with a bang, pretending afterwards that it slipped from his fingers, so that she doesn’t see his anger. It’s like this with everything. She can manipulate any statement he says, she can twist anything he says so that she comes out being right. If he says that he’s tired, well, she never gets tired and even now at her age. And all the years that she took care of her own bedridden mother without anyone’s help, who will do that for her now? She has no sorte. Her luck ran out when her husband died, leaving her to fend for herself alone in the world with a son who, frankly, is starting to be a disappointment. “Pensa bem no que fazes.” Think carefully about what you are doing, she warns him. “Not to take care of one’s parent is a sin against God.”
It’s only 7:15 am and he’s already exhausted. His ability to shrug off her words is gone and he can’t wait to leave. She hands him a plastic bag full of lunch. He has been telling her to cut down on how much she puts inside the bag but she dismisses his plea. “Nonsense, you need all of this. What you can’t eat today, save for tomorrow.” Realizing that there’s no point in arguing, he takes the bag but it feels like a heavy weight that wears him down.
It’s a dark morning and a snow storm is starting. He gives her a stiff hug goodbye so as not to feel her touch. She always stays by the window to watch him walk down to the bus stop. Normally, he looks back and once the bus arrives, he throws her a kiss or a wave before getting on the bus. But today, the snow is falling fast and by the time he gets to the bus stop visibility is none. Her house up the road is shrouded in clouds of twirling flurries and the window he knows she’s standing behind is nothing but a dark shadow. He doesn’t see her at the window but he knows that she’s there as he mechanically raises his arm to gesture a dutiful goodbye before entering the refuge of the bus that takes him back to his life.
Emanuel Melo was born on the island of São Miguel in the Azores and immigrated to Canada at the age of nine. He lives in Toronto. His articles have appeared in Toronto World Arts Scene, on the Canadian Centre for Azorean Research and Studies website, and in Mundo Açoriano. His story “Avó Lives Alone” was a finalist in the Writers Union of Canada 20th Annual Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers in 2013 and was also published in Memória: An Anthology of Portuguese Canadian Writers in 2013. He is currently working on his first short story collection.
CHRISTMAS LIGHTS IN A TOWN WITH A POPULATION OF 500
by Neil Boyack
In the flat, heavy heat, I was walking home from the Christmas dinner in our small country town with my wife. There was a cool change trying to affect the heatwave that had made everyone sweat and complain for the past week and as a result there were muscles of blustery wind, and random flashes of lightning tailed by crunching thunder; a thunder that really never ended, a continual electric sound like a large concrete ball rolling around on the wooden floor of an old Scout Hall. At times, the elements combined and parted layers of cloud, allowing the moon to spot the ground at certain points. It was past midnight and the roads and tracks of the small country town were empty. People in their homes didn’t see the gum tree branches thrashing at the power lines in the wind. Only my wife and I saw the goats tethered to the lamp-post out front of the old morgue sitting quietly in the dark watching as the wind took their hay bales away straw by straw. They were all waiting for Christmas; waiting for something magical to happen, for some Christmas cheer to occur as if Christmas cheer was a panacea for human hardship, or the key ingredient in therapeutically diverting them from their own personal existential conundrums, the questions their reptilian brains refused to address; resulting in visions that chilled them intermittently, even in their sleep, evidenced through dreams of giving up on life by driving their dream-cars, filled with their families, off cliffs next to dream-roads into a frozen blackness then waking with a start to the blankness of their lives. These people didn’t see the fallen limbs that we dragged from the road to the shoulder. No-one saw my wife and I, arm in arm sipping piss-poor Shiraz from the bottle, a bottle whose cork had disintegrated into the wine over time. We found ourselves continually spitting out cork and wine, whilst walking, and kissing. We had taken the wine with us as a traveller from the Christmas dinner that we had for the most part enjoyed, put on by the local recreation reserve volunteer committee. Cutting through the old racecourse recreational reserve, which saved a good six to seven minutes of walking, there were no animals to be seen anywhere; only the old winning post was visible in the random moon and lightning. The old winning post, now a series of aged concrete blocks and steps with a remnant of corrugated iron roofing, was saddled with a story of a nineteenth century Victorian Governor who had sat in that very spot, and abused the jockeys and horses through being drunk, on one particular occasion. Just beyond the boundaries of the racecourse and lit with an extensive range of Christmas colors, a small group of three houses were bunched together, across the way. From a distance it could have been a mini-carnival, or a group of emergency service vehicles attending a silent Christmas incident. One home in particular had lights all the way along the enormous front wire fence. Flashing three different colors the herd of electronic deer signified the centerepiece of the Christmas display, being beautifully lit, flashing and moving simultaneously as if to eat grass, then, miraculously, raising their heads, as if to detect a predator in the wind, then returning to eating the grass, then raising their heads in a slow, lifelike fashion. The dirt roads we continued to walk intersected dry paddocks, which were a blunt bronze in the random lightning and moonlight, until we met the hill where the darker bushland and Ironbark forest started. Here the wind was pushing the trees over one way then the other, and we could hear nothing but the wind through the trees as we were being showered with debris and leaves and twigs. In flashes of lightning we saw scores of sheep huddled together at the bases of hundred year old trees, frozen with terror driven by their primordial instincts to self-stupefy. We felt small and afraid and held onto one another, and the bottle.
Neil Boyack was born into State Care in 1967, married in Las Vegas in 1997. He has kids, a wife, and lives in Australian wilderness dotted with old gold mines and ghosts. He lives on solar power, and water tanks. He loves reading, writing, and cutting wood. He is the director and founder of Newstead Short Story Tattoo and has had stories and poems published worldwide. Check his website for all available work: www.neilboyack.com.
(Click the graphic below to view the full-size image.)
Jason Newport’s writing has appeared in many fine journals, including Chautauqua, where he is a contributing editor. He is currently revising a novel about Hungarian Roma in the Holocaust and working on a collection of very short stories.
What he heard last night,
while letting out the dog:
A weird whistling sound –
like a hole in the throat of an angel.
And afterward, when all the photo albums
had been searched for evidence of child-size
imposters, refugees from heaven who may have
sought shelter here,
afterward, she thought to remind him:
Did you close the garage? Did you lock the door?
He had not. He rarely did. Anyone who knew anything
knew of better ways to thieve a living than in their kind of carport.
She thought they’d better take a look.
Sure enough, they found it there: the imposter,
lying in a manger,
a mangy doppelganger
for a savior.
The whistling grew louder.
Do you have any duct tape? She asked, growing
more compassionate now that they’d found him, now that he was here
in her garage—divine trespasser.
…..And so she located some swaddling
and wrapped his limbs, his gaping hole,
but when it came time to apply pressure to the wound,
…..There’s a world in there, she said. You can’t suture
the wound of the world.
Nonsense, he said. Give it to me.
So she did –
and didn’t –
but nobody seemed to notice the difference.
Harmony Button is a contributing editor at PaperTape Magazine and the English Department Chair of the Waterford School in Utah. Her work has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and has appeared in journals such as Colorado Review, Chicago Quarterly, Southwestern American Lit, Cobalt, Rock & Sling, Drafthorse, and Ithaca Lit. Find links to other works at harmonybutton.wordpress.com.
My, what a day we’ve had! Nothing like forgetting
whatever it was we had to do and wherever it was
we had to be, achieving perfect discontinuity with
the rest of the universe, a day late and a dollar short—
well, it runs into 5 figures if you listen to the IRS—
I prefer to listen to death metal, which if you crank up
loud enough can make whatever’s going on inside
your head seem mellow and serene in comparison,
and it also seems to facilitate driving real fast
on strange roads in the dark, as a sort of bonus.
And why do unmarked cars follow me everywhere?
At least I can say I’ve got a following, although I wish
they felt the urge to donate all their worldly goods
to the cause. ’Cause even if the IRS were paid off,
we wouldn’t have squat, but hey, who wants to retire?
Not that I’ve got a job to retire from, but I’m thinking
of looking for one any day now. Any day. And then
we could afford to go on vacation, Easter in Cathay,
that kind of thing; ocean views, teeny bikinis, irate deities,
enormous jewels, erupting volcanoes, panicked flight,
missing passports, opium smuggling, throwing ourselves
on the mercy of the court. Ask and it will do you little
or no good. My bad. My not want job anyway. Anomaly.
Anomie. Enemy. See, we can get there from there.
I have a map, dilapidated but still useful, if you catch it
in a good mood. Smearing it with chocolate frosting
would fix that. That fix we’re in, did you forget?
No job yet. Any employers in the room? Oh. Good.
Maybe some of you could help me with interview skills.
Try not to answer personal questions with “Fuck off,
you moron.” Try to feel observed rather than persecuted.
We also serve who only stand and prate.
F.J. Bergmann writes poetry and speculative fiction, often simultaneously, appearing in The 5-2, Black Treacle, Lakeside Circus, On Spec, Right Hand Pointing, and elsewhere. F.J. is the editor of Star*Line, the journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and poetry editor of Mobius: The Journal of Social Change; recent awards include the 2012 Rannu Prize for speculative poetry and the 2013 SFPA Elgin chapbook award.
It’s like this: a few weeks ago, my husband got me one of those step counters and now I’m obsessed. On the night in question, he happened to be out of town. I had yet to reach my 10,000-step goal, so I leashed up my two mutts and told my sixteen-year-old son I’d be back in half an hour. The night was cold. The dogs were excited by the scent of deer scat in the air.
My suburban Maryland neighborhood with its tall, leafy oaks and maples is
not well lit. Not a soul was in sight. Just me doing what I chastise other women for—out exercising in the dark, determined to break a sweat despite the possibility of lurking malfeasors. I had my dogs to protect me. Still, I got that hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling as I passed the funeral parlor at the end of our block and walked to the grounds of a former mental institution.
What was once the posh sanatorium Chestnut Lodge is no more, razed a few years ago. In its place a fancy subdivision has sprung up. I walk its brick-lined paths and lush grounds on an almost daily basis. But that night, it was dark and I was busy watching my dogs on the path in front of me, making sure they didn’t poop on a swanky lawn.
I was also wondering—not for the first time—if the current Chestnut Lodge residents (the housing developers kept the name) ever worried about living a version of the movie Poltergeist (you know, idyllic homes built on top of an old cemetery).
I was thinking about all this, while also speculating about whether my little wrist band had registered over 10,000 steps, when I noticed the “MOO” sign lit up in bright white vanity table-style bulbs. Ironic and kitschy, M-O-O was spelled out on the side of a garage built to look like a red barn next to a brand new six-bedroom home built to look like an old country farmhouse. When I’d started walking around the subdivision, I admit to some eye-rolling (and a little house envy) the first time I saw the sign.
The problem was, this was the second time I’d come upon that sign. Worse, MOO mocked me from the same side of the street. Even a directionally challenged individual such as myself could grasp the meaning: I was going in circles.
I stood in the middle of the sidewalk looking right, left, up at the dark sky, my breath coming out in frosted puffs. With the main road nowhere in view, the ridiculousness of my situation was a foot to the gas pedal of my panic. And all the while, I knew my own house was somewhere nearby, but now my dogs’ leashes seemed the only tether to it.
I imagined the shame of having to call my son to come and find me. Not that he would be surprised. He and his sister grew up with me shhing them and flipping off the radio so I could think. Think about where the f$#%k I am. As they got older, I started hiding my disorientation. Lost again? More proof their father was the better parent.
The better parent like my mother, who can whip out a map in any unfamiliar city and have the natives asking her for directions. I married her navigational equal. On countless roads and highways, I’ve experienced that knee-buckling moment of being sure of where I was one second and having no clue the next. I’d peer through my Jetta’s windshield, cell phone to one ear, trying to make out road signs. Back in the pre-GPS days, my teary calls for directions would be met with, “Okay, tell me where you are?” followed by my barking, “I don’t know! That’s why I’m calling you!” My husband would stay on the line, using a slow internet connection and his best guess at my location to guide me home.
For many years, the hardest part of my “condition” was my sense of aloneness in it even though clearly I’m not alone. Just Google, “Why do I always get lost?” Dozens of links will take you down a rabbit hole as you learn about neurons called grid cells and how to improve your spatial memory by exercising and eating oatmeal (seriously). Sorry gang, I’ve exercised and eaten oatmeal my entire life and I still can’t find my way out of a paper bag.
Standing there in that subdivision, I knew it wasn’t my hippocampus that finally gave me my bearings. It was my father. He’d be the first to tell you he used to be a drunk. A mean one, at that. Which is the reason my mother, my life’s true navigator, carried me far from him after I was born, so that we didn’t meet again until I was seventeen.
It took him most of his life and mine, but several years ago he finally quit drinking. About that time, he came to visit me in this same leafy neighborhood. Both of us brown eyed and strong jawed, athletic in our slim jeans. I’d wanted to show him my daughter’s new school. Walking down one block and then the next, I’d decided to take a shortcut. “Wait,” I said, stopping. I stood on the corner looking one way and the other. When I looked back, I saw my long-lost father, the handsome old cowboy from East Texas, studying me. I braced myself for the stream of f-bombs and head shakes that used to come my way whenever he disapproved of something I’d done. “Huh,” he said, moving his jaw side to side. “You do that, too, Kid?”
“All. The. Time.”
Standing there with my father, I still didn’t know where we were, but I knew then where I’d come from. And that has both haunted me and given me hope ever since.
That night, dogs restless at my feet, I took a deep breath and, like a kid practicing left and right by placing her hand on her heart for the Pledge of Allegiance, I retraced my steps, keeping M-O-O to my right. Minutes later, I was turning down my own street.
With a half an hour long gone, my son had already started up the block to look for me. “Mom,” he called out in the dark when he heard the jingle of the dogs’ collars.
“Yes,” I called back. “I’m here.”
Andrea Jarrell’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Narrative Magazine, and Brain, Child Magazine, among several other publications. Her essay, “On the Miracle Mile” appeared in Issue 3 of Cleaver.
APPLES ON THE CUTTING BOARD
by Gabrielle Campagnano
It started a simple gesture—
my father a question about
peeling apples best
and when to leave them alone.
The sun ripened over
our kitchen window
and soon we were picking
seven tons of fruit.
How can I get their skin off?
And when will they know?
Do we bite into them naked?
For what occasion
is it best to dress with cream
and love them?
Baskets of sun-buttered fruit.
We were little thieves ready
And then breadcrumbs.
My father standing over me
the great celebrator and
the great undresser of things:
I obeyed and peeled
and lobbed the skin off.
Fat apples on the table
does it feel okay
if we come back for your brothers?
Gabrielle Campagnano is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and teaches at The Foote School in New Haven, CT. She is at work on her first full-length collection of poems.
I hadn’t spent a winter with my mom since high school. What I recalled from childhood winters was sweet: snow forts and sleigh rides that ended with hot cocoa. It never occurred to me that my parents’ work doubled in winter: shoveling sidewalks and driving scared on icy roads to keep our cupboards full. Now that Mom was with me again, my learning curve sat there like an Alp. Even a first-rate athlete would dread this uphill climb.
Mom has always been sensitive to cold. During my coal country childhood, she wrapped us up like grannies in long wool blankets she crocheted. Now when she’s at my house, she sets her bedroom thermostat at 75 degrees. It makes me feel like a burning cookie. But if I turn it down, she’ll crank it up after I leave the room. By the time I wake her in the morning, the heater might be up to 90 degrees because she can’t read the numbers on the dial. Once it’s that warm she won’t leave her room because the rest of the house feels like an icebox.
Aside from her body, her mind is not improving. Despite months of treatments and care, her skills decline. Mom is no longer sure how to put on a sweater. She examines her clothes for a long time to see if they are friendly. If she can’t make peace with the zippers and buttons, she calls me to her room to tame them.
As January waxes on, Mom’s daily needs seem to increase. The idea that holistic healing might “fix” her now seems futile. My winter birthday makes me feel like a leaky lifeboat hitched to a sinking freighter. I spend a lot of time counting my losses. These include my boyfriend (who’s tired of playing second fiddle to Mom’s health) and a few employers. Other family members are sympathetic to Mom’s situation, but no one is eager to get involved.
My fate seems clear. I will end up becoming my mother’s caretaker—not just for a while, but every day. This thousand-pound conclusion is made heavier by the following facts:
I passed a significant birthday with no husband, no children, and few professional achievements to balance out those debits. I’m prime spinster caregiver material.
The country house that once seemed like a paradise now makes me feel isolated. I may have boxed myself in.
Studying the rooms, closets, books, journals, and mirrors of this house hasn’t revealed any silver linings.
Near the snowy end of January, notes from friends remind me of two anniversaries that give me a needed shove. Before my Mom got sick, one of my cousins died. Lynn was a lively member of our family. Around her 45th birthday she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. By the time the doctors found her tumor, it was the size of a key lime. Surgery and treatment didn’t help. Her husband and parents were devastated by her death.
They asked me to read a Bible passage at Lynn’s funeral. I agreed, feeling calm until I caught a glimpse of family members in the front rows of St. Augustine’s, a gorgeous old church. As I began to speak, the spirit forces in the place seized me. Tears poured out and I could barely say those verses intended to comfort us all. Nothing really consoles people when someone good dies young.
Around that time, a close friend and co-worker learned she had breast cancer. Her disease came to light after she gave birth to a beautiful son, Juanito. Yvonne fought her disease with every tool she had: chemotherapy, surgery, nutrition, reiki and spirituality. I think she would have endured any privation or trial that could buy her one more day with Juanito. Unfortunately, Yvonne passed away before her son turned five.
These lives—both marked by passionate deeds and early deaths—began to take on more significance for me. Despite my current disappointed state, I knew I still had one great gift: I was alive while other wonderful people had already been taken. I felt the need to do something big to commemorate those inspiring women and mark some weird transition of my own. I decided to become a Polar Bear.
The idea had been on my mind for a year. The local chapter of Polar Bears holds an annual winter plunge at the fishing pond near our Pocono house. I encountered the event one February weekend when Sunday’s usual silence was fractured by the drone of buzz saws. This noise went on for hours before I finally put on my mittens to go investigate. It was freezing outside, so the mittens got support from boots, socks, long johns, scarf—about ten extra pounds of clothes. I followed the noise down our lane and found its source at the normally tranquil pond. The snowy shore was crammed with people in bikinis, hula skirts, swim trunks, and Speedos. Some were lining up along the edge of just-cut ice, getting ready to jump into the water while a hundred spectators looked on. The buzz saws had been used to slice out giant ice slabs, which were fashioned into a cold, hard throne for the king and queen of the event. The number of grey beards roughly equaled the twenty-somethings. And hula skirts were evenly divided between both groups.
Watching from the sidelines intrigued me. Somewhere in my Celtic marrow lives a deep craving for ritual. Capitalism has recast most of our soul ceremonies as occasions to spend and get drunk. But ancient humans knew the deeper power of rites. They used them to wring meaning from important matters. I began to think that a winter jump in the pond was just the right kind of action to show that I had become a tough, resilient person—still alive alive alive!
Seasoned Pocono Polar Bears take the plunge regardless of the weather. But since I was a novice, I worked out an agreement with myself to provide some exit clauses:
1) If the doctor says there’s a medical reason to avoid it, do not jump.
2) If Plunge Day temperature isn’t at least 20 degrees, you don’t have to do it.
3) If a bad dream or sense of doom seizes you that morning, stay out of the water.
4) If winter eating makes you look like sausage stuffed into a bathing suit, you get a full reprieve.
You would think that this list might have produced one solid excuse for not jumping. But when I told my doctor about my plans, he said, “You’re healthy. If you want to jump in the water, it’s your choice.”
Then, on the morning of the Plunge, the thermometer announced a temperature of exactly twenty degrees. The sky was grey and wind walloped the pines. But, technically, the required weather conditions had been met. No bad dreams haunted my sleep and, though my bathing suit wasn’t too sexy, it corralled my flesh just fine.
I felt I had to take the leap. My plans had been sidetracked to accommodate my mother, but my path was beginning to feel truly new. This wasn’t just some life I bought secondhand at a yard sale. Taking care of Mom was like leaping backwards to a time when care was actually important to my life. Travels across the country and around the world had pushed me away from self-care and toward expedience. My quality of life was often poor. Mom’s arrival forced me to trade the speeding bullet for a slow ride on a steam locomotive.
Mom was struggling with a Parkinson’s tremor and her coordination was getting worse. Her vocabulary was contracting and all of her movements had slowed. Family meetings and doctor visits commemorated these changes in her life. But the shifts in my life remained hidden and I was partly to blame. It didn’t seem right to vent my sadness when she was suffering such huge losses. I believed that somewhere on my face there must be a linear map showing keen observers what was happening to me. Those lines, I feared, might turn into ruts if I didn’t pay them some attention.
And then there were the Polar Bears. They had qualities I admired. Middle-aged jumpers and college students alike were able to rejoice in the shock of discomfort. That first unpleasant moment in the water freed them to celebrate life seconds later. I wanted to rejoice like that, too.
So on February 13th, I cooked a huge pot of chicken soup for neighbors and friends and went upstairs to finish my Polar Bear costume. I tied a pink sarong over my black one-piece and threw a pink, plastic lei around my neck. I put on jeans under the sarong and carried blue flip-flops to wear on my walk across the ice. I bundled Mom up and marched her off with neighbors who’d find a good view of the jumpers.
On my way to the ice, I threw a bag of clean clothes and a towel beneath a picnic table so I could change quickly after my jump. When I took off my jeans and sneakers, the hair on my limbs saluted the wind. My friends were invisible in the huge crowd.
Flip-flops raised my feet off the ice, but didn’t keep my toes from scrunching into angry pretzels as water from the edge lapped over them. Determined to get it over with, I slopped through the frigid slush to the jumping station. My improvised hula dance won me some applause and I jumped beneath the surface of the frozen pond.
Under water, a strange overwhelming relief surged through my freezing body. Yes, the water was unbelievably cold. But it was much warmer than the wind chill temperature while standing on the ice. The trip down went fast. I quickly glided back up, then swam over toward the thick frozen slab. I felt exhilarated as I raced back to my hidden clothes and soothed my feet with dry socks.
Although my hair was wet, I took the wind better than Mom who was huddling with the neighbors watching others take their jumps. I hustled Mom home so I could make sure the soup was hot and beers were cold before our friends arrived.
Mom was shuddering but she seemed happy. She couldn’t retain the fact that I had been one of the Polar Bears. She saw the other jumpers, enjoyed their goofy costumes, but did not seem aware of my plunge. I didn’t care. I felt I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do, marking off this strange new episode of my life.
Back inside the house I asked her to help me get things ready for the party that would soon begin. I jumped in a hot shower before changing into a wool sweater and skirt. When I returned to the kitchen, Mom was gone. I found her in her bedroom. She had taken off her clothes, put on her nightgown, and climbed back into bed.
“Mom,” I said as a sick feeling chilled my gut, “We’re having friends over. That’s why I made all the food. They’re coming to eat with us after they leave the pond.”
She looked at me and asked, “Should I take a shower and get dressed?”
“No, Mom,” I said slowly, “You took a shower this morning.”
She had no idea what was happening.
“Mom,” I said, fighting to keep calm, “Just put your clothes back on and help us celebrate the day.”
She got out of bed and I threw my arms around her. Strange things were happening to my mother. I knew I wouldn’t like most of them. But the embrace did something to help us both. We were two people in great need of warmth.
You cannot outrun it. Stand and wave both fists. Hide your palms. Speak softly. If it charges, curl up on your side, tuck in your head, and project beach ball harmlessness.
Feel free to breathe. This is no respiratory contagion. But avoid open sores and exchanging bodily fluids. Maybe cancel your trip.
Enter the nearest building. No building but a car? Get in. No shelter and you hear the telltale crackle, feel your hairs stand and wave, see the blue glow of St. Elmo’s fire? Crouch, seize your ankles and pray. There is no scientific evidence that this position will protect you. Anyway, what are you doing on my prairie?
Secure your children. Check for injuries. Locate your flashlight. Assess destruction, check for fires, sniff for gas leaks, shut off damaged utilities, prepare to evacuate, help Mrs. Erickson next door, await direction from local emergency officials. Remain calm. Fake calmness. Your voice is as soft as a lullaby.
Do not ignore the cold sweat, nausea, pain in the arms, ache in the back, shortness of breath and unpleasant squeezebox that plays in the chest. Your arteries have hardened. The heart has sprung an uncertain, galloping beat. Valves have prolapsed. Turn off the oven. Set down the hammer. Get off the treadmill. What are you waiting for? No, no, you are not a nuisance, Mrs. Erickson. Please don’t say that. Never mind. I will call for you.
Suck in your stomach and smile, but don’t knock yourself out. Twenty years have passed. It shows. However, it shows on both of you. Better to laugh at something your child says or offer your partner’s arm a breezy caress: express the sweetly superior fate that long ago break-up dealt you. You have outrun him. Note his bald spot.
Put down her window. Tell her to close her eyes. Model the worthless noisy mouth breathing you learned before you gave birth to her. Crawl to the back. Wiggle yourself between the two car seats. Order her brother to stop whining. Prepare the bag. Ready the wipes. Hold back her hair. She is so little, so slight. Poor thing. Discard the bag. Clean her face. Kiss her cheek. Play I-Spy for the remainder of the ill-conceived trip.
Do not tie up the phone lines. Slip to the ground, take cover, hide in the cellar, seek refuge on the roof, get out fast, stay inside, stop, drop and steer clear of your windows, close every door, keep dry, reserve fuel, watch out for flying debris, do not admire the size of the wave, evacuate, save your family, your neighbor, yourself and stay away until the lava cools, until the subterranean rocks stop shifting. Are you calm? Stay calm. Breathe through your mouth. Listen. I will sing you a lullaby.
Melissa Ostrom teaches English at a community college and serves as a public school curriculum consultant. She lives in rural Western New York with her husband and children and writes whenever she can—or as much as her four year old and six year old let her.
I was twelve and sitting in the back of the Number 5 city bus with a bag of cheap Christmas presents when I saw my dad stagger up the steps. I was about to call to him but stopped myself. He had fumbled with his change too long to be sober. I slunk in my seat and tried to make myself invisible. He lurched his way to the front, talking and spitting as he moved. I watched him from behind my propped-up arm and wished it were any other night but Christmas Eve.
There were times when Dad’s drunkenness didn’t matter, when it was almost enjoyable. Those few months when Mom’s psychotic breaks put her back into the state hospital, he would come home loaded and give my older sister, Gina, and me money to buy fried clams and hush puppies. He never knew how much money he put into our hands, and he was often passed out by the time we got back. We lived off of Lake Avenue, a road that led straight through Rochester and ended at Lake Ontario. We were two streets from the water. Restaurants and clubs crowded the blocks closest to the beach. Picnickers and beachgoers packed the sidewalks. Late at night, bikers partied in the parking lot listening to Whitesnake and AC/DC, drinking Genesee Cream Ale. Busty women in short skirts and men in leather jackets spilled out of the nightclubs and rock bars. Summer evenings the strip was a powerful lure to two emerging teens. Gina and I often walked past the ice-cream parlor and into the park to sit on the swings and eat our hush puppies.
In our earlier years, when I was nine and Gina was ten, Dad had a sober stint. He moved far enough into his recovery that he actually chaired AA meetings. He would take Gina and me along when Mom was working or in the hospital again. We called the place The Workshop, but it was just a dark room in the basement of a downtown building that smelled like cigarettes and day-old coffee. We arrived a half hour before the meetings to set up the chairs, get the coffee and cups ready, and put out little aluminum ashtrays.
During that stretch of sobriety, we went to The Workshop with Dad two or three times a week. Sometimes Mom went too, for the company. It was like a second home with a second family, not all of whom were sober. One man named Francis always hung around The Workshop, begging for money outside, his pants diarrhea-stained. Before one meeting, he stumbled into the building’s foyer, where Gina and I had been playing. We backed up against the yellowed wall and watched as he took his pants down and squatted. I stood helpless while Gina ran into the other room to tell Dad. When he and two other men came out, they picked up Francis, pulled up his pants, and carried him outside.
Then there was Albert, who was a regular and a friend of Dad’s. One week, Albert brought a dilapidated wooden dollhouse for Gina and me. He said it was a thank-you gift for my dad, who had helped him through his recovery. Dad tied it down on top of our rusted wagon after the meeting. It was too big for our little apartment so we put it on the back lawn and there it sat, empty. Gina and I never played with it. We had no dolls or toys to fill it. It smelled of must and rotting wood and the rooms inside weren’t painted; it was just an oversized house with too many empty spaces. I don’t know what happened to it after that.
Before the meetings, Gina and I put our quarters into the collection bowl and poured our coffee with cream and sugar into Styrofoam cups, just like the adults. Then we took our seats in the back on aluminum folding chairs. When it was time to start, my dad said a few words and everybody stood and made a circle. Gina and I grasped hands with the adults on either side of us and recited the Serenity Prayer. Amidst those smoke-filled subterranean rooms we learned the prayer by heart. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Serenity, courage, and wisdom, those words became an absentminded chant, the white noise playing in the background of my life. I recognized AA slogans everywhere, though I didn’t understand the totality of them: “Think Think Think,” “One Day at a Time,” “Easy Does It,” “If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes.”
Then there were times when Dad’s drunkenness pervaded everything inside our home, especially when Mom’s schizophrenia sent her back into the hospital for a month-long stint. In that state, more than once he sent us up to our rooms without dinner because he thought it was later than it was. When we were inside, we learned to stay quiet and blend into the shadows, but even then, a giggle or the dropping of a toy could set him off. One night, he came home sputtering obscenities, pointing and arguing with his ghosts. He stumbled over a shoe in the living room and vomited on himself as he descended. I hid upstairs until morning. Another time, my friend was sleeping over and in the middle of the night, I bolted upright at the sound of Dad crashing into my room. I sat frozen and watched while he opened a dresser drawer and urinated into it before walking out.
Only two other people rode the bus that Christmas Eve, and they were watching him as if he himself were the sickness, like he might get up at any moment, lurch at them, and infect them, too. I was only grateful he hadn’t stained himself. We were still a couple of miles from home, and the snow was coming down an inch an hour when I pulled the string and slipped out through the back door. Outside, I took a deep breath of icy air and felt relieved. I didn’t know how long it would take Dad to get home, but maybe he would get in and pass out before I arrived.
Or maybe he would never make it. A month earlier, on the night before Thanksgiving, our neighbor, Sheila Lamartine, didn’t come home. Her daughters were twins and in seventh grade just like me. My sister and I talked to them now and then, but even though we lived on the same street, we came from different worlds. My family lived in the only rental property in the neighborhood, a duplex in desperate need of repair. The Lamartines owned the big house on the hill across the way. The girls took a bus every morning to their private school less than a mile up the road, while Gina and I walked twice as far to get to the city school.
Sometimes, the Lamartine girls seemed fascinated with us. Summer nights, we disappeared to the attic to get stoned and afterward, we camped on the roof outside my parents’ bedroom window. My mom watched us get our bedding set up and then fell asleep, Thorazine drifting through her veins. Late at night after my parents were both passed out, we would climb down the tree that touched the roof and walk over to the lake where the bikers were. The twins saw us sneaking out once. They were just getting dropped off in front of their house from some school event as we reached the ground and they questioned us. Wouldn’t our parents find out? Weren’t we worried about getting into trouble? Weren’t we scared to go down to the beach at night?
I was fascinated with them, too. I wanted to wear Catholic school skirts with crisp white shirts and ties. My sister and I had spent so many years sharing the same two pairs of pants, putrid orange polyester flairs and hand-me-down Levis. I resented the time I wasted every week tub-washing them when all I wanted was to burn them. The Lamartine twins had perfect white skin, noses that didn’t spread across their faces, and that lovely blonde hair always playfully up in ponytails. I fantasized about them coming home to family dinners around a big table, going to school games with friends, learning cheers together, writing in diaries, and dreaming of first kisses. In the summer, when their garage door was open, I spied on them through my living room window. I wanted to live in a real home with a garage where tools hung on the walls. My baby pictures had been lost somewhere among our dozens of moves, yet the hammers and screwdrivers in the Lamartine household had permanent status on that garage wall.
Sheila, however, never matched my image of the Lamartine’s perfect family. In my mind, she was my parents’ friend, not the twins’ mother. We overheard Dad’s stories about her being smashed at a bar he’d drunk at the night before. Some days, we heard about her passed out on a neighbor’s lawn. She came over to our apartment once in a while to have coffee with my mother. Her eyes sagged and her breath smelled of smoke and last night’s binge. I watched out the window one morning as my father went out for the paper and found Sheila on our front lawn. He carried her limp body up the hill and into her house. I imagined the girls inside their living room lounging on the floor in front of the TV, watching Scooby-Doo as my father lay Sheila down on the couch behind them. In all of our passing conversations, they never talked about their mother or her public drunkenness. They seemed strangely unmarred by her doings.
Then Thanksgiving came, and the Lamartines began searching for Sheila, who’d been gone all night. When the girls’ father came over to tell us she was missing, my dad went out with him. The turkey hadn’t come out of the oven yet when Dad returned, exhausted and grief-stricken. They had found Sheila underneath a nearby bridge. It seemed that she had passed out walking home from a bar the night before and had died of exposure.
One month later, I got off the bus and walked the same path down Lake Avenue toward home. The snow fell in thick heavy flakes that stuck to tree limbs and power lines. It was the kind of snow normal twelve-year-olds dream about on Christmas Eve. I thought about all the other things I had wished for instead—cheerleader uniforms, big dinners around a dining room table, crisp white shirts, and Christmas morning breakfasts. I took a deep breath as I passed the bridge. I opened my mouth; tasted the flakes on my tongue; and tried not to imagine my dad stepping off the bus, falling over the embankment, and freezing on the ground before morning.
Angelique teaches Creative Writing and Genocide Literature in Upstate, New York. Her writing can be found in Shark Reef, TravelMag, The Chattahoochee Review, and other anthologies. A travel writer and activist for human rights, she has lived in Chiapas, Mexico, to be a witness for peace with the Zapatista Rebels; volunteered in an elephant refuge in Thailand; studied Holocaust in Israel, writing in Paris, and water drilling in South Sudan. She has traveled to 12 countries on four continents. She finds her inspiration in being in places that push the boundaries of comfort, knowledge, experience, and hunger.
I’m sorry because winter.
I’m sorry because “Lost Angeles.”
I’m sorry because the hand is the
most versatile of instruments and even zero
is a position. I’m sorry for the
poem, I’m sorry for the email, I’m sorry
for the subject line in the email, I’m sorry
about that line about the email in the poem.
The window was open and a hard
piece of metal flew in from the street, I think
that must have been what happened, it was
just the dirty structure of everything.
In the mornings the peacocks at Hollywood
Forever walked around and around
in caged circles and I was the cat, I was the housecat.
Julia Bloch grew up in northern California and Sydney, Australia. She is the author of Letters to Kelly Clarkson (2012), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, and Allison Corporation, forthcoming in spring 2015. Her poetry and criticism have appeared in Aufgabe, How2, The Volta, Journal of Modern Literature, and elsewhere. She is also a co-editor of the poetics journal Jacket2 and has taught at Bard College and the University of Pennsylvania.