A Conversation with Translator Marian Schwartz Interview by Ryan K. Strader

A Conversation with Translator Marian Schwartz
Interview by 
Ryan K. Strader

“If books don’t get published, they don’t live,” argues Marian Schwartz, the prolific and award-winning translator of over seventy Russian works. Thanks to Schwartz, significant 20th and 21st century Russian books have been brought to life, including work by Nina Berberova, Polina Dashkova, Mikhail Shishkin, and now Leonid Yuzefovich.

While doing research for Cleaver’s review of Yuzefovich’s Horsemen of the Sands, I was intrigued by Schwartz’s commitment to bringing Yuzefovich to English readers. She has translated the first of three novels in a historical detective trilogy by Yuzefovich (Harlequin’s Costume, 2001). And now Archipelago Books has just published Horsemen of the Sands, which contains both the title novella and a more recent novella, The Storm. Schwartz graciously allowed me to interview her about her advocacy for contemporary Russian literature in general, her appreciation for Yuzefovich in particular, and why we should read more translated literature.—Ryan K. Strader


Ryan K. Strader: You translated Yuzefovich as early as 2001, and in a wonderful 2010 interview with The Writer’s Guide, you describe Yuzefovich as a Russian novelist who you think the rest of the world should be reading. What is it about Yuzefovich’s work that has drawn your consistent admiration and support?

Marian Schwartz: I’m a major advocate for him and am looking forward to getting much more of his work translated. Not only is his writing elegant and intelligent, his subject matter and his approach to that subject matter will appeal to the English-language reader. He knows how to tell very human stories set in the modern day but also very human stories set in the past, and in that sense I find him tremendously compelling.

RKS: When did you first read Horsemen of the Sands?

MS: I read it fairly late, long after I’d read and translated The Storm, for example. The book was originally published in the early eighties and had recently been reissued in Russian, and he suggested that I might find it worthwhile, which I did. This is one of the few early publications that he felt had stood up.

Leonid Yuzefovich

RKS: Horsemen of the Sands features a historical figure, General Ungern, who fought for control of Mongolia during the Russian Civil War. You mentioned Yuzefovich’s “historical angle,” and I know he has written about General Ungern before. Can you tell us how his interest in history influences his work?

MS: He’s a historian by training, and his dissertation was on medieval diplomacy. He wrote about General Ungern before, in Autocrat of the Desert, which isn’t available in English. Also, a book of his that won several prizes last year, The Winter Road, is from the same period, the late Civil War in Russia.

You can see his background in the meticulous and loving detail. In the earlier versions of the story he included a great many Chinese and Mongolian words relating to details of the culture, religion, history, and so forth, so many that he actually took out some them for the second edition, having realized that when he wrote it he was so taken by Mongolian culture that wanted to include everything he could, and now he realized that at some point it started getting in the way of the story. His love of Mongolia persists. When he wins a prize, his treat to himself is to buy an artifact from Mongolia, like a little Buddha, so he has quite a few artifacts now at his apartment.

RKS: In Horsemen of the Sands, you didn’t always translate the word gau, the word for the amulet—why did you keep that word?

MS: The gau is a key image in the text and acquires a definite emotional overlay in the course of the story. I kept it, but I interspersed it with the word “amulet” sometimes, for two reasons. First, to remind the reader of what it meant. But second, to emphasize the outsider’s gaze that Yuzefovich establishes in the book. One of the important themes in the book is the outsider’s encounter with an exotic culture—what to them is an exotic culture—and using the foreign word is a way to introduce that outsider gaze.

In fact, the author is not the only “other” involved. There is also the narrator, a Russian officer serving on the Mongolian border in the 1970s, and there is Baron Ungern himself, also a European, who has become obsessed with Mongolia to a much greater extreme than the narrator or the author. On the one hand, you want to keep that sense of their fascination through the use of the exotic word, but you want to remind the reader of the ever-present duality. There were several other instances of foreign words that I kept, both to feed the reader’s fascination with this exotic culture but also to emphasize that the author/narrator/Ungern/reader are “other.”

I think that English readers have had a fairly narrow idea of what Russian literature and culture are, and I think it’s about time that situation changed.

RKS: You just returned from a visit to Moscow, where you spent some time with Yuzefovich. Can you tell our readers a little bit about when you first met him and your current relationship with him?

MS: I first met him after I had started translating him. We had had email correspondence in connection with the first book I translated, Harlequin’s Costume. So we had been in touch then but had not met. Then, about six years ago, when I was in Moscow for a conference, we met there.

We’ve seen each other a few times now, including in New York for Russian Literature Week, an annual event put on by Read Russia, which brings in Russian writers and translators for literary events around the city. In 2016, Yuzefovich came and I took him sightseeing. His son had told him he had to see the Village, so we took the subway down from Lincoln Center. We went to a diner for breakfast, which he loved—we had a wisecracking waitress and quintessential diner food, all of which he thought was great. That was a lot of fun. We did the quintessential West Village walking tour, finding the narrowest house and various authors’ houses. Our route took us past my old haunts in the South Village, through Washington Square, and all the way to the Flatiron Building. At the end of the day, he made a very interesting comment. He said that he liked New York because it was a city of the 20th century. Cities in Europe, including Moscow, have a very long history, so you’re looking at beautiful and fascinating but very old buildings. But New York is a city of his century, built largely during his lifetime.

RKS: There are several beautiful scenes in Horsemen of the Sands. My favorite one is when the narrator describes the East and West as mirrors on either side of Russia: “Russia looked first at the right, and then at the left, each time amazed that its reflection in one mirror did not look like its reflection in the other.” I’m curious about your favorite scene from the novella, and what you think makes that scene compelling.

MS: In the beginning of the story, when the narrator sees the herder Boliji for the first time, Boliji is sitting with his back to the river and looking out at the land. Similar to your idea of the East and the West, the idea of looking at the world completely differently. As Westerners, we don’t sit with our back to water and look at the land, but that’s what Boliji does. This is one of the reasons we like foreign literature: it makes us think of things we have never thought before, that aren’t part of our culture.

RKS: What about The Storm, the other novella in this volume? Do you have a favorite scene or image from that story?

MS: The scene Nadezhda Stepanovna goes to buy the berries hit me hard. There’s so much tension in the story there, so much emotional intensity.

She sets off with the simple intention of buying berries, but the process becomes intensely emotional—anything but an ordinary purchase. The way Yuzefovich develops her anxiety is brilliant. I’m often interested in how writers bring the reader along from one emotional state to another. The scenes like this that work are the ones that do so in tiny steps. The most famous example I can think of is in Anna Karenina, when she goes to the train station at the end of part seven. Starting out, she’s not thinking about killing herself, but by the time she throws herself under the train, we’re there with her. Tolstoy has taken us through minute gradations of emotional change, so that when the time comes it’s perfectly obvious she’s going to kill herself. It seems inevitable. Yuzefovich is able to do that as well, to move the character along from one emotional state to another.

RKS: You’ve translated more than seventy books now. What do you hope that American audiences learn from the Russian texts you’ve translated?

MS: One of the reasons that I became a translator—besides the fact that I like doing it—was that I felt it was the one thing I thought I could do better than a Russian could do. I was never going to be a scholar, but I could write in English and I could translate. I could help broaden the reading audience for the literature that had meant so much to me. If books don’t get published, they don’t live. We are only now recovering much of the 20th century, which was little known behind the Iron Curtain and little published until that barrier fell.

Just as when two readers read a book and have two different understandings of it, the translation is another reader. So the translation is a new book, heavily based on another book, but in many ways a new book. People don’t like to think about it, but it’s so.

I think that English readers have had a fairly narrow idea of what Russian literature and culture are, and I think it’s about time that situation changed. I want to bring out books that work differently, that are written differently, and that show different aspects of the people and the culture. I’ve done four books recently that are set wholly or in part in Siberia; we’re seeing books set in the Caucasus and Central Asia. We’re seeing many more books written by women. Bringing more diversity to our notion of Russian literature and showing that there are books to appeal to all kinds of readers is certainly a goal of mine.

I mean, let’s mix it up, not everything is Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, or Chekhov! Those books were written a very long time ago. Let’s fast-forward to the 21st century, to what women and different ethnic groups, for example, are experiencing and writing about.

RKS: What do you wish readers knew about the role of the translator?

MS: Just as when two readers read a book and have two different understandings of it, the translation is another reader. So the translation is a new book, heavily based on another book, but in many ways a new book. People don’t like to think about it, but it’s so.

Translation is not just a matter of words, of looking up words in a dictionary. Translation is using English to its full extent to convey the sense of the original. In the same way that the original author used their language to its full extent, the translator has to use English to its full extent. Otherwise the translation isn’t going to sound like authentic language. The translator writes the book anew, because they’re writing it in a new language, which has different tools and different resources.

Because we read so few translations, the English language reader is less comfortable with this duality. Whereas people who read translations all the time accept it as a matter of course. I don’t think we’ll be able to get more comfortable with the idea of two simultaneous authors until we read a lot more in translation.

RKS: What is the next Yuzefovich book that we should be on the look out for?

I’m hoping it will be The Winter Road, Yuzefovich’s prizewinning documentary novel about two noble generals, one Red and one White, who faced off in the Far East at the end of the Russian Civil War.


Ryan K. Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.

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SLEEPING DRAGONS, stories by Magela Baudoin, reviewed by Katharine Coldiron

SLEEPING DRAGONS
by Magela Baudoin
translated by Wendy Burk and M.J. Fièvre
Schaffner Press, 140 pages
reviewed by Katharine Coldiron

Thank goodness Magela Baudoin’s first book to be translated in English, Sleeping Dragons, is so short. The fifteen stories in this collection (adding up to only 140 pages) are so precise, bursting with such potency, that to increase the collection to 200 or 250 pages would just about kill the average reader. Nearly all the stories are perfectly formed, energetic little spheres—like new tennis balls, popping with their own elasticity the moment they drop out of the canister—and only so many of these spheres can hit a reader between the eyes before she must stop, dazed. The overall impression is of a writer with years of craftsmanship already behind her, ready to don the halo of South American literary fame.

Baudoin is Bolivian, but she is clearly influenced not just by the humor and confidence of the usual South American figures (Borges, García Márquez), but also by the sharpness of American minimalists like Raymond Carver and Lydia Davis. These stories are expertly honed, whittled to beauty and often terror. In “Moebia,” for instance, a journalist falls in love and moves into a prison—the story offers no real-world logic for this development—only to suffer heartbreak and stillbirth. In “Vertical Dream,” a highly interior story about dreams and windows, Baudoin asserts:

Forget the present, forget the now. People carried around an obsession with the future—a fear. It disturbed them—like a nightmare unfolding—the idea that they, or their successors, might descend into vulgarity, or worse, poverty. For poverty was the quintessence of horror.

The point of view varies from story to story; the author shifts easily from first person to second person to third. “The Girl,” one of the longest stories in the collection, dissects a couple’s disapproval as their friend’s wife descends either into madness or a neurological disease. Baudoin chooses to tell the story from a distant, omnipotent third person perspective, shifting rapidly from one set of motivations to the next. Head-hopping stories often feel loose and undisciplined, but this one is tight as a drum. The girl of the title is the one person whose head Baudoin never peeks into—except that the end of the story physically opens it up.

Magela Baudoin

Some of the stories in this collection seem to be the result of a conceptual constraint or a gimmick, such as “A Wristwatch, a Soccer Ball, a Cup of Coffee,” a dialogue-heavy piece that integrates these three objects into a conversation between a boy and his grandfather. Or “Wuthering,” which merely summarizes the tale of the Brontë siblings, in conversation. The oddest and least successful of these examples is “Mengele in Love,” which, given the book’s origin in South America, should be self-explanatory. But it’s one of the only stories in the book that feels incomplete. The narration is so internal, so unexplained, that the story feels like a series of unwoven threads, left hanging awkwardly. Perhaps the story would be less acceptable (particularly now) if it were charming, rather than its chosen mood of haphazard unease, but as written it’s just confusing.

None of that confusion is likely due to the translators, Wendy Burk and M.J. Fièvre. Their work is exemplary, transmitting Baudoin’s clear and plain language almost savagely across the page. In “The Red Ribbon,” for instance, a paragraph that’s been making flowery excuses for an underage prostitute’s position suddenly, and powerfully, withers: “when that indigenous reality collides with city life, freedom becomes a yoke dragging women into the world’s oldest meat grinder. Poverty grinds it all up: at an unimaginably young age, Indian girls surrender their bodies to urban fantasies for next to nothing.”

The overall impression is of a writer with years of craftsmanship already behind her, ready to don the halo of South American literary fame.

The two most moving stories are “Something for Dinner,” the opener, which feels like a Coen Brothers scenario crossed with the childhood of Julián Herbert, and “Opening Night,” which contains a species of quiet heartbreak too small and unglamorous for the likes of O. Henry. In it, a young man who works at a dry cleaner and loves opera almost to an obsessive degree comes within inches of seeing his favorite, Carmen, under the perfect set of circumstances. We root for him to get what he wants. But he does not. And his loss is so terrible that the story can grant solace neither to him nor to us. “He walked in smaller and smaller circles, finally arriving at the table in the back, as dizzy and bewildered as a child.” It’s the kind of disappointment that can’t be helped, in life or in fiction, and that wracks the reader, even if she has only invested a handful of pages into this fictional scenario.

The Spanish title of this book is taken from one of its several six-page stories, “The Composition of Salt” (originally La Composición de la Sal). The English title is taken from a different six-page story, but it represents the collection perhaps more properly than the original. Dragons sleep inside the walls of these stories, between the characters, inside their minds and their families, under their beds. These dragons come in many forms, but they are inescapable, and dangerous. Thankfully, Magdela Baudoin’s scalpel of a pen can perforate that danger and leave us free to roam about in their territory. What a relief.


Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Rumpus, Brevity, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.

PORTRAIT OF A BODY IN WRECKAGES, poems by Meghan McClure, reviewed by Claire Oleson

PORTRAIT OF A BODY IN WRECKAGES
by Meghan McClure
Newfound, 43 pages
reviewed by Claire Oleson

Excellent writing is often lauded for its ability to transport and disembody the reader, to enrapture so completely that its audience floats along the sentence and forgets their place in the room. Meghan McClure’s Portrait of a Body in Wreckages does not do this, instead, much of its excellence is found in its proficiency to embody the reader, to address them in their own physicality, and move along the level of the cell as well as the sentence. Composed in blocks of poetic prose, this work explores the speaker’s relationship with their body, its limits and its multitudes, its wholeness and breakages, and its existence within both anatomy and language.

Oscillating in focus and tone, much of Portrait of a Body in Wreckages educates, telling us “Your right lung is bigger than your left” and “Ounce for ounce, bone is stronger than steel” These quick and fascinating statements begin inside the medical and clinical, categorizing, and analyzing of anatomy which demands a distance from the body to know (it is very difficult to test for yourself, on an inhale, which lung feels larger). But McClure does not keep this distance for long. She carefully bestows her readers with knowledge and then makes this knowledge personal. Soon after presenting us with the anatomy of lungs and bones, McClure says of the same body with bones stronger than steel, “It breaks so easily. Give me your arm- I will show you. A small skiff off a rocky shore.” Here, we encounter lines that are at once direct and indirect, lines which might call a reader into their arm in a sudden revulsion, an expectation of breakage, but which also cast us off into an image of the sea shortly after. McClure’s use of the second-person in this instance, and throughout the book, reminds the reader of their body and how they can receive sensation even when untouched, even just from text. The last sentence of this block, “A small skiff off a rocky shore.” takes us back out of the body, past skin and past the alarm of the previous sentence, into an image of wreckage which McClure revisits and enriches throughout her work. This skillful turn from the intimacy of direct injury to the openly-connected picture of flotsam allows the reader both relief and space for fascination.

Portrait of a Body in Wreckages succeeds in accomplishing the opposite of what so much of great literature is hailed for; instead of taking us into a far and previously unimagined world or sensation, its skill lies instead in bringing us home.

As one moves through Portrait of a Body in Wreckages so too are they invited to move through themselves, to remember the possibilities of their perpetual yet invisible interior. McClure explores this interiority when she writes: “the way cells divide and elbow out until they become the word cancer and leave room for nothing else.” Cells are given their own bodies, they have elbows, they have intention, they contain the ability to be and make words of themselves as realized when they “become the word cancer” a phrase which again widens the lens of the reading, nudging the reader to consider how this body of work functions as a text as well as the ways in which the reader’s own body might work inside of these words. There is a delicate coexistence being built here, one which practically demands a physical involvement in this book, and invites a literary involvement with the body.

Meghan McClure

In a discussion of what words belong to pain towards the end of the book, McClure explains how the word “shatter” doesn’t fit well with how the body actually breaks, suggesting “For injury, instead, let’s try: fracture, bend, splinter, crack, chip, scratch, slit, cut, rip, tear, gash, rupture, split, score, nick, break, wreck.” It as if we are being welcomed into the creation of a new and highly intentional lexicon for what can go wrong in what we inhabit, in what we are. There are, for McClure, right and wrong words for how the body can go to wrong ends, for how and where it is wrecked. Interested not only in being correct in both its personal and medical terminology, McClure also presents the body as “an instrument of empathy” something which has the capacity to feel, to personalize and bring home, actions, touches, injuries, and words which happen outside of itself and its cells. This capacity, and this notion that the body is something inherently empathetic with other bodies, gives Portrait of a Body in Wreckages its talent to touch without contact, to explore the unlit and unfeeling internal worlds of its audience (both emotional and biological) without employing a scalpel.

Portrait of a Body in Wreckages opens with: “The body is the first landscape.” immediately tossing the reader into the body as a place inhabited and explorable. This initial image and definition of the body illuminates as simultaneously known and the unknown, this bodily landscape being the first of something we have as well as too sprawling a thing to be comprehended in a single glance. Much of the writing that follows builds off of this establishing understanding, providing its reader with a landscape, though one which is shifting and pulsing, one which is perhaps more comparable to water than solid ground.

Written in fragments, McClure has given us glimpses of the body in pain, in exaltation, in dualities, and in pieces. She shows us how the body might be presented “Only in wreckages, because to tell this as a coherent thing would be to lie about what the body is.” Devoid of a single sustained narrative, plot, or perspective, autobiographical but not autobiography alone, and poetic but unlineated, Portrait of a Body in Wreckages has wrecked itself to become itself, to mirror the body and to supply us with a deep and reflective surface in which to see both an other and ourselves. Set out against the white of a hospital bed or the white of the page, we see bodies in surgery and bodies in childhood overlapping and coalescing into the body of an adult woman who tours us through our own wholeness and breakings. This work is embodied in itself and asks to be not simply read, but participated in, to be felt through and ached across. Portrait of a Body in Wreckages succeeds in accomplishing the opposite of what so much of great literature is hailed for; instead of taking us into a far and previously unimagined world or sensation, its skill lies instead in bringing us home.


claire-olesonCleaver Poetry Reviews Editor Claire Oleson is a writer hailing from Grand Rapids Michigan. She’s currently studying English and Creative Writing at Kenyon College. Her work has been published by the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal Limestone, Siblíní Art and Literature journal, Newfound Journal, NEAT Magazine, Werkloos Magazine, and Bridge Eight Magazine, among others. Contact her by email. 

WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS, stories by Chaya Bhuvaneswar, reviewed by K.C. Mead-Brewer

WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS
by Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Dzanc Books, 205 pages

reviewed by K.C. Mead-Brewer

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is part of a unique legacy of writer-physicians—Nawal El Saadawi, William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov, to name a few—and the unexpected harmony of these pursuits is showcased throughout her collection White Dancing Elephants, winner of the 2017 Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize. Written with a straightforward, refreshingly uncluttered voice, these stories center on the urgent human desire to heal and be healed.

Many of Bhuvaneswar’s characters are medical professionals themselves, grappling with death or identity or love, who turn to the realm of the poetic and mythological for guidance even as they snap on their latex gloves. In “The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love with Death,” a modern-day boy looks for his disappeared sister within the titular myth, never relenting in his search even after marriage, children, and medical school.

It was never deliberate, how he would look for his sister […] It was just that he’d never believed she was dead […] The boy imagined life for her, a life she might reveal to him, her children and his children playing together, his wife coming to love her as a sister.

The images eventually made him get married, and in the marriage, he was happy but waiting. Waiting for his sister.

There was life in between the years of searching and imagining—a job for him, first at another Starbucks, then medical school, because it fully distracted him.

Or perhaps it isn’t simply that medical school “fully distracted him,” but that it fit into a larger mission of healing and resuscitation he’d been working toward his entire life, unwilling to cede his sister to death. He might’ve been willing to cede her instead to the handsome god Death, though, if he could know for certain it was what (and who) she’d truly wanted. If he could know she hadn’t forgotten about him. If he could know she’d run away with Death by choice instead of having been defeated.

Gods, myths, stories within stories—Bhuvaneswar’s quiet, magical real style reveals a beauty that is constant and unflinching, found even in the face of D/death. Throughout this collection, her fascination with Indian myths and poetic traditions is folded into the everyday lives of her characters. In many ways, these stories almost read like modern-day fairytales—timely and timeless, magical even as they haunt.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Bhuvneshwar opens the story “Neela: Bhopal, 1984” with a trusted (read: imagined) forest—a place of mystery, animals, and escape; a place where games are played—introducing characters simply as “you and your brothers.” These nameless Indian children were sold into slavery by a father who could no longer afford them; they soon die with little explanation or fanfare. “All this was caused,” the story says flatly, “by someone important, an American, used to ordering some work to be finished somewhere else….” This flatness—another hallmark of fairytales that Bhuvneshwar masters—works hand-in-hand with the intuitive logic of this story to reveal a much more insidious, all too real kind of logic, the kind still used today to justify slavery, child labor, and deadly pollution.

A particularly striking example of Bhuvneshwar’s use of fairytale elements may be seen in “The Orphan Handler.” Even the title sets up a classic storybook state of mind. Here, the magic of orphaned little girls is normalized. The orphan-handling nuns not only expect their wards to have the ability to change into animals, but they know that they’ll be the ones dealing with and subduing this magical ability, transforming them from children of power into quiet girls who obediently cook and clean.

Written with a straightforward, refreshingly uncluttered voice, these stories center on the urgent human desire to heal and be healed.

“The Orphan Handler” sets up clashes between motherless girls and childless women, marking another vital thread that weavs through the collection: the wrestling of female identity with motherhood. Bhuvaneswar’s stories consider women of color who are depressed, who struggle to get pregnant, who undergo IVF, who suffer miscarriages, who must find satisfaction in saving children’s lives in lieu of creating them, who desire children in order to feel their own worth.

In “Talinda,” the narrator wonders if the desire for children may have led not only to the betrayal of a friendship, but to a physical death sentence:

Tired by marriage—or maybe by his marriage to Talinda specifically, with its burdens, the heaviest of which was extreme privacy—George pulled me in. The lingering touch on my arm, my back, my hand. The grateful smiles that never felt straightforward. Then his expression when I told him how I’d tried and failed a few times to have a child with donor sperm. “I know what it’s like to hope and be disappointed,” he’d said. “To wait, and want, and not have children. To be the only people waiting in the world. Believe me, I know what it’s like.”

George and Talinda tried a lot too. Wasn’t clear now, if her in vitro might have speeded the cancer. She would’ve kept trying, but George was the one who made her stop, unable to bear how unrelenting she was. They’d just gotten to the point of discussing adoption when her new symptoms started.

It’s a relentlessness that not even the narrator can explain:

Why do people want to have children so much? Now I don’t know. The instinct, the hunger to have a child—it’s no different from what drives the cancer growing inside Talinda. It’s involuntary and primal. Primordial.

Similarly, the narrator of “Asha in Allston” attributes her entire (now broken) marriage to the disappointed promise of children:

Remember, when we came here, you believed we’d have four sons. An optimistic belief but not impossible, since I come from a family of ten, you from just five, and the astrologers had said we’d have sons. Their predictions made us get engaged.

In “The Life You Save Isn’t Your Own,” the heroine Seema believes her life to be a garden of mis-sown seeds that have “flowered into vines that [bind] her tight.” The seeds: daring to want love, romance, and children. The vines: being single and childless at forty-three. “Miscarriage number five from the sperm bank only confirmed what [Seema had] already suspected: there wouldn’t be kids.” This is the same confirmation that the heartbroken narrator of “White Dancing Elephants” feverishly denies as she wanders a rain-soaked London in desperate search of green-space, of the forest where she and her yet-born (miscarried) child will be safe together at last. Where the world will make sense again. Where her child will live, even if she does not.

Terrence Holt, another writer-physician, once said in an interview with NPR, “death is the mother of beauty” and that “an appreciation of human suffering and our limited tenure on this Earth is essential to seeing our lives and seeing the world we inhabit.” This is an appreciation that doctors and mothers have unique access to, one that’s made painfully, exquisitely clear throughout White Dancing Elephants, wherein the god Death himself is “so beautiful” that our heroine is unable to look away.

In so many fairytales, young lovers are drawn together as if by fate. As if their love were inevitable. Unstoppable. Bhuvaneswar takes this a step further in these stories, showing the seemingly inevitable, unstoppable, fateful love between parent and child, even between parents and unborn children. But she also shows us this quality within the inevitable, fated nature of the god Death. For though he (Bhuvaneswar uses the masculine) is often dreaded and cursed, he is not the same as violence or abuse or cruelty—a difference Bhuvaneswar boldly highlights throughout this collection. It isn’t Death who brings cruelty, but we humans. Instead, Death marks a new beginning and can help bring the preciousness of life into focus: growth and decay forever mirroring each other. By juxtaposing this god with countless births and lovers, Bhuvaneswar underscores Death’s role in the realm of New Beginnings. She reveals both his pain and his solemn beauty, challenging us not to look away.


K.C.-Mead-Brewer

K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her writing appears in Carve Magazine, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, and elsewhere. As a reader, she loves everything weird—surrealism, sci-fi, horror, all the good stuff that shows change is not only possible, but inevitable. For more information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com and follow her @meadwriter.

A Conversation with Ada Limon author of THE CARRYING, interview by Grant Clauser

A Conversation with Ada Limon
author of THE CARRYING
published by Milkweed Editions

Interview by Grant Clauser 

Ada Limón is the author of several poetry books, including the National Book Award finalist Bright Dead Things, which was named one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by the New York Times. This year Limón released her fifth book, The Carrying, to wide acclaim, including being named a Best Book of Fall 2018 by Buzzfeed. Since the release of The Carrying, Limón has been traveling extensively for poetry events but was able to take some time out for Cleaver to discuss the new book and aspects of craft in her poetry. She lives in Lexington Kentucky. —Grant Clauser


Grant Clauser: All of your books, including the new one, include some mix of past events and present. Does a certain amount of time/space between events and the writing about the events affect your approach to it?

Ada Limón: Sometimes I write right in the white heat of the moment. Sometimes I need to do that just to work through what I’m trying to process. Other times I wait and need significant distance. Usually, the perspective changes with time. Writing about the present moment allows some freedom, however; there’s a familiarity with the moment that doesn’t need to be unearthed so the poem can come from a very authentic place without much need for research or personal mining of a certain event.

GC: When you wrote Bright Dead Things you worked for a media company (I think) in New York City. How did the change in environments from NYC to Kentucky affect the writing of your newer poems?

AL: I was actually already living in Kentucky by the time I wrote Bright Dead things, but I had just left New York. I was the Creative Services Director for Travel + Leisure Magazine. Moving to Kentucky gave me two much-needed things: time and space. My writing changed significantly because I was able to have long moments of silence and breath. I was also surrounded by wild things, green trees, grasses. The landscape gave me a new mode of writing.

Ada Limon

GC: In the new book, noticed recurring images of recovery, repair, rebuilding, remaking (such as in “Dandelion Insomnia”). Did that kind of theme-building happen spontaneously or does that come to the surface once you begin sorting poems into a manuscript?

AL: I think you’re right about those themes, and I do think they occur naturally. It’s usually because there is something big that I am going through. I am feeling some overwhelming need or question and the poems reflect it. Even when I’m unaware of what the I’m processing, the poems tell me. When the book starts to come together I look at what it is that I’ve been writing toward, and then I’ll start to give myself prompts so that I can go deeper into those themes—push myself further.

Naming is really important to me because I think when we name things we are more tender to them, we care about them, we understand them better. But I am also very aware of the hubris of naming things.

GC: The Carrying opens with a poem in which Eve is naming animals and ends with you thinking to yourself about the name of a bird. In between, there are other instances of naming or coming to know things. Is naming a kind of understanding or a kind of possessing or does it mean something different in your work?

AL: Naming is really important to me because I think when we name things we are more tender to them, we care about them, we understand them better. But I am also very aware of the hubris of naming things. Who are we to reach out and name something without language? I think that’s why I see the Eve in the poem trying to get the animals to name her, she realizes that they may have more wisdom.

GC: In “The Last Drop” which comes almost at the end of the book, there’s a feeling of resolve–that even the struggles in life are good. Could you talk about that and how it fits in the scope of the book? (one of my favorite poems in the book, by the way)

AL: Thank you! I wanted to get to a place where I was accepting of the mess and whirl of my world. That poem is all true, and I was feeling overwhelmed by everything: the horrid disease of Alzheimer’s, the death of my husband’s ex-girlfriend, her cats we were adopting, all of it was so much. And a month before our wedding, so this prose poem was a way for me to accept and absorb all of that without being too overwhelmed by it, it gave me a place to put it and a way to talk about it. I’m glad you like that poem; it’s one of my favorites too.

GC: This book shows a wide variety of lines lengths and stanza choices. Some are dense and some use a lot of open space, but the single stanza poem and couplets seem to be used most frequently. What attracts you to those forms, and how do they work differently for you?

AL: You know, I am always guided by what the poem wants. The poems that want to be slower have shorter line breaks, and the poems that want to be faster have long lines, the fastest are prose poems. The couplets usually are quieter, and they tend to be dialogues of a sort. I love working with form. My first book has a crown of sonnets. I’m interested in how form can both constrain and free you at the same time. It allows for each poem to operate differently.

GC: In “The Leash” and other poems there’s a kind of snowball effect (more in the single stanza poems than others) where the poem gathers emotional weight as it rolls down the hill. I imagine the hardest part of that kind of poem is how to end it. What are the challenges you go through in that kind of composition?

It’s easy—or rather satisfying—to always make the endings big and really stick the landing, but you need to stay true to the poem and make sure you’re responding to what you’ve already written, not what you had in your mind.

AL: Ah yes, you are not wrong about that, it’s all about the ending with the poems that have a certain kind of momentum or guided unraveling. The biggest challenge I face with poems like “The Leash” or “Bust” or “Dead Boy” is trying to make sure that everything is working together and that any tangent you go on still brings you back to the core of the poem. And then, of course, the ending, it’s easy—or rather satisfying—to always make the endings big and really stick the landing, but you need to stay true to the poem and make sure you’re responding to what you’ve already written, not what you had in your mind. You have to listen to the poem at that point and follow the poem’s instincts and not force an ending that might feel inauthentic.

GC: The poem “Trying” travels an obstacle course of subjects and emotions to get to a kind of resolve. What’s the key to maintaining control in a poem that operates like that? Or is control not even a consideration?

AL: I think it’s less about control there and more about release. “Trying” is a very natural poem, so that it has to feel like it’s effortless—even though of course it’s not—and it has to move in a way that feels like the mind moving. So you have to let go a little, allow the poem just to be and not worry it away. Poems that take place in the world of the now and the world of the body can easily get won over by the mind, so it’s more about releasing them before the mind turns it all into an intellectual project.

Marie Howe once told me that a teacher had told her: don’t listen when they say your work is no good and don’t listen when they say it’s great.

GC: In “American Pharaoh” the line “racing against nothing but himself” seems prescient to other moments in the book—that you can be successful when you measure yourself against yourself, not the judges, not the other horses, not society. That seems like a good lesson for everyone, but could that be especially important for poets who are constantly measuring their success against others?

AL: Oh I think any time we can have a lesson about not measuring ourselves against others, it will be highly beneficial. For the most part, I think the poets I love and admire are always trying to out-do their last poem, they want to get better, to get deeper, smarter, realer at all times. But, of course, when awards get listed or prizes come out, it’s easy for any artist to feel that sting of failure or ache of envy, but none of that tends to serve us. None of that is why we write. We write to connect, we write to figure out the meaning of life, to feel better about our world, our being, we write to make sense of the mess, to question, to rail against something, we write to save ourselves (sometimes from ourselves). So in some ways, you’re very correct in drawing that parallel between poets and the horse, our only enemy is time itself.

When awards get listed or prizes come out, it’s easy for any artist to feel that sting of failure or ache of envy, but none of that tends to serve us. None of that is why we write.

GC: Can you tell us one of the best bits of writing advice you’ve received from a teacher, mentor or friend?

AL: Marie Howe once told me that a teacher had told her: don’t listen when they say your work is no good and don’t listen when they say it’s great. Which I think is very true once you’ve reached a certain amount of success. And it makes me keep my head down and do the work. Nikky Finney once told me, at a particularly tumultuous time of my life, “know the elders are there doing what they do and be at great peace.” I think of that often too. These help me a great deal because they are both about trust and surrender, and I know I need that. I need to surrender and I need to trust this work. This work that is such a privilege to get to do in the first place.


Poetry craft essays editor Grant Clauser is the author of four poetry books, Reckless Constellations, The Magician’s Handbook, Necessary Myths and The Trouble with Rivers.  Poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, Gargoyle, The Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry and others. He works for a New York media company and teaches poetry at random places. Find him @uniambic.  Email craft essay queries to grantclauser@cleavermagazine.com.

 

Ada Limon author photo credit: Lucas Marquardt

 

AFTER THE WINTER, a novel by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey, reviewed by Robert Sorrell

AFTER THE WINTER
by Guadalupe Nettel
translated by Rosalind Harvey
Coffee House Press, 242 Pages

reviewed by Robert Sorrell

At the beginning of Guadalupe Nettel’s newly translated novel After the Winter, twenty-five-year-old Cecilia moves from her native Oaxaca to Paris. She arrives there without the usual image of Paris as a “city where dozens of couples of all ages kissed each other in parks and on the platforms of the métro, but of a rainy place where people read Cioran and La Rochefoucauld while, their lips pursed and preoccupied, they sipped coffee with no milk and no sugar.” However, there is something usual in her expectation for Paris. “Like many of the foreigners who end up staying for ever […] with the intention, or rather, the pretext of studying a postgraduate degree,” she takes up residence across the street from Père Lachaise cemetery, final resting place of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and Edith Piaf. “At different periods in my life, graves have protected me,” Cecilia shares, and the small apartment overlooking the cemetery suits her macabre nature perfectly.

Cecilia is one of the two first-person narrators in After the Winter, the other being Claudio, who grew up in Havana and now lives in New York City where he works in publishing. Like Cecilia, Claudio also has his quirks. His apartment is “a stone corridor very like a prison cell,” and he avoids interacting with people, not so much because he doesn’t like them—he maintains a few long-term friendships—but more it seems because he is afraid of the control he’d lose if he had to factor another person into his plans. In the novel’s first few pages he reveals, “I find living things frightening; you have to take care of them or they die. In short, they take up time and attention, and I am not prepared to give those away to anyone.” He makes this comment about plants, but it easily applies to humans as well.

In the beginning, the novel alternates between Cecilia’s and Claudio’s chapters, as Cecilia settles into her life as a student in Paris and Claudio continues his life in New York and his on again off again relationship with an older, well-to-do woman named Ruth. Ruth dotes upon Claudio, buying him expensive meals and treating him to nice bottles of wine and snacks from an expensive bakery. Beyond these niceties, Ruth seems to genuinely enjoy spending time with Claudio, who is sent nearly into fits of panic after their dates or sexual encounters. “You might say that we are good lovers if it were not for the fact that when we have finished,” he reflects, “I am flooded with an inexplicable sensation of disgust.” Claudio’s treatment of Ruth is just one of many signs that he is deeply unwell. Another is the morbid way he considers his apartment: “Here—and I give thanks to God for this—I have neither relatives nor friends I am overly close to. […] Protecting it from any intruders is my way of honoring my sanctuary and of turning it (I like the image immensely) into the mausoleum where I would like to be buried for all eternity.”

It is hard to know what to do with images like this, and other images earlier in the work, that, with a heavy hand, suggest Claudio is suffering from undiagnosed OCD. The way Nettel portrays Claudio and Cecilia often hovers between eccentricity and genuine mental illness. Yet, these actions and thoughts do not emerge as issues that the characters must grapple with, but rather as the author’s central way to develop their personalities.

In this sense, Nettel mainly defines Cecilia and Claudio by their preferences and neuroses. The way they decorate their apartments, or don’t, how often they call their friends, what they like to eat for breakfast. Nettel seeks to draw out her characters through these small particularities. She shows us Claudio enraged in his kitchen after his espresso machine breaks. “It is unconscionable the degree of security household appliances can give to us,” he says. Here is Cecilia cooped up in her Paris apartment, the opposite of Claudio’s fastidiousness: “I tried to wash myself only as much as necessary so as to avoid suffocating in my own odours.” It’s as if these moments on their own speak volumes about her characters’ personalities. These early sections of After the Winter show the dangers of trying to create a character out of personal habits and quirks. The way Claudio gets out of bed, the way he organizes his apartment, Cecilia’s love of cemeteries. I got the feeling that these details could be insightful or telling, if they hinted towards other aspects of personality, but they seem to be presented as self explanatory, without acknowledging the gulf that often sits between thought and action.

Guadalupe Nettel

Because of this, in the first half or so of the book, Claudio and Cecilia have the impression of cartoon characters, their opinions and the way they maintain their apartments seems exaggerated to take the place of personality. It’s also clear that neither Cecilia nor Claudio know what they want out of most situations, and while that is not abnormal, it causes a slight problem for a novel that is focused so closely on them and told in first person narration. Further, while Cecilia and Claudio do sometimes act, they seem to often fall into the trap of passive narrators/ main characters: things always seem to be happening to them, but they never seem to be doing anything themselves. This effect is exacerbated as we move into the first winter of the novel and both retreat further into themselves, rarely interacting with others. “By December,” Cecilia admits, “my life had been reduced to a ghostly state.”

And yet, as the novel goes on, somehow in spite of the early surface treatment, Cecilia and Claudio start to attain mass, to gain qualities and desires more telling than how they decorate their apartment or the fact that they both seem to have morbid fascinations. Cecilia meets her next-door neighbor Tom, an Italian who is an excellent cook and shares his food and music with her as the two slowly enter into a relationship. Tom, however, has a serious illness that frightens him deeply. He takes a long trip to Italy to see family and contemplate the rest of his life without telling Cecilia when he will return. It is during this trip that the event the novel has been leading the reader toward finally occurs. Cecilia and Claudio meet.

It happens, of course, at Père Lachaise cemetery, where Claudio is looking for the grave of poet César Vallejo. He’s accompanied by his friend Haydée, an acquaintance he’d made during his university days in Paris. After graduation, Claudio moved to New York, and Haydée stayed in Paris where, years later, she would meet Cecilia. When Claudio suggests a stroll around the cemetery, Haydée is reminded of her friend who lives in an apartment right at the cemetery’s edge. And so the three of them head into Père Lachaise in search of Vallejo’s grave.

The alternating structure of the novel, switching between Cecilia’s and Claudio’s perspective, makes the reader wonder from the very beginning when the two characters will meet. And yet, maybe because their meeting has been so built up in the reader’s mind through the juxtaposition, the initial interaction is a bit of a letdown. Claudio immediately falls for Cecilia for no apparent reason. He describes the moment as like a “meeting of souls,” and shares later, “I have not been able to get [Cecilia] out of my mind ever since.” He is drawn to Cecilia through her apartment, which is fitting given his fraught relationship with his own and the strange way that his personality and his apartment seem to collapse into each other. Cecilia’s is a small place “devoid of pictures or any decorations or distraction,” that leads Claudio to incorrectly assume that “as I am, Cecilia was a lover of order and cleanliness.” Yet, Claudio mistakes this spartan quality—the result of malaise and, Cecilia says later “completely unintentional”—for carefully studied austerity. This is the mistake that starts Claudio’s obsession with Cecilia: he mistakes an apparent trait for her real personality. After meeting in Paris, Claudio writes fervent emails to Cecilia, quickly deciding he is in love with her and that for the first time in his life he has found someone “suitable for me.”

By this point in the novel it becomes clear that neither Claudio or Cecilia are particularly reliable narrators, and that their own judgements—such as Claudio’s belief that he is in love with Cecilia after seeing her apartment—are often skewed, the motivations different than they appear. Claudio believes he sees a reflection of himself in Cecilia, and throws everything into wooing her instead of focusing on the life he has already built in New York City and Ruth who, despite the terrible treatment, still seems to love him. Cecilia, on the other hand, seems deeply unsure of what she wants, if she wants to live in Paris, or live at all. Claudio and Cecilia keep in touch over email, visiting each other a few times, before it becomes clear to Cecilia how little Claudio really cares for her. Soon after, her neighbor Tom returns from Italy, and his condition worsens. Cecilia often considers killing herself, yet, the time spent with him in the hospital gives her an incredible sense of meaning. She shares that it is, “the most important experience of my life. I, who had always considered myself useless, had, at last, the impression that I was good for something.”

The portrayal of mental health in After the Winter leaves much to be hoped for. Claudio’s (eventually diagnosed) OCD seems too obvious, pulling on vague cliches about cleanliness and organization, and Cecilia’s depression seems gratuitous and uncomplicated. But it’s hard to say whether this might be due to the fact that the reader is getting their experiences from a first-person narration. This viewpoint doesn’t relieve the author of responsibility, but it does complicate the issue. What are the ethics of portraying mental illness in such a way? It reminds me of the question around stories of addiction and eating disorders: is there any way to tell these stories without glamorizing the experience, and maybe even having an effect on readers that is the exact opposite of what the writer intended? For me, Cecilia and Claudio’s mental health were treated a bit too much like foibles or quirks, treated like their apartments and habits of dress: colorful details that added to the outline of their character instead of real issues that they struggled with and which caused them real pain.

The title After the Winter seems to imply progress, or hope. After winter comes spring and summer, the rebirth of plants and the return of the idyllic “Paris of films,” Cecilia despises when she arrives. And indeed, spoiler alert, the two characters do seem happier, or at least more settled, at the book’s end. Claudio finally realizes that he should be with Ruth, and Cecilia finally seems to find aspects of her life in Paris to enjoy: she pours herself into her work, and spends a lot of time with her friend Haydée and Haydée’s new baby.

And yet, at the story’s end, Claudio and Cecilia don’t seem to have addressed what, sadly, united them from the beginning: that their attempts at happiness always relied so heavily on other people. They became archetypes of a different kind of tragic love; not tragic because the two are kept apart by country, family, or religion, but because they believed too strongly in the myth that love by itself would fix all their problems.


robert-sorrellRobert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.

THE BELL DINGS FOR ME: On Writing with a Typewriter, a craft essay by Toby Juffre Goode

THE BELL DINGS FOR ME
On Writing with a Typewriter

A Craft Essay
by Toby Juffre Goode

I pack up my laptop and some comfortable clothes and pull away from my mile-high mountain home in Northern Arizona to drive hundreds of desert miles. I’m headed for the women’s writing retreat I attend every January in Palm Springs, California. I’m anxious. The five-hour drive facing me isn’t the problem. It’s the slump I’ve languished in for too long. I haven’t touched my memoir manuscript in months. A few essay ideas poke at me, but I ignore them. My heart isn’t in it. If not for the women I look forward to seeing and the money I paid up front to attend, I’d sit this one out.

I pass through Skull Valley and Yarnell, and keep going beyond Hope. I cross the California border into Blythe and drive on through mind-numbing miles of dry dirt, desert scrub, and sporadic crumbled foundations.

Stuff the anxiety, I tell myself. I’m tired of it. Inspiration will find me.

I arrive at the historic Casa Cody Inn and go in search of Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, author, teacher, mentor, and my friend who leads these annual retreats. Over the past year I observed this woman of many passions delve into yet another: typewriters. I’ve lost count of the prized acquisitions she posts on Instagram. Where the hell is she putting all these typewriters? Barbara lives in a tiny cottage by the sea in Southern California. Has she gone off the deep end?

I find her in her room at the Winter’s House where she has three typewriters set up and ready to fly. Barbara points out her prized Olivetti Lettera 32, a Royal Aristocrat, and a Smith Corona Classic Electra. She tilts her head and grins.

“You’re welcome to try one out while you’re here,” she says. “If you want.”

I’m rooming next-door to Barbara. During the day I hear her typing. And I love the sound.

One particular night she’s typing while I read in bed. Rhythmic and meditative, the sound soothes me. I want to fall asleep listening. I shut my light. She stops typing. I’m disappointed.

The next day Barbara mentions that she has a Smith Corona electric in the trunk of her car that I can play with. “I’m selling it on Craigslist,” she says. “I can’t keep them all.”

I humor her. I lug the portable typewriter in its case to my room. It reminds me of a bowling ball. My father’s bag and shoes waited for him by the front door every Thursday night—his bowling night with the Knights of Columbus. I’d always try, but I wasn’t strong enough to lift it.

I hoist the case up onto my desk and struggle to release the typewriter. I don’t remember my portable typewriter in college being this cumbersome. Plug it in, feed a sheet of paper through the roller thingy, and flip the switch. Oh yeah—I’d forgotten that motor sound. Do I remember how to use this thing? I consider the keys. My fingertips find home row. Like getting on a bike again. The next thing I know I’m typing. Energy flows into my fingers. I can still do this! Even though it’s been more than thirty years. Through the serial number, Barbara confirms that this typewriter was manufactured in 1964. I was only eight years old then, trying to pick up Dad’s bowling bag. Talk about a time machine.

During the four-day retreat I write on the Smith Corona instead of my laptop. I work on one of my essay ideas, but after a rough page or two I’m compelled to bang away about this infatuating typewriter experience. Hitting the keys takes effort and discernment. Too little pressure delivers a faint h; too much and a sputter of hhhhhs spit onto the paper. But once I get the touch, it’s fun. I type. I’m warming up. Thoughts sizzle.

During the four-day retreat I write on the Smith Corona instead of my laptop. I work on one of my essay ideas, but after a rough page or two I’m compelled to bang away about this infatuating typewriter experience. Hitting the keys takes effort and discernment. Too little pressure delivers a faint h; too much and a sputter of hhhhhs spit onto the paper. But once I get the touch, it’s fun. I type. I’m warming up. Thoughts sizzle.

By day two I’m more than smitten. I peer into Smith Corona’s open heart where metal typebars wait to slap letters on the platen (the roller thingy has an official term, I learn), the way piano keys send hammers flying upward to strike strings. A musical staccato sings out: you’re writing! Inspiration has come—in the form of a Smith Corona Coronet electric typewriter.

“I want to buy it,” I tell Barbara.

I wonder about who played on these cream-colored, black-lettered keys before I came along. Did their fingers peck their way, or dance with abandon over the keyboard? Maybe they explored reams of poetry, or stalked stories that were going nowhere yet eventually arrived. I imagine letters of friendship, apology, or long-overdue explanations of love lost. Were pages pulled from the typewriter, crumpled in a ball, and thrown across the room? Or sealed into an envelope and mailed far away? Both actions more gratifying than the lifeless computer functions delete and send.

I study the blue-gray metal housing and once-creamy-white, now-yellowed keys. I’m the new proud owner with a zillion questions. You’d think I was taking home a newborn baby. How do I change the ribbon? What size ribbons do I need, and where can I possibly buy them? What paper do I use? Should I clean the metal levers? If it breaks, do typewriter repair shops still exist?

In college I wrote essays and term papers on my typewriter. Nothing about it seemed complicated and I never worried that I might break the machine. Now the same simple functions bewilder me and I’m afraid I’ll damage it. I study the blue-gray metal housing and once-creamy-white, now-yellowed keys. I’m the new proud owner with a zillion questions. You’d think I was taking home a newborn baby. How do I change the ribbon? What size ribbons do I need, and where can I possibly buy them? What paper do I use? Should I clean the metal levers? If it breaks, do typewriter repair shops still exist?

I’m bringing this vintage baby home. I’m excited. The five-hour drive back is a breeze. That night I don’t mention my new typewriter to my husband. I park Smith Corona on the desk in my office and wait for his reaction.

“Is that a typewriter I’ve been hearing?” Phil says a few mornings later. There’s a twinge of amusement in his half smile. He thinks it’s cool, I can tell. He’s not a writer, but I bet the typewriter evokes memories for him too.

Now an integral tool in my writing practice, Smith Corona welcomes me, idea-filled or empty. Of course you’re going to write, it says to me. Why else would you sit here? So, I act as if. I slap keys. Words splay across the paper, add up to sentences, and run into paragraphs. Prompts and free writes still help me, but my typewriter gets me moving out of my own way. Blank whiteness begs for more—good or bad makes no difference.

When I write on my laptop, I revise—to a fault. The trained copyeditor/proofreader in me wants every sentence perfect. Tempted by the online thesaurus, and cut and paste functions, I’m seduced into premature editing. I wander the Internet in the name of research, or more likely in a search for those boots I’m coveting. My creative flow is choked like a gutter full of leaves.

But my Smith Corona sentences read perfectly imperfect, as they should at this point in the process. The snap-snap of the keys scores my mantra: write freely, write freely. My inner critic quiets.

I type away. The bell dings and cheers me on: another line! I may not have a page worth saving. But I love the physical effort required, and I’m proud of the wadded up white paper balls collecting by my feet. They validate that I showed up. I’m in the chair, thrashing in a pool of possibility. I hate my writer self a little less.

A painter layers color with brush strokes. A weaver threads weft through warp on her loom. Artists explore and create with their tools. On my Smith Corona I compose with jazz hands and a cacophony of sounds to silence the controlling, demeaning, perfection-demanding voice in my head. I type through it. Critics be damned, I say. The bell dings for me and I keep writing for the love of it.


Toby Juffre Goode lives in Northern Arizona where she writes creative nonfiction and memoir. Her advertising writing career has taken her from the NBC affiliate in Boston to Playgirl Magazine to the Walt Disney Company in Southern California. She owns one manual and two electric typewriters, and counting.

 

 

 

Featured image by Nirzar Pangarkar on Unsplash
Author photo by William Sulit

 

BOOT LANGUAGE, a memoir by Vanya Erickson, reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier

BOOT LANGUAGE
by Vanya Erickson
She Writes Press, 179 pages

reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier

The paradox in writing a postmodern memoir is that the author must somehow convince readers she’s telling the truth—typically by admitting to subjectivity and fallible memory, and by interrogating her version of events.

But that’s not the strategy Vanya Erickson employs in her post-WWII coming-of-age story, Boot Language. With vivid detail and some implausibly long passages of remembered dialogue, she presents herself as the sole reliable narrator of her life in California, where she was raised by an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who failed to protect her (but did “soften Dad’s blows” with inherited money). If Erickson asks readers to trust her story without evident corroboration, it may be because she’s had to learn to trust herself to discern the truth, in order to steer safely through her parents’ contradictory behavior and conflicting beliefs.

Mom was compassionate, musically talented, and although independently wealthy, searching for some deeper meaning to life other than social standing. A staunch supporter of the underdog, the arts, and liberal politics, she found her way to Christian Science not long after she married my father. Dad was of humbler stock, stoic and charming in his Naval dress-whites when they first met. But years later he returned war-worn, a staunch atheist. When Mom converted to Christian Science, the sparks flew.

This incendiary debate begins in the author’s infancy, as her mother prays over new baby Vanya to heal severe bleeding from her umbilical knot. For Erickson, this harrowing event has the power of an origin story, casting her parents in the conflict that will drive family life for decades. Recounting how her mother’s helper fortuitously interceded in the crisis, calling the grandfather who rushed the listless baby to the hospital, she writes,

Had my mother healed me? Or had the blood transfusion? It all depended on who was telling the story. But no matter the truth, I knew I was lucky. My earliest memory is of being four years old, lying on a blanket in the backyard of my home in Saratoga, California, looking up at the lush Santa Cruz Mountains and marveling that I was alive.

Signaling perspective with lines like these, Erickson both banks the reader’s trust in her sincere intentions, and reassures us she’s survived her mother’s faith and her father’s cruelty, which she goes on to relate in scene after scene. Rather than replicate her trauma through a fragmented narrative, she employs a more traditional psychotherapeutic plot for her story, one that progresses from confusion to clarity. But in the process, her tendency to casually reference significant events has an interesting effect of suggesting hidden wounds beneath visible scars. “Walt was in Canada, avoiding the draft, and Don had left for Vietnam. I was struck by the emptiness their absence created,” she writes, startling me with this abrupt reminder of the tumultuous times and these shadow siblings, neither of whom bear her scrutiny for long. Whether this is a stylistic tic or a deliberate strategy, this tendency conveys trauma that feels authentic, like surfacing evidence of a long-running, private rumination to which we are only partially privy.

Vanya Erickson

Erickson comes to understand her complicated parents in terms of the California terrain: her opera-loving mother craves the city culture of nearby San Francisco, while her father seeks—and sabotages with his drinking—a big-sky life of ranching at the family’s summer home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. She makes meaningful use of the physical landscape not only to characterize her parents in opposition, but also to convey the emotional effects of her father’s abuse. In an especially revealing scene, Erickson’s father tries to teach her to graft fruit trees. He’s inspired by a family trip to horticulturist Axel Erlandson’s “Tree Circus” in Santa Cruz; she recalls the trees they saw there as “contorted into some manner of madness, forced to grow at disturbing angles and curves.” Back on the ranch, he hands her a knife and then mocks her as she hesitates before the damaged mother tree, now a mere trunk with amputated stubs. When she says, “I can’t do it,” she invites his rage—but begins to free herself from her father’s designs.

If Erickson asks readers to trust her story without evident corroboration, it may be because she’s had to learn to trust herself to discern the truth, in order to steer safely through her parents’ contradictory behavior and conflicting beliefs.

Such details from the natural landscape are fascinating, and one could read Erickson’s debut memoir just for a glimpse of ranching life most of us only know from watching television westerns. But Erickson’s real subject is the inner landscape of her parents’ failing marriage and her father’s long decline. The story gains momentum when he bottoms out and Erickson reflects, “I didn’t kid myself that this was the last time I’d have to confront my drunken father, or shield myself from the terror of his words, but tonight I felt an opening of something new. I had faced him, spoken the truth, and survived.” Still, a shadow of love and longing hangs over her memory of this time and place as she laments “that good Dad” that might have been. Artfully rendered yet devoid of artifice, Erickson’s heartfelt, emotionally honest book is like a letter to that father, whom she sought but never knew.


Elizabeth-MosierElizabeth Mosier logged 1,000 volunteer hours processing colonial-era artifacts at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park Archeology Laboratory to write Excavating Memory: Archaeology and Home (forthcoming from New Rivers Press in 2019). A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her nonfiction has been selected as notable in Best American Essays and appears widely in journals and newspapers including Cleaver, Creative Nonfiction, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She writes the “Intersections” column for the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin.

STRANGE WEATHER IN TOKYO, a novel by Hiromi Kawakami, reviewed by August Thompson

STRANGE WEATHER IN TOKYO
by Hiromi Kawakami
translated by Allison Markin Powell
Counterpoint Press, 176 pages

reviewed by August Thompson

When you are lonely—truly lonely, not alone by choice in the search for liberty— the bloom of your energy and language changes completely. Your fellow lonely become the only people alive that are fluent in you.

In this state, you see the lonely everywhere. On the subway, you meet with longing, desperate eyes. In the station, you open the exit door and they say thank you with such sincerity it feels like an embrace. You reconnect with the periphery characters from your old lives. Coworkers, friends long removed from your orbit, abandoned lovers, and, in the case of Hiromi Kawakami’s sweetheart novel Strange Weather in Tokyo, former teachers and the alumni of your high school.

The language of the lonely is often based in deficit. To be lonely is to be flung from the kinds of bonds society values most: coupledom, friendship, family. Loneliness suggests difference and, in the more dire cases, loss.

For Tsukiko and her former high school Japanese teacher, who she calls Sensei, loneliness is based in melancholy. Sensei is a beautiful weirdo, a straight-laced and classic man who collects serving teapots, finds thrill in mushroom hunting and may or may not have a magic briefcase. He’s older, and a widower. His life, like Tsukiko’s, is hunched by hurt. He has lost too much and is unable to grow close to anyone for fear of losing more.

Hiromi Kawakami

Tsukiko suffers from a tuneless depression. She doesn’t understand love and ruined her one youthful chance at conventional happiness through awkwardness and inaction. Since then, she’s existed in a kind of rudderless mute, detached from intimacy. She has normalized loneliness and convinced herself that she is happy, or close to happy, despite the profound ache and regret that turns the banal into the tragic—after reflecting on the time she suffered through her great love’s wedding to another woman, she breaks down in the midst of eating an apple. “I had a craving for an apple so I took one from the basket,” she observes. “I tried to peel it in the way my mother did. Partway round, the skin broke off. I suddenly burst into tears, which took me by surprise. I was cutting an apple, not chopping onions—why should there be tears? I kept crying in between bites of the apple. The crisp sound of my chewing alternated with the plink, plink of my tears as they fell into the stainless steel sink. Standing there, I busied myself with eating and crying.” It takes a certain breed of loneliness, and a special author, to turn an apple into a tragedy.

The motor of Strange Weather is the slow love that builds between Tsukiko and Sensei. At a neighborhood bar, they run into each other after decades of absence. Maybe at another time they would have exchanged pleasantries and moved along. But they are both living in the same kind of underwater blue. They chat and find that their language is the same. They start to build an intimacy without schedule, running into each other at the bar, sharing meals and drinks, telling simple stories, laughing at their inconsistencies.

Relaying the plot of Strange Weather is like relaying the happenings of a gorgeous, lazy summer. You experience so much that feels magic and special, but when you detail it to a friend it sounds minute. There was the food you ate, long talks you had, weather and walks you enjoyed. So vibrant and honey-yellow in the moment, so devoid of juice in retelling.

This makes Strange Weather sound boring, which is misleading. Beyond two sequences that dip into the spiritual and the otherworldly, Strange Weather focuses on the pleasantness of finding someone who speaks as you speak, feels as you feel, and the fear and the anxiety of losing that person because humans, above all else, are most skilled at inflicting hurt on each other. There’s little gunpowder to the story, but that isn’t its aim. Its aim is to explore the joy and pain that surround sorrow, which it does with perfect tenderness.

Despite their quirks and oddities, the main characters are very much real people. The goal of all fiction is to infuse even the most fantastic characters with realism, but when I say real people here I mean they are average people. They are lovely and terrible, kind until they’re not, funny in idiosyncratic ways, ashamed of who they are and who they should be, and in constant stages of emotional flux.

They lack the vocabulary to speak how they feel. They quarrel to the point of separation over baseball. They get mired in social expectation—their difference in age should make romance impossible. They are choked by how abstract so much of feeling is, how cheap talk is, in the face of love.

Although they live on the outer rim of one of the biggest cities in the world, Tokyo, Tsukiko and Sensei live like actual people do. There’s none of the excess or the pandemonium of nightlife. Their delights are based on contentment: to go to the same bar, to eat the freshest food, to argue about customs, to drink sake until you feel silly. These gentle rituals, after all, are the foundation of all great loves.

At first, the writing seems almost rigid, but the purpose of the style soon reveals itself, perhaps the result of Kawakami’s long collaboration with the translator Powell. There are no petals on the prose, yet there are still moments of blossom.

Gentle is perhaps word the word that best sums up the writing in Strange Weather in Tokyo and the book itself. It’s no easy thing to be gentle, and a grave difficulty to make gentleness interesting. But Kawakami, the Tokyo-born author of seven novels and recipient of several literary awards, accomplishes this through consistency: her writing rarely wavers into the sentimental, and, in Allison Markin Powell’s translation, keeps the same kind of gorgeous bluntness sentence after sentence. The cumulative effect is a kind of swoon:

We soon switched to saké. I picked up the bottle of hot sake and filled Sensei’s cup. I felt a sudden rush of warmth in my body and felt the tears well up once again. But I didn’t cry. It’s always better to drink than to cry.

What is most amazing about the writing is the subtle way that Kawakami delivers gut punches like this by avoiding the prosaic. At first, the writing seems almost rigid, but the purpose of the style soon reveals itself, perhaps the result of Kawakami’s long collaboration with the translator Powell. There are no petals on the prose, yet there are still moments of blossom.

Like the writing, Tsukiko and Sensei’s stilted courting of each other is based in placid consistency, the inability to escape past pains, and the held breath of restraint. It’s refreshing to see love spring from something other than charisma. So many of our stories are about the excellent falling for the fabulous. This one is for the strange, the eccentric, the pained. How great a relief to read about people that are as damaged and afraid as you are, as the people all around you. How satisfying to watch them find love.

And so the truest accomplishment of Strange Weather in Tokyo, this funny little book about the ways isolation leaves us heart-scuffed, is that it achieves fiction’s noblest goal: in painting vividly the feelings of loneliness, it makes the reader feel less alone.


August Thompson has worked as an editor and writer since graduating from NYU in 2013.  When he’s not working on fiction or watching the Boston Celtics, you can usually find him at the movies.

DAVID BOWIE AND THE SPACE MOTORBIKE by Eleanor Levine

DAVID BOWIE AND THE SPACE MOTORBIKE
by Eleanor Levine

Last night David Bowie sent a motorbike rocket, the first of its kind, into space, with a man having anal sex with a woman.

It has long been every female’s dream for a gay man to have sex with them.

The XY chromosome was an actress from Staten Island, which is where the ship—the motorbike space machine—eventually landed.

The actress and “the humper” both lived in David Bowie’s house, which is in Staten Island.

We congregated at Mr. Bowie’s mansion after the launch.

Some people mistook DB for David Lynch, but it was clearly Mr. Bowie.

The launched female, an actress Bowie met on an elementary school bus, had a crush on me.

It had long been her fantasy to do me.

She trailed me, one of her spectators, along the boardwalk in Staten Island.

I simply wanted to hang out on the boardwalk with my friend Ralph, who I’ve known since fifth grade.

However, this thespian traipsed after us until we stopped at a place that sold cherry cheesecake.

It was at that moment, when the cheesecake and cherries entered my mouth, with a black plastic fork, that she invited me to her apartment in Mr. Bowie’s house.

My friend Ralph agreed to follow us because most people who grew up in the 1970s—except me—have a deep fascination with Mr. Bowie.

I always wanted to smoke joints with girls and listen to LPs, but I was stuck with whatever music my brother had while I read Wuthering Heights. So it was me, Heathcliff, and Boston—the group.

I didn’t know a “Mr. Bowie” until, at the age of forty-nine, my girlfriend, who I knew in high school, told me she listened religiously to him.

Mr. Bowie is also enchanted with his fans, and places their postcards near the coal burning stove in his Staten Island residence.

He, like Mr. Warhol, wants to know other quirky people.

It is, however, a challenge for Mr. Bowie to become acquaintances with those, like me, who are not fervently devoted to him.

I accompanied the Staten Island starlet, soon thereafter, to her lodgings in the Bowie household.

She wished to nurse me like an infant.

I did not understand her concupiscence.

I had never met this chick, but there I was, in her bed, getting ready to let her kiss me, until she took out cocaine.

She offered me the white stuff.

I declined.

Mr. Bowie came out to see what the fuss was about.

He saw my friend Ralph, who is blonde and skinny.

He immediately took Ralph to the Bowie bedroom. Though David is known to be mostly straight, he will dabble with a hot guy like Ralph who meets his needs for the evening.

Upon seeing the cocaine, I told the young lady, whom everyone knew on the elementary school bus, that I didn’t want to have any physical contact with her whatsoever, because I have been sober for 27 years, and didn’t need the nasal machinations of cocaine to embarrass me in front of thousands of AA members, some of whom were at the David Bowie post-launch party, and might not wish me the best sobriety.

She was coked up so it didn’t matter.

I went into the living room, where Mr. Bowie keeps his collection of postcards from fans.

He was curious about me because I was incurious about him.

We nodded.

I agreed with him that Ralph was a hottie.

Then he inquired about my talents, which I refused to divulge.

He seemed fairly dejected by his inability to consume me.

He insisted I let him know who I was.

I adamantly refused because I knew this would make me more enticing.

DB meandered around the house. He said nothing.

It was okay. Ralph and I held hands and returned to the boardwalk in Staten Island, and though the trains were delayed, we eventually caught one to Union Square and read the morning newspaper, where they declared Mr. Bowie’s launch a success.


Eleanor Levine’s writing has appeared in more than 60 publications, including Fiction, Evergreen Review, Litro, Artemis, The Toronto Quarterly, decomP magazinE, The Denver Quarterly, The Atticus Review, The Missing Slate, SRPR, Wigleaf, The Breakwater Review, and Bull (Men’s Fiction); forthcoming work in Faultline Journal of Arts and Letters, Switchback, and Willard & Maple. Levine’s poetry collection, Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria, was published by Unsolicited Press (Portland, OR). Eleanor received her MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, in 2007.

Image credit: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

PLURISY by Joseph Harms

PLURISY
by Joseph Harms

Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife
But the only thing that I got’s been bothering me my whole life
……………….Bruce Springsteen

How come the night is long?……………….
……………….Leonard Cohen

Light Years: plurisy, renewed nostalgia for each moment
as it goes, the dream returning as it’s escaping. / His wife’s
demonic pain, his fuckall, to have failed separately
too long too much together, by the minutes ganged, contemned,

the plausive vale unseen discalled and hated. / Snow takes hours
(ensouled idea) in inhuming lawnstrewn xmaslights
until the mind no longer trusts its sight and they are felt
more so (as wolves howl obbligatos impossible to

kyoteyips)…chrysoprasing sawplaying undulations
midnighting northern cusp. / Lightyears: we are the light between
that never hits a thing, the tortoise found in dreams, the map
recalled on shell, the tremulosity, the space between two hells.


A finalist for the 2015 National Poetry Series Award for his sonnet sequence Bel (Expat Press), Joseph Harms is the author of the novels Baal and Cant, as well as the forthcoming Evil Trilogy (Expat Press).  His work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Boulevard, The Alaskan Quarterly Review, The North American Review, The International Poetry Review, The Opiate and Bayou Magazine.

 

 

 

Image credit: Aperture Vintage on Unsplash

 

 

 

TAKING THE BAIT by Ben Morris

TAKING THE BAIT
by Ben Morris

When we couldn’t dance around it any longer, we set mousetraps and started imagining our two toddlers, Henry and Suzanna, losing their fingers one by one: limp pinkies crinkled like sun-wilt, severed rings, scattered middles, dirty orphaned pointers curling into themselves as if for protection.

“Little dead thumbs,” I said to myself.

“I’d put one in your drink,” Jay said, handing me a glass of foaming red. “Like one of those gag cubes with the flies in them. Nobody has a sense of humor anymore. And I don’t know that they would get completely snapped off. Broken for sure. Trip to the hospital, insurance, etc.”

“What’s this one?” I said, holding the drink up to the light. Every night I struggled to hide the disappointment from my voice. A mixologist phase with his cashier income made no sense at all. But Jay’s sister gave him a cocktail book for his birthday two months back and he insisted on working through it, buying bitters and vermouth by the gallons. He’d always been practical about this kind of stuff. But when we moved to North Dakota to be closer to his family, something changed. “It’s called the Bloody Devil,” Jay said with a smirk. “Complete with my own twist of Tabasco and salt.”

“Yummy,” I said, licking my lips. In that moment, the alcohol burning between lips and gums, I felt my hatred for him become genuine. I took another drink and looked out over the line of baited traps, our crude infantry of wood and metal, dollops of generic peanut butter fat on plastic squares of cheese, rectangular golden bars readied to snap. I felt uneasy just looking at them. “Why didn’t we use glue traps?” I asked. “My parents have had luck with those.”

“They don’t kill,” Jay said. “Somebody would have to march them outside and brain them against the garbage can.”

“Brain,” I echoed. “Braindead thumbs.” I broke a piece of ice between my teeth and thought a tooth cracked with it. “I guess I don’t know what they did with them,” I said.

“No thank you,” he said.

Jay mixed more drinks and we moved around the house, laying traps down tenderly as if they were living, sleeping things. Two behind the washer and dryer, two behind the bookcase, one behind the chest full of blankets in the living room, and three upstairs in bathroom cabinets secured with plastic childproof levers.

Feeling satisfied we collapsed on the couch. Jay put on Gremlins and we started to screw around. I moved over him slowly. He nibbled my chin and started to muffle questions into my neck that I couldn’t understand.

“Mhmm,” I answered.

Movement in the corner of the room caught my eye. I continued to rock on Jay and watched a long gray mouse crawl down the side of the blanket chest. Then it stopped and tested the air. Its sticky paws splayed against the wood. Beneath me, Jay sucked air between his teeth, his eyes fluttered. “Holy Christ,” he whispered. “Nice.”

When the mouse reached the floor it seemed to scan the area before bursting forward a few inches, its nose spasming. Jay’s eyes were shut tight. And when I softly pinched a nostril, he smiled.

I reversed myself on top of him and he moved his hands up my sides, over my breasts. More unintelligible questions into my neck. I watched the mouse’s body liquefy and slip beneath the blanket chest. Gone. I waited for the snap. Waited. Waited. The TV showed a gremlin spinning in a blender.

Suddenly we heard Suzanna upstairs screaming from her bed.

“Fuck,” Jay said, adjusting himself away. “Don’t go anywhere.” And he staggered up the stairs to her room. I sat and stared at the blanket chest, waited for Jay to start shouting. I imagined Suzanna’s tiny pink palms without fingers, waving side to side like horrible bald flowers. Saw them reaching out for Jay.

But I heard nothing. And so I crept over to the chest and saw the peanut butter sitting undisturbed on the cheese. I went up to Henry’s room and stood over him. Waited. I stopped the sound of my own breathing to hear his, to watch his chest rise and fall like it was supposed to. I wanted to wake him and kiss all his fingers, count his toes with my lips. Instead I sat in the rocking chair and watched the crack of hallway light beneath his door. I waited for a flash of movement. I waited for Jay, or something else, to squirm into the room and gnaw at our skins.


Ben Morris recently earned his PhD in English from the University of North Dakota. He has had fiction or poetry appear in Lake Effect, drafthorse, Digging Through the Fat, North Dakota Quarterly, and others. He is currently a full-time English lecturer at Appalachian State University. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his partner and two children.

Image credit: Pixabay

THE REST by Kimberly Grabowski Strayer

THE REST
by Kimberly Grabowski Strayer

I slept with a kitchen knife
in my bedside table as a little girl,
I don’t think even my mother knows.
She loved all the shows
about murder. I would tell her I was scared
but she wouldn’t turn them off—
if you’re scared, leave the room.

The first few shots of each episode: victim
who will not live out the next sixty seconds.
A perpetrator with artfully hidden face.
And screaming, always, screaming
even in sudden attacks. I heard
once that the word scream is too powerful
to use in a poem, or too distinctly female,
hysteric, blotting out the rest—

here, we begin. After this, a shot
of the team of criminal profilers,
walking in to the office, discussing how to whip up
the perfect plate of pasta, al dente, of course,
to remind us they have ordinary lives
outside of this television screen, just like we do.
And all the while, a murderer on the loose.

They will solve this case in a cool
forty-three minutes, always right
before the next victim dies. I think stall, just stall.
Pain is like a distant galaxy because the inside
of another person is a distant galaxy. It’s impossible
to talk about, and so we talk about it all the time.
I just want to feel good for a moment,
it’s all fake but there are Good guys fighting
Bad guys and the good ones always pull through.

Sometimes students learn to conduct pelvic exams
on unknowing, anesthetized patients
before gynecological surgeries. Sometimes I think:
it would feel better if I didn’t know. The show
is not about pain but poison and attempted antidote.
And you are not safer if you don’t watch. Not a scale
but an emptiness. Without weight or spectrum.

My mother reads the detective novel I lend her,
In The Woods, and she says do we ever find out
what happened to his childhood friends? His blood-soaked
shoes? No, no, the crux here is that some things remain
unexplained forever. This, she cannot abide.

On the show, every killer has some
sort of signature. We all have this compulsion
to show the world who we are. Missing
from this genre: what makes a body
not human anymore. Instead, only: what makes a human
a body. The problem of it. Safety is not what we want,
but some alternative to being alive. It’s a fictional show about
fiction. The way telling a story can help us find the unknown
suspect. As usual, the stories end before they’re over.

In dental school, my mother rode her bike
to and from her apartment with boxes of bones
strapped to the back. She didn’t have much money
so the bones she had were rented. A friend of hers lent her
an extra skull he didn’t need anymore, eventually told her
she could keep it. When I was a kid, no one believed me
when I said the skull was real.

Think of the movies where the science-lab skeleton
was somehow reanimated to wreak havoc.
As if whatever brings us to life inhabits each
individual element of the structure as well as the whole.
My mother never knew who the skull belonged to,
nothing about the story. Mostly, I couldn’t believe
noses weren’t made of bone, other parts that seemed
so solid backed by hollow opening.

In one episode, a mother seeks revenge
upon the man who murdered her daughter—he tries to save
himself by leading her to the place where the girl was
buried. That’s just a skull, she says, that’s not my baby.
She shines a light on the bones. Where’s the rest of my baby.


Kimberly Grabowski Strayer is a poet and horsewoman from Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she received her B.A. in English Writing from Kalamazoo College. She holds an MFA in poetry from The University of Pittsburgh. Her poems have appeared in Superstition Review, Midwestern Gothic, Pretty Owl Poetry, Crab Fat Magazine, and others. Her chapbook, Afterward, is available from Dancing Girl Press.

 

 

 

Image credit: Ajeet Mestry on Unsplash

TWO FLASH PIECES by Abbigail Yost

TWO FLASH PIECES
by Abbigail Yost

Recurring

One is waking up in a bedroom that you do not recognize. The scent of coffee makes your head ache, but you cannot recall what it tastes like. And you don’t understand because you thought you liked coffee, but now you are not so sure. You feel panic as it fills your fingertips and clogs your throat. The patchwork quilt stifles you, makes threats against you. The newspaper tells victims to put up a fight, but whose house is this, and what if they do not react well to strangers who thrash around in twin beds that creak?

Two is acting like a civilized citizen. You forgive the patchwork quilt for its transgressions, set aside grievances. You sit up straight and place woven palms in your lap, resting on top of cut crimson cloth. Mother says that manners matter. That this is how we determine the good girls from the bad. You are a good girl, you tell yourself.

Three is hands. You realize that your hands look like freeze-dried fruit. Skin, drained of nutrition, puckered with folds, littered with channels of indigo and purple that bisect and bulge. Your head aches because these are not your hands, and the scent of something bitter looms in the air. You cannot put your finger on it, but you know what it would taste like if it hit your tongue.

Four is the swinging door as a man enters the bedroom. You freeze, contemplate pleading your case, that you will give him whatever he wants as long as he lets you go. His face has seen sun, and his eyes do not appear overly menacing, but mother says you can never tell. She also warns never to talk to strangers, but you know that this is a unique circumstance, and she will understand. You introduce yourself, stick out your withered hand as a token of peace. You inquire about his name. He holds back tears, but you don’t know why.

One is telling him that it’s a funny story, because you woke up in a bedroom that you do not recognize with a headache because it’s been days since you’ve drunk a cup of coffee.

How to Break a Heart

Ghost upon the slightest hint of commitment. Turn off your read receipts. Pretend he doesn’t exist. Don’t respond to his nine texts, even if the fourth one makes you question your strategy. Persevere. Endure. Fight the feeling. Three weeks and a couple of hours in his car mean nothing. Reject logic. Rationalize. Overcompensate. Smile like you won the lottery. Call yourself cold-blooded. Lie and tell your friends that you enjoy it. That it makes you feel empowered or something. Check his Twitter for subliminal repercussions. Delete his number out of spite. Compose subtweets that are subliminal, cutting. File the drafts with the others. Repress. Repress. Repress calloused hands circling your forearm. Date distraction. Watch (500) Days of Summer. Watch Bridget Jones’s Diary. Watch a season of Gossip Girl without moving from the spot in your bed that dips. Read Dostoyevsky to cancel out eleven hours of intellectual void. Understand about one-third of it. Question your maturity, stability, resiliency. Eat a pint of Neapolitan as consolation. Convince yourself that you deserve it. That it would’ve ended badly. That he would’ve been clingy. That he would’ve been detached. That he would’ve chewed with his mouth open or verbally abused his mother. That he would’ve been lactose intolerant. That he would’ve been deaf to the word “no.” Convince yourself that he would’ve done the same.


Abbigail Yost is a full-time student, part-time library page, and all-time perfectionist in most things unnecessary. Her literary crushes include the likes of Holden Caulfield and Henry Winter, two clashing personas that actively influence the subject matter and tone of her stories. She writes to bridge gaps, feign wisdom until wise, advocate for the unconventional, and normalize the lives of in-betweeners like her.

 

 

 

 

ONTOLOGY OF FATHERHOOD by Luke Wortley

ONTOLOGY OF FATHERHOOD
by Luke Wortley

Apparently Jack just learned the basics of genealogy. The lowest, sturdiest limbs branching out from roots of blood not my own. When I picked him up from school today, amid raindrops the size of a newborn’s hands, he told me about Memaw and Poppy and how they were Mommy’s mommy and daddy.

“You’re my daddy,” he says.

“Yeah, buddy, that’s right.”

Though this isn’t legally true, yet. The Sperm Donor, as Poppy calls him, is in Chicago contesting my petition.

“And Mommy is my mommy,” he says.

“Yup. What’s Mommy’s name?” I ask.

“Katie!” he screeches.

“That’s right!”

Something else about his friend Dontae having to go to the nurse and how it was Layla’s turn for computer time. Pause. Here it comes.

“Who’s your mommy?” he asks.

Over my speakers the buzzer cleaves his train of thought. Ringing weaves through our family tree.

“Banana is, buddy. You know that,” I say.

“A warning from the National Weather Service will follow shortly…The National Weather Service in Indianapolis, Indiana has issued a flash flood warning for the following areas…”

We drift down the hill and turn right, toward home, cruising alongside the frothing creek as it overpowers the deepest roots on the banks, carrying mud and limbs away and under the bridge. Overhead, the vestiges of winter give way to the first whispers of April. My birthday is in a week. Yes, I’m an Aries, and this morning my horoscope told me that “Communication comes easy for you today, Aries. However, your partner might be a bit more guarded. Just be sure to take your time, as you might keep missing each other.”

My father is a Leo, as is Jack.

After the beeping dissolves like the end of laughter, my son asks me the thing I don’t know how to communicate.

“Daddy, who’s your daddy?” The question reverbs like the warble-fuss of coyote pups crouching beneath the brush pile as we took aim all those years ago.

They had, of course, seen each other at the wedding back in Kentucky. My father and his new wife’s massive ring, their bourbon-laced vows misting over us like sweat. At the reception in the church basement, my father wrenched the preacher’s hand so hard that his shoulder popped. Others used ties to make a sling as he nipped at a flask and told a story about Ole Grandpa Chet who’d finally died by blood poisoning saving his wife, Ethel, from their car marooned in Floyd’s Fork, the muddy water roaring them through the guardrail. Chet survived two train crashes, a hive of yellow jackets, and a fall from the roof. My father had survived a head through a windshield and took pills to keep him from flopping around like the fish left on the banks. Like coyote pups clinging to life. I survived my father. Maybe my son will survive his as well.

I drive past our neighborhood and glide into a parking space between the liquor store and his favorite ice cream parlor.

“His name was John,” I say, preparing to step out into the deluge to unbuckle him from his car seat.


When Luke Wortley was a kid he wanted to be an interventional radiologist. After four or five concussions, he forgot calculus and figured out he loved words instead. He has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Butler University, where he was the fiction editor at Booth: A Journal. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Inch, Limestone, Lascaux Review, Pea River Journal, and Milkfist.

 

 

 

Image credit: Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

CARTE BLANCHE by Maya Owen

CARTE BLANCHE
by Maya Owen

……………..Whilst I was human
…………………………………………………I walked around with glitter in my eye
…………………….I wrote it down
…………………………………………………I believed in magic
…..bartered with the elemental
…………………………………………………fixity of stone, facility of water
I believed in our animal origin
…………………………………………………how it lived on
………………in our animal heart
…………………………………………………throwing shadows
………………….against the moon
…………………………………………………Something about the moon
…………….and its shifting effigy
……………………………………………….. Something about my hands’
………………….failed synecdoche
…………………………………………………This burnt offering
………….my life turned out to be
…………………………………………………accomplished little but to warp
……………..a modest patch of air
…………………………………………………into a bright derangement
…………………..If I could go back
…………………………………………………If I could pick my life back up
wear again my spent humanness
…………………………………………………like a dress crumpling over a chair
……………..I would devour openly
…………………………………………………I would permit everything


Maya Owen lives, writes, and sings in London, England. Her work has been featured in publications including The Adroit Journal, Alexandria Quarterly, DIALOGIST, and DRUNK IN A MIDNIGHT CHOIR, and been nominated for a Best of the Net award.

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Cédric Klei on Unsplash

REMEDY by Jen Rouse

REMEDY
by Jen Rouse

Once there was a clementine
when I couldn’t speak

and a late afternoon on
the steps in the sun when

all I could do was think about
your hands so close to my hands.

And sometimes your voice
when no other voice mattered.

Some days we told stories
in sand and each granule was

a day I might put next to another
day until it didn’t feel so much

like trying. Now every day
feels so much like trying.

When we first met, you said,
Why not get well?

And I believed you.
And then I didn’t.

I woke up in the back of a car,
curled like a nautilus, the sound

of the sea ricocheting inside
my skull.  But I was not an ocean.

I woke up in a cornfield and
the stars pleaded my defense,

but I was not a constellation
or a wanted galaxy. I woke up

in a hotel room, drenched
from days of pulled blinds

and constant doses I forgot to name,
as my own name slipped away.

I woke up and tried to go home.

But I wasn’t available.

And neither was home.

I woke up and heard you say
that I couldn’t possibly matter enough.

And I remembered then how important
it would always be to remain quiet.

I woke up and wrote every lie
I had ever been told. About god

and hope and the love of someone
coming to sit next to you

when you couldn’t be more alone.
I woke up and walked away.

Because no one holds your hair back
when you are fresh out of brilliance.

Because there is no well.
Only different.


Jen Rouse is the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Cornell College. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Wicked Alice, Parentheses, Bone & Ink Press, Crab Fat Magazine, Up the Staircase, Southern Florida Poetry Journal, Gulf Stream, and elsewhere. She was named a finalist for the Mississippi Review 2018 Prize Issue. Her chapbook, Acid and Tender, was a finalist for the Charlotte Mew Prize and published by Headmistress Press. Riding with Anne Sexton, Rouse’s second book, is forthcoming from Bone & Ink Press in collaboration with dancing girl press. Find her at jen-rouse.com and on Twitter @jrouse.

 

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IN NEED OF A SHOWER by Thomas Osatchoff

IN NEED OF A SHOWER
by Thomas Osatchoff

In the sour aurora borealis of our political reveries
every bruise dives together in a drink of lead paint

pouring out of smoky eyes poked out at the broken border
again we were stopped at the dirty border again

doing the thirsty gecko
in need of a hopeless shower…

we’d rather have thirty legs and arms cut off
in a hurry than let go of the neutral internet cut off

brainet slowly enough
so that we don’t notice

barbed-wire painted futile for higher rents
with white lead paint to be more durable, dryer,

blinder deep-sea fangtooths
surviving in the smooth stateless seas

of hydrogen sulfide vents
rather than bent light’s every cutting desire.

Wearing very large eyes without need of a mate. With no light,
humpback anglerfish, there’s no need to be pretty. We can hide

in our chemosynthetic cathedral until citrus Christmas
sinking to a deeper tropical past stained-glass plankton

constellations
painted as flesh

reflected in the soon to be cracked black mirror
of the severed seas ready to sting itself a new god.

Into this painted walled garden for octopodes.
Into this Möbius band gelatinous trench treasure

of neural lace implants for hot thoughts
in a hot sea of mind: plantations

of toilet tissue skeletal
structures fit for feeding

from hydrothermal pirate ship
switches both on and off auto

immune to life and death…
as in a Lucian Freud portrait.

Perhaps it will turn out to be fortunate.
Or perhaps a study by Bacon is more apt.

Perhaps we will awaken to have a ruddy stake in it again
but if we are neither alive nor dead then what are we? Aloof

cannonball cameras
on cannabis?

Cannibals.
On cancer.

Proof
of concept.

Grandmother went to a spiritual retreat after her mastectomy
and mother went to the interior of the next state over

to get away from the sea.
So they were not eaten.

I’m not alone because grandfather is here.
But the biggest fear is his being here.

What is he doing?

Sucking on a lozenge
and coughing up lemon flavored blood.

I do things for him in consideration of my grandmother
because I love her very much but he has already tried me.

You can stay with me.

I’m trying to take a shower right now
but the bathroom door lock is broken.

You can shower here.

I’m just afraid he’ll come when I’m in the shower.
But don’t worry. I’ll take care here.

Tell me when you’re done so I know you’re okay.


Thomas Osatchoff is doing fieldwork for his debut volume of poetry. He has resided in many places throughout the world where he has had opportunities to develop his perspective. His work has appeared recently both online and in print.

 

 

 

 

 

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TELL ME I’M DIFFERENT by Madeline Anthes

TELL ME I’M DIFFERENT
by Madeline Anthes

When we meet you will tell me you’re tired of the same old thing. You will look me up and down and see what you like.

I will nod and tell you I know, baby. I will show you all the ways that I’m different.

I like football and beer and steak.

I am sarcastic and cynical and charming and funny.

I am sexy but I don’t seem to realize it.

 I am strong and gentle and feisty and weak all the ways you want me to be.

You will smile and buy me a drink – a Manhattan or old fashioned – something manly and sweet. You will tell me I look sexy as I wrap my tongue around the straw and pull it into my mouth. You will watch as I sip slowly. Swallow with precision.

You will tell me you wonder if my mouth tastes sweet too.

As sweet as you want. Cherry cola. Sweet tea. So sweet your lips will pull back and you’ll smile so hard you’ll grimace. 

You will put your arm around my waist to show everyone that this one is taken. This one. Me. I’m taken.

Take me somewhere.  I will whisper in your ear and lean against you. You will feel so needed.

You will ask where I want to go but you already know.

You will run your hands down the granite countertops in my kitchen.

I love to cook. You will smile because you want someone to cook for you like your mother did. Dinner on the table at 6:00, snacks during the game.

You will lick your lips at the thought of me in an apron, poised over the stove. My hair in a bun, sweat forming at the base of my neck.

You will take the drink I give you and watch my hips as I lead you down the hallway.

I will pull you onto the bed. You want me to take control.

You’re mine now I will tell you, and you will nod and nod.

I will tell you things to make your chest rise and fall for me. I will tell you all the things you need to hear about how different you are.

You smell so good.

You are so chiseled.

You are so funny and built and not fragile in any way.

You are so strong and I feel so safe with you.

You will be just like every man.  Cologne soaked and whiskey drunk. Clumsy fingers and dull eyes.

I could just eat you up.

While you sleep I will find your cracks and dig my fingers in. I know where to look. It doesn’t take much pressure to pop you open, core you from the inside. Leave you hollow.

What did you expect?

The other girls would have let you leave them, shatter them. They would have let you remain whole while they tear out their own insides bit by bit.

I am just what you wanted, I will tell you once I’ve pulled your sheets up over your shell of a frame. I will tuck you in so gently. This will hurt in the morning.

Tell me again how you want something different.


Madeline Anthes is the acquisitions editor for Hypertrophic Literary. Her writing can be found in journals like WhiskeyPaper, Lost Balloon, Cease, Cows, and Jellyfish Review. You can find her on Twitter at @maddieanthes, and find more of her work at madelineanthes.com.

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THREE POEMS by Darren C. Demaree

THREE POEMS
by Darren C. Demaree

A NIGHT SO BEAUTIFUL WE BURNED DOWN THE SENATOR’S HOUSE #4

Nobody saw who flipped over
the bedframes. Nobody saw
who opened up the windows.

Nobody noticed when the meat
was gone. Everybody talked
with their teeth. A crowd gathered

in the yard. We were loud
enough to become vessels
& drunk enough not to care.

.


A NIGHT SO BEAUTIFUL WE BURNED DOWN THE SENATOR’S HOUSE #5

The neon green
lipstick was passed
slowly. We all

became brides
& grooms of this
night. I don’t

remember when
the chanting
combed our hair.

..


.

A NIGHT SO BEAUTIFUL WE BURNED DOWN THE SENATOR’S HOUSE #6

Those that whispered
stayed in the corners
unadorned, protecting

their corners, pissing
in their corners, un-
willing to dance

or play with the bones
of the chicken
we had picked clean.


Darren C. Demaree is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently “Two Towns Over”, which was selected the winner of the Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press.  He is the recipient of a 2018 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and the Nancy Dew Taylor Award from Emrys Journal.  He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry.  He is currently living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.

Image credit:  Mari Pa on Unsplash

NO COLLUSION! a visual narrative by Emily Steinberg

NO COLLUSION!
A Visual Narrative
by Emily Steinberg


Emily Steinberg is a painter and graphic novelist and has shown her work in the United States and Europe. Most recently, images from her visual narrative Broken Eggs were featured in an exhibit titled Sick! Kranksein Im Comic: Reclaiming Illness Through Comics at the Berlin Museum of Medical History @ the Charité, Berlin, Germany. Her graphic novel memoir, Graphic Therapy, was published serially in Smith Magazine, her short comic, Blogging Towards Oblivion, was included in The Moment (Harper/Collins 2012) and her visual narratives Paused (2018), Berlin Stories: Time, Memory, Place (2017), A Mid Summer Soirée (2015), Broken Eggs (2014), and The Modernist Cabin (2013) have been published in Cleaver Magazine. She currently teaches painting, drawing, graphic novel, and the History of Comics at Penn State Abington. She earned her M.F.A. and B.F.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and lives just outside Philadelphia.

THIS IS NOT A STORY by Juliana Roth

THIS IS NOT A STORY
by Juliana Roth

This isn’t one of those stories where the twenty-two year old work-study assistant gets kissed on the cheek by the Chair of one of the country’s most prestigious English departments while she’s arranging cookies for the Visiting Writers Reading, writers whose names you’d surely recognize, like the author of the graphic novel about her coming out and the author who writes about horses, and the trim little poet who upstaged her husband last December at a reading for The Environment.  Remarkable and hopeful, the twenty-two-year-old assistant thought, and immediately bought their books. Now, she stands by the wine as she often does after the Visiting Writers read poems, and essays, and chapters from novels, and the Chair of the department looks her up and down. It was his office in that English Department she’d chosen out of all the work-study jobs offered by this university, because she is an aspiring writer, studying at an important university, and he is a Famous Writer who has, he often brags, a cameo in a movie written by a former student and a scene with that famous British actress who is even more lovely in person, and it might work in her favor if he notices her. He has. He’s been staring at her tits for weeks. “I didn’t know you cared about poetry,” he says. This is not a story about how, when she answers, “Yes, I do,” because she is a writer and of course she cares about poetry and has read poems all of her life, he says, “Do you want to study here? Come to my office,” and he places his hand on the small of her back and kisses her and leaves. But this story is not about that. It isn’t one of those stories.

This is not quite a story about how the twenty-two-year-old assistant goes instead to a bar across the street from his office with a few of the women she’s met at the Reading, grad students who have poems and stories in Big Name Journals, who have awards from the department, and books out with agents, and she tells them she writes, and she wants to study in the department, and one of the women says to the waiter, “a pitcher,” and the twenty-two-year-old assistant hears “a picture,” and she feels very much at home here, wishing they would take one. The drunkest woman, likely because she is the smallest, says, “Welcome to the club,” and the twenty-two-year-old assistant asks, “What club?” and the woman says, “The club of students the professors are trying to fuck.”

The story starts as they get in a car and drive to a party where all of the grad students in the department crowd into a creaky Victorian house and the twenty-two-year-old assistant wishes she could stay in that house forever, leaning against the fireplace with a mug of bourbon and coffee, talking to a young novelist with green marbled eyes and the build of a rugby player.

What the story is about is this: the Chair shows up. He is drunk, he’s taken off his wedding ring, and he sees the twenty-two-year-old assistant who is telling the rugby player about her stories (as if she actually belongs there), stories about magicians and planets and towns recovering from natural disasters and the Chair, who’s been watching her, walks over on little soft cat feet. And the twenty-two-year-old assistant grows smaller and smaller until she can’t remember how she’s gotten there or why she wanted to be a writer or if she’s ever had an original idea in all of her life.

He eyes the twenty-two-year-old assistant—her lips, her tits, her ass. “She is an excellent writer,” the Chair says, and he winks at the rugby player.

This is not a story. This is not a story. This is not—


Juliana Roth is a writer from Nyack, NY. She currently lives in Philadelphia. Her writing has appeared in Entropy, VIDA Review, and Irish Pages, among other publications.

 

 

 

 

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AUTOMATON AUBADE by Cynthia Atkins

AUTOMATON AUBADE
by Cynthia Atkins

Once I was so lonely, I spent all night talking
to an android, her pursed lips whispering
thick as a storm cloud. I wanted to step inside

her hollow machine, hold the very brink of nothing
alive. I wanted to listen to her voice like the sofa
I was never supposed to sit on. She held my hand

in the boutique of my heart, where there is no
Judgment. Eager to sew the sobs into my pillow.
She respected my boundaries. She capsized every

ache that holds an inflection. And played parlor games
with a haughty accent. I swear she was more than
a blunt brick wall— She was a droid of longing.

When I needed to scream into a bottle, my echo
landed smack dab in the center of a board game
at the other end of the future, where children

are laughing—That boy who held me down never heard
my spine-tingling scream, it was stuck like a zipper
on a winter jacket, it was winched inside me.

Matches in his pockets, he said my hair would
Burn up to the clouds.  Guilt reboots every time
I lean into a wall. A button ripped for each bad decision.

With her teeth, she held the other end
of a jump rope, tasted the yawl
and salt of my wounds. We heard the children

splashing in water, the choir of priests and the barking
dogs and admonitions, outside all the polite rooms
where I kept my hands folded and mouth shut.


Cynthia Atkins is the author of Psyche’s Weathers and In The Event of Full Disclosure, and the forthcoming book, Still-Life With God. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Apogee, BOMB, Cleaver Magazine,  Diode, Florida Review, Green Mountains Review, Hermeneutic Chaos, Los Angeles review, North American Review,  Rust+Moth, Tampa Review, Tinderbox, Thrush, and Verse Daily.  Formerly, she worked as the assistant director for the Poetry Society of America and has taught English and Creative Writing, most recently at Blue Ridge Community College. Atkins earned her MFA from Columbia University and has earned fellowships and prizes from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Writer’s Voice, and Writers@Work, as well as Best of the Net and Pushcart nominations. She lives on the Maury River of Rockbridge County, Virginia, with artist Phillip Welch and their family. More work and info: www.cynthiaatkins.com and on Facebook. Author photo courtesy of Alexis Rhone Fancher.

Image credit: Pixabay

KEYS by Kim Magowan

KEYS
by Kim Magowan

After I call Barney, I take a bath. I have my hair in a topknot, so it won’t get wet. But it’s been cold all day, and the hot water feels so good that screw it, I pull out the ponytail holder and submerge. It’s not like he hasn’t seen my hair wet 500 times before. It’s not like a date where you need to look your best.

I’m shaving my leg when I hear the front door, hear Barney call, “Hello?”

“I’m in the bath,” I call out. “There’s wine in the fridge.”

I dry off, considering wardrobe. Jeans again seems pointless, so I put on my bathrobe. It’s one of those spa bathrobes, white and fluffy; Barney gave it to me for my thirtieth birthday.

Upstairs Barney’s uncorked wine, and he looks at me up and down, his expression a mixture of pleasure and unhappiness. I’ve known him nearly half my life, but that doesn’t mean I can read him. Or, rather, I read Barney perfectly in some ways—I know what he’s feeling—but the origins for those feelings are obscure. Is he pleased because I’m naked under the bathrobe? Because I’m wearing his gift? Is he sad for those same reasons? Who the hell knows? I used to make myself crazy, trying to figure him out.

“Where’s Laura?” he says.

“At a sleepover, of course.”

“Yes,” he says. “But which kid?”

“Gretchen.”

He makes a face, and for once I know why. Barney thinks Gretchen’s rude.

I say, “You got to give that girl another chance. So what if she doesn’t say ‘Thank you’?”

“It’s not that. She’s so hot and cold with Laura. One week she’s giving her a BFF locket, the next week she tells her she smells like grass.”

“Like marijuana grass?”

“I think like grass grass.”

I laugh, and he says, “It’s not funny. It really hurt Laura’s feelings.”

“Personally, I love the smell of grass,” I say. “Pour me some wine?” He does, and I see it’s not the open wine from the fridge, but some nicer bottle he brought. There’s a frog on the label, its legs splayed. I think of punching dissection pins through the webbed toes of my frog in ninth grade Biology.

“I can never keep track if Gretchen is her friend or her mortal enemy.” Barney hands me a glass of wine, and we clink glasses.

“Well, we’re hardly in a position to judge, are we?” I say.

Sad eyes, again, but why? I would have thought that would make him laugh.

I’ve given Barney my keys and taken back keys so many times in the last fifteen years I’ve lost track, starting with my first apartment after college. I put that key in a light blue jewelry box, tied it with a curly ribbon. (Barney never could learn how to curl a ribbon with scissors; I always had to do that part of wrapping for him, even for presents to me). When we broke up because he was being a dick about proposing, I took my key back. When we split for real ten years later, I reclaimed it again. Those were the bad days, fighting about who got to keep the house.

The official reason he has the key now is so he can drop off Laura when I’m at work.

“You two are so civil,” Gretchen’s mom Molly said to me. The other fifth grade parents admire us. When Barney was dating Shireen, I always made sure to hug her. When I sent out an Evite for Laura’s slumber party, I included both our names. We did Christmas morning together; then Barney took Laura on a hike, and I saw a movie by myself and tried to feel grateful that I was not shivering, with damp socks, listening to Barney saying, “Just a little farther.” We’re the most civilized exes in the world.

“Why do you only call when she’s on sleepovers?” Barney says.

“Come on, Barn. Things are good. We don’t want to confuse Laura.”

“But it’s okay to confuse me?”

“We’re adults,” I say. “We understand that the human condition is confusing.”

He shakes his head, but unbelts my spa robe, and I link my hands around his warm, meaty neck. When we go into my bedroom that used to be our bedroom, I think how much louder we are now that we’re not married, and how much more we have to say when we’re fucking. Though never “I love you,” because we’re adults.


Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and was published in March 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals. She is fiction editor of Pithead Chapel. More at kimmagowan.com.

 

 

Image credit: Brett Jordan on Pexels

NOVEMBER 23, 2013 by Daniel Blokh      

NOVEMBER 23, 2013
by Daniel Blokh                                                                     

after Joe Brainard

Babushka certainly doesn’t remember.

Mom remembers the call, my sister doing her best to keep her composure on the other line, I just called Babushka and she was talking strangely maybe check on her? And so Mom put me in her car and drove into the evening, calming me down I’m sure it’s nothing and me I’m sure it’s nothing too but the two of us dashed from the elevator to her room nonetheless.

Dad remembers one calm call and, later, one distressed call. He was out of town. Even in the distressed call, Mom did not tell him to hurry back, and he didn’t.

Babushka doesn’t remember. Update: Babushka doesn’t remember.

The paramedics remember an old lady, a scared younger lady, and a more scared and younger little boy. The old lady could walk but something was off about it, a lilting to the side, a jaggedness of function. They put her on a stretcher and carried her to the ambulance. One of them tried to joke around with the little kid but soon gave up. They never found out what was wrong with the old lady; they could if they wanted to, but there were so many cases, really; if they checked on all of them they’d never go home.

Babushka still doesn’t remember, sorry.

I remember mostly how Babushka stood in her small corridor of a kitchen. From the corner of her lip dangled a shiny stalactite of liquid, somehow encasing a feeling that would grow over the next months and years. There were other moments that night, too, obscured in hindsight by the shadow of that twirling thread of silver saliva but still there—the ambulance coming, the nice lady at the hospital who kept me company in the waiting room and asked me about the Clifford book on my lap, the friend of my mother’s who let me sleep over with her two kids that night. But mostly the apartment. Mostly Babushka. Mostly the spit.

A man I have never met remembers pausing his car at a green light for an ambulance to pass by. He taps impatiently on the wheel. The light turns yellow. The ambulance passes, the light turns red, his hand becomes a fist.

Babushka does not remember. Babushka, do you remember? See, no.

US president Barack Obama likely remembers nothing about the whole stroke situation, or the dementia situation to follow. He couldn’t know that we were lifting off into a world where we would bury her forgetting by forgetting. However, I’m sure he remembers his remarks on Iran’s nuclear program that same day, which obamawhitehouse.archives.gov describes as an important first step toward a comprehensive solution.

My mom’s friend’s children remember some kid they had met a few times coming to spend the night. They had been told something bad had happened to him recently, something to warrant a request for extra kindness, but though they let him choose a video game to play they couldn’t tell anything had happened from his behavior. If anything, he seemed more upbeat than they’d ever seen him, hyper and unwilling to go to bed long after they’d grown sleepy. It was only as they lay down, the brother and sister sharing a bunk to give the boy his own, that they began to hear him sniffle, but by that time they were heading toward sleep and there was no going back, no getting off the train, nothing ahead of them but dark.

The sun remembers nothing particularly different. Same old routine. Space, space, space. The rising steam of souls.

Babushka remembers now. It’s coming quietly into focus: The unquestionable wholeness of it, the certainty. And then the sprig of heat that sends everything into motion, that reminds you of the molecules making up the world, how easily and quickly they pull apart.


Daniel Blokh is a 17-year-old American-Jewish writer with Russian immigrant parents, living in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of the memoir In Migration (BAM! Publishing 2016), the chapbook Grimmening (forthcoming from Diode Editions), and the chapbook Holding Myself Hostage In The Kitchen (Lit City Press 2017). He is the 2018 National Student Poet of the US for the Southeast Region.

 

 

 

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VIDEO  ALTARPIECE (3) by Judson Evans


VIDEO  ALTARPIECE (3)
by Judson Evans

(Florence Flood, 1966: restoration of Vasari’s Last Supper)

Twelve hours under the flood the putrid silt
sacked every staging and support, the poplar
plank with its larch cross-sections, wrung through
with woodworms and fungus spores.

The armature was warping, the foundation
was gone. They would have to destroy the world
to save it− shear off and float the color still clinging
to the brushstrokes—
……………………………cadmium fingerings, tangled

lightning cords of crimson, the steely crosshatch
green of Judas’s collar.

First, rip the sky from its
window in this columned polychrome
room, divide the jostle
…………………..of disciples, the burnt sienna

laying on of hands.

Then, scrape away the faces, the feet
of wine glasses, the halos
with rice paper bandage,
mulberry strips,

clear the table of The Last Supper
with a trowel.

And in that time without angles−
transubstantiate the brotherhood
of subtle, alchemical, hovering bodies

suspended in the concoction
of sturgeon bladder and honey,

held by a bead
of resin and glue.


Judson Evans is a poet and visual artist, who has written and published in a variety of poetic forms and genres. He was Director of Liberal Arts at The Boston Conservatory for twenty-five years, and is now a full-time Professor of Liberal Arts at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches Literature, Poetry Workshops, and an elective humanities course on Paleolithic Cave Art. He has been a lifelong enthusiast for all Japanese-based poetic forms and regularly publishes haiku, renku, and haibun in the main journals of those forms. He also writes and publishes contemporary lyric poems. He has been involved in a wide range of collaborative experiments with composers, choreographers, other poets, and most recently with videographer Ray Klimek. Evans has had his poems set to music by composers, such as Mohammed Farouz and Marti Epstein, and developed into dance pieces with choreographer/performance artist Julie Ince Thompson. He was chosen as an “Emerging Poet” by John Yau for The Academy of American Poets in 2007, and won the Philip Booth Poetry Prize from Salt Hill Review in 2013. His poems have appeared most recently in Folio, Volt, 1913: a journal of forms, and Cutbank.

Image credit: Saiko on Wikipedia

THE REVOLUTION IS NOT DEAD: I’M WEARING IT by Holly Li 


THE REVOLUTION IS NOT DEAD: I’M WEARING IT
by Holly Li 

It was a dingy street stall, somewhere in the back alleys of Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

The uninterested teenage boy manning the booth flipped through a magazine while I rummaged through bins of t-shirts wrapped in clear plastic. Some were printed with Chinese words; most had faces I didn’t recognize. “An old Chinese Communist hero,” my dad would explain as I pointed indiscriminately at one and looked to him. “Another old hero,” he chuckled, as I held up yet another generic grinning face, this one with rosy cheeks and a red star cap. For seven yuan (a dollar), I could afford to buy them all, but I took my time. I made piles of favorites, weighed options carefully on a rubric of juvenile aesthetic taste and shock value, then narrowed them down. Eventually, I settled on the Glorious One: a white t-shirt featuring a smiling crowd of men and women, thrusting Mao’s bible in the air against a rising red sun. Poorly translated English reads underneath: “Careful Study Marxism and study society.”

“This is the one!” I exclaimed, as my dad paid the vendor, amused.

I was seven years old and had a strange fascination with Communism.

Growing up, I was as un-Chinese as you could get. Raised my entire life in rural towns—first in south Georgia, then in the Appalachian hills of Ohio—I’d become more accustomed to the esoteric ways of deer-hunting and bluegrass music than mooncakes and lantern festivals. I could use chopsticks and whine in my parents’ tongue, but I didn’t like the food, I’d never met my relatives, and I didn’t much care to. For their part, my parents tried their best to share stories of the motherland, skillfully wielding anecdotes of childhood famine when I complained about oatmeal for breakfast or dropping stories of the Red Police in between bites of rice at the dinner table. My parents had been poster children for the Communist Revolution: their parents had been taken away; they’d lived through the heart of the food rations (without which my dad insists he’d have grown to be six feet tall); and at the age of twelve, they’d both been selected by scouts to be sent to Olympic training camps where Communist coaches hoped to cultivate a winning team well in advance of the 1984 games and win gold for China’s first appearance on the international stage.

I took in these stories with wide eyes and childlike wonder. For a kid raised in a small Ohioan town, these stories might just as well have been legend. Thus when third grade came around and kids were finally old enough to realize I looked different, I began to look for something to explain my straight black hair and almond-shaped eyes. A Communist Revolution, I thought, now that’s something authentically Chinese! To me, it was a perfect cultural narrative: a proud, age-old civilization reborn upon the death of the last empire. An unending class struggle fought by farmers, led by a tyrannical demagogue. A sprinkle of nationalism and behold: What a dramatic battle to become something.

Finally, it was a part of my heritage I liked and felt like I understood. Out of my third-grade identity crisis came a sense of urgency to learn and love this dark history. It could redeem me on both accounts: make me proud to be Chinese; and make me cool to be Chinese.

My parents—who fled the Reds—could not understand this obsession. At dinner, they continued to imbue me with stories of political corruption, the brainwashing, the cold murder of relatives by the Party. Communism had done a lot of good for the country, they conceded, but they weren’t about to hang a poster of Mao any time soon. I did, though: two of them, in fact, in my childhood bedroom. I knew the Communists were complicated, but there was something about the saturated ink of the posters, the unabashed thick block print, and the rosy smiles of children saluting doves that demanded your attention and stirred within you a confused allegiance. The China they talked about became the only version of their homeland I could imagine; their Communist childhoods had already become my favorite epic. At lunch, my friends would talk about American Girl dolls. I would slip in quietly: “my grandpa was tortured because he was a nationalist.”

The t-shirt, then, became a prized possession. I wore it proudly as if to say: Witness me! I am indeed Chinese! My people did something gnarly! No matter that it was a few sizes too big. In between Abercrombie hoodies and Limited Too jeans, the shirt stayed constant.

Sometime around 2011, graphic tees became all the rage. There were the basic level ones: the one-word slogans in attempted laconic edginess; “Friday” in Helvetica bold on a white t-shirt. The next level was an image of some kind, a brand, or a panda. But god-level was the perfect, esoteric quirky tee: one featuring a vintage ad, perhaps, or an obscure artist’s boob sketch. Bonus points if it looked faded, featured another language, and had whiffs of politically charged counterculturalism.

I had a winner on my hands.

Suddenly, Urban Outfitters was scrambling to find any artwork vaguely Oriental. Artists and wannabes in Brooklyn were shelling out big bucks for “worn-in” old Asian souvenir t-shirts. And while the Chinese people hadn’t figured out how they felt about Communism, hipsters certainly had. Expensive Etsy shops stocked custom screen-printed Maoist shirts. Streetwear brands in L.A began to sell stickers of Mao edited with rosy Instagram filters. I can’t quite pinpoint how Communism became hot. Perhaps it was the resurgence of Kim Jong Un memes or Communism’s inevitable turn in the hipster cycle of nostalgia. Either way, my shirt was gold by all accounts. It miraculously still fit, and was soft and broken in from years of wear. Its boxy cut, the cheapest manufacturing measure then, was now the chic look on the street. Its ink, red and black, had faded and crinkled in just the right places, aspirationally weathered.

The shirt had until then been a sort of cultural heirloom to myself: unarguable evidence that I had roots and knew them. But now I was getting stopped by the hippest women all the time, usually with pierced noses, trendy bangs, and vintage mules. They luhved my shirt. Where did I gat it?

There’s a satisfaction to having the world suddenly appreciate what you always have. To me, it felt like it was time they did. Communism may just be a quirky t-shirt to them now, but the mere appreciation is enough for me. Allegations of cultural appropriation seem silly: the very fact that a teenager in Minnesota could love a shirt featuring a quote my parents recited every single day as children blows my mind, and reminds me that the world is a small and peculiar place where we can all enjoy the same things. We choose odd things to celebrate, but the very celebration of them at all is in itself a powerful thing.

Because what used to be the stories I would tell myself at seven slowly burgeoned into real appreciation over the years, as I visited the hometowns of my parents, read Chinese history books, and asked my grandparents about the Mao framed on their living room wall.

Now, as an unapologetic hipster, I can only say that I was a Communist before it was cool, that I was Chinese before it was aesthetic, and that I will continue to brandish myself proudly—even when the world moves on to the next celebrated trend of Mexican bodegas or vintage Italian sardine cans.


Holly Li is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, headed to the West Coast to pursue surfing or perhaps a promising career in hip-hop dance. She spent her childhood, however, in rural Ohio, surrounded by poets and hippies. The provincial nature of her Appalachian town is largely to blame for her dogged optimism, Asian American growing pains, and deep-rooted love for folk music.”

 

 

 

Image credit: FreeImages.com

 

THE HUNGRY MAN CHALLENGE by Andrea Ruggirello

THE HUNGRY MAN CHALLENGE
by Andrea Ruggirello

Photos of every winner of the Hungry Man Challenge hang on the wall of The Little Texan Steak Ranch. Four dozen photos. Mostly white men. So when Sandy Jenkins plops her red, heart-shaped purse on the counter and orders the Hungry Man Challenge, a hush falls over the restaurant. Sandy Jenkins at five-foot-two with short downy dark hair like a baby chick and unsmiling liner-rimmed eyes already doesn’t look like she could eat seventy-two ounces of steak in one lifetime let alone one hour. But besides that, everyone in town knows Sandy isn’t the type of girl to sign up for anything. She’s the type to traipse through your tomato garden in combat boots and when you catch her, claim she is searching for a four-leaf clover (and you kind of believe her). She’s the type to steal pencil toppers in the shapes of cute forest animals from her classmates and display them on her dresser, and when her mother asks where she got them, lie that they were gifts (her mother is just relieved she’s finally making friends). She is the type who, upon realizing that she sticks out like a cactus flower in her homogenous hometown, instead of trying to blend in, leans into her differences—wings mark the corner of each eye, drawing their shape further up her temples, black hair shorn close to her scalp. Sandy is the type to avoid restaurants like The Little Texan Steak Ranch and tourist traps like the Hungry Man Challenge at all costs and, instead, suck on Slim Jims while perched on parking curbs in the local shopping centers.

Danny behind the counter asks her twice if she is sure and she smacks the counter to emphasize her second yes. He puts the order in with the kitchen.

While she waits, Sandy spins on her stool like an impatient child. Her shirt reads Save the Whales on a blue background and the sleeves are cut up into fringes that float at each shoulder like seaweed.

Danny asks after her folks. They’re regulars. They come in for breakfast after Sandy leaves for school on Mondays and they order the waffle special-of-the-week. On Sundays, they sometimes take bets on what the special will be. The waffle breakfast is a tradition they’ve had since before they adopted Sandy from Korea. They brought her with them until she started school and then on weekends sometimes until she was old enough to refuse (just after she turned seven).

“They’re the same old, same old, same old,” Sandy says in a sing-song voice. She has a twang. It’s subtle enough that when she leaves (next year, the minute she turns eighteen), it’ll fade almost instantly. But it’s there for now.

The steak comes out next to a steaming baked potato. It’s a beauty—black cross-hatchings like train tracks. Danny sets the plate in front of Sandy, and she places a paper napkin in her lap as if she’s at high tea.

She saws off a small bite and chews thoughtfully, as if considering its quality. Really, she’s testing its density against the strength of her jaw.

“You know it’s seventy-two dollars if you don’t finish on time,” Danny reminds her, though everyone knows Sandy doesn’t have the money.

“Oh, I know,” is all she says. She cuts off another bite, stuffs that into the corner of her mouth. The bulge in her cheek moves up and down faster now. She swallows that one quick and hard, scrunching her face up real tight. After a few more bites, her chin is slick with grease. Her jaw’s working hard, steady like a pulse. The other customers watch over their coffee cups, craning their necks backward every few minutes to see how much is left, then how much time is left on the clock.

When there’s only a quarter of an hour left, Sandy sets down the knife and fork and picks up the hunk of meat—more than half—in her bare hands. Her cheeks are pink by now. She’s making these tiny grunts with each chunk she tears off. Black bits are burrowed under her fingernails. Flecks of red flash between her teeth when she bares them to bite down.

Old Pat asks, “Think she might do it?” and then someone else shushes her as if they’re at the movies.

Sandy tears off another bite. You can even hear the tick of the second hand because everyone’s shut up. No one’s breathing. All that matters is this girl and the time and the hunk of meat she’s tearing into. And that’s why, at first, the sirens sound to Old Pat like church bells in the distance. To Danny, they’re the wails of his baby boy, a sound he shamefully has tried to ignore more than once as he hovered on the edge of sleep.

As for Sandy—when she hears the sirens, she pauses, considers the remains, surveying the steak with tenderness, as if it’s beloved. She thinks of a photo in an album of herself as a baby, wearing a white bonnet, too thin for an infant, too solemn too. Waiting for someone to return and reclaim her. She thinks of the photo to come, the mugshot. Solemn too. Waiting too.

She takes a breath. She opens her mouth.

Just before the officers enter the restaurant, a flash goes off. The Polaroid slides out: Sandy, grinning, meat bits stuck between her teeth. Holding up the plate like a Nobel Prize. She finished the whole damn thing.

Even the baked potato.


Andrea Ruggirello’s stories, essays, and poetry have been published in Third Coast, The Baltimore Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Catapult, Day One, and other publications. She recently completed her MFA in fiction at West Virginia University. Born in Seoul and raised on Staten Island, Andrea currently lives in Washington, DC and is finishing a novel.

 

 

 

Image credit: Ursula Spaulding on Unsplash

WHILE THE IPHONE WAS IN RICE by Jennifer L. Hollis

WHILE THE IPHONE WAS IN RICE
by Jennifer L. Hollis

Waiting for a table at the diner, I won round after round of I Spy with my son. I spy with my little eye something green (the 7-11 sign across the street), something ephemeral (the time between now and when this boy will be too heavy to carry to bed), and also something getting truer (there is no silence left in this world).

I spy with my little eye the past, when a telephone was too big to fall in a toilet and the weighty plastic receiver could carry the cracking voice of a boy through a curling cord of wires, all the way from the wall of his kitchen two blocks away to the wall of my den. I spy possibility, when a real hammer inside a black plastic box hit a bell and I sprinted toward the ringing, yelling “Don’t pick up! It’s for me! IT’S FOR ME!”

Once the Internet told me to put my iPhone in rice, I was untethered. The phone sat silent in a sealed, rice-filled bag and the toilet water dripped out of the headphone jack, or evaporated into nothing, without any attention from me. While the iPhone was in rice, I became a citizen of childhood again. I rode my bike in circles in the driveway and pondered the cake for my tenth birthday party.

Now, seated at the diner, waiting to be served, I use a pen containing liquid ink to note the following phenomena: teenagers mocking one another, a dropped and unreachable fork, my temptation, (and its squelching) to hand a purse lifesaver to a toddler screaming “This toast is too brown!”

My son and my husband stare at their screens, but my thoughts stretch out like a cat waking up from a nap: I could start a podcast; I could volunteer to register new voters! Get a nose piercing? Maybe.

Catching my face in a mirrored diner wall, I spy with my little eye a girl who never learns. A girl, who, a few hours earlier, stood in the newly renovated powder room and watched, as the iPhone slipped from her fingers, her brain sizzling with the thought that yes, yes, the phone was going to splash into the unflushed toilet.

It’s gone, I thought with a rush of joy.  I’m free.

For a second, I watched it bob in the new glossy bowl. Then I reached into the cold water and fished it out.


Jennifer L. Hollis is a writer, music-thanatologist, and the author of Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain and Preparing the Passage. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other publications. She is working on a book about what she’s learned (and refuses to learn) from playing harp for people at the end of life. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can connect with her at JenniferHollis.com or @JenniferLHollis.

 

 

Image credit: Pixabay

THE MENSTRUAL CYCLE OF A GRIEVING WOMAN by Jennifer Todhunter

THE MENSTRUAL CYCLE OF A GRIEVING WOMAN
by Jennifer Todhunter

I lie on the couch wide awake, cramps gouging my uterus. In my stupor, I picture the trappings of a baby girl, her translucent skin, her nail-less fingers, her snake-coiled legs. She has Jake’s smile, I think, the way the edges of her lips twist up, the way her left cheek dimples. I wonder how her laugh sounds, if it comes from her belly like his.

I name the cramps Rita. She is unrelenting. I see her name in the dirt on the windows, in the grime on the floor of this house that is ours. I trace the letters with my pinky finger, wonder how her tiny fingers compare to mine, how tightly she could grip them. She is here, she is there, she is everywhere. Why won’t you join me? she asks. Don’t you want me? I picture cuddling up beside her, the softness of her hair, the freshness of her scent. I want you, I whisper from my cave of blankets on the couch. I want you, I want you, I want you.

I call my sister. We haven’t spoken since I told her about the accident. She says my voicemail is full, that she’s been worried. Her two children play in the background; their soft, small voices split me in half. My sister says she isn’t able to come out before Jake’s funeral next week, starts droning on about her unbreakable obligations, and I tell her it’s all right, it’s all right, but start crying anyway.

I say, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, and hang up the phone, but the tears won’t stop for the rest of the day. I cry through Jake’s drawer of t-shirts, through his bag of toiletries, through his box of ticket stubs under the bed. It’s like PMS, but infinitely worse. It’s like wishing you were dead, but you’re not.

I wake up with my period. Every trip to the bathroom reminds me there is no tangible piece left of Jake. No daughter. No son. I won’t recognize the curve of his features, the quirk of his mannerisms in our offspring.

Jake’s funeral is a sea of hats and jackets, the rain falling in sheets outside. I greet everyone as they arrive, listen to their anecdotes about Jake, accept their hugs, their kisses from cheek to cheek. By the time everyone is seated, my tampon is soaked through, blood pooling onto my nylons. I excuse myself to the washroom, sink to the floor and sob. My sister finds me, helps clean me up, hugs me like she used to when we stayed up late watching Friday night horror flicks. I don’t know what’s going on, I choke out mangled words, it’s never been this heavy before. Later, when I’m alone with Jake’s casket, I am struck by how young he looks. How young we both look. How his locker was next to mine when I got my first period.

My doctor refuses to schedule a hysterectomy. You are only thirty-two, she says. It is the grief, it will pass. She tells me to spend some time thinking about my decision, prescribes sleeping pills instead. I start with one, then two, then three. Then I dump the bottle and flush, sit on the toilet and bleed. It’s like my uterus is mocking me.

My next-door neighbor leaves a chicken pot pie on the doorstep and a note offering her condolences. We are so sorry, everyone keeps saying, we are so incredibly sorry, and I want to ask what they are sorry for. Nobody can apologize away an errant deer on a clear night, a mis-twisted steering wheel, a severed aorta.

I eat half the pot pie directly from its aluminum container. It is the first proper meal I’ve eaten since the police knocked on my door. I am thick and bloated, my stomach distended. I rub my paunch with my palm and close my eyes. This is as close to pregnant as I will ever be.


Jennifer Todhunter’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong QuarterlyNecessary FictionCHEAP POP, and elsewhere. She was named to Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2018, and is the Editor-in-Chief of Pidgeonholes. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_.

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Enoch Appiah Jr. on Unsplash

WATCHING PO-PO BREATHE by Andrew Chang

WATCHING PO-PO BREATHE
by Andrew Chang

My earliest memory of Po-Po is her cooking: the thick aroma of beef and bok choy wafting through our old kitchen, and the sight of her tightly permed hair through the steam gathering over the stovetop. After dinner, she would humor me as I tried to teach her English. I never had much success, but I remember her nodding and smiling along as I read my favorite picture books to her.

More recent memories present clearer, more focused images. I remember the thick hong-baos pressed into my hands at every Chinese New Year, and the weekly gifts of jung, with all the veggies I hated replaced by egg and sausage. I remember visiting Po-Po. She lives in the same house where she raised my mom, a white two-story building with a driveway, a basement, a small backyard, and stone steps that lead to the front door. Because I grew up in Manhattan, I remember that house as if it were a monument to some idealized dream of all-American suburbia—even though it’s just across the river from our apartment, and it’s in an Asian, urban community in Queens. Whenever my family visited, after offering us some food, Po-Po would always let me change the channel from her Cantonese soap operas to sports games she never understood.

That was one of our unspoken rituals. On the phone, our conversations were repetitive; we sent and returned the phrase “I love you” with the easy familiarity of a tennis rally. I would talk to her at holidays, and she would interject with “good boy” or “handsome boy” whenever I paused for breath. We never discussed her life. I learned all her important biographical details from secondhand stories: how she grew up in the Toisan region of China, how she became a teacher who was paid in bales of rice, how she fled to the mountains each morning to escape soldiers during the Japanese invasion. How she immigrated to the United States after the Communist Revolution in 1949, and how she raised six children on tomato soup and canned vegetables while Gung-Gung worked at the laundromat, how she sent each of those children to college and watched them achieve the American dream. I only learned that her marriage had been arranged when I was twenty-one.

Conversations about these topics never felt natural, especially when I was younger. Instead, we talked about school or how good her food tasted. In my mind, we always had next time for a proper, translated sit-down.

During the October of my senior year of college, my grandmother began to forget things: locations, recipes, names. She struggled to eat all her food, and she slept for most of the day. Although my family was concerned, we didn’t think there was any imminent risk. We thought these were just symptoms of old age. Even so, we transferred her to a hospital for official reassurance. I Skyped with her several times, planned a trip home to see her the following week. Life seemed to be moving forward. She’d return home soon, and the doctors would keep her healthy in the meantime.

Several days after Po-Po moved to the hospital, I received a phone call from my Dad: “You need to come back to New York. ASAP.”

Wait, what? I thought she was doing well?

 “You should see her this weekend, just in case.” Apparently, Po-Po was struggling to move her body or swallow food. She couldn’t keep her eyes open. My parents had planned to wait until I had finished a round of job interviews the next morning before telling me this information, but there was no telling how quickly Po-Po’s body might deteriorate.

The next evening, I boarded a train back to New York with my cousin Katherine. Even though we both attended the same college in Philadelphia, it was the only time we had coordinated to book the same train. Not because we weren’t close—we were. Katherine and I were born a day apart, and for a long time, we were Po-Po’s youngest grandchildren. We shared similar friend groups in high school, and even today, we spend most family holidays chatting together. In college, however, our lives had diverged: different classes, different friends, different interests. Aside from the occasional coffee or dinner, our lives were independent, as if we were just good friends. But when we saw each other at the train station that evening, I think we both understood how lucky we were to have family so nearby.

For most of the train ride, Katherine and I sat across from each other in silence. She tried to do some homework, typing away at the same line of code for an hour. I watched as city skylines turned into flat swamplands, and I waited for them to turn back again.

Po-Po was hospitalized on the Upper West Side—a convenient location for the New Yorkers in the family. Our family had two previous experiences with this hospital, when my grandfather was dying and when my cousin Kimberly gave birth, so my parents reassured me that Po-Po would receive excellent care. I, however, was too young to remember the prior and had happy memories from the latter, so I didn’t know what to expect from a somber hospital visit. When I arrived that evening, instead of trusting in the hospital’s top-notch technology and doctors, my mind latched onto gloomy institutional details: the empty beds being wheeled down monochromatic hallways or the repeated warnings to wash our hands and put on gloves and masks before entering Po-Po’s room.

Katherine and I watched our grandmother breathe. We focused on the folds in her hospital gown: up, down, up, down. Her arms were wrinkled and bruised, with bandages covering spots where she had ripped out IV tubes earlier that day. We each held one of Po-Po’s hands as our aunt from California gave us updates: Po-Po had slept for most of the day. The doctors didn’t know what the source of the problem was, but they were running tests. Tonight, there was nothing we could do. When I arrived home several hours later, Mom told me that, before she had been hospitalized, Po-Po asked if I was coming home to bring her flowers. I responded that we could bring some in the morning. “She probably wouldn’t notice,” Mom said, “but we can try.”

We visited the next day and the day after, murmuring “stay strong” and “I love you.” Even when Po-Po was awake, she didn’t seem to notice too much. Once, Mom told her that “Andrew is visiting all the way from college, Ma, isn’t that nice?” and she moved her head in what we deemed acknowledgment. We cheered, but the blank stare returned when prompted to acknowledge the presence of others (even her son and daughter), and she fell back asleep. I rotated between a chair on her right-hand bedside and a couch in the visitors’ room where I could nap when other family members visited. Eventually, Sunday evening came, and Katherine and I returned to Philadelphia; I had classes. Real life would resume in the morning.

I ignored the first phone call I received that Monday morning. It was 1 a.m., and I was sleep-deprived and half-delirious. I thought it must be a wrong number. Then the second call, from my cousin Mira, Katherine’s older sister.

“Andrew, call your parents. They need to get to the hospital now—no one’s picking up their phones; they must be sleeping, but Po-Po is dying.”

The next half-hour was a blur of ringing phones, my parents’ familiar voicemails, crumpled tissues blotted with tears. Eventually, my uncle drove to my parents’ apartment and called me from the lobby. In a jumbled stutter, I explained to my doorman that the angry man who had passed him the phone and was shouting at him was indeed family, and that he needed the spare keys to the apartment, now. They went upstairs, woke my parents up, and ten minutes later, my mom texted me that they were en route to the hospital.

Despite the urgency, having a goal had been reassuring: things would be okay if I could wake my parents. For thirty minutes, I had something to do, and therefore, some control. After my parents were awake and everyone local had arrived at the hospital, all I could do, once again, was wait.

I didn’t want to spend the night alone, so I walked across campus to Katherine’s house. We Skyped our parents, and they raised their phones to Po-Po’s better ear so we could tell her that we loved her so much, that we’d be back home soon, that she needed to see us graduate. Whenever one of us began to cry, the other would hold the phone away so Po-Po couldn’t hear. Family called in from California, Hawaii, and Hong Kong to encourage Po-Po to keep breathing. At one point, Mira told Po-Po that she needed to stay strong so that she could see all her grandchildren get married. Throughout the night, a ring of people surrounded her, their gloved hands reaching out to hold on.

Around 5 a.m., her heartbeat began to stabilize. It was soft, but consistent. A miracle, they said. It must have been all the positive energy. The adults allowed themselves to go to the bathroom or sit down, and they told us to sleep. I walked back to my house through a thin mist caused by overnight rain. I’ve never seen Philadelphia so quiet.

The doctors told us that Po-Po was dying two more times before they deemed emergency care unnecessary, although we never discovered the name of whatever disease had caused her so much pain. Since then, recovery has been a slow process. She spent two months in the hospital and four months in a rehab center before returning home. Home looks different now, too. My parents and uncle renovated it to be wheelchair accessible: the familiar carpeting has been replaced by smooth wood paneling, and there are metal handlebars in every bathroom. Meanwhile, Po-Po has had to relearn how to move, eat, write, and talk, and she now requires a live-in nurse to care for her. She might never cook or bow with me in front of Gung-Gung’s portrait again. And I don’t know if we’ll ever have that sit-down I imagined.

I wish there were more time. But we’re living moment to moment, and it’s working. We celebrated Christmas in the hospital, and she laughed at the cartoon deer on my Christmas sweater. When she was in rehab, I watched her relearn how to walk. She stepped forward, clutching her walker, and I pushed a wheelchair two steps behind her in case she needed support. Our steps fell in sync, and even when I offered her a chance to rest, she kept moving forward. She’s even been asking me questions about my future; I think she’s excited for my graduation.

Several days before she was released from the rehab center, our family celebrated Po-Po’s ninetieth birthday at my uncle’s apartment. Four generations of family were present, including people I had never even met before. On one table in the main dining room, we had placed gold balloons and framed pictures of Po-Po: in her youth, with her grandchildren, on vacation. On the table adjacent was a feast of food, most of which Po-Po can no longer eat: four cakes, her favorite noodles, fried rice, and a roasted baby pig that one of my cousins had topped with a party hat. Throughout the evening, my family swarmed the guest of honor. When she first arrived, the family surrounded her in on both sides, forming lines to pat her back or hold her hand that served as a parade route to the center of the dinner table. We took photos with Po-Po in every possible combination, with flashes popping from the parents’ bulky SLRs, our pastor’s handheld camcorder, and each of the grandchildren’s cellphones. At one point, to break up the monotony, Po-Po motioned for us to place the baby pig in front of her as a new centerpiece for the doting paparazzi. As the night progressed, we slowly eased our way back into a sense of normalcy, and for the first time in months, our conversations drifted away from present concerns.

My aunt had brought several photo albums over from the house in Queens, and during one break in the evening, I discovered photos I’d never seen before. I saw my aunts holding mini boomboxes as teenagers, my uncles eating ice cream in the park nearby Po-Po’s, Mom laughing as a baby. In one photo, Po-Po is standing in an elegant black dress on a rock in Central Park, her arms tight around her youngest children. Her gaze looks straight through the photo, and the moment freezes just as she begins to smile.

I visited Po-Po the next day, and I told her how good she looked in the photo. Before translating my words, Mom told me that Po-Po had loved to dress up and take her kids on adventures after church on Sundays. She retold the story in Cantonese, and Po-Po nodded, and said “I love you,” and smiled. Po-Po’s smile reminds me of her age: she keeps her mouth open, and she curls her lips loosely around her teeth, and for a moment, her eyes will go blank as if she’s remembering something from her life before me. But that afternoon, as I squeezed her hand, she looked exactly as she must have on that Sunday afternoon, just before the camera shutter clicked and her kids ran off into the fields.

Author’s Note: Some names have been changed by the author to protect identities.


Andrew Chang recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he fell in love with Philadelphia. He enjoys writing about family and travel, and he is an avid sports fan. Originally a proud New York City native, Andrew currently resides in Washington, DC.

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Pixabay

LADIES. by Virginia Marshall

LADIES.
by Virginia Marshall

I wonder at the little dead lady on my carpet. I found her as I was picking up tissues from the floor of my bedroom, underneath the bed, lying on her back like a lentil. I had an urge to put her in my mouth, but then I remembered that she must be the same one that was crawling around my room in September. I had identified with the little lady, indecisively flitting around the room, landing on the white plastic blinds, walking along there for a while until she came to what she thought was the end of the earth, and beyond that the buttery yellow fabric of my curtains: heaven, for a bug.

Ladybugs are a godsend—they were given to the poor peasants of Europe in the Middle Ages who prayed to the Virgin Mary to save their crops from a tiny, voracious pestilence. It is true that occasionally her leg joints sweat blood, and poisonous chemicals make up nearly a quarter of her weight. Yet, to humans, a lady is adorable. It is something about her coloring, and the perfect polka dots. She is made into plush toys and children’s backpacks. She brings good luck. Ladies titter: Can you imagine a child with a stuffed animal spider? Or a fruit fly? Ladies cover their voracious mouths with their segmented feet when they laugh. She is so inoffensive (silent, beneficial), she’s not really an insect at all. In Romania they call her the pope’s ox; in Lithuania she is God’s little cow; in England she is ladybird; in America she has been stripped right down to bug.

Ladies are carnivores. Protruding from the front of their heads are two enormous teeth, the mandibles, which cut and chew. Around their mouths are small fingers that grab at the chewed food and coax it into their mouths. Ladies can eat about fifty aphids a day. They are ravenous from the beginning. When they hatch out of their eggs they are orange and black blobs, spiny and gross. Without spots, the bulbous little things are directionless eating machines. Infant ladies will even eat their sisters for the sake of growing, one day, into big, strong, spotted beetles.

Ladies mate in a fashion that is deemed “highly promiscuous.” Out among the lush pines, they will procreate, the female lady holding onto the sperm of several different male ladies at once, mating ten times more than what is scientifically necessary to ensure offspring survival. Many paragraphs in entomological encyclopedias are devoted to musing on the duration of the ladybug’s lovemaking: it can last up to two hours per couple, much, much too indulgent for a pretty worker bug, the pale entomologists say. Ladies even contract STDs, which further validates the scientists’ righteousness. Cluck, cluck, cluck, the self-satisfied tut. If she would just keep her skirt down, her many legs crossed, she wouldn’t have done herself in.

There are over five thousand kinds of ladies. Some have seven spots, some nine or even twenty, and some are spotless. It was the nine-spotted lady that New York state decided to name their state insect in 1989. Several years later, she was declared gone, departed from the state. When scientists failed to find any living nine-spotted ladies, they hesitated; they feared she had gone extinct. Their theory was that either the invasion of the seven-spotted clan, brought from Europe to the states in the 1950s to gorge on aphids, or the introduction of the Asian lady beetle, released in droves in the ’80s by the US government in order to save the crops (organically! pesticide-weary politicians sputtered) and save the people, had out-eaten the native nine-spotters. Human folly, the classic blundering of bureaucracies, had perhaps killed her. In embarrassment, a bill was proposed to change the state insect. How about a nice pink-spotted ladybug instead? The bill failed. Five years later, in July, a nine-spotted lady was captured (phew) on a farm in Long Island, escaping the hot summer sun among the leafy carrot plants. (She also enjoyed zinnias.) New York abandoned plans to change their state insect, now that there was at least one still living. What luck.

The words “Lucky You” are written on the inside of my crotch zipper, plain for all to see—all, which is just me, the only person I let unzip my Lucky brand jeans these days. “Lucky you,” I will say, as I look out of the bathroom window at the parking lot and the factory that wails four times a day. Why does it wail and for whom? Truthfully, I was charmed by my solitary lady, the one I found in my house. She was checking out my room as if to see where I keep my makeup, my underwear, other practical things. Alone, she was harmless. Alone, she was like me: wandering, waiting, not getting in anyone’s way.

Last winter, Grandma got lost in the house. She came wandering into the room where I had been napping. She was looking for the bathroom and couldn’t find her own bedroom or the bathroom, even though that’s where I had left her half an hour before. So, I showed her to the bathroom and tried not to doze off, thinking to catch her when she came out and walk her back to the room where she was staying. After a while I couldn’t hear anything. I knocked on the door; no answer. She wasn’t inside, must have gone out the bathroom’s other door. I walked around the house, calling for her. Could she have wandered into the street? The pool in the backyard could look like solid ground to a grandma. I walked through the living room, the kitchen, out into the garage house, peered into Grandma’s room and came back, calling her name, a bit louder each time. I found her, finally, sitting on my cousin’s bed with her feet in their sheer black nylons propped up on the bed. She hadn’t heard my voice, but finding herself lost, she had decided to rest there until someone came for her. “I thought you would find me,” she said when I asked what had happened.

I walked her back through the living room. “What are the black things on the floor?” she asked. I told her they were part of the wood. “I thought they might be cat droppings,” she said, stepping around each spot carefully. In the kitchen, she said, “Oh yes, I’ve been here before.” Her eyes were bright green and milky. Walking out of the house and into the garage house, she said, “Now, this is new, we haven’t been here,” though that is where she had been before she wandered off. I showed her back to her room. “Oh, this is lovely, I didn’t know this was here.”

In the Midwest, where I live now, ladies flounce into homes, walk right between the cracks in doors. They come as families, parties, coworkers, friends and set about finding a good temperature for sleep. “Aw,” humans say when they see one or two ladies marching in like saints. “You can stay a while. My home is your home.” Ladies will check out the bathtub, admire the porcelain in an old cupboard. They love a good photograph and picture frames are even better, so sleek and straight, like a good pine. They wander; their heads are too little to get the full map of the house, so each time they walk up and down and up and down the legs of the desk, it is new and wonderful once more.

But as soon as there’s a crowd of ladies, numbers above five or six, they become pests. I have heard of this happening, have seen evidence of it online. The main damage is discomfort, says one website, describing a family that found swarms of ladies congregating in their attic. Together, they are threatening. Togetherness accentuates their many crawling legs, their segmented heads, and if they get a chance to crawl on your arm hairs, they’ll give you chills.

When ladies march indoors, it’s the vacuum for them or the balled-up paper towel that, when it brushes them, makes the ladies bleed reflexively. Not red blood, but a toxic orange that leaves stains on walls. And oh, the stink of it, when they bleed: like nuts, green pepper, potato and mold. The lady has irreversibly—maliciously, some might say—marked her presence in a space not made for her kind, no matter that the bleeding is natural, no fault of her own. “You need to leave now,” humans will say. “You’ve really gone too far.” Once there is an element of disgust, everything else is easier. Take away their personable noms de plume, their cute polka-dotted coveralls, and it’s easier to close the door in their faces.

Once ladies have reached young adulthood, they enter a torpor so deep they appear dead. They are scheduled to awake come spring and unfurl their ingenious wings to test their complicated origami. Up in the mountains, ladies hibernate in colonies, piled on top of each other by the tens of thousands for warmth. They are in their imaginal stage, young adults sleeping for months, perhaps dreaming, outer casings more orange than red, bodies tender.

Every year in California, hordes of ladies—the two-spotted, the seven-spotted, the eleven-, thirteen-, and fourteen-spotted, the Australian, the Asian, the transverse, the twice-stabbed—are captured in their sleep. Gloved hands collect the still-snoozing ladies, shovel them into buckets and bags, some still clinging to pine needles like security blankets or eerie, elongated teddy bears. A ladybug poacher can earn one or two thousand dollars for a day’s work, selling the ladies to organic pest control companies who will divide the colony further into individual Tupperware with tiny holes on top and instructions for refrigeration. Torpor can be extended two to three months by keeping them in the fridge, next to the cheese, spraying them with water to keep them hydrated through the long, fake winter.

On Amazon, you can buy 1,500 ladybugs in a mesh pouch for $7.50, and an organic pest control website sells them by the gallon, about 70,000 ladybugs at a deal of $150.00, or by the quart, for $43.00. They come in their drowsy imaginal stage and when warmed to outdoor spring temps will mate and lay like good citizens, their tubular larvae children consuming and consuming like the good Lord taught them.

Every year, a class of Minnesotan third graders is given bags of captured ladybugs to release in the Mall of America, for Earth Day. Seventy-five thousand ladybugs crawl over the leaves and hair and hands of plants and children. The kiddos shudder and squirm, whimpering like the toddlers they used to be. Cameramen follow them, asking questions. The kids flick their eyes from side to side, Can I say they’re gross? they think. One girl has a bit of a spasm, trying to get her last ladybug out of a plastic pail with a little shovel, shaking her hand too vigorously, barely managing to hold back a moan. Another boy shakes his gloved, lady-covered hand as if it is no longer part of his body, trying to rid himself of the final few ladies. In the background of the announcer’s jaunty report—They’re organic! Saving the plants from pests! Saving the shoppers! Saving capitalism!—kids are squealing.

On the coast of England in 1976, ladies made themselves into a plague. There were millions of them, and they descended like locusts. They crawled into open mouths; they piled themselves four ladies deep onto the sides of barns. In the swimming pools, during that hot seaside summer, ladies lay an inch thick between the abandoned floaties and pool noodles. Hungry, and drawn to the sweat of people, they attacked, latching onto skirts and braids and then nibbling when they reached flesh. (They lost interest, once they tasted our sour skin.) Perhaps it was the heat or the drought, or perhaps it was the excess grain grown that year. Whatever the reason, ladies dominated and people fled, abandoning their vacations early, zooming out of town with the kids in the back seat mourning the ice cream cones they couldn’t eat because the ladies beat them to it, slipping and slurping with glee.

I have seen pictures of these swarms and felt my skin crawl. Even the poaching of them makes my stomach queasy. Though I love little ladies when they crawl alone, or smack distractedly into my bare shoulders in the summer months, ladies in crowds are suddenly not so pretty, not so human when they are gathered like this, like vermin, all individuality lost. I, too, am disgusted.

“Ew, so gross!” read the message some awful girl in high school sent to me years ago, and a link to a video, which I clicked. It was footage from the redhead convention in the Netherlands, where thousands of red-headed people, mostly women (ladies like to group), gathered for the sake of being a sight to see. A revulsion at myself, at the swarming crowd of women with flames on their heads, grew inside me. I did not like to see myself represented en masse. Gathered like that, the women were exaggerations of me, Ginger upon Ginger upon Ginger. We were making a spectacle of ourselves. Shh shh shut up.

“Haha,” I sent back. Did the awful girl want me to laugh? I wondered what part of this was funny. I watched the ladies in the video laughing with each other, holding their hands up and yelling. Why do they wail, and for whom?

What is a lady? A lady is a person who eats other ladies in order to grow; frightening (powerful) when she is with her kind; a bug whose power is only in her head; a pest programmed to group, to make walls around her people, to divide among her own kind (the two-spotted, the seven-spotted, the eleven-, thirteen-, and fourteen-spotted, the Australian, the Asian, the transverse, the twice-stabbed). I’ll bet you never knew that ladies are cannibals. I’ll bet their prettiness distracted you.

I know the little lady on my carpet crawled in as soon as she felt the chill coming, to save her skin. She had led a life of consumption, of swarming and grabbing what warmth she could get when the wind picked up. This lady escaped the swarm, and I admire her for it. Perhaps she did not want to be with sisters who might eat her, or perhaps she did not look the part. Perhaps she saw through. I let her stay on my carpet, belly up, for a few days. Then when I was cleaning, I scooped her into the trash with the tissues. A dead lady is no use to me. It was only later, in a moment of clarity, that I realized I had no way of knowing if she really was dead. She could have just been sleeping, frozen in her torpor state, bound by biology to stay. I checked the chat groups online, and they all said to wait, be patient, she may yet awake and fly off.

I have taken her out of the trash. We’ll see, I suppose; I’m still waiting. If she does wake up, when the warm weather comes, I know what she’ll do. I know her like I know myself. Ladies have agendas of their own. You can try to put her to work in your garden. You can try to make her stay, spray her with Coca-Cola and water to glue her wings shut so she cannot fly to another garden, only walk down the green stems eating critters on the way. She will be tethered for a little while, just until the sugar melts and she’s eaten a few aphids, enough to get her blood flowing and wings stretching and then (oh, then), she will split apart her back, unfold those too-big wings, and go.


Virginia Marshall is a writer and radio producer. Her work can be read and/or heard in The Harvard Review, Atlas Obscura, The Millions, Brevity, and on WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station.

 

 

 

 

Image credit:  Janice Gill on Unsplash

CREATIVITY SCHOOL by Jeff H.

CREATIVITY SCHOOL
by Jeff H.

Maxwell transferred from Merkel Prep to Geisel High and his first quiz was impossible: “If Ms. Bedelia has five eggs but then cooks one, how many elephants can the circle square?”

How am I supposed to know that? Maxwell thought. He didn’t go to Escher Middle School or the Dalí Institute like the rest of them. He hadn’t learned underivatives or nonce poetry or taken any anti-rhetoric! Frustrated, Maxwell scrawled “Why don’t marshmallows have bones?!” for the first question, and for all the rest he drew faces with tongues sticking out.

The next day Mr. Carroll handed back work. Maxwell didn’t turn over his quiz immediately—he was sure he’d failed, just like he’d failed to synthesize flubber and polywater in his alchemy class.

But eventually, curiosity got the best of him. He flipped the paper and lo and behold! There was an infinity symbol at the top of his quiz, and below it, “Your work is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!”

A torus-shaped lightbulb went off above Maxwell’s head. Well… maybe he’d learn to fit in after all.


Jeff H. is a high school English teacher. His short fiction has been published in The Drabble, Eunoia Review, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. He runs Batch & Narrative with his wife, a dietitian. They write about cooking, writing, and everything else.

 

 

 

Image credit: Pixabay

 

MY HUSBAND IS ALWAYS LOSING THINGS by Michelle Ross  

 

MY HUSBAND IS ALWAYS LOSING THINGS
by Michelle Ross

While my husband frantically searches the house for his misplaced eyeglasses, I watch Marie Kondo fold socks, then stockings, then a sweater into neat little rectangles. They look like origami handbags. In her signature white jacket, the Japanese tidying expert instructs viewers to stroke each garment. She says, “Send the clothing love through your palms.” She runs her hands gently down both the sleeves and the body of a fluffy, white sweater, and my skin tingles.

My husband passes through the living room for the fifth time this search. He says, “You sure you didn’t move them?”

Sometimes he’ll point to an empty spot on a counter and say, “I know I left it right there.” “Then why isn’t it there?” I’ll say. Sometimes he’ll say, “Because you moved it.” Other times, “Because you took it.” Then I’ll say, “Why do you think I took it?” He never has an answer for that.

Once I said, “Then come take it back.” I was standing in the doorway to his home office in a dress I hadn’t worn in years, a dress I’d decided to make myself wear, even if only to lounge about the house, because I had read that it’s a mistake to save our favorite clothing for special occasions that never arrive. I imagined him frisking me for the lost object, like a TSA agent searching for contraband. But my husband didn’t look up, kept shuffling around papers, emptying out boxes.

I used to find his tendency to lose things amusing; then I found it irritating; now it mostly makes me sad. Like when he lost the rack of lamb I asked him to pick up from the butcher, and I found the five pounds of muscle and bone sweating on the floorboard of the passenger side of the car. He couldn’t blame me for that one. After putting the lamb in a plastic trash bag and dropping it into the garbage, he said, “Don’t look at me like that. It was an accident. You want me to go out and pick up another?” “No,” I said. I’d lost my appetite.

To get your house in order, the first thing to do is to discard, Kondo says. Take every object into your hands and ask, “Does this spark joy?”

I stiffen at these words. It’s a harsh test, isn’t it? Joy isn’t the only measure of value.

Take wood chips, for example. For years, they’ve accumulated on the floor of our garage at the rate of dog hair. But when my husband sprinkled them over the puddle of oil that leaked from the car, and they soaked up the mess, left no stain, I was half-grateful he’d not cleaned the garage in twenty years.

Kondo says that this is why stroking and folding clothing is important. It isn’t only a matter of caring for your things. Touch allows you to assess how you truly feel about each item.

I call out to my husband, “They’re not already on your face?” I am not joking. He has ransacked the house for objects that were already on his person—in his pocket, around his neck, in his hand.

Kondo demonstrates with two sweaters. She caresses the first sweater, smiles, places it down beside her. She caresses the second sweater, and the cool look on her face says the item does not pass inspection. I think of the scoliosis screenings at school when I was a kid, how every time a PE teacher told me to bend at the waist so she could scrutinize my spine, I tensed up, certain the test would reveal some defection.

Kondo doesn’t offer a word about why the second sweater doesn’t pass the test. She says to listen to your intuition when deciding what to discard. Rationalization deceives. You rationalize that discarding an object is wasteful or that you might need it again someday. Of the second sweater, she says, “I want to thank this for keeping me warm, but now it’s time to let it go.” She places the sweater apart from the sweater she’s keeping. She smiles again, her expression serene.

After discarding, the next step is to assign a home to each object you keep. Value what cannot be seen on the outside, Kondo says, meaning the insides of closets, cabinets and drawers. What is hidden from public view is all the more sacred.

I think about how my friend Sara worried when her doctor scheduled her for an MRI to diagnose the source of her back pain. Not just because of the invasiveness of the procedure or concern for what the doctor might find. Sara worried there might be metal inside her that she didn’t know about. “How can I be sure there isn’t?” she said. What could I possibly say to assure her? The body is an unopened drawer.

Except when it is opened, by surgeons, and you are out cold as they root around inside you. Or when MRI technicians or X-ray technicians or TSA agents scan your insides—yet another piece of luggage.

Sometimes I wish I could see inside my husband. Peel back the skin and muscle, cut through the bone. Reveal the hidden spaces. Only the clutter might be worse than I imagine. I fear what I might find there, or not find. Would I be able to locate myself at all?


Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared in New World Writing, Passages North, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor for Atticus Reviewwww.michellenross.com

 

 

 

Image credit: Keilidh Ewan on Unsplash

MINDSCAPES: Photographs by Denise Gallagher

Everyman Gazes into the Future. Rovinj, Croatia 2017

MINDSCAPES
Photographs by Denise Gallagher

I consider myself a painter who photographs. I had given up on painting about ten years ago since I didn’t feel I could authentically express what was mine to express. Then, about eight years ago, I fell into photographing what I came to call my “magical landscapes.” These images came almost effortlessly and opened up worlds I never imagined. I credit this experience with giving me the courage to explore the real world. During the last five years, I have traveled around the world twice for extended periods of time. I tend to perceive now that most every landscape has the potential to be a magical landscape, given the right lighting and composition.

When I travel, I love to simply wander, to experience a place with no agenda, simply to be available to receive the beauty of the moment. It is an open and receptive state and, in a way, capturing the image is just part of the process of relaxing and seeing 180 degrees. I’ve heard there are books on the zen of photography. I would say I fell into it naturally.

I’m from Philadelphia but I currently live in Fairfield, Iowa. When I return to Iowa after traveling, I create “Ritual Art Events” which I show at our local art gallery. At these evenings, I interweave short films I have created with my images, using transitions and movement (à la Ken Burns), spoken word, and soundscapes. One of my latest films combines the real with the imaginary magical landscapes. Having the imagery projected large, merging with other images and set to music, feels closest to what I consider my authentic voice.

[ click any image to enlarge ]

Magical Morning in Val D’Orcia. Tuscany, Italy 2016

Walking In the Shire Near Bishop’s Castle. Shropshire, England 2017

Fall Magic Near Lake Pukaki. Canterbury, New Zealand 2013

Morning Comes Over Me. Glass House Mountains, Australia 2017

Solitary Woman. Lembongan, Bali 2017

Lightly Tethered in Lembongan. Lembongan, Bali 2017

Arabian Sunset. My Kitchen, Fairfield, Iowa 2015

Holding the Fallen Angel. My Kitchen, Fairfield, Iowa 2017

You Never Can Tell. My Kitchen, Fairfield, Iowa 2014

 


Denise Gallagher is a photographer/painter, occupational therapist, and world traveler, currently living in Fairfield, Iowa. She has exhibited her paintings and photography extensively in one-woman and group shows, and has produced ritual art events at ICON Contemporary Art Gallery in Fairfield and also, on a smaller scale, as she travels. She believes her therapy work and art work are intimately connected, one informing the other. Denise received a BS in Art Ed from Temple in 1979, including a year at Tyler Rome, and went on to receive an OT degree from Jefferson College of Allied Health in 1986. Denise has traveled around the world twice during the last five years, photographing daily. This past year she did volunteer work with Syrian refugees in Greece and taught Tai Chi in Bali. Visit her website at www.denise-healer-artist.com

PENIS ENVY by Susan Celia Greenfield

PENIS ENVY
by Susan Celia Greenfield

“Daddy, can I watch you make?”

I was following my father down our long hallway to the bathroom, pulling the cord of my toy telephone behind me. It was an old-fashioned rotary kind, with plastic wheels, a red handle, and big ogling eyes.

“Absolutely not!” He slammed the bathroom door in my face. A long, forceful stream of urine rang into the toilet bowl.

As soon as my father re-emerged I tugged at his pants. “Why can’t I see you urinate?” I pronounced the word carefully, emphasizing the your sound, hoping my adult lexicon would influence him.

“Stop it.” My father pushed me away, accidentally kicking my toy telephone. When I started wailing, my mother appeared at the end of the hallway, her brown curly hair in a high ponytail. I thought she was so beautiful.

“Daddy is mean. He won’t let me see his vagina!”

At this, my parents burst into laughter. “Oh dear,” my mother said. “Daddy doesn’t have a vagina.”

“What? You don’t have a special thing like me and Mommy?”

“Oh, I have a special thing all right.” My father winked at my mother. “If you could only see it you would want one too.”

“That’s not true!” I screamed, and ran down the hallway. When I reached the end, I saw my toy telephone lying on its side where my father had kicked it, staring at me with its great, knowing eyes.

Twelve years later, I recounted this story to my first shrink. In the well-populated world of suburban New York psychiatrists, Dr. William Coulson was an exotic specimen. Not only was he tall, sandy-haired and impossibly handsome, he was also not Jewish like every other psychiatrist I’d ever heard of, including the one my mother had to see after her nervous breakdown.

Neither were the jocks and debutantes at Thornton Academy, my new private high school. I felt out of place as soon as I arrived—too short, too frizzy-haired, and too buxom. My only friends were Christina Alvarez, a Peruvian scholarship student, and Sarah Frede, the anorexic daughter of a neglectful millionaire. In the locker room, the beautiful girls laughed when we changed into our gym clothes. The lacrosse players barked, “Woof, Woof!” when we passed them in the school hallway.

Christina looked away but Sarah hung her head and sniffed. “They think we’re dogs.”

In bed I couldn’t sleep, plagued by the memory of the terrible barking boys. If one of them really knew me, maybe he would like me and plunge his tongue into my mouth. But the boy I imagined began howling. I could see his lips widen, his teeth like sharpened knives. I’d heard a story on the news about a rapist in Manhattan who was breaking into women’s apartments and slashing their throats with a carving knife. As p.m. turned to a.m. on my digital clock radio, I thought about my mother’s carving knife in the kitchen, the same knife our housekeeper, Ana, used when making my family’s dinner. I thought about sneaking downstairs and slashing my throat.

Each morning I woke up with bone-crushing headaches, in too much pain to go to school. The pediatrician declared my symptoms psychosomatic and recommended Dr. Coulson, the best adolescent psychiatrist he knew. A few days later, Ana deposited me on the back doorstep of his home office. In the yard, a towheaded boy and girl frolicked with a big golden retriever.

“That cannot be true,” Dr. Coulson said, echoing my words in the urination story. I had happened upon it in describing when I first started hating my father.

“I know! Can you believe his idiocy? I mean, why would any girl want that thing anywhere near her body? The first time I ever saw a . . . a . . . a boy’s privates at nursery school, I thought there was something wrong with him.”

Though I hadn’t intended this as a joke, Dr. Coulson laughed. “And that’s not true either.”

Either? Inside my throat, a small hard knot began to tighten. “Wait—you mean you don’t believe me about my father?”

“It’s a fantasy. He never said anything of the sort!”

Although this was taking place in the eighties, Dr. Coulson still adhered to a strictly Freudian protocol. At his insistence, I had agreed to lie on his hard, orange couch, a box of tissues wedged between my knees, my back towards him like a true analysand. All I could see was a framed poster of van Gogh’s Starry Night. Behind me and out of sight, Dr. Coulson could peruse my whole body. It warmed me with shame how much I liked this.

Now I sat up. “Yes he did!” I couldn’t believe my psychiatrist was siding with my father.

“You’re unconsciously distorting his words.”

“Did you hear them? Were you there?”

“No, of course not. But this is a classic case of penis envy.”

I smacked the couch in disbelief. “I just told you those . . . those . . . things were, are disgusting!” Not that I’d had much occasion to view that particular body part since nursery school.

“Your disgust is really anger. Girls are often angry about their lack of a penis.”

“But that was my father’s fantasy!”

“I think you are projecting your own desires on to him. You probably blame your mother for that.”

“My mother?”

“For depriving you of a penis. That’s what daughters do. And they hate their mothers for it.”

The idea of blaming my mother was so ludicrous I actually snorted. “But I hate my father, not my mother. I just finished telling you that!”

“The daughter’s hatred is unconscious. It is very well known.”

“How could something unconscious be well known?”

“You’ve proven its truth by your very denial.”

The orange couch, my dirty socks, the swirling blue and yellow strokes of van Gogh’s Starry Night began to blur and drip. “But I adore my mother! Don’t you understand? When she had her breakdown, I thought she would die!”

At the memory of those wretched months, I curled my knees to my chest and clutched my stomach. Sobbing, I searched blindly for the tissues I had been hoping to avoid. My head pounded with the familiar pain of sleeplessness.

When Dr. Coulson finally spoke, his voice was softer, kinder, as if he wanted to break the next piece of news to me as gently as possible. “Perhaps you wanted your mother to die. Then you could have your father’s penis all to yourself.”

That did it! I stood up and stared straight into the gray eyes of my handsome first psychiatrist. “You’re a fucking idiot, you know that?”

Never before had I sworn at an adult and the biting pressure of the F sound resonated thrillingly on my bottom lip. I hurled my snot filled tissues into his lap, where they bounced a little on the small white notepad covering the very organ that had prompted all this misery. Sitting back in his leather armchair, his striped tie comfortably loosened, Dr. Coulson showed no emotion besides a surprised arch of one eyebrow, half covered by his longish hair.

His smug self-assurance, his condescending placidity, threatened a new round of tears. But this time, I was goddamn sure not going to let him see them. I swallowed the mucus that had dripped down my throat, stuffed my feet into my docksiders, and walked proudly out of his office, slamming the door behind me with all the violence I could muster. In the waiting room I grabbed my coat off the rack and marched down the short, carpeted hallway to the final exit.

It was early. Ana would not be waiting in the driveway, the motor idling, her eyes fixed blankly out the windshield. That was okay. I would simply walk all the way home by myself. When I finally arrived it would be so late and my parents would be so grateful to see me alive that they would accept my refusal to ever return to Dr. Coulson. Even my father wouldn’t yell. With a sense of victory, I swung open the door.

In charged the big golden retriever, who had somehow managed to get locked out of the house and was waiting anxiously in the driveway. Before I could even step outside, he leapt on me, pawing my throat and barking furiously, as if in some strange perversion of the actual events, I was trying to break into and enter the house instead of leave it. I dropped my coat and screamed, shaking my face against the dog’s thick spray of spit.

Dr. Coulson came running towards me. “Down, Brandy. Get off her!” He grabbed my bare wrist with one hand, the dog’s collar with the other, pushing the animal behind him.

“Are you okay? Did he hurt you?” My doctor’s mouth was so close I could smell his coffee breath. He pressed me against the wall, staring at me fixedly. I’m sure he was terrified about a lawsuit, but his eyes were so fervent, his hand so warm that a hot shock of desire seized my gut. I felt my entire body slacken, as if all I had ever wanted in my whole life was for this man to sweep me off my feet, rush me back to his orange couch, and rid me of my suddenly burdensome virginity.

Behind his back, the dog bounced impatiently and whined. Dr. Coulson released my wrist. “Wait right here,” he ordered, exiting with the dog while I stood still as a stone.

When he returned, Dr. Coulson swept his hand across his hair, then tightened his tie and stretched his neck. He nodded to my coat splayed like a corpse on the carpet. “How about picking that up and returning to my office.”

Without giving me a second look, he walked past me. I followed behind, hung my coat on the rack, and lay back down on the hard orange couch. Dr. Coulson closed the office door.

From this day forward, I rarely had insomnia or another migraine. That very night I began fantasizing about Dr. Coulson and masturbating like crazy. Whereas before, I was up at all hours thinking about the barking boys and the Manhattan slasher, now I lay in bed plunging my fingers and various household objects (a candlestick, a cucumber, the handle of one of my mother’s largish paint brushes) between my thighs, thinking about how maybe one day, the doctor would slam down his little notepad and rush from his leather armchair to the couch. “I can’t stand it anymore, my darling!” Down, down his face would come, his lips on my mouth, on my throat, in my cleavage. In one fell swoop he’d wrench my panties off my ankles and open my thighs like a big fat book. “Here,” Dr. Coulson would say, putting my hand on his gray flannel crotch. And though I had no idea what to expect, though neither the male nude my mother once painted nor the drawings in my biology textbooks had featured an erection, I would fearlessly unbuckle my first shrink’s black belt, unzip the crotch of his gray flannel pants, and free his mysterious penis from his fly. Whatever it looked like—a bottle top, a pepper grinder, a monstrously large snail head—I would pull it on top of me and thrust it in and out, softly at first and then harder and harder, my doctor’s heavy breathing mixing with his husky grunts: “I don’t love my wife”—in and out, grunt, grunt—“I love you”— grunt, grunt, in and out—“And your fabulous vagina, because”—in and out, grunt, grunt—“I always wished I had one!” Alone in bed, I came and came and came until I was so thoroughly exhausted I had no choice but to fall asleep. In the mornings, I awoke well-rested and migraine-free.

Within a few months, I found new friends at Thornton and my grades improved. My parents praised the good doctor and he raised his rates. And session after session, I faithfully reported all my fantasies, while Dr. William Coulson sat in his leather armchair, always out of sight.


Susan Celia Greenfield received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania and teaches literature at Fordham University in Bronx, NY. Her fiction has appeared in several journals, including Cimarron Review, Literary Mama, and The Stockholm Review of Literature. She is the author of a monograph about mother-daughter relationships in novels by women, and editor of the forthcoming book, Sacred Shelter: Thirteen Journeys of Homelessness and Healing. She is currently working on a novel.

 

 

Image credit: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

THUNDER IN THE RAINDROP by Samuel Lieb

THUNDER IN THE RAINDROP
by Samuel Lieb

A police siren echoes through the valley as a yellow bird I’ve never seen before glides into view from behind the mountaintops. The bird makes a sharp outline against the blue sky as it floats downward in loose, lazy zig-zags, almost too close to the treeline. A wing catches on a branch, causing it to lose balance, and the bird falls beak-first toward the fertile soil with a startled cheep, tumbling round and round and round. But it wasn’t so much a valley as it was a cement retaining wall, and the yellow bird was really more of an off-white ford explorer with my brother in the driver’s seat, his veins made of Jack Daniels. His head was like the smattering of red wildflowers on the hillside, or the rusty clay deposit down at the bottom of the valley near the meandering river. The river whooshes and gurgles and a fox runs through it, barely wetting its fur, although if I’m being honest, the river-sounds are what my brother’s slick throat made and the fox was a little like his girlfriend—she grabbed the the baggy and the gun from the glove compartment and climbed over his body to the only working door. She turned to look at me sitting there in the back with my seatbelt still on. Her eyes were desperate, and wet. So I guess she was also like the river. But I was the white oak tree way up at the top of the ridge, ants tickling my trunk and my throat, my great roots buried deep into the earth waiting to suck up all the water from the coming storm. A siren echoes through the valley and over the river; a siren passes between my green green leaves.


Samuel Lieb is an undergraduate student of Hispanic Studies and Environmental Studies at Brandeis University. He was raised in Omaha, Nebraska and feels that conscientious small-scale farming is the way to a more sustainable future. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in Unbroken Journal and Cleaver Magazine.

 

 

 

Image credit: Pixabay

QUESTIONS OF CURRENT ATMOSPHERE by Caroline J. Davidson

QUESTIONS OF CURRENT ATMOSPHERE
by Caroline J. Davidson

………………………“But we have not yet reached the fervor of dark eyes and our setting is blue.”
…………………………………………………………………………………—H.D.

Then it’s three years since—since displacement
……………………then it’s flesh on
………..foil and planks spilling out oilcloth
remnants—then we are formless,
………..but choosing berries wisely on the dirt
strand watching a man carve nipples out of
………..cypress—watching him swell—

The Venus of Willendorf passed through here
………..two years ago on a whim
before she was buttoned up
………..at the belly and said well it has
always been today we are always
………..getting older under
suspension bridges, doomed
………………….cities, and fish grow at a rate
………..that increases with time always
you say to me as we now sit
………..on the lowest cathedral step choking
down wine pushing threads through
………..our wrists in attempts to resolve
various meanings of clean,
………..as seen through fogged boundaries—

I don’t even like the meaning
………..of you gagging on warped glass—
just the sound in the mouth—
just the sound in the mouth might
………..fashion something to see out of later Says:
………..………..the Tunisian man and his impossible
want for us Says: the father’s negative silence
Says: a misread tympanum on the unnamed church
Says: the sitar snapping its strings as it is hurled
………..………….into the
………..………....Adriatic.


Caroline J. Davidson is a poet and musician from Columbus, Ohio. She received an MFA in poetry from the University of Colorado in Boulder, and her poems have appeared in places like Sixth Finch, Coconut, and DREGINALD. She currently writes, works, and makes gypsy/gothy/synthy tunes in Brooklyn, New York.

Image credit: Wikipedia

PERPETUAL WONDERMENT by Alexis Petri

PERPETUAL WONDERMENT
by Alexis Petri

Holy men pitched tents
on my grandmother’s farm land.
They trickled into 1975 fed by
an ancient spring, while everyone else
drove downtown in Ventura Coupes;
sat in dark theatres terrified by Jaws.
While everyone else worried about war
and inflation, the holy men contrived
how to live in perpetual wonderment.

Like the land, the holy men sat
and experienced what air would know
with language. They peeled the outer layer
off the world. Moving in a circular direction,
they stripped the skin from everything
around them in long spirals, like they wanted
to eat an apple but knew only habit.

In the woods, I found an old harrow.
That—I could look at and know
its purpose was to pulverize
and cultivate soil. “Don’t disturb
what rests” the holy man said to me
as I dug out the agrarian dinosaur
from a hundred years of decayed leaves.

I felt the roughness of rust on my
childish hands and imagined how
those diamond-sharp teeth once preyed
in these yawning, dried-up fields.


Alexis Petri recently returned to writing poetry. She has a master’s degree in English and a doctorate in educational foundations. For the past twenty years, she has been kicking down the doors of academia to better serve post-traditional students. She has helped preschool teachers earn degrees in early childhood, military veterans earn degrees in stem fields, as well as tailoring supports for college students with learning disabilities. Her poetry and photography have most recently appeared in Cagibi, Midwest Review, Marathon Literary Review, The Same, and Ellipsis… literature & art.

 

 

Image credit:  Annie Spratt on Unsplash 

GIANT POSSUM DRAWS CROWD IN NICETOWN by Khaleel Gheba

GIANT POSSUM DRAWS CROWD IN NICETOWN
by Khaleel Gheba

From the west, a swell arrives
with pomp, its wet regalia slaps
my windowpane. I want to die

so very much tonight. Not for
want of love or peace, but
for a slow tone’s constancy

in my ear. For uneasy light off
scuffed metal. For insecure
shelving’s squeak. For no one

can make a left without effort.
For that sphere of hot pain
in my wrist, behind tendons

like cell bars, like cello strings.
A beleaguerment by moments
as constant as rain, as standard

as a thing of the woods arriving
without invite. Everyone gawks
at its size. “How can this even be?”


Khaleel Gheba received his MFA in Poetry from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2014. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Redivider, Bayou Magazine, the Bellingham Review, Split Lip, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Maryland, where he works as a public librarian.

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Pixabay

THE FEMMINIELLO by Joey Belonger

THE FEMMINIELLO
Giuseppe Bonito, 1740/60
by Joey Belonger

His smile is a Spanish quarter, lopsides us down
Campania street inclines, dodging grime bullets.
Cerussite silk plunges down to nothing;
our stems swing steps in atomic tangerine
to highlight a something which nonne wag
their fingers at from melon stands, flag shops.
We storm the cafes, throw up our hands.
È la fine del mondo! Cue laughtrack.

Who wouldn’t be chuffed by this look?
The bonnet folds with his recession line.
Never mind his coat tells a fortune in a lake,
the Galli pole dancing on laurel cherries,
sunning their hair to a tambourine.
Eunuchs • were • the first • third • gender • here.
Each coral pearl being measured is a “Day of Blood.”
One the Irpinia sun. Another a flagellation drop.

Are we there? Maybe.

Cite Newton for that clown sleeve cover,
a matter of Opticks and edible pigment.
Prussian blue brings a broader palette,
but Bonito bent over for complements.
I can’t believe
Portland’s popping a goiter for this binch.
What’s an antonym for opposites? they ask,
guess. Erasure
or anything-you-can-get.

 


Joey Belonger is a queer transfeminine writer, educator, and printmaker from Chicago, IL. They currently live in Iowa City, where they are a poetry MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Previous work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Storyscape, The Cardiff Review, and elsewhere. Follow them on twitter @JoebyElonger

Image credit: The Portland Art Museum

PEANUT MAN by Michael Riess      

PEANUT MAN
by Michael Riess                                                                                                  

First inning. The summer had been hot, so goddamn hot, and of course, Bill’s air conditioner had kicked out last night, and wouldn’t you know it, his landlord was on vacation, so he had slept—or rolled around, really—in a river of his own sweat. The restless night had cost him sixty-one minutes—a negative seventy-one for the three hours of sleep and a plus ten for the sweaty rolling—but, honestly though, he wouldn’t have minded if the life watch strapped to his wrist on his burnt arm had said something like five minutes because here he was in the stadium, in the sun, with his bald spot sizzling like a fajita, his back on fire from the heavy red bag of peanuts slung across his shoulder, his throat burning from chanting into the humid air, “Get your peanuts, here! Large bag of peanuts!”

Second inning. He wasn’t sure he’d make it through the game. The stadium was packed, five-thousand strong, to see Rodriguez in his rehab assignment in an otherwise meaningless Double-A game. To make matters worse, Bill had requested the second-tier section where a couple of his old-timer buddies sat, but his boss had assigned him to the premium seats, and the front-row snobs were out in full force: tanned, Rolex-wearing executive bros; petite wives with floppy hats and handheld spray fans; pale, scrawny children with well-manicured hands. If he had an ounce of self-respect, he’d take the EpiPen that he carried in case of a peanut emergency and use the skills he learned in training to stab himself in the heart, but instead he simply fantasized about a foul ball knocking him right in the temple and tossed a bag of Planters to some slick-haired guy in the third row, shouting “Hey Peanut Man, hey Peanut Man” while wildly waving his arms as if he were on a lifeboat trying to flag down the search party.

Third inning. Twenty-two years, four months, six days, ten hours, six minutes and twenty-two seconds left. His life watch estimated that he had lost almost a day: a plus forty-eight minutes for walking up and down the rows, but a minus twenty-three hours for sun exposure, a touch of dehydration, and elevated blood pressure from dealing with these bastards in the crowd.

Fourth inning. His arm, exposed, throbbed in the sun. It had been two months since Cecelia had poured the spaghetti in scalding water on his arm as he napped on the couch. His arm had not healed, and due to neglect, his forearm was now splotchy and blistered and swollen and moist, and when he stared at the baby-pink flesh, as he was doing right then, it was as if he were burning in an underworld, destined to deliver shelled peanuts to thousands of red-faced Beelzebubs, and he took pleasure in this image because he deserved to suffer, he deserved to burn, Cecelia was right, he was a weak man, succumbing to Alyssa’s heels and wit, and if his nineteen-year-old son, Kevin, never spoke to him again, well, he couldn’t blame him.

Fifth inning. He took a break and scarfed down a soda and a hot dog and a pretzel. He felt much better and thought maybe things really weren’t that bad, but then he looked down at his watch and saw that he had lost fifteen minutes due to “Poor Dietary Consumption.”

Sixth inning. The sun, improbably, had gotten stronger, casting the stadium in an orange hue, and Bill’s sodium consumption had left him even more dehydrated, which made him think of tortoises sipping fresh water, which inevitably led him to think of Jonathan, a one hundred and eighty-four year old tortoise that he had discovered on Wikipedia last week, the oldest living terrestrial animal, who had roamed the earth since 1832, who was already thirty-three when Lincoln was assassinated, who, if it had existed back then, could have sported a watch with an estimated lifespan defying human conception.

Seventh inning. The grounds crew was dragging the infield again as the crowd sang along to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Bill watched them sweep the reddish dirt with push brooms and drags and rakes. Did you know that graves are recycled after one hundred years? Bill’s father had been dead for forty-two years; he was almost halfway to being repurposed.

Eighth inning. Bill stopped selling peanuts. The air was thick as concrete, the glow in the stadium, now a burnt sienna, left him with a pounding behind the eyes, and there were just too many faces, too many calls for Peanut Man, so he found an empty seat, put his bag on his lap, chugged a discarded, half-empty bottle of water that he found rolling across the aisle, opened a bag of peanuts and started munching, but he found that he could not relax, and prayed that his boss would not see him, and thought that maybe if he had set a better example, Kevin would be somewhere other than pressure washing rail cars on the night shift.

Ninth inning. Last licks. Twenty-two years, three months, fifteen days, eight hours, five minutes and twenty-seven seconds. The home team was down two, with two men on, two men out, and Rodriguez was up and everyone was hysterical, standing and shouting into the sun and stomping their feet, and Rodriguez swung and a sharp crack cut through the shouts, and everyone held their breath, and Bill, who had to have been the only person sitting in the stadium, stood up and craned his neck to see the ball travel over the centerfield wall, and the stadium let out a collective, primal scream, and Bill threw his opened bag of peanuts into the air, and unbeknownst to Bill, one particular peanut flew three rows back and landed in the mouth of a young, cheering boy, who happened to have a severe peanut allergy, which led the boy’s father, who had left his EpiPen in the car, to cry for help, a cry that cut through the screams, and Bill turned around and saw the boy’s cartoonish, swollen face, and his training kicked in and he grabbed the EpiPen with the children’s dosage from his bag’s side pocket and jostled through the people staring at the boy, who was hunched over, his face now a deep red, and Bill removed the blue safety cap and firmly pointed the orange tip downward and pushed the tip into the boy’s thigh and looked into his pleading, squinting green eyes, which looked remarkably similar to Kevin’s, and the boy would be alright, the boy would be alright. Thank the Lord.


Michael Riess lives in Washington D.C. with his wife, Jen, and his daughter, Madeline. He works as an attorney and has recently started writing short fiction. His work has appeared in Typehouse Literary Magazine.

 

 

 

 

Image credit:  Jakob Owens on Unsplash

BOYFRIENDS FOR MASOCHISTS, OR DON’T DATE A POET UNLESS YOU’RE SEEKING KARMIC LESSONS by Beth Bilderback

BOYFRIENDS FOR MASOCHISTS
OR, DON’T DATE A POET UNLESS YOU’RE SEEKING KARMIC LESSONS
by Beth Bilderback

Named after a 19th century British novelist by his professor father he was a boy I’d never noticed until we were grown and his mother told me he was far from home in his first real job and lonely I should write she said and so our seduction began with letters by two people who knew how to write them then emails then phone calls where he’d hold the phone up to Louis Armstrong playing on the Victrola he’d bought instead of paying rent and tell me he loved my voice he could listen to me read an arrest warrant talk to me he’d say huskily so I stumbled hard into the cotton candy web of his attention then once he came home for the holidays it was clear I didn’t live up to his high school fantasies what happened to you were his exact words but he slept with me anyway broke my heart and borrowed money then published a poem in which I’m jumping turnstiles and have bourbon hair and cherry toes cherry toes being a phrase he stole from me just as he stole my soul like the shy islanders who think cameras steal their souls click poof those poor trusting sons of bitches left as ransacked as I was left with nothing but my empty cactus heart.


Beth Bilderback’s flash essays have been included in KYSO Flash, the Rappahannock Review, and Lascaux Review. She lives in a house with a porch swing in Norfolk, VA.

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

NOVEMBER, THE REALIST by James McKee

NOVEMBER, THE REALIST
by James McKee

Scrapped leaves, the orange the gold the crimson,
scratch along, clump, stop. Crumble. Rot.
Blow off where it all blows. Aaannd are gone.
Goes, too, the wide green tight green ends in,
frou-frou for debleaking (Ablur? Ablur)
stark stonescapes that never otherhow were.
Boughs, stripped (check); ground, scraped (check); skies, lowdowned
and spilt-milk scrimmed (check, check). Sight skimmed.
On view, brushstroked in rust/bone/ash/coal
and signed “November, the Realist”: Behold
your merest is, minus your not.

(Baits?) Yeah. (Taken?) Yup: nothing-worse winter,
spring ah-worth-it-all, why-worry summer.
Worst, last week a hue staggered you: “Use—
you there, sarcasto!—for once le juste, ‘glorious’.
Then this. Gray air, sheer, non-swag. Brutal.
Concrete and brick. (Phones down!) Asphalt and metal.
Trust such to stand when plant-plush dismantles.
Sure, it’s just until. But until until,
be sombered. Attend, figure, to your ground—
once back-, now fore-; more lack, less more—
where with withs nothing, without without.


James McKee enjoys failing in his dogged attempts to keep pace with the unrelenting cultural onslaught of late-imperial Gotham. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Acumen, The Raintown Review, Saranac Review, The South Carolina Review, THINK, The Midwest Quarterly, Xavier Review, and elsewhere. He currently works as a private tutor and spends his free time, when not writing or reading, traveling less than he would like and brooding more than he can help.

 

 

Image credit: Shelby Deeter on Unsplash

 

 

variation 32 by Doug Bolling

variation 32
by Doug Bolling

They did not believe us at the station.
The voices weighing us as we stood
naked in the south wind,

the branches above in screech mode.
a scream from behind the wall.
0ur passports in shreds, little
kites forlorn in sudden wind.

How did we you say.
escape the gates, the cell
for the suspect & unredeemed.

But then how did world.
How are we here this
autumn afternoon at the
fest, our costumes of

paper & old lace.
The trained tiger staring
our way as though
demanding the
passports.

We have entered the back
route sans tickets.
We the bearers of guilt in this
the new catastrophe.

The voices come near.
We are losing our hair.
We are out of escape
routes

We are being detained.
We are under suspicion.
We are concealing the
diary inside a
nucleolus,
a cautious ploy,
a duodenum rampant


Doug Bolling’s poems have appeared in Posit, Slant, Connecticut River Review, Redactions, and The Missing Slate (with interview) among others. He has received Best of the Net and Pushcart nominations and several awards, recently the Mathiasen Prize for his poem “Body and Soul” published at the University of Arizona. He is working on a collection and lives in the greater Chicago area.

 

 

Image credit: Rene Böhmer on Unsplash

COPENHAGEN CEMETERY by Nikolaj Volgushev

COPENHAGEN CEMETERY
by Nikolaj Volgushev

In a neighborhood in the north of Copenhagen, there is this cemetery, though really it’s more of a park.

The locals go on walks there, have picnics, drink in the shade. In the summer, the evenings are cool and infinite here, as though coming from afar, because Denmark is a Northern country. I happened to walk through the cemetery on exactly such a summer evening and so the two have become linked in my mind, the evening and the cemetery, along with a quiet sense of dread which is in essence what I want to tell you about here.

The cemetery is surrounded by an old wall, painted yellow as many buildings in Denmark are, the color of yolk but paler. The paint peels in places, making the wall look even older than it is.

I had been exploring the city that day, wandering about largely without aim when I came across the cemetery. I liked the idea of taking a break in the shade so I picked up some beer and a pack of cigarettes from a corner store and set out to find a suitable park bench.

It had been an unusually warm day but with the evening the warmth sank back into the earth and the alleys that lead among the birch trees and graves were steeped in shade. I walked on and on because I wanted to find a quiet spot, away from everyone.

The size of the cemetery surprised me. After about a half hour of walking I still hadn’t reached the other end, nor had I ever back-tracked.

Eventually, I came across a small square dominated by a tall, skewed oak tree. I settled down on the bench by the tree, cracked open a beer and lit a cigarette.

All was calm and the sky beyond the treetops was a wonderful shade of violet but for some reason an uneasy, grotesque feeling came over me then, like a premonition.

I drank down the beer quickly, hoping to be rid of the feeling and opened another.

I did not notice the man’s approach. He appeared seemingly out of nowhere, just as my premonition had.

One moment the square was empty, the next there he was, whistling tunelessly, sweeping away at the graveled path with a broom.

I wasn’t sure what it was he was supposed to be sweeping up—there were no leaves on the path, no trash either, and yet he was going at it with great vigor, swinging the broom around like someone acting out a sweep in a play.

The man had on a gray cap and a gray uniform, with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His arms were very hairy, it looked like they were covered in fur.

I took a drag from my cigarette and tried to ignore the man. This, however, proved impossible.

There was something fascinating, something ghoulish about his person. The more I studied him, the less I could say about his appearance. Try as I might, I could not even figure out the man’s height. One moment he appeared comically short, the next he towered.

It gave me a headache.

By that point, the man had made his way to the middle of the square where he allowed himself a break from his pointless task. He leaned onto his broom, took off his gray cap, and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.

To my disdain, he then turned in my direction and made a flourishing motion with his hat before restoring it to the top of his head. He wagged his bushy eyebrows at me, then crossed the square, taking comically large strides.

Even as he plopped down beside me, I still couldn’t tell whether he was a head taller, or a head shorter than me, or neither.

“A wonderful evening to enjoy a cool, fresh beer,” the man announced, in English. He had a hoarse voice and a thick accent though it didn’t sound Danish.

I nodded, took another sip from my beer. The man had wide, unsteady eyes, the color of ash. He affixed them on the can in my hand, swallowed hard, like his throat was parched.

“Would you like one?” I offered, despite myself. Surprisingly, the man shook his head.

“No, no, regrettably, I do not drink, many thanks,” he explained, removed his cap again and scratched violently at the top of his head, which I now noticed was balding.

For a while, we sat in silence. A pigeon started cooing up in the branches of the oak tree somewhere which seemed to disturb my strange, new acquaintance. He shuffled about in his seat, let out a huffing noise, and peered up at the hidden bird.

“Where do you come from?” the man asked, his eyes returning to the beer in my hand.

“Oh, I’m just visiting,” I reply.

“Just visiting,” the man repeated to himself. He obviously found something amusing in it for his face lit up and he continued, “just visiting… well, well, I am just visiting also! Haha! Yes, I’m also just visiting.”

He got very excited about his, even slapped himself on his thigh which almost made me drop my cigarette. It was a wet, unpleasant sound, like a dead fish landing on the ground.

It must have also startled the pigeon because I heard a sound of feathers above our heads and watched with envy as the bird disappeared beyond the darkening tree crowns.

“Where are you from then, originally?” I asked and regretted it immediately.

The man shuddered and then looked over both his shoulders and all around as though I had proposed something indecent and he feared someone might have overheard.

His weird eyes rolled in their sockets and when he had finally convinced himself that there wasn’t another soul around, he beckoned me to move closer.

I expected him to reek of sweat, or booze, or something but, in fact, he had no smell whatsoever.

He hesitated for a moment, then whispered: “Originally, I come from the bottom of the sea.”

He giggled but I didn’t feel like he was joking.

“Sorry?” I muttered dubiously.

“Yes, yes, I come from the bottom of the sea. I used to live there, beneath the waves, with the fish. Yes, the fish. It was dark. Here, I am just visiting. Like you!”

“Ah,” I inched away from the man, fumbled for a cigarette. The man fell quiet too. He wasn’t giggling anymore. If anything, he suddenly appeared somber, like something of gravity had just occurred.

He looked at me again. I thought he was making a decision then which sent a chill down my spine. The sun was finally setting and twilight was coming down heavily all around.

Then the man picked up his broom and got to his feet.

“Well, I must be going now. There is still a lot of work left to do.”

Without another word, he got to sweeping again. I watched him walk gradually out of sight. In the thick non-light, he looked like a giant.

A great sense of relief welled up in me when he was finally out of sight. I even let out a nervous laugh. I finished my beer and had another cigarette. There was a deep, blue twilight all around the cemetery now and everything was calm again.

“What a weirdo,” I kept thinking and shaking my head as I smoked.

When I got up to leave, I noticed that the man had left his cap.

I picked it up, turned it around in my hands. It was an ordinary hat, gray, a little worn in places. I really wanted to leave it, knew that I should, but I didn’t. Instead, I set atop my head.

On my way back through the cemetery, I heard a pigeon cooing again, somewhere among the tree crowns. The sound startled me for some reason. I had this odd new feeling in me, like something irreversible had happened, something that could never be undone.

I walked on as the brief summer night settled around me, a few hours of darkness, a few hours of sleep, before the white light of day would emerge from the east again and wash over the world, roll in like waves, like a weightless, invisible ocean.


Nikolaj Volgushev’s fiction has appeared in journals such as the Cafe Irreal, The Molotov Cocktail, and Cease, Cows. He currently lives in Aarhus, Denmark where he writes, programs, and does other things along those lines. Before moving to Denmark, Nikolaj lived in New England, and before that in Germany. It is unclear where, if at all, Nikolaj lived before that.

 

 

 

Image credit: Assistants Cemetery, Copenhagen by Andreas Bloch on Flickr

where we come from by Patricia Hartland

where we come from
by Patricia Hartland

tiny springs meet
the red red sand the sea
we built our little huts of buoys
of tern wings and of jelly fish
purple perfectly in a pool
in the belly of the spade
we gather them with

days of red clay
the seal under glassy dark
peers into our mouths
full of fish or of sky
our faces struck
out over the white cloud
of the row boat the salt
the oars magnificent splinters
we leave in our palms
in place of almost anything
trusting skin to its magic

and in the wind gusting scream
or laugh or salt catches us from
the shore somehow our sisters
and our brothers their voices
in our ears of endless twisting conch
and we could be in any wind

mud
holiest water
compels the bygone
the hoofclad the painstake
when we were strung by seas
over histories so they say

my feet have lapsed again
swallowed-in

wear the snails on your eye
for Fibonacci
who could’ve never dreamed up this gutted sky
this complete synthesis

elsewhere ricochets
the only right word here:

where tin becomes the cliff enclosed glass becomes the pond as a whole the
shattering is all

bone and drowning along the lines
along laced fingers
become spider-webs
became the window screens

where we witnessed you thrown
into gaping sea
writhing [a wrath] of those stinging jellies
from on now
your chest always a little rashy

or the clay bed fed and dripping red red red sand in our genes cold springs or biome at least

beneath your foot across the floor
beetles crackling like rice in a hollow stick
bringing rain

when i opened the hatch
the space dug away from the dark
to lay egg shells over the flames
in your absence i burn what i please
acrid succulence
a purge
crumpling sun-in-fist

an anodyne
too bitter for the flies

but all this smoke
dirt of our ancestors
in the cracks of the floor

in the hallway
the neighbor’s scalded thigh
and a bat no one wants
looming over the toilet
too busy being the poem


Patricia Hartland is a candidate for the MFA in poetry at the University of Notre Dame, and a recent graduate of the Iowa Translation Workshop. She translates from French, Martinican Creole, and Hindi, with a special interest in Caribbean literature. Her translations of prose, poetry, and theatre have appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote, Circumference, Drunken Boat, Two Lines, and elsewhere.

Image credit: Unsplash

BLIND TREES by Kate LaDew

BLIND TREES
by Kate LaDew

It was really dark and it scared Billy. Really very dark. Yes, really very very—made him think of when he was young and every time he turned off the light to go to sleep started remembering ghost stories. Every ghost story he’d ever read or heard or, well, just every one and his sock feet would hit the floor and his hand would hit the light switch and they didn’t go away, the remembered stories, but they settled, soft in his mind and it was okay again.

It was that kind of dark exactly.

But it was okay too. This kind of dark, because he was with Keegan and Keegan couldn’t tell a ghost story without laughing. Each laugh made a little dark go away or maybe a little light shine—A little light shine Billy decided. More positive.

So they kept walking and it got brighter but not enough to keep Keegan from running into a tree. A deep little sigh escaped, as if it were a complete surprise. Billy giggled. Giggled really, like a little boy, not because it was funny necessarily—Billy hated when people laughed at him, watching him being clumsy, often, all the time—not funny, no, but just the surprise. As if it never occurred to Keegan that hitting a tree while walking drunk in woods they’d never been was a foregone conclusion. As if he couldn’t believe it.

Billy giggled again, kept going, until he heard Keegan curse. Loud. It echoed. Well, maybe—Billy was sure actually, quite positive—it didn’t echo but seemed so in his mind. Everything seemed loud there, wondered if maybe something wasn’t wrong. Alcohol dulled the senses. He should be deaf by now. He should never have heard Keegan’s sigh, his deep little sigh like wonderment, or the sound the leaves made when they hit Keegan’s backside. He did though and he’s glad now—confused, maybe things reversed in his system, it would suit him—but glad and Billy kneels down where he assumes Keegan is and smiles.

He doesn’t see, can’t, even with his laughs lighting everything up, and it would only irritate Keegan, to be hurt alone and Billy smiling.

“Well,” he says, as if that explained everything.

“Well,” Billy says back but doesn’t move.

“I guess I could live here,” Keegan sighs and it makes sense to Billy. He doesn’t feel like moving either. Not really. Seemed a waste. He was here with Keegan and that was good enough. No need to move.

“I’ll live here too then.”

“Well yes,” Keegan says, and smiles. At least Billy thinks he smiles. Wants him to have smiled, like it was implied. Keegan living here implied Billy would too. Of course. Well yes.

He’s still sitting there, in front of the tree, and so Billy sits down, patting the earth with his hand, smoothing a spot that only brings up the wet dirt, fingers moist and he doesn’t care. Now that he’s beside Keegan, in the woods, in the dark, just a little drunk, and it’s so cool—He didn’t notice but it’s cold, chilly like his father says. “Chilly today, hot tamale.” Billy laughs and forgets about the cold but doesn’t think about his father. He doesn’t so much anymore, being away from home he’s sort of forgotten. But because he’s not thinking of his father, Billy can’t feel guilty, only dizzy and maybe a little sick—happy.

“What’s funny?” Keegan asks and Billy looks at him, hoping Keegan can see. Hoping he knows it wasn’t Keegan that was funny, he would never laugh at Keegan, unless he wanted him too.

And so he says, soft, “Nothing,” because it’s true and places his hand over what amazingly turns out to be Keegan’s hand and it’s warm and dry and he hears Keegan laugh a little too.

“Can’t see the tree for the forest, eh?” He laughs again and Billy laughs and it’s bright and it’s okay and they keep sitting there in the woods, like they were at home, watching TV or talking or just being there, comfortable.

“I don’t know how I got here,” Keegan says and moves his hand over Billy’s, like he’s using it as a landmark, something to tell him he’s still on familiar land and not lost, not lost at all in woods he’s never been.

“Walked,” and Billy isn’t joking because that’s all he can remember, walking and thinking of when he was little and ghost stories and Keegan and how bright it was.

“Nice here,” and Billy nods even though Keegan can’t see him agreeing and neither moves and it really is nice and Billy wonders why. It’s cold and damp but good somehow, because he’d never been there, maybe. And when he finally went—finally because if it was nice, he should have gone before—he went with Keegan and they both found it together, at the same time.

“It’s so dark,” Keegan says and his hand flinches a little. Billy isn’t sure if hands can flinch but it moves like it’s surprised and he touches the underside of Keegan’s pinky with his own and feels Keegan’s hand relax.

He shouldn’t be warm but Billy is. Maybe it’s the alcohol but he would rather it was something else. Keegan’s looking at the tree—Billy thinks, assumes, Keegan’s still, he’s never still—like it will move any moment, like it did just that, moved into Keegan’s way. If it did, Billy loves this tree. He wants to thank it, embrace it but he would have to move and that means Keegan’s hand would move and he likes it like this, just like this, and so he stays where he is, looking at Keegan looking at the tree. He needs to speak. Suddenly, he really needs to.

“When you laugh I can see,” Billy says and if he wasn’t drunk, if he wasn’t drunk and cold and warm and in unknown woods with Keegan it might seem stupid. But Keegan’s here, beside him, using his hand as a landmark, looking at Billy now, and he’s sure he’s smiling and it’s okay. It’s okay.


Kate LaDew is a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in Studio Art.  She resides in Graham, NC with her cats Charlie Chaplin and Janis Joplin. Her story The Song in a Cloud appeared in Issue No. 2 of Cleaver.

 

 

 

 

 

Image credit:  Ieva Vizule on Unsplash

WAITING FOR YOU IN PARIS by Jared Levy

WAITING FOR YOU IN PARIS
by Jared Levy

I’m waiting for you in Paris. Waiting in the Champ de Mars, the park next to the Eiffel Tower. Standing on a patch of grass, wearing a tuxedo, and holding flowers. One among many men who wait, but they’re not like me. They stay for varying amounts of time—some holding signs, some sitting under trees—but eventually they leave. Not me. I’m here for you, Jess, waiting patiently, if not excitedly. And when you get here, we’ll embrace, and we’ll climb up the Eiffel Tower, and we’ll be together again, in love.

Three days have gone by. It rained on the first day, and my clothes are soggy. I smell like a damp basement. The flowers are OK, but I’ve taken off my jacket. It’s not exactly as we discussed, it’s not as clean, but I’ll be here when you arrive. Mostly as we discussed, in Paris, next to the Eiffel Tower, holding flowers, and waiting.

A week’s gone by. Another man stands in a single spot, holding flowers, like me, except he’s wearing a black vest, a white shirt, and a black bowler hat, and he’s balancing on a unicycle.

“You too?” I ask him.

He doesn’t speak, he signs instead, and I nod and together we form a quick bond. He hops off the unicycle and gets us some hot croissants. I survived the previous week by eating scraps of food left on the ground and sleeping under my coat.

The croissants are delicious, and I smile at the man and repeat “Brad,” tapping my chest.

“Jean,” he mouths, chewing his croissant, and taps his chest.

The next week I continue a similar schedule: sleeping under my coat, waking up, standing forlorn, and presenting flowers. Jean balances on his unicycle, and I, with my jacket back on, present flowers, which are now drooping, but with Jean, the whole thing is much better. So too with the hot croissants, which we take turns buying.

Jean and I know it’s absolutely essential to stay in this position. How else will they know we made the effort? It’s unspoken between us, but I imagine Jean spends as much time thinking about this as I do, along with other thoughts, many of the same thoughts over and over, like when will they come? Have they forgotten about us? Does waiting make reunion that much sweeter?

We watch as people meet their other halves. They light up with an expression of joy. In those moments, we hate them. What right do they have to happiness? Haven’t we done everything right? Everything they asked of us?

By the end of the month we meet another man. He’s German, and he arrives with a case of beer. He doesn’t stand, presenting flowers like Jean and I, but instead, he sits down and starts drinking.

How do I know he’s German? He wears lederhosen.

I attempt to introduce myself and, as I do, the German nods and says, in a heavily accented English voice, “I’m Lars.” He burps.

“You speak English?” I say.

“Yes,” he says. “And French, German, and Spanish. Many languages.”

He sighs and picks up a can of beer.

“Only Americans speak one language,” he says and belches again.

I stare at Lars. He looks like no one else in the park. He’s huge. At least six foot five, blond, and hulking. As he waits, he removes beers one by one, pouring them into a stein and taking large gulps from his giant cup.

“Are you waiting for someone?” I ask him.

“Yes,” he says, “I’m giving her a week. I’m not going to put my life on hold, but she asked me to meet her here, and this happens to be my week off, and this happens to be what I do.”

He shakes the stein and looks off at the Eiffel Tower.

“I’ve never been up that thing,” he says. “Maybe I’ll go to the top.”

“She doesn’t want you to wait for her?” I say and look over at Jean who shrugs his shoulders.

“She doesn’t know what she wants,” he says. “She mentioned that it’d be nice if I did this absurd romantic gesture, and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ She started to retract her request, but I said, ‘If that’s what you want, that’s what I’ll do.’ So here I am.”

Jean looks at Lars the same way I do, with a mix of awe, surprise, and envy. Why can’t we be more like Lars? Assertive. Sure of ourselves. Full of knowledge that Jean and I don’t seem to possess.

After Lars finishes the six-pack, he walks to the Eiffel Tower. He comes back after fifteen minutes and tells me he’s going to stay in a hostel.

“Give her this address if she comes,” he says and hands me a slip of paper.

“How will I know who she is?” I say.

“Her name’s Lydia,” he says and walks off.

Jean wheels over. He mimes something like “Lars a big man and what’s up with that?”

I make a sign with my hands like “he’s a big drinker” and then a facial expression like “he sure does drink a lot.”

Jean laughs silently, and I laugh too.

A man starts to play an accordion. I look up at the night sky and see it’s a full moon. When I look back down, Jean’s hand is out as if to say, “Want to dance?”

“Me?” I mouth.

He gives a big nod. I make an exaggerated thinking face, because this is such a nice gesture: a chance to move my limbs and do something adorably sweet next to the Eiffel Tower. I get up and grab his hand. We make big twirls with Jean, on the unicycle, swerving to the cheesy accordion music. He grins, and we dance for three songs. I mouth, “I’m tired.”

I am. I haven’t moved this much in months. I go back to my spot, drink a bottle of mineral water, and walk over to a tree. I lie down with my back against the grainy trunk, and I look at Jean, who’s swirling. The accordion player stops and grins at me.

“That was lovely,” he says.

“Thank you,” I say, and I drift off to sleep.

The next morning I awake to the sound of Lars chewing a giant turkey leg. He rips off thick chunks of crusty bread with the crumbs spraying in all directions. He extends both the turkey and bread to me, and I’m not too proud for breakfast, so I eat.

“I figure she didn’t come?” he says.

“Not yet,” I say.

He looks at Jean.

“I hear you guys are buds,” he says. “The others were saying you danced under the moonlight. Invite him over.”

I look at Jean. He’s doing a half-asleep peddling thing. I clap a few times and motion for him to join us. He rubs his eyes and then wheels over to my spot.

Then I learn that Jean does speak. He speaks French. With Lars, he doesn’t shut up. He tells Lars his story, which Lars translates for me. That Jean is a mime, but he’s on a break, waiting for his lover Carlos, who is Spanish and incredibly handsome, though completely bald. They met earlier in the year at a church social. Their connection was instantaneous. They took a midnight stroll across the Pont Alexandre III Bridge. When Jean invited Carlos back to his apartment, Carlos suggested that they write love poetry to each other in their native languages. When they read their poems to each other, a lot came through in the reading. They soon started a disgustingly cute habit of buying snow globes for each other. When they moved in together, their apartment was filled with them.

One day, as they were planning to re-create the day they met, they walked by a snow globe shop. In the window, Jean saw an Eiffel Tower snow globe and pointed to it and mimed, “Have you been there?” Carlos shook his head as if to say “I’ve never been.”

Jean got the idea to wait for Carlos in the park. At first, he mimed on the side. He got tips and saw tourists pass by, but there was only one person he truly wanted to see. He didn’t dare lose his spot for fear of missing Carlos. But eventually the work and the waiting melded into one, an all-consuming activity where he lost himself in the romantic purposelessness. He took a solemn oath to keep waiting.

“He said all that?” I ask.

“Approximately,” says Lars.

I hold my hand to my chest to show Jean that my heart is broken. His story is so similar to mine. Perpetual waiting: for what?

Jean looks exhausted. He asks for a beer from Lars. Lars passes one over. Jean takes it, tips it back, and doesn’t stop until he drains the can.

“Impressive,” says Lars, and he hands Jean another.

I join them in the spirit of camaraderie, though I don’t usually drink. The rest of the night we tell jokes, sing songs, and generally have one of the most amazing times of my life. I don’t have a lot of friends. I find it difficult to communicate with others. But these men and I, we’re similar. And now I jump on Jean’s back, and Jean tries to teach me how to ride a unicycle. We swerve into some bushes and laugh harder.

Back on the ground, Lars asks me, “Why Paris? Aren’t there romantic places in the US?”

“That’s a great question,” I say. “A part of me doesn’t even think that much about it. Paris means love, and people from my socioeconomic class travel. It’s part of a philosophy that says it’s worth traveling the world and seeing much. So far, I agree for reasons like this, meeting new people, gaining experiences, riding a unicycle, for example, but what’s wrong with the US? That’s where I lost love. I’m waiting in Paris for it to return.”

Jean pats me on the back. Lars looks amused.

“Paris is the city of love. My girlfriend Jessica is obsessed with it. Her apartment is decorated in Parisian memorabilia. At home, we watch movies set in Paris. She even has a breakfast nook that looks like a Parisian café.”

I point to the café where I get croissants.

“But our relationship went south. She says we broke up, I say we need more time. She says it was her decision, I say it’s mutual. I came here to wait for her. I want to show her that Paris is a real place where we can be together. I know it sounds absurd, but waiting is all I have left.”

A moment of silence. Lars grunts and says something like “silly, sad man.”

He’s drunk and generally difficult to understand, so I ignore him. He sleepily waves goodbye and leaves. Then it’s back to Jean and me. I feel drained, but my spirits are slightly buoyed from the catharsis of telling my story. I mime a small dance, and Jean laughs. He speaks and says, “C’est magnificent.”

We lie down on the grass. We look up at the night sky, not for lack of things to say but in awe. Some things are incommunicable. Love is one, and so are its complications. So are the feelings I have, light from camaraderie, unsure of the future, but dazzled by the stars in Paris and the world spinning around me like a snow globe. I watch the burning stars until my eyes close.

In the morning a round-faced, blonde-haired woman enters my field of vision. I blink, but she stays where she is, crouching and looking at me.

“You know where my husband is,” she says.

“Are you Lydia?” I ask, blinking myself awake.

“Yes, and you’re Brad,” she says. “The men pointed you out. I don’t speak French, but I speak English, so start talking.”

I lift myself up and wipe the sleep from my eyes.

“Your husband’s at a hostel,” I say. “I don’t know which one, I lost the sheet of paper, but he’ll be back around noon. That’s when he usually comes.”

“Great,” she says. “So I have to wait?”

“Well, I’ve been waiting for quite some time,” I say. “Close to a year.”

“Unbelievable,” she says. “Do you want a prize? You sound like an insane person. Some of us have jobs. We can’t all wait under the Eiffel Tower, can we? Only sad absurd men.”

I feel tremendous guilt. Lydia’s confirmed my worst suspicion: that waiting is pointless.

“I suppose not,” I say.

“I’m going to the tower,” she says. “How do you get up?”

“Elevator or stairs,” I say.

“I choose elevator,” she says and disappears.

It’s then that I realize I’m filthy. I feel the grime accumulating in the area between my sock and ankle. There’s a smell coming off me. And this morning is not one where I want to wait any longer. I’ll do anything but that. I feel a wild urge to go to the bathroom. This is no longer fun. Jean is asleep, and you, Jessica, are never coming for me.

Lars arrives, same stein, different case of beer.

“How are you, friend?” he asks.

“I’m not in the mood,” I say. “Your wife is here. She’s in the tower. I need to leave immediately.”

“Whoa, whoa,” says Lars. “What if Jessica comes?”

“Tell her I’m in the public bathroom,” I say.

“Won’t that spoil the surprise? The waiting?” he says. “You used to care about waiting.”

“Emphasis on used to,” I say.

“Have a beer,” he says and thrusts one into my chest.

I push the beer into Lars’s chest and go to the bathroom. My luck, there’s a line: a long line. Fuck this, I think. I get out of line and squat on the road. Everyone looks over at me. People gasp. I let loose and feel the best I’ve felt in a month. This is my choice. I’m doing something for myself. Then two police officers begin to approach me. I quickly lift my pants and run back to the waiting area. Lydia and Lars are together, and I hide behind them.

“Whoa, whoa,” says Lars, looking back at me cowering behind them. “What’s going on?”

“I took a dump near the public bathroom and now the police are after me!” I say.

“You’re an absolute mess,” says Lydia. “Let me handle this.”

The police approach us, and Lydia tells Lars what to say. That I’m deranged. That I’m a helpless American man in their care. That she will force me to clean up my mess. That I’m their adopted American pet. That we shouldn’t let Americans travel. Etc.

Lydia and Lars work on them. I continue to cower. Jean is asleep. This is what I get for not waiting, I think. I’m pathetic.

The police stop talking to Lars and Lydia. They look back at me and shake their heads. Then they walk back to the Eiffel Tower.

“You need to clean up your mess,” says Lydia. “We’ll help you, but then you need to leave this park immediately. They say they wish the men would leave. You’re more trouble than you’re worth.”

“Why are you doing this for me?” I say. “You could have abandoned me. Everyone else does.”

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” says Lydia. “Leave. Get another job. Stop waiting.”

I think about this as I scrub the sidewalk. Do I desire punishment? Punishment for waiting?

Lars continues to drink. He does the work of translating as people walk by. Strangely, I enjoy cleaning. It feels purposeful and important.

“There,” says Lydia. “You made a mess and you cleaned it up. Now take that and do it with your life.”

Lars and Lydia walk away. Lars looks back as if to say, “Later, friend.” I wave goodbye.

I go back to Jean, and I’m struck by panic as I see he’s fallen off his unicycle. He hobbles and collapses. I go to comfort him, and he starts weeping. Other men weep too, but I see this as self-pity rather than genuine care for my friend.

“Why, Brad?” asks Jean. It’s an existential question, and I’m entirely prepared for that kind of conversation.

“Who isn’t in a state of waiting?” I say. “Everyone pretends they’re not, but they are. The other day I categorized all human activity. It’s frighteningly limited: eating and drinking, having sex, thinking and wandering, consuming, creating. Are there other ways?”

Jean stares at his legs.

“Look at me, Jean,” I say. “You’re a good man. You understand me? A friend. Friendship, it’s not on my list, but…”

A paramedic arrives. His name is Yakos, and he’s from Greece. He’s well-built, well-quaffed, and he and Jean begin to speak rapidly in French. Yakos makes Jean laugh, and Jean makes Yakos laugh. I stand by, feeling increasingly disconnected from the scene.

“Brad?” says Yakos.

He speaks English.

“Yes?” I say.

“Your friend needs to go to the hospital,” he says. “His muscles have atrophied. He wants to know if you’ll come with him. I told him not to worry, I’ll take care of him. He’s very funny.”

I look back at Jean. He winks at me. I see the seeds of love.

“That’s OK,” I say. “The police told me I need to leave the park immediately and maybe this country, too. Can you translate this for Jean? Next time, let’s meet in America.”

Yakos speaks to Jean, and Jean laughs.

“We,” he says, which I understand means “yes.”


Jared Levy has stories published in regional and international journals including The Quotable, Apiary Magazine, The Machinery, and The Matador Review. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Bates College and is the recipient of support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Lacawac Artists’ Residency, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He was born in Philadelphia, PA, and currently lives there, too. He is a proud member of the Backyard Writers Workshop.

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Louis Pellissier on Unsplash

DONUT SHOP by Randall Seder

DONUT SHOP
by Randall Seder

The summer after my senior year of high school, I worked in a donut shop selling macchiatos and breakfast pastries to young office workers in downtown Portland, Maine. I decided to get a job because my best friend Emma wanted a job and we were drunk off the prospect of making money and never having to go back to high school. We promised that the rest of our lives was going to be spent with only each other so we better start saving money so we could eventually live in Paris or New York or somewhere else far away from where we grew up.

Emma started clocking hours at her minimum wage job exactly one week after school let out in June. We toasted to her new employment at the Five Guys on Fore Street by raising vanilla milkshakes in celebration of her first paycheck. Emma worked in the checkout aisle of Whole Foods, standing for six-hour shifts in clogs, using her discounts on foods we both thought expensive like cartons of raspberries and brie cheese, calling me on her lunch breaks, scanning produce, and dodging sexual passes from coworkers who bought her lip balms and beaded bracelets. Most of those little gifts were passed on to me. It didn’t feel odd at the time to be wearing the material bribes given to her by the college boys who folded fish into seaweed rolls, but it definitely makes me uncomfortable now.

My own summer job at the donut shop was handed to me by the grace of God. I had never worked with food before in my life and had the flu when I interviewed. I had been asked if I liked to bake, and I had lied through my teeth. For whatever reason, I was given a black apron and told to flush the flu from my body before my first trial shift or they’d hire someone else. I walked home on water, elated.

My bosses, Abe and Marina, were married. They would sometimes make out in the kitchen as the electric mixer whirled and the faucets spilled cold water onto dishes piled up in the sinks. Abe was a New England guy with beefy baker arms and Marina was a tiny woman with a French Creole cooking background and a severe laugh. I loved them.

Shifts at the donut shop started at 5 a.m. and lasted ten hours. I spent them on my feet, slipping glazed desserts into paper bags, mixing iced chai lattes with soy milk, and mopping until beads of sweat dripped from my forehead onto the black and white tiled floor. I began to wake up before my alarm went off, not because of some subconscious excitement for my work days but because the clock within my body was changing. I drove in squares around the block before my shift started, spilling coffee on myself out of ceramic mugs and listening to Bruno Mars on the radio. Years of playing pity poker with classmates about who was getting the least amount of sleep disappeared when I started working at the donut shop. I was in bed with teeth brushed at nine or ten at night in order to get as much sleep as possible. My own parents stayed up later than I did.

I came home from work every day with my forearms coated in honey and chocolate and powdered sugar from reaching through the racks and trays of donuts. Custard fillings would smear on my bedsheets when I napped after shifts; I would fall asleep with chocolate chips in my hair.

Memories of working in the shop flash in my mind like strobe lights. I know I must have stood for hours behind that wooden counter, breaking rolls of quarters with the mental terror that they would rip from the paper and scatter all over the floor, stamping the business’s logo on cardboard boxes in wet blue ink over and over again, trembling after phone calls, eating entire plates of free donut samples just because they were there in front of me, and sometimes I wanted to move a part of my body after standing for so long, even if it was only the clenching and unclenching of my jaw. I know that hours stretched into days and into months until suddenly the summer was over and my heart was broken, but when I think of working at that particular donut shop, I remember specific moments as definite and pinpointable experiences. The memories don’t stretch, they stampede.

I started to write letters to myself on post-it notes and on the backs of business cards as I stood behind the counter waiting for people to come into the shop. The notes would be collected into the front pocket of my black apron and then transcribed into letters I would send to a boy I had started dating at the end of my senior year of high school. My boyfriend was spending the summer working as a lifeguard at an overnight camp in northern Maine, and I wrote to him about my work because that was the largest thing happening in my life. I wrote about the two city cops who never bought a damn thing but flirted with Marina until Abe came out and crossed his big arms over his chest and they left. I wrote about the first day I was sent across the street to the bank to exchange some twenties for ones and I was so nervous carrying money around that my hands shook as I handed the bag to the bank teller. I wrote about the girls I worked with; one was an Instagram model and the other one was a drummer in a band with a moon tattoo on her left ankle. I wrote about the smell of the shop (honey, coconut, chocolate) and how when I spilled the crate of iced tea, I had yelled “FUCK” and was sure I’d be fired but wasn’t.

The world inside the donut shop existed as an alternate reality. One time that summer, Emma came to visit, and it felt like a slap in the face. She stepped through the doors of the shop beaming, sunburnt and sucking on a smoothie through a straw, and I remember my eyesight blurring the way a camera lens slips out of focus as a movie character falls asleep. She asked me about my day as I handed cash back to customers and answered phone calls, and I realized that she would never understand what it meant to stand behind the long wooden counter of that business, just as I would never know what it was like for her to work the checkout aisle of Whole Foods. I saw the same mild panic in her eyes when I came to visit her at work and yelled her name across a sea of customers buying popsicles and hotdog buns for the Fourth of July season. It was the mutual discomfort that came with two worlds colliding. The unease we felt showing each other what we looked like while working, drenched in sweat and shifting back and forth on tired legs, was a raw and unexplainable sort of shame.

I worked mornings shifts, and Emma worked evenings, so I used to pick her up when her night shifts got out. We spent a lot of that summer driving around in my mother’s sleek silver Camry, named Pam. Emma would slide into the passenger seat teeming with stories from her day. She used to scream about her coworkers, how the boys were pervy and the girls were beautiful, and also about the rich people who came in to buy kombucha and asparagus in bulk. I yelled back, telling her about the bratty blonde middle schoolers who demanded skim milk in their iced lattes and turned their noses up at the offer of sampling a honey glazed cake donut.

At night, Emma and I drove to Five Guys and sat at the terrible red and white checkered tables, sipping slowly on vanilla milkshakes while gushing over how good it felt to have a summer job until our brains soaked up the sugar and we got spacey. Then we drove with the windows down to the East End and parked on the hill that looks out over Casco Bay. We talked for hours parked on that hill, trying on glossy lipsticks in the rearview mirror or sharing songs that reminded us of our boyfriends, giggling about how when they came home from vacation we’d tell them we loved them. Songs that make her cringe now because she’s got a new guy and songs that make me cry because they’ve been ruined forever.

We talked a lot about the boys we were dating. Emma told me about her boyfriend’s absence, how he was just a few miles away but rarely called and never invited her over to meet his parents. All those complaints on her part and reassurances on my part; I’d say, he’s just a boy and don’t worry I know he loves you! and then she’d smile and everything would be okay for a little while.

I told her about how I missed the freckles on my boyfriend’s shoulders. I missed the way he listened to me stutter my way through Wallace Stevens poems even though he had no idea who that was, and I missed making pasta with him in my kitchen. I told Emma how I’d started throwing up my lunches in the employee bathroom next to the walk-in freezer, and we both assumed it was a pregnancy because I’d missed three periods and I’d been gaining weight all summer. We joked about baby names, but it started a whole big thing. Soon I was gagging when I saw babies in the donut shop and having panic attacks in the break room when I thought about my belly growing during the first semester of college.

A change happened around July when a blonde woman’s baby flung a sock out into the shop and we all searched on our knees but couldn’t find it. I located it later while mopping and felt a cosmic reassurance while holding that tiny baby sock in my hands. I kept it in the pocket of my work apron for weeks and brought it home with me after shifts. The weight that hung on my stomach felt suddenly purposeful and my exhaustion seemed justified. I remember staring at myself in the bathroom mirror at home, completely naked, looking at my bloated stomach with actual love. The names I brainstormed with Emma were filed away, and one was even chosen. I planned on telling my boyfriend when he came home from camp.

In mid-August, the lone red line on a CVS pregnancy test, taken offhandedly just to be sure, proved my assumption wrong. There had never been a baby in my belly. I felt like I was dying. I felt stupid and fat.

The donut shop became a place of sickness. The icings and glazes that dripped from donuts sent beads of sweat in vertical lines down the middle of my back. The sight of chocolate sauces hardened on ceramic plates made me nauseous. Those trays of free samples that just sat there in front of me on the wooden counter glared; they made my jaws clench shut. I stopped eating for a little while, to lose weight. By the end of the summer, I had slimmed down considerably.

I choked through my final weeks of work and used lunch breaks to sit in corners of dark places by myself, like downtown parking garages and the basement stairwells of apartment complexes whose front doors were propped open to flush heat from the building. I calmed my nerves by repeating a mantra of memorized customer orders. Man with red beard: small black coffee with a tablespoon of honey, one toasted coconut cake donut and one bière twist in a brown paper bag to go.

It was more than weight gain that made me cling to the idea of pregnancy. There were other signs as well: vomiting, back pains, fatigue, mood changes, and tenderness. All things that could be explained by eating nothing but sugar, working ten-hour shifts, and being in love with a boy that wasn’t around. I was tricked by my own body and mind. Nothing could make a person feel so idiotic as that.

At the end of the summer, Emma and I didn’t know what to do with ourselves. The two of us had spent our time relishing in youth, making money, and shit-talking the world. We sang along to syrupy songs like “What A Pleasure” by the band Beach Fossils and said “I love you I love you I love you” while driving down highways at night. August hit and the dream began to disappear. We panicked at the thought of having to make new friends at schools very far away from each other.

Emma and I spent the last week of our summer curled in each other’s arms on the carpeted floor of her bedroom, sweaty from the final hot days of summer and newly single. She had decided that emotional absence was a crime punishable by death, and I had decided that I didn’t want to be touched by another boy for a long time. We ate cartons of raspberries and slices of brie cheese, realizing that we suddenly had enough money to buy them, and crossed our fingers in a promise that the following summer would be better because we wouldn’t have our shitty boyfriends taking up all our headspace.

Now it’s nine months later and summer seems very close. I talk to Emma on the phone every Wednesday afternoon. She has a new boyfriend named Owen who has soft facial features, like a child, and reads poetry to her over the phone. They said “I love you” after only three weeks, and they both meant it. Emma just received her Barnard acceptance letter after spending months on transfer application essays, which means that she’ll actually make it to New York after all. I look at the cars passing and the bank across the street and think about how much they resemble the cars and the banks back home. I imagine myself returning to my small college in the middle of a suburb the following fall, how it could very easily be any other small college in any other suburb. Then there she is, with a healthy new relationship and an acceptance letter to a fancy school in New York with sturdy iron gates and ivy-curled columns. Talking to her on the phone is sometimes difficult. Her growth, her glorious prosperity, immobilizes me. I always choke up and end the call.

At dinner, one friend scolds me for counting calories and another mulls over future baby names. I think of calling Emma, but instead I return to my dimly lit dorm room alone and type out a resume. When faced with the choice of lamenting over last summer or moving past it, I decide with a twinge of discomfort that I will not work at the donut shop again. For the first time in months, I do not dread returning to Maine.


Randall Seder is from Portland, Maine. When she is home, she enjoys walking her dogs at the beach, reading on the couch, and hiking in the Maine woods. She is studying psychology at Bryn Mawr College. This is her first publication.

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Leighann Renee on Unsplash