TURNING RIGHT ON CASSADY A Visual Narrative
by Miriam Libicki Introduction by Tahneer Oksman
The cover image of Miriam Libicki’s five-page comics essay, “Turning Right on Cassady,” shows an oversized and emptied pair of sandals superimposed on a street map of Columbus, Ohio. Sandals, and feet more generally, feature prominently in this short but evocative piece, which recalls a teenager’s fitful and defiant walk across town to get to the north end of a street that touches home.
Those familiar with Libicki’s work will recognize in this short essay the themes of alienation, rebellion, and rootlessness that wind their way through her semi-autobiographical serial comic, jobnik! As in “Turning Right on Cassady,” the protagonist of jobnik! is often in search of a tangible connection to place, a place whose absence expresses itself through an intangible sense of longing and disconnection. Here, in short bursts of colorful images, the narrator’s observations of the sights and scenes that surround her, each bound in symmetrical rectangular panels, blur the distinctions between front and back, up and down, inward and outward. We are plunged into the point of view of a teenager whose conflicting needs—for independence and safety, adventure and refuge—dissolve conventional notions of time and space, and expose us to a world that feels, somehow, alluringly out of scale.
In discussing her process of putting this comic together, Libicki explained that she used Google Street View to help her reimagine the journey. As she described it, “One afternoon at my computer I virtually reenacted the whole walk.” In “Turning Right on Cassady,” the reader, too, is invited on a virtual reenactment, one that deploys the power of comics to allow you to walk a mile (or seven) in someone else’s Tevas.
–Tahneer Oksman, March 2015
Miriam Libicki was born in Columbus, Ohio. After living in Jerusalem and Seattle, Washington, she is now based in Vancouver, BC. She completed her B.F.A. from Emily Carr University of Art and Design and is currently completing her M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. She is the creator of the autobiographical comic series, jobnik!, which recounts her service in the Israeli army during the Second Intifada. Her other nonfiction comics have been published by Rutgers University Press, Alternate History Comics, The Ilanot Review, and jewcy.com.
Tahneer Oksman is the Graphic Narrative Reviews Editor for Cleaver Magazine. Her book on Jewish identity in contemporary women’s graphic memoirs is forthcoming from Columbia University Press. She is Assistant Professor and Director of the Academic Writing Program at Marymount Manhattan College.
I do not feel the Jet Ski as it crashes into my head. Or I do—it is a Jet Ski and it is crashing into my head after all—but it does not register as pain. I feel it only in the way I feel a fly that lands on my thigh or a strand of wet hair on my cheek. I lift my hand to push the Jet Ski away, but of course by then I am already spinning down into the lake. The water is cool. I forget for a moment what I am doing down there among the seaweed and the muck and go still. I think I might have forgotten I am even in water. Or maybe forgotten what water is. I am just beginning to remember things like the way the sun rose that morning over the fog on the lake and that my brother’s name is Liam when suddenly something pulls underneath my arms and I am back up in the sun looking at the hysterical face of my uncle.
“Are you ok?” he shouts, treading water, his arms still holding me up. My lips taste like gasoline.
“Yes,” I yell, but it comes out a whisper.
The Jet Ski spins back around us and a tan girl in a white life vest screams.
“Turn it off,” my uncle yells, and she does.
“We need you to take us to the cabin across the lake.” The girl nods and my uncle pulls the Jet Ski just in front of me. “Climb up, Sammy,” he says and pushes my limp body towards the girl. She grabs my arms and, just as I start to wonder how she is going to get me aboard and if I should be kicking my legs to help, I am seated behind her. My uncle climbs on too and holds my arms around her waist.
This girl, now covered in my blood, jumps off at our dock to hold the Jet Ski steady while my uncle helps me off. The blood is everywhere, running down my legs and into my eyes. It’s smeared against my uncle’s chest and shoulders, a bit of it in his beard. My mom and aunt come running out of the cabin. I’ve already started laughing though, laughing at the bloody footprints on the slats of the dock and at the two of them who are frozen on the shore trying to figure out where the blood is coming from and who they should be looking at.
“I’m fine,” I say as the girl in the now pink life vest bursts into tears.
The next day, I wake up with nineteen stitches in the back of my head. The hair is shaved in a thin line and I can’t keep my hands away from that fuzzy, tender spot. I touch it all the way to the diner. The family of the girl with the Jet Ski is meeting us for dinner in town. “They want to check up on you,” my mother explains. “Apologize again. They’re lucky we are reasonable people,” she says. “You could be dead or, worse, brain dead.”
“Accidents happen,” my aunt says. “Imagine how awful she feels.”
I nod and everything goes black for half a second. But then the light blinks back and the grass along the street turns orange and purple. I laugh and my mother turns towards me, alarmed, “Why the hell are you laughing?”
“I’m starving,” I say.
The girl is sitting in a booth with her parents. She looks younger today than she did the day before. When she sees me, she stands up and pulls me into a hug. “My biggest fear is killing someone,” she says into my ear. I nod in the blackness, the smell of mosquito repellent pressing up against me.
Her mom orders chocolate malts for the table—the best thing for a bad day she says—and the waitress comes back with a tall cup for each of us. I hold the plastic tube of the straw uselessly between my lips for a few moments before pushing the cup away. The Styrofoam squeaks against the table and my tongue droops out of my mouth.
“I think I should take you back to the hospital,” I hear my mom say from across the restaurant.
I shake my head. The girl sips her malt and then says, “I didn’t even want my driver’s license because I was sure I’d be driving home from school or work and just totally mow over a mom pushing a stroller. Or an old lady.”
Her mother adds, “I remember that. We had to bribe you to take the test.”
The girl nods seriously, “And now look.”
No one says anything for a bit except I can hear everyone’s thoughts. Not the actual thoughts, but the spark the thought makes when it first appears. And the pinging and beeping of the brains at the table drowns out the chatter of the other customers and the sound of their forks against their plates. I’m thinking about how I can’t get a thought of my own in between these sounds when suddenly I feel something cool against my cheek and realize I’ve put my head on the table. A scream stops the beeping and I open my eyes except not really because everything stays black. I wait for the tug beneath my arms.
Kim Steele lives in Chicago, where she spends most days reading near the space heater. She has been previously published in the flash fiction zine Oblong and writes the occasional book review for Cleaver Magazine. You can follow her on twitter at KJ_Steele.
Rosa stands in the coop’s doorway holding a baby chicken in each of her hands. One of the birds is dying. The other is dead. We might have overlooked the body in the bed of wood shavings covering the ground if it hadn’t been encircled by a dozen other chicks, their feathers warm under the amber light of heat lamps. Yesterday it was an alive, palm-sized animal, toddling around on legs like twigs. Now the body is badly decomposed, everything but the beak flattened, the eye sockets pecked clean.
It’s June in Florida. The sun is just rising over the panhandle farm. In this heat, it doesn’t take long for a body to break down. Everything seems to droop and sag.
“Anoche pasado,” Rosa says with a resolved tone, holding up the deflated body. “Problamente,” I agree. As if I know.
Rosa’s rarely wrong when it comes to plants and animals. She’s been working on farms since she was a little kid in Southern Mexico, when her dad left the family and her mother fell ill. She left school to work in the fields. Now she lives in a small town closer to the Alabama border than the beach and she has daughters of her own. This farm is organic and Rosa is the owner’s sole employee. I’m not much help to her. I know nearly nothing about caring for plants or animals. I’m volunteering during a break from school and I’ve only worked on the farm for a few weeks. In a few more, I’ll be gone. Most days I watch Rosa’s every move, following her lead and trying not to get in the way.
This chick’s death is no great mystery though. We had picked it up, and a hundred other hens, the day before. The birds hatched from eggs at a farm in New England, and traveled in a box stacked in the back of a truck to the Florida panhandle. Rosa and I arrived at the post office before it officially opened. The employees giggled as they unlocked the front door and handed over the cardboard box, all beaks and peeps. On the drive back to the farm, Rosa sat in the back seat with the box of birds in her lap, watching them peek out the breathing holes.
“Hello,” she cooed, “how was the ride?”
A chorus of squeaks rose in response.
When we opened the box, most of the puff balls filed out in a frenzy. Some didn’t. They hadn’t survived the trip.
“Es normal,” Rosa said, throwing their bodies in a bucket and leaving it next to a pile of burlap sacks in the driveway. We’d deal with it later.
The sky darkened and, across the pasture, the donkeys brayed.
“Una tormenta,” Rosa said.
With clothespins, we fastened a blanket around the coop to protect the birds from the wind and approaching storm. We turned on an extra heat lamp. The chicks gathered beneath the the low-hanging lights, a single mass of downy yellow fluff.
Rain started to fall, and we tended to the farm’s other animals: the ducks and goats and geese and sheep.
We forgot about the bucket of chicks, with the corpses curled at the bottom. Overnight, it filled with rainwater while the farm cats slept nearby, piled on top of each other. By morning, the chicks had floated to the surface and maggots bulged from their eye sockets. Their skin pulsated with the larvae squirming inside. I stood back and stared, finding a long stick to poke around with, gagging but fascinated. When the time came, I was too repulsed to throw out the mess, so Rosa dumped the bucket in the trash, double bagging it.
“I’ll put it by the road when I leave,” she said. I didn’t offer to help, but I should have.
The second chick in Rosa’s hand isn’t dead, but it is dying. It can’t stay upright on its feet. It takes a few steps and topples over. Rosa carries the chick to a tray of water mixed with just a little sugar. The birds are so small that many of them stand in the shallow water while they drink, beads of liquid clinging to their downy coats.
“Come on, take a sip,” Rosa says softly, dipping the beak. She scoops the chick up and waits for its neck to stretch upward, for the water to run down its throat. The chick’s head wobbles side to side, but little else. Rosa tries again. Her requests become commands.
“Take the water,” she says forcefully. She watches for a moment, then shakes her head, resolved. She puts the little guy down.
“It will die,” she says.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because it’s dying,” she says.
She gives me a sideways smile and heads back to the farmhouse. There’s more work to do. I don’t follow. I try to cradle the bird in my hands just as Rosa had and wait for it to open its beak to drink. I return the chick to the ground, and it collapses on weak legs. I prop it up again, holding my hands on either side of its wings while it struggles to maintain balance. Eventually it just topples over once more, as I knew it would. I sit on the roosting bars and scrutinize the exhausted animal, repeating the process again and again. I stand it up a final time and nudge the chick to walk. It just falls over, and goes limp.
No longer dying, but dead, as Rosa had said.
I don’t carry the still-warm body, with luminous eyes exposed by lids that won’t stay shut, up to the house. I can’t bring myself to do it. I leave it in the coop, surrounded by healthy chickens, telling myself that it might still be alive, that it just needs time under the heat lamps.
But I know that’s not true. I know its body will be overtaken by pecks and bugs in a matter of hours. I know those twig-like legs will stomp it flat.
Danielle Harms is a writer based in Washington, DC. She is an Assistant Term Professor in George Mason University’s English Department, where she earned her M.F.A. in creative writing and was the editor-in-chief of Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art. She writes about everything from the classroom and overseas travel to her research on the Korean women who survived “comfort stations.” Read more at danielle.harmsboone.org.
Midnight, and I can tell it’s urgent because the mistress never knocks me this late. I struggle with the bed-jacket that belonged to Harry’s mother. Moths have eaten close to the armpits and it’s in danger of splitting, but I don’t wear it often enough to warrant mending. The candle in my hand blows a thin ribbon of soot backwards as I hurry to the front door. No sooner than it’s open, air skates in, and with it the howls of the dogs she’s woken up on her way.
I feel myself clench; the instinct to soothe the pups. Mistress’s brown eyes are aflame. She’s hissing, “It’s happened again. I won’t tolerate it.” Her voice dissolves on the last word and I widen the door, bring her inside with the cold fizzing off her pinned hair. I know she must be pained to be in such a state in front of me. She prides herself on her fierceness, Mistress does; has made a name for herself in the county as “the independent one” after Master died and everyone said she should give up “that bloody country pile” for a townhouse.
She sits down at the table by the range, perching away from the flaking paint on the chair like it might poison her back. Across the tablecloth my books are strewn, volumes she’s teaching me to read: Equality for All; In Favour of the Working Woman; Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Pencils rolling around, for when I underline the hard words.
I’m glad though, that she can see I’m working, and she notices and it flashes on her face that she’s glad too. She takes pride in me; loves to show me off. Last week at the women’s club in Chancery Lane I gave a small speech about how education is helping me manage since Harry passed away. My hands were shaking as I told them how much I was enjoying Jane Eyre. Mistress says all workers must be educated, so that our children will have choices. I never bother to point out that I don’t have children.
I see her looking at my black pot, idle on the range, but she says she won’t take tea at this hour. “They came, just now, in the night,” she says, dipping her eyes away from me, the way she does when she’s embarrassed to ask for something, but about to do it anyway. “They came again.”
She still wears her wedding band; it’s cut a little valley into her old hand. The skin beneath her eyes has fallen, see-through like newspaper. She doesn’t look like she used to; all that dignity, that buttoned up look, it has to harden some time.
“What did they take?”
“Silver. Cook’s pies. Port. I could hear them. That was the thing.” A shiver runs down her and her eyes flicker. “I could hear them pattering about, even from my bedroom.”
“Didn’t Mr. Rodgers wake?” Even I know this is a silly question. Mr Rodgers is Mistress’s butler but he’s deaf as a tree trunk.
“What could he do anyway?” She lets a ghost of breath out as a sigh. When I see it, I realise how cold my kitchen is and how used to it my blood must be.
“Triggs…” She dips her eyes again, and when she says my name like that I think an offer must be taking form, that she must be about to invite me up to the house, to offer me a bedroom on the first floor, close to the housekeeper’s day parlour, with candles and a fire, away from the draughty attics where the rest of the servants sleep.
“Triggs I need your help.”
“Yes ma’am.” My voice—I want it to be trusty, full of pluck—but I’m old and full of sleep and it cracks.
“Can you keep watch? Over the back of the house, at night? I’ll pay you more.”
The vision of the bedroom close to the housekeeper’s parlour disintegrates. “I can pay a boy,” I say.
She doesn’t reply. She doesn’t have to; I know the words she would use. One of her phrases, “No that won’t do.” Words of finality. No reasons to go with them so no one can argue. I hesitate, but when she finally brings her green gaze up to mine, there’s something in it that says she wants me to be up to the job myself. I look at the books on the table. I say, “I’ll clean the guns tomorrow.”
I let her back out into the cold night air with a fur I find hanging under a pile of Harry’s old cloaks in the hall. The smell of it is embarrassing but she doesn’t say anything.
As she walks past the dogs again, I tighten again, as I hear the rustle of their collars, then their voices rising into a roo, into a pattern of sharp high barks.
The process of cleaning the guns is one I enjoy. The satisfaction of their gleam I think must be the same feeling some ladies get from looking at their jewels. But there is a different sensation in them today, right now, under my hands. It is as if they have calcified. As if the edges have grown hard, and instead of gleaming like diamonds, they seem to gleam like wet teeth.
“Gamekeeper? Her? With her hats and her jams?” That’s what Mr. Rodgers said to Mistress at Harry’s funeral. I heard him. I saw him scratch his feathered head, I watched across the table of sandwiches, through my sniffles. “Surely Cook could use an extra pair of hands. Or the nursery…”
The small pistol must have brought in at least a hundred partridges, the shotgun a couple of dozen stags, and that was just since Harry died. Notches have been gouged all along the palm of the tender wood, soft with age. None of them are mine, I didn’t like to continue that tradition, they were his prizes. But there’s a stain that slipped through the varnish into the bare wood the first time I made a kill. When the gamekeeper from the next estate insisted on the ritual, digging his hands into the warm cavity of the deer, taking the blood and wiping it onto my cheeks.
That night, when the sun finally sinks I stay close to the corner of the outer wall that runs all along the big house, from the laundry room to the kitchen. I sit on one of the half-barrels they use to gather pears at harvest time, my breath fogging like pipe smoke. Up above, the faint red brick frame of Mistress’s window is visible, a candle sitting in it.
On the other side of the wall, inside the kitchen, I can hear noises. Someone is moving bottles, pans, shifting metal, stacking earthenware. I picture them: a pair of salty thieves in tattered coats, grizzled beards, rusty eyes. Fingers hardened by begging and cold, torn boots and stolen pocketwatches.
There’s a lightfooted stumble on the tiles. Someone’s hobnails scrape. I cock my gun.
“Her? With her hats and her jams?”
I stand, steadying the half-barrel with my foot as the noises tumble closer. The tradesmen’s door has never fitted the wood properly, and through the gap each footstep, each crunch of thievery echoes. I’ve got my arm steadying the crosshairs, my eye trained on the brass handle of the door. Kidney height. I think of Mistress last night, in her state. She needn’t worry. I’m up to it and I’ll prove it. Tonight she’ll sleep again.
Metal shifts. One murky pitch cuts a slice into another; the dark inside of the kitchen reveals itself, and a bone-white fist melts into view gripping the thin handle of a lantern. It takes a while for the light to spill up the two figures. And by that time the kitchen door is open wide and they can see me too.
She is taller than he is, but only just. Her face—a malnourished mix of age and childishness—is scraped back to the muscle; prick of nose, gristle cheeks. There isn’t an ounce of blood in her. I cannot place the age of the boy. His hair sticks in thin tufts from his head, cut coarsely. It’s he who carries the lantern. She has a small hock of bacon rested on her shoulder and a sack hanging from her hand, clinking with the tuneless rattle of metal.
She looks straight at me, her eyes wet as a doe’s. And that’s when I know I have seen her before. There’s a corrugated shed just past the bounds of the estate woods. Sometimes they come selling sprigs of herbs and mushrooms wrapped in cloth. Cook always sends them away. Sometimes you’ll hear them singing together, or smell the smoke from their fire curling onto our land.
She puts the bacon on the ground, balancing it against her leg, and strokes her fingers through the boy’s hair, dragging the tangles towards her.
My finger pauses on the stiff curl of trigger. The sightline is clear. If she were meat I’d already be dreaming of the pot.
“Her with her hats and her jams? Her that couldn’t silence a mouse if it was squeakin int trap? She won’t kill beasts for you, I’ll warrant it.”
Above me, I can feel the light burning in Mistress’s red window, pouring down like wax, melting a hole in my back. If she were standing here she’d want the prick of my gun-barrels jabbing them all the way to the constables. All the moments Mistress smiled over a book and said to me, “Let’s try again shall we?” or “Triggs you’re a marvel.” The hand-me-down casserole pots in my kitchen. Her patience and her kindness. Her hands, dusting off in that no-arguments way, and the way she put her gloves back on as she said to Mr. Rodgers at Harry’s funeral, “Mrs. Triggs has the courage of a lion, and is the only one who can fill the boots of her husband as gamekeeper. I have absolute faith she’s up to the job.” I feel it all burning in me as I look into the boy’s hungry face. His eyes travel between the bacon in his mother’s hands and the muzzle of the gun in mine.
The woman’s head dips. She bends to pick back up her ham.
And out of nowhere a raw howl splinters the night. The hounds. The hounds must be able to hear our breath or smell the meat. Without knowing what I’m doing I turn, as if I could soothe the sorry little pup from here. A giant fuss spreads through the kennel, yipping and rooing, and suddenly the dogs have all kicked off, as good as on the chase. It’s as I’m gazing across the cold field towards them that I feel the shadow slip over me, and when I look back up at Mistress’s window, still gripping the gun, there’s a black frizz-topped shape there now. Her face, I know every ripple and mole, every plump and shadow, all her kindness in there, all the things she did for me. She’s in her night smock; her hair looks like bracken, stiff and swaying. Through a trick of the wind I think I hear her voice pushing through the house, saying my name. It’s as if it comes from the bricks. “Triggs.” It’s that face she’s pulling, the one from the kitchen, the one that said she didn’t want a boy to do the job, she wanted me to do it.
And while I’m still frozen, while my back is turned, while my gun is held high, I hear them scurrying off, the pair of them, lightfooted thieves, feet like mice, skating towards the lawn, the grit on the path barely cracking. And when I turn, the golden dot of their lantern is ducking and rising, ducking and flickering as they patter off into the night, with Mistress’s belongings and her food.
Lucy Ribchester was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and grew up in Fife. In 2013 she won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award for fiction. In January 2015 she was shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award, and the same month her first novel The Hourglass Factory was published in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand by Simon & Schuster. She also writes about dance and circus for Scotland’s The List magazine.
TONIGHT THE STARS ARE STRUNG UP LIKE ELEGIES by Sally J. Johnson
I want them for myself, ……………………..but you’re right.
It’s easier to take a picture ………………………………..of this heat,
to pick bread crumbs …………………….from a crocodile’s teeth.
Tell me you can follow me to wherever is home.
Find me by the pollen- ……………………..yellow paint punctuating ……………………………………………..these highway hips.
The bare light bulb …………………….of my belly in the darkness.
The dare of that opalescent moon ………………………………lending me her macabre lipstick.
You and I can swim the length …………………………………of this alligator land.
I am all breaststroke, …………………bobbing and lack of breath.
Of course you are backstroke. ……………………………….Craning your neck to see the sky
Sally J. Johnson received her M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington where she served as managing editor for the award-winning literary journal Ecotone. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in TheCollagist, Bodega, ThePinch, Weave, Sycamore Review, and elsewhere. She is a poetry editor for Green Briar Review and works as a publicist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Find her online @sallyjayjohnson.
The name was the easy part, as was age and date and place of birth. The address provided, it was decided, would be his mother’s, despite the fact that he had hardly seen her over the past decade, save for a few nights in the previous few months when he had shown up on her doorstep, unannounced, with no place else to go. Before that, he had been in Larchmont or Yonkers, we had heard. Maybe he had moved around, maybe he had stayed in one apartment for years, books on history or pulp spy novels or porn cluttering the closets, stacked at his bedside.
The first time I met him, he ate a third helping of the lasagna I had brought for his mother’s birthday; his eagerness was thanks enough. He stayed quiet otherwise, ignoring the questions about his job, his home, his friends. But his brothers had stopped asking anyway, afraid that he would disappear again if they prodded too much. That night, from where I lay next to my husband in the guest bed, I could see the blue television flickering, illuminating his profile through the crack between the door and its frame. He watched a news show intently. Later laughed at a late night comic. That was the first moment he had been truly unguarded all day.
Armed forces, no. Never married, at least it was presumed. My husband and his mother agreed on these as facts. But then: “occupation.” What had he done for work? He was unemployed when he had resurfaced—a victim of the recession, or so it had seemed. His mother hadn’t asked too many questions and fewer were answered. He had just needed a little help to get back on his feet, he said. Maybe a place to stay for a few weeks, a month, while he looked for more work. But what he couldn’t have known because he had been gone for so long, was that she had already sold her small house in her retirement village and, within days, was moving to a facility a few miles away. She hadn’t told her other sons at the time that their middle brother was staying at her empty home with the electricity and the gas turned off, not leaving during daylight hours for fear of being seen.
So what had his occupation been for so many decades while he had ebbed away from the family? What had he done for a living? My husband and his mother were prodded to answer the question. They remembered him saying once that he had worked at a warehouse. He was handy—had learned that from his dad. Maybe he had done odd jobs, or worked construction. That was what he had told his mother another time, one of the few when he answered the phone she bought for him after he had reappeared for the final time, although she never quite believed him. Those few weeks were the most she had seen him in decades and she had felt relief having him so near, finally, after believing that she had lost him so long before. The son who had always seemed a little different from the others. Who slowly lost his easy smile in middle school, gave up the trombone and drawing by the time he graduated high school. It was never clear why he had stayed so private, had never called his brothers and only rarely answered the number they had for him until it was no longer in service.
So what shall I put for occupation? the mortician asked. My husband and his mother paused, and perhaps we had all thought of how a hiker had found him in the woods a few miles from his mother’s house. He had been living in a tent. He had bought a shotgun.
Laborer, I said. The first words I had spoken. I think that would be accurate. They nodded, and the man behind the desk wrote it down.
Suzanne Cope is the author of Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits and the Return of Artisanal Food and has published essays and articles in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, Render, The Riveter, and New Plains Review, among others. Suzanne is also a creative writing studies and food studies scholar and teaches writing at Manhattan College.
In my dreams I see the duck lady,
her profile’s sharp tang,
quack-quacking on Chestnut Street.
Pterodactyls are tame
compared to the rampaging avians
flying past her head, pecking at her,
causing her wracking sternutations.
Remember not to write me duck lady,
you don’t owe me anything.
In my complacency, I betrayed you,
betrayed your otherness.
I did not believe in the modern polyphonic style
of your extruded aria on Chestnut Street.
You owe all to yourself and the Blessed Mother
and your home, husband and family.
Your needs are important to you;
they converge in the area
in front of you,
in the two feet of sidewalk
in front of your two feet.
If you’d sit quietly
with me and have a cup of coffee,
I’d like that.
I’d like to think we could pick up our heads
and look at each other like migrating animals,
our voices finally silent.
Come, have a cup of coffee,
the Roy Rogers is open now
and the sun is at a different angle.
Jeremy Freedman is an artist and writer living in New York City. His photographs have been exhibited in Europe and the United States and were recently featured in Redivider, The Monarch Review, The Citron Review, and The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in Cartagena, Eclectica, Otoliths, The Wilderness House Literary Review, Orbis, and elsewhere. More work can be seen at jfreenyc.com.
Image credit: “Little Nell”, Clark Park, West Philadelphia. Photo by Karen Rile
On an island bigger than Manhattan rests the burned-out remains of the Carnegie mansion, Dungeness. The Gilded Age gilded the Carnegie family, so much so they could buy up pieces of the world to gold-plate. Cumberland Island is one of those pieces. The Carnegies may have bought the island but they filched the name of their fifty-nine–room, turreted Scottish castle from James Oglethorpe, first to build there in 1736.
The word feels good in my mouth, Dungeness; even though the first part of the word is dungeon, the ness at the end somehow beautifies it. Beyond the Carnegie castle, forty other buildings were scattered over the island to house a two-hundred-person staff. But alas, the sequestered estate may not have been all it was imagined to be, because the Carnegies abandoned Dungeness in 1925. The mansion was destroyed by fire in 1959; most of it, that is. Dungeness burned for three days but the tall, tall chimneys and sturdy stone walls would not go down. Those walls would not go down and now they are home to rattlesnakes and overgrown ivy. The Dungeness Ruins will never leave you once you visit them. Photographs are not needed. I have dreamed Dungeness and Cumberland Island a thousand times. More than a thousand times, I have dreamed the horses.
Only accessible by boat, Cumberland Island is now protected as a national seashore by the state of Georgia. Guests must ferry over from St. Mary’s Island. And so I did this, along with my husband and two small children. Over to the island we hauled camping equipment, enough food for the four of us for several days, a few changes of clothing, hiking shoes, a first aid kit, camera, and bug spray (as recommended).
Unblemished wilderness awaits—9,800 congressionally designated acres and fifty miles of hiking trails to discover. Instead of people, Cumberland Island has feral horses. They roam the longest stretch of beach in the country. No one knows how the horses got there. Some believe they are descendants of those that came with the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, while others say they descended from the English settlers’ horses of the eighteenth century. And still, the most pragmatic believe the horses have descended from strong swimmers that were shipwrecked long ago, because who would abandon perfectly good horses on an island?
I waited all week for the horses. I waited until I forgot I was waiting for the horses and went about exploring the island in search of shark’s teeth and seashells. It rained every day.
I hiked a few miles to the beach with my family the morning that the sun finally broke through cotton-candy clouds. We lazed about the seashore beachcombing and marinating ourselves in salt and sun. We could not see the end of the beach in either direction. There was no one on the beach with us, no buildings in sight, just mile upon mile of white sand, ocean, and the maritime forest behind us. We were Carnegies. The only sounds were that of the ocean and my children playing. My husband sat beside me reading Jimmy Buffet’s “A Salty Piece of Land” to further perpetuate the island experience. I felt the horses before I heard them. There was a rumble inside me, benign at first, but growing more urgent as the horses pressed in on us.
“Do you feel that?”
“My God. Look. The horses.”
The sight of them running to us so disturbed me that I could not react, even to protect my children. My husband rushed to our son and daughter and hurried them out of the path of the galloping herd. My family stood behind me in the soft sand of the beach. The horses ran near the water’s edge. I could not move or speak; my breath ran through me in ragged gasps. The horses raced wildly toward us in a loose knot, I can’t say how many. It took a few moments for them to reach us. When I first saw them, they were far away, the size of seagulls in the distance. They came upon us like so much thunder, their shapes growing larger and spreading out. It was as if they had emerged through a wrinkle in the earth. It was easy to believe when they finished running furiously along our Carnegie beach, they would go right back through the wrinkle to where they had been.
My children shouted their excitement, words I barely heard over the cannon-sounds of those exploding hooves. The horses threw wet sand in clumps behind them. With the storm of horses came the wrinkle in the earth. I am sure of it. When the horses roared down the beach in front of us, I felt their world close in around me. The horses and the wrinkle pulled the earth’s air from my lungs. My children continued to shout but I could no longer hear them, the ground under me vibrated, the sea grew quiet, our world bent to the herd. One of the red ones with a black mane and tail and stocky black legs turned his head as he ran past. We locked eyes. The moment hung still in the air between us, the air that had been vacuumed out of me. In that stillness was whispered the question,
Why are you waiting?
I was taken by the herd then. I felt myself leave my world. I was pulled through the wrinkle into the horses. The vibrating sand was underneath me. I am sure I did not move and yet I was momentarily absorbed into the herd. I was one of them. The horses thundered through me, and I through them. As they moved past, I was nudged, pushed back through the wrinkle, and settled into my own world again. The rumble fell quieter and quieter, the horses became smaller and smaller in the vastness of the island.
They winked out of this world at the other end of the seashore.
Cheryl Smart, a retired fitness instructor, is a second year M.F.A. candidate at the University of Memphis, where she studies creative nonfiction and poetry and is the nonfiction editor of its literary journal, The Pinch. During her undergraduate years, Cheryl divided her studies between philosophy and poetry. She has works appearing or forthcoming in The Little Patuxent Review, Appalachian Heritage, Word Riot,Crack the Spine, and others.
The letters on the marquee jammed against each other: Ingmar Bergman Retrospective, the billing read, words cohered into a smear of black.
Greta’s breath clouded as she waited by the box office. She paced on the balls of her feet, toes pointed upward, arms outstretched. The theatergoers, trickling in like the drops of a leaky faucet, lifted their brows at her. She had seen them all here before, but they had never seen her.
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Her fingers grazed the two tickets, snug within the fleece of her jacket pocket.
Enclosed within a glass box, the cashier slid another ticket across the counter. Lara had to work the box to keep her spot in the school’s film society. Today she had forgotten the issue of Rolling Stone she always had spread about before her to occupy her time during those long lulls. Now she lifted her focus to Greta with raised eyebrows; the girl’s constant strolling back and forth was giving her a headache.
Lara leaned towards the opening in the glass and yelled out, “Are you going in or what?”
Greta spun around, coils of copper hair clinging to her forehead. She held up the two tickets. “I’ve got a date.” The smile broadened on her waxen face.
“The movie starts in ten.” Lara tapped on her watch for evidence.
Greta’s glow faltered, but only a little, like when a wisp of cloud drifts past the moon for a brief moment. “He’ll be here soon,” she said with glittering gray eyes. Snowflakes had gathered into a circlet upon her head.
He would, though right now slush was gathering in his shoes as he dashed across campus. Only twenty minutes earlier Neil had sat in front of a typewriter as he stared at the protruding, blank leaf of paper.
He had tottered back in his chair and planted his feet on the desk. Bob Dylan crooned about simple twists of fate, Velcro voice wafting from the record player in the corner. Neil deliberated between writing a paper that wavered in the spectrum of B+ and A-, or following through on something else. Both options caused a groan to make its way out of his throat.
It had been, he reminded himself, a vague promise, one suffused in a theoretical tone. They had met, after all, in an Introduction to Literary Theory class, so nothing from him at that time should have been construed as fact.
Greta was the girl who watched as the other classmates argued between themselves. She drew swirls in her notebook while the quarrels left the topic at hand and descended into ad hominem.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Philip Weiss once remarked to his current opponent, a burly bohemian. “You’re an ignoramus.”
Sometimes Neil could see a blush creep up her neck and into her ears, a rapid rash, when the professor solicited her opinion. She would squeak out something about Marx and then bow her head.
He had taken a seat beside Greta and grown accustomed to her tics; how she would lick off her lipstick entirely by the end of class, the bobbing of her leg that nearly shook the table. In a sea of furious discourse, she was a schooner on her own. When his attention drifted, which it often did, he counted the polka dots on her shirt. He did all this without turning his head.
They only formally introduced themselves on the day Neil needed to borrow her book, though they had known one another’s names for the past two months. In a mad dash for breakfast, he had foregone his hefty book bag and glided to the cafeteria, unburdened by the weight.
She pushed all 500 pages of the critical anthology toward him. “Excuse the rambling annotations,” she said, softly, before holding out a pale hand to him. “I’m Greta.”
He took her hand in his. “Neil.”
She was an English major, and he undeclared. A dabbler.
“But I’m leaning toward Anthropology,” he added.
It soon got so that he made sure to leave behind his book before class. When he returned her copy back at the end of each session, they would share quick bites of conversation.
“Thanks.” She hurried to pack up her bag. “How’d you find the class today?”
And from there they would extend the class discussion, the one that neither had participated in, while they walked out of the classroom. They roamed across the tumbling campus green. Greta plucked verdant blades of grass and rolled them between her palms. She spoke of Agatha Christie and Flannery O’Connor.
“They frighten me,” she said, running her hand across a tree trunk. “And fascinate me. Isn’t that the best combination?”
Neil talked music.
“Cat Stevens was one of the best out there. That is, before he gave it all up,” he mentioned, mournful.
When she professed to know nothing about music past Gershwin, he said he would loan her some records.
This amble evolved into a ritual. Neil’s vinyl passed from his hand to hers, along with the guarantee that she would return them unscratched. Greta gave back albums like Tea forthe Tillerman and The Stranger and Blue, flushed with excitement, as though discovering a new sector of the galaxy. And Neil, meanwhile, felt a twinge of pleasure in educating this girl, bereft of sweet, sustaining music for her whole life. He felt like a do-gooder for the first time.
Their shared class days were waning and the sky had taken on a perpetual hue of gray by the time Greta gave him something of her own, a frayed copy of A Good Man is Hard to Find and, with it, an offer. They sat on a bench that needed a good sanding.
“There’s this tiny old movie theater on campus,” she told him. She tugged at a splinter in the seat. “Nobody goes there much, except a lot of Cinema Studies majors, mostly, but they show some of the best films there. People really should give it more of a chance…”
Neil knew where this statement was heading, and a sense of dread lodged itself in his stomach. He had heard of that theater; he and his friends had all deemed it the hive of the socially inept, the decrepit place where wan film geeks would plant themselves to hibernate. When he saw movies—and they were movies, not films—he usually went to the Cineplex, nestled twenty minutes away by bus in the city.
“They’re showing a double feature this Friday night,” Greta continued. “I was wondering if maybe you’d like to go with me.”
Her eyes lifted and he could see disappointment flash across her face. Neil realized he was grimacing. He twisted his mouth into a neutral smile as he thought of what to say. Pretenses flashed across his field of vision like fluorescent advertisements. His term paper, impatient to be brought into the world. A dinner with a professor. A date.
But how could he say any of these things? She appeared braced for his rejection, shoulders bunched up to her ears, biting her lower lip. How many days had it taken for her to muster up the courage and make that one request?
The words surfed out of his mouth without warning. “Sure,” he said. “What time?”
And Greta could have floated away right then, becoming a child’s balloon lost in the clouds. She told him that the first film started at seven. That day, he went to his dorm and fell asleep with A Good Man is Hard to Find resting on his chest, dog-eared on page six, rising and falling with his breath.
And now she waited at 6:50 PM on Friday, the eyes of an ornery cashier locked on her. Her buoyancy dissolved, hissing out of her pores. She considered going inside where it was warm and the film would flicker and she would forget all about him.
Greta had only asked Neil because he looked like James Stewart, lanky and mellow, and he paid her some attention when she felt like she could have disappeared in the breeze. And because, she admitted to herself, she didn’t want to go to the movies alone again. She hugged her torso to absorb the warmth of her arms.
Lara tapped on the glass. “6:54, kiddo. You’ve been here for twenty minutes.”
Closing her eyes, Greta didn’t need reminding that she had once again been naïve, overeager. But she imagined that it must be unpleasant, to be trapped in glass while everyone else got to see the movies.
When she opened her eyes, she told herself she would pivot on her heels and march into the theater and never look back. Her eyelids flicked open, and there he was, warming his hands with his breath. He raised his eyebrows at her in greeting. She rushed up to him.
“You made it,” she said.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
That last half hour faded from memory. It seemed as if all along they had planned to meet at this time. None of it mattered. She pulled Neil by the arm and guided him inside, forcing herself to take small steps.
The theater had walls of white brick and crumbling mortar. Unframed posters for films like L’Avventura and À bout de souffle hung off tacks. When the door opened, they flapped in the onslaught of wind.
“No popcorn?” Neil laughed, eyeing the concession stand.
Arm still entwined in his, Greta turned and frowned at him. This was the type of film in which snacking was sacrilege. She winced at the thought of chomps breaking the quietude, the celluloid spell.
She brought him to her favorite spot, burrowed in the back corner. They sat on the upholstered cushions. A few heads sprouted out from the field of tattered seats, and the light of the screen transformed them into silhouettes.
Greta held a finger to her lips and, burbling with giggles, hushed Neil.
The first selection was Persona. As the sylphlike forms of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson caressed each other on screen, Greta’s euphoria slowly paled, lips curling into her mouth. She hadn’t realized how experimental the film was, the unease that settled in the pit of your stomach. Her senses heightened so that she was acutely aware of every shift Neil made in his seat, every cough and intake of breath. Now every fault of the film belonged to her, each one a knot in her abdomen.
She sunk into her seat, face heating, wanting to bask in the glow of the film but unable to ignore his lolling head. A crease appeared on his forehead, like a coin slot. Maybe if she deposited a quarter there it would go away. At this point she was red enough to blend with the upholstery.
Only when the lights went up for an interlude before the next feature did the tension expel itself from her muscles. She pulled her knees up to her chest, peeked at him from above her stockings.
Neil rubbed the space between his eyebrows. “You see this stuff regularly?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “I love Bergman.” But she didn’t know if she could see Persona ever again without the phantom pains of mortification.
He stood and stretched. His joints cracked. “It’s getting kind of late…” he said, glancing at his watch.
“You can leave, if you want,” she said. She looked straight ahead. “Don’t stay because you feel bad for me.”
Neil opened his mouth, perhaps to protest, to defend himself. But he closed it and looked away and all he said was, “I’ll see you in class.”
She watched him slipping on his jacket as he walked through the aisle.
Greta felt like a hollowed container of ice cream, cast aside. But she couldn’t tell if this emptiness echoed more of loss or relief. In any case, the lights were dimming again, and there was nobody there beside her to dank up the air with his breath.
The next picture was The Seventh Seal. Sometimes in foreign films she liked to close her eyes and imagine that the Swedish was a secret language whispered into her ears alone. Sometimes she would miss key pieces of dialogue that way, but she had already seen this one, so it was okay. All was dark now, and she was warm.
Ariella Carmell is an 18-year-old writer from California. Recognized by the Poetry Society of the United Kingdom, Falmouth University, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cadaverine Magazine, Burningword, Crack the Spine, Vademecum, Crashtest, Eunoia Review, and Canvas Literary Journal, among others. She also serves as a blog contributor for The Adroit Journal. Come next fall, she will attend The University of Chicago to study literature and creative writing.
YOUR MOTHER SINGS WHEN SHE’S ALONE by Cathy Ulrich
Your mother loves to sing. She only does it when no one else is around. She says, I’ve got a terrible voice, and you believe it. Your mother never says anything she doesn’t think is true.
When you asked your mother why is the sky blue, she didn’t know the answer. She thought she might have asked her own parents when she was a child. She thought maybe every child did it. She said she didn’t know, science maybe, and said a more pressing question was, What if my blue isn’t your blue? What if my blue is your purple? How would you know?
Your mother doesn’t know the answers to lots of things. She didn’t realize how stupid she was, she says, until she became a mother. I used to think I knew it all.
She knows lots of things, actually, but they’re all useless, like there’s a kind of bug that can eat toads, or that silent filmmaker D.W. Griffith died in a hotel lobby.
Nobody cares about all that, she says, except for her.
Your mother has a disease when she looks in the mirror it makes her cry sometimes.
You’re beautiful, she says. You’re beautiful, not like me.
When you were a baby, she liked to count your fingers and toes. There were always ten of each, and they were so perfect.
Your mother sings to you. It’s all right because you love her, so you don’t mind her terrible voice. She sings songs she’s made up. A lot of them just go la la la.
La la la, your mother sings.
You sing with her sometimes. La la la, the two of you together.
When your mother gets her photograph taken, she covers her face. It looks like she’s only a pair of hands.
Your mother says that’s all right. At least my hands are pretty.
Her pretty hands dance when she sings la la la. She picks you up in her dancing hands and you go round the room together, round and round, la la la.
You dance until you’re dizzy, and then you laugh and laugh. Your mother tucks her hair behind her ear and gets her camera out of its drawer.
Say chizu, she says. Your mother is learning Japanese. She knows how to say rabu hoteru.
That means love hotel, she says.
You say love hotel and smile for the camera.
La la la, your mother sings while you pose.
She shows you the pictures, and you know that you’re beautiful, just like she says.
Your mother hands you her camera. She says, I’ll let you take my picture because you love me. Because you love your mother, the picture will be good. You have your mother sit on the couch and untuck her hair. Your mother waits for the flash of the camera, unblinking, sitting on her hands so they won’t fly up and cover her face.
Cathy Ulrich knows lots of other useless things, like how Depression-era criminal Alvin Karpis taught Charles Manson how to play guitar. Her work has been published in Crab Creek Review, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Literary Orphans, and others.
The vet returned my call as I was rolling the last wineglass in bubble wrap. In counterpoint to my curt hello, he sounded upbeat, even jovial. He explained that when Mags had been spayed last month, the operation had sent her hormones haywire. “That’s why she’s behaving like she’s pregnant,” he summed up. “It’s a textbook case.”
The “textbook case” was curled beside the stove in a cardboard box she had commandeered during my week of packing. She’d stuffed it with laundry from the overflowing hamper. Each time I approached, she whined.
“It’s all in your head,” I told her, shoving the phone into my pocket. “Snap out of it.”
Her eyebrows twitched. Then she sighed, wriggling deeper into the mound of dirty tees, her silky muzzle resting on her paws.
Alex returned with the U-Haul around one. After much hemming and hawing on both sides, I was making the move to his place. I updated him on Mags’ condition. In the several hours since the vet’s call, she had whelped. At her swollen teats were Alex’s favorite Nikes that she’d dragged from under the bed.
“Sorry, girl.” Alex crouched beside her, stroking her head. “I’m going to need those.” He reached into the box. Mags whimpered.
“Whoa! You can’t take them.”
He swiveled on his heels. “They’re my only pair.” He spoke in the measured “let’s be adults” tone I no longer found in any way adorable.
“To her they’re her pups.”
He gazed up at me. His wary expression mimicked my own, each of us thinking: Last minute moving jitters or a bona fide fight?
A fly bumped repeatedly against a closed window. Then Alex freed a Nike from under Mags. “To me,” he said, “they’re sneakers.”
By the time Alex’s friends arrived to load the van, we weren’t speaking. It seemed absurd to break up over whether size ten Nikes were puppies or footwear, but apparently we were.
Alex returned the U-Haul, his friends trailing him, no doubt swearing their allegiance to bachelorhood. I left a voicemail on my landlord’s phone requesting to reinstate my lease and began unpacking.
Mags refused her kibble that night, leaving the box only to go outside for a quick pee. I left her plenty of water and climbed into my empty bed.
In less than a month Mags was back to sleeping by my feet, the sneaker pups long abandoned in the tangled nest.
I held one in each hand, debating what to do. Dump them? Donate them to Goodwill? In the end, I flung them into the deep reaches of the closet.
Sometimes, in the early morning hours, I hear them yapping.
Catherine Nichols is a writer and editor whose stories and articles have appeared in a number of journals, includingVestal Review, flashquake, Every Day Fiction, and Monkeybicycle. Her most recent book, Alice’s Wonderland, explores the many adaptions inspired by Lewis Carroll’s classic. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and their much-pampered pug.
FINDING BABEL Fiction and Non-fiction Blend in Documentary Film
by David Novack and Andrei Malaev-Babel(Odessa Films) Introduction by David Novack and Dylan Hansen-Fliedner
“What happened on May 15, 1939?” we asked Antonina Pirozhkova in a 2003 interview, a few short years before her death. She sat uncomfortably still, staring off camera as if gazing into the painful, not-so-distant past, remembering her late husband, Isaac Babel.
Isaac Babel is considered one of the most significant literary figures of the early Soviet Union. A writer, translator, and journalist, he began publishing shortly after the revolution of 1917 with the help of his mentor, Maxim Gorky. The older author advised the young writer to go and see the world, incorporating what he saw into his fiction. Babel signed up with the Red Army in the Soviet-Polish Civil War as a war correspondent and began keeping what would become his 1920 Diary. Only twenty-six years old, Isaac Babel developed a unique literary practice rooted in the act of witnessing.
Pirozhkova as a young woman, 1933
As a documentarian, Babel captured reality, filtering and distilling it into memorable impressions in his diary. These observations and reports would later be transformed into a collection of short stories, Red Cavalry, which blend fact and fiction into powerful narratives. Red Cavalry thrust Babel upon the international stage.
In these stories, Babel wrote under the alter ego Kyril Lyutov, who, like Babel, hides the fact that he is Jewish from his fellow Cossacks (who were widely known for their antisemitism). The intertwining of fact and fiction and the semi-autobiographical meditation on identity became fertile ground for developing a formal and stylistic approach for our film, Finding Babel. With this in mind, we looked even more deeply at Babel’s approach to literature.
Isaac Babel said of his short stories that he wanted to do in five pages what took Tolstoy five hundred. He was interested in essences and in ambiguities, certainly not the ideal propagandist for the USSR. His stories often had an ethereal, otherworldly dimension and he was not afraid to show brutality as alternately heroic and terrible. His process involved taking in the world around him and condensing it through the lens of a protagonist with an ambiguous relationship to the events around him. This is how Babel saw human nature.
Similarly, the film Finding Babel condenses a twelve-year investigation and over 350 hours of footage into a two-hour film that explores impressions of history, sometimes glorious and other times brutal, rooted in the emotional experience of a witness. The sculpting and refining of Finding Babel called for a blend of vérité encounters throughout Ukraine, France, and Russia interspersed with animated treatments of Babel’s fiction and archival treatments of his diary as well as sit-down interviews along the way.
Finding Babel follows the late author’s grandson, Andrei Malaev-Babel, on a journey to some of the places upon which his grandfather left an indelible mark. Andrei’s grandmother was Antonina Pirozhkova, whose 2003 interview planted the seeds for our film and whose passing in 2010 (at the age of 101) inspired Andrei’s journey. After sharing his family history in the United States and hearing from scholars like Carol Avins (editor of the U.S. edition of Babel’s 1920 Diary), and Val Vinokaur (translator of a new edition of Babel’s work), Andrei sets off for Western Ukraine, the battleground upon which Red Cavalry took place.
Our experience of the landscape and the people of L’viv, Brody, and Kozin brought out the profound resonances and continuity of Isaac Babel’s work. We include excerpts from Babel’s stories and his diary interspersed with Andrei’s exploration. The twin poles of fact and fiction call for different visual treatments. When relevant fragments of Babel’s short stories take us along Andrei’s search, Babel’s words are juxtaposed against our live footage, transformed into evocative blended animation. In instances where we present excerpts from the 1920 Diary, archival footage gives a more grounded sense of historical representation and continuity.
This leg of our trip also forced us to confront historical realities that still haunt the lands of Western Ukraine in surprising ways. Indeed, we felt immersed in a kind of witnessing of our own. In this beautiful but troubled countryside, past meets present as real and imagined spaces collide and overlap in both Babel’s fiction and the experience of making the film. Honoring this confluence of literary modes and personal experience became paramount to the structure and mood of Finding Babel.
The poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko jokes with Andrei
Babel did not limit his writing to soldiers of the Red Army; his other set of major works focused on his hometown of Odessa, Ukraine. As in Red Cavalry, self-mythology is present in these works of fiction. The Story of My Dovecot is a semi-autobiographical tale centered on the bloody Odessa Pogrom of 1905, immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece film, Battleship Potemkin.A larger sequence of stories called the Odessa Tales focuses mainly on the area’s Jewish gangsters, ruled by Benya Krik, “The King.” These tales, like Babel’s other work, oscillate between a reverence for his brutish thugs and a fear of them. The narrative offers complex perspectives on corruption and power structures.
In Finding Babel, we incorporate footage from a 1926 film adaptation of the Odessa Tales in our animation treatment of the stories; clips from the film are superimposed over footage of the Moldovanka neighborhood near Babel’s childhood home and where the stories take place. With this visual treatment, “The King” occupies an ironic space in today’s Odessa, as does a newly installed statue of Babel, in a culture that has yet to look squarely at its past. The statue raises questions of the discrepancy between his heroic reception today and his vilification in the years leading up to his death.
Andrei is taken to a mass grave of Jews killed on the spot in WWII
A hybrid animated treatment in Finding Babel
As Babel began publishing his work, he received international acclaim, traveling abroad to Paris to visit his first wife and young daughter and to act as a representative of the young Soviet Union. He was celebrated as a hero, living in relative privilege compared to much of the impoverished Soviet population. But the political climate changed with Stalin’s rise to power and, with it, so did Babel’s standing. His work increasingly clashed with the state-enforced “socialist realism” and thus became unpublishable. His play Maria was shut down during rehearsals in 1935 by NKVD agents and was not performed in Russia until the end of the Soviet Union. For the film, we begin the trajectory toward Babel’s execution in Paris with excerpts from Maria, a work that is fundamentally about betrayal—by family, by society, by ideals.
Andrei explores Paris, where Babel was inspired by Western culture
Isaac Babel and Antonina Pirozhkova, 1935 traveling in Ukraine
In the summer of 1935 at a conference in Paris—often considered to be Babel’s last hope of escaping his fate—Babel announced he was becoming a master of the new literary genre of “silence,” and returned to Moscow. Babel’s very subtle blend of satire was tolerated for a time, but by 1939, after a long period of silence in which he wrote furiously but published no work, Stalin’s tolerance of the writer “with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart” had run out. He was arrested in the middle of the night at his country home in Peredelkino, a private community built for Soviet writers in 1934. The NKVD agents brought his second wife, Antonina Pirozhkova, with them from Moscow. As he was escorted through the gates of Lubyanka Prison, he turned to her and said, “Someday we’ll see each other…”
They never did.
Isaac Babel in the 1920s
Upon his arrest in 1939, an unpublished body of work was taken from Babel’s home, now lost in an enigmatic paper trail. Some accounts say it was burned. Others say it may still be buried deep in an archive or even a private collection. The truth eludes us as it eluded Antonina Pirozhkova. For fifteen years, she was fed false accounts from NKVD agents that Babel was living and working in a camp in Siberia. What she didn’t know, and didn’t find out until after his rehabilitation in 1956, was that Babel had been shot in his cell in Butyrka Prison on January 27, 1940, after a shockingly brief trial the day before. Up to the end, he pleaded to be allowed to finish his writing.
As the first American film crew ever allowed inside the KGB archives, we did not come any closer to finding these potential masterpieces. We were graced with unprecedented access to Babel’s case file and an ample amount of time to review it. When the question of the missing manuscripts was raised, the chief archivist, clad in bureaucratic gray, told Andrei with a shrug and a droll sigh that the file pointing to their whereabouts was missing or never existed. Yet, a discovery was still made that day. Chillingly confronting his grandfather’s case file, Andrei found his grandfather’s last act of writing. It was not a lost manuscript nor a personal letter, but rather a somewhat shaky signature officially acknowledging his own death sentence.
Babel speaks to Andrei through his KGB/NKVD file
Seventy-five years after Babel’s execution, we are left with what Gregory Freidin refers to as The Enigma of Isaac Babel. The blend of fact and fiction in Babel’s work shrouds him in self-mythology. The political situation he found himself in resulted in an unfortunate silence in the years leading up to his execution. Babel is a man of many seemingly irreconcilable mysteries. His story is still being written.
Literary projects often evolve on their own schedule, not conforming to the pressures and deadlines of an author, publisher, or film director. They have the capacity to gain a very special significance given the right circumstances. Twelve years after filming Pirozhkova’s honest and heart-wrenching interview and seventy-five years after Babel’s unceremonious execution, it is no coincidence that the time for Babel’s writing has come again.
Andrei and his guide, Alyona Andronati, walk the rich fields of Western Ukraine
Andrei’s search for his grandfather leads us to many startling situations that remind us of the need to witness in these particularly turbulent times. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, Bloomberg News drew a connection to the executions of Isaac Babel and other Soviet intellectuals and artists. Pussy Riot and Ai Weiwei face censorship and oppression in Russia and China (and those are just the publicized cases).
Echoes of the conflict Isaac Babel chronicled in his 1920 Diary have appeared in the last year as conflict erupted among Russian separatists and Ukrainian nationalists. Isaac Babel’s work and life are a call to witness and to report, contextualizing harsh truths in the complexities of humanity. Our search for Babel shows that although the man may have been executed, his work still resonates powerfully.
David Novack wrote, produced and directed the IDA Pare Lorentz award-winning documentary Burning the Future: Coal in America (2008), which has screened theatrically and on The Sundance Channel. He has been a producer, post supervisor, and associate producer for many films and television series, including Kimjongilia (2009 Sundance Official Selection). He has a Bachelor of Science in engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, and a degree in music from Berklee College of Music. He is a professor of film at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design and the director/producer/writer of Finding Babel (2015).
Dylan Hansen-Fliedner is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and poet. He has a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in cinema studies and English, with Honors in creative writing. His poetry has been published by Gauss PDF and 89plus/LUMA Foundation and has been featured in The Atlantic. He is the co-director ofthe feature film Driving Not Knowing (2015) and co-editor and associate producer of Finding Babel (2015).
I remember hearing the beating of God’s heart. Th-thump, th-thump, th-thump. I swore it to be a holy thing. My father held me tight and said, Let that rhythm guide you, son. Cha-cha-cha. Th-thump, th-thump, th-thump. The living room spun into hallelujahs as he swiveled and swayed his hips, hand on stomach, eyes closed. Lips easing into a smile. Lawrence Welk crooned from the television to keep those toes tapping. My father listened, sashayed through life, hips pressed against my mother, my friends, my daughter. It’s a holy, holy thing, son. Cha-cha-cha. I shut my eyes, prayed for the beating of God’s heart to drown out all other sounds.
Nancy Hightower’s work has appeared in storySouth, Word Riot, Gargoyle, A cappella Zoo, Prick of the Spindle, Prime Number Magazine, and is forthcoming in Sundog Lit. Her short story collection “Kinds of Leaving,” was shortlisted for the Flann O’Brien Award for Innovative Fiction, and Port Yonder Press will publish her collection of poetry, The Acolyte. She currently reviews science fiction and fantasy for The Washington Post.
I am trying to think about the circus collapse.
I am trying to think about the kidnapped
schoolgirls, the extremist who says
they’re his for the selling. I am trying, but celebrity
overrides: Look, the young country star
held at gunpoint. Look, the Instagram
argument, the lip-sync fiasco. Someone else
is talking. Someone other than who
we thought. Not who ought. I am trying
to speak about the convict whose execution
went wrong, to parse the name of the chemical
cocktail, the name of the dead man or the man
he killed. I know what I know
changes nothing. It augurs
nothing—not when the plague, it turns out,
was not the plague, and we know this now, and not
when the skull on the ocean floor holds tens
of thousands of years of answers. The mouse
that scurries the floorboards could be
an old mouse rejuvenated by a younger
mouse’s blood, only to meet
the trap. I am trying to remember
those miners in Chile, caught miles below
the ground, but first I must set my mind on things
above, turn my eyes to the clouds (the whence
from which my help comes), the Internet
sky I am told will shelter me
from collapse. How many days
were they down there? How many
miles? It seems longer now, deeper.
Years and light years. Imagine the researcher’s
proposal, his own doubt as he pondered
the tiny needle, as he coined the phrase mouse transfusion. He’d have to ignore so
many skeptics, spend so many years paying attention
to small creatures, letting the world flicker past,
world beset with wars, world too
impatient for war, world too impatient
for what endures.
The first time my sister Mari lost her baby, only twenty weeks, the doctor assured her that she could try again. “The body is miraculous, it can bounce back from anything,” as though her womb just needed to be cleared of the cluttered, grasping mess inside.
I was recruiting a student for my college, flipping through brochures in her living room. They sent me all over the Southwest as their official bilingual recruiter. The girl sat next to me and ran her hands over the glossy pictures of the campus. She would be the first in her family to go to college. Her mother, who sat on my other side, peered at the pictures of the dormitories. She paused over the listings of scholarship information and fees accrued over the first academic year and wanted me to assure her that they could afford it, that her baby wouldn’t be so far away. “Unas horas,” I reminded her, showing her the route from I-20 across Louisiana and into Texas. When the visit was over, the mother sent me off to my hotel with arepas wrapped in tin foil. I relished being among these hopeful families, taking on some of their glow.
At the hotel, Mari called me to tell me the news. There were fibroids in her uterus; she had passed the contents of the amniotic sack and was taking medication to expel the rest. She explained this as though she was reading straight from the hospital’s printout of her condition. She cried, but was still hopeful. It was the kind of slow letting of tears, like drops of blood rising to the surface of a small but painful cut which leaves a minute but lasting mark.
I should call this baby by her name, the name that Greg and Mari chose for her. Sophia. Her name was Sophia, for the short time that she lived in Mari’s womb.
Less than a year after my sister lost the first baby I was with her in Chicago with news of a new baby. Her OB/GYN insisted on checking in every two weeks to monitor her progress. In her home in Chicago, we drank tea heavy with honey and lemon and watched movies with her head in my lap the way we used to sit when we both lived at home. I ran my hands across her forehead to keep her serene. “I have to relax, be stress free,” she repeated.
She rubbed the growing bulge in her flat stomach and I wondered if she could feel it in there, growing all the time. Greg, her husband, hovered around us but chose not to intrude. I could forgive him for taking my sister so far away, though our parents hadn’t. They comforted themselves with asking for some of my frequent flyer miles to be there when this baby was born, and so Greg took that opportunity to begin preparing a room for them when they came for two weeks to help with the baby. He even laid our mother’s embroidered quilt on the crib as an offering to her. It was the one she made for the first baby, but Mari and I both thought it was a nice gesture.
On the way home, I tucked the ultrasound of the new baby into my bag, careful not to bend it. She was a strange imprint of Mari and Greg with the potential to become more like one or the other. I allowed myself to hope for Mari again.
Mari told me about the second pregnancy even before she told Greg.
Mari always wanted a baby. The standards of motherhood were deeply entrenched in her set-up of our communal doll house, in the way that she swaddled our enormous cat Blanca who spit and scratched her. While our brother Efran and I became more interested in TV than playing house, Mari insisted on serving us milk in her tiny china cups. Our mother delighted in her youngest, her little maiden girl. My penchant for soccer with Efran’s friends in the back field behind the house left my shins bruised up and me sweating like the boys. But when Mari asked me to sing a lullaby to the cat, or rock her doll, I humored her. We all did.
Mari calls me every Sunday. It’s a ritual I have begun to count on. Her pregnancy ensures communication between myself and the rest of the family, even though Efran never left San Antonio, like me, and has two kids of his own. I won’t mention my failings as the oldest child of three whose relationships have never gone past six months. My last boyfriend, Jonathan, couldn’t take my traveling. For a time, Jonathan liked to hear my success stories about work. As I traveled more, they became tedious to him when I sat up at night after returning home, too wired to sleep. “It’s making things difficult when you’re gone so often,” he confessed. A month later he moved out.
After my breakup, the news of Mari’s new pregnancy swept me up into the effervescent happiness of new life coming into the family.
I expect the call from Mari as usual on Sunday, but don’t hear from her until Monday afternoon. I am shaken to hear her so scared. The last text message that I received two days before featured a picture of her round belly protruding from her night shirt and a caption that read “32 weeks!” She likes to mark her pregnancy with each new week of growth. I, as the future auntie, don’t mind.
“Something’s wrong with the baby, the doctor wants to do an ultrasound to check everything out. Can you come up here?” she asks. The sickening panic in my stomach subsides only after I calm myself by looking up the prices of a standby flight to Chicago the next day and how many frequent flyer miles I still have in my account. “I’m coming to you,” I promise her.
Mari reminds me not to tell Mom or Dad yet.
“I don’t want to worry them,” she says.
In the airport, the anonymity of those passing by me sinks into that place in my stomach, a hollow basin full of worry. I fly through an airport every month and with each visit, I understand a little better the exchange that I see around me. It is so easy to retreat into oneself, into a phone, a book, the news playing soundlessly above the passengers heads on a television screen, the last thing we want intruding into our private thoughts. Still, I listen to the conversations of those around me, I watch the families and business executives pass me, grasping for something familiar in this moment because Mari hasn’t called yet to tell me what’s happening.
The faucet in the bathrooms comes on automatically. I cup enough in my hands to splash water across my face in a moment of relief. The plane to Houston was pummeled by violent airstreams the entire forty-five minute flight while I barely held the bile back in my throat. Even after flying once a month for two years, my motion sickness still creeps up on me. Women around me come in and out, checking their makeup in the wide mirrors or ushering fussy kids into one stall to take turns. I search the faces that pass me, but none of them meet my eyes. We are all too lost in our own sought-after moments of comfort to notice anyone around us.
There is a message on my phone from Mari. I don’t listen to it, instead retreating into an empty stall and calling her back.
“Mari, I just landed. I have an hour before my next flight leaves, so I should be there with you soon,” I explain.
There are tears in Mari’s voice, in her choked answer. “We’re in the hospital. “
“What happened, Mama?” I called Mari Mama since we were little. Lately she wore the term like a badge of honor.
“She’s gone. No heartbeat. The doctor will induce labor soon,” she chokes out. There is a scuffle and Greg gets on the phone. “Are you coming, Linda?” he asks.
“I’m coming Greg. Text me the name of the hospital. I’ll be there in a few hours.”
There is an art display on the wall across from my seat at the gate. I sip my tea, expecting the water that funnels out to be scalding, but it’s already losing its warmth. The artwork on the wall is from a second grade class in the Houston public school district. Most of them are done in water color that was poorly controlled, like a distracted art teacher left the kids to their own devices. Art class was my favorite hour of school when I was young, and I am reminded of my own haphazard paintings, see my own use of color in the bright golden sun of a landscape. I allow myself to think of how I would have taught my new niece how to paint, how I would have shown her to swipe a finger through thick acrylics, then how to hold a paintbrush. It was how I had always entertained Efran’s kids, my legacy as an aunt.
A woman passes across my line of sight, pushing a stroller and pulling on the hand of her young son. I have not fixed my mind on many other people today. She admonishes her son to walk faster in Spanish that is clearly Caribbean but that I can’t place. It’s not the Spanish that I have heard all of my life, the languid expression of Tejanos from the Valley. Even still, hearing her speak disarms me, transporting me to a time when all of us, Mari, Efran, and I, were under the same roof, were together. Hearing that first language, the tonal inflections that can only mean family, leads me back to a place of security.
The woman is what my grandmother in Mexico would have called prieta, black with a sleek ponytail pulled so far back that it gives her thin face a severe, or possibly exhausted expression. She is younger than me. Her face is not etched with the lines that sneak in around the eyes, where we women are marked through time. She argues with her son over whether he can push his sister’s stroller. He has a high-pitched voice that kids have at that age, regardless of volume, that draws attention to him. I think of my nephew Toni, my brother’s son, who sounds just the same, four years old and loud when he wants to get his point across.
They begin boarding the plane. I watch them get in line and push the stroller closer and closer to the gate entrance. I hear my group number being called, and I sneak in line near them, hovering close. I peak in on the baby in the stroller, a baby girl with big green eyes, wispy tight curls, and a serene expression. “How old is she?” I ask the mother.
“A year,” she answers in Spanish. I tell her how beautiful her daughter is and the tension seems to ease from her face. She tells me how she is taking her children back to San Juan to see her parents, how her husband couldn’t make the trip and stuck her with the kids on a four-hour flight. Her boy watches his mother chatter away curiously, pushing his sister’s stroller back and forth to see her face scrunch up in a grin. He puffs up his chest and thrusts out their boarding passes at the woman scanning them, and I follow right behind. We are in the seats next to one another, and I watch her stow the stroller before getting on the plane, pushing her son in front of her so that he is by the window.
Once settled, the woman continues our conversation about where her husband works. It is a relief not to have to tell her about why I am flying to Chicago, letting her fill the spaces in our conversation with her own life.
“I have to go to bathroom!” Her son announces to everyone around us. When his mother ignores him, continuing our conversation, he begins to hold himself until she is forced to notice him.
“Leave her with me,” I say. “I can hold her,” I add, holding out my hands for the baby girl. She considers for a moment, but decides to hand the baby to me, realizing, I hope, that my intentions are good, and, anyway, I’m surrounded by others and there is nowhere for me to go. The baby doesn’t protest while her mother backs away slowly, surveying how she will react. Then, seeing that her baby is fine, she leads her son off to the bathroom at the back of the plane.
The baby girl sits up tall on my knee, stretching her infant body and testing the muscles of her back that keep her upright. She gurgles and hums, looking around, observing the people around us, then turns to stare up at my face. I see in her eyes that she is not yet concerned, but she frowns anyway, studying my features. I could be her Tia, or her mother’s friend. I wonder if she would know the difference. Her smooth hand reaches out and grasps my finger with baby strength both looking for balance and exploring.
“Que mamacita? What do you see?” I ask her. I repeat the question, alternating between English and Spanish. This seems to please her. She stares intently up at me, still clutching my finger, and tests out a small smile at my words. I bounce her a little on my knee, watching her curls bounce with her and she squeals, raising her arms high above her head. “Preciosa, linda, hermosa,” I repeat to her, leaning my face in towards hers and drawing back out while she laughs.
Her mother, I notice, has returned. Her son stands beside her, watching me with his sister. The baby looks around at her mother and lets out the brightest squeal of all, reaching up for her as recognition sets in. Her mother settles her under one arm, kissing her sweet brown cheek and whispering at her. There is so much love there between them, one that involves no one else, not even her son. It fills me with a longing that I find surprising.
“Gracias,” the mother thanks me, shaking my hand. Her palm is as soft as her daughter’s. The flight passes quickly as I continue to play intermittently with the baby, who stands on her mother’s legs and leans towards the window, completely unafraid. When the plane lands, the mother turns and waves at me, waving the baby’s arm too. Then they are gone, taking with them my feeling of wholeness and leaving behind a gutted, empty space. I am scraped clean, raw, repeating the lost baby’s name on my lips so that we do not forget her. Sophia, Sophia, Sophia.
Leticia Urieta is a Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at Texas State University. She won Agnes Scott’s Academy of American Poet’s prize in 2009 and her work has appeared in Cleaver, the 2016 Texas Poetry Calendar, and Blackheart. Leticia lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and two dogs. She is using her love of Texas history and passion for research to write a historical novel about the role of Mexican soldaderas in Texas’ war with Mexico.
If you were at a dance party and my name rhymed with overalls, would you court me? And then, after we kissed, would you go to your friends to get high fives? If I only wore orange, would you peel me under the blankets like chewed paper falling from the structure of a paper mache elephant? Here, pretend like you’re an air conditioner. Pretend to pull your dick out at a party. Pretend to get reprimanded. This is what your face looks like when it is hurt. This is what your hands look like when they’re bound. This is what it looks like after your house turned into a building. This is what you look like when you’ve discovered yourself the next morning in a city that smells like wet trash. There are two things I’d like to say to you, but I can’t find the correct anatomy. It is like searching for ghosts in November. It is like breaking all the wood in the house because it won’t light on fire. If you were a carnival, you’d be the medicine show.
Kallie Falandays is the author of Dovetail Down the House (forthcoming from Burnside Review). You can read more of her work in PANK, Salt Hill, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. She runs Tell Tell Editing and edits Kenning Journal.
When Lucy and me go down by the river the moonlight in her long blonde curls. You can’t trust no one near no shining hair like that I tell her no one should touch them long blonde curls. She laughs at me I’d be mad but for the sound of her laugh at night like when the sun and the moon sit in the sky at the same time. She laughs she holds her hair between her lily white fingers she says I can touch it. I want to.
Go ahead go ahead go ahead. Touch it touch it touch it she won’t quit sayin it, I got to look down at the ground. No one. No one should touch. If I don’t look she can’t make me touch. My fingers twitch. She says she wishes I. would do. Something. She says it like that stops between her words I hear the air.
A stick calls to me a whisper a song, it calls me stronger than Lucy, touch it touch it, pick it up watch what it can do. So I do, I do I pick it up I hold it I wait Lucy don’t see me wait she wants to go home.
I toss the stick on the water I watch it the weight of it the dark water, one side dips the other dips under finally the stick settles it floats, floats away so easy. So easy. I tell Lucy how easy the stick floats.
And Lucy so in the world all she sees is wood. She can’t see. I watch the stick for both of us it floats she tells me take her home. We walk in the woods her hair in the moonlight the moon between the trees the branches on the ground. She walks on with her long blonde curls. She walks on with her lily white hands.
Heather Jones’s plays have appeared in GLO, an annual festival of one-acts by women, The Philly Fringe Festival, Asheville Fringe Festival, The Dali Museum, and the Tampa Museum. Her writing has been published in literary magazines, including The Louisville Review, Cartagena, and Connotation Press, an Online Artifact. Heather teaches writing at University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. “Willie: Premonition” is adapted from her novel-in-progress, Tennessee Murder Ballad.
[PEACH JUICE COATED THE LIPS SO THAT EACH SONG] by Jerrod E. Bohn
Peach juice coated the lips so that each song
became removals of pit. Her name was Valerie
(age 10) & her mother always packed an extra
we pretended was my gift
like her tracing the length of my hand she called
my fruit line. My first crush
promised me a sticker as if to suture
if I stopped professing loving her
like reopening a wound. I picked
scabs until they scarred. Mornings always resembling
blue bruises. Bleeding as if
to bleed a hole where there was no star, a slice
carved out to adhere
I walked out on my first wife & weave
like a palmprint left sticky on picnic tables
something imitated for lack of what’s to say.
When I was young I wanted to be a paleontologist,
giddy among bones. Living tissue peeled
from gummy backs stuck beneath fingernails
Valerie told me I’d forever be in love.
Jerrod E. Bohn completed his M.F.A. in poetry in 2010 at Colorado State University. His poetry and nonfiction have appeared in Phoebe, The Montreal Review, Smoking Glue Gun, alice blue, FRiGG, SPECS, Word For/Word, Watershed Review and elsewhere. He currently lives in Seattle where he teaches English and yoga, and he enjoys cooking and getting outdoors.
I broke my brother’s collarbone when he was three and I was seven. We were playing on a playground set in our backyard at the end of a fall day. The set was made of plastic: a short plastic platform set atop a short plastic slide, fit more for his age than mine. What I remember is this: the long shadows of an early fall evening, mild boredom, my brother’s strange self-indulgence; an upwelling of impatience, the boiling up of frustration—then the idea to pick up and raise the slide while he stood on the very top of it. Which I did. I didn’t give it much thought. He fell over like those fainting sheep, shoulder-first, stiffened by shock, and screamed and writhed in the cold grass as I stood over him. I turned him over, saw his face a jumble of red and tears, his glasses broken. I told him to stop pretending. He went to the ER and came home with a sling.
As a child, my brother was skinny and wiry and had a sort of mystifying buoyancy. He wore half-inch thick glasses, forever Scotch-taped at the corners and the bridge, one of the lenses patched over to correct his lazy eye. His hair, a coffee-colored mop-top of tangles and knots occasioned by a piece of chewing gum or leaves or paint, resembled a mushroom cap, gills and all. He was an odd child; imaginative, self-abandoned. He ate whole sticks of butter from the refrigerator. He removed pots and pans from the cabinets to play drums on the kitchen floor and chanted along to his arrhythmic beating in a throaty gibberish. He dressed up as Santa Claus on May afternoons and waved at buses of bewildered schoolchildren. He dressed up as: a leprechaun, Shirley Temple, a Bedouin tribesman, Jesus, an Irish Republican militant. He did this in our front yard. In first grade, he brought our cousin Lauren in for show-and-tell. We have it on video. He was an odd child.
I was not. I worked hard to fit in. Or maybe I was as eccentric as he was, but I wouldn’t dare show it. I felt constrained by some mysterious boyhood force. I was self-conscious, prone to shame, scared to death of going to a catechism-inspired hell. I sought order, a place for the chaos of childhood to fit. I think I was, at times, a bizarrely serious kid. My teachers commented on my conscientiousness and maturity, and I handed those notes, proud, to my parents. There’s a strange quality of recognition I have with my seven-year-old self, as if a part of adulthood had already been fit into place. That consciousness feels the same.
But at seven, I also took seriously my fraternal role, which meant I instigated fights with my brother, the youngest, to pass on the brute force lessons taught to me by our older sister. I designed our fights to keep my brother out of trouble. The specter of a bully (menacing teenagers) was the force I hoped to train him against, and under this dubious cover I made him fight me. He resolved to walk away until I provoked him enough, until it was unavoidable. These fights, which cast our entire childhood in a quality close to myth, are the only times in my life I remember being genuinely cruel to someone else.
My mom doesn’t believe I was the one who broke his collarbone on that fall day, twenty-five years ago now. My brother doesn’t believe it either, though he admits he doesn’t remember it at all. He was prone to injury (he would later ride tricycles into brick walls and tumble willingly down stairways) and, for my mom, he just fell. She laughs, thinking of the mop of hair, of Santa Claus in May. “He marched to the beat of a different drummer,” she says. He’s twenty-eight now, a successful songwriter and musician. We’re close, though we live 1,200 miles apart.
“That’s all ridiculous,” she says. “He was two, not three, and it happened in the summertime. We didn’t know he was seriously hurt until the next day.”
She’s right, but I won’t let it go. The scene in my mind, in the autumn, raising that slide and standing over him afterward, lives on so vividly. This spectral guilt finds form here. I’m surprised it means so much to me.
My mom clears her throat and sighs.
“You were always so hard on yourself,” she says.
K.C. Wolfe’s essays and short stories have been published in Gulf Coast, The Sun, Prime Number, Joyland, Redivider, Under the Sun, Swink, and other magazines. He serves as the nonfiction editor for the magazine Sweet, and lives, on average, in St. Petersburg, Florida.
ABC FOR THE CHILD WHO LIVED TWENTY-SIX DAYS
by Deborah Burnham
Air your only appetite, your first food.
Your bones fit, peg in cup.
Creases on your arms. Down, derry derry derry down your mother sang.
Except for the first cry, you were silent.
Fist-sized head. Fists the size of cherries. Don’t go. Don’t go. The single prayer.
Half your life, you were too small to hold.
You never said I.
Jasmine, juniper. All the things you never smelled.
What did you know? How did you know?
You knew terrified, ecstatic love.
The moon went through just seven phases.
No pepper, yeast, warm raspberry. But the healing milk.
Paper diaper, paper shirt, paper full of numbers.
To quench your thirst: six drops, or seven, on your lips.
Room for two hands in your small bed.
Slender lines between each heartbeat.
You were one of two. You are, still.
Under the scudding clouds, the owl’s shadow.
Your voice: one cry, a breath cutting a second.
Where did you come from. Where did you go.
Crosshairs of our hearts.
Yet. Still. Abiding.
We wake in the haze of sorrow. A slow breeze
clears the air.
Deborah Burnham has lived in the Powelton area of Philadelphia forever. She walks to work in the English department at Penn where she teaches creative writing and literature, and advises students. She writes long repetitive sequences of poems, then slices and dices.
She found the letter in the attic. It was undated but possibly written before World War II. She showed it to him in bed. It was signed, “Ashley.” There was no greeting. She was moved by it and asked if he felt the same. He said he did, but wanted to read it again, preferably alone. She rolled away from him and closed her eyes. The summer heat made her dizzy.
“I’ll take it home to read,” he said.
She nodded, eyes shut. “Okay. But I want it back.”
He didn’t know much about her beyond her liking red wine and sex. But she was a romantic and a patriot. She could quote Byron at length and she dismissed claims that he was cold and ruthless. Warm and ruthless, she joked to herself. She owned an antique American flag sewn in Alabama. She’d been a competitive figure skater until a few years ago. She hated her mother. She loved him with a kind of wild allegiance, though he was known as a player in certain circles.
He didn’t ask her about herself. They had known each other three months, but had just begun to make love. “Let’s go to bed,” he’d said to her in his casual way.
He didn’t consider himself a romantic, but the letter was romantic, even heart-breaking. Like an ice cube in the bottom of a glass: it made him feel like that.
He read the letter to his other girl that night. She was even newer than the first. He didn’t know what to expect. Right away, she started crying. She got up from bed. She moved through the apartment naked, watering the houseplants. Ferns, palms, pothos. She loved Mozart and had a dancer’s body and long blonde hair.
“If I were the writer of the letter, I’d want a second chance to show my lover what he really meant to me, because first chances shouldn’t count,” she said. “Everything in life must be done twice.”
“You’re not born twice,” he teased.
“Sure you are. Ask any Buddhist.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to die twice.”
“Dying isn’t dying. It’s transfiguration.”
He lay stretched out in bed, his hands behind his head, his chin tipped up. “What will we be in the next life? Lions or mice?”
She put down the watering can and stood over him. “I can’t say . . . but we’ll know each other.”
“We’ve done this dance before.”
He smiled and thought he might be in love with her. She was someone who had an entertaining explanation for everything. He looked across the bedroom. Curtains flapped in the breeze. A truck rumbled by. He tucked the letter under his pillow, but made a mental note to take it before he left.
“When does your sister get here?”
“Eight-thirty,” she said. “We have to meet her at BART.”
“You didn’t tell me that.”
“I did,” she leaned down and kissed him. “You forgot.”
He sighed, threw off the covers and began to dress. He thought if the sister looked anything like her, he’d be in trouble.
Sheryl was nothing like Danielle. She was short and stocky. Her dark brown hair formed a frizzy halo around her face. In the car, she complained about delays at JFK, turbulence, and the food. He disliked her immediately.
“Well, I’m glad you made it,” Danielle sighed.
“Barely,” she groused. “The first thing I want is a hot meal, then a hot bath. Then I’ll go straight to bed.”
“Don’t you want to see the city?”
Sheryl didn’t answer and started rummaging through her bag. She found a tube of lipstick and put it on. It was a ghastly orange. She puckered her lips. Then she boxed it up in its case. “Berkeley is a great city, a beautiful one. But I live in New York.”
He drove the whole way in silence. He thought of pulling over and dumping her on the road.
Later at Danielle’s place, Sheryl sat on the edge of the bed and bounced a little. She frowned, disturbed by its springiness. He gave Danielle a look, but she was clearly used to this behavior. They ordered from the local Indian place.
“I hate Indian food,” she said. “It gives me heartburn.”
“I see it doesn’t keep you from eating it,” he laughed.
Sheryl put down the fork and narrowed her eyes. “Well, I don’t want to starve.”
He laughed again, thinking there was little chance of that. His girlfriend shot him a look. Then he stopped laughing. Inside, he was thinking this woman was horrific.
When he drove off that night, he considered going to the first girlfriend’s house. As soon as he thought of her, he thought of the letter. He’d left it in Danielle’s bed, under the pillow. And now that cow of a sister would be sleeping on it.
He had no choice but to go back. He made an illegal U-turn. A driver honked.
He found both women in the kitchen. Danielle was grinding coffee and Sheryl sat at the table, reading aloud from the letter, chortling now and then. He could see she’d left her filthy fingerprints all over it. He felt mad and jumbled up.
“Hey,” he said. “That’s my letter.”
Sheryl fanned herself with it. “You’re Ashley, huh?”
“No,” he said.
“So is ‘Ashley’ another girlfriend of yours?”
He snatched it from her with one athletic move. Then she grabbed it back. He didn’t want the letter to tear, so he let it go.
“If you want it back, you have to tell us where you got it,” said Sheryl.
“I . . . I don’t remember,” he stammered. “I just found it.”
“I don’t know. On the street somewhere.”
“Bullshit,” Sheryl turned to her sister. “He’s hiding something.”
He began to pace back and forth, running his hand through his hair. He knocked over one of the ferns, then crashed into a palm. His girlfriend begged him to be careful, but he hardly heard a word. He stumbled over the cat. He picked it up and smoothed its fur.
“I found it in my grandparents’ attic. They’re dead and I don’t like to talk about them.”
On the far side of the kitchen, Sheryl rolled her eyes. Danielle poured coffee into two mugs. Her face tensed and he could tell she was about to cry.
“You told me your grandparents were alive,” she said. “The ones that raised you.”
“My mother’s parents, not my father’s.”
“No, that’s not what you said before.”
He had nowhere to retreat from his lies. It was like she’d shut all the windows simultaneously and the air had gone from the room. He tried to come up with something that was orderly and consistent with his lies, but nothing came. His arms felt limp.
Danielle stared at him. “I think you’d better go.”
He didn’t want to go. He wanted to tell her that he’d fallen in love with her, that he’d been outside the experience of love for so long, that the letter made him realize it, and that he would leave his other girl. Except he couldn’t say any of that.
After he left, close to midnight, he was completely worn out. Without knowing why, he decided to walk rather than drive to the first girl’s house. Though he didn’t take in anything he saw: the homeless men, the house-fronts, the night sky veiled in fog.
Again and again, he thought of the letter. He was thinking so intently of it, he walked five blocks past her house to his own house. He was dead-tired. He tried to watch a funny movie to cheer himself up, but he fell asleep on the sofa with his shoes on.
The next day, the patriotic girl came to visit him. Her face was barely visible in the shuttered room. She wore a dress patterned in delicate flowers. It reminded him of Danielle. The lilies she’d brought him trembled in the day’s heat.
“I called you earlier,” she said. “You didn’t pick up.”
“Sorry, I was asleep.”
“Do you still have that letter I gave you?”
“I’ll get it.”
“Are you coming over tonight?”
“No, not tonight . . . I can’t. I have a Quaker meeting.”
She laughed. “Since when are you a Quaker?”
“It’s something I’m trying out.”
“But you’ll get the letter?”
He nodded. They made love and she left and he called Danielle to ask for the letter. He hung up right away when he heard her voice.
Talila Baron recently completed her debut novel, Blotted Out. Her stage plays have been produced at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, New York University, and the Abingdon Theatre in New York. A winner of the Wilner Short Story Award, Female Eye Screenwriting Competition, and Jane Chambers Award for Playwriting, Baron was a also a finalist for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, a finalist for the Beverly Hills Film Festival, and a semi-finalist for the Chesterfield Screenwriting Fellowship. She holds an M.A. in creative writing.
She’d been lying back with her eyes closed and with her sunglasses off and above her head on the ice, nothing between her and the cold bright rays but as I spoke she reached to the glasses and crunched forward at the waist. Her legs pivoted upwards a little in reaction then back down and she pushed the sunglasses onto her face. Not far to her left the ice was clinging to rock and in places it was cracked and fissured with slow pressures but to the right the side of the valley wasn’t visible beyond the hump of the glacier and down further at the valley floor, sunk in green and surrounded by trees and heat the house did its fairytale thing. Stacking upwards turreted from the land. She brought her knees toward her and hooked across them and peered down the slope.
I don’t know. A half metre a day maybe.
When I touched the ice my fingertips came back dry. It was pitted and uneven and it had had specks of dirt and grit ground into it by footsteps or deeper down by the building layers of snow and, looking across, it was a mottle of black and pale blue running deep. My hands were pale and I moved them into the crooks of my knees and I squeezed. I listened to the scrape of rocks and the creak of ice and the occasional startling crackle or crash that echoed up to the snowpack. Once there was a crack and a scatter of ice chunks and rocks a little ahead of us down the valley and the crack was loud and extended and the detritus rolled and bounced down into some newly-torn crevasse and above it all the silent flow of the glacier itself.
There were bird silhouettes above, between the high glare-blanked sky and me and on the way up from the house I’d seen deer and marmots. At the valley floor the heat rose straight out from the grass in a long wet haze but up here the air was cold and dry and my hoodie and jeans did little against it and my ski mask was stuffed unused into my front pocket.
She noticed my shiver and she shifted over and wrapped her body, obscured by layers of down and fleece, around me and her head rested on my shoulder and her face moved up to touch mine at the side. The arm of her sunglasses pressed into my cheek and, blurred in my periphery, I could see the slight shaded swivel of her eye. She was still looking down toward the house.
Rah she said. Her teeth scraped the cold flesh of my face and dug for a second and she grinned and she laughed. I could have told you that.
I settled back toward her body and I moved my hands to hold on to her arms and push them further into my chest and I slumped forward a little so my whole top half shared in her coat.
Better than being inside all day though. When this is what’s out.
She tightened. I felt movement somewhere beneath her thick clothing and I was shifted around in her arms and she rustled and crumpled. She brought her legs around to cross my waist and her boots cracked down into the ice between mine. Thumped down and made heel-shaped furrows edged with new white powder. She was above me now and in place of her skin the matte polymers of her coat scratched against my face.
How is your guy though she said.
Down the hill in the house in a room with blacked out windows he would be sitting in his chair looking downwards, dripping saliva on bare broken legs with floodlights oscillating on her own jerry-rigged circuits and the music following their patterns; irregular rapid snaps of dark noise; he’d be closing his eyes and pulling his lips back, and his teeth and gums and whole mouth were all ruined with the rest of him. When I came to him in the evenings or the early mornings and I opened the curtains the saliva was pinkish.
I chewed on my lips though the cold would dry them out and crack them. He has this thing I said. He just reels off every single fact he can think of when I’m there you know. It’s impressive almost. Like he’s exhausted and wasting away and probably hallucinating all kindsa shit right but there he is with his facts.
What kind of facts.
Not even facts. Just like data. I shrugged and the movement was loud against her coat and finally through all her clothes I felt at my shoulders some tight string of her. The muscles moving in response to me. Junk data. This morning it was battles and estimated casualties. Yesterday he was listing Pokémon.
Pokémon. She laughed. Jigglypuff. Blastoise.
I laughed. Jigglypuff and all them, I said. That little balding man with all the like, paintings on the walls of mountains and shit, the expensive wine and I take my knife to him and all he’s screaming is.
I stopped, and waved my hands out from her embrace. I don’t even know, I said. Tangela.
Tangela. Mr. Mime.
He doesn’t even know that it isn’t my job to make him talk. I don’t care what he says or doesn’t say. But it did get me thinking I should play those games again. When I was little I’d download all of them and play them on my computer through an emulator. I smiled. My first taste of piracy. I learned the internet that way.
Sounds like you’re going to be stuck with him for a while she said. She was holding onto my face in her gloves and I felt her leaning forward to kiss me once on the top of the forehead and for a few seconds the ice and the air was pushed back and her warmth and presence moved foremost. I mean that’s pretty defiant right. If I waltzed in there tonight all smiles and food and and.
No knives and drugs I said.
Right. Well he’d still be fucking screaming his Pokémon right.
As far as he was concerned she didn’t exist. When we shared the house she was silent and we came outside to talk and he only ever saw me in his one darkened room or saw my ski-masked face and gloved hands and felt my blades or needles or chisels or water, and for him it was only me crashing through his annexed castle. The little conical roofs and pointed windows.
Sometimes I’d take an object that I’d found somewhere in the house in with me when I visited him and talk about it and show him. He’d had a photograph taken from this glacier on a day like this of a youngish woman in sunglasses with a ponytail. She was pinching together her fingers above the tiny pointed roof of his home as if she was lifting it or holding it up. But he’d kept up his interference patterns and I’d junked it and crushed the picture and it was still there, crumpled and inaccessible and showing up muddied whenever the switching circuit opened the room with light.
Whatever I said. It’ll be fine.
She’d pulled her glove from her hand and she was running the backs of her minor knuckles along the curve of my jaw. You’re freezing she said. We need to get you back down to all that warmth.
Down somewhere on the valley floor there’d be wild boar wandering, and deer and hedgehogs and whatever else. In the pale nights of the summer, beneath the blacked-out windows on the upper floors we’d sit out in the garden and watch them move.
Patrick Ball lives in Philadelphia and is currently studying for a doctoral degree in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. He grew up in Sheffield, in the United Kingdom, and has had short stories published in the British literary magazines You Stumble Into A Room Full Of Poets and The Cadaverine Magazine.
No one takes you seriously until you start shitting blood. Everyone who knew him was bored of his sickness. Edith was bored of his anger. Bored of his trick bowel. His celestial rages. Bored of his misery. Bored to death of the innumerable symptoms of his enlarged heart. Life had been a waste of breath. It wasn’t until after he started hemorrhaging that his wife took him to Sacred Heart emergency.
End of the day, first day back up on the roof laying brick after he’d gone under the knife. Slit wide open at the umbilicus. Gut inflated with air. To excavate the stones that had been steadily growing for decades inside of the man. Now he was constipated. He wanted to get the hell out of here, get back to Pietrasanta, get back to his life’s work. Arrivederci and vaffanculo, Todd the foreman. And a vaffanculo to you Doctor Schultz. And to you Lady, who smirked at me last night from behind the pharmaceutical counter because you thought I had a girl’s name. No, the Lubiprostone is for my wife. But at this moment in time, all Andrea Bozzetto really wanted was to get the hell off that roof to go to the bathroom.
Fifth time already that day he had to tell Todd. What are you on the rag? Andrea managed to secrete a smile. The shit-eating grin. He lay down brick and trowel and went down the ten stories. Bozzetto hadn’t told a soul on day shift that he was straight out of surgery. That he felt his seams were splitting. He knew that Todd didn’t understand this newest mortification. He muttered under his breath. You should’ve known. You should have known about the bile, about the decades of slow stones, about the fecal occult blood, about being forced to admit my own name is a woman’s. It’s Italian and it means manly. You should’ve known Andrea Amati, euphoric father of the violin. Andrea Ammonio, poet. Andreas Vesalius, anatomist. Andrea de Adamich, the driver who won the European Touring Car Championship in a red Alfa Romeo 1600 GTA when I was eighteen years old. The same year his papà suggested bricks to a boy who was good with his hands. He should’ve known that Andrea was sixty-five years old today.
He sat down in that green plastic toilet to try to take the masterpiece shit and took out a rosary from his work pants. Not for the divine intervention of the Blessed Virgin, but for his hard-assed belief that through some kind of imitative magic, the beads raining down beneath the man on the cross would help him to defecate. His wife couldn’t understand what his problem was all the time. The problem was he was an artist.
The older men on the crew used to know that Andrea Bozzetto was a sculptor, and between talking pussy and mortar, they showed him the reverence of a man destined to leave. Get the hell out of here Bozzetto and never look back. Everything here turns to shit. But those guys were all dead now or at home hemorrhaging away in their beds, their wives decorating their bedside tables with Calabrese altar decorations and asshole creams. Now he whittled dry mortar into elephantine figures, or the same tiny nude woman whose bone structure he had committed to memory. Andrea Bozzetto, get back to your stone.
On the shitter he always thought about being a dead man. He imagined funeral things. The casket. The headstone. He predicted mythologies that would be engendered while he was turning slowly to bone. His wife would let his death be the occasion to proudly begin doing all the things she envied in other women, breaking taboos that never existed. Using his death to un-imagine him. Like a ruined wall being torn down. All those future nights of rages snared in his dumb corpse. All that suffering, Andrea thought. For nothing. As if I never existed. No one will put in a good word for the dead man.
Talking to Edith about his fears was a waste of breath. She knew it was all just shitter talk anyway. The histrionic bowel. Even if he breathed a word about that old dream project of sculpting the over-life-sized male nude, his wife would sense the onslaught of frustrated desire and stonewall him. The heat of her braced silence would ignite his anger. By the end of the night, she would prove right in her prediction of his temper. Blamed again for his sanguine rages, for sleep deprivation torture, but it was him who had been hurt by her and him who had to get up in a couple hours anyway to sit hopelessly on that cold porcelain bowl before he left for the bricks. Squatting there, he would burn his lips in silence, because he really hadn’t finished what he had to say to his wife yet. And besides, it was him that was dying.
He knew she prayed every night, as she lay down with rehearsed silence in their bed, that his day’s anger and humiliation would be cauterized by the night and this infuriated him—lying there with that ridiculous raging hard-on. He was acutely aware of all the miniscule shifts in breath and bone that separate pretend sleep from real. And he sometimes shook his wife awake in the middle of the night to blunt this anger that had been piqued by the little pretty shape of a dreaming body that had turned to him as though having one last look. Old jealousies weighed on him. Over the decades, they had become monumental and sprawling like the streets of ancient sinful cities. Andrea was not a sadist, as Edith had accused him. Or in love with suffering. He didn’t take pleasure in his own despair. He was just very, very angry. All he really wanted was for her to let him dole out his rage in his own damn time—which, she dreaded, was forever. They had been together for already almost half a century. Married shortly after the slight changes occurred in Edith’s body that only a sculptor or a widow could distinguish.
Andrea once looked out from the tops of his own brick walls for girls in the streets with travertine skin, or breasts of soft clay and terracotta lips. Like all sculptors, and more so than other young men of eighteen, Andrea had often considered the problems of intertwined figures. When he saw Edith for the first time, singing in the university, he thought her body was a slender pillar of gilt bronze, with eyes the colour of marble. Andrea coaxed himself. If she looks back at me just once.
Her skin tasted like salt after they slept together for the first time. In those furtive minutes before his quiet brother got home from working at the used book store, he stood in front of the bathroom mirror and looked around his own body. Just a rough study for a larger work. He thought about the art book he stole from the library when he was twelve. His cock measured against the genitals of antiquity. The oversized cocks of pubescent Christs. He took solace in the nude sculpture of the Boxer of Quirinal with his open wounds of inlayed copper and his cock bound up—dog tied. Sex ruins fighters, after all. And the male singing voice. He thought about his boyhood hands. He thought about his brothers, with the matching broken noses they inherited from their father. It was then that he understood what would be, if he truly was a great sculptor, his masterpiece—an over-life-sized male nude.
Edith’s body conjured the female nudes of the art book and the figurine of a girl he made from the clay he found by the creek. Both hidden. Uncovered nights when he jerked off menacingly to The Birth of Venus as his four brothers who shared a bedroom with him all dreamed of Libby. Her hair blond with a slight green patina— showed her tits if you asked her to behind Nic’s Barber Shop or the Chinese grocery or the bridge or the coin laundry. Andrea saw them both, twice. Behind the butcher and again behind Sacred Heart. Libby, naïve and open with a ruthless laugh, was the antithesis of Pietrasanta, with its evil eyes, hexes, blood oaths, and ancient grudges, its codes of shame, and vengeful men with their loathsome wives with black horses’ manes—the mothers of future dead boys, who knew all the evil numbers and the names of funerary flowers, who gossiped with repugnance over the bellies of would-be brides who would name their unborn children after their own mother’s dead sons.
It was that back alley Statue of Libby who, one by one, presided over the first hard-ons of each of those swarthy immigrant brothers. Roused that sleeping animal who stretched itself out inside of them. But unlike his older brothers who flaunted their new sexual potency (the personal achievement of having seen tits) and played Who’d You Rather on the bridge over the creek, Andrea felt like a shameful little pervert gargoyle. His short fat cock incensed by the Renaissance nudes waiting for him in his undies drawer.
Later, during a Sunday scouring of the bedroom, the book was uncovered by Mamma who wept large Adriatic tears and spouted stories of brimstone with women turning to pillars of salt, and prayed vicious decades of the rosary in a language that no longer exists. He replaced the nudes in good time with a school library copy of Vesalius’ illustrations, over which he was forced to rub one out night after night to sixteenth century anatomical drawings of female torsos—exposed with medical precision. His pubescent imagination entangled even in the horrifying vaginal wilderness of the genital tract with upside down fetuses staring back at him—the fruit of thy wombs.
Andrea began to see all the things in his world in still life or portraiture. Everything framed and labelled, like his erotic autopsied women. He would name the day’s vignettes as though they were paintings. The Temptation of Andrea Bozzetto. Boy with Cigarette from Papà’s Pack. Portrait de Papà sans Pants. Nude Papà Descending a Staircase with Belt Overhead. Trip and Fall of the Damned Son. The Massacre of the Innocent Boy. Universal Judgement in the Kitchen. Self-Portrait with Broken Nose.
He even played a little game where he tried to identify everyone in their truest artistic material of construction. Black and whites of dead Bisnonno—an old man porcelain doll. Zio Marcello who slept sprawled then fetal on the couch and cried on Wednesdays—constructed from the materials of an accordion. His bad brother—leering eyes of grey lighter fluid. The fat brother—his big back the husk of a sunken ocean liner. Cousin Carmela, who he gave up his bed for when she arrived from Pietrasanta—breasts of ripe melon. Others still with ethereal bodies. Zia Rose, with the dead soldier husband, was a smell. A low lying haze of shifting incense. Zio Maurizio was made entirely of cigarette smoke. Rothmans. Mamma in the kitchen—a dark living spice. Papà’s archaic after dinner head—stone.
It was many years now since he had watched Edith will herself into a self-portrait, pretending to sleep. Her face was slowly changing. And that beautiful lady, who still tasted of salt, became the monument of his own closeness to death. Andrea felt he could see the slow hollowing of her cheeks. The minerals of her bones scattering like white sand over the black bed sheets. He saw the flattening under her eye sockets and felt he could actually see her jaw bone receding. In his nightly morphologic adoration he knew how much he loved her, because he realized that what he was really doing was keeping watch over her, like a gargoyle, in case she might disappear completely. Andrea kissed her on the forehead. Study of a Nude Wife Dying in Her Sleep. He instinctively wished on her too old body once again for a boy, and slept.
He took out his work lunch from the bag between his legs. Not the first time he had eaten in the shitter. His wife communicated best with him through lunches. Unlike that puritanical feed he had grown used to, for his sixty-fifth birthday (proof that she still loved him vehemently) she had ignored the advice of Dr. Schultz and packed him a panino with prosciutto and mortadella. Not being Italian, she was still a foreigner to this diabolical cured ham that had nearly killed her husband and half of his brothers. The first bite went down good and Andrea felt that this was the moment that he could finally loosen the imbroglio in his bowel. Todd banged the door. Andrea, what are you eating your little lunch in there again? I want ass to roof in five or you’re a dead man. Andrea wanted to die in there, at that very second in history, with his panino between his legs. Just tip back that green plastic toilet into the dirt and lay brick right over him.
He wiped up, got out, and with the intention of either declaring his retirement or burning the building to the ground, he got in the elevator and pressed the button for the tenth. For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it, he recalled. Andrea climbed the ladder to the rooftop, crossed the roof in long strides towards a little brick structure where Todd stood, and cracked him a right to the face. Felt the bones of his fist shatter and minerals scatter like ash into the blood of his wrists. Todd was on his ass. He got up and Andrea broke his nose. Papà’s shot. For sixty-five years this fight had been dormant inside Andrea Bozzetto. All the missed schoolyard brawls snarled in him. All the times he had bit his lip and taken it. Like when he was hit in the side of the head by his father by mistake—it was the bad brother who’d pissed in Mrs. Balvenie’s bush. Or when, somehow, he had ended up looking after the retard Cesar (bride’s cousin) for hours during his own wedding reception. Trying to stop him again and again from whipping out his enormous wildebeest cock in front of the flushed bridesmaids. His in-laws, patronizingly tolerant of his woman’s name and the Roman mass, cooed over what they perceived in him to be a sort of St. Francis of Assisi quality—attracting wild beasts through some primitive, animalistic, Catholic empathy possessed by saints, feral children, and wops.
Andrea relived noses he should have broken and skulls he should have collapsed. He saw the catalogue of body parts as illustrations in Vesalius’ book of anatomy and felt phantom pains in his fist. He smashed Todd again over his right eye because he knew he wasn’t a sculptor at all, because he hadn’t made anything in decades. He cracked him over the left eye and drew blood for what had happened to him at eighteen. He wanted to knock Todd’s head off, topple him like the statues of Mussolini before he left Italy. He smashed him in the face for Libby’s perfectly lopsided tits, for the red Alfa Romeo he would never own.
Todd kicked him in the crotch. He went down. Todd lunged. Andrea grabbed a brick in his hand and bashed Todd in the side of the head. A long stroke of black blood from his ear. Andrea turned him and knelt on his chest and hit him in the throat. He felt the bone of his knuckles grow bare and he hit him again in the mouth, for his dead language, his mother tongue that had asphyxiated in him, for the name he’d been made to swear to never speak. Todd struck wild. Tore the buttons off Andrea’s dress shirt. The two old men staggered to their feet. Andrea’s bottom lip split wide. Blood tasted like the clay salt of bricks. He took one in the gut and went down. The seam in his gut was pulling open. Todd kicked him in the face, kicked all his teeth into his mouth, like pebbles. Todd collapsed Andrea’s nose with his forehead. Andrea put his knuckles deep into Todd’s rib and it cracked. He wanted to rip the thing right out. Todd felt Andrea’s dry panting on his mouth and hit Andrea in the jaw. Andrea bit off the tip of his own tongue. He punched Todd like his father did him, slapped him hard like his wife did. He was no longer fighting, he was purging violence.
He wanted to kill Todd because he ate alone in the shitter, because he was embarrassed at elementary school roll call, because he would choke up at that one certain name, because he loathed his job, because he resented that he was the best bricklayer, because Todd had four handsome boys, because he never saw Pietrasanta again, because he was an artist, because his father died humiliated and alone, because of his all-night rages, because of the over-life-sized male nude, because of all the symptoms of his enormous heart, because it was his birthday, because he loved his wife so desperately that he would weep seething tears into the pillow, because he prayed for a boy that was almost born and now was only a little bit of dust and ash.
He felt his own body strange through the hands of this man. His two hands were around Andrea’s throat. He was chocking him to death. He heard the dredges of his life rattle in his throat and felt a sharp pain in his temple. He turned faced-down in the gravel, breathing in the dirt. A fight is always about breath and bone. He wrestled for air and the two men were back up. They collided again. Andrea’s body slumped on the roof. Wind knocked out of him.
His eyes were closed up tight with hardened blood. He couldn’t hear Todd swearing anymore. Breathing blood, he tried to call out to him but he couldn’t speak. Swallowed his own teeth. Couldn’t even taste the blood with that gnarled tongue. He wanted to feel around for Todd’s body, but his right arm was dead. He picked it up with his left. The weight of a limestone brick. Andrea felt only a shudder of fear. That he had killed the man. That he bashed his brains in or worse. Man Thrown Off a Roof. Mixed media.
For hours he lay there on his back. He was missing his cheesecake. He couldn’t see when the sky grew dark then light. The rheum of his fierce tears had dried now around his eyes, and there occurred just a subtle shift of breath and bone as between pretend sleep and real.
It was dawn when day shift found him. He’d shit himself. Cock engorged. His limbs hardened into their final shape. His copper blood still livid on the bricks. No trace of another man. No doubt Todd had wound a drunk’s path home. Only a white-haired, childless father was left there on that sad height, with his knuckle bones of fire-hardened clay showing through the skin. The apartment building, that ten story plinth below, lifting Andrea Bozzetto’s half nude and swollen body up into the thunder of the morning sky.
Marc Labriola is a writer of fiction and poetry. Most recently, his work was published in Hawaii Pacific Review. His story “Cutman” appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Issue 7. He lives in Toronto, where he teaches English.
She called me into the front room and told me to sit down in the comfy chair and then she leaned over and kissed me and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she kissed me again and then she straightened up, took a step back, rubbed her sore lips, and then she said: “Now your story has more kisses than all the kisses in the books by Jane Austen.”
Paul Kavanagh is the author of a novel, Iceberg(Honest Publishing, 2012). He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
When they pull in, the lot is crowded. In the distance, the sun begins descending behind a curtain of wispy clouds.
Water roils onto the sand and seagulls and plovers retreat to dry land. But when the water recedes they jaywalk back onto the glistening surface, picking off lake flies and dead minnows.
The sun is a pink iris closing on a dappled blue-black sky.
Rest assured the world will come to an apocryphal end. You should never count your chickens before they fly the coop.
“I want a good tan,” the girl with the parrot tattoo on her shoulder says, spreading her blanket just so.
In other years they would not have minded the trouble that has come to them; they would have outrun it as easily as if they’d turned a corner onto the darkest street in town.
Beach detritus: crumpled Mylar balloons, pink and yellow ribbons, cracked plastic cups, a wine cork.
He said: “If you’d seen them run into the lake like that you’d have wondered if they hadn’t been raised in a barn.”
On the horizon where water meets sky—Wisconsin.
Cone-suckers lean against the warm cars, engines still pinging. They lick waffle cones mounded over with ice cream—Blue Moon, Eskimo Kisses, Caramel Caribou, Mackinac Island Fudge. There are other flavors at House of Flavors, but the couple stormed out with grease still glistening on their fingertips. “That’s all I’m saying,” he pleaded after her.
There, can you see it over there?
Sunsets are a big deal in a tourist town. Everybody comes to this beach on Lake Michigan.
Forget the seagulls and plovers. They’ve already had their fill of the horizon.
Debra S. Levy’s work has appeared in Columbia, Alaska Quarterly Review, Brevity, Little Fiction, and The Molotov Cocktail, among others. She writes fiction and essays, and blogs about dogs and cats at www.cdogco.com. She lives in Indiana and Michigan.
Saturday at Zumba there was a new song, one with a thumping electronic beat. Marie hated when there were new songs. She still had difficulty learning the routines they did every week, mastering such simple moves as simultaneously throwing her right arm in the air and kicking her left foot up. The instructor, Sierra, bopped around at the front of the room, clapping her hands together.
“It’s a new song, ladies! Time to jive!”
Marie could feel sweat sticking to her back underneath the big white t-shirt and loose black capris she wore. She’d found them on sale at Marshall’s, next to the racks of bright athletic clothing and spandex. Lenny had bought her a gym membership, insisting she stay active. She’d protested, but he used his trump card, said, “I want my kids to know their grandma for a long time, Ma,” and she gave in.
Now she watched the young girls dancing in their sleek running shorts and wished it were possible for her to feel less unappealing. She imagined them whispering about her, the fossil in the back row wearing all the clothing. Three rows of girls in front of her, and no one wore capris. But they were tan and toned, and she’d surrendered her legs to cellulite years ago. She eyed Sierra’s pink spandex tank top with envy.
“Get into it, ladies!” called Sierra, pushing her butt from side to side. “Let’s see those booties pump!”
Marie thought she might fall over, but she kept going, heaving breaths and trying to move her rear around. Sierra suddenly dropped to the floor to do push-ups. The rest of the room promptly dropped as well, with the precision of a neon spandex-encased pony-tailed army. Marie’s jaw nearly dropped. The room was chanting “one, two!” as they did push-ups. Marie tried to kneel to the ground and get in push-up position. She slowly started bending down.
“If you can’t drop to the floor just yet, don’t worry! You can stay on your feet, just keep bouncing from side to side!” called Sierra.
Marie looked around. She was the only person still standing in the room. A girl who looked like she was still in college smiled at her encouragingly and Marie suddenly felt the urge to slap her.
She wanted to slap all these young women, slap their youth and beauty right out of them. It wasn’t fair.
After Lenny was born, when he was old enough that she felt safe leaving him with a baby-sitter, she’d taken a Latin partner dance class at the local community center as a way of getting back in shape. She cajoled Tim into coming with her, and they laughed as they fumbled through the mambo and tried to salsa, chanting “quick quick, slow” with the instructor and stepping on each other’s feet. “Woman, you want to make me dance?” he exclaimed when she first brought up the class. “You can stay fat. You look good to me,” he said, winking, and she cracked up.
She felt an ache in her chest, thinking of Tim. When Lenny had taken her to this gym and given her a tour, she’d asked about a Latin dance class and been given a shiny Zumba brochure. She tried to “quick quick, slow” her way through the routines, but it didn’t work. The new rhythms weren’t the same.
Sierra leapt back to her feet and clapped her hands. “All right, ladies! Zumba fever!”
“Zumba fever,” chorused the girls.
“Zumba fever,” Marie muttered darkly, trying to clap her hands in time.
When class was over, she grabbed her towel and left, not bothering to listen to Sierra’s announcement about following her on Facebook and Instagram. Lenny was waiting for her outside, in the car.
“How was it this time, Ma?” he asked.
“It was awful,” Marie was about to say, like she did every week. But she looked at Lenny, whose hair was starting to recede like Tim’s had and whose smile looked strained.
“It was fine, honey,” she said, looking out the window. Quick quick, slow.
Nadia Laher is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies political science and creative writing. Her work has received the 34th Street Magazine Annual Fiction Contest first prize and the Gibson Peacock Creative Nonfiction Contest second prize, and has appeared in Stamped Magazine. She grew up in northern Virginia.
She was the Mail Lady, an aging bleach-blonde in jeans and bright fleece. All around campus there are poorly cropped images of her smiling face like “missing” flyers. I pass by one fast, and realize I am running.
My run finds me on the precise, mile-long road that surrounds our high school campus. The sun is rising, and everything is so beautiful and shines so brightly that I have to keep blinking. I don’t remember starting the run, but it’s easy to forget things you’ve done many times. There is something else I’m forgetting . . .
I cut my loop short, sprinting through our common up to the front of my dorm. I tug on the resistant handle, locked out, and recall the picture of my ID sitting on my desk.
There’s no one around so I break in, scaling the familiar lattice up to the second floor balcony. I pop the summer screen, and shiver through a thirty-second shower.
At 8:30 a.m. there is a memorial assembly for Jackie, our Mail Lady, who is dead.
The clipping in the local paper read:
Beaumont Police report one dead after car accident on S. Palisade Avenue.
The accident took place around 5 o’clock Thursday afternoon on the intersection of S. Palisade and Main.
Police say a Jeep, red, ran the Avenue stop sign and collided with an oncoming car, whose driver was killed instantly.
Names are being withheld at the family’s request. Police investigation is ongoing.
Only a day later there is a nice long article up on the school website, a formal obituary. It paints Jackie as an angel of patience and warmth. It quotes students who considered her a mother-away-from-home, and tells of the unfillable hole her passing leaves behind. Reading it makes me feel as if my whole body is dripping in honey, but I cannot deny its truths, and this: I loved her too.
The afternoon she died, I had run late to the mailroom with a package. It was an essay for a statewide contest—a contest with a scholarship prize of $1500. In my last minute rush to meet the deadline, I had botched the address.
“I’ll take care of it,” Jackie promised me. “It’ll get there in time.”
“Now hold on a minute!”
“C’mere, I got something I think you’ll like. It’ll only be a sec; I know you’re busy. But they brought it in today and I said, ‘I’ve got a few kids who will get a kick outta this.’ You gotta see it.”
“Jackie, you’re winding me up.”
“Take one of these.”
She foisted a tootsie roll on me, and led me around to the back.
In the far left corner, the narrow, cement-colored room turned into a set of double doors. An old keypad armed with a red light hung on the wall next to them, and she lazily punched in the code “1-2-3-4.” Inside was a long row of laundry carts, some large packages, and then . . .
The school had ordered a new mascot suit, a fresh-smelling upgrade of our customary owl in a heather grey jersey. The costume was laid out on a plastic table like a disappointing autopsy, its open, man-sized box on the ground. The head was an owl’s all right, but the body was green with a yellow stomach and long, spiked tail. An alligator.
“You’re kidding me,” I said.
“I wish I was. It arrived that way.”
Disembodied in the low light, the animal appeared more sinister than I originally noticed. I certainly didn’t trust it, and couldn’t believe Jackie had just left it here all day while she went about her business.
“I don’t know how they got it so wrong,” Jackie said obliviously, shaking her head. “I mean, what were they thinking? You’re not gonna want that at a game now are you?”
I held up the creature’s plush, wire-fortified tail while Jackie snapped a Polaroid for the bulletin board. I couldn’t wear it; that would spoil the return, she said.
And then, within four hours of my departure, Jackie was dead.
Somewhere between putting on pants and brushing my teeth, I have managed to doze off. I open my mouth to the morning air and find I am standing in the middle of the common, half-dressed, hair wet.
I squint my eyes and can barely make out something moving in the distant field. Out across waves of green-gold, a monster flees into the woods, slowly and clumsily making his escape from that grey room where we met.
The morning is a slow start for everyone. It’s one of those days where all excuses are accepted, and you’ve been so overworked and put out you’re almost grateful such an awful thing has happened.
Our gymnasium-turned-auditorium is filled with 800 chattering faces, but the stage is empty. I settle into the cramped plastic seat that has been saved for me, noticing too late my baseball team, sitting like a clique in the first row.
My friend Valerie is slumped beside me, and I gently bump her awake. The assembly is taking up her morning free period.
“What?” she asks, annoyed.
“It’s only forty-five minutes.”
“You’re late. And besides, you wake up with the sun every day.”
She brushes back her hair, adding, “She’d still be dead if I’d slept in an hour.”
We fight an unexpected urge to laugh, and several rows below us look up in disgust. I feel myself flattening into a grotesque image.
“Shhh!” someone hisses.
“I’m allowed to laugh!” Valerie snaps back.
“You’re such a fucking bitch, Valerie,” a girl in front of us says.
Valerie opens her mouth but the headmaster is tapping on the microphone.
Despite my best efforts, I sleep through the assembly, waking only for a brief measure of “Lean On Me.” By the time Valerie steers me out the door, I notice we have been let go twenty minutes early. Everyone is red-eyed and quiet. I feel cursed for napping, like I’ve marked myself for a slow death and empty funeral. I twist my face into something less blank, and a boy I don’t know puts his hand on my shoulder.
“You look constipated,” Valerie says.
I sit across from Valerie at our student café, and under the glaring indoor light, I notice she doesn’t look very well. Her lips are chapped, and her sweater is backwards.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah. I’m just tired. I have a headache. Your food’s ready.”
I’m starving, and I return to the table with a large coffee and a bowl of oatmeal. I take a jar of peanut butter out of my backpack.
“There’s no way that tastes good.”
“You should try it sometime.”
“Well, then you’ll never know if it tastes good or not, will you?”
“Ugh.” She puts her head in her hands.
A girl and a boy, somewhat recognizable, walk past us. The girl stops, turns on her heel, and approaches our table. I continue eating with purpose.
“Hey, Valerie?” she asks sharply.
“I want you to know that I didn’t appreciate your lack of respect this morning. This has been a really awful two days, and I worked really hard setting up the orgs for that assembly.”
I recognize the girl as our student body vice president.
Valerie looks up incredulously from her sunken position.
“Look, Patty, I’m sorry if I offended you or whatever. I just had a long night and feel kind of shitty, okay?”
“What about you?”
Patty is looking at me now. I go to speak but my mouth is stuck with peanut butter.
“I didn’t know we had a designated range of emotion to express today,” Valerie says coolly. “You should have included that in those cute little programs.”
A swig of coffee dislodges the peanut butter from the roof of my mouth, and our silence is cut with a loud gulping sound.
“Get fucked.” Patty strides away and grabs the arm of the boy, who’s been watching at a distance.
“What’s going on?” I hear him ask.
I wipe my mouth with a napkin. “She’ll get over it,” I tell Valerie, who is posed defensively, arms crossed.
“We need to go to class,” she replies, and then points to my oatmeal. “Can I have the rest of that? I don’t feel so great.”
I’m on my way to French when Valerie calls me. She’s in the infirmary with a fever of 102. I feel bad for having left her, and skip out to pick up a few things from her unlocked room. A backpack, a phone charger, a box of animal crackers I found in her dresser. The nurses don’t like visiting students to linger, so I tell Valerie I will check back tonight.
She is worried I might catch what she has, and tells me to wash my hands. I promise to, but really I know she is the kind of sick you can’t catch.
I don’t go to class. A half-day has been declared anyway, so I conclude that I am only half-irresponsible. I take a restless nap and spend the early afternoon accomplishing simple errands. I clean my room. I do laundry. I finish a few assignments. It feels strangely like I’m preparing for a trip.
Outside, the all-seeing light of afternoon has gone, and everything is in high contrast. All at once I am overwhelmed with emotion.
When I was a child, maybe seven or eight, I fell into a whirlpool on a tubing trip with my father. The brownish water trapped my body, holding me under for around fifteen seconds. As I began to choke, I opened my eyes. Around me, I saw the currents that gave the river life in their entire truth. It was like the sheen of oil in a parking lot; like the trembling, distorted heat off the road. I understood that I was in the fabric of some great muscle, and, long after my father pulled me out, I could see its power everywhere.
Without realizing it I have begun to walk to practice. I pass the gym and glimpse my teammates converging in on our diamond, moving through trees and between buildings.
Fridays we normally walk into town for barbeque after practice, but today we are glassy-eyed and directionless. Showing up is a formality, and Mr. Wilson, our cheerful, beanstalkish coach, dismisses us almost instantly.
“I know it’s been a hard few days, so make sure you guys rest up, take care of yourselves. Yeah?”
“Yeah,” we say.
“You need anything, you know where to find me. I think Mrs. Wilson is making some of her famous blondies tonight . . .”
“Ooh,” we say.
“So give us a knock. I’ll see you Sunday, five o’clock. Marcy will be taking a few days off, so I’ll need someone to volunteer to pick up the water and equipment.”
“I’ll do it,” Alexander says.
Alexander is the closest thing I have to a best friend. He has a batting average of .701, the ninth best in the league.
Up until last spring, we were just teammates, a kind of competitive distance between us. Alexander is a boarder like myself, like most of the school. We have a few day students, locals, whose redeeming feature is their access to transportation and house parties. It was at such a party that I stumbled into a backroom looking for my coat, instead finding Alexander in a compromised position with Stanley, the editor of our school paper. I left the coat, and Alexander brought it to me the next day, along with a great, misplaced fear.
Practice disbands without so much as a warm-up, but I won’t be ready to go inside again for another few hours. Alexander suggests a Drive-In Five, a familiar team exercise we usually do in groups. The race consists of two opposing routes of identical distance (around three miles), and culminates at our local diner.
I know Alexander and all his speeds. I know he will sometimes cross the street only because of the walk sign, even though it actually puts him out of the way. I know he prefers the grass and will adjust for a longer course. But today I am distracted, and he could outpace me if he’s serious about it, which he always is.
“Left or right?” he asks.
“Left,” I say automatically.
“All right, I’ll see you soon.” He backs up to his starting place across the road. “I’ll see you first.”
On the count of three, we are off.
Anyone who has ever set about a run knows there is a supreme feeling when your lungs can hold air and you are capable of not drowning. Coaches and doctors will tell you this is being “in shape,” but it is more than a physical state of the body. I am attuned to a great vibration, a pulse that carries forward my entire being, and frees me from a place where there are such things as death and assemblies.
I pound along white sidewalks, under a bellowing overpass, and up a damp hill, taking in nothing but sound, color, and the feeling of light on my neck.
I am in this state of aligned consciousness when something lunges at me from my right and I lose my balance, slipping down into the muddy hillside. It’s a chocolate lab, pulling a jogger coming the opposite direction. She reins the friendly thing in as I wave off her apologies. I set off again, dirtier, aware of the aching in my left ankle, the soreness of my inner thighs.
As I round the final bend onto Beaumont’s main avenue, I spot the flash of Alexander’s sneakers up the block. Arms flying everywhere to slow his momentum, he comes to a halt in the half-empty parking lot of Dale’s Drive-In Family Restaurant. I am about ten seconds behind. Part of me burns at the loss, but the satisfaction on his face quashes my pride. We both struggle to stand straight.
“Goddamn! I never run like that before.”
“You got me,” I wheeze.
He sees the mud and laughs pitifully.
“What—? Oh, man! C’mon!”
He bends over huffing as I scrub at my clothes.
“Thought I actually had it.”
“You beat me.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t win fair and square.”
“No one ever wins something fair and square; that’s impossible.”
He shakes his head at me, and I know he will try to beat me again and again, until he is satisfied with himself.
Dale’s Drive-In Family Restaurant isn’t really a drive-in—nowadays, the sign just reads “Dale’s”—but the radial parking lot and matching roof refuse to forget. Something about it feels detachable, like a spaceship hiding in plain sight, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. We sit in our usual place, at the very back.
Eating here feels like picnicking in an antique shop. Everything is old and covered in junk. Checker patterns peel from lacquered tables, and the paper menus repeat the same mazes month after month. Post games, our whole team will pile in the back three booths, chatting with the waitresses.
Alexander and I order two burgers and two shakes and fill the air with comfortable, easy conversation about classes and teachers and people who bother us.
When evening sets in, mid-greys and blues blanket our little town. We split the bill and wrench our sore selves out of the booth.
“What time is it?” I yawn.
“We should get back.”
We shake out our bodies and settle into a leisurely pace. But as we begin to cross the intersection, Alexander catches something out of the corner of his eye. He shoves his arm across my chest, bunching my shirt in his fist, stopping me cold.
A car careens past, missing our feet by a few inches.
The sedan coming down the adjacent street with the light is stripped and remade into a ball of foil. The guilty, brick-colored car ricochets into a lamppost, dented, its driver dazed but awake. What little traffic there is comes to a stop around us. There is a light crinkling in the air.
Alexander leaves me on the corner to approach the wreck.
“Ma’am?” I hear him cry. “Ma’am, can you hear me?”
A witness across the street is calling 911, her brown dog straining toward the commotion.
Alexander is quiet, standing above the shattered window. I hear a siren in the distance and slowly begin to walk toward him, closer and closer until the scene comes into focus.
He is holding eye contact with a dead woman, her blonde hair wet from impact. She is stunned with death, and there is something clean about it. I grab his wrist and lead him away.
“We’ve got to tell somebody.”
“It’s all right,” I assure him.
He looks at me and sets off at a run toward campus. I do not call after him, and instead, I begin to run too, my stomach still heavy with food. He will go through the town green, but I know a faster way. With measured breaths, I straighten up, hands behind my head to stop a stitch. I remember that I am supposed to visit Valerie, and wonder if she is waiting for me.
I feel this current pulling me to a bright place where I do not belong.
My legs carry me faster, faster. I am running into the past, willing myself to forget. My memory grows hot with a kind of fever, and I am late, terribly late, for something.
Donald Collins is a transgender advocate and X-Files enthusiast from Virginia. He is currently finishing his B.A. in screenwriting at Emerson College in Boston. His debut short fiction appeared in Literary Orphans #16.
“Just Read” has been selected for republication by plain china, a national literary anthology that showcases the best undergraduate writing from across the country.
JUST READ by Rebecca Lambright
When the power goes out, empty the refrigerator and put the perishables in a cooler full of ice. Assume that the bills weren’t paid and don’t ask questions. Light candles and do not speak. Time your showers, keep them short, ignore that they’re cold. When there isn’t enough food for everyone some nights, drink water to silence the hunger. Do your homework, go to bed. Take the foreclosure letters from the mail, put them in Dad’s briefcase, pretend you didn’t see them. When Mom is sad, hide the books. When Mom looks tired, hide the books. When Mom gets angry, hide the books, every time. You hide them because you know that she’ll look for them. Because you know that there is no money, but Dad bought them anyway. For you, he says. And once everything is calm again, read.
I grew up with these as my principal rules. I followed every one except for the rule about words. I wasn’t supposed to have them, read them, want them, or write them. Mom said words took you away from school, took you away from work, took you away from what you were supposed to be doing. But words were the one thing that there was always more of. Even if I had to pay for them they could feed me over and over again. Words made me forget I was hungry and words made me forget that no one was smiling. Reading was my first rebellion.
Dad was the one who taught me to say no. He comes from white trash, small town, no stoplights, and he taught me six things. One, when you get punched, it will always be from behind. Two, when you get grabbed, you pull their hair, use your elbows, your teeth, your two bare hands. Three, you don’t have to grow up to be like your parents. You are not destined to be your mother’s sadness. You were not born to be your father’s anger. Don’t you dare resign yourself to something that was never meant to belong to you. Four, you can beat them as long as you use your words. Books will teach you more than you could ever learn on your own. They can call you whatever names they want, but they can never call you stupid if you read. If you write, you can record everything you ever endured and show them what it’s like to be you. You can win, he told me, as long as you always use your words. Don’t let anyone stop you from getting out, getting away, finding a way. As long as you always use your words. Five, when the refrigerator dies, put everything fresh in a tub of ice and pray that it lasts. Six, when you don’t feel okay anymore, read.
These days I don’t have to forget the hunger or hide the books, but I still use my words. I don’t read to escape anymore; I read to learn about people who are nothing like me. I read to learn about people who will lead lives and have problems that I will never experience. Maybe it’s just another opportunity to let someone’s words make me feel whatever they so choose, make me feel something new. These days, I no longer write to tell a smart story. Instead, I write stories about people that are almost like me. Girls who hide paintings, keep secrets from their moms, find solace in silence, not speaking. Boys with arms covered in moles, knuckles laced with scars, eyelids printed with stories.
These days, I’ve learned to write poems that, unlike my stories, are almost always about me, because it’s easier to be self-centered when you’re not confined to grammatical structure. It seems so much more pretentious when I am trapped within a sentence that is intended to make sense. I use repetition, never hold back, always name names, and, in the end, feel more hurt than helped. These days I listen to every piece of writing read out loud that I can, as long as it’s read with heart. I want the words to feel like dirt under my nails and I want every moment to feel like a promise that I’m going to be okay. But these days, I still use my words as a defense. I’m still afraid to let them see that I’m weak. I’m still afraid that they’ll call me stupid. I’m still afraid that I’ll never beat them. I still use my words to try and win.
Words help, words hurt, words make sure I never forget. Because of words, I will always remember that when the refrigerator dies, put this week’s dinner on ice. When you’re hungry but there’s not enough food, drink water so you won’t feel the ache. Never give up when they get you from behind, let go and swing. Your words can be just as sharp as your nails. And when you forget all of these things, just read.
Rebecca Lambright is a high school senior from Cleveland, Ohio. She holds a National Gold Medal from the Scholastic Writing Awards, was a national finalist in the Norman Mailer High School Writing Awards, and a Kenyon Review Young Writer. She spends her time playing the violin and finding new ways to cook grilled cheese sandwiches.
Bite marks cut across your forearm, marking
a half-circle below the elbow. The wound peeks at each
end—a yellowed crescent, swollen arc of flesh—
it has taken the shape of the alligator’s smile. Down
to the water, he sang. Come down to the water in your
white v-neck shirt and khaki shorts. And you listened,
and maybe you needed to clean the garden dirt from your
hands in the water. Maybe you meant to fall in, bathe,
the gator’s long snout replacing your too-old loofah
hanging in the bathtub. I glance at your arm, think
about his rough slide over the bank separating lake from
drainage ditch, how he lives there alone now, waiting
to taste your skin, see if you are somehow the same.
You say, He was just checking me out. Just wanted
to compare the texture of our skin. Gloat about his perfect bite.
Taylor Rickett received his M.F.A. from Drew University and has placed work with Naugatuck River, Stone Highway, and NEBO Reviews. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and splits time between fishing, teaching, and writing.
When she wears the bangle she feels so fucking good. Just look how it hoops her wrist like one of Saturn’s rings, how it knocks back and forth as she waves her hand, points at things. She’s hot shit when she wears the bangle.
She was wearing the bangle when she met the boy and hooked the boy and used him and used him and dropped him. He looked so small when she dropped him, like she’d shrunk him in half, like she was Saturn and he was some little moon. She’d been the moon a million times before, but now she has the bangle. She likes the way it slides to her elbow when she raises her hand and likes the way it hurts when it knocks back down. There are little marks around her wrist, little tiny bruises, little puckers of color. She pushes them with her thumb when she’s bored or anxious or when Dad gets loud downstairs.
She bought the bangle with a twenty she found in Dad’s desk. She likes that he doesn’t know how she bought it, where it came from, because he’s usually so good at knowing. He knows things that don’t even make sense to know, things that aren’t true or right. She doesn’t question the things anymore. If you question, he’ll bang the things into you until you know them too.
She locks her bedroom door again, wedges the chair under the knob. Her wrist is so fucking thin. You could break her wrist in half, it’s so tiny and thin and little. You could hold her hand all day, feel like it’s your hand, like it belongs to you, the bangle and the wrist and the whole fucking arm. The tiny little bruises too.
Gabriel Thibodeau studied English and creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Los Angeles, where he writes stories, develops creative content for award-winning children’s products, and occasionally pretends to be other people.
on the slaveship used to be,
a polemic blast of wind,
the mere hint of an
ache & somewhere a child
sadder than me, long gone
brother suffers through
yet another mention of this light
around me, a bright tumbling;
character, the falsest of alarms—
electricity shirring, doubt
scoffing this pyrophoric embrace—in ……………………………………………….Kansas City
a man puts a saxophone
to his lips, remembers a
darkness worth the effort;
the flash & murmur of a sad
rallentando floods his head
like some brackish, swollen river
an impersonation of heaven
he could never afford
Herman Beavers is Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is Undergraduate and Graduate Chair in the Department of Africana Studies. He teaches courses in 20th century and contemporary African American literature and creative writing. Most recently, he has published essays on Charles Johnson, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. Lately, his poems have appeared in The Langston Hughes Colloquy, MELUS, and Versadelphia. He has just completed a scholarly monograph, Changing the Order of Things: Geography and the Political Imagination in the Fiction of Toni Morrison, which endeavors to read Morrison’s more recent novels. He serves as an advisory editor for The African American Review and Modern Fiction Studies.
At the time of the hurricane, they were both still working. A few days before the hurricane hit, Lila was getting on a plane to New York for an oil and gas conference. They called it Hurricane Ike on the radio, and people laughed when they heard the warning, since it followed warnings about so many other hurricanes that season that had failed to materialize. But this time it was real.
Lila saw Ike approach Houston on TV in her hotel room in New York. She tried to call Kamal, but phone lines were down. Ike finally made landfall at night. Lila watched, minute by minute, as the giant, swirling cloud simulation of a category 4 tropical cyclone hit the speck that was supposed to be Houston. News of a train accident interrupted the hurricane coverage periodically, but mostly, during the days of the conference, all TV cameras stayed focused on Ike and Houston.
Heading home, on a flight to Atlanta (there were no flights available to Houston yet), Lila listened as the pilot made an announcement about the hurricane. Houston had been destroyed, he said. Windows had been knocked out from the high rises downtown. Trees had flattened houses to the ground. Entire neighborhoods had been flooded. This was terrible news to deliver to anyone cut off from family in Houston, trying to get home.
Lila buckled herself in her seat. She flagged down a tall, clean-shaven steward to ask him if he knew anything, but there was no way to glean any specific facts. For the first time in her life, Lila made a phone call from a plane. Although they made good money between them, their frugal, middle class, South Asian habits had always precluded any temptation to make a luxury call from an airplane, until this disaster, which warranted a change.
It was no use, though. She couldn’t get through, and finally she slammed the phone back onto the seat in front of her, annoying the passenger beside her.
Lila and Kamal had come to Houston as graduate engineering students and followed the path of others from Bangladesh, landing professional jobs, buying a house in the suburbs and two cars, applying for green cards. She was a petroleum engineer and he was a civil engineer. Engineers did well in Houston. But now it seemed to Lila like settling in Houston had been the worst decision of their lives. What if Kamal had been killed in the hurricane?
When she arrived in Atlanta, Lila could not get a flight to Houston, since all flights in and out had been cancelled. Lila’s company booked her a hotel in downtown Atlanta, and she waited there for two days, eating take-out Chinese out of cardboard boxes, as she and Kamal had done in graduate school, and watching the news on TV. Periodically, she called down to the hotel desk to ask for updates on flights.
She kept her phone plugged into the charger and called Kamal every half hour or so, but he didn’t answer. She called friends, then friends of friends, then random people she had met at the large Bangladeshi parties they attended in Houston, but no one picked up the phone.
Finally, Lila received word that Intercontinental had regained power and flights were starting up. Somehow, she got herself booked on the first flight to Houston. At last she found herself walking toward the arrivals gate, terrified that no one would be there. But Kamal was there. Dusty and ruffled, but there, waiting for her. Lila screamed and ran to him.
“I’ve been here at the airport, looking for you at the gate of every flight, from every city!”
“You didn’t call me!” she wailed.
“My phone’s dead. There are long lines now in front of stores, people trying to get their phones charged.”
They embraced tightly, like the other couples at the arrivals gate. Everything would finally get back to normal.
Together they walked to the elevator and rode up to the parking level. Kamal told Lila they had no power at the house. Their street was littered with trees. Some roofs had been smashed. But they were lucky. On nearby streets, the rooftops were battered from falling branches. People in Galveston had lost their homes and survived the flood by climbing onto their roofs. In Houston, people stood in long lines at the supermarkets for bags of ice. Food was scarce.
“But you know the saddest thing?” Kamal said, turning his earnest face toward her. “It was on the news. A couple was trying to cut down a tree ahead of the hurricane. The trunk of the tree fell on top of their son, just ten years old.”
“What happened?” Lila asked.
“He was killed.”
“How horrible,” she said, rubbing his arm. At least they were safe; their lives were unchanged.
“We don’t have power yet,” he warned. “So the house is very hot and uncomfortable.”
He smelled of sweat.
They climbed into Kamal’s car, a smart silver Honda CR-V, and Lila breathed out finally.
“I just want to go home,” she said, sliding down in her seat, “to lie down in our own bed. To go back to work! I’ll bet the air conditioning at the office is working.”
Once they came off the highway to their neighborhood in Spring, north of the airport, the streets were ghostly. The traffic lights weren’t working. Cars stood stopped at every intersection, as feeble policemen tried to direct masses of traffic with stop signs. They passed several pile-ups, accidents caused by a confusion about whose turn it was to go.
“It’s like a scene out of a hundred years ago, or a third world country!” Lila said, thinking that they had left their own third world country to escape such backward conditions.
“Or it could be a science fiction movie showing the future,” Kamal said.
There was more bad news waiting at home. No matter what Kamal had said to Lila in the car, he could not have prepared her for what she was about to experience. There was no air conditioning, and it was dizzyingly hot. There seemed to be no air in the house. Kamal had flung open all the windows, but this meant that by evening the house had filled with mosquitoes. Lila slapped her arms angrily in the dark.
For the next two weeks, they passed evenings by dreary candlelight in the prickly heat. Most evenings, they ate out or cooked a laborious meal they had shopped for that day and then threw out what they didn’t eat. It was tedious, having to plan a meal, buy the ingredients, throw out the leftovers, and wash the dishes by hand, but also somehow, like play-acting, like being in a different life in which one could pretend that life was about cooking and cleaning dishes and planning the meal one was to cook.
Even eating by candlelight felt like playing house. It was frustrating, of course, and hot, and expensive to eat out so often, but when they looked back on it later, they had to admit that it had been lovely too. Neighbors came out for the first time and sat on their steps in the dark with candles, talking across the street. Sometimes a neighbor would cross over with a bottle or a cigarette, wanting to chat. People borrowed generators from one another to hook up to their TV sets and refrigerators for a few hours. Lila and Kamal met everyone on their street for the first time in the five years they had lived there.
Their house had been hit the hardest among all the houses on the street. Their roof was intact, but a pipe had burst underground, apparently. When Lila tried to take a bath one day, the water in the bathtub backed up with sewage. Black water gurgled up, and she detected the smell of swamp gas, ammonia, and sulfur.
She stopped taking baths at home. Sleepy and dirty, she stumbled into the office building before anyone else every morning and took a long shower in one of the bathrooms two floors up from where she worked.
The city warned that the water supply was contaminated, so Lila and Kamal stopped using the water from the tap at home. They suffered through mosquito-filled evenings, labor-intensive cooking, and sleepless nights, going to work for relief, so glad that they worked, that they could spend eight hours a day in air conditioned offices, earning money, able to wear nice, steamed suits, able to drive clean cars that purred on gasoline on wide highways.
At the end of twenty-one days, their lives returned to normal. The transformer at the end of their street had been fixed. Lila and Kamal hired a plumber, and for a thousand dollars he fixed the sewage pipe that ran under their yard (a tree had settled on it in the storm) and thus also fixed the problem of the water backup. They had clean water again, a working refrigerator, and a working microwave oven.
They were relieved, eager to get past the hurricane. However, with time, it became clear that the hurricane had changed other things too. It wasn’t entirely clear to anyone in Houston how the surreal atmosphere of the hurricane was related to the recession and layoffs that followed, but by September a lot of people had lost their jobs. In the middle of the layoffs, Kamal came back one day and told Lila that a man in another office in a different building in the Galleria had jumped out of a sixteenth floor window to his death. This incident also seemed to be logically related to Ike and the recession. If someone had asked either Kamal or Lila to explain, neither of them could have articulated how they were related, but they would both have said that they were related: the hurricane and the unreal weeks without power or water that followed and the layoffs that came later.
There was something the hurricane had brought on, or slammed through, besides slamming down the houses on the coast in Galveston, the hundred-year-old trees all through the neighborhoods in Houston, the glass windows of the downtown high rises, the air conditioning and the traffic lights and the refrigerators and the TV sets. It had smashed all the certainties of modern life, all the things that had made things real. Soon, there were dogs on the streets that had been set loose by owners no longer able to keep them. Houses were put up for foreclosure. People who hadn’t lost their homes in the hurricane were now being driven out of their properties because they couldn’t pay their mortgage.
The layoffs happened over several weeks. Lila lost her job first. Kamal kept holding on as more and more people in his office were laid off every day. At last, when Kamal’s office was down to thirty people, with everyone sweating and trying to outperform everyone else by staying late and taking on the projects of all those who had been fired, Kamal finally received the email. He came home almost jubilant. Lila was up on a ladder, frowning, trying to repaint a section of the ceiling that had cracked during the hurricane.
“I’ll have time to do that now,” he said as he came in through the front door in his pressed shirt and slacks and put down his smart leather bag on the dining table. For a brief moment, he felt like whistling.
That mood soon passed. Laid off, they lay in their pajamas on separate leather sofas in the living room of their enormous house, their chests panting from simultaneous panic attacks. What would they do? How would they pay for the house, their cars, or their health insurance? How would they live in the only way they knew how? Kamal snatched the remote control off the coffee table and turned on MI-5, a spy thriller on a cable channel. But the high-stress episodes seemed to mirror their own lives. There was one particular episode in which all of London had gone awry. Nothing worked. Traffic lights didn’t work, and there were accidents everywhere. The plot reminded Lila of the day she had landed in Houston and witnessed the traffic pile-ups on the streets. She shouted to Kamal to turn off the TV. After that day, they stopped watching cable television. They discontinued their service.
At first, they were both on the computer all day, desperately searching for jobs in their respective fields. Lila was on the phone to friends in the oil industry, asking for job leads. Kamal locked himself in another room and carried on the same search in his field in hushed tones. They were both filled with shame. They didn’t know who they were without their jobs. They didn’t recognize themselves in the bathroom mirror, in their uncombed states, in their pajamas. Kamal had to sign on to the Internet every week to fill out forms to claim his unemployment benefits. On the radio, people speculated about rising crime because of unemployment. Kamal felt desperate enough to commit a crime, to get into some sort of shady scheme, to make money, anything to return to their former state.
Then a particularly nasty strain of flu hit the city. Lila and Kamal had attended a Bengali birthday party at Maharaja, full of sick people, and they both caught it. For days they lay without eating, unable to either cook food or keep the food down. Vomit filled the three bathrooms of the house and lay there untouched. The cleaning lady had been fired. One day, Lila crawled off the sofa on which she had been lying in an inclined position, supported by three pillows so that she could breathe out of her congested chest (the hospitals were overflowing with people with the flu, and the flu was turning to pneumonia with a peculiar cough that sounded like a drum, which ultimately killed the patient, according to the radio), and made it to the bathroom. With the radio still blaring, the world went black in front of her. Slowly, she lowered herself onto the cool tile floor and lay there crying. Her chest was pounding and she couldn’t breathe. The radio in the living room pleaded with patients to listen to their coughs, to listen for a drumbeat, which would indicate a turn to pneumonia and certain death. Patients who had a drumbeat-sounding cough should immediately check themselves into a hospital, the radio advised. But all the hospitals were full of patients already. Tents had been erected to manage the overflow. Lila listened to her cough, which sounded like a drumbeat, and her tears flowed.
After a long moment, Kamal stumbled to the bathroom and leaned against the doorjamb for support.
“What is it?” he asked weakly.
“If we don’t get jobs, what will we do?” Lila sobbed. “We’ll lose the house. The cars. Everything. What will people say?”
In response, Kamal coughed for a long time. His cough sounded hollow and drum-like, the way they had described on the radio. Lila’s panic increased and she wanted him gone.
“This reminds me of Bengali novels I read as a child,” Kamal said in a pause between coughs. He narrowed his eyes, as if trying to remember what he was about to say, as if remembering a life from a long time ago that he had forgotten.
“In a novel, things take time to happen. A problem resolves itself over six months or a year at least. You have to give it time, I think.”
Lila didn’t answer. She continued to breathe in a shallow way, thinking that she would choke to death. Kamal didn’t bend down to check on her, but instead stumbled back to the living room. Lila didn’t have the strength to get up and turn off the radio, which by its powerful force was taking on the world and morphing it, filling it with the flu, deaths, foreclosures, and unemployment figures, making it impossible to go back to the way things were. So she tried to concentrate on something long ago, before the horrors of sickness and unemployment. Finally, she remembered the parents who had been trying to cut down their tree ahead of the hurricane to stop it from falling over on their house and how they had killed their son instead. Lila didn’t have children, but she thought that would have to be the worst thing that could happen to you. Your life would end if you lost a child. Somehow, the thought made her feel better. Ultimately, she fell asleep.
In the following months, as fall turned to winter, Lila and Kamal gave up the idea of finding jobs soon. They began to read novels to each other in Bengali, and sometimes they turned off the lights on purpose and read in the dark by candlelight. Or they went out and sat on the front steps talking in the dark, as they had done in the period following the hurricane and as they remembered doing in Bangladesh during frequent power outages. One day, Kamal went out in his car, and drove aimlessly through the neighborhood.
He came back and said, “I know what I’m going to do. I’m going into real estate.”
He had suggested wild things before, such as working at McDonald’s or at Home Depot, and Lila had been filled with shame. They were professionals. They had a certain class. They didn’t work just for money, just to get by. What would their friends say at the Bangladeshi parties? Of course, they had stopped going to those parties, out of shame, and also because they didn’t want to spend money on expensive presents or gas to drive so far, to other suburbs.
Now Lila looked at Kamal with a tired face, resigned, not sure what he meant exactly, but willing to look at new possibilities.
That winter, Lila and Kamal sold their house and bought a small, tear-down bungalow near downtown. Their new home was in a “changing” neighborhood, as the real estate people called it, and some of the houses were falling apart and old, while others were newly-built, big, two-story mansions. There were young families with children living in the neighborhood alongside old people waiting to die.
Kamal stayed up nights, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, singing tunelessly and drafting a plan to remodel their house piece by piece, now that he had time on his hands. Lila sat in the same room, which doubled as office and living room, sometimes reading a book, sometimes a magazine, always with tea in a ceramic mug in her hand.
Sometimes, late at night, they would turn on the radio in the background for company. Another hurricane season had started, and already there were radio advisories about filling up on gas and storing batteries to prepare for a hurricane. In memory of the previous year’s hurricane, the newspaper had run a story recently about the family who had lost their son trying to cut down a tree ahead of Hurricane Ike. The article described how the couple had finally accepted their child’s death and begun their life anew.
Lila remembered her own low moment following the hurricane, lying on her bathroom floor without a job or money or means to keep her house.
In their new home, Lila cooked a meal with fresh vegetables she had bought that morning from the local farmer’s market downtown. Then she turned off the stove to take a walk down the street and say hello to the elderly neighbors who came out in the last rays of sunlight to chat about their dying days. As she walked, her feet in their open-toed sandals caught the dust and twigs lying on the sidewalk. She felt alive, breathing in the smell of pine cones falling off the tall trees and the barbecue cooking in neighboring houses.
Gemini Wahhaj’s fiction has appeared in Granta, Cimarron Review, Crab Orchard Review, Night Train, The Carolina Quarterly, and Northwest Review, and is forthcoming in Silk Road and TheChattahoochee Review. An excerpt from her novel has been published in the volume Exotic Gothic 5, published by PS Publishing. She has a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Houston and she teaches at Lone Star Community College in Houston.
OUR LADY OF THE MARVELOUS WRISTS by Jennifer Moore Conchita Cintrón, 1949
I killed my first kill in the slaughterhouse.
Stabbing oxen with a dagger was my drill.
One’s eyes must be open to one’s own horrors.
One’s eyes must be open to one’s own persona:
with training I became the Blue-Eyed Torera, diosa rubia, the Blonde Goddess of the Arena.
I fell in love with a sword, made pandemonium
in the crowd. Through her glass eye, the cat
wants the robin’s beak, then the entire robin.
Bull, I’ll be the cloud that taps on your shoulder.
When the declining sun shines full in your eyes,
my wrists do marvelous things.
It’s my veronicas that dazzle the afternoon
and make it rain carnations in the ring.
The audience roars: “Bait the bull, you bait me.”
So let me coax you closer, but: this blood-dance
will be simulated. As you thunder by, I’ll touch
your shoulders, then drop my sword in the sand.
The death-blow will not be remembered.
When I sculpture with the cape, I disappear.
A clever girl peeks through the door, not around it.
Jennifer Moore is the author of The Veronica Maneuver (forthcoming, The University of Akron Press), and What the Spigot Said (High5 Press). Her poems have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Best New Poets, Columbia Poetry Review, Barrow Street, and elsewhere, and criticism and reviews in Jacket2, Spoke Too Soon, and The Offending Adam. A native of the Seattle area, she holds degrees from the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Jennifer is an assistant professor of creative writing at Ohio Northern University and lives in Defiance, Ohio.
We hear them before dawn in our dreams
And step through droppings
On the sidewalk in the morning.
Seeing no birds besides the usual sparrows,
We wonder, at first, if geese were
Driven up from the river by the night’s rain.
At dusk, I walk with my daughter.
Through the deepening light, black arrowheads
By the hundreds swarm over the treetops,
Glide, and settle indifferently, caw, grow silent,
Caw, in a circle of branches.
I spin around with my face to the sky.
As far as I can see, crows bob
On the highest twigs of every tree.
In a moment, they rise up together,
A dark geyser. They fly forward
In the direction we are walking, and drop
Onto the next circle of trees.
People come out of their houses,
Looking up. Neighbors
Talk to strangers, and one woman
Says, “I thought it was a sign,
God was telling me something. But
I don’t understand what He’s saying.”
The crows lead us home.
They roost in the tops of the plane trees
Around our house, around our neighbors’ houses.
Late at night, I look out the third floor window.
There, as the wind blows,
As the rain hurtles against the roof, the crows
Cling to the winter twigs
Like thousands of shadow-fruits,
Wedged among the leafless branches.
Kathryn Hellerstein is Associate Professor of Yiddish at the University of Pennsylvania. Her books include a translation and study of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern’s poems, In New York: A Selection, (Jewish Publication Society, 1982), Paper Bridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky (Wayne State University Press, 1999), Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, of which she is co-editor (W. W. Norton, 2001). Her new book, A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586-1987 (Stanford University Press, 2014), won the National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies. A major contributor to American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (University of California Press, 1986), Hellerstein’s poems and many scholarly articles on Yiddish and Jewish American literature have appeared in journals and anthologies. She has received grants from the NEA, the NEH, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her Women Yiddish Poets: An Anthology, is forthcoming from Stanford University Press.
At a touch, the pane of ice jigsaws, cracks
To diamond scatter, hard cold clouds
Clustered against a mountain chain.
One large shard holds its shape, tracks
Its slow starfish way down the windshield, crowds
Out ever smaller nicks of ice. The rain
Will soon steal its contours, but for a while
It is my continent, rhododendron,
Moth wing, milk spill, embryo, no Atlantis
Or Antarctica, but a sunken isle
I’ve named Atlantica, frozen cauldron
Filled with snowstorms, a far home, locked atlas,
Fighting to recall the word and reclaim
Myself from a place that has taken my name.
Ernest Hilbert is the author of two collections of poetry, Sixty Sonnets (2009) and All of You on the Good Earth (2013), as well as a spoken word album recorded with rock band and orchestra, Elegies & Laments, available from Pub Can Records. “Atlantica” will appear in his next book, Caligulan, which will be issued by Measure Press in hardcover in September 2015. He hosts the E-Verse Equinox Reading Series at Fergie’s Pub and works as an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, an archaeologist.
Image credit: Flickred! on Flickr. Author photo by Matthew Wright.
Aaron and Irene married in a public park with a large green lawn, though the ceremony was in the shaded woody part, where small acorns covered the ground and caught in guests’ shoes. It was a late marriage for Aaron, and a second for Irene. Her first husband, an architect, wasn’t invited. In the crowd there were familiar faces. Aaron’s college friends, bearded, stood together.
They’d all known each other at Penn and trickled out west, following one by one like senior citizens to early retirement. They met for bagels on Saturdays. At the reception, they sat at one table, alternating with their wives.
The celebration wasn’t ostentatious—simple. The groom sold magazine ad space and the bride was a painter. Irene used oils to recreate local landscapes and sold canvasses to tourists. She’d done the planning herself. Tables and cloths rented from a party supplier, champagne and a middlebrow merlot. There was no bridal party or best man, but Stuart, who had been Aaron’s college roommate, gave the toast.
He faced the crowd as he spoke, and though he had not planned the speech, the words found themselves. They reflected the convivial warmth their group felt toward one another, and the history and integrity of their happiness. Stuart enjoyed knowing that he could evoke those feelings and that he was viewed as good. As he finished, the lowering sun warmed the audience’s faces and foreheads so that they reflected his goodness back toward him. After the party, his wife, Diane, took one of the homemade centerpieces.
A year later, there was a small anniversary party. Aaron and Irene would defrost the top tier of the wedding cake, their email said. It would be casual: at their home.
Stuart and Diane drove over, Stuart in the driver’s seat. He asked: “Why were they fighting?” When they’d left, their children—a boy and a girl—had been arguing.
“Sam read her diary again. He picked the lock.” Diane, balancing a covered bowl across her knees, inspected herself in the mirror on the back of the visor.
“She should have hidden it.”
“Or maybe,” Diane turned to face her husband. “Sam shouldn’t read someone else’s journal.”
“Or maybe,” Stuart paused for effect, “he should find a way to do it without getting caught.”
“What does a seven-year-old have to say that’s so secret?”
“It’s wrong. He’s your son.” Diane had a way of saying this that implied Sam belonged more to him than her—divided by sex, or something deeper. But Stuart had watched his wife grow with child for all those months, and seen the way the boy looked for his mother. Their son was theirs if not hers.
Diane added, “Kay caught him because she put a strand of hair inside the page.”
Stuart felt a surge of pride. A streak of something bright—Kay’s face, round and sweet and fiercely intelligent—amongst all the other things he was thinking. “She’s so smart. How do you know all of this?”
“I was listening.”
“You were eavesdropping? How is that so different from reading a journal?”
He grabbed his wife’s hand. “I’m teasing.”
Diane sighed. “You missed the turn.”
They found a parking spot two houses down from Aaron and Irene’s. Stuart reflected, as he normally did, on how unusual it was for a painter to live in that kind of place: modern and breathtaking. Expensive. You don’t fund palaces of steel and glass, heated floors and succulent gardens, with canvass and color. You couldn’t.
Irene’s previous husband had built it. The roof deck with the fireplace and the tiled Jacuzzi out back and the long strip of dirt intended for vegetables. Irene had a studio downstairs, with tall blank walls. Her own gallery.
She was in the open kitchen, in high, tight pants and a loose top, waving her arms as she told a story to Joy, one of the wives. “Come in, come in,” she called, though Stuart and Diane were already inside. They went through the living room, saying hello, and when they got to Irene the two women pressed their cheeks against one another.
“We’re here!” Diane said. “So nice you guys are doing this.” She put her bowl down on the counter, next to a bouquet no one had put into water.
“Hummus,” she explained.
Irene lifted the foil. “I love your hummus.”
“Oh, yes,” Joy agreed. “The perfect texture!”
Stuart looked past the women, outside. Through the window, he could see Aaron and Toby and David around the barbecue. Diane began to describe a recipe—soaking and food processors and tahini—and Stuart excused himself.
His wife liked to talk about her high school friends. The fab five—the name they had given themselves. Women who hardly kept in touch except for the occasional Christmas card. (“Happy Holidays,” they wrote, because she had married a Jew.) But there was never a label for Stuart’s group. They were just a group.
In college, there were four of them: Stuart and Aaron had been one another’s first roommate. David had come to the group rich and soft until their competition and banter formed him into something more. Toby liked to tell stories, and always had; he’d grown up outside of Boston, where bravado and not giving a fuck was currency. Every fight Stuart had ever been in was because of Toby. They kept their circle tight.
Not that there weren’t outliers—Howard MacPherson had let them copy his homework and then gone on to make millions with a shoe company that sold sneaker-sandal hybrids. And it was Howard that, for the wedding, had gifted Aaron and Irene the three hundred dollar bottle of saké that now sat on the patio table beside the barbecue.
“Brought out the good stuff, huh?” Stuart slid the door shut behind him.
“Tallboy,” Toby said. Stuart’s nickname.
“Is Howie here?” Stuart had never really liked Howard, but tried not to make a point of it. Howie’d come to the group late, a little bit younger and a little bit uglier than the rest of them. Now, he lived in Nashville, though he’d flown into town for the wedding a year before. Stuart already knew the answer to his question.
“Nah.” Aaron stood in front of the closed grill, and pointed to the saké with the tongs he held. “Just thought it was an appropriate time to crack it open.”
“He’s playing golf somewhere,” David said, and the group chuckled. Toby pointed to the tub of beer, their glass necks extending from ice water, and Stuart went over and took one.
“We were just saying,” David leaned against the wall as he spoke, “remember—remember how we drove to that concert upstate and there was so much traffic that those girls that came with us—”
“Nancy,” Toby interrupted Aaron.
“No. Martha.” David shook his head. There were so many things they had done—it was easy to forget.
“Those girls!” Toby rapped his knuckles against the edge of the planter he was leaning against.
“Suntanning on the hood of the car!” Stuart did remember—brown, flat nipples on one and asymmetrical breasts on the other. He’d been enthralled by their indifference. “Yeah,” he added.
“Yeah,” Aaron repeated.
“They didn’t come back with us.”
“They figured it out, I’m sure.”
The door slid sideways and Irene came outside, putting a hand on Aaron’s neck. “How’s the meat looking?” she asked.
Aaron opened the grill. The sausages had grown fat and were beginning to spit.
“I want to put on the veggie burgers.” Irene turned to look at her husband’s friends. “How are your kids, Stu?”
“They’re good. Great. Good,” he said, and took another swig of beer.
It seemed to Stuart that this was more than half of what the group did when they were together: remembered things that had already happened, as if the past tense could increase something’s worth. But there was so much to remember. The group had driven across the country together and all gotten lice. Another time, Toby had stolen a case of lobsters, thinking he could sell them, but they’d escaped and crawled along the hallways of the dorm. When Aaron’s college girlfriend had died—a freak accident, a blow-dryer falling into the tub—they took him straight out of Philadelphia for the weekend. They’d packed David’s station wagon and headed into the woods, where they attempted to talk about things far beyond their understanding and ate canned hot dogs for three days.
Over that weekend, when Aaron had seemed as dark as they would ever see him, they had made one another a promise: to look out for each other always. Simple and trite, but also pure and true, and they’d stuck to it. Or said they had. For Stuart, he felt that might have been a lie. But it was easier now, with the beers and the swollen bellies and the years between them, to forget what was real and what wasn’t, and most of the time Stuart let his decisions go unexamined.
When most of the food was ready, Irene arranged it buffet-style in the kitchen. Stuart took his paper plate and went to Aaron, who was finishing up the last of the burgers on the grill.
“A year in,” he clamped a hand onto his friend’s shoulder.
“A year,” Aaron nodded. “You’re how many?”
“Nine.” He’d met Diane after college.
Aaron looked down at the grill. “What’s the secret?”
“The secret,” Stuart removed his hand. “Is to enjoy the first year.”
Aaron turned one of the green patties and made a jerking gesture with his head, back toward the party. “We have scheduled sex.”
“Hey,” Stuart shrugged, then grinned. “If it’s frequent.” He felt uncomfortable.
“It works better that way. Because we’re busy.” Aaron began to move the burgers onto a plate.
Stuart told him: “Your secret’s safe with me.”
He couldn’t remember how Aaron had first met his wife. The details of the encounter hadn’t been important—Irene only gained significance as more time went on. Before her, there had been no steady or easy presence of women in Aaron’s life. It was, the guys said, psychological, linking back to what had happened to Claire.
After she’d died, Aaron went inwards. Not that he didn’t deserve grief, if grief were ever a thing to be deserved. He and Claire had subsisted off of one another. There’d been a frenzied madness to the way they had dated—from thereon, though Aaron had still been a part of the group, there was a piece of him that was always separate, even when the guys were together.
So, naturally, he’d taken the loss hard. Naturally, it would take effort to get through days and weeks and months without the presence of a thing you’d come to depend on. But while the rest of Aaron’s life had gone forward—graduation to work, studio to house—Stuart was convinced that his friend had moved on in every way except the most important way, and probably still jacked off to the idea of Claire’s long, freckled legs.
By the time he’d finished eating, Stuart had downed another pilsner. He didn’t feel drunk—he wasn’t drunk—but when his wife came over to lead him away from the guests, he felt a small lick of intention. Diane had taken his hand and was pulling him down the staircase, two steps below, and he could see the top of her head, the way her brown hair split at the part and her white scalp showed through, and then lower, her skirt and her hips. A skirt!
“A steal,” she said.
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
They’d reached the bottom of the steps, and she opened the frosted-glass door into the studio, where Irene’s paintings hung on the tall, white walls.
“There, that one.” Diane pointed, and led him across the paint-covered floor to a smaller canvass on an easel. A stream and rocks and a fish, jumping from the water.
“It’s nice,” he said, uncertain.
“I think it would be great in the dining room.”
Stuart put a hand on Diane’s hip and moved his fingers downward, along the harder part of her outer leg. “Mmm,” he said.
“It would be great to support her.”
“Imagine it in a contemporary frame. Something white, maybe. It’s acrylic. What do you think?”
What he thought was that Irene’s paintings weren’t so great, and felt commercial in a way that belonged to sentimentalists. He’d never say that to his wife, though, because the two women were friendly, and Diane had already purchased a smaller piece—a depiction of the northern bluffs—that hung in their guest bathroom. His supportive role in these details sometimes felt like the thing that held them together.
“What do you think, Stuart?” Diane repeated. “What do you really think? Be honest.”
“I think…” He looked back at the painting—rainbow bellies of trout glistened in sunlight reflecting off the water.
“It’s okay,” she said, looking generous. “We can talk about it later. I just wanted to show you, you know, when Irene wasn’t here, so you could have a reaction.”
“Right,” he said, and went to put his other hand on his wife’s body. She stepped away from him.
“We should get back upstairs before anyone notices.”
“Right,” he said again.
Diane went to the door, adding, “But I really want to know what you think.”
Stuart looked back over at the ugly painting, wondering at the shifting equation of keeping information. There wasn’t that much that he hid from his wife—or people at all. In high school, he had told his parents that he had quit when he’d been fired from his weekend job, and lied occasionally when he snuck out with his friends. During college, he’d cheated on tests and given an RA fifty bucks not to turn him in. But he kept all sorts of things from his kids—protecting them, first from life, and then from the realities of life, preserving a perspective that was precious and short-lived. And he’d never told Diane about the time he had nearly backed over the dog, or the female client who liked to sit too close, or his crippling self-doubt, his desire at times to run away from everything, from the need to support and provide and stand tall and be good and do the right thing.
He’d also never told her about what had happened between him and Claire in the weeks before the tub. More questionably, he’d never told Aaron.
Back upstairs, the party had changed stages. Toby was passing his pipe around, and everyone had moved toward the living area, leaving dirty paper plates on counters and tables, gathering in an informal circle surrounding the coffee table. Diane had already taken her shoes off, and was sitting cross-legged on the ground.
“We’re going to have the cake,” she told Stuart, who went beside her.
“The wedding cake,” Joy said. “Oh, Stu, give another speech. Yours was so great last time.”
“You speak with such poignancy,” Toby said, not serious.
Diane smiled and rubbed Stuart’s leg. “He just loves you guys. We love you guys.” Stuart wondered if she had drunk as much as he had.
“A speech?” he repeated.
“We have to wait for Irene,” Joy said.
Aaron looked around. “Where is Irene?”
Stuart imagined then—he couldn’t help himself—Aaron’s wife, beneath him, just as he had seen Claire, her hair spread out, a lock of it across her throat, looking up from that elemental angle.
“I don’t want to give a speech,” he said.
“Oh, come on, you’re so good at them.” Joy swiped a hand through the air in his direction. “You’re so good!”
“I’m not good,” he said.
“He’s always been. He used to walk every girl home,” David said, and then added, “Sorry, Diane.”
“Why do you think I married him?” Diane’s voice took on affectation.
“I’m not giving a speech.” He left his wife out there on that little spring of a joke she’d loaded, the spring meant for and in need of partnership. The group looked at him in surprise. Joy held her drink in midair, unmoving.
“I’ll go find Irene,” Stuart added. “So we can eat the fucking cake.”
She was on the roof deck, leaning against the wall that went around the perimeter. She’d brought the saké, which she’d set on top of the ledge beside her, and held a cigarette.
“They’re waiting for you,” Stuart said, and Irene turned around.
She held up the small roll of tobacco as if to say: you caught me.
Stuart went over to her side and, together, they tilted to look down the smooth side of the house to the carport below. He was sweating a bit, from the sun and from the stairs.
“I don’t come up here very often,” she told him.
He picked up the bottle of saké and looked at the hieroglyphic label—all in Japanese, far from his understanding. “It could just be table wine in here, and I wouldn’t know the difference.”
“That would be something.” Irene stubbed out her cigarette.
“Did you try it?” Irene and Aaron had saved the bottle for all that time, as if the saving itself would give more value to the contents, and Stuart suddenly wanted to taste the drink, to see if all of the waiting—the aging of the liquid and the weeks that had passed since it had come into their hands—would coagulate into something of meaning.
“You go ahead.”
Stuart took the bottle in his hands and undid the top. The wine tasted sweet and silky, and not what he wanted to have inside of his mouth after so much beer.
“Not your thing, then,” Irene said, watching his face. She reached down into a flowerpot and took out a glass tumbler, full of butts. She added another and hid the cup again.
Stuart set the bottle back on the ledge, and looked at his friend’s wife. He knew so little about her. She collected fetishes. Native American rock carvings of animals, decorated with feathers and semi-precious stones—they were on a shelf in the living room. “Does he talk to you ever? About Claire?” he asked.
“She died. Aaron’s college girlfriend.” Stuart pressed against the ledge with his forearms. “It’s like the chicken and the egg. Does the pedestal come first, or do you assign it?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.” Irene’s voice went sharp—a honed sting that came from insecurity.
“Perhaps what it is, is that she was lucky, because she died before the rest of us got a chance to see the worst in her.” He bit his cuticle, a habit he had started in college. “I never knew if you knew about Claire.”
“Of course I know about Claire.”
“Right,” he said, seeing then that Claire was just as much a presence in Irene’s life as his own. He looked at the saké: the swoops and swaying sashay of the lettering and the neck that thinned into round lips. Reaching out, he nudged the glass with the back of his hand, so that the bottle fell from the ledge and crashed to the ground two stories below.
Irene let out a sharp rush of air and they both peered over, looking down at the shattered pieces.
“Stuart!” she said.
He thought about telling her about Claire and the things he and Claire had done.
“What did you do that for?” Irene exclaimed, but without the force of anger.
He drew back his shoulders and turned to face her. He would give Irene that dark, glistening piece of information, a shard, and wait to see what she would do with it.
It was possible that Stuart could do for Aaron’s wife what he had never done for Aaron.
“Claire and I…” he began. He couldn’t know without trying.
Rachel Hochhauser is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her stories have appeared in Per Contra, Clapboard House, and Connu. The recipient of the Pillsbury Foundation Creative Writing Award and an alumna of NYU, Rachel also holds a master’s in professional writing from the University of Southern California, where she served as fiction editor of The Southern California Review. You can find her non-fiction in the likes of Daily Beast,The Date Report, and Inc. Magazine. Recently, she finished her first novel. Find out more at rachelhochhauser.com.
(Theme and variations)
by Conor Kelly
I shall die, César Vallejo wrote,
in Paris on a day of heavy showers,
on a day I already remember,
a Thursday, perhaps, and in the autumn.
He died in Paris, true; but in the spring—
Good Friday, April 15 1938.
As to whether or not it rained on those roads
he ceased to feel, alone, I cannot recall.
César Vallejo is dead (of a strange disease).
Everyone kept on hitting him for no good cause.
They hit him hard with a cane and hard,
as well, with a rope; his testament:
the body blows of life, the shoulder pain,
the solitude, incessant rain, the roads…
I shall die (after a brief illness) alone
in an empty class room on an upper floor,
8th period on a Wednesday afternoon,
having returned to take up work again,
two days before another mid term break.
I will have been correcting someone’s work,
(Must it be always the same errors every time?)
and listening to late Beethoven after class
when, like a sudden gust of wind that flings
a metal bin across an empty yard,
a sudden gust of passion or of pain
will fling me from my chair onto the tiles
beneath a blackboard where, in chalk, I’ll leave
some words on some set poet’s subtle words.
I shall die (peacefully at home) in bed,
surrounded by my loving family
solicitous to every last request,
drinking, at last, a glass of chilled champagne,
like Chekhov in a Raymond Carver tale,
and listening to Beethoven on CD
until, like the summer breeze that Monday night,
I’ll drift into another nether world.
Perhaps I’ll die andante and in tune.
Perhaps I’ll drift away, drunk on champagne.
Perhaps my wife, like Chekhov’s wife, will find,
“Beauty and peace and the grandeur of death.”
But who will pick the cork up from the floor?
I shall die (following a traffic accident)
early one Sunday morning, on a wet street
beneath a street light fading into dawn,
my blood seeping onto the leather trim
like oil seeping from the underside of the car
I drove too fast, perhaps, into a tree.
A housewife in her light pink dressing gown
will watch my eyelids close, my head relax.
She will have called an ambulance, the guards
and they, in turn, a fire brigade to cut
whatever’s left of what was once my life
from what was once a cherished black coupé.
The wreck will stay there for another day.
I shall die (suddenly) on the pavement
outside a large franchised department store
on a Saturday afternoon, perhaps,
and my last sight will be my own collapse
reflected in the plate glass window through which
a sightless, beach-dressed, female mannequin
will not observe a spasm on the wet ground—
there will have been a sudden summer shower—
as the body that transported me through life
will finally achieve its destiny.
A crowd may gather: the curious, the concerned
and those who wonder why a crowd has gathered.
Later, an ambulance will sweep me up
and tidy me, temporarily, away.
I shall die (in the loving and excellent care
of the Sisters of Mercy) after lunch
on Tuesday, in my bedside chair, not knowing
what or how or who, perhaps, I might be.
Years of dribbling and drooling like an old fool,
years of incompetence, incontinence,
years of unembarrassed eccentricity,
will end with a seizure and a sigh.
It will be many years after I will have
forgotten the music I once played at home,
a home no longer remembered despite
a photograph on the bedside locker:
a house, a cherry-blossom tree, a car
from which two children wave, happily.
I shall die (unexpectedly) abroad
in Paris on a heavy humid day,
a day I no longer clearly recall,
a Thursday, perhaps, in early autumn.
The cause will be some strange fatal disease
and the autopsy will take forever
before they release the body for burial
there or collection and cremation elsewhere.
The inside back page of the Irish Times
will carry my death notice for two days,
four centimeters long: surname, in bold capitals,
then date and place of death, forename, bereaved,
(regretted by) funeral arrangements.
House private. No flowers please. Donations to
Conor Kelly was born in 1952 and grew up in Dublin, Ireland, where he taught in a secondary school for over 30 years. After he retired from teaching in 2011, he moved to rural France where he now lives. His poetry and criticism have appeared in various Irish, British, and American publications, including The Southern Review (Louisiana), Poetry Review (London) and Poetry Ireland Review (Dublin). He has also had poems published in The Huffington Post and Rattle (Poet’s Respond) (USA), Snakeskin (England), The Honest Ulsterman (Northern Ireland), and All Floors (Ireland). He runs a twitter account dedicated to the short poem (@poemtoday) and a Tumblr blog (poem-today.tumblr.com) which prints a daily poem, classic or contemporary.
Lathered in shampoo, her hair became like sea foam embracing knotted driftwood, limbs exfoliating on the shore. Her flesh was turning pink from such long exposure to the shower head’s hot prick, and the moon’s white hot eye lit up with the glee of a voyeur, peeping through darkness at a celestial body in motion. Razor in hand, she mutilated every hair that dared leave its follicle inside her. She had no room in her life for hairy situations, and she inwardly thanked the shower for demanding that she curtain herself off from the world at least once a day. Sometimes she would pretend she was a pearl, safely clasped in the tub’s hard enamel shell. If she wanted free, she could slither out, never clammy but like an oyster—a moist, labial aphrodisiac to be swallowed up by tongues of towels. And yet she was afraid of water—the taste of it repulsed her. To drink it felt like subjecting her insides to a bath in which there was no soap, no sponge, no scented crystals, only a cesspool of phlegm and bile. She was glad when the gurgle of the drain proclaimed the downfall of moistness. Her feet were the only part of her whose allegiance to water made itself known in shapeless prints upon the floor, but even these did not stay fastened to her nails for long. She would sic her slippers on this part of her that someone had so aptly labeled ‘heel,’ and the sound of their synthetic soles when they slapped the floor for its insubordinate behavior would carry her forward, deliver her to drier ground. The mirror was the final frontier. At the face-off she knew to enlist an army of Q-tips to help her come clean completely—she’d plant their shafts so deep inside her ears that drums of war would seem to sing and plead. Its head erect and seeing stars, the moon would watch and wax and shoot off comets at the height of heaven.
2. Down by the River, I Dare Not Go
Down by the river, where the banks burn blue with dragonflies of every shape and size, a woman lives alone. And yet the friends who sometimes visited her home have stopped coming due to their suspicion (which they developed independently of one another) that the woman was already entertaining some unknown guest upon their arrival. One friend conjectured that the woman kept a stuffed toy in the house, perhaps a guinea pig or a duck (or something equally gregarious), and did not want her friends to know that she believed it to be real. The reason the kettle on the stove was always hot or boiling when her guests arrived must be because the doorbell had interrupted teatime with her stuffed friend, and not because the woman’s hospitable nature enabled her to anticipate the precise moment of her guest’s arrival (as her friends had previously supposed). Another friend maintained that the woman must have a secret lover, bound and gagged upon the bed. This friend did not wish to imagine the scene any further. A different friend was certain that the first friend (with whom he’d had a quarrel) had arrived there first and instructed the woman to keep his presence a secret, so that he could eavesdrop on their conversation and use it against him later. This caused him to stomp out of the house once and for all, too angry even to remember that he should slam the door for good measure. A cockroach who had stolen into the woman’s bedroom knew the house to be regrettably empty. The cupboards were secure, and there was nowhere dark to go save for under the retreating shoe, so eager to close the distance between itself and its own shadow—one that is lengthening, even now, upon the poorly paved ground.
3. The Command
In this hall, there is a worn-out little dog with his tail still wagging. There are breadcrumbs lining the floor into the bedroom, but there are no owners there, and the bedstead is creakingly empty. The dog is wholly unaware that the light he sees, shining from beneath the door, belongs to the moon and not his master. His tongue crawls from his jaws like a snail unfolding from its shell, and he makes no move to retrieve it. Instead, he prances up close to the tightly drawn door and whimpers. His unclipped nails sound like hard-shelled insects plotting escape paths along the walls, and his tail beats at the air as though warding off something up there that might wish to attack him. Occasionally the little dog stands up on his two hind legs and makes an engraving in the wooden door. The paint yields to his small claws, turning their tips white as a French manicure. But the dog does not know much about beautification, and so he digs his paws into the palette of the door with little rhyme or reason. Lines form leading nowhere. The grooves the dog is building seem to deepen with every blow, as if a hole might form a gateway for him alone. But what is there for the little dog to bother reaching? For what reason is he knocking with the full weight of his body? The light in the other room wavers and wanes, diluted by the light of day. The doorknob is so gold, it catches the sun and seems to turn with the seconds. There is a pool of incandescent drool where the dog has been standing, and one can see his slug-like tongue return to where it singly squirms in sticky darkness. He forgets why his little legs have carried him here, and he exits back into the hall, where the fallen crumbs beckon to him like the time-hardened heels of his master. He sits in obeisance to some command that no one might have uttered long ago.
4. Rabbit Ears
Ever since childhood, the man has been certain that his own ears are those of an inbred, domesticated rabbit. Not a lop-eared rabbit with ears that wilt before they ever have a chance to bloom, but the kind of rabbit whose ears stick up and spread like wings, or legs, or the two ticklish points at the end of a snake’s forked tongue. The man’s concern over the welfare of his ears increases whenever he is in a low-ceilinged room or lying down with a lover who whispers quietly to him while tousling his hair. She is apt to misjudge the reach of his ears, and her words’ cotton-swab attempts to close in on the circuitry of his thoughts are always destined to fall short. The elevator also irks him since it causes his ears to pop and sets them throbbing like a tuning fork. It is only when he takes a bath that his mind is set at ease. His ears seem to hunker down around his head like the skin of a peeled banana waiting to be swallowed. Their soft weight against his cheeks makes his upright head feel firm and reliable, as if it is capable of dispersing all the soaped-up suds in a triumphant burst of waves and rubbed-together sponges. And yet he can barely bring himself to pull the plug when it’s all over. With its deep, unintelligible language, the drain entices the water to fill its every hollow and descend somewhere unknown with baritone bravado. The man cannot forgive the drain for stealing the element with which he is so intimately acquainted, and so the drums in his ears begin to beat to the rhythm of war. But no one else is aware of the man’s antagonism toward drains, and they do not hear the pounding in his ears. There is only the ticklish feel of a whisker that sometimes slips past the man’s lips when he kisses, and his feet that leave such massive footprints that no one thinks twice about shrinking his head.
5. A Picnic
It was time to get the baby dressed for the picnic. The bonnet (round and floppy as a cat sitting on an ottoman and luxuriating in the rays that fall upon its fur like so many fleas) had lost its strings. What can be done with a bonnet that is missing its strings? It certainly must not go on the baby’s head, for no matter how sunny the day, a sudden wind might work itself up into a flurry and steal it to use for its own self-beautification, or else simply to make itself visible when there are no trees, flags, clouds, or other friends of wind in the vicinity. And what is worse is that the wind would get away with it. Who, after all, would condescend to prosecute the wind? Perhaps a kite (that has failed to be uplifted) might condemn the wind for lack of trying along with aforementioned theft. And to add a dose of pathos, the baby could be squeezed on the cheeks and persuaded to cry. But all of these conjectures contribute nothing to the sought-after resolution of our predicament. What about the stringless bonnet? What about the picnic? The baby requires some attire, some attention. If this goes on long enough, its diaper will surely need changing, though it’s unclear exactly who is authorized to change a bonnetless baby. And into what exactly? With no bonnet to be had, the baby might as well be an inedible toadstool waiting to be picked up from the ground. A bird might alight on it at any time, which would likely result in more droppings to be dealt with. Even more bothersome is the prosecution of the wind—without it the bird has no free ride and is liable to remain there for a period of time that is incommensurate with its purpose(lessness). And yet, doesn’t the bonnet deserve to be examined more closely? Perhaps the bonnet has consumed its own strings and they are lying hidden in the folds of its belly, wound around like the intestines of the cat who has just finished its dinner. The baby does not know that it is missing a bonnet, that its crown is as hairless as an old man’s, or even that its head is, in fact, a head. Before it can be stopped, the baby props itself into a standing position using the ottoman, and the bonnet is overturned. Soon there is nothing inside the bonnet but the baby’s head, the recovered strings so snug under the chin that the baby’s fat seems to form another bonnet with strings of drool reaching toward the little feet, getting hopelessly tied up along the way.
Emily Grelle holds an M.A. in Russian studies and a B.A. in English. Her work has appeared in journals such as Spoon River Poetry Review, Sundog Lit, Thrice Fiction, Storyscape Journal, and Zaum. She grew up in Chico, California, and also spent several years in Russia and North Carolina. She now lives in a very old house near Monterey, where she works for a novelist and leads a creative writing program for children.
I live, I say, and language lays itself open
through the movement of the earth: green-gold grass
upright, virginal flowers, husky insects secretly
courting life; shadows, cirrus touching, trailing off ice
crystals in cloud, falling in long streamers; traffic going
by, the exaltation of finding that field at the edge of town.
Bruce Alford is a former journalist turned creative writer. His work is informed by a Southern Missionary Baptist tradition and often explores the tensions between religion, place, and literary history. Alford currently lives in Hammond, Louisiana, and teaches American literature and English composition at Southeastern Louisiana University. His first book of poems, Terminal Switching (Elk River Review Press) was published in 2007. Alford is a reviewer for First Draft, a publication of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, and The Black Scholar, and has published fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry in numerous journals.
We were running through the Shepherd’s Woods down by Yalloway Creek and across from the schoolyard. We were running because Tony had said he wanted to and I had said that that sounded fine, and so we ran. When we reached the Gap—that’s the wide space between one side of the Woods and the other where the ground falls away and you can see the Creek squeeze through rocks at the bottom—I jumped over. Tony stopped and wouldn’t do it, so I said, “C’mon Ton—! Don’t be a chicken!” And he hated when I called him that, and I suppose that’s what did it. And I suppose that’s why his mum won’t meet my eyes when I look at her across the pew.
Originally from the Seattle area, Elizabeth Alexander is an undergraduate studying English and creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. She serves on the writing staff and executive board for Classless TV and has been previously published in The Penn Review. She writes fiction, flash fiction, essays, and screenplays.