ANATOMY OF A MONARCA by Antonio Lopez

ANATOMY OF A MONARCA
by Antonio Lopez

Emerging from the quilted cocoon
of the brown monarcas
is an infant
who in silk immigrant dreams, vuela.

His oceili eyes painted
in Kahlo’s autoretrato-frontera,
a horizon hued in moretones.

Primed at his prefrontal cortex:
his brother’s Mara Salvatrucha punches.
Papá’s campesino hand
……..desperate a firmar el contrato.
Barefoot newly-widows
……..scream their sobs inside a veil—
……..Quiche dresses
……..wave copal incense
……..over a pine box.

Who determine Which Way Home*
by steadying their tarsals,
tres veces mojados,
to the cold iron of La Bestia’s roof.

They flap their limbs,
patterned in the dead-leaf camouflage
of cigarette burns.

Their diet consists of soiled dreams.

After fourteen days of hunching,
the boys will have molted into men
in the dead chrysalis of night.

Dos huérfanos entrelazan brazos encima del tren móvil.
Sus estómagos aporrean para esa Manzana Grande
cuyos rascacielos ellos solo han salivado en revistas.

By morning, the train tunnels
are rusted knives, their low ceilings
sever flight

from head-fall.

*Phrase derived from the title of a 2010 documentary that chronicles the journey of unaccompanied migrants from Mexico and El Salvador. One scene depicts two children locking arms to prevent themselves from falling off “La Bestia,” the network of trains used by US-bound bodies to traverse Mexico.


Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Antonio Lopez is the winner of the 2017 Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference Poetry Award, as well as the recipient of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley’s Lucille Clifton Memorial Scholarship. His nonfiction has been featured in TeenInk, PEN/America and his poetry is present or forthcoming in Gramma Press, Cosmonauts Avenue, storySouth, Grist, La Bloga, Acentos Review, Sinking City, By&By, Permafrost, Track//Four, the American Journal of Poetry, and others. He is currently pursuing a Master in Fine Arts (poetry) at Rutgers University-Newark.

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LIFE DURING WARTIME, a novel by Katie Rogin, reviewed by Isabelle Mongeau

LIFE DURING WARTIME
by Katie Rogin
Mastodon Publishing, 216 pages

reviewed by Isabelle Mongeau

Katie Rogin’s debut novel, Life During Wartime, presents the struggle that soldiers, and their families, face adjusting back to civilian life. The story begins when 21-year-old Nina Wicklow, home from duty in Iraq, goes missing in a small town outside of Los Angeles. Her disappearance sparks a ragtag group of family and friends to search for her, and during that journey, face their own trauma.

The novel unfolds through the perspective of multiple characters, the predominant two being Jim Wicklow and Lise Sheridan. Jim is the brother to Nina’s father, Ryan, who died in the Twin Towers during 9/11, seven years prior to the events of the story. Jim’s perspective acts as a bridge between the two worlds of civilian and solider—worlds that rub together harshly in the novel and leave the characters behind as collateral damage. He assumes the role of a liminal character as he witnessed Ryan’s death on “that day,” as he often calls 9/11, and can empathize with the soldiers he encounters in the search for Nina. Through Jim, the book presents 9/11 as war on U.S. territory, since it produced similar psychological effects to those who live in combat zones in Iraq. Jim’s sister tells him he experienced what a solider does, to which he replies, “That’s not war.” His sister then says, “It is. Just everyday.” Those who experience PTSD from violence share a bond that others cannot comprehend.

Jim remains with one foot in the reality of civilian life, as, post-9/11, he attempts to create a quiet existence for himself at his lake house with his wife. As he puts it, “since that day, he preferred predictability, no sudden moves and consistent lighting.” When his niece disappears, however, predictability is thrown out the window and he has to once again face the tumultuous effects of PTSD.

Captain Lise Sheridan provides the viewpoint of Nina’s peer, a young woman who spent time in the Middle East during the same period as Nina. Though not a sniper or foot soldier, Lise served as an army nurse and was forced to make tough life-and-death decisions, such as cutting off a friend’s infected limb. Nina and Lise both joined the community of veterans who attend support groups in the LA area after their tours. At the start of the book, Lise spends her time pedaling out information to her screenwriter lover, Danny, who uses her knowledge of war to craft his screenplay. The dynamic between her and Danny factors into the most fundamental question the book presents: How do we treat soldiers when they come home?

In Lise’s case, we pump them for information so we can then regurgitate a glorified version of war in movies and video games.

Although Nina’s disappearance prompts the events of the novel, it takes 40 pages to establish that she has gone missing, and even then, the declaration is uncertain. From Lise’s perspective, so many rumors surround what could have happened to Nina that the book spends less time unfolding what actually happened. The search also gets lost as bigger events take over the plot: from the roaring California fires, to the financial crash in 2008. Ultimately, Nina’s missing person’s case takes a backseat and even her friends and relatives forget they are searching for her.

The real battle does not end when the traumatic event has surpassed, but rather then only begins. Life after wartime is really life during wartime, and that is when support is needed the most.

Katie Rogi

While Lise’s experience highlights how the mainstream media glorifies war, Nina’s story shows that those who fight the battles—not on the screen—are forgotten. Her disappearance then becomes not just a physical state but also a metaphor for the neglected, broken solider. Lise ruminates on the state of the forgotten veteran in her own way. She realizes that, “the war had taken so many things from her, from her body, from her mind and from the other part of her that hovered between actions and thoughts. She didn’t want these things back—she wasn’t even sure what they were—she just wanted some kind of something to reassemble her broken world.”  

Jim’s and Lise’s journeys draw in other personalities, such as Nik, a Vietnam veteran who runs the support group, and Jen Broder, Nina’s landlady and distant family friend, who finds herself in bouts of depression as her own trauma resurfaces with Nina’s disappearance. As Lise finds her mind back in the combat zone as she walks around LA, Jen relives, in her mind, her virginity lost via rape. Though many years ago, Jen can’t control her flinching when her husband touches her. She always panics, to which he tries to explain, “It’s love, Jen.” Her visceral response parallels Lise’s as she wets her pants during a war flashback.

The inner demons these women face only echo those of Jim, and despite the trauma varying between each character, the result of violence upon the person is the same. Though their PTSD plagues them, it also allows for a special understanding between Jim, Lise, and Jen, a sense of solidarity that extends to Nina. They may struggle during their journey to find her, but their empathy for Nina only grows with each step.

Jim, Lise, and Jen stumble around in a haze—not just the smoke created by the California forest fires—but a haze of uncertainty and a lethargic state of mind. As the search team for Nina gives way to more global events, the characters lose themselves, as well. Jen stays in bed most of the time, and Lise can’t cement herself in the present moment. Jim, who finds solace in his relationship with his wife, feels tempted by Lise’s company. In the ambiguity, one thing rings clear. The real battle does not end when the traumatic event has surpassed, but rather then only begins. Life after wartime is really life during wartime, and that is when support is needed the most.     


Isabelle Mongeau studies Creative Writing and Film at Emory University in Georgia. Although she loves life in Atlanta, she was raised in Wellesley, Massachusetts. She has been published in Living Springs Publishers as their finalist, and Emory’s literary magazine, Alloy. Isabelle seeks to create stories that are both serious and entertaining.

RETURNING TO THE GLOBAL HUMANITARIAN CRISIS: by Denis Dragovic

The author meeting with Susan, head of a local NGO in South Sudan talking about microfinance programs

RETURNING TO THE GLOBAL HUMANITARIAN CRISIS:
by Denis Dragovic

Early one evening in 2001 I watched an airplane as it cut through the African sky leaving its long and distinctive vapor trail. I stood still, taking a moment to wonder what the view looked like from above. Recalling my own thoughts when traveling—arrival, the days that lay ahead, a new movie on the in-flight entertainment, the ever-shrinking leg room—I realized that few would have reason to suspect the calamity that was unfolding below.

On the ground, the details were clearer. I was standing amongst a sea of plastic sheeting, mainly blue, some green, and a smattering of other colors. These bamboo structures, extending as far as the eye could see, housed over 20,000 people. Somewhere amongst this sea of people were some of my staff, who had fled along with the rest of the population from a town called Raga in the southwest of the then Sudan. On foot, weaving my way through the country’s newest settlement, I was struck by how resilient these people were. They had trekked for a month, thousands of women and children along with a few men, eating off the land, a diet of peanuts and wild mangoes, in addition to any other scraps they could find.

The thousands of faces from that day make the millions that comprise the global humanitarian crisis real to me.

Through a decade-long journey working with the poor and war-affected, the finer details of wars and humanitarian disasters are starkly apparent.

Through a decade-long journey working with the poor and war-affected, the finer details of wars and humanitarian disasters are starkly apparent. From Australia to Iraq via Africa and Asia, I saw the underbelly of our world, where slave raiders returned with their ill-gotten gains: a dozen women and children, destined to be unloaded in the capital. I once bought the life of a man who had accidentally killed a friend by paying off the remaining blood money: a dozen cows, weeks before he was to hang. The first female staff member I hired in Iraq, a mother of two, was shot at her home, a senseless honor killing perpetrated by the brothers-in-law to stifle rumors of infidelity.

But in equal parts, as if in some delicate balance of nature, the promise of humanity shines through. In Iraq, local staff risked their lives and even their families to help secure the release of a kidnapped Canadian colleague. In South Sudan, I wove my way around temporary shelters made of plastic sheets and invitations to join in an evening meal, a broth of leaves and grass flowed forth at every turn. And in East Timor, I was encouraged to practice my limited vocabulary of their oppressors’ language. As it wasn’t the Indonesian people, I was told, who had burned their homes, lay waste to their livelihoods, or killed their families. It was the military, and that distinction was important to them.

I sometimes wonder, what happened to these people whose paths crossed with mine. Even though many of the meetings were fleeting, the memories linger. One of my recurring thoughts, while sitting face to face with a mother or child, an Ayatollah or tribal chief, was not a glib wish for peace, but selfishly wanting to look into their minds. How did the recently displaced families, who invited me to share in their broth of grass, interpret my garbled response: as polite refusal or harsh disgust? What thoughts did the village chief harbor while hosting an elaborate mock wedding ceremony to showcase his people’s traditions: pride of his people’s culture or a cold calculation at what transactions could be secured? Did the child, lying in hospital with a fresh wound in his cheek complimentary of celebratory gunfire think that the white man would take away the pain or was he afraid of the “white ghost”?

I wanted to know, so I packed my bags and headed back to the places where I used to work to see what happened to the people and projects.

Traveling back to East Timor was a routine journey not dissimilar to visiting Sydney. South Sudan required a friend in an NGO to arrange for a visa, but Iraq was problematic. Without an official reason to be there, it was hard to get in.

A good friend of mine from when I had worked there had promised to arrange a seven-day pass from the passport office in Najaf, Iraq, though as I fronted the airline counter in Amman, Jordan, I admitted that I had no paperwork to prove it. A few phone calls, some kind smiles, and promises that everything was sorted on the other end led to me boarding the flight, but unsure of what the consequences were for illegally entering the country.

The nearly two-hour flight for my return to Najaf was uneventful. I laid low, avoiding any conversation with the hope that my southern European features and a perfectly trimmed, seven-day growth would detract attention. On the inside, though, my stomach was curdling.

The author with Ayatollah Sheikh Bashir Najafi who had accused him years earlier of being a CIA spy.

As we broke through the clouds to begin the final descent I caught a full panoramic view of the city and the largest graveyard in the world, the place where the final wishes of the Shia faithful—to be buried near Imam Ali—are fulfilled. Founded in the eighth century, Najaf traces its provenance to the whim of a camel carrying the dead body of Ali, the slain forebear of the Shia, and the namesake of the shrine built upon the ground at which the camel eventually came to rest. From the air it seems the camel had a good eye. I could see how centuries ago it would have been a wise place to establish a settlement—close to a water source and with one half of the approach to the city protected by the Sea of Najaf. Maybe the camel had been guided by God.

One of my recurring thoughts, while sitting face to face with a mother or child, an Ayatollah or tribal chief, was not a glib wish for peace, but selfishly wanting to look into their minds.  

Divine intervention is a closely held belief amongst Muslims, most evidently expressed in the common remark in Arabic, insha’allah, meaning “God willing.” It’s used in various ways, including as an affirmative response, as in, “Can I please have a receipt for that?”

“Insha’allah,” is said as the receipt is handed over.

It’s also commonly used to pass off responsibility by speaking the word while responding with a smile and nod, even though knowing the truth to be otherwise.

Saddam’s soldier #1 shouted, “We will chase the infidels into the sea!”

Saddam’s soldier #2, smiling, may have responded, ‘Insha’allah.’

Rarely, I hear it used in its purest form: if God is willing then this highly unlikely outcome that we all hope and pray for could well come true.

Being the third most important destination on a devout Shia Muslim’s travel itinerary makes an airport crucial infrastructure. Amazingly, Najaf did not have an airport until mid-2008, when a Kuwaiti firm’s efforts at rehabilitating an old air force base opened the city for the first time to international travelers.

The airport, built in an old-fashioned hangar style, is secure, modern, clean, and very spacious, but none of that was on my mind as I walked to immigration. Instead, I began to look around for someone, anyone, who looked familiar. Where was my friend’s contact? Did he forget? Maybe his promise of a visa was all bluster, not believing that I would actually come. Then to my surprise, a very young woman appeared in front of me covered in the customary black abaya worn in religiously conservative areas. With a beaming smile framed by her hijab, she introduced herself as Zahra.

“Please follow me,” she said cheerfully.

Zahra, a former staff member of the NGO I led, thankfully had secured a job at immigration.  She seemed to have that unique ability to perfectly balance the cultural reservedness expected of women while still being assertive and able to get her message across. Her nonchalance about the whole situation slowly began to put me at ease. While she was enthusiastic to help, it seemed that getting an entry visa upon arrival would not be such an easy thing.

I was shown a seat and asked to wait while Zahra argued the case. I watched as phone calls were made, hands cut through the air emphasizing a point, and voices rose. Then, it all seemed to be settled. A solution was found. I just needed to confirm that I was a pilgrim visiting the Shrine of Imam Ali.

I responded with a smile and answered, “Insha’allah.”


Denis Dragovic is an author of literary and scholarly works. Drawing from his experiences responding to major humanitarian crises in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, Denis’ literary writing weaves together narratives of foreign cultures and adventure travel with an insider’s expert perspective on the humanitarian challenges of the twenty-first century. His latest book is No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis (Odyssey Books, 2018)Find him at www.denisdragovic.com.

MINA, a novel by Kim Sagwa, reviewed by Kelly Doyle

MINA
by Kim Sagwa
translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton
Two Lines Press, 237

Reviewed by Kelly Doyle

When adults look back upon their teenage years they chuckle, roll their eyes at their own naiveté, or slap their foreheads in retrospective frustration. And they have a lot to say. Writers have been exploiting the tumultuous years between thirteen and eighteen ever since the first angsty teenager began committing regrettable acts in an attempt to find herself. Writers feast on change, on transition, on fear and tension, all so inherent in the teenage being. From The Catcher in the Rye to Looking for Alaska to The Outsiders and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, we have seen poor judgment, insecurity, the occasional misguided romance, and the search for identity drive stories.

A new novel, Mina, written by Kim Sagwa and translated from Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, also attempts to chronical this transformative time of life, but in the context of a world that does not condone individuality, experimentation, or choice. Through unconventional characters, a high-pressure setting, and an unapologetic directness that is both off-putting and enthralling, Sagwa creates an entirely different kind of teenage drama. By placing three emotional, confused young people in a world of restraint and hidden suffering, she ignites an explosion of a story that is entirely new. It does not have the charming humor of John Green or the contrariety of J.D. Salinger. Instead, it is an immensely serious and angry portrayal of a teenage breakdown.

On the surface, the protagonist Crystal could be mistaken for a standard teenager with standard feelings. She lives an upper-middle-class life in P-City, Korea, where she struggles with the usual teenage problems of boys, alcohol, and fitting in. She loves music and cheesecake. At the beginning of the novel, the reader is led to believe that Crystal’s insanity, or “weirdness” as other characters refer to it, is in response to the societal pressures that surround her, specifically in relation to school. Her friend Mina describes their lives as “Cram school, home, school, test, school, school, cram school, homework, tutor, cram school, home, tutor, cram school, home, school, back to cram school, back to tutor, back for a test back to homework back to school back to school back to school. Home. Cram School. How can anyone think this is normal? It’s crazy.” In addition, they are well aware of the emphasis their families place on class, and where they fall within the hierarchy of their world. Their society is made up of an “exclusive middle-class lifestyle that is selfish, ignorant, and irresponsible […] while in another section of the city the lives of the losers slowly sink.” This attitude spills into Crystal’s worldview and she begins seeing everyone as nothing but a position in her ranking system: “this person’s worthy, that person’s unworthy.” Crystal’s parents are rarely home. She is starved for attention and lacks an emotional outlet. The only one is Mina and Mina’s brother Minho, with whom Crystal believes she is in love. Crystal says that her life is all about coping just so she “will have an opportunity to carry heavier burdens.” It is easy to understand why she might be “weird.”

Kim Sagwa

However, as her weirdness devolves into an entirely different form of insanity, it becomes harder to imagine that society is the only force at work. Crystal is narcissistic and sadistic, believing herself smarter than everyone in the world. “People are idiots, and I hate idiots,” she says many times throughout the novel. “Stupid kids ought to be put to work on a farm […] I wish I could tell them there’s no reason they should exist. Then kill them, a slow, painful death. After the job is done I’ll have a good laugh.” She vacillates between wanting everyone dead and merely wanting them below her, “underfoot so she can call down and tell them they can’t come up.”

Sagwa opens with a premise that has been written and rewritten and places it in a world where the normal sequence of events is outlawed, twisting the classic bildungsroman it into a terrifying spectacle of a life going terribly wrong.

On top of that, Crystal is obsessed with Mina, simultaneously hating and loving her, fantasizing about murdering her and being her hero. The reader’s relationship with Crystal changes drastically when she acts upon her dark instincts for the first time. Finding an abandoned kitten, she pulls its tail, hits it, throws it repeatedly against a wall, and eventually puts it in a plastic bag and throws it out the window. The entire episode is overlaid with her overflowing emotions. “As she laughs she feels anger infiltrating the laughter—more and more anger […] her laughter changes to hysteria.” For the rest of the novel, as if the torturing and killing of the cat have unleashed something that can no longer be controlled, her emotional volatility worsens, culminating in elaborate hallucinations and terrifying fantasies. She attempts to explain her feelings in long monologues and internal contemplations, but she lacks empathy and logic. Citing new problems on every page, her twisted worldview seems to be constantly changing. She ranks everyone in a fashion reminiscent of the grades that control her life and is extremely conscious of class and intelligence. “I hope the planet dies,” she says. “Before I turn twenty. If the planet dies then all the idiocy in the world can be saved—salvation from stupidity.” She has no social understanding and seems to be utterly alone. Her rants span for pages, ending chapters without making any convincing arguments. Throughout this spiral, the reader fears more and more for the safety of Mina, who remains the focus of many of Crystal’s thoughts and fantasizes. The beginning of the novel reads like a social commentary, but it plays out like a horror movie.

The narrator exists somewhere between Crystal’s mind and an all-knowing god, reporting her thoughts as well as information she would have no way of knowing. This unconventional narrative pattern alloys Sagwa’s voice to distinguish itself through images that are precise and visceral. The story is fast-paced because the reader feels Crystal’s franticness—the volatility and transience of each individual moment.

Sagwa creates a new kind of teenage drama, a story that is not concerned with pleasing the reader or making anyone happy. She writes a coming of age story in a setting where development is impossible, where pressure decides everything, where structure replaces individuality. 

Yet the narrative provides the reader with no respite from the darkness of Crystal’s mind. It spans the entire course of the novel, resulting in a gritty read. Crystal is incomprehensible, difficult to understand or relate to. She is one of many teenagers molded into identical students, and she can only become as different as her daring allows. Crystal is so helpless that, in this time of transition, she can only create choice for herself if she not only breaks the rules but breaks the very foundation of the world in which she lives. As soon as she begins to believe this, any less than radical solution becomes impossible. In this way, Sagwa creates a new kind of teenage drama, a story that is not concerned with pleasing the reader or making anyone happy. She writes a coming of age story in a setting where development is impossible, where pressure decides everything, where structure replaces individuality. She opens with a premise that has been written and rewritten and places it in a world where the normal sequence of events is outlawed, twisting the classic bildungsroman it into a terrifying spectacle of a life going terribly wrong.


Kelly Doyle studies English, creative writing, and psychology at Emory University. Her fiction has appeared in Firewords Quarterly, Stories Through the Ages College Edition, and others. She is the editor-in-chief of Emory’s literary magazine, Alloy, and she works in a developmental memory lab on campus. She loves to read and travel, and she plans to pursue a career in writing.

COMEMADRE, a novel by Roque Larraquy, reviewed by Justin Goodman

COMEMADRE
by Roque Larraquy
translated by Heather Cleary
Coffee House Press, 152 pages

Reviewed by Justin Goodman

There is a plant “whose sap produces […] microscopic animal larvae” that can consume rats “from the inside out.” It can only be found on “Thompson Island, a small landmass in Tierra Del Fuego,” within Argentinian screenwriter Roque Larraquy’s debut novel Comemadre—the name of this plant of spontaneous generation. Translated in the novel as “motherseeker or mothersicken,” this fictitious plant and its larvae symbolize the dual powers of violence to create and destroy. First as crime, then as art. It is an unmistakably self-conscious symbol for an unrepentantly self-conscious novel, going so far as to have the artist-narrator of the second part dissecting a biographer’s write-up of him and his legacy. Thankfully this consciousness doesn’t eat the novel from the inside out. However, the primary issue of the novel is precisely the necessarily maximalist philosophy this consciousness requires for its slim 129 pages. By the time the comemadre plant has been introduced on page 74, it becomes just another symbol in a long chain of symbols as opposed to the centralizing (and titular) symbol it intends to be.

The comemadre is even introduced as “a botanical digression.” A digression from what, you may wonder? By this point, the initial narrator, Quintana, a doctor at Temperly Sanatorium in 1907 Buenos Aires, has already dragged the reader through a minefield of concepts. First, he ogles the head nurse, Menendez, who, he says, “fits entirely into the space of those words.” Her existence is reduced to the textual and external. Menendez, instead of being pregnant with meaning, becomes a pregnant pause, the ellipses of her identity-concealing occupation. Then a coworker and rival for Menendez’s attention, Papini, tells a layered joke about a “‘fellow [killing] his wife because she wouldn’t tell him what she was doing on the bidet’” in order to explain phrenology. This is followed by a demonstration by the head doctor:

Next to [the duck] is a wooden box of average size. Its lid, which opens down the middle, has a large, round aperture at its center, bordered by the word ergo. Under the lid is a blade that shoots out horizontally with the speed and force of a crossbow. On the sides of the box, next to the reliefs of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, are the words cogito and sum, respectively.

The head doctor decapitates the duck, its head “[remaining] on the ergo,” while “it looks at us. Or thinks the thoughts of a duck.” This demonstration is followed by a report from an eighteenth-century doctor who recorded a similar event in humans at the guillotine. It’s at this point, fourteen pages in, that we arrive at the guiding story of Comemadre: Can the doctors of Temperley Sanatorium convince patients to be guillotined and then get them to talk about the afterlife? In other words, unlike these preceding moments of textual and external understanding, can the doctors transcend exteriority?

Roque Larraquy

Probably not, as several images later (including a fake serum, tin frogs, and circling ants) Quintana’s story concludes with his visceral and violent act of propagation upon Menendez; Quintana, in pursuit of transcendence, makes a mother of her, becoming the motherseeker eating her from the inside out. The savagery of this (pro)creative act is reduced in the second part, taking place in 2009. Here, all that remains of Quintana is his journal, which becomes the inspiration for a final art piece for the artist-narrator and his partner, Quintana’s great-grandson. To be frank, the problem this poses is too great for the novel to overcome: the holistic feeling of Quintana’s story, as troubled as it is by abundance, is broken apart in the section of the novel that reads like an extended afterword. Over-comprehensive is the word. There is too much weighing on Quintana’s story to recontextualize and revitalize it effectively. On its own, in fact, Quintana’s story would have been complicatedly interesting. It resembles Ernesto Sabato’s 1948 Argentinean classic The Tunnel, another story of obsession and the possibility of transcendence. A refreshing, Modernist turn.

As it is, however, Comemadre is not a bad debut in the slightest. Roque Larraquy is a strong monologist. One of the most memorable moments being the previously mentioned explanation of phrenological characters via a man’s curiosity about what his wife does with a bidet. The second part, insomuch as it is an extended monologue, hits the right notes for a narrator-artist with such memorable lines as “I think, no one likes a child prodigy in a Dior vest.” And while his characters often border on tropes—Doctor Papini is a familiar figure as the big idea, all bravado comic relief—there does remain an air of mystery about Quintana’s motives. At times indifferent as Mersault in Albert Camus’ The Stranger, at times as technically cruel as the Nazi doctor Mengele. A concentration camp survivor once said that “I have never accepted that Mengele believed he was doing serious medical work […] He was exercising power.” This would be a fitting description of Quintana. Strikingly, Josef Mengele fled to Buenos Aires after World War II.

And as for the translation by Heather Cleary, it is hard to imagine Comemadre functioning as effectively as it does without her. Much like her work on Sergio Chejfec’s The Dark, she brings clarity to writing that is dense and overflowing.

And as for the translation by Heather Cleary, it is hard to imagine Comemadre functioning as effectively as it does without her. Much like her work on Sergio Chejfec’s The Dark, she brings clarity to writing that is dense and overflowing. While these two projects are markedly different—Chejfec’s writing is mazy, Larraquy’s is layered—they both require a translator that can parse their complications. What rough edges exist in this novel are inherent to the novel. Quintana, observing the doctors of the Sanatorium applauding their American benefactor for proposing to head nurse Menendez, notes that she is “condensed, made material; she adopts her decisive form.” This would be an accurate description of Cleary’s contribution to the novel as well.

At the end of the description of the guillotine box for the Cartesian duck it follows: “the phrase and figures clearly bear allegorical weight, which diminishes the charm of the whole.” A more fully formed reflection on Comemadre doesn’t exist. Just as the comemadre larvae spontaneously generate in the plant’s sap, symbols seem to spontaneously generate in the leaves of the book. The larvae themselves are stored in a black powder that is described by the artist-narrator of the second part as having “an irregular texture.” Comemadre has an irregular texture. It wants to mean too much, so much that it inserts addendums to inform you of its intent. Perhaps Archibald Macleish’s final words in “Ars Poetica” are overstated. But when I read almost wonderful novels like this one I’m still reminded of them: “A poem should not mean/but be.”


Justin Goodman earned his B.A. in Literature from SUNY Purchase. His writing–published, among other places, in Cleaver Magazine, TwoCities Review, and Prairie Schooner–is accessible from justindgoodman.com. His chapbook, The True Final Apocalypse, is forthcoming from Local Gems.

DEEP CAMOUFLAGE, poems by Amy Saul-Zerby, reviewed by Mike Corrao

DEEP CAMOUFLAGE
by Amy Saul-Zerby

Civil Coping Mechanisms, 118 page

Reviewed by Mike Corrao

Amy Saul-Zerby’s new collection, Deep Camouflage is the manifestation of heartbreak. It is the fables that spawn from moments of empathy and melancholy. It is the conversation that a poet has with their reader. More than most poetry collections, Saul-Zerby’s is a sequence that asks to be read all at once. These poems flow so smoothly into one another that it eventually became difficult for me to distinguish them as separate poems. Each moment felt so interconnected with those around it that what I was reading became one larger work, occupying that transitory space where heartbreak lives.

These poems flow so smoothly into one another that it eventually became difficult for me to distinguish them as separate poems. Each moment felt so interconnected with those around it that what I was reading became one larger work, occupying that transitory space where heartbreak lives.

Reading Saul-Zerby’s poems, I kept thinking about the myth of Medusa. Not because it’s ever mentioned in the book, or because the book is meant to read as a retelling. I thought initially that this connection was the result of something that I’d read recently that I must have forgotten, that it was already bouncing around inside my head. Now, I think that there may be a more interesting connection between these two narratives, and that Deep Camouflage might act as a kind of subversive variation of the original myth. Now, the label of Medusa carries with it some inherent assumptions. I do not want to use this title as it relates to physical appearance, but rather as it applies to circumstance. Medusa is the woman cursed by the gods, whose fate was forced upon her. She is the victim of men who hurt her for the sake of their own self-indulgence and then blame her for what they’ve done. They cut off her head and take it home as a trophy. In this sequence, we see a progression in the outside perception of the character going from victim to monster. Medusa is the ‘sacrificial woman’ or the woman who has been turned into an object and stripped of her humanity. Deep Camouflage (at least to my knowledge) has no intentions of connecting itself to Medusa, or the Perseid, but regardless of this, we might use Medusa as a means of understanding the way that Saul-Zerby refuses this stereotypical role of the ‘sacrificial woman’ and how she instead attempts to reverse this progression and create an independent and powerful new image.

These poems are about love and trauma. The aftermath of failed or lost romance. The ways that someone we used to love can take a part of us with them on their way out. In Deep Camouflage, the body is something that we occupy. It’s a container for the self, being, existence (the existent). Trauma is when pain penetrates this shell and ricochets around the inside. Saul-Zerby takes the time to form this distinction between the container and what it contains. And does so because this book wants you to see the difference between what you are and what you project. These poems are full of pain, but at times, this pain comes because it is asked for. “rip me open like you do” and this isn’t because the poems are a woman who deserves to hurt or a woman who owes herself to someone else. This is a pain of obligation. It is Medusa lowering her head so that Perseus can remove it more easily. These poems are what leaks out of the neck of the severed head: the insides when they evacuate the shell. Conversations and thoughts exposed to the open air.

None of this is to say that Saul-Zerby is playing into the stereotypes of the ‘passive woman.’ This book refuses to form itself around the gendered demands that come with heartbreak. It refuses to be anything other than itself. Deep Camouflage is not a poetry collection about forgiveness or reunion. Instead, it embodies this refusal to give up parts of ourself for the sake of others, out of some archaic obligation. As if Medusa has taken the head, severed from her body, and cradled it in her arms. What is lost is lost, but it is not handed over to someone else. Perseus does not get to turn Medusa into an object. She sews it back onto her body and bears this universal longing and loss. She does not let her exes take these important parts of her. This is embodied in poems like “anthem” where the poet says, “ask not what you / can do for / your country // ask what you / can do for me.” Saul-Zerby shrugs off these expectations, she refuses to be an empty vessel, a discarded object. She sews the head back onto her body, and tells us that she will not give herself over to the gendered expectations of heartbreak.

This is a collection for anyone in search of new poetry. Deep Camouflage is accessible yet intimate. It’s a collection for those suffering from heartbreak, or those looking for something beautiful to read. Saul-Zerby’s poems read like memories and thoughts, pouring directly from the mind into the mouth. They feel genuine and unfiltered. 

Deep Camouflage is a contemporary collection, full of beautiful and incredibly honest language. Although I might see these connections with the past, these poems could not exist in another time. They are deeply rooted in the modern melancholy, that feeling of loneliness that exists in the city. Where an apartment is infinitely far away from any kind of human contact. Saul-Zerby has a complex understanding of these emotions that we’re not always able to vocalize or describe. This is a collection for anyone in search of new poetry. Deep Camouflage is accessible yet intimate. It’s a collection for those suffering from heartbreak, or those looking for something beautiful to read. Saul-Zerby’s poems read like memories and thoughts, pouring directly from the mind into the mouth. They feel genuine and unfiltered. Deep Camouflage is an impressive second book by a talented poet.


Mike Corrao is a writer working out of Minneapolis. His work has been featured in publications such as Entropy, Cleaver, decomP, and Fanzine. Read his story Beat Boy in Issue 16 of Cleaver. His first novel will be released in fall of 2018 by Orson’s Publishing. Further information at www.mikecorrao.com.

ASK JUNE: The Prize Dilemma

Dear June,

I recently attended two events, one involving my niece and one involving a colleague’s spouse.

The first event was a local gymnastics meet for middle schoolers—just an informal, rec center thing. In my niece’s cohort, there were seven kids competing. My niece, who had won First Place at the previous meet, was very excited and did what I thought was a very nice routine. Anyway, it turned out that there were five awards, for First through Fifth Place, which were announced in reverse order à la Miss America Pageant, with many pauses and lots of drama. By the time they got to First Place my niece was practically jumping up and down with anticipation. When another girl won I could see her blushing and trying to hold back tears. The presenter then announced a sixth award, for a specific apparatus—and my niece didn’t get that one, either. So the result was that she in effect was told that she was the worst person competing.  

By the time they got to First Place my niece was practically jumping up and down with anticipation. When another girl won I could see her blushing and trying to hold back tears. The presenter then announced a sixth award, for a specific apparatus—and my niece didn’t get that one, either. So the result was that she in effect was told that she was the worst person competing.

My brother is having trouble convincing her that she isn’t terrible and that gymnastics can still be fun. And he is really angry,

The second event I attended was quite different: a pre-degree awards ceremony for M.F.A. visual artists at a prestigious art school. In this case, there were 15 portfolios presented, which were supposed to distill the best of at least two years’ work. I know from what my colleague said that the candidates work really hard for months to put their portfolios together and that getting an award for one’s portfolio is very helpful for future employment and commissions and so on. And another thing: lots of different styles and media were represented, so the whole competition seemed to me like apples and oranges, although I am a writer so I am not quite sure how standards are set.

Anyway, there were three awards and two honorable mentions, and then the head of the program said that she wanted to let people know about five other people who were very high in the final ranking. Unlike my niece, my colleague’s wife did well (Second Place), so I didn’t have the same personal stake in the result but it still seemed unnecessary for there to be a public announcement basically saying that five of the students’ portfolios were in the bottom third.

This is not just a theoretical question for me. I teach creative writing and we do give out awards at the end of the year to a bunch of aspiring writers who are, if anything, more fragile than most middle-school athletes.

What do you think? Do you approve of the way the gymnastics meet and/or the portfolio awards were handled? This is not just a theoretical question for me. I teach creative writing and we do give out awards at the end of the year to a bunch of aspiring writers who are, if anything, more fragile than most middle-school athletes. And as for the gymnasts, I could use a little help deciding what to say to restore my niece’s self-confidence and prevent my brother from saying or doing something intemperate if this happens again.

Upset Teacher in an Undisclosed Town


Dear UpUn,

Let’s start with the middle-schoolers. I disapprove.

One of my kids’ second-grade teachers had a rule about birthday parties: you could invite one or two kids or the whole class, but nothing in between. This way the children who weren’t invited might be disappointed at not being the birthday kid’s special friend but were much less likely to feel like pariahs. Even though your gymnasts are a little older, and were engaging in what was explicitly a skills competition, they are still very young and competing at an instructional, informal level. In such cases, there is no reason at all to set up an awards ceremony that may discourage kids from continuing with the sport and is almost guaranteed to cause needless disappointment and self-doubt. (Note: I am not talking about high-level, O.D.P. sports and the like. A lot of that seems crazy, too, but it would take inside knowledge for me to weigh in on the risks and benefits.)

Perhaps the turnout for your niece’s group was much lower than expected, and nobody anticipated that one little girl would effectively get the booby prize. But you’d think the responsible adults would have some sense and flexibility in a situation like that. For Pete’s sake, when you see that there are only seven kids competing, limit the awards to no more than three, or else (depending on how many certificates and dollar-store medals you have kicking around in your trunk) just give everybody an award, and maybe single out one or two girls for general excellence or stellar performance on the unequal bars. There are any number of ways to encourage the kids who excel without singling out the ones who do badly—or, in this case, who may have also done just fine in a subjective competition among a small group of children.

I realize that I am laying myself open to criticism as a fuzzy-headed, deep- and/ or nanny-state sympathizing bleeding heart who turns future rugged entrepreneurs into those dreaded “special snowflakes” of Internet rant fame, thereby accelerating the erosion of America’s greatness.

Those gymnasts are snowflakes. They are little kids, little individuals who need to build a reserve of self-confidence and self-esteem they can draw on in the future when they face serious challenges and unavoidable stumbling blocks. It’s true that setbacks, including failure and even humiliation, can build character. But they can also warp it. We are talking about youth sports here, not Marine boot camp.

But you know what? Those gymnasts are snowflakes. They are little kids, little individuals who need to build a reserve of self-confidence and self-esteem they can draw on in the future when they face serious challenges and unavoidable stumbling blocks. It’s true that setbacks, including failure and even humiliation, can build character. But they can also warp it. We are talking about youth sports here, not Marine boot camp. Manufacturing ways of embarrassing or disappointing children just isn’t worth the risk to their egos—or to their growing bodies, if they lose interest in sports.

Some other things we are not talking about here are The Bachelor, American Idol, or Chopped. There are no Nielson ratings to worry about, no advertisers who require spectacle and suspense. The gymnasts’ drawn out, reverse-order awards ceremony strikes me as silly, with just a touch of sadism—like teasing a dog with food (and perhaps posting a video of the dog’s adorable anxiety all over social media). Come to think of it, the dog tease actually makes more sense than the awards ceremony, since canine obedience does need to be reinforced, and since in most cases Old Blue eventually gets to eat the Pupperoni you’ve been making him balance on his snout for a doggie eternity. There’s no reason for the gymnastics award presenters to drag out the suspense, especially when a kid has reason to hope that she will come in first, not last!

As to how to restore your niece’s self-confidence, I suggest playing down the situation. It’s probably best not to mention the matter at all. Instead, talk to her about other areas where she excels, or have her do some gymnastics with you or for you and praise her—but focus on the fun part. If she raises the subject, I would just say that you thought she did great, and that is really weird the way one day your performance can get you first prize and the next time no prize. Try to be more so it-goes than we-wuz-robbed.

I would take a similar low-key tone with your brother. Above all, try to keep him from displaying any anger or disappointment around his daughter, which would only reinforce the very stupid notion that this one award, or any award, is what youth athletics is about. I wouldn’t actively discourage him from talking to the coach, or whoever runs these competitions if he wants to. People are always making life miserable for the many self-sacrificing coaches and officials in youth sports by challenging and second-guessing them, but in this case I think it might benefit the kids and the program if, without getting overwrought, your brother speaks to one of them and recommends against giving out almost, but not quite, as many prizes as there are contestants.

Just make sure he does so before, not during, an actual event, lest violence ensue. Believe me, this happens in youth sports. I still bear psychic scars from a travel soccer tournament held, appropriately, in Manassas, Virginia.

The portfolio awards are a bit different in that the contestants are adults who belong, or aspire to belong, to a profession where survival can depend on being able to learn from criticism and rebound from all manner of rejection.

True enough: but this 3-2-5-5-tier division is not criticism. It’s pure ranking, which provides the artists with no specifics, rationales, or advice for going forward. Besides, even if the rankings are completely accurate (whatever that means when evaluating student art), they are useless as a measure of absolute merit, since the pool of students as a whole could be terrific or terrible. And they are next-to-useless even as a measure of relative merit since there is no way to assess the gaps between any two individuals or subsets.

Okay, but what about the need for artists (and writers) to toughen themselves, to learn to accept rejection? If you are a non-celebrity in the arts or letters, you have to be thick-skinned and resilient. It can be a jungle out there or—worse—a lonely wasteland. But a portfolio awards ceremony may be one of the dumbest places to try to teach an artist grit and resilience. School should be an environment where artists and writers feel safe—not from criticism or even necessarily grading but from unexplained public pigeonholing.

School should be an environment where artists and writers feel safe—not from criticism or even necessarily grading but from unexplained public pigeonholing.

I agree with you about apples and oranges. Given the variety of artistic expression, and the amount of subjectivity in responses to art, I don’t see much sense in treating art like some kind of contest. If tradition or, for reasons that elude me, pedagogy requires that awards be given at an art school, I would keep the comparisons to a minimum for that reason alone. Three awards, fine. Honorable mentions, maybe, since they may have some resumé value. But why publicly announce the five next-best portfolios? It seems to me that, whatever benefit students might derive from being publicly praised as among the middle third is far outweighed by the effect on the bottom third. As with the little gymnasts, awards work best for everybody when they single out a few people for praise as opposed to publicly proclaiming everybody’s relative status. If you have to teach realism to certain students, there are better places, like conferences, individual critiques, and career counseling.

When you give out your own awards, I would keep your second tier private. Write them letters, if you like. Or think up specific awards for writers who are especially strong in certain areas: this would not only be encouraging, but also informative. But don’t publicly rank anybody as in or near the bottom without good reason, especially when they are already performing the brave and generous act of creative writing.

LA WALLY SAYS:
With the gymnasts, just tell the girl that that’s how it is. You win sometimes, and you lose sometimes, but don’t let it stop you from having fun. As for the portfolios: why go into that kind of detail about which artists you think are best and worst? You don’t make the art any better, and you will hurt people.


ask-june-square-for-facebook-no-border-300pxCleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at AskJune@Cleavermagazine.com. Find more columns by June in her attic.

 

La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.

 

Image credit: Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

LOVE, HATE and OTHER FILTERS, a young adult novel by Samira Ahmed, reviewed by Leticia Urieta

LOVE, HATE and OTHER FILTERS  
by Samira Ahmed
Soho Teen, 281 pages

reviewed by Leticia Urieta

Maya Aziz sees her world through a camera lens. “One thing I’ve learned,” she says, “People love a camera, and when I’m filming, they see it, not me, so whenever I need to, I can disappear behind my trusty shield.” She is often the observer, experiencing her life on the outside looking in. As the novel opens, Maya is at a crossroads: she has been accepted to NYU’s prestigious filmmaking program, but her traditional Indian Muslim parents want her to go to school in Chicago, within reach of their influence and protection. To them, filmmaking is a hobby; for Maya, it is how she makes sense of a world where she is still unsure of where to place herself. To add complications to her decision, she begins flirtations with two different boys: the one her parents set her up with, Kareem, and Phil, a white American boy she grew up with in their small Illinois town.

As her flirtation with Kareem progresses and she grows closer with Phil, Maya is forced to reckon with the good-girl, parent-pleasing persona she has cultivated her entire life. Maya’s aunt, Hina, is the rebel in the family. She remains unmarried and works as a graphic designer in Chicago. She is Maya’s constant supporter, and their closeness displays Maya’s complex relationship to her culture: the battle to please and pacify her parents, especially her fearful mother, her lapsed relationship to being a Muslim woman, and her need to express who she is.

Maya’s narrative voice is funny, biting, insecure, romantic and pragmatic, containing all of the complexities readers could want in a young woman her age. She constantly references film history, older Bollywood musicals and contemporary literature as ways to understand her first kiss, her interludes with Phil as they sneak away to a secret pond to be alone, and her own familial ties to a culture that confounds her and is still a part of her.

While Maya’s NYU dreams and her burgeoning romantic feelings about Phil grow uninterrupted, a sinister undertone haunts the novel’s progression. Between each chapter there are short cinematic interludes, scenes that hint at a violence to come, like a car speeding towards Maya’s life in a rearview mirror she is unable to see.

When a terror attack occurs in neighboring Springfield, Maya’s small community is rocked by the loss of life and she must contend with being the only Muslim, Indian-American girl in her town as she never has before. Much of the events in the novel reflect our charged Islamophobic climate as our nation waits for a decision from the Supreme Court about whether or not they will uphold the third iteration of the “Muslim Ban” that has weighed on immigrants and families in the first year of the Trump presidency. Islamophobic rhetoric is on the rise since 9/11, and this book holds a story within it that is more necessary now than ever.

Samira Ahmed

The political is inextricable from the personal, and Ahmed authentically reflects Maya’s struggles and joys. Her relationship to her country, her religion and her culture shifts and changes as the story progresses. When her family’s façade of peace and obedience is challenged, so is Maya’s conception of her parents as one-dimensional, traditional Indian parents. Her understanding of their fear for her safety and her future morphs, as she begins to see how easy, and perhaps necessary, it has been, for Maya to dismiss their fears about what people will say and do to her when they are under direct threats of Islamophobic violence. Ahmed shows compassion for the victims of terror attacks while also shedding light on the ways that the word “terrorist” has been racialized, and how our conceptions of that word is changing.

In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Ahmed writes: “And for those that bear the brunt of hate because of the color of their skin, or the sound of their name, or the scarf on their head, or the person they love; for those who are spat upon, for those who are told to “go home” when they are home: you are known. You are loved. You are enough. Let your light shine. I wrote this book for you.”

Maya’s personal struggles to find happiness and strength reflect the need for many of us, in times of change and uncertainty, to be able to see who we are: not as separate from our families and cultures, but shaped by them, and hopefully, uplifted by them, in a world, and future, of our own making.


Leticia-UrietaLeticia Urieta is a Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at Texas State University. She won Agnes Scott’s Academy of American Poet’s prize in 2009 and her work has appeared in Cleaver, the 2016 Texas Poetry Calendar, and Blackheart. Leticia lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and two dogs. She is using her love of Texas history and passion for research to write a historical novel about the role of Mexican soldaderas in Texas’ war with Mexico.

KATALIN STREET, a novel by Magda Szabó, reviewed by William Morris

KATALIN STREET
by Magda Szabó
translated by Len Rix
New York Review Books Classics, 248 Pages

reviewed by William Morris

Four children play together in a quiet neighborhood. The children are Henriette Held, the young daughter of a Jewish dentist; the Elekes sisters, Irén and Blanka; and Bálint Temes, the handsome son of the Major. Their game is Cherry Tree, in which they all sing and spin in circles, and one of the children “chooses” another, the one they love. In this innocent game, the girls invariably choose Bálint, and each girl develops her own particular feelings for the boy; when it is his turn to choose, though, Bálint always prefers Irén, the oldest and most serious of the three. This is one of the earliest memories shared by the Elekes, Temes, and Held families, who form a lifelong, tragic bond in Magda Szabó’s Katalin Street.

The bond between these families is cemented when, later in life, Bálint and Irén are married. Their eventual marriage seems a given from childhood, but is stalled by other relationships, the tumult of life in postwar Hungary, and the death of their friend Henriette. During the German occupation, the Elekes and Temes families attempt to hide Henriette, who is Jewish, but through a series of miscalculations she is discovered and killed by a German soldier. Henriette’s ghost literally haunts the novel, wandering helplessly through time and observing her friends. More troubling for the living is the memory of Henriette, which is bound to the memories of their younger, happier selves.

I first encountered Magda Szabó when NYRB Classics published Len Rix’s prizewinning translation of The Door, named one of the 10 Best Books of 2015 by the New York Times Book Review. This Hungarian novel, originally published in 1987, had suddenly become one of the most celebrated books of the year. When I read The Door I knew nothing about Szabó or her work. I knew only that this book was, according to Ali Smith, a “compelling, funny, and horrifying novel.” Reviews online praised The Door unanimously, and it was on the “Staff Picks” shelf at my favorite local bookstore.

Magda Szabó was born in Hungary in the early twentieth century. She was a teacher, poet, novelist, playwright, and children’s author. A succinct yet thorough biography, found in each of her books, tells the story of a career complicated by war and politics. Szabó’s early success as a poet—she won the Baumgartner prize for her 1947 collection Return to Man—became a political liability under Hungary’s Communist rule, so she turned to writing stories and novels.

Following the success of The Door, in 2016 NYRB Classics released Iza’s Ballad, translated by George Szirtes. Iza’s Ballad, like The Door before it, is a story about younger Hungarians’ attitudes toward the older generation. In The Door, a young writer clashes with the proud older woman she hires as housekeeper; Iza’s Ballad centers on the tense relationship between a grown daughter and her aged mother. In his introduction, Szirtes asks, “What to do with the old? What to do with parents or grandparents who can’t cope with modern life but cling to lost ways of acting and feeling?” This seems to be a major concern in Szabó’s work: How can we make progress without abandoning the older generation? Her characters often fail, acting cruelly toward those who represent dated ways of thinking.

Where the younger characters in The Door and Iza’s Ballad readily abandon old beliefs in the name of progress, Katalin Street’s characters face loss and longing. They yearn to return to their idyllic childhood, full of gossip and games, while facing the tumult of adult life in postwar, Communist-controlled Budapest. And the main symbol of that childhood is the titular Katalin Street, best described by Henriette Held when she sees it for the first time at six years old:

The houses—tall, narrow edifices standing at the foot of Castle Hill—were very different from the ones she was used to. Of the Castle itself she knew nothing. It was a source of awe and wonder, like an illustration from her book of fairy tales. At the far end of the street was a strange little construction whose nature and purpose she could not begin to imagine. Where she had lived before she had never seen a European-style well, let alone a Turkish one. It must have been early summer, because there were blossoms on the lime trees and she had noticed the scent.

The smell of lime trees, the image of a castle on a hill: these are the lovely memories Irén and Blanka and Bálint recall. They also remember the games, filled with love and freedom, that they played in each home’s garden. Yet all of these memories are distant, marred by the death of Henriette. There can be no consolation in returning to Katalin Street for a visit. All of the beauty of the old neighborhood is gone. The characters now live in an apartment on the opposite side of the river: “the place that sheltered them from the rain and the heat of the sun, nothing more: a cave, if slightly more comfortable than a cave.” They detest the new apartment for not being their old home and despise it further because, from the window, they can see across the river to Katalin Street, where their childhood home is covered in scaffolding. The house, in its current state, is “like a childhood friend who, either in anger or a spirit of fun, had put on a mask and forgotten to take it off long after the party had ended.”

All of this is captured in precise and vivid language by Len Rix, recipient of the 2018 PEN Translation Prize. In awarding this prize, the judges cited Rix’s artistic subtlety, “the mastery to allow Szabó herself to stand out as an exemplary writer.”

All of this is captured in precise and vivid language by Len Rix, recipient of the 2018 PEN Translation Prize. In awarding this prize, the judges cited Rix’s artistic subtlety, “the mastery to allow Szabó herself to stand out as an exemplary writer.” Szabó’s approach in Katalin Street feels markedly different than in The Door or Iza’s Ballad, novels that moved through time more or less chronologically, following a smaller cast of characters. Here, Szabó’s scope is larger. Readers follow her characters back and forth through time, experiencing the impressions and injuries that the years have made on each character.

If Iza’s Ballad asks, “What to do with the old,” Katalin Street wonders “how to carry on living when we are haunted by the memory of everything we have lost.” For Irén and Bálint, carrying on means learning to love one another anew; they are, after all, not the children they were when they first fell in love. For Henriette, it is a matter of watching the lives of the ones she loves, knowing there is nothing she can do to reach them. And for Blanka—who has always loved Bálint and knows she will never have him—the only option is to flee. Blanka moves to a distant island, where she marries a man who does not ask much of her past.

As dark and troubling as Szabó’s novels often are, they are not without glimpses of hope and good intent. In the opening pages of The Door, the narrator admits: “I killed Emerence. The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.” But, of course, this fact changes everything. The desire to save someone from oblivion—no matter the result—comes from a place of compassion. Likewise, though Iza is unkind to her mother until the old woman’s death, the love she’s always felt for her mother surfaces in the novel’s final moments.

Hidden in the tragedies of Katalin Street is a different kind of hope, one built not on returning to a glorified past, but on manifesting remembered joys in the present moment.

By leaving Katalin Street and abandoning her family, Blanka seems to have dispelled all hope of reconnection. She flees because proximity to the places and persons she loves is too painful. Yet the departure and the ensuing distance produces a counter-reaction. Blanka begins to cook as Mrs. Temes taught her. She sews cushions just like the ones her own mother sewed for her as a girl. Many of the books lining the shelves of her husband’s study are translations of the same books Mr. Held once owned. By staving off memories of Katalin Street Blanka begins to embrace all of the beauty the others, still living in Budapest, believe is forever lost. When Henriette’s ghost visits to watch Blanka play the instruments native to her new island home, the music she hears makes Henriette recall “her own mother’s presence far more strongly than anywhere else.” Hidden in the tragedies of Katalin Street is a different kind of hope, one built not on returning to a glorified past, but on manifesting remembered joys in the present moment.


William-MorrisWilliam Morris is pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His work has appeared in print and online, most recently at Sediments Literary Arts Journal, Fiction Southeast, and Red Earth Review. He divides his time between St. Louis and Salt Lake City, and is always reading. He also works as an editor at Natural Bridge. His other areas of interest include cats, coffee, and cryptozoology.

NEVER ANYONE BUT YOU, a novel by Rupert Thomson, reviewed by Melanie Erspamer

NEVER ANYONE BUT YOU
by Rupert Thomson

Other Press, 345 pages

reviewed by Melanie Erspamer

With quiet skill and rich description, Rupert Thomson strings the lives of two eclectic lovers through the tumultuous history of Paris and the Channel Islands during and between the two World Wars.

In the early 20th century in Nantes, Suzanne Malherbe met Lucie Schwob, a precocious but disturbed girl from a family of wealthy Jewish intellectuals. Immediately, Suzanne felt both mental and physical attraction to her, as Thomson writes, in this novel based on their lives: “some moments are so dazzling that they obliterate everything that came before.” They swiftly became friends. Never Anyone But You is the story of the life-long relationship this early friendship spawned, a relationship that, in the novel, seems never to lose its sharpness, its occasionally doubt-inducing sincerity, its ultimately life-affirming completeness. The book reveals as it lyrically tumbles through almost eighty years the way Suzanne and Lucie’s relationship was almost self-sufficient, able to shine by itself in a large house in Jersey without the need of much outside sustenance. “Never anyone but you” morphs almost into an idealized never anything but you.

Suzanne and Lucie eventually moved to Paris and joined the Surrealist movement gathering there after World War I, adopting the pseudonyms of Marcel Moore and Claude Cahun respectively and associating with the likes of André Breton and Robert Desnos. Now, they are most well-known for the slightly eerie photographs and self-portraits of Claude, who stares hauntingly at the camera often with hair and eyebrows shaved, her thin face and prominent nose and jawline giving her a gaunt, unpleasant look. A provocation that remains provocative, unlike some of the more well-known Surrealist works, by now absorbed into the canon.

The novel’s Claude is the tormented, ambitious, eccentric one of the two, who can’t help at times revealing her desire for distractions, other people, external affirmation: through publication, important friends, or occasionally ether and starvation. Marcel—who Thomson, perhaps to stress the difference in their characters, continues to call Suzanne throughout the novel, while referring to Lucie as Claude—is a bit older, steadier, a quiet, strong-willed anchor for the wild boat that is Claude to toss about around. It is Suzanne who one would imagine saying the titular words—for from that first encounter with fourteen-year-old Claude, she truly has no eyes for anyone else, unlike the flirtatious Claude. Yet they seem mutually dependent on each other—as Claude admits to Suzanne when they are still girls, before their relationship begins: “I don’t feel that I exist unless you look at me.” The most romantic of loves: one that creates a kind of two-person solipsism.

This might seem like a beautiful knot of a relationship, but a hard one to construct a novel around. We have a love story that begins where most end, with a successful and sincere partnership that is set to last. One might think a lesbian relationship at that time, having necessarily to be kept secret, would entail its own host of travails and difficulties, but an extraordinary stroke of luck visits the two girls: Suzanne’s widowed mother and Claude’s father, separated from his insane wife, decide to remarry each other, allowing the two lovers to live together with impunity as “sisters.” At the wedding, Claude tells Suzanne: “I think we made this happen…We’re powerful, you and I, and the world has woken up and taken notice. It has molded itself to our desires.”

Rupert Thomson

Neither is the plot of the novel supplied by the development of the Surrealist movement: Claude and Suzanne are involved with it, but they keep to themselves, and right before World War II, they move to a favorite vacation spot, Jersey—part of the Channel Islands, dependencies of the UK just off the coast of France—for good. There, they continue keeping to themselves, and though for some years they run an underground propaganda campaign against the Nazi occupation, they do so on their own. Yet there is a simple and evocative grace to their story, speaking to one of our main reasons for reading: an interest in the lives of others, along with pleasure in seeing language spun so elegantly. I applaud Thomson for not adding unnecessary drama to the story of these two women, stuck somewhere between the thrill of fame and the repetitive but poetic humdrum of insignificance, while saying it well enough to make it a very worthwhile read. “We swam before breakfast and then again the in the afternoon, Thomson writes.

We sunbathed naked in the bracken above Beauport beach, and in among the split, clay-colored rocks near Gross Tête. At Claude’s insistence, I took roll after roll of film—Claude striking poses on the wall outside the hotel, Claude reclining in the shallows at low tide, Claude pressed against a lightning-blasted tree.

In many aspects, the two protagonists seem almost contemporary—fighting fascism, patriarchy, and homophobia. Most ahead-of-their-times of all, perhaps, is their habit of questioning and challenging traditional categories of gender.

In many aspects, the two protagonists seem almost contemporary—fighting fascism, patriarchy, and homophobia. Most ahead-of-their-times of all, perhaps, is their habit of questioning and challenging traditional categories of gender. Not only did they take up “male” pseudonyms but Claude especially often shaved or cropped her hair and wore men’s clothing. When she is mistaken for a man, she takes “it as a compliment. A seal of approval. She [is] delighted to have escaped the prison of her gender, the tight cage of her sex.” This fluid attitude towards gender is surprisingly avant-garde even for the Surrealist movement—Breton, the leader, apparently, finds “homosexuality repulsive, but [is] titillated by the idea of a lesbian” in what seems a poorly disguised fetish. The young Claude, or Lucie at the time, is a girl troubled by the straitjacket of identity: “Your identity should not be imposed on you,” Thomson has her think, “you have to create it for yourself.” She certainly does. Although Thomson writes from the perspective of the slightly less rebellious Suzanne, the view of (gender) identity as constraint problematizes the supposed gulf between a male author and his female narrator. As readers we might ask, what exactly are the affinities that need to be taken into account in the author-narrator relationship?

Perhaps asking that question, too, Thomson makes the safer choice of Suzanne over Claude as narrator. Claude’s eccentricity and struggles with mental illness come across as semi-biographical character description from Suzanne’s steady, calm perspective, while from Claude’s they would require a psychological realism that would change the nature of the book. From when they are girls, Suzanne and Claude have a kind of death pact—“I have to go first,” Claude tells Suzanne—giving Claude something of the transitory and whimsical nature of characters, and Suzanne more of the stability and permanence of an author. Also, Claude was a writer in real life, and so it would be awkward to presume a different style for her. The style Thomson adopts for Suzanne is very adept for her character: it is eloquent, but sparser, measured, based on sensory details—their concrete richness—as opposed to lengthy snippets of interiority. This makes sense, given that Suzanne is an artist. Thomson’s descriptions of bicycle rides through Nantes, lazy days at the house in Jersey, and even the harshness of months in a jail cell have a kind of fullness of detail that make them seem almost more sensory than my immediate surroundings:

We cycled south, over the bridges and out of the city. Fog had rolled in from the coast, and a stealthy silence enveloped us. The creak of Lucie’s back wheel, the crunch of our tires in the dust and grit. My breathing. Sometimes a house loomed out of the murk—the sharp angle of a roof, the low, mournful barking of a dog. We passed a row of poplars—elegant gray shapes, barely suggested. The landscape was subtle and elusive as a Japanese watercolor. 

I always find it a bit jarring to read a novel that contains the entirety of a life. I experienced this recently with How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. You are invited into a character’s existence, near the very beginning of their life, and then you are led page after page through their lifetime until their death. You close the book and no potential character follows you out of the pages. What is left to the imagination is not the After, but the In-between. This kind of novel is in stark opposition, temporally, to modernism’s day-long works, where the depth of interior life at every passing moment supplies enough content to last hundreds of pages. Here, instead, life is compressed. We see Suzanne and Lucie as young, artistically-inclined girls in Nantes; we see them move to Paris and join, with a slight distance, the core of Surrealism; we see them retreat to Jersey and live in peace before beginning to print and spread their anti-Nazi flyers, hidden behind the seeming demureness of middle-age; we seem them in jail for their campaign and then freed once more, after the war, suddenly growing old; we see eighteen empty years drag by for Suzanne, now a recluse, after the death of Claude. In Jersey, living off meagre Nazi rations, curling up together in their cold bedroom (hardly any electricity being available) for twelve hours a day, the two women recall seeing Joyce reading at Shakespeare & Company, or the pink feathers of a Burlesque dancer, and wonder at their being part of the glamorous Surrealist movement not many years before: “it was hard to believe that any of it had happened.” After the war, they have similar wonder about it, Suzanne reflecting that sometimes it is “hard to believe that it had ever happened.” These musings push time into what is, for the reader, the space of not many pages. They also reflect the cruel, or simply surreal, speed of life, the present moment’s tyranny over the entirety of one’s past.

Fictionalized biographies tread a difficult line between the freedom of an author’s narrative penchant and the constraining bulk of reality. Thomson chose well with Claude and Suzanne, for though they dipped their toes in some of the most famous movements and events of recent history, they were still rather marginalized, and thus their lives can be read with the same surprise and interest of a regular novel.

Fictionalized biographies tread a difficult line between the freedom of an author’s narrative penchant and the constraining bulk of reality. Thomson chose well with Claude and Suzanne, for though they dipped their toes in some of the most famous movements and events of recent history, they were still rather marginalized, and thus their lives can be read with the same surprise and interest of a regular novel. Much about them is also unknown, allowing Thomson to even invent a couple of characters. Dalí and Breton stray in, predictably arrogant, but they are too familiar to history to tarry long in a novel. One might wonder how Thomson feels he can take on Suzanne’s perspective—this might well be the only perspective many readers have on these women, and it is filtered through the voice of a present-day male, writing a lesbian woman from a more homophobic, sexist time. It is the perpetual question of writing through the eyes of Another, which was probed most recently in the novel Asymmetry, where Lisa Halliday explores the limits of empathy by having her white female character (and obviously Halliday herself) decide to write from the perspective of an Iraqi-American man detained at Heathrow airport. This question, possibly unanswerable, begs perhaps above all for care when engaging in this task. Thomson displays both care and grace, in a not overly ambitious but apparently well-researched work.

Never Anyone But You is Thomson’s eleventh novel. His books range in subject matter, displaying a writerly curiosity mirrored in his own ranging life: Thomson has lived in Rome, New York, Sydney, Barcelona, and now London. Divided Kingdom, for instance, is a picaresque set in a United Kingdom where people live in different regions depending on their “humor,” which corresponds to their personality type; while This Party’s Got to Stop, his well-regarded memoir, chronicles a period after the death of his father when he was briefly reunited with his brothers for seven months in their childhood home. Unlike other writers, who remain inside the niche they’ve found for themselves, Thomson has no specific genre for his writing. Throughout his career, like Claude perhaps, he has remained somewhat on the margins, a writer’s writer who is praised by the likes of The Guardian and even David Bowie, but does not sell many books.

The picture Thomson presents to us in his latest work is melancholy and inspiring and lovely all at once. This isn’t a page-turner, but rather a pleasant, slow amble of a read that leaves a certain taste in your mouth. The idea of a soulmate has been fairly debunked, but here it emerges without drama or the high stakes and thrills of traditional love stories: a simple, self-sufficient friendship that has something of sisterhood and something of romance—“l’autre moi,” the other me, Claude Cahun would say, referring to Marcel Moore.


Melanie-ErspamerMelanie Erspamer studies English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. She is half-Italian and half-American and has lived most of her life near Boston. Her work has been published in The Purple Breakfast Review, Nomad Magazine and Unknown Magazine, and her one-act play was performed at the University of Edinburgh. With her sister, she also has been running an anonymous literary magazine based in bathroom stalls, called Bathruminations.

CUBIST STATES OF MIND/NOT THE CRUELEST MONTH, poems by Marc Jampole, reviewed by Alessio Franko

CUBIST STATES OF MIND/NOT THE CRUELEST MONTH
by Marc Jampole
The Poet’s Haven, 36 pages

reviewed by Alessio Franko

The rhombus, that exotic, italicized quadrilateral, is really, by its geometrical properties, simply a square without any right angles. It’s an amusing case of the rarified and the mundane, the complex and the simple, being much closer together than they seem. Fitting, then, that Marc Jampole evokes the rhombus and its family of shapes with such frequency in his new chapbook Cubist States of Mind/Not the Cruelest Month .

The square book (or rhomboid one, if you prefer) itself changes depending on how you look at it. Jampole has combined two thematically self-contained series of poems in one volume, printed back-to-back in a “flip book” format.

The square book (or rhomboid one, if you prefer) itself changes depending on how you look at it. Jampole has combined two thematically self-contained series of poems in one volume, printed back-to-back in a “flip book” format. Each side is in dialogue with a major figure in the history of modernism. Cubist States of Mind translates Picasso’s analytical cubism into a verbal medium, guiding the reader through the broad field of affect visible in Picasso’s oeuvre from “Cubist Anger” to “Cubist Hunger” to “Cubist Uncertainty.” In Not the Cruelest Month, Jampole sketches a turn of Central springtime in the style of T.S. Eliot, finding in snapshots of the park, the streets, and subway not a wasteland, but a lively sprawl emerging from hibernation.

The internal consistency of each side of the book makes them both hard to put down. Just as soon as each poem arrives at its own rhythmic conclusion, the vitality of Jampole’s words launch the reader onto the next page. In their contrast, the two halves perfectly showcase Jampole’s range. On the one hand, he revels in poetry as handiwork, sculpting prisms that refract and amplify meaning through sound, diction, rhythm, and rhyme. On the flip side, his poems can be emotionally charged, rich with bittersweet personal reflections, prompting the reader to lean through allusions to memories that could be true to the author or fictional (“gusty stroke of red across an abstract canvas/…hot and cold all at once,/like the color of the towel she wore). Depending on which way you look at it, Jampole offers either life as full of delicately crafted beauty, or art as the simplest possible depiction of truth.

Part of the pleasure of Cubist States of Mind is feeling out the unwritten but unmistakable rules that hold it together as a collection.

Part of the pleasure of Cubist States of Mind is feeling out the unwritten but unmistakable rules that hold it together as a collection. Jampole revisits an interest in textual geometry from “Pascal’s Triangle” in his book Music from Words, arranged into triangular stanzas in reference to the mathematical curiosity. Each entry in Cubist States of Mind is made up of seven cubist rhombi: couplets with the lower verses indented. Within this firm structure, however, no verbal material is off limits. Jampole evokes Picasso’s crowded canvasses, cramming together sights, colors, shapes both visual and verbal (“Heaven is a circle, Earth is a square,/and in between her coil of truth unspools/her stones of blue belief disintegrate into pale geometries”), scraps of dialogue, alliterations, rhymes, and abstract visions.

Marc Jampole

At a time when Manhattan is so busy and overfull, the quiet, intimate portrait of the city Not the Cruelest Month delivers will delight the New Yorker with lines like, “Twists of conversation ride the wind -/ well I mean like so anyway you know/you see no way it’s like I go-/ meaningless as the chirp of birds.” Unlike in the modular Cubist States of Mind , this series is united by what feels like an implicit narrative point of view. Vignettes take us through street, park, and subway, a diversity of verse and rhyme schemes capturing the city’s vibrant heterogeneity—this shines through especially in “Central Park After Sandy Left,” which tosses words and phrases across the page, uprooting them like the massive hurricane did to New York trees in 2011. April is an elusive shimmer Jampole aims to snap a picture of and Not the Cruelest Month fills the reader with the anticipation, both invigorating and anxious, of the beginning of Spring.

If anything is consistent throughout Jampole’s work, it is its semiotic density. Cubist States of Mind/Not the Cruelest Month can feel like a lightning-quick read from cover-to-cover-to-cover, but begs to be re-read. Jumping from image to image, often letting the reader’s imagination bridge the logical gap between the two, revisiting one of Jampole’s poems can render it an entirely new experience. Consider the couplet from “Cubist Wonder, “eyebrows raise and curve like Gothic arches,/horizontal wrinkles cross the forehead:” are we picturing a Gothic castle as a face or a face as a Gothic castle? The moment one closes the book, one has the peculiar sensation of having read it years ago, its contents so intricately layered that memory alone can only render the broad strokes.

Jampole’s close study of Picasso and Eliot makes this a thrilling read for readers and writers invested in the historical modernist movement. Simultaneously, the book has much to offer contemporary creators interested in experimenting with form and realizing new possibilities for poetry as we move further away (temporally and/or cognitively) from modernism. The book’s light, compact physical presence and the clear thematic promise of each mini-collection are sound strategies for exciting a potential reader’s interest and welcoming new audiences to poetry. The content itself also raises philosophical questions of interests to artists and theorists alike, as in “Alone I Stand:” “Did Tu Fu really say, one balmy April Day,/speaking not as poet but as person,/under the leafless trees that teased the Tang Chinese,/ Man and nature are the same? ” In its treatment of Manhattan’s urban environment, Not the Cruelest Month ruminates on the often thin boundary between the natural and the artificial, and the highly disputed position of art on that spectrum.

Whereas his previous book references artists, movements, historical figures, and myths, Jampole has made the bold choice here to work from two overarching cultural touchstones. Rather than searching for the vocabulary it shares with the reader, Cubist States of Mind/Not the Cruelest Month undertakes the creation of a new such vocabulary altogether. The result is two series of poems that sit on the edge between the particular and the universal, the everyday and the extraordinary, the true and the beautiful.


Alessio Franko is a contributing writer at Jewish Currents magazine. He earned his Bachelor’s at the University of Chicago, and is currently based in Austin, where he is pursuing his MFA in screenwriting at the University of Texas.

 

THEY WERE BEARS, poems by Sarah Marcus, reviewed by Nathan O. Ferguson

THEY WERE BEARS
by Sarah Marcus

Sundress Publications, 2018

reviewed by Nathan O. Ferguson

The poems in Sarah Marcus’ book, They Were Bears follow a young woman, the speaker of most of the poems, who pursues discovery and sensation in the remote corners of the American wilderness. The narrative shapes this wilderness into a wide-open expanse characterized by uncertainty, wonder, and menace. The backdrop also shifts from unpeopled natural settings to the speaker’s agricultural childhood home and to the industrial sprawl of Cleveland.

The book’s three untitled segments each alternate between lyric poems and prose poems, and all use bears and other animals as central to their imagery and symbolism. Poems in the book discuss a variety of themes, including family, sexuality, and womanhood. The primary focus of the work as a whole, however, seem to be overcoming trauma and embracing nature. Together, the poems tell the story of a woman defined by her passion and resilience in the face of a harrowing past.

The speaker of the poems (who also appears to be the main character in those written in third person) is in part a fictionalized version of Marcus. According to an interview the author did with Sundress Publications, she is “the best and worst parts of myself and every woman I know.” In this way, the speaker is a sort of archetype for womanhood in general, but that in no way suggests she is a stereotype; this is a woman who thrives while exploring the wilderness, seeks out danger, faces pervasive internal strife independently and on her own terms, and has multiple—often physically rough—sexual encounters with different partners throughout the book, at least one of whom is female. Though she is shown on different occasions to be in (often toxic) relationships or engagements with men, none of them ever own or define her. Moreover, although she has clearly faced and been impacted by trauma and abuse over the course of her life—namely, her apparent childhood rape, and an implied underage eviction by her parents—she is not broken by them. In fact, she goes so far as to say that “we all need trauma,” suggesting that she owns her trauma and not the other way around. This is an individual able to learn and grow from her painful experiences.

Sarah Marcus

The book does explore some unhealthy mechanisms for coping with traumatic events in the past. In the speaker’s case, these usually involve her risking, seeking, or even causing, violence to herself. She proves indifferent to violence in her relationship with a newly released inmate in the poem “Day of Release,” who recounts having attacked other inmates during his time served, ostensibly out of some necessity. By the end of the poem, the speaker has chosen not to ask whether anyone he attacked died as a result. Thus, she impassively accepts a man back into her life who has, by his own admission, brutally assaulted other people for offenses such as petty theft. She is shown seeking out violence at the end of the poem, “Suffer not yet our eyes to hunger for your face,” when she states, “I leave a trail of blood, / because I’d like to see a bear / and I’d like to be followed,” casually inviting a potentially deadly encounter with a wild animal on a whim, directly following an already physically painful sexual encounter.

The most direct example of the speaker accepting harm is in her taking a broken light bulb to her own legs as an adolescent in the poems “‘We Can Believe What We Choose’” and “When a Child Loves You,” the latter of which also unsettlingly incorporates passages from the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, sharply juxtaposing ideals of childhood innocence against emotional disturbance, thereby painting an uncomfortable, nuanced, unquieting picture of a young life altered by sexual abuse.

The speaker’s self-care techniques aren’t all unhealthy, however. There are many poems that center on the exploration of wild places, which comes across as therapeutic and reflective for the speaker, which the poet describes in her interview as an “obsession to reclaim the wild or become wild again.” To this end, she visits diverse, untamed American locales in her travels, ranging from Appalachia to the deserts of the West to the Everglades to the Alaskan tundra. In each of these places, whether alone or accompanied, she is able to address her pain, to reveal truths about life, to gain power over her past and to begin to move beyond it. The speaker explains that “each place represents a departure and a meditation on indifference and our desire to create meaning.” By contrast, it appears that when confined to an urban environment, the speaker grows depressed. For example, in the poem “No Children,” the speaker says,

Cleveland is one big hospital,
a series of parking lots and dark roads,
decaying. Being here breaks my heart.
I imagine things in black and white
because it’s sadder.

It’s as though, despite her obvious sympathy for the city, being there disconnects her from the fundamental part of herself that needs wildness, inside and out.

As mentioned above, the poems make extensive use of animal imagery, including fish, birds, deer, and, most importantly, bears. Deer seem to be a symbol of death in this book, as every time deer or elk appear, some if not all are dead. This trope repeats throughout multiple poems and could serve as a meditation on victimization—on what happens when one isn’t strong enough to escape that which pursues.

Bears, however, are at the heart of the book, appearing in one form or another throughout a dozen or so of the poems. They seem to be more complex in their meaning than the deer. The speaker tends to view them not only with a sense of danger but also with fascination and even reverence. Referring back to the above-mentioned interview with the poet, she makes this comparison: “I think bears, like women… are judged and mislabeled as too wild and too aggressive. They possess, like women, an incredible strength… men fear them and their magic,” and goes on to explain that because they are fearsome and threatening they are, ironically, at greater risk. It would seem, then, that the speaker’s awe for these creatures is not only due to their great physical power but also due to her feeling a certain rapport and even kinship with these beasts.

They Were Bears is in no way an easy read, challenging the reader to bear vicariously many of the burdens faced by the speaker, deftly conveying a gripping sense of turmoil alongside stoicism and the will to persist through it all. Sarah Marcus accomplishes this without any expression of regret or outward accusation, instead presenting a character who grows into her struggles, finds the wherewithal to face them by herself, and continue onward, scars and all.


Nathan Ferguson is a student at Truman College in Chicago, where he studies biology and poetry. He is an editor for Truman’s literary magazine City Brink.

COOP by David Nolan

COOP
by David Nolan

Martha screams and runs to the bank of the cow pond when she sees her four-year-old boy walk into the murky water. His head is submerged by the time she arrives and her husband, running from the horses, peels off his shirt and dives in. She screams her son’s name for what feels like hours to the sky doming endless Oklahoma plains.

But he emerges on the other side. The crown of his head breaks the surface and his muddy legs carry him up the bank. Her husband’s head bobs up in the pond. Martha stops screaming. “He walked on water,” she says to the floating head. She thinks her son can save her.

Martha realizes that, if she had to call an ambulance, it would have taken a long time to arrive. Fairview was an hour—a trip no longer made for the movies, not since motherhood. The miracle (and accident) happened so close, though, right here.

She was doing nothing before. Watching the barn cat pull long leaves of grass through its teeth. Transfixed for a moment, and her boy had taken off.

It seems to go back to normal so quickly, but she knows it’s not normal. Her son is turned away from her and she’s staring at him as she makes his food—toast, eggs from the chickens. She feels far away across the wood-walled kitchen, he doesn’t call her “momma” and she wants to close the distance at once.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” she says.

Her husband is out with the horses.

The boy looks up with still-damp hair and eyes wide as cows’ and says nothing.

She scatters feed around the chicken coop and her mind is on heaven. Here is the hand, she thinks, reaching down, and all she has to do is grab it, hold tight and be pulled up and out. But she couldn’t call the priest for him to come help her, couldn’t explain it. The chickens bob and jerk at the meal from her hand.

At dinner Martha sits at the table across from her son. Her husband finishes his food and slides his plate forward. He leaves and the emptiness gains weight. She feels the dark humid silence pushing in around her tight, the smell of animals and dust and rotten water broken only by the beacon of the blue eyes across the table.

Her son puts down his fork. He pushes out from the table, his feet pad the wooden floor. His plate clinks into the sink.

As the boy walks back past, Martha dives to her knees and grabs him. “Tell me,” she says, holding him as his limbs push against her, “please tell me what to do. With you here, I know I’ll be okay.” But he breaks his arms out of her grab and then the rest of his body, and he runs outside to the animals.


David Nolan is studying English/Creative Writing at Emory University, where he enjoys basketball, rock climbing, and playing music. He was born in Ecuador and raised in Vermont, and his flash has previously been featured online by New Orleans Review. 

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Rowan S on Unsplash

THE BONE PLATE by Jacqueline Gabbitas

THE BONE PLATE
by Jacqueline Gabbitas

She took the partial denture from her mouth and passed it to the boy. He’d lost two teeth in the scrum to leave the boat and even though the gum had healed it was hard for him to eat. He stared at it like it was a thing alien. She nudged his hand and, smiling, gestured with her own what to do. She was not an old woman, and so he wondered how she’d lost the teeth herself. He saw in her eyes tenderness and the knowledge of being hungry.

Gingerly he held the denture up and, afraid it would feel as if she had spat in his mouth, placed it under his tongue. It was heavy and thick, a lump of plastic, but it hooked at the back of this teeth and when he bit down it felt almost as if they were his teeth, even though could hear the plastic clicking. He reached out, took a piece of chicken and ripped the skin off. He bit into the soft, greasy flesh, but it didn’t feel like biting; it felt like he was ripping up chicken with a mouth guard in, and when he tried to chew, the plastic bounced up and pushed his tongue into the back of this mouth making him gag. He hooked his finger into the back of the plate and gagged some more. He fished it out.

She took the plate back, washed it in the water in her glass and slipped it back into her mouth, then she took a piece of chicken from the dish, bit down gently to tear the flesh from the bone and, using her tongue, pushed it to the back of her teeth. She chewed slowly, not bringing the denture into play at all, then swallowed. She ate and tasted every piece, tasted the sweet pink juice, the fruity meat, the creamy grease. She worked her way down to the bone and then cracked the brittle thing with her grinding teeth. She sucked the good marrow from the middle. She wiped her hands and, with delicacy, drank the cold, strong tea in her tea glass.

She offered the boy to try the teeth once more. He took them with a kind of gratitude he hadn’t felt for a long while, washed them in his own water glass and held them up to his face. He saw, then, that the plate wasn’t made of plastic but of polished bone, shaped and oiled until it was smooth, and the teeth were really teeth. Not human, he could tell that now, but close enough to look human. He put the teeth back in. She smiled and nodded, urging him in the quiet, gentle way she had.

The chicken was cold now, and it slipped between his fingers, but he licked the jelly from his palms and took a bite. As he chewed, not bringing the plate into play at all, he saw in her resemblance. Not that the woman had his eyes or the cut of his jaw, but that she was related somehow, through the loss of her teeth, the pain of filling her mouth with a dead thing’s bones, the learning of how to make them fit, how to bite and eat, and when, when to recognize the need.


Jacqueline Gabbitas is a UK-based poet and fiction writer. Her poetry collections include Mid Lands (Hearing Eye), Earthworks and Small Grass (Stonewood Press) and her fiction includes the novel Dark Peak, writing as JG Parker (Stonewood Press). Her poetry and short fiction has been published in various magazines including Poetry Review, The Forward Prize Anthology, New Fairytale Magazine and Magma, and has also been broadcast on BBC Radio 3. She is a Hawthornden Fellow and co-editor of Brittle Star literary magazine in the UK.

 

 

Image credit: paul morris on Unsplash 

DESTIN by Ron Riekki

DESTIN
by Ron Riekki

It was a cold afternoon in Florida. December is often occupied by a pain-in-the-ass wind, but today the air was relatively humbled. This was after I’d just finished EMT school and was nearly fifty years old, the alcoholism under control again. My partner was a child, a teen who wouldn’t let me listen to the radio, insisting that he play some sort of robot music on his telephone. He was hyperactive with sleep deprivation. We were on a twelve-hour shift. The cows off to our left weren’t eating grass, weren’t walking, weren’t sleeping, were just standing there with a sort of monstrous close-to-suicidal depression. My partner looked at them and penetrated the sky with a horrific fake moo. On the ground nearby was a corpse. We were waiting for the coroner. In EMT school, they teach you in the first week the patients that we are supposed to spend absolutely no time on: the decapitated, the decomposing, the incinerated, those with rigor mortis or dependent lividity, and those who—according to my instructor—“are just freaking obviously dead.” This patient was one of those. I won’t explain why, because I’ve learned that people have weaker stomachs than you might think. And this isn’t about the patient, because the patient was no longer a patient. He was simply a corpse.

This was about the cows.

You see, my partner—at least in this moment—seemed to be addicted to them. He couldn’t stop focusing on them. I have a feeling it was his way of handling the silver of death. It seemed to line our veins now. I could feel death brushing against my skin. In reaction, some people faint. It’s called syncope. Medicine always has an alternate word in case you don’t want patients to know what you’re talking about. Scientists quickly turn a cow into a Bos taurus. Clouds become cirrus. My partner approached the fence and I could tell he wanted to jump it.

I motioned for him to go ahead.

I know that if I needed to get away from the asymmetry of violence, I wouldn’t want anyone trying to keep me around. It would be best if he went to wherever he needed to go. I had four more hours to go with him and I didn’t want what was upcoming. It’d either be a deep chat where he’d tell me about some fibrous fear of his or else maybe a valley of silence where he’d eventually explode at me for hitting a pothole that wasn’t there. I wanted him running around with cows, expending adrenaline, coming back tired and muddy. Coroners always take their time. There’s no need to rush to the dead. We could be here forever, paid to wait.

He climbed the fence and headed away from the cows, keeping a distance. I watched, in case a bull should be hiding somewhere. I hoped so. I could treat any wounds he might suffer. He looked like my brother who’d committed suicide. Not really. But a bit. At this distance. My brother had chopped off his own hand while drunk and bled to death. Months before, his fiancée had just faded from his life. He’d almost totally stopped speaking. She was warm-blooded, a woman who seemed to be a parade when she’d walk into a room. She was out of his league. Twenty-thousand leagues. I’d never warned him. I just sat back and watched it happen.

Having decided something, my partner headed straight for the cows. In his dark blue uniform, he appeared to be a shadow in motion.

The vehicle was upside-down, the front windshield gone.

The blood near my feet was everywhere. Pooled and splattered and flecked. A combination of velocity and arterial anger and slow capillary ooze, multi-colored based on oxygenated or deoxygenated or how much sun it had been baked under. There was a body part in the distance. I couldn’t tell what it was. Instead, I looked into the sun, allowing it to damage my retinas, letting it tan my eyes, the partial blindness that seemed to shake everything out of my head if only for a little bit, that made fake ghosts appear that felt as if they were entering deep into my mind, again.



Ron Riekki’s books include And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017, Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (2016 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal Great Lakes Best Regional Fiction and finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award), The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book awarded by the Library of Michigan and finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, Midwest Book Award, Foreword Book of the Year, and Next Generation Indie Book Award), and U.P.: a novel.  His fiction has been published in The Threepenny Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Wigleaf, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Akashic Books, Juked, New Ohio Review, Puerto del Sol, and many other literary journals.

Image credit: Pixabay

CHORUS by Mary Lou Buschi

CHORUS
by Mary Lou Buschi

Bloody Mary was neither skull nor naked bone.
………….Sister of blood and flesh
they said your name 3 times,
………….walked backward up the stairs,
followed you to the weed choked creek
………….where the bluegills suck the air,
taught you to mine for clay,
………….to mold bowl after bowl,
to mouth the word ashtray.

Now with a spool of yarn twisted
………….around your slim fingers
you want one to weave her fingers
………….into your cradle.

Mary, you are just a plain girl,
………….a hollow grin, sloping shoulders
hair hanging in matted nests.
………….It’s been so long since you first lived,
a fish jumping out of the still creek.


Mary Lou Buschi’s collections of poetry include Awful Baby (2015), Tight Wire, chapbook (2016), Ukiyo-e, chapbook (2014), and The Spell of Coming (or Going), chapbook (2013). Mary Lou’s poems have appeared in many journals such as Radar, Willow Springs, Thrush, Dream Pop, and Field, among others.

 

Image credit: davide ragusa on Unsplash

ACTIVE CONFLICT ZONES by Francesco Levato

ACTIVE CONFLICT ZONES
by Francesco Levato

My visual and textual work tends to be palimpsestic; layered, erased, meaning bleeding between frames and lines. I am interested in what is left unseen or unsaid, hidden in the density of image and language. I am also interested in construction and deconstruction as methods of visual and textual composition. I build from found audio, video, objects, and texts; disassembling and recontextualizing them, often using appropriation to resist or subvert asymmetrical power structures.

Active Conflict Zones is one such project, a series of visual poems constructed with language appropriated from Executive Order 13780, Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States, and screen captures of digital video compression artifacts found between frames in Battle Beyond the Sun, an Americanized, English-dubbed, version of the 1959 Soviet science fiction film Nebo Zovyot.

I found hidden within the language of security in Executive Order 13780 the underpinnings of a xenophobic worldview that simultaneously aspires toward empire. In the text of the poems I sought to lay bare the underlying mechanics of power inherent such colonial impulses, and in the visuals I sought to subvert the legitimacy of claims to security from an administration compromised by foreign power. In attempting to hide the Soviet origins of the film Nebo Zovyot the American director of the retitled Battle Beyond the Sun replaced Soviet spacecraft with U.S. ones, obscured all text that appeared in Russian, and replaced the names of Soviet actors with those of English voiceover actors in the film’s credits; the screen-captured compression artifacts, the bleed through of data between the video’s keyframes and the P and B frames (usually hidden and containing only partial information from the surrounding frames), for me served as visual metaphor. —Francesco Levato, June 2018


[click to enlarge images:]


Francesco Levato is a poet, a literary translator, and a new media artist. Recent books include Arsenal/Sin Documentos (forthcoming 2018, Clash Books); Endless, Beautiful, Exact; Elegy for Dead Languages; War Rug, a book length documentary poem; Creaturing (as translator); and the chapbooks A Continuum of Force and jettison/collapse. He has collaborated and performed with various composers, including Philip Glass, and his cinépoetry has been exhibited in galleries and featured at film festivals in Berlin, Chicago, New York, and elsewhere. He founded the Chicago School of Poetics, holds an MFA in Poetry and a PhD in English Studies, and is currently an Assistant Professor of Literature & Writing Studies at California State University San Marcos.

NUMBERS by Joshua Wetjen

NUMBERS
by Joshua Wetjen

“What is the lowest number?” my daughter asked.

“There is no lowest number,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “It’s zero.”

“You’re not listening,” I said. I patted the curls on her head. “In school they will tell you zero is the lowest number. Then later they will say zero isn’t the lowest, that there are negative numbers. So you can keep adding bigger and bigger numbers, as much as you want, and it can go on forever.”

“What’s the highest number?” she asked. “It’s a thousand, isn’t it?”

“No, it isn’t,” I said. But by this time she had left the room. “Let me work,” I said, even though she wasn’t there.

Rain came down outside and it beaded up on the window. It was hard to concentrate. I had about a thousand emails to respond to. Or none.

When my wife got back that evening, she came in as she usually does, through the back door and into the kitchen, making a racket. She was obviously tired from work but I liked her there, a little wet from the rain, her skin giving off some heat, and I liked the way her sweat and her hair were fragrant.

She set down her things. Her black laptop stuck out of her bag. It made a thud when she let it slide from her hand.

“Did you finish the project?” I asked her.

“Too much to do in one day,” she said. “You?”

I walked to give her a kiss. I could taste the rain on her. It has a taste even though it’s just water. Maybe it’s what clouds taste like.

“I’ll never be finished,” I said.

My daughter walked in. It looked as though she had been out in the rain somehow. I’m not one to lose track of things and she can’t get the front door open so I was mystified.

“How did you get out there?” I asked.

“Out where?” she asked. “I’m wet because I went in the shower.”

“What?” my wife asked.

“I know I can’t count all the raindrops because they’re everywhere. But I thought I could count them in one place if I stood. Because I wanted to find the highest number,” my daughter said.

“The highest number?” my wife asked.

“Don’t ask,” I said. “Let’s dry you off.” I opened a drawer in the kitchen to find a towel.

The drawer was empty.

Zero.

“Hold on,” I said. I ran to the laundry room downstairs. The towels were all dirty.

Negative.

“Don’t worry about it,” my wife yelled.

When I got back upstairs the back door was still open. The two of them were outside as the rain kept falling and they were inventing a jumping, twirling dance right in it. I thought I could hear them counting, the numbers going and going, as if they were letting the highest number they could think of fall on them.


Joshua Wetjen is a high school English teacher living in Minneapolis and working in St. Paul. When not working or chasing his two children, he likes to practice jazz guitar and sample new restaurants with his wife. His work has appeared in Right Hand Pointing and is forthcoming in Opossum.

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

 

THE AUGUST TEMPLES by Jennifer Solheim

THE AUGUST TEMPLES
by Jennifer Solheim

In the photo half my face is showing but the focal point is a streak of silver white. I dye my hair dark but last year when I began growing out my pixie haircut, I let my temples keep their natural color. I had cut my hair short when my daughter was a toddler and I couldn’t stand a thick knot at my nape. But time was passing. My hair was growing. I was about to go for a run and when I tied my hair back I liked the look of it, the distinguished white and gray streaks.

I posted the photo before I went running. After I looked to see who had liked the post. There were several comments but it wasn’t the photo that caught their attention. It was the caption:

the august temples

One person wrote, eminent! followed by a series of emojis. My friends from back when I played bass and sang said it sounded like a band name. I said we should start it. The August Temples, three grizzled emo dads and one mom, the bass player. It would have to be a four-piece because all of us came of age when indie rock was two guitars-drums-bass. Only occasionally keys. The guys would wear bowling shirts and I’d wear a tight ringer tee. The gear would be pulled from storage, or the corners of living rooms. (How long has it been since my bass amp was used with anything but headphones?) We’d write anxious loud songs about toddlers, a ballad about a kid crying his way through the first day of kindergarten called “The Kissing Hand.” The van would have a muffler pipe patched with a tomato paste can. But at some point a conflict would arise: we’d realize we wanted to give up our families for each other. I imagine The August Temples in the practice space, with one responsibility: give a song a color and a shape.


Jennifer Solheim is a French scholar, fiction writer, and erstwhile punk bassist. She is the author of The Performance of Listening in Postcolonial Francophone Culture (Liverpool University Press, 2018). Her fiction and essays have been published at ConfrontationMonkeybicycleThe Pinch, and Poets & Writers, among others. She is also a Contributing Editor at Fiction Writers Review. More about her work at www.jennifersolheim.com.

 

 

 

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APOCALYPSE THEN by Sahalie Angell Martin

APOCALYPSE THEN
by Sahalie Angell Martin

On July 20, 2015, an article appeared in The New Yorker detailing the specific ways in which my hometown will be wiped off the face of the earth.

The article, entitled “The Really Big One,” described an earthquake that is due to devastate the Pacific Northwest within the next fifty years. Everything west of Interstate 5 will disappear, including my own city of Eugene as well as most of the major population hubs in Oregon. The piece was well-researched, visceral, and packed the hard-facts punch of any other apocalyptic warning: Billions will die. Cities will burn. Don’t bother with the hazmat suits.

 I called my mom later that day and told her about the article. She asked me what she was supposed to do about it.

“You can always tell Dad not to bother building the guest house,” I said. “Apparently the ground’s gonna liquefy somehow.”

“We’ll need another structure out there, then,” she said, “since neither your father or your brother can swim.”

I reminded her that I couldn’t, either.

What most people don’t realize about Oregon is that east of the Cascades, the trees are replaced by desert. We’ve set our cities in the trees, but desolation is second nature to us, always just across the mountains. Maybe that’s why we didn’t panic when the rest of the country told us we were doomed. We are used to living with ghosts. It wasn’t until I left home that I learned how Oregon has the most ghost towns of any state. Most of them are old mining towns that were abandoned after the gold dried up. Some of them just suffered from regional isolation to the point where nobody realized they were empty: the town of Millican, whose last known resident was murdered in the eighties, was completely deserted for twelve years until the land transferred hands and people had reason to set foot there again.

After the Really Big One, I imagine that the ghosts will outnumber the people. Massless spirits will drift from the cactus to the evergreens. The rest of the country will ask why we didn’t leave, and they will not get an answer, except perhaps that we would rather die here than live wondering if we could have stayed, and that when wind blows through a ghost town, it sounds like singing.

According to the article, the destruction of my home will start with a violent shaking of the earth that would last around four minutes. The evergreens, deemed our state tree on the sole basis that there are more of them than there are people, will bend, break, and flatten, laying themselves against the sloping hills that line the Willamette Valley. My barn will collapse with yelling animals inside—when goats scream, they sound like children. Then the electric grid will go down, plunging the region into darkness as buildings collapse and shatter, flames bursting out of heat-trapped combustions and consuming the timber towns whole.

During earthquake drills in elementary school, they always told us to hide under our desks, or better, to stand in a doorway so that the structure wouldn’t collapse. This got harder and harder as we got older, trying to fold our unruly limbs and budding hips under single desks. I remember being caught on my way back from the bathroom one day when the alarms went off, bracing myself against the doorframe from the imaginary tremors, watching my gangly and awkward classmates tuck into themselves. We were always worried that someone would see our underwear peak over the waistbands of our jeans, worried that nonexistent glass would stick into the tracks of our shoes. We were not worried about earthquakes. Those were for California, for the heat we imagined could pucker the sidewalks. In high school, the end of the world comes every day.

Next, the water will rise, one hundred–foot waves swallowing the coastlines. Towns with names that taste like sand will be swept out with the tide—Seaside, Yachats, Coquille, Bandon. Tiny beachside shacks on stilts and cramped souvenir shops will crumble into the sea, snow globes and saltwater taffy washed out to shore. The campground where my friends and I went the summer after graduation will be marked by a few water taps in the sand, memories of rushing topless into the surf hushed in favor of memorial.

Here is what I imagine will be left: a polished bronze plaque in Yachats that my school erected when I was fifteen in memory of two drowned boys. The plaque reads, “The Ocean Is A Treacherous Wonder.” After the flood, their deaths would be two in millions.

Before the boys died, I had no concept that disaster could happen close to me. Even now, I wonder if my lack of real fear is an indication that I just cannot comprehend destruction.

I’m told that when tall waves come, they look like skyline.

In the article in The New Yorker, the author invites you to simulate with your hands the fault lines under the earth, to push your fingers together and watch the ground buckle into mountains and floods. You are invited to reduce the wildest, darkest part of the country into knucklebones. You are kindly invited to simulate disaster.

When I was sixteen, a friend and I earned volunteer hours training EMTs with imaginary emergencies. We pretended to be victims of an earthquake, letting professional makeup artists bloody up our faces and spare t-shirts so hapless trainees could take our vitals and ask us questions: can you hear me, can you see me, what is your name, can you let go of your friend’s hand.

The first time, they dripped syrupy blood all over my face and assigned me dead, telling my friend she was supposed to hold me. They told us to make it harder on the trainees by speaking another language, if we knew one. I tried not to blink and listened to her plead with the trainees while my fellow volunteers wailed enthusiastically around us.

“Je ne comprends pas, je ne comprends pas. Mon amie, j’ai lui appellée et elle n’est pas répondue. Aidons-nous, aidons-nous.” Help us, help us.

 

The earthquake will only be an estimated four minutes, but the repercussions will ricochet across the region for centuries. Chances are that I will not be at home when it hits, but that I will fly back when I can, surveying the desolation from above. It will be up to me to imagine what took place during those four minutes, although by then I will have pictured them over and over already, and there will be news footage to help me along. Chances are, I will no longer be able to claim the event as something that happened to me, but something that happened to my home, as if they were separate things. This is why I think the Richter scale is logarithmic instead of linear: you can’t trace the steps of a disaster, only calculate the harm done by the end.

According to my boyfriend, we should all just leave.

“Now I know not to move to the Pacific Northwest,” he said when I told him.

“Even if you got a job? Even if you really wanted to?”

“I mean, maybe,” he said, looking uncomfortable. “I could never quite relax.”

My East Coast friends had mostly the same reaction—get out, get moving, get gone. What they don’t realize is that growing up in the West, we knew this was a possibility long before The New Yorker told us it was. We’ve put our roots deep anyway, hoping maybe that when the storm comes, we can just redouble our grip. My friend from California likens it to global warming—“We knew it was going to happen. It doesn’t mean we’re going to do anything about it. It doesn’t mean we’re going to stop living just because we might die.”


Sahalie Angell Martin is a recent graduate of Emerson College, where she earned a BFA. in writing. Her work has been published in multiple Emerson-based literary magazines, the underground, and Oregon Poetic Voices. Her collection of short stories, Venetian Blue and Other Obscene Colors, was published by Wilde Press in 2016. A native of Oregon, she currently lives in Boston and can be found online at sahalieangellmartin.com and @sahalieangell.

 

 

Image credit: Wikipedia

 

 

BEING THE MURDERED ACTRESS by Cathy Ulrich

BEING THE MURDERED ACTRESS
by Cathy Ulrich

The thing about being the murdered actress is you set the plot in motion.

Your picture will be in the tabloids, your parted mouth, your half-closed eyes. She was so beautiful, people will say. So young. You’ll be loved, desperately. Photos of you cut out of magazines, pasted on bedroom walls; your name tattooed onto forearms, upper thighs. I’ll never forget her.

They’ll write a biopic about you. A man will. A man who knew you, tangentially, when you were still alive. A man who remembers, tangentially, the sound of your laughter, the tap of your footstep. He’ll write you the way he remembers you, the way the people do. He’ll write you larger than life.

In your death, you will be larger than life. Like a face on a movie screen.

The tabloids will announce the production of the biopic. They’ll look for the perfect girl. Starlets will line up for auditions in red lipstick, spike heels. They’ll all have their hair styled like yours. They’ll have watched your films as research, research, even your earliest films, where you didn’t have any lines, filled in the background, stood, sat, walked, smiled, looked pretty.

What’s my motivation, you used to ask your directors.

Be sexy, they said. Be soda pop and apple pie.

That’s what they’ll tell the starlets in line, twisting in their heeled shoes, rubbing the backs of their necks.

Be soda pop, the starlets will agree, think of bubbles, think of fizz, think of the snap of aluminum coming undone.

There will be a girl on the stage. The girl on the stage will be speaking lines from your most famous movie. The girl on the stage will be inhabiting you to the smallest of her gestures.

She’s the one, the whisper will go down through the line of starlets, she’s the one.

The producers will be nodding, the director. She’s the one, yes, nodding, thinking how well they knew you, how well everyone did.

The girl on the stage will finish speaking her lines, your lines. The girl on the stage will feel their eyes on her. The girl on the stage will feel like you, feel loved, feel like you. Will bow, say: How was I?

When the girl from the stage is cast in your biopic, the tabloids will begin to call her by your name. Her own name will be gone. Our new girl, they will call her, our new beloved one. The girl with your name will look in the mirror sometimes, see your face.

Is this me? she’ll say.

The girl with your name will film your death scene first.

We have to see if you can handle it, the producers will say. The rest will be cake.

Easy as pie, the producers will say.

The girl with your name will never understand why the producers always talk food, soda pop, apple pie.

Are they so hungry, she’ll say to the makeup artist in your voice.

The producers will have the death scene shot again and again, watch the daily rushes, shake their heads.

It needs to be more real, they’ll say.

We need to believe it, they’ll say.

The director will ask for different angles, for less lighting, more lighting. The director will kneel beside the girl with your name, playing dead on the concrete floor, sheer black teddy, restrain her shivering body.

Every actress wants to play a death scene, the director will say.

He’ll grab the girl with your name by her thin wrist. It will be like grabbing you. He never touched you, not when you were alive. He’ll think it would have been like touching her now. He’ll pull her off the concrete floor by that one wrist and the girl with your name will think how it is, the difference between the two of them, his hand, her wrist, will think is this how she felt, will think, yes, this is how she felt.

The girl with your name will film the death scene. She’ll knock it out of the park, the producers will say, you knocked it out of the park, shake her hand, linger with their touch. The girl with your name will be magnificent, the girl with your name will smile, smile, smile. The tabloids will say how she is you now, how she is just like you.


Cathy Ulrich has picked up most of her movie lingo from reading books on silent films. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, including stories from the “Murdered Ladies” series in Cotton Xenomorph, Bad Pony, and Crab Fat Magazine. Her story Your Mother Sings When She’s Alone appeared in Issue 9 of Cleaver.

 

 

 

Image credit:  Andalucía Andaluía on Unsplash

 

THE FALL ZONE by Laura Moretz

THE FALL ZONE
by Laura Moretz

First thing that morning, a woman told Henry his crew must not cut her tree’s branches. She looked as though she wouldn’t survive if he cut the thinnest twig from the huge willow oaks in front of her house. Fully dressed and made up before eight a.m., she clutched the notice that his crew had hung on her door knob a few days before. She argued for the integrity of the tree as though he had suggested cutting the arms off her grandchildren. A branch as large as a trunk had shot over the power lines. He gave her his supervisor’s phone number. Her hands shook as she dialed the number on her flip phone, murmuring, “murder, murder, murder.” They moved their trucks to the next house—on this road, almost all the properties had tree limbs extending over the wires.

There, a woman came across the lawn in her pajamas and a loose sweater, her arms crossed like a shelf under her breasts so he wouldn’t see them shaky and unsupported. I’ll be damned, if this isn’t the day from hell. He knew what she would say: “you can’t cut our tree” and “it will fall over backward if you take off the front” and “it has never knocked out power,” and he would have to give her his boss’s number and hold off cutting, screwing up the work flow all down the road.

But she smiled, looked right in his eyes as though he were her equal and not the angel of death, and said, “I just wondered if you might cut one of our dead limbs, too,” and she pointed, so they walked together and she showed him where a major limb jutted out, silver and leafless, on the other side of the massive trunk. “My husband wanted me to ask.”

“That one will come down anyway—it’s on the lateral—it’s got to go.”

“My husband wants it down—I hadn’t noticed it was dead, disguised by all the living branches.” She looked embarrassed to ask this favor.

He didn’t tell her that they didn’t strictly need to cut it. Instead, he said, “You’ve got tomatoes just rottening on the vine.” He’d seen them when he’d been placing flags for the fall zone, just before she came from her carport. Orangey globes that he hadn’t seen often enough that summer, what with working seven-day weeks cleaning up one disaster after another. When he got back to North Carolina after cleaning up from Irma, his mother’s tomato vines had dried up.

“Do you want some? It’s crazy how they came so late this year. I can’t keep up.”

“Wouldn’t mind one for my sandwich.”

“You should take a couple,” she said, walking away toward the house.

He took a closer look at the tomatoes. Some had black mold spots and thin skin covering rot, others needed a few days on a windowsill before they’d be ready, and he wanted one for his sandwich today. It wouldn’t do to let the fruit roll around on the floorboard of the truck. Someone would step on them, and it would be a mess. Was that her watching from the window? Maybe he shouldn’t take any. It’s not like he was doing any big favor, getting that limb down.

He had to go and set up another zone on the main road, and when he came back, she walked outside again, now with a bra under her sweater, with three tomatoes in a plastic grocery bag. “I had some on the counter that are just perfect. We’re not eating them fast enough.” This woman could not stop apologizing for her good fortune, for this life where she had a husband and a garden and no bigger worry than getting down a dead limb.

The bucket truck was anchored at the base of her tree. He pointed to a fungus way up the trunk, and asked her, did she know what that meant?

She said she had no idea.

“It will kill the tree, because it’s inside it already. The water came down that dead limb and into the opening and started a sickness.”

She looked stricken, as though he’d told her that her child was dying.

“How long?” she asked.

“It’ll take a lot of years, maybe ten,” he said.

She seemed to relax a little. Then she showed him where the roots were rotting—did that have to do with the fungus?

“When you see mushrooms sprouting around the trunk, it’s a sign of rot.”

“There have been mushrooms all along these roots!” she said. “It’s where the chipmunks make their homes.”

“Ma’am, I can tell you about chipmunks.” He shook his head.

“We’ve got so many, we’ve been trapping them and taking them to the park.”

“I trap them, and I feed them to my black snakes.”

Her face said she didn’t think worse of him, in fact she looked as though she wanted to know more, but the limbing man up in the bucket had started his saw, and they had to get out from under the tree and the wires. Here was a woman who didn’t know when she was in danger.

“Ma’am we’ve got to get out from under the tree when he’s cutting.”

She followed him to the driveway.

The wood chips flew in the air like a thousand moths as she stood by him in the driveway near a telephone pole. He had his safety glasses on, never took them off all day, but she had nothing and was covering her eyes with her hands like a visor. Some limbs bounced softly onto the wires and balanced there, while others fell to the ground.

“Would black snakes climb this tree?” she asked.

“They would eat them squirrel babies out of their nests.” He told her about black snakes and how he liked to catch the five-footers and keep them, and she seemed interested, so he told her about the dozen deer he skinned last winter, the fifty-odd rabbits he’d shot, and even more squirrels—all of which he ate—and the catfish he’d caught in the Yadkin River as long as her arm, which was good eating, too.

He cut glances at her rounded belly, her hair, both colored and gray, all the while tracking the man who whirred the bucket up and down and lopped off branches.

“It’s my son up there.” He surprised himself, telling her this. “He’s twenty-five. I raised him since he was five, both Mama and Daddy to him. I broke down and cried when he moved out at eighteen. Couldn’t stand for him to go.”

A large limb fell and hung on the wires, seeming as light as a row of perched birds.

“Looks like he came back.”

They watched another limb fall.

She said something about how it wasn’t as hot as it had been, and he said he liked it best when the temperatures were in the thirties. Those times in the winter or late fall when he skinned deer outdoors and left some of the parts on a table at night for raccoons and red-tailed hawks to get. He didn’t hire a butcher service the way other hunters did. He liked being outside, cutting the meat by the open fire, canning it at a table built for that purpose.

The bucket arm was at full extension.

“What about those?” She pointed over his son’s head.

“That’s canopy. We won’t get that cut—no way to do it.”

He didn’t want to leave the woman’s side, but he had to do his job. With his picker, he plucked the newly fallen branches off the wires. He wanted to tell her about learning to hunt with his father, who showed him how to load and point a rifle and how to track animals, and then sent him out in the woods telling him to bring back squirrels and rabbits for supper, counting on him to do it. He wanted to sit at her table, and tell her about his hunting, and eat his sandwich with her, away from the men.

She yelled out from the driveway, “Don’t forget to get some green tomatoes. Take all you want.” She was gone into the house.

He wanted a dozen green tomatoes for canning, and he took them. He left her a few, even though she’d waste them. He’d kill a deer that weekend and dice the green tomatoes for chow chow.

All that week, while they cut limbs throughout her neighborhood, he noticed when her car was in her carport, and when it was gone, but he didn’t see her again, even when he directed his chipping crew to dump two loads of woodchips in her garden where she’d agreed they could dump them. Don’t cover the tomatoes, she’d said.

The next time this job came up would be ten years from now, and by that time he’d be out on disability or retired. He had to accept it—women like her were not for him.

When cold weather came, Henry enjoyed a stretch of good hunting, then a hard freeze came followed by an ice storm, and, to top it off, a heavy snow brought down limbs and power lines all around the city. His crew used spotlights to make quick work of dozens of fallen trees and limbs, and, despite the snow and the dark, he recognized her place when they were sent to her neighbor’s house, the neighbor who’d first complained the day he worked on that road last summer. As a result, his boss had told them to go easy on her pin oak. Now the limbs they’d left for aesthetic reasons had knocked out power down the street, which would put his boss’s job in danger. He hoped his boss wouldn’t get sacked. There was nothing he could do about a woman like that.

This time, he was in the bucket while his son warmed up in the truck, and a third man watched from below.

While he considered the best path for the large limb’s fall, a light came on in the woman’s carport, and he saw two figures come out. It had to be the woman and her husband. They’d left their warm bed or their fire or their generator to watch him work, and there was no way she could know that he was the man she’d given tomatoes. She’d see him now as one of those tree men. He cut the the trunk-like branch—more than a foot around—and it landed on the sodden snow.

The couple had disappeared when he looked back their way. He lowered his bucket and climbed out.

In the truck, his son poured hot coffee from a thermos and extended the cup. “Isn’t that the house where the lady gave you tomatoes?”

“Whatever garden she had is gone under this mess,” he said.

“She had some green ones that you canned up.”

“That sounds right,” he said. A jar of the chow chow was in his fridge. He savored it with his venison. “She wasted her garden. Some people.”


Laura Moretz is a writer with fiction published in r.kv.r.y quarterly literary journal, Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, Stoneboat, and forthcoming in The Forge. Two of her stories have been nominated for Pushcart prizes. She has won the Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Prize and is an assistant editor for Boulevard and The Review Review.

 

 

 

Image credit:  Mark Koellmann on Unsplash

BARREN by Lynn Oseguera

BARREN
by Lynn Oseguera

I walked in my grandfather’s garden while my sisters took their turns saying goodbye. The peony bushes, now barren, were my grandmother’s favorite and, for her, he had always tended them. She had long forgotten who we were, but just that morning had told my sisters and I how much she missed peonies in the springtime. I walked past her still staring at the empty bushes through the window when I came inside to take my turn.

The rented hospital bed was made up as comfortably as it could be. In it, my grandfather looked wilted and fragile. Barren. My mother, holding his veiny hand, looked up at me in tears. She shook her head and I knew I had missed my turn.

We told my grandmother for the first time. A few moments later, the information gone, she asked if we were crying because there were no peonies blooming.


Lynn Oseguera is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. She enjoys comedy, science fiction, and all forms of art. After graduating, she aspires to work in entertainment, specifically screenwriting. “Barren” is dedicated to her supportive late grandfather.

A HISTORY OF WASHINGTON, D.C. IN NINE SCENES by Nick Kolakowski

A HISTORY OF WASHINGTON, D.C. IN NINE SCENES
by Nick Kolakowski

June 1792

My Dear Elizabeth,

This is beautiful country. The hills are a verdant green & the river Potomack bountiful with fish & amenable to navigation & it seems agreeable that the Capitol of our new nation should find itself erected on this spot. Yet the ferryman conveying me across the muddy waters displayed a surly nature worthy of Charon. When I informed him of my intent to survey the boundaries of the federal district, he snorted & spat & declared the area a fetid swamp unfit for Civilized Man. Losing four fingers to a cannonball in our most recent War—so he informed me—seems to have put him off the idea of Governments in general.

Once ashore I found a buzzing legislature of insects awaiting me with each one a hellion anxious to sip my blood. The humid air & my exertions &c. produced sweat copious enough to soak my jacket & fill my boots. Only the thought of my generous fee compelled me to continue my measurements & recordings. A few hours’ journey to the north placed me at the base of a rocky slope, prodigious in height—at the base of it a humble cabin filled with a quantity of miserable wretches. Their Patriarch boasted a white beard worthy of Moses & the blackest eyes mine own have ever seen. I am here to survey land for the Capitol, I informed him. He looked at me queerly, as if I were taking amusement at his expense, & told me he would refuse to part with his tiny farm for less than many times its pitiable worth. The irascibility of the inhabitants here!

 

August 1814

They say the Capitol is the only building in Washington worthy of notice. Now it is ablaze. The Library of Congress, with all its wondrous knowledge, is likewise on fire. The inferno flickers golden on the bayonets of the British marching up Pennsylvania Avenue toward this house, intent on setting yet another icon of our fair Republic to the torch.

Mister Madison has fled already; my husband is always quick on his feet, let us say. John Susé, our door-keeper, and Magraw the gardener enter our living quarters, their eyes wide with panic. Susé says I must leave with all due haste, the British are only a square or two away.

Our silver & some furnishings & other goods already await in the carts downstairs. The rest of this wood & stone & plaster & cloth can burn—it will not kill the Dream. But as we pass through the house I see the portrait of Washington—dear George—on the wall in its heavy and ornate frame, and the thought of the British defiling it fires me with rage.

“Take that down,” I tell Susé, pointing at the portrait.

“But Madame,” he protests. “That frame is heavy, and nailed securely to the wall. We would need to find a ladder, and we have not time.”

“Magraw,” I say, and gesture toward the large blade strapped to the man’s belt. “If we cannot remove the frame from the wall, we will remove the painting from the frame.”

Susé begs me to stop, but Magraw hands over the polished steel without a word. I push a chair against the wall beside the painting. “My apologies, George,” I say, standing on the seat, raising the knife above my head. “But it is better this way, trust me.”

 

February 1861

Washington is surely the capitol of Hell. It is crowded and it stinks; the mosquitoes and flies outnumber the two-legged citizens; the quarters for rent are in desperate need of amenities and class. I love it so. At Willard’s Hotel my shoes crunch over bits of paper and cigar ends and chunks of glass, all of it discarded without thought by the crowds of men anxious for a word with the senators and congressmen staying in the rooms above. Everyone crowds the bar and drinks to sweaty excess and spits chewing tobacco everywhere, uncaring if the latter should splatter a neighbor; and when a legislator appears they tear after him with the hunger of lions after a fat bit of prey, anxious for a word, a signature, a promise, a position. From the Generals wanting more troops to the small boys needling you for coins, this is a city of desperate wants. A canny man like me could make a fortune here.

But nothing compares to the great frenzy and huzzah that greets our President as he traverses the parlor with his small entourage, doing his best to offer each vulture a pleasant word and handshake. Lincoln, despite his ungainly bearing and reedy voice, carries within him an unmistakable gravitas I only hope is commensurate with the enormous tasks that face our dear nation. I want to buy him a drink, and do my best to elbow through the crowd, but he is already away to his suite. Our sweet Lord protect him.

 

November 1927

The Caverns is a tiny space beneath the humble Davis drugstore on 11th, but it looms large in our imagination. It is the place to go in the very early hours, when the whole town sleeps except for us true jazz aficionados, the ones who can’t hear a clattering typewriter without snapping their fingers in time to the keys, and who file into this cave and take their seats and light cigarettes and sip their sneaky liquor and wait for the musicians to step beneath the hot lights (quiet down; listen close) and launch their trumpets or drums into rhythm, erecting that frame of notes on which the other players begin to weave their sound, crafting a force so powerful it shakes apart your outer armor and lifts your soul straight from your body, making you forget the injustices and depravities of the world looming overhead—for a little while, at least.

 

April 1968

They’re burning this whole sucker down, man.

 

March 1991

Typical weekend: Deon Richardson, 23; Jeremy Smith, 19; Richard Sanders, 27. Richardson a headshot from point-blank range, .38-caliber; Smith shot through the throat from across the street, 9mm; three shots to Sanders’ torso from the other end of the room, .45-caliber—and should I even bother to mention what this trio of upstanding citizens did for a living? Slung minor rock. That makes them bad, yeah, but they didn’t deserve to die.

I was a rookie cop the day MLK was assassinated in 1968. Don’t ask me what it takes to fire teargas at your friends and neighbors. For a long time I thought those riots were the worst thing I’d ever live through. Then came crack, and the sons of those friends and neighbors started killing each other like they were soldiers in a war. I don’t think these troubles will last forever. I read a lot of history and things always come full circle, you know? The neighborhoods will come back. They have to come back. Even if they return in a form nobody wants, anything’s better than this slaughter.

 

November 2002

One night my uncle and I are eating at El Tamarindo, that Mexican place off U Street. We have a table with a view of the intersection, and we’re digging into our chili nachos when a cop cruiser pulls over this purple hoop-dee with a couple kids inside. Three minutes later those kids are sitting on the curb, hands cuffed behind their backs, the tears streaming down their faces red and blue in the cruiser lights. The cops are talking to each other but we can’t hear anything through the glass.

“You know that white building around the corner there,” my uncle says, pointing at the wall over my shoulder.

“You mean that big one?”

He nods. “Twenty years back, I knew this guy dealt coke out of there, in broad daylight. Nobody touched him.”

“It’s becoming a different kind of neighborhood now,” I say.

He nods again, staring at the cops shoving those kids into the back of the cruiser. “Yes,” he says, “it is.”

“I gotta go,” I say, and stand, and kiss him on the cheek before heading into the night. I live in one of the new condos along U Street, the Madison, which is a steel-and-glass cube with a Thai restaurant on the first floor. Everyone in this building, we’re the first ones to live in it. I was attracted to the symmetry of its design, the cleanliness of its lines, which seemed like some kind of reward after the messiness and stress of my first few years as a lobbyist.

I toss my coat on the couch and walk over to the window and think about my old-school uncle. I’m his favorite niece, but sometimes I worry that he sees me as just another yuppie strip-mining the city he loves. I stare out the window at the street below, packed with crowds filtering out of the bars, and feel something shift in my chest. Maybe I’ll look for another place to live. An actual house, one of those small but cute ones along T or S, with a yard: a place where you can set down real roots.

 

July 2004

Email from Baghdad:

You won’t believe how hot it is here. We all stink. You pull off your body armor and there’s this film of gray dead skin all over your body. The wind scrapes your eyes raw. This whole affair is best summed up by a soldier’s experience in the portable crappers. It’s an oven in those things during sunup, but your nose is numb to the odor of rot. There are three things I miss most about home. You can guess the first two. The third on the list is a Ben’s half-smoke with a milkshake. I wasn’t into that place much before I left, but now I think about it once a day at least. For some reason it’s my brain’s symbol for home.

 

October 2017

In the back of a new bar off 13th Street I find myself trapped between a coworker nearly comatose after slamming down five microbrew lagers and a loud dude who keeps insisting he’ll never buy a bottle of wine that costs less than a hundred fifty dollars, and I want more than anything the ability to vomit on command, because that would offer me the fastest possible escape from this Halloween party at which maybe three people, tops, have actually shown up in costume.

“Yeah, okay, but what about ordinary table wines?” I ask the loud guy, even as the angry part of me rails at the polite part for continuing this conversation. “If you’re paying that much for something to go with a plate of pasta, isn’t that just idiotic?”

He starts to yell—or yell louder, in any case—and storms away, his elbow swiping a half-full beer off the bar and onto the floor. Bits of glass and micro-brew spatter my legs. The bartender laughs and hands over a couple of paper napkins to soak up the damage. He’s an older dude with a graying beard and 8-ball eyes, tough-looking in a wiry sort of way.

“I saw that coming,” he yells over the music.

“Yeah, right.” I daub at my pants. “Sometimes I hate this place.”

He offers a wide and totally insincere smile. “This place? It just opened.”

“I know. I meant this whole stretch of town here, the clubs and whatnot. Sometimes it’s just annoying as all hell.”

The bartender’s smile wavers a bit. He stares at me, ignoring the increasingly frantic patrons waving their fives and twenties in his direction. “How long you lived in the District?” he asks.

“Two years.”

He shakes his head and laughs again. “Whatever. You can’t see the layers yet.”

“Wait, what’s that even mean?”

But he’s already turned away. I head outside, pausing on the sidewalk so a man in a black suit with a Trump mask can scurry past, pursued by figures in ghoul makeup. They’re headed down the avenue toward Capitol Hill, where they can join all the other interns and staffers and politicos who live in their own little world down there. As I start walking in the other direction, I pass an old brick wall on which someone has scrawled a slogan in bright green paint: “RESIST.” When I think about that bartender, that word strikes me as a good motto for this town.


Nick Kolakowski

Frequent contributor Nick Kolakowski’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review7×7.la, Carrier Pigeon, and Shotgun Honey, among other publications. He’s also the author of How to Become an Intellectual, a book of comedic nonfiction, and Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me, a short-story collection. His flash fiction “The Great Wave Carries You Forward” appeared in Issue 5, and “Little Orestes” appeared in Issue No. 8. His story “The Valley” appeared in Issue No. 10 of Cleaver. His poem “Illuminati Dance” appeared in Issue 15. He lives and writes in New York City. 

 

 

Image: The City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard, 1833 oil painting by George Cooke

 

THE BODY THAT ENSURES SURVIVAL by Erin Blue Burke

THE BODY THAT ENSURES SURVIVAL
by Erin Blue Burke

This is what you do when you are out of diapers: you go to the store. You go to the store because your husband is out of town and can’t stop by on his way home from work. You go to the store despite the news warnings, despite the way the air has sunken into a disquieting yellow. You go to the store because last night the baby cried for two hours, kept you up from one to three, before you finally pulled him into your bed and placed him on your husband’s side, nestled him in a pillow that wouldn’t let him roll over. You go to the store because maybe someone will talk to you; maybe someone will wonder how you are doing while they hand over your change, and you will be able to smile and laugh and roll your eyes because, Well, you know how newborns are.

The diapers are on aisle seven. The baby is strapped to your chest, unaware of the trouble he is causing. He starts to cry, and you pull the pacifier up from its clip, stuff it into his mouth.

It is at this moment of soothing that the power goes out. You don’t think much of it, because this is what motherhood has done to you. Your threshold for emergencies has greatly increased, as has your lack of concern for the privacy of your own body and your definition of what it means to have a functioning brain. You are more anxious about the reaction of the baby tethered to you, but he doesn’t seem to notice the darkness.

But you hear murmurs from another aisle. Someone shouts out a command you don’t understand, and before you can turn around, before you can wonder what you are supposed to do, you hear the cloud-train coming.  It shakes the ground. It vibrates your overtired head with its ferocious rumble. Only when things start crashing does it all register.  Only then do you crouch down and hold the plastic pack of diapers over your head, over both of you.

You start to cry because you are so helpless. You cry the same way you had cried on the floor of the bathroom after throwing up for an hour in the second month of pregnancy. I’m trying so hard, you had whispered.  I’m trying so hard to protect you.

It is all you can do to cradle the silent baby against you as debris flies. Something hits your hand, the hand that is over your baby’s head, something sharp and vicious. But you don’t move. You gather the entirety of your being over him. And then it stops before it even seems to have begun. The sound fades away. Things stop torpedoing through the air. And all you can do is sit amidst the wreckage on the floor, crying, your spine leaning against the metal shelf, your hands across his back to make sure he is still breathing.

Eventually there is dim light; the sky outside is gathering sun again. There are voices, flashlights, people searching. Another woman sees you and rushes towards you, wants to know how you are doing.

“I’m here,” you say to her. “I’m fine.  We’re both fine.” And you reach up your bloodied hand to wave, indicating your survival.


Erin Blue Burke is a writer from Huntsville, Alabama where she lives with her husband and daughter.  Her work has previously appeared in Hypertrophic Literary.

 

 

 

 

Image credit:  Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

[A BLOCKED VALVE FACILITATES PRAYER. A BLOCKED AIRWAY INSPIRES A] by Levi Andalou

[A BLOCKED VALVE FACILITATES PRAYER. A BLOCKED AIRWAY INSPIRES A]
by Levi Andalou

A blocked valve facilitates prayer. A blocked airway inspires a
sudden reinvestment in the communicative powers of miming. A
blocked pathway introduces the stern demands of an omnipotent
being. Palms should be dry, mouth wet, or is it the other way
around? Like the soldier the child imagines himself becoming,
waving off water, ampules, plasma. Lying on the motel bed, I
there succumb to exposure. Exposed to the onionskin leaves of the
deathbed edition, the white spaces between words running
together into currents that flow unchecked over the falls of broken
lines. Does sadness collect in the bloodstream like mercury, a
shimmering thing? A crack between door and jamb mobilizes
love. You assure me it is nothing to worry about, nothing at all.


Levi Andalou’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Minnesota Review, Lake Effect, Spillway,  BOMB, Virga Magazine, Sugar House Review, DIAGRAM, F(r)iction, Sonora Review, Phoebe, Ruminate, Pembroke Magazine, and Tampa Review. He is a finalist for the 2018 Greg Grummer Poetry Award. The Poetry Editor of Black Warrior Review has said of his work: “These poems and their linguistic turns reinvigorate the prose poem.” The Poetry Editor of Washington Square Review called his work “hypnagogic, surreal, and surprisingly incantatory, given its prose form.” He graduated from Brown University, where he studied with C.D. Wright, Michael S. Harper, and Ange Mlinko. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can read more of his work or contact him at LeviAndalou.com.

FROM HERE TO THERE by Gloria Yuen

 

­FROM HERE TO THERE
by Gloria Yuen

Barrier on, the device declares.

“When you initiate the force field,” the Head Agent instructs, “you lock yourself in an impenetrable membrane. It will keep danger out. But it will also keep you in.”

Barrier off, the device declares.

I engage Search: Force field, noun. Popular Articles. The invention of the force field (neochrome). The invention of the force field (electromagnetic). History of force field usage in Post-Contemporary warfare. [New in TECH] ‘Defense Fields’ for Civilian Homes in Final Stages of Development.

The Head Agent claps her hands. I exit Search. “Field practice with the neochrome next week. Dismissed.”

We salute in unison.

“What happens if you walk through a force field?” M-2 asks at my left. I turn to examine him. Raised eyebrows, slightly open mouth. Inquisitive. He is one of the preliminary cadets to join the M garrison and is much older than I. He was modeled after a lab specialist who died in one of the first base attacks.

“Did you not use Search?” I ask.

M-2 blinks. “I will use Search. Engage Search. Search. Searching. ‘What happens if you walk through a force field?’”

“All right, M-2, you’re coming with me,” says a female voice. I turn to examine the woman and she smiles at me—friendly—as she pats M-2 on the shoulder. Her name tag reads TS-43, Tech Specialist. Underneath it is ‘Afua’ in large letters. It is an alias. Some of the scientists still keep them. I do not understand why. A second designation is inconsequential.

TS-43 takes M-2. The rest of us march back to the East Wing to power down for the night.

“Turn to your partners. Say hello,” the Head Agent instructs. Her voice intones humor. Every M Agent and U Agent turns to face their partner.

“Nice to meet you,” Agent U-16 says. A friendly smile. She extends a hand. I shake it.

“Likewise, Agent,” I reply.

“How formal,” she laughs. I tilt my head to express confusion.

Her eyebrows raise. Shock (negative)? Surprise (neutral)? They are difficult to differentiate. She is still smiling. She shakes her head. “Never mind.”

The Head Agent claps for our attention. “Each pair must use their force field device to move through the simulations. Remember what I said—you trap something out, you trap yourself in. Treat this seriously! If either one of you is compromised, both have failed. Understood?”

“Yes, Agent,” we chorus.

“Let’s ace this thing, huh?” Agent U-16 whispers. I tilt my head to express confusion.

She touches her hair. “Oh, sorry, I forgot. It means–”

“Let’s ace this thing,” I repeat. It feels strange in my mouth. “A colloquial phrase meaning, ‘Let us succeed.’”

She is surprised (positive). “Yeah. Yeah?”

“Yes.” I test the mechanism to return her smile. I think it works because she slaps me on the back. Her eyes are wide. Pleased.

Together, we ace the thing.

“Let’s head to lunch,” Agent U-16 says, wiping the sweat on her neck. She smiles, as usual.

“Sounds good,” I say, smiling back. It’s a new term she has taught me. Within the past two months, it has become one of the top 10 most commonly used phrases in my Colloquial Dictionary.

I do not—or don’t—need food to function. Sitting with our partners while they eat is what the Social Specialists call ‘bonding time.’ It’s supposed to improve our teamwork. Bonding time equates to more communication, which calibrates my recognition software.

I understand my partner with 70.34% accuracy when we converse. She is distinctly difficult to read.

The lunch on her tray is the same as yesterday’s. Chicken breast. Peas and carrots. A pear. I calculate nutritional value.

“Are you looking forward to the mission?” I ask. Small talk, the specialists told us. Prompt the conversation.

She looks up from inspecting her food. “What? Looking forward?”

“Yes. Are you eager to embark on–”

“I heard you,” she says, frowning. Concerned (negative)? Displeased? She is trying to read my face. “No, not really.”

I frown as well. “Why not?”

“Because,” she frowns, deeper. But does not continue. “…It’s nothing. Don’t ask me things I can’t answer.”

I nod. “Understood.”

“No, wait, that’s not…” She pushes her tray away. She pushes back her hair. “You know, I don’t like telling you what to do. Well, I don’t know if you know, but… it’s okay for you to ask questions, is what I mean. You don’t have to stop talking when I tell you to.”

“Understood,” I say. “I do not have questions at the moment. Correction, I don’t. I don’t have questions at the moment.”

Her facial features relax. “All right then.”

I notice a produce sticker stuck on the pear in her tray. It is not to be consumed. She has not noticed. I reach over and peel it off.

When I return from the trash chute, she is looking at me. Intention unclear.

I try what the specialists taught us: “I apologize. I have overstepped a social boundary.”

“What? No, you haven’t.” She blinks, before shaking her head. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just thinking too much.”

“About what?”

“…The mission.” She smiles. It’s a little different than usual. I catalogue it. “To be honest, I’m a little anxious. But I’m always anxious, so it’s nothing new.”

“Nothing new. Don’t worry, Agent,” I say. I reach for her hand, a motion I learned from the Contemporary films. “We are here to protect you.”

We? What do you mean we?” Emotion recognition failure, my software notifies, before attempting to calibrate again. I dismiss the error.

“We. The M garrison,” I say.

“The M garrison.” Her face is still and smooth.

“That is correct.”

“Oh,” she says. “I see.”

“Yes,” I say. I dismiss the error again.

She finishes her lunch. I note the contents of the meal in her dietary records. When she leaves the cafeteria, I follow behind, sending an email to the physician to coordinate a routine check-up

We are walking—strolling, the Agent tells me—along a pathway in the central garden. The dome ceiling is high, its peak close to 9.51 meters tall. My measurements seem to interest her.

She raises her arms as she walks the line between concrete and gravel. Her face is warmer than usual, pleased. Her steps are fast, slow, fast. “Do you ever think about your parents?”

She is not interested in my measurements. I note my mistake.

“I don’t have parents.”

“You could. The woman you were modeled after, or the engineers who made you. Those could be parents.”

“Those could be parents,” I repeat. “You use it as an analogy.”

Her eyes wander over the scenery. “Sure. But it’s a literal thing, too. Not all parents are biological.”

“Yes. The verb, to parent, can also mean, to act as a mother or father. Understood.”

“Close enough.” She returns to the middle of the concrete path and drops her arms. “So who were you modeled after?”

“A Tech Specialist. Her civilian name was Mara.”

“Her civilian name? You should know your history better than I do. There was no distinction between civilian and soldier back then. That started during the war.”

“I suppose you are correct.”

She stops in front of some yellow-rimmed leaves. Image Search yields Sansevieria trifasciata, a plant native to West Africa. This one has grown flower stalks, though they have not yet bloomed.

I point at the buds. “That is rare,” I tell her, according to the internet.

“Yeah, it is.” She pauses. “I only know this because my dad had a real green thumb.”

Green thumb. Someone who has an exceptional aptitude for gardening.”

“Yeah. Well, before he passed he was sick all the time and he couldn’t go outside much, but that was because he had to give up gardening after we moved to the city, so he was devastated, and he started collecting all these house plants…” Her shoulders shifted up and she inhaled. “Our snake plant was a flowering one, too. He didn’t care for it though, since it didn’t take much effort to grow. He loved a challenge.”

I attempt to sort the information.

“Sorry,” she says, turning around. She waves her hands in placation. “I asked about your parents, but I babbled on about mine instead.”

“Not a problem.” I sift my database for the appropriate phrase. “It is a pleasure to hear about your father.”

She snorts. “You can stop using that on me. I’d rather you be socially inept than spout that automated bullshit.” She claps a hand over her mouth.

As her ears turn pink, I step forward. “Are you all right, Agent? Your body temperature is higher than normal.”

“I’m fine.” She rubs her forehead. “God, I’m sorry. Forget I said that. I’m a mess.”

“I will not mention it. Why are you a mess? Is it because of the mission?”

“The mission? Oh,” she laughs. “Uh. Yeah. Sure.

The afternoon alarm rings. She doesn’t seem to notice it.

“That’s our cue,” I say. She’d taught me that last week.

She hears me. “Huh? Oh, right.” Eyebrows slightly angled, corners of her mouth turned down. Worried. Pupils restless. Distracted. “Good job remembering that,” she says. “Sometimes I think you remember things a little too well.”

I tilt my head. “Confirmation—does that have a negative connotation?”

“No,” she sighs. She walks ahead, leading the way. She no longer gestures or asks for me to follow her anymore—she knows I will.

She scans her ID at the entrance leading to the North Wing training facilities. There is a sign taped on the door: BROKEN LIGHTS. I scan the back of my hand. The door closes behind us.

Her voice is quiet, but it echoes in the dark tunnel. “I didn’t mean ‘too well’ as a negative. Remembering, I think, is never a bad thing. More of us should remember that.”

The tunnel gets darker. I activate my night vision. She is walking, slowly, but steadily, her hand on the wall. In front of me, she glows. Almost like a—

“What was that?”

“What was what?”

“I thought I heard you say something.”

“I’m not sure.” I check my activity log and find nothing unusual. I run a quick system diagnostic. Nothing. I make a note to visit the tech ward.

“It was probably my imagination. Be careful where you step.”

“Understood.”

 

I wake up on my back, facing a gray ceiling.

As I recalibrate my location, I review my activity log and conduct a surface security scan. I learn I am in the tech ward. I had experienced an unidentifiable malfunction during training. In my secondary camera, there is a recording of two tech specialists, transporting me on a wheelchair.

I run diagnostics. No errors.

“Good morning.”

I turn. My partner is sitting in one of the plastic chairs. She waves. I wave back.

“You froze during the drill. Do you remember what happened?”

“I remember. Are you all right, Agent?”

“I’m fine. It was just a drill after all.” She stands, dusting off her clean pants. “I’ll get going then. The TS in charge went out for lunch. He said you’re good to go.”

I pull up the weekly calendar. “You have field training at this time. Why are you here?”

She smiles. “The mission is tomorrow. What would I need training for?”

My joints are slightly under-greased. It is difficult to move. I manage to get off the examination table, while my partner watches me. She has assisted me in the past. Today, she does not.

“Training is important. Training prepares you for the fight.”

“The war prepared me to fight.” Her voice is shaking. “I don’t need someone to tell me not to die. You think out there, you’ll have someone blowing whistles for you? You think everyone has time to prepare?”

“I apologize. I have overstepped a social boundary.”

She pulls at her hair, fingers twisting into her ponytail. She is angry and I don’t know how to fix it.

“I apologi—”

She grabs my shoulders and shakes. “It’s not your fault!” Her voice is hoarse, as if she has not used it in a long time. “It’s not your goddamn fault.”

“Understood.”

She cries. It is my first time seeing real tears. In the middle, her arms wrap around me in what is called a hug, and when she is done she finds me a tissue to wipe the wetness off my breastplate.

Barrier on, the device declares.

Through the force field, we watch the explosion light up the horizon. Skyscrapers around our building crumble. The sound rumbles through my core. The heat comes after.

I fold my arms over the roof railing. My partner is doing the same a few feet away.

“I’m going to miss coffee,” she says.

I flex my gloved hands. They are burning. I run a quick diagnostic, but nothing is detected.

“Is that your favorite drink?” I ask.

“Oh yeah, you haven’t had coffee before, huh?”

“I have not.”

“If you get the chance one day, I recommend it.”

“I will remember.”

She laughs. Her approaching footsteps are in iambic pentameter: drag… tap, drag… tap. Search suggestion: William Shakespeare’s most famous works. I dismiss the screen.

“You shouldn’t move,” I say. A boom again, from somewhere in the city. “Excess movement will strain your injury.”

She looks down at her thigh. The fabric covering it is red and wet. “This?” She shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter. I can’t feel it anyway.”

Her wound is too deep for her not to feel it. But somehow, I know she is telling the truth.

A call rings in from Agent U-50 on the core dispatch team. I accept and request affirmation. “Agent M-8. ‘Down the river.’”

“’Up the bend,’” he answers.

“Affirmative.” They have not been compromised. Through the joint video feed, I see what he sees. In his hands is a black suitcase. Perhaps its contents could end the war. “We have the Grail. On our way.” The call ends.

My partner is pulling at the ripped slash in her uniform pants. The fire and smoke outside the neochrome makes the blood on her leather gloves look like it’s shining.

“They have the Grail, Agent,” I say.

“Finally.” The building beneath our feet shakes. She looks out over the city. “Hey. Can I tell you a secret?”

“Sounds good.”

Her breathing is uneven. “My civilian name, from before—it’s Gwen.”

“Gwen,” I repeat. “You are not supposed to tell me this, Agent. Protocol has been breached.”

“Our conversation in the garden.” She grips the railing. “Do you remember it?”

“I do.”

“My parents gave me that name, but they’re dead. There is no one else to remember them, but me. And there is no one to remember me. Do you understand?”

The core team crashes through the rooftop entrance. Agent U-50 runs straight for the aircraft on standby with the Grail.

“Agent–”

“Call me Gwen,” she says.

Two others come through the door, one injured. The last hesitates. He looks in our direction. He waves his arms.

“Understood,” I say. “Gwen. You should get into the aircraft.”

She does not move. “Look at that. They want you to pull the switch. They’re going to leave you behind.”

“You must go, Agent. The craft can only carry five people.” I approach the force field device and set the timer to 30 seconds. I place a finger on the power switch.

“No,” she says. She limps over to kneel beside me and removes her helmet. Her face is wet. Her eyes are losing focus.

Someone pulls the last core Agent inside the craft and slams the door shut, just as Gwen pushes my hand into the switch.

Barrier off in 30, the device declares. The aircraft begins to rise up to the peak of the force field.

29…

“Agent–”

“It’s Gwen.”

27…

“Gwen. I will call them–”

25…

“I won’t get on.”

23…

“You will die.”

She smiles. She pulls off my helmet.

21…

“No,” she says. “I will live.”

19…

The aircraft sways in the sky, hovering just under the force field, the peak close to 22.4 meters tall.

17…

She leans in. “Do you want to live?”

15…

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

13…

“You can start with a name.”

11…

“What name?”

9…

“Any name,” she says. “Mara.”

“Mara,” I repeat.

7…

“Mara. Nice to meet you.”

She holds out her hand.

5…

I shake it.

“Gwen. Nice to meet you.”

3…

2…

Gwen smiles.

1…

“All right, then. Let’s ace this thing.”

It is approximately four hours into the truck ride when my system begins to overheat. We are too close together—the Agents are sitting with their weapons and bags between their knees. Occasionally, a shaft of light comes through the curtain from the gap in the partition, and we all turn our faces towards it.

I bend forward. My system can’t cool because there is no air. I can’t ascertain the temperature. I am an old model. It is too hot for my sensors to detect much detail.

“We almost there, you think?”

“We should arrive after sunset.”

My partner nods. He did not pay attention to the Captain’s announcement. “Right,” he says. “I guess we’ll know when the sun sets.”

A few of the Agents look in our direction.

My partner leans in again. “Hey.” Although it is dark, his eyes glitter, black. “Did you pick a name for yourself? Everyone here uses names.” When I don’t reply, he scratches at his neck. “You know what a name is, right?”

“I am aware of what a name is.”

His mouth twitches. “Well, okay. Sorry.”

The truck soon stops. We hear orders being shouted outside. Crunching footsteps and slamming doors. The luggage being pulled off the ridged roof of the car.

The back door swings open. The U Agents blink at the sudden light. A few M Agents wake their sleeping partners.

“Single file,” the Sergeant orders.

We secure our belongings and form a line. The U Agents stand behind their M partners. In my rear camera, I can see my partner looking around, curious, his hands swinging at his sides.

Hedges of burnt foliage line the road. The gravel beneath our feet is dusted with ash. We march until we reach a towering gate.

“Welcome to the A.H. United Forces,” a guard says. He’s wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a 1990s American cartoon character on the front. He has no visible firearms. “The main entrance is straight that way. Watch your step, we’ve been fixing the sidewalk.”

“What the hell,” my partner says as we pass through, “it’s not even dark yet.”

It isn’t. The sky is gray and pink, ridged with clouds, and though the sun is dim, it is up. Only the footsteps of the platoon and the guard’s voice can be heard. Everything else is still.

“This used to be a hospital wing,” the Sergeant says, turning on the ceiling lights. They flicker on, one by one.

The room has three rows of bunk beds. There is a large bookshelf. There is also a stripped bathroom area in the corner, where dried taps jut from the tiles. I engage Search. It was likely used by surgeons during the war.

“One through sixty in line, settle in,” the Sergeant says. “You’ll be staying here indefinitely. The rest of you, follow me.”

The Sergeant leads us down a hallway of rooms. “The rest of you have been partnered with an Agent, so you will be staying with them here. Peacemaking operations will begin soon. You must refine your social skills.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“Find your assigned quarters. Dismissed.”

We salute in unison.

I find my designation on the third door from the end of the hall. I knock.

“Come in,” my partner says.

I go in. “Hello, Agent.” The room is narrow. I catalogue a bunk bed, two drawers, a closet, and a desk. There is a window facing the training fields. Further away is the perimeter wall, and then tops of the trees in the forest on the other side.

My partner is lying down on the bottom bunk. He does not look up from his book. “You can put your stuff on top.”

The sun is setting. I stand at the window to observe. The sky turns many different colors, before turning into a dark blue.

It is my first time seeing real stars. I catalogue 20 constellations, 2 military satellites, the glow of Mercury.

“I know you don’t get why it’s creepy to stand there for an hour, but I’m telling you now that it is.”

I turn to face my partner. He is reading a different book now. I notice the light is on. I recalibrate my sensors.

“I apologize. Is it not socially acceptable?”

He puts his book over his face. “Honestly, I don’t care. But you probably shouldn’t do that in public.”

“Understood.”

I climb the bunk and sit. From up here, only the grass is visible through the window.

“Hey.”

“Yes?”

“Why did you do it?”

I incline my head in the direction of my partner’s voice. “Do what?”

“Kill that Agent.”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

His face appears over the edge of the bunk. He stares up at me. “You haven’t heard the gossip? There was a droid that went crazy and killed its partner.” He smiles. Intention unclear. “My uncle was a Lieutenant at your base. He was there, at her funeral.”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

He whistles. “They weren’t playing around when they wiped your hard drive.” I sense him adjusting his position on the bed. Cotton fabric is pulled over cotton fabric. “I don’t care whether you killed her or not,” he yawns. “Now I know what they do to traitors.”

He sleeps. I engage Search, keywords: droid, crazy, kill, partner. There are no results.

When I power on, my partner is halfway though the door, tossing a peach into the air with one hand. He catches it and takes a bite.

“Thought you were dead,” he says.

I climb down to the floor. “Are you returning from the cafeteria?”

With the peach in his mouth, he sits on his bed and bends down to change into his. “Mrrgh.” I assume it is an affirmative.

“Agent, we are supposed to eat together. Bonding time is crucial for the improvement of our teamwork.”

“You were charging or whatever. What was I supposed to do?”

“You are supposed to ask me to wake up.”

He rolls his eyes. “Of course, silly me.”

The afternoon alarm rings. He throws the peach. I catch it.

“Don’t get your wires all twisted. I’m usually too busy shoving food into my mouth for any bonding to happen anyway.”

“Agent–”

The door slams behind him.

Conventionally rude behavior, I note. I move to the window. It is evening, still light. Slightly windy. As I observe the landscape, I review my activity log and draft a plan for readjusting my methods of communication with Agent U-197.

As I complete bullet point five, my hand senses something wet. I look down. The peach is leaking juice between my fingers. The skin and flesh had been bitten through completely to the pit.

“The skin of a peach is edible,” I say.

“Sure,” she says, “but at what cost?”

“The skin is not toxic. You will not be harmed.”

She takes the peach out of my hand and stabs a hole into it with her pocketknife.

“Eating it would cost me my enjoyment, not my life.” With the knife in one hand and peach in the other, I watch her open the window. Outside, the moon is bright. 

“Tonight is a Blue Moon.” 

She laughs, short. “You know everything, don’t you?”

As she skins the peach the breeze blows her hair sideways and onto her shoulder, where it stays for the rest of the night.


Gloria Yuen is a part-time wandering spirit who recently graduated with honors in English and a minor in Fine Arts from the University of Pennsylvania, probably with the help of witchcraft. In addition to creative writing, she dabbles in illustration, sentimentality, and most things creepy. Reach her on Instagram @zygoim.
Illustration by Gloria Yuen

 

 

 

 

 

THOSE STRIKING SHADES I :: THE MAGICIAN. by Cait Weiss Orcutt


THOSE STRIKING SHADES
I :: THE MAGICIAN.
by Cait Weiss Orcutt

those
various yellows, golden-rods, butter-fat, chrysanthemum wax-wings
..sprung from thin etchings of faith, is it just random—
….the rabbit/sleeve disguised: the magician’s headband
white as an Olympic
………..jogger’s, woolen shawl red as the gore in a dog-fighting ring? You imagine:

…………………his chalice, flowers of ice-white,

sketched with a heavy hand, a double-candle; what is not
…………………………………………………………………………….burnt here:
..sword, wand, coin? The black market table, ten fat blooms,
….pigeon’s blood, rubies, garnets, Reagan Red,
conservative, strong, remember: magic is never
……..democratic.

Sword, wand, a bundle all alike and bedazzled, even the most natural
..items appear so from our tampering, gold tempered
……….to hold a form—the most valuable is too
vulnerable—so here is the alchemist: he is a
……………………………………………………………..lightning
………rod, he holds the wand carefully, he has a button
……………….under his desk

and can lock you in there, under his spell: you don’t walk
……………….……………………………………………….alone anywhere
…..while he holds power like that. There’s another
……………….magic, one of transformation, the pursued
are granted—turned into yellow star-grass, yellow flag,
……………a mural of plants, silent but living. Is this salvation or censure?
……………….…………Magic is brilliant
in its refusal to clarify exactly whose side it’s
…………………………………………………………..on. We’re taking notes.
But why trouble the infinite mystery
……….of masculine divinity. The flora’s so beautiful here.


Cait Weiss Orcutt’s work has appeared in Boston Review, Chautauqua, FIELD, and more. Her poems were nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets 2016, and her manuscript VALLEYSPEAK (Zone 3, 2017) won Zone 3 Press’ First Book Award, judged by Douglas Kearney. Cait has an MFA from Ohio State University and is currently getting her Ph.D. in Poetry from the University of Houston. She teaches creative writing at UH, Grackle and Grackle, Inprint, WITS, the Salvation Army, the Menil Collection, and the JCC. She is the recipient of an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor/MD Anderson Foundation Fellowship.

Image credit: Evie Shaffer on Unsplash

THE HIGH ROAD TO TIFFIN by Jake Montgomery

THE HIGH ROAD TO TIFFIN
by Jake Montgomery

moves in gravelly time, so that the words I say here
………….have been said before, and my car
is covered with the dirt and dust of little cabins
………….where people live on the sun,

the rain, where a Methodist lawnmower tells
………….a joke, Lake Oswego trims the road
to its original purpose, a bridge, and the bridge
………….bows before shirtless horizons

who meet and touch at dark, two copious youths
………….egging the other on, looking through glass,
listening to goats jostle for food in a nearby
………….stable. Their horns must be cut

or they fight. When we pass a soda machine
………….surrounded by lily pads and empty water,
the light changes, the youths following us
………….in the corners of passing eyes, two

gowns twitching between a window
………….and a wooden pole, without music,
grand vision, or a single thought. There
………….never was a plan, and when I circle

the cul-de-sac at nightfall,
………….it is like walking through
a neighborhood of my mind,
………….and though I cannot open the doors

to the buildings, I enter
………….whichever backyards I please
and pee on the mulch and follow the deer
………….carefully such that they learn

to trust me more than I can be trusted.
………….As we drive across a blue map of names,
it is like watching myself swim
………….before the camera is invented.

Shadow Lake, Dollar Lake, Lake
………….Molasses—I dip a moment into each,
dry on their sandy rims. When a diving bird
………….or breath disrupts their surfaces,

the ripples extend inward, and we pass
………….a hole-in-the-wall cemetery.
A small bell above its gate rusts,
………….and a dark hooded figure

sprays air freshener on the tombstones.
………….A mouth can chew its tongue until,
like dusted orange rind, it doesn’t need
………….to speak. Ask the wind-

licked silos and biblical grain malls.
………….I plan to get married in one
the moment I die, for everyone to look up,
………….searching for me in the weather.

The bell—no, the cell phone—lifts me
………….from the car to a grassless hill,
and when I drive between stanza breaks
………….and questions only friends can ask,

and the idea of light exits the stage,
………….I forget who I have been since childhood.
Wigs float through a field. A photogenic
………….courage rests on the swing sets,

a dusk I do not depart. How could I?
………….My friend in the car has been talking,
as we pass old tractors and pieces of fallen sky,
………….frozen gas pumps, reality machines. Children

play in the twilight a form of baseball
………….from the future. They are not wearing
gloves or keeping score. They finger the dirt,
………….almost taking the road ahead of us.

At a stop sign, we hang lanterns in our skulls.
………….When my friend boards a plane
flying away from the sky, it is the end of October,
………….each day newer than the last.


Jake Montgomery is from southern New Jersey. He received his MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Belle Ombre and The Big Windows Review.

 

 

 

 

Image credit:  Wes Hicks on Unsplash 

THE SECOND MOTION by Elaine Cannell

THE SECOND MOTION
by Elaine Cannell

In the first motion, I wrapped everything in newspaper,
emptied glass stones from the bottoms of fishbowls,
recycled the recyclables, bandaged my raw hands,
cut up ancient credit cards and plastic valuables,
braided the sheet rags, the scarves, the silk slips.
In the first motion, I was brave, I think. I was a maker.
In the first motion, I swept out the bottle shards, clapped,
cried into the soup pot. I clenched both fists.
In the first motion, I was all the things you might call
memorable, like what we put into expensive coffins.
Like what we cast in marble or frame or bleed for.
In the first motion, I shaped myself a key and used it.
In the first motion I made a few too many lists. I chewed
and I swallowed. I watered the garden. In the first motion,
I wept. In the first motion, I already said that. In the first
motion, I fell on shoelaces and down stairs. I seeped
into everyone. I stopped saying “we.” I stopped saying.
Understand? In the first motion, I moved and
I shook. I put on my shoes. I tied them. I left.


Elaine Cannell is a poet and PhD student in literary studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her poetry has previously appeared in After Hours: a journal of Chicago writing and art and 30 N. These days, most of Elaine’s writing is done in Madison coffee shops.

 

 

Image credit: Christian Fregnan on Unsplash

DISCONNECTED by Hedia Anvar 

DISCONNECTED
by Hedia Anvar 

When the seabird completed its third circle, the only cloud in the sky parted in two just as you said it would, and once the topmost layer of sand, thin like a vapor, blew across the beach and into the sea as an enormous wave collapsed on the shore, there you stood, like you’d been swimming under the wave all along, your trunks glistening black as you stepped forward, above me, your hair dripping cold sea on my sun-warmed skin, the two of us alone on the beach, pretending we’d been there together since morning, you swimming while I bathed in the sun, and our embrace and my tears that followed, were simply acts of impulse between us, then switching to laughter because for the first time that day, sea water crept its way to my bathing suit the only way it ever would, that is, through your wet body, clasping me, speaking no words because all words had already been spoken between us during a lifetime, all words except the questions I have today, like why you allowed the ocean to keep you in the first place or the reason you only visit when the sky is edged with ochre and why the sky is so rarely edged with color, and what makes my eyes ache even when closed, as if an interrogation lamp beats on my lids night and day, a throb that disappears when you step to me in the sand, transforming it from ache to that radiant orb within which we float, but never long enough, and why all those afternoons when they insisted I take a nap, they found me instead wandering the grounds in my nightgown, soaked with brine when there is no ocean near, or why it’s getting harder for me to walk every day, why I couldn’t get up by myself the other morning when I fell to the ground, why of late the bed feels like a bed under me and not tantalizing sand, and most of all, the reason you haven’t come to me since I gave the flecked double seashells to our granddaughter when she visited last month and marveled how they were still intact and connected, saying of their joining ridge, it looks like a smile, after she vowed to me the same vow I made to you, because I wouldn’t let her leave with the shells until she swore she’d never pry apart the two halves.

Do you suppose seven-year-olds can’t keep a promise?


Hedia Anvar is a New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles by way of Iran. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, anthologies and online publications. In addition to starving artist jokes, Hedia writes about her severe case of “chronic dichotomy” at gunmetalgeisha.com. Connect with her on Twitter: @Ravnah and Instagram: @HediaAnvar .
Image credit: Pixabay

DEATH IN AUGUST by William Hengst

DEATH IN AUGUST                                                                  
by William Hengst

In 1944, at the age of five, I invented the magnifying glass. The end of a Coke bottle, when held up to the sun, could make anything burn and vanish. First, bits of paper—cellophane from my dad’s Chesterfield packs, and my bubble gum wraps—then live things like slugs, worms, the hind end of ants. Once I torched a whole village, many casualties, dead ants smelling like burnt tires. I needed to hurt something that couldn’t hurt me back.

That “something” was my family, what psychiatrists might characterize as a “three-person emotional system.” As the fourth person, I was the outsider. This dynamic played out every night at dinner: a formal affair, the table set with silver serving dishes, candles in the center, Maddy, our maid, serving each of us in our place, my mother in a fresh cotton dress, my father in his lawyer suit and tie. It pained me how each evening she dressed for him, and how he, not I, was the center of her attention.

My sister, Barbie, took the air out of the room. Three years older than me, she monopolized the conversation, while I was the silent observer. When I did have something to say, she regularly interrupted or ridiculed me.

I didn’t like green vegetables or legumes then, especially lima beans. My parents would insist I try a few. I refused, and finally, in desperation, they urged me to try just one. At that point Barbie challenged me. “If you eat that bean, Billy, you’ll throw up.”

Of course I did.

Barbie often taunted me; she could be physically cruel. I reported those incidents to my parents, but the only thing they did was tell her not to do them again. I felt disregarded and unappreciated at times, but I kept my anger bottled up inside.

Often in the late afternoon, I skated around the block, clockwise then counter-clockwise, my legs thrusting, the wheels pounding the sidewalk in a satisfying rhythm. An opportunity to get away from home, suck in some air and clear the muck of Mom and Dad and Barbie. Sometimes I stumbled on the uneven spacing between the pavers, causing my skates, though tightened with a church key, to fly off and I would fall and scuff a knee or strafe a hand. If either of my best friends, Jimmy Strawberry or Ray Hurley, saw me, they would call out, “Are you okay?” I just waved, got up and skated on, my legs pumping faster, gliding from slab to slab. I became a runaway freight train, sailing over cracks, the wind blowing in my ears until the anger inside me spilled out and I shouted: “Why can’t my family pay more attention to me?”

We lived on Brighton Road in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a quiet, shady street of single-family homes with spacious front and back yards, well manicured by hired yardmen. I knew one of them by name—Mr. Kovaleski, the old gardener who came each week to the Powells’ property, two doors away from our house, to cut the grass, trim the hedges, and tend the big garden out back. He was a fixture on Brighton, part of the scenery.

In time, I took a serious interest in our yard. I cut the grass and enjoyed digging out dandelions and other weeds in our lawn. My father even called me his “yardman” and raised my allowance. One day, I was cutting through backyards along the fence line on the way to Jimmy’s house, when I came across Mr. Kovaleski at work in the Powells’ garden. I hid behind a bushy thicket and watched as Mr. Kovaleski, puffing on his pipe, his arms and upper body twisting rhythmically, swung a long-handled scythe in graceful arcs across a large mound of tall weeds. I stood there, entranced by the swish of the scythe cutting through the weeds, the slow, soft way they lay down in neat piles. He paused and took what looked like a small flat stone and began to sharpen the blade. Then I moved on to Jimmy’s. I don’t think he saw me.

Not long after that, I overheard one of the older boys on Brighton refer to Mr. Kovaleski as a “dumb Polack,” because his English was so poor. I felt pained by this slur and told the boy it was a cruel thing to say. I didn’t realize it then, but I admired Mr. Kovaleski. Although he was skilled in a way I had not yet become, we both were yardmen.

One morning at the beginning of the summer of 1946, I woke up feeling confused. When I recalled for my mother the weird conversations I had had with strangers in the night, she promptly took my temperature. It registered a hundred-and-four. Within minutes she telephoned the family doctor, then, surprisingly, canceled her plans for the day—an appointment with the hairdresser and a luncheon with friends—so she could stay home with me.

The doctor ordered x-rays and that afternoon a medical crew came to our house and set up a tripod and camera in my bedroom, and took pictures of my chest. Polio was the big scare then. Air-conditioned movie houses were suspect vectors for spreading the dreaded disease. A girl in my second-grade class had to wear a brace to support her withered leg, and because I had been to a Saturday matinee at the Colony Theater the week before to see a Hopalong Cassidy film with Jimmy and Ray, my mother feared the worst: Was Billy to be reduced to wearing a shoe lift the rest of his life?

“Billy doesn’t have polio, Mrs. Hengst,” the doctor told her the next day as they stood at my bedside. “He has viral pneumonia.  This strain of pneumonia can cause a heart murmur. I want him in bed for thirty days. No strenuous activities for a while after that.”

I was stunned. I had been looking forward to day camp. Now those plans had to be canceled. I wasn’t looking forward to spending a month in bed because I was afraid the only people I would see or talk to each day would be my family. As well, I wouldn’t be cutting our grass for a while or digging up weeds.

As it turned out, my sentence to bed rest wasn’t so bad. I felt like royalty. My meals were brought to me on a tray by Maddy. My mother poked her head in the door every morning, although as soon as it was clear that I was out of the woods, she resumed her busy schedule of committee meetings and luncheons. My father looked in on me before going to his law office and again at the end of the day. Within a week of my confinement, Barbie confided, “We miss you, Billy. It’s not the same without you at the dinner table. I think they’re worried about you. Dad’s been pretty quiet.”

I was surprised they missed me, but I didn’t miss those meals. I’d found better things to do while in bed, such as listening to radio shows like The Breakfast Club and Arthur Godfrey in the morning, and soap operas like Our Gal Sunday and Portia Faces Life in the afternoon. I also kept up with the Cleveland Indians’ baseball games and looked forward to the night games, my bedroom dark except for the glow from the radio tubes. The coverage of the out-of-town games was especially suspenseful as I lay in bed in the darkness and listened to the sound of a Teletype machine clicking in the background. Then came a long pause and dead silence. Eventually, a live announcer came on the air to report the outcome for each batter. The suspense waiting for the announcer’s voice was equal to the suspense of The Shadow radio show. I usually fell asleep before the game was over. One of my parents must have come in during the night because when I woke up the following morning, the radio was always turned off.

Soon I created my own imaginary team and called it “Wooster,” after the small city in Ohio. I entered it in the American League and filled the roster with make-believe names, Wizzenberry for Strawberry, Harley for Hurley, and famous people’s names, like Larry Truthman for Harry Truman. Some names just flew out of my head, like Sam Shazaam. I kept records of batting averages and my team’s place in the standings, making sure Wooster remained in the pennant race with the Yankees, Red Sox and Indians. I wrote everything down on one of my father’s yellow pads of legal-sized paper. He even set up the family Underwood typewriter on a card table by my bed and taught me how to hunt and peck.

Sometimes Jimmy and Ray stopped by to bring me the latest neighborhood gossip, standing below my second-floor window and calling up to me. They even brought me comic books, Archie, Batman, Little Orphan Annie. Gene Autry was my favorite. But their visits ended in July when the Strawberry and Hurley families went off to Canada on summer vacations. Without those visits, it seemed as if time had stopped, with the outside world going on without me.

Often though, I just lay in bed and stared out the window, hoping to catch glimpse of Mr. Kovaleski through the canopy of leafy tree branches. But only once did I see him cutting the grass in the Powells’ front yard. Maddy told me he lived in the Polish part of Cleveland near the steel mills, and was a “widower.” I had to ask my parents what the word meant. They said it referred to a man whose wife had died. The only things I knew about his life were what Maddy told me.

By the end of July, the doctor pronounced me fit to leave my bed, free to move about inside the house and outside in the yard as long as I stayed close to home for a few more weeks.

At first, I lay low in our sylvan backyard, sitting under the big elm tree, my back pressed against the soft gray bark and read a comic book, a stick of Blackjack dissolving in my mouth. At breakfast one morning, my father said a big storm was coming. As I sat under the elm, the clouds began to build and thunder rolled like heavy furniture in the sky. The wind picked up. I could feel it along my spine. A robin bobbed for worms. I scooped up a handful of seed wings that had fallen to the ground. More helicoptered down with the wind. I wondered if it might become one of those isolated tornadoes I’d heard about but never seen. I saw myself lifted up and carried to some far place away from my family.

I soon began to advance the fortunes of my Wooster team by playing “one-a-cat” in the backyard; I had played the game before on the vacant lot on our street with the boys in the neighborhood, but now I had to do everything myself. Baseball in one hand, my thirty-four-ounce, Ted Williams’ Louisville Slugger in the other, with each swing of the bat I sprayed balls to every corner of the yard, then ran to retrieve them, all the while imagining I was running the bases. Past the delphinium and phlox was a single, beyond the hollyhocks a double. The rose bed was a sure out. Every shrub, every flowerbed had a designation. Center field loomed far off in a wasteland of junipers, where the ball usually got lost for an inside-the-park home run. Another homer if I whacked the ball over the privet hedge. Sometimes I struck out just to keep the score down. It all depended on what the game called for.

By mid-August I was allowed to venture further. One hot afternoon I put on my skates and took to the sidewalk, hoping to find Jimmy or Ray home. The older boys were at overnight camps. Even Barbie was gone, off at a four-week camp. I had the street all to myself.

I skated by the Powells’ house. Mr. Kovaleski’s black Ford coupe was parked at the curb. I expected to see him at work, but he was lying on his back on the front lawn under the small Japanese maple tree, clutching the bottom branch with one hand. His other hand was outstretched, holding a milk bottle half filled with water. He was wearing his bib overalls. I figured he was tired from the heat and just resting.

I skated on down to the Hurleys at the other end of Brighton and glided up their driveway. They were the first family on Brighton to blacktop their driveway. I loved how easy the smooth surface felt on my skate wheels. Our driveway was still gravel with ruts. There was no sign of Ray or his family. Their lawn in back was overgrown and apples had fallen off the old apple tree. I could smell them rotting in the grass. I coasted around the turn-around part of the driveway and headed back to our house.

Mr. Kovaleski was still lying on his back when I reached the Powells’ house. He no longer was holding on to the tree.

“Hello, are you okay?” I called.

There was no response. I called again. He just lay there, one hand on his chest and the other outstretched on the lawn, the bottle now on its side, the water gone.

Something seemed wrong. I took off my skates and walked closer. His face was flushed and sweaty. His eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving. The sleeves of his denim shirt were rolled up to his elbows, the shirt wet under the arms. I was afraid to call again for fear he wouldn’t wake up, or if he did I wouldn’t know what to do. I felt helpless and scared. I thought he was dead. I’d never seen a dead person before.

I ran to the Powells’ front door and rang the bell. “Your gardener’s lying on the ground. He isn’t moving,” I told Mrs. Powell when she answered.

She looked past me. “Oh my God! Mr. Kovaleski. Is he breathing?”

I felt ashamed I didn’t know.

Mrs. Powell rushed past me. She knelt beside him and put her hand on his chest. “He is breathing, but very slowly. We better get an ambulance. Would you stay here with him while I call for one?”

I felt I had something important to do while I stood watch. A fly landed on his forehead. I hoped it would wake him up, and he would open his eyes, but he didn’t move. Mrs. Powell returned and announced the ambulance would be along shortly. Her voice was reassuring, her take-charge attitude too. She told me it was all right if I wanted to go home. I gathered up my skates and took one last look. He still hadn’t moved. I didn’t want to leave him. I wanted to stay until the ambulance came, but Mrs. Powell said I should go. He’d be safe with her.

That evening at dinner, my mother said, “Mrs. Powell called. She said their gardener died on the way to the hospital. She said to thank you for finding him.”

“What happened, son?” my father asked.

I described how I had found him and thought he was just resting. I said I felt bad because I’d left him lying there and skated down to Ray’s. I was sure if I had stopped, I might have saved him.

“There probably wasn’t much you could have done, dear,” my mother said.

When addressing me, she routinely called me “dear.” But that evening I really heard the affection in her voice. I realized she cared for me and understood what I had been through that afternoon.

“He was pretty old,” she continued, “and his heart just stopped. You did your best.”

I still wasn’t sure I had.

 

The following morning I walked over to the Powells’ house. The old Ford was still parked at the curb. The driver’s side window was rolled down. I climbed up on the running board and looked in. The front seat had a hole in the upholstery. The stuffing was sticking out. An old sweater, silver thermos, a wood-handled trowel and a few other hand tools were on the passenger side. Still curious, I opened the door and climbed in behind the steering wheel. I pressed my nose in the sweater. The smell of tobacco and sweat gave me a funny feeling, as if I had crossed a line. A faded black-and-white snapshot of a woman was pasted on the dashboard. I wondered if she had been Mr. Kovaleski’s wife. I wanted to know more, so I opened the glove compartment, but only found a tin of pipe tobacco and some road maps. Seeing the photograph and a tobacco tin made me feel sad. Soon I left the car. Within days it was gone.

Barbie returned from camp a few days later. She was definitely nicer to me. Eventually, my friends came back from their camps and vacations, and soon it was Labor Day and school began.

I wish I could say that I continued to play backyard baseball, to finish my Wooster story. It seems like a good way to honor the summer and the memory of Mr. Kovaleski. I imagine slamming baseballs every which way, running the bases over the brown carpet of fallen leaves, fast as Mercury, Wooster tying the Yankees for first place in the league. In the playoff game, at the bottom of the ninth, Sam Shazaam leads off with a double. Then the Polish slugger Kovaleski is up. Kovaleski hits a home run to clinch the pennant. When he crosses home plate, the Wooster players lift him on to their shoulders for everyone to see and celebrate.

Wooster goes on to crush the Cardinals in the World Series. The next day I hold a ticker-tape parade in the backyard.


William Hengst lives in Philadelphia. He earned both a Masters and PhD in city planning at the University of Pennsylvania a long time ago. Following a twenty-five-year career in this field, he worked as a free-lance reporter and gardener. He also served for ten years as the editor of the Friends of the Wissahickon’s newsletter. More recently he turned to writing short stories and poetry, and has two published books of poems: Yard Man (Finishing Line Press, 2010) and RunAway Freight (Kelsay Books, 2016). His website is www.yardman333.com. Death in August is his first published piece of creative non-fiction.

Image credit:  Tommy van Kessel on Unsplash

QUARRY by Emily Wick

QUARRY
by Emily Wick

On the night the hunter shot the moose, they asked me to hold the lantern. Three men struggled to hold the body so the hunter could make the cut, and I cast gold light over them as he sawed along the ribs of the bull. There was no smell but male sweat and the crush of dead leaves under the tarp around us. Death hadn’t been there long enough to diffuse its odor into the night.

The hunter was a friend of a friend and had called for help when he shot the bull. I almost stayed behind, unsure what the sight of a dead moose would surface in me. I went anyway. The pickup was parked in a brushy area off a gravel road deep in national forest land. The hunter stood over his kill. His dad sat on the bed of the truck, rifle in hand in case the wolves, which could be heard rustling in the weeds, got too brave. When the wind blew, I imagined the breath of a wolf on my neck.

The hunter had won the lottery for a limited number of licenses to hunt moose in northern Minnesota. Two years later the hunt would be suspended. The species was disappearing, the reason unclear. In the following years, moose would be chased down by helicopters, darted by scientists, strung with radio collars. Their corpses would be plundered in the search for understanding. A parasite called brainworm was taking up residence in their brains, making them sick, making them easier prey to wolves. It was a story that began early last century when white-tailed deer began to trickle north after the forest was clearcut for lumber. Deer spread brainworm into territory where only moose and caribou used to roam. Deer evolved to survive hosting the parasite, while moose did not. The winters grew warmer; the wolves recovered. The moose population declined by two-thirds.

But I didn’t know all that then. I grew up looking for moose down every gravel road, both praying and dreading I would see one. Walking where moose lurk between the trees was my first experience feeling at the mercy of a wild animal. Because moose aren’t just big deer. They are rare and strange: ungainly, massive, fearsome. When threatened, they will charge humans, even cars. In the small region where they still exist in this state, they are celebrities, gracing logos and business names. For the original inhabitants of the area, the Ojibwe, they are subsistence and tradition and almost gone. For the hunter, that night, they were the quarry of his life. He called the bull my moose, like they had always been destined for each other.

When they handed me the lantern, I lit up the intestines, the matted coat, a hoof the size of a frying pan. My breath did not tangle in my throat, my stomach did not roil. What I saw reminded me of many stories. It was the story of when I was a child and a robin laid smooth cerulean eggs in the birdhouse in our backyard. How, driven by the fantasy of raising a bird as my own, I reached high above my head into the nest, my chubby hand fishing around, surprised to find the eggs were hot and alive. Of how I was too clumsy to hold on and, after one fell, the horror that the contents of that egg were nothing like those that came from our fridge but blood and beak and brain stringy in the grass.

The story of my parents driving through Yellowstone in the dark, when Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” came on the radio, when my brothers and sister and I were just possibilities inside them. How before the song, they were just driving through the night, but the song made them afraid, as if any terrible creature could lurch out from the ditches, from their own hearts. And the story of how, years later, my father joined the other men in the family, dressed in blaze orange and propped in a deer stand somewhere in the woods. How he watched the deer walk by his perch, how the rifle stayed idle by his side. Of how, when he returned empty-handed, he talked about the beavers in the pond nearby, how amazed he was at their hurried little lives. How content he was just to watch them, not driven by hunger or fear.

I saw how the history of us was entangled with the history of the moose. How the forest was logged for lumber that floors my parents’ century-old farmhouse. How the Ojibwe ceded the land bursting with that virgin pine, driven by a lack created by the government that lusted after what the land could offer. How one day my family would purchase a plot of that land, now aspen regrowth and invasive species crowding an open field. How we cut into those woods to map and name the wildness in ways we could understand. How I would return to the boreal forest there, over and over, to live in awe of something, to notice the questions it brought up in me, to learn not to demand answers.

The men held the moose’s body at an angle while the hunter sawed through bone with a handsaw, the sound dull and wet. The head was already severed, lying nearby with its tongue out, staring at me. Months later, I’d eat a steak cut from his loin, soak it in butter, sprinkle it with herbs. But there surrounded by the bull’s body parts with those cussing men, something about the animal still seemed alive. I watched the flanks as if I might catch him taking a breath.


Emily Wick lives and works on the edge of a protected wilderness in the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota. Her poems and essays have appeared in Split Rock Review, Broad!, Buzzfeed Ideas, and elsewhere. Beyond writing, she enjoys hiking, cross-country skiing, reading, and weaving.

LATE NIGHT THOUGHTS by Jonathan Louis Duckworth

LATE NIGHT THOUGHTS
by Jonathan Louis Duckworth

In the silver heart of everything
there is a constant quivering.

We think the sky is boneless
only because it hides them well.

The ocean sharpens her teeth
against the shore. The land ponders

the infinitesimal weight
of life on his skin. If you have

ever been awake at the rare hour
neither late nor early, & heard your

own thoughts as threshold sounds
no louder or softer than the tumbling

orbits of oxygen molecules navigating
a nitrogen sea, then perhaps you

saw the quick wedge of yellow
headlight waxing & then waning

through the slit in your curtains,
& you understood tacitly that a universe

had just passed, a weary universe
sipping gas station coffee & trying

not to get hypnotized by the strobing
white meridian lines, each of them

one of Zeno’s infinite series of midpoints
in the expanse between ‘here’ & ‘home.’


Jonathan Louis Duckworth received his MFA from Florida International University. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction appears in New Ohio Review, Fourteen Hills, Meridian, Tupelo Quarterly, Jabberwock Review, Superstition Review, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere.

Image credit: David Huang on Unsplash

TO EACH HER OWN by Natalie Kawam

TO EACH HER OWN
by Natalie Kawam

The world, I never thought, was worth its wake
In my image alone, kicking storms about itself
Like me, a bright desert whore in plain, my face
Alift like plated offerings to a sky on neckless horizon
Gleaming hot and dry, a pillar of salt. Even beneath the sun
I pray for everything in context of myself
And all my questions are answers to opening rain
Dropped in the sand to no one who wanted it.


Natalie Kawam is a poet and writer.  In May, 2016, she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize, and published with the Academy the following September. Natalie’s poetry has also appeared in the Crab Orchard Review. Her work explores elements of the human condition, including the nature of one’s personal evolution. She is an undergraduate student at Barnard College of Columbia University, and currently composing her first chapbook.

THE CAT APOCALYPSE by Mariah Gese

THE CAT APOCALYPSE
by Mariah Gese

When it happens we are prepared. The way we know it’s a real apocalypse: the portents of headless voles on our pillows. We divine it in the depths of carpet vomit, in the bones of small birds they bring us. The glorious future in the spilled water bowl.

If it wasn’t meant to happen, then why the adorable begging eyes, containing within them the tantalizing fullness of our futures, round and perfect, like globes of sweet fruit that grow huge and pop on the vine? Why the delicate rasp of tongue, the ephemeral curl of tail? Their fur, too, that velvet smoothness we are forever petting for the drugged feeling it awakens in us. Cats are better than caffeine and sugar, chemically, they are better than mimosas or wholesome friendship or anything we used to love. They rearrange and better us inside, ideal parasites. They are just so cute.

We worship them for thousands of hours in the new age of re-playable video. Cats are the only internet species that can still reproduce, you know. Every breath is a prayer to cats. They multiply for us. Every gulp and sidelong glance and every sharp grin and brittle high gasp of laughter, for the cats. Replay. Grasp at their esoteric beauty, grasp to cuddle at your chest their indomitable domestic cuteness. At some point we realize this hunger is not emotional. Replay will not satisfy. We knew then, we had to eat them.

Everyone eats their own cat first—no one wants to be rude—but then we prowl the neighborhoods. We snatch cats from alleyways, dumpsters, window sills, and pet stores, we catch them in the act, eating birds, or meeting lady cats for drinks, or licking their tight little assholes. We sleuth out every cat, and pet and baby and worship and devour each beautiful singular one. Some of our more desperate number paw at video screens and moan for the pixel cats tucked away inside. We pity them and treat them like children playing pretend, which is charming for us to pretend. We move on, we hunger for sweet sweet pussycats, we hound them all down.

The animal shelters close within the week. PETA eats more cats than the rest of us combined, because they’ve been waiting so long. They’ve earned it.

We miss the cats we eat, but we can feel them growing inside us, batting around the gallbladder, scraping claws down their ribbed cage, mewing in the hollow emptiness of the stomach, calling to each other in the acid dark. No cat escapes, though sometimes we can feel them clawing their way up the esophagus, adorable but doomed cat reflux. We spit up hairballs, like they used to.

We are coming down to the last cats.

People with allergies crowd the hospitals, their puffy eyes glued to screens that feature cats frolicking, on repeat all day forever. The search weakens us. We suffer existential and gastrointestinal angst. When we eat the last cat we are sad, but is has to be done. We eat slow, we savor our victory and lick each other clean.

For a while, satisfaction. The glorious feeling of fullness, of cuteness squeezed and eaten. We talk among ourselves like pregnant ladies, expecting contentment from our secret appetites. But then the hunger comes back. There are more cute things out there. Not as cute as cats, sure, but have you seen bunny videos? Yes. Puppies, too, are mouthwatering at this point, we have noticed. Our quick eyes discover the nature channel, we regroup to plan.

Those of us with ambition hunt the lions. It is even better than eating cats. Power drips down our chins as we die of our hunting wounds.

Those of us left have lesser hungers. Curious eaters, we set rabbit snares, we pick the spines from toads. Popping rolling eyes between our teeth, choking on the slick defenses of small red fishes, we die of weird poisons.

Those of us left, we sickly, we delicate, can only dream of the hunger then wake with unyielding shame. We wish for pretty fur of our own, we wish to hide our teeth. We do not hunt—we whistle and lick our fingers. We of sneaking hunger, sly coward hunger, we go to the dogs.


Mariah Gese is an MFA candidate in fiction at Indiana University. She is from a historic village known for making wooden toys, so as you can imagine, she mostly writes horror. When not writing small, weird fictions, she is at work on a novel about classic cars and murder.

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Alain Pham on Unsplash

CHESHIRE CAT by Sarah Bradley

CHESHIRE CAT
by Sarah Bradley

The winter when Lucy was nine and her brother Nick was twelve, he taught her to play chess. They bent over the crosshatched board on the living room floor in front of the fireplace, blonde heads nearly touching, all through Christmas break and into the new year. Wool socks and hot cocoa and Bing Crosby late into the night, the Douglas fir in the corner shimmering with tinsel.

They played dozens of games and Lucy never won. Not once. She couldn’t keep track of the rules or remember all the functions the pieces were meant to serve. It was like trying to parse out a confusing ensemble of actors in a stage play.

Bishops move diagonally, rooks horizontally or vertically. Pawns are strongest together. Knights can jump over other pieces. Don’t forget to castle. Promote your pawns. Don’t be careless with your pieces. Keep your queen close to the center of the board. Protect your king.

Lucy always forgot that last part, too distracted with strategizing about bishops and rooks and pawns to guard the stately white piece sitting exposed on her side of the board. Nick would laugh and scold her as he snatched her vulnerable king, calling checkmate again and again.

You gotta protect your king, Luce. That’s the whole game.

Cal gets handsy in the elevator up to Lucy’s seventh floor apartment. He slips his arm in under her open coat, threading it around her waist and grabbing at the curve of her hip. It’s faintly possessive in a way that makes Lucy feel warm and lightheaded.

They have been dating for a month and Cal has never been anything but a devout gentleman. Courteous and deferential. You pick the movie. Whatever restaurant you like. I should get you home, it’s a weeknight.

Most of the men Lucy dates are not like this. They send texts telling her to meet them at overcrowded, standing room-only bars, where they shout questions at her over the din and slosh their drinks around in their glasses. She is hardly ever asked to dinner. When she is, these other men treat the paid tab like an IOU—a promissory note to be cashed in later, when they are drunk and hoping to grope her on the dirty street outside her apartment building.

Lucy has never been to a bar with Cal. They go to tiny restaurants tucked away down side streets, where he rushes to open the door and pull out her chair. He only drinks a little, mostly wine, and never more than her. He puts his napkin on his lap while he eats, drinks an espresso for dessert, and pays the check without a hungry, expectant look in his eyes.

When he walks her back to her apartment at the end of their nights together, he kisses her like he’s going off to war: slowly and carefully, but not without feeling. As if he wants to make it last. He is like an endangered species rarely encountered in the wild, one that should be studied from a safe distance behind a pair of binoculars. His chivalry makes her exhilarated and wary at the same time.

It also makes her ravenous. Lucy leaves all of the other men she dates standing frustrated on the front steps of her building, half-pleading and half-demanding to be brought inside. But not Cal. She has tried for weeks to convince him to cross the threshold of the building’s lobby with her. There are things she wants from him: to touch the flat, brown mole on the right side of his neck above his collarbone, and to kiss him until she can taste the bitterness of that habitual cup of post-dinner coffee on her tongue. She wants her hair mussed in his hands, their dress shoes kicked off at the door, his dark-rimmed glasses on her nightstand. She wants him to stop being such a gentleman.

Tonight, she might get exactly that. The house wine at the Italian restaurant where they had dinner was surprisingly high quality, bright and spicy with licorice. Lucy ordered three of the generous glasses and Cal followed her lead. She didn’t have to talk him into coming into the lobby at all; he trailed close behind her, flushed and laughing, like an overeager schoolboy.

The elevator jostles and lurches from one floor to the next. Cal’s hand travels from her hip to a spot thrillingly low on her back. She smiles.

“You’re coming in?”

“Is that an invitation?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’m coming in.”

They step off the elevator and walk a crooked line down the hallway of doors, floating through the blissful state of tipsiness that has left them more than buzzed, not quite drunk. Sober enough to appreciate the high of their mild insobriety. Lucy hangs lightly onto Cal’s arm for balance.

“Did I tell you that I like this dress?” Cal says, and Lucy wonders if the dress has helped embolden him, picking up where the effects of the wine left off. It’s a ripe shade of indigo, with a deep neckline and lace sleeves. She loves this dress; it’s been too long since she’s worn it.

“Not yet,” she says.

“I like this dress.”

He stops walking and holds her firmly in place, kissing her outside apartment 713, where a retired woman with three dachshunds lives. They bark every morning at 6:10, like canine roosters crowing at the dawn. Lucy can hear them now scrabbling on the other side of the door, their toenails scratching at the wood.

She unbuttons Cal’s coat and loosens his tie. He kisses her again, sloppier this time, freed from his self-imposed restraint. One of his hands, still cold from outside, settles gently on the left side of her neck, his fingertips beneath her ear. The dogs whimper woefully; a voice inside the apartment makes a feeble attempt at shushing them. Multiple televisions up and down the hallway are turned up too loudly. The seventh floor smells like a Friday night: Chinese takeout and hairspray and package store beer.

“What number are you?”

“Seven-seventeen,” she says. “To the left.”

Cal takes her by the hand and pulls her away from her neighbor’s door. They round the corner leading to Lucy’s apartment and nearly trip over a man dozing on the balding carpet in front of her door. He wears an oversized tweed coat and mismatched canvas high-tops. His hair, ashy blond and curled around the earlobes, signals familiarity to Lucy. She knows this hair. She knows this man who has propped himself up outside her apartment, awaiting her inevitable return.

The winter when Lucy was fifteen and Nick was eighteen, he came home from his first semester of college and slept for three days straight. From Sunday to Tuesday, he barely ate and didn’t shower. Her parents told her he had the flu, but Lucy heard them arguing in their bedroom on Tuesday night, hissing at each other behind the closed door.

I told you Pennsylvania was too far. We can’t keep an eye on him there.

He’s eighteen, Louise. We shouldn’t have to keep an eye on him.

He almost flunked out. He’s hanging by a thread already.

 It’s his choice. We can’t make him stop.

There has to be something we can do. We’re his parents.

He doesn’t need his parents. He needs to grow up.

The next morning, Lucy snuck into Nick’s bedroom. His suitcases were still unpacked from school, standing upright outside the closet door. She sat down on the bed next to him. Heat radiated from his skin. He opened his eyes.

Are you okay? She asked.

I’m fine, he said. I have the flu.

No, you don’t, she said.

Nick smiled, his dry lips splitting open into miniature cracks. Do me a favor?

What?

Bring me some water.

Lucy filled up a glass in the kitchen and carried it back upstairs. She lay down on the bed next to Nick, on top of the flannel comforter. She wished he had come home for Thanksgiving. She hadn’t seen him in almost four months.

Luce, he said, staring at the ceiling. Did you miss me?

Yes, she said. I missed you.

“Excuse me,” Cal says, stooping down to rouse the man from sleep. Lucy puts her hand on his arm.

“It’s okay, Cal,” she says. “Nick? Nick.”

Nick startles awake at her voice and jumps to his feet. He sways a little, steadies himself on the door.

“Hey, Luce.” His voice is raw but his smile is broad and gleaming: a Cheshire Cat grin of misdirection, deceptive and winsome in equal parts.

“What are you doing here?”

He reeks sourly of cigarettes and stale breath and dried sweat, like the alcove under the subway stairs where homeless men sleep at night. Lucy keeps singles in her purse to hand out to them when she leaves work. She knows most of them by name now. Benny with the long twisted braid, Roger with the prickly red beard, George with the eyeglasses missing one lens. They could all be somebody’s brother.

“I’m back in town. I wanted to see you.”

Nick is filthy, the fine lines of his hands and face etched in grime, his hair oily and flat against his head. Despite his appearance, he manages to make it sound like he’s simply been on vacation, crossing the country on an extended holiday.

“Where have you been?”

Nick shrugs in his usual unaffected way. Around. Who cares? Beside her, Cal clears his throat. Nick shifts his attention away from Lucy, looking at Cal with polite bemusement.

“Hello. Who are you?”

“This is Cal,” Lucy says, before Cal can answer. “Cal, this is my brother, Nick.”

Cal blinks in confusion, then thrusts his hand forward to shake Nick’s. Lucy thinks of the elevator and that same hand on the small of her back, wandering respectfully down toward the top of her right buttock. She swallows the growing lump in her throat.

“I didn’t know Lucy had a brother,” Cal says.

“I didn’t know Lucy had a Cal,” Nick says. He is jovial, wanting to play the part of quick-witted older brother. He is unaware of what he has interrupted, oblivious to the smudged lipstick around Lucy’s mouth or Cal’s disheveled coat and tie.

“Where have you been?” Lucy repeats.

“I got a ride out to Ohio, stayed with some friends. I’ve been making my way back to the city for a few weeks.”

“Ohio? Who do you know in Ohio?”

Nick smiles again, but it’s tightly wound. Strained. She doesn’t normally ask so many questions.

“I’m sober, Luce. If that’s what you’re asking.”

“It’s not.” Lucy lifts her chin and levels her shoulders. “I’m asking who you know in Ohio.”

“Rugby guys,” he says without hesitation, matching her confidence. “From Penn State.”

Lucy stares at him. She knows he is lying—about the rugby guys, about the state of his sobriety—but she can’t determine how far to push him. The wine is still making her brain cloudy and muddled. If she digs down into the wrong hole too quickly or too deeply, Nick will never tell her anything again.

Her doubt gives him time to collect himself. He watches her coolly, waiting for her to decide. But she has lost the upper hand—the element of surprise. Bishops move diagonally, rooks horizontally or vertically. Or is it the other way around? It doesn’t matter: whatever questions she asks now, he will be ready to answer.

“I didn’t know where you were,” she says finally, quietly. “It’s been almost three months.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?”

Nick scratches at his neck, tugging the collar of his coat away from his skin. The tweed is faded and thinned down to the lining. It has the dated and ill-fitting look of a shelter donation. There can’t be much padding inside. She wonders if he has been warm enough at night. March in the city is always remarkably cold, obstinately refusing to give way to spring.

“I thought you’d be happy to see me.”

“I am,” Lucy says. “But I’ve been asking around. No one knew where you were. I started checking the shelters, different ones all the time.”

“Is that where you go on your lunch break every day?” Cal asks suddenly, inserting himself into Lucy’s eyeline.

Lucy forgot Cal was standing next to her. It was only moments ago that she could think of literally nothing but him: his mouth moving against hers, his crisp dress shirt wrinkling in her fingers, his combed black hair falling out of place. Now Nick has been at her door for five minutes, and she has already forgotten about Cal.

It isn’t intentional, this slight—it never is. It’s a reflex, an involuntary reaction, like yanking a hand away from a hot stove. Still, her guilt forms a small, fiery coal deep in her belly. She never sees it coming. She never learns.

You gotta protect your king, Luce.

The winter that Lucy was nineteen and Nick was twenty-two, she was supposed to go home for Christmas with her college boyfriend, a political science major from Tampa, Florida. Kevin Thompson. He had a crew cut and played on the lacrosse team and could talk about Marxism in a way that didn’t make her brain sear with boredom. They began dating freshman year. It was the first time Lucy had ever been in love, and it was easy, uncomplicated, satisfying. They had planned to drive down to Disney World after the holiday and ride Space Mountain until they were sick.

The week before the semester ended, her parents called to tell her that Nick had admitted himself to Capstone Rehabilitation Center. There were family therapy sessions scheduled twice a week for the next eight weeks. Nick, they said, had asked if she could be there.

I have to go home, she told Kevin. For my brother.

You don’t have to, he said. We made plans.

Nick needs me.

Nick always needs you. That doesn’t mean you have to go.

Yes it does, she said.

After finals she gave Kevin his Christmas present—a collector’s edition of Machiavelli’s The Prince—and flew home to Albany, New York. She spent her break shuttling back and forth from her parents’ house to the rehab center, sitting in an overly warm room for family therapy, wondering who this man was that claimed to be her brother.

Nick was antagonistic and argumentative. Non-compliant—that was the term the therapist used. He looked fatigued, underfed, damaged: nails chewed down to stubs, scratches up and down his forearms, one foot constantly bouncing on the floor. He claimed the other patients attacked him at night. He missed morning meeting every day, oversleeping through two alarms. His caseworker said he was losing weight, two or three pounds at a time.

Lucy asked Nick, over and over, when no one else was listening: Are you okay? Are you okay? He answered, over and over, so everyone could hear: I’m fine. I’m fine.

After each session, she crawled into bed and sobbed. She always missed Nick when he went away, drifting into binges and benders, fading into oblivion. For days or weeks or months, she would check the street outside, check her phone, check her email. Waiting for him to turn up somewhere, in some form. Wearing strange clothes, needing a shower, unbothered by his own absence. Hey, Luce. I’m back.

But this time was different. Lucy missed Nick in a way that felt long-lasting. Permanent. This time, she missed someone who might not be coming back: a boy hunched over a chess board, his head almost touching hers.

Some time after Christmas, Kevin broke up with her over the phone. He was at Disney World with his parents and sister, calling from the hotel bathroom after they had all gone to sleep. Keeping his voice low so he wouldn’t wake them.

You should be here. I rode Space Mountain without you. Do you even care about us?

In the dim hallway outside her door, Lucy wants to kiss Cal again, but knows the version of her night that ends with him undressed, sleeping soundly in her bed, has slipped away from her. The elevator ride feels like hours ago.

“I don’t check the shelters every day,” she says to him. “But most days, yes.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I’m sorry.” She means it, but she doesn’t elaborate. He will believe her or he won’t. It doesn’t matter what more she says.

“Lucy’s a good sister,” Nick offers, too loudly, as if this explains everything. “But she worries too much.”

“I think I worry the right amount,” Lucy says. She wants to know where he has been sleeping at night. What he has been doing during the day. What he has been drinking, and how much, and when. But he won’t answer these questions, not in any way that really tells her anything, so she doesn’t ask them. Her head hurts now, and the warmth is beginning to drain from her face.

No one speaks, the three of them forming a silent, irregular triangle in the middle of the hallway. Lucy can hear the dachshunds still whining around the corner in 713, the competing voices of television news broadcasters and home shopping presenters coming from other apartments.

She turns to Cal. “I was going to tell you. That I had a brother.”

“Okay,” he says. He has a strange look on his face, not angry or distant or even disappointed. Wistful, maybe. Wondering.

The hot coal in her stomach swells. She looks away from him, down at the dingy carpet and the well-worn spot outside her door where she has stood locking and unlocking her apartment day after day, juggling mail and shopping bags and umbrellas and disposable coffee cups.

She can’t count the number of times she has come home to find her brother waiting for her in this spot, but it still surprises her every time it happens. He is gifted at going missing and then turning up unannounced, behaving as if no time has passed. Like he was there all along but simply made himself invisible. Disappearing and reappearing. Smiling. Telling lies.

“Luce,” Nick says. “I need a place to stay. Just for a little while.”

“Yeah.” Lucy’s chest aches from holding her breath. She exhales. “Of course.”

Cal touches Lucy’s shoulder delicately. “I should go,” he says. The feeling of his hand—limp and polite, devoid of any desire—makes her queasy.

“No, don’t.”

He smiles kindly. “You need some privacy. I can call you tomorrow.” He bends down to kiss her cheek and Lucy blinks away an unwelcome surge of tears.

“Sure,” she says.

Cal gives Lucy’s elbow a gentle squeeze, angling in close to her body. His tie dangles crookedly around his neck, his opened collar revealing the small, inviting mole that she still has not had the chance to touch.

“I’ll call. Tomorrow.” His mouth hovers around her ear for a moment longer than it should. He holds her elbow purposefully between his fingers. He waits for Lucy to nod in understanding, and then he lets go.

The winter that Lucy was 23 and Nick was 26, she had just moved into her apartment in the city. She was dressing to go out when someone knocked on her door. Nick stood in the hallway, a threadbare beanie on his head, his pants and shoes covered in dirty snow.

Hey, Luce.

It took her some time to accept that it was him. Six months earlier, he slipped away from a family barbecue in Albany without a word. Her parents and aunts and cousins all asking Lucy where Nick went. Why would he leave? Where would he be going? Did he say anything to you? As if Lucy was his keeper. As if she could have made him stay.

What are you doing here? She asked.

I wanted to see you, he said, grinning—yellow teeth emerging from an overgrown beard.

How did you find me? I tried to call you.

I lost my phone. Mom gave me your address. Can I come in?

Six months. No calls or texts or messages. It had been blissful; it had been frightening. Lucy could have tried harder to get him her new address. She still wasn’t sure why she didn’t. Not that it mattered—he found her anyway. He always did.

I was about to go out, she said.

Oh. Nick looked at her blankly, not seeing her heels, her red lipstick, her indigo dress with the lace sleeves. He was shivering, his clothes soaked through to the inner layer of his undershirt. Please, Luce? Just for tonight.

Nick—

I missed you, he said. Didn’t you miss me?

Lucy let him in. She ran some hot water in the bathtub, microwaved a can of soup, took out the extra pair of clothes she kept for him—wherever she was living—in the bottom drawer of her dresser. She texted her date for the night and canceled.

Family emergency. I’m sorry. Maybe another time?

Lucy listens to Cal walk the narrow hallway back to the elevators. Nick is talking to her about being hungry and recovering from bronchitis and losing his wallet on a Greyhound bus, but she doesn’t really hear him. She is letting herself believe—for one long, indulgent moment—that Cal will call tomorrow like he said he would. That he is still a gentleman.

Nick stands anxiously in front of her, pointing to the apartment door. “Are you going to open it up?”

She rifles through her pocketbook for her keys. Nick picks at a dirty fingernail, scraping away something black from the cuticle before biting off a hangnail with his teeth.

“He was nice.”

“What?” Lucy asks.

“That guy. Cal? He was nice.”

Lucy slides her key into the lock. “Yes. He was.”

She pushes open the door to the darkened apartment. Down the hall, the elevator begins its clanging descent to the first floor. Lucy turns to invite Nick inside, half-expecting him to be gone.


Sarah Bradley is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher from Connecticut. Her nonfiction essays on life as a homeschooling mother of three boys have been featured at The Washington Post, Real Simple, The Writer, Romper, Today’s Parent, and Mom.me, among others. Her fiction has appeared in The Lost Country, The Forge Literary Magazine, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and Haunted Waters Press. She is currently writing her first novel. You can find Sarah documenting her attempts at finding a mother/writer balance on Instagram.

 

 

Image credit: Shirly Niv Marton on Unsplash

EXECUTION by Hussain Ahmed

EXECUTION
by Hussain Ahmed

There is a ceremonial volley over a grave
I climb on the branch of an olive tree
to peep at the field where unarmed men
face the firing squad, their prayers clamped
inside their mouth. from over the fence
I chose my favorite prisoners
because they walk like my father or how audible
their laughter drills through the walls during football.
in their eyes are solitons that move around a circle
I have prayed for the same man the past six months
the longest I have keep God glued to understand
the tongue I was born with.
& at his burial service, the only prayer
that I could afford
is for my own sole
I need a shoe that does not smell of dead things
climate has changed, we would need to bury our faces in water
and what if all the dead fish melts and turns
the oceans and seas into oil or blood
what beauty is an island without the water surrounding it?
when a whale washed up, we greeted it with machetes
& cheered
because this could be
the sign of our answered prayers
for another prisoner marked for erasure.
the prisoners wear cardigan under the sun
to protect them from ripening. I chose another prisoner
after the last execution, I don’t see his legs touch the ground,
I won’t have to mourn him; he looks dead in his blue shirt.


Hussain Ahmed is a Nigerian writer and environmentalist. His poems are featured or forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Nashville Review, Hobart, Gigantic Sequins, and elsewhere.

Image credit: Stas Ovsky on Unsplash

ODE TO THE RECORD HOLDER by Z. Shuff

ODE TO THE RECORD HOLDER
by Z. Shuff

You will score 135 points in your next high school basketball game. January 26, 1960, is the night it will happen. Hello, hoops history. Guinness Book of World Records, here you come. Your name is Danny Heater, and your record, 135 points, will last. But this does not come as a straight victory. It does not come without problems. And which problem is worse: that your mother missed the game or that you didn’t even get to enjoy your record? Your world record, the one that congeals and permanently attaches itself to you. It’s basketball. It’s a game. But your record makes you proud and embarrassed. It makes you happy and sad.

Burnsville, West Virginia. Your hometown. Population 700. There are fewer than eighty-five boys in your school, and the high school, junior high, and grade school all operate under the same roof. The Bruins’ basketball gym where you play home games is small, twenty feet shorter than a regulation gym. There is no scoreboard in it. You broke your wrists once running into the wall in the tiny gym. You are rangy and tall by comparison when gangling alongside the rows of lockers. Your spiked-up, blond flat top adds an inch or so to your height. You dribble your basketball in the hallways between classes. You are shy, but you smile the best you can at your fellow students.

On January 25, 1960, the night before you set the record, you are practicing your hook shot on your do-it-yourself goal outside your house. Swish. Boom. Two. The weather is typical for the dead of West Virginia winter. Irregular platy scales of the bark of the hardwood trees sheen with frost; trees’ branches bow with snow. But you are outside practicing your hook shots anyway, one after another. Someone alerts Coach Stalnaker, your coach, what you’re doing. Coach Stalnaker drives over and tells you out his car window, don’t be out shooting hook shots in eight inches of snow. He was worried about his skinny superstar.

The next night, in the historic 135-point-run, you will drain six hook shots—three right and three left. These hooks will be 12 of your 135 points.

Before the home game against Widen High School on January 26, your dad, John Curry Heater, an out-of-work coal miner, is sick. You were with your dad the day the doctor told him he had a spot on his lung and his lung might go down. He worked his whole life in the coal mine until this past year.

Your mom, Beaulah, is your biggest fan. She keeps a scrapbook on you and cuts out the parts of articles that she doesn’t like. She never misses one of your basketball games before or since, but she misses this one. On this night, she knows the home game against the Widen team will be a blowout.  She is right about that. “They probably won’t even need to put you in,” she says before you go to your game. With your dad being sick, she stays home with him.

Your sister is at a nearby hangout at tip-off. They put you in the game, all right. You are going to be in the papers. “Hotter than your last name Heater,” the Charleston Daily Mail will imply, a couple of days down the road.

In the locker room right before the warm-up, Coach Stalnaker tells you and your teammates Luther and Harold and Charlie and Donnie the game plan. The reason for the plan is to get you publicity, maybe even to get you a scholarship, because the Jerry West–famous WVU Mountaineers basketball program has not even given you a look see. And you are the poorest kid on the team, and a scholarship is your only chance at college. This will make them notice.

You and the other boys listen, lined up and matching in your Bruins uniforms. Tight orange jerseys and short shorts trimmed in black. Tube socks à la Jerry West reach your knees. The game plan is this: feed the ball to Danny (that’s you) every time. “I’ll never ask you boys to do this again,” says coach.

You could go for the state scoring record of seventy-four points in a game. Maybe you can break it. You don’t want to do it, but your teammates and the coach want you to. You say no. “No, no,” you say. Pick someone else, you say. You ask every guy on the team, “Will you get mad?”

“Go for it,” they say. They had to convince you to do it.

The first couple minutes of the first quarter, you don’t even shoot.

“Shoot, shoot,” say the guys.

“Time out,” calls your coach, forming a “T” with his hands. So you go back out there after the timeout, and you shoot. You shoot again and again. The basket slurps the ball. Up climbs the score, and your points total by unmarqueed ones and twos in the scoreboard-less gym. For a moment, the other team (Widen—whose school is smaller than your own) can’t even get the ball in-bounds because you steal it over and over and score rapid layups, bang-bang-bang at almost automatic rifle–like pace.

At halftime, some fans go up to the score table to ask how many points you have. You have fifty-five. The state record is seventy-four. Someone gets your sister from the hangout, and she comes to the game. Early in the second half, you break the state record. Coach calls a timeout to pull you off the wood rectangle where tonight, you could do no wrong. Your teammates say leave you in to go for the national record of 120. You do.

The other team’s cheerleaders included, the spectators shout out your points total each time you ace another basket in the no-scoreboard gym. “100! 105!”   You score 120 and points above; points above as useful as swords in a gunfight.

Burnsville 173 to Widen 43 is the final score. Your stats: 135 points, 32 rebounds, and 7 assists.

The fans swarm the court after the game. Your sister hugs you.

“Congratulations,” the fans say. “Congratulations,” say players from Widen. You shake hands. You go to a local hangout with the gang and have Cokes. Your 135 points goes into the Guinness Book. “Danny Heater,” the book heralds. You top Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points scored in an NBA game in 1962, and your record holds for points scored in a high school basketball game for over fifty years and counting. You are it, the record holder. 135 points—that is you.

You go home and tell your mom that night, but she already knows. The coach calls in the score to the newspaper. “Goddammit,” the sports editor tells the coach. He didn’t believe him. Danny Heater’s enduring superlative crystallizes into national news. It will make its way to the Jerry West–famous program and to the ear of a Virginia state senator.

The day after the record, on January 27, 1960, you have a game against Tanner High. You jump ball but come down hard on your ankle. You roll it. You play ten minutes and get twenty-one.

Thursday the twenty-eighth, this is the sports headline: “Plan for Heater Worked. Wanted Publicity for Scholarship.” The story starts this way, and it doesn’t get better: “Is it justifiable to beat a hapless, outmanned high school basketball team by 130 points with the expressed intention of obtaining a college scholarship for the star of the winning team?”  Your mom might as well cut out the whole article.

The next week, the scout comes, the one from the Jerry West–famous WVU. Your ankle hurts. You can’t jump on it. You don’t play well. The scout says, “Good shot you got there, son,” to you after the game. “Boy was slow,” he tells your coach, and no scholarship offer materializes.

You hadn’t wanted to do it. It was not your idea. They had to talk you into it. You’re a good kid, at least your coach and English teacher say so. Even Coach Stover, from the opposing Widen High, says you’re a good kid, too. “One of the best around these parts,” he tells the Charleston Daily Mail. “It was pretty difficult to take, though,” he says.

Thirty years later, the Washington Post says of the night, “on the other side of things, it didn’t feel like high school history, it felt like raw, open slaughter.” That’s another part for your mom’s scissors.

So no WVU basketball fame comes your way, but a college opportunity does. The retired Virginia senator who hears about you arranges for you to get a chance.  He gets you a grant to attend the University of Richmond and play basketball. But your college stint didn’t begin until second semester. Another January day in West Virginia, your cousin Jake drives your family to the Greyhound station. Your mother crying, you leave. You are crying, too. You do this, in fact, for the next eight hours of the trip to Richmond.

The team was already set when you got there to the Richmond Spiders basketball team, and they gave you a uniform three sizes too big.  You get in a few games and score a little bit.

But you are backward and homesick and lonely. They make fun of your accent. You don’t know your way around campus. You don’t last at the college chance.   

Years after the record you’re a family man, and you work for an airline at Washington Reagan. You get up at 3:45 every morning to get to your job by 5:30. You work overtime to buy your kids’ birthday presents. Your daughter writes an essay about you called “Dad.” In it, she portrays you as strong and unbreakable and generous. Your son says that you’re the best father. It hurts that you can’t afford their college.

You run into coach Stalnaker at Reagan. You take him to the VIP lounge and treat him like a king. “He never wanted to show off,” says Coach Stalnaker all these years down the road, explaining your finesse with the basketball and ways you could have shown off if you’d wanted to.

And you don’t like to talk about it, the record, your 135 points, that night in the gym with no scoreboard. That night when you shot and shot. You worked hard at those hook shots, just as you work hard every day at your job. “He goes out of his way to help people,” says your boss at Washington Reagan. Your boss admits you make his shifts easier. “I’m grateful for him,” he says.

Good kid, hard worker, good dad, not a show-off. These are the things that time will tell about you. You should get to feel heroic about your high achieving score, your world record. It’s basketball. It’s a game. A guy like you deserves heroic.

Your teenage granddaughters play basketball. They like your record. They delight in it; they’re proud.  And that helps because family is everything to you. They get to be proud even if you are proud and embarrassed. Even if you are happy and sad.


Zekana Shuff has an MD and an MFA. She lives and works as a physician in beautiful West Virginia with her husband, their two kids, their dog, and their cat. Her medical writing has appeared in various medical journals. She has lectured on art at a national medical conference and at her MFA. program. Her poetry and prose have appeared in a handful of literary journals in print and online, including in this summer’s edition of Storyscape.

 

 

Image credit:  Mitch Geiser on Unsplash

 

 

THE ZOO by Matt Whelihan

THE ZOO
by Matt Whelihan

A week after the classes ended, the community service started.

Seven of us stood in a small lot outside of a small zoo. It was the kind of place single dads with child support payments take their kids because it’s close and cheap.

It was only October, but the blades of grass that had managed to make it through the gravel of the parking lot were encased in frost. We all stood with our hands stuffed in our pockets, continually shifting, hoping to generate some warmth.

I never did learn their names, but there was the Girl in Black, Gray Beard, Yoga Pants, Grandma, Dude, and the Mess. I resented them all just like I had to come to resent everyone involved in the process.

I wasn’t an asshole; I just shouldn’t have been there. They were the type of people to take fuck-ups and turn them into badges of honor, a good anecdote, a reason to toast and raise a middle finger to the world. That wasn’t me. I had no underlying issue, no history of self-destruction. They were a sad collection, and I didn’t need the degrading reinforcement that they did.

Carl was in charge. He pulled up in a pickup with the zoo’s logo on the door. He was wearing a baseball cap with “8 Point” written across the top and a picture of a buck below. His face was fighting to decide if it wanted a beard or just mutton chops. Either way, he looked like an idiot. He gave us his good-old-boy speech about being through the ringer once or twice himself, about how he wasn’t there to judge us, just there to make sure we did our work.

He led us slowly through the zoo. We passed some haggard looking otters on a cement island covered in chipping paint, three wolves that slunk just enough to prove they were alive, a sleeping capybara, and two small monkeys in a wire cube.

We stopped by a muddy square of earth next to a small corral with two donkeys inside. The patch was dotted with the stubby remains of thick, wooden posts. It was hard to tell what had once been there—whatever had rested on top of the posts was long gone—but Carl told us to dig up what remained. He handed out some shovels, and then he left us to it.

The rest of them paired off, but I worked alone, jabbing the tip of my shovel into the hard earth around one of the stumps.

I needed a story for the day, something to tell my parents when I got to their house that night. Maybe hiking, maybe watching football with Scott. Something simple and believable, like the other lies I had already told them.

I could hear Dude talking to the Girl in Black. They were the youngest ones in the group. She looked like she could have been in high school with her black sweat pants, cheap black fleece, and faux-fur lined boots. He just looked like a douchebag with a headband, the kind of guy who fails out of college his fist semester because he discovered alcohol enemas and Adderall.

“So we’re slamming some beers and watching a movie,” he told her, “and we call to order pizzas. They tell us they don’t have a delivery guy for the night, and I’m like, whatever. I’ll grab the pies, you know?”

“Pizza is the best drunk food,” the Girl in Black said.

“I know. I know. So my buddy tells me to take his car, which is this little silver piece of shit. I get in, and I think I’m in reverse, but I’m in drive, and I totally hit one of those cement things at the front of the spots. I hear this huge scrape, but I’m not worried, cause the car’s already a piece of shit.”

The Girl in Black laughed.

“So I finally get out of the parking lot, but his steering is all off, and I think one of the tires was low too. It felt like the wind was pushing the car around or something. And then I realized I was about to miss my exit, so I cut over real fast across those ridges on the highway. Problem was I didn’t realize there was this dip next to the ridges, and the car just totally went up on its side. It was absolutely nuts. The passenger side landed on the ground, so I’m just like hanging from the seat belt. I finally get it undone, and then the cops were there. And then, you know, all of that went down.”

The Girl in Black laughed again.

“That’s crazy,” she said. “I can’t believe you didn’t get all fucked up.”

“Couple scratches, nothing major.”

I stabbed the shovel harder. I wanted to break the head off of it, to tear the post from the dirt with my bare hands. These people were disasters.

For our half hour lunch break, I drove to a Wawa and ate a sandwich in my car. When I got back, I found the group waiting by the bison enclosure. The Mess, the Girl in Black, and Gray Beard were smoking cigarettes. Behind them, three matted bison sniffed at the dirt.

The Mess was staring at me. She was a scrawny, middle-aged woman with bulging eyes and frizzy, red hair. She was wearing a pink, puffy coat that was stained in several places. Even her gaze seemed filthy. I felt myself fighting off a chill.

“You didn’t lose your license?” she asked.

“What?”

“You’re driving. The court didn’t take your license?”

“No.”

“Jesus fucking Christ almighty,” she said. “The god damned lawyer tells me there’s no way to avoid losing it, but this guy manages it.”

She looked back at the bison.

“I knew that motherfucker was screwing me,” she said. “I just didn’t know how fucking hard until now. Fucker’s leaving me bowlegged. Can’t keep the license no matter what, he says. Bullshit.”

“I lost mine,” the Girl in Black said.

“Me too,” Gray Beard added before dropping his cigarette to the ground.

The Mess turned back to me. Up close I could see some ruptured blood vessels in one of her eyes. I wondered how far someone had to sink before their face became the witch mask hers had become.

“So what makes you so special? Your dad a cop or something?” she said.

“I have no idea,” I answered.

I was grinding my teeth, unsure how much longer I could hold back. I wanted to share all the terrible insults accumulating in my mind.

“Ah, don’t worry,” she said before stopping to let out a violent burst of coughing. “I’m just bustin your balls. This whole thing’s been nothing but one person after another taking a shit on me.”

 

When I went to my parents’ house for dinner, I went with the hiking story. They didn’t notice the blisters on my hands from the shovel, and when they asked what was new, I told them about work.

We shared a bottle of wine over dinner, and I realized that in two more weeks, the lies could stop.

The following Sunday, Carl was wearing the same clothes as the week before. He was grinning the way adults do when they want to convince kids they’re cool.

He led us all to a sodden, rutted patch of dirt and weeds. We had to clean it out and smooth the ground. The goal was to expand the petting zoo into the patch and give the kids more space for the Halloween festivities the following weekend.

After Carl pulled some tools from the back of his pickup, he drove off.

The Girl in Black lifted a rake and mumbled, “That guy looks like he’s been fucking something in the petting zoo.”

Dude and Yoga Pants both laughed.

“I’ve been saying that,” the Mess said. “Somebody should be giving that son of a bitch a piss test. Find out what he’s on. Driving around here like he’s in charge. Wouldn’t be surprised if he’s sticking it to a sheep or two.”

No one responded. I wanted to point this out to her.

There was a faint smell of wet hay and manure. We pulled weeds, hacked at stubborn roots, and dropped large stones into a bucket. I could hear Gray Beard and Yoga Pants talking about their kids.

“He’s seven now,” Gray Beard said. “Pretty much does nothing but video games.”

I wondered if his wife had considered divorce. I wondered if his son could sense the aura of failure that surrounded his dad.

“Mine’s in that ‘why this?’ ‘why that?’ phase,” Yoga Pants said. “It’s like, give mommy a minute to herself please.”

She was wearing too much eye liner for manual labor, and her manicured nails and designer ski jacket screamed suburban housewife.

They were dismal parents, the type that never realize they’ve crossed the line into adulthood and need to adopt new responsibilities, new axioms.

I dropped three rocks into the bucket and then the Mess started.

“God damned janitor’s job,” she said to the dirt. “I’m gonna need to get hammered after this. Am I right?”

“Hell yes,” the Girl in Black responded. “This is nasty. This place smells like shit.”

The Mess put down the rake she had been using.

“Someone tell me if you see his truck coming,” she said. “I need to get a taste real quick.”

She removed a small plastic bottle of rot-gut liquor from her coat. She took two big gulps and let some dribble down her chin. Then she wiped her lips with the back of her hand and turned to Grandma, a woman whose face seemed incapable of expression.

“How about you?” the Mess asked. “Need a little pick-me-up?”

“I don’t drink,” Grandma replied, her eyes focused on the weed she was hacking at with a hoe.

“Come on honey,” the Mess said. “We all know that’s a lie. We’re all here for the same reason, and drinkin played a big god damned role in that.”

“I don’t drink now,” Grandma said. “And I won’t drink ever again. It’s not worth it. We give it everything and it gives us back nothing, leaves us with less than what we started with.”

“Gone all AA on us, huh?” the Mess said. “It’s given me plenty of good times. Probably never would’ve gotten laid without it. But, alright, that’s fine. How bout you?”

She held the bottle out to the Girl in Black.

“Nah, I’m good,” she said.

“Oh, come on!” the Mess said. “Last week you didn’t have no problem. Don’t let the wet blanket over here sway you. I know you. I know after this you’ll go out with your girlfriends and get all nice and liquored up, dance your asses off, smoke some weed. So why not just kick things off now?”

The Girl in Black bent down to grab a half-desiccated leaf, and the Mess moved on to me.

“What about you, Mister Special Case?” she said. “Even if you get caught you probably won’t get in trouble.”

“No thanks,” I said.

“Enjoy standing up there on your pedestal, huh?” she said.

My body felt like a series of clamps had been applied, everything begging to explode. This was a woman who didn’t even understand basic hygiene, a woman whose life was a guide to all the ways humans can destroy themselves.

“Probably got mommy and daddy footin the bills too,” she added.

I spun to face her. “You’re—”

She turned to Yoga Pants without even noticing me.

“What’s that, honey?” the Mess said. “You thirsty?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Yoga Pants responded. “Out here drinking, like you’re begging to get more hours. Some people just don’t learn.”

“Some people, huh,” the Mess said. “Why don’t you go ahead and tell me what that means. You calling me stupid? You calling me trash?”

Yoga Pants didn’t respond. She just scraped at some twigs with a rake. The Mess stared at her back.

“You’re the one letting them tell you what to do, sweetheart,” she said. “Just bowing down, asking for forgiveness. Well fuck that. I do what I want. Wanna know what I did wrong? Had a little fun, like I do every weekend. That’s what I did wrong. And now I gotta go to these classes where they preach self-control and they bring up friends and family and society? That’s bullshit cause I ain’t got nobody to hurt. There’s just me, and I’m just having a good time with my life. These little trips to the zoo, they’re nothing but interruptions. They ain’t gonna change shit. No fucking way.”

Everyone continued to work in the dirt. The Mess stared at Yoga Pants. I was still rattled, still ready to finish my sentence and the rest that I had lined up behind it. But before I could, Dude grabbed the bottle from the Mess and took a drink.

“This was a good call,” he said. “Today sucks.”

It was snowing on my last day at the zoo. My parents had invited me to lunch, but I told them I had a date. I told them her name was Sadie, that she was a nurse.

Carl’s truck pulled up in front of us, some Kenny Chesney song playing in the cab.

“Shit,” he said. “You people really drew the short straw.”

He climbed down from the truck and clapped his gloved hands together, explaining that we needed to shovel paths before all the kids showed up at eleven for the Halloween events.

Carl placed me, the Girl in Black, and the Mess by the zoo entrance. I wanted to object, to tell him that I’d be forced to violence if I had to spend any more time near that horrid, skeletal woman. But I kept my mouth shut.

The Girl in Black was wearing sweatpants again, and the cuffs were already soaked from the snow. She wasn’t wearing a hat and her hair was covered in clumps of half-melted flakes, her ears already bright red.

The Mess could barely push her shovel forward, and her body swayed slowly. Something was off, but I didn’t care. It was keeping her quiet, and that was all that mattered.

Carl watched us for a few minutes before giving a thumbs-up and hopping into his truck.

“Thank, Jesus,” the Mess mumbled. “I need to sit down.

There was a bench nearby, but she slumped to the ground.

“Slacking off already?” the Girl in Black asked.

“Sweetheart, if you knew how badly my head was pounding, you’d find me a bed in a dark room. I can’t handle this shit today. I’ve got the granddaddy of all motherfucking hangovers. Last night…whoa, last night.

“Besides, Junior here looks like a strong guy. I’m sure you two’ll have no trouble getting this done without some old lady getting in the way.”

I gripped the handle of my shovel tightly. I wanted to throw it at her.

But it was my last day. I’d never have to see that zoo again, the pathetic state of it, its overall sense of lack. I’d never have to see the Mess again. I’d be gone soon, back to my life, a life so distant from hers. I just needed to shovel, to let the hours work themselves out.

After twenty minutes, the Mess moved to the bench. Once her ass hit the wooden slats, her body jerked forward and she vomited onto the snow. She started to moan, a small bit of puke still dangling from her mouth.

“Gross,” the Girl in Black said quietly.

The Mess giggled in response.

When the zoo opened, I watched the kids charge in dressed as superheroes and pirates, princesses and vampires. Their costumes brought bright bursts of color to the muted zoo, and the cold didn’t seem to bother them.

The Mess stared at their tiny forms, her mouth half open, and I watched the kids avoid her as they went in search of animals and candy.

“You three,” Carl called. “I need you over with the bison. Some little brats threw a bunch of candy and trash at them. Whole area’s a mess now. Just hop over the fence and pick everything up.”

“You want us to climb in there with those things?” the Mess said. “No way. I ain’t no bull fighter.”

I pictured her impaled on a horn, the annoying noises she’d let out.

“They won’t do shit,” Carl said. “They’re big and dumb and slow. Just get the trash out. My boss is throwing a fit.”

The bison area was a bog thanks to the already melting snow. The three animals were near its center, snorting with drooped heads, uninterested in the world.

The fence was made from wooden posts and chicken wire and came up to my stomach. The Girl in Black and I had no trouble climbing over it, but the Mess got stuck with one leg on either side of the top post before falling into the paddock.

“Fuck this place and that pig fucker,” she said. One arm of her coat was covered in mud, and she had a difficult time getting back on her feet. It seemed appropriate.

The Girl in Black walked toward the bison. I started to pick up an empty juice box and some fun-size candy wrappers by the fence. The Mess stood staring at the animals, her face more disgusted than usual.

“Un, uh,” she said. “Community service don’t mean facing down no beasts. One of those things falls on me, I’m dead.”

I wondered if I could make that happen.

I felt soggy and weighed down. The gloves I had on had already been soaked through, and my fingers were numbing, becoming harder to flex as I scooped up trash.

“Danny?”

I turned towards the fence and found my Aunt Bridget looking back at me. Next to her were my cousins Anna and Gabe. Anna was dressed as a doctor. Gabe, as Iron Man.

“Hi,” I said, an unwelcome awareness forcing me to stand up straight.

They were confused and did an inadequate job of hiding it. I made a fist around the trash in my hand.

“What’re you doing?” my aunt asked.

The Mess started to cough and spit up on the mud. My cousins eyed her with the kind of disgust reserved for medical oddities.

“Ah, shit,” she said.

She let out a small laugh and grabbed onto the fence for support.

“I’m doing some volunteer work,” I said. “My job sends around this email with places that need help.”

I turned my gaze to my little cousins.

“I thought the zoo sounded fun.”

I tried to smile.

“Bad day for it,” my aunt responded.

She was talking to me, but she kept her eyes on the Mess.

Anna grabbed her mom’s sleeve.

“I wanna see the otters,” she said.

“I want candy,” Gabe added.

“Okay, okay,” my aunt said. “Well, stay warm!”

“Thanks,” I said.

I watched them walking away. My aunt turned and looked back at me, the confusion still there. I knew she’d call my mom before she even left the zoo.

An unpleasant tingling made the rounds of my body, like my nerve endings were flickering and burning out. I tried to think of the story I’d tell, of the next set of lies. Volunteer work as a date? The Girl in Black as Sadie? Maybe it wasn’t all lost.

“Volunteer work, huh?” the Mess said.

She started to laugh.

“What? Are you too good for us?” she said. “Are you ashamed of being a criminal? Of being buddied up with your old pal here? Nothing fancy about you now.”

I whipped my body around.

“Shut the fuck up!” I said as I stepped towards her.

The Girl in Black turned to look at me, and a trio of children and two accompanying adults gave me their appalled attention as they hurried past. Even one of the bison tilted its head in my direction.

The Mess was silent for a second, and then she started to laugh again.

“Face it, Fancy Pants,” she said. “You’re in here with us now.”

I wanted to grab her, to hurt her somehow, to let her know I was nothing like her, that I was nothing like the people in the courtrooms, and the classrooms, and the counseling sessions. I didn’t care if Carl saw. I didn’t care if it meant serving more hours. I just needed to show her.

But then another group of kids walked by. They were shouting and swinging bags of candy. Their parents walked with cheery expressions despite the weather. All of them glanced at the bison paddock where we stood cold and wet and muddy. We held their interest for a moment, and then they moved on, making a clear distinction between what was on one side of the fence and what was on the other.

I turned away from the Mess slowly, my body burning in a new way. I grabbed another candy wrapper from the ground, and she started to laugh again.


Matt Whelihan is an assistant professor of English at Wilmington University. His work has appeared in publications such as Slice, Midwestern Gothic, and River River, and he has stories forthcoming in New Plains Review and Drunk Monkeys. In 2017, he received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers contest. He lives in the Philadelphia area.

 

 

 

Image credit:  John T on Unsplash

RETREAT by T.C. Jones

RETREAT
by T.C. Jones

The church retreat is the last bit of bullshit before we get confirmed. We are at a bunch of crappy cabins on the dumpy shores of Lake Erie. They call it a holy camp, gave it a fancy name too: Camp Gold Field. They got the field part right, but I don’t know where they got the gold. Everything here is barren and gray. Last night there was a thunderstorm, but today the sky is defeated and a blanket of grey snow clouds have replaced the horizon. The seasons are theatrical in these parts—especially during April.

We are in our cabin and Pastor Rich tells us to sit. We squat on the floor in a semi-circle, boys and girls together. He hands out sheets of paper with questions of faith, predestination, and Calvinism. “Write down your answers then we will discuss them as a group,” he says.

Pastor Rich stands in the corner spinning a basketball on his finger. He’s pretending he’s not listening. Some of us on the retreat play hoops for the Freshman Team at school, so he brings out the basketball every so often to try to connect with us. He once told us he played college ball, and we sort of believe him because he is 6’11. But he also looks like a dork and kind of talks with a girly soft voice so we sort of don’t. Just because you are tall doesn’t make you good at basketball. Sometimes I wonder what Pastor Rich would have become if he had not become a pastor.

Maybe it’s because we’re cooped up in this cabin. Maybe it’s the turbulent change of the seasons. Or maybe it’s just because Pastor Rich tells us that everything around us is supposed to be transforming and we are fighting it. But a mean streak has gripped us, taken hold, and it’s been creeping into our blood since the thunderstorms rolled through last night, leaving the icy landscape behind today.

To my right, Terri whispers in Carson’s ear. His eyes light up, as does his smile. She turns to my best friend Keith, whispers to him, and then moves in toward me. Her breath tickles my ear and gives me goosebumps.

“We’re gonna mess with SteveBo,” she says.

“How?” I ask.

“I’m gonna give him a boner.” For Terri, this isn’t out of the realm of possibility. She’s been giving guys boners since the day we hit puberty. She gave me one once while we made out on the school bus on the way to a field trip at the zoo, and she gave Keith one during the same trip on the ride home.

Terri’s the type of girl who gets bored quickly, the type of pretty girl who can have anything she wants, so she’s moved from me to Keith and on to a series of older guys. Last year she went to the Senior Prom as an eighth grader, and I’d heard that all the upper classmen asked her for a dance. She probably gave them boners too.

Now she is dating Carson, and rumor has it that not only has she given him a boner, but a blowjob, too. I heard it happened on the team bus back from a basketball game last season. Cheerleaders are supposed to sit at the front of the bus, but I guess she snuck to the back once the cabin lights turned off. Carson is only a freshman like us, but he plays on the varsity team. Everyone says he is going to be a star, and ever since Terri grew breasts she’s been a star too. She wouldn’t waste time with a freshman unless he had potential.

“SteveBo, can you help me with this worksheet?” Terri slides next to him, brushing her leg against his.

We watch him squirm.

“I think we’re supposed to work on this alone. We’ll discuss it together when we finish.”

“But I need your help now.” She shows him a cute little pout. Her tiny hand moves toward his leg, her slim fingers sidling nearer and nearer, then comes to rest on his thigh. She leans close to his pimply face and whispers something in his ear. It sends a shiver though all of us.

Like a well-tended garden, a bulge slowly begins to grow from his pants. Nervous giggles sprout from around the circle, then Carson turns to SteveBo and says, “These are really hard questions, don’t ya think, Pinocchio?” He flashes a smirk like a little kid who just found a pack of matches.

“I’m sure you got some long answers,” Carson continues. We snicker.

SteveBo’s face is red now. I’m worried it might pop if it gets any redder. There’s no stuffing our demons back in. We’re like snowballs rushing downhill and gaining such incredible momentum that we can’t be stopped. We watch SteveBo twist in his seat like a dying fish—the cords in his neck standing out like ropes and the dark vein in his temple pulsing like a fuse. We revel in his agony so completely that Pastor Rich steps in and tells us to cut it out.

Later, Pastor Rich tells us that we’re going for a walk. He says he has something important to show us. All year during conformation classes, Pastor Rich had been yapping about how believing in God is the ultimate transformation. He makes a big deal of it, but, fact is, I don’t feel too much different. For years I thought I had faith. I believed God was watching down on me and controlling my destiny. I believed I mattered. But lately that has changed.

Pastor Rich leads us up a hill. To our right cliffs slope steeply downward toward the brownish waters of Lake Erie. SteveBo is ahead of the rest of us, walking stride in stride with Pastor Rich. They talk enthusiastically, probably about the nature of God, or Original Sin, or the Second Coming of Christ. I can’t understand how people can talk about that stuff all day without getting bored. I get this feeling Pastor Rich was a lot like SteveBo back in the day. Maybe that’s the reason why SteveBo wants to be a pastor, too.

As we walk the path narrows and snakes closer to the cliffs. Beside a large boulder is the wet remains of a fire pit. From the state of the decomposing logs, it had probably burned months ago, maybe even a year. Beside the pit are crumpled beer cans and a used condom. Its neon green color stands out in the mud.

“Someone has been fucking up here,” Keith laughs. I laugh too, but there is something about the crusting condom that makes me feel uncomfortable. I look ahead at Terri walking next to Carson—a strange thought crosses my mind: I wonder if you are supposed to wear a condom when you get a blowjob?

The path crests into a clearing. Old mossy stones protrude from the wet ground and it takes a moment to realize we are in an old cemetery. Weeds sprout high between the headstones. Stillness hangs over the clearing; even the birds have stopped chirping.

“Look around this cemetery,” Pastor Rich says. “All these souls are resting with God. I want you to find a headstone that marks the soul of a child.”

We wander around slowly. Most of us don’t really feel like looking at these stupid graves. Thinking about all these dead people sort of makes me feel sick to my stomach. From across the cemetery SteveBo waves frantically. He is standing next to a small headstone near the path. “Over here, Pastor Rich! I found a grave!”

Pastor Rich walks over and kneels next to the headstone. He runs his fingers across the name and dates. He bows his head and says a little prayer. Then he calls us over to join him.

“Fortuitous,” he says. “This boy was only fifteen. The same age as Brian Caulder when he died.”

Brian Caulder was in the confirmation class last year. He croaked last summer in a car wreck. From what I heard, he was in the car with his sister when it happened. She didn’t look as she pulled out of their driveway and bam! Next thing you know he’s dead. I read in the paper that he died instantly. Now that’s a crazy thought; one second you’re alive and the next second you’re dead. Milliseconds really.

“I want you all to listen as I read you something,” Pastor Rich says. He pulls a folded paper from his faded black overcoat. “This is the Affirmation of Faith written by the late Brian Caulder, just a month before he died.”

He reads about Brian’s love for God, his love of life. It said how thankful he was that God had granted him wonderful parents and a great sister. It talked about the grace of God, and how He had a plan for all of us. It ended with this bit about forgiving those who’ve committed sins against you. There was such joy in Brian’s affirmation, and I can’t help but be upset that God had taken that away. I can’t get myself to believe that the plan of God involved killing him in a car wreck.

I look around our group. The girls are wiping tears, and us boys sniffling and staring at the ground, pretending we aren’t crying too.

“How does this make you feel?” Pastor Rich asks. “It is important to talk about death and faith and the places where the two meet.”

For a long time nobody says anything. Finally, SteveBo speaks: “Brian’s words were transforming.”

The group nods. I nod too, but part of me wonders if this is really transformation or maybe it’s just sadness. Perhaps sadness and transformation is the same thing.

“The good thing is that we don’t have to be sad,” Pastor Rich says. His voice takes on a tone like when he is behind the pulpit. He tells us that Brian is celebrating eternal glory with God in Heaven. Heaven, he says, is like the best day you’ve ever had on earth then increasing it by infinity. That sounds great and all, but I can’t help but wonder that even if your best day was increased by infinity it would probably get boring after a while.

Then Pastor Rich tells us that at church next week we will walk through the pews with little baskets and ask for an offering to pay for a new youth center in the church’s basement. He wants to name it after Brian—a place for the kids to hang out and have fun. It sort of strikes me as unfair that we’ll be served big screen TVs, video games, and pool tables as his family is stuck here in Hell on earth.

Everyone’s still sniffling with wet eyes—everyone except for Terri. Her face is dry and eyes clear. For a moment a little smirk crosses her face. It is like she knows something we don’t.

On the walk back down from the cemetery, the wind picks up from off the lake and whips through our bodies with its bone chilling fingers. It’s almost as if death is reaching out and grabbing for our souls. I can’t stop thinking about Brian. I keep thinking about what he did the day he died. Did he wake up like it was just another day? Did he kiss his mom before he left? Did God leave him a message telling him this was his last day and to make the most of it? I hope it was like that. I hope it meant something.

I imagine his body buried under the earth, decomposing and meaningless. I didn’t really even know him other than passing him in the halls at school and sometimes he’d show up at the playground and we’d play pick-up basketball on the same team. I’d seen him at church too, but the funny thing is, after the accident his family stopped coming. I guess it’s hard to believe in something after part of you dies.

SteveBo is walking alone well in front of the pack. My conscious is gnawing at me like a fat rat so I let it be my guide and I speed up my pace. As I approach, I realize that I don’t know what I am planning to say. SteveBo is looking forward, but I can sense him tightening up in my presence. He probably thinks I’m coming to make fun of him. In the silence that lingers between us I think I can hear the lake lashing against the cliffs.

“We were just joking around earlier,” I say. “You know, like how we joke around with everyone.” Saying that makes me feel better, like I sucked the venom out of everything, and making up for what we’d done by doing a good deed—God’s deed.

“This place sucks,” SteveBo says. He picks at a pimple on his forehead.

“I’m with you, SteveBo,” I say. “It really sucks.” I pause for a moment then begin to speak, this time my voice is lower, almost a whisper. “If they start making fun of you again, I’ll tell them to cut it out.”

 

Back at the cabin, Pastor Rich has us sit in a circle again. This time he hands out blank pieces of notebook paper. We groan knowing that we will be asked to write.

“We’ve thought about death today,” Pastor Rich says. “We’ve also thought about eternal life. Now I want you to think about your own soul. On those blank pieces of paper I want you to write your own obituaries. If you died tomorrow, what would people write about you? Would your soul be allowed to spend eternal bliss in Heaven?”

I try to write, but nothing of substance comes from it. I’m still thinking about Brian, so I start writing about him instead. I’m hoping he is in Heaven so I ask God to be good to him up there. I ask God to tell him that I enjoyed the times we played basketball together and end it by asking Him to comfort Brian’s family. I lift my head and see that the only other person still writing is SteveBo. Everyone else is goofing off, and Carson has that predatory look in his eyes like he’s about ready to mess with someone. I immediately drop my pencil so the person he chooses won’t be me.

“Let me see what you wrote,” Terri whispers. She tugs at my paper.

“No,” I say and pull it away.

“I’ll show you what I wrote,” she says. The same smirk I saw up at the cemetery returns to her face.

“Okay,” I say. She slides her obituary toward me. I pick it up and see a single sentence: Terri died and went to Hell. I look at her and she winks. “Now let me see yours,” she says.

“No.” I crumple my paper into a little ball and stuff it in my back pocket. Everyone around me starts laughing, and at first, I think they’re laughing at me. Then I realize it’s directed at SteveBo—Carson is up to something. He’s crawled behind SteveBo and is trying to get a look at what he wrote. “What do you got there, SteveBo? Writing a story about Pinocchio? Don’t forget the part where his nose gets stiff and grows.”

Explosions of laughter ensue. Keith cackles so hard that he rolls on the ground, tears streaming from his eyes.

In a way, I think the reason we make fun of SteveBo is to make sure he’s like us: a real boy. Real boys don’t pray all the time. We spear him with our words to make sure there are real guts inside, and maybe, if we twist and probe deep enough, we’ll be able to find some sin and coax it out.

I watch Keith and the other kids, and I see the way they watch Carson with awe. There is a huge smile on Carson’s face, and I can feel him molding us as if we were clay in his hands. I look at SteveBo and blurt out: “My favorite movie is Toy Story. The best character is Woody!”

Our laughter becomes unmatched—a hideous sitcom laugh track. We laugh so hard it shakes our chests and we can’t breathe. SteveBo puts his head down and closes his eyes. Maybe he’s praying that we suffocate. Part of me wishes we all will. SteveBo opens his eyes and stares at his paper, face redder than a stop sign.

“I’m disappointed in all of you.” Pastor Rich steps in, but it’s too late to take control. There is no passion in his eyes, no rapture. Our power trumps his.

“I’m saddened, and God is saddened,” he continues. “That you would berate one of your brothers on his walk with Jesus.”

“We were just talking about our favorite movies.” Carson grins. Beside him Keith is still laughing in fits of hysteria.

“Yeah,” I say. “Since when can’t we talk about movies?”

“I wasn’t born yesterday,” Pastor Rich tries to sound stern, but his flat Midwestern way of talking is beginning to break. “My heart is mourning because we’ve traveled so far on our walk with Jesus and we are still so sinful. I’m going to ask you all to go to your bunks. Pray. Ask God if you are ready to be part of the church. I’m going outside to start the fire for dinner, and when I return you better all be praying.” He stands with his arms crossed and watches us march off toward our bunks, girls in one room, boys adjacent. “Pray,” he repeats.

I suppose I should feel guilty about being sent to our bunks, but strangely I don’t. Something happened on that walk through the cemetery and writing those phony obituaries. All the talk about death that makes me feel alive. I’ve thought about dead Brian all day and have made the decision that I will refuse to go to my grave without knowing anything more than church, faith, and invisible shit.

SteveBo is the only person in the room praying and we let him. He has already sacrificed this life for the one in the next realm. I refuse to sacrifice myself too; I’ll take in what sin has to offer and I will meet the world on its terms.

Carson pulls out a bottle of stolen liquor from his backpack. He takes a gulp then asks if any of us want a sip. I am the first to say yes. Then Keith and some of the others say they will have some too. Carson stands on a chair and pours the liquor right into our mouths. For a moment he reminds me of Pastor Rich; the way he stands above the church congregation at the altar. There is a harsh burning sensation, like the liquid is scrubbing my guts and cleaning me out.

SteveBo sits in the corner, eyes closed, hands linked piously in front of him, head bowed slightly forward, talking to God and telling Him of our sins. But even God can’t do anything to stop us. For the moment, His wrath is postponed.


T.C. Jones is the managing editor at Gulf Stream Magazine and a contributing editor at Burrow Press. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, Pacifica Literary ReviewThe Atticus Review, The Monarch Review, Straylight Magazine, Dos Passos Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and others. He is based in Philadelphia.

 

 

 

Image credit:  Abdi Lopez on Unsplash 

[IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE BANJO –THIS CHAIR] by Simon Perchik

[IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE BANJO –THIS CHAIR]
by Simon Perchik

It has nothing to do with the banjo—this chair
aches for wheels that will rust, wobble
the way riverbeds grow into something else

—where there was a mouth, there’s now wet dirt
and with a single gulp the Earth is drained
by a compass that points to where it’s from

and you are eased room to room
as an endless sob drying in your throat
—you sing along till side by side

each wheel becomes that afternoon
that folded one hand over the other
as if for the last time.


Simon PerchikSimon Perchik, [It has nothing to do with the banjo] (Poetry)  is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The Osiris Poems published by box of chalk, 2017. For more information, including free e-books, his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com. His poems [ITS SHADOW IS HELPLESS HERE] and [THERE IS SKIN EVEN THE SKY] appear in past issues of Cleaver.

 

 

 

Image credit: Won Young Park on Unsplash

THE RELIC ROOM by William Wells

THE RELIC ROOM
by William Wells

A Civil War cannonball dug from a field
near Petersburg now props open the door.

He shows me in. The room was purpose-built
to house his large collection. In matched pairs,
bullets are bedded like lovers and displayed
by battle, Antietam through Yellow Tavern.
After closing the door, he cradles the ball
on his lap and strokes it like a hefty kitten.
No explanation why it didn’t explode,
or won’t someday. Should ammunition purr?

Arrayed on felt in a jeweler’s cabinet,
tribes of hand-axes and arrowheads pitch camp
in labeled drawers. Photos document
each find in situ. No talk of lives cut short
or burials disturbed, just specimens
we handle with white gloves, butlers to a past
that still commands our hushed obedience.

The vein in his temple bulges with pulsing code
of sudden death. Just ask these artifacts.


William Wells, a college professor in Ohio, has published four full-length volumes of poetry, most recently Odd Lots, Scraps & Second-hand, Like New, which won the 2016 Grayson Poetry Prize and was published by Grayson Books. His previous collection, Unsettled Accounts won the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize and was published by Ohio Univ./Swallow Press.

Image credit: Wikipedia

I AM NOT JEREMY LIN by Christina Sun

I AM NOT JEREMY LIN
by Christina Sun

I was driving smooth along I-205 in the brand new GS F Lexus because I needed a car, not a bike, according to my parents, and Brad’s asking me, “Jeremy Lin? Like the basketball player?” because maybe Brad was wondering if I was the point guard for the Brooklyn Nets, but he didn’t want to be racist in case I wasn’t and he was also trying to sell me this car and silent rides weren’t good for a sale. I explained that while my name was Jeremy Lin, I was in fact, not the point guard for the Brooklyn Nets who went to Harvard without a scholarship and averaged twenty-six points per game. I didn’t even hit six feet. I knew all this because I knew everything there was to know about him (as I assumed most people would if they shared their name with a celebrity). I’d lived in his shadow for the past six years he rose to fame.

Brad asked me what I did for a living and I knew what he was thinking—what was a guy dressed in gray sweats, camo shirt, and flip flops doing in the Lexus market? “The Toyota dealership is across the street,” he had told me, pointing with his pen when I first arrived.

“No, no,” I’d said. “I’m in the right place.” I tapped the window for the GS F I wanted to drive, leaving fingerprint smudges on the glass. “I’ve got a need for speed.”

Truth was, Brad was right. I couldn’t afford this car. I wouldn’t be able to afford this car in ten lifetimes—I was a high school teacher by day and biology grad student by evening. I slept around five hours a night and still lived with my parents even though I was twenty-five. My routine was this: wake up, teach school, learn school, sleep, repeat. The check my parents wrote me was for five thousand dollars.

“This will cover a chunk of a decent used car,” my mom had said, handing me the piece of paper. “Get a good one.” My parents didn’t have the kind of money to be writing checks with more than two zeroes. I’d tossed it into my class’s recycling bin—torn up into snowy shreds.

The turn for exit 8 was coming up, towards Tracy Blvd. We’d been driving for just over ten minutes. Brad nodded at the exit ramp ahead. “You can turn here.”

I merged into the right lane towards the ramp. The car turned, cutting through the road smooth like water. It made my Buell Blast motorcycle seem like its engine was constructed from a popcorn machine. I imagined returning to the Lexus dealership with Brad, his eyebrows raised at me as if asking So? I thought about the students I would return to tomorrow—their stubborn frowns, their sagging eyelids when I map out carbohydrate molecular compounds on the chalkboard, and at the last second, I steered left. The Lexus glided past the ramp sign, leaving the exit receding behind us.

Brad looked at me and I knew he was wondering if I was testing him, if I was trying to provoke him in some way. I wasn’t. I’d felt a rush, swerving past that exit, and I wondered if that was something NBA Jeremy Lin would do.

“It’s okay,” Brad said, but it felt like he was talking mostly to himself. “You can take exit 9 coming up in half a mile. Just, please stay in the right lane.” He rapped sharp knuckles against his window, indicating the upcoming slope curving away from the highway.

At the last second, I blew past that exit, too.

“Sir,” Brad said, turning towards me. He rattled off on how the Lexus dealership closed in a few hours and how he had other serious clients to attend to, but I wasn’t listening. I had a full tank. I had 467 horsepower. I could potentially outdrive the cops. I wouldn’t make it, but I could. I thought of all the places we could go: Death Valley, Los Angeles, Black Rock Desert—places I’d never been.

The other Jeremy Lin didn’t get recruited to Harvard right off the bat. There were reservations. They said at first he seemed more like a Division III player, if anything. I wondered if he always knew he’d be a breakout star in the NBA—if he had any plans for his economics major if basketball didn’t work out. Would he have been a stockbroker? A data analyst? Some kind of accountant?

I thought about the papers I still had to write, about the lab samples I hadn’t collected yet, about how slow the clock hands tick in the back of the community college classroom I attended, and the long years of school I still needed to endure before I could call myself a Geneticist. I imagined my parents’ faces when I returned from the dealership empty-handed, disappointed and unimpressed yet again at how unremarkable their only child turned out.

I glanced over at Brad, both hands on the wheel. “What kind of music do you listen to?”

“Rock?” he asked, like he was furious and suspicious if I’d been listening to him this whole time.

I turned on the radio. The intro to The Strokes’ “Someday” reverberated from the speakers. I rolled down the windows and after transitioning to the left lane, my foot descended, slowly at first, and then with all its weight onto the gas pedal.


Christina is a competitive eater wannabe with work featured in Hobart, The Adroit Journal, Word Riot, Jelly Bucket, and elsewhere. She writes and spams at christinaashleysun.wordpress.com.

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Concavo Wheels on Flickr

HEAVY LIFTING by Jennifer Turnquist

HEAVY LIFTING
by Jennifer Turnquist

A guy comes into the drugstore and goes to the snack aisle. Early twenties, longish hair, patchy beard like he never learned to shave properly. He glances at me so I look away quick, busy myself with straightening the packs of Life Savers on the counter. I’m not watching him because he’s attractive or anything. He isn’t. He’s skinny and stoop-shouldered. I’m watching him because of how his eyes dart around and because he keeps fidgeting with a buckle on his canvas backpack.

Our only other customer is a middle-aged lady who came in right after the guy. She’s chewing gum and looking at a magazine. When I check the snack aisle again it’s empty, but I can still see the guy in the surveillance mirror, which is long and runs across the back of the store under the ceiling. In the mirror, I watch him take a box off the shelf—aspirin or antacids maybe—and put it back. He looks over his shoulder, glances at the mirror, fiddles with the buckle again. What’s he doing? If he’s a shoplifter, he’s pretty terrible at it.

Mr. Parr comes back from the bank and stops to see if I need change for the register. I tell him I’m all set. He points at the display behind the counter where we keep the pipe cleaners and filter tips and such. You’ve got some empty spots there, Donna. Let’s get those filled in. I’ll take care of it, Mr. Parr, I say, my eyes still on the mirror.

Now if that were David, he would have waltzed in here, taken what he wanted, and waltzed right out again. Not that he never got caught, but when he did he’d be all friendly and innocent and oh man, did I really walk out with that? My mom always said David could talk his way out of anything. It wasn’t an act either. David was really a nice guy, but also he was restless. People who used to know our dad usually let him go, but they’d talk to him first, tell him it was time to get serious and grow up. Not everyone in town let him off so easy though. He ended up at the police station a few times, but no one ever threw the book at him. Maybe they should have. The Army doesn’t take criminals. What’s worse? Having a brother who did time or not having a brother anymore at all?

This stringy-haired guy is probably one of the unlucky ones who got his head screwed up in ‘Nam. Whether the Army straightened David out or he ended up a vacant-eyed unfortunate like those you see wandering around we don’t know. Personally, I consider him dead. How often do you hear about a guy who’s MIA showing up alive? Once in a blue moon, that’s how often. Sometimes somebody’s remains are identified, but then they’re only definitely dead instead of probably dead. This is all my own private opinion not to be shared with my mother. She’s convinced he’s in a camp in the jungle over there. She writes to the government every month begging them to keep searching. I urge you, she writes. I entreat you. One time I heard my uncle telling her it was time to stop writing, to move on. Sometimes living is hard work, Ellen, he told her. It’s heavy lifting. Other people talk to her too, but it doesn’t do any good. I get so fed up with her, sitting at home acting like her own life is over. I even told her once that if David was alive he would have talked his way out of that camp by now. Isn’t that what she always said? She just looked at me and said in that slow way she talks now, he doesn’t speak the language.

Mr. Parr heads toward the back with the bank pouch. On the way he gives our stoop-shouldered friend the once-over, like he does with anybody who’s grooming is less than excellent, and goes into the office. The bell over the door jingles and Jerry from the lube joint comes in for a pack of Camels. Jerry likes to talk. Today he’s got a story about a guy who brought in a Firebird and Jerry and Raoul found a pair of pantyhose in the glove box. Jerry waggles his eyebrows at me, so I say, so, maybe his wife keeps a spare pair. It’s not hard to get a run in a pair of pantyhose. Jerry shakes his head. Nope, these were all bunched up. Definitely some hanky-panky going on in that Firebird. Like what, I say, and regret it when Jerry grins at me and says, like, you know.

Jerry’s got to be close to thirty and shouldn’t be grinning at me like that. If David was here he would tell Jerry to get lost, maybe even pop him one, like he did the boy who ditched me at the Sweetheart Dance freshman year. But David isn’t here, and Jerry’s visits are about the only thing that keep me from dying of boredom at work. So I ask if there was any other evidence, like a barrette on the floor. Jerry laughs and says, who wears barrettes with pantyhose? I’m about to say my mom does, but I know what Jerry’s mind will do with that. He’ll have my mom steaming up those car windows, even though she’s barely left the house since we got the telegram. So I say, what were you doing going through the guy’s glove box when all he wanted was an oil change? Jerry laughs again and knocks twice on the counter, like he always does by way of saying so long.

Jerry walks away and I nearly jump out of my skin because the guy is right there behind him. He’s fingering the buckle on his backpack and I wonder if he’s about to stick us up. I glance at the woman in the magazine aisle. She blows a big pink bubble and lets it pop, probably getting flecks of spit all over a magazine she has no intention of buying. She’ll be no help if he pulls a gun. I ring up his deodorant and pack of crackers. He pays with a five and puts the change in his pocket and stands there jingling the coins. And that makes me think maybe he doesn’t have a gun but that he wants something else. Then he starts fiddling with that buckle again. I’m telling you, I’m starting to sweat now. I manage to ask if I can do anything else for him. He licks his lips and leans forward. I have something, he says. And then he says it again: I—I have something.

I shouldn’t, but I look into his face. I think, what is it? What does he have? His eyes are worried and angry and sad all at once. Lost-looking, and I wonder, was he over there? Did he know David? Maybe he has a message I can pass on to my mom, a yes or no that will let her get on with her life. He’s going to tell me how he and David were together, bullets raining, and David died a brave death. Or there’s a camp, and he—

The magazine lady comes over and stands next to him. Come on, Phil, she says. Time to get you back. Wait, I say, what’s going on? He lives in that group home on Fulton, she tells me. I ask if she works there and she shrugs and says it’s a living.

I watch through the big glass window as they walk down the block and out of sight. I’m still staring out the window, thinking about David, thinking about how it would feel to finally know, when Mr. Parr comes out of the back.

I hear him plunk a box on the counter, probably full of after-shave or enemas. Wake up, girlie, he says. I swear, you get moony-eyed over every Army-surplus hippie who comes in here. I stare out the window, dreaming, a little longer before I tell myself it’s time to get back to work.


Jennifer Turnquist has a BA in psychology that she never put to any professional use. After several years working in a neurophysiology laboratory, homeschooling her children, and attempting various entrepreneurial enterprises, she discovered that she really likes to write. Ten years later, she’s still at it. She lives in the Twin Cities with her family.

 

 

 

Image credit:  lucas Favre on Unsplash

PAUSED by Emily Steinberg

PAUSED
by Emily Steinberg
with an introduction by Susan Squier

My own menopause was a surgical one. It surprised me over the course of several months, with excruciating pain, then finally a diagnosis of ovarian torsion, then a hysterectomy/ovariectomy. It announced itself so dramatically that I felt entitled to give it the proper respect. To pause. To rethink everything (which is what I did, which is another story.)

But reading Emily Steinberg’s remarkable comic Paused, what grabs me is her remarkable recognition: her gripping ability to see the Dark Horse Menopause approaching (“unbidden and unwelcome”) amidst the dailyness of a young woman’s life, to envision Menopause announcing herself in her calamitous lability, her flow of symptoms (waking, drenched, freezing, stuck, and then raging heat surges/broiling/sweating), and finally her mythic multiplicity.

…she’s a banshee; she’s La Belle Dame sans Merci in her fully cloaked and unwelcome glory; she’s a desiccated Madame Frankenstein (in academic jacket) lurching towards us and yearning for the lube that love requires…

Steinberg’s wonderful, witty comic reintroduces us to our manifold ways of unknown knowing (sorry, Rumsfeld) about what menopause is, culturally and personally: she’s a banshee; she’s La Belle Dame sans Merci in her fully cloaked and unwelcome glory; she’s a desiccated Madame Frankenstein (in academic jacket) lurching towards us and yearning for the lube that love requires; she’s the fabulously trans-Tin Man, hoping for that oleaginous elixir; and she’s even the marvelous girl-golem, a Mummy prostrate but ready to display her power, even in her full body cast, nose-cone bras fully extended.

The passion, the power, the colorful claiming of what menopause is for women, for women artists, for those of us deeply attached to both science and culture in the Western world, is the wonderful gift of Emily Steinberg’s comic, “Paused.”  But more than that, it’s the example that Emily Steinberg offers us: of using our colorful imaginations, our mythic archives, and our gutsy ability for backtalk to counter the greying, damping, muting effect of an unchallenged menopause.  I love her closing words: “I will vanquish you yet, sucker. You, and your bony horse too.”

—Susan Squier, June 2018







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 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.


Susan Squier is Brill Professor Emerita of English and Women’s Studies, Penn State University, and Einstein Visiting Fellow at Freie Universität, Berlin, where she collaborates on the PathoGraphics Project.  She is co-author of Graphic Medicine Manifesto (PSU Press), and author, among many other books, of Epigenetic Landscapes: Drawings as Metaphor.

LADIES’ NIGHT by Erin Pienaar

LADIES’ NIGHT
by Erin Pienaar

It’s inevitable—they order wine for the table and the topic turns to death. Three drinks in and they’re all tipsy and tender. Ladies’ night out isn’t supposed to be about death. It’s about looking and acting alive—youth and vibrancy signaled by rouge on the cheeks, pink on the mouth.

“Sometimes I’ll have a really good cry,” Lynn says. “After work, on the car ride home. But sometimes it’s like once I’ve started I’ll never stop. Last week, I had to pull over to the side of the road to throw up.” She tops up her glass of chardonnay. “Sixty isn’t so bad though. It isn’t as bad as—”

“It isn’t forty-six,” Ashley says.

Lynn raises her glass to Ashley’s. “No, it is not.”

“My cousin’s husband dropped dead at twenty-eight!” Margo says. She likes winning, even if the game is grief. “I mean, of course we’ve been unlucky, but can you imagine? Twenty-eight years old!”

But Ashley thinks this may be better. Margo’s cousin is young enough to start over. Not so far away from independence, from living alone. One goes into a shared home with certain expectations, one never imagines—

Ashley always loved scrambled eggs but could never make them properly. Either she wound up with something like pale yellow soup or they were too dry, bits of egg congealing in clumps.

Stephen was good at scrambled eggs. Every Sunday morning he’d cook them for her with bacon and toast and she’d marvel at the smooth, creamy mound on her plate. She never thought to watch or ask him how he did it; she just loaded the eggs with pepper and dug in. The eggs are not the thing she misses most, but they are the thing she misses most often.

She feels something like sob in her throat. She needs water. And more bread.

The entrees come and they eat, slowing the alcohol absorption occurring in their bodies. They perk up a little and turn to lighter topics. Margo talks about her hair, which she switches from blonde to brown with the changing seasons. “What about red?” she asks. Margo and Ashley talk about the right shade of red: auburn, or strawberry, or scarlet. Lynn reminds them that she’s never changed her hairstyle because David liked it long, a fact that Ashley finds odd and sad most of the time and beautiful after three glasses of wine.

“This was nice,” they say at the end of the evening. They say this every time though it is never nice. It is painful and necessary, like the massages Ashley has on her legs once a week to combat arthritis. After, she feels bruised. Even the smallest steps hurt. But she is moving and motion is what matters.


Erin Pienaar lives in London, Ontario, where she completed her MA in English Literature. Her work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, The Danforth Review, Bird’s Thumb, Matrix Magazine, and The Forge Literary Magazine. She is currently working on a novel.

 

 

 

 

Image credit:  Kelsey Chance on Unsplash

 

GASLIGHT: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century, essays by Joachim Kalka, reviewed by Katharine Coldiron

GASLIGHT: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century
by Joachim Kalka
translated by Isabel Fargo Cole
New York Review Books, 233 pages

reviewed by Katharine Coldiron

With a title and subtitle like Gaslight: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century, the reader will be forgiven for thinking Joachim Kalka’s book is a collection of visual art. It is not. Though it does contain a handful of visual descriptions, it bears not one illustration, woodcut, or photograph. No lantern slides, and no visual depictions of gaslight. What it has instead are words, many of them, artfully arranged. Kalka’s words, assembled into eleven essays and a preface, are densely packed and remarkably pointed. Although his purpose is to glance back at the nineteenth century, not to historicize it, or even to theorize about it with a particular agenda, Kalka is a highly organized thinker. His insights prove scintillating, if specialized.

The specialization is the rub. Few of the essays in this book are likely to be suitable for a reader without a preexisting interest in the essay’s subject matter. For example, this reviewer has particular interest in Richard Wagner and Marcel Proust, and so I found the essays about those two topics engaging and novel, appreciating Kalka’s acute insights and nodding along vehemently. On the Ring cycle: “The music so magnificently…unifies the whole complicated narrative of the Ring of the Nibelung that only closer examination of the plot logic reveals how confused and contradictory it is.” This is wholly true, and as a flaw, it both overshadows the work and is easily overshadowed by the work—but if you have never seen or listened to the Ring cycle, how would you know that, and why would you care? It’s unfortunate when prior knowledge is necessary for enjoyment, but in this case, the enjoyment gets ramped up significantly when the prior knowledge is there. The book is focused primarily on German literature and history, which is suitable, as Kalka is a German critic. However, this focus might limit Gaslight’s accessibility for readers of mostly English literature.

In fact, the literary aura of this book is a healthy reminder that for Western literary scholars and readers based in Europe, France is the key wellspring of the canon, more so than is Britain. Kalka speaks of Balzac the way an American critic might speak of Dickens; Proust and Flaubert are foundational figures, rather than Joyce and (George) Eliot. Frankenstein is mentioned here and there as an important novel of the nineteenth century, but a book written by an American critic focused on the same century might position Shelley’s novel as one of the load-bearing posts of the era’s technological excitement/anxiety, not an incidental part of it. Then again, Kalka does point out that the canon itself is a construct:

For us the literary canon, at least up until the late nineteenth century, presents itself as a fixed, well-ordered whole, something we take for granted, almost like a natural phenomenon, and we must exert our imaginations to reconstruct how controversial this canon of our classics actually was, how precarious, how historically contingent.

Joachim Kalka

Though stuffed with adjectives and adverbs (“brilliant” is a particular favorite), Kalka’s writing is highly readable, flowing like a mountain stream. But it hops from one topic to another so quickly, rushing over figures and historical events as if stones at the bottom of the water, that people who have not logged significant time in academic libraries might find themselves bewildered. What’s so unusual about his writing is its in-between nature. It flits between topics so rapidly, and lacks a meaningful thesis so frequently, that it isn’t recognizable as scholarship; however, Kalka writes about such heavily literary topics, and touches on such a wide range of difficult literature, that it’s not really general-interest work. Scholars of the nineteenth century will find this light reading, and civilian readers will find it potentially impenetrable.

Part of the reason for this impenetrability is the organization of the essays. One of the least entertaining essays, about Friedrich Schiller, is the opener, and an amusing essay about cake in Madame Bovary and elsewhere, and British food in a Robert Louis Stevenson novel and elsewhere, comes past the halfway point. The essays are roughly chronological in terms of their primary topic: essays on the early nineteenth century appear toward the beginning of the collection, while later figures like Alfred Dreyfus and Jack the Ripper come toward the end. But the subject matter jumps around so frequently that this chronological sense is not all-consuming. Indeed, the only connecting thread across all the essays is the focus on the nineteenth century itself. Otherwise, only one other topic appears across several of the essays: anti-Semitism.

GASLIGHT is not what it seems, in nearly any way. Non-visual despite its visual title and subtitle, non-scholarly despite the scholarly titles of its essays, lively despite its focus on a period remembered in British and American history as being tightly buttoned up. It’s David Markson without the conciseness, and Harold Bloom without the sourness. Should your interests inhabit the same turf as Kalka, he’ll make your neurons hum.

Translator Isabel Fargo Cole

Perhaps this topic is unavoidable for a German critic writing after World War II about events taking place in or near Germany prior to World War II. The Holocaust may be an unavoidable lens for a look back, even if that look is at something so far back as lantern slides. But Kalka offers useful information and fresh analysis about European anti-Semitism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He explains the Dreyfus affair thoroughly, yet succinctly, and his emphasis on the way the incident tore society apart resonates distinctly with the current right-wing movements here, in the UK, and in Europe. “As with many things we take for granted,” he notes in his essay about Jack the Ripper, “a chance circumstance can open up a chink into the past.” In his long essay about Wolfgang Menzel, Kalka calls Menzel’s appalling caricature of Jews “the mad, racist rejection of all that is ‘foreign.’” The closing essay, “Bucolic Anti-Semitism: A Commentary,” uses folk songs, postcards, and other artifacts of middle-class Germany to trace an odd, “jocular” anti-Semitism woven into the fabric of German culture.

From a purely abstract perspective, the exploration of the history of anti-Semitism […] could be just as entertaining as the structurally comparable lunatic fringes of cultural history: UFOs, the true author of Shakespeare’s works, the pyramid prophecies. But the pages of these pamphlets and books are shadowed by a vast horror…

Of course, it was Hitler who changed the character of German anti-Semitism into something not at all bucolic. But Kalka’s point is useful: bigotry appears harmless until it isn’t. “Lunatic fringes” such as birtherism would, today, be much funnier, had they not evolved into our current predicament. But Kalka does not go that far. And why should he? He is a German critic, as this collection does not allow the reader to forget.

Gaslight is not what it seems, in nearly any way. Non-visual despite its visual title and subtitle, non-scholarly despite the scholarly titles of its essays, lively despite its focus on a period remembered in British and American history as being tightly buttoned up. It’s David Markson without the conciseness, and Harold Bloom without the sourness. Should your interests inhabit the same turf as Kalka, he’ll make your neurons hum.


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

AARDVARK TO AXOLOTL, essays by Karen Donovan and TALES FROM WEBSTER’S, essays by John Shea, reviewed by Michelle E. Crouch

AARDVARK TO AXOLOTL
by Karen Donovan
Etruscan Press, 91 pages

TALES FROM WEBSTER’S: The Verminous Resuscitator and the Monsignor in the Zoot Suit
by John Shea
Livingston Press, 222 pages

reviewed by Michelle E. Crouch

My son’s name begins with G, and so any other word containing the letter, or especially starting with it, brings him immense joy. “G! For me!” he exclaims as we take the Girard exit off I-95. He is three-and-a-half, not able to read but conversant in consonants and their sounds. G-words exist on a higher plane than all others in his toddler cosmology.

To any adult, this identification with a specific letter of the alphabet likely seems arbitrary. The soft G in Girard doesn’t even sound like the hard G in his name. And yet I suspect I’ve unconsciously favored a Marissa or a Megan over someone equally deserving who didn’t happen to have an M in common with me. Belgian psychologist Jozef Nuttin called this preference the name-letter effect; psychologists at the University of Michigan even concluded that people are more likely to donate to hurricane relief when the storms share their initials.

Just as we may accidentally act on a preference for the letters of our names, the standard practice of organizing things and people in alphabetical order can have an unintentional influence (as cataloged here by Alexander Cauley and Jeffrey Zax, each of whom has personal experience as alpha or omega). Samuel Taylor Coleridge proposed an encyclopedia arranged by chronology and subject matter rather than “the accident of initial letters,” which he deemed “the impudent ignorance of your Presbyterian bookmakers.” Of course, he lost this battle. So much is governed by the rules of alphabetization that, arbitrary or not, it shapes our world and how we record our knowledge of it.

Karen Donovan’s Aardvark to Axolotl and John Shea’s Tales from Webster engage with this paradox via the dictionary, that great alphabetizer of language. The dictionary is the reference-book-of-all-reference-books. It is writing broken down to its most basic components, as a color wheel separates out the most basic tools of the painter. It also makes for dry reading. As far as plots go, it’s lackluster.

But just as letters pulse with our own emotional attachments, the dictionary isn’t without its own poetry, evocative moments that reward the sort of reader who obsesses over words and their various combinations. On some pages, the entries may all be of a family or a common root, perhaps revealing a previously unconsidered shared etymology. In other cases, the juxtaposition of two very different words creates a friction that here becomes an expressive possibility. Shea mines amoral-amoretto, dreadnought-dream, lycanthropy-lycee, and dozens more, for rollicking turns in his brief but action-packed narratives.

Donovan, who published an excerpt from Aardvark to Axolotl in Issue 16 of Cleaver, considers the images in addition to the words, taking the engraved illustrations from the A section of a 1925 Webster’s dictionary as a starting point. Specifically, a copy that belonged to her grandfather, “easily five inches thick and currently open to the entry on the West Indian guapena (it’s a fish),” she notes in the acknowledgments.

Karen Donovan

Going from the abstracted idea of a dictionary (which most readers of this review likely now encounter online most frequently, word by disembodied word, than on paper) to the physicality of a specific copy owned and paged through by a particular person suits Donovan’s project well. For each prose-poem or miniature essay in Aardvark to Axolotl, Donovan considers a single engraved image, responding to it in a few lines, ranging from a long paragraph to a single sentence. Detached from a definition, each illustration takes on its own persona, its power as an object expanded by Donovan’s attention.

In some instances, the connection between word and image is direct, often a memory trigger: artiodactyla toe-bones inspire “Pedicure,” the polish administered once by a niece; alpaca turns into  “Sweater,” borrowed from a friend in childhood; arabesque (the decorative pattern) causes the author to bodily enact an arabesque (the ballet formation) in a reflexive muscle memory, in “Take the Position, Please.” In other pieces, there’s an additional mental step, sometimes easy to follow, sometimes known only to Donovan. Aphrodite riding a swan conjures the tale of a bike accident. Arbutus, a flowering plant of some kind, is addressed in hardboiled patter by none other than Sam Spade: “So. I did my homework on you, sister.”

The book is not, however, just a collection of impressionistic anecdotes. Within the humorous one-liners, word games, and glimpses of autobiography, there runs a deeper strain of contemplation. The aforementioned pedicure, mostly a warm memory, ends with: “At bedtime I slide into my sheets aware of color in a place where there usually isn’t. Every breath of hope required to keep the whole human project afloat.”

Keeping afloat may be apt; coastal imagery of shells and lighthouses appear throughout. More than one aquatic creature offers wisdom. The archer fish anchors a short piece titled “Language,” which reads in its entirety: “It was then I understood I had a razor-tipped device inside me that could spear any prey I desired.” And the titular axolotl, near the end of the book, comes to embody the poet, left behind by friends headed for more stable careers: “For high finance, engineering, law. For houses in suburbs, and children with braces, and commitments and engagements and mojitos with neighbors. Meanwhile, you stay in the pond, working on how to accept your gills, your strange ability to regenerate anything at all, even a new brain if you want one.” Perhaps this watery writer’s life requires a scaffold like the alphabet to bring it to a state of order. For the most orderly of taxonomy nerds, Donovan includes an “Index of Proper Nouns and Other Terms” (Home Depot, hypocycloid, Janet) and another of figures organized by category (Fossils, Geology, Greek Stuff).

Shea’s Tales from Webster’s adheres to an even stricter system than Aardvark to Axolotl. It amounts, he tells us in the introduction, to a new literary form. On the left of the page, a list of consecutive dictionary terms appears in bold. On the right side of the page, Shea uses no more than fifty words of his choosing as connective tissue between each dictionary term to create a short story. The stories are all titled for their first and last dictionary words.

A representative excerpt from “Amon-Re—Amort”:

As in this sample, the narrative voice tends toward a heightened diction, as demanded by ancient deities and other more obscure terms. The table of contents, reading like a poem of its own, gives each story a descriptive subheading in the style of a 19th-century novel’s chapters: “In which a scion of a prominent family reveals a new source of income.” The characters are often well-traveled, as place-names like Illimani (a mountain in Bolivia) and Rawalpindi (a city in Pakistan) keep cropping up between the non-proper nouns. For something that resembles poetry more than prose in its formatting, the stories are surprisingly plot-driven. There are sailors, spies, cursed bracelets, incidents of international concern, and visions of the afterlife as a never-ending classical music concert, at least as punishment for one particular anti-capitalist who falls victim to his own car bomb.

Although the appearance of the stories on the page emphasizes the dictionary as source material, it can also make the flow of reading more difficult, especially in passages heavy with dialogue. For example, “Where—Wicker,” which is entirely dialogue, features a sort of “Who’s on first?” bickering between its two very lost interlocutors. Line breaks determined by a poet can be helpful in extracting meaning, and paragraph breaks following basic prose conventions are helpful in guiding the reader. Here the function of the line breaks is to highlight the dictionary word device, not to enhance understanding. Is it better to show off the device, rather than submerge it and find out how the stories read in a conventional prose format? The decision is philosophical, or at least stylistic. I personally tend to be an advocate for compromise—I wish I had an alternated copy of the book with the stories in paragraphs, but the dictionary words kept bolded.

John Shea

Shea’s strategy here calls to mind the writing constraints practiced by Oulipo writers, such as George Perec’s novel La Disparition (translated in English as A Void), written entirely without the letter “e.” Like Shea’s work, Perec’s book contains a necessarily erudite narrative voice and a tendency to toy with genre conventions, though Shea is less self-conscious than Perec (the plot of La Disparition involves a missing character named Vowl).

For readers who would shy away from Shea or others on the grounds that their formal experiments are a showcase for virtuosity but not emotional depth, I’d ask them to consider that a considerable chunk of literature features a constraint of some type—how different are the requirements of a villanelle or a pantoum from those of Shea’s dictionary tales? In his fascinating nonfiction book The Letter & The Cosmos: How the Alphabet Has Shaped the Western View of the World, Laurence De Looze connects twentieth century surrealists and Oulipoeans with Carolingian monks who created religious palindromes. The key difference he observes is that in past centuries, letters were considered to have a metaphysical or spiritual quality, whereas modern writers are concerned with the “letter as letter.” The twentieth century (and, we might surmise, at least the early part of the twenty-first) have taken a linguistic turn. “Meaning does not reside in some transcendent signifier—God—but rather it slips away along a chain of minimal differences.” Although the term minimal differences here refers to a specific usage by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, A Chain of Minimal Differences would make a great alternate subtitle for Shea’s book.

Harryette Mullen, another author who’s used Oulipo techniques for her own purposes, borrows the group’s N + 7 technique for “Any Lit,” a poem in her book Sleeping with the Dictionary. N + 7 involves substituting the noun in a phrase with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary, like a very structured mad lib. Mullen takes the line “You are a huckleberry beyond my persimmon” and substitutes other nouns for huckleberry and persimmon—though clearly not quite following the “plus 7” rule in lines like “You are a universe beyond my mitochondria / you are a Eucharist beyond my Miles Davis,” subverting the alphabetic constraint to play off sound and association. Mullen connects the original phrase with African American courtship conversations. Her work has a political dimension, fusing wordplay and writing constraints with questions of power and language: whose language is considered correct and valid, who has been historically prevented from gaining literacy? A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A is another volume of poetry that throws the relationship of language and authority into sharp relief; some of the poems take on the form of dictionary definitions while telling the story of MacNolia Cox, the first black finalist in the National Spelling Bee Competition. In the final rounds in 1936, she was given a word not on the official list for the competition—nemesis—by the judges as a successful strategy to ensure the winner would be white. In LOOK, Solmaz Sharif takes the U.S. Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated terms as source material, examining how language describes, and becomes, both a weapon and a disguise.

Perhaps the eternal appeal of the dictionary is the tension between the writer and the words themselves—the search to wrest them from their inert, alphabetized and dissected and defined form and into their hidden order, the one that elicits a truth.

Shea and Donovan’s work lacks some of the bite that comes from interrogating linguistic authority in this way—their relationship to the dictionary is more playful, more dance than critique. Engaging with the alphabet in a self-conscious manner is as old as the Greeks who first borrowed the letters of the Phoenicians and arranged them into an order we still recognize today. De Looze references the fifth century BCE writer Kallais, who produced the play Grammatike Theoria, translated in English as ABC Show, with an alphabetic chorus. Before I finished writing this review, I heard a radio interview with Jezz Burrows, just out with a new book, Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions and Other Findings. I can picture a time in the not-too-distant future when my son will be puzzling over an acrostic poem of his name for a school assignment, deciding what word to select for G. Allow me to imagine him consulting a hard-copy dictionary, although it’s more likely to be adjectivestarting.com: will he choose good, great, gentle, garrulous?  Perhaps the eternal appeal of the dictionary is the tension between the writer and the words themselves—the search to wrest them from their inert, alphabetized and dissected and defined form and into their hidden order, the one that elicits a truth.

Read John Shea’s short story “Figures of Speech” in Issue 8 of Cleaver.
Read Karen Donovan’s excerpt from Aardvark to Axolotl in Issue 16 of Cleaver


Michelle-E.-CrouchMichelle E. Crouch, a co-founder of APIARY Magazine, has published fiction and non-fiction in Gigantic Sequins, Indiana Review, The Rumpus, and others. She received an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and lives in Philadelphia. Her website is mcrouch.com.

ASK JUNE: The Reluctant Bridesmaid and The MFA Marriage

Dear June, 

“Luke” has been my best friend since Eleventh Grade, which is more than ten years now. He and “Jasmine,” my longtime girlfriend and now wife, have always gotten along really well. About two years ago, Luke went off to the Midwest to get an M.F.A. He just moved back home to take a job at our old high school, where I also teach.

This would be great except that “Elaine,” the woman he has been seeing since about Day Two of his Master’s program, moved here with him. Now he tells me they are getting married in September. I am not crazy about Elaine and have no doubt that life will not be as much fun with her in the mix, but I can live with the situation. I’m not so sure about Jasmine, and that’s the problem. Jasmine really, really hates her. She says Elaine is conceited, narcissistic, loud, reactionary, incapable of listening, and all too capable of criticizing people and giving unsolicited advice. She has also told me that Elaine is nowhere near as smart as she thinks she is, and that when Elaine criticizes Luke or bosses him around she has trouble even staying in the same room with them.

I am to be Luke’s best man, and Elaine has asked (well, actually, told) Jasmine to be one of the bridesmaids. That’s the immediate problem, since Jasmine is basically saying over her dead body. She says that being a bridesmaid for Elaine would be an unpleasant experience and that anyway since she hates Elaine and disapproves of the marriage, she does not want to give Elaine or anybody else the wrong impression. How am I going to handle this bridesmaid thing, and the years of socializing (or not) ahead of the four of us?

—Apprehensive in Anaheim

Dear App,

Let’s tackle the bridesmaid thing first.

Resolving it will probably depend on how elaborate the wedding is and how much participation and forced intimacy Elaine expects from her bridesmaids. There are weddings where being a bridesmaid is not all that onerous: you wear a dress you would never have bought otherwise, you pose for photos, you sit or stand where you are told during the ceremony and a photo shoot, and that’s pretty much that. All in all, you are not required to do much more than any other guest. If Luke and Elaine’s wedding is of this sort, I would take a stab at convincing Jasmine to reconsider. I assume that she is willing to attend the wedding—and, if her bridesmaid’s duties are light, being part of the wedding party may actually make the event more palatable for her by making it easier for the two of you to spend time together.

As for creating the wrong impression: I don’t think anybody will read much into the mere fact of Jasmine’s being a bridesmaid. In the unlikely event that people ponder the subject at all, they will probably assume that she was asked as a courtesy to you, the best man, and that she accepted in the same spirit. When people ask her how she knows the bride, she can honestly and pleasantly say that she is the best man’s wife and has grown close to the groom, which is why Elaine, whom she scarcely knows, asked her to be in the wedding.

Of course, Elaine herself may take Jasmine’s acceptance as a sign of growing intimacy, which does risk some annoyance and even conflicts down the road. But there are polite ways to counter this impression —for example, you and Jasmine can speak and behave as if you assume that Luke was behind the invitation and/or that Elaine graciously included Jasmine because of her status as your wife. And unless Jasmine can get out of it with some plausible excuse (see below), accepting the invitation will probably make life a lot easier for everyone down the road, including Jasmine.

From what little you reveal of her, though, Jasmine does sound like a strong-minded woman. No matter what you say, she may stand fast, even if the wedding is simple and her duties very light. Or the wedding may be quite elaborate and the bridesmaids’ roles a much bigger deal, with several bouts of obligatory, expensive, time-consuming, pointless shopping, a long list of assigned duties for each bridesmaid, and mandatory attendance at a weekend-long bachelorette party a thousand miles away where everyone is expected to stay up all night, get drunk, reveal their innermost thoughts, bond with one another, hoot at a male stripper, and act very stupid in public; then, perhaps, two or three more days of enforced togetherness at the wedding itself: a weekend of mani-pedis, hair styling, photo shoots, rehearsals, a rehearsal dinner, various staged and probably videoed scenes of stuff like the Dressing of the Bride and her Attendants and the Sampling of the Signature Cocktails. There may even be a special wedding-party dance or skit (although I think it is safe to say that Jasmine can avoid making an actual toast). If that’s the way the wedding is headed, I doubt if you have any chance at all of swaying Jasmine with any argument or plea. Although I would certainly give it a try, Jasmine will probably hold out against all persuasion and attempts at bribery—and I confess that, if drunken bachelorette strangers and ghastly skits play any part, the woman has a point.

If Jasmine won’t come around, and if matters are still in an early enough stage that you two can swing it, I would suggest the tried and true competing-obligation gambit. She will need to come up with something major and unassailable: the wedding of her favorite cousin, the dream-of-a-lifetime family cruise her grandma has already booked, or perhaps her only niece’s bat mitzvah. In such cases, it is always better to manufacture a real or almost-real conflict rather than just lying. For one thing, you and (probably) Jasmine will be seeing Luke and (possibly) Elaine for a long time or even the rest your lives, and it would be demoralizing—to say nothing of difficult—to lie repeatedly to a close friend. Maybe Grandma really does want to go on a trip? Or maybe you and Jasmine could embellish just a little, and turn some relative’s graduation or birthday into an obligatory major celebration?

If Jasmine can’t or won’t come up with an actual competing obligation, I still wouldn’t rule out her leaving town on some total pretext. Even the flimsiest excuses tend to cause less harm than outright refusals in cases like this. If Jasmine does refuse to dissemble, or if you can’t bring yourself to deceive your friend—which I honor, although I also honor not hurting people’s feelings at weddings—be prepared for some ill will. Perhaps you and/or Jasmine could mitigate it by taking Luke and/or Elaine —whichever permutation seems least incendiary—aside and explaining that Jasmine is honored to have been asked, but isn’t quite ready yet to be in the wedding party.

Your chance of coming up with any acceptable and true, true-ish, or at least plausible reasons for Jasmine’s saying no are the flip side of your chance of getting Jasmine to give in and say yes: how big a deal is this wedding? If it is a time-consuming, expensive affair, you and Jasmine might be able to cite work or family obligations that place huge demands on her time. Maybe money is tight. Or maybe Jasmine is or can claim to be shy, and confess that she would have trouble coping as the odd-woman-out in a group of close-knit old friends sacking Vegas. But I would still expect some bruised feelings. For your sake, I hope that Jasmine comes around, or that her fragile old granny really does book a cruise with nonrefundable tickets.

As for the looming future, you and Jasmine are just going to have to make some compromises. If Jasmine is at all reasonable and your marriage is solid, you should be able to agree on a few mutual concessions, probably involving your spending less time as a foursome than you would like and Jasmine’s spending more. It will help, I think, that you are not wild about Elaine, either, and can mollify Jasmine sometimes with the occasional shrug or eye roll when you are all together– although I would also suggest trying to help Jasmine see whatever good points Elaine may have. Is she witty? A good vocal harmonizer? Kind to animals?

It should make you and Luke happier if you set up routines for meeting without your wives. Consider classes at the gym, a weekly happy hour, workday lunches or early breakfasts, regular hikes or dog walks, or even a two-man carpool if you live near each other. Or how about coaching or advising an after-school club together?

You might also try making some explicit deals with Jasmine. Here’s one that once worked for me: for every night the four of you go out, you will spend a night doing whatever she wants, including seeing her friend Molly and Molly’s blowhard philistine boyfriend at that atrocious overpriced restaurant Jasmine loves.

By the way, I detect a note of moralism, or at least wanting to bear moral witness, in Jasmine’s attitude, not just because of the “wrong impression” issue but also because she hates the way Elaine treats Luke and does not want to be part of it, either as wedding attendant or friend. I would remind Jasmine that Luke is a grown man. And it doesn’t sound as if Elaine is truly abusing him, or as if Jasmine’s refusing to be around them would improve the situation even if there were some verbal abuse going on. In fact, it might be good for Luke if you and Jasmine are around to inhibit some of her nastier behavior, or at least to keep tabs on her.

Good luck to all of you. I can see why regularly having to sit through Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would not be fun; but so much if what we do, from necessity or duty or love, is no fun at all. Let’s just hope either that Elaine tones it down, or that Luke manages to extricate himself before too long.

LA WALLY: If you really don’t like somebody, you should not have to be in their wedding. But if your spouse really needs you to, that’s different. As for the future, I hope the marriage won’t last. In the meantime, everybody should try to be friends. Elaine is annoying, but so are most people.

NOW WARD (JUNE’S HUSBAND) IS WEIGHING IN: I agree with June, except that I don’t think she is totally fair to Jasmine about being a bridesmaid. Why should Jasmine have to pretend to be Elaine’s friend?


ask-june-square-for-facebook-no-border-300pxCleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at AskJune@Cleavermagazine.com. Find more columns by June in her attic.

 

La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.