By Samual J. Adams
Ever since she’d left him he’d been leaving his moccasins outside at night, propping them on an oaken stump in the hopes that rains would come and rinse them clean. He called them his river-forders and he knew no better footwear for navigating the rocks and logs and pools around the Yuba river, their Sierra Nevada stomping ground, with its jack pines and meadow flowers and black bears. These moccasins were a replacement pair she’d bought him after his old ones had become too ripped and ratty, destroyed by the very hikes that had formed their courtship. When he received this gift, he’d felt like a nice pattern was forming between them. He’d never asked her for very much.
Now these moccasins slept outside because the smell of them—of his bacterial profile and trapped mud and sweat and dog shit idly trammeled—had become too strong even for his own nose to tolerate. They stunk too badly for the apartment, not just his studio but the whole building, with its dusty wooden hallways flecked with paint-crumbles and haunted by a never corrected odor of spilled tomato paste. He didn’t have any foot powder, so after he’d scrubbed the moccasins with soap he’d spread two long stripes of toothpaste in each sole hoping for the best.
One night, weeks into their airing, he went out to check on the progress of his moccasins. The air hung thick and misty and he could smell the green on the pine needles and when he looked up he saw a cloudy sky tensed with the possibilities of a deluge. He walked toward the shoes and caught the smell at ten paces (yesterday he’d caught the smell at fifteen, so maybe that was something). He stood over them and flashed the light from his phone to see how things were going.
Inside the moccasins, he saw pill-bugs scuttling over the soles, earwigs circling stains, ants shuffling everywhere, and one small furry spider lurking at the end of the fading Colgate strip he’d laid. It looked like an open bar in there, the creatures mingling lively about the place with the tickling of their many little legs. If the microcosmic crumbs of him still carried a natural appeal, why not the rest of him?
He slid his feet into the shoes, felt the squished creatures wriggle and bite and pop and leak, and walked down the road for another glance at her apartment window.
One day, when the moccasins were a little cleaner, he would put them on and retrace the routes of their mountain hikes. Only this time he would walk the trails backward to see where things went wrong, working to discover if, despite the odor of loneliness and feet, or because of these selfsame fetors, the black bears lurking beside the trails might leave their shadowy haunts and mercifully deign to eat him.
Samuel J Adams is the author of stories that appear in The Sun, Monkeybicycle, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. He works for a land trust in northern California. https://neutralspaces.co/samuel_j_adams/
By Jonelle Grace Lipscomb
Chloe watched her feet pound the dirt path riddled with roots and rocks hidden beneath last night’s brief snow. Her breath sprayed the frigid air with white bursts as she picked up her pace. For a brief moment she tilted her head toward the canopy of bare trees. Her foot turned on a loose rock and she lurched sideways, hitting the ground hard. She inhaled sharply, then leaned back onto the ground and stared at the trees. The dark branches twisted in and around each other. The clouds behind the branches were in stark contrast, a soft billowing whiteness . . . like tufts of cotton tossed on the sky. She found it ironic that she had to trip and fall to notice them.
Her breath quickened as her stomach clinched. She curled forward into a ball, wrapping her arms around her legs. She sat, oblivious to the cold, for somewhere between half an hour and eternity.
Until she was ready.
Until it was time.
That evening, Andy arrived at Chloe’s townhouse fifteen minutes late. She didn’t care. Nothing mattered except stopping the endless loop. She was on a hamster wheel running and running only to climb out exhausted at the end of each day and discover nothing had changed. For Andy and her, days had turned into weeks, which had turned into months, which had turned into ten years.
While Andy flipped through movies in the living room, Chloe stood unmoving in the kitchen. The stew and bread she had prepared before her run were heating in the oven. She needed something to help her focus on why she had to do this. Salad. She would make a salad. She poured a glass of wine from the bottle Andy had brought and drank a glass while chopping the vegetables.
Lettuce. Chop. Chop. Chop.
The night he told her he wanted to postpone the wedding. That was seven years ago. His parents were older, and his father hadn’t been feeling well that summer. Andy was afraid his dad wouldn’t be up to coming.
His parents had tried to talk him out of putting off the wedding, and every year since had asked when it was going to be. Yet she still loved him, and part of her believed he still loved her.
“What movie do you want to watch?” he asked from the living room.
“It doesn’t matter to me. You pick something.”
“How about The Sting?”
She picked up a tomato. Chop. Chop. Chop. Chop.
She sighed. That was part of the problem. She usually let him make all the decisions. Decisions like when the relationship was on again and when it was off.
She salvaged one carrot and threw the rest away. Grate. Grate. Grate. Chop. Chop.
At the five-year mark they moved in together. Six months later he announced he needed to live alone. She suggested they see a therapist and was surprised when he said he already had one. She asked if she could speak to his therapist and was even more surprised when he agreed. Chloe sat across from Dana and talked about Andy. Why he couldn’t commit to a new relationship after the death of his wife. Dana laced her fingers together, nodded and said, “Some people are turtles and some are rabbits. If the rabbit moves too fast, the turtle retreats into its shell.” She never went back. She found her own therapist, Sheila. Chloe spent sessions obsessing about Andy’s fears until one day Sheila said, “There’s not a thing you can do about what Andy thinks or feels. Why don’t we talk about you?”
The salad needed something else, so she threw in some olives.
“What kind of dressing do you want?” she asked.
“Blue cheese if you have it.”
“How about Italian?”
“If you really want blue cheese, though, I can run to the store.”
“Italian is fine.”
There she did it again. Always trying to please him.
They ate at the coffee table in the living room watching Paul Newman and Robert Redford pull one over on the bad guys.
He had built a fire earlier and the amber light flickered across his face as he flipped through stations looking for something to watch next. He muted the remote and placed it on the table. “You care if I spend the night?”
She hesitated. “I’d rather you didn’t.”
A flash of light crossed his eyes.
Her stomach twisted like the trees. “I want to talk about us.”
He shifted on the sofa. “Couldn’t this wait until after the holidays?”
“We haven’t spent a Christmas together in the past three years,” she said. “New Year’s either.”
In her mind, he lay silent, tubes running to and from his body. A steady beep reminding her that some part of him was still alive. She had to make a choice, or she would die, too.
“I don’t think we should try anymore.”
“Don’t say anything, please.” She saw herself in his eyes before he turned away. “I can’t even tell you I love you anymore because when I say it, you don’t say anything back. Do you know what that’s like?” She knew she had to say the rest while she still could. “I hurt all the time I’m around you. I have to try to be happy.”
He didn’t speak, and, after a few moments, reached down and pulled on his shoes. He turned back when he reached the door. “I’ll call in a few days and see how you’re doing.”
She locked her eyes on the images flicking across the TV. “That’s not a good idea.”
The door closed. Her hand came instinctively to her mouth. She wanted to run after him. She wanted to say, “I didn’t mean any of it. Please, come back.” She leaned against the couch and closed her eyes. She could see the bare trees and feel the twisted branches scrape against her heart.
Someday there would be buds on the branches, and from the buds would come leaves, and through the leaves she would see the sky and call out the shapes of the clouds.
Jonelle Grace Lipscomb has been in the arts since the early seventies as a writer, actor, director, photographer, and filmmaker. When she retired from teaching theatre and film six years ago, she seized the opportunity to focus on writing and photography. She has had two short stories published by Writing Our World Publishing. “Visiting Mother” was included in the anthology, Writing Our Lives, Volume II, and “Tommy and Me” was included in Writing Our Lives, Volume III. Her photograph “Trees and Moon” appeared in “Diamond Line,” at the University of Arkansas. She lives with her husband, Bryant, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and is currently a candidate in the M.F.A. Creative Writing Program at University of Arkansas/Monticello. She hopes her passion for learning and for the arts will be an inspiration for her grandchildren and great-nephews.
The High Road
By Seungyeon Lee
The night before, Matt couldn’t sleep, which he realized after 2:30am. The alarm clock was making such a fuzzy noise, it must have been 5:30am.
Pressing the stop button, Matt pulled his bedclothes over his head. It’s crazy. I don’t need to wake up this early, as I would have been able to sleep more. In five minutes, though, he got out of bed, brushed his teeth, and took his morning shower. He thought his appearance and coloring seemed to have improved. Although his clothes were shabby, they might’ve appeared more rustic if he wore something similar to a “friendly” gathering. Anyway, he was ready to go.
Matt opened his car and sat inside. He saw himself in the car window, and thought he looked lousy, felt a kind of pity at the sight. Without noticing a huge mirror out there, he looked at his own reflection like a total stranger, wondering whether he “rightfully” fit into society.
I thought he was someone else, but he was me. That means the sloppy-looking man and I morphed into the same person. Must be the ‘first day of work’ syndrome, he murmured while warming up his car. Yes, it is the first day of his tenure-track position at a public university. After being turned down by fifty universities, he got a job. This letter is to offer you…blah, blah, blah. When he read it, he couldn’t believe it was finally happening. He passed through a shop, turned back for a cigar store, and took the alley connected to some row houses; they looked so conventional, with the same architecture. Still, I got the job and here I am.
Yeah, right. Things got better after he received his doctoral degree. Whenever he thinks about his student life, he feels a cold smile. That was such torture. To Matt, it was a “miracle” he got through it, because he had no clue about the academic world -- but how do you choose between two noxious options: working like a madman for $10 per hour or working like another kind of madman for $45,000 in a 9-month position? If you understood the deal, you would do the calculation, so there was hope of advancement and helping students to think more critically. Plus, it’s always better to have a good cash flow. While several idiosyncratic reasons came to mind, they all pointed to the same person: Matt himself.
He drove to the nearby McDonalds for breakfast. Alone. How can I help you? The server had a funny kind of English accent. Feelings of uneasiness kicked in, but as usual, he suppressed those emotions. Although it was more than two years since he had breakfast at a modern diner, he never felt good about sitting there and eating alone. He also hated sitting on the long-legged table chair that hurt his butt, but he is alone. Completely. Alone.
When he began his first-year of the doctoral program, having majored in mechanical engineering, he thought he took a wrong turn on the way. He was fundamentally flawed. Matt’s director and supervisor, Dr. G., who is also the Center Director of his unit, has a complex legacy. With his humble voice and peculiar manner, he gave Matt “some work” to do that Friday evening and added, “Please enjoy your weekend. You need some down time, although I want you to complete this project by Monday at 10:00am. I will send you a reminder the day before.” He was typically heavy-handed: at times elegant, bewitching, but was primarily suffocating. His words were not threatening or disheartening, although…Matt always felt as if he was a big mess, which was a pattern he could not escape. He always thought he was at the end of a long ‘haul’ when his supervisor asked him to do something else. “You don’t need to be perfect, but you need to get the job done so I can submit my report.” That asshole. Something’s got to give.
Yeah, your work needs to be done the following Monday, but wanna know the dark side of my secret? Work always poured in, which required at least 90 hours per week, like a lab-in-residence, no time to change clothes, no time for blind dates, no time for housework in between, and no time for fun on weekends. In a flash, Matt would be down the hall, ushering in another colleague, next to his office in the other lab. He was always doing his part and it was always more than he could handle. He wanted to say that he had a right to sit down and enjoy his meals. He was exhausted, irritable, and his health was tenuous, having little time to recuperate from other issues. He was exasperated and felt victimized, because he did not know how to stand up for his rights. This only felt more insulting to him, but that’s how things worked. The supervisor was worse than an authority figure, and was unusually slippery and stiff at the same time. People saw him as a person who drew on positive energy and visibility, but he was extremely punctual, in a dehumanizing way. When decisions are made for “low-level workers” by superiors, peoples’ voices are suppressed. The powerful impose their values on others. When changes are needed, they do it for the sake of change, not the for benefit of everyone in the organization.
What a pathetic asshole—he secretly cursed his supervisor when too many projects began from scratch. That’s your work, you asshole! His work was urgent, such that Matt was not maximizing what could have been done if he was motivated. When he wanted to ask questions, his supervisor…simply turned his head toward Matt and said, “I think I told you how to do this already. You are a graduate student. Figuring things out on one’s own is a crucial factor.” Abbreviated by RTFM—read the F***ing manual. He heard that from him over a thousand times. Yeah, right. It was a pretty devastating put-down. His supervisor seemed very hands-off and asked Matt to do the minimum required, but that invisible power pushed him onwards. “Those projects will be added to your CV. Right now, yours isn’t, well, what might be called sparkling.” Matt was disgusted, but it was not a matter of how to figure things out; it was a matter of how to get things done quickly and get them published. “Frustration and internal suffering,” his grandma told him once after he had a fight with his classmate, “stick together like glue.” She’s probably right, he thought. Some say it’s important to create emotional distance and give yourself time to process the disappointment. Others might say Matt was unlucky in graduate school, so they advised him not to fret: he would figure it out soon enough. Either way, there were no road markers about how to navigate this life, i.e., no action-oriented suggestions. The worst of it, he was a direct supervisor who never swore, and was always checking up on Matt: “Those who rule from below the surface must be brought up to the surface. I don’t need to know what you feel about your colleagues. Dr. G. is your direct supervisor. You should never underestimate the value of maturity and responsibility.” Matt felt that an unspoken boundary of intimacy between the two had been crossed. I filtered out all of those mismatches, yet Dr. G is still the right choice? This was unadulterated bullshit. The chain of command must be clear, since students like Matt spend a lot of time at school and work, so any supervisor had to transformed into a “soulmate,” to quell the shattering anguish in his brain. No acknowledgment does mean something. He was infuriated when his name did not appear on Dr. G.’s paper, as Matt ended up writing more than half of it. “You should have mentioned that,” he said dryly. “Try to work on another project and let me know.” You are a babbling idiot in managing the playing field. “I can write you a letter of recommendation if needed.” The supervisor was remote, but unthwarted. He was a “quintessential asshole,” not only a hidden persuader.
Time can fly without having weekends and major holidays. Yeah, time goes by so fast, without any enjoyable events in the interim. Every year, stuck with projects, he kept going—and even unbelievably with some productivity. Each day, it happened all around him. It was the existence of having no existence. Could this be a silver lining of some sort? He sacrificed himself for the reputation of his lab, not for himself. This 90-hour, lab-in-residence, created critical health issues, and traumatic events did not mean your degree came any faster. Nope. It was definitely the other way around. Matt’s grandma would call it, “the ups and downs of life.” But to Matt, there were no “ups.” He was paid a minimum wage (without holidays or special promotions), had no time to change his clothes, and no time for women. During his senior year at college, he broke up with his girlfriend, because he wanted to get to graduate school. His girlfriend said he would regret it forever. Well, “forever” sounds too strong, but she was partially right—he did regret it for years. “Any single women in your lab?” Matt’s mom asked a year ago. Hell, no! Gossip occurs before love ever blossoms, he murmured. He finishes his breakfast, dries off, and embraces his hot coffee from the server. He is uncomfortable, old feelings of uneasiness, which he experienced in the past: an unsavory meal in his stomach, simulating pizza dough.
When he hit the fifth year of his graduate program—which some called “the year of torture”—Matt’s life blossomed: the lab manager got another job in order to be with his wife and children. Since it was a last-minute deal, his supervisor had to wrap things up on his own. Many research projects were left unfinished, but school policy saved Matt’s butt—he could have a leave of absence when they worked on their dissertations, up to two years. His supervisor’s leave occurred right after Matt’s thesis proposal was approved. He finally enjoyed his solitude at home in Texas, on his summer off. It was sweltering, and he did not experience himself breathing, yet this was his best summer. Getting a doctoral degree would be the end of his academic journey, but the reality was, maybe it could be the beginning of a productive journey. He thought about how many fathers let their sons indulge their wanderlust, which only caused confusion.
Matt graduated with his doctoral degree after six years and was offered his faculty position a year later. His advisor was thrilled, because Matt was his first student who landed a tenure-track position. “I can’t believe you made it,” his advisor said, and added, “You should thank your former supervisor, Dr. G. He’s the one who created a foundation project for your research. It was challenging, but he gave himself the credit, so that you could complete your dissertation on time. He was an amazing guy. He was the one who turned this place into an empowering experience” Amazing? Matt sipped his coffee. Are you imposing your opinion on me or are we having a mutually-acceptable discussion, despite the constant disagreement? Dr. G. only understood how to supervise in a stern, authoritarian way -- although he received extra attention for sullying his reputation. Feeling heat in his stomach, he thought of himself as an underdog. Something does not add up in this story. Dr. G. is grotesque. Matt felt pushed by the power of invisible influence. “More coffee, sir,” the server asked with a funny accent again. No thanks. He skipped a coffee refill, as all the other customers in McDonalds passed as well.
His car spluttered and Matt turned it slowly at 7:00am. It was his first day of work—which would not start until 1:00pm, and was 20 minutes away. Matt held his head high, and realized that a ‘glass ceiling’ was an undocumented reality for those with questionable morals.
Seungyeon Lee is an Associate Professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas, Monticello (UAM). She teaches courses in Child Development, Adolescents, Developmental Psychology, and Research Methods. She received her PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Kansas. Her research interest focuses on constructions of gender identity and adolescent development in popular fairy tales and their retellings. She also investigates gender and identity as it is reflected in twentieth-century American popular culture. She seeks herself to find adventure of the heart.