By Leah Sackett
I keep you in my contacts. I follow your recordings on voicemail and short video messages. The pulse of electronica doses the air with Google's playlist of 80s nostalgia, and I'm itching the scratch to get back to you. We're in front of your white wicker framed mirror in the bedroom you shared with your older sister, whom I have put on a pedestal, but you haven't. When I look at you, hope and promise bubble up from my sweaty toes to burp games of our concoction. You are confident. You teach me how to ride a bike with finesse. You set me on the banana seat of your Schwinn and spin me around the cul de sac. You cheer me on. I keep pedaling afraid to stop. I don't want to fail in front of you.
This had to be boring for you, but you seemed satisfied to teach. I am impressed by you. When we were 16, we lay on our bellies, side-by-side on your sister's bedroom floor, flipping through a playgirl magazine. The air is electric with glossy pages of sex. I'd never seen a penis before. I'm not sure if I'm excited or disappointed. Those must be good ones if they are in a magazine. We giggle and put everything back under your sister's bed.
We are 21, and we are dancing like Bowie. A gaggle of girls dancing, just like the days in your white framed wicker mirror when we developed second-grade dance moves to the Go-Gos, Adam Ant, and ABBA. But now, your signature move is an outstretched arm, palm up, pushing back the sneak-up humper. You were the keeper of the sanctity of the booty. You always knew who was a keeper and who needed to be banished. We started drinking at my house, vodkaritas, an invention of my little brother to save money. He didn't drink them, he just mixed. We had traded our jumpsuits for slip dresses and high heels. Time slips away, and we have to reach out to find each other again. I wonder how life ebbs and flows, but the calling card of history bridges every gap. I'm grateful for time's cyclical rubbing of our lives.
Mommy to Mommy, we trade domestic war stories, laughing over bricks of Rice Krispy treats. You walk to your car in the early winter drizzle. My eyes follow you. God, I love that wool kelly green coat of yours. One day I find I do not want all you have. You call me and tell me you found a lump. It is large as the one in my throat. But I can swallow mine away. What are you going to do? You fight, of course, you do. You throw a pink-themed Bye-Bye Booby party. You are a princess and a superstar with your boa and tiara. If no one knew, they'd be dying to be you. A full-frontal assault is your plan of attack. Everyone rallies behind you.
You get tired a year later, but you, little toy soldier, will never give up the fight. Your young daughter washes the sprinkles on your head, the stubby re-growth. Each bath time tugs on your heart, and with the ache, a little more of your history sloughs off. I don't know how to help you capture those giggles that felt invincible back in the day. I get busy. I fade into the false hope of tomorrow. For the first time, I don't know what to say to you. I feel let down by yesterday, and in the present, I'm wading in the shoals of death. We're not even old enough to have wills.
I trace my memories. Standing on the threshold of your living room behind your dad's recliner quietly watching Star Trek. I'd never seen it before. Your mother's casseroles were eye-opening compared to our endless parade of pasta. There were joint birthdays, slumber parties, sleeping and waking, girl scouts badges that mean nothing now, just how they tagged us growing up. In mischief and prayer, we are bonded. We walked down the aisle together for first communion. It was the last time we weren't the smallest inline. The roll of thunderstorms blows in. You hate each one, a potential home wrenching tornado. I love them like the gruff rumble and gravel of the grandpa who never gave up cigarettes.
"Hello, Laura. Let me know when you have some time to get together."
"Hello, Laura. Can I help?"
My debut book of short stories, Swimming Middle River, was published with REaD Lips Press in 2020. Additionally, my short story, The Family Blend, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize with Crack the Spine.
I am an adjunct lecturer in the English department and the Communication & Media department at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. This is where I earned my B.A. and M.F.A. My short stories explore journeys toward autonomy and the boundaries placed on the individual by society, family, and self. Learn about my published writing both fiction and non-fiction at LeahHolbrookSackett.website.
Death On A Sunday
By Kim Mathis
Every Sunday morning before Capri died, she lived a little. She let her hair down and drove herself right to the arms of safety and bought a bit more time with him. The treeless, 130-mile track down US-49 in cruise control was always a peaceful retreat from Jackson’s burdens. The southern wind blowing wisps of brown hair in her face, and her throat was raspy from belting the soulful rendition of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come. Over and over. The cab of her 1989 Beretta was filled with cautious optimism, empty coke cans, the ones her grammy swore would give her cancer and barren bags of BBQ kettle chips. The Mississippi air, oddly felt freeing, and a little rebellion, albeit a small delight of caffeine, was good for the soul. Grammy would never know, but Capri always blew a kiss to heaven and mouthed, “I’m sorry.”
Safety was nestled in the backwoods of Sunflower County, at Parchman Farms. It was 18,000 acres of manicured grounds, pristine gates, and steel fences that stood thirty feet tall. There behind the cold gates, Capri felt safe. It was the one place that offered her a pinch of joy and an escape from death. Every Sunday, she felt alive and giddy like a teenager on a first date for just a little while. She powdered her fair skin in the rearview mirror, re-applied a shade of ruby to her thin lips, fluffed her brown curls, and smoothed out the green dress’s wrinkles that hugged her wide hips; and popped a few peppermints to rid herself from the remnants of coke and chips. Sunday was the only day she bothered to do anything to herself. It was like she awoke, expecting a miracle as big as Jesus walking on water, and it could only come on Sunday.
She rubbed a little vanilla fragrance behind her ear and planted herself at the back of the line with all the other wives. All of them standing there looking like supermodels who could grace the cover of a magazine decked out in their Sunday best. All shades of beauty from caramel and taupe to ebony and charcoal. Every one of them masking the pain from their sleepless nights and dabbing bubbles of sweat from the brim of their noses, anxiously awaiting family hour. Strangers they all were, yet intentionally connected.
Capri didn’t know how long their husbands had been working the line, wasting their youth in stagnation as their dreams dried up and withered away like flowers in an Arizona desert. All the uniformed men waited for those little moments when their names were called, after slaving themselves in poor conditions to earn the slimmest reward—a chance to call home. Capri often worried whether the men ever grew tired of holding on to a chunk of their past life now shamelessly governed by family hour.
In her reveries, Capri reminded herself that one of these Sundays, a change was gonna come for Marshall. One day he would be free from it all. This part of the journey had an expiration date. And she wouldn’t have to see him in that same old tired uniform anymore, getting callouses he never had and didn’t deserve in the first place. His face, though one, reflected the many faces of black men suffering before him, this life inherited to him from generations of involuntary workers who were innocent yet convicted. This new life was quite distant from being a teller at the bank, but what choice did he have amongst a jury of non-peers. That dingy white uniform did nothing for his 5’11 frame, it certainly didn’t bring out the green flecks in his light eyes, yet his muscles seemed to be getting bigger, despite the days of high school basketball having been long behind him.
When Marshall entered the cold, crowded room, Capri felt like she and he were the only pulses beating amongst the tears and corpses of the walking dead. The walking dead, Capri called the men. Because they only had an hour to feel alive, and it was back to the clutches of death, not just for them, but the wives, too. Capri set her eyes on Marshall, and in that euphoric moment, she felt the clouds open up, and death loosened its stronghold on her. Her smile was as wide as the highway she traveled in on, and her arms stretched even wider to receive him. Finally, she was safe again and alive. She took in his smell and held him tightly to her, and locked her hands into his, massaging them with a scoop of cocoa butter from her purse. Marshall had a solemn yet fighting spirit that calmed every evil thought Capri was battling inside.
“How unjust, how unfair,” the thoughts would begin in her head. Marshall would have a smile just for her, “This too shall pass,” he always assured her. With a softened disposition, “Yes baby, a change is gonna come,” she graciously replied. It never got easier. Only intensified. And the anticipation of leaving him behind those bars again made her feel empty inside and useless, like a penny with a hole in it. At the hour’s end, the hopelessness of life without Marshall beyond that concrete room, and those cold gates, would steal her joy, again. It was death.
And every Sunday, she died.
Kimberly Mathis is a native of Dallas, Texas, and holds a bachelor's degree in Business Administration from Texas A&M University-Commerce. She is a newly published author, of a memoir entitled Dope Girl which debuted in the summer of 2019. Kim loves creative non-fiction and is currently working on a second book, A Liar in Stilettos.
Kim is a second-year student at The University of Arkansas-Monticello, pursuing an MFA in creative non-fiction. She currently lives in Colleyville, Texas, with her husband and three children and enjoys interior design, traveling, writing, and a good book.
Traces of a Piano Player
By Wes Blake
In August of 1872 George W. Ranck finished writing his history of Lexington, Kentucky. In the preface, he explains his reasons for writing the book and how the pioneer traditions had already grown dim and the “old landmarks” were being “rapidly obliterated”. His aim was to save what he could from what he calls the “wreck of time”. Ranck references an earlier writer named Ashe, who published his travels in 1806, and observed that "Lexington stands on the site of an old Indian town, which must have been of great extent and magnificence.” Ashe relates a story about some hunters from Boonesborough making their way to Lexington in 1776—three years before the first white settlement. In the woods, they found some oddly placed stones and became curious. They moved some of the stones, only to find more beneath. Continuing to dig deeper, stone by stone, they found this pile of stones served as a tombstone, concealing the entrance to an ancient catacomb, made of solid hollowed-out rock. A narrow tunnel descended into a large open room—”three hundred feet long, one hundred feet wide, and eighteen feet high.” At the edges of the stone room, small carved out spaces concealed preserved human bodies. Embalmed bodies.
In the years after the hunters’ discovery, battles between the white settlers and Native Americans destroyed most of the ancient mummies. Over time, the stones marking the entrance to the ancient catacombs have been scattered, and the location has been lost. No one has stepped foot in the catacombs in over two-hundred years.
Don loved women. He proposed at least six times—that I’m aware of. Twice, he proposed to two different women that he’d already married and divorced. Out of the six times he’d asked, four times the woman said yes. Don needed the attention of women. He also needed to pay attention to women. He needed to feel loved by them. Wanted by them. Even needed by them. He needed to take care of them. To help them. To make them feel good. He needed to make them laugh. To see their faces light up with a smile, to see the crease form at the corners of their bright eyes as they looked at him. It made him feel good. He needed to love women, and he needed to be loved by women. Women were at the center of his world, everything revolved around them, and they provided all the light in his life. In his solar system, women were the sun.
Don looked over the gleaming black piano top out into the crowd. He looked past the dance floor, to the bar. The girl tending bar had dark curly hair. She didn’t see Don. She was shaking a stainless steel mixing glass. Probably a martini, Don thought. Don looked down at the black and white piano keys. His fingers walked down from a major seventh suspended chord to a minor seventh. He thought of the dark haired girl behind the bar as he brought the song to a close. It was a Stan Kenton song that the woman liked. Don always talked about Stan Kenton with her. The chord progression ended and Don nodded out at the few clapping people he heard. He took the gin and tonic down from the piano and made eye contact with the dark haired girl behind the bar. He raised the glass. She smiled and nodded. Don smiled. He went into the next song. He didn’t know the names of the major seventh suspended chords, couldn’t even read music, but he knew how to play them. He knew how they went together to make a song. As he played “Dream,” he sang the lyrics in his head and hummed the melody out loud. But not loud enough that anyone could hear. Dream when you’re feeling blue. He normally sang with his barbershop quartet, but not at this gig. The Campbell House gig was piano only. Don’s boss felt it was classier. Don’s field of vision was black and white keys, a plane of shining black topped grand piano reflecting red and blue bar lights, and a dark ceiling. He imagined the dark haired girl behind the bar as he’d just seen her. He loved the way she moved. She was natural like a child. Like a proud animal. Confident. But there was a timidity he sensed sometimes. It was behind her movements. Like her actions were accentuated to cover up the timid part of her. And they mostly did. But he saw it. And she knew he saw it. Dream, that’s the thing to do . . . Just let the smoke rings fade in the air. You’ll find your share . . . of memories there . . . So . . . Dream. Don played the last chord of the verse with feeling. Then crashed into the first chorus chording. His playing was almost out of time. It careened along with feeling, but never lost time. There was a wildness in the way he played. A recklessness. But also a confidence. He moved through life the same way. He brought the song through another verse and chorus and brought it home, careening almost off the rails, to its end. The whole time he heard the song’s lyrics in his mind and imagined them brought to life, in this room, in three part harmony. More people clapped this time. Don smiled. His black rimmed glasses were foggy. He pulled the pack of filterless Camels from his left breast shirt pocket, and lit a fresh cigarette with his steel Zippo. He stood up from the piano stool, gave a wave, a smile, and said loudly, “Thank you.” He paused, long enough to make people wonder whether he was joking or putting on a show. Then, he said, “I will be back.” As he walked to the bar, his cigarette’s smoke trailed just behind and around him, draping his shoulder and right elbow.
Don sat at the bar and sighed. His second wife was at home. Home was his brother’s house, for now. He bartended here some nights. He bartended at The Little Inn a couple nights a week, too. It was 1959. And November. And a Saturday night. And even though he had only just turned thirty, and always had a smile, a song, and a joke at his own expense, Don had a lot to feel bad about how his life was turning out. He wore black suit pants, black suspenders, silver cufflinks, a white button-up shirt, a black bow tie, and a salmon sports coat. He wore Old Spice cologne and the scent blended with his Camel cigarette smoke and became him. Don made small talk with the man sitting beside him at the bar. He made several jokes that made the man laugh. But Don was thinking about the dark haired girl behind the bar. She was down the way, busy with customers.
The dark haired girl brought Don a fresh gin and tonic, a clean cut lime wedge hanging at its edge.
“Why, thank you very much.”
“Anything for you, Don.” She smiled.
“Well,” Don said and nodded. He took a drink. “There it is.”
“Need anything else, Don?”
“Well, not at the moment. If I think of it, I will let you know. How will I find you?”
“What do you mean?”
“When I think of what I need?”
“I’ll be down there.” She pointed to the end of the bar.
“Well, OK then.”
She finished wiping the bar in front of him, and looked down toward the busier end of the bar. As she put the rag down and turned to walk away, she gave Don a secret smile. He had been waiting for it and returned it. Don’s red glowing cigarette ember was burning close to his fingers. He pressed it out in the green glass ashtray. Again, he took his Camel pack from his shirt pocket and shook one loose. His steel zippo flashed and flame caught the end of his cigarette. He rested his left forearm on the mahogany bar and enjoyed the taste of tobacco. He took another drink from the fresh gin and tonic. Don thought about what songs he might play next. He thought he’d play a couple Four Freshmen songs. He imagined how the harmonies would sound in this room if his barbershop quartet were here. He knew he’d have to go back to the piano soon. And maybe play another hour before he was done for the night. Without looking at his watch, he knew it was around 10:30. He imagined the rest of the night. He’d come back to the bar for a few drinks after he was done playing. The dark haired girl, Annabelle, would probably need a ride home. He’d probably drop her by her house like he’d done last Saturday night. Her roommate would be up late waiting. Last Saturday he’d dropped her off and gone straight home. If she invited him in again, he didn’t know if he could say no. Either way, there’d be an argument waiting for him at home. And not enough money to get by. He took another draw and focused on his cigarette. He felt good to be playing at the Campbell House. His younger self would be envious. His group’s song, “Angel,” was getting a lot of airplay on the local radio. Going out across the state, even. It felt strange to have things going so well and so poorly at the same time. After this cigarette I’ll go back to the piano, he thought to himself.
I don’t know how that night of Don’s life went. But I know how his life went in the long run. He got a job at the state. His piano playing became relegated to home. His singing group scattered, but he still sang with other groups here and there. They’d close down the Rosebud bar in downtown Lexington and sing there. Don was known to stand there between songs, a tall kitchen glass of scotch in one hand, a cigarette in the other. The focus became more on creating something good in the moment rather than creating something to be played on the radio. He married a different woman, after the one he was married to that Saturday night in November 1959. When he retired he’d move back and forth between Kentucky and Florida. There was never enough money. I suppose he had a good time. Possibly. It’s impossible to know another person’s inner life. But even though he wound up with plenty in his life to feel bad about, he always had a song, a smile, and a joke at his own expense. Often, we’d have dinner at Roger’s, an old diner in Lexington. He knew the cook and most of the regulars. They skewed older. Faye, the cook, made the best banana pudding I’ve ever had. Everything that she made was incredible. She’d always come out of the kitchen and say hi to Don. She was 89. In the fifties, Rogers Restaurant had been one of the places to eat in town.
An old friend of his would pass by our booth. “How are ya, Don?” they’d ask.
“Terrible,” Don’d say and smile. Or he’d say, “It’s all downhill from here,” and flash the same smile.
No matter what variation Don chose, the other person would always laugh. Don always said “the hardest thing I do all day is get out of bed.” What exactly does that mean? Is he joking that he’s lazy? Is it an existential confession? It was impossible to know how much truth was in jokes like that. What was the percentage of truth? All I knew is that it was funny and more honest than most small talk that makes its way in the world. And that was where my understanding of his inner life began and ended.
It’s seven am in early March and I’m writing this at my kitchen table. It’s pitch black outside the window. A black cat purrs on the wood table between the black window and a burning candle.
Now it’s noon in mid-March and I’m writing this in a spare bedroom, sitting in a green reclining chair. A succulent, lime tree, and palm tree crowd the window light. Outside the window, the sky has a thin layer of gray cloud covering it like a film on a frying pan. That last morning in early March, when I wrote the previous paragraph, seems distant and lost to me now. And that Saturday night at the Campbell House in November 1959 seems less distant. I imagine Don driving Annabelle, the dark haired girl, home that night. I imagine the big car careening down the night-black road. Headlights cutting through any seeming uncertainty. I imagine Annabelle, beautiful and young and lost, sitting in that passenger seat. I imagine her dark curly hair almost concealing her pretty brown eyes. And Don’s cologne and smoke scent filling the space. The window cracked and a small slipstream of cigarette smoke escaping from a red emberred Camel out the window. I imagine how the car moved reckless and confident down the dark road toward the pretty girl’s home. I know he would have driven the car the way he drove his songs on the piano a few short hours earlier. And I can see the outline of the big American car against the dark sky. All steel and sharp angles and certainty. They don’t make cars like that any more.
Another night, when Don was a teenager, he took another car, from Menifee county—stolen from his father in the middle of the night—up to a concert in Lexington. There must have been a pretty girl in the passenger seat. Why else would a man take such a risk? But for music and beauty? King David would have fallen for the same trick. A stolen car for a harp and a Bathsheba. And Don must have also had a Camel cigarette and a bottle in the car. And on the way back the speeding car careened off 460, spun through the sky and landed squarely on its roof in a shallow creek bed. Perhaps Don had already dropped the girl off, and he stood beside the car, hand shaking, smoking a cigarette, listening to the humming of the night once the car had gone silent. Or maybe the pretty girl was still there. And Don put his coat around her and asked if she was OK. And waited, unafraid, for someone to drive by and see their upside down red tail lights shining out from the creek bed.
I could get into a car and drive down the back roads to I64 East. Take the Mt. Sterling exit. Drive down Main Street, through downtown, and down 460 east. I could look out the window at the winding creek along the road. Maybe if I wait until midnight, and it’s a dark night with no stars, I could see the ghosts of Don and the pretty girl standing along the creek bed, illuminated by red tail lights.
When I am done writing this, I’m going to get in my car and drive into Lexington. To the Campbell House. My plan for this essay was to sit down at the Campbell House Bar, at 1 pm on this Saturday in middle March 2020, and drink a gin and tonic. Then a martini. And wait and see if the ghosts of Don and Annabelle appear. See if they can become free from their place in the spiral of time and show themselves to me. Maybe, as I’m driving from Nonesuch into Lexington, I’ll pass a stone along the side of the road. Maybe that stone will be resting over those lost catacombs. That secret large and open stoney space, where the ancient pieces of the dead lie, may be resting under a shopping center. Maybe a Liquor Barn or a Kroger or a Walgreens stands guard over those scattered remains embalmed in the still air of the dark catacomb. Maybe even the Campbell House itself has taken the place of the concealing stones which stood watch over sacred resting remains.
But my plan has to be changed: the most recent pandemic has closed all the bars, including the Campbell House. Just like Don’s father’s plans were changed a hundred years before when another pandemic killed his first wife and son and daughter. But, like a time archaeologist, I dig through the layers—down through the spiral of time—where they are still.
As I drive, the surface of things will look clean and constant. White and red blooms bursting from trees. Green grass and weeds jutting up from the ground. Lawn Mower engines roaring. And now looks like forever. It always looks like this. Just like a river looks like one solid and still thing. But it’s not. You look closer. And there it is. The truth. The past and future and all those pieces of life and death and minerals and plants and animals and people and desire and disappointment churning over and through each other. Forever changing.
And there is a bone fragment—not too far from the road I drive along from Nonesuch to Lexington—buried in a dark and still catacomb. And once it has existed, it cannot not exist. And the Campbell House is closed. But that Saturday night in November of 1959, when a piano player took a cool gin and tonic from a dark haired girl, is eternal. And the Campbell House will reopen. And its name will change. It already has. But none of these things matter. They are the surface of the river flowing, the content staying the same, only moving and always moving and always moving and crashing and coming together and coming apart and evaporating and going into the sky and then raining back down in the fields and the parking lots and the roofs and the leaves and making their way back to the streams, to the rivers, to the sea, and back again. And again. And the name of the Campbell House changed. And will again. But the piano song still rings out. Even when the building falls and goes up again.
And my car will move along the paved road. My 2013 Camry, sleek and curved. And the road will seem constant and solid. Never changing. And I will think about that big steel car from the past, all sharp angles and confidence.
Wes Blake earned his MFA from the Bluegrass Writers Studio. His work has appeared in Louisiana Literature Journal, Shark Reef, Jelly Bucket, Level: Deep South, and Route 7 Review. His novel, Antenna, received the Outstanding Graduate Project Award. He grew up in Kentucky, and has written obituaries, worked in a cajun restaurant, worked as a security guard, sold advertising, and taught writing to high school and college students.