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…
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.
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 Hi-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.
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…
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….
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….
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….
OF PINHOLES & PEEPSHOWS
by R.C. Barajas
Living Room Piano
From the Top of the Stairs
Mom’s Side of the Bed
Dad’s Side of the Bed
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.
MELIAI* by Heather Bourbeau 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 …chop! chop! read more!
VARIATIONS ON SECOND CHILDREN
by Amanda Silberling
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.
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.
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…
ATROPHY by J.J. Anselmi 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 …chop! chop! read more!
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.
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 buying bullet-proof car windows.
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….
“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’.
I was born in a small town sixty miles northwest of Philadelphia, Pa. 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 as building automobiles, shooting squirrels, and drinking Olde Reading Beer. However, the town was surrounded by mountains and farmlands, and this landscape was filled with corn fields, milk cows, and small herds of sheep. It all appeared to me so much lighter and more colorful.
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…
“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 my body as something separate from me, something impeding my efforts to focus on what I want or need to be focused on.
A REPLACEMENT by Ingrid Claire Wenzler 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 …chop! chop! read more!
THE TERRIBLE SOFTNESS OF TONGUES by Chris Vola 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 …chop! chop! read more!
PANIC by Sharon White 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 …chop! chop! read more!
DR. ZAUZE AND THE 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….
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.
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….
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.
Rowena moves the side of the Sharpie gradually down the bridge of my nose, taking a turn over my nostrils and across my lips. I pucker. The Sharpie glides around the bulge. I try to see the mark on the wall. “Don’t,” she commands, pressing my chin back into place so the Sharpie can complete its journey around my jaw and along my Adam’s apple. When the line ends, she lets me step back with her to look. My amorous silhouette graces the ladies’ room wall in Harp’s Bar. We’ve already done Rowena’s outline in the men’s room, beside the paper towel dispenser. I grin at her, I think, or near her. Her hair is orange lava. She frowns at me, concentrating, raises the Sharpie, zeroing in across the myriad quantum reaches of space, time, and chance, and Sharpies a big black dot on the end of my nose.
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.
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 16-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.
POLAR BEARS by Colleen Davis 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 …chop! chop! read more!
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.
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.